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cemya last won the day on October 30 2019

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  1. BEASTLY LUCK “Impossible! Your enchantments are defective!” Eamon cleared his throat and pointed again to the spot on the magical map. “Lord Archon, as instructed, I provided her the means to locate the bloodsoul. I also secretly placed a tracker on her flight suit. As you can see, an hour ago the two points converged. They now move together, but separately. We have discounted all possibilities save one.” Eamon wrung his hands. “Leya has joined the Bride of Valkyn.” Anaxis slammed his fist down on the map. It flared, then resumed its shape. “The so-called Bride of Valkyn!” he shouted. “The so-called Bride of Valkyn!” “Yes, Your Eminence. The so-called Bride of Valkyn.” Anaxis began to pace. “Fate makes me its slave! Just when the great work is almost complete! I won’t have it!” Anaxis whirled. “Do you hear me, Eamon? I will not have it!” Eamon licked his lips. “There is a more bad news, Your Eminence,” the man ventured. “Well, go on!” demanded Anaxis. “A mad girl runs amok, Calliope imagines things and the minotaur has escaped. Why not add to the pile?” “The Beast Lord Cult has reemerged. Cromartie holds court in the Kingdom of Dvora. He has the Urn of The Beyond, an ancient relic of the dark ages. It has been lit by arcane fire provided by the Bride – the so-called Bride - of Valkyn.” The Lord Archon fixed his Second with an incredulous look. Eamon cringed inwardly at the eruption to follow. To his shock, his master beamed and embraced him instead. “Bad news? That is wonderful news!” “Your Eminence?” Anaxis stepped back and waved his fist. “She was a blank canvas. Fools painted what they wished to see. But now the girl has joined her name to the Beast Lord Cult. The Orders will rally to our side – and demand justice.” The Lord Archon clapped his hands. In a moment, a servant appeared. “Writing tools and paper. And be quick!” The man bowed and fled. Anaxis smiled. “Go down to the dungeons and retrieve our old friend. It is time for him to redeem himself.” “Yes, Your Eminence.” “Oh - and summon The Three. Tell them to bring their full retinues. The Holy Church must show there is a price for heresy.”
  2. FLIGHT OF FANCY Leya began her descent. She was eager to get to a lower altitude. Even at midday, this high above Ferisse she felt like a popsicle. She’d stayed away from the ends of campaigns for this very reason. Too cold! Yes, more risk means greater rewards, blah, blah, blah. Not worth having to wear three pairs of leggings. This was Anaxis’ doing. She’d shown up expecting some down time with him, but all she got was a brief kiss and another mission. He didn’t ask where she’d been or even seem interested when she told him about the strange clouds at The Arch. And she was given no chance to see Clem. “All that can wait, my dear,” he said. “There is a crisis that needs handling. Once you’re back, I promise we’ll spend a long weekend together. Just the two of us. Then you can tell me all about your adventures.” He caressed her cheek. “You’re the only one I can trust with this,” he whispered as he nuzzled her neck. “My blonde beast.” Leya melted when he did that. But since meeting Itani, she’d started to rethink things. Dig deeper into her own skull. The Lord Archon ticked all the boxes. Charming. Handsome. Ladder-climber. Being his squeeze meant invites to the best parties. Connections that helped her side businesses. Plus, the delicious pleasure of the forbidden. On the other hand, while Itani could be a stiff, he was sweet and super smart. She loved hearing him tell stories. The Nethari was more religious than she was. But that didn’t bother her as much as she thought it would. Enuma stuck in her mind. When she was lying half-dead, instead of grabbing loot from the tomb, Itani chose to help her. Anaxis would have let her croak, confident he could sweet talk her afterwards. Leya sighed. She’d figure it all out later. In the meantime, why not just have fun? No hearts were being broken right? This mission made her ears twitch though. “I need you to intercept the so-called Bride of Valkyn,” said Anaxis. “She is on Ferisse. Obtain that trinket she carries. Eamon will give you its description. Then return to me immediately.” Eamon had outfitted Leya’s flight goggles with a magic tracker. It would show where the amulet was and, since the Bride had it, her location as well. According to Anaxis, the mooncalf was running around not only with Ransom and Kitaara now. She’d picked up more followers – Crows who’d bought into the idea she was special. Still, shouldn't be a problem. In and out. But...what if Itani’s theories were true? What if this chick wasn’t a nutcase, but really the child of a god? Maybe she could throw fireballs. It could get dicey. And where was that Nethari anyway? He was going to contact her when he got back from Yuki’s. No word. Leya cursed under her breath. Well, it wouldn’t be long now. The tracker was glowing. Up ahead. She spiraled down. There was Miss Prissy! But what the heck? The girl was running through the woods by herself. No Ransom. No Kitaara. No nobody. This was going to be easy. A quick swoop to knock her out. Then grab the amulet and wing it. Leya went into a dive… *** Panting, Cembrye put her hands on her knees. She felt like she’d been running for hours. Memories of the scene in the clearing passed through her mind like flashes from a storm. Chanting. A fever coursing through her. Flames. Harsh words. Lust in Ransom’s eyes…then fear. Now that she’d cooled, she realized that understanding what she’d become no longer mattered. She knew if she stayed, she’d risk harming her friends. Or risk them harming others on her behalf. No. She would have to finish this alone. A faint shift in the air. Like the beat of a hawk’s wings. Cembrye rolled, feeling at the same instant something graze her back. She came up in a fighting stance, daggers drawn. Her eyes widened at the sight that greeted her. A masked woman with dove-like wings had landed a dozen feet away. She was wearing a white body suit and had white fur warmers on her long bat-like ears. “Well, damn,” said the bird woman. “Guess we’ll do this the hard way.” She pulled a large pistol from a holster and aimed it at Cembrye. “Drop the cutlery, sis!” she commanded. “Face down on the ground!” “No.” “No? You ARE nuts! I’ve got the drop on you.” “I can throw these as fast as you can shoot that…thing.” “This ‘thing’ is an awfully expensive Guineacean hand cannon. Model 217, custom grip, lock iron pan. They only made 18 of them.” She waved the pistol at Cembrye for emphasis. “It made big holes in some Hunger beasts. I bet it would obliterate a midget like you.” The bird woman paused, eyes narrowing. “Why the hell are we having this conversation anyway?” she growled. “You’ve got an amulet my employer wants. Hand it over. I’ll fly off, and you can go back to being crazy.” Cembrye shook her head. She flipped her