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Book Four Pt 2 - The Eastern Pass

Written by - Wilhelm Page 25 Book 4

As Wilhelm and Sabbatine slew their way into Beridane's soldiers, supported by Keeryn and the Raven, Wilhelm noted with his tracking sense that the other strike teams had managed to finally secure the front door, closing off further reinforcements, and were even now fighting their way towards them. The Captain of the King's Guard, clearly seeing something behind Wilhelm, suddenly ordered his men to jump back and then cried,

"Hold! Our task is over. Our charge is away. We surrender."

The Raven called out to his men,

"Hold! Stand down to accept their surrender."

As his men began to disarm the prisoners, with Sabbatine pleading with them to resist further so she could kill more of them, The Raven turned to Wilhelm and said,

"I can take care of matters here. I believe you are needed elsewhere."

The Raven pointed backwards, and as Wilhelm turned to scan the room behind them, he saw that Teran alone remained, standing by the desk, and a new hidden door had opened. His tracking sense showed Beridane running away into the city, with Mavigan in pursuit. Keeryn had heard the exchange behind her and ran over to Teran, menacing him with her spear, which Teran ignored. Speaking to Keeryn and the Raven, Wilhelm commanded,

"Hold the assassin under guard here, I'll run after Mavigan."

Leaving Teran and the other prisoners to Keeryn and the Raven and the strike teams, Wilhelm ran through the hidden passage in pursuit, following the heartfires in front of him. After a time he saw Mavigan's heartfire move away from Beridane's clear run towards the harbor. Beridane was now joined by a company of his Royal Guard, with growing numbers of Ironskane forces moving to the docks as well. Leaving Beridane to another day, Wilhelm followed Mavigan's path, coming eventually to the old Ancora Manor House.

Well it was that he slowed in respect, and that he wore armor, because he walked right into an invisible wall that flexed and then through him back off his feet to crash onto the ground. As he climbed to his feet he saw that the manor house and grounds were well maintained out to 20' from the walls, then the grounds were trashed and barren. Walking up to the dividing line he reached out and his hand found an invisible barrier from the ground to above his reach.

He ran around the entire manor house and the barrier had no opening. Coming to a halt where he had started, he settled himself to wait for Mavigan to emerge.

Written by - Ardwen

The sun was moving toward the horizon, and Elerus was finding it harder and harder to stay aloft. He was still soaring far above the ground, still searching for Ardwen, but thus far his every effort had proved futile. At first Elerus had scanned the nearby land from on high, traveling to the spots that he thought would appeal most to his old friend. Each time though, there had been only cold wind and emptiness to greet the little elf. Elerus snapped his back and forth to clear his thoughts, and looked around him once more. He let out a sigh, the warm air whipped white with ice and vapor as the strong winds tore the heat from his breath.

The winged child made his way to one of the first sites he had examined earlier, a rocky cliff that stood at the edge of a nearby mountain range. There were hundreds of such cliffs all around Westgale, the land was rocky and rough save for a plain around the city leading to the coast. Had Elerus bothered to finish the thought, he would have realized that Westgale’s prosperity grew from its prime location as a trade port on the coastline. But Elerus’s mind was elsewhere, with a few flaps of his snow-white wing the child settled down near the edge of the cliff. As the boy looked around he was reminded why he thought this place was so promising. A thick copse of trees lined the cliff save for the very end, where a single bold tree clung near the edge, its gnarled roots winding through the hard soil and its twisting branches reaching naked into the frigid air.

Elerus had thought the place would appeal to the dour mood Ardwen was likely in. Indeed, Ardwen had probably had the same thought and, wishing to avoid being found, had avoided the area. The little elf drew his knees near his chest and hugged them to preserve some warmth. While he had enjoyed cold weather since he was a child the first time, the wind on the precipice was relentless, and with a sharp growl Elerus’s stomach reminded him he had other concerns than the weather to consider. The young elf turned his head first left, then right, seeing only the empty tracks of wilderness far below him. He had been relying on finding Ardwen and quickly convincing him to return, but as the small elf’s strength failed him and the day wore on Elerus began to have more doubts than hopes about his simple plan.

A brisk and crisp wind whipped Elerus’s hair out to his left, the white locks fluttering like the edges of a tattered standard. Without realizing it Elerus let out a small “mmm” like a sulking child and hugged his knees closer. “Ardwen . . . Ariana.” He muttered before setting his forehead on the tops of his knees. A tiny sigh escape the silver-haired child’s lips and he said aloud and careless of those who heard him, “I miss you both.”

“Then return to her.” A voice called out from above, and Elerus jumped so hard in surprise that his legs kicked several small rocks off the edge of the crag. The small elf heard several wing flaps, single and slow, before something touched with a slight crunch onto the soil behind him and on the other side of the stunted tree. Elerus did not turn around to see who it was, there was no need.

“I will,” Elerus said to the air in front of him, “as soon as you agree to come with me.”

The little elf heard the soil crunch under measured footfalls, and he caught a brief glimpse of black cloth as Ardwen walked past him and stood at the edge of the precipice. Clouds moved in front of the sun, and the wind calmed as the ancient elf stood there in silence. “That,” he said suddenly. “I will not do. Ariana will want nothing to do with me, yet I do not blame her for that.”

Elerus’s mouth tugged downward and his wing dropped. “Why do you say that?” He said sadly.

Ardwen turned his head slightly, just enough for Elerus to see the long strands of hair that spilled down from his head to cover the sides of his face. “I’ve become a monster.” He said.

The little elf leapt to his feet, he pushed aside the nagging thought that wanted him to notice how much larger Ardwen was, to be intimidated. “You’re wrong!” Elerus said with fire in his voice. “That’s not the wing of a monster!”

The former Avari turned to face winged boy, he looked to his left, and ran his hand along the sable pinions of his wing. “Then what are they?” Ardwen said.

“Angel wings.” Elerus said confidently with a step forward.

To Elerus’s surprise Ardwen did not laugh, he merely turned his face toward the sinking sun and said, “I see. So tell me, as an angel, what should I fight for?” Ardwen’s voice increased in violence and force as he shouted, “What do angels dream of?” Silence passed between the two winged elves, the sun shot through the clouds and lit the rocks ruddy reds and oranges.

“To be human.” Elerus answered slowly, but quickening with each word as his confidence built. “To love and be loved in turn, to create and rise, falter yet endure, to taste of life and know that – even at its most bitter – it is sweeter than all the pelf of hell.” Elerus took another step forward and stretched his arms out to his side, his wing followed suit, framing his right side. “This new world, this jewel, it needs us Ardwen, and we need it. We could do it right this time, and find a better life for the both of us.”

Ardwen folded his wing close and turned his face to the ground. “Even if Ariana does not reject me for what I am, there is still the fact that I deceived her for years, I never told her the truth. How could I? How could she understand?”

Elerus dropped his arms, then he lifted his left hand up to the molten orb of the sun, he let his fingers play with the bright light, blocking out parts of it with his hand. “While she was tending the wounded in Westgale, she told me an interesting story. Care to hear it?” Ardwen said nothing, and Elerus took his silence as assent. Without preamble Elerus launched into the story, “There was a child, whose birth was ordained by the All-Father. This child was lain upon the altar of the Church and consecrated to His service from birth, and from that time forth the girl has been in the service of the All-Father.”

Ardwen’s brows forked down and his mouth gave a slight twist as he said, “Ariana . . . was an oblate?” Elerus nodded his head slowly in response. “But she – she never said anything to me,” Ardwen said in a whisper, “I thought she chose.” Ardwen’s head snapped up as if the ancient elf had been shocked, he looked at Elerus and said, “Did she tell you if she wanted to be a priestess or not?”

Elerus shook his head “no” in response and replied, “She veiled her story as it was, though it was transparent to the both of us.” Elerus gave a few moments for what he had said to sink in before he added, “Ardwen, come back with me. I know Ariana will understand. You used to tell me all the time how astonishing she was, and I’ve seen it for myself now. I know she will understand.”

The bladeweaver turned around again, facing the empty air beyond the edge of the rock ledge and said, “If I refuse?”

“Then, unfortunately, I’ll have to leave. I made a promise I would return to her, and I intend to keep my word.”

Ardwen spun around so rapidly that Elerus saw a few black feathers drift through the air before a strong gust of wind took them. The warrior did not say anything, the look on his face asked everything Elerus needed to know, the look of surprise and hurt at his revelation that he would leave.

