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A Dance in Shadow

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Something's wrong in the Reach. A new and deadly cult has arisen. A company of soldiers has gone missing. And the Rhaal's Talon wakes alone in the forest with a conspicuous gap in his memories...

Fantasy / Adventure
Age Rating:

Part One--Sunset

Romyr Meyan’kai of Falcon Bay, Talon of the Shadowreach and Chief Advisor to the Rhaal, woke with a groan of pain. He peeled his forehead off a bloodstained rock, wincing, and blinked uncomprehendingly at his surroundings.

What the…

He was lying on his stomach on a bed of dead leaves. Thick-trunked trees towered above him, allowing only a weak red light through their canopy. But for the occasional bird call, the air was still, resting cool and heavy on Romyr’s cloakless shoulders. There was something missing from the environment, a taste or a smell or a wind… No, there wasn’t. This was the Shadewood, and there was nothing missing.

Except any recollection of how he’d gotten here.

Romyr strained his mind for the foggy scraps of memory that would tell him what had happened, and more importantly where the nearest town was. He wasn’t dressed for an early spring night. Was it early spring? No, mid autumn. Why had he thought it was spring? He touched a hand gingerly to his throbbing head and allowed as how he might be a little confused after faceplanting into a rock. He must be slightly concussed.

Rhaal Davenstar, and the Cult of New Dawns. That’s why he was in the Shadewood. Relief spread through him when he at last landed on that memory. He was on his way back from the Lowcliff Marshes after meeting with Rhaal Davenstar, and passing through the Shadewood...his horse must have taken fright and thrown him. That was all.

Feeling better already, he tried to sit up.

And screamed.

Tearing, fiery pain ripped through his right leg. Unexpected and unexplained, it hit him full force. Falling back down to the bed of leaves and remaining as still as possible made the pain abate reluctantly, but now his calf was throbbing as well as his head, and more demandingly. Romyr spat out a few choice curses, mentally vowing to make a horse meat stew if he ever made it back to Shade’s End. Slowly, slowly, he shifted his torso around so he could see the injury, fully expecting to find shards of bone protruding from his leg.

No bones. Just a knife.

Romyr stared at it blankly for a moment, sure that his head injury was causing him to hallucinate. He owned no knives like that, so it couldn’t have been something he’d fallen on. That implied that if there was indeed a knife in his leg, it had been put there intentionally by an unknown person.

Nine Hells. His cleanly cut thrown-by-a-horse explanation was ruined.

The knife also made him leery of calling out for help. It would have been a long shot in an unknown portion of the Shadewood anyways. Self-administered first aid it was.

As far as he could tell, he had no supplies but the clothes on his back and the worn dagger sheathed at his right hip. He used the dagger to cut away the cloth around the injury, and then to saw makeshift bandages off the hem of his tunic.

There’s nothing for it. He pushed all the air out of his lungs so he wouldn’t scream and, taking the knife firmly in hand, drew it out in a straight, swift motion. The air came rushing back involuntarily as the pain seared him. He threw back his head and bared his teeth, willing away the noise building up in his chest. Forcing his shaking hands to tie an adequate bandage around the now-bleeding wound was perhaps the hardest part of the procedure. It took him several tries, and by that time he was feeling a bit light-headed.

There. Done.

His body, only just awakened, was demanding rest. The forest floor was springy enough from fallen leaves...it wasn’t uncomfortable...just a few moments… No. Romyr began to push his thoughts into order, listing the reasons why he couldn’t stay here and fall asleep. It might be getting dark soon and I’ll freeze. If I don’t find someone to stitch me up, I will bleed out. If I fall asleep here I might never wake up. It was a mantra that lifted him to his knees and then, leaning heavily on a gnarled oak, his feet. The chant was designed to maintain the mind’s control over the body. Where had he learned to do it? He couldn’t remember. Where had he learned how to patch himself up? He’d always known…

A sturdy branch became a crutch. Casting his gaze over the area where he’d fallen, Romyr searched for some evidence of what had happened. The knife caught his eye. It was an expensive-looking thing with a good steel blade about six inches in length and a jewel-studded hilt. Jet and garnets. It was still colored with his blood. Romyr sighed and stooped awkwardly to pick it up. As distasteful as he found it, it was his only link.

Or, rather, it was until he found the sword.

It was lying half-hidden beneath a tangle of bushes near where his head had struck the stone. He would have missed it entirely if his crutch hadn’t hit the hilt. Curious, he tugged at it, and the blade slithered free of the bushes. Long and slender, it looked like the work of an elven smith. A vine pattern ran down its length and twined around the crossguard. It was simple, sleek, and elegant, as elven swords tended to be. Its hilt, however, was made to accommodate either a one-handed or two-handed fighting style, whereas most elves wielded their blades single-handed only. The leather grip fit perfectly in Romyr’s hand, and there was something comforting about the weight of it. Was this mine? He’d never owned a sword, preferring to use the spear favored by most nobles of the Shadowreach. But this weapon felt right in a way that no spear ever had. It was altogether unsettling. He hadn’t had it when he set out for Lowcliffs. Perhaps Rhaal Davenstar had made him a gift of it?

As he was thinking, he unconsciously pushed the blade over one shoulder and diagonally across his back, sliding it neatly into a sheath that apparently rested there. He froze, now truly alarmed. The motion had been reflexive, absentminded. He’d done it a hundred times. Of course this was his sword, how could he forget? His sword… “Daesalka,” he said aloud. That was its name. Daesalka, which was a part of him and had been since…

His head hurt.

He tried to concentrate. The last thing he remembered was leaving Davenport. Had Daesalka been with him? He couldn’t say. There had been men with him though, four of Rhaal Syrek’s finest, one of whom had even known magic. And Finch had been there as well. Where were they now? Had anyone gotten back to Shade’s End with Davenstar’s news? How long ago had they set out from Davenport? And what had become of Finch, who’d never willingly leave his side? Answers, I need answers. This foggy uncertainty was driving him mad.

Well, there was one way to get them. The Shadewood was west of Shade’s End, unless he was in the northern portion--no, he couldn’t be that far off course. East, he needed to go east until the forest died off and he was among the hills, where he could more easily find a settlement. Romyr nodded absently. It wasn’t much of a plan, but it was enough to have a goal in mind. He set off, limping, with his back to the ruddier part of the sky. Or was the sun rising? Nine Hells. Well, with the way his luck was going, it was probably setting.

As it turned out, his guess was right. The forest darkened at an alarming rate, and the temperature fell with the sun. Romyr began to stumble more frequently, and shiver with a violence. He wasn’t dressed for the weather, and couldn’t remember why not. He knew the Shadewood better than most, he should have been wearing thicker cloth and gloves. He should have been wearing a cloak. All he could think of was that his heavier garments had been stolen while he lay unconscious, but if so, why leave the jeweled knife behind? Why leave the silver-and-emerald ring on his finger?

All in all, he was well and truly miserable by the time the forest began to thin out. He was relieved when it became clear he’d awoken near the forest’s edge, for it meant he didn’t have to spend a week here, tripping over broken branches and falling into streams as he’d been doing for hours. Even better than the sight of the Winged Hills was the soft glow emanating from a walled city not a mile to the north. He’d found his way out of the Shadewood practically on Shade’s End’s doorstep.

A weary smile was stretched across his face as he picked his way through the Lower City. Fantasies of a hot bath, real food, and Tayna kept him moving faster than he had in the forest--that, and the lack of roots to stumble over. Unlike many of his friends and associates, Romyr didn’t mind the Lower City. Yes, it was dirty, and poor, and cobbled together out of whatever people happened to have lying around. With buildings made of surplus timber and stone, with people from all over the Shadowreach and more distant lands, with some eight languages and forty religions practiced, the Lower City was a leftover kingdom thrown up against Shade’s End’s walls. Romyr had often wandered the streets when he was younger, fascinated. Now that he was Rhaal Syrek’s Talon, he didn’t have many opportunities to do so anymore, but he still knew several residents.

