The mountain air was thinner up here. The closer you got to the top of the mountain the temperatures dropped dramatically too. Brother Thomas never adapted to the cold like his companions did. Halfgrim wasn’t even wearing a cloak yet, and the wind had picked up wickedly. The dwarf’s cheeks were rosy red and the priest didn’t know if it was from the cold or the occasional shot of ale he took. The group had been traveling all day and Thomas pleaded silently that Lord Orin would stop but he wanted to wait until they got on the other side of the ridge before resting for an hour. Berwyn had suggested on getting down the other side of the mountain before camping for the night, which meant a grueling pace. Lord Orin agreed, they didn’t want to risk getting caught in the mountain’s many blizzards or risk sleeping in the mountains at night. Too many dangerous animals were well adapted for living in these conditions. That meant that Thomas was going to be in some serious pain when they camped tonight. Two hours ago he could no longer feel the pain in his butt from riding the large war horse he was on. Now he had gone numb from the freezing temperatures.
Berwyn looked back after a while of riding through a series of steep twists and turns in the road. He noticed Brother Thomas beginning to lean more to the side and he allowed his horse to move more slowly.”Brother Thomas you must keep up. Please keep moving swiftly, we are nearly to the top. Once there, it will be all down hill and easier going on everyone.” He had stopped his horse to allow the others to pass. He took note that Halfgrim was getting tired too, though he was more stubborn about showing it. Truth was they were all tired, but they had to get down the other side. It was too dangerous here with all the wild animals and the terrible storms that raged across the mountain tops.
The priest nodded his agreement and tried to straighten up more. He let out a long sigh while he stopped a moment next to Berwyn. “I can tell we are all tired Berwyn, but I know you only mean well by pushing us on. I believe it is time to call on a greater power to help us get to our resting point on the other side. If I may, I will send up a prayer to the Almighty,” he straightened up his cloak and looked up into the grayish sky as snow swirled around them and the wind howling in from all sides.
Berwyn nodded and yelled for the other two to hold up. Lord Orin turned his horse around and waited to see what was up. Halfgrim just stopped and kept looking up the mountain. His body was so cold he didn’t want to try and turn for fear of hurting something. Brother Thomas began praying in the language of the Eschrehim, his voice low and methodic at first. Then his voice grew louder and louder until it began to echo off the rocks around them. A beam of light appeared in the abysmal sky shinning down on all of them. Warmth flowed through every part of their body, both warming them and rejuvenating their muscles. Then they began to feel well rested and more alert, a sense of peace flowed over them.
“The great Eschua, give us peace so that we might find sanctuary on the other side of this mountain. Our faith and trust rests in you.” Brother Thomas let out a sigh of relief as he looked back at his travelling companions. Every one of them felt relaxed and rejuvenated.
“I feel like I have more energy than when we started out this morning. How did you do that Thomas?” Halfgrim asked amazed as he jumped off his horse and walked around in the snow. The storm had dissipated a bit to calmer flurries.
“A little faith goes a long way, my Dwarven friend. When in need the Almighty will be there for us, we just have to ask for his aide.” Brother Thomas pulled back his cloaked as the winds died down to a simple breeze. Berwyn rounded his horse up to Halfgrim as he checked his packs.
“Alright guys we better make use of this blessing while we have it, thank you Brother Thomas; we should have a better time on the road now.”
“Don’t thank me Berwyn, Thank him.” He said as he pointed toward the sky. Halfgrim climbed onto a boulder near his horse and then jumped on its back. They began again, with energy renewed toward the peak.
They continued their journey on down the mountain after they paused a moment at the peak to look out over the landscape. The blessing the Almighty bestowed on them gave them so much energy that they didn’t stop until they reached the bottom of the other side of the mountain. Well before dark at the designated site they want to camp for the night, Berwyn and Lord Orin turned back to the other two. Lord Orin looked around and then back to the others, “Even though we are early getting here, I still want to stop for the night. About a half mile north of the road through those trees is a small grassy area by a stream. We will tie our horses in the group of trees and then camp by the stream for the night.”Halfgrim was about to suggest continuing, when Lord Orin cut him off, “I know we still have a lot of energy, but we have some things to talk about and some news I received in Helmcross last night I wanted to share with you.” Everyone nodded in agreement and trotted off through the tree line. A few minutes later they came across the grassy area by a fairly deep, fast moving stream. Small schools of trout swam this way and that between the stones on the bottom.
“Halfgrim, why don’t you start rounding up some firewood? Brother Thomas can you get the horses tied up among the trees there? Berwyn and I will start setting up camp and then go out and scout the area. Is everyone in agreement then?” Orin looked around at the other men; each nodded in agreement before dismounting and began to unpack their horses.
