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Book Three Pt 1 - The Reckoning

Written by - Ardwen Page 19 Book 3

Ardwen knew. Sycon was communing with something, or someone, else. He could recognize the glazed look of those who suffered from god-taint as they drew upon and spoke with their "celestial" benefactors. Ardwen merely waited, making sure to keep his eyes and ears fixed on their surroundings. Whatever plan Sycon had concocted with the gods Ardwen wanted no part of. Soon enough, Sycon said two simple words, "She's here."

He ran off into the road, and Ardwen followed. He could already see some immense beast coming through the trees . . . was this the being Sycon seemed to adamant they wait for? Once in the clearing of the road, Ardwen could fully see what monstrosity Sycon had given his obedience to: a dragon. A shining monster that might had been termed magnificent if Ardwen had not hated it on sight. The creature could only remind him of one thing: the Field of Sorrows where The Terror had arisen on Aernyth, it's arrival killed the first Ellestor Gilliandor and the ensuing battle laid waste to his Empire, murdering untold hundreds of thousands of his kinsmen.

The Terror had become a legend since that time, many of the lesser races regarded it as a myth conjured by the Elves. Even the Holy Church, renowned for its historical archives soon pushed the memory into the dusty annals of forgotten lore. But Ardwen remembered. He remembered, and he hated. He stood there, eyeing the creature warily, waiting for the first move to be taken. It spoke finally in a tone both powerful and regal, "Shall we?"

Ardwen spoke only seven words in a hushed whisper to Sycon, "I hope you know what you're doing."

Written by - Ariana

By the time they had reached their destination, Mavigan’s mood had turned as foul as her language. She was wet, her skin had been crawling for days, and if she had to listen to that undead THING torture one more innocent creature in the pursuit of her food, Mavigan was certain she would do something drastic.

To make things worse, she was certain they were being followed, or at the very least being observed, and yet Teran made no sign he knew or cared. Mavigan could tell Keeryn was equally uneasy, though for different reasons. Although Mavigan could appreciate the sentiment, the fact that Keeryn was watching her every move and every interaction with Teran with extreme scrutiny was really grating on her nerves.

In addition, she wondered why they were taking the long way round, when even with her limited skill she had detected several openings to the shadow realm within the curiously lifeless forest. Everytime they passed one, she mentally sent a rude gesture Teran's way.

Furthermore, the closer they got to their goal, the more intense the prickly sensation became. Each time she rubbed her arms briskly in a vain attempt to dispel the sensation the Bitch would eye her curiously, as if she knew something Mavigan didn’t. Mavigan hated every minute of it.

When Teran finally pointed out their goal and then turned to ask if some nonsensical question about their level of preparedness, Mavigan gave an exaggerated roll of her eyes.

Cocking an eyebrow at him, she said archly, "Can we get the f*** on with it?"

Written by - Tempyst

Lucant felt empowered in the cave. Everything Argus told him, showed him, he soaked in like a dry sponge. This is what I have been waiting for. He thought. Never before I have felt more at home, more in power, not even at my forge. This, this is my calling. He closed his eyes and could hear the whispers of the stone. He could hear the stories they had to tell, their secret they held.

As they sat there in cave, for what seemed like days, Lucant's powers over the stone become more and more secured. He could now find minerals and ores within the stone. He could ground himself and feed from the strength and energy the earth and rocks could provide. He soon found he could draw upon the soil and plants, but he used them as a conduit to find mroe suitable areas for him to leech onto for power.

Argus was also an excellent axeman and taught Lucant how to fight with his new sword. He had left his armor behind, but that did not prove a problem, Argus helped lucant use his new powers to forge, form himself a new suit of armor...one that fit only him, lightweight but strong, made from pure metals. Argus almost suggestted a new sword, but both of them could sense the perfection and power within the sword Lucant chose from the armory.

