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Book Four Pt 2 - The Eastern Pass

Written by - Ardwen Page 21 Book 4

Elerus had no idea why he was crying. Creda wasn’t hurting him, but he wanted her to stop; more importantly he wanted her to listen and believe him. Then his thoughts had shifted to Westgale and Ardwen, and all Elerus could think was how useless he was to his friend. He couldn’t fight, couldn’t help; he couldn’t even protect himself from Creda’s cosseting. Once his tears had started to flow, Elerus found it slightly soothing, but his thoughts remained a confused and conflicting web of emotions and thoughts.

The young Elf heard Ariana call for Creda to stop, and Elerus was grateful, even if it did make him feel helpless. By the time Ariana sat behind him he had managed to choke back some of his sobbing, but then he felt her touch the brush to his hair. Instead of the frustrated jerks and quick strokes Creda had used, Elerus blinked in surprise as Ariana smoothly combed his long hair. The winged child heard her humming shortly afterwards, and Elerus could only once more flutter his eyes in surprise. At first the tune had seemed nonsense to him, but as he bothered to actually listen he recognized it as an old hymn, one old enough that he recognized it. “Astra mystica,” Elerus muttered suddenly feeling sleepy as he continued to listen, “how?”

Without warning, Elerus shook his head slightly to clear his mind. Much to Ariana’s credit she stopped combing, and expertly resumed as soon as Elerus had stopped. After a few more passes with the brush, Elerus felt her gather his hair together and bind it. Elerus shuffled his feet slightly under the water, sending ripples through the tub. “Um . . . .” Elerus trailed off uncertainly. The Elven boy reached behind his head and took the small strip of leather off his hear. With a few quick turns of his head his hair fell back to how it was, framing his face and spilling around his shoulders. “Sorry, it’s always been long, it doesn’t bother me.”

Elerus became cognizant of the fact that Ariana was watching him intently. Elerus’s face flushed crimson. He quickly realized that he had caused this whole mess by breaking out in tears for no real reason. Elerus looked into the face of the Abbess Ardwen so admired; he saw no recrimination there, only the patience and understanding she had just shown him. Elerus stood up and leaned forward over the lip of the tub and reached his arms around Ariana. The lip of the tub came up past his waste, making the attempted embrace clumsy, and his awkward shyness only made it worse. Still, Elerus rested the side of his head against her arm and simply said two words, “Thank you.”

The young boy was not certain, but he felt that he understood better why she was so important to Ardwen.

Easal checked the front door to the house, making sure the lock was soundly latched. He hadn’t seen the Elven warrior who had walked out earlier since his unannounced departure, but the stout crusader figured the man knew how to knock. Turning away from the door Easal’s eyes roved around the room, finally alighting on the form of Ardwen sitting in the same chair he had occupied earlier. Easal jumped slightly, he had not seem the Elf enter, and had been almost positive that he hadn’t been in the room beforehand. The old crusader touched his fingertips to his forehead; maybe he was finally going senile?

“I was here beforehand, I just didn’t say anything.” Ardwen said.

Easal nodded dumbly and stammered out, “Yeah, yeah, uh, thanks. Creda should be about done with the lady and the kids, getting them ready and—“

“Kids?” Ardwen interrupted.

The aged crusader rolled his eyes slightly and masked the motion by wiping his brow. Couldn't the Elf count? “Forget it.” Ardwen said and propped his cheek against the knuckles of a gloved hand, the Elven swordsman closed his eyes, but Easal got the feeling he wasn’t sleeping. Obviously, though, he had no further interest in talking, and with a resigned shrug the crusader left the room.

Written by - Ariana

Instinctively, her arms came up and surrounded the boy, returning his clumsy and exceedingly damp hug with one of her own.

The tender moment was short-lived; Creda, fully recovered from her earlier discomfort, decided Angel was clean as she was going to get. Her beefy arms reached down and pulled the girl from the tub. Angel quickly disappeared from view as she was engulfed in an oversized towel.

The motions of her hands loosed her tongue, and Creda was once again talking as fast as she could draw breath.

“Your clothes were horribly muddy when you came here,” she started, arms vigorously rubbing the towel over Angel’s skin. “We will get them clean before morning, but in the meantime, Easal and I have found some nightclothes for you to borrow.”

She finished rubbing Angel and stalked Elerus and Ariana, the towel in her grip taking on a menacing air.

“After you get a good night’s rest,” she began engulfing Ariana in the towel, “we will feed you a huge breakfast and take you to the church.”

Elerus quickly grabbed a spare towel and climbed out of the tub. Hopefully he could head the woman off by drying himself.

His gambit appeared to have worked. After finishing with Ariana, she cast him no more than a quick glance before walking to the far corner of the room and coming back with what he assumed were the clothes they were to borrow.

“Of course,” she continued, pulling a man’s shirt over Angel’s head, “I have no idea why the Father would send you poor souls to Westgale.” The shirt engulfed the girl and hung nearly to her ankles.

“We’ve heard the stories – murder of the royal family, corruption in government, and the defilement of the Father’s temple!” Instead of trying to dress Elerus, she merely tossed him a shirt similar to the one Angel wore and handed a woman’s gown three sizes too big to Ariana.

“I have never heard of such evil in all my life,” she said, her voice colored with both revulsion and curiosity. She was destined to be disappointed. Ariana remained silent throughout the one-sided conversation, stoically pulling the shift over her head. The yards of fabric engulfed her emaciated frame. Reaching down, she grasped the leather tie discarded by Elerus and quickly tied back her own drastically shortened hair.

The lack of response seemed to discourage Creda from probing further. “Well, the good Father does work in mysterious ways,” she concluded. She grabbed a candlestick from a nearby table and lit it. “I daresay that if He is sending you into that den of iniquity, He will take care of you while you are there. Follow me.”

Creda led them down a short hallway to a bedroom. Pushing through the door, the trio was greeted with the largest bed any of them had ever seen. It could easily sleep 10 adults, and with two of their group so small, the amount of room each would have was staggering.

Angel did not hesitate. She pushed past the small crowd at the door and climbed into the bed. She squirmed until she was in the direct center of the massive bed, and flopped down on her back, spread eagle.

