The mood of the party was a stark contrast to the mid-afternoon day. Above, clouds floated by, popping in and out of sight above the pines. Birds chirped as they flew from branch to branch, chasing one another as spring worked its way through the land. The world became alive with the sounds of the natural world, and yet, no one cared.
There were no smiles on the faces of the companions as they woke. Their attitudes seemed to darken the world around them, dulling the vibrancy of the plants and even nullifying the chipper sounds of the forest. No one, save Elias, looked as though they had had a peaceful rest, as their faces were taut with tension. Cyrxx looked as though he had not even slept.
“We should head out.” Stoyan’s voice was shallow and disengaged from his words, lacking the normal conviction and authority. He was greeted by unenthusiastic nods as the others readied their packs. “We still seem to be east of the Kaliois, though how far north, I can’t say. We should make for Fareen, due east. Once we’re out of the woods, we should be able to find out where we are given the openness of the plains.” Another round of nods led to an exhausted sigh from Stoyan. He too, had not slept well, and his mind raced. “What will I do?”
The land gently sloped away from the mountains as they began the long process of melding into the plains. Traveling was not difficult, but it was slow and somber. Elias could not understand the shift in the usually cheery mood, but he was wise enough to know when to keep his mouth shut. “Whatever happened last night,” he thought, “needs to be worked out by them. I ain’t gonna help by pushing anything.”
As the Stoyan-led troupe pushed through the woods, he was suddenly halted by a series of male shouts to the north. He listened closer and as the others quietly listened as well.
“Just some men hunting game. Likely using the mating season for a bigger haul.” Stoyan passed it off, though part of him wanted to explore. “No,” he thought, “Veth is the priority. According to the Uthal guy, he only has two weeks, give or take. And who knows how long until we reach Fareen.”
That is when the Paladin heard the women scream. He turned back toward the north immediately, struggling with himself as to what he should do.
“Young Stoyan, you wish to go, but your duty lies elsewhere. Veth needs you and what you carry.”
Cyrxx words struck down the struggle in Stoyan’s heart. The Paladin looked down at the Wizard, whose eyes were red and puffy, haggard and sleep-deprived lines etched deep into his face. Stoyan felt pity for the Gnome who seemed to have aged significantly overnight.
“For once, Cyrxx, we agree.”
Then there was laughter, a beautiful, tantalizing laughter that rang throughout the woods. Deep and smoky in voice, its sound appealed to those that heard it. Elias found the sound enticing, pleasing, alluring. However, to the others, the laugh was cruel. It bit into their hearts with a venomous tone, leaving them feeling disgusted, bitter, and angry, like a lover spurned. Cyrxx, Alaiya, and Stoyan knew immediately who it was.
No words were spoken as they turned north to the sound of the voices. The others informed Elias of whose voice it was and he let out a low whistle. “Deadly, on all counts.” The others nodded in silence.
Stoyan hung back, aware that the clanking of his armor could give him away as they moved north. As they ascended over a small ridge, they found themselves looking down at a small militia. Men of all sorts, adorned in black leathers, stood in the middle of a small clearing within the wood. Their faces were stoic, resolved to carry out whatever task they were given. The dying sunlight cast long, grave shadows behind them as they stood in some semblance of a formation. Throughout the clearing were exposed outcroppings of rock, mostly covered by vegetation, though it appeared some had started to become exposed.
In front of some lay bodies, crumpled at their feet, unmoving. Those men that stood over them had blood on their hands. In front of others struggled captives, their wrists and feet bound behind them. Most wept, a few screamed, some begged. All were women. Their clothes were strange, possibly woodfolk or mountainfolk, and their armor was iffy at best. A few had strange tattoos on the faces and bodies, were their skin was exposed. For most, their hair covered their faces, save for two short-haired women, one of auburn hair and one of a deep black. It was these two women that had the attention of the men now.
Another figure, a female, one who commanded respect, strutted around the clearing, barely half as tall as the men. Adorned in similar style clothing as the others, it was easy to tell she was the fiercest of everyone there; it was clear in her eyes and her voice. She leaned down and lifted auburn-haired girl’s chin up, her long, slender fingers gliding smoothly under her jaw. Moving the head side to side, she inspected the bound woman, whose eyes had started to well up with tears. She peered down the woman’s garb, searching for something. The men never flinched.
“Bah!” she sneered, tossing the woman to the side, “She is not who I seek. Kill her.”
The woman protested, screams raging forth from her mouth, pleading for her life. The auburn-haired girl had seen too much already. “No!” she pleaded, “I am the on- grkk…”
The woman’s blood gushed from her throat, the warm liquid merging with her clothing, painting her leathers with a crimson red. The man who stood behind her released her, and the auburn-haired woman’s head slumped forward, the gurgles of blood mixing with the panicked whimpers of the other bound women. The body fell, lifeless, upon the matted ground of the forest clearing.
