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Book Four Pt 2 - The Eastern Pass

Written by - Ariana

Ariana turned to see Vylia coming at her rather quickly, blanket in tow. “Vylia!” she said with a smile, proud of herself for remembering.

She was quickly bundled into the blanket and hustled back into the room she had just left. New people came, but she didn’t pay much attention. She was much more intrigued by the assortment of clothing they laid out on the bed.

Grinning, she tossed the blanket off her shoulders and left it in a heap on the floor. Questing fingers first discovered the robes. She picked them up and held them out, as if she were studiously contemplating the stitching. After a moment she sneered at it and tossed it over her shoulder to join the blanket on the floor.

She took several minutes fingering each piece of clothing laid before her, sneering at some, smiling at others. Once her selections were made, Vylia deftly stepped in and helped her get dressed. When it was finished, she stood before Vylia and spread her arms wide and smiled. “She dresses like Vylia now!” she said, shuffling her newly booted feet happily.

“She is ready. The glowing one said she must go to Westgale.” Her face scrunched a bit as she tried to remember what else the glowy woman had said. “She also said she must take Ardwen, ‘cause he is lost and filled with hot air.”

Never thinking for a moment that Vylia would say no, she then clomped over to the door and stood there expectantly.

Written by - Wilhelm

"As you command. If that is your plan, then we first need to get into the city. I know a way to sneak in under the walls via an abandoned sewer. It's known by some as the Thieves' Highway. Brell may have heard of it.

For this mission, you will become Brell again and I will be Sly Willy, the Bounty Hunter. We are sneaking into the city on a smuggling run. In fact, what we are smuggling is ourselves. If we meet members of the Thieves Guil let me talk to them, as I know the countersigns.

Now lets gets ready. We want to get through the sewers during the night."

Turning away, Wilhelm pulled out a disguise kit from his pack and quickly applied the makeup, fake scar, and hair powder that, along with the worn armor and clothing he had donned earlier and an insolent slouch and sneer, transformed him from the noble Wilhelm, Paladin of the All Father, into Sly Willy, the Bounty Hunter.

Striking the same arrogant pose and leer, he turned back and again used the phrase that had earned him a slap from an unknowing Brell in a seedy inn back before the assassination.

"Well, girlie, how's about coming with me for some fun?"

Written by - Vylia

Vylia just stood there smiling at Ariana pouring over the clothing like a discerning customer rather than someone who hadn't a clue who or where she was. She giggled at Ariana's statement that Ardwen was full of hot air before picking up the Triskellion pendant and walking over to join Ariana at the door. "As you wish Lady, just one suggestion. When talking about yourself, you should say I rather than she. I am ready."

Vylia turns to look at Amalia, "Magus Amalia, it seems we have a destination to reach. Who must we speak to in order to allow the Lady to leave the city?"

Written by - Ardwen

Ardwen looked around him, suddenly snapping out of his torpor. His gaze carried him to the highest point of the Citadel, a single massive tower that stood vigilant over the land far below. The Elven warrior began to walk towards it, unsure of how to get to its gate, but certain that he knew who he would find at the tower’s summit. Ardwen passed through the courtyard back into the Citadel, wound his way through a series of hallways before emerging into another smaller courtyard. The tower loomed large before him now, and he had to bend back to catch a glimpse of the top. His keen eyesight picked out a dark smudge near the tower’s lip that seemed to shift and waver. Ardwen nodded to himself, he had been correct.

Much to Ardwen’s surprise the portcullis at the tower’s base was open, most likely the rangers at the Citadel had seen no reason to fortify the least likely point of entry to the Citadel imaginable. Ardwen crossed the threshold and looked up the long spiral flight of stairs; he began to take them three at a time. The tower was tall, and the stairs wound all the way at the top with only a few landings to rest on, but the Elven bladeweaver did not pause at them, he continued his steady pace all the way to the top. The uppermost portion of the tower did not directly lead to the top, instead there was a small antechamber used for storage and observation when the weather or wind outside prevented a sentry from standing in the elements.

Ardwen noted a small wooden door that lead to the outside, it looked worn and the wood had warped in places, but the hinges were oiled and looked clean. Ardwen pushed on the door, which opened with barely a sound. The first thing Ardwen did was blink in the light of the midday sun, as his eyes adjusted Ardwen saw Elerus standing atop one of the tower crenulations. His back was towards Ardwen and he had donned a white haori, there was a near constant breeze, and the white overcoat and Elerus’s hair both flowed in the wind.

As Ardwen closed the door Elerus turned to regard him. Ardwen did not say a word. “Well-“ Elerus began, but Ardwen cut him off.

“Shut-up,” Ardwen said softly, “not a word.” Elerus looked hurt and lowered his eyes but Ardwen continued, “I’m worried that words will ruin this moment. Isn’t it enough to live in this moment, for one another, and pretend that’s all there is?” Ardwen saw a small smile spread across Elerus’s face, the Elf nodded once and hopped off the top of the stone crenellation. The young Elf rested his back against the stone and stretched his wing out into the breeze; Ardwen took a seat on the opposite side of the same crenellation.

True to Ardwen’s request, Elerus did not speak a word, neither of them did. The air stirred around them and carried the sounds of the fortress below, but still the two said nothing. As the day slipped by the tip of the sun touched a distant mountain, and the sky bloomed with shades of orange, pink, and red. “You’ve got questions.” Ardwen said at last. “You too.” Ardwen heard Elerus’s voice answer from behind. Ardwen closed his eyes and said, “It’s the least I can do to let you go first.”

“Fine!” Elerus said, and Ardwen noticed the origin of his voice had shifted. As he opened his eyes he saw him standing on the crenellation in front of him now. The Elven warrior shook his head slightly, still having a hard time believing the young boy in front of him could really be Elerus. But then as he looked again, it became easier. The features, his forward actions in the courtyard this morning, all only reinforced what the memory sphere had told Ardwen. Elerus had turned to look at Ardwen over his shoulder and said, “Do I look repulsive?”

Ardwen scoffed and replied, “Hardly. It’s just . . . well, you know.” Elerus nodded and changed the subject, “This is a whole new world, isn’t it? How did you get here? How are there Hands here? Would you have really burned this world?”

Ardwen blinked at the barrage of questions and answered them in turn, “Yes, and so far as I know the All-Father brought me here for reasons only he knows. As for the Hands, I’m not certain, from what I’ve gathered they came here by a portal of some sort, most likely Pandarrion had a hand in that as well. As for this planet . . .” Ardwen stood reached a hand out to the setting sun he fanned his hand out and slowly brought the fingers back into a tight fist.

“That,” Elerus said dryly, “was the sun, and not this planet.”

Ardwen turned his head toward Elerus, while Elerus was standing on top of the defensive stone their heights were closer, but Ardwen simply slumped back against the stone and sat back down. “It was supposed to be symbolic.” He snorted.

Elerus hopped off the top of the protective stone and folded his arms, leaning his back against the wall he opened his mouth but Ardwen cut him off, “Can’t you sit still?”

In response Elerus affected a wounded pose by tilting his face up and said, “I spent a lot of time in that cage! Can’t blame me for wanting to stretch a little.”

“I see,” Ardwen said while reaching forward and placing a feather on Elerus’s wing in between his thumb and index fingers, “in any case, I think it’s my turn. What . . . happened?” Elerus didn’t answer at first; instead he moved to turn away, Ardwen made sure to move his fingers. The winged boy turned his face to the sun and shut his eyes, seemingly content to feel its warmth for a minute before answering.

Without preamble Elerus began speaking in a tone barely above a whisper, “The Trees started failing us. People were dying and not returning, and the Empire’s armies were short on men. As things got worse, all the enemies the Elves had made decided to invade. By this point there were too few of us to do anything but try and stem the tide as the civilians fled. The Emperor became desperate for answers, I guess in the end he wasn’t up to the task, because he started delegating all the duties of state and retreating into long periods of silence. Or maybe, it was planned that way?”

Elerus paused here for a moment, but Ardwen understood his meaning. There was no shortage of people that coveted the throne, and he would not put it past the envious courtiers and princes to vie for power even as the Empire crumbled. “I received an offer of inducement into the Order of the Griffin,” Elerus began, “I declined at first, but then the offered sweetened, it was to be a full military commendation. Naturally, it was a trap, but I . . . I was looking for you Ardwen. I thought the award might give me greater pull within the Empire, access to more information and resources.”

Ardwen bowed his head, Elerus turned and saw his friend slouched over as if in defeat and quickly said, “I know what you’re thinking! But it’s not that simple. The trap wasn’t for me, Visan did not want me.”

“Then what was his objective?” Ardwen muttered.

“He . . .” Elerus said, and then there was a long pause. Ardwen raised his head to see tears laden in the young Elf’s eyes. “He was looking for you.”

“Why?” Ardwen questioned.

“He was looking for more test subjects, but he needed someone stronger, someone with a body that could withstand his methods. Who do you think his research pointed to? I’m not sure what he hoped to accomplish, but it almost looked like he was continuing the SE project . . . .”

No sooner had Elerus said his last two words than Ardwen jerked his head upwards, Elerus had lowered his gaze to the ground, and as Ardwen watched he ran toward the door.

Elerus’s vision was clouded with tears, but he felt movement next to him, there was a blur of purple and black and Ardwen was in front of him. The warrior knelt down and blocked his path. “El!” Ardwen called out urgently, using his friend’s nickname, “Why?”

“No!” Elerus said sharply, trying to turn away, but Ardwen placed a hand on his shoulder, “You’ll blame yourself, and I know it! I--“

“Don’t.” Ardwen cut in, “Don’t say it, say it, whatever, but I won’t see you sad.”

“It’s why he used me, “Elerus whispered, “I wouldn’t give him any information about you. I knew what he wanted to do, it could have been you standing here if --“

“I would have gladly taken your place, if that would have earned your freedom.” Ardwen said gravely.

“Ardwen . . .”

“Besides,” Ardwen said with a smirk, “I’ve always wanted wings.”

Elerus returned the slight smile and said, “I’m afraid I’ve only got one for now.”

Ardwen stood and turned toward the door. The sun had nearly dipped below the horizon and the sky was starting to show blues and purple. “Then I think you should stick with me for a while. Time and fate have always tried to drag us out separate ways, and I for one am sick of it.”

“Hmmm,” Elerus said slyly, “is that your way of asking me to help?”

“Do as you wish.” Ardwen rejoined flatly.

“Saa!” Elerus exclaimed, “Always so serious! I know you want to help that Ariana lady of yours, and I can’t have you blundering about on your own burning world and crushing suns.”

“I see,” Ardwen said, “in that case I think we should get back to her room, she seems to go crazy when I’m not around.”

“Sure, oh, and Ardwen? One more thing.” Ardwen turned to glance at Elerus and saw he was standing near the edge of the tower. His back was toward the open sky and he said with that same slight smile he had adopted when Ardwen first arrived, “Race you.” With that Elerus turned and leapt off the edge.

Ardwen simply sighed and rolled his eyes, “Braggart.” Turning back to the door he began to walk down the tower’s stairs.

Elerus let the wind roar past him for a minute, breathing in the air. He closed his eyes and focused for a brief second. What he could do without his blade was limited and the scant mana in the air on this world only made it more difficult, but then he only had to form one now. In a flash of vapor and a stir of chill air a wing of pure ice formed opposite to the natural one of his right shoulder. With a few graceful flaps he slowed his descent and coasted through the air, watching the fortress’s ground zip by below. In a few seconds he found the courtyard where Ardwen had fought Visan, an easy task considering it still showed the scars of their battle. Elerus landed on a nearby roof and let his legs fold beneath him, coming to rest on his knees.

The Elven child hopped off the rooftop and touched down gently in the courtyard below. With scarcely a thought he dismissed the false wing and ran into a nearby hallway. At first he was lost, but Ariana always seemed to have some commotion going on about her, and using his ears Elerus was able to locate her room again. Standing outside the doorway he leaned against the wall and waited for Ardwen to show up. The Elven warrior did, after a few minutes had passed. Ardwen leaned against the wall on the opposite side of the doorframe and after a few second said, "You win.”

Written by - Wilhelm

Kathana held her hand out over the table and concentrated.

"In the name of Tinorb the All Father, let there be Truth spoken here."

A blue glowing ball of light appeared in her hand and remained above the table when she withdrew here hand. She turned to speak to Vylia.

"The ball remains blue when truth is spoken and turns red when a lie is uttered. By this we will know if you speak the truth and you will know the same of us. I am Kathana, Priestess of Tirorb the All Father, and this is Amalia, Mage of the Blue Circle.

This is the Citadel of Lothiel-Gadith, commanded by Ithramir Sil-Galdur, Avatar of Avandor . His second in command is Lithwyn Ehlonna Deltheron, High Priestess and Avatar of Kaia'hanas. You must speak to them for permission to leave and assistance in your travels. We are at war and they must pass judgement on any newcomers to the citadel.

But first you must tell me your names and origin and how you came to appear herein such a dramatic fashion. I can then report to Lord Ithramir and arrange for an audience."

Kathana sat back and waited for the response. The glowing ball had remained a steady blue throughout her speech.

Written by - Vylia

"If this is what it takes, then we shall answer your questions to the best of our ability. My name is Vylia Des'Koryn, I am the niece of King Valdimanthor of the Elven Empire prior to the events of the Turning on a world known as Aerynth. I was one hundred and thirty years old when time effectively stopped on my homeworld, I estimate I spent approximately three hundred years there after the world shattered, though I'm sure there is someone with a better sense of time that could be more exact. Honestly when you spend most of the time fighting things just seem to stretch out, so it may well have been less time." Vylia sits down on the edge of the table next to the floating light before continuing. "I eventually encountered, and joined, a group of the All-Father's followers called The Hands of Providence, led by one Ariana Trueblood. We endured a great many fights, some just barely, but our luck did not hold forever. Eventually we came to realize that we could not fix the world as we had hoped. I assume Ariana had a vision of some sort, she never did tell me the details, but the All-Father had given us a way out. A portal was opened leading from that broken world to this one. The majority of us came over, though some, like Ardwen, stayed behind. Since most of the Hands were human they are most likely long dead unfortunately. It would seem from current events they would be very useful to have around right now."

Vylia paused for a moment, walking over to the nightstand beside the bed she had slept in to retrieve a cup of water before going back to sit on the edge of the table again. "Sorry, haven't had anything to drink in awhile. At any rate, how we ended up here in such a dramatic fashion can be traced back to just over a two weeks ago when a few of the surviving Hands all recieved a message, either from a vision, dream, or direct contact with a diety, regarding that yound lady with the extraordinary powers," Vylia nodded at Ariana, "We were told she had to be saved and so we set out to do just that. Most of us thought we were the only ones going I'd imagine, considering how surprised we all were to see each other. Beridane had planned to use her as a sacrifice to summon into this world a demon or horrendous strength, so it seems the All-Father had the right of things in having us save her. After a series of chases and fights we managed to get her onto a ship in the harbor, a harbor that was apparently under assault by a fleet led by a dwarf in the service of someone named Mavigan. During that fight a rather large Harpy attempted to summon a demon far beyond her strength, a demon which was pushed back into it's own realm by a combined effort of several of the Hands and a mysterious individual on another ship, one I never did get a chance to speak to. We lost one of our companions in that fight, Turin Wallace." Vylia paused again to take a sip of water from the cup in her hand before turning to look at Kathana, "Interrupt me if I'm being too long-winded by the way, but you did ask for our origin," she continues with a smile. "After the battle we sailed to a small island, I'm sorry but I don't remember its name, where that girl showed us why she was so important to the All-Father gave us a display of the powers she had access to, one I experienced rather personally because she was rather spooked at the time. We managed to calm her down with the help of one of the other Hands. I wish he was here now, he has a much better eye for details. At any rate, after we got her cleaned up and changed into clothes that weren't covered with blood she decided to take a little walk through the forest to a very old statue of Ariana. Upon investigating it she was pulled into it, I'd put coin on that being the All-Father's fault, and Ardwen leapt in after her, followed closely by myself."

"When we got through to the other side of that particular portal we found ourselves here. Ardwen had apparently been here before since he was recognized and the elves here readily followed his orders. We were brought to the infirmary so she could be looked at more closely than we had been able to after our escape from Westgale. With the assistance of your healers and a mage that was somewhat skilled in mind magics she seemed to recover a bit more. I made the mistake of going to sleep without actually assigning someone to watch over her, and when I awoke again she had already destroyed a number of pieces of pottery in the ward and then raced out the door into town where she proceeded to go wild over the fact that Ardwen had broken a promise not to leave her side. After that I'm sure you were informed of how we were brought here to this particular room." With a smile Vylia finished the last of the water before putting the cup down on the table beside her, "Anything I can clarify further for you?"

Written by - Wilhelm

Kathana listened to Vylia with a visible effort to hide her incredulity. She kept glancing at the truth light, which remained blue throughout Vylia's speech. When Vylia concluded, Kathana placed her right hand over her heart and bowed her head in reverent greeting.

"Welcome to Lothiel-Gadith, Vylia Des'Koryn, member of the Hands of Providence. I am honored to make your acquaintance. The coming of the Hands of Providence saved the world from falling into the dark during the last War of the Gods. Saint Ariana Trueblood founded my Order of Tinorb the All Father and the Holy Founder is still revered among us. I am truly honored to meet another member of the Hands of Providence, as I was when I met Ardwen. In this new War of the Gods, the arrival of you and Ardwen is both welcome and the fulfillment of prophesy.

It is amazing to actually meet figures from the history I studied during my novice days. Perhaps the prophecy of Saint Ariana's return will also come true. I remember looking at Saint Ariana's statue and dreaming of actually meeting her, although that would mean the time of greatest peril was again upon the world.

Kathana's look of reminisence was abruptly changed by a startled look, as she turned to the other woman and studied her. A look of awe with a touch of fear crossed her face. Turning back to Vylia, she said,

"Earlier you addressed her as Ariana. Is this in fact the Holy Founder, Saint Ariana Trueblood, returned to us at last?"

Written by - Vylia

At that moment a note of warning rang out in Vylia's head, something told her she was not supposed to reveal Ariana just yet. Vylia took a long look at Ariana before shaking her head.

"I am sorry to say, she is not the same Ariana."

The truth light remained a steady blue.

Written by - Lucant Dolvan

The chapel’s dusty hallway was lit only by pair of candles that were close to burning themselves out. A plain oaken door stood as the guardian to the old priest’s rectory at the hallway’s end. Upon entering, the younger man was surprised to see a magnificent stained glass window depicting Tinorb’s triskellion behind the priest’s desk.

“When did you get that put in,” he asked as he laid the sword on the desk.

The old priest smiled again. “Oh… a few years ago - just before Beridane ascended to the throne. You really should come by more often, child.”

“Why don’t we just get down to business, Ezra?”

“Patience child,” he said as he sat down at his desk and placed his hands over the blade, “You shall have your answer soon enough. Or, at the very least, be a bit closer to it.” The priest closed his eyes and began to mumble a quiet prayer to the All-Father. His hands began to glow faintly with a blue-white light as he tried to discern what secrets the blade held.

Several moments of uncomfortable silence passed before Ezra spoke. His brow was soaked with sweat and appeared visibly tired. “You did well to bring this here when you did – you should have done so much earlier. Someone or something has imprisoned a demon’s spirit within the blade.”

“So I was right about the runes…”

“To an extent. I do believe they’re in place to keep the spirit in place. There must be something else to them, however – a dampening aspect or something of the sort. It was very difficult to discern what was actually trapped. I could only get a feeling of great anger and resentment from the initial prayer.”

“What sort of demon is it? Could you tell?”

“A deceiver. Not an exceptionally powerful one, but a deceiver nonetheless. It was likely nothing more than a servant that fell out of favor with its master.” Ezra stood, wiping the sweat from his wrinkled brow. He noticed the concerned expression his friend wore. “But trouble yourself no more child. I will have this abomination destroyed with utmost haste.”

“Thank you…very much for your assistance Ezra. I should be going soon, then. I need to get my thoughts in order over this. If you ever need anything, please let me know.”

“I will child,” he said with a tired smile. “May the peace of the All-Father go with you.”

“Well… I suppose I should head home,” the man said to himself as he departed the chapel. “At the very least, father and Richter should be happy to have an answer.”


Written by - Teran Page 17 Book 4

The Assassin admired the work that had been done on the city walls since his last visit. Beridane had spent much on fortifying his city which brought a smile to Teran's face. Walls could keep an army at bay, but they were ineffective against the threat Beridane would be facing very soon.

He slipped into the Shadow as he neared the gate, blinking out of sight in an instant. He walked through the now abandoned gate and felt Huxel's familiar presence. Huxel manifested behind him and peered over his shoulder as though she were trying to read something, her cold breath on his neck nearly caused the Assassin to cringe.

“Good day, Mistress.” he said politely as he stepped quickly away from her, and then turned around and offered a slight bow to show respect.

Huxel offered a curtsy in reply and smiled at her “friend”. The form the goddess chose to manifest in for the assassin always had haunted him. She always hovered a few inches off the ground and seemed light as a feather. She dressed in white clothing, had pale flesh, and white hair but despite all that there was no denying that she was a creature of darkness.

“I've been looking forward to your next visit Teran, my home has felt so.... crowded lately.” she said sweetly with a voice that contradicted her frightening look.

“As you willed.” he reminded her curtly.

“So I did.” she responded absentmindedly, fidgeting with one of her jagged ears.

Teran turned to continue on her way but stiffened when he felt one of her cold hands on his shoulder.

“Come and sit with me for a while.” she said with mock loneliness in her voice, motioning to an empty table that sat in the middle of the street.

The Assassin nodded politely and seated Huxel, and then sat across from her.

“I was wondering...” she said whimsically, “Which do you like better?”

Her appearance changed before his eyes, her hair became black her flesh gained some color, her ears even grew to their full elven length, but most striking was her eyes... they were a shade of blue so brilliant that the Shadow around her seemed to warp to frame her now lovely face. Her aura of darkness remained but was considerably less terrifying as it seemed to represent the darkened night sky rather than the void of death.

“That is a trick question Mistress, you will use the form you like no matter what my opinion is.” he answered carefully, “I don't believe you care what I think, just as I do not care which of my forms you prefer.” he finished with a polite smile.

“Perhaps...” she said softly, “Buuuuut... this is my realm, I can choose which of your forms I want to see.” she said mischievously.

Teran felt a change within him and narrowed his eyes. He did not realize she had this much power, certainly she had never showed it off so blatantly before. He held up his hand to stop her and out of respect for him she ceased her meddling. He could not hide the surprise on his face which brought a smile so dazzling to Huxel's face that shooting stars seem to fire all through her dark aura.

“There are few among the deities that could un-do your illusion and fewer mortals still, but your illusion is nothing before my eyes.”

The Assassin averted his eyes and did not even attempt to hide his embarrassment. When his eyes once again returned to the goddess she had reverted to her original deathly form.

“I'm glad you have chosen to speak with me today.” he said after an awkward moment of silence.

“I know.” she said with a knowing smile.

“I would seek your favor.”

“You have done much for me Teri.” she said using a pet name she knew he despised.

“Mavigan will be coming to a crossroads in her life soon and our paths may separate. I would ask that you keep her in your favor and allow her to continue using your realm as she wishes.” he said in a clipped tone.

“I like her, you know.” Huxel said wistfully, “There's something about her...but you'll need to do something for me first.”

“Anything.” he said simply.

“Anything?” she asked in a tone that made him regret not asking for more information.

“I want you to show me your true self... and I want to ride on your back!”

“W-what?” he stammered, caught completely off guard, “Absolutely not! Can't you fly? You control the Shadow... don't you have a spirit around here somewhere who could do the same thing for you?”

The more he spoke the wider her little mouth spread in a smile that sent chills down the Assassin's back.

“Your kind don't come here when they die... unfortunately.” she pouted, “Besides, I don't want a spirit to do it, I want you.”

She gazed into his sharp gray eyes with an unblinking gaze and a battle of the wills seemed to take place... Teran could not hope to win against the goddess.

“You must close off access, no one can be permitted to see this.” he said through gritted teeth, “Not Sabbatine, not Mavigan, no one! Do you understand?”

Huxel nodded, grinning mischievously.

“If you tell anyone, even your avatar, I will find a way to make you pay.” he said weakly.

The goddess giggled at his threat, though she knew it wasn't empty. She had him right where she wanted him and that's all that concerned her at that moment.

Teran stepped away from the table and found a spot in a square nearby with enough room for his larger self. Huxel followed him, twirling her wispy white hair with a finger as she watched the illusion unbind. After a few moments the transformation was complete. Huxel clapped excitedly and walked around him examining his body closely.

Like all dragons he was large by mortal standards. Black scales covered his body and they were thicker than the heaviest armor any knight might wear in battle. His claws and horns were ivory and his mouth was full of jagged teeth. He lowered his head so that the goddess could climb up onto his neck. She was heavy for someone who appeared to be feather light he noted silently. Once she found a snug spot he lifted his head up once again and looked around.

“Fly! Fly!!” Huxel squealed, showing off a side of her personality Teran had never seen or even suspected she had.

The Dragon flexed his leg muscles, stretched his wings, and launched them into the air flying in a vertical spiral above above the abandoned city. Huxel's laughter echoed through the empty streets as the dragon flew a low circle around the city's perimeter. After about twenty minutes Teran landed in the same square he had taken flight in and quickly transformed back into the human form he had grown so accustomed too and unceremoniously dropped a giggling Huxel on her rump in the process.

Once the transformation was complete he offered her his hand and pulled her to her feet.

“Why do you act this way?” the flustered assassin asked.

“What way?” she asked innocently.

“A way that is unbecoming of a goddess.” he retorted, letting his annoyance enter his voice.

She cocked her head, grinned wickedly, and then pursed her lips.

“Well seeing as how I'm the goddess, and you're the minion, I thought it was my privilege to decide what was becoming... but if you think you know better, perhaps I could keep you here permanently so that you might educate me.” she said with mock consideration in her voice.v

“Point taken.” the Assassin said, raising his hands in surrender, “Just don't forget the arrangement we discussed.”

“I won't Teri, bye bye!”

The Assassin shifted back into the mortal realm and found that the abandoned square in reality was a practice field for one of the town guard units. He drifted through the city, scouting the defenses and admiring the preparations. They were prepared for a prolonged battle even if the city walls fell each street and alley was a potential death trap and the militias were practicing with mixed weaponry to capitalize on such an eventuality.

After another thirty minutes he arrived at a seedy tavern that was his destination. He entered, and went straight to the only unoccupied table in the place, conveniently located in the exact center of the room. He ignored the feeling that all eyes were on him and brought out a parchment and a magical trinket he could use to mark the parchment. He scribbled the note out quickly and then got up and approached the bartender. After he muttered a code phrase to the man, he headed for the stairs up into the loft. He could have avoided all the security procedures with the assistance of the Shadow but he didn't want to return there anytime soon with Huxel acting so oddly.

He was met at the top of the stairs by a burly man intent on checking him for weapons.

“Let him through, if you value your life.” a deep voice laughed from the shadows.

The man stepped aside allowing the Assassin to pass.

“You're not losing your edge are you? Normally you just drop by out of thin air.” the man said, motioning that Teran should sit.

“You have no idea.” Teran said with a wry smile, taking a seat across from the man. “I see you're still alive and kicking.”

The Assassin noted the subtle movement of a man and a woman as they took up positions behind his chair.

“Don't worry about them,” The Raven said nonchalantly, “They don't like assassins.”

Teran reached into his pocket and withdrew his hastily written note, taking satisfaction from the fact that every other person in the room except the Raven stiffened at his sudden movement. He passed the parchment over the table. The Raven set it on fire with a candle and read the note as it burned, the ink only appearing an instant before the flame consumed the parchment.

“As you can see, our mutual friends will be entering the city soon. You have seen the details of their arrival and you know what we plan to do. I am certain they will contact you once they are able however you should begin making preparations.” he said softly.

The Raven leaned back in his chair considering what he had read and what had been said to him. He did not trust Teran, but in their history together he had never been unreliable... but he was an outsider.

“I will take it into consideration. Do you require anything else?” the Raven asked genuinely.

“I do not require anything from my friends in the guild.” Teran said diplomatically. “However I would use a place where I might rest.”

“Ahh, well then I have just the place for you, my friend.” the Raven said as he nodded at the woman who stood behind Teran.

“Follow me.” She said simply and led him towards the stairs back down.

“I'll send someone for you once they make contact.” The Raven said as Teran started down the stairs.

Written by - Vylia

Keeryn couldn't help but giggle at this new act Wilhelm put on for his disguise. After a moment though she stopped and looked to see Mavigan's reaction. The expression on her face was priceless and almost made Keeryn start giggling again as she realized something else. "Umm... I know I don't look like the rest of you, and if we're sneaking into the city am I going to have to wait somewhere for you, or do you have something I can wear to look less conspicuous as well?"

Written by - Wilhelm

Grinning at Mavigan's stunned look, Wilhelm turned and studied Keeryn.

"Yes, you do stand out a bit. I think my backup disguise will work for you, though."

Wilhelm rooted around in his pack and pulled out a pair of battered gloves, a hood formed of a worn cloth sack with eye holes, and some old cloth strips. He handed these to Keeryn, indicating she should put them on.

Keeryn at first looked askance at the items, then realized that though stained they smelled clean. She reluctantly donned the worn gloves and hood. Wilhelm then used the cloth strips to tie down the hood and gloves and then handed her his old hooded cloak, which almost touched the ground when the shorter Keeryn donned it. Placing a plain stone pendant around her neck and pulling the cloak's hood down, Wilhelm studied the effect. Keeryn was now a shapeless figure, with no visible fur. He nodded.

"You are now a poor leper, unable to afford temple healing. The hood, gloves and wrapping are to conceal your condition. When others are present invoke the pendant by touching it and saying the words 'Hide me' and a glamour will then cause eyes to turn away from you and noses to smell the odor of a leper coming from you. To release the glamour say the words 'Reveal me' and the glamour will vanish."

Written by - Teran

Sabbatine snickered quietly as Wilhelm spoke his words.

"Even with your new smell, I know you'd taste delicious, not like a nasty leper!" Sabbatine said with a wide grin as she licked her lips as though she was anticipating a feast.

"Ma-Mister Wilhelm, am I okay, or do you need to make me look like a leper too? I'm almost there without any help!" she said with a boastful voice "B-but I dunno if I umm... will be umm... passable?"

She batted her glowing yellow eyes at him, while a grin that threatened to split her face in half creased her face."

Though she was trying to weaken Keeryn's position with the group, she was genuinely concerned with blowing the groups cover, at Huxel's recommendation.

Written by - Wilhelm

"Hmmm, a true challenge." replied Wilhelm, studying Sabbatine.

"We just need to get past any casual encounters until I can make contact with the guild. Ah, I have it!"

Wilhelm again rooted through his pack and came up with a sheer yellow silken scarf and a white cord. Wrapping the scarf thrice about the cord, he placed the scarf over Sabbatine's face and tied the cord in back, forming a yellow silken veil that covered her face. Bringing her cloak's hood up over her head to shadow her face, he said,

"You are now a courtesan dressed for privacy and travelling the Thieves' Highway in motley company for protection. You should be able to see through the scarf well enough, but your eyes and face will be obscured to others."

Written by - Sycon

Sycon's dreams were peaceful. The meadow stretched before him, what seemed like miles. The tree line in the distance was nothing but a fine line between sky and land. A beautiful horizon. Standing before him stood his love, Euralia, Silver Goddess. Her eyes twinkled with every shifting star, her hair moved with the gentle night's breeze. He could fall in love with her a hundred times over but she would never be as beautiful as she was here, with him.

"It is a beautiful night here," she says, looking into the sky.

He took her hand, holding it close to his chest. "All I had to think of was you."

She turned her eyes back to Sycon. He smiled. A single tear slid down her cheek. "Let this moment last forever." The wind whispered around them as they stood motionless, lost in the night. Seconds passed, as seconds turned to minutes, and minutes turned to hours, they stood. When the wind had finally tapered, she took one last step to him, looking deep into his eyes.

Sycon wrapped his arms around her, feeling the warmth of her embrace. He held her lovingly, as any two lovers would, willing all his warmth to her. He spoke, "I love you. You have always been the only one. You know that."

Tears streamed down her face, full of happiness and fear. "I know," she sobbed, "I know." She closed her eyes one last time. She could feel his embrace as he leaned down and softly brushed his lips against hers. Warmth spread through her as their kiss reached maturity. Both their bodies felt weightless as they shared each others embrace one last time. And you were my one and only, she thought.

Light flooded the meadow, blinding white light that would leave any mortal blind. Then it faded. The dream, the meadow, the night sky, all to darkness. . . but the warmth remained.

Sycon awoke in his bed, it was early morning. Twilight had only just begun to stir. The air was still, there was no breeze in the room, only silence and darkness.

"Are you here to kill me?" Sycon asked.

"I already have." Shane sat in the corner of the room on a small stool. No weapons drawn, no priestly manner, just Shane.

"Will it be painful?" Sycon paused. "No, nevermind. It doesn't matter."

Shane shifted on his stool, "You knew this would come then?"

"Aye, I did, in a way. I am not as scared as I thought I would be though."

"That could be the drug taking effect, but regardless, there is nothing either of us can do now."

Sycon slowly sat up in his bed, shifting his pillow towards the wall so he might prop himself upon it. "No, I suppose not."

"Well, then. . ." Shane trailed off.

"Its easy to be afraid when you're alone. . ."

Shane straightened his back, trying to seem taller in his chair than he really was, "I stayed to ask you a question, Sycon. To find an answer you have proven worth your death. What do you know of Pharaton?" Shane's voice was harsh and to the point.

Sycon smile grew sly. "Of that I truly know little. I caught it whispering around in your head, as it bounced around in confusion.

"

Shane's voice grew aggitated. "Whispering in my head? What sort of magic is that?"

Sycon chuckled. "It is not magic. It is more of a force of will, I suppose."

Shane paused, thinking. Then, "I want an explanation, what do yo know of Pharaton?" His voice was angry now, calculated, but angry.

Sycon laughed loud and hard, "Don't get cross," he stopped for a quick breath and continued, "What are you going to do? Kill me?" Sycon laughed so hard he coughed.

"Fine, laugh all you will, but you're still a dead man." Shane let Sycon catch his breath before continuing. "If you won't tell me that, then tell me who you are."

Sycon gained some of his compsure back, "I am Sycon, friend to the Hands, follower of Ariana, and... something else."

"Yes... What?" Shane said as he rolled his eyes.

Sycon's expression had grown serious and stern. No matter how tall Shane tried to seem in his chair, he seemed small compared to the dying man now. It was that instant change in Sycon that scared Shane. That unpredictability Sycon seemed so adept at. His eyes began to glow softly, giving a little more light to the room.

Sycon spoke softly at first, "You, who has killed me. You, who has doubts. I am not alone, and while that one does not find you worthy, I see in you... something else. I see it lying behind that veil of confusion and lies you've grown accustomed to." Sycon's eyes glowed brighter. Shane could start to feel the room get warmer. "You, who has killed me. You, who has doubts." The glow intensified to a shining, the heat increased in the small room ten fold.

Shane's face was stricken with fear. "What do you want from me?" He screamed.

All Shane could hear was Sycon's booming voice. "You, who has killed me. You, who has doubts. I give to you the gift of lives past." Sycon's hands were suddenly around Shane's hands. Images upon images flashed before Shane's eyes. Images he could not make out, places he had never seen before, people he had never met, a world the like he had never known. "I give to you the gift of vengeance." The overwhelming light blanketed all else. Shane felt as if he were floating, as warmth flooded his body. "And finally, I give to you the gift of conscience. The binding pain of all those who have suffered for a better good, for all those who have fought and died to protect what little they have and what great love they possess. These three gifts I give to you." Mindnumbing pain pulsed through his body with every heart beat. His wrists, Sycons hands were tearing him apart where they held.

Shane screamed again, "AHHHHHHH! NO MORE! PLEASE!" Light flooded into the room, then spilled out into the halls. It flowed into the corners, the towers, the catacombs, it illuminated the citadel and its lands, a blinding light that lasted a brief second. Then darkness. The light had faded into greyness of the twilight once more. Only the piercing silence of the small room was left to him. Shane's eyes slowly focused as he breathed heavily, sweating profusely on his stool. Each intake of air seemed to tell its own tale, his wrists aching and burning as his breath moved across them.

A voice broke through the deafening silence, soft with the warmth he still felt in his body. She will be beautiful. Protect her as she protects what hope there is left. And with that the room fell into focus. Unshifting as it once had been.

Sycon was lying on the bed again, looking as if he had never stirred from his sleep. His breathing was shallow, and slowling. He was peaceful. . . he was not alone. Shane could hear Sycon's last breath as he fled the room silently and quickly, cradling his blackened wrists which throbbed greatly with each beat of his heart. Shane took to his room, back to his sanity once more.

Somewhere in the distance a mightly silver dragon gave its last roar, reverberating through the citadel, crying out in triumph and in love.

Written by - Wilhelm

Kathana looked first disappointed and then embarrassed.

"Ah yes. Well then, the members of the Hands of Providence are always welcome here. I will request an audience for you with Lord Ithramir. You will be informed when he is available. In the meantime, you may have free access to the citadel grounds. Let our people know if you need any help or supplies. May the All Father watch over you."

Kathana made the sign of the triskelian, her right hand tracing three interlaced circles at head and both breasts. The blue ball of light winked out as Kathana and Amalia stood and nodded farewell.

Kathana gestured and spoke and the the wards faded away. The two women left the room and at the main hallway door Kathan removed the primary ward, allowing the door to be opened. As they opened it they saw Ardwen and Elerus standing at either side of the door, leaning against the wall.

"Ah, you must be Ardwen. Your companions Vylia and Ariana are inside. They are now welcome in this citadel. I will arrange an audience for them with Lord Ithramir later today. You may go inside now.

They have been treated, dressed and refreshed, but I am concerned about Ariana, who appears to have undergone both physical and mental abuse recently. Her physical wounds have been healed recently, but I see signs of considerable mental distress.

Vylia has requested leave for them to depart the citadel. I am concerned about Ariana travelling in this condition. Please watch over her and let us know if there is anything we can do to help her.

And now I must go see Lord Ithramir. Excuse me."

Kathana and Amalia curtseyed and then walked towards the outer door.

Written by - Ariana

Mavigan stared at the transformed Wilhelm in disbelief. One moment he was the paladin who was rarely far away, and the next he was a slimy fella she recognized from the bar. Recollecting herself, she smirked and turned her attention back to shoving things into her pack.

Unlike the others, if she was to go as Brell, she would need no costume. Not many in Westgale knew her true identity and it was rare she was ever seen in public wearing the finery of royalty. Any who encountered her on the streets when she managed to elude the grasp of her attendants would think her nothing more than a dirty street urchin. And that was exactly the way Mavigan liked it.

“I’m disappointed your cheek is not still red,” she said abruptly. She cinched her pack closed, and rose hefting it onto her shoulder. Picking up her quiver and bow she strode past him and her newly bedecked companions. “I’ll have to hit harder next time.”

Written by - Ariana

As soon as the lady in the robes walked through the door, she was right on her heels. She could feel it, the moment when the cage bars dissolved. A weight suddenly lifted and that fiery feeling in her chest returned.

“Ardwen!” she said when she saw him propped up outside the door. She reached for his hand and started to pull him down the corridor. “We have to go!”

When he did not immediately respond, she tugged harder on his hand.

Written by - Ardwen

“So,” Elerus said while turning his head to look at his companion, “that woman really is the Abbess, the same one you knew?”

“Of course,” Ardwen said, “but as you’ve probably surmised she’s not her old self.”

“I know the feeling,” Elerus said with a grin, “any ideas on the cause?”

“None.”

“I see, and have you tried any healing methods yet?”

Ardwen passed a hand over the side of his face before answering, “This Citadel has been hospitable, and they have provided almost everything asked for in the cause to heal her. Little by little she seems to be remembering, though it has been slow and uncertain.” Ardwen glanced over at his companion before fixing his eyes on a point in the ceiling and muttering, “Why the sudden interest?”

Elerus laughed, the winged child placed an arm around his waist as if the fit of mirth made his belly ache. “Ardwen!” He said in between sucking breaths of air down, “It’s obvious she remembers you, and it’s obvious she trusts you. In all the time I’ve known you, there was only one other to brush off your threats like that. I am just trying to see the entire situation.”

“See the entire situation?” Ardwen quoted dryly. “Perhaps if you stand on your toes you can get a better view?” Ardwen noted with hidden bemusement that Elerus crossed his arms and shot him an unappreciative glance, but before he could make a verbal reprisal Ardwen spoke on, “Just what are you getting at?”

Elerus did not respond, instead the elven child paced around in circles for a few moments, his brow furrowed in thought. The wing on the boy’s back would occasionally stir, as if keeping time with the thoughts in his head. At last Elerus stood in front of Ardwen and simply made one tiny gesture: his left index finger pointed backwards and over his shoulder, at the wing that sprouted from his right side.

Ardwen closed his eyes and let out a soft “hmmm”. “You think she is the one? You think she knows?” Ardwen said at length.

Elerus made his way back to the other side of the door and propped himself against the wall again, “How can she not? Don’t tell me you’ve kept it hidden all along?”

Ardwen nodded and said, “Not just her, all the Hands. I’ve never let them see--” Ardwen was about to continue, but he suddenly fell silent and locked his gaze on the door. The two could both hear footsteps drawing closer from the other side. Two female elves who had attended to Ariana rushed through the door, one spoke at length about Ariana’s condition, but the part that caught the elven warrior’s attention was the mention of the request to leave the Citadel.

Ardwen gave no response except a slight incline of his head to indicate he understood, inwardly though he was concerned. Where did Ariana intend to go? When did she want to leave? The elven bladeweaver’s questions were soon answered when the Abbess herself appeared before him. The answer was apparently now, as Ariana grabbed Ardwen’s hand and attempted to pull him down the hallway, at first Ardwen offered little resistance, but with a sigh he suddenly held fast. Ariana continued to pull, but the elven warrior seemed as immovable as a mountain.

“First,” Ardwen said flatly, “you’ll tell me where we’re going and then we’ll wait—“

Ardwen was cut off by a small cough by his side; he looked down to see Elerus’s blue eyes looking expectantly up at him. Ardwen narrowed his eyes; then suddenly his expression changed, becoming smooth and unreadable. Now when he spoke his voice was refined and patient, “Naturally I would be honored to help you on your journey. However, there is one small matter to be settled before we may leave.” Ardwen deftly removed his hand from Ariana’s grasp and used it to gesture at Elerus, “Ariana, this is Elerus, a dear friend of mine. Elerus, this is Ariana, a priestess of the All-Father. I know you’ve met, but now you’re formally introduced. Now, Ariana, you wouldn’t mind if this one . . .” here Ardwen paused to gesture at Elerus again. “Accompanied us, would you?”

Elerus’s started in surprise, but it was only for a fraction of a second. The boy bowed deeply, so deep that the tip of his wing brushed the floor, “Pleeeease?” He said in a tone that made Ardwen wince, Elerus caught the motion, but only gaze a little shrug in response.

Written by - Turin Wallace

After leaving the courtyard, Ithramir went back to his room and ordered for his warhorse to be made ready. Gathering what belongings he required, donning his armor, and equipping his weapons he then was ready to depart with his troops.

Once he reached the courtyard, his mount was waiting for him. Deftly, he mounted the creature and took his place by the portal, inspecting the troops as they marched through. After what seemed to be only a few moments, he heard a servant calling out to him. Ithramir waved him forward, and the servant spoke,

"Lord Ithramir, I have gotten word from Kathana that the lady Ariana and Vylia wish to have an audience with you at your earliest convenience. She said it is about granting them permission to roam the Citadel grounds, and perhaps even leaving the Citadel itself."

Ithramir internally sighed. The replied,

"Tell Kathana that they may not seek an audience with me at this time. In but another hour or two our army will have made it through this portal and the second stage of reclaiming our lands will have begun. I have neither the time nor the patience at this time to deal with their pleas or demands."

The servant, stuttering, adds,

"Gr-r-racious, l-l-lord. My mistress thought you may be ill-disposed at this time, she does ask if the lady Lithwyn could be approached about this matter. Since this mysterious lady, who claims she is Ariana from ages past, is reconciled and happy, she then poses no security risk to our people or this Citadel. In this event, would not the Lady of the Citadel be able to handle this?"

Ithramir took his eyes from the column of troops and looked intently at the servant before him. In an even tone, he says,

"Well, I am certainly glad this Citadel boasts so many experts on who is and who isn't a threat. In any event, Lithwyn may meet with them and it will be her discretion as to if they leave or not. Now, unless anything else is pressing, I would ask that you excuse yourself and let me handle the more pressing matters of state."

The servant simply bowed and scurried back inside to report to Kathana.

Ithramir continued his watch as the troops continued to file their way through the portal. In only a day they would again be tasked to take a fortified city. All of their focus needed to be on the objective at hand, as well as his own. Once this last hurdle has been overcome, he can at last return his attention to more pressing matters at home.

Written by - Wilhelm

Wilhelm smiled at Mavigan as she stalked off. Settling his pack on his back, he led the others to join her and then took the lead down the hill to the creek below. Turning left he led them along the bank as the creek ran down into a deepening ravine. When a side channel joined from the left, he beckoned them to follow him to the left.

"Watch your steps here, as the rocks are still slimy from past sewage. You may want to do as I do." Willhelm took out a scarf, wet it with brandy, and tied it over his nose and mouth to filter out the stench. He then led off, keeping to the side, away from the slimy channel in the middle.

After a bit they came to a rusty foul-smelling grating that sealed off an old sewer line from Port Westgale. Ignoring the grating, which looked to be fused to the rock, he moved to the left to a pocket in the rock wall. Pressing a sequence of points in a certain order caused a section of the rack face to swing out, revealing a dry passage inside parallel to the sewer. Reaching inside to the left, he brought forth a torch. Speaking a word caused it to flare into flame. He stepped inside and after the rest had entered he handed the lit torch to Keeryn and closed the secret door behind them.

With the light coming through the grate and the light from the torch they could see the passageway going on ahead, diverging from the sewer line.

"This is an entrance to the Thieves' Highway. Let me handle it when we meet someone."

They moved down the corridor and came to cross corridor. Out of the darkness ahead they heard two plops, like drops of water falling to strike a pool. Wilhelm stopped, and then bent down to pick up two small pebbles lying by the wall. He dropped them one at a time onto the floor at the same location.

A cloaked figure came around the corner and unveiled a hooded lantern and looked them over. The figure's left hand made a complicated gesture. Wilhelm's left hand made a different answering gesture. The figure nodded and motioned them to pass.

Wilhelm led them to the left down the cross corridor until it joined a much larger tunnel. Sounds of motion could be heard away in both directions, but there was nobody present. Wilhelm turned and spoke quietly.

"This is the Thieves' Highway itself. That direction takes us towards town and that direction takes us to the port. Brell, you should know your way from here. Lead us to your contact point."

Written by - Dartanian Merquise

The rest of Dartanian’s day was spent in inspecting his troops and in meetings with his commanders, relaying information from the morning’s war council. From the staff at the Citadel, they had procured maps of the valley and Minas Uial itself. There could be no surprises.

The men would ride light that day; any unneeded equipment would remain at the Citadel. The two hour ride from Minas Aure would be fast, and would likely test the heavy warhorses of the Blue Knights as they tried to keep pace with the mounts of the elves. Dartanian was sure that they were up to the task.

At last all preparations were complete. Count Merquise and his second, Captain Varion, in full plate atop their warhorses, watched silently as the Blue Knights filed past them and into the portal bound for Minas Aure. Five thousand faces, each with a grim look of determination set in their features, rode past the duo and through to the other side. At the opposite end of the courtyard, Dartanian noticed the imposing figure of Lord Ithramir, also come to inspect the troops. He exchanged words with a servant, who quickly bowed and scurried off. For a brief moment, their eyes met, and Dartanian offered a quick nod of respect to the elven commander.

“Captain Varion,” the Count said. “When we reach Minas Aure, dispatch a messenger to Lord Ithramir’s command staff for specific marching orders for the Blue Knights.” The captain nodded silently, eyes forward. “Then take your men and meet with him as instructed.” Captain Varion had selected five volunteers to accompany him as part of the larger group of infiltrators. The mission they faced would be perilous indeed. The young Count turned to his second. “From then on, All-Father go with you.” The two young men exchanged a hard look, knowing that in only a few hours, they would clash with the enemy, putting their lives on the line for the newfound alliance with the elves. Finally turning forward once again, they urged their horses on and entered the portal bound for Minas Aure.

Written by - Tempyst

Kaya's head tipped forward, the food she had eaten had made her sleepy. It didn't take long for the dream realm to take control...

Kaya found herself on a battlefield, bodies of elves, humans and orcs strewned about. As she walked about the clutter, a young maiden, dressed in light flowing colors approached her. Normally, Kaya would think this an unusual sight, but for some reason it seemed perfectly normal. In fact, the presence of the young girl was calming. The young girl smiled. "I am Tirigal, messenger of the gods, I am here to let you know that Nyrondis has plans for you. The woman Ariana has enough guardians and there are other things you should be doing. Go, find your men among Ithramir's, then ask him for their return. There is trouble brewing and they will need their leader. You will be able to help Ithramir more this way, as well as your own cause and that of Nyrondis." Kaya nodded, then watched as the young maiden made her way through the bodies.

Kaya started awake by the sound of a door slamming. She turned and watched the door as Ariana and Vylia rushed out . But instead of following them, she got up and went in the opposite direction, A'lanthear in hand. She made her way to the courtyard, finding out out along the way where Lord Ithramir would be at this time. It took about an hour to make her way to the commander, where upon she was met by his second, Catherine. She could sense the distaste in the woman for her, as she probably still saw Kaya as the one who almost killed Ithramir. But Kaya was not intimidated.

"I am here to lend my sword to the commander. I need to know where best I would be placed. I am also in need of permission to wander the troops and look for those who used to serve under me in the elven homeland."

Catherine sneered a bit. "I will let him know you are here, but so you know, I will be watching you." Catherine then went over to the commander and gave him the message. After a few moments, Catherine motioned for Kaya to come forward. Ithramir looked at her and waited.

Kaya looked up at her hero, an elf she had admired all her life. Then she found her voice. "Lord Ithramir, Nyrondis sent me a message, and it is my duty to serve you in the upcoming battle. My sword and I are yours. But I would ask of you this. I believe among your soldiers are remnants of those who had once served under me. I ask your permission to seek them out and reband them once more. I feel there is need for our skills as a unit, and that we would better serve you as such." She stepped back and awaited his response.

Written by - Ariana

Ariana was puzzled at first at Ardwen’s resistance. Did he not understand that they needed to leave? She reached forward to grab his hand again, but the motion stopped halfway when Ardwen turned her attention to the child standing in the hallway.

Focusing on the small person, she stared at him in wide-eyed wonder for a moment. No longer able to bridle her curiosity, she slowly reached forward with one finger and cautiously stroked a feather on his wing. It was as soft as she had expected and she beamed this Elerus a bright smile. Grabbing his hand she once more started her march down the hallway, dragging Elerus behind her. “We have to go!” she shouted back at Ardwen.


Written by - Ariana Page 18 Book 4

Mavigan, at Wilhelm’s behest, lead the small party in the direction of the port. With each step, her familiarity with the area grew. It felt good to be on familiar turf, and as they walked she could feel the hated trappings of royalty fall away; there was less Mavigan and more Brell. By the time they reached the exit to the highway and emerged under the cover of night into the balmy sea air, her eyes positively glowed with excitement.

Stalking from shadow to shadow, the small group avoided two bands of Beridane’s soldiers before Brell brought them to a halt in front of an abandoned and decrepit shack on the outskirts of the Docks. The door, though nearly rotting off its hinges, curiously made no sound as they entered. Dust liberally covered the contents of the shack which consisted of a broken table, a rickety chair that might or might not support the weight of an occupant, and a few broken pieces of pottery.

Brell walked with sure steps to one piece of the broken table. She crouched down and felt along the underside with sure fingers. One quick push was all it took for a small compartment to pop out of the side of the table. Her eager fingers reached in and pulled out a piece of parchment.

“A small light please Willy,” she said with a grin.

Wilhelm complied and she scanned the list quickly, her smile turning into a frown. She stalked over to the far wall and again repeated the process she had used on the table. This time, the compartment revealed a pre-inked writing stylus, one of the many magical items Jonan liked to steal. She hunched over the paper in the dim light hurriedly scrawling on the parchment. When she was finished, she replaced everything as she had found it, then turned to Wilhelm.

“Jonan hasn’t checked in for some time. The last message was months ago. That usually means he has been arrested again. So, unless we want to stage a jail break my contact will not be useful. Shall we try yours?”

Written by - Ardwen

Elerus noted the long pause after Ardwen’s question to Ariana. Slowly the young Elf looked up to glance at the face of the Abbess of the Hands. Ardwen had often spoken of his lost and beloved Abbess, painting her in flowery but melancholy language as more an angel than a mortal woman. Elerus had heard much, how Ariana had trusted him, how she sought to inspire him and help him move beyond his life as a mere weapon, and finally how she had listened to Ardwen’s regrets and worries – always without complaint and always without mocking.

Elerus straightened from his bow but kept his gaze fixed on the leader of the Hands. Even standing straight Ariana was far taller than he. Elerus couldn’t help but think of how he must look to the Abbess; a small boy who had appeared out of nowhere, an elven child with an odd white wing on his right. “Um . . .” Elerus muttered softly when he noticed Ariana was staring at him with rapt attention. The young elf broke the gaze first and studied the floor with sudden intense interest. Then, without warning, Ariana reached a single finger forward and stroked one of the large feathers on the outer edge of his wing. Elerus felt her touch, and he looked back up to see a broad smile on the lady’s face. Then, without warning she reached down to grab his hand and started walking.

Caught off guard, Elerus’s training made him brace his legs as Ardwen had to resist what his body thought was a throw. Unfortunately, his instincts had not accounted for the now vast difference in his weight and size. Ariana did not seem to notice and kept walking, and Elerus nearly toppled over as he was pulled along. The young elf managed to avoid smacking into her back as he caught up and simply let Ariana hold his hand as she guided him through the Citadel’s halls. The Abbess of the Hands shouted back at Ardwen, urging him to get moving, but she needn’t have yelled – with the matter of if his friend could tag along or not settled Ardwen had adopted a pace that kept him a few steps behind.

As the trio walked onto the roads that lead them to the outer reaches of the Citadel, Elerus couldn’t help but notice the number of people pointing and staring. Perhaps stories of the strange occurrences in the innermost part of the Citadel had already circulated, or perhaps the sight of an Elven warrior who kept most of his form cloaked in deep purple, a woman who seemed oblivious to the world around her save the direction she was going, and a small winged child sounded as bizarre to others as it did in Elerus’s mind.

Ardwen kept pace behind Ariana and Elerus, and to those that stopped to stare he simply met their gaze, and none dared to keep Ardwen’s eyes on them for long, hiding their meekness behind feigned coughs and quickly resumed conversations with those nearby. Ardwen let out a small sigh and continued to match the brisk pace Ariana was setting. To his surprise Elerus had made no attempt to remove her grip, in fact his friend had actually moved closer to the Abbess and looked to be keeping his head down. Ardwen felt sorry for him, to be the object of so much unwanted attention, but there was nothing he could do about it now.

After a few more twists and turns Ariana had lead them to one of the Citadel’s minor gates. Minor being a relative term, the gatehouse was still guarded and had a thick set of metal shod wooden doors baring the way past. As soon as the gatehouse had come into view and it looked certain Ariana was heading towards it, Ardwen had rushed ahead and exchanged a few short words with the guards. While they had demanded some manner of permit, apparently security was heightened with the campaign for the second assault so soon; Ardwen simply informed them of who he was. Oddly, but not entirely unexpectedly, his name did much to put the guards at ease. A few more words later and the gate was swinging open and the three walked through with Ardwen bouncing a pouch of coins in his left hand. He quickly stashed the money away and looked over his shoulder to offer a quick nod and a parting wave of his hand to thank the two guards. The gesture was not returned, and the wooden door slammed swiftly shut.

“Ardwen?” The Elven warrior heard Elerus speak, “where exactly are we going? Did she tell you?”

“No, but if I had to guess,” Ardwen said, “I’d say we’re going to that path into the woods there.”

The two elves fell silent as they drew closer to the forest, and by the time they stepped amongst the trees each was straining their ears to catching any sound of threat or approach. So far the woods seemed peaceful, but both Ardwen and Elerus had taken far too many jaunts through the woods that had turned bloody in an instant to be fooled.

Written by - Sycon

First there were the sounds of birds as they jumped from branch to branch, calling to each other across the trees. Then several squirrels as they chittered away at the birds. She could hear them scampering across the ground, and if she concentrated. . . thump thump, thump thump, hear each beat of their little hearts. Then there was another, familiar but unique sound.

thump thump, thump thump

It was much slower than the rest. It was calm, very soothing. She listened to it for several mintues, letting the sound become more of a feeling. The feeling spread through her. First it was a tingling on the back of her neck. It spilled over her shoulders and down her back. It flowed over every inch of her small body until she came to the realization it was her body. It was her.

She opened her eyes for the first time, bright light filled them. She sat up slowly, feeling shaky, then squinted towards the horizon. It hurt a little, but it was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen and she coud not turn her eyes away. She looked out across the trees and saw the morning fog slowly lift. She watches the events unfold before her eyes, watching each beautiful moment. Before too long, she realized the cold stone beneath her. It didn't bother her, but it was still a new sensation. She ran her hand over the rough surface. It was dry.

She drew herself up to her feet, wobbled once and fell flat on her butt. She giggled a little, as she tried once more. She wobbled once, then steadied. It felt good to stand on your own. She stretched to the sky, then down to her feet. "What a gorgeous morning." She stated to herself. "Now to get down from this rock." She peered over each side, trying to find a way down into the dense forest below. Finally she decided on the least steep slope and started down. She fell once or twice, dirtying her little white dress, but she made it down without a scratch.

She walked through the forest, mostly watching the birds play with each other. They didn't seem to mind her at all. She smiled constantly, loving the fresh breeze that swept through her hair. She was in mid-thought of how cool it was, when she heard voices in the distance. Smiling, wondering who it was, she ran in the general direction. She barely left a sound as she moved.

It wasn't long before she was upon them. She still couldn't see them, but she could hear them on the other side of the bushes that stood in her way. She parted the bushes slightly with her arms, which rustled them, as she pushed her way through. Her hair caught several twigs, but she easily brushed them loose and was out the other side. She stood only for a second as she looked at the trio.

There was a small boy with a pretty fluffy wing, a woman with a streak in her hair and, "UNCLE ARDY!" She squeeled and ran to him, grabbing his waist in a hug. She had never seen the man before in his life, but still, she knew him, and for some reason, loved him.

Somewhere in the back of her mind there was a chuckle.

Written by - Ardwen

Ariana, Ardwen, and Elerus continued their silent trek through the forest. Ardwen had taken point in the group, a position that was made all the more difficult by the fact that he was not actually leading. The Elven warrior had to constantly glance over his shoulder to make sure Ariana was still heading in the same direction he was, and the rest Ardwen simply left up to guesswork and anticipation. The Elven swordsman knew that this close to the Citadel the chance of an ambush was practically nonexistent, but he wanted to remain on guard and impress upon his Abbess how he intended to run the small group. After all, for all he knew Ariana was as apt to lead them to a dragon’s den as a humble inn, and if they were to walk into danger Ardwen wanted to be the first to step into it.

“Ardwen,” Elerus said quietly, “when is she going to let go of my hand?” Ardwen glanced back to see Elerus looking up at Ariana. The young Elf had tilted his head to the side, but Ardwen could see a slight blush in his cheeks.

“El,” Ardwen said while returning his attention to the path ahead, “you need to get used to people treating you like that.”

“Absurd!” Elerus hissed in response, “If Ariana treated you anything like this you’d be up in arms.”

“The many advantages to looking older than eight.” Ardwen quipped.

“Yet you don’t act it.” Elerus retorted quickly.

Ardwen stopped walking and stared ahead for a few moments. He turned his head to the left and regarded Elerus out of the corner of his eye, “Congratulations,” he said slowly, “you finally won a round. Superb.”

“Oh,” Elerus said calmly, “I didn’t think we were joking.” Ardwen merely gave a dismissive “hmph” in response and resumed his pace at the head of the group. No sooner had Ardwen found his stride at the front than he heard a noise from the undergrowth near the side of the trail. The Elven bladeweaver threw out an arm in a quick single to halt and listened intently. The noise repeated itself, and Ardwen was certain something was moving in the bushes at the edge of the trail. But the noise was too soft for something large, or rather, something large without a considerable amount of skill.

All at once the brush parted and something darted from the greenery. Ardwen nearly had a copy of a blade in his hands before his eyes caught up with his instincts. The form running toward him was that of a young girl, and within the span of a few heartbeats the energetic child had wrapped his waist in as tight a hug as she could manage. The real surprise for the Elf came when she chirped out his name and the appellation “uncle”. The first thing Ardwen did was look to Elerus, but his winged companion simply shrugged his shoulders and turned his head in a likely intentionally failed attempt to hide a smirk. The next thought Ardwen had was that the young girl had silver hair and pale blue eyes, while the later was possible Ardwen had never seen silver hair on a human before. The closest color he could think of was Elerus’s hair, but her hair was almost metallic in sheen, whereas the normal color amongst Elves was a snowy white.

Then, of course, the blue-eyed girl had called him by name, and Ardwen was certain that he had never seen the girl before. So many minor coincidences, but Ardwen was certain they added up to something, however, the Elf was unable to fit the pieces of the puzzle together. Fortunately for him, Ariana had stopped walking and was staring at the scene the female child had created, and Ardwen decided to use the pause. The Elven warrior gently pried the girl off him and knelt down, placing one hand on the child’s right shoulder Ardwen said, “Good to see you. But, it's been so long I'm afraid I've forgotten your name, young one. Why don't you remind me, and then tell me why you are out here in the middle of the woods, alone?"

Written by - Sycon

She looked up into the old elf's eyes as he spoke. She moved her shoulders from side to side, giving in to her excitement. "My name?" She put her finger up to her mouth in thought as she swayed back and forth. "Hmmm." Her eyes caught on other child's wing. All fluffy and cute, and... "Angel. My name's Angel." She chirped with a smile. "And you're Uncle Ardy. I know because," she paused, "because I just do."

She peeked around Ardwen once more to stare at the little winged elf. She screwed up her face slightly, thinking hard, then composed herself. Confident and poised she walked several steps toward him until she stood eye to eye with him. Well, she thought, perhaps she was a little taller. "I love your wing. What's your name?" She wondered if they knew how much she just wanted to give the winged boy a hug and fluff up the wing, but was too afraid.

Written by - Dartanian Merquise

The demon’s sickening presence seeped into Tarelias’ brain, forcing itself through what meager mental defenses he could offer to combat it. Before long Tarelias felt himself losing grip on his senses and his sanity.

His vision blurred, the image of his cackling half-brother and the surrounding countryside quickly fading to a black and menacing mindscape. Tarelias could not tell whose mind he was in. Was he facing a deadly invader in his own, or was he a hostage in Valdaris’? In either case, he faced a desperate situation. Dealing with the mind attacks of his warlock half-brother had never been easy for him.

Before he could take stock of his situation, Tarelias found his surroundings shifting. Where before there was nothing but a chaotic expanse of blackened wasteland, there was now substance and form. In moments Tarelias found himself in a great hall. Cold stone walls adorned with blue and gold banners rose to a high vaulted ceiling. A massive oak door framed an entire wall of the room, while rich carpeting led to a throne on a raised dais. What appeared to be a normally opulent setting was at that moment in utter chaos. Expensive tapestries lay in tatters, torn and covered in blood. Wooden chairs which had once lined the room lay smashed and splintered. Dozens of armor clad bodies littered the room, staining the floor red with their blood and entrails.

In an instant, Tarelias recognized the main hall of his father’s castle. He had not seen this room in such a long time, but the memories flooded back to him as if he had been gone a mere day. The carnage confused him however, who were all these slain warriors? Then it dawned on him, as he recognized many of the blue clad men, many of whom he had known well as a child. Lying among them were the bodies of countless Templar Knights in distinctive red plate mail and wielding claymores, as Valdaris had. Tarelias’ heart went cold.

Quickly scanning the room, he saw what he hoped he would not. Near the foot of the throne was his father, struggling to breathe and lying in a pool of his own blood. His features, once proud and noble, were now broken and beaten. His fatherly smile was nowhere to be found, replaced instead by the look of a man who saw his end at hand.

Standing over him was a small boy clad in blood-red chain mail and wielding a long dagger. The boy could not have been older than six years of age, but he wore a wicked grin that betrayed a bloodlust and brutality unfit in one so young. His straight brown hair was drenched in blood and sweat, and Tarelias could make out the sickening glisten of more blood all over the child’s armor.

Before Tarelias had time to react, the young Valdaris advanced on the helpless man at his feet. Desperate to stop the boy, Tarelias struggled to command his legs to move. After what seemed an eternity he was able to get his body moving in a mad dash to put himself between his father and the boy. It was too late. Before he could take more than a few steps, the young Valdaris mercilessly plunged the dagger to its hilt into the man’s chest. Opening his mouth, Tarelias tried to yell, only to find his voice failing him as well. Inside his mind he was screaming.

The room spun, fading away into blackness even as Tarelias tried desperately to reach his father. When he was finally able to regain his focus, Tarelias found himself naked and chained, suspended in a black void. Tears formed in his eyes, the memory of his father’s murder still fresh in his mind. From beyond the dark fringes of the void he heard the cackling of a dozen sinister voices. Scanning from left to right as far as the chains would allow, he was unable to detect the source of the evil laughter.

“Did you enjoy the little show, dear brother?” the voice of Valdaris echoed inside Tarelias’ head.

“You filthy bastard.”

“Wrong again!” the voice said with glee. “You were the bastard child. You and your brother were the product of that disgusting pairing of man and elf. It was because of that unholy union that my birth was necessitated. Had I not cleansed the world of your family’s vile taint, you would have spread your disease throughout the land. You, my dear brother…are an abomination!” The voice went silent for a moment, and Tarelias could faintly make out the silhouettes of at least a dozen figures advancing on him. The sound of their laughter sent a shiver down Tarelias’ spine.

“But I know how do deal with abominations like you,” continued Valdaris. “The pain will cleanse your soul of its wickedness, and destroy the vile taint of your body, and then the world will be free of yet another of your kind forever!”

As Valdaris fell silent, the figures emerged from the blackness, dozens of hideous demonic creatures wielding hellish tools of torture. Their faces were twisted and grotesque, with hunger in their eyes. Creatures of all shapes and sizes approached, each more vile and unholy than the last. Tarelias’ heart quickened as he saw the black instruments of death they carried; blades, saws, and stabbing objects of every conceivable type were brought to bear against him. Struggling against the chains as they came, there was nothing he could do to stop the demonic onslaught. They advanced on him. A dozen hellish tools of torture bit deeply into his naked flesh. Tarelias uttered an unearthly cry that emanated from the very depths of his tortured soul.

Written by - Turin Wallace

Ithramir, lost in thought, continued watching the profiles of the army heading into the portal. It was then he felt a light touch on his shoulder, turning, he saw Catherin and she was motioning Kaya forward. With an almost inaudible whisper, she says,

"She wants an audience, milord."

Kaya moved forward and spoke,

"Lord Ithramir, Nyrondis sent me a message, and it is my duty to serve you in the upcoming battle. My sword and I are yours. But I would ask of you this. I believe among your soldiers are remnants of those who had once served under me. I ask your permission to seek them out and reband them once more. I feel there is need for our skills as a unit, and that we would better serve you as such."

As she spoke, Ithramir remembered the not so distant past and her role in the events. Glancing to Catherin he could see she did not forget either. However, Ithramir understood what had happened. After pondering a moment, Ithramir responds,

"You may seek out your comrades and reform your unit, but it is under one condition: You and your unit will be given the honor of the first assault inside the gates of Minas Uial. I will not lie to you, losses are expected to be heavy. This, Kaya, is not punishment, for I know your deeds were not your own. However, if you do this, you shall have my personal thanks and no one will ever doubt your courage and loyalty ever again."

Ithramir reaches out and places his hands on her shoulders. Looking into her eyes, he gives her a nod, then says,

"What say you, Kaya?"

Written by - Tempyst

Kaya listened to Lord Ithramir, and headed his words. She could see the concern in his face but was pleased when he gave her permission to reform her unit. She inhaled a quick breath when she heard the conditions, but quickly realized the honor Ithramir was giving to her. "Thank you my Lord, for the honor you give to me, I assure you, if any of my men are here, we will serve you till the end." She saluted Ithramir and then left, heading into the ranks of soldiers to look for those who had once served under her.

Written by - Turin Wallace

As Ithramir watched Kaya move away, he could almost hear what Catherin had been thinking, and so says,

"As hard as it is for some to believe, I see no treachery in her eyes. In order to regain honor, blood must be shed, and that is what will happen. Should she make it through the assault, there will be no more talk about her being a traitor."

Catherin nodded and understood. While she did not have anything personal against Kaya, she would be waiting and watching her every move. That is, until she proved herself to her.

Ithramir gently spurred his horse forward, saying,

"Come, Catherin. Time to enter the portal ourselves."

Now, back in Minas Aure, Ithramir began by entering the central Keep and making it his temporary home. Since the retaking of the fortress city, and subsequent absence, the troops had been busy clearing and repairing the city.

The streets had been cleared and just outside the gate leading to Minas Uial, funeral pyres of Orc bodies let the enemy know the fate of those who had dared defy them. Reconstruction of many damage buildings had commenced, keeping all the soldiers busy working and not lying about. The Keep itself has been repaired to such an extent that nary a trace remained of the fight that had raged there.

While Ithramir waited for the rest of the troops, he busied himself by gathering intelligence about the valley and troop strength in Minas Uial. It was then that Captain Varion entered, and after a proper greeting, asked for the Blue Knights marching orders. Ithramir responded,

"The Blue Knights will ride with the first line of the army. More specifically, the left flank will be yours to protect and hold. Your infiltrators will need the cover once we reach the walls. I have found soldiers fight better when they fight for those they know well, therefore, there is no one better to protect their rear and the hidden entrance than those of the same company.

You won't be alone, however. The entire army hinges on you, and your soldiers, ability to get through the secret tunnel and open that gate. Until then, the army will be stalled and we expect heavy losses. I trust you and your men will do what needs to be done with haste."

Ithramir gave Varion a chance to respond before beginning more preparations.