daggers to grip them by the blades. “A child’s soul is at stake. I don’t want to hurt you. But I will if I have to.” “A soul? What are you talking about?” Never taking her eyes off the bird woman, Cembrye reached a hand down to her belt pouch and pulled out an amulet with a gemstone. It glittered red in the sun. “This is a bloodsoul. It was made by stripping a mortal boy of his spirit essence.” The bird woman gaped. “Bloodsoul magic? That’s as evil as evil gets. And a child?” “I’m going to reverse the spell. And no one’s going to stop me.” The bird woman lowered her pistol. After a tense moment, Cembrye flipped her daggers to hold them by their handles once again. There was a long silence. “Where is the kid now?” asked the bird woman finally. “In Medria, the town where I was born. A few days more. All the refugees left alive will be there.” “Why were you running? Is someone chasing you?” Cembrye sighed. “It’s a long story.” The bird woman slipped her pistol back into its holster. “You can tell me on the way.” “What?!” “I’m going to help you.” “Help me? You were just about to shoot me.” “A certain someone left me in the dark. Everyone's got to have a code.” The bird woman pulled off her mask. Long blonde hair cascaded down over her shoulders. She stuck out her hand. “Call me Leya. What do I call you? The Bride?” Cembrye let out a deep breath. Questions flooded her mind. How did this woman find her? Who sent her after the amulet and why? Finding a new ally was the last thing she’d expected when she ran off. But somehow this felt...right. Like something was clicking into place. She whispered a silent prayer, then slipped her daggers back into their sheaths. “Uh, no. Just Cembrye,” she said, taking the proffered hand. “About the Bride stuff, you’ll understand when I tell you more. It’s…complicated.” “Maybe I can uncomplicate things. We can talk about that too. We’ll have time since we have to walk. I can’t carry someone very far when it’s this cold.” Cembrye laughed. “What’s so funny?” “I’m sorry. You’re a fae aren’t you? I’ve never met anyone who could fly. It must be grand!” “It’s a blast! Never gets old.” “I love your outfit. Is that just for flying?” “Yup. Made of shimmer silk, so its light and warm. Cost a fortune.” “You know, I’m good at needlework. I couldn’t help but think a few crystals could be sewn into the seams. They wouldn’t make you heavier, but the light would sparkle off you when you flew.” Leya grinned. “To think I was going to plug you.” The fae clapped Cembrye on the shoulder. “Let’s go!”
  3. SUN, EARTH, AND MOON Light from the clearing ahead. Chanting under the night sky. Ransom wiped his eyes, his breath steaming in the cold air. By his reckoning, they were deep in northern Ferisse. Medria, the last town untouched by the Hunger – and birthplace of the Bride – should not be far. The boy they sought – if he were still alive – would have to be there. It had been a week since the fight at the bridge. Cembrye had spent almost all her time since then secluded in her tent. Despite determined attempts by Ransom, she refused to talk about what had happened. At Kitaara’s urging, he finally desisted. Cembrye was still shaken, said the assassin. She would talk when she was ready. The ranger held up his hand. Behind him the column halted. Kitaara crept to his side. “What is it?” “I don’t know. We’ve cleared a path through the Hunger. Maybe refugee stragglers headed for the town?” Ransom glanced at Egil, who had joined them. “Have Two-Ton and the Brotherhood set a perimeter. Keep everyone back.” He grasped Egil by the shoulder. “Especially her.” The Half-Giant nodded and slipped away. Ransom and Kitaara cautiously advanced. As they came within sight of the clearing, they exchanged incredulous looks. The grassy area was ringed by torches on poles. Several dozen warriors, armed with shields and spears and clad in hide armor, were chanting around a large iron urn topped by an unlit brazier. They wore helmets fashioned to resemble the heads of animals – goats, eagles, snakes, and bears. A bearded, heavy-set man with a mace and wearing a bronze crown was leading the chants. “Beast Lord Cultists.” murmured Ransom. “Cromartie is with them,” nodded Kitaara. “Why are they here?” “We’re about to find out. They’ve spotted us.” Ransom rose and walked forward, palm raised. The cultists had stopped chanting and formed a shield wall. Seeming to recognize Ransom, the crowned man motioned to his followers. They lowered their weapons. “Blessings of the Twelve,” offered the ranger. “What was, shall be,” replied Cromartie with a fiendish grin. Ransom ignored the taunt. Now was not the time for a religious debate. Beast Lord Cultists were Crows who secretly worshipped The Others - animal deities who existed in realms beyond. Beast Lord Cultists held that when Valkyn broke the back of the Wyrm Eternal, he preserved the natural pantheon of Sun, Earth, and Moon. However, after Valkyn disappeared, and the Great Codicil was promulgated, the new-founded Devoted denounced The Others, replacing the Sun, Earth, and Moon with Order, Balance and Chaos. The Beast Lord Cultists fought this reformation but were defeated. The price of their surrender was an agreement to formally pledge to one of Valkyn’s children. They chose Illara the Traveler – not coincidentally the Goddess believed to communicate with The Beast Lords. This ended the rebellion. But the Beast Lord Cult remained shunned and feared, even by other worshippers of Illara. Cromartie, a Scrapper renegade, was their current leader and high priest. But what were they doing here? What did they want? As if reading Ransoms’ mind, Cromartie gestured with his mace. “We have no business with any save one.” Cembrye, clad in her black traveling robes, pushed forward into the light. “What’s going on?” Ransom gave Egil a look. The Half-Giant reddened and shrugged. The cultists gasped and fell to their knees. Some held their arms out in supplication. Others looked at the ground, as if fearing to lay eyes on her. Cromartie also knelt, but kept his eyes focused intensely on the girl. “Then it is true. What was, shall be.” “What was, shall be,” repeated his followers. Cembrye turned to Ransom with a befuddled expression. Behind her, minotaurs holding weapons appeared. The Obsidian Brotherhood. They fanned out around the Bride. Ransom smiled inwardly. Now the odds were more than even. It was time to deal forcefully with the situation. “Pay no heed,” he counseled, pointing at the cultists. “They promote false doctrines.” The ranger glared at Cromartie. “And I am sure they will not hinder us.” Ignoring Ransom, Cromartie addressed Cembrye directly. “We do not come to hinder you, Daughter of Valkyn. Your light calls to us. We have been waiting. We wish to ask your blessing.” “Daughter of Valkyn? Why do you call me that?” There was a ring of steel. Kitaara pointed her sword at Cromartie. “You do not hear very well. Be off.” Cembrye put her hand on Kitaara’s arm. “No, please.” Cembrye turned back to Cromartie. Kitaara