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arashkan şehri dungeons and dragons groups modül savaş serenity The Great Arashkan the plot thickens Whispers; A Cabal

Not All Is Done
Part Seven
“The Storm Kites of Melshieve”

Not All Is Done
Part Seven
“The Storm Kites of Melshieve”

Timeline:

Upon extended experiences, both on a personal and professional level, Queen Alor’Nadien ne Feymist and King Udoorin Shieldheart have come to a certain, definitive conclusion;

 

Defense can not win wars.

 

Hence, a daring and extremely dangerous plan is formed to seek and destroy the Orken Grunt Generals and their Blood Shamans in hopes of bringing dissension and chaos among the coming Orken ranks and weaken their march against Serenity Home and the Kingdom of Isles.

 

This story begins shortly after
Not All Is Done..
Part Six
“Well Played”

 

 

I do not doubt your credentials, ranger lieutenant. I merely find your assumptions highly unlikely.”, said the elderly general of the Palantine Militia, Gerald Cornfield. He was a large man gone slightly on the seedy side, perhaps due to his past sixties, closer to seventies age. He had a permanent squint in his eyes, a massive walrus mustache that seemed to muffle everything he said, but otherwise clean shaved, his thick brows stuck out and up, curling into natural shaders, and a distinct scar on his right ear that he kept scratching whenever he made a point. Considering how he savored his words quite miserly,  he made a point with everything he said..

Ranger Lieutenant Bremorel Songsteel stared at him like the way she stared at anything before she broke it!

“You mean you doubt my credentials.. politely..”, she fumed.

“Essentially, yes, young lady. You claim to be a ranger lieutenant and yet you are younger than my granddaughter, and this man claims to be a Senior Temple Guardian yet he lacks facial hair worth mentioning, let alone any credentials.”, the general said.

“I did show you my temple badge. It should prove my status, if not my identity. These badges may only be worn by their owners. They are soul-bound.”, Thomas Dimwood replied.

“So you say, which means nothing to me even if it were true. I am not a pious man. Hence I rarely go to any temple, let alone the Tempest. I do not know what these soul-bound coins or badges or whatsits you exchange or carry around are. Had you a king’s writ, I would have been willing to take note of your words, but you do not. And I am not going to change, redirect, and/or take orders from a young pup nor his woman, neither of whom I know nor have anything to show for that has any official mark on it.”, the general said calmly.

“Perhaps a temple guardian or even a member of the clergy might vouch for my credentials? You do have some of those among your ranks, I am sure.”, Thomas Dimwood said coolly.

“I am afraid I do not. Palantine hosts one of the larger Tempest Temples in the kingdom. They made a proclamation ere we left that this was a mortal affair and that they would not participate in the coming war, which is understandable.”, General Gerald replied.

“How is that understandable?”, Thomas asked.

“They never participate in any ‘mortal affair’.. other than poke their nose into everything! They also made a general declaration that they would castrate any other temple who would partake in this war.”, he said and shrugged. “I suppose they wanted to make a point of some sort.”

“And you didn’t find that a bit odd, General Gerald?”, the young man said frowning a bit.

 

He hadn’t heard of any such declaration or proclamation. Not that it would matter nor would he have obeyed it. Serenity Home Temple was his responsibility and he answered to no one, and be damned with castration!

The general shrugged again.

 

“I am not a pious man, boy. I believe I have already made that quite clear. I do not heed nor care what the members of the clergy do. I am a military man who earns his living in the trenches. My job is to make sure my men live long enough to go back to their wives and kids.”

“It is very likely they will not go back to their wives and kids should you go to Last Hope blindly, sir..”, Bremorel said flatly.

“I do not go anywhere blindly, young lady. But neither do I want members of the Tempest Temple crawling at my back, demanding retributions for assaulting their temple here and nothing short of a plague will make me go anywhere near those zealots!”, the general replied as if he was talking to a particularly dense rookie.

 

Bremorel and Thomas gave a sidelong glance to one another. It was obvious, the elderly general was not going to budge. Forcing the issue would only petrify his stance and irritate him.

 

“I feel tired.”, Bremorel said suddenly.

“You do?”, Thomas asked.

“Yes. And feverish. I was fine this morning but not so much, ever since I got in contact with the esteemed general and his men, here. Perhaps they are ill and they passed it onto me..”, she replied seriously.

 

General Gerald stared at her for a long, silent moment.

And said nothing.

 

“I believe they are all afflicted with some sickness and need ample care.. and seek a remedy.. by a member of the clergy who is known for their tender care..”, she said and coughed into her fist.

 

Thomas noted the blood in her hand.

So did the general and his men.

 

“The young lady seems ill, indeed.”, the senior temple guardian said uncomfortably.

“Indeed, she does. Are you sure you picked it up from us, girl?”, the general asked with a bemused tone.

“I was perfectly fine until now, sir. I believe I shall rest.. and seek herbal remedy.. You and your men should have yourselves checked more thoroughly, however, by the members of the Tempest Temple at Last Hope as soon as you get there. Perhaps in small, scouting groups?”, she offered and coughed some more.

 

General Gerard sighed.

 

“You two make the worst soap opera I have ever seen, and Palantine is no center for culture.”, he said, causing several of his men to snicker. Then he stared at the ranger lieutenant, and then her bloody hand. “Though the blood effect was rather good. It gave a certain dramatic flair. How did you do it?”

“I slashed my hand, sir.”, Bremorel said without cracking a smile. “The weather is so cold, I didn’t feel a thing.”

 

The general sighed again.

 

“Cold or not, have that hand looked at while I organize a ‘sick’ scouting party.”, he ordered, turned around, gave his men a few, curt commands, and sent them off.

 

He stared at the two for a moment, then spoke in a low, growling tone.

 

“Just how deep does this treachery go?”, he fumed.

“We are not sure, sir.”, Bremorel replied, her voice a bit relieved. “We had a company of our people including two, very high ranking members of the nobility from High Woods at Arashkan, a month before it was attacked, seeking a criminal for an unrelated issue. Turns out, said criminal and his men were hiding in the Tempest Temple all along, and for many years. They were also helping the Orken army undermine the city defenses.”

“Sounds a bit far-fetched, don’t you think, lassie? A criminal who was hiding in the largest temple of the kingdom, let alone Arashkan, and helping the Orken as well?”, Gerald frown.

“Would it make any difference if I said, the criminal was Gar Thalot? I am sure you have heard of him..”, the ranger lieutenant replied.

“Yes. Him, I have heard of.”, he said and his frown turned into an ugly scowl. “Tried to bring his rebellion to Palantine. Didn’t go so well for his followers. Private contractors are always more eager than government officials. A few bounties and all his sidekicks were hunted down and killed in under a few months. Palantine might not be a center for culture, but it is the center for bounty hunters. Would have been one myself, but the wife wanted me on a steady-paying job, and certainly not underfoot and carousing in the house all day when there weren’t any jobs available.”

“Indeed. Jobless men can be a bother at home.”, Bremorel said with a straight face.

 

The elderly general scowled at her.

 

“But then, my husband has a steady-paying job as well.”, she added with a grin.

“Where will you go from here?”, the general asked.

“We are out here and this far from Serenity Home on a specific mission, sir. I am not at liberty to divulge it, but I daresay, it should make your job much easier should we succeed. Women should have their men and children should have their fathers return to them.”, she said solemnly.

 

The general gave her a hard, steady gaze, then turned to Thomas.

 

“You have a very strong-willed woman here, young man. Pretty, too. I would suggest you do your best to keep her.”, he said with a stern, fatherly voice.

“I dare not do less, general.”, Thomas replied with a smile. “You should see her when she draws her sword. She didn’t earn her name by her ‘pretty.'”

Bremorel snorted at that.

 

Gerald grunted, turned around, and left.

Soon after, several ‘sick’ men were laid on military stretchers and were carried off towards Last Hope. After a few moments, a few more were carried off, then more.. until it seemed like there was a pandemic amongst the Palantine Militia.

 

“General Gerald is a stubborn but smart man. He listens to reason, even when it is not all that reasonable. And he will not gamble with the lives of his men.”, Thomas noted as he watched the long line of men being carried off on stretchers.

“Yes. Surprisingly so. And he’s also sending in his scouts.”, Bremorel said, pointing at the small groups of men dashing off silently in the forest towards the town.

“Should we wait, or head out?”, Thomas asked.

“We are a tad ahead of schedule. Might as well wait and see just how wrong my gut was.”, she replied. “I honestly want to be wrong. Because if I am right—”

“—it will mean we have a very serious problem in our hands, and it is everywhere and in every city!”, her husband finished direly.

 

Thomas watched as his wife stared after the Palantine scouts. They were not as good as rangers, to be sure, but they were admirably competent. As he watched her face, he recognized the dawn of another thought etch itself there.. something quite disturbing.

 

“What is it?”, he asked.

“Nothing.”, Bremorel shrugged her shoulders.

“Love. You are bad at lying. Which, in all candor, is a good thing, really. But please. If you have something to say, you needn’t hide it from me.”, he said kindly.

 

Bremorel sighed.

It was a deep, tired voice.

 

“Has anyone ever bothered to check, to which temple Themalsar originally belong to? Before he went and opened shop at the northeast edge of Ritual Forest all those centuries ago, I mean? He was a human priest. He must have belonged to one of the divine schools..”

 

Thomas stared at her. He tried very hard to take the implications of her words lightly, but that would be foolish, and he knew it. He hadn’t married this girl because he had fallen madly in love with her..

Alright, perhaps that was very much true.

But he had always believed she had a deeper reservoir of intelligence than she let on. She looked like a hot-headed girl, easy to rile, and in all likeliness, she was, but that had merely been the side effect, or even residual traumas of her ulcerous past.

 

No.

 

As much as he loved this ‘hot-headed’ girl, he respected her as well; her instincts and her insights..

..for which, he marveled her.

 

“Perhaps we could look into that when we return?”, he offered, paused, then added. “It will be extremely hard to find objective facts about his former life and affiliations, though, considering the eight hundred years time difference, and any such affiliations would likely have been buried or removed. And at this point, I doubt it would make much of a difference. Not after all these centuries, and now that he’s dead.”

He gave a wry smile.

“I believe I know the girl who was among the company who did that deed.”

 

Bremorel tried to return his smile but failed.

 

“It might matter if we find out just exactly how deep, and how far back the treachery at hand goes, Thomas..”, she said unhappily.

 

 

. . .

 

 

The fighting in Last Hope lasted for the better part of two days. The Palantine Militia, as it turned out, had earned its reputation by virtue of back-breaking hard work, and in a literal sense. They lost over five hundred of their men but cleared the Tempest Temple, and the catacomb-like tunnels dug under it, stretching for miles and towards Serenity Home, killing nearly four thousand Orken. The fact that the fighting had occurred in tight, underground tunnels had not gone well for the near-ogre-sized Orken, even though they could see in the dark. The thirty feet long pikes and nowhere to run had worked clearly on the pikemen’s favor as they marched through the tunnels, three abreast and line after line constantly pushing forward had been base slaughter. The Orken pleaded no quarters, and the Palantine Militia offered none. It had been forty-two hours straight killing, leaving a mountain of the beasts stacked outside, and a smaller stack of Tempest cultists, all burning in the same fire now. The Palantine soldiers who had lost their lives were all wrapped up in white cerements and were waiting to be buried.

“Nice and warm..”, General Gerald said with a grim, satisfied expression on his face as he stared at the rising flames. “Now, Mayor Randorm Billbuckle.. Care to explain yourself?”

 

 

The mayor of Last Hope, Randorm Billbuckle, was a large, middle-aged man with peppered hair, a thick mustache, and quite muscled..

..and he was on his knees, his hands and arms bound behind him and he was staring at the elderly general with hate on his face.

Bremorel and Thomas also stood next to the general, and neither of them looked happy. True, they had saved, perhaps thousands of Palantine soldiers, and likely Serenity Home that day. But they had also proven the involvement of the Tempest in yet another treachery..

 

The first had been at Arashkan..

 

“You have no jurisdiction here, Gerald.”, Randorm snarled..

..and his head snapped up and he stumbled on his side the moment he finished his sentence as Bremorel stood over him.

“Actually, Last Hope is, in fact, under the jurisdiction of Palantine. Much like Serenity Home was under the jurisdiction of Arashkan. I am surprised you, as the mayor of this town, do not know this simple, legal fact.. Now. You will drop the attitude and give straight answers or I swear by the Great Heavens, I will cut you down, right here and now!”, she spat savagely.

“Ranger Lieutenant.”, Thomas said quietly.

“What?”, she snapped at her husband as well.

“Perhaps you should leave his face intact. We want him to speak, remember?”, he said mildly.

 

Bremorel glared at him.

 

“General? I believe the good mayor is ready to answer your questions.”, he said steadily, and without taking his eyes off the girl he loved.

“You see how things stand, Randorm?”, Gerald said lightly, looking down at the mayor. “The ranger lieutenant is young and filled with passion, quite robust too, I might add, and is unlikely to tire any time soon, should she be given further reason.. I believe she could work on you all day if I asked her nicely.”

“The Hell with you and the Hell with her—”

 

Randorm stumbled again, and this time, Bremorel was all over him.

She beat every inch of the man and she didn’t even break a sweat. In under a few minutes, the mayor had one eye shut and bleeding, the other totally black, his nose deformed, and any number of his ribs shattered.

It was a frightening sight, really, and Thomas understood just how much her wife was holding back, not only in terms of physical strength but emotional trauma..

 

“You will answer the general. Now. Randorm. Or I will kill you..”, she snarled.

 

General Gerald stared at her, then at Thomas.

Thomas, as disturbed as he was, shrugged.

 

“This is definitely out of my jurisdiction, sir. She is a ranger lieutenant, though. She has the right to certain privileges I am not. It is her prerogative to act as she deems fit to pass judgment in the wilds, and during times of war..”

 

Gerald frowned.

 

“Mayor Randorm. I would strongly advise you to answer my questions, and honestly. Otherwise, your sentence is in her hands.”, he said.

 

The mayor of Last Hope moaned a bit.

Then with a bloody mouth, he spluttered..

 

“The.. Hell.. with.. you—”

 

Those were the last words Mayor Randorm Billbuckle uttered.

 

With one, swift, seamless move, Ranger Lieutenant Bremorel Songsteel drew her greatsword from her back as she spun, and removed his head clean off his shoulders..

..and kicked him into the fire!

 

Gerald stared at her, at the sizzling and charring body of the former mayor, and at the head lying on the frozen ground with a sour expression.

Thomas ogled at Bremorel.

It seemed like he wanted to say some things, but nothing came out.

 

“We are rangers, my husband. We put our lives on the stake to suffer fools, one day at a time, every day.. We are the first.. and the last evil sees.. When we die, we rarely receive a proper burial because we rot where we fall.. That is the pledge, and the oath we give on our first day on the job. Fools, we may suffer. Traitors, never.”, Bremorel Songsteel said with a deadly quiet voice.

Then she pulled a sack out of her pack, picked up the mayor’s head and dumped it into the sack, and knotted it off.

She walked over to the general and handed the head to him. Then she pulled a heavy pouch from her pack and handed that over to him as well. The pouch clinked when the general took it.

 

“What’s this?”, the general asked.

“Do you have military funds to look after the families of the men that lose their lives in service of the kingdom?”, she asked.

“Of course.”, Gerald said simply.

“I have thus placed a bounty on Mayor Randorm Billbuckle’s head, as a ranger lieutenant of the kingdom, proclaiming him ‘a wanted fugitive for treachery, treason, and crimes against the Kingdom of Isles’, and you, sir, have just claimed that bounty. Please put this money into the funds you use to feed the families of the men that died in the tunnels below. It isn’t much, but it is all I have.”, she said, staring into his eyes.

“You are a ‘one of a kind’, young lady.”, the general mused, a bit awestruck.

“No, sir. I am merely one of the few good rangers left in the kingdom. I do not mind a good fight every once in a while, but I loath killing. Treachery, I loath more.”

 

Then she turned around, walked over to her husband, and gave him a fierce hug.

 

“Please do not hate me for what I have just done, my Thomas. Some things can not go to trial. They must be dealt with justly, and swiftly. And treason must never go unpunished because no one person’s life is worth more than another’s.”

“It’s alright, love. You merely surprised me, that’s all. I never knew this side of you, and what you had to deal with when you are out on your patrols. You always returned, relieved and happy, and you made your job look so easy. I can see why Moorat adores you like his very own daughter. And why he took me aside and literally threatened to disembowel me should I not take good care of you, when we declared we were getting married.”, Thomas replied, also hugging her.

“Moorat threatened you? Dammit. I told him not to do that!”, Bremorel snorted. “I believe we are done here. We should find Temez and start out and move as far as we can get, and through the night. We lost two days here.”

“Yes, I believe we are done here.”, he said, still holding her. “You did a great job, love. And saved thousands of Palantine soldiers, and likely saved Serenity Home as well from a very destructive ambush. These Orken are very diligent and intelligent. And they make long-term plans. We must stress this to others at every opportunity.”

 

Bremorel did not reply.

She had just shown Thomas one of the most brutal aspects of her job and, as surprised and likely freaked out as he was, he was still here, still hugging her, and still loving her.

For the lone soul that was once, Morel Darkmaine Sunstrider a long, long time ago when she was four, that warm hug and the understanding that came with it meant something..

 

Many things.

 

“Why don’t you go ahead and retrieve Temez, love.”, Thomas said. “There is something I need to talk about with General Gerald.”

“Very well. We will meet you at the edge of the swamps just east of the road to Game Woods.”, she replied, hugged him again, and took off.

 

It was seldom people enjoyed running. It seemed his wife was one of those rare few.

His Morel did not jog.

She ran.

And not for the sport either.

The benefits of a life of physical activity, and hence, a fit body, were apparent in her striking figure.

But for his Morel, that was merely a side effect; not intended, merely benefited..

Bremorel ran because she enjoyed it.

Perhaps it had something to do with her being a ranger.

Or the sense of freedom it gave her.

 

Thomas stared after her until she was gone. Then he worked his way over to the general who was now busy blaring orders, sending his men to further secure the town, search every house, dig trenches, erect barricades, send out his scouts north and northwest into Game Woods, cut the trees that were too close to the town, that would provide hiding opportunities and cover for possible approaching enemy, and to also dig graves for his lost men.

 

“May I have a private word with you, sir?”, the young temple guardian said.

✱ ✱ ✱

I remember you now. You were in that bloody meeting!”, Anglenna said with a severe, piercing, matronly stare at the very tall, very dark girl with the long, braided pink hair and a rather frilly miniskirt dress. “Who wears a skimpy dress like that to a war council that consists of the most powerful people in the kingdom?”

“I ask her the same thing —every day, but hey, when a slur comes from the daughter of Angrellen the Betrayer, nothings sounds convincing, and everything sounds carping.. a bit like an annoying crab that just won’t stop scratching on a seashell!”, snarked the little gnomic girl with the scruffy-look reddish hair, standing next to the very tall, very dark girl.

 

The young burly man towering behind Anglenna frowned a bit.

 

“That was not nice, bunny-girl.”, he rumbled.

“And condemning my pair for her choice of wardrobe is? And quit calling me ‘bunny girl’, boy! I am like, three times your age! We may be on the same side for now, but we are not friends enough for you to get familiar with me, and certainly not enough for you to give me pet names!”, she scowled at the giant of a man.

“I do not carry my council in my panties, Lady Anglenna Sunsear. I carry them on my shoulders. If my skirt is enough to distract said ‘powerful people in the kingdom’, I would suggest you all raise your standards a notch or six perhaps, then?”, the tall, dark girl replied. Though she did not reflect the cold gaze of the high elf woman staring back at her, she opted to give her, her emotionless, obsidian-statue stare..

..politely!

 

The bushy little hobbit standing sort of on one side and gnawing on the tip of his index finger with seeming lethargic patience, a quiet and resigned ‘Ho boy..’, did escaped him.

The lithe, athletic, and pale barbarian girl with the thick, braided, snow-white hair and the swirling tattoos on her shapely arms and shoulders was scowling at the three, very much disliking the tall high elf girl with the platinum-blond hair and her attitude issues, and the way she was biting at her very tall, very dark friend, Seressa Wraiven. She was also very much sizing up the young man who, somehow, seemed to know their gnomic girl, Arcantonic Palecog, a.k.a. Tonic. He was huge in all three dimensions and was carrying an extraordinarily big, very evil-looking, pure black, two-handed battleaxe. His overt proximity to the pretty and slender girl with the charcoal black, very long, and braided hair said there was some form of a relation between the two. Lovers, perhaps? The girl was not just pretty, though, she was very, very beautiful in an elegant, serene, warm-hearted, calm, sincere, and honest way. Cora Sleet did not know who she was, but somehow, she was sure this young.. half-elf girl was of noble-stock, and apparently, she also knew their Tonic!

 

Why did everyone know the scruffy little gnomic girl, all of a sudden, anyway?

 

“You little midget. You are a piece of work, aren’t you? Perhaps I should snuff your fire a tad.”, Anglenna said coldly.

 

The former high lady of Bari Na-ammen was very, very angry now. The uncouth little ‘thing’ had the audacity to relate her to her mother so arbitrarily. Not even the survivors of Bari Na-ammen had done that to her. True, that was likely due to both her proximity to her cousin and queen, Alor’Nadien ne Feymist, and likely a heavy-handed speech by no other than Lord Armathelius Riverblade, but still.. She had defied all her ties to her mother. She had even defied her name, Sunsear, after one hundred and seventy years!

 

The arbitrary little ‘thing’ stuffed her hand into a satchel on her belt and pulled around, pact, clay object and hefted it a few times as if weighing it.

 

“Yeah, do try it, why don’t you? Stupid, pointy-eared sprite!”, Tonic sneered at the high elf. “I’ll personally etch, ‘She was all over the place when we found her!’, on your tombstone!”

 

Anglenna’s eyes blazed..

 

“Lenna.”, said the elegant half-elf girl calmly..

..and Anglenna froze.

 

Tonic snickered.

 

“Sister.”, Alor’Nadien ne said next, turning to the scruffy-looking gnomic girl.

 

Tonic froze too..

 

“Sister?”, the pale elf murmured from the back.

 

The beautiful half-elf girl took a step forward and so did the big, burly man.

 

Seressa immediately stepped in front of her pair, and so did Cora.

Brom sighed from the rear.

Alor’Nadien ne gestured to the young man to hold his position and gave him a pleading look, then turned to the lithe, pale elf.

 

“It is heartwarming to see you once again, Cora Sleet of the Great Northern Tundras. I apologize for our abrupt manner. Do please forgive us.”, she said and Cora was astonished at how soft and warm her voice.. and how graceful her hands, her standing, and her whole figure was.

Then the girl turned to the very tall, very dark Seressa and gave her an elegant bow. She didn’t drop on her knees, nor was it a waste bow, but more of a nod. But it gave the patent impression of a bow. “I also apologize the distinguished member of the Academy of Melshieve. Seressa Wraiven, I believe? Your observations, your insight, and your offer at the war council were enlightening. I am not sure how it is that you are here, as opposed to where you should be, but I am glad to have met you, once again. We have had a trying day fighting the Orken, hence we are tired and, apparently, not thinking with a clear mind. I personally admire your choice of wardrobe. It is daring and it is beautiful.”

 

Seressa blushed a bit, though it was hard to tell through her very dark skin.

 

“Thank you.. uhhmm.. Lady.. Though I am not quite sure to which war council you are referring to. You seem to know my name and my pair. You also seem to know Cora and seeing as how Master Brom is so eager not to get involved, you two also know one another.”, she observed.

 

Alor’Nadien ne stared at her for a long, confused moment before she spoke.

 

“We met at Serenity Home town about ten days ago. We were sitting across from each other. I do not understand how you do not remember this. I know you and Cora Sleet from there. Arcantonic and Master Brom were also there, though we have met with them before. If they have not informed you of this, they must have their reason, hence, it is not my place to divulge when and where.”

 

The very tall, very dark girl, Seressa, turned slightly to look down at her pair, Tonic.

Tonic squirmed under that gaze but stubbornly said nothing. Seressa turned her head and looked over her shoulder and down at the bushy-haired hobbit.

 

“I was merely there as a bystander, my dear Seressa. Could have happened to anyone. Hence I hold a position equivalent to a messenger. Don’t harm the messenger!”, he said with a shrug.. and a smirk..

 

Tonic gave him a very filthy stare.

 

“Slippery little weasel..”, she fumed under her breath. Then her stare turned sinister and she hissed, “Bystanders make exemplary good samples for collateral damage, hobbit!.”

Then she pointed at him and berated!

“It was all his fault! He insisted on taking me out on a night stroll. I told him not to! I begged him, but he dragged me off by the hair!”

 

Brom snorted.

 

“Dragged you off by the hair, did I? Girl, you would have been more convincing had you just kept to your silence. You really suck at this performance thing, you know?”, he said with a bemused expression.

“What is going on, Tonic?”, Seressa asked with a slightly stern voice.

 

The little gnomic girl’s face and shoulders drooped.

 

“I.. can’t..”, she mumbled.

 

Seressa stared at her in astonishment.

 

“You can’t, or you won’t?”, she asked.

“I won’t, because I can’t.”, Tonic said. “Same goes for the sleazy little hobbit. Suffice to say, yes, we met Princess Alor’Nadien ne Feymist before.. and her betrothed young man, Udoorin Shieldheart.. back when we were at Arashkan.”

“And she referred to you as ‘sister’, why?”, the very tall, very dark girl asked.

“That is something I may not divulge. That particular information is up to her to decide.”, Tonic mumbled.

“Nice.”, Cora murmured from the side. “A snowball that’s passed around without being hurled! You people know, it is going to melt eventually, right?”

“For whatever reason, it would seem introductions are in order.”, Queen Alor’Nadien ne said as if to clarify at least some of the confusion.

“I am Queen Alor’Nadien ne Feymist of High Woods.”, she said.

Then she held the young man’s hand and continued. “My dear husband; King Udoorin Shieldheart of High Woods.”

And finally, she gracefully held out her other hand and the tall high elf woman took it. “My beloved cousin and trusted advisor; High Lady Anglenna Brightleaf of High Woods.”

 

She gave the four an appraising look and asked.

 

“You said you found us when you first came. Perhaps you can tell us what you meant by that, and why you were looking for us..”

 

Seressa noted how the queen of elves had carefully omitted several sticky questions just by that introduction. Both Brom and Cora noticed it too, and they both marveled it, though each for very different reasons. Tonic just stared at her without a clue at what had just happened.

 

“Very well, Your Highness.”, Seressa said, conceding the queen’s admirable, and polite maneuver. “We, that it to say, Princess Cora and her Ice Wolves were tracking down an army of Orken who had, two weeks ago, attacked and slaughtered several hundred of their members. We were, however, unable to find them. Their Blood Shamans have discovered a way to veil their Orken and we were not able to penetrate their spells. We have been after them for quite some time now. Then we heard the battle cries of King Udoorin, here, which I must say, did bring down two avalanches and consequently garnered the admiration of a whole lot of young barbarians. When we saw the three of you fighting them, we knew we had found our query and decided to join the fun.. seeing as you were outnumbered by several hundred to one.. But then you all vanished! I concluded that perhaps you might want to further watch the Orken, though from a safe distance, hence we went out looking for you.”

“The wolf howls..”, Anglenna asked. “..they belong to these barbarians, then?”

“No, Lady Anglenna Brightleaf, they belong to the wolves that belong to the Ice Wolf Horde.”, Seressa replied with the same, obsidian statue expression she had reserved for her earlier. “And now they are all slaughtering the Orken that slew their brethren.”, she added, pointing towards the edge of the frozen, snow-covered cliff they were standing.

“I have got to see this.”, the young king, Udoorin said with an enthusiastic grin and skimmed towards the edge and stared down. “Damn. That’s a lot of Orken.”, he mused, then added, “Double damn.. That is a lot more barbarians.. and almost the same number in wolves!”

 

Queen Alor’Nadien ne couldn’t resist, and she too, though gracefully, skimmed to the edge of the cliff and stared down.

Anglenna gave a sigh of resignation at her cousin’s, very unlady-like enthusiasm, gave one last glance at the very tall, very dark girl, the lithe tundra elf, the annoying little gnomic girl, and the hobbit, and followed her queen.

 

“Double damn, indeed.”, Alor’Nadien ne said, perhaps a bit more savagely than she should have.. in public!

 

To be fair, it was not easy to pick the individuals so far away, even if not for the mist and the cussed snow being trampled by thousands of Orken, very, very large wolves, and thousands more of large, savage-looking men and women in animal furs, or even mere lion-cloths and fur cloaks bearing giant swords, very large axes, long, sharp spears, and large, round, steel-rimmed wooden shields, all etched with blood-red, wolf-like symbols and they seemed to stretch for miles.. Though there was snow and ice everywhere, where they fought no longer held any white. Only dirty-red, muddy-brown, slushy ‘something’ as men, women, and wolves fought, side by side, and with equal, snarling savagery, against the Orken, and they fought, not as individuals, but in small packs, where a barbarian would swing his or her great weapon, forcing their foe to do nothing else but to focus on them while a wolf or two would flank the Orken, or come at it from his rear and hamstring it. Once its major tendons were shredded, the Orken would inevitably collapse and that’s when both the barbarian and their wolves would really come down and butcher..

And yes.. ‘butcher’ was the literal word to go here, thought Anglenna, for what remained after every such encounter was nothing but minced meat!

 

“How many of the Ice Wolf Horde are there?”, Udoorin asked with glee as he stared down at the slaughter.

“Nearly twelve thousand of them.”, Cora replied with a frown, her pouting lips pursed in thought. “Would have been a lot less, had it not been for the Orken. The fools attacked the villages lying at the southern edges of Burning Cold Hills.. They had no reason to. They could have just passed through, or snuck further south of the plains and no one would have known. The idiots.. By doing just that, the Ice Wolves put aside their eons-old enmity with the Bear Claw Tribe and the Ice Craig Tribe, leaving a skeleton population behind, and marched straight down, tracking the Orken. It was like a migration than a march, really. We knew they were around here somewhere.. We just couldn’t find them. They have some shamans called Blood Shamans. Very powerful and able to hide a great number of their troops.”

“Yes.”, said Anglenna. “We found tracks, but there was nobody to claim them. I cast a spell that disrupted their Blood Shamans. That is how we ended up fighting with the lot of them.”

“I see.” Cora mused.

“There is a tunnel.”, the young man, Udoorin said, pointing at the far-off cluster of rocks and boulders, down in the blood-soaked valley below. “We are not sure where it leads, but I suspect it goes under Rook Mountains and will likely come out somewhere in Ritual Forest. These Orken go a long way and trouble for a chance to ambush. I suspect they will come out behind our line of defense, and either attack our troops, the dwarves, the ogres, and the wood elves from their rear, or quietly sneak past them and hit Serenity Home from the north, or both, depending on their numbers.”

 

“If they have a tunnel dug under these mountains, they did not do it this winter.”, Queen Alor’Nadien ne surmised. “This was a work in progress that took them more than twenty or thirty years.”

“At least one hundred years.”, Tonic corrected her. “The Rook Mountain rock is exceptionally hard. Very difficult to chip, shape, carve, or dig through. And they would need a lot of digging tools that would require good, solid steel. Then they would have to line those tools with diamond edges. And there aren’t that many diamond deposits around here.. The only place I heard that holds such deposits of diamonds and other gems is under Silent Hills which is out of the reach of anyone, unless they found a way to get them out, or, as rumors have it, Gull’s Perch.. Good luck trying to steal Titania’s gems, though.”

 

Cora gave an odd look at Brom, who returned her stare with a sick expression on his face.

 

“That tunnel needs to be checked out.”, Udoorin was saying. “Or caved in.. preferably when there are Orken inside. But they are a bit like roaches. Hard to kill and they might dig their way out anyway.”

“I shall speak with the Howl of the Ice Wolf Horde.”, Cora promised. I am sure they would be delighted to use the tunnels when the time comes to join the war.

“Howl?”, Udoorin asked.

“That is ‘chieftain’.. of sorts.. for them.. The tribes use chieftains.. The hordes use what they believe they are associated with. The Ice Wolves use ‘Howl’, the Wyrm Horde used ‘Krash’, a derivation from ‘crush’..”, she explained.

“Weird.”, the young man noted.

“I do not question peoples’ customs, King Udoorin. I merely respect them.”, Cora replied simply.

“I apologize, Princess. I did not mean to offend. Merely a short-sighted observation.”, Udoorin said honestly.

 

Cora cocked an eyebrow at him.

Apparently, the big, burly man was more than just a dumb mass of giant muscles with an axe.

 

“I believe we should camp here for the night, then start out in the morning?”, he said, sort of to change the awkward silence.

“Where are you going?”, Cora asked.

“We will turn west shortly after we come down this mountain and head over to The Marbles and all the way the eastern edges of Troll Heights. From there, we will turn south, sneak past Arcanton’s Tower and enter High Woods from the north, circle around and carefully enter what remains of Bari Na-ammen to find, and hopefully kill the Orken Grunt Generals and Blood Shamans that we suspect are camped out there for the winter.”

“Isn’t that the long way around, Your Highness?”, Seressa asked. “Very, very long way around?”

“It is. But we also want to find out if there are any Orken between Serenity Home and High Woods, besides the ones that we already know..”, he replied.

“You will never make it in time to reach there and back to make a difference.”, the very tall, very dark girl said, shaking her head, and her long, vivid pink braided hair.

“We only need to get there. The return will not be on foot.”, Anglenna said.

“Allow me to reiterate that, then. You will never make it in time to even reach there. It is winter. Most paths and roads will be closed or clogged, every beast and creature that has not slumbered for winter will be out looking for scarce food will be after you when you are marching over The Marbles, and even though Arcanton’s Tower has been in ruins for decades, it is likely to foster innumerable fiends and demons and other vicious creatures, all of whom will attack you on sight. It will take you the better side of early summer by the time you reach your Bari Na-ammen.”, Seressa said with a conclusive tone.

“We have already measured the distance and made our plans for it.”, Anglenna replied a bit coldly.

“I was given the impression that you were a consistent, realist, and pragmatic woman by nature, and made more so by your private education.”, Seressa replied serenely. “It would seem the rumors about you are quite exaggerated and false. Whatever plans and measurements you have made lack practicality and are hence invalid and nugatory, which is to say, worthless, in a polite way.”

 

Anglenna stared at the very tall, very dark girl and it was not very hard to see she very much disliked her.

 

“Lenna. Please.”, said Queen Alor’Nadien ne Feymist. “We have enemies enough all around us, some not so far. Lady Seressa. It is quite possible our plan has flaws since it was myself and my King, who made it and left little room for debate by our subordinates. Lady Anglenna is merely trying to uphold my honor out of providence and loyalty. She was, strictly speaking, against this endeavor from the start, let alone the route we would take. That said, by all means, if you have an alternate route, please share it with us. We are not here for sightseeing. Our main goal is to undermine the enemy by cutting off the head of the snake; their Grunt Generals and their Blood Shamans.”

 

Seressa stared down at the beautiful queen for an unfathomable moment, then grinned.. A charming, and enticing shape endorsing her lips.

 

“You are, indeed, a strong-willed girl, Your Highness. And a true friend-maker.”, she said, then turned to Anglenna. “I apologize for my obtuse behavior. It was churlish of me to be so. I would suggest you take the shortest route from here to Bari Na-ammen.”

 

Anglenna frowned a bit as if not sure how to react. Finally, she shrugged and gave in, as if deciding a prolonged hostility would help no one, and was in fact, quite churlish, as the very tall, very dark girl had pointed out. She did, however, object to her idea..

 

“The shortest route, at this point, would be through the Tar Pits, past the ruins of Arashkan Military Keep, and Arashkan itself, which is likely quite uninhabitable by now, making the whole landscape around it teaming with very angry armies of Orken, and into High Woods from a direction that also has the highest concentration of the enemy. If there is a point to your offer that makes sense, I am sorry to say, I can’t see it.”, she said.

“Ahh..”, Seressa replied, giving her one of her happy and illustrious smiles as well. “I was not thinking a route as linear as you, Lady Anglenna. Suffice to say, however, that is not the shortest route to Bari Na-ammen.”

 

Anglenna stared at her with confused incomprehension.

