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Everything posted by cemya

  1. Jha jhor! If you really want a trip down memory lane, listen to number 3 on this playlist! http://www.seandahlberg.com/shadowbane-vault/shadowbane-music/
  2. A BIG FAVOR The view was as ugly as ugly gets. Shivering, Leya banked for another pass. She was not a fan of cold. And the air over The Arch was freezing. But she had to make sure. The eastern horizon, from as high as you could see down to the ruins of the Grimward, was covered by dark green clouds. Clouds that hadn’t been there before. Clouds that shouldn’t be there now. The fae spotted movement below. Someone standing beside the obelisk. Warily, she spiraled down. It was Hansa. Caretaker for the Doom of Almuir. Leya couldn’t resist a little fun. She sauntered over in her tunic, dove-like wings folding gracefully as she walked. Pulling off her mask, the fae shook her long blonde hair free. “Hansa, right? The caretaker?” “Yes, Miss.” “Never seen a fae close up? Don’t worry. I don’t bite – unless you want me to.” Leya grinned as the young man blushed. Not bad looking, she thought. On the scrawny side though. Didn’t look like he’d last long in a fight. “What’s going on here?” “I’m sorry. I don’t know anything. I just take care of the shrine.” The young man was shuffling, nervous. And it had nothing to do with Leya’s teasing. He was clearly terrified. “I don’t mean the obelisk. I mean that,” she said more gently, pointing to the clouds. Hansa followed her gesture. His face went deathly white. “I don’t know. That wasn’t there when I left.” “When you left? What do you mean?” The young man fell silent. After a long pause, he blurted out. “You won’t believe me. But I’m not crazy.” “Listen, it’s all right,” she soothed. “Tell me what happened.” Leya listened in growing disquiet as Hansa related a fantastic tale. Of a dark night and a strange pale woman by the obelisk. Waking up in an otherworldly place. Meeting Almuir himself, then passing through the void to see the pale woman again as she held court before an array of bizarre creatures. Seeing a disturbing vision. Then waking up on the grass by his cottage. “Wait. That vision. Go over it again.” “I saw a girl standing by a cliff. Then she turned into flame. But darkness came and put her fire out.” “What did the girl look like?” “Long black hair, clear skin and blue eyes. She wasn’t very tall.” The fae felt a chill run down her spine. It could just be a weird dream. But the fiery girl was a dead ringer for the Bride of Valkyn. “I have to tell Lady Olenya about all this,” continued Hansa. “But the guards won’t let anyone leave.” The Arch was in lockdown? Clearly, Leya wasn’t the only one freaked out by the clouds. And Hansa’s tale was an extra serving of creepy with sprinkles. She needed to speak to Anaxis. She’d planned to interrogate Clem again. That would have to wait. “Alright, thanks for sharing. Take care.” The fae began to unfurl her wings. “Please! I’m sure Lady Olenya is worried sick. I need to find her.” Leya vaguely recalled a Lady Olenya who was a close friend to Calliope, the Magna Mater of the Golden Council. “And that’s my problem, how?” “I know I’m asking a big favor. But can you fly me past the guards to the portal?” “Ugh, do I look like a winged horse?” “No, no…you’re gorgeous.” “Good answer! Lucky for you, I’m a sucker for flattery. All right. Grab my waist and hang on. Don’t get fresh though - it’s a long way down.” “Thank you!” the young man exclaimed, running to do as instructed. Leya gritted her teeth as she took off. Hansa, for being a pencil-neck, was heavier than he looked. But it wasn’t far to the portal. They’d fly right over the heads of the Nethari guards. Then she'd nip back to the Pinnacle. The Warden Commander would know where to find Anaxis. She wondered how Itani was doing. Probably best to leave him out of the picture when she spoke to Anaxis. For several reasons. The fae sighed. She told herself she liked things simple. But every time someone offered to add drama to her life, she said “yes please.” Leya plunged into a steep dive as she approached the portal, giggling as Hansa hung on for dear life.
