The cavern was as quiet as it had been since they had arrived. Stoyan volunteered for the first watch, adamant that the others sleep off their weariness. He sat nestled in a crevice within the rock wall, mulling over the shadow woman’s taunts, replaying what he could have done to change the outcome.
“Sometimes, there is nothing you can do, boy.”
Stoyan turned his head towards Veth, who was walking toward his post. However, even in the shadows, he could see Veth’s eyes glimmer in the dark. “You should be getting some rest, Veth.”
“I should,” he casually replied with a shrug of his shoulders, “but I find I don’t need as much sleep as when I was younger. So, if you don’t mind, I think I will share the watch with you for a while.” Veth sat down slowly and stretched out his arms above his head in a big deliberate fashion.
Stoyan turned back towards the lake. “If you insist; I can’t make you sleep.”
The soft sounds of slumber could be heard from the others as the two men gazed out over the seemingly endless lake. “No, you can’t. Still can’t beat me in a fight either I’ll wager.”
Stoyan turned quickly towards Veth, anger flashing in his eyes. His mouth opened to contest, but stopped when he saw the twinkle in Veth’s eyes. Veth settled himself down near the crevice, leaned up against the rock wall, and stretched again.
“Still doesn’t make it your fault, Stoyan. There was nothing you could do.”
“I…We should have seen that coming. We knew we were walking into a trap, and yet, we still got caught.” His voice rose, showing just how angry he was with himself. Veth placed his large hand on his former pupil’s shoulder and Stoyan sighed, suddenly feeling the tension within his muscles fade. Veth’s powers were always more useful than just for healing. “Thanks.”
The two sat for a time looking out towards the quiet water of the lake. The crystals glowed faintly in the night, seeming alive in their own right. The hues of their light were darker now than when they have first arrived and it seemed as if they were allowing the companions at brief reprieve from their harrowing journey.
“You have become quite the young man,” Veth began, “It seems you have had an interesting journey since I last saw you, ten years ago.”
“Eleven years, and, yeah, you can say it’s been interesting.” Stoyan thought a moment before continuing on, “I’ll never forget the day you left the orphanage, Veth. I was working with some of the youngsters on their basics – parrying, thrusts, feints, you know – real basic stuff. I thought you’d come to help at some point in the morning, but you never showed.” Stoyan’s expression was far away as he recalled the events of that day. “We had duck and that slosh Gilroy tried to pass off as soup for lunch that day. That fool could never cook…” He paused for a second as he lost himself in his thoughts. Anyway, at lunch I asked Mother where you were. She said you had left early that morning, but she didn’t know where or why you left. You were just – gone.”
Veth was quiet as he shuffled through the events that lead to his leaving the orphanage eleven years earlier, but he did not share his thoughts with Stoyan.
“I was angry, Veth, angry that you would do that to me; leaving without a note, without saying goodbye – why? Why did you do that to me? To all of us?”
Veth sighed, quietly listening, knowing that even though it had been eleven years, the pain of being left behind without a word was obviously still there. “I am sorry, Stoyan. I never meant to hurt you or any of the others. I had to leave… unexpectedly, and didn’t need to draw it out.” He shifted his position near the crevice, trying to find a more comfortable angle against the wall. “Winn was there for everyone, and I knew you could oversee the training of the younger boys and girls. I trusted you both and I knew that they were in good hands.” He patted Stoyan on the back, reassuringly.
Stoyan embraced his reasoning, even if he still could not fully accept it. There was something he knew the Cleric was withholding, but he did not pry. “I tried, Veth, I really did try.” A grimace crossed his face as Stoyan considered how hard he had worked to train the younger children. “But I couldn’t do it; not alone – not without guidance. All I could think about was you and everyone else I cared about leaving me. Then one day Mother asked me why I was still there. ‘Everyone has a time to leave us, Stoyan,’ she said, ‘Veth’s time was nine months ago. And it’s time now for you, too.’” I tried to argue with her, but she assured me that it was ok and to get on my way. I left a few days later.”
“So, you headed straight out to Gimlora then? To become a Paladin?”
“No, that was later, about 5 years ago. At first, I joined the forces fighting the Horde.”
Veth nodded his head in understanding. “Yes, they were difficult to fight. I saw my share of those aberrations on the wall. The fact that you’re here now though – I know you did well against them.” He smiled, proud of what he was about to say. “Else, boy, you never would have become a Paladin of Tempus, the War God himself.”
Stoyan sat up a bit straighter, his face beginning to beam. “Yeah, I did well enough; thanks to you and your training.”