“Well then,” said Creda, handing the candlestick and a couple of extra candles to Ariana, “I will say good night. We will come wake you for breakfast. Rest well.”

The door clicked shut behind her. It was quiet in the room, the window dark with the night outside. The only light came from the candle quivering in Ariana’s hand. After a minute, there came the faint sound of snoring. The corners of Ariana’s mouth twitched upwards and she glanced over at Elerus to see if he found it as funny as she did.

Moving to the bed, she sat on the edge and carefully placed the candle on the nearby stand. Meticulously, she lined up the extra candles she had been given and then situated herself on the bed in such a way that as much of the light fell on her body as possible. She did not close her eyes. Instead, she stared at the flickering flame as if its meager light was her only lifeline in the darkness.

Written by - Ardwen

Elerus felt Ariana’s arms wrap around him in a return embrace. He felt his eyes grow heavy, for some reason he was tired after Ariana had fixed his hair and hummed the ancient and soft hymn. The young boy’s mind was snapped back to attention when he noticed Creda lifting Angel from the tub and drying the girl vigorously with a towel. Hoping to avoid the same fate, Elerus grabbed a spare towel and moved away from the overzealous priestess. While tending to Angel, Creda’s spoke of the evil that had overtaken Westgale. There were all the classical elements of a city in decay there: murder, sacrilege, and the corrupt and wicked which profited from it all.

Elerus had seen it all before, though in different cities. It did, however, reveal more of why Ardwen was so adamant about not leading their small group into Westgale. The winged child felt the doubts he had earlier about his usefulness in the upcoming campaign creeping back into his mind. If what Creda was saying was true and it was the All-Father’s will that they enter Westgale, then why would he send Angel and him? Perhaps, before Visan had nearly ripped his very being asunder with his perverse experiments, he might have been of help. But now? As if to underline the point Elerus’s world went a muted shade of off-white, the boy squirmed and yanked the offending shirt that Creda had tossed over him off his head.

Holding the garment up Elerus’s heart sank, the shirt was easily large enough to engulf his small frame and then some. The hem of the sleeves dipped down over his hands, and the bottom of the shirt nearly brushed the floor. Elerus had been forced to fold his wing next to him while putting it on, and the large shirt had only made it even more difficult to find the neck opening. For a moment he had struggled and flailed his arms before he felt a gentle tugging on the outside of the garment, in a moment the shirt was pulled into place, dipping low over his right arm and shoulder so his wing had room. Looking up Elerus saw Ariana had once again helped him, Elerus smiled in thanks.

Creda led their group through the house to a guest bedroom, and one of the largest beds Elerus had ever seen. The Elven child recognized it immediately as a bed usually found in an inn or taberna, often used so that families could sleep together in one room. It was practical and thrifty, and Elerus began to wonder if Creda’s entire character revolved around such considerations. Angel was the first in the bed, and in short order the young girl was asleep. Elerus found his earlier weariness returning now that he was on the large bed, which was surprisingly soft. In any case, it beat the cold metal floor of the cage Visan had kept him in.

The only thing that stopped the small Elf from drifting off to sleep was Ariana’s unusual behavior. As Elerus watched, he became more and more concerned. Not only had Ariana never snuffed the candle Creda had left, but the Abbess had taken the extras and lined them up with great care, as if it was critical that one candle be lit as soon as the other guttered out. Elerus sat up in bed and moved closer to Ariana. “What is it?” He said softly, but received no response. The lady’s entire attention was fixated upon the single point of flickering light the small flame gave off. Elerus tucked his chin to his chest in thought; he quickly realized what the problem was and just as quickly devised a way to solve it. The problem was, he didn’t want to.

Elerus squeezed his eyes shut and swallowed his pride, Ariana had showed him nothing but genuine concern earlier. Surely he could help her and take a little bruise to his already battered ego, he wasn’t Ardwen after all. The little Elf clambered over to the edge of the bed and climbed to the floor. Quickly he worked up some fake tears and smeared them over his face; going over what he would say one last time he ran out into the hallway and started sobbing. Much to Creda’s credit, she was there within seconds.

The aged priestess knelt down and rubbed the boy’s head, continually asking what was wrong. Elerus refused to allow her to console him, intentionally interrupting his own attempts to explain with sobs and sniffs. Creda finally picked him up and held him, and Elerus let her go on with her cooing before he finally said, “It’s . . . it’s d-dark in the room, and there’s something under the bed, and—“ Creda did not allow him to finish as she shushed him soothingly.

The priestess carried her young charge back into the room and said, “It’s alright, I’ll go get some more candles and put some light in here.” Creda paused, but before she set Elerus down on the bed she had one final witticism in her seemingly endless store to dispense with, “Elf or human, I know you children want to grow up as soon as you can. I’ve taken care of many a young one in my time, and I understand what happened in the tub. But listen to me sweetie, you should enjoy it while you can, you’re only a kid once after all.”

Elerus had to struggle with all of his restraint to bite back something that was a mixture of laughter and disbelief, he was almost successful. Fortunately, Creda took the half gulped chortle as just the last of his fit of sobbing, and she quickly left the room. True to her word, she returned in seconds with several more long tallow candles, and even a few dishes filled with a liquid that fed the flame. Determined to oblige Creda, Elerus lay close to Ariana and started to drift off to sleep.

Written by - Ariana

She was not sure what Elerus had done, but she was grateful. Where once it had seemed the darkness was winning, now there were enough sources of light to keep it bay.

Puzzled, she looked at the sleeping child and ran her fingers lightly through his long white hair. Could it be that this child bore the weight of knowledge as she did? Was he aware of the things that waited with bared teeth and razor sharp claws?

Her gaze switched from Elerus to the burning candle next to her. Even as she stared, she could see the darkness, now turned to shadows, desperately fighting a battle against the light. She shuddered, knowing full well what waited for her in the dark. If it ever fully engulfed her, it would take her back.

Once, she had wished to return, but no more. Now, she would not return without a fight.

Checking on her two charges once again, she settled down onto the soft mattress. Sure in the knowledge that the fires would remain burnings, she fell into a light, fitful sleep.

****

Creda woke the group early the next morning. She thrust their clothes into their eager hands and instructed them to come downstairs for breakfast. Dutifully, they all changed, comfortable to be in their own clothing once again and, as a group, trooped down the stairs.

