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Book Four Pt 2 - The Eastern Pass

Written by - Ariana Page 23 Book 4

She followed behind Ardwen, eyes darting left and right, noting every detail of decay and corruption. In the wan morning light, Ariana saw a Westgale in a pitiable state of ruin, a visible accusation of her failure. In her mind’s eye she could see clearly the proud city as it had been – clean streets, strong architecture, happy people – and discordance between the past and the presence made her bite her lip.

When they reached their destination, it was with an overwhelming sense of relief that she prepared herself for battle. The burdens of thought and emotion were shoved aside for the automatic responses of survival. She slid naturally into the prayers of protection, and when she finished, Elerus was surrounded by a nimbus of light.

Ariana began the prayers again, preparing to cast a similar wall of protection around Ardwen when she noted the scene in front of her. The words of the prayer died on her lips. He was not dancing with great swords as she had seen him do in the past. Instead, blades wielded by phantom hands whirled around him so fast that she could only catch glimpses of sharp wicked edges.

Ardwen was using magic.

Both eyebrows rose to her hairline as she stared in amazement. “That’s different,” she said to Elerus. “When did he -?”

Three fireballs arced through the sky aimed directly at Ardwen. The question died on her lips, as she immediately began a prayer of healing. By the time the smoke had cleared and she could see that Ardwen was unharmed, the spell was complete. Ardwen glowed momentarily as the unnecessary healing spell dissipated.

Three pairs of eyes turned from Ardwen to focus instead on Ariana.

“I think that was our cue,” muttered Elerus, but Ariana was murmuring the words of her next spell. The words “Lorne” and “ire” were heard on the wind before she launched her own ball of light at the rooftop. It exploded in a burst of holy energy, and missed two of its targets. An agonized scream came from the leftmost wizard, followed by a loud rumble as part of the roof caved in.

Ariana saw Elerus turn his head to look askance at her. She shrugged and gave him a sheepish smile. “What? So I’m a bit rusty. Besides,” she added petulantly, “they moved.”

Further discussion of her rusty skills was interrupted as two balls of fire traced through the air towards their position. Elerus took to the air headed straight for the rooftop. “Elerus, no!” she yelled, but the little elf paid her no heed.

Ariana dodged as best she could the old-fashioned way – she ran. The fireballs exploded with fury at the place where she had been standing. The heat wave prickled across her skin, but she was still running and paid no heed to the burn.

She crashed into the door of the building and was relieved to see the roof collapse had not taken out the stairs. Climbing them two at a time, she emerged on the roof. Mace in one hand and the words of a censure on her lips, she charged, determined to keep Elerus safe.

Written by - Wilhelm

Wilhelm and the rest quietly followed Mavigan and she opened the way. When the last secret door was opened he came silently up to her and whispered,

"Well done, Mavigan. Hold on a moment while we get into position."

Wilhelm extended his senses through the King's Chambers, noting the many heartfires and their positions. He then went over to brief the strike leaders, pulling out a map he had prepared.

"Beridane has doubled the guard. Here are their locations. Move quietly and await the signal."

They nodded and went to brief their teams. In each team a mage and an assassin gestured and layered screens of silence and obscurity cloaked each team in muffled shadow. Then the crusaders and priestesses chanted and circles of light bathing the members were just visible through the concealment. Weapons and armors both glowed as battle preparations were completed in almost total silence and concealment.

The Raven signaled to each team in turn, who then silently slipped through the door to take their positions. The All Father Himself would give the order to strike as one when the time came. At last it was time for Mavigan's group to move out. Mavigan and her two bodyguards, although well warded and buffed, were the only ones left fully visible. The shadowed figure of Wilhelm, his glowing eyes and increased stature showing his beginning shift to Avatar state, came to Mavigan. He touched Mavigan's dagger, which glowed with consecration. Then he moved to stand just behind her, with the Raven taking point and Keeryn and Sabbatine on either side of her.

"All is ready, Mavigan. It's time for your pointed discussion with your uncle. He is in your father's office. The guards will be taken care of as you proceed. Beridane is yours. We will take care of the rest."

Written by - Ardwen

Ardwen’s eyes fixed on the three offending mages, and the warrior turned to walk back to them. The elven bladeweaver was confident that he could end this quickly, and so he gave no heed to the soldiers that gathered behind him. Ardwen could hear them running forward, armor clacking and rattling as they charged, the elf did not turn around. A few second later Ardwen heard their attack turn to cries of confusion and pain as they ran into the weapons hovering behind him. The swords showed as shinning, watery outlines in the air shot through with specks of white and blue before vanishing again.

Elerus couldn’t believe the sheer power behind Ariana’s spell. He realized he had never really heard of Ardwen speaking of his Abbess fighting, but surely if he had his friend would not have failed to mention her prowess at divine magic? The winged child had no more time to wonder, however, as the two remaining mages on the crumpled rooftop recovered and launched their counterattacks. Fireballs wreathed in smoke shot through the air, and Elerus slung the blade off of his back and he took wing to intercept them. The young elf caught the first in midair, reaching out a hand to brace for the shock of negating the ball of flames. The fireball erupted around him, streaking the air orange and red and sending lines of flame and smoke shooting to his sides as he struggled to counteract the spell.

The fireball finally fizzled and died, and Elerus gave a silent prayer of thanks that the mages were employing fire in their spells. His specialty had always been in ice and cold, had it been lightning or something else the task would have been far more difficult. No sooner had Elerus deflected the fireball angled at him than his eyes widened in shock and horror as he heard the crump of the second landing behind him. With a choked cry he realized that it in his eagerness he had left Ariana unguarded. Elerus fought back the urge to run to her, to see her, he knew that such a course would only cluster them together again for another attack.

Instead, Elerus rushed toward the top of the building holding the mages. With a light touchdown the little elf turned to regard his opponents. The wizard on his right raised an eyebrow and couched a snicker into a balled fist before saying, “The hell is this, a joke?” Elerus simply readied himself, trying to relax and allow the instincts he’d ingrained over millennium of combat to do the rest. But, something was different, unsettling him and throwing off his attempts at balance. The little boy couldn’t help but thinking how large the two sorcerers looked, while they were probably not above average height, they towered over him.

As if sensing his unease, the second mage spoke up and said, “What’s wrong, leap without looking? Get ahead of yourself in coming up here alone? We saw the woman standing next to you. Mommy’s not here to save you now, brat.”

Elerus let a snarl cross his face and he spat out the words, “That you think us blood only underlines the astounding profligacy of your erudition.”

To the winged child’s chagrin though, the mages simply laughed, but when the one on the left spoke again his voice had adopted a tone of cold superiority that would have not been out of place coming from Ardwen, “Big words for such a tiny boy. But don’t worry; we’ve got a wonderful plan. I was pissed when your girlfriend killed Rowan, things were looking down.”

“Still,” the other caster jumped in, “now that you’re here not only do we have the perfect excuse to get the hell away, but we’ll be rewarded for doing so.”

“What do you mean?” Elerus said.

“I mean, since you seem so fond of pleonasm, that a certain prominent member of Beridane’s entourage has a conspicuous ardor for juvenile attendants to his more carnal passions.”

Elerus felt his rage peak and he practically spat the words, “You son of a bitch!”

The man only laughed and waved a dismissive hand, “Ah, a feisty piece of meat too, you’ll fetch a king’s ransom.” The man’s smile practically split his face as he saw Elerus’s glower grow. “Nothing personal, this is just business.”

“Davin!” The man’s associate shouted as Ariana suddenly crested the steps leading to the roof. Elerus had no idea how long Ariana had been standing there, or how much she had heard, but he felt comforted by her presence. As the Abbess of the Hands engaged one of the mages, Elerus moved in on the other. The little elf brought the Aerynth forged steel in a slash across the man’s face, leaping and hovering in the air to bring himself eye level with his opponent. Elerus found his blow expertly blocked by a single-edged blade that the man produced from a sheath at his side. With surprising strength the wizard pushed back, and Elerus was hurled at the ground, only his quick reflexes saving him from smashing face-first into the stone roof.

Elerus landed in a crouch; the young elf flared his wing out behind him, trying to use it to climb to his feet faster. But Davin’s partner did not advance on him, instead in a single, swift motion he removed his robe, and Elerus hissed in a sharp breath as he saw the armor glinting underneath. Beridane had obviously paid well for these three; Elerus could only guess that they were battlemages trained in both sword and sorcery. The boy warrior’s fears were confirmed as the man flowed into a brutal series of overhead slices that sent shocks down Elerus’s arms. Elerus attempted to dodge, to block and twirl out of the way as he would have done in the old days, but his body seemed sluggish and his sidesteps were pathetically small compared to his opponents.

