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!
Not All Is Done
“The Storm Kites of Melshieve”
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..
I do not doubt your credentials, ranger lieutenant. I merely find your assumptions highly unlikely.”, said the elderly general of the Palantine Militia, Gerald Cornfield. He was a large man gone slightly on the seedy side, perhaps due to his past sixties, closer to seventies age. He had a permanent squint in his eyes, a massive walrus mustache that seemed to muffle everything he said, but otherwise clean shaved, his thick brows stuck out and up, curling into natural shaders, and a distinct scar on his right ear that he kept scratching whenever he made a point. Considering how he savored his words quite miserly, he made a point with everything he said..
Ranger Lieutenant Bremorel Songsteel stared at him like the way she stared at anything before she broke it!
“You mean you doubt my credentials.. politely..”, she fumed.
“Essentially, yes, young lady. You claim to be a ranger lieutenant and yet you are younger than my granddaughter, and this man claims to be a Senior Temple Guardian yet he lacks facial hair worth mentioning, let alone any credentials.”, the general said.
“I did show you my temple badge. It should prove my status, if not my identity. These badges may only be worn by their owners. They are soul-bound.”, Thomas Dimwood replied.
“So you say, which means nothing to me even if it were true. I am not a pious man. Hence I rarely go to any temple, let alone the Tempest. I do not know what these soul-bound coins or badges or whatsits you exchange or carry around are. Had you a king’s writ, I would have been willing to take note of your words, but you do not. And I am not going to change, redirect, and/or take orders from a young pup nor his woman, neither of whom I know nor have anything to show for that has any official mark on it.”, the general said calmly.
“Perhaps a temple guardian or even a member of the clergy might vouch for my credentials? You do have some of those among your ranks, I am sure.”, Thomas Dimwood said coolly.
“I am afraid I do not. Palantine hosts one of the larger Tempest Temples in the kingdom. They made a proclamation ere we left that this was a mortal affair and that they would not participate in the coming war, which is understandable.”, General Gerald replied.
“How is that understandable?”, Thomas asked.
“They never participate in any ‘mortal affair’.. other than poke their nose into everything! They also made a general declaration that they would castrate any other temple who would partake in this war.”, he said and shrugged. “I suppose they wanted to make a point of some sort.”
“And you didn’t find that a bit odd, General Gerald?”, the young man said frowning a bit.
He hadn’t heard of any such declaration or proclamation. Not that it would matter nor would he have obeyed it. Serenity Home Temple was his responsibility and he answered to no one, and be damned with castration!
The general shrugged again.
“I am not a pious man, boy. I believe I have already made that quite clear. I do not heed nor care what the members of the clergy do. I am a military man who earns his living in the trenches. My job is to make sure my men live long enough to go back to their wives and kids.”
“It is very likely they will not go back to their wives and kids should you go to Last Hope blindly, sir..”, Bremorel said flatly.
“I do not go anywhere blindly, young lady. But neither do I want members of the Tempest Temple crawling at my back, demanding retributions for assaulting their temple here and nothing short of a plague will make me go anywhere near those zealots!”, the general replied as if he was talking to a particularly dense rookie.
Bremorel and Thomas gave a sidelong glance to one another. It was obvious, the elderly general was not going to budge. Forcing the issue would only petrify his stance and irritate him.
“I feel tired.”, Bremorel said suddenly.
“You do?”, Thomas asked.
“Yes. And feverish. I was fine this morning but not so much, ever since I got in contact with the esteemed general and his men, here. Perhaps they are ill and they passed it onto me..”, she replied seriously.
General Gerald stared at her for a long, silent moment.
And said nothing.
“I believe they are all afflicted with some sickness and need ample care.. and seek a remedy.. by a member of the clergy who is known for their tender care..”, she said and coughed into her fist.
Thomas noted the blood in her hand.
So did the general and his men.
“The young lady seems ill, indeed.”, the senior temple guardian said uncomfortably.
“Indeed, she does. Are you sure you picked it up from us, girl?”, the general asked with a bemused tone.
“I was perfectly fine until now, sir. I believe I shall rest.. and seek herbal remedy.. You and your men should have yourselves checked more thoroughly, however, by the members of the Tempest Temple at Last Hope as soon as you get there. Perhaps in small, scouting groups?”, she offered and coughed some more.
General Gerard sighed.
“You two make the worst soap opera I have ever seen, and Palantine is no center for culture.”, he said, causing several of his men to snicker. Then he stared at the ranger lieutenant, and then her bloody hand. “Though the blood effect was rather good. It gave a certain dramatic flair. How did you do it?”
“I slashed my hand, sir.”, Bremorel said without cracking a smile. “The weather is so cold, I didn’t feel a thing.”
The general sighed again.
“Cold or not, have that hand looked at while I organize a ‘sick’ scouting party.”, he ordered, turned around, gave his men a few, curt commands, and sent them off.
He stared at the two for a moment, then spoke in a low, growling tone.
“Just how deep does this treachery go?”, he fumed.
“We are not sure, sir.”, Bremorel replied, her voice a bit relieved. “We had a company of our people including two, very high ranking members of the nobility from High Woods at Arashkan, a month before it was attacked, seeking a criminal for an unrelated issue. Turns out, said criminal and his men were hiding in the Tempest Temple all along, and for many years. They were also helping the Orken army undermine the city defenses.”
“Sounds a bit far-fetched, don’t you think, lassie? A criminal who was hiding in the largest temple of the kingdom, let alone Arashkan, and helping the Orken as well?”, Gerald frown.
“Would it make any difference if I said, the criminal was Gar Thalot? I am sure you have heard of him..”, the ranger lieutenant replied.
“Yes. Him, I have heard of.”, he said and his frown turned into an ugly scowl. “Tried to bring his rebellion to Palantine. Didn’t go so well for his followers. Private contractors are always more eager than government officials. A few bounties and all his sidekicks were hunted down and killed in under a few months. Palantine might not be a center for culture, but it is the center for bounty hunters. Would have been one myself, but the wife wanted me on a steady-paying job, and certainly not underfoot and carousing in the house all day when there weren’t any jobs available.”
“Indeed. Jobless men can be a bother at home.”, Bremorel said with a straight face.
The elderly general scowled at her.
“But then, my husband has a steady-paying job as well.”, she added with a grin.
“Where will you go from here?”, the general asked.
“We are out here and this far from Serenity Home on a specific mission, sir. I am not at liberty to divulge it, but I daresay, it should make your job much easier should we succeed. Women should have their men and children should have their fathers return to them.”, she said solemnly.
The general gave her a hard, steady gaze, then turned to Thomas.
“You have a very strong-willed woman here, young man. Pretty, too. I would suggest you do your best to keep her.”, he said with a stern, fatherly voice.
“I dare not do less, general.”, Thomas replied with a smile. “You should see her when she draws her sword. She didn’t earn her name by her ‘pretty.'”
Bremorel snorted at that.
Gerald grunted, turned around, and left.
Soon after, several ‘sick’ men were laid on military stretchers and were carried off towards Last Hope. After a few moments, a few more were carried off, then more.. until it seemed like there was a pandemic amongst the Palantine Militia.
“General Gerald is a stubborn but smart man. He listens to reason, even when it is not all that reasonable. And he will not gamble with the lives of his men.”, Thomas noted as he watched the long line of men being carried off on stretchers.
“Yes. Surprisingly so. And he’s also sending in his scouts.”, Bremorel said, pointing at the small groups of men dashing off silently in the forest towards the town.
“Should we wait, or head out?”, Thomas asked.
“We are a tad ahead of schedule. Might as well wait and see just how wrong my gut was.”, she replied. “I honestly want to be wrong. Because if I am right—”
“—it will mean we have a very serious problem in our hands, and it is everywhere and in every city!”, her husband finished direly.
Thomas watched as his wife stared after the Palantine scouts. They were not as good as rangers, to be sure, but they were admirably competent. As he watched her face, he recognized the dawn of another thought etch itself there.. something quite disturbing.
“What is it?”, he asked.
“Nothing.”, Bremorel shrugged her shoulders.
“Love. You are bad at lying. Which, in all candor, is a good thing, really. But please. If you have something to say, you needn’t hide it from me.”, he said kindly.
It was a deep, tired voice.
“Has anyone ever bothered to check, to which temple Themalsar originally belong to? Before he went and opened shop at the northeast edge of Ritual Forest all those centuries ago, I mean? He was a human priest. He must have belonged to one of the divine schools..”
Thomas stared at her. He tried very hard to take the implications of her words lightly, but that would be foolish, and he knew it. He hadn’t married this girl because he had fallen madly in love with her..
Alright, perhaps that was very much true.
But he had always believed she had a deeper reservoir of intelligence than she let on. She looked like a hot-headed girl, easy to rile, and in all likeliness, she was, but that had merely been the side effect, or even residual traumas of her ulcerous past.
As much as he loved this ‘hot-headed’ girl, he respected her as well; her instincts and her insights..
..for which, he marveled her.
“Perhaps we could look into that when we return?”, he offered, paused, then added. “It will be extremely hard to find objective facts about his former life and affiliations, though, considering the eight hundred years time difference, and any such affiliations would likely have been buried or removed. And at this point, I doubt it would make much of a difference. Not after all these centuries, and now that he’s dead.”
He gave a wry smile.
“I believe I know the girl who was among the company who did that deed.”
Bremorel tried to return his smile but failed.
“It might matter if we find out just exactly how deep, and how far back the treachery at hand goes, Thomas..”, she said unhappily.
. . .
The fighting in Last Hope lasted for the better part of two days. The Palantine Militia, as it turned out, had earned its reputation by virtue of back-breaking hard work, and in a literal sense. They lost over five hundred of their men but cleared the Tempest Temple, and the catacomb-like tunnels dug under it, stretching for miles and towards Serenity Home, killing nearly four thousand Orken. The fact that the fighting had occurred in tight, underground tunnels had not gone well for the near-ogre-sized Orken, even though they could see in the dark. The thirty feet long pikes and nowhere to run had worked clearly on the pikemen’s favor as they marched through the tunnels, three abreast and line after line constantly pushing forward had been base slaughter. The Orken pleaded no quarters, and the Palantine Militia offered none. It had been forty-two hours straight killing, leaving a mountain of the beasts stacked outside, and a smaller stack of Tempest cultists, all burning in the same fire now. The Palantine soldiers who had lost their lives were all wrapped up in white cerements and were waiting to be buried.
“Nice and warm..”, General Gerald said with a grim, satisfied expression on his face as he stared at the rising flames. “Now, Mayor Randorm Billbuckle.. Care to explain yourself?”
The mayor of Last Hope, Randorm Billbuckle, was a large, middle-aged man with peppered hair, a thick mustache, and quite muscled..
..and he was on his knees, his hands and arms bound behind him and he was staring at the elderly general with hate on his face.
Bremorel and Thomas also stood next to the general, and neither of them looked happy. True, they had saved, perhaps thousands of Palantine soldiers, and likely Serenity Home that day. But they had also proven the involvement of the Tempest in yet another treachery..
The first had been at Arashkan..
“You have no jurisdiction here, Gerald.”, Randorm snarled..
..and his head snapped up and he stumbled on his side the moment he finished his sentence as Bremorel stood over him.
“Actually, Last Hope is, in fact, under the jurisdiction of Palantine. Much like Serenity Home was under the jurisdiction of Arashkan. I am surprised you, as the mayor of this town, do not know this simple, legal fact.. Now. You will drop the attitude and give straight answers or I swear by the Great Heavens, I will cut you down, right here and now!”, she spat savagely.
“Ranger Lieutenant.”, Thomas said quietly.
“What?”, she snapped at her husband as well.
“Perhaps you should leave his face intact. We want him to speak, remember?”, he said mildly.
Bremorel glared at him.
“General? I believe the good mayor is ready to answer your questions.”, he said steadily, and without taking his eyes off the girl he loved.
“You see how things stand, Randorm?”, Gerald said lightly, looking down at the mayor. “The ranger lieutenant is young and filled with passion, quite robust too, I might add, and is unlikely to tire any time soon, should she be given further reason.. I believe she could work on you all day if I asked her nicely.”
“The Hell with you and the Hell with her—”
Randorm stumbled again, and this time, Bremorel was all over him.
She beat every inch of the man and she didn’t even break a sweat. In under a few minutes, the mayor had one eye shut and bleeding, the other totally black, his nose deformed, and any number of his ribs shattered.
It was a frightening sight, really, and Thomas understood just how much her wife was holding back, not only in terms of physical strength but emotional trauma..
“You will answer the general. Now. Randorm. Or I will kill you..”, she snarled.
General Gerald stared at her, then at Thomas.
Thomas, as disturbed as he was, shrugged.
“This is definitely out of my jurisdiction, sir. She is a ranger lieutenant, though. She has the right to certain privileges I am not. It is her prerogative to act as she deems fit to pass judgment in the wilds, and during times of war..”
“Mayor Randorm. I would strongly advise you to answer my questions, and honestly. Otherwise, your sentence is in her hands.”, he said.
The mayor of Last Hope moaned a bit.
Then with a bloody mouth, he spluttered..
“The.. Hell.. with.. you—”
Those were the last words Mayor Randorm Billbuckle uttered.
With one, swift, seamless move, Ranger Lieutenant Bremorel Songsteel drew her greatsword from her back as she spun, and removed his head clean off his shoulders..
..and kicked him into the fire!
Gerald stared at her, at the sizzling and charring body of the former mayor, and at the head lying on the frozen ground with a sour expression.
Thomas ogled at Bremorel.
It seemed like he wanted to say some things, but nothing came out.
“We are rangers, my husband. We put our lives on the stake to suffer fools, one day at a time, every day.. We are the first.. and the last evil sees.. When we die, we rarely receive a proper burial because we rot where we fall.. That is the pledge, and the oath we give on our first day on the job. Fools, we may suffer. Traitors, never.”, Bremorel Songsteel said with a deadly quiet voice.
Then she pulled a sack out of her pack, picked up the mayor’s head and dumped it into the sack, and knotted it off.
She walked over to the general and handed the head to him. Then she pulled a heavy pouch from her pack and handed that over to him as well. The pouch clinked when the general took it.
“What’s this?”, the general asked.
“Do you have military funds to look after the families of the men that lose their lives in service of the kingdom?”, she asked.
“Of course.”, Gerald said simply.
“I have thus placed a bounty on Mayor Randorm Billbuckle’s head, as a ranger lieutenant of the kingdom, proclaiming him ‘a wanted fugitive for treachery, treason, and crimes against the Kingdom of Isles’, and you, sir, have just claimed that bounty. Please put this money into the funds you use to feed the families of the men that died in the tunnels below. It isn’t much, but it is all I have.”, she said, staring into his eyes.
“You are a ‘one of a kind’, young lady.”, the general mused, a bit awestruck.
“No, sir. I am merely one of the few good rangers left in the kingdom. I do not mind a good fight every once in a while, but I loath killing. Treachery, I loath more.”
Then she turned around, walked over to her husband, and gave him a fierce hug.
“Please do not hate me for what I have just done, my Thomas. Some things can not go to trial. They must be dealt with justly, and swiftly. And treason must never go unpunished because no one person’s life is worth more than another’s.”
“It’s alright, love. You merely surprised me, that’s all. I never knew this side of you, and what you had to deal with when you are out on your patrols. You always returned, relieved and happy, and you made your job look so easy. I can see why Moorat adores you like his very own daughter. And why he took me aside and literally threatened to disembowel me should I not take good care of you, when we declared we were getting married.”, Thomas replied, also hugging her.
“Moorat threatened you? Dammit. I told him not to do that!”, Bremorel snorted. “I believe we are done here. We should find Temez and start out and move as far as we can get, and through the night. We lost two days here.”
“Yes, I believe we are done here.”, he said, still holding her. “You did a great job, love. And saved thousands of Palantine soldiers, and likely saved Serenity Home as well from a very destructive ambush. These Orken are very diligent and intelligent. And they make long-term plans. We must stress this to others at every opportunity.”
Bremorel did not reply.
She had just shown Thomas one of the most brutal aspects of her job and, as surprised and likely freaked out as he was, he was still here, still hugging her, and still loving her.
For the lone soul that was once, Morel Darkmaine Sunstrider a long, long time ago when she was four, that warm hug and the understanding that came with it meant something..
“Why don’t you go ahead and retrieve Temez, love.”, Thomas said. “There is something I need to talk about with General Gerald.”
“Very well. We will meet you at the edge of the swamps just east of the road to Game Woods.”, she replied, hugged him again, and took off.
It was seldom people enjoyed running. It seemed his wife was one of those rare few.
His Morel did not jog.
And not for the sport either.
The benefits of a life of physical activity, and hence, a fit body, were apparent in her striking figure.
But for his Morel, that was merely a side effect; not intended, merely benefited..
Bremorel ran because she enjoyed it.
Perhaps it had something to do with her being a ranger.
Or the sense of freedom it gave her.
Thomas stared after her until she was gone. Then he worked his way over to the general who was now busy blaring orders, sending his men to further secure the town, search every house, dig trenches, erect barricades, send out his scouts north and northwest into Game Woods, cut the trees that were too close to the town, that would provide hiding opportunities and cover for possible approaching enemy, and to also dig graves for his lost men.
“May I have a private word with you, sir?”, the young temple guardian said.
✱ ✱ ✱
I remember you now. You were in that bloody meeting!”, Anglenna said with a severe, piercing, matronly stare at the very tall, very dark girl with the long, braided pink hair and a rather frilly miniskirt dress. “Who wears a skimpy dress like that to a war council that consists of the most powerful people in the kingdom?”
“I ask her the same thing —every day, but hey, when a slur comes from the daughter of Angrellen the Betrayer, nothings sounds convincing, and everything sounds carping.. a bit like an annoying crab that just won’t stop scratching on a seashell!”, snarked the little gnomic girl with the scruffy-look reddish hair, standing next to the very tall, very dark girl.
The young burly man towering behind Anglenna frowned a bit.
“That was not nice, bunny-girl.”, he rumbled.
“And condemning my pair for her choice of wardrobe is? And quit calling me ‘bunny girl’, boy! I am like, three times your age! We may be on the same side for now, but we are not friends enough for you to get familiar with me, and certainly not enough for you to give me pet names!”, she scowled at the giant of a man.
“I do not carry my council in my panties, Lady Anglenna Sunsear. I carry them on my shoulders. If my skirt is enough to distract said ‘powerful people in the kingdom’, I would suggest you all raise your standards a notch or six perhaps, then?”, the tall, dark girl replied. Though she did not reflect the cold gaze of the high elf woman staring back at her, she opted to give her, her emotionless, obsidian-statue stare..
The bushy little hobbit standing sort of on one side and gnawing on the tip of his index finger with seeming lethargic patience, a quiet and resigned ‘Ho boy..’, did escaped him.
The lithe, athletic, and pale barbarian girl with the thick, braided, snow-white hair and the swirling tattoos on her shapely arms and shoulders was scowling at the three, very much disliking the tall high elf girl with the platinum-blond hair and her attitude issues, and the way she was biting at her very tall, very dark friend, Seressa Wraiven. She was also very much sizing up the young man who, somehow, seemed to know their gnomic girl, Arcantonic Palecog, a.k.a. Tonic. He was huge in all three dimensions and was carrying an extraordinarily big, very evil-looking, pure black, two-handed battleaxe. His overt proximity to the pretty and slender girl with the charcoal black, very long, and braided hair said there was some form of a relation between the two. Lovers, perhaps? The girl was not just pretty, though, she was very, very beautiful in an elegant, serene, warm-hearted, calm, sincere, and honest way. Cora Sleet did not know who she was, but somehow, she was sure this young.. half-elf girl was of noble-stock, and apparently, she also knew their Tonic!
Why did everyone know the scruffy little gnomic girl, all of a sudden, anyway?
“You little midget. You are a piece of work, aren’t you? Perhaps I should snuff your fire a tad.”, Anglenna said coldly.
The former high lady of Bari Na-ammen was very, very angry now. The uncouth little ‘thing’ had the audacity to relate her to her mother so arbitrarily. Not even the survivors of Bari Na-ammen had done that to her. True, that was likely due to both her proximity to her cousin and queen, Alor’Nadien ne Feymist, and likely a heavy-handed speech by no other than Lord Armathelius Riverblade, but still.. She had defied all her ties to her mother. She had even defied her name, Sunsear, after one hundred and seventy years!