  3. BRIDGE OF FAITH “It’s no good. There are too many.” Ransom grimaced as he put down his telescope. It was as he’d feared. The trip to Everfrost had wasted precious time. Time the doomed world of Ferisse no longer had to spare. The far shore teemed with Hunger beasts. Hellcats, bog bears, urgu, elk, even a few wyverns. Mobs of Risen, former residents of the proud city of Taveris, shuffled along corpse-strewn streets. Cembrye sat curled on the grass by the river side, the hood of her cloak pulled over her face. Ransom reminded himself the girl had known this place while it still lived and thrived. And that she had been a Crow for only a while. It was one thing to glimpse the Hunger. It was another to see its full horror. “The beasts will cross the bridge,” he muttered. “We need to leave before that happens.” “Our deaths would be glorious!” exclaimed Egil. The half-giant fingered a double-bladed axe, the light of battle in his eyes. “The girl has no statue to return to,” reminded Ransom. Egil lowered his weapon. Kitaara knelt by Cembrye’s side and gently rubbed her back. The girl slid back her hood. Her cheeks were bright with tears. “We can’t give up,” she sniffed, reaching into her pocket and drawing out a blood-red amulet. “We have to free the soul trapped in this gem.” Ransom pointed across the river. “I’ve fought the Hunger on a thousand worlds. No five Crows ever spawned could get past that.” “Four,” said Egil. “Two-Ton slipped away an hour ago.” Ransom sighed. The beginning of the end. Perhaps this quest was always doomed. Howls echoed on the breeze. “Cembrye, we must go. If I have to throw you over my shoulder...” The girl nodded, eyes downcast. She rose wearily to her feet. A sizzling sound came from behind them. A portal was opening. There was a ring of steel as they drew their weapons. Egil shoved Cembrye behind him, drawing an irritated look. “Steady,” murmured Ransom. His jaw tightened. Chances were high the newcomers were Crows sent to arrest the Bride. A minotaur with a broken horn stepped out of the circle of energy. “Two-Ton!” cried Cembrye. “You came back!” The girl rushed to embrace the massive warrior, her head barely reaching to his knees. The Myrmidon comforted her, an enormous palm cupping her entire body. The bull threw back his head and bellowed. Armored minotaurs began to emerge from the portal, one after another. They clutched mauls, axes and hammers. Soon a hundred stood pawing at the ground. “By the All-Father,” cried Egil. “The Obsidian Brotherhood.” “Yes,” said Ransom. “All of them. A sight few ever see.” Many Crow guilds existed, but a few stood out. The Obsidian Brotherhood was composed of the fiercest and most skilled minotaurs, bound by an iron code of honor. Their banner was said to have been blessed by Malekai himself, and legends told of how they had led the rebellion in the Celestial War. In modern times, they seldom came together as a group, preferring to operate independently as generals and warlords. An enormous minotaur stepped forth, even larger than Two-Ton. His scarred hide was flecked with grey. He carried a staff topped by the sculpted head of a bull made of black obsidian. Ransom bowed. “Legate Avalanche, you honor us.” The grey-haired minotaur snorted. He began to speak. Egil translated. “The Brotherhood would speak first with she who calls herself the Bride of Valkyn. Grave charges were laid against our Herd-Brother. It is said that he dealt in flesh. This is against our law. We would know the truth of it from her lips.” Cembrye edged forward nervously. “I can vouch for Two-Ton,” she said. “He was deceived. I ascended to Crow on his prayers. He stands before you redeemed in the eyes of the All-Father.” Avalanche’s eyes narrowed. “You claim to speak for Lord Valkyn?” “I speak only for myself,” replied the girl. “But I feel the warmth of His love and guidance. I defeated Stilicho and became a Crow by His will.” Avalanche scowled. Behind him, the herd of bulls shuffled and murmured. “The Silver Fay was also your Caller. Perhaps you are a pawn of the Glacier Queen? Or her patron, the Mistress of Cats?” “I was with her on Highmount,” interjected Kitaara. "She took no vows." Avalanche snorted. “As you say. Give us leave. We will speak in council.” The Brotherhood withdrew to debate among themselves. After a while, Avalanche stood forth. “There is no guile in her eyes,” declared Avalanche. “Two-Ton is readmitted to the Obsidian Brotherhood.” Two-Ton bellowed in joy. Then he pointed at Cembrye. Avalanche nodded. “Two-Ton has sworn service to the self-proclaimed Bride,” continued the Legate. “That is his right. But he also wishes the