“Damnit.” Elerus hissed as he blocked another overhead chop. His opponent was skilled, he knew that his superior height gave him the advantage of reach so long as he forced Elerus to stay on the ground, he also knew that every blow he angled downward was aimed toward vital areas: neck, head, and shoulders. Elerus knew with chilling certainty that any strike that landed would end his ability to fight, and possibly his life. Suddenly an idea sparked into the little elf’s mind, a sword maneuver that he had seen Ardwen employ when fighting Visan. Elerus recalled how Ardwen had been forced to kneel to strike the lock from his cage; his partner had used his own body as a shield against the crazed mage.

The little warrior figured if it worked against one insane spellweaver, it might work against another. Allowing the mage to press an attack and lock blades, Elerus fell to his knees again. This time though, he angled his sword to the right, allowing his opponents blade to slide off, for an instant there was an opening on his foe’s left. Elerus rushed up and tried to place a blow, but he felt his opponent’s blade bite into his wing. Elerus hissed in pain, in his haste he had forgotten that critical difference between Ardwen and him, Ardwen had no wing for his opponent to strike at as he moved.

Elerus’s eyes flinched in pain, another mistake that he couldn’t believe he made, an error he had not done since he was a child. The human soldier capitalized on his slip, and Elerus felt an armor-clad boot connect with his side, throwing him to the ground. The small elf felt his blade fly out of his grip, but his eyes were shut in pain and he did not see where it landed. All he heard was his opponent mutter, “Something's muffling my hits.”

A single sword buried itself into the rooftop. Lucin turned from the defeated child to the sword, and his face twisted in confusion, where had it come from? He had no time to wonder as the warrior from below, the one who had deflected three of their spells with only a second’s notice appeared by the blade. Lucin readied his sword, but something felt off. He saw the warrior’s eyes turn to the little angel-like child next to him, and as Lucin further observed the elf’s gaze he felt his innards turn to ice.

It was the elf’s eyes, the rest of his face remained all but still, but the warrior’s eyes focused on him with an intensity of hatred that was beyond anything Lucin had ever seen before. The mage attempted to say something, offer some retort to unnerve this new foe, but his voice was stilled by the gnawing fear inside of him. It made no sense that he would be so unmanned by this soldier’s presence, but as a trickle of cold sweat traced its way down his chin he realized what he felt. It was fear, pure and primal fear, the kind of fear that even base animals feel. The fear of a mouse as the eagle’s claws tear into it. Lucin knew, with bitter dread, that the beast in front of him was a superior predator, and in those eyes he was nothing more than prey.

Ardwen moved, a blade with a circular attachment to the hilt whirling out of the air and into his hands. A straight thrust, Lucin thought it missed, the blade shot through the gap between his chest and arm, for a moment he wondered how this perfect predator could have made such a blunder. And then the elven warrior twisted the blade up, the metal disk caught his arm, and with a gut wrenching crack the sword shattered his arm. Still the elf worked the blade upwards, until it was parallel with his body, sticking up by his shoulder. Ardwen called another blade to his right hand, keeping the left on his sword to apply pressure and pain, with practiced ease he took the other blade and rammed it through the mage’s nearest leg. The steel cut through armor, flesh, and bone alike, a sucking noise bubbling from the wound as the sword exploded from the other side.

Lucin’s raw screams tore through the air, and Ardwen drank in the sound of the lesser’s pain as if it was the finest of wines. Images flickered through his mind of the tortures he could have inflicted upon the man had been in Tirion, Avari’s barracks-city. The elven bladeweaver knew he did not have such luxuries on hand here, and so he reluctantly decided to quickly quench his rage. The former Hand twisted the man’s body around, he kicked the human forward; his body hit the rooftop face first. Ardwen lodged one final blade into the base of the man’s skull, his screams stopped instantly, the silence seemed to echo and resound more than his mewling ever did. The blades returned to the air, shimmering before resuming their defensive rotations. Without a word, without another sound, Ardwen knelt next to Elerus.

Written by - Ariana

Ariana did not hesitate; she engaged the closest mage, striking out with her mace. The weapon was unfamiliar and she was out of practice. The wizard deftly dodged the attack and pulled a wicked sword from the scabbard affixed to his hip. He quickly sliced at her belly. She dodged, but felt a sharp burning sensation cross her upper arm followed by a warm trickle of blood. She ignored the wound much as she ignored the burn she had received earlier.

The wizard smiled wickedly. “Something the matter, priestess? You seem slow. Has your dead god deserted you?”

Ariana merely finished her spell. A bolt of bright light descended from the heavens and crashed into the mage. The air filled with the smell of ozone and burning flesh, and the sound of screams.

“Not quite,” she replied. Striking out once again with the mace, she struck him full across the jaw. There was a brittle crack as his neck broke, and the wizard crumpled to the ground dead.

The screaming, however, did not stop. Ariana looked around wildly for the source and saw Ardwen torturing the remaining mage. She watched in growing horror as he took delight in the pain he was creating and bathed in the agony of his foe as if it were a sacrament.

Ariana had seen Ardwen fight many times. He was always cold and calculating, his kills clean and efficient. It wasn’t something he enjoyed; it was simply his way to serve. But the expression in his eyes as he butchered the mage was one of satisfaction. She found herself wondering how long they had been apart, what had happened to him during her absence, and if this was one more consequence of her poor choice.

A gasp of pain from Elerus jerked her from her musings, and she immediately began the prayer of greater healing. Elerus was soon engulfed in healing bluish-white light.

She turned from them and began quickly administering the battlefield version of last rites to the fallen. The sight of the man she had slain made her nauseous. There were no trees in this land, no rebirth, and she knew full well what horrors lay within the Void. In this world, actions had consequences and life had value. Ariana hoped this small gesture of mercy would help her atone. And even if it didn’t, maybe, just maybe, it would keep the nightmares at bay.

When she finished, she walked to the door and down the stairs, shoulders hunched as if bearing a heavy burden.

Written by - Ardwen

A single white feather, trimmed red with blood, floated back and forth until it settled near Ardwen. The elven warrior looked at the single feather, and felt his stomach churn. “El . . .” He began, but his voice failed him. Ardwen snapped his head up to look at Ariana just in time to see her finishing her healing incantation. An azure light settled over Elerus, and with relief Ardwen noticed the pattering of blood on stone ceased. Standing, Ardwen released a tight knot of air from his lungs he was not aware he was holding. As he watched Elerus climb to his feet, Ardwen thought to go speak to Ariana, but he paused as he watched her praying over the corpse of her foe.

Ardwen’s back straightened and his eyes narrowed as he listened. She was dispensing final rites to her enemy, showing him mercy in the afterlife, grace that he did not warrant. As Ariana finished, she headed to the stairs, shoulders slumped as if in defeat. Ardwen wanted to grab her, spin her around, and yell into her face. He wanted to scream how she had shown mercy to those who did not deserve it, lesser beings who had squandered their lives. The elven soldier’s thoughts raced faster and faster, his lips turned down into something that was a mixture of a scowl and a sneer of disgust. These animals had injured Elerus, they were not human; they were less than mudmen. Their lives were forfeit, and Ardwen thought it only fitting that they feel a little of the pain and suffering they had inflicted upon others, and if it served to warn and terrorize others into surrender, then all the better.

Mercy for these monsters, sympathy for devils, why? “She actually said a prayer for them.” Ardwen heard Elerus whisper. His young friend had moved to the edge of the building, his face turned toward the sky; his gaze distant and unfocused. “Mercy for monsters. The more I see of her the more remarkable she looks, how could she be from the same world? Or . . . .” But Elerus’s sentence simply trailed off into silence.

“I don’t want to hear your philosophy lessons right now, Elerus.” Ardwen began sharply. “I think it’s time you and Ariana started considering consequences. You could have died! Ariana-“

“I’m sorry.” Elerus whispered so softly, far too softly to stop Ardwen’s disapproval. The ancient elf simply spoke over him, his words never lagging.

“Was wounded by a single soldier. I told both of you again and again that this was a fight I could handle alone, for you of all people to doubt me! What the hell did you do? What were-“

“I-I just wanted . . . .” Elerus said again, but this time his voice was cracked with unbidden tears, but he stood there still and listened as Ardwen poured on.

