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cemya last won the day on March 23

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  1. THE TEST Anaxis stepped to the edge of the battlement. He surveyed the lands stretched beneath him, pulling his robes closer to ward against the biting wind. A fascinating mix of volcanic mountains and plateaus, Overholt had harbored the richest mines ever recorded. Every Crow of note had fought here under the Laws of the Dregs. Now Overholt was at its nadir. The Hunger, moving with greater velocity each day, would swallow this last corner soon enough. This castle had been taken over early in the campaign by a band of Kronos worshippers. Anaxis had once been pledged to the Lord of Time. It was a small matter to contact his old comrades and have the now-abandoned structure placed at his disposal. Where better to conduct the final experiment? Here they were safe from prying eyes. And they had an appropriate choice of test subjects. The true warriors were gone. Even the Scrappers had pulled out. The last remaining Crows were the kind that wouldn’t be missed. Misfits and vagrants. Loners. And he could wait no longer. Calliope was no fool. It was only a matter of time before she found out. There were too many loose ends. Eamon, his Second, walked up and bowed. “Lord Archon. Preparations are almost complete. We lack only the bloodsoul amulet.” “We will proceed without it, Eamon.” “My Lord?” “The only amulet currently in existence is in the possession of that ridiculous girl,” said Anaxis. “You know that.” “Yes, of course my Lord. But I assumed we would obtain it before the test. Without the power of the amulet, our calculations predict instability. The test subject…” “Is a necessary sacrifice to a noble cause,” Anaxis said, cutting him off. The Lord Archon fixed Eamon with a steady gaze. “Agreed?” Eamon licked his lips, then nodded. “Bring the Magus here. I would like to have a word with them before we begin.” The Magus. Hand-picked Devoted who had taken secret vows to the Lord Archon personally. It was the Magus who had conducted the decades of painstaking research to bring them to this point. Clem had once been numbered among them - before the old fool had run off to chase legends. In a few minutes, the Magus stood quietly before him. The men and women knelt as one. Clearing his throat, he motioned for them to rise. “Brothers and sisters. When we began, none of us knew what lay ahead. We only knew the stakes. A century ago, the Hunger, our great enemy, quickened its march. Who can say why? Perhaps we lacked piety. Perhaps nature itself had become unbalanced. Yet while others talked, we decided to act. To act for generations to come, mortal and Crow, so that they may live free.” He gazed slowly around. “Many of you may harbor doubt. That is to be expected. Our ship sails towards an unknown horizon. We may fail. But if we succeed, we have birthed a new age of peace and progress.” Anaxis looked at each in turn. “Now is the moment to decide. Once we enter that room, there is no turning back. If you do not wish to pass through that door, no one will think the less of you for it.” The Lord Archon waited a long moment. None of the Magus moved. He smiled. “Then let us begin.” In a few minutes they were all assembled in the ritual chamber. It had formerly been the dining hall of the followers of Kronos. Faded banners with the sigil of The Watcher still hung on the walls. Fitting, thought Anaxis. The Lord of Time had shattered the moon. They were about to shatter the Codicil. The tables and chairs had been moved to clear a wide space. In the middle was a large object covered with a canvas tarp. Beside it was a chair equipped with manacles. They took position in a wide circle. Anaxis wrinkled his nose. Even from here the stench of what was under the tarp was overpowering. He turned to Eamon. “Are you sure it’s fresh?” “Slain within the hour, Lord Archon.” “Then bring him in.” Eamon scuttled off. A moment later, guards brought in a blindfolded prisoner. A wood elf. They had caught him a week ago in the ruins, trying to chisel the gemstone eyes out of a statue to Maeve. The guards manacled the wood elf hand and foot to the chair and stepped back. The wood elf sniffed. He made a wretching noise. “By the Pantheon, what’s that? It smells like Yaga’s crotch!” “Take off his blindfold,” ordered Anaxis. The wood elf blinked in the light. He focused on Anaxis. “You look like the big shot here. Let me go or you’ll face severe repercussions from House Wyndemere!” The Lord Archon gave a half-smile. “No, I won’t. There is no House Wyndemere. And you are just a liar and petty thief. A guild-less, penniless, scab on the backside of this world.” “I’m still a Crow! I got rights! Free me!” “We will. Very soon.” Anaxis motioned to the guards to gag the wood elf. He turned to address the Magus. “On my mark. Summon all the power that is within you. Leave nothing back.” “Yes, Lord Archon,” they nodded. “Eamon, if you please?” His Second edged forward to the canvas tarp. Pinching his nose with one hand, he yanked the covering back. The carcass of a recently-slain Hunger beast came into view. A Bog Bear. Ichor still dripped from its gaping maw. The wood elf’s eyes widened. He began to struggle wildly. “Now, brothers and sisters!” cried Anaxis. “NOW!” The Magus raised their staffs and began to chant. Their words were in the same tone and meter as the Chant of Making. But this was a not a Making. A blue-green haze appeared above the Bog Bear carcass and the wood elf. It began to glow and then to swirl. Sparks of light flashed. “More!” cried Anaxis. “All you have!” The Magus slammed their staffs to the ground. Their chanting grew louder. The blue-green haze thickened. Anaxis moved to stand beside the struggling wood elf. He drew a dagger and raised it high. “By all that is sacred and profane - let it be done!” The Lord Archon drew the blade across the wood elf’s throat. The man gurgled. His struggles grew weaker until his head drooped, and he was still. A wisp appeared above the dead elf’s head. Transparent and barely visible. A spirit crow. The ephemeral crow cawed and fluttered, as if seeking to fly away. It screeched and struggled as the blue-green mist enveloped it. The mist, still entangling the frantic crow, now funneled towards the open maw of the Hunger Beast. With one final caw, mist and crow disappeared inside the carcass. There was silence. Everyone in the room waited breathlessly. A long minute passed. A magus lowered his staff. “Nothing,” he murmured. “We have failed.” “No!” cried Anaxis. “Look!” The snout of the Bog Beast twitched. Yellowed eyes opened. It gave a keening cry. Claws scrabbled on the stone floor as it heaved up onto its feet. “We have done it!” shouted Anaxis. The Hunger beast howled. But this sounded like agony. It began to circle aimlessly, as if confused. “Stand back,” commanded Anaxis. “Give it room!” The beast howled again. As they watched, great flakes of fur and flesh began to slough off its body. Drool from its maw formed a puddle on the floor. Wheezing, it reared up on its hind legs, pitched over and lay still. Eamon gingerly prodded the carcass with one foot. He sighed. “As we feared, Lord Archon. Without the power of a bloodsoul amulet, the transformation is unstable.” “No matter, Eamon,” replied Anaxis. “We have proved it can be done. A Crow can inhabit a Hunger beast.” As Anaxis spoke, the Bog Bear shuddered one last time. They looked to see a wisp of a crow rise from its gaping maw. But the spirit was now twisted and green. As they watched, it writhed and dissolved. “The spirit of the wood elf…” gasped Eamon. “A necessary sacrifice,” intoned Anaxis. The Lord Archon turned to the Magus. Many of them were still looking wide-eyed at the rotting carcass of the Bog Bear. “Brother and sisters. Today is the Third of the Harvest Moon. Mark it well. We have achieved the impossible. Once we obtain the bloodsoul amulet, we can act with purpose.” He pointed to the rapidly-decaying Bog Bear. “The union of Crow and Hunger gives us an unassailable weapon. The monsters do not attack one another. Drawing power from infected crystals, our Crow Beasts will pass through the ethereal barrier and destroy the Hunger at its source. Then new Gods shall arise. Crows with the courage and wisdom to throw off their shackles. I will lead us to a…” Anaxis swayed. He passed his hands over his eyes, then sank to the floor. Eamon rushed to his side. Anaxis waved him off. “Just…a passing weariness,” he murmured. He rose unsteadily to his feet. “We should all get some rest. Tomorrow, we return to the Great Temple. We have many preparations to make.” The Lord Archon smiled. “Destiny awaits.”