Brotherhood to join her cause. That is a grave matter.” The Legate gestured at the ranks of minotaur warriors. “Many sympathize with the girl. She wore the chains of a slave and won her freedom in blood. But for others, to claim such a title is too much.” Avalanche looked slowly around. The minotaurs crowded, silent and waiting. “We will cover your retreat. After that, those who wish may pledge. But the Obsidian Brotherhood will not fight for her today.” The crowd of minotaurs exploded in roars and bellows. Many started to quarrel, brandishing their weapons. Cembrye pulled on the sleeve of Ransom. “We need to do something! They will start killing each other!” “Stay out of it. This is Brotherhood business. Let them sort it out.” The girl looked to Kitaara, who nodded in agreement with Ransom. “No,” she cried tearfully. “I can’t watch anyone die because of me. Not again.” Cembrye began to shout, but her words were lost in the uproar. She pulled a longsword from a sheath at Egil’s belt. “What are you doing, lass?” She ignored him and climbed atop a nearby tree stump. She waved the sword, trying fruitlessly to get the minotaurs’ attention. “Don’t fight! Please!” As Cembrye held the sword aloft, there was a loud whoosh. A bright flame suddenly wreathed the blade. The girls’ eyes widened in fear and she almost dropped the weapon. The minotaurs gaped. After a long moment, Avalanche raised his staff. “It is a sign from the All-Father!” The Brotherhood roared in unison. In serried ranks, they charged across the bridge towards the Hunger beasts. “FOR THE BRIDE!” Ransom gave a shocked look to Kitaara, who shrugged. They unsheathed their weapons and followed. Egil had already joined the advance. Cembrye was left standing atop the stump. She gazed wonderingly at the flame. As she watched, it slowly dwindled and then, with one last flare, went out. From the far shore came the crash of battle. She could see the minotaurs carving their way through the Hunger beasts like a scythe through ripe grain. Cembrye cast the sword aside and dropped to her knees. “All-Father, I don’t know what is happening. I'm scared. Please help me. Please tell me what you want.” The girl bowed her head. The sounds of screams and clashing steel carried on the wind from across the river. Cembrye rose and wiped her eyes. Drawing her weapons, she took a deep breath and ran across the bridge.
  4. FIRESIDE CHAT The cold winds were blowing again. No choice but to shelter once more for the night. Itani found the realm of Yuki fascinating but unsettling. Well-maintained ice roads would dead end at a crevasse. A promising path would circle back on itself. Deep tundra forests, beguiling and majestic, could swallow the unwary. The only sign of life so far was a snowy owl. It had appeared the first day he entered the kingdom. After that, he saw it often, circling in the grey sky. Although he was not the tracker Ransom was, a quadrant gifted him by the Magna Mater had proved its worth. If he kept heading due east, he should eventually reach Dreamfast. A few days ago, he had come upon a house beside a large boulder. The door was locked, and no one seemed inside. But paw prints and sleigh runner tracks marked the muddy ice. The signs looked many weeks old, however. Suddenly, Itani spotted a light. It came from a clearing in the forest. As he drew near, he saw the light was coming from a lantern shining through a cabin window. Smoke wafted from the chimney. He heard hooting. The snowy owl had landed on a nearby tree branch. It began to preen itself. The Nethari knocked on the door. A cloaked and hooded woman opened it. “Come in! Come in! And do shut the door behind you!” Her voice was kind and welcoming. It had an odd musical quality. Itani stepped gingerly inside. The interior was sparsely furnished, with a bed, cupboard, and table with chairs. Antlers and deer hides adorned the walls. The woman stirred a cast-iron pot bubbling over a crackling fire. “So nice to have company! I hope you are hungry.” Before he could reply, she had set the table. She drew back her hood, revealing silver hair, pale blue skin and long bat-like ears. A moon elf. Her pupiless silver eyes twinkled. “Now then…who honors me as guest?” Seizing the chance to finally speak, the Nethari cleared his throat and bowed. “I am Itani, Confessor and Servant of Arkon, Second to Calliope, Magna Mater of the Golden Council.” The blue woman seemed amused. She returned the bow. “So many titles! I fear I cannot compete. I am just a humble servant of Our Lady.” “Our Lady? You mean the ruler of this kingdom?” The moon elf did not reply but gestured for him to sit. She ladled soup