Friday, August 28, 2015

Hakaar - Chronicle 27.4 - Safe and Sound

I moved through the back door and proceeded to take my place at the table. Sabella rushed forward, putting her hand on my chest at the top of her height, stopping me in my tracks.

She leaned forward delicately and sniffed the air around me, then narrowed her eyes.

"Don't ever do that again. We've had to leave the doors open and use fans to get rid of the smell. Now we're full of flies. I hate flies." She said, irritation lining her voice, but her expression softened as I passed the check, "Thankfully, you clean up nicely."

She said it with a smirk and turned gracefully on her heel, keeping an eye on me as she did before turning direct.

"And yet more drama." I mumbled to her back while moving forward to take my place.

The smile on Silah's face seemed genuine. She was among friends, quiet and fiddling with a mug in front of her. I ran my hand along her arm and she moved into me automatically. She seemed to catch herself, and withdrew slightly, causing that aching wound within me to tear open further. The stout I'd requested hadn't reached the table before I did. Tagaern shrugged as I rapped at the table in front of me, annoyed. I realized that Rana had joined us. She and Floki were taking turns, jabbing at their father, Jurgen.

"There was nothing I could do. We went to Osterman Flats and, in a freak sand storm, I wake up in a lush meadow." He was exasperated as he spoke, his eyes were blurry, likely from the ale, and weariness seemed to pull him closer and closer to the table. "I've spent over two years trying to find a way to get back home. And this is what I get from my own flesh and blood. I’m not even sure I have a bed to sleep in."

Floki shook his head.

"You wouldn't want to sleep where my wolf's been. It's best that you take the floor." Floki said with a shrug.

Jurgen shook his head, looking defeated. I could relate.

It was strange to see them together. They talked similarly, using the same words and gestures. Both Floki and Rana had seemed to inherit much more from their father than either realized. It was clear that he was down on himself, and, from what he said, it was completely out of his control. I was curious, though, Osterman Flats had often been a topic of conversation for the magical void that it was. I was both intrigued and unsettled at what had happened to Jurgen there.

Sabella placed a stout-filled mug in front of me.

"One more thing." I said, catching her attention, "Could I also get a plate of food? I don't care what it is."

She looked at me sidelong.

"Just… surprise me?" I said with a smirk.

Taking the weight off of my feet felt great, but sitting with a bellyful of ale had started to remind me of my intense weariness that I had been keeping at arm's length.

"Bromm. I need to talk to your father about renting one of those apartments. I have it in mind to march up there and knock on his door right now."

"Bold. Weren't you a little hesitant earlier?"

"I've fought giants that were more intimidating than him. I figure this is a good weight to measure my mettle against."

"You're sure that's not the beer talking?" Bromm said with his knowing grin.

"Not the beer. More likely the need for sleep." I paused, then continued the thought, "And preferably in a bed that's not someone else's the next day."

"I could help with that transaction." Sabella said, as she placed a massive plate of potatoes, beef mash, and boiled greens in front of me. "You don't seem to be a particularly good bargainer."

I gave her a disgruntled look.

"What would you save me on the deal?"

Sig and Tagaern seemed to take interest, sitting forward to listen in.

"He's asking seventy gold for those, per month. I'm sure I could get that lower." She said, rocking her head in time in the rhythm of her speech, her shoulder-length black hair swaying in the process.

"I'd consider it for sixty." I said, eyeing Sabella's now placid face. Her expression had changed as soon as business was being discussed.

Everyone's in business for themselves these days. I thought.

"Sixty-five. You do realize that I still have to present this to my father, right? I really am doing you a favor." She said with a shake of head, "So, why don't you do me a favor?"

"Sixty. I'm willing to talk to your father or take my business elsewhere. They are vacant, aren't they?" I said with a smirk.

"You know too much." She said, her lips pulled together thinly as she glared at Bromm. "I'll try for sixty."

"Fifty-five, and we'll take three of them." Sig piped up as Sabella seemed to get settled with the idea.

Her glare now moved to him and she looked heavenward with a silent curse on her lips.

"These friends of yours, Bromm. They may be a handsome lot, but they sure are difficult to work with." She turned and glanced toward Macauley at the bar who gave her a small two finger salute as she moved toward the stairs up to their father's office.

A home. A place to put that sword on the wall. I thought. You'd be proud, Duncan.

The conversations went on above my head. Sig was now talking to Tagaern about the financials around the apartments. Floki and Rana had re-engaged with their father while Danin looked on. Bromm was sipping at an ale, looking glad to be in familiar surroundings.

I turned to the plate in front of me then looked at Silah who had been eyeing it with a strange mix of emotions. I nodded toward it.

"I don't have much of an appetite. I'm sure you do." I said, "Hopefully, this will take the edge off?"

She looked at me with surprise, wide eyed.

"What? I'm not entirely ignorant." I said with a chuckle.

"Oh, no. had forgotten. I'm glad you remembered." She lifted her hand and grabbed a chunk of potato and swallowed it whole.

I nodded, recognizing the pain she had been in. This had sated her in the past when she was drained, I hoped it would bring up her mood.

"At least use a fork. And try not to frighten anyone." I grinned at her.

Bromm had been listening in with a smile and he looked at me with an unspoken question.

"She kept me alive out there. She put all she had into me during that fight." I said as an explanation and he responded with a nod, sipping at his Shatterhammer ale.

Silah reached out to me, clasping my forearm.

"Thank you." Her voice echoed in my mind.

He hand was warm to the touch and I savored it. The room began to fall away as she moved into my mind. She appeared in front of me in resplendent majesty. The angelic golden glow that filled her eyes emanated from her skin as well. Her face spread with a smile as she looked into my eyes sending an aching longing for her through my very soul. She bent forward and kissed me, sending my heart racing.

You look different. I thought in wonder as I looked into her glowing eyes.

"I am different." She said, looking a little sheepish with the words and her glow diminished slightly.

I put my hand to her chin and moved close.

The vision evaporated as quickly as it came. As I came to my senses, I looked down and saw Silah had raised her hand from my arm. Looking at me, suddenly conflicted.

"I think I'll have what he's having?" Bromm said, looking to me with a raised eyebrow.

I shook as a chill ran up my spine. Silah had turned back to her nearly empty plate and I was left alone to wonder, oblivious to the conversations eddying around me. My heart was still hammering away in my chest, filled with both with adoration and an unrequited ache.

Sabella closed again with the table. There was a fine sheen of sweat standing on her forehead and she gave us a miserable expression.

"Fifty-five it is, but the contract will change month to month. You're lucky these had already been partially paid for, otherwise he'd kick you out of here, right now." She said, her usually sweet voice sounding hoarse, "And I'd be happy to help him."

She shook her head, looking at the members of the table with some disdain.

"You do realize that have to make a living here, too." She turned to her brother who was busily eyeing the bottom of a mug, "Bromm? Are you hearing me? I know you're sitting on a small fortune in these businesses. Tell your friends here to loosen up on their purse-strings."

"We tip well, don't we?" Floki said with a smile, raising his mug.

"When it isn't on the house, perhaps?" She said dabbing again at her forehead. "You've got your way. But I'd suggest that you be kinder to those who stand in for you. One day, I may not feel so generous."

Guilt was as effective a negotiating tool as the threat of force. I thought with a grimace.

We did owe her, though. I looked on Bromm to see if he had an opinion. He glanced at me expressionless then turned his eyes back into the bottom of his mug.

Silah sat woodenly, pushing the empty plate away from her, running the cloth napkin around her lips. Her eyes were wide and unfocused as she looked into the air in front of her. Every step forward with her had been short-lived. My heart ached again with the thought of her so far away from me.

Rana and Danin adjourned after he'd mentioned needing to clean up after our trials and travels. He asked for Bromm's room and Bromm obliged with a gracious sweep of his hand. Bromm wouldn't be using it, anyway, he'd be off to Robyn's cottage shortly to face whatever challenges she had for him there. The thought brought a slight grin.

I looked to Silah who had come to herself again and looked at me, her eyes expectant while her face was expressionless.

"We should go, too. I want to see what I just put money on." I said absently, finding myself suddenly engrossed by grooves in the rough table.

"Mind if I join you? I'm still learning where things are around here." Tagaern said, his head swivelled toward me as he heard my plans.

"By all means." I said with a smile.

The stout in front of me was nearly untouched. I grimaced at it, feeling slightly ill, then walked away.

The night air stirred with a slight breeze pushing out toward the ocean. The heat from earlier had tempered quickly after the sun had set. A chill had readily taken its place, it was a welcomed respite from my fevered thoughts.

"I'm planning to offer my services to Amalia to help her restore Kellas House." Tagaern said, as his boots clacked over the worn stones. "While you and the others have become family to me, this is something that I must do. I feel it in my heart."

