Not All Is Done
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..
“The Spark of Mathilda”
The ground rumbled and heaved and a part of the ceiling, along with a support beam, a wall, and a column crumbled down as cracks and fissures spread out, not unlike a spider’s web and settled only with a grudge and chocking dust..
“Well. Here we are. My dear psychotic mother’s estate and manor..”, Anglenna Brightleaf said with bitter sarcasm.
“Appears clear.”, Udoorin Shieldheart noted standing next to her and coughed into his fist, trying to muffle the noise as he waved away the dust.
“I am surprised that it is, my Dorin. This place should have been crawling with Orken.”, Lorna mused, standing on her other side, and with a frown, as she covered her face with an elegant, silver embroidered gauze veil matching the dress she wore under her armor.
“It is clear because the Orken ransacked this place and mother didn’t appreciate it. Apparently, she told them not to and they didn’t heed her. Hence she slaughtered the lot of them that were here.”, replied with a grim expression on her face. “I expect we will come across any number of their rotting corpses on our way out.”
Udoorin and Lorna looked at each other, then at the tall high elf girl.
“Is there something we should know, Lady Lenna?”, Udoorin asked carefully.
“There are many things you should know, young man, just nothing that concerns you at the moment..”, Anglenna replied briskly.
“Lenna?”, Lorna said, more than inquired, and she said it softly and kindly.
Anglenna turned around to face them both, her face drawn, tight, and flushed with visible shame..
“I am sorry, young Udoorin. I apologize to you, as the good man you are, not as my King. You have been on your best behavior with my cousin at all times. I know it must have been hard for you.. or even Hell, seeing as how pretty and alluring she is.”, she said.
Lorna blushed at that and so did Udoorin.
“There really is no need for that, Lady Lenna. We are all friends here, and practically family now.”, the young man replied gruffly.
“True. But I do owe you an apology for a great many things..”, she insisted, then she turned around again and took a careful step forward through the rubble of the basement of her mother’s manor, and her, once, home.. “We should still have care. I was never allowed down into these cellars nor into her study. She spent most of her years —centuries, really, down here studying and, as it turns out, scheming her betrayal!”
“I do not want to step out of line and sound insensitive but what I do not understand is how Ri Grandaleren let this happen.. I mean, it was quite obvious what she was up to, all these years.. She was constantly plotting against him, and Rise Nadine.. and Lorna, when she came of age, and possibly even before that..”, Udoorin rumbled carefully.
There was a strained silence after that and he noted Anglenna’s shoulders and spine stiffen.
“That is not the elf way..”, the former high lady fumed finally.
“I do not understand.”, Udoorin said honestly.
“She is right, Dorin.”, Lorna intervened. “Elves.. elves are not like humans.. Their point of view of life is different. They do not have the aspirations of humans. When there is a ruling Ri, or a Rise, they do not plot or scheme against them. Such concepts are alien to them, hence, quite incomprehensible, for the line of ascension is not chosen by simple heritage nor popular vote. In is a sense, it is a choice made by the world around us. In other words, the very line of ascension is chosen by mother nature itself. What my aunt and her followers did was not a norm. There must have been some very powerful external influences involved. That is why Lord Armathelius and his Sworn couldn’t go up against their Ri, my father, Grandaleren Feymist, even though they knew my mother, Rise Nadine Graciousward, was right about how the elves of High Woods had become sedated and gone stale, and all of Bari Na-ammen was slowly rotting away in their private isolation. In all our history, only two people have ever acted against an elven crown, though each for very different reasons; my aunt Angrellen, and myself —a sad and bothersome irony all on its own..”
Another silence settled over that as young Udoorin mulled over that.
“Then how come you and..”, he began.
“My aunt made pacts with some very evil and dark beings, my Dorin, that required her to sacrifice more than her husband’s life. I suspect she broke her own self as well, somewhere along the way. If you play in the mud, you will get some of it smeared on yourself.. As for me, I am only half an elf. My other half is human. Seeing as how my mother tossed her crown without turning a hair, quite the rebellious one, at that. One could even say, like mother, like daughter.. in temperament.. She never wanted the crown. She never wanted to be a Rise. She was, I suppose, impressed by my father, who could be quite charming at times.. In the end, she never truly got my father. Instead, she got a crown she never aspired. As it turns out, it was the same crown she tossed, proclaiming two things; one, what she thought of the high elves and their stale and foolish ways, and two, she sent it spinning at my feet, telling them to whom it really belonged, though I suspect no one really noticed that since I didn’t pick it up because I didn’t want it either.”, she said with a sad smile.
“I am so tempted to say, you people are so messed up, but that’d be impolite..”, Udoorin murmured. Then he looked around at the debris all around and added. “..and insensitive!”
“We are past impolite and insensitive, young man.”, Anglenna replied. “The matter of fact is, we are no more.. The sooner we, the high elves, accept that, the greater chance we will have to survive and become something once again.”
“And you all want to dump that wake-up call on my Lorna?”, he mumbled unhappily.
“Ow, no, my King.. That would be your job. Hers is to bring them together, reunite them, and rebuild a new kingdom!”, Anglenna replied with a tight grin.
“You people don’t ask much, do you?”, the young man grumbled.
“It isn’t a matter of asking much. Willy-nilly, she too had a hand in Bari Na-ammen’s downfall. When she defied her father, Ri Grandaleren, she opened a door that was never there before. Wasn’t that how Lord Armathelius formed his sworn in the first place. It also gave my mother the excuse she was looking for.”, the tall elf girl said, once again turning around to face them.
“That’s a bit harsh, Lady Lenna. You can’t dump what Angrellen did on my Lorna”, Udoorin frowned.
“No, young man. That would be wrong on so many levels. The Betrayer will pay for her crimes. One day. But the fact remains; not once in Grandaleren’s seven hundred years of reign did my mother dare to openly defy her brother. The moment his own daughter rejected her father’s command to turn away from her choices and left the palace, however, my dear Alor’Nadien ne also ended up publicly defying her Ri. Do not misunderstand me, young Udoorin. The end of Bari Na-ammen was well and pre-planned centuries ago and now there is the chance of a new kingdom only because she defied her father..”, Angrellen said firmly, her steady gazing boring into his. “I regret that this, once beautiful city, this serene country is now in ashes and ruins, but I do not resent my cousin’s choices, for I remember, quite clearly, the day she was born, the whole of High Woods held her breath then sighed in relief, as if the one she expected and been waiting for, had finally arrived.. You might think my choice of words to be a tad exaggerated perhaps. Should you think so, I want you to fully understand and recognize from whom this statement is coming..”
Another silence settled as the three of them started moving and made their way through the cumbled dungeons beneath Angrellen’s manor.
“Lenna..”, Alor’Nadien ne said finally, her tone and her face rather abashed. “I would rather you didn’t make me something I really am not. It is true my choice to abandon the palace, and my home does seem like a rash, spur-of-the-moment decision, but the fact is, I was given little choice in the matter. Either I would submit to my father and defy my wont, and inevitably seem weak in my people’s eyes as the little girl who couldn’t stand up to her own choices, or I had to defy him and be myself. There were no good choices to be made that day. Only that I either reject his command openly, or I left quietly. I chose the latter because I did not want to give my aunt a reason, nor those who secretly sided with her a reason to rebel openly against the crown. Because I left quietly, I took away their excuse to openly go up against my father, but rather focus their ire solely on me. Did my actions truly help my people? I wouldn’t know.. But it bought them nearly ten months to decide what they truly wanted.”
“Fools..”, Anglenna snarled with spite. “..they never knew what they had to understand what they wanted. The only thing they did have, the thing that they thought that defined them is gone!”
“Yes, it is, cousin. But now we have a chance to redefine ourselves. We lost a lot. But we gained some as well.”, Lorna said quietly.
“I am sorry, my Nadien ne, but you truly are naïve at times. I can’t think of a single thing that we have gained thus far. Great Heavens, girl, look around you. Do you see anything that seems like we have gotten anything in exchange for this destruction?”, the tall high elf woman fumed vehemently.
“I see you.”, Lorna replied simply and honestly.
Anglenna stopped in her track, turned around again to stare at her young cousin. It was not clear as to what crossed the high elf lady’s mind at that moment. There were just too many thoughts and emotions playing in conflict there..
“My beloved sister and cousin.. What I and my people gained when you decided to be on my side, only the future will tell. But I can tell you what the Betrayer lost, and I can do it without any doubt..”, Lorna told the tall high elf woman.
“Your mother lost everything, when she lost you!”
Anglenna just stared down at her cousin. Her eyes softened somewhat and an unexpected, and uncharacteristic shimmer appeared there. She pressed her lips together, quite tightly, and seemed like someone struggling to keep something crawling up their throat.
“You.. you truly are naïve, my Nadien ne, and I love you all the more for it. I only hope your kindness, your forgiving heart, and your trust in the worst kind of people will not be the end of you. That would indeed be a sad day for this world. As for all the things my mother and I did to you, I shall never stop loathing myself for them. It makes me feel like I want to run away.. To be somewhere else..”, she said with a drawn and lost voice.
“You can’t get to somewhere else because the thing you want to run away, you take it with you. Where you go, it goes. So before you run away, why don’t you give yourself a moment of surcease and help us with what must be done, for we have a kingdom to make, and it starts here..”, Lorna replied, then she stepped up to her and hugged her fiercely. “And you will never loath yourself again, dear Lenna. Because you are here, against all odds and all your indoctrinations. You are a far greater person than I shall ever be. The only thing I did was to stubbornly stick to my ideals and runoff from home. Had my route taken me somewhere other than Themalsar, I would never have been here and now.”
Anglenna stared down at the girl holding her in her arms for a bit more, then gave a long sigh of resignation and defeat, and hugged her back.
“Uhhmm.. I am not required to hug you as well, am I?”, Udoorin said uncomfortably. “I mean, I could, I suppose, but that’d just look kind of weird.. and awkward..”
“No, young man. You may hug your Queen to your heart’s content, but I will hurt you if you try and hug me.”, Anglenna replied with a smile.
“My point, exactly. Now then, shall we get a move on?”, he offered tentatively.
“Yes. Let’s.”, she said and parted from her cousin. “And I think we will all need a long, hot bath after we are done here.”
“That was a bit uncalled for, Lady Lenna. There’s no way you could possibly smell me from there.. Not through all this unsettled dust!”, Udoorin complained, his face a bit flushed.
“Who said I was talking about you?”, Anglenna smiled at him again, then down at her cousin.
“Well, now. That truly was uncalled for!”, Lorna also complained, her face flushed bright red.
✱ ✱ ✱
They are everywhere.”, reported Udoorin hoarsely as he skidded back down the tall heap of rubble that piled all the way up to the tiny hole in the ceiling. “Like, everywhere!”
“That is unexpected. And more than disturbing..”, Anglenna mused with a golden-platinum frown.
“How so, cousin?”, Lorna asked in her low, soft voice, staring at her.
“I would have thought the Orken would have given this manor, and the estate, a wide berth, let alone crawl all over it.”, she replied.
“Ahh, my bad there, Lady Lenna.”, Udoorin said brightly. “When I said ‘all over the place’, I meant, they are all camped all over just beyond what’s left of the estate walls. The hole in the ceiling isn’t all that big to see clearly, but it isn’t too difficult to guess how things stand at the moment..”
Anglenna gave him a questioning look.
“There are only some in the estate grounds itself but they are stationed in specific places such as every corner or perched up on high walls that are still intact.. and all of them are facing the manor..”, he explained quietly.
“Why would they do that? As opposed to not taking advantage of what remains of this manor against the cold. I can’t even believe it could get this cold here in High Woods. It wasn’t this cold even when we were up in the south end of the Great Northern Tundras.”, Lorna said with a chilled whisper.
“My mother..”, Anglenna fumed grimly. “..did not take it kindly the way the Orken destroyed her manor like the way they destroyed the rest of Bari Na-ammen. I guess she expected festive treatment from them, being the special snowflake that she thinks she is..”
“That’s the nicest thing you have ever said about your mother, Lady Lenna.”, Udoorin said lightly.
Anglenna glared at him.
“How should we proceed, cousin? This is your home. You know it best.”, Lorna said.
“This is not my home, Nadien ne, for it was never a home, to begin with. Let’s carefully make our way upstairs to my mother’s study. Then we can reach the ground floor and see what the Orken are really up to..”, she replied.
“Why don’t we just climb up this hole?”, Udoorin offered. “It does go all the way up to the ground floor. Yes, I will have to do some clearing and possibly some breaking to enlarge it, but it should save us a bit of time then . Once I can fit through it, I am sure it would be roomy enough for the two of you.”
“No. We must get to my mother’s study first.”, Anglenna said sternly.
“Uhhmm.. Any particular reason we should? I don’t want to intrude but everything there is probably ransacked or destroyed by now.”, the young man asked.
“There are a few things I need from there.”, the tall high elf woman replied and her tone suggested she did not want to be questioned about it any further.
“Perhaps we should go and see what is in my aunt’s study. It is possible she might have left some things behind, notes perhaps, that might give us clues as to what else she had in mind.”, Lorna agreed with her cousin.
Udoorin gave her an inquiring look but she returned it with a barely discernable shake of her head.
“Right. Of course!”, he said, picking up on her offer. “Sure. Sounds like a good, solid plan. We can’t climb out from here anyway. It leads up to a mere crack. There must be tons of rubble above it. We’ll have to figure another way. Lead the way, Lady Lenna.”
“You two are horrible at guile.. This way, if you will!”
✱ ✱ ✱
It took the three of them several hours to find a safe passage through the destroyed manor of the once high lady of Bari Na-ammen, Anglenna Sunsear. The Orken had spared no expense at destroying the great city of the high elves and they had not spared the Betrayer’s home either. Many dead Orken, burnt, blasted, and now, dried down to gray-green husks, lay in heaps and clusters like broken toys; testimony to the wrath of the lady of the manor. Whatever agreements or promises were given to the Betrayer, the Orken had not felt the need to uphold them and had destroyed her home, along with the rest of the great city of the elves. And young Udoorin had had to open a clear path leading up to her study by means of sheer brute strength as Lorna and Anglenna followed him closely.
The young man was sweating profusely by the time they had reached one floor above and he was mumbling to himself with an angry frown.
“What is the matter with you, young man?”, Anglenna asked finally with an exasperated tone. “You have been mumbling to yourself for the past hour.”
“Nothing.”, Udoorin replied shorty as he picked up a very large bit of broken wall and with a strained face, placed it aside, revealing a rubble-filled hall.
“Out with it!”, she said a bit irritably.
“I said, nothing..”, he replied firmly.
Lorna reached up and gently touched his arm.
“What is it, my Dorin? What is wrong?”, she asked.
Udoorin looked down at the young, beautiful girl who was, technically, older than him by ten years.. It seemed like he very much wanted to continue scowling but the sight of her face and the care, and the love he saw in her grass-green eyes totally ruined it; as the young man that he was, or the hero of Serenity Home, or the King of the elves, under no circumstance was he ever going to show the young woman he loved, his ugly, scowling face..
He turned his face and stared into the dark, rubble-filled hall, then he looked up, took a deep breath, and very slowly, he let it go from his nose.
“I am angry.”, he said finally as he further fumed from his nose.
“I know, love. But what has you vexed?”, she asked.
“All this..”, he said, waving all around him. “..I do not understand..”
Lorna did not say anything. She opted to wait, patiently, for him to elaborate. The young man she had come to love and entrust her life and soul was not a very talkative or voluble man and he always paused long before talking to her as if afraid to say anything that might hurt her, break her heart, or be misunderstood by her. Strictly speaking, the young man she loved wasn’t precisely the silent and closed kind of man, but he wasn’t particularly outward to others either, except perhaps where the ranger lieutenants Laila Wolvesbane and Bremorel Songsteel were concerned and, interestingly, Master Aager. He was never hurtful to anyone when he spoke, nor did he ever go out of his way to break anyone’s heart, but it was that final nuance that made all the difference;
Udoorin Shieldheart had reserved his fear of being misunderstood only for her..
It was so sweet, it made her heart lurch and her face burn for some reason whenever she saw him struggle for the right words the way he did now.
It also made her want to scream with exasperation at times, though. As a princess, she had been raised and educated with all the tender delicacies that demanded of her stature. But she was not a wilting flower even though she very much gave that distinct impression. At this, she admired the two ranger lieutenants, Laila Wolvesbane and Bremorel Songsteel because no one treated them like ‘ladies’, but always as rangers.
Had it been some few years back, she would have been more awed by the two girls and thought they were ‘hardcore!’
She still thought they were hardcore and had always liked them. And then, there was the simple fact that you just did not mess around with rangers..
Back to the young man at hand, then?
Lorna opted to patiently wait..
“This..”, he said still fuming. “..must have been a very big and very beautiful house once. I mean, I have never been into woodworking, or stone masonry, or fashion, for that matter, so I can not say I am an expert by any stretch of the meaning, but even I could see the details in the floral designs carved into the wood, the stones, the slender pillars, the drawings and the paintings, and the tapestries even though they are all destroyed. What I can not understand is, what was it that Angrellen lacked in her life that she would sacrifice a whole civilization of such beauty? I can not understand just what was missing in her luxurious life that she let tens of thousands die to attain?”
Then he turned and stared at the tall, high elf woman and his scowl had returned once again.
“I am sorry Lady Lenna, but I just don’t bloody understand it!”, he growled.
Anglenna stared at the young man for a moment as if considering whether to actually try and explain it to him. She must have decided on something for she replied, calmly, coolly, and somewhat distantly.
“I would tell you, young man, but I doubt you would understand, for you lack the necessary point of reference.”, she said.
“Cousin..”, Lorna began but Anglenna raised her hand.
“I speak the truth, Nadien ne. He just can’t understand. And neither can you, for that matter.”, she said with the same calm, cool, and distant tone.
“I never claimed to be a smart man, Lady Lenna, but that was a tad harsh, don’t you think?”, he said.
“You misunderstand me, young Udoorin. This has little to do with how smart you are. The simple matter of fact is, you, both of you, lack the point of reference to understand my mother, Angrellen the Betrayer.”
“And what is this point of reference that you think she has and that we apparently lack?”, he asked.
“Insanity.”, Anglenna replied quietly.
There was another moment of silence as both Udoorin and Lorna tried to work their way through what she had just said.
“You are trying to understand something that makes no sense because you have sense, young man. You are trying to put this destruction into some form of comprehensible or intelligible perspective because you have some perspective. You desperately wish to give some meaning to the things my mother did, hoping to find something you might relate to, which is my point; you can’t, because my mother has neither.. You are trying to grasp the things she has done, whilst they fall within the bounds of sanity all the while missing my point.. again; my mother has none!”
Udoorin ogled at her.
Lorna, on the other hand, fidgeted uncomfortably.
“I am sure there are some mitigating circumstances..”, she tried to soothe her cousin.
Anglenna gave her a cold, distant stare before she replied.
“I did say you were naïve at times, Nadien ne. To give you credit though, you are young therefore you have the luxury to be naïve about a great many things. This, however, is not one of them. Should you make that mistake, my mother will destroy you for she hates you like she hates no other. You represent everything she is not, and everything else she will never be, nor ever have. She is Hell-bent on killing you and the happiest thing she wishes for you is that you die screaming as your flesh melts right off your bones!”, she said viciously.
“That’s a bit graphic.”, mumbled Udoorin with a disturbed tone but the former high lady of Bari Na-ammen ignored him.
“Should she ever see you, she will come down on you like the fires of Gehenna itself and you will die. Please don’t do that! You bear the hopes of so many you know, and so many more that you do not, cousin, all of whom depend on you, and should you die, they will all die as well, along with everyone you love, and everything you care about. Do I make myself clear?”, she said very coldly. Then she looked at both of them and her tone became even colder. “So when I say you lack the reference point, and just how my mother is insane, I mean it at its greatest extent possible, and then some!”
An odd, oppressive sort of silence settled between the tall high elf woman, her cousin, and the young man. It seemed like her queen very much wanted to object, but the young man carefully cleared his throat and shook his head at her. Lorna’s shoulders slumped a bit as she recognized his wisdom and conceded.
And now they were standing, very still, with trepidation, in the shattered doorway of a vast, circular, half caved-in room, some fifty yards across. It was the only room left relatively intact and it was at the end of the hall they had entered. The other rooms, whatever their use or purpose had been mattered very little now, and although their doors were missing, either smashed and splintered, nothing but high rubble and debris was visible piled inside them. Perhaps once the room, along with its content had been an organized one. Considering the obsessive mind frame of its previous owner, it likely was. Now, however, there was nothing but chaos, and everywhere they looked, it was all in shambles..
“Is it safe to even enter?”, Udoorin asked staring into the dark and dusty chamber. “The far ceiling has caved in and the walls appear to have lost their structural integrity. I can see some of the support columns are missing and there are cracks and fissures on the ground tiles..”
“I do not understand how they managed destruction of this scale. Can’t be catapults.”, Lorna said sadly. “If they did this to your mother’s manor, I shudder to think what they did to the rest of the city. “
“Likely mangonels.”, Udoorin mused. “Catapults would have destroyed the upper floors and likely damaged the ground floor, but they do not fire the kind of weight necessary for this kind of devastation. Though I can’t imagine how they dragged mangonels through the woods. Must have been pure Hell.”
Anglenna did not comment. She chose to close her eyes and in high elven dialect, she whispered..
broken and scattered in the dark,
hidden under this decedent arc,
lies the lies and in there I seek,
show me, however, it be bleak..
Udoorin stared at her, wondering what she was doing. Lorna, however, knew the higher elven dialect as it had been part of her education though she had never truly had had the opportunity to use it.
They both watched the high elf woman sweep the whole of the vast chamber with one of her arms stretched, palm facing out, and her fingers apart. Meticulously, Anglenna probed her mother’s study, for this was where she had learned herself the darker aspects of necromancy and arcanum. Just like this was the very room where she had cursed her husband and slain him, planned her betrayal, and schemed her treachery and it was unlikely she had left it unguarded.
“There.”, she said after a good long ten minutes. “And there, there, and there, also.”, she added, pointing at various locations around the chamber.
“Wards?”, Lorna asked.
“Wards, magical traps, alarms, and likely disintegration runes. You name it.. Mother always did like her disintegration spells. Got her the most out of a curse without leaving a mess behind..”, her cousin replied.
“Except for a pile of dust.”, Lorna fumed angrily. “There is a reason why death curses, scrying into private homes, and disintegration spells were banned. A person should have a grave and that spell robs them of that, and of all their dignity.”
“My dear Nadien ne..”, Anglenna said to her with a brittle smile. “..just which part of insane, do you not understand? She killed her husband, my father, from this very room, while he and I were out on a picnic together. I was eight at the time. It’s been one hundred and seventy years and still I remember that very moment, and my father’s face, when he realized he was dying. His last words to me as he tried to hug me were; Ista en siilen eath’she aestar var..”
Lorna’s eyes shimmered.
“Know that I shall always love you..”, she quoted. “That.. that is so sad..”
“Well, it should explain my bitter disposition.”, she replied with the same brittle tone.
“I understand many things now.”, Udoorin murmured. “And feel for both of you.”
“You do, do you?”, Anglenna asked.
“Yes. Unresolved father issues.”, he said simply.
The tall high elf woman arched a platinum-blond eyebrow at him.
So did Lorna..
Udoorin gulped uncomfortably when he was suddenly confronted by two, beautiful women, one of which was the girl he loved very much, the other, her very cousin!
“Uhhmm.. well.. yes..”, he said lamely. “When you think about it..”
“You seem to speak out of experience, young Udoorin.”, Anglenna said with a dangerous, amused expression on her face. “Had a lot of issues with your father, did you? I was under the impression that Sheriff Standorin was a stern, but also a kind man at heart.”
“Yes. I suppose he was. Stern and kind at heart, I mean. But I did not suffer any father issues, no.”, he said with a flushed face.
“I had.. uhhmm.. Aager issues!”, he blurted, his face going even brighter red.
So did Anglenna.
“Don’t snort, Nadien ne.”, she said, stifling a belly laugh. “It is very unseemly for a queen to snort.”
Lorna snorted again.
“I am a mere cousin to one and a wife to another, here. I believe I may be given the moment’s luxury for a snort in such company.”, she said with a smile.
“The world has corrupted you, my dear Nadien ne. You were a beautiful, delicate, tender princess when you left Bari Na-ammen. Now you are a beautiful, delicate, tender, and snorting queen!”
Lorna gave out a delicate little laugh..
..then they all went silent and stern, as they stared at the vast, dark chamber.
“You two wait here.”, Anglenna said finally. “It is possible my mother excluded me from her ‘trigger’ list for the traps in case I came down here out of curiosity when I was little. Or they might ignore me out of kinship or direct blood relation.”
“Then I should be able to come in as well.”, Lorna said.
“No!”, Udoorin rumbled harshly.
“No.”, Anglenna said sternly.
Lorna stared at both of them.
“Angrellen hated your mother, Nadine Graciousward, remember?”, he reminded her kindly.
“Very true, dear.”, Anglenna said, looking down at her. “She did, and very much. I wouldn’t be surprised to find at least some of the traps here are attuned specifically for her.. and your father, Grandaleren, seeing as one of them was a renowned wizard and the other was one of the most famous sorcerers in the kingdom, making them the very two people who would have had the greatest potential to come in here. And your mother was also known to have entered another wizard’s tower; Arcanton Mordenon, and pretty much rubbed his sorry face all over his own tower. Mother might be insane and a Class-A psychopath, but she was always thorough. Let me go in and have a look around while the two of you guard the door.”
“You are aware that should something happen to you, the two of us are going to be stuck here, in these ruins, and in the middle of the whole High Woods Orken army, right?”, Udoorin said carefully.
Anglenna stared at him for a fickle.
Then she smiled.
“That is a tortuous way to tell me to be careful and that you care, young man. It’s sweet.”
“I don’t know what you are talking about, Lady Lenna. I don’t even know what ‘tortuous’, means!”, he said with a straight face.
“I am sure you don’t.”, she replied, giving him another smile, this one clearly bemused, and took a step into the room. Soon enough, she was merely a dim silhouette, walking deeper and deeper into her mother’s study..
“Uhhmm.. What does ‘tortuous’, mean?”, the young man whispered at Lorna.
✱ ✱ ✱
One careful step after another, Anglenna walked further into her mother’s study, her arm stretched out just like before, as she probed for hidden wards and magical traps. Other than the few she had already sensed before, which were a basic variation of her mother’s favorite disintegration spell, she found only three more.
One of them was meant to entrap or perhaps even entomb an unsuspecting intruder in a magical prison far beneath the surface of the ground, effectively making him or her jailed there for eternity. Anglenna suspected this particular trap was prepared for her cousin’s father, Ri Grandaleren, seeing as how he had, in her mind, usurped her throne from her, she would just love to put him into such a prison and keep him there for eons, all the while tormenting him with the knowledge of what she would do to his wife and daughter.
The second trap was a bit more elaborate. It was a simple ward, really, likely meant to be found —barely! Its complexity was in the fact that it would be found by only one, rather specific person, and only that person would be affected by it.. and it would spring at the moment of its discovery! A cunning, devious, and heinous way to dispose of Nadine Graciousward, really.. As to what it would do to her was an altogether different level of deranged insanity; it would, at a very slow but unstoppable rate, rot away Lorna’s mother, starting with her beautiful face, her hands, her feet, her breasts, her arms, and her legs, leaving her lungs and her throat for last just so she would die screaming to her final breath!
Angrellen stared at the ward with beads of sweat running down her drawn face.
“Mother, your psychotic madness has no bounds indeed. The fact that you were preparing me to be more of the same is a clear indication that you should have been sliced open at birth and had your womb removed just so you would never have a single offspring! And that I have just said that, tells me just what kind of mentally deranged children they would have been..”
She found the third trap quite a bit later.. when she arrived at the broken benches and heavy tables of what remained of her mother’s study. Much like the rest of the vast room, her ‘workshop’ was also a mess of rubble, broken furniture, toppled over bookshelves, scattered books, tomes, torn parchments, and scrolls. Many bottles, utensils, flasks, and urns lay on the ground, most either cracked or totally smashed, along with strange items of indiscernible purpose also lay scattered among the rubble; long, delicate chains, tiny, half-a-palms sized bird cages or, when at a closer inspection, revealed them to be more like a torturers spined and barbed starving cages, pendants, medallions, amulets, and charms.. There was also any number of sealed and locked boxes, chests, and crates, though most of these were also broken and splintered.
Anglenna stared around her, and at the derelict that was her mother’s lifelong work of madness, and it somehow seemed proper, appropriate, and even fitting that it was all in such a state of chaos and shambles. Much like the Betrayer’s mind and life, now..
“I didn’t even know mother was into potions and alchemy, let alone relic crafting.”, she mused to herself as she carefully picked up various items, all broken or mangled beyond recognition or repair, from the rubble and the derelict. It was there she noticed a long, very delicate chain hanging loosely between some of the larger bits of what was likely the far wall and the ceiling. Apparently, when they had both collapsed, they had landed on several hardwood tables, taking them down and burying them along. Whatever the chain was, part of it had slid through the gaps between the bricks and the debris, not unlike water that seeped to form a little brook and Anglenna felt the magic it possessed before she touched it.
For a long moment, she stared at the chain, her hang outstretched as if in contemplation. Finally, she reached for it and held it in her hand to feel the extreme delicacy of the links. Even by elven standards, it was beautiful beyond words and Anglenna gasped as she marveled at the way the long length of the chain ‘poured’ from one of her hands to the other. Very carefully, she dug at the debris and nudged a few of the larger bits, and unearthed the rest of the chain to see there was a tiny, about one inch tall, barred, seemingly empty cage..
“What is it with you and cages, mother? There are any number of these tiny cages you have been working on, lying around. Is this the perfected version? Is this why you were so upset when the Orken leveled and ransacked your manor?”, she mused in a whisper.
The more she stared at the tiny, rectangular, box-like cage, the more insight she perceived into her mother’s treachery..
“This isn’t a birdcage at all! It is a jail.. literally! I can feel the cold, mind-numbing necrotic energy emanating from it..”
And she froze as several things clicked in her mind..
Her mother had prepared traps specifically for Grandaleren and Nadine Graciousward, expecting a possible, uninvited visit or even an incursion from either or both.
Her mother had hated Princess Alor’Nadien ne from the moment she was conceived, yet Anglenna hadn’t found anything her mother had prepared for her in specific. True, the room was in shambles and if the Betrayer had, in fact, prepared something for her niece, it could easily be under all the rubble. Or she could be carrying it in her person at this very moment but..
The little mental talks her mother had had with her back when she, Lorna, and Udoorin were down in the Arashkan sewers seeking for the old thieves guild for the Three Dog Curse, had revealed her mother hadn’t turned a hair at the burning of High Woods nor the destruction of Bari Na-ammen, yet she been extremely put out when the Orken had destroyed her manor, consequently causing her to lash out and slay any number of them just to demonstrate her displeasure. It was during those ‘chats’, her mother had berated about having wanting to retrieve some personal effects and how she hadn’t been able to.
Her mother had prepared traps for possible intruders, but it would be quite unlikely her very young niece would have ever come down here. For her, she had to have crafted something special. Something personal. Something that would land all her spiteful vex on the princess she hated. Something very delicious, elegant, and beautiful..
That weird, very tall, very dark girl, Seressa Wraiven, had told her to ‘Find it. Change it. Gift it..’
Much like she had also promised atonement should she do so..
The very same weird girl was the bonded maiden of the Raven Queen, who was the safe keeper of lost souls, items, and secrets.. and the speaker of prophecies, though, admittedly, usually ill ones.
Her cousin, Alor’Nadien ne, had bonded herself in the service of the Hex Lords of Shadowfel to fight against demons in hopes to preserve her people.
The Raven Queen ruled Shadowfel!
The Raven Queen also hated demons..
Her mother, Angrellen the Betrayer, served demons and had likely bonded herself to one of their greater lords.
And this delicate, intricate, very elegant, and beautiful necklace was it; the trap her mother had prepared for her niece, Alor’Nadien ne..
..and was supposed to have given it to her as a gift! Just like she had prepared The Three Dog Curse as a gift to be given to the First Lord, Princeps Kaladin of Arashkan city..
Anglenna pulled out a clean, white, laced, silk handkerchief from inside her robe and spread it on the floor, pushing aside stones and splinters. Carefully, she placed the necklace in the center of the handkerchief and wrapped it, knotting all four of its corners together, and tucked it safely into her bodice. She would have to study it carefully and extensively to figure out the ‘curse’ her mother had placed on it for her niece. Then she would have to ‘change’ it, and finally figure out whom to gift it to..
Just not now.
Then she went after what she had come for in the first place..
She tossed and trashed every chest, every box, every possible container she could find until she discovered it..
Rolled and tucked inside a long, hardened leather scroll case that had somehow escaped the destruction by the simple means of tumbling and rolling away from the crashing wall and the caving ceiling and settling, quite comfortably, on the other corner of the vast room, and in plain sight!
Anglenna hiccuped a funny sound between an elated happiness and whimper of relief..
She pulled out the content of the scroll case and unrolled it. Then, with a gesture, a small, flickering flame appeared in one of her palms and she stared at what she beheld with shimmering and yearning eyes. Her lips pouted and trembled as she drank upon what she saw and finally, the tears that she had held back for a hundred and seventy years ran down her face..
“She killed you, father. She shall no longer get to have you..”, she whispered at the portrait of Selvius Brightleaf. “I shall not even leave her the satisfaction of a reminiscence. Now, she truly is alone and damned..”
✱ ✱ ✱
You seem.. relieved sister-cousin.”, Lorna said quietly when Anglenna reappeared before them.
“I am relieved, my Nadien ne.”, the tall high elf woman replied and indeed, there was a languished air about her; her shoulders seemed relaxed and so did her spine. There was a few strands of her platinum-blonde hair hanging loosely from her otherwise rigidly bunned knots, giving her the framed appearance of, not quite disheveled, but ‘just woken up from a deep, sound, and restful sleep’, and the creases around her squints were gone. Her grimly pressed lips were slightly apart too now, and lo..
Anglenna Brightleaf had a pretty mouth!
“You found what you were looking for, then?”, her cousin asked.
“I found what I was looking for..”, Anglenna replied, nodding at her with a surprisingly bright, happy, and satisfied smile. “Thank you for understanding, and sparing the time to come here. Thank you both..”
“That’s what friends and family do, Lady Lenna.”, Udoorin rumbled seriously. “We help the ones we love and care by means of removing the rubble to their happiness or bashing in the heads that stand in their way.”
Anglenna let a tingling laugh..
..which was quite the unique thing for her to do!
“Shall we start climbing up to the surface, then?”, the young man said, just so they could avoid another hugging session between his Lorna and her cousin. Things were uncomfortable as it was without him staring at two girls hugging one another and crying while he stood awkwardly on the side, chewing at corners of his digits!
“Yes.”, Anglenna agreed, turned around to give her mother’s study one last look..
..then they were gone.
It took them several hours to find a relatively safe opening; a mountain of more rubble and debris that climbed up to a tight hole in the ceiling that surfaced to the ground floor. It had been a tight push through the hole and young Udoorin ended up climbing back down to strip off his plate armor, bundle it into a large rucksack, tie it to one foot and drag it up behind him. He also lent his broad and powerful shoulders to the two ladies, helping them climb as well. Anglenna had apologized for the necessity while Lorna had blushed, quite furiously, as she climbed on top of him, though she did take advantage of the situation by giving him a chaste kiss on the mouth.. Udoorin didn’t complain.. Not once.. He merely grinned happily as he helped them; holding the tall high elf woman by her ankles and raising her up and over his head while he locked himself in the vertical shaft using just his powerful legs. He did not, however, hold Lorna by her ankles to help her up. He helped her up by the simple expedience of grabbing her by her slim waist, then pushing her up by cupping her shapely butt!