into his bowl, set out bread and cheese, and poured his cup full of a golden ale before taking her own place. “Eat! Drink! I have already supped.” The fare, though plain, was excellent. As soon as Itani emptied his cup, the blue woman refilled it. After a while he pushed back with a satisfied sigh. The moon elf seemed pleased. “Tell me, what brings you to Everfrost?” “I come seeking the wisdom of Yuki Orinelle.” “Why?” This woman was rather nosey, thought Itani. But she was probably lonely living in these woods. He decided to humor her. “On a point of lore. Her memories stretch back to the days before Crows or Kingdoms.” “Indeed, they do! But what of it?” “That is a matter for her ears alone.” “Suit yourself!” sighed the moon elf. “I ask only because we’ve had so many lore-seekers lately.” “Oh?” “Some months ago. A very distinguished group. Nearly as many titles as you!” Itani sat up straight. Other visitors seeking lore? There was more to this. “Can you tell me about them?” The blue woman smiled. Itani considered. This rustic seemed harmless. It might help to air his thoughts. And he felt sure this woman had useful information. “Very well. Once I’ve told you why I’ve come, you’ll tell me what you know. Deal?” The moon elf nodded eagerly. “Be warned, though,” he added. “What I am about to say will seem absurd. Fantastic.” The blue woman clapped her hands excitedly. “Ooh! I’ll put the kettle on!” Once Itani began to speak, he soon forgot himself. Of all things in life, he relished nothing more than discussing ancient lore. In truth, he was enjoying himself immensely. He started from the very beginning, with his investigations into the archives of the Devoted, and carried right through to the day he passed into Everfrost. The moon elf was a good listener and surprisingly knowledgeable. It turned out she didn’t live in these woods after all – her home was in Dreamfast. She explained how she spent most of her time in the great library there – one of the finest in the Kingdoms. Seeing the gleam in Itani’s eyes, she promised to give him a tour someday. When Itani was done, he paused. How long had he been talking? It must be nearing dawn. “Your tale does not disappoint,” exclaimed the moon elf. “But a nethari and fae team? What a naughty pairing! Tongues will wag.” Itani’s cheeks reddened. “There was nothing improper…” The moon elf gave a chuckle that reminded Itani of the sound a wind chime makes when struck. “Tell me, how much do you know of this fae?” “Leya works for the Lord Archon as a spy. And a kidnapper, I suppose…she abducted one of the Devoted and imprisoned him at the Pinnacle. And, uh, maybe also as an assassin…I saw her knock two Scrappers down a mine shaft.” “A colorful character with interesting skills. And you have given her more than just your trust. Don’t deny it! I see it in your eyes,” the moon elf grinned. “I don’t see how this is relevant…” “Maybe it is,” said the blue woman. “And maybe it isn’t. I pray she doesn’t break your heart.” “Can we talk about something else?” “Of course. To your tale...let’s see if I gather it all.” The blue woman went to stir the fire. Her pupiless silver eyes gleamed in the light. “The All-Father had a girl child with the wife of Hero. A fiery being unable to thrive in this world, who disappeared into legend. A hundred years ago, an addled priest named Clem sought to summon and control her. He lured the being into the vessel of a mortal girl named Bellana, whom he called the Bride of Valkyn. But his plans went awry when the poor girl walked into a fire.” “Yes, that is right,” nodded Itani. “Although we can only speculate on what happened to Bellana in the desert. Or what Clem’s plans truly were.” “Does it matter?” scoffed the moon elf. “The fool was in over his head.” With unease, Itani noted a sudden change in the blue woman’s tone. She now spoke with force and power. The moon elf began to pace. “Not content with one failure, Clem tried again. A year ago, another Bride of Valkyn appears. But this girl has the sense to flee his lecherous grasp. Free to find her own path, she grows in strength. In the fullness of time, by her own bloody hand she ascends to Crow. Rather than bank the fires within, she embraces them. Now she seeks to cleanse a bloodsoul amulet. If she succeeds, none will be able to stand against her. She will take her place amongst the greatest of our age.” “By the Pantheon,” gasped Itani. “You have met her. The group you spoke of…” “Was hers,” nodded the blue woman. “Yes. The Bride of Valkyn came calling. And at her side walked Kitaara Red-Hand and Ransom, Warden of the Golden Council.” “Ransom and Kitaara working