Now it was Veth’s turn to gloat, as a father does for a son who has gone out into the world and come home successful. “I’m glad to know that my training did not go amiss, boy, though I doubt you thought that twenty years ago.”
This time, a smile crossed Stoyan’s face and let out a small chuckle. “You can say that again! I hated your training; too much hard work.”
The same smile was on Veth’s lips as well. “And yet, you kept coming back for more – every day you were there early and leaving late. I always knew you would be a fighter, and a good one at that. Perhaps not a Paladin, but Sehanine allows us all to follow our own paths.”
“It has been an interesting road, Veth.” Stoyan fell silent, lost in his thoughts. Neither of them said a word for a time, sitting watch in companionable silence.
“I am glad to see you again, Veth, even if it was under these circumstances.” Stoyan said quietly under his breath.
Veth turned away to hide the tear that had been welling up in the corner of his eye. “As am I, boy, as am I.”
As the time crept on Veth noticed the young Paladin nodding off. He stirred Stoyan awake and sent him to get some sleep, his shift having ended. Veth sat alone, contemplating what could have been – what might have been – if he had only stayed. One decision had shaped the lives of many, it seemed, and it had been his decision to make.
“I see your trainees take after you – large and brooding!” Cyrxx cackled at his own joke as a dim light manifested itself in his hand. “I was hoping for a minute alone with my thoughts, but it seems that my luck ran out when we fell through that silly hole. You’ll have to do.” His grinned, knowing the playful banter would be returned, but Veth refused. The lack of normalcy struck Cyrxx and he knew Veth was deep in contemplative thought. “What’s got ya?”
After an awkward silence, Veth offered some insight into his thoughts. “Just mulling on the past, little friend. It seems that I’m not wise enough to take my own advice.”
“No one’s ever mistaken you for being wise.” Cyrxx plopped down next to the massive man. “Misdirected, maybe, but never wise.” Cyrxx started playing with the glowing ball of magick in his hands, weaving in between his fingers with a practiced touch.
Veth smiled as memories of their arguments from their younger years surfaced. “At least I have a path instead of traipsing all over the place looking for something to believe in.” He nudged the Gnome a bit, which sent Cyrxx toppling to the ground with a wail. A muffled chuckle rose in the back of Veth’s throat as he leaned over to help up his friend. “You ever find what you went searching for?”
Cyrxx magicked himself off and plopped down next to the Cleric. He let out a disheartened sigh as the shoulders of his small frame slumped forward. “I found a lot of things – some good and some less than good.” He paused a moment before perking up, a strange smile on his face. “But, nothing we can do about them now, eh?” He cackled while playing with the light in his hand. As it passed from hand to hand, it brushed up against his black beard which suddenly ignited. Cyrxx screamed and dropped the ball of light, which quickly vanished. The area was lit well enough by the crystals and his beard. “Get it off! Get it off!” Cyrxx patted furiously at his beard in a desperate attempt to extinguish the flame.
Veth jumped up startled and picked up the Gnome, flaming beard and all, and broke for the lake. Cyrxx continued to wail as wisps of smoke trailed behind him. “Sorry friend, but I always told you that magick of yours was dangerous.” As he neared the lake’s edge, he prepared to toss Cyrxx in the deep blue water.
“Really? You said that?” There was no panic or worry in Cyrxx’s voice, which startled Veth. He swung the Wizard around, confused. Cyrxx smiled, held fast in the large hands of Veth, grinning like a mad man. The area was still lit by light, but not from a burning beard, but the same globe of light he always had. There was no smoke or flames anymore, just Cyrxx, held in the air, cackling.
Angry more at himself than anything for falling for such a trick, Veth dropped Cyrxx and turned to walk away. “I’m going to bed. It’s your turn on watch.”
As he walked, Cyrxx continued to laugh. “The look on your face…Was totally…Worth it!” Wiping the tears from his eyes and congratulating himself on a prank well played, Cyrxx returned to the watch post, making sure to avoid Veth.
Cyrxx knew that Alaiya’s shift was after his and waited willingly for her to show. She had always intrigued the Wizard in her younger years, even though he acknowledged her reluctance to train in Astyr. He wondered how her studies had progressed and if she was maintaining them or if her powers had manifested in a way better suited for a Master not of the Red.
As his thoughts drifted through the multitude of questions he wanted to ask – some polite and others, well, others – another small light approached. Orb in appearance, the color scheme raged with numerous hues as though fighting for dominance. Cyrxx could only smile as Alaiya sat down.
“How are you feeling?” she offered. “It was a pretty steep fall, and I saw those rats took a liking to you.”
