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Book Four Pt 2 - The Eastern Pass

Written by - Ariana Page 22 Book 4

They walked for what seemed like a mile. Along the way, the floor began to gently slope downward, and the air grew cooler. When the tunnel finally terminated in a large chamber hewn out of the rock, the muted sound of waves crashing against rock could be heard. Apparently, the passage had carried them beneath the city and towards the shoreline.

The chamber was decorated in artwork similar to that in the tunnel. A great deal of this artwork, however, was hidden behind shelves, racks, and chests. Although crowded with a great number of artifacts, some sort of organization had been imposed. Weapon racks, filled to the brim with a variety of weapons, lined one wall. Though ancient, the metal still gleamed, the stamp of its dwarven maker clearly visible.

Bookshelves lined the opposite wall, stacked high with records, histories, and lore. Although the shelves were heavy with the accumulated weight of the documents they supported, this cache represented only a small percentage of the works originally housed in the Ancoran library. Singed edges and black rings in the parchment spoke louder than words about the final days of Ancora.

The back wall contained a series of wooden chests, some of which also bore battle scars. Ariana walked with purpose to one of the smaller chests and ran her fingers along the top. Embossed on the lid was a stylized figure of an owl. Anyone with a firm grasp of Ancoran lore would recognize it as the personal family symbol of Ariana Trueblood.

She grasped the lid firmly, but hesitated in opening it, glancing instead to her right. It seemed as if a lengthy conversation took place, Ariana alternately nodding and shaking her head in acknowledgement of what she was hearing. When it over, she took a deep breath and pushed open the lid.

The first thing to greet her was a stack of papers. The parchment on top was folded over, sealed with a glob of wax, and stamped with the symbol of an owl. The handwriting across the outside did not look familiar to her, though it was her own. Gingerly, she lifted the stack of documents from the chest and laid them aside.

Her true goal lay in the bottom of the box. At first glance, it looked nothing more than an intricately designed ball – something someone would use as a decorative paperweight, or present to an ambassador of a foreign land. The object was large enough that it took her both hands to lift it out of the box, and as it came more fully into the light, more details were revealed.

The outside of the orb was an intricately crafted golden cage, the scrollwork surrounding the gemstone inside, but never touching it. It was unclear how the gemstone was suspended within the orb. The stone itself was a brilliant blue that glowed with its own inner light. The longer one stared at it, the more one could see that something was inside the gem. Whatever it was, it swirled and twisted inside the gem like smoke, sometimes coming to the edge, sometimes dissipating entirely.

She held the orb in front of her in shaking hands and turned to face fully the woman who had dogged her every step.

“Go on,” the woman encouraged, “open it.”

Ariana bit her lip as she stared at the orb in her hands. “I am afraid,” she finally admitted, raising uncertain eyes to the woman.

“I know,” she offered. “You would be foolish if you weren’t, but you still must open it.”

Her eyes turned contemplative as they returned to stare at the object once again. “Will it…hurt?” she asked, a small tremor in her voice.

The other woman paused, as if she did not want to deliver bad news. “Yes,” she finally admitted.

Ariana flinched and closed her eyes.

“But,” said the woman, “after the pain comes healing.” When Ariana did not immediately respond, she added, “You know this.”

Ariana opened her eyes and nodded. “Yes,” she agreed, but still made no move to open the orb. When she spoke again, her voice was no more than a terrified whisper. “Something new?”

This time the woman smiled reassuringly. “Something new,” she promised.

Tentatively, Ariana shifted the object in her hands so that one hand rested on the top of the sphere and the other hand supported the bottom. At the top, her fingers searched for the latch. Finding it, she pressed down and the golden cage began to open. It split into four sections that unfolded like the petals of a flower opening to the sun.

The smoke-like substance encased in the cerulean gem moved restlessly, darting round and round. As the movements inside the gem became more frantic, the stone itself began to glow. The light built slowly, like a brook that begins as a trickle but flows faster and faster until it becomes a raging rapid. And just as it looked like the torrential storm inside the stone would cause the gem to crack, the light burst forth in a series of brilliant flashes.

With each flash, memories, her own true memories, flooded into her mind. False memories were unable to withstand the torrent and were washed away.

Flash!

“I dunna know how to tell ya this, lass, but the Church has been put in backwards.”

Flash!

“Ahh, no service is complete without cheese biscuits!”

Flash!

“I know you are my sister, but I hate that you serve a manling god!”

Flash!

“The preparations for the Feast of St. Lorne are almost complete, Abbess.”

Flash!

“Chaos has invaded the city. We cannot hold!”

Flash. Flash. Flash.

“This is folly,” Wilhelm said, hovering near her desk, disapproval etched in every line on his face. “Decisions made in throes of grief usually are.”

Ariana sighed deeply and put down her writing stylus. “I know,” she said softly. She looked up at him with haunted eyes. “But I will not send anyone else. Not after we lost Aethelwulf.” Her voice cracked on the name.

To cover her tears, she focused on the task at hand. Folding the parchment, she then sealed it with wax. Picking up her writing stylus once more, she scribbled a few more words on the outside of the document and then handed it to Wilhelm along with the orb. “You know where these go,” she said.

He nodded as he reached for the objects, but his attention was focused on the orb. He turned it this way and that as if trying to see what secrets it contained. “I never did understand why you asked Sophia to make this,” he murmured.

Ariana extended one finger and gently rubbed the scrollwork. “Because,” she replied, “as we have learned, documents can easily be destroyed.” As she looked up at him, he could see the bruises on her soul. “I’ve given you a written documentation of my decision, but this is indestructible. It can serve as a reminder that the Hands existed and impacted the world even as everything turns to dust. Some things should never be forgotten.”

He was quiet for a moment. “This is folly,” he repeated, then shook his head. “No. This is worse. This is willful sin.”

“Yes,” she agreed. “But my options are few. I can either try to find that which was lost, or….”

“Or?”

She gave him a wan smile. “Or, I can stay here and go crazy.”

Wilhelm huffed.

“You should know by now that there is little that goes on in my city that remains hidden. I know what you and the other Hands are thinking.”

Wilhelm, ever the steady rock in any storm, stood fast in the face of her recrimination. “We are concerned.”

She stood up from the desk and placed a gentle hand over his heart. “I know,” she said with a smile. “And I love you all for it, but I have to go.”

Silence reigned as they stared at one another. Ariana looked away first.

“Now,” she said, suddenly all businesslike, “I’ve taken care of everything. My affairs are in order. You,” she said propping her hands on her hips, “must be sure Mavigan marries at some point. She needs heirs to carry on the line. And try to keep her from enslaving all the manlings while I’m gone, OK?”

Wilhelm recognized the change of subject for what it was, and allowed it to stand, a choice he would later regret. He harrumphed into his beard. “And you, be careful what orders you give Ardwen when you find him. He can be very…literal in his interpretation of commands.”

She gave a forced chuckle. “Deal. It seems we will both have a burden to bear.”

The quiet fell between them once more, both knowing there was more to say, but neither wanting things to end on a sour note. With a nod, she turned from him and began patting down her pockets, taking a quick stock. Satisfied with the results, she began walking for the door. “Well, it seems I’ve got everything I need.”