Lucant also learned what it meant to be an avatar. Nyrondis himself visited he and Argus within the cave. Meeting the god face to face, actually helped Lucant, and took in all Nyrondis wished to teach him. This did not go on long, for Nyrondis told him, as his avatar, he would always be with him to answer any question, and to give any support needed.

After what seemed like a week within the stone with Argus, Lucant was ready to return to his wife, and to his new life. He thanked his teacher, gave a prayer Nyrondis, put on his armor, took a deep breath and made his solo journey back to the grove.

Written by - Teran

Sabbatine's grin almost defied realism it was so big. Part of her hoped Teran would strike her down for her negative attitude, she licked her lips thinking about how Mavigan's blood would taste... but then Keeryn caught her eye. Oh how Sabbatine wanted to taste Keeryn, everyone could see it in her eyes. Sabbatine broke out of her reverie though and after getting one last taste of Keeryn's lovely scent she started down the side of the valley.

Teran's smile was disheartening to say the least. He was starting to wonder if Mavigan actually did have a deathwish. He didn't speak to Mavigan, he just silently followed Sabbatine down the side of the valley. Teran could feel collective power they were near. It was more than he would have imagined the men they were chasing could posses. The thought that they had stumbled into a trap crossed his mind but the knowledge that help was not too far behind them reinforced his opinion that they had to press forward.

Sabbatine stopped them at the crypt entrance. She poked around the door and set off a trap with her spear. Had anyone been standing in the door way they would have been consumed by flames. Once they were inside Teran took the lead. He did not disarm the traps they came across but rather he marked them with the hope that Wilhelm would see his warnings at also guide his party to avoid the traps. He left one of the heartfire gems next to the first trap so that Wilhelm would know what the next warnings would look like and that he would not miss the first warning and set off the trap.

As they went deeper and deeper Sabbatine got more and more on edge. She began blinking a lot and licking her lips, her arms twitched occasionally. She was tense with excitement, the magic she could sense was so strong she half expected it to return her to life when she consumed the magic wielders. She snickered quietly at that thought.

Soon the party could see a light at the end of their tunnel. Teran indicated that they all should wait while he crept ahead to get an idea of what awaited them. He seemingly disappeared right before their eyes as he gained distance from the party and it was while Teran was away that Mavigan felt something slam into her from behind. A very startled looking man looked up at her from where he had fallen, an acolyte judging from his robes. He held up his hands and began chanting a spell!

Written by - Wilhelm

Wilhelm led his small troop to the lip of a desolate valley that reeked of corruption both physically and spiritually. He could tell that they were closer now to Mavigan's group. Looking over the floor of the valley with his eyes and his tracking sense he could tell that Mavigan's group had entered the lone crypt in the center of the valley. The three mages were now holding hands to maintain a joint shield over the party to mask the party from the growing evil power in the valley.

They moved quietly to the entrance of the crypt, which stood open with signs of a flame trap scorching the doorway. Resini bent down and picked up a small object and showed it to Wilhelm, who recognized it as one of the heartfire stones he had seen in Resini's scrying. Clearly Teran had marked the trap in a subtle way that only they would recognize.

They drew their weapons, but took care to continue to move quietly and carefully. Wilhelm and Resini spotted several more stones that marked traps, this time not disarmed. With the warning the mages were able to detect the traps and lead the party around them. The mages kept small balls of handfire moving along the ground that shed light only in a small area, sufficient to allow them to pass but maintaining their night sight.

Wilhelm could sense that they were getting close to Mavigan's group and halted his group at a turn. Mavigan was only 30 yards ahead past the turn. Peaking around the turn he could just see the outlines of the group ahead against a light at the end of the tunnel. They waited for the moment when their aid would be needed.

Written by - Ariana

Inwardly, Mavigan cringed at the expression in Teran’s eyes. She easily recognized it, as it was the same expression she had seen in nearly every pair of eyes since she had been dragged out of Westgale. She had thought herself inured to seeing evidence that she had, once again, failed to live up to expectation, so she was surprised to find unbidden words of apology welling up inside of her mouth.