Which likely explained why he was grinning even more and she was blushing so furiously..
And now they were lying on some freezing debris and with the ruins of High Lady Angrellen Sunsear’s once beautiful manor all around them, staring through a long, gash-like crack on one side of the little, dark ‘room’ that was actually several collapsed walls leaning on each other, forming the said room! And through the crack, they could see the rest of the devastation of Bari Na-ammen just beyond of the remains of the shattered walls that bordered the Betrayer’s estate.
“There..”, Udoorin rumbled quietly, pointing at something in the distance. “..and there. They are all huddled together and hidden but the broken walls offer little concealment and the Orken are not exactly delicate creatures, to begin with, though they do know how to ambush surprisingly well. I strongly suspect there are similar groups hiding beyond our peripheral vision.”
“I see them.”, Lorna confirmed.
“So do I, young man.”, Anglenna said, “And yes, there are likely more out there that we can’t see from our vantage point.”
“Yes. The moment we assume to have figured them out, they show us just how wrong we have been.”, Udoorin agreed as he untied the rope from his foot, dragged the heavy rucksack up the shaft, unloaded his armor, and started strapping it back on. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the ones we can see are mere bait just so the ones we haven’t been able to spot can jump us. As I said, the Orken do love their ambushes. The question is, what do we do? What’s the plan of action here?”
Lorna sat up slightly in the relatively cramped space they were hidden and mulled over that question as a tiny frown appeared on her brows.
Anglenna stared at the Orken some more but came short of finding a solution. She also sat up and frowned.. She was good at affairs of state and short-term planning where combat was inevitable. Long-term tactical planning was not quite her forte.
“Why is Thelius never around when I need him?”, she grimaced heatedly.
“You told him you didn’t want to see his face if she had any days to live.”, Lorna replied bemusedly. “I thought that was a bit harsh, considering he lives for the sight of you, cousin.”
“Thelius?”, Udoorin asked.
“He certainly does not!”, Anglenna hissed.
“Who is Thelius?”, the young man repeated as he did the final straps and buckles of his armor.
“Does, too! Should see his face every time he sees you coming.”, Lorna smiled.
“Who is Thelius?”
“I have no desire to see his face!”, the tall high elf girl very nearly spat through her gritted her teeth.
“Who the bloody Hell is Thelius, dammit?”, Udoorin asked again with exasperation.
“Lord Armathelius Riverblade..”, Lorna replied with delight.
“Ow.. Ow?”, the young burly man said as he cocked an eyebrow.
“Didn’t you know? Our dear Lenna and Thelius are, infact, childhood friends.”, she added with more of the same eager delight.
“Lenna was a child?”, he blurted.
Lorna slapped her hands over her mouth to muffle a burst of quiet laughter.
Anglenna, however, gave him a very cold, arctic gaze.
“I.. very much apologize, Lady Lenna. That didn’t come out the way I wanted.”, Udoorin said with a burning face.
“And what did you want to mean exactly, young man?”, she asked him with a brittle voice.
“Ok. I am going to shut up now.”, he replied hastily. “But just so you know, that man is dying for a few kind words from you.. and would likely kill for your affection!”
“I find that highly doubtful, young man..”, Anglenna said with a very sour face.
“Why? You are a the daughter of a high lady. He is the son of a high lord. You are pretty. He is pretty. He obviously likes you. And you obviously find his affection bothersome, even irksome, but not loathsome enough to burn him on the spot. So, what’s the problem?”, he asked innocently, not realizing he had just walked into a pit full of very nasty and very painful things waiting at the bottom!
Anglenna ogled at him, quietly stupefied.
“Whatever there is going on between Lord Armathelius and me, is none of your business, young man.”, she literally hissed at him.
“I think it is.”, Udoorin replied with a shrug. “Not the details, of course, but the matter of fact is, I need both of you for the coming war. And should we survive, for the new kingdom we plan on building here.. And I can’t do that when I have only half of either of you.”
Lorna stared at her husband with an exhilarated expression.
Anglenna also stared at him, but her expression was not unlike someone who had just been hit over the head with a club!
“Now.. To the matter at hand, then?”, the young man bulldozed on. “Why do you need Lord Armathelius here? Other than his over-calm, and somewhat reassuring presence, I mean..”
Anglenna could only reply after a considerable mental effort, and when she did, her face was burning, though whether it was due to anger or embarrassment.. or both, wasn’t clear.
“Because he is an excellent tactician, my King!”, she hissed hotly. “And would have figured out a way to get us through the Orken army and to the possible location of the Grunt General and his Blood Shamans..”
“Ahh..”, the young man said as comprehension dawned on him. “Good call, Lady Lenna, though quite unnecessary.”
“Quite unnecessary?”, she exclaimed exasperatedly. “Young man, there are likely eighty to one hundred thousand Orken between us and the Grunt General and his Blood Shamans in High Woods! Just how do you propose we get through them?”
Udoorin stared at the tall high elf woman for a moment, then grinned at her.
“Quite elementary, Lady Lenna.”, he replied, still grinning at her. “We walk right through them, and in plain sight!”
Lorna didn’t say anything. She hadn’t the slightest idea what her husband had in mind but she thought his point of view and solutions to problems were quite a bit more grounded and practical than hers. Not long after she had first met him, she had figured Udoorin didn’t like, nor did he do complications. When there was a problem, he went at it with simple honesty and stabbed directly at its core, rather than taking any detours —a something she very much admired about him.. And that her cousin’s reaction to his way of particular solutions would be amusing if nothing else.
Her cousin on the other hand, and quite expectantly, was fuming through her nose now..
“And they are just going to let us through, are they?”, she said, giving him a smoldering look.
“Not only are they going to let us walk through them, but they will eagerly move aside.”, he replied.
“By all means, do elaborate, young man. Preferably before I lose my patience..”, she further fumed.
“But of course!”, Udoorin said smartly, then pointed at the cluster of Orken, poorly hidden among the ruins of the outer walls of her mother’s estate. “Tell me, Lady Lenna, what do you see there?”, he asked.
Anglenna stared in the direction he was pointing at, through the long crack, and saw the hidden Orken again. She frowned a bit in contemplation just to be sure she wasn’t missing anything that the irritatingly smug young man had noticed but she still saw nothing but the Orken..
“I see six Orken from where I am sitting in this filthy and freezing rubble.”, she finally said.
“I see the same thing, and that’s the point!”, Udoorin nodded at her as if stating the obvious.
“If there is actually a point here, young man, I am unable to see it.”, she said with a frustrated tone.
“Look.”, the burly young man tried to explain. “When you look at the Orken, you just see a bunch of big, ugly beasts. It is pretty much what everyone who has encountered them and lived to tell the tale sees which is expected. An average person is not prone to details. Particularly when they are fighting, or running, for their very lives. Had we had the time, or if it mattered, I could tell you more about each individual Orken hiding in those ruins. I don’t bother because at this very moment, that information is not practically useful, or relevant, to the success of our mission. When we first came here, to Bari Na-ammen and right before it was besieged, I just saw a lot of tall and pretty looking elves. To be honest, from afar, I could only differentiate whether one of them was a man or a woman and only by the way they walked.”
“Why? What’s wrong with the way we walk?”, Anglenna asked, a bit curious.
“There is nothing wrong with the way you walk. But all women do ‘sway’, which I am sure you already know, and which is something no man can truly imitate, nor should they try, but that’s my private opinion and not really relevant to the matter at hand.”, he said seriously.
“This is very interesting, young Udoorin. Do go on..”, the tall high elf woman said with a dangerous glint in her pale green eyes.
“I think it has to do with the shape of their hips, though I can’t be sure. Should you really want to know, I am sure Gnine could give you a better explanation..” he continued, not noticing Lorna turning bright red and covering her face in her hands.
“I can’t believe the things I am hearing, Dorin.”, she moaned with embarrassment. “Have you been staring at my hips all these past months?”
“Well, I didn’t do it on purpose, love. I promise. To be honest, though, it was quite unavoidable for me. You have very beautiful hips! Please don’t get me wrong. You are the only girl I have ever ogled at in my entire life. Dammit! I am digging myself in, aren’t I?”, he spluttered.
“Very much so, young man, very much so..”, Anglenna replied, struggling not to laugh.
“Look, my point is, all I saw was a lot of the same when we first came here. I am sure Laila picked out certain differentiating details such as height, weight, and broadness of each individual elves’ shoulders.. In short, things that would have clued her into certain facts. For example, if a person has broad shoulders, it would likely mean they train and work out, particularly if they also had thick thighs. Or she would have figured they practiced archery if their muscles were concentrated mostly around their arms and shoulders. I am certain Bremorel would have looked for similar details in each individual elf too, had she been there with us. Master Aager, on the other hand, would always look into peoples’ eyes and their hands to figure out their intentions, and hence, decide what kind of precautionary actions he would have to take.. I have been trained, quite forcibly, by Aager himself, but I am nowhere near his level of perception. Now, if any of us were to suddenly drop in the middle of Scowling Hills, or worse, Elder Hills, we would only see multitudes of dwarves and barely be able to perceive their gender, let alone their individual differences.. Not immediately anyway.. To bring the rooster home, I highly doubt the Orken have given any particular interest in any race, seeing as how they kill everything in their path with the same sinister attitude. For them, it is very likely all elves look the same, much like all humans or dwarves or gnomes look the same.. which, at this point, works for their bloodthirsty advantage; they get to kill us all without having any morel dilemmas which is ironic, really, since we will be doing the exact same thing to them!”
Both Anglenna and Lorna were staring at him now, a bit confused, and more than a bit surprised at the complex explanation he had just laid out.
“Very well, young man. I understand your point better now, but how does it help us? If you are suggesting we dress up like the Orken, I highly doubt that would work. You are a large man, but even you lack their height and weight, and there is no way either I or my cousin would pass for one of them no matter how we dressed up. And if you are considering illusions, my talents don’t go that way. If I had to, I might be able to change my face a bit, but that’s as much as I can do which still isn’t enough. Perhaps if that disrespectful little gnome of yours were here, he could have pulled it off..”, Anglenna said, pointing out the flaws in the young man’s plan.
“Illusions?”, Udoorin said somewhat surprised. “Didn’t even occur to me. What I had in mind was, we walk out.. exactly as we are!”
“I don’t understand.. At all..”, the tall high elf woman said, totally giving up.
“Dorin, dear, what will stop them from attacking us?”, Lorna asked kindly.
“Ahh, my bad, love. Forgot to mention that part.”, Udoorin replied and he was grinning again now. “They won’t attack because of the ‘elf witch’ they fear that owns this house. After all, she did kill scores of them, and she did it right in the middle of their army. That is why the Orken are out there, watching this place. They are there in case she comes back! You see, Angrellen didn’t just kill a few scores of them. She insulted them right in the middle of their home base.”
“This is not their home!”, Anglenna hissed.
“Doesn’t matter what we think, Lady Lenna, it matters only what they think at the moment, and they guard this manor against the possibility that she might return.. I suggest she does return and demand to see their Grunt General!”, Udoorin replied, then paused for comprehension to dawn on the two ladies.
A long silence settled as the recognition of what the young man had in mind slowly seeped through. And when it did, it didn’t come quietly, nor kindly..
“I LOOK NOTHING LIKE MY MOTHER! I AM NOTHING LIKE HER!”, Anglenna hissed with savage self-loathing and through tight lips and gritted teeth!
“No, Lenna, you do not.”, replied Udoorin, and his rumbling voice was low, slow, and there was a distinct tint of sympathy in it. “And I could have told you that, even before Arashkan. You see, you have three things your mother never had, and will never have; you have compassion, you have conscience, and you have a heart.”
Anglenna stared at him and it seemed like something broke inside of her. Her cousin, Alor’Nadien ne, had told her similar things in the past. So had Lord Armathelius. Why the words of this brawny man hit her so hard, she just couldn’t understand. Perhaps it was due to his simple honesty.. She did, perhaps for the first time, get an insight as to what it was that had drawn her Nadien ne to him like a moth. It also dawned on her the recognition of another feeling surfacing for the boy. Something she had displayed, though admittedly, a bit superficially, but never truly felt..
Lorna had reached over to her from where she sat and squeezed her hand, for support or for perhaps to ratify the words of her husband, it didn’t really matter. Her Nadien ne had always been there for her even though Anglenna was supposed to have hated her..
“I.. don’t know what to say to that, my King.”, Anglenna croaked.
Udoorin’s face flushed.
“I.. do not like complications, Lady Lenna. And I am horrible at lies. Master Aager tried to teach me how, among many other things, as part of my training, you know, in case I would have to, but it just didn’t take hold. To the matter at hand; you can be your mother and stroll down there and demand to see their Grunt General, and we can be your bodyguards.. or your bruisers.. I never did bodyguard duty, but I suspect I’d make an excellent bruiser!”, he said with a broad grin.
“No one is ever going to believe Nadien ne to be a bruiser, young man.”, she objected.
“I shall be your servant, then? Or your handmaid?”, offered Lorna.
“You are a Queen, Nadien ne. You will be a servant to NONE!”, Anglenna said very sternly.
“I am the queen, yes. I am also the servant of my people, cousin. And you are my people as well!”, Lorna replied happily.
“That is the worst use of logic, and metaphors, I have ever heard of!”, fumed the high elf woman.
“And here I thought I was the queen..”, she said, smiling at her. “I can’t even have my own cousin to accept my wishes!”
“That was uncalled for, Nadien ne..”, Anglenna said angrily.
“If it will take us to the Grunt General’s tent, I do not mind playing your maid, cousin. My Dorin’s plan is a sound one.”, she countered pleadingly.
“But I do not look like my mother!”, she insisted.
“That doesn’t really matter, Lady Lenna.”, Udoorin said. “The Orken will hardly recognize your facial differences. They will not see the Betrayer’s daughter. They will only see a high elf woman coming out of her manor with her bruiser and her handmaid making demands. After we butcher the few that object that too loudly, I am sure the rest will see things our way, provided you can act your mother. They might miss the details of your appearance, they will not, however, miss your mannerism if they see you hesitate.. I expect Angrellen was a cold, ruthless woman?”
“Young man, the words ‘cold’ and ‘ruthless’ were invented for Angrellen the Betrayer! But I am not sure I can do the things she can. What happens if I am expected to perform her role and I just can’t?”, she asked vehemently.
Udoorin looked at the tall high elf woman. This was the first time he was seeing her lose her usual, self-assured stance. It wasn’t hard for him to figure Lady Lenna was very much afraid of her mother, or even dreaded her and now she was expected to impersonate and become her..
“Lenna.”, he rumbled at her. “I have been thinking over this plan ever since I and Lorna decided on these missions to kill the Grunt Generals and the Blood Shamans. We chose the locations and their corresponding groups with careful deliberation and not out of convenience, nor at random. I sent Lilly Venom with Aager and Inshala to Oger’s Foot, to Dim Woods, and then to Stinking Shacks because the ogres would only listen to that little girl and only she would be able to enforce cooperation between them and the woodsmen of Dim Woods.. I sent her even though I never wanted to because that little girl had suffered enough already. I wanted her to stay behind and be happy. I saw Aager’s face when I mentioned her in their group and if anything happens to that girl, I am very sure he is going to slice me open! I sent Lilly with them because those bloody bandits at Stinking Shack will show respect only to someone worst than they are; a wanted Drashan assassin!
I sent Perigren Ostlanna Temez, a totally unknown entity, with Bremorel and Thomas to make it through the wilderness, just to get to know her and to learn her true intentions in case she had some ulterior motives behind her actions because we had to know!
I sent two more of the half-born to Misty Woods —with my father.. Yes, he is a very sturdy and experienced warrior, but he isn’t as young as he used to be. I sent them together to make sure the job got done at the risk of losing him. I also sent a bloody Drashan captain to meet them at the south of Tar Pits so he could sail them across Arashkan Lake..
I have no idea how and why they were where we met them, and how they got ahead of us to organize the tundra tribes and hordes, but I sent that barbarian girl, Cora Sleet, south so she would see more of the kingdom outside her tundras and know our plight. And because we simply need those barbarians! I sent the little hobbit, Brom Bumblebrim, so he would sing our plight and make it a legend. And I sent the two girls from the Academy of Melshieve, Seressa Wraiven and Arcanton Palecog in the hopes that they would somehow persuade the Academy into joining us for the coming war..
As for the three of us, we were all eager to jump to immediate action together. I certainly was, and so was Lorna and you.. and it all seemed ‘right’ in the wake of what’d happened to Arashkan and High woods. But after what we went through down in the sewers while seeking for the Three Dog Curse, I never wanted Lorna to come and face the kind of dangers she did. Not again.. I wanted her to take a break and rest if nothing else. I wanted to spend some time together with her. To be honest, I wanted her to stay behind and not come here at all but she made her wishes known to me even against mine. I also did not want you to come. Don’t get me wrong.. It wasn’t due to any inadequacy on your part, or dissatisfaction with your abilities nor was it because I didn’t trust you. It was because I saw how you were on the very brink of a total breakdown. It wasn’t hard to recognize your personal and intimate conflicts, even before the events that occured at Arashkan. You had suffered one emotional trauma after another, over and over, and without even a breather in these past several months, and those were only from the things that I know of.. I wanted you to stay and have a few weeks of peace.. at least untill the Orken arrived..
Here is the thing though;
Who else could do what must be done? Who else would you entrust to do what we must?”
Anglenna stared at the young man in the dim and cold confines of the rubbles and her shoulders slumped down even more.
“I shall do it.”, she whispered finally. “And I must say, the way you tasked people, even the ones you knew and cared for to certain death was quite ruthless.”
“Cousin..”, Lorna objected.
“No, love. She is right.”, Udoorin said. “It was ruthless and I loath myself for having to have to do it. But there are so many lives at stake and the ones I knew and cared for, the ones I tasked, are the only people I could trust to get the job done..”
“I am impressed. I despaired how you would ever make a king.. Apparently, there was little to worry. You are more a king now, than Grandaleren ever was.”, Anglenna observed.
Then she rose up to her full height, straightened her spine, pushed back her shoulders, and stared down mercilessly at him, and at her cousin. “Come, then, and witness the arrogance of Angrellen the Betrayer..”
✱ ✱ ✱
With a great heave, Udoorin pushed out one of the fallen walls and it came down with a quaking rumble. He stood there, in plain sight, and on to of mountain of rubble, holding his massive black axe.. He glared down and around menacingly, taking in the devastation and the Orken.. and roared!
“Come forth, yee wet, scurvy dogs! My Mistress desires to speak to your Grunt General and yee shall take us to him, or many of yee shall end this day and be fodder for rot rats.. I shall slaughter the lot of you, one by one, or by the dozen, I care little. But I will enjoy myself in doing so, and until her wish is done!”
A stunned silence ensued in the courtyard of Angrellen’s manor..
And then, the Betrayer herself stepped out.
Tall, slender, and cold as the arctic winds, she stared down at the Orken with unadulterated spite and dissatisfied arrogance.
Behind her, another slender figure appeared. This one with long, raven-black hair whipping in the frigid winter breeze, and other than her burning green eyes, her face was void of all expressions..
“THE ELF WITCH!”
..grunted the Orken, then they charged, without hesitation, wielding cruel-looking jagged swords and spiked axes, and the burly young man with the giant black axe replied in kind.
He showed neither mercy nor finesse. With an indifferent swing, he lopped the head of the first to come, axed the chest of the second, shattering bone and cartilage with equal ease, opened the stomach of the third, spilling his innards..
..then he was among them!
He never paused, he never stopped, and like some frightening, enraged pendulum, he swung right, and he swung left, and he cut them down.
“HALT! FALL BACK!”, grunted another voice from far behind and the Orken froze..
The enraged ‘pendulum’ did not!
He slaughtered every single one of them until he was covered in black, oozing blood and stinking and steaming gore..
“I said, halt, human!”, growled the same voice, and a seemingly older Orken came into view. He had a dirty-gray beard and long, bushy brows. A part of his nose was missing and his face was wrinkled. Smeared clots of once red blood marked his forehead and his wrinkles. He wore a tattered, brown robe as dirty as his beard and several human and perhaps, elf skulls hung from his braided twine rope for a belt..
“I do not take orders from the runt of a Loshka!”, Udoorin sneered at him. “I take my orders from Lady Angrellen..”
“Should you not hold, your witch mistress shall have to find herself another pet to entertain herself.”, the old Orken spat back, then turned to the tall effigy standing coldly at the top of the rubble of the manor. “Speak, witch! What do you want? You gored yourself in Orken blood the last time you were here. We no longer owe you any debt for the destruction of your manor. These are our lands now..”
Angrellen did not reply.
With a tensile, disgusted expression, she stared down at the old, filthy Orken.
“The Mistress of Sunsear Estate does not do peons, nor a diseased rot rats!”, Udoorin snarled.
And brought down his great, black axe!
There was a shuddering thud and the axe bit deeply into the Orken’s shoulder and worked its way down his torso.
“Do you.. even know.. who I am?”, croaked the old Orken as thick, tar-like blood gushed out of his mouth, his half nose, and his split corpse.
“Yes.”, sneered the blood-covered young man with disdain. “You are dead!”
He stared at the old, wrinkled Orken, and as the light of life faded from his eyes, he learned him something he thought the dying monster ought to know;
“And these are not your lands. It never was. It never will be..”
“Bit on the bloody side, wasn’t it?”, Angrellen said as she appeared next to Udoorin, and staring down and around at the slaughter.
“Less than I wanted, really.”, the young man grunted with an angry, flushed face. “The last time I was here, there was a living, autumn forest and a beautiful city teeming with elves.. I can smell death in the air and it was there before this dead lot!”
“That was a Blood Shaman, by the way.”, she noted, looking down at the bloody mess of the old Orken.
“Yes. And good riddance.”, rumbled the young man.
Lorna was staring at him with undisguised amazement though. Her eyes were still ablaze, but there was also a tiny shimmer of fear in there now and young Udoorin saw it.
“Please, Lorna. Do not hate me for what I just did, and what I must yet do.”, he said a bit too harshly.
“I do not hate you, my Dorin. I never could. It’s just.. I have seen you fight many times before, but never did I ever witness you kill so freely and dispassionately. It.. disturbed me..”, she replied, bowing her head.
“I know, love. But this is the kind of behavior they expect from Angrellen and I am giving them exactly that.”, he said and a note of pleading could be heard in his voice.
“Do not dwell on what has happened, Nadien ne. It is pointless, only painful. Now, stand up straight. We have more incoming and the Betrayer’s handmaid does not brood.”, Angrellen snapped.
A whole platoon of Orken approached them, their steps steady, their hands on their weapons, sheathed or hanging from their belts. Against their glaring hate towards the Mistress of the Sunsear’s Manor, they showed remarkable discipline or restraint and they did not draw them. When they came within fifty yards of the three, standing in plain sight, the large Orken leading the platoon rose his fist and they all stopped. He stood his ground for a moment, staring at the them, then calmly he stepped forward and came as close as ten feet before them as Udoorin took a few steps forward himself and intercepted him, forcing the Orken to stop there.
“Elf witch!”, he growled. “I am the platoon krush and this is the second time you have come here to distract The Greater Orken.. We have much work to do and many preparations to make. And we have little time to spare for your private amusement. Take what you wish from your former home and leave. You are no longer welcome in our lands.. This shall be your only warning—”
Udoorin did not let him finish that sentence. He simply swung his great black axe from below, in a straight, perpendicular line and the platoon krush collapsed, squirming while holding his ruined groin! He screeched once, shuddered, then died..
“Mistress Angrellen Sunsear does not do peons, and neither does she take kindly to threats..”, he snarled.
Then he stared, quite boldly, at the Orken platoon and roared.
“You shall do as Mistress Angrellen demands and take her to your Grunt General, or you shall also die.. Choose!”
Silently, the Orken platoon parted.
✱ ✱ ✱
It took them the rest of what had remained of the day, another full day of hard traveling, and two nights, of only one they had taken a rest to reach the great, canvas and leather tent with odd, tribal patterns erected at the center of Orken army, somewhere on the west side of the ruins of Bari Na-ammen. Surrounded by the same Orken platoon, they pushed their way through multitudes of other platoons, and the burnt-down woods.
The Orken had left nothing green standing; the trees were all black and charred, the ground was covered with sooty, slushy, and muddy snow, and a steady haze of smoke clung like a filmy, gray-purple blanket over the whole of the once beautiful forest and Alor’Nadien ne felt her heartache at the sight, for deep down, she could hear the groaning and dying slumber of the great spirit that was once High Woods.
To further their distress, they also saw tall, horrifying pyramids of rotting and broken bodies of elves; men, women, and children, heaped on top of each other, cut, mutilated, torn apart, and burned..
Their only consolation was, the winter had not been kind to the Orken. Whatever the skinny little girl, Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane, had done, it had left thousands of blackened and petrified Orken in its wake, all frozen to death everywhere. The survivors of the brutal winter had left them where they had died as if wanting to further befoul and besmirch the very soil of the forest. The odd and creepy part of it all was, the forest had refused to let them into her bosom as she would any other; elf, human, or beast.
And Lorna felt the shallow breaths of her woods. She could almost see her adamant, but futile struggle to keep the Orken corpses off herself, but she knew that wouldn’t last. Once her already withering strength finally ebbed, the Orken would rot and sink into the soil and that would be the end of it because unlike elves, humans, dwarves, or beasts, the Orken had demon blood coursing through their veins and whatever demons touched, they killed. But this was worse, for their blood would soak into the very soil of the woods and who knew what kind of horrors would rise from that!
“We must hurry. Tell the Orken to keep going and not to stop for rest.”, she had whispered to Anglenna.
“Why? What is going on, cousin?”, she had whispered back.
“We must end this war, and we must do it soon.”, the beautiful half-elf girl had said pleadingly.
“Nadien ne, tell me what is going on?”
“Quarlani Ath Tel’Ora is dying!”, she had replied with a desperate voice and tear-stricken face.
“How.. how do you know?”, her cousin said incredulously.
“I can feel her, Lenna.. I can feel the Spirit of High Woods as she ebbs away.. She is dying, cousin.. My forest is dying! If she dies, our forest and our lands will turn into another Demon Plains and only the dead will roam it!”
Anglenna had just stared at her with a horrified expression.
And now they were standing before the great tent, tired, in trepidation, and seething with silent wrath with thousands upon thousands of Orken stretching as far as the eye could see in the hazy, purple-gray smoke..
The leading Orken that had replaced the platoon krush Udoorin had killed, pulled open the heavy canvas flaps of the tent, stepped aside, and stood there without a word or a gesture. Angrellen followed him inside, swaying her hips more than she normally did, imitating her mother, and was confronted by a horrible stench that could only be the gross, stomach-churning combination of stagnant sweat, dried blood, and meat gone bad. She almost retched at the horrible smell barely able to maintain her role. Her big, burly bruiser gave the Orken behind them a menacing look as he let the high lady’s handmaid in, then he let himself in as well. They too were confronted by the disproportionately ghastly smell and Lorna couldn’t help but sway where she stood.
There was a large, heavy oaken table sitting in the middle of the tent, a pit dug on the far end with something staked burning in it. Many once beautiful elven rugs were tossed on the ground muddy and filthy ground and several braziers hung from chains, giving the tent the illusion of a dim light..
There were also a dozen Orken in the tent, gathered around the heavy, oak table. Most were likely rank officers, much like the krush Udoorin had killed, acting as lieutenants, captains, or perhaps even majors, if the Orken had such ranks. There were three Blood Shamans, their outfits filthy and there were smears of cracked and dried blood on their faces, very much like the one that had also died at the hands of Lady Angrellen’s bruiser.
And in their mids, across the table, sitting on a beautifully carved throne, was the largest Orken they had ever seen. He was perhaps twelve or thirteen feet tall, with arms and legs that looked like he could snap a young tree in half without breaking a sweat or kick a siege walk down. He stared at them with the calm of before a storm, or a well-fed lion. It was his eyes that gave him away, however.. There was a deep-seated menacing and unholy glitter reflecting from them and they projected, quite clearly, exactly what the owner of those eyes was; a creature untainted by compassion or empathy, or even slightest understanding of the base things that turned an animal into a ‘human’, and with a shared insight, all three of them suddenly knew that this was the Orken that had given the order to burn down High Woods. It was his words of command that had caused the total ruination of Bari Na-ammen. It was his orders that had slaughtered thousands of elves then piled them into disgraced and degrading pyramids. It was because of him Quarlani Ath Tel’Ora, the Spirit of High Woods was dying.. and it was on his imminent command that there was a permanent, stinking, purple-gray, and choking smoke lingering over the charred forest..
Angrellen gave the tent and the dozen Orken, the Blood Shamans, and the Grunt General inside a deliberately disdainful look before she spoke.
“It would seem, you lack nothing less than the other races when it comes to arrogance.”, she said with a cold, distant voice. “With what you did here, you merely doomed yourselves and I am here to correct that.”
Nobody said anything, nor did anyone reply.
Every Orken in the tent; the krush, the Blood Shamans, and the Grunt General just stared at her.. silently.
It was the giant Orken sitting on the throne himself that finally responded and he did it with calm, succinct deliberation..
“You were warned never to come here into our lands, elf witch. Mother sent word that should you ever be sighted, you were to be seized and dragged, by the hair, through barbed bushes until you no longer held flesh on your back, and begged for death. Only then would you understand; what Mother wants, she gets, and when she warns, she does so only once and that her word is the law. And her law is; upon apprehension, that your arms be torn out of your shoulders without the use of a blade, hence you never raise your hands against the Greater Orken again, your legs be pulled apart and blazing irons be thrust between them and into your womb before they be ripped out of your hips so you will never have runts to avenge you and will know, there is nowhere you can go and that your fate is sealed. Then your arms and your legs are to be hung, from chains, where you would see and right next to what remained of you, also be hung from a chain skewered to the cap of your skull and be put on display, whist you be an example to those who dare rise against us in folly arrogance. But do not be dismayed, elf witch, my Blood Shamans assure me you shall live long enough to suffer through your sentence, and that you would entertain us with the pleasure to sing to your screams!”
The silence that ensued this had all the earmarks of the nauseating horror it was intended for.
The true dread came a split second later; the Grunt General had not said what he’d said to intimidate. He had merely passed on the Orken Mother’s sentence, possibly verbatim!
“Good Heavens, mother, what did you do that would warrant such distaste even from these filthy beasts? Is there anyone you have not offended in this world? ‘Blazing irons thrust between the..’, really, now?”, Anglenna thought with a sick sense clutching somewhere down her breadbasket!
She showed no reaction nor any expressions of outburst on her face, however. She simply stared at the Grunt General and smiled.
“You have missed your calling, Grunt!”, she said, deliberately refraining from calling him a general and with a clear sneer on her cold face. “You should have been a poet. Tell me, do you always do as your mother tells you? Sad, really, seeing the whole High Woods Orken legions is led by a mother’s darling boy.. Are you a mother’s darling boy?”
The Grunt General did not respond to her attempt at provocation. It was a superb display of personal discipline never seen in another sentient creature, particularly taking int the fact that she had done so in front of his subordinates. Or perhaps they were not so sentient after all, in the sense that they were ‘made’ and ‘bred’ with total lack of ego, which, ironically, was what made other races ‘normal’.. The only display of any emotions was that of the menacing glitter in his eyes..
It had deepened indiscernibly darker..
“Witch..”, he rumbled, staring at her with open disgust. “You have one breath of words to spare before I bring Mother’s Law upon you. I suggest you use it wisely.”
Angrellen stared at him with equal loathing, then her expression turned into a splendid smile..
She pointed at him and with affront she spoke..
“One breath of words, is it? Then one breath of words you shall have..”
..and she shrieked!
It was a mind-shattering scream that blasted out from her in jabbing and jarring waves of psychic pain as if chalk and nails were scraping on hardwood, multiplied exponentially and to bone shattering levels and every Orken in the room shuddered, their faces turning into grotesque, pinched expressions as blood gushed out of their mouth, their nose, their ears, and their bulging eyes.. They coughed and gurgled in their own blood, and then, one of the Orken held his head with both his powerful hands as if trying to keep it together..
His head exploded, not unlike a melon smashed by a heavy sledgehammer, as blood, brain, and shattered bits of skull splattered everywhere.. and he dropped, quite headless, with the tip of his spine jabbing out of his bloody neck, on the ground!
Soon enough, the Orken on either side of him also dropped, sharing the same fate. The death of some of the others was not as dramatic. The Blood Shamans had shuddered also, spitting blood, but they had not fallen down..
The Grunt General hadn’t even turned a hair at the horrific scream. He had sat, calmly, as his subordinates toppled over, one by one, dying in bloody gore.
Slowly, he rose from his throne, dragging a great, dark, blood-caked, saw-edged sword from his back and rumbled.
It was then, one of the Blood Shamans grunted and toppled down, a long, bloody gash opened down his spine, displaying his lungs and innards, and Lorna stood there!
She had ‘misted’, as she oft did, behind the Blood Shamans, and started cutting them down the moment her cousin had let loose her harrowing scream.
The Grunt General was upon the tall high elf woman so fast, it was unnerving. It was also a bit too fast for her to react. He slammed into her, then struck her with the fist of his sword hand, sending her stumbling, stunned, and bloodied.. She moaned as she stared up at him dazedly from where she lay., blood gushing out of her broken nose and shattered cheekbone and when he brought down his blade to end her, she yelped, a bit girlishly, losing all her mother’s pose and with untrained reflex, she inadvertently rose her arms in defense and the giant monster of an Orken brought down his massive saw-sword..
There was a sharp, screeching clank of steel followed by a shower of biting sparks and the jagged sword was stopped cold and inch from her terrified, paled face by a great, black axe!
“Rising your bare hands to defend yourself against a two-handed sword? Really, now, Lady Lenna.. I shall have to reprimand Lord Armathelius quite strenuously for his lack of concern for the girl he desperately wants, leaving her without any combat training..”, Udoorin said as he frowned at her, his face strained..
The Grunt General was bloody strong!
“You shall do no such thing, young man!”, Anglenna slurred at him through her bloodied mouth and glazed eyes..
Udoorin slowly turned to face the Grunt General, the monster’s great saw-sword traped in the crook of his giant axe! His teeth gritted and sweat came dripping down his face as he stared at the deep, dark eyes of the brutish Orken, who was grinning at him.
“You are not a match for the full might of the Orken, boy. I must thank you though. You have cleansed our ranks of the weak and the runts. Only the strong shall stand. There is no place for the weak in our ranks.”
Udoorin snarled as he struggled to hold against the Grunt General as Lorna cut down another Blood Shaman. She spun around to face the last when a sense of dread washed over her..
The last Blood Shaman had just started casting blood magic on her!
“Lenna..”, gasped the young man. “Get up! The Orken will come pouring into this stinking tent soon enough.”
Anglenna struggled to her feet, stumbled, and fell over. She struggled again and straightened with blood dripping from her broken nose and split-mouth. Her eyes were still very much glassy; a clear indication of a concussion. She wobbled in her place for a moment, and then closed her eyes for a spell, and murmured..
I have no wish,
nor desire, nor have I any claim,
For the fires that burn in me
only with shame,
To repent and to cleanse the
dreads of my past,
Shall I bleed and break
and be free at last!
There was a moment of pregnant expectation in the air, and then, with a low rumble, the outside of the tent lit up with a blazing, orange-red fire, some twenty feet high!
The fire roared and cut right through any that was too near as it dashed forth, not unlike some bizarre, fiery hound, and around the tent, totally encircling it and causing an uproar among the Orken..
The interior of the tent, however, went dim as if all the torches and the braziers had just been snuffed out.
Dark, flame-like shadows wreathed the Queen of the elves and the darkness spread out and into the tent..