“I’ll walk you,” Wilhelm said, quickly crossing the room to join her at the door.

The walk to the room beneath the library that housed the portal was quiet and tense. The short walk seemed like miles, but finally she stood before the portal that she hoped would contain her salvation. She and Wilhelm both eyed it uncertainly.

“Are you sure?” Wilhelm asked.

“Yes,” Ariana lied.

She grasped Wilhelm suddenly in a clumsy hug. “Take care of them for me,” she entreated.

He looked down into her face, into those blue eyes that no longer shone with light, and nodded. He squeezed her tight, and then reluctantly released her. “You come back to us.”

“I will,” she said.

Another quick hug, the subtle wiping away of tears, and she stepped from the world she knew and into hell.

With a final flash, the light from the gemstone suddenly ceased. The golden petals lifted and locked, encasing the stone in its cage once more.

Ariana stood there trembling, and then dropped the orb. It hit the stone floor with a loud crash, and rolled away from her feet, completely unharmed. Her knees followed the orb, and she collapsed onto the floor, her hands covering face.

It was only a matter of moments before the cries began. Her grief, frustration, and anger all poured out of her at once in gut-wrenching wails that sounded more like soul death than sorrow.

Written by - Ardwen

Ardwen followed Ariana into the chamber at the end of the tunnel. A treasure trove of ancient documents rested in the terminus of the chamber. The elven warrior saw everything from books and scrolls to swords and spears. Moving closer to the latter, Ardwen noticed they were of fine work, and each bore the seal of a master dwarven artisan. Ardwen catalogued the blades mentally; he would not take them from the room, he did not need to.

As the bladeweaver passed his mind over each blade, Elerus examined the weapons in a far more mundane way. The little elf ran his fingers along the scabbard of one sword; a blade not dissimilar to the one Visan had stolen from him. Pulling the slightly curved blade from its sheath, Elerus thought at first that it was a great weapon of some sort before his senses compensated and he realized it was only slightly longer than a normal blade of its type. Feeling slightly embarrassed that the sword felt so large and cumbersome in his hands, Elerus returned it to the sheath. Nevertheless, the young boy leaned the weapon against the nearby wall, it wasn’t perfect, but it would have to do for now.

Just as the winged child turned around from his newly claimed blade, a blinding flash of azure light filled the chamber. Elerus blinked rapidly in surprise, trying to chase away the afterimages from his eyes. Before that, however, more and more flashes filled the room, and Elerus squeezed his eyes shut. Even through the protection of his eyelids the boy could tell when another flash of brilliant blue burst into being. All at once the light show was over, and the next thing to assault his senses was a heart wrenching wail.

He realized then that Ariana had collapsed to her knees and that Ardwen was standing nearby, holding an odd device that looked like a blue sphere enclosed in a gilded cage. Another sob broke through the chamber, and Elerus found tears of sympathy suddenly forming in his eyes. The little elf stood rigid with surprise, unsure of why his eyes were misting, but just the sound of Ariana’s desperate weeping sent the desire to cry coursing through him.

Fighting down the strange emotional response, Elerus turned to Ardwen. His friend had dropped the odd spherical device (not before trying to shatter it with one of the swords from a weapon rack) and was kneeling next to Ariana. He entreated her again and again to stop crying, asking what was wrong. The elven solider might as well have besought the ocean to speak, for his Abbess ignored his every effort and only redoubled her grief.

“Ardwen,” Elerus said and then paused to stammer down a sniffle of his own, “search the room for something to help, any clue. I’ll try and calm her.”

Apparently desperate for a course of action, Ardwen simply nodded his assent and began rummaging through the shelves and scrolls that lined the place. As the ancient elf’s eyes searched, he came across a chest that had clearly been recently disturbed. Ardwen cursed silently to himself for not noticing earlier, but the warrior wasted no time in examining its contents as quickly as his eyes would let him. A few brief seconds of searching turned up a curious document, a folded piece of parchment with a wax seal. Impressed into the wax was Ariana’s personal heraldry, Ardwen recognized it from the missives that were always scattered about her workspace.

Carefully breaking the wax seal, Ardwen opened the letter. His heart rose as he saw the letter was indeed in Ariana’s own handwriting. Here, at last, the elf hoped to obtain some answers as to her condition, and perhaps a way to stem her sorrow. As Ardwen’s eyes digested the first line of the document his heart sank and a dread cold gnawed at his innards, the protocol of the document simply read “Confessions”. Ardwen pressed on, eagerly devouring each word, but as he read further and further his pace slowed.

If there is another soul than I reading this letter, then doubtless I have failed to return. I would entreat you, dear sojourner, to spare this document and the records contained in this room. If the one reading this is of the Hands, then I am afraid I have only my deepest apologies and tearful contrition to offer. Wilhelm warned me of the danger of what I intended, and I well knew them myself, but it did not – and does not – matter to me.

Know, gentle reader, that the Abbess of the Hands of Providence, the Saint of the All-Father, has fallen from wisdom into folly, from faith into apostasy, and from grace into darkness. When we first came to this world we found the peoples of this land in disorder and chaos, and from their resolve we have forged them a worthy home. But that has not quelled the grief in my heart, nothing shall save the success of what I now intend. When we arrived on this world we had already left others behind, others cruelly abandoned to fates of such horror that I dare not even imagine them.

I ask of you, what leader would I be to them if I left them? In this, their hour of direst peril and need, if I cast them aside how could I live with my guilt? They are my charges, my wards, and as their priest it is my sacred duty to ensure the care of souls for all under me. But, it is more than that. Even if I were not their Abbess, I was still so much to them, and they so much to me in turn, that to severe that connection would be more painful than all the scorn of hell.

No. No, no, I will not abandon them. Ardwen, Aethelwulf, Turin, Sycon, far too many names that just thinking of brings tears. I will go after them, I will return to Ancora, I must; I will find them. Then, and only then, can we enjoy the world we have built here. Together. So I entreat you one last time noble reader: blessed be you if you spare these records.

Saint Lorne Keep You,
Ariana Trueblood

Ardwen let the letter fall from his limp hands.

Elerus swung his head from left to right, trying to find something to cheer Ariana. His mind went back to when he was crying in Creda’s house, and while he suspected the cause of Ariana’s grief to be far more keen and deep, the memory gave him an idea. It wasn’t much, but just as Elerus had compromised on his blade earlier, so he clung to his idea in the hopes that it would at least help a little. The little boy ran through the room, searching for a particular object, and wedged between two weapon racks he found just that.

Elerus pulled the harp out from between the display of swords and maces, and he quickly set his fingers along the strings. Elerus plucked gingerly at the strings, and they snapped with a whining twang. The little elf’s wing dropped in defeat as he examined the instrument more closely, it showed clear signs of fire damage, and the strings had long ago dry-rotted to uselessness. Setting the harp aside, Elerus moved closer to Ariana. The Abbess’s sobbing had faded somewhat by this point, but the young elf felt certain it was only due to the strain of her woe. Ariana still knelt on the floor, her arms wrapped around her waist.

