Lan emerged first, followed closely by the hooded man. The moon was near its apex and the monument from which they emerged was cloaked in its silvery light. As Lan stepped into the fresh air, an obvious weight off her shoulders, she noticed the runes along the perimeter of the obsidian structure beginning to radiate. The moonlight slowly transformed into the same deep purple of the mage’s symbols as a feeling of excitement and unease rose inside her.
“Hey, you! What do you think you’re doing?”
The woman’s voice erupted through the night like an explosion, startling Lan and causing her to drop the lantern. The light snuffed out almost as quickly as she wheeled toward the voice, daggers drawn. In the light of the moon, the loss of the lantern proved to only be a minor inconvenience as Lan quickly found her inquisitor. At seeing the source of the voice however, a devilish grin appeared on her face. The hooded man continued past, ignoring the situation in its entirety, as the woman spoke once more.
“If you play nice, I won’t have to kill you. Now tell me, what were you doing?”
“Lan, take care of this inconvenience. It seems we will not go undisturbed tonight. Watch the progress and report to me in Kalien. Do not fail me here. We can afford no more set-backs.”
The man left quickly, disappearing into the shadows of the woods. Lan, despite the sterness of his orders, never watched him go, her focus squarely on the woman charging in. Lan watched intently as she catapulted off a nearby boulder and flung herself through the air. Two sets of lips wet themselves moments before impact.
de Geffriel’s feint caught Lan off guard as she moved to parry her rapier’s high thrust. The rogue had not expected a leg swipe to happen so abruptly after the landing. In one swift motion, Lan found herself crashing to the ground with de Geffriel standing over her. She winced in pain as she felt a rib crack from the impact and could tell her breathing had become instantly more labored.
“It seems the pup has a new bitch,” she muttered through a bloody smile. “Where is the little tail-wagger now? Too scared to fight his own fights, he needs to send his nursing maids?”
de Geffriel stood over her, eyes burning in an unfamiliar anger. Her rapier glinted in the moonlight as it stared menacingly at Lan’s throat. “Last chance – what were you doing?”
Lan simply smiled – a soft, sweet, seductive smile. “It’s too bad, really. You…excite me.” In rapid movements, Lan kicked at de Geffriel’s leg while the other foot knocked aside her arm. Somersaulting backwards over her shoulder, she soon found herself upright, though still face to face with her assailant. Her smile grew wider. “As I said – excited.”
“No, don’t!” Stoyan and the others crashed through the woods and onto the hilltop clearing. “We need her alive to find Veth!”
Lan risked a glance and thrill exploded in her eyes. “Yes! Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes! They’re here. This…this is perfect!” “In time, little puppy, you’ll find him in a matter of time.” Her laughter echoed off the trees as de Geffriel pressed the engagement, wasting no time waiting for the others.
A flurry of strikes erupted as the steel of de Geffriel’s rapier clanged and echoed sharply off of Lan’s two daggers. Both wielded their weapons with a finely honed expertise, though the Scout’s superior reach earned her an advantage. Their shadows performed an intricate ballet across the trees as the lantern’s light had reignited and flickered from the ground. It was a mesmerizing performance to behold – dancers at the peak of their careers, ebbing and flowing as a river does, with grace and beauty shared brilliantly with lethality and death.
Lan, realizing the precariousness of her position, backed herself up against the obsidian monument, one of her hands carefully guiding her along. A quick parry of de Geffriel’s strike and Lan seized her chance to retreat over the structure, buying her some much needed space. Her eyes darted to the base of the monument quickly before she locked in again on her assailant.
“You…have me…wet,” muttered Lan, with her same seductive smile. Her breathing was heavy and labored, her tunic dyed with fresh blood. But she still stood and looked ever so confident. “We should dance together some more, but in a more private location. Just the two of us.”
With a sudden move to the tree line, Lan drew de Geffriel away from the monument as Stoyan and the others continued to close in. The moon had risen now to its apex in the night, the fullness of its light covering the hilltop in a silvery river of illumination. The only sounds of the night were the clang of metal, the source of which continued to fade as the two women engaged closer and closer to the woods.
Stoyan, Alaiya, and Elias caught themselves mid-stride, about halfway across the hilltop, when they saw a shadow rise up from behind the obsidian monument. As it extended above the crest of the structure it seemed to thin out and fade from view before returning. It swayed in a gentle breeze that had picked up and, mimicking the lantern’s fickle light, halted de Geffriel’s aid.
“Now!” shouted Lan.
At the command, the shadow darted over the monument and a soft, green glow began to emanate from the carvings. The moonlight falling upon the hilltop seemed to swirl about them, glimmering in the night as though being broken into tiny shards of glass. And then the hilltop darkened, slowly, but visibly, as the silvered light coalesced upon the obsidian rock structure. The shadow righted itself and thrust into the sky above and, for the first time, the features of a man became visible. He stood, presiding over the monument, arms reaching high above his head, chanting to the moon. Fully immersed in a trance, the mage gave himself to his magick as a cloud of greys and purples rose from the surrounding ground.
The fight between Lan and de Geffriel continued, with the latter only vaguely aware that something was happening behind her. Relentlessly focused, she was determined not to let Lan escape her. Lan, however, was on the full defensive, merely baiting de Geffriel into positions that were momentarily disadvantageous. But Lan never sought to capitalize on the opportunities; she seemed more concerned with what her companion’s magick. This only served to infuriate de Geffriel as her anger began to blind her.
Behind them, Stoyan and the others could only watch in confused abjuration as a figure, cloaked in faded greys and purples, rose from the top of the monument. As the form took shape, it leapt to the ground and closed in on de Geffriel. It moved with such remarkable swiftness that no one had time to warn de Geffriel of the incoming attack.
The figure met de Geffriel the moment Lan had offset her footing. The blow was struck perfectly, piercing the Scout’s supple leather armor easily, tearing away a portion of her side. The attack caused de Geffriel to howl in pain as she found herself instantly flanked and dually pressed, fending off the attacks of Lan who had suddenly taken up the fight.