Before she could speak them, however, Teran turned away without a word and followed Sabbatine down into the valley. The words evaporated before being uttered, and Mavigan felt her heart sink. Mentally, she cursed his freaky younger looking and devilishly handsome self, but the tirade held little heat.

She wasn’t given long to brood, however, since with each step they took, the sensation she had been struggling with for days intensified until her skin felt as if it burned. She clenched her teeth and tried to ignore it. By the time they entered the cave, Mavigan was struggling to keep from vomiting and her complexion was pale. Everything inside of her was pulled as taut as a bow string, and Mavigan was bewildered and ill-equipped to deal with the sensations.

The small group had hidden itself as Teran disappeared ahead. There was no conversation as they all waited for his return. Mavigan hoped they would not have to wait long. The atmosphere pressed heavily upon her, and she honestly didn’t know how much more she could stand.

When something, or rather someone, smacked into the back of her, the tension she felt suddenly released. She spun on her heel and launched a dagger at the now chanting acolyte. The dagger lodged itself in his throat with a pop and a crackle, and his chant, now incomplete, trailed off in a hiss of air. He dropped to his knees, hands clutching uselessly at the dagger, and then Keeryn was on him, dragging him away from Mavigan and finishing him off. Keeryn turned a few seconds later and handed Mavigan back her now bloody dagger with a nod of approval.

Mavigan nodded back and accepted her dagger, returning it to its place with the others. The pressure Mavigan had felt for days seemed to lessen just a little bit. She wasn’t quite sure what had just happened, but she was glad she was no longer in danger of puking on her own boots.

She returned to her place and fixed her gaze forward once again, waiting for Teran to return with news. She heard Keeryn shuffle behind her, and knew that Keeryn was now watching her back. The thought caused Mavigan to give a small smile.

Written by - Tempyst

As Lucant pulled himself from the large stone within the Sacred Grove, he was greeted by a brightly smiling Tempyst. How did I get to be so blessed to have found her and have her as my wife? Suddenly his mind thought of A'lanthear. For a moment he ws angry again, but he soothed his mind and the anger melted to ambivilance. As much as the sword had decieved him, it had helped him as well and he knew he should no longer hold such anger towards the sword. After all, it did bring Tempyst and I together.

Tempyst beamed at the sight of her husband, then let out a gasp as she saw how handsome he was in the fine armor he wore. His presence is different too, he has found himself. Oh Nyrondis, thank you for this blessing. She rushed to Lucant and hugged him tightly then kissed him deeply. He returned the affection, no caring who saw. When they finally broke their kiss (both of them obviously flushed as well), she took his hand within hers. Tempyst began to speak, but Lucant put a finger to her mouth. "You gave me a most wonderful gift, to show your love for me." He held up his hand where her ring still resided. "Now, it is my time to give you a wedding gift." He opened up his palm and showed her a rouch piece of marble, then closed his palm. He grounded himself as he had been taught, and concentrated. Tempyst could sense the change in his aura and kenw something magical was happening. Lucant opened his eyes took Tempyst's left hand into his and placed upon ehr finger a simple band of silver marble. Tempst squeals with joy and once again embraced her husband.

"Thank you Lucant, I will never take it off." Then she saw the sun begin to set low in horizon. "Oh my goodness, I almost forgot. We have been invited to dinner by Ithramir. And you have arrived just in time. Hurry Lucant, we must go!" She took his hand and pullhed him along into the citadel proper.

Written by - Sycon

Sycon remotely caught Ardwen's remark. He had figured Ardwen would hold onto the old ties of Aerynth and the concept of the dragon as it was there.