Written by - Dartanian Merquise

Catherin stared coolly at Varion while the young Captain received marching orders from Lord Ithramir. No doubt she was still wary of him after the incident that morning. Varion acknowledged her politely, and turned his attention to the Elven Lord.

“The Blue Knights will ride with the first line of the army. More specifically, the left flank will be yours to protect and hold. Your infiltrators will need the cover once we reach the walls. I have found soldiers fight better when they fight for those they know well, therefore, there is no one better to protect their rear and the hidden entrance than those of the same company.

“You won't be alone, however. The entire army hinges on you, and your soldiers, ability to get through the secret tunnel and open that gate. Until then, the army will be stalled and we expect heavy losses. I trust you and your men will do what needs to be done with haste.”

Varion quickly dispatched the aide at his side to return to Dartanian with the orders. Turning his attention back to Ithramir, he spoke. “We will not disappoint you m’lord. Regarding the attack, have there been any other volunteers, or should I requisition additional Blue Knights for the task? Also, is there any other specific information or intelligence we should be aware of before launching our attack? The nature of the access hole perhaps or anything else we can expect to encounter once inside the sewer system?

Written by - Dartanian Merquise

Within moments of stepping through the portal, Dartanian found himself transported into the heart of Minas Aure. The stronghold was massive indeed, and bustling with activity. Thousands upon thousands of soldiers, smiths, healers, construction workers, cooks, and other support personnel swarmed over what was indeed a small city. Repair work on buildings damaged in the assault as well as the fortifications was ongoing, and dozens of command tents dotted the area immediately surrounding the inner keep. Smiths worked tirelessly, repairing armor and re-forging weapons for the multitude of troops. Surgeons and healers were busy setting up aid stations in preparation for the hundreds of wounded who would no doubt be flooding back to Minas Aure before morning. Dartanian could also smell the sweet aroma of cooking food, the army would eat heartily one last time before setting out, there was no telling when they would have the opportunity to have a hot meal again.

Urging his mount forward, Dartanian moved with his men through the massive east gates, making room for the thousands of soldiers still yet to come. Once outside the stronghold, the thick smell of burning flesh attacked his senses. Dozens of massive piles of orc bodies lay ablaze, with more being thrown on every moment. The stench was overpowering, but the vast number of enemy dead was a welcome sight. Surely they would slay many more before the day was done. Finally moving out of range of the powerful smell, Dartanian led his men to a place where they could briefly set up camp and eat their last meal before setting off.

Shortly thereafter, Varion’s aide returned with marching orders from Lord Ithramir. The men had been moved into the appropriate position among the tens of thousands of other soldiers, and ordered to make their last preparations for the coming battle. Consulting the field maps from the Citadel on a broken door they had found among the rubble stretched across two boulders, Dartanian held a meeting with his Lieutenants. Based on the number of troops in the first wave, Dartanian marked points on the map to indicate their approach to the walls and points of assault. The strongest push would come directly at the small access hole, allowing Varion and the other volunteers to begin their mission as quickly as possible. The other key point of attack was the Blue Knights’ right flank. It was vitally important that they maintain cohesion with the units next to them; otherwise the orcs could punch a hole in the lines and cause untold chaos, which would spill over into the second and third waves of the attack. Dartanian stressed the importance of this aspect of the battle as best he could. Finally, the left flank was important as well to the overall assault. The Blue Knights had the duty of protecting the entire army’s left flank. Dartanian’s plan was to have the central units attacking the access hole push the orcs to the walls, and then send some of them sweeping left to support the flank. If the maneuver worked, they might just be able to divide the defending orc forces and slaughter them piecemeal. Once Varion and his men had succeeded, the biggest objective in Dartanian’s mind was to seize and hold the gatehouse, allowing the army to pour in without being bottled up and harassed from all sides by the orc defenders.

Having issued his final orders, Dartanian dismissed his Lieutenants to their respective units. Letting out a sigh, he scanned the horizon. Hundreds of multicolored banners and flags dotted the entrance to the valley. Exactly how many men there were preparing to assault Minas Uial, he did not know for sure, but he guessed that there were at least a few hundred thousand already, with more pouring from the gates every second.

“Count Merquise,” a voice called to him from off to his right. Dartanian turned to see the face of Sir Johann, commander of the human forces fighting in Queen Mavigan’s name. Dartanian returned the salute as Johann approached.

“My apologies Sir Johann,” Dartanian began, “that events did not turn out as you had hoped this morning.” He was referring to Johann’s attempt to rally the human commanders against Lord Ithramir.

Johann shook his head. “Nonsense lad. I had a feeling you would dispel the situation. I simply said what I said in order to rally the men behind you. I had no real intention of inciting a riot.” The knight chuckled. “However, I will say this, the reactions you garnered in there were absolutely priceless my boy!” Dartanian smiled slightly as the two clasped hands. Turning to look out at the army, Johann continued, “Lord Ithramir can be difficult at times. He is a hard man, and that’s just the sort we need to defeat Beridane. He doesn’t much care for me, that’s for sure. I hoped to prove a point this morning; he cannot walk all over us and expect our unconditional support. Yet while he doesn’t like me, you are an unknown to him. He still doesn’t know what to make of you. That’s why I suspect he’s given you one of the most dangerous and important parts of this mission, to see just what you’re made of.

“It’s unfortunate that we are sidetracked in our current endeavor,” he continued, indicating the army with a sweep of his arm. “But we desperately need the help of the Elves in this, and we cannot have them falling to the orcs, nor do we need the orcs opening a second front in this war. We have to quash the threat now so we may turn our attention to other matters.”

“Do you really think taking back Minas Uial will stop the orcs?” Dartanian asked.

“Hard to say,” Johann crossed his arms, propping up his left arm and stroking his chin as he considered the question. “The orcs and elves have been fighting for eons. Forays into one another’s territories are a common occurrence here. But the orcs have never pushed so rapidly and with such force until now. Our only hope is to secure Minas Uial, consolidate our position, and hope that the orcs have got a bloody enough nose that they won’t try anything for a while.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Dartanian answered, turning away from Johann to gaze out at the army once again.

“Count Merquise,” Johann said abruptly. “Your father…Robert…I had not heard…”

“Yes,” Dartanian said, looking down a moment as the realization that his father was not there suddenly washed over him once again. “After King Pallanon was assassinated, the Baron Hayner invaded. My father was killed early in the fighting.”

“I’m terribly sorry to hear that,” Johann replied, placing a comforting hand on Dartanian’s shoulder. “Hayner…I never did trust their lot. What of the Baron?”

“Dead.”

“I see. And his lands?”

“Under Merquise control, for the moment at least.”

“Well done my boy, well done,” Johann beamed. “When this mess is all over, we will head west with the rest of the forces loyal to Mavigan and help you consolidate your position. With any luck, we will be primed to launch our counterattack on Beridane from there.”

“That would be wonderful,” Dartanian said.

“Well then lad, you be careful out there, and good luck to you. A good portion of my own forces will be right behind you, so don’t feel like you have to do everything yourself!” Johann chuckled.

“Good luck to you as well Sir Johann, All-Father go with you.”

“And you as well, Count Merquise.”

The two men exchanged crisp salutes once more before departing to see to any last minute preparations. The sun would soon be setting, and shortly thereafter the hard march to Minas Uial would begin.

Written by - Wilhelm

Considering her statement, Wilhelm responded,

"Very well, then, it appears we will need to seek out the Raven."

The faint sound of moving cloth reached their ears and a deep male voice spoke behind them.

"That won't be required. Speak my name and I am here."

The foursome turned to see a tall powerful figure dressed entirely in black silk gliding into the room with the grace of a panther. Upon his head was a mask in the shape of a Raven's head. Behind him were two even larger men dressed also in black and heavily armed, who moved with similar grace and stealth. His hands flickered in a gesture. Wilhelm's hands flickered a response. The raven-headed man nodded, studied the four of them for moment and spoke.

"Good to see you again Willy, I see you are keeping well. And you have the most interesting companions. How is the big guy?"

Wilhelm chuckled and replied, "He is quite active and most interested in this event."

The Raven nodded. "I see. One can see from a group this diverse that the Gods would indeed be involved. And this must be little Brell. You have grown most becomingly, my dear, and I see you have some teeth now."

The Raven made an elaborate gallant's bow to Mavigan and her companions. His bodyguards scanned them and the room most alertly, but remained silent. More figures could be sensed moving outside the room.

"The diamond in the rough has been cut." Replied Wilhelm, changing his posture from a bounty hunter's insolent slouch to one almost at attention.

"Has it indeed?" answered the Raven, examining Mavigan and her gear more closely.

"Yes, I see that the hidden jewel has been polished and may well come to shine in the sun. Perhaps it is indeed time it was properly placed in the crown. Very well, let the charade come to an end. A mutual acquaintance has told me that you were coming."

The Raven saluted Wilhelm with respect and then swept a deep bow towards Mavigan.

"Welcome, Lord Wilhelm and Queen Mavigan. The Shadows Guild acknowledges you. How may the Guild be of service to Your Majesty?"

Written by - Ardwen

Elerus watched with amusement as the young girl embraced Ardwen, but he couldn’t help feeling that something was amiss. The girl’s story that she was Ardwen’s niece was clearly false, Elerus knew that he was the closest thing Ardwen had to a brother – and Ardwen had no true living family besides. At first Elerus thought that the small girl was some orphan or abandoned child that Ardwen had decided to protect. However, the more Elerus thought about this, the more unlikely it seemed. As the exchange between the child and Ardwen progressed, Elerus decided quickly that not only did Ardwen not know of the girl, but that he shared the same questions and doubts.

Elerus was about to try and free himself from Ariana’s grip and approach Ardwen when the young girl walked over to him. Elerus took a step back almost by instinct; there was something about the girl that unsettled him, something he deeply felt he should be easily able to see. Regardless, Elerus felt a slight blush to his face when the child mentioned that she liked his wing and asked his name. Elerus took a brief moment to study Angel in turn before saying demurely, “Thank you, Angel. My name is Elerus, and I see you know Ardwen. The lady,” Elerus gestured with his free hand at Ariana, “is called Ariana, but Ardwen will have to tell you about her.”

“El, I don’t think it’s a good idea to go around calling Ariana by name. We should keep her identity secret.” Ardwen said. Elerus had not noticed that his friend had moved closer while he was talking to Angel, but the Elven warrior now stood at the edge of the forest path and faced the small group.

Elerus turned his head to the side to regard Ardwen and said, “Let’s not fool ourselves. If we meet anyone else on this little hike the last thing they’ll notice is Ariana.”

Ardwen blinked his eyes shut slowly and gave a wan smile, “When that happens I’ll deal with it, I don’t want any of you getting in a fight. That goes for you too, Angel. Stay close to us at all times.”

Without another word Ardwen turned and began walking down the forest path again. The Elven bladeweaver paused and looked over his shoulder to make sure the rest of the group was following him.

Elerus turned his attention back to Angel and muttered, “One more bit of advice: don’t let Ariana hold your hand.”

Written by - Sycon

"Okay," Angel said with a smile. Then she promptely reached down, grabbed Elerus's hand. Her focus shifted to Ardwen. "Wait for us!"

Written by - Tempyst

Kaya first went to the druid's grove to find Dorve. The dwarf was sitting with Tempyst and another young lady, making strange gestures with her hands. "Dorve, may I speak with you a moment."

"Most certainly Kaya, excuse me Purgartory, Tempyst." Dorve stood and followed Kaya over to one of the trees in the grove. "What be on yer mind?"

"I received a message from Nyrondis, and plans have changed. I am to go through the portal and fight with Ithramir, after finding my men from my homeland. I don't know if you have recieved any orders from him, but know this, I am to be on the front lines where there is the most danger, to assault first. I know you are a wonderful healer Dorve, but I cannot ask you to be there with me."

"Dorve placed a hand upon Kaya's arm. "Aye, you cannot ask it of me, but Nyrondis can. We be a team lass, good and bad, we be a team. Now, let me tell Tempyst and Purgatory they are on our own, and then we will go find your men."

Kaya smiled and placed her hand on Dorve's shoulder, "Thank you friend, I shall look forward to fighting with you soon." She watched as Dorve went back over to the two young humans. After a few moments and more of the hand gesturing, Dorve left them and entered the main building in the grove. Soon, Dorve returned, geared up for battle.

"Let us be off then Kaya." Kaya nodded and the two of them proceeded through the portal.


Written by - Turin Wallace Page 19 Book 4

Ithramir listened as Varion asked,

“We will not disappoint you m’lord. Regarding the attack, have there been any other volunteers, or should I requisition additional Blue Knights for the task? Also, is there any other specific information or intelligence we should be aware of before launching our attack? The nature of the access hole perhaps or anything else we can expect to encounter once inside the sewer system?"

Ithramir responds,

"I wouldn't worry about disappointing me, if your mission fails, all of these troops you see around us would be the ones that would suffer. I'm sure you'll do fine."

Ithramir pauses a second, then continues,

"No, there will be no others to assist you. A small group will not draw attention to what is happening, a larger group may put you and your men at more risk than necessary."

Pulling out a map, with details of troops and their supposed plans of attack, he continues,

"Once the full army is ready and at the gates, we launch an attack. That is the time you will need to make for this specific location near where the walls of the keep begin and the mountain begins. You will look for a small, metallic solar cross. It can be confused for an old makeshift gravemarker, and it is intended to be that way. Simply stand over the cross and pull hard upwards, it may take two to four men to do so, and the cover over the secret entrance will open. After that, I cannot say what will happen. The Orks may not know of it, in that case, you will progress quickly to near the gatehouse entrance. Again, you will need a few able bodies to press the cover off of it's resting place."

Looking at Varion, he continues,

"However, if they know of its existence, well, you may be hard-pressed to make it into the gatehouse courtyard. Either way, I wish you luck. Now, if you'll excuse me, I must prepare the larger portion of the army for the assault."

With a nod, Ithramir see's Varion off, then turns to Catherin and says,

"Pass the word: We will be marching out in one hour. Have the troops assembled outside, with the mages and healers in the rear. Also, send our skirmishers forward to clear the path for us."

Catherin nodded and Ithramir moved himself and his mount to the forefront of the assembling army.

Written by - Dartanian Merquise

Varion gazed intently at the map and listened as Ithramir laid out the plan. Memorizing the map and the points of attack to the best of his ability, his mind raced with a thousand thoughts, though his expression remained calm. When the Elven Lord had finished the briefing and dismissed him, Varion offered a crisp salute, turned, and headed off to see to his men.

Written by - Ariana

Mavigan was more than a little nervous. Not only had she not noticed the approach of the three men, but one of them was the actual head of the guild. She had never even dreamed she would be in the same room with the man, and yet, here he was, bowing to her.

Her glance darted between Wilhelm and The Raven as they began speaking in code. As they conversed, she grew more and more uneasy. It seemed that The Raven knew full well who she was and that he and Wilhelm had played her for a fool. Her suspicion proved to be fact as The Raven, one of the most powerful men in Westgale, gave her a scraping bow.

She quickly closed her gaping mouth and shifted uncertainly from foot to foot. Realizing that her whereabouts had always been known and that those she had relied upon for escape had been in on the joke from the beginning made her want to turn the air blue. However, considering they needed his help, insulting him was most likely not the wisest course of action. Mavigan clamped her lips tightly shut swallowing the angry words that were building in her mouth.

She did allow herself a quick glare in Wilhelm’s direction, though.

It took a full count to 20 and 3 deep breaths before she felt calm enough to speak.

“We need to get into the palace so I can gut my Uncle,” she said bluntly.

Written by - Ariana

Ariana was delighted at the influx of little people that seemed determined to join her on her travels to wherever it was that she was going. She had been a little confused about their newest companion – she had claimed a tie of blood to Ardwen – and something about that brushed the back of her mind as not being quite right. But when Ardwen didn’t kill the child outright, Ariana just shrugged.

When the little girl came over and took Elerus’s hand, Ariana just smiled and dropped the hand she was holding herself. She did not notice the sigh of relief from the boy.

They trudged silently along the path, following Ardwen like a flock of sheep. Until, that is, Ardwen kept going straight when they should have veered a little to the left. Really, how could he miss that blazing beacon in the distance? Was he blind?

Ariana gave a huff and corrected her own course – ever keeping the guiding light in front of her.

Written by - Ardwen

Ardwen kept tossing glances at his fellow travelers; in between observing his companions the ancient Elf’s eyes swept the pathway in front of him. Elerus couldn’t help but notice his friend’s tense behavior, and he was not surprised when Ardwen dropped back to walk beside him once Ariana began to set her own course. Ardwen was the first to speak with a hushed, “I’m worried.”

“Noted.” Elerus said, “Why?”

Ardwen looked around before answering, “When we started, I thought this would be simple. The Abbess would lead us a few yards from the Citadel and that would be it. I only procured a little gold from the gate captain, and that alone we received out of generosity. What’s more—“

“You’ve got a woman and child to protect now, and I would bet you’re not certain about me either, right?” Elerus interrupted.

Elerus watched as Ardwen’s rigid posture became even more upright; his friend looked at the ground to either side of his feet before saying, “Yes, but it’s not so simple. The girl must be kept out of danger, and I know Ariana is in no condition to fight. As for you, well, do you remember the first time we fought side-by-side?”

“Of course I remember.” Elerus said with a nod. “But, you’re not going to fool me, Ardwen. Even now you’re thinking that I don’t have a sword, and that I’m not used to my . . . condition. I agree about Angel and Ariana, but listen to me: don’t play the I’m-the-only-hero bit.”

“I’m simply doing what I was made for, born for. If I’m the only one who can do what needs to be done, that’s just reality.” Ardwen muttered. Elerus shook his head and let out a brief chuckle, “I don’t think even you can believe that, Ardwen.”

The two Elves ceased conversing; Ardwen resumed his pace next to Ariana. As the evening wore on and the sun began to dip in the sky the Elven warrior once again went to Elerus. This time it was the young Elf who spoke first, “Sun’s going down, we have no food or water, nor have we had any rest, and if I’m not mistaken we’ll have rain by nightfall.” Ardwen looked up at the mottled grey sky and said, “Time for a plan then. El, can you take wing and see if there’s a place we could camp for the night or a taberna?”

Ardwen heard a child’s laugh, and had to guess if it was Angel or Elerus. He soon realized it was his friend when the winged boy said, “Right, a taberna. Yeah, you’ll also want a fully developed road system and a series of coaching inns to deliver the mail? Whatever, you’ve got it Ardwen, I’ll take to the skies for a minute.” Elerus broke his handhold to Angel with an apology, explaining he would need speed for his work. Ariana had released his other hand earlier, and while Elerus had tried to be nonchalant about it, he’d released a small sigh of relief as he felt the circulation return to his wrist. With a few bounding steps he took to the sky, spreading his single wing to catch the wind.

The ground shrank from beneath the boy’s feet, the tree branches and limbs were blurs as he ascended upward. Elerus did not bother forming any wings of ice, for the mechanism of flight for him was mostly supernatural – the wings merely provided extra lift and mobility. As Elerus flew higher he could see arcs of light in distant grey clouds and a haze over the land. Far from the group below, it was raining.

Ardwen watched in wonder as Elerus shot up through the sky. He had to quickly quash a sting of jealousy. A few white feathers drifted through the air in front of him, and Ardwen snatched one as it floated past his face. The bladeweaver let out a sullen “hmph”, but he couldn’t prevent a slight smile from flickering on his face. Ardwen’s thoughts were distracted, however, when he observed Elerus descending from the skies. Within a few heartbeats his companion fluttered before him, giving one last flap of his wing before alighting on the ground.

Elerus looked around and dug at the dirt with the toe of one of his boots. “You’re not going to believe this,” Elerus said, “but there’s an inn along this trail.”

“What?” Ardwen barked.

“This little goat trail widens and there’s a clearing in the woods, we can reach it before nightfall no problem.”

“Why is there an inn here, out in the middle of nowhere?”

“Not a clue, but it seems Ariana is on the right course for it. Maybe divine inspiration?”

“Tch,” Ardwen growled, “I’d rather risk the rain.” Ardwen spared a glance at Angel however, and noticed the young girl had no shoes. She was hoping from one foot to another every couple of steps and was brushing the bottom of her feet of with her hands. “I suppose,” Ardwen said softly, “we could use a rest.”

As the four continued with Ariana leading the way, Elerus took advantage of not being lead about by the hand to confer with Ardwen. He filled his friend in on the fact that he had observed armed figures entering and leaving the building. Despite his keen eyes, he could not see if they were Elven or human. The moon waxed pale in the grey-blue sky, the stars were starting to appear, and a heavy wind carried the scent of rain by the time the small group came upon the clearing. Just as Elerus had said, the overgrown forest path gave way to packed dirt and widened into an opening that held a single building.

The inn itself was a wooden two-story structure with what looked to be a mixture of thatching and timber for a roof. The sides of the building were coated in a lime wash, which gave the whole structure a dull white appearance in the dim light. A single stone chimney snaked its way up the building’s side, but there was no smoke billowing from the top. Ardwen had halted the group before the trees gave way to the inn’s yard, and it was here he laid out his plan. “I have no reason to expect any of Beridane’s men or spies so far into Elven lands, yet I think it best if I go first.”

Without another word Ardwen strode across the small yard that separated the inn from the surrounding forest. Elerus saw his friend open the inn door and stride in without a second look. The next few moments seemed to stretch on for hours to the child. As absurd as it sounded to him that anything in inside could threaten Ardwen, Elerus still found himself debating if he should go in when the door to the inn opened once more and Ardwen walked out. The Elven warrior waved an arm to signal that the inn was safe.

Elerus found the inside of the inn to be as unassuming as the outside. A large central common room occupied the entire first level, with chairs and tables arranged with no clear pattern throughout. The room was mostly empty, with a swift look only revealing five other patrons. A fireplace blackened with soot sat to the left of a long wooden bar, behind which was the innkeeper. Elerus first noticed the pointed ears, and he then noticed the thick mane of grey hair on the old elf’s head. Once the group was in the inn, the innkeeper looked up, and Elerus saw a lined face with eyes that seemed at once to both smile and weep.

“Welcome.” The inn’s proprietor said while moving from behind the bar with a cloth to wash a nearby table. “So, that’ll be you, the lady, and the two little ones, yeah?” Elerus reflexively tensed at the man’s diminutive assessment, and his wing swept up before he managed to swallow his pride. The innkeeper had picked up an empty mug from a table and was polishing it, but at the sound of ruffling feathers he slowly turned to look at the “little ones” again.

The old elf dropped the glass; it hit the floor with a sharp smack but did not break. “What in Avandor’s name—“ he began, but Ardwen cut him off.

“Enough!” Ardwen said, “We just want a roof over our heads and provisions for a journey, nothing more, we can pay.”

At the mention of business as usual the innkeeper seemed to regain his composure, he knelt down and grasped the dropped mug and began to clean it again. “I understand sir, but you’ll have to keep in mind this is a coaching inn – mainly used for delivering missives and military letters to and from the Citadel.”

“Relax Davnin.” One of the patrons to the group’s left interjected. “I know two of them, the kid and the swordsman. Ol’ Ardwen there managed to snuff an Avatar of Foesta a while back.” The unnamed soldier tilted his head back and drank deeply from a pewter goblet before finishing his story. “All I managed to do was get an arrow in my leg and a lump on my head. Believe me when I say he’s a stalwart sort. The boy arrived at the Citadel shortly before I left.”

“Thanks.” Ardwen said to the Elf. “I’m afraid I don’t know your name.”

“I’m called Kalfrin, friends call me Kal. Think nothing of it. I’d love to catch up on old times, but I’ve got a report from one of our scout companies complaining about round-ears from the Shrikefield. Seems Beridane’s taking advantage of the attack on Minas Uial; knows we’re stretched thin. If you plan to travel further north, keep an eye out. Though after watching you fight before I say Avandor help the poor bastards.” Kalfrin finished his drink with one last lingering gulp, stood up, gave a slight bow, and was out of the door before another word could be said.

“Hmph,” Davnin muttered, “any ally of the Citadel is welcome here. Still, that doesn’t change the fact that this is a coaching inn. We might not have many staying here, but the rooms are being used for the storage of foodstuffs and weapons for messengers and the local patrols. I’ve only got one room that’s free and not cluttered from the floorboards to the ceiling with boxes and horse tackle. If that’ll work for you, you’re welcome to stay as long as you need.”

Ardwen hesitated a moment before answering, “That’s fine Davnin. My apologies, but would it be too much to purchase some foodstuffs from you as well?”

“No, no worries, we’ll see what we can spare in the morning – I hear thunder now, I think a storm’s brewing.”

Ardwen paused once more before saying, “I don’t imagine you could draw hot water for a bath as well?”

Davnin chuckled before answering, “Of course, you know how many trail worn travelers you get at a coaching inn? Just say the word and I can have water from boiling to icicles ready.” Ardwen didn’t answer verbally; he simply nodded and sat down on a nearby stool at the bar. Elerus hopped up on the stool to the warrior’s right, and couldn’t help but notice Davnin tossing furtive glances at him in between cleaning and seeing to the other patrons. Elerus frowned slightly, but he was not certain if it was from the unwanted attention, or the fact that his feet couldn’t touch the ground.

Written by - Ariana

The journey was mostly silent. Ariana would often stop to examine a leaf or stick or rock before continuing on. She only vaguely heard conversation between the other members of the group, instead focusing on reacquainting herself with the world of sight and sound and smell and touch. Everything seemed to have an aura about it, and the kaleidoscope of colors fascinated her. Anyone paying attention, however, would have observed her cast the occasional glance towards the empty space to her right.

Ariana wasn’t sure when the glowy woman had joined them on this journey. Certainly no one seemed to act as if they knew she was there; in fact, Ardwen had nearly crashed right into her. She nearly said something to bring their attention to the new member of their party, but the woman merely shook her head and placed a finger over her lips to indicate quiet. Shrugging, Ariana continued to follow the beacon.

It wasn’t until they were ensconced in the inn that Ariana finally decided she was tired of listening to the woman’s chatter in quiet. She plunked herself on a stool next to Elerus and cast an angry glare at the space next to Ardwen.

“I don’t know,” she said with a huff.

Ariana cocked her head for a moment and then said petulantly, “Why don’t you ask him? You’ve got a mouth! And you've been using it for hours!”

Written by - Ardwen

Ardwen spared Elerus a glance when he took the seat next to him, the ancient Elven bladeweaver gave his companion a nod when he saw him frown. Elerus simply shook his head slightly and muttered, “I’m fine, don’t worry.” Ardwen said nothing in response; he just locked his gaze on some distant point in space and remained silent. A few moments of silence passed between the two Elves before Ariana took the seat to the right of Elerus.

At first neither Elf paid her any heed, but when Ariana addressed the air next to her, both Ardwen and Elerus exchanged confused glances. Ardwen stood up slowly and said with a sigh, “El, meet me upstairs, I think we need another plan.” Elerus hopped off the bar stool, relishing the chance to get away from the stares and veiled whispers of the inn’s other patrons. Ardwen waited by the stairwell until his young companion had started up the steps, and then the warrior quickly followed.

Once upstairs, the two Elves leaned against opposite walls, facing each other. They had both adopted similar poses without intending to, but Ardwen did not care to comment, and it was he who spoke first with, “She was talking to nothing, wasn’t she? Ariana is seeing things.”

Elerus nodded and said, “I kept my eyes on her when she had my hand, Ardwen she’s been staring at almost everything as we walked. Still, she looked predominantly to the right, as if there was something there she wanted to keep track of.”

Ardwen squeezed his eyes shut and placed a hand on his forehead. The bladeweaver turned his face up to look at the ceiling before speaking, “El, I can’t do this. I’m a warrior, not a healer. The more I think about this the more absurd it seems. Why did I agree to come along in the first place? I could have kept Ariana at the Citadel, where she was safe. But this? Wandering about the countryside when Beridane’s men lurk in the woods? This is foolish. And now Angel . . . .” Ardwen didn’t finish his sentence, he trailed off into silence.

Elerus turned his face to the right to look down the stairwell and into the inn’s common room. “Ask yourself Ardwen, why did you come along? I’ve known you since we were both children, and now I see you jumping at the whims of a mortal woman?” Elerus paused and Ardwen saw a grin form on his face, “Is it lo—“

“Don’t say it.” Ardwen snapped.

Elerus simply shrugged, and Ardwen realized that his friend had a point. Why had he agreed, despite his better judgment, to come along? What did he feel he owed Ariana? He had already saved her life despite the plotting of the king of Westgale, and here he was getting dragged around while the usurper’s men roamed the countryside. Ardwen crossed his arms and locked his eyes on the floor; at length he said slowly, “I think, I think I feel I owe her more than life.”

“Oh.” Elerus said to urge his friend on.

“She cared about me. I don’t know why, I don’t know what made her see more in me than what the Empire saw. In Ancora she would just sit there, and listen. Listen to me talk about everything; about nothing. I never told her everything, of course, and I regret that. But I . . . can’t abandon her, whatever it means to follow her now. I just want to help her, Elerus.”

So!” The young elf began. “Do you know what she is after, what she wants?” Ardwen simply shook his head no. “Then why don’t you ask her?” Ardwen almost objected, he wanted to cite that Ariana was in no condition to answer, to determine what she wanted, but the warrior stopped himself. Did it matter?

“Thanks.” Ardwen said before starting his walk back to where Ariana was sitting.

Elerus waited until Ardwen was near the bottom of the stairs before whispering with a mocking sigh, “It’s love.” Ardwen’s footfalls ceased and the winged child saw his friend glance backwards over his shoulder. Elerus simply smirked innocently and looked around as if trying to pinpoint where the whisper had come from.

Ardwen went to Ariana, she was still sitting on the same barstool. The Elven warrior sat down on the stool to her left and waited a minute. Ariana seemed to pay no attention to him, but Ardwen said sharply, “Ariana!” That seemed to get his Abbess’s attention, if only for a brief moment. “I want some answers, or we are returning to the Citadel – where you will at least be safe. I cannot risk blindly running around the countryside chasing ghosts and shadows, where are we going? What do you want?” Ardwen paused to give Ariana a chance to answer, but when she did not promptly respond the Elf pressed on, “Please Ariana, just tell me. All I ask is to know your desire.”

Written by - Ariana

She blinked at him for a moment, head cocked as if she were listening intently to something or someone. Unsatisfied with what she heard, she glared at the empty space beside her before giving a resigned sigh.

“She says we have to follow the beacon to some place called Westgale. I’m not sure why, but she says it is important.”

She turned to face the space beside her. “There! I told him. Happy now?”

Written by - Tempyst

It was a massive undertaking, but finally she found them, Sword-Singers. Kaya looked them over, then placed a hand upon Dorve's shoulder. "Here goes nothing." Kaya let out a shrill whistle, one used by her to gain attention of her men back in the homeland desert. At first there was silence, but then there were whistles in return and soon she was surrounded by familiar faces.

The captain, also one of her old troop, came over and hugged Kaya tightly. "We all thought you were dead, least that is what was said. When we heard the news, we took the first boat out of there, to escape prosecution."

"I am glad to see you all, and by order of Lord Ithramir, if you will have me, I am here to lead you once more."

Captain Ah'len nodded. "I would not have it any other way, my men are now yours."

"Thank you Ah'len, you will be my second. Now, also, by order of Lord Ithramir, we are to be on the front lines. It will not be easy and much blood will be shed, but we will prove to them all the might of the Sword-Singers."

Again Ah'len nodded. "As you command Commander Kaya. Now, let me go introduce you to the rest of the troops."

Kaya smiled and followed the Captain, already preparing in her mind, the battle ahead.

Written by - Sycon

Uncle Ardy had kept quite for hours only speaking once or twice to the handsome winged boy. It was a long road, and her feet were starting to hurt. She did not complain though, she had at least Ariana to hold hands with when she felt lonely in the silence.

Ariana was a different story. Every little while she would stop and look at something. She would pick up a rock, look closely at it, turn it on and sometimes even sniff it. It was an odd behavior but it made Angel giggle. Ariana would just turn toward her and smile, then look to her other side and do the same. This struck Angel as slightly odd. Well, more odd than Ariana was. Though slightly odd was what Ariana seemed to be. There was something also not completely right in the air around her. Perhaps this is why she had been so quiet.

When they reached the inn, she was the first inside after the "All Clear" salute from Uncle Ardy. Was he always like this? So rigid.

After Uncle Ardy and the boy, she came to realize was Elerus, had exchanged greetings with the inn keeper she took off for the nearest table and almost toppled the chair and she slid into it. She rubbed her feet... so sore! Way to far to walk in a day! She was glad she did not have to do this every day.

After her feet had had a good rub down, she crossed her arms on the table and lay her head on it. A little later she barely noticed Uncle Ardy and Ariana speaking beside her. Aparently Ariana was arguing with someone, and Ardwen was trying to profess something. She just wished they'd be quite so she could slip back into her dream.

Written by - Ardwen

Westgale. Ardwen heard Ariana’s words, but it took a moment for his mind to wrap entirely around what she had said. It all seemed too absurd for the ancient Elf, too unbelievable. The Elven bladeweaver was not familiar with his new world; he did not know all its regions, cultures, or kingdoms. However, Ardwen knew Westgale, knew it from experience. Westgale was the human city that he had rescued Ariana from, it was his skill and endurance that had ensured the Abbess escaped her fate as a human sacrifice at the behest of the city’s ruler, an upstart mudman named Beridane. Ardwen’s eyes partly slid closed as if from a weariness. The Elf had a nagging certainly that Ariana had just chosen the single most dangerous place in the entire world as her destination.

Ardwen found his thoughts turning to Angel and Elerus. A quick glance at a nearby table showed the young girl was nearly fast asleep, stirring only to switch to a more comfortable position. Could Ariana really mean to drag a defenseless child into the heartlands of the enemy? How could she consider such a thing, or did she simply expect him to obey without questioning? The Elven warrior found his anger rising, and a slight frown broke the expressionless mask he normally wore. “No.” Ardwen said quickly and quietly, “We are not going to Westgale, you are not going to Westgale. How could you even consider such a thing, Ariana? Do you really want to drag Elerus and this girl into a city that you nearly died in?”

As Ardwen spoke his agitation increased, and the warrior stood as he spoke, walking a few steps every couple of words as if to highlight the key points in his speech. “This is beyond ridiculous,” Ardwen continued, “this borders on suicide. Do you not recall what Beridane attempted last time? He tried to sacrifice you to a demon, and the other Hands,” here Ardwen’s tone took on a slightly bitter edge, “were almost more concerned with preserving that miserable pit of squalor than saving you.” Here Ardwen paused again, his back was facing Ariana, and he looked over his shoulder and spoke now, “Now you wish to return?” Suddenly the Elf’s fingertips were resting against his forehead, as if to ward off a headache. “Oh, I see now. Some fool suggested this at the Citadel, didn’t they? Craven dullards crying out for a savior.” Ardwen’s hand moved away from his head and he held his palm aloft, as if grasping the explanation from the air. “They thought you the legendary saint, come to bring them their salvation.”

Ardwen let his hand fall and let out a single dry chuckle. He turned to face Ariana and said, “Fine. You’re interested in Westgale. Good, then Westgale you will have. Here is what we will do: return with Elerus and Angel to the Citadel, where you will be safe. Tell me what you want from Westgale, anything at all, and I’ll deliver it into your hands. Consider your words well; I’ll give you the night to think on it.” With that Ardwen turned his attention to the innkeeper, and ordered the man to draw the water for the bath, with that done Ardwen ascended the stairs to the second floor of the inn.

Elerus sighed and rested his chin on an upturned palm. “Another brilliant moment in diplomacy, Ardwen.” The young boy said with a roll of his eyes. The small Elf spared Ariana a look, and noticed that she sat there in silence, but every now and then her eyes would dart to her right, and her mouth would move. His friend had managed to find out where Ariana wished to go, and then he had jumped to the worst possible conclusion with no evidence, and compounded his haste with his typical unyielding brashness. Elerus rubbed a palm over his eyes and muttered, “And I’m the one who’s a child?” The winged boy considered his next move carefully, there was still a chance he could pick up the pieces and help Ardwen out. For a while Elerus sat and said nothing, wondering how best to proceed, and then he watched Ariana seemingly in distraction with another, and then it all seemed to simple.

Elerus adopted a cheerful tone to his voice, “Can you tell me what your friend is saying? Is that why you want to go to Westgale? Does your friend want you to go? I’d ask her, but I don’t think she wants to speak to a kid.” Elerus swung his feet back and forth as he spoke and looked innocently at the woman, inwardly though one thought kept passing through his mind: Ardwen owed him.

Written by - Ariana

She watched Ardwen’s back as it disappeared up the stairs of the inn, a mixture of emotions crossing her face. One moment her visage twisted into a scowl of anger, and had he turned to see it it would have reminded him of the fire once possessed by his Abbess. This was quickly followed by her mouth drooping into sad resignation.

She heaved a sigh just as Elerus spoke.

”Can you tell me what your friend is saying? Is that why you want to go to Westgale? Does your friend want you to go?’

She cocked her head at him and stared silently for a full minute, as if scrutinizing his question and the motives behind it. When she answered, the response was softly given. “There is a light in the distance. She says I have to follow it. What was lost must be found. He,” she said gesturing the way Ardwen had left, “does not understand.”

Silence descended again, her attention diverted by the person only she could see. After a moment, she looked at the sleeping child and then back at Elerus, reaching across the table to pat his hands reassuringly. “He is lonely,” she said gently, giving his hand a small squeeze, “and we cannot help. She says that you will watch over them both.”

She smiled at him then, a genuine smile filled with affection and reassurance. It was a smile that brushed over Elerus like a refreshing breeze in spite of there being no wind. And without waiting for a response, she hopped off the stool and started walking to the door.

Written by - Ardwen

Elerus felt Ariana’s gaze on him, and the young boy diverted his eyes away. Why was she studying him so intently? Elerus found himself wondering if he’d said something wrong, if Ariana wasn’t taken in by his act – had he only made things worse? Finally, after what seemed like hours Ariana answered him. The winged child found Ariana’s answer almost as unnerving as her prolonged silence, but it told him something important all the same: Ariana needed to go to Westgale for herself, not simply out of some insane desire as Ardwen had assumed.

The small group fell quiet after Ariana’s words. Suddenly, the lady patted Elerus’s hands, and with a reassuring squeeze instructed him to watch over Angel and Ardwen. Elerus saw Ariana smile, and strangely Elerus felt suddenly shy, the boy crossed one foot over the other back and forth and rubbed the back of his head idly, his white hair clumping around his hand. Then Ariana rose from her seat and began to walk to the door. The young Elf blinked in surprise and wanted to call out, but Ariana’s attention seemed to be entirely fixed on the inn’s exit.

Hopping off the barstool, Elerus ran over to Ariana before she reached the exit. He called out her name, but Ariana ignored him and kept walking. Desperate, Elerus reached out and clasped Ariana’s hand, the Abbess was still walking, and Elerus braced his feet and said, “Wait, plea--“; before he was cut short and tugged from his stance by Ariana’s brisk pace. Unlike at Citadel, Elerus stumbled forward and smacked into Ariana, he reeled back, and thanks to the fact that Ariana still had his hand kept his balance. The sudden movement caused a large lock of white hair to slide forward and cover one his eyes. With an annoyed huff Elerus managed to at least move enough of the offending strand to see out of both eyes, and when he looked he saw Ariana looking at him intently with a bemused grin on her face.

“Um . . .” Elerus began uncertainly, “sorry, I uh . . . .” His face felt hot, and the young Elf found himself inexplicably and intently studying the tops of Ariana’s boots. With a small swallow to settle his nerves and help mend his pride Elerus began speaking, “Don’t go”. He implored. “If you leave he’ll find you, and he can move very, very fast.” The winged child noticed Ariana still had hold of his hand, and with a barely repressed groan he recalled how long it had taken to get free the first time Ariana had taken his hand. Elerus pushed the thought from his mind quickly, however, and focused on the matter at hand – he had to convince Ariana to stay, or at the very least wait for Ardwen. “Ardwen can be difficult at times,” Elerus continued, “but he only did what he did because he cares for you, if he didn’t he would have told you to go on to Westgale and meet whatever end there.”

Elerus paused for a moment, taking the opportunity to move the rest of the offending wisp of hair out of his eyesight. That done he went on saying, “I know him, I’ve known Ardwen for many, many lifetimes of your people. He’s afraid of losing you, and so he’s going to protect you at the expense of himself, it’s just the way he is. Those few he lets in are guarded, and from everyone else he distances himself. But it’s more than that, I believe . . . .” Elerus paused here once again, uncertain how to continue, or even if his words were reaching the lady in front of him. “I believe,” he tried again, “that destiny brought you together, for a purpose. So please, stay, tell him what your friend said to me, explain why Westgale is so important – I know he’ll listen! Don’t leave him again it . . .” Once more Elerus paused here before finishing in a stalled whisper, “it almost killed him last time.”

Written by - Wilhelm

“We need to get into the palace so I can gut my Uncle,” Mavigan said bluntly.

The Raven barked a sharp laugh and then clapped his hands in applause.

"Now that I would like to see, and so would many of the Shadows Guild. Come with me and we will give you the chance."

The Raven led them out into the passage, where more black-clad figures waited. The Raven said to them,

"Spread the word to the elite. The black arrow is loosed tonight. Gather at the center."

The black figures bowed and several ran off in different directions. The rest formed into an outer guard. The Raven pointed and they all set off. The Raven reached into a pouch and pulled out an amulet which he invoked. A faint gray mist arose from the amulet and spread out to encompass the Raven and Mavigan's group. The black figures could be seen outside the mist but all sound from outside ceased.

"Now we can speak without being overheard or scryed. I am glad indeed to see you again, Mavigan, not only for your father's sake but because I always liked your spirit. Your father and I and Willy here served together in our youth. While we trod very different paths after that, our brotherhood remained. Your family's death was both a surprise and a terrible shock to me. I do not know who the assassin was, but I am now certain who ordered it.

It has become clear that Beridane is both a kinslayer, having arranged the assassination of your family, and a demon worshipper, having tried to summon a major demon using the death of a priestess of the All Father.

We have tried to remove him, but his defenses were too good. Ever since someone somehow got to him and cut off his hand (pity it wasn't his head), Beridane has had every known entrance into the palace both warded by magic and heavily guarded by his Ironskane Elite Guard. He thinks he is now invulnerable, and normally he would be correct.

However, there is one entrance he does not know about, as it is known only to the Raven and to the Crown and has been warded since it was built in total secrecy. Though outwardly I was seen as a thorn in his side, tolerated only because I kept the thieves in check, in fact I remained your father's friend and acted as his eyes and ears, passing on knowledge that came to me through many ways. Wilhelm here was often the go between, but sometimes we needed to meet in person.

I now make you an offer I have only given to two others, your father and Wilhelm here. Do your best to preserve our people and I will do my best to provide you with the information you need. Here is the first.

There is a hidden chamber under the palace reachable by two secret passages. One leads to my inner sanctum, which only I can open, and the other leads to the King's Chamber. That one can only be opened, or even perceived, by a member of the Royal Family. I can get to the hidden chamber, but until now I could not open or even find the second passage.

You, my dear, can find and open it. We can then escort you into the King's Chamber so you can have your sharp discussion with your uncle while the rest of us deal with those pesky Ironskane guards."

They had come to a bronze door embellished with black ravens. The black-clad figures guarding it bowed and opened the door as they approached. Before leading them inside, Raven turned again to Mavigan. The Raven drew a stilleto from its sheath at his hip and presented it and its sheath to Mavigan. She could see it was a master weapon, well used but well cared for, and on the blade could be seen the royal arms.

"Your father and I exchanged daggers when we graduated. I would be honored if you would use this to make your point with your uncle."

Written by - Ariana

She cocked her head at Elerus as he delivered his impassioned speech. When he finished, she heaved a sigh, turning to stare at the door to the inn. It seemed as if she was deliberating her options.

When her decision was made, Elerus did not have time to react before she was pulling him behind her back into the Inn. The door slammed open with a bang, and curious eyes turned toward the young woman with a boy in tow, but she paid them no heed. She stomped over to the stairs and then stomped some more to climb them.

She reached the landing and paused staring at the hallway and its many doors. She really had no idea which one Ardwen was hiding behind, so she started opening them all. One at a time, down the line, she flung the door open and stood glowering in the doorway.

Several upset patrons later, she finally reached the room Ardwen was in. It was the last one on the hall. She slammed this door open to reveal Ardwen soaking in a large metal basin. She propped her hands on her hips and squared off, expecting a fight.

“She-“ she started, then stopped. “No,” she said softly to herself.

Her face scrunched as if she had just tasted something very sour. The hands at her hips balled into fists, and her whole body tensed up. It resembled beer in a bottle that has been shaken till its nearly ready to explode.

She could feel the word there, was reaching for it with all she had. When she found it, it balled up behind her teeth, and when she finally let it go it rocked the air with its force. “I –“ she exploded. “I am going to Westgale!”

She heaved a couple of deep breaths, then pulled Elerus in front of her and shoved him into the room. “He will take care of you now.” Her tone seemingly indicated that the only reason she had allowed them to travel with her was for their benefit, not hers.

Satisfied she had delivered her message, she turned and began stomping her way back down the hallway, leaving the door gaping open in her wake.


Written by - Ariana Page 20 Book 4

Mavigan had nodded along with his plan and his proposal for a deal, but when he brought the dagger out, he nearly undid her. She extended one finger and lightly traced her family’s coat of arms emblazoned on the blade The Raven offered. Her father’s blade.

She could feel the grief welling up behind her eyes, threatening to spill over into public view. She clamped down hard on her grief and drew in a shaky breath. With trembling fingers she grasped the blade and placed it on her hip. Clearing her voice, she attempted a wry smile. “I’ll be sure to tell Uncle that you inquired after his health.”

Written by - Ardwen

Ardwen sank deeper into the warm water and let out a soft sigh. The warrior closed his eyes and allowed his thoughts to lap against the edges of his consciousness like the water did over his body. A peal of thunder growled through the air, and in the following stillness Ardwen could hear the dull plink of rain falling on the inn’s roof. Then the door to the room slammed open. Ardwen’s eyes shot open in time with the door and his first reaction was of outrage and indignation at the lack of courtesy. Then the ancient warrior saw who had opened the door, it was Ariana.

Ardwen made sure his back was facing opposite Ariana as she barged into the room and placed her balled fists on her hips. Ardwen said nothing as she shouted that she was going to Westgale despite his earlier protests. The Elven bladeweaver gave no response as she shoved a sheepish Elerus into the room with the odd assurance that Elerus would look out for him now. The only thing Ardwen took special note of was the biting tone of Ariana’s voice, as if during this entire trip traveling with her had been a privilege; Ardwen bit back an angry retort and simply watched his Abbess storm out of the room.

“Close the door Elerus, and if she leaves make sure that Angel is with you.” Ardwen said in a dull monotone.

“Ardwen—“ Elerus began, but Ardwen interrupted with a single word.

“Go.”

Elerus did as bid; he closed the door and followed Ariana down the hallway. The young Elf noted her distraction, however, and Elerus could only choke out a small surprised yelp as she continued to walk downstairs and out the inn’s door and into the pouring rain. Elerus wasted no time; however, recalling Ardwen’s other request. He roused Angel from slumber, and though the girl was still half-asleep he tried to usher her out the door, keeping an eye on the retreating form of Ariana. Elerus kept shaking his head in disbelief, “This has all gone wrong,” he thought, “are you really going to let her go alone Ardwen?” The winged child kept repeating the words “he won’t” mentally until it became a mantra of disbelief – he knew Ardwen – he wouldn’t do this.

Despite Elerus’s thoughts, the three soon found themselves walking through the soaking rain in the forest past the inn’s clearing again. The thick storm clouds overhead blotted out the light of the moon and stars, and the flashes of lightning threw mad shadows from the woods that danced and leapt before the eyes before fading back into darkness. Ariana did not speak a word to anyone but herself, occasionally her hands clenched into fists again and she muttered something starting with “I”, but Elerus was too lost in thought and the driving rain and peals of thunder stole her words from her lips.

The young Elf was so lost in thought that he almost didn’t notice the movement at the edge of his vision. A flash of silver caught the brief flash of lightning, and embedded itself in a tree in front of the group. Elerus blinked and noticed it was not a stray spark or trick of light, but an ornate blade, he also knew to whom the blade belonged. The rain slackened, and moonlight broke through the clouds, and Ardwen was standing next to the sword. Without preamble the Elven warrior pulled the blade from the tree and walked over to Ariana.

The rain faded to a mist as Ardwen stood there, blade in hand, in front of Ariana. While he appeared motionless, Elerus saw his hand clinching and relaxing on the grip of the sword time and time again. “Ardwen, how long have you been trailing us?” Elerus asked softly.

“Long enough.” Ardwen answered. The Elf took his blade and held it across his body, he closed his eyes for a moment, and his lips parted briefly. Elerus thought he heard Ardwen say something, but it was too soft for even his hearing. Ardwen released the blade, which shimmered and vanished, melting like snow in warm sunshine. The Elven warrior walked closer to Ariana, he locked eyes with her and said simply, “Point, where is Westgale?”

Ariana rolled her eyes as if the answer was obvious, but she obligingly jabbed a finger straight in front of her. Ardwen followed the direction of her hand, extending the line it made out into the shadowed horizon with his sight. Then he picked Ariana up in his arms. The Abbess of the Hands of Providence let out a chortled squeal of surprise and managed to slap Ardwen for his efforts. Ardwen did not react, taking the blow on the face and merely turning his head to regard Ariana and say, “I don’t care if you can understand me or not. Westgale is hundreds of miles away, and if we travel like a pack of humans we will never get there. Elerus and I are of one blood, let us show you what we can do.” Ardwen paused and looked over his shoulder and said, “Sorry, but you’ll have to carry Angel.”

Ardwen noticed Elerus take a half step back and hold up a hand in protest. “Don’t be so melodramatic,” Ardwen said with a sly tone, “she can’t possibly weigh as much as this one.” A second slap landed on Ardwen’s turned head, and he flinched from this one. “I’m beginning to think you can understand me,” Ardwen muttered, “you simply hear what you wish.” Ardwen took off into the mist-wrapped forest, and true to his boasting the pace he set was swift and brutal. Elerus was obliged to carry Angel by having her wrap her arms around his neck and rest on his back. Even then to keep step with Ardwen he was forced to take to the air in short hops, gliding and weaving amongst the thick tree trunks, thankful that the trees were ancient and their branches were far above the ground.

Written by - Sycon

Angel did not have much time to... well anything. She was well asleep in her chair, the warmth of the hearth behind her. It was a nice dream until the pretty winged boy had shaken her awake. "Quick, we have to hurry" he said... All the while muttering under his breath something about, "He won't."

Things were moving too quick for her sleepy eyes. Then came the realization as she stepped outside. Cold rain fell on her, almost freezing her to the spot as it jolted her back into herself and alert.

Ariana was a good distance in head of her now and Angel did not want to lose sight of her. Wiping her nose once, she took off towards her. Still, all she could do to keep up with Ariana's longer legs was stumble behind her in the muddy street. The muddy street led into the forest. There were no signs of life in the rain. She supposed all the animals had taken shelter, exactly what she should have done.

No shelter meant no warmth. And with no shoes, Angel's feet were starting to go numb. The smallest pebble underfoot was painful.

Ariana had stopped. She stared at a weird looking sword imbedded into a tree. Angel looked around, but it was dim and all she could see through the rain was a figure coming towards them.

It was Uncle Ardy. She had almost forgotten about him in the rain. A few quick words and a squeak later, Ariana was into his arms. She watched as he swept her away into the forest. It was romantic.

Elerus looked at her with caring eyes. "Don't want to lose them do we?"

Angel hopped onto his back and the little guy almost matched Ardy's His eyes looked worried as he looked back and forth from Ariana to her.pace. It thrilled her when he had to take to wing to keep up with them.

Angel's eyes teared up. As the rain fell, so did her tears. She did not know why she was crying, and thiking about it only made it worse. She was glad the rain masked her tears though and Elerus could not see her. She just hugged his back closely as they made way further into the forest.

The rain turned to snow...

Written by - Wilhelm

The Raven turned and strode through the doorway, the blad-clad guards bowing to him as he passed. Wilhelm paused to speak quietly to Mavigan, who stood stroking the dagger now sheathed on her belt.

"That was very well done, Mavigan. He made you a great offer, which you did well to accept by accepting the dagger. It is traditional to complete the Honor Pact be offering another blade in return. The exchange of blades constitutes a mutual agreement backed by the honor of both people, as he and your father did many years ago. You thereby pledged your honor to uphold your end of the deal and to protect your people. I suggest you complete the Honor Pact by offering him one of your blades, thereby binding his honor to be your eyes and ears. You will have great need of his service, as your father did before you. Your elven dagger you received at your coming of age party would be suitable."

Wilhelm then led the rest through the doorway into a large underground hall, which was packed with cloaked and hooded people except for a clear path to a raised platform where the Raven now stood. At a gesture from the Raven, Wilhelm led them to stand at the right of the Raven. The bronze door was closed behind them. The Raven looked over those assembled and spoke.

"The time has come to strike back at the usurper Beridane and to begin the return to the throne of the rightful heir, Mavigan, sole surviving child of our murdered king. I call upon you now to strike with me and present to you now Mavigan, your future queen."

The Raven gestured towards Mavigan and bowed deeply towards her. Those in the audience also bowed deeply or curtsied towards Mavigan, with many an expression of support. Weapons were raised in her honor. The Raven then turned to Wilhelm and, pointing to the right, said,

"Here are some you will be happy to see again."

At this a dozen figures threw off their cloaks and hoods and stood arrayed in white armor or robes, with gleaming triskelion medallions displayed upon their breasts or armor. The surviving Knights, Crusaders and Priests of the Militant Order of St. Lorne within reach of Port Westgale had answered the call of the All Father and arrived in secret. Wilhelm called out to those he recognized and strode to meet them, with much many hugs and handshakes and greetings.

Written by - Ariana

She didn’t like this at all. Rough hands grabbing her tightly resurrected too many dark memories, and even though she knew whose hands they were, she couldn’t stop the panic from clawing at her insides. Her pupils shrunk to pinpricks and she began to tremble from something other than the cold.

Her breath started to come in short pants and she could feel the telltale surge of power well up in response. She clamped her teeth down hard, biting her lip until it bled, desperately trying to hang onto the power, but when it was apparent that Ardwen had no intention of stopping and was going to run them right past it, she gave up.

At the first prickling of power, Ardwen slid to a stop, dropping Ariana as he did so. The ground was wet and muddy and her forward momentum made her slide across the ground several feet to smack into the trunk of an ill-placed tree. As soon as she touched it, the energy discharged with a loud pop and the tree burst into flame, a bright beacon in the darkness of night.

She picked herself up and pushed her hair back from her face. The action left a long smear of mud across her face to match the long smear that now stretched from shoulder to ankle.

Instead of upbraiding Ardwen for his carelessness, she merely turned and gestured to the ground. There, clearly illuminated in the light of the burning tree, was a smaller road. Without waiting to see if the others followed, she marched up the road, her gait only slightly marred by a limp.

The small group crested a hill and in the small valley was a house. It was a home similar to most others in the area, though perhaps demonstrating a bit more wealth than a house of a peasant. Two-storied and constructed of rough-hewn timbers, the only distinguishing characteristic was the very large and ornately crafted three-ringed symbol of the All-Father that hung above the front door.

Ariana’s feet never faltered as she walked determinedly to the house, but they had not reached the front door before it opened. Welcoming light spilled from the entrance back-lighting an older woman who beamed a smile at them. An amulet of a priestess glittered from its place on her chest.

“Oh dearie me,” she said. “Do come in. You’ll get sick if you stay out in this weather.” She waved them in, and Ariana was quick to comply.

“Easal! Come down here! Our company is finally here!”

“Give me a minute, Creda!” came the reply in a deep and aged baritone.

She helped usher Elerus and Angel across the threshold cooing over them like a mother hen. She grabbed a towel and began drying Angel’s hair. “He told us you were coming,” she directed this Ariana, “but we had no idea you would be so late….or muddy. We can’t send you on to Westgale looking like a bunch of vagabonds! This will simply not do.”

“Easal! Start heating water for baths and pull out some clean clothes!” she yelled at the ceiling.

There was no reply this time. Instead they all heard the heavy footsteps of booted feet tromping down the stairs. A large body was soon followed by a grizzled face, kindly but hard-worn. There was a long scar that stretched from his right ear and narrowly missed the right eye.

He was not a man of many words and contented himself with a wide smile for the children and a nod of respect for Ariana. Easal suddenly grew wary, and he eyeballed the elf who remained on the porch and had, as of yet, refused to come in.

Written by - Ariana

So engrossed was she in the feel of the dagger that had once belonged to her father, when Wilhelm’s voice interrupted her reverie she jumped. And when he told her to give her birthday present to the Raven, she colored with embarrassment. She should have realized there was more to it than just receiving a gift. For the first time in her life, Mavigan wondered if she should have actually paid attention in all those long and tedious classes on court manners.

She pulled the Elven dagger from her belt and held it in her hand, the weight nearly as burdensome as the responsibilities that were even now piling upon her. She could feel them as clearly as if there were a hand pushing her down, and her unease began to show as people bowed and scraped before her. She shifted uneasily under the weight of their expectant gaze, and unconsciously, her gaze kept drifting to shadowed areas where she might hide.

Mavigan stood her ground, however, no matter how badly she wanted to disappear. When Wilhelm went off to shake hands and kiss cheeks, she saw an opportunity. Walking up to the Raven, she held out her own dagger to him as an offering. Looking him in the eye, she said softly, “For the pact.”

Written by - Wilhelm

The Raven smiled at Mavigan and bowed before her, saying,

"Well done. I was wondering if you would remember. I hereby accept your blade and pledge my honor to uphold the pact between us and this blade to defend it. From my eyes and ears to yours in return for your protection of our people. May this pact be as strong as these blades."

The Raven gently received the elven blade and then turned it over to examine it, trying its balance and heft and then its edge. With a satisfied expression, he placed it carefully in his belt, and said,

"A worthy blade indeed. This is an elven master blade of the Gentle Wave school. I estimate at least 100 folds. I am indeed honored and pleased to receive it and I will use it in your service. And now I believe you too will find some familiar faces over there."

The Raven pointed off to the left.

Written by - Ardwen

“You going to stand all day out in the snow and let all the warm air out?” Easal said curtly. Despite his rough mien, Easal couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something decidedly wrong about the Elf standing on the porch. The retired crusader squinted as he tried to pick out what had him so unnerved. He could see nothing that warranted his alarm, and Easal eventually chalked his caution up to the fact that the Elven swordsman was so apparently reluctant to come in out of the snow and bitter wind. Without a word the Elf walked into the main room with everyone else, and Easal noted that he at least had the courtesy to shut the door behind him.

No sooner had Ardwen entered the room than the other human, the one that Easal had called Creda continued her verbal assault against the group’s unkempt appearance. The priestess walked up to Ardwen and gave him an appraising glance, “You look a bit cleaner, but your boots are already caked in mud.” She tsked and continued. “And this poor girl’s soaked and chilled, how could you drag children through weather like this?” Almost as if the mention of children reminded her that there was more than Angel present, she wheeled around from Ardwen and turned her attention to Elerus.

The young Elf took a quick step backwards as Easal rounded on him, her crusader companion had brought her a fresh towel and she held it at the ready in one hand. With deceptive quickness she reached a hand out and grasped Elerus’s arm, immediately exclaiming, “This little boy’s freezing too! I know you Elves are hardy, but when they’re this young they can catch a cold as easy as any child.” Elerus opened his mouth to retort that he was not a child, and that he was furthermore nearly immune to the cold. Unfortunately all managed was a muffled, “I am not a—mmphhm!” before Creda began to vigorously rub a warm towel over his face. Much to the winged child’s relief Ardwen kept his restraint through Creda’s constant berating and took a seat near the door, propping his head on the knuckles of his fist. His old friend said nothing, the only motion he gave was his eyes sliding shut. Still, to Elerus it looked as if he was trying to shut out the nattering voice of the old priestess instead of resting.

However, Elerus did not have the luxury of detachment. Creda seemed convinced that the winged boy needed everything from his clothes mended to a hot bath to ward off the chill. Elerus thought about protesting, but seeing that Ardwen was being surprisingly stoic - and afraid Creda would take it as pouting - he simply blushed shyly and tried to inch away when the priestess's attention was elsewhere.

Written by - Ardwen

Ithramir’s gaze swept over the assembled host of Elves and Men. The sight of the combined forces of the two races was uplifting, banners of all colors and heraldry flapped in the wind or hung from stout poles. Ithramir found his eyes darting from standard to standard, here was one with words entirely in flowing Elven script, there another with writing proclaiming revenge for Mavigan; Ithramir blinked and squinted his eyes as he caught sight of a new banner with the heraldry of Harathad-dor and Westgale on a white field. Ithramir merely shook his head slightly, knowing that it was one of the regiments of human auxiliaries that Mavigan’s presence had brought to the Citadel.

The commander of the Citadel reflected on that thought for a moment. He had largely left the instruction of the human forces up to their own officers, and while they seemed eager enough, Ithramir could only hope that their enthusiasm would carry them when their experience failed.

“Catherin, give the order for the army to move out, square formations, four rows deep. We will be travelling over rough terrain as we approach Minas Uial, tell the men to watch their spacing.” Ithramir finished his instructions with a curt nod; Catherin saluted and ran to relay the order to march. A second wave of satisfaction swept over Ithramir as he saw the Elven army swiftly form ranks and fall into marching cadence. It was a fine army, and Ithramir had no doubts as to the valor and courage of those serving under him, regardless of the outcome of the day he swore that this would be one of their finest hours.

The sun was dipping below the horizon by the time the entire army managed to begin its march to Minas Uial, and as the light continued to fade Ithramir found their progress slowed by the need to dismount and remount to guide the army’s horses over the treacherous terrain. Ithramir’s decision to allow gaps in the infantry formations while marching had proved prudent, and the loose yet fluid formation made the march smoother. The skirmishers and scouts that the Citadel’s commander had deployed earlier had done their work well, and Ithramir heard more than a few hushed blurts of praise as they encountered Orc corpses punctured with arrows up to the fletching.

As luck would have it, the sky was devoid of clouds and the moon and stars shone bright, but Ithramir called a stop before Minas Uial itself was in sight. Wheeling his mount around Ithramir called for his aide Catherin and briefly ran over the plan to assault the fortress a final time. “The left flank will be held by the Blue Knights, Catherin, I need not impress upon you the importance of this: the Blue Knights will be guarding the flank for the entire army – their success is no less vital than the young Dartanian’s mission. I want our units on the left flank to maintain cohesion with the Knight’s right. For the main assault I want the heavy infantry to advance, foot first three lines, have the lighter infantry move up in their wake. We’ll be taking heavy fire and losses until we can get inside.”

Catherin dipped her head in assent and sent out runners to the various units in the Elven army, after the last dispatch she looked up at Ithramir and said, “Anything else my lord commander?”

After a brief pause Ithramir nodded and said, “Yes, inform our forward units that they are to hold even if Dartanian fails. Should the worst come to pass we will use our siege works to breach the defenses.”

Catherin turned her head away slightly and muttered, “I pray it does not come to that.”

Ithramir’s keen hearing allowed him to hear her as surely as if she had spoken right by his side. The Elven commander simply said, “May Avandor hear your prayer.”

Written by - Dartanian Merquise

Varion found Count Merquise standing alone and gazing out across the field. The five thousand heavy cavalry were making their final preparations for the coming assault. Warhorses were dressed in plate, lances were readied, and swords were sharpened, the glint of metal still distinct in the fading twilight. “Milord,” the Captain exclaimed as he approached. Dartanian turned to his second and returned the crisp salute. “I have my orders My Lord. I will lead a small strike force through the hidden entrance and take the gatehouse.”

“Very good Captain. Assemble and brief your men just behind our first wave. When we make our assault you concentrate on finding that entrance and securing the gatehouse. We will cover you as best we can and sweep any resistance away to clear your path.” Varion nodded as Dartanian continued. “Once you’ve opened the gates, hold the gatehouse as long as you can. The Knights will likely be the first units through and we will relieve you as soon as possible. Once we do, our main objective will be holding that gatehouse and clearing the surrounding area to allow the main force to enter the stronghold.”

“Understood my Lord. I will assemble my men and see to it.”

Dartanian nodded. As Varion turned to go, he spoke again. “There is one more thing Captain.”

“Yes sir?”

Dartanian extended a hand. “Good luck, and may the All-Father go with you.”

Varion clasped the offered hand and nodded. “With you as well.” Finally, he turned and moved off to see to his duties.

Shortly thereafter a dispatch was received with the order to move out. Dartanian nodded to his lieutenants, and the order was passed. As one, the entire five thousand man force stepped off and began the march to reclaim the Elvish stronghold of Minas Uial. The march was slow and tedious over the broken terrain, but the force made steady progress. Morale was heightened at the occasional groups of Orc corpses. The Elvish scouts were certainly proving their worth.

Several hours into the march, beneath a clear, starlit sky and a bright moon, word was received to halt the advance. Moments later, a mystic fog formed around the group, as the wizards and druids among them worked their magic. This would shield the rest of their advance and finally the assault on the hidden entrance.

Knowing that the assault was to begin soon, Dartanian put on his helmet, adorned with blue and gold crest, and readied his lance. His Lieutenants ordered the men to ready themselves, and the entire force did likewise. After a few agonizing minutes of waiting, a dispatch finally reached the Count with orders to begin his assault when ready. Dartanian nodded and the man rode off to return to Lord Ithramir. Scanning the men around him near the front of the line, Dartanian raised his lance high in the air and nudged his horse forward, the signal to begin the final advance. Orders were shouted up and down the line, and the Blue Knights began to move. Despite the heavy fog, Dartanian was confident he knew exactly where he was. The Orc encampment outside the walls was sure to be no more than a few minutes hard ride away.

Dartanian was unsure what sort of resistance they would encounter, whether the Orcs would choose to stand and fight, or would fall back to the safety and protection of the stronghold walls upon seeing the invading force. In any case, his objective was clear; he must secure the hidden entrance and hold it until Captain Varion could open the gates. After the entire force was in motion, Dartanian urged his mount into a trot, with his men following suit. Eventually, as they grew closer to the stronghold, Dartanian upped the pace again, and soon the whole force was at a canter. Finally, when he sensed a collision with any Orcish defenders to be imminent, Dartanian signaled with his lance once again. Without hesitation, the Blue Knights formed into a three-pronged wedge formation and spurred their warhorses into a gallop. Dartanian lowered his lance, raised his shield, and made ready.

In mere moments, and almost without realizing it themselves, the Blue Knights collided with a small Orcish encampment. At full gallop, the impact of flesh and steel was deafening. The startled Orcs scrambled to mount any sort of defense, having likely heard the thundering charge of the Blue Knights before they could see them through the fog. Dartanian, at the head of one of the wedges, spied a large Orc wielding an enormous battleaxe bearing down on him and yelling a blood-curdling war cry. He hardly needed to adjust his aim, and skewered the Orc, ripping his arm cleanly from its socket. The sound of tendons and muscle ripping under the strain was sickening. Dartanian maintained his bearing; the Orc would surely be trampled under hoof as the wedge swept through the camp.

The Orc camp seemed to be largely deserted; the charred remains of cook fires and hastily placed tents dotted the landscape sporadically. Dartanian raised his lance and called the men to slow and halt the advance. The group of Orcs they had encountered had likely been left behind to guard against any Elvish scouts. Several hundred meters away Dartanian noticed another group of Orcs in retreat. They seemed to be headed for the stronghold’s main gate. “Lieutenant!” he yelled to a nearby officer. “Organize your company in pursuit of that group of Orcs,” he gestured with his lance. “Do not overextend yourselves. If you come within sight of the walls, return at once.” The Lieutenant saluted and wheeled his horse around immediately.

“Find that entrance!” Dartanian shouted above the din of sporadic battle. The first wave of men were mopping up any stragglers and clearing through the few remaining tents. “Sergeant, find Captain Varion and inform him that we have met no resistance. Tell him to locate the sewer entrance and begin his mission at once.”

As the second wave of men advanced to Dartanian’s position, he ordered another company to form into scouting parties and probe off to the left, skirting any major engagements and avoiding the stronghold’s walls. The group quickly formed up and headed out into the dense fog.

“Here it is!” someone shouted from off to the right. Dartanian wheeled his mount around and headed in the direction of the voice. Amidst a large pile of debris Captain Varion and his men were gathered around a soldier straining over what appeared to be a gravestone. The stench of the place hit Dartanian abruptly as he approached. Besides several dead Orcs laying strewn about haphazardly, it was evident that this area had been used for disposing of waste and digging latrines. The Orcs had probably mistaken the secret entrance for a memorial to a famous fallen Elf, and had felt it appropriate to deposit their filth on the man’s grave.

Dartanian dismounted, driving his lance into the dirt, and approached the soldier. “Get that damn thing open,” he barked, signaling two more soldiers to dismount and help. They did, and in a matter of moments the large metal and stone marker was removed, revealing a dark and dank tunnel below. All of a sudden, from a pile of garbage and tattered clothing, a rather large Orc rose and screamed a battle cry. Dartanian raised his shield to defend himself as the Orc brought his weapon to bear. The massive club struck with such force that it nearly brought him to his knees, forcing him to brace the shield with his free hand and preventing him from drawing his weapon. He strained beneath the weight of the blow as the Orc sought to drive him into the ground. Mere moments later the Orc was skewered from all sides as the men around him drew steel in protection of their Count. With a grunt and a thud the Orc fell to his knees, releasing the club. As it collapsed onto the filthy ground, Dartanian drew his own blade. The large Orc strained for breath, panting helplessly until Dartanian thrust into his chest and finished him. Blood burst forth as the blade pierced the Orc’s heart, staining the ground beneath him. For a moment the men stood silent, gazing at the fallen Orc as the reality of what had just happened began to sink in. None of them had ever encountered such ferocious foes as these Orcs. After collecting himself a moment, Dartanian turned to his men. “Well then, let’s do what we came here to do.” As Captain Varion and his men entered the dark tunnel below, Dartanian wiped his blade with a dry rag from his saddlebag.

Written by - Ariana

Mavigan followed his finger and looked at the crowd of people. She did see many familiar faces, and as she walked over towards them, cries of “Brell!” rose up to greet her. Mavigan accepted the handshakes, the pats on the shoulder, and the good-natured ribbing with good grace, punching only a couple of the big brutes that squeezed her too tight in their exuberance. Even as she was reestablishing ties to her past, however, her eyes raked the crowd searching for one elusive face.