..just as the Blood Shaman released his black magic upon her!
Within the shadows, Lorna moved, silently and unseen, and something bloody and terrible clawed at her. She did not wait. Once more she ‘misted’, in the shadowy darkness, and appeared behind the blinded Blood Shaman, who was pointing here and there and ordering the horror he had summoned to attack.
There was a low, ominous hiss, and the near three-yard long glaive with thirty-inch blade of the hex queen struck!
The blade burst out of the Blood Shaman’s chest.
He squealed in pain as he stared down, unable to see the blade that’d just killed it in the dark.
With a hoarse sigh, the last of the Blood Shamans dropped on the ground, face down.
“Done.”, Lorna said quietly as the darkness around her dissipated..
..and suddenly Udoorin grinned back at the Grunt General and twisted his axe. The saw-sword that was caught in the crook of the axe shrieked in protest..
..and snapped in half!
The Grunt General stared at it in disbelief as the burly young man slammed into him..
..and knocked him down with a meaty head-butt!
The Grunt General fell back, his nose smashed in and with what remained of his sword clattering to one side. The young man did not wait for any final words. Not until the deed was done..
He simply brought down his massive black axe and into the Orken’s chest!
Bone, rib, and cartilage split and splintered as the savage axe bit deep into the monster. He lay stunned, gasping and wheezing for breath but his own, dark, tar-like blood had already started filling his lungs..
“Just so you know..”, Udoorin said, deciding this was just about the right time for the postponed ‘final words’ part, as he stared down at the dying Grunt General. “..you may think strength lies in what you can take from the weak. Perhaps I should disillusion you off that misconception before you go, hmm? The person who killed thousands and thousands of your Orken before the fighting even began was no other than a skinny little girl.. Choke on that, before you choke in your own blood!”
The Grunt General stared at him, gurgling and coughing black blood as more of it seeped and splashed out of the ghastly gash on his chest as his heart pumped frantically to keep him alive..
“I.. don’t.. understand..”, he croaked..
“I don’t expect you would.”, Udoorin replied. He then reached over to one of the braziers and pulled out a hot and glowing-orange poker with tiny red sparks playing on its tip. He gave Anglenna a quick glance and noted the high elf woman was still wobbling where she stood, her face bloody, her eyes unfocused, and there was a certain vagueness about her expression.
“Would you like the satisfaction of a vengeance, Lady Lenna?”, he asked politely
“Hmm..?”, she murmured groggily.
“He did say something about you and blazing irons… Perhaps he should find out exactly how that feels?”, he offered.
“No, my Dorin..”, Lorna said, as she appeared silently next to them. “No matter what they are or what they have done, we must never forget two things; who we are.. and that they are not our mentors..”
Udoorin looked at her, then dropped the searing poker on the ground.
“You are right, they are not our mentors. Thought I would offer it to Lady Lenna, that’s all.”, he said to her with a nod. He turned to the dazed high elf woman again and asked.. “Lady Lenna? I believe we are done. Are you well enough to get us out of here? I am not sure those flames outside will hold the Orken off any longer. It is possible they will find a way in, even if they have to throw a couple of their own on it..”
“He is still alive, young man..”, she murmured, staring at the Grunt General.
“I doubt that will last much longer.”, he said lightly, looking down at the graying Orken.
“Never leave a job unfinished, young man. It is a slovenly habit to pick.”, she said grimly as focus started coming to her eyes.
She took a few unsteady steps towards the Grunt General who was making guttural noises now and asked him..
“Do you know the difference between an error and a mistake?”
The Orken was now merely glazing with black blood bubbling out of his mouth..
“Anyone can make an error.”, she said. “But that error doesn’t become a mistake until you refuse to correct it. Your error was to think, that throne belonged to you. Your mistake was to have the arrogance to believe in that error..”
..And with a low, angry hiss, she pointed a long, slender finger at the dying Orken.
Wrath you sought,
And wrath you bought.
Now my fires, high and hot.
Nothing shall I leave of you
The Grunt General lit with incinerating flames! His arms, legs, chest, and face cracked and burst open with searing fire, but the Orken refused to scream or perhaps he just couldn’t.. He only moaned as his eyes bubbled and popped out of their sockets and came down his face like tears, his bones charred and crackled, and his sizzling flesh came off him like molten wax..
Both Lorna and Udoorin stepped back because the heat had become unbearable and the choking, greasy black smoke stank so bad, their faces had turned a tender shade of green..
“NOW YOU KNOW.. THIS IS THE LEGACY OF ANGRELLEN THE BETRAYER.. SAVOR IT, AND DIE IN IT!”, the tall high elf spat with burning, hateful eyes.
Both Lorna and Udoorin stared at one another somewhat freaked and a sense of dread settled over them..
For the fires encircling the tent had died down because the high elf woman, in her anger, had forgotten to keep it alive..
“Lorna. Bring Lady Lenna around.. The fun time is over. We must get out of here, and we must do it now! I shall hold them back for as long as I can..”, Udoorin said sternly and stepped in front of the first Orken to appear at the tent’s flaps!
A bloody exchange ensued just inside the tent as the young burly man started butchering Orken as they tried to push past him.
“Cousin!”, Lorna called as she dashed next to her cousin. “Enough of this. We must leave. Now!”
But there was no end to Anglenna’s anger. She was locked on the charring Orken and she was spluttering with her eyes blazed..
“Tear out my arms and make me suffer, will you? You fancy splitting my legs and shoving blazing irons, do you? Hang me by the skull cap, limbless and helpless? I don’t think so, you sick, murdering, arrogant son of a bitch!”, she spat with infuriated wrath!
“COUSIN!”, Lorna shouted, perhaps for the first time in her life to her, or to anyone else, for that matter. “You will stop this madness at once!”
Anglenna came around and suddenly, a surprised and slightly hurt expression on her face.
“We are not them, my dear, dear Lenna. And you are not your mother.”, the queen of elves whispered at her.
“Am I not? Seems quite clear where I get my wrath.”, she hissed back with self-loathing.
“You stopped.”, Lorna said. “The Betrayer would never have. Not until she had her fill of spiteful anger. You, Anglenna Brightleaf, are a better person than your mother ever was.”
“That’s not saying much, cousin.”, she replied mutely, her face burning now.
“I beg to differ!”, came Udoorin’s strained voice, who was busy hacking at the growing number of Orken pouring into the tent now. “Get us out of here and I will further detail you as to why..”
Anglenna stared at the now burnt and charred Grunt General, smoldering and smoking, then at the throne he was sitting.
“The throne.”, she said sternly. “It must be taken away from here, or be destroyed.. It can not stay in Orken possession, and certainly never fall into my mother’s hands..”
“I do not think we can carry it, cousin. It means so little, now. And it belonged to my father..”, Lorna whispered, also staring at the throne, her face drawn.
“Don’t be naïve, Nadien ne. That throne is ‘power’ and ‘the right to rule’..”, Anglenna said, her expression turning severe. “Eons of elf Ri’s and Rise’s sat on that seat. That is the throne of Elorellen Feymist, the founder and the first Heart of High Woods. Do you not see the significance of that? Can you imagine what my mother might do with it, should she claim it? Given the slightest chance, she will gather a following using just that throne, and there are always the foolish and the greedy who shall be tools to her machinations. That must never be allowed!”
“What shall we do, then?”, Lorna asked.
“For Heaven’s sake, girl, sit on it!“, her cousin said sharply. “I shall take you, the boy, and the throne with me.”
“Are we back to ‘boy’, again? Whatever did I do to you to warrant that, Lady Lenna?”, Udoorin called lightly as he made a wide cleave, trying to stave off several Orken at once..
In the mids of an Orken army, and right before the crusty corpse of a mortal enemy, Alor’Nadien ne Feymist sat on her throne and became a Rise and a Queen!
The same throne her father, Grandaleren Feymist had sat for over seven hundred years..
The throne upon which Elorellen Feymist had ruled, some seven thousand years ago after she..
..her younger brother, Sinderel Tranquil..
..and her elder sister, Terandel Solace..
..who had left her own and only child, Arael Ashanelath Fae Erunanne Tel’Lóna to be the wife and queen..
..of Barakan Heavenswill, the founder and the first king of the Kingdom of Isles..
Terandel Solace had gone west and founded Solace while the younger of the three siblings, Sinderel Tranquil, had traveled north to rise Tranquill, ever guarding against the demon infestation sent by Gullem the Damned.
Elorellen Feymist had come east, and she had brought her elves to High Woods and founded Bari Na-ammen, the Garden of Peace..
“Fitting.”, said Anglenna with a sigh of great relief and solemnly she bowed her head at her Queen..
“You look awesome, love!”, Udoorin turned to give her a quick grin, and almost lost his head for his effort!
Anglenna stared down at the charred Grunt General one final time and very coldly she proclaimed..
“The mistake that you are, has now been corrected..“
And deep down, she gave a very Angrellen-like smile. It was a satisfied, evil smile..
“Though you have no idea, mother..”, she murmured happily. “I just made sure there will forever be an enmity between the Orken and you.. Not only will you be hunted by the elves and the humans, you will also be shadowed by one of the most ruthless and unholy of monsters this kingdom has yet to see; the Orken Mother.. And when she finally catches up to you, she will not be coming at you alone.. She will bring her whole bloody horde with her.. I doubt even your demon master shall help you then, for you are now officially, more trouble for him than you are really worth it..”
..and then, the tall high elf woman, the queen of the elves, her young burly king, and the throne of Elorellen Feymist..
“You can’t get to somewhere else because the thing you want to run away, you take it with you. Where you go, it goes. So before you run away, why don’t you give yourself a momen…” —was taken from the series, Major Crimes, and said by the Police Captain, Sharon Raydor..
“Do you know the difference between an error and a mistake? Anyone can make an error. But that error doesn’t become a mistake until you refuse to correct it.” —was taken from the original Star Wars books by Timothy Zahn, Heir to the Empire, and was said by Grand Admiral Thrawn;
“Do you know the difference between an error and a mistake, Ensign?”
The entire bridge had gone deathly still.
Colclazure swallowed again, his face starting to go pale.
“Anyone can make an error, Ensign. But that error doesn’t become a mistake until you refuse to correct it.”
The elven incantations cast by Anglenna Brightleaf are as follows. All the incantations here were written by the author of this story;
Broken and scattered in the dark,
Hidden under this decedent arc,
Lies the lies and in there I seek,
Show me, however it be bleak..
I have no wish, nor desire,
nor have I any claim,
For the fires that burn in me
only with shame,
To repent and to cleanse
the dreads of my past,
Shall I bleed and break
and be free at last!
Wrath you sought,
And wrath you bought.
Now my fires, high and hot.
Nothing shall I leave of you to rot!
Not All Is Done
“The Spark of Mathilda”
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..
“The Storm Kites of Melshieve”
Well, finally!”, Ranger Lieutenant Bremorel Songsteel hissed when her hubby, the senior temple guardian, Thomas Dimwood came crashing into the bush she and the half-born girl, Perigren Ostlanna Temez, were hiding. “You certainly took your time, and made enough noise that if there are any Orken around, they certainly know we are here now! What took you so long?”
“Be nice, love.. It’s a long run from Last Hope to these swamps, and certainly not in plate armor! And the good general is not a man easily convinced.”, the young man replied, gasping for breath.
“I told you not to wear that trash! It stinks, it makes a horrible noise, and it will hardly save your skin from a good swing! What did you tell him that needed convincing, anyway?”, Bremorel scowled at him.
“Nothing all that important. Just a few cautionary words, that’s all.. And, yes, my armor does smell rather bad, and bruises the wearer at places he doesn’t need to be bruised, ever, but it does save my skin from the occasional swing.”, he said merrily, and with a very sweaty, and flushed face. “From the good swing, I was hoping you would intervene..”
“Ah haa.. You finally reveal the real reason you married me! To watch your sorry hide!”, she said, squinting at him.
“My hide is indeed sorry, but for sweating, and then freezing inside a plate armor!”, Thomas replied grinning at her.
“Is there a pattern to your madness?”, Temez asked, staring at the two of them. “Or is this a Mortal quirk unique to just the two of you? Either way, it is creepy!”
“It is likely a unique pattern of madness, just not all that unique to mere mortals..”, she replied. “Let’s get a small fire going. Temez, why don’t you find some dry wood.. anything that is not reed will do. Swamp reed makes horrible smoke. Thomas, get out of that armor or you will catch a cold and this is a bad place to get sick. You will need to change all your clothes as well. While you do that, I’ll dry the inside of your armor.. The Orken have a heightened sense of sight, hearing, and scent. We can’t sneak when they can smell you coming from a mile away..”
“That was a bit harsh.”, Thomas mumbled as he started unbuckling the thick leather straps holding his armor together.
“Life is harsh, my Thomas. The truth is even harsher. And the truth is, your armor stinks! I will go find some herbs that we can use to stuff into it that will cover your scent once you put it back on.”
“You are in a mood today, Morel. What is the problem?”, her hubby asked as he dropped his chest plate, followed by his massive shoulder bulks, his vambraces, and finally, his leg pieces..
“Nothing..”, Bremorel replied evasively as she eyed him stripping off his armor.
“Morel, please..”, Thomas said. “We don’t share only our good moments, we share our problems as well.. And it is clear you have one.. And stop watching me when I am getting undressed.”
“Why? You watch me get undressed all the time.. and with a silly grin on your face.”, she retorted.
“The silly grin is fully justified, love. You are beautiful to behold!”, Thomas said honestly.
“I can’t believe some of the things you say! You are a temple guardian, for Heaven’s sake!”, she replied with a frown.
“As you said, the truth is harsh.”, the young senior temple guardian said with a smile.
Bremorel’s frown turned into a scowl.
“And to you, I am only a man. I try not to bring my title into our relationship.”, he added. “Are you riled up because of what you did to Randorm?”
The ranger lieutenant didn’t reply immediately, and her scowl turned forlorn.
“Yes.”, she finally mumbled. “I have slain bandits before. But that was the first time I outright executed someone. It was not as satisfying as I thought it would be.”
Thomas had been busy unbuttoning his shirt and was quite shivering now. He stopped what he was doing, walked up to his wife, and hugged her.
“Had you taken satisfaction in that, you couldn’t have been a ranger. And certainly not the woman I loved. The fact that it is torturing you shows how high your morals and your standards really are, and I am so proud of you. He was, however, a traitor. And not one betraying his king and his people, but betraying all humanity to the enemies of our world. The Orken are not merely enhanced orcs, my love. They do not take lands for the sake of owning them. They take it to remove all the other races that live there in hopes of clearing the way for their demon masters. Foolish, really.. For when their masters come, they themselves shall be subjected to the same genocide..”
Bremorel didn’t say anything. She just clung at him, her hands inside his shirt, running them over the broad of his back.
“I am sorry that you had to do what you did. But not sorry that you did it.”, Thomas continued. “To be fair, it was a clean kill.. More than what he deserved. His partisanship with the enemy cost over five hundred Palantine soldiers.. That is five hundred widows and at least a like amount of orphans, love. And you gave them all a sense of justice.. and possibly some closure.. There will be a whole generation of Palantine soldiers honoring you in their prayers..”
“I feel like I have sinned. And I have sinned many times before..”, she suddenly hissed as if trying to suppress something crawling up her throat. “This one.. why does this one hurt? He was a bloody traitor. Caused hundreds to die for his treachery and likely killed the former mayor of Last Hope as well..”
And just like that, a low moan escaped the young woman in his arms and Bremorel sobbed.
Thomas carefully held the young woman he loved and stared into her shimmering eyes. It was rare seeing Bremorel cry. Quite rare. And Thomas thought he didn’t like it and he certainly never wanted to see it again. Some people cried with grace. Some made a blotchy mess.
His Morel cried silently shaking and broken..
“You are only as sinful as I am. I watched what you did, and did not interfere. As shocked as I was, I still could have.. Yes, it was brutal. But not why you did it. It was brutal because it came without warning, though even that is not correct. You did warn him, twice, as I recall.. I found your application brutal, but never abhorrent.”, he said kindly.
“I am not sure if it is my place to speak on this matter, Ranger Lieutenant Bremorel Songsteel..” Temez said as she approached, carrying two arms full of dry and gnarly twigs.. Her voice was hoarse and muted. “..but if you think what you did was wrong, I would like to point out that the human you slew served my former Master. It is possible he was not aware of it, but he must have known the folly of his actions. He must also have expected to garner a sizable reward for betraying your peoples —all of them. He knew what the Orken did to Arashkan and to Bari Na-ammen, and expected nothing less for your Serenity Home. Had he been given to my sisters, we would have devoured him, body and soul, and without forsaking our Oaths. We, the half-born, care little for Mortal justice. We swore to help you and yours in the dire hopes to thwart my former Master and perchance, attain our Ascension. How we accomplish that matters only so long as we do not revoke our Oaths. You, on the other hand, feel remorse, something we do not yet understand. But it is painful, and it is beautiful, and it is the extension of compassion. This is something my merry soul taught me ere she departed from the Mortal coil. Heed it, and take solace in it, for I speak in Heaven’s tongue!”
Both Bremorel and Thomas stared at the ravishingly beautiful half-born girl and they saw her face drawn, and lost, and seemed to barely contain something boiling inside her.
“What she said, I guess..”, Thomas murmured, as he wiped the tears away from the young woman he held in his arms.
Bremorel snorted, wiped her eyes, gave her husband a light kiss, turned around, and disappeared off into the swamp..
Silently, the half-born girl built a small fire and Thomas didn’t dawdle. He got out of his sweaty clothes, put dry ones on, then propped the wet next to the fire using some of the twigs while Bremorel sought certain plants and herbs that would have particularly strong scents. When she returned, she dumped all the odd-smelling plants into the small pot she pulled out of her pack, filled it with snow, and left them all to boil on the fire. Then she took her husband’s armor and scrubbed them all down; breast and back plates, the paddings, the shoulder bulks, the vambraces, and even the leg pieces, and quite thoroughly too. Apparently, the ranger lieutenant didn’t like ‘half-ways’.. Once the pot boiled, she took the pot out of the fire and left it to simmer for about five minutes then emptied the pot. She rummaged through the slushy ‘stew’ and picked out the herbs and plants, laid them near the fire, and waited for them to dry. Temez watched her with mute and curious fascination, while Thomas tried to ease his shivers sitting next to the fire, arms out as it trying to hug the tiny fire.
When the herbs dried, Bremorel carefully braided them together, then lined the inside of her husband’s armor with them, got up, walked over to the fire and held up the chest piece for a few, took a short step, and knelt where he sat shivering, and mumbled.
“Stretch out your arms.”
Thomas wordlessly stretched out his arms and Bremorel pressed the heated chest piece on his torso. Then she repeated the same for his back piece and buckled them firmly together over his shoulders and sides. Then she brought his large shoulder bulks and carefully strapped them in place. With similar silence, she wrapped his vambraces, and finally, when he rose without being prompted, she buckled on his leg pieces. When she was done, however, she stayed there, on her knees, with her shoulders slumped and staring down.
“Please get up.”, Thomas said quietly. “A woman should never kneel before a man. You, Morel Songsteel, certainly should never.”
“You do it all the time.. kneel before me..”, she mumbled.
“That’s different.”, the young man replied kindly.
“Why is it different?”
“Because I am awed by you. All the time..”, he said simply.
“I am nothing to be awed, Thomas. Please don’t make me something more than what I am.”, Bremorel spoke and her voice turned harsh.
“I have never interfered with how you see me. I would like to enjoy a similar jubilance. Please don’t ruin how I perceive you, love.”, he said, leaned down, and gently pulled her up.
“I have turned my gaze elsewhere, and hence, I am not looking. You may kiss the bride!”, prompted Temez from the other side of the fire.
Thomas kissed Bremorel and deeply.
“Thank you.”, Bremorel said with a flushed face. “You are a good man, and a good husband..”
Then, with a mischievous glint in her eyes, she added, “..and you stink a lot less now!”
“Well, that was rather harsh too!”, her husband mourned.
. . .
It took them the better part of four days and nights, which otherwise, should have taken them an afternoon stroll to reach the southern edges of Hobs End; a once beautiful, rolling chain of green hills that had homed a dozen or so small gnomish and hobbit villages, now barren, burned, abandoned, desolate..
..and teaming thick with Orken troops, patrols, and clustered tents.
They were everywhere and the situation here was worse than they had anticipated. True, the winter had been particularly savage, but, once again, the Orken had proven just how resilient they were. It was possible they had lost thousands of their numbers, but that only meant the ones remaining were the strongest —a rather depressing thought all by itself..
Bremorel had led them in wide circles, snaked through enemy troops and patrols, and on common occasion, hidden them in bushes, trenches, and holes filled with freezing cold, filthy, and slushy mud, and at times feces! The ranger lieutenant hadn’t complained once but it was clear she could barely stand it and none of her ranger training had really prepared her for this. Thomas couldn’t complain because his Morel wouldn’t. As for the half-born girl, Temez, she just smiled and said, “Feels like my birth pit!”, while standing chin deep in shit!
On the evening of the fourth day, they crept on, all muddy and freezing until they managed to get near enough to take a look at the main Orken camp; a vast array of tribal tents erected in uniform, circular formation, and with a half a dozen of the creatures huddled around each campfire stretching as far as the eye could see.
“That is quite a lot of them.”, murmured Bremorel.
“Indeed. There must be fifty thousand down there.”, Thomas whispered with a slightly awed tone.
“Twenty thousand.”, the ranger lieutenant corrected. “The way their tents and campfires are set is quite deliberate and is meant to give the impression of such great numbers.”
“I’ll take your word for it, love. Not that it matters for us either way. This is not going to be fun..”, he replied.
“No, it isn’t, and I can’t think of a way to get you there without being seen, Thomas..”, Bremorel said in a low voice.
“We will need a distraction.”, Perigren Ostlanna Temez offered mutely.
“Girl, we will need a like army to distract this one. Even if Thomas brings down Heavens’ flames all night, it will not be enough to open us a viable gap from here to the central tent where the Grunt General is likely stationed. In fact, that will just make all of them turn to us!”, the ranger lieutenant said with a frown.
“I was thinking of something a bit more simple, and less elaborate, Bremorel Songsteel. Perhaps the esteemed senior temple guardian can call aid?”, she replied calmly.
Thomas gave the half-born girl a sidelong glance.
“What do you have in mind, Temez? The Heavens do not take lightly when mortals call upon them so casually.”, he said carefully. “They may even frown upon us for the blatant use of our powers. And I am not even sure how any of them will respond to being summoned callously.”
“All true, young Thomas Dimwood. Hence we shall summon one that we know will answer, and look upon our plea with kind understanding..”, Temez replied with a brittle, and very fragile smile.
“Who?”, Thomas asked.
“The Archangel of Compassion!”
The young man ogled at the beautiful half-born, and an odd, sad expression cast over his face.
“Holy Heavens!”, Thomas exclaimed. “She was lost thousands of years ago. Betrayed by the mortals She loved and cared. She was taken prisoner by one of Hell’s vilest commanders. Rumors have it, the demon lord tortured Her for eons before he cast Her to Oblivion. Hence then, there has been little compassion in this world.”, the senior temple guardian added with a truly mournful tone.
“If that were so, tell me, how is it you, Thomas Dimwood, opened your doors and accepted half-demons into your temple and gave them sanction and sanctuary? Tell me, then, how is it your Serenity Home accepted the burden of eighty thousand Arashkan refugees and over twenty thousand of their regulars and militia? How is it you accepted the arrogant and much conceited high elves of Bari Na-ammen? How is it the dwarves came to help them all, as well? And how is it the ogres joined your ranks? True, there are many explanations for their individual actions, most and foremost being mutual survival, but the fact is, the dwarves would have helped the Arashkan refugees, but they would not have been so willing to help the high elves. As much as their chieftain adores the Ritual Guardian, Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane, she could have taken her people and joined her brothers and sisters at Rook Mountains and certainly not opted to protect the northern flank of dwarves at Elder Hills, which they very much hate, giving the same dwarves the opportunity to send more of their numbers to help Serenity Home.”, she said seamlessly and paused for a breather. “No, Thomas Dimwood, the occurrence of all of those and more, all at once, is compassion. I am a demon. I have no heart. I sense some things, but I neither know nor understand what they are. All I have are the definitions for words, and compassion, by its very nature, has a willingness to understand embedded in it, which in turn births empathy; the thing that is at the very core of compassion itself.”
Thomas struggled to say something but nothing coherent really came out.
“She’s right, you know. I have never seen dwarves care much for elves. Not even the wood elves and they are practically neighbors and have been trading with each other for centuries. Yet they were the first to send mass-produced military-grade tents, utensils, and utilities, supplied food and provided security for them since the day both the Arashkan refugees started dribbling in, followed by the high elves. There is no way Serenity Home could have covered the expenses nor had the means to cover all their needs, and we both know, first hand, how hard the town and your temple have been working just to keep them alive on a daily basis. Even I cooked more cauldrons of bean stew than I can eat in ten lifetimes and I am not even in logistics! Hell, even Inshala and Lilly cooked. I don’t mind cooking for you. Inshala loves cooking for everyone. But Lilly absolutely abhors house chores! When you look at things from a narrow-angle, it is easy to chalk all of these nuances off as diligence. When you study it from a wider angle, however, you can see, quite easily, what dear Temez is talking about.”
Thomas mulled over that, but of all people, it was perhaps hardest for him to see what the half-born girl was talking about, ironically, for he was a temple guardian, after all, and the ‘diligent’ service he and his temple had been providing seemed very much like ‘business as usual’..
“I will give you one more clue, Thomas Dimwood..”, said Temez. “My BFF tried to eat you. Your beloved Morel caught her on the act. She was so furious, she meant to cut her down. Yet she did not.”
“I sure was bloody angry! The slutty little minx!”, Bremorel said hotly. “Always wondered why I didn’t. I mean, sure, we had shared a whole ‘Themalsar’ together, but I remember just how pissed off I was when I saw her trying to seduce you, Thomas. You might have noticed, I don’t do ‘sharing’..”
“No. No, you don’t, love.”, Thomas smiled.
“The true revelation for you, Thomas Dimwood, should have been the moment you opened your doors to her brothers and sisters despite what she tried to do to you.. Does that sound ‘business as usual’ to you, or does that seem more like unprecedented empathy and.. compassion?”
The young temple guardian frowned now. And he was more than irked.. and intrigued..
Perigren Ostlanna Temez gave him one of her rare smiles. Rare ever since she had found out about the loss of her BFF.
“Call Her, Thomas Dimwood. These lands require cleansing.. not by wrath, but by compassion.. Call upon the aid of Ad Ara and see with your own eyes to whom you truly serve, and for whom you truly fight!”
. . .
“Hello, Temple Guardian Derek J. Herald. May I come in?”, said a very thick, breathy, feminine, and lustrous voice from behind the door, in the dark silence of the night, and somewhere under Serenity Home Temple. Whoever the voice was, she opted to wait for a response, rather than casually open the door and enter. There were some very important protocols that needed to be observed here, and she had no wish to overstep her boundaries..
..not even by an inch.
The door opened and a young man in his early twenties with long, flax, wavy blonde hair, a strikingly angular face, and intelligent blue eyes came into view of the single candle held by the decidedly delicate hand standing in the dark hall. Temple Guardian Derek squinted into the candle, then at the hand, and inadvertently followed it to the fragile-looking ankle, then at the long and smooth arm that curved to an enticing bare shoulder, a slender neck, a beautiful, innocent face, a full and blooming mouth, a delicate round nose, a pair of glowing yellowish eyes with exciting slits for pupils, downcast and sad brows, and short bull-horns framed by long, charcoal-black, slightly disheveled hair..
And that was only when he looked up!
The generous, buxom breasts hiding under her white linen nightgown promised the wildest dreams of any young man.. and made them wonder just what the rest of her looked like.. lost in the darkness..
Temple Guardian Derek gulped.
“Lady Mathilda..”, he said in a choked voice. “..what brings you here at this hour?”
“I would like to divulge a matter of great importance to you, Temple Guardian Derek J. Herald. I very much wished it wouldn’t have come to this, but I can no longer avoid the inevitable. May I come in?”, said Mathilda Ravish Demure of the half-born and she was breathing slowly but deeply, making her delicious-looking breasts stretch her linen nightgown at the seams..
Derek gulped again but with an unexpected display of will, if not wisdom, he cleared his throat and said, with a croaking voice, “Lady Mathilda, I am not sure this is altogether wise, or proper. We are inside temple grounds, after all.”
“I am a half-born, Temple Guardian Derek J. Herald. I am also a woman. And young Mortal males are oft very handsome. My brothers and sisters wish to live with your kind. And we wish to find mates that would love us and share lives with us. Some of them have already chosen such mates. I.. can not help but chose you.. and I believe you have had your eyes on me for quite some time as well. This is the matter I wish to discuss with you. May I come in?”
“By all means, do.”, Derek said and a glint of fire appeared in his eyes when the young, beautiful, buxom girl glided into his tiny dormitory room, for her nightgown was not skimpy, but it did reveal her full-figured frame even with the single candlelight.
“I..”, he began but his voice was lost when Mathilda turned around and let her gown slide off herself.. The half-born girl did not haggle with her beauty. She simply enfolded the young man in her warm, smooth arms, and pressed her delicious mouth, her soft bosom, her unearthly curves into the young man, and Derek lost all his inhibitions.
For him, it was all some confused and throbbing bliss now..
..and he never noticed the other three figures standing silently right outside his room.
“What’s taking her so long?”, said the particularly ravishing girl with the short red hair. Though she was a knockout, she also seemed gaunt, tired, and in pain, and had very recently suffered a great amount of physical and emotional trauma. Her quite revealing dress skirt hid many ugly stab wounds still on the mend, but not the ones on her arms, her otherwise shapely legs, nor the barely closed gash on her throat!
“Patience, love.”, replied a heavy, baritone voice and the handsome man took the young, fiery girl in one arm, and the arm that seemed to have been charred just recently. Most of his hair was also missing, and the part that was visible was singed, curled, and crumbled away. He had a distinct limp and he was also just as gaunt, tired, and in pain as the girl he was holding..
“I am not your ‘love’, Hal Mali!”, she hissed, glaring up at him!
“I am sorry, Demelze, but that ship has already sailed, as the Mortals say. You are, literally, my ‘love’, now. Do not despair though, for I am yours too.”, the once handsome young half-born replied, and tried to emphasize his point with a grin, which looked more like a grimace, really, for half his face also appeared charred!
“Eww, gross, stop grinning at me like that! You weren’t much of a looker, to begin with, and now you are just this rictus!”, Demelze said with a disgusted tone.
“You would know. You are the one who did it!”, Hal Mali replied happily!
“I did it because you stabbed me in my boob! Who stabs a girl in the boob, anyway?”, she spat!
“Hard to aim when you suddenly lose an eye by fire..”, Hal Mali replied with a shrug. “I was aiming for your jugular.”
“Which you totally missed and got me in the throat!”, she snapped. “It took me days to speak again!”
“Hence the blessed silence. I received at least a dozen thank you notes, just for that..”, chuckled the half-born man.
The look, the fiery girl gave him was nothing less than scorching.
“..but it was also the best silent snuggle I have had in my entire life..”, Hal Mali added. “..As much in pain as we both were.”
Cee Lingerith Demelze’s ravishing face changed at that and the look she gave him was that of comprehension of a chagrined defeat, but not of total loss nor absolute frustration.
“You two have a spark now.”, murmured the third person standing in the dim hall outside the door. This one gave the impression that he spoke in quiet, hushed tones all the time. There was also a certain vague quality about that tone.
Both Demelze and Hal Mali looked down at him.
“Why did we bring Dar Derune? He is too young to see what’s going on in there! This is very irresponsible of you, Hal Mali!”, Demelze hissed unhappily, though it wasn’t clear what she was unhappy about.
“I know, my little fire. But we will need him to see.”, Hal Mali replied. Then he turned to the little boy and asked him in a low, kind voice. “It is true then? Have we succeeded? We both have a spark now?”
“Yes, Hal Mali.” the boy, Dar Derune, said with the same vague tone. “You already had one aching to burn for sweet Demelze. She may have had one, but she had it buried too deep. Some of the things Auntie Irine did to her caused her to shun many of her feelings, despite her nature. Dear Demelze loves to touch and to be touched, and Auntie Irine ripped that right out of her. It is up to each of you to figure out what else our tormentor drowned out of her. You must be kind, understanding, and very patient with her, Hal Mali. And sweet Demelze must be brave and accept the help.. It is the only way she can attain what she truly wants.. and needs..”
“I will do everything to help my mate.”, Hal Mali said with a charred, determined face.
Demelze ogled at him, then at the little boy, moaned with a forlorn voice..
..then crumbled down to a tiny ball and started crying like the broken girl that she was.
Hal Mali bent down and scooped her up and looked at her blotchy face, lost in her disheveled, fiery-red hair, then at the little boy.
“I will have to take my little fire to our room. Neither of us has recovered enough and she has a lot going on, both in her mind and in her heart. Will you be alright? I shall send one of our sisters as soon as I can.”, he said.
“There really is no need, Hal Mali. There is no darkness for me to be afraid of. I do not see in the dark like our brothers and sisters. I just see.. And all I will do is to look into the Temple Guardian’s memories. You go and take care of our sweet Demelze, for she needs much caring now.”, Dar Derune replied with a monotonous, dreamy voice.
“Very well.”, Hal Mali said, gave the boy, and the door a quick glance, and added. “Please don’t go in there without knocking or being called in. You really shouldn’t be here at all.”
“I will wait until your conditions are met, Hal Mali.”, the boy replied mutely.
The charred half-born gave the boy another look, then vanished.. literally..
One moment he was there, with the moaning Demelze in his arms, the next, a churning cloak of shadows gathered around him and he simply disappeared in it!
It was perhaps an hour later the door creaked open and Mathilda appeared. She had her soft and white linen nightgown on her again, but her hair was very much disheveled now. Her eyes were dilated, but her frown projected shame that had little to do with what she had done, but more to do with how she had done it, or even why she had done it..
Then she noticed the boy lying face down on the cold stone floor and carefully piling small, colorful wooden cubes on top of each other to form a tower.
“Dar Derune.”, she fumed. “What are you doing here at this hour, love? And where are Hal Mali and Demelze? They were supposed to be here.”
Dar Derune looked up at her with vague recognition and smiled.
“Sweet Mathilda Ravish Demure..”, he said. “You are sad.”
It had been a clear, simple, succinct, accurate, and factual statement, and it went straight through her heart.
And caused the beautiful, buxom girl to drop on her knees, take the little boy in her soft and warm embrace, and just like that, she started to shiver and cry..
“I broke my blood oath..”, she said with a destitute voice. “I lusted over a Mortal with wild abandon and there was no love in it!”
“There, there, dear Mathilda.”, the little boy said soothingly, while patting her on the back. “I do not think you have broken your oath. You went for him because you found him to your liking. I believe that is why Temez chose you. And the temple has not retaliated and struck you down, which means the liking was mutual. And you did it for the good of Mortals; he is a member of this Tempest school we were recently warned about and therefore under suspicion. Senior Temple Guardian Thomas Dimwood asked us to make sure whether he was involved in their treachery.”
“If he is, I am doomed to devour him!”, the beautiful half-born girl sobbed.
“I am sure Hal Mali can arrange some other means to make him go away. It is sad, but he can not be allowed to stay here when the Orken arrives. We do not know what he can do if he is an enemy.”, Dar Derune said, and still, his voice was sort of dreamy and ‘not altogether there’..
“No. I liked him. If he is to disappear, I shall do it. I shall shoulder this sin.”, she sobbed some more.
“You were the most pious of us all, sweet Mathilda. You have no idea how much that particular aspect of yours drow Auntie Irine angry. Come. Let’s see if he is good.. or gone..”, he said, gathered his little colored wooden cubes, put them all in a pouch, kissed Mathilda on the cheek, held her hand, and together they went into the room.