He exchanged a warm glance with her. Her name unspoken, but known between the two, and her title a Lady of the Land to those that knew of her. She would often appear in many different forms, her favorite being a young beautiful woman with silver hair and eyes as they shown in front of him now. The way they reflected the light made her a goddess in their own serenity.

Her tail waved slightly in the air moving closer to them and coming to rest on the ground gently, not to even stir the dirt. Her voice was much deeper in this form, but still feminine and elegant. Sycon moved to her front and bowed deeply. "Mi'lady, let me introduce you to my friend. He as well came from the same world as I, and as you know it, Aerynth. He is of the Elven Empire, or from what was left before the turning and its destruction." He then turned to Ardwen, "This is my lady. Most call her the Lady of the Land, but I'm sure you could get away with just lady." He inclined his head to see the expression on her face... but then again he was not adept at reading a dragon's expression.

Her voice, almost like the druid's song of the evening, greeted Ardwen formally, "Hello Ardwen, I am glad to see you as well intend to rescue this girl Ariana that is so important to you too. I hear she is a great woman, and I respect you both for your decision, even against the odds." Her head slightly bowed.

Written by - Ardwen

Ardwen just watched the loathsome beast stir its tail. Sycon took the initiative and introduced Ardwen with, "Mi'lady, let me introduce you to my friend. He as well came from the same world as I, and as you know it, Aerynth. He is of the Elven Empire, or from what was left before the turning and its destruction."

Sycon then turned towards Ardwen and introduced the dragon, "This is my lady. Most call her the Lady of the Land, but I'm sure you could get away with just lady." Sycon seemed to tilt his head as if trying to read the dragon's reactions. For a moment, Ardwen wondered if Sycon had doubts himself about the creature.

Ardwen was contemplating correcting Sycon's introduction, especially in regards to the Empire when suddenly the situation got worse . . . the dragon spoke to him, "Hello Ardwen, I am glad to see you as well intend to rescue this girl Ariana that is so important to you too. I hear she is a great woman, and I respect you both for your decision, even against the odds." The dragon dipped its head slightly then, was it a show of respect, or was it trying to hide its amusement at their seemingly vain effort to rescue Ariana?

Ardwen let an awkward silence stretch out before starting, his voice was calculatingly neutral, yet it still carried the impression of a cynical edge, like a film of oil on still water, "I'm going after Ariana for my own reasons. But I find your talk of long odds to be peculiar. Surely you do not speak of the inhabitants of Westgale? Mere insects, I will crush them . . . if I can get there. I suppose you conveniently hold the answer to my quandary? If so I would pray haste in this . . . the taste of battle is so tantalizing." "And," Ardwen seemed to add as an afterthought, "Ariana languishes in a dungeon cell for every second we waste." The warrior apparently had not moved the entire time he was speaking, but if one were to note his posture, one could clearly observe that he had his heels off the ground by a hair's breadth. He was still not relaxing his guard.

Written by - Sycon

Her words came slow, slightly showing her own amusement of the situation. "Very well Ardwen, but if you truly pray haste, then you shall have to trust me, at least for a brief time." She almost giggled as she turned back to Sycon once again, her mood seeming to be happy. "Are you ready?"

Sycon's response came quick as he stepped up to the silver dragon. "Before you were," Sycon grinned at her. She lowered herself to the ground, once again the drit did not so much as stir as she moved. Sycon moved right up to her back haunch and he hoisted himself up onto the base of her neck, between her shoulder blades. This seemed easy for him, almost as if he'd done it before. Sycon looked down upon Ardwen. "You have to admit it will be faster."

Her neck turned to Sycon, "Don't be afraid to hold onto the frills when we rise, they are quite sturdy, you can't hurt me my little fox."

Written by - Tempyst

Ithramir felt as ease among his men. He could by no means, visit all of them, the armies were just to vast, but he could venture out to those who were on the front lines with him and show them that their commander lived. He also had plans to thwart any *kill Kaya* campaigns as well, letting them know she had been purged and was pardoned by himself directly and by the gods. As he told his tale (for all wanted to hear what had happened upon the rooftop), more and more would gather round. He could see the anger in their eyes for the demon and Kaya herself, but he hoped his words of forgiveness would sink into their hearts. But he knew there would still be danger out there for the new demon hunter.

