Skin of Glass

An Ancient Conflict

Kesk saw the elf as she stepped from cover. Before he could call out a warning, before he could even consider how she managed to sneak past all his sentries, she had done something that enveloped Sheepa and the three orcs with her in a cloud of bright colours. He started running down the path towards her.

She moved forward, the cloud moving with her. Kesk could hear the sound of wind blowing, and, almost overwhelmed by the wind, the cries of anger and surprise from the orcs.

As she moved towards those cries one of the orcs was revealed. Scracka, Kesk thought, recognising him by his spiked helmet. Still blinded by whatever it was that the wind blew, ears likely ringing from the noise, he was confused, perhaps completely unaware that his death stood beside him.

The elf's sword stabbed forward, sliding under his helmet and into his neck.

Next was Sheepa. She may have been aware of what was happening. It almost looked as if she had raised her sword to block, but it was too slow. The elf's sword cut deep into Sheepa's side, and there was a splash of blood as she fell.

Ashka fell next, the double-bladed axe that he was so proud of useless.

Finally Dregan was cut down, his head taken right from his shoulders. As he fell the elf turned towards Kesk, her sheath, the object from which the wind blew, pointed at him.

He was on the edge of that blast, the wind was weak by the time it reached him, and the blossoms within it fluttered down around him without blinding him. He stopped, put his spear out in front of him, and began calling out his prayers to Gruumsh. He called for strength, protection, speed, all the blessings that he might ask for. He would see the elf dead.

The wind stopped, the blossoms fell to the ground, blanketing it in the sweet smelling colours of spring. The elf strode forward, stopping some distance from him. She stood there, grim faced, confident.

Kesk shifted his spear so it was pointed at her. "Come to your death," he said, smiling.

He had hoped that by this time she might be wounded and surrounded by his orcs so that she could not escape, and so that the orcs might see her death. It was how he had wanted things, but he was certain that he could still succeed in seeing her dead.

The elf drove the sheath's tip into the blossom-covered ground, leaving it to stand up. She held her sword in front of her, the flat of the blade facing him like a shield, two fingers of her other hand placed on the flat of the blade. She did not move from that stance.

Kesk shifted his spear in his hands, the tip tracing out a large circle, seeking her capture her attention and focus it on the black metal. Finally he charged, hoping to take her for a moment unaware.

The elf remained still, holding her post and position. He though she would move out of the way and he waited for the shifting of her balance that would indicate which way she would move. Her stance remained unchanged, her balance centred. He realised that she was not going to move. Instead she rotated the sword she held, dropping the hilt, letting it describe a circle of its own. The blade caught the tip of his spear, hard, driving it down so it passed by her side.

The fingers she had placed on the blade shifted up the flat side, moving from hilt to tip. As Kesk's charge brought him close to her he felt the Gruumsh granted strength and speed drop from his limbs, dispelled by the power of that sword.

Misara shifted to her left as she called on the power of the sword to dispel any magic that the orc might have called up. She grabbed the sheath as she moved, holding it in her left hand, swinging it up into a guard position.

Kesk reacted quickly. He lifted the long spear he carried, the tip moving rapidly into the air. Then he shifted his stance and swung at her with the iron-shod butt of the spear.

She blocked the swing with the sheath, and then dodged back as he reversed the swing and drove the butt towards her. He swung the spear around, handling the long weapon almost like a quarterstaff, making it blur, as he brought the spear tip to point at her.

Misara circled to her left, watching him move, getting a feel for his style. Kesk moved only enough to keep the spearhead pointed at her. She shifted left, then stepped back to the right and charged at him. She knocked the spear to the side with the sheath, leaving him open. Or so she thought.

He was able to shift the spear shaft backwards incredibly fast, shortening the haft, allowing him to swing the weapon at her, using it more like an axe at that moment. Misara aborted her attack and used the sword to parry the blow.

It was the first time that sword and spearhead made contact. She felt it, like a shock, through her body, and the metal on metal sound was almost like a scream. For a moment they were face to face, only their weapons separating them.

Then Kesk made the shaft slide through his hands and brought the butt of the weapon swinging at her. She turned at the waist, swinging out with her sheath, parrying the blow. It was knocked wide, and glanced off her right shoulder.