The woman in black strode over to the second woman, the one with the short, deep black hair, and repeated her inspection. Irritation became clear on her face as she searched for whatever it was she was looking for, until, finally disgusted, she bestowed the same fate. The man behind her never let her utter a protest the kill was so quick.
“Where are you?!” Screaming to the sky, as though asking the gods themselves, the woman threw up her hands. “What price do I need to pay for this? You mock me now, but we’ll see!” Shaking a thought from her head, she walked over to the next group of women and began addressing them as a whole.
Stoyan spat on the ground, anger and hatred boiling up inside of him. He rechecked the situation. “God’s be cursed, twenty men! And we sit with four?! On the blade of Tempus, I swear I’ll have your heart Lan!” Stoyan motioned for Cyrxx and Alaiya to circle the clearing. They were lucky in that the ridge they were perched on nearly circled the clearing. It was not a superior advantage, but it was an advantage.
Another scream and a few curses flew from the clearing as another woman slumped forward, her throat slit like all the others. One woman, a large, muscular red-head, started berating Lan and the cowards called men. “If you want to kill me,” she challenged, “then prove you’re worthy of the kill!”
Lan smiled, the devilishly seductive smile, and lifted the red-head’s chin up. “What’s your name, beautiful?” Her eyes twinkled in the oncoming dusk. “If you tell me, there may be a place for you by my side.”
The woman hesitated, caught off-guard by the sudden change in demeanor. “They call me Muria, and I’ve killed more than my share of filth in this land.” She sneered, though it changed to a smile as she recollected her kills.
“Oh, that sounds…enticing, Muria.” Lan lifted her head and held the woman’s eyes with her own. “You seem…powerful, and I like that. I like those with power – it’s…invigorating. Sends shivers down my spine. Makes me…wet…” Muria’s eyes went wide as Lan spoke that last word, and her mouth opened as if to reply, but no sound, not even air, escaped her lips.
“…with their blood.” Lan slowly, with little twisting motions to accentuate the pain, pulled her blade from Muria’s throat. Blood squirted out as the air passed from her lungs. As her body tried to pull in oxygen, a sickening little wheezing sound pierced the clearing.
Stoyan charged into the clearing, still too far away to intercept Lan, but he hope he could distract them. He could not let another person fall victim to Lan’s wrath. He hoped Alaiya and Cyrxx were already in position, readying their spells.
Lan heard the Paladin first, the clanking of his armor ringing throughout the wood. She wheeled and immediately recognized Stoyan. “This dog needs to find a new play toy. Boys, kill the girls. If we can’t have her, no one can!”
Of the three women still bound, one immediately hit the ground, blood spilling from the gaping wound in her neck. Her blood soaked into the ground as the wood seemed to drink up the life force. Before the two other men could kill their charges, however, the mages spells struck. Alaiya’s spell knocked one of the men out cold, causing him to drop the woman he had been holding. Cyrxx’s spell burst in the middle of the clearing, creating a vacuum. A fierce updraft of air, shot up, as the surrounding air rushed in to fill the space, pulling nearly all of the people into the middle of the clearing. Everyone staggered around, looking light-headed and dizzy from the sudden lack of oxygen. Both girls where now on the ground, near the edge of the group.
“Great job, you two!” though Stoyan. He heard Elias slide down the hill behind him as he continued on a dead sprint towards Lan. “If I can just take her out…”
Stoyan crashed into the wall of men, his sword cutting down the nearest one as he staggered about. Another orb of magick exploded off to his right, though he was too focused on Lan to see what happened. Then the entire place erupted in a blanket of shadows. Scores of dark tendrils shot forth from the ground, wrapping around seven of the men and Lan. The tendrils managed to pierce the vital points of three of the men, felling them on the spot, but the others, as well as Lan, managed to avoid the deadliest portion of the attack. Cyrxx fell to his knees after the spell, the quick succession of using two high level spells taking its toll on him.
Lan, irritated and frustrated with her quickly dwindling forces, barked orders at two of her men. “Kill the girls! Do not let them escape! We’ll take care of the litter.”
She turned back to Stoyan, an eerie smile breaching her lips. The two men stumbled over to the girls, each picking one up, before fumbling around with their swords. Meanwhile, Lan unraveled a pouch on her hip and chucked it at the advancing Stoyan. The pouch continued to unravel in midair, expanding as the weights within it separated, and fell around the Paladin, effectively trapping him beneath a net.
