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Rated: 13+ · Campfire Creative · Novel · Fantasy · #1159523
A group of unlikely heroes race an evil sorcerer in an epic quest for a powerful artifact.
[Introduction]
* * * * * A P O T H E O S I S * * * * *


The Legend

Long, long ago, before there were humans or dwarves or elves or goblins or any such folk, the gods walked the world we now live in. In their wake, they left oceans and islands, mountains and valleys, forests and deserts, glaciers and volcanoes, among all the other things that make up the land. They then created animals and all of humankind, giving humans intelligence to surpass and overcome their surroundings.

But, alas, humans could never reach the power of the gods, and though they consistently tried to reach power that rivaled that of the gods, none could ever achieve such a goal. But the gods created an artifact that could give the power of a god to whomever threw it into the fires of a volcano. This artifact was hidden so that none could ever discover it, and eventually the folds of time encased the legend and the Apotheosis artifact was lost.

*****

The Story Begins

The legend of the Apotheosis artifact was not, however, completely lost, and word of it lingered on it old books and in high-up circles of sorcery and magic. One of these sorcerers, by the name of Malvenicus, was very evil and very powerful, and the legend of this artifact peaked his interest. He began to obsess with it, getting as much information as he could about the legend and its history in hopes to find its current whereabouts.

One winter day, he found a very important clue, though it is unknown exactly what it was. In triumph, he struck down most of the sorcerers in his circle who’d chastised him for his obsession and told him his quest was useless and power-hungry. He then disappeared, and none know precisely where he ended up, though he was rumored to have headed East to the Sea.

Meanwhile, the rest of the Land of Valor continued on, with none but a few knowing of Malvenicus’ deeds. And so, six rather normal and rather unlikely heroes will meet. Some of them go about their normal lives, while others travel the Land, while others yet try to escape from their lives, but all of them will discover the truth about the Apotheosis artifact and Malvenicus. Thus, the quest begins, with our heroes separated...

*****

The Lay of the Land

Our story takes place in the Land of Valor, a large human nation that, being surrounded by obstacles, knows of no other men in the world. To the south, there is the cruel Land of the Skullmen, home of undead barbarians and foul creatures wrought of nightmare. To the southwest, there is the great Woods of Shadow, from which none have ever returned alive. To the west, across the Swamps of the Dead and the Fire Hills, there lies a great mountain range, divided in the center by the massive Inferno Mountain, the greatest volcano in the land. The mountains south of it are named the Dark Mountains, and those north are the Crooked Mountains. Across the mountains is unexplored, and named the Beyond.

To the north of the Land of Valor, there lies the Crooked Glacier, which lies beyond the dangerous North Wastes and the Meth’I Desert in the northwest. And to the east of the Land, there is the Great Eastern Sea, which stretches to the unknown and further. Along the coast lie three bays; Dron Bay in the south, Red Bay in the north, and the Gulf of Elden between them. Aside the Red Bay, in the northeast of the Land, lies the Redwood Forest.

Other important places include the Crystal Valley in almost the direct center of the Land of Valor, where Crystal City, the land’s capital, lies. To its west, between the Meth’I Desert and the Swamps of the Dead, sits the Lone Mountain, beside which is the city of Graven. Along the coast, between Dron Bay and the Gulf of Elden, sits the fertile farming land known as Heaven’s Fall, at the edge of which is the Chenil Rainforest.

There are numerous other places, but these are the main ones and, with knowledge of them, most other places can be determined from descriptions. This Lay of the Land is intended as a reference to be referred to whenever you have no idea where something is during the story, and it is hoped that it’s not too confusing, though if that is the case it can be ignored.

*****

Characters

For this campfire you will be able to choose from 6 different characters that make up the group of heroes. Working within a slight character stereotype, you can then customize and individualize your character as much as you wish. Make your character unique and have some fun with it! Please put more effort than a few sentences into your bio-block so that everyone has a very good idea of what your character is all about. Keep in mind that the two genders should be balanced in the group.

Note: Please put some thought into the “Weakness” section, as every person, real or not, does have a weakness, and choosing one or two that fit your character will make that character much more interesting. This doesn’t have to be a physical weakness, as personality weaknesses are definitely important as well. You can have some fun with this one. :)

Important: Bio blocks should be emailed to me before the campfire begins, so that we can get right into the story.

The six different characters are:

The Hero (mirror on the wall )
The Princess (glorfindel)
The Magician (Jedd Vandross )
The Huntress (Professor Q )
The Thief ( )
The Cleric (Andante )

Bio blocks should include the following:

Name:
Age:
Gender:
Appearance:
Weapons(if any):
Personality:
Weakness(es):
History:
Extra(if any):

*****

Campfire Rules and Suggestions

-Please, only join this campfire (or any campfire) if you are willing to put effort into it. If you don’t add after three days, I will be forced to skip your turn unless you let me know and ask for some extra time. I don’t want to skip anyone, but other people want turns too.

-If you miss additions again and again and are delaying the campfire without letting me know any reason, I may be forced to remove you from the campfire. If this occurs, and you want back in at a later date, you will be welcome.

-Be respectful. Don’t kill off or mortally injure anyone else’s character without asking them first.

-Please put effort into your additions. Short additions with poor grammar are no fun to read, so please pay attention to your grammar and try to make your additions somewhat lengthy without being boring. I may edit your additions if there are some grammar issues, but I will make a note of it and email you as well, and if you have a problem then let me know.

-Other than that, I recommend you read the following, as it is very useful and helpful:
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This item number is not valid.
#1138668 by Not Available.


*****

Character Bios

The Hero...
Name: Zade Saphic
Age: 18
Gender: Male
Appearance: Zade has black hair with gossamer streaks that hangs in thin blades. His eyes are strikingly pale gray-blue. When his eyes smile, or looks coldly at you, the color particularly emphasis’ it. There are grotesque looking scars across his back that he doesn’t remember receiving, and if looked closely upon underneath the scars are bits of unidentifiable shiny debris. He is very self-conscious about them.
Zade has a great figure merely from working as a blacksmith, and wears old, faded clothing; he tries to hide it all underneath a long black trench coat. The most valuable item he owns would be his pure silver bracelet. On the tiny plaque connected to its chains is a small rare black diamond embedded into it.
Weapons: A sword with red and black leather entwined around the handle. Note: he will not receive this until later on.
Personality: Zade carries around with him an internal injury that has altered a lot of his persona. Subconsciously, he is still living in the past, sometimes forgetting to live and look forward to the present. Around people though, he hides his troubles exceedingly well by appearing content while concealing his tainted self.
His true self is quieter than most men, punctual when it calls for it, is capable of laughing with others but is not the type to make jokes. He dislikes hearing others share their supposed sad stories, even if he understands their pain and wont hesitate to tell them exactly what they need to hear (which in fact is precisely what he wanted to hear in the past). Subconsciously, he is still seeking someone to tell him exactly what he tells those worse-off, and that makes him a tad hypocritical. He is slow to entirely trust people, even to those he is unknowingly drawn to. Zade is drawn to happier, laid back people who are at ease most of the time.
Weaknesses: Zade is a bad liar in general. He can be indecisive. Has little knowledge of magic and sword fighting, but is good in hand-to-hand combat.
History: Zade came from a poor, neglected background. He basically raised himself and survived using desperate methods. When he was ten, he was taken in by a man who ran a blacksmith and he has been working there ever since. Pride (and his trust issues) refused his boss’ offer to live under the same roof, so everything he has received and bought from then on has been because of his hard work.
Extra: When Zade was young, a mysterious old woman had stopped him in the middle of the street and forced the bracelet onto him.

The Princess...
Name: Dominique Castinante
Age: 20
Gender: She’s a princESS
Appearance: She has gorgeous blonde hair, sharp features, and a beautiful face. No one can see the latter two, because she, like most of the noble caste of her land, perpetually wears a mask. They come in many varieties, but hers is simple; an ornate purple mask over her nose and eyes, extending back to her temples, leaving her mouth and forehead uncovered. Few have seen her face. She wears a white short-sleeved tunic with gold trim. She wears matching pants that constrict around her leg just above the knee, and the rest of her legs are covered with purple stockings that show off her firm calf muscles. She wears elegant but sturdy black boots that come up to just above her ankles.
On each arm are white gloves that go nearly to her tunic sleeves, and which have the thumb, ring, and little finger missing from them. She wears a short (waist-length) white cloak that hangs sideways to her left. The tunic and pants are too baggy to really see, but she has a fine figure and a lightly musculed body. She wears a wide brimmed purple hat.
Weapons: An ornate straight cane with a concealed blade attached to the spherical head.
Personality: Regal, proud, elegant, courteous, fierce, hard, stubborn, and cold. She is a noble, born and raised, and she has a sharp mind from years of education, and a strong body from years of training. She haughty and proud, knowing herself to be above the masses, and typically treats them as such. She is not without humanity or compassion, but she also has a strong will and firm ideals. She is always in control of herself, and never reveals her emotions, which usually makes her seem a bit cold.
Weaknesses: She has been trained too well to reveal it to anyone, but Dominique carries with her an intense self-loathing, brought on by a society that demands that she be perfect. She is an asset when among rich or “high” society, but a liability amongst anyone else. Tends to but heads with anyone else possessing a strong personality.
History: Dominique, daughter of the king of Crystal City, was given every advantage growing up. She had tutors in history, philosophy, science, mathematics, astronomy, literature, sports, combat, strategy, manners, beauty, linguistics, languages, and diplomacy. She spent nearly all of her childhood, and most of her adolescence, focusing nearly exclusively on her studies, her beauty, and elevating herself in society. She has developed into a strong, beautiful, strong, and intelligent young woman since then, and has been among her father’s chief assets, along with her two brothers, one older and one younger.
Recently, because of a minor power struggle in the ranks of the nobles, Dominique and her younger brother were sent to different locations in hiding, for their own safety, while her elder brother stayed behind and helped their father. Because of the recent “mask” fashion it has been relatively easy for her to hide, and Dominique is extra careful not to reveal her face, though she never really would under normal circumstances.
Extra: Dominique still maintains her high status, though she's still in disguise. She owns a mansion in the city itself.

The Magician...
Name: Kael Shetherwin
Age: 18
Gender: Male
Appearance: Kael is not a very buff or muscular man, though he does have a bit of a peculiar handsomeness about him, even if it goes largely unnoticed. His hair is dark brown and often messy, he has green eyes, and rather pale skin. He’s about 5'8", short for most men, and he has a general thoughtful, scholarly look about his. He typically wears traveling clothes – brown pants and a brown shirt – and a hooded magician’s cloak, which is normally black, but can change to match its surroundings, to shine with a technicolor glow that illuminates the area, or even to turn as hard as metal for a moment, all possible with a short spell.
Weapons(if any): Apart from a gnarled walking stick, none.
Personality: Kael is a very curious person, and he loves to bury himself in a book for hours at a time, reading and learning about magic and its history. He’s very smart, and picks up spells easily, occasionally able to learn one almost perfectly after watching one or two incantations of it. He can be quite shy, but he is nice, courteous, creative, clever, and generous. He spends most of his time in the library in Crystal City, learning from other, older magicians and from the plethora of books stored there. Apart from that, he does, however, have a tendency to go traveling for periods of time discovering new things about the surrounding areas and meeting new people. As described, he often wears traveling clothes due to this tendency,
Weakness(es): Kael isn’t one for a physical fight, and so combat is one of his main weaknesses. He can also be somewhat clumsy at times, sometimes casting the wrong spell when it matters most.
History: Kael grew up in a wealthy family in Crystal City and had a taste for learning from a very young age. From this, he took up a great interest in magic, seeking to learn as much as possible about it. When Kael was twelve, his mother and father disappeared, leaving no trace, and he never found out why. From then on, Kael was taken under the wing of the Crystal City librarian, Artonin Strade, who began to introduce Kael to many of his magician friends. Since then, Kael’s whole life has basically been learning about magic, though he always wishes that he could go on a big adventure like some of the heroes in the stories he reads.
Extra(if any): Kael has recently taken an interest in researching ancient artifacts and their legends, but hasn’t found anything very exciting yet.