The winged boy listened intently, and heard something besides Ariana’s anguish. He heard the lapping of waves and the tempo of the ocean. In a sudden flash of inspiration Elerus knew how he could resolve his problem and help Ariana. Standing back a bit from Ardwen’s Abbess, the young boy closed his eyes and focused. His white wing extended behind him, stretching out into the chamber as if to sample the air. Elerus’s eyebrows knitted themselves closer and he increased his focus, the air was surprisingly dry, but he could feel the damp air from the ocean around him.

Finally, a gentle melody began to pour through the room. Small and meek at first, it gradually increased in volume as Elerus honed his efforts. The manipulation of the air was a fine thing, and it required utmost attention to detail. Elerus could not conjure music from thin air, but he could conjure ice and cold, and then release it. The heated and cooling air would make chimes and tones, and while he had never been able to refine the ability enough to replicate a human voice, he could emulate songs and hymns he had in his mind.

“You sang ‘Astro Mystica’ for me, Ariana. Let me return the favor. Do you know the second part? ‘Luna Mystica’ the mystery of the moon.” Elerus said clearly. He could not produce a voice with magic, but nothing prevented him from adding his own to the melody and reciting the words. Elerus breathed in deeply and began. For once, he was grateful of his small voice, the softer and higher timbre of a child suited the song better than he could have done otherwise. Closing his eyes in concentration once again the small elf poured himself into the performance, and sent a small prayer in his heart that the cathartic composition might cleanse some of Ariana’s sorrow as it had done for him in the distant past.

Written by - Lucant Dolvan

“What part did you not understand Richter? I said I’ve taken care of it.” The young man ran his hands through his short black hair as if trying to wipe away the memories of the past few weeks.

Richter paced franticly about the Segard estate’s massive study. The family possessed a king’s ransom in knowledge with row upon row of bookcases filled with tomes from nearly every race and culture on nearly any subject imaginable. As his path crossed a small desk, Richter stopped sharply and slammed his clenched fists upon it. “Taken care of it!? You’ve just abandoned it!” He paused for a moment to regain his composure. “Do you… do you trust this man to do what needs to be done?”

The young man moved slowly to stand beside the study’s roaring hearth, determined not to be affected by his brother’s verbal jabs. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say I trust him… but I can depend upon him.” He said this as if was something he expected his brother to already know. “I know him well enough from our younger years to be certain that he is far too inured to the All-Father’s doctrines to do anything other than the ‘right thing’.”

“How is that any different from trusting him?” Richter had calmed down considerably and had ceased his pacing about the room.

The young man brushed the question aside. “I wouldn’t expect you to understand.”

Adelbras Segard, the family’s weathered patriarch, stood up slowly from the plush armchair he had patiently watched his eldest and youngest bicker from. He was in his early fifties and still quite fit for his age. He wore a stern expression almost constantly that was bolstered in severity by his sheer presence. “Enough, both of you. Richter, both you and I entrusted the matter to Falzrahm, and he has dealt with it as he saw fit. We all have other concerns to turn our collective attention towards…” He motioned for both of his sons to sit. “The country is on the precipice of chaos. The course Lord Beridane insists on taking is leading us down a steadily darker path – our recent incident proof enough.”

“Where are you going with this father,” Richter asked uneasily. Falzahm said nothing, seeming to mull over what his father had said and what he had not.

“Stay aware… and pay attention. Now come along both of you, dinner should almost be ready. You wouldn’t want to keep everyone waiting would you?”

Written by - Ariana

Her wailing tired her, and she lay down on her back, eyes shut tight against the world. Instead of thinking about the deluge of information she had been given, Ariana chose instead to focus on her choppy breathing and the headache that was building behind her eyes. She inhaled and exhaled several trembling breaths, and pinched the bridge of her nose.

Idly, she wondered if anyone would notice if she just chose to lay there till she died. It might be less painful than opening her eyes to face the world once again.

The sounds of music, a hymn she knew, drifted to her ears and her brow furrowed. The music did not seem to come from her head; on the contrary, it sounded as if the notes were plucked from the very air. When accompanied by a child-like voice, Ariana found the tension melting from her limbs. Her breathing came easier and regular, though the headache remained.

It was during this relaxing lull in her torment that He appeared. Ariana was surprised to see Him. Surely He had forsaken her for her actions.

“Tut, tut,” He said.

He had often appeared to her in the past. She never knew what form He would take. He had appeared to her as a wizened old man, an old dockhand with no teeth, and a young boy no more than 7 years of age. He even appeared to her once in the guise of an ogre, and chuckled at her wariness. Today, he visited her in the guise of a bespectacled man of middle age, wearing the robes of a teacher.

He waved his hand, and Ariana found herself sitting in a classroom, devoid of students save for her. He paced up and down at the front of the room, tossing her disappointed glances.

“I have never forsaken you,” He said, an angry glint in His eye. “I was always there to guide you.” One finger raised and pointed at her accusingly. “You stopped listening.”

Ariana bowed her head, unwilling to look at Him, and she heard him scoff.

“I could have stopped you, of course, but I allowed you to make your own choices.” She heard him move closer to her desk. “All choices have consequences.” When she did not raise her head, He added, “Are you no longer a Trueblood? Have you suddenly become too timid to clean up your own mess?”

Ariana squirmed in her hard wooden seat. “I am… afraid,” she admitted.

“Yes,” He replied, “but are you listening?”

Raising her head, she looked at Him then, and stared deeply into the eyes of the divine. “I am listening,” she finally affirmed.

“Good,” He said, nodding in satisfaction. “It’s a start.”

Ariana drew in a deep breath and slowly opened her eyes. Her head pounded, and she felts as if she could sleep for a year, but she was unwilling to heal herself – the self-awareness too new, the connection too recently reforged.

Turning her head, she focused on Elerus. “That was beautiful,” she said softly. “Thank you, Elerus. Think you can help me up?”

Written by - Ardwen

The tune gradually faded as Elerus reached the end of the song. The young Elf’s brow was still furrowed from concentration, and his eyes remained closed as he focused intently and solely on maintaining the intricate balance of tones the song demanded. At length the song ended, and Elerus allowed a shuddering breath to escape his lips. The winged child lowered his shoulders in defeat as his eyes slid open and he saw Ariana still prostrate on the floor. His idea of a hymn now looked foolish to him; he had accomplished nothing to help the lady who had cared for him so much on their entire trip. Then she spoke his name.

Elerus’s eyes widened and his mouth worked wordlessly for a few moments. Ariana had spoken his name! At first he had not believed his ears, for Ardwen’s Abbess had not been in the habit of using names, much less full sentences. The elven child felt relief and joy wash over him, like warm air across skin after a harsh winter’s day. Elerus ran forward to help Ariana to her feet, but as he extended a hand to help Ariana stand he realized something. Ariana clasped Elerus’s hand, but she was still kneeling on the floor.

The young boy’s cheeks flushed red and he buried his other hand in his hair. Elerus’s eyes locked on the floor and the child scuffed at the stone with his feet, “Ah, well,” he said softly, “I guess, um, I’m not . . . tall enough.” Turning to face Ardwen he shouted, “Come on Ardwen, don’t you have the good graces to help a lady to her feet?”