An hour and a half later, Orin and Berwyn returned to the camp from the opposite side of the stream. They had quickly set up camp and then left Halfgrim and Brother Thomas to catch some fish for supper and build a fire. They spent most of their time scouting out the region. The previous night before in the tavern, Berwyn had noticed the gnome watching them. Just before leaving Ulbran, the owner, whispered to him the same thing. Juliana had waited on him and knew right away what he was doing there. Over the years Berwyn and Orin have had a good relationship with the staff of the Scarlet Bard. In fact, Ulbran had been at Lord Orin and Lady Alicia’s wedding. The reception had been put together by Ulbran and his staff at the castle. They looked out for one another, Ulbran kept his ears open, and the girls kept their eyes on newcomers.
Berwyn the next morning told Orin what was going on and throughout the day they had spotted the gnome several times. They could tell he was a rogue, the way he moved from shadow to shadow, but he was not that good in the wilderness. Any ranger would have picked up on him quickly, but Orin wanted to leave him be for now. He wanted to know what his intentions were. Was he just keeping tabs on them? Or was he seeking the scroll?
Being the rangers that they were, the brothers found his camp about a mile east of their own. He wasn’t there so they figured he was spying on their camp. They headed back quickly and spotted him on a ridge overlooking the stream above their camp. He didn’t notice them crouching among the trees across the stream watching him.
“Orin, I think we should grab him now, before we talk to the others. Who knows how much of our conversation he heard last night. He may know too much for his own good, and who knows who he may be working for. We can’t take the chance of them finding the other scrolls.”Berwyn watched through the branches as Halfgrim sat on the bank of the stream. His toes wiggled in the water as he held out a little fishing pole. A few trout lay on the grass beside him. Berwyn smiled as he watched the dwarf hum a tune and while occasionally taking a swig from his flask. Halfgrim’s cheeks were red and he was in a really good mood. He nudged Orin in the stomach and pointed at Halfgrim, “I think the dwarf has some of Ulbran’s Ale in that flask.” They both chuckled as they watched Halfgrim cry with glee as he yanked another fish out of the water. The priest, Thomas, sat on a log near the fire, pouring over one of the many books he had brought along on the trip.
“Berwyn I want to wait and see what the gnome does tonight. If he was hired by someone, he will probably report back to them tonight of our progress. If I can I want to try and figure out who were are dealing with. I don’t like this sneaking around crap that is going on here. I want to know who my enemies are before I meet them. Who knows what will happen, but for now Berwyn, let him be,” Orin turned to his brother, “if he seems to be more than a watcher, then in Dushuan we will meet with him face to face. Is that ok, brother?”
Berwyn watched the gnome for a bit longer, trying to wager what he was doing here. He seemed harmless enough for now. Like his brother, Berwyn wanted to know who they were dealing with too.
I wonder if he is just a scout for a larger group, or is he being paid to report our movements to someone. The latter seemed more reasonable to him.
If it were him he would allow someone to do all the foot work, and then come in and take the prize. “I agree Orin, leave him alone for now. I have a feeling he is just reporting our progress to someone else. But before we find the first temple, we better stop the reports.”
Orin nodded his head and then motioned for them to swing around and come into the camp the way they originally had left.
Berwyn grabbed Orin’s shoulder suddenly and pointed toward the gnome. Orin turned his gaze in time to see the rogue pull back on the bolt of a crossbow before taking aim and firing toward Brother Thomas.
“Watch out!” Berwyn screamed as he charged through the brush toward the gnome. The arrow zipped past the priest and buried into the chest of an orc rushing up behind. It screamed in surprise before flying backward by the momentum. Then other guttural calls and hoots broke the ambience of the creek around them. More orcs and hobgoblins broke through the brush rushing toward the priest and dwarf.
Halfgrim tossed his pole aside and grabbed his axe that he had been leaning on. Two came at him from the left with raised short swords and animal skin bucklers on their arms. Halfgrim came under the slash of the first one and rammed the butt of his axe handle right into the neck. The orc stumbled backwards coughing and hacking, dropping his sword as he grabbed at his throat. The second orc came around his partner and swung with his short sword in a sideways slash towards Halfgrim’s head. The dwarf swatted the sword to the side and brought his axe sliding down the blade to scrape leather and flesh off the arm. While the orc shrieked in pain, his life floods pooling on the ground, Halfgrim brought his axe swinging around his head to the other side of the orc and loped off his head. The dwarf wasted no time and ran around the body as it crumpled to the ground, seeking out the first orc. It was just now recovering its breath and had just enough time to bring its buckler to bear as Halfgrim brought his axe down with all his might. The shield however was of poor craftsmanship and splintered under the full force of the attack and the blade came slicing down through its arm and cutting deep into his shoulder. The axe came to a stop half way down to his heart as the impact smashed the orc into the ground like a hammer blow. As Halfgrim tugged at his axe, trying with all his might to pull it free he glanced around to see how the others were fairing.