The little elf sighed again and bowed his head. “I’m tired, Ardwen.” He said. “I’m tired of living a life of exile, of being a vagrant and a wanderer. I felt like I belong around her, like she wanted me with her. I don’t know if it’s anything more than the delusions of a hopeful soul, but my heart told me it was real, that’s good enough.”

“Nightfall,” Ardwen said, “we’ll leave at nightfall. I’ve trusted you with my life before old friend, and I’ll trust my salvation to you now.”

Elerus smiled softly and wiped a sudden tear of happiness from his eyes, “Thank you.” He muttered.

“First,” Ardwen continued, “we should rest, and I see no reason not to give Ariana some time to sort things out herself. Perhaps I don’t need to be hovering over her shoulder constantly, we’ll see.”

The two didn’t say anything further, but they sat down by the knotted, old tree that clung tenaciously to life and land. They sat down together, side by side, and passed the hours in talk and song until the sun dipped below the western rim.

Written by - Ardwen

“Ugh, damnit.” Manuel cursed as he directed another undermanned squad of militia to start moving the bodies of Beridane’s men. The human siege expert knew that they were the enemy, and based upon watching Ardwen fight earlier he had a pretty good idea of who had killed them, but he had not quite braced himself for the staggering toll. The smell of blood and death was thick in the air, and despite the unusual chill of the season for this time of year, black clouds of flies were already hovering over many of the bodies.

Manuel knew that if they didn’t get the corpses moved soon it would simply promote plague, which Westgale needed as much right now as it needed set on fire. The soldier of Westgale had been in too many campaigns were sloppy assaults against fortified walls had left a wide swath of dead that became a breeding ground for foul miasmas that caused all manner of illnesses. Manuel nodded as an elderly man approached him, wrapped in plain sackcloth with dour black underneath, the man couldn’t have been any more obviously a priest if he pissed holy water. “Another?” Manuel said curtly.

“I-I-“ the priest stumbled for words before holding out a small bundle wrapped in cloth flecked with dried blood. “Amazing . . . .” He finally managed to whisper.

Manuel took the bundle and nodded at the man, waving him off with his other hand. Carefully the forlorn hope unwrapped the bundle and let out a long, low whistle. Sure enough there was a collection of brooches inside, all adorned with finery and gilded with delicate leaf gold. Manuel could care less about the potential riches in his hand, he was more stunned by what the cloak clasps represented. In happier times the forlorn hope had pulled joint exercises with a few divisions from around Ironskane, and they had been all too happy to babble on about their ancient and revered customs.

Manuel knew, then, that one of those customs involved sending the leader of their elites into battle with finely decorated cloaks and broaches, both as a measure of prestige and because the fine metals and precious stones in them could make excellent focuses for minor protective spells to keep their investments alive. This was the fourth bundle Manuel had been brought since he started arranging the streets cleaned. The siege warrior looked up briefly from the prize in his hand to see two men lifting a corpse from the street. They had barely moved the dead body when its gut split open, revealing obviously where Ardwen had landed his killing blow. Manuel let loose a string of profanity at the men’s carelessness, before throwing his hands up in the air and saying, “Gods Ardwen, why didn’t you just shove razor wire down their throats, pull it out their asses, and floss them to death? Five quid says it’d have been less messy.”

Manuel felt a tap on his pauldron, and was just about to spin around and tell whoever it was that he was busy and if they didn’t want everyone coughing blood and covered in boils by this time next week then they’d best leave him be, when he noticed the slack jawed expressions on the two militiamen. The forlorn hope swallowed hard and turned around slowly, only to be confronted by the lady who had bested the demon that had bested the elf who had bested a god damned army. Manuel blinked once, slowly as he listened to her request. He felt his eyes go dry and he blinked again.

Then he sprang into action. Manuel snapped a quick salute and practically bellowed the words, “An honor my lady! You there, form up and sweep the streets in front of us, and if so much as one arrow gets though, take it in the chest for the lady or you’ll wish to hell you had. Now move morons!” Manuel felt his face growing hot even as he spoke, and he had to check his speech more than once not to slip back into the foul language that he had always been told not to use around ladies. Plus, while he was certain it was unlikely, the forlorn hope really didn’t want to find out if this Ariana had enough juice in her to make him her next pile of ash because he said ass instead of butt once too often.

“My lady?” Manuel inquired, lowering his tone and making his voice as smooth as he could. For good measure he took a spare clean cloak and draped it over his left arm and offered his arm to support her. He would have normally simply offered his arm, but after handling the dead and a few scraps getting out of the prison, his armor wasn’t exactly pristine anymore. Without further delay Manuel set off down the street, allowing the Abbess of the Hands to set the pace. Manuel was grateful that they were moving slowly and cautiously, perhaps the woman was tired, but the siege warrior used the opportunity to wrack his brain for what to say at various important sites and to delete as much bad language from the mental descriptions as possible.

“There,” Manuel said with a wave of his right arm to the side, “was the finest little taberna you could find west of the Dwarven Kingdoms. Ironskaners burned it down because the owner refused to serve ‘em after they started their purges of the followers of Tinorb.” Manuel left out the part where they had also killed the patron, he didn’t feel it necessary to depress Ariana anymore than recent events mandated. “More importantly,” he continued, “there’s a former guard tower near it that’s still standing. By guard tower I mean a fire-watch tower, it’s not built for defense, but what it is built for is height and view. So we’ll walk to the top and I’ll give you the grand tour by eye.”

True to the warrior’s word, there was a tall, slender, tower near a pile of charred timber and soot that Ariana imagined must have been the remains of the renowned inn he had spoken of earlier. The tower was boarded up – Beridane had obviously not cared to spend extra money maintaining a watch to ensure Westgale did not catch flame – but a few strikes of a pole axe and some harsh words had the entry cleared in no time. Passing through, Manuel patiently guided Ariana up the steps one by one, stepping in time with her. The two did not synchronize their gait well, and eventually Ariana looked at Manuel as if to say he could actually lift his legs and hurry without worrying about her withering like a flower. To his credit, Manuel took the hint and the two practically flew up the stairs, Ariana’s simple glance ensuring they actually made it to the top in time to have daylight to see by.

Once at the pinnacle of the tower, Manuel took a moment to catch his breath before removing the spare cloak from his arm and laying it over one of the tower crenulations to give the Lady of the Hands somewhere clean to sit. “Alright,” Manuel said at last, “let’s start. First and foremost are the docks of the city.” The forlorn hope waved a hand vaguely to the west, the docks were blindingly obvious for anyone with eyes to see. A vast warren of wharfs, warehouses, and all manner of ancillary structures crammed the waterfront. Even now, with Westgale in sharp decline under the Tyrant’s foot, the docks retained a semblance of their former selves. While most of the ships in the harbor flew the colors of Ironskane, the district was at least busy, even as the two watched a large barge heaved next to one of the wharves and within minutes crates of supplies and All-Father-knew-what-else were being unloaded.

“Now,” Manuel continued in an even tone, “many here’ll tell you that the lifeblood of this city are its churches, or its armies, or its schools, or whatever. Now, begging pardon lady that while the churches are all very nice and all praise to the Father, the docks are the real heart of the city. Its pulses keep the blood of Westgale flowin’: grain, wine, rope, pitch, vellum, cut stone and timber, soldiers and artisans, diplomats – look – you name it and it passes through the docks at one point or another. Without her harbor, Westgale’d just be another hamlet on the road.”

Manuel paused to suck in a few breaths of air before speaking again, “Beridane knows that. You see the district right adjacent to the dockyards? All those pretty roofs and carved stones are the guilds and merchant houses that do the money counting part of the trade work, and before it was quarantined it also hosted the Great Market. Everything that comes into the docks needs to go somewhere, and it needs sorting, shipping, and taxed. It’s those buildings and people that do it. Beridane’s not let a single native born Westgaler in there who hasn’t sworn public loyalty to him, he knows the value of all that trade. No one knows what he’s doing with the cash, it’s a king’s ransom to be sure, but most think he’s using it to bolster his armies with mercenaries and fancy kit, or he’s using it to build a navy that could not only crush Westgale’s at her height, but land a sea invasion of the elven lands to the south. Sorry your Abbess, but that’s all I know about that.”

