Wednesday, July 7

The First Page

My name is Lizzeth Vernes, and this is the story of my life, and death. When I received this journal, so many years ago, in the spring, my grandmother told me to leave the first page blank, to write the last entry on the first page. Even then I knew it was a magic book, and that I could add more pages. I didn't understand why I should leave a page, white and glaring, waiting to be filled. I'll never forget what she told me.
"A tale can't be begun until it is finished, dear child." I said I didn't understand, and she laughed. I understand now. I was still a girl when I began keeping this journal. I've been reading the old entries again, and I'm surprised at the naiveté of that girl. By her innocence, and her ignorance of what was growing inside her even then. The days have passed, as they do, in short nights and long hours, and I've often thought about this first page. I wondered what I would have to say, when I was ready to put down this book for the last time. And every time I found that my pen has reached the back cover, I knew that I wasn't ready. That it wasn't just a diary, but the book of my life, and there were more pages to fill. There were more mountains to climb, more oceans to cross, more taverns and more dungeons. I was never ready, so I cut more paper, and I started again.
Now, there will be no more pages, and I still find that I'm not ready. I've come to realize that I would fill this page on my death-bed; that I would leave on this paper sheet my final words.
And I still don't know what to say.
I knew long ago that I would never escape the jaws of history. I would be another dusty footprint in her monstrous march towards the End of the World. I have often wondered what I should say. I've thought about finishing this page before, on the eve of mortal peril, or in seemingly impossible circumstances. These words were forming in my mind when I was captured in the Underdark, and when I was tried by the Order of Silver. My pen hovered over this page on the eve of the battle of the Burning Hills. I remember pitching camp on the mountain over the Dragon Rhykouhikeon's icy den and I stared at this page in the firelight. But I never wrote, because I knew it would be the last entry. It would leave no room for hope. I would never be coming back.
I remember when I saw Meowyn again, so many years after I left that dreadful school. She said she was happy with her decision, but she envied my freedom. She envied that I wasn't tied to a book by arcane threads. I didn't tell her so, but I knew that she was wrong. I was tied to this one, by my heartstring.
And now, I write the last entry because I am dying. I pulled too deep, pushed too hard, strained my mortal shell. I am not quite sure how to explain what has happened to me, what a week ago I merely suspected. The seal on the grove is holding, and I am confident that it will hold, possibly forever. But I am being taken with it, slowly, but surely. I will leave nothing of myself behind, save this book, these words. I feel as though I am a lump of coal, or a glass of mead. My essence is slipping away, to the Far Realms, or the chaotic seas of Limbo, or some other Plane; I cannot say where. Perhaps I am diffusing to the winds themselves. All I know is that it cannot be stopped. Zacharias and Eren have both worked their most powerful spells, with no effect. They say they can slow the process, but I am slipping out of this world. I have spent the last week making plans. The Citadel shall continue well beyond myself, Eren has sworn to assist in any way she can, and I know I can take the Dwarf at her word. The training itself will be held by Valia, who is pure hearted, amongst her other faults. I have no fears. Garulf has stayed by my side the whole time. He's sitting here by my bed this very moment. He'll be here until the end. After that, he is going to find Zacharias and Targon. The fools have gone off after the Druids. I know that Zacharias has outstanding business with his old comrades, but the Half-tall Rager is going purely for revenge. I fear he will die badly.
I will bear no mortal remains, but I have seen to the process of converting my lab into a tomb in any case. I was too weak to handle the reversal of the energies myself, but Valia handled it beautifully. Eren showed me the seals. She carved them herself, and they bear her hand well. The contracts for the Outsider Guardians are all in order, although I worry about the Ifreeti. Should he escape, I don't know if the other seals will weaken with his passage. Here in, on the final pages, I have written the sigils and the nature of the Great Sealing. Should the druids' godling stir again, the world will be prepared for it, although the cost may be higher for another than even what I pay.
I am weak, the pen is hard to hold. I can feel the skein of my life winding down. I know that I have little time, and little strength left. I will be short. I was lucky. I was not a genius. I tried hard and sometimes won, more often I lost. I never bested the High Defender. I never found the Dagger of Midnight. I never returned the Great Forger's Cannon to the world of Men. I don't know what secrets that mighty book will hold. All I can do is hope that someday it is returned to the light. If I had to guess, though, I hope that it is a book like this one. I hope it is not a mere grimoire, but a record of his life, his thoughts, his hopes and disappointments. I hope the Four Swords are raised together one day. I was a harbinger of the Third Age of the world, I hope it is a time of peace, not merely a time of Sorcery. I go beyond the void.

Monday, June 13

River Funeral

The River Guards won't let us bring the bodies into the city. Carabos, by ancient law, can hold no corpses. This is, I am told, to discourage necromancers. That school of magic is out of favor since the wars, but back in the bad old days, they had a stranglehold over the government. It's ancient politics.
When these old days were, precisely, is unclear to me. I've heard this from the captain in fits and starts as he was getting the deck ready for the funerals. In any case, back then, the body traders were everywhere. The crypt-raiders ruled, and the resurrectionists openly peddled influence. Needless to say, you couldn't spit without hitting a zombie. (his words, not mine.) It was decades and three popular uprisings before they were pushed out of the city. They still ply their dubious trades a mile or so outside the city proper. The captain was adamant that we see to the bodies before then. He lost (x) good men on his crew, and even he didn't wish reanimation on his enemies. I just see another sign of the dangers of this place. Was this really such a good idea?
Hilda meditated this morning, but she simply didn't have enough, I don't know what to call it, holy power? Guidance? to purify all of the remains. I guess spiritual magic would be the phrase. If it does differ from the arcane arts of the mages. Revival is likewise out of the question. Even if she had the power to pull that kind of favor down, it has its own costs.