Brother Thomas, recovering from the sight of the arrow flying past his head and then exploding into the orc, grabbed his staff and began reciting words of power. The staff began to give off a bright bluish white light as electricity began to arc around the runes engraved on it. 3 orcs crashed through the tents and rushed the priest as he continued his prayer. 2 came barreling at his front while the third had made its way around the perimeter of the camp and came up from behind him. Just as the two in front of Brother Thomas were within 6 feet of him he picked up his staff that was now pulsing with bright light and crackling with lightning and swung it around in a full arc toward them. The air around the staff shimmered and light bent as it tore a scar through the first orc causing his muscles to spasm and constrict. His crude axes went flying from his hands as the lightning coursed through the staff and blasted him in the opposite direction. The priest continued his arc and hit the second orc in the head as it tried to duck. Its eyes bulged in pure agony as the electricity coursed through every vein and muscle of its body. Its mouth blasted open as lightning burst forth from inside and bright light poured out of its eyes and ears. The creature launched from the impact into a nearby tree smashing every bone in its body from the force.
The other orc skidded to a stop 10 feet from the priest as it watched in horror what happened to its fellow warriors. Brother Thomas brought his staff to face the third orc and waited patiently for the creature to move. The orc squawked and hooted obscenities in its language as it shuffled side to side trying to find away around the staff. As Brother Thomas continued his prayer to Eschua, he noticed the creature’s lips curl in a smile before charging forward. The priest barely had time to look over his shoulder to see 3 hobgoblins and 2 more orcs charging through the camp behind him before his quickly faced back toward the warrior in front. He cried out raising his staff above him, “Father! Hear my prayer and bring forth your power.”
He slammed the staff down into the ground as the creatures leaped toward him, all attacking at once. An explosion of light blasted out away from the staff as it struck the ground. Encompassing all around the priest the force of the blast ruffled his robes and lifted every one of the warriors up into the air before they could reach him. Each one was carried 50 feet into the air and disappeared into the woods screaming in agony.
The power sucked so much energy from Brother Thomas that he fell to his knees leaning against the staff. Tears of joy ran down his cheeks as he whispered, “Thank you my Lord.”
Looking around him as he caught his breath, he noticed no other warriors were nearby.
Berwyn having watched the arrow take out the orc behind the priest, turned back to find the gnome had vanished into the woods. Before he could give chase 2 orcs burst through the underbrush in front him. They snickered and hooted as they circled him in a small clearing by the creek. Berwyn wasted no time pulling out his two curved reapers. Blades that curved out from a handle down past his hands to a length of over 1 foot, they could be used in deadly unison. The first orc puzzled by the blades still rushed forward with its short axe in one hand and a dirk in the other. Berwyn hooked the axe away to his left as it was sliced toward him while bringing the other Reaper down into a low arc and knocking away the dirk. The orc gasped in horror as it realized it was wide open to attack.
Berwyn brought both Reapers up into a slicing motion and severed the arteries in both forearms before bringing the tips of his blades back downward into the shoulders of the orc, breaking through the clavicle bones and rupturing arteries. The orc collapsed under the full force of the attack, his leathery face still frozen in horror and surprise. Berwyn heard the other orc howl as it came up behind him with a short hammer. Berwyn caught the downward attack at his back with both blades crisscrossed behind him as he knelt to take the force of the blow. Berwyn swept around with his left foot and his studded boot smashed through the ankle of the creature as he came up into a defensive stance.
The orc howled in pain as its leg snapped under the attack. It prevented itself from falling by leaning on its wooden shield. Fire and pure agony coursed through its body as it tried to rise. Twice it swept aside Berwyn’s attacks but the creature could not get a good footing with the busted leg. It helplessly took another swipe at Berwyn with its hammer. Berwyn hooked the hammer with the left blade and ripped it from its grasp while he lunged forward with his right blade. With a powerful right punch the Reaper blade in his right hand split open the orc’s skull from forehead to chin. Slowly it fell backward, arms spread out, in stunned silence as it collapsed in a heap.