Stoyan, outraged, ran on instinct, still not fully comprehending what was happening. He said a prayer to Tempus as he unsheathed his longsword and the blade began to glow with a soft white light. “At least the gods have not abandoned us,” he thought as he charged forward. He reached de Geffriel’s newest assailant quickly, it’s back still turned, and swiped across it with his sword. Stoyan noticed that his weapon did not travel as expected, refusing to cut through the shadowy figure. Wrenching his sword free, he raised his blade defensively as the figure wheeled, bringing its own blade arcing through the air, meeting steel to steel. As blades clanged together, Stoyan’s stomach churned as a putrid, unholy smell, assaulted his nostrils. “Death,” concluded Stoyan, “This thing reeks of death.” Then the Paladin gasped as a gaunt and hallowed face began to materialize before him, lightened by the eerie glow of the monument.
“U…Uthal?!” exclaimed Stoyan in disbelief.
The large man merely stared down at him with cold, unwavering, lifeless eyes. His face, a mere void of Stoyan’s memories, was that of a statue, full of stoicism. The Rogue’s body flickered before Stoyan, the unnatural colors dancing upon his limbs like a marionette’s strings. Before the Paladin could recover from his shock, Uthal adjusted his own blade and made a low thrust, cutting into Stoyan’s upper thigh.
“Oh, you know this one, little puppy? Is he one of your pack? It would make it that much more satisfying knowing that we turned one of your own against you.” Lan’s mockery rang clearly, the devilishness of her words striking deep as she and Uthal pressed the two companions.
“Uthal, why? I thought you were looking for her,” Stoyan thrust his blade toward Lan, “to help us! Orcen, he sent you. Why –,” but Stoyan was cut short as a globe of magick hurtled past him at broke upon the left arm of the Rogue. Uthal stumbled back from the impact and fell, but uttered no words of pain, nor even a hint of agitation. Instead, what came to be was revelation for the companions. They were not fighting Uthal, not as they had known him. As the man stood, grey and purple mist twirled about the wound to his left shoulder, escaping like smoke from a fire. There was no sign of blood, no gimp in his movements, or concern for the injury. There was nothing to Uthal but those cold, lifeless eyes.
“The mage! He’s a Necromancer!” screamed Stoyan, the pervasion of life and death stumbling back towards him. “Kill him or we will fall to this foul power!” Stoyan’s eyes flared as his vigor returned. He charged back into the fray, but not at Uthal. “You’ll die for this!”
Lan easily side-stepped the Paladin’s charge, deftly avoiding the unbalanced attack. The charge, however, had served another purpose, exposing Lan to de Geffriel’s strike. The blow caught her in the back of the leg, and she dropped to a knee.
“Next,” she screamed. “I want to see their faces!”
She rolled out of the way and got to her feet, clearing favoring the injured leg. The Necromancer’s voice rose as she moved, and the light seemed to shake in the sky as runes adorning the monument glowed brighter.
Alaiya saw a second figure rise up off the surface of the obsidian structure, blue and grey mist willowing around its shadowed edges. The spell upon her fingers shot out, but her concentration lapsed and it struck Uthal with nothing more than a fizzle. As the new shadowy figure stepped down from the structure, it turned to face Alaiya, its face a dizzying blur of smoke. As the mists took form, a body emerged. Tanned leather armor appeared over slender legs and arms. The creature withdrew a longsword from a sheath and the air around the mists became to hum. A high-pitch sound erupted as the magicks in the air fought one another for supremacy until the mists gave way. Instantly the air grew chill and harsh, and Alaiya felt her body shiver involuntarily. The cold was biting, bypassing her clothing and causing goose bumps to rise on her skin. Then, she was forced backwards as a wall of cold struck her and Elias where they stood. Frost had formed on her clothing and she heard Elias mutter something about a draft. She did not have time enough to collect her thoughts before the figure strode forward – tall, powerful, and elegant. The mists, now a light hue of icy blue, continued to take shape, but, as had been with Uthal initially, the face was a formless mask.
As it neared Alaiya, sword raised, the last of its features began taking shape, revealing a young, beautiful woman. Her hair, tainted by the light blue of ice, was a deep brown, tied back in a braid that hung over her shoulder. Her eyes were vacant, but maintained a deep bluish-grey color. Wisps of smoke poured from their corners, giving the appearance of an ethereal being. The clothing was familiar as well, like those worn by the elder men and women of Fareen, but it was adorned with sigils that Alaiya did not recognize. Five moons swung over the ocean, each a different color and representing a different place in the moons life – waxing, crescent, half, waning, and full. Her jerkin, a midnight blue fitted with golden embroidery, fit shapely around her body; it had been crafted in a unique way that did not impede her arms movements like traditional leather armor. Her arms were bare aside from small armguards that extended from the top of her hands to kiss the elbow. She wielded a sword in her right hand, small in size to properly to fit her frame. A sight the blade was, as it appeared to be constructed of solid ice at the moment. The blade was such a sight, as it appeared to be constructed of solid ice at the moment. Alaiya’s eyes widened as she began to sense the magick being poured into the blade – strong, powerful magick she had witnessed only the Masters using.
“The marks of…Torin?” Elias’ voice was stuttering through the blast of cold that still rattled his body. “We’ve never met anyone from Torin. Well, not since I met you guys.”
“No,” squeaked Alaiya, “No, that’s impossible.” She took a hesitant step forward, and she could not stop herself even if she had wanted to. “It can’t be you…Mother?”
The blade crashed down, burying itself into the ground as a thin sheet of ice overtook the land. Alaiya raised her hands defensively as she tried to scurry away from the blast of magick. Losing her footing on the slick sheet of ice, she fell, landing hard on her side.
“The Necromancer, damnit! Kill the fuckin’ Necromancer!” Stoyan’s voice rang out as he and de Geffriel continued their respective battles. The women were both bloodied and breathing heavily, seemingly on par with one another, but Stoyan had been able to recover from his initial shock to press Uthal to the brink of defeat. With his focus clearly drawn, he had not yet seen who had risen from the Necromancer’s foul magick.