“You thinking? I’ve had enough, until I see that you can handle yourself in a fight again I’m not allowing you to step on the field, All-Father’s blood, did you want this hovel of a city to be your grave?”

“Wanted . . . to help . . . you.” Elerus stuttered out.

Ardwen shook his head in disbelief, his eyebrows furrowed and his eyes darkened. The elf widened his stance and struggled for words. All he could think about was how others took pity on him, Ariana risked her life because she thought he needed her on Aerynth, and now even Elerus was buying into this sudden theory that he was an invalid. Ardwen blurted out, “Then stay out of my way.”

The second the words came out of his mouth Ardwen regretted them, his temper cooled as his rant finished, but it was too late to take back. The former Hand wanted to say something else, try and act like it was a joke, but the terrible silence between the two friends throttled his attempts. Elerus spoke first with a near-silent apology before he jumped off the edge of the building. Ardwen dashed over to the edge, nearly falling in his rush, he was just quick enough to see Elerus touch the ground and run past Ariana toward the prison.

Ardwen stared at his hands and worked his lips silently for a few seconds. “Why,” he fumed aloud, “why do you put this on me, Pandarrion? I can’t do this, I wasn’t made for this, I’m . . . tired.” Ardwen shuddered and released his anger and frustration in a halting exhale of breath. He passed a hand over his face and ran down the stairs. He knew what he had to do. He passed Ariana, and made a note of her injuries, but what more could he do? If the prison had medical supplies, he might see to her wounds, but right now he had a different sort of hurt to mend.

The door to the prison stood open, steps lead down to darkness dispelled only by guttering torchlight. Ardwen tensed his leg muscles to dash down the stairs, but then stopped. He looked at the darkness, and then tossed a quick look over his shoulder at Ariana, his mind traveled back to the letter she had written before her ill-fated quest. Ardwen silently sucked in a breath of air, the cold and stagnated prison environment did little to refresh, but it did help him think. “I can do this.” Ardwen muttered. The elf grabbed one of the torches off the wall and went down the stairs lighting the bronze sconces as he went. Beridane had obviously taken little care for the lighting of his prisoners, or perhaps this close to the execution they had seen no reason to waste valuable lighting material on the dead. Ardwen gave a brief nod as he lit each one, he hoped to find Elerus soon and accomplish his mission here, but if Ariana needed to come down he wanted to give her passage.

With each lit torch, with every brightening of the hallway Ardwen felt his resolve grow. He could make amends, he could set things right, he would. “I have to—“ Ardwen began before his words were stopped short by a sharp click. Instinct alone saved the elf as he slammed himself to one side of the hallway and dropped his torch. By chance he chose correctly and he saw the crossbow bolt clack harmlessly against the opposite wall. In a split second Ardwen realized what a fool he had been: he had backlit himself perfectly by carrying a torch around, he had dispelled his blades earlier thinking the prison guards dead, and he had blinded himself by attenuating his eyes to his torchlight. The dropped torch blew out, but Ardwen had already lit the others on the wall around him – the archer would not miss again. The elven bladeweaver gave a “tch” of derision as he grasped for valuable seconds. Time he didn’t have. Ardwen heard another crisp clack as a crossbow mechanism sprung.

Ardwen clamped his teeth shut and prepared for the bite of the bolt, but it never came. Instead the bolt turned frost white and trailed tendrils of mist before dropping straight to the floor and shattering into tiny bits of ice. Out of the corner of his eye, Ardwen saw Elerus step out of an unlit corridor to his right. Ardwen also finally saw his assailant, a man dressed in unadorned armor with a basinet that covered his face. Elerus stood in front of the human soldier, and the man spoke in a voice that sounded like rocks rubbing together, “Damn your parlor tricks, point-eared rats. Your time is over; this is Ironskane’s hour, Beridane’s triumph.”

An idea trickled into Ardwen’s head, a sudden inspiration as if from the All-Father Himself. The warrior traced a blade, light flickering through the rough hewn stone corridor as the blade materialized. “El, catch!” Ardwen shouted as he tossed the blade. Elerus twisted around, Ardwen caught a glimpse of wet tear-trails down his face, but as the child saw the blade in midair his eyes widened to the point that Ardwen thought they might roll out of his head. With a deft twist the little elf caught the blade - his blade.

Elerus wasted no time. He held the sword up and in front of him, patterns like water beneath a frozen stream rippled across the steel. “Spread your wings.” Elerus intoned solemnly, and the blade answered. The sconces sputtered and hissed in the cold that poured into the corridor, the damp stone grew hoarfrost like moss on old rocks. The man stepped back, but Ardwen could see him working the bolt mechanism on his weapon again. Elerus did not give him a chance. The winged child swiped the sword to his left, snow and ice swirling and mirroring the wing on his right, he looked for a brief instance like some small version of the Archons of Tinorb. Elerus moved, the human tried to react, but his movements were slowed by the bitter cold, his mind unable to focus in the sudden winter. Elerus darted along the ceiling, using his tiny stature to his advantage, with a single swift slash he severed the soldier’s throat. He bled out within seconds, and Ardwen nodded in approval, it was a quick and decisive kill.

It was the elven swordsman’s only regret that the blade Elerus held was a mere copy, a temporary one at that. No sooner had Elerus completed his attack then the sword started to disintegrate, motes of light like mournful fireflies peeling from it as it dissolved into the air. The air warmed up against instantly, as if Elerus had never summoned the bitter north there but seconds ago. Ardwen shook his head and bent his knees, pointing his face to the floor. “Elerus,” he began quickly, “forgive me. I should have never said that, I . . . I have no excuse, no worthy reason. It was stupid, I was—“

Now it was Elerus who cut Ardwen off, “You were just doing what was right, I mean, I did get hurt, and—“

“No!” Ardwen roared. “What I said was wrong, and you deserve to call me out on it.”

Elerus let out a long breath of air; Ardwen glanced up and could see it condense and rise in the air. “Always so formal, even when apologizing. I guess you could lighten up a little.”

“You forgive me?” Ardwen asked, returning his head to a steady bow.

“All-Father’s tears.” Elerus chuckled, borrowing a variation on a bit of vulgarity Ardwen had used earlier. “If I had not learned to forgive your stupidity long ago we’d have never made it as friends. It takes a special person to bear your presence for long, Ardwen.”

“I agree.” Ardwen said stoically.

Elerus waved his arms and raised his voice, quite a feat given the high and small tone the boy had, “Joking!”

Ardwen stood again, and looked down at Elerus, his mouth in a line that tilted up slightly, an almost smile. “I’m just not cut out for this, Elerus.” Ardwen said quietly. “We’re warriors, yeah?”

“That’s not all we are, Ardwen.” Elerus interjected.

Ardwen shrugged and said, “I’ve tried to reach out to her, but it’s like stargazing during the day. At times I think I feel the old her is still there, but I’m never sure. I’m floundering in water far over my head, and I keep making it worse.”

Elerus shook his head no, but Ardwen pressed on. “I told her I just wanted to see her smile, told her my whole reason for coming here, and what did she do? ‘Let’s go save the world.’, so I think Westgale is a good place to start, and crush Beridane’s men.” Ardwen paused here for a moment before placing a hand on his temple as if to ward off a headache, “And what do I get from her? Did you see the look on her face? She looked disgusted! Like I was some sort of stranger, a demon spawned from the flesh of someone she once knew.”

“Oh, Ardwen,” Elerus said softly, “if she was shocked by you enjoying visceral combat, then how well does she know you? You told me back at the Citadel that you never told her, ever! Why?”

Ardwen tucked his chin to his shoulder as if trying to hide his face. “She . . .” he began slowly, “she didn’t need to know all that. It would have just complicated things. Besides, what would she think? She would have pushed me away . . . I . . .”

Elerus’s eyes widened almost as much as when he saw the brief tracery of his old blade. “What?” He sputtered breathlessly, “Did you just say that you care if she was close to you?”

Elerus saw Ardwen’s eyes yank open in timidity as he realized his words, but the old elf quickly recovered, “Don’t be absurd, I meant she would have expelled me from the Hands.”

“Nice recovery.” Elerus said dryly.

“We should focus on clearing out these dungeons; there may be more soldiers . . . .” Ardwen didn’t bother finishing his sentence as he saw Elerus shaking his head “no”.