Berwyn wiped his blades across his chest as he turned around to see how the others fared. Halfgrim had linked up with Brother Thomas as they came under attack by goblins. Lord Orin came rushing through the tree line as goblins on two moorhounds came barreling up behind him. His wolf’s head shield attached to his back save his life as the goblins shot arrows at him. With his battle axe, Ice Reaper, in one hand and his dirk, Frostbane in the other, he ran toward a large oak.
Orin reached the oak and shot around the right side as two more arrows buried themselves in to the bark of the tree. The moorhounds followed him around the tree only to find him in an offensive position on the other side swinging his axe in an upward arc. The first goblin caught the axe full under the neck. The blade cut deeply while lifting the moorhound backward with the full momentum of the attack. Life fluids sprayed across Lord Orin as he swung sideways causing the moorhound and its rider to crash off to the side. The goblin rider was crushed under the weight of the moorhound as it landed on its back. The second moorhound, an adult of over 6 feet at its shoulders, barreled into Orin flinging him backward into the trees.
The wind was knocked out of him as Orin slammed into the trunk of another oak. He slowly rose to his feet as the moorhound rushed him again. The goblin on its back was out of arrows so it pulled a spear from the saddle strap and stabbed at Orin. Lord Orin brought his shield to bear with his right arm as the moorhound brought its right paw around to slash at him. Orin put his full weight into deflecting the attack and pushing it back as he brought his axe around from left to right and sliced across the mouth of the beast. The blade bit deeply into its lip and broke several razor sharp teeth. The moorhound recoiled in pain causing the goblin to lose sight of Lord Orin. The hound shook its head from the attack and howled spitting out blood and saliva in the process. Lord Orin charged in with his shield forward and hit the moorhound squarely in the chest knocking the wind out of the beast before bringing his axe down on the bridge of its snout, splitting flesh and snapping bone. With so much blood loss and its mouth unusable the beast fell to the ground pawing at the dirt and grass as it winced in pain.
The goblin on its back was swung around like a rag doll before being thrown free of its saddle. It tumbled across the ground in a ball before coming to rest against an oak tree. Dazed it tried to rise as a shadow fell over it. Looking up all it saw was an ice blue blade sailing towards its head before darkness enveloped it.
Lord Orin shook the yellow ichor of the creature’s blood from his axe before looking back toward the camp to see Berwyn coming to the aid of Halfgrim and a very tired Brother Thomas. Lord Orin hurried over in time to see Halfgrim hop onto the back of another moorhound who was now riderless and bring his axe down squarely between the eyes of the beast. It slid to a stop just feet from Berwyn as Halfgrim yanked his axe out of the beast’s skull with a tearing sound that caused Brother Thomas to shudder.
“Well that is the last of them,” he said as he began to wipe away the blood and grime from his axe.
Berwyn shook his head, “How did we not see signs of them when we scouted around earlier?” He looked to Lord Orin with genuine surprise.
“I think it was because we were too busy looking in on our little shadow,” Lord Orin replied as he too began to look over his weapons. He sat down on a log by the still burning fire, laying his axe across his thighs as he checked over the blade.
“What…” Brother Thomas Breathed deeply, “…shadow are you referring too?” He too sat down on a log near the fire, the lightning and the glowing runes fading along his staff.
“The one who shot the orc behind your back,” Berwyn began pulling the bodies of the creatures over into a pile. When Halfgrim was done with his axe he helped with the other dead.
“Who are you talking about you two? What haven’t you…” the dwarf huffed, “…told us?” Halfgrim asked as he heaved a goblin up onto the growing mound of dead.
Berwyn began to retell everything from the night before at the tavern and then Lord Orin added in what they were doing while the others had been setting up camp.
Brother Thomas took out his cloth from a pocket inside his robes and coughed into it several times, “It makes sense that the Shadowlords would send someone to keep tabs on us.” He coughed some more into the rag before taking a water skin from Lord Orin and taking a deep drawl on the cool contents inside. “They need someone to keep track of us and report our movements to their Dark Lord.” He wiped some water off his mouth with the back of his hand before passing the skin to Berwyn who came and sat down next to him.
Berwyn took it graciously, “They are probably waiting for the right time to steal the scroll from us and find the others themselves.” He tossed his head back and poured some of the water onto his face to wash away the grit and grime from the battle. “Ah, much better,” he said before taking a long drink himself.
Halfgrim set fire to the bodies and wrinkled his nose as the wind picked up and blew the stench of burning flesh into his face. He turned around and headed back over to the others, pulling his pipe out from inside his leather vest. “Well then I guess we have two things to do: first find our little shadow and thank him for saving Brother Thomas, which by the way, why did he do that?” Smoke rings began to float lazily into the air as he sat on a stump nearby the fire.