As Alaiya tried to comprehend the youthful image of Winn Terafin, her head swirled; full of confusion, disbelief, and foreboding, she stood transfixed. Her stomach turned into knots as she watched Winn turn a dull, unyielding gaze upon her. The air shimmered around the soulless reincarnation of the Swordmage, a display of power Alaiya had only seen in the Tower of Astyr. It felt familiar, yet entirely different, as though Winn was harnessing the very air around her body. The atmosphere cracked and snapped as tiny electrical bolts of energy manifested in a shell-like pattern around the woman, a testament to the overwhelming power she possessed.
The flash of light blinded Alaiya and brought with it a new sensation of pain. A moment later, the pain resonated again as the Sorceress felt a blade bite into the side of her ribcage. Clutching at the wound, Alaiya spun, willing herself to look and focus, forcing the blindness from her eyes. As she found her bearings, she saw Winn, sword outstretched, standing behind her. The shell of magick surrounding her had dissipated, having vanished with the casting of the lightning spell.
Around her, the scene had turned chaotic. Lan had played de Geffriel to a stalemate, even going so far as to position some rough terrain between the two of them. Both had neared to southeastern edge of the clearing with Lan’s back to the tree line. The Rogue could easily have made a break for it, but she seemed determined the watch the Necromancer’s work. He still stood behind the monument, hands skyward as though beckoning to the gods to aid him in his defamation of the living. His eyes had rolled back into his head, the whites clearly visible, as he stood unflinching. The obsidian structure before him still possessed the purplish hues and smoke, as though striving to hang on to the artificial lives that now walked these unholy grounds.
Elias stood a few yards away, his face a mixture of astonishment and curiosity. He seemed just as eager to study the risen as he did to fight them, but, regardless, he wielded his mechanized rod and a flask. His eyes had grown large and calculating as he studied the movements of the two opponents. Then he caught sight of Alaiya and her wound and tossed her the flask in his hand.
“Can’t take many more of those.” Elias’ comments were a touch snarky given the circumstance, so Alaiya heeded them with a handful of proverbial salt. “Best pour that on the wound and drink the rest. Won’t taste good, I wager, but it’ll do your body more good than harm.” He moved over to flank Winn, his mechanized weapon whirling and spinning in his hand. “Especially if she’s intent on making you eat that steel of hers.” He cackled in that extremely annoying Gnomish fashion, a mixture of a deep throat resonance intertwined with a high nasally sound of a dying pig.
Alaiya could afford to pay him no heed as the potion caused her to grimace involuntarily. The bitter, revolting taste nearly caused her to retch on the spot, but she did sense the pain numbing away and her mind focused as she found her resolve to fight.
“Forgive me, Mother.”
The words were poison on her lips, not for the meaning but for the actions they would encompass. Hearing them leave her mouth to greet the world of ears created a similar feeling within her as had Elias’s potion, but she steeled herself against it and instantly felt the magick swell inside her tiny body. “Those words – they can never be unsaid, not to me, nor can the meaning ever be taken away.”
The magick coalesced into the traditional sphere in Alaiya’s hand, as Cyrxx had taught her so many years ago.
“The key to magick, little Allie, is to preserve as much energy as you can. It drains us you see, saps our strength and weakens our mind. We can train, enhance our endurance and make ourselves stronger, like a fighter who sees to his practices. But remember, a fighter who swings his blade wildly with no sense or purpose, will tire quickly and soon be defeated. The wiser fighter, who chooses his strikes carefully, expends less energy and is more apt to achieve the victory he so desires. Magick is much the same, little Allie. Our focuses and shapes may be unique to us all, but it’s how we use them that make the true difference.
Take Selmen, for instance. He casts these big, powerful, inspiring spells, his magick taking shapes of creatures heard of only in myth and legend, but how often do you see him cast it? Once a day? Maybe twice, if he’s lucky. And it takes so long to prepare! No, you need something quick to form and quicker to cast. Many of us choose the directness of a bolt or a dart; they are fast, but their aim is singular and their power minimal. Effective for most, to say the least, but only because it suits them. Mine on the other hand, when it wishes, it likes to disperse. It enjoys the flow of the world, moving within it of its own accord. True, yes, I can force a shape to suit my needs, like a needle, but that taxes me more. Best to stay with what suits me, but situations may dictate otherwise. But what about you, little Allie, what suits you? How do you feel the magick shaping inside of you? What does your Craft wish to be?
“Go on now, just let it form. Bring your magick out slowly and let it take its own shape. Yes, there you go, in the palm of your hand, that’s good. Control it, but do not guide it. Don’t watch it, just let it flow. It will move on its own accord, directing itself until it feels comfortable in your hands. There, that’s it! Look now, Allie, look! See the shape your magick prefers!
“You are special, my little Allie. Not so many possess the Craft that prefers the sphere. It is a rare and powerful form; eerily efficient and potentially deadly. A tad slower to form than a bolt, but their range is similar. And the sphere possesses a wider breadth of impact. Yes, you are a wonderfully special girl! Now, let it go and let’s try to accelerate the formation of your magick. Now that you know your magick’s preferred shape, try to quicken the process.
The air shimmered around Alaiya as it took on the coloration of her magick. Violets, blues, reds, greens, and yellows, appeared out of nothingness and raced toward her outstretched palm. Tears streamed down Alaiya’s eyes, but they remained fixated on Winn, unwavering, dedicated to their purpose. The air itself thickened, making its weight palpable to all in the clearing, as a magnificent multi-hued orb spun wildly in midair, awaiting the command of its creator. Then, in a single blinding flash of white light, it was gone.
Elias had been wise enough to hit the ground and cover his head when the air became heavy. As such, he managed to retain some semblance of coherency when the light ceased burning through his eyelids. Lifting his head at the shouts of Stoyan and the clanging of steel, he saw the first of the Necromancer’s abominations collapse at the feet of the Paladin. In his fury, the warrior twirled his blade and thrust it through the neck of Uthal. Wisps of blue mist leaked out of the wound like a fine thread as the body struggled against the blade. Stoyan moved quickly, clasping his hands before laying them both upon the chest of the massive Rogue. Light enveloped the body, dissipating the mist until Uthal ceased his struggle. Elias found Lan to see her reaction, certain she was still watching. To his befuddlement, she merely shrugged while parrying another of de Geffriel’s attacks.