Manuel coughed and squinted his eyes, he removed his gauntlets and stretched out his fingers, then rubbed the back of his unkempt hair. “Well, now . . .” he said slowly, “that building toward the center of the city, in the Ancora district as it’s known to most locales, that’s the largest church in the city – the Holy Wisdom. I used to go there for services when I was no bigger than that little elf what was clinging to you earlier. Ah, you probably can see that the cathedral’s been added onto over the years, king Pallanon himself – All-Father rest his noble soul – made a generous donation to it when his reign first began. Now, according to legend the whole thing started as a small abbey founded by Saint Ari—“

The forlorn hope stopped talking and placed a palm to his forehead, “Right then,” he muttered, “movin’ on.” The human soldier gestured toward the north of the fabled cathedral and spoke again, “That’s the royal district, properly known as Whitecandle, it’s where most of the nobles live – or lived before Beridane filled it with his own brand of scum. The royal palace is there, you can see it clearly, though with all the damn ‘Skaner colors covering it it looks half of what it used to. See, the real interesting part of that warren is the Manor House. They say no one can go in, and no one can leave. Which never made any sense to me, if no one goes in then of course no one leaves. Now, I know the legends that say that it was built by the Hands when they first came through, but I’m not sure if I put in stalk in that – how can I? I’ve only been near it twice in my life and I’ve never been inside! You probably know more about it than I do, Ariana.”

Manuel actually employed the Abbess’s real name before turning to his final explication. “Those,” he said softly, “are the slums. Yes, even Westgale has its poor districts, although I’ll swear on the Book of Staves that they were much smaller in Pallanon’s time, and the good king took extra care to keep them clean and manned with the watch. Being poor in the old Westgale simply meant you earned an honest living. This might sound stuck-up, but I’d never seen a homeless man until I went on a tour to Shrikefield – not that I’m saying bad things about King Graelor, that’s just the way it is. I came from the old slums, or as we called it the Westward. It’s a shame to see them so crowded now, people’re living in shanties set up against one another, and Beridane’s watch only goes through to beat and arrest. That’s where I got caught, smuggling bread in from the fat merchants who’ve kneeled to the Usurper. Had I not been thrown into jail to be executed with the rest, the penalty would have been death on the spot – as it turns out that was a lucky break on my part, eh?”

The human warrior paused once more, letting his words sink in and feeling bad as he watched Ariana seem to slump, “Now,” Manuel said kindly, “don’t let me get you down. The fact that Westgale has survived at all is a miracle and rings of a founding legacy both noble and grand. I’ve seen cities under siege before, and the Usurper could not have done a better job trying to kill this place than if he ringed it with soldiers and salted the earth. But Westgale is tough, and we Westgalers match her, we’ll pull through – especially now that you and your friends are here. See here, I wasn’t going to show you this as I didn’t think it was important, but . . . .”

Manuel trailed off and crouched next to Ariana, he pointed straight behind the lady, who turned to look. At first, she could see nothing, but as Manuel guided her by referring to the surrounding structures, she saw the old remains of a stone gatehouse, the kind usually found in the outer ring of a city’s defensive wall. Manuel chuckled and said, “When I wasn’t receiving service from the Holy Wisdom I was playing around that old chunk of wall. Doesn’t look like much, does it? Aye, well, that’s part of the original wall that surrounded Westgale, built sometime around her founding. Anyhow, as you can see the city had grown all around it like a rock in a stream, it was preserved as a way of reminding everyone who looked at it of not just how far we’d come, but of the struggles and endurance of our ancestors. As the city kept getting bigger and the population kept growing, we’ve had to tear down the surrounding curtain walls and rebuild them farther out to make room. My lady, since the founding of the city, we’ve had to do this three times. Westgale’s roots run deep, and while she might wither a little on the edges now, I have faith that she’ll bloom again soon enough.”

Manuel finished his speech and leaned against the crenellation opposite from Ariana, curious to see what she thought or if she had any questions.

Written by - Ariana

Ariana listened quietly as Manuel pointed out the sections of the city from their place atop the tower. As he directed her attention to one area or the other, she couldn’t help but compare the existing city to what she remembered. Modest sized buildings made of stone that gleamed with a rich patina were replaced by long stretches of charred earth. Once clean streets were filled with trash, and to Ariana’s sympathetic gaze the once noble city seemed old, tired, and decrepit.

Melancholy overtook her and she slumped in dejection. This was the second time she had witnessed the destruction of all her efforts at creation, and she could not help but wonder why she bothered. Why build anything if it was all destined for obliteration? Sitting there surveying the ruins of a once great city, Ariana wondered how many more times she could stand having her heart broken.

Manuel must have detected her despair, for he did his best to offer her comfort with his words. She looked first at him, then stood and peered down at the busy people in the street below. Word that Saint Ariana Trueblood had returned was spreading through Westgale like wildfire, and the crowds were growing. Even as they took care of the grisly work at hand they were singing praises to Tinorb, and the atmosphere was quickly growing festive.

A small smile worked its way onto Ariana’s face. If the people of Westgale still had hope for the future and were determined to rebuild, then she had no business wallowing in self-pity and despair.

She looked up and smiled at Manuel. “Let’s go to the Whitecandle district,” she said.

Manuel gave a crisp salute and replaced the clean cloak over his arm. “As you wish, lady.”

They descended the staircase in a pace that was quicker than the one they had used to ascend only to be greeted by a mass of people. Ariana found herself on the receiving end of any number of bows and gestures of respect, but she was pleased to find that no one was kneeling. At least, they were not kneeling where she could see them.

Manuel allowed the thronging of the Abbess for only a few moments before he began barking out more orders. “Give the Lady room, for Tinorb’s sake! You, continue to clean up this mess! You, form an honor guard!”

The crowd and militia quickly complied, and when the two started walking towards the Whitecandle district, Ariana was nearly surrounded by a protective wall of armed men. The remaining crowd was quick to follow in their wake, and it wasn’t long before her wish to visit her family home turned into a major procession.

As they walked, still more people joined the parade, and Ariana could hear voices raised in song and happy laughter. Once a few bards joined the procession, the songs had instrumental accompaniment, and when she turned her head to look behind her, she saw that many people were dancing their way down the street.

Facing forward, she said, “Manuel, you mentioned the names of a couple of kings I did not recognize. Would you mind filling me in on the royal lineage?”

Manuel was trying to keep his alert eyes everywhere at once – watching for danger, keeping tabs that his men were doing their duties, and ensuring the large crowd didn’t trample any of the children that were darting back forth. Her question took a moment to penetrate, but when it did, he launched into more history.

“Well, as I understand it, the first Mavigan had a son named Acaenyd. He married in turn and had three sons.

“Beridane you’ve already heard about seeing as he is responsible for this mess. Graelor inherited the Shrikefield which is to the south, and Pallanon got to rule Westgale. Pallanon married an elf lady named Jaedda and they had two children: Etewen and Mavigan.

“Beridane had Pallanon and his family killed, but he missed the youngest Mavigan. I’ve heard she was taken to the elf lands to be protected until Beridane is defeated and they can put her on the throne.” Manuel leaned in close to Ariana and said in a softer tone, “No offense Ariana as I realize she is your kin and all, but I’ve heard the second Mavigan is a real brat. You might have your hands full.”

Ariana giggled at his comment. “She can’t be any worse than the first Mavigan,” she said with a smile, remembering how much her daughter had loved mischief.

The procession reached the front lawn of the palace, and people were spreading out. Ariana continued walking towards the Manor House. As she approached she could see a lone man sitting outside it. The closer she got, the more she felt a sense of familiarity, and when she got a good glimpse of red hair and a very distinctive warhammer, her voice rang out in greeting.

“Wilhelm!” she shouted happily. When the man stood up, however, she began detecting subtle differences between what she was seeing and what she remembered. “You…” she started uncertainly as the man began to walk towards them, “You…you’ve shrunk,” she finished lamely.

Written by - Ariana

There was a palpable sense of displacement Mavigan likened to the slow and sticky feeling of honey. It was gone in an instant, however, and Mavigan planted both feet firmly on what she thought was a new world.

Curious and excited eyes surveyed her surroundings. Her brow furrowed with confusion. She had purposefully walked through the portal the moment an appealing image of wide grassy plains had appeared, but instead of a large expanse of wildflowers she was standing on the cobbled terrace of a highly sculpted garden. Stone and marble were used lavishly in its construction; statues, benches, braziers, pillars, and staircases had all been crafted in the hard stones.

The earthy feel of the place was compounded by all the green. Plants of all shapes, sizes and varieties filled the garden; vines twisted their roots around tall pillars, flowers in full bloom sprouted majestically from artfully placed planters, and even the statues showcased greenery of some type.

