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Mana



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Mon Jan 22, 2018 2:51 am
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TheSilverFox says...



Chapter 3P: Over the Head Comes the Crown


James laughed. It was booming and sharp, cutting through the ears of the others in the cave and competing with the howling of the wind outside. After a few seconds, his face instantly froze into a scowl.

"To do that," he said, emphasizing each word, "You would have to have a plan."

Valon, still in his undergarments, spread his arms out wide. "And you think I don't? Try me." He smiled enigmatically. It was enough to repulse Ziafar, who stepped away from the fire and towards the cold wall of the cave.

Grimacing, James raised a finger. "First, you would need to find an arcanist who can teleport."

Ziafar waved his fingers, showing the lapis nails. "That would be me," he said bitterly. He could almost see the plan forming in Valon's mind. It was - as were all of Valon's plans - beautifully reckless and dangerous. Which meant it had a chance of working.

"And then you would have to find a safe place to teleport to," James continued, frown deepening.

"You've spent a year running away from them," Valon said, "So I'm fairly sure you know where they like to gather."

"And then - gods forbid! - you would have to find Malwanis and kill her without dying yourselves."

Zoey eagerly plunged her knives into the deer's flesh and began to skin it. "We're very good at killing things," she said happily.

"And then, only then, can you hope to make me King, which is not a position I wanted in the first place."

Rolling his eyes, Ziafar stepped forward. "You happen to be big and absurdly strong, if those claymores are any indicator. But I suppose we can find another suited to the task of making the Malwans cower." He shot a quick glance to Valon to make sure that they had thought the same thing - Valon nodded in satisfaction, so Ziafar kept his eyes focused into James's fierce gaze.

James's hands inched ever so slightly to his claymores. "You cannot possibly think that this plan-"

"It can, and it will," Ziafar retorted. "Do you have anything better to do on this hideous rock?"

Now James sounded more hesitant; he pulled his hands away from his weapons. "...No," he said at last, after a deep breath. He sighed. "I hate this place, and I hate why I landed on it. You are right - I know the Malwans well. I will help you dethrone their queen."

"Good," Ziafar began to say, but was interrupted by an enormous hand.

"So long as you don't kill any innocents," James said slowly, his stare somehow growing more piercing than it already had been. The effect was enough to make Ziafar's skin crawl, as though the bloody little secrets in Ziafar's mind were being drawn out. "I don't pretend to know what you ended up here for, but I can make a reasonable guess that it happens to be worse than manslaughter."

The attack in the house flashed through Ziafar's thoughts, centered around the rage that had lifted him off the floor in sheer power. He said nothing, did nothing, only donning an offended expression and stepping away. His eyes focused on the wall beside James.

Valon clapped his hands and rose. "Let's do this!" he said in a confident voice that managed to be a tad icy, extending a hand to James (who did not take it, but scowled and turned away). "We'll carve up, roast, and eat that deer of mine, and then we'll play kingmaker. Doesn't that sound like fun?"

Image


In the midst of the blizzard, they could not easily tell if it was night or day. Ziafar wondered, as they stood atop a ridge opposite the damaged mansion/fortress, if this island was always like that.

It had taken them some hours to get to this point. The deer meat had proved gamey, but otherwise delicious. Ziafar wished that Valon hadn't used some of his fire magic in cooking it, though Ziafar knew that it would've taken even longer otherwise. After that, it had been a matter of waiting for Valon's clothes to dry (to Zoey's immense interest), Valon to get redressed, and James to lead them into the blinding snow. The others had followed his massive shadow into the ice, rock, and snow; the man himself had likely relied on his own awareness of the brutal landscape, as well as the feet that had let him plow through the snow and pave the way. It appeared that James knew this place like the back of his hand. Spending a year in hell did that to a man, Ziafar reasoned.

Ziafar's face had long ago frozen in the withering assault of the weather. He felt numb now, which was an improvement over the previous constant sensation of pain. The dead trees behind him (James had said, above the wind, that the Malwans had torn up much of the landscape to refurbish their home, and controlled all of the fertile soil), pulled down by the piles of snow, creaked weakly in the wind. The limbs, already damned, sometimes snapped. It never caught anyone off guard, as they were too focused on what they could see from their perch.

"There," James finally shouted, pointing a huge finger towards the fortress. Ziafar looked past the lights of dozens of sentries, over the stone and wood forts that surrounded the mansion, beyond the winding path stretching through the thick iron gates, and focused on a light emanating on the side of the mansion's hill. It appeared to be shining through a small grate. "That must be a cellar of some kind. They would never expect an attack from below - the earth here is too hard to mine easily. It will likely not be guarded well."

"In that case," Ziafar shouted, "Hold on!" He held out his hands. After a few seconds, he could feel a massive, calloused hand clamp onto one arm. The soft hand of Valon found Ziafar's other arm. Peering to his right, Ziafar could see Zoey hold onto Valon, and Astrid onto Zoey.

Frowning, Ziafar concentrated. He tried to block the sound of the wind, the ice growing on his eyelashes, the anxiety that burrowed deep within his stomach (the fear that he would, for instance, teleport everyone into the wall). Each slowly withered away as his hard gaze shot through the miniature grate, envisioning the wooden cellar beyond. Piece by piece, he could see the wooden beams, the creates, the wine barrels, and a scattered group of armed guards. No shields, only rusted swords. Ziafar smiled and closed his eyes.

When he opened them again, he could feel a wave of warmth flooding over him. The place, regardless of the torches scattered and fenced in on the walls, nor the lanterns the guards carried in their spare hands, was cold, but it was a sauna compared to the outside. Feeling trickled its way into Ziafar's face again, reminding him of his past condition via pinpricks of pain.

At once, the others let go. Two of the guards attempted to dash up the wooden stairs, but Zoey picked them off with the flick of her knives. She immediately ran to their bodies, pulling out an oversized keychain from one's belt. James cleaved through the soldier who raised his spear and tried to attack, while Valon handily shot flames into the face of his opponent before stabbing them through the chest with a sword.

The last one threw his spear to the ground and knelt before Ziafar. This soldier looked to only be a teenager - short, fair complexion, black hair, pleading eyes. He did not speak a word - was he mute? - but chose to look up desperately to a pleased Ziafar.

James whirled around and hauled the teenager up. While Ziafar nodded to Valon and Zoey, who quietly walked up the stairs, James held out the teenager's hands, one at a time. No skull on either. "He must be a recruit," James concluded, shoving the teen back down to the ground. "Not yet branded."

"Interesting," said Ziafar in bemusement. There was the sound of a lock being tested a few times, and then a door being gently pushed open from the direction of the stairs. Astrid stood by each of the bodies, bending over and inspecting them. She looked a little pained. "That might make him useful."

"No," boomed James, still holding a claymore. He moved it closer to Ziafar. "We will not make this child some kind of a king."

Ziafar put a finger to lips and pointed up. The sounds of foosteps echoed dimly through the wood above. "He has to have been put here for some reason," Ziafar hissed.

James shook his head. "Some of the prisoners have had children. They don't live long, but-"

The creak of wood. Ziafar turned his head to see Valon and Zoey carefully stepping down the stairs, keychain still in Zoey's hand. They looked pale, though Valon's face was scrunched in concentration. Another plan, no doubt. Sighing, Ziafar pulled his head back and pointed to James. "If we are going to replace Malwanis and build what little trust exists among these criminals, the last person we need is anyone with a skull on their arm. We can find him a bodyguard, perhaps." James scowled, showing teeth. "Do you honestly see another solution here?"

The teenager looked between the both of them, panic etched into his face. James saw the expression. For the briefest second, Ziafar could see James's visage change into something resembling familiarity, before it snapped back into fury. James glared at Ziafar's finger, as though hoping it would fall off.

Valon came up to the three of them. "We may need to move soon," he whispered into Ziafar's ear. "I think they work in shifts, including here. I can hardly hear anyone now."

It was either loud enough for James to hear, or Valon was a bad whisperer. "They switch the guards every hour," James said quietly, sternly. "I hear them from my cave on quiet nights. The inside guards go out, and vice versa. Keeps them limber, I suppose."

Pinching his nose and closing his eyes, Ziafar tapped his foot on the floor. "Then we must go. We cannot risk this boy" - he sneered at the teenager's piteous expression, it was so repulsive to him - "Being caught and exposing us, so we must take him with us. We will decide what role he will hold here afterwards. If he cannot keep pace, carry him." Ziafar gestured to James at the end.

"Fine," said James, pulling the teenager up gently.

The rest of the group crowded the staircase, silently pulling themselves up by clinging onto the rail. Ziafar went last. As Zoey again opened the door and the others filed out, Ziafar looked down to see James and the teenager not far from their earlier position.

The teenager kept his distance from James, looking up at James nervously. James pulled something from his pocket; it was obscured in the darkness. Ziafar snapped his fingers. With a quiet sigh, James placed what he was holding back and began to head up the stairs, the teenager walking behind.

Satisfied, Ziafar stepped out into the mansion's hall.
S'io credesse che mia risposta fosse
a persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma per ciò che giammai di questo fondo
non tornò vivo alcun, s'i' odo il vero,
senza tema d'infamia ti rispondo.

Inferno, Canto 27, l 61-66.





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Sun Feb 18, 2018 3:46 pm
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Sheyren says...