The day progressed and often his thoughts woudl drift to his beloved, and wonder how she was doing. Yes, he coudl sense her now, more so than ever before, but it did not tell him her thoughts. He knew she would need her space, for she was a pig headed, stubborn female. But that was some of the qualities he loved about her. Know that I am here for you my love, know I am here.

On his way back to the citadel, he recieved more news. His head mage had been killed in the battle and that now meant he would need to be replaced. As he road to the castle, his mind went through all possible candidates, but when it came down to it, only one fit the bill. The new mage that hade all but given his life to open the portal the night before; Renalis Dalomar. Yes, the human was new to this realm, but he had come forth and put himself in the middle of all that had been going on. Ithramir often relied on his instincts and they told him Renalis would do excellent in commanding the magical forces. Now, it was back to the office to catch up on paperwork.

Written by - Trinni Shannon

Beaming up at Renalis, still very glad to see him alive, she nods seriously when he apologizes then starts snickering when he calls her a lady. A Lady! Imagine that! No one has ever called her that, he must have hit his head or something.

Renalis then pointed to the mean lady and she suddenly had a name. His wife! Did that mean she'd have to be nice to this Crystal lady? She seemed really nice now... hmm. Trinni blushed as Renalis recited all of her names, how ever did he remember them all?

Crystal curtsied somehow, though she didn't wear a skirt. Taking a breath, Trinni smiles at her. "Is it? It is! Nice to meet you finally, now you have a name!"

Seeing Kaya leaving out of the corner of her eye, and determined to have the last word, she holds up one finger letting Renalis and Crystal know she'll be right back with them, then she turns and calls to Kaya over her shoulder. "If ya keep calling me youngling, I'm gonna have ta start calling you OLD LADY! You bein' older than me doesn't make you always right, ya know."

Harrumphing, she turns back then beams a smile at the pair. "So, have ya had your morning meal yet?"

****

In the safety of her office, Lithwyn cleans up the mess of last night. She shakes her head in disbelief, smiling now and again.

The room finally back in order, she sits behind the stack of papers on her desk and begins what is sure to be a long day. Various reports from different sectors in the citadel.

Leov had run off, taking his entire crew with him, back out to sea. A pity, that. She had seen many faces on that ship, and too few of them seemed prepared for a life at sea. Children, families, some looked more than ready to return to land. Living in a sea port is quite another thing from living on a boat. She filed the report with finished business.

A few reports later, Leov, and his ship, were brought back to Lothiel Gadith by none other than Aelyndria Val'thanis of the sea elves. How many were aboard the ship? What percentage were single, married, or with families? Did any require special accomodations? In what ways can each contribute to the citadel? All of these questions would have to be attended to. Making notes, she places the report among ongoing business.

Raevyn Treun departed in the middle of the night, having apparently found his quarry. Something still twanged out of place with her. It didn't add up. Why would a murderer be so out in the open? Why would she risk it? She made a note to follow up on him.

Kaya was pardoned after it was determined that she was possessed by a demon at the time of her attack on Ithramir. The increasing reports of demon contact was disconcerting. Apparently, she will be collaborating with the demon hunters within the citadel and the sword Alanthear has apparently chosen her as it's new wielder.

Tempyst has returned from her slumber... so soon? Lithwyn wasn't a druid, but she thought for sure that those things took time. What has brought her back?

Lucant was found in an alley, badly injured, part of some foul play. An investigation is ongoing and Lucant is not experiencing an residual physical effects.

A report from Resini states that Queen Mavigan is still under close watch by Wilhelm, apparently more than safe during her journey.