Mavigan would have thought she had stepped into some fantasy garden if it hadn’t been for the small fact that some of the statues and planters were hanging upside down. As she studied it further, she noted other oddities – staircases that defied natural law and seemed to lead into nothingness, braziers hanging in mid-air, a bird that unless her eyes were faulty was flying backwards.

“This ain’t right,” she declared. She turned to go back through the portal and try again. Maybe she would land on a world that made sense the second go round.

“That won’t do any good,” said a female voice.

Mavigan immediately dropped into a defense posture and unsheathed her daggers.

“You could leave and retry the portal, but each time you would only end up here.” The owner of the voice dropped from a staircase overhead to land in front of Mavigan.

Mavigan growled when she noted the identity of the speaker. Though the clothes were different, instead of the usual robes she was depicted in, the woman was dressed as if for battle, Mavigan would recognize the Goddess Nagarren anywhere. “Look here, bitch, what are you up to?”

Nagarren smiled coldly and took several steps back from Mavigan. “I am sorry child. I have tried to do this normally, but with you…” Her words trailed off and her shoulders rose in a helpless shrug.

“Do what?” Mavigan demanded.

“We need to talk,” replied Nagarren.

Mavigan straightened even as her eyes narrowed. “Now why would I want to talk to you?”

“Because you will not be permitted to leave until you do.”

Mavigan bared her teeth at the Goddess and said nothing.

“Why do you resist me?” asked Nagarren. Her head cocked to the side, giving Mavigan the impression that the deity was observing her as if she were some sort of curiosity. “It is your destiny, your inheritance to serve Me. Why would you fight this?”

The chuckle Mavigan gave was far from merry. “I have enough real people wanting to stick a dagger in my back. Having to defend myself from a second rate Goddess is just another headache I don’t need.”

A flash of anger crossed Nagarren’s face, and Mavigan’s grip on her daggers tightened in response. The violence rumbled just below the surface, and for some reason she did not fully understand, Mavigan willed it to come with all her being.

“Why would you think I would betray you?” asked Nagarren, her voice tight.

“Because you could have saved them and didn’t” Mavigan exploded. The rage she had struggled so hard to keep bottled up erupted in a white-hot flow and the words poured out of her like lava. “I know damn well an Avatar is pert near impossible to kill!” she shouted, not caring that she could very well be sealing her own death. “Certainly no dagger blade could have killed them. But YOU DID NOTHING!”

Unable to contain it any longer, Mavigan launched herself at the Goddess, blades held at the ready and the words still tumbling from her lips. “Why should I trust you to protect me when you didn’t protect my family?” Each word was punctuated by another angry thrust of her blade.

At first Nagarren was content to dodge so that Mavigan only struck empty air. It wasn’t that Mavigan’s blades could hurt the Goddess, but she did not intend for Mavigan to gain a hit that might make her conclude she was powerful enough to take on the Goddess single-handed.

However, it became clear that Mavigan’s rage had no bounds, and she would not be stopping on her own accord. When the next thrust came in, Nagarren easily grabbed the wrist and twisted.

Mavigan dropped the dagger, but still tried to strike with the second one. Nagarren rolled her eyes and punched Mavigan in the stomach with a controlled amount of force. The air gushed out of the girl in one great gust as she flew back several feet to smack hard back first on the stones.

“Stay down,” commanded Nagarren. “This is pointless! Just who do you think you are, little girl?”

Mavigan ignored the command and struggled to her feet. She had lost her daggers, but she still had her fists, and she wasn’t out of it yet. “I think,” she said as she prepared to charge again, “that I am Mavigan Brelonna Ancora, and for some reason you need me.”

She flew at the deity again, but by now Nagarren was no longer in the mood to humor her. Mavigan’s punch missed by a mile, and Nagarren first rammed her knee into the girl’s solar plexus, and followed it up with another punch, this time across the jaw and with such force it sent Mavigan flying.

She slammed into the cobbles and felt something break. Mavigan grunted in pain and spit out blood.

“Stay down!” Nagarren tried again. “Yes, we need you. Something bad is coming and it will destroy your entire world unless we can stop it.”

Mavigan grunted as she rolled over in an attempt to regain her feet.

Nagarren did not wait for the attack this time. She stomped over to where Mavigan was trying to rise and brought a booted foot down hard on the girl’s ankle. Mavigan screamed in pain as she felt a pop.

The pain in her ankle was compounded by the pain in her head as Nagarren grabbed a handful of hair and dragged her head up until pained blue eyes met eyes filled with divine fire. “Do you understand me?” Nagarren demanded. “Your world will die. Do you want everyone and everything you have ever known to be cast into Oblivion? Do you?” She shook Mavigan’s head like she was rattling a cage.

When Mavigan did not answer, Nagarren continued. “You do not have to love me. You do not even have to like me, but unless you want to see it all destroyed you do have to accept me.”

Mavigan sat there in pain and did her best to weigh the words of the Goddess for truth. How did Mavigan truly feel about the destruction of her world? It was one thing to leave it behind, secure in the knowledge that it would be in better hands. It was something else entirely to know it would be destroyed. She could help stop it if she didn’t leave it behind. Could she live with the guilt of knowing she could have prevented their deaths but chose not to?

No. She already bore so much guilt for her previous failures, and already her selfishness had affected other lives. Knowing that her own selfishness had condemned more people than she could count to death would be too much to bear.

There was something important here, she realized, and she dug for the elusive bit of wisdom. Perhaps this was the meaning of true leadership – stepping into the breach because you are the only one who will and the consequences if you chose not to were simply unacceptable.

“OK,” Mavigan said softly, raising a hand to rub her head as the grip on her hair loosened. “I’m still not convinced that you’ve got the right person, but,” she sighed, “I guess it is better to be safe than sorry.”

Nagarren towered over Mavigan who was still crouched on the cobbles. “Agreed.” She knelt in front of Mavigan and looked her directly in the eyes. “I am sorry child,” she said. “This will not be pleasant, but we have no more time. I do promise you, though, that you will not have to figure this out alone. You can thank my Brother for that later.”

Mavigan felt the Goddess place a hand on each side of her head seconds before an agonized scream tore from her throat. Fire raced from her head to her heart to her soul and chewed through the barriers that prevented her access to the divine. One after another the barriers turned to ash before the divine blaze, and Mavigan felt as if she were burning from the inside out. The process was excruciatingly painful, and it was a mercy when she finally lost consciousness.

Written by - Wilhelm

Wilhelm felt frustrated at his inability to get through this barrier to rejoin his charge. He took some satisfaction by the fact that he could still follow Mavigan's heartfire as she moved about inside the manor house, and saw that mavigan was uninjured. That satisfaction was lost when Mavigan's heartfire abruptly vanished. In his anxiety he spoke aloud to himself.

"By the All Father! What happened? Even if she shadow walked I would have seen her heartfire fade out. The only way it could wink out like that, with no sign of injury would be if she passed through a portal.

The Gate of Fire! The All Father's Gate is in there, that the Hands of Providence used to come here. My grandfather left through that gate, as did Saint Ariana before him. She must have passed through that gate! She could be anywhere, and I can't even get through this barrier to try to follow her!"

Wilhelm's agitation was interrupted by a calm divine voice within.

"Calm down Wilhelm. Mavigan is now in My Sister Nagarren's hands. With My help she led Mavigan here to My Gate, which I have locked onto Nagarren's home for now. This barrier was cast by Archmage Rejk, with My permission, right after the death of the Royal Family to preserve the Manor House and the Gate within it. The barrier is linked to and sustained by My Gate. Only the original members of the Hands of Providence and the members Royal Family, or those they invite by name, may pass through this barrier.

For some time, now My Sister Nagarren has needed to have a "little chat" with Mavigan about her destiny. Since Mavigan would not allow this to happen the easy way, Nagarren has had to do it the hard way. Mavigan will be returned to you, somewhat the worse for wear but finally reconciled to her destiny. Have patience.

Meanwhile, there is someone coming you will want to meet. My other Avatar, whom you sensed earlier, has finally returned after a very long time away. It is a shame she ignored both my warning and the warning from your grandfather, but she has now returned as foretold and I have healed her. Say hello to the one you know as Saint Ariana Trueblood, although I suggest you use the title Abbess instead."

With a chuckle, the voice ceased. Wilhelm turned to look up the street, where growing noise resulted in a crowd of people turning onto the street and approaching the manor house, led by a woman in white carrying a glowing rune-carved mace. With a start, Wilhelm recognized her from the statues. It was Saint Ariana Trueblood, returned at last as foretold, after all these years. Wilhelm rose to his feet and then had to fight an urge to kneel again as she approached. He remembered from his lessons that she had not cared for that.