After many minutes of searching she could only conclude that Jonan was not among the crowd. Even worse, none of the comrades she questioned had any idea as to his whereabouts. She was more than a little disappointed, but decided that once this was all over, she would go bust him out of jail again.

Written by - Ariana

The small group quickly learned that Creda was of the ‘cleanliness is next to godliness’ belief. No sooner had she dried them off, that she decided a simple towel would not do to remove the grime. Their heads spun with the rapidity of her motions, and before they could object (or get a word in edge-wise) Angel, Ariana, and Elerus were all dumped in a tub large enough to resemble a large lake.

Elerus was quick to take advantage of the large size and immediately waded to the far corner of the tub and sulked.

For herself, Ariana didn’t mind the hot water so much, it felt good and helped ease tense muscles, but when Creda began scrubbing her hair with a vengeance usually saved for the accumulated grime of a kitchen hearth, she began to squirm.

“I can do it,” she protested, ducking deeper into the water in an attempt to disentangle Creda’s fingers from her hair.

“Oh,” said Creda surprised. “Um, yes, I suppose you can.” She beamed a smile at Ariana and handed her the soap. “Get to it then. Mind you, I intend to check when you are done,” she added with a twinkle in her eye.

Ariana breathed a sigh of relief, thankful that her roots were being given a break.

Unfortunately, the lack of attention to Ariana meant Creda had two other people upon which to lavish her attentions. She smiled at first Angel, and then Elerus who seemed to be cowering in the corner.

Written by - Ardwen

Ardwen rose from his seat, finding the constant nattering of Creda particularly annoying. The Elven warrior felt a pang of sympathy for Elerus as he opened the door outside to leave. The freak snowstorm from earlier had died down, the temperature had dropped so rapidly, but the ancient Elf did not know the weather of this new world and more pressing concerns had pushed the matter from his mind. Most of the snow had melted in the following rain, and what was left clung in soggy patches of dirty white to tree roots and rocks. Ardwen began to walk out to the tree line at the edge of the two elderly human’s property.

If Ardwen’s sudden and unannounced departure shocked Creda or Easal they gave no sign of it. Creda had an easy enough time guiding Ariana to the large tub that Easal had prepared with warm water, but one of the two children the dour Elf had brought with him was practically throwing a fit. Creda couldn’t figure out what was wrong, the small winged boy hadn’t seemed to mind taking a bath at first, but when she lead him upstairs and he saw Ariana and Angel in the same room he’d started squirming and ran back downstairs. At first Creda just figured it was the resentment most boys his age would show at being forced to take a bath they did not want, but now she was not so certain.

“Look sweetie.” Creda began, but that only seemed to set the child more at odds, the young boy crossed his arms and shot her a defiant look.

“Elerus.” He said.

“Elerus,” she continued with a sigh, “You can’t go into Westgale like that; your friends are getting cleaned up, don’t you want to also?”

“I barely know them!” Creda watched as Elerus’s eyes opened wide in shock. The young Elf uncrossed his arms and pointed at her. “Look, I don't know why we have to all take a bath just to go to Westgale. Ardwen's not going to sneak us into the city anyhow, he'll--“ Elerus was interrupted as Creda shot out a hand and clasped him by the wrist.

“I know,” Creda broke in with another heavy sigh, “you Elves are different. And in all my years I’ve never seen an Elf with a wing. You age slower than humans, so why can’t you act your age?”

Elerus’s face set in a scowl, and Creda could almost see the same vaguely annoyed expression that Elerus’s older companion always seemed to wear. “I’m not a little child!” He whined.

Creda simply rolled her eyes and said with a condescending smile, “Of course, I’m sure you’re a big boy. Easal, please help me get our little reluctant friend to the tub please.”

Elerus was dragged upstairs to the tub. After some squirming and more hushed protest, Creda set aside his dirty clothes for cleaning, and then picked the young boy up and placed him in the warm water. Utterly embarrassed Elerus sank into the water and leaned against the far side of the metal basin, arms crossed and a dejected look on his face.

Creda, however, did not seem satisfied to let his humiliation end there, and after Ariana’s protest she turned her attention to the winged boy. Elerus knew his hair was unkempt, it was long and he had always kept it so, long hard years away from civilization had left him with the habit of simply letting the locks on his head do as they wished.

Creda seemed determined to brush or pull his hair into some sort of style. With every tug and snag Elerus found his patience stretched further and further. The young Elf closed his eyes and reached out for his blade with his mind, trying to focus and meditate, anything to block out the demeaning misery of his current experience. He found nothing, of course, his mind snapped back to his body with a force that send a small shudder down his spine, which Creda took as a reaction to her pulling on another knot in his hair. She knelt down closer and made soothing noises, but Elerus’s wing dipped in grief, and he started to cry.

Written by - Tempyst

Purgatori heard her new sister pour her heart out with her story, and she felt her heart wrench for her. SHe wrapped Tempyst up in her arms and let her cry...even shedding a few tears with her. Then the sound of a horn filled the air. Tempyst looked up and brought a hand to her face to wipe the tears away. "I must go Purgatori, that is the sound of the army readying to leave and I must help make sure the commander survives this encounter. Stay here with the druids, wait for our grandmother and know I will return as soon as possible." With that Tempyst stood, grabbed her staff, satchel and a horse, then headed through the portal to find Ithramir.

Purgatori looked at Dorve, and signed to her, "Tell me what I can do to help around here." Dorve smiled, took Purgatori by the hand and led her off into the enclave.

Written by - Ariana

“Stop!” The voice was sharp and commanding, and Creda’s hands ceased immediately.

Ariana ducked below the water and quickly rinsed off. Pulling herself from the tub, she grabbed a towel and wrapped it around her middle. Still dripping, she walked around the tub to Creda and held out her hand. “I’ll do it,” she said.

The priestess had not uttered a single word since Creda had welcomed this ragtag group into her house. Creda wondered if perhaps the woman was slow or mentally deficient in some way, and it roused her curiosity. Why would the All-Father give her specific instructions about these people? They were odd, certainly, but did not appear to be anything special.

Obedience was ingrained in both Easal and herself, however, so she did what the Father asked of her without question. If the Father wanted them cleaned up and sent to Westgale, then that is what she would provide.

But now, as the woman stood before her demanding obedience with a quiet voice and the air of one used to being obeyed, Creda found herself cowed. She had not felt such willfulness since her early days as a novice, and she fidgeted nervously much as she had done as a young girl under the disapproving stare of the High Priestess.

“Yes, of course,” she stammered. She clambered to her feet ungracefully and handed the comb to this woman who’s name she still did not know. Creda walked backwards with a bobbing motion around the tub to where Angel rested. Receiving no orders to the contrary, she sank to her knees and began washing and combing the young girl’s hair.

Similarly, the woman sank to her knees behind the boy. She combed his hair slowly and gently, one small section at a time. Silence filled the bathing chamber, even Creda found herself wordless. There were only the sounds of water sloshing, and the gentle swish of skin brushing wood.

It was into that silence they all heard a faint humming coming from the strange woman. She hummed as she worked, her voice surprisingly warm and melodious. Creda did not recognize the tune itself, but it sounded like an ancient hymn.

She continued humming until Elerus’s hair was gleaming and tangle free. Reaching beside her, she picked up a leather tie from the wide assortment of implements Creda had left behind. With a quick and gentle motion, she had tied his hair back into a low tail.

Satisfied, she sat back on her heels and waited.


Written by - Ardwen Page 21 Book 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Kids?” Ardwen interrupted.

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

Written by - Ariana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by - Ardwen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by - Ariana

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you sleep well?” she asked Ariana.

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

Ariana fell into silence and continued eating.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Angel, intrigued, waved back.

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

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

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

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

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

Written by - Ardwen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by - Ariana

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by - Ardwen

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by - Ariana

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by - Ardwen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by - Wilhelm

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

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

Let us begin."

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

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

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

Written by - Ariana

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

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

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

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

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

Written by - Ariana

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

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

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

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

Written by - Dartanian Merquise

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

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

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

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

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

Written by - Ardwen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A cookie.” Ardwen said with a smirk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by - Ardwen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Written by - Ariana Page 22 Book 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ariana flinched and closed her eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flash!

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

Flash!

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

Flash!

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

Flash!

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

Flash!

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

Flash. Flash. Flash.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Or?”

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

Wilhelm huffed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you sure?” Wilhelm asked.

“Yes,” Ariana lied.

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

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

“I will,” she said.

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

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

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

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

Written by - Ardwen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saint Lorne Keep You,
Ariana Trueblood

Ardwen let the letter fall from his limp hands.

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

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

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

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

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

Written by - Lucant Dolvan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by - Ariana

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

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

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

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

“Tut, tut,” He said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by - Ardwen

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

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

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

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

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

Written by - Ariana

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

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

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

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

Written by - Ardwen

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by - Ariana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by - Wilhelm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by - Ardwen

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

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

Or so he thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Saint Ariana Trueblood.” Ardwen said clearly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by - Teran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by - Lucant Dolvan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by - Ariana

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mavigan was finally home.

Written by - Ariana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by - Ardwen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Written by - Ariana Page 23 Book 4

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

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

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

Ardwen was using magic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by - Wilhelm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by - Ardwen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?” Elerus said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by - Ariana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by - Ardwen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I agree.” Ardwen said stoically.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nice recovery.” Elerus said dryly.

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

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

“How do you know that?” Ardwen asked.

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

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

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

Written by - Ariana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She had forgotten that people changed most of all.

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

Right now, that was enough.

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

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

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

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

Written by - Ariana

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

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

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

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

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

“Uncle,” Mavigan said with a sneer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by - Wilhelm

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

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

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

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

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

"GRANTED!"

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

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

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

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

Written by - Ardwen

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by - Ariana

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

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

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

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

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

“You ready?”

Written by - Ardwen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by - Ariana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A small smile crossed her lips.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by - Ardwen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by - Teran

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by - Ariana

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

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

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


Written by - Ariana Page 24 Book 4

“You…” she whispered with disbelief. Teran had killed her family, but he had also saved her life. Confusion engulfed her, and thoughts and emotions tracked across her fast in swift succession making her entire body tremble.

The clang as his blades hit the floor pulled her from her stupor.

“You!” she said through gritted teeth. Her eyes narrowed and her hands balled into fists as she latched onto the one emotion she understood: anger. She launched herself at him, Beridane forgotten, and sent a fist flying at his jaw. When it connected, her eyes grew wide with disbelief as she felt the impact up her arm, saw his face turn to the side with the blow.

She had hit Teran.

Backing from him, she looked from her fist to his face with astonishment which quickly changed to rage. “Fight me, damnit!” she screamed.

Written by - Wilhelm

Fighting continued to surround the tableau of Teran and Mavigan, with Beridane painfully attempting to use his desk to get to his feet almost unnoticed. The Raven countered a spell from his right with an activated talisman then used a complicated sequence of attacks to deflect his left-hand opponent's weapon enough to run him through. Deflecting another spell, the Raven began to attack the mage's shield spell.

Keeryn had wound up with the mage from the mage & warrior pair at the door and was dodging spells while trying to batter down the shield spell. She discovered that the unbreakable spear could also stop attack spells and began to parry the spells while attacking the same point of the shield over and over.

Wilhelm was engaging in essentially the same tactic, dispelling, countering or simply dodging spells while repeatedly striking the same point in the weakening shield. Not all spells could be dodged, as some consisted of multiple homing magic darts. But as fast as they drew blood the wounds healed over, although the pain and fatigue they caused was evident.

Wilhelm again called Censure down upon his foe, both to weaken the shield and to blind his foe for a moment. He used that time to scan the heartfires in the adjoining rooms and received the grim information that the teams sent to the front entrance had failed to secure it before the Guard Captain could upen the locked door and therefore reinforcements were pouring through to engage the strike teams in an attempt to reach Beridane.

Calling upon the All Father for greater strength, Wilhelm strained his channels to the limit to draw sufficient power. With a great effort he brought his glowing warhammer down upon the cracking shield, shattering it completely and driving the mage to his knees. One further blow crushed his skull.

"The door guard has failed. We must hold the door here.!" he cried.

As Sabattine turned towards the door in time to intercept the first new foe, Wilhelm leapt across the room to shatter the weakened shield of Keeryn's foe, enabling her to skewer him with her spear. The Raven used the distraction to finish off his foe as well and ran to join them. Together the four defenders held the doorway as a crowd of Beridane's royal guard ran up to try to break through.

Written by - Ardwen

The sound of laughter fed on itself, a small chorus of chortles and a panorama of grins that caused Elerus to smile brightly. It was such a pure sound, a sound that seemed to set everything aright, the young elf tried to recall the last time he had heard laughter in mass, but his memory failed him, like a man trying to recall what a single drop of water in a rainstorm looked like. Elerus sat up from the floor as Ariana started to speak, the silver-haired child leaned back on a hand and sat crossed legged, listening to the woman Ardwen admired to the point of adoration.

She was trying. Elerus knew Ariana was trying so hard not to offend, making an excuse for him to stay downstairs - with the other children - when the fighting would be taking place above with Ardwen leading the charge. He had lived for too long, seen too much, not to see through the charade Ariana was presenting him with, but he didn’t care. Elerus found it charming that the Abbess of the Hands was trying to be gentle, trying not to crush his feelings, knowing as she must have that he wanted to join the fight. Elerus’s smile faded, but he forced another one on his face. As he looked up to speak to Ariana though, the sadness in his eyes made a lie of his smile, “Sure,” he said. “I’ll be fine down here, go and help Ardwen, he probably needs a hand more than I do.”

The other children around Elerus watched the odd exchange. Elerus could tell by the looks on some of their faces that they were curious as to why Ariana simply did not tell him to stay downstairs, why was she asking a child as if his opinion mattered? Elerus decided it would be best to distract them, and as Ariana reached the base of the stairs an idea bloomed in his mind. “So, who was it that thought my story was stupid, huh?” Elerus said slyly.

The young boy who had spoken earlier took a step forward and ducked his head. The child scuffed at the floor with a well-worn shoe and said sheepishly, “My name’s Christof, sorry about callin’ your story dumb.”

Elerus nodded and clasped his hands behind him, taking a few strides toward Christof. The young elf leaned forward and hummed thoughtfully as if studying the boy’s features. “You know what I think, Christof?” Elerus said. The human child shook his head no, and Elerus grinned and said, “I think you could never, ever, catch me!” In an instant Elerus had tagged the boy and leapt back. Christof stood still for a few seconds, and then Elerus saw his face light up as he realized he had been duped. To the child’s credit, though, he was swifter on the uptake, and within a few seconds he had passed the unenviable status of “it” to Davin.

Within moments the tight knot of children had spread their game of tag, and the downstairs rang out with laughs and squeals of excitement as each youth struggled to avoid or tag one another. Many of the adults crowded to the sides of the cells and hallway, the sounds of carefree happiness caused many to smile despite their situation, and even the most jaded had to confess inwardly that it had been too long since the sounds of joy reverberated through Westgale.

“Incoming!” Manuel screamed, but he was certain Ardwen was dead. Two mages had stepped out from a narrow alley and had launched dirty orange globes of fire at the elf. The forlorn hope surged forward, intent on sacrificing his flesh for the warrior, but his steps foundered as he lost sight of the Hand. Manuel blinked as he saw Ardwen next to the mages, the bladeweaver’s hand shot forward and latched onto the nearest mages face, a heartbeat later a bladed exploded from the back of the man’s skull, spraying bits of bone and blood all along the front of a nearby building.

Manuel felt his stomach tighten as Ardwen simply rammed his next attack into the chest of the remaining spellweaver. It was a messy kill, and Manuel would have called it unclean had the sword not sheared through the wizard’s armor. Still, the human warrior reflected, it was another kill and one less soldier for them to worry about.

“Thanks for the warning.” Ardwen muttered as he rejoined Manuel in the center of the street. The evacuation of the first wave was almost complete, and while resistance so far had been light, Ardwen couldn’t shake the feeling that what they had faced was simply the advanced wave of a larger force snaking its way through the urban corridors toward the dungeon. “Where is Beridane getting his men from?” Ardwen asked.

Manuel nodded and said, “Well, his elite guard are mostly Ironskaners he’s brought from the north. He’s hired more than a few mercenaries since his overthrow of the rightful king, men of fortune looking to get in good with the new order and all that. Though it pains me to say it, Westgale has had a few nobles and lords side with Beridane, either out of fear and desperation or greed I cannot tell.”

“So we’ve yet to see the best the Iron North can offer?” Ardwen rejoined.

Manuel nodded again and his voice deepened as he said, “Aye, these mages aren’t even using magical shields like the really skilled ones are fond of. I don’t know how you’re making swords fly, but keep an eye open for the ones that can make ‘em bounce off.”

“Noted.” Ardwen said. No sooner had the elf and human warrior finished their exchange than a low throbbing sound caught Ardwen’s attention. The two soldiers looked at one another and exchanged a knowing glance, they were both seasoned in the sounds of war, and they both recognized the dull drumming which assaulted their ears now.

“Feet, marching, lots of them.” Manuel spat out, giving voice to both their fears.

“Get back inside the prison!” Ardwen hissed, waving the human warrior to go first. “By the sound of it they’re still a bit off, but they’re coming in force now, we’ll need to be ready. I want you to head inside and organize a defense with whoever is left.”

Manuel nodded in agreement, but as the two passed through the doorway to the prisoner he stopped and asked, “What will you do?”

Ardwen narrowed his eyes and lowered his chin, as if his gaze alone could stem the coming flood. “I’ll attempt to hold them at the entrance.”

Manuel’s eyes widened and his lips flapped wordlessly for a moment before he sputtered, “That’s suicide! You’re strong but if there’s half as many as I think-“

“We have no time for this!” Ardwen said flatly, yet his tone brooked no argument. Manuel shook his head once more, saluted, and began his trek deeper into the prison toward the armory. The former warrior of the Hands of Providence turned to the doorway and listened to the footfalls of the impending deluge, like rain on bare earth. His thoughts turned to Ariana and Elerus, and Ardwen comforted himself with the thought that, at least for the moment, they were both safe with the refugees below him.

Written by - Lucant Dolvan

Grunfeld's monotone voice continued to ring thoughout the council chambers: "... and furthermore, there is a request from the Council of Lords for an investigation into these so-called... "demon" rumors in Westgale. While this is surely nonsense, I trust that Section Eight will be able to handle the matter."

Falzrahm quickly jumped to his feet. He had only been paying half attention to what was being discussed - something about the occuption, taxes, and the like - but this little request was more than enough to pique his interest. "Chancellor Grunfeld, demons and demoniacs are the purview of the church. My men are neither equipped nor trained to deal with such a prospect." This was a lie - Falzrahm himself and several of his higher ranked officers were well versed in demonic matters - but the Chancellor didn't need the whole truth on the matter.

Grunfeld, however, called his bluff. "Surely someone in your organization has some experience with the field."

Falzrahm glanced at him coldly. "I'll confer with Adele... Lieutenant Mihost... and see if we can work something out." He sat back down with a scowl on his face.

Grunfeld glanced over his papers one last time the glanced around nervously before pounding the gavel. "That is all for this session. Thank you all for coming. I expect updates on these matters within the week!"

The council chambers quickly emptied into the lobby with various groups breaking off and finding their little illusions of privacy to discuss their thoughts and gossip. Falzrahm did his best to avoid his sister and Admiral Luger as he made for the door - he was in no mood to talk, even to family and friends. He was still perturbed that Grunfeld would try to pawn off something onto Section Eight that clearly was not in their realm of expertise.

The Bureau of Arcane Investigations and Regulations was impressive in name only. They primarily assisted the mages in the Academy with their daily duties, experiments, theories, and various requests. Though the lower ranks had little, if any, magical talent, the upper echelons consisted of powerful magic users from all walks - all of whom had been selected by Falzrahm himself. Though they were little more than "glorified librarians and secretaries", they were one of the more feared organizations since they were outside the normal beurocratic structure. All members of the BAIR answered directly to the captain, who in turn answered only to the Grand Marshal. Though Falzrahm rarely did anything rash enough to warrant the Grand Marshal's attention, he was well aware of the power he had. Indeed, Section Eight had the authority to arrest, detain, and even execute any magic user found guilty of violating the regulations that they set down which had been approved by both of the Houses and the headmaster of the academy.

Still, he was intrigued by these rumors. Having been gone for the past month, he was quite behind on the state of the occupation and the feelings of the populace. Falzrahm set off into the winding streets of the capitol, unsure of where to go. He turned a corner heading towards the BAIR's offices at the Academy only to be ambushed by Tyndell.

"You could've been a bit more polite, you know. The council chambers aren't the place to bring your grudges."

He cursed at her in dwarvish. "You sound like our mother. You know as well as I do the council chambers are nothing but grudges and petty little pissing contests.

Seeing she wasn't going to get anywhere, Tyndell decided to change subjects. "Are you really going to look into those rumors?"

"Of course not. I'm not going to waste good men and women chasing down a rumor. If he really wants something done about it, let him go to the Chaplains. Unless it's rampaging though the streets, I'm not lifting a gods-damned finger."

Tyndell sighed to herself and settled into the uncomfortable silence as she followed her little brother.

Written by - Ariana

The sound of laughter as she climbed the stairs lifted her spirits. It had been so long since she had heard the sound of joy, that she paused halfway up the stairs and closed her eyes, treasuring the moment. Ariana knew full well what she was walking into, and if the flashbacks were any indication, she also knew that she would be fighting herself nearly as much as the enemy.

And that just wouldn’t do.

Eyes still closed, she locked the brief moment of joy and anything else she valued deep inside her soul, protected from whatever evils lay ahead. Dissociating herself from everything else, she was acutely aware of the fragmentation of her own soul. Examining each fragment with a detached eye, she selected the one most likely to be useful and anchored herself to it, her own sense of self being buried beneath a wave of holy energy.

When she opened her eyes, they had dulled from their vibrant blue to almost gray.

As she reached the upstairs landing, she overheard Ardwen talking to Manuel, and could feel the slight tremors on the ground. She did not waste any time on conversation; instead, she immediately launched into prayers of protection. Soon, Ardwen, Manuel, and the rest of the defenders were bathed in a nimbus of light.

Written by - Ardwen

Thunder boomed inside the entryway to the prison. At first Ardwen thought a storm was moving in, the sun had hide itself behind a bank of clouds, and the rest of the sky was a window with wispy drapes drawn shut. Then the elven warrior smelled the cloying tang of charred stone, and saw puffs of black whip around the doorway. They were launching spells at the dungeon now, intent to trap or bury those who had dared defy Beridane inside. Ardwen scowled as he realized he wouldn’t be able to sit inside the doorway and use the narrow entrance as a bottleneck, the elf quickly schooled his features though, aware of the other eyes upon him, aware that they were looking to him for guidance.

Then he saw Ariana. Ardwen wanted to scream at her in frustration, wanted to grab her and drag her downstairs where she was assured some safety. Why his Abbess insisted on placing herself on the frontline, in putting herself in danger, when she was so important was beyond him. Ardwen did nothing of the sort though, starting a fight amongst his own ranks would be immeasurably stupid, and even if the bladeweaver had been willing to argue with Ariana there was simply no more time. Another flash of light, and a second peel of thunder rang through the small room, several of the men inside clasped their ears. Ardwen flexed the muscles in his hands and closed his eyes to focus.

The former Hand of Providence stepped outside. At first, amazingly, he was greeted with dead silence. In that fleeting instance Ardwen took in the full measure of the force arrayed against them. Men lined the streets to both sides, with a column of soldiers walking up the center, the rooftops were again lined with archers and mages, it seemed as if all the strength of the Usurper’s Westgale had arrived to kill them, and Ardwen wasn’t certain that thought was far from the truth. It was the rope that broke the spell of stillness, coils of dark cord that unfurled with a hiss behind the warrior. Ardwen twisted and looked up, he saw men climbing down from the two guard towers on either side of the prison, repelling down the side with short hops against the stone.

Ardwen moved, and the spot where he had stood was annihilated as arrows and the arcane tore the ground apart. The mages were learning, and the warrior saw only a few balls of fire in the mixture of mana-fueled death. One of the elf’s blades found purchase in the stone above him, and Ardwen was there. He did not bother to combat the warrior on the end of the rope, he simply cut the cord that tethered him and was rewarded as the man fell screaming to the ground, the last sound he made was a bone-shattering crunch as he hit the earth. Ardwen was already moving before he hit the ground, tossing another one of his blades to the opposite tower, flickering for a brief instant, a blur of pale blue and silver as he moved to it. The elven warrior retrieved the blade from the tower with one mighty pull, and was in a freefall to the two warriors below him. Another cut rope sent one sprawling to his death, and a quick reposition of the sword impaled the remaining soldier through the chest.

The former Avari heard one of the men below bellow out, “Target the blades; he’s using them to move around!” Ardwen knew his trick was about to become much more difficult, if the humans had learned he could only appear where one of the blades was, then they could effectively rule out where his next attack would come from. Combined with their sheer weight of numbers, this meant that all they had to do was wait for Ardwen to slip and appear next to a weapon with enough firepower heading toward it to rip him to pieces. As soon as the elven bladeweaver touched ground, he rolled to escape the arcs of lightning aimed at him, the air reeked of ozone and his hair stood on end for a second as the energy tried to find purchase in his flesh.

Ardwen did not care. He had made it to the ground, and he used the momentum from his roll to spring to his feet and run into one of the houses on the left side of the street that had been commandeered by the enemy. The spells stopped, as the Hand’s warrior knew they would, Beridane’s troops could not risk throwing that much force against one of the buildings without risking its collapse and killing their own men. For a few tense moments nothing happened. The men on top of the roof positioned themselves around the opening leading down into the house, but Ardwen did not obligingly rush up. Two of the soldiers looked at each other, their armor groaned as they shrugged in confusion. Then the roof collapsed.

Ardwen had the black bow he had earlier used against Visan in his hands, he dispelled it and looked at the opening he had created, he used the blades to shoot into the air, spells rang out, and Ardwen leapt from sword to sword. He noticed the number of incantations had lessened, the mages either too frustrated or tired to continue their earlier barrage. Abandoning the strategy of flickering from sword to sword, the elf dropped to the roof below and butchered the men on top of it. In melee combat they were simply no match for the venerable twilight elf, caught with bows and crossbows in hand, their only recourse was to hope for a swift death.

From rooftop to rooftop the ancient warrior moved, using the bodies of Beridane’s own men as a shield, using the stairwells as the bottlenecks he had wished for earlier. There were still plenty of the Traitor King’s soldiers left, but the losses they were sustaining fighting a single warrior were horrific. Before the mission they had been told this was to be a simple mop-up operation against some downtrodden revolutionaries that clung to the dead hope of the All-Father. Now, they realized with dawning horror that what they faced was beyond human, a monster that ended life as easily as they might snuff a candle.

“Sivus.” The commander of the force called to his second as he watched the elf cut down another group of archers on top of the roof.

“Milord?” Sivus said with a slight bow.

“Order our troops to withdraw, I’ll not waste my men like this. If Beridane wants to make an impression on the citizens of Westgale then the only one they’ll get from this is that his army can be bested by a handful of the enemy. I imagine that is not the message he wants delivered.” Sivus’s commander said.

“No, lord.” Sivus said carefully. “But Beridane will not be pleased if we withdraw from his prize—“

The human commander raised his hand to silence his adjutant. “I’ve prepared for this. Get a message to Yasim, he knows what to do.” Sivus nodded and prepared to dash, but his lord stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. “Tell him too, that we appreciate his sacrifice.”

They were routing. Ardwen recognized the sound of retreat: bugles rang out, and captains bellowed at their men to maintain order as they ran for their lives. The elven warrior spared none who were slow, showing no mercy to the wounded or the dying alike. As the soldiers ran from the alleyways and buildings, Ardwen did not pursue them. He had been fortunate that they were fleeing. As the elf came down from the adrenaline and rush of combat he could feel weariness settle over him. Muscles ached, his concentration blurred, and the minor wounds he had sustained burned with renewed vigor. As Ardwen scanned the grounds to make sure there were no survivors, he saw a single mage tarrying near an ally entrance, obviously separated from his unit.

The man fell to the ground and backpedaled as he saw Ardwen walk toward him. The elf did not pause, did not listen to his pleas for mercy or compassion; Ardwen pulled a longsword from the air and slid it into the man’s guts. The human gurgled and coughed blood, falling onto his back, legs and arms splayed as the life drained from him. Ardwen turned to leave, but froze as he heard the man’s dying words.

“Thank you, elf. That is all I need from you.”

The former Hand of Providence spun around just in time to see the human erupt in a fountain of volatile energy, pinks and bruised purples swirled through the air, voices screamed out from the ether, and Ardwen was thrown from his feet. The elven swordsman tumbled along the ground before rising to a crouch, as he looked up he saw a sight which stilled his heart. Where the human had died stood a demon, red skinned with black splotches that wept puss like open sores. The best stood from its crouch, stood to fully twice Ardwen’s height.

The beast let out a deep, throaty laugh. Ardwen could smell its vile breath even from a distant, a stomach-churning concoction of rotting meat and sulfur. Its eyes burned like tiny suns, and its skin seemed to glow with a pallid, inner light. “Thank you, indeed.” The demon said with another mocking chuckle. “I must admit, I was not certain there would be enough death to call me to this world, but these humans are clever . . . and desperate.”

Ardwen lowered his face in a scowl and spat out, “What do you mean?”

The demon merely smiled this time, sharp yellowed teeth gleaming against its wet flesh. “You left survivors from your first attack, little elf. They carried word of a single man who had wiped out a garrison. Trying to steal my sacrifices, were you?” The creature roared out the last part in rage, like a trumpet blast it echoed from the surrounding buildings and Ardwen’s ears rang.

“They used the men you killed as the blood price, elf.” The monster continued, “And now I may feast on my prize, starting with your soul.”

Twin chains extruded themselves from the beast's wrists, and the demon twirled and flung them at Ardwen. The elf called his blades to block them, but they wrapped around the swords, and each one the demonic weapons touched shattered in a mournful shower of sparks and tears of mana. Ardwen fell to his knees, trying to suck in breaths of air and overcome the crushing nausea that seemed to roll from the hell spawned monstrosity. He didn’t have the strength left to trace new weapons, so the former Avari held onto one of his blades, the great nodachi he had used against Visan earlier, and used the rest to turn what attacks they could.

Within moments the demon had disposed of his defenses, but Ardwen kept dancing between the chains, trying to get in close. The beast’s great height and weapons gave it the advantage of reach, and every time Ardwen started to close it simply moved backwards. The elf knew he couldn’t keep his advance up, he had to take a gamble. He waited for the demon to take a step back, and then relying on the monster’s backwards momentum to sap the strength from its own attacks Ardwen rushed in an all-out run.

It was a horrendous error. The demon roared in triumph, and one of its chains hit Ardwen in the foot. The elven warrior smiled coldly, the demon’s backwards motion had robbed the blow of any stopping power. Ariana’s swordsman’s smile quickly faded as he felt the chain loop and tighten on its own. The next thing Ardwen knew he was in the air, an impossibly strong pull lifting him off the ground and flinging him about like an angry child with a doll. The demon slammed his prey into the ground, and whipped the chain around, dragging great clouds of dust as he raked Ardwen over the road. Another turn had the elf in the air again, and with a grunt of effort he flung the blade-tracing elf at a wall.

Ardwen fought, an incredible twist in midair had him land against the wall of the building with his feet splayed beneath him, as if the wall were a floor he was crouched low against. The elf raised his head and looked at the demon. Time seemed to slow, Ardwen could see the chains looping in the air again for another attack, like waves on a metal ocean. Then the elf’s senses sped up again, one of the ripples traveled blindingly fast down the chain and pulled him from the wall, slamming him into the ground. Ardwen cried out in pain, and with an almost detached sense of realization he saw the pool of blood that had formed beneath him, it seeped outward in a widening puddle. It was his blood, bright red against the dull browns of the street.

The demon’s chains uncoiled from its crumpled foe. The beast smiled again and let out a contented puff of air from its mouth, fire licked at the air like a tongue. “Amazing.” It said mockingly. “But you overestimate yourself, mortal. All I had to do is wait for you to tire yourself fighting these humans, and move in for the kill. Apologies, but as these fleshwalkers say, all is fair in war.” The demon started walking forward, leaving blackened holes in the road rimmed with fire, a blade composed of hellfire hissed to life in its right hand, the writhing flame bespoke his intentions.

Written by - Ariana

She was out the door shortly after Ardwen, the defenders following in her wake. Divine magic rose to counter the arcane, and her trusted mace swung at the foes with a lethality honed through years of practice.

Ariana herself, however, was someplace else entirely.

It was rather like watching yourself in a play, she mused idly, reality turned into dreams. She watched with detached disinterest as the arm that was and was not her own lifted her mace and brought it crashing down on some poor sod’s skull. She didn’t even flinch as his head cracked open like an egg and blood and brain matter exited the wound with high velocity. The Ariana she was watching didn’t even take time to wipe the gore from her cheek before censuring the next enemy in line.

When this other Ariana turned to face her next foe, she felt a light tap on her shoulder.

“Hmm?”

The tapping turned from a slight gesture to an imperative poke.

“What?” she demanded, turning. She cocked her head at the person standing before her, her eyes wrinkled in confusion. It took a moment before recognition took hold. “F-Father?”

“Yes, child. It is me.”

The statement was a weighted one. This time, He had donned the guise of her biological father – tall and broad shouldered, tanned skin and blond hair. The only difference was the eyes, which burned with blue fire.

“What brings you here?” she asked, her attention diverted. “Did you come to watch the play?”

He chuckled and clasped her tightly to him in an embrace. “No child, I have come to play your part.”

She pulled away from him slightly and gazed into his face. “My part?”

“Yes, if you will let me.” He cradled her face in his hands and waited until blue eyes met burning ones. “Ariana,” He said softly, “are you listening?”

“Yes,” she affirmed without hesitation.

“Good,” He said. “Hold on to me.”

A sudden rush of warm liquid light flooded into her, starting at the top of her head and flowing all the way down to her toes. Her arms went round Him of their own accord and she clung to Him as if He were an anchor in the storm.

The sensation passed quickly, and once she reopened her eyes, she found herself sitting in a grassy field populated with fragrant wildflowers. The ground beneath her was spongy and quite comfortable, which was surprising, but the most impressive aspect of the place sat directly in front of her.

A large stage rose from the field and upon it were arranged the players. Her vantage point afforded her a clear line of sight of the action, and her eager eyes took stock. There was Ardwen, easily recognizable by his black clothing, and he seemed to be fighting some sort of demon, played by some actor wearing a truly hideous mask.

As she watched, the demon hurled Ardwen into a nearby wall, and then slammed him hard onto the stage. The fake Ardwen moaned in pretend agony, as a stagehand ran quickly onto stage, handed the demon a large wooden sword, and then ran off again.

“Oh,” she said to the person sitting next to her, “this doesn’t look good, does it?”

When she did not receive a response, she glanced to her right. There was someone there, but he was fuzzy and out of focus. The only distinguishing thing she noticed was some frazzled red hair.

Giving her companion no further thought, she turned attention to the stage once again. Now there were two Arianas – the one she had seen before, and her Father dressed in an ill-fitting wig that made her giggle. Father in his Ariana costume took over while the other Ariana walked to the side of the stage and sat down, content to let Him do this part.

The Father let loose with a powerful bolt of energy, which slammed into the demon with such force it knocked the creature off its feet.

“You cannot have this one,” boomed the voice of her Father. “He belongs to me!”

Both Arianas cheered!

“You give him what for!” cried the one on the stage.

“Make him pay for hurting Ardwen!” shouted the one in the audience.

The Father charged the demon, mace raised in defiance. From her place in the audience, she thought it was interesting that each rune and sigil embedded into her mace was now glowing.

Entranced, she watched as the Father and the demon engaged in battle. There was never any doubt who would win, but she had to give credit to the actors – they were doing their best to make it a good show. Father even let the pitiful demon get in a hit or two, but it wasn’t long before He engulfed the demon in a blaze of holy energy that could be seen for miles. When it finally faded, all that was left of the demon was a pile of ash.

The two Arianas stood up and began to clap and holler! It had been a wonderful performance.

Father came to the edge of the stage and put up a hand to halt the applause. “Thank you,” He said modestly, “but the story is not over yet. We still need an ending.”

Other actors joined him at the edge of the stage, all except the person playing the role of Ardwen, who was still lying motionless. Even the other Ariana stood with them. All eyes focused on the Ariana in the audience.

“Ending?” she asked a little uneasily.

“Yes,” He said. “Which do you think Ardwen would prefer? To be healed by me? Or by Ariana?”

There was something else lurking in the question. She could feel it flit from shadow to shadow, wanting to remain hidden.

But she knew the answer. “Undoubtedly, he would prefer to be healed by Ariana.”

All the other actors faded from the stage until only the Father and the other Ariana remained. Both were nodding in agreement.

“Yes,” the Father said, “you are probably correct. Why don’t you come up here and help us?”

The other Ariana extended her hand invitingly.

She shifted nervously, but replied, “Alright.”

Her steps forward were tentative and unsure. When she reached the stage, the other Ariana stood to face her, hand still extended.

He came up to them, an arm encircling each. “You are Ariana Trueblood,” He said in soft warm tone. “What was once whole, shall be whole again. Take her hand.”

Two pairs of eyes turned to her expectantly. Taking a deep breath, she reached forward and grabbed hold.

She felt again the rush of divine energy, only this time it did not abate. She closed her eyes against the sensation, conscious of the Father’s arms encircling her as they did before.

When she finally opened her eyes, she was standing in a blood-soaked street amid cheers and hollers of joy and exultation. She was not sure where all these people had come from, but they were clearly on their side.

But she did not have time to ask questions. Her mission was not yet completed.

Her eyes, which burned with divine fire echoing the bright glow that surrounded her, scanned the street. She quickly picked out Elerus, his white wing serving as a beacon. Her feet hurried towards him. As she approached, she could see that Elerus was crouched beside Ardwen, who laid upon the stones appalling still.

When she reached them, Elerus turned tear-reddened eyes up at her. “He’s hurt.”

“Oh Ardwen.” The words escaped her in a sad whisper.

She knelt down beside him, his blood quickly soaking into the fabric covering her knees. Leaning over, she gently planted her lips on his. Once the contact was made, she poured all that holy energy into him as fast as it would flow. Her vision blurred, shifting from the macro to the micro, and she directed the energy, healing each injured cell she found. Wounds, new and old, began to knit closed, scars began to fade, and on his back, something that was missing began to regrow.

When she finished, she sat back on heels, the glow finally fading from her skin. Ariana found herself extremely tired, and it was only through sheer effort of will she kept her eyes open and focused on Ardwen. When she saw his eyelids flutter, she released a breath she did not know she was holding.

Smiling at Elerus, she said, “He’ll be alright now.”

Written by - Ardwen

“Gotcha!” Davin squealed and then immediately leapt back. Elerus stood there dumbfounded, frozen in place. Davin wasn’t surprised at the strange silver-haired boy’s reaction, since the start of the game he had been “it” only once, and that was because the young elf had agreed to it to make up for hovering in the air to avoid being tagged last round. Davin, and the rest of the children, had all agreed unanimously that flying was definitely cheating. Still, the human child found himself warming up to the odd elven boy – he took the decision with grace and volunteered to be it next round. Davin was grateful, he was slower on his feet than his friends, and he felt that he had spent entirely too much time running after the other kids than the other way around.

Davin furrowed his brow and frowned slightly. Elerus still had not moved, he remained as still as the colored glass pictures that Davin saw when going to church. “Hey, El?” Davin said, his voice thick and slow with concern. “You don’t have to be it, we can start another game, right guys?” Davin turned to look at his playmates, who had stopped their running and were gathered in a tight knot around the winged child.

Elerus still did not respond, the little elf sunk to one knee and bowed his head. Full white hair spilled down his head, obscuring his features. Davin heard his new friend whisper a single word, “Ardwen.” The other youths around Elerus crowded in close, asking if he was alright, and those that had heard him inquired as to who or what he meant. Elerus did not answer. Instead, he rose and turned his gaze to the darkened stairwell leading to the upper level of the dungeon.

The winged child started walking toward the exit, weaving his way through the crowd without a word. As his intent became clear, however, two adults stood in front of the exit and informed him that it was dangerous outside, and that the lady who had tended to the wounded would not want him leaving. Elerus looked up at him, and the group of children and adults who had followed hesitantly behind him likewise froze in their tracks. “Stay or go as it pleases you.” Elerus said. “I go to him.”

The two grown men standing by the door looked at each other, one scratched the back of his head and the other chewed the inside of his mouth. They both stopped and stood still as they heard the sound of an armored figure making its way down the stairs. The entire room backed away from the stairwell then, but Elerus seized the opportunity to dash past and run up the stairs, ignoring the outstretched hands and cries of protest from below. On his way up the stairs Elerus saw that it was a human warrior who paid no heed to him, the young elf did not recognize the man.

Manuel reached the bottom of the stairs, his feet dragging on the stone with every step. Sweat covered his body, and his left sleeve was torn to shreds by a close blow that missed the flesh beneath by a hairsbreadth. As soon as the fornlorn hope reached the last landing the room erupted in a cacophony of noise and action – people pushed against each other to see the warrior, several reached forward to offer their hands in support or to slap him congratulatory on the back for simply living. Manuel just shook his head slowly, sadly. The room fell silent. “It’s safe now,” He said. “Come upstairs, there’s both a miracle and dark news.” Without another word the human warrior turned around and began his trek back up the stairs, this time accompanied by a host of Westgalers.

Elerus saw Ariana first, or at least he thought it was Ariana. The Lady of the Hands was cloaked in such a nimbus of holy light that it pained Elerus just to look upon her. The aura around her seemed familiar though, and a distant memory stirred itself from the dim darkness of the elf’s past, a time when the All-Father walked amongst his mortal progeny. With a start, Elerus realized that was the same feeling he received when he looked at Ariana now, it was as if the All-Father or one of his Archons stood incarnate in front of him. The winged boy resisted the urge to kneel or stare, fought the desire to simply run forward and bask in the presence of the Creator and the woman who had cared for him so much all in one.

No, for even as Elerus averted his eyes from the glory of faith, he saw Ardwen. His friend was broken: red, angry lines crossed his body; one side of him was coated in blood as if he had been raked across a bed of gravel. What unmarked flesh the little boy could see was stained gross shades of purple and blue, bruises that were already starting to swell. Elerus ran forward and knelt next to his old companion, heedless of the wet earth stained with blood beneath him. The little elf spoke with words quickened by his rapid intake of breath, “Remember? We said we go together, no matter what. Please, say something! Don’t you remember? That night in Kierhaven, we watched the stars wheel overhead . . . we faced death then, and we promised to face it together. Get up, please, get up . . . .” Elerus’s voice trailed off into sobs, he could think of nothing else to do but look up at Ariana, who looked through tear-rimmed eyes like a nimbus of light. “He’s hurt.” He said, each syllable broken by a sob.

This was not the torpor laced with visions or dreams that Ardwen had experienced before. All that the elven warrior could recall was the last crippling attack of his opponent, and the disjointed thought that he was back in the War of the Scourge for he saw the All-Father take the field before blackness took him. No, there was nothing after that. The next thing Ardwen felt was something brush against his lips, he did not know who or what, but his blood-starved mind and mist-shrouded wit made him want to call the name Shion. But no, she was dead, though Ardwen felt a brief sense of warmth that it was time that took her, and she had died with a smile on her lips.

Then the elf was plunged into a river of ice. It was one of the most jarring, disconcerting awakenings that he had ever experienced. The energy coursing through him sapped his breath and nailed his limbs to the earth, unable to move, barely able to draw breath. The elf’s eyes shot open and he sucked in a lungful of air, he thought he was drowning for a moment and his eyes rolled wildly about like a sinking man searching desperately for the shore. The first thing Ardwen saw was Ariana. His Abbess was sitting on her heels next to him. Ardwen’s mind rapidly struggled to fit together what had happened, he had fought a demon, lost, and now Ariana was gazing at him almost expectantly.

Ardwen rose to a crouch. He felt odd, like his limbs were made of lead, and he could not seem to catch his breath. Slowly, the elf rose to his feet, and then a wave of searing pain hit him. Ardwen dropped back to a stoop, but the pain did not cease. The elf slammed his eyes shut and tried to block out the growing throbbing that seemed centered behind his left shoulder blade, but could not. What could—

Ardwen’s thoughts stopped and a cold certain so sharp settled over him that his whole frame shuddered. The warrior looked to his right and saw Elerus, he said nothing, but his eyes spoke a simple message to the child with a white wing, “How could you betray me?”

“A-Ardwen,” Elerus choked out, his sentence choppy from a hiccup he’d developed from his earlier weeping. “Wait! No, she knows we—“

The ancient twilight elf rose to his feet, this time smoothly. “We . . .” He began without preamble. “Are . . . monsters.” Ardwen’s left hand rose to the center his face, the fingers gently clasped. The warrior’s left arm swept out to its full length. At first it might have been a shadow cast by his outstretched arm, but as the black wing fully extended there was no mistaking the avian feature. Sable feathers floated in the air, and Ardwen relaxed the newly repaired appendage, allowing the wing to rest near his body. The black of the wing stood in stark contrast to the white of Elerus’s, but it was more than color. Ardwen’s wing seemed to have an extra joint near where it emerged from his back, and whereas Elerus’s single wing was on the right, Ardwen had but one on his left. They were in all respects opposites.

The venerable twilight elf said nothing after his proclamation about their nature as beasts. Ardwen threw one final furtive look at Ariana, his eyes tinted with sadness and resignation, and then he rose into the air. Black feathers trailed through the sky where the elf ascended, for a brief moment the warrior’s form was silhouetted against the midmorning sky; the following instant he was gone, lost amongst the glare of the sun and the clouds above.

Written by - Ariana

Silence descended as Elerus and Ariana both watched Ardwen fly off into the morning sky. They watched until Ardwen faded from sight.

Ariana sighed deeply and glanced at Elerus. He fidgeted restlessly, as if unsure whether he should stay or go, casting glances between herself and the sky.

“It’s alright, Elerus,” she said softly. “I knew he would be angry.” She cast one last longing glance at the sky before looking again at Elerus. “I would not be surprised if he never wished to see me again. But no one should be anything less than whole.”

There was deeper meaning hidden in the soft statement, but she gave Elerus no time to consider it. She rose tiredly to her feet, lurching unsteadily. Taking a moment to adjust her balance, she walked close to Elerus and leaned down. Planting her lips on his forehead, she gave him a chaste kiss that was similar to that a mother would give a fretting child.

Straightening, she said, “Go on.” She indicated a general direction with a slight jerk of her head. “He needs you.”

When Elerus seemed to hesitate, she gestured expansively to the street now filled with people. Some were rejoicing at being reunited with family members, others were grieving over the fallen, some were relating the story of the battle and the miracles that had occurred, and a few were on bent knee, their eyes firmly fastened on Ariana. “I will be fine,” she assured him. “I am far from alone.”

Written by - Ardwen

Elerus’s face burned with hot shame. What had he done? Uncertain thoughts rippled with torn edges through the young elf’s mind, but it was Ardwen’s accusing gaze that settled the matter for him. Whether or not his earlier story had betrayed their origin to Ariana, Ardwen believed that he was responsible. So long as his friend held that belief, he would doubtless continue to hide and avoid them. Elerus clenched his fists together, but for some reason he was not able to summon anger at Ardwen, he tried to think of what to do, but the urge to hide, to seek seclusion himself was stronger.

The little elf abandoned the attempt; he had some idea of what was happening. His emotions and thoughts were through the lens of a child’s body and senses, and it was affecting him. Elerus couldn’t help but wonder just how much though. As the Abbess of the Hands knelt and kissed him on the top of his head, Elerus realized he didn’t care. He had been content to stay near Ariana, she was as remarkable a person as she was compassionate, and around her the winged child found all his concerns about perception and identity melt away. He could be who or what he was now, and that was fine.

As Ariana stood and encouraged him to go after Ardwen once more, Elerus finally came to a decision. The little elf threw his arms around Ariana, he was painfully aware how small he was even in comparison to the lady, and his embrace did not reach around her or that high. Elerus felt Ariana’s hands on his shoulders, and she gently pried the child away. Elerus looked up in confusion before seeing her kneel down to return his gesture. They held the embrace for a few moments before the Lady of Ancora said with a slight sigh, “You’re going to get blood all over your clothes at this rate.”

Elerus simply smiled at her concern and whispered in return, “I’ll return, whatever happens. I promise I will; I’ll bring Ardwen with me too!” Elerus released his hold first, and moved away, he took one last look at Ariana before smiling sheepishly, he still did not want to leave, but he had something he could do for her now. Returning their wayward friend was, after all, the least he could do to repay her care and kindness. The young elf slowly rose from the ground, his single wing flapping in time, before a small voice stopped his assent. Elerus looked around for the source before turning his eyes downward. He saw one of the children he had played with earlier looking up at him, the winged child recalled the name of Torean, one of the boys who had argued with Davin about his story earlier.

The boy shifted his feet uncertainly and shouted up, “You’re coming back, aren’t you El?”

Elerus couldn’t help but let a smile touch his lips and he yelled back, “Of course! I tagged you last too, remember?”

That removed the shyness from the child swiftly. The boy’s back straightened and he crossed his arms, “Did not! Davin got you last!”

Elerus simply shrugged, in an instant he dove toward Torean, the tip of his left foot grazed the ground and with all the grace of a bird in flight he brushed the ends of his fingers against the boy’s shoulder while saying, “You’re it.” Before Torean had a chance to react Elerus was already well out of his reach and circling higher in the air. For a few moments he could hear the child’s yells of protest, intermixed with the other children’s laughter and teasing. Soon Elerus was beyond the noises of the city, high above where the air was swift and cold, it sent a chill through his body, for he loved the sharp taste of the crisp vespers as he breathed deeply. The white-haired boy took one final look at the city below, the people appearing as nothing more than indistinct masses of dots and shadows. With a final wave in spite of the fact that he was almost certain none could see him, he disappeared into a cloud bank to the west.

Written by - Teran

Sabbatine hissed to herself as she watched the confrontation between Mavigan and Teran. Her muscles tensed and she prepared to defend her friend but very suddenly felt as if that would not be wise. She recognized Huxel's warnings though they usually came verbally (within her thoughts). Huxel herself was silent which is allowed her to hear the noise coming from the passage behind.

Sabbatine became aware that her weapons were not in her hands and she drew them awkwardly as the first of the guards appeared in the door. She felt a great sense of approval in her thoughts, one of Huxel's rare rewards, as she moved forward, unable to keep a wide grin from splitting her face.

She was on her enemies with a sudden burst of speed and strength, cleaving recklessly with her blades, slaughtering the first two guards before they even realized she was on them. Blood had splashed across half of her face giving her a demonic look to match her demonic fury. The guards feared her but they were professional soldiers and undoubtedly knew that even terrifying monsters could be slain and pressed forward cautiously, raising their shield to deflect her blows and lashing out to wound her from relative safety.

There was little Sabbatine could do, she simply was not large enough to knock them aside in the narrow passage, nor strong enough to cleave through their shields so she made little progress... but she had halted the advance, buying the others time.

****

Teran watched Mavigan with his calm, grey eyes. He had expected the blow and knew he deserved more, but the laws of a given kingdom were not his concern. His priority was Mavigan and ensuring that she remained focused on the things that truly matter. There would be time to grieve later, time to punish Teran later, right now she had come to this place to accomplish a specific task and had allowed herself to become distracted from accomplishing that task.

The assassin narrowed his eyes and his frown deepened slightly. His hand met Mavigan's face in a blur of movement. The sound from the slap was loud enough to be heard over the sounds of battle, though he had not struck her very hard... just hard enough to make sure she was listening to him through the turmoil he knew she felt.

“Have you learned nothing from me?” he hissed angrily “If a man kills another, do you blame the weapon he wielded?”

Raw fury burned in Teran's eyes for the briefest moment before he clamped down and forced it to subside.

“I will face whatever punishment you desire, but know I am merely the weapon that was used.” he said solemnly.

He spoke truthfully, though he doubted Mavigan would believe his words about allowing her to punish him. His heart felt as if it had shattered. He knew the feeling vaguely, having felt it twice before at defining moments in his life but he was committed to completing Mavigan's education, committed to setting her on the right path even if it cost him dearly.

Written by - Wilhelm

Sabbatine reached the doorway first and intercepted the first guards. Keeryn reached it next, after finishing off the mage she had been fighting, and speared Sabatine's left-hand foe from the side, then blocked another attacker in front of her with her spear.

Wilhelm arrived then and moved to stand by Sabbatine, blocking one attack aimed at her with his shield and then knocking aside the shield of the right-most foe with his warhammer.

Keeryn ducked a magic bolt cast by a mage in the second rank. She readied her spear for a long thrust, but then spun it to block a different attack when a thrown dagger imbedded itself in the mage's left eye. Lord Raven had arrived to stand between Keeryn and Wilhelm. Drawing Mavigan's dagger as a replacement, he began a deadly dance with the foe in front of him.

A second mage ran up, but before he could cast his spell a pillar of flaming Holy Censure cast by Wilhelm dropped him to the ground. Noting Sabbatine's speed, Wilhelm began to offer openings to her by knocking aside shields or deflecting weapons of the foes in from of them. More foes ran up, only to meet the impenetrable defense of the four at the door. A mound of bodies began to form a wall in front of them.

Wilhelm's battle chants wreathed the four in glowing light, causing their speed to increase and their wounds to heal. Lord Raven added obscuring shadows and bolts of shadow that struck those further back. The two men fought as one, like the battle brothers they had been in the past and were again for this day.

As Wilhelm drew more deeply upon the Avatar bond and the All Father's presence grew, Wilhelm sensed another Avatar of the All Father, an unfamiliar woman, within the city and engaging in battle. An inner chuckle answered his surprise and the All Father's presence grew.

Wilhelm felt a familiar feeling, as if he were a puppet played by the All Father and then as if he sat at a distance watching his puppet perform. Wilhelm's actions sped up further to match the speed of Sabbatine as a divine glow grew around him, his eyes glowed brightly, and he seemed to grow in size and power. The two Avatars began to drive the attackers back before them.

Written by - Ariana

The crack as his hand struck her face seemed to echo in the large room. One hand rose to rub her cheek as she turned narrowed eyes back to Teran. Mavigan said nothing for several seconds, each measure of time seeming to last longer than it should as she weighed each of his words for truth.

Finally, she removed her hand from her cheek only to ball it up into a tight fist. “Bullshit,” she yelled. “Unlike steel, you had a choice.” She moved forward suddenly, her dagger gleaming wickedly as it arced through the air and embedded itself in the wall next to his head. A few strands of his dark hair, sheared by her blade, drifted through the air to fall upon the ground.

“You made the wrong choice,” she said, her voice tight with anger and menace.

She pulled the dagger from the wall and jerked herself back from Teran. It was as if his very presence disgusted her and she could not get away fast enough. Very pointedly, she turned her back on him.

“Wilhelm,” she barked savagely, “when you are done playing around with those soldiers, throw this asshole into a dark, dank cell somewhere.”

Mavigan walked stiffly towards where she had left her Uncle clutching his crotch and groaning in pain. He was not there.

She quickly scanned the room. There was a hole in the wall that had definitely not been there before. Without thinking, Mavigan tore across the room and through the passageway. Anyone near her would no doubt hear the sound of gnashing teeth.

Guilt ate at her insides like rats chewing on a fresh corpse, as she gave chase. She hated herself for being weak and stupid and trusting. She hated Teran for choosing to kill her family. She hated her Uncle for ordering it done. She hated Wilhelm for being so damn perfect and always having answers. She hated Ithramir for being right about Teran. And she hated the entire kingdom for being so eager to follow her for no other reason than the circumstances of her birth.

But most of all, she hated the Goddess that could have saved them, but didn’t.

The passageway was a short one; she found herself outside the main palace on the side that fronted the manor house. She was mildly surprised at the fast pace her Uncle must be setting; she had given quite the low blow. But as she quickly scanned the outside, there was no sign of which direction they had gone. She needed a better vantage point.

Without much thought, her feet began running in the direction of the manor house. Reaching it and pushing her way through the front door was the work of a few minutes, and she immediately ran towards the stairs that led to the tower.

She climbed the circular staircase rapidly, taking the stairs three at a time. Once at the top, she burst out the door and greedily sucked in air, giving the area a quick scan. There – running towards the docks as fast as his traitorous legs could carry him, and there – a large ship blatantly flying the flag of the Ironskane.

She smacked the railing hard with her hand. There was simply no way she could reach them in time. Beridane would be on the ship and out to sea before she could reach the docks. Her argument with Teran had bought him precious time to escape, as he had no doubt intended.

Mavigan’s legs suddenly felt rubbery and she sank down onto the floor with a disappointed sigh. She was sure that this was the reason Teran had slapped her; he knew that Beridane was escaping. Bastard. Smug asshole. Traitor. Her head dropped into her hands as she struggled not to cry.

After a minute or two she raised her head and sucked in several deep breaths. Rising to her feet, she despondently made her way back down the tower and towards the front door. It wasn’t until she stood in the foyer that understanding of where she was took hold.

Her head snapped up and hungry eyes took stock. On the right wall was a large coat of arms bearing the symbol of a lit candle. Opposite to it was another coat of arms, equally large, depicting the form of an owl.

The history books indicated that when her family originally settled in this world, this manor house was built first. The structure housed the royal family until enough of the palace had been completed to be considered habitable.

Mavigan had never lived here, but she had fond memories of visiting her Gramps Acaenyd in this house. Her Grandmother had died before Mavigan had been born.

After a swift check to ensure she was alone and Wilhelm was not coming to haul her off, she dried her tears on a ripped sleeve and set to exploring. The furnishings were remarkably free of dust, and the air was free of the stale smell of abandonment and decay though Mavigan knew no one had lived here for many years. Vandals seem to have left the stately house alone as well, and Mavigan’s eyes crinkled with confusion. She had seen the state of the palace no matter how hard she tried not to, and she did not understand why the swine would desecrate one building and leave the other untouched.

Wandering slowly from room to room, eyes wide with wonder, Mavigan revisited artifacts from her family history. A large spear once belonging to the first Mavigan, toys that had once belonged to her father, now well-worn with use, a child’s painting she recognized as one she had painted for her Gramps. She could not stop herself from reverently touching each item, as if physical contact would somehow reconnect her to the family that was now lost to her.

Her roaming carried her to the library, and she took her time gazing at each carefully hung portrait. Mavigan the first, her red hair gleaming like fire; her Gramps in his younger days; Pallanon as a young lad; her entire family painted as a group, all with broad smiles.

When she reached the portrait of Ariana Trueblood, she paused. The painter had put his soul into the work, so much so that Mavigan could almost see a holy light gleaming just beneath the woman’s skin. The feature that captivated her the most, though, was the eyes. They reminded her of the ocean – calm and blue on the surface with hints of a gray undertow beneath.

Mavigan knew the stories; how she had appeared on a world torn by war and hatred and had built a bastion of hope; how she had come to this world created a kingdom. What Mavigan didn’t know, but sorely wished she did, was if her Nana had encountered the same difficulties of leadership. And if she had, how had she resolved the problems?

Mavigan sighed. Leadership seemed to be an eternal tangle, one she could never possibly hope to straighten. And she wasn’t sure she wanted to sort the mess. Mavigan, after all, did not have the ability to bring order from chaos the way her Nana had done. No, Mavigan did not possess any of the remarkable qualities of her forebears – not the battle prowess of her Grandmother, or the strength of her Gramps, not the patience of her father, nor the kind-heartedness of her mother.

She couldn’t even manage to kill a traitor.

Sighing again, Mavigan continued her trek both through the library and her own morose thoughts. When she reached a non-descript door, she stopped. If memory served her right, she knew what lay beyond that door.

Throwing it open with desperation, she misjudged the force needed, and the door banged against the wall to rebound and hit her in the side. Mavigan ignored the annoyance, having eyes only for the set of plain stone stairs leading downward. Her heart pumped faster and her breathing grew rapid. If it still worked, she had a perfect opportunity.

She took the stairs so quickly; she tripped part of the way down. Regaining her feet easily, she turned her eyes on the large humming portal that was the only thing in the room. The surface rippled slightly, appearing no more than a disturbance of air and breath, and then the scene before her changed. Shifting easily from a scene of grassy plains, to one of snowy mountains, to one of black and dead earth, the pictures of other worlds seemed to Mavigan to be a welcome mat.

Here was her chance at a new life and a new start. Her family was dead. There was really nothing left for her here. She had certainly proved herself to be a failure as Queen. The people of Westgale were better off without her anyway. Wilhelm would do a much better job.

Without giving herself any more time to think the decision through, Mavigan stepped through the portal. She did not look back.

Written by - Ariana

Ariana watched the little elf take wing until he too disappeared. Sighing, she turned and scanned the crowd. She wasn’t entirely certain, but it seemed to her that the number of people had grown from just a few minutes previous, and from the few snatches of conversation she could hear, Ariana was the main topic of conversation. It seemed there would be no way of concealing her identity now.

She walked with purpose towards the small group of people who knelt on the blood-soaked ground. As she approached, she realized that they were dressed in robes, tunics and armor emblazoned with the symbol of Pandarion. The robes and tunics were rumpled as if they had been pulled out of a trunk and donned with haste.

Reaching the closest priest, she put her hands on her hips and addressed them en masse. “Let’s get this straight from the beginning,” she said in the sudden hush, “I don’t like people kneeling before me, so get up.”

She saw the priests and crusaders throw surreptitious glances at one another, confusion writ upon their faces. Slowly, and with some reluctance, they started to comply.

“Good,” she said, taking a more relaxed posture. “Now, don’t address me as anything but Ariana. If you can’t bring yourself to call me by my name, then call me Abbess. I don’t want to hear any ‘your holiness’ or ‘your excellence’. Are we clear?”

The followers of Tinorb slowly nodded their assent with a ‘Yes, Abbess’ tossed in for good measure.

“Excellent!” Ariana exclaimed. “I think we will get along swimmingly.” She made shooing motions with her hands. “Now get to work. You know what to do.”

Many of the followers of the All-Father were smiling now, joy and relief shining in their eyes. At her direction, they dispersed into the crowd healing wounds, offering prayers, and some even started singing hymns. The more martially inclined gravitated towards the outside of the crowd, alert for any possible attacks.

Satisfied that one issue was cleared up, Ariana scanned the crowd. Her eyes alighted on the man she had seen Ardwen talking to earlier. The crowd parted before her as she moved towards him and laid a hand on his shoulder.

“Excuse me,” she floundered for a minute for a name, “Manuel. Will you walk with me?” When he looked surprised, she hastened to add, “I have been gone a very long time. I’d like to tour the city, and I’d be grateful for someone to fill me in on what has happened since I’ve been gone.”

Written by - Teran

Sabbatine generally approached a battle with very little strategy but she quickly began to recognize the openings Wilhelm provided and exploited them with brutal stabs or slashes, all the while still trying to claw and climb her way over or through the shield in front of her. The sheer ferocity of the combined attacks was more than the guard could take and he was forces back. Sabbatine was eager to move forward and gave little quarter.

****

Teran didn't flinch as the blade came close to wounding him. He was vaguely aware of Beridane slipping away but did not interfere. Mavigan would not learn if he guided her every step, now she would have to fail and learn from her failure. After she had cried out to Wilhelm and fled the room in chase Teran collected the papers where they had fallen and placed them back on the desk, scanning their content as he did. The evidence against him was there, but not so strong that he couldn't have denied it and called it trickery on Beridane's part. It did not matter in the end, he knew this moment had been coming and embraced it fully understanding the potential consequences.

He leaned back against the desk, watching the battle between the guards and and Mavigan's allies, making no attempt to go anywhere.


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.


Written by - Ardwen Page 26 Book 4

Manuel looked down at the young woman who had just walked out of nowhere and asked for a beer. The forlorn hope squinted for a second, the thought that this girl looked familiar scratched at the back of his brain. Manuel pushed the idea aside, there was no way, he reasoned after looking her up and down, that he would ever forget something so pleasing to the eyes. “One beer coming up , miss.” Manuel said with a nod. The human soldier took a swing at the cask below him with the crow’s beak he had kept on hand, making sure that there were others ready to tap the keg and mugs on hand. With a single, swift crack the pick-like weapon normally used to puncture plate armor bit into the front of the wooden cask and lager so dark that it appeared black oozed out.

With practiced efficiency the men helping Manuel distribute the drinks had jammed a tap into the cask. It was a sloppy way of breaking keystone, and beer dribbled out onto the ground, a whack with a mallet drove the tap in further and the leaking stopped. An elderly man with thinning hair at the back of his head and streaks of grey everywhere else swiftly poured the dark lager into a large stein with a lid and thumblift. Manuel eyed the beer stein appreciatively. Much like the rest of the evening, the men the Westgale soldier had assigned to hand out drinks were simply dispensing the alcohol in whatever container was nearest at hand – which resulted in an odd mix of cups and mugs that ranged from humbled fired clay to gilded and embossed masterpieces of pewter and silver.

Manuel smiled at the stunning lady and said jokingly, “You’ve got some luck, miss, that’s a cup fit for a queen.” The people who heard Manuel’s jest guffawed laughter at the flippant comment, one even going so far as to slap Mavigan good-naturedly on the shoulder. “Now if you’ll excuse me,” Manuel said, “I’ve got a few other things that need tending. Enjoy the party, and feel free to thump Jaob on the shoulder in turn – especially if he’s as slow at serving you drink as he was with that last glass.” With a flourish and a mock bow, Manuel spun around and hopped off the side of the cart, landing on the cobblestone street with a slight thump of thick-soled boots. The forlorn hope took one look at the young lass as she moved through the crowd. Manuel let out a sigh, he had forgotten how long he’d been without seeing a woman who wasn’t starved, being beaten, or weeping as someone she loved was. “Aye, that’s just like cool water.” Manuel said to the late evening air as he walked off.

“Hey boys!” Manuel said with a wave as he rounded the corner of the street. The forlorn hope knew the greeting was technically incorrect. The knot of children that sat on the steps leading down to the city street had a few girls in it too, and they crossed their arms and pointed their noses to the air at being lumped in together with the loathed other gender. Well, Manuel thought, that would all change one day – for now he had an important question to ask the assorted group of children. Each of them had volunteered earlier to watch the sky for their little winged friend, and as Manuel was quick to remind them, for the “big angel” or the “angry angel” as the children were quickly labeling Ardwen. “Seen anything?” The forlorn hope finished casually while leaning against the cool stone of a nearby building.

“Sir!” One of the older boys, Manuel thought his name was Davin, responded. The child snapped an aptly childish salute, along with just about every other child there. Manuel winced inwardly; he had thought it best not to break their spirits and play their game when he “recruited” them to help him keep watch, but the children had apparently taken it to heart. “Me and Tor have even been up on the roofs so we could see the whole sky. Christoff and Renn are up there now.”

“Aye, good work.” Manuel said, and then figuring there was no harm in playing along he snapped out like an expert drill sergeant. “Militas Davin and his squad are to be commended for their observation of duty!” Manuel gave his best had-a-few-but-not-showing-it salute he had mastered back in his younger days as a raw recruit. The children practically popped with excitement, several of them bouncing up and down a little as they turned to smile or chatter with friends. Davin puffed his chest out and gave another salute, with the wrong hand, but at least he bothered to stand first this time. “Should your men – or ladies – see anything, report to me.”

A chorus of enthusiastic “sirs” followed Manuel as he walked back to the party. Despite how ridiculous the situation made him feel, he was honestly grateful for the children. With the majority of Westgales army either dead, securing the city, or helping oversee the party, Manuel doubted he had very many eyes he could spare to keep sweeping the sky. The forlorn hope rubbed his arms as a chill breeze from the sea made him shudder slightly. The sun was dipping low into the sky, the horizon cutting into it like a knife through an apple. “I pray, All-Father,” Manuel whispered to himself, “that they only ever have to play at being soldiers.”

Written by - Wilhelm

Wilhelm surveyed the harbor, now empty of ironskane vessels with the Royal Arms flying from the Harbormaster's watch tower, with considerable satisfaction.

*Now if only Mavigan had finished matters with her uncle before getting distracted by Teran.* he thought. *Ah well, at least she came through alive and unharmed, the city is free again, Mavigan has Saint Ariana Trueblood returned as her Great Great Grandmother to help her, and I have the Abbess to at least hold the tile of head of the Church. All in all, a very satisfactory day.*

Just then the Raven came up with a crowd of folks, both militant and civilian, and said,

"From what you told me about meeting Saint Ariana, amazing as that seems, and the reports I am getting, it seems that the Saint and two winged elves liberated all of the townfolk held prisoner to be sacrificed and wiped out half of Beridane's army. I would think it fanciful except for the flash and shaking we saw and felt when we were fighting in the palace and the retreat of Beridane's forces already in effect when Beridane escaped and fled.

While I would like to meet this Saint returned from the dead, it seems that she emerged from the Manor House with Mavigan to rejoin a crowd of folks, and then went back inside. Mavigan and the crowd, led by this Manuel you mentioned, are just across the harbor in the warehouse district throwing a big celebration. I though we should go join the festivities, especially since I have a number of folks here who had family members locked in that dungeon."

At this a chorus arose of folks confirming that their loved ones were there and they wanted to see them. Wilhelm clapped the raven on the shoulder and then looking over the crowd, said,

"Well then, shall we go join the party?"

Cheers erupted. Wilhelm then said,

"But we don't want to show up empty handed. Run back to your homes or go to the local taverns or markets to spread the word and bring things to contribute to the party. Meet back here in an hour and we will go there together. Let's make this a grand celebration of the liberation of Port Westgale from the Ironskane scum, the first act of Queen Mavigan. Long live the Queen!"

"Long live the Queen!" shouted the crowd. They dispersed in several directions there, except for those who lived or worked at the harbor who offered what they had here. Hearing a baker offer his bakery, Wilhelm left the rest to the Raven and went off with the baker.

An hour later a much larger crowd assembled with carts drawn by horses, mules, oxen and even people. The carts were full of children oldsters, and food and supplies for the great celebration. Some innkeeper had wagons piled with serving tables and serving ware.

Wilhelm and the Raven then led the crowd across the harbor, the crowd breaking into the royal anthem first and then moving on to drinking songs. Up ahead Wilhelm's tracking sense located Mavigan's heartfire and he winced at the raw wide open divine channels he sensed in her.