He was given trouble only once, by a grimy man with a knife. All it took was for Romyr to reach over his shoulder for the hilt of his bastard sword, and the man scurried off without a word. Soon after, he reached the mainway, a broad, straight road that was paved stone within the city and packed earth without. The gates were closed, as they usually were at this time of night, guarded by two drowsy-looking soldiers. They straightened and adjusted their glaives as Romyr approached. “If’n yeh want in, yeh’ll hafta wait till mornin’,” the guard on the left said imperiously.

Romyr sighed. He was quite aware that he looked like a beat-up street urchin after multiple stumbles into mud, or a stream, or a briar patch. The bastard sword might have made him a down-on-his-luck mercenary, if he so chose, but neither urchin nor mercenary would gain access to the city tonight. He drew himself up, ignoring the vociferous complaint of his right leg, wishing he had a spear instead of a rough staff. “I’ll not wait. I’ve pressing business with the Rhaal and didn’t come all this way to bandy words about with a lackey, so open the fel gates.” Under normal circumstances, he might have been more polite, but pain and exhaustion were fraying his temper.

The guard blinked once, squinted in the dim torchlight, and opened his mouth to ask who in the Nine Hells he thought he was when the other chimed in. “Let ’im through, Dale. This here’s Talon Meyan’kai, I reckernize him now.” She tilted her head slightly, probably wondering if it was worth the risk to her job to ask why Romyr was on foot, alone, injured, and shivering.

Dale scowled suspiciously, but gave the light signal for the gate to be opened. Romyr limped through.

Immediately he was struck with a sense of being out of place. The streets of Shade’s End proper were all paved with white stone from the southern quarry. Much of the city was kept as neat and bright as things got in the Shadowreach, and it had a very civilized air to it. It was the place Romyr knew best, yet it seemed somehow different, like it had changed in the three weeks he’d been gone. Unsettled, he made his way as quickly as possible through the streets to Ravenroost Keep, where he repeated the same tedious exchange with the gate guards. In a weary haze, he wandered through the corridors of the sleeping keep on a path he knew well, stopping before--

He froze with one hand on the doorknob. This wasn’t his door. His rooms were in the Talon’s Tower. Why had he come here? Tayna’s chambers were in the east wing, and there was nowhere else he would have visited regularly late at night. Feeling foolish, he found his way to the correct door and slipped silently inside.

As he lit the lamps, his gaze fell on the tall mirror near the privy door. He looked wild, feral, with his clothing torn and dirty. His hair was longer than he usually kept it, the dark brown locks tangled hopelessly, framing a tanned face and gray-green eyes. There was a scraped, raised patch on his forehead where he’d struck the rock. The rest of his body was lean and muscled, which seemed right and wrong at the same time.

A bath and a change of clothes helped to settle his mind somewhat, but he soon discovered that he’d bled through the makeshift bandage. The wound on his leg was still sluggishly weeping, and his calf had swollen. Resigning himself to another run about the castle, Romyr reaffixed the bandage and pulled his boots on. He found himself automatically slinging Daesalka over one shoulder, feeling naked without its familiar weight. Romyr hesitated, then hung the sword from a peg by the door. It wasn’t like he was going to be attacked in Ravenroost.

The path he now took was less certain; he’d only been that way once or twice. Finally he ended up before a heavy oak door bearing an iron knocker, which he tapped softly at first, then more jarringly when no one came. The door was opened by a stooped man a head shorter than Romyr, scowling and rubbing sleep from his eyes. “Yes, yes, what?” he snapped irritably. “It had best be important, elsewise I’m like to--”

“Marrel,” Romyr interrupted him, “I’m terribly sorry about the late hour, but I need your help.”

“Eh? Fine, you’d best come in.” Marrel opened the door wider and allowed Romyr to enter. Marrel’s rooms were only one-tenth living space, the rest being occupied by an alchemy lab that was in a constant state of unorganization, a small library with half the titles known to man crammed onto narrow shelves, and a dedicated medica. It was this last he led Romyr to after a disapproving glance at the grubby bandage. He gestured for his patient to sit on a low table and examined the wound. “Needs stitches. Is this from a knife?”

“Yes,” Romyr answered tightly. The late hour and incessant throbbing were getting to him.

Marrel frowned. “You’re back early, too. What happened? No trouble with Davenstar, I hope?”

“I wish I remember,” Romyr growled in frustration. “I woke up on the fringes of the Shadewood around sunset and I don’t know how I got there.” He drew the jeweled knife from his belt. “This was in my leg.”

Marrel looked at the weapon warily and made no move to take it. “Very strange, to say the least. Then again, strange things happen in the Shadewood.” Romyr clenched his teeth and stared straight ahead as the medician began to clean out the injury. “Did you hit your head, or...ah, I see. When the rest of your party returns, I’m sure we’ll get answers. No, hold still, I’m not done.”

When the wound was sanitized, stitched up, smeared with an herbal paste, and bound in white linen, Marrel briefly examined Romyr’s forehead and announced that the damage was minimal and would be almost unnoticeable by morning. Lastly, he shoved a vial of painkiller at Romyr and instructed him to return tomorrow.

Once abed, Romyr still couldn’t sleep. His body was exhausted, his mind wide awake. The mattress and furs were too comfortable, the room too big. Opening a window helped slightly, but the smell of the wind was wrong. How did I become a stranger in my own home?

You’ll feel a little blurry. With proper concentration, however, you should be fine. You do have a streak of fey in your blood.

Is it safe?

Safe? Ye gods, of course not! Now, are you coming?

In just a moment… It will be strange, after so long.

Indeed. It will be like waking from a dream. See that you don’t let it fade away.

Is there any--

What was that? Corellon save us, they’re here! Run, Rana’te, I’ll hold them off!

He woke, heart pounding, hands scrambling for the knife he usually slept with. By the time he realized he’d forgotten to stash one last night, he was fully awake and feeling foolish. A dream. It had seemed quite real, though the harder he grasped for details, the quicker they faded from his recollection. He was left with the sudden sense of fear that had terminated the scene and a handful of words, though he couldn’t remember who had spoken them. Something from my blank space? The thought left him troubled.

He broke his fast within the Talon’s Tower, then ventured out in search of Rhaal Syrek. At this hour, Romyr quickly located him in the council chamber, arguing with his advisors.

“...precisely the reason we can’t! The Cult hasn’t shown us more than a handful of faces. How are we to find such a small group in a region as large as the Reach? You thunder on about taking the fight to them, but how do you propose to do so when we know nothing at all about their organization, not even its base location?”

“Assuming they even have a base location,” drawled dark-haired Emmet Raithe, who, as always, had propped his black leather boots up on the table. “A group as small as we’re estimating, might be that they’d move around. I would.”

“Finding isn’t the issue,” rumbled Meras Darkshore. “We’ve mages for that.”

“So do they.” Syrek scowled. “We’ve had our wizards try every trick they know-- scrying, pathfinding, pointer charms --with focuses and without, all to no avail. The Cult has some dark magic that hides them from our eyes.”

Meras opened his mouth to say something else, but Emmet cut him off. “Brand me a sinner and drop me into Nessus. Romyr! We didn’t look to see you for another three days, at least.”