When she spoke to him in puzzlement he chuckled. She evidently had him confused with his half-giant grandfather, who had towered over all men! He bowed to her and saluted her with his warhammer.

"Hail Abbess Ariana Trueblood, founder of my Order and of this kingdom. I welcome your foretold return. You have confused me with my grandfather of the same name, who was your Vizier. After all these years, I am honored to meet you in person at last."

Written by - Ariana

"You look very much like him," she said, returning his greeting. She paused for an awkward moment. "Is he...?" She left the sentence unfinished and settled on another approach. "Where is your Grandfather?"

Written by - Wilhelm

Wilhelm shrugged and replied.

"I'm not sure precisely, although the All Father assures me he is alive and well.

Grandfather Wilhelm remained Queen Mavigan's Vizier until her marriage, and then was Grandmaster of the Militant Order of Tinorb for many years after you left, waiting for your return, until his wife, my grandmother, died. By then the first Mavigan was married and had children and the kingdom was at peace. His immortality weighed heavily upon him in his grief. He felt he could stay no longer and needed to go out and fight the good fight once more.

So he handed the Order over to the care of his son, my father, Wil. I believe Wil was born before you left. Then Grandfather passed through the Gate of Fire to a world called Azeroth, where he has since been a Paladin of the Light. He has not returned. He left when I was a very young boy and I can just remember that giant of a man.

My father served for many years as Grandmaster, first during Queen Mavigan's long reign and then under her son, King Acaenyd. My father became the Champion of Acaenyd's newborn son Pallanon the same year I was born. He gave his life to save Prince Pallanon from an assassination attempt the day King Acaenyd announced his plan to divide the kingdom into three regions with his three sons as their Governors. Unlike his father, my father did age but slower than most and he was still hardy when he died. I think I now know who was behind that assassination attempt.

King Pallanon was my battle comrade in my youth, and he was the one who knighted me. When Mavigan was born there were dark prophesies concerning her future, linked to the prophesy of your return, and he made me her Champion and charged me to defend her life above all other needs. That has not been easy, let me tell you, as she is very like reports of the first Mavigan. However, she has a good heart and I have high hopes for her.

I welcome your return, after more than a century, because Beridane sacked the Temple of the All Father when he usurped the throne here after the death of Mavigan's family. The High Priest and the Grandmaster were both killed, along with many other clergy and crusaders. I am sort of acting Grandmaster now for the Militant Order of Tinorb, as well as Champion for Mavigan and acting Commander of the Queen's Guard, but we really need a High Priestess, or perhaps I should say Abbess, for the Church of the All Father itself. You are truly God sent!"

Written by - Ariana

Immortality? The word caused her eyes to widen in surprise. True, she suspected she was a lot older than she looked, but she had been stuck between worlds for an indeterminate amount of time. And Ardwen might be older than dirt, but that was to be expected from Twilight Elves. But to hear that others of her flock might be similarly long lived made her heart beat a little faster in hope. Perhaps she and Ardwen were not the only ones left.

"Well," she said finally, "we will have to pray that he returns to us soon."

After listening to his current list of duties, she said, "I can appreciate the burden you bear. I am not sure I am ready to assume full responsibility for the church once again, I am awfully tired, but I still think I can help alleviate your burden."

She gestured to Manuel, who stood silent beside her. "This is Manuel. I have no doubt he and his men will be happy to assist in completeing a sweep of the city and removing the rest of Beridane's men." She then gestured behind her to the crowd that was continuing to grow. "Back there you will no doubt find many members of your order." She tossed the man a wink. "I seem to have drawn them out for you somehow."

"As for me," she continued, "where is Mavigan now?"

Written by - Wilhelm

Wilhelm turned and pointed at the manor house.

"She went inside the manor. I followed her here, but I was unable to enter due to an invisible barrier that surrounds the manor house. I could sense her moving around inside until she vanished from my tracking. The All Father then told me what was going on. If you ask Him within I am sure he would tell you, but I believe I can quote him."

Wilhelm's voice took on a deeper more resonant tone.

"Mavigan is now in My Sister Nagarren's hands. With My help she led Mavigan here to My Gate, which I have locked onto Nagarren's home for now. This barrier was cast by Archmage Rejk, with My permission, right after the death of the Royal Family to preserve the Manor House and the Gate within it. The barrier is linked to and sustained by My Gate. Only the original members of the Hands of Providence and the members Royal Family, or those they invite by name, may pass through this barrier.

For some time, now My Sister Nagarren has needed to have a "little chat" with Mavigan about her destiny. Since Mavigan would not allow this to happen the easy way, Nagarren has had to do it the hard way. Mavigan will be returned to you, somewhat the worse for wear but finally reconciled to her destiny."

Wilhelm shrugged and continued in a normal voice.

"So I have been waiting here for her to emerge from the Gate and come out. Actually, I am not able to enter but you should be able to do so, and you could then invite me in by name."

Written by - Ariana

Ariana couldn’t help it. She tried to keep it in. First she clamped her lips tightly together, shoulders slightly shaking, and when that didn’t work, she bit down on her lower lip. But in the end, it was just too much for her.

Ariana laughed loud and long. “I’m sorry,” she said finally, drawing a hand across her eyes. “Does He really talk to you like that?” She dissolved in another round of mirth. “Oh, I always knew He had a sense of humor.”

It took more than a minute for her to regain some composure, but she had to admit, it felt good to laugh. She drew in a deep breath to calm herself and then said, “I am happy to invite both you and Manuel inside, but I think I should meet with Mavigan alone for now. There will be time to discuss business later, and I believe that your talents are needed elsewhere right now,” she added.

Ariana moved forward until she was just across the line of demarcation and then spoke formal invitations to both men. She turned to head inside the house, but then paused. “I am expecting a small elf to seek me out. He is quite distinctive and goes by the name of Elerus. If you see him, will you reassure him that I will come fetch him as soon as I am able?”

Written by - Wilhelm

Wilhelm took a couple of steps past the barrier, mostly to confirm that he could now do so, then bowed to Ariana.

"Very well, Abbess, I will leave my charge in your hands for now, once the Goddess is finished with her. Let Himself know when you need me and I will come. For now I will take the rest of my brethren here and return to the palace to continue the eviction of the Ironskane forces.

Manuel, please organize the rest of the folk here and make sure families are reunited and the injured are treated. See if you can get some workers over to help clean up the Temple of the All Father. And have someone keep a watch for flying elves."

Manuel agreed to this, and several of the children volunteered to watch for their flying friend. Leaving Manuel to organize the rest, Wilhelm called together the temple members, both clergy and militant, and led them off to the palace. There they joined with the forces led by the Raven, who informed Wilhelm that Teran was in a locked cell with Keeryn on guard. Wilhelm thought to himself that Teran must have decided to remain, since no cell couild hold him if he chose to leave.

In arms together again for the first time in years, Wilhelm and the Raven proceeded to clear out the remaining Ironskane and mercenary forces from the palace and then from the heart of the city. Wilhelm received word that a general evacuation of Ironskane forces to the ships at the harbor was taking place, as they followed their leader. Beridane and his guard had taken the first ship he found and sailed off, and the rest were following suit.

The mercenaries hired by Beridane were either taking ship as well or riding quickly out of the city. Wilhelm allowed them to leave, preferring to save lives rather than exact vengeance. Many, however, did not make it out alive as the populace themselves took their own vengeance once word spread that Saint Ariana had returned and Beridane had fled.

Once the city was secure and the city gates manned by loyal forces, Wilhelm led a force to the harbor to secure that area and the remaining vessels. Port Westgale was again under royal rule, and Wilhelm was proud to see the Westgale Royal Standard fly again over the harbor and the city.

Written by - Ardwen

“Sir!” Manuel responded with a precise parade-ground salute. The forlorn hope felt a slight pang of resentment as Wilhelm marched off to route the beleaguered ‘Skaner forces, but Manuel was an experienced enough soldier to know there was more to a campaign than the moment when swords were crossed. “No,” Manuel thought as he turned his eyes over the mass of people gathered outside the Manor House, “driving Beridane’s rabble from the city was the easy part, now the real fight begins.” Manuel coughed into one of his hands to clear his throat and straightened to his full height. “Oi!” He shouted. “Brother Wilhelm says I’m to lead you rabble in making sense of things here; I want you listenin’ and usin’ the large thing in between your ears, and no Geoffrey I don’t mean your nose.”