Chapter 3Q: Familial Strife


Zoey had just been walking up the stairwell of the Skullfist’s fort, prepared to fight Malwanis herself in the next room. But as she continued, the setting around her dimmed, and she found herself standing within a prison cell, barred off and chained to the ground. Two women stood outside the cell, but through the dim lighting, Zoey couldn’t make out individual features. No matter, for she already knew her they were.

“Really bad timing,” Zoey said to them, not feeling at all threatened by her situation of imprisonment. “Couldn’t you have waited until after we killed Malwanis? Interrupting the climax was totally uncalled for.”

“You should be thankful we left you alone for so long,” the figure on the left said.

Zoey groaned, tugging hopelessly at the chains which connected her wrists to the metal hooks drilled into concrete floor.“Aerin, you think three years is a long time? I expected a much longer period of time which I didn’t have to deal with you.”

“It could have been, if you hadn’t broken the rules of the contracts.” The woman standing on the right spoke for the first time. Her voice was soft, much less commanding than her company. However, if she had been speaking to anyone but Zoey, her voice would still leave an impact. “We specifically told you that if you ever accumulated another curse for any reason other than sparing your own life, there would be payment due. And what did you do?”

“I got another curse to help Valon and Astrid. Yeah yeah, just shave some years off my life like you’ve done when I’ve broken other rules.”

“Calen and I considered it,” said Aerin this time. “But we decided we’ve been too merciful with you. So, instead--” she snapped her fingers “--we’ll do this.”

There was a sudden agonizing pain burrowing its way through Zoey’s chest up to her neck. She fell to the ground, writhing in pain and desperately clawing at her tunic. Slowly she was able to undo the buttons and pull the vest off. Looking down a her bare chest, she saw the crescent moon tattoo which had been on her since birth now surrounded by elaborate design. The design was growing towards her neck, and as it did, it left a searing pain behind.

"This should teach you to heed our admonishments. And if it doesn't, expect that the next wave of punishment will be much more painful. Calen here still has her shot at punishing you, and there's a third one around here, after your little act of heroism. So, I suggest you don't toy with curses any further," Aerin said threateningly.

"Zoey? Come on, we need to get going," Ziafar called over his shoulder, and Zoey was back in the stairwell. Ahead of them was the doorway to Malwanis's room. Valon, Astrid, James, and the boy were already heading through, but Ziafar had hung back to wait for Zoey so he could take up the rear.

"Right, yes," Zoey replied, shaking her head and following. As she continued up the last few steps, she pulled her tunic down just a bit to see if there was a silver tattoo residing all the way from her breast to her neck. Sure enough, there was. Thankfully, it did not hurt at this point, and so she would have to ignore it until after Malwanis was finished with.

Stepping through the room, each member of her party noted that the room was considerably empty, save for a vacant chair in the direct center. It was not decorated, so Zoey wouldn't have referred to it as a throne by any means. Valon stepped forward, approaching it slowly, and Astrid reached out to grab his shoulder. "I wouldn't. This seems like an ambush."

"We need to lure her out eventual-" the door behind them slammed itself shut. Valon spun around, but the rest of the group knew exactly what was happening from their location in the room. A shadow was now looming behind Valon, and he noticed just in time to roll clear of a heavy mace pounding the hardwood floor, sending a spray of splinters up into the air. Valon leapt backwards, taking position wih the rest of the party. As he did so, the shadow revealed itself.

Malwanis was a tall woman, with well-tanned skin. She donned animal fur as her only clothing--which Zoey found to be cliche, not that she would say it to this woman's face--and had repurposed human skulls as shoulderplates. Around her neck was a necklace bearing the teeth and claws of hostile animals, such as bears and wolves. And on her shoulder, she balanced a massive mace, wooden handle and spikes piercing skull on the end.

"Did you come here to join the ranks of the Skullfists?"

"Well, not exactly," Zoey retorted, but Ziafar elbowed her into silence.

Malwanis laughed a paralyzing laugh, loud enough to stun a kingdom. "Surely you're aware that you've doomed yourself by entering the Skullfist Manor like this!"

James stepped forward, displaying a boldness yet to be seen from him. "You've failed to kill me yet, so I would like to see you try it now."

Malwanis growled at the taunt. "You insolent coward! Weakling and disgrace!" She charged forward and brought her mace down atop his head. He stood in place, smiling without fear as she closed the gap between her mace and his head. At the last second, Zoey leapt above his head, silver dust flying behind her, blocking the mace by crossing two knives in an X shape just under the handle. James slid forward, drawing his blades and slashing at Malwanis' stomach. She lurched backward to avoid it, placing herself right in range of Valon and his deadly rapier.

Astrid cast a flash of light in Valon's eyes as licks of flame began to rush down his blade, shouting: "No fire, Valon! The manor must not fall!" The light faded from his eyes as he nodded in response, and went at Malwanis' back with a traditional Zwerchhau assault.

She unfurled a disorienting roar as her Mace swung, with her body, around at Valon, this time making direct contact and hurling him through the air--breaking down her simple throne and forcing his body to splinter the opposing wall. The broken swordsman let out a weak squeak as he tried to move, but failed.

As Astrid fled to his side, Ziafar rejoined with Zoey and James, leaving his protective position in front of the unnamed boy. Malwanis slowly dragged herself towards Valon and Astrid, and Zoey, seeing this, leapt forward, holding out her daggers. Almost effortlessly, Malwanis swatted her aside, raising her mace above her head to bring it down on Valon's limp body. James ran towards her, and Ziafar hastily scratched at his lapis naills, trying to teleport towards the assailant. But, they couldn't close the gap fast enough, and Malwanis swung...

...or she was about to, but was interrupted by an arrow piercing her throat. She stopped moving, turning slowly towards the direction the arrow came from. For the first time, Malwanis noticed the boy on the far side of the room, holding a silverwood bow pointed at her. Zoey saw him lower the bow, a bow which she hadn't even noticed he was in posession of. Had she and her party completely overlooked this boy's weaponry, and simply let him into the party without assessing his threat?

Malwanis was on the floor now, a pool of blood building up beneath her. Her sides heaved up and down, trying to grasp for air that would quickly escape through the wound in her throat. Eyes serious, the boy crossed the room to her and ripped the arrow out of her throat. She wasn't even able to scream in pain. He crouched down before her, positioning his eyes to line up with hers. They glowed for a fraction of a second, enough for Malwanis to recognize him. She gasped for air in her lungs and spoke with a rattled and broken voice--so unlike the orcish roar of her earlier words.

"Holocene! I - I killed you!" Holocene did not reply. "The prophecy t - told us you would be the one to kill me." A heave of air and blood. "He told me the only way to escape your threat was to kill you, my only son." Her eyes softened. "Please, don't kill your one and only mother. I have a potion of inevitable healing in my back pocket. Fetch it for me."

Holocene reached back and grabbed the milk-white potion. He opened the bottle, and without hesitation poured its contents onto the ground. Her face convulged into an angry cry, but she made no noise. Holocene stood up and opened the door to the room, revealing a hoard of Malwanis' henchmen gathered in the stairwell. Without a word, he pulled out an arrow and walked back to his defeated foe. Ensuring all of his spectators could see him as he did it, he plunged the arrow into her skull. Her eyes rolled back into her head, and her body was wracked by a spasm before falling limp.

Everyone was silent. Zoey and her party were stunned by this complete 180 in character. The Skullfists had just watched their dictator be killed by a teenage boy, who was now attempting to reassemble Malwanis' throne. It held together long enough for Holocene to stand it upright and seat himself in it. He raised his arms, and the spectators in the stairwell unexpectedly cheered.

Holocene gestured for several of his new army to assist Astrid in carrying Valon, who was now conscious, but too weak to move on his own. James helped Zoey stand up as she recovered from her unexpected hit by Malwanis, and they watched as three Skullfists rushed forward to lift Valon into the air. Holocene nodded at the group. Was that gratitude? If it was, it was well-hidden by his authoritative demeanor. They descended the stairwell, and the three henchmen escorted them to the entrance of the manor. They gently layed Valon on the ground and stepped back, hurrying away.

Zoey inspected Valon's wounds carefully. "So, like. You're not about to die on us, right?"

Ziafar butted in. "Because you look like you are."

"I honestly would prefer not to have a ghost in my cave," James added.

Astrid looked at James. "You already have six," she pointed out, to which James looked alarmed.

"Ahem, CAN WE FOCUS ON VALON?" Zoey interrupted, drawing their attention to Valon. He appeared to have passed out from the pain and exhaustion.

"Whoops." Ziafar said plainly. "We should get him back to the cave, then?" Zoey stared at him. "Okay, fine." He tapped his finger, and together the group was teleported back to James' home.
"Also #2:
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"I give you permission to use 'Sheyster. Sheyfia. Shey Boss. Don Shey.' as a signature quote. XD
- BrumalHunter"

THIS NEEDS TO CHANGE."
- AstralHunter





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Fri Feb 23, 2018 6:47 am
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soundofmind says...



Chapter 3R: In Which Plans are Made and Discovered


"WHAT IN THE EIGHTEEN HELLS, ASTRID YOU'RE SUPPOSED TO PROTECT MY SOFT PARTS!" Valon yelled as they appeared in the cave that was James's home.

Astrid hurried over to the injured Valon, shooing Zoey from his side so she could get a better look at him and start treating him. She let out a short sigh, giving Valon a look of both guilt and annoyance. Only Valon knew how to draw both emotions from her simultaneously.

"Are you done yelling?" She asked as she began to assess his injuries and gathered various herbs on her person.