Several chairs scraped against the stone floor as members of the council stood. Under their scrutinizing gazes, he was suddenly glad he hadn’t worn Daesalka. Syrek, already standing, turned. His smile upon seeing Romyr was frosty, but nearly everything the man did seemed frosty. Romyr was used to it. The Rhaal was a tall, lean man almost forty-five with coal-black hair streaked in silver. He’d never been handsome, but his pale, ice-blue eyes had a striking intensity. “Come in, join us,” Syrek said, waving a hand at a spare chair. “We’re anxious to hear Davenstar’s response. Will Favrin be along?”

Romyr took his seat, as did the rest of the council. Emmet, who hadn’t risen, smiled lazily from across the table. Romyr searched the faces angled towards him, wondering how much he ought to tell them. “There was trouble in the Shadewood,” he settled for. “I was separated from Favrin and the others. I don’t know when they’ll reach Shade’s End.” This garnered some interesting looks. Meras crossed his arms and muttered something darkly to himself about a curse over the Shadewood.

“What kind of trouble?” queried Emys Meyan’kai.

Romyr wished he knew. “This kind of trouble.” He brought out the red and black jeweled knife and laid it on the table. The council looked at it curiously for a moment before Erryn, the representative of the city’s Mage Guild, quietly said, “That’s a New Dawn dagger.” The chamber rang with a sudden uproar.

“Our men, our own men, attacked in the Shadewood!” roared Meras Darkshore, making his voice heard above the clamor. “You couldn’t possibly--”

“Enough.” Syrek didn’t raise his voice. He didn’t need to. He had a way of slicing through any level of commotion with that steel-edged tone. He used it sparingly, but to great effect. The council fell silent immediately. Syrek’s footsteps rang softly on stone as he paced his way to Romyr’s side and examined the knife. “The jewels and style match the weapons seen in the hands of Cult members,” the Rhaal asserted. “Did you take this off a cultist?”

“Out of my own leg, actually,” Romyr answered. He’d suspected the knife’s origins after seeing Marrel’s reaction to it. A few exclamations of outrage were voiced at his words, so he hurriedly pressed on. “There’s good news. Rhaal Davenstar seems to think that the Cult of New Dawns has not extended to his side of the Shadewood, and he promises to gather the wyrdmancers of Lowcliffs to aid our search for answers. He’ll send a messenger and a hundred lances once they find something.”

“Assuming they find something,” Erryn murmured. She looked doubtful. “If our own mages have seen only darkness for so long…”

“The wyrdmancers are some of the most powerful sorcerers on the continent,” Meras assured her confidently. “No tricks of a dissatisfied rabble will fool them.”

The Mage Guild representative stiffened in her seat, eyes flashing at the implied insult to her organization. “Careful, Meras,” Romyr cautioned lightly. “Remember what happened to Gillan?”

The tension in the room eased. Erryn smiled with satisfaction, seemingly mollified, and Meras blinked in surprise. “Forgive me, my lady, I meant no offense. My great-grandfather was a wyrdmancer, you know. I’ve a good deal of pride in him, that’s all.”

“Erryn, if the Guild isn’t having any luck with the Cult, could you scry Favrin and the escort?” Romyr asked, trying to keep the worry for Finch out of his voice. “I’d like to know if they’re safe.”

“Certainly,” she said. “I’ll have something for you by tomorrow.”

“And we can send out men if there’s trouble,” added one of the Stillwater brothers, who Romyr couldn’t tell apart. “Good old-fashioned rescue mission. Maybe send seven or eight of those adventurers that have been pawing at our gates for jobs.”

Romyr relaxed slightly. He’d rest easier as soon as he knew what had become of his party.

The council discussed the Cult of New Dawns for some time, then proceeded on to less pressing matters. An elven delegation from Irenmýr would arrive in a week or so, Erryn reported. They were bringing news from the west, matters concerning the Shadowreach. By the time the meeting adjourned, Romyr felt in his rightful place for the first time since waking up in the Shadewood. The mystery was slowly being unravelled, and he was in his stride as Talon once more. All was well, until he was jumped in the corridor.

She darted from the shadows and was on him in a heartbeat, before he had time to react. He crashed indelicately into the wall, held fast in her grip. After several silent but heated moments, he managed to extract himself long enough to gasp, “Gods above, let a man breathe!”

She had a laugh like a bird taking flight. One last kiss, and she tucked her head against his chest with a content sigh. He stroked her golden hair, feeling strange. These motions had come so easily before, but now…

It would settle down eventually. It must.

“Tayna,” he murmured. “Shall I take it that you missed me?”

“You were gone for weeks,” she moaned softly.

“Three,” he reminded her.

“Two and a half, but it was an eternity.” She sighed again, this time rather theatrically. “And that’s not the worst of it. I’m-- I’m--” Suddenly, tears sprang from her eyes and she began to sob quietly into his tunic.

He thought he had known fear, in the Shadewood and in his dream. Both occasions were nothing to this. Gods above, don’t say pregnant.

“I’m to marry!” she finally got out, then resumed her previously scheduled meltdown.

Half relieved, half despairing, Romyr held her, gently rubbing her back and making soothing noises until she seemed to have cried herself out. “We knew it was only a matter of time,” he said softly. “Who is he?”

“I don’t know. I mean, my father says I’ll have some choice. But he wants me to marry someone, Romyr!”

“Why not the Talon of the Shadowreach?” he said, half-jokingly.

She took a step back, out of his embrace, with a queer expression, like she’d never considered this possibility. “Aren’t I of awfully low birth for a Talon?” Her voice was shy, or possibly just coy.

I am of awfully low birth for a Talon,” he said. “The Meyan’kai family is recent nobility. Only goes back a couple generations. It’s not so improbable as all that.”

“But I thought what we have is different.”

This caught him a bit off-guard. “How so?”

“Well...we’ve been together for ages, but...can you really see either of us marrying? What we have is special. Being married would change that.”

“I...I don’t see why it should…”

“You don’t understand.” She seemed upset.

“What is there to understand? Ah, forget I brought it up.” He turned away, disappointed and directionlessly angry.

“It’s not like that, oh, don’t take it like that,” Tayna pleaded, reaching for his arm. “I just don’t think we would make a good husband and wife.”

Romyr unconsciously moved away from her touch, suddenly wishing for solitude. His wish was granted, albeit in a depressing manner, when Tayna pulled back again, eyes filling with tears, and ran off down the corridor.

He watched her receding figure incredulously for a moment, then slammed a hand against the wall and cursed himself for a fool. What was wrong with him? He felt a stranger in his own skin, and he couldn’t seem to find his way with Tayna any longer. Three weeks ago, he would have handled that situation with much more grace and tact, navigating the turbulent waters of their relationship with the ease of familiarity.

Normally, with such a quandary, Romyr would seek out Finch and ask his advice. Finch had an almost uncanny understanding of the way people worked and was happy to share his insights. It was Finch who had informally taught Romyr most of what he knew about maneuvering in precarious social environments. In return, Romyr had taught Finch to use a spear, which seemed a fair trade at the time. Unfortunately, whatever madness that had left Romyr lying in the Shadewood with a cultist’s knife in his leg hadn’t included Finch, and he had no idea where his friend was.

Maybe that was it, maybe that was the source of the strangeness. Maybe the unease of not knowing what had befallen his party was driving itself under his skin. A cultist’s knife… The Cult of New Dawns were fanatics. They fought with no regard to their own safety, which made them extremely dangerous, especially in groups when they had the advantage of surprise. If a detachment of the Cult had fallen upon Romyr and his guard in the shadowy confines of the Shadewood, would he have been the only survivor? No. No one would have survived.

In a foul mood, he made his way to the southeastern courtyard, which was mainly used as a practice field for Ravenroost’s residents. The ring of steel on steel and wood on wood greeted him, comfortingly familiar. Guardsmen drilled, nobles honed their skill or settled disputes. Romyr found a blunted spear and made his way over to where Emmet danced around a training dummy with a weapon of his own, jabbing and slashing with a look of intense concentration. The youth was light on his feet, quick and graceful. Romyr watched appreciatively for a moment. Most occupants of the Shadowreach had some lesser or greater degree of elven blood; it appeared that Emmet’s ran a bit closer to the surface. Romyr did not doubt that the lad’s easy smile and casual grace had broken many a young heart.