A light streak of laughter ran through the crowd, Manuel had figured that given the mood they’d respond to humor better than him barking orders. More importantly, the human soldier did not want to crush the festive mood of his fellow Westgalers. The whole city was just out from under the Tyrant’s foot, and while the current attitude of the crowd was toward celebration and not riot (a miracle Manuel secretly attributed to Ariana herself) tensions were still high and emotions ran thick through the streets. “First, I want families to my right,” Manuel said with a chop of his right arm, “an’ those of you still looking for families to my left.” He finished with another chop, this time on his left side which faced the Manor House. There followed a scene of near utter confusion as families moved at first in small knots, and then in growing streams. As the commotion settled Manuel felt a knot like a fistful of gravel stab into his stomach.

There was a considerable number of people to the warrior’s left, ranging from hoary haired elders to young children. There were even more children still in the middle, glancing back and forth from their left to right, most of them were just standing there crying. Thankfully, several people from both sides moved forward to comfort the kids, a few even stepped forward to claim them. Still, it was painfully obvious to Manuel that Westgale would have more than a few orphans and widows once all was said and done, such was war. The event had placed a somber mood over the gathered throng of Westgalers, and Manuel knew he had to act to restore high spirits.

“Axel.” Manuel said sharply, and one of the few fellow soldiers left after Wilhelm’s departure gave a swift salute to show he had heard his commander. “Keep overseeing the families sorting each other out. I want every other available strong arm or back to come with me.” In short order Manuel had gathered a small force of about twenty soldiers. It was not combat that Manuel had in mind, but the wily soldier was cautious enough not to discount Ironskaners hiding in abandoned houses or alleyways that would love to ambush lone wanderers.

Ordering a march, Manuel swiftly lead his minute band to the merchant district that abutted the docks. The smell of the sea was strong, Manuel could see the salt-darkened wooden docks stretching out before him, and with a relaxing sigh the human fighter took a deep breath of the bracing sea air. “Now let’s see.” He muttered as he continued to wind his troops through the narrow alleyways and corridors that interspersed the great open agoras where most honest merchants did their trade. True to his story, Manuel had been arrested here on charges of stealing from the “king” – by which they meant the traitorous whoreson who wore the real king’s crown – and had been promptly marked for death. Before he had been tossed into an iron cage to have his head lopped off, Manuel had bothered to scout his marks before attempting his failed heist. He had not lied to Ariana about life in the slum district, and while it was easier and softer than the poor warrens in other cities, there was hardly a person from it who had not spent a stint in their childhoods as street rats of some sort.

Those lessons now served Manuel well.

Arriving at the doors to a large warehouse, Manuel tried the latch only to find it secure. “Aww,” he muttered, “it’s locked. Joab, get me my key.” Joab nodded and handed his leader a large warhammer he had looted from the armory beneath the former prison. “Thank you.” Manuel said as he lifted the hammer into the air and landed it on the door with a crunching shudder that seemed to shake the whole building. A few more swings had the locking mechanism break free from the softer wood and with an ear-splitting squeal the door finally swung slowly inward. Manuel kept the hammer in his hands as he lead his squad into the building, but despite the gruff mien he had adopted when barking out orders, he couldn’t help but let a smile split his face as he looked around.

Inside the warehouse were boxes, stacks and stacks of wooden boxes. Many of them bore the seal of Ironskane, an argent background with a sable hammer, but the truth was they were Westgale products “repackaged” for shipping to the north. “See here lads,” Manuel called out grandly, “this is a warehouse full of some of the finest alcohol Westgale can make. Wines from the finest vineyards, liquors that would put even more hair on a Dwarf’s face, and spirits distilled by the drunkest – yet most devout – followers of the All-Father. There’s some bread and other stuff in here too, but we’re here for the booze.”

“Sir?” One of the younger squad members asked uncertainly.

Manuel sighed and continued, “Look, boy. The people are so tired and weary right now there just going off faith. That’s all fine and good; I’ve seen faith carry men to victories they never could have reached on their own. I’ve seen faith lift up the hearts of entire armies, and send their foes scared shitless. But, there’s always an after, isn’t there? We’re not here to sweep through Westgale like an armed pilgrimage; we’re not here to win a battle against the ‘Skaners and then sit around and mutter hymns all day. We’ve got a city to rebuild, and that’ll take time, effort, and most importantly it will take heart.”

“B-but the warehouses—“ The young soldier sputtered in protest.

“Have mostly been emptied or burned by the rat bastards.” Manuel said. “Oh, we’ve captured some, but didn’t you notice how empty the docks were? Did you think all those ships were just going to sit there and wait to be boarded? They know we’ve got no real navy here and they’re halfway back to Ironport by now. Make no mistake, soldier, our lands have been raped by the Iron North and there will be lean times ahead. But we’ll endure, we’ll endure and by the grace of the gods we’ll take back our share and then some!” The forlorn hope grabbed one of the nearby kegs and bugged it a little, “For now though, let’s give these people a party they will never forget! Let them taste some of the good life: let them love, laugh, drink, and eat. By all that’s holy let’s give them a reason to live again. All of you, pick a keg—no Geoffrey ya’ dumbass we’re not carrying them—there’s wagons in the back of the warehouse. By the time I get done with my first pint I want at least three loaded with beer, bread, and anything that won’t kill you right away when you swig it.”

Within minutes Manuel’s impromptu band of warriors turned sutlers had moved several of the large wooden carts to the front of the warehouse and were working in teams of two to load and situate the carts. Keeping his promise, Manuel had cracked open one of the smaller crates to find it loaded with expensive pewter mugs. The forlorn hope had promptly used a crow’s beak to tap one of the kegs and tossed back a mug of a heady brown ale with just a touch of spice. Despite the admirable haste with which they worked, Manuel had to reluctantly put aside his drink after the first one and lend a hand, rotating out with other workers so they could take a drink or two – there was no reason to waste good liquor after all.

By the time Manuel’s crew had returned to the Manor House Axel had done an admirable job of getting the mess of people sorted out into something resembling an actual crowd broken up into smaller family units. There were still too many standing solitary or with downcast eyes for Manuel’s jaw not to clench, but he hoped that his idea would help ease their burdens. For the last leg of the journey Manuel climbed up one of the carts and stood swaying with its motion as it lumbered down the road. His men below him grunted with the effort of pulling carts meant for horses, but the sight of the Manor House and the thought of the ensuing party gave them a second wind. “People of Westgale! Rejoice!” Manuel shouted at the top of his lungs.

At first the forlorn hope received nothing but confused and dejected looks, but as they saw the wagonloads of drink and food that Manuel’s men bore, a ripple like lightning splitting a tree surged through the crowd. Within moments the carts had to be set down and the entire contingent of soldiers had to form a wall of bodies to impose order and keep people from trampling one another. The wagons looked like an island in a storm, a city under siege. As fortune would have it, Manuel was an expert at sieges. Working as quickly as they could, the provisioners of Westgale distributed cups and bowls, or anything else that could hold a shot, bread was passed out alongside goblets of rich red wine. Little by little the crowd was sated; people broke off to enjoy what was possibly their first meal in days with friends and family. With a grin Manuel noted the bards had switched their tunes from hymnals to faster and more jovial tunes, “Wind that Shakes the Wheat” clashed with the bombastic throbs of “Maiden on a Boat.”

Manuel was just about to congratulate himself and his men on a job well done when he ran into a snag. A priest that had apparently been waiting at the back of the crowd this entire time rushed to the side of the cart and stared thunderheads at the human siege expert. “We were having devotions.” He huffed in one breath as if he had been holding in his words for hours – perhaps he had. “The light of the All-Father is needed now more than ever, I do not see what carnal indulgence of mind-fogging sin—“

Manuel threw up a hand to signal for the preacher to cease, which he did with only a few hastily stammered protests. “Good father,” Manuel said smoothly after a pause to take a drink of some of the same ale he had tried earlier in the seaside warehouse. “Doesn’t the Holy Father wish for our happiness? Surely he does not begrudge the chance for His people to relive happier days, if just for a time.”

“Perhaps!” The priest said and huffed himself up in a display that reminded Manuel of a bird ruffling its feathers. “But to take them so swiftly from service is not advisable, my flock—“

“Will be well tended.” Maneul cut in quickly. “I can tell you’re a man of deep concern for the faith, good father. So let me make you a deal.” At this Manuel leaned in close and whispered, “I’ve earmarked a few casks of some of the most expensive wines for . . . sacramental service in the church. I can assure you of their excellent pedigree and superb vintage.”