“Clean other than that one, he’s got the keys on him too.”

“How do you know that?” Ardwen asked.

Elerus simply rolled his eyes and said, “Oh, I don’t know – how about instead of charging in with magical swords that spit sparkles you try this thing called sneaking.”

“They’re not sparkles.” Ardwen intoned sullenly. Elerus simply finished wiping his eyes and cracked a soft smile.

Ardwen and Elerus both stopped their banter as they heard halting footsteps coming from the prison’s entrance. Ardwen nodded, and Elerus returned the gesture, together they walked up the stairs toward Ariana.

Written by - Ariana

She gingerly picked her way through the broken bodies of the fallen headed to the door of the prison. Elerus passed her first, his little feet carrying him lightly through the carnage and into the jail. He was soon followed by Ardwen, moving just as quickly.

Ariana refused to make haste, hoping the few moments alone would give her time to clear her head. The scene of destruction sprawled before her, the scent of death floating in the air. Other images, of dead friends, cannabalistic ghouls, and other hideous demons flickered like afterimages in her mind, and she blinked several times in an effort to clear them.

No. She wasn’t in that place any longer.

Reaching the threshold, she entered the prison, grateful to see the torches had already been lit. She wandered through the first floor, automatically taking note of the layout and any objects that might prove to be useful. Armory, infirmary, and an office were all quickly inspected and mentally catalogued.

It was in the office that she felt it – a familiar tingling in the back of her mind. Her eyes widened with surprise and disbelief. Looking wildly around the small office, she sought the source of the sensation. Her focus turned to a large brass-bound chest in the corner. The spiked mace was in her hand before she was conscious of the action. Two hard hits and the lock disengaged.

She tossed her mace to the side, where it landed with a loud clang. Kneeling before the chest, she pulled up the lid with haste. Inside the chest was a wide assortment of weapons and personal effects, no doubt stolen from the hapless souls imprisoned here. Frantic hands lifted the items and tossed them to the side.

There, in the very bottom of the chest, lay the items she sought – a hand-crafted mace inscribed with runes and sigils, a small golden triskellion attached to a length of chain, and a small figurine, an owl lovingly crafted from wood and threaded through with a simple piece of leather.

A hand covered her mouth as she tried to choke back the sobs that threatened to tear from her throat. A few tears leaked from the corners of her eyes. Ariana felt like she had been walking on shifting sand, and her soul felt as if it had been rubbed raw. So much change, so much pain and suffering, it was all coming at her entirely too fast. There was no time, it seemed, to adapt, to accept, to forgive. Instinctively she had searched for an anchor, something to keep her from getting lost in the storm. Foolishly, she had clung to Ardwen, for he had seemed the only thing unchanged in this unfamiliar world.

She had forgotten that people changed most of all.

But here was something familiar and unchanged. Items that marked her as Ariana Trueblood, things she could unwaveringly proclaim as her own. It might be foolish to place such significance on inanimate objects, but after she dried her tears on her sleeve, and placed each item in its proper place on her person, she felt one small piece of her soul lock back into its proper place. She knew she was a far cry from being whole, and that wounds must be lanced before they can heal properly, but this felt like a step in the right direction.

Right now, that was enough.

Breathing in a fortifying breath, she left the office and moved down the stairs. She wondered at the sudden dip in temperature and watched with confusion as her breath steamed in wispy plumes. Ardwen and Elerus met her halfway down.

“I thought they looked like sparkles, too,” she said casting a wink at Elerus. She paused for a moment, as if unsure what to say next, or perhaps how to say it. “I am glad to see you are alright, Elerus,” she started uncertainly. “It was wrong of me not to check on you before I left. I am sorry. I –“ She cast a furtive glance at Ardwen, hoping he’d catch her meaning as well. “I have not been myself lately.” A grim smile touched her lips as she realized just how much of an understatement she had just uttered.

A cry echoed along the passageway, and Ariana remembered her duty. Her shoulders straightened and she began rattling off orders as she had once done in days past. “Ardwen, please open the cells, if you will. Those that are relatively able will find weapons upstairs in the armory. They will find it towards the back on the left. After they are armed, tell them to help the walking wounded, and to expect resistance as they leave.”

“Elerus dear, please come with me to the infirmary. I will need help gathering supplies, and then we will need to care for those who are unable to move. If Beridane is half the tyrant I think he is, we will no doubt have reinforcements bearing down on us soon, so I’d best save my spells for later. Let’s get as many people safely out of here as we can before that happens. I doubt it will be many, but some is better than none.”

Written by - Ariana

Mavigan crept quietly through the hallways of her home. She stared at the Raven’s back, not allowing herself to see anything but the goal ahead. If she had taken the time to peruse the damaged, defaced, and ruined remnants of her family heirlooms, she would succumb to the yawning pit of grief that beckoned. No, if she was to succeed, she had to focus. Her hands tightened on the hilts of her daggers.

So intent was she on her goal, that the few scuffles that surrounded her registered dimly, a disturbance of air and pressure as one or more of her companions dealt with the threat and returned. The group walked cautiously through the halls of the palace until finally, the Raven moved and the double doors leading to her Father’s office stood solidly between her and her Uncle.

Reaching forward, she gently turned the handle. Locked. Deciding there was no more need for secrecy, she caught Sabbatine’s eye and nodded. A large grin crossed the creature’s face. One punch put her fist through the door, and a second later, she had twisted the handle from the inside. Sabbatine looked so pleased with her action that Mavigan felt compelled to say, “Sabbatine, after I kill my Uncle, you can eat him if you want.”

Taking the grin she received as assent, Mavigan rushed past her, leaving the others to handle the guards. A quick scan of the room revealed her Uncle, sitting behind her Father’s desk, in her Father’s chair, a fact that made her see red. She also saw Teran, propped casually against the wall as if waiting for something. The tableau was strange enough to make her hesitate, eyes shifting between Beridane and Teran.

When Beridane saw her, he glanced first at Teran, then grabbed a sword from the top of the desk and pulled himself from the chair. “So, the brat has finally arrived. Welcome home, niece.” The word hissed through his lips, full of derision.

“Uncle,” Mavigan said with a sneer.

Casting off her unease, she charged. The air rang with the metallic sound of steel on steel, and she found herself surprised that Beridane was more skilled than she had suspected. His reach with the sword was longer than hers with her daggers, but she was considerably more agile. He thrust, she twirled out of the way ramming her elbow into his gut as she went. He swiped, and she blocked with one hand while striking with the other. She smiled when she felt his nose break beneath her fist.

One purposeful thrust acompanied with the expected dodge, and he had her right where he wanted her – with her back to Teran.

“I see you are just as stupid as your father,” he hissed, hurrying to block a dagger thrust. He clicked his tongue in mock disappointment. “Turning your back on an assassin? Positively shameful.”

“Shut your vile mouth,” Mavigan replied, “before I take that hook you call a hand and shove it up your –“

Blades flashed and they danced again. “Is it wise, do you think, to turn your back on the same man who quietly slid his blade between the ribs of your mother, your father, and let us not forget, your dear big sister?”

Mavigan’s eyes flashed with fury. “You lie!”

“Do I?” he asked, the picture of innocence. “Why else would he be here with me when you arrived? Why else does he stand there calmly, refusing to come to your aid? I have paid him a lot of money to kill you. I daresay, he is awaiting his moment.” His smile contained entirely too many sharp teeth. “If you do not believe me, you need only look at the papers on my desk.”

Doubts began to bubble, and her concentration began to break. Her next strike was ill timed and lacked power.

Mavigan grit her teeth. “He stands there,” she hissed working hard to regain her focus, “because he knows I don’t need help!” The statement was punctuated by a swipe to his gut, which he easily blocked with his sword. The movement was sloppy, however, and she felt a sharp sting as Beridane raked the sharp point of his claw across her side.

Mavigan winced, and dropped to the ground, feigning a worse injury than she had actually received. As Beridane shifted to avoid tangling his feet in her limbs, she kicked upward. Her foot slammed home, and Beridane gave a pained grunt and dropped the floor like a rock. She scrambled away from him and quickly regained her feet.

Moving to the left, she stomped on his sword hand, and was satisfied to feel the bones break beneath her heel. Reaching down, she grabbed his sword and tossed it to the far side of the room. This was her moment, the time when she would finally avenge her family, and she planned to appreciate every moment.

But first, she would expose his words for what they were – lies.