The arbitrary little ‘thing’ stuffed her hand into a satchel on her belt and pulled around, pact, clay object and hefted it a few times as if weighing it.
“Yeah, do try it, why don’t you? Stupid, pointy-eared sprite!”, Tonic sneered at the high elf. “I’ll personally etch, ‘She was all over the place when we found her!’, on your tombstone!”
Anglenna’s eyes blazed..
“Lenna.”, said the elegant half-elf girl calmly..
..and Anglenna froze.
“Sister.”, Alor’Nadien ne said next, turning to the scruffy-looking gnomic girl.
Tonic froze too..
“Sister?”, the pale elf murmured from the back.
The beautiful half-elf girl took a step forward and so did the big, burly man.
Seressa immediately stepped in front of her pair, and so did Cora.
Brom sighed from the rear.
Alor’Nadien ne gestured to the young man to hold his position and gave him a pleading look, then turned to the lithe, pale elf.
“It is heartwarming to see you once again, Cora Sleet of the Great Northern Tundras. I apologize for our abrupt manner. Do please forgive us.”, she said and Cora was astonished at how soft and warm her voice.. and how graceful her hands, her standing, and her whole figure was.
Then the girl turned to the very tall, very dark Seressa and gave her an elegant bow. She didn’t drop on her knees, nor was it a waste bow, but more of a nod. But it gave the patent impression of a bow. “I also apologize the distinguished member of the Academy of Melshieve. Seressa Wraiven, I believe? Your observations, your insight, and your offer at the war council were enlightening. I am not sure how it is that you are here, as opposed to where you should be, but I am glad to have met you, once again. We have had a trying day fighting the Orken, hence we are tired and, apparently, not thinking with a clear mind. I personally admire your choice of wardrobe. It is daring and it is beautiful.”
Seressa blushed a bit, though it was hard to tell through her very dark skin.
“Thank you.. uhhmm.. Lady.. Though I am not quite sure to which war council you are referring to. You seem to know my name and my pair. You also seem to know Cora and seeing as how Master Brom is so eager not to get involved, you two also know one another.”, she observed.
Alor’Nadien ne stared at her for a long, confused moment before she spoke.
“We met at Serenity Home town about ten days ago. We were sitting across from each other. I do not understand how you do not remember this. I know you and Cora Sleet from there. Arcantonic and Master Brom were also there, though we have met with them before. If they have not informed you of this, they must have their reason, hence, it is not my place to divulge when and where.”
The very tall, very dark girl, Seressa, turned slightly to look down at her pair, Tonic.
Tonic squirmed under that gaze but stubbornly said nothing. Seressa turned her head and looked over her shoulder and down at the bushy-haired hobbit.
“I was merely there as a bystander, my dear Seressa. Could have happened to anyone. Hence I hold a position equivalent to a messenger. Don’t harm the messenger!”, he said with a shrug.. and a smirk..
Tonic gave him a very filthy stare.
“Slippery little weasel..”, she fumed under her breath. Then her stare turned sinister and she hissed, “Bystanders make exemplary good samples for collateral damage, hobbit!.”
Then she pointed at him and berated!
“It was all his fault! He insisted on taking me out on a night stroll. I told him not to! I begged him, but he dragged me off by the hair!”
“Dragged you off by the hair, did I? Girl, you would have been more convincing had you just kept to your silence. You really suck at this performance thing, you know?”, he said with a bemused expression.
“What is going on, Tonic?”, Seressa asked with a slightly stern voice.
The little gnomic girl’s face and shoulders drooped.
“I.. can’t..”, she mumbled.
Seressa stared at her in astonishment.
“You can’t, or you won’t?”, she asked.
“I won’t, because I can’t.”, Tonic said. “Same goes for the sleazy little hobbit. Suffice to say, yes, we met Princess Alor’Nadien ne Feymist before.. and her betrothed young man, Udoorin Shieldheart.. back when we were at Arashkan.”
“And she referred to you as ‘sister’, why?”, the very tall, very dark girl asked.
“That is something I may not divulge. That particular information is up to her to decide.”, Tonic mumbled.
“Nice.”, Cora murmured from the side. “A snowball that’s passed around without being hurled! You people know, it is going to melt eventually, right?”
“For whatever reason, it would seem introductions are in order.”, Queen Alor’Nadien ne said as if to clarify at least some of the confusion.
“I am Queen Alor’Nadien ne Feymist of High Woods.”, she said.
Then she held the young man’s hand and continued. “My dear husband; King Udoorin Shieldheart of High Woods.”
And finally, she gracefully held out her other hand and the tall high elf woman took it. “My beloved cousin and trusted advisor; High Lady Anglenna Brightleaf of High Woods.”
She gave the four an appraising look and asked.
“You said you found us when you first came. Perhaps you can tell us what you meant by that, and why you were looking for us..”
Seressa noted how the queen of elves had carefully omitted several sticky questions just by that introduction. Both Brom and Cora noticed it too, and they both marveled it, though each for very different reasons. Tonic just stared at her without a clue at what had just happened.
“Very well, Your Highness.”, Seressa said, conceding the queen’s admirable, and polite maneuver. “We, that it to say, Princess Cora and her Ice Wolves were tracking down an army of Orken who had, two weeks ago, attacked and slaughtered several hundred of their members. We were, however, unable to find them. Their Blood Shamans have discovered a way to veil their Orken and we were not able to penetrate their spells. We have been after them for quite some time now. Then we heard the battle cries of King Udoorin, here, which I must say, did bring down two avalanches and consequently garnered the admiration of a whole lot of young barbarians. When we saw the three of you fighting them, we knew we had found our query and decided to join the fun.. seeing as you were outnumbered by several hundred to one.. But then you all vanished! I concluded that perhaps you might want to further watch the Orken, though from a safe distance, hence we went out looking for you.”
“The wolf howls..”, Anglenna asked. “..they belong to these barbarians, then?”
“No, Lady Anglenna Brightleaf, they belong to the wolves that belong to the Ice Wolf Horde.”, Seressa replied with the same, obsidian statue expression she had reserved for her earlier. “And now they are all slaughtering the Orken that slew their brethren.”, she added, pointing towards the edge of the frozen, snow-covered cliff they were standing.
“I have got to see this.”, the young king, Udoorin said with an enthusiastic grin and skimmed towards the edge and stared down. “Damn. That’s a lot of Orken.”, he mused, then added, “Double damn.. That is a lot more barbarians.. and almost the same number in wolves!”
Queen Alor’Nadien ne couldn’t resist, and she too, though gracefully, skimmed to the edge of the cliff and stared down.
Anglenna gave a sigh of resignation at her cousin’s, very unlady-like enthusiasm, gave one last glance at the very tall, very dark girl, the lithe tundra elf, the annoying little gnomic girl, and the hobbit, and followed her queen.
“Double damn, indeed.”, Alor’Nadien ne said, perhaps a bit more savagely than she should have.. in public!
To be fair, it was not easy to pick the individuals so far away, even if not for the mist and the cussed snow being trampled by thousands of Orken, very, very large wolves, and thousands more of large, savage-looking men and women in animal furs, or even mere lion-cloths and fur cloaks bearing giant swords, very large axes, long, sharp spears, and large, round, steel-rimmed wooden shields, all etched with blood-red, wolf-like symbols and they seemed to stretch for miles.. Though there was snow and ice everywhere, where they fought no longer held any white. Only dirty-red, muddy-brown, slushy ‘something’ as men, women, and wolves fought, side by side, and with equal, snarling savagery, against the Orken, and they fought, not as individuals, but in small packs, where a barbarian would swing his or her great weapon, forcing their foe to do nothing else but to focus on them while a wolf or two would flank the Orken, or come at it from his rear and hamstring it. Once its major tendons were shredded, the Orken would inevitably collapse and that’s when both the barbarian and their wolves would really come down and butcher..
And yes.. ‘butcher’ was the literal word to go here, thought Anglenna, for what remained after every such encounter was nothing but minced meat!
“How many of the Ice Wolf Horde are there?”, Udoorin asked with glee as he stared down at the slaughter.
“Nearly twelve thousand of them.”, Cora replied with a frown, her pouting lips pursed in thought. “Would have been a lot less, had it not been for the Orken. The fools attacked the villages lying at the southern edges of Burning Cold Hills.. They had no reason to. They could have just passed through, or snuck further south of the plains and no one would have known. The idiots.. By doing just that, the Ice Wolves put aside their eons-old enmity with the Bear Claw Tribe and the Ice Craig Tribe, leaving a skeleton population behind, and marched straight down, tracking the Orken. It was like a migration than a march, really. We knew they were around here somewhere.. We just couldn’t find them. They have some shamans called Blood Shamans. Very powerful and able to hide a great number of their troops.”
“Yes.”, said Anglenna. “We found tracks, but there was nobody to claim them. I cast a spell that disrupted their Blood Shamans. That is how we ended up fighting with the lot of them.”
“I see.” Cora mused.
“There is a tunnel.”, the young man, Udoorin said, pointing at the far-off cluster of rocks and boulders, down in the blood-soaked valley below. “We are not sure where it leads, but I suspect it goes under Rook Mountains and will likely come out somewhere in Ritual Forest. These Orken go a long way and trouble for a chance to ambush. I suspect they will come out behind our line of defense, and either attack our troops, the dwarves, the ogres, and the wood elves from their rear, or quietly sneak past them and hit Serenity Home from the north, or both, depending on their numbers.”
“If they have a tunnel dug under these mountains, they did not do it this winter.”, Queen Alor’Nadien ne surmised. “This was a work in progress that took them more than twenty or thirty years.”
“At least one hundred years.”, Tonic corrected her. “The Rook Mountain rock is exceptionally hard. Very difficult to chip, shape, carve, or dig through. And they would need a lot of digging tools that would require good, solid steel. Then they would have to line those tools with diamond edges. And there aren’t that many diamond deposits around here.. The only place I heard that holds such deposits of diamonds and other gems is under Silent Hills which is out of the reach of anyone, unless they found a way to get them out, or, as rumors have it, Gull’s Perch.. Good luck trying to steal Titania’s gems, though.”
Cora gave an odd look at Brom, who returned her stare with a sick expression on his face.
“That tunnel needs to be checked out.”, Udoorin was saying. “Or caved in.. preferably when there are Orken inside. But they are a bit like roaches. Hard to kill and they might dig their way out anyway.”
“I shall speak with the Howl of the Ice Wolf Horde.”, Cora promised. I am sure they would be delighted to use the tunnels when the time comes to join the war.
“Howl?”, Udoorin asked.
“That is ‘chieftain’.. of sorts.. for them.. The tribes use chieftains.. The hordes use what they believe they are associated with. The Ice Wolves use ‘Howl’, the Wyrm Horde used ‘Krash’, a derivation from ‘crush’..”, she explained.
“Weird.”, the young man noted.
“I do not question peoples’ customs, King Udoorin. I merely respect them.”, Cora replied simply.
“I apologize, Princess. I did not mean to offend. Merely a short-sighted observation.”, Udoorin said honestly.
Cora cocked an eyebrow at him.
Apparently, the big, burly man was more than just a dumb mass of giant muscles with an axe.
“I believe we should camp here for the night, then start out in the morning?”, he said, sort of to change the awkward silence.
“Where are you going?”, Cora asked.
“We will turn west shortly after we come down this mountain and head over to The Marbles and all the way the eastern edges of Troll Heights. From there, we will turn south, sneak past Arcanton’s Tower and enter High Woods from the north, circle around and carefully enter what remains of Bari Na-ammen to find, and hopefully kill the Orken Grunt Generals and Blood Shamans that we suspect are camped out there for the winter.”
“Isn’t that the long way around, Your Highness?”, Seressa asked. “Very, very long way around?”
“It is. But we also want to find out if there are any Orken between Serenity Home and High Woods, besides the ones that we already know..”, he replied.
“You will never make it in time to reach there and back to make a difference.”, the very tall, very dark girl said, shaking her head, and her long, vivid pink braided hair.
“We only need to get there. The return will not be on foot.”, Anglenna said.
“Allow me to reiterate that, then. You will never make it in time to even reach there. It is winter. Most paths and roads will be closed or clogged, every beast and creature that has not slumbered for winter will be out looking for scarce food will be after you when you are marching over The Marbles, and even though Arcanton’s Tower has been in ruins for decades, it is likely to foster innumerable fiends and demons and other vicious creatures, all of whom will attack you on sight. It will take you the better side of early summer by the time you reach your Bari Na-ammen.”, Seressa said with a conclusive tone.
“We have already measured the distance and made our plans for it.”, Anglenna replied a bit coldly.
“I was given the impression that you were a consistent, realist, and pragmatic woman by nature, and made more so by your private education.”, Seressa replied serenely. “It would seem the rumors about you are quite exaggerated and false. Whatever plans and measurements you have made lack practicality and are hence invalid and nugatory, which is to say, worthless, in a polite way.”
Anglenna stared at the very tall, very dark girl and it was not very hard to see she very much disliked her.
“Lenna. Please.”, said Queen Alor’Nadien ne Feymist. “We have enemies enough all around us, some not so far. Lady Seressa. It is quite possible our plan has flaws since it was myself and my King, who made it and left little room for debate by our subordinates. Lady Anglenna is merely trying to uphold my honor out of providence and loyalty. She was, strictly speaking, against this endeavor from the start, let alone the route we would take. That said, by all means, if you have an alternate route, please share it with us. We are not here for sightseeing. Our main goal is to undermine the enemy by cutting off the head of the snake; their Grunt Generals and their Blood Shamans.”
Seressa stared down at the beautiful queen for an unfathomable moment, then grinned.. A charming, and enticing shape endorsing her lips.
“You are, indeed, a strong-willed girl, Your Highness. And a true friend-maker.”, she said, then turned to Anglenna. “I apologize for my obtuse behavior. It was churlish of me to be so. I would suggest you take the shortest route from here to Bari Na-ammen.”
Anglenna frowned a bit as if not sure how to react. Finally, she shrugged and gave in, as if deciding a prolonged hostility would help no one, and was in fact, quite churlish, as the very tall, very dark girl had pointed out. She did, however, object to her idea..
“The shortest route, at this point, would be through the Tar Pits, past the ruins of Arashkan Military Keep, and Arashkan itself, which is likely quite uninhabitable by now, making the whole landscape around it teaming with very angry armies of Orken, and into High Woods from a direction that also has the highest concentration of the enemy. If there is a point to your offer that makes sense, I am sorry to say, I can’t see it.”, she said.
“Ahh..”, Seressa replied, giving her one of her happy and illustrious smiles as well. “I was not thinking a route as linear as you, Lady Anglenna. Suffice to say, however, that is not the shortest route to Bari Na-ammen.”
Anglenna stared at her with confused incomprehension.
Seressa beamed at her, waiting for either of the shoes to drop.
Then it hit the high lady and she stared at the very tall, very dark girl with unadulterated horror.
“How in the blazes would you even know about that?”, she asked with amazed discomfort.
“My Mistress is privy to many secrets, Lady Anglenna.”, Seressa replied, beaming at her some more.
“Whot?”, Tonic asked.
“Yeah, whot?”, Brom duplicated her question.
“What is she talking about, Lady Lenna?”, Udoorin also asked.
Cora did not ask.
Since the question had been asked three times already.
To her surprise, the slender and beautiful queen of the elves did not ask either. Interestingly though, she only stared down.
Apparently, Anglenna noticed that too.
“You knew?”, she said, staring at her cousin.
“I suspected, though mostly because my mother was quite sure of it. No one ever really saw your mother leave her estate, nor her manor at Bari Na-ammen.. Not in the last thirty years my mother was the Rise. But I expect it was much, much longer than that. Did you ever see her leave her manor or her estate?”, Alor’Nadien ne asked.
“No. Never. But then, it never really occurred to me to even wonder. The Betrayer deemed others were unworthy of her time, and she spent most of it down in her study where no one was allowed to enter.”, Anglenna said, grinding her teeth.
“Nice.”, Tonic snarked lightly from behind them. “Referring to your own mother as The Betrayer.. Should get you off the hook in no time!”
A smoldering silence settled over that remark.
“Oops. Did I say that out loud?”, she chortled.
“Tonic.”, Queen Alor’Nadien ne said, and it was perhaps the only time some of those around her heard her use that tone. It was stern, it demanded silence, and it called for retribution.
The midgety gnomic girl immediately shut up.
“You will apologize to Lady Anglenna. And you will do it now.”
Seressa stepped in at that point.
“Queen Alor’Nadien ne. With all due respect, we are not your subjects, and neither are we bound to you. Please refrain from using that tone when you are addressing my pair.”, she very nearly hissed.
“Uhhmm.. Seressa, please..”, Tonic squeaked in a small and panicked voice. They had done this dance before and it hadn’t ended well.
Cora rolled her eyes and Brom ‘Ho boy’ed..
“Please stay out of this, Seressa Wraiven. ‘Sister’ trumps ‘pair’ for this is now a family matter.”, the queen replied calmly, but with a distinctly commanding aura.
Seressa stared at her.
“Please, Seressa. This really is a family affair.. apparently.. Ow, crap. The pointy-eared, stuffy sprite and I are also related too, now?”, she spluttered in a sick voice.
And now Anglenna was staring at her as well.
Udoorin burst out laughing.
“I am sorry.”, he rumbled, still laughing. “This is just too good. Lord Armathelius is going to have apoplexy when he hears about this.”
“That is not a nice thing to say, my King. Lord Armathelius has been nothing but good to you.”, Anglenna said, with a strained tone.
“Ow, come now, Lady Lenna. We both know he is ‘good’ to me only because he has no choice. Let’s be honest, here; what elf on earth would want a human for a king, let alone a nineteen-year-old?”
“I would.”, Alor’Nadien ne said.
“Love.”, Udoorin said, turning to look at her. “I love you beyond words. But I am the king because you are the queen. I never wanted the job and neither did you, for that matter.. Had we the option to elope out of it, we both would have, on the spot.”
“I would.”, another voice said quietly.
It was Anglenna.
“Perhaps not in another lifetime. But after having seen the realities around me, and come to terms with certain.. things.. I had no trouble, whatsoever, accepting my cousin as my queen. She is everything a kingdom needs. And you, young man, will die before anyone tries to harm her. You love her with such mindless devotion, it creeps me out and I was raised by The Betrayer. As unconventional as it may be from an elves’ point of view, you two are in uncanny sync together. And Armathelius sees this, acknowledges it, and willingly submits to it. Just like I do.”, she said with the same, muted tone.
“Well. It is good that we wrapped up everything here. Time for us to go, then?”, Tonic piped from the side.
“No, sister.”, Alor’Nadien ne said, though not unkindly. “You still owe my cousin an apology. I have never associated you to your past. Please do not do what you hate most, to others. It is beneath you. You are a better person than this.”
“No, I am not.”, Tonic mumbled.
“Yes, you are, my dear. I am sure Princess Cora and Master Brom will concur.”, she replied smiling down at her.
“Huh.”, Cora grunted.
“We will?”, mused Brom. Then he saw the fire in Seressa’s eyes. “I guess we will.”, he added hastily.
Tonic sighed and slumped towards Anglenna.
“I am your cousin’s sister. There.. Now the secret is out..”, she muttered.
Anglenna stared at her, then at her cousin.
“Nadien ne? Is there something I should know about?”, she asked a bit too carefully.
“My mother, Nadine Graciousward, if you would recall, became particularly famous after she, Paladin Lord Delia Karakash, and their company entered Arcanton Mordenon’s tower and destroyed him. They slew every demon, every fiend, and every monster they came across there. But after they dispatched Arcanton, my mother took something out of that tower, unbeknownst to all, including her company. Somehow, she sensed a life still beating and breathing down in the stinking dungeons of that unspeakable place. Alone, she sought it out, and after many days and many battles with more fiends and demons and other foul beasts still roaming there, she finally found that beating and breathing life; a little girl, no older than eight, caged and surrounded by more of the madness of Mordenon. She took the girl, washed her, fed her, cared for her, and she brought her back to her people. This girl, as it turned out, was no other than Mordenon’s own niece. Years later, when my mother married Ri Grandaleren and gave birth to me, she entered this little girl’s name into the palace archives as my twin sister. No one knew of this but my father, though mother never explained the reasons behind her actions to him. That little girl grew up and after many years, I finally met her, late one night, when I was out on a stroll with my Dorin. And she is, at this very moment, standing here, before you, cousin.” Alor’Nadien ne said calmly, happily, and contently, as she took a few steps, knelt down gracefully on her knees, and hugged Arcantonic Mordenon!