The priests eyes widened and the man patted his stomach, “Really?” He inquired.

Manuel had him now. “Aye, and I’ll see to it that they’re delivered promptly to the Holy Wisdom along with a crew –as our dear brother Wilhelm directed – to help in repairing the sacred places.”

“These are,” the clergyman said shrewdly, “of course, wines worthy to be used in the ministrations of our faith, you can assure me of that?”

“Oh aye,” Manuel said with a smile so wide that it showed his teeth, “I can assure you that a few swigs of it and you’ll be seein’ the Father.”

The priest licked his lips and nodded, “I may have to sample this most holy victual beforehand, brother Manuel.”

“Oh, of course.” Manuel said with a wink. “I am but a humble soldier, a true man of the church must ensure it is worthy to pass the lips of the faithful.”

“Yes!” the man of the cloth said with a little too much enthusiasm. “It is, after all, my solemn duty to my flock.”

“I’ll see it delivered as soon as I can.” Manuel said. Both men made the sign of the rings, the triskellion that is the sacred symbol of the All-Father, before parting. The forlorn hope, in keeping with his other promises earlier in the day, quickly had a small detachment ready to deliver the wine and aid the more aesthetic followers of the All-Father in the labor of clearing the refuse out of the Holy Wisdom.

Afterwards, Manuel climbed back on top of one of the carts and waved his arms, trying to signal he would like to make a speech. It took several moments of shouting, from soldiers and helpful citizens alike, to hush the crowd to something that Manuel could hear his own thoughts in. As more and more realized who wanted to “lecture” though, the noises quickly died off – it seemed the party was grateful enough to listen to a few words from the man who had brought the drinks. “Westgalers, blood of mine, proud and true!” A shout went up from the crowd that seemed to echo from the roofs of heaven, but Manuel waved again for silence. “I am not a man of many words, but let me say but a few to you, for what they are worth. I will not lie to you, will not coddle the harsh truth from your ears – and why should I? Are we not of the line of the Hands? Do we need protecting?”

Another wave of shouts and screams, denials to his last question, another measured pause to make himself heard, and then Manuel pressed on. “We have escaped from the foot of the Tyrant of the Iron North, though not without sacrifice. Many of us look around us tonight and imagine the faces of loved ones lost, family that we once shared our happiest moments with, we look around and wonder what is left for us, for our city, for our people.” This time there was no shout, but a pensive silence so deep that Manuel thought he could hear the creak of boots as people shifted in the crowd. “Yet, by the efforts of this single day, we have regained much of what we have lost. By the efforts of our glorious Saint Ariana,” Manuel thrust his mug into the air and a cheer erupted from the crowd that dwarfed all the previous ones, “our glorious saint, returned from beyond the pale, we have reclaimed our city. But, much more remains to be done: in the coming weeks we must not fall into contemplation and complacency. Rather, we must show our beloved saint and her warriors what we Westgalers are made from – cut from the same cloth as they – heroes and saviors of old!”

This time the shouted approval was hemmed by chants of “for Pallanon” and “praise the Living Saint”. Manuel swirled his glass in the air and shouted in his best parade-ground voice, “But first, first!” The crowd lowered its cheers as they saw the forlorn hope was continuing his oration. “First, we drink, we celebrate, and we remember all those things that we have that no other people on this world can claim. Let tonight kindle the candle of life back into the hearts of Westgale and her people. Now, a toast! A toast to you brave men, a toast to the stalwart women, a toast to the Living Saint herself!” Manuel paused for just a split second before adding. “Also, a drink to her two angels!”

“An’ may we never fall foul o’ the big one!” A voice rang out from the gathering. Laughter, loud and rolling, ripped through the throng; Manuel threw back his drink, a motion which was mirrored by everyone in sight.

Written by - Ariana

“Ow!” said Mavigan at the first moment of consciousness. This thought was soon followed by a loud moan of pain and an emphatic “Damn bitch!”

Everything hurt, from the roots of her hair to the soles of her feet, and it took several moments for her to coax her eyes open enough to determine her location. Mavigan was stretched out on her back on the stone floor of the portal room which still echoed with the low hum of other worlds.

She lay as still as possible, mentally listing her injuries. The split lip still bled slightly filling her mouth with the coppery tang. Drawing breath caused her chest to hurt making her suspect a cracked rib or two, and her ankle positively throbbed. Getting out of here was not going to be fun.

Mavigan rolled over onto her side. The resulting wave of pain left her panting and hyper aware of the newly formed connection to Nagarren. She felt it, a pulsing knot in her guts. Her body rebelled against it and she convulsed into dry heaves as it tried to expel the foreign intrusion to no avail.

Greedily she sucked in air, trying to calm the rolling of her stomach. When she no longer felt as if her insides were trying to come up, she pushed herself to a sitting position. The room lurched and dipped, forcing her to close her eyes and concentrate on her breathing once more.

It was then that she heard the sound of soft footsteps. Her eyes flew open and her hands went instinctively to the hilts of her daggers before her mind caught up with her actions. First, she was surprised to note that her daggers were indeed right where they should have been. That fact could only indicate that Nagarren had sheathed them before tossing her out of the portal.

Second, Mavigan realized that the only person who would actually be coming to look for her was Wilhelm, and it wasn’t likely she would need her daggers. Her hands fell limp to her sides.

The first glimpse she had of the intruder was a pair of booted feet descending the stairs, a pair of feet that were entirely too small to belong to Wilhelm. The rest of the body soon followed the feet, and Mavigan could only stare in wide-eyed amazement.

Standing before her was the woman from the painting upstairs, her Nana in the flesh. True, the clothing was different, and the woman almost seemed gaunt. The hair was considerably shorter, and there was a prominent gray streak down one temple that the artist had not portrayed. But the face was certainly the same, and Mavigan found herself squirming as she came under the intense scrutiny of those eyes.

“N-N-Nana?” asked Mavigan.

The woman cocked her head and gave Mavigan an appraising glance before smiling. “Nice to meet you, Mavigan.”

Her voice was soft and mellifluous, and Mavigan found herself staring. Suddenly, she let out a sharp bark of laughter. “She must have killed me,” Mavigan said. “If you are standing there, then I must be dead.”

“No,” said Ariana, “you are not dead. And this is no dream.”

Mavigan looked up at her almost afraid to hope. If this was true, then she still had family. “You…But…Is this real?”

Ariana nodded and strode forward precluding the questions she was sure were coming next. There would be time enough for story swapping later. “Let’s get you up. Can you walk?”

Mavigan shook her head. “I doubt it. That bitch Nagarren did a number on my ankle, I think.”

She only realized what she had said after the words had left her lips. Suddenly worried she had created a new record for screwing things up quickly, she glanced furtively at Ariana. The woman, her Nana, put one arm around Mavigan’s waist and motioned for the girl to throw her arm round her shoulder. If she had heard Mavigan’s sacrilege, she gave no sign.

Getting Mavigan to her feet was a struggle; she was several inches taller than her Nana. With no small amount of maneuvering, the two women worked their way to the stairs, Ariana supporting much of Mavigan’s body weight and Mavigan hopping along on one foot.

They made it up the stairs and were limping through the library when Mavigan had a thought. “Hey Nana,” she started, “the stories say you are some sort of super powerful priestess. Can’t you just cast a spell or something?”

“Would that I could, dear,” replied Ariana, navigating them through the library door and headed down the hall to the nearest sitting room. “I’m afraid I used all my energy healing Ardwen earlier.”

“Hmpf,” grumped Mavigan. “Selfish bastard.”

Mavigan noticed a slight tightening around Ariana’s mouth a split second before the words followed.

“He was gravely injured while attempting to save a great many people. He is a hero, dear.”

Though mild in tone, Mavigan felt the intended sting, and quickly turned her gaze to the floor. “Sorry,” she mumbled.

The rest of the journey was made in an awkward silence, until Mavigan squealed in pain as she was lowered to a wooden bench. It was only after Ariana made sure Mavigan was seated as comfortably as possible that the silence was broken.

“You know, dear,” she began, “you could easily heal yourself. I can see quite clearly that you have a strong tie to the divine.”

Mavigan felt the blood rush to her face and her gaze fell to the level of her Nana’s boots.