She attacked again, but once more the spear moved impossibly fast in his hands and he parried her attack with the blade of his spear. Kesk then moved back, using the long spear to keep her from closing.

He was fast.

For a moment they stood facing each other, both waiting.

Kesk moved first, charging her with the spear. Misara held her ground and lunged out with sword and sheath, crossing them together in an X that she used to catch the shaft. She lifted her hands, pushing the spear over her head, and then ran straight at Kesk. He tried to push down on the spear, to break her hold on it, or to force her to her knees, but she was not overcome by his strength. Instead she forced his hands up as the shaft rose higher.

As she closed she turned slightly, pushing the spear off to the side. She followed up that with a kick, and planned to bring her sword into play again. The kick hit, but her sword was nearly pulled from her hands as it caught on the head of the spear.

Surprised, Misara kept her grip on her sword and weaved both sword and sheath in a complex pattern that would catch any attack.

Kesk stabbed at her, bashing aside her defence and very nearly piercing her left shoulder with the spearhead. As it was the edge of the spear cut the links of her armour and sliced a shallow cut into her skin.

His spear was shorter, she realised. It was not he moving the weapon with unnatural speed, it was the weapon shrinking and growing as he desired. One moment it was a long spear, the next a short spear, or any length in-between. Even the spearhead was able to alter its shape.

Apparently realising that she had seen through his ruse he spun the spear about in front of him, the weapon more a quarterstaff with a bladed end now.

Very well, Misara thought. She could deal with it now that she knew what the weapon was capable of.

She charged in, bartering aside the long spear that leapt out to skewer her. In close she traded blows with him, her sword ringing out on the elongated blade of a short spear. Even knowing what to expect she had difficulty with him. One moment the weapon's haft was short and the blade long, so it was more a sword. The next it had grown and he swung it around like a staff, catching her sword and sheath as she tried to batter through his defence.

Just when she though she had him worked into a pattern he took her by surprise. He swung the butt of the weapon at her, and when she shifted around it, he let it continue down until the iron-shod butt met ground and the spear stood perpendicular to the ground. She suspected that he would rotate the haft around, using it to knock both her sword and sheath aside and then use a suddenly shorter weapon to attack her while she was open.

Misara came in anyway, knowing a counter to such a movement. What Kesk did, however, was not something she had expected.

The spear shaft grew, lifting Kesk into the air at a great speed. He kicked out, his armoured boot snapping up, aimed directly at the bottom her chin. Misara moved to the right, taking the bow under her left arm instead.

It almost felt as if the shoulder came free of its socket, and the sheath she held flew free from momentarily nerveless fingers. She was lifted off her feet from the force of the kick, and fell stumbling back, off her balance.

Kesk followed after her, dropping forward, still holding the spear. When his feet touched ground he charged her and tried to spit her with a shortened spear. Unable to muster an effective counter Misara was forced to throw herself to the side in an ungainly dodge that did nothing to strengthen her position. It in fact weakened it.

She rolled to her feet, ready, her posture much more defensive than it had been at the beginning of the battle.

Kesk felt strong. Ever since he had begun his quest to destroy the elf he had felt a sense of rightness, as if Gruumsh watched over his work and approved of it. That sense had only grown since the fight had begun.

The elf had proven difficult. She had adapted quickly to his tactics, but he was certain that he could beat her. While Gruumsh was with him no elf would stand in his way.

He pressed his advantage, attacking hard and fast, determined to use strength and the abilities of his weapon to defeat her. And as she fell back under the strength of his attack he was certain of his victory.

Rowan set her last crossbow bolt into her crossbow. She looked out over the field, trying to pick her target. A group of goblins was trying to flank her and the others. She had already picked out a likely leader, a goblin larger than the rest, and waited for him to show himself. When he did she fired.

The goblin went down, the bolt buried deep in his chest.

"I'm out of bolts," she called to Thayla.

"We're getting low on arrows." She leaned over and pulled an arrow from the tree and nocked it. "At least they are sending a few over this way." She smiled, but Rowan could see the forced quality to it. The woman was frightened and likely doubting her ability to survive this fight.

Rowan was not certain herself. Had it been just her she was certain she could win free of the goblins, killing no few of them in the process. She did not think she could successfully escape with Thayla and the men with her, and she had no plans to abandon them.

"Provide me with a little cover fire if you can," Rowan told her.