Anglenna stared at her, and at the little gnomic girl with somewhat horrified amazement.
Udoorin was grinning more now.
Cora stared at her too and many things settled in her mind.
Brom heaved with a sigh of relief as someone else’s, rather cumbersome, secret was lifted off his shoulders.
It hit Seressa a bit harder than the rest. Not that she wasn’t happy about it, or at least she would be, when she got over the whole, blotched history lesson, though the blotch was not the pretty queen’s fault but by the renowned and historical figures involved; Arcanton Mordenon, Nadine Graciousward, Ri Grandaleren, and even Paladin Lord Delia Karakash, in a way, who could, it would seem, sense the evil far and near, but not sense a tiny little girl deep in the dungeons of a deranged psychopath!
“Well, snot!”, Tonic mumbled in Alor’Nadien ne’s soft, and warm, and gentle embrace.
“Sister..”, the queen admonished her quietly.
“No. I mean I got snot running down my nose and it’s all over your dress now!”, she said and sniffed loudly.
Alor’Nadien ne smiled.
“I have my sister’s snot all over my dress. That is truly a first for me.”, she said, then rose to her feet, looked around her, and said, “I believe we should get a good night’s rest. Tomorrow will suffer no fools.”
“I agree.”, Anglenna concurred.
Tonic mumbled something at her.
It was quite inaudible.
“I couldn’t catch that, young lady.”, Anglenna said.
Tonic mumbled some more.
“I can’t hear you, girl, speak up.”, the high elf woman said with a bemused tone.
“I am sorry, dammit.”, Tonic snarled with a scowl.
“So..”, Udoorin said. “What’s the plan? Where are we going tomorrow?”
“We will be going down there. I believe the fighting will be over soon. The Orken might be good. But not against an ambush by twelve thousand Ice Wolf barbarians. And certainly not in their natural habitat. It has been a delight meeting you, Alor’Nadien ne Feymist, Queen of the Elves. And an interesting insight to have met you as well, Udoorin Shieldheart, Human King of the Elves..” Cora said.
Udoorin nodded at her. Alor’Nadien ne gave her a graceful reverence. The lithe barbarian elf nodded at them both and headed towards the edge of the cliff, and started her way down.
“Well. That’s my cue.”, the hobbit smirked. “Always a pleasure, my Queen. I would very much like to have a long sit down with the two of you and hear about all your adventures. I believe an epic is in order, here.”
“Nothing will beat the Adventures of Blom Bundlebim Hobim, Master Hobbit.”, the queen smiled at her.
“What? He wrote that book?”, Udoorin said more than surprised.. and with a rather impressed tone.
Alor’Nadien ne smiled and Brom too, disappeared down the cliff, silently mumbling about the outrageous use of using his name to publish some children’s book!
Tonic hugged her ‘sister’ again, took a deep breath of her wonderful scent, scowled at Udoorin and threatened to decompose him with something nasty and where it mattered, should he mistreat his queen, gave a quick, evasive look at Anglenna, another to her pair, jumped on her gnarly-looking witch’s broom and took off, giving Seressa the final word.
“Your Mistress and I, are not strangers, Seressa Wraiven.”, the beautiful Queen of the Elves said, weaving her hand in a strange, mesmerizing pattern and an inky black smoke appeared where she weaved. Then, out of the smoke, she drew a two-yard-long pole with a thirty-inch, razor-sharp blade; her hex glaive.. “The Hex Lords of Shadowfel all bow in respect to the Raven Queen. I chose the way of the hex, not because I like dark magic, but because I wanted to fight demons. And who better knows and despises demons than the Mistress of Shadowfel? My father did not appreciate it. He had suffered harshly at the hands of warlocks during his war against Themalsar. When he found out about my choice, things did not go well. Perhaps, at the time, I was a bit harsh and stubborn too. I could have handled things in many other ways. Less destructive way, in terms of our relationship, if nothing else. My aunt, Angrellen used it against me and I chose to leave, rather than confront him. Now, he is gone and I could not even say goodbye, or even tell him how much I loved him, even though he had many faults. But then, who am I to speak? I bid you and your friends a fare journey, Seressa Wraiven, Maiden of the Raven Queen, Pair of my sister, Arcantonic Mordenon, and, I would like to add, ‘my friend’, to that list..”
“It is rare to see Tonic actually value someone. I noted she has a long, single strand of black hair that she keeps tucked safety in one of her many pouches. She takes it out every once in a while and stares at it. I gather that strand belongs to you?”, Seressa asked.
“She still has it?”, the young, beautiful half-elf girl said, somewhat astonished.
“She still has it.”, Seressa said. “I have tried, for years, to bring compassion into my pairs life. To see it has finally borne fruit in someone worthy of it is beautiful. Someone like you. Yes. You may add ‘friend’ to that list. I already have.”
The very tall, very dark girl with vivid pink hair and the girl with slender, pale, beautiful, and charcoal black hair embraced each other.
When they parted, she took a step back and paused, for a very brief moment, as her gaze skimmed over the beautiful queen, then the big, burly king, and finally settled on the Betrayer’s daughter.
And when she spoke, her voice seemed to reverberate and it sounded distant and vague as if she was reciting something committed to memory a long time ago.
“Find it. Change it. Gift it.. Thus shall you atone..”, she said.
And without another word, the tall, black girl vanished and a gray, spectral raven appeared where she was. It stared at her, then at the Queen of the Elves for a moment with its dark, unfathomable eyes, flapped its wings once, twice, and was gone..
“Wow! That is kinda cool.”, Udoorin said, staring after the raven.
“Yes. It is. Wish I could do it but that is a gift the Raven Queen blesses only to her select few maidens.”, Alor’Nadien ne murmured.
“What did she mean when she said, ‘find it, change it, gift it, thus you shall atone.’ I mean, not like any of this wasn’t creepy enough already.”, he said.
“I do not know.”, Lorna mused with a slight frown. “Though I do not think she was speaking to either of us. Lenna?”
‘Lenna’ did not answer.
Whatever the very tall, very dark Seressa had meant with her cryptic words, however, it certainly had kindled a fire in her pale green eyes.
“Atoned..”, she murmured, and perhaps for the first time in her one hundred and seventy years, there was ‘hope’ there now..
Udoorin and Lorna stared at one another then the queen shook her head, very slightly, and her king nodded in accent.
“So..”, the he said, as if rewinding to his previous question. “What’s the plan? Where are we going tomorrow?”
“We are going to my home. We are going to the Betrayers manor.”, Anglenna answered, and her ‘kindled’ expression turned into a grim and determined one.
Udoorin gave her a queasy look.
“Uhhmm.. Is that all together wise? I mean, I heard your mother was quite the tough cookie.”
Anglenna gazed at her king for a moment before she spoke.
“No, young Udoorin. My mother is a coward and a malicious piece of work! Should we encounter her, it will mean she has escaped the Three Dog Curse, but not totally unscathed. She will not be angry. She will be vicious, hence we shall not fight her. As cowardly as she may be, she will only run if she is hard pressed because of that particular state of mind.. And the three of us lack the fire power to do that.”
✱ ✱ ✱
I would like to be alone for a bit.”, the skinny little girl sniffed as she stared at the total devastation before her. The house, or perhaps, the hovel, to be fair, was gone. Smashed, quite literally, into the ground, and where the ancient tree that had stood there for eons, was also gone. What remained of both was nothing but a mass of brittle splinters and debris.
It seemed like Master Cathber Gwet’Chen Bolgrig had never existed. He had fought in the Themalsar War, some eight hundred years ago, fought in the subsequent four great raisings in next several centuries, walked this forest from one end to the other, and countless times, making sure all men, elf, dwarf, fey and beast, tree and bush lived in harmony, while he worked, diligently and all alone, and without a single demand of those who shared his forest.
And somewhere under all that mess was his grave.
It broke Inshala’s heart.
She stared at the debris and just..
..broke down and cried like a little girl.
But then, she was a little girl..
This place, this hovel, had been her home. She had grown up here. Her Father had fed her here, and told her stories, and tutored her here. It had been here that he had passed on his wisdom to her. This place had homed the heart of Ritual Forest! There.. in that very pond, she had washed herself, almost every day, from the moment she was old enough to do so. And now the little pond was also gone, filled with large, broken branches, blasted bark, and rotting leaves..
Aager stared at her tiny back, sighed, and faded away and into the forest, settling himself, not too far away, against a pine tree. He closed his eyes and tried to think of nice things. Pretty things. Beautiful things. Things he thought might cheer the girl he had come to love, honor, respect, and had, inevitably, became intertwined.
The only problem was, Aager Fogstep had never really looked at the world around him with eyes seeking beauty. It had always been about danger and how to best kill, or at the very least, avoid it.
Beauty had come, not crashing, but very slowly seeping into his life only after Inshala..
And try as he may to think of something nice, or beautiful, or cheery, the only thing that popped into his mind was her.
Lady Magella, who had joined them several days ago, preferred to sit alone. She had a grim expression on her face and she was staring somewhere far off, and at something unseen.
Lilly Venom, who avoided the she-dwarf like the plague, settled herself too..
..across his brother!
And quietly watched his face.
To be fair, it was an unexpected study for her.
The Aager Fogstep she had known, back in Drashan had been a soulless, bloodless, ruthless man. He had been on the top of Drashan’s Cutters Guild’s list of infamy and was wanted dead —very much, for very long.. So much so that she could still remember, quite vividly, the rooftop knife fights they had had. And knife fights were not like slash-opening one’s opponent with a sword or even running them through with a long blade.. One might argue, what bows and arrows were to swords, swords were to knives;
When you were struggling that close to your mortal enemy, everything became much more alive. Much more exciting. And much more deadly. You could practically stare at one another’s eyes and read their thoughts. You could feel their harsh breaths on each other’s faces. And when you struck, you would also see the pain, the fear, and the despair in those eyes.. and feel the hot, spurting blood of your enemy splashing on your face also!
Lilly had felt his blood on her face. He certainly had felt hers, and many times.. He had likely seen that pain, that fear, and that despair in her eyes as well..
But she had never seen it in his.
And now that man, who had turned out to be his brother, was sitting there, in the cold, and not even bothering to shiver. True, anyone who survived Drashan, and she was using the word, ‘survived’, extremely loosely here, had good resilience for the elements, but she could hardly feel her butt now and she wore a long and thick leather trench coat. Her brother only had his base leather armor on, and a black linen shirt and trousers, and.. that’s it.. And he showed absolutely no sign of discomfort. There he was, sitting on the frozen ground, with his eyes closed, and seemed like he was sleeping under a pleasant, spring afternoon sun..
He seemed.. tired.. but there was peace there too, now. Something she had never seen on his face before. Certainly not in Drashan, not when they had seen one another in the Arashkan Arena, and not until he and his skinny little mate had returned from Durkahan. Apparently, mating with that little girl had brought him that peace, much like it had brought her some peace ever since she had married Largo. But then, she and Largo had had a lot of very exciting nights together. These two idiots, on the other hand..
Lilly stopped there because she just couldn’t comprehend just what these two were, exactly. And to be totally honest about it, she was too scared to even ask her brother about it. The pun aside, she had seen, first hand, that her brother did not react well where his relationship with his mate was questioned, or even politely inquired.
Though in all candor, had they been a regular brother-and-sister, she just knew, she would have pointed a finger at him, laughed at his face, and called him an idiot! They were, however, were not a regular brother-and-sister. Not that Lilly thought she knew what or how that kind of relationship would be or what it would entail, nor did she believe her brother knew what it was either. Suffice to say, her brother was at peace, now, whatever his reasons were.
He was also in conflict.
Lilly had no idea what he was conflicted about, but something gave her the impression that it was not about his skinny little Inshala. Not directly, anyway, but perhaps by proxy. That much, she was certain.
“Tell me what ails you, brother..”, she mused silently. “Tell me like you stabbed me.. You won’t? Of course, you won’t.. Well, there went a perfect brother-sister moment!”
“You are staring at me.”, her brother growled, his eyes closed.
“Do you know just how annoying that growling-thing you got going really is?”, she further said.. in her mind.
“Yes. It is creepy, watching you.”, she replied out loud.
“Why do it then? It’s just a face..”, Aager asked.
“Half a face, actually.”, Lilly corrected.
“Thought you enjoyed challenges.”, he said.
“No, I don’t enjoy them, brother. I kill them.”
“Spoken like a true Drashan.”, Aager grinned behind his half mask.
“Take it off.”, Lilly said. “Your mask. I would be happy to see your face once in a while. I am sure Inshala would too. She won’t say anything about it because she accepts you. Seeing as how blindly she wants you. But I would hazard a guess, she would prefer to see what she follows with such blind devotion.”
“The mask is there for a reason, Lilly. And you shouldn’t hazard anything.. It’s hazardous!”, Aager said, opening his eyes.
“What? Afraid the trees and the bushes might recognize and report on you? I know it doesn’t smell bad here, either.”
Aager stared at her.
“Take off the damn mask. I want to see my brother’s face, not the mask that I stared at while he stabbed me..”, Lilly said in her low, throaty voice.
Aager stared at her some more.
Then, very slowly, he pulled off his mask.
“You are not a pretty man, brother. But then, pretty has nothing to do with it, I guess. I am not much of a beauty either, but that does not seem to matter. Not for Largo, and that’s all that matters to me. Still, it is good to see a face, knowing it belongs to Varr Sama.”
“Varr Sama..”, Aager mused. “That name.. It seems so far away.. Never crossed my mind since the day we were taken away from one another. And never heard it again until my Inshala gave it back to me..”
“I hated Aager.. I wanted to kill him so badly, there are no words to describe my hate for him, brother. Varr Sama? Him I never forgot. Then some guy in the Cutter’s Guild claimed he was my brother. I was still too young, then. And stupidly trusting.. Whatever game he was playing at, it didn’t work, though.”, she said quietly.
“You killed him too..”, she replied mutely. “..the night you stabbed me in the chest. You cut him down like he wasn’t even there.. Then you were on me. I saw nothing but your dead eyes.. and that stupid mask..”
“I am not psychic, you know?”, Aager said.
“If you need something from me, I would rather you told me about it.”, he replied.
“I did. Just now.”, Lilly said.
“True. But for the first time. You want to see my face more often? I want to hear your words more often..”, he said with a grim smile.
“Something for something, is it?”
“Well, I wouldn’t mind giving something for nothing. To you.. Just don’t ask me to do it in public. I do have a reputation to uphold, after all.”, he said and grinned some more.
“You will make an excellent father someday.”, she said with a counter grin of her own. “Should you and Inshala actually do something about it, I mean.”
“Straight for the jugular, I see. Whatever gave you the idea that I would make an excellent father.. someday?”, he asked, dodging her implications.
“You have all the ‘father jokes’ you need.”, she smirked.
“I resent that. My jokes are funny and my Inshala concurs.”, Aager replied, a bit taken aback.
“I can’t imagine that girl not agreeing with you on any matter.”, she said with a snort.
“Ahh.. You think she follows me blindly, perhaps? No, Lilly. She does not. We love each other. We will do many stupid things together. But whatever we do, we agree on it first. Love, as I understand it, does not preclude mindless subjugation. I find that particular notion rather disturbing, and an insult to her intellect. Inshala may be young and lack many social moderations and the things we learn due to, or because we live in a society, but she is far from stupid. What we have is trust. In its most basic, and simplest form. When I want something, she knows, with absolute certainty, that I want it for her. Just like when she wants something, I know, with unquestioning certainty, that she wants it for me. I would have rather she wanted some things.. many things.. for herself.. but she won’t. I give her all the options and choices I can want for her, yet she chooses the one that is most unlikely.. and for whatever reason, her choice wins. I do not claim to understand how it works out that way, suffice to say it does, making her happy, and by proxy, making me happy.”
Lilly stared at her brother for a moment before she grinned at him.
“You are weird. ‘You’ as in plural.. But in an endearing and creepy way.”, she said, then her grin turned grim. “You owe that little girl of yours a lot, you know. She made a human out of two Drashan’s and that is nothing to sneeze at. She sunk a festering temple into the ground, brought hope back to Durkahan, Serenity Home, this forest, to those bloody, stupid, ignorant, superstitious woodsmen, and she brought the elves, the dwarves, the humans, and the damn ogres together.. And she hasn’t asked anything in return. She has few scarce clothes she wears, and those that she has, she actually pays for them with lavender soaps, herbs, spices, and whatever else she crafts by hand. She has a home built by ogres that she shares with you, she loves and wants you so much, it hurts just to look at her, and the only place she could have called a ‘country’, is this tiny square mile of land, and it is now in shambles.. Sad, really.. I certainly would have put a price had I done but a tithe of any of those..”
“True.”, Aager replied simply.
“True? Is that all you have to say? Your home must be a sad, quiet place. A bit like a tomb.”, Lilly snorted.
“Not true.”, he disagreed. “We have our moments of silence because we welcome it. We can hear each other’s breath and heartbeat. It is beautiful.”
“Deep. But not pertinent.”, Lilly said.
“Inshala sings too, sometimes. When I ask her to. But she fills me in all the things she did, all the things she learned, and all the people she met that day. Also beautiful.”, her brother replied.
“I have a question for you.”, she said, giving up on that front.
Aager did not prompt her to ask in hopes that she really wouldn’t.
Aager wasn’t big on extended conversations..
And this, being an elder brother thing seemed to involve too much of said conversing..
“Why are you here?”, she asked.
“Why am I here? That is a rather generic question, Lilly. You might want to be a bit more specific.”, he said.
“Alright, then. Why are you here, as opposed to not next to your girl, doing something about her country?”, she amended.
Aager fell silent for a long slice as he thought of what his sister had just said, putting the idea of trying to come up with some things nice, or beautiful, or even cheery aside.. And something clicked in his mind.. All the nice, the beautiful, or even anything remotely cheery was here, right now.. accept she was crying..
“Be right back.”, he said as he rose to his feet, and disappeared into the frozen forest.
Perhaps two hundred yards away, he stopped, looked all around him, then up at the brittle white winter sky.
“Mab.”, he said mutely.
It took a while for the Mistress of Winter and the Queen of Air and Darkness to answer.
And when she did, her luxurious, dreary, enticing, and scary voice echoed in his mind.
Aager swallowed down the churning sensation that had started crawling up his throat.
“My Knight.”, the voice of Mab said. “It is rare for Mortals to call upon me thus willingly.”
“They would call oft, would they not fear you, my Queen.”, he replied.
“Fear is good. Fear I like. It brings out the respect fools oft forget.”, the voice said.
“It also stays you alone.”, Aager replied.
“Alone is also good. Little do I worry of fools, alone.”, she echoed.
“Alone is alone, my Queen. Much like fear is just that; fear.. The more we have it, the more we are alone.”
“Ahh.. I sense your discontentment. Hence you wish to rile me to your wont.”, she replied.
“I wish you to cough up, my Queen!”, Aager said, and his voice turned cold.
A stunned sort of silence settled in the forest. It was an oppressive silence and it was laced with dread.
“Careful, my Knight. I would not want to waste you without making good use of you.”, the voice said quietly and with trepidation.
“The former Ritual Guardian worked diligently for you, and for your sister. And so did his progeny, sacrificing from her very being. I sense many fey in this forest. Fey that do not entertain such freedoms in many other woods and forests.. When called, they came to Serenity Home in great numbers, which proves my point. Master Cathber asked nothing in return for his services. He gave them freely. So does my mate. And now, I see how those that live thus happy and free take little notice of his home or even his grave. My Inshala mourns, even as we speak, at the debris that was once her and her father’s home. Tell me, my Queen, is this how you repay the deeds you and yours, and your sister have made use and benefited thus grandly?”, Aager said with a low snarl. “Hence I repeat, time to cough up!”
Another silence befell the forest. This one, not as oppressive, but breathless.
Then, a cold, frosty white light jabbed down from the brittle sky and Mab appeared in all her glory, her cold, piercing eyes ablaze, her revealing gown flowing down her lustful figure displaying pale, pale skin unmarked by imperfections. Her white hair glowed with incandescent light and a cloud of mist settled down the small of her back, not unlike a cloak, and she was staring down at her Winter Knight with quiet displeasure.