Elerus regretted the words almost as soon as he had spoken them. While he had been busy trying to assuage Ariana’s grief, Ardwen had remained as still as the carved images of the Hands in the hallway outside. As his friend turned, Elerus caught a glimpse of Ardwen’s eyes. They almost seemed grey, as if the life had seeped from them, a fire’s fading embers before it extinguishes. Almost impossibly quick Ardwen spun around and covered the distance to Ariana in a few long strides. He thrust a hand down to her, which she accepted, and with a single fluid motion he practically pulled Ariana to her feet as easily as if he were lifting his own arm.

“I’ve helped you.” Ardwen said softly, never breaking contact with Ariana’s eyes as he spoke. “Now you can help me.” With that the elf held out the letter he had uncovered earlier. Ardwen’s mouth opened as if he wanted to say something else, but each time he started he interrupted himself and all he managed was a jumbled confusion of word beginnings. The elven warrior at last simply turned his head to the side and sighed as if his life’s breath were escaping his lungs. “Why, Ariana?” He managed at last.

Written by - Ariana

Ariana took the proffered piece of parchment, and after giving it no more than a cursory glance, she balled up the document and tossed it over her shoulder. When she looked at Ardwen there was an uncharacteristic hardness behind her eyes. “Don’t ask stupid questions, Ardwen,” she snapped. “What? You’re the only one allowed to risk your life for the people you care about?” She rolled her eyes. “What rubbish.”

She moved away from him, patting down her pockets. Her brow furrowed with confusion when she noted her attire – after the episode with Wilhelm before she entered the portal, her memories were disjointed and confused. She vaguely remembered getting dressed, but wasn’t sure what motivated her to choose something other than her usual priestess robes.

She adjusted the shirt, the sleeves, the pants, the boots, and took a moment to appreciate how comfortable her garments were. Deciding she liked the new look, she turned from a self-inspection to an inspection of the room. She peered into and behind the crates, shifted papers, and poked into corners.

“Besides,” she added as an afterthought, “you and your son are here, so I obviously succeeded.” Turning in a circle where she stood, she gave a huff of frustration. “Has anyone seen my mace?”

Written by - Ardwen

Ardwen followed the arc of the crumpled paper through the air with his eyes. He watched as the discarded letter pattered against the floor and rolled on its uneven sides behind an oaken chest with gilded hinges. Once the parchment that Ariana had so casually discarded as trash was out of sight Ardwen turned around without saying a word and walked to the exit of the chamber and the tunnel leading back to the church ruins above. However, before crossing the threshold of the passage, the warrior looked over his shoulder and said, “Even if we struggle to repaint a ruined portrait it can never be the same again. Maybe this whole journey was foolish and hasty of me. You care? Why do you care? Do you remember nothing of what I’ve said to you before? You dishonor me by selling your life so cheaply. As for your attempted martyrdom . . . .”

The elven warrior trailed off here and turned his head back toward his front before saying, “I’m going back upstairs to start cleaning up the consequences.” With that Ardwen vanished down the hallway impossibly fast, the elf was standing there one moment and the next there was nothing but shadow and flickering candlelight where he had stood.

Elerus ran a hand along his face and regarded the empty space where Ardwen had been seconds before. Things were not going at all as he had imagined. He recognized that his old companion and Ariana were speaking from different lexicons, and that they had both missed each other. Still, Elerus had to know what was in the note. Rushing over to the chest it had rolled behind, the little elf knelt on the floor and unfurled the piece of paper. The ridges of the wrinkled sheet casts pools of shadow across its surface, but Elerus quickly picked his way through the document. “By the Throne of Stars . . . .” He muttered before even finishing the letter.

The winged child set the abused piece of paper on top of the chest and craned his neck back, staring at the ceiling of the chamber. She had returned for Ardwen. Ardwen, in turn, could not fathom why she would gamble everything for the slight chance of rescue. It didn’t add up to him, and if Elerus were honest with himself it didn’t really make sense to him either. He was looking from the outside, and while he had his own reasons for following Ariana, he could only guess at the connection between her and Ardwen. As Elerus lowered his gaze he could see Ariana looking at him intently. Elerus smiled weakly and said, “Sorry, but I’m not his son. We’re not related, well, I mean – we’re not related as humans would understand it. Our flesh cannot sire. No, Ardwen’s just my friend, a good friend – my best one . . . maybe my only one now.”

Elerus finished his lament with a small sigh and shrugged. “So,” he said casually, “what’s this mace you’re looking for?”

****

Caldwin’s boot smashed into the beggar’s face again. The man rocked back and sent droplets of red spraying in the air. The filthy urchin curled up into a ball and tried to mutter apologies, but Caldwin wasn’t interested in listening. He had caught this man, this Westgale scum, trying to sneak into this dive and pray. King Beridane had not only had the church dismantled and deconsecrated, but he had declared the worship of the All-Father illegal. More than that, he had put a hefty reward for anyone who brought in collaborators with the Church of Tinorb. Oddly enough, he wanted them alive, but rumor had it that he intended to execute them all together in some grand public warning to further break the spirit of the people of Westgale.

“Not that it needs any more breaking if this wretch is all that’s left of it.” Caldwin reflected as he hauled the gutter rat to his knees.

“Please-“ The man began, but Caldwin cut him off with a blow to his face that nearly put the man back on the floor.

“Speak when spoken to.” Caldwin snarled. Much to his credit, the All-Father following scum still had the presence of mind to nod. “Good. Now, you’re going to prove you’re a loyal subject to the king, and tell me who you were meeting here and why.”

“I’ve told you, I wasn’t meeting nobody-“ Caldwin sent the man sprawling with a punch to his already bruised face. As he withdrew his hand he grimaced and wiped the blood off on the hem of his cloak, he had managed to split the idiot’s swollen lip. As he watched, the battered man began crawling up the stairs to the church. Caldwin rolled his eyes, he let the fool have his fun, and he followed him into the church. They had swept this area hundreds of times, there was nothing in it but the tattered remains of a dead order and the morons that still clung to it.

“Ready to tell the truth? Call out for Beridane’s mercy, Westgale bastard, and you shall know that the king is good.” Caldwin underlined his statement by drawing his blade. He watched the beggar’s eyes open wide and his ruined features work in shock and fear. Caldwin grinned, happy to have so undone the man. The Ironskane soldier was so entranced that he never saw what killed him.

Ardwen grabbed the man’s raised sword arm and pulled outwards, straightening the limb. In one fluid motion the Elf drove an elbow onto the back of the extended joint, bending it – the wrong way. With a sickening crunch the soldier’s arm shattered, the flesh already turning black and blue. Naturally, the man opened his mouth to scream in pain. Ardwen had managed to catch the human from behind, and the blademaster knew just how to end this. Just as the man’s mouth opened in a bellow of pain Ardwen grabbed a fistful of hair, with a twist of his body the elf drove the human’s skull into one of the nearby pillars of the church. There was a final crunch of bone, and the man was still. Blood flowed down the pillar, enough to stain it and the floor around it red.