"No!" Valon shot back, though a few notches quieter than before. Once she'd finished milling them with a gentle spell, she, well, essentially smacked the healing mash on his ribs and chest. He sent a heated glare towards James. "Did you know that boy was Malwanis' son? Why in the name of the Pontifex's ass cheeks didn't you tell us?"

"I helped him escape some of the Skullfists months ago, but I didn't know who he was. We didn't actually exchange any words - at least, on his end. I assumed him to be mute," James explained as he looked over to the opening of the cave. "I didn't know he had any relation to Malwanis. I was just as surprised as you were."

Valon, aggressive source of all tension (at least in James' eyes) leaned back into Zoey's lap as Astrid continued her work, producing a needle and twine from her bag. At this he said nothing, and that was potentially with his life in someone's hands.

"Ignore him and chalk it up to trust issues, my good man." Ziafar sat beside James and handed him a stone cup full of tea, lending him a few words. "Whether or not you knew the identity of Holocene, the outcome of today's battle would not have been the same without you. And I find it worth noting that, were it not for your hospitality to our injured and destitute party, we would all but certainly be corpses beneath the snow by now."

James stared into the cup of tea until Ziafar was done, and looked to Ziafar with a blank expression. "... maybe so."

"I noticed you don't have honey or sugar, so here--" Ziafar whispered a short incantation under his breath, causing the bitter tea in James' cup to boil. "Transmutation, yes? Taking the components of dissimilar matters and forging a new sequence of bonds." Ziafar sipped his tea properly, as if an aristocrat. "While it works just as well for sweetening tea, I prefer to think of it in terms of people. People like us."

"I'm not sure I understand what you're implying," James replied, narrowing his eyes at the fellow.

Ziafar slowly shook his head, smiling. "I suppose I'm asking you to come with us when we attempt to leave the island, James. You make us greater than the sum of our parts."

James's chin raised a bit in understanding as he looked down at Ziafar, and then over to Astrid and Zoey who were tending to Valon. He stood in contemplative silence for a moment, sipping his tea before answering. "I'm not opposed to it."

"So that just leaves getting off the island, right?" James turned his eyes back to Zoey, who had one hand petting the fire mage's too-long hair, the other raised like a schoolgirl in class. "I can help with that!"

"Oh, really?" James asked, his tone laced with sarcasm as his eyebrows raised in disbelief. "How so?"

Zoey tilted her head to the side. "I'm familiar with some of the land on this island. A Kelpin lives in the waters near the gulf, and I know how to tame it. Iiiiiiiiif we can draw it to the coast we could ride it out of here.♫"

James had to hide his annoyance as his memories reflected to the early morning, when he'd tried just that, and only ended up becoming the human equivalent of a rock skipping across the water (and back to shore). "Tame it?"

Zoey nodded with enthusiasm. "Fae magic does wonders for charming the Kelpin."

James took another sip of his tea. Magic. Of course. The one thing he had determined to never learn would be the missing piece in what he needed to get off this forsaken island. Though it was a thorn in his side, even he had to appreciate the irony.

"Fascinating," he replied, deliberately, with a level tone.

Image


"Can you guys see anything?" Caerus called out, holding onto the saddle on her gryphon with a death grip. Snow blew into their faces and about them, causing their bodies to shiver and ache after prolonged exposure to the wind and cold. That however, did not compare to how their gryphons were faring as they struggled to fight against the turbulent winds.

Caerus's question had almost all been lost to the howling of the wind.

"Did you say something?" Larrel yelled through the snow, leading her gryphon closer to Caerus in hopes of hearing her better.

"I said we need to land soon!" Caerus called back, though, not repeating what she'd said before.

"Oh," Larrel yelled again. "No shit!"

Melody came up beside them. "We really shouldn't be flying in this snowstorm," she said to them, but her words were too soft, and were carried away from her.

"I can't see a thing!" Larrel shouted, this time to no one in particular.

"Wait!" Caerus said, pointing up ahead. "I see a place to land!"

Larrel tilted her head closer. "What?"

"A PLACE TO LAND!" Caerus said again, as loud as she could manage. Larrel's eye followed Caerus's finger, and she understood what she meant. She lead the gryphon ahead of the others, eyes focused on the landing zone down below. They swerved about on their way down, but once close enough to the ground to avoid the powerful air currents, they made their way gracefully into the snow at the edge of an open field. Once they'd all been safely grounded, Larrel hurried them into the cover of the nearby brush, once they caught sight of a military encampment nearby.

In silence, the three crept up towards the edges of the camp, coming up behind a large canvas tent that occupied a corner of it. It didn't take much sleuthing for them to deduce that it was an Espergali encampment.

One by one, their heads popped out from behind the tent, near the ground.

Larrel led the way on light feet, as they slinked along the wall of the tent towards the entrance, keeping their eyes open for people. A glimpse of the Espergale crest on a moving target caused them all to take cover. The soldier took a minute to get out of range...

Larrel motioned with two fingers for Melody and Caerus to follow. With practiced precision and stealth they peeked into the tent, saw the coast was clear, and slipped inside, weapons still drawn and ready as a natural precaution. With Melody stationed at the door, watching their entrance, Caerus and Larrel began to search the tent, once they found it devoid of any people.

"What are we looking for, exactly?" Caerus asked in hushed tones, as she began pulling some papers off a shelf and curiously skimming through them.

"Not sure..." Larrel hummed, as she made a bee-line for what was clearly a table devoted to strategizing, with a few maps laid out with directive markings made to indicate the plans of the Espergali forces. "But... this looks interesting."

Her fingers trailed along the map, following the general motion of the markings. What she was seeing looked unsettling, but began to confirm some theories she'd already been sitting on.

"Look," she said, pointing at the Druid Wilds, and the various pins in the map, indicating the encroaching of Espergali into the land.

Caerus sidled up beside her friend, following Larrel's gaze. The two frowned at the map.

"What is it?" Melody asked curiously from her post.

Larrel whispered. "They're planning to send troops into the Druid Wilds."
I am a super duper pooper! : )





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Fri Mar 02, 2018 7:37 pm
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Rydia says...



Chapter 3S: The Sanity We Left Behind


A potion of ultimate healing would have been very useful but Astrid supposed they had to be grateful that the boy had at least chosen not to give it to his mother, even if he could just have handed it over to Valon the party for their assistance.

"When will he be well enough to move?" James asked with a suspicious glance at Valon that could have meant anything. In truth, Valon tended to provoke that kind of reaction in people.

The subject himself was sleeping and the tiny fae was curled up at his side, mostly sleeping, but almost certainly alert to any danger. Ziafar was snoring like a wildebeast and Tynan was- well not here, but it didn't stop her tired eyes from seeking him.

"For anyone else it would be a couple of weeks of bed rest but Valon left his sense of self preservation in the womb so we'll be off this island by noon tomorrow."

James raised an eyebrow but he was already learning it was better not to ask questions.

"You said there were ghosts in my cave and you brought him back from the dead, or near enough. You people have dangerous magic."

"And you don't have any," Astrid replied. "That's why we need each other. We can help you get off this island and you can help us remember that there are other ways to fight."

"What's that supposed to mean?" James frowned at her and wondered how much of his diary she had read before giving it back but if Astrid sensed his concern, she gave nothing away.

"We've become too reliant on our abilities." Astrid stared into the near distance, not seeing James or the cave or anything except the dark pools which rippled in her mind. "A time is coming when that won't be enough. When that will be turned against us. If we don't learn how to fly in the water, or how to swim in the fire then we might not survive."

"Look, whatever freaky business you people have going on, my part in it ends when we're off this island. We'll help each other that far but it sounds like you lead dangerous lives."

Astrid smiled a slightly sad smile. "You've already decided to come. There's no point in telling yourself that you haven't; Valon has that effect on people too."

But unknown to her, at that moment it was an entirely different member of the group who was having an effect on James that would last a lifetime.

____________________

"That's just going to make him angry, I thought you knew how to do this," Ziafar grouched as Zoey threw another rock into the ocean.

"We've got to get his attention first," she replied with a roll of her eyes. And then, there was a hiss and a mound of kelp rose up on the next wave, its jaws widening to make its displeasure known.

"Oh hi, Mr. Kelp-face," Zoey called as she darted into the shallows to meet it. Valon gave a half cry and made a pitiful attempt to catch her but barely on his feet as he was, he only succeeded in tripping himself up.

"We need a lift off this island if that's okay with you?" Zoey's voice was soft and musical and it didn't seem to matter that her choice of words weren't particularly charming because whatever fae magic was oozing off of her was definitely doing the trick. The kelpin closed its mouth and made a low rumbling noise that almost sounded like a cat's purr.

"This is such a bad idea," Valon mumbled from his position face down in the sand. Astrid reached down and pulled him to his feet.

"Come on," she said. "Fae magic isn't inexorable so I'll be stocking Zoey up with mine but that won't leave me a lot for you." She looked pointedly at Valon and it was the kind of look a mother gives their child when they're wondering if they'll ever be able to look after themself. "Ziafar, I'm putting you in charge of keeping him holding on."

"Since when do you get to put anyone in charge of anything?" Ziafar grumbled but he followed her on to the beasts back and didn't make any further complaint when Astrid pushed Valon up in front of him.

"Are you coming or not?" Zoey called to their newest recruit as she lithely flipped herself up onto what had to be the kelpin's head and took ahold of a big mass of kelpy hair.

"I'll take the back. I think with Gregor's parting gifts, I won't need to be touching you to channel my mana across. I'm pretty sure I can-"

Zoey's eyes flickered wide for half a second and Astrid smiled and nodded in response then climbed up at the back of the kelpin.