"I'll stand with you, there." I said with a nod, attentive even with my mind heavy with other thoughts, "We should speak with Amalia. She's staying just across from the apartments we've rented."

"Oh! That's fortuitous." He said with a smile grasping again at his loose belt with some annoyance.

"You should probably do something about that." I said, grinning as he grappled at the loose clothes.

"Tomorrow, lad. Tomorrow." He said with a huff.

"Good luck with tomorrow. Everyone's going to be at the festival." I said with a widening grin sparking a look of disdain from the haggard looking man.

The streets were still being dressed late into the night. A towering woven wicker form was perched outside of the Acionna's temple. I looked on it as buntings and streamers were being hung throughout the city. Directly opposite the bustle, Hagan's apartments sat quiet and empty.

"We should check in on Amalia first. If I lay down on the bed, I may not get back up." I said with a smirk, looking at the door that matched the key Sabella had given me.

With the word, he was already halfway across the courtyard, moving among the laborers helping with the preparations. I turned and hurriedly caught up with him. Silah followed quietly, barely letting her presence be known.

The door had remained unlocked during the night to keep the flow of traffic for all the preparations unimpeded. One of the priestesses immediately attended to us. She looked slightly familiar standing in regal robes of Acionna in their blue and white. She had smiled kindly at the request and sent someone to fetch Amalia from her room.

My heart and stomach were unsettled with the knowledge I'd be seeing her. Yet another kind of heartache had come to cause me pain while I looked on and waited. Even though we had accomplished the tasks to hold the Bulwark and lay our friend to rest, I still felt a guilt linger over the loss of Duncan. I assumed Tagaern did, too. His plan to help Amalia was a subtle way to begin to pay whatever price he felt in order to honor Duncan's memory.

A bleary-eyed, barefooted Amalia tiptoed over the gray flagstones in a long nightgown. Her brown hair was tousled, giving her slender face a weary wildness. Her eyes lit up as she saw us. I moved in and embraced her. She also turned to Tagaern and gave him a hug that he wasn't expecting. He sheepishly patted her on the back in response.

"It's good to see you. I was worried that you'd be lost, too." She looked back and forth between us an ache filled her eyes with her words.

"No. We're safe. We've laid Duncan to rest and have slain the beast that was responsible." Tagaern said gruffly. I could hear the subtleties of emotion catching in his voice.

Amalia nodded, her expression turning sullen. She seemed to want to press on to other things.

"Are you well?" I asked, simply.

"As well as can be expected. I've been helping with the preparations around here, making friends along the way." She said with a slight smile.

"Good. And your brothers?"

"They're being put to work. I've been worried about a bit worried about Falk. He's taken this harder than any of us. Keval is strong, though. He's been keeping an eye on Falk." Amalia said quietly, then gave me a strange look, tilting her head, "And I'm fine. No one needs to be keeping an eye on me."

My eyes widened. That disconcerting eddy trickled through me as she seemed to pick the thought out of my head.

"Sorry. I forget myself." She said with a smirk. "People need to stop feeling sorry for me. The thoughts ring in my head constantly around here. I'm much more than Duncan's poor daughter."

I nodded. Suddenly concerned about other thoughts that may have leaked through. Silah's own ability to perceive required a connection, but this was something else entirely.

Amalia had a smirk and shook her head knowingly.

"I'd like to offer my strength for the rebuilding effort." Tagaern said solemnly. "I want to help you put things back together."

I wonder if Tagaern is aware of Amalia's gift? I thought as I looked to him then back to Amalia.

I nodded in response to his point.

"I've been thinking on what's next. I think I'll need to ally myself with either Dowry or Hlofreden going forward." She said, seeming to be pained by the thought, "I am no warrior like my father and he liked his independence. I don't think I will have the same luxury."

"Dowry would likely offer more support, but everything with Dowry is sticky." I said with some disdain, "There's no telling what favors you'll be called on for."

She furrowed her brow in thought.

"The alternative is allying with the regent here, who is also beholden to Dowry to some degree. It may shield you from some things, but it might make getting things done more difficult." I reached out and put a hand on her shoulder as I spoke, "But we've … gained some recognition. I'll do all I can to make sure you are well taken care of."

"And I as well." Tagaern added.

She bowed a heavy head and nodded.

"I couldn't have better men at my back." She said glancing between us. "Genuine and honest men."

"Oh, and … what you can do there? Be wary." I said with a look of concern, "You'd be a valuable prize to the Princess, but you'd likely lose your freedom in the process if she gets word of what you're capable of."

Amalia glanced around at the bustling of Acionna garbed men and women, and gave me a wide eyed look.

"I will be careful." She said, realizing the gravity of her situation.

She looked around, suddenly uncomfortable. I grit my teeth, seeing that I had now pulled her into my own paranoia. I thought to backpedal, but who knew what she'd already seen floating around in my head.

"I'm sorry to make you wary. I want what's best for you." I said with a grimace.

She nodded, giving me a determined look.

"It's best that I go in with both eyes open." She said, a fierceness lit her face as she spoke.

Every bit Duncan's daughter. I thought.

"Rest well, Amalia. We'll see you during the festival, I'm sure." I said attempting an easy smile.

"Yes. I'm sure that we will see each other." She said, now smiling at the challenge.

She performed a curtsy in her billowing night gown. Tagaern and I both bowed in unison as she turned and moved back into the temple.

(Get to know Akeron.)

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Hakaar - Chronicle 27.3 - Necessary Evils

The sun dipped heavily as the remaining pyres burned. Danin had performed the last rites for all of the residents who had fallen at Kellas House. I had spent my time hauling the bodies of the giants and orcs to a large pile well off to the side of the main approach.

The spot of land for this pyre will be cursed, for sure. I thought with some apprehension.

Tagaern helped with the residents, first, and joined me for the rest. I had become numb to the task, treating the bodies simply as rotten meat that needed to be disposed of. Using Silah to hack apart the greasy carcasses of giants so they could be moved had numbed me further, seeing very little resemblance of what had once been living, breathing creatures. Fleets of maggots crawled over my skin with each heavy load.

Dried blood had soaked into so much of the dirt around the landing and the floorboards inside of the structures that it would be hard to cover up without some doing. You could rely on time and weather to eventually make this all a memory, at least, I hoped that was the case.

Their skins bubbled as the pitch took the flame and the pile of bodies began to cast their oily smoke toward the sky. I put the head of the giant that had taken Duncan's head on a pike facing the burning remains then turned away, hoping that I could eventually put all of this behind me.

Not today. I thought. Eventually. Time and weather. Perhaps just time.

Silah had been sheathed, but that sensation of her holding my hand was something I could still feel. It was a comfort that I desperately needed. I had twisted her in the sheath to maintain contact just to keep that sensation. Her presence was soundless, but she, too, seemed to mourn.

I joined the others, looking down at the red and black ichor that coated my arms and body. At first, my sense of smell had been hidden behind the mining mask, but after a while I began to have trouble drawing breath, so I doffed the mask and dealt with the smell directly. I was sure that I would be smelling it for a good part of the coming weeks.

After performing rites, Danin had used his god given ability to create water to rinse away some of the bile that remained. The group was solemn, sitting at the beaten tables and looking around the now empty courtyard of Kellas House. It almost had a semblance of normal, if not for the burned barn, walls riddled with arrows, and broken doors being constant reminders of what had happened here.

"I know I have obligations with you gentlemen, but I fully intend to help Amalia rebuild." Tagaern said, scrutinizing everyone's faces.

"I'll be offering my services, too." I said with a nod, "Whatever I can do to help."

"We should see what she has planned." Sig said, thinking on it. "I wouldn't make any assumptions after what happened here."

I nodded thinking of the scars she'd have to bear. She wouldn't let this be the end of Kellas House. I'd make do my best to make sure she had everything she needed to bring it back to its former glory, perhaps help it become even more.

"Shall we, then?" Floki said, glancing at the thinning sun. "If we're going to get to Hlofreden before nightfall, we should leave now."

I watched the others shuffle out while I took a moment to stand in the quiet courtyard, simmering in the near setting sun. Tears flowed again as I allowed myself a moment to feel. It was about loss, sure, but the loss of everything I had depended on within the span of a week. My life was changed dramatically. I looked to the skies still unsure whether I felt the need to curse or thank the gods that looked down on us. I couldn't shake the feeling that my life had never been my own, that it had always been dictated by someone else.

We moved at a rapid pace to close the remaining miles between Kellas House and Hlofreden. My rucksack dug into my shoulders from the bouncing gait. I had carried my life on my shoulders for months feeling much like a vagabond. I vowed that I would talk to Hagan go Brach and rent one of those waterfront apartments in Hlofreden. Perhaps it would give me the sense of home that I had been longing for?