"When you need it I'll see what we can do."

Rowan moved back through the copse, to where they had tied the horses. Rose Thorn looked at her and snorted, shifting his head back and forth.

"I know," she said, reaching up to scratch him between the ears. "Hold steady."

Rose Thorn pushed against her with his head, causing her to stumble backwards slightly.

"I never said it was a good plan," she told him, and then moved about to hook the crossbow back to the saddle and pull her shield free.

Rose Thorn looked back at her, watching her. He stomped his foot again.

"Not yet," she told him. "I'll call when I need you." She turned and moved off, skirting about the copse, watching for goblins.

She spotted one group, close by, and charged out among them. Several of the goblins let out shrieks, and even turned to flee. Misara ignored them and attacked the ones that stood their ground. Three fell in rapid succession before even managing to counter. She had smashed another down with her shield, then shifted the shield up to block a sword blow.

Pushing the shield up forced the goblin's sword out of guard. She slashed under the shield, cutting through the goblins ragged chain mail, opening up a long, fatal gash in its abdomen.

An arrow whistled nearby, flying off into the woods behind her. She swung her shield around to interpose it between her and the archers and began backing up towards the copse. She hoped Thayla and the others might be able to pick off the hobgoblin archers.

The goblins followed after her, whooping as they came, thinking her in retreat. When she had the trees of the copse at her back, proving cover from the arrows, she halted and swung out her sword with a powerful backhand. The blade easily overcame the goblin's parry and the blade continued on to chop deeply into the creature's neck.

Another goblin tried to stop, but ended up stumbling forward, almost falling at her feet. Part of her felt sorry for the small beast, but that did not stop her from cutting down and finishing it off.

The rest of the goblins turned and ran. She did not follow but instead began circling back around the copse.

She had killed about six of the goblins, and sent that many again running away. Her strategy would work a few more times, but the archers would become quicker in their response, and the goblins would probably change their tactics as well. It was not a solution, just a way to give them more time.

The shadows had begun to grow long. The sun would set in a few hours at most. She did not know whom the darkness would favour, assuming that there was still fighting when that time came.

On the other side of the copse she charged another group of goblins, managing to take down two before incoming arrows forced her to retreat. An arrow hit her shield hard enough to push her to the side even as it bounced off. One of the goblins rushed forward with a spear, trying to stab at her. She drove the hilt of her sword down, hitting the spearhead, sending it plunging into the ground. As the goblin was brought to a hard halt by its own spear she sliced it across the face and sent it stumbling away.

The goblins that followed her as she retreated towards the copse did so with more caution than their fellows on the other side had shown. She was only able to wound one before they retreated in an almost orderly manner.

She and the others were going to have to retreat into the actual forest, Rowan realised. Once among the trees they could move out of the area, and any goblins that followed them would be denied the support offered by the archers. Hopefully they would not run into anything too dangerous.

She heard some shouts from the goblins, and a large shadow passed over the ground. She looked up and saw a large, winged form pass overhead. For an instant she feared it was one of the green dragons that were known to inhabit the Forest of Wyrms. A moment later she realised it was a pegasi, a winged horse with a rider upon it back.

The horse banked sharply, and she saw the rider extend one hand towards the ground. From the rider's hand sprang forth bolts of magical energy that streaked down to hit several goblins.

There was another pegasus, with another rider, and that rider carried a large staff. From the staff washed a curtain of fire that set several goblins ablaze. Rowan did not give much thought to the identity or intentions of her rescuers; she just let out a piercing whistle that brought Rose Thorn running to her side.

"Let's not let them get all the glory, eh," she said as she vaulted into his saddle.

Rose Thorn whinnied and tossed his head as she mounted, and then, at her direction, charged forward.

The aerial attack had thrown the goblins into disarray, and the hobgoblins had turned their attention and bows to the pegasi above them. She watched as one of the hobgoblins loosed an arrow, but the arrow did not even come close to its target, deflected as if blown away by strong winds. It did not get the chance to fire a second. Rowan took the hobgoblin's head from his shoulders as Rose Thorn thundered past.

Rowan saw the pegasi rider above her lift his staff, as if a saluting her, then he turned his mount and flew off after a group of fleeing goblins.

Rowan pushed Rose Thorn hard, charging him across the field and demanding that the stallion make tight turns as she herded the goblins back into the open, keeping them from seeking the safety of the ravines, allowing the pegasi riders to rain spells down on them.