James still seemed hesitant but he wasn't going to be left behind.
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Lumi says...



Chapter 3T: At The Bottom of it All


It wasn't until salty ocean spray lunged into Valon's sinuses that he awoke with a start. Eyes open, the sky was bobbing to and fro above him, and Ziafar sat cross-legged at Valon's side, reading cants from a weathered book he must have salvaged from the ship. "Zee, where are we? Why is it so salty here?"

"We are riding a notorious Danu beast known as a Kelpin, Valon, and the moment we embarked, you fell under a deep slumber after taking a single breath of one of Astrid's opiates."

He laid his head back down. "She does make wonderful opiates."

Valon heard Astrid chuckle from upwards on the Kelpin's body. "How else do you think I made a living after the drought? Unlike some druids, I heal folks day and night."

He thought on this until it made sense, as well as nearly-jealous. Zoey had come into his life seeking adventure at an unexpected time. He and Astrid had just gotten on ill terms, and with her shown interest in his brother, he'd wanted nothing more than to make her jealous in the ultimate right. So Zoey, in her youthful glow of less than a century of age, turned--overnight--into his trophy wife in all but name.

And much to Valon's dismay in those days, all it did was drive a deep and bloody wedge between Astrid and himself...and, in turn, Tynan. His brother grew so close to Astrid once Zoey became his life. He would rebuke his entire duty if called upon by the druid, and Valon, from a distance, wondered if he had the same capability to love and devote as they did.

At least Ziafar had never taken a step away.

It made Valon wonder why.

Image


"Ziafar," Valon groaned, sitting with his arms braced behind him, "did we bring all of our baggage?"

"What's left of it is on James' back in a giant sack. Lord Holocene was gracious enough to supply us with dried meats and fresh water for our journey to the mainland as well." He smiled and brought Valon back to his back with an easy nudge of arcane force. "But James doesn't have broken ribs, and Lord Holocene doesn't have liver damage. So I suggest you rest and allow Astrid to apply a fresh layer of Praetorian Alchemic."

Valon gave up and began unfastening the buttons on his shirt, peering down at the wound at its worst. There were contusions spread across a full half of his torso, and holes in his skin where the mace's spikes had pierced him too deeply. The entire sight was slathered in a thin brown compost that smelled of burning leaves. "For shite's sake, I've been bloody crucified."

Astrid slid down the Kelpin's back with her bag in-tow. "Don't be such a kitten about your pain, Valon. James was hunted by those numbskulls for years and you don't hear him whining about pain."

James grunted. "This is a fact, fire mage. Learn to embrace your suffering, or it will follow you and all those you draw near." Thoughts of Astrid's empassioned speech lingered in James' mind, and he closed his eyes to think steadily on her words of balance.

She peeled off the first layer of Alchemic, taking with it a layer of dead and contused skin. The fresh layer beneath looked marginally better--the wounds had begun closing , and the color of the tissue was lighter, closer to Valon's natural skin color of waxed maple lumber.

It was as Astrid applied the new alchemic that he recognized a lack of weight at his waist. "M-my rapier...! Where is it?"

Ziafar turned his head to James, who shook his head in response. The arcanist then closed his eyes and focused on the area, but with no results. "I am afraid it is lost to us, Valon."

His eyes were wide as he watched the sky bob against him. "My grandfather's heirloom...where?" And he remembered the crushing blow from Malwanis through his clouded mind.

It had broken not only his body, but the elven blade was shattered against her strength in a parry attempt.

The sea spray grew weaker against his skin, and once the burning of the Alchemic diminished, he closed his shirt and stood, spying an encampment on the shore. Face stern, resolved, lacking the horse shite of a grin he carried all his life, he reached a hand behind him towards James. "My armored coat, please." Once in his full Fire Knight garb, he crossed his arms, eyes glossing over a deep scarlet. "Twenty-nine heat signatures matching that of Zoey's. Thirty-three counting a cookfire, tea kettle, and two prisoners of a race I do not recognize."

Zoey reared the Kelpin to land away from the encampment. "Those will likely be Danu, the race of The Morrigan. They are corrupted fae spirits who embody the animas of plants and animals." She shook her head. "And if they're being held prisoner here, it means we're facing another campaign of the War of Sidhe."

Astrid grimaced. "Could this be the work of a Summoner?"

Ziafar growled under his breath. "We should be able to say with certainty that the Summoner's Ring have not made it to Praetoria...correct?"

Valon's eyes slowly closed as the Kelpin docked on the beach. "There is one who could have made it here. One we did not see the death of at our own hands..."

James stood and grew close to Valon, posture threatening and eyes in a glower. "What hell have you brought to this land?"

Looking at the scorched trees, the lifeless, blasted lands that she could feel previous life calling from, Astrid realized the horrible truth of James' accusations.

"It's him," she whispered. "Guelan survived..."

Image


Larrel, Melody, and Caerus were caught..

Were being the operative word. After their capture at the hands of Espergali Rogues, they'd taken out all troops in the encampment, tied their hands, and marched them to the Druid Wilds for the Archdruid to mete justice with the evidence of the marching order.

And as they'd left to prevent the sight of 139 elves being executed, Melody caught sight of something stunning.

"It's an angel," she said, and the others followed her eyeline to gaze upon the beauty of it all.

Larrel, while still a tad awestruck, shook her head firmly. "No, girls. This is no angel. We have seen the birth of an eidolon." She whistled for her gryphon, ran for the landing zone, and took flight with her girls, on the tail of Seraphim.


End Chapter III
I am a forest fire and an ocean, and I will burn you just as much
as I will drown everything you have inside.
-Shinji Moon


I am the property of Rydia, please return me to her ship.





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soundofmind says...



Chapter 4A: The Thorn in His Side


"There are too many of them!" Zoey called out from ahead of them, slicing a leafy arm clean off a Danu swinging at her. The tiny creature rattled as it wrapped a vine around its pumpkin head and screeched pumpkin juice and seeds into Zoey's face. "Fall back!"

A nearby swordsman with newly sheared blackish red hair gave a snarky Hmph as he cut down three of his own veggie beasts. Taking a resting pose, Valon looked over his shoulder to his fiance. "You don't need to tell me twice." To the other side, he tossed a fireball into a pit of writhing Danu and hollered: "James! We're falling back!"

James, after dicing two of the creatures into little pieces, nodded. "Sounds good to me!" He replied as he flicked pumpkin seeds off the tip of his sword in annoyance. He was really starting to get sick of the smell animate plantlife. Smelling like the forest was one thing, but getting splattered in Danu guts just left his nose filled with the smell of rotten fruit.

As the troops progressively backed up in their efforts to escape the thick of it, it appeared that there were only more Danu manifesting to fill the empty spaces they left. In only a few minutes, they were crowded in again, each taking out Danu one by one, but not fast enough. At this rate, they were going to have to make a run for it.

"James!" called Zoey from her landing perch in a tree, "Do you recall the earthy-spell crap Ziafar tried to teach you?!"

James swung a claymore into a Squashling's skull, then the other into the spine of a zucchini. "YEAH," he called back, "SORT OF," he huffed, "I MEAN," huff huff, "WHAT?"

The faerie sprang through the air, tumbling in close quarters with an asparagus the size of a man's leg. "Do it! Upturn the earth as big as you can!"

James, slicing a child-sized tomato in half, took in a deep breath. Upturn the earth. He could remember a simple spell, right? He'd practiced it enough, right? Or so he tried to reassure himself. After chopping up a few more vegetables at his feet to clear the area, he lifted up both claymores, chanting the incantation from memory, and slammed both swords into the ground with a powerful blow. As steel met dirt, he hoped to the Holy Ones it would work.

There was a half-second of delay, but the ground beneath and ahead of him began to shake powerfully - cracking and falling - altogether rolling their garden themed enemies across the field into discombobulated bundles.

Unfortunately, however, the spell did nothing for the Danu lurking behind him.

As he drew his swords up out of the ground a long, thorny vine gripped his arm, then another his waist, pulling him off balance. Struggling to regain it, he leaned forward, fighting against the pull, as another stabbing vine tugged at his leg. Cursing, he looked behind to see the vines pulling him towards an oversized, toothy, venus-fly-trap-looking mouth.

Now was a good time to panic.

With his one free hand, he tried to slice away at the vines, but it was fruitless--they were out of his reach.

Zoey landed from her canopy-line clash with the Danu and bundled her hair as she stepped near Valon, who had his eyes closed. "You have that doomsday look on your face, hotshot. What's wrong?"

Valon crossed his arms, and then she saw that his heat senses were active. "James..."

"Yesssss?"

"Wait a moment."

The Venus Danu broadened its mouth as it turned James over, holding him aloft by the throat. He struggled to call for help; he tugged at the vines, ripping his leathery skin from the razor-thorns.

"Valon, I don't like this game. Where is James?"

"Seventeen good strides to our northeast."

He began to accept it. This Danu had the best of him, and would be his end. He could even smell the aloe on the beast's breath as it lifted him higher, and, with a sly grin, harpooned six thorn spikes, dripping with venom, from its teeth into James' abs. He spat out blood; his sight grew blurry.

And then there was fire and ice all about him, the hiss of the Venus Danu, the hands of his field officer.

He took a breath that rippled pain through his entire body, concentrating in his lungs. "You are both...so damn...slow..."