*Mavigan would not accept My Sister's invitation nor her pleas, so Nagarren had to do it the hard fast way. She said something about getting a mule's attention by hitting it over the head with a board. I think you will find your charge a changed woman. Our Ariana even taught Mavigan her first healing spell, which she was rather badly in need of. Go easy with your charge. She has been through a lot today.*

Wilhelm sent his agreement. Homing in on Mavigan's heartfire, he brought his crowd to join the other. A sizable portion of the city's remaining population was now gathering. Taking a basket with him, he came up behind Mavigan and said,

"Would you like some hot cheese biscuits with that beer?"

Written by - Ardwen

“If we want to get back to Westgale before it gets too dark, I suggest we leave now.” Elerus said. The little elf stood at the edge of the cliff, the sinking sun silhouetting him as a dark outline against a brilliant splash of saturated oranges, purples, and reds. Ardwen said nothing, the ancient elf stood from beneath the venerable tree where Elerus and he had spent the last several hours simply talking of people long dead and empires buried by time. Every now and then, they had even spoke of the future, but such talk almost invariably caused them to both slip into awkward silence.

The truth was neither elf was certain if they had a future in this new world, but they each had hopes and dreams, so they shared those instead. Ardwen stood next to his friend, looking down at him, Ardwen still found it so strange to think of the boy as Elerus, yet Ardwen had set aside thoughts of future vengeance for his comrade. If Elerus was happy, then so was he, and if Elerus was not bothered by his state, then he resolved to not be troubled by it either. With a silent nod, the two winged elves leapt off the cliff, freefalling before allowing themselves to level out and shoot through the air. Ardwen stayed slightly above Elerus, and just a little behind. The former Hand was so lost in thought as they made their way back to Westgale that he did not notice the beauty of the land sprawled beneath him.

Trees displayed vibrant autumnal colors that, when viewed from above, resembled a vibrant quilt sown by the hand of a caring god. The stitches of the quilt were formed by streams of water that twisted and churned their way through narrow beds, sparkling like gemstones in the fading sunlight. Elerus dipped down lower to the ground, intent on taking in the vistas of their new world, and Ardwen followed suit. The young elf flapped his single white wing just above the tree tops, and then he suddenly peeled left. Ardwen paused in mid-flight, hovering in the air, his pinions outstretched like some angel in a miracle play come to pronounce the All-Father’s judgment. “El?” Ardwen shouted out as he watched his friend dip down into the tree line.

A few seconds later a flock of birds burst from the trees, the sound of their wings beating against the air mixed with the rustle of branches and their complaining squawks. At first Ardwen saw nothing, but as the flock began to wheel in the air like a winged column of brown and grey feathers, Ardwen caught sight of Elerus keeping pace in the middle of them. The young elf let the birds go, and like his companion he simply hovered in the air, the slow drumbeat of his wing the counterpart to Ardwen’s. “Don’t deny, Ardwen,” Elerus began, “what we spoke of. This world is magnificent, full of potential, filled with the magic of a planet and people that yearn for life and do not linger on in pale facades of living.”

Ardwen moved closer to the winged child and tossed his head back to look at the darkening of the twilight sky overhead. “You believe our world was doomed, then?”

“It was fading Ardwen, not doomed, but already dead. I can only imagine that the All-Father brought us here to give us a second chance, to make things right this time around.” Elerus said.

“You might,” Ardwen said, “have asked him to be a little less literal on the second-chance thing in your case.”

Elerus crossed his arms and shot Ardwen a defiant look. Suddenly though his arms dropped to his side and his head slumped. “That’s harsh, Ardwen,” he said softly, “I think part of your problem is you’ve forgotten what you were like when you were a child.”

Ardwen rolled his eyes and slapped a hand to his chest, bringing it out open-palmed in front of him as if he were about to deliver a stunning oration on a theatre stage. “Absurd, why would that matter at all?” He said simply.

“Because,” Elerus said, his voice rising again, “the Ardwen I knew, would have thought this world a great chance to prove he was a hero.”

Ardwen’s face flushed crimson at the mention of an old, and as he now thought it, rather stupid memory. “I didn’t know any better.” He muttered sullenly. “Foolish dreams that were better abandoned.”

Elerus shook his head vehemently, “The day we put aside our dreams, even the unobtainable ones, is the day we start to lose who we are.”

Ardwen looked around him as if checking to make sure the sky was still above him. “We’d best hurry back to Westgale.” He muttered, changing the topic quickly. “It’s been thousands of years since I’ve taken wing, and I don’t relish the thought of flying into a city when it’s as black as the void outside.”

Despite Ardwen’s tacit misgiving about flying by night, the two elves had spent more time speaking along the way and looking at the earth around them. By the time they were over Westgale, the stars were wane motes in a deep blue sky, and the last rays of sunlight had vanished over the horizon. The first thing Ardwen noticed when he looked down upon the city were the dots of bright orange. There were a few spaced at random throughout the streets, but the vast majority seemed to be clustered north of the city’s center. “I smell smoke.” Elerus said, and Ardwen moved his head up and down in agreement.

The tiny dots of orange turned out to be roaring fires to ward off the night’s chill and provide light for music and dancing. The two airborne elves drifted closer to the city, and to their surprise the crowd looked up and let loose an echoing cheer at their sight. Elerus’s keen elven hearing caught snippets from the roar about angels and saint, amongst other less intelligible noise that sounded nothing so much as chairs scrapping across the floor. “Ariana has to be in that central building.” Ardwen said to his friend. “See how they’re all gathered about it in a circle? Hear their chants about the ‘Living Saint’? One would think we were expected.”

“Perhaps.” Elerus said. “But there’s something about the building . . . why would they huddle about it instead of going inside?”

“That’s of no concern.” Ardwen said. “Ariana probably ordered them to stay away so she wouldn’t have to deal with an entire city at once. She must have spent a great deal of energy to do . . . this,” Ardwen’s mouth twisted around the word before he continued, “to me. I imagine she must be resting by now. Intriguing, but we should come back later and-“

“Nice try, Ardwen.” Elerus said with a wicked grin.

Ardwen gave a derisive “hmph” in response, but he began to move closer to the Manor House all the same. Before he got too close, however, the warrior stopped as a familiar voice rose from the crowd.

“Stop!” Manuel shouted at the top of his lungs. “It’s warded!” Ardwen glanced over his left shoulder to be greeted by the sight of an eyeful of black feathers. With a sigh the elf looked over his right shoulder and saw Manuel frantically waving his arms up and down as if he was trying to flap his arms and join Ardwen and Elerus in the air. The elven bladeweaver spared the human the effort, and within a few seconds he had landed with barely a stirring of dust on the stone pavers next to the forlorn hope. “Thank the gods,” Manuel said in between sucking down gulps of air. His voice was slightly raspy from all the shouting, but he kept an even tone as he said, “there’s a shield that goes all around the Manor House. Ariana had to formally invite Brother Wilhelm and I.”

Ardwen frowned. He had worked his courage up to quickly confront Ariana and then be off. Like removing dressing from a wound, the elf had thought a quick tear would be the least painful. Now, with this unexpected delay, the twilight elf found his determination and courage waning, doubts gnawing at his mind. The sable-winged warrior looked at the crowd around him and spoke in a firm, commanding tone, “Manuel and I have some business to discuss, leave us be.”

A whine of disappointment shot through the crowd, but those who had seen what Ardwen had done earlier outside the prison grabbed their companions’ sleeves and cautioned them not to press the issue further. If the Saint and her angel had important and weighty matters to discuss, let them. There was time for weighty matters tomorrow, and rounds still to be downed tonight. As the press of bodies lessened and the noise died down around them, Manuel continued his explanation. “I’m betting you want to see the Abbess, I know. But I can’t get you inside, I’m sorry Ardwen.”

“Elerus! Hey! Hey!” Ardwen nearly leapt out of his skin, only keeping his outward calm by sheer force of will, as a small gang of children brazenly ignored his earlier warning and leapt about them. The children were all looking at the Manor House, or slightly above it, and waving as energetically as Manuel had done earlier. Ardwen traced their eyes to the point of fascination, and with a resigned shake of his head, he saw Elerus had not only discovered the aforementioned shield, but he was resting on top of it like a vast playground dome. Elerus stood up on what appeared to be nothing more than solid air and waved at his friends below. With a leap and a few flaps of his wing, the young elf was amongst the other children talking and sharing stories.

Ardwen let out an annoyed grunt and said, “Why can’t you?”

Manuel cleared his throat; Ardwen could smell alcohol on the man’s breath. “Well,” he started, “I don’t know how much faith to put in the story, but I’ve heard said that only members of the Hands of Providence, those of the royal bloodline, and those invited by name were the only ones who could enter.”

“I see.” Ardwen said curtly. The elf spun on his heels so quickly that Manuel saw a few black feathers drift into the air. At first the ancient bladweaver walked toward the Manor House with confident strides that ate the distance, but as he got closer he slowed. Hesitantly, cautiously, the elf reached a hand out. For a brief instance it looked as if Ardwen had his hand pressed against an invisible wall, then the warrior recoiled as if he had placed his fingers on a stove. Manuel saw the former Avari look at his gloved hand and move the fingers, one by one, but he did not try his fortune against the ward again. The elf’s shoulders slumped, and the forlorn hope had never seen the elf look so dejected, his former aura of confidence all but vanished against the unyielding energy of the protective shield. Suddenly, the warrior’s posture straightened, as if he were under inspection from his peers. However, when Ardwen spoke his voice was a deep snarl of frustration. “Just where,” he said, “am I supposed to find a member of a dead order or the last of a royal line?”

Written by - Ariana

Mavigan gratefully accepted the stein and promptly chugged the contents. When she stuck out her now empty cup, the keepers of the alcohol readily filled it, again, and again. After the horrible day, Mavigan wanted nothing less than total intoxication. By the time Wilhelm came up behind her, she was feeling pleasantly warm and loose, and inexplicably happy.

As she munched on a cheese biscuit under Wilhelm’s watchful eye, the firelight glinted off his red hair. She suddenly had a flash of inspiration that had her grinning from ear to ear.

“Sir Sly Willy,” she said, her words slurred, “have you seen my Nana? She’s nuttin’ but skin and bones… and more bonez! She needz fattenin’.” She leaned closer to Wilhelm as if about to tell him a secret. “So Red, if’n you fill that there basket with treats fer my Nana, I’ll protect youse from the Big Bad Wolf.” She promptly dissolved into laughter at her witticism, slapped Wilhelm on the back with perhaps more force than was absolutely required, and then polished off her cheese biscuit with a long draught from her mug.

Removing the mug from her lips with a satisfied sigh, she caught a hint of movement from the corner of her eyes. Looking over, her mouth dropped open and eyes grew wide. There, seemingly walking on air was a small winged boy. Astonished eyes followed his progress as he descended and landed amongst a small knot of people.

It was then that she saw him. Her feet started moving before her brain could send the command.

“Ardwen?” she asked. “Dude, whaz happened to you?” She kept walking until she was nearly nose to chest with the tall elf. “I dunno if you noticed,” she said in a whisper that could be heard for miles, “but theres a big bird on yer back. Want I should git it?”

Written by - Ardwen

Elerus saw Ardwen’s condescending frown before even the ancient elf was aware it was on his face. He excused himself from the small knot of children, who by now we’re eager to be off through the city resuming their games. Elerus promised he would join them later, but he had to take care of his best friend right now. The little elf left the sentence intentionally ambiguous enough so that it wasn’t technically a lie, but he seriously doubted any of the kids would have guessed he was talking about the black-winged warrior staring down his nose at the drunken human girl.

As Elerus walked closer he only then realized how drunk the lady was as she slurred words and nearly stumbled into Ardwen’s chest. The young boy quickly guessed as to who she was: unashamedly flaunting her insouciant attitude, and with a knight behind her in fine panoply who looked like one of the Half-Giants from home. Elerus’s thoughts stopped at that part. Looking at the red-haired man again, the winged child reassessed his estimate and realized he was a bit too short to be one touched directly by Jotun blood. But then, Elerus conceded with a mental sigh as he stood next to Ardwen and realized the top of his head barely reached the twilight elf’s elbow, who was he to call anyone short?

The silver-haired boy looked up at Ardwen and said, “Is she Mavigan?” Ardwen’s mouth remained in a dismissive line as he nodded his affirmation.

“Elerus,” Ardwen finally said slowly, “turn around.”

“Huh?” Elerus said with a tilt of his head.

“There are not birds on our shoulders. “Ardwen continued without an explanation for his order, hoping Elerus would catch on. Thankfully, as Ardwen showed his back to Mavigan, he saw his small friend do the same. “See?” Ardwen said as he fanned the wing out and brought it back in. Elerus did the same, but being so small the span of his wing was shorter, though the ends of the primary flight feathers dipped down further than Ardwen’s. The two winged elves turned back around and Ardwen continued. “As for what happened, that’s just the question I want to ask Ariana. So you see it’s vital that both of us see her. However, there’s a shielding spell over the Manor House, and Manuel tells me that we need you to step inside of it and extend us invitations-”

“By name!” Manuel slid in edgewise. The human soldier gave Ardwen a nod and returned to leaning against a nearby stack of boxes that had until recently held a large amount of very expensive white wines.

“By name, then.” Ardwen said, echoing Manuel’s earlier instruction. Ardwen heard Elerus give a faked cough, and the ancient bladeweaver looked down at the child. He could see the question on the boy’s face, but Ardwen said nothing, waiting for Elerus to speak.

“Aren’t you going to introduce me to your tall friend?” Elerus blurted out.

“If we’re going from your perspective,” Ardwen said, “you’ll have to narrow that list down from ‘everyone in this city’.” The bladeweaver had intended for the jest to be a light ribbing, but he had to admit that part of it was to relieve some of the mixed feelings of frustration and dread he felt. He both dearly wanted and deeply feared to be near Ariana again. As Ardwen watched however, Elerus’s ears dropped and his mouth turned down, his wing dipped as if he no longer had the care or energy to hold it next to him.

“That’s mean!” The little elf said again, this time even faster than his last outbreak. “I’m telling Ariana!”

Ardwen blinked in surprise, taken aback by Elerus’s response, unsure if it was sadly childish or shrewdly clever. The twilight elf finally managed to mutter, “Wilhelm, this is Elerus; Elerus, Wilhelm. Now could we please return to the issue at hand?” Ardwen moved a gloved hand to his face and rested the fingertips on his forehead as if trying to pinpoint the area where his sudden headache had started.

Written by - Ariana

Her eyes popped wide as both Ardwen and Elerus showed her the wings on their backs. “Thaz… so…. COOL!” she shouted. Reaching out with one hand, she lightly stroked on black feather proving to herself it was real.

The smile she gave them was nearly blinding. “I want one! Whaz I gots do to get one?” she asked in all seriousness. After a moment of contemplation, she added, “And one fer Red, too!”

She stuck a hand out behind her and rooted around in Wil’s basket, finding another cheese biscuit to cram into her mouth. “Um!” she said while chewing emphatically. After swallowing, she leaned in towards Elerus and said, “Dunna worry. Hesh alwaysh mean. But how youse know my Nana?”

Written by - Wilhelm

Wilhelm was somewhat amused to see that Mavigan was rapidly getting drunk on the strong drinks being passed around, especially on an empty stomach. The cheese biscuits he had brought were the first food she had had since they entered the city, and she had likely already had several drinks before he arrived. The city now being secure, and given what Mavigan had just gone through with the goddess, Wilhelm allowed to himself that Mavigan had earned a party.

*Of course, if she keeps on drinking like that she will need to learn how to heal a hangover tomorrow morning.*

Then Wilhelm saw the unusual sight of two flying winged figures, made particularly unusual by the fact that each only had one wing instead of the usual pair. As they came closer he saw with a start that the taller of the two was the elven warrior Ardwen. He did not recognize the other, who landed on top of the invisible shield and seemed to stand in mid air. Then the pair landed near them.

Wilhelm overheard their conversation with Manuel, and realized that Ariana had something to do with Ardwen's new wing. When Ardwen made his terse introduction, Wilhelm bowed to Elerus.

"I'm pleased to meet you, Elerus. Ardwen has been of great assistance to us, and I welcome any friend of his. I would also be interested to know how the two of you come to have one wing each, but first let me more formally introduce you to Mavigan, rightful Queen of Westgale, and welcome you to the celebration of our liberation of Port Westgale from the Ironskaners. May I offer you two some fresh cheese biscuits? They are made from the original Hands of Providence recipe."

Wilhelm held out the aromatic basket of cheese biscuits.

Written by - Ardwen

Elerus took a step back as he noted uncomfortably that there were several sets of eyes on him. For some reason, he felt shy. It was not that he minded the attention, so much as he felt unsure of what to say or do, as if he had to make a good impression upon these two, and it was imperative that he get it right the first time. Elerus swallowed hard and looked up and Mavigan and Wilhelm, and smiled at each in turn. “Well Mavigan,” Elerus said. “Ariana is . . .” Elerus fumbled for the right words before deciding what he was going to say. The little elf decided on keeping his story simple, yet true. “Is taking care of me right now, my parents are both gone.” The winged child then turned to Wilhelm and returned his bow with elegance that belied his apparent few years. “Thank you, sir knight.” Elerus said. “Westgale is a wonderful city, and her people already have a special place in my heart. As for the story, it would take me the rest of the night to tell it.”

“We don’t have the rest of the night for these games, if—“ Ardwen growled.

“If I might repeat Ardwen’s request,” Elerus cut in, raising his voice over Ardwen’s. “We really would like to see Ariana right now.” Elerus finished with another bow, and then stood up on his toes as Wilhelm lowered the basket of cheese biscuits for him. He snatched one out and took a small bit, opening his mouth and making a small “ahhh” sound as the warm bread singed his mouth. As the young child swallowed, however, his eyes grew wide and he took a large bite out of the biscuit, quickly cramming and devouring the rest of it without paying any mind to how piping hot the food was. As he polished off the last bite, Elerus muttered something in elven as he had a mouthful of dough, making in unintelligible even to Ardwen, but the contented tone of his voice left no doubt to the meaning.

Ardwen moved his hands to his side and turned to face the Manor House. “Very well, Mavigan. I’ll make you a deal. You invite Elerus and me into the Manor House, and I shall tell you how to get a wing just like the ones we have. Not a bad deal, is it? In fact, consider it your first taste of politics – a favor for a favor.”

Written by - Ariana

Mavigan’s face fell as she listened to Elerus. “Yesh,” she added with a dejected sigh, “My parentsh are alsho gone.”

Suddenly, the party no longer seemed festive, and she looked at her hands as if surprised to see they contained a tankard. She no longer felt like drinking, and shoved the half full mug into the nearest set of hands, which happened to belong to Elerus.

Whipping around she peered into the depths of Wilhelm’s basket, scrutinizing the contents as Ardwen attempted to make a deal. Satisfied the foodstuffs contained therein would satisfactorily feed her Nana, she took the basket from Wilhelm and crossed the barrier, letting Ardwen know exactly what she thought of politics, and his deal. “Politiksh shucks!”

“Red Rover, Red Rover, shend Elerus right over!” she shouted with a forced lightness in her tone she no longer felt. Elerus dutifully crossed the barrier to come stand by her side, still clutching the mug of strong brew.

A wicked gleam entered her eyes as she looked at Ardwen standing expectantly outside the barrier. She stuck out her tongue and blew a big raspberry at him.

Her ridicule was cut short, however, by a tug on her tunic. Swallowing hard, she saw Elerus gazing up at her, pleading with her with his puppy dog eyes.

Mavigan huffed. “Oh, alright,” she muttered. “Red Rover, Red Rover, shend Ardwen Grumpypants right over!”

Written by - Ardwen

Elerus couldn’t help but breathe a sigh of relief as Mavigan recited his name. The little elf was confused, however, by her chant about a “red rover” at the beginning. Was it some kind of incantation, a formula needed to allow a person to cross the shielding? Determined to found out if Mavigan’s chant worked, the winged child walked to her side. He felt a brief prickling across his skin as he crossed the suddenly permeable barrier, but other than that the previously impassable barrier was as yielding as a gentle breeze. As soon as Elerus was across, he became conscious of the fact that he was holding the same brew that Mavigan had handed him earlier. The young elf had not even thought of it when Mavigan handed it to him, accepting it by rote and instead watching intensely as she walked across the barrier that kept Ardwen and him from Ariana.

Looking down in the mug now, Elerus saw nothing but blackness, the only evidence that there was a liquid inside was the brief highlights that shone from the dark lager as he swished it around. Suddenly uncomfortable, Elerus shifted from foot to foot, and his stomach growled again. The cheese biscuit earlier had been nice, but he had not eaten since the breakfast before coming to Westgale, an eternity ago. The small elf couldn’t help but heed his hunger; surely a sip wouldn’t hurt? Elerus raised the stein and tilted it back. The first thing he noticed was the pungent smell of alcohol as the drink inside spilled forward, the second thing he noticed was the bitter taste that filled his mouth as soon as the lager entered. By instinct, Elerus tossed the drink from his hands as if a snake had leapt from the cup, his tiny fists balled up and he puckered his face. “Gross!” He said, spitting to remove the taste from his mouth. The sturdy stein hit the ground and rolled until its handle stopped it, unharmed by the child’s rough treatment.

Elerus shook his head and flicked his tongue between his lips, trying to banish the tart taste from his mouth. As he looked around, he noticed Mavigan had her tongue out as well. Confused at first, the silver-haired child saw Ardwen still standing on the other side of the barrier – Mavigan was taunting him. “Oh no.” Elerus gasped, wondering if he was too late to get Mavigan to stop before Ardwen tried to rip the barrier open with a hailstorm of blades. Reacting quickly, Elerus tugged on Mavigan’s tunic, ignoring how childish it must have made him look, and put on his best “I want something” face. It worked. Mavigan recited Ardwen’s name, with a slight addition, and his friend had soon crossed the boundary that separated the Manor House from everything else.

Ardwen did not pause as his brisk pace carried him past. It wasn’t until he was a few steps away that he halted and said, “A wise decision, princess, learn it well. My offer was hollow, a trick. Do not play the politics of the damned.” Not caring if Mavigan was listening, Ardwen continued his walk to the door of the great house. Taking a second to admire it, Ardwen had to admit that the house was spacious and well designed. A slight push on the door sent it sailing open without a squeak, despite the fact that the house could not have seen much use with the barrier, it seemed impeccably maintained.

Stepping inside, Ardwen was again awed by its plush interior, even the antechamber to the house showed a great attention to detail. The walls on both sides were covered with simple frescoes, the triskellion rings of the All-Father. The floor was a simple yet pleasing tile pattern consisting of a terracotta brown edged with blue. The ancient elf could appreciate fine workmanship, and to him it was obvious that the house was either constructed by masons from his world, or heavily influenced by them. Pushing open the second set of thick oak doors, Ardwen finally found himself within the house proper. A large, high-roofed welcoming room was his first sight of the true interior of the Manor House. A fireplace with generous seating all around took up most of one side of the room, and the rest was lined with bookshelves overflowing with manuscripts, the places where the walls were visible either had rich tapestries or stands with memorabilia, pottery, and even a few paintings.

Walking further, Ardwen turned a corner and entered a chamber that gave him pause. If the first room had a considerable number of books in them, it was obvious that they were there to entertain guest or for comfortable reading by the fire. The room the ancient elf now stood in was a true library, albeit one in miniature. The shelves stretched from wall to wall with only tiny breaks, and books were crammed into every square inch of them. Slowing his pace, the elf allowed himself to leisurely wander the room. The warrior’s eyes flitted over the titles, and he was bewildered by the variety of documents: monographs, biographies, hagiographies, books on theology and theodicy, texts on the culinary arts, texts on the visual arts – from acting to the finest of paintings. Ardwen stopped himself, realizing that he could spend all night in this room just skimming and not coming away with anything important. No, he had to find Ariana and get this over with; he was simply stalling right now.

The bladweaver turned around and came face to face with his Abbess. Ardwen slid into a bladedance stance and his hand shot to his right hip where he would have kept his swords before he managed to regain his composure. Embarrassed, but thankfully alone, Ardwen regained his relaxed posture with but a slight air of rigidness to hide his shame. He had been terrified by his Abbess’s sudden appearance, and had reacted out of long practice. Shaking his head, Ardwen walked over to the painting and examined it closely. Unlike Elerus, who loved art for art’s sake and had taken up the brush and easel long ago, Ardwen had never given over to any of his creative impulses. For the elf, a painting was a frail and worthless thing in comparison to the craftsmanship and utility in a good blade – he could appreciate the painting, but he felt nothing while looking at it, as Elerus so often claimed to do.

A slight grunt of annoyance escaped the elf’s mouth and he continued to walk through the house. Turning down a small hallway, Ardwen came across a door that was open by just a crack. Gently pushing it the rest of the way, the elf saw the prostrate form of Ariana, soundly asleep on a massive bed that dominated the room. Ardwen’s breath caught in his throat, and his wing moved forward to arch over him like some vast bird of prey. Suddenly all the elf’s plans to barge in and demand an answer, and then to quickly be off and bury the hurt with running back to the Citadel and throwing himself into the war there sounded implicitly stupid. In the face of the woman who had raised him from the scum of Aerynth and the flames of a broken empire, his courage melted like ice in the summer sun.

A small form brushed past Ardwen’s legs, and with a slight shock the elven warrior realized that Elerus had been shadowing him as he walked through the Manor House. Ardwen took a step forward, the thud of his boot on the wooden floor sounding like a peel of thunder to his nerve wracked senses, and then the elf stopped again. His face flushed crimson and he turned to hide his features in the collar of his overcoat. He had taken a step into a lady’s room without invitation. Turning an about face as if Turin himself was there, Ardwen stared in horror as Elerus simply stood in the room looking around as if he were not violating a stringent social protocol.

Elerus at last seemed to notice Ardwen was standing out in the hallway again, and with a raised eyebrow he whispered, “Come on Ardwen, aren’t you going to at least say hello?”

Ardwen frowned and shook his head no again and again, but a small mocking voice in his head told him he was simply stalling once more. “No,” Ardwen hissed, “you enter a lady’s chambers without invitation?”

Elerus rolled his eyes and shrugged, “I don’t think she’d care.”

“That’s not the point!”

“So, what are you going to do?” Elerus said. “Wait until she wakes up?”

“Of course.” Ardwen shot back. “Although the library down the hallway had some texts I could use to pass the time. Since you don’t seem to mind acting like a barbarian, keep watch and inform me if she wakes early.”

“Right.” Elerus said with a note. “Since I’ve got the guts I’ll do it, don’t worry.” The little elf watched with amusement as Ardwen just shook his head and took off down the hallway with a huff. Elerus had to suppress a giggle of laughter. It wasn’t so much that Ardwen did not know courtly mannerisms, indeed he knew his friend had them beat into him since childhood. It was simply the fact that it had been many years since he had seen Ardwen exercise his noble upbringing. With a slight “hmm”, Elerus turned over the occurrence in his mind before a yawn interrupted his thoughts.

The young elf stretched one arm into the air, fanning his wing out behind him. Now that the excitement of the party was over, the calm and dark confines of the house were inviting him to sleep. Elerus tossed his head from side to side, white hair flowing behind each movement. All his action achieved was another yawn. Now that he was alone, Elerus hated how tiny the yawns sounded, he frowned and looked across the room and stared at a copy of himself. The little boy titled his head, and the child in the mirror mimicked the motion exactly. The winged boy knew, of course, that it was a full length mirror he was gazing into. The snowy-haired youth walked to it and looked at himself, and sighed. It was no wonder Mavigan had taken pity on him earlier, to her he probably looked like nothing more than a child who had seen seven winters at most. The little elf placed one hand on the glass, the reflection miming him. Elerus looked at himself again, the only thing he could spot that had not changed about his physical appearance were his eyes. They were the same slightly sad pools they had been throughout his life, and even in the gloom of Ariana’s room they seemed to shine sky blue.

Elerus spun around from the mirror, unable to look at his own reflection any longer. The little boy chewed absently on the inside of his mouth and began pacing back and forth across the hardwood floor. Thoughts raced through his head, but all the winged child wanted was a moment of quiet now, a bit of peace. He heard something in the room, and focused in on it, a steady and tranquil rhythm. Elerus ceased his pacing and trained his ear at the noise, recognizing it as the sound of Ariana drawing breath. The elven child decided that he could at least sit down and wait for her awakening, his endless pacing was only serving to further aggravate his mind. Elerus slumped at the foot of the bed, tucking his legs in close. He waited. He was not sure if the walls of the Manor House were exceptionally thick, or if the warding had something to do with it, but even straining his ears he could not hear the party that he had left only moments before.

Elerus yawned again; he placed his hands behind his head and stretched his torso outward. His body seemed to rubber band from the motion, and he slumped further down on the floor. The boy squirmed on the uncomfortable hardwood, feet shuffling over its surface as he tried to get comfortable. It was no use, the floor was not only as soft as a slab of granite it was also chilly to the touch. Elerus stood up again and looked at the bed; he tilted his head side to side in a worried metronome. Surely, he could sit or lay on the edge? Elerus nodded to himself, the idea seemed wise and he reasoned that his small frame would hardly take any room. He could also keep a better eye on Ariana there; he had made a promise to Ardwen after all.

With a final, reassuring nod, Elerus climbed up on the bed, hoisting one leg above him and using it as leverage for the rest of his body. True to his word, Elerus sat on the very edge of the bed, facing away from Ariana. Elerus placed one finger on his chin and titled his eyes upward. With his other hand the boy poked the mattress - it was surprisingly soft and yielding. Elerus sighed again, which quickly turned into another yawn. The child’s eyes started to slide close, but Elerus fought the urge to sleep, his head jerking up and slowly sinking back down as he engaged in a mental tug-of-war.

After a few minutes of this, the silver-haired child reasoned that he could at least lie down for a moment and catch some sleep. He would wake up before Ariana surely, and he could keep his promise still. Elerus flopped down at the very edge of the mattress, the soft material seeming to mold to even his light weight. It took only moments before Elerus’s thoughts grew foggy and distant. The next thing Elerus knew he was on the floor. The boy’s heart raced in his chest and his eyes were open wide, his palms stung from the slapping impact on the floor. Looking up at the top of the bed above him, Elerus’s face flushed crimson as he realized what had happened – he had rolled out of the bed.

Within seconds he had resumed his perch on the mattress, this time further away from the edge. Glancing over at Ariana, the little elf noticed that she clutched something in her hands. Crawling closer with inching movements so as not to disturb her, Elerus reached out a trembling hand and gently removed the letter. The child’s elven eyesight granted him superior vision even in the dim lighting, and within moments he had looked over the letter’s contents. He choked back a sob, his stomach felt as if he had swallowed a lead weight. Elerus looked down at Ariana and mouthed a silent prayer to the All-Father for her. He felt guilty for reading the note, but he reassured himself that he had done the right thing. For one, it was far better that he discover it than Ardwen should he return to check on his Abbess. Like all of his kind, Ardwen shared the same low-light vision, and if he had bothered to notice the soft white of the paper would have stood out like a flame in her hand. Elerus shook his head and bit his lower lip. No, he would at least secret the letter away for now.

With slow and deliberate movement, Elerus reached over Ariana to place the note on her other side, where Ardwen would not be able to see it from the door. He had to lean over Ariana, but with practiced grace honed from years of far more difficult action than leaning, Elerus accomplished his task with ease. As he prepared to resume his vigil, Ariana suddenly rolled onto her side, an unexpected motion that caused Elerus to recoil and land on his back. With another motion, Ariana had pulled him close to her as easily as he might a stuffed animal or pillow. Finally, he heard her breathing resume its slow and regular pattern. He then felt his heart start beating again. Utterly embarrassed and afraid to so much as blink should he break Ariana’s slumber, Elerus tried to distract himself by paying attention to his surroundings. At first, it worked, but his mind quickly grew bored, and his child’s body won out. He could feel Ariana breathing behind him, the warmth in her embrace, and the soft, patient rhythm as she drew breath. Within minutes, Elerus joined her in sleep.

Ardwen paced back and forth along the floor, chewing the inside of his mouth. He stopped and looked up from the book entitled “Historia de Westgale”. Ardwen furrowed his brows, wondering why he was chewing the inside of his mouth and pacing out of nerves. Shaking his head and attributing it to his irritated state at having to delay the inevitable questions with Ariana, Ardwen returned to the chair on the far wall and leafed through a few more pages. However, the elf found the book poorly written, the historian in question having not witnessed the events he portrayed and often writing down what could only be hearsay or legend as fact. Closing the book, Ardwen walked along the walls and looked at the paintings again. This time he stopped in front of Mavigan, the first Mavigan. Ardwen’s eyes skimmed her full title “Regina Mavigan Ancora, Regnvm ton Westgale.” Ardwen’s mouth tugged down in a frown, they had even imitated the naming style of Deathless Court for the regnal styling. “So obviously an Amazon, what were they thinking?” Ardwen questioned as his eyes roved over the shock of red hair that spilled from Mavigan’s head, bright and vibrant as fire.

Nevertheless, if the history books were to be believed, this Mavigan was the first adopted by Ariana, and thus her daughter. Ardwen shook his head in bewilderment and distaste, adoption? What was she thinking? Amongst the Firstborn such a practice was heavily frowned upon, seen as nothing more than a way to unjustly extend a failing line. Moving on to the next picture, that of a much younger Mavigan with Ariana in the background in a flowing dress, her hands on her young daughter’s shoulders, and a smile on both of their faces. Ardwen paused, simply staring at the portrait in mute silence. It was Ariana’s smile that captivated his attention. The elf did not know if the artist had simply done a skillful job in painting a smile on her face, or if the joyful expression was genuine, either way it painfully reminded Ardwen of how scarce that look was on her face now. Ardwen carelessly tossed the history book in his hands on a nearby table, it landed next to a copy of the Book of Staves. “He should have reported something by now.” Ardwen muttered to the ghosts in the room before setting off back to Ariana’s chambers.

The ancient elf carefully slid open the door again, and the air in his lungs caught in his throat. Elerus had not only failed to keep watch, he had even managed to fall asleep in Ariana’s presence – in her embrace! Ardwen felt his bile rising and his mouth twisted into a bitter, sardonic scowl. He was the one who shed his blood and tore his flesh for her. He was the one whose strength had earned them entrance into Westgale. What reward did he receive? Nothing but her scorn and continual distance, and yet here was Elerus – who Ariana barely knew – the apple of her eye. Ardwen felt like spitting on the floor, his hand clenched on the doorframe and he heard the wood creak. Pulling his hand back, Ardwen took in a deep breath of air and let it out in a long shuddering gasp. He turned to go, then suddenly cast one last look into the room.

It was blackened by night, but to his eyes it seemed as lit as if the midday sun was outside, though the colors appeared washed out and muted in tones of blue and grey. Ardwen sighed, his anger spent, and couldn’t help but think that at least she was getting some much needed rest now. “Damn you, woman.” Ardwen whispered without heat. “And damn you for betraying me, Elerus. If you two were anyone else in this entire world I would eat your black hearts.” Ardwen blinked and looked around, the room was dark still, and the situation brought to mind all the times Ariana had worked to avoid darkness: her travel to the hidden chamber under the cathedral, her descent into the prison. Ardwen briefly wondered what would happen if she really had woken up early in a night-blackened room? The elven warrior quickly decided he did not want to find out.

A quick search of a nearby cabinet revealed some plain white candles inside, and a box of flint and tender to light them. Within seconds the elf had several candles lit, and he carefully placed them around the room, making sure they were far from any cloth or fabric. As Ardwen set the last candle in place, the flickering light shone across Elerus’s face. The boy gave a soft “mmm” and turned his face toward Ariana, he did not wake. Ardwen shook his head and left the room, returning to the library to pace and read.

Written by - Ariana

Mavigan followed Ardwen and Elerus into the manor house, her steps weaving unsteadily more than they should. While Ardwen and Elerus immediately set out to find Ariana, Mavigan headed towards kitchen. Dominated by a large hearth and a wood-burning stove, the kitchen was located on the first floor at the very back of the house.

Most large estates in Westgale housed their kitchens and smokehouses in smaller buildings completely separate from the main house. It was a sound idea; the most fire-prone areas of the house were cut off from the main living quarters. Should one burn to the ground, all was not lost. But nights spent with her family at the dinner table had revealed to Mavigan that her Nana was unique in many ways. It was always said that Ariana felt the kitchen to be the heart of any home, and insisted that it be a part of the house. So it had been at her abbey, and so it had been here.

The insistence of the Abbess about the importance of the kitchen to any family translated to a room that was both functional and inviting. Warm colors coated the walls, bundles of dried herbs hung from the rafters within easy reach, paintings obviously done by generations of Ancoran children were displayed proudly on the walls, and there was plenty of workspace and eating space. There was a formal dining room in the house, Mavigan remembered, but she had never eaten there. All family meals were taken here, in her Nana’s kitchen.

Mavigan crossed the room and set her basket down on a table. Pausing, she inhaled deeply. The air carried the faint scent of dried herbs, but that was all, and the lack of comforting scents she remembered from her childhood gave her a moment of melancholy. Scolding herself, she shook her head to clear it of the sad thoughts. Her Nana had returned. The kitchen would be filled with the scents of home soon enough.

Resolute, she peered into the depths of the basket. She was not sure when Wil had snuck off to gather the assortment of foodstuffs that greeted her, but admittedly she had been drinking and her mind was rather fuzzy. There were the biscuits, of course, but down towards the bottom she also found some eggs, and a few wrapped packages. She did not take the time to assess what was in the carefully wrapped bundles; instead, she hefted the basket and walked over to a large chest. The lid opened with a creak and gust of wispy cold air escaped.

Mavigan smiled. The enchanted cold chest her Great Grandma had ordered still worked. She didn’t fully understand how it worked, but she and Etewen had always been fascinated by it. No matter what the temperature outside, it was always cold inside the box. It had been very expensive to commission, but both the woodcrafters and the mages had been very happy for the work.

Leaning over the edge, Mavigan placed the basket on one of the half shelves amid several other wrapped parcels. Curious, she peeled back a corner of an oblong shape and stuck her finger inside. Withdrawing it, she saw she clasped a small bit of meat between her fingers. Surprised, she sniffed it. It smelled OK. Shrugging, she popped it into her mouth and chewed. It proved to be roasted lamb, and it certainly tasted alright.

Mavigan straightened and looked hard into the depths of the cold box. No one had lived here for many months, so how was food still fresh? She knew that the first Mavigan had left standing orders that the manor house always be prepared for Ariana Trueblood’s return. A host of servants spent their days cleaning and cooking and ensuring the pantry was freshly stocked just in case the missing Saint returned. Each day, the unconsumed leftovers were distributed to the poor, and the process began again.

But with the barrier, no one had been in here for months, and yet there was no dust, things still smelled fresh, the larder was still stocked with fresh food, and the cold box was stocked with freshly cooked meat. Was it possible that the barrier stopped time for the manor house as well as protected it?

The question made her fuggy mind hurt. She closed the lid of the cold box and walked out of the kitchen towards the stairs that led to the second floor and the bed chambers. She would sort things out later. While Etewen had inherited all the spiritual gifts of the family, Mavigan was skilled at numbers. It made her good at organizing and running households, though she hated every minute of it. But as she trooped up the stairs, she decided that she would do her best to take care of as much as she could so her Nana didn’t have to. Maybe if Ariana didn’t have to work so hard, she would be less inclined to leave.

Her boots echoed on the hard floor as she walked down the hallway to her Nana’s room. The door was cracked open, and Mavigan pushed her way in. Someone had lighted candles throughout the chamber, and they filled the room with a soft light.

The light revealed a small figure curled up on the bed, sleeping deeply with her Nana. “Hmpf,” muttered Mavigan. She strode to the bed and then shoved Elerus over making room for herself. After all, it was wholly unfair that he should get to sleep here and she didn’t.

After ensuring there was a space large enough for her own body, she lay down on the soft mattress and quickly fell into the deep sleep of the intoxicated – mouth open and snoring loudly.

Written by - Ariana

As Ariana slowly began to surface from sleep, she became aware of two annoyances. First, a sound resembling that of a bear was rumbling quite loudly near her ear. Second, something was tickling her nose. An empty hand rose to rub her nose, and one eye popped open to be greeted by a field of white.

Slowly disentangling herself, she sat up, yawned widely and stretched, both arms extended over her head. After a satisfying pop, she looked to her side to see Elerus and Mavigan stretched out on her bed. She couldn’t fault their intrusion. Ariana had been alone for countless years, and could understand the very human need for closeness. Still, they would each need their own bedroom, as would…

Her gaze swept the room, but there was no brooding dark elf to greet her, a fact that disappointed, but did not surprise her. She suspected he was very angry, but Ariana had never shied from anyone’s displeasure before, and she didn’t intend to start now.

Instead of a tall elf in her chambers, she noted several guttered candles strategically placed around the room. She did not know who her mysterious benefactor was, but she was grateful. As her mind began to catch up to her body, she realized there was no note clutched in her hand. Frantic hands began patting the covers near her, checking beneath her own body and those of her bedmates.

Nearly panicked, a glimpse of something white caught her eye from her bedside table. There, neatly folded, sat the note from her daughter. Someone had moved it, and she eyed her two companions in the early morning light. She could detect no guilt in their guileless, sleep washed faces that were starting to show signs of wakefulness.

Sighing, she picked the letter up and placed it in the drawer in her nightstand, there to remain until she decided on a permanent home for the precious document. Swinging her feet off the bed, she stood, and gazed out the window at the morning light. It was a new day in more ways than one. Smiling, she stood next to the bed and said in a very loud voice designed to wake a deaf person, “Good morning!”

Written by - Ardwen

Elerus was dimly aware of something shoving him. The little elf gave a soft, protesting groan at the treatment before it stopped, his eyes never opened. In the dim, sleep-fogged corridors of his mind he still felt Ariana nearby, comforted, he promptly fell back into dreamless slumber. The next time the winged child returned to consciousness, it was again movement that stirred his mind. However, this time the movement was slow and deliberate; he felt hands move him softly to the side and then he heard a deep yawn. A sigh, and then the sensation of the mattress shifting as someone removed their weight from it were the next things Elerus were aware of. There was a brief pause and then a loud, “Good morning!” echoed in the semiconscious chambers of his mind.

Elerus looked over his left shoulder, a single eye opened to a narrow slit, a pool of blue rimmed by thick eyelashes. “Cuiv ilmern.” Elerus said, his speech slurred with sleep and his barely awake mind rendering his words in elven by instinct. Without another word the little boy curled up further so that his eyes were covered by the sheets of the bed, blocking out the offending morning sun.

“Whereupon the Abbeff of the Hands adopted one gerle who took the regnal name of Mavigan Ancora, in deference to her modor, Ariana Trueblood. To wit all the citizens of Weftgale cried out in one voice glorifying god, ‘All hail the Trueblood, modor of the kingdom.’” Ardwen read aloud as he scanned the book in front of him. He was nearly finished with the document, finding interestingly enough that the book that supposedly detailed the history of Westgale did just that, going back to the times before the founding of the kingdom into the uncertain mists of legend and myth. Ardwen lowered the book away from his face and used his free hand to pinch the bridge of his nose. He had a splitting headache.

The ancient elf was not certain if his aching temples derived from the fact that he had been reading all night, and now the wane light of a new day shone through the curtains at the end of the room, or if his mind was protesting the historiography of the book in his hand. In any case, the author had relied on secondary sources and hearsay in many instances, and in others he had skated over the surface of events in an unflinchingly unacademic manner. Ardwen tossed the book on a nearby table, where it landed next to an open copy of the Book of Staves that he had perused at various points during the night. The Book of Staves was the holy text for the Church of the All-Father, and Ardwen swallowed bitterly at the thought that just leafing through it showed how desperate he was for answers. It had, despite his almost mocking approach to it, given him several things to think about.

The elven bladeweaver clasped his hands behind his back and plodded over to the portrait of Ariana and the young Mavigan the First. His eyes locked on Ariana’s smile, and the elf sighed at the thought that he had seen more of her happy face in this painting than he had in the entire time since their reunion. “Ariana,” Ardwen said to himself, “what dream were you chasing? What infinite mystery can you not share with your servant?” With a “hmph” of self-derision Ardwen spun around and returned to the Book of Staves. The twilight elf rolled his eyes and unfurled his newly healed wing, the black feathers catching the morning light and returning highlights of blue to his eyes. “What the hell.” Ardwen said with a shrug as he slammed the holy book shut and placed his fingers at a random point in the text.

While it was a practice officially frowned upon by the church, many of the faithful held an obstinate belief that one could answer questions by praying and opening the good book at random. The first passage that the seeker’s eyes alighted upon would, having been guided by divine providence, be the answer that heaven had sent. With a final sigh Ardwen closed his eyes and sent his prayer winging to whatever god cared to listen, he opened the book and dutifully scanned the first section he saw.

“Talk to her, ask her, she is not made of heartless lead. You are her 'good servant' not her 'good slave'. Good luck, Ardwen.”

Ardwen nearly dropped the book. The elf blinked his eyes furiously and raised one hand to rub the sleep from them. When he next looked at the book he saw a passage that ran on about how the Father’s love and mercy were infinite and that those who held faith in Him would not perish from the earth—Ardwen stopped reading. The elf closed the book, this time with a bit more reverence and caution. The warrior scrunched his face up and brought one hand up to his forehead, gloved fingers resting against his skin. He heard Ariana shout good morning, his keen elven hearing picking out the sound as if she stood next to him. Ardwen made a decision.

The warrior walked out into the hallway and tossed a nervous glance in the direction of Ariana’s room. She might be awake, but that was no reason to barge in and begin asking difficult questions. Recalling her thin frame in comparison to the paintings of her in health and comfort in the library, Ardwen concluded there was one thing he could do for her before she threw him out. Picking his way carefully through the house so as to avoid making noise, Ardwen eventually found the kitchen – a relatively easy task given its size and the placement of a formal dining room nearby. The ancient warrior frowned, he had not expected such an elaborate enclosure, in fact he was more hoping toward a fire pit with a kettle on top of it. Still, after a brief look around, Ardwen found an ingenious ice box that Elerus would most likely love to study (along with all the paintings that, so far as Ardwen’s critical eyes could tell, had been done by those with far less skill than his friend) and parcels of fresh food inside.

Pausing briefly to consider, Ardwen decided that what Ariana needed most was red meat. The blood and strength of raw and honest victuals were, in Ardwen’s experience, always enough to revive a warrior during a hard campaign. If Ariana were to be without his services, she would at least need her strength. Pulling out the packages of meat indiscriminately, Ardwen stopped just long enough to trace several sharp knives. Another ting of light replicated a dagger that Ardwen thrust into a pile of wood in the hearth that had it roaring with flames in seconds.

In short order Ardwen had speared slices of meat on the other daggers and had roasted them, only pulling them out when he smelled a wisp of charcoal. Trying to keep several things going at once, Ardwen sliced open a couple of cheese biscuits and placed the crisped meat in them. With a final flourish the elf cracked an egg onto each cheese biscuit and fried the entire concoction wholesale. Looking at his culinary creation critically, Ardwen grimaced as he noted the burnt edges of the cheese biscuits and the still runny egg. Pulling out a few plates from the cabinet, Ardwen set the meat, egg, and cheese biscuit blend on the plates and sat down on a nearby chair, one leg’s ankle crossed over the knee of the other. As Ardwen waited for Ariana and the others to arrive, the warrior absent mindedly nibbled at the edge of one of his biscuits. The bladeweaver clasped a hand over his mouth as it worked into an expression of distaste; he placed the biscuit onto his plate and decided that he would be content to skip breakfast for now.

Written by - Ariana

The loud sound of an overly cheery ‘Good morning’ shot through Mavigan’s skull like an arrow. She gave a grunt of pain and brought both hands up to clasp her throbbing head. She felt positively awful; her eyes felt dry as sand, her mouth felt full of bitter tasting cotton, and judging from the unhappy lurch from her stomach, it wouldn’t take much for all the beer she had chugged last night to make a return appearance.

A distinctly amused voice said, “I believe that divine healing helps with hangovers, dear.”

“Shit,” was the reply. However, Mavigan wasted little time in working through the prayer Ariana had taught her the night previous. She was getting better at it; Ariana only had to correct her twice. It was with a gasp of relief that she greeted the icy sensation of healing, and when it was over, the headache was gone, though it still tasted as if something had crawled into her mouth and died.

Mavigan sat up on the bed and opened her still bleary eyes, noting the lump at her hip. Well, damn. If she had to be up, so did Elerus. “Oi, runt!” she said, reaching over and shaking the little elf, “get your ass out of bed.”

There was much grumbling and shoving from both parties, but eventually, Elerus, too, was sitting up on the bed, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. Mavigan, not content with her victory, said, “Runt, you are filthy!”

“Yes, well,” started Ariana, “I hardly think any of us could be considered clean.” She gestured towards the pants she wore, still caked with a reddish-brown stain. “I’m still covered in Ardwen’s blood, Elerus looks as if he rolled around in the dirt and you Mavigan dear, well, you smell like a distillery.”

Mavigan let loose with a huge, foul-smelling yawn and smacked her lips. “We’ve got two baths here, so…”

“Two?” Ariana interrupted.

“Well, yeah. When Gramps got older, he liked soaking in warm water. Said it helped his rheumatism. Everyone else got tired of waiting, so they added on another bathroom.” Mavigan snickered. “Once Gramps started holding state meetings with other dignitaries in the baths, Etewen and I declared that one of those baths was for girls only.”

“State meetings?” echoed a disbelieving Ariana, “in the baths?!”

“Oh yeah,” added Mavigan with a chuckle. “Gramps went a little odd towards the end.”

Mavigan pushed herself to her feet and stretched. “Come on, Runt,” she said, “let’s go scrounge you and Ardwen some clothes.”

“Ardwen?” Ariana said sharply.

Surprised, Mavigan looked at Ariana. “Well, yeah. He came in with the rest of us. I’m sure he’s downstairs playing with the weapons collection or murdering someone or something.”

“I see,” Ariana replied, in a tone that clearly stated she didn’t see at all.

Mavigan ignored her Nana’s strange reaction, instead herding Elerus out of the room. “We will stop by Great Grandma’s room and grab some clothes for me, and then I’ll take you to my Dad’s old room. I’m sure you can find something to wear in there. I’ll run to Gramps’s room and grab something for Ardwen.” A wicked gleam entered her eye. “You know, Gramps really liked bright colors as he got older.”

****

Ariana listened to Mavigan’s banter as the two left the room, shutting the door behind them. Her mind raced with speculation. Ardwen was here, but why had he returned? Was she in for a tongue lashing over breakfast? Was this just a pit stop before he ran off again?

She heaved a sigh and strode over to the wardrobe, pulling open the doors and peering inside. True to Mavigan’s word, the closet was filled with new outfits, and every last piece of her old clothing was gone.

Curious, Ariana reached in and pulled out one of the tops of her new attire. It was white, with a Mandarin collar. On one side of the collar was stitched the triskellion in golden thread. On the opposite side was stitched the symbol of the Hands. Ariana held the garment up to her body and noted that it extended to just below her knees. There were two tapered side slits that extended to above the hip.

Further examination of the contents of the wardrobe revealed that all the tops were white; in fact, they were only distinguished by the colored edging along the seams of the side slits and across the bottom. The colors were designed to coordinate with the pants, which had ties at the waist and at each ankle. There was a wide assortment of colors to choose from ranging from the traditional blue to a yellowish green that was so bright Ariana felt her eyes water.

The shoes were stacked at the bottom of the wardrobe. As Ariana examined them, she noted that they, too, were color coordinated to match each outfit, but she wasn’t sure they were very sturdy. They appeared to be little more than slippers.

Shrugging, she automatically reached for the blue, but then paused. After a slight hesitation, she reached for the crimson instead. Gathering her clothes together, she exited her room and made her way to the bath.

She knew she had reached the right place by the crude sign on the door. A piece of paper had been tacked onto it and written in a child’s script was the word, “GIRLZ”. Ariana idly hoped that Mavigan’s spelling had improved through the years.

Pushing her way into the bath, she was greeted by a wisp of warm steam. Ariana did not know how the large tub was already filled and the water warm without the aid of fire, but her lack of understanding did not preclude her enjoyment. She stripped quickly behind the privacy screen, tossing the soiled clothes into the corner. They were unsalvageable and would have to be burned later.

Once in the water, she set herself to scrubbing. The warm water felt good, but Ariana had other concerns and took as little time at her ablutions as possible. She was again behind the screen getting dressed in her new clothes, when she heard the door open.

“Hey,” said Mavigan, her arms full of clothing Ariana recognized as once belonging to her daughter. “I got Elerus situated. He said he would take his bath and then take clothes to Ardwen.” Ariana came out from behind the screen just as Mavigan stepped behind it. “I also told him you would check him over and if he didn’t do a good job scrubbing, you’d take him back to the tub and wash him down yourself.” Mavigan laughed. “His eyes got all big and round. I’m sure he will be squeaky when you see him next.”

“Mavigan,” Ariana scolded, “you shouldn’t tease him like that.”

“Oh, gimme a break,” Mavigan replied. “I was the butt of my elder sister’s humor when I was young. Now,” she popped out from behind the screen and flashed Ariana a smile, “I get to dish it out!”

Ariana moved to the door as Mavigan eased herself into the tub. The sound of Mavigan’s voice brought her up short. “Do you think,” Mavigan said in an uncertain tone, “they will stay?”

Ariana heaved a sigh. “I don’t know. Would it be alright with you if they decided to stay?”

Mavigan squatted down in the water until it reached her nose, her brow furrowed. When she popped back up she responded with a soft, “Yeah.” There was an awkward pause before Mavigan adopted the forced lightness of before. “You better go check on Ardwen,” she said. “I thought I smelled something burning. He’s probably trying to burn the place down around us or something.”

Ariana gave a mirthless chuckle. “Yeah. Or something.”

She exited the baths and sniffed the air. Mavigan had not lied. There was the acrid smell of something burning in the air. Ariana followed the smell to the kitchen, where she found Ardwen seated expectantly in a chair.

Unsure of the reception she would receive, she fell easily into formality. She gave a bow and then said, “Good morning Ardwen. I am pleased to see you hale and healthy.”

Written by - Ardwen

There were hands shaking him again. Elerus groaned softly and crawled slowly to his knees; his eyes opened briefly as he saw Mavigan sitting next to him in the bed. Apparently not content for him to be sitting up, Mavigan gave him another jostle and called him a “runt”. Elerus’s faced formed into a decided pout, and the little elf shoved back with determined effort. Mavigan did not even shift. With an almost dismissive gesture, she took one hand and pushed against his chest. Elerus fell backwards onto his back with an “umph”; the young boy sat up again and budged away from the girl. The little boy heard her comment about his appearance, but Elerus decidedly ignored it. He tucked his knees under his chin and wrapped his arms around his legs, the same position he had adopted while resting in his search for Ardwen.

The silver-haired youth allowed Mavigan to lead him from the room to her father’s childhood chambers. As they walked, Elerus kept his head down, his face fixed decidedly on the floor. He tried to ignore Mavigan, reasoning that the comments of some mortal girl shouldn’t matter to him, but intended or not the young lady had struck a nerve. The winged child found himself wondering of what use he would be in the coming fights. The earlier conflict above the rooftop had been a wakeup call for him, he had been beaten by a mere human that he should have dispatched with all the ease and grace that Ardwen had exhibited. Instead, Elerus had fallen with a single slash, left moaning and bleeding. Were it not for Ariana, his grave would have been an unnamed, insignificant rooftop in the middle of nowhere. Elerus shuddered at the thought, shuddered at the implications of not only what it meant for him, but Ardwen as well.

The little elf realized that he was probably the only person alive that had seen Ardwen fall into his blackest of rages. He did not doubt that, had he died there, Ardwen would have fulfilled his earlier promise and started to kill indiscriminately – in his old friend’s mind if fate and reality were cruel enough to slay what he loved, then fate and reality had to suffer. Indeed, Ardwen would strike the sun if it offended him. So, what could he do? What good was he to Ariana and his old battle brother if he could not fight? Had the All-Father brought him here solely for the purpose of reigning in Ardwen, of reconciling him to Ariana, and now that his task was done he was to be cast aside like a used tissue? The little boy barely heeded Mavigan as she pushed him forward to pick out some clothes, without really looking Elerus gestured at a white garment that at least caught his eye during his brief glance. As Mavigan pulled it forward from the rack of clothes though, his heart sank.

The piece of clothing was a simple white tunic that opened at the front along the top. The front of the garment was pulled together at various points by cords of cloth, which gave the whole ensemble a light and airy feel. Embarrassingly, as Mavigan held it against him Elerus noted two things: the first was that the clothing was undoubtedly for a child, the panolpy meant to accentuate a young boy’s light and small frame and thus sown without sleeves, the second was Mavigan’s comment of, “Oi, you’re small, runt. This is a little large for you, but it’ll work.” Elerus fidgeted uncomfortably until she took the clothing away from him – he didn’t consider himself small for his age. Except, of course, that as he thought about Mavigan’s remark further he realized it was true, even if he took the meaning differently.

Mavigan laid the tunic on top of a large chest located at the foot of one of the three small beds in the room. Without a word she left the room, Elerus presumed to go and select some suitable clothing for Ardwen. Alone, Elerus sighed and absently fingered the material of the outfit, at least it felt soft. Curious, Elerus pushed up on the lip of the trunk, he hopped back as it slid open as smoothly as if it had just been oiled. Standing up on his tiptoes, Elerus looked down into the chest to see an ocean of toys, from fake soldiers to carved wooden horses. The little boy knucked his upper lip and reached out a tentative hand before he heard Mavigan shout, “No toys yet, runt, you’ve got to take a bath. Come on, and make sure you wash up, or I’ll send in Ariana to check behind your ears!” Shutting the chest, Mavigan lead Elerus by the hand to a bathing room with a sign that proclaimed in faded blue lettering, “Boiz, gros!” Elerus titled his head at the sign, writing it off as some ancient alternative spelling that had fallen out of vogue as the fashions changed around Westgale – either that or a young kid who had not paid attention in writing class had scribed it.

The last thing Mavigan did before leaving the room was instruct Elerus to get behind the changing screen and toss his dirty clothes to the side. That they were filthy was an understatement, the garments that the Citadel had sown for their small guest had held up well under abuse, but they were none the cleaner for their superior workmanship. Elerus’s own blood adorned a spot in the right where he had been cut in the earlier fight, and dirt, dust, and other less identifiable stains and smudges coated it from a day or flying, fighting, and running around in a dungeon tending to the ill and wounded. The white-haired boy heard Mavigan give a “tsk” of disgust as she picked up the clothing; she saw her drape Ardwen and his garments on the arm of a chair next to the door before she herself exited, closing the door with a slam that seemed to echo in the room.

Elerus spent several minutes behind the screen before he peeked around the edges; there was not another soul in the room. Sighing, he walked over to the tub that, unlike the beds in the previous room, had not been designed with convenience for a child in mind. Pulling himself up to the lip, Elerus balanced on the edge before he slipped into the water, sending small waves splashing over the edge and onto the tile flooring below. A mop of dripping white broke the surface of the water and Elerus sucked in a breath of air. His long hair hung down into his face and eyes, and the rest clung to his back and shoulders like grasping arms. Elerus slinked over to the side of the tub, placing one hand on the rim. He quickly found that the old bathtub was deeper than the one at the priestess’s house they had visited in the woods, if he sat down the water came up to the bottom of his nose and made breathing difficult. Parting his drenched hair as best he could, Elerus looked around the room. There were all the usual accruements of a bathing chamber, another full length mirror on the far wall, several chairs spaced around the room, a high stone sink that hand a waist-length mirror ringed by drawers and with two wooden cabinets cunningly worked into the base.

The winged elf let out a small, sad, sigh. He didn’t want to admit it, but he was lonely already. Even Mavigan’s earlier ribbing seemed preferable to the silence that gnawed at him now, that turned his mind’s eye inward. Elerus tried to fight it, but the more he thought about how useless he felt the more he spiraled into a chain of self-doubt. Even Ariana would have no need of him now, he had done his part and returned her valiant warrior. Mavigan would soon be pulled into the politics of the realm, which meant the politics of war at current, what good was a child there? Even if he were allowed to provide military advice, the young child could already hear the laughing of proud, tall, generals as the “runt” tried to help their campaign strategies.

Elerus looked up, his gaze falling on the mirror on the opposite wall. The little kid that looked back at him seemed on the verge of tears. Elerus shook his head, and with a slight sob sucked in his runny nose. He tried to wipe his eyes, but seeing as how he was drenched from head to foot it was a useless gesture. Elerus climbed to the edge of the tub and this time managed to get out without falling. Setting one tentative foot down on the floor he paced over to his clothing. The little elf wrung his long hair out like a towel, and tossed his head and shoulders to at least keep it from sticking to him as badly. Elerus reached for the towel, but then paused, his heart sank from his chest to his stomach at the tunic again and he muttered, “Oh no.” With haste born of fear he grabbed the tunic and turned it around, his eyes bore a hole into the back of it, or at least he wished they could have.

Elerus let out such a long sigh that anyone listening might have thought he would pass out from all the air leaving his body. There was no hole in the back, nothing too accommodate the wing that sprouted from his right shoulder. Elerus searched the room carefully, but there was no knife or sword he could use to slice open the fabric, and Mavigan had not thought to leave one behind – why would she give a sharp object to a young boy, after all? In desperation, Elerus tried to rip the cloth with his bare hands, but the material was as sturdy as the work the Citadel has produced. A whimper escaped Elerus’s lips as he threw the tunic on the floor with such force that it sent a crisp slap bouncing off the walls of the room. Sinking to a sitting position, Elerus adopted the earlier pose he had assumed when Mavigan was picking on him. This time though, he placed his forehead on his knees and sobbed. The worst part was he could picture Ariana now, a hand on her hips and the other pointed accusingly at him, she would be upset. Elerus could not blame her, the belittling scowl said all that it needed to in his mind – he was too helpless to even dress him. He was useless.

Ardwen stood up with such force that the seat screeched against the floor. “Don’t ever bow before a monster, take your eyes off a beast for a second and they know you’re afraid.” He said. His voice was low and heated, but not angry. There was an air of resigned acceptance about it, like he had foreseen what was about to happen, and while he did not want it, he had nonetheless come to terms with it. Ardwen turned to face the window, the sunlight casting sharp highlights on his hair and feathers. The elven warrior flexed his wing behind him and gestured to it with his hand, “I suppose Elerus has told you everything by now.” Ardwen said in a tone that made it obvious he was not asking a question. “I don’t know why you’re bothering with formalities – you must think I’m a monster, a freak – you’re right.”

Ardwen spun around, placing his hands on the table he leaned forward, “Elerus and I should have never been born, we are mistakes, aberrations whose fates have played out long ago. I thought I could find refuge with you, and I did for a time, but the gods abhor their aborted sons – they will never let us rest for long. If you want me to go, I understand, there’s a war to the south and the commander of the Elven Citadel is probably wondering where I’m at right now.” Ardwen could see Ariana’s eyes widen, and he mistook the expression for surprise, “Don’t bother asking about what he told you, I killed him for a reason, a good one.” Ardwen caught Ariana’s expression shift to one of mild confusion, as if the words which should be perfectly clear somehow seemed disjointed and unrelated to his Abbess. With a grunt Ardwen fell to one knee, he spread his arms our to the side and extended his single sable wing. Whereas Elerus’s wing seemed angelic, white and trimmed with down and soft, yielding feathers, Ardwen’s wing was the opposite. The angles of the bones were sharper, giving it a swift and predatory look, like the pinion of some vast raven. The most startling difference was the color, the feathers on Ardwen’s flight appendage were so dark as to look blue. Ardwen bowed his head and muttered, “We’ll do this formally then, if it pleases my lady. Turn me aside for being a liar and a monster. I would make any promise to stay at your call, but this one would not stain your honor with his bleating.”


Written by - Ariana Page 27 Book 4

Mavigan completed her ablutions and hurriedly dried off and dressed in her Great Grandma’s clothing. She was pleased to note that it was similar to garments she would have chosen to wear herself.

Exiting the bath, she strode down the hallway and knocked gently on the door to the boys bath.

“Elerus?” she called. Receiving no answer, she put her ear to the door. Inside, she thought she could hear the soft sound of sobbing. “Elerus?” she repeated, “I’m coming in.”

She found him huddled against the wall, crying, looking for all the world as if he had just lost his best friend. “Oi, Runt,” she called softly, “what’s the matter?”

Keen eyes scanned the bathroom, searching for anything that could have caused his distress. Her gaze alighted on the tunic which lay wadded up on the floor near him. “What-?” she started confusedly, but then the pieces clicked and she sighed. Her booted feet echoed on the tiles as she walked over and picked up the tunic. One quick motion of her hand and she suddenly wielded a dagger. She cast him a wink and added, “I never go anywhere without my blades.” Creating a hole in the back for his wing was the work of a less than a minute.

She held the garment out to him with a sheepish smile. “Sorry ‘bout that, Runt. Totally my fault. We will get a tailor in here today to make you whatever clothes you want.”

When Elerus reached out to take the garment, she turned her back on him to give him some privacy as he got dressed.

“Look Runt,” she said as she heard the faint rustlings of cloth, “I know you don’t know me from Adam, but it seems to me I ought to set some things straight from the get go.” Mavigan heaved a deep sigh. “The way I see it, if my Nana is taking care of you that makes me the big sister.”

She shifted uncomfortably, her boots scraping against the tile. “It is only fair that you know that I am a complete screw-up unfit to wear the crown. I was a crappy little sister, and I suspect I will be a crappy big sister, too. I don’t know how to do much of anything but swear and fight, but I do have contacts, so if you need anything, you only have to ask. If I can’t get it, we will see if Wilhelm can help. And if he can’t get it, then I have a friend who has a friend who has a cousin who can lift it for us for a price.”

Mavigan paused again, her hands clenching uselessly at her side. “So, if you need something, just ask.”

The sound of rustling cloth and sobs ceased before she continued. “Nana said we each had to have our own bedroom. If you liked the room with the toys, which is probably the coolest room in the house, then I suggest we take a piece of paper and tack your name to the door.” She twisted round and looked at Elerus with a mischievous smirk. “We both know Ardwen has the maturity of a five year old, and if you don’t claim the cool room first, he might try and fight you for it.”

Written by - Ariana

Ariana felt like banging her head against the wall. Really, sometimes talking to Ardwen was like talking to a post – he was so rigid in his own convictions that he never heard anything she said. She had been trying since she first met him to build a bridge over the yawning chasm between them – in age, in culture, in experience, in belief – but it was becoming clear that whatever progress she had made before the fall of Ancora had been completely undone.

He spoke as if she knew the ending of a story she had only recently discovered had a beginning. And as he continued to speak, it became clear to her that there were still tales untold between them – his and hers. But for now something else was needed.

Settling for a deep sigh instead of physical violence, she said softly, “Oh Ardwen, sometimes I wonder if you know me at all.” She crossed the space between them to stand close to his kneeling form. Reaching forward, she drew her hand along the edge of his wing, feeling the softness of feathers beneath her palm. “I’ve never thought of you as a monster. The idea that I would is patently ridiculous.”

Removing her hand, she knelt down in front of him and put both arms around him. “You and Elerus can both stay,” she said gently, rubbing her hands up and down his back as if trying to calm a distressed child. “Though I would be grateful if you would stop running off whenever you get uncomfortable. I’m always happy to listen to what troubles you.”

She patted him on the back and then planted a kiss on his cheek before releasing him and rising to her feet, thinking the issue closed. A glance at the table showed her Ardwen’s attempt at making breakfast. While the gesture was appreciated, she couldn’t help but see the results and crinkle her nose. “Of course, since you are staying, it might be nice if you learned to cook.”

Written by - Ardwen

Elerus cringed as the door opened, but he could not still his sobs or dry his tears. He was utterly embarrassed that Mavigan saw him like this, but once again there was nothing he could do about it – she was already in the room, and hiding would not have accomplished much good anyhow. As Mavigan asked him what was bothering him, Elerus did nothing but keep his head bowed and shake his head side to side slightly, as if he was unable to answer with words. He heard Mavigan’s footfalls as she moved a little ways from him, but once again Elerus did not say anything or look up. It wasn’t until the young queen produced a dagger in her hands and sliced a hole in the back of the tunic he had tossed on the floor that Elerus raised his head at the sound of tearing fabric.

As Mavigan lowered the tunic to him and Elerus reached out to take it, he watched as the young lady spun around to give him some privacy, an act which Elerus was grateful enough for – his self image had already dropped pretty low. As the little elf struggled to find which hole in the tunic went where, he had to take the entire thing off at least once as he managed to put his left arm through the hole Mavigan had slashed, he split his attention between getting dressed and listening to the woman’s words. The winged boy was glad Mavigan had her back turned, as he could feel his face flush hot as she mentioned that she reckoned herself his older sister. Elerus felt like letting out a bitter, small, laugh. He was a fake. But then, Elerus thought, did that matter?

There were many in life that got by on lying to themselves, most without even realizing it. Elerus recalled a treatise he had read long ago in the fabled Library of Aerynth – before it had been burned to the ground – that stated that all sentient beings in the face of a universe devoid of meaning had to fool themselves and construct their own meaning. Elerus had scoffed at the time and personally spoke with the scholar and said his theory smacked of solipsism. Now, looking up at Mavigan’s face as she spoke of her lack of merits but her willingness to provide what help she could, Elerus didn’t think the concept so ridiculous. The white haired child didn’t answer at first once Mavigan had finished outlining her plan to grant him a room, instead Elerus answered without words. A thin smile crossed his face and the little elf nodded so vigorously that it sent his long hair whipping around his head. Without thinking about it he slipped his hand inside Mavigan’s and followed a few paces behind as she lead him to the room she had selected for him.

As soon as the two reached the room Elerus had to suppress the urge to laugh. Perhaps Mavigan thought her comment on Ardwen’s behavior perceptive, but Elerus knew better. The white-feathered child knew that even if Ardwen were five, he would have never accepted such quarters. No, Elerus’s earliest memory of Ardwen was of meeting him at the academy for the young children of the nobility – where he had been picked on and ridiculed for his lack of natural talent in just about everything except mundane swordplay. So Ardwen had done what he did best, leapt to an extreme and trained with a blade till his hands were an angry raw red and wept crimson from the grip rubbing against them. Elerus pressed a finger to his lips as he tried to recall how many times he had seen Ardwen with a toy instead of a sword. He decided he could count the number on a single hand missing most of its fingers.