Eyes still fastened on her groaning enemy, she swiped her hand across the desk and pulled the papers upward. At first, she cast them no more than a casual glance, but as horrifying details trickled into her mind, she took longer and longer looks, until she was no longer looking at Beridane at all. A sinking feeling developed in her chest, and the hand holding the papers trembled. She was vaguely aware of Beridane laughing with choked gasps.

When she could stand to read no more, she opened her hand and the papers drifted slowly to the ground. She turned haunted eyes to Teran. “Tell me he’s lying,” she begged.

Written by - Wilhelm

As Mavigan strode into the room her four comrades split apart as planned to take on the guards. Keeryn spun to the left to engage the guard to that side of the door as Sabbatine did the same to the right. The Raven ran quickly to the pair at the doorway in the left wall while Wilhelm did the same for the pair at the door in the right wall. Beridane sat behind the desk at the fourth wall, with drape-covered windows behind him. To the left of the drapes, a figure leaned casually against the wall.

Wilhelm was surprised to recognize Teran, whom he had not sensed inside the room. As he engaged the pair he remembered that Teran could conceal his heartfire. Hoping that Teran could keep Mavigan out of trouble, or that Keeryn or Sabbatine would quickly come to guard Mavigan's back, Wilhelm concentrated on his pair of skilled opponents. The All Father had been adamant that Mavigan must face her uncle alone. His will be done.

Wilhelm blocked a sword stroke from the left with his shield and parried a dagger thrust from the right with his warhammer. His foes were skilled and worked together as a team. He swung at the right-hand foe, forcing him to back up, then in a quick combo shield blocked and atacked left and as the warhammer was parried he shield bashed his lefthand foe, knocking him back.

Turning immediately to the right, he saw his foe was a mage by the incantation he was completing. Wilhelm called upon the Shield of Justice just in time for the glowing shield to block a dagger of flame that lanced towards him. Then it was his turn, as he cast his Censure at the foe, only to see the pillar of Holy Fire deflected in turn by the mage's defenses.

"All Father grant me your aid!" he called within.

"GRANTED!"

Wilhelm felt divine power flood into him. His eyes glowed white and he seemed to grow a foot as a nimbus of divine power enveloped him.

"Avatar! Watch out!" cried the mage, jumping back.

The warrior on the left jumped in with a flurry of attacks, and finally the fourth blow slid past the shield and drew blood. The warrior's grin faded as he saw Wilhelm's wound heal almost instantly. Wilhelm returned the flurry, finally driving him into the wall with a hammer blow, followed by a shield bash topin his weapon and then a crashing hammer blow driven by divine strength crushed his helmet. As the foe sank, Wilhelm turned back to the Mage, whose attacks had failed to penetrate the God-strengthened Shield of Justice. A series of attacks were exchanged, each trying to penetrate the other's defense.

In glances during combat, Wilhelm saw Mavigan finally get the best of her Uncle. The fury of the exchange with the Mage kept him from following their discussion, but Mavigan seemed to be winning.

Written by - Ardwen

Ardwen nodded his head at Ariana’s orders; he caught her implied apology, and it went far to easing the elf’s troubled mind. But, while the bladeweaver listened with his ears, his eyes were fastened to the object secured at Ariana’s side where the mace she had secreted from the hidden chamber used to rest. There was still a mace there, but it was a different one, and as Ardwen gazed at it a cold chill that made a mockery of the winter Elerus had conjured crept up his spine. It was Ariana’s mace, her old mace, the mace. During his time in the Hands, Ardwen had seen Ariana wear her mace at various functions, both formal and informal, occasionally she would even show up for weapons training – Ardwen thought the thing a symbol of office until he had seen she had considerable skill with the weapon.

However, it was not Ariana’s talent with the weapon that caused him to clear his throat and shift his weight from foot to foot. There had been legends that circulated through the barrack houses, and the abbey itself, legends regarding the mace. Some were patently ridiculous, wild stories that claimed that the mace gave Ariana the ability to fly, move through walls, and turn invisible – the better to spy on catechist shirking their duties. The stories that Ardwen gave weight to were the ones that stated that the mace really was a method of authority, in the most literal sense. Whispered yarns cautioned that just a touch from the mace could make a person bend to the wielder’s will. To further corroborate these tales, Ardwen had heard officers in the Hands flippantly blame additional work on getting “maced”.

Ardwen shook his head to clear his thoughts, and saw that Ariana and Elerus were staring at him. “Yes,” Ardwen said hastily to hide the pause created by his mind being in the clouds. “I’ll have the prisoners released and en route to their proper destinations at once.” Ardwen saw Ariana nod, but Elerus still regarded him with a half-raised eyebrow. Ardwen cleared his throat again and said, “About earlier, please, don’t concern yourself about it; I’m sure you’ve been through a lot, Ariana. Just . . . if you need something, by all means simply tell me. Just tell me, that’s all that is needed, nothing more and nothing less.” Casting one last fleeting look at the mace, Ardwen walked down the stairs and deeper into the prison, but as soon as he was out of sight the warrior moved the back of his hand across his forehead and let out a long sigh.

Elerus watched Ardwen depart, his friends stride lengthening as he walked further and further away. He had no doubts that the elven warrior had acted strangely, but the only thing that had changed recently was Ariana’s arrival. Elerus cupped his chin with a hand and let out a soft hmm. It was obvious to him now that he thought about it, Ariana’s comment when they met clearly showed that she had overheard some of what they were talking about. Ardwen was probably embarrassed at the thought that his Abbess had heard him displaying emotion. Elerus chuckled softly, Ardwen had always been shy around those of the opposite gender, yet he also prided himself on maintaining a cool and calm exterior.

The winged child thought Ardwen’s behavior slightly absurd, but he had always been like that. Elerus turned his pale blue eyes to Ariana and smiled slightly, bobbing his head in agreement. “I’d be glad to help you out, Ariana. I’m sure these people need our—“ Elerus stopped speaking midsentence and suddenly moved much closer to the leader of the Hands, almost bumping into her. “Wow!” Elerus said in a rush . “Look at the rune work! This is from home; I recognized the sigils . . . I think.” Elerus paused again, but this time his eyes gazed straight up at Ariana. The young elf had a puzzled look on his face, he tilted his head back one way, and then the next, a lock of white hair matched the metronome of his movement. Elerus didn’t realize he was moving much like an actual child, curious at their first sight of something, would have; his thoughts were elsewhere. Ardwen had studied this same mace several times before leaving, and as Elerus regarded it again he was certain it was a different mace than the one he had seen her with earlier.

Ariana’s other mace had no runework inscribed into it, nor had it attracted Ardwen’s attention. A memory popped into Elerus’s mind, a memory of some of the first words Ardwen’s Abbess had said after her healing: she had asked for her mace. “Oh,” Elerus said, his voice soft with the tone of epiphany, “is this the mace you wanted earlier?”

Written by - Ariana

“Yes,” she said, placing a guiding hand on his shoulder and moving them both up the stairs towards the infirmary. “This is my mace. I did tell you it was distinctive.” She paused a moment before adding, “The jailors here were kind enough to keep it in a safe place for me until I could return to claim it.”

An image of a dank, dark cell and rough hands flashed into her mind. Her pace faltered for a brief second and she shook her head as if to clear it.

Blinking several times, she quickly regained her composure. Looking down at Elerus, she flashed him a grin that was almost mischievous. “Ardwen certainly seemed interested in it, didn’t he?”

Reaching the infirmary, Ariana grabbed a large basket from the floor and upended it. Bloody linens tumbled out and onto the floor. This basket she handed to Elerus, and then she upended another. The second hamper she placed on a cot.

In rapid succession, Ariana ransacked the cupboards and storage bins of the infirmary. Elerus’s basket quickly filled with clean bandages, while bottles and jars of ointments of salves went into the bin resting on the cot. When Ariana was satisfied she had gathered every useful item she could, she hefted her own load of supplies. The glass and pottery inside rattled musically with the movement.

“You ready?”