  2. FIRE OF BELIEF The portal sizzled. A moment later, Ransom stepped through. Kitaara looked up from where she was stirring the stew. “Well, ranger?” “Clear on the other side for about ten miles. Then I came on a strange sight. A camp of Crows. About ten half-giants with a caged prisoner – a very large minotaur.” “Did the minotaur have a broken left horn?” Ransom gave the assassin a quizzical look. “As a matter of fact, yes.” “Two-Ton. He helped Call the girl.” The ranger grimaced. “Then it’s begun. They must be starting to arrest anyone who dealt with the Bride. We need to tell Cembrye.” He looked around their campsite. “Where is she?” Kitaara was silent a moment. “She brought water from the stream. But this was an hour ago.” “I’m going to go look for her. Can you stay here in case she comes back?” The assassin nodded. He walked some distance along the banks of the stream before hearing chunking sounds – the kind made when someone tosses knives into wood for practice. He sighed in relief and followed the sounds.. Ransom found her kneeling by the stream, wringing out her wet hair. She was wearing her assassin leathers but was barefoot. A half-dozen throwing knives were stuck in the ground beside her. She cast a side-wise glance at him as he approached. “There you are,” scolded Ransom. “You shouldn’t go off alone like that. We were worried about you.” Cembrye shrugged. “I can take care of myself.” “I know that. I didn’t mean…” The girl stood and began tying her hair into braids. “You’re acting like you’re my father. Or my boss. Well, you’re not.” Ransom, taken aback, gave her a look. “Whoah – where did that come from?” She stopped tying her hair and turned to face him, hands on hips. “Look, I’m grateful for your help. But I have to trust my own heart. Yuki was right.” “Yuki is wayward and unreliable. What she did was cruel.” “And you just sat there." Ransom was silent a moment. “You're right. I should have said something. But I was shocked.” “I need friends to have my back. Not be shocked.” The ranger reddened. “That’s unfair.” “Fair or not, I won’t let it happen again.” Ransom stepped forward. He forced himself to keep an even tone. “Cembrye, what’s come over you?” She finished tying her hair. She picked up her shoes and the throwing knives. “I’ve decided to be me. Get used to it.” Ransom watched her stride off towards their camp. The ranger shook his head. He needed time to process this before heading back. He walked over to the large nearby tree. It had deep marks in the bark. The kind made by throwing knives. The prints of bare feet led back to the stream. Cembrye's. But something else caught his eye. Ransom knelt and examined the footprints more closely. He had to look twice to convince himself he was really seeing what he was seeing. The grass on the edges of the footprints was singed. And the ground underneath darkened. Like it had been burnt. By something very hot.
  3. TOMB RAIDERS “STOP!” cried Itani. The fae turned and groaned, one hand on her hip. “Great. A dungeon crawler.” “A what?” “You don’t walk. You craaaawl. I thought we were in a hurry?” Itani pointed to the doors of the tomb entrance. “Observe, Fae. The doors open outward. We best prop them, or risk being trapped inside.” She peered at the doors. Pursing her lips, she picked up a pair of large stones and placed them as wedges. “So smug. So patriarchal. But so right. Strange though – it’s like they were more afraid of something getting out.” “Be prepared. The Scrappers just sawed the lock. They hadn’t been inside yet.” “Someone has.” The fae gestured at the threshold. A faint set of footprints led into the dark. “Someone with a key,” murmured Itani. “I’ll go first.” He stepped forward confidently. “No!” “The male can’t lead?” The fae pointed to the path of the footprints. After a couple of steps, they jogged left, making a half circle before continuing. Itani realized he was now standing in the middle of the circle. They heard a loud click. The confessor yelled as the ground dropped away. There was a sound of flapping. Something struck his side and he hurtled through the air, landing on his back, where he lay stunned. As Itani’s vision cleared, he saw the fae was sitting astride him. She gave a wide grin. “Someone needs to diet!” “It’s the armor,” he offered sheepishly. She hoisted Itani to his feet. “Nuh-uh,” she smirked. “But that’s okay. You’re just lucky I’m not wearing…” “Much of anything.” “So I can move fast when I want to.” She winked. “Very utilitarian,” he muttered. The Nethari dusted himself off. Lighting his lamp, he looked down into the pit. Twenty feet below was a forest of spikes. “Missed my chance,” sighed the fae. “Guess I’m stuck with a two-way split.” “Now who’s being smug? And…matriarchal.” “C’mon,” said the fae, pulling on his arm. “This place isn’t going to rob itself.” They carefully followed the footprints through the surrounding chambers. Nothing unusual. A room for pilgrims to rest. A well. Living quarters for attendants. A storage room. “It looks like this shrine hasn’t been visited for a while,” said Itani. “Just dust and empty shelves.” “And no treasure. The guy who tipped me is going to get it.” “The guy who tipped you?” The fae’s eyes narrowed. “Alright, alright,” replied Itani. He surveyed their surroundings. “We’ve covered everything but that hallway down. The tracks go that way.” The air grew warmer as they descended. Then the passage leveled out. They felt a draft and realized they were in a wider space. Itani opened the lamp further. Before them stretched a large vaulted chamber. The walls were covered with murals, dulled by time but still strikingly colorful. There were five sets, two on either side, with the largest set in the back of the chamber. A ring of benches surrounded an elevated platform on which stood a stone pulpit. Behind the pulpit was a life-size white marble statue of a young woman with long unbound hair, barefoot and wearing a plain dress. She was gazing solemnly up at the ceiling, arms out with palms up, with representations of flames curling beneath her. At her feet was a small urn. He heard the fae’s indrawn breath. “Who is she?” “The Bride of Valkyn.” “Wait a second. The Bride of Valkyn? That’s the same name of that crazy new girl.” “Yes.” Itani considered. He did not know who this fae really was. Or why she was here. But he knew that to gain trust, one must sometimes first give it. “I am on a mission for the Magna Mater. She asked me to travel to Ferisse to investigate the claims of the newest Crow. From a book of lore, I learned there had been another Bride of Valkyn, martyred a century ago.” He gestured at their surroundings. “This place is her tomb. It is called Enuma, which is Bright Flame. This must be the worship chamber.” The fae’s eyes widened as he spoke. Her reaction seemed genuine. Itani felt an inward relief. The confessor pointed to the murals. “And these must be scenes from her life.” They walked slowly around the room, examining each set of murals in turn. The first set showed the daily routine of a young noble girl. Dancing. Needlework. Prayer. “What was her name?” asked the fae. “Bellana of Aramore. As you can see, she came from wealth.” The second set showed the same girl, but as an older teen. The scenes were of travel. Riding a camel. Climbing a windswept plateau. Entering the gates of a castle. “This looks to be her journey from her home,” Itani mused. “A hundred years ago. To attend the wedding of a cousin.” “That castle is Shuhpur,” said the fae. Itani looked towards her, eyebrow arched. “I’ve, uhm, been to Elriza before. To do some stuff for someone.” The