The Huntress...
Name: Igraine de Siorra- called Aine
Age: 19
Gender: Female
Appearance: Aine stands at 5'6 and is a rather rounded, soft female with plenty of curve and feminine beauty; she has rather large breasts and hips built for childbearing, but she isn't huge; there is still a sense of athleticism about her form. She is deeply tanned from hours spent outside hunting and tacking, but her skin is naturally a peachy color- now it is rather a dark caramel color, aside from her lips, which are proportional to her features and a dusky rose color. Aine is dark in color, with coal black hair chopped to the shoulders and kept up in a tight bun, and midnight blue eyes that have specks of gold. Her features are bold- she has sharp cheekbones, a strong chin, powerful brows, and a hawkish nose (not a huge one, just Roman); she isn't beautiful, but there is a definite attractive quality to her features. Her best features are her wide, deep-set eyes framed by thick, dark lashes and her beautiful, white smile. Normally, as a Huntress, Aine is dressed in forestry clothes- leathers in greens and browns to blend in- green breeches and brown knee-high moccasins, with a white linen shirt and brown vest, as well as a green cloak that she wears for traveling.
Weapons: Aine has a beautiful longbow and quiver with which she is nigh unstoppable- her aim and shooting skills are very well developed. The long bow has carvings of forestry scenes and animals known for their hunting skills- bears, wolves, hawks, etc; it is a beautiful, sturdy oak with a strong fiber drawstring. The arrows are fletched with hawk feathers, tipped with flint, and very powerful. She also has a long, double-edged hunting knife that she is equally adept at throwing and cutting with; the knife is carbonized steel (she bartered for it as a price for leading a small group of blacksmiths through the forests) and the hilt is a beech wood, elaborately carved by one of the other forest dwellers.
Personality: Aine knows the forests inside and out. Everything is balanced as nature is balanced- she is a person who understands that things have to happen because the Gods/nature demand that they happen. But she is a fighter- she doesn't resign herself to anything and she will always fight for her survival and the survival of those she loves. She is very strong-willed and stubborn, as well as set in her ways; she has a very strong personality and is rather intense when it comes to finishing what she starts. Having grown up in the forest, she is one tough cookie and has a wild sensibility- to people from the Crystal City, she is uncivilized because, to Aine, surviving is more important than being proper or courteous. She's been to the City a few times in her life, but not often, so she has little understanding of their customs and societal rules. In some instances, she is much older than her age, but she is very young should she get around large crowds of people- especially City folk.
Aine is gentle with her animals and only takes what she needs from the forest. She is loving and passionate, but doesn't have a sense of scholarly intellectualism. She is, as such, unpretentious, guileless, and rather naive to human laws and civilization. Because she's still only nineteen, she hasn't learned not to worry about the people of the City- Aine doesn't quite have that sense of self that comes with age, so her naivete leads her to stay away from the city. In the forests, though, she is an Amazonian Queen.
Weakness: Aine has only ever lived in the forest with the animals and trees, so she has limited experience with other people (aside from other forest dwellers, who're in the same boat). As such, she is rather naive to the dealings of humans. Furthermore, she is deadly from at least a small distance, but is not as skilled in hand-to-hand weapons combat; she can wrestle, but she prefers to be at a distance.
History: Aine is the bastard daughter of the Baron de Siorra of the Crystal City; her mother was banished from her family and ran to the forests, where the two lived rather poorly as Aine's mother was a city-dweller. Aine, however, grew up in the forests with forest-dwellers teaching her and developed forest sensibilities. Her mother taught her to read and write, as well as some of the niceties of the city, but Aine never really took to it, though she remembers some of it. She reads, but the niceties were unneccessary. When Aine turned thirteen, she found a baby hawk that had broken a wing and she took it in, calling it Momai, and she's had him ever since- she is rather like family and is her hunting partner.
Around her fifteenth year, her mother died, leaving Aine to care for herself. She was fine by herself until she needed certain supplies unattainable in the forests, so she made her first trip to the city when she was sixteen with a caravan of forest natives. Aine was so out of place and scorned by the women of the City that she hasn't been back since, instead relying on trusted neighbors to barter for her. She pays for her supplies by leading groups through the forests- she sells her formidable tracking and hunting skills to City Folk who need to get through and can't do it alone. But she still lives in the forests and has only been to the Crystal City once.
Extra: Aine was given a locket when her Mother died- it's an obsidian heart that opens to reveal the password to the de Siorra clan. She doesn't understand what it means, but her mother told her that it'll help her should she ever have to go to the City for anything.

The Thief…
Name: Sloane Pyralis
Age: 17
Gender: male
Appearance: Sloane is small in stature, with shoulders outweighing his hips. His dark, messy hair is usually kept long; spiked in the back with the front falling into his eyes or with devil spikes in the front with the back hanging shaggy. His eyes are a brilliant smoky blue with streaks of white and icy blue jetting from his pupils, which are usually extremely small due to his sensitivity to light. Sloane is made entirely of muscle, bone, and blood, leaving no space for fat to fit. With his strong muscles and slight build, Sloane is a brilliant thief and has an incredible talent when it comes to sneaking. He is able to step lightly and stay hidden, which is highly useful when the lynch mobs are after him for stealing gold or milk. No one in town knows what he does, though, because he always keeps his face and hands covered with a black hooded cloak and a matching pair of gloves cut off at the fingers. With his true life hidden and the town overlooking his presence even as a normal citizen, Sloane has spent the last weeks searching for something more useful and slightly less illegal to spend his talents on.
Weapons: Sloane carries a covered switchblade in his shoe or strapped to his ankle, with two daggers at his side. The daggers were crafted by Elfish magicians and weigh out to only ounces. The blades gleam against the light, but instead of giving off bright white glares, the pair cast a dark shadow which could easily burn retinas or hypnotize assailants. The switchblade is of regular make and was stolen from the towns’ weapon-smith.
Personality: Sloane is quiet and observant. He would rather spend his days alone than with a large group, but over spending time alone he would choose time with a few of his closest friends. Sloane believes that everything should be justified and if illegal acts are justifiable that they should go unscathed. Though much of an outcast, even when not stealing, he is a very accepting and charismatic person who believes in choosing his friends wisely and not only because of his slightly…questionable occupation.
Weakness: Sloane is bipolar, so at times he wears his emotions on his sleeve. He is quick to anger at times and has little control over his words and actions at those times.
History: A Noble family lived their life in the norm of all Noble families: not caring about any being but themselves. This family was happy for a number of years, but on their youngest sons’ thirteenth birthday, tragedy struck. His family was killed by a dark magician, and he had only survived because he had been off in the woods instead of at dinner with his kin. Coming home to the ruin of his home that the magician had left in his wake pulled open his eyes that had been closed for so long. Running from his old home, he had fled to the darkest corners of the town. Needless to say, four years of fighting the world alone will change a person to the highest extent…
Extra: Sloane dwells in the dungeon of an abandoned castle that lies just outside of the outskirts of town. He has hidden all of the items that he has stolen throughout the expanse of the dungeon and has done a very good job of finding the deepest cracks and the darkest shadows to conceal himself and his newfound possessions. Sloane also writes, which is a small fact that no one in town would fathom because of his angry and dark manner.

The Cleric...
Name: Azure of the Seven Waters
Age: 15
Gender: Female
Appearance: Azure is a waifish beauty. Small of frame, with skin as pale as cream and hair so blond that it is nearly white, she would seem to fade from existence were it not for her piercing, brilliant blue eyes. She is slender, graceful, and delicate-looking. Her hair falls free down her back, with only the occasional tiny braid for ornamentation. She wears simple midnight blue robes, the silver torque which is the symbol of her Order, and five rings which denote her rank.
Weapons: A small, silver athame, which directs her goddesses’ magic.
Personality: Azure may appear to be a fragile little thing, but she is developing into a strong, mature woman. Although she is an introvert by nature, she loves humanity and has wells of compassion within her being. She is one of those people who others feel inclined to talk to; even if she says little, she listens well. Naturally, she has a strong sense of right and wrong, but she is not patronizing. She strives to live her life in accordance with her Order’s principles but does not expect others to do the same for she recognizes that others may be at a different stage in their spiritual development than her and she is willing to let them grow freely.
Weaknesses: Azure is inexperienced in the ways of the world and utterly untrained in fighting, whether it be with magic or with weapons. Even worse, because she is not in any way, shape, or form a violent person, she is not inclined to hurt people even if they are trying to hurt her.
History: Azure was born into the large Winshear household, a minor noble family owning a large holding to the southwest of Graven at the edge of the Swamps of the Dead. Although not by far the wealthiest nobles in Valor, the Winshears have been able to support a reasonably comfortable lifestyle in the backwaters of the Land by selling clay pottery, bricks, and rare medicinal herbs found only in the Swamps. Azure grew up until the age of seven with both the comforts of a noble and the hardships of a Swamper.
However, because she was the fourth youngest of fifteen children in a family that was famous across Valor for their history of… unusual fertility and their ways of providing for the resulting offspring, it was determined by generations of tradition that Azure, the youngest and brightest Winshear daughter, would be sent to the Seven Waters Temple at the heart of the Chenil Rainforest. This may seem at first to be an unfair exile, to send a young child away from the only family she has ever known, but in truth it is a positive thing. The Seven Waters Temple, situated at the merger of seven springs into the Chenil River, has provided generations of Winshear daughters not only with a fine education in a beautiful setting, but also with a life outside the traditional roles of women in Valorian society.
Extra: The seven springs at Seven Waters are dedicated to (and believed to be the earthly embodiments of) the Seven Sisters. They are the primary goddesses in Valor. A priestess of Seven Waters earns one ring for each goddess whose favor she has earned and whose magic she has gained mastery over. Although only fifteen years old, Azure has already earned five rings, three more than any other woman her age. Those rings represent her devotion to and ability to use the power of the goddesses of healing, nourishing, nurturing, loving, and protecting. She has yet to earn the rings of creating and destroying.


*****

That’s it! Let the quest for Apotheosis begin!


The skies were black as death itself and the rain was cold and icy as the dark man stood at the edge of the cliff, overlooking the dark, churning water of the Sea. A black cloak about his shoulders, tattered and torn from many days of traveling, flew about chaotically, propelled by the vicious winds. In his hand he held a tall, black staff, on the tip of which was a large red ruby the glowed eerily in the darkness. A flash of light filled the sky as lightning struck nearby, and everything shook with the ominous sound of thunder.

Another man, grey haired and clothed in black as well, approached the dark man. “Malvenicus?” he said, his voice slimy and cold.

“Yes, Gravus?” the dark sorcerer replied, his voice cruel and black like the night.

“We’ve found the location of the Keeper,” Gravus answered.

Malvenicus turned slowly towards him, his face constantly hidden by shadow. “I shall leave at once, and, if anyone gets in my way, I’ll make it more painful than last time. This is the last stretch of my quest, and I shall not fail now.” His tone reeked of evil.

“Yes, Lord,” Gravus responded with a nefarious smile.

“Soon, the power of the Artifact shall be mine, and my power will know no bounds,” Malvenicus smiled devilishly, talking to the night itself. “It is not long before the world, and everything in it, is mine.”