Written by - Ardwen

“Ready.” Elerus said as he shifted the weight in his basket again. He had managed to balance the container by placing both hands beneath it and leaning it back against his chest. The little elf was embarrassed that he had so much trouble carrying the load; Ariana had spared no expense filling the basket. Elerus grimaced as he realized just how unused to the new state of his body he was. As the two begin walking from the infirmary, Elerus following behind Ardwen’s Abbess, the young elf began speaking, “I don’t understand though, Ardwen kept looking at it like it was an Irekei about to punch him in the face. Why is the mace special? Why would Ardwen care? How did you get it? I mean, runeworking and sigils . . . . ”

Elerus drew his wing in close and blushed, though he was certain Ariana could not see him. The sudden realization that he had launched a barrage of questions like an impatient youth struck him. “Of course,” Elerus blurted to cover his shame, “my interest is purely academic. Ardwen’s capability to replicate weaponry only applies to bladed implements of war, so his interest in a mace is unique. That was an impressive from him earlier, right?” No sooner had Elerus closed his mouth than he recalled Ariana’s shock at seeing Ardwen rush forward into a regiment of armed men and whirl blades through the air. The small elf shifted the basket he was carrying, more to distract himself from the thought that he had said too much than to adjust the supplies within.

Ardwen clutched the keys he had retrieved from the guard’s corpse. His mind kept traveling back to the mace at Ariana’s side and its implications. It was obvious that Beridane had imprisoned his Abbess here earlier, and Ardwen toyed with the pleasurable idea of finding her personal jailors and seeing how much of Kishijo’s lessons on torture he remembered. At the very least, the elven warrior imagined that the lesson on staking someone with their own femur would prove amusing. The idea, however distracting, failed to remove Ardwen completely from his thoughts on Ariana. As the warrior continued to mull over the situation, a pinprick of insight formed in his mind. His Abbess had recovered her mace, and in the same instant she had started issuing orders again, reasonable orders, reassuring orders.

The former Hand found the change infinitely to his liking; he had never been one for leading. Time and experience had forced him to play that role several times, and he had found it left a bitter aftertaste after each experience. Perhaps, he thought, Ariana’s recovery of her mace signified that she was accepting her position as Abbess again, ready to bear her people to a bright tomorrow. The thought seemed a little too optimistic for Ardwen’s tastes, and as the elf reached the landing to the lower section of the prison he banished thoughts of the mace from his head. Whatever it mean, Ariana had given him a mission, something clear and precise, another welcome change from the muddled confusion he had been subjected to after arriving in Westgale.

As Ardwen’s eyes adjusted to the dimmer lighting on the lower level he could see that the second floor of the dungeon was clearly larger. It was the smell that swept over him first. The rank odor of sweat and dirt mixed with other, fouler scents to form a vile miasma. Ardwen crinkled his nose and walked out into the corridor that ran in between row upon row of cells. They were, so far as prisons went, fairly open, with nothing but the bars of the cells themselves separating each cell from the next, and within each were a startling number of people. Ardwen counted children as well as men and women. At the sight of him, the children began crying, and the women started calling out to comfort them. Some of the men stood up and stared daggers at him, others simply remained slumped in the corner, their faces turned to the stone floor.

The elf looked prisoners again, something tickling the back of his mind as out of place. His eyes narrowed in confusion as he realized the cells were separated by age and gender, children in one compartment, and their parents in another. Ardwen’s thoughts were broken as one of the prisoners, a young man with long black hair, shouted at him, “So you’re the scum they sent down to gather us up?” The man paused to spit and continued, “I hope you burn in hell, you fuc—“

“Restrain yourself,” Ardwen said, moving a hand to his hair to brush it out of the way of an ear so the stranger could see the distinctly pointed shape. “There are woman and children present, I suggest you show some decorum. The guards of this prisoner are dead, and I’m here under orders to get you out of here.” The man’s mouth hung open in response; Ardwen walked over to his cell and slid the key into the lock. “What’s your name?”

“Manuel.” The man intoned dumbly as Ardwen twisted the key and unlocked the cell.

“Ardwen.” The elf replied as he swung open the door. “If I’m not far from the mark, I’d say you’ve got a military background.”

Manuel nodded and said, “I served under Pallanon as a forlorn hope, I’d still be serving under him if not for the spineless bastard sitting on his throne. The elves have my thanks for their timely aid; Beridane had us marked for death this evening.”

“I know,” Ardwen said, “but I’m not here at the behest of Ithramir, I am here because my Abbess bid me be here.”

Ardwen took as step back as Manuel tried to say something, but choked on the attempt, making a rasping gurgle. The man’s hands went up in front of him, and when he finally managed to speak with voice was charged with awe, “Wait, you said Ardwen? Abbess? The Ardwen, of the Hands of Providence?”

It was Ardwen’s turn to look shocked now, and the warrior replied slowly, “How do you know of me?”

The self-proclaimed forlorn hope stumbled over a few words before dashing out, “I’ve read of you, your deeds, and the sect of battle. You’re a bloody inspiration to us siege experts.”

Ardwen blinked, slowly. The elf blinked again. “Honored,” he said finally. “I had no . . . who writes this kind of stuff down?” Manuel opened his mouth, obviously eager to reply, but Ardwen cut him off. “Later, we’ve got to get these people out of here before the entire garrison of Westgale rallies against us. You look hale enough to help, so listen closely. I want all the able bodied men to take the wounded that can still walk upstairs, make sure these people don’t need any immediate medical attention – we just need to get them out of here. Have those who can still fight arm themselves, and lead them out and away from the prison, hide, run, whatever they’ve got to do. Women and children last, they’ll have to go unarmed and I won’t risk them being caught in the open.”

Manuel gave a crisp salute, turned around, and started barking orders to his fellow cellmates in a crisp parade ground voice. In the meantime, Ardwen went from cell to cell and unlocked each as quickly as he could. The elf’s progress was somewhat slowed as he removed the locks on the women and children. Families rushed together in tearful embraces, and the sound of relieved weeping and unbelieving sobbing set in as the realization that they might yet see another dawn settled in across the prisoners. Ardwen had to push his way through the growing throng, giving orders and helping move the critically wounded as he went. By the time the first group of wounded and able-bodied was assembled under Manuel, all the cells had been unlocked. Ardwen turned to the cramped confines of the prisoner now teeming with Westgalers and raised his voice above even Manuel’s, “I will return upstairs and help the first wave evacuate. In the meantime they’ll be a lady and a friend of mine to help treat the wounded.”

Cries of thanks swept through the crowd, but Ardwen quickly spun around to hide the blush forming on his face. It felt odd, after so long, to have people cheer his presence, to see them crying tears of joy instead of grief at what he had done. The elf closed his eyes, and drank in the moment; it somehow felt good, right. Sucking down a deep breath, Ardwen allowed himself to remember for an instant what it felt like to be a Hand before following the first group up the stairs.

Written by - Ariana

Ariana smiled to herself at the barrage of questions as they walked towards the stairs. Once there, they were literally engulfed in a sea of humanity and the din of many voices. Conversation became impossible as they worked their way down the stairs, Ariana working hard to keep Elerus within her sight. Shifting the weight of her own basket, she readied one hand to catch him should he stumble.

“Make a hole!” she shouted. “Coming down!”

Most of the prisoners did their best to get out of her way, but with so many people crowding the stairwell, there was little room to maneuver. Through sheer perseverance, the two reached the landing of the prison, and Ariana directed Elerus to place his basket down next to hers.

“These baskets contain medical supplies,” she said, addressing those not included in the first wave of evacuation. Noting it was mostly women and children, she added, “If anyone has first aid experience, feel free to use these supplies to tend to the wounded. My friend and I will tend to those with more serious wounds.” A few women parted from the crowd and moved towards the baskets.

The critically wounded had been lined up in two of the largest cells. Ariana squatted in front of the baskets and pulled out the various implements she needed and signaled to Elerus to grab a handful of bandages. They moved quickly to their first patient.

Elerus proved to be an invaluable assistant, and in most cases was able to hand Ariana what she needed before she even asked. He seemed tense, however, his wing folded close to his body as if he was trying to hide it. As her hands moved automatically across torn flesh, she scanned the area looking for the cause of his distress.

Many haunted eyes drilled into them both, and she gave herself a mental kick for not realizing it earlier. She was used to being an object of interest, and sometimes even scorn. She no longer noticed people staring, but it was obviously making Elerus uncomfortable.

As they settled over the next patient, she said, “Elerus, you asked me some questions. Well, I –“

She stopped herself in mid-sentence at the sudden hush. Her brow furrowed with thought for a moment, and she glanced round the area once more. These people needed comfort, and a distraction for the children would not be remiss.

A small smile crossed her lips.