Seressa beamed at her, waiting for either of the shoes to drop.

Then it hit the high lady and she stared at the very tall, very dark girl with unadulterated horror.

 

“How in the blazes would you even know about that?”, she asked with amazed discomfort.

“My Mistress is privy to many secrets, Lady Anglenna.”, Seressa replied, beaming at her some more.

“Whot?”, Tonic asked.

“Yeah, whot?”, Brom duplicated her question.

“What is she talking about, Lady Lenna?”, Udoorin also asked.

 

Cora did not ask.

Since the question had been asked three times already.

To her surprise, the slender and beautiful queen of the elves did not ask either. Interestingly though, she only stared down.

Apparently, Anglenna noticed that too.

 

“You knew?”, she said, staring at her cousin.

“I suspected, though mostly because my mother was quite sure of it. No one ever really saw your mother leave her estate, nor her manor at Bari Na-ammen.. Not in the last thirty years my mother was the Rise. But I expect it was much, much longer than that. Did you ever see her leave her manor or her estate?”, Alor’Nadien ne asked.

“No. Never. But then, it never really occurred to me to even wonder. The Betrayer deemed others were unworthy of her time, and she spent most of it down in her study where no one was allowed to enter.”, Anglenna said, grinding her teeth.

“Nice.”, Tonic snarked lightly from behind them. “Referring to your own mother as The Betrayer.. Should get you off the hook in no time!”

 

A smoldering silence settled over that remark.

 

“Oops. Did I say that out loud?”, she chortled.

“Tonic.”, Queen Alor’Nadien ne said, and it was perhaps the only time some of those around her heard her use that tone. It was stern, it demanded silence, and it called for retribution.

 

The midgety gnomic girl immediately shut up.

 

“You will apologize to Lady Anglenna. And you will do it now.”

 

Seressa stepped in at that point.

 

“Queen Alor’Nadien ne. With all due respect, we are not your subjects, and neither are we bound to you. Please refrain from using that tone when you are addressing my pair.”, she very nearly hissed.

“Uhhmm.. Seressa, please..”, Tonic squeaked in a small and panicked voice. They had done this dance before and it hadn’t ended well.

 

Cora rolled her eyes and Brom ‘Ho boy’ed..

 

“Please stay out of this, Seressa Wraiven. ‘Sister’ trumps ‘pair’ for this is now a family matter.”, the queen replied calmly, but with a distinctly commanding aura.

 

Seressa stared at her.

 

“Please, Seressa. This really is a family affair.. apparently.. Ow, crap. The pointy-eared, stuffy sprite and I are also related too, now?”, she spluttered in a sick voice.

 

And now Anglenna was staring at her as well.

Udoorin burst out laughing.

 

“I am sorry.”, he rumbled, still laughing. “This is just too good. Lord Armathelius is going to have apoplexy when he hears about this.”

“That is not a nice thing to say, my King. Lord Armathelius has been nothing but good to you.”, Anglenna said, with a strained tone.

“Ow, come now, Lady Lenna. We both know he is ‘good’ to me only because he has no choice. Let’s be honest, here; what elf on earth would want a human for a king, let alone a nineteen-year-old?”

“I would.”, Alor’Nadien ne said.

“Love.”, Udoorin said, turning to look at her. “I love you beyond words. But I am the king because you are the queen. I never wanted the job and neither did you, for that matter.. Had we the option to elope out of it, we both would have, on the spot.”

“I would.”, another voice said quietly.

 

It was Anglenna.

 

“Perhaps not in another lifetime. But after having seen the realities around me, and come to terms with certain.. things.. I had no trouble, whatsoever, accepting my cousin as my queen. She is everything a kingdom needs. And you, young man, will die before anyone tries to harm her. You love her with such mindless devotion, it creeps me out and I was raised by The Betrayer. As unconventional as it may be from an elves’ point of view, you two are in uncanny sync together. And Armathelius sees this, acknowledges it, and willingly submits to it. Just like I do.”, she said with the same, muted tone.

“Well. It is good that we wrapped up everything here. Time for us to go, then?”, Tonic piped from the side.

“No, sister.”, Alor’Nadien ne said, though not unkindly. “You still owe my cousin an apology. I have never associated you to your past. Please do not do what you hate most, to others. It is beneath you. You are a better person than this.”

“No, I am not.”, Tonic mumbled.

“Yes, you are, my dear. I am sure Princess Cora and Master Brom will concur.”, she replied smiling down at her.

“Huh.”, Cora grunted.

“We will?”, mused Brom. Then he saw the fire in Seressa’s eyes. “I guess we will.”, he added hastily.

 

Tonic sighed and slumped towards Anglenna.

 

“I am your cousin’s sister. There.. Now the secret is out..”, she muttered.

 

Anglenna stared at her, then at her cousin.

 

“Nadien ne? Is there something I should know about?”, she asked a bit too carefully.

“My mother, Nadine Graciousward, if you would recall, became particularly famous after she, Paladin Lord Delia Karakash, and their company entered Arcanton Mordenon’s tower and destroyed him. They slew every demon, every fiend, and every monster they came across there. But after they dispatched Arcanton, my mother took something out of that tower, unbeknownst to all, including her company. Somehow, she sensed a life still beating and breathing down in the stinking dungeons of that unspeakable place. Alone, she sought it out, and after many days and many battles with more fiends and demons and other foul beasts still roaming there, she finally found that beating and breathing life; a little girl, no older than eight, caged and surrounded by more of the madness of Mordenon.  She took the girl, washed her, fed her, cared for her, and she brought her back to her people. This girl, as it turned out, was no other than Mordenon’s own niece. Years later, when my mother married Ri Grandaleren and gave birth to me, she entered this little girl’s name into the palace archives as my twin sister. No one knew of this but my father, though mother never explained the reasons behind her actions to him. That little girl grew up and after many years, I finally met her, late one night, when I was out on a stroll with my Dorin. And she is, at this very moment, standing here, before you, cousin.” Alor’Nadien ne said calmly, happily, and contently, as she took a few steps, knelt down gracefully on her knees, and hugged Arcantonic Mordenon!

 

Anglenna stared at her, and at the little gnomic girl with somewhat horrified amazement.

Udoorin was grinning more now.

Cora stared at her too and many things settled in her mind.

Brom heaved with a sigh of relief as someone else’s, rather cumbersome, secret was lifted off his shoulders.

It hit Seressa a bit harder than the rest. Not that she wasn’t happy about it, or at least she would be, when she got over the whole, blotched history lesson, though the blotch was not the pretty queen’s fault but by the renowned and historical figures involved; Arcanton Mordenon, Nadine Graciousward, Ri Grandaleren, and even Paladin Lord Delia Karakash, in a way, who could, it would seem, sense the evil far and near, but not sense a tiny little girl deep in the dungeons of a deranged psychopath!

 

“Well, snot!”, Tonic mumbled in Alor’Nadien ne’s soft, and warm, and gentle embrace.

“Sister..”, the queen admonished her quietly.

“No. I mean I got snot running down my nose and it’s all over your dress now!”, she said and sniffed loudly.

 

Alor’Nadien ne smiled.

“I have my sister’s snot all over my dress. That is truly a first for me.”, she said, then rose to her feet, looked around her, and said, “I believe we should get a good night’s rest. Tomorrow will suffer no fools.”

“I agree.”, Anglenna concurred.

 

Tonic mumbled something at her.

It was quite inaudible.

 

“I couldn’t catch that, young lady.”, Anglenna said.

 

Tonic mumbled some more.

 

“I can’t hear you, girl, speak up.”, the high elf woman said with a bemused tone.

“I am sorry, dammit.”, Tonic snarled with a scowl.

“So..”, Udoorin said. “What’s the plan? Where are we going tomorrow?”

“We will be going down there. I believe the fighting will be over soon. The Orken might be good. But not against an ambush by twelve thousand Ice Wolf barbarians. And certainly not in their natural habitat. It has been a delight meeting you, Alor’Nadien ne Feymist, Queen of the Elves. And an interesting insight to have met you as well, Udoorin Shieldheart, Human King of the Elves..” Cora said.

 

Udoorin nodded at her. Alor’Nadien ne gave her a graceful reverence. The lithe barbarian elf nodded at them both and headed towards the edge of the cliff, and started her way down.

 

“Well. That’s my cue.”, the hobbit smirked. “Always a pleasure, my Queen. I would very much like to have a long sit down with the two of you and hear about all your adventures. I believe an epic is in order, here.”

“Nothing will beat the Adventures of Blom Bundlebim Hobim, Master Hobbit.”, the queen smiled at her.

“What? He wrote that book?”, Udoorin said more than surprised.. and with a rather impressed tone.

 

Alor’Nadien ne smiled and Brom too, disappeared down the cliff, silently mumbling about the outrageous use of using his name to publish some children’s book!

Tonic hugged her ‘sister’ again, took a deep breath of her wonderful scent, scowled at Udoorin and threatened to decompose him with something nasty and where it mattered, should he mistreat his queen, gave a quick, evasive look at Anglenna, another to her pair, jumped on her gnarly-looking witch’s broom and took off, giving Seressa the final word.

 

“Your Mistress and I, are not strangers, Seressa Wraiven.”, the beautiful Queen of the Elves said, weaving her hand in a strange, mesmerizing pattern and an inky black smoke appeared where she weaved. Then, out of the smoke, she drew a two-yard-long pole with a thirty-inch, razor-sharp blade; her hex glaive.. “The Hex Lords of Shadowfel all bow in respect to the Raven Queen. I chose the way of the hex, not because I like dark magic, but because I wanted to fight demons. And who better knows and despises demons than the Mistress of Shadowfel? My father did not appreciate it. He had suffered harshly at the hands of warlocks during his war against Themalsar. When he found out about my choice, things did not go well. Perhaps, at the time, I was a bit harsh and stubborn too. I could have handled things in many other ways. Less destructive way, in terms of our relationship, if nothing else. My aunt, Angrellen used it against me and I chose to leave, rather than confront him. Now, he is gone and I could not even say goodbye, or even tell him how much I loved him, even though he had many faults. But then, who am I to speak? I bid you and your friends a fare journey, Seressa Wraiven, Maiden of the Raven Queen, Pair of my sister, Arcantonic Mordenon, and, I would like to add, ‘my friend’, to that list..”

“It is rare to see Tonic actually value someone. I noted she has a long, single strand of black hair that she keeps tucked safety in one of her many pouches. She takes it out every once in a while and stares at it. I gather that strand belongs to you?”, Seressa asked.

“She still has it?”, the young, beautiful half-elf girl said, somewhat astonished.

“She still has it.”, Seressa said. “I have tried, for years, to bring compassion into my pairs life. To see it has finally borne fruit in someone worthy of it is beautiful. Someone like you. Yes. You may add ‘friend’ to that list. I already have.”

 

The very tall, very dark girl with vivid pink hair and the girl with slender, pale, beautiful, and charcoal black hair embraced each other.

When they parted, she took a step back and paused, for a very brief moment, as her gaze skimmed over the beautiful queen, then the big, burly king, and finally settled on the Betrayer’s daughter.

And when she spoke, her voice seemed to reverberate and it sounded distant and vague as if she was reciting something committed to memory a long time ago.

 

“Find it. Change it. Gift it.. Thus shall you atone..”, she said.

 

And without another word, the tall, black girl vanished and a gray, spectral raven appeared where she was. It stared at her, then at the Queen of the Elves for a moment with its dark, unfathomable eyes, flapped its wings once, twice, and was gone..

 

“Wow! That is kinda cool.”, Udoorin said, staring after the raven.

“Yes. It is. Wish I could do it but that is a gift the Raven Queen blesses only to her select few maidens.”, Alor’Nadien ne murmured.

“What did she mean when she said, ‘find it, change it, gift it, thus you shall atone.’ I mean, not like any of this wasn’t creepy enough already.”, he said.

“I do not know.”, Lorna mused with a slight frown. “Though I do not think she was speaking to either of us. Lenna?”

 

‘Lenna’ did not answer.

Whatever the very tall, very dark Seressa had meant with her cryptic words, however, it certainly had kindled a fire in her pale green eyes.

 

“Atoned..”, she murmured, and perhaps for the first time in her one hundred and seventy years, there was ‘hope’ there now..

 

Udoorin and Lorna stared at one another then the queen shook her head, very slightly, and her king nodded in accent.

 

“So..”, the he said, as if rewinding to his previous question. “What’s the plan? Where are we going tomorrow?”

“We are going to my home. We are going to the Betrayers manor.”, Anglenna answered, and her ‘kindled’ expression turned into a grim and determined one.

 

Udoorin gave her a queasy look.

 

“Uhhmm.. Is that all together wise? I mean, I heard your mother was quite the tough cookie.”

 

Lorna snorted!

Anglenna gazed at her king for a moment before she spoke.

 

“No, young Udoorin. My mother is a coward and a malicious piece of work! Should we encounter her, it will mean she has escaped the Three Dog Curse, but not totally unscathed. She will not be angry. She will be vicious, hence we shall not fight her. As cowardly as she may be, she will only run if she is hard pressed because of that particular state of mind.. And the three of us lack the fire power to do that.”

✱ ✱ ✱

I would like to be alone for a bit.”, the skinny little girl sniffed as she stared at the total devastation before her. The house, or perhaps, the hovel, to be fair, was gone. Smashed, quite literally, into the ground, and where the ancient tree that had stood there for eons, was also gone. What remained of both was nothing but a mass of brittle splinters and debris.

It seemed like Master Cathber Gwet’Chen Bolgrig had never existed. He had fought in the Themalsar War, some eight hundred years ago, fought in the subsequent four great raisings in next several centuries, walked this forest from one end to the other, and countless times, making sure all men, elf, dwarf, fey and beast, tree and bush lived in harmony, while he worked, diligently and all alone, and without a single demand of those who shared his forest.

And somewhere under all that mess was his grave.

 

It broke Inshala’s heart.

 

She stared at the debris and just..

..broke down and cried like a little girl.

 

But then, she was a little girl..

 

This place, this hovel, had been her home. She had grown up here. Her Father had fed her here, and told her stories, and tutored her here. It had been here that he had passed on his wisdom to her. This place had homed the heart of Ritual Forest! There.. in that very pond, she had washed herself, almost every day, from the moment she was old enough to do so. And now the little pond was also gone, filled with large, broken branches, blasted bark, and rotting leaves..

Aager stared at her tiny back, sighed, and faded away and into the forest, settling himself, not too far away, against a pine tree. He closed his eyes and tried to think of nice things. Pretty things. Beautiful things. Things he thought might cheer the girl he had come to love, honor, respect, and had, inevitably, became intertwined.

The only problem was, Aager Fogstep had never really looked at the world around him with eyes seeking beauty. It had always been about danger and how to best kill, or at the very least, avoid it.

Beauty had come, not crashing, but very slowly seeping into his life only after Inshala..

And try as he may to think of something nice, or beautiful, or cheery, the only thing that popped into his mind was her.

 

Lady Magella, who had joined them several days ago, preferred to sit alone. She had a grim expression on her face and she was staring somewhere far off, and at something unseen.

 

Lilly Venom, who avoided the she-dwarf like the plague, settled herself too..

..across his brother!

 

And quietly watched his face.

To be fair, it was an unexpected study for her.

The Aager Fogstep she had known, back in Drashan had been a soulless, bloodless, ruthless man. He had been on the top of Drashan’s Cutters Guild’s list of infamy and was wanted dead —very much, for very long.. So much so that she could still remember, quite vividly, the rooftop knife fights they had had. And knife fights were not like slash-opening one’s opponent with a sword or even running them through with a long blade.. One might argue, what bows and arrows were to swords, swords were to knives;

 

Far

Distant

Impersonal..

 

When you were struggling that close to your mortal enemy, everything became much more alive. Much more exciting. And much more deadly. You could practically stare at one another’s eyes and read their thoughts. You could feel their harsh breaths on each other’s faces. And when you struck, you would also see the pain, the fear, and the despair in those eyes.. and feel the hot, spurting blood of your enemy splashing on your face also!

 

Lilly had felt his blood on her face. He certainly had felt hers, and many times.. He had likely seen that pain, that fear, and that despair in her eyes as well..

But she had never seen it in his.

Period.

 

And now that man, who had turned out to be his brother, was sitting there, in the cold, and not even bothering to shiver. True, anyone who survived Drashan, and she was using the word, ‘survived’, extremely loosely here, had good resilience for the elements, but she could hardly feel her butt now and she wore a long and thick leather trench coat. Her brother only had his base leather armor on, and a black linen shirt and trousers, and.. that’s it.. And he showed absolutely no sign of discomfort. There he was, sitting on the frozen ground, with his eyes closed, and seemed like he was sleeping under a pleasant, spring afternoon sun..

He seemed.. tired.. but there was peace there too, now. Something she had never seen on his face before. Certainly not in Drashan, not when they had seen one another in the Arashkan Arena, and not until he and his skinny little mate had returned from Durkahan. Apparently, mating with that little girl had brought him that peace, much like it had brought her some peace ever since she had married Largo. But then, she and Largo had had a lot of very exciting nights together. These two idiots, on the other hand..

 

Lilly stopped there because she just couldn’t comprehend just what these two were, exactly. And to be totally honest about it, she was too scared to even ask her brother about it. The pun aside, she had seen, first hand, that her brother did not react well where his relationship with his mate was questioned, or even politely inquired.

Though in all candor, had they been a regular brother-and-sister, she just knew, she would have pointed a finger at him, laughed at his face, and called him an idiot! They were, however, were not a regular brother-and-sister. Not that Lilly thought she knew what or how that kind of relationship would be or what it would entail, nor did she believe her brother knew what it was either. Suffice to say, her brother was at peace, now, whatever his reasons were.

He was also in conflict.

Lilly had no idea what he was conflicted about, but something gave her the impression that it was not about his skinny little Inshala. Not directly, anyway, but perhaps by proxy. That much, she was certain.

 

“Tell me what ails you, brother..”, she mused silently. “Tell me like you stabbed me.. You won’t? Of course, you won’t.. Well, there went a perfect brother-sister moment!”

 

“You are staring at me.”, her brother growled, his eyes closed.

 

“Do you know just how annoying that growling-thing you got going really is?”, she further said.. in her mind.

 

“Yes. It is creepy, watching you.”, she replied out loud.

“Why do it then? It’s just a face..”, Aager asked.

“Half a face, actually.”, Lilly corrected.

“Thought you enjoyed challenges.”, he said.

“No, I don’t enjoy them, brother. I kill them.”

“Spoken like a true Drashan.”, Aager grinned behind his half mask.

“Take it off.”, Lilly said. “Your mask. I would be happy to see your face once in a while. I am sure Inshala would too. She won’t say anything about it because she accepts you. Seeing as how blindly she wants you. But I would hazard a guess, she would prefer to see what she follows with such blind devotion.”

“The mask is there for a reason, Lilly. And you shouldn’t hazard anything.. It’s hazardous!”, Aager said, opening his eyes.

“What? Afraid the trees and the bushes might recognize and report on you? I know it doesn’t smell bad here, either.”

 

Aager stared at her.

 

“Take off the damn mask. I want to see my brother’s face, not the mask that I stared at while he stabbed me..”, Lilly said in her low, throaty voice.

 

Aager stared at her some more.

Then, very slowly, he pulled off his mask.

 

“You are not a pretty man, brother. But then, pretty has nothing to do with it, I guess. I am not much of a beauty either, but that does not seem to matter. Not for Largo, and that’s all that matters to me. Still, it is good to see a face, knowing it belongs to Varr Sama.”

“Varr Sama..”, Aager mused. “That name.. It seems so far away.. Never crossed my mind since the day we were taken away from one another. And never heard it again until my Inshala gave it back to me..”

“I hated Aager.. I wanted to kill him so badly, there are no words to describe my hate for him, brother. Varr Sama? Him I never forgot. Then some guy in the Cutter’s Guild claimed he was my brother. I was still too young, then. And stupidly trusting.. Whatever game he was playing at, it didn’t work, though.”, she said quietly.

“Why not?”

“You killed him too..”, she replied mutely. “..the night you stabbed me in the chest. You cut him down like he wasn’t even there.. Then you were on me. I saw nothing but your dead eyes.. and that stupid mask..”

“I am not psychic, you know?”, Aager said.

“Hmm?”

“If you need something from me, I would rather you told me about it.”, he replied.

“I did. Just now.”, Lilly said.

“True. But for the first time. You want to see my face more often? I want to hear your words more often..”, he said with a grim smile.

“Something for something, is it?”

“Well, I wouldn’t mind giving something for nothing. To you.. Just don’t ask me to do it in public. I do have a reputation to uphold, after all.”, he said and grinned some more.

“You will make an excellent father someday.”, she said with a counter grin of her own. “Should you and Inshala actually do something about it, I mean.”

“Straight for the jugular, I see. Whatever gave you the idea that I would make an excellent father.. someday?”, he asked, dodging her implications.

“You have all the ‘father jokes’ you need.”, she smirked.

“I resent that. My jokes are funny and my Inshala concurs.”, Aager replied, a bit taken aback.

“I can’t imagine that girl not agreeing with you on any matter.”, she said with a snort.

“Ahh.. You think she follows me blindly, perhaps? No, Lilly. She does not. We love each other. We will do many stupid things together. But whatever we do, we agree on it first. Love, as I understand it, does not preclude mindless subjugation. I find that particular notion rather disturbing, and an insult to her intellect. Inshala may be young and lack many social moderations and the things we learn due to, or because we live in a society, but she is far from stupid. What we have is trust. In its most basic, and simplest form. When I want something, she knows, with absolute certainty, that I want it for her. Just like when she wants something, I know, with unquestioning certainty, that she wants it for me. I would have rather she wanted some things.. many things.. for herself.. but she won’t. I give her all the options and choices I can want for her, yet she chooses the one that is most unlikely.. and for whatever reason, her choice wins. I do not claim to understand how it works out that way, suffice to say it does, making her happy, and by proxy, making me happy.”

 

Lilly stared at her brother for a moment before she grinned at him.

 

“You are weird. ‘You’ as in plural.. But in an endearing and creepy way.”, she said, then her grin turned grim. “You owe that little girl of yours a lot, you know. She made a human out of two Drashan’s and that is nothing to sneeze at. She sunk a festering temple into the ground, brought hope back to Durkahan, Serenity Home, this forest, to those bloody, stupid, ignorant, superstitious woodsmen, and she brought the elves, the dwarves, the humans, and the damn ogres together.. And she hasn’t asked anything in return. She has few scarce clothes she wears, and those that she has, she actually pays for them with lavender soaps, herbs, spices, and whatever else she crafts by hand. She has a home built by ogres that she shares with you, she loves and wants you so much, it hurts just to look at her, and the only place she could have called a ‘country’, is this tiny square mile of land, and it is now in shambles.. Sad, really.. I certainly would have put a price had I done but a tithe of any of those..”

“True.”, Aager replied simply.

“True? Is that all you have to say? Your home must be a sad, quiet place. A bit like a tomb.”, Lilly snorted.

“Not true.”, he disagreed. “We have our moments of silence because we welcome it. We can hear each other’s breath and heartbeat. It is beautiful.”

“Deep. But not pertinent.”, Lilly said.

“Inshala sings too, sometimes. When I ask her to. But she fills me in all the things she did, all the things she learned, and all the people she met that day. Also beautiful.”, her brother replied.

“I have a question for you.”, she said, giving up on that front.

 

Aager did not prompt her to ask in hopes that she really wouldn’t.

Aager wasn’t big on extended conversations..

..apparently.

And this, being an elder brother thing seemed to involve too much of said conversing..

 

“Why are you here?”, she asked.

“Why am I here? That is a rather generic question, Lilly. You might want to be a bit more specific.”, he said.

“Alright, then. Why are you here, as opposed to not next to your girl, doing something about her country?”, she amended.

 

Aager fell silent for a long slice as he thought of what his sister had just said, putting the idea of trying to come up with some things nice, or beautiful, or even cheery aside.. And something clicked in his mind.. All the nice, the beautiful, or even anything remotely cheery was here, right now.. accept she was crying..

 

“Be right back.”, he said as he rose to his feet, and disappeared into the frozen forest.

 

Perhaps two hundred yards away, he stopped, looked all around him, then up at the brittle white winter sky.

 

“Mab.”, he said mutely.

 

It took a while for the Mistress of Winter and the Queen of Air and Darkness to answer.

And when she did, her luxurious, dreary, enticing, and scary voice echoed in his mind.

Aager swallowed down the churning sensation that had started crawling up his throat.

 

“My Knight.”, the voice of Mab said. “It is rare for Mortals to call upon me thus willingly.”

“They would call oft, would they not fear you, my Queen.”, he replied.

“Fear is good. Fear I like. It brings out the respect fools oft forget.”, the voice said.

“It also stays you alone.”, Aager replied.

“Alone is also good. Little  do I worry of fools, alone.”, she echoed.

“Alone is alone, my Queen. Much like fear is just that; fear.. The more we have it, the more we are alone.”

“Ahh.. I sense your discontentment. Hence you wish to rile me to your wont.”, she replied.

“I wish you to cough up, my Queen!”, Aager said, and his voice turned cold.

 

A stunned sort of silence settled in the forest. It was an oppressive silence and it was laced with dread.

 

“Careful, my Knight. I would not want to waste you without making good use of you.”, the voice said quietly and with trepidation.

“The former Ritual Guardian worked diligently for you, and for your sister. And so did his progeny, sacrificing from her very being. I sense many fey in this forest. Fey that do not entertain such freedoms in many other woods and forests.. When called, they came to Serenity Home in great numbers, which proves my point. Master Cathber asked nothing in return for his services. He gave them freely. So does my mate. And now, I see how those that live thus happy and free take little notice of his home or even his grave. My Inshala mourns, even as we speak, at the debris that was once her and her father’s home. Tell me, my Queen, is this how you repay the deeds you and yours, and your sister have made use and benefited thus grandly?”, Aager said with a low snarl. “Hence I repeat, time to cough up!”

 

Another silence befell the forest. This one, not as oppressive, but breathless.

 

Then, a cold, frosty white light jabbed down from the brittle sky and Mab appeared in all her glory, her cold, piercing eyes ablaze, her revealing gown flowing down her lustful figure displaying pale, pale skin unmarked by imperfections. Her white hair glowed with incandescent light and a cloud of mist settled down the small of her back, not unlike a cloak, and she was staring down at her Winter Knight with quiet displeasure.

And with unexpected agility, her long, slender arm shot out and clasped him, by the throat, and picked him up as if he were a toddler.

 

“Your tone displeases me, my Knight.”, she said frostily.

“I am your vassal, my Queen.”, Aager croaked through his gritted teeth. “And queens take care and look after their vassals. Such is the core of impregnable and unwavering loyalty and it goes both ways. Much like service..”

“No, my Knight. I have fear for that.”, Mab said coldly.

“And you truly believe that will keep Mortals loyal to you?”, he asked. “I would have thought the Queen of Air and Darkness to have known us by now.”

‘Us by now..’, she mused, quoting his words..

 

Aager did not elaborate. Though he was struggling for breath, he still.. grinned!

 

“Arrogant, Mortals are.”, she hissed, still holding her Winter Knight by the throat.

“Yes, my Queen, we are arrogant, and we are more, and we are less. What matters is what we choose to do at any given time. I am your Knight. I can do your bidding willingly, or I can do them dragging my feet. One will earn you the fear you want. The other, not so much..”, he said.

“Perhaps I should just slay you and be done with.”, she offered.

“And leave the field free for the Summer Knight, and his quite ambitious mate? By the time you find a new ‘me’, I believe your sister and her knight will have had their way with these lands for many centuries. I suspect your winter fey in this forest will suffer the most. I can’t see Titania sparing them. Then there is the Ritual Guardian herself. She already serves Titania by choice. I wouldn’t presume to tell her what to do, but if it were up to me, I would just decide to ban, banish, and exile anything even remotely related to my demise. So, again, time to cough up, my Queen. And that’s trice said and done..”, Aager growled with a gurgling, throaty voice.

 

This time, the silence didn’t haggle and Mab smiled.

 

“Finally. A Knight worth my time.”, she said.

 

Then swung her knight..

..and sent him flying into a tree, some thirty yards away.

Aager crashed right through the tree, and it hurt.

It hurt even more, when he crashed through the next tree..

..and the next!

He lost count after the sixth and everything went dark.

 

 

. . .

 

 

“How is he?”, a bold, throaty voice asked.

“Hurt.”, replied another. This one, soft, kind, scared, trembling, and angry.

“Is this how it’s going to be? One of you dolts dropping next best thing to dying, every time I turn my back?”, said a third voice, and this one was definitely angry and you could tell she was angry by the way she was snarling.

“You shouldn’t be turning your back to anyone!”, the first voice mumbled, but it got lost when the man lying on the frozen winter ground moaned.

“That.. hurt..”, he said in pain.

“MY AAGER!”, shrieked the soft, kind, and scared voice. “YOU ARE AWAKE!”

“I am?”, Aager groaned. “I don’t feel awake. I feel only hurt..”

“Tell me again, why is my brother lying on the ground and there are nearly a dozen trees knocked down in a straight line as if he just rammed through them?”, Lilly asked. “Or why there are so many weird things everywhere?”

 

There was a moment’s pause. Then Aager heard Inshala’s voice. “Lilly? Lady? Would you please give us a moment? I need to talk with my mate.”

“Uh oh.”, Lilly said with an amused tone. “It’s the ‘I need to talk’ moment. You are so screwed, brother.”

Lady Magella grunted, and Aager heard two pairs of feet retreating away, one lithe, soft, and barely discernable, the other, heavy, steady, and stomping..

 

“What were you thinking, my Aager?”, hissed Inshala, and that was the first time he actually heard her hiss at him.

 

Yup.

Inshala was angry, alright.

 

“Uhhmm..”, Aager said, not quite sure what she was talking about. His eyes hurt. His whole head hurt. His back hurt like Hell. He couldn’t quite feel his legs either, and the last thing he remembered was being hurled..

..and flying!

 

Then he recalled the first pain.

Right when he struck a tree.

Then the second pain.

When he struck the second tree.

To be honest, the subsequent trees became sort of moot after that, since that second one had pretty much knocked all his senses out.

He only recalled a lot many grunts and oomph’s and finally crash landing on an already fallen tree full of squirming and slimy worms, and crawling and biting insects.

To be sure, he had won one over the Winter Queen, but damn, Mab had a heavy hand!

 

“Why would you anger Mab? Why would you even call her here?”, Inshala hissed some more.

“I.. thought it would be a good idea.. at the time..”, he mumbled.

“What on Earth and Heavens gave you the idea that calling Mab would be a good one, my Aager? Mab is Mab. She is not forgiving and she is vicious. You already ended up becoming her knight, you can not give her anything else!”, she said vehemently.

“Well.. I didn’t give her anything else. I merely reminded her to do her job.”, Aager said with a stubborn voice.

“But.. why? I thought we were going to be stupid together. Not be stupid alone!”, she said as if about to cry.

 

Aager opened his eyes to see tears running down her face.

 

Inshala was angry.

But she was also scared.

Frantically so.

 

“Why are you so angry, Inshala?”, he asked. “You talk and bargain with Mab and Titania all the time.”

“Because I know, how. And I do it very carefully, and very, very politely.”, she said and her lower lip started to tremble.

“Well. I got to start somewhere, don’t I?”, he said.

“Since we met, have you ever seen me get into a fight using knives, my Aager?”, she asked.

“No. I haven’t. And I don’t see why you should. Knife fights are extremely dangerous and you don’t have the right training—”, Aager said then paused. “Ahh.. I see your point, love.”

 

Inshala stared down at the man she loved as more tears ran down her face.

 

Then.

Just like that.

She was all over him, hugging him fiercely.

 

“Please, my Aager. Mab is Mab. And she values her knights as she values gold.. And gold means nothing to Mab! For whatever reason, you have garnered some interest in her. Your continued existence depends on that interest. Should she lose that, she will get rid of you and will call it a little loss and seek a new one. It will not be such a little loss for me. You must know, and understand this by now.”, she pleaded as she sobbed into the crook of his neck.

 

Aager hugged her back, and just as fiercely as he dared to while he lay there, on the frozen forest ground until she exhausted herself out.

 

“C’mon, love.”, he said after waiting for a bit more and gruffly. “It is freezing on the ground. We wouldn’t want you to catch a cold, now would we?”

“I have never caught a cold in my life.”, Inshala’s muffled sniff was heard.

“Well. Let’s not start to catch one now. Help me up?”, he asked.

 

Inshala sprang to her feet, then with great agony, she helped her mate up and on his feet.

All in all, it was a sad sight, really.

 

“Lesson learned.”, he mumbled. “Don’t sass Mab!”

 

And the two of them, one skinny little girl, the other in dark, shredded clothes and limping, came over to the wreck that was once Master Cathber and Inshala’s home..

..except, the wreck, the rubble, the broken and splintered branches, and the debris was gone!

 

A large ogre stomped past them, followed by a few others, all carrying large and heavy sacks.

The one leading nodded at them and said, “Ritual Guardian, Winter Knight.”, and continued on. Then they dropped the sacks in front of the house—

 

—Wait! What?

 

“Where did that house come from?”, Aager asked.

 

Inshala did not reply immediately.

As a matter of fact, she couldn’t reply.

 

Because she was busy staring in quiet awe as the ogres emptied their sacks to reveal their burden; hundreds of flat, smooth rocks! The leading ogre gave a few curt orders and they all started laying the flat rocks, forming a stone path leading to and from the house.

Then, Aager noted the other creature; several, extraordinarily beautiful and willowy dryads walking around and carefully the planting acorns the scores of tiny sprites and pixies darting around brought them, as several wood elves were busily carving beautiful shapes and designs of leaves and flowers and vines and trees into the door, the wooden frames of the house, and carefully embossing similar shapes, but not as concentrated as the door and the window frames, going for elegance, rather than extravagance..

He saw half a dozen dwarves up on the roof of the house, carefully laying baked red clay roof tiles and hammering them in place with hard, wooden pegs. More dwarves could be seen through the open windows, building a fireplace and chimney using mortar and red, blocky bricks. To his disturbed recognition, he also saw something huge, perhaps fifteen or sixteen feet tall, and nearly as wide monstrosity that seemed to be nothing more than thick branches, choking vines, and rotting vegetation; a bloody shambling mound, rummaging contentedly in the previously stagnated, sluggish, and dark, muddy pond! Every once in a while, one of the dwarves or the ogres would come and dump rubble and debris into the pond and an approving sort of rumble would rise from the monstrosity! He also saw several other slender figured girls, nymphs, he surmised, though he wasn’t quite sure how he knew. One of them was burning away some of the larger branches of the gigantic tree that had fallen on the former house of Master Cathber while another weaved her tiny hands as she danced, not unlike a belly dancer causing moderate-sized whirlwinds to spin around the fires, making sure they did not spread and also carried away the smoke. There were more of them, gathered around the shambling mound, and they were chanting. And the more they chanted, the more clear sparkling water poured into the pond seemingly out of thin air!

 

“Huh!”, he said, a bit thunderstruck.

“Yes, my Aager, huh!”, Inshala replied, also awed.

 

And every time a pixie, or a sprite, or an elf, or a dwarf, or a dryad would walk or fly past them, they would nod and say, “Ritual Guardian. Winter Knight.”, and move along.

Aager did note a few other details; some of the fey knew Inshala in person and that they were all either shy of him, or they shied from him.

“Please assure them I mean them no harm.”, he said to Inshala.

“They know, my Aager. Some of them are winter fey and some of them are summer fey. But you are the Winter Knight, after all. In time, some of them might become friends, but that will require much effort on our part.”

“You mean, effort on my part.”, Aager said.

“No, my Aager. Your part is my part as well, now. Hence, our part.. And.. Thank you..”, she said, intertwining herself onto his arm. “This.. means a lot to me..”

“Worth all the buggery bum, then.”, he said with a smile.

 

Inshala cracked a snort!

 

Someone cleared her throat behind them and the two turned around to see Lady Magella scowling at.. pretty much everything!

 

“Care to explain?”, she said harshly

 

Lilly was standing somewhat behind her, but not near enough, as if she didn’t want to catch whatever ‘flu’ she thought the she-dwarf was afflicted with.. in a mental sense.. She just stood there, diffidently gnawing at one of her pinkies and observing the strange scene; the construction, the artistry, the magic, the landscaping, the odd and strange fey, and the.. well.. whatever else was going on that she couldn’t recognize or put names to..