“Noctis Equestrus!” the dark lord shouted, raising his staff in the air and then bringing it back down to point at the ground suddenly.

Smoke rose from the earth and thunder rumbled above as the sorcerer conjured a horse, seemingly from nowhere. The beast was massive, and completely black. Its hooves were of flame, as was its mane, and the creature reared up as the smoke beneath it dissipated. As Gravus called his normal horse, Malvenicus calmly mounted his fiery steed. The two rode off into the night, and with them moved shadows all about, and the figure of a winged creature flew overhead.

*****

Kael yawned and stretched as he awoke from his sleep against a gentle oak tree. The sun was bright and shining, the birds were singing their morning songs, and there was a hint of a rainbow in the sky after a heavy rain throughout the night. The young magician surveyed his surroundings with a content smile on his face. He was on the edge of Crystal Valley, not far from Crystal City, and the Lake was beautiful and clear as always.

There weren’t many trees in the area, but all of them were large and wonderful for sleeping under. Kael had just returned from an expedition to the Redwood Forest, which was quite a distance northeast of Crystal City over the Plains of Foare. There weren’t many towns or villages, but he’d followed a path that many traders use when going to The Den from Crystal City. The Den was a popular market only accessible by sea or through the Forest, but Kael often liked to simply visit the Forest itself, admiring its beauty.

But, the journey was almost over, and the young magician was on the final stretch of the return trip to his home in Crystal City. However, he would need some sustenance before he could have enough energy to complete the walk, and he’d run out of food some time ago. There were, fortunately, several spells that would allow Kael to conjure some food.

Holding his right hand out, palm up, he began the incantation. “Pario victus crumbus si vesco...” he repeated, his voice focused and monotone. With each repetition, a faint image of a loaf of bread began to appear, and after twelve times the bread was whole, so Kael stopped his conjuring.

“Nothing like some fresh bread in the morning!” he said to himself, with a smile, taking a bite out of the warm bread. It was absolutely delicious, of course, and Kael ate about half of it before putting the rest in his bag. With a smile on his face all the while, he attempted to conjure some water as well, but, when the spell was complete, instead of a cup of water, he held a cup of butterflies, all of whom flew away into the air.

“I can never get that one first try, it seems,” Kael sighed, casting the spell again with perfect success. He had a habit of casting the wrong spell sometimes, unfortunately, and it was very bothersome, especially when what he was casting happened to be very important at the time. It was no matter, though, as typically he would get it right the next try.

After finishing his water, Kael returned the cup to his bag and put on his wonderful magician’s cloak, dusting off some of the dirt. He then picked up his bags and his gnarled, old walking stick, setting off on the trek to Crystal City.

He would have to cross Spring River before he could get to the City, and, though there was an old stone bridge across it, it sometimes was not wise to use the bridge, since it was a common place to find thieves and bandits. They preyed upon merchants returning home from their journey with riches, or those who came to Crystal City to sell and had many goods. Kael tended to avoid the bridge, but today he decided that he may as well cross it, since it wasn’t as if he had anything that thieves would want anyways.

The grass was long and green and the sun was clear in the sky as the young magician continued along the path to the City, humming a little tune to himself. He thought back to some of the things he’d learned in his brief visit to the Forest during conversations with some of the forest-dwellers there. There was some of the usual, like about how the forest-dwellers were planning to make a trip to the City soon, and some things that were unusual, but likely just rumors. These ranged from stories of winged women to tales of dragons rising from the ocean to gossip about evil lords. Likely, none of the stories were true, and so Kael chose to ignore them.

As the bridge over the River came into sight, Kael thought he heard a rustle in the grass behind him, but, when he turned around to look, there was nothing there. Noting the occurrence as peculiar, but paying no attention to it, he continued along the path. As he went, however, he could’ve sworn that he heard the soft pitter-patter of someone else following behind him. But each time he looked, he saw nothing at all out of the ordinary, nor did the sounds continue. Kael figured he was just hearing things, and kept going.

But as he went, the noise behind him stayed constant, and Kael knew for sure that someone was, in fact, following him. There was simply no other way to explain the noise, but whoever it was was definitely very good at being stealthy and very practiced in the business of thievery. And if they were experienced, Kael knew that, even with his magic, he could definitely be in trouble.

With every step the young magician got closer and closer to the bridge, but with every step he grew more and more frightened of the mystery individual trailing behind him. What if they weren’t just a normal thief? What if they were some sort of assassin or murderer? Kael’s mind was racing, and he figured that he would have to do something fast before the man jumped out behind him and stabbed him or slit his throat or something bad like that.

But whoever was behind him seemed to be very patient, as they did not seem eager to present themselves. This fact, however, only made Kael more worried, but soon his mind calmed down, and he found himself able to think clearly, so he focused on trying to solve the problem. A plan came to his mind, but he kept walking until he was only a few feet from the bridge.

Then, suddenly, the magician spun around, raising his walking stick, or staff, in the air and yelling, “Contremisco!” He struck his staff to the ground, sending a shockwave through the earth. He heard a rustle and a grunt off to his left, not far away in the grass, and cast yet another spell, conjuring a net that fell and covered the area, capturing the bandit.

Kael smiled and walked over to the grassy area where he’d heard the man and dropped the net, and surveyed the contents of his trap. A small, darkly dressed man with long, dark hair struggled to get himself free of the net, and Kael chuckled a bit. Though it might have been naive, Kael always seemed to treat everyone as though they were a nice person, and this case was no different. “Good morning,” he said to the trapped man with a smile. “My name’s Kael.”
Sloane couldn't believe he had been caught in such a predictable trap. Of course the man he had been stalking would try something like this, it was easy to see he was a magician just by his staff, but Sloane had fully and completely overlooked the fact that the man had heard his nearly silent footfalls from that distance. Now that he thought about it though, the man had sped up and glanced around a number of times, which would be a classic sign of being spotted or at least of being known.

The magician was kind enough, it seemed, and his smile was a brilliantly soft-spoken one, so Sloane stood, rubbing agains the net that had been cast upon him. When he finally managed to wrestle the lifeless thing from his form. "Good morning. Sorry about following you...I just..." Sloane trailed off. He had never been great at talking to people, and especially not people he had stalked or stolen from.

But the magicians words were still kind and humorous when he said, "What exactly did you plan to gain from such a laughable victim?" Putting the joke on himself, like there was no matter at hand. The man who had called himself Kael stepped forth and reached for the net that had been cast aside to the ground. After a few words the net shifted into a magnificent-looking loaf of bread.

"That, my friend," Sloane said, indicating the loaf, "is what I had planned to gain." Kael seemed a bit unnerved to find that Sloane had been stalking him longer than he had thought. But of course, the only reason that Kael had even come near to catching him was because he had let his guard down out of hunger and the prospect of a small bit to eat.

"Dont you have your own bread at home?" The magician inquired, then looked down at his feet realizing who had asked this inquiry to. Kael must have thought what everyone else thought of the thieves, that they had no home, no food, no life beyond their pathetic pick-pocket attempts. But the truth was that most of the thieves were either beyond wealthy or beyond poor, and poverty was not winning that battle.

"I've been trailing you for quite some days now, so I havent exactly been home, though there might be some nice potatoes grown by now!" Sloane gave a sincere, unmocking grin at the thought of his accomplishment: growing potatoes that hadnt died yet. Again Kael seemed shaken by the fact that Sloane had been following him, as if he had never been tracked before. This was worrying Sloane, not only because he didnt need another enemy, but also because of the staff that Kael held in his hand so gingerly. "But the stalk was only part of further self-training that I am putting myself through at the moment." Sloane had added this to clear a few things up.

"Pay no mind to it, and I do not plan to report you and what not. Though, you could do me a favor..." It looked as if Kael had just realized that befriending a thief would be a good idea. Sloane nodded and gestured for Kael to continue. "Well, you see, in the Palace Library of Crystal City, there is a restricted section, and they often leave the windows open in the building...if at all possible could you find a way to get inside that particular chamber and unlock the door for me? I would be waiting inside the library, of course, just outside the doors to the restricted area, and after closing I would conceal myself until the guards and tendants were gone." Kael's hopeful look was too much for anyone to resist, and seeing as he had been stalking the poor guy, Sloane thought he would best do him this favor in case he ever needed a magicians help.

"I could easily manage this, the only question I have is when exactly do you want to do this? Oh, and when does the place close?" Sloane asked being genuine.

"It closes at around seven, and possibly tonight, if at all possible." His eagerness poured through his skin. Sloane nodded in agreement. They set off across the bridge together while discussing the plan, Sloane always alert and constantly reminding himself to keep his identity hidden.
A Non-Existent User
Dominique Castinante sat hunched over a book on mathematics, a particularly advanced text. She rubbed her temples, allowing herself a short break. Come on, stupid, keep going. she told herself. She bent back over the book and began her reading again, trying to sort through the technical phrases and complex language. It made her head spin, but she was determined to learn it.

Of course, she had a study at home, but she was always constantly interrupted by servants and people on business. She was barraged by her “friends,” though such people were simply social contacts, to go to the opera or gladiatorial ring or something of the sort. Here, after hours at the library, no one would disturb her. She could only be here herself because of her influence, and here among the texts read only by the most advanced magi she was generally safe from distraction. She was surprised, therefore, that on this night she heard the door open and close, as well as the sound of hushed voices. Dominique carefully, slowly, got up and hid herself behind the bookshelves. They were talking loudly, and clearly they didn’t expect anyone here. As much as Dominique loathed hiding like this, she knew she had to see who they were before dealing with them.

It turned out to be no one of consequence. A simple street hooligan munching a piece of bread, whom Dominique hardly glanced at, and a young magician carrying a stack of books, probably the one who decided to sneak in here. Suddenly, both of them froze, seeing Dominique’s open book on the table. Just as the realization hit them both, Dominique stepped out from her hiding place.

Dominique, as always, stood tall and confident. Her presence seemed to fill the room, and her posture was impeccable. She had a commanding stance and eyes cold enough to make even the most excited drunk stop to think twice. “Make one wrong move,” she said in her commanding voice, “and I will call the guards.” She addressed herself directly to the magician, and hardly bothered to look at the other one.

The two young men in front of her froze, wide eyed and surprised. Finally, the magician stammered, “I apologize, milady, we meant no harm.”

Dominique sneered. “You will show me the proper respect, magician. I am not to be trifled with.”

Kael’s lessons in etiquette quickly came back to him. He had, after all, been born into a fairly rich family. He bowed low. “I apologize milady. I am Kael Shetherwin, scholar and magician, at your service.”

Dominique acknowledged the bow as was proper to her position. That is, she inclined her head slightly. “Greetings, Kael Shetherwin, scholar and magician. I am Dominique DePietro, and I accept your service.” Dominique had invented a new name, as her real one was too well known.

Sloane said nothing. He considered himself fortunate that this noblewoman hadn’t bothered to look at him. Of course, he doubted she would recognize him anyways. He didn’t know who she was, so their families probably never had ties.

The hairs on Kael’s neck were standing up. How could we not be taken and chained by the guards yet, he wondered to himself. Aloud, he said, choosing his words carefully, “Is there something I could do for milady?”

Dominique searched his face for any sign of mockery. Once she was satisfied that the man was sincere she said, “What need have I for such a young magician? I have the archmagi at my command any time I need. You are no more significant to me than a stone or an oak leaf.”

Sloane finally spoke up. “A cornerstone is pretty significant. Milady.”