“Care to try a live opponent, Raithe?” he called. Emmet turned, features fixed in a lazy grin. He swept his spear to one side as if flicking blood from its tip. “Come and have some, then,” he invited.

Romyr twirled the spear experimentally in his hands, and immediately knew he’d made a mistake. The wood beneath his fingers felt ungainly, too long and unbalanced. He hadn’t used a spear since…

Not even two weeks ago. One of Davenstar’s lords asked for a bout. I won. So why in the Nine Hells did the weapon feel so wrong all of a sudden? Before he could contemplate further, Emmet was on him. Slash, whap, slash, whap. The youth was too fast. Romyr held out for a few blows, then received a sharp knock on one shoulder. He ducked under a stab and tried to tangle Emmet’s legs. He was met with marginal success. His opponent stumbled, allowing Romyr to land a glancing blow to his side, which armor would have deflected in a real fight. Seemingly galvanized by the touch, Emmet responded with a flurry of blows that ended with a spearpoint resting in the hollow of Romyr’s throat.

The youth lowered his spear and flicked it to one side in that little flourish he seemed to like. His smile was broader now. “That’s the fastest I’ve beaten you yet. You’re getting slow, old man.”

This didn’t seem fair, as Romyr was only a few years older. A hot flush crept up the back of his neck. When Emmet asked if he’d like another go, a sudden madness seized him. “Yes,” Romyr answered shortly. “Swords.”

Emmet arched an eyebrow. “I’m just as good with a sword as I am with a spear,” he warned, but never the less fetched a pair of blunted blades. Romyr held his at arm’s length for a moment, judging the balance and weight. He shook his head. “Too light.” And too short. He searched through the racks of practice weapons until he found a hand-and-half sword that felt a little like Daesalka. He returned with it to where Emmet stood impatiently and struck a “guard” position. Gray-green eyes latched on to dark amber ones and waited. A strange calm filled him.

Emmet opened with an exploratory feint at his head, but Romyr saw it coming easily from the way the youth’s muscles shifted. He parried, struck, danced to his left half a step, and began to laugh. Already he could feel it swelling inside him, the battle-song, the fierce joy of a fight. He rose on the balls of his feet, and as he did so heard a woman’s voice. Yes, like that. You’ll be off-balance at first, but once you master it you’ll be grateful for the extra maneuverability. The voice had been right. Within the space of three blows, Romyr sent Emmet’s sword flying. He lowered his own weapon, grinning. Emmet stared at him in disbelief, then grunted, “Again,” and retrieved his blade.

Romyr’s sword was alive in his hand, an extension of his arm. He knew without thinking where to move, where to strike. This bout was even shorter than the last, and with the same results. During the third, Emmet focused more on defense, and lasted a bit longer. When he lost a fourth time, however, he swore. “Lords of Baator! A month ago I could always beat you. Where in Ror’s name did you pick up that style of fighting?”

I wish I knew. “Oh, you know how it is. One meets interesting people on the road.”

When Tayna found him that evening, it was as if she’d forgotten all about their morning encounter. She pulled him into a shadowed alcove, and one more piece of Romyr’s life began to slide back into place. In between kisses, Tayna touched his face, examined him in the dim lighting. “I never asked how your trip was,” she realized.

“Long and arduous,” he told her, and wondered if he should recount his Shadewood troubles. After some hesitation, he kept it to himself. He would tell her once he’d figured out what had really happened; right now the information would just worry her.

“It must have been exhausting,” she said sadly. “You look as though you’ve aged ten years. Take me to bed and I’ll make you young again.”

Part of him (a good deal of him, really) wanted to, but the strangeness hadn’t quite left. He was unsure of what would happen if he leapt back into things with Tayna. Instead, he said, “Another night, certainly, but right now I’m still healing. I was off to see Marrel, as a matter of fact.”

She expressed her disappointment, exclaimed over his bandaged leg, and kissed him goodnight before scurrying off. Romyr ran a hand through his hair, already regretting declining her offer. Shaking his head, he went to find the medician.

Marrel was expecting him this time. As he examined the wound and changed the dressings, Romyr spoke. “Before, I was tired and didn’t think to ask. Is there anything you can do to recover my lost memories?”

The medician looked up. “Eh? Not as such. Very few medicines can affect the brain in such a precise way. I could give you a draught to sharpen your focus, or one to help you remember with more clarity, but neither would do much for memories that are hidden away or gone. I expect you’ll want a wizard for that.”

Romyr nodded. He’d suspected he would eventually need to visit the Mage Guild. Tomorrow, then, when he went looking for Erryn and whatever she’d found on Finch.

He was in the practice yard again, and this time he was facing Finch. It might have seemed ordinary, but both of them were wielding swords instead of spears. The rhythm was a steady, even one: they were drilling.

Whap, whap, whap. “Good!” called Finch. “You’re getting the hang of it.”

Romyr stepped wrong, made a mistake. The practice sword hit Finch in the chest. “Sorry.”

“Hey, it’s not a problem,” Finch said, twirling his own blade. “The only way to learn is by making mistakes. Again?”

A line of blood ran down Finch’s cheek. Romyr had somehow managed to cut him. “Why don’t we take a break?”

Will the cultists take a break? whispered a woman’s voice. You must learn to fight even when tired or injured.

Meanwhile, Finch’s cut deepened, widened, until it was a long gash through which Romyr could see his teeth. “Finch! What happened?”

There was no response. Another gaping wound opened opposite the first. Romyr lost his voice, and suddenly saw he was holding a red and black jeweled knife, dripping blood. Crimson seeped through the fabric of Finch’s tunic, revealing another cut, and another after that. They were no longer in the practice yard, they were somewhere dark. Romyr tried to run to his friend, but his wrists were held in place. Blood was pooling on the floor, and Finch began to scream.

When he woke, he was rigid, cold, and covered in sweat. Just a dream, just a dream, just a godsdamned nightmare. He pushed himself into a sitting position and began to shiver uncontrollably. It was still dark out, but he knew he’d get no more sleep. Finch is fine, Erryn will say so when I ask her in the morning.

After some consideration, he rose and drew Daesalka. Just the feeling of it in his hand helped to quell some of his fears. The sword seemed to gleam more brightly than it should in the weak moonlight that trickled through the window. Daesalka. Shadowdance.

It will be like waking from a dream.

He stood, blade outstretched, and began a pattern dance. He’d never learned one for sword (that I remember), but after a few hesitant swings he found a rhythm. His rooms were fortunately large enough to accommodate the bastard sword’s length. Slow was his beginning, with speed arriving later. Though he kept at it for an hour or more and ended up soaked in sweat again, his breathing remained even and steady. By the time the sun rose, his hands had stopped shaking.

The headquarters of the Mage Guild was a sprawling building in the western part of Shade’s End. A single spire rose from the compound, gleaming white and gold. Romyr knew that the main building was largely occupied by the university, while the tower was home to the Guild's leadership and researchers. It was in this tower he located Erryn's study, a large room that seemed smaller because most of it was taken up by clutter. Every stick of furniture was covered by stacks of parchment bearing indecipherable runes, or spindly brass constructions, or a once-potted plant that had since migrated elsewhere. Erryn herself was seated at a broad oak desk, painting Rellanic runes on a curling sheet of vellum. Near her left hand was a coin-sized tablet that she would consult before marking another line.

When Romyr knocked on the frame of the open door, Erryn looked up from her work. “Thought you’d be in soon. If you can find a seat, you may take it.”