 

Aager looked down at the angry-looking she-dwarf and said;

 

“No.”

 

Lady’s scowl turned into an even bigger scowl.

 

“No?”, she said.

“No.”, Aager replied. “This is a private matter, Lady. It involves only my Inshala. It is no body else’s business, and in a literal sense. What is happening here, is out of the jurisdiction of everyone!”

 

Lady’s bigger scowl turn into a frown, now, though it wasn’t clear if that was a good thing.

 

“I.. see..”, she said.

 

One of the dryads couldn’t help it anymore and finally came skipping and skimping excitedly near Inshala, giving a wide berth to her mate, the Winter Knight, though.

 

“Hey you!”, she said happily.

“Temessa!”, Inshala half-shrieked in delight. “It’s been so long!”

“You have grown smaller, my pretty Inshala. Is that not supposed to go the other way around? Owww.. has the Winter Knight sucked all the life out of you?”, the beautiful dryad, Temessa, said with an awed expression, taking a hoping little skip on the other side of Inshala, and away from the dreadful-looking human; Mab’s hatchet man, the Winter Knight!

 

Aager looked the other way when Inshala giggled at that.

 

“The Winter Knight does not suck the life out of people. Those are vampires.. How come you are here, though? I can see Yamara over there and she seems to be having fun burning things. I can also see Cherriot, Shyad, Kardenymp, and Veraminks too.”, she said happily.

 

Temessa sighed.

 

“Well.. When your mate aggravated Mab, she pestered Mother Titania to ‘cough up!’.. Whatever that means.. So we were sent here, along with some of summer pixies and sprites to clean up and make a beautiful garden for the Ritual Guardian —that’s you, by the way, but the winter pixies and the winter sprites and the summer pixies and the summer sprites started fighting the moment they arrived! You know how childish and enthusiastic they are..”, she said with another sigh.

“Ow, my, yes.”, Inshala said with a little, bubbling laugh. “How are they still not fighting, though?”

“We told them if they didn’t stop fighting, no one would get any sugar canes!”, Temessa said, then she lowered her voice and asked —in a pleading tone.. “You do have some sugar canes, right? All those silly pixies and even sillier sprites have had a field day for weeks at that human town. And they are getting paid in sugar canes, and we are not getting any of it.. AT ALL! It’s so unfair!”

 

Inshala smiled.

 

“I have some. Want?”, she asked.

“WANT!”, Temessa said promptly.

 

Aager ran..

..as Inshala was suddenly swarmed by a dozen or so very pretty, very beautiful dryads and nymphs, and over a score of pixies and sprites and other enthralling wonders of nature!

 

“That’s just creepy.”, Lady Magella said, ogling at the commotion taking place merely a few yards away.

“No. It is worse; those are drug addicts, Inshala is their dealer, Aager is her bruiser, and this is a bloody crime in progress!”, Lilly snorted.

✱ ✱ ✱

Okay. We are going live in five. You ready, luv?”, Seressa Wraiven asked the lithe, athletic, pale tundra elf girl who was pouting. She was pouting, not because she was feeling particularly sullen or petulant, but because the striking shape of her mouth gave her that impression.

Ow, and she was also frowning, or even scowling, but that was by choice. She had that vague expression people sometimes got when they thought they were being swindled.

“No.”, she said. And she emphasized it by giving the very tall, very dark girl standing before her a very steady, ‘And I am not moving until I understand’, look!

 

But that did not deter the very tall, very dark Seressa.

At all.

 

She gave the tundra elf one of her best smiles and with a very cheery and energetic voice, she said, “Cora, luv, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. You will get to speak with the dean of the Academy of Melshieve, Grand Master Mervlin the Awesome! Well, his official title isn’t really ‘Awesome’, but he is!”

“I do not know this Mervlin dude. And neither do I know your Melshieve.”, Cora Sleet replied coolly.

The bushy little hobbit, Brom, snickered from the side, but both Seressa and her pair, Arcantonic Palecog, the midgety little gnomic girl stood staring at one another, quietly thunderstruck!

 

“Dude?”, spluttered Tonic. “DUDE? Hells Bells, she just called Grand Master Mervlin, a dude!”

“What? Is he a she?”, Cora asked, unperturbed.

“No, she isn’t.. He isn’t dammit, but that’s not the point!”, the little gnomic girl said exasperatedly.

“Huh! There’s a point, then?”, the tundra elf asked.

 

Both Tonic and Seressa ogled at her.

 

“Girl, Mervlin is the greatest wizard there is!”, Tonic said finally.

 

Cora shrugged.

 

“Don’t like wizards. Don’t care much for them. Don’t like talking either. Why does this Mervlin dean-dude of yours even wants to talk to me? Brom likes talking. He can’t have enough of it.”, she said.

“I resent that.”, Brom said, but Cora ignored him.

“Your dean-dude should talk to him. He is a bard. He can make better words than I can.”

“Yes, he can.”, Seressa said. “But Master Brom is also a hobbit and they are not uncommon, particularly since Bowling Hills is not all that far from Melshieve..”

Then she hastily added, “—as unique as he is as an individual.”

“Nice twist..”, Brom murmured.

 

Tonic snickered.

 

“You, my dear Cora Sleet, are unique in many aspects and entertain certain ‘novelties’, as in, there has never been any tundra elves nor any barbarians from the Great Northern Tundra who have ever attended the Academy, and the only reports or records about them is mere mention as part of the Themalsar War history that took place some eight hundred years ago..”

“I don’t do entertaining, Seressa..”, Cora replied sternly. “I certainly am not going to go to this Academy of yours, seeing as they prefer to just watch and observe evil when it occurs, rather than do something about it when they can. And I can only imagine why no tundra elf, or any barbarian for that matter, would attend to your thingy. We have better things to do with our time, you know..”

“Please, Cora!”, she pleaded.

“No!”, Cora said with the same stern tone.

“Pretty please with sugar on top?”, she begged.

“I don’t know what that is, but it sounds like a bribe, so, no!”, the pale snow elf said.

“Help me out, here, Tonic!”, Seressa turned to her pair.

“I promise, I will be good for a whole month?”, Tonic offered.

“You will be good for a whole month and more, either way, Arcantonic Palecog!”, Cora said, staring down at the midgety little gnomic girl coldly.

 

Tonic gulped.

Brom chuckled.

 

“Master Brom. Please help explain to Cora why it is so important for her to have a few minutes interview with the dean of the Academy of Melshieve, and why it might be detrimental to having someone as important and powerful as Grand Master Mervlin on our side!”, Seressa said, turning to the bushy-haired hobbit this time and in near tears.

“Importance and power are relative and mean something only to those who care or give a damn, Seressa.”, Brom mused. “Don’t get me wrong. I believe you and have faith in you and I am sure Grand Master Mervlin whom I certainly have heard of, is indeed as important and powerful as you say he is. But for me, he is not so important. For Cora, who comes from the north end of the continent, not at all! Perhaps you should explain to her what he will do for her, should she agree to do this interview thing..”, Brom offered.

 

Seressa pouted.

 

“I thought you’d be on my side, Master Brom.”, she said with a very sad face.

 

It broke Brom’s heart to see that.

 

“I am always on your side, my dear girl. But if you want your interview, it is Cora who you must persuade, not me.”, he replied kindly.

“Yeah, what he said.”, Cora inserted.

 

Seressa pouted for a bit more, then gave up and sighed with resignation.

 

“I do not understand why you are being so stubborn about this, luv. Perhaps you have all the misconceptions and wrong impressions of the Academy, but not of any of the good ones, which is probably both my and Tonic’s fault. Those that have graduated from Melshieve have had the best education the kingdom has to offer and many of them become mayors, lords, dukes, duchesses, generals, marshals, commanders, judges, researchers, historians, and more, and have worked diligently or fought for the peoples of this kingdom including Tonic and myself. The Academy has the policy of not getting involved to keep its neutrality status unmarred, which is why her agents are allowed to roam free pretty much everywhere without hindrance so they may observe conflicts for historical reasons. If they did intervene, everyone would demand their presence on their side and soon enough, they would end up being a side themselves, and anyone with a grudge would try and lay siege to the Academy grounds.”, she explained earnestly.

“I know about your academy’s policies, Seressa. I gathered as much during our first-time jump, and Ri Grandaleren’s reaction and distaste when the two of you showed him your Agents of Melshieve badge-thingies..”, Cora replied.

“True. But as individuals, we can, and have included ourselves in many affairs, though I am not sure our time jumps actually counts. My point is, perhaps for the first time since its foundation, Melshieve has the legal right to actually intervene and get involved, rather than just observe, if they can be convinced. I have a moderately decent reputation in the Academy—”, Seressa said.

“—But I don’t!”, Tonic inserted with a disgusted mumble. “Even though I have some of the highest grades in the classes I was allowed to take, I also have the highest recorded disciplinary actions in the Academy history without being expelled; 208 of them! I was bested only once, by a weird ass kid named Fearghas Fionnghal on his first year!”

 

Brom snickered.

“I am tempted to ask, why would anyone do that, but we are talking about you, so the question sort of answers itself.”

 

Tonic scowled at him but didn’t retaliate.

 

“Let’s not go there, Tonic, luv. We all had our reasons to be how we were.”, her very tall, very dark pair said. Then she turned back to Cora. “The point is, it is not easy to get an official and academic interview with the dean. With you, though, who is very, very unique, and has such political prestige amongst all the Great Northern Tundra hordes and tribes, will very much draw his interest. So much so that he might even be tempted to join the coming war, or at the very least, partake in it, seeing as you are helping the kingdom while not being part of it.”

 

Cora frowned, then looked down at Brom.

Brom shrugged.

 

“I would say it’s a long shot, but worth the loss of a few minutes.. My feet are killing me!”, he said.

 

Cora frowned some more.

 

“I understand your point, Seressa. But I don’t like publicity.”, she said.

“It’s too late for that, luv.”, Seressa replied honestly. “You are known throughout the tundra and to all the barbarian hordes and tribes. Once we are done here, we will likely be going there to convince and gather them for the coming war and you will be leading them. Your name will go down to every history book there is. The only difference is, should you do this interview, you will be giving, perhaps the only one-on-one, and you will be giving it to the dean of the Academy of Melshieve, himself, where there shall be no rumors, no silly gossips, but real, solid facts. Grand Master Mervlin does not mess around, and he does not do paparazzi.”

“I do not know what this paparazzi-thing is.”, Cora frowned.

“It is mostly fake news about celebrities, particularly about their private lives.”, Brom explained.

 

The reaction Cora showed to that was quite expected, really.

Her gaze became glacial, her face turned stony, as fumes of cold, arctic wisps rose from her nose and ears and she hissed..

 

“They had better not!”

“I totally agree, luv.”, Seressa said hastily. “Which is why it is very important that your first, and possibly only interview should be made with someone whose reputation is solid.”

 

Cora fell silent as she quietly smoldered.

 

“Just do it, girl.”, Brom said. “Assume it is bitter medicine. It sucks to spoon it, but will be good in the long run.”

“Very well.”, the barbarian girl finally caved in.

“At a girl.”, he grinned. “Oh, and, bring down the scowling a notch or six. You want the dean to respect you for being serious. You don’t want to give him the impression that you are going to go berserk on him.”

 

Cora stared down at the bushy little hobbit.

 

“Just be cool.”, Brom said.

“I am always cool.”, Cora replied.

“I mean, in a literal sense..”, he amended.

“I am cool, in a literal-whatsit sense.. all the time!”

 

Brom sighed.

 

“Are we ready, then?”, Seressa asked with a very excited smile.

“I guess we are.”, Brom said.

“Tonic, luv, why don’t you stand next to me on my left, and Master Brom on my right, and you, Cora, can stand there..”, she said, pointing at a spot near the great fissure that was the Serpent’s End.

When everyone was where they should be, Seressa’s face went blank for a moment then returned to her normal, usual, smiling self, but there was someone else with her now, an old man with short white hair, and an similarly white, neatly trimmed beard. He appeared right next to the very tall, very dark girl and without any sound or flashy visual effects!

 

One moment there was nothing, the next, there he was..

Mervlin of the Academy of Melshieve.

 

The dean was old, but not ancient, and certainly not decrepit. He had a pair of very thin, spidery spectacles and he stared around him through vivid blue eyes. He wore a strange, fez-like cap on his head, and long, flowing, silver-colored coat, as opposed to robes, embroidered with similarly colored threads over a neat, dark shirt and trousers, the latter tucked into a pair of tall, knee-high, soft leather boots. He had forgone the typical, staff-wielding-wizard look, but opted for a wand that he carried on his embossed leather belt, not unlike a sidearm, the way some swashbucklers carried their poniards. He had quite a number of beautiful-looking rings on his long, slender fingers and the chains of a necklace were visible from behind his beard. He also had a tiny, gray-white mouse perched on his shoulder..

The dean of the Academy of Melshieve, Grand Master Mervlin, broadcasted the distinct air of high intellect, a cunning mind, elegance, and class..

 

Seressa seemed to hold her breath in adoration and awe as Tonic ogled at the Grand Master Mervlin and was very much itching for an autograph!

 

“Good afternoon, Agent Seressa Wraiven. You are a pleasure to behold as always, though it has been some time you sent your last report. Not up to your usual punctual precision, I must say. But I gather you were busy.”, he said as he looked around, then at the others. “Quite busy indeed.”

 

Mervlin had a slightly raspy and ‘smoky’ voice, perhaps even just a tad on the mellow side. It gave his words a certain distinction and made the people around him want to lean in and hear better.

 

“And I see Agent Arcantonic Palecog as well, hiding behind her pair! No reports were ever submitted by you, which is a loss, really. Your dedication to being ‘understood correctly’ made your reports and theses back at the academy, quite succinct and void of unscientific flair, which was a relief from our usual, overenthusiastic graduates.”, he said with a smile.

 

Seressa and Tonic ogled at him some more.

 

“You, sir, must be the famous Master Brom Bumblebrim. Or should I call you Blom Bundlebim Hobim?”, he asked, also with a smile.

 

Brom frowned a bit. Again with the Blom Bundlebim Hobim, he thought. Apparently, someone was running around telling, and writing, stories from his mouth, using his bloody name! But what baffled him was, that particular derivation of his name had been used only by the fey at Gull’s Perch, and he couldn’t imagine those pretty dryad and nymph girls sitting down and writing a storybook about his adventures.. Not to mention, they wouldn’t have known the things he had lived through before and after Gull’s Perch!

 

“And we have..”, he said, turning to the lithe, tundra elf. “..a genuine barbarian princess, Cora Sleet, the only known survivor of Ironfrost..”

 

Cora frowned at him.

She didn’t know this man and he seemed to know them all. The fact that he knew Seressa and Tonic was perfectly understandable, and maybe even Brom, he was a bard after all, but why would he know about her, or of Ironfrost. She had come, practically, from the other end of the continent and Ironfrost had been ‘wildly’ important only for those who used to live there..

 

“You are well informed, sir.”, Brom said, nodding at the Grand Master with an artful bow.

“Part of my job description, young Master Brom.”, he smiled down at him. “It would be rather naïve of me to have so many agents and not know what is significant.” Then he turned and looked at the very tall, very dark girl through his spidery spectacles and said, “Now then, my dear Seressa, I believe you promised an interview for me?”

 

Seressa jumped as if someone had suddenly pinched her butt!

 

“Yes, Grand Master. Though you have so brilliantly deduced, I would very much like to officially introduce, Princess Cora Sleet, the sole survivor of Ironfrost, the Shield of Prophecies, and the voice of the Great Northern Tundras.. Cora, luv, I present you, Grand Master Mervlin, the Dean of the Academy of Melshieve, and the Seat Holder of the Wizards of Vodgar, and the Cleanser of Morlich!”

“A bit overdone, girl.”, mumbled Cora. “I do not hold the titles of half of what you just said.”

“I doubt, my dear girl.”, Mervlin said with his raspy, smoky voice. “Seressa Wraiven has never been known to speak out of turn. Now, then. I was promised an interview, might as well get started, shall we? Let’s start with you, and where you were born. Then we can move to the events that lead to your unexpected fame amongst the other barbarian hordes and tribes..”

 

The interview between Cora Sleet and Dean Mervlin took more than just a few minutes. The old man was quite fascinated by the lithe, athletic, pale tundra elf, with her long, snow-white braided locks, and swirling tattoos. Every question he asked was carefully phrased and done so with tender deliberation. Cora wasn’t sure why the old man was so fascinated by her. Not that she had any low self-esteem, but the fact of the matter was, she was the kind of girl that didn’t bother much with such egocentric ‘trivia’. She knew she had experienced a lot, particularly for a very young elf such as herself, but she also knew she hadn’t asked for any of it. Things had happened to her and she had merely made the choice between what few were available for her or as they presented themselves to her at the time. Though as the prolonged interview went on, she found out, her previous assessment wasn’t altogether true. At times, she had ‘created’ options that hadn’t been there at all. She also found out that she respected the opinions of Brom and Seressa more than she thought she had. Interestingly enough, she respected Tonic’s practical solutions, if not her paralytic attitudes, more than any of them. To her unexpected realization, Cora figured she had a very unbarbaric attitude towards foreigners and outsiders, which was pretty much anyone and everyone who was not a barbarian from the Great Northern Tundras!

Much like it dawned upon her that before her relative success with the Red October incident, the barbarian tribes and hordes had had very distinct boundaries and little to no interactions other than war, or war-related peace. And what peace there had been, for instance; the one between the Bear Claw Tribe and the Ice Craig Tribe was really nothing more than to make sure the Ice Wolf Horde and the Wyrm Horde wouldn’t attack them en masse.. Cora, along with Brom, had somehow changed that, and what’s more, it had stuck! The first sign was the Ice Wolf Horde offering ‘A Year And A Day’ peace with their neighbors, the Bear Claw Tribe, both putting aside their centuries-old enmities. The culmination of that peace had led her and Brom to meet Seressa and Tonic.. and start their very much unexpected trek to fulfill prophecies of the Heavens.. or the infamous Raven Queen..

Cora did not say anything about the prophecies, nor their ‘time jumps’, or anything about how they had traveled back some eight hundred years to ‘right a wrong’ at the first Themalsar War..

..then how they had traveled to her own relative time to relive what she already had, but this time, to own the crimes of the real perpetrator who had destroyed her Ironfrost, just to retrieve the holy spear of an Archangel!

Her actions, along with her choices, had indeed destroyed Ironfrost. It had also saved The Spear of Light, and, not quite inadvertently, destroyed the Wyrm Horde as well, in a way, avenging her Ironfrost in full!

Their time jump to the deranged gnome, Arcanton, Tonic’s uncle, and his demented and demon-infested tower had been unprecedented. But to have found out what they had had to do at the end had struck a blow to her sensibilities; not to face the evil gnome, but to make some indiscernible changes on some numbers that would, in effect, alter history!

That was likely when she had actually respected the otherwise very irritating little gnomic girl, Tonic!

 

It took a while for Cora to realize she had fallen silent, and that it had stretched over several long minutes. She looked up to see the old wizard staring at her through his spidery spectacles and his vivid blue eyes..

 

“I would very much like to hear the details of where you just went, Princess Cora.”, he rasped merrily. “I am quite sure that would make even a better interview.”

“Perhaps. But not an interview for now. I have already spoken more than I should have, as dear as Seressa is to me, she has carefully neglected to tell me why exactly we are having this interview in the first place. Nothing I have said is all that interesting. Not when you consider what’s coming our way. Once the Orken destroys Serenity Home and the people standing in their way, I suspect your happy days in your academy will be over within the next two decades. You, warm races have become docile. And sluggish.. In your minds and in your hearts.. I have seen, first hand, how a civilization that lived for eons could be entombed in ice and destroyed in a single afternoon; my Ironfrost.. Perhaps you think that is an exception because it was attacked by a Great White.. There were no dragons when your Arashkan fell. There were no dragons when High Woods burned to the ground and Bari Na-ammen was shattered in less than a mere week. Those beasts will come here, and they will take these lands. Then they will reproduce and spread even more. Your Endless Watch will fall sooner than Arashkan. Your academy will make a good stand, I am sure, but it will fall in the end, because when they come, twenty years from now, they will be at least half a million in number. Considering the number of prisoners they will take and use to birth more, their numbers will likely be closer to double that. And they will call demons to their aid. They will attack your school from every direction; around you, above you, and from under you. If you think that unlikely, you should know, the Wyrm Horde had numbers closer to ten thousand and they were eradicated, overnight, by the Orken. You should also know, barbarians are not like the soft southern races. Men, and women, old and young, are all warriors from the day they can walk. The Orken eradicated that, overnight! I heard you have trouble with the barbarian here. How many of them come at your academy at once? Fifty? One hundred? Five hundred? Now assume five hundred thousand of them coming at you without remorse nor retreat. How long do you think your defenses will last against that?”

 

And that had likely been the longest speech Cora had with a stranger.. or even a friend..

 

“You make a convincing case. We, at the academy, always believed knowledge was power—”, Mervlin began.

“No.”, Cora cut in. “It is not. Knowledge without deed is nothing.. You want to know how I know that?”

“By all means, do tell.”, the old dean said seriously.

“You now have knowledge because I just gave it to you. Should you choose to do nothing with it, that knowledge is nothing. Should you choose to do something about it, then it will become power.”

“I suppose we could argue about the merits of both sides..”, he mused.

“You could. I won’t. I am not a philosopher. I do not have the luxury to sit down and talk about things that will not feed my people or stay them alive.. I live by the sword, and one day at a time. If I am alive at the end of that day, I know I have been successful. You, on the other hand, live for your luxuries. Neither do you have the physical prowess to survive our standards, nor do you have the temperament for it. So you can lend a hand here and save your luxuries, or you can do it all alone when the enemy tramples over our corpses and comes to your gates..”

 

Seressa and Tonic were staring at her. Ogling, really, for the barbarian girl had, in a sense, bulldozed right over their esteemed dean, the Great Mervlin!

Brom opted to quietly cough into his hand and hide his grin.

Mervlin squinted at her for a long, silent minute before he spoke again.

 

“Very well. What would you have us do, Cora Sleet of the Great Northern Tundras?”, he asked.

 

Cora shrugged.

 

“I wouldn’t know. What can you do?”, she countered.

 

Mervlin frowned.

 

“If I may, perhaps I can offer a suggestion, Grand Master?”, Seressa said tentatively.

“By all means do, dear girl.”, Mervlin replied.

“Several weeks ago, there was a gathering of representatives of various powers from many cities of the kingdom. There were even guests representing civilizations and races from outside the kingdom.”, she began.

“Yes, my dear, I am aware of that meeting. Durkahan, Vodgar, Koruxan, Palantine, former Arashkan and Bari Na-ammen, the local dwarves and gnomes, and Endless Watch were all there, along with a very dangerous man from Drashan, and the four of you. The meeting was cut short by an assassination attempt upon pretty much everyone there.”, Mervlin said.

“Yes, sir. Before the attacks began, however, I made a peripheral suggestion that perhaps the famous Melshieve Gunships could bring Endless Watch Naphtha Teams, and their munitions, and drop them over the Orken as per need. The queen of the remaining Bari Na-ammen refugees, Alor’Nadien ne Feymist, even offered to lend a sizable number of her elven archers to also board the gunships and protect them in case of aerial attacks.”

 

Mervlin’s frown turned deeper.

 

“Seressa..”, he said fuming from his nose. “..those gunships are, indeed, quite sturdy, and I do believe they would be just as effective as you assume they would. They have, however, never been battle-tested and only used for scouting missions. Their crew is comprised mostly of engineers, researchers, and students interested in weather forecast and migration patterns of various bird species.”

“They also carry ATAT’s —Air To All Terrain Cannons and.. Storm Kites!”, Seressa said with elated happiness..

 

Mervlin stared at her through his spectacles like he was trying to establish just how dense a particular student was.

 

“Miss Seressa.”, he began with a tone that suggested a speech that would likely involve much disappointment by the time it was done. “That you would even offer such a silly thing, is sad, as are those kites. They are on the gunships in the hopes that one of the students would get drunk enough to try them, or go for them on a dare! They have absolutely no safety to speak of, they have threadbare skeletal structure, they have very low carrying capacity, and should they suffer any damage, they would plummet down and into the ground, not unlike a concussed rock!”

“Actually, their design is quite sound, sir. I know, because I was offered the job as a Storm Kite pilot back at the Academy. I inspected the plans and the ones already built.”, she replied with excitement.

 

Tonic rolled her eyes.

 

“Girl, those things are corpses waiting to happen!”, she sneered at her pair.

“My dear girl, are you aware that the last ALL test pilots ended up splattered all over the cliffside of the Academy?”, Mervlin inserted.

“Yes, sir, I am. I am also aware that none of those test pilots had previous flight experience. I do. I also have personal safety options they lacked.”, she said with earnest enthusiasm.

“What do you wish to accomplish, should you succeed?”, the dean asked.

 

Seressa smiled.

 

“To go down on history to be the first person, and woman, to have flown on a genuine, hand-made craft that does not use magic or alchemy to stay afloat, but pure aerodynamics and physics! And I can also carry two, Class-C Type Naphtha Grenades and drop them with acceptable precision. If I show how it is done, I am sure anyone can ride them.”, she offered with a breathless thrill. “The fact that cliff jumping with Storm Kites failed, by no means proves that they are unsafe. Those kites were built to fly after attaining a certain speed. The cliffs on the east side of the Academy are high enough to kill, should anyone fall, but not high enough for the kites to achieve their minimum speed to start their flight.”

“Well, crap!”, Tonic swore. “That actually makes sense. All you would need is to hook them to the side or under the gunships, rise high enough, then drop them, and their pilots, and if their infrastructure is indeed sound, they should stay at least afloat.. sort of like birds do with open wingspans. Dammit, girl, now you have me all hyped and I wanna try one too!”

“Awesome!”, Seressa whooped. “Master Brom, Cora, luv?”

“I will get on a gunship, but that is as far off the ground I am going to get.”, Brom replied sternly.

“Fair enough.”, she smiled.

“Just out of curiosity, why are we even going to be trying this, now? We do have a mission in our hands, you know.”, Cora said with a slight frown though her eyes did betray her curiosity was more than in the question itself.

 

Seressa held up one slender hand and turned to Grand Master Mervlin.

 

“Sir, we have concerned suspicions that the Orken, at this very moment, are using Serpent’s End to move their troops to hit Serenity Home from the rear. They may even hit Endless Watch from this distance. We were, however unable to verify our concerns due to the fact that we lack the means. But perhaps you may be able to help us on this matter?”

“Very shrewd, Agent Seressa. I was wondering why you insisted the interview take place here, in particular. I suppose that is rather obvious now.”, Mervlin said with a bemused expression.

 

Seressa showed the grace to blush.

 

“Well, sir, Tonic thinks we should rig the sides of this chasm with high explosives and just blow it down on top of them. Cora, here, would rather we verify that those down there are in fact, Orken troops and not some unknown and unrelated people.. as unlikely as that sounds, I personally agree with her good sensibilities.”, she explained. “Should you verify that there are, in fact, Orken troops moving down there, you could call in a gunship with naphtha grenades and we could burn and choke them, since bringing down the charm might not kill them all but burry some, from which they can dig themselves out.”

“Why not drop the grenades directly from the gunship?”, Brom asked. “Seems like the safer option.”

“No.”, Tonic said before anyone else could reply. “Dropping naphtha grenades from that high will miss their target more than they hit. We will have to drop altitude low enough to be able to aim without concern of the wind factor. We do not know just how high the flames from those grenades will rise, however, so we will be risking the gunship which can’t move away that fast, once it slows down for the aiming. A Storm Kite, on the other hand, will be flying right over the chasm and at an incredible speed. It will be far away by the time the grenades detonate.”

 

Cora made a ‘that sort of makes sense, I suppose’, sort of face, while Grand Master Mervlin sighed.

 

“I see you have given quite a bit of thought into this, Agent Seressa. You are as thorough as ever. As of now, I am suspending all non-aggression status of the Academy and initiating the A Tout Les Canon protocol, a first in its history, until such time as the Orken threat is gone, or at the very least, contained. Any member of the personnel will be given a choice to attend the war. Any that do will receive senior status and the full payment of a year for each month they serve. Any student in their fifth or sixth years may attend at will. Those that are in their third or fourth years will require their parents’ signed consent. Any student under that will be restricted from attending. Now. Let’s see what we have here..”

 

And just like that, the Academy of Melshieve declared open war, as Mervlin closed his eyes, made an odd gesture, murmured some things, and stood where he was.. for perhaps half an hour or more..

When he opened his eyes again, their vivid blues had turned several shades darker and his expression had become quite grim.

 

“Princess Cora, I believe you were right. Knowledge is, indeed, useless without deed. There are thousands of Orken troops moving east down there as we speak. I have sent word to the Academy to send all six gunships to Endless Watch immediately. I have also contacted Lord Alberdel Kandara of Endless Watch to prepare his naphtha teams, along with their munitions to be picked up and brought here. I guess it is time we battle-tested those flying coffins!”, he said harshly.

“How long will it take for them to get here?”, Cora asked.

“In a short few hours for The Chimaera to arrive. I had sent it to Endless Watch in case one of many unexpected eventualities occurred and it is on its way here at full throttle. The Adamant, The Basilisk, The Gauntlet, The Hammer, and The Manticore will arrive in five days, all loaded with Class-A Type Naphtha Grenades to drop from the deck and Class-C Type Naphtha Grenades for the squadron of Storm Kites each will carry on board.”

 

There was a stunned sort of silence, more so for Seressa and Tonic. They had hoped, and tentatively expected, at best, one or two gunships. Not all six!

Brom was silent because he had noted the ostentatious, and quite arrogant names they had designated to their ships. Apparently, Melshieve didn’t do anything without unwarded flair..

Cora fell silent because she wasn’t quite sure what all the names and ‘class-whatsits’ meant, but like her brushy little friend, she also thought they were a tad magnanimous.

 

“How many Storm Kites are there in a squadron.. thingy?”, she asked to get some perspective and scope at least.

“Eighteen.”, Tonic replied promptly. “Hells Bells, that’s a hundred and eight Storm Kites! They will be like a cloud of angry hornets over the battlefield!”

“That’s a five-day loss in waiting.”, Cora frowned.

“Do not be troubled, Cora Sleet, you will only need to wait untill The Chimaera gets here, which should arrive in a just few hours. We can start surveying Serpent’s End and find the best place to target. Once the others arrive, we may commence with the bombardment..”, Dean Mervlin said in his raspy voice.

“Alright. I suppose we wait, then. Brom, Tonic, with me. Let’s make sure this area is secure before we settle down. Seressa, perhaps you could scout from above?”, she said gruffly and took off with the scruffy little gnomic girl and the bushy-haired hobbit..

 

Seressa and Mervlin stared after the three as they diminished in the distance.

 

“She has a cautious but emphasizing will, that one.”, the dean mused.

“She has many qualities, sir. Her strong will is but one of them.”, Seressa said proudly.

“You have been gone for nearly eighteen years now, my dear girl. Your last report came in sixteen years ago. I sent trackers to find you and your pair. That’s what we do when we lose contact with our agents.. They found traces of you two somewhere northeast of some howling barbarians, then they lost you. The next time was when you were sighted at Arashkan, a month or so before its fall. Then there were rumors of two girls with your descriptions, having been sighted at a Scowling Hills, a local dwarven settlement, then again at the War Council at Serenity Home. You move in erratic patterns, my dear. Very unlike you. Though seeing that Miss Tonic has changed is an elevating sight. Almost as happy as seeing you with friends. The Academy did you a great disservice back then. But apparently, the mentality of our civilization hasn’t evolved enough.”

“It’s alright sir. I regret having missed all the socialization and the parties and the girls’ nights. But it gave me the opportunity to devour most of the Academy Library, and a larger portion of its archives..”, she said with a whimsical smile. “Besides, I doubt any of those girls ever had a girls’ night as awesome as Cora and I had. The wreck was legendary!”

 

Mervlin chuckled.

 

“What interests me..”, he mused, peering at the very tall, very dark girl. “..is that you look exactly the same as the day you left. And so does your pair. But the change in your eyes, and your young Arcantonic’s attitude is too immense and profound to go unnoticed, for which I am not complaining. The contrast in either of your appearances and slump on both of your shoulders does beg an explanation though.”

“It does, doesn’t it!”, Seressa replied with a brilliant, but very slightly brittle smile.

 

Mervlin sighed, but let it go.

 

“If I may, sir.”, she asked tentatively. “I have always wondered; what happened to my Pink Garden after I left? Was it dismantled?”

“Oh, no, my dear Seressa. Someone else took over its responsibility, and care, and looked after your phloxes until she too, graduated. Even then, she took all of them with her, along with your cherry saplings when she left.”

“Ow?”, she said somewhat surprised and with a genuinely happy face.

“Yes. A devote, willow of a young lady by the name, Komoberi Anthea.”

✱ ✱ ✱

We will beach you within the hour, Sheriff Standorin.”, Captain Dagard Dreadhound said in his low, cold voice, staring out into the murky mists of the frozen Arashkan Lake, as he and the sheriff stood on the charred and rotting quarterdeck of The Plague.

“Beach me..”, the sheriff said with a bemused tone. “Sounds ominous. I hope it means, you or your men will take me, Lady Constance, and Hamna Vir, on a longboat, and drop us off at some secluded and convenient beach on the south banks of the lake.. Somewhere, where our mission will not be put to risk..”

“You are a thorough man, sheriff.”, Dagard grimaced.

“You are a man that requires thorough care and wording, Captain.”, replied Standorin.

 

A glint of savage amusement appeared in the captain’s, otherwise, cold eyes at the sheriff’s backhanded compliment.

 

“Why not ‘beach’ us now? All seems quiet.”, Standorin asked.

“All is quiet because the Orken wish to ambush us, sheriff, as we speak!”, Dagard replied coolly, turn slightly, and nodded at his new second mate.

The second mate nodded back and tapped the helmsman on one shoulder. The unmoving, petrified man suddenly came alive as if he’d been sleeping on his feet and turned the wheel..

 

..and The Plague lurched!

 

One moment everything was dead silent and still, with the dark, murky mist churning around them, and the next, the mist dashed aside, unveiling everything in fifty yards and with a shriek, The Plague was crashing and trampling over the score or so rough tree rafts full of Orken!

There was no finesse to The Plague’s onslaught. The helmsman steered and the charred and rotting ship trampled over the rafts and the Orken with the same impunity.. To give the Orken their due, they never once screamed in terror nor in pain as the jagged, steel ram affixed at its keel turned raft and Orken to a splintered and bloody mess.

Sheriff Standorin watched with disturbed distaste as The Plague finished its wide circle, effectively killing over four hundred enemies in under five minutes!

 

“Nobody shall murder The Plague again.”, he heard Dagard’s grimly satisfied voice from behind.

“A bit on the gruesome side.”, he murmured, staring down at the broken bodies of the Orken floating casually in the freezing waters of Arashkan Lake.

“As wars should be. An enemy should always know what to expect should they persist. And the Orken are persistent. I will give them their due on brevity and cunning, though. They have figured out how to find us in the mist. Their next approach will be better planned.”

 

Standorin cocked an eyebrow, but the captain of The Plague did not elaborate.

 

“Prepare yourself and the ladies, sheriff. We shall be dropping you off here.”

“Is that altogether wise? I expect there will be quite a few Orken troops at this particular beach, waiting their turn with more rafts.”, Standorin pointed out.

“Not for long.”, Dagard replied with an unpleasant smile..

..and nodded at his second mate again.

 

The Plague turned around and set a deadly course parallel to what Standorin suspected was the shoreline, though it was hard to see through the resettling mist. And with a series of low, heavy thuds, great balls of orange fire shot out of the rotting ship! The fireballs made a large, graceful arcs, then came down with hallow and howling booms! Wherever the fireballs struck, they splashed and spread, indiscriminately burning any and everything around..

The sheriff turned around to look back at the main deck and saw a dozen catapults there, all facing the shore, firing their deadly ammunition with non-stop accuracy! What creeped out the sheriff was, he hadn’t seen the catapults before, and not because he hadn’t noticed them, which was quite impossible, but because they just hadn’t been there.. However they appeared, there they were, now, and each of them was manned by several of the silent crew, being reloaded, drawn, cocked, torched, and dished out murder with mechanical economy!