In a short time the field was empty of living goblins, and the number of dead who lay about were large in number. Rowan pulled Rose Thorn to a stop and leapt from his back, moving to examine the man who had been first felled by the hobgoblins. She had hoped he might have survived, but by the wound she suspected he had died almost instantly.

One of the pegasi landed upon the ground nearby, and its rider, a middle-aged, handsome man with a long blond beard, jumped down to the ground. He was the one with the staff.

"Well met," he said as he approached her. "Do I have the honour of addressing Rowan Jassan?" His tone and bearing were formal, and yet he smiled, as if to soften the edges of the address.

"It is I who have the honour of meeting you. Please, let me know your names so I may thank you properly."

He laughed. "I am Kirksin, called Blonde Beard by some, and that Lady Jassan," and he pointed towards the second pegasi, that had just landed, "is Stedd Tallcrest, my friend and sometimes apprentice."

Stedd was a younger man, tall and thin, with short brown hair and dark skin. He remained mounted upon the pegasus, watching the area about them, but nodded politely to her as he was introduced.

"Kirksin, Stedd Tallcrest, thank you very much for your aid."

Kirksin smiled. "I am always pleased to help a lady. I see you are not alone."

Rowan saw that Thayla and her two companions had gathered up their horses and were riding towards them.

"Well met good sir," Thayla called. "Did the lady Halacanter send you?"

Kirksin nodded. "She did indeed."

"Perhaps this is not the best time to speak," Stedd called over to them. "The scent of so much blood may bring things out of the forest that we do not wish to meet."

"My young friend has a point," Kirksin said.

"We have other companions out here, and we still have to find the children" Thayla said.

"So they told us at Serpent's Cowl. Do they still live?"

"I am sure that Misara and Olpara still live," Rowan said.

"The children are still alive," Thayla stated in a tone that brooked no argument.

"Very well. There is a ravine not far from here that will take you to the river and it is open to the sky most of the way so that I may watch over you from above," Kirksin said. "Stedd, take to the air, see if you can spot anyone."

"Right." The young man put his heels to his steed's side and the pegasi launched itself into the air.

"We only have until the sun begins to set," Kirksin said as he pulled himself onto his pegasi. "Then it will be too day to fly."

"Let's go," Rowan said as she mounted Rose Thorn. "As you say, we are racing the sun."

Kesk came on strong, spinning his spear about him, forcing Misara to deal with attacks coming in from all sides. She met those attacks, parrying them, dodging them, and finding holes in Kesk's defences, breaking his stride and forcing him to build up his momentum each time.

She had yet to find a way to push completely past his defences so as to end the fight decisively. There had to be a way, she was certain of that, but at the moment she could not find it.

He lunged at her, his spear tip moving in a circle. Sword in both hands she moved backwards, trying to knock the spearhead to the side so she might move in. Not that doing so would give her a huge advantage, but her sword required her to close.

She knocked the spear high and charged in, her sword held above her head, in contact with the spear shaft. The action caused her left shoulder to blossom with pain, but she did her best to put it from her mind. She could feel the spear shifting, shortening, through the contact she had with it through her sword. When he swung the butt up at her she was ready for it, shifting around, spinning to her right, coming around behind him.

Kesk drove his spear down behind him, to block the attack on his back, but Misara continued her spin, coming up on his right, stabbing forward at the side of his breast plate, the blade cutting the leather straps that held it closed.

Kesk threw himself to his side before the sword could pierce deeply, but she saw the blood staining the severed leather straps. He landed on his shoulder, his spear shortening significantly so it did not interfere with his roll. When he came up onto his knees he stabbed the spear out towards Misara. The shaft lengthened with the speed of an arrow and Misara barely managed to knock it aside.

She reached out and grabbed the spear's shaft. It was like grabbing a red-hot iron, a burning sensation felt through the leather and steel of her gauntlet. She held on to it, and when Kesk tried to pull it from her hands she let herself go with it. It pulled her directly at him.

He acted fast, thrashing the spear to the side, to pull her off her path. Misara reacted faster, releasing the spear and continuing her charge right at him.

The spear shortened in his hands and he tried to bring it around to block her. He would not be fast enough. This time she had the opening she wanted. And as she raised her sword and lashed out at him, she felt as if she were not completely in charge of her decisions.