Alaiya and Winn were still standing, though Winn was no longer where she had been. Winn’s left arm hung limply at her side, the armor she had been wearing torn away, exposing pearl-white flesh that had been mutilated. Smoke, imbued with purples and greys, ran from the wound and danced along her flesh. As it streamed forth it began to condense, the moisture soaking her tunic and slowly dripping off the lifeless fingertips onto the hard, sun-baked soil of the clearing. A thin strand of blue mist willowed out of the wound like smoke from a snuffed out candle, but Winn did not seem to notice. The Swordmage instead lowered her eyes to her blade as six bluish-white prongs emerged from it. She raised her eyes then and charged Alaiya, the air humming as she whirled the sword through the air.
Alaiya was ready this time though, and deftly dodged the blow, rolling to her left. Bouncing up near Elias, she turned to the Artificer, directing him with some quick gestures. He immediately stood and circled around the backside of Winn, trapping the Swordmage between them. By then, Alaiya had caught sight of Stoyan’s victory, saw the man stand and begin his advance on Lan.
“No!” Somehow Alaiya had found the strength to shout, to cast away the doubt and self-inhibition and fear. Or had she? As she watched, de Geffriel turned on Stoyan and directed him toward the Necromancer, shouting words of protest and insistence. Begrudgingly, Stoyan obeyed and changed course, closing the space between his and the mage in a few strides. His blade shone, a brilliant radiance emanating from the steel itself. “Magick?” thought Alaiya briefly. As she watched the sword though, she felt something powerful, almost mystical, and suddenly felt uneasy and insignificant in her mortal husk. “His god…his god favors him. But will that guard his heart?”
The strikes of the longsword pierced the supple robes of the Necromancer with ease, but the caster did not flinch, too ingrained in his spell casting. His robes darkened, tainting themselves with the crimson coloring of his blood as Stoyan hacked away without mercy at the defiler of death. Alaiya stared in abject horror as the Paladin gave way to his innermost animalistic instincts, sparing no quarter for the man. Despite the damage being done to his body, the Necromancer remained standing, persevering where few would, accepting the brutality of Stoyan’s assault as a mother would an embrace from her child, for it was his child he was raising.
The obsidian monument darkened in the fading light of the full moon as it continued to creep across the night sky. The rune work upon its surface began to dim as the lifeblood of the Necromancer soaked into the ground, his sheer force of will and magick keeping him upright in spite of Stoyan’s relentless attacks. As Stoyan looked on, in hatred and fury, a third shadow rose from the recesses of the monument, bathed in the similar mists as Uthal and Winn had been, though these were unyielding to the illumination of the moon. Cloaked entirely in the absence of light, the being strode forward and dropped down off the precipice of the structure, landing with a resounding quake on the ground.
Alaiya looked upon the monstrous shadow that loomed before them, her body trembling uncontrollably. There was evil in this last figure, a detestable hatred that it seemed to possess for itself and for those around it. The shadows swayed of their own accord, as they turned from the Necromancer to Stoyan, and then surveyed the landscape. Everyone stopped as the heaviness of the creature’s presence fell upon the hilltop. Silence, the words of death, was all that anyone heard or dared to speak, as the shadows began to warp and twist. Legs and arms, young and powerful, emerged from the depths of the darkness, as the shadows merged inward. Upon his left arm hung a shield, unadorned, but reverently polished. The black sinews of magick continued to crest ever upward, revealing a suit of chainmail carrying a scratched out insignia over the breast. Attached to a belt hung a massive mace with an onyx-polished head that radiated darkness. The shadows pressed upward, peeling last off the face of a young man in his mid twenty’s, before settling in to the long braid of jet black hair that hung loosely from his scalp. He spun again, taking in the sight upon the hilltop once more with cold, black eyes, eyes that burned into the souls of those they fell upon.
A cackle of laughter went up near the edge of the woods. “Yes!” bellowed Lan, as the silence was shattered. “Yes, yes, yes! Look now, little pups! Look upon the power we possess and know fear! Fear me!” Her laughter turned delusional as she broke for the woods.
The man pulled out his mace, raising high above his head, and held it in the moonlight. As they watched, the head of the mace appeared to drink the light, sucking it out of the air without consequence. But the sight only lasted a moment before the man slammed his mace into the ground with earth-shattering force as a blanket of shadows broke over the hill, shrouding everyone with a blinding darkness. Then the blanket burst apart with a concentrated explosion of moonlight, searing everyone’s eyes from the sudden and sharp contrast.
Stoyan had released his blade to rub the pain from his eyes, and when he could finally start to make out shapes again, he noticed it had been left embedded in the lower abdomen of the Necromancer. The man was still in his trance-like state, but his wounds were great and Stoyan could tell he was near death. The black-haired man had turned toward them now and began to make his way to the duo. Stoyan did not dare waste his time hesitating. Withdrawing his blade, he felt a refreshing power overwhelm him as he spun the blade through the air and cleaved the Necromancer in two. The air shook violently for a moment as the Necromancer’s last shred of life abandoned him, and the two remaining abominations also hesitated slightly in their movements.
Behind him, Stoyan heard de Geffriel curse at the cowardliness of Lan, apparently having lost her. Before him, he could make out two small bodies huddled together, a second figure, that of a woman, slowly walking in their direction. “No,” thought Stoyan, “we can not fall here. Not now.”