“Once upon a time,” she began, “there was a Crusader of the All-Father who met and fell in love with a Druidess of Brialla. They married despite opposition, and were very happy.”

“One night, Pandarion came to Cael in a dream. ‘You have done well,’ he said, ‘and Brialla and I are pleased. We bless this union. You shall have two daughters.’ He continued. ‘The first-born shall be placed upon My altar at her birth and dedicated to My service, for she shall unite all people.’

‘The second-born shall be taken to the sacred grove and dedicated to the service of Brialla, for she shall preserve the old ways.’

“Cael was very excited when he woke up the next morning and told his wife Aisling. ‘We must provide something special to our daughters,’ he said, ‘something that will support them in their destinies. I will create something for our first-born,’ he added, ‘and you shall create something for the second.’

"Aisling wholeheartedly agreed, and left soon thereafter to consult the Council of Elders. Cael turned his efforts onto his anvil. He worked night and day for several weeks, using only the finest metals bought from his dwarven friends. At the end of his labors, he had a mace, well-crafted and sturdy.

"Though he was proud of what he had done, it still did not seem enough. Surely his daughter, chosen of the All-Father would need more than just a strong weapon? He thought about the problem for a good long while, until he hit upon an idea.

"Saddling his horse he traveled to the land of his friends the Centaurs. ‘Brothers of the faith,’ he exclaimed, ‘what gift would you give my daughter, the chosen of Pandarion, Uniter of people?’

"The centaurs took the mace from him and labored for a week to engrave their magical symbols into the metal. When they returned it to Cael, they said, ‘To your daughter we give the gift of strength, for she will bear the burdens of many.’

"Next, Cael rode to the land of the Elves. ‘Brothers of the faith,’ he said again, ‘what gift would you give my daughter, the chosen of Pandarion, Uniter of people?’

"The elves took the mace from him and labored for two weeks. They, too engraved their magical sigils into the metal. When they returned it to Cael, they said, ‘To your daughter we give the gift of intelligence, for she will lead the faithful.’

"Delighted, Cael then rode to the land of the Humans. 'Brothers of the faith,’ he implored, ‘what gift would you give my daughter, the chosen of the All-Father, Uniter of people?’

"The humans took the mace from him and labored for three weeks to embed their mystical symbols deep into the metal. When they returned it to Cael, they said, ‘To your daughter we give the gift of wisdom, for she will distinguish truth from lies.’

"By then Cael knew his daughter would be well protected for whatever destiny lay ahead, but there was still one more place to visit. He left the humans and rode to the land of the Dwarves. ‘Brothers of the faith,’ he said, ‘what gift would you give my daughter, the chosen of the All-father, Uniter of people?’

"The dwarves took the mace from him and labored for four weeks to embed their magical runes into the metal. When they returned it to Cael, they said, ‘To your daughter we give the gift of will, for she will be as steadfast as the mountains, and all before her shall bend.’

"Cael returned to his home, and when the child was finally born, she was placed upon the altar of the All-Father as directed. They pricked her tiny finger, and small spot of blood was placed on the hilt of the mace, forever binding it to her."

By now, the audience had grown to nearly everyone within hearing distance. The children had lost their shyness and were now sitting close by, rapt with attention. One brave child voiced a question. “Please Miss,” he said timidly, “what was the name of the baby?”

Another child popped him on the arm. “Stupid,” he said. “She’s talkin’ bout Saint Ariana Trueblood.”

“Nuh uh!” replied the first child. “I’ve heard all the stories ‘bout her, and that ain’t one of them.”

Several other children and a few adults joined the good-natured debate, and as Elerus and Ariana faced one another over the prone body of their last patient, she looked at Elerus and winked. In a low voice designed to not be overheard she said, “If you want to know why Ardwen is terrified, you will have to ask him yourself.” She shot him a sly smile, "And maybe you can tell me when Ardwen began using magic?"

Written by - Ardwen

Elerus tried his best to anticipate Ariana’s needs as she worked to mend and patch the wounded. Even calling upon his knowledge of field dressing though, the child was clearly impressed with Ariana’s knowledge and skill when it came to the mundane methods of healing. The young elf had seen all too often healers who came to rely on their god's healing spells, and thus came to neglect and scorn the “barbaric” practices of medicine. Yet, Elerus could not shake the feeling of eyes boring into him, and the little elf could sense all the sets of eyes observing him; he knew they were not watching to observe Ariana’s skill in healing.

The winged child tried to keep a low profile, but it was an impossible task and as they moved a knot of children followed them. “Why’s she got a little kid helpin’ her?” Elerus heard, and the little elf tossed a glance in the direction of the voice to see a child had asked the question – the boy still looked older than he. The pain of being defeated so easily outside earlier coupled with the whispers set Elerus on edge, and he sighed as feelings of insecurity battered at him. Perhaps Ariana noticed the change, at one point she had to take a roll of gauze from his hands as he was distracted with his own thoughts. As they moved to the next patient, Elerus saw Ariana take a look around, her hands paused in their work for but a moment, and then she smiled.

The Abbess of the Hands prefaced her story like a fairy tale, and Elerus found himself completely enraptured by the story. As her recounting of the creation of the mace at her side wore on, she had to reach into Elerus’s basket more than once to pull out some needed piece of medical supplies. The winged child had to fight the urge to sit close to her and simply listen, as her story covered all the races of his broken world, it almost seemed too fantastic to believe. Indeed, Elerus might have thought just that, Ariana was making up a story to entertain those around. Yet, the story had an air of verisimilitude, an ease of recital as if the story was once told to Ariana herself, and then there was the mace itself as final proof of the account’s veracity.

As Ariana finished, Elerus redoubled his efforts to help, but he kept turning the story over and over again in his mind, trying to digest it. Ariana’s mace was a symbol of all the faithful of the shattered world: men, elves, dwarves, and the horselords of the open plains. Elerus too had encountered the various races of their home realm at one time or another, but the stories Ardwen and he had about them were almost always ones of war or refuge. The Elven Empire had a voracious appetite for land, wealth, and power; it was war that helped feed that hunger. Outcasts who had fought both for and against the Empire, Elerus and Ardwen had never quite been able to escape its grasp, and even in its waning years in the War of Tears the Elven Empire casted a long shadow. The little boy hoped that Ariana would be content to tell her story, but Elerus could already feel the question latent in the air, and she asked it. Ariana wanted to know about Ardwen, where he got his abilities.

At first Elerus did not answer, and the boy and Abbess moved to the next hurt soul in silence. Finally though, as Ariana was working on bandaging another cut, Elerus started to speak.

“This story,” He began without preamble. “Is not once upon a time, it was before that. It was before time, before the seasons, before the sun, before fire and shadow and death. The All-Father and Brialla’s first children were called the Sidhe, and their children in turn were the elves. In those days the elves were mighty and many, and the gods walked amongst them, and taught them many things.”

Elerus paused to reach into his basket and hand Ariana a needle and thread, thankfully it was just to sow the gauze into place and not to stitch flesh, at least this time. Elerus continued his story, “But the elves noticed that each son was not as powerful as his father, not as glorious, for they were farther from the All-Father and Brialla. So the youngest elves became jealous of their parents and as they had children they feared their ambition and pride. It might have gone on forever as thus, but it was not fated to be, for a terrible beast awoke from beneath the earth, a scourge of the gods, and this beast was called the Dragon.”

The young elf passed his tongue over his lips and shuddered. Every elf, from highest to lowest, had been told stories of the Dragon, and all had learned to fear the demon that had nearly unmade the world. Even the All-Father and His companions had only been able to fight the beast to a stalemate, until it at last returned to slumber voluntarily, promising to awaken later and devour all He had wrought. “The All-Father and His friends managed to put the beast back under the earth, but too late. One of the gods was dead, and one of the moons burned from wyrmfire, and as there was no time the moon did not set or move in the sky. The earth withered under the newborn sun, and the elves, at last stirred to desperate action, cried out saying, ‘Look at what the Meddler was wrought, ruin upon the land and ruin upon us, let us go and reclaim what we have lost!’

“So those Highborn who felt their birthright taken from them by Pandarrion the All-Father made a council, a council of twelve. And the council worked in secret, for not all as yet had turned their backs to He who rules Heaven, and even more they feared the petty jealousy of their fellows. For the council sought a way to escape the judgment of Pandarrion, and restore the crown of godhead that they were not meant to wear. They tried again and again, experiment after experiment, and were met with failure after failure.”