The moon was high behind us and the sun's light had nearly faded as we crested the great wide stairway down into Hlofreden.

Torches lit the front of the gatehouse casting heavy shadows over a line of soldiers that stood in a series of red long coats. Bromm chuckled softly as he looked on. It took a while down the path to understand what had amused him. The line of red uniforms were being instructed, or, perhaps, reprimanded, by none other than Robyn.

She turned to face us as we approached. The bleary eyed soldiers behind her reflected the exhaustion in her own eyes. The sight of Bromm clearly lit a fire in her, and her exhaustion evaporated. There were hints of a smile as she mock-glowered at us. Bromm stepped forward, nearly toe to toe with her, as she looked him up and down. He was spared the filth that Tagaern and I had taken on, helping Danin, Floki and Sig prepare the pyres for the last rights of the fallen.

"And here you are, the first living souls to show up at the gates when I hear there's trouble brewing." She said her expression now clearly showing her excitement at his return, "You are definitely trouble."

"It'd take more than an army of orcs and giants to keep me away." He said with some bravado, then added quietly, "It's good to see you."

His back was to me, but I could hear emotion creep into his voice. That emotion reflected in her eyes as she moved in to kiss him. Not content with a peck, though, Robyn grappled him and Bromm struggled briefly. His weak protest to maintain composure melted away to warm compliance.

"I like what you've done with the place." He said as she finally relented, looking on at the line of tired eyes dressed in red long coats similar to what Robyn herself wore. "On your dime, I suppose?"

"We don't have much of a budget for uniforms, so I thought the temple needed another donation." She smirked. "A lot has gone on since you've been off galavanting. We really need to catch up."

The glint in her eye was not lost on me. Fiery in every way, Robyn's intensity seemed to be counter to Bromm's cool and calm approach. Yet, they both were explosive under the right conditions.

Bromm nodded and he looked back on us. I could see his smile in the torchlight. He turned back to her as she stood coolly with her head cocked to the side.

"We're going to stop by The Sea Witch and get settled on what our plans are for tomorrow, but, if you're not already asleep when I get back, we'll catch up." His voice wavered slightly as he challenged his own exhaustion.

I chuckled at the hole he'd dug for himself.

"Hakaar. Pipe down." Robyn raised her chin with authority.

"Sure, Robyn." My voice was gravelly from lack of use.

She seemed to take notice of the state the rest of us were in as she turned her focus from Bromm. She took note of the presence of a new face, Jurgen, but passed him over quickly. Then she stopped on Tagaern and I, filthy from battle and the grisly task of clearing Kellas House. I gave her a weak smile, feeling far from well. She read the expression and nodded, her eyebrows pulled together in a sympathetic expression.

"Your friends from Kellas House are safe. They came in on the boat just earlier today. They're being cared for at the Temple of Acionna." She said, seeming to read my mind, then turned back to Bromm, "Are we in immediate danger?"

Bromm shook his head.

"The path is clear. The force has been routed." He said, his voice sounding off with a bone deep weariness.

She nodded proudly, beaming at all of us in turn.

"You disappear for a week and end up saving the world. I'm not sure I can compete with that." Her face lighting up again as she looked on him, "These men need my attention now, but I expect to hear all about it."

She leaned in for a quick peck and sprang back with a giddy smile.

"Drinks on you, then?" Floki said tentatively.

"Heroes don't pay for drinks. Hagan will pay, right Bromm?" Robyn said with a mischievous smile.

"Don't get me in more trouble than I am already." Bromm said, shaking his head slowly.

I was feeling the weariness that creeps in at end of travel had been setting in long before we had reached the gate. I was hungry without an appetite and tired without a bed. I was bound to collapse from exhaustion as we moved into the subdued bustle of the late evening. The city was still being dressed up for the coming festival. White and blue streamers clung to the lit streetlamps while other preparations were still being put in place. The exodus that had happened in Dowry wasn't apparent here in Hlofreden. I knew that many of these people would likely die defending this place. This was their home, their heritage, and they sooner die than leave it.

Thankfully, they wouldn't have to face that decision. This crisis had been averted. Yet, I knew it was only a matter of time before the Formless would make another push to extinguish the defenses that Kols had rebuilt with Bromm's dedication.

And we'll be here to defend it.

I felt Silah stir slightly through our connection. The feeling of her holding my hand had persisted since Kellas House, but the sensation of the squeeze reminded me of her silent presence.

We are of an accord, my dear. I thought inwardly.

I could feel emotion welling to the surface again as I moved with the others through the darkness. The pain and sadness that oozed from both Silah and I then mixed together, readily. There was the sensation of a small nod from her and the grip tightened again briefly.

Bromm moved ahead and caught the door as other patrons moved into The Sea Witch. There was a tentative cheer that filled the room. Faolin's music eddied around the conversations that filled the dining area. The events outside hadn't quelled the excitement for tomorrow's celebration. The festival of Làn-Mara was nearly upon us.

Jurgen was out of sorts. It took Floki getting him situated at a table. He picked up a mug and looked at it with a sort of teary-eyed wonder that made me realize how long he'd been wandering as a stranger in The Veil.

We sat around a table near the entrance, close to the bar where Macaulay looked on us with some incredulousness. Sabella and one of the other serving girls immediately converged quickly on our table. Sabella waved her off and the girl gave her a scowl.

"What can I do…" Sabella spoke then immediately slapped her hand to her face, "By the gods, what is that?"

She backed away from the table and the surrounding tables responded in kind. Those close to us were also aghast and began to abandon their seats to move to the far side of the tavern to escape the smell of death that clung to us.

"A stout, please. Just one and I'll go clean up." I said wearily.

"Likewise, I'll take a pint of Shatterhammer," Tagaern said, raising his hand in turn.

Sabella looked to Macaulay, eyes watering and pinching her nose shut, looking horrified.

"Make it quick, boys. Sure, times are hard, but we've got a tavern to run." He shook his head with a grimace as he pulled two wooden mugs and filled them.

Sabella gingerly took both mugs by the handles in one hand and deposited them in front of each of us.

"Cheers." I raised a mug in the air to no one in particular and tossed my head back, draining the mug quickly.

I put the mug down loudly as Tagaern also speedily finished what was in front of him. We both pushed back from the table and made our way through the parting patrons to the rear exit of the The Sea Witch.

I pulled silah from her sheath as I stepped outside and took the first bucket from the well to rinse any residue that remained on the greatsword, then wiped her dry. I held the sword blade down, willed her to join us, then let her go. Then commenced to drop the bucket in again to draw water.

"Thank you." Silah's silvery voice reached out thinly in the moonlit night.

I closed my eyes and nodded. Seeing her and hearing her voice again reminded me of that gulf that had formed between us. Tagaern and I were silent for the first little while. I stripped to the waist and began to drop bucket after bucket over my head, taking care of both clothes and armor, letting the filth run off me in sheets. It glittered and rippled in the moonlight, meandering down the alleyway. Silah remained silent, unbreathing and frozen in place, lost in her own thoughts. I sighed, recognizing how far away she was, wondering if I would ever truly know what had happened to her back there.

"I'm going to need your help." I finally said to her, hoping to shake her free from whatever she was thinking about.

She turned and looked at me, unblinking, then nodded. She slowly came back to herself, beginning to move and act more like flesh and blood.

"We've done this before." She said, remembering, then gave a small smile. "Scrubbing down a horse."

"Yes, but you've never scrubbed down a horse." I said with a looking at her with a slight smile as she seemed to relax little by little.

"Yes, I remember everything." She looked a little haunted as she said it, but then continued, "You're as big as a horse. I really don't see a difference except that I've never seen horses get this dirty."

Her voice trailed off as she moved back to the storage shed and retrieved the scrubbing brushes and hard soap.

Tagaern was busying himself with the same tasks. I caught him smiling as he couldn't help but overhear the conversation. The scrubbing continued with an exchange of polite jabs that wholly avoided the events of the last week. I began to feel a semblance of normalcy.

It was still clear she had changed, but the ache I had felt began to take a different shape. She was still herself, but that childlike playfulness had been subdued—nearly extinguished—by this newly realized pain that trembled just below the surface. It laced every word she spoke.

There was a pause as I dug through my pack to lay out my clean clothes and undershirts over the door of the storage shed. I glanced at her, she had reverted to her unmoving state with only her eyes following the soapy water as it flowed away.

"You said we should talk. Are you ready to talk?" I said the words tentatively.

Still unmoving, her eyes met mine, and gave a near imperceptible nod.

"Do you want me to ask you? Or do you want to just tell me?" I asked her quietly.

Tagaern, also stripped to the waist, gave me an awkward look.

"I can leave." He said, "If this is personal."