fae nibbled her lip. She looked like she had been about to say more but had stopped herself. Itani hesitated, then nodded. The third set of murals showed the young woman in the company of a robed man. He was cowled so that his face was not visible. He seemed to be instructing her. “I would guess that is Imlec,” said Itani. “Reputed to have either inspired or ensorcelled Bellana, depending on who you believe.” The fae pointed to the furthest panel in the set. It showed the girl running away as soldiers seized the cowled man. “Whoah. What’s going on there?” “The Bride’s family had Imlec seized and executed. She ran off into the wastes.” “How do you know all this?” Itani took out the slender volume given him by Father Telos. “This book recounts her legend. I do not know how accurate it is though.” The fourth set of murals showed the young woman coming out of the desert towards a crowd of people, the cowled man once more at her side. The crowd seemed shocked, some fleeing and others falling to their knees. The young woman was smiling. The muralist had painted a glow about her. “Bellana returned from the desert with Imlec at her side,” said Itani. “He proclaimed her the Bride of Valkyn and a holy vessel. They started the first church after that.” “Wait a second. How did she survive the desert? And wasn’t Imlec dead?” “The crowd wondered that as well,” replied Itani. They walked to the fifth, and last, set of murals. These were much larger and placed in the center of the chamber, directly behind the pulpit and statue. The murals depicted, in heart-wrenching detail, scenes from the Bride’s martyrdom. One panel showed the crowd binding Imlec to a stake, piling branches around him, and setting the wood alight. Another showed Bellana walking into the flames, eyes closed. The last panel showed a weeping crowd gathering her ashes and placing them in an urn. “And this of course is…” began Itani. He halted mid-sentence as he noticed the fae’s expression. She was staring wide-eyed at the image of Imlec bound to the stake. Unlike the other murals, in this one he was not wearing a cowl. His features were plainly visible. “What is it?” queried Itani. The fae swallowed hard, then seemed to compose herself. “Nothing.” She was lying, thought Itani. And upset. It was as if she’d recognized Imlec. Before he could follow up, he saw the fae scurry towards the back of the chamber. She pointed to something against the wall while holding a handkerchief over her nose. As he reached her, Itani saw why. They had found the maker of the footprints. The man was lying on his face. His robes were the color of flame and had Valkyn symbols woven into them in gold thread. A broken staff lay beside his body. He looked to have been dead for some time. “This must be Amnon, the High Priest,” said Itani. He searched the body and found what he was looking for. A key on a chain. “Who?” “A cultist of Arkon. Supposedly he killed the second Bride when she came to Elriza. Obviously that didn’t happen. Suffice to say, he then converted to worship of Valkyn. When the Hunger advanced, I was told he came here to summon the help of a legendary Elrizan woman warrior.” “Subeiha?” asked the fae. Itani gaped. “You know of her?” The fae nodded. “From my visit before. They were singing a song to her in a tavern. I asked and the locals filled me in. But why would this guy come here to summon her?” “I don’t know. I was hoping this tomb would have clues. But nothing so far.” “Wait a second!” The fae knelt and examined the corpse of the priest. “Look at his hands.” Itani knelt and saw. The priest, in his last agonies, had been clawing at the stone wall. “Stand back,” the confessor said. He made a series of intricate motions with his hands. At first nothing happened. Then, slowly but clearly, a gossamer line of light appeared on the wall in the shape of a large door. The fae let out a low whistle. “Nice!” “Yes, but with no lock or mechanism. It must require a spell word. Without it, we are stuck.” The fae gave him a nudge. “Stand back!” She stood in front of the door and raised her arms. “Celestial!” There was a crackling sound like electricity. The gossamer lines faded. A stone door creaked open. “Back at you,” said Itani, impressed. “How did you know the spell word? Wait, your tipster told you.” She nodded. “The one you won’t talk about.” The fae nibbled her lower lip, then nodded again. She took Itani’s lantern from his hand and walked through the door. “He said there was something valuable past the ward. Some kind of rare book.” “Then let us see.” The passageway sloped steeply downwards again. However, its nature was different. The walls were rough rock, not chiseled stone. Occasionally a thin stream of water would flow out of an unseen crack above. There was no sound but their breaths. “This goes deep,” said Itani. “And it is not like the rest of this place. It seems older. Much older. I wonder if they knew it was here when they built the tomb?” “I bet not. Or whoever knew kept it to themselves. That dead guy seemed to think there was something here, though.” “Amnon had been a priest of Arkon. And he was native to Elriza. Perhaps other legends link Subeiha to this area.” They continued on. The passage seemed endless. How far underground were they now? They stopped to refill Itani’s lantern. In the warm air, the fae decided to take off her mask. Long blonde hair tumbled down. “Good idea,” said Itani. “This place is getting hot.” “That’s all that’s coming off though!” She poked him in the chest. Itani stuttered. “Just kidding,” she laughed. “It’s fun rattling your cage. Just tell me to snog off.” “No chance. I may need you to rescue me again. But if I had to choose a last sight before I die, I could do worse than those green eyes.” The fae’s jaw dropped. A blush came over her cheeks. “Wow. I wasn’t expecting…I mean…I guess I have no comeback. Point to the Nethari.” The confessor adjusted the lamp with a deadpan expression. Inside, Itani was wondering what he had just done. The words had simply…come out. She was fae and he was Nethari. He didn’t even know her name. He needed to get moving again…now. “Shall we? I think the tunnel is leveling out again.” It was. After another hundred feet they felt drafts again. Not only that, but a slender pillar of light appeared ahead. It looked to be another wide chamber. “Interesting,” murmured Itani. “There must be a shaft leading to the surface.” They entered the chamber. It was large but rough-hewn - more like a cave. A stone sarcophagus rested on the floor, lit by the shaft of light from above. They could see a desk and chair in the corner. Three murals covered the far wall, framed by carved symbols. Itani opened the lantern further. The murals and symbols came into view. They were faded but still legible. Like everything past the magic door, they looked much older than the rest of the shrine. “By all that is sacred,” Itani murmured. He and the fae exchanged looks. “Is that who I think it is?” she whispered. Itani nodded. He stepped closer to the murals. “Hero, the First Crow. Those are his sigils. But…these murals…” he whispered, his voice trailing off. The first mural showed a weary-looking man in heavy armor with a two-handed sword on his shoulder. A woman with silver hair and blue skin walked at his side. They were climbing a long slope towards a farmhouse under a starry night sky. “Hero. And a moon elf,” said Itani. The second mural showed Hero standing with bloodied sword over the corpses of a woman and three children. The moon elf faced him, shielding a newborn baby in her arms, one palm towards Hero in a warding motion. The