“There’s no place like home.” - Ancient proverb
“Well that was an adventure.” Shaunna said, cheerily.
Taren and the others just ignored her as they continued on there northerly route, trying to put as much distance between themselves and the slaver’s oasis. It was approximately fifteen minutes before they heard the raucous echo from behind them.
“Here they come.” Tarea commented.
Taren shook his head. “No, they don’t know which way we’ve gone.”
“They can just follow our footprints, silly...” She stopped short as she looked behind them only to see that there were no footprints in the sand.
“Oran made an entreat to the magic living in the oasis. They were amused by our defeat of the slavers that they agreed to cover our retreat.” Taren explained. “The slavers will not bother us.”
Tarea shuddered. “All this talk of magic, it unnerves me.”
Morganna nodded. “It kind of unnerves me too. Magic works differently here than it did where I grew up. I almost offended the creatures in the Crystal Cavern while making Tarea’s clothes. I am glad that they were understanding of my ignorance.”
“I didn’t believe the creatures exist, until I bonded with Oran.” Parel chimed in. “Now I can see them, but I can’t communicate with them, I’ve tried.”
Hope was look at them in incredulity.
“We know you don’t believe, Hope.” Shaunna said, seeing the disbelief in his face. “I can’t see them either, but I have been around enough to know that there is something out there that can cause miraculous things to happen. Maybe if you hadn’t locked yourself in your clinic, you’d be more inclined to believe. I mean, even your mother believed that the magic creatures exist.”
Hope was about to object, but the mention of his mother caused him to close his mouth, choosing to change the subject. “We know where we are going, why didn’t we just have Cera teleport us to Vidlice.”
“I thought you didn’t trust Cera to transport us. You were pretty upset with her when we ended up in this desert.” Taren replied.
“I know, but anything is better than trudging through this hot sand.”
“I asked, but she refused.” Shaunna explained. “She’s pretty upset with Taren for losing his crystal.”
“I didn’t know that was going to happen.” Taren answered defensively. “I didn’t do it on purpose.”
“I know, but that was part of her body. She literally sacrificed part of herself to give it to you.”
His voice was a low whisper when he responded. “I know.”
The sun slipped below the horizon, shooting colorful beams through the dusky sky. As a group they were all miserably hot, but nobody complained. According to Shaunna, this would be the last night that they would be in this horrible place.
It was nearing midnight when they felt it. The previous nights had been uncomfortably warm, even after sunset. Tonight however, the temperature dipped dramatically. Heavy clouds blocked out the moon, casting the world into nearly complete darkness. They had no idea how long they walked before the rain started, but by the time they reached the city they were are soaked to bone.
“I miss Marrrk. He could have kept me warrrm, if not drrry.” Grathius complained.
“We will find a way to restore him.” Taren promised.
The rain was coming down so hard that they couldn’t see the city until they were right on top of it.
“We can’t continue in this.” Taren yelled to be heard over the howling wind.
Shaunna nodded, sadly, and altered her course towards the city instead of trying to go around it,
The gates were open, and no guards stood to guard them. They passed into the city unchallenged. Once they were in the city they were able to see the “tines of the trident” The left and right points of the city were brightly lit against the darkness. The center point stood unlit, dark as the night around them,
Shaunna shook her head sadly, and took them quickly through town, and up the steep path to the structure in the middle of the deep dark that was the center tine.
Several minutes later they stood at the door of an elaborate mansion. Carved wood pillars lined a porch that ran the length of the house. Twin bay windows look out over the city. The door’s facade was embellished with carved images of climbing ivy weaving a crisscross pattern across its face.
“Home sweet home.” Shaunna muttered as she turned the brass doorknob and stepped inside.
“This is your house?” Tarea asked.
Shaunna laughed nervously. “Once, long ago, I called these walls my home. I was banished and stripped of title and land after my parents died. The enchantments are still active, so nobody that is not a member of my family can open the door. Come in, please, my home is your home.” She said, sardonic note in her voice.
As they entered, the lights in the entrance area flared to life with dazzling brilliance. There was a collective groan as each of them had to shield their eyes against the light’s attack. It only took a few moments for their eyes to adjust.
“What happened?” Saria asked as the sight unfolded before her.
Paintings still hung on the walls, but every one of them had been slashed beyond recognition. The remnants of some sort of glass objects littered the floor below splintered wood shelves. The tiled floor was scored and scorched so that the design that was once prevalent was no longer recognizable. The elaborately papered walls were covered in graffiti and slander.