Zoey, plucking thorns from James' abdomen, bit her lip and sighed. "Rest in peace, flawless abs. Astrid and I will remember you fondly."

James, wanting to counter her reply, only ended up groaning in pain as she pulled out a larger thorn from his side.

Valon shook his head. "As someone who's been in this place almost every month of his life, I can say with certainty that he needs Astrid now." He knelt, letting slip a whimper as he hoisted up the much larger man with too much effort. "Let's go, big guy. A nice lady will get you patched up."

Image


Astrid. Was not. Pleased. "Honestly, you two, I stay at the camp for one mission and you let the Danu just have their way with the least violent soul in this delinquent band."

"What was that about ab-miration?" Zoey tried her best to hide her shite-eating grin, but it was too hard.

"Honestly, you two, it's as if you haven't been awestruck over mine own since we've met."

Astrid smirked and leaned her elbows on the operating table beside the sleeping warrior. "I'm sorry, but what was that? I couldn't hear you over you worshiping your own body."

"Perchance one could focus on healing James," interrupted Ziafar, perusing a book on earthen spells to further teach James, "instead of bickering as though we're at rest in the Marbletree."

Zoey rolled her eyes and lifted up her hands in a shrug. She gave Astrid a little smirk. "Casual conversation is a part of bedside manner, isn't it? It's a part of her job."

Ziafar scoffed, flipping through the pages. Astrid returned the smirk to Zoey but nodded in agreement. "There are many more thorns to pluck out before I can proceed fully. It's just very tedious."

"Better to start now, than never," Ziafar comented idly as his attention was drawn to a particular page, and he was drawn into the text.

A quiet, staggering gasp came from the operating table. James was waking up, with all of the pain meeting him again in full strength. Astrid's attention went straight to him.

"How long... have I been out?" James asked, feeling as if time had escaped him.

"DAYS," Zoey laughed.

Astrid shook her head, grinning down at James. "Not long. Not even an hour."

"Ah...good."

"No. Not good. You'll need your rest to heal," Astrid corrected him.

"I was thinking more along the lines of: at least that means I'm not dead."

A shrug of the mouth and a look of understanding was shared between those in the room.

"That's fair." Astrid grinned, and started to pull out more thorns, one by one, adding to the growing pile in a petri dish on the side-table. "You are very full of thorns, though, dear..."

James sent her a pained look. "Please don't let Valon hear that, he'll call me--"

"HAH!" Valon as if summoned, laughed loudly and poked his head into the room, to which, Zoey immediately met him.

"James is thorny!"

The wounded warrior sighed.
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Lumi says...



Chapter 4B: Angel of Embers


Melody closed her eyes for a brisk moment, forehead resting on the neck of her gryphon as he had been tied and poured out a good allotment of food. She had to've begged Larrel to stop their flight after two days of nonstop searching for the Angel they'd seen over five months ago. Melody and Caerus had, over time, become less convinced that their vision in the Druid Wilds had been a true Eidolon, but Larrel and the Lord Commander of Howlengale remained steadfast in their pursuit.

And so all of them remained steadfast in their pursuit, even at the cost of sleep and stamina. And sure, Melody felt as though she could never cant another spell with the amount of mana she had in her body at the time, but perhaps some rest would do her all the better, make her hale and whole.

"Alright, guys," called Larrel, walking out of an inn, "I've gotten us a room for the night so we can get back on our feet tomorrow. I have a good feeling about searching Glavin and Gatteau, given some recently-reported odd events, especially in Gatteau."

Caerus nodded. "If the Eidolon is in my home, he will be eliminated without a second thought."

Melody also nodded. "But we must rest first, or else we'll be powerless against such a creature."

Image


Valon crossed his legs as though meditating as James entered his tent with little stamina, and even littler grace. The man immediately tripped over Valon's sword and faceplanted into the fire mage's hoard of pillows.

"A few rules, my big man. First, no snoring. Snoring keeps me awake, and that robs me of my brilliant tactical mind."

"People must snore a lot here, then," James grumbled to himself.

"Second," he growled, "no getting your thorns on my stuff. That shite could be poisonous, and as I've read, poison is good only for the enemy."

"Val, I'm just really sleepy, so if we could just cacll it a night--"

"Finally, no matter my skin being soft and supple, do not mistake me for a woman and attempt to cuddle me." He looked away. "I've been cuddled by a hug bear like you before."

Before James could even conjure a witty response, Valon had rolled to his side and closed his eyes, curled under his low-grade blanket. James wondered quietly if the man were used to low-grade items, or if he lived in the lap of luxury back in Espergale. A wanted criminal in plain sight, unabashed by his crimes.

He had to admit, the guy had balls. The whole group did. He rolled to his side, facing away from Valon, and closed his eyes. His insides still hurt, and his skin was tattered in places, but he was simply happy to be alive--and the joy made him wonder what other horrors could await him in Praetoria.

Image


Melody dreamed deeply that night. Of home, of ballet lessons, and of the gorgeous Silverlake where she'd ice skate no matter the season using her magic. As she danced about on the water's surface, she suddenly joined hands with another graceful dancer--someone warm and winged, who held her close and lifted her from the water, though the trails beneath her feet followed them high above the surface.

Their dance was miraculous, and Melody closed her eyes in ecstacy; however, when the movement ceased, and she peered up to gaze on the face of her partner...there was no face.

With hair of flame, wings of embers, and a body of slick grey flesh, the being let go of her hands and drifted back.

You've been looking for me for quite a long time, Melody.

"Does this mean that you are the Angel?"

I am the awakened Seraphim, bourne of ten thousand kin crying out in their death rattles.

"That means my ideas about you were correct...! Your kind not only are birthed of mana, but you are birthed of our very life force!"

You needn't assume the regards of stars. Our complications far exceed your abrasive existence.

"Will you answer one question of mine, Seraphim?"

You may find me in the Gatteau Forest. As I said, there is no need to assume, nor is there need to ask of the void what the creatures of light freely give.

"Then you know we are coming for you."

This is the outcome I have seen, yet I fear not, for the light's emboldenment shall sway me to life abundant.

Melody woke to the searing sunlight, and to a pounding heart.
I am a forest fire and an ocean, and I will burn you just as much
as I will drown everything you have inside.
-Shinji Moon


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Rydia says...



Chapter 4C: The Spirit of our Party


Guelan... alive. After all their sacrifices, after dropping the most dangerous book in the world to the bottom of a not-bottomless-enough ocean and now this. Astrid let out a soft sigh as she lay awake in the girls' tent, magically and mentally exhausted and doubting herself and, worse still, her friends. Even with the addition of James and Gregor's borrowed power, how could they hope to match him a second time? Even without her ability to sense auras, it was clear that a great harm had been done to this place and a greater harm than any single person should be capable of. Worse still, it felt like the start of something, like a test of strength. It felt like the book might not be as lost as she wished.

They had to be enough. Despite their carefree attitudes, Astrid could tell the group were extremely troubled by these matters and more and she couldn't afford now to be the wavering link, allowing them to give in to their own deep-set uncertainties. She needed to sleep and rest and to bolster their strength and, in order to do that, she needed to clear her head.

Wrapping her thin cover around her night-shift, Astrid stepped out of the tent bare foot and found her centre in the feel of the dew-covered grass between her toes and the heartbeat of the Earth around her. She sensed Ziafar before he approached and turned to look in his direction, but not immediately at him, for she sensed the presence of another as well. The ghost. Astrid had always known it was there, had always been wary of Ziafar in part because of it, but since using the book of the dead once again and communing more and more with the spirits of the world, she could do more than sense the ghost was present. She could sense her: Little details wafting on the wind like perfume.

"Why do you always do that?" Ziafar asked as he came to stand beside her and looked out across the forests, seeing only the devastation. Astrid turned to look that way too and saw death and life intertwined, the balance certainly pushed in death's direction but a thready, beating life-force was just waiting to take hold again. She felt herself smile - this was what she had needed.

"You're asking why I look at your shadow sometimes and not at you," Astrid stated.

"All the time."

"You're worried your aura is dark."

Ziafar flinched but he didn't back away. "I wonder why you don't trust me yet with Valon's safety. I have proved myself countless times. I've never claimed that my past isn't without... painful memories. But I am faithful to Valon and this group."

Astrid turned and this time she did look at him and she allowed him to see her smile. "I didn't say your aura was dark. It isn't, or no more than Valon's anyway. You've both got blood on your hands but the rest of you is- okay. But don't tell Valon I ever said that, I think he's still half convinced that I follow him around so I can redeem his soul. We both know that's beyond saying."

"Then what-"

"Something follows you, Ziafar. I used to fear that if it ever caught up, it would bring great harm to our group. I thought it was a vengeful spirit. I was wrong." She looked to the ghost's presence as she said this, also acknowledging to the spirit that she has misjudged her. For the perfume she smelled was sweet and sad, but it wasn't threatening, or not toward Ziafar at least. "I can see clearly now. Perhaps when you're ready, you will tell me who she is."
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TheSilverFox says...



Chapter 4D: Candle


She? Astrid could not possibly mean-

The spirit must be benevolent if it is not vengeful. That leaves one option.

But did we ever know each other?

All these years alone and she – she was following – she was right behind -

She was right behind-

A tiny smile twitched at the edges of Ziafar’s mouth. He forgot why he had paid a visit in the first place; he forgot the whole conversation; he would’ve forgotten there was a night if it weren’t for the shadow at his feet. “Maybe,” he whispered, eyes focused on Astrid’s smile for only a second. He looked down at his feet, watching his shadow sway slightly. And then he turned, cloak billowing behind him, and walked away.