With no other options, the captain determined that we were going to give them a burial in the river. One of the lifeboats, which was undamaged in the attack, and it was used as the bower for the ceremony. First, it was brought down and arranged at the side of the deck. Then, everyone was laid down inside of it. Tina, three of the sailors, and the four pirates who were left behind. They were just laying them out when it struck me that this was my work. That I had killed two of those men. They were dead because of me. I reminded myself that every deed has a cost, and that killing them saved us. Watching Tina's lifeless form, I thought that inaction is just as costly. Again, I silently cursed the Magus for his weakness, and wished that somehow Mr. K had stayed on. He would have done something, I'm sure.
The Magus is still on deck, acting as though nothing is wrong, as though his cowardice hadn't left those people to their deaths, as though his inaction hadn't killed Tina. I really hope that among the teaching staff he is the exception, not the rule. She wasn't in his care, but with a wave of his hand, he scattered those slavers. The pirates wouldn't have been a greater challenge. His level of power demands respect, but it comes with the burden of using it to protect the weak. Otherwise, what's the point? You've got to be honest about the big things. It's what makes all the little lies, the harmless self-promotion, alright. It's what makes you a hero instead of a thief.
The eight bodies just barely fit into the boat, with Tina's small, bird-like frame at one end. They were each wrapped in a shroud, made of their cloaks, or in the pirates' cases, blankets, with only their faces exposed. Hilda said prayers over each of them, though the ones over Tina were the most solemn, and slow. She placed on each one a sheet inscribed with Dwarven runes, to name them and guide their way in the afterlife. A pair of silver coins were laid over their eyes, to pay their passage. Flowers, what could be found, were arranged at their heads, and branches and cinnamon bark was arranged at their feet. Captain Pitt eulogized each of his crew, and weapons, if they had them, were placed with them. Hilda said more prayers, and talked a bit about Tina, whom she had known very briefly, but was the most prepared. Melody played her travel-harp, and the Magus sang an elven song. It was slow, and sad, and sweet, and for a moment, though I didn't understand the words, it made me forget everything that had transpired, and I was united in deep genuine grief with him. He touched each of the piles of cinnamon, and the boat began to burn. As the song finished, they lowered the boat into the water, and we stood and watched those we had lost fade into smoke and flame. Soon, I couldn't find Tina in the ashes anymore, and she was gone. I hadn't really known her for a day, and I was surprised to find myself crying. I made it a rule never to be seen crying, but then, it was alright. I stood with the four of them and mourned the friend I'd never have.
The Magus continued to sing, as the boat broke apart and eventually sank, even though Melody had finished. I was surprised when after a moment, his voice was joined by two others, as high as his was deep, and as filled with sorrow. A pair of figures were swimming in the water, and as they easily treaded the water, they sang out in clear voices. They resembled elves, but with bluish-green skin and long silver hair. Their necks had straining gills on the side, but in the brown water of the river, and they dressed in a soft fabric that billowed out from them like seaweed. Every move they made seemed to carry with it unnatural grace. After they finished singing, they spoke with the Magus for quite a while after the funeral. I couldn't follow their conversation, but I heard the word Peredhil several times, which I think means Half-elf in their tongue. the captain greeted the two humbly, and in perfect unison, they gave a perfect flip in the water, but said nothing to him. He was satisfied, so I took it for a bow or courtesy. The Magus gestured to Gloria and I several times, and the pair stretched curiously out of the water, exposing patches of silver scales that were either natural, or some sort of underwater jewelery. They whispered something to each other, and giggled like schoolgirls. The Magus looked embarrassed, whatever they said. In time, the boat sank, and the two Sea Elves, or I suppose River Elves, departed. We rounded a bend in the river, and came face to face with the City of Carabien.
The grey concrete towers reached for and were lost in the low-clinging rainbow smoke that hung over the city. Dawn light, weakly sparkled through it, leaving no shadows. On we wound our way forward through the strange, decadent outskirts towards the harbor. The river was filled with tiny boats selling, it seemed, just about anything, and on the shore, all manner of questionable businesses thumbed their noses as the river guards' patrols. It was a lively chaos, and I reveled in it.
I had traveled far, to a strange country. I felt sorry for Tina, she never saw this spectacle. I wonder what she would have made of it. The boat ignored the hawkers, and indeed nearly broke one of them apart, but we pushed forward into the city, past the towering concrete cliffs that the Captain called 'elevators' and into the busy harbor. We somehow made it!

The Tale of the Magic Crossbow- Conclusion: Darkness and Sunlight

For a moment, the two Ungwes simply stared at one another. Her guards stood dumbfounded. The real Drow recovered first, but Rose did very well for herself. The guards knew one of them to be false, but did not dare risk attacking the wrong one, and to even raise a hand against the image of their lady, even a false one, would be high treason. Joachim used the distraction to slip into the hole on the building's side while the two seeming Dark Elf commanders argued with one another about which one was real.
"Get her, you fools!" One of them shouted. The guards jumped, and began to move, as if by reflex.
"Not me, she is the impostor! Slay her at once for her impudence!" The other cried. Rose was so skilled that if Joachim hadn't watched Rose transform, he wouldn't have been able to tell them apart. The guards were also having trouble. Neither of the options in front of them were promising. Strike their master, and she would have their hides, for what hope could they have of actually besting her? Or strike at the poseur, assuming that they chose correctly, and face the shame of striking at her form, and be whipped for the crime. Poor odds all around, and that kept them paralyzed.
The building was constructed by the Dark Elves, and it suited their aesthetic by being cramped, dark, and suffocating in atmosphere. Joachim fought off a sneeze and squeezed through the hole left by Incisor as it ripped its way through the construction. The bricks were wide and thick, and it pushed a whole section of them out of the makeshift wall. Joachim wondered how they were being dried without the sun, but he didn't bother himself with it for long. Stealth had never been his strong suit. He just hoped Rose would make enough of a commotion so that he could slip in unnoticed. In spite of the dark, and the tight corridors, stuffed with the treasures the Drow had relieved from the Wood Elves over the course of their invasion. The warehouse had the look of permanence to it. They hadn't simply shipped their booty back down the tunnels to their Underkingdom. This was their foothold, and from here they would bring up their armies. Perhaps all the strange countries of the Underdark would make use of the magical darkness, to break free from the subterranean prison-lands and wage their revenging wars against the surface.