Temple guardians were well trained in many aspects to face all sorts of things, both day-to-day matters and the supernatural. They had a good education, a good head on their shoulders, a strong will, a dedicated mind, and a steady heart. With the exception of Demos Lightshand, all Serenity Home temple guardians were also young, and not quite battle-tested, and nothing had prepared them for a succubi half-born’s full-blown, mind-numbing, and very much arousing assault! Not against a race created specifically for such a purpose and Temple Guardian Derek J. Herald had not been an exception.. He lay there, sprawled, even, on his tiny dormitory floor, dazed and spasming in utter ecstasy!
To give Mathilda credit, she had not left the young temple guardian in disgrace but had shown the care to carefully cover him with a blanket she had pulled off the young man’s own bed. She had even rested his head on a pillow, in case he would hurt himself during his erratic spasms and the beautiful half-born girl just stared at him mournfully and with shame.
“He is much confused and he can not think clearly..”, Dar Derune said, after seeing the uncontrollably jerking man. “..but his happiness is real.”
He took a few small steps forward and knelt beside him and Mathilda did the same to the young man’s other side.
“I took Lady Anglenna’s consent to do this to her when we went to ask her about the possible whereabouts of the queen of the high elves, but Temple Guardian Derek J. Herald is beyond consent at the moment. You will have to hold him down and still, sweet Mathilda, while I sift through his memories..”, the boy said, reached down and held the young man’s temple with both his small hands and closed his eyes.
Mathilda Ravish Demure held down Temple Guardian Derek J. Herald, and Dar Derune read him..
. . .
When he opened his eyes, Thomas Dimwood had an awed expression on his drawn face. His hands and his whole body were shivering quite uncontrollably, and only after a few failed attempts was he able to say anything coherent.
He stared at his wife and with a scared expression, he asked her;
“Am.. am I good to you, Morel?”
Bremorel stared at him with amazement. Then, with the comprehensive wisdom she rarely showed while there were others around, she reached up and hugged her man..
“Yes, my Thomas, you have been good to me for as long as I can remember.”, she whispered.
“And have I made you happy and whole? Have I given you the satisfaction of life? Are you content with me?”, he asked with genuine concern.
“Yes, my darling man, you have made me happy and whole. You have given me the satisfaction of life, and I am content with you. But if this is some prelude to leaving me, I am not letting you go..”, she replied and from her savage tone, it was clear she meant it.
“Then why did She ask me if I was treating you right and if I had been right by you, and that if I was kind, understanding, and compassionate to you? I promise, I have tried my best to treat you like a fragile flower, but you are the strongest person I have ever met, in all aspects..”, he mumbled.
“Had you treated me like a fragile flower, I think I would have hurt you, Thomas.”, Bremorel snorted. “And who is she, you are talking about?”
“Ho.. Holy Ad Ara.. I just talked to the Archangel of Compassion! She referred to me by name! She asked me if I was treating my beloved Morel Darkmaine Sunstrider, right, and if I was kind, and understanding to her, and told me that I should, if I wasn’t, for you are dear to Her as the kind, fragile flower that you are..”
Bremorel Songsteel pulled back from her husband with thunderstruck amazement. The names, Darkmaine and Sunstrider had never been attached to her before, even though they had been here to claim. The moment her mother and father had died that ill-fated night when a marauding band of Orcs had raided their tiny village, which had been more of a cluster of few families, really, and had slain them while she’d been forced to watch from the inside of a little closet, she had become Morel Nameless or just Morel..
It was years later, when she was drafted into Serenity Home rangers and when she had become a young woman, when she, her cousin Laila, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart, ranger masters Devien and Moorat, Master Aager Fogstep, along with a good number of town guards and other rangers had gone to Dim Woods to ‘do something’ about the wolf attacks that had been plaguing there for the past two decades, that she, and her cousin, had finally received their well deserved and individual name; her cousin had become Laila Wolvesbane, and she had become Morel Songsteel..
For whatever confused reason, Morel, as a traumatized little girl, then as a sullen and very much aggressive and angry teenager, and finally, as a young woman, had never made mention of those names, nor had she owned them. It was like, so long as they were kept buried, she didn’t have to face that bloody and painful night that had forever ended her life where she still had her father, Aramsis Darkmaine, and her mother, Seleina Sunstrider.. and where she still had a warm home that was small, yet cosy and where she was the beloved daughter.
Funny how, after even fifteen years, and in the middle of a frozen, slushy, and muddy enemy encampment, you figure you have gotten over.. nothing!
..and the enterprising part of it all was, an Archangel knew of her birth names, her losses, and her follies..
With a swift, storming, and possibly raging flash of thousands of thoughts and memories, she came to the ultimate conclusion that the ‘Mortal coil’, as the half-born liked to call it, and the Heavens were not so divided, nor were they thus aloof of one another as ‘Mortals’ thought they were, but were, in fact, much, much more intertwined than anyone could have guessed. And in a somewhat unique and practical sense, only she, Morel, had figured this out both because she was a ranger and thus she was much attuned to the world and the nature around her, and because she was a temple guardian’s mate, giving her the chance to take a glimpse at both sides of a spectrum known simply as; Life!
Later, much later, when they would compare notes, as they always did, she would find out that her cousin Laila had also come to a similar conclusion, but had approached it from a totally different route; much like her, she too, was a ranger, and possibly more attuned to nature than she was, due to her part-elf ancestry, but her singular ‘eye-opener’ had been the sacrifice, and subsequently, the witnessing of an Ascension in the form of no other than Merisoul Xyrotwu!
“Tell her how you found a stubborn, angry, and broken girl, and gave her your best and fixed her. Tell her I am happy and content with you, my Thomas. Tell her your love for me was there to keep me going, even before we ever became as one. Tell her I wish nothing but to be with you in life and in death..”, Bremorel said with blazing eyes.
“I am thinking, you will get the chance to tell her yourself, my love..”, Thomas croaked..
And the night sky flashed with an eye-searing radiance from one end of Hobs End to the other!
Thomas, Bremorel, and Temez stood stunned.
The reaction of the Orken was a lot more apparent. Thousands upon thousands of thick, gurgling, gutteral grunts and screams let loose into the night and a slender figure in an ancient and intricate golden armor with great, snow-white wings came down from the burning sky.
And once again, Ad Ara, the Archangel of Compassion, walked the Mortal coil!
“Linger not, heroes of Mortals. The Orken are resilient beasts. Make thy way and do what needs to be done. Sloth is not the aspect of the believer..”, her voice echoed in their minds and her fire grew even brighter..
“Now or never!”, Bremorel hissed with immense elation as she pulled her greatsword from her back and charged down the hill!
“Right..”, Thomas agreed and pulled his shield off his own back, and unhooked the heavy flail hanging from his belt, and charged down after his mate.
“I am alive. And unsinged.”, mused Temez with curious interest, staring at her hands and arms. Then, somewhat bewildered, she reached up and twisted one of her antler-horns —the steel one with the serrated edges, and also dashed down the hill..
. . .
There is unlikely to be more prospects in Serenity Home at the moment, Storm Hierophant.”, a very young Derek J. Herald said. “The current senior temple guardian, Demos Lightshand, entertains too great a celebrity. But he is also quite elderly, which, I am afraid, only adds to the respect the people of the town, and the dwarves of Scowling Hills have for him. So much so that he already has a dwarf, a very stubborn, mule-headed, and short-tempered woman, set to be his progeny, and a young man by the name Thomas Dimwood, to be her junior temple guardian. Had the Serenity Home Temple been a Tempest Temple, you could have intervened, your Grace, but that temple has always been a free temple, with members of any number of different schools living, teaching, and serving there.”
“Heresy.”, the Storm Hierophant spat. He was a large, towering man in his late fifties with a granite, bold head with no facial hair whatsoever. His stone-hard face, his forehead, and the dome of his skull were covered with mystical tattoos, some of them carved, quite literally.. and his dark, storm-gray eyes spoke of little emotions, only adamant determination and ruthless deliberation. He was wearing a very expressive, heavily embroidered gray cassock trimmed and lined with gold and bore more of the same mystical symbols he entertained on his granite skull..
“There has never been a free temple in the kingdom.”, he said in disgust. “Every single temple is a member of one school or another, and most of them belong to us! But the founders of that town were all-powerful and well-connected people, hence no one ever dared to voice any arguments against their odd rules and heretical laws, and it has been a blight in our eyes for a very long time.”
“What would you have me do, your Grace? Demos is well-liked, but he is also a trusting and foolish man. He sends his potential students to various big cities to have them better educated. He sent me here, to Arashkan, in hopes that I would broaden my vision..”, the very young, junior temple guardian said.
The large Storm Hierophant snorted.
“Stay here with us for a week or so, young storm. I shall have one of our junior dormitory rooms prepared for you. Attend our sermons and visit our extensive library. There, you will find many educational scripts and doctrines to our tempest call.. Then return back to your town and tell the senior temple guardian how educational you found Arashkan. I, on the other hand, have an idea.. It will take some time in the planning, but the execution of it shall be flawless.. Quite flawless indeed..”, he rumbled, not unlike low, distant thunder.
Derek J. Herald bowed before his superior, the Storm Hierophant of the Tempest Temple of the Great Arashkan City, and left.
He opened the door to leave but was affronted by a tall, powerful figure who stared down at the young and somewhat skinny junior temple guardian. The huge figure gave him a quick once-over, grunted with a sour and disgusted distaste, and entered the Storm Hierophant’s chambers.
“Ahhh..”, the young Derek heard the hierophant’s voice boom. “Gar Thalot. Just the man I was looking for..”
“That doesn’t look so good.”, a small voice said with a slight frown. “Let’s look into him some more..”
“We, who serve the Storms of the Heavens, stare down on the follies of mortals. Only through our will do they live in peace, for it is the wrath of our storms do they fear and shy. We, who are above petty mortals, and their petty kings, and their petty queens, and their petty lords, and their petty lordlings, know that the time for our storms to rage is nigh. The voice of the oppressed and the restless rise, and they shall first be heard from our temples!”
The thundering rumble of the Storm Hierophant echoed high and mighty and the great, arching dome of the Tempest Temple of Arashkan churned and rumbled, and with a sharp, earth-shaking thunderclap, the masses of young novices got slammed into the ground, their faces filled with awe and fear..
..and among the young novices was a familiar face; a slightly older Derek J. Herald..
“That wasn’t helpful either..”, mumbled the same small voice.
“What? What did you see?”, asked another voice, this one was thick, breathy, feminine, and quite lustrous, and there was fear in it as well.
“Always hard to see the memories of a confused mind. And you have dazed him well, sweet Mathilda. He floats in a deep sea of emotions and lost memories, hence, you must be patient. I do not want us to make any misplaced judgment calls. That would make you sad..”, said Dar Derune, and his voice was a bit vague and his use of emphasis was slightly off or misplaced.
“They have brought in a stranger, Holy Storm Hierophant. A Drashan convict. He serves the sheriff of the town as his right hand.”, murmured a Derek J. Herald, this one somehow gave the impression it was a year or two later than the previous. It wasn’t clear where he was for his surrounding was dark. How he was speaking to the hierophant of the Tempest Temple of Arashkan wasn’t clear either, but he was speaking into a simple, seemingly unadorned stone hidden in his palm..
“That town has gone to the dogs, it has, and needs a thorough cleansing!”, spat the hierophant’s voice and it seemed to come from the stone in the young man’s hand. “First, a raving drunkard became its mayor, then a runaway boy became its sheriff.. One made a pact with one of the vilest low-lives this world has to offer, the other actually brought one of them over! And what does the great Demos think of all this?”
“He thinks this is a mortal affair and not really any of his or our business. Your Grace, the man he brought is truly dangerous and adamantly loyal to the sheriff. He has already made plans to hit Dim Woods, though I do not know what his ultimate goal is.”, the young man said to the stone.
“What?”, hissed the hierophant. “Have our cult members there been discovered?”
“I do not know, your Grace. But he is taking many of the town guards, the rangers masters, and their rangers, and I think they will meet with Master Cather along the way as well, so it must be a big operation.”
“Lightning strike them all, and foremost that old fool Cathber! His presence for the past many centuries has blunted many of our works in that region.. We must inform our members to disperse immediately.”, snarled the Storm Hierophants voice. Then it paused for a moment and spoke again, but this time, there was a certain purring quality to his words. “And since the sheriff, most of the town guards, and the rangers will be gone, I believe this will give the opportunity we were looking for..”
“Your Grace?”, Derek asked a bit confused.
“It has been some time we have been considering retiring that doddering fool, Demos. We shall be sending someone over to take care of him. When the time comes, you shall make sure the person in question has a free reign into the temple.”, said the hierophant with satisfaction.
“Uhhmm.. is that altogether wise, your Grace? Wouldn’t he be connected directly to you should he be caught?”, Derek asked, his voice said he was clearly scared.
“No. She is a freelancer and a thorough professional and has an excellent reputation. She was the one who assassinated Lord Trimdel Kandara of Endless Watch!”, the Storm Hierophant said contentedly. Then a chuckle was heard through the stone. “And she is also from Drashan.. Ahh, the irony!”
“Your Grace, even should Demos be removed, I still will not rise to the rank of senior temple guardian. There is the she-dwarf, Lady Magella in line and has seniority, then Thomas Dimwood.”
“Patience, young storm, patience.. One step at a time.. When the time is ripe, we shall remove her, then the orphan. Then you will be the senior temple guardian and you will have the legal power to declare the Serenity Home Temple as a Tempest Temple and no one, not the mayor, nor the sheriff will be able to gainsay you because it shall be a temple affair..”
“Yes, your Grace.. One step at a time..”
“This does not look good.”, mumbled the small voice of Dar Derune.
“What happened? Is.. is it bad? Must I devour him? I don’t want to devour him!”, moaned Mathilda with her thick, lustrous voice.
“I is bad, sweet Mathilda.”, Dar Derune replied with a sad tone.
“No! Look again!”, she begged with desperation. “We came to this Mortal coil in hopes of never using our heritage. “Look again, please!”
“Don’t cry, sweet Mathilda. Please don’t cry.. I feel sad when you cry..”
Encrypted letter from Storm Hierophant;
(For your eyes only)
Fare storms, young Derek. I am hoping you are well and the monthly tempest scripts we send you are keeping your mind and heart busy, while otherwise you are not busy gathering followers for our cause. Thanks to the information you have been sending, our congregation amongst the rural Dim Woods’ heretics flourishes. Soon enough, we shall have purged and scattered the locals far enough to have gained full controll of the lumber provided from the trees peculiar to that area. Then we shall work on the dwarves to the south and drive them out as well, hence obtaining their mines. Our only apparent obstacle is, once again, the old blasphemous heathen, Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrig, who worships animals, trees, and idols.. and to our unexpected findings, frolics with the demons of the wilds and has, even as we speak, fathers a horned demon offspring!
But despair not. We have arranged means to rid him, and his counterpart in Serenity Home, Demos Lightshand. The thing we talked about during your former visit has finally been put to motion and will arrive to your town soon enough. It is of utmost importance that you provide the asset every means available to you, should she require it, though it is highly doubtful she will. We have it at best authority that she is a professional, and is very good at what she does.
I feel the need to warn you, young tempest, that you do not, in anyway hinder her, for she is also a Drashan!
Should all go as planned, you will never see her. Only visit the results of her profession the next day.
I shall eagerly await your report once the deed is done through the usual channels.
Fare storms, for the future is ours.
Storm Hierophant of the Tempest Temple.
P.S. This letter will incinerate itself. I suggest you do not hold it in your hands.
“Ow, dear.”, the little boy said morosely. “This not good. Not good at all.”
“No..”, moaned the beautiful half-born girl as she pulled at her own hair.
“I am sorry, sweet Mathilda. But Temple Guardian Derek J. Herald has not been a good man.”, he said unhappily.
“Jeremiah. The ‘J’ stands for Jeremiah! He told me so. He said it meant Heavens Shall Rise! Why would he have such a beautiful name? Clearly, he was meant for greatness! Why would he tell me his name if he wasn’t a good, trusting man?”, Mathilda moaned frantically, clawing at her own blotchy face. “Please. Look again. Look again!. I don’t want to devour him!”
Dar Derune stared at her with his sad, soulful eyes.
“Please, my dear Dar Derune. For me..”, she begged.
The little boy sighed.
“For you, I would look again and again and again, sweet Mathilda because you are nice and my Hamna Vir always said I could stay with you, should anything happen to her.”
“So.. That’s how it is..”, said a barely audible and rusty voice, though not due to deliberation, but because the owner of the voice was just old.. Very old..
“Yes, sir.”, Derek J. Herald nodded mutely. “I suspect she will arrive soon.”
“Do not mourn for me, young man. I was bound to die one day. This way, I know I have stepped on some important people’s feet and ruffled their feathers. Not too shabby for an old temple guardian, wouldn’t you say?”, the barely audible voice chuckled.
“Sir.. please.. this is not a laughing matter. These people do not mess around.”, Derek said with a drawn face.
“Ahh, but neither do we.”, said the old voice.
“Perhaps you think what we do here, in this very temple, and to all the people living in this town and the surrounding lands is not a serious one? We save lives. We find the needy and the poor. We educate the children and care for the orphans here. Those, I believe, are much more important in the eyes of the Heavens than scheming for power.”, the old, rusty voice said.
“None of those will matter once they turn this place into their temple, sir.”, Derek said glumly.
“They can’t.”, replied the whispering voice. “Even if they tried..”
“How so, sir?”, Derek asked with a confused tone.
“The fact that this is a free temple is not some void manifesto, dear boy. It is in this temple’s very founding tablets.. When Serenity Home Temple was built, it was consecrated as a free temple; each and every stone, every brick, every bit of wood used during its construction was sanctified and in those prayers, the purpose of this temple was very clearly named and defined. Had the esteemed Storm Hierophant spent more of his time studying than scheming, he would have known about this. Famous as they were, the founders of this town were also wise and foresighted. They wanted a town where they would have the serenity and peace they wanted, as far from politics and schemes of fools they left behind as they possibly could get. That is why they made this temple ‘free’.. in all the literal meanings.. and Tempest Temple charges its congregation for all its services. We do not. Whatever is brought or bought, is done with charity, or by the revenues from the lands that were imparted for the use of this temple centuries ago by the forefathers of Serenity Home. It is against this temple’s foundation to change its identity as the temple itself will simply refuse to accept such a yoke.”
“I am certain they will find a way around that, sir. Please, we must warn the sheriff.. We must place guards around you, and the temple..”, Derek begged.
“When it’s time, it is time, my dear boy. Now, attend to what I have to say.”, the rusty voice said. “Let this assassin in as you were told. Your cover must not be blown. You are young and must live your life. That will never happen if they find out where your heart truly lies.”
“You loved the Light, sir. Yet you never imposed your choice of school upon us. Thomas was into War. He wanted to learn about War to avoid Wars.. And Lady Magella was all about Life.. My heart always wanted the Storm..”
“I do not judge your choice, young Derek, though I did warn you about the corruption in the Tempest Temples, and my suspicions..”, the old, rusty voice said sadly.
“Yes. You did, sir. And that is why I wanted to infiltrate their ranks; to cleanse the Tempest from the filth of corruption.”, the junior temple guardian said with a determined tone.
“I admired your resolution, but not what you wanted to do. What’s more, we have nothing to take up to the king. Nothing but the words of a scheming, ambitious man.. And the king will not act against a temple without irrefutable proof. Particularly one as widespread and powerful as the Tempest. I fear they have crossed many lines where even they can not return. But all that is another matter. Now. Should something happen to me—”
“Sir, please!”, Derek begged.
“No, boy, listen to me.. Should something happen to me, I want you to keep your cover. With the exception of two people, do not tell anything to anyone on this matter. One is Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart, and the other is Argail Smitefast. They are the only two you may trust.”, the old voice said seriously.
“Sir, the good sheriff will club me senseless and throw me to his dungeons should I ever tell him of the things I have done. And they do not call the esteemed leader of Scowling Hills, Argail Smitefast for no reason. He will not club me, nor throw me to some jail, he will simply smite me! He only trusts you, sir. For Heaven’s sake, sir, he literally gave you one of his granddaughters for training!”, Derek exclaimed.
The rusty voice chuckled.
“Very true. But it is possible the Storm Hierophant of Arashkan might decide you know a bit too much and want to dispose of you as well. I am old and my time has neared its end. You, on the other hand, are young and must live a long and happy life. You have much potential and much more good to do for the people of this town and the world in general.. You will live that life, and you will not do anything foolish to try and avenge me..”, he said kindly.
“But, sir!”, Derek objected.
“My dear Derek, do I have your word on this?”, the rusty old voice said and it was perhaps the only time there was a distinct tone of stern command in it.
A long and suffering silence befell the memories of the young junior temple guardian. When he spoke again, his voice was destitute and not without a small amount of self-loathing.
“You have my word on this, Senior Temple Guardian Demos Lightshand..”
“That was unexpected.”, said Dar Derune.
“What? What did.. what did you see? Please tell me!”, pleaded Mathilda.
“I saw a good man.”, the little boy said vaguely, looking down at the still spasming temple guardian.
A low, happy, and vastly relieved moan escaped Mathilda Ravish Demure and she took the young man in her arms and wept.
“Ahh, sweet Mathilda, you have a spark in your heart!”, Dar Derune piped, staring at the joyously crying girl..
. . .
Thomas Dimwood spun his single-chain flail and slammed the diamond-shaped bulk of the heavy cast-iron right into the face of a stirring Orken that had somehow noticed their presence. There was little finesse in the young man’s swing, other than aiming where to land it. The huge creature collapsed with his head caved in, leaving behind a bloody, twitching mess.
Bremorel Songsteel, on the other hand, was a superb swordswoman, and although hers was not a slender long blade, nor a rapier, but a near-two-yard long heavy greatsword that glowed with a deep blue glacial light, her swings whistled as sharply as its edge and sliced, dismembered, and killed with enthralling accuracy.
What made her swordplay so mesmerizing, however, was not that she killed with deadly efficiency. It was how she danced and wove through the enemy. It was like there was an invisible, predetermined route she would take, certain dance moves she would make, and the enemies would always end up at the end of her great blade! In this matter, only one other person showed similar traits in combat;
Queen Alor’Nadien ne Feymist! But where the queen danced, she did it with the grace of a belly dancer and her deadly glaive was merely an extension of her flowing, supple body. And should anyone watch only her, they would immediately come to the conclusion that she was, indeed, dancing. Bremorel, however, danced to a tune only she could hear, and her lithe moves dictated that her sword was not an extension of her, but it was the other way around. For Alor’Nadien ne, it was all about the dance. For the ranger lieutenant, it was all about the song and the steel..
..and her song drow her a path right through the ranks of the Orken while her steel left the said Orken dead or dying.
It was no wonder she left the poor senior temple guardian, Thomas, in a state of perpetual awe.
Then Perigren Ostlanna Temez came into view..
She was on top of an Orken, slamming her steel antler-horn into the back of its skull. She was slicing another open at its waist. She was pushing her horn into the face of a third, savagely puncturing the kidneys of fourth, with a swift run, she was climbing up a fifth just to open multiple holes in its throat, and she was running right next to the senior temple guardian, making sure he remained unharmed..
..all at once, and at the very same time!
“What the..”, Thomas spluttered as he watched Temez all over the enemy camp.
“Focus, Thomas Dimwood.”, she warned him. “This is not a good time to ogle. Your beloved mate shall never leave this field should you fall and I have no desire to return back to Serenity Home Temple without its senior temple guardian, nor with the absence of his beloved ranger lieutenant.”
Thomas stared at the Temez running lightly next to him, then at the half a dozen others she was currently applying her bloody butchery!
“Are they all an illusion?”, he asked inadvertently.
“I do not do illusions, Thomas Dimwood. Some of my brothers and sisters have an affinity for it. I am not one of them. What I do have are some very powerful feelings —as limited in number as they are.”, she said, pointing at her duplicates. “That one is Wrath. That one is Anger. Those two are Loss and Sorrow. The one at the far back is Lust! I had Joy too, once. She died when my BFF died.. I am hoping one day I shall overcome my Anger, my Wrath, my Loss, and my Sorrow, and my Lust shall blossom into Love, hence I shall become one and whole and mayhap, bring my Joy back.. Pray that day does not come too soon, for we have many enemies to murder!”
The brilliance of Ad Ara held true and they reached the large tribal tent at the very center of the Orken army, leaving scores of the monsters at their wake. Then Thomas brought down his flame strike..
..and a tall, forty-foot high column of fire came roaring down from the brilliant night sky and flattened the tent, charring it instantly and leaving gaping, singed holes on it.
With a defiant bellow, the largest Orken they had ever seen came charging out of the burning tent; the Grunt General himself, and he was perhaps twelve feet tall with trunks for arms and legs and he held a massive, two-handed warhammer in his powerful hands and with unexpected dexterity, he charged at the young temple guardian..
Thomas cast a spell to hold the monster in place but the great Orken shrugged it aside and slammed down his hammer. The senior temple guardian immediately brought up his shield, and just in time, as the hammer came down.
The steel-rimmed shield screeched and splintered and Thomas dropped on his knees, his teeth gritted, his face pinched in pain, for his arm had just been shattered and his shoulder had been dislocated!
Temez dashed forth, ducked under the Grunt General’s swing, and stabbed his shins with her serrated steel antler-horn.
Then another Temez dashed in and climbed up his back, trying to reach the base of his skull where he would be vulnerable.
And another Temez appeared, followed by two more, each going at the Grunt General from a different side and a different soft spot, while the last half-born girl grabbed Thomas from behind and tried to drag him away..
“Eager to show your battle prowess to your mate, senior temple guardian?”, she said brightly, as she pulled at him. “You must know by now, Thomas Dimwood, it isn’t your strength she admires. Smart girls seldom admire more of what they already have.”
“Always something to remind you there’s someone much stronger than you are, and I wasn’t even trying..”, Thomas said through his clenched teeth. “Great Heavens, that thing is strong! Destroyed a perfectly good shield.”
“Your priorities are a tad off, dear boy. He destroyed your arm..”, Temez snorted..
..then gave out a painful shriek and dropped to her knees..
..as a very bloody mess crashed right next to them.
Whatever it was, its face and its chest had totally caved into a bloody, unrecognizable thing, but what remained of her white shirt, her bodice, her loose trousers, and her short, tanned hair told them both who it had once been.
Thomas stared at the remains of what was once the beautiful half-born girl, Perigren Ostlanna Temez..
Then he turned to look at her and saw that she was on her knees, her face was drawn, and she spat out a mouth-full of red, hot blood!
“Are.. are you alright?”, he asked.
“No, Thomas Dimwood. I just died..”, she replied as she got up, just to drop back..
..as they heard a gurgling crack and the Grunt General snapped the slender neck of another Temez he had just managed to grab.
Thomas didn’t wait any longer.. Nothing in his life had affected him nor pierced him down to his very core as what he had just witnessed. Whatever the half-born truly were, however they were conceived, or what sins they had done in their previous lives, they were now, all under his protection and he was not going to let this monster kill Temez one by one.
“Stay down.”, he snarled between his gritted teeth as he struggled to get up.
“I am down, Thomas Dimwood!”, Temez said as she coughed another month-full of blood and the Grunt General slammed one more of her into the slushy ground, ignored the other girls crawling and stabbing at his back, and swung down his massive warhammer..
..and crushed Temez!
The thing that remained had no back, nor any discernable skull..
“That’s it!”, the young man spat with anger and cast another spell, but like the first, the Grunt General shrugged this one off too.
“Whatever you are doing, you had better come quick, Morel. This thing is killing us!”, he snarled again and released a third spell, causing the great Orken to grunt in mere discomfort as he reached back with surprising speed and grabbed the girl on his back by the ankle.
Temez did not panic, nor flail around, even though she was held upside down. She did let loose a long, horrible shriek as the Grunt General grabbed her other foot, and with slow, cruel deliberation, tore her in two!
“Will I have attained my Ascension if I die here, Thomas Dimwood?”, Temez whispered hoarsely from behind. “Will you vouch for my deeds and plead the Heavens on my behalf? I haven’t returned the soul I ate, though. I really wanted to do that before I died..”
“No, half-born. You will live, and you will further sweat and suffer for your Ascension, and there shall be no shortcuts for you!”, Thomas replied as he cast another spell just to see it bounce off the giant monstrosity.
The thing gave him a disgusted glance, spun around, and smash his fist into the last girl. A sharp snap was heard and Temez dropped, her head resting on the ground at an odd, irksome angle. The monster looked down at her..
..and stomped her face with one, giant foot..
..until nothing but a bloody puddle remained.
“IT DIED.”, the beast said with a sneer as he took a massive step towards Thomas.
“Done.”, a soft voice replied to that and a cold blade, glowing with glacial blue light came out of the monster’s chest as Bremorel Songsteel appeared behind the Grunt General.
The creature let loose a great, pained grunt and the ranger lieutenant danced..
..as Thomas prepared another spell.
“And that is how pain feels.”, was all she said, took a dive to her right, suddenly reverted, and spun left, misleading the monster to swing down his great hammer into empty ground.
Thomas released his spell..
..and a shrieking wall of blades, perhaps twenty feet high, all spinning savagely, appeared before him..
..just Bremorel sliced open one of the Grunt General’s legs.
The monster grunted as he dropped on one knee.
She spun back, darted in again, and sliced open his other leg!
The Grunt General moaned, dropped his giant hammer and fell on his hands, all the while staring up at the girl with hateful eyes..
The ranger lieutenant did not pause for dramatic effect.
She sliced one of his trunk-like arms all the way to the bone, used the swing’s momentum as she spun around and did the same to his other arm as well..
..and the Grunt General fell face down into the frozen, and muddy ground.
He heaved and struggled, and sat up on his haunches to give her a defiant, spiteful glare.
“Your ilk may conquer us and even slay us all. But you will never see those days, and neither will you ever taste victory, or even know how it all fared.”, the ranger lieutenant told him in her low, soft voice..
..and kicked him in the chest.
The Grunt General fell back..
..into the wall of mincing blades!
. . .
What a mess..”, Bremorel complained in disgust as she wiped the thick, dark, dripping Orken blood off her face. Then she looked down and saw ‘wiping’ wasn’t going to cut it. They would need the flow of Arashkan River to wash that gore off them!
“My bad.”, Thomas grimaced.
“I suppose it would be churlish of me not to accept some of the responsibility. When I saw your wall of blades, I couldn’t resist, so I guess its a mutual bad!”, she said waving her hands and splattering some more blood..
“I would be the last to complain, love, but what took you so long?”, Thomas said hoarsely in pain as he held his broken and dislocated arm. “Temez got slaughtered, and is now totally out! I shudder to think what that girl went through to buy you some time..”
“I am sorry, my Thomas. I really am. We suspected there would be Blood Shamans here, and we were right; there were three of them but they were well hidden. Finding them while dashing through an army of Orken wasn’t easy, even though they are mostly stunned and blinded at the moment. The problem was they were all hiding in three different locations, busy with whatever foul rituals they were casting. I suspect it was due to them your spells never took hold on the bloody Grunt General and the same reason why Temez was so ineffective as well. Once I found and killed all three Blood Shamans, he became vulnerable. Good thing he did too.. How’s the arm?”
“Totally busted.”, Thomas replied, staring at his disfigured arm. “You are going to have to put my shoulder back in before we could even cast it.”
“Ouch. That’s going to hurt.”
“Yes. Yes, it will.”, he said sourly.
“Told you that armor of yours was trash.”, she said heartlessly.
“Harsh, love. Very harsh.”, Thomas sighed with resignation.
“I guess I will have to carry Temez.”, she said, looking down at the half-born girl.
“I would have, but not with this arm, I can’t..”, he mumbled in pain.
“No, you weren’t, Thomas. Under no circumstance are you to carry any girl but me. Are we clear on that?”, she said sternly.
“Apparently, we are.”, he said somewhat surprised.
“Don’t get me wrong, Thomas. This isn’t a matter of trust, nor the lack of it. It’s a matter of principle. She is, after all—”
“—a succubi half-born?”, finished Thomas.
“No. She is, after all, a girl! The fact that she has the blood of a succubus running in her veins and possesses their powers as well, is a moot point. And I secretly suspect all girls are part succubus! My point is, some things should never be tested, Thomas, and never should they be put to trial. There can never be a good and doubt-free outcome of that. And if one plays with fire, they will get burned. I burned once with you. I would like to keep that fire going..”
“I would like that fire going too. And you are right. Gather her here. I have one final spell to cast and we’ll be done..”, he said.
Bremorel scooped up the half-born girl to find out that she was surprisingly light-weighted for a girl who was taller than average, slender but certainly not skinny.
“Come, love. Bring her here and form a circle..”, he said.
Bremorel brought the half-born girl over and lay her down to form a circle.
“Holy Ad Ara. With your grace, we have finished what we have come here to do. Thank you.”, he murmured as if in prayer.
“Well done, young Thomas of Dim Woods. Long and hard trials further await you and yours. Know, though, only the resolute prevails. I shall ask one boon of you if you will..”, said the voice of Ad Ara in their minds.
“I shall do as you please, Holy Ad Ara.”, Thomas promised.
“Be kind to mirima, for her and her kind have suffered much in the hands of the foulest of fiends and Mortals sunk too low in sin and debauchery. Yet mirima suffers the most, for she has lost the most; her hope!”, the voice of the Archangel of Compassion said, and there was a tint of regret in it.
“We shall be kind to her, and to all her brothers and sisters, and my home and my temple will be their home and their temple for as long as they wish to stay.”, he replied with his head bowed.
“Thank you.”, she said with a relieved sort of voice. “Now depart these befouled hills, for the cleansing shall begin here..”
The young senior temple guardian sighed, feeling sad, elated, and for some reason, lost..
Then he reached back and struggled with his pack but he just couldn’t get it to open. Bremorel came to his aid, gave him a chaste kiss, then took his pack and opened it.
“What am I looking for?”, she asked, looking into the neatly folded clothes and the well-organized items inside it with no small amount of flushed guilt and shame. True, Bremorel was not all that messy girl, but her husband turned everything he did into some sort of an art display.. including packing his bags!
Bremorel pulled out a long, cylindrical object as thick as her ankle with a curious-looking fuse at one end and a long, slender stick tied to its side. She stared at it, then at her husband.
“Why do you have a flare in your pack, Thomas? More to the point, why do you have a Palantine scout’s signal flare in your pack? Carrying one of these without a license is illegal. Callous use of it is worth serious fines and jail time.”
“Yes, yes, I know. I was warned by any number of Palantine soldiers already. That flare is the reason I stayed back. I needed one of them and I needed to talk to Palantine Militia General, Gerald Cornfield..”, Thomas said.
“Why would you..?”, Bremorel began, then her eyes widened.
“You like?”, the young temple guardian asked, grinning at her despite the pain of his ruined arm.
“Damn. That was a bold thing to do, my Thomas. I am impressed.. And yes, I like..”, she said with a tiny, appreciative smile.
“I sort of hinted out what we were up to, and what to expect should we succeed. I am sure their scouts have already seen the Grace of Ad Ara lighting up these hills but they wouldn’t know what to do or what to make of it. This flare will tell them ‘what!'”, he explained with satisfaction.
“I could so jump you right now!”, Bremorel said with a dangerous glint in her eyes.
“Well, fire it away, love. Tell the esteemed Palantine general he is free to assault these hills with a preemptive strike, now that Orken Grunt General and the Blood Shamans are dead.. Might as well make good use of the confusion. And I am sure the sight of an Archangel will sway the heart of even someone as stubborn as Gerald Cornfield for the better..”