When no response was forthcoming, Ariana continued. “It is no sin to use the power to heal yourself. The Goddess no doubt gave you the power with the intent that it be used.”

Mavigan mumbled an incoherent response, her eyes still glued to Ariana’s boots.

“What was that dear?”

“I said,” Mavigan repeated in a much clearer albeit embarrassed tone, “that I don’t know how.”

“Is that all?” asked Ariana in a tone that clearly indicated she thought it no big deal. “I can teach you a basic healing spell, but beyond that you will need to seek training from a true Priestess of Nagarren. I will be happy to aid you in your training when I can; some spells are similar between the Gods, but not many.”

Mavigan stared at her with wide eyes and open mouth.

“Would you like to learn?”

She nodded slowly, and Ariana got down on her knees next to the bench. Over the course of the next hour, Ariana taught Mavigan how to cast her very first healing spell. It wasn’t easy; Mavigan did not have an intuitive understanding about how things worked, but Ariana was nothing if not patient. And finally, their hard work culminated in Mavigan being engulfed in healing energy she had cast herself.

“It feels like being frozen from the inside out,” Mavigan said as she tried to catch her breath. As the energy faded, she eagerly tested out her various injuries to see if it had worked. Drawing in an experimental deep breath, she was pleased to note her chest no longer hurt. Slowly rotating her ankle, she noted it was sore, but when she carefully stood, it bore her weight.

Mavigan tossed a happy smile at Ariana.

“Good job!” said Ariana with a smile. “With practice, the casting will become easier and the power behind the spells will increase. It won’t be long before you can heal all your injuries with one casting.”

Mavigan stared at Ariana in wonder. Now that her brain was no longer clouded with pain, a whole host of questions began fighting for dominance within her mind. She stood quietly trying to sort them as she watched her Nana wander around the room, looking and touching everything, as if she, too, were trying to reassure herself that this was not all a dream.

In the end, Mavigan voiced what she considered to be the most important and immediate question. “Are you staying?” She inwardly winced at the pathetic note in her voice.

Ariana turned from her examination of the spear that belonged to the first Mavigan. “If you wish me to.”

Mavigan found her head nodding violently of its own accord. “Yes,” she said, striding across the room to stand before her Nana. “You must stay. Here. In this house. It is yours after all, and I remember Gramps saying that Great Grandmother insisted that some rooms remain exactly the same in case you came back.” She knew she was rambling, but didn’t seem able to stop. “So, in fact, this house is more your house than my house. And if you are going to stay here, then I’ll stay here with you so you won’t get lonely. And…”

The words finally trailed to a stop. Mavigan gulped. “And…” Tears began to form in her eyes as the enormity of the truth she was about to utter weighed heavily upon her. “And… I can’t do this alone.” The last bit gushed out of her in a whisper.

Ariana said nothing. Instead, she merely gathered the girl up in her arms and held her close. Mavigan did not resist. On the contrary, she buried herself in the hug, her arms closing round the woman and holding her tight.

She could feel Nana’s bones, sharp and hard, through the fabric of her clothing. Ariana was so small and worn, and Mavigan took note as she stood there giving and receiving a hug. The realization that perhaps her Nana had suffered through trauma as bad as her own crossed her mind and made her stomach tighten.

Mavigan had no doubts about her inability to help anyone; she couldn’t even manage to do her duty or help herself. She wasn’t sure what she could do for her Nana, but she resolved that when she found it, she would do it with all her heart.

The sound of revelry interrupted their moment, and Mavigan reluctantly pulled out of the embrace. “What’s going on?” she asked, crossing to the window and peering out. “Oh,” she exclaimed. “It looks like a party!” And judging from the mugs and casks she could see, it was a good guess that alcohol was involved.

The idea of a party brightened her mood considerably. Turning to Ariana she asked, “How about it? Wanna go?”

Ariana smiled at the child that was so much like her own daughter. “No dear, you go ahead. If this is to be my home again, I think I would like to see what has changed, and what has stayed the same.”

Mavigan eyed her dubiously. “Are you sure? You’ve got no meat on your bones.”

A wry smile crossed Ariana’s face. “I’m sure. You go on ahead.”

“Alright,” said Mavigan, “but I’m bringing you back some food and I’ll stare at you until you eat it.”

Ariana chuckled at the implied threat, but conceded. “I will eat whatever you bring me. I promise.”

Mavigan nodded, and then crossed the room to head out the door. At the threshold, she paused. “You…will be here when I get back?” The question was timid and contained no small amount of fear.

Nodding reassuringly, Ariana replied, “Yes. I’ll be here.”

Finally satisfied, Mavigan took off for the front door. Once outside, she strode purposefully up to the man on the cart. “’Scuse me,” she said like a child begging for candy, “can I have some beer, please?”

Written by - Ariana

Ariana watched Mavigan leave, an odd mix of sadness and anger on her face. Once she heard the front door closed, she turned her focus inward. The All-Father still wore the guise of her human father.

“You can tell that sister of yours that I do not care for her methods,” Ariana said, her eyes hard.

“I can pass along the message, yes,” He conceded with no true indication of whether or not He actually would. “But in Nagarren’s defense, Mavigan has been very difficult.”

“That’s no excuse for brutalizing the poor girl,” Ariana snapped. “My daughter was also difficult, but Nagarren showed considerable patience then. Why should one warrant patience and the other does not?”

The All-Father was silent.

“Now she has a wide open channel she cannot control, and no understanding of her abilities. Is this the only reason You brought me back?” Her eyes flashed with anger. “You allow Wilhelm to go back and forth at will with no problem, but leave me to languish in hell for over a century?”

The All-Father remained silent, waiting to see if there was more, but Ariana had fallen silent. “You made the choice to go after I warned you there would be consequences,” He replied.

Ariana heaved a deep breath, her anger spent nearly as quickly as it had come. “I know,” she said softly, massaging her temples. “Tell your sister to behave. I will not have her beating up Mavigan.”

He gave a soft chuckle. “You would stand against a Goddess?”

“For Mavigan,” she said, “yes I would.”

“It is nice to see some Trueblood fire, again,” He replied. “I will deliver your message, though I do not think you need be concerned.”

“Thank you,” Ariana said before closing off the connection.

She opened her eyes and tried to drink in all the sights around her. The new blended smoothly with the unfamiliar, and both begged her to touch, to feel, to accept, to claim as home. Ariana heard the call and obeyed. She wandered from room to room, keen eyes taking careful note; her desk with a new chair, her kitchen table, but new pots and pans, her books plus many new ones. On and on it went. There were several new bedrooms, one clearly showed signs of her daughter, another contained three small beds and a chest full of toys.

Eventually, her feet led her to what once had been her own bedroom door. Tentatively, she pushed it open and stepped inside and immediately felt as if time had suddenly stood still. Her room was exactly the way she remembered it; the quilt on the bed, the books on the nightstand, the slight chip in the porcelain hand basin. The emotion of the moment made her catch her breath and tears spring to her eyes.

Then, she saw it. A letter with her name scrawled in a familiar hand rested against the pillows. With shaking hands, she sat on the edge of the bed and reached for it. Turning it over, she could see it was sealed with a glob of wax into which was pressed her daughter’s seal. She opened it with trembling hands.

Hey Mom,

If you are reading this, then you have returned to us, and for that I am very glad. I always knew you would come back one day, most likely when things look most dire. You have a talent for bringing order out of chaos, and I suspect that Father of yours knows this all too well.

In preparation for your return, I’ve done all I can to keep the homestead recognizable. And I absolutely refused to let them change anything in your room. I did take the liberty of changing out your clothes, though. Really, Mom. Dresses? You know perfectly well they are impossible to fight in!

We had a visiting dignitary from some foreign land and I really liked her sense of style, so I had it copied. It is two separate pieces, so you can have your dress and still wear pants. This is especially important as I will likely not be there to thwack all the pervert manlings who try to look at your legs. I hope you like them.

I’d be lying, Mom, if I said that I didn’t miss you, or that I didn’t resent your going. The woman I was when you left truly did not understand how they could mean so much to you while we meant so little. But I get it now, and I want you to know that I forgive you. I know you love me and always will.

I hope with all my heart that you find them. That you find him. And that when you do, he will take care of you the way you care for everyone else. Don’t try to bear the burdens of the world alone, Mom, and don’t forget to take care of yourself while you nurture everyone else.

I love you.

Mavi

Ariana lay down on the bed, and clutched the letter to her chest. She wept until exhaustion caught up with her and she fell into a fitful sleep.

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