Joachim considered himself a hero, a free spirit wandering the trails of this world, free of the bonds of land and property. It was his calling to keep those roads free, of bandits, and monsters and the dread cultists of the old gods. He fought as a wanderer, a free knight who cared little for position or title. That was the cost of his freedom to follow his own code. He was invisible and unguarded in a treasure house of demonstratively evil elves, which, as an aforementioned fighter of the wilderness, made them his by right of virtue, but he had work to do to pay for them.
He hesitantly set riches aside for the moment and donned his armor. He found a few suitable weapons for Rose as well, and Glory's pack. He had a feeling she'd be needing it. Trying to take as much advantage of his invisibility as he could, he snuck up behind Engwe's guards as quietly as he could. His chain mail jingled a bit when he walked, and the one defender cocked her head as he approached, but she never turned around. I thrust Incisor savagely into her back. He had learned long ago that fair fights were for paladin and idiots who didn't know better, and had no place in the real world. He fought dirty.
Joachim reappeared as he attacked, and in the next second, the scene burst into violent chaos. Joachim tossed a longsword to Rose and struck the other flunky with his gauntleted fist. Rose bobbled the blade, but the other Drow were still so stunned by her appearance that she had enough breathing room to back away and draw before they came at her. Engwe turned and attack Joachim with the stock of her crossbow, knocking him flat. By the time he got back to his, the Drow leader was gone, and Rose was being overwhelmed.
"Need a hand?" he asked, stabbing one of the remaining Drow in the shoulder.
"Thanks," Rose swung the sword in front of herself in a wide arc. The enemies avoided her attack, but she managed to free herself. As soon as she could, she prayed for a new spell. "Sanctuary!" She genuflected, and suddenly seemed surrounded by a softly glowing blue mist. The Drow recoiled and came after Joachim instead. "We need to free the others!" She said.
"Well, I'm a bit busy right now." Joachim navigated Incisor beneath the shield of one attacker, catching her in the thigh. She howled in wordless pain. "Talk to me in a bit."
"We've lost the element of surprise, you know." She said from her bubble of solitude. The Drow glared at her from behind the misty barrier, but turned their full attention back to Joachim.
"Whatever it is you're doing, it works against them!" He parried an incoming blade and rewarded the swordswoman with a kick to the stomach. Their numbers seemed endless. "You'll have to get to the prisoners. I'll hold these guys off and stop whatever they're up to with Glory!"
"Me, but, I'm... I can't! I'm just a chaplain, I'm no heroine!" Rose called helplessly.
"Rose, I can't get there! You can. This is your moment. We can't save your people. It's up to you. This is something only you can do! Go!" Rose nodded and disappeared from his view. Joachim knew that he was taking a risk with her, but she hadn't betrayed him yet, well, again, and she'd had the opportunity. And he was far too busy. He fought off a few more of the women warriors.
Onward they came, the cruel women in armor dyed a deeper black than the darkness of their eternal night. Before them, in rags with clumsy fists flailing, their men were pushed as slaves. Monstrous spiders, the size of horses, and dripping with venom, were their mounts as well as hunting dogs. They pushed Joachim to the very limits of his exhaustion. He used the crowd against themselves when he could, withdrawing, forcing them through the narrow alleys formed by the ancient trees and the squat barracks the Drow had constructed for themselves. But before long, he had nowhere else to run to. A slave, long white hair filthy, his red eyes wild with bloodlust and madness, raised his giant fists to hammer a blow that Joachim was too exhausted to parry.
The blow never landed. There was a sound like the sighs of a thousand winds, and a strange sound of steel hitting flesh. The giant toppled forward, a dozen arrows sticking from his back. A cadre of Wood Elves stood by the mouth of the alley. In spite of their raged clothing and improvised weapons, they held a regal bearing. It was not imperial, as the Drow conquerors, but a natural grace and determination. Something the Drow had lost, and could not take away from their cousins. Their leader gave the slightest of nods and waved his hand. It seemed to Joachim to equal the deepest and humblest bow, somehow.
"I am King Thallon. Sister Rosa asked us to come find you, Master Joachim Vernes. Please take this." He held a small object in his hand, a tightly curled leaf.
"Rose, where is she?" Joachim asked, eying the object wearily.
"It is unfortunate, that she was able to free us from our prison, but her spell was undone, and the guards had attacked her before we could come to her aid. None amongst us save her wield the healing touch of the Goddess.
"Is she dead then?"
"I know not. We have done what we could for her, and administered this sacred medicine to shore up her fortitude." The King gestured to the leaf. "She asked that we grant you the medicine as well, though it is rare for an outsider to receive it. When I left her to find you, she was floating between this world and the Fair Shores."
"What is it?" Joachim asked, taking the plant.
"A holy herb that we grow in the forest. Chew it, but do not swallow the leaf itself. It will restore your vitality, though it will do little for your wounds I am afraid." Joachim did as he was instructed. It was delicious, with a spicy flavor he couldn't quite define. As he chewed, he could feel life return to his leaden limbs. His resolve returned. He could still save Glory, even if it was too late for Rose. For her he would deliver vengeance.
Joachim sat up gingerly, and reached into his pack. His emergency healing drought was still there. As reverently as he could, he spit out the leaf, and drank the potion. He felt a familiar wave of energy flow through his body. His wounds dried and healed. He was ready to fight again.
"I saw that stone of theirs in the central clearing. If they're going to sacrifice my partner, that's where they're going to do it. Can you take me there?" Joachim climbed to his feet and tested the spear. It was undamaged and hungry for more violence. King Thallon watched the human and chuckled.
"Ho ho, you're quite energetic already. Perhaps giving you the sacred medicine was too much?" He smiled. "In any case, you would demand the help of the king himself, even in these circumstances."
"I was hired to do a job, majesty, and I aim to do it, if you will forgive me for saying so. I've never been one to defer to rank and title when work needs doing," Joachim replied.