Lord Orin leaned his axe against his log seat and shook his head, “Don’t know why he would do that unless he didn’t want anyone else to get the scroll.”
“Makes sense,” Brother Thomas chimed in, “what’s the other thing Halfgrim?” He looked over to his old friend.
“Toss him over the next cliff so we won’t be followed anymore,” The dwarf shrugged as he blew out two more rings. A smile stretched from ear to ear.
“No, Orin is right about one thing, we need more information on who is after us before we lose our shadow.” He shook his head, grinning at Halfgrim.
“I guess,” Halfgrim said between puffs, “but when the time comes, I get first toss.”
Tristan followed Kerak through the two massive gates that comprised of the southern entrance into the mighty fortress. Feyraven Tower loomed above Tristan as he walked into the courtyard. Its polished marble gleamed in the sunlight as his eyes followed the edge of the tower all the way to its top. 7 levels above ground and one level underground, Feyraven was indeed a fortress. Tristan looked around the cobbled courtyard and noted many people working on day to day chores, “Kerak, who are all these people?”
Kerak stopped, looked around and then smiled. “Why, they live here of course. These are our villagers who run the daily chores and upkeep of this fortress. Because we are so far between cities, we have become self-sustaining.” He pointed to a few buildings that lined the curtain wall of the fortress. “There is our blacksmiths and armories. Over there is our baker, tanner, and butcher. We have weavers and farmers as well. On the outside of the western wall we have crops growing and over there is our well that supplies the whole fort with water.” Kerak nodded in satisfaction and started heading toward the doors of the fortress again.
Tristan looked around once more in astonishment. He had never seen a military base so well supplied and managed. Looking back at the tower he wondered what other surprises awaited him. Two soldiers on either side of the doors turned as they approached and pulled back the massive doors. A pungent smell of horses and manure came wafting out of the doorway and blasted Tristan in the face. As they walked through the doors they came into an ornately decorated and handcrafted room. Inside this massive room were numerous small rooms going off in two different directions. Many horses of all sizes and colors poked their heads out of the rooms. Tristan stopped quickly and looked around, confused. “Stables?” Tristan turned to Kerak again and found him waiting a few feet away in a doorway to his right.
Kerak smiled again, “I take it this is your first trip to Feyraven, eh?” He shook his head, “but haven’t you heard about this place from Father Alban?”
Tristan shook his head as he looked around some more. “No we have had more pressing matters to worry about, he hasn’t had much time to tell me about his many travels this last year I have known him.” Tristan walked down the hall to Kerak who opened another door leading into a grand gallery with a large staircase to the side. Kerak shook his head once more and sighed, “Then I guess I better give you a quick tour while we climb to the council hall.”
He looked back at Tristan who continued to look around the fortress as they began to make their way up the staircase. He noticed the change in Tristan’s face when he mentioned the word “climb”. He could tell the young man looked tired, but he had to get the news to his superiors immediately if they were to have any time to put up a proper defense. “The council hall is on the fourth level. Levels one through three are the barracks and mess halls for the soldiers. Level 4, where we are headed is the location of the guest and officer quarters. Also there is a hospital, mess hall, and bath houses.” Tristan stopped as they reached the second level. Kerak turned and looked at the bewildered expression on his face. “Yes I said bath houses, and no I am not joking. Through Dwarven ingenuity and a little gnomish power, we are able to pump water into several bath houses around the fourth level and to the sixth and seventh levels where the general and the mages reside. The bath houses are a privilege for the officers, mages, and guests. The soldiers and staff use tubs and water that is heated over a fire.” They continued up the stairs making their way to the third level. Kerak continued, “The only time the soldiers or staff may use the bath houses are when they are in the hospital, its part of the recovery process.”
Tristan glimpsed out a window as they were starting now on the stairway to the fourth level. He was tired from climbing the stairs but the view he saw from that window was spectacular. You could see for miles, all the way to the Firestone Range that loomed in the background. Dangerous as they were, he couldn’t help but have a sense of respect and awe for the way they towered in the distance. Everything in this part of Anoria seemed so big and so far apart. Not like where he grew up with the elves in the forest. The trees were big too, some were even used as housing by the elves, but they were also close together and shielded the rest of the view from your eyes. Thinking back on his younger days with the elves it all felt like a lifetime away. Life had been simple, it had been hard work, but it had been simple.
Now he was flying on the back of an eagle that could swallow him with one gulp, searching for scrolls that lead to a gate that opens and closes to the abyss. Before him was a council of warriors that await to here his information that could lead to the victory or defeat of this fortress. Behind him was a great mass of monsters and soldiers that were hell bent on destroying everything in their path. The only person who could control them or try to was his brother; a man who is blinded by a dark power and is the murderer of his only daughter.