fae gave a cry, then turned away and burst into tears. Itani gulped. He began to recite the words from memory. It was the Catechism of Hero: Did Hero return to find his wife and children slain, innocent victims of a savage time? Did he slay them to prove his devotion? Kill them in nightmarish fit of rage? Perhaps none of these stories are true. Perhaps all of them are. The last mural showed the moon elf again, bowing before a small girl who was transforming, melting from flesh into a figure of pure fire and light. Itani moved to where the fae knelt sobbing. He placed a hand on her shoulder. She wiped her eyes, nodding thankfully as she composed herself. “If these murals are true, then it is incredible,” murmured Itani. “We may know the true origin of a God. But the moon elf and fiery child…there must be more.” Sniffling, the fae pointed to the desk in the corner. A book and writing materials lay on it. They seemed more recent than anything else in the cave, although they were still covered by a thick layer of dust. “That must be the book.” Itani picked it up and opened it. He began to read it out loud: I, Clem, Mage of Hero and servant of the Devoted, herein recount the journey I have made. For many years I climbed, and now, at the summit, I see laid before me the truth. When I came to Ferisse over a century ago, I was a man in search of a question. By the will of the Gods or brute chance, I found it, and answers, though at great cost. The Canticles of the All-Father lit my way. The Embers of Chaos and the Dust of Order, divine materials for which all else is but a shadow, float across the heavens: adrift, lost, untethered. But they are not alone. She was there. At first it was a mad guess. Then I found this cave. Or was guided here. By the All-Father? Another? Who knows. The line between inspiration and madness thins. Why did Hero kill all his family but the babe? Why would his lover protect the child? Years before, deep in the archives of the Devoted I had come across a fragment from the Apocrypha, writings banned from the sacred text of the Book of Creation. They whisper to me even now in tongues of beauty and horror: “Before the All-Father departed to face the Hunger, he left a part of himself. None know why, for who can fathom the mind of Valkyn the Ancient? He begat a girl child with the wife of Hero. And Hero, returning from war, knew the babe was not his. And Hero slew all his family but the daughter of Valkyn, for his consort begged him to spare the babe. And Hero did so, burdened by guilt, knowing he had not been a true husband. In time, the divine child died, for one such as she cannot thrive in mortal realm. But neither could her soul find rest, for the All-Father had departed. And so, she wandered, untethered, until in the fullness of time her confusion and loss turned to anger.” One small piece. But, like a rock slide, this fragment triggered the rest. Ferisse had always seemed different. Settled by humans long ago, a shadow of the cult of Valkyn was there from its beginning. And now we know it as the ancient birthplace of Hero the Undying. I began my search with these words of the sacred Canticle as guide: it “coalesces around the Embers as if desperate to find purchase…like iron to a lodestone.” Slowly, I built the cult of Valkyn into something more. I built a temple to call to her. And I waited. And she came out of the Elrizan desert. But not to the temple. She came to my Bellana. I cannot say the name without weeping. The power of her faith, her purity and goodness…I pray the Gods will forgive me for what I did to her. I know I will never forgive myself. Bellana’s death is on my conscience. And I know now her sacrifice made things worse. I thought to hinder the march of the Hunger. But I hastened it. I go now to the west. I will mourn and rebuild. The name of Imlec I leave buried here along with my beloved. I must try once more – the child of flame is the key. Nothing else matters. Itani closed the book. There was a long silence. He looked towards the fae. She had buried her face in her hands. “Fae,” he began gently. “I can see you know more. Care to tell me?” “I can’t,” she pleaded, gesturing with her hands. “I mean I can…but I don’t know if it will make things better or worse. For me, for you…for everyone. I thought it was just another job. A lark. I never dreamed…” “Can you at least tell me your name?” “I…no. For me, its all or nothing. If I tell you my name, then I’m going to tell you everything.” Itani sighed. “Well, we need to get this book to the Magna Mater. Even if it is just the ravings of a mad man.” “If he’s right,” said the fae, “then the Bride of Valkyn is actually the Daughter of Valkyn. Ick.” Itani gave her a look. “C’mon,” she said. “Your mind went to a strange place for a moment too.” “Regardless…it is all hard to believe. I wish we could find more evidence.” “Maybe there are more books?” Itani looked around. “I don’t see anything else here. All I have left to go through are some notes on the legend of Subeiha. But they are in Elrizan.” “I can read Elrizan.” Itani looked at her in amazement. “I’ve never met a woman who was so helpful and frustrating at the same time.” “It’s my specialty. Give me the notes.” He handed them to her. She began reading. “Subeiha, blah blah. They called her and she came, blah blah. She killed five here, a dozen there, piled the corpses, blah blah. Nothing out of the usual for her. She basically showed up and killed people. Wait…here is something…” The fae read silently, her lips moving. Then her eyes widened. “Whoah…listen to this.” And she read: In all her appearances, Subeiha is known to have spoken only once. It was at the scene of her greatest massacre, where she had slaughtered a hundred sand raiders. When she was done, she lowered her fiery sword and cried out: ‘Where is my father?’ They exchanged glances. “Are you as spooked as I am?” asked the fae in awe. “More,” admitted Itani. Itani looked towards the sarcophagus. “This was not just a tomb for Bellana. Let’s look more closely.” They walked over to the stone sarcophagus. They could see that the light fell right on a hole in the top of it. Itani traced the edges with his fingers. Then he looked up at the shaft in the ceiling. “The edges look melted. If I had to guess, the hole in the sarcophagus and that shaft to the surface were made by something very hot.” “Something that wanted out,” said the fae. “I suspect Bellana’s urn in the main chamber is empty. But there is one other thing I wanted to check. Let’s head back up.” “What about the book?” “We can come back down for it. And everything else. It’s a lot to carry.” In a few minutes, they had climbed back to the main worship chamber. Itani walked over to the mural that showed the crowd arresting Imlec. “I was wondering about this,” said the Nethari. “There is a whole black area here that seems out of place along the edge. Like someone painted over it later. Can I borrow your knife?” The fae slid a slender blade out of her bodice. Itani averted his eyes once he saw where she was reaching. “Guess the secret’s out,” she grinned as she handed it to him. Itani resisted the temptation to reply, forcing himself to focus on his task. It was a delicate one, but slowly and steadily he pared away the edges of the black area. “Just as I thought. This part of the mural was painted over recently. But if I’m careful, I can peel it away and see what someone wanted hidden…there we are.” The confessor pulled back the congealed strip of paint. “Well, I’ll be. It’s another moon elf,” he said. “Or the same one,” said the fae. “She is behind the mob…egging