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cemya

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Everything posted by cemya

  1. THE BULL AND THE DANCER Egil dropped to one knee and raised his hand. A hundred yards behind him, the file of heavily armed half-giants of Clan Haugstad halted. To their rear, an ox-drawn wagon with a barred cage also creaked to a stop. The scout searched the woodland path, eyes straining in the failing light. The portal of Ferisse was just beyond. After capturing the minotaur Two-Ton, their journey had been uneventful. But every Crow knew the lands around a portal often held the greatest danger. A crackle of dry branches. Egil knocked an arrow to his bow as a figure ran into view. At first, Egil thought her a child. Then he realized it was just a short young woman. Very pretty, with clear skin and blue eyes and shiny black hair that fell in braids down her back. Barefoot and clad in a plain white tunic, she kept looking over her shoulder, as if something was chasing her. When the girl came level with his hiding place, Egil rose. “Hold!” The girl stood shivering, eyes wide in terror. “Easy lass. I’m not going to hurt you.” He looked down the path. “Is something after you?” The girl gave him an uncomprehending look. “What’s your name, little one?” She just stared back, nervously twisting the end of one of her braids. Egil sighed. She must be a local. A lot of them didn’t understand the common tongue. He pursed his lips. They’d been running into Hunger Beasts more often. She was probably being chased by one. If they left her alone, she’d be in its belly before dawn. This world was doomed. But sometimes, as a mercy, Crows took a few mortals with them before the end, to live out their lives as servants in the Kingdoms. Perhaps this girl’s arrival was a sign from the Gods. And his wife could use the help. Braggi sauntered up. The skald grinned as he looked the girl up and down. “Something for the cold nights?” “No. I’m taking her back to Haugstad. A gift for the wife.” “You have an understanding wife. If I brought home a morsel like this, she’d bury an axe in my skull.” “The lass will be food for the beasts if we leave her.” “Derk won’t like it,” the other man shrugged. “Lord Derk is hunting and left me in charge,” replied Egil with irritation. “Alright, alright.” Egil inclined his head towards the wagon. “Put her in with Two-Ton for now. Assuming she can bear the stench.” The skald grunted and motioned for the girl to follow. She meekly complied. The other giants elbowed and guffawed as they passed, whispering to one another. Braggi laid his two-handed sword against the cage and was about to open it when there came a shout. A half-giant with a red forkbeard strode up. Behind him scurried a man with a slain deer balanced on his shoulders. Braggi bowed deeply. “Lord Derk.” The chieftain ignored him. He was squinting hard at the girl. “We found her on the trail,” said Egil. “Likely running from a Hunger Beast. I decided to bring her along.” “Did you now?” scowled Derk. Egil straightened. “You left me in command. I’m taking her back. As a maid servant for Helga.” “The girl asked you to?” “No. She doesn’t speak our tongue.” Derk roared with laughter. Egil shuffled, face reddening. “Oh, I think she understands everything we’re saying,” said Derk at last. He turned to the girl. “Don’t you, cupcake? Or shall I use your title – Bride of Valkyn?” The girl looked back at him, her blue eyes expressionless. “The Bride?” gasped Egil. The other half-giants murmured, moving in for a closer look. A loud bellow came from inside the cage. “How do you know it’s her, Lord Derk?” asked the tallest of the half-giants, a man carrying a heavy maul. “Because I pay attention Varg,” replied Derk. “A friend saw her preach. She fits the description.” The half-giants pressed around, peppering the girl with questions. “Are you truly she?” “The All-Father speaks to you?” “Have you come to end the Hunger?” The girl didn’t reply. Instead she was looking back towards the path. “Ware!” cried Braggi, pointing. An armored man had appeared. The half-giants scrambled for their weapons as he raised his hand. “I come in peace.” Derk shoved his followers aside and moved towards the newcomer. As he got closer, he shook his head. “I’ll be damned. Ransom, Warden of the Golden Council.” The man smiled. “Greetings, Lord Derk. It’s been a while.” “It has. Since the Gericht Campaign. What brings you to this gods-forsaken world?” “I could ask the same. But to answer you, I was chasing her.” Ransom pointed at the dark-haired girl. He raised his voice. “In the name of the Golden Council, I hereby arrest the one called the Bride of Valkyn on a charge of heresy. I see you also have a witness to her crimes, the minotaur Two-Ton. He will come with me as well.” “Hold on,” growled Derk. “We have no interest in the girl. But we’re charged to bring the bull to The Pinnacle.” “Charged by whom?” “The Lord Archon.” “Why?” “That’s none of your business.” “It is the business of the Golden Council. The bull comes with me. Step aside, please.” Derk hefted his axe. “You have my respect, Ransom. But don’t try me. Take the girl, count yourself lucky, and go.” “Lord Derk,” interrupted Egil. “What if she truly is chosen?” Several half-giants grunted in agreement. Others shuffled, unsure. Egil looked intensely at the girl. “There is something about her. Can you not feel it?” Derk spat on the ground. He grinned at the other half-giants. “This is what happens lads when you see a pretty girl. The blood rushes from your brain to your chimney cleaner!” Several half-giants laughed. Derk turned back to Ransom. “The more I think on it – I won’t give you the girl either. Not because I believe she’s any holier than my big toe. I just don’t like your tone.” “Then I am sorry, Lord Derk. You leave me no choice.” Ransom gave a low whistle. A tall woman in assassin leathers, a sword in each hand, stepped out of the woods. All eyes were on her as she sauntered to Ransom’s side. Several half-giants took an anxious step back. “Red-Hand?” snorted Derk. “As I suspected…this isn’t Golden Council business at all.” “No,” replied Ransom. “We are with the Bride. But there is no time to explain. Give us Two-Ton and no one gets hurt.” Derk calculated the odds. Ransom and Kitaara were two of the deadliest fighters in the Kingdoms. Clan Haugstad or no, he could see his warriors already wavering. But he still had cards to play. “Grab the girl!” Derk shouted to his men. The half-giant chieftain glared at Ransom. “Make one move and we cut her throat!” Lord Derk turned. His men were staring at each other dumfounded. The girl was nowhere to be