gritted her teeth, then stepped back. “Bless us,” pleaded Cromartie. “We beg you.” He pointed at the unlit brazier. “What is that?” asked Cembrye. “It was rescued from a great barrow to the east before those lands fell to the Hunger. Rescued from the tomb of She Who Blazed The Path - Bellana of Aramore.” “Bellana! I know that name! She was a Bride of Valkyn martyred for her faith.” “Aye,” intoned Cromartie. “A hundred years past. A blink of an eye for Those Who Wait.” Ransom stepped forward, his face flushed with anger. “Enough! Take your foul lies elsewhere. Depart or else.” “Ransom!” cried Cembrye. The ranger was shocked at the vehemence in her voice. “No killing! Not unless we have no other choice. That’s not who we are. Do you understand?” There was a long, tense silence. Finally, Ransom, eyes narrowed, gave a curt nod. Cembrye turned back to the cultists. “You are misinformed. I can’t bless anything. I am just a girl who…well, we are in a hurry and there is no time to explain. What do you want, exactly?” Cromartie gestured at the unlit brazier. “I still don’t understand,” said Cembrye, as she approached the brazier. She reached out to touch its metal rim. “What am I supposed…” There came a hissing. A small purple flame suddenly appeared in Cembrye’s palm. The flame leapt across to the brazier. In a moment it caught, then blazed. The cultists leapt to their feet with a roar. “What was, shall be!” cried Cromartie. “What was, shall be!” they shouted back. Ransom, Kitaara and Egil paled. The minotaurs exchanged looks, stamping and snorting. Moving quickly, the cultists hoisted the now-lit brazier by its handles and fell into column. Cromartie signaled. In a few moments, they had marched off into the darkness. Ransom could hold back no longer. He placed himself before Cembrye. As if awakening from a trance, she lowered her hand and looked at him. “We need to talk. Now.” Ransom looked around at those assembled. “Alone.” Kitaara and Cembrye exchanged glances. The girl inclined her head. Kitaara gestured to the others. In a moment, ranger and girl were alone. “No more hiding,” the ranger began. “Ransom…” “I mean it! Do you realize what you just did? Who those people are? The consequences?” “It just…happened.” “Not good enough. Not anymore.” Suddenly, Cembrye’s eyes blazed. Ransom paled, taken aback. “You will not speak to me that way!” she shouted at the shocked ranger in a voice he had never heard her use before. “You ramble on and on! But you have no idea!” Then, just as quickly, her tone gentled. The light in her eyes faded. She placed a hand on Ransom’s forearm. “My father’s love grows. Like a living thing. Warm and guiding.” “You mean the All-Father.” Cembrye pursed her lips. “Yes, of course. The All-Father. That’s what I meant.” Ransom took a deep breath. “Cembrye, listen to me. Something is happening that is not natural. The fire. The change in your personality.” He stepped closer. “Let me help you.” Ransom took her hand in his own. Without conscious thought, one of his fingers caressed her skin. Realizing what he was doing, he reddened and pulled back. Too late. Cembrye gave a high-pitched giggle. “Help me? A priest in Taveris told me that once.” “Cembrye…I’m sorry.” “It’s all right,” she smiled. She took both his hands in her own. She pressed her lips to them, then looked up at his astonished face. “I know you want me. I’ve known from the beginning.” As Ransom gazed down at her, he knew he’d never seen any woman as lovely. Or as desirable. He longed to take her in his arms. No. He would not. He could not. The ranger released his hands and took a step back. “Stay here. Don’t move. I’m going to get Kitaara.” Cembrye’s eyes hardened. Ransom edged away towards the path. As he reached the trees, he looked back. She was still watching him, with an expression that made him shiver.
  4. Best wishes to you and yours Pan! I will always appreciate the kind words and encouragement you had for the fan fiction I wrote.
  5. FEAR AND FREEDOM Itani took one last look. He wondered if he would ever return to this place. Despite the cold, he was possessed by its unearthly beauty. Everfrost was a snow globe of misted forests and glistening peaks. He found himself longing to explore its wonders further. But darker thoughts crowded in. A sense of impending tragedy. Even if Yuki’s mad scheme succeeded. He heard the crunch of snow, then snuffling. Without looking, Itani knew that the sleigh was loaded and ready. It was time. “It is wise to be afraid.” Itani started and turned. Yuki was right behind him. How did she do that? Her pupiless silver eyes regarded him. “That’s not very comforting,” he responded. “Having doubts?” “No. Fear may conquer you - or drive you to excel.” “You just came up with that?” “More is on your mind than the task ahead. Speak. There may not be time later.” Itani struggled for words. How could he express what he didn’t fully understand? Describe feelings so new and strange to him? “You are in love with a fae,” Yuki interjected. “You see no logic to it. This distresses you.” The Nethari nodded slowly. Yuki smirked. “Putting heretics to the flames. Mindlessly following the dictates of the Church. These are familiar to a Confessor. But women? Such great mysteries!” “You’re wrong. About the first part.” The moon elf scoffed. “The Magna Mater is hand in glove with the Lord Archon. Such a little man would not otherwise have climbed so high. It grieves me to see her corrupted.” Itani felt anger rising. “You have issues with Anaxis. Fine. But you sell Calliope short. She only wants the Kingdoms bound to a higher purpose.” “Bound. Like slaves.” “And your way is better? “Freedom” above all, even at great risk to others? Look where it’s gotten us.” Yuki’s silvery eyes narrowed. Then she sighed. “We should not fight.” The moon elf walked over to the sleigh. The enormous white bears huffed and nuzzled her. “You know my mind regarding this fae. But what does one do after jumping into water deeper than expected?” “I’m sure you’re about to tell me,” replied Itani. “Swim.” “Sink,” he rejoined. Yuki gave the bears a pat and tightened the straps on their harnesses. Then she gracefully hoisted herself aboard. “I name you Itani Ever-Glum,” she pronounced. “Just stay afloat long enough to do your part. After that, you can chase your spy and kidnapper. Who knows? Maybe you will redeem her.” Itani hated to admit it. But Yuki was right about one thing. He needed to focus on the mission. Finding Calliope would be easy enough. But convincing her? That was going to be a challenge. And then – assuming Yuki had guessed right – the timing needed to be perfect. As he mused, the Nethari discovered he had absent-mindedly reached into his coat. Matching, finely made, necklaces twinkled up at him from his palm. He clasped his fist and returned them to safety. There was a snap of leather. Then growls, followed by the jingling of bells. Itani looked up just in time to see Yuki shout and wave before the sleigh disappeared over the hill. “Courage! We are Crows!”