And with unexpected agility, her long, slender arm shot out and clasped him, by the throat, and picked him up as if he were a toddler.
“Your tone displeases me, my Knight.”, she said frostily.
“I am your vassal, my Queen.”, Aager croaked through his gritted teeth. “And queens take care and look after their vassals. Such is the core of impregnable and unwavering loyalty and it goes both ways. Much like service..”
“No, my Knight. I have fear for that.”, Mab said coldly.
“And you truly believe that will keep Mortals loyal to you?”, he asked. “I would have thought the Queen of Air and Darkness to have known us by now.”
“‘Us by now..’“, she mused, quoting his words..
Aager did not elaborate. Though he was struggling for breath, he still.. grinned!
“Arrogant, Mortals are.”, she hissed, still holding her Winter Knight by the throat.
“Yes, my Queen, we are arrogant, and we are more, and we are less. What matters is what we choose to do at any given time. I am your Knight. I can do your bidding willingly, or I can do them dragging my feet. One will earn you the fear you want. The other, not so much..”, he said.
“Perhaps I should just slay you and be done with.”, she offered.
“And leave the field free for the Summer Knight, and his quite ambitious mate? By the time you find a new ‘me’, I believe your sister and her knight will have had their way with these lands for many centuries. I suspect your winter fey in this forest will suffer the most. I can’t see Titania sparing them. Then there is the Ritual Guardian herself. She already serves Titania by choice. I wouldn’t presume to tell her what to do, but if it were up to me, I would just decide to ban, banish, and exile anything even remotely related to my demise. So, again, time to cough up, my Queen. And that’s trice said and done..”, Aager growled with a gurgling, throaty voice.
This time, the silence didn’t haggle and Mab smiled.
“Finally. A Knight worth my time.”, she said.
Then swung her knight..
..and sent him flying into a tree, some thirty yards away.
Aager crashed right through the tree, and it hurt.
It hurt even more, when he crashed through the next tree..
..and the next!
He lost count after the sixth and everything went dark.
. . .
“How is he?”, a bold, throaty voice asked.
“Hurt.”, replied another. This one, soft, kind, scared, trembling, and angry.
“Is this how it’s going to be? One of you dolts dropping next best thing to dying, every time I turn my back?”, said a third voice, and this one was definitely angry and you could tell she was angry by the way she was snarling.
“You shouldn’t be turning your back to anyone!”, the first voice mumbled, but it got lost when the man lying on the frozen winter ground moaned.
“That.. hurt..”, he said in pain.
“MY AAGER!”, shrieked the soft, kind, and scared voice. “YOU ARE AWAKE!”
“I am?”, Aager groaned. “I don’t feel awake. I feel only hurt..”
“Tell me again, why is my brother lying on the ground and there are nearly a dozen trees knocked down in a straight line as if he just rammed through them?”, Lilly asked. “Or why there are so many weird things everywhere?”
There was a moment’s pause. Then Aager heard Inshala’s voice. “Lilly? Lady? Would you please give us a moment? I need to talk with my mate.”
“Uh oh.”, Lilly said with an amused tone. “It’s the ‘I need to talk’ moment. You are so screwed, brother.”
Lady Magella grunted, and Aager heard two pairs of feet retreating away, one lithe, soft, and barely discernable, the other, heavy, steady, and stomping..
“What were you thinking, my Aager?”, hissed Inshala, and that was the first time he actually heard her hiss at him.
Inshala was angry, alright.
“Uhhmm..”, Aager said, not quite sure what she was talking about. His eyes hurt. His whole head hurt. His back hurt like Hell. He couldn’t quite feel his legs either, and the last thing he remembered was being hurled..
Then he recalled the first pain.
Right when he struck a tree.
Then the second pain.
When he struck the second tree.
To be honest, the subsequent trees became sort of moot after that, since that second one had pretty much knocked all his senses out.
He only recalled a lot many grunts and oomph’s and finally crash landing on an already fallen tree full of squirming and slimy worms, and crawling and biting insects.
To be sure, he had won one over the Winter Queen, but damn, Mab had a heavy hand!
“Why would you anger Mab? Why would you even call her here?”, Inshala hissed some more.
“I.. thought it would be a good idea.. at the time..”, he mumbled.
“What on Earth and Heavens gave you the idea that calling Mab would be a good one, my Aager? Mab is Mab. She is not forgiving and she is vicious. You already ended up becoming her knight, you can not give her anything else!”, she said vehemently.
“Well.. I didn’t give her anything else. I merely reminded her to do her job.”, Aager said with a stubborn voice.
“But.. why? I thought we were going to be stupid together. Not be stupid alone!”, she said as if about to cry.
Aager opened his eyes to see tears running down her face.
Inshala was angry.
But she was also scared.
“Why are you so angry, Inshala?”, he asked. “You talk and bargain with Mab and Titania all the time.”
“Because I know, how. And I do it very carefully, and very, very politely.”, she said and her lower lip started to tremble.
“Well. I got to start somewhere, don’t I?”, he said.
“Since we met, have you ever seen me get into a fight using knives, my Aager?”, she asked.
“No. I haven’t. And I don’t see why you should. Knife fights are extremely dangerous and you don’t have the right training—”, Aager said then paused. “Ahh.. I see your point, love.”
Inshala stared down at the man she loved as more tears ran down her face.
Just like that.
She was all over him, hugging him fiercely.
“Please, my Aager. Mab is Mab. And she values her knights as she values gold.. And gold means nothing to Mab! For whatever reason, you have garnered some interest in her. Your continued existence depends on that interest. Should she lose that, she will get rid of you and will call it a little loss and seek a new one. It will not be such a little loss for me. You must know, and understand this by now.”, she pleaded as she sobbed into the crook of his neck.
Aager hugged her back, and just as fiercely as he dared to while he lay there, on the frozen forest ground until she exhausted herself out.
“C’mon, love.”, he said after waiting for a bit more and gruffly. “It is freezing on the ground. We wouldn’t want you to catch a cold, now would we?”
“I have never caught a cold in my life.”, Inshala’s muffled sniff was heard.
“Well. Let’s not start to catch one now. Help me up?”, he asked.
Inshala sprang to her feet, then with great agony, she helped her mate up and on his feet.
All in all, it was a sad sight, really.
“Lesson learned.”, he mumbled. “Don’t sass Mab!”
And the two of them, one skinny little girl, the other in dark, shredded clothes and limping, came over to the wreck that was once Master Cathber and Inshala’s home..
..except, the wreck, the rubble, the broken and splintered branches, and the debris was gone!
A large ogre stomped past them, followed by a few others, all carrying large and heavy sacks.
The one leading nodded at them and said, “Ritual Guardian, Winter Knight.”, and continued on. Then they dropped the sacks in front of the house—
“Where did that house come from?”, Aager asked.
Inshala did not reply immediately.
As a matter of fact, she couldn’t reply.
Because she was busy staring in quiet awe as the ogres emptied their sacks to reveal their burden; hundreds of flat, smooth rocks! The leading ogre gave a few curt orders and they all started laying the flat rocks, forming a stone path leading to and from the house.
Then, Aager noted the other creature; several, extraordinarily beautiful and willowy dryads walking around and carefully the planting acorns the scores of tiny sprites and pixies darting around brought them, as several wood elves were busily carving beautiful shapes and designs of leaves and flowers and vines and trees into the door, the wooden frames of the house, and carefully embossing similar shapes, but not as concentrated as the door and the window frames, going for elegance, rather than extravagance..
He saw half a dozen dwarves up on the roof of the house, carefully laying baked red clay roof tiles and hammering them in place with hard, wooden pegs. More dwarves could be seen through the open windows, building a fireplace and chimney using mortar and red, blocky bricks. To his disturbed recognition, he also saw something huge, perhaps fifteen or sixteen feet tall, and nearly as wide monstrosity that seemed to be nothing more than thick branches, choking vines, and rotting vegetation; a bloody shambling mound, rummaging contentedly in the previously stagnated, sluggish, and dark, muddy pond! Every once in a while, one of the dwarves or the ogres would come and dump rubble and debris into the pond and an approving sort of rumble would rise from the monstrosity! He also saw several other slender figured girls, nymphs, he surmised, though he wasn’t quite sure how he knew. One of them was burning away some of the larger branches of the gigantic tree that had fallen on the former house of Master Cathber while another weaved her tiny hands as she danced, not unlike a belly dancer causing moderate-sized whirlwinds to spin around the fires, making sure they did not spread and also carried away the smoke. There were more of them, gathered around the shambling mound, and they were chanting. And the more they chanted, the more clear sparkling water poured into the pond seemingly out of thin air!
“Huh!”, he said, a bit thunderstruck.
“Yes, my Aager, huh!”, Inshala replied, also awed.
And every time a pixie, or a sprite, or an elf, or a dwarf, or a dryad would walk or fly past them, they would nod and say, “Ritual Guardian. Winter Knight.”, and move along.
Aager did note a few other details; some of the fey knew Inshala in person and that they were all either shy of him, or they shied from him.
“Please assure them I mean them no harm.”, he said to Inshala.
“They know, my Aager. Some of them are winter fey and some of them are summer fey. But you are the Winter Knight, after all. In time, some of them might become friends, but that will require much effort on our part.”
“You mean, effort on my part.”, Aager said.
“No, my Aager. Your part is my part as well, now. Hence, our part.. And.. Thank you..”, she said, intertwining herself onto his arm. “This.. means a lot to me..”
“Worth all the buggery bum, then.”, he said with a smile.
Inshala cracked a snort!
Someone cleared her throat behind them and the two turned around to see Lady Magella scowling at.. pretty much everything!
“Care to explain?”, she said harshly
Lilly was standing somewhat behind her, but not near enough, as if she didn’t want to catch whatever ‘flu’ she thought the she-dwarf was afflicted with.. in a mental sense.. She just stood there, diffidently gnawing at one of her pinkies and observing the strange scene; the construction, the artistry, the magic, the landscaping, the odd and strange fey, and the.. well.. whatever else was going on that she couldn’t recognize or put names to..
Aager looked down at the angry-looking she-dwarf and said;
Lady’s scowl turned into an even bigger scowl.
“No?”, she said.
“No.”, Aager replied. “This is a private matter, Lady. It involves only my Inshala. It is no body else’s business, and in a literal sense. What is happening here, is out of the jurisdiction of everyone!”
Lady’s bigger scowl turn into a frown, now, though it wasn’t clear if that was a good thing.
“I.. see..”, she said.
One of the dryads couldn’t help it anymore and finally came skipping and skimping excitedly near Inshala, giving a wide berth to her mate, the Winter Knight, though.
“Hey you!”, she said happily.
“Temessa!”, Inshala half-shrieked in delight. “It’s been so long!”
“You have grown smaller, my pretty Inshala. Is that not supposed to go the other way around? Owww.. has the Winter Knight sucked all the life out of you?”, the beautiful dryad, Temessa, said with an awed expression, taking a hoping little skip on the other side of Inshala, and away from the dreadful-looking human; Mab’s hatchet man, the Winter Knight!
Aager looked the other way when Inshala giggled at that.
“The Winter Knight does not suck the life out of people. Those are vampires.. How come you are here, though? I can see Yamara over there and she seems to be having fun burning things. I can also see Cherriot, Shyad, Kardenymp, and Veraminks too.”, she said happily.
“Well.. When your mate aggravated Mab, she pestered Mother Titania to ‘cough up!’.. Whatever that means.. So we were sent here, along with some of summer pixies and sprites to clean up and make a beautiful garden for the Ritual Guardian —that’s you, by the way, but the winter pixies and the winter sprites and the summer pixies and the summer sprites started fighting the moment they arrived! You know how childish and enthusiastic they are..”, she said with another sigh.
“Ow, my, yes.”, Inshala said with a little, bubbling laugh. “How are they still not fighting, though?”
“We told them if they didn’t stop fighting, no one would get any sugar canes!”, Temessa said, then she lowered her voice and asked —in a pleading tone.. “You do have some sugar canes, right? All those silly pixies and even sillier sprites have had a field day for weeks at that human town. And they are getting paid in sugar canes, and we are not getting any of it.. AT ALL! It’s so unfair!”
“I have some. Want?”, she asked.
“WANT!”, Temessa said promptly.
..as Inshala was suddenly swarmed by a dozen or so very pretty, very beautiful dryads and nymphs, and over a score of pixies and sprites and other enthralling wonders of nature!
“That’s just creepy.”, Lady Magella said, ogling at the commotion taking place merely a few yards away.
“No. It is worse; those are drug addicts, Inshala is their dealer, Aager is her bruiser, and this is a bloody crime in progress!”, Lilly snorted.
✱ ✱ ✱
Okay. We are going live in five. You ready, luv?”, Seressa Wraiven asked the lithe, athletic, pale tundra elf girl who was pouting. She was pouting, not because she was feeling particularly sullen or petulant, but because the striking shape of her mouth gave her that impression.
Ow, and she was also frowning, or even scowling, but that was by choice. She had that vague expression people sometimes got when they thought they were being swindled.
“No.”, she said. And she emphasized it by giving the very tall, very dark girl standing before her a very steady, ‘And I am not moving until I understand’, look!
But that did not deter the very tall, very dark Seressa.
She gave the tundra elf one of her best smiles and with a very cheery and energetic voice, she said, “Cora, luv, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. You will get to speak with the dean of the Academy of Melshieve, Grand Master Mervlin the Awesome! Well, his official title isn’t really ‘Awesome’, but he is!”
“I do not know this Mervlin dude. And neither do I know your Melshieve.”, Cora Sleet replied coolly.
The bushy little hobbit, Brom, snickered from the side, but both Seressa and her pair, Arcantonic Palecog, the midgety little gnomic girl stood staring at one another, quietly thunderstruck!
“Dude?”, spluttered Tonic. “DUDE? Hells Bells, she just called Grand Master Mervlin, a dude!”
“What? Is he a she?”, Cora asked, unperturbed.
“No, she isn’t.. He isn’t dammit, but that’s not the point!”, the little gnomic girl said exasperatedly.
“Huh! There’s a point, then?”, the tundra elf asked.
Both Tonic and Seressa ogled at her.
“Girl, Mervlin is the greatest wizard there is!”, Tonic said finally.
“Don’t like wizards. Don’t care much for them. Don’t like talking either. Why does this Mervlin dean-dude of yours even wants to talk to me? Brom likes talking. He can’t have enough of it.”, she said.
“I resent that.”, Brom said, but Cora ignored him.
“Your dean-dude should talk to him. He is a bard. He can make better words than I can.”
“Yes, he can.”, Seressa said. “But Master Brom is also a hobbit and they are not uncommon, particularly since Bowling Hills is not all that far from Melshieve..”
Then she hastily added, “—as unique as he is as an individual.”
“Nice twist..”, Brom murmured.
“You, my dear Cora Sleet, are unique in many aspects and entertain certain ‘novelties’, as in, there has never been any tundra elves nor any barbarians from the Great Northern Tundra who have ever attended the Academy, and the only reports or records about them is mere mention as part of the Themalsar War history that took place some eight hundred years ago..”
“I don’t do entertaining, Seressa..”, Cora replied sternly. “I certainly am not going to go to this Academy of yours, seeing as they prefer to just watch and observe evil when it occurs, rather than do something about it when they can. And I can only imagine why no tundra elf, or any barbarian for that matter, would attend to your thingy. We have better things to do with our time, you know..”
“Please, Cora!”, she pleaded.
“No!”, Cora said with the same stern tone.
“Pretty please with sugar on top?”, she begged.
“I don’t know what that is, but it sounds like a bribe, so, no!”, the pale snow elf said.
“Help me out, here, Tonic!”, Seressa turned to her pair.
“I promise, I will be good for a whole month?”, Tonic offered.
“You will be good for a whole month and more, either way, Arcantonic Palecog!”, Cora said, staring down at the midgety little gnomic girl coldly.
“Master Brom. Please help explain to Cora why it is so important for her to have a few minutes interview with the dean of the Academy of Melshieve, and why it might be detrimental to having someone as important and powerful as Grand Master Mervlin on our side!”, Seressa said, turning to the bushy-haired hobbit this time and in near tears.
“Importance and power are relative and mean something only to those who care or give a damn, Seressa.”, Brom mused. “Don’t get me wrong. I believe you and have faith in you and I am sure Grand Master Mervlin whom I certainly have heard of, is indeed as important and powerful as you say he is. But for me, he is not so important. For Cora, who comes from the north end of the continent, not at all! Perhaps you should explain to her what he will do for her, should she agree to do this interview thing..”, Brom offered.
“I thought you’d be on my side, Master Brom.”, she said with a very sad face.
It broke Brom’s heart to see that.
“I am always on your side, my dear girl. But if you want your interview, it is Cora who you must persuade, not me.”, he replied kindly.
“Yeah, what he said.”, Cora inserted.
Seressa pouted for a bit more, then gave up and sighed with resignation.
“I do not understand why you are being so stubborn about this, luv. Perhaps you have all the misconceptions and wrong impressions of the Academy, but not of any of the good ones, which is probably both my and Tonic’s fault. Those that have graduated from Melshieve have had the best education the kingdom has to offer and many of them become mayors, lords, dukes, duchesses, generals, marshals, commanders, judges, researchers, historians, and more, and have worked diligently or fought for the peoples of this kingdom including Tonic and myself. The Academy has the policy of not getting involved to keep its neutrality status unmarred, which is why her agents are allowed to roam free pretty much everywhere without hindrance so they may observe conflicts for historical reasons. If they did intervene, everyone would demand their presence on their side and soon enough, they would end up being a side themselves, and anyone with a grudge would try and lay siege to the Academy grounds.”, she explained earnestly.
“I know about your academy’s policies, Seressa. I gathered as much during our first-time jump, and Ri Grandaleren’s reaction and distaste when the two of you showed him your Agents of Melshieve badge-thingies..”, Cora replied.
“True. But as individuals, we can, and have included ourselves in many affairs, though I am not sure our time jumps actually counts. My point is, perhaps for the first time since its foundation, Melshieve has the legal right to actually intervene and get involved, rather than just observe, if they can be convinced. I have a moderately decent reputation in the Academy—”, Seressa said.
“—But I don’t!”, Tonic inserted with a disgusted mumble. “Even though I have some of the highest grades in the classes I was allowed to take, I also have the highest recorded disciplinary actions in the Academy history without being expelled; 208 of them! I was bested only once, by a weird ass kid named Fearghas Fionnghal on his first year!”
“I am tempted to ask, why would anyone do that, but we are talking about you, so the question sort of answers itself.”
Tonic scowled at him but didn’t retaliate.
“Let’s not go there, Tonic, luv. We all had our reasons to be how we were.”, her very tall, very dark pair said. Then she turned back to Cora. “The point is, it is not easy to get an official and academic interview with the dean. With you, though, who is very, very unique, and has such political prestige amongst all the Great Northern Tundra hordes and tribes, will very much draw his interest. So much so that he might even be tempted to join the coming war, or at the very least, partake in it, seeing as you are helping the kingdom while not being part of it.”
Cora frowned, then looked down at Brom.
“I would say it’s a long shot, but worth the loss of a few minutes.. My feet are killing me!”, he said.
Cora frowned some more.
“I understand your point, Seressa. But I don’t like publicity.”, she said.
“It’s too late for that, luv.”, Seressa replied honestly. “You are known throughout the tundra and to all the barbarian hordes and tribes. Once we are done here, we will likely be going there to convince and gather them for the coming war and you will be leading them. Your name will go down to every history book there is. The only difference is, should you do this interview, you will be giving, perhaps the only one-on-one, and you will be giving it to the dean of the Academy of Melshieve, himself, where there shall be no rumors, no silly gossips, but real, solid facts. Grand Master Mervlin does not mess around, and he does not do paparazzi.”
“I do not know what this paparazzi-thing is.”, Cora frowned.
“It is mostly fake news about celebrities, particularly about their private lives.”, Brom explained.
The reaction Cora showed to that was quite expected, really.
Her gaze became glacial, her face turned stony, as fumes of cold, arctic wisps rose from her nose and ears and she hissed..
“They had better not!”
“I totally agree, luv.”, Seressa said hastily. “Which is why it is very important that your first, and possibly only interview should be made with someone whose reputation is solid.”
Cora fell silent as she quietly smoldered.