She passed by Kesk.

He screamed.

She brought herself to a stop, sliding around so she was facing him.

Kesk had spun, still bellowing.

Something fluttered to the ground between them. It was Kesk's eye patch.

There was a deep cut across his face, over where his left eye had once been. Had it not been missing Misara knew that she would have taken it.

"Shall we see where this fight will go?" she asked.

A scream of pure rage tore from Kesk's throat and he came at her, all mindless anger, swinging the spear around him so that it blurred. There was no technique to his attack, just pure strength and fury.

Misara did not try to meet those attacks. She avoided them, slipping around them, dodging to the side, moving as if she danced. With any other opponent in such a rage she would wait for him to burn out, to tire, but she did not think that Kesk would. His rage was driven by something beyond mortal fury. Instead she was waiting for the moment when the rage fell away and the cold, calculating warrior returned: For that instant where he would be uncertain and off balance.

It came as he held the spear high above his head, ready to bring it down where she stood. She could see it in the way he held himself, as he tried to move into a stance that did not leave him so exposed.

Misara leapt in, swinging her sword to knock the spear away. Not able to bring the sword around fast enough to attack she drove her elbow into his face. Her mailed elbow slammed into his mouth and she heard a sound like branches breaking.

Kesk took his right hand from his spear and tried to punch her. Misara shifted her head to the side, his gauntleted first almost brushing her ear. Before she could dodge to the side he opened his hand and grabbed hold of her hair, twisting it around his fingers.

Misara's hair turned from black to silver as an enchantment cast long ago turned each strand to steel. As he pulled, the thin, sharp strands cut through the steel and leather of his gauntlet, cutting his hand and severing his smallest finger. He released his hold on her hair, throwing it away from him. Misara spun away from him, hardly hindered.

They ended up standing some distance from each other, their gazes locked.

Kesk spat out blood and teeth. He put his maimed hand on the shaft of his spear, holding it as if his hand did not pain him at all.

Misara looked at him and felt a strange excitement she could not quite understand. There were at least ten ways she could think to end the battle, to kill Kesk. There were at least that many ways that he might kill her.

She was not afraid.

In the distance she heard the sound of an explosion. Her firetrap activating she supposed.

She charged forward.

Kesk stabbed forward with his spear.

Misara shifted to the side and drove the spear down with her left forearm. She shifted back, leaping up, coming down on the spear's shaft, the burning pain felt through her boots, pushing the spearhead into the ground.

Kesk tried to free the weapon, but for the moment Misara's weight held it tight.

She ran several steps up the spear, even as it shrunk. She leapt from it, launching herself towards him. Her sword led, the tip aimed right at his throat. He could not bring his spear up quickly enough to block or force her back. He could not move fast enough to dodge out of her way.

He drove his chin down against his chest, protecting his throat.

Misara's sword tip hit the nose guard of his helmet with a loud, ringing sound. The blade tip deeply scoured the metal before sliding up, under the helmet, cutting deep into the skin over his right eye. The sword continued up, cutting scalp and taking the helmet from his head.

Misara's lunge had her sailing over Kesk's shoulder. She hit the ground, rolled, and spun as she came to her feet.

Kesk had also turned, and lashed out with his spear, but the attack was poorly aimed. The copious blood flow from the head wound washed his right eye in red, nearly blinding him.

He was near panic, and he had his spear short, moving it fast, trying to maintain a solid defence. With his left hand he tried to wipe the blood away to clear his vision. It would probably not take him long to realise he could heal the wound, but Misara did not intend on giving him that time.

Sword held in both hands, she moved in, a strong blow catching the spear and knocking it from his injured hand. As the spear went spinning off Kesk tried to grab the long knife from his belt, but Misara reversed the swing of her sword and brought it down on him, cutting him across the chest from right to left.

Kesk stumbled back, turning, perhaps falling, perhaps running. Misara stepped forward, ready to deliver the killing blow. It felt right, perfect, as if this was something that had been coming for a long time. She felt a sense of Corellon Larethian about her as she had few times before.

Time seemed to slow.

Kesk had to die.

The Paladin and the servant of Corellon Larethian both wanted him dead.

They had two different reasons for desiring that.