  6. Sacrifice a hundred bulls to the All-Father and beseech his forgiveness and it will not happen again.
  7. BROKEN ARROW “I see the Three found you. They never fail.” A grunt from the dark. Then shuffling, as if a bound man struggled against his ropes. Anaxis grimaced at the implied rebuke. The Three had indeed failed before. When he had sent them after Yuki. “You think to provoke me?” the Lord Archon retorted. “You, who are mocked from the Pantheon to the Arch?” Silence. Anaxis gritted his teeth. Such banter was beneath him. A waste of time. And given the news from Lord Derk, time was precious. The Half-Giant had seized Two-Ton, but somehow ran into The Bride and her companions. Derk claimed the girl bewitched his clansmen into freeing the bull. A dubious tale. What mattered was that a minotaur who knew too much was now on the loose. And the legend of The Bride grew. Anaxis shook his head. The meaning of this setback was obvious. Even with carte blanche from Calliope, The Bride was now too popular to openly seize. Not without great risk. He still had arrows in his quiver. One was sitting tied to the chair before him. He opened the lantern and removed the hood from his captive. “Well, what have you to say for yourself?” The man’s head drooped. Anaxis looked up at the barred windows. His tone softened. “We all fail. What matters is we persevere. I sent a Crow to collect souls. He accomplished his mission. Then lost everything.” The Lord Archon placed a hand on the man’s shoulder. “Stilicho - what happened?” Rheumy eyes flickered beneath thick matted hair. The man’s jaw worked, as if struggling to form words. “The girl is not right,” whispered Stilicho finally. “What do you mean?” “She was faster than any mortal. And my wound – it burned from the inside. Like fire.” “The Bride was trained by Kitaara. Perhaps she wielded enchanted weapons.” “No. The blades were mine own, stolen from me.” Anaxis rubbed his chin. So much about what had happened in The Pillared Hall remained a mystery. Yet the bill of particulars was lengthy. The first part of Stilicho’s mission had gone well. Established as the master of a guild of assassins on Ferisse, assisted by the then-loyal Kitaara, Stilicho began to collect subjects for the bloodsoul experiments. Pressed to step up the pace, he went awry. Against the Lord Archon’s explicit orders, Stilicho began trafficking in slaves. Including children. Children! At this, something in Kitaara snapped. The exact moment her treachery began remained uncertain. However, it was she who suggested involving Yuki. The Glacier Queen then brought aboard Stoor, a mercenary elken. Stilicho not only let all this happen, he kept Anaxis in the dark about it. Predictably, disaster ensued. When Kitaara turned, Stilicho, aided by Yuki’s apparent double-cross, captured her and her apprentice, the bride-to-be. In his arrogance, the Master of Asps allowed himself to be tricked into a needless duel with the girl. A duel he lost, to his undying shame. And with it was lost the bloodsoul amulet. The witnesses scattered, including Two-Ton, the bull chosen to replace Kitaara. In fact, the minotaur even helped Call the girl to Crowhood. Stilicho, once he was renewed, hid himself in the furthest reaches of Ferisse. As for Yuki... Wayward and unpredictable as she might be, her involvement had to be more than mere chance. The Drizzlewitch set into motion events that allowed the Bride of Valkyn to ascend and become a Crow. Yuki then placed the bloodsoul amulet into the girl’s possession. Why? One salvation remained. The Lord Archon's role in all this was known to only one man. If that were to change... Anaxis looked back at Stilicho, who had resumed staring at the floor. The Master of Asps had done quite enough to warrant the fate planned for him. The Lord Archon rubbed his chin. No. Stilicho would remain intact for now. A plan began to form in his mind. A way to solve two problems at once. Anaxis knocked on the cell door. When the guards appeared, he gestured at the prisoner. “Clean him up, but keep him under guard.” The Lord Archon watched as the bedraggled man was dragged away. First, he would launch another missile. One sure to strike its target. As if on cue, Eamon bustled into the cell. His Second bowed deeply. “She is here.” “Bring her in. Then leave us.” From the hallway came the soft rustle of doeskin leathers. The door creaked open. A figure sauntered in, dove-like wings furling behind her back. Long blonde hair cascaded down over her shoulders as she pulled off her mask. Anaxis smiled. “How I’ve missed you.”