Stoyan hit the ground like a felled tree, swarmed instantly by halberds from the men closest to him. Though Cyrxx’s magick had rendered them unable to move their legs, their arms could still swing their weapons. A few of the nearby men shook off Cyrxx’s magick and started in the direction of the Gnome, still perched on the ridge looking down. Stoyan noticed that he looked woozy; perhaps a side effect of casting such large spells so rapidly. As he struggled within the net, a greater obstacle than he initially imagined, he felt a chilling sensation grip his chest. Glancing down at his chainmail, he noticed it beginning to coat over in frost, a thin bluish-white cloud enveloping him, swirling around his torso and chilling his blood.
He was helpless when the next strike from a halberd came. Stoyan managed to shift slightly out of the way, the blow chipping away at his chainmail and sinking into the ground. Stoyan noticed that the man holding the weapon winced after the attack, and pulled his hands off the shaft, shaking them furiously.
“Argh, that chill bites the skin!” He glanced down, not at Stoyan, but rather his weapon. Stoyan looked too, curious as to what he’d find. What he saw surprised him; the bluish-white mist that had been circling his torso was now snaking up the shaft of the halberd, whipping about in the evening’s dusk, looking for something to latch on to.
“Pretty neat stuff there, huh, doncha think?” Elias’s voice cut through the confused silence and Stoyan craned back to see a rod in his hand, a dimming bluish-white gem glowing from its crest. “Gotta say, being able to use these,” and he twirled his arms around, “makes me feel like a new man.”
Stoyan wasted no time in rolling closer to the blade protruding from the ground. Using the weapon to cut through the net, he soon freed himself, the other men hesitant to strike out of fear of the swirling mist. No sooner had he stood up, however, than the mist vanished. With the magick gone, the men regained their courage and the fight resumed.
A few men, unable to shake the effects of Cyrxx’s spell, dropped their weapons and took out their crossbows. Eyeing Alaiya on one ridge and Cyrxx on the other, they began to fire, though the distance and their position on lower ground made sure their shots were not a threat. They were, unfortunately, enough to catch Cyrxx off-guard, and he lost his footing and fell from the ridge, sliding down the opposite back and away from the battle.
As the Wizard tumbled through brush and leaves, seemingly catching every tree root and stone on the side of the mountain, he encountered an uneasy sensation that this would be his death. “Fantastic,” he thought, “living, so long beneath the ground and never once worried about a rock falling on me, but now, I’m worried about falling on a rock?!”
A sharp crack and a numbing pain from the back of his head told him that he had found the rock he was wishing to avoid. He felt the warmth of the blood flow down the base of his neck, and reached up with his hand to assess the damage. He winced at the tenderness of the wound, but discovered that it was not a large cut, and decided it would clot on its own. Still, the pain was enough to wince as he stood, trying to take stock of his situation. He could hear fighting continuing on the other side of the ridge, but he could no longer see any one.
Cyrxx turned around to take a look at the rock that stopped his rolling descent and noticed that, like a few of the other stones he had spied around the clearing, that it was only partially exposed. Covered in vines and moss, and hidden beneath layers of dirt, mulch, and decaying vegetation, Cyrxx realized that if he had not hit it with his head, he may not have even thought it was a rock to begin with. It sat low to the ground, as though it was perched on something, and rested so close to the tree behind it, that, given the surrounding decor, it could pass as part of a widened base. He even acknowledged that is it were not for his head, he might not have been able to distinguish between the two, so seamlessly melded together were the two objects.
Curiosity and intrigue, as well as exhaustion, got the better of Cyrxx, and he decided to pay more attention to the stone than the fight his companions were going through. There was something about the place that made him ancy, and his Gnomish inquisitiveness won out. As he inspected the stone, he noticed in parts that the tree had begun to grow around the stone, wishing to embrace the rock and make it one with itself. Cyrxx found himself running his hand over the rock, and he noticed an oddity about it – though it seemed polished and smoothed, there were distinct ridges; sharp edged that bent and cut within the stone. Not etched markings or indentations that ran within the stone’s surface, but raised profiles among the rock face. Cyrxx continued to brush dirt and grime away and was astonished at what he found – a gloved hand holding onto a hilt of a rapier. The detail in the carving was so elaborate and detailed that the Wizard initially took a step back thinking the statue was alive.
Casting a spell of prestidigitation on the rock, hands of magick tore away at the rest of time’s markings, revealing a fully intact statue imbedded in both earth and tree. Slowly, he had the magick peel back the advancing tree bark, fully exposing the statue of a woman, crouched on one knee, who looked as though she were waiting or watching. The sculptor had adorned her in clothes unfamiliar to Cyrxx, though to say he knew what the going trends were, would be a stretch.
He admired the preciseness the artist used to capture what it seemed only life could, and he found himself intently focused, more than he had been in years, on the world around him. He felt the earth shift beneath his feet, the wind play with his beard, and the wood softly whisper his name. The coolness of the shadows chilled the perspiration on his skin, and his robes, for the first time in years, felt light. He felt as though the burdens of his life had been washed away while he stood in front of that statue, an awareness that caused him to involuntarily close his eyes and listen to his soul.