seen. There was a crash, like a cage door slamming. Then an ear-splitting roar. The half-giants scattered as an enormous minotaur thumped into the clearing holding a two-handed sword. The flanks of the creature were stained with dried blood. Steam puffed from its nostrils and its eyes glittered red. “The beast is free!” yelled Braggi. “Throw down your weapons!” demanded Ransom. Some half-giants obeyed. But one, a mere lad with a wispy yellow beard, panicked. He dropped his axe and stood frozen in place as the rampaging minotaur bore down on him. The minotaur bellowed and raised his sword, muscles rippling and eyes glowing like coals. “Two-Ton! No!” shouted Ransom. A small figure in a white tunic, braids flying, darted to stand between the bull-man and the cowering lad. “Cembrye!” cried Ransom. The girl raised her hands, palms up. The sword glittered mere inches from her head. Everyone froze in horror, the sudden silence broken only by the loud rasping breaths of the minotaur. The girl began to speak, in soft words no others could hear. “She’s mad,” murmured Varg. “No,” whispered Egil. “Look!” The minotaur regarded the girl a long moment. Then his shoulders drooped. The bull man cast his blade aside with a clatter, knelt and bowed his head. Everyone let out a deep breath. Lord Derk looked around. Egil had also dropped to his knees, clasping his fingers together. Several other half-giants were doing the same. The chieftain gritted his teeth. He knew when he was beaten. *** Ransom shouldered his sword wearily as the last warriors of Clan Haugstad disappeared into the twilight. Kitaara walked up. He inclined his head to her. “Well, that didn’t go quite according to plan. But quick thinking on her part.” “It is her way,” replied Kitaara. “She calls them inspirations.” “Is everyone settled for the night?” “Yes. Two-Ton will stand first watch. Then Egil.” “They offered their service to her?” “Yes. And she has accepted.” Ransom shook his head. “She’s come a long way from when I first met her. It’s almost like she’s a different person now.” Kitaara shrugged. Then she looked sharply at Ransom. “What do you mean?” “Come with me,” said Ransom. In a few minutes they were back at the wagon that had held Two-Ton prisoner. The barred door still hung open. “Have you asked Cembrye how she managed to free Two-Ton?” The assassin pondered a moment. “She told me she doesn’t remember, that it all happened so fast. The creature is strong. Perhaps he broke free? Or the door was already ajar?” “I’d like to believe that. But look.” Ransom pointed to the remains of the iron lock. The metal was twisted. Melted. As if consumed by a sudden intense heat. “By the great web,” murmured Kitaara. “Footprints burned into the grass,” said Ransom. “Now this. And the way she has been acting.” “We should not assume anything. We do not know.” Ransom sighed. He looked off into the night. “It won’t be long now. Once we find the boy, she is going to try and reverse the bloodsoul magic. We haven’t a clue as to what will happen. Doesn’t that bother you?” Kitaara turned to him. “As I told you before, we will only know when we walk the path. For my part, I will walk with her to the last step – for good or ill.” Ransom tightened his jaw. Then he nodded. “For good or ill.”
  2. Part III FLAME OF VALKYN BEST LAID PLANS Itani leaned back. “We've been talking a while. You need to rest. How do you feel?” “Like someone half-clawed to death who still ended up with no treasure.” “That’s the fae talking. Cup half-empty. How does Leya feel?” “Tingly - confessing to a Nethari without any clothes on.” “Come now,” said Itani. “You are in a hospital.” He paused. “You’re not wearing anything under those covers?” “I am not.” Leya sat up in bed, the edge of her blanket sliding down one shoulder. Itani reddened and averted his eyes. “Your tattoos are glowing,” she grinned. “I am just - pleased - you have recovered.” She smiled and took his hand. “Relax. It’s okay. But what now?” “I…don’t know. I’ve never had feelings for a fae before.” Leya laughed. “Not that! The other stuff. The Bride. The tomb. Remember?” Itani let out a deep breath. He sat down on the bed. “As Second to the Magna Mater, I lead investigations for the Golden Council. But I deal in hard facts. This…this is the stuff of legends.” “Slow down,” urged Leya. “One step at a time. We figure out what’s solid and what’s not. Then we decide what to do.” “You’re right,” nodded Itani. He rose and began to pace back and forth. “Based on what you’ve told me, plus what I’ve learned from the archives, Clem left the Devoted over a century ago and went to Ferisse. That’s if we assume that tomb mural of Imlec was really Clem.” “Oh, it was him,” said Leya. “Okay. So, Clem arrives on Ferisse. He finds a prehistoric cave in Elriza that supports the legend that Ferisse was Hero’s home world when he was still mortal. He also finds an ancient book that says a child of Valkyn was born to Hero’s wife, a girl who died just before the All-Father left, leaving behind a wandering spirit. An increasingly angry spirit the locals named Subeiha. Supposing this spirit to be Valkyn’s lost child, Clem built up worship of Valkyn to see if he could call to her.” “Sounds reasonable.” “Reasonable? It sounds crazy,” exclaimed Itani. “Step by step?” Itani shook his head, then continued. “Alright. While in Elriza, Imlec-Clem meets a young woman named Bellana who he either tutors or makes his mistress…or both. Things go horribly wrong. Clem gets killed and Bellana runs off into the desert. Clem, being a Crow, is soon back. But so is Bellana and she has changed. Clem now calls her a “sacred vessel” and “Bride of Valkyn.” “That’s the weak part,” said Leya. “Yes,” agreed Itani. “We have no idea what really happened to Bellana in the desert, except that people regarded her return as a miracle. But Bellana was still mortal, since she later walks into the flames and dies. Poor girl.” “And Clem gets away,” added Leya. “By his own account, Clem is grief stricken and leaves Elriza. This brings up another dicey area. What happened over the next hundred years? We can agree Clem didn’t give up, since we know he kept spreading the worship of Valkyn. Then, a century later, in Taveris, he finds or creates another Bride of Valkyn. Our girl Cembrye.” “Who runs away from him,” said Leya. “Let’s not get too far ahead. How did Cembrye get to Taveris in the first place? Where was she from? What path did she take after leaving Clem that led her to the Pillared Hall, the duel with Stilicho and being Called? And what about the pair of Valkyn symbols, one dropped by Clem when you kidnapped him and the other dropped by the Bride in Elriza? Do they have