"A fine answer. I believe you mean the Glade of the Forest Mother. We we proceed there." He motioned ahead, and gave commands in bold, crisp elven speech. The escaped rebels responded with martial enthusiasm, and marched ahead, never once falling out of step in the thick brush or twisted roots.
The king led them to a rise, slaying the guarding Drow warriors with little noise. The ceremony was already underway. Ungwe stood at the center of a raised dias, with a pair of red-robed priestesses on either side. A collection of Drow were assembled to watch. There were cavalry on giant bucking spider-creatures, foot solders in decorated armor, and huge male slaves obidiently kneeling before them. Glory was tied to a black slab. Her tiny form struggled against the bonds, but she couldn't slip free. Ungwe shouted something, and traced an intricate pattern in the air with a wickedly curved knife.
The team of archers began their work at once. Acting in concert, they loosed flight after flight of deadly accurate arrows, which the other Elves protected them with whatever clubs or swords they had managed to liberate from their captors. Almost at the same instant, they brought the for priestesses low in a hail of timbers. However, the arrows seemed to strike at an invisible wall in front of Ungwe, clattering harmlessly to the ground in front of her. She looked at their hiding place and directed her troops forward. Her red eyes seemed to glow with hate and triumph in the smokey dim torchlight.
"She must be protected somehow!" Joachim shouted. "Can you clear me a path? I'll cut her free and destroy the stone myself."
"As you will, human." King Thallon replied. Joachim was already vaulting to the clearing floor. The archers struck with uncanny precision. Each of his steps was dogged by a feather-tipped arrow, merely inches away. The Drow, unprepared for the sudden attack, could not bar his way. He reached into the pack and pulled out a pair of Glory's knives. The stage loomed in front of him, and Ungwe finished chanting in her demon's tounge.
"You are too late, human. Now watch the mage die for the Darkstone!" She cackled. Trusting all his warriors skill, Joachim threw the knives. They sung through the air with magical speed and balance, thudding heavily into the black stone, and through the hempen rope as well. Ungwe released her darkling strength, forcing the blade with all her evil will towards Glory's heart.
Joachim sliced through the ropes just in time. The sacrificial dagger came down, but Glory wasn't there any more. She was on her feet, and already pawing through the bag Joachim provided. Ungwe bellowed in rage.
"Keep them busy, I've got an ace up my sleeve," she said, and pulled out a tattered scroll. Without another word, she opened it and began reading aloud, chanting the strange symbols that covered it.
"It's a plan. They got Rose, but she managed to free the rest of the elves first. I'll handle the spiders." He leapt into the fray and charged the riders, scattering them. His spear seemed to be everywhere at once, unseating the Drow from their mounts and sending the giant spiders into a panic. The wood elves were fighting valiantly against the Drow infantry, but they were desperately outnumbered, and had lost the element of surprise. The guards would have them routed again in minutes at best.
"Foolish woman, your petty magic can do nothing to harm us! Our Dark Lady protects us," Ungwe hissed.
"I can do little, aye, but they will have more luck," Glory said, and finished the spell. "Scions of Light, I call upon you by ancient contract. Banish this darkness with your holy flames! Summon Lantern Archons!" The spell finished, and a bright circle appeared in the clearing, three feet above the ground. From within, an idyllic daylight sky could be seen. The Dark Elves cringed and looked away from the light, and maybe they missed the five small, glowing figures that emerged from it.
They couldn't be said to have proper forms, but were merely small globes of pure, strong light. They spiraled through the air, scattering the Drow in a panic before them. Engwe fired blindly at them with her crossbow, but her arrows never seemed to find their marks. The tiny Angels were too swift and too righteous. They fired rays of pure light, burning and blinding the Dark Elves wherever they struck.
Ungwe shrieked furiously in her own tongue, and charged at Glory. In her bone-white armor, she came rushing on like a skittering spider, her crossbow in one hand and a dagger in the other. Both dripped with a noxious poison.
"Your blood will feed the Darkstone, one way or the other!" Glory attempted to meet the assault with her own daggers, but she was no warrior. The barely parleyed attack sent her tiny frame sprawling to the earth. A fiendish grin lit up Ungwe's face as she readied her crossbow to finish the magess off. Joachim had to act quickly, but there was no way for him clear the distance, filled as it was with the drow's monstrous cavalry. He touched the bloodied tip of his spear to his forehead in benediction.
"Please, Incisor," he prayed. "Fly true!" Reaching with the last reserves of his strength, he threw the spear at Ungwe with as much force as he was able. The dragon-weapon seemed to take on a life of it's own in flight, rending the air of the clearing with a mighty roar, as though it were the very spirit of the great beast from whose fang it was carved. Ungwe watched the blade coming, and twisted out of its path, but not quickly enough to avoid a great wound to her right arm as the pike passed through the air where she had been. She screamed, her magic crossbow tumbled from her hands. Joachim was already on his feet, clearing the distance between them. Ungwe dove to find the bow, but a pair of the light spirits converged upon her, driving her deeper into the woods with their holy bolts.
"Are you alright?" Joachim asked.
"I'm fine, or were you talking to the spear?"
"I know she's OK. Something like that wouldn't break her," he said, pulling the shaft from the earth. "But what have we here?" He transfered spear to his left hand while he bent down to examine the crossbow. "Darkwood with, if I'm not mistaken, mithril facings, and hey now, an Ironwood stock. What's that little crossbow? You need a new home?"
"Boys and their toys," Glory sighed.
"Speaking of which, what are we going to do about this?" Joachim asked, putting down the bow and pointing at the altar.
Joachim and Glory looked down at the stone. The carvings were somehow darker than the rough black rock, and they seemed to squirm in their vision, defying their ability to read them. From what Glory could make out, she wasn't sure she wanted to. A cold wind blew through the dark forest.
"Well, what do you think, Joachim? Can you break this toy?"
"Are you sure you don't mind?"
"It needs to be done. Even if We'll do it together on the count of three. Ready?"