No, this was not a room for Ardwen, whatever Mavigan thought he acted like. It was a room for a child, something he and Ardwen both had never really gotten to be. Elerus looked at the three beds and cocked his head to the side, he briefly wondered why there were three in the room, but he pushed it aside as the thought caused a painful memory to surface. At one time, long ago, there might have been a use for three, but not now. The little elf wondered if he would miss Ariana’s embrace if he slept in here, the thought caused him to blush deeply and fidget at the floor with his toes, his boots were with the rest of his former outfit. While Elerus realized he had slept the best he ever had since his change next to the kind Abbess, he felt awkward as if he would be abusing that kindness. Elerus nodded his head and trundled next to Mavigan. He looked up at the ruler of this realm and said with heart, “I love it!” That, at least, was no lie or deception. Regardless of everything else, it was a roof over his head, and by the standards of a wizard’s cage it was a veritable palace.

Mavigan grinned as she told him to wait and dashed out of the room. She didn’t go far, Elerus could hear her footsteps the entire time, and she returned in short order with a piece of parchment, a brush, and a palette with several daubs of color on it. “Knock yourself out, runt.” She said with a flourish as she set the painting utensils on the floor next to the kid. Elerus fell to the project of writing his own name with more relish than he had any right to. It wasn’t the fact that scribing his own name to claim his own little place thrilled him, which it did on some level, it was the feel of a brush in his hands again. It all seemed so familiar, so relaxing, the smell of the paints, the feel of the bristles as they eased across the makeshift easel. It was something solid and real and unchanging that he could grasp on to.

However, as Elerus painstakingly rendered the letters of his name across the sheet, he became aware that it just wasn’t matching up to the image in his mind. Cognizant of the fact that Mavigan hardly wanted to stand there all day, he had decided to do a simple outline of his name using opposites on the color wheel – in this case purple with a yellow border, which would saturate to an orange with some blue hatching as he could manage it to give the blank sheet some balance and texture. The end result, however, was a terracotta border as the pigments ran together and shaky, slightly slanted letters as Elerus found he was unable to keep his writing straight in any meaningful sense of the word. The little boy looked at it and frowned, it had some vibrancy and energy to it,that was true. Artistically he would deem the work passable if it came from the hands of a young child. Technically it was shit. Elerus sighed and passed a hand along the bottom of his chin, smearing some blue he had gotten on his fingertips there.

He heard Mavigan make a clicking noise with her tongue, and before he could say anything she had picked up the piece and tacked it to the door with pride. Elerus sat the brush down on the palette and stood beside his big sister, eyeing his work with much more disapproval.

Written by - Ardwen

Ardwen remained on the floor, kneeling. He was so still that a passerby might have thought that Ariana had been working on an incredibly lifelike statue of a kneeling elf with a single wing, and was just now standing up from the final finishing details. Ardwen what seemed like hours Ardwen finally stood on his feet, the ancient elf swallowed hard. His face felt so heated and flushed with blood he was certain that at any minute the sanguine fluid would start pouring out of his ears. His mind ran by almost as fast as he could swing a sword, and in the confusing hurricane of thoughts a few thoughts kept swooping by again and again, like debris twirled around in the eye of the storm.

Ariana was going to let him stay, she wanted him to stay! Ardwen felt like falling to his knees and clasping Ariana’s hand, placing his lips to it and bubbling his thanks. He felt certain though, that if he did something like that he would simply receive an eye roll, and he was not certain he could keep himself from crying. Tears of joy and relief, perhaps, but it would be crying nonetheless. No, he had to steel his emotions and thoughts, not appear the fool before the lady who had once again proved why she had been sainted even as she still breathed. He was, no, he still is, her warrior – and that demanded he act like it and not some child Elerus’s age that had expected a scolding and instead received a hug.

“Ardwen?” The ancient elf heard Ariana say with a touch of amusement.

The twilight elf wondered what had caused her a touch of mirth before he realized it. Unwittingly, he had clasped his hands in front of him, his face had colored red, and he was working at the corner of a tile furiously with the toe of one of his boots. “Ahem!” Ardwen said half as a distraction and half as a cough that gave him the excuse and second he needed to compose himself. “Yes,” He said, his words flowing out in a jumble, “the repast is rather pedestrian, I’ll admit to that. The prosaic culinary arts were never my strongpoint. None of the arts are, really. Ask long enough in any squad and you might meet a person who admits to know how to whittle, but when was the last time you saw a regiment of interior decorators?”

Ardwen blinked hard as if the light in the kitchen stung his eyes. Without preamble the elven bladeweaver slumped down hard into a nearby seat. “I promise, upon my life, that I will not . . . run off anymore.” Ardwen said the words as if they were coming from another mouth, they seemed hard to form and the vowels foreign, but he said them with sincerity. The warrior brushed a hand along his cheek where Ariana had kissed him. He realized that she had practically treated him like an upset child, but he didn’t care. Ariana did not think he was a monster. What the rest of the world thought didn’t matter, the rest of the world could go and gargle a mouthful of sewage.

“I can also,” Ardwen said after the brief pause, but as he spoke his wing gathered close to him as if he was embarrassed by the saying, “try and learn some recipes. It would be unfair of me to place the burden of keeping this house into order on you. I’m sure in the coming weeks you’ll have important matters of state and religion to attend to, and if Elerus’s tongue is as young as the rest of him, then you may find he can be a picky eater.”

Ardwen felt himself blushing again; he lowered his eyes and starred at the triskellion design on Ariana’s clothing. It may have been slightly rude, but he felt entirely too shy to look at her face right now. “Of course,” he continued, his words now slow and measured again, “I accept and hear your offer. But my burden is light now. You’ve no need to worry about me.” Ardwen regained some of his old gusto as he barreled on, his confidence apparently returning, he even managed to look at Ariana’s face, gazing into her eyes, “You on the other hand, I am worried about. I guess Elerus didn’t tell you everything, but he did tell me something. He told me the story about a girl dedicated to the All-Father from birth. If you want to tell me anything I will do my utmost to help and listen. Remember . . . .”

The swordsman licked his lips to wet them before saying, “Whatever you do, wherever you go, it is your blood that makes our fate. Abbess or Ariana, queen or beggar, saint or sinner – I don’t care. I . . . I will be your angel.” Ardwen’s mouth closed sharply, and he returned to staring at the table. He could have kicked himself, he wanted to. The words that had seemed so brilliant and charismatic in his head had gotten ripped to shreds in the tornado inside his skull, and he had spouted the first bit of poetic drivel that came to mind. Perhaps in between cooking lessons, he tried to console himself, he could brush up on his rhetorical skills.

Written by - Ariana

Mavigan reached over and patted Elerus on the shoulder. “Good job, runt. It is clear you have an eye for art.” She leaned down and gave him a smile. “I might get you to make one for me later.”

She extended a hand to him, and when he took it, began leading him towards the kitchen. “Let’s get something to eat. Don’t know ‘bout you, but I’m starving!” Descending the stairs, Mavigan was brought up short by a knock at the door. Puzzled, she pressed Ardwen’s clothes into Elerus’s hands and shooed him in the direction of the kitchen before striding to the front door and throwing it open.

Wilhelm stood there, arms full, with the man she fuzzily remembered from the night before. She heaved a sigh. “Damn. Nana invited you in, didn’t she?” After a moment of contemplation, she threw the door open all the way and stepped back, allowing the men entrance. “I guess its good you’re here. I’m thinking we’ve got decisions to make.”

****

Ariana looked at Ardwen and gave him a sad smile. As he watched, her eyes faded from vibrant blue to gray. “I have no need of angels,” she said softly. “You do not need to be anything or anyone but Ardwen.”

It appeared she might have said more, but was interrupted by the sound of small feet. The sadness disappeared as if a mask had suddenly appeared on her face, though the color of her eyes remained muted. She turned towards the door and called a greeting, “Morning Elerus.”

Written by - Ardwen

Ardwen shifted uncomfortably in his seat at the slight sadness in Ariana’s eyes. Was it something he had said? “My apologies,” Ardwen muttered, “I did not mean to offend.” Once again, Ardwen wanted to slap himself on the forehead for how stiff and formal he sounded; the warrior swallowed a sigh and tried again. “I have but one desire, and that’s to be at your side and in your service, Ariana.” Ardwen paused again before adding with a slow flap of his wing, “I’ve always admired the angels and archons of the All-Father. I used to see them, long ago when He still walked the world. It’s strange, I know, given how often I’ve felt driven away from Him, but I still enjoyed seeing His messengers.” The venerable swordsman turned his face toward one of the windows in the kitchen and stared outside, though his thoughts remained entirely focused on things inside his Abbess’s domicile.

Elerus squinted as he looked at the sign again, he still found it decidedly lacking, but he felt an odd swell of pride when Mavigan said she liked it. Perhaps all he needed was some more practice? “Sure, I’d like that.” Elerus said in response to her question about making her one – he decided to leave off the bit where he fully intended to have several study sessions beforehand. He took Mavigan’s head again, and only briefly paused in confusion when she stopped at a knock from the front door to the Manor House. In a flash, Elerus found himself with his arms full of Ardwen’s clothing, and he felt Mavigan give him a tiny push toward the kitchen. At first the little elf did not go, but as he remembered the warded property of the estate, he smiled and walked to the kitchen in full confidence. The only way to pass the warding was by personal invite of the royal line, so whoever it was outside was obviously someone Mavigan wanted to see.

Passing into the kitchen, Elerus saw Ardwen and Ariana were already there. Ardwen said nothing, seemingly lost in private thoughts, but Ariana greeted him with a light tone that the winged child responsed to with a smile and bob of his head. Recalling his mission from Mavigan, Elerus handed the clothes Mavigan had selected to Ardwen.

The ancient elf looked first at Elerus, then at the clothes he held up, and then at Ariana. The warrior gave a soft scoff and said, “There’s no reason to coddle him, Ariana, even if he chooses to dress like a child.”

Elerus’s ears and winged dipped, but then a wicked grin came over his face. “Ardwen,” he said with mock hurt, “first you tell me it’s not polite to step into a lady’s room without asking, but now you insult your host by mocking their presents? What a sad age we live in . . . .”

Ardwen’s eyes shot open wide and he hastily yanked the garments from Elerus’s hands, “Of course,” he added with a hiss, “the accommodations are without reproach and we are grateful for what you provide. Forgive my earlier slip, I was . . . surprised.”

Elerus put his hands behind his back and swung back and forth on the soles of his feet, “There’s a bathroom for males, it’ll have a sign on it. I suggest you go and wash, I had trouble telling it was you. At first, I thought barbarians had raided the house.”

The twilight elf visibly blanched at Elerus’s words, but then his eyes narrowed, “Well, be that as it may.” Ardwen said. “But, at least I can recall how to bathe properly. Blue, though?” Ardwen said while running a finger along the bottom of his jaw in mockery of the smudge of paint Elerus had on his face. “Green would have been far more artistic.” Without another word, and with a small bow to Ariana, Ardwen practically flew out of the room in search of the tub.

With another smile, Elerus looked at Ariana and said, “Good morning to you too, Ariana.” Looking up at her, he noticed the slight grey tint to her eyes, like a distant raincloud in an otherwise perfect day. The silver-haired boy studied the tile at Ariana’s feet intensely. Alone, he felt suddenly shy, but he was determined to do what he could to cheer the lady who had helped him so much up. “Um,” Elerus began with a verbal pause, “I like the clothes, they look really pretty.” Elerus swept the top of his left foot along the stone and then spoke again, “And, sorry about last night. I uh . . . I didn’t mean to wake you up or anything. I . . . I was just tired and . . . .”

The fair-feathered boy trailed off and didn’t finish his sentence. He looked up at Ariana again, unsure if he had done any good, but proud that he had at least tried.

Written by - Wilhelm

Wilhelm and Manuel entered, their arms full of packages and containers. Setting them down on a bench, they turned to Mavigan and Wilhelm said,

"Good morning Mavigan. You look well today. I hope you are recovered from the festivities last night.

Manuel and I have been busy putting the city to right. The last of the Ironskane forces, and the mercenaries they hired, have been driven from Port Westgale. The harbor and the city walls are now manned with loyal guards, and work crews are cleaning up the damage caused by the Ironskane occupation.

I commend Manuel here for his skill in motivating and organizing the people. You would do well to consider him for Mayor of the city."

Manuel looked embarrassed and bowed to Mavigan. Wilhelm continued,

"We managed to round up a good number of loyal staff who used to work for the royal family in the palace. You should remember most of them. You will want to meet them outside and invite them in so the Manor House can once again have proper staff. In particular there is your former chambermaid, Sally, and Francis, a cook from the palace kitchen. I believe you were particularly fond of his cinnamon nut rolls.

Manuel and I have brought you folks some breakfast from the Soaring Gull Inn here at the harbor and some clothing and other supplies. There are more supplies outside on carts."

Written by - Ariana

She smiled at Elerus, then grabbed a rag and advanced on him with purpose. “Thank you for complimenting my clothes, dear,” she said kneeling before him and rubbing at the blue smudge. “My daughter had them made for me. They are certainly different from what I’m used to, but I like them.”

Ariana sat back on heels and surveyed her handiwork. “Elerus dear,” she said with a slight reproof, “next time I tell you to take a bath, please remember to use soap.” Standing, she cast the rag onto a nearby counter. “And don’t worry about last night. I don’t mind.”

She paused as if contemplating how much to say. After a moment, she nodded to herself and continued. “I know you are older than you appear, Elerus, but it is still OK. I’ve been alone for a very long time, and it is nice to have someone nearby to help keep the nightmares and the darkness at bay. In fact,” she winked at him, “you might find me sneaking into your room some nights.” She suddenly looked around as if attempting to detect eavesdroppers and then leaned over to whisper in his ear, “It will be our little secret.”

Written by - Ariana

At the mention of her old partners-in-crime, Mavigan hopped from one foot to the other, anxious to go and greet her old friends. “Great! Kitchen is that-a-way,” she said pointing towards the rear of the house. “I hope you also brought a tailor, ‘cause two of our number will likely need alterations.”

Bristling with excited energy, she whipped around the two men and out onto the front stoop. Her arrival was accompanied by a large cheer from the crowd outside; the noise surprised her and made her pause. That was when she recalled the other bit of information Wilhelm had offered. Popping her head back inside, she hollered, “Oh yeah, Manuel. If’n you want the job, it’s yours.”

The royal guard had come to immediate attention as soon as she had arrived at the porch, but seemed to get even more straight and tall once she crossed the demarcation of the barrier. Mavigan went down the line, receiving bows and good wishes, inviting each of the guard and the servants into the house. Sally and Francis, however, each received a hug and promises of long late night gossip sessions.

Mavigan handled the whole thing with surprising good grace, accepting the adoration of the people without one curse word, and she even promised to deliver the message to Elerus that his friends were waiting outside. Soon there was a veritable battalion of people, carrying items off carts and inside the house much like a line of ants. Satisfied that the house would be well kept, Mavigan tossed a wave to the cheering crowd and closed the front door behind her.

Her nose guided her to the kitchen, where breakfast had been laid out and people were happily eating. Mavigan pointedly stared at Ariana and was pleased to see her eating, though she was not eating nearly as much as Elerus. With a chuckle, she grabbed the chair next to Elerus who was shoveling in the food as fast as Francis put it on his plate, and allowed Francis to fill her own plate. “Oi runt, your fan club is waiting for you outside.”

Written by - Ardwen

The winged child returned Ariana’s smile, glad to just see the expression of joy on the Abbess of the Hand’s face. Ariana then grabbed a cloth and took a few steps forward, for a moment Elerus had a flashback of Creda’s house where the overzealous woman had rubbed his face raw with a cloth. The little elf did not back away however; he remembered too that it was Ariana that had saved him from the ministrations of the priestess. Surely enough, the Lady of Ancora’s touch was far gentler, and the only physical reaction Elerus gave was a slight blush that was covered by the rag as Ariana reminded him to use soap next time. The white-haired child thought to mention that he had some problem with the bath due to his clothing, but he opted not to – undoubtedly Ariana had far weightier concerns, and he did not want to make it seem like Mavigan had not taken care of the situation. The young queen had, after all, and she had done so with care and discretion.

Elerus’s thoughts came to an abrupt halt when Ariana told him she knew. The young elf lowered his head as she spoke, his hair brushed forward to cover his face from the side. He felt guilty that Ariana had to find out through her own intuition or knowledge, and that he had not told her directly. What had he been trying to prove? As Ardwen’s Abbess finished speaking, however, and leaned down to whisper it would be something she kept between them, Elerus threw a hug around her neck, which after a softly whispered, “thank you” he released. Still, something did not make sense to the winged boy. If Ariana had known all along that, despite his physical form, he was another twilight elf – then why had she played along? Elerus sighed and passed a hand over his face. Mavigan had granted him a room at the Manor House, he had a place to stay, but what would happen to him once her attention was turned to rebuilding her wounded kingdom? He didn’t want to be separated from Ariana or Mavigan, he had already come to regard them as the closest thing he had to family in nearly five millennia. The thought was a depressing one, the fear of losing what little he had left, but something kept Elerus from despair.

Guests started pouring into the Manor House, and a breakfast actually fit for human consumption was arrayed on the table, Elerus kept casting furtive glances at Ariana. As the little elf climbed onto a seat next to the Abbess, and Mavigan took one next to him, he came to a conclusion. He felt, with all the conviction of a faith he could not prove, that Ariana would not let it come to that. She was something special, and his comment of that very nature to Ardwen had not been an offhanded quip, it had been an exacting moment of insight. Exactly what Ariana would do, Elerus had no idea, but he believed in her, and the little elf decided he could be perfectly content placing his uncertain future in her hands – whatever she decided. Letting a smile cover his face, the young elf did not care that his feet did not touch the floor; he simply let his legs swing back and forth.

As the white-winged elf began to eat breakfast, at a pace that belied his small frame, Mavigan informed him that he had friends waiting for him outside. The boy’s eyes rounded as he opened them wide, he had forgotten about Davin and the others he had played tag with. Had they really been waiting for him all this time? Feeling guilty at his neglect, Elerus swallowed a chunk of biscuit and looked at Ariana, with a grin he asked, “Can I go outside after breakfast? Please?”

****

Ardwen sat in the warm water with his eyes closed. He had already finished scrubbing the filth of combat and the dirt of a hard day’s toil from his skin; he now simply wanted to enjoy the hot water. With a grunt the bladweaver opened a single eye and looked at the clothes Elerus had handed him. He had no doubt that Mavigan, who he secretly blamed for not only his clothing but his friend’s as well, had selected the most flamboyant vestments she could put her hands on. The shirt was a bleached white, yet the sleeves were a deep blue. The pants would have been acceptable, had it not been for the fact that they were flecked with a warm brownish orange color that seemed to be interwoven in the material. Ardwen had no idea what it was supposed to be, but it gave the cloth a bewildering mixed grey and brown town that somehow managed to look like a warm summer garment. In fact, Ardwen had complaints with the whole ensemble except for one piece: the scarf. Perhaps Mavigan had been afraid that, with fall underway and the troop used to the warmer climes near the Citadel, Ardwen would succumb to illness and chill without it.

The ancient elf let out another grunt and rolled his eyes at the thought, it sounded unlikely even to him. With a shake of his head to show his further disapproval, Ardwen opened both of his eyes and looked at the scarf. It was a light pink, almost white, or perhaps with threads of white laced into it, but the fact that remained that it looked pink. Undoubtedly Mavigan thought the whole thing a clever jest, but Ardwen did not care. What the girl did not know was that such a design had, at various points, been popular in the Deathless Empire. Indeed, with the emphasis on rebirth and renewal that the second Ellestor had placed on his reign – signifying that was breathing “new life” into his beleaguered realm – scarves, overcoats, cloaks, anything that could hold the pattern and flow were all the rage. Despite the fact that the empire had been hunting him at the time, Ardwen had admired the coloration. It reminded him of spring and the cherry trees that he and Elerus loved to watch bloom each year, something that he had already come to miss by that point.

With a final resigned shake of his head, Ardwen rose from the bath and dried himself off. He tried to keep his eyes off his body, but he couldn’t help but glance at his chest. The three large scars that should have been there were not. While it was true that scars could be removed, it took such a skilled and powerful healer that only the vainest ever tried to erase all but the most disfiguring of them. The elves had perfected the practice, personal beauty coming at a premium in the courts, but Ardwen had scoffed at the whole concept. He did not wear the wounds like badges of honor, but the three slashes on his chest had served as personal reminder of the time he had slain a griffin and thwarted one of his father’s more twisted schemes to have him killed in a gladiatorial match. It had been a tidy deal, his little adopted mistake eradicated and a handy sum of money from the spectacle to go along with it, Ardwen’s teeth were set on edge by just the memory. Still, despite all the sentiment he had attached to them, the scars were gone like he had never taken a blow to the chest as a child that should have dismembered him.

It had to be Ariana's handiwork. The twilight elf had no clue why she had healed the scars, but she was the only cleric powerful enough to have mended him recently that could have done it. Pushing the thought aside, Ardwen quickly donned the clothes Mavigan had picked out for him – taking the extra time to rip a whole for his wing on the left-hand side of the shirt. With a quick flourish the warrior wrapped the scarf around his neck, let Mavigan have her laugh, he would not give her the satisfaction of thinking she had him cornered. With a final glance in the mirror, and a few passes of a hand through his hair, Ardwen walked to the kitchen and found breakfast waiting for him. Without preamble or invitation, the elven soldier took the seat on Ariana’s right and filled his plate. He noted more of the horrible grits that Creda had seemed so fond of on the table, but Ardwen decidedly ignored them and started with a biscuit he split open and drenched in gravy.

Written by - Wilhelm

Wilhelm and Manuel ate heartily, hungry after their long work the day before, and complimented Francis for the quality of the meal. Wilhelm took a couple of cinnamon buns as dessert and passed the basket to Mavigan. He then filled in everyone on the status of the city, concluding with,

"The last of the Ironskane invaders annd their hired mercenaries have been driven from Port Westgale. The walls and port defenses are now manned by loyal forces. We will still have to liberate the countryside, but the city is free now

.

Those unfairly imprisoned by Beridane have been released and reunited with their families. Work crews are now cleaning up the city and distributing the supplies impounded by Beridane in the port warehouses. The surviving members of the various temples are starting to report to the temples and those are being cleaned up to be rededicated so services can resume.

Ariana, the Church of the All Father should be cleared for basic functions in two days, although it will take time to repair all of the damage. Mavigan, the same is true of the Temple of Nagarren. There are some priestesses outside who request audience with you about temple matters.

The Raven has the palace back in order and is now arranging for loyal staff. He and Keeryn have Teran under guard in the dungeons, as you requested. So far Teran has made no effort to escape.

Word has been sent to the loyal fleet and to your forces in the Citadel concerning the liberation of the city and requesting aid once the Elves have driven the Orcish invaders out of their lands.

And there are some seamstresses, tailors, leatherworkers and armorers outside offering their services to you all to provide suitable clothing and equipment. Your patronage would be welcome to many."

With that Wilhelm refilled his stein and ate his cinnamon buns.

Written by - Ariana

Mavigan hid a smile behind a large bite of cheese biscuit as Elerus asked Ariana for permission to go outside and play. Ariana responded with a smile and a nod.

She set herself to her breakfast, suddenly finding herself ravenous, listening to Wilhelm prattle on with only half an ear. She grimaced at the idea of confronting a gaggle of priestesses, and practically scowled when he had the audacity to refer to that betrayer by anything but the epithet ‘rat bastard’.

So caught up was she in the mental exercise of crafting unique and creatively insulting nicknames for the rat bastard that she missed her Nana’s strange reaction. Ariana had suddenly stiffened, a bite of food poised halfway to her mouth, a distant look in her eyes. After a moment, she put down her food and rose to her feet, her chair screeching across the tiles.

The sound pulled Mavigan from her reverie, and she stared at Ariana. “I have something to do,” declared Ariana hurriedly, backing away from the table and moving towards the door. “Ardwen, be sure Elerus and yourself see the people outside and get yourselves properly outfitted. Mavigan, find yourself a tutor. I’ll be back.”

And before anyone around the table could blink, she was gone.

Mavigan looked round at the equally puzzled faces of her breakfast companions. “What the hell was that all about?”

****

Ariana moved so fast, she was nearly running. Out the front door, through the collected throng of people, the sound of their welcomes and cries of joy at getting a glimpse of the ‘Living Saint’ reverberated in her wake. Her responses were automatic, honed through many years of dealing with such attentions, but her mind was only on one thing: Was this Teran, her Teran?

The thought occupied her as she entered the palace and made her way to the dungeons, nodding at saluting guards along the way. Arriving in the dungeons, her single-minded progress was stopped abruptly by a strange creature with a tail and a man who exuded authority. If the dagger at his side was any indication, he was in service to the Ancoran royal family.

Ariana drew herself up to her full height and stared at the man blocking her way. “I wish to see the prisoner,” she said in a tone that clearly indicated she would not allow anything to stand in her way.

Written by - Wilhelm

Keeryn and the Raven were trading life stories outside the locked cell door. A pair of Royal Guard stood at the door itself. Sabbatine had gone inside bearing a breakfast tray for Teran, having belittled the cook for ruining the meat by cooking it.

A woman came rushing up, dressed in crimson pants and a white blouse with crimson collar. The triskelion symbol embroidered on the collar and the triskelion medallion she wore showed her to be a priestess of the All Father. The Raven thought she looked familiar, but couldn't place her immediately.

She came to a stop and declared,

"I wish to see the prisoner."

The Raven bowed and replied,

"Good morning, Priestess. The prisoner has been placed here in accordance with the orders issued by Queen Mavigan."

"Not exactly in accordance." remarked Keeryn with a sniff.

"What can I say. There aren't any 'dark, dank cells' in the palace. At least this waiting room can be locked. Even a condemned prisoner is entitled to reasonable accomodations, if we are to avoid becoming like Beridane."

Turning back to the priestess, the Raven said,

"The Queen's Champion, Wilhelm, has left the palace and this prisoner in my care. I am known as the Raven, Guildmaster of the Guild of Shadows. This is Keeryn, the Queen's Bodyguard. To whom do I have the honor of speaking and do you have Queen Mavigan's permission to speak to the assassin who slew her entire family? So far he has made no trouble, but even unarmed he is likely quite dangerous."

Written by - Ariana

Ariana did not answer The Raven immediately. Instead, she gazed hard at the locked and guarded door, as if wooden walls presented no impediment to her sight.

Long ago, on a far away world, Ariana had learned to identify people not by sight, but by feel. This skill was especially useful when one of her companions regularly changed his appearance as often as other people changed clothes.

She employed that ability now, extending her senses past the guards and into the room. First encountering the auras of two people on either side of the door, she swept over them quickly, neither evoking any sense of familiarity. Next, she discovered the dark aura of a thing undead, and her brow furrowed in confusion. But then, she felt the last aura in the room and an uncertain smile crossed her mouth. Her suspicion had proved correct.

"I am Ariana Trueblood," she said finally, her eyes retreating from the door to focus on the man in front of her. "Mavigan and Wilhelm are finishing their breakfast and discussing the rebuilding of the city. As for your prisoner," she added, nodding her head towards the door, "he will not harm me."

Written by - Wilhelm

The usually imperturbable Raven rocked back in shock.

*No wonder she looks familiar! I've seen her statues and portrait since I was a boy. Imagine that, meeting a living Saint!* he thought.

The Royal Guardsmen first looked startled and then in unison they rendered to her the Royal Salute and stepped to either side of the door. While Keeryn looked puzzled, the Raven performed an intricate and deep court bow and then replied,

"Your Holiness, I am deeply honored to meet Saint Ariana Trueblood in the flesh. Your return has been foretold and is most welcome in these dire times. All praise to the All Father for your return.

You may indeed enter. I doubt that Teran would or could offer you harm, but call upon us if there is any need."

With that he strode to the door and turned the key and opened the door. He nodded to the two guards inside and then spoke to Teran,

"You have a visitor."

The Raven held the door open for Ariana to pass through.


Written by - Ardwen Page 28 Book 4

Manuel went through the motions of eating, but his thoughts were far removed from the spread of food in front of him. Mayor. Was this young lady serious? Manuel shook his head suddenly and half coughed and half muttered after knuckling his upper lip. The fine slip of a woman he had eyes for last night was his queen, just the thought of it made his face feel hot. “I . . .” Manuel said then paused. “I’d be honored to take the post for as long as you need me, lordship.” Manuel stumbled over the title, unsure if he should address her as queen or simply lord, as there was no clear male successor to the kingdom. Hell, as far as he was concerned Mavigan was the only rightful successor of either gender period. The thought briefly flashed through his mind that, perhaps, Ariana might want to resume her position, but the human forlorn hope quickly quashed the idea.

Ariana had willfully abdicated in the first place, and she had not given any indication that the throne of Westgale interested her in the slightest. Manuel couldn’t really blame her, he had heard that the life of a female noble was like a monk cloistered in his cell - prestigious yet stifling. “Of course,” Manuel said after taking a spoonful of grits and plopping them on his plate, “with your permission I’d like to handle rationing right now. I’m not going to tell you how to do your bit, my queen, but I will say that while last night’s celebration should have people stepping high long enough to forget their worries for a bit – it won’t last. We’ve got Westgale, but we’ve not reclaimed the kingdom yet, and a city doesn’t live without supplies.”

“Smart man.” Manuel heard Ardwen mutter. The human soldier tossed a nod of thanks at the elf, at least Manuel assumed he was really an elf, he wasn’t sure how far the sobriquet of angel was off the mark. The forlorn hope was about to go on when Ariana made a hasty departure from the table. Manuel thought it a little odd, but who was he to question the ways of a saint? Besides, from what he had seen of her fighting the demon yesterday, the gods themselves would have to help a person who wanted to bar her path. The human warrior let the silence after the saints departure linger for a few seconds before he downed some grits and said, “Whenever you want me to I can get started, my queen.”

Written by - Ardwen

The ancient elf devoured the food on his plate with a flourish, his prodigious appetite at odds with his lean frame. Ardwen noted the veiled stares of a few of the guests at the breakfast table, but he pointedly ignored them. He didn’t care to explain to them that the last few days had seen him burning mana at a rate which was dangerous. Now that he was out of any clear and present danger, and no longer had to repress the urges to replenish himself, Ardwen’s body demanded that he make restitutions for his wanton abuse. The twilight elf had no doubt that he would sleep deeply over the next few nights as well, but he pushed that thought out of his mind as well. Westgale was free, Ariana was safe, and for the present he figured that their efforts had afforded them a moment of respite.

It was Manuel’s words that brought him back to reality. Ardwen voiced his approval of the human’s frank appraisal of the city’s situation, it was bleak but it was practical, Wilhelm had done well in forwarding the man as mayor – now all that was left was to see if Mavigan had the wisdom to second the paladin’s foresight. Ardwen had his doubts about the sagacity of Westgale’s new queen, but he bit his tongue if for no other reason than to consume another biscuit swimming in sausage gravy.

“I think Manuel is correct in that-“ Ardwen said, taking the opportunity to pause and catch his breath while speaking. Whatever the twilight elf was going to say was cut short by Ariana’s abrupt departure. Ardwen made to follow, but his Abbess had orders for him, and the commanding glance she tossed him right before the door to the Manor House slammed shut in her departure told Ardwen all he needed to know. Ariana had not invited him along, his presence was not needed. Ardwen let out a grunt of frustration and slumped back into his chair at the table with such force the wood groaned. A scowl had settled across the elf’s features, subtle but unmistakable. At last he looked at Mavigan out of the corner of his eye and started talking in answer to her question; his eyes became misty as if gazing through the fog of time to some distant memory, “Teran, Teran Witherblaze. I think that was his name at least, I’ll be honest and say that of all the Hands of Providence, I did not know him well. As an assassin, he’s probably changed his name more often than a bent coin changes hands.”

The bladeweaver noted Mavigan’s unusual reaction at the mention of the Hands, her eyes seemed to widen, and her jaw hung slightly agape. She recovered quickly however, and nodded to indicate he should go on, but the elf noted her teeth were on edge now. “He wasn’t a member of the Sect of Battle, as I was. Really, the only things I recall with any clarity about him is that he possessed an unparalleled expertise in Shadowmastery and that he was a human.” Ardwen shrugged and fixed his eyes on a spot above Mavigan’s head. “Which is exactly why this can’t be the same Teran, humans do not live for centuries.”

Elerus squirmed in his chair, suddenly uncomfortable. Since the conversation had turned to warfare and the running of a city, he had felt decidedly overlooked. He had shared the same impulse to follow Ariana out of the room that Ardwen had nearly acted on, though he knew that his reasons were different from Ardwen’s. The little elf decided to make himself as useful as possible, and when he heard the clear logical flaw in Ardwen’s reasoning he spoke up with a simple, “What about Ariana?”

Elerus watched as his old friend raised an eyebrow and glanced down at him as if he had forgotten he was there. “She,” Ardwen began, “is obviously a special case, along with Turin. I suspect their connections to the divine preserved them.”

Manuel soaked up some syrup with a hotcake and popped the piece in his mouth before adding edgewise to Ardwen’s monologue, “In the stories handed down, those Hands who came to this world long ago didn’t seem to age, or if they did it was at a pace so slow that no one even bothered to record it.”

Manuel was about to say more, but Ardwen slammed his fist on the table, several of the plates and pitchers hoped from the shock of the blow, and the ancient elf spat out, “Are you suggesting that a Hand is a treasonous murderer?” Manuel’s mouth went dry and he felt his heart stop at the warrior’s withering gaze, but it was Elerus that saved him.

“Can you say, Ardwen,” Elerus began in a whisper, “that you are so different?”

Ardwen felt like spitting on the table in disgust, but he schooled his features back into compliance, expressing as much emotion as a slab of stone. “This is pointless drivel.” He replied coldly. “He’s killed a royal family, Ariana’s family. I don’t care if he’s Cambruin reborn, I’ll tear the bastard’s head off with my own hands.”

The elven swordsman stood up from his seat with slightly less haste than Ariana had a few minutes earlier. “Right now though, I’ve got business to attend to. Come, Elerus.”

“Don’t you think Mavigan would like to ask you . . . Ardwen? This was her family that-“

The black-winged elf brooked no argument from his diminutive companion, and in one swift motion that did not even break his pace as he walked to the door he had grabbed one of Elerus’s hands and was practically dragging the small elf outside the Manor House with him. Ignoring the crowd outside as nothing more consequential than a gathering of gnats, Ardwen released Elerus hand and lead him to the tailors who quickly waved them down as they walked through the small gathering that still clustered around the Manor House. The mass of humanity had diminished from last night, but there was still a sizable portion that obviously wanted to see more of the heroes of Westgale.

In short order the two winged elves found themselves in a makeshift tailor’s workshop headed by a seamstress who could have been anything from thirty to fifty, the only hints betraying her age were touches of gray around her temples. Ardwen was lead to another room apart from Elerus, and he made one simple demand, that of a parchment and some quills. With a sign Ardwen threw himself into sketching the designs of the clothing he wanted, not trusting the humans around him to get any detail right without him leading them by the nose. Once the ink had dried and the seamstresses had taken their measurements, Ardwen shoved two leaflets of papyrus at them.

The ageless spinster looked at one and nodded while hooding her eyes, seemingly impressed with the elf’s design. She looked at the other one, however, and flipped the paper around a few times as if regardless of how she turned it was still somehow upside down. Ardwen clenched his teeth together before she could say anything. “That,” he hissed, “is a classical design from the time of Landovar.”

The tailor crinkled her forehead and said, “I see, well, if it works for you. But perhaps something more . . . contemporary might be in order as well?”

Ardwen rolled his eyes and sighed. “Then cut a garment in the style of whatever passes for court fashion in this low age. That will make three sets of clothing, more than enough. Make sure Elerus is fitted appropriately as well.”

At the mention of the child elf’s name, the seamstresses face brightened and she said with a nod, “I have my best girls working on it, don’t worry, we’ll take care of your son.”

Ardwen sighed again and touched his hand to his forehead, “He is not my son . . . just do as I ask.” Without another word, Ardwen left the building and the tailors to finish their work. Certain that Elerus could handle a few moments and measuring and picking out cuts and color, the warrior returned to the Manor House but did not enter. Instead, with a few flaps of his newly repaired wing he alighted on the edge of the roof of the house and propped one foot up while letting the other dangle. Placing an arm on the elevated knee, the sable-feathered elf dutifully awaited Ariana’s return.

Written by - Ardwen

Elerus glanced around nervously at the collecting of women that had gathered around him. He saw one of them place a hand over her mouth and let out a giggle. The little elf blushed and stammered out, “W-what?”

One of the ladies knelt next to him and held his hands and explained slowly as if she were talking to a small child, “Now dearheart, don’t you think it’s a little early for Samhain costumes?”

Elerus blinked his eyes twice, hard. He had no clue what the human was talking about. “What’s a Samhain?” He said blankly.

The lady simply sighed and tossed a smug look at those around her, another one of them giggled. “Have it your way sweetie.” She spoke again. “But we’re going to have to get that wing off if we want to get you measured properly.” Before the little elf could voice a sound of protest, the seamstress’s apprentice had reached around behind him and tugged on his wing next to where it connected to his body.

Elerus let out a hiss as if had stubbed his toe, and with a reflexive movement he grabbed the young lady’s arm and shoved it away. It was her turn to look shocked and surprised now, and she looked down at her arm to see a reddened imprint of five tiny fingers. Her eyes widened at the surprising amount of strength the child had, but she set her features in a scowl and wagged a finger as if preparing to launch into a lecture.

She never got the chance. The girls’ mistress breezed into the room, took one look around with a wobble of her peppered hair, and gave a vexed click of her tongue. “Diana!” She snapped. “Weren’t you paying attention to the other winged young man who came in? I don’t care if he’s got nine wings and four arms, where’s your professionalism, girl?”

The young lady identified as Diana blushed deeply and muttered a quick apology to Elerus. Even then, the older seamstress shooed off her apprentice, and, while she still spoke to the young elf as if he were a young child, she at least had the sense to suggest that they simply needed to unlace the top of the tunic to get the proper measurement for the holes that would be needed in his clothing, and then one more measurement for his wingspan.

Elerus complied, and while he felt slightly uncomfortable as the apprentices wrapped marked twine around his bare chest, he could appreciate that the tailors had most likely never dealt with anything with wings before and were improvising as best they could. “Now, young master,” The older head of the tailoring shop said, adopting a more formal tone, “your name please?”

“Elerus.”

“What a beautiful name, master Elerus. My name is Katharine, and I beg your forgiveness for my apprentice’s earlier treatment. I fear that peoples’ manners have left them since the Usurper took the throne, we live in rude times.”

Elerus smiled slightly and laughed softly, Katharine reminded him of some of the domineering matriarchs who were the real powers behind the throne in the Deathless Empire. “Don’t worry,” he said with a grin that cracked his face nearly in two, “Diana just surprised me.”

“Still,” Katharine said with a sniff, “she must learn manners if she wants to be a successful tailor one day. Now, let’s see . . . .” Katharine trailed off as she knelt and helped Elerus lace up the front of his tunic again, as she did she muttered something about the design being too open and airy for this time of year. Continuing to mutter to herself, Elerus stilled his features as the seamstress studied his face, placing a gentle hand on his chin and turning his face from side to side. Finally she clapped her hands together and said with a smile. “My, you’re a beautiful little boy, your mother must be proud. Mark my words: you’re going to be a heart breaker one of these days.” Elerus felt his face grow hot and he hiccuped as he pointed his head to the floor, he heard some more giggling around him, which was quickly silenced by a sharp scowl from Katharine. “Still, that’s not why I was looking at you, young master. I think a nice formal court garment would work wonders for you. You're staying with Saint Ariana, yes?” Elerus bobbed his head in answer. “Then you’ll need something to wear to state or religious functions – all sorts of things.”

Elerus paled at the thought of being dragged to stuffy councils and ballrooms. He had never shared the love of pretentious court environments that Ardwen had. “I hope we don’t go to too many.” He squeaked.

Katharine heard him still and walked over to a bolt of cloth and quickly snipped off a small square. She glided across the floor with measured steps, in her element now, and knelt next to the unusual child and held the patch of cloth up to his eyes. “Nonsense,” she said, “you wouldn’t want the saint to go by herself would you? I daresay you’d be far more company than that . . . other one who came in with you.” Katherine’s eyes hardened and she gave an imperious sniff. “He just sketches out what he wants us to sow, asks for no opinion, and storms off without even saying his name.”

Elerus let out a single, dry chuckle before saying, “Sounds like Ardwen.”

Katharine smiled; the action actually placed some wrinkles on her timeless face. “This blue will work with your eyes wonderfully, my compliments young master, you’ve the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen. Is there anything else you’d like us to sow? Surely you don’t intend to run around in that tunic during winter? What are you sleeping in? A young boy needs proper, comfortable clothing for a good night’s rest, it’ll help you grow strong and proper.”

Elerus nodded with wide eyes and Katharine riddled off a list of vestments, cuts, designs, colors, and so on and so forth. The winged child tried to be patient, but he soon found himself squirming on top of the box he had been instructed to stand on while his measurements were being recorded. A soft knock at the door interrupted Katharine’s soliloquy. “Hey Elerus,” a young voice called through the door, “we’re going to play a game of rangers and bandits, can’t you come out yet?”

“Sorry!” Elerus said to Katharine quickly, hopping off the box. “Just um . . . make those things. Whatever you think is best, it’s fine!” He smiled and waved as he rushed to the door, yanking it open and shouting one last thanks into the makeshift tailoring shop as he ran into a small knot of children that had gathered into the street outside.

“Hey El!” Torean called brightly. Elerus quickly found himself swept along in the group of children, laughing and talking with them as if they had been friends forever.

Eventually though, Elerus broached the question that had been bothering him since he had left the tailor’s store. “What is rangers and bandits?” He said, his face scrunched in confusion.

One of the older boys that stood taller than the little winged elf nearly tripped as he said that. “No way!” He almost shouted. “You’ve never played rangers and bandits?” Elerus shook his head no. A burst of voices all tried to explain the rules and express their disbelief, before Davin whisteled so sharply that Elerus covered his ears and grimaced at the piercing noise.

“Geez,” Davin said, “everyone talking at once isn’t going to tell El how to play.” He turned to face the white-haired child. “It’s easy, there’s two teams, one are rangers, and the other are bandits. The bandits hide from the rangers, and when they’re found the rangers have to tag ‘em. If you’re tagged, you have to go to jail – but a bandit who’s not been arrested can touch the bandits in jail and set ‘em free.”

Elerus nodded slowly, his adult mind making light of the simple rules. “So,” he said so as not to seem rude, “it’s sort of like hide-and-seek mixed with tag.”

Davin opened his mouth, but then clamped it shut. The human boy pressed a finger to his chin and narrowed his eyes. “I’d never thought of it like that, I guess you’re right.” He said thoughtfully.

Once Elerus indicated he was ready the group of Westgale youths were quickly divided up into two even teams, Elerus found himself on the side of the bandits, and he went to hide in an alley nearby. Glancing down the narrow street, he spied several stacks of barrels. With a grin he flapped to the top of one of the wooden columns and knelt down. His grin turned into a frown as he felt the grimy surface of the barrel on his bare feet and hands. The little elf raised his hands and noticed his palms were blackened with the dirt and sealing tar from the barrel’s lid. Without thinking Elerus wiped his hands on the front of his tunic then slapped his forehead as he remembered he had just taken a bath. With a resigned sigh he hoped Ariana would not notice, or at least not mind. He hoped even more fervently, however, that she was OK.

Written by - Ariana

She walked tentatively past the Raven and into the room. “It is you,” she whispered with an air of disbelief. Ariana stopped halfway between the door and the table where Teran sat eating his breakfast, and wrung her hands. Conflicting emotions played across her face, torn between two conflicting desires: hug him or smack him senseless?

Aware they were not alone; she bit her lip and looked at the undead construct that stood close to Teran. After a moment of contemplation, Ariana ceased to wring her hands, and they fell loosely at her side. “Leave us,” she stated authoritatively to the other occupants of the room while gazing at Teran with carefully schooled features.

****

Mavigan watched Ardwen leave the table abruptly, dragging Elerus behind him. “Asshole,” she muttered into her grits, stirring them round and round with a spoon, her mind turning over the information Ardwen had reluctantly provided. Disjointed thoughts swirled round her head, trying the different pieces of information to see if they fit.

She gave up with a sigh. She could see no way to reconcile the idea that the rat bastard was a Hand of Providence. The two ideas went together as well as Ardwen and, well anyone else.

She sighed again and slumped down in her chair, staring at her grits as if the patterns formed there could give her the answers she sought. It was only when Manuel pointedly cleared his throat that she remembered there were other things to think about. Pulling herself up in her chair, she said, “Eh, after breakfast seems like a good time to start, Manuel.”

Pausing, she thought more about what he had told her. They had retaken the city, but still needed to retake the countryside, and until they did, the citizens of Westgale would suffer. Fighting was something she understood, and her eyes sparked with fire as she added, “I’ll help.” A shadow of confusion clouded her face, and she said softly, “Unless….”

Her troubled gaze returned to her plate. “I missed my chance to kill my Uncle.” The words were heavy with grief and uncertainty. “Maybe I’m supposed to chase him down now? It’s not like we don’t know where he’s going.” Her spoon dropped to the plate with a clang. “I just don’t know what to do.”

Written by - Teran

Teran ate his breakfast in near silence. Sabbatine had delivered it and considering the weight of his crimes he was surprised to be receiving anything at all... though he suspected someone might be getting creative with the torture techniques as Sabbatine continued to drone on about this or that and ask questions he was only vaguely aware of. He would offer single word answers and sometimes only a grunt, keeping his gaze fixed on his food.

He had no appetite but he ate because he suspected Sabbatine would not leave until he was finished. He didn't dislike her but her ignorance was incredible... she understood what Teran had done but had no concept of how Mavigan or anyone else would feel. To her events were just events, detached from all feeling, even the terrible things that happened in her own life were now alien to her.

The door opened and Sabbatine's warbling stopped as she saw who entered. Teran looked up to see who his guest was... and instantly recognized Ariana though many years had passed. He was silent and motionless as he stared at her, as if expecting her presence to be a trick of illusion. After a few seconds of silence Teran stood up and bowed before her as a sign of respect, though not quite as deeply as he used to bow.

Sabbatine was stunned by Ariana's demand to leave and she didn't move immediately. She looked to Teran for support or perhaps permission and found neither from his blank expression so hesitantly she left, closing the door behind her, glancing at Keeryn and the Raven before shrugging and finding a place to stand nearby.

"Ariana." Teran said quietly once the door closed. It wasn't quite a question, but it wasn't quite a statement either.

Written by - Ariana

The door closed behind her with a quiet snick. She stared at him in silence, her emotions a tumultuous jumble. Ariana knew what crimes had been committed, but the knowledge felt distant and removed. He had killed people she had never met, never knew, never loved, though they were tied to her by the bonds of family. Teran was one of hers, a Hand and true family like Ardwen, and her heart swelled with the sight of him.

She sighed deeply and crossed the room. Wrapping her arms around his middle, she rested her head on his chest. Small tremors worked through her body, causing her to shake, and the fabric covering his chest grew suspiciously damp. “Teran,” she choked.

Written by - Teran

Teran's arms wrapped around Ariana as she embraced him, locked together for that moment...

"I knew you would return..." He says quietly. "but why... why now?"

He sounds pained as he whispers to her, wishing his crimes had not been so apparent to her but at the same time glad they were. He could keep no secrets from her.

His mind was still recovering from her sudden appearance. He was quite good at predicting what would happen as a result of his actions but this had blind sided him.

Written by - Ariana

She chuckled wryly, the sound muffled by his shirt. Pulling from him, she wiped her eyes with her sleeve. “I have no idea,” she said with a sniffle. “Puppet of the All-Father, that’s me.” Her voice was light and free of malice, but the faint shadow in her eyes belied the joke.

“And what of you?” she asked with a smile. “I can’t leave you alone for a couple of centuries without you getting into trouble?” She clicked her tongue and shook her head in mock disappointment.

Drawing in a deep, cleansing breath, she chuckled again. “We’re a right mess, and I’ve interrupted your breakfast.” She pointed towards the half eaten meal on the table. “Please, sit.”

Taking the suggestion herself, she claimed the chair next to his, interlaced her fingers and rested both hands upon the table. Silence reigned between them for several moments, Ariana trying to organize her thoughts. When she finally spoke, the words were carefully chosen. “I’ve never known you to act carelessly. You are a very calculating man, so I can only assume that your actions were part of some larger scheme of which I am unaware.” She glanced at him appraisingly. “Of course, I’ve also never known you to remain in captivity unless it was somewhere you wanted to be.”

Ariana shifted in her chair and turned her full attention on Teran. “As in the days of old, Teran, I find myself relying on you to function as my eyes and ears. Please, tell me everything and spare no detail.”

Written by - Wilhelm

Wilhelm turned to Mavigan and nodded in approval. Smiling, he said,

"My old teacher told me the first sign of wisdom is recognizing how much you don't know and the second sign of wisdom is asking for help from those you can trust. It's not suprising you are unsure what to do now, as there are many things you need to consider and much is beyond what you have dealt with up to now. However, you are not alone in this and I and others will do all we can to help you. So far you have actually done quite well, and I am proud of you. Let me summarize the main issues I see.

Berdidane has left with his fleet and is now out of our immediate reach. He is likely heading back to Ironskane to regroup. At this time we do not have a fleet to chase him nor an army to fight him if we could catch him. So set him aside for now until the Westgale fleet returns from harrying Ironskane and the Westgale army returns from assisting Ithramir and the elves in retaking their other fortress. For now you should concern yourself with establishing order here in the city and then extending that to the countryside.

The first task is seeing to your coronation as Queen. That will legitimize your authority and provide a morale boost to the population. There are some standard requirements for such a ceremony, but you have a fair amount of leeway in how fancy or simple you want the ceremony to be. You also need to establish where you will reside and set up your royal household staff. Many good candidates for your staff await you outside. They can assist you in preparing for and planning the coronation.

The second task is to assemble a Royal Council to help you organize and rule the city and the kingdom. You will be the ultimate authority, and bear the ultimate responsibility for decisions, but you can and should delegate as much of that as possible to trustworthy ministers who can both advise you on issues and then carry out the decisions you make with their counsel. Abbess Ariana can help you there, as she has a lot of experience in ruling this kingdom back in the past. I can help you with military and security matters. The Raven will be an excellent source of information on current events and possible ministers. Manuel here can help organize the city. Once Alaric returns with the army you can put him in charge of the military.

The third issue is the fact that as a new Avatar you will need to receive priestess and Avatar training from the Temple of Nagarren. Ariana and I can help, but we are Avatars of a different diety and each diety has their own system. As you have found, They want things to be done Their way. You will find the training difficult but also very rewarding, both in the added abilities you will gain and in the options and confidence those new abilities will open to you, but also in the fact that you will never again be alone. Your Goddess will always be with you and She will aid and support and assist you in all things if you just ask. Coming to terms with that relationship can be difficult (it certainly was for me), but the ultimate reward is well worth the effort.

The fourth issue is to liberate and rebuild the rest of the kingdom. I have sent word out to our scattered forces in the countryside and to both the fleet and the army of our victory here, requesting the fleet to help transport the army back here once the elven fortress is retaken, and for all of our forces to assemble here. Assuming the retaking of the elven forteress goes well I would expect the elves to lend their assistance to you in return for our aid. As our forces arrive we can send them out to free the rest of the kingdom and to begin rebuilding the kingdom from the depredations of the occupation.

Only then can we consider the fifth task of an assault on Ironskane. We have moved beyond the point where you and I and a small group can run around freely on a mission. You are now the Queen and also Nagaren's newest Avatar. That has consequences. You will move and operate on a larger scale now.

A more likely objective before chasing Beridane to his well-defended Ironskane would be for you to pay a state visit to your other uncle to try to enlist Shrikefeld support. That can be done after the coronation and the establishment of a governing council and can take place while the liberation and reconstruction of Westgale is carried out by others.

For now I advise you to finish your breakfast and then go meet with those members of the Royal Staff the Raven has sent here and with the members of the Temple of Nagarren who wait outside. You should first organize your own affairs before you worry about affairs of state.

And so endeth the lesson. Please pass the gravy."

Wilhelm chuckled to defuse ther gravity of the situation and took two more cheese biscuits from the basket.

****

Resini and his Circle of Mages continued to maintain their anti-scrying shield over the strike force as they made their way through the dark noisome sewer. When Varion halted the force at a rotted and rusted cellar door Resini scryed beyond the door and signaled to Varion that the door was unlocked and there was nobody next to it. Varion silently lifted the door an inch and peer up into the world above. Varion then turned to his men.

“All right then, the gatehouse seems lightly defended, but it is a short distance away. We will be in the open and exposed for several moments before reaching it. When I throw open the door, follow me as quickly as you can. Stay close to the walls, they can at least provide us some cover.” The men all nodded their agreement. “When we get to the gatehouse…you all know what to do. On three. One…two…”

Varion was interrupted by the whine of hinges as the cellar door was pulled open from outside. Torchlight silhouetting a large figure flooded the group and momentarily blinded the commander. Instinctively, he thrust his sword with such force it pierced the large orc through the torso, armor and all. The body abruptly collapsed forward, the full weight of the orc landing heavily atop Varion. Covered in the warm, slick orc blood and struggling to roll the massive beast away, Varion gasped for breath and yelled for his men to flee the sewer and commence the attack.

Following after the first warriors who ran past Varion and out through the door, Resini led his cirlce in support. As he passed through the door Resini saw another soldier pull the blood-covered Varion to his feet. Once they were free of the door the mages dropped their anti-scry shield and went on the attack. Bolts of magical energy of various colors fanned out to strike the orcs in view. One group was wrapped in glowing bands. Another were ensnared by vines that grew from the ground and wrapped their legs. A third group were incinerated by filling fire while a fourth group was frozen in place by a sudden blizzard of icy cold.

The soldiers took advantage of the mages' efforts to race towards the gate house and engage the remaining defenders before the gatehouse door. Varion led a portion of his forces to block immediate reinforcements. While the other mages aided Varion in holding off the orcs, Resini ran to the gatehouse door, which had been closed and barred by the Orcs inside. Gathering himself, Resini pointed his staff at the door and chanted a spell. Bands of light struck and entered the door. With multiple clunks the bars inside were magically withdrawn, the doors hinges came loose, and the door burst burst free and fell flat to the ground.

Varion's men poured through the doorway and bloody battle erupted inside. Ignoring the combat, Resini made his way to the gate mechanism and cast another spell at it. Magical forces caused the mechanism to start up and begin raising the portcullis and opening the gate. Varion's men fought hard to deny the orcs attempts to interfere.

Resini stepped out side and from his staff a ball of fire shot up into the sky and exploded in color several hundred yards above the walls. The signal was given. Resini hoped the relief force would arrive in time to pass through the opening gate and secure the gatehouse before the orcs could retake it. The mages and soldiers then concentrated on defending the opening gate and buying time.

Written by - Tempyst

Kaya waited, as did her men, for the signal that would tell them it was time. Swords were drawn, bodies shuffles, anxious for the battle to start, even though they knew not all of them would make it out alive. Then suddenly, in the sky there it was, an explosion of color signaling the ground troops. Kaya yelled out a charge and ran forward. Her men followed. They charged into the sea of orcs taking no mercy on any of them. Swords clashed and sunk into flesh. Blood sprayed everywhere making the ground slick. But onward they pressed. Many fell during the battle, but it only made the survivors press on harder towards the gatehouse. As the gatehouse came into view, Kaya began chanting and those who remained joined her. Voice after voice rang over the battlefield, unsettling the orcs who had never before faced such a thing. Then, after what seemed like an eternity, the remaining orcs retreated, giving up position. With A'lanthear held high, Kaya let out a victorious shout as the gatehouse was finally theirs.

Written by - Ardwen

Aranel hocked up the phlegm in his throat and spat on the ground. The swordsinger had removed his helm and was leaning against the aft wall of the gatehouse that Kaya’s company had just reclaimed. With a roll of his shoulders that screeched of armor and groaned of tired muscles the elf turned to his fellow swordswinger beside him and said, “Gather.” With a single word the other warriors in the squad circled around him.

“Where’s Tok?” The singer sergeant asked.

The soldier to Aranel’s left answered, “Took a dagger in the side. Mallan got to him in time, but he won’t be moving for a while. Still, he was lucky.” With that the man tapped the eyepatch that covered his right eye; the flesh around the patch was red and raw.

Aranel grunted and spat again. He was with Rurik when he took the wound that cost him his eye during the Minas Aure campaign. Aranel had found him unconscious next to a storage shed; the orc that had given him the knife to the face was missing both its arms and cold by that time. Rurik’s life had been saved thanks to treatment from their company’s priest, but the swordsinger sergeant knew that his squad mate was still bitter over the loss.

With a sigh Aranel crouched and scratched with his mailed hand a quick overlay of what they thought was past the gatehouse. “We’re being rotated out with squad nine for the upcoming push. They’re calling it like Minas Aure after this point. We’ve got the main gate and a couple of the side ones are being opened here,” Aranel paused to make circles in the grit and dust, “but the orcs aren’t stupid. They’ve piled rubble along a lot of the side sally gates and sapped a few of the others.”

The swordsinger commander saw Surion kneel across from him in the little knot of soldiers. His friend drew another circle inside the largest of Aranel’s and said, “What about the inner curtain walls? We going to have to chase them to the top again?”

Aranel scratched at his chin and looked up at the ceiling as he thought how to answer Surion. He had his suspicions that, just like at Minas Aure, the final bastion of this fortress would be held by some Orcish gods Avatar. If that was the case, anyone who couldn’t go one on one with a god would be ash once they reached the top. No, this was a matter for Ithramir to worry about. “I don’t know.” He said with a shrug. “Probably. Odonn was saying earlier that he’s had a headache ever since he saw the walls and it’s only getting worse.”

Surion simply nodded in response, his commander did not have to say more. Odonn was their company’s foremost mage, and like most of his kind he had ways of detecting power. Some called it a smell or an itch, but Odonn just got headaches. Both elves let slide the fact that it was rare for him to feel it at such a distance; it was probably a bad sign anyhow.

Rurik coughed above their heads and said, “Who else is moving in with the ninth, boss?”

“The fifth and sixth squads will be on the left and right flanks of the ninth respectively. The main support will be made-up of five additional sections from the human ranks though. Red realm take me if I know all their names.” Aranel said. The large elf stood and stretched his arms out in front of him. “We’re to move up in their wake with the second wave, they’ll be sending word down shortly.”

With that the conversation in the tight circle of swordsingers died as each turned to their own thoughts and diversions before they were given the order to advance. Aranel was impressed with how quickly the gatehouse had been taken, but it was never quick enough. The commander knew that speed was their only ally here – the entire siege hinged on taking and manning the fortress before the orcs could rally another force to hit them from behind. Here, this close to the green horde’s territory, there would be no fallback. They either held Minas Uial or it became their grave.

The door at the far end of the gatehouse shuddered opened and a tall helm spattered with mud poked through and barked a single command. “Go!”

It was all Aranel and his men needed. He stepped outside the gatehouse first and then slapped his helmet back on, the great helm narrowed his field of view and he thought he could hear his heartbeat echoing from the cold steel. A booming peal of thunder echoed in the air. The big swordsinger tightened his sea-grey cloak about him and tossed one last look at the rest of his squad before waving his arm forward to advance.

A light rain began to fall that steadily grew worse as his section closed in on the frontline. In the chaos and filth of the inner courtyard it only took a couple of moments before the rainwater formed channels that ran dirty brown and black. Aranel heard Rurik cuss and saw him scratching at the scar on his face, the rest of the squad wasn’t faring much better, the mud was more an annoyance than a real hindrance to their march, but it made footing uneasy.

The rain was a thick cold downpour by the time they reached the siege works at the inner gates. The orcs had not had as much time to fall back here, and the amount of dead greenskins outside the gate spoke to their desperation to buy some time to seal off the inner walls. Aranel titled his head and watched rivulets of water slide off. It didn’t matter. There was already a battering ram at the gate, and for now the rain worked in their favor. In the frigid shower it would be nearly impossible to catch any of the wooden siege engines on fire. As if this thought was a cue, the wooden gate moaned and creaked as the ram completed its first pass. It would take more to bring the gate down, but they had started, it would only take time. Aranel just prayed they had enough left.

Written by - Teran

Teran listened to her questions and a faint frown appeared on his lips. They were not easy questions to answer, nor did he think the answer would be enough justification for his actions. There was always another way to complete a goal but he had chosen that way and hurt those people... good people.

"It is not easy to explain... I am not interested in seeking justification for my actions." he says quietly.

"I did not kill for the money or sport, I killed because it had to be done. Peace was making the citizens of this kingdom soft... weak."

The assassin gazed into Ariana's eyes as he spoke, no anger or malice in his voice.

"The strength of the Kingdom was at risk." he said, breaking his gaze with her and shaking his head as if in denial.

"I am prepared to accept the punishment for the crimes I committed... I know it had to be done, but I have no right to ask Mavigan... or you to accept that answer."

Written by - Ariana

Mavigan slouched in her chair as Wilhelm rattled off the To Do list. With each new item, she slid further and further down her spine until, by the end, only the top of her head and her eyes were visible above the table.

Once it was clear Wilhelm was finished, she sat back up, a sneer of distaste on her face. “Gee,” she said drily, “is that all?”

Not really expecting a response, she hunched over her plate and stared into it, brow furrowed with concentration. It was as if Mavigan was waiting for the puddle of congealing grits to reveal a clever scheme to get her out of this. The grits did not deign to reply.

Conversation ceased at the breakfast table for several minutes, the only sounds being those of mastication. Suddenly, Mavigan brought her fist down and banged the table causing dishes and cutlery to rattle. Snapping a determined glare on Wilhelm, she said, “All right. You can shove the crown on my head, but I ain’t wearing no frilly dresses, and there is no way in hell you will ever squeeze me into a corset again.”

She shifted uncomfortably on her chair and returned her gaze to her grits. “As for the rest of it, OK. I don’t like it, but I guess I’ll suck it up… for now.”

She waited another moment and then added, “Are we done? If so, I’ll go accost the Nagarren groupies outside.”

Written by - Ariana

Ariana gave a wry chuckle. “I must admit, I never thought to hear such rubbish come out of your mouth, Teran.” She abruptly pushed herself away from the table and stood, angry eyes leveled on the assassin.

“Are you kidding me?” she demanded. “War doesn’t make people strong. It never has.” Her hands clenched into fists at her side. “The only thing war is good for is causing death and destruction. This is not Aerynth. Death here is permanent.”

She turned on her heel and stalked to the far side of the room, as if she could not trust herself to be near him. “If you rely on violence to build people up you end up with someone like Ardwen! True strength has never come from the sword.” Her voice had gained in volume and she was nearly shouting. “Have you forgotten everything we once stood for?”

It took visible effort for her to calm herself down; she took one deep breath followed by another. When she spoke again, her tone was dark but quiet. “I cannot condemn you for falling from grace as I have done the same. But, we each bear the responsibility of cleaning up our own messes. If you prefer to sit here and rot in self-pity, that is your choice. However, if you choose to follow me once again and work to sort out the ruin we have left in our wakes, then give word to the Raven.”

Without waiting for a response, she exited the room. Seeing the Raven, she said, “If he requests an audience with me or bids you send a message to me, please do so immediately.”

The Raven nodded his ascent, and Ariana retraced her steps to the manor house. Unlike before, her pace was unhurried, her gaze remained on the ground, and her face was troubled.

Written by - Wilhelm

Wilhelm finished his drink with a long pull and set the flagon down. He turned to Mavigan, nodded in approval, and said,

"I agree that is a long list, but such is the life of a ruler. The order in which you deal with them is up to you. However, you have made a good start."

Wilhelm counted off five points with his fingers.

"You have agreed to be crowned. You have decided you will not wear frilly dresses or a corset in the coronation ceremony. You have invited Manuel to become the Mayor of Port Westgale, and he is ready to be sworn in. You have agreed that you will address the other issues in time. And you have decided that the first task you will handle is the delegation from the Temple of Nagarren.

That's five decisions over breakfast. Pretty good. Just take things a step at a time. And you may count on Manuel, the Raven and I to assist you as best we can.

Yes, we seem to be done here, so we can go outside. I'll warn you that the delegation is led by Acting High Priestess Korella, whom you likely recall. However, I did see your friend Allandra in the group as well.

By the way, the crown is the only required element in the coronation. As Queen you are free to wear whatever you wish, although there are precedents and traditions to at least consider. You might take a look at the coronation outfit worn by the first Mavigan. She wore Amazon armor."


Written by - Ardwen Page 29 Book 4

Ardwen shifted his position, elevating his other knee and propping his right arm on it. The black-winged warrior was then as motionless as the stone upon which he sat. He was trying to remain patient, mindful of Ariana’s order, but it grated on him. Every second that went by was another opportunity for this assassin she had gone to visit to open her throat. It was absurd to think that simply because he had been captured he was helpless. If this really was the Teran he knew from his service in the Hands then the man could kill with living shadow, and the gods only knew what other vile tricks he had picked up in his bloody career.

No, Ariana had walked willingly, almost gleefully, into a lion’s den. Just as she had done earlier with the regiment guarding the prisoners, as she would doubtless do again in the future. It was a pattern Ardwen decided he had to arrest immediately. He had traveled too far, sacrificed too much, simply to lose his Abbess to her lingering sentiments about the Hands or Westgale. If the Saint did not feel worthy of life was one thing, that did not mean she was free to die as she chose. No, Ardwen thought, she is mine.

Then the Elven warrior saw her, walking slowly with her head down, lost in the directionless oblivion of troubled thoughts. She looked dejected, defeated. It was obvious that her meeting with her beloved assassin did not go as anticipated. As Ardwen expected, Teran had changed, Teran had failed her. To him, it was obvious from the start that this was the outcome, the mudman had murdered members of Ariana’s family, and it was absurd to think that he had not fallen. No, Teran was a remorseless killer, and while Ardwen did not hate the man for that, he hated him for killing the wrong people. Teran was simply on the wrong side of history, caught up in a game in which he no longer held the winning cards, and the realization of the gamble the assassin had made obviously burdened their Abbess.

Good, Ardwen thought. Without a second thought the sable-feathered elf landed right in front of Ariana just as she was about to reach the door to the Manor House. Lost in grief, Ariana had not heard his descent, and as Ardwen straightened from the crouch he had assumed to absorb the shock of the barely cushioned fall, he saw her eyes flutter open wide. The two looked at each other for a brief second.

Ardwen spoke first saying, “Did your meeting with the little death-dealer not go as planned? The man is a murderer Ariana, and while we all might be guilty of sins, his is the most unforgivable of all: stupidity. Teran attempted to sway events to his designs, even at the cost of his own life – under any other circumstance that might have won him grudging admiration. But like most of his mayfly kind, the man could not fathom the long-term consequences of his actions. The people of this city will cry out for his blood, they will want a scapegoat. If Mavigan is wise she can still use him to further rally the people against the times to come.” Ardwen paused and narrowed his eyes. The warrior fanned a hand open in a gesture as if pointing to Ariana with all five fingers at once. “As for you,” he continued, “this has to stop. Scurrying off to meetings with assassins unguarded, running to the frontline . . . you need to be protected. There is too much resting on you to trust to chance and fate. I will not follow an order which I feel is antipathetic to your survival, so don’t try and leave me behind again. I trust we have reached an accord.” Ardwen ended in a tone that was clearly not a question.

Written by - Ariana

Ariana was angry and glared at Ardwen through narrowed eyes. She had difficulty pin-pointing which of the many offenses Ardwen had just committed ticked her off the most – the sheer arrogance, the lack of compassion, the presumption, the high-handedness, or the audacity?

She decided, in the end, that it didn’t matter.

“No,” she said flatly, “we do not have an accord. I may be many things, Ardwen, including foolish, but I am not, nor have I ever been, helpless.”

“Damn straight!” said a voice from the front door. Turning, Ariana saw Mavigan poised in the doorway, Wilhelm and Manuel behind. Mavigan strode forward and positioned herself next to Ariana.

“Ancoran women have always been strong,” said Mavigan, glaring at Ardwen. “But,” she tentatively added to Ariana, “someone once told me that there is no weakness in asking for help when it is needed.”

Ariana gave her a wry smile. “Point taken. But in this situation, I did not need help.” The words were clearly enunciated and obviously directed at Ardwen.

“Did you,” Mavigan started nervously, “find the answers you sought?”

“Yes,” said Ariana with a sigh, “and no.” She reached forward and clasped Mavigan on the shoulder. “Come find me later and we will talk.”

Surprisingly, Mavigan took the hint. “OK. I’ve got to see the priestesses anyway.” She cut her eyes over at Ardwen. “Don’t let the asshole bully you.”

“I won’t.”

“OK then,” Mavigan said uncertainly. Casting one last suspicious glance at Ardwen, and moved off.

Ariana looked at Ardwen, turned on her heel and pushed her way into the manor house. She left the door open in her wake, a mute invitation for him to follow.

****

It wasn’t hard for Mavigan to locate the priestesses of Nagarren. Their characteristic white and pink robes fluttered in the breeze like the plumage of exotic birds. Mavigan took a deep breath and marched towards them.

Though she would never admit it, she was terrified. She remembered Korella as the hard task mistress that had schooled Etewen and herself in the mysteries of the religion. The woman had a small head and a sharp beak of a nose, and Mavigan could not think of a time she had ever seen the woman smile.

Of course, her lack of a smile might have had something to do with Mavigan’s inability to learn even the simplest of lessons. Mavigan had been a difficult student, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not.

And there, as if stepping out of a childhood nightmare, came the acting High Priestess. The only difference Mavigan could discern was streaks of grey in her dark hair that had not been there before.

Bracing herself, Mavigan prepared for the inevitable encounter.

Written by - Ardwen

The elven warrior stared at the open door, the empty space between the frame seemed to mock him. Ariana had shrugged off his opinion and blatantly disregarded his advice, the only advice which, Ardwen reminded himself, might keep her alive. His Abbess would continue now, throwing herself headlong into battle after battle, danger after danger, until at last death claimed her from him again. A rictus sneer, cold and distant, crept across the large elf’s features. Ardwen placed one hand on the door handle and shoved with such force that the door struck the wall and shuddered.

The elf’s heavy footfalls echoed through the small antechamber as he shoved open a second set of doors with both hands, the doors slammed open and a sharp crunch snapped through the air from the door on the right. Ardwen could see the back of Ariana’s retreating form ahead, but as the raven-winged warrior stamped closer she spun around. Ardwen saw her open her mouth, probably to launch into some sermon or lecture. He did not give her the opportunity.

“If you think that I am going to let you walk into death again you are a fool.” Ardwen snarled. “No god, no cause, not even your own will can move me on this. I lost you, and now you’ve returned beyond fire and time and death. For what?” Ardwen took a step closer. “The All-Father returned you to die on a splat of mud and rot in an unmarked grave? To hell with that! Why won’t you tell me what you want? Why can’t you just look me in the eye and tell me what burdens your heart and stirs your soul?”