“There you are!” said Creda, placing another bowl of something steaming on the table. “Sit down to breakfast.”

Ariana noted that Ardwen was already seated, and took a seat next to him. Her jaw dropped as she got a close look at the amount of food on the table. She did not know how Creda had managed to get any sleep; she must have been up all night cooking.

Tentatively, she put a few things on her plate and began to nibble.

“You have to eat more than that!” exclaimed Creda, coming over to pile more food on her plate. “You are nothing but skin and bones! You need to put some meat on your frame.”

Ariana eyed the mountain of food dubiously, but dutifully nibbled on it as best she could.

Creda ensured everyone was served and took her place to the right of Easal. In between her own bites, she launched into conversation.

“Did you sleep well?” she asked Ariana.

“Yes,” she replied, though the dark circles beneath her eyes told a different story.

Ariana fell into silence and continued eating.

Creda was not happy with the silence that reigned at the table. She continued her efforts to make conversation, even going as far as to address Ardwen directly, but the group was a quiet one.

The only active participant was Angel, whom Easal seemed to enjoy making laugh. He told one joke after another, and Angel responded to each with giggles and smiles. Her lightheartedness was infective and Ariana found herself smiling along with the girl at some of Easal’s jokes.

After Creda declared the meal concluded, she engulfed each of them in motherly hug. “You take care of yourselves out there. Only the Father knows what plans there are for you, but remember that He never taxes His children beyond what they can bear.” She patted Elerus on the shoulder for good measure.

Easal crossed to the door and opened it, allowing brilliant morning light to flood the house. There was no sign of the rain from the previous night, but the air felt scrubbed clean. She stepped out the door and closed her eyes, tilting her head towards the sunlight, enjoying the feel of its warmth on her cheeks.

“Follow me,” said Easal, and marched off down the road at a brisk pace.

Her eyes popped open and she hurried to catch up. He led them further down the road they had first followed to reach the house. Within a matter of moments, they could see a large church on the crest of a hill in the distance. It blazed like a beacon as the morning sunlight reflected brightly off its polished stone and metalwork. When she saw it, her mouth curled up in a small smile.

They climbed the path with Easal in the lead. The climb up the high hill was steep, and her calves burned with the exertion.

When they reached the top, a priest came running towards them, bobbing from side to side. He was bald and his belly bulged beneath his robes, no doubt contributing to his uneven gait.

“Oh,” he panted, “I’m so glad you are here.” His eyes gleamed happily. “We have been preparing for your arrival,” he continued breathlessly.

He gestured towards the church, were several more priests stood by the front door. All of them seemed filled with nervous energy, and the bravest among them waved.

Angel, intrigued, waved back.

“Please,” said the panting priest, “if you will just enter the church-“

Ariana cocked her head and glanced to her right, presumably at the nearest tree. She nodded and strode forward, brushing past Easal and the bewildered priest. Entering the church without glancing at any of the priests surrounding the door, she purposefully towards the front of the church.

She ignored the main altar, impressively craved though it was, and instead turned left to a statue placed lovingly in the corner. It was a statue Ardwen had seen before, and embedded in its base was a large triskellion.

The priests were surprised at the abruptness with which the woman moved to the statue. They scrambled to get into their places and begin their prayers for it seemed this strange woman had no desire to wait.

She reached out a finger and traced the symbol repeatedly, as she had done previously. Over and over she rubbed her fingertips over the metal and soon it glowed with a golden light. One more outline and her hand sank into the altar up to the elbow. She tossed a quick glance over her shoulder to smile at her traveling companions before she was pulled the rest of the way into the stone.

Written by - Ardwen

Ardwen had barely moved from the previous night, going just so far as to change seats so that he might sit with the rest of his group at breakfast. The food in front of him took on a bewildering variety of shapes and smells, and despite his sullen mood Ardwen found himself enjoying a few of the dishes. The Elven warrior ignored Creda’s attempts to engage him in conversation, but Ardwen did speak once asking, “What’s the bowl of stuff that looks like ground seed mush?”

If Creda was thrown by his simple question yet refusal to say anything else she did not show it. Instead the priestess cleared her throat before saying, “You’re telling me you’ve never had grits before? Do they not make them where you’re fro—“

Ardwen cut the priestess off with a gruff, “No, I’ve not; I ask only because how exceptionally bad they taste, grain mush is war food.” The ancient Elf’s comments on the strange dish seemed to insult Creda even more than his refusal to engage in conversation, and Ardwen noticed that she pointedly ignored him for the rest of the meal. Following the breakfast, Creda dispensed with some platitude about the All-Father, which Ardwen ignored, instead his attention was on Easal.

The venerable crusader had opened the door to the house and indicated that they should follow him. Ardwen only moved when Ariana started to do just that. He fell into step next to Elerus, and could not help but notice that his clothes seemed fresh and his hair was unusually straight and tame, like it had been combed. The Elven bladeweaver wondered if Elerus had taken a bath sometime last night. He had heard crying shortly after Easal had closed and locked the doors for the night, but he had assumed it was Angel, regardless he had also heard Creda’s cooing put a swift end to it.

Lost in through, Ardwen almost did not notice they had reached their destination. The Elf’s heart sank as he saw it was a church, and the large triskellion above the doors left him no doubt as to who was worshipped inside. Sighing, Ardwen crossed his arms and leaned against the wall next to the door, only bothering to follow Ariana with his eyes as she strode in. It was odd, Ardwen reflected, that she had been so adamant about reaching Westgale that she had left the coaching house earlier despite pouring rain. Now, she had delayed an entire night in the house of two strangers, and here she was yet again in the middle of the forest and no closer to her goal.

Ardwen frowned as he thought on Ariana’s sudden patience. The warrior’s thoughts were interrupted by chanting coming from within the church. “Wonder what they’re doing, can you see inside El?” Ardwen muttered, but he received no answer. Glancing around he quickly realized that his friend had followed Ariana inside.

The young Elf looked at the statue with surprise. It had been rendered from stone with loving and reverent detail, and whatever craftsman had shaped the raw rock had known his trade well. The figure was stylized and idealized, but it still left no doubt in Elerus’s mind as to whom the statue depicted. The small Elf’s gaze floated from Ariana to the statue, back and forth, even as she started working some ritual upon the stone's base.