"As I'll ever be." He raised the spear above the stone with both hands. He felt it quiver with anticipation, ready to absorb the surging energy of the spell. Glory counted off and cast her counter spell. Joachim brought down the spear.
It felt as though a wave of purest cold went through him, traveling up through the spear and into his hands. He pushed through it, as though he were trudging trough the heart of every snowy, moonless night there ever was. The spear bit deeper and farther, grasping for all of the strange, black energy it could devour. A formless void seemed to pull him down forever.
And then, all of the sudden, he felt the tip hit soft dirt, and the pressure was gone. He had cleft the stone in two. Immediately above them, the spell was lifting. Shafts of morning sunlight shone down into the forest, clear and cloudless. It would be a fine day.
The remaining Drow quickly retreated, clutching their eyes and covering their jet skin as best they could. The forest elves who were still standing pursued them to their hole, capturing or killing those they could. Ungwe dived for the hole, still clutching her right arm, which hung limp and useless at her side. Despite the harsh glare from the sun, she glared back one last time at Glory and Joachim.
"This isn't over. None escape the Underkingdom! Our revenge will come!" She shouted. Almost lazily, Joachim fired a bolt at her from the crossbow. It sparkled through the air and whizzed just inches above the Drow's head. Ungwe ignored it, and turned and headed down deeper into the earth. She gave a guttural command, and as though the earth itself obeyed her, the tunnel collapsed behind her. Joachim briefly wondered if whatever unseen slave was manning the tunnel managed to escape the collapse. He doubted it.
They found Rose where she had collapsed. She was still unconscious, but the bandages were holding, and it looked like the worst of the bleeding had stabilized.
"Glory, you still have a healing potion left, right?" Joachim asked.
"I was saving it." She said defensively.
"Please heal the Cleric who ended up not killing us."
"Purely through accident if you ask me."
"Just feed her the damn potion."
"You owe me a new potion, then."
"She can heal you when she's conscious, plus she's paying us. Consider it 'expenses'." He reached down and cleared her mouth while Glory poured the potion down her throat. After a moment, Rose's eyelids flickered, She coughed and opened her eyes. She sat up blinking in the sunshine. Her hands immediately went to her side, and she winced. The potion had brought her back from the edge, but she was still grievously injured. She spent a few minutes praying, and healed herself and any other survivors she could find. Unfortunately, there were many it was too late for.
The Wood Elves had pushed their evil cousins back underground, but their forrest had been grievously hurt by their intrusion, and many of their fellows had fallen to spider fangs and Drow bolts. King Thallon himself was among those found dead, having taken a poisoned wound to the shoulder while leading the defense of the archers. It fell to his heir, a boy of perhaps only one hundred, to send the adventurers on their way, their bags filled with stout ironwood ready for carving. The ceremony was solemn and short. At the end, Glory turned to Rose and did something Joachim had rarely seen her do: Apologize.
"I was wrong to have suspected you as I did. If you want to come with us, we could use your magic." She said, bowing low. Rose smiled, a tear in the corner of her eye.
"Maybe someday I will see the world, but for now my place is here, with my people. The Sylvan Elves will be forever in your debt, mighty heroes. Go with the Lady of the Forrest's blessing." The pair left the woods and headed back towards the city. As they walked, Joachim hefted Engwe's crossbow, which he had decided to keep.
"Well, we made enough to have the squirt raised, earned the respect of the Elves, and I got a new crossbow. Not a bad night's work, eh Glory?" He asked, experimentally sighted a rabbit. "Bang," he said, pretending to fire. The creature scampered back into the underbrush.
"Except that I was nearly sacrificed to Demons, again." Gloria sighed.
"Par for the course. Remember those lizard guys last year?"
"Like I could forget. Let's get going," she said.
"Where are we going?"
"Potion shop first, then the temple," she replied.


I finally got a chance to really speak with Gloria. Correction. I finally worked up the nerve to face her. The boat felt like a place of death. The crew was cleaning the deck and giving first aid to the passengers. A few were missing, but Tina was the only passenger killed. A pair of crewmen didn't make it, but the others are doing well enough to survive. Hilda went below and sequestered herself in a cabin to pray. The captain has been busy directing the efforts of the cleanup, as well as the prisoners. Not all of the pirates escaped. Three of them are dead. I killed one. The other one is very badly burned by the spell. He probably won't make it to morning. I've killed him, and he's still breathing, in ragged gasps. I can hear it from here. They've put him on a stretcher and done what they can for him, but gods, how could I have done this to a man? I try to focus on the fact that he's a pirate, a kidnapper. He would have done horrible things to me, or to someone else. He probably already has. The world is a darker place than I had thought it would be. Is this my grand adventure?
Gloria and I talked, but I couldn't really think of anything to say to her. We moved away from the injured, and I stood at the rail, where I had spoken with Mr. K the other day. Had it really been that short? The railing was designed for human height, and Gloria pulled herself up against it and used a small crate as a footstool. She almost seemed like a child looking out over the riverbank, but the image was broken when she looked at me with serious eyes and said: "You've been holding out on me."
"What?" I asked.
"You've been studying, too." She said simply. "At first, I was a little upset, you know, after the incident in the ruins. But you've saved us twice over."
"Gloria, that's... That's not it." I stammered. I suddenly resolved to tell her the truth, or rather not hide from her anymore.
"I understand. Magic's a pretty scary thing. It sounds all right on paper, but then you're doing it, and someone's dying in front of you. I nearly was sick after that time on the cart." She looked back out over the water.
"You were?" I asked. I was too relieved that we had been rescued to take much notice of her, I realized. I haven't been a very good friend after all.
"Of course." She said. "I killed someone. Who wouldn't feel sick? I'll tell you a little secret, and I think it's the same as your's. My grandmother didn't teach me."
"What?" I asked. Could we be the same after all? I felt suddenly very nervous.