  8. Jha jhor! If you really want a trip down memory lane, listen to number 3 on this playlist! http://www.seandahlberg.com/shadowbane-vault/shadowbane-music/
  9. A BIG FAVOR The view was as ugly as ugly gets. Shivering, Leya banked for another pass. She was not a fan of cold. And the air over The Arch was freezing. But she had to make sure. The eastern horizon, from as high as you could see down to the ruins of the Grimward, was covered by dark green clouds. Clouds that hadn’t been there before. Clouds that shouldn’t be there now. The fae spotted movement below. Someone standing beside the obelisk. Warily, she spiraled down. It was Hansa. Caretaker for the Doom of Almuir. Leya couldn’t resist a little fun. She sauntered over in her tunic, dove-like wings folding gracefully as she walked. Pulling off her mask, the fae shook her long blonde hair free. “Hansa, right? The caretaker?” “Yes, Miss.” “Never seen a fae close up? Don’t worry. I don’t bite – unless you want me to.” Leya grinned as the young man blushed. Not bad looking, she thought. On the scrawny side though. Didn’t look like he’d last long in a fight. “What’s going on here?” “I’m sorry. I don’t know anything. I just take care of the shrine.” The young man was shuffling, nervous. And it had nothing to do with Leya’s teasing. He was clearly terrified. “I don’t mean the obelisk. I mean that,” she said more gently, pointing to the clouds. Hansa followed her gesture. His face went deathly white. “I don’t know. That wasn’t there when I left.” “When you left? What do you mean?” The young man fell silent. After a long pause, he blurted out. “You won’t believe me. But I’m not crazy.” “Listen, it’s all right,” she soothed. “Tell me what happened.” Leya listened in growing disquiet as Hansa related a fantastic tale. Of a dark night and a strange pale woman by the obelisk. Waking up in an otherworldly place. Meeting Almuir himself, then passing through the void to see the pale woman again as she held court before an array of bizarre creatures. Seeing a disturbing vision. Then waking up on the grass by his cottage. “Wait. That vision. Go over it again.” “I saw a girl standing by a cliff. Then she turned into flame. But darkness came and put her fire out.” “What did the girl look like?” “Long black hair, clear skin and blue eyes. She wasn’t very tall.” The fae felt a chill run down her spine. It could just be a weird dream. But the fiery girl was a dead ringer for the Bride of Valkyn. “I have to tell Lady Olenya about all this,” continued Hansa. “But the guards won’t let anyone leave.” The Arch was in lockdown? Clearly, Leya wasn’t the only one freaked out by the clouds. And Hansa’s tale was an extra serving of creepy with sprinkles. She needed to speak to Anaxis. She’d planned to interrogate Clem again. That would have to wait. “Alright, thanks for sharing. Take care.” The fae began to unfurl her wings. “Please! I’m sure Lady Olenya is worried sick. I need to find her.” Leya vaguely recalled a Lady Olenya who was a close friend to Calliope, the Magna Mater of the Golden Council. “And that’s my problem, how?” “I know I’m asking a big favor. But can you fly me past the guards to the portal?” “Ugh, do I look like a winged horse?” “No, no…you’re gorgeous.” “Good answer! Lucky for you, I’m a sucker for flattery. All right. Grab my waist and hang on. Don’t get fresh though - it’s a long way down.” “Thank you!” the young man exclaimed, running to do as instructed. Leya gritted her teeth as she took off. Hansa, for being a pencil-neck, was heavier than he looked. But it wasn’t far to the portal. They’d fly right over the heads of the Nethari guards. Then she'd nip back to the Pinnacle. The Warden Commander would know where to find Anaxis. She wondered how Itani was doing. Probably best to leave him out of the picture when she spoke to Anaxis. For several reasons. The fae sighed. She told herself she liked things simple. But every time someone offered to add drama to her life, she said “yes please.” Leya plunged into a steep dive as she approached the portal, giggling as Hansa hung on for dear life.
  10. BRIDGE OF FAITH “It’s no good. There are too many.” Ransom grimaced as he put down his telescope. It was as he’d feared. The trip to Everfrost had wasted precious time. Time the doomed world of Ferisse no longer had to spare. The far shore teemed with Hunger beasts. Hellcats, bog bears, urgu, elk, even a few wyverns. Mobs of Risen, former residents of the proud city of Taveris, shuffled along corpse-strewn streets. Cembrye sat curled on the grass by the river side, the hood of her cloak pulled over her face. Ransom reminded himself the girl had known this place while it still lived and thrived. And that she had been a Crow for only a while. It was one thing to glimpse the Hunger. It was another to see its full horror. “The beasts will cross the bridge,” he muttered. “We need to leave before that happens.” “Our deaths would be glorious!” exclaimed Egil. The half-giant fingered a double-bladed axe, the light of battle in his eyes. “The girl has no statue to return to,” reminded Ransom. Egil lowered his weapon. Kitaara knelt by Cembrye’s side and gently rubbed her back. The girl slid back her hood. Her cheeks were bright with tears. “We can’t give up,” she sniffed, reaching into her pocket and drawing out a blood-red amulet. “We have to free the soul trapped in this gem.” Ransom pointed across the river. “I’ve fought the Hunger on a thousand worlds. No five Crows ever spawned could get past that.” “Four,” said Egil. “Two-Ton slipped away an hour ago.” Ransom sighed. The beginning of the end. Perhaps this quest was always doomed. Howls echoed on the breeze. “Cembrye, we must go. If I have to throw you over my shoulder...” The girl nodded, eyes downcast. She rose wearily to her feet. A sizzling sound came from behind them. A portal was opening. There was a ring of steel as they drew their weapons. Egil shoved Cembrye behind him, drawing an irritated look. “Steady,” murmured Ransom. His jaw tightened. Chances were high the newcomers were Crows sent to arrest the Bride. A minotaur with a broken horn stepped out of the circle of energy. “Two-Ton!” cried Cembrye. “You came back!” The girl rushed to embrace the massive warrior, her head barely reaching to his knees. The Myrmidon comforted her, an enormous palm cupping her entire body. The bull threw back his head and bellowed. Armored minotaurs began to emerge from the portal, one after another. They clutched mauls, axes and hammers. Soon a hundred stood pawing at the ground. “By the All-Father,” cried Egil. “The Obsidian Brotherhood.” “Yes,” said Ransom. “All of them. A sight few ever see.” Many Crow guilds existed, but a few stood out. The Obsidian Brotherhood was composed of the fiercest and most skilled minotaurs, bound by an iron code of honor. Their banner was said to have been blessed by Malekai himself, and legends told of how they had led the rebellion in the Celestial War. In modern times, they seldom came together as a group, preferring to operate independently as generals and warlords. An enormous minotaur stepped forth, even larger than Two-Ton. His scarred hide was flecked with grey. He carried a staff topped by the sculpted head of a bull made of black obsidian. Ransom bowed. “Legate Avalanche, you honor us.” The grey-haired minotaur snorted. He began to speak. Egil translated. “The Brotherhood would speak first with she who calls herself the Bride of Valkyn. Grave charges were laid against our Herd-Brother. It is said that he dealt in flesh. This