“Just do it, girl.”, Brom said. “Assume it is bitter medicine. It sucks to spoon it, but will be good in the long run.”
“Very well.”, the barbarian girl finally caved in.
“At a girl.”, he grinned. “Oh, and, bring down the scowling a notch or six. You want the dean to respect you for being serious. You don’t want to give him the impression that you are going to go berserk on him.”
Cora stared down at the bushy little hobbit.
“Just be cool.”, Brom said.
“I am always cool.”, Cora replied.
“I mean, in a literal sense..”, he amended.
“I am cool, in a literal-whatsit sense.. all the time!”
“Are we ready, then?”, Seressa asked with a very excited smile.
“I guess we are.”, Brom said.
“Tonic, luv, why don’t you stand next to me on my left, and Master Brom on my right, and you, Cora, can stand there..”, she said, pointing at a spot near the great fissure that was the Serpent’s End.
When everyone was where they should be, Seressa’s face went blank for a moment then returned to her normal, usual, smiling self, but there was someone else with her now, an old man with short white hair, and an similarly white, neatly trimmed beard. He appeared right next to the very tall, very dark girl and without any sound or flashy visual effects!
One moment there was nothing, the next, there he was..
Mervlin of the Academy of Melshieve.
The dean was old, but not ancient, and certainly not decrepit. He had a pair of very thin, spidery spectacles and he stared around him through vivid blue eyes. He wore a strange, fez-like cap on his head, and long, flowing, silver-colored coat, as opposed to robes, embroidered with similarly colored threads over a neat, dark shirt and trousers, the latter tucked into a pair of tall, knee-high, soft leather boots. He had forgone the typical, staff-wielding-wizard look, but opted for a wand that he carried on his embossed leather belt, not unlike a sidearm, the way some swashbucklers carried their poniards. He had quite a number of beautiful-looking rings on his long, slender fingers and the chains of a necklace were visible from behind his beard. He also had a tiny, gray-white mouse perched on his shoulder..
The dean of the Academy of Melshieve, Grand Master Mervlin, broadcasted the distinct air of high intellect, a cunning mind, elegance, and class..
Seressa seemed to hold her breath in adoration and awe as Tonic ogled at the Grand Master Mervlin and was very much itching for an autograph!
“Good afternoon, Agent Seressa Wraiven. You are a pleasure to behold as always, though it has been some time you sent your last report. Not up to your usual punctual precision, I must say. But I gather you were busy.”, he said as he looked around, then at the others. “Quite busy indeed.”
Mervlin had a slightly raspy and ‘smoky’ voice, perhaps even just a tad on the mellow side. It gave his words a certain distinction and made the people around him want to lean in and hear better.
“And I see Agent Arcantonic Palecog as well, hiding behind her pair! No reports were ever submitted by you, which is a loss, really. Your dedication to being ‘understood correctly’ made your reports and theses back at the academy, quite succinct and void of unscientific flair, which was a relief from our usual, overenthusiastic graduates.”, he said with a smile.
Seressa and Tonic ogled at him some more.
“You, sir, must be the famous Master Brom Bumblebrim. Or should I call you Blom Bundlebim Hobim?”, he asked, also with a smile.
Brom frowned a bit. Again with the Blom Bundlebim Hobim, he thought. Apparently, someone was running around telling, and writing, stories from his mouth, using his bloody name! But what baffled him was, that particular derivation of his name had been used only by the fey at Gull’s Perch, and he couldn’t imagine those pretty dryad and nymph girls sitting down and writing a storybook about his adventures.. Not to mention, they wouldn’t have known the things he had lived through before and after Gull’s Perch!
“And we have..”, he said, turning to the lithe, tundra elf. “..a genuine barbarian princess, Cora Sleet, the only known survivor of Ironfrost..”
Cora frowned at him.
She didn’t know this man and he seemed to know them all. The fact that he knew Seressa and Tonic was perfectly understandable, and maybe even Brom, he was a bard after all, but why would he know about her, or of Ironfrost. She had come, practically, from the other end of the continent and Ironfrost had been ‘wildly’ important only for those who used to live there..
“You are well informed, sir.”, Brom said, nodding at the Grand Master with an artful bow.
“Part of my job description, young Master Brom.”, he smiled down at him. “It would be rather naïve of me to have so many agents and not know what is significant.” Then he turned and looked at the very tall, very dark girl through his spidery spectacles and said, “Now then, my dear Seressa, I believe you promised an interview for me?”
Seressa jumped as if someone had suddenly pinched her butt!
“Yes, Grand Master. Though you have so brilliantly deduced, I would very much like to officially introduce, Princess Cora Sleet, the sole survivor of Ironfrost, the Shield of Prophecies, and the voice of the Great Northern Tundras.. Cora, luv, I present you, Grand Master Mervlin, the Dean of the Academy of Melshieve, and the Seat Holder of the Wizards of Vodgar, and the Cleanser of Morlich!”
“A bit overdone, girl.”, mumbled Cora. “I do not hold the titles of half of what you just said.”
“I doubt, my dear girl.”, Mervlin said with his raspy, smoky voice. “Seressa Wraiven has never been known to speak out of turn. Now, then. I was promised an interview, might as well get started, shall we? Let’s start with you, and where you were born. Then we can move to the events that lead to your unexpected fame amongst the other barbarian hordes and tribes..”
The interview between Cora Sleet and Dean Mervlin took more than just a few minutes. The old man was quite fascinated by the lithe, athletic, pale tundra elf, with her long, snow-white braided locks, and swirling tattoos. Every question he asked was carefully phrased and done so with tender deliberation. Cora wasn’t sure why the old man was so fascinated by her. Not that she had any low self-esteem, but the fact of the matter was, she was the kind of girl that didn’t bother much with such egocentric ‘trivia’. She knew she had experienced a lot, particularly for a very young elf such as herself, but she also knew she hadn’t asked for any of it. Things had happened to her and she had merely made the choice between what few were available for her or as they presented themselves to her at the time. Though as the prolonged interview went on, she found out, her previous assessment wasn’t altogether true. At times, she had ‘created’ options that hadn’t been there at all. She also found out that she respected the opinions of Brom and Seressa more than she thought she had. Interestingly enough, she respected Tonic’s practical solutions, if not her paralytic attitudes, more than any of them. To her unexpected realization, Cora figured she had a very unbarbaric attitude towards foreigners and outsiders, which was pretty much anyone and everyone who was not a barbarian from the Great Northern Tundras!
Much like it dawned upon her that before her relative success with the Red October incident, the barbarian tribes and hordes had had very distinct boundaries and little to no interactions other than war, or war-related peace. And what peace there had been, for instance; the one between the Bear Claw Tribe and the Ice Craig Tribe was really nothing more than to make sure the Ice Wolf Horde and the Wyrm Horde wouldn’t attack them en masse.. Cora, along with Brom, had somehow changed that, and what’s more, it had stuck! The first sign was the Ice Wolf Horde offering ‘A Year And A Day’ peace with their neighbors, the Bear Claw Tribe, both putting aside their centuries-old enmities. The culmination of that peace had led her and Brom to meet Seressa and Tonic.. and start their very much unexpected trek to fulfill prophecies of the Heavens.. or the infamous Raven Queen..
Cora did not say anything about the prophecies, nor their ‘time jumps’, or anything about how they had traveled back some eight hundred years to ‘right a wrong’ at the first Themalsar War..
..then how they had traveled to her own relative time to relive what she already had, but this time, to own the crimes of the real perpetrator who had destroyed her Ironfrost, just to retrieve the holy spear of an Archangel!
Her actions, along with her choices, had indeed destroyed Ironfrost. It had also saved The Spear of Light, and, not quite inadvertently, destroyed the Wyrm Horde as well, in a way, avenging her Ironfrost in full!
Their time jump to the deranged gnome, Arcanton, Tonic’s uncle, and his demented and demon-infested tower had been unprecedented. But to have found out what they had had to do at the end had struck a blow to her sensibilities; not to face the evil gnome, but to make some indiscernible changes on some numbers that would, in effect, alter history!
That was likely when she had actually respected the otherwise very irritating little gnomic girl, Tonic!
It took a while for Cora to realize she had fallen silent, and that it had stretched over several long minutes. She looked up to see the old wizard staring at her through his spidery spectacles and his vivid blue eyes..
“I would very much like to hear the details of where you just went, Princess Cora.”, he rasped merrily. “I am quite sure that would make even a better interview.”
“Perhaps. But not an interview for now. I have already spoken more than I should have, as dear as Seressa is to me, she has carefully neglected to tell me why exactly we are having this interview in the first place. Nothing I have said is all that interesting. Not when you consider what’s coming our way. Once the Orken destroys Serenity Home and the people standing in their way, I suspect your happy days in your academy will be over within the next two decades. You, warm races have become docile. And sluggish.. In your minds and in your hearts.. I have seen, first hand, how a civilization that lived for eons could be entombed in ice and destroyed in a single afternoon; my Ironfrost.. Perhaps you think that is an exception because it was attacked by a Great White.. There were no dragons when your Arashkan fell. There were no dragons when High Woods burned to the ground and Bari Na-ammen was shattered in less than a mere week. Those beasts will come here, and they will take these lands. Then they will reproduce and spread even more. Your Endless Watch will fall sooner than Arashkan. Your academy will make a good stand, I am sure, but it will fall in the end, because when they come, twenty years from now, they will be at least half a million in number. Considering the number of prisoners they will take and use to birth more, their numbers will likely be closer to double that. And they will call demons to their aid. They will attack your school from every direction; around you, above you, and from under you. If you think that unlikely, you should know, the Wyrm Horde had numbers closer to ten thousand and they were eradicated, overnight, by the Orken. You should also know, barbarians are not like the soft southern races. Men, and women, old and young, are all warriors from the day they can walk. The Orken eradicated that, overnight! I heard you have trouble with the barbarian here. How many of them come at your academy at once? Fifty? One hundred? Five hundred? Now assume five hundred thousand of them coming at you without remorse nor retreat. How long do you think your defenses will last against that?”
And that had likely been the longest speech Cora had with a stranger.. or even a friend..
“You make a convincing case. We, at the academy, always believed knowledge was power—”, Mervlin began.
“No.”, Cora cut in. “It is not. Knowledge without deed is nothing.. You want to know how I know that?”
“By all means, do tell.”, the old dean said seriously.
“You now have knowledge because I just gave it to you. Should you choose to do nothing with it, that knowledge is nothing. Should you choose to do something about it, then it will become power.”
“I suppose we could argue about the merits of both sides..”, he mused.
“You could. I won’t. I am not a philosopher. I do not have the luxury to sit down and talk about things that will not feed my people or stay them alive.. I live by the sword, and one day at a time. If I am alive at the end of that day, I know I have been successful. You, on the other hand, live for your luxuries. Neither do you have the physical prowess to survive our standards, nor do you have the temperament for it. So you can lend a hand here and save your luxuries, or you can do it all alone when the enemy tramples over our corpses and comes to your gates..”
Seressa and Tonic were staring at her. Ogling, really, for the barbarian girl had, in a sense, bulldozed right over their esteemed dean, the Great Mervlin!
Brom opted to quietly cough into his hand and hide his grin.
Mervlin squinted at her for a long, silent minute before he spoke again.
“Very well. What would you have us do, Cora Sleet of the Great Northern Tundras?”, he asked.
“I wouldn’t know. What can you do?”, she countered.
“If I may, perhaps I can offer a suggestion, Grand Master?”, Seressa said tentatively.
“By all means do, dear girl.”, Mervlin replied.
“Several weeks ago, there was a gathering of representatives of various powers from many cities of the kingdom. There were even guests representing civilizations and races from outside the kingdom.”, she began.
“Yes, my dear, I am aware of that meeting. Durkahan, Vodgar, Koruxan, Palantine, former Arashkan and Bari Na-ammen, the local dwarves and gnomes, and Endless Watch were all there, along with a very dangerous man from Drashan, and the four of you. The meeting was cut short by an assassination attempt upon pretty much everyone there.”, Mervlin said.
“Yes, sir. Before the attacks began, however, I made a peripheral suggestion that perhaps the famous Melshieve Gunships could bring Endless Watch Naphtha Teams, and their munitions, and drop them over the Orken as per need. The queen of the remaining Bari Na-ammen refugees, Alor’Nadien ne Feymist, even offered to lend a sizable number of her elven archers to also board the gunships and protect them in case of aerial attacks.”
Mervlin’s frown turned deeper.
“Seressa..”, he said fuming from his nose. “..those gunships are, indeed, quite sturdy, and I do believe they would be just as effective as you assume they would. They have, however, never been battle-tested and only used for scouting missions. Their crew is comprised mostly of engineers, researchers, and students interested in weather forecast and migration patterns of various bird species.”
“They also carry ATAT’s —Air To All Terrain Cannons and.. Storm Kites!”, Seressa said with elated happiness..
Mervlin stared at her through his spectacles like he was trying to establish just how dense a particular student was.
“Miss Seressa.”, he began with a tone that suggested a speech that would likely involve much disappointment by the time it was done. “That you would even offer such a silly thing, is sad, as are those kites. They are on the gunships in the hopes that one of the students would get drunk enough to try them, or go for them on a dare! They have absolutely no safety to speak of, they have threadbare skeletal structure, they have very low carrying capacity, and should they suffer any damage, they would plummet down and into the ground, not unlike a concussed rock!”
“Actually, their design is quite sound, sir. I know, because I was offered the job as a Storm Kite pilot back at the Academy. I inspected the plans and the ones already built.”, she replied with excitement.
Tonic rolled her eyes.
“Girl, those things are corpses waiting to happen!”, she sneered at her pair.
“My dear girl, are you aware that the last ALL test pilots ended up splattered all over the cliffside of the Academy?”, Mervlin inserted.
“Yes, sir, I am. I am also aware that none of those test pilots had previous flight experience. I do. I also have personal safety options they lacked.”, she said with earnest enthusiasm.
“What do you wish to accomplish, should you succeed?”, the dean asked.
“To go down on history to be the first person, and woman, to have flown on a genuine, hand-made craft that does not use magic or alchemy to stay afloat, but pure aerodynamics and physics! And I can also carry two, Class-C Type Naphtha Grenades and drop them with acceptable precision. If I show how it is done, I am sure anyone can ride them.”, she offered with a breathless thrill. “The fact that cliff jumping with Storm Kites failed, by no means proves that they are unsafe. Those kites were built to fly after attaining a certain speed. The cliffs on the east side of the Academy are high enough to kill, should anyone fall, but not high enough for the kites to achieve their minimum speed to start their flight.”
“Well, crap!”, Tonic swore. “That actually makes sense. All you would need is to hook them to the side or under the gunships, rise high enough, then drop them, and their pilots, and if their infrastructure is indeed sound, they should stay at least afloat.. sort of like birds do with open wingspans. Dammit, girl, now you have me all hyped and I wanna try one too!”
“Awesome!”, Seressa whooped. “Master Brom, Cora, luv?”
“I will get on a gunship, but that is as far off the ground I am going to get.”, Brom replied sternly.
“Fair enough.”, she smiled.
“Just out of curiosity, why are we even going to be trying this, now? We do have a mission in our hands, you know.”, Cora said with a slight frown though her eyes did betray her curiosity was more than in the question itself.
Seressa held up one slender hand and turned to Grand Master Mervlin.
“Sir, we have concerned suspicions that the Orken, at this very moment, are using Serpent’s End to move their troops to hit Serenity Home from the rear. They may even hit Endless Watch from this distance. We were, however unable to verify our concerns due to the fact that we lack the means. But perhaps you may be able to help us on this matter?”
“Very shrewd, Agent Seressa. I was wondering why you insisted the interview take place here, in particular. I suppose that is rather obvious now.”, Mervlin said with a bemused expression.
Seressa showed the grace to blush.
“Well, sir, Tonic thinks we should rig the sides of this chasm with high explosives and just blow it down on top of them. Cora, here, would rather we verify that those down there are in fact, Orken troops and not some unknown and unrelated people.. as unlikely as that sounds, I personally agree with her good sensibilities.”, she explained. “Should you verify that there are, in fact, Orken troops moving down there, you could call in a gunship with naphtha grenades and we could burn and choke them, since bringing down the charm might not kill them all but burry some, from which they can dig themselves out.”
“Why not drop the grenades directly from the gunship?”, Brom asked. “Seems like the safer option.”
“No.”, Tonic said before anyone else could reply. “Dropping naphtha grenades from that high will miss their target more than they hit. We will have to drop altitude low enough to be able to aim without concern of the wind factor. We do not know just how high the flames from those grenades will rise, however, so we will be risking the gunship which can’t move away that fast, once it slows down for the aiming. A Storm Kite, on the other hand, will be flying right over the chasm and at an incredible speed. It will be far away by the time the grenades detonate.”
Cora made a ‘that sort of makes sense, I suppose’, sort of face, while Grand Master Mervlin sighed.
“I see you have given quite a bit of thought into this, Agent Seressa. You are as thorough as ever. As of now, I am suspending all non-aggression status of the Academy and initiating the A Tout Les Canon protocol, a first in its history, until such time as the Orken threat is gone, or at the very least, contained. Any member of the personnel will be given a choice to attend the war. Any that do will receive senior status and the full payment of a year for each month they serve. Any student in their fifth or sixth years may attend at will. Those that are in their third or fourth years will require their parents’ signed consent. Any student under that will be restricted from attending. Now. Let’s see what we have here..”
And just like that, the Academy of Melshieve declared open war, as Mervlin closed his eyes, made an odd gesture, murmured some things, and stood where he was.. for perhaps half an hour or more..
When he opened his eyes again, their vivid blues had turned several shades darker and his expression had become quite grim.
“Princess Cora, I believe you were right. Knowledge is, indeed, useless without deed. There are thousands of Orken troops moving east down there as we speak. I have sent word to the Academy to send all six gunships to Endless Watch immediately. I have also contacted Lord Alberdel Kandara of Endless Watch to prepare his naphtha teams, along with their munitions to be picked up and brought here. I guess it is time we battle-tested those flying coffins!”, he said harshly.
“How long will it take for them to get here?”, Cora asked.
“In a short few hours for The Chimaera to arrive. I had sent it to Endless Watch in case one of many unexpected eventualities occurred and it is on its way here at full throttle. The Adamant, The Basilisk, The Gauntlet, The Hammer, and The Manticore will arrive in five days, all loaded with Class-A Type Naphtha Grenades to drop from the deck and Class-C Type Naphtha Grenades for the squadron of Storm Kites each will carry on board.”
There was a stunned sort of silence, more so for Seressa and Tonic. They had hoped, and tentatively expected, at best, one or two gunships. Not all six!
Brom was silent because he had noted the ostentatious, and quite arrogant names they had designated to their ships. Apparently, Melshieve didn’t do anything without unwarded flair..
Cora fell silent because she wasn’t quite sure what all the names and ‘class-whatsits’ meant, but like her brushy little friend, she also thought they were a tad magnanimous.
“How many Storm Kites are there in a squadron.. thingy?”, she asked to get some perspective and scope at least.
“Eighteen.”, Tonic replied promptly. “Hells Bells, that’s a hundred and eight Storm Kites! They will be like a cloud of angry hornets over the battlefield!”
“That’s a five-day loss in waiting.”, Cora frowned.
“Do not be troubled, Cora Sleet, you will only need to wait untill The Chimaera gets here, which should arrive in a just few hours. We can start surveying Serpent’s End and find the best place to target. Once the others arrive, we may commence with the bombardment..”, Dean Mervlin said in his raspy voice.
“Alright. I suppose we wait, then. Brom, Tonic, with me. Let’s make sure this area is secure before we settle down. Seressa, perhaps you could scout from above?”, she said gruffly and took off with the scruffy little gnomic girl and the bushy-haired hobbit..
Seressa and Mervlin stared after the three as they diminished in the distance.
“She has a cautious but emphasizing will, that one.”, the dean mused.
“She has many qualities, sir. Her strong will is but one of them.”, Seressa said proudly.
“You have been gone for nearly eighteen years now, my dear girl. Your last report came in sixteen years ago. I sent trackers to find you and your pair. That’s what we do when we lose contact with our agents.. They found traces of you two somewhere northeast of some howling barbarians, then they lost you. The next time was when you were sighted at Arashkan, a month or so before its fall. Then there were rumors of two girls with your descriptions, having been sighted at a Scowling Hills, a local dwarven settlement, then again at the War Council at Serenity Home. You move in erratic patterns, my dear. Very unlike you. Though seeing that Miss Tonic has changed is an elevating sight. Almost as happy as seeing you with friends. The Academy did you a great disservice back then. But apparently, the mentality of our civilization hasn’t evolved enough.”