Romyr shifted a stack of parchment from a high backed chair and perched carefully. Like most residents of Shade’s End, he had learned to treat the Guild and anything to do with it cautiously. “Have you had any luck?”

“Indeed.” She smiled. “I received a clear image yestereve in the scrying bowl. Your companions are alive, somewhere in the Shadewood.”

Alive. He noticed that she said nothing of their condition. “How are they?”

The smile faded somewhat. “They looked weary. Some were injured.”

“They were all there?”

“I think so.”

Romyr gripped the arms of the chair. “You think so?” he demanded. “You said the image was clear.”

“Perhaps I misspoke. It was clearer than most, but scrying is and has always been an imprecise art. Romyr, it’s been a couple days since you found your way back to Shade’s End. I’m sure the rest of the party isn’t far behind.”

Halfway reassured, he eased back in the chair and, after a moment’s consideration, asked if she might assist him with another problem.

Erryn sent a swift, mournful glance at the partially completed translation, and sighed. “Anything for the Rhaal’s Talon.”

“Are there...magical ways to retrieve lost memories?”

She eyed him curiously. “It depends on how the memories were lost. Is a lowly Archmage permitted to know the origin of such inquiries?”

With only a brief hesitation, Romyr recounted waking up in the Shadewood and how the blank space had yet to be filled. At the last moment he decided against mentioning Daesalka or his dreams. Erryn listened attentively, a slight frown forming. When he was done, she shook her head. “There are things I could do for you if you had simply forgotten something, or if the memories were walled off with magic. Since you struck a rock, though, there might be lasting damage to the brain itself, and those memories could be gone for good. The mind is a delicate thing, and magic will only do so much.”

It was not the answer Romyr had been looking for. “Can you try?”

“I could,” Erryn said with a slight shrug. “Do you want me to?”

“If you have the time and materials…” he trailed off hopefully.

The mage chuckled. “Materials, yes, but if you really want to wait until I have spare time, you’ll be tapping your foot till summer comes again. Ah well, the Akhzan-Jwei isn’t going anywhere, and I’ve always wanted to try one of these spells.” She rose, motioning for him to remain seated. Navigating the cluttered room with an ease that suggested the mess was permanent, she unlocked a gold-hasped chest and rifled through it, muttering under her breath. She returned to the desk with a pair candles, one thin, tall, and inky black, the other squat and ivory-colored. “These’ll do. M’aian.” Flames sputtered to life on each wick as Erryn set the candles on her desk.

Erryn sat back in her chair, gazed meditatively into the slim, dancing fires for a moment, then began to chant softly in a language Romyr didn’t recognize. Instead of casting light, the candles seemed to drink it in, until the room was all in shadow. A faint, second voice took up Erryn’s chant.

Romyr shifted in place, now wondering if this had been a good idea. Allowing a mage to meddle with his mind, however good her intentions, went against deep instinct. If I remember, it will be worth it, he told himself. The room was now black as the bottom of the ocean. Erryn’s voice began to fade, while the disembodied one that mimicked her began to grow in volume. As it reached an almost painful pitch, the words suddenly became clear, full of meaning, and painted a scene in the darkness.

He was sitting cross-legged in a twilit glade. The sky had turned deep purple with the descent of the sun. The trees around him were enormous, far taller than any in the Shadewood, and were bedecked in some kind of insect that glowed pale blue. He was silent, contemplative, until a voice spoke behind him.

“Beautiful, aren’t they?”

He nodded and did not turn. “We’ve nothing like this back home.”

There was a pause that seemed tinged in sadness, or possibly just weariness. “Do you wish to return there?”

A sword rested across his knees, unsheathed. It had been there some time, and only now did he pay it much attention. He considered the vine pattern along its length. “No,” he decided. “At least, not until the Last Light has been purged.”

There was a faint sigh. “Perhaps I was wrong to encourage your anger before. It seemed like a weapon you could use, but it is a double edged blade that can cut one way just as easily as the other.”

“It is the only thing that has kept me alive.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I’m the only thing that’s kept you alive.” The voice was amused. “Rana’te, they call you now. If I wasn’t there, you’d wander straight into someone’s sword.”

He smiled at that. “Don’t assume I haven’t.” He sheathed his blade and stood, turning to face--


The white candle exploded.

Romyr jumped, the memory suddenly torn away. He was back in Erryn’s study, the darkness having vanished along with the fire and the disembodied chanting. The mage sat across the desk from him, scowling at the remaining candle. She had bits of wax in her hair. “I’m sorry, Romyr, I got through the block in your mind for a split instant and the ritual just unravelled.”

Shaken, he could only nod mutely. Erryn swept the remains of the white candle off her desk to join the clutter on the floor and muttered darkly to herself for a moment. “Are you alright?”

Romyr found his voice. “I’m fine. What does…” He glanced at the black wax obelisk still sitting on the table. “What does that signify?”

“That the candle burst? One of many things, or some of each. There could be a spell on your mind to prevent recovery. There could be too much or too strong of a memory beyond the block for the candles to cope with. I could have slipped up in my casting. Or the gods could be playing games.”

This last unsettled Romyr. “Why would the gods care about my missing memory?”

“You’d be surprised,” Erryn said gravely. “Some other time, ask me about the chess board incident.”

“Erryn, what’s the Last Light?”

“Last Light? Never heard of it, unless you mean the obscure holiday celebrated by a handful of dwarves in the far north.”

Somehow he didn’t think that was what dream-him had been referring to. “Could you see the memory I was experiencing before the--”

“Mishap? No. Only the subject views the memories.”

This, at least, was some luck. Romyr didn’t know what the forest scene had meant, but for now he was glad to keep it to himself. He stood. “Thank you, Erryn. You’ve given me much to think about.”

“Glad to be of assistance.” She smiled. “I’ll contact you when I get a new Dzeir’az Amhn.


“The white candle.”

“Ah. It is most appreciated.”

He left the Mage Guild with his thoughts awhirl, contemplating what he’d seen. Again and again he replayed the memory in his mind, the quiet glade and the unseen person behind him. Rana’te was a word that sounded familiar. He’d dreamed it before, he realized. It was wanderer in Elvish. Somehow it seemed to mean more.

Beyond that, the person whose eyes he’d been looking through in the memory had said things Romyr could never imagine himself saying. It is the only thing that has kept me alive. He’d never been so...dark.

(That I remember)

The darkness had two parts, an absence of light and an absence of hope. It had been centuries since there was anything bright. He was cold and alone, had long since moved past despair and into something deeper. The silence screamed.

There was a soft clank, and a creak of hinges. He raised his head, but the defiance was gone. “Just kill me and be done with it,” he told the approaching footsteps, weary to the bone.

The footsteps paused. “But if you died here, think how disappointed Macheron would be.”

His mouth fell open. “Ren?”

“Well, who else would be saving your sorry life? Hold still.”

As his rescuer approached, he could feel the heat of a torch, though the darkness hadn’t abated. A sick feeling spread through him. “Oh gods, Ren, I’m blind.” His voice was weak, with an edge of panic. He was either shivering or trembling and couldn’t tell which.

A hand rough with calluses lifted his head. He stared into the darkness, willing himself to see beyond, but nothing happened. He heard a sharp intake of breath above him. “Was it mhenec root? Tell me it was mhenec, that’s reversible.”

“I don’t know. I don’t know.”

There was a series of clicks, and he fell to his knees. The same rough hand found his own and helped him stand. “Obad-Hai, they really worked you over.” He was surprised at the amount of concern the words held. “We’ll get you back to Sarhaine and patch you up.” An arm slid around him, offering support as they made their way out the door and down a tightly twisted flight of stairs.