The elven warrior turned his gaze to the poor wretch on the ground, still in shock from all that had just happened. Acting quickly Ardwen held up his hands and said swiftly but firmly, “Relax, I'm obviously not for Beridane. Believe it or not the All-Father and I know one another.” The human nodded so much and so quickly that Ardwen thought he might snap his own neck. The man opened his mouth to speak, but as he did his eyes caught sight of the new tunnel in the church, and he paused as the sound of footsteps echoed from within.

Written by - Ariana

Ariana glared at Ardwen's back as he stomped his way out of the chamber. When he was no longer in sight, she turned and gave the nearest chest a good, frustrated kick. "Why, why, why? With him, it is always about why!" she muttered, momentarily forgetting she was not alone. "Why do I care? Why do I have to have a reason?" She gave the chest another swift kick and heaved a great and tired sigh. A hand swept suspiciously across her eyes, followed by her sleeve. "All these years and still clueless."

She sucked in another deep breath and tried to collect herself. It was in this lull that Elerus corrected her misapprehension.

She frowned at Elerus. "Not his son?" she asked softly. "That's strange. I've never known Ardwen to willingly travel with children." She paused, a far away look in her eyes. "In fact, the only time I've ever known him to travel with children was when I ordered him to retrieve some orphans from a house that unfortunately fell just outside our territorial line." She cast a wan smile at Elerus. "He grumbled the whole time."

There was a long pause as she looked at Elerus. "It is good you are his friend. He has need of them." Her face with filled with an enormous sadness, a weight of sorrow that leeched the sparkle from her blue eyes. After what seemed to be an interminable moment, she said more to herself than to Elerus, "I didn't bring either of you here, did I?"

As quickly as a candle being snuffed, the sorrow in her eyes disappeared. It wasn't gone, just hidden, and hidden so well it was as if it had never existed.

Suddenly, her brow furrowed in confusion, as if she had just caught sight of something strange in the corner of her eye. Her focus snapped to Elerus, and she stared at him intently as if searching for something. After a moment, she gave him a wink. "Oh," she said, "I see."

Immediately turning the topic to something else, and not giving him time to respond, she told him about her mace. "Well, it is my...mace. It is very distinctive. Blessed and all that." She crossed over to the weapons racks and searched through them quickly. "But since it appears to be temporarily missing," she pulled a serviceable spiked mace from the collection, "this will have to tide me over."

Quickly attaching it to her belt, she hurried down the tunnel after Ardwen, Elerus not far behind. "Hurry up," she urged. "It is usually not wise to let Ardwen handle "consequences" alone."

They made quick work of running back through the tunnel and climbing the ladder into the ruined church. The tunnel closed behind them, leaving no sign it had ever been there.

Once Ariana was out of the hole, she stopped abruptly. Everywhere she looked the signs of descration and ruin greeted her. Her life's work, turned to dust. Again. The knowledge brought the awareness of soul-deep fatigue. She was so very tired.

Kneeling on the cold, jagged floor, she picked up a random piece of shattered marble and turned it gently in her fingers. "Why do I bother?" she said so softly only those standing nearly on top of her could have heard. The chunk of marble dropped from her limp fingers and cracked on the floor.

As quickly as the mask had been dropped, it was in place again as she stood. There was already one dead body on the floor, and Ardwen was chatting with a man who looked as if he had been beaten severely. "Hello," she said, walking quickly to where they stood. "Let me take care of that." Bending over, she touched the man's shoulder and said the prayer of healing. The stranger was immediately bathed in light, and when it faded, his wounds were noticeably healed.

Anyone who knew her, however, would have noticed that there was no enthusiasm for her actions, no inflection in her prayer. She moved by rote, and when she spoke, it was with a hollow voice, devoid of emotion. "We should find Wilhelm."

Written by - Wilhelm

Cheers and battle cries erupted with Mavigan's statement. Wilhelm smiled and applauded, soon joined by the rest. The Raven chuckled and gave her a bow.

"Short and to the point. I like that. Your father was prone to long speeches, but you seem to have expressed yourself well."

The Raven turned to the rest and motioned to a door across the hall.

"Alright, you heard the Queen. Let's get moving."

He turned and led Mavigan and Wilhelm and the rest through the door and down a long corridor to another large room with lifesize portraits on the walls. Taking a lit torch from a wall fixture and then walking up to a portrait of himself, he touched several places on the frame and the 7' tall painting rotated, revealing itself to be a hidden door. The other assassins also obtained and lit torches from a bin.

Again the Raven led the way down an even longer dark tunnel to a blank wall. He touched several places on the wall and an eyeslit opened. Looking through it, he nodded.

"It's empty. Come through quietly now, we are under the palace."

The Raven again touched several places and the wall pivoted to open into a spacious room furnished as a comfortable meeting room with a table and chairs in the middle and couches and side tables along the walls. No doors were visible. Dust covered all surfaces. When all had entered, he turned to Mavigan.

"This is as far as i can take us. Now it is up to you, Mavigan. Only a member of the Royal Family can perceive and then open the hidden door leading from this room up to the King's Chambers. This room is where I met with your parents to pass on information. I believe your father brought you down here once when you were younger. Even if you do not remember that, you should be able to find and open the hidden way, as it is keyed to you and your line.

Until you came, I could not use this route to mount an attack on Beridane. This room and the two passages to it are both shielded from detection. Only I can open this end and only you can open the other. Beridane will not know of this route, which will lead us directly to the King's Chambers. We should be able to mount a surprise attack. Now search the walls and find and open the hidden way."

Written by - Ardwen

Elerus watched as Ariana walked into the passage ahead of him, and the elf could not quash the gnawing uncertainty that ate at him. He had felt a palpable sense of unease ever since Ariana winked at him. Ardwen’s Abbess indicated that she had seen something, and her eyes had been fixed upon him, but what had she seen? Elerus rested his forehead in an open hand and tried to focus on the details of what was going on in the church, but his mind kept wandering back to Ariana. Could this woman really be the lady Ardwen had praised so highly?

As the winged child watched Ariana heal the poor soul cowering on the church floor he decided it was Ariana’s behavior that troubled him. Her attitude to the man’s suffering seemed distant, as if this same scene had played out countless times before her eyes. A sudden epiphany made Elerus realize just where he had seen this kind of behavior before. Fresh recruits to war often gawked and trembled at the scenes of carnage in their first battle, unused to the hell of real combat. But the veterans remained stoic and steadfast. The little elf’s eyes looked over the broken body of a soldier Ardwen had doubtless killed, and he felt nothing.

Or so he thought.

A sudden and impulsive urge to hide from the blood, to seek refuge with Ariana or Ardwen crept over him. With a slight downward tug of his mouth Elerus banished the odd emotion. He had felt almost the same instinct when Ariana started crying downstairs; only discipline and hot shame kept him from breaking down in a childish fit of sobbing. The young boy shook his head to clear his thoughts, what was wrong with him?