Shaunna sighed. “Apparently someone was able to find a way in. It was two years ago, I had come back to see how the old house was holding up. I entered to find the house in much the same way that we now see it. I explored the house looking for the source of the devastation, and I found him in my parent’s room.” Her face had become hard. “The man that murdered my mother stood in front of me. I don’t know how he got in, but he would have killed me, had Erik not intervened.”
“We will find him.” Taren said, as he laid his hand on her shoulder.
She smiled. “That won’t be necessary, he’s dead. He was my last mark before I was hired to assassinate you. He is also the one that put me in Hope’s clinic for six months. He injured me, but I still got him.” She clapped her hands “Enough of this, welcome. Please don’t mind the mess. Make yourselves at home. Feel free to explore the place, although I don’t expect you to find any place that looks much different.”
The group dispersed to search the wreckage for a place to rest.
“We’ll help you clean up.” Taren said, advancing slightly.
She shrugged, “I don’t know that it matters. I never meant to come back here. I don’t know that I will after this.”
Pulling her to him, he wrapped her in a tight embrace. The hug only lasted a few moments, but it connected them in a way that neither of them expected.
Shaunna took Taren by the hand. “Come, I will show you to your room.”
The devastation of the Nightshade’s home was worse than Taren had initially expected. Pieces of furniture were strewn throughout the rooms. There wasn’t a single book on any shelf, in fact there weren’t any shelves intact in any bookshelf. The picture on the walls were torn and tattered. Large holes were burnt into the carpet.
Taren did notice that none of the windows were broken.
“The magic didn’t fail.” He said in response to Shaunna’s earlier statement. “Whoever did this had to find a way in that was not under the magic’s protection.”
“How do you know? What if the magic just let him in?”
He shook his head. “Bound magic cannot go against the constraints put upon it”
“What if the magic is no longer bound?”
He briefly closed his eyes so the vertigo of shifting to the magic sight wasn’t as disturbing. When he opened them, he saw a small white creature standing just inside one of the windows. The creature was a quadruped with straight, stubby, legs. A long, trunk like, snout extended from its face under deep blue, intelligent eyes. Its moves were slow and deliberate, and its face looked sad.
“No, the magic is still here.” Taren said, staring into the hypnotic blue eyes.
He stepped over to the magic and lifted it into his arms. It was warm and soft against his skin. Snuggling deep into his shoulder, the creature began to purr.
“What is that?” Shaunna asked. “I have heard it before.”
Taren smiled “That is the sound of the magic’s happiness. He’s been lonely here without anyone, and no way to leave. We have to come back here again, for his sake.”
“Can’t we just unbind him it?”
“No, magic can only be unbound by the person that did the binding. As we don’t know who that is, it would be somewhat difficult to find him.”
Shaunna’s eyes dropped to the floor. “I know who did it, and where to find him. The knowledge will do us little good, as he is currently buried in the town’s graveyard.”
Taren nodded. “Then the magic is stuck here. We should really do what we can to help him. He may be bound by the constraints of the enchantment, but that doesn’t mean he can’t cause other mischief.”
She sighed deeply, and nodded,
He was reluctant to put the creature down’ but he knew that it would be unwise to hold it for too long. Even benign magic could be harmful with too much direct contact.
He followed Shaunna into a large room. It had obviously been a bedroom at one time. The pillars of the four poster bed lay in several pieces on the floor. A blanket of feathers littered every horizontal surface. A wad of cloth was bunched up the corner.
Shaunna retrieved the cloth from the corner. “All things considered, this is in good condition. Help me gather up all these feathers.”
He began to gather the feathers into a pile at Shaunna’s feet. With a deft hand she began to stuff the feathers into the large cloth bag. A couple of hours later found all of the feathers gathered and stuffed. Taren sat next to Shaunna as she finished sewing the bag closed. When she finished, she began to knead and punch the cloth until it was a smooth.
“There you are.” She said cheerily. “At least you will be comfortable tonight.”
“Stay here, I’ll be right back.” He said
He made his way back to the window where the magic was still waiting. Kneeling down, he began to stroke the soft skin of the creature’s back. “Do you think you could help us? We are all tired, and don’t have anywhere to sleep. Do you think you could fix the beds?”
The magic disappeared, leaving a deafening silence in the absence of its content purring. He heard several surprised exclamations, he knew that his request was being realized.
Several moments later, he felt the creature rubbing against his legs.
“Hey, do you think you could help us clean up the rest of this mess?”
The creature let out a low whine, rolling over on its back.
Taren laughed. “It’s okay. Thank you for what you have done.” He patted the creature’s head affectionately.
He hurried back to the large room that was to be his chambers. Shaunna was bouncing softly on the mattress, now snugly tucked into a four post bed frame.