together...” growled Itani. “I still have a hard time accepting that. But why come here? The Silver Fay was one of the Bride’s callers. But there must be more to it than that.” “Indeed.” Itani fixed the blue woman with his gaze. “I’ve fulfilled my part. Now you’ll tell me all you know. Bear in mind, I am a Confessor.” The moon elf smirked. “Veiled threats already? No need. I’ll tell you. But one more question first.” The Nethari nodded. “The Bride of Valkyn. What would you have of her?” Itani paused. It was an excellent question. One he had turned over and over in his mind. Once he caught up with the Bride, what was he going to do? “If she is truly possessed of the spirit of the All-Father,” he began slowly, “then the consequences could shatter the kingdoms. And yet…we haven't uncovered the most important mystery.” “Which is?” “Her purpose. Her reason for being. None may truly know the mind of the Valkyn the Ancient. But I cannot believe that this – miracle - would happen without great cause.” As Itani spoke, his hand went absent-mindedly to a pocket in his robe. He felt the chains of the two necklaces he kept there. The ones made by Clem that he had gathered during his journeys. He drew them out. The moon elf’s eyes narrowed. She took a step towards him. “What are those?” she asked. “Matching necklaces crafted by Clem. One for himself and one for the Bride. Each marked with the symbols of Valkyn and the Crows. Together, he called them ‘The Gift.’ Each necklace was lost. It is a strange fate that I have reunited them.” “Why would he make such necklaces?” the blue woman said wonderingly. Itani gazed out the window. “The various pieces of evidence make little sense by themselves. But if you imagine a thread to tie them together, a picture takes shape. An unsettling picture.” “Go on,” urged the blue woman. “The first Bride of Valkyn lived one hundred years ago,” continued Itani. "The archives of the Devoted note that it was exactly a hundred years ago that the Hunger began to quicken its pace. To consume worlds faster than the Devoted could bring them into being.” The moon elf stroked her chin. “You believe the two events are related?” she mused. The Nethari nodded. “I think they are,” said Itani. “Clem was in anguish at the death of Bellana. But he also wrote that he had made a great mistake. He did not say what the mistake was. But after that he created ‘The Gift.’ I sense magic on the necklaces. My first thought was they were meant to ensure that if another girl was taken by the fire spirit, it would not overcome her as it did Bellana." "But if the appearance of a Bride was related to the quickening of the Hunger…" "Then the magic may not be intended to protect her. It may have something to do with the spirit itself." The moon elf's pupiless silver eyes widened. "A child born of a God," the woman murmured softly. "Who could not thrive here - because her very existence offends the natural order." "Exactly. Which brings me to the final piece. The words of the fire spirit on the only occasion she is recorded as speaking.” “What did the spirit say?” “She cried out: ‘Where is my Father?’” The moon elf gave a little gasp. Her hand covered her mouth. She turned away to face the window. Outside, the pink hint of dawn was in the sky. “I see it now,” she whispered. “Pieces move on the board. But for the wrong game.” Itani felt a shiver at these words, although he didn’t know why. In that moment, the first rays of morning came through the window. They illuminated a part of the wall that had been in shadow. A small tapestry hung there. He hadn’t noticed it before. It portrayed a woman with her eyes covered, standing with drawn sword over the corpse of a rat. The arms of the Goddess Illara. Beneath scrolled the words “Our Lady.” “A servant of Our Lady,” he murmured. “By all the Gods and Goddesses.” The moon elf turned back to him. “If it comes to that. But I’d settle for help from one in particular.” “You…you are Yuki!” “In the flesh,” she replied. “And here I was, preparing to mock you for taking this long to figure it out. But now I must beg your pardon, for I have misjudged you.” Yuki looked out the window. The sun now peeked over the horizon. “Oh, sweet thing,” she said to herself. “Where are you now? It is a fearsome path you walk.” “Yuki,” began Itani cautiously. “There was a moon elf depicted on the walls of Enuma. And in the tome as a companion of Hero…” “She has much to answer for,” replied Yuki, cutting him off. Her cheeks seemed to moisten. “But not here. Not now.” Itani gulped. He nodded slowly. “Events move swiftly,” she said, recovering. “Savor the clear sky. For a darkness comes.”