Elerus paused here and sucked in a small breath of air, for he was now getting to the delicate part of his story. Yet, he could not hide his feelings entirely, as he prepared to speak his wing dipped to the ground, and his voice became softer. “They began to despair, for they saw all their efforts come to naught, until at last a stranger came amongst them. The twelve did not know who he was, but they welcomed his wise council and knowledge, and their number became thirteen. And the stranger spoke unto them and said, ‘You cannot gain without loss, cannot create without destroying. The Archons of the Father you envy, you must pour their might into your vessels to match them.’

“The council marveled at his words, and an idea came upon them. They took the blade of the first Emperor, who we call Gilliandor Ellestor. For Gilliandor had died when the Dragon slew him, and his blade had passed to none as his bloodline had died with him. Yet the sword was mighty, a gift from the All-Father to his child, for Gilliandor was a Sidhe. They took this sacred sword, and they destroyed it. For it was not the blade they wanted, but its essence, its divine anima. And this essence they split in two . . . .”

Elerus trailed off here and swallowed the lump that had formed in his throat. The young elf felt a knot in his stomach, and his eyes gazed at things distant and faraway. “One part,” he said, “was able to bend ice and cold to its will, for Gilliandor had loved the winter and the north and those of his court were the Dar Khelegur, the High Icelords of old.” Elerus paused again, and the next words were almost painfully slow. “The other part was the heart of the blade, and it was this part that gave the sword its strength and form, its keen edge, and it was master of all blades in this save for Shadowbane.”

The winged child let out a small, shaking breath of air, like a man taking his first breath as his head crested deep water. “That’s a stupid story!” One of the children near Elerus said.

Elerus simply nodded his head and looked at the child, “I agree.” The boy had opened his mouth to say something else, but he closed it and scrunched his face, obviously not expecting the odd white-winged boy to have agreed with him. “It is a stupid story about stupid people.” Elerus continued. “Who thought they could play the parts of the gods, and they paid for their hubris.”

Another child, the one who had earlier asked the name of the baby in Ariana’s story said, “You’re weird, you talk funny, like my da’.”

He received another pop on the arm, and this time the child who did it rolled his eyes and said, “Geez, Davin, don’t you know anything? He’s an elf, and my dad said they live really, really, long. He’s probably lots older than you are—“

“No way!” Davin cut him off, “I’m bigger than he is!”

The boy performed another exaggerated eye roll and then rubbed the back of his head, trying to counter the other child's boast and not look the fool. The boy bit his lower lip in concentration, obviously attempting to come up with a real crushing number. Finally he threw his hands up in the air and said, “I dunno, really old, like at least twenty.”

Elerus felt his right eye twitch, he had been watching the little exchange with a detached sense of amusement, but the boy’s answer was just too much. The little elf tried to hold it in, but he couldn’t help himself: it started with a snicker, but within seconds Elerus was lying on his side and laughing so hard he had to hold his stomach.

Written by - Teran

Sabbatine hissed her approval after Mavigan made her most unusual promise. She hoped that he would taste similar to Mavigan herself... they were blood related after all. Such thoughts distracted her as both Mavigan and Keeryn strode into the room ahead of her and she quickly scrambled to get in, forgetting exactly where Wilhelm had told her to go but knew she wasn't supposed to go the same way Keeryn did.

The guard was experienced and despite the sudden entrance had already drawn his blade. Sabbatine leaped for the guard ferally, forgetting to draw her own weapons in the rush. She felt his blade pierce her armor and flesh and lodge somewhere deep within her but it was hardly a concern as she clawed and raked the guard frantically, overwhelming his defenses with brute ferocity. Sabbatine shrieked as she tore away his breast plate and ripped into his exposed throat.

She stood up and looked around before noticing the blade stabbed into her chest. She very awkwardly pulled it out and let it clatter to the ground. A clear fluid glistened on the portion of the blade that had pierced her flesh. She stood and examined the scene intently, not moving to assist anyone as her attention was fully focused on what she hoped would be her next meal, Beridane.

What happened next caught her off guard as Mavigan confronted Teran. She was only barely aware of what was being said as she fidgeted impatiently and licked her lips as she seemed to “sniff” the air, finding Beridane's scent among the others. She crouched and seemed ready to pounce but quickly recoiled and a look of brief shame and annoyance flashed on her face as she cocked her head as if listening to someone speak.

****

Teran had chosen his position in the room carefully. He did not want to be a distraction when the assault occurred, nor did he want to be mistaken for a guard should there be anyone in the party that did not recognize him. He spoke with Beridane in hushed tones deliberately extending the conversation he had with the fool hoping Mavigan would arrive before the ruler began to try his patience.

When the assault finally did arrive he admired Mavigan's sense of showmanship allowing Sabbatine to create such surprise with a violent and swift entry. Part of him admired how swiftly the guards managed to prepare a defense and suspected that if there had been double or triple their number Mavigan's party would have been stopped just inside the doorway for far more time than a man like Beridane would need to disappear. There weren't eight or twelve guards however and Mavigan was able to slip between them and attack Beridane directly and before they could intervene they were assaulted directly by those that followed.

He watched Mavigan's swordplay closely as a teacher would watch his best student. He admired her confidence but knew the traitor didn't wear a sword for decoration. The Assassin had never seen Beridane wield his blade but his choice in personal guard proved he had an eye for talent for there was no way a man as paranoid as him would allow another to choose who protected him... and there was always the matter of the previous assassination attempt that he had survived.

Teran remained motionless as the two fought near him, wearing a small scowl on his face making it obvious he would not intervene for either side. The thought of leaping in to aid Beridane was laughable and he found Mavigan's retort far closer to his true feelings as the pair battled but deep within him he knew he would not allow the Princess to fall and would leap in to help if Beridane were going to deliver a deathblow.

That realization surprised Teran as such an act would contradict the purpose of his actions until that point. He wanted to strengthen the people of the land and their leaders through conflict and tribulation and had slain Mavigan's family with the specific purpose of inciting a war. The night he had crept through the darkened corridors of the castle slaying the royal family he knew he would be setting something into motion that he would not be able to control.

He listened passively as Beridane betrayed his secret to Mavigan in a desperate attempt to distract her and felt true regret that she would discover his secret. He watched her feign as she was struck, pretending a blow was far worse than it had been and then skillfully exploit a gap in Beridane's defense, dropping him to the floor and crushing his remaining hand under her boot. He felt a sense of satisfaction as she ended the fight but knew it had been far too risky a gamble. An experienced, focused warrior often knows the difference between a flesh wound and a mortal wound when they strike and would exploit the brief opening in their opponents defense.

Teran watched her retrieve the paper from the desk and read it. He studied her every reaction and his sadness grew. He doubted the parchment contained evidence that would be so damning by itself that he could not exploit his relationship with Mavigan and claim it was false but he had always known she would find out about his secret eventually and he intended for it to be her final test before he departed her company. When she turned to look at him and begged him to deny the truth a look of sadness appeared on his face that he could not conceal.

“I murdered your family.” He said, choosing his words carefully and looking her square in the eye so that she would know truly that he was being honest.

If she doubted his word he was prepared to give details that Wilhelm and perhaps Mavigan could confirm, details only someone close to the family that night would know.

His blades appeared in his hands and then clattered to the ground, an obvious gesture of surrender. He stood before Mavigan defenseless and prepared to accept her judgment.

Written by - Ariana

His laughter was infectious; it poured out of him in great waves cleansing everyone it touched. Soon other children had joined in, followed by more than a few adults. The walls of the prison echoed with the laughter, a burning flame of hope in the darkness.

Ariana was caught up in the sudden release of tension, though her response was limited to a chuckle and smile. Once finished with her last patient, her eyes fixed upon Elerus, who was still rolling on the floor. The story he told replayed in her mind. The thoughts moved slowly at first, but then gained speed as she made more and more connections, pieces of information she had first thought disjointed, suddenly falling into place. Her gaze turned from Elerus to trace the wing on his back.

She nodded, as if affirming a decision, then climbed to her feet. “Elerus, dear,” she said firmly, her voice cutting through his laughter to gain his attention, “We are finished patching the severely wounded. I am going upstairs to check on Ardwen.” She paused for a moment. “Will you stay here and keep everyone entertained? Perhaps you could tell a few more stories? Or get them to tell you one.” She hoped he would catch her meaning. The fight to come would be easier if someone worked to keep the people in the prisons calm.

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