And it occurred to him that should this ship, The Plague, someday turn against them, it had the potential to burn his town down to cinders in no time. He took a mental note to ask Nimbletyne Tinkerdome to invent something that could block approaches both up and down the Arashkan River leading to and from Serenity Home to prevent just that..

 

“I wouldn’t worry too much about that, sheriff.”, Dagard said, as if reading his thoughts. “Your precious town was the only place that bothered to sign a treaty with Drashan, and hence, acknowledged them as a sovereign kingdom. And your Yuleman paid up this year’s due upfront like he did every year since the treaty was put in place.”

“There’s always the greedy and the shortsighted.”, Standorin replied.

“Yes. There is.”, Captain Dagard acknowledged. “Good thing they also last short. Cold, heartless, murdering bastards the lot of them may be, but Drashan does not suffer fools. You may tell Lady Constance to get up here. What little rest The Plague has offered her is over. My men are preparing the longboat.”

 

With a careless wave of his hand, the crow’s nest, high up the main mast plunged down and dumped it’s content on the deck; Hamna Vir! The sullen half-born girl stumbled out of the nest, cursing in blistering oration as the ship continued to bombard the shore and scourging everything in sight..

 

“I am not a good man, Sheriff.. Damned, you might even say, but that girl has a truly foul mouth!”, he said, staring down at the waspish half-born from the quarterdeck.

“We all have our quirks and oddities, I suppose.”, Standorin replied as he started towards the main deck.

“You owe me a second mate, Sheriff Standorin.”, Dagard said quietly, but pointedly.

“You owe me and Lady Constance an apology, Captain Dagard. You knew how things stood between us, and you still went for her. Not a gentlemanly thing to do. The cost of your second mate was the price of your own doing.”, Standorin replied adamantly.

 

Captain Dagard stared down at the sheriff standing on the main deck. Standorin could see many thoughts crossing the captain’s cold eyes and many of them ill-fated, to be sure, but it was what he would settle, would define just how smart, and deadly he really was.

 

“It’s been a long time I have been bested by a mere Mortal.”, Dagard said through clenched teeth.

“I wouldn’t call it bested, Captain. It was a group effort on our part. Turns out, a sheriff and a liaison do make a decent team..”, Standorin replied with a grin and went below deck to the cabin reserved for the previous second mate. Quietly, he knocked on the door and entered.

 

To say Sheriff Standorin was quite taken by what he beheld more than enticing was much like saying the sun rose from the east, traveled sedately across the sky, and settled somewhere off west..

The beautiful, alluring half-born girl was sprawled on the box-like bed, her dark, silky hair scattered, her shapely breasts peaking through her otherwise modest dress, her slender, calling figure curled in a fascinating ‘S’ shape, and there was a peaceful smile on her face.

Standorin had noted many nuances about Constance the day they had first met. Her dark, cherry-red mouth was one of them; how its shape would settle somewhere between a smile and mirth. It was a mouth that said, I am content..

 

“Uhhmm..”, Standorin stumbled and stammered, for suddenly, he didn’t know how to wake the beautiful girl!

He coughed, politely into his fist.

When that didn’t work, he sort of steered into the cabin, which wasn’t all that big, and settled himself on the wooden boards.

 

“Constance? It.. it’s time to go.. Are you awake?”, he mumbled.

 

Damn.

And suddenly he was eighteen all over again!

 

“You are pretty.”, he blurted. “More so than usual.. for some reason.”

 

The alluring girl still didn’t budge, but a very faint color did appear around her cheeks.

 

“I.. would very much have wished we were back at Serenity Home now..”, he said, more to himself.

 

The pretty girl sprawled form relaxed just a tad more causing her slender figure to become even more calling.

 

“All the things we could do..”

 

Her dark cherry mouth turned a tiny bit up and she took a deep, expectant breath..

 

“I mean.. I would love to ax some wood and cook some diced kababs with pan bread with you!”

 

The girl went still.

Then popped open her eyes and stared at Standorin with a frown.

 

“You want to ax wood and cook?!”, she asked with a distinct pout!

 

The sheriff grinned at her.

“You have a lovely pout, by the way.”

 

“You want to ax wood and cook..”, she repeated, clearly disappointed.

“But of course. Everything is better after a good, physical sweat and a delicious kabab.”, he grinned at her some more. “Thought you were asleep.”

“I was. Got better when you said I was pretty, then ruined it all with house chores!”, she said with irritation.

“You look adorable when you are irritated, too, by the way. But I stand by my word; everything is better after a good, physical sweat and a delicious kabab. If you think about it, I am sure you would agree.”, he smiled.

“I wouldn’t know. I have never axed wood, nor eaten any kababs.”, she said, returning back to her pouting.

“I guess I shall have to remedy that. To that end..”, he said, leaned in, and gently kissed her.

 

It was perhaps after several minutes later he drew back, both their faces flushed.

 

“Let’s finish this mission and return home.”, Standorin growled.

“I agree.”, she replied, her chest heaving breathily.

“Never had the opportunity to ask, do you like my home? It isn’t much but—”, he began.

“—I never sat on a warm couch and watched the cinders die down before I met you.”, Constance whispered, staring into his eyes. “That evening, when you took me from the temple’s dormitory to your home.. it was memorable for me. For it was the first time ‘fire’ meant something other than charring pain and unbearable suffering.. And sitting next to you.. was so soothing.. You have a mature vibe about you that transcends the need for mere skin satisfaction.. As tired and worn as I was, I very much wanted you that night. But you gave me more than that. You made me realize what it meant to actually be with someone.. I never got to apologize for having fallen asleep on you the way I did, but I must say, listening to your heart as I slept was something I shall treasure for life.. That is why I felt so hurt when you rebuffed me after the attack.. I was suddenly so afraid that I would never hear that heart again..”

“I am sorry I rebuffed you. I.. am not so good with women.. And have tried to stay them at bay for as long as I have.. after Limnia died.. You.. you confused me.. and filled me with wont.. And hope that I could actually have it.. Then reality reared its ugly face and we were attacked. You say you were afraid.. It is hard for a man in my position to admit that he was afraid too. Not with the safety of the whole town, and all the refugees, and the coming war.. I must find a proper way to thank Liaison Hamna Vir. She beat me over the head with my fears, and my stupidities, in her own way, and made me realize, what are we fighting for, if not for the ones we love and care?”, Standorin said seriously.

Then he rose and gently pulled his new bride out of the bed. “Having you sleep all over me that night, and so free of burden was a night I would like to repeat, Constance.. And soon.. Let’s go and get this bloody mission over with!”

 


A Tout Les Canon protocol; a protocol that gives a pause to all non-aggression and ‘observe-only’ stance of the Academy of Melshieve. The phrase, A Tout Les Canon, means; Fire All Cannons, in French —a tiny reference to the last scene in the movie, The Patriot, by Mel Gibson..

The Melshieve Gunship names were chosen from Star Wars, Imperial Star Destroyers! A bit ironically..

 

 

 

 

arashkan şehri dungeons and dragons groups modül savaş serenity The Great Arashkan the plot thickens Whispers; A Cabal

Not All Is Done
Part Six
“Well Played”

Not All Is Done
Part Six
“Well Played”

Timeline:

Upon extended experiences, both on a personal and professional level, Queen Alor’Nadien ne Feymist and King Udoorin Shieldheart have come to a certain, definitive conclusion;

 

Defense can not win wars.

 

Hence, a daring and extremely dangerous plan is formed to seek and destroy the Orken Grunt Generals and their Blood Shamans in hopes of bringing dissension and chaos among the coming Orken ranks and weaken their march against Serenity Home and the Kingdom of Isles.

 

This story begins shortly after
Not All Is Done..
Part Five
“Dance Formation”

 

 

Who are they?”, Perigren Ostlanna Temez asked, staring through the bushes and trees at the long line of men moving in a northeast direction, following the king’s road. They were four abreast, all in padded leathers and chainmail, wearing thick gloves, half helmets, a shortsword and a dagger each, a small buckler on their backs and they all carried thirty feet long, gruesome-looking pikes. With over ten thousand of them, it seemed like a forest of leafless trees crawling the surface of the earth! There was also platoons moving adjacent to the main body, these in loser formation, and these carried longswords, daggers, and handaxes, and man-sized, heavy shields

“They are the Palantine pikemen.”, Bremorel Songsteel said softly. “And their militia. They are heading for Last Hope. There’s a sizable town there. And a keep. Not all that big, but solid. Should hold a thousand men easy..”

“Yes. These are indeed the Palantine pikemen and their militia..”, Thomas Dimwood confirmed. “I have seen them before.”

“You have?”, Bremorel asked. “When?”

“Uhhmm.. When I went to Palantine.. sort of to see how their pikemen fought alongside their militia..”

“I didn’t know you went to Palantine.. I came as far Last Hope, carrying dispatches, years ago, but never as far as Palantine. I am impressed, Thomas. When did you go there?”, Bremorel said, turning to look at him.

“I.. I didn’t want to seem like I was bragging, so I never mentioned it before. When I first told Demos Lightshand that I desired to be a Temple Guardian of War, he was a bit surprised.. but pleased.. I am guessing he was surprised because I was such a skinny boy, back then. And pleased because Demos always believed in diversity. He was a Temple Guardian of Light himself, but Lady Magella became a Temple Guardian of Life. He believed, different aspects brought more options and perspectives on to the table.. Demos was never a strong believer of, ‘if it works, don’t fix it!’.. He wanted to be sure there were always younger people around to make sure ‘it got fixed’, should it break down someday.. So he granted me ‘scholarship’, per se, and sent me to Palantine, Endless Watch, Arashkan, and even as far as Durkahan to observe and learn, with letters of commendation.”

 


Bremorel stared at him.. and not without a good amount of envy!

 

 

“But.. how? I always saw you trailing after me, when Laila and I returned back to the town after our patrols and missions..”, she asked, ogling at him.

“Well..”, Thomas coughed with a flushed face. “..your average patrol took one to three weeks after the two of you and Laila became corporals because you were trusted to be able to take care of yourselves for longer periods, and for farther away from town. I drew up some sheets and did some analysis and made some educated guesstimations, and also carefully asked both the Ranger Masters when they sent you two off. Then I timed my departures and my arrivals with yours!”

 


Bremorel ogled at her husband some more..

 

 

“A dedicated, obsessive stalker focused on the behavioral patterns of his intended target.”, Temez said calmly. “I fully approve!”

“I can’t believe what I am hearing!”, Bremorel stammered.

 

Thomas went even brighter red.

 

“Look. It wasn’t like I was stalking you, Morel. I just wanted to make sure I saw you when you returned. I liked it when you returned. You always seemed tired but there was also this smile on your face. The rare times you actually had one. And I wanted to be sure I was back when you roamed around the temple!”

“You.. you actually saw those?”, the ranger lieutenant said, her face also a bit flushed now.

“Of course. I wanted to come out and talk to you, but I was so afraid. I wasn’t the only temple guardian, after all.. Could have been someone else.. I dearly hoped it wasn’t someone else..”, Thomas mumbled.

“How in the blazes did you go all the way to Durkahan and back so fast? And Endless Watch? I mean, even if you took a horse, it would have taken you a month to go to Endless Watch, and at least forty-five days for Durkahan!”, she asked with amazement.

“Well, that was Demos’s doing, really. He had high hopes for me. He had high hopes for Lady Magella too, but unlike me, she was into Life, and where better to find life but Serenity Home and it’s beautiful surrounding? So he sent me to various cities and towns via circles.. Magic circles.. They work a bit like how Lady Anglenna teleports. Accept ours use the temple itself to power up, and you must be the designated Senior Temple Guardian to activate it. You also need a lot of arcane studying to be able to actually use it. I have the first two but lack the last one. Most of the books I read up until now were on basic spells and clergy stuff. Then it was mostly about war and strategy.. Arcane study is very hard and quite time-consuming.”, Thomas explained, then added, “I hope you don’t think I am some unstable stalker, Morel.”

“Ow no.. You are a very, very stable stalker!”, Bremorel said sternly.

 

The young man’s shoulders drooped.

 

“I was the unstable stalker!”, she added with a smirk. “I made sure I was in plain sight whenever I returned to town, just so you could see me. Then, when the evenings settled, I would stalk the temple!”

 

“The interest you have had for one another is intriguing and scary!”, Temez noted. “I feel creeped out!”

 

Thomas looked abashed while Bremorel snorted.

 

“Are we going to stay here and wait until these Palantine people pass by?”, Temez asked.

“I am not sure. It is unlikely that they will recognize me as the Senior Temple Guardian of Serenity Home. I don’t want to be detained, taken to Last Hope, and put to detention until our identities are verified, which might take weeks, and we don’t have that kind of time.”, the young man said.

“They might not recognize you, Thomas. But they will recognize a Ranger Lieutenant!”, Bremorel frowned, then paused.. “Wait.. Did you just say temples have magic circles?”

“Yes. Most major temples do. They are not used only for teleportation but for other reasons as well, such as trapping and banishing demons, exorcisms, neutralizing malignant curses—”

“Great Heavens!” she exclaimed.

“What?”, Thomas asked.

“Tempest Temple! In their report, Master Aager mentioned the half-orc insurgent, Gar Thalot, who was working with the Orken, was using the Tempest Temple at Arashkan as a base. Is it possible they used the magic circle there to bring in Orken into the city?”, she asked hurriedly.

 

Thomas paused for a moment.

 

“It is possible, but they can’t bring in many. Or at least not at once. Perhaps a dozen or so at most, though I can’t be sure. It depends on the temple powering the circle, and the size of the circle. The one in Serenity Home can handle about half a dozen people at best. If they had a moderate-sized circle, they would still have to work it overnight for a very, very long time.. like months.. to bring in significant numbers.”, he replied and he was also frowning now. “Not to mention, Tempest Temple is one of the most widespread temples in the kingdom. They couldn’t have subverted it. I mean, maybe a very small one, in some remote location..”

“Thomas.. They were using the temple at Arashkan as a base for their insurrection! Either all the Tempest Temples are corrupt now, and for quite some time, or at the very least, some of them definately are..”, she began.

“That is a very, very serious accusation, Morel.”, Thomas warned her.

“I do not care for the legal justifications, Thomas. I care for what has already happened at Arashkan. You can take it up to whatever jurisdictional investigation comity you want, later. My point is, there is a Tempest Temple at Last Hope, also. If they have subjugated the one at Arashkan, what’s to say they haven’t done the same to the one there.. If so, the Palantine pikemen and their militia are walking into a bloody trap!”

 

And now Thomas’s face was very troubled.

 

“The Ranger Lieutenant’s assumptions are valid. My former master had many foolish Mortals working for him. Openly, and covertly. The whole idea of Gar Thalot and his deception was his, and his plans were not limited to one half-orc.”, Temez said quietly. “It would also explain why we haven’t encountered any of the Orken during our trek through the Lost Forest.”

“Yes, yes..”, Bremorel said. “They didn’t have to try and sneak past this forest, risking discovery.. They are likely already in place.. at Last Hope!”

“How could it be possible, Morel? The mayor of Last Hope, Randorm Billbuckle, was there, at Serenity Home, during the meeting. How could he have not known? If he did, why didn’t he say anything or warn us?”, Thomas objected.

“There were Orken hiding inside Arashkan even before they ambushed the city, love.”, Bremorel reminded her husband. “That information was reported by Anglenna, herself. She even killed some of them and that happened weeks before the Orken armies appeared right at their doorstep!”

“I do not dispute your reports, Morel. But they could easily be unrelated and circumstantial.”, Thomas replied.

“Alright, then. Let’s look at the facts..”, the ranger lieutenant said with a dead-serious tone. “One, the Tempest Temple was used as a base of operation by the Orken at Arashkan. Two, there is a Tempest Temple at Last Hope. Three, we encountered no enemy in Lost Forest. Four, the Orken are not stupid like their cousins, the Orcs. They plan, they sneak, they ambush. As long as we think they are stupid, we are going to lose this war! Five, they don’t have to destroy all the Palantine pikemen nor their militia. Only cripple it enough to make sure they can not join the fight when the war starts. As a matter of fact, they don’t have to do anything but wait until the war starts and hit them from behind. Trap them between two armies. Pikemen are awesome for frontline defense, but they will get slaughtered if they get hit from their rear. And six, Mayor Randorm Billbuckle is new. He was not the mayor when I last came here, which was four or five years ago. He became the mayor of Last Hope less than two years ago when the last mayor was killed in a hunting accident. I am not saying Randorm was responsible, but then, I do not know Randorm. If the Orken has infiltrated his town, he is either under duress, he is in it with the enemy, which makes him an outright traitor, or he is clueless about what’s going on in his town and is totally incompetent, in which case he has no right to be the mayor!”

 

Thomas fumed.

 

“You do irritate when you bombard me with your facts, love!”, he said.

“What? Why? Is it because I am just a dumb brawler?”, she smirked. “Or because I am a girl?”

“And now you spoiled all your cool!”, Thomas replied hotly. “Considering your, up-to-date achievements, and you being my wife, we both know your ‘dumb brawler’ act is a farce! And what’s with the ‘because you are a girl’, thing, anyway? You are a fully trained and experienced ranger, baby! Pretty much nothing beats those credentials!”

“Baby? Ow.. that’s a new one..”, Bremorel said.

“You like?”, Thomas asked with a very much out-of-character tone.

“I like!”, the ranger lieutenant smirked.

“And now, I truly am creeped out!”, Temez mused.

“I shall dash ahead and inform the army commander of my identity and yours as well. I will leave mirima out and tell him she’s a member of our covert ops team and that her identity could not be revealed.. should she wish to be seen.”, Bremorel said, her voice all serious again.

“Very well. I do hope your suspicions are misplaced. For many reasons..”, Thomas replied, his previous tone turning into a disturbed voice.

“So do I, love. But ARIS made the mistake of discarding such unlikely scenarios and had their city destroyed. I do not blame them. No one could have suspected the enemy was already within and hiding amongst us. I mean, who doesn’t trust their temple? Particularly the Tempest Temple? It is the most powerful temple in the kingdom and has the largest congregation..”

“You are right. I shall forward these findings and make sure at least the core people know of this. I am sure Agent Largo Summersong and Mayor Arthandos Yuleman will have trusted contacts and they can forward this news to Kronor. They can start an investigation and look into all the Tempest Temples in the kingdom.”, Thomas said quietly.

“I think you should outright inform Lady Alisia of Durkahan, those two weirdos from Vodgar, Lord Alberdel of Endless Watch, and Master Argail Smitefast of Scowling Hills.. All those places have either a Tempest Temple or at least a Tempest Chapel.. I know for a fact both Scowling Hills and Elder Hills have a chapel..”, Bremorel said, then added carefully, looking at her husband’s worried expression. “..and make sure there are no tempest disciples among your own temple guardians.”

“There is. Demos liked having diversity, remember.”, he replied coldly. And then, with furry unlike his normal, calm, and steady self, he cursed.. “Well, shit!”

 

Bremorel stared at her husband for this was the first time she had ever heard any such curse from him.

 

“A bit crude, but essentially accurate.”, Perigren Ostlanna Temez mused. “Would you like my kin to take care of this for you, Thomas Dimwood?”

“No. This is an internal matter and you and your kin are all guests.”, he replied with a very unhappy face.

“True. Yet it also involves the safety of my brothers and sisters.”, Temez objected in her low, throaty voice. “Very few know of our existence yet. And we must stay so until we can reap the most advantage and damage to the enemy. Our numbers certainly must also stay a secret. Only you, Ranger Lieutenant Bremorel, your temple guardians, your mayor, Arthandos Yuleman, and your sheriff, Standorin Shieldheart, and possibly Master Aager Fogstep, and his mate, the Ritual Guardian, Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane knows this and that particular information must be kept as a secret. If the enemy knows there are a few of us in your town, they will not take retributional actions against your town, other than what is already coming, nor bother to prepare for us. If they find out there are over two hundred of us in hiding under your temple, they will do everything in their power to eliminate us, and everything that gets in their way.”

 

Thomas stared at her.

 

“She’s right, you know.”, Bremorel said, reaching out to hold his hand. “Their existence and safety hold a greater priority than in-temple politics or jurisdictions..”

Thomas was really not happy now.

Bremorel turned to Temez. “Can your kin find out if the temple guardian has defected or not?”

 

Temez seemed like she really did not want to answer that question. And for a moment, she appeared as if you would do her half-born thing and totally dodge the ranger lieutenant. Then her shoulders slumped and she gave in..

 

“We can have him reveal every little dirty secret he has ever had, ranger lieutenant. But it would go against our blood oaths.”, she said glumly.

“How so?”, Bremorel asked.

“We would have to use our base, racial skills.. The ones that come by being the scion of a succubi. We would be using them on a Mortal, and against his will, to make him say and do things he would not..”, she mumbled. “I shall have to think over this. I will not order any of those under my protection to break their oaths. I will, however, make the offer.”

“Temez.”, Thomas said kindly. “I am sure there are other ways we can handle this. There is no need for you and yours to take that kind of risk.”

“No, Thomas Dimwood. The temple guardian in question knows you well. He will be ready for your inquisition. He will not, however, be ready for my sisters.. And it will matter little even if he thinks he is ready for us. Neither you nor your kind has truly faced one of us the way we were meant to be used. So when I say, had we come to your Serenity Home under orders from our former Master, the town would not be standing, I mean it in its fullest extent. There would be soulless husks lying everywhere..”, Temez replied and there was shame in her drawn face.

“I believe you.”, Thomas said solemnly. “I shall compose a message about our suspicions and send it to Mayor Arthandos Yuleman, and ask him to forward them to their corresponding recipients. Morel, love, why don’t you go ahead and arrange a meet with the Palantine commanders while I do this..”

 

Bremorel merely nodded at him, came up to the half-born girl, and hugged her.

 

“Nothing sacrificed goes unnoticed to those that matter, dear Temez. Not down here on the ground, and certainly not up there, in the Heavens..”, she whispered, parted away, and took off..

 

Thomas watched her go for a long time, then sighed.

 

“You care for her greatly.”, Temez said.

“Yes. Yes, I do.”, the young man replied.

“You also marvel her. It is easy for the males of your species to love and, at times, even stalk the females of not only your own species but that of others as well..”, she said.

“For Heaven’s sake, girl.. I did NOT stalk her. I only made sure our schedules coincided! I wanted to see her. She wanted me to see her. She wanted to see me. And I wanted her to know I had seen her! I was just too scared to even talk to her then, and she needed me to brave up and ask her hand..”, Thomas fumed.

“I see the difference, now.”, the half-born girl mused.

“You do?”

“Yes. Hence I shall amend my previous observation; it was a dedicated, obsessive, focused, and mutual stalking based on the behavioral patterns of one another’s intended target!”, she replied. “I am not sure if I should approve of this particular strategy, though it is true, as evidence has it, but also illogical, creepy, and outright insane..”

 

Thomas sighed.

 

“But it is the marvel you feel for her that has me more than confused.”, Temez said.

“I marvel her because she has the wisdom of a full temple guardian. The things she says sometimes beats me into the ground with shame, and I spent my years reading the teachings of many wise men and women.”, the young man said, then cleared his throat and asked. “Anything you want to pass on to anyone in particular?”

“Ask your mayor, Arthandos Yuleman, if he would be kind enough to go and see a Mathilda Ravish Demure, in person.. Tell him to tell her, ‘She’s up.’“, Temez said cryptically.

“‘She’s up?'”, Thomas asked with a baffled tone.

“Yes. Mathilda will know what it means, and should it be necessary, do what she has to do..”, the half-born girl said.

“I do not understand, Temez.”, the young man admitted.

“You are not required to, Senior Temple Guardian..”, she smiled at him. “I believe you Mortals call this, plausible deniability? I would have preferred ‘exemption of accountability’, but your version sounds better, I suppose.”

 

Thomas sighed again and closed his eyes. For a moment, he stood still and only his lips were moving. After a while, he seemed like he was talking to someone, nodding and shaking his head, but no sound was heard. For a full minute, he continued his silent dialog with the unseen person, then he gave a final nod, and opened his eyes again.

 

“There. Now we have one, very disturbed Yuleman, as well..”, he mumbled.

“The Palantine pikemen and their militia have halted.”, Temez reported. “And there is a platoon of them coming this way. Shall I hide?”

“Yes. Explaining things he may not understand is not worth risking your life. Not to mention exposing your very existence to a whole platoon of young men who will stand and ogle at you, then go around telling all their friends about the beautiful girl in the woods, will make your undercover stance, sort of moot.”, he said.

“You think me beautiful?”, Temez asked a bit surprised. “I have horns.”

“I think you beautiful, horns or no horns. I suspect the esteemed sheriff, Standorin Shieldheart finds your kin, Constance, quite beautiful, and not only because she is, indeed beautiful, but she has a rather calming aura about her. She is considerate, and has a mature character, and she has horns.. Some might call what Master Aager and his mate, an unholy passion. And Inshala has horns as well. She is one of the most beautiful people I have ever met, inside and out, and so selfless.. You might say, we lack horns.. It isn’t how we appear, that truly matters, my dear girl, it is how we live.. and what we do.. Those that can see and appreciate our deeds matter, those that don’t, or won’t, don’t!”, the young temple guardian said. “When you first contacted me to grant you and your kin sanction, I agreed, not because I thought you would be great assets against the Orken horde, but because it was the right thing to do.. And I didn’t even know the particulars of your past, nor your deeds.”

 

Perigren Ostlanna Temez stared at Thomas for a good long minute in silent.. incomprehension?

Her expression was odd.. vague.. but there was a distinct tint of fear, and hope.. and possibly, shame, in that look.

Then she was gone..

 

And with a lot of noise, parting bushes and the trampling of feet, a whole platoon of Palantine militia appeared with the Ranger Lieutenant Bremorel Songsteel..

✱ ✱ ✱

Nadien ne! Udoorin! We must leave!”, Anglenna shouted over the roaring Orken that came at them from the north, pouring down the mountainside, and from the previously hidden tunnel right behind them.. The high elf lady wasn’t a quick guess of numbers when it came to determining how many creatures there might be at a glance but something inside her screamed a lot.. and the word, hundreds, perhaps thousands sprang to mind. Anglenna was a realist, though not altogether by choice but by the brutal training of her mother, Angrellen. And realism told her, with a definitive certainty, individuals did not defeat armies..

 

Armies defeated armies!

 

In a contest of individuals versus such devastating numbers, the outcome was inevitable, and it only made good, heroic stories and Anglenna had no intentions, whatsoever, to make a martyr out of her queen, nor her king, just to entertain some campfire stories..

Should a king or queen be forced to fight such a dramatic ‘last stand’, the price to be paid should be too high to be suffered.

 

And for Anglenna, the life of her queen and her sister-cousin, Alor’Naien ne Feymist, was simply priceless!

 

The only problem with her pragmatic approach was, the two idiots were not retreating as they should, but cutting their way further and deeper into the Orken horde! The young man, Udoorin, was chopping down the Orken with a methodical accuracy of a woodsman, while his wife and queen, Alor’Nadien ne had disappeared in a literal shadow of moil and Anglenna couldn’t see what was going on inside the smoldering, churning, and inky blackness, but barely discern the edge of her glaive’s bloody blade, glowing with a sickly green light, and creepy, shapeless, purple-black tentacles lashing out every which way and biting, stabbing, rendering, and choking anything that got near!

Anglenna was born with magic. She wasn’t a wizard but a sorceress. She was also trained in magic to improve her natural skills and to better understand what she had. One might say, she was good at what she did and she had a very good and steady head for it.

But the things her cousin did, as a  warlock, which was what her queen was, with her affinity to her hexblade, was downright scary!

Scary or not, however, the Orken were not to be deterred. They had inhuman, single-minded resolution and they did not back off, back out, or back down, and, apparently, retreat was not something they knew. Thinking about it, defeating two, powerful as they might be, and in their own right, individuals, and now, when they were alone, even at the cost of devastating numbers, was a win for them. Because otherwise, they would, in all likeliness, end up facing the same two individuals on a battlefield someday, backed up by their own people.. which explained their current, blind frenzy!

 

And then she heard the echo of wolves!

Many, many wolves..

 

Because the Orken, it seemed, had not been enough and had not come alone but brought in their dogs as well, which was sort of new, and explained how they could sniff out all the scouts and rangers who ventured into the wilds seeking the whereabouts of the enemy, much like it explained why so many of those scouts and rangers went missing and never returned..

Then, with a thunderous avalanche, far off to the north and east, tons of snow came crashing down the mountainside with a quaking slide, and the former high lady of Bari Na-ammen saw thousands of figures, vague in the snow blitz, rushing at them!

 

Anglenna saw all these, considered her options, and innately prioritized the things that had to be done to get her enraged cousin and her idiotic young man out —with a practically realistic, or perhaps realistically practical, and feasibly applicable strategy..

 

 

One;

Stopper the tunnel where the Orken was pouring out, long enough to buy time and to make sure they would not be able to surround her king and queen..

 

Anglenna pointed down, very nearly at her own feet, and at the gaping mouth of the tunnel running right under her and the cluster of rocks and boulders where she stood, and softly she sang in high elfish;

 

 

no fire nor sun may sear
i, but the Heaven’s

no friend nor foe, far or near
do bar, but the Heavens

should Mortals all,
come to aid whilst I call

none may heal my seared heart
but the Great Heavens

 

 

..and the shrieks echoed just below her and inside the tunnel!

 

Anglenna calmly walked around and down the cluster of rocks and boulders and saw the effects of her spell;

 

A churning, smoldering cloud of glaring, reddish smoke covered the whole of the gaping tunnel entrance as blistering cinders and large, white-hot embers shot every which way and she could see charred corpses and burning figures of the Orken screaming in pain.

“Get what you want, do you?”, the high elf woman murmured with satisfaction. “These lands are not yours. And never shall be..”

 

With a wave of her hand, the thick, incinerating cloud moved..

..into the tunnel, burning, searing, and scorching everything in its path!

 

The howls of the wolves were getting closer now, and Anglenna noted that down in her mental ‘to do’ list..

 

 

Two;

Get to her cousin!

 

Anglenna knew, little she said would have any effect on Alor’Nadien ne when she became like this. Even when she was little, as in, six-years-old-little, and when she would come over to her mother’s manor house at Bari Na-ammen and, not plead, per se, nor quite order, but ‘endearingly ask’ her cousins’s mother, Angrellen, to allow Anglenna to play with her, and not take ‘no’ for an answer.

It had always been interesting to watch a six-year-old girl taking on a one thousand six hundred-year-old high elf and defeat her in a clash of wills!

Perhaps, deep down, that was why she, Anglenna, had taken a liking to her cousin so much, so early on..

But now, that particular ‘stubborn’ aspect of her cousin would work against her and Anglenna knew of only one person who, somehow, overrode Alor’Nadien ne’s mule-headed stance; the young man, Udoorin Shieldheart!

 

Even now, Anglenna shook her head at the monumentally illogical and senselessness of their relation.

One would think, her calm, demure, farsighted cousin would try to hold her husband back a bit.. even if to think things over.

And her husband to be a little more considerate of her wife, as blindly as he loved her.

But no!

They, quite literally, incited each other! It seemed like, while the young man egged his beloved woman into reckless action, the young woman almost ‘prodded’ her husband into madness!

 

Anglenna sighed and flourished her hand and suddenly, there were three more of her identical images walking through the butchered corpses of the Orken!

As if unsatisfied, she flourished her hand again and three more of her images appeared and suddenly there were over half a dozen Anglenna’s walking over the dead Orken..

Since, it appeared, the only one here with a tint of sanity was herself, Anglenna wanted to make sure she survived long enough to get her cousin and he king out of there. And that called for some prudence on her part, which turned out to be a good call, for just then, a giant axe came spinning her way, and struck her..

 

Right in the center of her chest!

 

..and one of the images buckled over and vanished.

Anglenna stretched her steps and picked up her pace. The images were limited in number and would last only but a minute.

 

A sharp, jagged-edged spear stabbed through her, and another of the images disappeared and Anglenna started sending fist-sized bolts of fire, brilliant-blue rays of frost at every opportunity, and while at it, she dropped a crimson ball of fire right into the middle of a platoon of Orken, sending them burnt and broken, while leaving a crater-like hole in the frozen ground, called in her innate, sorcerous skills, and dropped a second fireball into another platoon, achieving a similarly charred result!

 

“Young man!”, she sent her thought over to Udoorin, who was savagely cutting, cleaving, and dismembering the Orken around him with wild abandon. “Prepare yourself to leave. I shall tell your queen the same.”

“Lady Lenna? How come I can hear your voice in my head! Where are you?”, Udoorin replied, his voice sounding somewhat surprised.

“Don’t lose your focus, my King. When I give the signal, run to me. I shall be standing between you and Nadien ne. Then we shall leave this place.”, Anglenna said.

“No, there are too many Orken for us to leave them behind. This lot will all come down on Serenity Home and no one is looking for them here!”, Udoorin objected.

“There are thousands more of them coming down the mountainside just to our north, young man. There is, literally, no way we can win this fight. We can, however, inform Serenity Home, when they contact us the way their temple guardians do every day.”, Anglenna fumed as she opened a hole in the face of an Orken who tried to skewer her with his spear, causing another image to wink out!

“Dammit!”, cursed Udoorin. “Tell Lorna, I shall meet her in a minute. This is no longer a feasible fight.”

 

“Figured that out just now, did you?”, Anglenna murmured to herself and hurled a blazing fire at one of the two Orken charging at her. One of them grunted and fell over as the other swung once, then again, and two more of her images vanished, leaving but one of her mirrored images behind.. The high elf woman did him, what she did to the other!

 

“Nadien ne.”, she said calmly. “I know you are having a lot of fun in that inky darkness of yours, dear, but it’s time to leave. There are thousands more of the Orken coming down the mountain just north, and they have brought their wolves with them. If we don’t leave now, we will all die here.”

“Cousin!”, Lorna hissed back. “These animals destroyed Arashkan! They burned our beloved High Woods and put our Bari Na-ammen to ruins.. They can not be allowed to walk the earth again!”

“I do not dispute your feelings, my Queen. I do, however, disagree with your strategy, for it is not sound, and is about to fail, thoroughly! Should we fall now, we shall fail our main mission and no one will be left to warn what remains of Arashkan and Bari Na-ammen.”, Anglenna said urgently.

“No! They can not see in my darkness, but I can see them! They shall fall like they felled our people!”, she snarled.

 

Anglenna sighed again..

..but she did admire her cousin’s passion, and even though she was a realist and quite the pragmatic high elf woman at mind and heart, Anglenna herself felt her blood boil, there, for a moment!

 

Then she figured, perhaps for the first time, and just like that, what it was about her young queen that had aspired her, and everyone else around her, to greatness;

Her passion!

 

And her cousin, Alor’Nadien ne, had had it since as far back as Anglenna could remember. Was this what it was being the Heart of High Woods? Bringing passion to those around her, and consequently rising them to be more?

With the rapidity of unexpected clash of thoughts and memories, something clicked in Anglenna’s head.. and heart..

Passion meant.. Life!

And a heart was the only thing in the verse that possessed, and nurtured passion, hence, the Heart of High Woods!

 

Anglenna promised herself to give this line of thought the time it derserved.. Just not right now..

 

 

Three;

Persuade her stubborn cousin to abandon the field!

 

 

Four;

Should persuasion fail, coerce!

 

“Your King has spoken, and let known his command, my Queen; we are to leave, right now! Will you defy him?”

 

A stunned silence settled as Anglenna noticed she was suddenly surrounded!

 

Coldly she gazed at the Orken closing in on her, and swirled both her arms in an interwoven, circular pattern, and murmured;

 

 

the wild winds weep,
and the night is a-cold;
come hither, sleep,
and my griefs infold:
but lo! the morning peeps
over the eastern steeps,
and the rustling birds of dawn
the earth do scorn

 

 

..and every single Orken in twenty feet froze as if petrified, their heads snapped up and staring blankly into the brittle, tundra sky.

Then blood gushed out of their eyes, and ears, their nose and their mouth..

Many of them stumbled and crashed.

The remaining just continued to stare at the cloudless, gray sky.