He managed to pull his sword free and deflect the mace just as it came crashing down near his collarbone. The man’s movements were quick, and Stoyan was already spent from his fight with Uthal, and the difference in their strength was obvious. He knew he had no chance of winning unless he got some assistance, and he knew not from where that would come. The man shifted, swinging again, and Stoyan had to sacrifice his footing to dodge the blow. The dodge cost him as the mace twirled through the air and caught his squarely in the gut. Stoyan fell to his knee, the wind knocked out of him, the taste of blood collecting on his lips. He felt the man get closer and he tightened his grip on his sword. Mustering a deep, painful breath, Stoyan leapt at his assailant, but was brushed aside by his shield. The Paladin’s momentum carried him further than anticipated and he felt the brunt of the shield land on the small of his back. Stoyan crashed face first into the ground, pain shooting through every part of his body.
“Still haven’t learned, have you, boy?”
The voice echoed, deep and powerful, in Stoyan’s ears. His eyes shot open wide, fear and excitement overtaking his body. He felt his skin bristle and the hairs stand on end as the voice continued.
“You let your anger cloud your movements and become a liability. You fight like a ruffian, not a warrior. I taught you better that this, boy.”
Stoyan’s body trembled and he bit his lip to steady his nerves. Grabbing his sword, he turned himself over, a mixture of emotions overtaking him as his mind raced. “It…it can’t be…”
As he turned onto his back and pushed himself up, Stoyan met the man’s eyes. No longer black like the shadows that had made him, his eyes shown with a light bluish-grey, much like those he had looked into for so many years.
“…Veth?” Stoyan’s voice faltered as he spoke his mentor’s name, barely audible.
“Rise, boy, and fight. Don’t whimper there like a dog unless you want her to be right. Now, fight me and put an end to this monstrosity!”
Veth, the father and the friend, brought his mace down upon the hilltop with such force that the rock beneath the head shattered, narrowly missing a rolling Stoyan. Stoyan sprang to his feet, sword in hand, and faced the man who raised him. Tears in his eyes, he shook his head in protest, unable to comprehend what was happening. Words babbled out of him incoherently as he stood staring at the only man he would ever love.
“..We…Are you…It…The vernalbloom…Where…We found…Who did…The plant…Why…Work…Did you…It must…”
“Boy,” the voice was low and haggard, full of tiredness and sorrow. “Listen, my boy. What you see, what I am as I stand before you, the Gods have spoken. My time here, it is done.”
“FUCK THE GODS!!!” Stoyan’s anger swelled instantaneously, striking like a summer storm with the added fury of an unrelenting tempest. “Fuck the gods and FUCK YOU!” Stoyan had found his focus, the unparalleled amount of pain within his heart. Inconsolable pain that had once known relief, but now, staring into the eyes of his greatest betrayer, the pain gushed forth, flooding over his heart and mind, pouring out of his mouth with immeasurable anger. “You, you’re leaving again. And why?! Why are you doing it when I am so close? I almost had you–.” Stoyan’s words were cut off as Veth barreled into him, sending the Paladin sprawling across the earth. Instinct brought Stoyan out of the hit with little more than a few bruises as he rolled into a standing position. Finding Veth again, he saw that his eyes had regained their cold, dark, haunting look. Drawing a deep breath, Stoyan steeled himself for what he must do, and broke for his former master.
“How long has it been, Alaiya? You look the same.” Winn spoke with the same soft voice she always had, though it was livelier, more youthful, and exuberant. Her eyes had turned into the deep, emerald green Alaiya had been so accustomed to seeing that the sight gave her chills. While she looked upon the face of the woman who raised her as a daughter, she could not help but know that this also was not her, not truly. The thought saddened Alaiya deeply. “Tell me, are the children alright?”
“They are, Mother. They are safe. Ruthe is watching over them while I am…away.” Alaiya dropped her eyes to the ground, unable to look upon Winn. Tears had begun to form in the corners of her eyes and her nose had grown clogged. She bit her lip to steady her nerves, welcoming the taste of blood. The soft, padded sound of leather boots pounded like a thunderclap in her ears as she her Winn moving toward her.
“There, there, Alaiya. It’s alright to be sad. Never lose your emotions, or else you lose your connections to people. Those connections are what give us strength, making us stronger than we can ever imagine.”
Alaiya glanced up through blurry eyes, barely able to make out Winn’s shape. She squinted against her will, the salt from her sweat running into her eyes, burning them like a summer’s flame. But then Winn opened her arms, dropping her sword to the ground. Alaiya could not stop herself as she sprinted into Winn’s arms, wrapping her own around the woman’s waist.
Alaiya pulled herself into Winn tightly enough to scratch her face on the woman’s leathers. But it mattered not to her, for she had once again returned to comfort. Snot dribbled out of her nose as she peered up into the face of her mother, meeting her mother’s eyes once more. Alaiya batted away the tears and sweat, flushing them out with her eyelids, and gazed into Winn’s charcoal eyes once more.
It was the last thing she saw before her body convulsed as lightning ripped through her. Her scream was silence, but all heard the lightning treating the petite woman as a grounding rod. Winn stepped away as Alaiya fell into a quivering mass where she had once been standing. Elias, who had been watching the marvel of the bridging of the two realms, quickly struck, hurling an acidic potion at the Swordmage. It caught her leg, causing her to fall near where she had dropped her sword. She grabbed it up and stood up, the struggle to do so obvious everywhere but on her face. She turned to face the Artificer as a chill wind swept across the hilltop. Elias had a terrible feeling in the pit of his stomach as the winds grew colder and faster, realizing too late that they had been treating Winn as their epicenter.
“Ah, figgleberries,” muttered Elias as he broke for the woods. “Just my luck I piss off a competent mage.”
He took no more than two steps when an arrow whizzed by his right ear. Just as he planted on his third step a second arrow flew by, barely above his right shoulder. Elias wasted no more time before collapsing to the ground.
“Curses and blisters on you, you silliness of a Scout!” yelled Elias. “Think to give a proper warning next time, de Geffriel?” Elias rolled out of the way as a third arrow raced by overhead. He arched his head to catch sight of Winn, three arrows jutting out of her right shoulder and arm.
“Get up and get her out of there. I’ll keep the Swordmage occupied. There’s your warning.”