Questions bloomed in Elerus’s mind, but foremost among them was how this was possible. Ariana was from their world, how could the people of this land possibly know to make a statue of her, and out in the middle of nowhere? Perhaps more importantly, why would they bother with such elaborate reverence? Elerus decided there was only one way he could get an answer. He walked over to the portly priest that had met them on the steep path to the church and tugged on the wide sleeve of the man’s robe.

The priest gave a small jump as if shocked, but he looked down and smiled warmly. “Yes child, how may I help?”

Elerus decided that he would imagine the child comment was from a priest addressing his flock and not the alternative. “Who is that on the statue? Why is it here?” He said quickly.

The rotund priest’s grin grew, and the man drew up his girth as he prepared to explain. Obviously, he enjoyed the position of pedagogue and was going to relish this chance to share his knowledge. The priest opened his mouth to speak, but then suddenly clamped his jaws shut and furrowed his brow. Elerus felt his eyes on him and the priest cocked his head to one side. He cleared his throat again and said dumbly, “You . . . are not from around here, are you my child?”

Elerus had to fight the urge to laugh, he managed to bob his head yes and choked back the giggle of mirth by pursing his lips. “Ah.” The servant of the All-Father began. “Well young one, the statue is of a lady called Ariana. Forgive me, Saint Ariana is the proper way of saying it. You see, she was an important lady in the history of this land. Long ago she was queen of Westgale, and helped its people discover the light of Tinorb the All-Father.”

Elerus eyes widened more with each word and they never once strayed from the priest as he continued. Mistaking the boy’s look of shock for one of rapt attention the monk pressed on. “Oh yes, but it gets even more interesting, my son. For Saint Ariana disappeared. Before she left she handed her regency - that’s a word that means right to wear the crown – over to Mavigan Brellona Ancora. It is from her blood, and not Ariana’s, that the royal line of Westgale is descended, which means—“

Elerus cut the priest off, “I know what it means! But, that’s incredible, she was a queen?”

The plump priest chuckled and wiped his hands on his robe. “Yes, but the most amazing part – or so I think – was her humility. Back when I was studying to be a monk and had not yet taken my solemn vows, we would read stories of Saint Ariana. The senior monks would tell us tales of her deeds that they had heard when they were young, and so on and so forth. Anyhow, what I liked most is that even while she was queen the blessed saint never let royalty swell her head with impious hubris. She refused to be called queen, instead preferring her old title of Abbess.”

Elerus was about to thank the monk for the information when several things happened all at once. There was a bustle at the door to the church, several monks and priests were hurredly scattering to the side, and Elerus saw a blur of black shoot through them. His eyes quickly attenuated to the speed, and he realized it was Ardwen running into the church. His friend slowed and clenched his fists, and Elerus also noticed his eyes were locked on something at the front of the church.

Following Ardwen’s glare, Elerus could just see Ardwen’s Abbess toss one last smile before vanishing into the statue of herself. Looking back at Ardwen, he saw the Elven warrior motion for him to follow. In an instant Ardwen was next to the statue, but he was too late, Ariana was already gone. Elerus saw Ardwen bring one hand up and open and close it as if flexing his fingers, but Elerus knew it as an old habit of Ardwen’s when he was annoyed. With a snarled, "Gods damnit!" Ardwen followed Ariana into the stone. Elerus gave a curt bow to the helpful monk, had to bite back more laughter at the mortified look on his face, and then followed Ardwen into the portal that Ariana’s magic had wrought.

Written by - Ariana

It was close and dark in the portal, and though short-lived, her breathing was fast and hard when she exited out the other side. It took several minutes before she calmed enough to notice her surroundings.

Once she did, she was engulfed in a new sense of horror.

The building in which she was now standing used to be a church. It now stood ruined and defiled. Everywhere she looked there was the evidence of the work of evil hands. The altar was smashed and large chunks of marble littered the floor. The pews looked as if they had been chopped with an axe, and the great braziers had been overturned. The murals and bas-reliefs that had once decorated the walls of this holy place were covered in vulgar graffiti.

She looked behind her at the statue she had just used as a portal. It was faceless, the features obliterated with the malicious workings of a chisel. The arms had been smashed off as well, the symbols of the office nowhere to be found.

She surveyed the destruction with an impassive eye. The defilement of this holy place was not what filled her with horror. No, what caused her pupils to shrink and her skin to grow clammy was the fact that she recognized this place.

This was where the darkness had left her behind. She was back where she had started.

Written by - Ardwen

A palpable sense of displacement and nausea washed over Ardwen as he entered the statue. The Elf could feel his senses reel in confusion as the paradoxical sensation that he was in two places at once swept over him. In an instant it was gone, barely lasting long enough to register in the ancient warrior’s mind, and as Ardwen opened his eyes he quickly took stock of his surroundings to help him orient his wits.

As Ardwen moved his head from side to side he saw a scene of decay and despair. The Elven warrior guessed that what he stood in was once a church, though the ruin and desecration wrought upon it made it look as if no holy work could have ever occurred inside. Ardwen walked over to where the altar would normally be in a church to Pandarrion, but found only a pile of crushed rubble in its place; kneeling and taking a piece in hand Ardwen realized that the chunks of stone were the altar. Letting the stone drop from his grip he looked to the left and saw faded reds lines on the nearby wall that tauntingly proclaimed “What All-Father?”

“Cheerful place.” Ardwen heard Elerus mutter. The bladeweaver looked over at his young friend who had walked next to a small mound of shattered pottery and dirt on the door. As Ardwen watched Elerus fingered a withered brown petal and sighed softly. “They were Moonflowers.”

Ardwen noticed the statue they had emerged from had been utterly ruined. Whoever was responsible had taken exceptional care here, even going so far as to hack the arms off the figure and remove the face. As Ardwen looked closer he could see crude scrawling etched into the stone, so many that they seemed a web of fine cracks. The Elf’s eyes passed over a couple, and with utter revulsion he turned his gaze away. The warrior struggled to suppress his anger, but he growled out, “They tried to kill her, and now they defile her memory? She was a saint to these people!”