Ardwen saw Ariana’s eyes harden and the elf cocked his head to one side and narrowed his eyes in response. “No more avoiding this, Ariana. I won’t help you kill yourself.” Ardwen smirked and fanned his left hand out, the air shimmered and blades appeared behind the warrior, and behind the Lady of the Hands. “No more gods here, no Hands. Elerus told me about your past as an oblate, and now . . . now I will hear Ariana speak. Iloio au’Ariana, Iloio.”

Written by - Ariana

Ariana looked behind her at the multitude of blades seeming suspended in air. Curious, she reached out with a finger, aiming to touch the tip of a nearby sword. The gleaming metal darted away from her finger like a startled fish in a pond. Ariana smiled wryly.

“I had intended for us to adjourn to my office, where we could discuss things like civilized people and away from the curious throngs. However,” she poked at another blade and watched as it darted away, “this barbaric display changes things.”

Turning abruptly, Ariana put her back against one wall of the hallway and slid down the floor. Crossing her legs beneath her, her head tilted upward and her eyes focused on the ceiling. “I cannot tell you what I do not know myself,” she said finally. “What do I know of wants and wishes?”

Ariana sighed and shifted on the floor. “The Father preserved me from death for some purpose as of yet unknown. Until He reveals it, I can only follow my heart. My heart tells me to remain with Mavigan for so long as she needs me. After that, if my Hands are still here, I will do everything I can to reclaim them. I will find them, hug them, and apologize for my abandonment.” Her head tilted and she looked at Ardwen. “My conscience will not allow anything less.”

Her head rolled back and her gaze focused on the ceiling once again. “Whatever my purpose here, it will be dangerous. It always is. If it makes you feel better to hover”, she sneered with distaste at the word, “then do so, but you will abide by the limits I set. I’ll not have you intimidating everyone who wants to talk to me, and if I say I don’t require your presence, then you will trust me enough to respect my directive.” Ariana looked at Ardwen once again. “Understood?”

Written by - Ardwen

Ardwen retracted the blades from Ariana’s reach. Has she lost her mind? Ardwen thought. Many of the swords that surrounded them would slice through armor, bone, and flesh alike with equal ease. Laying a finger on one was a good way to lose that digit. The large elf frowned as Ariana spoke, he clenched his fists and as she sat on the floor he dispelled all of the blades save one which hovered lonely in the air above both of them. Ariana protested she had no answers, she did not know her own heart or mind – it was all protest that Ardwen had heard before, but not from his Abbess.

Once Ariana had finished speaking, Ardwen said nothing. Tense moments slipped by in total silence, total stillness. Then the blade descended next to Ardwen’s face. It rotated slowly around the warrior’s head, slivers of light and motes of radiance sparked from it, drifting like dust in a shaft of sunlight. Still, the black-winged elf said nothing. The single remaining blade stopped a few handspans from the right side of his face, casting his face in sharp relief, one side in light and the other in shadow like a mummer’s mask. Something glinted on the shadowed side of his face, starting near his eye and moving down, catching the light like a small crystal. Ardwen spun around.

“So be it.” He muttered. The bladweaver quickly walked out of the hallway, leaving Ariana alone. The blade remained for a second longer, and then quickly faded as its light was swallowed by shadow.

Written by - Ardwen

Elerus barely avoided the fingers splayed out to touch him. The boy who had spotted him atop the stacked barrels and boxes in the alleyway had put up a determined chase, but even in a body he was not yet used to Elerus had far more experience dodging. Though, the little elf reflected, it was usually swords and arrows and not hands. The two children stopped and stared at each other, the white-winged child noticed his pursuer was breathing hard, but there was an eager smile on his face as if he relished the challenge and the bragging rights that would come with outing the winged youngster who was quickly building a reputation as one of the best tag players in all of Westgale.

Elerus smiled inwardly, he decided he would let the kid chase him a little further, and then allow him to tag him. After all, he had no real stake in these games. They were, at best, a childish distraction he should feel some shame for indulging in. He nodded to himself, but the other kid took it as a signal to continue and rushed in. The small elf dodged and weaved easily, keeping on his toes, always just out of reach. Then Elerus stopped. Flat-footed and staring off into the distance in an instant, the other boy barreled into them and they both fell onto the dusty street.

The human child got to his feet first. "Sorry El, I didn't mean to do that. You stopped, are you OK?"

Elerus rose to a sitting position and looked up at the boy, with a nod and a slight smile he said, "Yeah, don't worry Torean it was my fault." Secretly, Elerus hopped he had the boy's name right. Whereas Elerus found out his name was exotic, and could be shortened to sound just like a letter from the human's alphabet, he was confounded by how alike human names sounded. The knot of children that had gathered earlier had others join in as the sounds of the game seemed to attract the city's youth. It wasn't surprising really, after so long under the Tyrant's heel, the children were some of the first to rebound and try and make the best of things.

Torean dusted himself off. "You can call me Tor you know, we're friends now." Elerus didn't think that would help, but he gave another smile at the child's hospitality. The young human offered him a hand to help him up and he accepted.

"Tor," Elerus said, careful to mimic the boy's pronunciation, "I think I need to head home for a bit. Tor's mouth twitched and the child started laughing. "Hey!" Elerus cut in. "What's so funny?"

Torean kept laughing for a few seconds before leaning up against the nearby alley wall and scuffing the soil with his shoe. "It's-it's just the way you said my name. You say your r's weird. Torrrr." He mimiced, attempting to trill his r in a way that sounded far to guttural to Elerus's elven ears. Elerus closed one eye and raised an eyebrow. "Alright, alright - I'll tell the others you went home. 'Sides, we've been playing forever."

Elerus blinked hard before saying, "We have?"

The human youth nodded and kicked a clod of dirt from the street corner. "Yeah," he confirmed, "I don't want to go home, though."

Elerus walked closer to the boy and touched him on the shoulder. "Why?"

Tor rolled his eyes as if the answer were written on his forehead. "Because the streets are dirty and we've been playing in them. They used to be clean before Beridane," here he scrunched his face and stuck out his tongue, "took over the city. Mom's going to make me take a shower, your's will too."

Elerus grimaced, and noticed a similar look on Torean's face. With a blush, the little elf schooled his features. Elerus shrugged nonchalantly to help support the conviction that he really did not care. Turning down the street the white-winged elf stopped at the corner for a second to wave to his friend before vanishing around the corner.

The tiny elf found the Manor House with little difficulty, there was still a large group camped around it hoping to see more of the enigmatic residents inside, and as Elerus moved through the pack of elbows and stomachs he looked up to see more than a few faces regarding him with a smile or turning to a companion to whisper a hushed stream of gossip. Thankfully, the crowd made way for him, and he did not have take wing simply to reach the front door. As soon as Elerus opened the outer door he knew something was wrong. The inner doors to the antechamber stood wide open, but on the other side the right door handle was dented, and turned with a screech of protest.

The little boy looked around at the silent interior of the house, twisting his torso as if something might leap out behind him at any moment. There was nothing. No sound of Ariana cooking or cleaning in the kitchen, or Mavigan making another joke about how small her new little brother is. He had expected Ariana to return from her meeting with the assassin by now, could something have gone wrong? "Ariana? Ardwen?" He called out, his soft voice swallowed by the oppresive silence around him. Elerus fidgeted, he would have settled for even an "Oi, runt" by now.

Then he did hear something. A sound twanged in the air around him, a few chords and then it stopped. Almost as soon as the music faded, it started again, this time slower. Elerus sucked in a deep breath. He recognized the tune.

Tracking the sound through the house, Elerus ascended a flight of steps as fast as his legs could carry him, and then turned into a room to his left. The door was open, and he found Ardwen with his back turned and an instrument in hand. The large elf's wing seemed to fold and unfurl with the pitch and tone, as if Ardwen was keeping rythmn subconciously. Suddenly, his friend's sable feathers ceased their movement, and in a brief flash of luck or rusted skill Ardwen managed about thirty seconds of the song before it ended in a high-pitch squeak as he moved his right hand across the instrument.

Elerus watched as Ardwen shook his head in disgust and set the instrument down. He turned around and regarded Elerus for a second before saying, "How did you manage to get black tar and dirt on you? Ariana will be furious, but at least that will be something."

"Ardwen--" Elerus began, but Ardwen cut him off.

"I haven't played that song since Shleana died." Ardwen placed his back against a wall and slid to the floor, elbows on his knees. "Really though, after Selinar passed away I stopped practicing, just didn't have it in me afterwards."

Elerus walked over to the warrior and looked into his face. Ardwen's eyes looked back listlessly. "What happened?"

"She's another Shleana, Elerus. Doesn't know what she wants, thinks she has to coddle and protect those under her even at the cost of her own happiness. A martyr waiting to happen. I might have seen it sooner, I suppose you already have."

Elerus shook his head so hard his white hair flowed behind it like a comet tail. "That's not true Ardwen, she can't . . . want to die."

Ardwen raised his head with a weary smile and replied, "Really? You don't sound so certain."

Elerus sat down on the floor with his legs crossed and put his head in his hands. "You still haven't told me what happened."

Ardwen shrugged. "There's really nothing to tell. She went to see Teran and took her time in doing so. Unguarded, alone, an assassin that has already murdered those related to her. I told her when she returned that she needs protection, she's important. Of course she saw things differently, and when I confronted her, asking her what she wanted, she gave me the line that she had no wants or dreams other than to apologize to the Hands."

"Then that flair of mana . . . ."

Ardwen shrugged again, "That was me, I didn't want her running away and dodging the question as she had done before."

Elerus pried his head from his hands and stared at Ardwen. "What now?"

"Now? Now I do nothing. I tried, failed, this won't make the first time. When the day comes when she dies, by the blade of a traitor or the arrow of an asssassin, I'll leave this world behind me. Maybe I'll try and kill the All-Father, or as many of the gods as I can for making us dance to their tune a second time. This world is nothing new, Elerus, you were wrong. She's another Shleana and this is another Aerynth."

Elerus sighed. It looked as if Ariana's actions had stirred bitter memories from the warrior's past, no, from their past. Elerus let his mind wander into the distant past, when they had both been children running from the Deathless court, hunted and branded xeno horribilitas. They had fled to a large swamp as far away as they could make it, dogged by hunters each step of the way. Shleana had found them then, a young human girl - though at the time she looked older than either of them - fleeing with a company of followers to a series of mountains and hills at the edges of the marsh.

They were the escaped slaves and remains of the first human kingdom, crushed by the might of the Empire. There they scrapped out an existence on land too remote and poor for even the elves to care. However, once word that the three refuges had settled there the Empire sent an entire legion lead by Ardwen's father. It had been a bloody mess, and Elerus refused to dwell on the events for any longer. Ardwen had lost his wing, and Selinar had lost his life in the final tally.

"Ardwen." Elerus said, his voice cracked with sorrow. "Please, please, don't give up on her. Don't give up on me."

Ardwen sighed deeply and looked at the window on the far wall. "Our fates will come full circle again, we are leaves caught in a river larger than we can see. My only regret is that I love her, but my heart has always cried for the impossible. Let the currents take us where they will, to the last syllable of time."

Elerus stood up. He bit his lower lip and placed a hand on Ardwen's knee, his friend gave no response, did not even turn to look at him. Elerus walked to the door's threshold and said over his shoulder, "I'm going to look for Ariana. Be strong Ardwen, please." The little elf exited the room to do just as he said, the last sound Ardwen heard from him was the slap of his bare feet against the floor.

Written by - Ariana

Ariana heaved another sigh as she watched Ardwen disappear into the depths of the mansion. His gait and body were rigid with disapproval. She fought against an irrational desire to call him back, instead allowing him to leave in silence.

Once alone, she pushed herself to her feet and made her way down the hallway to her office. The sight stretched before her was familiar; the bookshelves packed with important documents and papers, the art on the walls which were renditions of a world and time gone by, a large conference table surrounded by uncomfortable chairs. It was obvious, though, that things had not been left exactly as she had left them – her desk was clean and free of the detritus of her everyday labors.

Ariana inhaled deeply and strode forward, bypassing the desk and walking straight towards the large painting depicting an idealized version of Ancora. Standing beneath it, she pushed on a square of paneling. The wood gave way with a quiet snick, and she pushed it out of the way. Inside of the compartment was a large sheaf of papers. Ariana grabbed the whole bundle into her arms and deposited them on the desk. Unbalanced, the stack toppled, and documents scattered haphazardly across the surface.

She gave a small smile at the mess, now things were as she remembered them. Settling herself into her chair, she began to scan each of the papers, looking for Teran’s name.

Written by - Ardwen

He opened another door and called Ariana’s name again, an empty room was all that greeted Elerus. The little elf bit the inside of his mouth and stomped his feet in frustration. He had walked back down the stairs in a hunch to begin his search on the first level of the house; he had suspected that Ardwen would want to be as far away as possible from the Saint while still being inside the same house. However, as this was the third silent and abandoned room he had entered, Elerus considered that his intuition might have been mistaken. Elerus moved to the next room down and knocked on the door, to his surprise it swung open from the inside. The woman who greeted him was not Ariana. Elerus knitted his brow in confusion before he remembered the serving staff and attendants that Mavigan had invited in earlier. The young lady had a cloth in her hands that she kept folding and unfolding, and as the winged child regarded her face he noticed the tightness around her mouth and her bloodshot eyes.

That she had been weeping was obvious enough, but the maiden put on a brave face and with a slight bow said, “Can I help you, little one?”

Elerus bobbed his head and replied, “I’m looking for Ariana, do you know where she is?”

The lady’s mouth twitched slightly and she blurted out in a voice near to tears, “Yes, yes! She went down the hallway to the last room because . . . because that monster in elf’s skin! He did it; I could hear him growling at her from here. I didn’t know . . . what to do, I just . . . please go.” The young woman dabbed at her eyes with the cloth and put her hands on Elerus’s shoulders. She turned him around and pointed down the hallway, indicating with a gesture the correct chamber, with that she closed the door. Elerus decided to leave her alone and continued down the corridor.

The door to Ariana’s office stood open, and the little boy found the Abbess poring over documents scattered haphazardly across a large wooden desk. She looked distracted, grabbing a few leaves of paper and muttering as her eyes darted across them. Elerus took a few hesitant steps into the room. He took the time to regard the woman who had made him feel more at home and safe than he had in many years. After all that had happened to him, his strength and very status stripped away, his identity and place uncertain, it had been Ariana who gave him real hope. He had put on a stoic act for Ardwen, smiled and joked about being trapped in child’s body.

It was Ariana who had made him feel as if he was not trapped at all. Man or child, elf or orphaned offspring of a dead empire, he had felt Ariana’s compassion. More than that, it was love, unconditional love, the kind that Elerus had only read about in storybooks and legends about the gods. He had never seen it before, and now Ardwen had said that she wanted to die, to leave to a place he could not follow. “Ari-ana.” Elerus stammered. The winged child felt cool blue eyes look at him. Elerus swallowed and said in one jumbled breath, “Ai, laurie lantar lassi surinen! Yeni aradonel—“ The white-haired boy stopped in midsentence as he realized he had blurted everything out in elven. Elerus reached his hand to his mouth and bit his thumbnail, he was not certain what to say now, and his mind kept putting everything into elven.

Elerus let out a small whimper of irritation as he thought how simple this should be. He didn’t want to say anything complex or give a great speech; he just wanted Ariana to stay, to be near her. The small elf decided to go with his instincts. Elerus ran forward and wrapped his arms around Ariana’s legs in a tight hug, burying his face in the cloth, taking in the simple pleasure of her presence. “Tell me he’s lying.” He muttered. “Promise me you won’t go.”

Written by - Ariana

Ariana patted the sobbing boy on the back as he clung to her middle in an utter panic, even as her face scrunched in confusion. It was fairly obvious who 'he' was, but as for the aforementioned destination, she could not fathom what Ardwen might have told him to put him into such a state.

"Elerus," she said comfortingly, "where am I supposed to be going, hmmm? All I told Ardwen was that I wanted to hunt down the other Hands at some point, but it wouldn't be for a long while because Mavigan needs me here. Of course, when I do go, I'd invite you and Ardwen to come with me. Did Ardwen tell you I would leave you behind?"

Written by - Ardwen

Elerus didn’t reply to Ariana immediately. For a moment he just stood there in silence, Ariana’s voice was soft and comforting, a tone that spoke directly his senses and promised never to lie or harm. A slight smile crept along the boy’s face, Ardwen had been wrong, and yet . . . there was something missing from Ariana’s reply. The ancient bladeweaver had been incorrect, but Elerus decided that he could banish all doubt with but one more question – after all it had been the thought of Ariana’s demise that had so undone Ardwen. Elerus folded his wing along with his arms around Ariana and looked directly up.

He still clung in a needy hug to the Abbess, his chin resting on the soft fabric of her tunic. He looked at the Lady of the Hands with vibrant blue eyes that seemed to shimmer. “Ardwen,” Elerus began slowly, “said . . . he said you didn’t want to live anymore . . . that you wanted . . . gurth. Elerus squeezed a little harder on Ariana before he spat out the word in common. “Die.” The white-haired youth could practically feel the word as it left his lips, it seemed to hang heavy in the air and hover like wheeling carrion fowl. Elerus looked right into Ariana’s eyes and whispered, “But you said you wouldn’t leave us, right?”

Written by - Ariana

The hand that was gently stroking his hair stopped at the utterance of his question. Ariana’s eyes crinkled with pain, and she was silent for several moments. When she finally spoke, the words were rough with emotion.

“I will not lie to you, Elerus. There are times…” Ariana stopped abruptly and signaled to Elerus he should straighten. She stood and grabbed his hand, leading them both to the large painting of the idealized Ancora. Fastening her eyes upon it, she continued.

“Humanity was never meant to have immortality, Elerus. The Father in His wisdom did not build us for it. I see this picture of what was and the knowledge that it has all turned to dust hurts my soul. It reminds me that I am so very tired.”

She squeezed his hand gently. “And it is too cruel for any parent to outlive her children. Sometimes I wonder why I am still here. Why am I not dust?”

Ariana turned from the painting and knelt on the floor ensuring she and the little elf were eye-to-eye. “But when those thoughts creep in I look at Mavigan, and you, and even Ardwen and I am reassured that I still have a purpose. I am not alone. And that will keep me fighting.”

She pulled Elerus into a tight hug. “My soul was dead for a very long time, Elerus. It will take awhile for me to remember how to live again. Each morning I remind myself what I have to live for, and as time passes, it will get easier. Having you here helps more than you can possibly know.”

She released Elerus and sat full on the floor, propping her back on the wall behind. Ariana then gently pulled Elerus into her lap and held him close. “Ardwen hears what he wishes and rarely listens. He says he wants to protect me and I do not doubt that, but I remember what protection meant in the olden days. I was nearly a prisoner in my own city because my well-meaning flock wanted to keep me safe.” Images of a dark and different type of prison flitted through her mind and she swallowed hard. “And while the sentiment is appreciated, I am done being a bird in a gilded cage.”

“I cannot give Ardwen carte blanche to protect me as he sees fit, so he is no doubt sulking. You know as well as I do he would hover constantly. Even well-meaning individuals could do naught but be cowed by his constant glaring presence over my shoulder. That kind of protection would only make my diplomatic duties more difficult. Do you understand?”

Written by - Ardwen

“I understand.” Elerus said as soon as Ariana had finished speaking. The little elf turned his face up toward Ariana’s and simply stared at her. He honestly did understand, perhaps better than she could know. Humanity was not meant for immortality, but the Highborn were ageless – at least those born before time were. Elerus sighed. “I know I don’t seem it, but you somehow saw that I am older than I look; Ardwen and I have both seen whole ages of the world join the ash of time. I do understand how you feel.” The pale child lowered his eyes again. “But I also understand how Ardwen feels. You helped him fight off his own ennui, he found something in you, something rare. He would take that and save it. I would too.”

The young elf paused here and placed a hand on Ariana’s, he couldn’t help but notice the difference in size. “But I would rather you be happy than preserved.” The small elf snuggled deeper into the Abbess’s embrace. “Ardwen complained that you had no answers for what you want, but I think he’s wrong. With some time and healing I know you’ll hear the dreams in your heart, and when you do maybe we can even seek them together.” The winged child rested his head on Ariana’s arm and looked back up. “I’m sorry about your dress.” Elerus paused and his eyes darted around before they settled back on Ariana, the boy’s cheeks had flushed a shy red. “Um, but it does feel nice to be held.” He stifled a yawn born out of comfort and contentment and then added with a slight shrug, “You’re warm.”

Written by - Ariana

Ariana smiled. "Warm I may be, but we both have work to do, so UP!" With gentle hands she pushed Elerus onto his feet, rising to her own feet behind him. "I have a meeting to prepare for, and you have a grumpy elf to console."

Ariana gave Elerus a hug. "If you can, explain to him the difference between protection and suffocation. Mayhaps you will have more luck than I did."

She shooed him out of the room. "And when you are finished with Ardwen, you can get yourself cleaned up. The tailors put a rush job on your everyday clothes, so you will find some new garments in your room."

"And Elerus," she added with a twinkle in her eye, "use soap this time, ok?"

Written by - Ardwen

"Of course, soap. I hope they have my clothes from the Citadel back too." Elerus whispered, his eyes fixed on the ground. Elerus blew out a long breath of air and looked up at the ceiling. "As for Ardwen, I'll do what I can, but I'll not lie to you: this is something he will have to come to terms with on his own as well. It won't be easy, you remind him so much of Shleana, he loved her too after his own fashion." The little elf paused here and a soft smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. "Thank you, Ariana." Elerus said. "If there's anything I can do in return, just let me know." With an exaggerated bow and then a much more informal wave he turned around and ran down the hallway.

It wasn't difficult to locate Ardwen, Elerus found the venerable warrior in the same room that he had left him. Indeed, the only thing which had changed was Ardwen's position, instead of slumping against the wall he stood facing the room's lone window with his back to the door. Elerus entered the room, Ardwen did not bother to greet him. "Done waisting your time?" Were the first words out of Ardwen's mouth.

Elerus did not reply at first, instead he let silence stretch on. Eventually Ardwen twisted his torso around and regarded his friend with a veiled glance. "It's a shame when we're deprived of freedom, isn't it Ardwen?" Elerus opened.

"Don't ply your sophistry against me Elerus." Ardwen growled.

"Humor me." The winged child remained quiet, the sable-winged warrior did likewise. Elerus continued, "We decided at one point that our freedom was worth more than our lives. When your father tossed us into the gladiator pits, we might have kept winning, and thus we might have kept living - so long as we continued to bring in a profit and score him political influence. We were chips, pawns - hated and detested - but not without value."

"That was different, El, that was a choice between life and death."

"No, it wasn't. A slave does not have life, he has nothing which is not slipped from his master's palm. We had no way of knowing we would live, whatever the costs. Ardwen, we chose death, and you know it."

Ardwen clasped his hands behind his back and cleard his throat. Elerus pressed on, "We were three children challenging the Empire, three ignorant brats mocking the thrones of gods. If we had accepted Procopius's whims we might have crawled by for as long as he found us useful." Elerus walked and stood next to his old friend. "It cost you your wing, and Selinar did pay with his existence. Yet not once did we relent. We could have kept running, we could have never escaped, we could have done any number of things other than fighting. Think about why we did that Ardwen."

"If you're hinting that Ariana views her condition as vile as being thrown into a pit of gryphons and then being hunted by an entire legion, then she is still as insane as she was before coming to Westgale." Ardwen said with a grunt.

"Chains of silk or chains of iron, they're fetters all the same. She must be free to find her dream, Ardwen. Ariana will do that if you want it or not, your only option would be to cage or kill her. Even if the morrow moon rides by day and the sun by night, I know you won't do that. So the only real question is: will you help or hinder?" Elerus spun around and walked to the threshold of the small room. Before leaving he said one final thing to his battle brother. "Take your time and consider this well, Ardwen. For all that it's worth, I think the answer was obvious from the second you confessed that love was involved, love can only choose one thing." The white-haired boy left the room and his brooding companion behind. Recalling his promise to the Lady of Ancora he set course to the bathing room, though he couldn't help but wonder if he might not talk his way out of taking a full bath again.

Written by - Wilhelm

As Mavigan approached the line of Queen's Guards holding back the crowd, Wilhelm saw her cringe for a moment and then brace herself as she caught sight of Acting High Priestess Korella leading the delegation from the Temple of Nagarren.

*I think it is time to give her a hand and to set the stage.* he thought.

"Queen's Guard Report!" he bellowed in a command tone.

The eight guard's spun about and clashed their spears against their shields and bowed to Mavigan as one, slowly followed by the crowd. The squad leader then saluted Wilhelm and reported,

"Sir! Squad Leader Landon reports Queen's Guard Company Able, Squad Three present and ready to protect and defend the Queen. Long Live the Queen!"

The Guardsmans raised their spears and shields and led the crowd in the cheer.

LONG LIVE THE QUEEN! replied the crowd with gusto, followed by cheers. The delegation from the Temple halted and joined in after a pause, there being no clear path to approach Mavigan.

"Queen's Guard, attend your Queen for court!" Wilhelm ordered. The Guards formed a V with Mavigan and Wilhelm at the point and the squad leader out in front to act as court bailiff. Mavigan looked started but drew herself up in what she hoped was a royal manner, emulating the way her mother had stood. Wilhelm then addressed the crowd.

"Queen Mavigan greets Her loyal populace on this, the first day of Her return. The Ironskane invaders have been driven out and Westgale is free!"

More cheers arose. Wilhelm waited and then continued.

"Many took part in driving out the invaders, and you are all to be commended, but one man stood out for his admirable leadership in a time of chaos. Queen Mavigan calls forth Manuel of Westgale to continue his efforts and bring new hope to the people as Mayor of Port Westgale."

Manuel, Forlorn Hope no longer, had been standing a few steps back. As new cherring arose, he strode forth, turned, and bowed to Wilhelm and then kneeled before Mavigan.

"Manuel, will you accept the post of Mayor of Port Westgale and swear fealty to the Queen and pledge to carry out the duties of this office to the best of your abilities?"

"I will" replied Manuel in a firm voice. Wilhelm leaned over to Mavigan and whispered to her to draw her dagger, pointing out the royal arms upon it. Mavigan nodded slightly in sudden understanding and drew it forth, holding its hilt out to show the royal arms and then placing it level between her two palms. Manuel placed his hands over Mavigan's hands, the dagger between their hands. Wilhelm then intoned,

"Do you, Manuel, now swear fealty by mouth and hands, before these witnesses, to your undoubted Queen, to serve her as Mayor of Port Westgale to the best of your ability, to obey her orders and to preserve and defend this city, until she releases you from this oath or departs the throne or death take you or the world end?"

Manuel repeated back the oath in a clear voice and withdrew his hands. Following whispered advice from Wilhelm, Mavigan then touched the tip of her dagger lightly to Manuel's head and said,

"Rise Lord Manuel, Lord Mayor of Port Westgale."

As Manuel stood up Wilhelm reached into his pouch and withdrew a heavy gold chain with a medallion of the arms of the city and presented it to Mavigan with further whispered instruction. Mavigan placed it about Manuel's neck and said,

"Wear this chain of office as a sign of your oath and office and of Our favor."

"Lord Mayor, attend your Queen!" stated Wilhelm, gesturing Lord Manuel to stand on Mavigan's other side. Cheers broke out again from the crowd. Wilhelm waited, and then called out,

"Her Majesty will now hold a brief court to grant audience to petitioners. First, and foremost in her favor, She calls forward the delegation from the Temple of Nagarren."

The Acting High Priestess, who had been fuming in silence while having to wait, now looked a bit started at the respect shown, but gathered her flock and started forward. As they came forward, Wilhelm whispered to Mavigan,

"Now you are on a better footing. Remember that you are no longer the lowly acolyte to her Priestess, but rather the Queen granting audience to the Acting High Priestess of the Temple. You do need the Temple's help and training, but remember that you are now the Queen, and Manuel and I and your Queen's Guard are here to support you."


Written by - Ariana Page 29 Book 4

Mavigan tried hard not to fidget as High Priestess Korella bore down on her like a fat troll hungry for its breakfast of human meat. “OK Mavi,” she thought, “you can do this. You are Queen; she is just a bitch. Queen trumps bitch.”

The internal monologue continued until she stood face to nose with the High Priestess. A mask of regal tolerance dropped over Mavigan’s feature, and many in the crowd would later exclaim over the resemblance to her mother.

It was hard waiting for the initial formalities to be completed. There was the announcement of their approach, the interminable listing of titles and honors, and the official proclamation of support from the Temple of Nagarren. If she were honest, Mavigan would have to admit to a substantial amount of satisfaction at seeing the woman who had made so many of her years painful having to bow before her in humility. And judging from the grimace on the face of the old battleaxe, Korella was not pleased, which only made Mavigan happier.

By the time the formalities had ceased, Mavigan was in a very good mood, and when she was finally allowed to speak, she did it with a smile on her face.

“I bid you greetings High Priestess. It is apparent to me that in my new role, it is incumbent upon me to further my training so that I may successfully serve as an Avatar, as my Mother did before me.”

There was a spark of glee in the eyes of the High Priestess. To be named as tutor to the newest monarch would be an honor that could potentially increase her standing in the church hierarchy. It would also put her in a place to influence the policies developed in the kingdom.

Korella opened her mouth to reply, to no doubt accept the responsibility without hesitation, but Mavigan kept speaking. “And since you are the High Priestess and have many duties, I know it would be selfish of me to ask for tutoring from you specifically. For this reason, I request that you appoint Allandra as my tutor to the divine arts.”

The spark in Korella’s eyes died, replaced by a hard glare directed at Mavigan. Mavigan noticed and tried hard to restrain herself from dancing a jig. Finally, she had gotten her own back! Realizing it would be inappropriate to stick her tongue out at the woman, she bit the inside of her lip instead, resolving to laugh about this at length with Allandra later.

Korella glanced at Wilhelm, a silent petition for interference, but Wilhelm stood resolute behind his Queen, affording Korella no more than a blank expression. She then glanced at the newly appointed Mayor, whose shoulders were shaking with poorly contained mirth. Realizing she was trapped, and that the silence was getting longer and longer, she drew herself up to her full height. Schooling her own features, she inclined her head, a signal of her defeat.

“It will be as you ask, your Majesty.”

Allandra left the flock of Nagarren groupies and came to stand behind Manuel.

As the Nagarren contingent moved away, Mavigan waved her hand. “OK folks, we’ll do more of this later. Dismissed…or something.”

Turning, she grabbed Allandra by the arm and practically dragged the girl behind her into the manor house.

Written by - Ariana

The pair dashed up the stairs with the speed and exuberance of youth, Mavigan leading. The sound of their hurried footsteps resounded through the house, mimicking a stampede as they ran down the hallway to Mavigan’s room. Bursting through the door, Mavigan slammed it shut behind them.

Bending over to catch her breath, Mavigan beamed a smile at her long-time friend. “Did you see the look on her face?”

“Oh, yeah,” replied Allandra. “It was priceless!”

The two girls soon dissolved into laughter. It was a joyous sound fueled by the joy of being reunited and the relief of a common ordeal overcome. Once breath was exhausted, they flopped on the bed.

Allandra spoke first. “I was really worried about you, ya know. You disappeared without so much as a word, and then we heard about your family….”

Green eyes darkened at the mention of her dead family. “Sorry to make you worry. Things were…chaotic, really.”

“Its OK. I understand.” Allandra sat up, her blonde hair tousled from their headlong dash. She reached over and clasped Mavigan in a tight hug. “I’m just glad you are safe.”

Mavigan put her arms around her friend, and they shared a companionable embrace. When they parted, each bore a broad smile and a twinkle in the eyes.

“So,” Allandra said, “I’m supposed to teach you to channel the goddess, eh? You, who could only manage to work the levitate spell after two hours of meditation.”

“Yeah,” Mavigan replied in all seriousness. “Things have changed since then.”

The look Allandra gave her was assessing, as if she was cataloging all the things that were different. Silently, she raised one hand and held it in front of Mavigan’s chest. Her hand glowed momentarily, and then there was a responding glow from Mavigan.

Allandra looked surprised. “But that’s…It’s wide open!”

Mavigan nodded solemnly.

“But how can you stand it? Being that open all the time? All that power just churning?”

“Well,” started Mavigan, “it kinda burns. A persistent ache just below my ribs.”

“I don’t doubt it.” Allandra bit her lip, thinking. “Have you tried to discharge it?”

“Discharge?”

“Yeah. Use it for something.” Allandra’s eyes scanned the room looking for something suitable. Spotting it, she added, “See that vase over there. Levitate it and see if the pain in your chest lessens.”

“But, I haven’t prepared,” said Mavigan doubtfully.

“Girl, with as big as that channel is, you shouldn’t need to prep. Go on, try it.”

Mavigan concentrated on the vase, trying to direct the energy from inside her towards the object she wished to affect. The difficult part was the concentration. Mavigan had never been good at meditation; it was a skill that required sitting still for very long periods of time, and she was much too active an individual to enjoy sitting still.

It took several minutes before they saw any change in the vase. It rocked slightly, and then rose a few inches above the table before exploding into a pile of dust.

Mavigan gaped openly at where the vase had been. “Did I just do that?”

“Oh, dear,” said Allandra. “I can see that the first order of business is to work on your control. Control should help you close and open the channel at will, or when Nagarren wills it.”

Mavigan looked thoughtful. “Are you sure? ‘Cause being able to blow stuff up would certainly come in handy. At the very least, it should certainly be more fun.”

Allandra looked at Mavigan. Mavigan looked at Allandra. And then the two dissolved into laughter once again.

Written by - Ardwen

Elerus ran the towel along the matted clumps of long hair which dangled from his head to his waste. The little elf muttered and then shook his head from side to side, droplets of water flashed like tiny flipped coins in sunlight before vanishing. The young boy appraised his head of hair in the mirror, and also checked to make sure he’d removed the dirt and grime gained from playing tag in the city. He had been surprised just how much had clung to him, he’d also been surprised to find the sticky tar he’d wiped from the barrel lids on the lower part of his tunic – Elerus did not remember getting it on his hands.

Deciding that he looked well enough to escape any further plunges in a tub for one day, Elerus went over to the clothes that a household servant had laid out earlier. It took one glance for him to immediately wish that he had given more precise instructions to the tailors. The clothes he had received earlier from the Citadel were present, but every other garment was new. True to Ariana’s words, there was none of the formal clothing that had been promised; instead the selection consisted of everyday wear and utility. Including a pair of blue pajama bottoms that looked to have some sort of stylized yellow duck pattern stitched into them. Elerus swallowed with an audible gulp that sounded loud in the empty room. “I guess I’d best get used to it.” Elerus whispered to himself. No sooner had he finished speaking than another, much louder noise cracked through the air – the sound of shattering glass. The white-haired child trained his ears to the noise; it sounded as if it came from where he had left Ardwen.

With a wince Elerus slipped on the pants and the accompanying shirt, which was thankfully devoid of pattern or ornament of any kind. Rushing out the door the little boy swiftly zeroed in on the source of the noise; he realized when he reached the room that it could not possibly be Ardwen because there was laughter coming from the chamber. Curious, Elerus regarded the closed door for a few seconds before reaching up to knock.

Written by - Teran

Teran sat in silence after Ariana had departed. Time passed and minutes stretched into hours. Teran's face was blank, almost completely emotionless though he made no overt attempt to hide what he was feeling. He was certain that the Raven could read him in this state, certain his conflict, pain, and anger.... fury even showed through his mask. Teran didn't even blink when his unfinished meal was removed. After more than two hours of silence his mask shifted and he looked to the Raven.

Teran knew his silent request would be understood and he knew the Raven would move to get him parchment and quil. He studied the man as he moved, admiring him in a way. He had come to power, built up so much, survived... it was uncommon for humans to rise up on a sharp mind and good instincts alone.

The items were set down for the assassin and he nodded his thanks before taking the quil in his hand, he wrote quickly already knowing exactly what he wished to say... a bittersweet message. He did not use flowery language, he didn't even put down her name or sign the paper when he was finished.

He set down the quil and slid the parchment away from him, inviting the Raven to pick it up. He didn't fold it or try to conceal what it said in any way.

The note read:

"Strength does not come from the sword or war. Neither does it come from good wishes. We are not all blessed with the optimism you possess. While you were hiding I witnessed events set into motion that would destroy this world if something was not done... if the people were not prepared.

I regret that innocent people were killed and I do not seek to absolve myself of responsibility. I would have acted differently if I had been aware of your impending return however I saw only one path to avoiding the destruction of this world and I chose to take it rather than sit idly with mere hopes that someone else would take the responsibility upon their shoulders.

The pain I have caused Mavigan and her family... the pain I have caused you will ever be a burden on my shoulders. I do not seek forgiveness, such a request would be selfish and I have caused enough pain however know this: My loyalties are unchanged by the passage of time."

Teran had left the message vague so that it would be clear he had no interest in further manipulations. He would follow her command and lend his skills to whatever plan she might hatch... or he would accept punishment and remain imprisoned or worse if that is what she desired.

Written by - Wilhelm

The Raven quickly read the note than then took it in hand.

"I will deliver this. It will be interesting to see what Mavigan and Ariana decide. But for Mavigan's order to place you here and Ariana's confirmation, you would no longer be alive. Mavigan's father and Wilhelm and I were the closest of friends."

The Raven nodded to the guards at the door, who stood opened the door and closed it after he left, remaining vigilant. The guards and mages outside the door maintained their watch as he left.

The Raven proceeded to the Ancoran Mansion to deliver the note, exchanging greeetings to those he met.

Written by - Ariana

The knock at the door pulled the two girls from their revelry. Mavigan popped up from the bed and threw open the door. Elerus stood there with wet hair and clad in pants with covered in yellow ducks.

“Runt!” exclaimed Mavigan. She put a hand on top of his head and mussed his damp hair. “Cute pajamas,” she added with a wink.

With a sweeping gesture, she bade him enter. “Elerus, meet Allandra. Allandra, meet Elerus…my little brother.”

****

Ariana was still poring over the heap of documents on her desk when Raven gave a brief tap on the open door and walked into the room. Wordlessly, he laid his own piece of paper on top of the pile.

She grabbed the missive tentatively, as if afraid of what words it might contain. When she finished, she rose from her desk and crossed the room to stare out the window, her thoughts a tumult. Thankfully, Raven said nothing, giving her time to think.

Obviously, Teran was still convinced that his choice was the right one and he was going to cling to that belief tightly. Ariana understood what it was like to hold onto a belief so tightly because it was the only thing keeping you anchored.

She could not ignore her own culpability in the affair. She had left them all rudderless, and could not fault them for attempting to find their own way. Had she not done the same?

Blame and self-recrimination aside, did his reasons truly matter so long as his loyalty remained true? And she believed him on that score. If she commanded him, he would work diligently to fulfill the task.

Her main issue at the moment was figuring out what to do with him.

“He can’t stay,” she said. Not only would his own life be in danger, his mere presence could undercut Mavigan. An idea began to form and she turned from the window. The expression she gave Raven could only be called calculating. “Could you travel with him without killing him?” There was no recrimination in her question, merely a request for information.

Written by - Ardwen

Elerus felt color bloom on his face at the mention of his attire. It really wasn’t a fair statement; he had simply grabbed and donned what he had at hand. The little elf well knew that if it had been Ardwen smashing things delaying could prove costly, or potentially fatal. At the moment though, the winged child had a different set of problems to deal with – Mavigan had just introduced him to one of her friends. Determined to make a positive impression and repay the young queen for her hospitality and kindness, Elerus raised a hand in greeting and smiled at Mavigan’s friend. “Hello, Allandra.” He said softly. “Pleased to meet you.” The silver-haired boy lowered his arm and cast a quick nervous glance around the room. Odd that he should feel so nervous, it was a poignant reminder that he existed on the humblest of scales now. Yet, that did not mean he had to resent it, Mavigan and Ariana had both proven exceptional not only for this world, but the one that Elerus had known before. To be there for them when they needed him, there was honor enough in that.

Written by - Wilhelm

The Raven look startled for a moment, then his features returned to their usual mask. He considered the question for a time and then replied.

"The only reason that the man still breathes who slew my best friend and my king and the rest of the his family except Queen Mavigan is because Queen Mavigan herself ordered me to confine him safely until she could deal with him. Clearly I am capable of not killing him, as I have held off so far.

However, Lady Abbess, with all due respect to you, the only person who can determine Teran's fate is the sole remaining member of the family he slew. If Queen Mavigan orders his death I will carry out that decree and if he resists then everyone in this city will do their utmost to kill him or die in the attempt. I will be first among them.

However, if Queen Mavigan chooses to spare him or to postpone that sentence and instead send him on a mission vital to Ancora's interests then I will accept her decision. If she further orders me to accompany him and cooperate in that mission then I will do so to the best of my ability. I will also watch him vigilantly and at the first sign of any betrayal on his part I will strike.

Please confer with Her Majesty on this matter. I will await word of her decision. I concur that Teran cannot remain living in this city. He must either depart or die. Until then, I must take my leave and return to my duty to guard him."

The Raven made an elegant courtly bow to Ariana and then turned and walked swiftly out of the room.

Written by - Ariana

Allandra acknowledged the greeting with a bright smile and a nod of the head. “So cute!” she exclaimed. A look of confusion crossed her face. “Since when do you have a little brother?”

Mavigan tossed her wink and placed a proprietary arm around Elerus’s shoulders. “Since yesterday,” she said proudly.

Allandra gave her a look of disbelief.

“What? I’m Queen. If I want a little brother, I can have one. And I picked him.”

“Alright,” chuckled Allandra, raising her hands in defeat. Turning to Elerus she added, “Nice to meet you, Elerus.”

Before he had a chance to reply, Mavigan leaned down to whisper conspiratorially in his ear. “Hey Runt, you wanna see something really cool?”

At his nod, she pointed to a small white makeup bowl on her dressing table. “Watch that.”

Staring intently, Mavigan pulled on the churning power within her and directed it towards the dish. She expected it to explode into a cloud of dust. To her mind, the ability to blow things up at will was an impressive skill to have, and it wouldn’t hurt to show off to her little brother.

“Oh, neat!” exclaimed Elerus.

“Meow,” said the makeup bowl.

Instead of exploding, the power had turned the makeup dish into a small white kitten. The furry creature sniffed confusedly at the items on the dressing table.

“What the-?” demanded Mavigan. “How do you explain that?” she pointedly ask Allandra.

Allandra shook her head. “No control at all.”

Mavigan had the grace to look sheepish. “Runt, how do you feel about a pet?”

“I think a pet is a great idea,” came an amused voice from the doorway.

Mavigan whirled around to see her Nana standing there, her eyes crinkled in a smile. “Nana. I didn’t see you standing there.”

“I noticed. Glad to see you found yourself a tutor,” she nodded at Allandra, “and have been practicing." She raised a hand and covered a small smile. "I’m sorry to interrupt, dear, but I need to speak with you.”

“Oh, Ok. Runt, why don’t you take the cat to the kitchens and be sure she gets a food and water dish, eh? Allandra, I’ll find you later.”

With a wave, Mavigan followed Ariana down the hallway and stairs to her office. She watched anxiously as Ariana shut the door behind them.

Written by - Ariana

“Nana, what is it?” Mavigan asked quietly.

Ariana closed the door with a click, turned and walked to her desk. Pulling one piece of parchment from the large stack on the desk, she held it out to Mavigan.

Puzzled, Mavigan grabbed it, eyes quickly scanning the contents. It was an old document, the ink faded and the paper crinkled. The contents were technical, but seemed to detail the forming of a secretive fifth sect of the Hands of Providence called the Hidden Hands. Mavigan duly read the dry document all the way to the end.

There at the bottom of the parchment were two signatures. The first was her Nana’s. Mavigan had seen her signature on other historical documents, and the small flowing script was familiar and comforting in a strange way.

When she read the second signature, however, her stomach clinched painfully even as her eyes widened in disbelief. Teran Witherblaze. Though faded, the strokes were bold and confident, much like the man himself.

The hands holding the document trembled. “What does this mean?”

Ariana did not reply immediately. She walked to the nearest window and stared out at the dwindling sun. When she finally spoke, the words were soft and Mavigan had to strain to hear them. “It is him. Impossible though it seems, the man currently under guard is my Teran.”

Rage swamped through Mavigan. The document crumpled in her fist and she trembled with the effort of not hitting something or someone. “What are you saying?” she demanded. “He deserves to die for what he did. Are you asking me to spare him?”

Silence descended between the two women; one quivered in anger, the other stood quiet, the only evidence of her distress was the droop of her normally proud shoulders. Finally, she turned her head to look at Mavigan with sad gray eyes. “No. By my reckoning he owes you three life-debts. And some debts can only be paid with blood.”

Mavigan deflated slightly, robbed of the immediate cause of her righteous indignation. The crumpled paper dropped the floor, forgotten.

“Can you kill him?” Ariana asked softly.

“What?”

“Can you look him in the eyes and stab your dagger into his heart? Will seeing his life extinguish satisfy you?”

“I –“ Mavigan started, suddenly unsure. The opportunity to serve justice had already been presented to her once. She had stood before an unarmed Teran, dagger in hand. Teran had been willing to accept any punishment she wanted to mete out, and when she had struck, she had purposefully missed.

Her legs suddenly weak, Mavigan went to the nearest chair and collapsed in it. What did it mean that she had been unable to kill the man who had murdered her family? She knew she hated him, he had betrayed her in the worst possible way. Everything in her knew that the only proper repentance for this was to take his life.

“You can go right this minute and execute him,” Ariana continued in that soft relentless voice. “No one would stop you, not even Teran himself. You could hang his head in front of the castle, and the people would cheer you for avenging the royal family.”

Mavigan closed her eyes and tried to picture it. Dagger in hand, she advanced on the man who had slain her family. He stood there calmly, dark eyes fastened on her own willing to accept the death blow from her hand. In her mind’s eye, she thrust the dagger forward again and again, her teeth clenched, grip tight on the hilt.

She missed each time.

Swallowing hard, she looked at Ariana with haunted eyes. “I can’t kill him.” The words tore from her throat in a harsh whisper. “He betrayed me and I hate him, and I still can’t kill him. What’s wrong with me?”

Ariana moved forward and placed a comforting hand on Mavigan’s shoulder. “Nothing. The heart wants what it wants.”

“But what do I do?” Mavigan wailed. “He can’t stay here. Once word gets out the people will tear him apart. Of course, that would save me the trouble.”

Ariana sighed. “I have considered that. He owes you three life debts. Why not send him on three different dangerous missions? His skills have proved useful to me in the past.”

“Put him to work?” Mavigan asked incredulously. The thought had never crossed her mind, but then again, Wilhelm had given her a really long list of things to do. And maybe, just maybe, if he was out of sight, she could also push him out of mind.

Her eyes narrowed as a possible snag crossed her mind. “What if he betrays me again? He could put the whole kingdom at risk.”

“Send someone with him. Someone strong and whom you trust. I believe the Raven would be willing.”

Mavigan found herself nodding along with her Nana’s words, a plan forming. “So, I should send Wilhelm to tell them…”

“No,” interrupted Ariana.

“No?” Mavigan glanced sharply at her Nana. “What do you mean, no?”

“You are deciding a man’s fate. You hold his life and death in your hands. Take responsibility for it and look him in the eye when you make your pronouncement.”

Arms crossed over her chest as she glared. “I don’t want to see him.”

“I know,” replied Ariana softly.

A contest of wills ensued in the following silence. Mavigan glared at her Nana, chin tilted haughtily, no small feat considering she was seated and her Nana was standing. Ariana merely returned the stare with calm acceptance.

Mavigan cracked first. “Oh, alright!” she said angrily, leaping to her feet. She stomped her way to the office door, propelled herself through it and headed to the front door. The soft shush of Nana’s slippers across the floor told her that Ariana was following behind.

Shoving herself outside, she surprised the guard outside. They scrambled to form up around the two ladies, but Mavigan paid them no mind. Anyone brave enough to approach immediately backed off once they got a glimpse of her scowling face.

They crossed the distance between the manor house and the castle at a fast trot. Refusing to slow, she brushed past all those who stood between her and Teran, finally bursting in the room unannounced.

Her first reaction was to glance around the nicely appointed room. “This doesn’t look like a dark, dank hole to me.”

The moment allowed her to gather her courage, and with a deep breath she looked at Teran, staring into his eyes. She concentrated on looking fierce in the hopes he wouldn’t call her bluff. “Let’s get this straight. I hate you. But Nana seems to think you can be useful, so I’m sending you on some missions. The first is to go to the Shrikefield and figure out what my other Uncle is up to. I’m sending the Raven with you, and if you try to betray me, he has permission to kill you on the spot and bring back your head to decorate my mantle.”

“If you refuse, I will kill you right here and now. Clear?”

Written by - Ardwen

The kitten purred softly as Elerus cradled it in his arms. The little boy pressed his face against its soft fur as he carried the cat down the hallway and a short flight of stairs to the kitchen on the manor house’s ground floor. The winged child recalled his sister’s words. A pet, I’ve never owned a pet before – I never had a home to keep one in, either.

As Elerus turned the corner into the kitchen, he could see serving staff scuttling about seemingly at random. An older lady with hair fringed gray and deep lines bracketing her mouth waved the kitchen’s staff about. While it looked like an elaborate dance rehearsal to the little elf, from what he could catch of the senior maid’s comments there was some trouble in deciding what to fix for supper later in the day. Suddenly the head maid’s eyes fixed on him, and Elerus could see the lines at the corner of her mouth tug up into a precisely angled smile.

“Need some help?” She asked with another tight smile.

Elerus nodded in response and held the little ball of fur out.

“Food and water, right? It seems that’s what everyone around here needs, and we’re having trouble getting it . . . .”

The matronly head of the kitchen’s words fell to an inaudible mumble as she went right to the cabinet where the dishes were and pulled own two small saucers. Within the span of a few heartbeats, Elerus’s new pet had broken up chicken to eat and clean water. The winged child was impressed by how quick everything had been provided, despite the fact that the manor had apparently not seen use in some time, the serving staff was sparing no effort in acclimatizing to it.

“No, no, no!” The grey-haired lady said as she watched Elerus looking at the kitten while it ate. “No animals in the kitchen please, and no children while we’re preparing food. There’s knives and fires and – Ceda! Please see our young guest and his friend back to his quarters, they’re marked. Back to work, everyone! This is a place of the culinary arts, not a nursery!”

Before Elerus could voice a protest he was being shuffled out of the kitchen, kitten in arms, as the serving woman who had been picked out earlier carried his cat’s dishes. “Malia’s really nice once you get to know her,” Ceda said idly as they walked, “she’s just busy right now and stressed, your room’s the one with ‘Elerus” on it, right?”

Elerus bobbed his head once in answer. Once he and the cat were in his room Ceda stopped to spare him a smile and asked, “What’s its name?”

The silver-haired boy blinked and shook his head; he had not given it any thought. The kitchen assistant crouched and placed a hand on the top of his white locks. “I know it must be lonely,” she said, “there’s not any children inside the manor right now. Things’ll settle down soon. I’ve got a little nephew who’d probably love to play with you – how old are ya’?”

The white-winged child shook his head again, another question to which he had no honest answer.

Ceda pressed a fingertip to her lips and hummed. “Well, you look about his age, and he’s around five – I think – so I’d say that’s a good guess.” When Elerus did not respond Ceda sighed and stood, with one last glance she said, “We could all use some more smiles around here, times are tough, but cheer up. If you need anything I’ll be in the kitchen down the hall – Malia’s probably throwing a fit already about how long I’m taking.”

With those words the assistant left, and Elerus sat on the floor, legs crossed, a hand tucked under his chin. He was, so far as he knew, stuck like this, but for some reason Mavigan and Ariana made it seem like it didn’t matter. Here though, alone, the silence seemed to press in on him, and his small frame felt more like crushing armor, a gilded prison. Elerus shuddered suddenly, his thoughts turning to Mavigan. She had brought something to life out of nonliving substance, and she had done so casually with no ritual or even prior knowledge. It was a feat that would have had many Elven archmages wide-eyed with envy and greed. This same young lady, whom he would have called a girl but a few short weeks ago, had declared herself his older sister. She was formidable, and he had no doubt that Ardwen had underestimated her and written her off already – in this his ancient friend was probably not alone.

Elerus leaned his head back against the side of his bed and stared at the ceiling. He didn’t understand the situation he had landed in. Life could be confusing, complicated, and bitter. Then he felt something crawl onto his lap, heard soft purring, and felt a dry raspy tongue lick his fingertips. Without warning he smiled and let out a cheery giggle, he couldn’t help it. It was the other side of the coin, of course, the things that made life worth living. Sometimes, just sometimes, it could be sweet as well.

The little boy looked down at the tiny kitten curled on his legs. His smile widened. “Sugar.” He said.

Written by - Wilhelm

The Raven stood outside the only door to Teran's room of confinement, remembering Ariana's words. Two soldiers stood guard at the door, and two mages sat alertly scanning for magic and maintaining the wards on Teran's chamber. The Raven stroke the hilt of his dagger as he considered what he would prefer to do with Teran compared to what he suspected he would have to do if the Abbess had her way.

Swift footsteps in the corridor outside caused him to turn to the outer door in time to see it thrown open to admit Queen Mavigan followed by Saint Ariana and the Queen's guardsmen. Mavigan had a determined look on her face. The Raven gestured and the two door guards opened the door to Teran's chamber in time for Mavigan to storm through, with Ariana in her wake. Mavigan's guardsmen stopped outside in obedience to another gesture by the Raven, who silently followed Mavigan and Ariana to stand in the doorway behind them.

Listening to Mavigan, it was clear that Ariana had indeed prevailed. As Mavigan concluded, the Raven drew his dagger, made a sign, and held it so Teran could see the dark flame that enveloped the blade illuminating the implacable look on the Raven's face.

Written by - Ardwen

Manuel watched the weathervane shift in the brisk wind, it was shaped like a falcon in midflight. The metal was corroded, shot through with streaks of red, like blood had dripped, ran, and dried on its surface. The once-Forlorn Hope ran a hand over his face and stepped back into his office. He still wore the golden chain of his new station, and he fingered it as he settled back into his seat behind a plain wooden desk. The desk was old, chipped in places and the wood had faded in uneven tones, there were dark stains on the surface so ancient as to be part of the wood. For all that, it was the desk used by the previous mayor of Westgale, who had been one of the first to die under Beridane’s purges. Manuel had known the man, when Beridane had asked for an oath of fealty he had spat at the Usurper’s feet.

“He was a good man.” Manuel muttered to himself.

“Lord-Mayor?” Manuel’s head snapped up and he studied the puzzled expression on Byrs’s face. His new aid, Manuel had found the man an exceptional help in settling into his new position and responsibilities. It was all the more remarkable considering that Byrs looked as if he belonged in a line of heavy infantry rather than at a desk job. Tall and heavyset, with thick eyebrows rested on top of a shelf-like brow, Byrs’s voice was a rumble so deep he had to strain to hear it.

“You ever think you’ve missed your calling in life?” Westgale’s new mayor said idly.

“Lord-Mayor?” Byrs echoed again, the look of befuddlement on his face deepening.

Manuel brought a hand down on the desk with a loud thump and said with a grin, “Byrs, how many times do I have to tell you to not call me that? I don’t want any godsdamned fancy titles. Call me Manuel or asshole, or whatever you want, but none of this flippin’ ‘my lord such-and-such’ horseshit.” Manuel’s grin grew as he watched the big man squirm; he seemed uncomfortable around the newly ennobled mayor’s rough tongue. That would have to change.

As if to cover his discomfort, Byrs reached one meaty hand out, clutching a sheaf of paper. Without a word Manuel took the report and scanned it. For several dozen heartbeats the Mayor of Westgale said nothing, silence reigned in the small office. All at once the man brought a fist down on the table. “All day you’ve brought me nothing but bad news, but this has to be the worst.” Manuel groaned.

Byrs began enumerating on the report, his voice detached and blank, “If we enact sharp rations now, Westgale will have a small window to avoid famine, but Beridane has decimated our food and grain supplies. What the Traitor did not take from our lands and make tribute to the Iron North, he put to the torch. The crown regalia is also missing, Manuel, we think he may have stolen them on his flight from the city.”

The Mayor of Port Westgale massaged his temples and slowly let out a deep lungful of air. “OK, have you got any good news for me, Attendant Byrs?”

“Some, but very little, Lord-Mayor Manuel,” he grinned at Manuel’s frown and handed him another set of papers from the stack he had tucked under his left arm, “the number of Ironskane dead from the prison break that, I have heard, freed you and many others.”

“Yes, I was biding my time for the right moment to . . . escape . . . Byrs, am I reading this right?”

“The figure arrived at was, assuming standard Ironskane deployment and squad strength, a little over a company and a half.”

“That’s not possible,” Manuel hissed, “you’re telling me over a hundred and fifty dead in the span of a single engagement?”

The Mayor’s aid studied his boss with hooded eyes, “If I recall, you made a study of the old documents of the Hands, both primary and secondary sources. Pallanon made sure his soldiers weren’t just pulled from the poor district and handed a sword, he gave them an education. What do you think?”

Manuel’s eyes narrowed as he held Byrs’s gaze, “What company?”

Byrs’s face split in a smile that showed off his teeth, “Third. Galefinder’s Brigade, and yes I was a slope-brow.”

“Well, well, heavy infantry.” Manuel said with a whistle. “I’m not surprised. Alright, here’s my take on it. As you know the original documents the Hands brought with them was in a foreign language, but under the reign of Abbess Ariana it was adopted as a hieratic script, at first for the convenience of the Abbess but it quickly caught on with the court. After Ariana’s disappearance the writing fell out of favor and was largely abandoned, very few bother to learn it today.”

“Good so far,” Byrs rumbled, “but lacking a point.”

“I was getting to that. My point is that the language brought over by the Hands of Providence was in and of itself derived from an even older script. There were hints of it scattered in the documents, mostly names, place-names, and titles. There are only a few references to Ardwen or his deeds in the texts that survive, or rather in the texts that I have read. In two separate instances I encountered a word I could not directly translate attached to Ardwen’s name, and once when it was apparently used synecdochically. That word was, near as I could puzzle out, elohim, divinitas, divine.”

“So, god-like?”

Manuel shrugged. “Perhaps, perhaps not. In any case, old texts exaggerate; time has a way of inflating people and events.”

Byrs coughed. “Take a look at the second page of the report, Lord-Mayor.”

Manuel did so, his eyes flickering over the writing. “Brys,” he said without preamble, “I have another assignment for you. Go fetch Ardwen and tell him to come to my office, immediately.”

Written by - Ardwen

The newly appointed Lord-Mayor of Westgale chewed on his lower lip, he stopped and tented his fingers. With a grunt Manuel unfolded his hands and placed them on his desk. He was restless, and it was showing. These next few minutes could decide Westgale’s future, and I made an oath that I would give everything to ensure Westgale has a future. The former Forlorn Hope’s thoughts were interrupted as the door to his office flew open, the door banged against the wall and shuddered, Ardwen had apparently felt the need to make his arrival known. “Not a good start,” Manuel said under his breath.

Byrs had followed the Elven warrior into the Mayor’s quarters, but Manuel dismissed him with a wave of his hand. The attendant watched as Ardwen sat himself without invitation, crossed his legs at the knees, and then knuckled a fist under his cheek as if to support his head. Byrs’s eyebrows rose at the impropriety, but Manuel coughed once, loudly, and the once-Galefinder infantryman departed with a slight bow. The door closed with a final protesting groan behind him.

Alone now, the two warriors stared at each other. The sable-winged elf’s gaze was detached and apathetic, as if the Mayor of Westgale’s official summons was nothing more than an interruption to be tolerated. Manuel let the silence drag on for a few moments, until Ardwen broke it.

“I assume you called me in here for more than a staring contest?”

Manuel drummed his fingers on the desk’s surface. “I had all these questions and answers planned out in my mind, but now that we’ve come to it nothing seems to go as planned.”

Ardwen scoffed and said, “Doesn’t it just? What do you want, Manuel? More importantly, how does it involve me?”

The Mayor of Westgale let out a small sigh and rose to his feet, pushing a sheet of paper across the table toward Ardwen as he did so. “Please read that,” he said, “while I pace. It helps me think.”

The ancient warrior’s eyes darted over the sheet of paper, the only sound in the small office was the steady rhythm of Manuel’s boots as he walked back and forth from a window to the desk in tight circles.

“So you’ve got a soldier shortage, Mayor. Are you asking me to join up? If so, then answer is no.”

Manuel spun around and faced the Elf. “You are already sworn to Ariana, and by extension all of Westgale, there is no need for that.

“Do not,” Ardwen snarled, “presume to tell me where my loyalties are. If you’ve nothing else-“

“Peace, Ardwen, please.” Manuel said while raising a hand. “I didn’t summon you here to ask you to join the military or campaign for us, I called you here to ask for your advice.

“Are you certain you want that, Manuel? Are you sure I am qualified? Perhaps I should take a guess at the current situation, see how close I am, and we can go from there?”

Manuel nodded.

“You’re concerned because Mavigan’s reclaimed Westgale, but nothing else. You’ve got a city that’s isolated from its farmlands, and even if you had an army to march out with we’re past the fall harvest. Beridane’s fled from the city, but he’s pissed in your wine already and now you’ve got this lovely image of the fat bastard sitting in the north laughing as you choke down the mess he’s left you. No food, no soldiers, no trade, all Beridane has to do is wait and Westgale will be his again, and he’s already forced our hand. The Usurper will return, and he’ll only be stronger from our efforts.”

“That was an unsurprisingly pessimistic assessment.” Manuel said flatly. “Yet, surprisingly accurate.”

“So what do you want from me?”

Ardwen watched as Manuel passed a hand through his hair. The former siege expert slid a veiled gaze across the room. “My duty as Mayor is to help Mavigan in her official court functions, and that includes seeing to the security and prosperity of the realm as a whole. Right now all I’ve got to work with is boot leather and bad language, what I want from you Ardwen, is to know what I do have to work with. You’re a Hand, you bloodied the Traitor King’s nose singlehandedly, and I’ve got a report from several cadre mages, as well as a tally of the dead, that suggests there was more to it than that. So, you tell me.”

Ardwen grunted. “What would you call me, Manuel, if you had to guess me race?”

“I would have named you an Elf, but . . .”

“That is a misnomer. Beware of xenonyms, because that’s someone else’s understanding applied to something that isn’t there’s to comprehend. My people’s word for themselves is Dar.” Ardwen saw Manuel’s gaze light up as soon as he said the word. “Yes, the humans of Aerynth called us ‘Elves’, but we paid little heed to a language that, so far as the High Court was concerned, was as sophisticated as a series of grunts and sharp blows to the head. Dar, it would mean “highest” or “greatest” in your language. Elerus and I, we are one of the first of our people, a people who continually sought ascension, a people originally born from the All-Father’s own blood.”

Manuel scratched at the stubble on his chin and said. “Then you and the boy, you are both Ascendants?”

“That is a complicated term, but the answer so far as it concerns this conversation is yes – to an extent.”

“A complicated answer.”

Ardwen shrugged. “Do not expect me to lay low a pantheon Manuel, or rip mountains up by their roots. We come from different worlds; our understanding of the term is doubtless mutually exclusive.”

“I will ask only one more thing of you Ardwen: if you know of any other Hands, any way to get them here . . . we could use the help.”

The venerable warrior rose from his seat. “You have my aid so long as Elerus and Ariana are here, my loyalty is to them first and foremost. I can speak for no others.” With no further words Ardwen walked from the office, but he did not slam the door as he exited.

Written by - Ardwen

The venerable elf breathed in the crisp fall air. It wasn’t cold enough to condense his breath into puffs of mist, but it was getting there. It was far too late into autumn, too late, like Manuel’s plea for help. The Hands couldn’t save this kingdom even if they were here. Ardwen heard faint scuffling, and glanced down an alleyway to his right. There were children huddled inside, they regarded him with wide eyes. “Where’s El? I thought he said he was coming back out?” One of the youths said.

Ardwen shook his head, grunted, and walked on. The ancient warrior breathed in another great lungful of air, brought up phlegm with it, and spat. No, the Hands could not do a thing, but maybe he could. The bladeweaver set his feet toward the castle near the Manor House, it would not take him long to find where Teran was being held, and since Ariana seemed determined to defy him, he imagined he would find her there. The woman had ignored him before, but now he carried the wish of an entire city with him.

It was as he suspected, guards lined up as if on parade ground duty in a practical corridor to where the living Saint and the last surviving member of the royal line had gone. For all their care and duty, they might as well have painted a large red arrow indicating where all the important people in the realm were gathered. Ardwen stopped outside of a closed wooden door with two men standing in front. They wore chain hauberks with the livery of Westgale emblazoned on surcoats, vambraces, greaves, their faces hidden behind gleaming Bevors polished to such a degree that the Elf could see his warped reflection in them. “Let me through.” Ardwen said.

“Sorry sir,” the soldier on the left said, “we’ve got orders to only let the Living Saint or Queen Mavigan pass. Can’t let anyone in here unless the word comes through the lips of my officer.”

“All-Father bite your balls and chew slow! I’m here by request of the Lord-Mayor, that high enough up the chain for you? Now, I’m not going to say it again: let me pass.”

The two helms swiveled to regard one another, a second later the body’s followed as one of the guards reached down to jerk open the door. Ardwen strode past into a crowded antechamber with two more guards and another closed door. No exchange was needed this time, the two Westgalers inclined their heads slightly and pulled open the door before Ardwen was halfway across the room. The ancient Elf found what he was looking for inside, Ariana Trueblood. The Elven swordsman was not surprised to see Mavigan was present as well. The warrior pointedly ignored Teran; through he cast a veiled glance at him as he walked next to Ariana. His features were as nondescript as ever, Ardwen felt his eyes sliding past him almost naturally, and his mind struggled to recall the assassin’s features already.

“Ariana,” Ardwen began, his voice low, “Manuel tells me that we’re short on soldiers, food, and resources of every sort. He’s put out a call to us begging if we can locate more of our kind, anything to tip the scales to our favor. You, and Mavigan, have an entire realm that’s screaming for help right now. There’s days, at most, to come up with a plan, and probably less time to do it in. You want to die? I’m sure we can entertain all sort of interesting and unique scenarios to go screaming through death’s gate.”


Written by - Teran Page 30 Book 4

Teran sat and listened in complete silence. If he was intimidated by Mavigan or the Raven's display he did not show it. He understood that he would never be trusted but found such displays unnecessary.

"I will do as you wish." Teran said quietly. "When are we to depart?"

Teran's tone was neutral, quiet but self assured. He did not wish to provoke or hurt anyone with a careless word so he had kept his response short.

Here ends Book 4 of the House Ancora saga. To be continued?

Book Four Pt 1 - The Eastern Pass

Written by - Turin Wallace Page 1 Book 4 Posted On Wed Jul 11, 2007

Ithramir woke by himself, in his own room. Moving to a window, he peered out into the vast forest surrounding the Citadel. Here, all was quiet and peaceful. At least for now.

In an instant, his thoughts turned once more to the struggle for the mountain pass to the east. His army, and that of the other races, had combined to take Minas Aure from the Orcs. The cost had been great, but the work only half finished. There was one last obstacle in the way:

Minas Uial.

By now, the Orcs would already have heard of their victory and would be reinforcing the garrison at the great tower. Minas Uial was the gateway to the east, and for any move to be made against Beridane, it must be reclaimed. For if it was not, the Orcs could gather in force and draw away precious elf-power from the main army. Not to mention that the elf-forges at the Citadel and at other tower-outposts along the territories demanded wood, iron, steel, and mithril for weapons and armors. Without these, the army would grind to a halt. No, Minas Uial had to be taken.

Moving over to the armor rack, Ithramir chose his armor carefully. Pondering for a moment, he decided on a set of blue dyed mithril chain and plate, with matching cloak. He then armed himself, in the usual manner, and walked into the corridor.

A salute from the guard, a "good morning, sir", followed by a "any news for our army sir?" greeted him.

Looking at the guard, he replies,

"Yes, good morning. What do you mean any news?"

The guard smiles at him and says,

"You know, sir, any news of the type that rings bells?"

Ithramir thought the guard had gone mad, but then realized he meant his proposal to Lithwyn. More annoyed at the question, especially first thing in the morning, he responds,

"No, no news that needs reporting, soldier. However, I do have something else that you can gossip about, tell the men to prepare for departure to Minas Aure. We have another tower to reclaim."

Ithramir then walks off to meet his captains and generals, and those allied with them in the Great Hall of Avandor."

Written by - Tempyst

Tempyst and Lucant waited by the large oak, waited for Ceredan the High Elder Druid to summon them inside. It did not take long and soon the pair was standing before him. There was solomness in the air that worried Tempyst. Before either had a chance to speak Ceredan began. "You both have come a long way in a short time. Tempyst, you are now an elder druid, the youngest we have ever initiated. And you, Lucant, there has not been a new stoneshaper to show themselves in a long, long time. For this reasonI have summoned you here. " Ceredan sat down upon a large ivy covered chair. Tempyst plaed her hand in her husband's and listenened to the druid. "As you know Tempyst, you ahve completed most of your training, what you learn now, will be learned as you live. But I am afraid, the same is not for you Lucant. Stoneshapers are rare among us, and you were discovered very very late in your life. This is not to say you are too old, this is to say that normally your training would have begun when you were but a toddler, much like your wife went through. You require specialized training Lucant, and that requires dedication and committment. This will not be an easy path, you will need to leave behind all you know and love and go into seclusion with your teacher."

"What do you mean leave behind all I love?" Lucant's hand tightened in his wife's.

"I mean just that. Stoneshapers during their training, must become one with the stone, and stay there until they are ready to emerge. This process takes years for us on the outside. For you who undergo this, time will seem to barely pass. I know this will be a hardship for you two, but there is no other way. It is your choice Lucant. We cannot force you to enter into this, but know you will be forever thanked for all you sacrifice. I will leave you two to discuss this. You will find me and your new teacher by the great stone out in clearing when you are ready with your decision." With that, Ceredan left the couple alone in the hall.

"What do I do Tempyst? We have only just ofund each other, and now, now I am asked to leave you." Lucant looked deep into his wife's blue eyes.

Tempyst sighed. She knew what she wanted. She wanted to scream and shout and beg Lucant not to go. She knew what would happened if he did and it would hurt too much. But she also knew her husband, and knew his soul, she had to be brave, for him. "Lucant, we have only been together a short time, yet I know you already. You have been searching for your whole life for purpose and when you learned you were a stoneshaper, you eyes were afire with energy and life. You would not ask of me to give up being who I am, and I cannot ask of you to give up being who you are, no matter what the cost."