"It is fine, Tagaern." Silah said turning to him with a weak smile.

My heart skipped a beat as she said his name. There was no stumbling, no mispronunciations, no doubt whatsoever.

"There's too much to just tell." She stood up straight, her chin lifted as she looked on me, preparing herself, "It may be best if you ask."

I took a deep breath and words came and went. I felt my mind go blank as I looked at her now resolute face. The things that I desperately wanted to ask were things I considered personal, things that were only between us. Everything else was far too general, which defeated the purpose of asking in the first place. Still, I ventured forward.

"You remember everything? Your past life? Your past bonds? I thought that wasn't possible." I spoke softly, looking at her rigid form in the moonlight.

"My life … before this, yes." Her words were stilted as she said it, "I still forget those I am bonded with."

She turned inward for a moment and then said softly, "I think I am starting to understand why."

I was quiet and Tagaern had frozen in place as he quietly dressed in the shadows behind us. He may have forgotten that him lurking in the deep shadows did nothing to hide him from my ability to see in the dark.

"Though, I only remembered bits and pieces before, I now know with a surety that I was a result of The Great Bargain that ended our war with the Formless. But they needed someone on this side of the barrier to make sure that the result of The Great Bargain remained in place. We were chosen, the daughters of the leadership from the other seven tribes, to be that protection. To become," She halted and took a shuddering breath, "what I am today."

I nodded. Watching her struggle for control over her emotions. I moved forward and gently put my hand to face. She moved into me, but then shook herself and stepped back.

"There's more." Her cheeks glistened from a trail of a single tear, "But not here."

She pulled away and wiped at her eyes again, composing herself as she pulled back what she had been feeling.

"You two should get dressed. I'll wait for you inside?" Silah said, as she turned and nodded to Tagaern and pushed through the door.

I pulled on an undershirt, small clothes, and the slightly wrinkled, but refined outfit from Mont Brooks. Thankfully, my rucksack hadn't let the stench of the places I'd been permeate the only clean clothes I had. Not that I could tell, though, as I could not evade the perpetual smell of death that clung to the inside of my nose.

The pit in my stomach now came from heartache for Silah. It had been something I worried about for ages, but now it was apparent that her ignorance that had protected her vanished as her memory came forward.

I sighed at the thought.

"I don't envy you, lad." Tagaern said as he tugged at his slipping belt, "She's seen a lot. Experience changes everyone..."

He swore under his breath.

"Nothing fits anymore!" He cranked down on the belt of his clean clothes but it was well past the notches.

"I have a feeling experience is changing you, too. You're looking more of your old self." I smiled at his frustration, "Perhaps you need to visit the clothier yourself? You might want to wait a bit for the really expensive stuff. I think you've got further to go, yet."

He raised an eyebrow and looked down at himself, patting around his thinning belly and nodded.

"Well, then." He nodded with a smirk, "I didn't expect that!"

"I'll just be a moment. Get another stout up for me. I think I'm going to need more than a few drinks." I patted him on the back as he moved back into The Sea Witch.

I could feel Silah near the edge of our bond and sighed. She was still Silah, but she was still holding something back. No doubt she was also feeling weary, drained from the fight earlier today.

It was just earlier today and yet it had felt like many days had passed. I thought.

I realized that the rest of this armor would take far more energy to clean than I cared to expend at the moment. I felt the intense need to burn all of my underclothes as well, but it didn't seem to be the right place for such things. I stowed the filth stained clothes and armor in the storage shed, then I scrubbed my hands clean while staring at the moon.

An odd thought struck my mind as I stood there and I voiced it.

"You're welcome, Acionna. We've given your day back to you." I spoke softly to the cool night air while smirking at the moon.

(Get to know Akeron.)

Monday, August 24, 2015

Hakaar - Chronicle 27.2 - The Long Road Home

Urgency had been overcome by fatigue. I was bleary eyed and ached all over as I looked on the battlefield. The river of blood that had slicked the ground and made it's way down the slope, pooling neatly at the bottom of the muddy bowl.

I slashed at the rope that bound the heads from the giant's waist then pulled it clear. I tied the makeshift belt into a loop and slung the grisly arrangement over my shoulder. I felt ill as the smell of rot clung to me. Seeing the sunken faces of my friends did not bring the satisfaction of vengeance that I thought it would. They were all still lost to me.

I looked down on the giant's twisted face, striking first at the horns of the giant, breaking them free from its skull, then struck at neck until his head rolled free. I pushed the head to the edge of the slope and kicked it free, watching it bounce merrily down the hill until it came to a rest near the foot of the tree.

"You plan on hauling that out?" Sig said with a grimace.

"I'm not sure. It seemed appropriate that he lost his head, too. I'll make sure it never sees this body again." I said with a growl then spat on the massive corpse.

I collected the horns and put them in my rucksack. I nodded to the giantess that lay close by.

"Are you going to take those horns?" I said to Tagaern. "It was your kill."

He grimaced and looked at me with some trepidation.

"Trophies? A soldier doesn't take trophies."

"I'm not feeling much like a soldier lately." I growled, feeling my grip on humanity slipping as I grew more weary.

I struck the horns off of the giantess and turned away. I felt a distant shudder through the blade as I struck the blows. I pushed Silah's subtle reaction aside. I felt numb as I moved to the beheaded giant and wiped Silah clean on the scraps of cloth that composed the large makeshift armor. I willed her to stand with us and then turned my back and began the descent.

"I'll be at the tree." I said over my shoulder without looking, "Silah, you should stay with them. Maybe let them know about this visitor rushing to meet us."

I trudged down the hill, parallel to the river of blood. I could feel the edge of my bond with Silah as I moved toward the base of the tree. I realized that the red mud that surrounded this place may have been stained by battles long past. Now my blood mixed in with the others. It was eerie to realize that something of me would forever remain here in The Veil.

I sat at the foot of the tree as the others hurriedly gathered anything of value and began the descent. I was able to breathe quietly, hearing only my own thoughts and feeling only what little I allowed myself to feel.

The starlit skies and sitting beneath the Ether Tree wasn't nearly as pleasant as I wanted. The smell of death was a constant reminder of what I had lost. It tugged me away from everything that I had found beautiful. A pervasive loneliness began to take root in me as I mulled silently at the foot of the tree.

"Why didn't you say that thing was still coming?" Floki said hastily as the others moved to the tree.

"Did I say he'd stopped?" I gave him a dispassionate look as I said it, he was favoring a shoulder where a still fresh wound that had saturated the surrounding cloth and armor with blood.

Close behind Floki was the ragged blonde haired ranger. He looked at me briefly then broke eye contact just as quickly. I grimaced at this new visitor. It was clear they knew each other. They looked remarkably similar...

No. It couldn't be. I thought quietly to myself, but I then immediately knew who this man was.

Questions began to run through my mind. The most prominent was how exactly did Floki's father end up here?

Tagaern looked battleworn. I hadn't noticed before, but now I realized that he had donned Duncan's armor. There was blood soaked at the joints where his armor did not protect. Clear bite marks had burrowed through, denting armor and punching holes in his flesh.

It appeared that Sig and Bromm had avoided injury, thankfully. Even Danin had somehow remained untouched as he moved to save me then turned to stand against the giant alone.

Silah followed up behind the others. Her expression was miserable. A conflicted anger marred her brow as she stood in front of me, rocking to the right on her hips and crossing her arms. I looked up at her with a challenge then got to my feet in silence. I grabbed the giant's head by the hair, tossed it over my shoulder, then turned toward the tree.

Bromm had motioned for everyone to stay then entered the tree, after a brief moment he returned.

"The power keg blew but the tree isn't damaged." He said as he waved everyone through.

Mere moments passed as we moved through to the Ether Tree to our plane. We were home again, part of me never expected to return while another part of me wished desperately that I hadn't.

Floki and Bromm had advanced first, cautiously looking around the room. Sounds of battle raged in the caves beyond. I squinted through a headache while straining to hear the sounds of battle echoing in the distance.

"Perhaps the princesses' army has made the push after all." Bromm said.

A smile crossed my lips and I reached instinctively for Silah to share the moment, then let my hand drop. I immediately felt out of sorts feeling anger and despair. My smile slipped away just as quickly as it came.

Orcs rushed into the room, bloodied and fleeing, not expecting a flanking force. Floki and Bromm laid them both low with fast reactions and consecutive shots. While the ringing from the black powder musket subsided, a series of pikes shuffled through the caves that were opposite of the caves we had entered from. Surprise lined their faces as they formed up.

Sig stepped forward and held his head high as they moved in. Orders were barked from a authoritative voice that pushed its way to the front. The entire line had wounds from the battle. Even the Commander held himself with some pain as he moved into the cave. We hadn't been the only ones who had let precious blood for this cause.