Bremorel stuck the flare into the slushy and muddy ground and lit its fuse. The flare shot up with an eagle’s shriek, made a long, graceful arc over the sky, then exploded, showering down scores of brilliant red sparks..
“Done.”, she said, staring up at the beautiful silhouette of Ad Ara, glowing with incandescent light high up in the night sky, and the scores of bright red motes raining down.
“And Done.”, her husband said and cast his final spell..
Thomas bowed his head once more towards the Archangel, then recalled them all; his awe-inspiring Morel, the downed half-born girl, Temez, and himself, back home, and back to his free temple.
. . .
Temple Guardian Derek Jeramiah Herald crouched, not behind the creaky door of the pitifully small dormitory room of Demos Lighthand, but in the corner of his own, similarly small room. His face was haggard and his hair tousled, and the evidence of dried streaks was there, on that face.. It was a face filled with self-loathing and shame and the terrible sense of loss he knew was about to happen, was also clearly etched on that face..
He sniffed once and closed his eyes —tightly, and began murmuring a spell and it was the third time he was casting it.
It was also the last time he would be able to do as he had reached the limit of his mental strength.
The spell itself was complicated enough, taking some ten minutes to fully compose. But it also took an immense amount of concentration to keep up. When done correctly, it would give the caster clairvoyance; the ability to see or hear the things around anywhere within a mile distance as if they were there. The spell did have some jarring constrictions and limitations, however. For instance, knowing where to land the spell mattered, as the caster would not be there as him or herself, but rather be placing a magical and invisible ‘sensor’ in the chosen location, hence they would inadvertently be limited to what he or she heard or saw as the presence of light or obstacles would limit both hearing or seeing and the location of the ‘sensor’ could not be changed once the it was set. The caster could not interact, in any way, with those around them, nor could anyone interact with them. Also, the caster could see or hear, but not both at the same time. To be sure, it was a very devious and dangerous spell and was highly restricted by law and anyone found using it would be fined heavily and face demanding punishments..
And it did not last long.. only about the same time it took to cast it in the first place..
Young Derek had tried to space out his attempts in the dire hopes of catching the ‘right time’, and he had been doing so every night for the last four days, placing his ‘sensor’ right inside Demos’s tiny room, but the ‘person in question’ still hadn’t arrived, to his great relief, but it had also put a growing sense of dread on him.
It was shortly after he released his spell when he heard it..
A very faint rustling sound and the young Derek dithered for a moment whether he should try to see, rather than hear, but suppressed his curiosity.
The senior temple guardian’s room would be dark, or very dim, if he had a candle lit, making any visual ‘spying’ a moot point.
And to be honest, he wasn’t even sure he wanted to see what was about to happen. Much like the rest of the citizens of Serenity Home, Derek was also very fond of the old man.. And he did not want his last memory of him to be a bloody one.
The matter of fact was, deep down, he felt very much like a coward.
It was then he heard the rustling sound again and this time it was closer.
“Good evening, child.”, he suddenly heard Demos’s rusty, weary, and tired voice. “Have you come to slay me?”
There was an ominous, choking silence followed by a soft, whispering voice.
“Good.”, replied Demos. “And thank you..”
“Why are you thanking me?”, asked the voice with surprise. “People never thank me for what I do. Even those that hire me.”
“How rude of them..”, the temple guardian Derek heard Demos say.
“You are an odd one, you are. Or perhaps merely mad.”, said the soft voice, and the clairvoying young man got the distinct impression that the ‘person in question’ might be a woman!
“My dear..”, Demos replied in his hushed and wheezing voice. “..when you have lived as long as I have, sanity becomes optional. The only thing that has ever mattered to me was the well-being of the citizens of this town and orphans under my care. I only mourn for the avoidable outrage this will cause among them.”
“Ahh.. You would rather I poison you to eternal sleep, then?”, the other voice offered amiably, though Derek got the hunching sense that the woman, and yes, he was sure she was a woman, was a bit irked. Apparently, this was not the reception she expected to receive.
“So the Storm Hierophant was telling the truth when he said ‘She was a freelancer and that she was responsible for the assassination of Lord Trimdel Kandara of Endless Watch!'”, Derek thought in silent horror. “Good Heavens and Scowling Storms! It’s no other than the infamous Lilly Venom!”
“No, dear child. I am afraid I despise poison. When you slay me, I would rather your deed be clear. It merely makes me sad to know the orphans under my care will suffer more than I shall.”, Demos said in his rusty voice.
“I am about to slay you and all you are worried about are the orphans?”, she asked in disbelief.
“I am an old man, my dear girl. I will be leaving this world one way or another, soon as tonight, or soon as a year or two at best. We all have our days numbered. Mine have merely run out.. I have lived a long and good life. Made many friends amongst the dwarves, and the elves and even a few of the fey-folk have honored me with their friendship. I have done the best I could with the days given to me to make sure those under my care always had something to eat, something to wear, and something to read, which makes me the richest man in this world. I am a happy man, content, you might even say, and ready for what comes next.”, Demos replied kindly..
..and in another room, under the same roof, Derek shuddered, and tears started running down his face again.
“Why? It is clear you knew I was coming..”, the assassin girl hissed with frustration.
“Why I have not called upon the town guards upon you? Or why I did not have guards posted on each corner of this temple?”, the old temple guardian said.
“My dear child, to what end? I shall not risk the lives of my townsmen to save my life. They have wives and they have children. I have neither. I took care of the orphans placed under my care. But I would never want to deliberately make more of them.”, Demos answered.
“You.. you are insane..”, the feminine voice said angrily.
“I did say, sanity was optional at my age, did I not?”, chuckled the old man.
“I am about to kill you, and you have the audacity to laugh?”, the voice of the assassin said with frustration.
“Ahh.. This is not audacity, my dear child. This is merely my two copper worth of wisdom. Know, however, those who have sent you, will send someone else for you. For that is the kind of people they are.”, Demos said wheezily.
“Yeah. Never had that tried on me before.”, the girl said with heavy sarcasm.
“My child..”, the old man said wearily, as if speaking to a particularly stubborn or dense kid. “You must know, they will never stop. Never! Because, willy-nilly, you know who they are, and they can’t have that information running around loose. The one that hired you, is the one who shall slay you. And between the two of you, I believe you are the better person.”
Derek heard the woman snort!
“You have no idea who I am, old man. You have no clue as to the things I have done!”, she sneered at him.
“Would it have mattered had I known something, anything, about you? You have stopped to chat with the person you were hired to slay. He would never have. You have offered me a non-violent way out by offering poison as an option for me. He would never have. And it is clear orphans matter for you. No life matters for him. Just those three tells me you want to make sure you do not carry the guilt of your job with you. And that, my dear child, proves you have a conscience. He does not even know what that word means..”, Demos said quietly.
A long, distasteful sort of silence settled and young Derek was holding his breath now.
“You are crazy a piece of work, aren’t you, old man?”, the assassin said, her tone a bit exasperated. “I have been in this town for two days and no one ever noticed me. Yet you knew I was here and did not warn the town guards. I am not sure if I should be grateful or freaked out. It is clear I have been set up and I plan on finding out why. But I can’t do that if I killed you because I would be too busy dodging the assassins that would be coming after me.”
“They must never find out what happened here, dear child. It must appear like you never reached your destination. That will buy you some time.”, Demos cautioned.
“So, you are not as insane as you appear.”, the girl said flatly.
“It comes and goes.”, chuckled the old man.
“How do I know you will not spill everything once I am gone?”, she asked with a frustrated voice.
“That would make my cautions sort of moot, wouldn’t you agree?”, the old man replied.
The silence that followed this stretched as far as it could go and for some reason it gave Derek the impression that the assassin was not convinced.
It was likely Demos also came to the same conclusion for he sighed and the young temple guardian heard his wheezing, rusty voice once more..
“My dear child, I am not a political figure. I am merely an old man with old worries. I do not need such drama in what remains of my life to keep a job I did not choose but was chosen for me and placed upon my shoulders. I have done what I could for those in need and shall continue doing it until I can’t. Then, someone else shall pick up where I left. Someone younger. If the children around me are running with full stomachs and laughing, I am content with the relieving knowledge that I have done the job entrusted upon me correctly. Tell me, dear child, you have been in this town for two days. How were my orphans doing?”
..and the spell ended!
Lords and ladies, representatives and delegates of all races, and many places gather at Serenity Home to work on strategies against the Orken onslaught.
Yet the once peaceful town is attacked by unknown assassins targeting many of the gathered representatives.
A total disaster is averted but not without cost. Some of the representatives are wounded, some are slain.
Many Arashkan refugees are also killed..
This story takes place shortly after
Sheriff Standorin sat in the dimness of his home, his face in his hands, fingers spread, and elbows on his knees, staring at the fire. There was a silent, murderous reflection in his eyes, hiding between his calloused fingers, not unlike a man behind his own bars. To say the least, Standorin Shieldheart was angry for he had buried many people in the past two days, some of them he had known for many years, and some hadn’t even lived as many years.
At that very moment, he wanted to be the young and foolish man that he’d been, many years ago. The age his son, Udoorin had been..
..and just kill some things?
True, he had been reckless and foolish when he’d run off back then and had done quite a number of jobs, guarding merchant caravans mostly, but he had tried his hands on bounty hunting too. That had had its moments; tracking down the bad guys, apprehending them, dragging them back, turning them over to the local sheriffs, and collecting his share of the bounty..
Accept not all his jobs had gone smoothly.
Sometimes the caravans he guarded got raided, and sometimes the people he’d tracked down just wouldn’t come quietly no matter how polite he’d been or how obvious the outcome of any aggression would end.
It seemed like some people just begged to die!
The only problem with that was, Standorin just didn’t like killing.
Two days ago, however, that had changed and his deadly gaze pierced down at the small stack of parchments scattered on the floor, some crumbled in wrath, some savagely shredded, and a few lay gazing back at him; the final tally of the attack..
..one thousand six hundred and seventy-eight dead, mostly Arashkan refugees; men, women, children, and elderly, and eight thousand nine hundred and fifty-five wounded..
It had been a good thing they had started doing drills soon after the first batch of refugees had appeared just so everyone would know where they would be and what they would be doing to avoid chaos when the Orken finally arrived.
Standorin remembered one of his bounty hunter partners from back in the day, tell him that no plan ever survived the first encounter.
Apparently, he had been right then, much like he had been right, now; most of the deaths had occurred due to panic-induced trampling.
“They were my responsibility.”, he snarled silently.
“Yes.”, said a soft, cultured voice in the dim.
He hadn’t heard the voice come.
“Would you like a whip? Perhaps for self-flagellation..”, offered to soft voice.
“I do not do levity.”, Standorin snarled.
The voice paused.
“You would chastise your friends, rather than politely accept simple levity? Or the offer of comfort?”, the voice asked, not quite taken aback nor appalled, but very slightly hurt.
“Why are you here, Liaison?”, he growled.
The voice paused again, this time for a bit longer.
“I would have thought we’d had a semblance of understanding, sir.”, the voice replied, putting the barest of emphasis on ‘sir’. “Perhaps I was mistaken. But then, I merely came here to see how you were, and to offer what comfort I may. It would seem you are fine exactly as you want to be; sad, sorry, and alone and require no comfort, for what is not wanted, can not be given. I shall see you on the morrow, which should be in a few hours.. to hand in my resignation, hence shall I be no longer a distraction for you.”
..and as silently as she had come, Liaison Constance was gone.
✱ ✱ ✱
There was a hesitant knock on the door and Thomas rose his head from the parchment he’d been reading in the dim room lit by a single candle and put it on the small stack on his table; the latest death tally..
“Could have been worse.”, the young woman standing right behind him said quietly. “Not even Ranger Master Moorat escaped unscathed. Thanks to you and your guardians, the dwarves, the elves, and the rangers many are alive today.”
“Many are not.”, replied the senior temple guardian in a destitute voice. “I became a temple guardian precisely to avoid this sort of thing ever happening.”
“Please, Thomas. Don’t be like that.”, the young woman said.
“Don’t be like what?”, Thomas asked.
“Don’t be like me..”, the young woman replied seriously. “Bitter and angry. I.. I am trying.. very hard.. and I never want to go back to that girl. You helped me be better.. be more.. If you succumb, what would I do? Yes, I am being selfish, but angry and bitter is me. Never you. I need you to be never bitter and angry, Thomas. I need you to be strong on this front for me.”
Thomas looked up at the young woman who was staring down at him, her long, coarse black hair framing her beautiful face and he saw a slight shimmer in her very serious eyes.
Bremorel Songsteel never showed her feelings.
Perhaps an amendment was in order there; Bremorel Songsteel always showed her feelings, just never her soft and vulnerable side.. Even Thomas had barely seen that side of her. He’d always known she was kind, gentle, and more, all locked up, tight, and very deep down, and with infinite patience, he had reached in and bit by bit, he’d surfaced the real girl, the real Morel, out..
Tonight, however, and for whatever reason, she had volunteered to bring it all out.
Thomas skimmed through a long list of possible reasons, then with the realization of his own arrogance, he discarded them all.
His Morel had volunteered and that was all that mattered and that was all there was to it.
He smiled up at her.
“You are so beautiful.”, he said honestly.
“You keep saying that like it’s true..”, frowned Bremorel with a faint blush.
“And I shall keep on saying it until you believe me.”, he replied.
“So you will stop when I believe you?”, she asked with an amused expression.
“No. I will then continue saying it until you believe yourself.”, he said seriously.
Bremorel didn’t snark.
Nor did she snort.
One thing she had learned about the man she was looking down on was that he was honest.
“That might take a while.”, she said. “I guess you will just have to work on me until then.
“I shall.”, he promised.
Bremorel leaned in and kissed him, then walked over to the door and opened it.
Perigren Ostlanna Temez and Hannah Vir were standing in front of the door. While Hamna Vir was staring at her own feet with an ugly shiner and a black eye, fidgeting, Temez was looking at Bremorel, the pair of her antler-like horn broken and missing, with dead, soulless eyes.
“We..”, stammered Hamna Vir. “..we came to apologize, Ranger Lieutenant Bremorel Songsteel. To you and to Senior Temple Guardian Thomas Dimwood on behalf of the half-born for the problems we caused..”
Footsteps approached and Thomas appeared behind Bremorel.
“..Meri.. Merisoul Xyrotwu was dear to many of us. We.. we went out of control when we found out about her for she was the best of us.”, she mumbled.
Bremorel stared at her, then at Temez, who just stood there.
Then, at the mention of her BFF, large tears appeared in her eyes and silently ran down her beautiful face.
The half-born had never learned moderation. Hence their emotions tended to be on the extreme and the news of Merisoul Xyrotwu had hit them hard;
Their reaction to it had been.. quite, but not quietly, unprecedented!
Bremorel reached over and quietly hugged her.
“This is life, mirima Temez. Our loved ones die, one by one and we live to suffer their absence. Fools are we Mortals for not making each day worth its weight in love and care. Fools are we all, for forgetting the ones that are still with us, also. You, my dear, are mirima. Merisoul blessed you with that burden for she knew only you could carry it.. Prepare yourself and those under your care, for that, is the only way you may avoid more of the same.”
“The ranger lieutenant speaks with much wisdom, Temez.”, Thomas said sternly, but not unkindly. “We are about to go to war. The enemy is brutal and has no choice but to slay us all. For them, there is no retreat. You and your kin, I am thinking, know the Orken better than most. Hence you know when I say, they will not be routed, that I speak the truth. Merisoul Xyrotwu had more than the half-born as her friend. In what small time she had amongst the Mortals, she touched the lives of everyone around her. Where she went, she moved and changed things. Where there were dead hearts before, they became alive and nurtured. What was stagnant, became running and fresh again. And what was angry, became forgiving. Wherever she went, she brought compassion. These are the things with which we must remember her, for Mortal or nons, it is these, that is eternal.”
In Bremorel’s arms, Perigren Ostlanna Temez broke down and started crying like a little girl..
“Darling Demos taught you well.”, Hamna Vir said. “I shall help remind our mirima Temez and our kin of these when they forget. Come, mirima. Yours can not be allowed to see you like this anymore.”
With tenderness quite unexpected of her, Hannah Vir took the broken and devastated Temez and steered her away.
“What you said to her.”, Thomas said after the two half-born girls had gone. “It was brutal.. and it was beautiful.”
Bremorel smiled at him.
“Yours was better.”, she objected.
“Mine was merely the truth, and educational. Yours.. yours was.. wisdom.”, he said with unveiled admiration. “You could have been talking to me and I would have taken every word you spoke, to heart.”
“Every word was said with you at heart.”, she replied with a bright red face.
✱ ✱ ✱
You are up early.”, Aager said when he entered the new kitchen of their new home.
“Oops!”, yelped the skinny young girl, almost dropping the big pan she could barely lift and full of raw eggs she had cracked for a grand omelet. “I am sorry. Did I wake you?”
“You? No. I have no idea how you manage, but you never wake me when you get up, prepare breakfast, then come back to me. I must admit, I.. *cough* love it.. waking up to your beautiful eyes every morning.”, Aager said, his voice trailing off towards the end.
And jumped him.
And promptly hit him with the pan!
Aager staggered and Inshala went into panic.
“I am sorry, I am sorry, I am sorry!”, she moaned.
Aager stood where he was, his hands holding his head and eggs dripping all over him.
“I am so sorry, my Aager!”, she said with a voice on the verge of crying.
Aager started laughing.
The skinny girl just stared at him.
“You.. you tricked me!”, she fumed.
Aager laughed some more; just two days ago, he had fought scores of assassins and gotten off almost unscathed, just to be hit over the head by a kitchen pan.. full of eggs!
“Are you really alright? I am so sorry.. I just can’t control myself sometimes.”, Inshala said with earnest sincerity.
“Best morning, ever.”, Aager replied grinning.
“I ruined your morning.”, she said unhappily.
“How about you go back to bed and restart your morning, and I clean up myself and the mess here, then we both prepare breakfast.”, he offered.
“Or you could come to bed with me?”, Inshala counter-offered, her face suddenly brightening.
“As much as I would want that, I can’t.”, he said.
“Ow? Why not?”, Inshala asked.
“The bloody midget makes too much noise!”, he growled. “And she keeps waking up at odd hours and starts tinkering things. She thinks she is being quiet about it, but she totally lacks subtlety.”
Inshala made a funny, snorting sound.
“She is very cute, though. But if you will not return to bed with me, there no point in me going back, though I must admit, the new mattress is awesome!”, she said happily.
“Yes. It is.”, Aager admitted grudgingly. “And it would be even better if you wouldn’t insist on putting my old, thread-bear mattress on top of it!”
“But.. that was yours, my Aager. I feel happy and safe when I sleep on that one.”, she objected.
“Love, please. Even I didn’t like my old mattress that much. The only reason I ever truly wanted to sleep on it was when you came. No point in clinging to it. Mother Ganiste did us a grand favor by bringing our old house down, really. Now let’s start with the breakfast. Not only is that bloody midget noisy at odd hours of the night, but she is also noisy when she is hungry. I can’t fathom how her friends can stand her!”
Inshala giggled and picked up the pan and started washing it, thoroughly, in her washing dish.
“She’s so cute, though.”
“So are rabbits. You don’t see rabbits making this much noise. And she has a truly foul mouth, and that’s coming from a Drashan!”, Aager growled and wiped some of the eggs off his face and he also went over to the washing dish.
“Seressa is nice. She has a pretty smile and a beautiful heart.”, said Inshala and took a towel, wet it in the bucket sitting next to the washing dish, reached up, and started cleaning Aager’s egg blotched face.
“And just weird..”, he said sourly. “..And all the pinks! My eyes hurt!”
“She cried when she saw our cherry tree in bloom and kept mumbling something about ‘Grade Nine’, though I have no idea what that was about. She just went up to the tree and hugged it for hours!”, she said with a slight frown.
“Like I said; just weird..”, Aager confirmed.
“And Master Brom?”, she asked while she repeated wiping his face a few more times.
“Something is off about him.”, Aager mused as he stood still and let the skinny little girl do her thing.
“Ow? How so?”, Inshala asked.
“The way he looks at you. Yes he is very polite and I am sure he is honestly sincere about everything he says to you but that look is like he is someone with unhealthy secrets.”
“Do you think he means us some harm?”, she asked, though her voice said she clearly did not believe that.
“I doubt.”, Aager conceded. “Hobbits are notoriously polite people. Whatever his issues are, they are seriously bothering him.”
“What about the white elf? She was awesome in the fight. I saw her cut one of the bad men from head to hip!”, she said and took another towel but this one she did not wet. She dried his face and beamed up at him.
“She looks like she went through a grinder—”, he replied with a slight frown. Then he saw Inshala’s happy smile, and he returned it in kind. More so by leaning down and kissing her.
“—and came out the other end harder.. tougher.”, he said.
“Lady Nadine is nice.”, Inshala thought aloud. “She has much worry, though.”
“Yes. Many dark worries.”, prompted Aager.
“Dark worries? That is so true!”, she exclaimed as if getting the answer to a question she knew was there, but just didn’t know how to formulate. “It’s a good thing Mother Alisia returned back to Durkahan, though I wanted her to stay some more.”
“And Moira. But I thought Mother Alisia and Lady Nadine were looking for some excuse to fight. That’s why Moira insisted on sitting out in the garden all day for two days, even though it is freezing outside.”
Aager snorted again, as he went over to a basket and grabbed some eggs, placed them on the counter, went back for some more, and put them on the counter as well for Inshala.
“Would you mind slicing some tomatoes? And clean some onions? About a dozen or so. And wash some potatoes for me? I think I will make mashed potatoes with onions and fried tomatoes with the eggs.”, she asked.
“Of course.”, Aager said as he went for several other baskets, these with tomatoes, onions, and potatoes.
He cleaned and washed them all, thoroughly, to Inshala’s satisfaction, and started cutting them as per need.
“Smile.”, Inshala said.
“Hmm..?”, Aager asked as he eviscerated the tomatoes, kidney-shot the onions, and started strangling the potatoes.
“Smile, my Aager.”, she repeated. “That is what makes food delicious. The salt, the herbs, the spices are a mere excuse.”
Aager stated at her.
“I am serious.”, she said earnestly.
“I am sorry, love.”, Aager replied seriously. “I shall henceforth politely kill these tomatoes, onions, potatoes, and any other fruit or vegetable that comes my way.”
✱ ✱ ✱
There was a polite cough outside the tent and Udoorin woke up groggily, his face marked with odd pillow lines.
Udoorin loved everything about his queen, Lorna. Or Alor’Nadien ne, as he would start calling her when referring to her. At least in public. But some elf-thingies, he just did not understand.. at all.. and some, he outright disliked.. very much.
For example, whenever he so much as poked his head out of his tent, every single elf in sight stopped whatever they were doing, put their right fists on their hearts, and murmured;
“Mere Estel Aranië..”
He didn’t mind the.. salute.. per se.
What was with the murmur, though?
Perhaps someone was sleeping and they didn’t want to wake them up.
Then there were the low, backless chairs.
Why in the Great Heavens would someone even invent a chair that was that close to the ground?
And young King Udoorin didn’t even want to contemplate on the kind of demented mind where anyone would make a chair, and not put a back on it. How hard could it be?
He had tripped and fallen over those silly chairs so many times, he’d ended up kicking several of them across his tent.
Turns out, those chairs were bloody hard on toes when you kicked them!
He had given up trying to remember just how many times he had forgotten there were no backs on the chairs, and he had leaned back to topple over in what was likely going to end up as some hilarious elve’s gossip;
“Saw our king the other day. Fell off his chair again and his ass was staring at us..”
“Me too! Then he tripped and stubbed his toes! Bit of a lummox, isn’t he? The Queen could have done better. Oh, well..”
If anyone talked about him that way, he was going to break some heads!
But the most annoying was the bed they had given him.
For Udoorin, a bed should comprise of a mattress with clean sheets of linen or possibly cotton, a blanket or two, depending on the season, and a feather-stuffed pillow. And when someone said, king’s bed, it should refer to its size and not how elaborate it was, dammit!
His current bed did not have a nice, itchy blanket. It did not have cotton sheets, nor did it have feather-stuffed pillows.
Lady Lenna had told him what they were, though which was which, he’d have to remember to write them down next time. Only that somethings were silk, some were velvet, and the bloody pillows were stuffed with something he’d never heard of before and they were all embroidered with silver threads—
—explaining the odd pillow lines on his face!
“My King?”, said a baritone, handsome voice from behind the tent’s partition.
“Lord Armathelius.”, Udoorin said with a slightly irritated tone. “You don’t really have ‘king’ me every time you come in here, you know. Just call me Udoorin. I have been called by it enough many times that I am bound to recognize it.”
“I am afraid that is never going to happen, my King. Should someone overhear me referring to you otherwise, they might get the wrong idea about your well-earned credentials and mayhap test their boundaries, a something that should never be trespassed nor ventured, forcing me to skewer them to prove just how mistaken they were. Seeing as how short we already are on men as it is, wasting said men on such pointless and very much avoidable end seems wiser.”, Lord Armathelius said in a seamless, single breath.
“Bet you gave serious effort to memorize that just to annoy me.”, grumbled Udoorin.
“As a matter of fact, I merely repeated Lady Anglenna verbatim, when she said it to Queen Alor’Nadien ne when her Highness asked her cousin to call her by her name.”, the voice said with an amused tint.
Udoorin grunted and got out of his odd, and distinctly uncomfortable bed, splashed some of the scented water from the ornate washing dish sitting on the stand next to his bed on his face, put on his clothes that had been tossed everywhere, a habit he knew would probably drive Lorna crazy when they finally did get to share the same tent.
Then he put on his boots, and piece by piece, his armor, picked up his numerous axes and swords and knives and the shield he’d been carrying around for nearly a year now, though he’d never used, and finally his helmet.
He stomped his feet a few times to make sure everything settled in and drew the flaps of the partition aside to see Lord Armathelius Riverblade and his awesome armor standing in a ‘polite’, ready stance.
Udoorin did not understand Armathelius.
He always seemed polite. But the elf had a truly unreadable face. He never rose his voice, he never showed any form of excitement, he never seemed irritated or angry, and he certainly never laughed.
Udoorin was never sure if his choice of words or the way he phrased them were some kind of dry sense of humor or he was punning him.
The only time he saw any life on his otherwise totally expressionless face was whenever Lady Lenna, Lorna’s cousin, walked in. And even then, he would show absolutely no apparent reaction nor overt recognition whatsoever.
Only two things Udoorin had noticed that told him something was going on between the two;
One, he would become even more still, silent, and expressionless, if that was even possible, and two, he would take a quick glance, without turning his head, first to his right, then his left, and then his eyes would follow her for the duration of eight or ten breaths before everything about him would return back to his ‘normal’ expressionless self.
Udoorin wasn’t sure if the elf dude didn’t trust Lady Lenna and was merely making sure the area was secure and the former High Lady wasn’t up to something..
..or he was checking her out!
Lady Lenna, on the other hand, outright refused to acknowledge even his existence, let alone engage in any civilized conversation with him. And the look she gave him could only constitute;
“I shall see you burn in Hell, and even carry the wood for it!”
Udoorin wondered just what the poor elf dude had done to draw Lenna’s ire so furiously.
And when it came to ire, Lenna just didn’t do halves.
Apparently, Udoorin figured, Armathelius was a good commander, a great swordsman, an excellent archer, though not on Laila’s scale, and probably had many other excelling qualities, but not very smart where Anglenna was concerned.
“On a side note, you really should consider moving into your Queen’s tent. It would make things much more convenient for all of us, if not for the two of you. You are, after all, husband and wife for these past three days, now.”, Lord Armathelius said.
“Yes, Alor’Nadien ne and I are husband and wife, but I want a public wedding where everyone sees us getting married. I do not want any snark remarks haunting her.. ever! We wed, and both you and Lady Lenna have witnessed, but that was a promise made to one another. I shall not abuse her trust.”, Udoorin said sternly.
Lord Armathelius mused over that for a moment.
“I admire your stance to protect not only the Queen’s person but also her honor.. I do, however, feel the need to remind you that our ways are not human ways. Your promise to our Queen and her promise to you are indeed, truly binding in every possible way, on every possible level and no one can say otherwise nor gainsay it.”, Armathelius said.
“Both she and I agreed on this, Lord Armathelius.”, Udoorin grated.
“Since you have both agreed on it, I am sure everything will be fine, my King. Though also I feel the need to point out, have you considered what people might say or think as to why a king, newlywed, is not sleeping with his queen but prefers to sleep alone, in another tent?”
“What’s that supposed to mo mean?”, the young man growled.
Lord Armathelius stared at his very young human king for a moment before answering.
“You, my King, are a decent man. And your feelings for our Queen are.. artlessly genuine. This I know upon at least three occasions; the first was when Queen Alor’Nadien ne summoned the ghost of the accursed Themalsar as a gift to her father, you drew your weapons, in the presence of a Ri and challenged him, and his whole retinue, should they try their hands against her. Two; many elves of Bari Na-ammen never approved of a human as our Rise, yet some of us admired her and saw all the things she tried to do for us. Hence the elves here honor and rever enRise Nadine Graciousward and she has approved your claim to our Queen. And three; when you and our Queen returned to us hurt and weary, both of you were leaning on one another and even in your moment of delirium, you would not give her up.”
“Many have seen your dedication to our Queen, my King. But many more have not and in truth, very few know the true extent of your care for our Queen. When you spend your days, and nights, apart from your legally wedded wife, it tells them you went after a young and naive girl, taking advantage of her infatuations to have access to the throne!”, Lord Armathelius explained calmly.
A dreadful silence settled in the tent and Udoorin’s face went totally black.
“The Hell with the throne!”, he snarled something awful. “And the Hell with anyone who thinks I ever wanted it. You can have it. I know for a fact neither did my Lorna ever wanted it! And seeing as none of you truly understand what is at hand, it’s no wonder the Orken stomped right over Bari Na-ammen. It was full of fools!”
In retro respect, it was possible Udoorin should not have said that last bit. If Lord Armathelius’s face could have shown any expression, this was it. His brows crossed, his deep-set eyes blazed, his lips pressed tightly and his whole stance became cold.. almost frigid.
“That.. was uncalled for, my King..”, he hissed through tightly clenched teeth.
“And attacking me, and by my proxy, attacking my Lorna, was? At which point did you, or any of your elves think I was a soft, fluffy gentleman, Lord Armathelius? At which point did you think I, or my Lorna, ought to ‘bend’ for your collective conformity? None of you did anything when she was forced to abandon her only home, even though she was the Chosen Heart of your High Woods. Every day since then, she has fought tooth and nail, and with sweat and blood as her witness, to prove her mettle. And she has thus saved the lives of countless, yet unborn, when she brought down Themalsar —the mad priest his father couldn’t be bothered to slay even with his whole army behind him. The Orken has suffered countless of their numbers because of her and because of Lady Lenna when we made sure Arashkan couldn’t be used as a base by them, and you want to judge her and me? I do not have any personal ill feelings for you, Lord Armathelius, but I abhor what you elves did to her. And please remember that the only contribution the elves have thus provided was running away and letting their kingdom burn!”
Lord Armathelius stood there thunderstruck..
..and totally crushed.
“And while at it..”, Udoorin growled. “..you might want to remind your elves that the only reason you have a Queen from the line of Feymist, is because I have agreed I would be by her side for as long as I was alive and because my Lorna is a kind and forgiving girl. Know also that should you, any of you, mistreat her again the way you did, you can kiss your Aranië goodbye because that is how much I care for her, and how little I care for your elves!”
✱ ✱ ✱
How are you feeling?”, Hamna Vir asked as she gently shifted the sleeping Dar Derune in her arms to a more comfortable position.
“You know how I feel.”, Perigren Ostlanna Temez said sitting in her bed in one of the tiny dormitory rooms in the Serenity Home Temple. Her face was drawn, pale, lost, and listless as she idly played with her broken antler-horn.
“Yes. I do. All half-born do. But I suppose it is the Mortal thing to ask.”, Hamna Vir shrugged.
“How is he?”, Temez asked her, looking up at the limp form of Dar Derune.
“He.. can’t sleep.. Not since.. Merisoul..”, Hamna Vir replied quietly and her sharp feature softened. “He drops asleep because he can no longer stay awake.”
“How are the others?”, Temez asked.
“Wounded and hurting. This was our first test and we all utterly failed it..”, Hamna Vir mumbled as she gently brushed the little boy’s hair with one, slender hand.
“I am sorry. They were all so happy to be here. Happy and very, very fragile. Had I shown them any leadership..”, murmured Temez.
“Enough!”, hissed a voice and the door to her dormitory opened to reveal a very blotchy-faced Demelze. “I can’t stand this. I.. I can feel all of you! And all of your hearts are screaming! It is driving me insane!”
“Demelze. Please. Leave them alone.”, said another voice, this one resonant and charismatic, and Hal Mali appeared behind her.
Demelze’s eyes flared and she turned around and blazed up at him.
“You don’t get to tell me what to do, Hall!”, she very nearly spat.
“I believe I do.”, Hal Mali said.
“When did you decide on that?”, the diminutive, fiery, redhead sneered at him.
“When I carried you around, in my arms, twice, I might add, out and back into this town..”, he replied with a straight face.
“I had no say in that!”, spat Demelze.
“..and when we ran around the forest chasing one another. I believe you had a say in that..”, Hal said cooly.
Demelze glared at him.
“..and when you said you enjoyed it.”
“Of course I enjoyed it. We ran in the forest free and not stuck in this temple for weeks and weeks!”, she blazed.
“I do recall offering to carry you out, in secret, so we could play some more, and you said you would very much like that and that you could do that forever and that it was so much fun.”
“I said I would need your consent for that and you said, ‘Sure, why not!'”
Hamna Vir snorted.
“You, Demelze, are an idiot and you just got served!”, she said with a waspish snicker.
“What? Why?”, the flaring girl asked, suddenly looking much less sure of herself.
Hal Mali cleared his throat and smiled and it was a brilliant, very handsome smile.
“That, my dear Demelze, was my claim. You gave your consent, freely, and forever!”
Demelze just ogled at him as Hamna Vir snorted again.
Even Temez hiccuped a stifle.
“Well, bugger!”, Demelze said as her shoulders slumped. “I am stuck with a buffoon!”
“You don’t even know what a buffoon is.”, Hamna Vir snarked.
“Yes I do!”, she glared at her. “It’s a four-legged Mortal-whatsit!”
“Perhaps you are referring to a baboon?”, Hal Mali offered gently.
Hamna Vir snickered some more.
“Whatever. Same difference!”, Demelze spat.
“No, my dear Demelze. A buffoon is a ridiculous Mortal. A baboon is the four-legged Mortal-whatsit.”, Hal Mali explained.
“And you are both!”, Demelze said with extreme prejudice. “And I am not going down without a fight!”
“But of course. I wouldn’t want a mate who couldn’t fight.”, Hal Mali replied with a smile.
Hamna Vir snickered.
“Nice! A mating fight!”, she said happily.
“Really? You want to do this now?”, Temez asked with resignation.
“Yes!”, flared Demelze, without taking her seething eyes off Hal Mali. “You are the leader of Escape. You must officiate as a witness, and judge the outcome.”
“You will never see me coming, Demelze. You know that right?”, Hal Mali warned.
“Hah. Hah. Hah. Hah. Haa..”, she laughed at his face and sneered at him. “I don’t need to see you coming, boi. I can feel you wherever you are.”
“Very well. Down to the crypts, then. And no using Pixie Dust.”, Hal Mali said.
“Afraid?”, Demelze grinned viscously at him.
“Of course. I wanted my mate to be strong, smart, cunning, willful, dangerous, and better than me. And you are it.”, he replied honestly.
“Just for that, I shall not burn you down to cinders.”, Demelze said with a flushed face.