“It’s alright sir. I regret having missed all the socialization and the parties and the girls’ nights. But it gave me the opportunity to devour most of the Academy Library, and a larger portion of its archives..”, she said with a whimsical smile. “Besides, I doubt any of those girls ever had a girls’ night as awesome as Cora and I had. The wreck was legendary!”
“What interests me..”, he mused, peering at the very tall, very dark girl. “..is that you look exactly the same as the day you left. And so does your pair. But the change in your eyes, and your young Arcantonic’s attitude is too immense and profound to go unnoticed, for which I am not complaining. The contrast in either of your appearances and slump on both of your shoulders does beg an explanation though.”
“It does, doesn’t it!”, Seressa replied with a brilliant, but very slightly brittle smile.
Mervlin sighed, but let it go.
“If I may, sir.”, she asked tentatively. “I have always wondered; what happened to my Pink Garden after I left? Was it dismantled?”
“Oh, no, my dear Seressa. Someone else took over its responsibility, and care, and looked after your phloxes until she too, graduated. Even then, she took all of them with her, along with your cherry saplings when she left.”
“Ow?”, she said somewhat surprised and with a genuinely happy face.
“Yes. A devote, willow of a young lady by the name, Komoberi Anthea.”
✱ ✱ ✱
We will beach you within the hour, Sheriff Standorin.”, Captain Dagard Dreadhound said in his low, cold voice, staring out into the murky mists of the frozen Arashkan Lake, as he and the sheriff stood on the charred and rotting quarterdeck of The Plague.
“Beach me..”, the sheriff said with a bemused tone. “Sounds ominous. I hope it means, you or your men will take me, Lady Constance, and Hamna Vir, on a longboat, and drop us off at some secluded and convenient beach on the south banks of the lake.. Somewhere, where our mission will not be put to risk..”
“You are a thorough man, sheriff.”, Dagard grimaced.
“You are a man that requires thorough care and wording, Captain.”, replied Standorin.
A glint of savage amusement appeared in the captain’s, otherwise, cold eyes at the sheriff’s backhanded compliment.
“Why not ‘beach’ us now? All seems quiet.”, Standorin asked.
“All is quiet because the Orken wish to ambush us, sheriff, as we speak!”, Dagard replied coolly, turn slightly, and nodded at his new second mate.
The second mate nodded back and tapped the helmsman on one shoulder. The unmoving, petrified man suddenly came alive as if he’d been sleeping on his feet and turned the wheel..
..and The Plague lurched!
One moment everything was dead silent and still, with the dark, murky mist churning around them, and the next, the mist dashed aside, unveiling everything in fifty yards and with a shriek, The Plague was crashing and trampling over the score or so rough tree rafts full of Orken!
There was no finesse to The Plague’s onslaught. The helmsman steered and the charred and rotting ship trampled over the rafts and the Orken with the same impunity.. To give the Orken their due, they never once screamed in terror nor in pain as the jagged, steel ram affixed at its keel turned raft and Orken to a splintered and bloody mess.
Sheriff Standorin watched with disturbed distaste as The Plague finished its wide circle, effectively killing over four hundred enemies in under five minutes!
“Nobody shall murder The Plague again.”, he heard Dagard’s grimly satisfied voice from behind.
“A bit on the gruesome side.”, he murmured, staring down at the broken bodies of the Orken floating casually in the freezing waters of Arashkan Lake.
“As wars should be. An enemy should always know what to expect should they persist. And the Orken are persistent. I will give them their due on brevity and cunning, though. They have figured out how to find us in the mist. Their next approach will be better planned.”
Standorin cocked an eyebrow, but the captain of The Plague did not elaborate.
“Prepare yourself and the ladies, sheriff. We shall be dropping you off here.”
“Is that altogether wise? I expect there will be quite a few Orken troops at this particular beach, waiting their turn with more rafts.”, Standorin pointed out.
“Not for long.”, Dagard replied with an unpleasant smile..
..and nodded at his second mate again.
The Plague turned around and set a deadly course parallel to what Standorin suspected was the shoreline, though it was hard to see through the resettling mist. And with a series of low, heavy thuds, great balls of orange fire shot out of the rotting ship! The fireballs made a large, graceful arcs, then came down with hallow and howling booms! Wherever the fireballs struck, they splashed and spread, indiscriminately burning any and everything around..
The sheriff turned around to look back at the main deck and saw a dozen catapults there, all facing the shore, firing their deadly ammunition with non-stop accuracy! What creeped out the sheriff was, he hadn’t seen the catapults before, and not because he hadn’t noticed them, which was quite impossible, but because they just hadn’t been there.. However they appeared, there they were, now, and each of them was manned by several of the silent crew, being reloaded, drawn, cocked, torched, and dished out murder with mechanical economy!
And it occurred to him that should this ship, The Plague, someday turn against them, it had the potential to burn his town down to cinders in no time. He took a mental note to ask Nimbletyne Tinkerdome to invent something that could block approaches both up and down the Arashkan River leading to and from Serenity Home to prevent just that..
“I wouldn’t worry too much about that, sheriff.”, Dagard said, as if reading his thoughts. “Your precious town was the only place that bothered to sign a treaty with Drashan, and hence, acknowledged them as a sovereign kingdom. And your Yuleman paid up this year’s due upfront like he did every year since the treaty was put in place.”
“There’s always the greedy and the shortsighted.”, Standorin replied.
“Yes. There is.”, Captain Dagard acknowledged. “Good thing they also last short. Cold, heartless, murdering bastards the lot of them may be, but Drashan does not suffer fools. You may tell Lady Constance to get up here. What little rest The Plague has offered her is over. My men are preparing the longboat.”
With a careless wave of his hand, the crow’s nest, high up the main mast plunged down and dumped it’s content on the deck; Hamna Vir! The sullen half-born girl stumbled out of the nest, cursing in blistering oration as the ship continued to bombard the shore and scourging everything in sight..
“I am not a good man, Sheriff.. Damned, you might even say, but that girl has a truly foul mouth!”, he said, staring down at the waspish half-born from the quarterdeck.
“We all have our quirks and oddities, I suppose.”, Standorin replied as he started towards the main deck.
“You owe me a second mate, Sheriff Standorin.”, Dagard said quietly, but pointedly.
“You owe me and Lady Constance an apology, Captain Dagard. You knew how things stood between us, and you still went for her. Not a gentlemanly thing to do. The cost of your second mate was the price of your own doing.”, Standorin replied adamantly.
Captain Dagard stared down at the sheriff standing on the main deck. Standorin could see many thoughts crossing the captain’s cold eyes and many of them ill-fated, to be sure, but it was what he would settle, would define just how smart, and deadly he really was.
“It’s been a long time I have been bested by a mere Mortal.”, Dagard said through clenched teeth.
“I wouldn’t call it bested, Captain. It was a group effort on our part. Turns out, a sheriff and a liaison do make a decent team..”, Standorin replied with a grin and went below deck to the cabin reserved for the previous second mate. Quietly, he knocked on the door and entered.
To say Sheriff Standorin was quite taken by what he beheld more than enticing was much like saying the sun rose from the east, traveled sedately across the sky, and settled somewhere off west..
The beautiful, alluring half-born girl was sprawled on the box-like bed, her dark, silky hair scattered, her shapely breasts peaking through her otherwise modest dress, her slender, calling figure curled in a fascinating ‘S’ shape, and there was a peaceful smile on her face.
Standorin had noted many nuances about Constance the day they had first met. Her dark, cherry-red mouth was one of them; how its shape would settle somewhere between a smile and mirth. It was a mouth that said, I am content..
“Uhhmm..”, Standorin stumbled and stammered, for suddenly, he didn’t know how to wake the beautiful girl!
He coughed, politely into his fist.
When that didn’t work, he sort of steered into the cabin, which wasn’t all that big, and settled himself on the wooden boards.
“Constance? It.. it’s time to go.. Are you awake?”, he mumbled.
And suddenly he was eighteen all over again!
“You are pretty.”, he blurted. “More so than usual.. for some reason.”
The alluring girl still didn’t budge, but a very faint color did appear around her cheeks.
“I.. would very much have wished we were back at Serenity Home now..”, he said, more to himself.
The pretty girl sprawled form relaxed just a tad more causing her slender figure to become even more calling.
“All the things we could do..”
Her dark cherry mouth turned a tiny bit up and she took a deep, expectant breath..
“I mean.. I would love to ax some wood and cook some diced kababs with pan bread with you!”
The girl went still.
Then popped open her eyes and stared at Standorin with a frown.
“You want to ax wood and cook?!”, she asked with a distinct pout!
The sheriff grinned at her.
“You have a lovely pout, by the way.”
“You want to ax wood and cook..”, she repeated, clearly disappointed.
“But of course. Everything is better after a good, physical sweat and a delicious kabab.”, he grinned at her some more. “Thought you were asleep.”
“I was. Got better when you said I was pretty, then ruined it all with house chores!”, she said with irritation.
“You look adorable when you are irritated, too, by the way. But I stand by my word; everything is better after a good, physical sweat and a delicious kabab. If you think about it, I am sure you would agree.”, he smiled.
“I wouldn’t know. I have never axed wood, nor eaten any kababs.”, she said, returning back to her pouting.
“I guess I shall have to remedy that. To that end..”, he said, leaned in, and gently kissed her.
It was perhaps after several minutes later he drew back, both their faces flushed.
“Let’s finish this mission and return home.”, Standorin growled.
“I agree.”, she replied, her chest heaving breathily.
“Never had the opportunity to ask, do you like my home? It isn’t much but—”, he began.
“—I never sat on a warm couch and watched the cinders die down before I met you.”, Constance whispered, staring into his eyes. “That evening, when you took me from the temple’s dormitory to your home.. it was memorable for me. For it was the first time ‘fire’ meant something other than charring pain and unbearable suffering.. And sitting next to you.. was so soothing.. You have a mature vibe about you that transcends the need for mere skin satisfaction.. As tired and worn as I was, I very much wanted you that night. But you gave me more than that. You made me realize what it meant to actually be with someone.. I never got to apologize for having fallen asleep on you the way I did, but I must say, listening to your heart as I slept was something I shall treasure for life.. That is why I felt so hurt when you rebuffed me after the attack.. I was suddenly so afraid that I would never hear that heart again..”
“I am sorry I rebuffed you. I.. am not so good with women.. And have tried to stay them at bay for as long as I have.. after Limnia died.. You.. you confused me.. and filled me with wont.. And hope that I could actually have it.. Then reality reared its ugly face and we were attacked. You say you were afraid.. It is hard for a man in my position to admit that he was afraid too. Not with the safety of the whole town, and all the refugees, and the coming war.. I must find a proper way to thank Liaison Hamna Vir. She beat me over the head with my fears, and my stupidities, in her own way, and made me realize, what are we fighting for, if not for the ones we love and care?”, Standorin said seriously.
Then he rose and gently pulled his new bride out of the bed. “Having you sleep all over me that night, and so free of burden was a night I would like to repeat, Constance.. And soon.. Let’s go and get this bloody mission over with!”
A Tout Les Canon protocol; a protocol that gives a pause to all non-aggression and ‘observe-only’ stance of the Academy of Melshieve. The phrase, A Tout Les Canon, means; Fire All Cannons, in French —a tiny reference to the last scene in the movie, The Patriot, by Mel Gibson..
The Melshieve Gunship names were chosen from Star Wars, Imperial Star Destroyers! A bit ironically..
Not All Is Done
Defense can not win wars.
This story begins shortly after
Not All Is Done..
Perigren Ostlanna Temez asked, staring through the bushes and trees at the long line of men moving in a northeast direction, following the king’s road. They were four abreast, all in padded leathers and chainmail, wearing thick gloves, half helmets, a shortsword and a dagger each, a small buckler on their backs and they all carried thirty feet long, gruesome-looking pikes. With over ten thousand of them, it seemed like a forest of leafless trees crawling the surface of the earth! There was also platoons moving adjacent to the main body, these in loser formation, and these carried longswords, daggers, and handaxes, and man-sized, heavy shields
“They are the Palantine pikemen.”, Bremorel Songsteel said softly. “And their militia. They are heading for Last Hope. There’s a sizable town there. And a keep. Not all that big, but solid. Should hold a thousand men easy..”
“Yes. These are indeed the Palantine pikemen and their militia..”, Thomas Dimwood confirmed. “I have seen them before.”
“You have?”, Bremorel asked. “When?”
“Uhhmm.. When I went to Palantine.. sort of to see how their pikemen fought alongside their militia..”
“I didn’t know you went to Palantine.. I came as far Last Hope, carrying dispatches, years ago, but never as far as Palantine. I am impressed, Thomas. When did you go there?”, Bremorel said, turning to look at him.
“I.. I didn’t want to seem like I was bragging, so I never mentioned it before. When I first told Demos Lightshand that I desired to be a Temple Guardian of War, he was a bit surprised.. but pleased.. I am guessing he was surprised because I was such a skinny boy, back then. And pleased because Demos always believed in diversity. He was a Temple Guardian of Light himself, but Lady Magella became a Temple Guardian of Life. He believed, different aspects brought more options and perspectives on to the table.. Demos was never a strong believer of, ‘if it works, don’t fix it!’.. He wanted to be sure there were always younger people around to make sure ‘it got fixed’, should it break down someday.. So he granted me ‘scholarship’, per se, and sent me to Palantine, Endless Watch, Arashkan, and even as far as Durkahan to observe and learn, with letters of commendation.”
Bremorel stared at him.. and not without a good amount of envy!
“But.. how? I always saw you trailing after me, when Laila and I returned back to the town after our patrols and missions..”, she asked, ogling at him.
“Well..”, Thomas coughed with a flushed face. “..your average patrol took one to three weeks after the two of you and Laila became corporals because you were trusted to be able to take care of yourselves for longer periods, and for farther away from town. I drew up some sheets and did some analysis and made some educated guesstimations, and also carefully asked both the Ranger Masters when they sent you two off. Then I timed my departures and my arrivals with yours!”
Bremorel ogled at her husband some more..
“A dedicated, obsessive stalker focused on the behavioral patterns of his intended target.”, Temez said calmly. “I fully approve!”
“I can’t believe what I am hearing!”, Bremorel stammered.
Thomas went even brighter red.
“Look. It wasn’t like I was stalking you, Morel. I just wanted to make sure I saw you when you returned. I liked it when you returned. You always seemed tired but there was also this smile on your face. The rare times you actually had one. And I wanted to be sure I was back when you roamed around the temple!”
“You.. you actually saw those?”, the ranger lieutenant said, her face also a bit flushed now.
“Of course. I wanted to come out and talk to you, but I was so afraid. I wasn’t the only temple guardian, after all.. Could have been someone else.. I dearly hoped it wasn’t someone else..”, Thomas mumbled.
“How in the blazes did you go all the way to Durkahan and back so fast? And Endless Watch? I mean, even if you took a horse, it would have taken you a month to go to Endless Watch, and at least forty-five days for Durkahan!”, she asked with amazement.
“Well, that was Demos’s doing, really. He had high hopes for me. He had high hopes for Lady Magella too, but unlike me, she was into Life, and where better to find life but Serenity Home and it’s beautiful surrounding? So he sent me to various cities and towns via circles.. Magic circles.. They work a bit like how Lady Anglenna teleports. Accept ours use the temple itself to power up, and you must be the designated Senior Temple Guardian to activate it. You also need a lot of arcane studying to be able to actually use it. I have the first two but lack the last one. Most of the books I read up until now were on basic spells and clergy stuff. Then it was mostly about war and strategy.. Arcane study is very hard and quite time-consuming.”, Thomas explained, then added, “I hope you don’t think I am some unstable stalker, Morel.”
“Ow no.. You are a very, very stable stalker!”, Bremorel said sternly.
The young man’s shoulders drooped.
“I was the unstable stalker!”, she added with a smirk. “I made sure I was in plain sight whenever I returned to town, just so you could see me. Then, when the evenings settled, I would stalk the temple!”
“The interest you have had for one another is intriguing and scary!”, Temez noted. “I feel creeped out!”
Thomas looked abashed while Bremorel snorted.
“Are we going to stay here and wait until these Palantine people pass by?”, Temez asked.
“I am not sure. It is unlikely that they will recognize me as the Senior Temple Guardian of Serenity Home. I don’t want to be detained, taken to Last Hope, and put to detention until our identities are verified, which might take weeks, and we don’t have that kind of time.”, the young man said.
“They might not recognize you, Thomas. But they will recognize a Ranger Lieutenant!”, Bremorel frowned, then paused.. “Wait.. Did you just say temples have magic circles?”
“Yes. Most major temples do. They are not used only for teleportation but for other reasons as well, such as trapping and banishing demons, exorcisms, neutralizing malignant curses—”
“Great Heavens!” she exclaimed.
“What?”, Thomas asked.
“Tempest Temple! In their report, Master Aager mentioned the half-orc insurgent, Gar Thalot, who was working with the Orken, was using the Tempest Temple at Arashkan as a base. Is it possible they used the magic circle there to bring in Orken into the city?”, she asked hurriedly.
Thomas paused for a moment.
“It is possible, but they can’t bring in many. Or at least not at once. Perhaps a dozen or so at most, though I can’t be sure. It depends on the temple powering the circle, and the size of the circle. The one in Serenity Home can handle about half a dozen people at best. If they had a moderate-sized circle, they would still have to work it overnight for a very, very long time.. like months.. to bring in significant numbers.”, he replied and he was also frowning now. “Not to mention, Tempest Temple is one of the most widespread temples in the kingdom. They couldn’t have subverted it. I mean, maybe a very small one, in some remote location..”
“Thomas.. They were using the temple at Arashkan as a base for their insurrection! Either all the Tempest Temples are corrupt now, and for quite some time, or at the very least, some of them definately are..”, she began.
“That is a very, very serious accusation, Morel.”, Thomas warned her.
“I do not care for the legal justifications, Thomas. I care for what has already happened at Arashkan. You can take it up to whatever jurisdictional investigation comity you want, later. My point is, there is a Tempest Temple at Last Hope, also. If they have subjugated the one at Arashkan, what’s to say they haven’t done the same to the one there.. If so, the Palantine pikemen and their militia are walking into a bloody trap!”
And now Thomas’s face was very troubled.
“The Ranger Lieutenant’s assumptions are valid. My former master had many foolish Mortals working for him. Openly, and covertly. The whole idea of Gar Thalot and his deception was his, and his plans were not limited to one half-orc.”, Temez said quietly. “It would also explain why we haven’t encountered any of the Orken during our trek through the Lost Forest.”
“Yes, yes..”, Bremorel said. “They didn’t have to try and sneak past this forest, risking discovery.. They are likely already in place.. at Last Hope!”
“How could it be possible, Morel? The mayor of Last Hope, Randorm Billbuckle, was there, at Serenity Home, during the meeting. How could he have not known? If he did, why didn’t he say anything or warn us?”, Thomas objected.
“There were Orken hiding inside Arashkan even before they ambushed the city, love.”, Bremorel reminded her husband. “That information was reported by Anglenna, herself. She even killed some of them and that happened weeks before the Orken armies appeared right at their doorstep!”
“I do not dispute your reports, Morel. But they could easily be unrelated and circumstantial.”, Thomas replied.
“Alright, then. Let’s look at the facts..”, the ranger lieutenant said with a dead-serious tone. “One, the Tempest Temple was used as a base of operation by the Orken at Arashkan. Two, there is a Tempest Temple at Last Hope. Three, we encountered no enemy in Lost Forest. Four, the Orken are not stupid like their cousins, the Orcs. They plan, they sneak, they ambush. As long as we think they are stupid, we are going to lose this war! Five, they don’t have to destroy all the Palantine pikemen nor their militia. Only cripple it enough to make sure they can not join the fight when the war starts. As a matter of fact, they don’t have to do anything but wait until the war starts and hit them from behind. Trap them between two armies. Pikemen are awesome for frontline defense, but they will get slaughtered if they get hit from their rear. And six, Mayor Randorm Billbuckle is new. He was not the mayor when I last came here, which was four or five years ago. He became the mayor of Last Hope less than two years ago when the last mayor was killed in a hunting accident. I am not saying Randorm was responsible, but then, I do not know Randorm. If the Orken has infiltrated his town, he is either under duress, he is in it with the enemy, which makes him an outright traitor, or he is clueless about what’s going on in his town and is totally incompetent, in which case he has no right to be the mayor!”