Elerus strode over to Ardwen and looked up and him, but his old friend did not notice him. Ardwen’s eyes were locked on the roof of the battered church. “Ardwen?” Elerus intoned cautiously. Although Ardwen was admirably schooling his facial features, his rage was as easy for Elerus to read as if he had shouted and gnashed his teeth.

Ardwen lowered his head, and his eyes slid into narrow slits. “Does the All-Father know what He has unleashed upon these people?” Ardwen’s eyes closed. “Let the sun flee the sky, let Him hang a red star in the heavens. Let Beridane and his kind know that these are the final nights.”

Written by - Ariana

She paid no heed to the arrival of the others, instead standing very still, eyes fastened on the glowing woman who had suddenly appeared before her. Her head moved in a nod, agreeing with whatever she was hearing, and then she was on the move.

She moved slowly, picking her way through the rubble, eyes fastened to the floor. Her search carried her over inch of the large building, until she found what she sought on the floor behind the area where the altar had once stood.

Crouching, she used her hands to push away the dust and rubble. When she was finished, she had cleared a large patch of the stone floor. There, deeply engraved into the cobbles was a cleverly concealed design. At first glance, the lines on the floor appeared as nothing more than cracks or natural faults in the stone, certainly nothing of interest or worthy of attention. If one stared long enough, however, and concentrated, the lines coalesced into something recognizable – a large circle surrounding what appeared to be the outline of a lit candle.

Ariana once again began shifting through the rubble. Her questing fingers located a sharp piece of metal, no doubt the remnants of a triskelion. Suddenly, she drew the sharp edge of the metal down the center of her left palm. She hissed in pain and watched with a detached air as the blood welled up from the wound and spilled over her palm and onto the floor.

Turning her palm to face the floor, she watched as the drops of blood slowly filled the etching. The symbol was clearly visible now, the red liquid distinguishing it from the surrounding cobbles. Once the design was completely full of blood, it pulsed and began to glow.

The glow slowly built until the entire circle suddenly exploded with a blinding reddish light. When the light faded, all that remained was a very dark hole. She leaned over and peered into it nervously, hesitant to descend without something to push back the darkness. As if her thought alone created action, magically enhanced sconces embedded into the walls of the pit flared to life. The light revealed a ladder and a very large tunnel.

Written by - Ardwen

Elerus heard Ardwen’s grim words and nodded, he only hoped that he could restrain his friend from indulging in his oath of vengeance before he turned Westgale into a ruin every bit as desolate as the church in which they now stood. Somehow, Elerus didn’t think it would come to that. He had known Ardwen since they were both children, and in the long millennia since then Elerus could usually read his friends temperaments and humours as easily as if he shouted out what he was feeling.

That Ardwen was enraged Elerus had no doubt of, but he also doubted that he would allow his anger to interfere with his desire to help Ariana. Regardless of whatever was festering in Westgale, Ariana did not seem keen on charging out of the sacristy and beheading this Beridane. Perhaps, Elerus thought, she would later, but as the young boy watched the saint shuffle across the floor in search of something, he realized that what she was looking for at the moment was here. Elerus tried to help Ariana search, but he soon realized his efforts were utterly pointless – he simply had no idea what Ariana was looking for.

With Ariana totally focused on the hunt, and ignoring his entreaties to help, Elerus fell back to standing next to Ardwen and waiting. “I’ve heard this Beridane’s name before, at the Citadel and from you, Ardwen. Mind filling me in?” Elerus said to his friend.

Ardwen didn’t answer at first, but finally he said, “You mean, no one at the Citadel told you who he was? Didn’t you ask?”

To Ardwen’s surprise Elerus nodded yes, but then said, “Oh, I asked, and I still recall the answer I got too. The tailor who was taking measurements and sewing up these clothes for me said I shouldn’t ‘worry my sweet little head’ about him.” Much to the winged child’s chagrin he could see the corners of Ardwen’s mouth tug upwards, although he tried to hide the grin by rubbing his hand along his jaw. “Something funny?”

The bladeweaver waved a hand dismissively in the air. “No, nothing, El. It’s just, I’m amazed. Both the humans and elves of this realm put so much importance on appearance. Still, I’m glad you’re not letting it get to you. I’ll confess, if things were the other way around I don’t think I would be nearly so kind. As I remember, I was a brat with a lot of pride.”

Elerus shook his head slowly up and down and shot back, “Nothing’s changed there.”

“Moving along.” Ardwen said hastily. “Beridane killed his own brother to take the throne of Westgale. Well, he tried to murder the entire royal family, but one of their daughters, Mavigan, managed to get away with her throat intact. Since then he’s been in a war with the elves. I didn’t know too much about it until I pulled Ariana out of the fire here, seems they were going to sacrifice her to summon a demon or something.”

“I see, he did all this and you haven’t killed him yet? I’m surprised.”

Ardwen shrugged helplessly and said, “I am not the only one after his head. The first time I came to this city I had to focus on keeping Ariana alive.” As if speaking of his Abbess reminded him, Elerus saw his friend’s shoulders slump and his voice adopted a weary tone. “I’m not a priest or a warlock. I thought I could save her, but I'm just worthless to her now.”

Elerus stepped forward, he wanted to place a hand on his old friend’s shoulder, but the difference in height made that impossible, he settled for his arm. Ardwen looked down, and Elerus nodded silently in assurance. No sooner had the winged elf done this than a piercing crimson light suffused the air, causing both the elves to drop into defensive postures. A moment later Ardwen noticed the light was coming from behind the split altar, where Ariana was.

Running over to her, Ardwen had to stop and squeeze his eyes shut as the light built to a blinding radiance. When it was done, the ancient Elf noticed a smooth tunnel leading down into the earth that had not been there before. Crouching next to Ariana, Ardwen got the scent of blood. The coppery tang of spilled vitae filled Ardwen’s nose, and without hesitation the warrior reached for Ariana’s cut hand. Ardwen rose and vanished from Ariana’s sight, the sound of tearing cloth echoed through the church a moment later. Ardwen returned and swiftly bound Ariana’s wounded hand with skill and efficiency. “Sorry, it’s cloth from a priest's cope, but it’s all I could find.” Ardwen looked down into the hole in the floor, noticing that it was now lit. “I guess you want to go down there, right?”