is against our law. We would know the truth of it from her lips.” Cembrye edged forward nervously. “I can vouch for Two-Ton,” she said. “He was deceived. He stands before you redeemed in the eyes of the All-Father.” Avalanche’s eyes narrowed. “You claim to speak for Lord Valkyn?” “I speak only for myself,” replied the girl. “But I feel the warmth of His love and guidance. I defeated Stilicho and became a Crow by His will.” Avalanche scowled. Behind him, the herd of bulls shuffled and murmured. “The Silver Fay was also your Caller. Perhaps you are a pawn of the Glacier Queen? Or her patron, the Mistress of Cats?” “I was with her on Highmount,” interjected Kitaara. "She took no vows." Avalanche snorted. “As you say. Give us leave. We will speak in council.” The Brotherhood withdrew to debate among themselves. After a while, Avalanche stood forth. “There is no guile in her eyes,” declared Avalanche. “Two-Ton is readmitted to the Obsidian Brotherhood.” Two-Ton bellowed in joy. Then he pointed at Cembrye. Avalanche nodded. “Two-Ton has sworn service to the self-proclaimed Bride,” continued the Legate. “That is his right. But he also wishes the Brotherhood to join her cause. That is a grave matter.” The Legate gestured at the ranks of minotaur warriors. “Many sympathize with the girl. She wore the chains of a slave and won her freedom in blood. But for others, to claim such a title is too much.” Avalanche looked slowly around. The minotaurs crowded, silent and waiting. “We will cover your retreat. After that, those who wish may pledge. But the Obsidian Brotherhood will not fight for her today.” The crowd of minotaurs exploded in roars and bellows. Many started to quarrel, brandishing their weapons. Cembrye pulled on the sleeve of Ransom. “We need to do something! They will start killing each other!” “Stay out of it. This is Brotherhood business. Let them sort it out.” The girl looked to Kitaara, who nodded in agreement with Ransom. “No,” she cried tearfully. “I can’t watch anyone die because of me. Not again.” Cembrye began to shout, but her words were lost in the uproar. She pulled a longsword from a sheath at Egil’s belt. “What are you doing, lass?” She ignored him and climbed atop a nearby tree stump. She waved the sword, trying fruitlessly to get the minotaurs’ attention. “Don’t fight! Please!” As Cembrye held the sword aloft, there was a loud whoosh. A bright flame suddenly wreathed the blade. The girls’ eyes widened in fear and she almost dropped the weapon. The minotaurs gaped. After a long moment, Avalanche raised his staff. “It is a sign from the All-Father!” The Brotherhood roared in unison. In serried ranks, they charged across the bridge towards the Hunger beasts. “FOR THE BRIDE!” Ransom gave a shocked look to Kitaara, who shrugged. They unsheathed their weapons and followed. Egil had already joined the advance. Cembrye was left standing alone atop the stump. She gazed wonderingly at the flame. As she watched, it slowly dwindled and then, with one last flare, went out. From the far shore came the crash of battle. She could see the minotaurs carving their way through the Hunger beasts like a scythe through ripe grain. Cembrye cast the sword aside and dropped to her knees. “All-Father, I don’t know what is happening. I'm scared. Please help me. Please tell me what you want.” The girl bowed her head. The sounds of screams and clashing steel carried on the wind from across the river. Cembrye rose and wiped her eyes. Drawing her weapons, she took a deep breath and ran across the bridge.
  11. FIRESIDE CHAT The cold winds were blowing again. No choice but to shelter once more for the night. Itani found the realm of Yuki fascinating but unsettling. Well-maintained ice roads would dead end at a crevasse. A promising path would circle back on itself. Deep tundra forests, beguiling and majestic, could swallow the unwary. The only sign of life so far was a snowy owl. It had appeared the first day he entered the kingdom. After that, he saw it often, circling in the grey sky. Although he was not the tracker Ransom was, a quadrant gifted him by the Magna Mater had proved its worth. If he kept heading due east, he should eventually reach Dreamfast. A few days ago, he had come upon a house beside a large boulder. The door was locked, and no one seemed inside. But paw prints and sleigh runner tracks marked the muddy ice. The signs looked many weeks old, however. Suddenly, Itani spotted a light. It came from a clearing in the forest. As he drew near, he saw the light was coming from a lantern shining through a cabin window. Smoke wafted from the chimney. He heard hooting. The snowy owl had landed on a nearby tree branch. It began to preen itself. The Nethari knocked on the door. A cloaked and hooded woman opened it. “Come in! Come in! And do shut the door behind you!” Her voice was kind and welcoming. It had an odd musical quality. Itani stepped gingerly inside. The interior was sparsely furnished, with a bed, cupboard, and table with chairs. Antlers and deer hides adorned the walls. The woman stirred a cast-iron pot bubbling over a crackling fire. “So nice to have company! I hope you are hungry.” Before he could reply, she had set the table. She drew back her hood, revealing silver hair, pale blue skin and long bat-like ears. A moon elf. Her pupiless silver eyes twinkled. “Now then…who honors me as guest?” Seizing the chance to finally speak, the Nethari cleared his throat and bowed. “I am Itani, Confessor and Servant of Arkon, Second to Calliope, Magna Mater of the Golden Council.” The blue woman seemed amused. She returned the bow. “So many titles! I fear I cannot compete. I am just a humble servant of Our Lady.” “Our Lady? You mean the ruler of this kingdom?” The moon elf did not reply but gestured for him to sit. She ladled soup into his bowl, set out bread and cheese, and poured his cup full of a golden ale before taking her own place. “Eat! Drink! I have already supped.” The fare, though plain, was excellent. As soon as Itani emptied his cup, the blue woman refilled it. After a while he pushed back with a satisfied sigh. The moon elf seemed pleased. “Tell me, what brings you to Everfrost?” “I come seeking the wisdom of Yuki Orinelle.” “Why?” This woman was rather nosey, thought Itani. But she was probably lonely living in these woods. He decided to humor her. “On a point of lore. Her memories stretch back to the days before Crows or Kingdoms.” “Indeed, they do! But what of it?” “That is a matter for her ears alone.” “Suit yourself!” sighed the moon elf. “I ask only because we’ve had so many lore-seekers lately.” “Oh?” “Some months ago. A very distinguished group. Nearly as many titles as you!” Itani sat up straight. Other visitors seeking lore? There was more to this. “Can you tell me about them?” The blue woman smiled. Itani considered. This rustic seemed harmless. It might help to air his thoughts. And he felt sure this woman had useful information. “Very well. Once I’ve told you why I’ve come, you’ll tell me what you know. Deal?” The moon elf nodded eagerly. “Be warned, though,” he added. “What I am about to say will seem absurd. Fantastic.” The blue woman clapped her hands excitedly. “Ooh! I’ll put the kettle on!” Once Itani began to speak, he soon forgot himself. Of all things in life, he relished nothing more than discussing ancient lore. In truth, he was enjoying himself immensely. He started from the very beginning, with his investigations into the archives of the Devoted, and carried right through to the day he passed into