“The magic?” She asked.
Taren nodded. “I asked if it could help clean up the rest of the mess, but it said no.”
“By the sounds of it, it sounds like this wasn’t the only one fixed.” She commented. “I wish I could see the magic. I would like to thank it... him”
Taren smiled. “Be careful what you wish for.”
She smirked at him, then turned and left the room.
The exhaustion that had been threatening to overtake him finally won. With heavy eyelids he dragged himself into bed.
“You call yourself a master?” The strange triple voice rang through the air. “You couldn’t even beat an old man.”
Visions of the duel with the lead slaver flashed through Taren’s thoughts.
All was darkness, which he thought was odd. He could see in total absence of light. His nose burned with the putrid smell of decay. The sounds of scurrying creatures echoed through the darkness, making it impossible for him to pinpoint where they were.
A deep warmth emanated from his hand, spreading up is arm, dispelling the cold that assaulted his extremities. Light exploded from the object that was grasped tightly in his hand, revealing the grizzly scene that surrounded him.
A blanket of white bones covered the ground. Tiny, demonic, creatures skulked amongst the debris, searching for any edible scrap amidst the dust. The light reflected off the surface of water not far away. Rotting, dead, fish lay in the algae growing across the poisonous green surface. Silhouettes of misshapen monster swam through the murk. A thick mist rose from the turbulent surface.
“You have already lost, son of Elloy. We cannot be defeated. Give us the orb, and we will make your death quick.”
Gripping the glowing object tighter, he raised his hand. “Never!” He shouted, hurling the Sunfire orb to the ground with all the force he could muster.
The crystal of the orb shattered, emitting a thunder clap of sound that knocked him onto his back.
“NOOOO!” The beast howled. “WE WILL KILL YOU FOR THIS, BOY!”
The light from within the orb expanded, enveloping the area with a bright luminescence.
Taren climbed to his feet looking for a way to defend himself against the abomination that was approaching. As if reading his mind, the dagger appeared in front of him.
“You know it will not work.” the monster taunted.
“Maybe not,” Taren shot back. “But I have to try.”
As his hand made contact with the warm surface of the dagger, his wings burst into flame. Brandishing the dagger before him, he rose into the air to slay the demon.
Taren was shivering as his eyes slid open. His bed was drenched as surely as if he had still been in the desert. He shook his head at the thought. The memory of their desert trek was still too fresh in his memory.
He tried to cling to the details of the dream he had been having. He felt that it was important, but he could only remember fragments. The one thing that did stick with him was the reference to his fight in the desert. He was still bothered by it. He went over every detail in his mind. Stroke for stroke they were an even match with their skill. He replayed the scene in his mind over and over until he saw his mistake. He had been undone by a well-executed feint. He had not been out-skilled, he had been out-maneuvered.
Feeling a bit better, he climbed out of bed and changed into dry clothes. It was still dark outside, and the silence in the house told him that the others were still asleep.
A flash of movement caught his attention. The elephantine magic creature stood in his doorway, observing him quizzically.
“Come here.” He gestured to the creature as he sat on the floor.
The miniscule critter climbed into his lap. He marveled again at how soft and warm the little fellow was. He gently caressed the fine, white, fur that covered the magic’s body. It was soft silk. A foreign feeling of contentment stole over him as his hand slid over the silken fur.
Memories began to come to the forefront of his consciousness as the sound burrowed deeper into his subconscious. He grew dizzy as the barrage of images intensified. He was at the top of a tall tree as the castle was destroyed. His parents found him among the rubble. He was in the city fair and a thief was trying to steal from his father’s stall.
He shook his head in an attempt to clear his mind. “I don’t know what you did, but some of those memories aren’t mine I was...” The memory of the last conversation he’s had with his mother surfaced. “Oh, my... Those are my memories, aren’t they?”
The small creature in his arms nodded.
“Wow, thank you. DO you have a name?”
The image of a beautiful dark haired, dark skinned, elf entered his mind I think we will call you Ellie.
He sat there letting the magic soothe his frazzled nerves.
The sun peeked in through the window lighting room.
“Well, I guess it’s time to start my day. Is there a place I can get some exercise? I need to see what I can do about improving my battle tactics.”
Ellie closed her eyes, the crystal around Taren’s neck grew warm, and he found himself in a dim room. Several weapons racks lay scattered across the floor. Broken weapons littered every horizontal surface. A few splintered practice dummies were dismembered and spread across the room. An impressive forge stood cold opposite where he stood. Anvils, rusty with disuse were the only intact items in the room.