“You do irritate when you bombard me with your facts, love!”, he said.
“What? Why? Is it because I am just a dumb brawler?”, she smirked. “Or because I am a girl?”
“And now you spoiled all your cool!”, Thomas replied hotly. “Considering your, up-to-date achievements, and you being my wife, we both know your ‘dumb brawler’ act is a farce! And what’s with the ‘because you are a girl’, thing, anyway? You are a fully trained and experienced ranger, baby! Pretty much nothing beats those credentials!”
“Baby? Ow.. that’s a new one..”, Bremorel said.
“You like?”, Thomas asked with a very much out-of-character tone.
“I like!”, the ranger lieutenant smirked.
“And now, I truly am creeped out!”, Temez mused.
“I shall dash ahead and inform the army commander of my identity and yours as well. I will leave mirima out and tell him she’s a member of our covert ops team and that her identity could not be revealed.. should she wish to be seen.”, Bremorel said, her voice all serious again.
“Very well. I do hope your suspicions are misplaced. For many reasons..”, Thomas replied, his previous tone turning into a disturbed voice.
“So do I, love. But ARIS made the mistake of discarding such unlikely scenarios and had their city destroyed. I do not blame them. No one could have suspected the enemy was already within and hiding amongst us. I mean, who doesn’t trust their temple? Particularly the Tempest Temple? It is the most powerful temple in the kingdom and has the largest congregation..”
“You are right. I shall forward these findings and make sure at least the core people know of this. I am sure Agent Largo Summersong and Mayor Arthandos Yuleman will have trusted contacts and they can forward this news to Kronor. They can start an investigation and look into all the Tempest Temples in the kingdom.”, Thomas said quietly.
“I think you should outright inform Lady Alisia of Durkahan, those two weirdos from Vodgar, Lord Alberdel of Endless Watch, and Master Argail Smitefast of Scowling Hills.. All those places have either a Tempest Temple or at least a Tempest Chapel.. I know for a fact both Scowling Hills and Elder Hills have a chapel..”, Bremorel said, then added carefully, looking at her husband’s worried expression. “..and make sure there are no tempest disciples among your own temple guardians.”
“There is. Demos liked having diversity, remember.”, he replied coldly. And then, with furry unlike his normal, calm, and steady self, he cursed.. “Well, shit!”
Bremorel stared at her husband for this was the first time she had ever heard any such curse from him.
“A bit crude, but essentially accurate.”, Perigren Ostlanna Temez mused. “Would you like my kin to take care of this for you, Thomas Dimwood?”
“No. This is an internal matter and you and your kin are all guests.”, he replied with a very unhappy face.
“True. Yet it also involves the safety of my brothers and sisters.”, Temez objected in her low, throaty voice. “Very few know of our existence yet. And we must stay so until we can reap the most advantage and damage to the enemy. Our numbers certainly must also stay a secret. Only you, Ranger Lieutenant Bremorel, your temple guardians, your mayor, Arthandos Yuleman, and your sheriff, Standorin Shieldheart, and possibly Master Aager Fogstep, and his mate, the Ritual Guardian, Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane knows this and that particular information must be kept as a secret. If the enemy knows there are a few of us in your town, they will not take retributional actions against your town, other than what is already coming, nor bother to prepare for us. If they find out there are over two hundred of us in hiding under your temple, they will do everything in their power to eliminate us, and everything that gets in their way.”
Thomas stared at her.
“She’s right, you know.”, Bremorel said, reaching out to hold his hand. “Their existence and safety hold a greater priority than in-temple politics or jurisdictions..”
Thomas was really not happy now.
Bremorel turned to Temez. “Can your kin find out if the temple guardian has defected or not?”
Temez seemed like she really did not want to answer that question. And for a moment, she appeared as if you would do her half-born thing and totally dodge the ranger lieutenant. Then her shoulders slumped and she gave in..
“We can have him reveal every little dirty secret he has ever had, ranger lieutenant. But it would go against our blood oaths.”, she said glumly.
“How so?”, Bremorel asked.
“We would have to use our base, racial skills.. The ones that come by being the scion of a succubi. We would be using them on a Mortal, and against his will, to make him say and do things he would not..”, she mumbled. “I shall have to think over this. I will not order any of those under my protection to break their oaths. I will, however, make the offer.”
“Temez.”, Thomas said kindly. “I am sure there are other ways we can handle this. There is no need for you and yours to take that kind of risk.”
“No, Thomas Dimwood. The temple guardian in question knows you well. He will be ready for your inquisition. He will not, however, be ready for my sisters.. And it will matter little even if he thinks he is ready for us. Neither you nor your kind has truly faced one of us the way we were meant to be used. So when I say, had we come to your Serenity Home under orders from our former Master, the town would not be standing, I mean it in its fullest extent. There would be soulless husks lying everywhere..”, Temez replied and there was shame in her drawn face.
“I believe you.”, Thomas said solemnly. “I shall compose a message about our suspicions and send it to Mayor Arthandos Yuleman, and ask him to forward them to their corresponding recipients. Morel, love, why don’t you go ahead and arrange a meet with the Palantine commanders while I do this..”
Bremorel merely nodded at him, came up to the half-born girl, and hugged her.
“Nothing sacrificed goes unnoticed to those that matter, dear Temez. Not down here on the ground, and certainly not up there, in the Heavens..”, she whispered, parted away, and took off..
Thomas watched her go for a long time, then sighed.
“You care for her greatly.”, Temez said.
“Yes. Yes, I do.”, the young man replied.
“You also marvel her. It is easy for the males of your species to love and, at times, even stalk the females of not only your own species but that of others as well..”, she said.
“For Heaven’s sake, girl.. I did NOT stalk her. I only made sure our schedules coincided! I wanted to see her. She wanted me to see her. She wanted to see me. And I wanted her to know I had seen her! I was just too scared to even talk to her then, and she needed me to brave up and ask her hand..”, Thomas fumed.
“I see the difference, now.”, the half-born girl mused.
“Yes. Hence I shall amend my previous observation; it was a dedicated, obsessive, focused, and mutual stalking based on the behavioral patterns of one another’s intended target!”, she replied. “I am not sure if I should approve of this particular strategy, though it is true, as evidence has it, but also illogical, creepy, and outright insane..”
“But it is the marvel you feel for her that has me more than confused.”, Temez said.
“I marvel her because she has the wisdom of a full temple guardian. The things she says sometimes beats me into the ground with shame, and I spent my years reading the teachings of many wise men and women.”, the young man said, then cleared his throat and asked. “Anything you want to pass on to anyone in particular?”
“Ask your mayor, Arthandos Yuleman, if he would be kind enough to go and see a Mathilda Ravish Demure, in person.. Tell him to tell her, ‘She’s up.’“, Temez said cryptically.
“‘She’s up?'”, Thomas asked with a baffled tone.
“Yes. Mathilda will know what it means, and should it be necessary, do what she has to do..”, the half-born girl said.
“I do not understand, Temez.”, the young man admitted.
“You are not required to, Senior Temple Guardian..”, she smiled at him. “I believe you Mortals call this, plausible deniability? I would have preferred ‘exemption of accountability’, but your version sounds better, I suppose.”
Thomas sighed again and closed his eyes. For a moment, he stood still and only his lips were moving. After a while, he seemed like he was talking to someone, nodding and shaking his head, but no sound was heard. For a full minute, he continued his silent dialog with the unseen person, then he gave a final nod, and opened his eyes again.
“There. Now we have one, very disturbed Yuleman, as well..”, he mumbled.
“The Palantine pikemen and their militia have halted.”, Temez reported. “And there is a platoon of them coming this way. Shall I hide?”
“Yes. Explaining things he may not understand is not worth risking your life. Not to mention exposing your very existence to a whole platoon of young men who will stand and ogle at you, then go around telling all their friends about the beautiful girl in the woods, will make your undercover stance, sort of moot.”, he said.
“You think me beautiful?”, Temez asked a bit surprised. “I have horns.”
“I think you beautiful, horns or no horns. I suspect the esteemed sheriff, Standorin Shieldheart finds your kin, Constance, quite beautiful, and not only because she is, indeed beautiful, but she has a rather calming aura about her. She is considerate, and has a mature character, and she has horns.. Some might call what Master Aager and his mate, an unholy passion. And Inshala has horns as well. She is one of the most beautiful people I have ever met, inside and out, and so selfless.. You might say, we lack horns.. It isn’t how we appear, that truly matters, my dear girl, it is how we live.. and what we do.. Those that can see and appreciate our deeds matter, those that don’t, or won’t, don’t!”, the young temple guardian said. “When you first contacted me to grant you and your kin sanction, I agreed, not because I thought you would be great assets against the Orken horde, but because it was the right thing to do.. And I didn’t even know the particulars of your past, nor your deeds.”
Perigren Ostlanna Temez stared at Thomas for a good long minute in silent.. incomprehension?
Her expression was odd.. vague.. but there was a distinct tint of fear, and hope.. and possibly, shame, in that look.
Then she was gone..
And with a lot of noise, parting bushes and the trampling of feet, a whole platoon of Palantine militia appeared with the Ranger Lieutenant Bremorel Songsteel..
✱ ✱ ✱
Nadien ne! Udoorin! We must leave!”, Anglenna shouted over the roaring Orken that came at them from the north, pouring down the mountainside, and from the previously hidden tunnel right behind them.. The high elf lady wasn’t a quick guess of numbers when it came to determining how many creatures there might be at a glance but something inside her screamed a lot.. and the word, hundreds, perhaps thousands sprang to mind. Anglenna was a realist, though not altogether by choice but by the brutal training of her mother, Angrellen. And realism told her, with a definitive certainty, individuals did not defeat armies..
Armies defeated armies!
In a contest of individuals versus such devastating numbers, the outcome was inevitable, and it only made good, heroic stories and Anglenna had no intentions, whatsoever, to make a martyr out of her queen, nor her king, just to entertain some campfire stories..
Should a king or queen be forced to fight such a dramatic ‘last stand’, the price to be paid should be too high to be suffered.
And for Anglenna, the life of her queen and her sister-cousin, Alor’Naien ne Feymist, was simply priceless!
The only problem with her pragmatic approach was, the two idiots were not retreating as they should, but cutting their way further and deeper into the Orken horde! The young man, Udoorin, was chopping down the Orken with a methodical accuracy of a woodsman, while his wife and queen, Alor’Nadien ne had disappeared in a literal shadow of moil and Anglenna couldn’t see what was going on inside the smoldering, churning, and inky blackness, but barely discern the edge of her glaive’s bloody blade, glowing with a sickly green light, and creepy, shapeless, purple-black tentacles lashing out every which way and biting, stabbing, rendering, and choking anything that got near!
Anglenna was born with magic. She wasn’t a wizard but a sorceress. She was also trained in magic to improve her natural skills and to better understand what she had. One might say, she was good at what she did and she had a very good and steady head for it.
But the things her cousin did, as a warlock, which was what her queen was, with her affinity to her hexblade, was downright scary!
Scary or not, however, the Orken were not to be deterred. They had inhuman, single-minded resolution and they did not back off, back out, or back down, and, apparently, retreat was not something they knew. Thinking about it, defeating two, powerful as they might be, and in their own right, individuals, and now, when they were alone, even at the cost of devastating numbers, was a win for them. Because otherwise, they would, in all likeliness, end up facing the same two individuals on a battlefield someday, backed up by their own people.. which explained their current, blind frenzy!
And then she heard the echo of wolves!
Many, many wolves..
Because the Orken, it seemed, had not been enough and had not come alone but brought in their dogs as well, which was sort of new, and explained how they could sniff out all the scouts and rangers who ventured into the wilds seeking the whereabouts of the enemy, much like it explained why so many of those scouts and rangers went missing and never returned..
Then, with a thunderous avalanche, far off to the north and east, tons of snow came crashing down the mountainside with a quaking slide, and the former high lady of Bari Na-ammen saw thousands of figures, vague in the snow blitz, rushing at them!
Anglenna saw all these, considered her options, and innately prioritized the things that had to be done to get her enraged cousin and her idiotic young man out —with a practically realistic, or perhaps realistically practical, and feasibly applicable strategy..
Stopper the tunnel where the Orken was pouring out, long enough to buy time and to make sure they would not be able to surround her king and queen..
Anglenna pointed down, very nearly at her own feet, and at the gaping mouth of the tunnel running right under her and the cluster of rocks and boulders where she stood, and softly she sang in high elfish;
no fire nor sun may sear
i, but the Heaven’s
no friend nor foe, far or near
do bar, but the Heavens
should Mortals all,
come to aid whilst I call
none may heal my seared heart
but the Great Heavens
..and the shrieks echoed just below her and inside the tunnel!
Anglenna calmly walked around and down the cluster of rocks and boulders and saw the effects of her spell;
A churning, smoldering cloud of glaring, reddish smoke covered the whole of the gaping tunnel entrance as blistering cinders and large, white-hot embers shot every which way and she could see charred corpses and burning figures of the Orken screaming in pain.
“Get what you want, do you?”, the high elf woman murmured with satisfaction. “These lands are not yours. And never shall be..”
With a wave of her hand, the thick, incinerating cloud moved..
..into the tunnel, burning, searing, and scorching everything in its path!
The howls of the wolves were getting closer now, and Anglenna noted that down in her mental ‘to do’ list..
Get to her cousin!
Anglenna knew, little she said would have any effect on Alor’Nadien ne when she became like this. Even when she was little, as in, six-years-old-little, and when she would come over to her mother’s manor house at Bari Na-ammen and, not plead, per se, nor quite order, but ‘endearingly ask’ her cousins’s mother, Angrellen, to allow Anglenna to play with her, and not take ‘no’ for an answer.
It had always been interesting to watch a six-year-old girl taking on a one thousand six hundred-year-old high elf and defeat her in a clash of wills!
Perhaps, deep down, that was why she, Anglenna, had taken a liking to her cousin so much, so early on..
But now, that particular ‘stubborn’ aspect of her cousin would work against her and Anglenna knew of only one person who, somehow, overrode Alor’Nadien ne’s mule-headed stance; the young man, Udoorin Shieldheart!
Even now, Anglenna shook her head at the monumentally illogical and senselessness of their relation.
One would think, her calm, demure, farsighted cousin would try to hold her husband back a bit.. even if to think things over.
And her husband to be a little more considerate of her wife, as blindly as he loved her.
They, quite literally, incited each other! It seemed like, while the young man egged his beloved woman into reckless action, the young woman almost ‘prodded’ her husband into madness!
Anglenna sighed and flourished her hand and suddenly, there were three more of her identical images walking through the butchered corpses of the Orken!
As if unsatisfied, she flourished her hand again and three more of her images appeared and suddenly there were over half a dozen Anglenna’s walking over the dead Orken..
Since, it appeared, the only one here with a tint of sanity was herself, Anglenna wanted to make sure she survived long enough to get her cousin and he king out of there. And that called for some prudence on her part, which turned out to be a good call, for just then, a giant axe came spinning her way, and struck her..
Right in the center of her chest!
..and one of the images buckled over and vanished.
Anglenna stretched her steps and picked up her pace. The images were limited in number and would last only but a minute.
A sharp, jagged-edged spear stabbed through her, and another of the images disappeared and Anglenna started sending fist-sized bolts of fire, brilliant-blue rays of frost at every opportunity, and while at it, she dropped a crimson ball of fire right into the middle of a platoon of Orken, sending them burnt and broken, while leaving a crater-like hole in the frozen ground, called in her innate, sorcerous skills, and dropped a second fireball into another platoon, achieving a similarly charred result!
“Young man!”, she sent her thought over to Udoorin, who was savagely cutting, cleaving, and dismembering the Orken around him with wild abandon. “Prepare yourself to leave. I shall tell your queen the same.”
“Lady Lenna? How come I can hear your voice in my head! Where are you?”, Udoorin replied, his voice sounding somewhat surprised.
“Don’t lose your focus, my King. When I give the signal, run to me. I shall be standing between you and Nadien ne. Then we shall leave this place.”, Anglenna said.
“No, there are too many Orken for us to leave them behind. This lot will all come down on Serenity Home and no one is looking for them here!”, Udoorin objected.
“There are thousands more of them coming down the mountainside just to our north, young man. There is, literally, no way we can win this fight. We can, however, inform Serenity Home, when they contact us the way their temple guardians do every day.”, Anglenna fumed as she opened a hole in the face of an Orken who tried to skewer her with his spear, causing another image to wink out!
“Dammit!”, cursed Udoorin. “Tell Lorna, I shall meet her in a minute. This is no longer a feasible fight.”
“Figured that out just now, did you?”, Anglenna murmured to herself and hurled a blazing fire at one of the two Orken charging at her. One of them grunted and fell over as the other swung once, then again, and two more of her images vanished, leaving but one of her mirrored images behind.. The high elf woman did him, what she did to the other!
“Nadien ne.”, she said calmly. “I know you are having a lot of fun in that inky darkness of yours, dear, but it’s time to leave. There are thousands more of the Orken coming down the mountain just north, and they have brought their wolves with them. If we don’t leave now, we will all die here.”
“Cousin!”, Lorna hissed back. “These animals destroyed Arashkan! They burned our beloved High Woods and put our Bari Na-ammen to ruins.. They can not be allowed to walk the earth again!”
“I do not dispute your feelings, my Queen. I do, however, disagree with your strategy, for it is not sound, and is about to fail, thoroughly! Should we fall now, we shall fail our main mission and no one will be left to warn what remains of Arashkan and Bari Na-ammen.”, Anglenna said urgently.
“No! They can not see in my darkness, but I can see them! They shall fall like they felled our people!”, she snarled.
Anglenna sighed again..
..but she did admire her cousin’s passion, and even though she was a realist and quite the pragmatic high elf woman at mind and heart, Anglenna herself felt her blood boil, there, for a moment!
Then she figured, perhaps for the first time, and just like that, what it was about her young queen that had aspired her, and everyone else around her, to greatness;
And her cousin, Alor’Nadien ne, had had it since as far back as Anglenna could remember. Was this what it was being the Heart of High Woods? Bringing passion to those around her, and consequently rising them to be more?
With the rapidity of unexpected clash of thoughts and memories, something clicked in Anglenna’s head.. and heart..
Passion meant.. Life!
And a heart was the only thing in the verse that possessed, and nurtured passion, hence, the Heart of High Woods!
Anglenna promised herself to give this line of thought the time it derserved.. Just not right now..
Persuade her stubborn cousin to abandon the field!
Should persuasion fail, coerce!
“Your King has spoken, and let known his command, my Queen; we are to leave, right now! Will you defy him?”
A stunned silence settled as Anglenna noticed she was suddenly surrounded!
Coldly she gazed at the Orken closing in on her, and swirled both her arms in an interwoven, circular pattern, and murmured;
the wild winds weep,
and the night is a-cold;
come hither, sleep,
and my griefs infold:
but lo! the morning peeps
over the eastern steeps,
and the rustling birds of dawn
the earth do scorn
..and every single Orken in twenty feet froze as if petrified, their heads snapped up and staring blankly into the brittle, tundra sky.
Then blood gushed out of their eyes, and ears, their nose and their mouth..
Many of them stumbled and crashed.
The remaining just continued to stare at the cloudless, gray sky.
“I shall abide by my King’s wishes..”, came Lorna’s voice and there wasn’t a trace of resignation nor defeat in it.
As a matter of fact, there was a tint of pride there, somewhere in that sentence!
“Come to me, then, cousin. I shall contact young Udoorin and he shall also meet us here..”
As if on cue, the darkness around Alor’Nadien ne vanished, and she was standing next to the tall, slender form of Anglenna.
An Orken flew right over them and crash-landed, its head resting in the snow at an odd angle, and Udoorin came stumbling with a wild grin on his face.
He was holding his own great and very bloody battleaxe in one hand, and another, a very, very huge, pure black greataxe in the other!
“Guys! Guys!”, he said enthusiastically. “Look what I found among the dead Orken!”
Lorna smiled at him with appreciation.
Anglenna did not.