She realised that she could not make her paths merge. She was not strong enough. Or she did not want to be strong enough.

The choice would no longer be put off.

Her sword lashed out, her blade caught him across the throat, nearly taking his head from his shoulders. Blood sprayed from the wound, and Kesk tried to grasp the injury, to stop the blood flow, but Misara could see that the strength in his arms was failing him.

He collapsed to his knees.

Misara collapsed to hers.

He fell forward to lay face first in the dirt, the blood from his wound soaking into the soil.

The sense of divine that she felt began to fade, but as it left she felt approval, and perhaps, though it might have been her imagination, a hint of regret. The regret may have been hers.

She looked at the fallen body. "I hate you," she said, and there were tears in her eyes.

He had not been the first foe who had beaten her, who had taken something away from her, but none had ever done what the half-orc had done. And he was dead, beyond further vengeance on her part. She wished his death had not been so quick.

She found some comfort in that Kesk had died without knowing what he had achieved.

Misara stood and left the dead half-orc behind as she turned and started towards the cave that Kesk had been standing near. As she walked she cleaned his blood from her sword and then sheathed. Her wounds pained her, slowed her slightly, but she ignored them for a pain that was much deeper.

As she got closer she could hear whispered conversation and muffled cries.

The cave was not too deep, and showed little sign of habitation, but for an old fire pit near the mouth. In the back were the children and young people stolen from Serpent's Cowl. She saw them clearly even in the shadows at the back of the cave, but to them she was just a form at the mouth of the cave.

"It's going to be alright," she said in the common tongue. "There is nothing to be afraid of. I am here to rescue you." She was amazed at how calm she sounded.

"Who are you?" a tall girl, perhaps the oldest of the prisoners, asked.

"My name is Misara Dawntide a Pa...," she trailed off. "I was asked by the headman of your village to come and rescue you." She moved into the cave.

"What about the monster man?" a small boy called out loudly.

"The monster man can no longer hurt you," she told him, and looked at the woven gate of branches that turned the back of the cave into a cage. She drew a knife from her belt, thinking that waving her sword around might alarm the children, and cut away the bindings. With a pull she yanked the gate away and tossed it behind her.

A moment after the gate was gone Misara found herself surrounded by frightened children who desperately wanted to be reassured. They were tired together and threatened to trip her up with the rope.

Eventually she managed to get the children calmed down so she could cut their bonds. She looked at a little boy with a cut to his head. She reached out and placed her hand on him, without thinking, trying to heal him. Nothing happened. She closed her eyes and then whispered a soft prayer. She almost cried in relief as the prayer was answered, the cut on the boy's head healing.

She then healed or otherwise treated the wounds that other children had taken while being carried away by the orcs. The girl she had first spoken to, Tana, she put in charge of watching over the rest, making certain that none ran off. She asked them to stay in the cave for the time, allowing Tana to leave to get water for the others.

Misara did not go too far from the cave. She knew that it was important that the children be able to see her. She stopped near Kesk's corpse and looked about. It seemed quiet.

For a moment she had no idea what to do. Nothing seemed to make sense any longer. Then she heard the sound of the children, asking Tana when they might get home. She would focus on the practical matters. It was all she could do.

Placing her fingers in her mouth she whistled, a loud, piercing sound that would bring Iron to her.

While she waited she knelt down and rolled Kesk's body over so she might search him. As she worked she said a prayer that would allow her to see the aura of magic and also concentrated on her ability to see the presence of evil. The prayer was answered, but she could no longer detect evil.

She almost lost her concentration on the spell. "Stop being such a fool," she told her herself, and then said the word to a prayer, words she had never said before, that would allow her to see evil. From this point on she would have to count on Corellon Larethian for such things.

Perhaps that was how it was meant to be.

He did have some items of magic on him: Some potions, a case full of scrolls-no few holding the formula and incantations for powerful spells-his dagger, a ring, the armour her wore, and a pendant around his neck. Only the pendant, a black stone, radiated an evil aura. She crushed it under her heel, pleased to note that both that magical and evil auras faded away.

He had carried other things of value as well. A purse full of gold and silver coins, most of them Sembian ravens and nobles, the rest a collection of coins from all over Faerûn, represented a small fortune. She also found three small leather-pouches. Each one held a collection of precious stones, a true fortune in each.