 

“I shall abide by my King’s wishes..”, came Lorna’s voice and there wasn’t a trace of resignation nor defeat in it.

As a matter of fact, there was a tint of pride there, somewhere in that sentence!

 

“Come to me, then, cousin. I shall contact young Udoorin and he shall also meet us here..”

 

As if on cue, the darkness around Alor’Nadien ne vanished, and she was standing next to the tall, slender form of Anglenna.

An Orken flew right over them and crash-landed, its head resting in the snow at an odd angle, and Udoorin came stumbling with a wild grin on his face.

He was holding his own great and very bloody battleaxe in one hand, and another, a very, very huge, pure black greataxe in the other!

“Guys! Guys!”, he said enthusiastically. “Look what I found among the dead Orken!”

 

Lorna smiled at him with appreciation.

Anglenna did not.

She just stared at the grinning young man..

 

 

Five;

Delay the enemy and prepare to depart!

 

With the acceptance of the aforementioned, ‘monumentally illogical and senselessness of their relation’, she pointed at the ground and drew a wide circle..

And a wall of fire, some twenty feet high and one foot thick, encircled them, staying the Orken at bay..

 

 

Six;

“Time to go.”

 

..she said grimly and cast her teleportation spell, and dearly hoped it would not send her cousin and the young man somewhere off, and herself crashing into some buildings like the last time!

 

 

. . .

 

 

“We are back!”, Udoorin exclaimed, looking around them.

“Yes. We are..”, Lorna agreed as she stared east where the sun was slowly setting. “Good Heavens! We have been down there and for nearly the whole day?”

Anglenna staggered a bit. She had cast a few too many spells, in a too-short time, and some of those spells had been quite powerful. She felt drained as she also stared at the setting sun, then down below and at the scores of dead Orken, and the thousands of others gathering at the tunnel below the cluster of rocks..

“Wow. They look so small from up here.”, Udoorin said. Then his voice turned a bit distraught. “And we haven’t even put a dent in their number..”

“We have, love.”, Lorna said softly as she came up to him and entered his arms. “We have.. They now know what to expect should they go to Serenity Home; only more of the same death. They know that they were bested by just the three of us. And they shall wonder, what will happen should they encounter many more of us? Hence, they will question their resolution, their cause, and consequently, their mortality. They now know that they can die, in great numbers, and they have nothing to show for the death of their comrades.”

“Well. When you put it that way, it does shed us in an altogether different sort of light. And thanks to Lady Lenna, we get to watch the sunset as well.”, Udoorin grinned. “And I even got me a brand new axe!”

The axe was, indeed, an impossible weapon; the blade of the axe was unshining, pure black and huge. The sharp side was very jagged and cruel-looking. The handle was slightly curved and seemed as though it was made out of some ancient, magical tree and was dark brown with forking, steel elements embedded quite smoothly into it!

 

It was then, a gray, spectral raven swooped down on them!

But just as it was about to crash-land into the snow, it shifted and suddenly, a very ‘taller than even Anglenna’, ‘darker than a starless night’ girl with shapely legs, buxom breasts, long, braided, pink hair, a pair of dark horns, a very much irritated and lashing feline tail, and wearing scandalously short, vivid pink mini skirt dress!

And she was staring down at them.

 

“Found them!”, she called to someone behind her with a well-educated, cultured, upper mid-tones, and illustrious voice, as she kept her eyes on the three.

“Who are you and what are you doing here?”, she asked them with a slightly patronizing attitude, her hands on her hips and on the ornamental-looking rapier at her side.

“Might ask you the same thing.”, Anglenna replied, arching her platinum-blond eyebrows.

 

They heard shuffling behind the tall, dark girl and two more figures appeared, though from the side of the stiff drop. One was an elf with extraordinary pale skin, decorated with many swirling tattoos, a very white, long, also braided hair, and a scowling pout on her face. She was not conventionally beautiful, but rather striking in her lithe, athletic figure, and she had a distinct air of savagery about her cold, glacial eyes.

The other was a bushy-haired hobbit, of all people.. and races.. and his face was all flushed red from the climb..

Then, with a rapid dive, a fourth figure appeared and this one was on a gnarly old witch’s broom! She skid landed next to the very tall, very dark girl and she was a pale-looking little gnomic girl with stream-lined, scruffy-looking, reddish-brown hair and she froze where she was, the moment she saw the three of them!

 

And just like that, she cussed!

 

“Aw crap!”

 

“Whot?”, asked the very tall, very dark girl.

“I think we have a corrupt timeline!”

 

 

“It’s the bunny-girl!”, Udoorin blurted!

 

The little gnomic girl scowled up at him.

 

“Hello, Arcantonic.”, Lorna smiled, though with much surprise..

✱ ✱ ✱

If anybody else calls me ‘bunny’, there’s going to be a fight!”, growled Arcantonic Palecog!

“Whot?”, said the very tall, very dark girl, Seressa Wraiven, staring down at the little gnomic girl.

“What?”, jumped the lithe and pale figure of Cora Sleet!

“What?..”, asked the bushy-haired hobbit, Brom Bumblebrim, as he sat up with a tired yawn. “What’s going on?”

“What!”, exclaimed Tonic as she too jumped up! “Is it bloody morning already?

 

Seressa stared at her, though with a ‘not quite angry’, but very much displeased expression.

 

“You were dreaming.”, she ‘sort of’ reported shortly and with a frosty tone. “You spoke in your dream.”

“Ow? Did I?”, Tonic said morosely and dropped back on her blankets. Then she remembered, the very tall, very dark girl, her pair, was still distraught with her and so, her diminutive face drooped and she rolled once, on the frozen winter ground towards her, but failed to reach her.

 

She sighed and rolled again..

 

“What are you doing?”, Seressa asked, still staring down at the little gnome.

“Something that would have made me look funny and cool, had it worked the first time..”, Tonic mumbled and rolled a third time until she was pretty much snuggled next to Seressa.

 

Cora frowned at them, stared at the eastern horizon, figured they would have a few more hours before dawn, and settled in her own blankets, and closed her eyes. She was tired and as much as she was in her natural element, out in the wilderness, and in the freezing cold of winter, she was much troubled about the noises they had heard coming from the nearly endless stretch of fissure.. and the fact that they couldn’t do anything about it. She felt drained and no amount of sleep seemed to do her any good.

Brom, on the other hand, had a better frame of mind when it came to worrying. He did not! Well, that wasn’t precisely true. He did worry, but not enough to lose sleep over it. Or perhaps he could compartmentalize his thoughts and emotions better than his barbarian friend, Cora, and hence, could sleep when he was dead tired and exhausted after a full day’s run.

 

At least that’s what he told himself!

 

“How long are you going to be mad at me?”, Tonic mumbled as she hugged at the tall girl’s leg! As cold as it was, Seressa had a warm body.. and soft, warm legs!

And to her unexpected recognition, Tonic just figured, she was likely the only being in the verse that could freely hug her pair’s warm body, and her warm legs, and get away with it! At that very moment, Tonic was not sure if this ‘being pocketed’ by her very tall, very dark, very soft.. and very warm friend wasn’t such a bad idea..

But then, it was possible, it was just her freezing little arse speaking!

 

“I am not mad at you, Tonic. Only disappointed.”, Seressa said with a voice, void of emotions..

 

..and for Tonic, that particular answer had been worst than had it been because her pair was just been mad at her.

 

“But it was a long time ago. We weren’t paired. We didn’t know each other, and I was just goofing around..”, Tonic tried to explain.

“It was not a long time ago, Tonic. It was merely a bit over six years ago. True, we were not paired and we did not know each other, but you were goofing around at my expense and in public. Did it never occur to you to warn me? You have been making comments about my choice of clothes ever since we were paired, on a daily basis. All you had to do was come up to me and tell me how all the boys in the podium were there to stare up my skirt. What they did was crude, base animalism, inconceivable, and they took advantage of a silly girl’s wardrobe..  They lacked the honor, and the integrity to be decent human beings.. What you did was just mean, and I can not understand why you would do this to me, or anyone else? It was like, at a subconscious level, you thought I was not human enough and could be freely taken advantage of. We, who are educated by the best minds the Kingdom of Isles has to offer; at the Academy of Melshieve, failed at a very fundamental level. I was treated as primitively by those ‘educated’ kids, as I would have been by any ignorant peasant, and you opted to be part of that. What is worse, is you yourself suffered at the hands of ostracization, and knew, first hand, what it felt like, yet did it to me. They treated me like an object. You treated me the same.. for a laugh!”

 

Tonic’s face drooped even more.

 

“I did more than that.”, she mumbled with shame, as she closed her eyes, clung tighter to her pair’s leg. “I was mean, cruel, inconsiderate, and an idiot and a jerk to boot. I lashed out to everyone around me. I shouldn’t have, but I did it anyway. You can smack me around all you want if that will make you less disappointed in me, but I swear, I did not single you out in my cruelty. You were merely another casualty of my stupid war! That does not exempt me from what I did, but it does sort of negate most of the philosophical arguments of your disappointment, even though, yes, I should have gone to you and told you about it, rather than laughing.. But in my defense, with my frame of mind at that time, there is just no way I would have done that. And it is very much unlikely I still would have, had I not met, and become your pair. You, my dear Seressa, gave your best, and your best fixed me. You made a ‘decent’ person out of a mean and cruel girl.. Hence I asked for your forgiveness. But should you decide not to, I thank you anyway..”

 

There was no reply to that.

Not for a long while.

Just a lot of slobbering sniffs and hiccups.

 

Cora sniffed too.. once.. and undercover!

Brom stared up at the winter night sky where he lay on his blankets, shivering. He thought of ‘ho boy’ing.. but it just didn’t feel like the right time, so he kept to his silence as well.

 

“So you want me to smack you around, do you?”, sniffed Seressa.

“Very much! If you will forgive me!”, Tonic spluttered.

“You do remember what happened to the last person I smacked around, right?”, she asked, sniffing some more.

“Yeah. You bitch-slapped him non-stop from one end of the academy courtyard to the other, right there, and in front of the whole graduation ceremony, the dean, all the professors, the teachers, and the staff —it was awesome!”, Tonic admitted with a wet snort. “It was the first time someone stood up to me. But instead of being gratified and gracious about it, I berated you about it and bitched about being capable of looking after my own self, thank you very much!”

“I did not beat that boy because I thought you could not take care of yourself. Six years in the Academy with your background clearly said otherwise.. I beat him because he was an obnoxious, repugnant, and very much a revolting creep! He was nasty to you, yes, but he had been nasty to everybody. He even used to come and disrupt my pink garden every other week or so. I didn’t say anything to him then, not because I feared him or his sticky reputation, and certainly not because I  was wary of him and the fact that he was the nephew of the Lord Jarshin of Malis City, but because he wanted to be noticed for his unsavory attitude like it was a crown and I just did not want to give him the satisfaction. What I did give him was a hex, though..”, Seressa said, with a stiff smile.

“You.. you hexed the nephew of a Lord?”, Tonic spluttered.

“I beat the nephew of said Lord, in front of everyone including the dean himself, during a graduation ceremony! I mean, a  beating really does not get any more public than that. Hexing him for six years seems trivial at that point, don’t you think?”

“But.. why did you hex him? I mean, what would a hex do to him? And.. isn’t that sort of illegal?”, asked Tonic a bit amazed.

“It was. And still is illegal.”, Seressa said. “No one, however, wondered why he had such horrible marks in all his grades because he was such a horrible, juvenile delinquent. No one wondered to even look into it. He made everyone around him miserable, and hence I made him miserable in the end. No one could touch him, and he thought no one would dare to do anything to him, which turned out to be a gross misjudgment on his part. I am not a nobody, even though many in the Academy dismissed me as a pretty, vague, and vein object. In the end, he returned back to Malis, and to his uncle, with the worst grades ever to be granted in the history of Melshieve, and beaten stupid as well. I was happy to leave him with just his grades, but when he picked on you, the way he did, I got the impression he had done it to you before, and many times, much like he kept on trashing my phloxes.. That just happened to be the final drop! You weren’t there, but when I got out of the dean’s office after that incident, there was a whole crowd of people cheering me for what I’d done. Am I proud that I hexed him and then beat him? No, not really. But I am not ashamed of what I did either. I detest several things in life; small talk, being taken for an object, and conceited fools who think they are beyond laws, retribution, or even base courtesy.. That boy had a heart not even demons in Hell would want, and my Mistress abhors demons.”

“Alright. Perhaps you could skip the smacking. You could spank me then, perhaps?”, Tonic mumbled.

“I wasn’t aware you were into spanking, girl.”, Seressa tittered.

 

Brom snickered from where he lay while Cora frowned at him.

“What’s wrong with spanking? My mother used to spank me when I was little and got out of control.”, she asked.

“I am not answering that.”, the hobbit snickered some more. “Ask Seressa. Or even better, ask Tonic!”

 

“Are we good?”, Tonic asked her pair, rather tentatively.

“We will always be good, Tonic. And it was nice of you to say all the things you did. Now, though, we have a bigger problem at hand, than my skimpy skirt dress!”, Seressa replied.

“Yes. The Serpent’s End, and the possible Orken that might be moving through it. I still say we just blow the whole thing up and cave the whole thing in..”, the scruffy little gnomic girl said, then threw herself at her very tall, very dark pair. “I really am sorry, girl. I meant everything I said. And I need to know you forgave me.”

 

Seressa hugged her little friend to her heart’s content and whispered, “To say, ‘I forgive you.’, would be arrogance on my part, my dear Tonic. You were right. We didn’t know each other then, and it was my own choice of wardrobe that made me look like a flirtatious and amorous girl. I do not plan to change my appearance anytime soon, but now that I have been made aware, I shall take the appropriate measures as I see fit, for back then, I was naive and innocent. Not so much now. And my hexes don’t just give fail-grades anymore!”

 

“Here, here!”, said Cora, punching a fist into the night.

“What she said.”, agreed, Brom.

 

Seressa smiled at them.

 

“Time to go..”, she said. “We are all awake and not going to sleep, apparently.”

 

A chorus of groans followed this as Brom rose with a grunt, dismantled his tiny tent, bundled up his blankets and put them all, quite tidily into his pack, as Tonic detached herself from the very soft, and very warm leg of her pair, and not without an unhappy pout, rolled up her own blankets and stuffed them into her pack.

Cora stared up at the starless winter night some more, then did a lithe, belly dancer’s move and was up on her feet. She didn’t bother with the blankets. She hadn’t gotten hers out. The winters this far south were too mild for her to need blankets. All she’d done was to throw her leather and fur cloak on the frozen ground and that was merely a matter of convinience and prudence, really.

Seressa showed a similar attitude. It seemed like she was either immune to the effects of cold, or perhaps she just didn’t feel it as she should. She had spread her blanket just so her vivid pinks wouldn’t get wet, or be stained with mud. With a very lady-like motion, she kneeled down and collected her blanket, carefully folded it, and inserted it into her pack, exactly where she thought it belonged!

 

It was near dawn when she swooped down from the dreary sky, once again, in her gray, spectral raven form and landed next to Cora.

They made an interesting scene at that very moment;

One, very tall, very dark, and quite slender girl, running with long strides, and her long, pink, braided hair chasing after her, and the other, lithe, athletic, very pale, and striking, her own long, and snow-white hair catching her!

 

“I just had a thought.”, she said merrily.

“Ow?”, Cora asked as they ran.

“What would you say for a little interview, and a few photo ops as Cora Aranel ná Rianna Tári Sleet of the Great Barbarian Horde?”

✱ ✱ ✱

Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane fidgeted where she stood, the dress robes on her back drooped all the way to the forest floor and she was playing with her long, silky brown hair as if considering braiding them around her horns as she used to.. just until a few months ago. It had been only due to the simple desire, her growling ‘Aagrrr’ had wished to see her ‘pretty’ horns, and feel her long hair as they were free, that she had quit wearing them around her curving, rams-horns, forming a funny, conical shape on both sides of her head, though, no one had ever told her, her hair looked funny that way. Not her deceased Father, Master Cathber, or the friends she had made during their chase after the assassins through Ritual Forest, then into the depths of Themalsar, not her Fey friends at Gull’s Perch, and certainly never her Aager. Now though, for whatever reason, Inshala thought she looked funny.. as in, ‘silly’, when she wore her hair like that. 

Perhaps, she thought, they look funny now, because I am skinny, now.

Inshala hadn’t been so skinny before. In fact, she had looked very much like a young and very much mature woman with a shapely figure, calling breasts, decidedly feminine hips, and strong, athletic legs, despite being a mere sixteen-year-old girl, then.

Now she thought she looked more like something that crawled under rocks or on a ceiling using only its creepy arms and legs! And she certainly did not feel ‘adorned’ anymore. Not with her little breasts and ‘has no hips to speak of’ standing and everything she wore, hung down from her faded form as if she was a toddler wearing her mom’s gowns..

 

She fidgeted again as she looked beyond the trees, and at the cluster of log houses, and the imagined ‘happy’ noises coming from there.

For years, she had watched these wooden homes and the families that lived there, with unveiled envy, where men worked hard all day as women did their chores, washed clothes, hanged them on stretched, hand-woven ropes, cooked food, gathered herbs and mushrooms from the forest, skinned, salted, then dried the animal skins their men brought, weived baskets, and nursed their children, while older ones ran around playing and laughing in sheer joy.

 

Her back itched and a sharp sizzle ran down her apparent spine as she felt, once again, the memory of whippings..

 

“I don’t want to be their Ritual Guardian..”, she mumbled quietly.

“You don’t have to, you know.”, growled a voice from behind her, and Aager Fogstep caught her, slowly and gently in his arms. “They had their Ritual Guardian before, and took him, they did, for granted. Perhaps they should earn their new Guardian.”

 

Inshala leaned back further into his arms trying her best not to seem too petulant, or at the very least, not like a crybaby! Taking comfort from his mere existence had not been part of her plan, but had ended up being that way. She still did pout, even though he couldn’t see it.

 

“Am I pretty?”, she asked suddenly.

 

Asking if she was pretty, hadn’t been part of the plan either.

It  just came out..

But then, there hadn’t been any plans, to begin with!

 

“I am sure I was pretty before Themalsar.. I had more to offer then. Now there’s nothing of me left to show for..”, she mumbled.

 

Aager stared at the log houses beyond the trees as he tightened his hold on the skinny girl in his arms.

 

“You were an Inshala, then. You are my Inshala, now. I love the fire you bring into my cold home. And that fire has little to do with how you appear, but everything to do with who you are. I have never found comfort in close proximity to others. Now I look back and dare to foolishly compare. And thus I have come to the definitive conclusion that there is a flaw in our relationship.”, he said in his gravelly voice.

“There.. there is?”, Inshala asked, and inevitably, she turned around in his arms to stare up into his dark eyes.

“Yes. You might, or you might not like the conclusive flaw I have found, but it is there to stay..”, he said, staring down, also into her large, beautiful eyes.

 

Inshala held her breath.

Had her Aager found a damning fault in her? A fault that he thought was definitive? It must have been something she did all the time. Or something he had only recently noticed about her that he found distasteful..

 

“..that I am unable to think of a life without this skinny girl in my arms.”, he said, softening the grating sound of his voice.

 

Inshala ogled at him.

 

“Aager.. Inshala..”, said a bold, somewhat husky voice from somewhere off to their left, and Lilly Venom appeared out of the bushes. “Some people are coming this way. I think they are woodsmen and they are carrying a woman on a stretcher.. She appears to be in quite a bit of pain.”

“Dammit!”, Aager swore. “What do those idiots think they are doing, taking a sick girl out into the woods? The ogres will be here soon, too. If they see them, Heaven knows how they will react.”

“She is not sick, Aager.”, Lilly said. “She is pregnant!”

“What?”

“She’s pregnant. She’s got a very large, bulging tummy. And I think she is due very soon, the way the girl is screaming.. At least she would be, but they seem to have clogged her mouth. They have also bound her hands, her arms, and her legs as well!, and it isn’t to make sure she does not fall off the stretcher!”

 

Aager stared at his sister.

 

“What the..”, he said, unable to come up with anything to explain what he had just heard.

 

It was Inshala who explained why the woodsmen had bound a pregnant woman..

 

“That woman.. is my mother!”, she said mutely.

“What?”, both Aager and Lilly said in shocked voices.

“That woman is what my mother went through when she had given birth to me. They, the woodsmen, bound her and me with ropes, and dragged us into the forest, then stoned her to death. It was all my mother could do to put herself over me. Then they left both of us to die. She was already dying from all the bleeding, and they hoped some wild animal would come and kill me.. The woodsmen have been practicing that like a ritual ever since, whenever a woman would get pregnant and someone would see some abnormality and fear I would come out of the woman! They drag the pregnant girl off into the woods and wait until she gives birth. If all is well, they take her, and the baby back home. But the women do not usually live through birth, being bound the way they are, and the child suffocates and dies in the womb. This is my legacy!”

 

Aager’s eyes went blue.. glacial blue.. and cold wispy tendrils started emanating from them. It was quite uncanny, really.

Lilly went silent the way she did, just before she assassinated somebody!

They both looked at one another and a wordless communication seemed to take place between them..

Then they both disappeared into the forest as Inshala stared after them.

Soon enough, she heard Aager’s voice in her head.

 

“Better come here, love. I am very much clueless about childbirth and Lilly gave one look at the girl and all color drained from her face, which tells me she is equally clueless.”

 

Inshala didn’t say anything. She just walked over in the direction her Aager had, sort of ‘implied’, in his voice and found four large men sprawled on the forest ground, bleeding from their heads. Aager was more careful than this when he wanted to knock someone out. Inshala was sure Lilly also knew how to bludgeon a man without drawing blood. But apparently, they hadn’t bothered with niceties this time.

By the time she arrived, Lilly was staring off into the forest, her face quite pale, and she was gulping deep breaths, while Aager was sawing off the ropes from the bound, pregnant girl.

The girl had a terrified expression on her face. So much so that she was at the very edge of mindless, animal panic!

“Easy. Easy, girl..”, Aager was saying to her, but he wasn’t making much headway. Aager was a scary man at the best of times! “Are you going to help, or are you just going to stand there Lilly?”, he growled, which didn’t help the bound girl at all.

“I did my part in the helping. You seem to be doing just fine on your own.”, Lilly replied without looking at them.

“Girl. You can slice a man’s throat, cut open his intestines, but you can’t look at a woman in labor?”, he said harshly.

“I am only interested where I am going to stick a knife. I do not inspect the gruesome results.”, Lilly snapped back. “Since I have a record of one hundred percent client satisfaction, my way seems to be working just fine!”

“At least hold one end of the stretcher. She can’t move, and this is not a safe place to give birth. We had better take her back to her home. Inshala.. keep her calm.. She will fall off is she squirms the way she is doing right now.”, Aager said sharply.

 

Lilly turned around, glared at her brother, who ignored her, as Inshala came to stand next to the girl.

The poor, terrified girl gave one panicked look at her and started spluttering and sobbing hysterically.

 

“Please.. Please.. don’t take my baby!”

“I have not come to take your baby, dear girl.”, Inshala said with a thick voice. “No one will take your baby away from you in my forest.”

“Your forest?”, the girl asked, her whole body trembling.

“Yes, child.”, Inshala said solemnly. “My forest. For I am the Ritual Guardian.”

“But.. Master Cathber is gone.. I heard he had died..”, the girl squeezed the words from clenched teeth as tears of pain rolled down her eyes.

“He has. And I am his daughter.”, Inshala replied.

 

The young, pregnant girl stared at her.

 

“Please.. save my baby.. He is not the fruit of a sin.. He belongs to my husband..”, she wept. “I am not an evil person. I have not sinned!”

 

Inshala stared at the girl and many, many emotions crisscrossed her drawn face. Then she looked down at the four burly, unconscious men on the ground.

 

“Is your husband among these?”, she asked, pointing at the men.

“No. These are.. Tempest cult members.. They come whenever a woman is pregnant.. and about to give birth.. and declare we have sinned.. or not.. Those that have been marked.. are exiled out and into the forest.. and die during childbirth.. But I have never sinned.. I swear.. They said I mated with a foul demon, and they bound me.. and my husband.. They brought me here.. to die.. with my baby.. and nailed my husband in a barrel so he couldn’t interfere.. Please.. believe me.. I have never been touched by any man or demon, other than my husband..”

“Please..”, the young woman begged. “Don’t take my baby away from me..”

“I do not take children away from their mothers, dear child.”, Inshala said. “But we must take you back home. This is not a good place to give birth.”

“We.. can’t go back.. The Tempest Cult is still there.. They will blame us for more, now.. And damn us for being.. possessed by unholy demons!”

“My Father did not tolerate them. He sent them away many times.”, Inshala said with a frown. “Why have they returned?”

“They leave.. then they come back.. with new faces.. And always when there is a woman in labor.. They start declaring foul play, and damn women for.. frolicking with foul beasts and demons..”

“Stupid, ignorant, superstitious peasants..”, Lilly spat from one side.

“I believe we have our job cut out for us, Lilly.”, Aager said coldly.

“What?”, she turned to look at him.

“This is stupid. But it is not ignorance, nor superstition.. This is a deliberate act of conspiracy and apparently, planned quite some time ago.”, Aager replied with a deep, foreboding snarl, staring down at the burly men, then at the moaning girl, and finally at his young, skinny mate, Inshala. “I do not know the particulars at this time, nor do I have enough information to connect all the dots, but this girl needs medical attention, and now.”

 

He stared at Inshala for another moment, then at Lilly.

 

“Do you have it in you to make people disappear?”, he asked his sister.

“Not quite my alley, brother,” Lilly replied. “I tend to leave my clients for quiet display.. as proof of the fulfillment of my contract if nothing else.. But I can.. If I must..”

 

Aager did not point, nor specifically imply. He simply growled again, from behind his dark, leather half-mask.

 

“Make it happen.”

 

Lilly cocked an eyebrow at him.

 

“Why? Are you going somewhere?”, she asked.

“Yes. Give me five, then bring the girl.. Inshala, can you help Lilly with the stretcher?”

“I shall draw the strength from my forest to do so, my Aager. Make haste. I believe she is due soon.. Very soon..”, she replied, her face even more drawn than before.

 

Aager nodded at her, then vanished!

Bushes rustled just few yards away, then all went silent, as the Winter Knight dashed, in growing, cold wrath.

The sky dimmed down to a ‘candle in a cave’, and dark gray-purple clouds churned high above.

Something rumbled far away with discontent furor and threatened to come down upon those that displeased it..

True, that Tempest may strike, pitilessly, and viciously..

But all bowed to Winter!

 

Lilly looked up as she dragged the men, one by one, in a direction away from the small cluster of woodsmen’s homes. She frowned a bit, shrugged, then methodically clubbed them all, just to make sure they wouldn’t wake up at an inconvenient time.

Lilly was a thorough sort of girl..

She was a Drashan!

Then, when they were all far enough, she drew one of the pair of her ancient daggers, and slowly stabbed the first one through the heart! The man gave out a low, painful grunt, then went still.

She pushed her dagger into the second and the third one as well and ended them.

The last one opened his eyes to stare up at her.

Perhaps this one had a thicker skull than the others, Lilly thought.

 

“Please.”, the man moaned.

“‘I am sure the young pregnant girl you dragged off begged, too. It didn’t help her, it will not help you. I loath men. And the ones like you, I loath the most.”, she said calmly to him.

“Why? What have I done to you?”, he whispered groggily.

“I do not do last-minute monologues. But for you, I shall make an exception because a ‘wake’ man staring at his own death should always know why he is about to die; you are paying for the sins you did against a young, child-bearing girl. I will never have a child. But she will. And in a world where you shall never be. And the last thing you see will be a woman who you can not best, nor drag off into the woods, and is about to slay you!”, she hissed..

 

..and trust her dagger, first into his one eye, and all the way into its socket..

..then the other!

 

The man tried to shriek and to get away, but Lilly was no rookie. She had him clubbed and concussed, she had him pinned down with one knee on his throat, and she made her final push and the ancient dagger bit into his flesh, skimmed between his ribs and punctured through his heart..

The man kicked the ground where he lay for a moment.

Then went still.

Lilly twisted her dagger to further shred the heart.

After all, she was a thorough sort of girl..

And a Drashan!

 

She was busy only ‘half burring’ the men so they could be sniffed out by wild animals and dragged off, when the ground trembled and a cold, frigid shriek echoed through the forest. Lilly looked up and there, a hurricane of ice and sleet blasted in the center of the woodmen’s village and clusters of rocks, dirt, debris, and things started raining down!

 

“What the..”, she said as something crashed a few yards away from her. Lilly picked herself up and off the man she had just mercilessly slaughtered, and ran up to the thing that had fallen from the dark, churning sky.

 

It was a man.. Or perhaps, what was left of him..

He was stone-cold frozen and petrified in a thick layer of ice and one of his legs and both his arms were missing, one snapped off from the shoulder, the other broken at the elbow, possibly during the crash..

 

“Subtle much, brother?”, she murmured, staring down at the frozen and broken man at her feet. “I have no idea what you have gotten yourself into, but I sure as Hell wish you don’t end up like him..”

 

Then she dashed and with her own heart pumping hard, she returned back to where Inshala and the young, pregnant girl were to see there was a large, domed hut-like thing where they had just been. A part of the hut split open, and a small, slender hand waved her in!

“Come, Lilly. It is not safe out here just now. Things are falling from the sky.”, came Inshala’s voice.

“Damn, right, things are falling from the sky!”, Lilly grumbled and darted into the hut-like dome to see it was made of thick vines and branches growing right out of the forest ground. “Well, that’s handy.”, she said, then looked down at the pregnant girl, who had tears running down her tightly shut eyes, and Inshala had given her a bit of soft vine for her to chew on, just so she wouldn’t bite her own tongue.

“When is she due?”, she asked, with a slightly panicky voice.

“Soon.. and I do not know what to do”

“What?”, Lilly exclaimed, somewhat shocked.

“I have never delivered a baby before!”, the skinny little girl hissed at her in a hushed, very embarrassed voice.

 

Lilly just stared at her.

 

“For Heaven’s sake, girl. You are supposed to be this Ritual Guardian thingy and you have never delivered a child before?”, she asked with an exasperated tone.

“I.. I don’t even know where babies come out from in humans! Nor do I know how they are put into them! No one told me anything!”, the little girl replied with a very, very red face.

 

Lilly stared at her some more..

But she looked horrified now!

 

“I asked my Father once, and he took me to Mother Ganiste to explain it to me. She said many things but none of what she told me is useful to me now.”, Inshala mumbled. “She just said, women needed men to make more men and women.. Perhaps she didn’t go into the details because I was only fourteen, then.”

“Just what do you and my brother do, when the two of you are alone, girl?”, she asked, both shocked and curious.. and somewhat amused.

“Well, we talk, we cook, we hug, we play games, and sometimes we even dance together.. I.. I don’t know.. Sometimes.. many times.. when he is near.. or when he is far.. I want more.. But I do not know what it is I want! I just.. burn..”, Inshala said very quietly.

 

Lilly sighed.

 

“Your mate and I are going to have a long, long talk about this.”, she fumed angrily. “The stupidity of men is mind-staggering sometimes. Tell me, girl, what do you do when you are together and you are in bed?”

“We.. we hug.. and sleep.. Though I must admit, I like to touch him when we sleep. I even touch him deliberately sometimes. I like it also when he touches me. And holds me close to himself. It is like.. we are playing a game.. but I do not know some of the rules.. or I am missing some of the pieces..”, she said looking down at her feet. “I am missing many pieces..”

 

Lilly sighed again.

 

“Yes.. Your mate and I are going to have a long talk, indeed. The stupid idiot!”, she growled.

“What am I going to do? How do I even help this girl to deliver her babies?”, Inshala asked in a panicked voice.

“Babies?”, Lilly said, now staring at the pregnant girl’s bulging belly.

“Yes. She has four heartbeats inside her. One is hers, for it beats frantically and is very much afraid. The other three beats are scared too because they can feel their mommy’s fear. But they also beat rapidly and with excitement for they are about to see the world for the first time.”, Inshala explained rapidly. “Can you not help deliver them?”

“No!”, Lilly said sternly.

“But, why?”

“I can’t look at all the.. gore..”, she tried to explain.

“Gore? What gore? There is gore?”, the little girl asked, totally confused and a bit scared now.

“Look, I just can’t, ok? I can gutt a man forty-eight ways, but I never look at the results. Everyone has their quirks and perks, alright? Aager can’t stand bad smell. That’s why he wears that silly mask of his! I find all the wet things that come pouring down, very disturbing. I get nauseous, my head spins, and I throw up!”, Lilly said, her lips pressed tightly together. Then she tried for a hopeful, not very convincing smile. “Perhaps there will be a midwife there. There always is, in villages!”

 

“Time to go.”, said a growling voice from just outside, and Aager stepped into the hut, almost seamlessly as the vines parted to his stride.. “The village has been cleansed of fools, and I believe a long, desolate talk with our esteemed young temple guardian, Thomas Dimwood is in order. Ritual Forest might not be in his jurisdiction, but he was born here, dammit! So were Laila and Morel! The fact that there is a bloody cult running around and loose, accusing and damning women for bedding demons, then having them dragged into the woods to die is unacceptable! We will have to stop by as many of these little clusters as possible and wipe them clean.. I want none of those animals left alive.. I want them clipped, branch and limp, trunk and root. I want no burial ground for these animals. Only unmarked, salted pits!”

 

It was not what he’d said, though they were harsh and brutal, and promised much blood, it was the way he’d said it that sent a shiver down Lilly’s spine.

There was furry in that voice, certainly. But it was cold. It was frigid. And it was glacial; razor sharp and jagged.. There was a low, tectonic, soul-rattling quality about it also, and it was that, which made it outright non-human.

Something was definitely going on with her brother, Lilly thought. True, there was a twenty years of life-changing gap missing between them, but what was already sharp in Lilly, had merely become sharper. What was mordant and dead in her brother hadn’t become just more of the same, in a well-refined way, however.. It had become something else.. and quite out of this world.. And to her surprise, the skinny little girl was not afraid of him.. She did not egg him, or prod him. Nor did she try and talk him out of what he had in mind. She merely accepted him as he was;

 

A force of nature..

 

Lilly swallowed down something rising up from her somewhat gaunt belly and carefully nodded at him.

 

“How bloody?”, she merely asked, sort of to define the limits of what would clearly be a punitive excursion.

“As much!”, Aager snarled. “I do not do repeat jobs!”

 

 

. . .

 

 

Inshala squirmed and struggled, and with the strength, she drew from the forest, she pulled and dragged the stretcher with the young, very pregnant girl shrieking in pain. She looked around the cluster of homes she had dreaded to see a frozen, ice-covered land, with the fences torn down, some of the roofs caved in, and many walls cracked, crumbled, and splintered. There were also quite a number of vaguely human-shaped things standing or shattered in half, or parts missing, and they were all petrified in dirty gray ice..

It was an outright scene from a nightmare!

The skinny little girl chose one of the houses that were still intact, and more out of convenience of distance, and further dragged the moaning girl on the stretcher. When she reached the broken-down door of the log house, she put the stretcher down and carefully approached the door.

 

“Hello..?”, she asked tentatively, and with fear. “Is.. is there anyone in there? I.. I have a young, pregnant girl, here. I could use some help with her..”

 

No one answered.

 

“P.. Please.. She needs help.. She is in labor.. She will die if she does not get the attention she needs..”, she pleaded, almost about to cry.

 

There was a careful shuffling noise and a thick, raspy voice said, “We are not armed. We have families. Please do not hurt us.”

“I have not come to hurt. I am Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane. I am the new Ritual Guardian and the daughter of the late, Master Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrid, and the adopted daughter of Lady Alisia Sivara Hooman, the First Lady of Durkahan City. I have come to speak to you and your people on behalf of Chieftain Grulganiste Grimtooth of Oger’s Foot to make peace so they can move the lumber of the woodsmen, and the bring rocks from Rook Mountains to Serenity Home town. The Orken armies are coming and both the rocks and the lumber are needed for the defense of the town, the surrounding lands, and your homes..” she said in a scared, rapid, and breathey voice.

“Master Cathber’s daughter?”, the raspy voice said with an awed tone, and with a limping thud, thud, thud, a man with a pair of old, hand-made crutches came out of the house.