  5. REALMS BEYOND Hansa opened the shutters. Not because he expected to see anything different. He just had to do something to keep from going mad. The young man peered through the enormous window that covered the entire wall. Vast fields of numberless stars, bright and cold, passed in procession. What time was it? Morning? Night? He rubbed his forehead. It was all still a blank. The last thing he remembered was following the pale woman past the Obelisk and up the hill. Then a strange weariness came over him. He awoke here. Wherever here was. Hansa closed the shutters. He looked about his surroundings for the thousandth time, hoping he’d spot something different. A clue. His room was spare but comfortable. A bed, a table and chairs, a fireplace. It had an eerie unnatural feel though. Everything was made of black glass. And it was very quiet - except for a distant, thrumming sound. At least he wasn’t alone. The first time he met Them, he’d almost fallen over from shock. He’d heard a scratching at the door. When he opened it, an enormous cat stood there on its hind legs, as tall as a man and with emerald eyes. The creature was holding a tray of food and drink. The cat padded silently into the room and laid the tray on the table. He’d tried speaking to it, but the cat ignored him and left. The cat came and went many times after that, bringing food and cleaning up. He dared once to touch its shoulder but retreated when the cat laid its ears back and hissed. He’d peered outside the door before it closed. Two other cats were standing in the hallway, one on either side, as if they were guards. Was he in a prison? And what was happening back at The Arch? Had Lady Olenya missed him? Were they searching for him? Hansa had never felt so helpless. Suddenly the door creaked open. A visitor! He shook himself and rushed over. A bearded man, reddish hair flecked with grey, stood there. Older and taller than Hansa, he wore antique-looking armor, battered but finely made. The style seemed familiar, but Hansa could not quite place it. The bearded man strode past him into the room. Befuddled, after a moment Hansa followed. The man reached the center of the room and stood there silently, his eyes squinting as he searched his surroundings. “Who are you?" asked Hansa, striving to be polite. “A foolish question,” the bearded man grunted. "I am a traveler, as you are." “What does that mean? Where are we traveling?” The man peered at him. “Ah! I see it in your eyes. It is as I feared.” “I don’t understand. See what?" “The favor of Our Lady. A treasure men would kill to possess. Pure, but fickle as the wind.” Hansa felt a chill of recognition. Now he knew where he’d seen that armor before. In an ancient, faded tapestry that hung above the main hall of The Pinnacle. “By the Gods – you’re Almuir.” The bearded man straightened. “Why do call me that?” “I’ve seen you on a tapestry at your family castle in The Arch. At least it was your castle back then.” The bearded man passed a hand over his eyes. “I was caretaker for the Obelisk,” continued Hansa. “The one they put up where you’d spoken with the Goddess Illara.” At the mention of the name, the bearded man's face turned purple with anger. “You dare speak of my beloved?” he shouted. “You have sealed your fate!” The man drew a dagger from his belt. “Huh? Wait…no!” cried Hansa. Hansa yelped as the bearded man drove the blade deep into his chest. He fell, vision blurring…and then suddenly he was somewhere else. He floated weightless in darkness. A circle of light beckoned in the distance, hanging like an ornament in the void. The circle grew larger. Whether it was coming towards him or he towards it, he could not tell. As he drew nearer, the circle resolved into a great hall hung with gold and silver lamps. The hall was filled with a multitude of fantastical beings. Men with the heads of goats. Winged horses. Many-legged serpents. Seated before them on a great throne was the pale woman he had seen at the Obelisk. Although her eyes were covered, she rose and turned towards him in that moment. She gestured to the beast creatures as if to bid them wait. Hansa felt a tingling, like fingers probing inside his head. It was terrifying but didn’t hurt. A vision appeared in his mind. A beautiful dark-haired young woman, very short, with blue eyes, stood at the edge of a cliff. A great shadow loomed over her. As darkness engulfed the girl, she transformed into a being of pure flame. But the darkness was stronger, and the girl’s light went out. The image vanished. The pale woman made another gesture. A swirling portal appeared. Hansa was launched at great speed. Before he could register a thought, he felt his body slam into what felt like wet grass. He rolled over. Taking a deep breath, he waited for his eyes to focus. Above him was grey sky. Beneath him, mud. From the corner of his eye he could see the Obelisk, rising through the mist. The Arch. He was back. He felt his chest. No wound. No pain. Hansa struggled to his feet. Suddenly, he shivered as a cold wind struck him. He looked to the east. His jaw dropped. Rising above the Grimward, where once had been pure blue sky, were now piled banks of greenish-black clouds, rising as high as the eye could see. It was all too much for Hansa. He ran. In a few moments, he was at his nearby cabin. Fighting back panic, he slammed the door behind him and stood panting until his mind cleared. He had to find Lady Olenya.