some use or meaning? We know a lot more about the first Bride of Valkyn than the second.” “What seemed to interest Anaxis most was how Miss Prissy ended up with Kitaara Red-Hand as a bodyguard,” said Leya. “And Ransom, Warden of the Golden Council. Talk about an odd couple.” A pained expression came over Itani’s face. “Ransom. If the Bride of Valkyn is a threat to the Kingdoms, he will have much to answer for. He was supposed to interrogate her but became her follower. Kitaara seems to have joined the Bride earlier, in Elriza, where they pretended to be desert bandits. But there are even more mysteries. Thanks to the word of mouth that surrounds the arrival of such an extraordinary new Crow, we know other Crows were in the Pillared Hall during the death duel between Cembrye and Stilicho. Stoor, a mercenary who, like Stilicho, has since disappeared. The minotaur Two-Ton, who helped Call the Bride. And, remarkably, the Drizzlewitch herself, as the second Caller. Somewhere in the middle of that mess is a bloodsoul amulet, which Yuki got a hold of but is now, supposedly, held by the Bride.” “Yuki’s the real shocker,” said Leya. “No one knows why she does anything. But how did she get involved? I do know that Yuki and Anaxis hate each other.” “With reason,” nodded Itani. “But here is where we get a break. Yuki has her own legends and one of them is that she once knew Hero. And, of course, she is a moon elf.” Leya let out a low whistle. “There was a female moon elf in the murals. She looked like she was egging on the mob to attack Clem.” “Exactly. Have you ever met Yuki? To know what she looks like?” asked Itani. “Nope.” Itani sighed. He sat down on the bed again. “Neither have I. Then that goes onto our to-do list. Or rather mine.” “What do you mean by that?” asked Leya. “We need to fill in more blanks before we take this wild tale to the Magna Mater. A visit to Dreamfast is in order.” “I’m coming with you. Don’t you dare try and stop me.” “Leya…listen to me. Those Hunger Beasts almost killed you. You need time to recover. You can’t even fly yet.” “Nonsense. I’ve had worse.” Leya slipped from under the covers and stood up. She swayed a moment, grimacing as she attempted to pull the splint from her bandaged wing. “By the Gods,” exclaimed Itani. He seized the blankets and covered her up again. The Nethari placed his palm on his forehead and closed his eyes a moment. Then he opened them and regarded Leya, who was staring back at him defiantly. “You can’t come with me,” said Itani. “Yuki and the Lord Archon don’t get along. People know you work for Anaxis, which means the Silver Fay knows.” Leya hesitated, then sighed. “Your making too much sense,” she conceded. “Alright. I have a better idea.” “What?” “Anaxis will be wondering where I went. Once I can fly again, I’ll head to The Arch. Fill him in and see what he thinks. Maybe he’s found out more from Clem – and I’d like another shot at questioning the old geezer myself.” “You sure that’s a good idea?” “What’s the matter?” “Well, we don’t really know what the Lord Archon’s role in all this is. Clem used to be one of the Devoted. And Anaxis won’t be happy you disobeyed him.” “Bah! Let me handle Anaxis. He had no idea what Clem was up to. He can be a big help.” “Anaxis is a good friend to the Magna Mater,” mused Itani. "Maybe his wisdom is just what we need.” The Nethari nodded. “Alright. Just be careful. Please?” Leya scoffed. “I’m more worried about you. You’re the one visiting Yuki. People go in that castle and never come out.” “I’ll be all right,” said Itani. “I best head out.” Itani stood up. He hesitated. A long moment passed. “Yeesh,” said Leya finally. “Guess I have to do everything.” Holding up her blanket with one hand, she leaned forward and pressed her lips to his. “There,” she smiled. “Leya.” She placed her finger across his mouth. “One step at a time?”
  3. There is actually an ancient James Goblin worship thread on the forums. People usually leave their prayer requests and offerings there.
  4. Thanks to everyone for their patience in following Part II. I hope people are enjoying the tale. Part III - the cataclysmic conclusion - is coming soon!
  5. CLOVEN DAWN “Thank you for coming, Magna Mater,” said the human priestess, bowing low. “Of course, Lady Olenya. And please – no bowing to an old friend.” Olenya gave a nervous smile. “It is wonderful seeing you again, Calliope. I'm sorry it has to be on such a dire occasion.” “Dire? You mean the missing lad? What mischief can he get into? We are in the kingdoms, after all.” Olenya lowered her voice. “Yes, of course. But there is more. Matters which I could not trust to a letter.” Striving to appear casual, Calliope looked around, . They were in the antechamber of the Pinnacle, prison of the Devoted. Nearby at attention stood two men of the Nethari Guard - soldiers loyal to the Lord Archon. Normally, Calliope would not have given it a second thought. But after her last meeting with Anaxis, her disquiet had grown. The manner of Calliope’s reception at the Arch of Lyessa fed her unease. Usually, a routine visit would summon the attention of a single, sleepy clerk. Instead, an entire squad of pike-men had mustered. Gerakos, the Warden Commander himself, had scrutinized her pass. Calliope's request to travel to the Shrine of Illara was denied at first. Gerakos insisted all efforts were already being made to find the missing caretaker. The Magna Mater need not remain at the Arch. It was only when Calliope pulled rank, invoking her authority as a member of the Golden Council, that he relented. Even then, he required that she be accompanied by his guards. What had happened to make the garrison this jumpy? Calliope realized she needed to speak with Olenya – in private. She motioned to the nearest guard. “Do you have accommodations for ladies?” the half-elf asked delicately. The two Nethari looked at each other. One of them shrugged. “Of course, Magna Mater. This way.” Once they were alone, Calliope turned to Olenya. “Speak freely but quickly. If we take too long it may arouse suspicion.” Olenya took a deep breath. “When I arrived a week ago to visit Hansa, I found an empty cabin. I summoned the guard and we searched the area. We found a single set of booted prints, walking off into the hills. After several leagues, they disappeared. It was as if whomever had made them had vanished into thin air. So, we came back.” Calliope stroked her chin. “Strange. On a campaign world I would guess robbers. Or an assassin. But this is a placid realm. And no one comes to the Arch without a pass. Was there anything else?” “Yes, although I am not sure what it means. One of the Nethari guards told me they saw