Dominique’s gaze locked for the first time onto Sloane, and with a look that would have made even the most hardened criminal go whimpering home. “I don’t care about the opinion of street trash,” she hissed, “You should count yourself lucky that I choose even to lower myself to look in your direction.” She turned back to Kael, her manner less harsh, but still cold and immaculately controlled. “I am curious, Kael Shetherwin, what would such a young magician want with the texts in this room?”
The tops of the trees swept before her, swaying in the breeze; a veridian swathe against cerulean blue skies. Creampuff clouds swam across the expanses, dancing with the hawk that flew through their spidery wetness, parting before the bird-of-prey's powerful wings like sheets of light silk. She smiled, her eyes crinkling at the corners in delight, and let loose a sweeping laugh from the bottoms of her gut. "Maimo," the woman called, jumping through the branches and disappearing beneath the forest canopy, nothing but a screech coming through the thick leaves.

From above, the hawk gave an answering cry and dove, his wings tucking together as he, too, went through the treetops and into the tangled masses of branch and leaf. The woman jumped down, using her own weight to swing her from level to level, swinging around in a lithe display of gymnastic ability. As she lept from the lowest branch level to the ox-cart trail below, the hawk lighted above and waited for her to catch her balance. She stood, and reached into a hole in the trunk, pulling out a longbow and a quiver, throwing both over her shoulder before holding her vembraced arm up and calling to the bird.

"Good, Maimo." Aine smiled again, running a calloused finger along her friend's soft plumage. The bird preened, cooing in vainglorious contentment, and butted its beak against Aine's shoulder. "Yes, yes, of course, Mai. I would never forget your food." She reached into a pocket and pulled out a piece of uncooked meat from the stag she had felled earlier that day. The hawk cried happily and tore into it, wings flapping for balance. "Happy, Momo?"

Aine headed down the path toward the village. It wasn't a named village; really, it was a small confederation of forestdwellers free from the outside influence of any government. No tax collectors came from the capitol, no crown representatives came to law down the law, there was no magistrate. The forestdwellers saw to themselves with little-to-no interferance from the outside world. Occasionally, a visitor would come through on his way to the Den, but they rarely stayed for more than a day or two.

It was an existance that Aine relished in. She had lived her entire life beneath the canopy of the Redwood Forest, far away from the bustle and restrictive 'civilization' of the Crystal City. The rules and regulations of how one had to live; as if living itself weren't the most important rule to follow. Aine's life had never been one of ease; the few times she had been to the City, she had been shocked at how the people lived- even those considered peasants. Never having to make their own clothes, or hunt their own food, or make their own medicine. They just bought it. They bought everything and never, really, had to work hard a day in their lives.

Aine had been born in the Forests, but her mother had been a City woman; a noble, if her mother's stories had been true. "Igraine," she would say, up until the day she died, "never forget that your father is the Baron de Siorra of the Crystal City. You may one day need his influence. Remember the locket and the saying within; he will help you if you remember." When Aine's mother had died, Aine had placed the locket around her neck and never taken it off; a gold and diamond confection amongst course linen and hand-made leathers.

But, even if Aine had wanted to forget it, she never could have. She rarely went to the village anymore, especially during Caravan season, but, once, she had always been there- curious to see the City folk and their beautiful robes. And every single merchant, noble, or mage that had ever stayed with the forestdwellers had made the same comment- "You are of Noble blood, child." They had always tried to bring her back, to "civilize" her, reunite her with her family. After had mother had died, and the attention had pleased no one, Aine had stopped going to the village during caravan season.

"Ah, m'lady Igraine. My Queen!" Sturn, the village's blacksmith, stepped from his forge to give Aine a kiss on each cheek. The man was big, with a wild mane of red hair, a thick beard, and a loving family. His cheeks were red from the fires, his forearms black with dirt, but he was always smiling and the closest thing to a father Aine had ever had. It had been Sturn who made Aine the hunting knife she carried on her belt. "And I see Maimo is never far behind."

The hawk landed on Aine's forearm and gave a short cawing noise. "Mai says hello, Sturn." Aine grinned, her finely wrought face lifting. "The caravans are all through from the Den, yes?"

Sturn nodded, wiping his hands and face on a piece of cloth. "The last left a sennight ago, Aine. You are still Queen of the Forest." Aine chuckled. Everyone knew of Aine- the best huntress and tracker in the whole of the Redwood Forest and, thus, the whole of Valor- but none but the forestdwellers ever saw her. Occasionally, she would lead groups through the forest to the Den, but only rarely. Sturn had long ago begun the legend of the Queen of the Forest, and half the City must know about it by now.

"Lovely, Sturn. Anyone of note come through this time? Anything interesting?" Aine followed Sturn back to his cottage, where his wife, Maol, and his three daughters would be waiting to have supper. Momo followed behind, flying through the small clearing a short distance behind the two.

"There was a Mage. Young. A summer younger than you, at least. He didn't believe in my tales, so I suppose it would've done for you to show up the night before he left." Sturn smirked and Aine shook her head, rolling her eyes. "He didn't believe much, at all. Which is strange for a magician, I reckon. And he did make an awfully large number of mistakes."

"I'm sure it's just inexperience, Sturn. And since when have City Folk ever believed our tales. They aren't as in-tuned with nature as we are. They've got stone walls to keep nature out and rules to keep themselves in. Nothing is right with them. I've heard they hide behind masks."

Sturn nodded. "The nobility do. If you'd ever gone back, you would be wearing one, too."

Aine shuddered. "It's wrong. And stupid. What purpose does that serve toward life? Absolutely nothing. I'd like to see their Princess survive a minute here in the forests."

"And I'd like to see you survive a minute there behind the stone walls and masks." Sturn pulled Aine into a half-hug. "Daughter of my heart, we are all products of our upbringing and our lives. Our purposes are dominated by our need to live. Theirs are filled with boredom in which they must put something. They have knowledge such as we could never have, but their knowledge is useless in the forests. And we have knowledge that they could never have, but ours would never help in the City." Aine sighed. "Ah, Aine. You are meant for greatness, child. No one can feel so much and be left to mediocrity."

Aine smiled. "That's why I'm Queen of the Forest, right? What's mediocre about that?"

Sturn laughed and patted Aine on the back; hard, thumping pats that jerked Aine forward each time. "You really are a forestdweller, child. Heart and soul, though your face says otherwise. Come, let's have some supper. Maol and the children love it when you visit and you've gotten much to thin for your own good. You feed that bird better than you feed yourself."
In the heart of the Chenil Rainforest, beside the pool where the Seven Sisters joined, beneath the canopy of the Kamaka tree, Azure, a Lord’s daughter and Seven Waters priestess, experienced the power of the Goddesses for the first time.

It was eight summers ago. Azure had arrived that morning at the Temple, wide-eyed with excitement and the fear of parting with her family, and been installed in a room with other young acolytes. There she had been stripped of her simple blue gown and led, naked and curious, outside into the humidity and through the trees to the Axis Mundi of the Rainforest. Seven offshoots of the Chenil River merged there to form a swirling pool, about which grew the living avatars of the Seven Sisters.

The great Kamaka tree, with her crowning canopy of deep green leaves, stood strong and proud above the other trees. Like Kamaka the Protectress, the tree shielded the pool and its occupants from the sun’s golden daggers. An infusion made from her iron-grey bark would fortify the body against life’s many ailments and was said to even be strong enough to protect the drinker from possession.

Compared to the Kamaka tree, the embodiment of Hakti, the Destroyer, was tiny and almost insignificant. A sickly yellow tree, she bent her gnarled branches toward the water like a droopy old woman. Yet the representation of Hakti was not weak or failing; she lived persistently on, sucking the life out of the soil and strangling smaller, weaker plants with her entangling roots. Every part of her was poisonous; her leaves would destroy a child in the womb, her bark depressed the spirit, a tea made from her roots caused the heart to stop, and her bitter, tiny green fruits opened ulcers in the stomach and intestines.

The Aliama tree was the Hakti tree’s polar opposite. Great golden fruits hung from her branches like a mother’s breasts, and her trunk was wide and her leaves a hearty green. Each of those sweet, succulent fruits was enough to feed a man or a woman for an entire day, and families could---and often did---live off of them and them alone. The Nourisher’s tree was completely eatable. Even the tough bark could be made into a nutritious tea.

The Debbara tree was perhaps the most amazing plant growing beside the primordial pool. Known as the cure-all tree, the living manifestation of Debbara, the Healer could calm almost any pain, heal almost any wound, and cure almost any illness. Like the Aliama tree, every part of the Debbara tree was useful, even the poisonous pits of her fruit, which, in a skilled healer’s hands, could be used to treat fits, certain mental disorders, and dangerous respiratory ailments.

Snow-white branches entwined with the Debbara tree, the Lover’s tree was a pretty little plant with a potent flower. A passionate crimson, the Tali tree’s tiny blossoms were a powerful aphrodisiac whether smelled, eaten, or drank in a tea. Brides paid extravagant prices to come to their husbands for the first time with Tali’s blossoms woven into their hair. A wine made from the flowers and a candy made from its honeyed petals were sweet treats ceremonially shared by all newlyweds.

Similar to the Tali tree in function but not in form was the Ketri tree. Large and dark with long, slender leaves, the embodiment of Ketri the Creator was the primary reason Azure’s family was so large (although she did not learn this until later). Like the Aliama and Debbara trees, every part of the Ketri tree was useful. The bark would promote fertility in women, the leaves in men. The flowers helped ensure a safe pregnancy and the roots promoted the production of milk in new mothers. The sap had a similar purpose. Incredibly sweet and known for occasionally causing visions, its syrup was known throughout Valor as “Poet’s Muse”.

The final tree standing beside the pool was appreciated by healers and parents alike as a manifestation of Noriad the Nurturer. It was not powerful, but it was effective in its ability to calm the nerves, soothe the body and mind, and promote deep, restful sleep. New mothers loved the gentle sedative effects of its green bark, which were weak enough to feed a colicky infant without harm. Healers often used its leaves to treat minor cuts, bruises, and burns in lieu of the sometimes too strong leaves of the Debbara tree. And many young women loved using salves composed of the Noriad tree’s flowers as on their faces.

Azure had been able to feel the holy power radiating forth from the circle of trees as she’d approached. When the older priestesses and white-robed girls led her down the marble steps into the pool, she could almost see the energy wavering in the air between the trees. The water had lapped at her ankles as she descended, and by the time she was submerged to her waist, she could hear the power echoing in her head like a heartbeat deep within a cave. That heartbeat expanded and thrummed through every fiber of her being when, at last, the High Priestess dunked her beneath the water and escorted her, dripping and wide-eyed with awe, from the pool into the waiting arms of the other priestesses to be clothed in the white robes of an acolyte of the Seven Waters Temple.

She had felt and heard and seen that power every day since her initiation.


Zade opened his eyes to the night sky that shone through from the glass ceiling. The dream was still in his minds eye, but it was fading away the more his surroundings came into focus. Most of the dream had already slipped from his memory, except the very end. It left him drifting in a dazed state. He had not dreamed before, ever, and to wake from one felt ominous.
Zade made to move, needing to sit up from a sudden jolt of nausea and found that he was being held down by an invisible force. He feared very little, but unable to move made him exposed and vulnerable; being so defenceless scared him like nothing else. He managed to move a finger in attempt; it was all he could muster.

Lie still, a voice inside his head said that was not his own.

He wanted to scream, but his body was being taken over. Nothing worked. It was all controlled. His eyes moved on their own accord to stare up at the glass ceiling. He saw himself reflected in it, but he was different somehow, impressive even, and he was holding onto a glowing object that he had just dreamt about. Zade wanted to shut his eyes and fall back asleep, but the voice wouldn’t allow it.

Look for the one with the book. They will be waiting for you at the Pollo inn, it said.