  6. I hereby nominate a soundtrack for your next video - probably best start point is 1:05:
  7. It would be fun if someone did a video to test this theory. You'd just need to get a group of people willing to self-identify as "total n00bs" for your test group. But it would all be in the service of advancing science and human understanding.
  8. Just curious. I recall from early development that they wanted the gear curve to be flatter than it usually is in games. In other words, the top line gear will be desirable and provide a definite edge, but not so much that it cannot be overcome by a more skilled opponent (or by being outnumbered). And a well-coordinated group of ten will still beat a better-geared group of ten. Is that still the case?
  9. COUNSEL OF FEAR “Will that be all Magna Mater?” Calliope considered. No. It was best to leave off. She had done her best. She took one last look across the assembled faces. Cherubim. Granger the Bold. Brianne. Even her former mentor, the scholar Melander. None had believed her. Not even after hearing from Lady Olenya. “What you describe is impossible, Magna Mater,” Cherubim had pronounced. As chair of the Golden Council, the elf’s words held great sway. “Many worlds lie between the Kingdoms and The Hunger. Just last week there was a Making.” Melander was gentler. “You saw strange clouds,” he murmured when his turn came. “It is understandable – commendable even – that you assumed the worst. One cannot be too careful. These are trying days.” Trying days indeed, thought Calliope. Once the Magna Mater had left the chamber, she paused to think. Olenya, sensing her mood, went outside to wait. The nightmarish vision at The Arch was only one trouble among many. The Chaos civil war was paralyzing a third of the Kingdoms. Fewer Crows were volunteering for The Making. And the Bride of Valkyn… What was once fanciful rumor could easily grow into a dire threat. It didn’t matter no one had a shred of evidence. Many dearly wanted to believe. And there were opportunists - the Beast Lord guilds and the Hunger cultists - for whom the Bride was a convenient excuse to spread their poison. The risk of the girl becoming a standard beneath which all opposed to the current order could rally was real. If that happened, all the careful decades of work would be for naught. Its theology discredited, the Church would disband. The dark days of old would return. More than ever, she missed the counsel of Itani. Her Second would surely have pieced the puzzle together by now. And he would have known the best way to convince the Golden Council. But she had sent him away. The Nethari was somewhere on Ferisse. Why hadn’t he returned? A thought crept unbidden into Calliope’s mind. Could all this be related? The quickened march of the Hunger? The appearance of the Bride? The green cloud-wall at The Arch? Calliope’s jaw tightened. Her imagination was getting the best of her. And she needed to stop feeling sorry for herself. The stakes were too high. “Magna Mater.” The half elf turned in surprise at the familiar voice. “Anaxis? What are you doing here?” The Lord Archon bowed. He was clad in simple robes rather than his vestments. He looked from side to side as if to ensure they were alone. “I’d heard of an emergency meeting,” he replied. “A secret meeting,” said Calliope wryly. “The Church has many friends, high and low,” the Lord Archon replied with a half-smile. “And the Great Temple is not far. I saw it all.” “Then you witnessed my shaming. They think me mad. Perhaps they are right.” Anaxis shook his head. “I see other hands at work,” he replied. “Ask yourself this. If rumor spread that the Hunger had reached the Kingdoms, it would spawn a crisis that would unite all Crows. What would happen then? Everyone would look to the Church. All three great councils would become irrelevant. Who gains from the shaming of Calliope?” Calliope furrowed her brow. Her rise had not been without opposition. Nor had her alliance with Anaxis. Order, like Chaos and Balance, was supposed to remain apart in matters of faith. In the eyes of many, Order and The Devoted had now become an over-mighty combination. A State Religion of the Crow Kingdoms. She had fought against this. It had never been her intent. It was Anaxis, each step of the way, who’d advanced “reforms” cementing the power of The Devoted. Each time, he’d assured her it was only temporary. Each time, the temporary became the permanent. Anaxis was speaking again. “We talked about this when we began,” said Anaxis gently. “Change never comes easy. People without vision resist. And no matter how much we’d wish otherwise, history teaches dire times call for strong measures.” Calliope shook her head. “And my answer remains the same. I became Magna Mater to spread goodwill. Not fire and blood.” “And look where it has gotten you, my dear,” replied Anaxis. “The Golden Council treats you like an addled fishwife. Ransom, your hand-picked Warden, the man supposed to embody this better way, has taken up with a heretic girl.” He placed his hand on her shoulder. “Cally,” he said, using her