them on.” “Another mystery. Hopefully the Magna Mater can make sense of this too.” He let out a deep breath. “Come Fae…let’s gather up what we’ve found and get out of here.” “Great idea Nethari! I’ve about had it with being underground. Some sun and air would be nice.” Suddenly they heard a low rumble. It seemed to be coming from all around them. “Hunger quake!” cried the fae. “That storm must be here," agreed Itani. They were thrown off their feet. The entire chamber seemed to be swaying. Rocks tumbled down from the ceiling, narrowly missing them. After a minute, the quakes stopped and there was silence. “The doors!” shouted Itani. They rushed up the corridor to the entrance of the tomb. They saw the doors had broken free of their wedges and were now tightly shut. “We’re trapped inside,” said Itani, his hands pushing fruitlessly at the doors. “Maybe not,” said the fae. He looked at her. Then he smacked his forehead with his palm. “That shaft to the surface. Come on!” They rushed back down to the cave. Shielding his eyes, Itani peered up through the shaft. “It’s too narrow. You won’t have room to flap your wings.” “It will be tight. And I’m not saying it will be easy. But I think I can do it. Once I get out, I can run around and clear any rocks blocking the doors.” Itani reached into his robes. He took out the key he’d gotten from Amnon’s body and handed it to the fae. “Here is the door key, in case it locked.” The fae took the key and nodded. Tying back her long blonde hair, she pulled her mask back on. “On my mark. I’ll hoist you up to give you some momentum.” “Wait.” The fae turned to him. Her large green eyes fixed him with an intense look. “If I get stuck, I want you to promise you’ll finish me off. With one of your bolts.” “Fae…” She seized his hands urgently in her own. Her eyes were moist. “Don’t let me die slow! Promise me!” Itani struggled for words. Then he squeezed her hands and nodded. “I promise.” “Then let’s do this.” Itani cupped his hands. The fae unfurled her dove-like wings, placing one foot atop the sarcophagus and one on his hands. The confessor counted down. At zero, she launched herself upwards, wings flapping furiously. The fae was halfway up the shaft when her progress slowed. She could only extend her wings so far before they hit the rock edges. But she redoubled her efforts, her wings beating faster and faster until they resembled those of a hummingbird. She flapped and squirmed steadily up the shaft. Itani could hear her gasps of pain. The rock edges must be battering her wings bloody. He gritted his teeth. Then, with one last heave, the fae was out. He heard her shout in triumph. “Go up top!” she cried. “I’ll open the doors in a jiffy.” Itani started up, then stopped. Other sounds now came from above. The sounds of snarling. The fae gave another shout, this time of alarm. The snarling noises increased. There was the sound of pistol shots. “Fae!” cried Itani. “Fae!” Now he heard only the snarling. The noises faded. He was alone in silence. Itani rushed back up to the tomb entrance. He knelt by the door and put his ear to the rock. Long minutes passed. Nothing. He bowed his head. “Arkon, Lord of the Sun and Prince of Justice. Give your blessings to this fae. I don’t ask anything for myself. Please protect her. Please hear my prayer.” There came a faint scrabbling at the stone. Then panting breaths. A small click. Itani pushed on the doors. They swung open. He shielded his eyes as he stepped outside. A bright sun bore down. He searched desperately. The fae lay on her side fifty feet away. He ran to her. Three Hunger beasts sprawled dead around her. A broken pistol was on the ground, as if it had been used as a club when its ammunition ran out. Her pearl white flight suit was clawed and stained with blood and one of her wings was broken. Her eyes were closed. But she was breathing. She was alive. Itani looked to the sky and murmured his thanks. The fae groaned. Very gently, he rolled her onto her back. Her eyelids fluttered open. “Got em’ all. And unlocked the doors. But I had to get my pistol back. It was pretty expensive...” “You could have flown off and left me,” said Itani. “No way. I talk tough. But that’s not me. Can’t leave a…partner.” She coughed. Specks of blood came out. Suddenly the ground rumbled again. Itani sensed another Hunger quake would come soon. This one would be bigger than the last. It would likely collapse the tomb and bury everything inside. He could rush back down and get the book. Or he could make a portal and get the fae medical attention. He couldn't do both. As if reading his thoughts, the fae squeezed his hand. “Go on…get the book. It’s more important than me. I’m just a fae who ran out of bullets. And one-liners.” She coughed again. “I doubt the latter,” replied Itani. He gave her hand a return squeeze. “I’m getting you to a doctor. Just hang on.” She forced a pained smile. “Sticking around huh?” Her voice seemed to be getting weaker. “Don’t talk, Fae. Just rest,” urged Itani. The fae closed her eyes. She pulled him closer. “Leya,” she whispered. “What?” “My name. It’s Leya.”
  4. COUNSELS OF THE WISE “A pleasant surprise, Magna Mater. Please, come in.” In truth, Anaxis was anything but pleased by this unexpected visit. But he could hardly refuse. Calliope, High Priestess of Cybele, was the reason he was Lord Archon. He had met Calliope soon after taking his vows. At the time, the Devoted were a small conclave focused on the Making. Calliope, one of the youngest ever to attain the position of Magna Mater, believed the Devoted could be more – a true church with a common purpose. Ambitious and driven, Anaxis saw expansion as the vehicle to attain the recognition he craved. Each found the other a kindred spirit. But it would not do for Calliope, a member of the Golden Council, to take the lead. That would only incite opposition from Chaos and Balance. Instead, they agreed she would support Anaxis from afar. Their partnership had been immensely successful. The Devoted now bestrode the realms. Chantries were founded in almost every temple. Acolytes preached in almost every kingdom. Almost. There were malcontents. And new threats. Anaxis suspected Calliope was here to discuss both. But her timing could hardly have been worse. For he had just received unsettling news. The Bride had left her realm. But not, as expected, to return to Ferisse. She’d headed for Dreamfast, home of Yuki. And while Leya had successfully secured Clem at the Pinnacle, instead of returning to him the fae had flown off to parts unknown. Fortunately, Derk and his half-giants had seized Two-Ton. However, Stilicho and Stoor remained loose ends. Anaxis noticed Calliope peering across the table at him. How long had he been lost in his thoughts? “Ahem, as I said…a pleasure. What brings you to the Great Temple?” “You seem distracted. Should I return another time?” she queried. “No, no…please. My apology. It has been a long day.” The half-elf priestess nodded. “I needed to speak with you on a pressing matter.” He motioned for her to continue. “The girl. As I feared, she has begun to preach. A number of Crows have listened, and now the wildest tales are spreading. Some claim she speaks for the All-Father. Some argue she is behind the advance of the Hunger. Many worship her. Others call for her arrest.” “The Bride,” nodded Anaxis. “I thought that was why you’d come. Do you know where she is now?” Calliope shook her head. “I do. She went straight to Drizzlewitch. The enemy of everything we are trying to build.” Calliope sighed. “If Yuki is an enemy, can you blame her? You refused my advice and sent