A male child appeared beside his reflection. The boy was holding onto his trousers and Zade could feel it. The child gazed at his paralysed figure and then smiled. He looked up at the Zade in the reflection and pointed down at him. His reflection became warm as he looked down at the boy, nodding. They were talking but he couldn’t hear the conversation. He then noticed that the child was wearing his bracelet.

The darkness pressed heavily against his eyes, denying him of all visibility.

He soon forgot everything after being told to go to the Pollo inn. His subconscious mind whispered that the two dreams had overlapped and he was never awake. Zade believed it and slipped into a dreamless sleep.

Everything was about to change.
“I am curious, Kael Shetherwin, what would such a young magician want with the texts in this room?” Dominique’s question hung in the air, and Kael’s stomach lurched a bit.

He knew the question would come soon, from someone or another, and he knew that he had to answer. Dominique knew how to read people, and if Kael tried to lie she would immediately notice it and there could be consequences. Kael gulped and began his story:

“I spend a lot of time in this library, reading book somewhat at random, but mostly because they’re about something that interests me. I was reading one a while ago about ancient legends and so forth, and I came across an interesting story. It was about years and years ago when the gods made an artifact that could turn a human into one of them – a god. The artifact was lost, but many magicians have searched for it over the years.”

Dominique raised her eyebrow and scoffed a bit. “But what does that have to do with this section of the library, good magician?”

“Well the book referenced an old book of divinations that contained a spell that would set its caster on the search for the artifact,” Kael said, shuffling nervously as his intentions became revealed.

“So you want to search for this artifact?” Dominique looked at him sarcastically. “To become a god?”

“No, no,” Kael protested. “I don’t want to use it, I just want to find more about it! My intentions are for study.”

“And as soon as you find it, everyone in the land with power will be upon you in a moment wishing to take it from you,” Dominique smiled. “And there’s also no possible chance you’ll find it! You said many magicians – far more experienced than you, I’m sure! – have looked for it in the past, and yet they have not found it. Why do you think you’re different?”

“Well, I don’t know, milady. I’m just curious.”

“Well, you should stop being curious and go back to the unrestricted part of the library. This is not for the likes of you, and I will call for the guards if you do not leave immediately.”

Sloane stepped forward. “Look, you can’t do that! All he wants is to read the dumb book!”

“Only scum such as you would think that the contents of this section of the library are ‘dumb books,’” Dominique glared at the thief. “The books here contain some of the most complex and difficult recipes that have ever existed, some of the darkest and most secret stories that have ever been told, and many of the most evil and dangerous spells that could ever be cast. The books here are full of wisdom and of peril, intelligence and fright, and other unexpected, unimaginable things. They are not, dumb.” Dominique’s breath had quickened and she was obviously quite angry, her glare piercing and unceasing as it bored into Sloane.


“I’m sorry, milady,” Sloane said with a hint of sarcasm, bowing. “Let me rephrase myself: ‘All he wants is to read the wise tome...’”

“Do you mock me?” she replied, looking away from him in disgust.

“No, milady,” Kael interrupted before Sloane could speak. “He was just trying to defend me. In truth, it was a somewhat honorable thing to do, even if it was not presented in the best manner.”

Dominique paused before replying, her nose held high as she asserted her authority. “I told you to leave.”

“Please, good Lady Dominique,” Kael dropped to one knee, pleading. “I’ll do one thing for you if you would let me read the book I seek. Anything at all!”

Sloane stayed silent, not knowing quite where he stood in his friendship to the magician. Kael, looking up at the beautiful, blonde woman before him, knew that she was his only chance. He really, truly wanted to find that artifact simply for the purposes of study. But he knew that he might need some help along the way, and perhaps Sloane could be a good friend to him in that regard. He hoped dearly that Dominique would show him some mercy and agree to his request, but as she stood there, lingering in thought, he feared the worst.

She was still for sometime, unsure of what to do, but after a minute she replied. “I’ll let you read the book, and there is one thing that you can do for me. If your divination works and you begin your quest to find the artifact, let me come with you.”

“That’s it?” Kael gasped, incredulous, seeing Sloane with an equally surprised expression as well.

“That’s it,” she smiled.

*****

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Land of Valor, Malvenicus sat astride his conjured horse, looking over the beautiful stretch of the Chenil Rainforest before him from atop his perch upon a hill on the coast. The sun shone brightly in the sky, though some clouds darkened its dominance and threatened to let fall their rain upon the land.

“Lord, excuse me, but why are we here again?” Gravus questioned, sitting on his horse beside his master. “The Keeper is not here.”

“You know of the seven avatars of the Seven Sisters -- the trees at Seven Waters?” Malvenicus replied, his voice cruel and black.

“Yes, Lord, but what relevance do they have?”

“We need a leaf from each tree, from which we will boil a concoction. Without that, the voice of the Keeper cannot be heard.” Malvenicus turned to Gravus, his face hidden by the shadow of his hooded cloak. “And what good is that?”

“Oh, right,” Gravus said, and then paused. “But, how are we getting them? The priestesses of the Seven Waters aren’t going to just give them to us, let alone let us near their Temple. We don’t exactly have a good reputation.”

“I have my ways,” Malvenicus cackled devilishly. “Raven!”

The air rushed by the two mounted men as, out of seemingly nowhere, a winged woman landed beside them. She had dark wings, each as large as she, much like that of a crow, and she was dressed in a somewhat revealing suit of black leather armor that allowed her to move quickly and easily. There were two daggers at the waist of her lithe and attractive body, and her medium-length, dark hair fluttered slightly in the light breeze. “Yes, Lord?” she said, her voice inviting, yet cold.

“You know what to do. Wait till none of them are looking,” Malvenicus ordered, a malevolent air in his words.

“Yes, Lord,” Raven nodded, and again took wing, heading towards the outskirts of the Rainforest.

After Raven was gone, Gravus furrowed his brow and began, “How could none of them be look--”

“Shh,” Malvenicus interrupted. “You’ll see.”

Malvenicus dismounted from his dire horse and walked a few paces to the edge of the hill’s summit, his dark black cloak flowing as the wind began to pick up. The sorcerer pointed the ruby atop his staff towards the forest and began to cast a spell. The words of the incantation were low and barely audible, and the ruby at the end of the sorcerer’s staff began to glow brighter and brighter as he continued.

As Gravus looked on, he noticed that a bit of smoke seemed to be drifting up from the center of the forest. As Malvenicus’ spell continued, however, it seemed to grow more intense, until he could visibly see flames leaping up into the sky, even though they was very far away. The dark sorcerer had lit the very forest on fire!

And it was a perfect way to distract the priestesses of the Seven Waters from their trees for a few moments...
A Non-Existent User
The noise of the crowd rose to a deafening roar as the combatants circled one another. One of them, a small by spry man, lashed out with his spear. His opponent, a hulking man with a huge axe, managed to deflect the blow with his buckler, albeit barely. Another combatant fired his crossbow at the big man, who took the quarrel in the shoulder, while the other two were locked in combat, both spinning and whirling, each with twin blades. The large man let out a roar that no one could hear, due to the sounds of the spectators. He lashed out with his axe at the spear man. The blow was so savage that even those in the top rows winced. The axe blade had sliced through the spear man’s armor, imbedding itself into the man’s chest. The bowman drew his sword with a shaking hand as the massive axe wielder struggled to free his weapon from his opponent’s corpse.

The crowd shouted and yelled and egged the combatants on. Each rooted for their favorite, though it was not the victory that mattered, it was the fight. The combat, and the fresh blood on the arena floor. The grand coliseum was a thing of wonder and magnificence in itself, and the view of it would impress most travelers, but to the citizens of Crystal City it was only the blood that mattered.

There were, of course, those who seemed unmoved by the spectacle of violence, who came again and again to watch despite the fact that they seemed to care for it not at all. The nobles, with their masks and manners, sat in their private booths, watching the spectacle separate from the common folk in relative comfort. They never seemed to be drawn by the pull of the crowd. They simply sat watching, sometimes clapping politely for a victory, but they seemed so withdrawn and separate from the event that one wondered why they attended at all.

These were the thoughts that were going through Dominique’s head as she sat in the most expensive booth, her head bare and her hair free, and her purple gown matching her mask. She wondered what the point of it all was.

One of the men with the twin swords had managed to fell his near twin, though he had a few more wounds to show for it. The arena practically shook with the roar of the excited mob. “An excellent move,” laughed Lord Brallon to Dominique as he clapped lightly, “if the man survives the match then I may buy him. Perhaps to represent me in the arena, perhaps as an addition to my personal guard. You see the way he moves, precisely and efficiently? He has the discipline needed for personal service. Completely unlike that hulking fellow. Worthless, even if he does win.” This seemed likely. The big man had knocked the crossbow man nearly halfway across the arena. He then freed his axe, and was keeping out of the swordsman’s reach with large swings of his huge weapon.

“I am no stranger to combat, Milord,” Dominique said curtly, “Or the slave trade. My father had seen fit to educate me in every aspect of our society.” She sat up straight, seemingly unmoved by the violence before her.

Lord Brallon laughed heartily, his stylized gold mask shaking with his head, “Ah, but you are so young to be exposed to such unpleasantries. What are you? Eighteen? Nineteen? Such a jewel, but still unmarried, so I may ask.”

“Nineteen.” Dominique stared ahead and kept her back straight.

“Nineteen, and you know of such horrors? Surely you must carry a wit and wisdom of one twice your age.” Brallon smiled at her jovially.

Dominique, as ever, betrayed nothing physically, but a chill ran up her spine and a shudder threatened to shake her whole body. To any outside observer, and even to most nobles, the exchange would have seemed to be merely a few words between friends. Dominique, however, had grown up learning how to read people, and everything about Lord Brallon-the way he sat, where he placed his hands, his gaze-revealed his intent as clearly as if he had given her a flower, or caressed her face, or attempted to reach his hand past the hem of her dress. The crowd cheered ferociously, and Brallon had sat up straight. The man with the swords had slain his opponent, but Dominique was deaf to it as her thoughts raced through her head. She had, of course, heard of what went on beyond closed doors in the manors and palaces of the nobles, but she didn’t want to know firsthand. She wasn’t sure why he would want to solicit someone so plain as her, but, then again, looks weren’t always the point. She had a bad taste in her mouth. Dominique took a deep breath and steadied herself.

“Milord, I will be leaving tomorrow at sunrise. I am going, with a few trusted advisors and guards, to view the countryside, and perhaps visit with my relations abroad. I regret to say that I will not be able to attend your ball next week, and apologize for any inconvenience my absence may cause you.”

Brallon laughed. “No need to be so stiff with me, Miss Dominique, you are among friends. I assure you, the only inconvenience will be the absence of your enchanting presence at my house.”

Pig, Dominique thought. She would leave immediately or, she feared, the man may find some excuse to get her alone. She rose, oblivious to the jubilant crowd, and curtsied. “I take my leave of you then, Milord. I wish you good fortune and prosperity.”

Brallon stood and bowed to her. “Farewell, Milady, and safe travels.” He kissed her hand, as was proper, but Dominique knew that she felt his touch linger a second too long, and felt that his kiss was the smallest bit too deep. She wanted to pull her hand away violently. She felt so unclean in his grip, and wanted to wash her hand. Instead she managed a smile and nod, then walked away with her head held high.

* * * * *

The wizard and that street urchin had been given lodgings in Dominique’s city manor. She had given the wizard a guest room, but would only let the street urchin stay in the servant’s quarters. Dominique herself sat in her changing room as one of her ladies-in-waiting fixed up her hair for the night. She stared at her mirror, looking into her own eyes. She found it strange that, even now, she wore her mask. For fear of what? Could she not even trust those closest to her?