He was running a minute later. The tranquil night, accompanied by a piece of the moon, cast faint light in a path in front of him. It was enough, just enough, to see his lengthened shadow running alongside him. Tears dripped down his face, obscuring his vision. Part of him wanted to scowl, because now he couldn’t spot any irregularities in his shadow; the other part wanted to laugh at the bitter irony of it all. They canceled each other, catching all the breaths in his throat and leaving him gasping for air when he pushed his away into the tent he’d set up beside the hospital tent. The only sound was that of James snoring loudly nearby.

Crouching and grabbing the lantern that rested beside his stack of books, Ziafar fumbled with it. Oncoming clouds were already obscuring the moon – it wouldn’t be of any use to him. This was his only option. An excruciating few seconds (minutes? hours?) later, he thrust open the gate, using the flint and steel beside the candle to produce sparks and light the wick. The lantern gave off a gentle yellow glow, casting rounded, soft shadows out of the objects in the tent. Elbow propped on a couple of pillows, fist against his jaw, Ziafar craned his head around and focused on the flickering shadow of himself on the tent wall.

This was stupid. He didn’t understand the dead. As much as he had read (which wasn’t much, since the literature was generally forbidden) about necromancy, it had been never something he had grasped. He should’ve asked Astrid. He should’ve asked what she knew. But then she would start to ask who the spirit was, and why the spirit was the spirit, and Ziafar couldn’t talk about that incident again. He’d almost killed a man the last time he did, even if that man had deserved it. That Revan wasn’t dead still hurt Ziafar after all these months.

So he focused, in spite of himself. Ziafar closed his eyes and concentrated and desperately hoped beyond hope that he would see some trace of the beloved spirit. Even as he drifted into fury, and then sadness, and then despondency, he kept opening his eyes and spying his shadow. No luck.

Panic gripped him at intervals as the night dripped by. Had the spirit abandoned him? Was she disappointed that he couldn’t avenge her? Did the war that he had been fighting these past months, all the Danu he had killed, disgust her? He knew he was far from a good man; perhaps that was why the spirit only showed itself around Astrid. Despite his fears, his heart still jumped with his shadow, leaping into his throat when the shadow morphed into something strange. It was just the candle wick burning out from some stray gust of wind. Ziafar felt assured that whatever gods existed in this world were mocking him.

Ziafar recognized the dawn solely because he could see his shadow diminishing. Never had he despised the light more than when it came through his tent flap and outshine the candle. Restraining a sob, he snuffed out the wick and rested his head on the pillows. He felt numb, save for the needles crawling up the arm he’d rested on the entire night. He was half-convinced that he was dead, both physically and mentally. It was so hard to form even the slightest thought. Ziafar barely flinched when Valon’s head poked through the tent’s entrance.

Valon smiled, but the bags under his red eyes told a very different story. “Thorny James doesn’t like my tactical mind,” Valon said, before noticing Ziafar sprawled out on the tent floor. “Is my majordomo alright?”

At first, Ziafar sighed. “Do you see her?” he whispered, voice hoarse. He hadn’t had anything to drink in some time; his mouth felt like a desert.

Looking around, Valon raised an eyebrow. “Who?”

A flicker of rage flashed through Ziafar, dying as quickly as it came. “Her,” he said, flopping his arm behind him. “Over here.”

“What incense were you burning last night?” Valon said, looking uncomfortable.

Ziafar pulled himself onto his feet, ducking under the tent’s roof. “Nothing, it’s nothing,” said Ziafar. He leaned to one side, voice slurred. Valon reached for Ziafar, but the latter moved back impulsively.

With big eyes and a hurt tone, Valon hastily switched the topic. “The commanders are here. They need to tell us something.”

Waving flippantly, Ziafar nodded. “And you want me to join you, which I will.”

“Right now, I-”

I am going,” Ziafar said. “Now move.”

“…Alright,” Valon said at last. He pulled his head out of the tent as Ziafar stepped outside. They began walking. “But I’m catching you if you fall.”

Glaring briefly at the sun, Ziafar faintly nodded. He couldn’t refuse that.
S'io credesse che mia risposta fosse
a persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma per ciò che giammai di questo fondo
non tornò vivo alcun, s'i' odo il vero,
senza tema d'infamia ti rispondo.

Inferno, Canto 27, l 61-66.





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Lumi says...



Chapter 4E: We're Better Off (Without You)


Pearl Pyxis and Agate Argotte.

They were renowned hardasses, Valon had gathered; and answering to authority had never been strong in his wheelhouse. That went without saying, the mage figured, considering where they'd been dumped months ago.

...he'd really fed the gremlin on that one...

But all things considered, they were doing good work for a good cause, had shelter, three square meals a day with plenty of ruffage, and by some mercy, they'd grown closer...mostly. There were...seldom...difficult looks exchanged between Astrid, Valon, and Zoey--the three who'd been cursed by the old spectre on the ship. But Valon had noticed an increase in his magical stamina since the incident, and it was nice to be improved.

Then there was the matter of his engagement to Z--

"AHHHHHHH TENNNNNN SHUN!"

Valon clapped his boots together, snapping a fist over his heart, the other behind his back at the base of his spine, just as all others in attendance did. It was worth noting, though, that from all the men under their command, they'd only called for the four of his squadron, letting James rest in the medical tent.

Pyxis spoke up upon dropping his salute. "You four have been called here on suspicion of connection with the burning life of Praetoria. It is to our understanding that the one responsible for this horrendous crime was party to you before your arrival on the mainland. Is this so, Cadet Balessan?"

Valon glanced to Ziafar, who nodded gently. Beyond him, Astrid beaded sweat on her forehead. "Minister of the Senate of Espergale Guelan Djinisi was our jailor en route to Praetoria, Commander." He shook his head. "Due to his threatening our right to live, he was cast overboard before reaching the shores of the penal colony under the malicious guard of Malwanis of the Skullfists." Another shake of the head. "At no time on the island did we encounter Senator Djinisi, or if you would permit me, sir, Summoner Guelan."

Section Commander Agate clapped a book closed, as she had been inspecting Ziafar's collection of curiosity. "Is this to say that an elf slick enough to infiltrate the Senate is now spreading chaos through our lands?"

Astrid confirmed this with a nod. "That is our working theory, ma'am. We have reason to believe that, by some measure of conjury, he attained a deadly tome of power belonging to Worlocks of eld." A pause. "We also suspect for a summoning to occur soon in this realm if not met with intervention."

Commander Pearl Pyxis seemed agitated, and for good reason. "Never has Praetoria witnessed a hellish summoning, and I will not suffer one under my watch!" He turned, tapping his foot as he conferred with Cmd. Agotte.

They both turned and nodded in agreement. "Your entire squadron is no longer needed on our frontlines. We managed before, and...thanks to your assistance..." She nodded to Ziafar and Astrid. "We are in much better condition than when you arrived. What we need, however, is for you to focus on this menace to our realm brought by your hands."

Pyxis approached more closely and lowered his voice. "In this land, the forsaken goddess is called The Morrigan, queen of the realm of Sidhe, which is Nothingness." He nodded. "Indeed, if she is released from Sidhe, it could mean the end of everything, and not just in the realm of Alanaar. Stop this. Do this for us, and the war effort shall accompany you to strike down your grand foes."

Valon suddenly felt a surge of confidence in his knightly spirit. His red eyes coated over in a glaze of energy as he saluted. "Commandants, vous avez notre voeu. Nous apporterons la gloire à Praetoria!"

All skeptical eyes fell on Valon, and he coughed sheepishly. "You mind repeating that in common, love?" asked Zoey.

Valon's face flushed red and he smiled. "We swear we won't screw it up."

Image


The Lord Commander stood by the open window, peering out over the expansive beauty that was Howlengale. As he peered down, he recognized two armor-clad figures returning from the southern fields, and put down his tea to meet them at the entrance of the House of Knights.

On the floor below, the two welcomed elves gave their reports:

    1. No survivors of the Espergali forces in the Druid Wilds.
    2. A 50-meter squared patch of black glass where the Druid Wilds home village had been.
    3. No survivors among the druids, either, save for
    4. A single woman, turned to silver, arm stretched to the sky and pouring mana.

The Lord Commander looked over the extended notes before shaking his head in grave disappointment. "It would seem our ladies left before their job was done."

The male elf spoke up: "Sir, with all due respect, I believe it would be wise to assign us to tracking the girls to ensure this does not repeat."

"I believe I agree with you, Tynan. Fyfa, make ready your research notes on the eidolons. I will not suffer more casualties as we saw with Bellatrix." He turned to leave, but stopped.

"Sir," she called, "our field Astrologian detected a mana trail among the stars that led into Lunarfield's northern jungle. If we were to be identified as soldiers of Howlengale, it could mean capture and execution. Furthermore, it could facilitate the flames of war between our nations."

The Lord Commander thought on this for a moment before turning to Tynan. "Your brother was exiled from Lunarfield, yes?"

"It is a family shame, yes."

"Shame is but another tool of disguise to be utilized to your advantage, Tynan."

"W-what are you ordering me?"

"I am ordering nothing of Tynan Balessan. I am now speaking to Valon Balessan and Astrid Kesara." He grinned. "Play your parts well, and bring this eidolon to the grave, no matter the cost."
I am a forest fire and an ocean, and I will burn you just as much
as I will drown everything you have inside.
-Shinji Moon


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soundofmind says...