strange blue lights out by the Obelisk a few nights before I arrived. When I heard that, I wanted to return to Hansa’s cabin to investigate further. Perhaps the lights would repeat themselves. But Warden Commander Gerakos forbade it.” “Why?” “I don’t know. The night before you arrived, the garrison was suddenly in great agitation. I was commanded to stay in my room at the Pinnacle. I was told it was for my own safety. I just managed to get a letter off before I was confined. They let me out only when you arrived and asked for me.” “That is outrageous,” scowled Calliope. “I will have words later with the Warden Commander. But dawn is near. Let us go and see things for ourselves.” Calliope took Olenya by the hand and they walked back into the antechamber. To her surprise, the Warden was already there waiting. With eight of his men. He seemed more anxious than before. “Before we go out, Magna Mater, I want your word.” “My word? What do you mean Warden Commander?” Gerakos mopped his brow. “I want your word that you will tell the Lord Archon that you ventured beyond the gates on your own authority. That I forbade it but was overruled.” Calliope frowned. She nodded. “Then follow me to the courtyard, please.” A large coach was waiting for them by the gates. The Nethari guards fanned out as the two women took seats inside. The Warden Commander waved and the procession set off. The road east to the Shrine was well-maintained. The ride was smooth and swift. They arrived just as the sun was peeking out above the eastern horizon. They got out and looked about. Calliope had not seen the Obelisk in some time. It was an impressive sight, casting a long shadow in the half-light of the coming dawn. The half-elf turned to the others to comment on its grandeur. Olenya was staring white-faced at the horizon behind her. All around, the Nethari guards were dropping to their knees and making holy signs. The Warden Commander drew his sword and stood frozen, his eyes wide. The Magna Mater spun, her hands instinctively reaching for her weapon before remembering she was unarmed. Then she saw. As the sun’s light crept forth, the entire eastern sky scrolled into view. Boiling clouds towered as far as the eye could see. They churned and twisted. Their hue was a sickly black-green. An icy gust blew over them. They shivered in its embrace. It felt wrong. Unnatural. “When, Warden Commander?” Gerakos gulped. The Magna Mater strode towards the man and shook him by the shoulders. “When?!” she cried. “On the Third of the Harvest Moon,” he murmured, as if in a daze. “We heard a ripping, as if the skies were being torn. But this cannot be. It is impossible.” “Control yourself,” urged Calliope. “Listen carefully. Take us back to the Pinnacle. Breathe no word of this to anyone.” She motioned to Olenya. “I need you with me when I speak to the Golden Council. Otherwise they will think me mad.” Calliope turned back towards the thick banks of black-green clouds. She shivered again, but not from the cold. “The Hunger has reached the Kingdoms.” END OF PART II
  6. OVER THE EDGE I wasn’t completely truthful when I told you my early life was uneventful. When I was eleven, I nearly died. Outside of Medria is a river, broad and swift. Where it hooks past the hills, it slows. A deep pool at the base of a rocky cliff is a favorite spot for older children to swim. The easiest – and most fun – way to get down is to dive from the edge of the cliff. I’d often begged my brothers, four and six years older than I, to take me along on their trips to the pool. They said I was still too young. I would follow anyway, and they would chase me back home. Finally, I eluded them. I can still hear their terrified shouts as they saw me running towards the edge. I ignored them and flung myself off, arms spread as I’d seen the others do. It wasn’t until I was in the water and saw the blood that I realized what had happened. Beneath the cliff, the rocks jutted out a bit. To dive safely, you have to cast yourself out when you jump. If you don’t leap far enough, you can strike the rocks. I threw myself with all my might, but being smaller, it was not quite enough. I was fortunate my stubbornness earned me only a cut on my thigh. I still bear the scar. Yet, I felt only exhilaration as my brothers swam scolding towards me. I hadn’t thought of the danger. Only of the wind in my hair as I sailed free. Now, on the brink of returning to Ferisse as a Crow, those memories rose again. Once more I was leaping off the edge. And I felt the best way to avoid the rocks was to hold nothing back. After Dreamfast, I decided to stop wrestling with myself. To embrace the love of the All-Father and let his spirit flow within me. But it came with a price. Upset with Yuki, I’d left camp to vent by tossing knives at a tree. As I came to my decision, it felt almost like a physical transformation. As if a fire within, long-banked, now burned fiercely. I had to rinse in the stream to cool off. Poor Ransom. He came upon me in that moment. I had felt resentment at his silence when Yuki spoke harshly. But he didn’t deserve such anger as I gave him. When he got back to camp, I apologized. He seemed to accept. But I knew, to my sorrow, that things would never quite be the same between us again. He must have spoken to Kitaara, for the next morning she took me aside to ask whether I was well. I told her about the sudden warmth. I wasn't old enough for the likeliest possibility. She felt my forehead and declared I had no fever. I was glad I wasn’t sick. I had just lost my temper. I’m sure that’s what it was. So onwards and upwards, as they say. Ransom reported that a band of half-giants was on the other side of the portal to Ferisse. Clan Haugstad, who apparently were not the sort to be trifled with. They’d captured Two-Ton, the minotaur who’d helped Call me to become a Crow. Ransom wanted to detour. If they were arresting everyone, there was no telling what other forces were hunting us. Our main purpose was to find the boy and reverse the bloodsoul magic. And since I had no statue to return to, he didn’t want to risk my getting killed. I declared we were going to rescue Two-Ton. Ransom looked at me like I was insane. Kitaara, who knew me better, simply asked what the plan was. My idea was pretty simple. I knew it would work.
  7. 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 armpit!” “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.”
  8. 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 noise. 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.
  9. 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.”
  10. 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.