The servant left Dominique alone, still staring at her reflection. She slowly removed her mask, placing it beside the mirror. Her face was shockingly, even hauntingly, beautiful. She touched the mirror beside her face. This is me. This is me. Me...

She picked up her mask carefully, staring into its hollow eye sockets. It suits me. She stood, and retired to bed.

* * * * *

It was dawn when Dominique was prepared to leave and, after a brief breakfast, stood outside the steps of her manor next to three fine horses. She now wore clothes more suitable for traveling: a white tunic, long white gloves, white knickers, boots, purple woolen leggings, a purple wide-brimmed hat, and a short cloak worn almost casually on her left. She carried a cane, the sort which had become fashionable for ladies, with a wooden straight cane, inlayed with gold, and with a shiny spherical head. It was long, almost reaching to her waist, and a bit thick, but that’s because the head of the cane was actually the handle to the blade concealed inside, a blade which Dominique knew well how to use.

There she stood, regal, severe, and proud, as her companions greeted her bleary-eyed and worn. “You have some idea of our destination, I assume, Magi Shetherwin.”

Kael simply nodded, and mounted his horse while his companion did the same. They were excellent beasts, and well trained, and both accepted their riders and responded well. Dominique likewise mounted her personal horse, a beautiful silver-grey mare, one of the finest in the land, which she called Callorai. The other two-both brown, and both excellent horses-were, to the trained eye, practically worthless next to Callorai. She was still a fierce beast and, though it was passive to the handlers, would accept few besides Dominique on her back.

There Dominique sat. She had an excellent seat, and rode tall in the saddle. Her lessons were all practical. She was not, as were many of her station, one who rode and played at sport merely for show. She was Dominique Castinante, daughter to the king, sister to the heir to the throne, and she was not afraid to get her hands dirty. She wouldn’t, of course, unless she had to, but she had endured hardship much worse than simple travel whilst under the tutelage of her father’s finest soldiers.

“Lead on, Magi. We have a long road ahead.”
Even in the midst of the Redwoods, many leagues from the humid canopy of the Rainforest, the faire caused a panic. Within a day, enjoys from the Tree Priestesses had arrived to enlist the limited magicks of the Forestdwellers. The Priestesses were more at home in the forests than most, but even they stood uncomfortably as men and women leapt through the branches of the smaller trees as if they were animals rather than human. Forestdwellers and Tree Priestesses were different and rarely got along- where the Priestesses were refined and ritualized, Forestdwellers were wild and natural. That the Priestesses came seeking aid at all had been a powerful, mitigating factor in the Forestdwellers' decision to send Water Mages and large delegations of volunteers.

Aine stood just outside the small village and watched the two priestesses carefully, disdainfully sneering at their finicky shifts and self-righteous assurance. The Priestesses clearly believed themselves better than the leather-bound wildings that scurried to their defense; their robes stood blindingly brought against the soft greens and browns of the Redwoods, and they regarded the foliage around them with ill-disguised mistrust. Aine would've preferred that these Priestesses treat her people with gratitude and courtesy, especially because the Forestdwellers had stopped their own lives to help bank the fire. She was going- her tracking skill would find water others couldn't and she was strong and able to travel quickly- but Aine would almost prefer to turn the women away and laugh at their arrogant backs.

One of the Priestesses turned to stare at Aine- a younger girl, probably an acolyte or lower-ranked initiate- and broke into a small smile. She looked worried- understandably, Aine surmised, as her home was burning- but her eyes blazed with a certain adventurous excitement. "Are you coming to help?" she asked, calling out to Aine in a high, childish voice. Before Aine could answer, another Priestess, older and pinched-looking, turned and shushed her. "We don't speak to their kind, child."

Aine grimaced and headed across the clearing to find Sturn. The blacksmith was also going- he knew how to bank a fire better than most anyone and was a leader amongst the villagers. She stopped in front of the Priestesses and gave a whistle- Maimo flew from the trees and came to rest on her shoulder. "One would think that you're relying on us to stop your fire- don't mistreat the people you need."

"It is the duty of non-believer heretics to serve the Seven Sisters in menial tasks. Your forests are secondary, your lives less important, your 'gods' non-existent. Why should your...people," the Priestess grimaced as if the word were distasteful to her, "expect respect from those who are your betters?"

The younger girl looked at the elder woman, her face scandalized and horrified. "We do appreciate your efforts. It is most unfortunate that our people are not friends- we have so much in common- and I hope that working together will help to breech the divide." Aine raised an eyebrow and made no effort to hide an amused grin as the elder priestess turned cherry red.

"Your order would do well to listen to her. Keep insulting us and the Forestdwellers will likely revoke our aide. Your Rainforest and our Redwoods are far apart- our home is safe. It if yours that is burning- your Goddess' Avatars that die. It means much less to us than it does to you- thus, we have the higher ground." Aine gave a bobbing bow to the woman and a half-smile to the girl before heading off. "We're ready to go. If you'd like to join us, you might want to come to the village."

Maimo flew behind her, soaring elegantly as Aine did her best not to storm into the blacksmith's shop. "Sturn," she greeted, her voice hard and her beautiful eyes flashing angrily. "That Priestess just said we were less important than she and owe her our help!"

Sturn sighed. "She is a right piece o' work, isn't she? It took the girl to get us to go. The old bitch merely had us sending more fire to their lair. But she is the old class of Priestess- they've become a lot more open recently, if the girl is any hint. The Sisters should've sent the youngin' alone." The blacksmith sighed again and hosted a pack onto his shoulders. "Are the mages and volunteers ready?"

Aine nodded and ran a finger along Maimo's neck ruff. "Yes. Everyone is waiting in the village center with the Priestesses." Some part of Aine wanted to move as slowly as possible- to make the older Priestess sweat a little longer. The fire had raged for almost two days already and would burn for a third before so water mages could reach the blaze. Many acres of Rainforest had already been lost and the flames grew ever closer to the Sisters' Sacred Grove. The more time that passed, the more the Priestesses squirmed delightfully. Especially the elder one.

Sturn nodded and patted Aine's head affectionately before giving her a weary smile. "Let's go then. Maol has prepared a pack for you, as well." He gestured toward a bad that, but for it's size, was the mirror of his own. Aine nodded and picked it up, throwing it over her shoulders. "She knew you didn't have much, so she spent the past hour throwing these together."

Heading for the door to the shop and out into the dusty streets of the village's main thoroughfare, Sturn and Aine walked briskly toward the square. They didn't like the woman, but the elder priestess was right- speed was of the utmost importance to saving the forest. No one cared about some Priestesses who worshipped trees, but the people of the Redwoods did much trade with the Rainforest's people and Forestdwellers knew how important the forest was for survival. The earth had to remain in balance or there would be a great reckoning and the cycle of nature would be thrown off- perhaps irrevocably.

"Will Maol and the children be there to say goodbye?" Aine hoped they wouldn't. Goodbyes were always hard and long journeys were hardly Aine's favorite. She just wanted to go- to march, get the job down, and come back home as soon as was possible.

"No," Sturn replied, his voice quiet. "The girls don't know that you're going- they'd want to go too much if they saw you going."

Aine nodded and the two fell silent as they entered the noisy square and went to the front of the crowd. She was uncomfortable with this many people and upset that she had to leave her forests. Nothing would make Aine want to leave the forests except the most powerful inducement- and nothing short of the murder of a loved one was powerful enough. Aine was going now, but every stop hurt to take and every foot from her home rang hard in her heart. Gripping her bow, Aine stepped before the crowd with Sturn and motioned for the priestesses to join them. The crowd quieted and shuffled to face the quartet as Sturn made to speak.

"We will be in the Rainforest by this time tomorrow- it is only a journey of a day or so if we move quickly. Mages, you know what to do, and everyone else will listen to Aine or myself with concern to finding water and banking the fire. She is my second-in-command and her decision is my decision. Do all of you know and accept this?" Everyone assented, some louder than others. Aine was popular amongst many of the younger men and women despite her social anxiety. She smiled softly and gave a small wave before looking over at the Priestesses. The younger girl smiled at her and waved, but the Priestess Elder seemed scandalized. Aine's smile got bigger.

"Alright. Everyone knows what to do- we've already discussed this- now let's go. We've got a fire to stop." Sturn turned and mounted a horse he had bartered for from merchants almost five years previously. The big Arabian chestnut mare snorted agreeably as Aine stroked her nose. Aine was walking most of the way- she was faster on foot and more comfortable as a tracker than riding a horse.

"Allo, Spark girl. We can talk a lot on this journey." Aine smiled as Spark nuzzled her chest companionably.

Sturn chuckled. "Would you two like to be alone?"

Aine smiled and stroked Spark's ear. "We're alright."

"Good. So let's go." Sturn kicked the mare into motion and the Redwood delegation headed toward the Rainforest.
*****


Unlike the Redwoods, the Rainforest snuck up on someone; there was no sudden tree-line, only a series of brush that built up until the canopy above blocked out almost all of the sun’s light. It was wet and bright, with a wild growth that seemed almost to come together into one, continuous plant. There was a certain beauty in the untamed growth and buzzing wildlife, and Aine stopped to stare ate more than one flower she had never seen before.

It was said that winter never touched the Rainforest- that it was as hot and sticky in the Snow months as it was in the summer. The rain never became snow and the green never faded to stark grey. Aine wondered how a fire could burn in this place- some of the trees sat in perpetual water. It rained daily. A fire should not have burned as radically as it did.

Aine disliked the Rainforest. It smelled fake, as if the earth could not breed such things naturally. More than one Mage had complained of cold sweats and stomach pains. Something was wrong with the Forest that made Aine very uncomfortable. The Priestesses did not seem to feel it- they were too relieved to be back to their home to feel the wrongness.

“Where is the fire?” Sturn asked Macyn, the leader of the Water Mages who rode next to him, and surveyed the forest with his Gift.

“We approach it,” Macyn replied, turning to look at Aine with golden eyes. “The Mages grow evermore ill, Aine. Some are having problems focusing on their gift.”

Aine’s eyes narrowed in thought. “You say we’re getting closer to the fire? And your pains are getting worse as well?”

“Yes.”

“How did the fire start?” Aine had an idea of what exactly was unnatural about this forest and, if so, the Sisters were hiding something from them.

“The Priestess- the girl- said that they don’t know- it was sudden, almost as if it appeared out of nowhere. But the skies were dark that day and everyone assumed it was lightning.” Macyn tilted his head to the side. “What do you think, Aine?”

“I think the fire is what is causing your pain. It isn’t natural and is killing faster than normal. Someone very dark and very powerful started this fire.” Aine turned and looked at the Priestesses. “They didn’t leave their temple unattended, did they?”

Sturn shook his head. “Never. The Priestesses must never leave their grove. But the numbers are down as most are out fighting the fire. You don’t think that someone is after the Seven Sisters, do you? Someone would have to be crazy to think they’re real.”

Macyn smiled. “In the Goddesses, maybe. But these trees have very interesting properties- their parts have almost magickal capabilities related to their supposed namesake. Some of these properties are very powerful and can do much damage.”

“But who would want to cause anyone that much harm?” Aine asked. “We’ve long been at peace.”
“We’ll ask the Priestesses what they know after we bank this fire. Then they’ll owe us a debt of gratitude,” Macyn replied, voice soft as the sisters rode up.

“The fire is close,” the elder woman, Aine had learned her name was Samara, whispered as if she were breaking hard news. “I can smell it.”

“We’re aware,” Macyn replied, bristling. “My Gift senses it.”