Written by - Wilhelm

The greetings concluded, Wilhelm conferred with the other members of his order. Suddenly all of them froze in place, as if listening. Then they all nodded. As Wilhelm walked back to the raven, the others spread out around the room. Wilhelm had a whispered conversation with the Raven, who also nodded. The Raven then addressed the room,

"It is time to organize this raid. The All Father has spoken to these members of His order and He will coordinate the assault through them to allow for a simultaneous attack at each guard station. We will strike an hour after the morning shift change, when Beridane is still in his suite and guard vigilance has lessened. We will form twelve strike teams, with one of them in each team. The Chief Assassin in each group will be the team leader but the member of the order will relay the attack order. My own group will confront Beridane so that Queen Mavigan can have her pointed discussion with her usurping uncle. The rest of you will deal wit the guards.

Let us begin."

The Raven then began directing people until there were eleven other teams of ten, with himself and Wilhelm's party as the twelfth. Others came in and passed out combat supplies and additional weapons. Eleven women in green robes, each carrying medical supplies, came in. They nodded to the Raven and then curtsied deeply to Mavigan. Some of the younger women called out personal greetings to her. They then separated and went to join each team. The Raven returned their greeting.

"These Priestesses of Nagarren will provide combat healing to any injured in the raid. The Gods have blessed this action."

At last the twelve groups stood ready. The Raven looked over to Mavigan, as if to ask if she wished to say anything.

Written by - Ariana

She nodded her assent, though her wide-eyes were filled with uncertainty and no little amount of fear. A violent shudder went through her entire body as she peered down into the depths of the open pit. Taking a deep breath for courage, she grabbed hold of the rails and descended.

Though the tunnel was a large one, she was uncomfortable with being so enclosed, great walls of hand-smoothed stone encircling her all round. The passage extended farther than her eyes could see, and the knowledge made her tremble. She inhaled another deep breath and slowly began picking her way down the tunnel.

Five feet along the tunnel marked the beginning of the drawings. Starting at the floor, they climbed up the walls and spread their color over the ceiling. Though the etchings were old, they showed no signs of deterioration. The light coming from the sconces revealed a riot of color transforming the plain grey stone tunnel into a feast for the eyes. She had the feeling she had stepped into a storybook.

As she looked at the pictures with a closer eye, she realized that she had, indeed, stepped into a storybook. Panel after panel, drawing after drawing, depicted the entire history of a people. A people who called themselves The Hands.

She gazed with open-mouthed amazement at the pictograms that unfurled before her eyes as she moved slowly down the tunnel.

Written by - Ariana

The Raven looked at her expectantly, and Mavigan’s heart sank. Words were not her strong suit, they never had been. Did he really expect her to give some sort of inspirational speech? She had always tuned her Dad out once he started droning on with all the clichés.

She wiped her sweaty palms on her pants and surveyed the crowd. These were her people, and the idea made her uncomfortable. As if to emphasize the point, Tardoc, one of her barmates, started a chant that quickly spread throughout the crowd. “Brell! Brell! Brell!” The chanting grew in volume, soon accompanied by the thump of weapons on shields, or stone, or hands.

Unbidden, a smile crossed her face as Mavigan came to a realization. These were her people. The same ones that had known her identity and allowed her to play a masquerade anyway. The same ones she had beaten at dice, and had sometimes even beaten in fights. These people knew what she was like and had come to aid her despite that knowledge. What need was there to pretend to be something she wasn’t?

She raised a hand to cease the chanting. Her smile was a genuine one now, lighting up her entire face. Once the room grew quiet, she tossed them all a saucy wink. “Enough with the formalities,” she said. “Let’s go avenge my family!”

Written by - Dartanian Merquise

The soft yellow glow of torchlight illuminated Varion’s face as he and roughly a dozen knights moved purposefully through the dark sewer tunnel. The smell was atrocious, forcing all but those with tremendous fortitude to cover their faces with dry rags to keep back the stench. The dozen men moved quickly yet quietly through the muck and grime of the ancient sewer system. After many minutes of trudging along, Varion finally called a halt; raising his hand abruptly to signal the men to be silent. He peered off into the distant, dark tunnel for several tense moments. Turning to face his men, he silently signaled them to douse their torches with a quick hand gesture across his throat. In moments the flames were extinguished. The tunnel went completely black.

While none of the men questioned their Captain’s order, they now stood silently in the dark, waiting. Each man had been hand chosen for his abilities and discipline. The group could have stood there in the dark for hours, waiting on their commander to give the next order. They didn’t need to wait long however before his intent became obvious. Far off down the dark tunnel a dim glow began to appear. Soon the group could hear the careless tramping of a creature coming through the sewer in their direction. Moments later a small orc appeared, hauling a bucket of slop and muttering to himself. As he rounded the corner and came into view, he saw the group of knights. A look of terror and realization came over him. Before he had the opportunity to let out a cry for help, a bolt from Varion’s crossbow pierced his throat. With nothing more than an oozing gurgle, the orc dropped his things and landed in the filth at his feet. Moving quickly, Varion took up the torch before it went cold and used it to relight his own. Passing the flame back through the group, they were soon ready to move forward once again.

Not far beyond the fallen orc corpse, the group came upon a stone stairway which led sharply upward and turned abruptly. “This must be it. Ready yourselves,” Varion ordered. The men drew steel and prepared themselves for the worst. Scanning the faces behind him, Varion eyed each man in turn, as if gazing through their eyes into their souls and testing their collective resolve. Each of the twelve returned his stony gaze. They were ready. Varion nodded and turned the face the stairway leading upward. He moved purposefully, covering several flights with ease, the men following close behind. Soon they reached a rotted and rusted cellar door. The orc had left the bolt and latch open, allowing Varion to silently lift the door an inch and peer up into the world above.

Orcs were rushing about in the courtyard of the great Elven outpost. Commanders issued orders as grunts rushed up stone stairways to man the ramparts. Rotating his body to cast a sweeping glance throughout the compound, Varion next saw the massive gates. A group of ragtag and wounded orcs stumbled through as an Orcish commander bellowed to close the gates. The metal clanking of chain links grinding and straining against one another announced the gate’s slow and unstoppable descent. Finally, the wrought iron gate fell into place with a thunderous sound.