Chapter 4F: When Heavenly Dreams Trouble the Mind


Larrel felt Melody's clammy hands shake her awake. Before she could stab the first-assumed intruder, she caught Melody's scent... well, the smell of her sweat (an odor she recognized immediately). She looked up into Melody's crystal blue eyes, half annoyed, half concerned.

"What? Is someone attacking?" She asked as her eyes scanned their surroundings, finding no one in the camp but Melody, and Caerus stirring to their right.

"No," Melody said, finally loosening her grip on Larrel's shoulders. "No, I... I had a dream."

Larrel's brows raised and she brushed Melody's hands away gently. "A nightmare? Are you okay?"

"I spoke with the Seraphim."

Larrel's eyes widened. "Wait. In your dream, you mean?"

"Yes," Melody replied, her voice insistent, but her gaze weary.

"What did it say? Do you know where it is?" Larrel asked as she sat upright, giving Melody her full attention. Caerus finally managed to wake up as well and joined them, sitting in a circle. Though still a bit bleary eyed, she was listening.

Melody, pulling back from Larrel to face them both, had to steady her hands. Steady her breathing. She knew... she had to tell the dream in the right way. With the right words. Or they might not understand.

"Mel, here." Caerus retrieved a small coin-shaped pill from a satchel and handed it to Melody gingerly. "You've been forgetting what the chirurgeon said - your nerves are fragile."

She placed the pill under her tongue and conjured water into her lips to swallow. And then a breath. "When we saw him flying into Lunarfield, we were correct. It--He--told me that the village of Gatteau was..." she looked to Caerus, "...in need."

Caerus immediately leaped to her feet and stabbed the roof of the tent with her claws. "Like hell it is, you bilge-born demon!"

Larrel pulled her partner down and looked back to Melody, who was beginning to tear up. "Mel, did he harm you in the dream?"

...How? How could Melody tell them it was the opposite? That the angel had swept her into calmness she couldn't describe? And why had he done all this when eidolons were meant to destroy, torture, and deceive?

...Had she been deceived?

Hands touched her own, and Larrel gripped onto her. "You don't have to talk about it now if you don't feel up to it."

"I couldn't do that to you after all you've shared about him. All your dreams, your fears...and hope despite all odds."

Larrel's eyes dammed tears at the brink while she looked away, out the opening of the tent. "He was there last night, I can still smell him. Fighting bravely somewhere I don't know, being alive in a way I never knew him."

She took a deep, longing breath and nodded. "James calls to me, still."

Image


With two wings outstretched, two covering its feet, and two covering its face, just below the eyes, the seraphim looked down with a piercing gaze. James found himself frozen - unable to move in its presence - altogether an uncharacteristically unusual phenomenon to overtake his senses as he stared at the angel, it's beauty unfolding more and more with every second it stood in his sight.

A voice proceeded from it, like a chorus of thunder in a roaring storm, shaking him in his innermost being. It fully outstretched its wings, its golden feathers shimmering in the light.

It was beautiful.

And then fire rained down from heaven with a flap of its wings, and a crack of thunder. Below the angel, a courthouse burned, and a city with it. What had first been awe and wonder was hijacked by a raging terror that seized his heart.

The angel let out a shrill cry that echoed through the darkening clouds, as its movements fed the flames, causing them to rise higher, and higher, and higher - and in fear that he too, would be taken and consumed by the flames, he finally managed to budge his feet. But by then, it was too late. Everything that had stood before him had fallen, quivering down into a pile of blackened ash. And across from the mound of debris, through the dying heat of the fire, there she stood. His sister.

Larrel.

She turned around, meeting his eyes with tearful ones, and a sorrow on her face that he'd never wished for her to know.

Reaching out with one hand, he began to run towards her. But then he woke up.

With his hand stretched up in the air, he found himself panting, gasping for breath as if the smoke filling his lungs and the fire all around him in the dream had, for that moment, been real and tangible. That, and his sweat was seeping through his bandages and stinging in his wounds, altogether leaving him somewhere in between grounded in reality and still caught up in the vivid sights, smells, and feelings of the dream. Whatever medicine he'd been given, or whatever exhaustion or pain he'd felt before falling asleep, could not alone explain that. And that troubled him.

He sat up, slowly, looking around at the now damp pillows he'd been sleeping on with mild disdain and disappointment. Valon was not going to be happy about this.

"I'm not happy about this, you're dead to me, but we have a mission, so let's pack up our horses and bust our balls riding to the next stronghold!" Valon threw his pillows into the air and shot them into oblivion with fireballs. Ash rained down on James' head, making him look like a silver fox. "First, we're getting washed up. The ladies have already finished, and Ziafar is at the spring now, so let's head over..." He turned his head over his shoulder. "And, uh. Don't forget that medicine Astrid gave you. It's good for the nerves."

Out at the spring, Ziafar already had horses packed for the three men, and was shivering in the cold wind as he'd disrobed into the waters below. "If nothing else, Valon, I will ever praise you for being an eternal source of heat."

Valon tossed his gear near his horse and fell back into the pool, instantly making it heat to a cloaking steam. James slipped his meds under his tongue and downed the pill dry, removing the long bandages from his torso. He had express permission to bathe the wound as long as Valon would keep it bacteria-free, though he somehow thought that to be Ziafar's job--until the fire mage splashed the hot water against James' naked belly. Swearing at him under his breath, he sank into the spring and dunked his head under.

When the three were cleaned, dried, and dressed, their horses took them to the trail where the ladies had been waiting.

Larrel is fine, James.

"Valon, Zoey, head us up, please," called Astrid, "I'm in the back with James for medical reasons."

You've simply seen too much action in too short a time. Anyone would have a dream of their most loved one in peril at the hands of such glory.

The horses galloped on as he held forward, cloak blowing in the breeze.

Who am I kidding? Larrel, what are you about to do?

"You've been lost in thought all morning," Astrid said.

James's eyes fluttered as he tried to pry his thoughts from his sister for a moment. He cleared his throat. "Is that so?"

"You've hardly said a word."

James forced a small smile. "Well, that's hardly out of character."

Astrid grinned, but shook her head slightly. "Perhaps. But there's a difference between troubled silence and comfortable silence."

James avoided eye contact at those words, because he knew they held true. With his brow creased, he searched for words - or rather, searching himself for just how much he wanted to share. Had he really still not told them about his sister?

"I had a dream," he said, pausing as he glanced down at his book. His journal. Everything he wrote, sitting in his saddle-bag, peeking out. A part of him wanted to just hand it to her and let her read it, so he wouldn't have to explain anything out loud.

"About my sister, Larrel."

He didn't want to have to explain what happened, because he'd never explained it before. Not out loud.

"I'm... afraid she's in trouble. Or about to find herself in the midst of it."
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Rydia says...



Chapter 4G: When the Troubled Mind Pursues Heavenly Dreams


"I'm in the back with James, for medical reasons."

Astrid looked across at James for what must have been the hundredth time and he didn't notice any more than he had the other ninety-nine. Perhaps it was a good thing he was so lost in his own world, so he couldn't see how lost she was in him. It was crazy. She didn't know him, hadn't fought side by side with him on countless adventures and yet, more and more often, James' face had replaced Tynan's in her impossible dreams.

Maybe it was Valon and Zoey's engagement which had her wishing so fervently that amidst all of this madness, she could find a happiness of her own. Sure, Valon would doubtlessly die an early, violent death and Zoey was never going to stop admiring James' finer features, but the two of them radiated with a clear and determined energy. It was beautiful.

Astrid couldn't even remember the last time she kissed a boy, unless giving mouth to mouth to Valon counted.

Eventually she had to speak and when she did, their words seemed to flow easily as though there were no barriers between them, though she knew there was.

"About my sister, Larrel. I'm... afraid she's in trouble. Or about to find herself in the midst of it."

"And you think it was more than a dream," Astrid prompted.

"Well... I don't suppose it is. I've never had much magic - I'm sure it's different for you, I could believe that you'd have dreams that would come true."

Astrid couldn't help herself - she snorted out a laugh and had to quickly cover her mouth but James smiled too.

"I mean, seeing ghosts and peoples' auras? I didn't think there was enough Mana left in the world to light a candle before I met you." James cleared his throat. "All of you."

"Well Valon definitely knows how to burn down a few houses. But James, don't underestimate your own spirituality, we're all much more closely attuned to nature than you can know."

James lifted his head and looked like he was about to reply but it quickly turned into a grimace as the horses raced over a rut in the road. Astrid held out an arm to steady him and felt an uncharacteristic warmth in her cheeks. Oh Merlin, that was not helpful.

"Okay so I do kind of feel like it's not just a dream. It felt so- I could feel her-"

"Let me guess, it sounded less crazy when I said it."

James sighed and looked out across the landscape sliding by. "I just wish I knew where she is."

___________________________________________

Their destination that night was not the final one, much to Valon's dismay.

"You think the summoning will happen all the way up that mountain?" Valon asked as he stared up at it from the valley base where they were pitching their tents. "I mean, I of course have no problem with scaling the beast, and I'm only thinking of poor James and his inhibiting condition-"

"We go up the mountain," Astrid insisted.

"Of course," Zoey butted in. "Can't you feel it, Valon? There is a great darkness atop yonder mountain-top, where much dread and magical magic-ness lurks."

"Thanks Zoey." Astrid pursed her lips in a wry smile but inside she felt the chill settle over her heart. There was indeed a great sense of dread and fear about the mountain, an aura so thick with death and destruction that she knew Morrigan's spirit could be nowhere else. "That's where they are. I'd bet all Ziafar's valuables on it."