“No, no. I want you to give your all because I want your all. Agreed?”, the handsome half-born said.
“Ow, I like this.”, laughed Hamna Vir with delight. “If you don’t want him, there are plenty others who do, Demelze. I mean, I would, had I not had my heart set on someone else.”
“Shut up, Hamna Vir.”, Demelze glared at her balefully. Then she turned to the leader of the Escape. “Coming, Temez?”
Temez sighed again, got up and out of her rickety dormitory bed, took her broken antler-horn, and followed the fiery Demelze, the calm Hal Mali, and an eager Hamna Vir, who was still clutching at her Dar Derune, down to the crypts under Serenity Home Temple to judge the outcome of the first ‘Mating Duel’ —a ritual to see if the intended mates were worthy of one another.
What would Darling Demos think, she wondered.
What would her BFF, Merisoul Xyrotwu, think?
Bet she would have loved it..
✱ ✱ ✱
This is the best breakfasts I have had since I left Bowling Hills, Lady Inshala.”, said Brom admitted as he wiped his hands on the clean towels she had brought with the large platter full of fruits.
Aager had wordlessly grabbed the platter from her. It wasn’t hard to see she was having a hard time carrying it with her skinny arms.
It would seem, whatever she had parted and sacrificed at Themalsar to bury it, wasn’t coming back and it was these little things that Aager noted and consequently broke his heart to see.
“It’s alright.”, she had whispered. “They shouldn’t see you doing house chores.”
“I shall be accused of doing the chores in my own home and helping my mate?”, he’d whispered back. “I wasn’t aware there were such fools.”
“Dim Woods men expect so.. from their women.”, she had mumbled.
“Fools are they should they think they are beneath such chores and see them fit only for the women who share their lives and their bed, and bear their burdens and their children. I am a bloody Drashan and we cut men who mistreat their women and we do not feel remorse afterward.”, he had growled back.
“Tell me, Miss Cinotnacra Gocelap.”, Nadine Graciousward was saying. “How did the Academy treat you? Did you like it there?”
“I.. uhhmm.. It was alright.. I guess..”, mumbled. “A bit constricting though.”
Brom was silently wiping his hands and was neither looking at Tonic nor the ‘the most beautiful woman in the kingdom’, as he had referred to her once. Seressa and Cora were both staring at them, though. Seressa with a questioning expression as she ate one, single grape after careful inspection, for some reason, then another, while Cora bit savagely into an apple as she inspected the former human queen of the elves with interest as to how she dressed, how she behaved, how she mimed her hands so gracefully, and how she phrased her words. It was an educational experience for her on whole many levels and was, in fact, part of her plans on rebuilding her New Ironfrost. Much like she had very carefully studied Arashkan as a city, its structure, its workings, its people as a whole, she was now studying Nadine Graciousward.
In all candor, the mother of Queen Alor’Nadien ne Feymist was an excellent study when it came to learning everything one would need to know about nobility, grace, elegance, commanding presence, and being a powerful woman without ever swinging a sword, which sort of baffled Cora a bit. True, Seressa never swung a sword either, but she at least did carry one; a beautiful and ornate rapier.. which Cora had thought was some sort of a knitting needle when they had first met!
Aager was showing no interest in the matter as he pealed the apple he had gotten from the fruit platter, and at some level, he didn’t really want to know. Inshala, on the other hand, was staring at the cute gnomic girl with endearing and enthralled, baby owl eyes.
“Constricting? That is a bit odd. And peculiar. Of all the places in the kingdom, I would have thought Melshieve would have provided the most freedom to her students.”, Nadine said, carefully studying the scruffy-looking gnomic girl who was, for some reason, squirming before her.
“They didn’t let me take the classes I wanted.”, Tonic said quietly, staring at her own lap.
“That wasn’t the order I gave them.”, mused Nadine with a slight frown.
“I.. What?”, spluttered Tonic.
“Come now, my dear. I know who you are.”, the former queen of Bari Na-ammen said with an amused expression playing around her perfectly shaped lips.
“I.. have no idea what you are talking about!”, spluttered the gnomic girl.
“For Heaven’s sake, girl!”, Brom said with an exasperated tone.
“Cinotnacra Gocelap? Is that the best you could do? Say your name backward? Your demented uncle was much better at deceit than you are. Which is expected, and a good thing, really.”, Nadine said with a beautiful smile. A smile that, among those gathered around the low table, only Aager and Inshala had seen before; on the face of Alor’Nadien ne Feymist, her daughter.
Tonic mumbled some things unintelligible as she blushed furiously.
“Your name is not Cinotnacra Gocelap?”, blurted Inshala with fascination while Aager stared down at the little gnomic girl with rare amusement.
“No, my dear child.”, Nadine said smiling at her. “This pretty young gnome lady is Arcantonic Palecog. Or rather, Arcantonic Mordanon, to be more precise. The very niece of Arcanton Mordenon himself.”
Inshala stared at her then at Tonic with a totally baffled expression.
“Who is that?”, Inshala asked Aager hastily as if not wanting to miss the next line in a soap opera.
“Arcanton Mordanon. We saw his wanted posts when we were in Sim Town, on our way to Arashkan, remember? Worth five hundred thousand gold.”, he replied back.
“That is many gold?”, she said a bit unsure.
“That is many, many gold, love.”
“Any particular reason you would reveal her identity like this?”, Cora said suddenly, and a bit coldly.
“Only because we are among friends, my dear. No need to get riled up.”, Nadine said with a stern, motherly smile. “I had strict orders her true identity would never be revealed at the Academy, so no one would harass her due to her uncle. I had gone so far as threatening to send anyone that did, right next to her uncle!”
“I.. didn’t know that.”, mumbled Tonic.
“Did you know they placed a ‘Watchful Eye’ on her? Do you know just how dangerous that spell is? And illegal?”, Seressa said staring at Nadine with a very piercing glare.
“Of course, my dear Seressa. It was placed on my orders.”, Nadine replied calmly.
“Why? Why would you place such an erratic and violent spell on a little gnomic girl?”, Seressa blazed in a very un-Seressa-like way.
“The Watchful Eye I had placed on Arcantonic, here, was not the cheap kind, my dear girl. It was the high-end version. Not so erratic, but exponentially more violent.”, Nadine said smiling at the very tall, very dark girl in pinks, though her eyes said otherwise.
“But.. why? Why put in on a little girl in the first place?”, asked Seressa, quite angry now.
“Seressa. Please..”, blubbered Tonic.
“No, girl. I want to know why she had placed such a demented and deadly spell on you.”, Seressa blazed. “What would have happened had she stepped out of line, or done anything stupid, as young kids often do?”
“To my dear Arcantonic? Nothing.”, said Nadine, still smiling.
Seressa stared at her.
So did Tonic.
Brom had no idea what the bloody hell a Watchful Eye was, but it sounded dangerous, so he was kind of curious.
Cora was much on the same boat as Brom, just with less idea than him.
Aager seemed like he wanted to be anywhere but here, possibly taking Inshala along, just so they wouldn’t be part of this ‘family’ drama.
Inshala, on the other hand, was enthralled by the verbal and emotional duel going back and forth, probably because she had never really witnessed a family drama before.
“I don’t understand.”, Seressa said confused.
“What is there not to understand. Ahh.. Perhaps you thought I placed the Watchful Eye to keep tabs on dear Arcantonic. My dear girl, that is not only wrong, it is also abhorrent. You watch over your children. You do not watch them. And you certainly do not zap them every time they do something foolish, which they are going to do, and are expected to do.”, she replied.
“Then.. why did you had it placed?”, Seressa asked, now totally dumbfounded.
“To make sure no one came after her because of her uncle, dear Seressa. I would have thought a smart, inspired, and extremely imaginative girl such as yourself would have figured that out by now.”, Nadine said.
“But.. what would have happened had anyone did come after her?”, Seressa asked in a distinctly diffident tone.
“They would have gotten three warnings to back off, and if they didn’t, they would have promptly gotten disintegrated.”, Nadine Graciousward replied calmly as she reached over and nipped herself a tiny tree of grapes from the fruit platter.
Seressa just ogled at her.
“Holy crap!”, Tonic blurted.
“Bit of an overkill, perhaps.”, murmured Brom. “No pun intended.”
Cora didn’t say anything.
Aager hadn’t planned on being part of this conversation in the first place, so he didn’t say anything either.
Inshala, however, was looking at Nadine with this funny expression.
Nadine looked down at Brom and without smiling, she spoke.
“When someone threatens your loved ones, dear Master Brom, you warn them to back off, if at all. Should they persist, you destroy them —utterly! That way, you do not have to worry about them ever again, and you have just told any and everyone else who might have similar ideas exactly what to expect.”
“I concur.”, Aager said quietly and inadvertently, remembering what Lady Granma, Grana Maarva, Lady Alisia’s mother, and Moira’s grandmother had said to him when he had gone to her to speak about his intentions to marry Inshala.
“YESS!”, hissed Inshala savagely, to everyone’s surprise.
Nadine looked at those around the table for a moment. Then to Cora, she said, “I heard rumors about your people, my dear Cora. Tell me. What would you do, if you had the chance to save them?”
“Anything.”, Cora said simply.
“And you, my dear Seressa? What would you do, if someone came after your pair?”
“I would destroy them.”, Seressa said viciously. “Like, unload EVERYTHING I had!”
“And you, Master Hobbit?”, Nadine asked.
“I already destroyed them.”, Brom replied, looking down at his own hands.
“There you have it.”, she said. “I made the mistake of not destroying those that came after my daughter and look where that brought us; the total annihilation and destruction of Bari Na-ammen, and causing me to almost lose my beloved child.”
Nadine Graciousward looked at all the youthful faces before her with the satisfaction of having learned them a valuable lesson. Then slowly she rose.
“My dear, dear Inshala. The winds and seasons, the eagle and the crow, and the leaves and the blossoms have spoken your name. You are, truly a treasure to be had. I have enjoyed my stay here and look forward to visiting you, should you have me in your beautiful home again, which is exactly what this place is; a home.”, she said with a beautiful smile.
Inshala beamed at her with blurry eyes and promptly hugged her.
Then she looked down at the scruffy little gnomic girl who was staring guiltily at her.
“It isn’t all that hard to see you have something to say, my dear Arcantonic. Perhaps you would say it before I left, which must happen in a short few minutes. I do have some people to see and summoning circles to arrange for fast transportation between other cities and this town. A dreary job and a true drudgery, to be sure, but it must be done.”
“I am sorry I called you all those names, Lady Nadine!”, Tonic blurted. “When you got me out of that place, I wanted so much to stay with you, but you took me back to my parents, who had sold me out to my uncle in the first place. I felt so betrayed and abandoned.. again!”
“My dear, dear girl. I did not give you back to your parents because I thought you belonged there. I gave you back to them because I had no home. I still don’t. What I did have, was many, many enemies and that was the only place where you would be safe until you were old enough to attend the Academy where I had granted you with a full scholarship and the one place where my enemies would never seek me out, as our connection was unknown to any but you.. You had already suffered much, and with me, you would have never returned from that dark place I had gotten you out of. This I say with all the candor of my heart.”, she replied as she knelt down and hugged the scruffy-looking little gnomic girl. “And I doubt you could have said anything more than I have already said to myself over the years, my dear.”
“But.. why didn’t you tell me these things? Why keep it all a secret? Why not tell me the scholarship came from you?”, Tonic asked with shame.
“For the same reasons I mentioned above, my dear. You were already going to be black-sheeped for your blood relation to your uncle. But it would likely be limited to slander. If your connection to me were known, many would have come after you, just to hurt me, if nothing else. When I said I had many enemies, I did not exaggerate in the slightest. As for your scholarship, I wanted you to grow up and be something on your own. Or make something out of yourself, whatever you wanted to be.. without being in the shadow of anybody else nor feel any obligations. Nor even to me.. You already were going to suffer for the sins of your uncle. The least I could do was to prepare the conditions where you would make a name of your own and be free.”
“That.. is beautiful..”, Inshala whispered.
Seressa approached the former queen of Bari Na-ammen and did an exquisite curtsy.
“I apologize for my abrasive manner, Lady Nadine. I.. lose control when anyone threatens my pair.”, she said with her illustrious and cultured voice.
“And that is what a good pair should do, my dear. You are smart, beautiful, and kind. Three things seldom found in one person. Yet you are smart, beautiful, kind, loyal, and strong. Five things found in only a unique person. I wish Master Brom, dear Cora, and you were there when I, Delia Karakash, and diverse others had gone after that demented little midget. Your presence would have made a world of difference.”
Seressa looked down and at her bare feet, possible to hide her face.
Brom stared somewhere off to the north and east.
Cora started chewing at one of her fingers showing a sudden interest in the tribal designs and patterns on the hand-woven rugs.
“My uncle..”, Tonic mumbled. “..is he still alive?”
“I suspect he still is, my dear..”, Nadine said brightly. “..and burning quite comfortably in Hell..”
✱ ✱ ✱
Hamna Vir did not like this town. Hamna Vir did not like Mortals. Hamna Vir did not like the half-born either. In all candor, Hamna Vir did not like anything or anyone.. except her beloved and beautiful little Dar Derune. So when she was told she would be replacing the tall, alluring, kind-hearted Constance as the new liaison, she had taken a leaf out of her sister-kin, Demelze’s book, and laughed at Perigren Ostlanna Temez with glaringly exaggerated laugh and with scornful abandon. She had, at least, been more believable with her laugh than Demelze had ever been.
Finding out Temez hadn’t been joking about the idea, which hadn’t really been an idea in the first place but a command, had not helped either.. at which point Hamna Vir had become vocal.
Very, very vocal!
It had been, to everyone’s collective amusement, that Temez had sternly told her that it was about time she too did something for the upcoming war, as opposed to sitting around all day playing games and cuddling Dar Derune. After all, monopolizing the boy was not nice and there were many other sisters who also wanted to cuddle him!
Hence, with a very infuriated, surly, and sullen expression clearly etched all over her face and attitude, she had come out of the Serenity Home Temple and was now walking over to the sheriff’s office, hissing and cussing at everyone looking in her direction. To make things worse, if that was possible, her inflammatory words were not some primitive Mortal swear words, but actual ‘curses’..
Not to anyone’s surprise, Thomas would likely be called upon to patiently remove any number of unexpected and quite cantankerous curses, hexes, and jinxes from various town citizens!
When Hamna Vir came to the sheriff’s office, she hadn’t bothered to knock on the door and politely ask to be let in, but had knocked the door down in her, very creepy way; the thick, steel enforced door that had been there for generations had literally rotted away and crumbled down, it’s steel frames bent and caked with reddish-green clumps of rust.
It had been, perhaps, quite unfortunate that Guard Anderson has been the one closest to the door at the time, who had learned his lesson from the former liaison, Constance, and the sprite, Biberbell, to be polite. Neither of his previous encounters, however, had prepared him for a Hamna Vir.
Seeing the door suddenly come crumbling down on him, the young Arashkan recruit had thought the worst, particularly after the bloody attack that had occurred merely three days ago, and had gone for his sword.. and had promptly gotten himself cursed, hexed, and jinxed, dropping his sword and poking himself in the foot, stumbling back in pain, crashing into the spear racks and collapsing the whole rack, along with the score or so spears on top of him!
The remaining guards had backed off, though they’d kept their hands on their clubs.
Hamna Vir hadn’t even given the young man, moaning under heavy rack and score or so of spears, a second glance when she had sullenly glided over to the sheriff and introduced herself;
“Berete Hamna Vir, reporting for duty as the replacement liaison.”, she hissed!
“Welcome, Liaison Berete Hamna Vir.”, Sheriff Standorin said calmly to the sullen girl with the sharp features and black and somewhat shredded clothes.
“Tell me what I must do Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart, so I may do it and go back!”, the new liaison scowled in a surly and abrasive manner.
“Do you have somewhere to be, Liaison Hamna Vir?”, Standorin asked politely.
“I was happy where I was, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart. But because of you, I am forced to be here and against my will.”, she further hissed.
“I.. see..”, the sheriff said.
“No. You don’t!”, Hamna Vir snapped. “You were supposed to have been nice to our Constance Alure Smithen. Yet you broke her heart. Do you know how hard it is for my kind to have a heart? Seeing as you don’t have one yourself, I doubt you do.”
“It isn’t that simple, young lady.”, Standorin said as calmly as he could manage.
“Do tell, which part wasn’t simple?”, Hamna Vir glared. “Constance is, indeed, one of the best of us. She had a spark in her heart! And for the sake of that spark, she sacrificed what was most precious to her. And you, sir, smothered that spark. Well done! In one stroke of Mortal stupidity, you have destroyed her, ruined my day, and you still have the audacity to claim, it isn’t your fault?”
“Liaison Hamna Vir. I do not think this is any of your business. You are here to act as a liaison between my department and the half-born.”, Sheriff Standorin fumed.
“Which is precisely what I am doing; liaisoning between this silly place and my kin!”, flared the sullen girl.
Stadorin smoldered where he sat. But in a demented way, he knew the surly girl glaring at him was right. Technically, she was ‘liaisoning’ right this very moment!
“Everyone. Take a five up at the watchtower. Someone help Mr. Anderson and see to his foot. He is bleeding all over the office.”
The guards helped poor Mr. Anderson up and dragged him up the stairs leading to the roof and to the newly finished watchtower.
Soon enough, the sheriff’s office was empty except for the sheriff himself and the new liaison.
“There are many things I do not know, nor understand, Liaison Hamna Vir. I would be grateful if you would be kind enough to explain them to me?”, Standorin asked politely.
“You are Mortal, hence doomed to die ignorant. I do not know what ‘kind’ is, seeing as I came from Hell, and having seen just how you have thus treated our Constance, I do not think you would be as grateful as you say you would, and I double-doubt you even know what it means!”, she replied unmercifully.
Standorin fumed some more.
“Perhaps.”, he said agreeably. “Tell me what this spark is.”
“You, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart, must understand, we, the half-born, were made, for the sole purpose of sowing dissension among Mortals. To that end, Mortal men and women were taken from their homes and against their will. The men were forcibly mated to lustful succubus and eaten once the deed was done. The women were raped, repeatedly, over and over, and consequently impregnated by the vilest incubus, many times.. to make my kind. We, all of us, were thrown into very deep, very narrow pits that we could sit or stand, but never stretch and lie when we were born and fed with the feces of Mortals. Most of us did not survive. Perhaps one in a few hundred did.. Those of us that did were never let out of those pits until we were at the edge of our puberty. Then we were taken to dark, horrible places where we were given extensive education and training as to how to deceive, manipulate, seduce, and effectively slay Mortals. Those of us that couldn’t, were fed to demons, alive, and right before our eyes, their remains burned and put into the very ink we used, as an ingredient. Every time we dipped a feather into an inkpot to take a note, we knew, in every drop, one of our brothers or sisters was in it! We were treated in the vilest ways imaginable to make sure all semblance of good and empathy was dried out of us.. So when I say, the ones that are here are the elite of the Seeds of Dissension, I mean that in the most literal, and horrible sense possible..”, Hamna Vir said with dead, morose eyes.
Standorin stared at her, a sick expression etched on his face.
“We were made so we may never have or feel, not only empathy, compassion, love, or any form of attachment, but to simply never have or feel anything. In the great scheme of things, however, something happened and one of us got free. You met her; a Merisoul Xyrotwu. You did fine her, after all. She made a daring plan and she got us all out. She made us free, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart. And paid for it with her life.. She gave us the chance to live, and to choose, and in time, hope to feel. We, the half-born, can ‘sense’, ‘hear’, and ‘read’ emotions around us. All of us, all the time. But we can not feel them ourselves. When we show anger, it is not your Mortal understanding of anger. It is the wrath of Hell, in the most literal sense. When we show love and care, it is, in actuality, a mere emulation of the real thing learned via our extensive training. What you Mortals take for granted, is a matter of miracle for us, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart. Do you understand that?”, she asked in a cold, void of all emotions kind of voice.
“I.. think so.”, Standorin said quietly.
“No. You do not. Because you can not. The moment of your birth.. it marks an event of happiness by its very nature, for lo.. a new life has come to be.. You start attaining emotional satisfaction in your mother’s womb. We have not and we never did. Our birth was marked as a curse about to be let loose upon Mortals for the sole purpose of ending you Mortals in the name of our demon masters. This very day, we had a mating ritual. Two of our kind fought for the right to bond for life; Demelze and Hal Mali. They fought to kill one another to reach the height of their Hell’s wrath in hopes of holding just short of slaying each other in order to get a glimpse of compassion and, perchance, understand and feel love that would bind them for life. Hal Mali was burnt down to crisp and Demelze was bleeding from so many stab wounds that my kin was still washing the place off the bloodstains and the cinders when I left the temple to come here!”
Standorin just stared at her.
“Merisoul Xyrotwu spent years and years to understand her heart. She did everything to attain that one, single purpose. And when she finally did, a spark gave birth in her heart. It was when she had sacrificed her very existence to save a Mortal. The very moment of her comprehension, however, also marked the moment of her end as well. As sad as it may be to have lost our beloved savior, she depicted the true symbol of our freedom; the half-demon who escaped all her masters and, among all the half-born, became the first to Ascend, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart..
..With her help, Perigren Ostlanna Temez became the first to be mirima —free!..
..And amongst the Escape, Constance Alure Smithen was the fist to have attained a spark. You must understand, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart, when you look at Mortals, you see potential, whatever flavor that potential may be or entail. Would you like to know what we see when we look at Mortals? Food! We see food! Even though we all forswore our most basic needs and desires when we decided to abandon our sinful ways and our demon masters and opted to come and help you in your war, many of my kin still looked upon you as food, when you first came to meet us. She didn’t. She looked upon you with only wanting.. as a mate, and willy-nilly, she bloomed a spark.. in her heart. She did everything to attain your good graces and you, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart, smothered her spark. Good job! I am so tempted to ask; dude, what is wrong with you?!”
“Perhaps all these should have been explained to me before..”, mumbled the sheriff, feeling decidedly ashamed.
“Yes. Because we escape from Hell on a regular basis and know perfectly well what is going on and what is happening to us, as opposed to it being our first time!”, snarked Hamna Vir with heavy sarcasm. “We just came to your Mortal coil several weeks ago, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart. Do expect everything we see, we do, we feel, we observe, and we think we comprehend to be uniquely new for us. That is our excuse. What is yours?”
Standorin knew he was on his last few feet. He didn’t back down, but he certainly did not give excuses either.
“Sacrifice. I heard talk about this before. When we found Constance, half-dead, near the shores of Arashkan River, several hours to the east, last week..”
“And you never bothered to find out what it was? Duuude! Really.. What is wrong with you? Is this how you Mortals treat your women? Is this why we escaped? Is this why we took the real risk of being hunted down by our demon masters?”, Hamna Vir spat viscously.
“I did ask. She wouldn’t tell me. She is very good at dodging when she wants to..”, mumbled Standorin with frustration.
“No. She is very good at being considerate, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart. Something you clearly lack. Sacrifice, by its nature, is giving up something you truly care about and that is truly yours, in order to attain a greater goal. All of us half-born have common traits. But we also have unique skills. Hers.. hers was negotiation and the ability to bring people together and make the impossible, possible. So when I say, you, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart, must be monumentally obtuse to have rebuked her thus thoroughly, I am being very, very polite about it..”
“She is exceptional with her martial skills when it comes to close-quarter combat and with her pike, in particular. All of us have horns, of one variety or another..”, she said, then grabbed hold of her tail and showed it to the sheriff. “I also have this tail. Some few others of my kind have it also. She has wings.. And she could fly, with exceptional speed and grace..”
The sheriff stared at her.
“I never saw her wings.”
“Very, very few of us have wings and can fly. Merisoul did. Though hers were broken when they threw her down into her pit when she could barely crawl. Of those that do, even fewer could actually hide theirs and sprout them at will..”, Hamna Vir said with great vehemence.
“I do not understand.. What does any of this have to do with sacrifice?”, Standorin asked, baffled and somewhat taken aback.
“You asked us to find your lost Orken army, we felt compelled to go out of our way to find them. That, however, was a group effort. But because you were also seeking your lost son, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart, she felt compelled to find and bring him back, safe and sound.. We had found an alchemical way to unveil the Orken army, but we needed many, many pixies and sprites to give us their dust, as part of the main ingredient. And we had found where your son and his pretty mate were. The answer to both, to our dismay, was at Gull’s Perch, and the Lady who owns it!”
To say Sheriff Standorin was a pragmatic man, was a bit like saying water was, ‘somewhat’ wet. True, he would always keep his options open, and never really engrave them on stone, it’s just that, said options were quite limited, and not so much as readily discardable, per se, but neither were they readily available. Considering the events of the past six months or so, however, that gap in his ‘options’ had ‘somewhat’ widened. Hence when the name Gull’s Perch popped up, he did feel a certain sense of dread wash over himself.
“What did she sacrifice to the Lady of the Perch?”, he blurted.
“The thing that was most precious to her, and what made her unique among us, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart..”, Hamna Vir said quietly. “..Her wings.”
Standorin stared at her, and a terrible pang of guilt grabbed hold of his heart.
“To get back your son, she chose to sacrifice her wings. When Titania refused, she sacrificed them anyway, to bargain for all the sprites and pixies in Gull’s Perch and Ritual Forest to come here, a something that would never have happened, and has never been heard of before, just so she could help us, and you, in particular, to find your lost Orken army.”
✱ ✱ ✱
I blew it.”, Sheriff Standorin said with glum frustration. “She did everything to get a smile out of me, just a smile, mind you, and I blew it. Indeed, what is wrong with me?”
Standorin Shieldheart was sitting on his couch, late that night, staring at the fire once again. He looked around and noted his home was a mess, with unwashed dishes everywhere, clothes crumbled and tossed here and there with torn or dog-eared parchments with various reports stacked on all available surfaces and the house itself seemed like it could use a good airing.
Strictly speaking, Standorin was a very organized and disciplined man. His sense of perfection, coupled with his need to impose ‘do it right, or just don’t do it at all’, had driven his deceased wife, Limnia Karya, quite perplexed at times, and the only reason she hadn’t made a scene over his exasperating tendency for arbitrary ‘neatness’ was due her being a stoic-hearted woman.. and because of her fondness and love for him.
This.. mess.. however, was something new and very unlike him. It was as if the culmination of all his losses, all his disappointments, and all his heartaches had finally ganged up on him and were taking their vengeance upon him —with compounded interest.
“Maybe I should just march up at the temple and demand to see her.”, he mused, then killed that thought when he contemplated how Thomas would react to that; something about jurisdictions and ‘No, means, no!’
Deep in his dark thoughts, Standorin contemplated the past few days.. then weeks.. and finally, his life, going as far back as his younger days, particularly after being ‘brought back’, if worded politely, ‘dragged back’, if phrased more accurately, by the rangers Moorat and Limnia to Serenity Home.
After his many experiences during his guarding duties on merchant caravans and as a bounty hunter, he had inevitably learned many of the King’s Laws. Particularly those pertaining to crime and civil order. Hence, he had applied to the position of ‘sheriff’ of the town and in a mere year or two, the job had been his.
The fact that he had worked day and night, quite tirelessly, and in his very orderly and disciplined way, along with his good knowledge of the King’s Laws, had played a great role in getting the job.
In secret, though, Standorin knew, his knowledge of the law had been due to his stints as a bounty hunter and his sense of order and discipline had been part of his ‘character’ all along. The only true reason he had worked day and night, and quite relentlessly, was to capture the affection of that ugly guy’s, Moorat’s, beautiful elder sister, Limnia; the woman who had ultimately captured him on any number of levels.
For nearly a year, Limnia had ignored ‘the boy’, as she referred to Standorin, being some years older than him. But Standorin had been ‘politely’ relentless in his approaches to her as well and finally, and quite miraculously, Limnia had caved in and they had married. Limnia had always been a very bold, outspoken, and strong woman. When they had been alone, however, and only when she’d been with her ‘young’ husband, she would revert to a much girlish persona, and that particular aspect of her had been at the very core of their love and happy marriage as much as her, otherwise ‘known’ attitudes. Standorin would do everything in his power to make her safe and happy because he had loved her that much, and she would be her soft side for him in all regards because her young husband made her feel loved and safe so much so that she could leave her ranger and elder sister ‘skin’ outside her home.
It was quite possible, even her brother Moorat had never known that side of her. After all, he had wondered what Standorin had found in his brisk, rather abrasive, and ofttimes heavy-handed elder sister! True, Moorat had never out right told him just how stupid he thought he was. Not to his face anyway. But he had left no doubt about just exactly what he thought about the young sheriff either. That had changed, however, when the young sheriff showed his skills once they had started tracking down various bandits that had plagued the south of Serenity Home.
All that, and all his happiness, however, had been crushed and quite abruptly, when she had taken ill, and after months of struggling, had died. And with her death, so had somethings.. many things.. in Standorin’s life had passed away and been buried with his wife.
Years later, he would meet a strange, tall, beautiful, alluring, calm, demure, and dignified woman with two, slender horns knock on his door and call upon him; Liaison Constance.
As if on queue, the door to his two-room house knocked.
Within the space of three weeks, and merely by her classy demeanor, her considerate attitude, and her moderated smile, she had managed to start a fire in his heart. A fire he hadn’t felt for the past sixteen years. And that fire had downright scared Standorin. And filled him with guilt, shame, and not a small sense of betrayal for his Limnia.
And all that had culminated to a breaking point when the bloody assassins had attacked his town, the refugees, the representatives, and the delegation, resulting in the death of nearly two thousand people and leaving almost nine thousand wounded in its wake.
Standorin had, quite unreasonably, blamed his emotional storming state with Liaison Constance as a distraction and hence, the cause of his inability to prevent the attack.
Deep down, though, he knew he was wrong on both accounts. The attack had been very well planned like it was, quite literally, ‘doomed to succeed’, and Liaison Constance had certainly not been a distraction for him. The only reason most of the delegation had survived had been due to the diversity of the people among the delegation who had earned their place by sweat and blood in the first place.. As for the liaison, she had shown exceptional professionalism during her work hours in the sheriff’s office and when they were out on a date, she would always have her demure smile and be a warm and confident listener. She would never speak out of turn and certainly never say foolish things, and when she spoke her mind, she would say it with considerate deliberation.
And considering how beautiful and appealing Constance had been in her curving physique, she had never once used that aspect of her arsenal to ‘capture’ him.
The truth, as Standorin understood it, was that the Liaison had wanted him. But as much as she would want to have him admire her for her appealing beauty, she wanted his honest love and certainly his respect, more. Particularly for her working mind, her calm and demure character, and her tender and caring heart..
..the heart that had a spark, as the new and rather surly Liaison Hamna Vir had explained.
“And I snuffed that right out of her.”, he seethed quietly.
The door knocked again.
Standorin contemplated whether he should open it or not. His men knew never to come knocking when he was home, unless something dire was at hand, even so, at that very moment, he just didn’t think he could take any more bad news.
He sighed, got up, and grabbed his heavy club, in case there was a dire situation at hand, or even if there wasn’t and he would use it on the idiot who had come to pester him during his private moments of misery.
“Uhhmm.. Hello, father.”, Udoorin mumbled.
“Boy, what are you doing here this late at night?”, he asked with a frown.
“Really? Dad? You are asking me why I am up late at night?”, Udoorin said in an exasperated voice.
“Good evening, father.”, said another, quiet, soft voice, and Queen Alor’Nadien ne Feymist appeared from behind Udoorin.
“My Queen.”, Standorin said with a slight bow.
“Please.”, Lorna very nearly begged with a furious blush. “The father of my King bows to no one. And for you, I shall always be just Lorna.”
“That is.. very kind of you to say..”, Standorin admitted with a flushed face.
“I.. We.. just came to visit you before we left.”, Lorna said quietly.
“Left? Are you going somewhere?”, Udoorin’s father asked, with one eyebrow cocked.
“Yes. May we enter? This will be better if we sat and talked.”, Lorna said carefully.
“By all means, do. But.. I have been a bit behind on my house chores of late. The house.. is a bit of a mess at the moment..”, he mumbled.
“It’s alright —ow my!”, Lorna exclaimed when she entered.
Udoorin, however, was more than utterly shocked. He had never seen this house this messy. To phrase that correctly, he had never seen this house messy!
“Udoorin, love, do call Lady Anglenna and Lord Armathelius. I am sure they have been tailing us and think we do not know.”, Lorna asked her husband kindly.
“Of course.”, Udoorin grinned and dashed back out.
“Uhhmm.. What do you have on your mind, Lorna?”, the sheriff asked but before she could answer, Udoorin returned with the Lady Anglenna, Lord Armathelius, and his awesome armor.
“Father, if you would, please, do sit down. Perhaps you would be kind enough to liven up the fire? It is, rather chilly this night.”, Lorna said with an encouraging smile.
“Cousin, Lord Armathelius, shall we get started?”, Lorna said with a merry expression.
Anglenna looked at her, then at the messy house, and sighed in total defeat.
Lord Armathelius just stared at his Queen, then at Anglenna with a very much confused expression, then with an “Ahh, of course, my Queen.”, he said as comprehension dawned on his face and he started towards the cups and plates and parchments scattered everywhere as Lorna bent down and started picking up the crumbled and tossed clothes.
“What? What are you doing?”, Standorin asked with a terribly embarrassed face.
“Helping our father out.”, Lorna said with an even more beautiful smile. “Udoorin, dear. I am sure there is a bucket here somewhere. We will need some water.”
“Of course.”, Udoorin grinned again, grabbed the two wooden buckets sitting next to the door, and ran out, once more, to draw some water from the water pump in the small garden.
“This is highly irregular.”, Standorin said quite mortified.
“No, Sheriff Standorin.”, Anglenna replied happily. “This is payback for all those long hours of grueling questions you afflicted upon me when I was ill.”
“I was very polite to you about it, Lady Anglenna. I am sure you understand that.”
“Yes. I do. I also understand you need some help.”, she said, then turned to her cousin and, very sternly, she added, “Lorna dear, please leave the cooking to me, if you will.”
“What? I thought father would enjoy a hot soup. Or perhaps even a stew!”, exclaimed Lorna.
“Not made by you, dear. I will do the soup, the stew, and the laundry, you do the dishes, and young Udoorin and Lord Armathelius can clean the fireplace and the rest of the house. I am sure we can find some suitable cleaning amenities here.”, she said cooly.
“This is truly unprecedented.”, Standorin fumed.
“My Lord Sheriff, your efforts on behalf of all the refugees, Arashkan and Bari Na-ammen have not gone unnoticed. True, we all suffered in this last attack. But had it not been for your enforced training programs, I surmise our total losses would have been catastrophic by proportion.”, said Lord Armathelius.
“Those training programs were the mayor’s idea.”, objected Standorin.
“Perhaps.”, agreed, Armathelius. “But Arthandos Yuleman had you to rely on, and he was right to do so.”
“Lord Armathelius. If you plan on giving long-winded and quite pompous speeches, please do so outside. Otherwise, grab a bucket and one of these cloths and start scrubbing!”, Anglenna burned the elf lord!
It was perhaps two hours later, and a bit past midnight when they had all settled down in front of the newly cleaned out fireplace; a sour-faced Anglenna sitting on the couch next to Armathelius, Sheriff Standorin sitting in a chair, King Udoorin sitting on the floor and on a threadbare rug with Queen Alor’Nadien ne sitting, also on the floor, with her back resting in his arms, and all with numb, shriveled hands.
“First of all, I thank you all for what you did and I dearly hope this does not go out and become public. Otherwise we will have quite a scandal in our hands and be a laughing stock for the next few generations.”
“It’s alright, dad. Really. After all the things you did for me..”, Udoorin said as he held his wife and queen tighter in his arms.
“Very well. Now, then. Where are you going on the eve of the war?”, Standorin asked.