"Well, I've been sneaking her books since I was eight. I didn't really understand them at first, but I just felt like I couldn't watch her back forever. I want to be great, like she was. So I taught myself, in secret. You're self-taught too, right?" She smiled, and I felt like I had been smacked in the chest. We weren't the same after all. I took a deep breath.
"S-something like that. Gloria, I've never studied." I said.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that I didn't learn magic in books. I just have the spells." It didn't sound like a good explanation, but it was all I could manage.
"You're pulling my leg," Gloria looked back at me, incredulous. I decided to tell her everything from the beginning.
"I wish I was. Just after Grandfather died, when I was eight, things started happening around the house. Doors would slam, dishes would break. Things like that. At first, we thought it was a ghost or something ethereal. The neighbors had a nest of magical rats in their basement, so as long as things stayed small, we didn't worry about it. But when we fled to Lithia, the events only became stronger, and more frequent. We wondered if it was Grandfather's spear, but we had an exorcist come, and he couldn't find anything. By the time I was thirteen, I knew it was me."
"What do you mean?" She asked.
"Well, it's hard to explain in words. I'd want something to happen, some small thing, or if I would be angry, or hurt, sometimes something would happen. I was able to change the world, in small ways."
"So, if you aren't a mage, what are you?" Gloria asked. She was remarkably calm.
"I don't know. Grandmother wrote to the Academy, and they sent for me. I honestly don't know what she wrote, though. There wasn't any way for me to stay in Lithia, though."
"Why not?"
"It's human politics. Wizardry is dominated by the Gnomes, and the elves, so they're distrusted as spies and witches."
"That's pretty stupid. The Five Races should be working together."
"Yeah, but it's tough to see that when you're behind a wall. Lithia isn't a city of magic. It's a crime to practice it there, so I had to leave."
"A crime? What would they have done to you?"
"At my age? I don't know. But there are a lot of beggars down in the Golden Square who're blind and mute as punishment for casting spells."
"How awful!" Gloria nearly lost her grip on the railing, and settled herself down to the deck. "I knew things were bad in the Capital, but not to that extent."
"I don't know. I think that if I work hard and become a real wizard, like your grandmother, I can, I don't know, fix it."
"You shouldn't worry about fixing yourself, Lizzeth" She said quietly. "I've been thinking, since we started traveling."
"About what?" I asked.
"About Tarry."
"Your brother? I'm sure he's alright. Don't worry." I said, trying to reassure her. She was always worrying about him.
"No, that's just it. When we were living safely behind the walls, I was always chasing after him and trying to keep him under control. But that is the last thing I should have been doing, I think. He's a berserker, Lizzeth. A barbarian, like something out of an old legend. At first, I though that it was like a curse on us. But it isn't. It's a blessing."
"A blessing?" This wasn't what I had expected her to say.
"When the war between the gods finished, it brought an end to the age of the world. They redrew all the maps and changed some of the very laws of nature itself. The gods didn't just create havoc, they created new beings and brought them into the world, or they brought back ones thought lost, like Tarry."
"I haven't really thought about it that way," I said.
"Since we left the city, we've been in constant danger. You lost your home in Hydraal to the hordes. The world is a more dangerous place than it was even during our grandparent's day. So maybe you and Tarry are the kind of people that the gods want to make the Third Age."
"Oh, Gloria." I was crying. I had expected her to be afraid of me, but she just smiled, if a bit sadly.
"Don't get complacent, though. I'll be studying hard. I'm going to surpass Her, after all." We looked out towards the smokey dawn, and the city. Standing on the railing, our heights were equal. I followed her eyes to the pillars of cloud. Carabien: The City of Illusion.
"Right," I said, and wiped away a tear. There didn't seem time for them anymore.

The Pirate Attack

Now that we're close to the city, the Magus finally poked his head out. I'm so angry that I can't even look at him. He's the strongest person on this boat. Well, not physically, of course, but I would have expected him to at least have had the courage to fight of the pirates like he did those bandit slavers. But no. He cowered in his cabin while she...
Start at the beginning. It's the only way a story gets told. Let me start again. Last night, we were attacked by pirates. I was sitting on deck, huddled by the forward lamp for light, writing, when the first arrows thudded into the deck. Then came the arrows with the burning heads. I don't know if we were still in the canal or we were back on the river, but the water was wide, and it was filled with rowboats.
Each boat had three people in it, an oarsman and two archers. They circled the boat, blocked it off in both directions, and began firing without warning. The people sleeping on deck awoke in a panic. A siren started, and the crew scrambled to equip themselves. But they were horribly outnumbered. I counted at least eight boats. We needed the magicians.
I reached the lower-forward cabin that the Magi were sharing, and hammered on the door. I got no answer. I knocked harder. Finally, I heard a voice from inside. It was Magus Ceylon's.
"Please leave me be." The voice called, piteously.
"Magus, it's Lizzeth. May I come in?" I asked.
"You may not. Leave me be." He repeated.
"Magus, pirates are attacking the ship. We need your help." I pounded on the door again. It held fast.
"The crew is more than capable of handling it themselves. Cease disturbing my meditations."
"The crew's being overrun! We need you out there! Please, Magus!"
"I am very busy, and cannot be disturbed. Leave me be, Apprentice!"
"Is Mr. K there? The crew will all be killed!"
"Mr. K received a sending, and left the ship at Lockhill."
"I see." For all his power, the magus would do nothing to help the ship. Mr. K was gone as well. I never saw Magus Periel return to the boat at Lockhill. The crew would be without magical assistance. Would it have to come to us sinking for him to recognize the danger? All I had was my knife, but I wasn't about to let everyone down. I had to do this on my own, after all.
I raced back up to the deck as fast as I could. The ship was in chaos. I was lost in the smoke, screams, and scent of blood. I nearly threw up. But then I looked and I saw those who could fight back, doing so, and fighting hard. I saw Gloria already on deck and trying to help the wounded. The crew had set up a line of defense at the bow of the ship. Hilda was there with an axe in one hand and a flail in the other. She cut a good figure for a junior priestess. She was covering them while Gloria and Melody carried the wounded. Corrina had found a crossbow somewhere, and was using it how she could. Tina had a healer's kit and was using it to heal who she could. I had to do something.