Everfrost. The moon elf was a good listener and surprisingly knowledgeable. It turned out she didn’t live in these woods after all – her home was in Dreamfast. She explained how she spent most of her time in the great library there – one of the finest in the Kingdoms. Seeing the gleam in Itani’s eyes, she promised to give him a tour someday. When Itani was done, he paused. How long had he been talking? It must be nearing dawn. “Your tale does not disappoint,” exclaimed the moon elf. “But a nethari and fae team? What a naughty pairing! Tongues will wag.” Itani’s cheeks reddened. “There was nothing improper…” The moon elf gave a chuckle that reminded Itani of the sound a wind chime makes when struck. “Tell me, how much do you know of this fae?” “Leya works for the Lord Archon as a spy. And a kidnapper, I suppose…she abducted one of the Devoted and imprisoned him at the Pinnacle. And, uh, maybe also as an assassin…I saw her knock two Scrappers down a mine shaft.” “A colorful character with interesting skills. And you have given her more than just your trust. Don’t deny it! I see it in your eyes,” the moon elf grinned. “I don’t see how this is relevant…” “Maybe it is,” said the blue woman. “And maybe it isn’t. I pray she doesn’t break your heart.” “Can we talk about something else?” “Of course. To your tale...let’s see if I gather it all.” The blue woman went to stir the fire. Her pupiless silver eyes gleamed in the light. “The All-Father had a girl child with the wife of Hero. A fiery being unable to thrive in this world, who disappeared into legend. A hundred years ago, an addled priest named Clem sought to summon and control her. He lured the being into the vessel of a mortal girl named Bellana, whom he called the Bride of Valkyn. But his plans went awry when the poor girl walked into a fire.” “Yes, that is right,” nodded Itani. “Although we can only speculate on what happened to Bellana in the desert. Or what Clem’s plans truly were.” “Does it matter?” scoffed the moon elf. “The fool was in over his head.” With unease, Itani noted a sudden change in the blue woman’s tone. She now spoke with force and power. The moon elf began to pace. “Not content with one failure, Clem tried again. A year ago, another Bride of Valkyn appears. But this girl has the sense to flee his lecherous grasp. Free to find her own path, she grows in strength. In the fullness of time, by her own bloody hand she ascends to Crow. Rather than bank the fires within, she embraces them. Now she seeks to cleanse a bloodsoul amulet. If she succeeds, none will be able to stand against her. She will take her place amongst the greatest of our age.” “By the Pantheon,” gasped Itani. “You have met her. The group you spoke of…” “Was hers,” nodded the blue woman. “Yes. The Bride of Valkyn came calling. And at her side walked Kitaara Red-Hand and Ransom, Warden of the Golden Council.” “Ransom and Kitaara working together...” growled Itani. “I still have a hard time accepting that. But why come here? The Silver Fay was one of the Bride’s callers. But there must be more to it than that.” “Indeed.” Itani fixed the blue woman with his gaze. “I’ve fulfilled my part. Now you’ll tell me all you know. Bear in mind, I am a Confessor.” The moon elf smirked. “Veiled threats already? No need. I’ll tell you. But one more question first.” The Nethari nodded. “The Bride of Valkyn. What would you have of her?” Itani paused. It was an excellent question. One he had turned over and over in his mind. Once he caught up with the Bride, what was he going to do? “If she is truly possessed of the spirit of the All-Father,” he began slowly, “then the consequences could shatter the kingdoms. And yet…we haven't uncovered the most important mystery.” “Which is?” “Her purpose. Her reason for being. None may truly know the mind of Valkyn the Ancient. But I cannot believe that this – miracle - would happen without great cause.” As Itani spoke, his hand went absent-mindedly to a pocket in his robe. He felt the chains of the two necklaces he kept there. The ones made by Clem that he had gathered during his journeys. He drew them out. The moon elf’s eyes narrowed. She took a step towards him. “What are those?” she asked. “Matching necklaces crafted by Clem. One for himself and one for the Bride. Each marked with the symbols of Valkyn and the Crows. Together, he called them ‘The Gift.’ Each necklace was lost. It is a strange fate that I have reunited them.” “Why would he make such necklaces?” the blue woman said wonderingly. Itani gazed out the window. “The various pieces of evidence make little sense by themselves. But if you imagine a thread to tie them together, a picture takes shape. An unsettling picture.” “Go on,” urged the blue woman. “The first Bride of Valkyn lived one hundred years ago,” continued Itani. "The archives of the Devoted note that it was exactly a hundred years ago that the Hunger began to quicken its pace. To consume worlds faster than the Devoted could bring them into being.” The moon elf stroked her chin. “You believe the two events are related?” she mused. The Nethari nodded. “I think they are,” said Itani. “Clem was in anguish at the death of Bellana. But he also wrote that he had made a great mistake. He did not say what the mistake was. But after that he created ‘The Gift.’ I sense magic on the necklaces. My first thought was they were meant to ensure that if another girl was taken by the fire spirit, it would not overcome her as it did Bellana." "But if the appearance of a Bride was related to the quickening of the Hunger…" "Then the magic may not be intended to protect her. It may have something to do with the spirit itself." The moon elf's pupiless silver eyes widened. "A child born of a God," the woman murmured softly. "Who could not thrive here - because her very existence offends the natural order." "Exactly. Which brings me to the final piece. The words of the fire spirit on the only occasion she is recorded as speaking.” “What did the spirit say?” “She cried out: ‘Where is my Father?’” The moon elf gave a little gasp. Her hand covered her mouth. She turned away to face the window. Outside, the pink hint of dawn was in the sky. “I see it now,” she whispered. “Pieces move on the board. But for the wrong game.” Itani felt a shiver at these words, although he didn’t know why. In that moment, the first rays of morning came through the window. They illuminated a part of the wall that had been in shadow. A small tapestry hung there. He hadn’t noticed it before. It portrayed a woman with her eyes covered, standing with drawn sword over the corpse of a rat. The arms of the Goddess Illara. Beneath scrolled the words “Our Lady.” “A servant of Our Lady,” he murmured. “By all the Gods and Goddesses.” The moon elf turned back to him. “If it comes to that. But I’d settle for help from one in particular.” “You…you are Yuki!” “In the flesh,” she replied. “And here I was, preparing to mock you for taking this long to figure it out. But now I must beg your pardon, for I have misjudged you.” Yuki looked out the window. The sun now peeked over the horizon. “Oh, sweet thing,” she said to herself. “Where are you now? It is a fearsome path you walk.” “Yuki,” began Itani cautiously. “There was a moon elf depicted on the walls of Enuma. And in the tome as a companion of Hero…” “She has much to answer for,” replied Yuki, cutting him off. Her cheeks seemed to moisten. “But not here. Not now.” Itani gulped. He nodded slowly. “Events move swiftly,” she said, recovering. “Savor the clear sky. For a darkness comes.”