"Hold position men." The Commander's words rolled through the cave.

The Commander pulled his helmet off showing a refined older man with nearly white hair mixed with red highlights. His beard was expertly cut, showing a courtly exterior. He favored a leg, whether it was recent or not, I couldn't tell. Regardless, whatever he felt didn't lend to his bemused expression.

He looked up at us, sizing us up with seasoned eyes while we stood on the rise around the tree.

"I am Commander Ordan Maul. I lead the princesses' own Storm Pike." His courtly voice echoed in the cavern. "I can't say I expected to see anyone here. Alive or dead. Have the forces been dispatched?"

"We came directly here. We fought against only those that were in our way." Bromm said, summing up the situation succinctly.

"Cut to the heart of it, eh? You had an objective, then. What was it and why didn't I know about it?" He said it with a half-smile, yet aggravation lined his voice.

A look of apprehension crossed his face then turned to his officers. "Corporal Radek, see that the tunnels are clear and post a guard at the exits. I want this place secured."

A man dressed like a knight snapped to attention and the divisions were immediately called to order and fanned out through the network of cave entrances.

Commander Maul moved closer to the rest of us while his forces scattered at his command.

"I don't like hearing about things like this well after the fact. Who put you up to this?" He grumbled, keeping his voice just above the din of the clatter of armored soldiers.

"Kols, sir." Bromm said quickly and frankly, which seemed to put the man off balance.

"With the help of Qinnah and her Seven Shield Maidens." Tagaern added with gusto.

His face pinched with annoyance as he looked between Bromm and now Tagaern. He turned to Sig who was still standing at the forefront.

"And you? Who are you?" He almost added more to it, but held to his decorum.

"Sig Richter. We operate under Richter Holdings." He said with a smile that showed only a fraction of his sheer pleasure.

"You are a mercenary group then? Who hired you?" His voice was gruff with the demand.

Bromm looked exasperated.

"Stop. Please." He put a hand up, and the color of the Commander's face began to turn a deep red.

"We were charged to come here by Kols." Bromm leveled a piercing gaze at the man, "He gave us what we needed to seal the breach in The Veil in order to keep the giants at bay. We did our duty. We are not allied with any forces in Dowry and have no ulterior motives. We are here only to fulfill this oath."

I could see the muscles in his jaw rippling as he looked on Bromm again, weighing him silently. He lifted a hand and snapped his fingers multiple times very quickly. Corporal Radek was at his side in moments.

"Get Sobek." The Commander muttered.

He looked back to us, expanding his roving gaze to Danin, Tagaern, Floki, Floki's father, then to Silah and I. I could see his eyes stick on things that could reveal who we were. He seemed to recognize Danin's holy symbol and Duncan's breastplate that Tagaern wore, focusing particularly on the etched symbol of the Grasslion's. He saw Floki and his father, and the symbols of Yollari that they wore. He seemed genuinely bewildered by the spotless Silah.

He looked on me with an expressionless gaze. I was a bloodied mess, draped with a series of rotting heads while also carrying the giant's head by the hair over my back. His expression made me feel the need to explain all of it, but I immediately thought better of it and keeping my head high and mouth shut.

Silah was near. I wondered if she'd have anything to weigh in on this. I decided against engaging her to avoid facing even more of her cryptic silence.

"How did you get here?" The Commander said, looking between Bromm and Sig, seeming to grow tired of waiting in silence.

Sig pointed to the cave behind us where we had approached what felt like moments ago.

"We plan to go back that way. There were some things that we had left behind that we'd like to gather before we leave."

A scholarly looking man bustled into the room, anxious eyes on the Commander. He then looked up, freezing as he saw the Ether Tree standing tall before him.

"Oh my." He whispered, nearly breathless.

He then looked between us and the Commander.

"Did… you go through?"

"No questions, Sobek. I need answers." Ordan's frustration was palpable as looked to us and jabbed an impatient finger toward the thin aged man who had now joined us. "Tell him what you told me."

"Kols charged us to seal the breach. So we did." Bromm said with some annoyance.

"Last word was that Kols had fallen?" The scholarly gentleman looked up, his eyes pinched with suspicion.

"I've taken up his hammer." Bromm said solemnly, "Be assured that there is a renewed interest in Kols."

The Commander looked on the spindly gentleman, watching his reaction. The scholar seemed very pleased by the news.

"Is that clear to you, then, Sobek?"

"Yes." He bobbed his head to the Commander, "Quite fascinating, too. So you went through?"

"Yes, we did." Sig said simply, "I wouldn't go in there yet. Something had come hunting for us as we left. I am not sure how much longer he would be."

"No matter. Even if they're on the run, we need to flush every corner. I've been waiting to do this orc extermination for ages." Commander Maul continued on with a near imperceptible glance in my direction.

"There won't be any resistance coming through that tree from the giants." I hefted the head with the words, "But that does not mean it's safe in there."

The Commander met my eyes and nodded slowly. There was a considerably more emphatic nod coming from Sobek from behind.

"We need to protect this place so that we can do further research." Sobek said anxiously, "It's been said that this was out here, but even Yollari's ranger's had not found it until now."

Floki who produced the symbol of Yollari.

"We've found it now." He said, his face expressionless.

Ordan looked back at us with a narrowed gaze.

"Indeed you did." The Commander's voice was pointed, "Did Kols point the way?"

He clearly didn't lend much credibility to the gods acting among men.

"We followed the tracks from the first attack on Kellas House." Floki said quickly, getting the lend his own perspective, "We had it on good authority that they had recently come from the Ether Tree. The tracks led here."

"Fine, fine." Ordan seemed to be distracted as he looked at his forces spread around the tunnel. "The princess will want to speak with you, to reward you for what you have done, by whatever means you did it. Where do you hail from? Will you be returning to Dowry for the festival?"

"We have plans in Hlofreden." Danin spoke up, I could see a twinkle in his eye as he looked forward to what, or whom, awaited him.

The Commander looked incredulous, perhaps because of our choice of venue for the celebration.

"And, I heard the name Richter Holdings? Do you have a place of business?" Sobek stepped in, writing down the information on a parchment he had produced.

"Send word to The Sea Witch, we'll get it." Bromm said with a nod.

Ordan Maul incredulous expression deepened into a scowl as he shook his head. I slowly realized that this victory was meant to be his had been usurped by this mismatched rabble. His bloodied hands trembled visibly.

"Very good." Sobek said with a small gangly bow, "Be assured that a messenger will be sent after the festival."

"We still have work to do. You can still leave safely that way," Commander Maul pointed behind him, "It's up to you."

"We'll go back the way we came. We also have work to do. We're returning to Kellas House before we travel to Hlofreden." I said as I lifted the rope of heads gently.

The Commander's eyes narrowed as he looked at me then his eyes widened as he recognized Duncan's head with its sunken dark skin. He stepped back with the sudden recognition as if it were a blow.

"Oh. Yes." His look softened as he seemed to take a new accounting of who stood before him. "There had been no reports of survivors from Kellas House."

"There are survivors. Duncan's children, Amalia and her brothers, fled with one of the Kellas during the battle. They will take possession of Kellas House after we put things in order." I said tersely.

"Duncan, Hakaar, and I fought in the Ten Years War together." Tagaern said, leaning in and  motioning to me and raising his shield in recognition. "We will give Duncan a proper burial."

Sobek was eagerly writing down what was being said, taking an account. It was becoming apparent that reliable information had been scarce since the skirmishes had started.

"You tend to yours, then. We'll send word when things settle." The Commander had taken a considerably lighter tone, while still feeling a bit shorted.

Sobek had already broken from the conversation and moved toward the tree. He had pulled another parchment and was making long strokes as he eyed the great underground tree in wonder.

Tagaern and I exchanged anxious looks as the group began to go their separate ways. Reports were starting to come back to Commander Maul from the soldiers that had fanned out through the tunnels. Bromm and the others had already turned away, moving toward the exit.

We still stood at attention locked in place by habit. Commander Maul looked at us oddly, suddenly reflecting our discomfort.

"Dismissed?" He said tentatively, "And safe travels."

It was an ingrained response. Both Tagaern and I turned away and started following the others.

Silah followed close.

"That's the first I've seen you stand attention like that before." She said with a strained smile.

I felt hollow. I gave her a pained smirk in response, trying to read what was going on behind those honey-brown eyes.

"You have to respect the office. You can learn to respect the man later." Tagaern said with a grudging tone as he glanced back at the commander. "He seems too self-serving for my liking."

I looked between the two of them, weighing what I could add.

"Dowry isn't all that honorable of a place. No doubt he's worried we were trying to undermine his position." I grumbled as we moved into through the tunnels back the way we had come.