  11. I've heard the minotaur really shines in a group
  12. 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.
  13. 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.”
  14. 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!
  15. 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.
  16. I am beginning to wonder if answering the questions is the point of this thread at all. Todd may be playing a deeper game.
  17. "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
  18. 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.
  19. This is a very difficult challenge. And a fascinating one, as it goes to the heart of what drives human behavior.
  20. ENUMA Itani pulled his sword from the carcass of the Hunger beast and surveyed his surroundings. He was close now. The last leg had been wearisome. He was deep in the winter of this world. But the beasts were growing fewer at last. Most had moved west to lay waste the rest of Ferisse. A typical world was relatively uninhabited. At least by sentient beings. Crow would fight Crow and then, when the seasons changed, fight Hunger beasts. A familiar cycle. Ferisse was different. This world had birthed a civilization. Now it was dying. Even in this remote place, he still passed ruined houses, the inhabitants slain or fled. There. Out of the mist. A tall grey standing stone. Enuma. Itani had read the lore book given him by Father Telos. The echoes of a lost world, it would make a poignant addition to the archives of the Pantheon. For now, he was interested in only two tales. The first – the Legend of Subeiha – was quite brief. Unfortunately, except for the editor’s forward, it was in Elrizan, a language he did not speak. He would need a translator. The forward was intriguing though. It was written by none other than Nerys Glym, one of the first Crows to visit Ferisse. Glym was well-known as an explorer and his accounts were treasured by scholars. It read: This is a tale of the east - a desert land of strange beliefs. The inhabitants worship nature spirits but hold one above the rest – Subeiha the Warrior. When called upon, she manifests to serve bloody vengeance on the wicked. To the educated, the accounts suggest she is in fact a Spirit of Rage, an entity known to arise from dire circumstance. If spirit she was, what spawned her? Unfortunately, sightings of Subeiha ceased at about the same time All-Father worship on Ferisse began its rapid spread. This seeming coincidence has birthed some rather fantastic speculation on Subeiha’s origin. Father Telos believed Amnon, the fallen priest, had gone to Enuma in a desperate bid for Subeiha’s aid against the Hunger. But what was her connection to this shrine? And what “fantastic speculation” on her origin was Glym referring to? The second tale was an account of the life and martyrdom a century ago of Bellana of Aramore, the first Bride of Valkyn. Thankfully, it was written in the common tongue. The author was anonymous but seems to have been a skeptical eyewitness. Bellana was raised in southern Ferisse, the teenage daughter of a minor noble. During a visit to Elriza to attend a cousin’s wedding, she became a follower of a much older Valkyn priest named Imlec, who was rumored to dabble in dark magics. Believing Imlec had ensorcelled Bellana for impure reasons, her family had him arrested and put to death. Bellana fled to the arid wastes. It was thought she’d perished. But a month later, she miraculously reappeared with Imlec at her side, alive and well. Imlec pronounced Bellana the Bride of Valkyn and a “Sacred Vessel.” Awed by this, no one dared stop the couple as they made their way west. In due course, Imlec founded numerous Temples of Valkyn. But many whispered Imlec cheated death by bargaining with demonic powers. Eventually, Bellana returned to Elriza with Imlec. They preached for a time in Bagratan, a small village in the east. One night, as Bellana returned from prayer, she saw flames rising from a clearing. Locals had seized Imlec, intending to burn him alive. Ignoring Imlec’s frenzied appeals, the Bride declared she would prove her faith by casting herself into the flames. Her ashes were gathered by her followers and a shrine raised at the site of her death. This became Enuma - "Brightflame" in the Elrizan tongue. Some whispered Imlec himself reappeared, grief stricken, to lay the keystone. But others scoffed, claiming they had seen him die in the flames. As Itani finished reading the tale of Bellana, several things struck him. This “Imlec” seemed to have returned from the dead several times. And he’d referred to Bellana as a “vessel.” The confessor’s suspicions were beginning to crystalize. He needed to look through this shrine. Maybe there were other clues. Cautiously entering the clearing, he saw the standing stone sat atop the tomb itself. The surface structure was not large, but the main chambers were supposed to be underground. Nearby was an open quarry. A stone path led to double doors of cast iron emblazoned with the symbol of Valkyn. As he drew near, he saw the heavy lock and chains on the doors had recently been sawed through. There were fresh footprints in the muddy grass. “Looks like we got company.” The voice came from behind him. Itani spun. Two men slouched by the open quarry. Their hair and beards were long and unkept. They wore ragged leather armor and carried rusty swords. The gruesome sigil on their chests, a severed arm holding a dagger, was a familiar one. Scrappers. The many guilds of Crows each had their own character and reputation. Some were mercenaries. Others focused on trade. A number were holy orders serving the various deities. The largest were loose gatherings that fought under the banners of Order, Balance and Chaos. It was a favorite pastime of Crows to debate the worth of the various guilds. Which was best for a siege? Who did you want for a raid? Whenever anyone asked who was the lowest of the low, the bottom of the barrel, the most wretched and unprincipled, it was no contest. Scrappers. There was a saying among Crows that, if you shook hands with a Scrapper, you’d better check afterwards that you still had all your fingers. They roamed the most desolate regions, taking anything that wasn’t nailed down. Useless in warfare, they excelled at thieving and scavenging. If forced to fight, they used raw numbers to overwhelm. Itani had dealt with Scrappers before. But he had little time now. Perhaps a fight could be avoided. “Greetings, friends,” he offered. “I am Heramor, a wandering priest come to visit this shrine. Who might you be?” The Scrapper who had spoken first, a tall, lean man with a gold tooth, laughed and elbowed his companion. “See Bliv - our