Varion turned at last to his men. “All right then, the gatehouse seems lightly defended, but it is a short distance away. We will be in the open and exposed for several moments before reaching it. When I throw open the door, follow me as quickly as you can. Stay close to the walls, they can at least provide us some cover.” The men all nodded their agreement. “When we get to the gatehouse…you all know what to do. On three. One…two…” Varion was interrupted by the whine of hinges as the cellar door was pulled open from outside. Torchlight silhouetting a large figure flooded the group and momentarily blinded the commander. Instinctively, he thrust his sword with such force it pierced the large orc through the torso, armor and all. The body abruptly collapsed forward, the full weight of the orc landing heavily atop Varion. Covered in the warm, slick orc blood and struggling to roll the massive beast away, Varion gasped for breath and yelled for his men to flee the sewer and commence the attack.

Written by - Ardwen

Elerus had fluttered up into the air as the bright red light filled the house of worship. The young elf looked down from a huge oaken rafter that could have easily held their entire party on its girth, and what he saw filled him with amazement. His friend moved to bind Ariana’s wounded hand, but more prominently than that, in front of the two was a smooth circle that lead down into flickering light, a tunnel that simply had not existed when they first entered. The child’s mind reeled with questions as he looked at the tunnel; foremost was how and why it was in the church to begin with.

Elerus turned his mind to piecing together the puzzle. He recalled Ariana’s scramble along the floor of the church, clearly she had known there was something there, had the All-Father told her? Or perhaps, she had this secret chamber constructed long ago when she ruled over Westgale. But, as Elerus thought about it, he couldn’t come to a conclusion. The priest in the forest chapel had spoken as if it had been many years since Ariana was last seen, could the tunnel have survived so long, even after Beridane took control of the city? Surely, he would have conducted a thorough search for secret passages and strongholds that his foes might have used.

A sharp whistle broke Elerus’s concentration, and as he jumped in surprise he realized he had been pacing back and forth on the beam’s wooden surface. Glancing down, he saw Ardwen motion with his head to the hole in the earth, and a second after he entered in pursuit of his Abbess. The small boy leapt from the wooden surface feet-down, as he neared the ground his descent slowed, when he landed the dust barely stirred as his feet touched the floor. He could see Ardwen’s back retreating down the tunnel, and without a second thought he followed.

It was not long before he noticed that the tunnel was far more than it appeared. Far from being a crude shaft, the surrounding stone had been carefully worked by hand, leaving the walls smooth and glistening in the candlelight. Elerus quickly caught up to his two larger friends, and Ardwen tossed a quick glance over his shoulder and nodded. Elerus bobbed his head in return and smiled, and then he paused and breathed the air in deeply. It was scented. Elerus pressed his hands to the wall and rose onto the tips of his toes, sampling the air again and again. The smell was wonderful, but as Elerus tried to put a name to the delicate fragrance he rocked back onto the flat of his heels.

His mind gave him several answers at once. There was the aroma of a certain caramel candy that he had loved to eat when he was a kid . . . the first time. Then, he caught the heady aroma of flowers and trees in bloom in springs that were nothing but distant memories now. Now the heady perfume shifted to one of a brisk winter morning, the crisp and pure tang of frosty air. “A-Ardwen?” He called out haltingly. His friend stopped and turned to face him. “Don’t you smell that?”

Ardwen shook his head yes, but then rubbed the back of his head and said, “Yes, I was wondering why the air smelled of cherry blossoms, and then . . . cookies? Strange, isn’t it? I guess the candles are scented.”

Elerus blinked slowly and said slowly, “Something’s wrong with your nose,” the young Elf gestured to the air around him. “Cookies? Not a chance, that’s caramel. And cherry blossoms? Come on, you know the smell of moonflowers, they’re my favorites!”

Ardwen arched an eyebrow, but instead of answering he walked over to one of the candles on the wall. With a careful and exaggerated motion he leaned forward to sniff the off-white stick of wax. “Tch.” He muttered. “This one is definitely a cookie.”

Elerus nodded slowly, “They’re magic; the candles are enchanted.”

Ardwen returned Elerus’s slow nod, “Or – or the smell shifts closer to the ground.”

Elerus stomped a foot and crossed his arms. “Fine!” He shot back. “Bring one closer and we’ll see!” With a shrug Ardwen did just that, pulling one of the candles from the wall, snuffing it, and handing it to his short companion. Elerus ran the length of the waxy stick under his nose and said, “It’s a caramel one.” He handed the candle back to Ardwen who sniffed it in return.

“Cookie.” His friend said with a shake of his head.

Elerus threw up his hands in frustration and said, “And it will smell like caramel to me.”

Ardwen grinned slightly and put the candle back in the holder on. The candle flickered back into life on its own accord a second later. “Right, I believe you. Even if it does smell like a cookie.” The two Elves followed Ariana down the hall a bit further, but it was then that Elerus noticed something else about the tunnel. The illumination of the candles shone on a breathtaking panorama of painted scenes and murals. Elerus let his eyes dart all along the hallway, taking in panel after panel of art.

The little elf felt a shiver of joy come across him as he drank in more and more of the splendid scenes. Elerus had always retained a weakness for works of art, and as he viewed more of the tunnel he realized the scenes were rendered in a variety of styles and hands. Far from being the work of a single possessed artist, the tunnels were a collaborative effort that bespoke of a shared vision and vitality. The sweep of an oil fresco ran smoothly into a relief carving, this yielded along the ceiling to something that looked like a mixture of charcoal and pigments, the figures were highly idealized and simplified, yet they possessed beauty and expressive character.

Elerus let a smile creep onto his face, and he rushed passed both Ardwen and Ariana’s legs to look at more, darting from scene to scene. He breathed deep, trying to take it all in, and he felt tears of wonder and delight form in the corners of his eyes. Here was a place where people long dead and places buried by time could still speak, could still proclaim their triumphant zeal for life. Elerus practically bounced next to Ardwen, shifting from foot to foot as he saw his friend had knelt in front of a single scene and was studying it intently.