An arrow with it's fletching lit magically by Sig was the hovering light over Floki's shoulder. He still had his bow drawn, but Tenner scenting the wind coming from ahead seemed to be perfectly at ease with what was ahead of us. I was only half alert. Between the aches and pains, the the smell of death hanging around me, I was fully aware of the crunch of dirt from Silah who was only a few steps behind me.

I sighed heavily as I walked, feeling this weight between us. Whatever had changed in Silah had made her a complete unknown to me. It was something that she was speaking, but it still felt incredibly wrong. If she was still buried in there, I hoped I would find her again. I missed her terribly.

The path back to the surface was long and quiet. Accordingly to Floki, fresh tracks had coursed through the caverns as the younglings and females scattered under the weight of the army. Sig frowned slightly as some of the gear we had set aside had been taken, but we managed to scavenge another well crafted set of studded leather armor, the same I had donned just earlier.

We crested the sinkholes and could see the battlefield to the West and South. Pyres were already ablaze with blackened smoke dirtying the late afternoon air. Floki was soundlessly picking the path and a weariness settled into the group as we set into the overland march.

After cresting the road, we were already very near the turnoff to Kellas House. My head was down and I was willing my feet to keep moving, pushing through the exhaustion. I realized that I was extremely thirsty and my waterskin was empty. The well at Kellas House would be a welcome sight.

The weight of the giant's head bumped continually against my back reminding me that I could let it go at any time, yet I clung to it. I thought about putting it on a pike and letting the scavengers pick it clean. It was an archaic, unnecessary warning now that the threat had been dealt with, yet I could see the sense of it coming from my orcish blood.

Floki hadn't given any sort of alert since we had left the tree. The plains were quiet and empty as before. Right about now the guards would have been departing from Kellas House, heading toward both Hlofreden and Dowry, connecting the two cities with a flow of living traffic.

The thought brought emotions to the surface that I had held back successfully for days. I almost wanted to look at the withered face with it's eyes gouged out for the rope to be pulled through. I couldn't bear to see what had become of the strong Duncan that I had known for so very long. The tears that came fell silently to the dirt, mixing into the dust at my feet.

It was times like these that Silah was instantly there, holding me close, wrapping herself around me to give comfort in her way. I had pushed her away before, but now I wanted her to be with me. I wanted her to help me navigate the path ahead using her perpetually bright light to push back this engulfing uncertainty. I could hear her footsteps behind me and I listened to them, gaining some comfort in knowing she was close.

Kellas House looked as it had before. The winds had stalled and the stench had welled up within the walls under the blazing sun.

"I don't plan on leaving until we've cleared the remains and put our friends to rest." I said as we moved past the broken gate. "Tagaern, we should finish what we started with Duncan first. Then I'll work on setting up a pyre for those."

I gestured to the festering remains of the orcs and giants. Carrion birds were aloft high above the walls. There were other clear signs of scavengers pulling away what they could. The flies now ruled, rising in dense black clouds as we moved among the bodies. Maggots had already taken hold, merrily hollowing out the remains. The sight made me swallow hard, keeping down the bile that rose in my throat. I took the mining mask from my pack, hoping that it keep the ripening smell at bay.

I moved to the well and filled my waterskin, drinking as much as I could bear, then donned the mask. It only worked so well, but pressing a wet cloth into it seemed to help further filter the odor of decay.

Tagaern and I laid Duncan's head with him in his grave. I averted my eyes, covering it with sack cloth before laying it to rest. I had seen it already, but his smiling healthy face was still clear my mind and I didn't want to chance it being erased and replaced by this grisly comparison.

"As promised. Rest well, Duncan." I muttered quietly while I replaced the pile of rocks.

Tagaern stood for longer and I left him.

"Silah, this is going to be dirty work." I looked out at the mass of bodies.

"It's better than doing nothing." Her voice wavered as she spoke, her expression wooden.

I reached for her arm, but she stepped back, too my hand and held it tightly. She looked up into my eyes quietly. There was a tumult coming from her, a feeling the rumble of a charge of horses. It felt like the trembling of perpetual and unending heartache. I sighed as I willed her to take her greatsword form, but she resisted, waiting sullenly, looking into my eyes earnestly before she obliged and melted into my hand.

"We should talk." She whispered in the darkness.

I… I can't think right now. I must do something or I won't get through this. My thoughts jumbled together making my head hurt.

There was a momentary pressure as she pushed in close to me. Just as suddenly, it subsided as she withdrew her presence. Though, I realized that there was something remained—I could feel it while holding the blade—her hand still held mine.

(Get to know Akeron.)

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Hakaar - Chronicle 27.1 - The Bulwark

"Bromm's right. You don't have much time." Silah whispered.

Cryptic. Can you tell me what's going on? I thought, frustrated and already feeling the weight of the task ahead.

"There is a protector of the formless moving our way through the Ethereal at the speed of thought." She said almost absently.

What in the hell does that mean? My face twisted into a scowl with the thought.

There was a pause.

"That … you don't have much time?" Silah asserted again.

How do you even know this? I seethed quietly.

"See." Her slightly annoyed voice rolled over the darkness in my mind, "Far too much to explain. We'll talk about this later. Now is not the time."

I shook my head. In mere moments, I had been put aside and told to be still by my most intimate ally. The thought boiled inside of me, but my grumbling generated no response from her. My limbs ached from the previous combat and I felt weary. This slight, and the uncertainty that came with it, etched that weariness even deeper.

The others drew close as Floki and Sig whispered to each other, discussing plans silently. I could feel myself being pulled in different directions, the situation was coming apart at the seams, and I was helpless to do anything about it.

"I could still use the horn to make a wall of fog." I said, absently fingering the horn slung around my neck.

"It would be a good idea if it weren't loud." Sig said, shaking his head. "It'll alert them immediately."

"Perhaps? Alert yes, but who runs toward a sound like that?"

Sig scowled and I shook my head.

"I'm ready and willing to act on any plan that sounds reasonable. Just, please, someone make a decision. We don't have much time." I sighed with the words. "Silah said that we have a visitor if we wait much longer. Traveling at the speed of thought through the Ethereal Plane, to use her words."

This brought about a few concerned glances between Sig, Bromm, and Danin. Floki's eyes were more despairing than I'd ever seen them.

I looked around and saw that Tagaern had not joined the group. He had taken a few steps toward the cave opening, staring toward the tree. The others still clustered together discussing plans, but I was now focused on him, feeling concern. His absent wandering seemed to be drawing him on to the cave opening.

"With my own eyes..." Tagaern said with a quiet reverence and his voice trailed off.

His eyes glistened and his breath quavered.

"What was that Tagaern?" I said, approaching with a tentative hand, ready to grasp him to keep him from moving further.

He laughed a quiet, hoarse laugh and turned toward me.

"The voice of Qinnah filled my ears. She spoke to me. The Seven Shield Maidens stand guard for us." His voice choked slightly then began to rise and I quickly put a silencing hand to my lips to remind him of the direness of our situation.

He quieted, smiling wide and nodding. A single tear pressed from his eye and ran down his cheek. Joy seemed to fill him. I was sure that the stress of the situation had finally pushed him too far.

"What is it that you saw?" Bromm asked him with a whisper.

"The Seven Shield Maidens of Qinnah stand to protect us." Tagaern spoke with a resolute sureness, the smile still wide, "Qinnah, herself, spoke to me. To me. The first seven arrows are her's to bear."

"You are sure of this?" Bromm looked at him with concern.

"My boy, I have seen them. As clear and plain as you before me now." He said with a firm nod.

Tagaern rubbed at his face, wiping the moisture from his eyes. His face beamed with confidence.

"I'll go first. Then you'll know. Let me know when you are ready." Tagaern said moving to a crouched position a few steps back from the mouth of the cave.

My heart sunk as I saw the empty expanse between us and the tree. Who knew how many hid in those caves, waiting for us to show them something they could sink an arrow into? I clenched my teeth, waiting quietly. I wondered if Silah would attempt to speak sense into what was to happen next, but no words came.

"Silah could walk ahead of us, right?" Floki said, watching Tagaern getting ready to bolt at a word.  "She's practically invincible, isn't she? The arrows wouldn't hurt her."

There you are, listening after all. I mused quietly.

She had immediately bristled with the suggestion, I could feel her glaring from behind my eyes, sizing up Floki and sending my muscles fluttering as she pressed her will against mine. I shuddered, shaking off the experience, attempting to contain her.

I thought about Floki's words again. It would be a way for me to press against the prohibitive blackness that had been drawn up between us and get a reaction out of here, but I knew it was far too much, especially if down spitefully.

"I am not even going to attempt to convey that suggestion." I said frankly and Floki looked bemused at my response.

I glanced at his wolf protector. While Silah was much more resilient than the animal, it wouldn't grind me into the dirt later because of the suggestion. If I survived. There are some things that death would be more acceptable than enduring. Silah's wrath was one of those things.