Sturn stepped in before a sport ensued. “We’ll split now. The mages and I will go farther from natural water. Aine, you and the Priestesses head for water with the others and stop it at that end.”

Aine nodded and eyed the Sisters as Sturn gave directions. The group split, both sides with good-hearted jests and wagers. Breaking her gaze at the women, Aine stared at the ground and the direction of the growth. “Water is east of here. I will take the volunteers in this direction. Mages, there is little water to the West- the fire likely began in that direction.”

“Then we will go to the West,” Macyn replied, eyes sparking with a mix of pain and excitement. “See you when this is over.”

Aine nodded and ordered everyone to dismount. The men set up a boundary to guard the horses and the group headed after Aine in tense anticipation. People knew they could die, someone would likely lose their life, and no one wanted to reflect on the danger of their task. Only Aine and the Sisters remained silent on their journey to the flames.

Aine found water in the form of a large, clear lake several hundred yards from the fire. She stopped the group and ordered them to fill their bags and buckets. “Put out the fire if you can, but try to contain it as well. Make the ground too wet to burn and then we’ll see about banking the thing, alright?” Everyone nodded. “Good. Have at it.”

Burning forest is very dangerous. Branch strength is compromised and people are as likely to be crushed as they are to burn or die of smoke inhalation. Aine was careful to stay several feet from the fire and focus her attentions on preventing the fire from spreading. The younger priestess stayed by her side, working as hard as any of the others. Even the elder priestess helped, though she directed efforts at the water rather than the fire.

It was blisteringly hot- swear poured down Aine’s face and her skin reddened as if she had been in the sun all day. She was in agony and the fabric over her face to keep out the smoke had melted to her skin. Pain wracked her body, her boots burned to the earth beneath her. And the fire seemed to be getting worse rather than any smaller.

“Aine!” Turning, Aine saw Azure, the younger priestess, running toward her. “Jump!” Looking up, Aine saw a branch falling toward her head. She dropped her bucket and dived onto the ground several feet behind her. She heard her skin sizzle and screamed hoarsely. Azure reached her side and helped to push the branch from her legs- compared to the burning, Aine’s legs barely hurt. “Aine, get up!” Azure helped her up and the two girls hobbled back to the lake, where Aine saw that most of her force lay, moaning and screaming, beside the waters. “Sister Samara, help! Bring Healer’s bark! Aine is hurt!”

Samara rushed to where Aine stood and forced her to the ground. As a woman, she was crotchety and rude, but as a Priestess, she knew what she was doing and was bound to help anyone. “Chew this and swallow.” Aine followed her directions carefully, slicing a hole in the face cloth with her knife to do so, and felt her pain slacken. Her eyes felt heavy, but she forced away any stupor. “Do not sleep, child. You won’t wake up.”

Aine nodded and propped herself against a tree. “We’ve got to find the Mages. We can’t handle this alone.”

Azure shook her head. “It’s going to storm. I think the Mages called it in. We’ve helped enough that the rain will contain the flames. Thank you, Aine.”

“We still need to get back to the clearing and wait for the Mages.” Aine turned to Samara. “Are there any dead?”

The older woman shook her head. “No. Though some are close to it. I think you’re right, Aine; we do need to get back to the clearing. In order to heal some of the wounds on these people, I need the tree of Debbara. They grow in abundance near our Temple, but not so much out here.” Samara turned to Azure. “Go, tell the others that Aine’s been hurt and that we need to return to the horses.” The girl nodded and ran off on fleet foot. “You’re in bad shape, Aine. Tearing this fabric off is going to pull some of your skin off with it. The Healer cannot prevent scarring.”

Aine nodded. “Macyn can heal that. He’s a Water Mage- they are very skilled in healing. I shall be fine under his ministrations, though I think you for the bark. Your Tree should be used on the volunteers- they need it more than I.”

Samara looked at Aine, older blue-green eyes meeting shining orbs of midnight sky, and nodded slightly. “You are stronger than I thought. All your people are. I underestimated you, and did many of my Sisters. When this is over, I will be sure to tell the Council. Young Azure will corroborate.”

“I have a question,” Aine replied to that, not knowing how to graciously accept such a compliment, but acknowledging it with enough trust to broach the subject. “What kind of power does your Clearing have?”

“Why?” Samara leaned back on her heels. “Do you know something?”

“I know this fire is unnatural. So do the Mages, which is likely why they called in a storm to finally defeat this thing. This fire was started by a very dark, powerful Mage; likely someone who wanted to pull your Sisters away from your clearing. Or…at least for some distractive reason. Is there anything you can think of that would cause someone to go after the power of the Seven Sisters?”

Samara thought for a minute. “There are only legends. It is said that there is a powerful device that would give the power of the gods to anyone who can control it. And the leaves of the Avatars are said to give voice to the being that holds this device.” She looked up and saw Azure returning with the others of the group. “But, if whoever started this fire wants this device…then Valor is in very great danger, indeed.”

Aine nodded. “We’ll have to tell this to someone who can do something about it. We’ll report it to the Magistrate in the Den and he can take it to the Crystal City where the Mages can deal with it…we can…”

Samara shook her head. “Aine. Child. We cannot spread the word of this device beyond any who know about it. It is also said that, when the night seeks the device, there are those who will also fight to keep it hidden. They will come. And you must go with them.”

“No!” Aine shook her head. “I am not out to get rid of some great evil. I’m going home to the Redwoods and I’m staying there. This is none of my business.”

“I’m…afraid that you must, Aine. The night tried to take you- the unnatural fire almost killed you- but you escaped it. You and Azure, since she helped to keep you out of the fire.”
Aine shook her head. “That’s ridiculous. That has got to be the most tenuous thing I have ever heard in my life. Because a fire almost killed me, I’ve suddenly got to be part of this prophecy? It was a fire! A tree fell on me! Heat burned my arms. It has nothing to do with magick or fate or anything! It was a fire. And after this I’m going home, back to my Redwoods, and living in peace. For the rest of my life.”

“If you believe that, child, may it give you peace.” Samara rose and nodded at the others who had come back from the fire. “Everyone gather your things and head back to the clearing where the horses are. Help with the wounded if you can. Let’s go!”

Everyone looked to Aine, who nodded her assent, before following Samara’s orders. Azure helped Aine to stand and the two girls walked back to the horses together. “Samara says we’re in prophecy,” Aine whispered. “That we’re supposed to help defeat some seeker…for some device…”

“Then we’re meant to. Samara is very gifted in prophecy,” Azure replied in a quiet whisper. “It is her strength.”

Aine sighed. “But that’s ridiculous. She says it’s cause the night marked me, or some such nonsense. You Seven Sisters…Divine Water…Tree Avatar…whatever you’re called Priestesses- some of us believe in practical things. I’m not going to go gallivanting around Valor because some old woman told me that I’m meant to according to prophecy.”

Azure shrugged, causing Aine to grimace in pain. “You’ll have to make the decision to go, but I think you’ll go. Prophecy always has a way of coming around, even if we don’t mean to follow it. Something always happens that makes it our choice to happen, but we end up following it, anyway.”

“How old are you?”

Azure laughed. “Fifteen. Don’t worry, a lot of people say I’m pretty mature for my age. It happens when you live with the Priestesses most of your life. How about you?”

“Nineteen recently.” Aine grimaced again as her foot skidding against a rock, pushing her burnt boot into her skin. She’d need new ones after all this was over.

“You’re a strong person for nineteen. People look up to you and listen to you even though you’re such a young person. You have the bearing of a leader- the personal strength and conviction of a Princess, and the compassion of a Mother- and you know how to use it. That is a rare gift, indeed.” The girl led Aine into the clearing, where the guard for the horses rushed forward to help the wounded onto the animals.

“Aine!” Looking up, Aine saw Macyn running toward her. “Aine, are you alright?” The man looked tired and had several blisters along his forearms, but was none the worse for wear. Aine could tell that something was wrong, however, the minute she saw the bloodshot lines in his eyes and tear streaks along his jawbone. “What happened?”

“I’m fine, Macyn,” Aine replied. “Though I could use some healing. Do that and then we’ll have a talk.” She wanted to know what had happened, and she still hadn’t seen Sturn, but Aine knew that her health would deteriorate quickly if she couldn’t get Macyn to heal her now.

The Mage nodded and had Azure lead Aine to a nearby tree. “Sit her down,” he directed, “and then help your Sister with the others.” Azure complied, and Macyn went to work slicing the cloth from Aine’s face and cutting the boots from her feet. “By the Goddess, Aine…your legs are broken, the skin on your face is gone, and half of your feet is stuck to the bottoms of your boots. You should be screaming.”

“The Priestesses have a powerful tree that heals, apparently,” Aine replied, hissing as Macyn touched her raw feet. “It hurts, but not as much as it should. Just get to work and tell me what happened on your end.” She bit her lip. “We would’ve all died had you not called in that storm. Thank you for that.”

Macyn grimaced as if swallowing a bitter pill. “We had mostly banked the fire on our end without the storm, but I am glad that it helped in your cause. Now, sit quietly.” Aine felt the tingles of Macyn’s magick course through her veins and leaned against the tree to allow the pleasure free reign. She loved being healed, and Macyn’s power was particularly gentle. All too soon, it was over and Macyn was pulling his hands away.

“Thank you, Macyn,” Aine replied, feeling her face and looking at her face. Everything was as it should be and the pain was completely gone. “I appreciate it.” Her smile disappeared. “Why did you call in that storm if you didn’t need it.”

“We…wanted to kill the fire so we could find Sturn.”

Aine sat up straight and grabbed at Macyn’s upper arms. “What? What’s wrong with Sturn? Where is he? Did you find him? Macyn? Where’s my father?”

Macyn grimaced again. “The…the fire just reached out and grab him…as if a giant man made of fire had picked him up. It pulled him into the fire and through to the other side. We called the storm so we could get to the other side and find him. But…but we couldn’t.” Macyn looked into Aine’s eyes, his own filled with tears. “I’m sorry, Aine, but he’s gone back to the Goddess. He’s gone.”

Aine didn’t know what to do or say, or how to react. Her heart fair stopped in her chest. “No…” she breathed out. “Please…please be lying to me. Please! Why are you lying to me?!”

“I’m not, Aine!” Macyn held Aine as she jumped up from the trees and headed for the encampment. “No one is lying. They’re not lying. He’s not there, Aine. I’m so sorry, but he is dead.”

The fire had murdered Sturn. The Device had killed her father. The Seeker had destroyed her family. Aine looked over at Azure and Samara. “Prophecy always has a way of coming around…” Aine didn’t know what to feel. She was strangely devoid of feeling, especially as she should be screaming with pain and grief and anger. But she only felt this strange sense of intense being- as if the Gods had suddenly given her the ability to truly see and be apart of everything around her. She felt separate from everything and yet in-tuned with it all. “Prophecy…”

“Aine, you alright?” Macyn reached out and touched her face. “What’s wrong?”

Aine laughed and shook her head. “I’m fine, Macyn. I just never thought the Goddess would feel the need to kill Sturn to get me to do what I need to do. But…apparently I am too blind to see what needs to happen and She needed to takeaway my blindfold. I’m…I’m just heartbroken that Maol and the girls needed to lose Sturn to kick me into shape. It’s not fair. It’s not right. And it’s my fault.” Aine turned to Macyn. “If I had just followed it all, he wouldn’t have needed to die. The Gods are cruel…but they’ve got the world to think about.” Aine looked back over at the Priestesses. “When you go back to the Redwoods, break the news to Maol as gently as you can.”

Macyn raised an eyebrow. “And what about you? What should I tell her about why you’re not back to tell her yourself?”