Deep inside, the colors of magick swirled, but not with the usually chaotic mass that he had become accustomed to in the past ten years. No, this time the colors revolved in unison, matching one another’s movements in a harmonious dance. As green flowed, yellow ebbed; when red rose, blue fell. And, holding them all together was a matrix of violet, the color of his chosen magick, the Gift that resided most strongly in him. It fastened the other aspects of magick into their shape, letting them have limited freedom, enough to thrive, but not enough to bring about their own destruction. This, to a mage, was ultimate peace, the unachievable serenity that is preached as a constant, eternal struggle; a battle that became more difficult as one aged.
Cyrxx’s eyes fluttered open, his mind never clearer. He reached inside the pouch sewn into the inside of his red robes and removed the scroll he had taken earlier from the small makeshift laboratory in the cave. He placed his orb, the conduit for his magick, into Gregor’s mouth, who gently closed his jaw, as though reading his master’s mind. Gregor nodded as solemnly as a floating skull could.
Cyrxx unraveled the scroll in his hands, the words suddenly jumping off the parchment at him. His eyes raced over the ancient magick, comprehending all the nuances of the spell, the ones he had viewed only once and had not devoted time to truly studying during their rest. He was unsure of why it all made sense now, but it did. “Perhaps,” he thought, a welcomed relief overcoming his heart, “perhaps it is the calmness within that allows me to see.”
Cyrxx lifted to scroll and held it against the crouching statue. Immediately, the words inscribed on the parchment began to glow – soft, earthy tones of green and yellows raced around as magick coursed through the papered spell. And Cyrxx read, as naturally as he spoke, the words of an unknown magick:
Kuum eit dou, jiel kelindes; (From one stone, life arises)
Kuum eit dou, jiel haji; (From one stone, life begins)
Kuum eit dou, jiel inifin; (From one stone, life becomes eternal)
Asuer zou, reje quii; (Forgiving all, denying sins)
With each word spoken, the writing faded from the scroll, the soft glow of the magick no more. As the final word was uttered, the parchment became a blank sheet, betraying no secrets to those who would look upon it later. As the final glow faded into nothingness, Cyrxx’s head throbbed. “No,” he thought, a grimace shooting across his face, “the pain…Arrrrgh!!!”
The Wizard fell to his knees in agony, his mouth torn open in a scream, but no words escaping. He looked within himself and the cluster of magick raged, uncontrolled and passionate.
“And, I assure you, I will be there to bask in your magick as it flitters away into nothingness.”
The words cut through him like a knife, and he felt the strands of his magick being severed. “No, my magick is my magick. She can not have it!” He forced himself to stand, despite the pain, and he found himself leaning on the statue. For a moment, the pain eased, enough for Cyrxx to find his peace and relax. Then, without warning, the world erupted in a flash of brilliant white light.
The confrontation had turned into a bloodbath quickly. The bodies of women were strewn about the clearing and, thanks to Cyrxx’s spell pulling the men together, most of their bodies lay clumped in the center of the clearing. A few of the men had managed to separate themselves, notably the ones with halberds, who relentlessly taunted the companions. When Cyrxx slipped off the edge of the ridge, his spell lost its hold and the men broke free. Lan, who had sought out Stoyan, was enjoying toying with the Paladin.
“Rodderick! Destroy the statues! But only the ones we don’t need. We’ve come too far.” Lan’s voice broke over the commotion as one of the smaller men took off to the west, a spiked mace in his hand. “Netyl, Victor, take care of the girls!” Two more men stopped their pursuit of Alaiya and found the girls, trying to break free of their bonds.
Alaiya had a decision to make – stay on the ridge where it was safe, unleashing her magick from a distance, or race down the slope to try to save the girls. “There are three between me and the girls…If I can get to that tree…” Alaiya took off down the hill, readying her spell as she slid. At the base, she took off to the tree, keeping the two men in sight. “Just a little closer…” Right before she reached the tree, Alaiya sent forth an electrical orb, full of lightning magick. It struck the first guy in the small of his back, sending pulses of energy dancing around his body. The convulsions shook his body, causing him to drop the girl he was holding. “That’s one…” Alaiya motioned with her right arm, causing the energy to jump from the first man to the second, but, as she did, her momentum carried her behind the tree, breaking her line of sight. She heard the sound of her magick fizzle as it struck the ground, missing its target. The next sound she heard was a woman’s gargled scream. “No!”
She risked a glance around the tree and saw the first man pull himself back up. He stood and turned, looking for Alaiya and spotted her before she could retreat back behind the tree. “C’mere you little slut!” he yelled, and Alaiya could hear footsteps getting closer.