All I had on me was a knife, and in my pocket, the pendant. It is, I am sure, magical, but I don't know what it does. It could do anything. And I didn't even have any idea how to use it. I thought about what Periel had told me, though. Magic as confidence. In the Barrow, I had done what I could because I had to. When the raiders attacked, did I fail because I had father and Gloria to protect me? I concentrated, and opened myself up tried to concentrate. The chaos around me hadn't subsided. It was so hard to think, to find a center. But it was time. I breathed in deeply, smelling the fire and blood. I tried to stay calm. If I lashed out wildly, I could hurt one of the girls. and suddenly, it was there.
It is difficult to explain how it happened, although now I have a clearer idea of how the magic works than I did in the ruins. It's intuitive, like a first language. If Wizards cast spells by learning runes and spells, maybe I already know them, or have forgotten them. It's like I'm remembering the face of someone who's name I can't remember. I just focused on the problem, and I remembered the solution. Pirates were hurting my friends, and innocent people. I had to protect them, to attack the pirates like I had the skeletons in the ruins. And I remembered the spell I didn't know.
I pull the fire from the air, and let it fill my hands. I strain against it, taking all I can, until a ruby sphere of flames rests in each hand. The words of the spell, words I can't fully hear, much less really understand, pass through me like waves, and I pull my arms back and release the flames. The spell rushes to a climax and I let it go, screaming. "Flame Bolt!"
Two streaks of fire cut through the night air. The pirates look up in terror. One is struck in the chest, and another in the back. The force of the blast sends both of them sprawling. Hilda and Corrina redoubled their efforts. The tide was turning.
There was a shout to withdraw from one of the boats. A few of them were laden down with supplies or possessions, but otherwise it seems as though they were being repelled. The two I had shot weren't moving, but the others were backing down. They were dressed in rags, and those without bows were carrying clubs. They had pushed forward on numbers. Now, they were tripping over each other to retreat. Tina looked up at me and screamed.
"Behind you Lizzeth!" I turned and saw one of the pirates behind me drawing a bow, trying to get one last good shot before he escaped. The bow was pointing at me. I reached out and pulled more magic from the air.
"Ray of Frost!" a tiny cone of freezing air spread from the tip of my outstretched finger. The pirate, not twenty feet from me, Raised his hands to protect himself. The bow went off with the twang of a breaking string, sending an arrow his into the inky darkness of the night sky. The man slipped and fell over the side. I never saw him again. Because that was when the arrow landed, and Tina screamed again, very quickly.
The arrow had hit her in the throat. She died almost instantly. I ran, Hilda ran, the others all ran to her, but Hilda didn't have anything left. She couldn't say the spell. I couldn't think of a spell, either. What good is being able to make magic, if it isn't there when you need it?

The Tale of the Magic Crossbow pt4: Prisoners of the Underkingdom

Dawn came washed out and smoky. The boat's slowed, and in the haze, I can just make out the towers of Carabos downriver, their tops lost in the, I don't know what. Smoke? Fog? I don't know if this is just morning in the city, or a pall that remains from last night.
I'm not ready to write about what happened last night. Everything's still sort of jumbled. Everything I wrote about yesterday feels so unimportant now. So much has happened. The boat is a fire-smelling wreck, but we're still floating, somehow.
How could this have happened? We were in the city's shadow for gods' sakes. How could HE have let this happen? Grandfather never sat and sulked when someone was in danger. He never slacked off when something needed to be done. Not even when he had every right to. He was a man of action, a hero. Was he the last one? I'm going to write the next part of his story, now.
Joachim awoke in a dark cell. His armor and equipment were gone. He was alone, and couldn't even see the moon. Somewhere nearby, he heard deep breathing. Guards, he guessed. He had been tied to some earthen wall. He grinned, darkly. They were, he thought, making it almost too easy to be fun. His hands were bound, but he managed to get two fingers into his mouth and whistle. Ahead in the darkness, the guards jumped to their feet. One of them threated him in Undercommon, but since he didn't know the language, Joachim ignored him. He just counted down silently, straining to hear the sound of his enchanted spear, spinning through the air, guided to his location by the ancient and unfathomable powers of the Elder Dragons. It was a high whistle, as though returning his call with one of its own. It was an unstoppable force. The Dragon Spear, Incisor.
Incisor is a short spear of untold power. When he wielded it, the weapon seemed almost alive, filled with emotion, rage and energy. Even Joachim didn't know everything about it, having received it as recognition for defending Dragonkind. What he did know was that unlike most weapons of it's kind, it was without loyalties or bias. Some swords are made to battle evil, and some axes thirst for innocent blood. Incisor was a spear made by dragons to slay dragons. Beyond that, it let it's bearer guide it without malice or interference. Some sages say that the spear is chaotic, others lawful, but it does not side with either the children of Bahamut, the Platinum, or Tiamat the five-headed. There is a story, too long to recount here, that implied that the spear was a sort of on-going bet between two Ancient wyrms, a red, and a gold. In any event, the spear had a tendency to travel from one horde to another, passing through the claws of this dragon or that, to be presented to a mortal champion, that he may slay the opposite number of the patron. Thus, the gold dragon who presented it to Joachim placed it in her horde by taking it off the corpse of an evil warrior, who had himself received it from the collected spoils of a great blue dragon, who had slain the mighty, but not quite mighty enough paladin who had wielded it before him, in a cycle on down through the centuries. Maybe my grandfather should have left it to someone when he retired, but he said he never found a worthy heir for the wyrms' weapon. So it's our "ancestral weapon" now. If I ever become an adventurer, maybe I'll get to use it. Of course, I don't think that was my family's idea when they sent me down south. I think I'll probably just get my status as wizard and run the family business, or establish a side business in the trade. It'd be fun to run a magic shop. It would certainly be safer.