At the bottom, he heard a low curse. A familiar shape was pressed into his hands. “Let’s hope to all gods you don’t need this,” was the grim explanation. Shouts reached his ears, and the sounds of pounding feet were getting closer.

“Godsdammit. I can’t fight that many, not alone.”

Romyr unsheathed Daesalka. “You have me,” he said.

He woke next to Tayna, who stirred. “What’s wrong?” she whispered.

“Dreams, love, nothing more.” In a way, it was the truth. Still, he was tense. The dreams had not troubled him for three days, so why would he have one now? His gaze fell on the sword hanging from its peg by the door. If not for Daesalka, he would have attributed the visions to a troubled heart and overactive imagination. Now, he wasn’t quite as sure.

Blasted fel useless things. He was beginning to lose the sense of unbelonging that had plagued him since the Shadewood, but this dream seemed to have brought it back. Added to the unwanted feeling was a sense of tension, like the world was holding its breath. With his heart clenched like a fist in his breast, Romyr kissed Tayna and rose from the bed, heedless of her sleepy protest.

The day was dawning beyond the window. Something was coming.

He’d wear Daesalka.

The faces around the council table were grim.

“They burned New Haven,” Erryn announced, eyes smoldering. “The entire village was put to the torch.”

“Any survivors?” Romyr asked.

“We think so, but the Cult might find them before we do.”

“Lyris, send out a detachment to search the surrounding lands,” Syrek ordered. “Slay any cultists you find, and bring the citizens of New Haven to the closest fort. Their safety is more important than vengeance.”

The scarred and taciturn half elf bowed once and exited the room, fingering the curved, single-edged sword she favored. Romyr wouldn’t give a snowflake’s odds in Phlegethos to any New Dawn cultist that crossed her path.

“Someone ought to tail one,” muttered Meras. “See where they go with all their loot.”

“There was no looting,” Erryn said, “only killing. I wish we knew their purpose!

Emys Meyan’kai laced his fingers. “It could be a religious sacrifice,” he offered. “We’ve heard them screaming about their dark god.”

“Could be,” Erryn admitted, “but how do you find so many people willing to throw their lives away in pursuit of meaningless destruction?”

“Throw stones out the window,” suggested Emmet Raithe. “You’d probably hit a few. Besides, to them it wouldn’t be meaningless.”

The tale of New Haven had come as a shock to the Reach. Until this point, the Cult of New Dawns had been content to quietly murder and harass. Only three or four were ever seen in a group. The force that had razed New Haven was reportedly a hundred strong or more, all highly disciplined but with no leader in evidence. Instead of the usual disguises or red and black robes, they wore dark ringmail and crimson cloaks. New Haven’s local mage had only gotten this much information across to Shade’s End’s Guild before he was killed.

“I want one alive,” Syrek murmured. “The ones we’ve taken before have all committed suicide. Erryn, could you take anything from their minds if we brought them before you?”

The mage looked slightly ill. “No, but I know a man who could. Bring them to the Guild if you can, we’ll get you some solid information.”

“Good. Romyr--”

At that moment, a messenger boy dashed into the room, clothes in disarray and sides heaving. Surprised silence fell over the council. The boy gulped in a lungful of air, then called out, “The Lowcliff party returned!”

Romyr was the first to his feet. “Where are they?”

“They just reached the mainway. They’re on their way to the keep.”

He hesitated only long enough for the Rhaal to wave his dismissal, then was off. Through the corridors, down two flights of stairs, and out the gate he flew. Once outside, his stride lengthened and his heels never touched the ground. The cool morning air needled his lungs but only served to further invigorate him. Houses, temples, and stores blurred past. He had to check his speed as he raced through a crowded marketplace, dodging around shoppers and merchants alike. Shouts and curses trailed after him, then were lost in the wind. In the back of his mind, he knew he shouldn’t be moving so fast. He was the Talon, after all, and a Meyan’kai, but with Daesalka slung over one shoulder and the thought of seeing Finch alive and well foremost in his mind, he couldn’t have cared less.

He did slow his pace when he finally saw the riders, and met them at a walk. Not a man among them looked well-rested, and most showed visible bandages. The horses were lathered; some were being led along on foot. Romyr searched the faces before him.

The cold had not touched him during his run, but now it was in his bones.

One of the men, Haddin the mage, uttered an exclamation of surprise upon seeing Romyr. “What happened? After the fight you vanished, and I couldn’t scry you for my life. Is Lord Favrin with you?”

He hated being called a lord, Romyr recalled numbly. He did away with his name, too, whenever he could.

“Sir?” one of the other men ventured, sounding concerned. “Is there something wrong?”

“Erryn,” Romyr croaked. “Someone get me Erryn.” His throat was tight and dry from the run. He took a breath, trying to steady himself. “Favrin is missing,” he told Haddin. “I’ve no knowledge of what happened after the...the fight, and I thought he was with you.” He pushed a smile onto his face. “I am glad you all made it back safely. There are many questions that still need to be answered, but I am sure they can wait until after you have been seen to. If you would be so kind as to accompany me back to the keep…”

He walked in a daze. If anyone asked him a question, his response was short an uncommitted. Once the men were in the hands of someone more competent, he found himself standing before Erryn. “You said they were all there,” he said hollowly.

She lowered her eyes and did not correct him. “I am sorry. I wanted good news, and I misjudged the images I received.”

“Scry him.”

Erryn hesitated, taking in his bearing and expression. Abruptly, she nodded and led him through the hallways to the kitchens, where she halted a solemn-faced drudge and requested a pan of hot water. Romyr watched it being brought to her, feeling empty.

Leaning over the water’s surface, Erryn waited until it was still as a pane of glass, then murmured a few inaudible words. The liquid rippled slightly and remained clear, reflecting only Erryn’s focused expression. Unable to help himself, Romyr spoke up. “Does that mean--”


He settled back into silence, folding his arms over his chest. At last, Erryn straightened. She glanced at the water once more, then took a breath. “Only darkness.”

Was this what it felt like to stand at the edge of a cliff and have the ground give way beneath your feet? Was this emotion what had made the dream-him say the things he had, spit the words Last Light and purged like curses? “And what does the darkness mean, Erryn?”

“Seeing darkness in a scrying bowl can mean protective spells, like those around the cultists. It can mean that the focus is on another plane of existence. Or it could mean that the focus is--”

“--dead?” finished Romyr. “Tell me, Erryn, which of those seems most likely to you?”

“Don’t give up.” Her voice was strangely fierce. “Talk to the men. Find out what happened. Trace his last known steps. Interrogate a cultist or two. This is your territory now. But don’t say dead until you know.”

He got the story in bits and pieces, asking each man a question or two before moving on to the next. It would have been simpler to hear the whole tale in one sitting, but Romyr was still trying to be selective about who knew of his memory loss. The thought of the whole court knowing and discussing his plight filled him with revulsion.

The party had been two days into the depths of the Shadewood when disaster struck in the form of ten black-and-crimson robed cultists. Three cultists fell to swords, spears, and magic; two were disabled through unplanned loss of limb. And then, amidst the confusion, the remaining attackers melted back into the trees. Finch and Romyr were nowhere in evidence. The guard had pursued, of course, tracking the cultists over a mile, but eventually the trail had simply vanished. No amount of scouring the surrounding areas yielded results.

"It was the most frustrating thing," Haddin told Romyr. "The trail ended, and you were gone. Vanished. All we could think of was that one of the cultists had been carrying a teleportation scroll. I tried to scry you and turned up only darkness."

This was some encouragement to Romyr. If the cultists had warded him and Finch against scrying, that might be why Erryn had failed. Finch as a prisoner of the New Dawn was only marginally better than Finch as a corpse, but at least there was still hope. If Romyr could remember where they'd been taken and how he got away…

Whatever had happened, the Cult was key. He’d get his answers, one way or another.