Elias did not feel like arguing with faulty logic at the moment and crawled back to Alaiya. Horse-collaring her, he managed to drag her away as Winn turned her focus on her new assailant. Elias quickly took her pulse and monitored her breathing. “She’s alive and breathing – all signs point to yes in my book.” Pulling out a smelling salt, he thrust it under Alaiya’s nose and waited a few moments for her to snap to attention.
“Welcome back. Can’t say the same about your friend.” He motioned to Winn, who was magicking her own volley of attacks back onto de Geffriel. The Scout spent so much time dodging magick that she no longer had time to keep up her own attack. “Looks like the lady of charm could use our help. You gonna be ok with that?”
It took Alaiya a moment before she stood. “She is no longer my mother.”
Veth was a behemoth of a man, clearly physically superior to Stoyan in every way. The Paladin felt like it was back in the old days, sparring against the Cleric with his feeble, prepubescent frame, trying to match the battle prowess of a seasoned warrior. Veth, a polished fighter, was efficient in his strikes, nary wasting a movement. Stoyan, unfortunately, had expended much in defeating both Uthal and the mage, and knew his only hope lie in biding for an opening through defensive maneuvers and feints. He could hear commotion all around him from the other fight, and kept glancing back to the woods, fully expecting Lan to come rushing out, or a horde of her little peons, but neither came. This worried Stoyan more than it eased him. “It seems we have all been left to our own devices. Unusually strange for one as psychotic as Lan. What could she be planning?”
The booming of magick on the other side of the clearing told Stoyan all he cared to know about the other fight. He felt safer here, with a blade in his hand, fighting the tangible. He wondered vaguely who else Lan’s Necromancer had called forth. Veth, however, kept his mind from wondering too long.
While the fight between the two continued, Stoyan came to realize that although Veth’s blows were powerful, they were not necessarily damaging. He noted, with grim satisfaction, that the Cleric was physically strong, but not fighting strong, a distinguishable difference to make for any experienced fighter. Stoyan reasoned his initial shock and childhood memories had served to make Veth’s fighting out to be more than it truly was. “Or maybe he’s just toying with me.”
Regardless of the reasoning, Stoyan stepped into one of Veth’s jabs, turning slightly to let it glance off his plate. Stepping within arm’s reach immediately took away the Cleric’s length and Stoyan found himself quickly on the offensive. He lashed out with his longsword, tearing away bits and pieces of flesh, weaving his blade quickly around the defenses of Veth. In close combat now, Stoyan made use of his shield as a secondary weapon, accompanied by kicks when his weight was in mid transfer. Soon, Veth’s face had opened up with cuts and bruises, matching the gashes along his exposed forearms. Stoyan was beginning to feel elated while simultaneously defeated. He was relishing in the victory he yearned for as a child, but not like this – not under these circumstances.
And then Stoyan was blind, falling to his knees. The air surrounding Veth had exploded in a dark radiance. It was difficult to comprehend, darkness that shone brilliantly, but that was what had happened. The pain of the sudden contrast in light staggered Stoyan and he dropped as a startled reaction. The effect did not last long and soon his eyes were able to adjust, getting his feet under him while taking note of Veth’s altered appearance. There was an aura about him now, encompassing him like a shell. It glittered as it swayed between two opposites – light and dark. It was as though the night heavens had cast her million children upon Veth, while wrapper him in her own sweet embrace.
Stoyan steadied himself, trying to anticipate what might happen next, but Veth merely stood there cloaked in a midnight illumination. The waiting wore on Stoyan’s mind more than the battle had on his body.
“What are you waiting for?” he yelled. “Attack me already!”
“And what purpose would that solve, boy?”
Stoyan immediately dropped his guard and took a step forward. “Why are you back now? Is this something you can control?”
“It is not. It seems that Sehanine has seen it fit that we talk some more.” Veth had reacquired his fatherly tone, the familiarity tugging on Stoyan’s soul.
“About what? What is there to discuss? They have turned you into something unfathomable! You said it yourself that I need to destroy you.”
“And yet, you cannot. Not while I have her. The battle you wage – I will win it on endurance alone. I will outlast you as I always have.”
“Then there is nothing to discuss!” The veins in Stoyan’s neck bulged in anger. “Why do they mock me with your voice? Why?”
“Have you no sense, boy? Take stock of the battlefield. Who is your opponent? Do you even recognize the face of the one who loved you?” There was pain in Veth’s face as he spoke those words, apparent even in his stoic demeanor and words.
“Of course I do! You’re right there!”
“Not me, boy. Her.” With a subtle nod of his head, Veth fell silent, waiting for Stoyan to use his head for something other than his helmet.
Stoyan turned hesitantly and watched the other fight, an awkward sense of helplessness washing over him. He was not one to watch a fight without interfering and he had to fight back the impulse to race headlong into the fray. As he watched, each of his companions provided openings for their ally’s attacks, working with such amazing synergy and cohesion, Stoyan became slightly awed of the supposed lesser fighters. The one who drew his attention, though, was the Swordmage.
The woman was battered and bleeding, the first sight of blood Stoyan could recall seeing. Her right arm moved significantly slower than it should have been, but she was a fighter – frighteningly tenacious. She danced the battle dance with ease, skillfully using her magick to cancel de Geffriel’s long ranged volleys and Alaiya’s spells. As she whirled and closed space on Elias, her longsword darted back and forth, greeting the Artificer’s flesh with sharp bites of steel. Magick collided in the air around her adding a sense of wonder and mysticism to the performance. Stoyan stood entranced by the display, strangely drawn to the young woman holding back the onslaught of his friends. His focus took him from her cold, darkened eyes to the other set features of her face – the high cheekbones, the widow’s peak, the scar on the nape of her neck. And then, realization set in.
“No…,” Stoyan muttered, barely a squeak of a sound. He felt the bile begin to churn within his gut and the anticipated taste of vomit made him flinch.
“They have done as much, my boy. I do not approve of this any more than you, though it does set my–.” Veth’s words cut off with such suddenness that Stoyan could not be helped but to be warned. He ducked and rolled, narrowly dodging the arc of the onyx mace.