  12. REALMS BEYOND Hansa opened the shutters. Not because he expected to see anything different. He just had to do something to keep from going mad. The young man peered through the enormous window that covered the entire wall. Vast fields of numberless stars, bright and cold, passed in procession. What time was it? Morning? Night? He rubbed his forehead. It was all still a blank. The last thing he remembered was following the pale woman past the Obelisk and up the hill. Then a strange weariness came over him. He awoke here. Wherever here was. Hansa closed the shutters. He looked about his surroundings for the thousandth time, hoping he’d spot something different. A clue. His room was spare but comfortable. A bed, a table and chairs, a fireplace. It had an eerie unnatural feel though. Everything was made of black glass. And it was very quiet - except for a distant, thrumming sound. At least he wasn’t alone. The first time he met Them, he’d almost fallen over from shock. He’d heard a scratching at the door. When he opened it, an enormous cat stood there on its hind legs, as tall as a man and with emerald eyes. The creature was holding a tray of food and drink. The cat padded silently into the room and laid the tray on the table. He’d tried speaking to it, but the cat ignored him and left. The cat came and went many times after that, bringing food and cleaning up. He dared once to touch its shoulder but retreated when the cat laid its ears back and hissed. He’d peered outside the door before it closed. Two other cats were standing in the hallway, one on either side, as if they were guards. Was he in a prison? And what was happening back at The Arch? Had Lady Olenya missed him? Were they searching for him? Hansa had never felt so helpless. Suddenly the door creaked open. A visitor! He shook himself and rushed over. A bearded man, reddish hair flecked with grey, stood there. Older and taller than Hansa, he wore antique-looking armor, battered but finely made. The style seemed familiar, but Hansa could not quite place it. The bearded man strode past him into the room. Befuddled, after a moment Hansa followed. The man reached the center of the room and stood there silently, his eyes squinting as he searched his surroundings. “Who are you?" asked Hansa, striving to be polite. “A foolish question,” the bearded man grunted. "I am a traveler, as you are." “What does that mean? Where are we traveling?” The man peered at him. “Ah! I see it in your eyes. It is as I feared.” “I don’t understand. See what?" “The favor of Our Lady. A treasure men would kill to possess. Pure, but fickle as the wind.” Hansa felt a chill of recognition. Now he knew where he’d seen that armor before. In an ancient, faded tapestry that hung above the main hall of The Pinnacle. “By the Gods – you’re Almuir.” The bearded man straightened. “Why do call me that?” “I’ve seen you on a tapestry at your family castle in The Arch. At least it was your castle back then.” The bearded man passed a hand over his eyes. “I was caretaker for the Obelisk,” continued Hansa. “The one they put up where you’d spoken with the Goddess Illara.” At the mention of the name, the bearded man's face turned purple with anger. “You dare speak of my beloved?” he shouted. “You have sealed your fate!” The man drew a dagger from his belt. “Huh? Wait…no!” cried Hansa. Hansa yelped as the bearded man drove the blade deep into his chest. He fell, vision blurring…and then suddenly he was somewhere else. He floated weightless in darkness. A circle of light beckoned in the distance, hanging like an ornament in the void. The circle grew larger. Whether it was coming towards him or he towards it, he could not tell. As he drew nearer, the circle resolved into a great hall hung with gold and silver lamps. The hall was filled with a multitude of fantastical beings. Men with the heads of goats. Winged horses. Many-legged serpents. Seated before them on a great throne was the pale woman he had seen at the Obelisk. Although her eyes were covered, she rose and turned towards him in that moment. She gestured to the beast creatures as if to bid them wait. Hansa felt a tingling, like fingers probing inside his head. It was terrifying but didn’t hurt. A vision appeared in his mind. A beautiful dark-haired young woman, very short, with blue eyes, stood at the edge of a cliff. A great shadow loomed over her. As darkness engulfed the girl, she transformed into a being of pure flame. But the darkness was stronger, and the girl’s light went out. The image vanished. The pale woman made another gesture. A swirling portal appeared. Hansa was launched at great speed. Before he could register a thought, he felt his body slam into what felt like wet grass. He rolled over. Taking a deep breath, he waited for his eyes to focus. Above him was grey sky. Beneath him, mud. From the corner of his eye he could see the Obelisk, rising through the mist. The Arch. He was back. He felt his chest. No wound. No pain. Hansa struggled to his feet. Suddenly, he shivered as a cold wind struck him. He looked to the east. His jaw dropped. Rising above the Grimward, where once had been pure blue sky, were now piled banks of greenish-black clouds, rising as high as the eye could see. It was all too much for Hansa. He ran. In a few moments, he was at his nearby cabin. Fighting back panic, he slammed the door behind him and stood panting until his mind cleared. He had to find Lady Olenya.
  13. I hereby nominate a soundtrack for your next video - probably best start point is 1:05:
  14. It would be fun if someone did a video to test this theory. You'd just need to get a group of people willing to self-identify as "total n00bs" for your test group. But it would all be in the service of advancing science and human understanding.
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