Any dreams of hunting down cultists in New Haven were shattered when the council gathered that evening, having been interrupted earlier.

“I ride at dawn,” Rhaal Syrek announced. “The men who burned New Haven are suspected to be joining with a larger force somewhere in the northern Winged Hills. Lyris is calling local banners, but they won’t be enough. I will be taking a regiment of the Blackhearts to join her at Draegor’s Ford.”

“How big is this ‘larger force’ that you’d need local bannermen and a whole regiment of Blackhearts?” Emmet Raithe asked, face a shade paler than usual.

“It’s an army,” Erryn put in softly. “They’ve somehow managed to form an army. No more than a thousand men, but easily enough to sweep all unwalled villages in the Hills off the map.”

Her words were met with silence.

“A hundred people join a cult, maybe you worry,” Meras said at last. “But a thousand?” He shook his shaggy head. “Then you have something else entirely.”

“How could they hide that many?” Emys wondered. “Erryn, is it possible--”

“No,” the mage said firmly. “There’s no magic to make an entire army disappear and reappear. Not unless you have the power of a god. They had to have been using mundane means...I hear there are caves to the north.”

“That’s true,” conceded Romyr, who’d spent much of his boyhood in the northern Winged Hills, “but nothing of the size you’d need to house a thousand people. And they would have been conspicuous in their consumption of supplies. Are they horsed?”

“We don’t know,” Syrek said tiredly. “We have rough approximations on their numbers from our scouts, but not much else to go on while they’re holed up in Westeril’s abandoned castles. Romyr, while I am gone, you have command of the Reach.”

A cold feeling settled in Romyr’s stomach. He’d known it was coming, but that didn’t make it any easier to accept. I should be searching for Finch, not ruling a hold. “My lord, why not send me to New Haven in your stead? I can fight as well as any.”

“I do not doubt it. I noticed you came by a sword on your journey to Lowcliffs. But no, this is shaping up to be war, and a very unexpected one at that. People are scared, they should see their Rhaal. Stay here, and act as Talon. I expect this mess will soon be over.”

Romyr didn’t argue further, too distracted by the mention of Daesalka. Came by a sword. He’d always had a sword, he was sure of it…

Then why don’t I remember being taught to use one? Why was Emmet surprised at my skill, and how had he beaten me before?

He was convinced that New Haven and the northern parts of the Reach held answers for him, somehow, but the Rhaal had given a direct order. “As you wish, my lord.” The words seemed to grate against his throat as they came out.

Once the council dissolved, Syrek held Romyr back and briefly went over instructions for the days to come. Many items were things Romyr anticipated, and none came as a surprise. He was quiet for the most part, asked a few questions towards the end, and thought he had satisfied the Rhaal until Syrek asked what was troubling him.

Romyr thought it best not to lie. “Finch -- apologies, my lord -- Favrin is still missing, and I believe the Cult may be holding him."

"So it's revenge you're after? Or do you expect to find him up north?" Syrek’s expression was unreadable.

"I only want information."

"Is that so? I shall bring some back for you, then."

"I would appreciate it, my lord."

After he was released, Romyr found himself with Tayna again. His frustration finally reached a tipping point, and at gentle urging from her the whole story poured out of him. She listened, exclaimed, whispered condolences, and kissed the troublesome thoughts from his mind. It did much to improve his mood.

Some days later, amidst quiet suspicion, the delegation of elves and eladrin arrived in Shade's End from the small nation of Irenmýr, nestled within the Shadewood. They came offering aid and information regarding the New Dawn. Romyr welcomed them warily. Anything out of the Shadewood was viewed as potentially dangerous, and the Irenmýrese had occasionally warred with Lowcliffs and the Shadowreach. For all that the nation proved a formidable opponent, it purportedly consisted of a single city. Those who believed the old tales insisted that Irenmýr was a sprawling empire within the Feyrealm, the world of unbound magics and birthplace of the elven races, and that its inhabitants could cross over to the material plane at will.

Whatever the size of their country, the Irenmýrese were fierce fighters, often gifted with spellcraft. If they proved true friends against the New Dawn, a more formal alliance might be arranged, Romyr mused. That would keep the Rimespire lot in line for coming years. And so the gates were opened and the delegates were feasted, while Erryn and several other high-ranking Guild officials were surreptitiously invited to attend. Elves were elves, after all, and no one ever died of a little extra caution.

Introductions were made. The eladrin, making up five of the nine representatives, were marked by their cool, straight-backed grace and uniformly colored eyes. Their names and titles were lilting and flowery, like their accent. The elves shared many of the same traits -- they were fair of face, slender of body, and walked lightly enough to make no sound -- but were undeniably a separate race. While the eladrin were ethereal and aloof, the elves leapt from emotion to emotion with the swiftness of a mountain stream, allowing each to express itself however it might manifest at the time. They made walking seem a dance.

The names and faces were easy enough for Romyr to memorize, but none stood out until the Lady Myrenna Undome’elen.

She was attractive for a human, plain for an elf, with a fine-featured face and dark eyes. Her hair was feathery black, her skin the bronze color that was common among the Irenmýrese. The dress she wore was lamb’s ear green, simply cut but of fine quality. A silver leaf-shaped pendant hung at her throat and a ring rode her right hand. All this, Romyr took in at a glance, but he found himself looking more closely, for their was something about her…

Upon seeing his face, her eyes widened almost imperceptibly. Her mouth opened slightly as if to speak, then with a swift glance at her companions she turned the motion into a smile. Instead of a curtsey she presented Romyr with a strange bow and murmured a pleasantry. Then she was gone, and the next delegate was being introduced before Romyr had time to piece together what had just happened.

The feast was sumptuous, and after everyone had a drink or three the mild tension in the hall began to ease. It was clever of Irenmýr to send a combination of elves and eladrin, Romyr reflected. By themselves, the elves were too wild and the eladrin too restrained, but with both together a balance seemed to establish. Men could relate to certain aspects of both, and perhaps recall that they had a touch of fey blood themselves. Slightly tapered ears were not an uncommon trait in the Reach, nor was an extended lifespan.

For his part, the Talon sat beside the ceremoniously empty chair, ornately carved, that was Rhaal Syrek’s place at the high table. He ate what was set before him, talked and jested with the other lords, traded stories with the eladrin woman seated next to him. It would have felt just another feast and just another day but for the two dark eyes boring into him throughout the meal. At last, their owner seemed determined to wait no longer.

When the eladrin woman (Thèrain, her name was) seemed sufficiently distracted by an argument with the gentleman to her right, Myrenna Undome’elen approached Romyr, announced only by a whisper of silk. He turned in his seat to greet her, feeling much more at ease with several drinks in him. "My lady," he said in Elvish.

Her smile was amused, if a touch exasperated. She answered him in the common tongue. “Don't you 'my lady' me, Roamer. Where in the Nine Hells and all material planes have you been?"

The casual, intentional mispronunciation of his name threw him off balance. "I'm sorry, I don't take your meaning."

Some of the elf's smile faded. “We thought you were dead. We found Istar Luänin's body and assumed the worst. Why didn't you answer when we called you with the ring?"

"Ring?" Romyr asked faintly, now at a complete loss.

She offered the one on her own hand. It was silver, set with a pale green stone. Romyr recognized it. He'd woken up in the Shadewood with an exact copy on his finger. He hadn’t worn it since. He swallowed, throat suddenly dry. "Do I...know you?"

The Lady Undome’elen looked as if he'd struck her. She took an involuntary step back, eyes narrowing. "Come on, now. Stop playing." When neither an apology nor any expression of amusement were forthcoming, she paled. "Gods above... Did they do this? Did the--" She searched his eyes, horror growing on her face. "No. The veil. Luänin said you'd be fine, may his soul be charred in Baator."