the Three after her.” “She was harboring abominations and defying the church.” “And a failed use of force only made her stronger. We will do things my way now. I have invited her to parlay. Just the three of us. Let us hope she accepts.” Calliope leaned back in her chair. “If the girl is in league with Yuki that would complicate matters. But let us not forget the rumor the Bride also possesses a bloodsoul amulet.” The half-elf priestess took out a handkerchief and mopped her brow. “The kingdoms are on edge as never before. People have begun to consider the unthinkable. A path I will not sanction.” Anaxis stood and began to pace, his hands behind his back. “Magna Mater, the day may come when we need to think the unthinkable. It gives me no pleasure to say so.” Careful now, Anaxis, he told himself. Tread carefully. He licked his lips, then continued. “No Crow should be forced to sacrifice themselves for the Making. But what do we really know about the magic we wield? Have we tested the frontiers of that knowledge? What if the rules are not what they seem?” “What are you saying, Anaxis?” He detected her alarm. This was enough. For now. “I was only describing the problem, Magna Mater. We are all bound by the Codicil.” The Codicil. An ancient treaty agreed long ago by the early Crows. It had been handed down from a vision received by Kuval, greatest mage of the time. Many believed that it came from the Gods themselves. The Gift – the power to inhabit a vessel – was not to be tampered with. But a bloodsoul amulet could be the key. A stepping stone to power so great it would rival the Gods themselves. A weapon to end the Hunger. But as long as their hands were tied by the Codicil, they would never find out. Any who tried would face sanction from all the kingdoms. Unless that someone held unchallenged power. A benevolent guide, who could decide what was best for everyone. A man of vision to unite all Crows under a single iron will. Calliope was speaking again. He forced himself back to the present. “We cannot act on mere suspicion,” she said. “We need to know more about this Bride of Valkyn.” “Is that necessary? She convicts herself with her own words.” “Even so, I will not act without more evidence.” Calliope rose from her chair. “I have sent Itani, my Second, to Ferisse. He will learn what he can and report. Until then, we should not hinder her.” “You risk much, Magna Mater.” “Do I have your word on it?” “Yes, of course.” “Then I must go. But before I leave, I need a permit to visit the Arch of Lyessa.” Anaxis forced a smile. Why would Calliope wish to visit the Arch? Now of all times? “I will sign one. But what takes you there?” “The acolyte of a dear friend has gone missing. A young man who was caretaker of the shrine.” “Then I wish you good fortune. And I hope not so much time passes again before we see each other.” The Magna Mater smiled, bowed and departed. Anaxis was always driven, thought Calliope as she walked towards the gates. But she detected something different this time. Barely disguised frenzy. And this sudden mention of the Codicil. He was not telling her everything. The thought terrified her. She had helped make Anaxis one of the most powerful men in the kingdoms. Never had she come to question her choice. Until now. Coming so hard on the heels of Ransom’s betrayal, it left her feeling unnerved. Bereft. She prayed Itani would return soon. And that he could shed a light to guide her path.
  5. I've heard the minotaur really shines in a group
  6. THE CARETAKER Hansa threw open the shutters and took a deep breath of night air. Clear and cool. The eastern plains of the Arch stretched before him under the moonlight. He was still getting his bearings, but by now he could pick out landmarks. To the left, far to the west, was the great mount of the Pinnacle, prison of the Devoted. To the right, closer to hand, were the ruins of the Grimward, running like a jagged set of teeth along the horizon. And of course, right nearby on its own little island in the middle of the mere, the reason Hansa was here - the Obelisk. Hansa hadn’t been a Crow very long. Until recently, he’d been the newest. Now it was that girl everyone was talking about. He wondered if she was also having a hard time adjusting. He still remembered how it happened, like it was yesterday. Walking down an alley. Seeing three men attacking an old woman. Rushing in without thinking – too late to see they had swords. As he lay dying, he saw a white flash – and all three men fell dead. The old woman turned out to be Olenya, Priestess of Gaea. She brought him back. Hansa often wondered why she did it. He had just turned nineteen, a shopkeepers’ assistant who didn’t even know how to fight. He’d only wanted to help. All Olenya would say is that Gaea saw things differently than the other Gods. She gave her life to nourish life. Without Olenya, Hansa knew he’d be dead. And he was grateful. But he missed his parents. He wondered if they were still mourning him. If he’d ever see them again. Olenya said that in time he’d find someone special and that it would help. Hansa didn’t see that happening anytime soon. Most Crow girls were really intimidating. Even the nice ones. And the fae? Just saying hello was dangerous. The priestess helped him find work. Donations from believers supported shrines for all the religions. Olenya said being a caretaker of one would give Hansa time to adjust, to find his purpose. The job of watching over the “Doom of Almuir” – the name they gave to the shrine to the Goddess Illara – promised peace and quiet and a decent salary. Hansa didn’t know anything about Illara. He had pledged right away to Gaea. Olenya promised to bring him a book on her next time she visited. The job itself wasn’t hard. The Obelisk was more or less indestructible. He just needed to make sure visitors didn’t leave trash around. A fae had come by recently. Pretty, with green eyes and blonde hair. But she didn’t pay him any mind and he didn’t dare start a conversation. He’d seen her flying above the Pinnacle after that. She was gone now though. Hansa yawned. The end of another day. Still no closer to finding his purpose. Maybe Olenya would come by tomorrow. She always had words of encouragement. Just as he was closing the shutters, Hansa stopped. He thought he’d seen something. A blue light. He peered out. There it was. By the Obelisk. Reflecting off the waters of the mere. Now it was gone. When he was hired, they told him the only thing he needed to worry about was pranksters. Some guilds made defacing a shrine a rite of initiation. Crows could be as silly as mortals. That was probably what was going on. Anyway, he’d check it out. Hansa grabbed a wooden staff, the closest thing he had for a weapon, and went outside. The Obelisk was only a couple of hundred yards away. The moon was almost full, so he could see pretty well. But he watched his step anyway since the ground was still muddy from the rains. In no time, he’d squelched up to the edge of the mere. All quiet. No light. The Obelisk looked okay. He’d come out again in the morning and see if they’d left any graffiti. Wait. Someone was up on the hill. A woman in robes. She was walking east, away from the Obelisk. How strange. What was she doing up there? Was she the one making the light? Carefully, he came up behind her, as close as he dared without risking being spotted. There was break in the clouds. The moon illuminated her face. Hansa gasped. She was beautiful. But so pale. And her eyes were covered. Was she blind? The woman continued east. Hansa followed. He wasn’t sure why. His head felt foggy now.