 

Inshala drew a sharp breath, barely managing not to show it, and the fear that had her squirming ever since they had left Oger’s Foot suddenly peaked!

The man had aged, and not too well.

But Inshala knew him.

She had seen him once before..

 

“This is unbelievable! You have brought me back my daughter, Ritual Guardian. Please, come in.”, the man said with a much-relieved voice. Then he turned around, struggling with the crutches. Apparently, he could make no use of either of his legs. “Malcolm, Frera, come.. Help get Avisia in.. She is about to push and she can’t do that out here in the cold!”

A young, husky-looking man came running out of the house followed closely by a woman with a disheveled, sawed-off hair and around her early forties with a torn, relieved expression on her grim face.

Very carefully, the young man bent down and scooped the pregnant girl out of the stretcher and carried her into the house. The woman gave Inshala a careful look, taking in her skinny arms, her diminutive form, and her curving horns, gave her a curt nod, then went back in after the young man.

 

The man with the crutches limped after them, struggling through the door. One of them got caught in a splintered floorboard and he stumbled and Inshala dashed forth and caught him, getting under one of his arms. The man froze for a moment and gave her a frightened look, his eyes skimming over her horns.

“The young man.. He is not the girl’s husband.”, Inshala mumbled. “He smells more like you.”

“He is my son. And Avisia is my daughter. His husband.. The cult members, they beat him, then nailed him into a barrel when he objected.. He is in the barn over there.”, he said, nodding towards a rattled-down log shack. “I couldn’t run and my wife, my son, my daughter, and her husband would not leave when we heard they were coming.. Most families fled into the forest.”

“Tell your son to get him out of the barrel. He will suffocate if he stays in there.”, Inshala said quietly, not looking up at the man as she helped him into the house. “A man should hold his children when they are born, for that is the first connection and it is a holy bond.”

“The cult members. They will return. They are persistent.”, the man said.

“No. They will not return.”, the skinny girl said with a flat, defiant tone. “They are dead. And shall not return. Justice of Winter has seen to that.”

 

The man stared at her for a moment longer, than he called out again.

 

“Malcolm. Come out here and go get Nathen out of the barrel.”

 

The husky young man, Malcolm, came running and he looked freaked out.

 

“The cult. Won’t they..?”, he began.

 

His father gave Inshala another look, then said, “Apparently, they won’t. Go on, boy. Get Nathen, then go find the rest of the families. They should be out hiding in the forest. Tell them it is safe to return.”

 

The young man started towards the barn, then stopped and stared at Inshala.

 

“Uhhmm.. Mother says she will need you in there with her. Avisia.. my sister.. there’s water gushing out of her!”, he said with a terrified expression on his pale face. “Please, Ritual Guardian.. I.. I love my sister.. Help her.. Save her!”, he begged, then took off.

 

“You. Girl.”, the woman called briskly from inside. “Come in here. I need a second pair of hands and these idiots are useless to me.”

 

Inshala helped the husky young man’s father into the house, set him on a stool, closed the door, and with a wave of her hand, she started the fire going. Then she turned to the woman and her daughter, who was lying in a rickety, wet bed.

 

“Why is she lying in a wet bed?”, she asked in a tentative, small voice.

“Her water broke. Must have a lot of babies in her! She dipped out gallons!”, the pregnant girl’s mother replied irritably. Apparently, she was not a very ‘let’s be friends’ sort of woman and she was bitter. She gave the crippled man, her husband, a disgusted look, then she looked at Inshala and continued in her harsh, brisk tone. “Wash your hands, thoroughly. Then grab all the pots from the hooks over there. There is a water pump outside. Fill them all and start boiling them. We will need a lot of hot water.. After that, run around inside all the houses that are left intact and bring me all the clean towels you can find.”

“Uhhmm.. will their owners not mind?”, Inshala said, scared of this bitter woman now. She sounded like Moira’s grandmother, Granma, when she got angry!

 

The woman stared at her.

 

“This is a girl in labor.. Don’t you know anything?”, the woman snarled at her..

..and poor Inshala ran!

 

 

“Mother..”, Inshala called out. “Help!”

 

 

For a moment of silence, she held her breath, then a voice answered. A rich, mature, feminine, and sultry voice, though not by demand nor preference, but by its very nature..

 

“You called me ‘Mother’, young Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane, even though you are not one of my daughters, nor are you beholden to me, but serve me by choice.. and even though you have mated with the hatchet man of my sister.. You must truly want something, and are quite desperate about it.”

“My Aager was my mate. He became the Winter Knight. He had already made up his mind but was polite enough to wait so I could make up mine. But it is true that I am desperate. Will you not help me, Mother Titania?”, Inshala asked in a small voice.

“Perhaps. You must name your wont, ere you want my help. Seems like the prudent thing to do, do you not think so?”, Titania said with a bemused tone as if talking to a particularly favored child.. who was a bit too smart for her own good!

“There is a young girl here. She is pregnant and about to give birth.. How is she going to do it? Where are the babies supposed to come out?”, she mumbled.

 

In all candor, in a ‘from time immemorial’ sense that stretched for eons back, Titania, the Summer Queen, had never been stupified thus thoroughly!

And she ogled at the skinny little girl, from where she sat in her thrown, all the way from Gull’s Perch..

 

“Girl..”, she sputtered!

 

Titania sputtered!

 

“..are you not mated?”, she asked.

“I am, Mother Titania. And as much as others want to think otherwise, my Aager is a good person. And he has a kind heart. Please do not berate me because of my choice in mate.”, Inshala replied unhappily.

“Aside from the fact that he, at this very moment, is slaughtering men all over Dim Woods, what do you even do, when you are alone together?”, the Summer Queen asked.

“Why is everyone so concerned about what we do when we are alone, all of a sudden? Is this not a private matter between mates?”, the little girl said with a pout. “And what does it have to do with this poor girl?”

 

Titania sighed.

 

“I have never thought well of the Winter Knights before. But this is an all-out first in unmitigated Mortal stupidity!”, she said with clear astonishment.

“That was harsh, Mother Titania. He never did you wrong.”, Inshala objected.

“He did attack my Summer Knight.”, the Summer Queen reminded her.

“Yes. My mate had warned both the Summer Knight and his mate what would happen should they step out of line in his town. After all, he does represent the Mortal laws as well. And still, his mate tried to slay me with a death curse, in a Duel of Yield. I went against my nature and did not seek balance. My mate went against his nature and did not seek vengeance. I chose to forgive a death curse, Mother Titania, and he chose to forgive a murder!”, Inshala replied quietly.

“The mate of my knight is an ambitious girl. But not very smart and rather frivolous in her choices at times. I shall speak firmly on this matter with my knight and his mate.. I shall also owe a favor to your mate, as distasteful as that is for me, for not seeking the vengeance that was his right. Any other Winter Knight would have taken full advantage of the situation to slay his counterpart and made Mab rather happy.”, Titania said with resignation.

 

Inshala did not say anything. She only held her breath..

 

“Very well, my daughter, I shall teach you the ways of birth, and the beginning of new life. I shall teach you the ‘How’, and the ‘Where’, also..”

 

. . .

 

It was hours later when Inshala came out of the log house shaking, her eyes wild, her face pale as a sheet, and she was quietly terrorized as three new souls blared at the top of their lungs, making their first demands from the Mortal coil;

 

“FEED ME!”

 

She had watched, even midwifed plenty of animals before. It had always been a beautiful event and even a greater adventure for her to help, and witness baby fowls, cubs, puppies, kittens, goat kids, and quietly climb up trees to watch eggs hatch. For whatever reason, she had failed, quite thoroughly, to put two and two together that men and women would also make babies, now that she thought about it, and not without a great amount of blushing, in a similar ‘interaction’..

And she was also angry with her Aager for not telling her about it, and for not.. ‘interacting’ with her.. at all!

To be fair, she could guess why he hadn’t. As far as she had thus understood the ‘social thingy’, it was something every individual in a society learned.. as if by magic!

She, who had never been in any such community, just never had had the opportunity to be blessed with that particular school of magic, whatever school it belonged to.. Conjuration, perhaps? There was a lot of conjuring going on there.. like babies.. Or enchantment.. It certainly did have elements of enchantment in it and the whole concept did enchant her. Perhaps evocation, then? This ‘interaction’ thing she was told about certainly enflamed some things inside her, and that definitely sounded like evocation!

 

Ok. Perhaps she was drifting off the main topic a bit..

 

The fact of the matter was, she could imagine her Aager struggling to explain the whole concept of ‘interacting’ to her..  or was it called ‘interacting with?’ ..along with how it was done.. Not that she had quite figured that part yet, and, as important as it was, from a totally ‘circle of life’ point of view, it was a minor detail, really. Its enflaming, enticing, and exciting importance was that it took place between willing and wanting mates..

It certainly did explain the storm she felt, many, many times in the past whenever her Aager was around.. or even when he wasn’t and she had just wished that he was.

 

Then she looked up to see a whole crowd of woodsmen; families that had returned, men, women, and children, had all gathered at a respectable distance, waiting patiently for the births.. They had lit a big bone fire in the center of the small cluster of homes and many had torches in their hands. The men were still clearing up the debris as women had placed a large cauldron in the center of the fire and were cooking something that smelled heavenly to Inshala at that moment. The children were running around the fire with shrill screams of joy and fun, and several dogs with wagging tails ran after them.

They had all stopped whatever they were doing though, when Inshala had come out, and silently they had watched the little, overly skinny girl with the curving horns with respect, trepidation, a pinch of excitement, and a tint of expectation.

The door to the log house opened at that point and a badly beaten young man, Nathen, the new young mother’s husband came limping out of his house with tears in his eyes and a silly grin on his face. He stared at the crowd for a moment, then punched a fist into the evening sky and shouted victoriously.

 

“I have two sons and a daughter! My Avisia gave birth to three healthy souls!”

 

The crowd exploded with cheers!

 

“Come, child.”, said a tired old voice, and an elderly woman held Inshala by her hand and pulled her gently over to the fire. “You look worn and hungry. Some of the houses collapsed after that man in blacks came and destroyed the cult members, and good riddance.”, she said with disgust in her voice as she sat Inshala on a rickety old stool, and handed her a hot bowl of thick stew and a large, wooden spoon. “For the past sixteen or seventeen years, every time a girl became pregnant in Dim Woods, they would swoop down like vultures claiming they could sniff out demons, then damn the poor girls to their deaths. We tried to send messages to the elves and Serenity Home for help, but either the messengers would disappear, or they would, and come back the next season. I gather you know the young man who came in earlier and.. wrecked the village? A bit of tempter, that boy has, but thanks to him, we now have Nathen, who is my grandson, alive and well, we have his pretty Avisia, who is, in fact, a very pious girl and who hasn’t had a sinful thought in her entire life, let alone ‘bed with demons.'”

 

Inshala just sat there, quietly petrified.

This old woman was a woodsman or a woodswoman, Inshala wasn’t sure which, not that it mattered at that particular moment, and she was talking to her like Granma, her elder sister Moira’s grandmother, would in her better moods, back when they had been at Durkahan.

And she was offering her food.

Many other women came to her, and gently touched her shoulder, and thanked her as several boys sat across her and watched her eat with enthralled expressions on their faces. To Inshala’s paniced shock, a little girl came over to her and hugged her, and soundly kissed her, and then ran off, blushing furiously.

 

“Maradith. Avisia’s younger sister. By saving her, you saved their whole family from generations of shame and blame. You like the stew?”, the elderly woman asked.

“I.. Yes.. Thank you. It is delicious.”, Inshala stammered.

“Here. Put some of this in it.”, she said and pulled out a tiny little pouch from under her girdle.

“What is it?”, Inshala asked.

“Kumse herb.”, the old woman said with a smile.

 

Inshala stared at her.

 

“But.. Kumse is a beatle. Not a herb.”, she said with a flushed face.

“Ow, you know of the Kumse Beatle, then?”, the old woman asked.

“Yes. It tastes awesome!”, Inshala said excitedly.

“Ah, a girl of my own heart. People pinch their faces when I say, Kumse Beatle, so I just say herb instead. Then it is alright. People can be so foolish sometimes, do you not think so?”, she asked.

“Uhhmm.. I am a guest here, grandmother. It would be impolite of me to say such things for my hosts.”, the skinny little girl replied with a smile.

“No, my dear. You are the Ritual Guardian. There are no hosts for you in this forest. Only guests..”, the elderly woman said seriously.

 

Inshala looked at her a bit confused. Not because it was somewhat true, but because this woman would know of such things, and actually have come to terms with it.

 

“Your father, Master Cathber, did visit the woodsmen of Dim Woods quite frequently. He spoke of the forest and he spoke of life. He tutored some too.. I attended many of his preachings. Yet he never wanted followers. Midwifed many of our children as well, including me, and my daughter, and my Nathen. And now, his daughter has midwifed my grandson’s wife and the circle of life is now complete.”, she said happily, though it didn’t last long. She reached out and took Inshala’s slender hands in her own, wrinkled ones, and spoke mournfully. “The news of his death pained us all. And gave free rein to the Tempest cult for the past six or seven months. They were always there, always causing trouble, but with your father in the forest, they always kept a low profile, because that is what jackals do. They snivel and hide when the lion is out, but are brave only when the lion is gone. So, my dear girl, live long and protect your forrest, because there will always be jackals..”

“Yes.”, said a thick, raspy voice from behind them.

 

Inshala turned around and stiffened.

It was the man with the crutches.

Avisia’s father, and now, the newly born triplets grandfather.

 

“I remember you.”, he rasped as he limped, using only his crutches.

“I remember you.”, mirrored Inshala quietly.

“Damn.”, he cursed. “I had wished you hadn’t.”

“It is hard to forget men with whips.”, mumbled the skinny little girl and she was tightly holding the half-empty bowl in her hands because she didn’t want this man to see her trembling.

“That was a long time ago.”, the man said, staring down at his useless legs.

“No. It was not.”, Inshala said. “Would you like to see what you carved on my back?”

“I.. was younger than..”, the man stammered.

“No. I was younger than. You were an adult!”, she very nearly snarled and she was staring at him with burning eyes now.

“I.. was an idiot.. and a member of the Tempest cult, back then.. full of mindless zeal. We were all indoctrinated to believe what we did was righteous. We did not think. We just let others do our thinking for us..”, he stammered even more.

“And I was there only to heal a wounded nanny dog who had to nurse her puppies..”, Inshala said and her face slowly changed.. and lost all its happiness, its life, its desires, and unnoticed, she took her first step over to Underfey!

 

The crowd had gone silent by now and the children had stopped running. The dogs, however, had come to her feet and settled there, all facing the man with the crutches, and all with stony expressions as their canines glinted in the fire.

 

“I am sorry. For what I did to you, then. Yet here you are. You saved my daughter, my son-in-law, and my two grandsons, and my granddaughter as well. I.. left the cult after what I did to you. These legs.. were given to me by your father, Master Cathber.. for what I did to you.. Yet I feel the remorse more now than I did all these years.. I would like to repent for my sins, Ritual Guardian. I place the fate of my life in your hands. Either way, I shall leave this circle as a forgiven man, or in a casket.”

 

Inshala’s heart was churning now, and the dogs had started growling at the man as well. A sticky and spiteful hatred spread inside of her and her vision dimmed to a pinpoint.. leaving the face of the man, the only thing visible to her.

 

“He will be forgiven, or he shall die.”, said a voice in her mind. Inshala thought she knew that voice.

“Yes. You know my voice, love. You know me. You are my mate and my life. We promised to be stupid together, remember? Should you forgive, you will finally be free.. but your hunger for vengeance shall be left unquenched. Should you not, you shall have his blood for I shall tear him apart, and to your pleasure, for I shall not give him the satisfaction of a casket! But ask yourself this; will you slay the grandfather of the babies you just saved?, Aager whispered in her mind.

 

For a long moment, the whole circle of people seemed to hold their breath, waiting for her decision as the skinny little girl trembled visibly now with quiet fear and furry.

 

Then she remembered something someone had told her, and very recently;

 

 

Now if you think those idiots who gave you your scars matter, by all means, quake their homes, burn their fields, dry their wells, and I shall gladly help you extract your bloody vengeance from them and feel little remorse afterward. You, on the other hand, will suffer the guilt of that crime for the remainder of your life, one day at a time and happiness shall never enter your threshold.. 

 

 

Inshala did not want happiness to never enter her threshold.. Whatever she felt personally, she wholeheartedly did not want that kind of misery for her mate, if not for herself.

 

And so, she made her decision..

 

She flourished one slender hand and a long, thorny whip of vines appeared in it and sharp, collective breaths were heard all around her as everyone took a few steps back and they stared at the skinny little girl in fear.

Only the man standing before her stood his ground and there was no fear in his face. Only a determined look of acceptance..

With a swift crack of her vine-whip, Inshala lashed out and splintered one of his crutches.

The man stumbled for a bit, then found his balance again.

Inshala sent her whip for a second time and the man crumpled on the ground as the pair of his crutches also smashed into pieces.

She stepped up to the man, now lying face down and struggling to turn..

..and pressed her hands on his legs.

 

The man shrieked once as something snapped.

He shrieked again as the other leg also snapped!

Then he fell silent, staring up at the skinny little girl with the curved horns, confused and confounded.

 

“What my Father took, I have thus returned. You shall walk, once again, and you shall make sure no girl ever suffers the sins done to me and yours. Your death shall serve no one. Your life, however, will serve everyone. And that shall be your redemption.”

 

Slowly, carefully, and to everyone’s awe, the man rose to his feet. He stared at his own legs with amazement, and he looked at them with shame.

 

“My.. my granddaughter..”, he stammered. “I would name her after you, Ritual Guardian.”

 

Inshala gazed at the man, then denied his wont.

 

“No. You shall name her after a greater woman. You shall name her ‘Lilly’..”

 

 

. . .

 

 

Lilly and Aager joined her two days later, weary and bloody, outside the cluster of homes. To their astonishment, there were many ogres, and they were everywhere. There was also the of noise crashing lumber, the beating of hammers, and the sawing of wood coming from that direction and there was a lot of it.

 

“What’s this?”, Aager asked in his gravelly voice, staring at the ogres milling around.

“I was told, someone has a bit of a temper.”, Inshala said, trying to hide her smile. “It would seem he brought the village down!”

 

Lilly snorted.

 

“I talked to the ogres and woodsmen, and they have come to a muttering agreement!”, Inshala said.

“Muttering agreement?”, Lilly asked.

“Mutual.”, Aager inserted without cracking a smile.

“Yes, that.” the skinny girl agreed.

“The ogres will carry the lumber and bring Rook Mountains through here, as they promised, and the woodsmen will not pester them but will provide them food for their efforts.”, she continued. “As a show of good faith, the ogres offered to fix their homes, which someone might have kindly asked them to. Most are already complete and are bigger than they were before!”

 

She paused for a breather and Aager could literally see her accomplished excitement now.

 

“The word has been spreading. Other villages are bringing in supplies and rations to cook for the ogres too. And marking trees for the ogres so they could find their villages, as there are many of them scattered all over Dim Woods. They will follow the trees to each village and take their lumber and gather them all here where they will be lashed together and placed upon those sleds the ogres are building now.”, she said, pointing at the skeletons of the giant wooden structures.

“I see you have been busy.”, he noted.

“Quite busy.”, Inshala said, grinning up at him. Then her grin turned to a slight frown. “How busy were you?”

“Quite busy.”, Aager replied, mirroring her grin, though with less enthusiasm.

“Yeah.”, Lilly added with a bitter snort. “Aager really wanted to depopulate Dim Woods.”

“No, I did not.”, her brother snapped. “The Tempest cult has been here for a very, very long time, it would seem. After the first few encounters, we quit with niceties. We simply killed them. A lot of them escaped though. We found secret tunnels leading out and into the forest, some of them connected directly to homes of people who were not even aware of them. It would have taken them years to dig those tunnels which tells me foresight, if not outright deliberation and planning. We found secret cashes of weapons, boarded up ritual items; incenses, braziers, ritual knives with runes carved on them, we found bloody bridal gowns and veils.. These people had something going on here or had something very serious planned for here. Something sinister.. No one just digs escape tunnels in their homes, or prepares cashes of weapons, or has secret compartments for sacrificial rituals. The fact that no one even noticed such excavating effort that produces both noise and a lot of dirt and rubble, nor any of the other odd signs of their existence, tells me they have had much experience in this area. Experience only military sappers and covert operatives might have. I sent word to Mayor Yuleman and told him to inform Agent Largo about our findings. He’s good with conspiracies.”

 

Inshala stared at him and what he’d just said with shocked amazement while Lilly gave him a sidelong glance.

 

“Good with conspiracies?”, she asked with a bemused expression.

“Yes. As in, he takes child-like delight trying to figure out such things and likes creating counter-conspiracies himself. Evidence shows with how he planned ahead when he first hired you back at Arashkan to use against Angrellen was impressive. A four-way hired assassin, all thinking they had out-hired you right from under the nose of the other, was brilliant.”, he admitted. “I am guessing he would love to put our findings together and see if there are any heads or tails to be made out of them..”

 

Lilly snorted.. but her eyes shown with no small amount of pride.

 

“That’s the first time you said anything nice about him.”, she noted.

“That’s the first time I said anything nice about anyone.. probably..”, her brother countered.

“That is not true, my Aager. You have said nice things about Lilly many times.”, Inshala inserted innocently.

 

Aager froze.

So did Lilly.

 

“Did you, now?”, she said, staring at her brother with pursed and amused lips.

 

Aager coughed.

 

“Those were said in confidence, Inshala. You were not supposed to have told her that.”, he said somewhat abashed and irritated.

“But.. she is your sister, my Aager. She should know, and hear you say nice things about her.”, Inshala replied with a pleading tone.

“True. Maybe. Perhaps.”, Aager said with frustration.

“Yes, Aager. You should say more nice things to me.. What are brothers for if not to coddle and spoil their little sisters?”, Lilly said with a grin.

 

Aager sighed.

 

“Are we done here?”, he growled, sort of to change the topic.

“We are, my Aager.”, Inshala replied, reflecting his sister’s grin.

“You were very brave, you know that, right? And I am so proud of you.”, he whispered in her mind.

“I.. I was? You.. you are?”, she stammered somewhat surprised.

“Yes. You did what I would never have. You forgave the man who marked you with his whip. And you healed him. He can walk now. And with pride. You returned his daughter back to him and saved his grandchildren. He is the richest man in Dim Woods today, just for what you did for him. Nothing anyone could offer him would make him happier than he is now..”, he said solemnly and sincerely.

“Ow.. Thank you, my Aager. But the true hero here is not me. The true hero is Lilly, for the sound advice she gave me just a few days ago.. It would seem, I am not above anger, nor pride, arrogance, and hubris, my Aager. In the end, I am just a silly little girl..”, she replied with a flushed face.

“No, baby. You are wiser than anyone I have ever met. And do you know how I know that?”, he asked.

“No..”, she said with a tiny pout.

“A silly girl would have ignored the advice, no matter how sound it might have been. Listening to good advice, and recognizing it for one is the mark of wisdom, my love. Not stringing vague words together and serving them with style. And that you named the baby girl, Lilly, was simply beautiful..”

 

 

. . .

 

 

It was several days later and they had entered the wood elf territory now. Aager wasn’t very eager to meet with them, and neither was Lilly, though for very different reasons. The young man in his dark leathers simply found them stuffy and exhausting to converse. Lilly did not want to meet them, because she simply did not want to meet them! Inshala was of two minds on this matter. The wood elves had never mistreated her in the past. But they had never allowed her to get too close to their villages, either. No words were spoken about it, one way or another, but the elves had a way of making their intentions known without outright warnings.

The further they traveled, the more cautious all three of them became for the whole area, miles and miles of forest ground, and trees were filled with deadly and poisonous traps, spike studded pits, suddenly springing, stabbing, and/or slashing booby traps, hedgehog logs falling or swinging from trees, or the more conventional bear traps, all hidden expertly and scattered everywhere!

Apparently, Ranger Lieutenant Morel had taught them how to lay said traps a bit too well, and Aager was going to have a long talk with the esteemed ‘Vakha -o Menel’, which translated to something rather ostentatious and arrogant like, ‘Guardian of Nurturing Heaven’, as the wood elves had come to call her, while he nursed his bruised ankle. Had he not had the reflexes that he had, he would be nursing nothing, as he would have certainly lost the whole foot to the bloody trap he’d noticed a split second too late.

And now he was sitting down on a fallen tree log with Lilly snickering at his side as she stood guard, and the skinny little Inshala was rubbing some eye-soring ointment on his foot. Inshala being Inshala, however, had taken full advantage of the situation, and was giving the grouchy young man a full foot massage. And just so his other foot would not feel left out and sulk, and for the sake of ‘druidic’ balance, as she had claimed, she was doing the same to that one as well, ignoring all the mumblings and the fumings of the scary man in dark leathers.

 

It was about then, they heard the growling, angry voice coming from behind a thick clog of bushes..

 

“And where do you, sorry-looking, cod-sniffin’, blubber-chewin’ bunch of idiots think you are going?”

 

“Well, shit!”, Lilly spat as she recognized that voice..

✱ ✱ ✱

The Plague ran over, yet another dozen rafts lashed together bearing scores of Orken and she did it in total silence. The captain of the black ship with the black sails, Dagard Dreadhound, did not cheer. His men, silent as the dead, did not cheer, nor did they wave their swords in satisfaction or jeer as the freezing cold of Lake Arashkan swallowed, perhaps two hundred of the deadliest race the Kingdom of Isles had seen since its foundation. It was a dreary sight to behold and Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart stood with resolute silence of his own, next to a drawn Constance Alure Smithen. The other half-born girl, Berete Hamna Vir was missing.. likely up in the ‘crow’s nest’, the little, cup-like, rotting box at the top of the mainmast, lost in the thick mist that seemed to spread in every direction, making it impossible to see beyond ten yards.

“Rotting..”, mused Standorin as he stared into the misty waters of the Arashkan Lake, and at the last of the struggling Orken as it too, much like the rest of its kin, disappeared under the floating bits of ice.

As deaths went, drowning was bested only by being burned alive, he thought.

“Hmm?”, Constance asked quietly, as she too, stared into the deadly waters of the lake, and she did wonder, what else lay at the bottom. She was too new in this Mortal coil to ignore many things, and many of them were a wonder for her, even if they were not pleasing, and rather morbid.

“This ship..”, he said, also with a low voice. “..is rotting. And is too quiet. I can not claim I have been around many ships, but I have been to Drashan and back, and no ship was ever this quite there. Quite the opposite, really. Pirates tend to be a rowdy bunch.. Yet.. this ship is as if.. dead already. I mean.. look at this wood.. the black on it.. It isn’t paint, it isn’t tar, and it isn’t black by nature. At least I don’t think so.. It looks as if it was burned down to its skeleton frame and is now just charred wood.”

“Because it is, Sheriff Standorin.”, said a cold, dry voice, and both the sheriff and Constance turned around at the same time to see Captain Dagard Dreadhound himself, standing, not quite behind them, but at a polite, ‘just out of sword’s reach’ distance away.

 

“If you think that’s far enough, you are in for a surprise, pirate!”, thought Standorin, but the expression he showed was his neutral, just before an arrest, face..

 

“The Plague was killed several hundred years ago.. Ambushed and murdered, quite dishonorably betrayed, I might add.”, Dagard said coldly coming to stand next to them. He put his hands on the charred, black rails of his ship and ran them over it, as if caressing it. For the duration of his caress, his eyes went distant and his face froze like it was carved out of stone as his lips pressed tightly together. “She was downed far, far off the eastern shores of Drashan, and beyond the Endless Sea, which does do its name justice.”

 

“You are pushing the creepy vibe a bit too far. You really should bring it down a notch or two. There are ladies present..”, the sheriff thought in silence while he kept the captain in his peripheral vision at all times.

 

“How many Orken rafts have you downed, so far? Are they bringing in more? Have any escaped to report back?”, he said out loud.

“One hundred and forty-four. No. And no.”, Dagard replied. “I do not play ball, sheriff, and neither does The Plague. We match in temperament and keep to our promises. We said we would make sure the Orken would not come to your precious town through here, I intend to make sure that does not happen. Once the other ships arrive, we will start the real cleansing and bombard the shorelines of Arashkan Lake to make sure these Orken stay five hundred yards inland. Now, Lady Constance, if you would be kind enough to join me for dinner, I would very much appreciate it.”

“I was thinking of having dinner with the esteemed sheriff of Serenity Home, Captain.”, Constance replied politely.

“The sheriff may have his dinner with the second mate. A Lady of your stature should suffer only the best The Plague has to offer.”, the captain said in his cold, void voice, totally ignoring the presence of the large man standing just out of sword’s reach.

 

Standorin cleared his throat.

 

“I would suffer your best, Captain. But the sheriff has already asked for my presence. It would be unkind and quite churlish of a woman of my stature to go back on her promise. Wouldn’t you agree?”, Constance smiled at him.

 

For a moment, Dagard stood where he was, not quite sure what to do or say. Then, the first glimmer of a smile played around his bloodless lips.

 

“Well played, Lady Constance. I shall, perhaps, take you on for dinner tomorrow evening, then?”, he said politely, but stone-cold seriously. Then, without waiting for her reply, the captain turned around and ghosted away..

..and Sheriff Standorin dropped his hand off the pommel of his longsword hanging on his belt. True, he preferred the greatsword on his back, but on a ship, and in close-quarters, a longsword was more ‘handy’.

 

“That was well played indeed, Lady Constance. Though I should have thought to ask you for dinner, but that seems to be settled already.”, he said with a grim smile.

“I apologize for that, sir.”, Constance said sincerely. “I took the initiative on your part and assumed you would, in fact, would want to dine with me.”

“I would. And I do.. But Dagard is not going to let this go easy.”, he mused, staring up at the quarterdeck where the captain now stood, his hands on the wheel and somewhat lost in the thick mist. “Something is off with that man.”

“Yes.”, Constance agreed. “He is used to charming women and hence, forgoes the necessity of a good flirt. Perhaps, once, he was very good at it. But he is no longer interested in the means. Only at the ends. Had I wanted that, I would have stayed in Hell, finished my training, and let be loose upon your Mortal coil and have my wont.”

 

Standorin cleared his throat once again.

 

“You said he is used to charming women. What did you mean by that? Is he some sort of magician?”, he asked.

“He has powers, though I can not discern what, nor its limits. Charming could be his only talent, or merely something he does without notice, or even one of his many other talents.”, the alluring half-born girl guessed.

“But it had no effect on you, I take it?”

“He must do better than that for his charm to work on me, my dear sir. Charming a succubi is quite difficult, if not impossible. It is, after all, the core of what we are.”, she said, though not quite with pride. “Hamna Vir suspects what he is, and is afraid of him. I think she plans to avoid him by staying as far away from him as possible.. in the crow’s nest.. Captain Dagard Dreadhound is old. Very, very old. Even by our standards. Did you notice how he spoke of this burnt-down ship? He spoke of it like a lover! And as if it were alive. And I do not believe he was speaking metaphorically when he said The Plague was killed, and several hundred years ago.. ‘Ambushed and murdered, quite dishonorably betrayed.’, he said. He also said she was downed far, far off the eastern shores of Drashan, and beyond the Endless Sea, meaning he came from the other side of Endless Sea, and possibly rose this ship from the bottom of the ocean. If so, that is not something to ‘meh’ on.”

“‘Meh?'”, the sheriff asked.

“Something Hamna Vir says when she deems something is unworthy of her attention or is not up to her standards. Quite irritating, really.”, Constance replied, making a pretty pinch with her elegant nose.

“I.. see.. How is it I am able to say no to you, then? I do not claim to know, nor have I encountered any succubus, but I have heard they are hard to resist with their charms and vile ways. I was able to rebuff you, quite rudely, on several occasions, which I should have done much more politely than the way I did.”, he asked apologetically.

 

Constance gave him a moderated smile.

 

“For three reasons. One, you, sir, have a strong and stubborn will. Two, we all took a blood oath never to use our skills and ‘vile-ways’ for personal gains. And three, I never wanted a servile. I wanted a man I could trust and lean on. A man who would make me feel mildly wanted, but by his own free will and effort. I believe I have told this to you once before.”, she replied quietly.

“Yes. I believe you did.”, Standorin said.

“To be honest, I never tested the strength of your will, nor wonder how it would fair if I had. I want you exactly the way you were; stubborn, mule-headed, kind, caring, and strong.”, she said with another smile.

“Mule-headed?”, he asked, raising one eyebrow at her.

“Mule-headed.”, Constance repeated with a little blush.

“Just which part of my actions gave you the impression that I was a mule-headed man, Lady Constance?”, Standorin asked, a bit taken aback.

“Your persistence in not asking me out.”, she replied, her smile turning even more pretty.

“I.. Men do not like being rejected.”, he stammered.

“How could there be free will, if rejection is taken out of the equation?”, she asked, her pretty smile turning playfully mischievous.

“I do not dispute your point. But the fact remains; we do not like being rejected by the women we.. like..”, he finished lamely.

“I am liked by you then, sir?”, Constance said, and there was a glitter in her eyes too, now.

 

Sheriff Standorin shut up..

..and stubbornly refused to answer that question.

 

“Is this going to be another presentation of your admirable mule-headed aspect?”, she said, stifling a genuine belly laugh. “If so, I rest my case.”

 

Standorin growled as he recognized the trap he had just fallen into. And he was further frustrated that his recognition of that fact would do him no good whatsoever..

 

“Yes.”, he said finally and turned to stare back at the misty and frozen waters of Lake Arashkan.

 

For a long moment, they shared a companionable silence, barely an inch apart; the sheriff with a slightly disturbed expression on his flushed face, the tall, alluring girl, with a happy one.

“Please do not dine with that deck rat.”, he rumbled with a despaired voice. “Something is wrong with him.. on top of all the things you already said about him, I mean.. Something obsessive, and possessive, and without any concern or regard for what the object of his obsession might be. Knew a man with those qualities. A young man with obsessive hate. He betrayed his town and his own people for that obsession, and I ended up—”

“—You worry about my wellbeing.”, Constance said, interrupting him, as if not wanting him to finish what he was about to say in hopes of sparing him the agony of the memory. What she had said, however, wasn’t a question, really, the way she had said it. “But I am not totally defenseless, you know.”

“I am not sure he will let you bring a twenty-foot pike into his cabin.”, he mumbled. “Not that it would help in such close quarters.”

“I will not ask you not to worry, sir. My pike is my first line of defense, but not my last.”, she replied in a reassuring way.

“That’s what worries me, Constance..”, Standorin rumbled again.

“That I can defend myself worries you?”, she asked, though there were no implications in her question.

“The fact that you might need to defend yourself.”, the sheriff finished.

“Ah. That makes much more sense, and much more your line of thinking.”, Constance mused.

“How do you mean?”, he asked.

“That you do, in fact, trust me with my abilities. But you are not an aggression-seeking man. You fight it when it comes to your door, but you do not go out of your way looking for it. The only time you would is to avoid further aggressions down the line.”, she replied with an approving smile. “The sign of a dedicated and steady man.”

“Huh!”, Standorin grunted. “High praise, but a bit misplaced, I think. You should have seen me when I was younger.”

“We are what we are, at the free-fall point of our lives, Stan.”, she said, forgoing her usual ‘sirs’. “I wasn’t always calm and thoughtful either. Looking back, and when I say back, I mean it in a very Mortal sense, I reacted foolishly from the very day we met. I could have laughed, merrily, and refused to engage in combat with the young guard, Anderson. I could have left my pike ‘at home’, so to speak, and never needed to prove a point. I could have simply been enticing, and likely captured your attention and avoided the culminating events. I could have swallowed my pride and stayed as the liaison and made up for the loss in the long run in a more, acceptably feminine way. I could have been a bit more revealing in my choice of costume and inevitably further captured your attention. I could have smiled and tried to shrug off the schism between us and opt for a more comfortable reaction the way we were taught during our Seeds of Descension training rather than to sulk like a little Mortal girl. In all candor, dear Stan, I did many things wrong.. To you, and to myself, and my unthoughtful and rash actions provoked reactions I never thought through with the clarity of an adult.”

 

Standorin didn’t mull too long over all that.

 

With an unexpected show of emotional maturity, he turned to her, held her by the small of her back with one callused hand and her slender neck with the other, quietly pulled her to himself, and gently kissed her.