Romyr understood none of this, save for the mention of Baator, but a dim scrap of memory came back to him. He'd dreamed, the first night back in Shade's End. You’ll feel a little blurry. With proper concentration, however, you should be fine. The meal he'd just consumed turned to ice in his stomach. "You know what happened to me?" It came out as a plea.

The elf hesitated, twisting her ring with a nervous tension. "We should talk elsewhere," she said softly, not meeting his eyes.

Romyr nodded in determined agreement. "Find me after the feast."

Lady Undome’elen melted away again. Romyr was quiet for the remainder of the meal, talking only infrequently and scarcely tasting the rest of the food. Excitement and dread fought for dominance inside of him. To find out what had happened in that blank space was an enticing prospect, but somehow it made him nervous. Whatever had happened in those couple days, it didn't seem to be anything good. He had just been feeling truly balanced for the first time since getting back, and now wondered if digging up the past was such a good idea after all.

As he left the hall, the Lady Undome’elen slid smoothly out of the shadows and fell into step near him, far enough away that it seemed they were walking together out of coincidence. Romyr was acutely aware of her presence. Looking at her out of the corner of his eye, trying to decide what that intangible somethingness around her was, he finally realized something. There was no spark of recognition when he looked at her. If that had been the case, he would have noticed straight off. No, she was too familiar for a spark of recognition. He’d somehow become so accustomed to her presence that he was totally and completely unsurprised to see her face.

He knew her, and knew her painfully well.

His rooms in the Talon’s Tower were the only place he could think of off the top of his head where they were sure not to be disturbed. He glanced up and down the corridor before unlocking the door and slipping inside. When she joined him, she turned and locked it again.

“Alright,” Romyr said, leaning against one wall with his arms crossed. “Tell me why I woke up in the middle of a forest with a knife in my leg and no memory of what happened.”

“That, I don’t think I’ll be much help with,” the elf responded. “I don’t know what occurred after you left Silverspire with Luänin. But before--”

“Hold up. Where’s Silverspire? And who’s Luänin?”

She gave him an irritable look. “Silverspire is this city’s reflection. One of them, at least.” Seeing another question forming on his tongue, she rushed onwards. “Luänin is--was--our Taurn Istar, our high mage. His was a great loss.” She glanced at the floor, brooding.

Romyr cleared his throat. “So I was at this...Silverspire for my missing days?”

The elf flinched. “Not...not exactly. You see, Silverspire is Shade’s End’s reflection in another plane of existence.” Seeing his dumbfounded look and mistaking it for confusion, she added, “You were in the Feyrealm.”

“The Feyrealm,” he repeated, and felt ill. The Feyrealm was children’s stories and old wives’ tales. The Feyrealm was gods and monsters and feats of incomprehensible magic. The Feyrealm was legend, and that’s where it should stay, locked safely behind a cage of words. The Talon of the Rhaal had no business in the twisted world of chaotic magic, where impossible beasts stalked the landscape and nightmares roamed the forests.

It will be like waking from a dream.

“Godsdammit,” he croaked. “You’re serious, aren’t you? I was in the-- ...My blank space, my missing days were in the Feyrealm?

Lady Undome’elen looked at him with a mixture of despair and pity. “Romyr...you weren’t there for a handful of days. You were in the Feyrealm for five years.”

The blood drained from his face. It was a full minute before he remembered how to speak. “That’s not possible.” The sword, the knife, the wrongness. “That’s not possible, they never missed me, they said I was only gone for a couple weeks.”

“Possible is relative. So is time, as it turns out.” She sighed and began to twist her ring again. “In the Feyrealm...in any alternate plane, really, time tends to flow differently. It’s worst in chaotic planes, where you simply don’t know how time in that world will translate to time in another world. Years into days...I’ve never even heard of such a huge discrepancy, but you’ve always bent the rules.”

He felt lost, no, drowning. Missing a few days was annoying and puzzling, but years? How could so much time have been stolen from him? Five years was enough to change a life, make one unrecognizable. Five years was too much. “What was I doing all that time? Why didn’t I come back?”

She met his eyes with her dark ones. "You didn't want to. You thought o-- You thought the work you were doing was too important."

"Our. You were about to say our." Romyr stared at her, trying to see a person he'd once known. "What were we doing?"

She hesitated. "Do you really not know me?"

It was her voice, it was the hunger in her eyes. It was the creak of a hinge in the dark and a flood of relief. "Ren?" he whispered.

Her gaze was uncomfortably intense, lit by a spark of hope. "You remember."

"I..." His voice twisted in anguish, because he'd had it, he'd seen it, for a split second he had know her. And then it was gone, fading to black. Oh gods, Ren, I'm blind.

She looked down again, angry disappointment in her expression. "I don't believe this. It's like you're gone. How the hell did this happen? How the hell could the veil take five years without a trace?"

Romyr couldn't look at her, couldn't stand the almost-remembering. His eyes fell on Daesalka instead, hanging reproachfully on its peg by the door. "What I-- What we were doing... Did it have to do with the Last Light?"

Up came those dark, intense eyes. "You know the--"

She was interrupted by a knock on the door. Romyr jumped slightly, having forgotten where they were, and that other people existed. Ren raised an eyebrow. "Expecting someone?"

Wordless, he shook his head and unlocked the door, hand itching for Daesalka. As it turned out, he had no need of it. Tayna’s curious face appeared in the slim opening between door and frame. "Romyr, I went looking for you after the feast. Is something wrong?"

"Nothing's wrong, love." Without thinking, Romyr opened the door wider to admit her.

Immediately, Tayna’s blue eyes landed on Ren, who was still standing quietly in the corner. Romyr felt the temperature drop by about ten degrees and realized his mistake. "It's not what you think," he said quickly, but too late.

"Oh, of course not." Tayna tossed her golden curls. "It's never what I think. When you offered to marry me, I thought we were in love. When you told me about your memory loss, I thought we trusted each other. When I came here, I thought you'd be alone, not dallying with some elf." She turned on her heel, hair and dress swirling, and stormed off into the corridor. Romyr unfroze and raced after her. "Tayna! Tayna, wait! She was helping me with--"

"Don't try to explain yourself! I don't want to hear it." She brushed him aside when when he reached for her. He'd never seen her so angry.

"Tayna, what's really wrong?"

"You!" she practically shouted. "Ever since you got back, you've been so-- so distant, and just when I need you most I find you shut up with another woman."

"I tried to tell you, that was--"

"I don't care! You're off in your own world, and you never have thoughts to spare for me. I'm tired of being part of your background."

He was sorely tempted to point out that she was the one turning down his marriage proposal, but decided against it. "You've never been background for me. I've just when been feeling out of sorts, what with my memory loss and the Rhaal going off to fight."

She seemed only marginally calmer. "When you're back in sorts, find me. Until then, just keep out of my way." This time when she pulled away, he let her go.

Ren crossed her arms as he reentered the room. She was silent for a long moment, and Romyr could only guess at the emotions that flickered across her face. Finally, she said, “I am sorry.”

"I didn't see you offering any help," he muttered, falling into a convenient chair.

"I could only have made it worse." Her eyes were unreadable. "You really don't remember anything, do you?"

She kept returning to that well-established point. It irked him. "That's a little unfair. I remember who I am."

"No, you don't," Ren said bluntly. A sigh. "I need to think about some things. Find me in the morning if you like, but don't expect good news." On that sunny note, she brushed past him and left the room as Tayna had done. The sound of the door shutting was crisp and final.

Long after he was alone, Romyr remained as he was, staring at the space Ren had vacated and feeling he'd lost something much more than memories tonight.

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