For a moment, nobody said anything and of the four, only Lord Armathelius had a very disapproving expression. Lady Anglenna’s face was, not quite as disapproving, so much as it was of defeat and exasperation. Udoorin had a grid, and with a soft blush, so did Lorna.
“Lorna, love. Perhaps you should say it. Less likely he will trash us if he heard it coming from you.”, Udoorin offered.
“Sheriff Standorin. My Dorin and I have been studying the area extensively in the past few days and have put together all the intel gathered over the past several months and a bit more. The sources of said intel are; the rangers of Serenity Home and Bari Na-ammen, and thanks to the contributions of Agent Largo Summersong, ARIS, along with what information Tactical General Dridges Motherswolfie sent us and the lingering gossip of the ogres, the fey, and nature, courtesy Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane and her team of druids, shamans, and witches, and the distilled efforts of the half-born on this matter. You have already seen most of these reports yourself, sans what the ogres, the fey, and nature had to say about the matter. However, you have had your hands full as it is, so we marked out several locations and our suspicions, and forwarded them to the tactical general, Dridges Motherswolfie, and she concurs with us. We believe we have narrowed down the location of several of their key Grunt Generals, along with their Blood Shamans.”
Standorin gave her daughter-in-law a very steady gaze, for it was quite apparent what she and his son had in mind.
“We have sketched out several of these locations and the safest possible routes leading to them. We have also put together several surgical strike teams that will head out on search and destroy missions.”, she said softly. “Should we succeed, we will have broken the Orken army’s backbone, and come spring, they will be sorely disoriented, even if they are able to replace all their losses.”
“How many teams are there and who are on these teams, Lorna?”, Standorin asked calmly. “I take it you and my son are in one?”
“Yes, father. There are five teams. Ours will be the second team and will comprise my Udoorin, I, and my cousin, Lady Anglenna. The other teams shall be as follows; The first team shall have Senior Temple Guardian Thomas Dimwood, Ranger Lieutenant Bremorel Songsteel, and Perigren Ostlanna Temez of the Escape. The third team will be made up of Master Aager Fogstep, dear Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane, and Lady Lilly Venom. Team five will compass, to our surprise, Lady Seressa Wraiven and Miss Cinotnacra Gocelap of the Academy of Melshieve, along with Cora Sleet from the Great Northern Tundras, and Brom Bumblebrim of Bowling Hills.”, Lorna listed.
Standorin frowned. He knew most of the people involved, personally or by reputation. The last four, he knew only because they had been at the meeting three days ago. Something was going on here but he wasn’t quite sure what.
“You are missing team four.”, he said staring at his beautiful and graceful daughter-in-law.
Alor’Nadien ne Feymist smiled up at him.
“Team four is comprised of Liaison Berete Hamna Vir and another of the half-born. But we thought they could use an experienced and well-rounded leader, and very much hoped you would volunteer, father; Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart.”
It is time for strategic planning.
Heroes and friends gather to see what must be done and what can be done for the enemy is harsh, merciless, numerous, and hidden..
And in a small town,
the future of the kingdom is decided.
This story is the continuation of
Ladies and gentlemen, Lords and Ladies, emissaries and representatives, welcome to our humble town of Serenity Home.”, the old, raspy voice of the mayor was heard as everyone settled down as he stared at the rather crowded room full of important people of many different peoples and races, their retinue, their guards, and their servants.
“That said, I believe introductions are in order. I am Arthandos Yuleman, the mayor of this town and your host, and upon formal request, I shall also be representing the Arashkan refugees.. As a quick reminder before we begin; as you all know, are under the threat of a formidable enemy. All possible precautions have been taken. However unlikely, should anything unexpected occur, each and every one of you here has been given assignments as to where you should be and designated a location to wait until further notice. Please follow said instructions in an orderly fashion and stick to them. Should you need any assistance, town guards will be made available to you as soon as possible. Also, dinner will be served after sundown. Thank you very much. Now, shall we begin?”
“Lady Alisia Sivara Hooman, Lady Moira Hooman, and Captain Fardashi. Durkahan.”, Lady Alisia introduced herself and her retinue in a brisk tone.
“Nadine Graciousward. Former queen of Bari Na-ammen.”, the beautiful lady Nadine said and though she appeared calm, the fire in her eyes spoke otherwise and hushed voices rippled in the room.
“Lord Haransis. Koruxan Knights’ Commander.”, said a tall, lean man in bright steel armor, his winged helm on the table, his sword and shield hanging from his chair.
“Dridges Motherswolfie, Tactical General. Elder Hills.”, a young dwarven girl said quietly from her seat. Standing right behind her was also a pair of dwarven girls scowling menacingly and leaning on long, wooden shafted battle-axes —the Tosser twins.
“Margaret Madish, Argail Smitefast, Lady Magella, and Harakoon Evilscowl. Scowling Hills.”, said a surprisingly soft-voiced dwarven woman with half of her scalp shaved and had very pale green eyes. Sitting on her side was an ancient dwarf with a grand and white beard and with a big hammer hanging from his thick, leather belt, a young, diffident dwarven girl and a middle-aged dwarf, his face marred with a truly evil-looking scowl.
“Moglonar Picklefork. Tinker Hills’ Artificers.”, piped a bold and old gnome.
“Master Randorm Billbuckle. Mayor of Last Hope Town.”, said a middle-aged man with peppered hair, a thick mustache, and muscles that said he’d rather be out cracking goblin heads than be a mayor.
“Dagard Dreadhound. Representative of the Drashan Armadana.”, spoke a tall, stick-skinny man in black, possibly silk, clothes; black shirt, a black necktie, black trousers, and black shoes.. His face was clean shaved and other than a sinister mark, likely cut by a knife, etched at the side of his chin, with his thick, black eyebrows and his knotted black hair, he might as well have been some corporate’s shark lawyer.
“Drashan Armada..”, scoffed someone from the other side of the room. “You mean a bunch of rat pirates floating on feisty rafts!”
“Those rats on feisty rafts have been sinking Watch Flotilla’s for the past few centuries, Lord Alberdel. How is that cuss of an elder brother of yours, by the way? Trimdel Kandara, wasn’t it? Ow, wait. He’s dead, on account of being assassinated.. while he was surrounded by twenty of his elite men. That must have been rather embarrassing.”, replied the man, Dagard, cooly.
“That’s it.”, growled Lord Alberdel as he rose. “I refuse to be in the same room with this deck rat!”
“By all means, leave, Alberdel. Though walking all the way back to Endless Watch should be quite a chore; we sunk your ship.. with our feisty rafts. It was a pretty ship. Did make a fine bone fire, though.”, grinned Dagard.
“You, son-of-a—”, snarled Alberdel and reached for his cutlass.
“Gentlemen. Please. We are all here for one, and only one reason and that is not starting a fight in my town. Every representative here has come willingly or by the king’s command.”, inserted Arthandos Yuleman with his raspy voice. “Please refrain from abusing our welcome.”
Lord Alberdel settled in his seat, fuming furiously while Dagard smirked at him.
“Shall we?”, offered Yuleman.
“Parson Brimstone and Katrine Faeriefire. Vodgar Nuke Squad..”, said a frowning man in dark red robes with intelligent eyes and entertaining a long, elaborate goatee sitting next to a charming looking woman in her early forties, in dark purple dress robes with wildly curly brown hair, a distracted expression, and vivid blue eyes.
“Seressa Wraiven and Miss Cinotnacra Gocelap, representing the Academy of Melshieve.”, said the very tall, night-black girl in frilly pinks with a cool, cultured, but distinctly feminine voice, politely introducing herself and the scruffy-looking gnomic girl sitting next to her.
The hobbit sitting next to them coughed.
“Brom Bumblebrim. Observing from Bowling Hills.”, the small hobbit said.
“Miss Cinotnacra Gocelap? Really, girl?”, he then asked, lowering his voice.
“Shut up, hobbit!”, the gnomic girl snarled at him.
“Cora Sleet. Representing the Bear Claw Tribe, the Ice Crag Tribe, and the Ice Wolf Horde of the Great Northern Tundras.”, the pale, white-haired elf with the swirling tattoos said softly.
“Liam Ruststone. Commander of Palantine Militia.”, spoke the man in banded armor, sitting next to the white elf with a hoarse voice that sounded like he’d been shouting all day.
“Liason Constance. Representing a special interest group.”, came the soft, careful voice of the tall, elegant half-born woman.
“Standorin Shieldheart. Sheriff of Serenity Home.”, Standorin said in a curt, all-business tone, sitting next to the liaison.
“Talüna Mira Silverdenú. Elder of the Wood Elves of Dimwoods.”, creaked a very elderly elf woman.
Upon being nudged by his queen, Udoorin cleared his throat.
“Udoorin Shieldheart and Alor’Nadien ne Feymist. King and Queen of Aranië.”, he said with his low, rumbling voice.
“Armathelius Riverblade. Commander to former Bari Na-ammen forces.”, the high elf said in his baritone voice.
“Anglenna Brightleaf. Advisor to the King and Queen of Aranië.”
“Aranië..”, rumbled the awesome ogress sitting right next to her queen. “A bit vague, don’t you think?”
“You know elder elvish?”, Anglenna asked more than a little surprised.
“I know many things. Elder elvish is one of them.”, Grulganiste replied with a scowl. “But ‘Kingdom’ is a bit of a generic name, isn’t it?”
“Bari Na-ammen is destroyed, Chieftain Grulganiste.”, came the soft voice of the Queen of Aranië, Alor’Nadien ne, sitting beside the giant ogress. “We may not use it again. When we take back our woods, we shall not rebuild it. What we will build is something new, and it shall not carry the sins of her ancestors. We shall adopt what we have seen and witnessed here, in this very town, wisely named; Serenity Home. Whoever comes in peace shall enter it, and live in it. And whoever lives in it, shall sweat for it, and bleed for it. Thus, I and my King have decreed, and so the elves I represent have agreed.”
“A wise and refreshing choice, girl.”, smiled the ogress, making her already brutish face, even more terrifying. “Now, then. Grulganiste Grimtooth. The chieftain of the ogre’s of Oger’s Foot.”
“Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane.”, whispered in a slightly petrified voice and the skinny little Inshala spoke with a very much embarrassed face. “I represent the druids, the shamans, and the witches of Ritual Forest.”
“Speak up, little girl.”, some creaky voice said from the other side of the room.
“..Hooman.”, added Lady Alisia sternly, one hand on the pommel of her long blade. “She is my daughter and her honor is my honor.”
“..Bolgrig.”, rumbled Grulganiste. “She is my daughter and I will crush any of you punny things who disrespect her!”
“..Fogstep.”, murmured Aager very quietly. “And my claim trumps all of yours, for she is my mate. But by all means, do disrespect her. I haven’t let blood loose for quite some time..”
A terrifying silence settled in the room.
“I did not ask for her credentials.. I asked her to speak up!”, said the same voice of the very old Talüna Mira Silverdenú..
Several more representatives declared their identities, including a tall, beautiful, high elf woman with auburn hair and very deep green eyes from Solace, a platinum-blonde high elf from Tranquil, several other mayors from various towns, and the King’s personal emissary, all with their retinue.
When the last representative introduced himself, an eager silence settled.
✱ ✱ ✱
Thank you all for the introductions.”, rasped Yuleman. “Now we will exhibit the current situation and bring you all up to date. Then I shall present our needs and open the floor to anyone who may address them. As most of you know, two months ago, Arashkan city was unexpectedly ambushed, without warning nor provocation by an army of Orken.
For those who do not know, the Orken, as we suspect, are originally orcs, though heavily modified and mutated to be as tall as eight to nine feet tall, extremely vicious, resilient, hardy, ruthless, and cunning creatures. Where they came from, we do not know. How they came to be is also unknown at the moment, but their timing coincided with four major attacks;
One on Heavens Hand, demonic in nature, and the assault is still underway. Though the wall still stands unbreached, the loss in life was unprecedented.
Another attack occurred on all the outposts of Tranquil, also demonic in nature. Two outposts were overrun and totally destroyed. Thanks to the quick intervention of Tranquil Airships and the Demon Hunters barbarians, the demons were routed.
The third attack was on Dwarwick, east of Celestial Mountains, Orken in nature. Though they were unable to breach the dwarven walls, the loss of life was monumental.
And the last assault occurred on all fronts at the Demon Plains, demon and undead in nature. Though the Durkahan knights and paladins held their ground, Solace forces were hard-pressed and Korduba’s Watch cavalry was pushed back behind their own walls. The Ford is currently under siege!
At this point, it isn’t hard to suspect some form of collaboration and assume the attacks on Arashkan and High Woods were the fifth and sixth attacks..
From where these Orken came, we do not know. As to how managed to come all the way to Arashkan, and in such massive numbers, reliable witnesses from many independent sources inform us they deployed a device that rendered either all or a large portion of their leading forces totally invisible. They were over the walls of Arashkan before any feasible defenses were brought in. The siege of the city did not last long but the total occupation and the destruction of the city took nearly two weeks, as local forces and the high elves in the city fought a costly delaying tactic to get as many civilians and the city’s militia out as possible via ships and boats. The Arashkan military camp was simultaneously also placed under siege, but thanks to the timely arrival of more ships still floating, more than half the city’s regular army was smuggled out and also brought here.
As far as we know, the First Lord, Princeps Kaladin, his son, and his daughters were all slain. While Arashkan was being overrun, a second Orken army entered High Woods and laid waste to the high elf city of Bari Na-ammen. The current status of Ri Grandaleren is unknown, though his wife, the former Rise, Nadine Graciousward, and their daughter, Queen Alor’Nadien ne made it out alive and are both here.
A large portion of that army split and turned west and surrounded Vodgar which is currently under siege as we speak. Whatever the reasons, the Orken made one fatal mistake; they started their campaign and attacked right before winter settled in. At the moment they are all out there, stretched between Two-Day Forest and Vodgar. They may, or may not have considered turning former Arashkan into a base for themselves, but due to some unforeseen and unprecedented occurrence, the city is now very much uninhabitable to anything, including the Orken. They have suffered two months’ worth of extreme winter thus far.
Come spring, however, they shall attack. They must or they shall perish and they know it. They may split again and go north for Tranquil, which would cost them too much with little possibility for victory, as Tranquil has been on high alert for the past six or seven thousand years and their army consists mostly of highly skilled and battle-hardened veterans —unless they abandoned their current campaign and rushed there.. They may turn south for Koruxan, also ending in a likely disaster, as Koruxan is a fortress city, its back resting against extremely hazardous mountains and approachable only by two sides. They may go for Durkahan, also a city full of veterans and paladins, it’s back also against mountains. Should they move against either city, they will be leaving their own rear and flanks totally vulnerable to attacks.
They might decide to skim over to Last Hope and attack Palantine, again, being subject to attacks from all sides.
I believe that leaves us..
..as the only viable option.
Should they take Serenity Home, they will have access to the great Ritual Forest that will give them all the wood and lumber they would need to build further catapults, mangonels, spears, and arrows, almost endless supply of food both from the forest itself and the surrounding lands. They will have access to the Arashkan river and able to build ships and be able to make landfall anywhere in the kingdom. They will also have access to the iron, copper, and silver mines under Scowling Hills and Tinker Hills. Once they invade this portion of the continent, they will also be able to move north, up to the tundras, and attack Celestial Mountains, Tranquil, Sky Stone Keep, and Dwarwick from the rear. All they will need to do after claiming these lands is to stopper the gaps and they will be able to practically settle here and in the next twenty years, they will have doubled their numbers. In the next fifty to sixty years, they will be over a million, all able warriors and armed to the teeth.
Ladies and gentlemen, we will have only one shot at defending the king’s land here. I must also inform you that they have deployed the same device they used at Arashkan and one-third of their army has gone missing. We do not know where it is, or where it will strike. We have trackers and rangers scouring all the possible locations they may appear but so far, we have thus failed to locate them.
The Durkahan army will be moving out as soon as the ground thaws to reach here and give us relief. But that will take time. We must help break the siege on Vodgar. Once that is done, It will be possible for them and anybody else to come at the Orken army from the rear and also give free rein for the wizards and sorcerers there to teleport directly here to help strengthen our defenses until the Durkahan army gets here. For this, we were hoping to rely on Koruxan knights and Palantine militia.
Our main problem is the lack of trained warriors and logistics. We have great amounts of lumber moving from Dimwoods, but not fast enough. We lack food, clothing, and shelter for the near eighty thousand Arashkan civilians and High Woods refugees and we are sorely short on arms and armors. The dwarven smiths have been working day and night, around the clock, but with nearly twenty thousand Arashkan militia and regulars, and fifteen thousand High Woods’ able soldiers, that is really a tough call. We have over thirty thousand very well-trained dwarves at Elder Hills but they will and must defend their hills and the west of Ritual Forest. The wall we have been building for the past months is substantial, but it will not stand against mangonels or even a steady pounding of scores of catapults. We have the engineers and the manpower, thanks to the dwarves and the gnomes, but we still need more, much more raw materials.
Ladies and gentlemen, we need your help, and quite desperately and we have two months at best, five weeks if we get an early spring, or the Orken get tired of sitting in the winter and decide to attack anyway.”
Mayor Arthandos Yuleman looked around for a moment, then nodded at Sheriff Standorin.
The sheriff cleared his throat and stood up.
But before he could start, the deep rubble of Chieftain Grulganiste Grimtooth was heard.
“Will the woodsmen of Dimwoods behave, should my boys bring their lumber here?”, she asked.
“We may be able to arrange a liaison.”, the sheriff mused. “It would be wiser if the chosen person went to speak with them first, though there are quite a bit of trees, cut and shaved already.”
“A team of my sons and daughters can drag half a dozen trees from there to here in under three or four days. The first batch will be slow. After that, they will have opened a trial. They have grown fat and lazy. The exercise will do them good, and there are over three thousand of them. Now. What raw materials do you need for this wall of yours?”, she inquired in a brisk, matter-of-fact tone.
Standorin turned to Margaret Madish.
“Stone.”, Margaret said simply.
“Will mountain rock work the same way as stone?”, Grulganiste asked the dwarf woman.
“Depends on the mountain.”, she replied.
“Rook Mountain rock!”, growled the chieftain.
“Rook Mountain rock is hard to chip and shape, but otherwise, it will be exceptionally good for a siege wall.”, Margaret said, her eyes suddenly bright.
“I shall call upon past favors and summon distant friends and relatives. I shall tell them to bring the Rook Mountains here as gifts.”, Grulganiste rumbled with a hideous grin. “After that, we shall all go to the west of our forest and camp there and wait for these Orken to come. They will make a merry hunt for seven thousand of my sons and daughters, and friends and relatives.”
“Perhaps..” said the creaky voice of the elderly Talüna Mira Silverdenú. “..the chieftain would like seven hundred elven archers to protect their flanks from their north when they make camp west of Ritual Forest? If she is willing to refrain her sons and daughters from eating my elves..”
“Elf tastes like chicken, Mira-Silverdenú!”, sniffed Grulganiste. “We don’t eat chicken. We have them only for their eggs. And elves do not lay eggs!”
Chuckles were heard from the dwarves.
“Perhaps..”, said the young dwarf tactical general, Dridges Motherswolfie, as she glanced at the ogress. “..the chieftain would like several thousand dwarves to protect their flanks from their south when they make camp west of Ritual Forest? If she is willing to refrain her sons and daughters from eating my dwarves.. That way, we may part and divert at least five thousand of our ground troops to the defense of the walls here.”
“We have standards, Dridges-Motherswolfie-girl!”, she said with a distinct expression of disgust on her face now. “None of my sons and daughters will put a dwarf into their mouth and risk infectious diarrhea!”
Dridges went red.
The Tosser twins went black!
A burst of roaring laughter went off and Argail Smitefast slammed the table as he stared at the brutishly glowering chieftain ogress.
“It would seem, years have stolen little from your sour sense of humor, Grulganiste.”, he said merrily.
“It would seem, years have stolen quite a bit from you, old dwarf. You are all white!”, Grulganiste sniffed at him.
“Harsh..”, said Argail, and laughed some more.
“You two know each other?”, Dridges spluttered.
“Argail thinks he knows me. Like all men who think they know and understand women, he is a wrong old fool!”, snarled the chieftain with undisguised disdain.
Dridges and the Tosser twins just stared at her, then at their grandfather, thunderstruck, while Margaret Madish and her sister, Marideth Brave, gave their father a bemused, poorly concealed, slide-long glances.
Sheriff Standorin looked at Margaret again.
“Will this solve the issue of stone and lumber needed to finish the construction of the wall, Lady Margaret?”, he asked.
Margaret Madish didn’t reply immediately. She pursed her lips as she thought for a moment, then she turned to her own daughter and spoke.
“The stones and the lumber will suffice. But that will not solve our main concern, here. I believe Our Tactical General Dridges is better equipped to outline said concern..”
Dridges nodded at her mother, then quietly but sternly, she picked up her mother’s narration.
“Our main concern; the south end of the wall.. Unless we continue building the wall to eventually surround the town, a wall is just a wall —a linear line. It may not be breached, it can, however, be easily outflanked. Perhaps not from the north end, due to the swift-running Arashkan River and they do not come with ships, it will be flanked from the south, making the whole structure redundant and moot. Should the enemy circle around Silent Lake and risk the Demon Fog, our whole defense line will be overrun in a matter of minutes and Serenity Home will be done for. Should they follow the said route, they will not only be coming at us from our south but also from our rear, practically using the King’s road! Should they not want to risk the Demon Fog, they still have the option to sail over Silent Lake using whatever that floats and still come at us from our south, totally ignoring and bypassing the wall..”
“If some kind of sleds be crafted and pulled by, perhaps the ogres before they leave for the western end of the forest, a decent number of our Drashan Armada can be put on the other side of the stone bridge. That way we can make sure these Orken can not come at the wall from the north by the river and we can patrol the whole of Arashkan Lake make it quite hazardous for them to shore anywhere. Provided the petty lords of Endless Watch do not use this as a lame-ass excuse to cockblock our ships in hopes of trapping them. Should they be foolish enough, we will unload everything we have on them, and anything else that gets in our way and be damned with any past treaties we have made with Serenity Home..”, Dagard Dreadhound spoke in a calm, deadly voice. “Make no mistake, here, gentlemen. We are not here as anyone’s servant, and certainly not as part of the Kingdom of Isles. We are here as part of our pact with this town and this town alone. Perhaps the merry Lord Alberdel can actually offer something to save his own kingdom.”
Lord Alberdel Kandara glared at the tall, lean man in blacks but refused to comment.
“It is possible..”, said an illustrious, cultured, and distinctly feminine voice. “..Lord Alberdel may be more of help by providing a sizable number of Endless Watch Naphta Team, along with their munitions, instead of bringing in more ships into a river already cramped with ships.. and avoid further frictions?”
Everyone turned and stared at the very tall, very dark, and rather buxom girl with the long, pink hair and the frilly, short, and vivid pink skirt dress.
“What are you doing, girl?”, hissed the scruffy-looking gnomic girl at her side. “We can’t get involved. We can only observe!”
“But we are not getting involved, luv.”, Seressa Wraiven said, grinning with pristine-white teeth. “We shall be observing this war.. from above.. via Melshieve Gunships.. The Endless Watch Naphta Team will merely be on board our gunships as guests and we can’t always keep an eye on said guests, nor can we be responsible for the things they throw over board, now can we?”
“Sophistry!”, scowled the little gnomic girl. “That’s pure sophistry and you know it!”
“Tonic, luv—”, the very tall, very dark girl began.
“—Shhh.. Don’t use my name dammit!”, hissed the scruffy gnomic girl.
And a few tables over, Nadine Graiciousward’s ears prickled suddenly!
“Oops. I am sorry.”, whispered the dark girl earnestly. “But what I was going to say was, it is only sophistry when there are two parties and one of them is trying to outmaneuver the other by following the letter of a certain agreement, but not the spirit of it. Yes, the Academy of Melshieve has a sworn policy to ‘observe only’ any and every possible occurrence taking place in the Kingdom of Isles without taking sides or joining any conflicts. But said sides of any given conflict must have some form of agreement or at the very least, some form of recognition in the first place, historically or conventionally. Neither the Kingdom nor the Academy has ever made such agreements and no one here has recognized the Orken as a sovereign kingdom. They appeared out of nowhere and attacked without provocation.”
“Girl, you just defined how sophistry works.. with another sophistry!”, snarked Tonic. “But I don’t really care. It’s not me you have to sell that demented logic to.”
“Spoken like a true pair.”, murmured the hobbit sitting next to the gnomic girl.
“That actually is a very good idea, Maiden Seressa.”, spoke Lorna. “Melshieve Gunships are quite famous, and bombarding the enemy from above will make sure they are unable to circle around and come at the wall from the south end and make sure they can not use boats to cross Silent Lake. It is possible to put highly trained elven archers on board the gunships as well, providing both protection for the ships, the Endless Watch crew, and raining arrows upon the enemy below.”
The room was suddenly filled with nods and murmurs of agreement as Tonic bent closer to her pair, Seressa, all the while hiding her face behind one of the fruit bowls.
“You just want to ride on a Gunship!”, she hissed at Seressa in a low voice.
“About this device, the Orken has employed..”, Lady Alisia asked. “What do we know about it?”
“Actually, I want to ride their new invention; the Storm Kites.”, grinned the dark girl. “You, on the other hand, truly want to be on a Melshieve Gunship. I know for a fact that you do because you applied one hundred and nine times as a flight member crew, a gunship engineer, a gunship’s turret man, a deckhand, a kitchen assistant, and going as low as applying as a flight attendant, who basically just serves drinks! All your applications, along with their rejections, were also in your files..”
Nimbletyne Tinkerdome got up at that point and he had a very sour face.
The gnomic girl gave her a very baleful glare.
“Girl, you can turn into a ghostly raven and it looks awesome and you can literally fly without a gunship!”, she almost snarled at her.
“The device, as far as we know..”, Nimbletyne began after clearing his throat. “..is comprised of several components. We are not sure how they have been assembled or who was the original designer. But once activated, it bends and reflects light around a very large area, sort of a half a globe or sphere, not making those inside strictly invisible, per se, but making those outside unable to perceive those that are inside. At least that is our working theory.”
“But so can you! You have a cloak, and a broom that can help you fly.”, Seressa smiled down at her little pair. “And why are you suddenly hiding behind that fruit bowl?”
“The cloak does not count.”, mumbled Tonic.
“And what are we doing about it, Master Nimbletyne? That missing Orken army might be anywhere. We could be bringing our paladins in hopes of hitting their army here and get slaughtered when they suddenly appear behind us.”, Lady Alisia said with a concerned tone.
“What? Why? Did you dump one of your acid vials on it to see if it is acid-proof?”
“What? No, dammit.. I.. plan on.. *some incomprehensible mumbles*”
*More incomprehensible mumbles*
“We have tried various approaches to the issue at hand, but I am afraid we haven’t made much headway.”, admitted the Nimbletyne with an infuriated and frustrated tone.
“Ow. I see. You don’t want to tell me. I get it.”, Seressa said cooly.
“You really want to push this don’t you?”, Tonic scowled at her pair.
“Yes. Very much.”, smile Seressa.
“We may have a solution.”, said a distinctly alluring voice, and people turned to the tall, horned girl sitting next to Sheriff Standorin.
“You do?”, asked Nimbletyle Tinkerdome, somewhat surprised. “By all means, share with us, Liaison Constance.”
“We did not come forward with it because the solution lacks the practicality of application.”, Constance said. “We are, at the moment, looking into various avenues.”
“Perhaps I can help there?”, Nimbletyne asked eagerly.
“The main composition at the moment can reveal, not the location of this concealing device nor what it conceals when activated, but rather the area it affects. At least for a time long enough to be seen with the naked eye. Our problem is delivering it to the suspected area.”, the Liaison explained succinctly.
“I plan on gifting it to Cora!”, she whispered at her.
“Ow? Why?”, Seressa asked a bit surprised.
“Because she’s awesome and cool and I want her to experience the delights and the freedoms of flying. I mean. She’s a barbarian. She is literally the definition of ‘free’ and on so many levels. And she’s been a friend to me even though she had no reason to be. I mean, I certainly never gave her any reason, that’s for sure.. Uhhmm.. besides, I want to see how fast she can fly and land on her foes with that kazirillion foot long sword of hers.. from above! It’ll be legendary!”, Tonic replied with a silly grin on her face.
Nimbletyne Tinkerdome mulled over the Liaison’s explanation.
“You are such a dork, baby girl.”
“Use PPG’s.”, said Tonic promptly, from behind the fruit bowl.
“Of course!”, exclaimed Nimbletyne, smacking at his forehead.
“Well, FINALLY! Someone who knows his acronyms!”, said the gnomic girl happily.
“Perhaps you may want to dummy that down for the rest of us, Miss Cinotnacra?”, Udoorin said, showing a surprising initiative, as he stared at the voice hiding behind the fruit bowl, with a bemused and poorly hidden smile.
“Pressure Propelled Grenades.”, Nimbletyne inserted absently. “Never thought much of them myself because they are quite unreliable and tend to totally miss their target as often as they hit your allies.”
“Yes.”, Cora Sleet, the barbarian girl said quietly from where she sat without cracking a smile.
“Hells bells, Cora. Just how many times did I hit you?”, Tonic hissed at her with a scowl.
“Nine times.. Five with your fire grenades when you misjudged their distance. Once with your stun-bang grenade-thingy, which almost got me killed because I couldn’t hear or see anything. When I am very silent, I can still hear my ears ringing. And three times with your acid grenades, totally disintegrating and ruining two very good shirts, and that time when you totally melted away my favorite pair of pants and put me on display to the rest of Arashkan —in my undies!“, she replied seriously.
Tonic gave her a rather guilty look.
“You are never going to let that one go, are you?”, she fumed.
“It was a good pair of pants and you still owe me one.”
“We should try it immediately, Miss Palecog. I believe I have all the materials.”, offered Nimbletyne eagerly.
“No, no. I heard a lot about you, Master Nimbletyne. I am sure you can handle this one on your own.. And.. uhhmm.. I have a prior engagement elsewhere, sir.”, Tonic replied a bit hastily, still hiding behind the fruit bowl.
“Very well.”, said Sheriff Standorin. “We shall eagerly await for the results of this PPG-whatsit. Now, we have three more items on our plate. One is; how to lift the siege on Vodgar as soon as possible, because as long as that siege is there, Vodgar will be out of commission, and we will be unable to trap the Orken. Yes, as much as we want to make sure they will be unable to invade the eastern end of the continent by taking Serenity Home and its surrounding lands, we also do not want them to spread out and around the hills and forests between here and Vodgar. Two; we need clothing and food for over one hundred and twenty thousand refugees, including the Arashkan civilians, their militia, and their regulars, and the High Woods elves. And three; the elves and the regulars currently have acceptable equipment, though most of their armors need repairs and lack shields, the Arashkan militia have very poor arms and armor, and we do not have enough for any new requites from the civilians who want to participate in the coming war.”
“We shall move our main forces and beef up Last Hope’s defenses to make sure these Orken can not come at you from that direction. And when they attack the wall, we will harass them from their southern flank..”, Liam Ruststone, the commander of Palantine Militia said hoarsely. “We train our militia both as stationary and mobile defensive long-pikemen, and for trench warfare, so we have certain diversity. Any gap that needs corking, any trench that needs clearing, my men can handle it.”
“We can hold off the Orken at Vodgar for a very long time.”, snickered Parson Brimstone.
“Indeed.”, Katrine Faeriefire gave a hearty laugh. “Best thing that’s happened to Vodgar in the last three centuries.”
“Yes, yes.”, added Parson gleefully, stroking his odd goatee. “All the newbie and apprentice wizards, sorcerers, and warlocks who could barely cast a cantrip just two months ago are now dropping fireballs, ice storms, and lightning bolts —en mass!”
“We could send some two hundred of them over in a few days. Some physical training and seeing the results of war would be good for them. Educational, even, and that it isn’t just nuking from afar.”, Katrine said thoughtfully.
“Excellent idea, my dear. We should also send some to Durkahan. Those partial to detection and divination, in particular. It should help against possible ambushes should they decide to employ this device against the paladins. We have had good relations with them for centuries and they have treated us with honest respect.”, Parson said, nodding at Lady Alisia who nodded back.
“Then it is down to food, clothes, arms, and armors.”, Standorin noted with some relief.
“Endless Watch can supply the food and clothing.”, Lord Alberdel mused. “We are, however short of arms and armors ourselves. We can send word to Graystone Military Keep and Devien City for them, however. If the bloody pirates refrain from raiding them, they could be here within one and a half months by sea. Our ships with the food and clothing, within two weeks.”
“I have been given free rein to make any agreements.”, Dagard said cooly. “Provided no Drashan ship is attacked. If they are, Drashan will retaliate in kind. Please note that should this Orken threat be eliminated, we expect the Kingdom of Isles to officially accept Drashan as a free, sovereign kingdom.”
A strained silence settled in the room as many faces turned sour.
Aager Fogstep, who was standing silent and quite still behind Udoorin, had an amused expression on his face, hidden behind his half mask. Many things could be said about Bara’baras Kördog, the ‘King’ of the pirates of Drashan, and none of them good, but the very tall, giant of a man did have great foresight and he was a patient hunter. The official treaty he had signed with Serenity Home five years ago had legalized Drashan’s existence in the eyes of the Kingdom of Isles, even if it had been by mere insinuation. And now, he was going to officialize that, hence any attacks on any Drashan ship or soil, would constitute as an assault against a sovereign kingdom instead of a rabble of illegitimate pirates.
“Well played, you son-of-a-heartless whore..”, Aager growled with admiration..
..and just then, Lilly Venom dropped from the heavy chandelier above just as alarm bells went off everywhere in town.
✱ ✱ ✱
The events of the next few moments happened in a blur..
..when the lithe form of Lilly fell on someone standing right behind the former Rise of Bari Na-ammen, Nadine Graciousward!..
..as someone else, standing right behind Lord Haransis, the Koruxan Knights’ Commander, gave a low, painful grunt and stiffened, and Agent Largo was standing behind him with a bloody knife..
..and Inshala Frostmane disappeared as another figure lunged forward with a long, curving dagger..
..and a tiny squirrel was climbing up Chieftain Grulganiste Gimtooth’s massive, tree trunk-like arm and shoulder! The squirrel darted into the giant ogress’s thick, braided hair and holed in it..
..when Dagard Dreadhound whipped out a very sharp dagger and hurled it at Lord Alberdel of Endless Watch..
..just as Aager Fogstep sent a ghostly dagger across the room at the barbarian tribes and horde’s representative, Cora Sleet..
..while Bremorel Songsteel lurched up and over the table, and with the great, blue sword in her hands, knocked a dagger cast for King Udoorin, right out of the air..
..and with a swift draw, Lord Armathelius ran his long, elven sword through the neck of the man coming at his Queen, Alor’Nadien ne, without so much as looking at him..
..and the room went up in total chaos!
“You deck rat bastard—”, began Lord Alberdel furiously as he went for his sword when the dagger hurled at him missed. Then he froze and stared in amazement when someone behind him toppled over and crashed, face down onto the table.
“Huh.”, was all Cora Sleet had said when she turned around to see the moaning man clutching at the long, ghostly dagger sticking out of his chest. To her bemused surprise, the dagger suddenly faded.. and disappeared! She looked back at the man in dark leathers, hood, and mask and noted the same ghostly dagger reappear in his hand, once again. The man did not so much as glance at her as he engaged with someone else trying to get at the human king of the high elves.
She didn’t wait for too long to take in the chaotic mess around her for someone had just grabbed for Tonic!
The little gnomic girl yelped as the ‘guard’ behind her picked her up by the knot of her reddish-brown hair and tried to twist her very slender neck.
“There is a man behind you, Mother Ganiste. I think he is trying to come at you with a knife!”, whispered Inshala into the ogress’s ear, from where she was lodged.