She broke from the tree back south, across the clearing and away from the two men. Looking behind her, she noticed that the man’s comments were for the woman he dropped, not Alaiya. Her pursuer was the other man, the one with fresh blood on his hands and blade that made Alaiya sick. As she ran, she saw Stoyan and Elias to the west, engaged with three other men and Lan, who looked more and more disinterested in the entire affair.
Lan saw Alaiya scampering away, and saw what had happened to her men. “Victor,” she commanded, and the man pursuing Alaiya stopped, turning back to Lan. “Take care of it.” Her voice was deadly.
Victor nodded and turned back to Netyl and the last of the women captives. Netyl, understanding, grabbed the woman and turned to face Victor. Blood streamed down his face and one arm hung loosely at his side. He reached across the woman’s mid-section and held her up, much like a human shield. His eyes met Victor’s and he nodded.
Victor quickly removed his crossbow and loaded a bolt. Taking careful aim, he let the bolt fly across the clearing toward the struggling woman. Netyl held her fast making the target easy enough to hit. The bolt sunk through the woman’s chest, breaking her diaphragm and puncturing a lung, but it did not stop there. It continued through and caught its second mark, Netyl, in the left breast, delivering a merciful killing blow. The two bodies slumped to the ground as Victor returned to his pursuit of Alaiya.
Elias tossed some smelling salts under Stoyan’s nose, causing the Paladin to bolt upright. He quickly handed him a potion, telling the man to drink quickly. Stoyan groaned as he chugged the revitalizing liquid and forced himself to stand. Behind him, he could hear Alaiya protesting as she climbed up the ridge, but the more imminent threat was before him. Three men surrounded him and Elias, with Lan hanging back looking on with a devilish grin on her face.
“You never know when to give up the fight, do you?” Her tone was the same mocking tone as always.
“Must’ve missed that lesson. Besides, why would I give up when I’ve got you right where I want you?” Stoyan struggled to his feet, assisted by Elias, whose rod was glowing.
Lan chuckled at the persistence. “If you really want to bed me, you have to earn it, boy.”
Something about the way Lan said ‘boy’ caused Stoyan to snap. He spun on the closest man, digging his sword into his arm, properly severing it from his body. The man bellowed in pain as he dropped to his knees, trying to grasp the arm that was no longer there. Stoyan pivoted and brought his blade back through the same trajectory, this time traveling through the man’s neck.
Elias, in his greater wisdom, slid away from the antagonized Stoyan, securing himself safely against the ridge and out of the Paladin’s wrath. Above him, he could hear Alaiya flinging spells at her pursuers, who were struggling to get up the ridge to the south. “Advantages of being a little person – we’re rather nimble.”
As he finished his thought a brilliant white light erupted from the opposite side of the ridge he was huddled against. The light streamed all around him, burst forth from the north and west. He heard Alaiya’s startled scream, which joined Lan’s own curses. Elias shielded his eyes to keep from being blinded, and he was thankful for his close proximity to the ridge. It seemed the others were not so lucky.
Stoyan had been lucky enough to not be caught in the direct blast of light when it erupted. When it had subsided, he found Lan staggering around, cursing and shaking her head, trying to get her senses back. Stoyan seized the opportunity and rushed forth, slamming into the woman, planting a forearm directly in the back of her head. Lan groaned and staggered away some more, her steps wobbly. Stoyan tried to follow up with another blow, but one of Lan’s men intercepted him with a blow to the back of the knee, effectively cutting the Paladin off from his superior. Stoyan sneered as Lan wandered away, disoriented; the imminent threat took priority after all.
Lan’s momentum carried her forward, away from the battle. “Damned hounds! And what in the Nine Hells was that light? I still can’t see!” She slammed into a tree and propped herself up, rubbing her eyes furiously, trying to get blood flow back and restore her sight. The slight sound of a footstep behind her alerted just barely as a garrote wrapped around her neck. With one arm stalling the inevitable suffocation, she managed to push off the tree with her legs and flip free from the garrote. Lan managed to get one leg under her, but failed to land on top of the person who attacked.
The adrenaline rush quickened her recovery and enhanced her senses, as she narrowly dodged another garrote attempt. She spun around feverishly, but all she could see were the shadows of darkness. The sun had dropped below the tree line and darkness was approaching fast. To the south, she could still see three of her men fighting the others. “Twenty men? How could they best twenty men? What kind of ragtag idiots are we recruiting?! And then there is this moron lurking around here. Well, if he wants to play, so be it!” Her eyes darting, Lan slowly shuffled around the tree, and disappeared into the shadows.