Lucant hugged her tightly, his heart breaking for he could see in her eyes, feel through their link what this was doing to her. But as he looked at her, he knew that she was right; for the first time in his life he was happy, and he wanted to know more about who he was and what he could do. Yes, he ws one of Nyrondis' avatar's but even that did not compare to the joy he felt when it came to stone and what he could do with it. Lucant sighed and kissed Tempyst deeply. When they parted, he held her tight once more. "You are right, you know me too well. I hate breaking your heart and leaving you, but for once, once in my life I need to do what is good for me, what I need and desire. And I desire this Tempyst, with all my being, more than my love for you, more than being an avatar, I want this. I want this."

Tempyst forced a smile, and blinked away the tears. "Then it is settled, the choice has been made. You are to go and become who you were always meant to be, a stoneshaper. But know this, no matter what, I will always love you and have a place in my life for you."

"No, don't sound like that, I don't want you to wait around for me. You have your own life to lead and I will not stop you from living it..."

"But Lucant, if it is my choice..."

"Tempyst, it was never your choice or our choice, fate did this to us, and I will not allow fate to keep you as a widow. Tell me, tell me you will go on with your life or..."

"Or what Lucant? What will you do? You cannot stop me from waiting if that is my choice."

Lucant took Tempyst by the shoulders. "Stop this, You need to be strong and you need to live your life. Promise me you will."

Tempyst wrapped her arms around Lucant. "I can only follow my heart."

Lucant nodded, his jaw set in determination. He took Tempyst's hand in his and walked to the clearing, towards the great stone. "And I can only follow mine." As they entered the clearing, the pair could see Ceredan standing near the great stone and with him was a stout grey looking dwarf.

"What is your decision Lucant?" Ceredan asked.

"I will go become a stoneshaper, but I have one thing that must be done first. You performed our marriagte, and now, now I wish to renounce that union."

Tempyst gasped. "Lucant, no, please don't."

Lucant took his hand from her, slipping off the wedding ring he had made for her. Then he took off the one she had made for him. "It is what I want Tempyst, I'm sorry for hurting you like this, but it is the only way I will go do this."He took the two rings and placed them upon the ground. Tempyst's eye filled with tears, her whole body shaking. She could feel her soul quaking inside of her and knew what he was about to do. SHe tried to say no again, but her heart ws in her throat and found she could not speak. Lucant placed the rings upon the ground. "I heareby renounce my marriage and soul bond to Tempyst, I no longer wish to be bound to this woman."

Ceredan sighed. "I'm sorry Tempyst, but the words have been spoken in a holy place. If he askes it one more time, then I must bring and end to the marriage, It is his right, and it is how our laws are." He placed a hand upon Tempyst's shoulder and turned to Lucant. "Lucant Dolvan, is this truly what you want? It is not necessary, bond is a sacred thing, it should not be taken lightly..."

"I RENOUNCE THIS MARRIAGE AND SOUL BOND." Lucant about screamed, Please, it is hard enough as it is, I am doing this for her, for the both of us. Please Tempyst...let me go."

Tempyst flung her arms around Lucant, tears streaming down her face. In a quivering voice she spoke. "I wish to renounce this marriage and soul bond with Lucant."

Ceredan picked up the two rings. "So let it be." He whispered a few words and in a flash of light, they disappeared. A soft light then encompassed the couple and within moments, faded.

Lucant pulled back and whispered, "I'm so sorry."

Tempyst dropped to the ground, sobbing. "Just leave, it's what you want."

Lucant leaned down and kissed Tempyst upon the head. He tried to see how she was feeling, but the link there was gone. He didn't know it would feel this empty without her. The tears fell down his face as he walked over to the dwarf. Ceredan introduced him as Ezekiel Stonebrewer. The dwarf said nothing but walked into the stone with Lucant following. And then he was gone. Tempyst looked to the stone and then picked up a rock and threw it at it, but nothing happened, it just bounced away harmelssly. She looked up at Ceredan, her eyes pleading why, but all the High Druid could do was pick her up and carry her inside, laying her down upon one of the many moss covered beds within the infirmary. "It will not be easy child. Loosing a husband never is, and loosing a soul bond is even harder. It will get better, with time, just don't let the sacrifice he made embitter you. You will go on, you have work to do. Stay here as long as you need, but never forget who you are and who you were before him." He patted her on the shoulder again then left. Tempyst just lay on the bed crying, feeling the emptyness of her soul encompass her.

Written by - Dartanian Merquise

The light of dawn filtered through the window and fell across Dartanian’s face, causing him to stir briefly before rolling over and falling back to sleep. Moments later, he was roused by a knock at his door. “One moment please,” he said sleepily as he forced himself from the warmth and comfort of the covers and pulled himself out of the bed. He quickly dressed himself in something more than his night clothes and answered the door.

Standing outside his door was the citadel servant he had spoken to the previous night. “My Lord, you asked that I wake you this morning upon the arrival of your men. The first of them are entering the citadel as we speak.”

“Thank you,” Dartanian answered. He began to turn round groggily but stopped and asked the servant to also wake his officers. Bowing, the servant turned to do as instructed.

Closing the door once more, Dartanian quickly dressed. Forgoing the armor of the previous night, he dressed in a royal blue field officer’s uniform. Simple, practical, and well suited to the battlefield, there was nothing to distinguish his rank as anything other than that of a regular officer. He often wore this uniform for tactical reasons, or when he did not wish to wantonly throw his rank around. Today was the latter. He did however arm himself, sheathing his father’s sword at his side and placing his two daggers in his belt.

Exiting his room, he saw that his men were already assembled. There was a brief exchange of greetings and then they fell in step behind him as he made his way to the entrance of the citadel. As they walked, he issued orders regarding logistics and preparations for the men to be prepared to ride as soon as possible. There was no telling how soon Commander Ithramir wished to march. There was much that need not be said; most of these men were hardened veterans who had served in the Officers’ Corps of the Blue Knights since before Dartanian had been knighted. They knew their men well and knew what needed to be done.

After stopping along the way to retrieve their mounts, the group rode to the entrance of the citadel. As the servant had said, his men had indeed begun to arrive. The great gates of the citadel were thrown wide open and a sea of blue moved quickly inside. Dartanian dismissed the officers to take command of their companies and oversee the arrival and integration into the citadel proper.

Moments later Dartanian made eye contact with his second-in-command, Captain Varion, just as he was passing through the gates. The Captain turned to speak to the aide next to him before riding over to his commander. Dartanian returned the crisp salute as Captain Varion came near.

The Captain was several years older than Dartanian, yet still young. He was a faithful sword arm and a reliable tactician. His family had served House Merquise for many generations, Varion’s own father serving Robert Merquise faithfully until his death. Officially the commander of the Blue Knights, Varion was the acting second-in-command to all of House Merquise’s military forces. Dartanian knew that he could trust Varion to lead his forces in his stead; when the need arose.

“Good morning Captain, anything to report?”

“Nothing needing attention My Lord; we set off early this morning as instructed and all troops and support personnel are present and accounted for.”

“Good, see that the men rest well today and prepare to move out as soon as possible. In all likelihood we will be leaving shortly to assist the elves in the recapture of one of their strongholds which was taken by the Orc legions not long ago.” Varion nodded in response. Just then an elven messenger appeared before them.

“Dartanian Merquise, Commander Ithramir requires your presence in the Great Hall of Avandor with all due haste.”

“Very well,” Dartanian replied to the elf. Turning to Varion he said, “Are your men in order Captain?”

“That they are My Lord.”

“Very well, then you shall accompany me. Now then,” he turned to the elf once more, “I’m afraid this citadel is rather large and we have only been here a short time, would you care to show us the way?”

The elf nodded, and the two men dismounted, passing off their mounts to an aide from the marching column before following the elf toward the Great Hall of Avandor.

Written by - Turin Wallace

Deluwiel and Nica had continued for many days since their departure from Turin. Travelling south, through the ravaged lands of Westgale, they crossed the river Iseril and into the small town of Thornton.

Staying at the local inn, both women found the town a breath of fresh air, as they were with kin again. As much as they dearly loved Turin, the people of the north were not elven, nor had many even seen one. Deluwiel especially relished the chance to speak her native tongue and soak in the ways of her people. After more than a few days of rest and local inquiry about the best path to the Citadel, they set off through the Mori'Taur.

One night, as the two women made camp, the sound of footsteps signalled the approach of another. Nica instinctively grabbed her bow and knocked an arrow, only to have Deluwiel place her hand on her daughter's arm, and giving her a knowing nod. Quietly, she says,

"The footsteps are even and light, this person is not sneaking about or meaning us no harm. Let us see if they show themselves."

It was then a cloaked woman appeared at the camp, her soft features accentuated by the glow of the campfire. Bowing as a sign of respect, the newcomer says,

"Deluwiel Eorwifinia, I bear news of your son, Turin. I would have a moment of your time, privately, to tell you of his fate."

A slight, ever so slight, change in palor ran across Deluwiel's face. It was the fear every mother has, when news of their child comes from another, and with the serious tone the stranger spoke. Answering, she says,

"Very well, let us speak."

At once she began to move toward the cloaked figure, when Nica protested,

"I would know of my brother's fate, stranger. We are family, and there is no secret that should be contained or hidden from me!"

Deluwiel found her words ringing true, abruptly she stops and says,

"My daughter speaks well and true, share your news with the both of us."

The cloaked figure nodded and removed the robe, allowing them to see her as she truly was, an Archon of the All-Father. A golden glow eminated from her armor, her golden hair hung about her shoulders, the white of her wings blinding. Before the archon could speak, Deluwiel gasps out,

"Siluriel! Why have you come? Where is my son?!"

With a voice both sympathatic and sad, the archon replied,

"Calm yourself, Deluwiel, your son yet lives. Though, his fate is far from certain. For the love of his friends, he exchanged freedom for slavery. To keep the Light of Hope lit, he has given himself over to the dark."

Bracing herself on a nearby stump, Deluwiel's repose weakened for a moment, the archon's words hit like steel. Nica rushed to her mother's side, aiding her only a moment, until Deluwiel straightened herself aright. Her elven eyes took on a hardness of purpose as she spoke,

"What is to be done about this?"

The archon replied,

"His terms are not set, so at the moment, there is nothing that can be done. Demons and fiends have their own agenda's, the one that binds Turin has not shown his true purpose yet."

Deluwiel's eyes grew sterner, a stare turned into an angry glare as the next words were uttered,

"And what does your master plan to do? Has He abandoned him to his fate?"

The implication was clear. Deluwiel held very little love of the All-Father, but for the sake of a mother's love, she acknowledged it was Turin's path. She had taught him the ways of the ranger, it had been her wish for him to follow that path, but his own choices led him another. She respected it, but now, in her son's time of greatest need, she wanted an answer.

The archon responded, trying to choose her words carefully,

"Deluwiel, as I said before, there is little that can be done..."

Deluwiel never let her finish that sentence. The forest quaked with power and great, thorny vines encircled and pinned the archon to the nearest oak tree. Rage, like that of a lioness protecting her cub, sparked in the female elf's eyes. Her form shook and shivered with power, and with great difficulty she formed the next words,

"For over a thousand years, my son has sacrificed himself for others, all the in the name of your master. You tell me he traded himself for these others and your master does nothing? How dare you! I will rend you limb from limb, archon, even if you are my son's patron. For you are a coward, as is your master!"

Thrusting her arms out, intent on doing harm and worse, Deluwiel began to tighten the vines around the hopeless archon. Thorns that had been held back by the divinely forged armor began to pierce the flesh beneath. Siluriel's mouth formed words, but the pain reduced them to just a cry of agony. It was only when Nica grabbed her mother and shook her that Deluwiel's rage was broken.

Nica spoke quickly, as her mother's rage was still evident in her green eyes,

"Mother, let her speak. At least, she has told us of him. It seems all is not lost, there may be hope."

Nica turned to the archon, noting the healed wounds and armor,

"Have you any good news? If not, I am doubful that I may abate my mother's rage a second time."

Siluriel replies,

"Do not think that I have left him alone to his fate. There is yet a way to rescue him. But it requires patience."

Deluwiel responds,

"Speak, quickly, and if it is not to my liking prepare yourself..."

The next morning, the two women start out towards the Citadel. There was much to be done, but a smile clung to their faces. They needed to find Tempyst first, then Purgatori, and finally work towards the last piece that was missing.

Written by - Tempyst

Kaya and Dorve were the first off the ship and onto what the sailors called Palm Island. Dorve immediately knelt and kissed the ground, whispering, thanking Nyrondis for her safety. Kaya chuckled, but she too was glad to be on dry land. Being on the Call, being on the ocean brought back memories of when she had been captive all those months ago, and set in the hold of one of Beridane's ships. "So now what Dorve?" Kaya asked, helping the dwarf up from her practically prone position.

"Well, there should be a small grove here, I will go and talk to Godrik, the elder druid assigned here and let him know he will have people coming through the grove. You can stay here on the docks, I should not be too long. Godrik is a bit older, hard of hearing and likes his solitude, which is why he is here. It would not be good to surprise him with the entourage we will have." Dorve then turned and took off.

Kaya nodded and watched Dorve scamper down the dirt road. She then sat down upon a barrell and waited for the others to depart the ship.

Written by - Lucant Dolvan

The man in the oak tree outside Lothiel-Gadith awoke just as the sun began to rise. He moved to stretch the stiffness from setting in a tree all night out of his bones, but quickly remembered not to do so, lest he fall.

As his senses began to re-assert themselves, his hands hurriedly shot to his left side and gripped the hilt of a sword through the sleeveless ash gray overcoat he was using as a make-shift blanket. His sigh of relief became a low grunt as he lurched forward to grab the pack dangling off the branch. As he did, the sea of blue that was the Merquise army moving thru the Citadel’s wide-open gates came into focus.

“He certainly wastes no time…” the man whispered to himself as he retrieved the pack. “I suppose I should get started as well then… “ Yawning, he turned and slipped off the branch, landing with a thud in the underbrush below.

Standing slowly back up, he put his overcoat back on and adjusted the sword at his side. He was dressed quite innocuously in a long sleeved brown linen shirt and a simple pair of black linen pants tucked into brown cuffed leather boots lightened by weather and age. The sword stood in stark contrast to him, its oversized, elaborate crossgruard resting against an ill-fitting scabbard. The sword’s grip was metal, covered by several layers of shark skin dyed a deep black, and crowned by an ornate rounded pommel with intricate carvings.

After taking a few moments to wake up, the man started toward the Citadel at a slow, meandering pace, hoping to enter with the rear of the army to avoid being detected. During his walk, he relished the peacefulness and ambiance of the forest – the birds singing, squirrels scurrying about the forest floor, the wind whistling through the branches, the morning sunlight beaming down through the countless leaves.

Hiding at the edge of the forest, he waited until the last few of Merquise’s solders moved by then sprinted to a few feet behind the horses, close enough to be able to get in with them, but far enough behind to avoid the soldiers’ notice. And indeed, the noise of an entire army was more than enough to mask the footsteps of one man. Even the gate guards seemed more concerned with making sure everyone was safely inside and accounted for than to notice one extra in the crowd.

Breathing a slight sigh of relief as he ducked into the relative safety of an alley, the man took a few moments to scout his surroundings. Noticing a small inn across the way, the man again whispered to himself: “It’s still too early to wake the old man… and besides, I don’t know where exactly he is to begin with. I’ll just… stop in for a quick meal and some directions.”

After a quick check to ensure the Merquise soldiers had passed, he headed off.

Written by - Agmund

Father Agmund had awoken early, primarily because his legs had already began to kick and move around. That was his typical fashion of waking up. His legs and feet acting as a makeshift alarm clock, calibrated to begin their dance when the first rays of dawn pierced the clouds. A condition of old age perhaps, but a condition that gave him a small measure of comfort. He had grown accustomed, indeed rather fond of the suns rise, and it gave him newfound courage when often times his path was obscured.

As he rose to his feet and stretched, the sound of bones creaking and joints popping sang out in unison, causing him to chuckle slightly. “And good morning to you old man,” he said and began to gather up his belongings, “I pray you slept well? No? Perhaps the chair was not the best place to sleep after all. Yes, well the bed is very comfortable as I recall.” He continued to talk to himself until what few items he had unpacked were safely stowed away in a pair of worn leather saddlebags, at which time he journeyed with haste to the citadel battlements.

There, over the mountain spires of Amlug-Anc, the bitter cold of winters herald and the streaming first rays of the sun greeted him. Gold, bronze, and brown leaves, still clinging to the Mori’taur, stretched out towards the morning light, while Duin en Nwalma seemed to fall directly from it as it carved a sparkling blue wedge into the still green grass of Harathad-Dor. As his eyes moved in admiration, his ears reached past the sounds of the citadel, beyond the first clanks of hammers, and the beat of hoofs. It cleared all obstacles of elven and human design, until at last it filled his heart with the songs of birds, leaves and water.

Lifting the hood of his robe, he stood upon the rampart looking to the west and raised his head high to watch a gentle fleet of clouds. A parade of geese, lined in v formation sailed southeast, though their honking was inaudible at their height. “Running late are we?” he spoke aloud, thrilled to see their choreographed flight. Of course, he thought, the fall had been rather long, and they still had ample time to reach the Smarsh delta. It was their destination that turned his attention from the beauty that surrounded him to the tasks that lay ahead.

“I thought I might find you out here,” he jumped as someone spoke from right beside him. “You could at least give me the decency of a warning, that is unless your trying to kill me,” Father Agmund said gruffly, and then turned to look the elf over. The elf was tall by the standards of his race, at eye level to the old priest, who was in turn very tall for a human. A long braid of dark black hair careened down either side of his face, and cleared his shoulders to rest upon a plain leather breastplate of brown. Pale, marble white skin, his eyes of azure burned like jeweled beacons. “Do you miss it?” the priest said returning his gaze to the east, “The seven boughs of Halueth?”

The elf looked casually to the east before he replied “There is not a day that passes, in which the canopy of the Eirwood, and the shadow of the seven stray from my thoughts. Though, if I were to return would I not equally be afflicted? Would not the dream of Lothiel-Gadith’s towers sing to me? How might one choose between the two?” There was no expression in his response. No curve of the lips or cheeks beyond the breaking for speech; nor did his eyes reveal any emotion.

Father Agmund was not disturbed with the supposed repressed demeanor that the elf presented. In contrast his face was broken by a wide smile, and his eyes maintained a twinkle of glee, if not outright happiness. “I don’t suppose one could,” he nodded, “but then youth brings the benefit and joy of travel.” The bearded priest of Tinorb searched for any hint of emotion from the elf, any movement in his face or body, but still there was none. Only two bright blue flames as the elf spoke rather dully, “I recommend you iron your robes, and perhaps wash them if you wish to make a good an entrance into the hall of Avrandor, or has old age overtaken your faculties so bad as to make an appearance bereft of common courtesy.”

“How glad I am to see you,” the priest laughed. “No, I am being honest, you look absolutely dreadful. The smell alone tells me you have not taken a bath in recent days. Yet your intent is to offer counsel, in such condition, and in the hall of Avrandor no less,” the elf said dryly but without arrogance or anger, “I am glad to see you as well,” he added with sincerity. The priest, however, was still chuckling as he spoke “Come, walk with me, there is much to do… more so if I add in taking a bath, shaving, and breakfast!” His stomach seemed to growl on cue.

Written by - Ardwen

The first thing Ardwen noticed when he awoke was noise. The noise of hurried footfalls thudding against the wooden deck of the Call, the sound of senior shipmates shouting orders to their orderlies to hurry regardless of how fast they went, and of course the constant background static of the ocean itself as it lapped in upon itself and the sides of the vessel. To Ardwen's relief the sea appeared calm, and from what he could tell the preparations to send landing craft to a small neighboring island were already nearing completing. For his part, Ardwen stood up and tried to work the sleep out of his body, stifling yawns and blinking rapidly for a few moments.

Much to his annoyance, the injured arm still felt stiff and the joints in his fingers ached, despite the fact that the wound had been healed. The Elf pushed the nagging throbs aside though, considering himself lucky that he had not come out with worse injuries. The warrior's peripheral vision caught movement, and as he turned he saw one of the healers that had attended to Archeantus the night before approaching. Ardwen also saw the dark bags under his eyes and the slump in his shoulders, but the Elf could not blame him, it had been a trying night for everyone. The man stopped in front of Ardwen, looked at him for a minute and then said, "You're up early. I guess you'lll want to take a boat to the island along with your companions?"

Ardwen said nothing in response, simply giving a curt nod as an answer. The healer motioned him to the side of the ship closest to them, and Ardwen could see smaller side vessels already on moorings, a few were even in the water. The warrior noted Kaya and her Dwarf companion in one of the leading boats that were already heading toward the spit of land in the distance. Once again Ardwen said nothing, and the healer shot him a puzzled glance. "The Abbess," Ardwen said simply and gestured around the ship with his hands. Amazingly the man guessed his meaning, and a few minutes later Ardwen saw a small knot of attendants leading Ariana above deck.

"We just wanted to make sure that the silver-haired loony from last night had not hurt her." One of the attendants offered as an explanation. Ardwen was secretly glad that someone had kept their wits about them amongst the chaos of the previous night. The Elf had been disgusted at what he saw as the crew's lack of attention to basic military protocol and procedure. However, this was a ship and not a land campaign, and Ardwen was content to bundled Ariana onto the rowboat with him and bid the ship farewell. The Elf had a feeling that the crew of the Call was not sad to see him go either.

The quick float to the island proved uneventful, and for that Ardwen was grateful. Apart from his arm annoying him, he had experienced a nearly sleepless night. What little sleep he did get was riddled with nightmares and disturbing, half-remembered visions. The fact that he had dreamed at all bothered Ardwen. As a veteran of five millennia of combat, he had seen his fair share of horrors, but the events of the last night were obviously dire enough to etch a new layer over the patina of his mind. As if his own mind taunted him, the Elf found himself involuntarily going over the list of worries that had assaulted him during the night: Ariana was lost within her own mind, Turin was still nowhere to be seen, Archeantus had been injured, Vylia had seen him trace blades, and last (but certainly not least) Sycon had come barreling out of the sky a raving and rather dangerous madman. While the swordsman was glad to see his friend alive, it appeared that the answers for his absence since the operation to rescue Ariana began were both long and potentially deadly.

Before Ardwen could ruminate further on his lack of fortune, the lookout in the boat announced they had arrived at the island and were preparing to unload and depart. The crew ran the tiny craft in close, but they were worried about hidden rocks, and ultimately Ardwen ended up wading the last few yards to shore. Naturally, this meant carrying Ariana to dry land. The water was clear, but deceptively cold; the rocks stabbed into the soles of his boots and Ardwen gave each one of them a profane epithet in his mind. Nevertheless, the jaunt had provided a very quick way to finish waking up, and Ardwen quickly located Kaya. The Elven swordsman placed his Abbess down as gently as he could on a weather-smoothed slab of rock, and then he took a seat nearby himself.

Written by - Wilhelm

While Wilhelm continued to monitor the reunion of Mavigan and Teran (whose odd heartfire indicated he was now completely healed of his grievous wounds) with Keeryn, Jasmine and Sabbatine, Resini and the others rested. They had been down in the catacombs long enough that it must be about sunrise. Elven travel rations were brought out and the party ate while staying watchful. Weapons were cleaned and polished.

From time to time a Dark Cultist would approach and be quickly and quietly dispatched. (The side room they were putting the bodies into was starting to fill up.) Resini and the other mages maintained an anti-detection ward around them as they rested. Wilhelm was sure that Mavigan's group would move out soon and was wondering which direction they would take. He doubted Mavigan and Teran would simply retreat. Whatever purpose they had in coming here still remained.

Written by - Tempyst

Tempyst opened her eyes and found herself in clearing in the woods. She blinked a few times, wondering where she was. "You are in the dreamlands again mother, I thought I should come see you." Tempyst stood and turned to see her daughter Tirigil standing there, as beautiful as ever. Tempyst embraced her little girl and hugged her tightly.

"Thank you Tirigil, I feel so alone now."

"I know what father did, and he did it with your best intentions, though I know that it does not take away the pain. But you are not alone, never alone mother. You have me and don't for get Nyrondis." Tirigil smiled and brushed the tears from her mother's face. "And you also have Ithramir. Remember you two are bound together as well, through me. And he is going to need somone like you in the days to come. He is going into battle again and a good healer, especially an elder druid, would be a good thing to have at his side. Nyrondis wants you to accompany him and to watch out for him."

Tempyst put her hands into her daughter's and smiled a sad smile. "I see just coming to see me was not your only task. I shall do as Nyrondis asks, for he is my life now. NO more worrying about this man i dream of, or other silly things, I have loved, and lost and now it is time to move on, no matter how hard it will be."

Tirigil smiled and kissed her mother's cheek. "That is the way to do it. Now, I wish I could stay longer, but I have other messages to deliver."

Tempyst hugged Tirigil once more. "Thank you my dear, for taking the time to see me, it helps me more than you know."

Tempyst sat up in her bed, wide awake. She had not realized she had fallen asleep during her crying. Her throat was raw, her eyes sore, and her whole body ached, but she knew she had to push through. She smiled softly, thinking of the visit from Tirigil; though that too still was painful to deal with in the real world. Losing her, then Lucant, was almost too much for Tempyst to bear, but bear it she must. She stood and sighed, took hold of her blossomed staff, and headed out to find Ithramir.

After a long walk through the citadel, she finally found the great hall (with the good directions from a servant), for this is where she was told Ithramir would be. As she stepped in, she immediately spotted the elf, speaking with some of his men. She did not wish to disturb him outright, so she wandered about for a bit, taking in the bits and pieces of information she could overhear. Finally, she walked up to where Ithramir was and waited until he finished speaking. "Ithramir, please pardon my interruption, but I need to speak with you. Nyrondis has made it known to me, that I should accompany you, and see to your safety during battle. That being the case, I should like to know what you would have me do."

Written by - Lucant Dolvan

The man pushed the inn’s old splintered door open only to find it mostly empty. The morning chill still hung in the air, but it was not enough to drive away a few of night shift guards taking dinner before heading home, nor a handful of dedicated drunks. As he pulled up a chair at the bar, the man yawned and cracked his back in the chair. Spending the last night in a tree had definitely not agreed with him.

“I’m never doing that again…” he mumbled under his breath as the barkeep approached.

“Good morning to you, sir. What can I get for you?”

The man looked up to see the thin elven barkeep standing before polishing a glass. “I’ll have a bowl of chicken soup and… a glass of milk please.”

“Just a moment, sir,” the barkeep said before he turned and headed off to the kitchen. The man dozed off a few minutes, just resting his eyes, before the elf came back. “Your food, sir,” he said with a hint of impatience as he set the bowl and glass down.

“Thank you,” the man said to elf’s back. He was already going back towards the kitchen. The man hastily ate and placed a few copper coins on the bar. As the man was about to leave, he spotted the barkeep passing through again out of the corner of his eye. Turning, he asked the elf: “Excuse me, barkeep, do you know the way to the port district?”

Without looking at him, the barkeep responded, “Go out and follow this road into the main square. From there, the signs should take you right to it.”

He thanked the barkeep again and headed out. The strolled lazily down the wide avenues of the Citadel, enjoying the warmth of the sunlight and ambience of the great city. The man could not help but notice how safe the city felt, even with all the soldiers mulling about, or perhaps, because of them. The seemed much different than the type of soldier he was so accustomed to seeing and dealing with.

After a short walk, the man came to the gates of Port Ancora. Passing through with same lazy stroll, he gave the area a cursory look, then headed further into the town. He wandered up and down the towns numerous streets until he found the building he was looking for – the Rassel Trading Company branch office.

Upon entering, he found the large, open office area in an uproar of activity. Clerks were running around with stacks of orders and invoices. Shipping manifests were piled upon desks waiting for sorting and delivery to waiting ships. Even a few military quartermasters were berating the staff, all but demanding their requisitioned supplies and equipment for what seemed to be an upcoming march.

The man approached the main desk slowly as the flustered girl working it sorted through an enormous stack of papers. She looked up at him just long enough to say “If you’re here to place an order for a company, please give the forms and a written copy of the order to our shipping processors down the hall on your right. If you’re here for the military, please wait for a dockmaster, they’re working as fast as they can to get everything in place and ready. If you’re here to inquire about an order, please go down the hall to your left and inquire at the office there.” As soon as the last word has passed her lips, she immediately went back to her stack of papers.

“Actually, I’m here to meet with the Chairman,” the man stated calmly, “He is here, isn’t he?”

The girl looked back up quickly. She clearly didn’t believe him. “Yes, Chairman Rassel is here, but he’s terribly busy I’m afraid - far to busy to meet with anyone. Please come back some other time.” Again, she dove back into the sea of paper.

She looked up for a third time upon hearing the sound of a coin being placed on the desk. “Please miss, if you could at least tell Chairman Rassel that someone is here to see him, I would greatly appreciate it.”

She stood up and discreetly took the silver piece into her hand. “I’ll tell him, sir. But, please do not be surprised if he doesn’t respond well.” The girl then moved through the hectic office towards the back. A few moments later, she returned with the Chairman behind her.

He was a tall man, broad shouldered and quite fit for his age. Age had, in fact, been quite kind to the Chairman – he bore the countenance of a man some ten years his junior with only a few lines of age on his forehead and the vaguest hints of them around his eyes – bright green eyes that still shone with the fires of youth. His hair – brown in his younger days – was now a deep gray, kept short and well groomed. Likewise, his full beard and moustache were well kept and framed the Chairman’s strong countenance perfectly Even the Chairman’s style of dress gave him an air of power and strength. He wore a sage green leather vest over a gray silk tunic tucked into a fine pair of black cotton pants, which were in turn tucked into a pair of expensive leather boots.

“This is the man who requested to see you Chairman,” the girl said, a bit nervously.

Chairman Rassel chuckled softly and then spoke with a deep, booming voice that carried itself and its intended message quite easily: “Well… look who it is. You’re a bit later than I expected, but still relatively on time. I didn’t expect to see you here, though.” He motioned for the man to follow him. “Regardless, come on back to my office and we’ll talk.”

Written by - Dartanian Merquise

The servant led the two officers quickly through the hallways of the citadel. Finally stopping at a large set of doors, he stepped to one side. As he did so, he bowed slightly and indicated the door. Dartanian nodded his thanks and the elf turned on his heel to attend to other duties. Pushing open the large set of doors, Dartanian and Varion stepped into the Great Hall of Avandor. He could see that there were already several men, elves, and even dwarves assembled, speaking amongst themselves. Whatever it was that Commander Ithramir had summoned them for, it did not seem to have started yet.

Making their way into the hall, Dartanian scanned those gathered. At one end of the room he saw a noble looking elf in a set of blue mithril and a blue cloak. That must be Ithramir, he decided. At the moment he was speaking to a woman who appeared to be of the wilds. With men, elves, dwarves, and it seemed even druids, it was truly a mixed group. Certainly the forces of chaos required all kinds to defeat. It mattered little to Dartanian, he knew they could use all the help they could get. The threat of Beridaine the Usurper was ever-present in his mind, and if the Orcs were making a serious attempt at an invasion of the elven lands, then they would quickly find themselves in a two-front war. Hopefully this latest effort would quell the orcs for a time and allow them to turn their attention to restoring Queen Mavigan to the throne of Westgale.

Not wishing to interrupt the Commander in the midst of his discussion with the Druid, and knowing that the elf would begin the War Council soon, Dartanian and Varion stood off to one side of the room and waited patiently.

Written by - Turin Wallace

Ithramir entered the Great Hall to find it already a bustle of activity. Lithwyn had done well and the needs of those therein were already tended to. Making his way around the room, he nodded and spoke few words, just enough to acknowledge everyone's presence.

Soon, he found himself engaged in conversation with some of his generals. They seemed more concerned with his welfare and he was tired of dealing with such things. Turning the conversation quickly, he asks,

"How ready is the army? How quickly can we move against the last tower?"

The generals each looked at each other, then one replied,

"Milord, the army is able, and can move at any time. Losses were acceptable, but if we meet heavier resistance, the price could be even higher this time around."

Ithramir disregarded the concern, and simply said,

"And the price if we do not take it? May I remind you, gentle-elves, that if we do not re-take the tower, elven blood will flow in rivers from there to the sea."

Ithramir, paused, then continued,

"And we have our allies to help absorb some of those losses. The dwarves and humans proved themselves at Minas Aure. A few more battles like that and they'll have my respect."

The generals nodded to each other in agreement. Ithramir was about to move the subject forward when he heard the following,

"Ithramir, please pardon my interruption, but I need to speak with you. Nyrondis has made it known to me, that I should accompany you, and see to your safety during battle. That being the case, I should like to know what you would have me do."

Turning to face Tempyst, as he instinctively knew the voice, he could see she had been crying. No, more than that, she had her heart and soul broken. With an unusual kindness, he responds,

"You and Nyrondis have my thanks, but for the moment, I would rather you sit and refresh yourself. I am doubtful I will be in danger here, unless someone has poisoned the food and drink."

Noticing those in the room came to a kind of nervous silence, Ithramir chuckled evily and went on,

"However, I don't think that is the case. Sit, Tempyst, over there. Catherin will escort you and tell you what you need to know."

As the ladies made their way to the table Ithramir had gestured towards, another messenger made his way over to inform him of some new arrivals to the Citadel. Motioning for the two to come over, Ithramir says,

"So, Dartanian and Varion, what is it I can do for both of you?"

Written by - Tempyst

Catherin led Tempyst over to a table. When Tempyst had sat down, she kept on standing and spoke, her voice a bit icy. "I would assure you and your god that Ithramir is well taken care of and to put yourself in danger is not a necessity."

Tempyst looked up to Catherin, her voice soft and even. "And I would assure you, that it is. I am not here to step on any toes Catherin, I am only here to help. I have a vested interest in Ithramir, in more ways than one. You know the sacrifice that was made to keep him alive before, do you think I would wish to see that sacrifice go to waste? I am not your enemy, but as I am not going anywhere but where Nyrondis directs me, we should put any differences aside."

Catherin sighed, she could see that Tempyst was not going to be swayed easily from her task. "I do not mean to belittle the sacrifice that was made Tempyst, I am concerned with your safety as well. You are not as wellversed in battle as some of us are and thus, you could be considered...a hindrence. Ithramir is very concerneda bout all those who serve under him and I would hate for him to be distracted by a civilian."

Tempyst closed her eyes for a moment, then looked straight back at Catherin. "You are not going to sway me to step down. Besides, it is not up to you is it Catherin." She took a deep breath, then continued. "I do not wish us to be enemies Catherin, life is too short for that. I would assure you, I know the risk I take going into battle, and believe me, I understand all too well what it can cost. I have lost much to battle already, and yet, life goes on. I need this Catherin. I am alone now, Ithramir is the closest ..." Tempyst choked up, anda tear fell down her face. "He is important to me too. I am going with him. We can fight, or be friends and work together. I chose the latter. What do you choose?"

Catherin gritted her teeth, her jaw clenched. She could tell that she would not be able to persuade this druid from her task. In truth, she knew it would be good for Ithramir to have a personal healer, but she hated to admit, she did not like to share the care taking of her commander. "Alright then Tempyst, it looks like you are not to be disuaded from this. I do not mean to sound so harsh, I just do not wish for Ithramir to have any distractions on the battle field. I will set aside my own differences, for now, but if you put him in any danger, I will personally see you escorted back off the field." She held out a hand to Tempyst. Tempyst took her hand and the two women shook.

"Thank you Catherin, now, why don't help me not be a distraction and give me a crash course in your battle tactics." Catherin then sat down and the two began to the future battle.

Written by - Dartanian Merquise

As the ladies made their way to the table Ithramir had gestured towards, another messenger made his way over to inform him of some new arrivals to the Citadel. Motioning for the two to come over, Ithramir says,

"So, Dartanian and Varion, what is it I can do for both of you?"

The two men came forward and stood before the elven commander, Dartanian in front with Varion slightly behind and to his left. Despite sharing a bit of elven heritage, Dartanian was unfamiliar with the rank and custom of the elves, and as such he bowed to a degree indicating a greeting to one of equal status. He hoped Ithramir would not take offense at his presumption.

“Greetings Lord Ithramir. I am Count Dartanian Merquise, of House Merquise, in the Kingdom of Westgale.” Straightening from the bow, Dartanian’s eyes met those of the elven commander as he continued. “Since the assassination of King Pallanon our house has been fighting against those allied with Beridane the Usurper. We feared the worst for Pallanon’s daughter, Mavigan, but heard that she was under the protection of the elves here at the citadel. I have come here in order to pledge my loyalty and that of my house to the rightful heir to the throne and to serve her in whatever way I can. I have already been informed that the Queen is not presently at the citadel. I have also been informed that the orcs are on the move and your forces aim to march soon to retake an outpost which they have captured. If you would allow us, my men and I would aid you in retaking this outpost; as thanks for your hospitality, as a sign of our friendship, and in honor of Queen Mavigan’s alliance with you against the forces of chaos.”

Having finished speaking, the young Count fell silent and awaited the elven commander’s response. This was the first time he had ever engaged in statecraft without the guiding presence of his father, and this Ithramir was certainly an imposing figure. He felt a twinge of nervousness, but did not let it show. He hoped that everything he said would be well received.


Written by - Turin Wallace Page 2 Book 4

Ithramir listened as the one called Dartanian spoke. Once he finished speaking, Ithramir gauged the young man, then spoke,

"Dartanian, of House Merquise, save your pledge of loyalty for the one who you seek to pledge it to. Mavigan is away, on some mission, leaving the bulk of the fighting to us. She is not yet a queen, this I can assure you. However, our job is to secure the throne for her, so that she can properly take on that title, when the time is right."

Ithramir let his words hang in the air for a moment before he continued on,

"While your information was a bit off, as Mavigan is not here, it is most accurate about the orcs and our plans to re-take what is ours. If you wish to join us in the re-capturing of the tower of Minas Uial, you and yours would be welcome. Our briefing will start soon, until then relax and enjoy some refreshment."

Written by - Agmund

Having bathed, trimmed his beard, and changed clothes, Father Agmund now stood in a shadow filled corner of the Great Hall. His robe, though clean, was like all of his robes; stained with years of wear. It was mostly white, with a few ruddy spots near his boots, and the edges were outlined in several inches of blue and silver needlework. The trim, although ornate and befitting that of a priest, had become frayed in many places, even coming undone completely in others.

While not apparent to the casual observer, he wore a full length suit of chain mail beneath the robe. Its existence was only hinted at with a single row of links hanging right above his boots, falling from beneath the long sleeves of the robe, and encircling his neck. The suit was undoubtedly thin and light, because beyond those few visible traces, it remained unseen.

Around his waist, a broad black belt cinched the robe in place, anchoring it against his tall frame, and securing a hammer and several pouches. His beard of grayish white spilled midway down his chest before branching eloquently off into two braided paths. Each braid was capped in short silver metal tubes just above the belt. The hood of his robe was down, and out of habit he carried his saddlebags on his shoulder; one to the front and the other to his back.

There in the shadows, he paid careful attention to the entrance of men and elves, and to the ensuing conversations, but he remained silent.

Written by - Ariana

She sat quietly upon the smooth surface of the rock, the coastal breezes stirring her exceedingly long hair. For someone who held the Hope of a world in her hands, she looked an awful fright. Though there was evidence that the healers had made some attempt to clean her up, there was simply too much grime and blood to be erased by anything short of a thorough dunking. Her dress was now patterned with large irregular blotches of brownish blood. Similarly, the life-giving fluid had caked in her hair, causing large mats.

She, however, was unaware and unconcerned with her appearance. Instead, she flicked a glance over at her companion, the one who had carried her with such gentleness it surprised her, and who had placed her in her current spot. Unfortunately, he did not do anything interesting, and did not seem to want to play.

Her eyes turned from him to look below her, at the water lapping at the bottom of her stone, several inches below her bare feet. The water was remarkably clear, and she watched in fascination as the undulating water caused the rocks and sand below to shift and swirl. Smiling, she scooted forward until her toes were immersed, and then kicked her feet to change the pattern of the swirling sea.

Her companion forgotten, she pushed off the rock completely, standing in ankle-deep cold water, unmindful of the rocks biting into the bottoms of her feet or the chill that crept up her spine. Giggling, she splashed around, delighting in the sensations the salty water below and the warm sunshine above created.

She turned, as if to make her way into deeper water, when she was distracted by a great screech. Turning, she saw one of her feathered friends, a gray one, perched where she had once been sitting. Cocking its head at her, it screeched again, apparently delivering a message. Then it took to wing and made its way towards the trees she could see in the near distance.

Not having anyone else to play with, she clumsily climbed out of the surf and followed.

Written by - Lucant Dolvan

As the two men headed back towards the Chairman’s office, not a word was said between them. Few of the busied clerks and secretaries even took notice of the pair as they tried their best to avoid the most hectic areas. They finally stopped for a moment at the door to Rassel’s office.

“Just a moment,” He said opening the door, “Let me a get a few things in here then we’ll head to the penthouse upstairs. It’s far to noisy to have a civilized discussion down here.” The man said nothing as the Chairman went in, then quickly returned with a handful of papers and a small elaborate box. Chairman Rassel slammed the door shut, then motioned for the silent man to follow him towards a secluded corner of the building that carefully concealed a staircase to the upper penthouse – the Chairman’s private quarters.

On their way up the stairs, the man finally broke his silence: “Your employees do you credit. I had to bribe that poor girl at the entrance desk to even tell you I was here.”

The Chairman’s laugh echoed throughout the staircase and the halls. “That’s my fault I’m afraid! Frankly, I’ve been a bit of a tyrant lately. I only recently got this branch established and it’s been an exceedingly difficult time trying to get the whole process to run smoothly. I came here from Shrikefield to personally oversee it until matters settled down. And besides, it’s much easier to negotiate trade deals in person – and trade with the Elves and Westgale exiles is far too lucrative to pass up. Gods how I love neutrality and the opportunities it brings!” Rassel laughed again as he swung open a door to his parlor room.

The man entered the parlor ahead of the Chairman and began to light a few of the candelabras in the spacious room. “A tyrant, hmm? Well, you’ve always just been Uncle Haswal to me.”

“That’s damn good to know boy,” he said as he placed his papers down on a small table next to the door then carried the box with him to a large, overstuffed armchair. “Now, quit lighting those things and sit down and have smoke with your old uncle.” He opened the small box and produced a pair of meerschaum pipes, both carved into the shape of a perched dragon and bronzed with age, along with a sizeable pouch of dwarven smoking tobacco.

“You’re always looking an excuse to break those out, aren’t you,” the man said as he walked towards the accompanying chair. Haswal only shrugged and gave a sheepish smile before lighting his pipe. Before he sat down, the man removed the sword he was carrying and leaned it against his leg as he sat down.

“So that’s it,” Haswal whispered, pointing at the sword.

“Yes…” The man’s voice trailed off a bit as he lit his pipe. “How much do you know?”

“Enough. But tell me your side of the story.” A steady stream of smoke blew from his mouth as he spoke.

“Old men and their stories… I might as well start at the beginning then.” He paused a moment to blow a cloud of smoke. “Everything started just a short while ago, right after King Beridane assumed control of Westgale. Ricimer had been made a general by the King himself for his part in quelling some peasant revolts in the countryside and then helping to stabilize the political situation in Port Westgale. King Beridane gave him the sword and promotion as “reward” for his loyalty.” He kicked the sword as he spoke.

“A few weeks went by, and Ricimer was sent back home. I was busy over going over reports one night just after he had retured about potential orc movements to the east and south. – we both see how that little issue turned out – and Saliel just comes bursting into my office. Getting a visit from either of my sisters would be a strange enough occurrence, but one so late at night had me worried, especially when she said father needed to see me.” He paused for another puff of smoke. “So, I dropped everything I was doing and left for home. When got there, the whole place was deathly quiet. I couldn’t find anyone – mother, any of the servants… no one. I’m starting to wonder what’s going on, then I go into the study and see Ricimer and father sitting there, pouring themselves over a table of books.”

The man took one last puff, then sat the pipe down. “He wouldn’t even touch the sword anymore… wouldn’t even go near it. I have never, never seen him so… afraid… of something in my life. He said that he felt… ill… whenever he wielded it, even when he had it near him. He couldn’t sleep at night; he described these horrible nightmares he had been having to me. Then he said he was having trouble controlling his thoughts, focusing them, that he could almost hear something when he was alone… that he felt like something was always stalking right behind him… something he never could quite find. This was what piqued my interest in the whole matter.” He grabbed the sword by the hilt and stood it in front of him, then drew it. The long, wicked blade bore a strange pattern of runic engravings along the fuller, matching on both sides of the sword. “I looked at it… tried my best to figure out what these meant, but I have no clue. “Father practically begged me to help my poor big brother in his hour of need. He told me that if this thing was left to its own devices, he didn’t know what would happen. So, I resigned from my post in Military Intelligence, took the sword and what all of father’s research I could gather with me to figure out what’s wrong with it, and now I’m here.”

Haswal spoke with a light tone, smoke still billowing with every word: “Don’t give me that dog and pony show boy. I was there when you were born! I’ve known you twenty-eight years… more than long enough to know that filial piety on carries so little weight with you. You wouldn’t be doing this if there wasn’t something in it for you, too.”

The man chuckled quietly to himself. “You know me too well Uncle Haswal. You are right. I would have just as soon sit and watched Ricimer descend into utter madness, but his little ‘poor me’ stories intrigued me, as I said, as did these engravings. The more I thought on the matter… the more I realized it was a great opportunity to research something that probably shouldn’t be. And it gives me a rather legitimate excuse to delve into subjects generally frowned upon by the greater academic and magical community.”

“Just say necromancy, boy.”

“Necromancy? It has its uses, I suppose… but necromancy is for desperate old men and first year academy students who think they know everything. I’m talking about the real forbidden magics – soul transfers, spirit bindings, sapient alchemy…”

“Boy, you had better make sure you know who’s around before you go off saying things like that.”

The man only grinned slightly, then forced the sword back into its ill-fitting sheath. “I decided to come here hoping that the point-ears would have some books or scrolls or something that might help figure out what those damned runes are… and to get away the north’s prying eyes… but I have a creeping suspicion that I’ll need a runesmith or a very wise man before all’s said and done with.” His voice began to trail off as he leaned back in the chair.

Haswal rose slowly and put the pipes back in their box. Closing it, he looked over at his weary nephew and spoke: “Well… I’ll tell you what… you shared a smoke and a story with me, so I’ll see what information I can find for you. Just stay here and rest a bit. Besides… you wouldn’t get very far here with damned ‘Skaner accent of yours.”

He left one candelabra burning in the parlor before heading back downstairs.

Written by - Dartanian Merquise

Dartanian listened intently as Ithramir spoke. He sincerely hoped Ithramir had not expected him to kneel before him and pledge his loyalty, that was something he reserved for Lady Mavigan alone. From his words on her, it was apparent that Ithramir held little esteem for the young queen. "She is not yet a queen, this I can assure you," he had said. Whether or not Mavigan had been officially crowned meant little to Dartanian. What was important was that she was the rightful heir to the throne and as such deserved the respect and loyalty of those who had loved her father, King Pallanon.

Deciding to hold his tongue, as he did not wish to incite any hostilities with his newfound allies, Dartanian instead nodded politely and headed over to the offered refreshments. He was indeed hungry, having not yet broken his fast.

He was however a bit miffed at some of the elf's comments. His information was not "a bit off" as Ithramir had claimed. Had he not stated only moments before that he knew that Mavigan was not at the citadel at present? Had the elf mispoke? Or had he simply not been paying attention while Dartanian was speaking? In any case, it was obvious from everything that he had said that Dartanian would be fighting an uphill battle in order to earn the elven commander's respect. However, the same was true of Ithramir. Though he doubted the elven commander cared much for earning Dartanian's respect, he had yet to prove himself capable to the young Count. Dartanian was not beholden to these elves and did not intend to stay and aid them any longer than the situation should warrant, or as deemed necessary by Lady Mavigan...if and when she returned.

Turning his mind to other matters such as the readiness of his men, Dartanian bit into a piece of fruit, waiting for the briefing to begin.

Written by - Ariana

Her bare feet first shushed through sand, then scooted across coarse sandstone, and finally emerged upon smooth sun-warmed cobbles. Her winged friend seemed both impatient and accommodating, frequently alighting on a nearby ledge or precipice and screeching encouragement at her. They continued this odd game of follow-the-leader until both had passed through the town and out the other side, her feet finally encountering soft grass. She scrunched her toes several times, delighting in the way the blades of grass tickled her as she waited to see where her friend would go next.

He did not disappoint and soon took wing again, leading her down a small road into the burgeoning forest ahead. The owl did not lead her far, instead following the road into a small clearing that had been converted into a courtyard fronting a stone chapel. The great bird circled once then alighted on top of the mid-sized stone statue occupying the center of the courtyard.

Had she been more herself, she would have noted that despite the priests of this particular order being slaughtered in record numbers, this chapel was well-maintained. The grass was trimmed, the stoop was swept, and flowers surrounded both the chapel and the statue, all speaking to loving care.

She noticed none of this, however, having eyes only for her winged friend thinking that surely he would continue the game. He did nothing of the sort, however. Instead he peered at her with unblinking eyes from his perch on high, as if willing her to take notice of something. He added in a couple of grumpy screeches as well, when sheer force of will did not seem to get the point across.

For her part, however, when he did not lead her anywhere else, despite the raucous noise he was making, her attention soon wandered. She approached the statue upon which the owl sat and ran her fingers along the smooth stone. The rock has been shaped into a woman, wielding mace in one hand and book in the other, the expression on the woman’s face fierce and determined. The form did not bother her, but neither did it stir any recognition.

She slowly circled the monument, gazing at it from several different angles and running her fingers along its bumps and grooves. Upon the third trip, she noticed something in relief at the base of the woman’s feet. Curious, she placed her fingers upon it and traced the lines as they curved and entangled with each other.

The symbol called to her more than the image of the woman did, and her brow furrowed as she tried to place it. This was something she knew, if only she could remember. It was important she remember. This simple symbol before her was the key, she knew, though she could not have stated how she knew. All she did know was that the strange compilation of shapes called to her, and she was helpless to resist.

Gathering herself, she pushed hard against the void inside her mind, desperately searching for anything in the black, a tiny sliver of light in the darkness that could lead her from her current prison. But nothing came. Her fist smacked into the stone as she grew frustrated with her failure, accompanied by a scolding screech from above.

Written by - Tempyst

Kaya sat upon the barrell, soaking up the sun, taking in the sweet, salt air and the sounds of the small port. It all reminded her of home and she found herself getting very homesick for Nen A'Naur. She looked out across the water and for a moment, wished she was back home, back before Tahlon had arrived and everything had gone downhill. She brought a hand up and traced the scar upon her face, the scar Tahlon had put there. I swear Tahlon, I shall return one day and rip that forked tongue from your throat for all you have done to me and my family. Then the sound of an owl screeching took her attention back to where she was and out of the past. She looked around and saw Ariana start to wander off through town. Standing up, she decided to follow.

She kept a few paces behind the woman, watching out for any who might cause her harm, but none came forward. there were some odd looks from some of the towns people, but then Ariana still had not been cleaned up from the night before for odd looks were certainly in order. She watched as the woman walked into the chapel area, following the owl. The woman stopped at a statue; Kaya watched her look at the woman in stone, then watched as she smacked her fists in frustration onto the stone. Not wanting Ariana to be hurt any more than she was, she approached carefully, taking no notice of the statue, but only of Ariana. She reached out a hand, feeling a sudden burst of compassion for this woman. "Ariana...Ariana...it's okay, is there anything I can do for you?"

Written by - Ardwen

Ardwen threw himself back onto the sands of the beach, facing the sky above. The sand was warm and welcoming after the frigid bite of the coastal water, and Ardwen's eyes closed for a brief instant. Briefly, he imagined he might be able to catch some more sleep, or at least allow himself to dry after trudging through the chill water to reach the island. Such illusions were swiftly shattered, however, when he heard the sounds of splashing water.

The elf bolted upright, looking out at the shoreline for the offending sound. There he saw his Abbess playing amongst the lapping water as if it were the most novel thing in the world. Regardless of her excited and happy laughter, Ardwen found a scowl forming on his face. He had, in his mind, imagined that rescuing Ariana would somehow set everything right instantly. Ardwen shook his head slightly, seeing the idea for how amazingly naive it had been. The swordsman had no more time for reflection, however, as Ariana bolted through the nearby forest. The screech of some bird reached Ardwen's ears at that exact moment, but the Elf ignored it as unimportant coincidence.

Ardwen let out a snarl of frustration and climbed to his feet. The warrior was muttering under his breath, but the only audible part was a practically spat section of speech that sounded like, "Not a damn babysitter." Yet, despite his complaining, Ardwen found himself following his Abbess through the forest and beyond. The elven swordsman paused in trepidation as they came upon a small village; Ardwen's eyes darted furiously between the buildings as he tried to spot a potential ambush. It was, however, a futile effort, the Elf could not cover the entire village alone. The effort only slowed him down, and he saw Ariana running ahead of him, almost to the other side of the village.

Ardwen dashed after her and heard as the sound of his footfalls shifted from stone back to grass. He swiftly caught up to Ariana, but his breath caught in his throat as he beheld what she too saw. It was a pristine little chapel, the yard meticulously maintained, but more importantly there was a statue in prominent display. Ardwen recognized the figure with no effort. The fire in the Elf's blood cooled as he watched Ariana gaze up at the effigy of her former self. Ardwen wondered if it was difficult for her to do so, did she recognize who she was staring at? Did she care?

Almost as if in answer, Ariana's fist smacked into the stone, and the infernal bird that had apparently started this whole escapade screeched once more. Ardwen spared the owl (for now that he saw it he knew what it was) a brief and spiteful glance, but he took a few steps toward Ariana. He tried to walk silently up to her, but his worry that she might injure herself quickened his pace, and he soon stood beside her. Ardwen placed a hand on her forearm, the same one she had struck the stone with. It was a gentle gesture, more to encourage her not to hit stone again than to restrain. The elf looked up at the statue once again and said, "Do you . . . recognize her?" The swordsman received no answer; so he carried on, "She looks a lot like you."

"Ariana...Ariana...it's okay, is there anything I can do for you?" The voice nearly caused Ardwen to jump out of his skin. He spun around and noticed Kaya had followed as well, Ardwen had been so concerned with spotting an attack in the town he had failed to notice anyone else perusing. Selfishly, the thought spun through his head that Kaya had seen him in a moment of weakness, and Ardwen reflexively covered it up with blunder.

"Fool girl," he snapped as he rounded to face her, "do you know where we are or who these people are?" The warriors voiced dropped to a low rumbling whisper, "Do not," said Ardwen, "use her name lightly!"

Written by - Tempyst

Kaya stood her ground. "As a matter of fact no, I do know know where we are except to be on holy ground, and and I do not know who she is. All I know is that she was a queen, you and your friend's queen and that she is important, as for why, I have no clue." Kaya finally noticed the resemblence of the statue to Ariana and she shot Ardwen another look. "I am not from around here Ardwen, these are not my people. I know nothing of their faith or gods. What is she, a goddess fallen to earth? Why don't you tell me Ardwen, fill me in so I know what I am getting into."

Written by - Vylia

Kaya wasn't the only one to follow Ardwen and Ariana as they ran off. While Vylia was the on the last boat to reach the shore, she was close enough to see the three sprint off into the woods, and barely even waited for the boat to stop before she had leaped into the surf to follow after them. When she finally caught up with the trio they had stopped in front of a small chapel, with a very familiar statue in it's courtyard.

She listened to the conversation, not wishing to interrupt until Ardwen growled at Kaya, and in an attempt to curb any arguments, answered the other woman's question, "Honestly, we're not really from around here either. It's a rather long story, but the short of it is no, she is not a goddess fallen to earth. Though the faith we placed in her when she was whole may have been close to what one would expect accorded a god. She was our Abbess, and we were... ARE The Hands of Providence."

Written by - Ardwen

Ardwen prepared to answer Kaya, but stopped as he saw Vylia approach. She was as silent and surefooted as ever, but Ardwen at least expected that from the archer. Still, Ardwen said nothing and merely nodded his head at Kaya, assuming Vylia's keen hearing had filled in the rest of the details. The elven archer decided to take the hint and spoke, telling Vylia of their former membership in the Hands of Providence. Ardwen inwardly flinched at the mentioning of the name, and he did so again when she proudly proclaimed they still were the Hands of Providence.

Ardwen finally gave an outward sign by shaking his head slowly, sadly. His former fierce mien seemed to fade and when he spoke his voice was soft but clear, "Vylia tells the story, but in part I'm afraid. We are refugees from another world, a dead world, a world's name I will not speak here. I suppose some of us were brought here because in that world we were great heroes, paragons of virtue and righteousness." Ardwen paused to allow the words to sink in before adding, "At least, that's what the history books most likely say about us here, if they say anything at all."

Unusually for the warrior, he seemed nervous as he spoke, his eyes flitting from the bystanders, to his two companions, and to his Abbess. Ardwen began pacing back and forth, but he spoke on saying, "The reality was a bit different. The Hands were a collection of individuals united by a common vision. The vision was, as you might appreciate had you known the place, to pull our world out of the hellhole it had become. Certain extenuating circumstances made this difficult, namely every little Chaos-worshipping cult, demon, and enemy of life you can imagine. There were many of them, and by various means the situation kept getting worse . . . I for one blame the arrogance and rank stupidity of mankind, but that's just one old soldier's opinion . . . "

Ardwen allowed his voice to trail off; a slight smirk had formed on his face. He continued pacing, but he looked more comfortable now, falling into his role as a pedagogue. Ardwen could care less if Kaya actually learned anything from his ramblings, but it allowed him to flaunt his knowledge. "Regardless, the Hands first convened approximately in 97 SY, that's roughly ninety-seven years after everything went to hell - if you're wondering SY stands for 'Shadow Years'. They were a small congregation at first, but they had the nominal support of being a branch of the Holy Church, an ancient and generally useless institution flounder under its own venerable inertia. However, the Hands did with sheer will and determination what many said was impossible: founding a bastion of tranquility in the very maw of damnation."

Ardwen paused once again, but this time merely to catch his breath. His voice was tinged with melancholy and bitterness as he spoke again, "Those were . . . the happiest times of my life, and I have seen over five millennia. Aethelwulf ran an orphanage and a fine garden; by his diligence many lives were improved and saved. Turin Wallace, whom you have seen, was our first Priest of Battle, by his tactics much was preserved and the scourges of hell resisted. Vylia," and with this Ardwen succinctly motioned the elf herself, "was one of our foremost scouts and rangers, by her eyes we knew our enemies . . ."

The warrior finally stopped pacing and looked Kaya directly in the eyes, his voice somber, "I could stand here all day and toll of the names of the dead or dying. It would elucidate you no more than a trip to the cemetery. Know then, that as the others served, Ariana was our spiritual leader, and it was her faith and compassion that made . . . many of us . . . more than the monsters the world would have created of us." Suddenly Ardwen spun around, turning his back to Kaya and Vylia both. By the end all the swagger and pomp had dropped from his voice, and even their keen elven hearing had strained to hear his final words.

Written by - Tempyst

Kaya listened to Vylia, then intently to Ardwen, who gave her the information she needed. "Thank you Ardwen, I can see now why she is important to you, to the others. My own past is not as noble as all of yours, but I do understand loss and being lost. But, she is being hunted by demons, so she is important to me as well and I will help and do my best to keep her well and protected from them, if you will let me help." Kaya looked towards Ariana, understanding and a little bit of sadness in her eyes. "Your mistress seems lost, and I have been there. I was only offering a helping hand. Please, if there is anything I can do, let me know."

Written by - Talonmane

Kildef cleared the thick oak's trunk and gracefully leaped two large roots, strolling ahead slowly into the courtyard.

"I know your memories are nigh endless, Ardwen, so I am not surprised if you don't recognize my friend immediately. Though like you, he is one of the oldest things alive in the world. At least, Salvorah always thought so." The Ranger held out his right arm, and Olawahoo noiselessly alighted from the statue and took place just back from the wrist, wings flapping minimally, the tops of his feathery ear tufts nearly three feet above the arm. "Many a life was saved or slain due to his eyes in the time of Aerynth. Many an ally or foe rose or fell as he scouted for us." Kil walked forward slowly, approaching Ariana and her object of fascination. "And he has ever been her shadow...from the time she first arrived at the old Abbey, and in ways I often never even knew. Who can doubt that his leading her here is not part of some greater plan?"

And the two just stood quietly afterward, watching.

Written by - Archeantus

The night had breathed new life into the old warlock's aching joints. He woke to the sound of shouts of land.

Rising, he stood after a long stretch, and gently took his wooden staff to support himself. He could feel a deep pain rumble in his chest as he walked toward the edge of the ship to listen to the crew of the 'Call prepare to land.

Soon he was guided down toward a small vessel which quickly made it's way toward the small island. The stout sailor that rowed the raft gave the warlock a confused look while he worked remembering what the man had done the night before.

Archeantus noted the sailor's line of thought before he voiced his question but allowed him to ask nonetheless.

"Why d'ya take da raft when you cun..."

"Fly?" The warlock finished.

"Aye." Said the sailor gruffly.

Archeantus did not answer right away, but waited for the man to think about the answer a bit more. The raft rocked in the small waves as the warlock finally said, "Power needlessly used is the beginning of evil" while seemingly gazing out into the sea.

The raft hit shore and the warlock stood and thanked the sailor who sat pondering the statement. He waded into the cool water and then stood upon the shore feeling the warmth of the sun upon his weathered face.

Angelus flew about the warlock's head, moving about the general area to various points of interest as if evaluating this new environment for anything worth investigating.

Scanning he knew most of his friends were already upon the shore, Ariana near Ardwen--which suddenly changed.

She was on the move.

"Angelus, follow her." He commanded and the small ember zipped through the air after her.

It was not long till Angelus followed Ariana, along with the rest to the small courtyard where the lone statue of the Abbess had been erected. Joining Olawahoo who rested on the statue, Angelus anxiously burst around the statue as if trying to communicate to Ariana below what was intensely obvious to them all.

"Who can doubt that his leading her here is not part of some greater plan?"

"Not I old friend" Said the warlock as he floated down among them overhearing Kil's last statement.

As his feet rested on the soft earth he quickly discerned the object of all their attention.

Walking slowly toward the statue, he placed his old hands upon the older cool stone.

He could sense Ariana's frustration, even with her grand form before her, she could not find her way out of the darkness her mind was in.

Turning his head back toward those present, as if speaking for them, knowing their thoughts, the warlock spoke.

"It is time to remember."

His sightless face seemed to look upon them who looked on her as he slowly circled the statue coming closer toward the Abbess speaking as he went.

"It is time to see as you used to see."

Resting his staff upon the statue, as he moved his hand grazed across the symbol etched in the stone.

"It is time to enter the light."

And with that, he entered her mind.

Written by - Ariana

She could hear the commotion around, feel the gentle pressure on her arm, but she was unable to make sense of it. Somewhere, she knew their noises were directed at her, but the emptiness inside her refused to echo with a response. Silent tears of frustration tracked down her face as she gazed the person grasping her arm. The timbre and cadence of his voice hardened and she flinched. He appeared to be scolding her in much the same way that her winged friend has screeched his own disapproval.

But then more people began to arrive, and she found herself frightened. Expectation intermingled with pity was plainly seen in their eyes, and she backed up in response. They wanted something from her, something she didn’t have, something she couldn’t give, and their need threatened to rip her apart from the inside out.

Glancing around quickly, she noted she was surrounded and choked back a panicked scream. Her breathing became quick as the feeling of being trapped began to envelop her, but before it could completely take hold, her attention was diverted as her owl friend descended from his perch to land on the arm of one of the people surrounding her. He flapped his wings once or twice more, adjusting to his new perch, and then turned his unblinking eyes upon her.

Tentatively, still anticipating his disapproval, she extended a finger and drew it slowly down the soft gray feathers of his back. Instead of screeching at her like she expected, moved slightly, as if asking her to rub first this spot, then that spot. She was soon grinning at his antics, her initial panic forgotten, face dry of tears.

Her other friend, the tiny dancing light, soon joined them, and she was content to play. She only vaguely registered the addition of another person to the throng, but she was acutely aware of the sudden pressure she felt inside her own head. Her pupils shrank to pinpricks, and she stopped mid-stroke as she became aware of an Other pushing its way into her.

Her breathing quickly became labored, and small beads of perspiration appeared on her forehead, and as quickly as a heartbeat her scene shifted. No longer was she basking in the sunshine. Instead, her world became that of the dream, and she found herself dressed all in white standing upon the surface of that black lake in the middle of the darkest landscape, tiny waves caressing her bare feet. Only this time, she wasn’t alone.

Standing some distance away was the Other, and seeing him, her hands clenched into tight fists. The Other had come before, and she knew what was to follow. Her eyes narrowed with fury as she unconsciously slipped into a defensive posture remembering the terror and despair the Other had made her feel. Before, she had been unsure and defenseless. This time, she was ready.


Written by - Ardwen Page 3 Book 4

Ardwen turned his head to glance over his shoulder at Kaya when she thanked him. The warrior had an eyebrow lifted as if questioning what the gratitude was for. The look was passing, and Ardwen returned to looking straight ahead. "Just thought you should know," he said demurely, "because you're neck-deep in it already, and it doesn't look like you want out anyhow." The next sound to entreat the elf's ears was of another set of footfalls, but they were sounding slow and steady, and Ardwen assumed whoever was making them wasn't in a hurry. This troubled Ardwen, making him wonder if one of the villagers had mustered the courage to approach, but what he saw when he turned to see was no villager.

The Blade Weaver watched as Kildef moved in to join the swiftly growing knot of Hands gathered around their Abbess. Finally, Ardwen turned to face everyone again, his posture relax and slack. Kildef mentioned the owl, and as if in answer the creature drifted from the statue to the barbarian's outstretched arm. The warrior listened to Kildef intently before saying, "I can doubt it. A useful scout, certainly, but an arbitrator of destiny? Sorry to say, but my civilization long ago ruled out the superstition that our destinies were fixed by the flight of some damn bird." The elf's tone was light, however, and those who knew him realized he had come as close as he ever had to making a joke.

Despite Ardwen's doubt, there was a dissenting opinion, and the swordsman looked up to see Archeantus float gently down to the ground. Ardwen titled his head to the side slightly, glad to see the warlock moving about, but curious as to why he had bothered to fly in. Ardwen did not have to wait long for an answer, though when he got it he wished he had never asked. "It is time to remember." Archeantus said suddenly, and his voice almost seemed to reverberate, as if there were two of him speaking at once. The elven warrior had the unpleasant sensation that Arc's blind countenance was somehow regarding him in a way more keen than sight.

"It is time to see as you used to see." Archeantus had moved close enough now to the statue to run a hand over it. The mage rested his staff on the ground and intoned, "It is time to enter the light." Ariana had seemed relax up till that moment, playing with the owl and the elemental that was Arc's constant companion, but as the warlock finished his words she visibly tensed. Ardwen spat a hasty curse as he realized what Archeatus was doing. He had known Sycon for some time, and had the unfortunate pleasure of meeting many other warlocks in battle. They were mages of the mind, adept at delving into thoughts and memories, able to use their willpower alone to act upon themselves and others.

"If you intend to rip her out of her mental stupor," Ardwen said frostily, "then I advise caution." Oddly, the warrior took several steps back, placing Kildef, Vylia, and Kaya between him and the occupied Ariana and Archeantus. Ardwen said nothing else, his eyes were focused entirely on the unfolding of whatever his warlock companion intended to do.

Written by - Teran

"This isn't a democracy." Teran said gently "All-Father only knows where we would be if I allowed you and Keeryn to make decisions about where we go."

He slipped into the hallway and began heading towards where he knew enemies were. He could feel a fearsome power coming from nearby and he wanted to put an end to it.

"There is something in here and I want to kill it." he declared "You should too!"

He turned without warning and patted her on the head as though she were a child. He leaned over and looked her square in the eyes. His gaze was intense and despite his tone she could see he was completely serious.

"If you have something else you'd rather be doing Princess you may depart my company at any time. I however came here for a reason, the same reason you came here as a matter of fact and if you want to find out what is going on down here I would suggest that you stop thinking of ways to avoid confrontation and apply those resources towards thinking of ways to win confrontation. Specifically the confrontation we are going to have with a lot of angry cultists and their minions."

He spoke in a hushed voice, though he was sure Keeryn could hear him. There was no malice in the way he spoke but the impression that he is short on patience was certainly given.

Written by - Archeantus

Just as his mind linked with hers, a voice of caution entered his ears. Noting its source, he knew Ardwen was right. There was a great danger in what he now attempted. Ariana's disappearance was a mystery and what she had been through none knew but her. Yet locked here, deep in her mind, he sought answers, answers that could help him assemble the shattered pieces of who she used to be, and Archeantus hoped, would still be.

He focused his willpower and channeled all his senses on the task at hand, hoping his companions would make sure he was not disturbed. If the mental link was broken before he could untangle and smooth the path he trod within her, there could be irreparable damage.

It was these thoughts that pervaded him as he first lifted his mind's eye to the scene she had imagined. Out across a sable sea he saw her standing, adorned regally in white, marking a stark contrast with her surroundings. It was poignant in its own way, and for a moment he saw how far she was gone, nearly surrounded in darkness.

He then perceived her sudden anger, which continued to smolder and strengthen. This was highly peculiar. Most consciousnesses were rarely aware of his initial presence. She had immediately targeted him as if she had dealt with such things often. And by the perception of her building rage, he knew that it had not been pleasant--far from it.

Looking down at his form, he was surprised to find she had transformed him into something...terribly dark and horrible. Looking quickly up at her again his ghastly eyes narrowed. Someone or something had been here and had caused her great pain.

He then began to study his surroundings. The mind gave many clues, many of them were far from her own conscious awareness. The tar-like sea bubbled and spewed. The landscape seemed to throb and melt into the sea as if it were bleeding, decaying ever so slowly. He knew then, that her mind was slowly fading into madness. Her situation was far worse than he could have imagined.

Suddenly he felt a sense of urgency surge through him. He needed to reach her, and so he began to combat her imaginations. Striding forward, he waved his hand and a unstable rope bridge began to form near the area she'd placed him. Small bubbles popped emitting a terrible stench. He could barely stand it, but there was something strange about them. He looked closer and saw what they really were.

Memories. Thousands, millions of them, some were real, some...were not, placed there by whoever had invaded her mind as a terribly clever self defeating maze.