When he parted, he felt electrified and flushed.

Quite apparently, Constance Alure Smithen had a very soft, very delicious mouth. And her eyes seemed to have dilated and they shimmered..

..and they seemed very vulnerable just then.

 

“Your seamless conclusions are correct, but not without total lack of flaw. You, my dear Constance, acted exactly as any Mortal would have. Furthermore, you are now second-guessing your previous actions and finding faults in them, which is what any decent, thoughtful, considerate, and smart Mortal would do. Had you not displayed your battle prowess that time, the town guards would never have honestly respected you, and I would have turned down this mission. That small display gave me a basic idea as to what the half-born were capable of. Which is why I accepted this mission even though I never saw what Liaison Hamna Vir could do, nor did I know who the other half-born was, as the esteemed liaison very carefully never mentioned your name. Had you gone for a more revealing costume, you would have garnered the attention of many of the younger men under my command, but not mine. All that would have done would be to have petrified my already standing suspicions. I do seek beauty in a woman. But I seek other qualities more. Qualities like steadiness, reliability, being smart and being considerate. Beauty does not last. Character is there to stay. And last but not least, your reactions to your unachieved failures showed me you were just as human as I was, and your otherwise appearance made little difference and mattered less than ever, and certainly made you more appealing to me, adding to my conclusion that you were, indeed, truly human, and only where it mattered; your heart.”, he said in his low, rumbling voice.

 

Then he paused for a moment and murmured to himself.

 

“Wish there was a priest or temple guardian around. Why is there never a priest or a temple guardian around when you need one?”

 

Constance Alure Smithen stared at him with astonishment.

 

“You.. you wish to..?”, she stammered.

“Yes. I do, my Lady Constance. And very much. Though I suspect this isn’t exactly the best of settings.”, the sheriff replied gruffly, and with a flushed face. “Will you, Lady Constance Alure Smithen, be my companion, my life-long friend, my brother-in-arms, and my steady wife until death do parts us?”

“Yes. And very much, Sir Standorin Shieldheart. I, Constance Alure Smithen, would be your companion, your life-long friend, your brother-in-arms, and your steady wife until death do parts us and thus be remembered as; Constance Alure Shieldheart, henceforth.. And I believe it is custom among Mortals that a ship’s captain may, in fact, officiate as a priest for such happy occasions!”

 

Sheriff Standorin gave out a hearty laugh at that, a contrast to the cold, misty, and quite dreary atmosphere around them, then rumbled.

 

“This should be interesting.”

 

 

. . .

 

 

Captain Dagard Dreadhound was angry.

Sheriff Standorin couldn’t tell how he could tell, for the man standing before him had been cold as far as back as he had first met seen him at the Serenity Home meeting.

Cold, frigid, even, and soulless.

It was that tiny little extra pinch of intensity in his piercing gaze that gave it away..

 

Yup!

 

Captain Dagard Dreadhound was, indeed, very angry.

 

And now Standorin was standing before him with the beautiful, demurely smiling tall woman, Constance Alure Smithen, who would shortly become a Shieldheart on demand.

The even more sullen Hamna Vir, who had been forcibly coerced down the crow’s nest, and a grayish, corpse of a man, the second mate, whom Standorin had never met before, was standing a few feet off to one side as witnesses!

The rest of the crew, some one hundred and forty ‘lads’, stood motionless on the main deck. Every once in a while, as if remembering to do so, one of them would sigh or heave but never seemed to actually breathe.. to the disturbed notice of the sheriff.

 

Captain Dagard cleared his throat, sort of to call everyone to attention, and spoke in his cold, soulless voice.

 

“Tonight, we have gathered here, for the unexpected union of one Standorin Shieldheart, and one Constance Alure Smithen and they have asked me, Dagard Dreadhound, Captain of The Plague, to officiate the occasion, knowing a star falls and dies at every such irony..”, he said and his eyes pierced both the sheriff and his soon to be wife.

 

Then he opened his hand to his second mate, who gave him a thick, leather-bound book, and with tender care and wearing thick, leather gloves. The captain took the book, wearing a similar pair of thick gloves, and opened it, reeled at what he beheld, then started to speak once more..

 

“To that end; ‘Dearly beloved, we are gathered here tonight to join this man and this woman in..”, he said.. and stammered.. Then, with a forced, pinched face, he continued, “..Holy matrimony.'”

 

..and dark, dry blood came trickling down his nose!

 

Sheriff Standorin tried not to take notice and stood his ground. Constance only smiled, quite serenely. Hamna Vir scowled and took a barely discernable step back. And the second mate gulped —the only sentient reaction he had ever shown!

 

Dagard bit his bloodless lips and pressed on.

 

“Standorin Shieldheart..”, he said coldly. “..do you take this woman to be your wife, to live together in holy matrimony, to love her, to honor her, to comfort her, and to keep her in sickness and in health, forsaking all others, for as long as you both shall live?”

“I do.”, Standorin said simply and without any verbal flourish.

 

One of the pirates in the front line collapsed!

One moment he was standing, very still, the next, he just dropped, without any decorum, as if he were a puppet and his strings had suddenly been snapped!

 

“And you, Constance Alure Smithen..”, the captain continued. “..do you take this man to be your husband, to live together in holy matrimony, to love him, to honor him, to comfort him, and to keep him in sickness and in health, forsaking all others, for as long as you both shall live?” 

“I do.”, Constance replied with a pretty pink blush.

 

Three more pirates collapsed where they stood!

 

“Very well.”, Dagard steamed. “You may exchange rings.”

 

Standorin pulled a chain hidden under his shirt and snapped it off his neck. At one end of the chain, there was a slightly worn ring with a small emerald, and gold, molded in the shape of leaves hugging the pretty gem.

“This belonged to my Limnia Karya. It belonged to my mother before her, and her mother before that. I am afraid it is the only ring I have that is worth giving to you. Will you accept it?”

“I will. And I shall draw upon the wisdom of those who wore it before me, Sir Standorin.”, Constance replied. Then she turned to her sister-kin. “Hamna Vir?”, she said.

Hamna Vir sulked up to her with a terrible expression of spite edged all over her face and handed her a beautifully carved ring with strange, mesmerizing runes and molded out of something the sheriff knew not what.

She hissed to Constance with unmitigated anger.

“This was meant to be given to my Dar Derune when he was old enough to receive it, dammit!”

“When he is old enough to receive it, you shall give him something he will want more, dear Hamna Vir; your heart!.”, Constance replied kindly.

The sullen half-born girl pinched her face even more, and with great reluctance, handed the ring over to her.

“I hate you. And I hate him even more.”, she hissed with terrible spite.

“No, love. You do not, and we both know it.”, Constance smiled at her, turned around, and to Standorin, she said, “From far, far away we came, and under odd circumstances we met. We know not much of one another. And yet we have fought with each other, though never as foes.. and together we fought foes, always as friends.. Will you thus trust me further and allow me to lean on you? Will you make me feel mildly wanted?”

“I will, I shall, and give you the best of my efforts and more than mildly, if you would.”, Standorin replied.

“I would.”, she said and placed the odd ring on his callused finger.

 

Captain Dagard glared, coldly at them both.

 

“By virtue of the authority vested in me under the laws of the seas, and in the presence of these two witnesses, I now pronounce you husband and wife, under the Great Heavens.. You may kiss the bride.”

 

Standorin Shieldheart kissed his bride, Constance Alure Shieldheart..

..as Captain Dagard Dreadhound spat a mouth full of dark, oozing blood..

..and the first mate, along with a dozen and more of the nearest pirates collapsed..

..then turned to inky black dust, and was carried off into the thick, murky mist soon enough.

 

Dagard coughed another mouthful and smiled, coldly, at the newlywed couple as dark, scarlet tears ran down his frosty eyes, and spoke through gritted teeth..

 

“Well played indeed.”

 

 


The original poem Anglenna ‘sings’ to cast her Incendiary Cloud spell is a paragraph from Mewlana Jalaluddin Rumi’s “Ateş Ne Zened Der Dil-i Mâ İllâ Hû” and reads (in old Persian);

 

Âteş ne zened der dil-i mâ illâ Hû
Kûteh ne küned menzil-i mâ illâ Hû
Ger âlemiyân cümle tabîbân bâşed
Halli ne küned müşkil-i mâ illâ Hû


I translated it to English in a way to fit the stories theme as;

 

No Fire nor Sun may Sear
I, but the Heaven’s

No Friend nor Foe, Far or Near
do Bar, but the Heavens

Should Mortals all,
Come to Aid whilst I call

None may Heal my Seared Heart
but the Great Heavens

 

The second spell she sings is from William Blake, “Mad Song”..

 

The wild winds weep,
And the night is a-cold;
Come hither, Sleep,
And my griefs infold:
But lo! the morning peeps
Over the eastern steeps,
And the rustling birds of dawn
The earth do scorn …

 

 

 

 

arashkan şehri dungeons and dragons groups modül savaş serenity The Great Arashkan the plot thickens Whispers; A Cabal

Not All Is Done
Part Five
“Dance Formation”

Not All Is Done
Part Five
“Dance Formation”

Timeline:

Upon extended experiences, both on a personal and professional level, Queen Alor’Nadien ne Feymist and King Udoorin Shieldheart have come to a certain, definitive conclusion;

 

Defense can not win wars.

 

Hence, a daring and extremely dangerous plan is formed to seek and destroy the Orken Grunt Generals and their Blood Shamans in hopes of bringing dissension and chaos among the coming Orken ranks and weaken their march against Serenity Home and the Kingdom of Isles.

 

This story begins shortly after
Not All Is Done..
Part Four
“Liberum Transitis”

 

 

To say the senior temple guardian, Thomas Dimwood, was offended was like saying the sky was somewhat blue, the sun rose from the east, traveled across said, somewhat blue sky, and settled west, and that forests were generally green!

He had been silently smoldering in white furry for the past week or so, speaking very little, and what he said would be in short, curt tones and was barely on this side of civilized.

His wife, Ranger Lieutenant Bremorel Songsteel, had been scarce too, running ahead, then ranging out and around them all day until they would settle in for another night of silent, smoldering furry.

Perigren Ostlanna Temez followed them in her own silent, withdrawn, and deplored contemplation as she waited for the final verdict; either the senior temple guardian, Thomas, would see what relative reason there was, under current, or otherwise, conditions, or he would not and she, along with her brothers and sisters would be exiled from the only refuge and sanctuary they had: The Serenity Home Temple of Light.

Or perhaps the much respected senior temple guardian, particularly from the half-born’s perspective, would go as far as exposing them to the community at large and turning them into the demons that they were..

Perigren Ostlanna Temez dearly hoped he wouldn’t, and desperately wished things wouldn’t come to that. She did not fear for her own life, and certainly not for her own safety, as much as she worried for her kin’s. To be sure, should there be a confrontation between the various powers of the town and her kin, the likely outcome would be in their favor; some of the half-born were, after all, and not without certain underlying irony, demonically powerful, which was the point, really.. Should they end up using their powers, they would, inadvertently risk breaking their blood oaths, and consequently destroying their only hope for Ascension!

The fact of the matter was, Temez knew three, very important things she was not willing to overlook; one was, all her brothers and sisters were vulnerable, both mentally and emotionally, and their current state in both areas wouldn’t settle for years, yet. Two was a bit of a follow up of the first, really, or perhaps linked to it; neither she nor her kin knew, nor understood moderation.. The news of the loss of Merisoul Xyrotwu and their consequent and collective reaction to it had shown them that quite clearly. But it was the third that made her heart churned the most because it was not only a matter of principle but the reason behind their current location, as opposed to being in Hell. Whatever decision the senior temple guardian would make, Temez would respect it. But under no circumstance would she bow to any demands, Mortal or otherwise. To fight and suffer for mutual benefits, be it for base survival or for respect, she would work until she died, should it come to that. To attain new masters and yokes after what they had been through in Hell, her answer to that was a clear ‘no’ of rejection, without ever hearing the reasons.

 

Period.

 

Because that way led to the idea that they might be subjected to servitude and even though neither Temez nor her kin fully grasped ‘freedom’, she was sure that wasn’t it. If there was going to be any understanding between them and Mortals, it would be on even grounds where there would be no master..

To that end, Temez sat, once again, in front of the campfire and across the senior temple guardian, staring at him, the fire, and his wife who had one of her arms in his and didn’t seem like she was going to let it go any time soon.

 

“This isn’t helping, Thomas.”, the ranger lieutenant was saying. “And this grim face you got going doesn’t suit you. I saw that face for the whole of my life whenever I looked into a mirror. I didn’t marry you to see more of the same.”

“This isn’t about faces, Morel. What she did.. was immoral and unforgivable, and on so many levels. She was the architect of the attack on Arashkan and High Woods. She is directly responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children of humans, and elves. We trusted her and she didn’t bother to tell us this. She should be burned at the stake for her transgressions!”, Thomas snarled. “She played us like a lute in making us think she and her ilk were innocent and were merely tools.. She isn’t a tool, Morel, she is the plan!”

“I do not dispute you, Thomas. But I do not think we have heard the whole story. She told it without giving us her side of the story, which tells me there is. I think she did this to make sure we grasped the magnitude of her crimes unbiased, and that takes a lot of courage.. Please, Thomas. Ask her to tell her side of the story.”, Bremorel pleased, quite unlike herself.

“Why don’t you ask her? I am not willing to listen to her, nor am I inclined to believe her.”, Thomas said angrily.

“Because I am just a ranger. The brainless brawler. You, on the other hand, are not.”, Bremorel said.

“You are not just a ranger, Morel. And you certainly are not a brainless brawler, either, and you know it!”, the young senior temple guardian snapped.

“Yes. I do. But I hold no political power or status and neither are they under my protection. Serenity Home Temple and everything in it are your responsibility, and you know it!”, she said with a grin.

 

Thomas fumed.

 

“Your clever mouth will get you into some serious trouble one day.”, he said seriously.

“Depends on who I am going to get into trouble with.”, she shrugged. “Are you going to talk to her or be stubborn about it.”

 

Thomas stared at her, fumed some more, then bowed to the inevitable and turned his gaze to the beautiful creature sitting quietly and in perfect stillness across the campfire.

 

“Perhaps I acted in haste and judged you too soon. I would like to hear your side of the story, if you would, Temez.”, he said.

The half-born girl did not reply. In fact, she did nothing to break her stillness. It was somewhat uncanny, really. So much so that the young man felt he needed to prompt her again.

“Temez?”, he asked.

 

“No.”, she replied.

 

“No?”, Thomas said a bit confused.

“You said, you would like to hear my side of the story. My answer is, no!”, she said in her throaty voice.

 

Thomas cocked an eyebrow.

 

“May I ask, why?”

“You may.”, she said. “But my answer will still be the same, for you wish to judge me either way. You merely want to feel good about your inquisition! In the end, I shall fit your assessment of what you already believe are to be my transgressions, or I shall be exonerated in your eyes which will mean you have subjugating power over me, and consequently, my kin also, missing the point; you don’t!”

 

“Ouch.”, Bremorel grinned at Thomas with sympathy.

Thomas, on the other hand, just stared at the half-born girl.

 

“You must understand, Senior Temple Guardian Thomas Dimwood. You have our utmost respect. You gave us sanction where no one else would have on behalf of someone you barely knew; Merisoul Xyrotwu, who, in her moment of desperation, loneliness, and hunger, tried to eat your soul. You forgave her and opened your temple to us. You gave us food and shelter. You taught us kindness and made us feel safe. And for what you felt for your beloved wife, you inadvertently showed us ‘love’, by deed. We owe you what we can never pay back in return. But we escaped Hell, and we escaped our Masters. We are a free people now and we shall not be judged thus thoroughly and out of hand for the things we did in the name of our former Masters because you Mortals get to have a choice, no matter how small or bad those choices may be and hence assume we did as well. We did not. Hell is not the Mortal coil and creatures with an expiration date such as I, do not get to entertain choices. We are given orders. We do them, not to extend our inevitable date of termination nor because we feared we would be destroyed, and whatever soul we may have had was cast into Oblivion, but because we simply did not have choice. Should you decide to put aside your willingness to judge me, I am willing to divulge my side of the story to you. Otherwise, I suggest we go to sleep and rise early to further our mission. Once it is done and we are still alive to return to your town, you may send us away from your temple. I promise, all my kin shall leave in peace to find elsewhere to make us a home.”, Temez said and stared at Thomas. Then she took a deep breath and quietly added, “Choose.”

 

Both Thomas and the ranger lieutenant stared at her this time.

 

Then Bremorel said, “She’s right, you know. She can not be judged as a war criminal because, one; we really do not know her role in the destruction of Arashkan and High Woods, which doesn’t matter because two; however bad our choices may be, we still have them. We are, literally, born with them and only need to wait long enough to grow to be able to exercise them. It is hard to comprehend what choicelessness is, for us. From another angle, it is easy to judge them because we truly can’t comprehend choicelessness! We were not bred, nor were we indoctrinated or conditioned for a single purpose. None of us were. And when I say, none of us, I mean no mortal in this world.. Our parents loved one another. They came to be a family based on that wont. We are the fruits of that love. She and her kin are the product of a foul, atrocious, contemptable, heinous, demonic, and outright evil intent..”

“And you call yourself a brainless brawler? Girl, you should be ashamed of yourself..”, Thomas snorted somewhat bitterly.

 

Bremorel smiled at him.

 

Thomas got up, walked around the fire, and sat next to the half-born. He looked at her, in the eyes, and spoke..

“I do not understand what you have suffered. Hence I shall not pretend that I do. I would still like to hear what you have to say if only to learn what we are really up against.”, he said.

 

Temez stared back at him, then she turned back to stare at the fire. Her voice was soft and somewhat morose when she started speaking.

 

“The plan for the invasion of Arashkan and Bari Na-ammen was put into place perhaps by many, many centuries before I and my kind was born. Unlike his predecesors who relied solely on their demon minions, my Master wanted an army that would not require great power to open gates or portals to be summoned into the Mortal coil, and even greater power to sustain said gates and portals because these passage ways to Hell also required Mortals to open them from here.

“Mortals, however, are fickle and unreliable at best, and they are short lived, and too soon do they fall prey to their own greeds and get above themselves in their hubris. Hence, he first made the Orken..

“As you might have guessed by their name, the Orken were Orcs, originally. Unlike most of his predecessors, my Master also favored intelligence over mere, stupid muscle. Hence he had his Orcs heavily and brutaly modified. He put high intelligence and heinous cunning into them as he boosted their already present muscle and bone structure.

“Through much trial and error, he was finally able to create a whole new breed of orcs unlike Mortals ever saw. These Orcs were not only so much stronger, smarter, and resilient than an average Orc warrior, they were also able to breed amongst themselves in greater numbers and they could produce viable offspring from their forced matings with elves and humans. Unlike elves and humans though, these new Orcs would not treat such ‘half-breeds’ with demeaning slights.

“There are half-orcs in your world, rare as they might be. And they are unanimously treated with mistrust and mild disgust at best, if not outright killed on sight.. Even half-elves are never truly accepted among elves. The most apparent example for that would be the former Princess Alor’Nadien ne Feymist, who is now the queen of the high elves. One could argue that she is, infact, the queen of said elves only due to the current crisis, and for the lack of anyone else left of the original Feymist bloodline and also the reason why she was given leeway to having a human cub for a mate!

“These new Orcs treat all their kind as one of them. There is no class or cast where they are concerned. What one of them attains, he or she wrestles it by his or her battle prowess, intelligence, or cunning. Their social structure is based on their numbers and they absolutely believe everything they can see, from one horizon to the other, is theirs for the taking, and they shall. An average Orc tribe has a sense of territory and a base tribal social structure. They will defend their territory but shy from entering anybody elses, unless they see weakness, in which case, they will raid them.. These new breeds do not have such territorial restrictions, nor will they shy from someone elses because they have no consept of land belonging to any but themselves. For them, it is only ‘take’, and they have no desire to bargain, trade, engage in commerce, or exchange coin for crops or luxery items. And other than for breeding purposes, they have no desire to attain slaves or serviles because they are the Greater Orken..

“My Master set his plans and routes many centuries ago, by Mortal time. But something unexpected happened. A miracle for my kin. One of us stumbled upon something she shouldn’t have and was unexpectedly set free of her black bonds to her Master; Merisoul Xyrotwu. Hence, she had the opportunity to see and observe the Mortals around her and for the first time for my kind, she started to feel.. And she made a plan to get me out of Hell as well. She needed me out of there and free, I needed a diversion to get out. But I did not want to escape alone. I wanted all my brothers and sisters to come with me because I wanted all them to be mirima..

“You must understand and accept my words as facts when I say, Arashkan and Bari Na-ammen were doomed long before they were attacked. My Master does not make small-time or short-term plans. What he plans, he plans centuries ahead.

“For him, Themalsar was a test to learn the strengths and the weaknesses of elves, humans, gnomes, and dwarves. and to get an insight into their determination.. Thus he has..

“He had the gnomes of Silent Hills, ‘silenced’ already, by setting the Demon Fog curse upon them, for they had been troublesome in that war, constantly digging trenches and tunnels and causing ruinous casualties upon Themalsar’s forces with their explosive arsenal.

“For the elves, he prepared a high lady. One no other than the elder sister of Ri Grandaleren working for him.

“He had her capture the affection of the best general High Woods ever had, then had him sacrificed in his name to forever bind her to himself, and to undermine Bari Na-ammen’s defenses and best hope for survival. 

“In the end, he had a stagnating Bari Na-ammen split into two, frictious factions, even though their human queen warned them, for over thirty years how their foolishness would be the end of them.

“He had three of four Lords of Arashkan working for him for decades. It was because of them, the Arashkan army was still sitting in their barracks instead of manning the city walls, even though their intelligence service, ARIS, had presented overwhelming evidence of an imminent attack upon the city to the First Lord, Princeps Kaladin.

“Of them all, he only left the dwarves untouched, for they are a race of much suspicion and high paranoia. He figured, should the other races around them suffer, they would close their doors and dig in.. Which is what they intended to do, had it not been for the foresight of a few good men, and the diligence of the peoples of Serenity Home to persist in keeping close relations with their neighbors..”

 

She fell silent for a moment, as Thomas and Bremorel were both staring at her with hair-raised astonishment.

 

“My only part in the genocide of Arashkan and Bari Na-ammen was the timing of the blitz!”, she said quietly.

“The timing of the blitz? It was horrible! I can’t think of a worse possible timing for the attack to have happened—”, Thomas spluttered, then froze.

 

“Ow..”, he said as the comprehension of an excruciatingly monumental realization dawned on his face.

 

“What?”, Bremorel asked, then a similar understanding appeared in her eyes..

 

“Yes, Senior Temple Guardian Thomas Dimwood.. It was horrible..”, Temez said. “..because I made it to be so. Had it happened the way it was originally intended, the Orken would have hit Arashkan and High Woods exactly as they did, accept they would have done it some fifteen days from now, early March, instead of at the beginning of November the way they did.”

 

“Wow, girl..”, Bremorel whistled.

 

“Suffice to say..”, the half-born continued. “..they are now exposed, and suffering one of the worst winters this geography has seen in millennia, and unable to move, instead of breeding and growing their own crops all the way from Vodgar to the shores of Endless Sea. Now, everyone in the Kingdom of Isles knows of their presence and have spent the winter preparing to make war upon them.

“Where they had planned to place their back against the Endless Sea and fight on only two fronts; west and south, against armies coming from either direction, now they are vulnerable in all four sides and without the advantage of any elevation. The only place they can hide in numbers is High Woods which they burned because they never intended to stay there and is now mostly uninhabitable.

“Their only other option is the Ritual Forest, and only should they manage to overrun the dwarves, the ogres, and the wood elves, and infiltrate in sufficient numbers..

“You must understand, Thomas Dimwood. I used any and all the influence I had just to move the time of the attack on Arashkan and Bari Na-ammen, stressing how close the elves and the humans were about discovering the hidden Orken armies.. There was, however, no chance, whatsoever, for me to have stopped that attack. The half-born were not made to influence demons nor our Masters, and never did we have any such influence over them. We had no Mortal contacts to warn and we knew no Mortals to influence or sway. My only window to your world was through my BFF, Merisoul Xyrotwu. After extended and thorough deliberation, we concluded that either we let the attack happen and start the beginning of the end of this world, or let it happen anyway, but at a time of our choosing, which was also a very narrow gap, and give the Mortals a fighting chance as one, united people.. And thus we have..”

 

A choking silence settled around the campfire.

 

Bremorel stared at the girl with the antler-horns, one curving, and natural, the other, something else, in perturbed amazement.

Thomas stared at the fire instead, his brows furrowed, and his lips sealed tight.

 

“What are you thinking, Thomas Dimwood?”, Temez asked. “Will you thus judge me and pass your verdict upon me, now? Will you call the fires of your Heavens and burn me? If you will, I would remind you that you are here, at this very moment, to release your wrath because of our doing. You have had since then to love and be loved, because of the time we borrowed for you. Today, what remains of the elves and humans, along with the dwarves, stand as one and united, because of us..”

“..and my BFF, who was the best of us and the first amongst the half-born to have Ascended; Merisoul Xyrotwu, is no longer with us because she bargained her very existence..

..to save two..

..of your friends, sadly, at the very moment of her Ascension, also!..

So tell me, senior temple guardian, who among your kind has given thus, and received nothing in return?”

✱ ✱ ✱

Udoorin Shieldheart slid down the ravine and along the edge of the high cliff wall, followed closely by Lorna, but not so closely by Anglenna. The young burly man was dashing at nearly full speed and with large strides, his heavy armor giving him a sure and stable landing even on the frozen ground. The beautiful queen of the elves was wearing an eloquent, and much lighter armor and her steps were lithe, athletic, and graceful, and barely seemed to touch the snow. Falling distinctly behind, the former high lady of Bari Na-ammen was breathing a bit heavily now, but she pressed her lips together and wordlessly she followed the two, for they were too out in the open and exposed and the only cover seemed to be the large cluster of rocks, some half a mile in the distance..

 

“You run ahead, love.”, Udoorin said as he slowed down. “I’ll catch up to you. Want to check how Lady Lenna is doing.”

“You are aware that she is never going to tell you, just how she is out of breath, nor is she going to let you help her, right?”, Lorna smiled at him.

“I know. But guess what? I am her king!”, the young man grinned.

 

Lorna laughed.

 

“Don’t worry, love. I have a plan!”, Udoorin further grinned at her. Then added as if remembering something. “Oh, by the way, if you see any tundra barbarians, we should try and talk with them first. Father warned me not to aggravate them.. He said it is possible some of them might come and help us against the Orken.”

Lorna nodded at him as he fell back and sort of waited for Lady Lenna..

 

It took several minutes for Anglenna to catch up to him and when she saw him ‘sort of jogging’, she arched an eyebrow in his direction, despite being winded.

“What happened to you?”, she asked out of breath. “Why are you here and where is Nadien ne?”

“Lorna is ahead making sure the way is clear, you know, since she can run faster and much more quietly than either of us, so I thought I could fall back a bit and ask you something that’s been bothering me for some time, now.”, Udoorin said with a straight face.

“And you waited for Lorna to be absent for that?”, she said, giving him a sidelong gaze. “This should be interesting..”

“I was merely wondering, should something happen to you, or anything, and you needed to be carried and someone had to do it, would it be alright if I did it? Since Lorna is much more mobile than I am, and it will be unlikely she will be able to carry you anyway.”, he asked with a poor attempt at a neutral sort of expression.

“Young man..”, Anglenna breathed from her nose. “..you are the worst person I have ever seen or met when it comes to subterfuge. Why don’t you just tell me what’s on your mind..”

“I have no idea what you are talking about, Lady Lenna.”, Udoorin said, averting his eyes from her. “I merely wanted to know if it would be alright with you for me to carry you.. should the need arise, I mean.. We are, after all, in a dangerous line of work, and I thought I’d ask you and have your consent. I find it very disturbing to touch others without asking them first. One of the earlier things my father taught me; never to touch or man-handle anyone without their permission. Especially women.. He won’t even arrest anyone without first informing them that he is about to cuff them.. and to warn them of the consequences should they not comply.. Most do. Particularly if they know of his reputation; father always does exactly what he says he will do, after all.. Some don’t, though. They learn of his reputation, then and there..”

“Where are you going with this, young man? Is there something you want to tell me?”, Anglenna asked him suspiciously.

“No, no..”, Udoorin said, his face starting to flush. “Just wanted it all out in the open.”

 

Anglenna stared at him for a moment longer before conceding in a painful, out-of-breath voice.

 

“Very well.. You have my consent to carry me, should I require such assistance—”

 

That’s as far as she got!

 

Anglenna Brightleaf shrieked in utter shock as the burly young man came up from behind her, dug one arm behind her knees and a hand above the small of her back, and without any strain, picked her up and started running towards the large cluster of rocks!

 

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING, YOUNG MAN!”, she screamed.

“Carrying you.”, Udoorin replied as if stating the obvious, though his face was bright red. “You required the assistance since you were falling behind and we needed to get under cover as soon as possible. We are terribly exposed out here, you know.. And do please keep your voice down, Lady Lenna. We wouldn’t want anyone out there to hear us, now, would we?”

 

Anglenna clung to the young man and suffered the indignity in silent, smoldering frustration. She could barely remember the last time she had been carried like this. It had been some one hundred and seventy years ago when she had been seven or eight years old.. by her father, Selvius Brightleaf.. The day he had died.. Or rather, the day her mother, Angrellen Sunsear, had killed him with a deadly curse!

And then, there was that idiot, Armathelius Riverblade. He had man-handled her too, with much disregard to her dignity, when she was sick and resting in that tiny dormitory room under the Serenity Home Temple..

 

“We are almost there now.”,  Udoorin said, slightly out of breath himself, now. “I will put you down. Better if Lorna didn’t see you like this.”

 

The tall high elf lady patted and straightened her long dress when the burly young man put her down. She felt both furious and infuriated.

 

“Please don’t turn me into a frog or anything.”, Udoorin said with simple honesty. “This is a dangerous place to be caught out in the open. I would appreciate it if you didn’t take offense. You are important to Lorna, much like you are important to me. We are family now and certain allowances can be made and are acceptable, particularly when we are on a mission.

Anglenna faced the young man and saw honesty and sincerity in his face and accepted defeat.

 

“We shall never make mention of this. Ever! Are we clear, Udoorin?”, she fumed.

“Never crossed my mind.”, he replied. “Come.. Lorna is waiting for us..”

 

. . .

 

 

“Someone is coming.”, Lorna whispered with a barely audible voice.

“Are you certain?”, Anglenna asked. “I don’t hear anything.”

“Yes.”, she replied. “They are being very careful, but I heard the crunching of snow —there! I heard it again..”

 

Udoorin didn’t say anything. He trusted his Lorna much more than he trusted his own senses. Slowly, he pulled his great battleaxe over his shoulder and dug his feet a bit into the snow so he could have a better rush, should the occasion demand it.

Then he too heard the crunching of feet on hard snow. He held his breath and peeked over the large cluster of rocks they were hiding, yet he saw nothing..

 

“I hear the crushing of snow but I don’t see anyone.”, he whispered hoarsely. “We should have seen something by now.”

Lorna mimed him to wait, then gave a quick glance over the rocks, herself, frowned a little, and whispered in her soft, low voice.

“Whoever is down there, must be using some kind of illusion or invisibility. I see tracks appearing in the snow, but not the things that are making them. Could these be the Orken that have gone missing?”

 

Anglenna also gave a hasty glance over the rocks, then lowered herself next to her cousin.

 

“Perhaps.”, she mused. “If they are, though, they are coming in very small numbers at a time. And they are moving directly towards us.. and likely under us.. There must be a tunnel of some sort running right below where we stand.”

“Charging what we can’t see is not a winning strategy. Not to mention, we don’t even know what or how many of them are there. I don’t mind a good fight, but I would like to live long enough to tell my children about them, someday.”, Udoorin rumbled quietly.

 

Lorna’s face pinked a little.

 

“What are our options?”, she asked.

Anglenna frowned for a moment, then nodded to herself.

“Maybe if we hurt them enough, whatever it is that is keeping them hidden will reveal themselves, and those they are hiding.”, she whispered. “There is a certain spell I have been meaning to cast for some time, now. Never got the opportunity before. You two up for a frisk?”

 

Udoorin grinned at her as he hefted his greataxe and Lorna weaved her hands in a mystical pattern, giving her the very appearance of an enthralling belly dancer. Soon enough, an inky, pitch-black smoke appeared between her weaving hands and churned there without dissipating. With swift, practiced agility, she dipped one hand into the inky blackness and pulled out a three-yard pole that ended in a twenty-inch blade; her hex glaive..

 

“Creepy as it is, you always looked so cool when you did that!”, Udoorin said in a rushed voice.

“You like?”, Lorna said with a very unLorna-like swagger.

“I love it!”, he said with an exalted face.

 

Anglenna sighed.

 

“You two really should get over each other, you know. This teenage enthusiasm of yours is unbearable.”

“Well, I am a teenager, and Lorna is younger than I am!”, Udoorin said happily.

“No she is not!”, Anglenna objected.

“Yes, she is. We decided on that when we were at Arashkan. The night we got bethroheled, actually.”

 

Anglenna gave them both a look that clearly questioned their sanity. Then she shook her head, stepped out and around the cluster of rocks, locked her gaze on the fresh prints on the snow about a hundred yards away and in high elfish, and with her musical voice, she chanted..

 

 

Safe upon the solid rock,
the ugly houses stand:
Come and see my shining palace
build upon the sand..

 

 

At first, nothing seemed to happen. Then, with a horrid reverberation, sixty feet across where she had pointed, everything got sucked in like some demented, capsized tornado that whirled and howled and a chorus of harsh, rough screams were heard. In the blink of an eye, everything the unholy tempest beheld was hallowed, dried out, and cracked as the moisture and humidity were sucked out of them..

And as soon as it appeared, the freak phenomena was gone, leaving a score or so petrified and dried figures littering the ground that was void of all the snow, scraped down to the very bedrock of the valley!

 

“Orken!”, shouted Udoorin, a bit wild-eyed after seeing the frightening scene.

“There are more!”, added Lorna. “Many more..”

“Stay with me, love.”, he said as he charged. “We are going Sweep Formation!”

 

 

And they did charge.

 

Like a pair of lunatics!

 

 

Anglenna stared at her king and queen with defeated resignation as the big, giant of a man started chopping at the much surprised Orken, leaving dismembered corpses at his wake while the slim form of his wife swirled and danced between them like a death weaver, slice opening her opponents all the way from groin to the hairline of their foreheads!

The former high lady of Bari Na-ammen noted that their madness had evolved! And they were in much better sync than before, too.. It seemed like the burly young man was whirling like a child’s top and literally excavating anything that got anywhere near him, while her cousin did her own counter dance around the ring of Orken surrounding her man!

Then she noticed the figure in the dirty brown, tattered robes with dark, clot spatters; a Blood Shaman!

And the creature was muttering something and making odd gestures as it stared at the two with hateful eyes..

 

“A page out of young Udoorin’s book, I think.”, she murmured cooly as she stared down at the baleful Blood Shaman. Then added with a crooked smile..

“As ironic as that sounds..”

 

She did a quick calculation in her mind that innately involved range in feet, heat in scourging degrees, and pain in death, pointed one, long, slender finger, and released her spell..

..and the Blood Shaman was suddenly consumed in wreathe of incinerating flames!

 

It took a moment for the creature to recognize it was burning, as consumed as it was in whatever sinister magic it was summoning..

..It pointed one of its thick, gnarly fingers up, and drew a vertical line, down, and ending at the warring pair..

 

“Bloody Blistering Hellhounds!”, Anglenna cursed —like it should be done, and shouted to her king and queen, “Incoming! Scatter!”..

..as a great, boiling column of wrathful fire came down from the brittle tundra sky..

..Udoorin rammed into the crowd of Orken to his left..

..and vanished!

..just as Lorna vanished, also..

..and the Blood Shaman shrieked in pain and collapsed, squirming in flames!

..the column of fire exploded, sending a dozen of the Orken, all charred and blackened..

..when Lorna appeared next to a stumbling Udoorin, some thirty feet away!

 

“That was awesome, my love!”, she said with a very exhilarated expression on her flushed face.