She just stared at the grinning young man..
Delay the enemy and prepare to depart!
With the acceptance of the aforementioned, ‘monumentally illogical and senselessness of their relation’, she pointed at the ground and drew a wide circle..
And a wall of fire, some twenty feet high and one foot thick, encircled them, staying the Orken at bay..
“Time to go.”
..she said grimly and cast her teleportation spell, and dearly hoped it would not send her cousin and the young man somewhere off, and herself crashing into some buildings like the last time!
. . .
“We are back!”, Udoorin exclaimed, looking around them.
“Yes. We are..”, Lorna agreed as she stared east where the sun was slowly setting. “Good Heavens! We have been down there and for nearly the whole day?”
Anglenna staggered a bit. She had cast a few too many spells, in a too-short time, and some of those spells had been quite powerful. She felt drained as she also stared at the setting sun, then down below and at the scores of dead Orken, and the thousands of others gathering at the tunnel below the cluster of rocks..
“Wow. They look so small from up here.”, Udoorin said. Then his voice turned a bit distraught. “And we haven’t even put a dent in their number..”
“We have, love.”, Lorna said softly as she came up to him and entered his arms. “We have.. They now know what to expect should they go to Serenity Home; only more of the same death. They know that they were bested by just the three of us. And they shall wonder, what will happen should they encounter many more of us? Hence, they will question their resolution, their cause, and consequently, their mortality. They now know that they can die, in great numbers, and they have nothing to show for the death of their comrades.”
“Well. When you put it that way, it does shed us in an altogether different sort of light. And thanks to Lady Lenna, we get to watch the sunset as well.”, Udoorin grinned. “And I even got me a brand new axe!”
The axe was, indeed, an impossible weapon; the blade of the axe was unshining, pure black and huge. The sharp side was very jagged and cruel-looking. The handle was slightly curved and seemed as though it was made out of some ancient, magical tree and was dark brown with forking, steel elements embedded quite smoothly into it!
It was then, a gray, spectral raven swooped down on them!
But just as it was about to crash-land into the snow, it shifted and suddenly, a very ‘taller than even Anglenna’, ‘darker than a starless night’ girl with shapely legs, buxom breasts, long, braided, pink hair, a pair of dark horns, a very much irritated and lashing feline tail, and wearing scandalously short, vivid pink mini skirt dress!
And she was staring down at them.
“Found them!”, she called to someone behind her with a well-educated, cultured, upper mid-tones, and illustrious voice, as she kept her eyes on the three.
“Who are you and what are you doing here?”, she asked them with a slightly patronizing attitude, her hands on her hips and on the ornamental-looking rapier at her side.
“Might ask you the same thing.”, Anglenna replied, arching her platinum-blond eyebrows.
They heard shuffling behind the tall, dark girl and two more figures appeared, though from the side of the stiff drop. One was an elf with extraordinary pale skin, decorated with many swirling tattoos, a very white, long, also braided hair, and a scowling pout on her face. She was not conventionally beautiful, but rather striking in her lithe, athletic figure, and she had a distinct air of savagery about her cold, glacial eyes.
The other was a bushy-haired hobbit, of all people.. and races.. and his face was all flushed red from the climb..
Then, with a rapid dive, a fourth figure appeared and this one was on a gnarly old witch’s broom! She skid landed next to the very tall, very dark girl and she was a pale-looking little gnomic girl with stream-lined, scruffy-looking, reddish-brown hair and she froze where she was, the moment she saw the three of them!
And just like that, she cussed!
“Whot?”, asked the very tall, very dark girl.
“I think we have a corrupt timeline!”
“It’s the bunny-girl!”, Udoorin blurted!
The little gnomic girl scowled up at him.
“Hello, Arcantonic.”, Lorna smiled, though with much surprise..
✱ ✱ ✱
If anybody else calls me ‘bunny’, there’s going to be a fight!”, growled Arcantonic Palecog!
“Whot?”, said the very tall, very dark girl, Seressa Wraiven, staring down at the little gnomic girl.
“What?”, jumped the lithe and pale figure of Cora Sleet!
“What?..”, asked the bushy-haired hobbit, Brom Bumblebrim, as he sat up with a tired yawn. “What’s going on?”
“What!”, exclaimed Tonic as she too jumped up! “Is it bloody morning already?
Seressa stared at her, though with a ‘not quite angry’, but very much displeased expression.
“You were dreaming.”, she ‘sort of’ reported shortly and with a frosty tone. “You spoke in your dream.”
“Ow? Did I?”, Tonic said morosely and dropped back on her blankets. Then she remembered, the very tall, very dark girl, her pair, was still distraught with her and so, her diminutive face drooped and she rolled once, on the frozen winter ground towards her, but failed to reach her.
She sighed and rolled again..
“What are you doing?”, Seressa asked, still staring down at the little gnome.
“Something that would have made me look funny and cool, had it worked the first time..”, Tonic mumbled and rolled a third time until she was pretty much snuggled next to Seressa.
Cora frowned at them, stared at the eastern horizon, figured they would have a few more hours before dawn, and settled in her own blankets, and closed her eyes. She was tired and as much as she was in her natural element, out in the wilderness, and in the freezing cold of winter, she was much troubled about the noises they had heard coming from the nearly endless stretch of fissure.. and the fact that they couldn’t do anything about it. She felt drained and no amount of sleep seemed to do her any good.
Brom, on the other hand, had a better frame of mind when it came to worrying. He did not! Well, that wasn’t precisely true. He did worry, but not enough to lose sleep over it. Or perhaps he could compartmentalize his thoughts and emotions better than his barbarian friend, Cora, and hence, could sleep when he was dead tired and exhausted after a full day’s run.
At least that’s what he told himself!
“How long are you going to be mad at me?”, Tonic mumbled as she hugged at the tall girl’s leg! As cold as it was, Seressa had a warm body.. and soft, warm legs!
And to her unexpected recognition, Tonic just figured, she was likely the only being in the verse that could freely hug her pair’s warm body, and her warm legs, and get away with it! At that very moment, Tonic was not sure if this ‘being pocketed’ by her very tall, very dark, very soft.. and very warm friend wasn’t such a bad idea..
But then, it was possible, it was just her freezing little arse speaking!
“I am not mad at you, Tonic. Only disappointed.”, Seressa said with a voice, void of emotions..
..and for Tonic, that particular answer had been worst than had it been because her pair was just been mad at her.
“But it was a long time ago. We weren’t paired. We didn’t know each other, and I was just goofing around..”, Tonic tried to explain.
“It was not a long time ago, Tonic. It was merely a bit over six years ago. True, we were not paired and we did not know each other, but you were goofing around at my expense and in public. Did it never occur to you to warn me? You have been making comments about my choice of clothes ever since we were paired, on a daily basis. All you had to do was come up to me and tell me how all the boys in the podium were there to stare up my skirt. What they did was crude, base animalism, inconceivable, and they took advantage of a silly girl’s wardrobe.. They lacked the honor, and the integrity to be decent human beings.. What you did was just mean, and I can not understand why you would do this to me, or anyone else? It was like, at a subconscious level, you thought I was not human enough and could be freely taken advantage of. We, who are educated by the best minds the Kingdom of Isles has to offer; at the Academy of Melshieve, failed at a very fundamental level. I was treated as primitively by those ‘educated’ kids, as I would have been by any ignorant peasant, and you opted to be part of that. What is worse, is you yourself suffered at the hands of ostracization, and knew, first hand, what it felt like, yet did it to me. They treated me like an object. You treated me the same.. for a laugh!”
Tonic’s face drooped even more.
“I did more than that.”, she mumbled with shame, as she closed her eyes, clung tighter to her pair’s leg. “I was mean, cruel, inconsiderate, and an idiot and a jerk to boot. I lashed out to everyone around me. I shouldn’t have, but I did it anyway. You can smack me around all you want if that will make you less disappointed in me, but I swear, I did not single you out in my cruelty. You were merely another casualty of my stupid war! That does not exempt me from what I did, but it does sort of negate most of the philosophical arguments of your disappointment, even though, yes, I should have gone to you and told you about it, rather than laughing.. But in my defense, with my frame of mind at that time, there is just no way I would have done that. And it is very much unlikely I still would have, had I not met, and become your pair. You, my dear Seressa, gave your best, and your best fixed me. You made a ‘decent’ person out of a mean and cruel girl.. Hence I asked for your forgiveness. But should you decide not to, I thank you anyway..”
There was no reply to that.
Not for a long while.
Just a lot of slobbering sniffs and hiccups.
Cora sniffed too.. once.. and undercover!
Brom stared up at the winter night sky where he lay on his blankets, shivering. He thought of ‘ho boy’ing.. but it just didn’t feel like the right time, so he kept to his silence as well.
“So you want me to smack you around, do you?”, sniffed Seressa.
“Very much! If you will forgive me!”, Tonic spluttered.
“You do remember what happened to the last person I smacked around, right?”, she asked, sniffing some more.
“Yeah. You bitch-slapped him non-stop from one end of the academy courtyard to the other, right there, and in front of the whole graduation ceremony, the dean, all the professors, the teachers, and the staff —it was awesome!”, Tonic admitted with a wet snort. “It was the first time someone stood up to me. But instead of being gratified and gracious about it, I berated you about it and bitched about being capable of looking after my own self, thank you very much!”
“I did not beat that boy because I thought you could not take care of yourself. Six years in the Academy with your background clearly said otherwise.. I beat him because he was an obnoxious, repugnant, and very much a revolting creep! He was nasty to you, yes, but he had been nasty to everybody. He even used to come and disrupt my pink garden every other week or so. I didn’t say anything to him then, not because I feared him or his sticky reputation, and certainly not because I was wary of him and the fact that he was the nephew of the Lord Jarshin of Malis City, but because he wanted to be noticed for his unsavory attitude like it was a crown and I just did not want to give him the satisfaction. What I did give him was a hex, though..”, Seressa said, with a stiff smile.
“You.. you hexed the nephew of a Lord?”, Tonic spluttered.
“I beat the nephew of said Lord, in front of everyone including the dean himself, during a graduation ceremony! I mean, a beating really does not get any more public than that. Hexing him for six years seems trivial at that point, don’t you think?”
“But.. why did you hex him? I mean, what would a hex do to him? And.. isn’t that sort of illegal?”, asked Tonic a bit amazed.
“It was. And still is illegal.”, Seressa said. “No one, however, wondered why he had such horrible marks in all his grades because he was such a horrible, juvenile delinquent. No one wondered to even look into it. He made everyone around him miserable, and hence I made him miserable in the end. No one could touch him, and he thought no one would dare to do anything to him, which turned out to be a gross misjudgment on his part. I am not a nobody, even though many in the Academy dismissed me as a pretty, vague, and vein object. In the end, he returned back to Malis, and to his uncle, with the worst grades ever to be granted in the history of Melshieve, and beaten stupid as well. I was happy to leave him with just his grades, but when he picked on you, the way he did, I got the impression he had done it to you before, and many times, much like he kept on trashing my phloxes.. That just happened to be the final drop! You weren’t there, but when I got out of the dean’s office after that incident, there was a whole crowd of people cheering me for what I’d done. Am I proud that I hexed him and then beat him? No, not really. But I am not ashamed of what I did either. I detest several things in life; small talk, being taken for an object, and conceited fools who think they are beyond laws, retribution, or even base courtesy.. That boy had a heart not even demons in Hell would want, and my Mistress abhors demons.”
“Alright. Perhaps you could skip the smacking. You could spank me then, perhaps?”, Tonic mumbled.
“I wasn’t aware you were into spanking, girl.”, Seressa tittered.
Brom snickered from where he lay while Cora frowned at him.
“What’s wrong with spanking? My mother used to spank me when I was little and got out of control.”, she asked.
“I am not answering that.”, the hobbit snickered some more. “Ask Seressa. Or even better, ask Tonic!”
“Are we good?”, Tonic asked her pair, rather tentatively.
“We will always be good, Tonic. And it was nice of you to say all the things you did. Now, though, we have a bigger problem at hand, than my skimpy skirt dress!”, Seressa replied.
“Yes. The Serpent’s End, and the possible Orken that might be moving through it. I still say we just blow the whole thing up and cave the whole thing in..”, the scruffy little gnomic girl said, then threw herself at her very tall, very dark pair. “I really am sorry, girl. I meant everything I said. And I need to know you forgave me.”
Seressa hugged her little friend to her heart’s content and whispered, “To say, ‘I forgive you.’, would be arrogance on my part, my dear Tonic. You were right. We didn’t know each other then, and it was my own choice of wardrobe that made me look like a flirtatious and amorous girl. I do not plan to change my appearance anytime soon, but now that I have been made aware, I shall take the appropriate measures as I see fit, for back then, I was naive and innocent. Not so much now. And my hexes don’t just give fail-grades anymore!”
“Here, here!”, said Cora, punching a fist into the night.
“What she said.”, agreed, Brom.
Seressa smiled at them.
“Time to go..”, she said. “We are all awake and not going to sleep, apparently.”
A chorus of groans followed this as Brom rose with a grunt, dismantled his tiny tent, bundled up his blankets and put them all, quite tidily into his pack, as Tonic detached herself from the very soft, and very warm leg of her pair, and not without an unhappy pout, rolled up her own blankets and stuffed them into her pack.
Cora stared up at the starless winter night some more, then did a lithe, belly dancer’s move and was up on her feet. She didn’t bother with the blankets. She hadn’t gotten hers out. The winters this far south were too mild for her to need blankets. All she’d done was to throw her leather and fur cloak on the frozen ground and that was merely a matter of convinience and prudence, really.
Seressa showed a similar attitude. It seemed like she was either immune to the effects of cold, or perhaps she just didn’t feel it as she should. She had spread her blanket just so her vivid pinks wouldn’t get wet, or be stained with mud. With a very lady-like motion, she kneeled down and collected her blanket, carefully folded it, and inserted it into her pack, exactly where she thought it belonged!
It was near dawn when she swooped down from the dreary sky, once again, in her gray, spectral raven form and landed next to Cora.
They made an interesting scene at that very moment;
One, very tall, very dark, and quite slender girl, running with long strides, and her long, pink, braided hair chasing after her, and the other, lithe, athletic, very pale, and striking, her own long, and snow-white hair catching her!
“I just had a thought.”, she said merrily.
“Ow?”, Cora asked as they ran.
“What would you say for a little interview, and a few photo ops as Cora Aranel ná Rianna Tári Sleet of the Great Barbarian Horde?”
✱ ✱ ✱
Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane fidgeted where she stood, the dress robes on her back drooped all the way to the forest floor and she was playing with her long, silky brown hair as if considering braiding them around her horns as she used to.. just until a few months ago. It had been only due to the simple desire, her growling ‘Aagrrr’ had wished to see her ‘pretty’ horns, and feel her long hair as they were free, that she had quit wearing them around her curving, rams-horns, forming a funny, conical shape on both sides of her head, though, no one had ever told her, her hair looked funny that way. Not her deceased Father, Master Cathber, or the friends she had made during their chase after the assassins through Ritual Forest, then into the depths of Themalsar, not her Fey friends at Gull’s Perch, and certainly never her Aager. Now though, for whatever reason, Inshala thought she looked funny.. as in, ‘silly’, when she wore her hair like that.
Perhaps, she thought, they look funny now, because I am skinny, now.
Inshala hadn’t been so skinny before. In fact, she had looked very much like a young and very much mature woman with a shapely figure, calling breasts, decidedly feminine hips, and strong, athletic legs, despite being a mere sixteen-year-old girl, then.
Now she thought she looked more like something that crawled under rocks or on a ceiling using only its creepy arms and legs! And she certainly did not feel ‘adorned’ anymore. Not with her little breasts and ‘has no hips to speak of’ standing and everything she wore, hung down from her faded form as if she was a toddler wearing her mom’s gowns..
She fidgeted again as she looked beyond the trees, and at the cluster of log houses, and the imagined ‘happy’ noises coming from there.
For years, she had watched these wooden homes and the families that lived there, with unveiled envy, where men worked hard all day as women did their chores, washed clothes, hanged them on stretched, hand-woven ropes, cooked food, gathered herbs and mushrooms from the forest, skinned, salted, then dried the animal skins their men brought, weived baskets, and nursed their children, while older ones ran around playing and laughing in sheer joy.
Her back itched and a sharp sizzle ran down her apparent spine as she felt, once again, the memory of whippings..
“I don’t want to be their Ritual Guardian..”, she mumbled quietly.
“You don’t have to, you know.”, growled a voice from behind her, and Aager Fogstep caught her, slowly and gently in his arms. “They had their Ritual Guardian before, and took him, they did, for granted. Perhaps they should earn their new Guardian.”
Inshala leaned back further into his arms trying her best not to seem too petulant, or at the very least, not like a crybaby! Taking comfort from his mere existence had not been part of her plan, but had ended up being that way. She still did pout, even though he couldn’t see it.
“Am I pretty?”, she asked suddenly.
Asking if she was pretty, hadn’t been part of the plan either.
It just came out..
But then, there hadn’t been any plans, to begin with!
“I am sure I was pretty before Themalsar.. I had more to offer then. Now there’s nothing of me left to show for..”, she mumbled.
Aager stared at the log houses beyond the trees as he tightened his hold on the skinny girl in his arms.
“You were an Inshala, then. You are my Inshala, now. I love the fire you bring into my cold home. And that fire has little to do with how you appear, but everything to do with who you are. I have never found comfort in close proximity to others. Now I look back and dare to foolishly compare. And thus I have come to the definitive conclusion that there is a flaw in our relationship.”, he said in his gravelly voice.
“There.. there is?”, Inshala asked, and inevitably, she turned around in his arms to stare up into his dark eyes.
“Yes. You might, or you might not like the conclusive flaw I have found, but it is there to stay..”, he said, staring down, also into her large, beautiful eyes.
Inshala held her breath.
Had her Aager found a damning fault in her? A fault that he thought was definitive? It must have been something she did all the time. Or something he had only recently noticed about her that he found distasteful..
“..that I am unable to think of a life without this skinny girl in my arms.”, he said, softening the grating sound of his voice.
Inshala ogled at him.
“Aager.. Inshala..”, said a bold, somewhat husky voice from somewhere off to their left, and Lilly Venom appeared out of the bushes. “Some people are coming this way. I think they are woodsmen and they are carrying a woman on a stretcher.. She appears to be in quite a bit of pain.”
“Dammit!”, Aager swore. “What do those idiots think they are doing, taking a sick girl out into the woods? The ogres will be here soon, too. If they see them, Heaven knows how they will react.”
“She is not sick, Aager.”, Lilly said. “She is pregnant!”
“She’s pregnant. She’s got a very large, bulging tummy. And I think she is due very soon, the way the girl is screaming.. At least she would be, but they seem to have clogged her mouth. They have also bound her hands, her arms, and her legs as well!, and it isn’t to make sure she does not fall off the stretcher!”
Aager stared at his sister.
“What the..”, he said, unable to come up with anything to explain what he had just heard.
It was Inshala who explained why the woodsmen had bound a pregnant woman..
“That woman.. is my mother!”, she said mutely.
“What?”, both Aager and Lilly said in shocked voices.
“That woman is what my mother went through when she had given birth to me. They, the woodsmen, bound her and me with ropes, and dragged us into the forest, then stoned her to death. It was all my mother could do to put herself over me. Then they left both of us to die. She was already dying from all the bleeding, and they hoped some wild animal would come and kill me.. The woodsmen have been practicing that like a ritual ever since, whenever a woman would get pregnant and someone would see some abnormality and fear I would come out of the woman! They drag the pregnant girl off into the woods and wait until she gives birth. If all is well, they take her, and the baby back home. But the women do not usually live through birth, being bound the way they are, and the child suffocates and dies in the womb. This is my legacy!”
Aager’s eyes went blue.. glacial blue.. and cold wispy tendrils started emanating from them. It was quite uncanny, really.
Lilly went silent the way she did, just before she assassinated somebody!
They both looked at one another and a wordless communication seemed to take place between them..
Then they both disappeared into the forest as Inshala stared after them.
Soon enough, she heard Aager’s voice in her head.
“Better come here, love. I am very much clueless about childbirth and Lilly gave one look at the girl and all color drained from her face, which tells me she is equally clueless.”
Inshala didn’t say anything. She just walked over in the direction her Aager had, sort of ‘implied’, in his voice and found four large men spr