“Looks like it’s going to take a while to get this place usable again.” He turned to Ellie. “Thank you.”
She cocked her head to one side, and vanished.
It was chilly, so he lit the forge to get some heat. He then began sorting the debris by weapon type. A pile each for bows, swords, and spears. He couldn’t see outside, so he didn’t know exactly how long he had been there, but he was covered with a slight sheen of perspiration when Shaunna entered the room
“Taren, you need to come quick, something is happening outside.”
He dropped the broken sword was holding and followed her. Down the hall and up a set of stairs, the emerged next to the front door.
As Shaunna pulled the door opened, the sounds shouting filtered in through the pitter-patter of falling rain. A loud roar rattled the windows of the house.
Taren and Shaunna locked eyes. They’d heard that noise before.
“No!” They both exclaimed in unison.
They quickly ran to their rooms. Taren emerged with Ethos in his hand, and Shaunna emerged with Erik in her hand, and both daggers hanging from her belt. Heedless of the driving rain, they bolted from the house and down the path that led to the central square.
They were both overcome with joy when they reached the bottom of the hill. The joy was short lived, however.
A white tiger stood in the center of the square, surrounded be a dozen, spear wielding, guards. The animal’s teeth were bared in frustration. The guards held their spears pointed towards her in defensive postures.
“Come lads, we’ve got to keep it from reaching the populated areas. We’ve got to stop it here.” An old elf called out to the others. “Drive it back if you can, if not we will need to kill it.”
“No!” Shaunna and Taren both yelled.
The old elf looked at them in surprise. When he saw Shaunna, his eyebrows furrowed.
“You are not welcome here. You were banished long ago.” His tone did not match the message that his words conveyed.
Taren stepped forward. “That banishment won’t stand for long,” He gestured toward the tiger. “She is with us.”
The old elf’s eyes went wide. “No, you’re dead.”
“I’m sure that I am not who you think I am.”
“You are the boy.”
“Well, maybe I am who you think I am. Yes, I am Taren Elloy, son of Paron Elloy, future king of the elven kingdoms.”
The guards all stared at him, not lowering their spears.
“Are you going to let my friend pass?” Taren asked.
“This animal is not getting any further into the city. I don’t care who you are. My central purpose is the well-being and safety of this city’s citizens.”
Sure that conflict was inevitable, Taren tightened his grip on Ethos’ hilt.
Shaunna placed her hand on Taren’s shoulder. “Let me handle this.”
Taren didn’t loosen his grip as Shaunna moved toward the group.
“Come no closer, Shaunna.” The old elf commanded.
“You’re not going to hurt me, Marl, any more than you are going to hurt that tiger. She is not what you think.” Shaunna paused as realization set in. “Let me approach the tiger, I guarantee you will not regret it.”
Marl motioned to the others to let her pass.
Shaunna pulled the magic cloak from her pouch as she approached.
The tiger was still as she affixed the cloak around its neck.
“Come, Narissa, it’s time to introduce yourself.”
The militia elves gasped in unison as the massive animal began to shrink. Its face flattened, the feline snout becoming a cute button nose. The fore legs shrinking into arms and the hind legs into the legs of a small, delicate looking woman. The cloak magically wrapped itself around her, becoming a simple dress.
“Shaunna, you’re here.” She said, launching herself at the taller woman.
Shaunna dropped to her knees, drawing the small woman into a deep embrace. “It’s good to see you, kitten.”
The captain of the guard, Marl, approached warily. “That’s impossible.” Was all he said, but the tone used with the words caused everyone to step back.
Shaunna stood, stepping forward slightly. “Narissa, I would like you to meet your grand-father, Marl.”
Narissa cautiously stepped in front of Shaunna. Nearly waist deep in the muddy street, she curtsied. “It is a pleasure to meet you, sir.”
Marl reeled back as if he’d been struck.
“Come now, both of you,” Shaunna admonished “it’s time for old wounds to be healed.”
Without a word, Marl spun on his heel, and marched away. The other guards, seeing that there was no danger, all hurried away to find a place to get out of the driving rain.
Shaunna took Narissa by the hand and led her up the hill toward the house.
The women embraced again when they were safely out of the rain. Tears streamed from Shaunna’s eyes as she held her friend.
“What happened? How did you escape?” Shaunna’s questions were disjointed.
Narissa smiled. “I didn’t escape. They let me go. Something changed, and they couldn’t keep me.”
Taren was glad to see his lost companion, but he had other things to worry about. While the two women held each other and wept, he silently escaped down the stairs back to the armory. Everything was just as he’s left it, so he was able to easily pick up where he’d left off.