He would have no more of it. With great effort, he shed the dark visage, as if it were costume. He wanted her to see the artificial form remain there on the growing bridge as he stepped into her mind's view as he was then, a robbed middle aged man, with long gray hair, holding a curved staff. He could feel her fuming eyes upon him, but there was something he needed to find before he looked upon her again. He then began to search for one single memory, one that would hopefully be a solid piece in establishing her once unbreakable foundation.

His search proved highly difficult, the bubbles came to the surface quickly and then faded with a pop. The dark sea began to rise and fall.

It was her doing.

Searching more earnestly, holding carefully to the rope he'd imagined, he placed his staff in the dark liquid. Suddenly there grew a change in the immediate area. The dark tar like sea began to shift and circle, slowly motioning around and around. It's color began to lighten, further and further till it had lost much of its mystery. When the warlock had finished, there grew a small circle of white, which slowly circled bigger and bigger.

Now looking even more carefully he finally found what he sought and it was then his eyes met hers once more, but it was not with eyes that had experienced eons in the void as she had done, not with eyes that had grown older and sadder. They were the eyes of the young man who had come to her during a stormy night in the kitchen of the Abbey in Aerynth to answer a question of unique importance. Archeantus reached out to call forth a certain bubble, which came at his command. It floated there above his hand as he continued to gaze at the Abbess.

In a blink, the older warlock was suddenly a young man and the whole of the scene suddenly changed to darkness.

Out of the darkness came the soft glow of candlelight, and then the smell of warm honey mead, and the sound of rain and thunder against the ancient stones of the Abbey's kitchen. The memory was one of the first steps in his great journey and it was her that had set the course of all he'd become.

He had many questions during that time--how could someone believe in something they could not see? Why had the All-Father abandoned them? Why had he lost his family? But there was one question that had burned inside of him and one that he wanted to ask her specifically.

It was as if both of them were watching the memory from afar, yet were now experiencing it first-hand. But the moment the question came as it happened, the old warlock conjured up a soft light that began to glow about the Abbess as she explained her answer that had changed his life.

His question had been simply this, "Ariana, why do you believe in the All-Father?"

Her answer pierced the darkness, "I will tell you that faith manifests itself in different ways to different people. My reason for belief and obedience will not be yours. I can, however, tell you this. Do not fear to ask questions, our Father does not expect blind devotion. By the same token, you must also be open to the answers when they come. Finding true faith is never easy and is often painful, but know that your family here will always be there to pick you up when you fall. And in the end, the All-Father will have molded you into the person He would have you be."

Once the words fell the memory slowly faded and they were again upon the dark sea. The young Archeantus slowly grew before her eyes to become the old man she saw now.

He wanted her to know he was no stranger. Nor was she.

"It's me Ariana," He said over the foul wind of the sea "Archeantus. And as your friend I ask you as you asked me to do long ago..."

He paused then, keeping his voice calm and reassuring.

"Do you remember me Ariana? Do you remember your faith?"

There in her hand appeared a gold medallion, three rings intermingled.

Written by - Ariana

“All-Father only knows where we would be if I allowed you and Keeryn to make decisions about where we go.”

Mavigan mentally snorted. She knew exactly where they’d be if he had left the decision up to them. They’d be somewhere far away, clean, and lounging on a beach, preferably with plenty of cute guys serving them cool (and alcoholic drinks). The image cheered her considerably, so much so that she only made a small growl at him when he condescendingly patted her on the head.

”I however came here for a reason, the same reason you came here as a matter of fact…”

She seriously doubted he had come down here for the same reason she had, and the thought caused her to grimace. The only reason she had ventured into this hellhole in the first place was because he had come here. She chose to stick with him because staying with him was 100 times better than sticking with Ithramir, and Teran helped her improve her skills besides. The fact he was clueless made her grind her teeth.

Truthfully, she would rather be soaking in a hot bath, scrubbing the grime from her skin and hair, not chasing down more people to kill, and she did not truly understand his apparent enthusiasm for the hunt. It wasn’t like they were chasing her son-of-a-biscuit-eater Uncle, after all. If they had been, she would surely be leading the charge. But, Teran was still a better choice than her pompous wind-bag of a cousin, and she still needed Teran to ensure she could get far from Ithramir. She could tell Teran was losing patience, but he wasn’t the only one.

Sighing deeply, she motioned forward with one arm. “Well, if you are going to lead, then stop yapping and get on with it.”

Written by - Ariana

She watched closely as the Other moved, waiting for the trap to spring. She glared at him as he discarded his true form and adopted that of a middle-aged man carrying a staff. Seeing this new visage nearly made her laugh bitterly. If the best this Other could do was take the form of a man she remembered on vaguely from earlier, then he would surely fail in his task.

But then he began to stir the black sea with his staff, and the sea lightened with every stroke. She knew what was to come next and tried very hard to brace herself for it. No amount of bracing, however, could have prepared her for the memory the Other pulled out of the mire. Instead of a body-strewn battle field, or the torture chambers of a Confessor there was only a candle-lit kitchen and a boy.

Confused and distraught, she searched diligently for the monsters that would come waving their implements of torture, but found none. There was only the Other dressed in the guise of a boy she once loved. And as she watched, the boy grew into a man and the man grew into the form now standing before her.

”Do you remember me Ariana?”

The question carried to her over the raging sea, and she trembled with the answer. She remembered. Oh how she remembered and with the recognition came something she had never thought to feel again: hope. Tears streamed down her face dripped off her chin to blend with the swirling darkness beneath her.

She found a gold medallion in her hand, and the other hand covered it, squeezing it between her palms. She remembered, and the knowledge filled her with ache.

There was a sudden disturbance on the tar-like sea, waves that had been rough grew rougher still as had happened in her dream, two large sheets of darkness rose from beneath the surface. As she watched in abject horror, the medallion clutched desperately in her hands, the images from the night before began to form on the surface. When the process was complete, she again faced the two women. Only now, the woman in white was mostly hidden in shadow while the warrior was brightly lit.

Lit enough so she could make out details she had missed before. That the woman who so proudly displayed the head of her last kill wore no emblem of circles. That the woman before her had no hope. That the head speared by the pike the woman held belonged to none other than the boy she once loved.

And she remembered. Where once there had been a warm and safe kitchen, there was now an empty courtyard dominated by a very large tree. Where once there had been conversation, now there was only blood. And where once there had been bread, now there was the body of a young boy pinned to the large tree with a pike through his heart.

Hope was extinguished as surely as water dousing flame, and though she tried her best to hold onto the golden medallion, it began to melt and run through her fingers. Arc was a boy, not a man, and she chided herself for being fooled once again. There was no way her Arc could be here. She should know. She was the one who killed him.

Turning eyes filled with despair to the Other she said in a quite voice, “You are not my Arc.” As she spoke, the darkness from the lake began to creep up her white dress, slowly turning it black. She opened her hands to glance one more time at what might have been her salvation. Only black sludge remained and she allowed it to trickle through her fingers to join with the rest of the darkness at her feet.

A great wind stirred up and violently pushed against the Other. “Get Out!” she screamed and pushed with all her might.

Written by - Archeantus

A darkness formed at the horizon shortly after his pointed question and he lost sight of her for a short duration. But he did not pause in what needed to be done.

The wind picked up and began to blow harder and harder.

Taking the small vulnerable rope tightly in his hands, he balanced himself and focused once more on the countless memories bubbling all about him.

The dark sea grew worst by the moment, with large waves forming.

The warlock knew his time was quickly growing short and so he worked as fast as he could.

His eyes shifted in color as his mind churned sifting the real from the imagined and as he did so the sea could faintly be seen to change ever so slightly near him.

Suddenly she was back in full view across the raging sea, now darkened by a false memory. "You are not my Arc." She said with a betrayed and disparate tone.

And then the wind became violent, bursting from her hopeless fingers. He could barely hang on. A sudden large wave appeared in front of him which grew higher and higher.

There was only moments now. Only enough time to place a small amount of the truth.

The wave crashed down upon his small frame. Yet within that very moment, he suddenly rode upward out of the terrible wave upon the pinnacle of a grassy hill, his eyes blazing white.

He then released the small amount he'd sifted and as he did so he whispered almost completely out of breath, "I...am...Archeantus."

A small section of blue sky appeared on the horizon, a faint beginning of a coast, and a small sapling of a tree grew from the dark of the sea.

Standing above from the hill, he toppled in utter exhaustion and fell down and into the dark clutches of the sea and out of her mind.

Standing by Ariana near the statue the warlock suddenly fell to the ground as well.

Written by - Talonmane

Kildef tossed the preybird lightly to the air and knelt beside Archeantus, feeling his neck's pulse and attempting to gauge his life's aura. Craning his neck upward, his eyes looked beyond Ariana's face and followed the great owl who again took to the top of the statue and flapped roughly in frustration.

"Arch seems to be trying to reach her mind...I think he has pushed himself far just now. Ollawahoo can't tell how it's going, and that bothers him. He feels this is a critical moment for Ariana." Looking back to the Warlock, Kil concentrated and spoke his goddess' name, and the grasses and weeds around them blew in a slight wind inward to the prone figure. A green nimbus surrounded and infused with Archeantus. "A spell to embolden the Will is all I can do to help him. Braialla's Breath has always had an effect of determination through serenity. I hope it mattered. And I can't imagine what I could do for her...", the Ranger said sadly as he stood.

He looked to each of the others. "Surely amoungst our talents, there is something?"

Written by - Vylia

"Unfortunately, I have no magics that can bolster their will to succeed," slowly Vylia pulled the Triskellion medallion off her neck and placed it around Ariana's, "I have only this to offer, and a prayer to Braialla and Palandramil that Archeantus succeed." She brushed Ariana's hair from her face and leaned in to whisper in her ear, "We are here to support you still."

Written by - Ardwen

Archeantus collapsed to the ground, and Kildef hurried to his side to check if the warlock was still alive. Kildef looked up at his companions, imploring them to use whatever skill or talent they had to bolster the faltering situation. Ardwen's response was as terse and tense as he felt, the elf merely shook his head no slowly. The elven swordsman felt a pang of regret as Vylia had her faith to offer, but Ardwen had none to offer in kind.

Written by - Ariana

Once the Other left, her dream was left to continue to its inexorable conclusion. Though this time there were no hands dragging her beneath the tar-like sea, she was sinking nonetheless. She did not resist this time, but instead kept her puzzled eyes fastened on the small patch of blue sky she could see in the horizon. Part of her wanted to believe the Other was her Archeantus, but if it were true, and he was so much older, then that would mean... She shuddered. And as the darkness closed in over her head she awoke, disoriented and blinking in the bright sun.

She saw the other figures standing around her eyeing her suspiciously and the Other calling himself Archeantus lying upon the ground. If he was with them, then perhaps they were all Others? The thought both frightened and angered her. Her eyes narrowed as she slowly began to back up, trying to subtly maneuver herself away from the potential threats. As she did so, an alarming glow began to build around her hands.

Written by - Wilhelm

Sammy and Lonny were gathering clams on the beach at dawn, chattering away as 10-year old twins will do about the preparations for the Fall Equinox Festival that would be really great now that the islands were free of Ironskane occupation. Lonny looked out at the horizon and then jumped up and pointed.

"Look, look, I see sails. Ships are coming to the village. Could that be the trading ships coming for the festival?"

Sammy climbed up on a rock and looked out. As the hulls became visible he jumped down and exclaimed,

"Those are warships, not traders. The Ironskane fleet is returning. We have to warn people."

Sammy and Lonny ran over to a boat drawn up on the beach where a man was mending a net.

"Father, Father!", cried Sammy, as he pointed out at the sea, "the Ironskane Fleet is returning!"

Their father peered anxiously out at the sea, frowned, and then turned and reached into a crate next to the boat. Pulling out a spyglass, he focused on the odd-looking lead vessel that showed clear battle damage. Looking higher he saw the pennant flying from the top of the mast.

"All Father be praised! That isn't the Ironskane Fleet. Those are the colors of the loyal Westgale Fleet! Lonny, run to the Mayor and tell him that some of Admiral Munchadin's ships has arrived with battle damage. Sammy, run to your mother and tell her that the healers will likely be needed to care for battle wounds."

The boys raced off on their errands while their father ran over to a large gong and picking up a mallet rang it loudly to sound the alert. Villagers began to assemble at the docks as the ships set anchor in the cove. Some carried Westgale banners brought out of careful hiding. Others brought medical supplies and an impromptu welcome table with refreshments. Mannon, the acting-Mayor (and the village Innkeeper), directed the activities, mumbling a welcome speech to himself as he prepared for the joyful welcome. Several boats were launched from the ship and began to row towards the docks. A cry went up from the crowd,

"It's a dwarven crew! That must be Admiral Munchadin himself!"

Cheers rang out and folks crowded the docks striving for a clear view. Mannon redoubled his orders for food, drinks, and medical supplies, and sent his daughter back to the inn for his formal robes. Lonny and Sammy found themselves pushed to the back, unable to see. At Lonny's suggestion, they ran back across the beach to their father's boat and climbed up for a view.

"Look," cried Lonny, "there are some boats heading over here."

They watched as an unusual group of people disembarked from the skiffs. A woman dressed in white with dark brown stains was carried off the first boat and laid gently on a large flat rock.

"That's an Elf!" cried Sammy, pointing at the man lowering the woman in white onto the rock. They watched as the woman roused and stood up and then splashed her feet in the sea. Then she started walking inland with the others hurrying to follow her.

"That's blood on her gown," Lonny told Sammy, "she must be hurt. And they are heading towards the Shrine. They must need help. Run to mother and tell her to come quickly. I'll follow them."

Sammy ran off after their mother, the village healer, for the second time that morning while Lonny followed the others towards the Shrine. He watched as the woman walked up to the Statue of Saint Ariana. As the others reached her, he looked at her and then looked at the statue and then looked at her and gasped in amazement at the resemblance. He saw an old man come up to her and then saw her and then him collapse on the ground. As he heard his mother Jennina running up, he saw the woman in the stained white gown wake up and move away from the others. Then her hands started to glow! Turning to his mother, who had just arrived with others carrying medical supplies, he pointed and screamed loudly,

"It's Saint Ariana! She has returned!"

Written by - Lucant Dolvan

Haswal stalked silently up the stairs and opened the parlor door to find his nephew exactly where he had left him. He set about lighting a few candles throughout the room and threw back the long silk curtains to let the morning sunlight in. Satisfied that the parlor was sufficiently lit, he walked over to his sleeping nephew and gave him a sharp jab in the shoulder with the empty scabbard he was carrying.

“Wake up boy. No rest for the wicked as they say.”

Haswal jabbed him again, even harder this time, then sat down in the vacant armchair.

The man awoke with a loud yawn, then looked lazily at his uncle, waiting for him to say what it was he had awoken him for. After a few moments of silence and a loud sigh, Haswal finally spoke.

“See how that fits,” he said throwing the scabbard towards the man. He seized it in mid-throw and sat it on the ground leaned against his leg. Drawing the sword from the ill-fitting brown leather sheath he had become accustomed to, he took a moment to look at the runic engravings in stubborn curiosity before picking up the new sheath. It was a fine piece of craftsmanship, made of a single steel casting with the locket and chape plated in gold and the body wrapped in a deep black suede leather. The blade slid easily into the sheath, and even had a bit of room left.

"It’s a fine fit, uncle.”

“Good, good. You’d be amazed what you can find in the markets here.”

“What did you really wake me up for?”

Haswal sighed again, and leaned back in his armchair. “Just… how bad… do you want to find out what those mean?”

The man discarded the old sheath and secured the new one on his belt. “I don’t really have much of a choice.” He sat down, then adjusted the blade. “Father’s research isn’t very specific, I’m afraid, Ricimer didn’t contribute anything remotely useful, and I never was any good with runeology. If I’m going to grasp at straws, I may as well grasp at the closest ones.”

“You said something about a runesmith earlier… are you absolutely, undeniably, unquestionably, incontrovertibly certain that that’s the only way to find out?”

“It’s not as if I haven’t thought about the matter. I imagine the point-ears would be rather skittish with letting a foreigner - especially an Ironskane foreigner – have access to their more sensitive materials and I very much doubt it would take them long to figure out where I’m from. Judging from Ricimer’s little story… it’s likely I’ll need access to some very sensitive materials.”

Haswal nodded in acceptance.

“I could sit here and theorize and postulate all day long, but the fact remains – I don’t know how to proceed until I know what the runes mean; I can’t read them; I need someone who can, hence the runesmith.”

Haswal sighed as he leaned back in his armchair again. He sat there a moment in thought, the stood and walked over to the window.

“Dear Helena would have both our heads if she knew about this – mine for telling you and yours for actually doing it. The army is marching out soon to retake Minas Uial in the heart of the mountains. I have a few contacts in the Westgale army here… and if you absolutely have no other way… I could persuade them to overlook one extra soldier in the expedition. Provided that you actually survive the battle, head northwest into the mountain kingdoms and you’ll undoubtedly find your runesmith.”

“Like I said, I don’t have any other choice.”

“Then go downstairs and get yourself a uniform and some equipment. If the commanders complain about it, I’ll tell them to order more next time.” Haswal started for the door. “I’ll go inform them then.”

Written by - Tempyst

Tempyst stood and extended a hand to Catherin. "Thank you again for all the information. I shall do my best to keep out of harm's way while helping to keep Ithramiralive and well during battle. But for now, I must head back to the grove, we have the Festival to prepare for." Catherin nodded, shook Tempyst's hand then went back to stand at Ithramir's side.

But Tempyst did not go back the grove right away, she stopped by her room in the citadel, still filled with ivy along the walls, still filled with memories of Lucant. She sat upon the four poster bed, where hours before she and Lucant had loved each other. She sighed, then noticed one of his shirts upon the floor. She picked it up and smelled it, a tear slipping down her face. The ache was tremendous. It encompassed her almost completely. This man she had dreamt about sine she was little was now gone, for good. Never again would she feel his arms around her, his lips upon hers. They had been together for only a week, but to Tempyst, it felt like a lifetime. She sat there for awhile, then finally, she pulled herself together and dropped the shirt and left the room and headed back to the druid's grove.

Written by - Rikshanthas

A strange feeling of pressure at the back of his mind woke Leinad from the sleep of the dead. He hadn't thought he was quite that tired, but he must have passed out not long after he and Shara had retired to a cabin where they could talk privately. He hadn't even loosened his belt or taken off his boots, which was doubtless why he now felt extremely uncomfortable, sprawled as he was on the cabin's small bunk. He stirred, and movement beside him indicated Shara was there. She had been next to him with her arm across him and her head resting on his shoulder, he realized. He was surprised by the rush of conflicting emotions evoked by that realization, and he barely suppressed an urge to pull away from her, to put some distance between them for her sake - people who got too close to him tended to come down with a nasty case of death, he thought sourly. Shara took the decision out of his hands by sitting up swiftly, though she remained on the cot next to him a moment longer before standing. It occurred to him that she didn't realize he was awake, that she had jumped reflexively when he had moved. Almost as if she didn't want him to wake to find her leaning against him. Ever the independent, he thought affectionately, realizing then how much he truly loved her and wishing even more that he didn't. He swept the thought aside.

The odd twinge that had awakened him once again tugged at his mind, and he sat up slowly, wincing slightly as still-tired muscles protested the motion. Shara raised an eyebrow at him inquiringly, to which he replied, "I need to work out more. That little rescue was harder on me than I thought." He stood with the same deliberate motion, slowly stretching out his knotted shoulders, back and limbs - a task made somewhat difficult by the ever-present Astalder. He really needed to get rid of whatever enchantment had it glued to his hand. The sword gleamed in the soft light of the cabin, far brighter than the natural glint of any known metal. And its weight seemed to shift every time he moved it, always dragging his hand in a particular direction. He felt a need to get up on deck, to see what was going on, though why, he couldn't say. "C'mon," he said to Shara, having worked out the stiffness in his joints, "let's go see how we stand." After a quick check on his trusty mare, who was housed in the small courier sloop's only animal stall and looking none the worse for wear, they proceeded topside.

The fleet was positively buzzing with activity. They had made port at a small island cove; after mentally rummaging through what he knew of the geography of the area, Leinad came to the logical conclusion they were at the isle called the Palm, whose residents had always been fiercely loyal to the royal family. It would be a good place to repair and resupply, likely their only friendly port this side of Lothiel-Gadith. He noticed several longboats and other small craft already making their way to the shore; the island didn't seem to have a proper port, merely a small wharf that could house the smaller boats but nothing the size of the 'Call, let alone the massive Wavehammer. Just as he noticed one boat carrying the priestess they had rescued along with an armed escort, he felt his sword arm extend toward it slightly, almost imperceptibly. In the same moment he again felt the tug at his mind, more insistent this time. It didn't take Leinad long to put two and two together, and he hopped the next boat leaving the courier. "What ... where are you ... why do ... get back here!" Shara nearly yelled, recklessly jumping into the boat after him and almost capsizing it.

By the time they reached shore, the priestess and those with her had already headed inland, so Leinad followed, Shara on his heels, determined not to let him out of her sight after that scare with the demons. They kept their distance, and Leinad noticed his sword seemed to have a 'comfort zone' of proximity to this mysterious priestess. As long as he stayed within it the blade didn't bother him with that odd tugging at his mind and weight in his sword arm. Curious, he thought. Whoever this priestess was, he had seen enough of her behaviour in the past day to tell her mind was broken, or at least she had retreated within it from some unimaginable horror. The woman was almost childlike in her actions, as if her higher reasoning was either gone or had simply shut down to try to cope with whatever she had experienced. He had seen the odd victim of war and other atrocities in similar condition before. Given the condition she'd been in when they found her, and what Beridane must've put her through, he could understand completely. In fact he was mildly impressed that she wasn't completely catatonic. Leinad wondered idly if the others with her understood the priestess's condition and whether they were seeking a counselor or, the better option to Leinad's mind though harder to find, a mindwalker to help her. His curiosity was answered when he saw what happened with the old, blind man who was there. Mindwalker, he thought with appreciation, silently wishing the old man luck in purging whatever darkened the woman's mind.

Leinad hadn't been paying attention to what they had been saying, and realized belatedly that he should have been. Mentally he kicked himself for not listening. Shara had doubtless heard every word, however, for she stood with an utterly dumbfounded look on her face, her mouth moving inarticulately. He was about to ask what the group had discussed, but his eyes were drawn back to the priestess who now stood at the foot of an old statue, her face a mix of confused fear and anger. As her hands began to glow, Leinad spared an unconscious second glance at the statue ... then looked back at the woman, more intently this time, then back to the statue. As realization dawned on him of what Fate had decided to throw him into, Leinad swore, his barely-whispered oath drowned by a local boy screaming, "IT'S SAINT ARIANA! SHE HAS RETURNED!"

"This is gonna be bad ..." he muttered as he walked the rest of the way to the shrine, Shara following a few steps behind.

Written by - Vylia

Vylia saw Ariana backing away from the others, and made a move toward her when she heard the boy's shout from behind her. "It's Saint Ariana! She has returned!" She started to turn to him instead, so he didn't run off and spread the word through his village, when she noticed the glow around Ariana's hands, then saw the expression on her face. She shoved people out of her way and reached up to put both her hands on the side of Ariana's head, forcing the woman to look at her "No, Ariana, please. We are not your enemies!" Her expression pleaded with Ariana as she held her gaze, begging her not hurt anyone.


Written by - Talonmane Page 4 Book 4

Rangers, if anything, knew the signs of the type of fear that led to fight or flight, as a beast cornered. He backed away several steps and knelt to one knee with his head slightly lowered and hands out at his sides, visible and empty.

Ollawahoo...reach her! He didn't know what the Grey could do, hoping only in the bird's connection with the Abbess.

In an even but slightly urgent voice, he addressed the others, "Back away Hands, there's as much the chance she'll lash with the instincts of a wolf than a doe..."

But it was too late, Vylia surged forward, her own intuitive reaction to call to Ariana's memories and likely in faith that the All-Father would guide the scene. She always did react in courage.

The tactical situation passed across his conciousness within the immeasurable moment, and the slight downturn of lip and brow on Ardwen's face told him the Elf had already come to the same conclusion: worst case scenario, we may not even be able to contain her...

Written by - Ardwen

Ardwen registered the situation as quickly as only a mind that had seen millennia of disasters could. However, he reflected quickly, it didn't take a military genius to deduce that a person with glowing hands and a scowl facing your direction was a decidedly precarious situation. Yet, for all the speed that Ardwen shifted through the situation, Kildef managed to give it voice first. In a steady but decisive tone he urged them all to back away, and Ardwen had to fight the urge to smirk as he had already backed away, placing the others in between him and Ariana.

Even as Ardwen mentally gloated, a scowl crossed his features. He had merely reckoned on Ariana snapping out of her torpor upset, handing out mild recriminations and possibly stable-mucking duty. Now, however, it looked like she was a hair's breadth from blasting them all to hell. To further compound things, Ardwen had a clear idea what he could do in this situation. Normally such clarity would be welcomed, but it brought only sharp disquiet now. The elven warrior knew that he could not swing a sword against Ariana, for of all the people he had killed over the years, for causes both base and sanctified, she was as proof against his blades as if she wore plate and Ardwen wielded a willow switch.

The warrior tried to tell himself differently, a part of him saying that she was as flesh and blood as any other human. Ardwen knew it for empty bombast; he could feel deep inside him that he had no will to kill her. Without the honed perfection of action and thought, it would be impossible to strike Ariana. The elf pushed the thought away with revulsion, unwilling to pursue it any farther.

The next instant only underlined the rapidly deteriorating situation. Much to Ardwen's surprise, it came in the form of a young human throat heralding the return of their "saint". Then, as if to ensure the elves were equally represented in making things go horribly wrong, Vylia dashed forward and grasped Ariana, pleading for her Abbess to not censure them into hunks of celestially radiant dead meat. Ardwen's scowl deepened and his mind raced, he tossed a hasty glance behind him and saw a human boy who looked to have seen no more than a decade standing and pointing with excitement towards them. A group of the natives had joined him, including an older woman that Ardwen assumed was the boy's mother. Ardwen briefly wondered if the All-Father would understand him chucking the annoying child in the path of whatever Ariana was about to do. It would be, after all, in service to His abbess. The elf doubted the god would take it well.

At last, Ardwen decided to act. The first thing the warrior did was twist around to fix the villagers with a stare and shout, "Stay back unless you want to meet the All-Father next!" He then decided to respond to Kildef's suggestion, he did not verbalize an answer; he merely shook his head no. Finally he slid next to Arc and pulled him back a few hasty steps by his shoulders. It was not far enough to do any good, but it at least gave him something to do. The motion also allowed him to remain kneeling without actually looking like he had bent his knees to a human, there were others watching after all. Almost as an afterthought Ardwen spoke under his breath, "I hope she at least makes it quick, I deserve that much."

Written by - Ariana

She had been content to merely place distance between herself and the Others, perhaps find a way to warn them off. But then one of them grabbed her, and her reaction was fear-driven and instinctual. With a yelp of fear, her hands jabbed the Other in each shoulder and with a large explosion of light, the Other was knocked back several feet into a gathering crowd.

She took several more steps back and eyed the remaining Others warily, waiting for the next attack. Only they appeared to be making no threats. On the contrary, those that were conscious appeared to be kneeling and showing her empty hands? It made no sense, and trying to figure it out made her head pound. There was something here, something important, but the more she tried to grasp it, the more it eluded her. If the Other truly is her boy Arc all grown up, then…

It hurt to think – making her nauseous and her eyesight blurry. It was easier and safer to react, to not think, to not remember, but the damage had been done. The pain distracted her from holding onto the power and her hands ceased to glow as she brought them up to hold both sides of her head.

Still cradling her aching head, she dropped to her knees in the grass to find herself face-to-beak with a very angry owl. They stared at each other for a long moment, one set of eyes filled with confusion and pain, the other filled with impatience and recrimination.

And then, the owl reached forward and bit her sharply on the nose.

The gesture was so odd, so out of place that it captured and held her attention, and she stared in wonder at the bird as one hand rubbed her sore nose. After several long moments, she smiled and returned the gesture with one of her own – throwing her arms wide, she engulfed the bird in a gentle, but all-encompassing hug, her aching temple resting on the soft feathers of one large wing.

The screech of indignation echoed through the clearing and into the trees beyond. Her only response was to giggle and to say one word: “Olly!”

Written by - Vylia

Vylia took a moment to clear her head from the daze of being launched back into a crowd of humans, not to mention the extreme pain of the holy blasts, and it took her a few seconds to untangle herself and get back to her feet, wincing with every shifting movement of her arms. Vylia was on the verge of tears at having been attacked by Ariana, even though in her current state she was probably just very confused, when she heard a word that really did make the tears flow, "Olly!" they were tears of joy. Ariana had remembered, even if it wasn't everything it was something, and that gave Vylia a great deal of hope for Ariana's further recovery.

Vylia walks slowly back toward Ariana, the holes in her leather jacket clearly outlining the burnt and bloody wounds beneath. She knelt before Ariana and Ollawahoo, tears streaming down her cheeks, a smile on her face.

Written by - Tempyst

Kaya watched the events take place, and immediately knew no good could come of the glow on Ariana's hands. She heard Ardwen tell people to stand back and back up she did. She could sense the confusion and anquish in Ariana just by looking at her and wished there was more that she could do to help. But if her own people can't help her, what can I do? She decided it was best just to back up and wait and see what would happen next., though she was sure Dorve would be back soon and wondering where they all were.

Written by - Dartanian Merquise

Dawn was breaking, the first warm rays of the sun casting their glow tentatively through the canopy of the forest many miles away where the lone swordsman was camped. Smoke rose from the small campfire which had burned all night long, the orange and red embers surrounded by ash just beginning to cool as the man adjusted the straps of his saddle atop his warhorse. Finally finding the tightness of the leather straps which suited him, he placed his left foot in the stirrup and mounted effortlessly; an action he had done many times before. Taking hold of the reins, the rider wheeled his warhorse around expertly, scanning his campsite for any items that were left. Satisfied that he hadn’t forgotten anything, he encouraged his horse into a trot and headed on his way.

Riding through the forest at a fair clip, his cloak trailed behind him, allowing the crisp morning air to wake and rejuvenate him. He wore a plate mail breastplate as well as a pair of riding boots and trousers. Strapped to his back was a kite shield and broadsword, the hilt of which protruded from a slit cut in the top of his cloak, allowing for easy access at all times.

The man was tall and well built. His short black hair had trace amounts of gray scattered throughout, revealing him to be getting on in years, though he still seemed to have the strength and vitality of a younger man. His ears were pointed, though not as dramatically as those of a pure-blooded elf. No, this man was a half-elf; that much was obvious. His only other distinguishing features were a series of intricately drawn red tattoos that covered his skin sporadically. They appeared to be runes of some sort, intricate symbols of a time and a world long since dead. He maintained a serious expression as he rode through the forest. He rode with a singular purpose, moving toward his unknown goal with a sense of grim determination which only came after years on the battlefield.

As he continued on, in the distance he thought he spied a tall figure standing in his path. Without slowing, the rider leaned forward and squinted, hoping to get a better look at the man. As he neared the figure, a smile of recognition crossed his face. Finally arriving in front of the tall armor clad warrior, the rider pulled on the reins and brought his mount to a stop.

The man standing in the road was an imposing one indeed. Standing at least eight feet tall, his height and build was greatly enhanced by the immaculately kept full plate mail he wore. His gauntleted hands were propped up atop the end of a massive Great Hammer, with the hammer’s business end resting in the grass at his feet. He wore a helmet which concealed most of his features, yet a strange shadow seemed to conceal his facial features.

“I see you are on the move again Tarelias,” the figured spoke with a deep, resonating voice.

The rider smirked. “Indeed I am. I can feel its presence; I’m getting closer.”

“That you are my friend.” The figure turned his head to face the direction the rider was heading. They were near the edge of the forest; beyond which was a vast plain and in the distance the white-capped peaks of a distant mountain range could be seen. “You will find what you seek very soon, just beyond this forest.” The figure turned back to face the rider. “This will be your toughest test yet, Tarelias. My powers have little sway here; I will be unable to aid you directly.”

“I understand,” the rider replied, gazing off in the direction of the plain. “Then I guess it’s just me and him.” The armored figured nodded silently. With that, the rider spurred his horse into a gallop, riding swiftly off.

“Good luck my friend,” the figure said quietly as Tarelias rode off. “All-Father be with you.”

Written by - Turin Wallace

Ithramir watched the two young men leave and find a table to refresh themselves at. One of the group then spoke up, saying,

"Milord, forgive me, but don't you think you were a bit harsh on the young one? It's not my place, but whatever your personal feelings toward..."

The elf's words tapered off to nothing as Ithramir gave him a withering gaze. However, his words were spoken and Ithramir noticed the stares of many now upon him. Smirking, he decides to answer,

"Harsh? No, I don't think so, general. These are harsh times, we are fighting for our existence, and we are fighting to reclaim the Westgalian throne."

Ithramir began walking about the room as he spoke,

"This fight has stopped being just about the elves and our concerns, of which there are many. Humans and Dwarves are now counted among our friends. Old alliances are being reforged. Old evils are aligning. This, mark my words, is only the beginning of the evils we will see before peace settles once more on these lands."

Staring at the host assembled, letting his words echo off, he starts again,

"Now, as for the issue of Mavigan, she herself has refused the title. For now. Her house is in disarray, she is hunted like prey, and she has yet to learn what being a leader means. Where is she now? In this time of need, when her people need her the most, where is their queen?"

Ithramir's voice pounded the point home, but he did not stop,

"We can all admire an independent spirit, I'm sure you will all agree, and a leader must have force of will. But, to run off with an assassin and small party to Avandor-knows-where, well, it does not befit a queen but rather the impetuous youth that she is."

Ithramir paused at a table bearing fruit, picking up an apple, he studies it a moment before biting into it. Looking back to those in the room, he finishes,

"So, in response to you all, no I do not think I am harsh at all. I simply state the facts. I have seen many come here, ready to bend knee to their queen, only to find her missing. Until you get that chance, loyal as you may be, there are other tasks to be tended to that would require the aid of friends."

Looking at his apple, Ithramir takes another bite as he lets his words echo off into the Great Hall.

Written by - Dartanian Merquise

Listening as Ithramir made his feelings on Lady Mavigan known, Dartanian noticed an armored man in front of him who was visibly tensing at his words. His fists were clenched and trembling slightly in anger. Guessing the man to be none other than Sir Johann, and fearing an explosive situation, Dartanian stepped up behind him and gently placed a hand on his shoulder. "Peace brother," he said firmly. "The last thing anyone needs right now, especially Lady Mavigan, is for this alliance to fall to pieces."

Sir Johann seemed to calm himself somewhat, and Dartanian stepped forward to address the room. "While I do not claim to know what drove the Lady Mavigan to leave as she has, I know that she must have had her reasons." As he spoke, he faced Lord Ithramir, with a look on his face which he hoped would not draw the ire of the proud elf. "I can certainly sympathize with the stress and pressure of leadership-having many look to you to show them the right path-especially in one so young. If you think back Lord Ithramir I'm sure that you can as well."

Turning now to face the rest of those assembled. "That being said I'm sure all of you would agree that we have more important things to be worrying about at the moment. Mavigan will do what she thinks she must and come around eventually." Facing Ithramir once again, Dartanian continued, "But as you have pointed out Lord Ithramir, there are certainly tasks which require the aid of friends, and we would aid you if you will have us. Now, what is it that must be done?"

Written by - Tempyst

The music started softly and the circle of druids who had gathered at the sacred grove disrobed. Ceredan stood in the middle near the Sacred Oak and held his arms upright to the sky. "Nyrondis, we call upon you on this day of bounty. We thank you for your guidance and protection and we thank you for the harvest that has been collected this year. For that we give you this celebration of life." The music grew louder and Ceredan stepped back into the circle. The men played the instruments with grace and skill and all listening began to sway to the beat. Tempyst and the other women moved forward around the Sacred Oak and began to dance. Tempyst felt the music fill her soul and take away some of the emptyness that had filled her since the early morning. Her feet began to move and along with the other skyclad women, she circled the Sacred Oak as she danced. Her long, earth brown hair was loose and flowed along her body seductively. She let her mind become one with the flow of music, her body moving instinctively around the oak; the other women there danced with passion as well, feeling the spirit of their God fill them with joy and celebration. As they danced, a warm fall breeze picked up blowing through the Sacred Oak, rustling the leaves to the music and all knew their God had arrived and was watching their celebration. She closed her eyes and let the music and spirit fill her. You have nothing to fear little one. I am here for you always Tempyst, and don't forget you have new family to find and you have Ithramir. You will forever be tied to him because of your daughter. Always rember, you are never alone.... Tempyst felt tears of joy fall down her face as the spirit of her God filled her and she felt the warm of his embrace. The music then rose to a crescendo and stopped; the women fell to the earth breathing heavily from their dance. The men who had been standing in the outer circle, came in and helped the women back into the fold. Ceredan stepped forward once more. "Thank you ladies for the dance, it was truly inspiring and a wonderful tribute for Nyrondis. Now, let us initiate those who wish to travel by the Sacred Oak."

Tempyst and several others stepped forward, still skyclad and melded into the oak. Once inside, Tempyst could sense the change. Instead of the comforting darkness and silence, there was a grayish-green hew to the world. It looked much like the Sacred Grove, except for that. Tempyst took a step and found herself immediately outside of the citadel. She smiled, and began to walk around, wondering where she could end up. But she knew she could not explore right now, there was the festival to be attended to. She turned around and stepped out of the oak, feeling refreshed and inspired. She moved to Ceredan who was now robed. He helped her on with her robe and smiled at the young elder druid. "You seem much lighter now Tempyst, the ritual has helped yes?"

"Yes High Elder Ceredan, it truly has. I still feel the ache and I know it will not go away immediately, but for the moment, it is sated, and I can get on with my life and assignements. I will have good days and bad. Thank you for everything High Elder, thank you." Ceredan hugged her tightly.

"Good Tempyst, I am glad to hear that, for it would be a sad day if we were to loose you to your grief. Now, how about we go find some food, the cooks have been preparing for days for this." Ceredan took Tempyst by the hand and led her to the great table. Tempyst could smell all the wonderful scents. Her mouth began to water and soon found herself delving into the delecasies with her fellow druids. Thank you Nyrondis, thank you.

Written by - Agmund

The seven kings of Njorundr had assembled within the great hall of memory: the Dwitharim. Two kings of elves, rulers of the Eirwood and lords of Halueth; Four kings of dwarves, descendants of the first clans of Graedium; and one king of men, master of the Grimwolven. Each sat upon a simple unmarked throne of gray stone, save one. Together the kings encircled a large round map upon the floor. The map was the focal point of the hall, and while its size and design was immense, the rest of the room dwarfed it in comparison.

Five massive stone statues ringed the thrones; four of the statues were dwarven, and one human, but all had a similar pose. Clad in the finest of armor, each with weapons in hand, they reached up to the very top of the dome as if to hold it at bay. Though in reality it was their forearms and elbows, along with the hammers and swords in their hands that held the circular ceiling in place. The detail cut into the statues was exquisite, from the braided beards, to the pommel of a weapon, or the hem of a chain shirt, the skill was a feat to behold.

Some thirty feet behind the statues, the walls of the massive round hall had torches at even intervals. They proceeded up and out, end to end, from floor to ceiling, to reveal runes upon every square inch of stone. The runes were broken up into tablets, or quadrants, marked and labeled like an ever-expanding book, and in many ways it was precisely that. From the account of the first five kings to the first laws and oaths, and on to tales of heroic captains and warriors, the runes; know as dwithar to the people of Njorundr, recounted every aspect of the kingdoms existence. Even crop totals, population tallies, death tolls in war, the amount of ore and types of ore that had been mined, were included.

However, the Hall of Memory also shared far more intimate details. The dates of births and deaths of each king and heir to the throne, along with trees of royal lines, were marked beneath clan runes. In addition, it recorded separately what knowledge the kingdom had concerning other parts of Eadarolus. Noting changes of rulership, wars, and treaties with far away kingdoms. The records of the hall were so vast and expansive that they spilled out into ten huge passageways.

Here, within this ancient portal of time, Earane Melwasul, the eldest elven lord stood tall and commanding before his throne. Long silver hair glided down his shoulders, and he wore a tunic of forest green. His voice was alone as it filled the hall, “How many deaths did we suffer at the hands of ignorance?” He turned to look at each king as he continued, “How many of our people perished needlessly, as we their guardians continued a quarrel not of our making? I look at each of you, and I see the same sorrow that I feel within my soul. Sorrow for a thousand years of death and fear!” The word fear was uttered with contempt and near venom, though he did not raise his voice as he spoke it.

“After all of this, are we truly to come full circle? To continue where we left off? Have we learned nothing of what war wrought upon us?” He had barely managed to finish the question, before the rumbling voice of King Ironcrag drowned him out. “Ignorance? Who’s Ignorance… certainly NOT ours!” the dwarf yelled. So the meeting once again drifted into argument, each king picking a side, and shouting out his thoughts, until the hall was filled with the sound of anger.

Out of no where, a dwarven king lunged from his throne and after a quick sprint he leapt onto the middle of the map, drew his hammer, and with one foul swing he crushed the stone mountain of Graedium. The rock, made to look exactly like that of the mountain, including the city walls of Dun-Algur shattered into tiny pieces. The kings all fell silent, and the dwarf who stood in the middle of them, lifted his head and dropped his hammer. Slowly he turned in a circle, glaring at each of his fellow kings.

“Our fathers made the final sacrifice to bring us together, forsaking an oath that has not been forsaken for thousands of years. My son, the last of my line entered the depths of hell… and has not been heard since, and now this petty debate, threatens the survival of all they fight for. It threatens to make meaningless everything they have done!” One lip began to curl into a snarl, “I’ll have no more of it from you Ironcrag,” he points the king out, “or you,” his finger falls to King Foebiter. “If’n the Elven Kings wish to reinforce the mountain range then we will make it so!” he shouted. “Because if we canno’ make agreement here, then this kingdom and all our people shall end,” gradually his voice trailed off.

Written by - Rikshanthas

Leinad arrived too late to prevent the elven scout's rash act, and watched as the woman sailed a good eight feet into the gathering crowd, wincing slightly in sympathy as she was introduced to the ground. Swearing silently, he pushed his way into the large-but-slowly-shrinking circle that had formed around the 'Saint', Astalder held high to avoid skewering anyone. Once within the twenty-foot circle the villagers had formed, he and Shara swiftly took up crowd-control duty, attempting to keep the civilians back a respectable distance. He heard an animal screech and a giggle from behind him, followed by, "Olly!" He glanced over his shoulder to see Ariana hugging the great owl, smiling. As the elf she had blasted managed to stand and walk back to the crouched priestess, who seemed to have made a small start to recovery, Leinad returned his attention to managing the crowd. It took roughly fifteen seconds for him to become dissatisfied with their progress; as a mercenary captain he had been accustomed to being obeyed, and when he wasn't ...

"EVERYONE SHUT UP AND BACK OFF!" he bellowed, at a volume normally reserved for volcanic eruptions. The villagers were too stunned to disobey, shuffling back another five feet and falling silent at the force in his voice. Even Shara regarded him with surprise. "That's better," he said at a more polite volume, though his voice had an icy edge. "Now," he continued, turning to the small group at the center of the crowd, "would one of you -" his brief wave indicated those crouched around Ariana "- care to take the floor here? Now that we've got people's attention." He smiled wryly. "Since I'm as in the dark here as anyone else, and it'd help to get the facts straight before wild rumors end up all over the Greyshire." He dug Astalder's point into the soil, waiting for someone to step up.

****

As Ithramir's scathing comments echoed through the Hall, only one face seemed to bear neither agreement nor shocked offense. Instead, a gleam of genuine curiosity crossed the features of a robed man near the back of the room. He held a quill suspended over the folder of papers in which he had been furiously writing, which had already led most of those present to dismiss him as one of the Citadel's many scribes, doubtless present to provide a transcript of the meeting for the records. Though one might wonder why the man was wearing dark-lensed glasses indoors.

The man frowned as his quill dripped ink onto the page, blotching a good paragraph or so. In a fit of pique he balled up the sheet and tossed it in Ithramir's general direction - far too gently for the projectile to reach its not-quite-intended target - and swiftly rewrote the section that had been on the ruined page, continuing from that point as if nothing had happened.

Written by - Lucant Dolvan

The man followed Haswal downstairs.

“Head back down the hall that way. First door on your left is the storage for military equipment. When you’re done playing dress-up, wait in the hall.” Without waiting for a confirmation, Haswal quickly left to go fetch his contact with the Westgale army.

Doing as he was told, the man found the military store room and set about looking for some suitable equipment. He took a cloth uniform shirt and pair of trousers from an open crate and switched out his clothes. Putting his boots back on, he spied a veritable mountain of chainmail towards the back of the room and retrieved a proper fitting hauberk and coif, as well as a tabard bearing the crest of Westgale. He then wandered back through the storeroom back to where he has discarded his clothes to retrieve the sword. Cinching the belt around his waist, the man began to look around for a more suitable weapon. On the wall closest to the door stood row upon row of fine oaken and steel spears and round shields. After taking one of each, he went back into the hall.

A few uneasy moments past before Haswal came back down the hall flanked by a tall man in his late 40s. He was stocky, with long black hair that was beginning to turn gray and recede. A thick moustache accentuated his stern face and dull green eyes. “This is Captain Anselm, the contact I told you about. I’ll let him fill you in on everything.” With that, Haswal went into the storeroom to make sure it hadn’t been overly disturbed.

“Like he said, I’m Captain Dorian Anselm of the Royal Ancoran Guard. My unit missed out on the battle for Minas Aure, but we’re being drafted in to help absorb some of the losses incurred there. Just keep a low profile and keep your nose clean and everything should be fine.” The man simply nodded.

Haswal came back out carrying the man’s discarded clothes. “You’d best be off boy, if you’re serious about this. I’ll take care of things here. Do try to come back in one piece though. I’d hate to think of what’ll happen to me if you don’t.” He said the last few words with a joking smile on his face.

With a slight smile, the man turned towards Haswal to say his farewell: “Good bye for now Uncle. Sorry to be dashing in and out like this. Thank you again for all your help.”

Captain Anselm had already started heading towards the front door when the two men gave their final nods of farewell. Haswal’s expression was uncharacteristically serious and he seemed to be staring Anselm down. He didn’t have to say a word – the man knew exactly what he meant.

Captain Anselm was already outside by the time he caught up. He moved remarkably fast for a man of his size. The two walked in silence for a good ways until Anselm finally broke it. Turning to the man, he spoke in a low, angry tone bristling with hate: “Listen here, you piece of ‘Skaner trash! Haswal is a friend of mine, but his nephew or no, if you even give me so much as a cross look, I’ll have you hanging from the ramparts before the next sunrise!”

“Yes, sir. I’ll be gone at the first available opportunity.”

“See to it you little…” Anselm’s voice trailed off into an unintelligible grumble of swears.

The rest of the trip passed in uncomfortable silence. The man did not bother to ask where they were going. He was more concerned with trying to figure out his soonest exit time, along with how to best rid himself of the rather large, surly weight around his neck before it crushed him. Before he had noticed, they had passed out of Port Ancora and back into the elven areas of the Citadel.

They had started up a staircase to an enormous, magnificent building when Anselm interrupted him. “We’re almost there. My unit’s on guard duty for a bit until the deployment begins. The higher-ups are in planning and meetings right now so security’s even tighter than usual.” Anselm pointed to the main entrance. “Now get over there and stay put you little bastard. If you so much as move a muscle without permission…” His voice trailed off into a low grumble of swears again.

The man didn’t say a word. Walking slowly to the massive doors of the Citadel, he flanked the doors to their left, facing towards the street. Another soldier was already on the right side, as well as several others around the perimeter and still more on patrol.

“I’ll be passing through here regularly. So don’t get any ideas.” Anselm grumbled again before heading in towards the guard office.

The man let out a short, exasperated sigh, then resumed his thinking.

Written by - Ardwen

Ariana blasted Vylia. Ardwen had seen the use of holy magic before, but he had to admit Ariana had a most ingenious system of delivery: two direct jabs with her hands, one in each shoulder, and then a resounding burst of energy. In truth, it had not been what Ardwen was expecting, but there was no denying its effectiveness as Vylia was launched off her feet and backwards toward the throng of villagers. There was no time for the warrior to worry about her, however, as it now put Kildef, Archeantus, and himself in her line of fire.

But Ariana did not advance. Instead, she seemed conflicted, the radiance around her hands fading as she moved them to her temples. Ardwen's abbess dropped to her knees, her face hovering near the owl that Kildef had marked earlier as Ariana's shadow. After a piercing squawk that almost sounded of frustration, the bird leaned forward and in a flash had clamped down on Ariana's nose. Ardwen felt his bile rising at the beast for its temerity, and he briefly considered eating the thing right then and there, architect of fate be damned.

Ariana, however, seemed to take it much better, merely rubbing her nose and regarding the fowl. The look on her face was not one of rage, but one of wonderment, and Ardwen reluctantly ruled fried poultry out of the immediate menu. In the next instance the abbess had encompassed the owl in a deep hug and shouted its name. Ardwen thought that was something, at least the exposition to her recovery. Of course, he was disappointed that she had remembered the bird first, but as he considered the situation more he had to concede that outcome was probably for the best.

The next thing Ardwen noticed was Vylia, wounded but on her feet, joining the small throng kneeling before Ariana. The female ranger had been injured, bloody wounds opened in each shoulder, but both sadness and joy clashed in her eyes. Joy won in the end, and as Ariana recited the owl's name tears of relief and happiness trickled down her cheeks. All things considered, Ardwen had thought the situation had resolved itself reasonably well--

Ardwen's thoughts were brought to an abrupt and noisy end as a voice rose above the clamor of the crowd, forcing the gradually encroaching villagers to step back by the sheer ardor and command in it. Ardwen's eyes flickered up to see the warrior Leinad standing before the small cluster of Hands, a female companion at his side as well. More incredible still, he bore an unsheathed sword in his hand, and as he sued the Hands for information he dug the point into the soil.

Ardwen dithered in his genuflecting for a moment, hoping that there was someone else who would rise to the challenge. The elven warrior gritted his teeth and applied his mind to the problem that now faced him: getting out of the crowd, without inducing panic, and getting everyone out alive. The blade weaver stood and faced the eager crowd; he glanced at his companions and the still prostrate form of Archeantus, briefly an idea flickered into form in his mind.

"I've got a man down!" Ardwen said, his voice loud but far from shouting, "I need medical supplies!" That did it. In a mere instant, the lady who had accompanied the child that had first screamed of Ariana's presence pushed her way through the crowd. Ardwen had to admire her bravery, or faith, or whatever it was that allowed her to walk forward on a knot of potentially dangerous warriors. Normally, the elf would have chalked it up to the stupidity of the lesser races, but he needed the villagers to work with him, even if just for a moment.

Ardwen eyed her kit of medical utensils. Surprisingly, he found it in good order, and in ample stock of everything needed for the more mundane healing arts. "Water," Ardwen murmured, "I need water!" The woman looked at him in confusion, but Ardwen merely adamantly repeated the demand, adding that the unconscious man's life hung in the balance. Within a few moments the elven warrior had a bucket of cool water drawn from one of the town wells. Ardwen spared the healer a nod of thanks before kneeling down next to Archeantus.

Without preamble he dumped the bucket on the warlock, whistled loudly, and then shouted, "Wake up! Damnit Arc where's your sense of discipline? Wake up!" Ardwen had gripped the scruff of the warlock's garment and was jostling him with every 'wake up'. Once again without warning the elf abandoned his efforts and muttered to the healer while rising to his feet again that she could give it her best effort now. As Ardwen observed the crowd again he noted smugly that his spectacle had the desired effect. The crowd's attention had been briefly focused on him, away from the Abbess, and Ardwen intended to exploit that now.

"Good people of The Hands," said Ardwen, "my name is Ardwen, a warrior in the service of Lothiel'Godith, the Elven Citadel. Doubtless you have questions, and doubtless you deserve answers. My companions and I arrived here after striking a blow against . . ." here Ardwen's voiced trailed away for a heartbeat as he forgot Beridane's name, but he quickly recovered, "that enemy which we both despise that dares set itself as king in Westgale!"

The crowd let out a brief roar of jubilation before Ardwen waved them to partial silence. The elf continued speaking, "You are here, no doubt, to see Saint Ariana? Then I am afraid I must disappoint you, for I am not certain this is possible."

At that a din of disagreement rose from the crowd, everything from accusations of lying to direct questions of Ardwen's intelligence as the saint was standing "right there." Ardwen had to fight down the urge to simply begin hacking his way through the crowd. However, he had the advantage of knowing that Ariana was standing there, and worse, she would most likely remember if he did any such thing now. "Hold!" Ardwen shouted, and the noise diminished a bit.

The warrior fixed his gaze on the crowd itself, making it appear to the vast majority that he had fixed eyes upon them personally. Ardwen began speaking again, "I did not say that in some vain attempt to deny you access to Saint Ariana, I only said it so that you might be aware that all is not as simple as it seems. This lady here has suffered the depredations of that dog in Westgale personally, and has suffered mentally as well as physically. She barely responds to the name of Ariana, a name doubtless so common as to mean nothing even if it were truly her own. She bears a passing resemblance to this statue, that much is true, but is the likeness really so perfect? Consider still, that if this truly was Ariana, why she would appear in any form that might beguile or confuse? She has worked some small magic, that too is true, but many still can do the same. Moreover, if she was an initiate of the All-Father caught in Westgale, then her condition is readily explained. The current usurper of the throne is impious and vulgar toward the gods."

At this Ardwen bowed his head solemnly and traced the triskellion symbol of the All-Father through the air. The warrior held his breath for an instance afterwards, expecting a bolt of lightning from the heavens, or perhaps a suspiciously large and hale tree to suddenly fall over. When nothing happened and many in the crowd followed his pious gesture in turn, the elf visibly relaxed.

"However," Ardwen said, "it is not important if this is indeed Saint Ariana, or if it is not. What is important is that we found a woman in need, one under the heel of that same tyrant from which this land suffers. Can any man here say he would have done differently? No! But, loyal retainers to the true king, we need your help still! Your aid! This close to the ever-present gaze of that iniquitous traitor we can have no safe haven! This far from our lands and after such fights our resources are stretched thin! We must return to the Citadel . . . for the sake of this lady, whomever she truly is."

Written by - Agmund

“Wake up you!” the orc planted his boot into the dwarf’s chest. When he saw no movement or reaction he leaned down and roughly poked the blunt end of a thin club between Throrgrum’s eyes. Still the dwarf remained lifeless. This brought the eyes of the orc into a squint, and he leaned further in to try and see if any breath was coming from the old dwarf. “Dead?” a voice called over the shoulder of the orc, “Well, is he dead or aint he?”

The orc who was inspecting the dwarf looked back over his shoulder with a proud grin, “Yeaahhh, he’s dead alright. Nuthin but maggot fo…” but the orc was unable to finish the sentence. The dwarf had snapped forward and slammed his forehead into the side of the orcs face. Cartilage caved in, and a horrible ringing sound filled the orcs ear as his drum burst.

Throrgrum managed to hold his head up for just a few short seconds. His broken nose was curled up into a blood-encrusted snarl, and his brows arched in defiance. Battered, but unbeaten, his beard had been hacked from his chin. His right hand had been cut away, and then burned to cauterize the wound, thus preventing the dwarf from bleeding to death. Long had his torture been, but he had refused to relent.

The taskmaster; angry with this defiance, forced a broad spear into the chest of the howling orc, ending the pitiful sound that filled the room. Then he turned his attention to the dwarf, “That arms infected… tomorrow, your going to get feverous, and very very ill, and then, you’ll talk.” As if to send his message home he forced the body of the dead orc over the dwarf and yanked out the spear, “Enjoy your supper!”

“Up,” the taskmaster commanded, and two orcs stepped to either side of him. They both leaned down and wrapped an arm around the taskmaster’s legs: raising him atop their shoulders. “Careful you!” the taskmaster cried out in pain. The inside of the orcs legs were wrapped in bloody rags. “Move it you two, back to the hall!”

Morthand waited as patiently as he could in the shadows of the dungeon, but once the wounded orc was carted off, and Throrgrums cell door closed, he made his move. Cautiously he crept up to the cell, and peered in with wide eyes. There in a shadowy corner he could make out the dwarfs legs sticking out from underneath the dead orc. Morthands fingers began to search thru his pouch as he knelt before the padlock.

Settling upon two small pieces of bent metal, he took one in each hand and began to search for the tumblers. He never looked at the actual lock. Instead he scanned back and forth down the dimly lit corridor, as his hands did the work. Finally a faint click heralded his success. Quickly he moved the lock aside, and left it hanging in the door as he pushed it inwards.

Another fast look down the corridor, and he crouched his way over to where the dwarf lay. As he moved the orc aside, horror filled his face, and undescribable sadness invaded his heart. Throrgrum’s wounds were so numerous and grievous that Morthand thought him beyond aid. The dwarf was, however, still alive, and as he opened one bruised eye to look his son over, he began to speak in a whisper, “Its nay near as bad as it looks lad, in fact its largely an act on my part.” As if to prove his point, his grim covered face spun a strange sort of grin.

“Good act,” Morthand replied with a mischevious expression, “the question is… do you think you have the strength to make it out of here?” Throrgrums grin soured, and his face turned red with anger, “I still have the strength to knock yer teeth out!” This drew a chuckle from the man, though not a very loud one, “Even better, because that’s the kind of grit we are going to need to make it out of here.”

Throrgrum was about to protest, but then Morthand knew he would and he had prepared for it in advance. “Before you begin to argue,” he paused, “I think you should know that I have found a way out, one that may lead us underground all the way to the shores of Glameiruth,” he whispered. Again the dwarf started to disagree, but this time Morthand merely held up a tarnished ring of gold, with a single stone encased within it. He held it aloft before the dwarf’s inspection.

The stone was not a precious metal or gem, instead it was just that… a rock. Though it was far more than just a rock to the dwarf. He recognized its significance immediately, for it was a rock cut from the lone peak of Graedium, and only the kings of the mountain themselves wore them. Even though tiny traces of moss had invaded the lines within the rock, Throrgrum could still make out the single rune that identified its wearer as a King of the Stonebrewer clan. “Sygrolf Stonebrewer… you have found the ring of Sygrolf lad!” He uttered with amazement.

“So it was that he placed the ring of his kingship, and that of his clan within a small crevice near the tunnels entrance. He bore the line of the crevice with loose stone, hiding it in hope that one day it would lead another to freedom,” Morthand said in a hushed whisper, and in near reverence, “and you thought I wasn’t listening when you told those old stories.”

Throrgrum was about to reply but he thought he heard footsteps far down the hallway, so he tried to prop himself up slightly in an attempt to see past Morthand. That’s when he noticed the key hanging from the orcs belt. The orc had rolled slightly down his waist, and now lay upon his lap. Not only did he see a key, but two knives and a short sword as well. The sword was bladed somewhat on one side, and angled like a crescent, but with two sharp hooks on the other.

His wheels began to turn for a moment, wondering how this could end up working out, but Morthand suddenly whispered, “There coming back.” Morthand had heard the sounds as well, though as he began to say something else Throrgrum held up the keys. “Gurt had the key, so how is it his fault?” they heard an orc say. “An he didn’ know the story bout’ how bat turd lost his nuts to tha’ dwarf neither,” another said, “so if anythin’ it was turd that should’ad tha’ spear stuck in his gut.”

Both Morthand and Throrgrum stared at the key in mute shock, before Morthand suddenly held up his index finger, snatched the key, and snuck as rapidly as he could out of the cell. The dwarf, unwilling to leave the cell with out some weapons, pilfered the two knives; shoving them flat underneath each of his legs, before slumping back down into the corner. “Ya idiot, ya didn’t even shut the gate,” one orc said as he stepped in front of the cell. The other scratched his head, “I thoug’ I shut it. Well, ya sad sack of ogre snot, if ya had it would still be shut then wouldn’t it?” The first orc replied in an annoyed tone. “Bu,” the second began to say “Bu wha’ ya idiot? Stop you’re sniveling and go in there and get the key, and don’t forget Gurt’s blade neither,” but he was of course cut off.

“Maybe he took the key and opened tha’ door,” the second said really fast as he tried to keep from being interrupted, however, he then pointed straight to where the dwarf lay in the corner. The first orc, obviously the smarter of the two, followed the direction of the orcs arm and finger right to where the dead orc was. Surely enough he could make out the dwarves stubby legs even in the darkness of the small cell. “Of course, the dwarf just took the key opened the cell, and just when he was about to make his escape, he decided to go back in and take a nap… under Gurt… IDIOT! Go in there and get the key and any weapons, before I slit your worthless throat!” the first one shouted in the others face. The second, with torch in hand, made no more attempts to argue and opening the cell door he rushed inside.

The orcs courage though, did not last long, and he stopped short just as he neared Gurt’s body. Cautiously he reached out with his free hand, and rolled the dead orc over and onto the dwarf’s ankles. “He doesn’t have a key on em,” he said and rolled the orc back to its previous spot to be sure. “Worthless shit!” the first orc made his way into the cell; shoving the smaller second one out of his way. He too searched orc, but unsatisfied, he yanked the dead orc out of the way by his belt.

Slowly he looked the dwarf over, and then without notice he slammed his boot down into the dwarf’s ribs. “Maybe he did take it,” he said with seething venom, “Maybe he aint as hurt as we think he is,” and kicked Throrgrum again for good measure. The dwarf only coughed out some blood in response and exerted all his effort into remaining as lifeless as he could.

Finally the orc patted the dwarf down, and seemingly content that neither Gurt nor the dwarf had the key, he motioned for the other to exit as he moved from the cell. Both had nearly left, when the dwarf suddenly began to beg, “Water… please bring me some water.” His plea had just the right response he was praying for. The ‘smarter’ of the two orcs turned around and made his way back over to where the dead orc lay. Reaching down he hefted the orc up and then dropped him on top of the dwarf, “If yer that thirsty scum, then have a pull of Gurt’s blood.”

Shortly after the two orcs had left the cell, Morthand crept back to the lock, opening it with the key this time. Throrgrum had already managed to get to his feet, though he leaned heavily against the wall, “I’m guessing that the key for each cell is the same for each block. He took a deep breath, “so go rummage thru some cells close by, and grab clothing, skeletons and all… we want to try and make it look like I am still under this orc. Right,” Morthand promptly responded.

Few seconds were wasted as the pair took what clothing they could find, rags for the most part, and stuffed the skeleton of a dead dwarf. They wrapped Throrgrums tunic around it, and positioned him right where he had been when the orcs left. Afterwards, Morthand removed any trace of his footprints on the dirt and grime covered floor, and upon locking the cell door behind them, they set out in the darkness of the prison.

Morthand was relying on the keen skills he had honed in his youth. In search of the strangest shape or the slightest imperfection, his hand trailed along the wall as they moved. Every five feet or so he would mark a peculiarity, while simultaneously making sure his hand remained at shoulder level. He also factored in distance to turns, counting the feet off within his head at each intersection. This was most difficult because he was now going in reverse from the directions he had set to memory. Throrgrum, following close behind whispered, “If’n we make it out of er’ alive, yer goin’ ta’ havta’ tell me how ye survived that fall lad.”

Written by - Talonmane

Despite his partial discomfort, Ollawahoo kept mostly still and allowed Ariana her hug...for a few seconds anyway. He relaxed, cooing softly twice in a way that made the woman smile. He didn't like being hemmed in though with all the increasing commotion going on behind them, and made two louder chirps and began to force his wings open, trying to indicate his need to move.

Kildef nodded, unsurprised, but still smiling a bit at the bite on the nose. Subtle. But we're going to have to get her to a place away from this crowd... he thought at the bird while standing and turning to face the people of the island. Or maybe get them to give her some space for a while... But Ardwen appeared to be dealing with that side of things already. The Ranger was half-splashed with water, and could only shake his head amusingly at the elf's choice of actions. But he understood his intent, and added to what he began, addressing the villagers.

"If there is a leader amoung you, come forward to speak with us. The rest of you we would ask go back to your daily work or head to the shore and help our sailors and Admiral Munchadin. Your defiance in the face of the Usurper, your loyalty, do us all proud. But know your part in this is just at a beginning. With the Admiral's fleet you will now be a cornerstone in our containment of Beridane's sea power, and a lifeline to the freedom of all who fight or are captive in the Port City. Go, and listen to Munchadin, and help him as you can.

"As for this woman, our friend, she needs space. She is as devoted to the memory of...Saint Ariana as any of you, and came here today as you have whenever you wished for blessing. Her recovery after suffering in Iron captivity requires some privacy. I give you my word, as the son of Talonmane - whom you know well - that all will be clear to you in days to come, though war confuses some things now. Now please, go, and render your best help to the fleet. For Acaenyd. For Pallanon. For Ancora."

Kil did his best to remember what Munch had taught him of the land and its oaths. He was the ranking officer present in the old order, and tried to act it, applying his bearing to the people before him. Many in the crowd responded in kind, echoing the words of their oaths, including with a 'huzzah!' or two. Most of the villagers who would be able to help the fleet headed off, keen in their desire to serve. A few of higher religious fervour remained, and perhaps a few spectators. The woman who had stepped up to aid Archeantus spoke while applying her skill."The Mayor be at the wharf to welcome the Cap...the Admiral. You'll find him there to be sure. Is the Knight Warden with him?"

"I wish he was. My father is...in farway lands trying to gather what allies will come to Ancora's call."

"We did not know he had a living son. But it is in yer face and frame and yer spirit...in these I see his blood in you. And these others, they too have a mark o' nobility. It is good...good to know our prayers and our faith dunnae go unanswered. Now, I cannae do else for this one. His hurt is not in his body, methinks. But you there, blond elf, I can help if ye're burned..." The medicine woman stood then and approached Vylia, waiting for her to respond.


Written by - Euralia Page 5 Book 4

The dragonlady had been searching the open seas for hours now, with no sign of the ship that carried Ariana. As She flew just under the clouds, Her thoughts became frantic, and She sped up her search, knowing that Sycon had to be close, he must be. It wasn't until the new day dawned that She finally caught sight of her quarry, its inhabitants making their way to the shore. She flew above the clouds, using them as a cover, and scanned the tiny boats, but there was no hint of Sycon. As She swept Her silver eyes from boat to tiny boat, she knew something was wrong. Something had happened, and it had not been long since. Seeing Ardwenn cradling an unconscious Ariana, She could only hope that it was not Sycon's doing.

I cannot be seen. Not now. Even through Her determination to search the boat for Sycon, and Her curiousity as to what ravaged this party, she knew she had to wait until all had gone ashore.

A short while later, one of the sailors on the ship glanced up to see the clouds above him descending in the form of a beautiful woman. He looked over his shoulders to see that, by some chance, he was the only one on the deck to witness the silver-haired, silver-eyed lady approach him. She walked up to him as he stood in pure shock and wonder. She placed her hands on his shoulders and pressed her lips against his. The sailor trembled under her touch, and fell into a deep sleep as he heard a voice whisper in his mind This is only a dream.

She placed the sailor gently on the deck and moved on. She found her way below deck, and began Her quest for Sycon, for She knew he was here. She could feel their bond strengthen as She drew nearer. At last, She found him, bundled in a corner, his tear-stained face the only thing uncovered. From the looks of him, and his surroundings, She knew that he had some part in the madness that overcame this ship.

She kneeled beside of him, and placing one hand on his chest, She spoke so only he could hear. Wake up, Sycon.

His eyes slowly opened and fell upon his dragonlady, and in that glance, She felt his anger and his sadness, and his overwhelming confusion.

He stared into Her eyes, and his mind spoke only one word, Why?

She felt his sadness stronger this time, but all She could do was smile, for he was whole: he was still Her Sycon. Why? He asked again, but this time, she had a response ready. She moved Her hand from his chest and wrapped it around his fingers. As he held on to Her, She opened the bond between them. No, it was no longer a bond, not anymore. She opened a dam, and they flooded into each other. They breathed together, two bodies, one mind. As She thought, He knew: there was no distinction. Immediately, he had all of his answers. He knew where He was and why and what had happened before He left Her, and where They had to go next. He now knew Her plan, Her true plan, and as one, They experienced a great happiness, and a great sadness.

Fai, They thought. Yes, she shall be the beginning.

Ready to face Their trial, They unwound their minds, falling back into their separate bodies.

Slowly, together, they rose, tears streaming down their faces, and left to join Ariana.

Written by - Sycon

Sycon awoke to his lady once again. Her silver eyes shifting over him and he only had one question in his mind... Why? It was more of a question that could not be answered with a simple sentence. So many things were intwined in the singe word his mind grasped to. He felt his sadness, more than that, his lonliness. He had felt her bond, it had almost ripped him apart, but still it was the closest thing to heaven he had ever felt. Now he lay barren in cold in the belly of a ship he did not call his own. He had seen the face of his beloved Ariana, the face of his beloved lady and had at one point and time felt the love of both. Either through religion or something close to it. His mind was always tearing between the two, always feeling the urge to follow each to their oblivion if he had must. Now his mind, this confused, was alone. He felt neither nor understood any of it. Why?

Her mind opened, but now it wasn't the intense cold energy he had felt earlier, but it was so full. Everything he had wanted to know about her and about what was to come. Plans upon plans unfolded in his head... more than plans, reasons for plans, and the emotions that had brought them to be. It was almost too much to understand at once, but still it all seemed to sink in. Fai... I understand... but as the thought passed, or even finished the link had broken, but I still don't understand but the link was broken. He could see her smiling face, as tears ran down her cheeks. Was he still crying... he could not tell anymore.

It was cold in the room now. Colder than it was before if that was even possible. He felt colder now in his life than he had ever felt before. He could feel the link between his lady and him lay dormant, perhaps never to connect again. He could not feel anything around him. He tried to stretch out his mind, but to no avail. He could not see anything but the inside of this room, could not sense anything but the waves washing against the side of the boat and the moldy smell of the small compartment. His sword had shattered the moment she had taken her into his arms, the sword was a part of himself, the very image of his soul... she had shattered it. His soul ripped into many pieces only to reform to what he was now. What was he? He knew there was a change, yet... He let out a long hopeless sigh. He had no link to his former self... even she did not know how cold it was to be without the power to feel others around him... it was what had brought him out of the darkness back then... Ariana...

He stood, feeling perhaps in the best health he had ever been, but it went unnoticed as he could not find himself. He strode forward without a word. She walked behind him as they made their way to the deck of the ship. Lowered another small craft into the water, not speaking a word as it brushed the surface of the water. They made their way to shore and brought th