“So the peace with the humans is over? Thus soon?”, Grulganiste grunted with disgusted disappointment.
“I do not think these are good humans, Mother. Ow, and the one coming behind you is almost upon you. I think you should do something about him.”, Inshala urged.
“I SHALL KILL HIM THEN AND FEEL NO REMORSE!”, snarled the ogress.
“I don’t think so..”, said Cora cooly, and seamlessly she drew out her great, two-handed sword, blazing with frigid tundra winds from her back and brought it down on the man, splitting his head open like a ripe melon, all the way down to his midriff! “..She’s our midget.”, she continued with a touch of swagger.
What was left of the man stiffened as blood and gore gushed out everywhere and Tonic dropped on the floor all drenched!
“Mustn’t complain. Mustn’t complain. It’s only hog’s head full of blood and crap!”, muttered the gnomic girl. “Behind you, Seressa.”
Seressa, however, was a bit busy hailing several other guards across the room coming at the ranger girl, Bremorel, sending ghostly and howling skeletal hands in misty fists at them. The ghostly hands clutched at each guard’s throat. Bremorel spun around, and with a lithe dance, she cut the men down, showing once again just how she’d earned her name; Songsteel..
“Thomas, GO!”, she snarled. “Take the Liaison and Temez and GO! I must guard Udoorin!”
Brom, the hobbit, pulled out his lyre and with a quick twitch of one finger, send a very disturbing, discordant note, and the man coming up behind the very tall, very dark Seressa stumbled as his head suddenly snapped up, one eye staring ahead, the other, somewhere north and west! Blood gushed out of his mouth, nose, eyes, and ears, and his whole head exploded from the inside!
“Dridges!”, yelped Lady Magella in a terrifying voice as she shied away from the man coming at her. The man lunged at her and she flung back, toppled over her chair, and slammed herself on the ground, hitting her head quite hard.
“You should be ashamed of yourself going after girls. Fight someone with balls!”, snarled her mother, Margaret Madish, and caved his head in with an enormous hammer while her father, Argail Smitefast was downing men, right and left.
In perfect sync, the Tosser twins, Britney and Dritmey, had started swinging their great battle-axes as Dridges told them where to butcher.
Lady Magella rose from the ground and her timid face was gone. What replaced it was nothing short of wrath. She pulled out her six-flanged mace glowing with incandescent light and started breaking bones!
Thomas gave Bremorel a stern look filled with the fear of being deprived, turned around, and with two of his junior temple guards, he dashed up to Constance and Temez and curtly said, “You, two. With me!”
Liaison Constance nodded, though it was clear, she did not want to leave..
..when Perigren Ostlanna Temez jumped over her table, and with a water-like flowing motion, she flipped and landed a kick right into the throat of a man coming at Lady Anglenna, who was hastily dragging Queen Alor’Nadien ne. The man stumbled back and Temez pulled out the broken pair of her antler horn and stabbed it into the man’s face, then at his jugular, and seamlessly, at his heart! The man barely gave out a rattling, wet, and wheezy sound as he collapsed.
Back to back, just a few steps over, Lilly Venom and Agent Largo were carving their way, from one table to the next, using a rather brutal strategy..
..where Largo would jump an assassin, and with a series of punctures, then stab his shortsword into in their stomach, twist, slice open, pull out, point up and shove it into their throat as they would, inevitably grunt forward, and Lilly would cut open their kidney, then stab them in the pit of one arm, piercing the heart at a diagonal angle, and finally slice off a jugular, as an encore.. and move on to the next, a process that seemed more like an extremely bloody and excruciating dance, really!
A body with two arms missing flew over Temez and crashed into a group of men trying to corner Sheriff Standorin as he tried to fend them all off the Serenity Home mayor, Arthandos Yuleman.
“Aager, Morel!”, he bellowed over the clamor. “Get Udoorin to his secure location, NOW!”
“Time to go, I believe. Nadien ne. Please stay close to me..”, murmured Anglenna.
“Not without my King and certainly not without my mother.”, replied Lorna stubbornly as she sliced open a man trying to get at her, all the way from his groin up to his forehead!
“Young Udoorin has his own retinue, cousin. Being pigheaded now is unseemly for a queen. Lord Armathelius, do ask the former Rise of Bari Na-ammen to join us if you will?”, she said as she calmly flash-burned someone trying to get at her. The man crumbled in charred cinders.
“I offered.”, Lord Armathelius replied with equal calm as he clashed his elven longsword against three assassins. “She said she was assigned elsewhere.”
“Get behind me, mother. You are out of practice.”, Moira beseeched. “Two kills and your sword hand is trembling.”
“Just who do you think your father practiced his swordplay, young lady?”, fumed Lady Alisia Hooman.
“Mother, that was over twenty years ago. Please. Just do this for me? You have children who will mourn should something happen to you.”, Moria pleaded as she slammed her shield into a man and ran him through when he stumbled.
“I am not leaving my daughter, nor the man who makes her happy.”, Alisia hissed with determination. “If anything happens to that boy, Inshala will be devastated.”
“Mother, Aager knows what he is doing. Better than either of us. And I do not see Inshala. She must already be out. Captain Fardashi. Please talk some sense to my mother..”, Moira said grimly.
“I do not tell the First Lady of Durkahan what to do. No one does. Because she is smart enough to know what she must do, as opposed to what she wants to do. After all, she is the First Lady of Durkahan.”, Captain Fardashi said calmly as he cut another man trying desperately to get at Lady Alisia.
“Lady Moira, Lady Alisia, Captain Fardashi..”, Thomas said as he and his junior temple guardians maced their way over to them with Nadine Graciousward in their mids. “This way, if you will. We have two more to pick up..”
Udoorin head-butted one of the men coming at him, then chopped him down. The next one was just a little too slow and he was dead before he knew it, as the burly King lopped his head, clean off his shoulders.
“Time to go, Udoorin. Anglenna and Armathelius are taking your Queen away as we speak.”, Aager growled.
“Can’t.”, Udoorin rumbled. “The door is too crowded. Might as well stay and help.”
“That one, Mother Ganiste. And that one.. we must get them too before we can leave.”, Inshala whispered.
“Why? Can’t they take care of themselves?”, the ogress, Grulganiste, growled.
“I am sure they can, Mother. But then, so can I..”, the tiny squirrel chirped happily.
“You have been too long with the humans, my daughter. You now have much sass!”, scowled Grulganiste as bulldozed through the chaos, reached over, and grabbed her query, by the scuff of his coat, right off the ground.
“Eep!”, yelped Brom, just to come face to face with one of the most brutish and awesomely scowling faces he had seen in his entire life!
“Ow. Hello Chieftain Grulganiste Grimtooth. It’s been a while. You are as comely and captivating as ever”, he said grinning toothily at her.
“Good Heavens!”, Inshala exclaimed in a melting voice. “He is sooo cute! Can we keep him?”
“Master Hobbit. You seem to appear at unexpected times. And your words are as beguiling as ever, even though you lie through your teeth. Do say more!”, growled the ogress.
“Chieftain Grulganiste!”, Cora snarled. “You will let our hobbit go, right now.”
“Simmer down chicken legs!”, Grulganiste snarled back at her.
“Chicken legs?”, Cora said dumfounded and with a very flushed face.
“Yes.”, the giant ogress said. “Meat like chicken —all white!”
“It wasn’t meant as an insult so much as it was a descriptive term, Cora. The esteemed chieftain and I are acquainted.”, Brom explained hastily. “Uhhmm.. where are we going?”
“Wherever I take you!”, scowled Grulganiste and tossed the hobbit on her back!
Brom yelped again and clung to the long, thick, braided hair of the giant ogress.. and came face to face with a tiny squirrel poking her head out of the nest of hair!
Thomas appeared next to the very tall and very dark girl, Seressa Wraiven, and the midgety little gnomic girl, Miss Cinotnacra, with Ladies Nadine Graciousward, Alisia, and Moira, Captain Fardashi, and his junior temple guardians, and was talking to them in quick, brisk words.
“Hold on tight, my daughter.”, growled Grulganiste as she bashed in the head of another assailant and stepped on him. The mad crushed and the chieftain of Oger’s Foot rammed right through the town hall’s outer wall..
..with a dust-covered Cora coming up behind her!
“That was awesome, Mother.”, said Inshala. “You are so awesome at breaking houses!”
“Are you punning me, my daughter?”, scowled Grulganiste.
“We are out, my Aager.”, Inshala whispered in her mind.
“Pun you? Who would be foolish enough to pun Mother Ganiste?”, she giggled.
“I noticed.”, came Aager’s dry and amused voice. “I must admit, your mother is indeed, quite awesome!”
“I know, right?”, Inshala said with an exhilarated voice.
“There! The way out!”, Aager said, pointing at the gaping, ogre-shaped hole in the wall.
Udoorin turned around to see Alor’Nadien ne, Anglenna, and Lord Armathelius shimmer..
“..Stay safe!”, he shouted.
“..Stay safe, my Dorin..”, Alor’Nadien ne whispered..
..and Anglenna, Armathelius, and Lorna vanished.
“Ranger Lieutenant Morel. It’s time.”, barked Aager.
“Just a sec..”, snapped Bremorel as she danced her way into the chaos.
“Once. Just once I want you people to do as you are told!”, growled Aager..
..and the ranger girl reappeared with a limp body in her arms and running over the tables. When she reached the last few tables, she jumped, sailed over them, and landed, quite lithe and supple, next to Udoorin.
“Why have you risked everything for that woman?”, Aager snarled at her, as he pointed at the elder of the wood elves of Dimwoods, Talüna Mira Silverdenú. “She had her own assigned designation.
“She was knocked on the floor and people trampled over her. Just how was she supposed to get to her designation?”, Bremorel snarled back.
“That is not your concern, Ranger Lieutenant!”, snapped Aager.
“She is my only remaining relative!” she hissed at Aager. “She is my cousin Laila’s grandmother, hence my grandmother too. I’ll be damned before I left her there to be slaughtered.”
Aager fumed some more, though he knew any argument made here would be futile. The ranger lieutenant’s stubbornness was bested by only her dislike for him.
Then, inadvertently, he looked down at the frail, old, and unconscious elf woman in the ranger lieutenant’s arms and noted she was very nearly as small and skinny as his Inshala. Yet, where his Inshala was full of life and skipping energy, this woman was at the end of hers.
“To the sheriff’s office..”, he growled silently.
✱ ✱ ✱
To say Inshala was pleasantly surprised when Chieftain Grulganiste Grimtooth had parkoured her way through the town in a literal sense and brought her to her home..
..newly built and freshly painted!
“Nuf with the free ride, hobbit!”, Grulganiste growled. “The Heavens have gifted you with sturdy legs.. as short as they may be..”
Brom hopped down the giant ogress’s back and landed on his butt with a flushed and quite embarrassed expression face as Cora joined them.
“Why have you brought us here, chieftain?”, she asked gruffly.
Grulganiste scowled down at the tundra elf for a moment.
“You are a grouchy one, arent you? I can not say I like elves, but I had heard the white elves from up north were a bit better mannered than their kin living in the woods. Do not make me think I was mistaken.”, she scowled at her some more.
A squirrel climbed down the fourteen-foot ogress and hopped on the floor, spun once, spun twice, and on the third, the squirrel was gone, and the skinny form of Inshala was there.
“Mother Ganiste, please. They are guests. And they have just come out of a dire fight.”, she said with a shy smile as she looked down at the very ‘cute’ hobbit and his pouting elf-girl companion.
Then she turned around and ogled at her home..
..and darted inside.
Apparently, Chieftain Grulganiste hadn’t had her ogres rebuilt her home..
..she had them built something totally new; a two-story lodge with a guest room and a separate kitchen with a larger fireplace on the ground floor, a wide-spaced living —and possibly playing— room on the second floor and a very cozy attic that had its roof high enough to stand —as their spacious bedroom.
The new home was furnished with hand-woven tribe’s patterned rugs on every floor, low, cushioned, backless chairs and a similarly low table on the guest’s floor, two more low and backless chairs and a table on the second floor, though these were less flashy but warmer in color and appearance, along with dozens of cushions. The mattress in the attic was certainly not a threadbare thing, but something filled with washed and sun-dried sheared fleece, soft cowhides, and not-itchy woolen blankets. There were handcraft lanterns hanging from little hooks and slender chains on the walls now and there were a few more pots, pans, wooden plates and bowls and cutlery in the kitchen, and the squeaky pump in the garden had been fixed, and it didn’t shriek like a banshee anymore when its lever was pulled down and it was also, somehow, moved into the kitchen! However Chieftain Grulganiste had attained them, there were even a few very elegant vases and soft, faintly blush-colored doilies as well, all elf made!
And then, there was the garden..
Grulganiste’s ogres hadn’t touched the big, blooming cherry tree, but the small garden had been swept clean and a stone-laid path was leading from the kitchen to a little gazebo, complete with a wooden table and two benches on either side and a brazier hung from the ceiling of the gazebo.
Inshala was enthralled..
..and thoroughly shocked.
The cherry tree also entertained many lanterns and even a two-seat swing, hanging from one of its larger branches..
And as a final touch, the garden was cordoned off with a fence tall enough to give certain privacy, and the fence itself was hand-woven, interlocking, dried and varnished reeds..
“Mo.. Mother Ganiste? What did you do to my home?”, she asked dazedly when she came back out.
“I made up for my folly, my daughter. I had my ogres use as much as the original materials they could salvage from what I wrecked, then made a home worthy of my daughter and the Ritual Guardian. Your father, Cathber, was a man with many good traits. Being alone made him lose perspective. Particularly after he lost Tamara at the hands of Themalsar. He was the Ritual Guardian, yes, but otherwise, he was little more than a hermit running around doing silly things like delivering babies and gathering lightning. Being the Ritual Guardian is not much different than being a king, a queen, or a chieftain, my daughter. People will not understand what being a Ritual Guardian means, nor what it entails, and they certainly will not understand the kind of responsibilities and burdens it shall place upon you. But they will see this home and respect you for it; you had the most feared and fearsome creatures of your forest build it for you. The underlying message there will never go unnoticed.”, rumbled Grulganiste.
“But.. but what if my Aager does not like it?”, moaned the skinny girl.
“Does your Aager burn when he takes you into his arms, my daughter?”, the ogress asked.
“Mo.. mother, please.”, the skinny girl blushed furiously.
“It is a relevant question, girl. Does he or does he not?”, Grulganiste asked.
“Every time.”, came Aager’s voice.
“Y.. yes..”, mumbled Inshala, her face blazing hot.
“There you have it then. If you liked this home, then so will he, because when it comes to homes, the only part that belongs to a man is the roof. The rest is yours. Your man will love it because of who is in it. Not because of what is in it. If he is more interested in that, then you have a problem. I saw the condition of your former home, my daughter. He loved that home because you entered his life. Now he will defend this home because there is actually something in it.”, Grulganiste said gruffly. “Now. Tell me who those men were and why did they try to kill you, the hobbit, and the elf?”
“Uhhmm.. they attacked you as well, Mother.”, Inshala objected.
“No, girl. They went after very specific people. You, Master Hobbit, the white elf, the little gnomic girl, and the tall, black and skinny one with the pinks, the boy king, his pretty mate who was brave, thoughtful, and foolish enough to sit next to me, your itchy fingered sheriff, but only because he was defending your mayor, your human mother, and your human sister, the man who had his ship burned, the little dwarf girl and my brave Argail, who bashed in many heads, the tall one in iron clothes from Koruxan and the two from Vodgar; the human with the goat hair on his chin and the madwoman with him. They attacked me only because I was blocking the way of many.”, Grulganiste said, displaying just how perceptive she was.
“Then shouldn’t we help them?”, Cora asked, getting a better grip of her great blade.
“We do not know who is friend, nor do we know who is foe. Do not be another itchy-fingered fool, elf. There are more than enough of them out there. For me, everyone here is a foe and no one is a friend. Hence I shall wait for the sheriff to come and tell me it is over, and my daughter, Inshala here, will make us some nice, hot tea, as our host.”, she replied cooly.
Inshala blushed and ran inside her new home and her new kitchen.
“I didn’t know you had a daughter, Chieftain Grulganiste. Though I must say, she is adorable. She hopped on my head and nested herself there and chirped all the way here as if wanting to assure me.”, murmured Brom.
“Yes. She is adorable, and she is the nicest and the most selfless thing I have ever seen. She sure did old Cathber a lot of good the way she dropped into his lonesome life.”, replied the brutish ogress.
“Cathber? What has he got to do with her?”, Brom asked as he remembered the months he’s spent with the odd druid.
“Inshala ‘la fey’ Frostmane is a foundling, Master Hobbit. Old Cathber found her, many years ago in the woods. I believe her birth mother was some woodsman’s wife, taken when she was out gathering herbs and mushrooms. Never liked them, woodsmen. Foolish, superstitious, rash idiots, the lot of them. They blamed us whenever anything went wrong in their lives. Break a toe, it’s the ogres. A lightning strikes, it’s the ogres. A goat dies, it’s the ogres. As if we had nothing better to do.. But for years, many of their women were taken. Then one day, one of the taken woman returned, bedraggled, hungry, hurt.. and bearing a newborn child. You would think they would have rejoiced, but no. They drow her into the forest and stoned her, and the child to death. From how old Cathber told it, the mother did everything she could to protect her baby. The fools left, thinking she was dead, and to be fair, she was.. just not yet. She got up, and with what strength she had left, she ran off deeper into the forest for as long as far as she could.. which wasn’t all that far, seeing as she was already weak when she had come down Rook Mountains, to begin with, and being stoned didn’t help her either. She died, from much bleeding, with her little baby in her arms.. In my many centuries, I have had respect for very few and even fewer among humans. To soothe the spirit of that woman, I have prayed and burned much incense. Old Cathber found them some two days later. He buried the mother and tasked himself with the care of the baby. The soft-hearted old fool.. What did he know about raising a child? Yet he did.. Yet he did..”, Chieftain Grulganiste said, her eyes lost in some unseen distance.
Brom and Cora, however, were looking at each other and with quite freaked expressions.
“Uhhmm.. When did this event happen, Mother Ganiste?”, Brom asked carefully.
“Some years back.. my daughter should be seventeen now, so that many years ago.. Not too long after your visit to my hills, really.”, the ogress replied.
“Mother Ganiste, Master Hobbit, and Pretty White Elf lady, the tea is ready.”, Inshala came out of the house with a happy skip.
“You like it then?”, Grulganiste asked with a surprisingly pleasant smile.
“I love it, Mother.. The new kitchen is so awesome and the pump is so easy to use now so I also made some things to eat. The house is so big now and we have so many more plates and bowls, I can finally ask Bremorel and her hubby, Thomas, Lilly and her hubby, Sir Agent Largo, Liaison Constance and the sheriff, Perigren Ostlanna Temez, Hal Mali, gorgeous Demelze, Hamna Vir and dear Dar Derune, Biberbell, De De Dexter, Laila’s father, Uncle Devien, Ranger Master Uncle Moorat, Lady Magella, and her sisters and even her mother, Udoorin and Lorna, Mother Alisia, my sisters and brother, and Granma, and when they come back, even Laila and Gnine..”, she said in a breathless voice.
“Perhaps we should eat in the garden?”, Grulganiste said, and not without some guilt. “I believe I have destroyed enough buildings in this town in one day.”
“YESS! I loved the garden, Mother Ganiste. There is even a swing there! I will bring the tea and the food out there and light the brazier to keep our guests warm.”, the skinny girl said happily and took off again.
“Wow.”, Brom admitted. “She really is adorable and so happy to have friends in her life.”
“Whatever friends she has, they are all new, Master Hobbit. That girl lived alone all her life, even if her father, Cathber, was there. She tried to make friends with the wood elves. They never hurt her, but they never let her come anywhere near them either. She tried to make friends with the woodsmen and they beat her, stoned her, caged her, and whipped her for it. So when I said, I would ‘crush any of you punny things who disrespect her’, I was being polite.”
“What is happening, my Aager?”, Inshala whispered as she put the tea, the teacups, the plates full of newly washed fruits onto a large platter she found in the kitchen.
“We.. uhhmm.. we saw her with a man in dark clothes, back when we were in Arashkan, some months back. Is he her husband?”, he asked.
“Yes. A dangerous man. But he will not let anyone hurt her. Now, Master Brom Bumblebrim and you, Cora Sleet, will tell me where you two actually know her from?”, the ogress gave the two of them a very ugly and stern look.
There was a moment of precipitous silence.
“Cora, my dear, I think you should tell this one. It happened in your tundras. If anyone has the right to speak on this to another person, or whether it should be told or not, is up to you. Though I am not sure now is the right time, and whether the girl should hear, or even know about it..”, Brom said quietly.
“The town is under attack, love. Whoever these people are, they have been infiltrating amongst the refugees and even amongst some of our town guards.”, came Aager’s strained voice.
Cora frowned a bit, but not because she thought Brom had thrown her under the dragon, per se, but as to all the events that had transpired up to and after the ‘RED OCTOBER’, as the barbarians of the Great Northern Tundras had named the odd phenomenon; the turning of the sky to crimson on a clear October day and the appearance of the vile creature..
..and the beginning of the disappearances of their womenfolk, including the daughter of the chieftain of Bear Claw Tribe.
“..then they mingled as part of the retinue of one lord or lady or representative or another, and everyone, including us, thought they belonged to someone. Quite ingenious, really.. in a sinister and heinous way..”
It had been at that point Cora and Brom, along with the dwarf sisters, Lillias Absentwhot, and Jeina Blonde had gotten involved. They had been asked by no other than the Bear Claw Tribe chieftain himself to find his daughter and to bring her back.
After a long, dangerous, and harsh trek, they had finally located where the vile creature had holed up; a cavern set deep into the southern end of Lost Mountains, filled with many corpses, all ravaged, half-eaten, gnawed and rotting —and all women.
“..we have many wounded and many more dead. We barricaded Udoorin at the sheriff’s office and he was very frustrated about it. He tried to order me, ‘I am the king and I order you to let me go!’ I laughed at his face and told him if he didn’t stay in the building, the elves would LACK a king and his pretty Lorna would be all sad about it! In retrospect, though, I probably shouldn’t have said that, but it was funny at the time. More assassins arrived and they climbed the office walls and came down through the door leading up to the roof and now he is laughing like a merry idiot and cutting them down as they drop into the office and he won’t even share the kills with anyone!..”
That was also the time when Cora and Brom had met pretty much the rest of the particular clan Lillias and Jeina had belonged to. The whole lot of them had arrived to ‘bring their lost dwarves’ back home.. For Cora, it had been the first time she had met them. Brom, on the other hand, had made acquaintance with some of them before, during his travels, though he hadn’t said as to how he knew them. The answer to that would reveal itself much, much later, and after the two, along with Seressa and Tonic would suffer Arcanton Mordenon’s demented tower!
Upon the insistence of Lillias and Jeina, the whole clan had gotten involved and had lured the vile creature from its cave using a continuous hit-and-run tactic, all the way to Rook Mountains, and losing the creature at Ritual Forest, buying time for Cora and Brom to enter the cave and save whatever there was inside left to save.
“..I left him with the guards and Bremorel to check in on the others. The elves’ headquarters are also under attack, though I suspect a similar mule-headed enthusiasm on Lorna’s part there. I always thought her to be a calm and gentle girl. Turns out I am not even sure which of them is worse anymore; Lorna or Udoorin..”
Neither she nor her bushy little friend, Brom, would ever find out the extent of their deeds that day, but Cora had always suspected that there would be consequences..
..the ones she would know and perhaps find out later, and the ones she would never hear about;
When they had saved the chieftain’s traumatized daughter and returned her to her father, she would, in time, be married to the son of the chieftain of the Ice Crag Tribe, making Cora quite popular and ‘savior’ among the two tribes. And later, when she and Brom had saved the Ice Wolf Horde from a certain ‘demon’ that had infested their lands, who had turned out to be no one other than Seressa Wraiven and her vivid illusions and her pair, Arcantonic Palecog, the savage Ice Wolf Horde had promptly adopted her as their ‘savior’ as well, effectively promoting her as a hero among three of the four major tribes/hordes of the Great Northern Tundras —and when the events of her ‘re-encounter’ with Dreadmaw had wiped out the Wyrm Horde, she had, perhaps unwittingly, become the ‘Princess of the Tundras’, the sole person to have the power to call upon all the remaining three tribes/horde to arms and fight against the coming Orken, in a land far, far to the south and beyond the tundras. This had been the most apparent, though quite unexpected, and certainly unintended outcome of the RED OCTOBER event.
“..The temple is also under attack but Thomas and his temple guardians are putting up a good fight. Not to mention they have Nadine Graciousward. I am tempted to say, like mother, like daughter, and I can see where Lorna gets her calm and enthusiasm from. There is also that tall, dark girl with all the creepy pinks and her gnomic friend who I think is quite mad! She is cackling like a maniac and throwing bombs at everything that moves. The bloody idiot has already leveled six houses near the temple!..”
The other was, there had been a second survivor, deep down in the cave of the vile creature; a much traumatized, beaten, raped, and ravaged, underfed, hungry, bruised, and very much pregnant young girl..
..who had wanted nothing from them except some food and an axe, and to be let go so she could return to her people, her family, her husband, and her home..
The resilience of the skinny little girl who had suffered months of use and abuse from the vile creature, not to mention, was at the end of her pregnancy had, now, astounded Cora for she, in all candor, had never believed the girl would have survived the month-long trek through the bitter cold, torturous, treacherous, and precipitous Lost Mountains and then the Rook Mountains to reach her Dim Woods. Yet she had.. and giving birth, alone, on the way, no less..
..just to end up being run off and stoned to death by her own people and her husband..
“..Some of them tried to infiltrate the temple by breaking through the boarded windows.. They never came back out for some reason. I am not sure if they enjoyed their last moments in this world, but I am certain our Liaison’s half-born brothers and sisters must have..”
At that point, Cora wasn’t sure just who had been the true ‘vile creature’.
Yet, her daughter had survived, against incredible and impossible odds; Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostman, and ‘WOW’, was all Cora could think of.
Whether Cora had figured out that when they had saved that skinny little girl, they had also caused the vile creature to follow her in hopes of finding and retrieving its offspring and consequently becoming a menace to the woodsmen of Dimwood for the next decade and more, was unclear.
And now, that vile creature’s daughter was here;
“..Sheriff Standorin, Lilly, her hubby, Agent Largo, D.D. Dexter, and I, along with three dozen guards, rangers, and the elven veterans I have been training are now moving street by street and going house to house in a search and destroy mission. I am afraid this might take a while though.. Hey, are you making tea?”
A beautiful, adorable, earnest, sincere, full of life, selfless, shy, frightened, abused, stoned just like her mother, beaten, caged and whipped, scared and scarred little girl, adopted by the old Ritual Guardian, Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrig, and by the ogress chieftain of Oger’s Foot, Grulganiste Grimtooth, and also by no other than the First Lady of Durkahan, Lady Alisia Sivara Hooman and become the new Ritual Guardian..
The whole thing made Cora reel back in its incredible, unbelievable, mind-staggering, and quite astonishing absurdity.
“Well.. We do have some guests here, so I thought I ought to make some for them. It is cold outside..”, Inshala replied a tad guiltily. “I really wanted to be there with you.”
Cora carefully cleared her throat and spoke with her low, slightly hoarse voice.
“People need her now as she is, and anything that is past is in the past, though our stories somehow come out in the most unexpected moments and haunt us..”, she said, looking down at Brom with emphasis, “..it would be fruitless to summon them by will.”
Chieftain Grulganiste scowled down at her for a long moment.
“..’Tis alright, love. Enjoy yourself. I shall be there as soon as possible, though I suspect it might be later than I would want. We will have to make a tally on our losses and figure out how they managed to bring in so many.”
“I see.”, she rumbled finally. “And perhaps wisely spoken too. My daughter is very dear to me. The first time we met, I thought she would scream and run.. Yet she said I was awesome, as demented as I had thought her perspective was at the time. She looks at people and somehow judges them by their merit.. and accumulated deeds.. if at all.. And should she judge said deeds, she seeks the reasons that led to those deeds as if looking for an excuse to forgive them. I would hate to see her break again and humans have done everything they could to do just that.”
“Ready!”, declared Inshala happily as she ran up to them with a skipping hop. “I lit the brazier to keep us warm as well, especially for Master Brom Bumblebrim, here, or perhaps you would rather I call you Blom Bumdlebim Hobim?”
“What?”, blurted Brom in surprise. “How do you know that name?”
“Blom Budle— what?”, Cora asked with an amused expression and very much pursed lips.
“You don’t really need to know, Cora.”, he scowled.
“I am friends with all the dryads and nymphs in Gull’s Perch, Master Brom. They told me some very endearing and lovely stories and you were in them. My Aager and I saw you at Arashkan before today, but I didn’t know your name then. We saw you and pretty Cora talking to our Merisoul and give her something. We were up on one of the roofs and the very tall girl with the lovely pink hair and dress that I would love to have too, and the cute gnome girl was also there, though they were hiding in some trash for some reason!”, she said as she led them into the garden and over to the gazebo.
“You can sit on the swing if you like, Master Brom. I already tried it and it is awesome!”, she offered with an exhilarated grin.
There were also two ogres, one male, the other a female in the garden sipping tea from comparatively very, very tiny teacups! When they saw their chieftain, they jumped on their feet and sort of stared at their feet like two kids caught in the act.
“Uhhmm.. Greetings Chieftain Grulganiste. We fixed and refurnished the house as per your instructions. Does it meet your satisfaction?”, the female ogress rumbled carefully.
“I wouldn’t know, Garishka.”, the chieftain replied with a horrible scowl and turned to Inshala. “Does it?”
“I love it, Mother Grulganiste.”, Inshala said happily. “I think sister Garishka Bloodhammer and brother Grawl Goraxe are very good at what they do.”
Garishka and Grawl beamed at her.
“I think you should hire out your ogres to help build the defenses and homes for the Arashkan refugees. That way, the humans can become friends with your sons and daughters, just like Sheriff Standorin wanted.”, she said.
“Maybe..”, Grulganiste scowled. “But only if your hubby also likes this home..”
“There were some men skulking around the house, Chieftain, but because you told us not to kill any humans while we were here, we asked them, very politely, what they were doing. They just pulled their knives and charged at us. Again, we told them, very politely, not to do that but they just wouldn’t listen. So.. me and Garishka bashed them all and tossed them over the fence.”, Grawl said tentatively.
“We tossed ’em far, Chieftain, like, several buildings over so there shouldn’t be any blame on us!”, added Garishka hastily.
“We also wiped all the blood and brain!”, Grawl mumbled quickly.
Grulganiste looked at them much like an executioner would, right before he brought down his axe.
“The deed is done. If they drew their knives at you here, in the house of the Ritual Guardian, they got what they deserved. How is the tea?”
“Excelent, Chieftain Grulganiste. The Ritual Guardian sure knows her teas.”, Garishka said in a hurry and Grawl nodded vigorously.
✱ ✱ ✱
It was past midnight when Aager Fogstep stumbled, dead tired, to his home..
..and looked up at the two-story house.
He had known all along that Chieftain Grulganiste had totally destroyed it, even if she had done it unintentionally. He hadn’t said a word about it to Inshala and had, quite deliberately, made sure to never think about it all day, just so she wouldn’t be able to sense his disappointment. True, it had been a rather simple, single-room, quite bare, empty, even, and in all candor, a pathetic house, really, but it had been his home, dammit!
The home he had secretly wanted to share with Inshala from the moment he had understood that he felt something for that ‘pretty but weird’, and ‘pretty wierd’ girl who had been outright cantankerous, to be honest. She had plagued and pestered him, constantly creeping up to him and whispering ‘You are not a good person!’
The fact that the moment of his comprehension of his feelings for her and the moment he had figured the odd nuance in her words had coincided hadn’t gone unnoticed by Aager;
She had never said he was a bad person..
Only that he was not a good person.
And in all likeliness, him being ‘not a good person’ was very true and a bloody obvious fact, and he, Aager, had never claimed otherwise.
What was there to claim otherwise?
But where no one in his entire life had cared about him being a good or a bad person, or ‘not a good’ one, the way Inshala’s had phrased it, told him something;
That for some dementedly naive reason she had thought he wasn’t a bad person, and cared enough —again, for some incomprehensible reason— that he was not a good person, either
..and that it bothered her.. A lot.
Enough to plague and pester him for weeks from the moment they had met while tracking down the assassins who had started the unquenchable fire in their town, up to the moment they had come climbing up the broken and crumbling stairs of the damned ruins of Themalsar.
Had she actually managed to make a good person out of him?
Aager thought not.
And looking back at all the things he had done since having met Inshala, just about anyone would agree with him.
Looking at how, or better yet, why he had done them, however, said ‘anyone’ might just pause..
So when Aager had found out about the predicament of his rather simple, single-room, quite bare, empty, even, and in all candor, pathetic house and consequently say he was disappointed, it would likely have been the under statement of the century!
And now he was staring at a two-story house with dim candlelight glowing from all the windows.
“I am sorry for your home, young man.”, a voice rumbled in the dark.
Aager stared at the newly woven reed fences and noted the three giant figures sitting there.
Quietly, he veered in that direction and nodded at Chieftain Grulganiste and then at the two other ogres.
He also noted the gazebo, the burning brazier hanging from its wooden ceiling, and the swing hanging from the blooming cherry tree and thought of just how much his Inshala had probably loved seeing all this.
“You came to my tent and behaved as a guest should. I came to your home and behaved.. badly..”, she said.
“Tis alright, Mother Ganiste.”, he replied tiredly. “I am aware you did not do it deliberately. Bad things happen, even with good intentions.”
“I tried to make up for my folly. Inshala loved it but is freaked out because she thinks you might not. I told her, home is where we are with the ones we love and care are, and that coming from a clumsy ogress is a neat trick!”, she rumbled. “If you do not like this home and want to break spoons, I will understand.”
“What is it with spoons and breaking them, Mother Grulganiste? Who would want to break spoons? How would you eat if you broke your spoons?”, Aager asked amusedly, even though he was quite tired and just want to sleep.
“That is the point, young man. No one wants to miss supper because of broken spoons.”, she said as if stating the obvious.
“I take it there are many spoons in this home now?”, Aager asked, getting a hint at where this conversation was heading.
It was interesting to see this giant monstrosity of an ogress to genuinely be sorry for what she had done, and with this ‘private’ talk, she was almost begging him to accept her apology, along with the house, in her strangely roundabout and gruff way.
“Damn.”, he thought. “She is a lot more considerate than many humans I have met!”
“Of course. A house should always have many spoons. For friends, guests, clumsy mothers, and.. mayhap.. children..”, she said with a straight face. “You have many guests even now. The hobbit, Brom, the white elf who thinks scowling all the time is cool, the crazy gnome girl, and the creepy one with the pinks. I saw so much pink today, I am pink-blind now. The other mother of my daughter, her elder sister, and the mother of the queen of the elves is also here.”
“Huh.”, Aager grunted.
“I would have wanted to apologize to that skinny she-demon for the things I said to her earlier. I found out she has an interest in your sheriff and that she treats him with care. That is good because your sheriff is a respected enemy and has fought well today.”
“Huh.”, Aager repeated himself.
“You should go and tell your mate that you liked the house.”, she growled. “Inshala is a good girl but she panics over the silliest things. She must truly care for you and for what you think, young man. Nurture that.”
Aager nodded at her and started for the door and stopped.
There was another door leading from the fenced-off garden directly into the kitchen too, now.
He hadn’t noticed that..
“Thank you, Mother Ganiste. It would seem some mistakes are good to happen.”, he said quietly.
“You should see what I did with your bedroom, then.”, he heard her grinning voice coming from behind.