familiar name. “After this, how long do you think they will let you will remain Magna Mater? Brianne will replace you. Is she really what the Kingdoms need?” Calliope gritted her teeth. Brianne was her rival on the Golden Council. The fire-elf was vivacious, charming and popular with the people. Everything Calliope, with her stern piety, was not. Brianne was also frivolous, selfish and greedy. No. Brianne must never be allowed to hold sacred office. “But I am not here to add to your cares,” Anaxis went on. “I came to offer help.” Calliope inclined her head for him to continue. “What I propose is risky,” said the Lord Archon. “My own credibility will be at stake. But I will accept that risk. I will investigate your claims myself. And if what you say is true, I will add my voice to yours. No one will then be able to stop us from acting.” “You sound as if you don’t believe me either.” “I did not say that,” he replied. “But let us be realistic. No amount of evidence will sway those already inclined to oppose us. But if it is true, and the Hunger is indeed at our gates, we can act together to unite the Crows. If not, no one will blame us for being prudent. Either way, your standing with the Council will be restored.” Anaxis stepped closer. “But if I do this, I must ask something in return.” The Half-elf grimaced inwardly. Somehow, it always ended up this way - with her owing Anaxis. But she had little choice. “I need your blessing to act against the Bride of Valkyn,” said Anaxis. “We cannot tolerate open heresy. The Church looks toothless.” Not the Church, thought Calliope. You. Her mind recalled how Anaxis persuaded her to support sending the Three against Yuki. It was a disaster - a fiasco born of the Archon’s pride. She considered. The Bride had done nothing but claim a title. Need it go further than her imprisonment? Assuming she recanted, after a period of re-education the girl could be released. Calliope closed her eyes. A long moment passed. When she opened them, she nodded. “Then I will head to The Arch at once,” said Anaxis. “And contact you upon my return.” “And I will await word in my Kingdom,” replied Calliope. She gathered her robes and walked towards the exit. Once she was out of earshot, Anaxis cursed. His Second, Eamon, came out from behind the curtains where he had been hiding. “You caught all that?” “Yes, Lord Archon. She seems quite distressed. Do you believe her?” “That the Hunger has reached the Kingdoms? No, it is fevered lunacy. But it may be useful.” “How so?” “Next moon, I will come before the Golden Council. I will report that I have just returned from The Arch. I will report the phenomenon is unknown dangerous magic that requires full mobilization. I will propose to lead that mobilization – an offer they will gratefully accept. Calliope will make good her promise and we will deal with the Bride, retrieving the bloodsoul amulet along the way. Which will be the only point of this charade.” “A brilliant plan, Your Eminence. So, we journey to The Arch?” Anaxis rounded angrily. “Don’t be a fool! I’ve no time for children’s tales. Not with the work at a critical stage. You will go.” “To do what, Lord Archon?” “Not to spend a moment on this silliness. Find Leya. She must have returned by now. Tell her to come to me at once. Check on Clem while you are there – the old goat stays in chains awhile yet.” “As you command.” “One last thing. Send the Three to the Temple. With Two-Ton on his way to a prison cell, it’s time to bring in an old friend.”
  10. 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 half-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?” “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 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 put her wrists together, as if they were manacled, holding them up for the minotaur to see. Then she spoke, in words so soft no one else 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.”
  11. 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?”
  12. There is actually an ancient James Goblin worship thread on the forums. People usually leave their prayer requests and offerings there.
  13. 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!
  14. 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
  15. 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.
  16. 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.”
  17. 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.
  18. 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.”
  19. 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.
  20. I've heard the minotaur really shines in a group
  21. 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.
  22. 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.” 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.”
  23. 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!
  24. 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.
  25. I am beginning to wonder if answering the questions is the point of this thread at all. Todd may be playing a deeper game.
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