Tristan stopped for a moment, and leaned against the wall of the stairway that leads to the fourth level. This was the last obstacle before facing the council, but he had to stop. His back against the wall he slid down to the floor as everything came crashing down on his heart and soul. The medallion swayed around his neck like a pendulum. Tristan watched it for a moment sway back and forth as Kerak came back down the stairs, realizing that Tristan wasn’t behind him.
Coming up to the lad he smirked, “For a young man you don’t seem to have a lot of energy. Look at me, I am 200 years old and I ain’t even winded.” Then he noticed the look in Tristan’s eyes and the posture of his body. Something was troubling the lad but he couldn’t figure it out. Maybe it was the incoming army, or maybe that “quest” Father Alban sent him on.
Walking over to Tristan he looked down at him for a moment before continuing, “You know son, many armies and many monsters have crashed against these walls like the waves of the Kadesh Sea. Yet, here we are, we have survived them all. And we will survive this one too, just wait and see. No haphazard group of orcs and mangy goblins can get past these walls. You will see,” he smiled at Tristan hoping that his words brought some comfort.
Tristan looked at the old dwarf for a moment, studying his features. He saw the truth in the old one’s eyes, but he also knew something the dwarf didn’t. This was no tossed together bunch of dumb monsters. His brother and the other Shadowlords have raised and trained these armies into perfect killing machines. They are all bent on taking over this world as their own and changing the tide of the races. “Master Kerak, I understand your faith in these walls, and in times past they have indeed held the dark forces at bay, but not this time. It is folly to fight these warriors; you have no idea what you are up against. Those monsters are organized, trained, and have one goal…wiping out the Free Races of Anoria.” With that he sunk his head once more as he thought over his words.
Kerak stepped back a moment and thought over what the young man had said. He knew in his heart that these walls couldn’t be taken down. He had been through too many victories to doubt now. But, there was something in the demeanor of Tristan and the weight of his words that, somewhere, deep in his mind he began to doubt the walls a little. “Awww, you’re just worried about your quest that is all, I know Father Alban has laid a heavy burden on your shoulders. But you shouldn’t begin to doubt now. Wait and see, wait and see.”
Tristan got up and began to walk up the stairs once more. Kerak followed him slowly for a moment, and then remembered his duties and hurried past him to lead the way.
At the top of the stairs Tristan and Kerak came to a grand gallery. It was filled with all kinds of paintings of war scenes and crests of various noble houses. Tristan followed Kerak around the corner to two large ornately carved doors. Two scimitars crisscrossed over an eagle with its wings spread out at the center of the door. The swords were so large that they covered most of the two doors. Kerak stopped in front of them leaning his hand on one of the scimitars. He then turned slowly to Tristan, “What ever is your quest, I understand now that it is important for you to complete. I also know that you are dealing, it seems, with a heavy burden on your shoulders. Let me tell you something my father once told me. ‘If you have something heavy on your soul you can do one of two things, let it consume you or you can consume it.’ It’s up to you.” He looked into Tristan’s eyes, searching for a sign of understanding.
Tristan nodded and then took a breath. “Thank you Kerak, it is a burden I have carried for a long time, but I need to carry it for a little while longer. You will understand when I explain everything to the council.” He laid his hand on the dwarf’s shoulder as he spoke.
Kerak nodded, “Ok then, I will go in and announce your presence and intentions. Then I will come back for you. When you come in, go straight to the central platform in the room. Those who wish to speak to the council speak from the platform so that all may see and hear your words.” With that Kerak knocked on the wooden doors, and then pushed heavily against the scimitar handle as the left door cracked open a bit. He slipped through and the door closed behind him. Tristan turned toward one of the paintings on the wall and studied it for a bit. The painting depicted an Eschrehim battling a demon on a precipice. Elven and Human soldiers battled orcs and goblins all around the two supernatural warriors. Tristan noticed a golden plaque underneath the painting with writing on it. It read, Battle of Firestone Range, During the War of Sorrows.
Tristan studied it more for a moment before he realized someone was behind him. Not saying a word, he swiftly turned to come face to face with a very large man. His blade was already out and the tip was no more than 4 inches from Tristan’s right eye. He turned his sword back and forth slowly as he studied Tristan. It all happened so fast, that Tristan didn’t have time to grab his swords. Tristan lowered his hand from the hilt of his sword and breathed slowly. The cold stare from the man sent a chill down Tristan’s spine. His silver and red armor glistened in the fire’s light from a nearby torch. The soldier stood still like a statue, never taking his eyes away from Tristan’s and never wavering in holding the sword so close to Tristan’s face.