"Then you'd be a fool since I don't have any."

Astrid shot Ziafar a fast smirk but as she passed him, heading toward James' tent for one last check-up she added quietly: "We all value something, even if sometimes it's hidden from sight."

When she reached the tent James was sharing with Valon, her patient was already laying propped up on his pillows, a slightly pained expression in his deep blue eyes.

"For your dreams," Astrid said, holding out a small vial of a soft, amber liquid in addition to his normal dose of medicine. In the morning she would probably need to exert her more direct methods of healing to get him fit enough to climb the mountain but for now, they both needed a good night of sleep.

"It will make them go away?"

"Only if you want them to."
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Caesar says...



Chapter 4H: Blessed Are The People, Part I


The air in the village of Gatteau tasted of sunrise over the forest and gurgling mountain streams. Caerus breathed in deeply. Her heart stilled, and the weariness of her harrowing journey dissipated like a shroud of mist is blown away by the breeze. She smiled. It was good to be home.

Gatteau was a loose arrangement of wood and thatch houses, scattered outwards from a central plaza and confined by the sacred groves the villagers prayed to on specific occasions. The plaza was bustling with activity. Many villagers were already out and about on the streets, making merry. Some approached to greet Caerus as the the three girls made their way into the village. They had wide grins stamped on their faces and called out to her enthusiastically. It was another blessing, they said, that she had arrived now after her long time away, as they were preparing to celebrate the many other blessings the gods had seen fit to bestow upon them lately.

"Huh," Caerus muttered to herself. "Today isn't a festival day." The other two looked at her quizzically.

Nonetheless, a festival it appeared to be. Festivals in Gatteau were always lively affairs, Caerus knew. In a hunting village on the foothills of mountains many leagues away from the major hubs of the kingdom, events of particular note were few and far between, so its inhabitants usually went all-out on those occasions. Face-first, after enough beer. But this particular one appeared unusual to Larrel and Melody as well, who had never set foot in the area. Merchants were not arguing loudly about whose wares were superior. Customers were not haggling; prices were accepted (and fair, Caerus noted happily, after spending some time around the food stalls); children were playing, but not fighting; even the pack animals received extra consideration.

Caerus led the three girls to her family's home. It was a nondescript wooden box like the rest of the wooden boxes in the village. To the girl, it was her wooden box. They had a wooden fence circling the wooden box, with a scraggly garden she used to play in. The slanting roof she used to climb on, much to her parents' frustration. The intact roof. Caerus paused in the middle of the garden. Melody and Larrel bumped into her and made surprised noises. Last Caerus had heard from her folks, part of the roof had caved in after the heavy snow earlier in the year. Judging on the tone of her letter it had been the justifiable focus of her mother's grief, especially considering her father was bed-bound. One of the town boys must have seen to it, she thought, apologizing to her friends.

Caerus' mother opened the door for them, probably having gotten word from the neighbors. The old woman was dressed bells-and-whistles for the festivities, and positively beaming at the three. She embraced her daughter, and they exchanged pleasantries for a while. The three girls were on work business. Yes, they would be able to stay for dinner, and the festival for that matter. Yes, Caerus had been eating properly. The girls were perfectly able to put up with her, thank you very much. Later, they sat around the kitchen table and shared some of the food her mother had gotten for the festival. Caerus' mother was evidently pleased by her daughter's surprise visit. When Caerus attempted to politely extricate herself temporarily to go greet her father, her mother waved her away and said he was out of the house but would be coming back soon enough.

Caerus dropped her food and went slack-jawed. Her mother laughed long and hard. It was amazing, she said, but true. A string of good luck, miracles, almost, had blessed the town. and for that precise reason they were celebrating. The gods had not been answering their prayer recently, what with the winter two seasons ago, but it must have been a test, for which they were being now rewarded. And indeed, Caerus' father knocked on the door, carrying supplies he'd gone out to purchase. He was just about as surprised as her daughter, and dropped his things. It seemed, Melody noted, that it ran in the family. His father confirmed that he had been bed-bound until only recently. One day, he recalled it vividly, one winter day so bright and crisp he had asked his wife to open the window to let the air in, a breeze had crept in, bringing with it the scent of the mountains. The following day, his father had been able to walk again. He and Caerus did a little joyful dance.

"How... unusual," said Melody, mostly to herself.

Sharing a gaze of understanding, Melody and Larrel left Caerus to spend quality time with her family, and, promising to be back for dinner of course, walked back into the village. The two magicians both had great respect for the power and the wisdom of the gods. No man could have said otherwise, far be it for them to doubt their capabilities. But they also knew that the gods, in their infinite mercy, chose to manifest their actions upon the mortal realm with a certain tell-tale predictability. While divine intervention was a hotly debated topic in academies and temples around the world, it usually manifested in points critically important to human history. Or at least mildly interesting points. More important than a footnote in some poorly-paid geographer's maps, surely. Gatteau was no more than that. And with the same dependability men could rely on the signs of divine intervention, so could they count on the wrath of the gods if pretenders were considered such. The girls walked around Gatteau with renewened energy now, knowing that the breathtakingly blue skies above them could become angry thunderbolts at any time, if they did not get to the bottom of this.

Image


Tynan and Fyfa, the mighty warriors astride their gryphons, felt a lot less mighty at the mercy of the biting cold mountain winds which blasted them relentlessly. The men had lost feeling in their faces and hands long ago, professionalism and experience were the only things keeping them upright at this point. The pine trees of the Lunarfield forest were like a bristling wall of spears beneath them. Landing was not going to be a pleasant experience. To their left, they saw lights. What looked to be some kind village festival. Though not able to communicate, they veered in that direction together, as fast as they could towards warmth and civilization. And towards their mission. Between them and the village there was a river, its rushing waters black as the night around them, and they made towards it.

They were almost above the river, when their gryphons stopped mid-air and reared, refusing to go forward. A feeling of dread hit the warriors like a hammer. A strange aura was going right past their cold-deadened senses and piercing their brains directly. It wasn't openly malicious, but the they had a pretty good idea of what it was coming from. As one, they plummeted downwards, trying to stay low and close to the beasts' feathers. Branches and needles cracked past them like whips, drawing blood. The gryphons crashed into the ground and tumbled. Sky became ground became tree bark became pain, until the two disentangled themselves.Trying to both shake feeling into their limbs and be stealthy, Tynan and Fyfa crept towards the riverbank, on foot.

The waters of the river drew into their field of vision, through the pine branches. The two crept forward crouching, trying to minimize their forms to anyone that might be looking. What they saw next confirmed their worst suspicions. By the riverbank, an ethereal form, glowing with a light from within. It looked vaguely humanoid and winged. It was staring intently at the water, running a hand through it. Tynan drew his throwing dagger, starlight gleaming cruelly against the steel. Fyfa nodded to him and drew his own blade. They were going to draw as close as possible and stalk the creature. When it was about to take flight, Tynan would cripple it and Fyfa would finish the job. They did not need words to discuss the plan. Many creatures had fallen at their hands in the same way before.

The only light guiding them was that of the moon and the stars, pools of quicksilver masked by the canopy above them; but the weight of many similar hunts guided the two soldier's feet, who stalked forward in sync like a sinuous predator. They could make out their prey's figure as they approached. Drawing closer through the underbrush, step by deliberate, measured, step, they reached the limit of the patch of vegetation that hid them, until they were two arm's lengths away from the golden figure in front of them. At this point the two saw it actually had no defined figure. Luminescent haze coalesced into what could be considered a body in some places. The same experience that had guided the soldiers' footsteps told them to ignore the distressing implications of what they saw in front of them. They had committed too much to back down down. It was do or die. Tynan carefully, ponderously, raised his blade arm and cocked his wrist.

Maybe it was the effect of the numbing wind during their flight; maybe their abrupt landing had cramped their muscles; maybe the disconcerting effect of the light making up the creature shifting constantly in alien patterns got under their skin. Tynan's throw was as if in slow motion. Fyfa traced the arc his comrade's arm made with his eyes, followed the blade as it flew surely towards their mark, watched with horrible realization as it turned to face it, face them.

The luminescent creature stood abruptly to face them and spread eagle-like wings. A blast of wind and heat shook the trees, snapping branches and stripping bark. The two soldiers were hurled back. Their backs collided with a tree trunk and the air was sucked painfully out of their lungs. Currents of air streamed incessantly from the glowing figure in front of them, making it diffcult to breathe and harder still to keep their eyes open. The winged creature approached them.

Tynan and Fyfa, pressed against their trees, two feet above the ground, felt as if they were no longer on the mortal earth. They saw only black, and then searing white behind their eyelids, weightless. Then another blast of wind, and they had to fight for each breath, as if a heavy, wet rag was placed over their limbs and chest. The wind grew stronger, and with it the heat. Their mouths were suddenly parched and their lips cracked. The creature's radiance grew unbearable, until they screamed soundlessly for release.

It came without warning. The wind stopped, the light receded. Tynan and Fyfa collapsed to the ground, convulsing and retching uncontrollably. They grasped at the cold dirt of the forest floor, reassured by its weight and substance. The two were alone in the woods. Eventually, they stood. Above the trees, in the distance, they could just about make out the lights of fires.

"We are going to need reinforcements," muttered Tynan.

The two soldiers hobbled away.
vulgus vult decipi, ergo decipiatur










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