Stoyan was not about to let Lan slip through his fingers again, but Alaiya and Elias were hurting, and he had no idea what had happened to Cyrxx. Feeling the tide truly shift, Stoyan caught a second wind. One on one with the lone guard remaining, Stoyan quickly overpowered him and ran to assist Elias and Alaiya. Reaching the top of the ridge, he saw one man was already down, and the second was looking overwhelmed. Believing his assistance unnecessary, Stoyan ran back down to pursue Lan into the northern woods.
“Lan, you coward! Come back here and fight me! Have you no honor of battle?”
That is when he noticed that one of Lan’s men was still alive and roaming between statues, hacking away at some, leaving others alone. Completely forgotten and ignored, he went about his work, undisturbed. As the man approached another statue, Stoyan charged him, slamming his skull into the rock before him, blood splattering everywhere. As the blood trickled down the male statue, Stoyan noticed a peculiar marking on it. He made a mental note to check the other statues before turning back toward the northern forest. As he approached the edge of the clearing, something thudded into the back of his head and his world went dark.
Alaiya breathed a sigh of relief as she looked upon the two men before her. She thanked Elias, whose help had been invaluable. They had been forced to retreat back down the opposite side of the ridge, but the distance they maintained proved essential. She rested against a tree and exhaled, exhausted, but alive. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Stoyan running south, shouting for Lan. She closed her eyes at the futility of the man and put her head back.
The pain of slamming her head into stone startled her. She had been expecting cushy bark or moss, but, resting against a tree, rock was far from her mind of places to put her head. She arched her neck back to look at the stone and noticed that it was indeed a statue. As she began to comprehend what she saw, she scooted back in horror, and her hand found a piece of blank parchment.
The statue was a strikingly similar representation of Cyrxx.
Alaiya stood and inspected the statue, and noticed that every possession of Cyrxx’s had been crafted in perfect detail. She closed her eyes and focused on the surroundings, trying to find traces of magick. She saw the colors, primarily green and yellow, emanating from the statue of Cyrxx, flittering away.
“No,” she thought to herself, as she tried to gather the magick. “What happened?”
She looked at the parchment in her hand and realized it was the scroll that they had found inside the cave. She tried pressing it against the statue, but nothing happened. She desperately tried to reel in the fading magick in the area and direct it into the stone, to no avail. Handing the parchment to Elias, she made writing gestures, as though trying to tell him to recreate the magick that had been in the scroll, but Elias could only look confused.
“Sorry, Alaiya, I deal with potions, not scrolls. Can’t say I’m too familiar with it. Anyway, we should find Stoyan.”
Distraught, Alaiya never even heard him. She bent down and picked up the skull next to the statue. There was no more magick residue from Cyrxx’s spell on the skull, but she did find his crystal orb, the conduit for his magick power. She pulled the orb from Gregor’s mouth and placed it inside her robes. Then, sitting down next to the stone statue of her mentor, she pulled in her knees and retreated to the shadows of her heart.
“Hey, are you alright? Hey, c’mon now, get up.”
A few slaps to the face did nothing, but when the icy water hit his face, Stoyan started to come too.
“Ahh, there you go! Good as new. Nasty hit you took from that lady. Gotcha right on the back of the head – knocked you out cold.”
Stoyan shook off the grogginess as he sat up.
“Took off through the woods, to the north. Lan was her name, right? Nasty woman, her. Here, let me help you up.”
Stoyan struggled to his feet, but the assistance made it possible. “How,” he muttered, trying to piece together his thoughts, “how did she…? I was hit from behind… Wait, who’re you?”
The woman he was propped against gave a boyish grin, her eyes lighting up. “Man, she surprised you good. Jumped right out from behind a tree – you never had a chance. Clubbed you right over the head and then took off into the woods. Pretty low of her, sneaking up on someone like that. Very unfair, very unfair.”
Stoyan raised his hand to the back of his head, and he could already feel the lump. “But, why didn’t she finish me off? Why did she run?”
The woman placed her arm around Stoyan’s hip and turned him away from the forest. “Now, don’t trouble yourself with silly things like that. Bad for your health. Ahh, look here. One of your friends?”
Elias had come running over, a worried expression on his face. “Stoyan! There’s something y–.” Elias stopped when he realized Stoyan was not entirely alone. “You managed to save one! Way to go!” Quickly quelling his excitement, the Gnome gestured back to Alaiya. “She’s not doing too well, Stoyan. There’s something I think you should see.”
With the aid of the woman and Elias, Stoyan made it across the clearing to the other side of the western ridge, where Alaiya had started a fire. She sat, legs curled, beneath the statue of Cyrxx, hidden in his shadow. The night had taken the forest, the light of the moon providing a little relief.
“What’s wrong Elias?” Stoyan was feeling better now that Elias’s salves had been applied.
Elias gestured to the statue behind Alaiya, the stone carving that looked eerily similar to Cyrxx. “This. We haven’t been able to find Cyrxx anywhere. She thinks Cyrxx might have been turned into this stone statue here.”