"You know me well." She whispered eerily close, her presence overwhelming.

I closed my eyes against her words. I felt what Floki wanted, but now was a time to be selfish.

For my own sanity.

Bromm moved behind the readied Tagaern and turned back, looking at Floki.

"Floki, I'm going to go through the grass again. The less targets the better. Are you with me?"

Floki shook his head.

"I'm not leaving Tenner behind. We'll move with the rest of the group." Floki had slung his bow and was crouched near his wolf.

Bromm managed a curt nod before crouching and sliding into the tall grasses on his belly. We all looked on in silence as he made his way up. It was only moments in that I had lost sight of him. I crouched next to the resolute Tagaern.

"I'll run with you. Let's make this count." I said to him.

"That's my boy." He said with a calm gaze and confident grin.

I smiled slightly at his penchant for calling me boy. Duncan called me boy, too. His memory had been distant and the remembering of what had befallen him stung as I relived putting his headless form into the ground.

Rest well, Duncan. I thought.

Sig moved in close behind us.

"Tagaern, if you're wrong about this godly protection, I will find you." He whispered partially in jest yet the heat in his voice was apparent.

There was a nod from Tagaern acknowledging Sig's words, but his gaze remained fixed on the Ether Tree ahead.

He ran—no, swooped—through the cave opening ahead. He was on the wind, flying gracefully toward the tree at full speed. An arrow shot from the side of the cave and vanished before it struck.

By the gods… I thought in amazement. Seeing Tagaern's miracle emboldened me.

"That was one, lad." Tagaern said with a fierce gaze, "Now it's my turn."

He bolted toward the tree, arrows lanced from the hidden edges of the cave, but the arrows either clattered off his armor or vanished just before impact. I sped behind him, seeing him struggle over the branches that lined the roots. I moved quickly behind him and shoved him toward the tree, watching him vanish into the trunk. Sudden panic gripped me as I thought of what lie beyond.

"There is no time to hesitate, my beast. Don't let your superstitions sway you." Her voiced rolled over me as I began to backpedal. It was not a whisper but an overwhelming flood that saturated every corner of my being.

It was then that I realized that there was no longer any place for me to hide.

Danin sped across the ground, arrows clinking off of his armor. One arrow that would have struck flesh disappeared in midair. He easily overcame the roots and the climb to the Ether Tree itself. He attempted to push me into the tree, but even as robust as he seemed, he failed to send me through.

Just then, I saw a light lance from the darkness of the caves on the gentle rise that looked down on the tree. It narrowly missed Danin and made his eyes wide as he looked for the source.

Floki had been creeping through the grass as we ran, drawing fire away from him. His wolf, however, was discovered and the arrows launched at it disappeared. He stood quickly and ran the rest of the way to the tree.

"They're starting to converge on our position. We need to move!" Floki said, moving up the steep base of the tree and dancing over the roots.

I finally pressed through my uncertainty. Closing my eyes, I stepped into the tree that had swallowed the others.

The inside was a strangely oppressive gloom that defeated my own eyes, glowing symbols appeared at eye level in regular intervals in a circle around us, lighting those who stood in the tree, but the walls and floor seemed to absorb all light. The symbols seemed to shift and swim against the darkness they were painted on. Bile rose in my throat with my sudden feeling of displacement.

I looked at the others who were so very concerned about what was following behind us that they weren't aware of what we had stepped into. I shuddered, skin bristling with goosebumps against the moist air that surrounded me. There was a rhythmic sound as the Ether Tree seemed to draw breath.

Danin pressed in behind me followed shortly by Tenner and Floki. Tagaern was holding his sword at the ready for the orcs that were starting to close in. Bromm had dropped a powder keg and trimmed the wick with his thumb.

"Three horizontal slashes. That's where we need to go." Bromm spoke, pointing toward the symbol.

Danin acknowledged with a nod, already pressing through the symbol into the blackness.

"I will move through once this is lit." Bromm said quickly.

"Leave it to me." Sig said to him, "Go on through. I'll be right behind you."

"They aren't coming. We could save the powder." Tagaern said.

"It doesn't matter." Bromm shook his head, "This is our insurance that they won't follow."

I formed up on Tagaern's flank, waiting while the others moved through the symbol with three slashes and disappeared into the darkness beyond.

"Move, you louts!" Sig shouted, looking to Tagaern and I.

I grimaced, squinting, as I rushed toward the symbol and burst through into world immersed in night. The others looked around openly and unguarded.

The Bulwark stretched in all directions from here. The ascent was obscured by the branches of the Ether Tree itself. It was a treacherous muddy bowl and we had appeared at the bottom of it. Floki and Bromm pointed up toward a shape moving in the distance, silhouetted by the starlight.

Sig burst from the tree, bracing against the shock that he expected, but no sound came from the tree. He looked at Bromm and shook his head.

We took a brief moment to inspect the surroundings. Sig moved up to Danin.

"You should take the banner and plant it. I can make you invisible." He said with a voice just barely above a hush.

I moved a little closer, seeing the shapes moving at the top of the incline. I was looking to time my approach while the giant's back was turned, but another shape was looking down on us with glowing eyes. My skin bristled as it took notice. Fear gripped me and I began to shake.

The shape sped down the slope and every thought slipped away, chased away by fear. I choked, feeling my breath caught in my throat and my chest seize. I had to flee.

"Oh, Hakaar." Silah's voice penetrated the panic, "Forgive me."

Just as I thought to bolt, to get away from this horror, I felt Silah slip through my body, into my legs and taking control of my hands. I thrashed against her helplessly, wanting desperately to get away, but completely unable to. I cried out bitterly, but could not hear my own voice. I turned and faced the giant's shadow that loomed, now fully aware of us, and began to run at full speed.

She was in control and I could do nothing to stop it.

I saw Floki shoot off into the darkness and Tagaern moved to engage the hideous four-legged beast. The sight of it shook me to the core. I heard him shout as he clashed with the creature, a thud, and a sizzle of a failed shot followed by cursing from Bromm.

Silah was intent, and all else disappeared from my vision as she stormed up the hill. I could hear the sounds of continued battle behind me, but it all faded as she pressed forward.

The giant brought a rock to bear and it sped merrily toward me, breaking over my body, crushing ribs in the process. I wheezed, feeling the pain readily, but distantly.

This is how I die. This is how I die.

The thought repeated as Silah swung herself heavily down on the giant, creating great gashes in the towering form. It landed a blow against me, but she stood strong against it. The waves of pain with each blow flowed over me. There was a rush as Silah emptied her reserved energies into me, sealing up the bloody gouts that had been struck open.

Her focus was front and I was blind to all else, seeing nothing more than the great swings of the giant ahead of me as we exchanged blow after blow. Another large shape joined the giant from behind and I saw the glint of Danin's axe swing at the back of the giant.

I was bloodied and failing, I felt the panicking fear suddenly relent, releasing its grip on me. Silah's grip faded, too, as she yielded control of my body back to me.

"I am sorry, my beast." There was genuine sadness with her echoing words, "It was what I had to do."

I watching the towering giant ready for one more strike. I moved forward, lunging deeply into the guts of the towering being, sending another spray of ichor earthward. The ground was slick and hot with fresh blood from the exchange. I felt my strength ebbing. I growled at the blade that swung into me.

My rage was slipping and my wounds were too severe for me to last. I knew my time had come when a sudden darkness enveloped me as the next blow struck.

I laid on my back, facing the glaring sun on the plains of Southern Pallidorn. The wind whispered through the tall grasses that crowded my vision, swaying gently to and fro. I laid quietly, feeling the peaceful scene soak in.

A thick black smoke rose and began to blot out the sun. Memory took hold and I knew what was to come. I pressed my will against the sudden curiosity that grew inside, wanting to explore and discover the source of the smoke. I raised my hands and looked on them. They were a child's hands.

I begged my boyish self to stay quiet. To hide from the horrors and destruction that I knew lay just out of sight.

"Don't. Lay quietly. It's not for you to see." I spoke against tightened eyelids, "It's mine to bear. You shouldn't have to see it. Keep yourself."

I could no longer control the form. I felt myself sit up, eyes snapping wide, listening to the sounds of battle rising above the hissing grasses and the fields of fire that stretched on before me. I felt the childlike fear grip me at the scene. Then a woman appeared her glowing eyes contrasting against her short dark hair. Shimmering as she moved toward me through the fields.


"Hakaar. There is no time. You need to will me to fight."

Her voice strummed vibrantly in my head as I looked at her in the distance. She was a beautiful angel, a being of light. Her earnest face shone in the sun as she approached and looked down on me.

"Will you remember me?" I asked her, hearing my child's voice speaking to her.