lucky day. Another chicken to pluck.” “Then let’s be done with it. I’m freezing my parts.” “Oy,” the gold tooth called. “Hand over your stuff and we’ll make it quick.” Itani raised his hands. “Don’t hurt me! I’ve little coin. But any I have is yours.” Gold tooth spat in the mud. “Bah! Fine gear like that. You’re loaded or I’m a Guineacean.” “Nice boots,” sneered Bliv. “Let's take them off his corpse, then toss him down the hole.” The men looked at each other and nodded. Itani sighed. He slid his hand beneath his robes to the hilt of his weapon. The confessor heard the beating of wings. Gold tooth looked up just as a white blur struck his shoulder. He was knocked into Bliv and both men tumbled into the mouth of the open quarry. Their wails echoed until they could no longer be heard. A winged creature spiraled out of the sky and plummeted towards the the earth. A moment before striking ground it pulled up and flapped to a soft landing on the grass. A fae. I’ll be, thought Itani. This didn’t mean he was out of trouble though. Quite the contrary. The fae stamped the mud from her feet. She was wearing a sort of flying suit, pearl white and tight enough to leave little to the imagination. Her mask had two holes cut on top for her long bat ears, and each ear was protected by sleeves of white rabbit fur. She walked to the edge of the pit and peered into its depths. “Whoops! Bet they’re still falling.” The fae beamed at him. “Two at once! I’m just that good!” “Thank you for rescuing me Miss…” said Itani. “What may I call you?” The fae scoffed. “Drop the act. I know what you are. Watched you coming over. You carved up those Hunger beasts and would have made short work of those two. I just saved you the trouble.” “Fair enough,” replied Itani. “I’ll go first. I’m Itani, Confessor of Arkon.” “And I am The Fae. That’s all you need to know.” Itani rolled his eyes. “Really?” “Yes, really. What are you doing here?” “I’m investigating this tomb," replied Itani. "It may have useful lore. Why are you here?” “I’ve already told you too much.” “You haven’t told me anything.” “I know your type. You want me to…confess.” “Listen…Fae…you need to understand something.” Itani stopped short. The fae had pulled out a small pistol and was aiming it at him. “A Guineacean hand cannon,” he noted. “Model 217, custom grip, lock iron pan. They only made 18 of them.” The fae’s eyes widened. She examined the pistol with interest. “Wow, no wonder it cost so much. Hey!” Itani knocked the pistol from her grasp. It fell onto the grass. “Now we can have a civilized discussion. I…” Itani grunted as he felt the tip of a dagger under his chin. “You must not know many fae,” she smirked. “We always have a hidden blade.” “We don’t have time for this,” he grimaced. “Then let’s make it simple. Now that those Scrappers have been run off, I’m going to loot this tomb. You, on the other hand, will march back to wherever you came from.” “Look at the sky,” said Itani. The fae followed his gaze. Banks of azure-tinted clouds were forming a massive wall to the east. Flashes of blue lightning arced within them. “That Hunger storm will be here soon,” said Itani. “That means quakes. We both want to explore this tomb. Either it’s done fast or not at all.” The fae lowered her blade. She pursed her lips. “Fifty-fifty?” she offered. “Of course,” he replied. “And I get first pick of any rare items?” “Done.” The fae retrieved her pistol from the grass and slid it into her boot. She began walking briskly towards the entrance. “Last one in is a musk hog!”
  21. EVERFROST It had been three days since they’d entered Yuki’s realm. A land of arctic forests and chill streams. Each morning heavy snow. The drifts were up to the bellies of the pack pigs. Thankfully, the beasts didn’t seem bothered by the weather. For the people, it was another matter. The cold gnawed and every breath turned to frozen crystals in the air. Ransom had been to the worlds of the moon-elves, strange creatures who thrived amidst the ice. But this was something else. Then again, Yuki was no ordinary moon-elf. Amongst the Crows, Yuki had many names. Silver Fay. Drizzlewitch. The Glacier Queen. The legends were fantastic. That she had known Hero when he was mortal. That she was called to be a Crow by Illara herself. And that she was the very first Frost-Weaver. Yuki would disappear for decades. Rumors would spread that she had passed to The Beyond. Then she would reemerge and be everywhere at once. Fabulously wealthy, Yuki rarely campaigned, but when she did it was on dregs worlds where her sudden arrival would cause havoc. Cembrye’s eyes widened as Ransom told the stories. Clearly, the girl had no idea who she’d been dealing with. Who she planned to visit. Yet, the more Ransom thought about it, the more he understood why this trip was necessary. In all her countless years, Yuki had never called anyone to become a Crow. Until Cembrye. Yuki’s letter to her was also highly unusual. She could have useful information. Or Yuki could just be toying with them for her amusement. She was impish and unpredictable. A guest could find a hearty welcome and depart laden with gifts. Or just as likely be fed to Yuki’s cave bears. They would find out which soon enough. In the last day they had begun to climb. Just ahead was the bridge leading to the main gate of the castle. The ranger decided it was time to deal with the sleeping urgu in the room. As Cembrye cleaned up after supper, he pulled Kitaara aside. “We’re about to walk into Yuki’s castle. I need to know what happened.” Ransom expected resistance. However, Kitaara nodded calmly, as if she’d expected this. The assassin took a deep breath. “Stilicho began to take slaves. Children. I could not allow that.” “Nice to see you have a conscience. Did you know why he was doing it?” “No.” “Why did you hire Yuki?” “I needed help to make sure no children were harmed in the rescue.” Ransom scratched his head. “And Stoor? He’s a mercenary who works the dregs. Who was he was employed by?” “I do not know.” Ransom sighed. This was no help. “Alright. What about Stilicho. Where did he go after the Pillared Hall?” Kitaara clenched her jaw. “He cannot bear defeat by a girl. So, he hides. But he is vengeful. We have not seen the last of him.” Ransom decided to push it. “You've taken Cembrye under your wing. Does Malekai have something in mind for her? Kitaara rounded on him, eyes flashing. “Do not play the fool,” she replied hotly. “I will see no harm come to her. From anyone.” Ransom placed his hand on Kitaara’s shoulder. “Nor will I,” he offered quietly. The assassin’s expression softened. She looked towards the castle. “Then let us rest. Tomorrow we will need all our wits.”