Sentiment fled Stoyan as a coward to a blade. Popping out of the roll, he swung blindly back across his body, the edge of his sword digging deeply between flaps of plate mail. Blood poured out of Veth like a river following a spring storm, cascading down Stoyan’s blade and crashing into the hilt. The Cleric staggered away from the ferocious attack, clearly injured. Stoyan knew that most men would have crumbled on the spot, but Veth was no normal man. Instead he righted himself, placed a hand over his shattered side, and a dark glow began to radiate.
“Fuck, he can heal.”
The battle raged on two fronts, Stoyan trading blows with Veth while Elias, de Geffriel, and Alaiya managed against Winn. Every so often Veth and Winn would emerge for a brief moment of clarity, toying with the conflicting, deep-seeded emotions within the Paladin and Sorceress. During those moments the tears fell quicker and the movements of the warriors slowed and became hesitant. No sooner would hope start to build within their hearts that loved ones might stay cognizant than the former parents would regress back into their state of relentless attack. The confrontation weighed heavily on the spirit and body for the two war orphans.
The minutes seemed like hours as the evening slowly plodded along. Stoyan proved to be at a stalemate against Veth; the Paladin’s superior sword skill was offset by the combination of the Cleric’s endurance and defensive prowess. Veth, despite his impressive strength, had never been as hell-bent on killing his enemies, instead choosing to merely subdue them; his lack of a killing instinct, in addition to Stoyan’s feverish onslaught, aided in the balance of their battle. To the casual observer, this chess-match seemed to benefit Stoyan, who was somehow staving off the accumulated exhaustion from the day’s harrowing ride and earlier confrontations. However, Stoyan knew better; he knew that the only way to delay his fatigue and not forfeit his life on this isolated hilltop clearing was to grab a hold of a single, solitary thought – he must kill Lan. This fueled Stoyan, nourished his hunger, and drove his sword arm. For the moment, his obsession proved to be his salvation.
Across the clearing, Alaiya, de Geffriel, and Elias had managed to match Winn and her dual assault. Not wishing to risk skewering her allies, de Geffriel had abandoned her bow and moved into melee combat, providing a tangible pest and effectively halting Winn’s offensive. With her blade unable to compliment her magick, Winn’s ferocity became split – her steel matching de Geffriel’s and her magick spreading thinner and thinner between Alaiya and Elias.
Winn was a marvel to watch, holding her own against three separate assaults. Quick and elegant, her movements flowed seamlessly as the wind. Matched up in singular combat with any of the three, even two, would prove her the victor. Three, however, presented a more substantial risk, a risk that was beginning to be capitalized on as she fatigued. It became more and more difficult to parry the rapier on her right, and her mind reached, helplessly at times, for the proper strands of magick, as though she were trying to take grasp of the ocean itself. The only solace in her plight was that the Sorceress, eyes doused in tears, seemed equally helpless. Mustering a show of force, she shoved away the rapier’s wielder and the pesky Artificer, and made a beeline for the child-like Sorceress.
All Alaiya heard was the grunts as the air shook with the influx of magical energy. She looked up and caught Winn’s terribly cold gaze, the black opals burying themselves deep into the recesses of her vulnerable mind.
“No…,” she muttered as her Mother intertwined magick and steel into one. “No…Mother, no!”
As Alaiya raised her arms to defend, Winn collapsed to the ground before her, rolling over herself. The tiniest of yelps broke from her throat at the sight as Winn struggled to climb back to her feet. As Winn continued to collapse back to the ground, Alaiya noticed the frosted fletching of an arrow jutting from the back of her right leg, wisps of ice escaping the heat of the blood freely flowing from the wound. Winn looked up to find Alaiya’s eyes and a small, gentle smile crept across her face.
“My dearest, little Alaiya. Help me.”
“NO! Mother!” Alaiya bumbled forward, her tears falling as quickly as Winn’s blood flowed. “No! Why?” she screamed, turning on de Geffriel and Elias, “Why did you hurt her?!”
The pain etched on her face quieted any snarky remarks either of them could have uttered, and both knew that consolation was pointless at this stage.
Alaiya slid herself underneath the pit of Winn’s arm to help prop her up. “Elias, quickly, heal her! Stop the bleeding before she dies!”
It was not Elias that strode forward to help however. As de Geffriel neared, she averted her eyes from Alaiya, knowing the protest that was there. The Sorceress continued to beg Elias for assistance, even as de Geffriel gripped Winn’s head and yanked it back.
In the softest and sincerest of tones, the Scout’s voice broke through the frantic yelling. “It must be done.”
The ferociousness of the bellow broke across the mountain clearing as a tumbling boulder shatters upon the ground. As de Geffriel’s rapier thrust forward, a flash of brilliant light erupted, bringing the day to the depths of night. Everyone was knocked senseless and became disorientated in that moment, shielding their eyes against the overpowering brightness, and, for the briefest of instants the battle was not at the forefront of their minds. And then the light was gone as quickly as it had come.
As each person tightened their eyes, trying to take away the painfulness of the blindness, a dark shadow raced across the clearing. de Geffriel became caught up in the shadow, swallowed instantly by the darkness and lifted high into the air. Her feet kicked feebly out beneath her as she pried at the object crushing her throat. Her breathing became shallow as the shadow twirled her about and threw her to the ground with ease.
“You will NOT touch her!”
As the shadows trembled with a dreadful power, they flew to a cowering Elias, reached out, and sent the Gnome flying through the air. He landed with a deafening thud on the ground, his left shin snapped and exposed, having collapsed back on itself. He unleashed a pitiful scream as he struggled for the pouches strewn about him.
“You will NOT–!”
The booming voice was cut short as the shadows withered away, revealing Veth’s massive frame. Protruding from the front of his chest was a half length of a longsword, its steel tip wet with perverse blood.
“No, Veth, you will not.” Stoyan’s voice was distant, cold, and unrelenting. He was staring at the ground, his eyes tightly shut as his tears mixed with snot, both dripping off the end of his nose. His hands had already fallen from the hilt of the sword and he quickly and quietly followed their example. Slumped, he seemed too tired to resist any more, and welcomed whatever end that was about to befall him.