“Ha ha.” Cyrxx gave a sharp huff to emphasize his sarcasm. “I can take a rat – I’m not that old. You didn’t seem to fare much better in there.”
“My head’s still a bit clouded, but I’m fine.” Alaiya’s orb shifted quickly from red to violet to green as she spoke.
“Your magick is still as conflicted as you are,” he said, a gentle smile brushing across his bearded face. “If you aren’t careful, it’ll bite.” As he spoke, the green swirl in Alaiya’s orb lashed out, shifting itself into jaws, and snapped at her arm. Cyrxx pulled away with a yelp.
Alaiya brushed the green strand away as though it were nothing. It disappeared with a puff of grey smoke as soon as her hand made contact. “Always were the trickster,” she said, her voice soft. “Especially lately,” she thought. She suppressed the urge to ask Cyrxx about his behavior, given the circumstances, though she could not help but to worry.
“And you, my dear, were always the tricked.” His eyes twinkled at the memories of Alaiya, when he would create anything her imagination could conjure – as long as it was simple enough.
“I am not the same little girl you left in Fareen.” There was a sound of resentment in her voice as a shadow fell across her face. A painful silence followed, for which neither felt comfortable with, nor wished to break. It was only when a soft echo trickled through the tunnel that Cyrxx broke the solemnity.
“Sometimes,” he began, his voice distant and surprisingly complacent, “people need answers. I needed to –.“ He stopped as he struggled with his thoughts. “There were things going on in the world, things that I didn’t understand. I sought to understand them.” He stared out across the vast underground lake, the light of the orbs creating a dancing silhouette behind him.
“Did you find it? Was it worth it? Leaving Fareen and all – was it worth it?” Cyrxx turned to face her, pained expressions knitted into his brow, a hint of pleading in his eyes. Alaiya pressed on however, emotion welling up inside her. “Was it worth abandoning us? Leaving when we needed you? You said you’d be there for me, to help me, and yet, when I needed it, you were gone. You know who stayed? Mother. She stayed through everything.” Alaiya’s jaw clenched tightly as her emotions raged inside her. Her magick orb began to writhe and contort, losing its shape, colors swirling in the undefined globular mass. Alaiya paused, suddenly aware of what was happening, and breathed steadily, deeply, slowly, until her magick settled. Once her feelings were in check, she continued. “She was the only one who seemed to truly care. Not even Veth stayed. You all abandoned her, too. And if it wasn’t for that, she’d still be alive.”
Cyrxx looked away, disgusted by the harsh truths she spoke, knowing they pain of the young girl within was breaking through. “Alaiya, you must not blame us for Winn’s death. It was natural and all people experience it when their time comes.” Cyrxx hoped the deflection from his departure would stay a distant memory as the conversation shifted to Winn.
“Just stop it! Why do you not listen? I’ve been trying to tell you and Veth, her death wasn’t natural. Someone, or something, killed her. And I think,” she paused and naturally lowered her voice, afraid that someone might hear, even in the depths of the cavern, “it was the Dark Light.”
Startled by the theory, Cyrxx could only manage a perplexed, “Who?”
“The Da–,” Alaiya paused as the words stuck in her throat. She was not sure how much she should reveal against how much she actually knew. She adjusted her line of thinking as she inched closer and continued to lower her voice, as though she was trying to hide her words from the shadows. “There are rumors that there are those in Fareen who seek to exploit the war. Less children come to us at the Orphanage, which is understandable, but the numbers entering Fareen have not lessened at nearly the same rate. Mother…She thought things were happening to the children of the war.” Alaiya paused to catch her breath as Cyrxx ran through the information, stroking his beard and twirling it around his finger when presented with unusual information.
“So you think it was these people? But why would they hurt Winn? What threat could she have been?”
“I’m not sure, but it’s what I plan on finding out. It wasn’t fair of the gods to let Winn die. All she did was help others. I’m going to find these people, Cy, and discover the truth for myself.”
Cyrxx nodded in sudden understanding as the picture started to slowly come into focus. Just then, a deep urge to yawn overtook the Gnome as his whole body joined in the welcoming of potential sleep. Wrapping up the ancient ritual, Cyrxx stood, still gazing out over the lake. “Then I should like to think we need to make it out of here. We should tell the others but, uh, let me tell Veth. I wouldn’t want you to see the oaf break down into sobs.” Cyrxx’s voice seemed to have regained a little bit of his normal sharpness. “Practice while you have the time, Allie,” and Alaiya could hear the smile in his voice, “and I’ll see you in a few hours.” With that, Cyrxx and his bouncing globe of light walked back toward the others. Alaiya, feeling less burdened, watched until the darkness swallowed the light.