  22. MYRMIDON Midnight in the deep forest. Ten half-giant warriors sat wearily about a roaring fire. Some polished and repaired arms and armor. Others drank mead. The flames cast weird shadows on the fir trees. A man with a red fork-beard gestured. The youngest warrior rose, harp in hand. He began to sing in the haunting meter of the north. Bull-bound honor By might undone The brave skald Beheld the fire Embers dimming Beast knows sacrifice Red waters hot Soul ebbs Thrust through By hellish wound Broke-backed Falls bellowing Pen-proud ode Of bronze blood Wail at fate A Prince laughs Dawn-hope flees The warriors waited for fork-beard to react. A long moment passed. Finally, the half-giant chieftain clapped. “Well done Braggi.” “Thank you, my Lord.” The fork-beard raised his cup of mead. “To victory! Skaal!” The others shouted in unison. “Skaal!” All but one. A half-giant in deep-forged chain. He continued to run a whetstone across the blade of his sword. “What ails you Egil? The beast is taken. Our vow fulfilled.” “Ten against one, Lord Derk,” replied the man without looking up. “True. But our orders were to seize, not slay. And the beast fought.” “Aye. He fought.” Egil put away the whetstone and stood up. Leaning on his sword, he pointed to a large nearby wagon. Inside was a massive slumped shape. “The Two-Ton I knew would have laid the half of us in the dirt before being captured. The rest would have been lucky to keep all their limbs. Yet here we stand with nary a scratch.” “We are Clan Haugstad,” replied Derk. “Wolves may bring down the greatest prey when they fight as one. The minotaur met his match.” Egil shook his head. “Did you mark his appearance? Fur matted. Eyes dull. The ribs show through his hide.” He spat in the fire. “I fought alongside the Iron Legion during the Fair Wind campaign,” continued Egil. “I understand the minotaur tongue. I have spoken with Two-Ton. I know why he fled to the deepest woods of Ferisse.” “Why?” asked Derk. “Shame. He has been cast out of the Guild of Myrmidons. Worse, cast out of the Obsidian Brotherhood.” The men stirred. The Guild of Myrmidons was ancient and honored. But the Obsidian Brotherhood was the beating heart of bull-men culture. Only minotaurs who held to the highest principles, the Paths of the Axe, Sword and Maul, were admitted to its ranks. “That is grievous,” said another half-giant, a man with braided beard. “Why was this done?” “He was found to have worked with a slaver,” replied Egil. “The bull-men are former slaves. There is no greater sin.” “If that is true, he is well-shamed,” said Braggi. The other half-giants grunted. Slavery was unpopular among Crows. “Two-Ton claims he was deceived by the one they call Stilicho," said Egil. "But Stilicho has disappeared. There are no other witnesses." Derk shrugged. “No matter to us. We have him. The rest should be easy.” “Where are we taking him?” asked Egil. “To the Pinnacle.” Egil’s brow furrowed. “The Pinnacle is a prison of the Devoted. Why take him there? Shouldn’t he be brought for judgment to the Obsidian Brotherhood?” “We have our orders.” Derk rose. “It is time for sleep, my brothers. Tomorrow we begin the long journey back. Egil will stand first watch.” As the others slept, Egil pondered. Two-Ton had told him things the half-giant chose not to share with his clan mates. The minotaur was broken in spirit. He had fought the half-giants only to satisfy honor. But Two-Ton also spoke of the Bride of Valkyn. The minotaur wanted to find her again. He refused to say why. Egil wondered why Derk avoided mentioning the Bride. It was well-known that Two-Ton had participated in her calling. The half-giant shook his head. He was spending too much thought on this. He was of Clan Haugstad. Once they delivered Two-Ton to the Pinnacle, they would return to the battlefields. Let the seers read the entrails. What mattered was the sword. And the man who wielded it.
  23. Thanks for the encouragement!
  24. THE ARCH She could do this forever. Leya huffed her wings and turned a somersault. The lands below pinwheeled, plateaus flecked in green, ochre and grey, blending in a swirl of color. Laughing, she plunged into a steep dive, wind whistling past her ears. The ground grew closer and closer until, at the last possible moment, she pulled up and flapped to a perfect soft landing. It is a common misconception that fae cannot truly fly. They only glide from perch to perch. That is true when loaded down with armor and weapons. Clothed as Leya was, in just a thin tunic of shimmering silk, she could match the swiftest eagle. Her landing had placed her just outside the keep. The sun was beginning to set, painting the smooth granite walls in tints of rose. She wondered how a place with such a dark reputation could be so beautiful. The Pinnacle they called it. Built atop a steep hill, it was founded by the legendary Crow Almuir, rumored to have been a bastard son of Hero. It had passed through many hands since. Eventually it was purchased by the Devoted to serve as a prison for valuable captives. Several interesting ruins were scattered around the area. A black obelisk rose amidst a dark mere. It marked one of the rare confirmed sightings of the Goddess Illara. The shrine was called The Doom of Almuir, since that was the spot they found his corpse. To the east was the Grimward, a massive fortification Almuir built as one of his final acts. He must have been going mad by then - the reason he gave for its construction was to guard against The Hunger. Now abandoned, it was still quite impressive. The land itself, one of the very first Crow kingdoms, was called The Arch of Lyessa. To some imaginative cartographer, the name merged the symbolism of obelisk and fortress. The Arch was the end of the world, the last bastion. Beyond The Arch, supposedly, were other verses and the Hunger. What rubbish. But it was fun to read about. Better than playing nursemaid to an old coot. Speaking of which, it was time for a little visit. She sauntered through the gate. By command of the Devoted, besides the prisoners, the only others allowed on the Arch were the prison warden, a few turnkeys, and the hand-picked Nethari Guard. Oh, and Hansa, who lived alone near the Grimward and tended the obelisk shrine. The Nethari Guard were lined up in the courtyard for roll call when she came in. An hour early. The men’s chattering stopped as soon as she hove into view. Leya smiled to herself. Naughty boys. She strode past them towards the main door of the prison. Half way there, she stopped. Running her hands through her loose blonde hair, she stretched, arms high above her head, unfurling her dove-like wings and standing tip toe until the hem of her tunic was well above mid-thigh. She did a slow pirouette, one toe placed before the other, passed a hand daintily over her mouth, yawned, and walked on. You could hear a pin drop. Leya considered herself no better or worse than other Crows when it came to a scrap. But fighting didn’t give her any thrills. Yanking strings - that was something