From where the Drow had secured it, Incisor heard and responded to Joachim's call. It returned to his hand, splintering first the crate it had been left in, and then the bars that held Joachim. The guards had the foresight to duck. With a practiced hand, Joachim caught his spear. The gate was now open, and he felt confident. So did the guards.
They rushed him as soon as he stepped out of the cell. The first one ran right Incisor's tooth, and his life was eaten. Joachim strained with all of his mighty strength and hurled the corpse at his enemy, knocking him prone. Greedily, the spear pulled itself forward, and ate a second life. Joachim moved out into the darkness. They were holding Glory somewhere else, and he needed to find her before the Drow finished whatever it was they were planning for her.
It was impossible to say in the magical darkness wether it was day or night, but the settlement was quiet, so Joachim assumed that the rest of the camp was sleeping. He couldn't remember the way he had brought. He had been turned around every which way after he had been captured. Now, he was lost.
He heard a voice calling out to him in the dark. A woman was calling his name in a sharp whisper. Joachim turned and followed it, hoping it was Glory. He was disappointed to find it belonged to Rose. She was confined in a shaped cell much like his own, but unguarded. He felt his way along the bars, and when he came face to face with her, he scowled. She had been beaten very badly, but he couldn't find it in himself to pity her.
"Hello, Rose." He said with contempt.
"Joachim. You've escaped! There is still hope." Rose whispered.
"Not for you. I'm afraid the contract's been voided. I'm collecting my magic user, and we're getting out of here."
"You have to help us. They'll kill us all!" She reached out through the bars with her slender wrist. Joachim stared at it for a minute, easily stepping outside of her grasp.
"Well, that was my concern before you led us straight into a trap. Now, I'm not so worried."
"I, I'm sorry. But there is still time. Please, let me explain."
"I'm listening, but this qualifies as hazard pay now."
"Nearly everything I've said to you was true. The Drow tunneled to the surface and surprised us. The Ranger Corps was taken by surprise. They had found some way to bring the darkness with them, a way which our magicians could not dispel. The camps were very quickly overrun."
"And you turned traitor to save your skin, is that it?"
"No, you do not understand. Even though our main force was anialated, we quickly formed a resistance. The forest is our home, and Elvish warfare relies heavily on hit-and-run tactics. But things were moving too slowly. We couldn't keep them at bay. They have a magical device, a relic of some kind. They call it 'Moresar,' the night stone. Ever since they arrived, it's been active, and the dome of night is growing in its wake. The forest is dying because of it."
"Ain't that a shame. Don't see what it has to do with me, though."
"I let myself get captured by the Drow. I was acting as a spy for the remaining Wood Elves. I found out how they were powering the night stone. They sacrifice wizards to it. Their arcane essences are bound to it, and your friend is next."
"Then I'd better hurry." He turned to go.
"Wait! The Drow are running out of wizards to sacrifice, and they can't face the natural light without the stone. I let them send me, to bring you here, but I was going to meet up with the resistance when we returned. I should have told you, but the pair following me... Complicated matters."
"Do tell."
"When we returned to the forrest, I found that the resistance had fallen, and Lady Ungwe ruled the forest unopposed."
"That would be the Drow Commander," he said. It wasn't a question.
"Indeed. She is a fearsome warrior, and her subjects follow her unquestioningly. They would gladly die for her. Many already have."
"Do you have any idea of how many are left?"
"More of them arrive from the Underdark every day. They work to establish a fortress here. I would say three hundred, at least."
"Too many even for Incisor to fill up on, then. But can I trust you?"
"I swear to the Earth Mother, on the grave of every elf who has died by their hand, I will serve you honestly and faithfully, until the forest is ours once again. May my soul never find rest in the glades of Alfheim should I fail you." She intoned solemnly.
"Good enough for me." Joachim reached out and sliced through the lock with Incisor. The Ironwood snapped easily.
"Such a weapon..." She said, admiringly as he swung the gate open. She was wearing the green dress and cleric's robes that she was wearing when he had met her, but the fabric had been rent and torn. They holy symbols had been removed, exposing pale flesh beneath. She noticed him staring, and covered herself as best she could with her hands. "Sir Joachim, please." She said primly. He finally looked away, and led them forward, away from the cell.
"Right, right. The first order of business is getting ourselves prepared. Do you know where they would have taken our supplies? I called my spear, but I'll need my armor."
"I believe I can guide us there, although I am unsure as to whether my magic will be effective against the Drow. Come close to me, and I will give us a chance." She pulled him close and touched him on the forehead, as though anointing him. She prayed over him quietly, and whispered the final word of her spell. "Invisibility!" Joachim vanished. "Goddess be praised, she is still with us. However, I cannot cast the spell again."
"Then what should we do?"
"If you remain quiet, I can do something else. Change Self!" Rose's features changed and hardened, and after a moment, Joachim was looking not at her, but at Lady Ungwe. He readied Incisor.
"No, Joachim, it's still me." She said in Rose's voice. "I've taken the Drow Woman's form. Now, stay quiet and follow me." She led him through the forest, and though there was little light, he could see signs of how badly the Drow had destroyed this place. The few of them they passed were leading slaves, the Wood Elves, in seemingly random and humiliating tasks. One group was building rambling, pointless walls, and another was tearing them down, stone by stone. Joachim watched the hatred flash on Rose's face, but the guards, who snapped to close, silent attention when she passed, must have only interpreted this as hate for the slaves, rather than the slave drivers. The pair of them reached the storage center unmolested. The site itself was swarming with Dark Elves. The building was low, and formed of squat mud bricks. A few of them collapsed where Incisor had passed through the wall. One brick had been cleft neatly in twain by the spear's head. There were five Drow milling around and looking at the evidence. Two with scimitars were standing guard at the door, and there were the voices of others coming from inside, but Joachim couldn't see them in the dark. When they saw Rose, they all snapped to attention, but had curious, confused expressions on their faces.
"Forgive me, my lady," one of the guards said at last. "But did you not just enter the warehouse?" It was at this moment that the real Ungwe, with her retainer of two additional Drow woman warriors, stepped out into the eternal night.