The panel was compact but detailed; in it figures fought against great thick-limbed beasts. The ogres walked like men and carried huge clubs in meaty fists, each giant had but a single bulging eye and two small tusks protruded from their mouths. The figures that stood against them were varied, some were clad in ornate armor, some wore long and sweeping robes, and still others had hoods and cloaks. The people wielded all manner of weapons, spears, bows, daggers, swords and shields, and many besides. “What is it?” Elerus breathed in near silent reverence.

“A cookie.” Ardwen said with a smirk.

Elerus shoved against Ardwen’s shoulder, hoping that since his friend was squatting on the ground to observe the panel he might at least take advantage that their heights were closer. Elerus found himself rocking back, and Ardwen did not even seem to notice. “What’s gotten into you Ard?”

“Garoos.” Ardwen said without preamble. “The creatures in this picture were called Garoos. They were Cyclopes that roamed a vast plain to the south of Ancora. A city is an expensive thing, and the young order of the Hands needed funds. Buildings, equipment, maintenance, defense, trade – Elerus – everything was so bloody expensive! So we’d hunt these creatures, vicious beasts that could rip a man’s limbs off, we’d hunt them and take their clubs in particular. We’d use the wood for construction, weapon handles, anything we could. The rest we would sell or trade.”

Elerus tilted his head to the side. He was almost as confused by Ardwen’s explanation as he was by his friend’s sudden levity. Certainly, his history lesson put the heroic scene in a suddenly ridiculous light, it all looked entirely too dramatic and epic for something meant to produce planks of timber and shovel shafts. “Um, why is it here?” He queried “Was this really important to the Hands?”

Ardwen answered solemnly. “Absolutely,” he said, “we built Ancora off the backs of these things. We hunted them so often that we used to call it ‘farming’ or ‘grinding’, and the clubs we looted from them became known as ‘grinders’”.

“That’s . . . that’s nice. Why are you—?” But Elerus stopped as Ardwen stood up slowly and his friend ran a hand through his hair. Elerus thought to protest, but as he looked at Ardwen’s face he realized his friend did not intend it as an insult. As if to confirm this, Ardwen’s hand gave him a pat on the shoulder as well.

Ardwen took a few steps toward another panel and said, “It’s always nice to walk in the company of old friends, wouldn’t you agree? This hallway seems made of memories and better times. Walk with me, old friend; let’s imagine for a moment that memories are enough to sustain.” Without another word Elerus fell in step next to Ardwen, the two walked behind Ariana, alternating between matching her pace and catching up when Elerus asked a question about a particular depiction. The winged child found himself impressed by Ardwen’s knowledge of the Hands, and there were many times that he gave first-hand accounts of what the panels contained. There were a few, however, that they passed in silence, both sensing something different or unknown about the depictions. There was even a handful that Ardwen confessed to having no knowledge of, though he insisted he had forgotten nothing.

Written by - Ardwen

“Agmen formate!” Aranel bellowed in a commanding timbre. His men, a full company of Swordsingers, moved swiftly to obey. With amazing alacrity the heavily armored elves broke into a staggered formation of small squares and began their advance again. Aranel watched as another team of orcs broke on the front ranks of his advancing section of the line. While his great helm his face entirely, any man looking at Aranel might have guessed he wore a scowl beneath the protective metal.

“I still cannot believe commander Ithramir gave that witch the honor of leading the push to take the gatehouse.” Aranel heard Surion grumbled at his right shoulder. Surion’s complaining of the desert rat that had nearly killed Ithramir at the last siege struck true with Aranel. He had heard the rumors, the woman had been demon-crazed and not responsible for her actions, she had been repentant afterwards and sought to make amends, Ithramir had pardoned her and allowed her into his forces.

Aranel would have spat had he not been wearing a helm. Whatever this Kaya was after, he did not trust her, who was to say she was not waiting for a second chance to sell them out to the orcs? What better time than now, and what better place than the point where the entire battle hinged. Aranel and his men knew that the gatehouse was critical, if it was not taken and secure on the outside, then the human forces sent to infiltrate it and open it from the inside would be wasted.

Suddenly Aranel heard, “Incoming!” Bellowed from the front of their ranks and the Swordsinger barely had time to react as another mass of orcs sallied out to meet them. Surion moved into combat with a large greenskin clad in black armor that looked like it had been beat into shape with rocks, and that was just the beast himself, notwithstanding the dark slabs of metal that seemed to be bolted to the creature.

Surion whipped his greatsword around in broad arcs, keeping the momentum up and using the weight and length of the weapon to beat the sluggish orc back under a flurry of blows. With a swelling sense of pride Aranel watched as Surion lunged in, reversed his grip using the ricasso of his sword and plunged the blade home into the orc's stomach. Aranel’s pride quickly turned to horror though as he saw another orc clamber over the body of his dead comrade and launch himself at the Swordsinger. With his blade still embedded in the dead orc's guts, Surion was weaponless against the other orc.

Aranel saw Surion draw his companion blade, a shorter sword used as a backup, and strike at the orc. He lost vision of his brother in arms as the battle swirled on and he dispatched another armor-shod orc. As the wave of slavering greenskins broke against the resolute elves, Aranel ordered his company to resume their square formation and press on. It was then that he saw Surion prone on his back, the orc that had attacked him earlier was dead, along with two others by its side.

The Swordsinger commander feared for the worst, but as he watched Surion rose to his feet with the help of another warrior clad in far less armor. Surion sheathed his shorter blade and retrieved his greatsword, nodding in thanks to the soldier that had helped him. The lithe warrior gave a short bow and ran off to rejoin her kin in battle. With a jump of surprise Aranel realized that the warrior was from one of the squads Kaya had assembled before the assault. They had not only been given the honor of leading the attack, but they had managed to press ahead of his own line. Aranel felt a grudging sense of respect for the swordsmen and soldiers, even if they were witches they were good.

“So long as she stays on our side.” Aranel muttered grimly while checking his men. They had lost two in the skirmish. It would have been more without the unforeseen aid. “Press on!” He bellowed again. “Make for the gate, show them the fury of the Swordsingers!” Aranel checked their distance, they were so close to the gate now, it would all come to timing. Once they were under the walls the defenders would have all the advantage to pour pitch and rain stone down upon them. Standing out in the open field in front of the defenses was no option either; the only way they were going to live through this was to get there and pray the humans had done their part and the gatehouse was theirs.

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