  7. DREAMFAST “Quite the sight, isn’t it?” Ransom smiled as he took in Cembrye’s awe. The white spires of Castle Dreamfast beckoned in the distance now. The high walls, made of a pale blue rock found only on the worlds of the moon-elves, gleamed like ice in the wintry sun. They heard soft hooting. A snowy owl had landed on a nearby tree. It examined them with its large yellow eyes. Then it flapped off towards the keep. Ransom chuckled. “Our arrival has been noted.” They soon came upon a small roadside cabin. Puffs of smoke came from its chimney. Beside it was a large boulder. An elken emerged. He looked them over impassively. “Leave your pack beasts with me. Stand by the rock.” They did as they were told. Ransom turned to Cembrye with a serious expression. “For what’s next, I need you to trust me. Do exactly as I say. No inspirations.” Cembrye, a bit ruffled by his tone, opened her mouth to reply. Then she glanced at Kitaara. The assassin was looking intently down the road. They heard a jingling noise. It grew louder. Ransom gripped the hilt of his weapon. Two enormous white bears came hurtling towards them. They were pulling a green sleigh hung with silver bells. No one seemed to be steering it. A dozen feet away, the bears dug in their paws. The sleigh skidded to a halt, almost tipping over. The largest bear slipped its harness and padded silently towards them. “Stand still,” whispered Ransom. “Don’t look it in the eye. And by all the Gods, don’t run.” The huge bear ignored everyone but Cembrye, shambling up until it loomed over her. It occurred to Ransom the beast could easily swallow the girl in one gulp. The creature sniffed, nostrils quivering. It raised its massive head and gave an ear-splitting roar. Alarmed flocks of nearby ground birds took wing. Cembrye’s face was as white as the bear’s fur. But she held steady, fists clenched, her eyes focused resolutely on the ground. As if satisfied, the bear slouched back to the sleigh and slid its head into the harness. The beasts now seemed to be waiting. Ransom took his hand off his sword hilt. “All aboard.” Kitaara clapped Cembrye on the shoulder as she passed. Still dazed, the girl gave a nervous laugh, then followed. Once they were seated, the bears set off towards the castle, seeming to need no guidance. “What fun!” exclaimed Cembrye as they picked up speed. Recovered from her fright, she knelt gripping the side of the sleigh, her braids whipping in the breeze. “Aye,” said Ransom. “But once we enter the keep, be ready for some strange sights,” said Ransom. “Stranger than being pulled in a sleigh by bears?” He laughed. “Judge for yourself.” In a few minutes they were at the gate. Carved pillars flanked enormous oak doors embossed with the symbol of a slain rat. The bears halted. They could hear the sound of grinding gears. “The token of Illara,” said Ransom, pointing to the symbol as they waited. “Mistress of Cats and patron Goddess of Yuki Orinelle.” “I saw a statue of her at the Pantheon,” said Cembrye. “She didn’t look very friendly.” “Illara the Traveler is perhaps the most mysterious of all the Gods and Goddesses,” said Ransom. “She is daughter to Valkyn but doesn’t seem very upset by his disappearance. She travels across time, pursuing magical research. It is said only Illara knows the secret for breaching the wall between this reality and others. Many pray to her for that reason, hoping she will deliver us from the Hunger.” “Has anyone ever spoken with her?” asked Cembrye, wide-eyed. “There have been few confirmed appearances by the Gods or Goddesses. Interestingly, Illara is the subject of one of them.” “Tell me!” “A lover of knowledge I see,” said Ransom. “About a thousand years ago, in one of the oldest Kingdoms called the Arch of Lyessa, it is said Illara appeared before a Crow named Almuir. What passed between them is unknown, but it drove Almuir mad. He began to build the Grimward - a great fortress - in the Arch itself, raving that it was needed to defend against the Hunger. When he departed, they raised a shrine to Illara on the spot where his body was found.” “When he departed?” “Crows are immortal. But they may succumb of their own will. Weariness, despair, the loss of love – the reasons are many.” Cembrye shivered. “What a creepy story! It should be told around a fireplace on a rainy night. With mugs of hot chocolate.” The ranger grinned. “Have a care how you speak of your step-daughter. I wonder what Illara thinks of her father taking a young second wife?” “Maybe they would go shopping together,” offered Kitaara. “Stop it you two!” said Cembrye. “Scaring and making fun of me at the same time.” There was a loud creak. “The gates are opening,” said Ransom. “Brace yourselves.” The bears leapt forward for the last sprint. A stone path led to the mansion itself. But the fields on either side teemed with activity. Ransom had not been jesting about strange sights. To their left was an ice pond. About a hundred Guineaceans, wearing ice skates and dressed in party clothes of every color imaginable, danced to music only they seemed to hear. Each held a long white ribbon that was fastened to a tall pole in their midst. To their right was a snow hill. Half-giant children were racing sleds down it. The eldest spotted them and waved to the others. Pointing at Cembrye, he took a comic pose, as if he were preaching. The other children erupted in laughter. “Word travels fast,” remarked Kitaara as Cembrye blushed. They raced on. Cembrye spotted flocks of black and white colored birds on either side of the path, gathering as if to greet them. The birds were flightless and as tall as a man, with flippers for wings. They made clicking sounds. Cembrye clapped her hands excitedly. “Pengwynne!” she cried. “I’ve only seen paintings of them. They’re adorable!” “Look more closely,” said Ransom. Cembrye saw that the birds had the beaks of hawks. Their talons dug furrows in the ground. Glittering red eyes followed them as if tracking prey. “Mandamors,” said Ransom. “The result of a failed experiment by a mad wizard. The Devoted ordered them destroyed, but Yuki tamed them. They exist nowhere else.” The bears slid to a halt before the door of the mansion. Cembrye saw that marble statues of men stood on either side of the door. Suddenly, the statues began to move. She gripped Ransom’s arm. “They are harmless,” he said, patting her hand. “Automatons. Creations of Brody, Yuki’s Second and one of the most renowned inventors in the kingdoms. ” The marble men strode forward, joints squeaking, opened the door, then stood at attention. An elderly moon-elf dressed in formal attire stepped out. He bowed deeply. “Salutations. I am Wemys, Chamberlain to her Ladyship. I trust you had a comfortable journey?” “Yes, thank you. I am Ransom, this is Kitaara, and this is….” “The Bride of Valkyn,” interjected Wemys. “A rare honor.” There was a hint of amusement in his voice. The moon-elf gestured. “I will show you where you can refresh. Then her Ladyship awaits. Please follow me.” After washing and changing out of their travel clothes, they were ushered down a hallway that opened into a large, well-appointed dining room. Tapestries hung on the walls depicting scenes from famous battles. In the middle of the room was a long polished wooden table with carved chairs. It was set with a fine porcelain service and silver candle holders. Beside the table, a blue-skinned woman with long, unbound silver hair and bat ears stood with her back to them. She wore a black brocade gown. She turned and smiled as they entered. “Welcome to Dreamfast!” Cembrye looked to Ransom. He inclined his head towards the blue woman. “Go on…this was your idea,” he whispered. “Uhm, err,” mumbled Cembrye. Yuki was already striding towards them. She stopped in front of Kitaara, who stood with folded arms. “Kitty! No hard feelings? Good!” Kitaara’s eyes narrowed. “And you,” she said, moving to stand in front of Ransom. “I have a message for your Magna Mater. Tell her no! Just…no!” Ransom gaped, but the frost-weaver had already swept past him to Cembrye. “Let me see you…really see you.” She took Cembrye’s hands in her own and held her gaze. Yuki was wearing gloves, but Cembrye could still feel the coldness of her touch. Yuki’s pupiless silver eyes widened, as if she’d glimpsed something. She gave a little gasp, covered her mouth with the back of one hand, and turned away. “My Lady,” ventured Cembrye. “Thank you for your invitation. There is so much I want to ask. I…” Yuki turned back and waved her hands. “Yes, yes...but first - we feast!” Yuki clapped. More automatons entered carrying trays of food and drink. They all took their seats. And what a feast