else. Leya loved that. More importantly, she was good at it. Especially the strings of the sanctimonious. When she went to the Pantheon, it had taken her all of ten seconds to choose Zaleena as her patron. The choice didn’t make her popular with other fae. Especially those who followed the Unseily. You were supposed to be warriors. Kill men. End of story. Bleh. What hypocrites, she thought. As bad as the Devoted. Cats like to play with mice. She was just honest about it. Leya often wondered what drew her to Anaxis. Yes, he could be kind and thoughtful and affectionate. These qualities helped offset his vanity and compulsiveness. But not enough for the risk she was taking. And it wasn’t that he was one of the most powerful men in the kingdoms. Or even the guilty pleasure she got from defrocking a Devoted. No, what drove Leya crazy, what made her come back for more, was how he turned the tables. She was used to calling the shots. Being in charge. Anaxis didn’t let her. The last time they were together, he pushed her off his lap and made her wait. She bolted in rage, but within an hour was wondering what he was doing. Leya passed quickly through the entry hall and found the stairs leading down to the cells. Anaxis’ letter of introduction gave her the run of the prison. Important captive, secret, secret, blah, blah. The warden gave her a look but knew better. Smooth as silk. She stopped before a large brass door emblazoned with the sigil of the Devoted. Taking a key from a string around her neck, she unlocked it, stepped inside, and closed it behind her. Clem was chained and manacled right where she left him, in a large comfortable chair built for the purpose. Not much else in the room. He was snoring loudly. Leya recalled the first time she visited the Pinnacle. She was still new back then. The Lady of Knives – fae had great titles – had sent her to check up on someone. A scraggly minotaur. She remembered her surprise at not seeing any torture devices. She learned Crows almost never tortured each other. What was the point? You just ended up angering an immortal victim. This led to epic feuds until people got bored. No, the purpose of a Crow jail was to get information for as long as you could. Because eventually the Crow would get pulled to a different bind point and escape. The Gods didn’t like their champions kept off the field too long. A Devoted explained it to her once. Not this jail, though. The Pinnacle was unique. A quirk of The Arch was that it had a single bind point. Scholars speculated the Mistress of Cats herself had arranged it for some unknown purpose. Anyway, the Pinnacle was built right over it. This quirk led to huge controversy when the Devoted decided to turn the Pinnacle into a prison. The idea was that prisoners would revive and then get marched right back to their cells. All the Orders were opposed. The Devoted won out by promising two things. First, no one would be held captive beyond a reasonable time. Second, the records on who was imprisoned would be public. The system seemed to work, although it had oddities and blind spots. Someone like Baron Mandrake, for example. He’d been imprisoned in the Pinnacle for over a thousand years. A lot of Crows thought this a bit much. But no one wanted to be held responsible for letting the bastard out. And public records weren’t always current. Gold in the palm of the Recorder could convince him to take his sweet time publishing a new prisoner list. Since sentences didn’t start tolling until the list was public, a secret captive or two could be held temporarily with none the wiser. The Nethari Guard was supposed to prevent this sort of thing, but they answered only to the Lord Archon of the Devoted. A nice arrangement for Anaxis. He had the money and authority to put someone on ice. He used his power rarely, but people knew he could do it and this increased his clout. Something ate at Leya though. Why imprison Clem? He'd been gone a hundred years. She wondered if it had something to do with that half-pint girl. She scowled. Clem groaned and stirred. About time. According to the strict orders she had been given by Anaxis, she was just supposed to grab Clem and get him settled. Under no circumstances was she to question him. She clapped her hands. “Wake up Clem! Time for questions!” *** Clem opened his eyes. He tried to move, but realized he was held by chains. As his vision cleared, he assessed his surroundings. He was in a room. Grey and bare. A cell? He had a headache. Someone was standing in front of him. It was a young blonde woman. Green eyes and bat ears. A fae. Damnation. “You! You were the one with the hammer,” he accused. “That’s right," she replied calmly. She pursed her lips. "Wait a minute…I’m the one asking the questions here.” “The Devoted sent you, didn’t they?” “You could say that.” “I just did. The question is why.” “Let's get something straight. You don’t get to interrogate me.” “Why not?” “Because you're my captive. That's not how it works.” “Who told you that?” “Now you’re just doing it to irritate. Anaxis said you were clever.” “So it was Anaxis.” “Last warning. Don't make me be the bad girl." She pointed to an over-sized wooden mallet leaning against the wall. "I’ll tell you everything." “Better! Now, if Anaxis had sent me – and I'm not saying he did – why would he want you thrown in prison?” “He wants my treasure.” The fae’s eyes lit up. “The spoils of a hundred years. Wealth immeasurable. I'll tell you where if you grant me one boon.” The fae pondered a moment. “Okay. Spill it.” “There is an ancient ruin in the east of Ferisse. It is called Enuma. Deep within is a vault. It is magically trapped, but I will give you the spell word to disarm it. You can have everything inside except one item.” “What’s that?” “A book. A very old book. It has no real value except to a scholar. But I could not bear to leave it behind.” “This better not be a trick.” “I am in no position to bargain. I rely on your honor as a fae.” She burst out laughing. “I meant that seriously,” said Clem with a hurt expression. “I know. That’s what made it funny. But times-a-wasting and treasures-a-waiting. Tell me the spell word.” She leaned in. He whispered in her ear. “Got it,” she said, stepping back. “Have a care,” he warned. “Ferisse is in the grip of winter. The east teems with Hunger beasts.” But she was already walking out, a pair of dove-like wings unfurling from her shoulders. “I’ll wave to them as I fly over,” she called back. The cell door shut with a clang. Clem shook his head as he watched her go. All his careful plans and preparations lay in ruin. One shred remained - the Bride was still alive. If she had ended, he would have felt it. But where was she? With the book, he could take his case to the Great Councils. It was a desperate move, but he had little choice now. Anaxis would visit soon. If the fae made it back in time, and Clem showed him evidence of the truth, perhaps his old friend could still be made to see reason.
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