Ardwen, the night in the berserker suit if memory serves, dissappeared into the night. A witness states he was purturbed about something and ran off, shortly followed by another man, Sycon.

The situation in Minus Aure is stabilizing, any remaining orc forces are being stamped out. Within the coming days, forces will be regrouping, including those brought back for healing. Though the battle was won, the war was far from over. There is still the threat of another Orc invasion, the main force still must be dealt with.

More and more reports. Skirmishes, problems in nearby farms, blacksmiths requesting more aides and more space, a minor fire destroying part of a building, a spill in the banquet hall kitchen where stacks of platters were shattered beyond repair and a young woman broke her ankle, on and on as the sun streaked across the sky.

A rumbling in her stomach interrupted her thoughts as she poured over a document. Annoyed and not wanting to waste time, she glanced around and noticed a plate of fruits, cheese, and bread along with a pitcher and a goblet on the small table near the door. When was that brought in? She new it wasn't there earlier. Immensely grateful, she transfered the food to the one clean corner of her desk so she could munch and work.

Written by - Lucant Dolvan

Jonan yawned and stretched as he ambled into the broken hovel. He wondered how the place was even still standing - the wooden walls were warped beyond any hope of repair and the thatched roof had several large holes in it.

"Well, you can't just leave it at that. What happened," one of the guards said. "Huh? What? Oh yeah, that..." Jonan said as his attention was ripped from the stars above. "Anyways... Carlyle had a few lunky looking guards wandering around the place. They looked like Larseno there on a good day," he said as a friendly jab. Larseno didn't hear him, much to his dismay. "Yeah...anyways... it wasn't hard to sneak around those "guards" of his and get to the cellar. Now, I've seen a lot of stuff in my day, but what Carlyle had down there is just plain incredible. There was more loot down there than I could carry out in a week. I swear, it's like he had gone to town on the palace vaults. BUT... I was a good little lawbreaker and didn't take any of it. It was pretty tempting, tough, especially when I figured out Morning Sun wasn't there."

The young guards where wide-eyed in anticipation, hanging on to his every word. The seemed to love the excitement. "So... I went up to the next most likely spot... which happened to be the attic. That house is enourmous, by the way, took me nearly five minutes to find the damned attic, which is probably why what happens next happened. Anyways... I finally got up there, and there the thing was sitting in a display case like it was an old trophy."

"Morning Sun is HARDLY a "thing" you miserable excuse for a thief," Larseno interjected.

"Whatever Lar. Do you want to hear the rest of the story or not?"

Taking his cue from the silence, Jonan continued. "Now then... I was hoping I could pick the thing open like a civilized thief, but I got robbed of that when the door started to creak open. I turned around in time to see Carlyle and and a couple guards there behind." Jonan then depened his voice in mockery of Duke Carlyle. "Just like I was expecting. She won't have it back." He cleared his throat, then continued, "Now at the time, I had no clue what he was talking about, but that part comes later. Anyways, I drew a knife and slung it at him just to distract him for a second. Then I punched the case in and got the sword. Not exactly how I was hoping to do it, but I got it done nonetheless. And, of course, the only viable exit was a window... so I did what I had to do. I yelled "Thank you for the kind gift, loyal Duke Carlyle." and jumped... out of a third story window. Luckily, my back broke my fall."

"Well where is Morning Sun now? Why don't you have it," Larseno asked.

"You don't know how to wait, do you old man? I'm gonna teach you to be patient if it kills both of us," Jonan said as he stood up and went outside to get some more of the food in the cart. As he opened the rickety door, he added as an afterthought: "I really liked that knife..."

****

Leov made his way back to the infirmary as if death itself was persuing him. "That damn blue boy would a better preacher than a fighter..." he thought angrily. "Oh well... we won't be here much longer anyways."