Aine smiled a determined smile and raised her arm for Maimo to land. "Tell her I've gone to follow the Gods and destroy his murderer."
Three days later, standing in the (partially) reconstructed Seven Water's temple, Azure faced the Mother of her Order.

“Samara told you what?” the Mother demanded.

Azure tried to keep her eyes downcast, to study the lines and textures woven into the bamboo floor as was proper when facing the Mother, but some part of her which could not be quelled took hold of her spirit and her eyes rose as if of their own accord. “Samara told me visitors will arrive to fight those who seek the artifact, and I am to go with them.”

The Mother, her dark brown eyes flashing, paced furiously. She was angry, not at Azure, or even Samara really, but at Prophecy itself. “You are too young.”

“The Seven Sisters work their way through whomever they choose,” Azure reminded her softly. It was not her place to tell the Mother herself this, but she could not stop herself. “It is not for us to question Their ways.”

“Do not preach to me, girl,” the Mother growled. “I suppose you’re going to tell me now that you’ve five rings on your fingers, and fifteen years on your bones.”

“No Mother,” Azure murmured.

“Good. That is called Pride, and it blinds us to the Seven Sisters. You are very young and five rings or not, you still have much to learn. And you have not yet earned the ring of creating and destroying! How are you to go off and fight without the power of Hakti and Ketri?”

“The Seven Sisters are with me always, even if I have not yet earned the gift of their magics. And perhaps it is the strengths I already possess which will fulfill Their purpose.”

The Mother stared at her with a mixture of resignation and distress. “Whatever am I going to tell your parents? They sent you here to be provided for, to be educated and sheltered. How can I possibly tell them I am letting you roam the world with strangers to fight in this dangerous battle?”

Azure smiled. “My family gave me to the Seven Sisters. They know better than to blame you for this. And they will not question the will of the Seven Sisters. Do not fear.“

With a sigh, the Mother gestured the neophyte over. “Come then, and accept my blessing. Tomorrow, you will fast and pray to the Seven Sisters. After that, you will begin training for your rings of creation and destruction until the visitors arrive. Even if you cannot master them both before you leave, at least it will be a start. Now kneel, and accept this oil.”

Azure knelt, face still upturned. The Mother anointed her forehead with seven sweet, yet musky oils. “In the names Hakti, Ketri, Kamaka, Tali, Noriad, Debbara, and Aliama do I bless and consecrate thee, Azure, daughter of Seven Waters. May you be strong and merciful, grateful and giving, comforting and fierce, and full of inspiration. Rise now, and go in peace. Blessed be.”

“Blessed be,” Azure murmured back, rising and accepting a warm kiss on the cheek.

For a moment the Mother contemplated her. Then a smile broke over her wrinkled face. “You’ll do.”
Kael sat astride his horse, with Dominique on his right and Sloane on his left, heading down the cobblestone path out of the city. They’d just passed through the gates with little trouble, seeing Dominique’s noble status. She’d stated that she simply wanted her usual ride on a different side of the city, but she wanted to bring her two bodyguards with her just in case. The ploy had worked perfectly.

They had no intention, of course, of returning any time soon. “I’ve been doing some research on the divination,” Kael said to the others, “and I know all the requirements for performing it. The only material thing is a fire, with nothing special really about it. The incantation is fairly simple, but there’s one catch. I have to say it at the height of a sunset in order for it to work, and apparently the particular sunset it needs to work is extremely rare. I don’t even know what I’m looking for...”

“Well, that’s disappointing,” Dominique said, her voice escalating slightly. “I go through all this effort and make all this commitment and you don’t even know exactly what you’re supposed to do? We’re just stabbing in the dark? That’s absurd!”

“It is kinda depressing, but I’m not giving up,” Kael replied. “I have a feeling that something – maybe fate, maybe a god, maybe luck, but something! – brought us all together. Without meeting Sloane I never would have been able to break in, and without your compliance, Dominique, who knows how things could have ended? They could just be coincidences, but I’m hesitant to believe that. I think there’s something important going on.”

“Ha! You think this is fate?” Sloane chuckled. “If I know anything, it’s that fate never works out. I’ve known some good people who end up getting stabbed and murdered and tons of awful people who get great riches. If there’s a force of fate, it doesn’t work at all the way it should.”

“I don’t even know why the thought of coming with you came into my head,” Dominique said thoughtfully. “I’d thought of adventure before, but that’s just the passing fancy of a little girl. It was as if someone or something put that idea in my head, and even then I’m surprised I actually followed through with it. I mean, what am I doing here? I still think this all is ridiculous.”

“Oh, and there’s another thing,” Kael frowned. “There was a footnote on the divination. Apparently, it’s the proper spell to discover the path to the artifact, as dictated by the gods who created it to a prophet, but no one has been able to successfully cast it.”

“This is worse than I thought...” Dominique sighed.

“And yet you don’t turn back?” Sloane asked sarcastically.

“I want to see that this book gets back to the library safe, that’s all,” Dominique said firmly, meeting Kael and Sloane’s unimpressed stares. “And maybe I’m a bit curious too,” she confessed. “I mean, what if somehow the spell works?”

“Well, I guess we’ll find out,” Kael said. “I figure we ride till we’re a fair ways from the city, then settle down and once the sun is setting I’ll try the spell. We’ll stay out here a few days, and if it doesn’t work, then I guess we’ll just go home.”

Just as Kael finished his statement, a distant thunder good be heard by the trio. Off in the distance to the south were dark, nefarious clouds, and it looked as though they were heading north.

“Looks like rain,” Sloane said, pulling the hood of his cloak over his head. Kael and Dominique followed suit.

“Well, what kinda sunset is there gonna be with clouds above?” Dominique frowned. “And how are we gonna tell when the sunset’s at its peak?”

“I dunno, but the least we can do is try,” Kael sighed.

The group was silent for a while after that, watching nervously as the thunderstorm approached. Sloane, unlike the other two, seemed uncaring of it, presumably because he’d spent more nights in the rain than the other two. Kael had spent a lot of time under clouds as well, but this thunderstorm seemed especially fierce to him, as if there was something unnatural about it. It wasn’t too long before they came to a small group of trees that looked as they they’d make for good shelter and firewood.

“We should camp here,” Dominique said, glancing over at the quickly-approaching storm.

“I don’t think there’s a better spot,” Kael replied, dismounting.

The other two followed suit, and they led their horses into the brush, tying them to some trees near the edge of the forest. The group then moved to the north side, gathering bits of firewood as they went. They placed the wood in a pile and Kael smiled confidently. “Watch this,” he said.

He performed a simple hand gesture and then spoke, “Combustus!” He frowned as a number of flowers grew up through the wood.

“They’re beautiful!” Dominique said sarcastically. “Are they for me?”

“If you want,” Kael said, attempting to hold back a hint of a blush. She noticed, but didn’t make it obvious that she did, casually picking several of the flowers and smelling them.

The magician tried the spell again as Sloane chuckled under his breath in the background, but this time the spell worked perfectly. A flame leapt up from the wood, and within a few seconds the warmth of the fire settled across the group. Almost on cue, thunder resounded deafeningly in the sky, getting much closer. A few little water droplets dropped down through the canopy of the trees.

“Look!” Sloane exclaimed, pointing through a gap in the trees to the horizon line. “The sun’s almost setting!”

“Alright, I’ll make sure I have the incantation right,” Kael said, pulling the tome from the library out of his sack. “Let me know when the sky starts turning red.”

“Won’t you notice from the change in light?” Dominique asked.

“With this kinda storm above us, it’s a lot more reliable to get you two to watch,” he smiled in return.

The sun began to set rather quickly, and the storm began to pour even faster. Within a few minutes the rain was ripping through the trees and soaking the group nonetheless. Kael was forced to put the book away so as to not damage it. The trio then watched patiently as the sun set. In a few moments, it was completely blocked by the clouds above them, and there was no telling what the sky looked like. It was even more of a guessing game now.

“Why don’t you just keep saying the incantation until it works?” Sloane asked.

“Oh, I guess I forgot to mention that part,” Kael let out a nervous chuckle. “Anyone who attempts to cast the spell a second time in a day will die instantly.”

The princess and the thief both looked at him wide-eyed. “Potent spell, no?” Sloane joked, eyebrows raised.

“We only have one shot every night, so we gotta hope it works,” Kael looked at the sky and the fire. “I think it’s time.”

“Okay,” Dominique nodded, not questioning him.

Kael kneeled down facing the fire, and rubbed his forehead, making sure he had the words of the incantation right. Then, slowly, relishing each word to make sure it came out right, he began to cast the spell. The fire flickered and sparked, growing larger with each word. The thunder, too, intensified, and the two onlookers saw lightning split a nearby tree in half, miraculously not setting it alight.

The moment Kael finished the incantation, everything stopped. The fire disappeared, the rain ceased, and no thunder or wind or swaying of trees could be heard. It was silent, save for the breathing of the trio. Dominique was ecstatic and yet slightly afraid, amazed that the spell had worked but unknowing of what was to come. Sloane was extremely confused, as he’d caught a glimpse of the sky as Kael had begun to cast the spell. It was pitch black – the sun had set long before Kael had begun his incantation.

All of a sudden Kael sprung to his feet and everything started again. The fire sprung back up and the thunder rumbled in the sky as the rain again began to pour. “I can’t believe it!” Kael exclaimed. “It worked! I saw something, I saw many things!”

“What did you see?” Dominique asked, riveted.

“Well, first, there was a path,” Kael began. “It kept going through the whole vision. It’s first stop was some sort of building... An inn, but what was it called? Oh, right! Pollo Inn! I’ve been to the place before. It’s in Pollo, a town east of here along the coast. And then after that, the path led to a forest... A rainforest, but it looked like some of it was burnt down or something. The weirdest part, though, was that all the while it seemed as though there was some sort of dark presence – some nefarious evil lurking, attempting to stop me every step of the way. I can’t explain it...”

“Kael, that’s fantastic!” Dominique found herself very excited. “It really did work! I guess we’re heading east in the morning?”

“I guess so,” Kael smiled. “Thanks for everything, both of you. But this is just the beginning.”

“Just, one thing,” Sloane’s brow was still furrowed. “I got a glimpse of the sky before you cast the spell. You said it needed to be at the peak of a sunset?”

“Yeah, a particular sunset,” Kael nodded. “Why do you ask?”

“Well, in the sky,” Sloane shook his head in disbelief, “there wasn’t any sunset. It was pitch black. You started casting well after the sun had gone down.”

“You speak the truth?” Dominique asked, incredulous.

“I swear it,” Sloane stated.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” she replied. “Unless... No, it can’t be...”

“What?” the two men queried.

“I remember my father used to speak of a legend of the world,” she began. “I don’t remember exactly how it went, but when things were getting bad it was supposed to be like the sunset of the world, before it descended into some sort of night. I wonder if that explains why no other magician could cast the spell. If the sunset of the world is now, then we wouldn’t need a real sunset.”

“Maybe this really is important,” Kael scratched his head. “I think I read something like that somewhere as well. I can’t believe I didn’t think of it...”

“Maybe there is some weird force of fate,” Sloane chuckled. “But until I know that, I think I need some sleep. The rain’s almost stopped, so the night shouldn’t even be too bad.”

“I agree,” Kael smirked. “And I don’t think we need to keep watch. No one would suspect a traveler on a night like this. That thunderstorm was really quite deadly.”

“Shall we, then?” Dominique smiled.

“We shall,” Kael nodded. “I’ll see you both in the morning.”

© Copyright 2006 Jedd Vandross, Lost†In†Eternity, xx-xx, Professor Q, Andante, mirror on the wall, (known as GROUP).
All rights reserved.
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