it was. Fresh baked bread with bowls of whipped butter and jam. A delicious soup of potatoes and ham. Roast boar and chicken, pot pie with sage and cheeses of every kind, with spiced wine and cider to wash it down. Cembrye had forgotten how ravenous she was. Kitaara sent her a look to slow down. The automatons had no sooner cleared one course than they brought another. They finished with a dessert of pears in red wine and chocolate cake drizzled with maple sauce. While they ate and drank, Yuki regaled them with tales of famous Crows. Kleyman and his three hounds. Sarissa the Night Walker. Yar the Mighty. The stories were familiar to Ransom and Kitaara, but Yuki told them so well, with humorous asides, that even they seemed to enjoy them. For Cembrye, it was another kind of feast and she hung raptly on every word. Her last story, about the many husbands of Queen Maggie, left Ransom in tears from laughter. “By the Three, Yuki, that was well-told,” he grinned, wiping his eyes. “The Three?” asked Cembrye curiously. “You have not heard of them?” said Ransom. “The Three are the greatest warriors of Order, Balance and Chaos. They abandon their former callings and take holy vows to enforce the laws of the Devoted. Once set to a task, they have never failed. Except once.” “And a close run it was,” said Yuki as she took a drink of spiced wine. The moon-elf smiled at Cembrye’s astonished look. She reached out and patted the girl’s arm. “Trust me, sweet thing, you don’t want the Three after you.” “Why were they chasing you?” “When you arrived, did you see flocks of black and white birds?” “The Mandamors?” “Yes! Condemned by those without imagination. They deserved a chance. The Devoted came to agree.” Ransom shifted in his seat, as if the conversation had taken an uncomfortable turn. Yuki noticed. “Fear not. It is a poor hostess who argues religion at table. I do not see eye to eye with the Lord Archon. We may leave it at that.” Yuki rose. “Come, let us go to the drawing room.” They followed her and were soon seated in comfortable chairs around a crackling fire. Yuki sat directly across from Cembrye. Paintings on the walls depicted Crows of legend. Yuki leaned back in her chair with an expectant look. “Uhm…well, it wasn’t easy coming here,” Cembrye began cautiously. “The day we met was the most horrible of my life. But at the end of it, I was a Crow.” “How are you finding it?” asked Yuki. “I can do things I never dreamt. But I feel…out of place…somehow. Like there is something I am meant to do, but I don’t know what it is.” “And that is why you came here?” “Yes. I was hoping for answers.” Yuki rose from her chair and stood with her back to them before one of the portraits. There was a long silence as she traced the lines of the paint strokes. “Tell me, sweet thing, in the Pillared Hall, when Stilicho wounded you to death…what were you thinking?” “I wasn’t thinking. I just acted.” “From here,” said Yuki, turning around and pointing at her heart. Cembrye nodded. Yuki sat down and took Cembrye’s hands in her own. “I have nothing for you, my child, that you do not already possess.” “But my feelings, my beliefs…where do they come from? What do they mean?” Yuki laughed, a peculiar sound that reminded Cembrye once more of nothing so much as a wind chime being struck. The moon-elf let go and stood up. Her kindly manner vanished. “What did they tell you of the Silver Fay?” she demanded. “That I was a witch? That I knew the future?” Taken aback, Cembrye stuttered, uncertain. “I didn’t mean to offend.” “Let me show you something.” Yuki walked to a corner of the room where a curtain hung. She drew it back. There, on a pedestal, was an Elken frozen solid in ice. “Stoor!” exclaimed Kitaara. “Yes,” said Yuki. “Unlike Kitty, he holds grudges. He found a cold welcome!” She turned back to Cembrye. “Wheels turn! Knives are sharpened! Armies march!” “But the amulet. The boy. I have no idea what to do.” “Maybe you will figure it out.” Cembrye looked stunned. Yuki clapped her hands. Wemys appeared. “Please escort our guests from my realm.” The chancellor bowed. Yuki made a shooing motion as she walked out the door, calling back over her shoulder. “Goodbye then!” As they prepared to mount the sleigh for the ride back, Ransom could contain his anger no longer. He waited until Cembrye was far enough away, then grabbed Kitaara by the shoulder. “A waste of time!” he seethed. “Perhaps,” said Kitaara calmly. “Perhaps!? We had a fine meal, learned nothing, then are tossed out like vagrants. Yuki was toying with us. Look at Cembrye.” The girl was staring crestfallen at the snow. She appeared on the verge of tears. “I believe there was purpose," said Kitaara. “What purpose?” asked Ransom. “To torture her?” The assassin removed Ransom’s hand from her shoulder and looked him in the eye. “Neither of us know what she is. Yet we follow her. Why?” Ransom opened his mouth, then fell silent. “I have traveled far with the girl. She struggles. But then she rises to look the day in the eye. We both know something is happening. We feel it. But whatever comes, her strength to face it must rise from within.” Kitaara sighed. “Whether we are disciples or fools, we will learn only by walking the path ahead.” *** Yuki waited until her guests had left. Then she returned to the drawing room and stood before the frozen form of Stoor. She snapped her fingers. There was a loud crackling. Shards of ice broke off from the elken. He fell panting to his hands and knees, shaking his head to clear it. “An ice spike between the eyes,” he growled. “And now flash frozen.” Yuki scoffed. “Don’t be such a baby!” “What now?” asked Stoor. “We wait.” “There must be something we can do.” Yuki gazed wistfully out the door. “No. It is up to her now.”
  8. James Goblin, I have never prayed to you before. I have no tongue for it. No one, not even you, will remember if we were good alpha testers or bad. Why we logged in, or why we lost connection. All that matters is that We Played To Crush. That's what's important! Low latency pleases you, James Goblin... so grant me one request. Grant me high frame rates! And if you do not listen...then the HELL with you!
  9. OMG. Instead of being "Liked" by James Goblin, I have "Confused" him. Has this EVER happened before? I feel like I have upset the Cosmic Balance without meaning to.
  10. I am beginning to wonder if answering the questions is the point of this thread at all. Todd may be playing a deeper game.
  11. "Zerg is a slang term for a group of low-level gamers who depend on overwhelming numbers to achieve victory, rather than relying on technique or strategy. The term is most often used in the context of online role-playing and strategy games, but it also applies to multiplayer first-person shooters." https://www.techopedia.com/definition/27053/zerg
  12. FWIW 1. I think if you set up any sort of reward system, I would suggest it be two tiered: - Any substantive rewards should be kept at guild level, not individual. I think that is more in the spirit of the game design plus it will reward cooperative and social play - At the individual level, rewards should be cosmetic only 2. On the mega-alliance Uncle Bob issue: - scale guild rewards based on a calculation of what percentage of the server population the alliance of guilds represents. For example, an alliance that involves 90 percent of the server population will earn less than an alliance that involves 20 percent - provide rewards for fighting to the last, even at great odds (this has been suggested by others many times) 3. See if you can increase the size and scale of the campaign worlds. I know this is a technical issue as well, but it seems to me that the larger the playing field the less likely any one alliance can dominate. I've always been in that group that thinks a massive single world a la EVE was the way to go...keep that as an option down the road if technology permits, as I think many of these issues become manageable if you let time/space do the work for you.
  13. This is a very difficult challenge. And a fascinating one, as it goes to the heart of what drives human behavior.
  14. If Crowfall is a success I wouldn't be surprised if they develop new projects/expansions down the road responsive to demand for something persistent and dreg-like. I also long for SB2 but I understand why they are approaching things this way. SB was a loooong time ago in MMO years (which are like dog years) and lets admit it sometimes our memories get rosier over time. The SB model did have some fundamental flaws, for those who remember the depopulated servers ruled by Uncle Bobs.
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