The sound of a sword sliding free of its hold caused the stomachs of those nearest to lurch. The clatter of the steel blade upon the ground became even more disheartening to the ear.
“He is too strong,” thought Stoyan. “I cannot hope to defeat him. I never could. I shall die here, by his hand – by my Father’s hand.”
Then Veth turned upon his former pupil, and assessed the threat of the man at his feet who lay broken before him.
“Rise, Stoyan, and do me one last favor.”
The rage that had possessed the Cleric had been replaced by compassion and eerie, unprecedented warmth. The sound of Veth’s coherent, comforting voice broke the last of Stoyan’s resolve and he began weeping uncontrollably.
“You have finally shown the strength I knew you had in you for all those years, Stoyan. The strength to die is the greatest strength we have. No other strength can match it, and yet, so few embrace it. When you are finally ready to die, as you are now, Stoyan, you will have the greatest strength a man can possess. Now, rise.”
With a trained obedience, Stoyan stood, yet he was still unable to look upon the Cleric. And then, two powerful arms wrapped around the Paladin, lifting him off the ground in a tender embrace. And like that child forever yearning for the love of his father, Stoyan returned the embrace, his own powerful arms finally able to show Veth what he for so many years had felt – love for his father.
The night froze around them as the others looked on in disbelief. The black aura that had once enveloped the Necromancer’s creations had faded, and the moon itself seemed to brighten in her nightly observance.
Choking on tears, Stoyan released Veth and stepped away. Looking upon the man he admired, a million more questions, thoughts, and feelings swirled in his head, but he could not speak them. Veth returned the silence with a comforting smile, a knowing spark in his steel, blue-grey eyes, and both men understood.
Then, the giant of a man, the father figure to so many young men and ladies, fell to the ground, the last of the Necromancer’s foul magick having fled. As Elias and de Geffriel moved to Stoyan, Alaiya hung back, alone and bewildered.
“Where did she go,” she wondered with a sense of urgency. “Why is she not here? What happened to her?”
“I am always here with you.”
The voice behind her startled her and she spun, magick coalescing in the palm of her hands. Two strong hands grabbed her wrists however, and she felt her magick succumb to a stronger will. A sense of panic overtook her as her magick became overwhelmed by another external force imposing itself and suppressing her magick. Alaiya tried to wrench free, but it was a feeble attempt; the grip was strong and held her easily.
“Face your fears, my little one. And never forgo your heart. It is the source of your magick – your strength and resolve. Guard it, but do not hide it away. And, every once in a while, lose yourself to it.”
With that, Winn bent down and placed a motherly kiss on top of her most beloved’s forehead and released her young one’s hands. Alaiya clung to her mother instantly and buried her face in her leathers, tears already taken to her face.
“Now, now, my Alaiya. I must go now. You mustn’t keep me, no matter how you wish it so.”
“But, why? You are here, finally here! If you could stay, then…then maybe we can be of more help. I’ll do more! I’ll study at the Tower, clean and take care of the Orphanage; I’ll do whatever you want!”
Winn smiled gently and brushed Alaiya’s hair back from across her face. “That would not be wise. I should not be here as I am. And that, my little Alaiya, as hard as it is for me and you to accept, is how it must be.”
Winn strode toward the fallen body of Veth as she pried Alaiya’s clinging hands from her garb. Calmly and confidently, she passed through Stoyan and the others, kneeling beside the body of the fallen Cleric. Reaching underneath the body she turned Veth over onto his back and gazed upon his face.
“You were always a good, strong man. Selfless and caring, it was because of you that I was able to persevere all those years. You helped make our little orphanage feel like a home. Thank you, Veth, for everything.” Lifting the man to her chest, she held him close and whispered into his ear as a single tear began to flow from the corner of her eye. Placing him gently back on the ground, Winn looked to the night sky, which had only increased in its brilliance. “He is yours.”
The moon above resonated as a soft, glittering blue light fell upon the two. The moonlight was a warm, soothing presence on that hilltop of pain, and washed away the horror of the evening. The radiant light swirled around Veth and Winn, moon dust twinkling in and out of sight as though miniature versions of the stars above. As they danced, they chased the darkness away.
Stoyan, Alaiya, Elias, and de Geffriel watched, silently, reverently, as the light embraced the two bodies. Without warning, Winn collapsed across the chest of Veth, causing Alaiya to yelp in helplessness. As the foursome continued to watch, the figure of Veth rose, cloaked in the same blue moonlight that swirled upon the hilltop.
Translucent, Veth stood, towering above his own body. He looked from the four companions to his body on the ground, he eyes lingering at the sight of Winn’s body draped across his own. He smiled softly, turned to the moon, and closed his eyes in silent prayer. When he opened them again, it was to watch as Winn rose to join him. There they stood, next to one another in the silence of the forested clearing, beneath the majesty of the moon. The light swirled stronger now, the sparkling of the lights quickening as Veth and Winn turned to face one another.
“The light shall be my road, the moon my eternal home. Sehanine has deemed a place for me.” Veth reached for Winn’s face then pulled away, a painful expression washing across his own.
“A place for us,” Winn returned as she reached out and took his hand in her own.
Veth looked up, his face shifting from pain, to confusion, to understanding, and finally relief. He took Winn’s hands, smaller and more delicate than his own, in his and brought them to his chest, never once breaking from her gaze.
“From the moment I–.”
Winn hushed him with a quick interjection. “I know. I have too.”
With ease, Winn slid her hands from beneath Veth’s and hooked them around the massive man, laying her head upon his barrel-chest. He returned the embrace willingly, his arms as gentle as a spring’s breeze. The moonlight danced at a feverish pace now, lifting the two within its column of light. It twirled faster and faster, condensing into a single sprout, reaching up to the moon far above. As it raced through the night sky, it left a trail of sparkling moon dust behind, which fell as glittering snowflakes upon the clearing and surrounding woods. Then, with a streaking flash of blue-hued moonlight, it was gone.
“Wait,” muttered de Geffriel a few moments later when darkness had returned to the hilltop, “where are the bodies?”