Someone had given Kesk all that he carried. They had given it to him so that he might seek her out. Asharass, she thought, tossing a bag of gemstones in her hand. An agent with no connection to Asharass, who would know nothing of value if captured, sent after her.

Misara got to her feet, leaving the treasure lying on the ground for the moment, and walked over to the spear that Kesk had wielded. The aura of magic and the taint of evil clung to the spear, but both were fading even as she watched. Whatever magic the spear had once held was fading with Kesk's death.

She picked the spear up, ignoring the burning pain, and broke it across her knee. She tossed the pieces aside and started back towards the cave. She stopped, turned, and looked up at the sky. There were two pegasi flying off in the distance.

Recalling what the Calroth had said about seeking aid from Aluena Halacanter, she drew her sword and held up so the sun would flash off the blade.

Not long after one of the pegasus wheeled about and flew towards her. It passed high above her, no doubt allowing the rider to be certain that there was no danger on the ground. From the cave she heard some children shout out in excitement.

It flew by again, lower, and then the third time, turning sharply and then landing not far from where Misara stood. The rider was a young, dark man. "Misara Dawntide?" he asked.


"I am Stedd Tallcrest. Currently my friend Kirksin flies above your companions to see them safely to the river."

"They are well?"

"One of the men from the village fell, and your halfling companion and the man with her are still unaccounted for, as are the children stolen from the village."

"The children have been found," she told him, and looked towards the cave.

He smiled. "I am glad. I had no desire to leave here without having found them."

"It will be difficult to get them out of here. There are twenty three of them."

"Not to worry. Aluena gave Kirksin a spell that will open a gate to the village."

"She is quite generous."

Stedd nodded, and smiled at that, taking obvious pleasure at the compliment Misara offered the sorceress. "I'll go speak with Kirksin and the others about what we should do next."

Misara nodded. "Good speed."

"Stay safe," he said, and then turned the pegasus about and rode off a short distance. The winged horse began to run, wings beating, and then launched itself into the air. Misara walked back to the cave to tell the children the latest news, certain they would be happy to learn that rescue and safety were at hand.

Iron made it Misara's side several minutes before Stedd returned. Misara was very glad to see him. She had feared that he might not come to her. The big horse, covered in blood, very little of it his own, scared a number of children and Misara had to lead him away. Olpara and the missing rider arrived not too long afterwards. Olpara had heard the whistle and seen Iron running towards the hill.

When Stedd returned she was able to tell him that all of her companions were accounted for. Stedd was happy to hear about that and returned to the air to tell Kirksin.

It was Kirksin who flew to the hilltop next. He told Misara that he and Stedd would see Rowan and the others safely from the ravines, and would watch over them as long as there was light.

He then produced a scroll from within his cloak and used it to open a gate to Serpent's Cowl. The rider and the children ran happily through the gate, seeing their home on the other side. Olpara also went gratefully, apparently happy to be away from that place. Misara looked about, thinking that she should stay behind and deal with the remaining orcs, if there were any. Unfortunately she did not have the time.

"I'll see you in Serpent's Cowl," she said to Kirksin.

"We'll share a drink and stories," he said, smiling.

Misara walked Iron through the gate and did not look back.

After the gate had winked out, after the pegasus had left, Colgam crept out from cover, into the open area. He waited until the pegasus was a dot in the sky and then moved about the area, casting his gaze about. He moved stiffly, for the explosion that had killed most of the other orcs had not left him unscathed. Fortunately he had called upon the protection of Grummsh shortly before the explosion.

He looked around, not believing that Kesk had been defeated, not wanting to believe it. How could a champion of Gruumsh have fallen to an elf? He dropped to his knees near Kesk's side, seeing that anything of value or use had been stripped from the body. He cursed angrily, and leapt to his feet, wishing to hurt the elf, or anyone who might cross his path. It was then that he spotted the broken spear, the pieces in some tall grass. Colgam ran and grabbed them up.

The spearhead was badly chipped, as were some of the iron rings along the shaft, not to mention the shaft itself. The lower part was just wood, but he could feel the power in the top part, close to the spearhead: A power that felt faint, as if the favour of Gruumsh was far from it, but still present. In time, he thought, he could gain the favour of Gruumsh and return the power to the weapon that Kesk had once called up.

He smiled, turned and then walked from the hilltop.

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