The room was a bit warmer, as the fuel in the forge burned hotter. He figured that it was almost ready for him to start really working. He finished organizing the weapons before moving to the large bellows that fed directly into the forge.
Stripping the shirt from his body, he grabbed the bellows and began to pump them. The air blew into the forge with great force, stoking the fire and pushing more heat into the room. He relished the feeling as the heat washed over him. He smiled as memories of helping his dad in the family forge came to him.
When he was satisfied that the fire was coming along, he moved to the pile of broken swords. Sifting through the broken shards of metal, he began to quickly strip and vestiges of leather or cloth from them until only a pile metal remained
Satisfied that no non-metal particulates would hinder his work, he hefted the heavy cast iron cauldron onto the hook in front of the bloomery. Intense heat billowed out of the furnace as he opened the door and pushed the pot hanging from the chain into the fire to burn the rust off of it. He let the fire cleanse the cast iron for a few moments before opening the door and grabbing a large hook to retrieve the vessel.
“Ellie, can you please come here?”
With a soft popping noise the magical creature appeared next to him. She immediately began to purr and wind through his legs.
“I was wondering of you could do me a favor?” Taren asked the magic.
Ellie stopped moving, looking at him expectantly.
“This cauldron is old, I’m not sure it will be able to stand the heat.” He gestured to the blazing fire in the bloomery. “Can you please enchant the metal so it will be able to withstand the heat?”
Ellie made a rude noise, and turned to leave.
Taren lowered himself to the floor and began to stroke her silky fur. “Don’t be like that, I would appreciate it. I would even be willing to do something for you in return.”
Ellie let out a short, trumpeting, sound and approached the glowing metal vessel. Closing her eyes, she began to hum. The sound rose and fell with a rhythm that brought to Taren’s mind the steady breath of a winter wind. The cauldron began to glow bright blue as Ellie infused the enchantment into it.
“What is that?”
Taren started as the unexpected sound pierced the calm emanating from the magic. Glancing at Shaunna, he saw where her gaze was fixed. She was staring directly at Ellie.
He smiled brilliantly. A bit of a laugh filled his words as he answered. “I warned you to be careful what you wish for.”
There was no comprehension in the look that she gave him.
“This is Ellie. She is the magic that is bound to your house. You did wish you could see her.”
“How is this possible?”
“Have you ever been to the park in the center of Bright Bay?”
She nodded, uncomfortably. “Once or twice.”
“The glowing fish in the pond are magic as well. Magical creatures have the ability to make themselves visible to those that are not able to communicate with them.” It was then that the realization hit. He was seeing Ellie without his mage sight. He had been so preoccupied that the consideration had not crossed his mind. “Didn’t you have something to tell her?”
“I didn’t think I could communicate with magic.”
“She will be able to understand you, I mean she did make herself visible for you, but you may not understand her response.”
Shanna knelt, extending her hand towards the small creature.
Ellie cautiously approached her.
“She remembers you,” Taren commented, translating the feelings coming off of Ellie. “But she can tell something is different. It scares her, a little.”
Shaunna sighed. “It scares me too.”
The mood in the room changed after Shaunna’s admission. Taren found himself breathing easier, he hadn’t even realized that a weight had settled itself on his chest. Ellie’s apprehension melted away, and she quickly closed the distance, placing her forehead into the palm of Shaunna’s hand.
“Thank you for protecting my house as best you have, and thank you for fixing the beds. I really appreciate what you have done.”
“She regrets the damage. She isn’t sure how the intruder got in.”
“I don’t blame you, little one; I never did.”
Ellie began to purr.
“I think I can understand that one on my own.” Shaunna looked around the room. “Wow, you’ve been busy.”
“It’s helped me get my mind off of things.” Turning to Ellie he asked. “Were you able to complete your enchantment?”
Without another word, he began to gather the bits and pieces of metal into the, now shiny, black cauldron. When he was satisfied that no more pieces would fit, he opened the furnace and swung the hook holding the pot suspended into the fire.
“Whew, no wonder you took your shirt off. That is really hot.” Shaunna said silkily and she released the top two buttons on her blouse. “Mind if I join you?”
Taren stiffened, his face flushing even further than it had already been.
Shaunna slid forward, wrapping her arms around him, and kissed him deeply. It took a moment for him to relax enough to return the embrace.
When they broke the kiss, she stepped back a step. “It was a joke sweetheart. You know, you are going to need to get over that after we are married.”
Taren mumbled something unintelligible, and turned to the pile of broken bows.
Shaunna let out a girlish giggle, and swept from the room.