“Gods bless you milady and sir!” The Westgaler cried out after Ariana mended him. The man scrambled to his knees, but remained kneeling. Tears glistened in his eyes, and his whole body shook as he realized he was going to live thanks to the strangers that stood before him. The man looked up at Ardwen and then ducked his head again, keeping his eyes locked firmly on the floor in front of the Elven warrior’s feet. “You say you know the good Father’s word?” The man asked. “Then, I beg of you by the Tinorb that we both adore, help us!” The man underscored his plea by reaching forward and grabbing the hem of Ardwen’s coat. The Elven soldier stepped backwards, and the man’s hands fell feebly to the floor.

“Calm down.” Ardwen said. “What is it?”

The man’s head whipped up, one eyebrow climbed higher than the other as he said, “You mean, you don’t know? Beridane! Beridane’s going to make another sacrifice this night, an’ he’s using us Westgalers – children, men, women - as punishment!”

“What?” Ardwen hissed, and the man visibly flinched at the Elf’s harsh tone.

Bravely the Westgale citizen plowed on. “Aye, it’s true an’ I swear it by my soul! The bastard’s doing it because of the uprising when some warriors snatched his last prize away. The resistance here in Westgale, well, we don’t know rightly who those souls were. They weren’t one of ours, but they fought like Tinorb’s angels and took some poor lady with them. She looked half dead, an’ I don’t know what happened to ‘em, but I pray they got out of this cursed city alive.”

Elerus noticed Ardwen shifted his weight and cleared his throat before beckoning the man to continue. “Interesting,” Elerus interrupted, “so others have tried to take the city from Beridane already?”

The unnamed civilian bobbed his head rapidly and turned to the new speaker. His mouth opened, but his throat clamped off the words and his eyes widened so much they looked as if they might roll out of his head. “What . . . what-“ He stammered.

Elerus tilted his head and gave a curt wave of a hand as a greeting. “I don’t know how you missed me; we’re both pretty close to the ground.” He said flippantly.

“Oh . . .” The man muttered nearly silently, “I’ve died an’ gone to the Father, haven’t I? I knew it was too good to be true, what with you three showing up out of nowhere. Are you angels? I don’t remember father Morr saying anything about child-angels-“

Elerus smiled despite himself. He was slightly annoyed, but he was not surprised at the man’s shock, “You’re still alive, rest assured. My name is Elerus, my friend here is Ardwen, and the lady is . . . ah . . . .”

“Saint Ariana Trueblood.” Ardwen said clearly.

No sooner had Ardwen spoke those words than the human practically rammed his head into the floor in an attempt to bow lower. The man pressed his forehead to the cold stone and said breathlessly, “All-Father forgive your servant, Dyne. He is not worthy to be in the presence of your most bles’t of saints, founder and blood of the world of legends. Her two angels I also praise, may Tinorb All-Father glorify them.”

Ardwen planted a palm on his face and said, “Just tell us where the prisoners are; I assume time is short.”

Dyne rose to a hobbled kneel and said, “You’re right sir angel, the prison’s not far from here, the traitor wanted to make everyone afraid of this church. Go out these doors an’ turn right, follow the main street till it splits in two, an’ go right on that. The dungeons at the end of that street. That whole part of the city is crawling with the usurper’s men though – he’s not keen on losing his prize a second time.”

Ardwen nodded in understanding before he looked over at Ariana. He had heard her statement that they needed to find Wilhelm, but surely she would see the urgency of their current task? Yet, Ariana seemed unmoved by the man’s tragic plea. Instead of her normal manner of placating the man and assuring him that all would be set right, she stood there and looked around the church. For a brief instance, a fleeting second, Ardwen saw an uncharacteristic tightness around her eyes as she saw the smashed altar of the All-Father. The bladeweaver’s mind turned to earlier when Ariana had crumpled and thrown her own letter aside, and called his questioning absurd and pointless.

Ardwen tucked his head closer to his shoulder as he traveled deeper into his own thoughts. This wasn’t like Ariana, something was wrong. Ardwen moved closer to her, he tried to say something, yet he couldn’t stand to look into her eyes. “Ariana,” he finally intoned demurely, “I don’t understand. I never blamed you. But . . . .”

The Elf turned his head to the other side, but his voice became heated, “All I’ve done was to see your smile again. You are more to me than just 'the Abbess', I don’t care what you are or where you’ve gone, I . . . . in the end times, it was you, you were the reason I survived.” Ardwen trailed off. His cheeks felt hot, and his face had dipped so that the top of his head practically faced Ariana.

Suddenly the warrior spun around. He leaned back against a nearby pillar, crossed his arms and tucked his chin to his chest.

Written by - Teran

Teran stared at the man who had become some sort of bizarre caricature of what he had been just a few months ago. He contained the urge to laugh but hints of his disgust did show on his face. It had been relatively easy to slip through Beridane's defenses, though it was unlikely he would have been stopped even if they had found a defense against Teran's unique infiltration methods.

"My efforts on your behalf have been a waste of time." The assassin said coldly, "You had every opportunity to solidify your control of this kingdom and you squandered it chasing foolish distractions."

He paused for a moment, and met Beridane's gaze with his own.

"Demons?" he snapped. "What were you thinking?" Teran asked, anger slipping into his quiet voice.

"How long did you think you would last once you were in the company of demons?" Teran asked rhetorically as he paced the room before waving his hand through the air as if to bat away something insignificance.

"You have sealed your own fate, you are truly blessed by a god if you survive this night and if you're still breathing in a week, undoubtedly the divine intervened on your behalf."

His words were harsh but he made no overt move against Beridane. The man had proven to be such a failure who seemed prone to borderline suicidal mistakes Teran thought it would be a wasted effort ending the life of a man who would probably kill himself with his next insane scheme... assuming he survived Mavigan.

The Assassin stood in silence, reading the mixed expressions on Beridane's face.

Written by - Lucant Dolvan

The morning sun had barely been up for an hour as the members of the Iron Council filed into the massive council chamber for a so-called “emergency” session. The building itself was square, made of the finest granite from the mountain mines; the building’s large vaulted ceiling was adorned with many hanging banners and tapestries bearing the national seal of Ironskane and Beridane’s coat of arms. The Iron Hall served its purpose quite well – displaying the opulence, the might, the permanence, the grandeur, and the authority of Ironskane.

First entered the chancellor, Johannes Grunfeld. Falzrahm had never personally met him, but knew him well enough from his father’s private observations of the man. He was corrupt in every sense of the word, only looking out for his own interests rather than those of the nation, and served in little more capacity than Beridane’s mouthpiece and herald.

Behind Grunfeld entered the five members of the House of Thanes, the heads of five elder noble families who served as advisors to the chancellor and Beridane himself. The families served rotating terms, changing out chairs and chairmanship every five years. Falzrahm smiled inwardly with pride as his father, Adelbras, took his place in the chairman’s seat to the right of the chancellor.

Next came the fifty members of the House of Lords. They were comprised of various members of lesser noble houses, wealthy merchants and landowners, and the headmasters of various guilds.