After a minute or two, Tristan heard a noise to his left and was relieved to see Kerak come back through the door. A surprised look washed across his face and then was replaced with anger when he realized who the soldier was. “What in the blue blazes is going on here? Lieutenant Larsa lower your weapon immediately. Tristan is with me, he comes from the Sanctuary of Nemalia.”
Larsa turned his gaze quizzically to Kerak and then back to Tristan. He looked him up and down for a second before speaking. “He doesn’t look like one of those priests, but if he is from there, then my apologies. I saw you here in the gallery by yourself and no one had told me we had a new guest today.” He lowered his sword and sheathed it. Bringing his hand out, he continued, “Lieutenant Larsa at your service. Sorry for the misunderstanding but security on this level is one of my responsibilities. No one informed me you were coming here.”
Tristan shook his hand and sighed a relief. “Actually I am a friend of Father Alban’s, and on a quest for him to Abydos.” Tristan took a step back never taking his eyes from Larsa’s.
Kerak looked from one to the other noting the staring contest between the two. “Larsa, I was about to send out Jonathan to go find you. The council is convening because Tristan has some information for us, and you are the last one we are waiting on. Where were you when the summons was given?”
Larsa blinked for a moment before removing his gaze from Tristan’s. He turned toward the dwarf and his demeanor changed. He became more casual and even had a thin smile appear across his face. “Where was I? Well I was in the library doing some research. I was trying to find some information on war strategies. If the reports are true about the army coming out of the wastelands, then I wanted to be ready to do my part.” He brought his right fist to his chest as he spoke the last part. His eyes veered back to Tristan’s for a moment and then he turned and walked into the council hall. Murmuring buzzed past the door as Larsa walked in.
Kerak shrugged his head, “Likely story, ‘research in the library’, that will be the day or I am a snot nosed goblin. I never liked Larsa much, he always gave me an eerie feeling, you know? But he is an excellent soldier, no doubt about it.” He looked up at Tristan, who was listening intently.
Tristan swept his hand up his face and then over the back of his head. Larsa’s face reminded him of someone he once met. But he couldn’t put his finger on when or where for that matter. “Yeah, I noticed how good he was with a sword. How long has he been here Kerak? He looks familiar.”
Kerak thought about it for a moment and then shrugged, “Oh I would say at least 5- 6 years, maybe a little more. He came in with a batch of soldiers from Drydome in the Wastelands.”
Tristan was even surer he had seen the man before. “I didn’t know there was a Royal Guard in the Wastelands. How long have they been operating in those dangerous conditions?”
Kerak thought about it for a second and then replied, “Oh I would say about 8 years now, at least. A battalion is rotated out of there every year to give the men a break in more, ‘hospitable conditions’. Every town over 20,000 people now has a battalion guarding them. Too many reports have been flooding in to Othar about attacks on towns by all sorts of men and creatures. All of these attacks are well organized,” he noted, “but let’s talk about this more later on. We need to get into the council hall now so you can give your report.”
Tristan nodded and followed Kerak through the doors into the grand hall.
Merwenna sat in the chapel of her father’s keep. The cold white marble walls seemed to shimmer in the light of the hundreds of candles that flickered around the great room. The 4 rose quartz columns that stretched up to the ceiling stood like sentinels in the otherwise empty room.
Merwenna sat in a pew close to one of them. She leaned her back against it for support as she wrapped her arms around her legs. Her chin rested on her knees as she stared at the many flames, staring through them almost off into oblivion. Single tears rolled down her cheeks every so often as she continued to think about her father and the others.
She looked over to the stone brazier at the front of the chapel. Its tall pedestal adorned with a 3 foot high flame, the symbol of the Eternal Flame of Eschua. “Why Father? Why must they do it?” She laid her face against the stone as she closed her eyes and wept silently once more.
Her father and uncle were gone with two of her closest mentors, to dangers unknown and greater than anything they had ever faced before.
And I am stuck here, with the others.
Her hair slipped down over her shoulders and covered the left side of her face as her shoulders shook from crying. Her misery filled the chapel as the columns and the candles seemed to look down upon her, feeling her pain in their own way. The Eternal Flame seemed to grow in size and brilliance. Its red and orange flames began to turn into blues and whites. With each burst of growth and puff of sparks the colors became more brilliant, more vivid. Each individual flame seemed to ripple and shimmer of its own accord, but in a chorus and unison that was unworldly.