When he got back, everyone was carrying on and carousing as if the infirmary was Kassali tavern. "Hey! I'm back! Now, let's get down to business!" Everyone quickly quited down and turned towards him. Leov didn't waste any time to assert himself: "We're going back to Kassal. It's our home, our country, our lives, our families. I was wrong to abandon her when she needed me and I was even more wrong to drag all of you with me. So we're going back. And we're gonna take back what's ours."

The cheering seemed to shake the whole building.

"Only problem... is how we're gonna get back..." Leov said sheepishly.

Aelyndria gave a cold smile: "Allow me, child."

Written by - Ardwen

"You have to admit it will be faster." Was Sycon's only quip when he climbed onto the dragon's back. Ardwen merely stared, he turned slightly away and glanced into the sky as if searching for something. Briefly his thoughts had turned to home, his true home, and the Twilight that once was. In his five-thousand plus years he would have never, not once, expected to ride a dragon.

"This is a bizarre world." He announced aloud before cautiously approaching the dragon, "Still," He continued after a bit, "This Westgale has caused me more problems than any other city I've attempted to get into, and we're not even there yet! Why did they have to build the cursed city thing so far away?" The dragon had lowered itself to the ground, Ardwen crouched low and sprang as high as he could muster which - when one considers his equipment - was a great leap.

Clasping onto the beast's hide he managed to orient himself and move behind Sycon. The dragon had not even flinched when he made his crude ascent, a fleeting look of admiration passed over Ardwen's face and he let out a soft whistle. Staring at Sycon's back he said to him, "I hope I was supposed to get up here too, I'd have to be wing buffeted off . . ." He allowed the last few words to hand in the air.

Written by - Pharsalus

Pharsalus sat staring at a small campfire on the side of the road. Vylia and Ariel, the two young ladies who had so recently joined his trip to Ancora, sat and lay opposite and beside him in an easy silence. Ariel was asleep. She hadn't wanted to sleep, fighting to keep her eyes open and stuck on this strange little man of stone, fighting to stay tensed against whatever treachery these strangers would unleash upon her. But in her state, and given the dramatic events of the day, her defenses against Sleep's barrage had crumpled and burned. What a day she'd had, thought the priest! The priest turned his eyes to her sleeping form. She lay in a loose foetal position, her head resting awkwardly on the folded crook of her arm which bent back under her ear. He couldn't help but smirk as a soft whistle seeped from the girl's dirty, regal little nose as she breathed. He knew nothing about her, save what he'd plucked from her dreams the first several nights she was underh is care. And yet he fought for her, defended her, betrayed his censure of violent tendency to save her from the doom that took her family. He hoped his Father was watching from somewhere.

The priest stood, casually brushing the dirt from the rump of his tattered pants. He was still shirtless. After Vylia's all too brief introduction, he deemed it wise to flee the scene before more came, and he hadn't thought to bring a new one with him. He worried not so much for himself - more for the sanity and well-being of the girl. Even Vylia did not concern him. She proclaimed to be of Aerynth, like himself, like his kin, like Archeantus whom he now hoped to meet by the end of the next day; he believed her. Everything about her confirmed her story - he needed no idle banter or uncomfortable probing to uncover this. He noticed now that he was barefooted, too. All he had to his name anymore was his staff, his tattered, blood-spattered trousers, and a small pouch on his right hip. He was mildly embarassed in front of the females, even he was made of rock and they flesh.

He turned toward the woods behind them, toward a spot he knew not far from here with a clearing and a large, moss-covered stone as old as the forest itself, and addressed Vylia as he started to walk toward the chirping gloom.

"I trust the girl to your care. I will not be far - only through these trees - so you may call me if you need me." He paused, placing his hand on the closest tree and speaking over his shoulder. "I thank you, for myself and for the girl, for your assistance today. It is good to meet another of our world. Please, sleep - I do not expect any further interruptions tonight." He resumed his pace - if the girl had responded, he did not hear her. His resolve was turned toward the night in front of him, toward the clearing, toward his training. His fight with the bandits today had revealed a terrible weakness in himself - one he'd not realized was there until long after the rush had subsided.