Following the Lords, the three heads of the military entered, taking their seats in the council’s great amphitheater opposite their assembly. Grand Marshal Alexander Wagner was not present, and was not expected to be as he was officiating the occupation of Westgale. The Grand Admiral of the Navy, Konrad Luger, however, was present. Falzrahm greatly admired Luger, having praised him as “one of the few honorable men left in Ironskane”, and was one of the few people he considered a friend. Behind them came the Headmistress of the Colleges of Arcane Science, Tyndell Rittenbach – Falzrahm’s elder sister. There was no small amount of bad blood between the two siblings over who would ascend to the headmaster’s office upon Adelbras’ appointment to the House of Thanes. This was the first time they had seen each other since their falling out.

After the leaders of the military had taken their seats, Falzraham finally entered the council chambers along with the twelve other members of what was dubbed the “Council of Thirteen” and took his seat behind the three leaders. Though they had no say in the decisions of the greater council, they served as advisors on various aspects within the military – the royal guard, the assassins guild, engineers guild, rangers, medical corps, marine corps, rapid response forces, arcane investigations, the special forces, chaplains, military police, quartermasters, and messengers in sequential numeric order.

Falzrahm did his best to ignore Tyndell’s shocked look as she laid eyes on him for the first time in nearly a year. He wore all black - a leather vest with several pockets over a long sleeved linen shirt and leather pants and boots- with a hooded white tabard draped over him. At his side hung his personal runeblade. Embroidered on the back of his tabard was a black eight-thorned rose signifying his rank as Captain of Section Eight, Arcane Investigations - or, as they were colloquially known, the “Mage Hunters”.

Tyndell only diverted her attention away from her brother when Grunfeld brought down his gavel to officially start the session.

Written by - Ariana

Mavigan wrinkled her nose at the amount of dust that coated everything in the room. As the crystal orbs lining the walls flared to life, she could see clearly millions of dust motes dancing in the light. The knowledge of why this room was so dusty crowded in on her, and she grit her teeth against it. Now was not the time for grief.

Steeling herself against the implications, she examined the room with a curious eye. The furnishings were subdued despite the fact her family’s coat of arms was emblazoned in several places. Despite the dust, it had a homey feel to it, and she caught her breath as another surge of memory flooded through her.

Turning quickly she came face to face with Nagarren. There she was, depicted in all the trappings of the divine: perfect hair and skin, glowing with an inner radiance that was meant to inspire the penitent to follow unquestioningly. Mavigan thought the image did not adequately portray the true duplicitous nature of the goddess, and she sneered at it before pointedly turning her back.

As she did so, another panel in the wall caught her attention. This one glowed slightly, and as she approached, one place blinked at her in a maddening frenzy. “Touch me!” it seemed to scream, and Mavigan complied. Once one spot was satisfied, another began blinking, and before Mavigan realized it, she had completed the series and the wall slid open.

Behind it was a passage much like the one they had used earlier. And on the far wall was yet another wildly blinking light. Certain of her actions now, she marched directly towards it and pressed the series as directed.

This time, when the wall slid back, Mavigan knew exactly where they were. Before her stretched a familiar sitting room, its furnishings now dusty with disuse and a malicious lack of care. She and Etewen had once used this room as one of many for their games of hide-and-seek.

Mavigan was finally home.

Written by - Ariana

Ariana felt an unfamiliar desire to kick Ardwen in the shin as soon as he introduced her as Saint Ariana Trueblood She was no saint, and the fact he uttered the words without any hint of sarcasm made her want to scream. The unfamiliar emotions boiled and bubbled deep inside her gut, but the only outward sign of this was a slight tightening around her mouth.

She listened to the stranger’s tale of sacrifices and a usurper, her eyes distant and unfocused. Only Ardwen was able to get a reaction with his whispered confession. Her eyes crinkled with confusion as she stared at his back.

She and her teacher Elgian strolled through the abbey grounds together. The sun shone brightly upon his pate and turned her novice gowns to a blazing white.

“I don’t understand,” Ariana grumped to her mentor. “How can you let those people put you on a pedestal like that? You are just as human as the rest of the ‘em. And just as flawed.”

Elgian merely chuckled at the dig, and took his time in responding. He was never quick with his answers and Ariana had learned to be patient.

“People need someone to look up to,” he finally said. “The gods themselves can seem so distant. We, however, are close. They turn to us because it gives them hope.”

“Yes,” replied Ariana, her brow still furrowed with confusion, “but –“

“It is not about you,” Elgian said suddenly, stopping in his tracks to stare intently at his charge. “Remember Ariana, it is never about you. It is always about them.

The memory flickered through her mind like a newly lit candle sputtering to life. Her shoulders straightened and her mouth tightened into a determined line. Raising a hesitant hand, she gently patted Ardwen on the shoulder. The comforting gesture was so meager, but she hoped it was enough. It was all she had left to give.

Moving to the door of the church, she called behind her in a tired voice, “Come on Ardwen. Let’s go save the world. Again.”

Written by - Ardwen

Ardwen silently nodded his head and moved to Ariana’s side. The elven warrior turned to look first at Ariana and then Elerus, there was a slight pause before he said, “The time for action is now. But, understand that we will be walking right into the Usurper’s hands. Dyne already told us that Beridane is wary, after all, I helped snatch Ariana away from his grasp the first time; he was not lax on security even then.” The ancient Elf fully turned to face Elerus and knelt to bring himself closer to eye level with his friend. “Elerus,” Ardwen began slowly, “I-“

Elerus cocked his head to one side and spoke over Ardwen, “Don’t even think about asking us to stay here. You just said ‘we’ would be walking into danger, and that means that we do this together. Besides, what kind of friends would we be if we let you go alone?”

Ardwen closed his eyes for a second, and when he opened them he said slowly and deliberately, “I would have none of us go into danger if my wishes meant anything, Elerus. But, we both have to acknowledge that things have . . . changed.” Ardwen paused and let what he said sink it. This was the kindest way he could think of to tell Elerus that, regardless of his past, the young elf had to account that he was a child in body at least. “This new world,” Ardwen continued, “and a second chance, a rare thing indeed. Promise me if you’re in danger, if I can’t stop the tyrant’s forces, that you’ll take Ariana and escape. Flee or run, there is no shame in it. If you’ll not make this vow then I swear I’ll clasp you both in fetters and watch this city burn before I let either of you go into harm’s way.”

Elerus turned his face away from Ardwen. The winged child allowed a strained silence to fill the air before he softly said, “I understand, old friend, and I promise none of us are going to die here.”

Ardwen stood and let the tension go out of his body, he had been afraid that Elerus would refuse. The bladeweaver nodded his head in recognition and thanks at Elerus’s words. Turning around, Ardwen walked to the church’s threshold and said, “Good, now I’ve got one more favor to ask. Our greatest asset in this will be surprise and shock. Beridane will doubtless imagine that he’s seen the best that we can muster. After all, we had the support of an enraged crowd last time, and there were more of us. But, we know what he cannot possibly know . . . .”

Ardwen trailed off and Elerus picked up the cue. “Exactly who or what we are.”

Ardwen nodded once more in affirmation and said curtly, “You know what to do, Elerus.”