“Heh, he’s better off that way. Less crazy talking.” Stoyan’s words lacked the sarcasm or humorous undertones that did not go unnoticed. Alaiya jumped to her feet and stormed to the Paladin. Rearing back, she slapped him as hard as she could, the sound echoing throughout the night.
“That was pretty mean of you, Stoyan. Even if it isn’t true.” Elias looked disappointed in the Paladin’s choice to words.
“It’s true, though. He’s annoying and creeps me out. If this is what he did to himself, then we’re better off fo–.” The sound of a palm on cheek tore through the night again as Alaiya laid an even fiercer hit on Stoyan’s face before retreating back to the shadow of the statue.
“Not cool, man, not cool.” Elias held out the blank parchment, offering it to Stoyan. “Alaiya thinks this is the scroll we found. It’s blank now, likely because the magick has been used. She thinks Cyrxx turned himself into a statue somehow and maybe this is the key. Hafta say, I think she’s right.”
Stoyan took the parchment and looked at Alaiya, a look of perpetual loneliness on her face. Her eyes were lost and confused, and only then did he feel the true weight and pain of his words. Sighing and berating himself for his stupidity, he turned to the woman that had helped him.
“Alright, before we go any farther-.”
“Oh, you want to take me somewhere?” The twinkle in her eyes returned, and Stoyan found himself racing for a retort. It did not come.
“Uh, as I was about to say, show us your arms.”
“That’s rather fast of you. Usually, I get a compliment or coin before that.” The woman held out her arms, the sleeves of her shirt tied around her wrists. “If you want it off, that might cost a little more.” She winked, though in the flickering light of the fire, no one saw.
“Just, pull the sleeves up. We need to see your arms. To make sure you aren’t one of them.”
Confused, the woman complied, pulling up each silk sleeve, one at a time. Her forearms revealed, Stoyan gave them a one over, looking for the tattoos of the Dark Light. Seeing no marking on her skin, he dropped back into thought.
“Hey, that’s a nifty looking sword you got there,” admired Elias, who was intrigued by the woman. A purveyor of curiosities, the Gnome could not help but notice that the woman’s clothes were vastly different than anything he had seen. Laced with scarlet and hemmed differently, they carried a airier look than the heavy sturdier clothes of today. Not only that, but she had a slight accent that sounded regal, but without the arrogance. “Mind if I have a look?”
The woman shrugged, and casually handed over the weapon. “It isn’t a sword, more of a rapier. And watch out for the pointy end – I’ve heard it hurts.” She smiled as Elias took it gently in his hands.
The blade was thin, flexible, but sturdy. Unlike a sword, whose blade was thicker at the base than the tip, the rapier had one, symmetrically-equal, long blade. The hilt was vastly different than anything he had seen either. There was a guard over the handle, but it curved to fir the contour of the hand and raised enough to let the hand move freely within. Most guards on swords were awkward and cumbersome, often troubling the sword-handler more than aiding him. Most swordsmen forwent the crafting of a guard into their blades.
However, the craftsmanship of the rapier was not what caught Elias’s attention the most – it was the intricately carved designed along the hilt and guard. There were as finely detailed as Dwarven designed, strong and precise, but there was something about them, a delicateness of how the design flowed and interacted with itself. It was light, strong, but nimble, a work of contrasts that no Dwarf or Gnome would make. It made the rapier seem almost…foreign.
“Superb craftsmanship here,” began Elias, “but I’m a little confused by the design. It looks Dwarvish, but there’s something unique about it.”
“Ahh, yes, there is. Quite a good eye you have there,” began the woman. “It is a blade made by both Dwarf and Elf. Powerfully fluid, I must say. Quite a piece.” The woman seemed to be gloating, despite the astonished looks on the others faces.
“Dwarf and Elf,” began Elias.
“Working together?” finished Stoyan. The woman nodded. “Why would they do that?”
“Yes, why?” followed Elias. “Dwarves would never work with Elves. I mean, the last I heard of it happening was before the Calm.”
“The Calm?” inquired the woman. “What the Calm?”
Everyone exchanged looks, and Elias found himself looking at Alaiya. “Could it be?” he thought.
Stoyan, in his ever delicate charm, protested the woman’s lack of knowledge. “The Calm. You, know, the war that the Blood King waged. Where the Elves wiped out Ilian, Ravenguard, and Torin. The Elves are the reason we’re here right now.”
“Who’s the Blood King? And what do you mean, ‘wiped out’? Why would the Elves do that?”
“Because Brienalas ordered it, I don’t know why!” Stoyan temper was rising. “How do you now know this stuff? What were you doing, living under a rock for the last fifty years? Seriously!”