A feminine hand, lithe and pure white, reached down and caressed the hair of Merwenna. A woman in silken robes knelt beside Merwenna, gazing upon her like a mother, as she continued to run her fingers through Merwenna’s hair.
Merwenna trembled as she felt an awesome power surround her and engulf her as she looked up into the face of the woman. Her features were perfect and beautiful, but terrifying and powerful at the same time. Merwenna felt both at peace and at unease as she was caught in the sight of the woman before her. Her eyes were like blue crystal pools that seemed to go back into eternity.
Merwenna felt herself becoming lost in those eyes so she quickly bowed her head, closing her eyes as she pulled back a little.
“It’s ok child, do not be afraid.” Her voice was cool and soft like a breeze that would find its way through Merwenna’s balcony doors every morning. “My name is Sister Lia,” she grabbed Merwenna’s chin softly and turned her face up towards hers once more, “what is wrong child? This is a place of joy and sanctuary.”
Merwenna didn’t recognize the woman’s face, but she could swear deep down, somewhere inside of her that she knew this woman. “Forgive me Sister, I meant no disrespect,” she wiped the tears from her face and began to get up, “I will just be on my way.”
The lithe hand shot out and caught her by the elbow. “Come now young one, you know this is a place to find answers as well. All you have to do is ask…” she gestured toward the flame.
Merwenna was startled by the change in the flames. She hadn’t seen the transformation or this woman’s entrance into the chapel. “I…I do not know the right questions to ask.” She stumbled over her words as she continued to stare into the flames. Caught in their brilliance, she took two steps toward the brazier. “I only wish…” she stopped and looked back toward Sister Lia, “I wish only to know why…why…” She bowed her head in shame.
Sister Lia glided forward by some unknown force and laid both her hands on Merwenna’s shoulders. “…Us?” She bent down a little to look up into Merwenna’s face again and smiled. “You wish to know, why you? Why your father and those you love?” She lifted her head up again. “It is ok to ask those questions, for they are your right to ask child. You know that the Almighty has a plan, a will for everything in this world and the next.” She turned Merwenna around so they both gazed into the flames that rippled and pulsed in a rhythm all their own. “He has a reason and a time for everything,” she pointed toward the flames, “You and the people you love were chosen because of what you value most in this world: Each other. Your love and compassion for one another knows no bounds and has a greater power then anyone else in this world.” She smiled at Merwenna as she looked back at her.
“We only do what Eschua teaches us, no more no less. We are not great heroes of old or people who move mountains. We just try to do the best we can and live each day as we can…” Merwenna shook her head at the idea of being chosen by the Almighty. “We are not great…” her voice dropped to a whisper, “I am not an important person, some one to lead or do great things.”
“Yes you are young one, do not doubt your heart or your faith. Your father asked you to stay here because your mother and these people need you now more than ever to lead them.” Sister Lia looked up toward the many stained glass windows that adorned the top level of the chapel. She smiled as the light pierced them and caused a myriad of colors and rays of light to dance around as the candle flames flickered back and forth. “Light is strongest here, many people know that.” Her face saddened as she spoke some more, “Darkness is coming Merwenna, daughter of Lord Orin. This place will be a sanctuary of light in the sea of darkness.”
Merwenna shook her head, “I am not worthy nor ready for this.”
“No one ever believes they are when the time comes and they are called by the Light. You are worthy and you are ready.” Sister Lia’s voice became a powerful whisper, “You must be ready for what is coming.”
Those words weighed heavily on Merwenna as Sister Lia turned her back toward the chapel doors. “I will try Sister.” Merwenna said with a lightened heart and a determined conviction.
“You will child, you will.” Sister Lia’s voice trailed off as if a wind had caught it and carried it away into the high ceiling of the chapel.
Merwenna grasped the golden ring of the door handle and turned back. The Eternal Flame had turned back to its red and orange hues. But what shocked Merwenna the most was that Sister Lia was gone. She looked around the chapel and could not find her anywhere.
Just then Brother Tillman came through the chapel doors. “Merwenna, what are you doing here child? Your mother has been waiting in the great hall for you for some time.” He hurried over to her, but noticed the look in her eyes, “Who are you looking for?”
“Sister Lia and I were just talking but when I turned to leave she had disappeared.” Merwenna was confused now, more than before.
“Sister Lia? There is no one by that name here child.”
“No. One. Here…” Merwenna repeated the words as her eyes opened wide. “That can’t be true Father Tillman; I just talked to her in this very room.”
“Merwenna you must be mistaken by the name,” He shook his head, “we will talk more later on child, Lady Alicia and Constable Jotham are waiting patiently.” He turned her back toward the doors and hurried her down the hallway.