“Wow!”, the young man exclaimed. “That was a truly very disorienting experience. How do you do it without churning everything you ate?”

“I was born with it, love.. Very smart of you to use it, the way you did, though.”, she said happily.

“All thanks to you and the wedding ring you gave me..”, he replied with a savage grin.

 

They rose and turned to face the remaining Orken, which, as it turned out, hadn’t diminished in number at all, for more were suddenly appearing all around them in thunderous roars, as whatever spell that had been hiding them crumbled altogether with the death of the Blood Shaman.

Another chorus of roars echoed and the cluster of rocks shimmered and a gaping tunnel entrance appeared right under it!

And from the tunnel, tens of Orken came pouring out, their wicked-looking swords and axes raised, their sharp spears pointing at them..

 

Anglenna stared down as the Orken flushed out from right under her with a ghastly expression on her face.

“Uh oh!”, Udoorin gulped. “That can’t be good.”

“We shall fight them, my love.”, Lorna hissed viciously. “We shall make them pay for Arashkan, and Bari Na-ammen shall suffer no more fools!”

Udoorin looked down at his wife and saw the fire in her grass-green eyes and knew, this was going to be one of those rare moments where the otherwise calm, serene, and imperturbable young woman was going to lose it. Once that happened, she would go all dark, and in wisps of very creepy, inky black tendrils of smoke, dish out everything she had, and burn, not unlike a falling comet; devastating..

 

The only problem with that was, in the end, the comet did fall..

 

He looked up and around them and saw what must be hundreds, possibly thousands of the monsters coming at them from either direction. Then he looked down, once again, at his beautiful, heart-breakingly beautiful wife and decided, then and there.

 

If this was it..

This was it!

Period.

 

He picked up his greataxe, hefted it a few times to find the right balance, then to his wife he rumbled.

 

“Dance Formation..”

 

Lorna nodded at him as she gave him a beautiful, determined, and savage smile..

For ‘dance’ in a fight meant an altogether different meaning for them.

 

And then they heard the howls of wolves!

✱ ✱ ✱

Wow.. Now there’s a sight you don’t see every day!”, Arcantonic Palecog said as she stared down the fissure that seemed to drop down all the way into the depths of the earth itself. Their frantic run through the Lost Forest, vertically, all the way from Silent Woods to the Serpent’s End had been grueling and quite a brutal one, and as irritable and grumpy as she had been, to everyone’s rather pleasant surprise, the scruffy little gnomic girl hadn’t complained once, which did make everyone wonder if she was alright. After all, not even in a perfect world did a not-bitching Tonic ever exist!

 

To be fair, however, they had come out of the great Lost Forest, at the peak of their physical shape. Of the four, the very tall, very dark girl, Seressa Wraiven, had had the toughest time, as she’d tripped and klutzed over, face down, innumerable times, bruising her feet, her knees, her hands and arms, and her nose. To her great embarrassment, she had even gotten her horns stuck in a fallen tree trunk once, during one of her impromptu falls, and it had taken the tundra elf, Cora Sleet, and the gnomic girl, a good half hour to ‘ungore’ her out of the bark, while the hobbit, Brom Bumblebrim, was told, quite sternly, to go and stand guard, some fifty yards away, as the poor girl’s glorious pinks stared up at the winter sky! But that hadn’t been the worst of it. The otherwise calm, educated, cool, and lovely girl had turned absolutely ‘cattish’..

..when she’d gotten her tail trapped between some very tight, very low, and quite unyielding branches of some rather stubborn patch of heavy bushes!

She had let loose a very feline-like ‘yowl’, followed by falling, face first, into some wet, slushy forest ground, again, and had squirmed in pain and panic as she had tried to mindlessly free her tail. It had taken Cora a good wrestle to keep her still as Tonic had held her face in her small hands and tried to calm her, with Brom ending up freeing her long, intriguingly ‘friendly’ tail! To his rather unexpected, and somewhat disturbed experience, Seressa had almost pocketed him, then and there, in overzealous gratitude..

..to her later embarrassment.

 

“Quite a bit of a fracture.”, Cora nodded as she too stared down, then east, where the shattered chasm stretched as far as the eye could see.

“The legends say an elder dragon did this.”, mused Seressa.

“Actually, there are two legends about this chasm.”, inserted Tonic. “One is, an elder dragon did, in fact do this, with the swipe of its awesome paw. The other is, it crash-landed and died here..”

“There are three legends, really.”, inserted Brom.

 

Both Seressa and Tonic turned to him. While Seressa had a curious, inquiring expression on her face, the gnomic girl just scowled at him.

 

“How would you know, hobbit? You never attended to the Academy of Melshieve.”, she sneered.

“Yeah. Because if something isn’t taught there, it obviously can’t exist. Condescending, much?”, Brom replied with a very much amused expression.

 

Tonic scowled at him some more.

 

“What is your legend, then?”, she asked him with a scrutinizing snort.

“It isn’t my legend, girl. It is just another legend.”, Brom said with an unperturbed shrug. “And according to that legend, an Archangel slew a terrible demon here.. Well, not here, exactly, but somewhere far to the east, likely at the center of this chasm, since she came down upon the demon from the Heavens and struck him from above and with such devastating force that the earth split and shattered for miles in either direction, swallowing whole platoons of smaller demons..”

“That is a fascinating legend!”, Seressa exclaimed. “I wonder why it’s never been recorded in the Academy Archives..”

“Because it is such an unlikely story.”, Tonic snorted.

“Almost as unlikely as an elder dragon having ‘scratched’ this chasm open, or fallen to its death here, luv, seeing as there has been no evidence nor remains of said dragon.”, Seressa reminded her pair kindly.

 

Tonic huffed.

 

“Then why is this place called ‘Serpent’s End’, then? Makes more sense for my legend to be true, since ‘serpent’ is just another word for ‘dragon.'”, she said.

“Some of the more vile demons were referred to as ‘serpents’, in a metaphorical sense.”, Brom replied. “Many cultures do not call demons by name in fear of being overheard by their owners. In some cultures, even the word ‘demon’ is never uttered. They use words like serpent, shadow, shade, shaitan, afreet, rakshasa, darkness, fiend, and even spirit..”

“It could be because someone didn’t want a terrible demon’s corpse to be poked around and the name, ‘serpent’, could just be a diversion?”, Cora offered.

 

Both Seressa and Tonic stared at her.

 

“That.. could actually be true!”, Seressa said a bit astonished. “Such deliberate change of name would be a very cunning thing to do, indeed. I am surprised, Cora. How did you think of that?”

 

Cora shrugged.

 

“It’s a standard practice in the tundras.”, she said. “Mostly to warn people off and so they don’t foolishly go poking into places they shouldn’t. The cave or even the mountain where Hydius Dreadmaw sleeps is never marked in any maps you might find in the tundras, nor is it even named, just so some idiot won’t get curious and wonder, ‘Oh, why is this place called ‘Dread Mount?'”

“It’s just common sense, then.”, Seressa said, with an enlightened smile brightening her face.

“Yes. Sense is quite common where I come from. The Great Northern Tundras does not suffer fools.”, she said seriously. “They tend to fall off cliffs or get et by big, savage things, and make us merry!”

 

Brom snorted at that.

Tonic gave her a careful, sidelong glance, and Seressa stared at her as if not sure if the barbarian girl was serious or was making an underhanded pun.

 

Then they all stared down the fissure again, and at the darkness that swallowed its depts.

 

Then Tonic lean over and slowly formed a goey spittle down her pursed lips!

“What are you doing, girl?”, Brom said staring at the gnomic girl.

“I think she is going to spit into the chasm.”, Cora said, staring at the little gnomic girl with a distinct expression of disapproval.

 

Tonic grinned at them and let the spit drop!

 

Seressa hid her face in her hands and apologized to the tundra elf and the hobbit in embarrassed mortification.

 

“I am sorry. She does this every time we come across a pit, a ravine, a chasm.. Even a well, once!”

 

Brom stared at the grinning gnomic girl as Cora shook her head.

 

“Shall we? It’s a long way to the east end of Serpent’s End..”, Cora offered. “Unless our well-educated artificer-whatsit girl here wants to spit some more!”

“What’s wrong with spitting into a pit?”, Tonic said crossly. “It’s a valid way to determine the depth of a pit, you know?”

“I was sure there was a good reason..”, Brom snorted, then asked “Well?”

“Well, what?”, she said.

“Well, did you determine the depth of the chasm?”

“Not in yards, but I surmise it’s deep enough to reach terminal velocity, should you fall!”, she replied with a grin.

“Ow, that is very scientific, that is..”, Brom cackled.

 

Tonic scowled at him even more.

 

“Come on.”, Cora growled, then added, sort of an afterthought. “And Seressa?”

“Yes?”, the very tall, very dark girl said.

“I want you to be on my left side at all times and as far away from the crack as possible”, the barbarian girl said sternly.

“Why?.. Ow.. That was a bit harsh, luv, don’t you think?”, Seressa pouted.

“I’d rather you pouted up here, rather than tripping and falling down there..”, Cora replied, pointing at the chasm, turned her back to the setting sun, and started running east, careful not to jog too near the fissure.

“She’s right, you know?”, Tonic smirked at her pair.

 

Seressa pouted some more.

 

“Totally uncalled for..”, she sniffed and started after the lithe, tundra elf.

 

Tonic cackled and also started running just as Brom caught up to her.

 

“I don’t remember running for this long in my entire life.”, he groaned.

“Look at it on the bright side.”, the little gnomic girl said, as she huffed and puffed alongside the hobbit.

“I am sure I shall regret asking..”, Brom wheezed.

“You are less fat now than ever!”, she cackled some more.

“I resent that. I was never fat, to begin with!”, he scowled.

“By hobbit standards, perhaps?”, she retorted heartlessly.

 

 

. . .

 

 

“Shhh!”, Cora hissed as she put one hand on Tonic’s mouth and the other on Brom’s. Quietly, she stared intently into the pitch dark. Seressa was up too, though no one could really see her. What they could see was a barely discernable, pink something, ghosting ahead, one step at a time. Brom blinked a few times, then tapped Cora’s hand, telling her he was awake and she could take her hand off his face, now. Tonic, on the other hand, didn’t dare to move, because the tundra barbarian girl had her hand on her face. She just gulped, totally freaked out, and acted the possum, and hoped it would work!

“Where is Seressa?”, Brom asked in a hushed voice.

“Out there somewhere.”, Cora whispered. “She’s out of my night vision’s range.”

“You want to go and check in on her? I could slap my hand on the midget’s face if you like.”, he grinned.

 

Though it was quite impossible to see in the pitch dark, both Cora and Brom could imagine the gnomic girl glaring up at him.

The tundra elf did not snort. But a smile did play around her pouting lips.

 

“Why are we up this late? What time is it?”, the hobbit asked, scratching his bushy head with one hand and mumbled. “I could really use a bath..”

“Your priorities are astounding sometimes, Master Hobbit.”, Cora whispered. “It is somewhere between the third and fourth hour of the night. I woke up to some noises, though I could not pinpoint what it was.. or where it came from..”

“I know, you want a bath too, girl.”, Brom said in hushed tones. “What kind of noise was it? Can you describe it?”

“Descriptions are not quite my thing, Brom. I am just a barbarian, after all.”, she replied with a shrug, though that went unseen as well.

“Yes. You are a barbarian. Which makes your descriptions much more accurate than most, because you know what you say actually matters.. and will make a difference..”, Brom said.

“You are in a praising mood, Master Hobbit. Do go on..”, Cora smiled at him.

 

Brom snorted.

 

“Can.. can you take your hand off my face, please? I need to breathe..”, Tonic said in a muffled voice.

“Oh. I am sorry.”, Cora said and removed her hand from the gnomic girl’s face.

“Well?”, Brom asked.

“Well, what?”, both Cora and Tonic said at the same time.

Brom sighed.

“What did the noise you heard, sound like?”, he asked.

“I am not sure.”, the tundra elf mused. “It felt like a step or two.. like someone stumbling.. and a very faint clanking.. but muffled.. and..”

“And?”

“It echoed..”, she finished.

 

Brom stared at her.

So did Tonic..

..just so she wouldn’t be left out!

 

“The fissure, perhaps?”, Brom offered.

“Maybe. I don’t know. Seressa heard it too.. A bit before I did.. I was going to wake her up too, but she was gone before I could stop her..”, she said.

“You let Seressa go alone?”, Tonic spluttered.

“‘Let’, is a powerful word, Tonic.”, Cora replied. “Didn’t you hear me? She was up and gone before I could stop her.”

 

They held their silence after that and waited for the very tall, very dark girl to return.

It took perhaps a quarter of an hour before Seressa ghosted back and settled next to them.

 

“Wow, girl.”, Brom said in fascination. “I can’t see you at all. Not even with these night-vision goggles.”

“Neither can I..”, Cora said a bit surprised. “Ow, you are good!”

“No, luv. I am just very dark, and very naked.”, Seressa replied with a smirk.

 

Brom coughed.

Cora ogled at the sound of the very tall, very dark girl.

Tonic stared at her direction in disgust.

 

“Really, girl?”, she said. “Now of all places?”

“Whot? It doesn’t make much sense to go and try to sneak around and wear vivid pink dress-skirts at the same time, now does it?”, she asked in a reasonable tone of voice.

“It doesn’t make sense to wear vivid pink dress-skirts.. ever!”, Tonic retorted. “How do you not freeze, girl?”

“I have a high tolerance for heat and cold, though I must admit I can’t really feel my butt at the moment, and my breasts have enlarged by two sizes in response to the cold..”, she replied happily. “They look awesome!”

“Good Heavens, girl!”, Brom groaned with deplored exasperation. “I can’t believe you just said that.” 

“Ow. I am sorry, Master Brom. I wasn’t trying to embarrass you or make you feel uncomfortable.. They just feel so free tonight!”, she said not without a note of pleasure in her voice.

 

Poor Brom groaned some more..

 

“Just out of curiosity..”, Cora said. “What did you do to your hair? That’s pink too..”

“I shaved them!”, came Seressa’s voice.

 

A stunned silence settled in the pitch darkness..

 

Brom stood where he was, too stupefied to speak!

“You shaved off your beautiful hair?”, Cora said with a choked tone. “I hate you, girl!”

“Ah, you finally admit your love for pinks, dear Cora.”, Seressa said cheerily.

 

Tonic chuckled.

Cora stared at the darkness.

 

“She’s kidding. She dyed it with a spell. Should return to its usual, jarring pink in about an hour.”, the gnomic girl said with another chuckle.

“That.. that wasn’t funny!”, Cora scowled.

“Yeah. It wasn’t funny at all! You have a mean streak in you, Seressa!”, Brom grumbled.

“I apologize.”, she replied sincerely. “I merely wanted to see if someone other than me actually liked it.”

“Never toy or joke about your hair again!”, Cora growled. “Never!”

“Yeah.. What she said!”, Brom agreed more than a bit perturbed.

“I won’t. I promise.”, she said, though her voice seemed genuinely pleased.

“So.. What did you find out that was worth all the trouble?”, Tonic inserted, sort of to change the subject.

“I am not quite sure.”, Seressa admitted. “I thought I heard people marching, which is what irked me from my sleep in the first place. Try as I might, however, I couldn’t find anyone in a mile in any direction, which makes me think—”

“—Whoever is out there, they are using the deep chasm to move, which explains the odd echoes I heard!”, Cora finished.

“Very astute, luv. That’s what I thought too.”, she replied. “But the width of the chasm is rather erratic. Wide at one point, very narrow in the another, and that becomes worse as you go down. I thought of flying in as a raven, but I am not sure there is enough draft down there for me to fly back up to the surface, even if I didn’t smack around the walls of the chasm.”

“Climb down, perhaps, then?”, Brom offered. “I can do that easy.”

“I have three potions of climbing. They are not as good as the hobbit’s fancy cloak, but they should help.. for an hour or so. I also have two potions of gaseous form. You can move up, down, sideways, and lasts about an hour too. It’s slow going, but much more reliable.”, Tonic inserted.

“The last time I drank that potion, it made my stomach churn for hours. What in the blazes do you even put into that thing?”, Brom complained.

“A bit of this, and a bit of that..”, the gnomic girl replied evasively. “I think we should just blow this whole chasm and bring it down on top of whoever is sneaking down there.”

“Can you actually do that?”, came Seressa’s voice.

“No. I don’t have enough firepower with me.. But I thought I’d sort of put that option on the table, anyway.”, she said.

“Let’s not blow anything, up or down, at the moment.”, Cora frowned. “We don’t know who or what is down there.”

“If you can think of anyone.. or anything, that would sneak around, in the dead of night, through a deep chasm that would have good intentions, by all means, tell me!”, Tonic said.

“Just because we don’t know who they are, or what their intentions are, that doesn’t mean we should just blow them up. They could be here due to a totally unrelated matter. They could even be living down there..”, Cora replied a bit irritably.

“As far as we know, Serenity Home does not have any allies that are coming from this direction, and certainly none that requires them to be sneaking around. The Orken are the only bunch that could benefit from such a stealthy approach, and from this direction. If these are some people who are unrelated to the war and are, in fact, living down there, then they have been avoiding the king’s taxes for Heaven knows how long. I’d say we blow them up and be done with it!”, Tonic said with a manic cackle.

“Are you serious? Is this what civilized people do? Just blow things up?”, Cora fumed, quite disturbed now.

“All the time!”, the scruffy little gnomic girl said with a sinister grin. “That’s how kingdoms and empires work. They subjugate all, for no other reason than to tell them that they are subjects and that they all will pay their bloody taxes! If governments make allowances here, they will have everyone else demanding the same exemptions. We can’t have that, now, can we? Best to just cut the festering issue at its root.. which is, quite ironically, down there, and blow them up!”

 

Cora ogled at the gnomic girl with this petrified expression on her face.

 

“Didn’t know you were such a frantic pro-government, girl.”, Brom squinted at her.

“That wasn’t nice, Tonic.”, came Seressa’s voice from the dark.

“Whot?”, Tonic asked with a very unconvincing innocence!

“What you just did. It wasn’t nice, and you know it.”, Seressa repeated sternly.

 

The little gnomic girl did another manic cackle.

 

“I don’t understand.”, Cora said, frowning at the two of them.

“Ignore her, luv. She thinks she is being smart.”, came Seressa’s voice. “Since we all are awake, we might as well move out and make camp a bit early today. I am going to put on my dress-skirt.. and my undies!”

 

Then she paused for a bit as they heard the shuffling of clothes and the musings of the very tall, very dark girl.

 

“I wonder if my breasts will fit into my bra now!”

 

 

. . .

 

 

“You! Tonic!”, Cora growled as they were running, many hours later. “You will tell me all about this kingdom and the government thingies!”

 

The four of them had been running, walking, jogging, then walking again, and then running once more, quite diligently since they had woken up sometime between the third and fourth hour of the night. It was past noon now, and they were all tired, exhausted, and sweaty..

..except for the very tall, very dark Seressa, who would shift into her spectral raven form and fly, high, and circle around them.

They had encountered a club of half a dozen hill giants on their way, who had thought a gnome, a hobbit, and an elf would make good morsel.

Turns out, some morsels choked you to death on the way down!

And now, this side of the kingdom was free of hill giants, and the four were at the end of their tether.

 

“What government thingies?”, Tonic gasped as she stumbled on. “I don’t know anything about governments..”

“Yes. You do. You will tell me about it and in such a way that I will understand it!”, Cora growled with a no-nonsense tone.

 

Brom cackled from behind them as the scruffy little gnomic girl gave Cora a freaked-out glance.

 

“That’s just debate talk, girl. I swear!”, Tonic tried to explain.

“What is this debate-talk you speak of?”, the lithe barbarian girl frowned at her.

“It’s what we did back at the Academy. We argued about the stupidest things. It is supposed to be a mental exercise, but the ones with the smart mouth won more than the ones with the actual facts. I once argued for six hours that elves, cabbages, and narrow angles were genetically related, and won! There was an uproar and all the elves came after my skin!”, Tonic said with an evil, victorious laugh.

“Can’t imagine why..”, Brom inserted from behind.

“Serves you right!”, Seressa said as she landed next to them. “You were lucky the dwarves formed a cordon around you, just because they thought the whole thing was hilarious. Really, girl, what were you thinking? Elves, cabbages, and narrow angles? You almost started open fighting in the Academy halls!”

“So.. Are elves, cabbages, and narrow angle-whatsits related?”, Cora asked.

 

Tonic gave the barbarian girl a cautious glance.

 

“Of course, not, and that’s the point! Debates are oft silly, stupid, and nothing more than getting even with, or one over those we dislike —in public! I hated a lot of the guys back at the Academy. High elves were some of the worst, though. The stuffy, stuck-up, condescending, pointy-eared, and smirking sprites, the lot of them!”, she growled with spite, then hastily added, “No offense intended, Cora. You are not a high elf, anyway..”

“That’s why I never did attend the debates.”, Seressa said. “It doesn’t matter what you said nor how you said it, or what facts you produced, and in the end, it always caused animosity. I preferred persuasion. No one ever argued back my points.”

“No one argued back your points because no one was listening to you!”, Tonic snorted.

“What do you mean, no one was listening to me. The amphitheater was always pact full whenever I was going to make a speech. I remember seeing you among the crowd, too..”, the very tall, very dark girl said.

“Yes. The amphitheater was pact full, but no one was there to listen to what you had to say, girl..”, Tonic chuckled.

“Whot?”, Seressa exclaimed, somewhat confused.

“Just what did you think would happen when a skinny, beanpole of a girl in a skimpy dress skirt walks up to the podium?”, her pair said, and suddenly, she wasn’t chuckling anymore.

 

Cora didn’t understand what they were talking about, since she didn’t know what an amphitheater was, nor a podium, for that matter.. But she thought she grasped the edges of what was being implied, and she didn’t like it.. at all..

Brom did understand. He merely preferred not to comment about it. It was a lame, juvenile, and quite despicable, what a whole crowd of people had done.

Tonic, though, felt shame. She had been among that lame, juvenile, and despicable bunch, after all. The only difference between them and her had been, most were there for the ‘scenery’. She’d been there just for laughs.. True, Seressa hadn’t been her pair then, and it would be another four years until she would be, but Tonic still felt the shame, anyway.

 

Seressa just vanished!

And the gray, semi-transparent spectral raven that appeared in her place flapped its wings once, twice, and took off..

 

“You really know how to destroy dreams, Tonic.”, Cora said, staring after the raven.

“Kids do stupid things, ok?”, the scruffy-looking gnomic girl fumed. “And I did a lot of them.”

“Yes. I did some of those stupid things as well. But I would have thought you, of the lot of us, would have learned when to shut up, by now. That girl thought she was giving a good performance in your amphi-thing. You didn’t just turn her memory into dust, you very much destroyed it..”, the barbarian girl said flatly.

“And made her look like one of those, show-girls..”, Brom added. “She likes wearing what she wears, dammit! She knows they are silly and perhaps not so reputable, either. Just like she knows they are somewhat scandalous, even. But she feels happy in them. And she does not wear them for other’s benefit, or to be revealing, she wears them only for her own liking. True, the end results are the same, but the reasons behind them are not. To be totally biased about it, I think what she feels matters more to me than what others think of her.. Those jerks just turned her good, and perhaps naive, nature around and used it to their own, detestable advantage. That’s just evil.”

 

Tonic pressed her lips together with a stubborn attitude, then her shoulders slumped. She dipped her hand into her artificer’s satchel and pulled out a long, gnarly pole that ended in a conical bush; a typical witch’s broom.. in a thematical sense! The scruffy little girl had spent weeks crafting the broom. But she had gone the extra ‘many’ miles just to make it look like a witch’s broom..

 

Apparently, the gnomic girl had her own, obsessive issues!

 

“I’ll be back.. when I am back..”, she said glumly, held the broom a foot or so above the ground, jumped on it, then kicked into the air and darted off in the general direction of the spectral raven..

 

 

. . .

 

 

“What do you think they are talking about?”, Brom asked as he stared in the direction of the very tall, very dark girl, sitting some thirty yards away and with a distinctly lost and very much disappointed expression petrified on her face. Tonic was there too, and she was stubbornly hugging her pair from behind and saying some things to her. There was a frantic frown on her face and she kept repeating something, over and over again.

“I don’t know.”, Cora shrugged. “It’s a girl business, making it none of yours!”

“You are quite harsh sometimes, did you know that?”, the bushy hobbit scowled at her.

“Yes. And you are quite consistent in catching those moments. Did you know that?”, the lithe barbarian girl deadpanned.

 

Brom scowled some more.

 

“And you are beating me for some reason, why?”, he asked.

“Are you hurt?”, Cora said.

“A bit..”, Brom replied with a slight pout.

“A bit is good. Complain when you are bleeding.”, she said, giving him one of her ‘I dare you’, stares.

 

The hobbit sighed.

Apparently, this was going to be one of those evenings, whatever those evenings might be..

 

“Well, I am going to sleep then. Your sense of humor seems to have gotten herself lost somewhere along the way, and I see no reason to go out of my way to bleed this evening.”, he huffed.

 

Cora didn’t say anything for a while as the hobbit pulled out his little tent and started hammering its ropes. When she did, she had a frown on her face. A face that was hurt!

 

“Am I your friend, Brom?”, she asked.

 

Now that was a question that required a very careful answer and better yet, timing..

Wait too long, and things were doomed to go sideways.

Reply too quickly, and it would be an automated, and superficial answer.

And saying, yes, might easily construe a cautious, maybe..

 

“Ever since Shakehands.”, Brom said simply as he continued to hammer his tent’s ropes.

 

Cora considered that but thought Shakehands was when they had met, not when they had become friends.

 

“That is when we first met. It is not when we became friends.”, she pointed out.

“You asked me if you were my friend.”, he replied, as he hit the final tent spike a few good more times, then continued. “And I told you since when you were. I can’t speak for you because I don’t know when I became yours.”

 

And now Cora frowned some more. The little hobbit was doing his hobbity-bard-thingy again; word-playing!

 

“How can I even be your friend when we’d just met?”, she asked.

“It’s a hobbity-bard-thing.”, he shrugged. “I was at Shakehands’ inn, watching Lillias Absentwhot and her elder sister, Jeina Blond, when you stumbled and I said to myself, ‘There! That one. She and I will be friends. Because she is hurt. Just like me.. The best kind of common ground for a life-long friendship.. And she’s got a very cute pout!'”

 

Cora stared at him.

 

“You decided to be my friend because I had a cute mouth?”, she asked.

“Pout.. I said pout! And of all the things I said, is that the only part you decided to go for? You are killing me, girl!”, he said with an amused tone, then added with a more serious voice. “Tell me what really is bothering you, girl? Why bring up things you already know the answers to?”

“I don’t know. I am looking at Seressa and she is this majestic girl. Her behavior, her hand gestures, the way she speaks, and she is so considerate of the people around her. And I am just this uneducated barbarian.. How am I supposed to become that?”, she said in a frustrated voice.

“Uhhmm.. Just so we are on the same page, why would you become her? I mean, you lack the proper coloring, the horns, the tail, the height, the pinks, and not to mention the klutz!”, he replied with a smirk.

 

Cora gave him a very level gaze.

 

“Alright. I am sorry. But my question stands; why would you become her? She is unique..”, Brom said seriously.

“That’s what I am saying. She is unique..”, she said a bit frantically.

“Bloody Hell, girl, so are you! And literally..”, he replied.

“There are many barbarian girls in the tundras, Brom.”, Cora scoffed.

“Yes. There are likely many barbarian girls up there, but there is only one of you! And I am not even saying this because you are the sole survivor of your village. You, literally, are unique.”, Brom stressed.

“There is nothing unique about me, Brom. I need to be like her..”

“Again.. why would you want to be like her? I mean, yes, she is everything I know her to be, and likely more that I don’t.”

“That little girl.. Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane.. said I would have peoples.. and that they would come, should I but call them.. That angelic girl, Merisoul Xyrotwu, also said something similar, when we saw her at Arashkan.. You know, when we went there to give her the Spear of Light..”, Cora said mutely, staring at the sky.. “Just who do you think will come, should a simple barbarian girl calls them. I am a nobody. The only thing I am is a leftover wreck from a desolate people..”

 

Brom frowned and fell silent for a bit. He considered what he would say from any number of approaches, then discarded them all. This was not a political persuasion situation. Well, in a way, it was. But it involved, not some unknown, faceless peoples, but..

 

“Cora Sleet..”, he said, and the barbarian girl turned to face him. “Am I your friend?”

“Ever since Red October.”, she replied.

“Why Red October?”, he asked.

“Because I thought you would leave too, the way Lillias and Jeina did, with their clan. But you stayed. You had no reason to. The tundras were not your people. Their problems were not your problems. And my land is not exactly fit for a little hobbit.. Yet, you stayed.. with me.. That made me understand that I was no longer alone. It was a good feeling. And hard to accept at the same time.”, she said.

“Why, hard to accept?”, Brom asked curiously.

“Because we, barbarians, don’t really accept outsiders easily. We are a suspicious people. And you were so very unbarbaric as can be.. and totally different. In the end, your presence overcame my suspicions and mistrusts.”

“Very well. Now that we have both established the fact that we are friends, what does that entail for you?”, he asked.

“Trust. Respect. Honesty.”, she replied.

“Couldn’t have put it better myself.”, he grinned at her. “And in that order! So when I say, you are unique, I mean it in the sense that you will trust my word for it. Seressa is awesome. But the barbarians will not come, should she call them. If one day she calls, others might come.. Just not the barbarians.. Should you call, however, they will. Because you are one of them.. You have saved the daughter of one tribe’s chieftain, who became the bride of another tribe’s chieftain’s son. You saved one horde from a ‘vile demon’, who just happens to be Seressa, and you totally destroyed another horde. They trust you, they respect you, and they also know never to screw with you. That’s pretty much all the ingredients needed to become a king.. or a barbarian princess, in your case, I suppose..”

 

Cora mulled over that.

 

“Your issue is not what Seressa has that you think you don’t, my friend. Your problem is the belief you lack in yourself —an interesting and quite intriguing irony you share with no other than Seressa herself!”

✱ ✱ ✱

What did you think of Chieftain Grulganiste?”, Aager Fogstep asked as he and his sister, Lilly Venom, climbed down the north side of Oger’s Foot. Only his skinny little wife, Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane, was not there.

 

Lilly didn’t reply immediately. Instead, she went for a delaying tactic.

 

“Where’s Inshala?”, she asked.

“She said she wanted to ask somethings to Mother Grulganiste and that she would catch up with us very soon.”, Aager replied.

“So you trust her with that ogress?”, she asked, still unable to come to terms with the giant chieftain.

“Over seven thousand ogres are coming, both from Oger’s Foot and from Rook Mountains to help us fight the Orken, Lilly. And they are doing so because she ordered them to.. not to save our collective sorry arses, but to make sure her daughter comes out of this war alive. What is there not to trust? Now. Quit dodging my question. What did you think of the chieftain? You two did spend a good portion of the night ‘inspecting’ the war preparations of the ogres, after all.”, he growled.

 

Lilly sighed.

 

“It was not an experience I would like to repeat.”, she admitted with a sour face.

“Crushed you with her words, did she?”, her brother said with a smirk.

“Not really. She was quite gracious about my ‘ignorance’, once that was well established.”, she shrugged. “She’s an excellent leader to her people, I suppose, though I am not really a good judge of that. She cares for them, looks after them, and as far as I was able to observe, they all pretty much enjoy a roof and plenty of food. And of course, she beats them, when they step out of line.. She is quite formidable both in her towering height, which is way too much even for an ogre, and her intellect.”

“So, which part is bothering you?”, Aager asked.

“The words themselves.. All the odd phrasing and the mysticism. I do not like that sort of thing. Too many unquantifiable perspectives for my taste. I like things on the worldly side. For me, things must be logical, tangible, and quantifiable. And I can’t apply any of that to her because she and her perspectives just won’t fit in them.”, she replied, even more sourly. “Not to mention, she’s got the power and the battle prowess to back her perspectives.”

“Logical, tangible, and quantifiable.. The Drashan religion!”, Aager snorted.

“Pretty much, yes.”, Lilly agreed. “I asked her many questions, yet she answered almost none. By the end of our ‘inspection’, though, I had all my answers, though I don’t remember what my questions were.. It was irritating as Hell!”

 

Aager snorted again, then frowned.

 

“Precisely why I kept my safe distance from old Demos Lightshand of Serenity Home Temple, back when he was still alive. And why I never had a sit-down with the dwarven leader, Argail Smitefast. The only person I did talk to that had a similar approach to the world at large, was Master Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrig, and that was once, some four or five years back, and only for a very specific operation. I respected them all, but from as far away as possible. Turns out, I was wrong to do so. Had I kept a closer relationship with them, our meetings with Chieftain Grulganiste Grimtooth would have gone much smoother. And now, I must confer with her many times due to my proximity with her daughter, Inshala.”, he said in his low, growly voice.

“Her daughter..”, Lilly mused. “Just how exactly does that work, again?”

“I have no idea, really. As far as I understand it, certain relations are a frame of mind, even though there isn’t any biological connection. From what I gathered, Grulganiste was Master Cathber’s student.. of sorts.. They kept a close relationship over the centuries, so much so that Cathber became her father, rather than stay as her master.. or mentor.. Or at least that is how she started seeing him, which is likely why the chieftain’s full name is Grulganiste Grimtooth Bolgrig. Years later, and after Cathber found Inshala, and he brought her to meet with the chieftain, sort of to introduce them to one another.. I am guessing Inshala was about eight or ten at the time and it is apparent they became rather close.. in a sense that Grulganiste adopted Inshala as her daughter, which is also why her full name is Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane Bolgrig Hooman Fogstep!”

“That’s a lot of names.”, Lilly noted.

“For Inshala, who was rejected by the Dim Woods people, beaten, stoned, caged, and whipped by them, and who had no one, those names are very significant. She is the daughter of the old Ritual Guardian, Master Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrig, she is the daughter of Chieftain Grulganiste Grimtooth, she is the legally adopted sister of the paladin, Moira Jean Alisia Hooman, hence the daughter of the Paladin Lord Delia Karakash Hooman and Alisia Sivara Hooman, and last but not least, she is the mate of the Drashan convict, Aager Fogstep..”, he said mutely.

“Bit of a step-down, that last bit.. From one Master, one Chieftain, and a Paladin Lord, down to a Drashan convict.”, Lilly said with a bemused expression.

“Yes. It is.”, Aager replied. “Tried telling her that. She wouldn’t hear any of it. Would you like to know what she said to me?”

“I am going to regret asking, but do tell.”, his sister replied.

“She said, ‘I am just a silly girl who stumbles. Will you not catch me should I fall?’

“That’s Inshala, alright.. That girl may be little. But she is not silly..”, Lilly said, then snickered. “And she’s got you well and good!”

“Yes. Yes, she has. And would you like to know how I feel about it?”, he asked.

“HELL, NO!”, she said flatly! “There should always be a certain distance between siblings —to keep the respect running if nothing else. Make friends and tell them how you feel. Better yet, tell her. I don’t want to end up laughing at your face every time I see you!”

“Wise choice.”, Aager said with a merry glint in his eyes as a smile formed face, hidden behind his half mask.”

 

“I am here, my Aager.”, came Inshala’s soft whisper in his mind. “I shall make a circle around the area in my baby owl form and come to you. The ogres are about five hundred yards behind us and there are a lot of them!

“What?”, Aager responded, and with a lot of heat. “That’s not what we agreed on. Grulganiste was supposed to send a few of her ogres to make peace with the woodsmen, not her whole bloody army, dammit!”

“I think she changed her mind. She thought that if they gave those silly woodsmen time to accuse them of all the things the ogres didn’t do and make demands, this war would be over before her ogres could carry a single twig! So she said, ‘..either my ogres will bring the lumber and the mountain rocks to your Serenity Home and the woodsmen will live, or my ogres will bring the lumber and the mountain rocks to your Serenity Home and the woodsmen will not live —her exact words!”, the voice of the skinny little Inshala said happily.

 

Aager sighed.

 

“What’s the matter?”, Lilly asked.

“Inshala is here. She is flying ahead to scout.”, he said absently.

“Ow kay..”, his sister drawled. “And how do you know that? I mean, she isn’t here to tell you and I didn’t know she could speak when she is in her owl form..”