"Thurin keep me," he sighed to himself, "He churns within me...awake after so many ages? He seeks my ruin. He seeks my return to servitude to him." He frowned and looked at the axe-and-anvil insignia burned into his right palm before time was time. It burned a dim crimson in the dark of the forest night. He clenched a fist and shook away these saddening thoughts as he came into the clearing.

It was a fine place - unusually quiet for a place so unmistakably in the woods. The break in the leafy canopy formed almost a perfect circle of dim, blue-ish light revealing at the clearing's center a large, bulbous, old rock. Pharsalus approached, feeling lightened in its presence, and placed his hand gently upon its lichen encrusted surface. He smiled.

"Old friend...still here I see?" He chuckled softly to himself before his smile ran away from his face. "We are so different, you and I, and yet so unequivacably similar in our solitude. I hope you do not mind me training here tonight - I will try not to make so much noise!" Patting the old lump of earth on what would be its shoulder had it the same great fortune as Pharsalus had being given life by his Father, he turned and took his place a few paces away, where the grass and underbrush and leafy carpet was not so thick, planting his feet as he'd planted them a thousand times before. He dropped his weight slightly, keeping both legs adequately bent, but firmly in place, and extended his rear-most arm forward across his chest, his fore-most arm out in front. He straightened the fingers of both hands, clasping them tightly together and bending them at the outter knuckles ever so slightly. He closed his eyes and concentrated....and concentrated....and concentrated. He did not allow his telepathic mind to wander. Instead, he kept it tight against himself, focusing inward upon his own frame like the lights of a stage. His breathing was deep, his thoughts clear, his eyes beginning to burn blue beneath their earthen lids. He allowed himself to depend only on his own senses, distracting an otherwise wandering mind inward, forever inward on himself. His breathing slowed still more as his ears and nose took in the gentle gusts of wind, pregnant with the sweet scent of jasmine and pine. He could feel the cloth of his trousers flapping, turning this way and that against his aged legs.

There! There it was, as it always was, so many times before. It fluttered from the tops of unseen trees in a gentle sway on its way to the forest floor, soft and pink and wonderful. Pharsalus on Aerynth had never imagined harboring any love of the woods - only the clank of steel on stone and the roar of forgefire stirred his ancient blood in the days of old. But while weather smoothed his rough edges from the outside, so, too, had time on the inside. He welcomed these moments, these delicate spaces in time in which all that mattered, all he cared for, fell softly down before him. A wind took leaves from their beds on the ground and cast them up into the air in a brown, raspy swirld around the old priest. By sound and feel, he counted twenty six...

WOOSH He punched. A leaf exploded and burned at the tip of his extended fingers.

SWISH....WOOSH...SHWIP....WOOSH... Again and again and again his arms and legs moved and struck and moved and struck ash e commanded with all the balance and finesse of two and a half centuries of solitary practice. All around him slowed as his war-hardened, time-tuned senses painted targets against the mind's eye. He focused his breathing to remain constant, just as it had been in his state of motionlessness.

...SWISH! WOOSH! WOOSH! GUSH! ... His body continued its assault on the leaves that now, one by one, met a fate of fire at the priest's unwavering fists and feet.

THU-THUMP

Silence ensued as Pharsalus stood re-planted, legs together, body erect, hand extended outward. He smirked as one leaf continued its flight unimpeded away from him and as a small pink flower settled into his open palm.

Twenty-seven, he chucked to himself, turning his eyes to the silent old stone, I've still more practice to do, it seems... He turned his hand on its side, letting the flower continue its journey to the ground. A warm wind drove it away and upward, back toward the whispering heights from which it had come. Pharsalus leaned against the old rock and gazed upward, still having to control his breathing from his exercize, as a figure became slowly visible at the clearing's edge.

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