The young boy smiled brightly and unfurled the single white wing at his side. He swept the feathers up and out as a man might stretch his legs before running. “I’ll scout.” He said. The little elf ran past Ariana and Ardwen, into the open air outside the church. Elerus twisted around and again gave a broad smile, with a small salute he said, “Take care of Ard while I’m gone, Ariana. Don’t let him take all the glory!” With that Elerus flew into the air, a white streak against the dull grey of a morning sky.

Ardwen watched his friend climb higher and higher, following his every move with his eyes. He sighed and said, “I wish you could have met him before, Ariana. I wish I could have saved him. Yet, he’s persisted, endured.” Ardwen let out a soft hmm before continuing. “He was always stronger.” The elven soldier walked out onto the steps of the house of worship and gestured down the street to his right, the street that would lead them to the dungeons that Dyne had spoken of. “I’m holding you to the same standard as Elerus. Once we get information on what is guarding the prisons, I will move in advance.”

The elven warrior held up an open hand to still any protests and added, “I am not trying to give you orders. Just trust me.” A few quiet moments passed on the church steps, Ardwen took the opportunity while waiting for Elerus to return to instruct Dyne to remain inside the church. Finally, after what seemed like hours to Ardwen, Elerus descended from the sky. The boy slowed his descent and his knees bent as he worked to absorb the impact from landing. With one smooth motion the little elf swept himself up to his full height and looked up at Ardwen.

“Pretty observant, for humans,” Elerus began, “they actually bothered to look up. You called it Ardwen, Beridane’s converted the buildings approaching the prison on both sides of the street. The guards have set the roofs with archers, they’ve boarded and bricked some of the houses, but left other ones open to serve as supply caches and access points to the rooftops. Do you remember when we fought in Diverylund?” Ardwen shook his head yes in response, and Elerus continued, “Yeah, like that, though they’ve also got at least three mages from what I could see.”

“Thank you, Elerus.” With no further words, Ardwen motioned for Ariana and Elerus to follow, and began walking down the street. The elf did not try to hide; he went to the center of the alley, lit by the wane light of a cloudy morning. Elerus fell in step slightly behind him on his left side, looking back once to make sure Ariana was coming along as well. The three encountered no enemy soldiers on their walk; indeed, they saw no one. The streets of the once great city were deathly silent, echoing only the sounds of their own footfalls. Ardwen tossed quick, furtive glances around him as he walked. Everywhere he looked he could see signs of decay. Buildings stood empty and neglected, their doors smashed in. Window frames yawned empty or with jagged shards stuck in the edges, bits of trash and refuse lined the narrow alleyways running alongside the houses, and the lantern and candle stands that would have helped light the city at night or early morning were empty, their contents pilfered.

Westgale was a city rotting in the grasp of the Ironskane Tyrant. At last, the small group reached the end of the street, where it turned right. Elerus pointed down the darkened corridor of houses, and jerked his head in the direction of the heavily guarded prison district. “I’ll go first.” Ardwen intoned flatly. Without waiting for his friends to respond, Ardwen turned onto the prison street. The change that came over the seemingly empty lane was immediate. All along the rooftops armed soldiers appeared. Within minutes, the street was flooded with armored figures as they poured from the guardhouses Elerus had mentioned earlier. The guards were well equipped, Ardwen noted that they not only carried a variety of weapons, but they all carried multiple weapons. The elf saw backup weapons, warriors carrying both sword and blade, and even more telling the entire company in front of him was clad in simple yet practical armor. Sturdy helms obscured faces, pauldrons and breastplates shielded vital points.

Elerus had not exaggerated, nor had Ardwen failed to guess Beridane’s paranoia. This was the Mad King’s final gambit, with a restless Westgale populace under him and the evidence of warriors that would stand against his reign he desperately needed power. Ardwen turned his head slowly left, then right, taking in the forces arrayed against him. The sound of armor clinking and shifting chimed through the alley. Ardwen raised a foot, and took a single step forward. In an eye blink the alley was filled with arrows, the shots expertly placed and blanketing the area to ensure that there was no place for the lone elven warrior to escape.

The deadly shafts struck the ground around Ardwen, kicking up dirt and dust, chipping bits of stone and wood as they bit deep into their mark or ricocheted with spent force. The arrows that flew at Ardwen himself, snapped and shattered, striking the air around the warrior. Ardwen continued walking forward. As more and more arrows were loosed, it became more and more apparent what they were striking. One bolt flew towards Ardwen’s face; it came close, and then burst into sawdust. At the point where its flight terminated, a swirling series of ripples and glowing motes outlined the shape of a sword hovering upright in the air.

Everywhere the arrows struck, the shape of a blade silhouetted itself like a ghost in the air. Ardwen ceased walking, he raised a hand to his left, and the blades revealed themselves. They weren’t just swords, but axes and spears, and other less identifiable bladed weapons. The elf moved his hand in front of him, and the weapons whirled about him like a metal cyclone, forming a swirling wall of steel.

Suddenly the elven bladweaver’s left hand darted out and caught one of the weapons, a falchion with a series of large metal discs affixed to its hilt.

Ardwen ran forward, seeming to glide over the ground, and the translucent blades that shimmered in and out of sight followed him. One of the armored soldiers in the front ranks died, collapsing to the ground like a sack of stones, a swift and efficient slash dispatching him. Ardwen was almost obscured by the press of bodies around him as Beridane’s soldiers moved to defend themselves and slay this thing that had impossibly broken through the rain of arrows unleashed against it. Ardwen pulled blades from the air, the ones he caught in open hands becoming fully visible; the elven swordsman did not bother with return strokes, he simply released the blades back into the air and another flew to his hands. It was a ruthless and practiced slaughter that Ardwen now employed, overwhelming with speed and shock. Men died in droves around him, and their return blows and bolts were defeated by the shimmering specters of levitating edges.

The Tyrant King’s soldiers fell back, clearing a space around Ardwen who simply pressed onward, ahead of the throng of metal-clad bodies around him. It was this moment, separated from their allies below, that the mages on the rooftop had been waiting for. Three dull orange glows streaked through the street, belching thick tails of black smoke. Ardwen craned his neck to look over his shoulder just in time to see the first ball of fire detonate against the ground right behind him, the other two joined in quickly, and the ancient warrior was engulfed in smoke and earth. For a few moments, nothing moved, Ardwen did not emerge from the wreathing pall of grey and black. From within the shadows of the smoke, it was the edges of the blades that could be seen first. Sill transparent, but outlined in silver light, they began to rotate, slowly and upright as if an invisible hand spun a circular weapon rack. Points of light, like tiny stars of shards of crystal danced between and around them, winking in and out of existence.

Then the blades rotated faster and faster, the smoke cleared, and there was Ardwen unmarked by the attack. The elf still stood gazing over his shoulder. His face was unreadable, as blank as if it could not display emotion at all. The blades around him were a blur of grey and silver bars now, a whirling and unfolding circle of dancers. “I think that was our cue.” Elerus muttered as he drew the blade he procured from the Hand’s storeroom earlier. Elerus unfurled his wing, and locked his eyes on the three robed figures standing on the roofs above.

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