The look of confusion on the woman’s face prompted Elias into action. “Sorry ma’am, but do you happen to know the date today. We’ve been gone a while, and are on a tight schedule.”
The woman greeted the request with a smile. “Sure, it’s the sixteenth of the eighth month.”
Elias nodded, his suspicions rising. “And the year?”
“Three thirty-one.” The woman appears perplexed by the unusual questions.
Elias nodded again. “Perhaps, for you it is, but I have an idea of what Lan was doing here.” He turned to Stoyan. “These aren’t statues – they’re people. Lan was breaking the spells on them.” Elias turned back to the woman. “Sorry to say this, but it isn’t the year three hundred thirty-one. It’s five hundred twenty-five. I think you were turned to stone nearly two hundred years ago.”
The woman appeared shocked at this news. “You must be kidding. The last thing I was doing was scouting out a Wizard in the Kaliois and then a bright flash of light appeared. Figured he caught me off-guard with a blindness spell. After that, I saw you guys fighting the Wizard’s guards.”
Alaiya had stood by now, gazing at the stone statue of Cyrxx. Whatever her thoughts were, she did not express them.
“Seems possible,” said Stoyan, the whole idea of magick floating over his head. He held up the remnants of the scroll and thrust it in the woman’s face. “Ever seen this before? You know what it does?”
The woman looked at him, amused. “Yes, I have. It’s called parchment and it’s used for writing notes or letters on. Have you ever seen it before?” Her words were playful and enticing.
“Yeah…yeah, of course I have. Who hasn’t seen parchment. Just wanted to know if they had the same stuff back then. Yeah, back then.” Stoyan collected himself and addressed the others, his authority returning to form after the thrill of battle. “We shouldn’t rest here. Lan knows this location and she might be back with reinforcements. We should make camp elsewhere.”
Alaiya did not wish to leave Cyrxx as she pleaded with Stoyan and Elias to bring the statue with them. When they went to pick it up, however, they noticed the rock was directly connected to the ground below. They dug down for a little while, hoping to find the break between earth and stone, but there was none. Finally, their options extinguished, Alaiya tried her best to cover up Cyrxx, to prevent him from being smashed, or even seen. Once finished, the party headed back around the ridge and through the clearing.
“Are these them boss? These the ones Lan said to be careful with? They’re pathetic!”
As the group walked through the clearing, five individuals walked forward from the northern forest. They were cloaked in black armor, those two wore black robes trimmed with gold. Four flanked the fifth, a large man with a massive greatsword and a scar cut diagonally across his face.
“You the upstarts that hurt our Lan? We’re here to make ya pay fer that.”
Stoyan withdrew his sword and moved forward. “You tell that coward of a boss that she needs to learn to finish what she starts. Running away is a child’s tactic.”
The man wielding the greatsword grinned. “’kay, ya wan’tit finish, ya go’na git it finished.”
The two men in front ran forward, wielding axes, the swish of their chainmail reverberating with each step. Suddenly one fell to his side in mid-step, grabbing his side, screaming. Stoyan met the other head on. Parrying the first blow, he saw the woman retreat back into the shadows, the glint of a rapier catching the light of the moon.
Stoyan pushed through the first guy and closed in on the man with the greatsword. “Let’s dance,” he boasted confidently, as he rolled to his right, slicing at the slower man’s legs. “You said you were gonna finish this; let’s see if you’re up to it.” Stoyan slashed out again causing blood to trickle down the man’s leg. As he swung his greatsword, Stoyan moved to block, but the impact sent shivers up his arm and into his head, causing the pain of the old wound to throb.
The man laughed. “Baby can’t even take a hit.” He laughed again as he swung, but Stoyan dodged, striking with his weapon, cutting deeper into the same leg. This only infuriated the man.
The two in black robes began weaving symbols in the air, focusing on Stoyan. Alaiya and Elias managed to delay them slightly by joining the fray with their own spells, but they could not prevent the casting. As the first of the two was about to utter the words though, the spell broke and he grabbed his throat. Suddenly distracted by his companions flailing, the second mage’s spell fizzled into nothingness. Soon, the first mage stopped moving and stood motionless for a few seconds before falling to the ground.
A woman’s voice from the darkness seemed to delight in the kill. “Mages are always so fun when the writhe. So delicate, too.”
The second mage, seeing his ally dead before him, started to retreat to the woods. Already, one of the others had fallen, and his ‘boss’ was under duress. Seeing no way out, he took off for the woods, retreating into the depth of the night.
In a matter of moments, the battle was over, the gasping breathes of the large man with the greatsword wheezing in the night. “Lan…she won’ forgive…you. You are nothing…nothing to her. She will…make you…” Shink. The blade of Stoyan passed through the man’s windpipe and stuck in the ground, blood oozing forth from the wound.
“Enough of that bitch. If she wants us, we’re ready.”