"Survive and then we can talk about it." She said with a slight smile and she reached her hand toward me.

My head hurt. No. All of me hurt. Every part of me ached as I opened my eyes to the starlit sky. The bitter tang of healing tincture was running from my lips as Silah stooped next to me, putting another vial in my hand.

"Ask me to fight for you." Silah said fervently, her face framed with the short cropped dark hair and her faintly luminescent golden eyes wide and penetrating in the gloom.

"But I would never ask you ... " I said weakly, feeling my strength returning by degrees.

"Do it!" She said forcefully.

"Silah, fight for me." I felt shame as I said the words.

Her countenance changed as she immediately formed into the greatsword blade. She levitated in front of the giant and danced wildly in the air, landing blow after blow. The giant clutched at its back with its free hand as she lanced deeply, sending the remaining blood gushing around my feet. It's head lolled back as it succumbed to its wounds and crashed to the ground.

I was now fully aware of where I was, hearing the urgent voices from the others ringing through the battlefield.

"The other giant is asleep, we need to slay it before it wakes!" Sig's voice rang out.

There's another giant? I mused quietly.

I sat up, drinking the potted liquid that Silah had placed in my hand, then moved to stand. I took hold of the blade that hovered in front of me and felt Silah's warmth press in on me, there was an intense shared joy and I smiled with the feeling.

Immediately, the feeling ebbed, obscuring the woman I had grown to love. In my mind I reached for her, but that seemed to drive her further away. My heart ached as I held the dripping blade limply in my hand.

Danin had stood at the foot of the giant, looking no worse for wear, easily sidestepping the massive being as it had fallen to the dirt.

"He saved you. He rushed to your aid when you were slipping." Silah spoke through our connection quietly, sounding ashamed as emotion crept into her voice. "I thought I had lost you."

This is torture. What you are doing to me is torture. I felt my sadness eddying around the pain my wounds.

"Thank you, brother." I moved to him, but his countenance remained grim.

"That giant." He nodded down at the massive bloodied body, "He's wearing Duncan's head."

I saw the rope woven through the eye sockets of several skulls, including Harney, Danja, and Duncan. I simmered in my rage for a moment.

"Help me pull him in. The banner must be placed, but hell if I'll let our friends' heads be lost behind that barrier." I said to Danin, who nodded and moved quickly to help.

Tagaern moved toward the head of a female giant that laid facing Floki and Tenner. He pulled his Duncan's own blade, Asuuk, and struck the neck of the giantess. She jolted awake momentarily as blood burst from the wound. She twitched into silence as the gushing flow ebbed to a drizzle. Many arrows were sunk deep into the giantess, telling that her time was short lived before Sig had sent her to the ground.

A blonde man was lying half in-half out of the ring of banners. He was heavily bloodied and very much human. I shrugged in disbelief as the others tended to him. Floki reacted differently than the others, a mixture of both joy and disdain crossed his face as he looked down on him before pulling him to safety.

From where I stood now at the edge of the Bulwark, I looked down and saw the giant's village that lay beyond, just down the rise that lead to where we stood. There was a large expanse of plains beyond that with hills dotting the distance. There was little activity stirring down at the camp below.

We had struck fast and struck deep before further alarm was given.

They've lost their chance to take over our world. I thought, gritting my teeth.

"They will have more chances. They live for a very long time and they will remember." I could feel her words roll around in my skull, "I should know."

Wait. What? I thought, bewildered and angry.

"Another time, Hakaar. We still have that visitor to contend with if we don't make haste. Perhaps, a gentle reminder for the others is in order?"

I grimaced at her instruction. Hanging her on a wall so I could think in peace was at the forefront of my mind.

After the way was cleared, Danin placed the banner of Kols in its place. Immediately, a gray wall of mist sprung from the base of the banners and formed into a dome over us. I tested the gray barrier, rapping it with a knuckle and nodding at it's soundless solidity.

The Bulwark was restored.

(Get to know Akeron.)

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Hakaar - Chronicle 26.2 - The Ether Tree

"The runner went this way," Bromm said, taking position in front of the tunnel. "We'd be hard pressed to catch up with him now."

"There will most definitely be an ambush where ever this ends up." Floki said, nodding, moving up next to Bromm.

Sig stood from his crouched position and tossed the backpack over his shoulder, Danin and Tagaern were close behind. We pressed our way into the dark tunnels.

The orc runner who had gone this direction had not seen what damage was done to the brothers that he'd left behind. Would they expect us to be far weaker than we are? As Floki had said, they would be more prepared for us, there was no doubt. While Danin and these healing tinctures had kept us fresh up to now, I knew it wouldn't take much to be laid low by a skilled enemy. However, I was feeling optimistic, even so far as to say that we were being guided by the gods.

Perhaps that was a little too optimistic. I thought with a grin.

Gods aside, those who I expected to help us seemed very distant from here. Danin's Derrum Ebbar and Floki's Yollari seemed much more about utility than grand acts that would push back these forces. Tagaern had mentioned Qinnah which was a common god for those out of Materune, but I knew little of the lore beyond what Tagaern's profound poetry had alluded to. And, Kols—who's banner had fallen—had shown that his involvement was, in all actuality, our involvement.

If the stories we'd been hearing were true, this affected all of the gods. Even Acionna's own festival of Làn-Mara was mere days away and would now be forever associated with this blight that nearly took hold near Dowry. Would she stand for that?

To show up a goddess by saving her day of recognition. Now that was playing with fire. My grin widened.

The darkness deepened in the tunnels. Both Danin and Sig lit up arrow fletchings and stones to push back against the deepening gloom. This stretch seemed more intimidating than the previous tunnel. I had passed the point of feeling overwhelmed, though. Every thought was a mockery that corresponded to the direness of our situation. Maybe this was the optimism I had been feeling? A form of hopelessness?

It was a strange to realize that the entirety of the Princesses army was just beyond this valley of sinkholes. They were perched, defending, perhaps even readying to push with a counter strike. Yet, they were completely unaware that we were here, fighting the good fight. That was where the full attention of the opposing force was focused. We had come at a blind angle to an entrance on the fringes. Only now did they know we were here and that could mean it was too late for them to do anything more about it.

Besides throwing everything they've got at us? The thought changed the grin to a grim smile .

And neither force had any idea that we had the key to closing the gap in the Bulwark's protections. We weren't exactly clear on that, ourselves, besides a few cryptic words from a possessed dwarf. Yet, here we were striking ahead in the name of vengeance and the protection of life as we know it.

Fortune favors the bold. I thought with a soft chuckle which prompted a worried look from Floki.

"Indeed." Silah said silkily.

Are you back with us? I thought with a flutter of anger, getting a sense of being used.

Her words had been vague and sparse. Yet, her power had grown immense. I could feel the energy surging through the blade into me, but it wasn't an empowering sensation. It was an invasive entwining of our wills; her's pressing up against mine. I could feel her weighing each thought, stretching the power she must have gained from the death dealing. I had felt this before, but not to this extent. Fear tickled in the depths of my mind as she pawed around, inspecting her new lair. I grimaced at the experience, but still clung tightly to the blade.

"I never left." She said with what sounded like a sigh, "You are overthinking this."

I grit my teeth against her words. I remembered Sig's concern on the beach the first night after I bonded with her. I shook my head at the thought and focused on the task ahead, duty or vengeance, either would be very satisfying right now. It'd get my head out of this frustrating unknown. My heart beat faster with the thought.

"Be calm, my beast." Silah's voice snaked through my head, "Our great adventure stands before us."

I felt a pit form in my stomach with her words. If this hadn't been such a critical moment, I would have sheathed her and turned to the newly stowed orcish falchion.

The tunnels began to lighten noticeably. Green growth covered the walls and luminescent mushrooms dotted clusters of moss and vegetation. They were thriving even with the very little light there was to sustain it.

"There's another force at work here." Sig said quietly as he looked on the vegetation. "I assume we're getting close to the Ether Tree."

We slowed our pace to keep quiet. We had been walking through these tunnels for a very long time before we had start seeing these changes. The entrance ahead opened into a green lit cavern. There was a warm, moist wind that came from there. It smelled like the Elven forests that I had become accustomed to briefly after the Ten Years War as the treaty was drawn and signed. The cavern ahead was deep with tapering walls that were slicked with moisture. The Ether Tree stood tall in the midst of it, reaching above the sinkhole's lip and lit by the sun above.

"I don't think this is a good idea." Floki said with a hoarse whisper as he looked into the quiet cavern.

We had stopped a ways back from the entrance to avoid being spotted from whatever lay beyond, but the tree remained clearly visible. I marveled at its beauty quietly.

Floki and Bromm moved forward to peer around, disappearing into the shadows against the walls as they did so.

"Tunnels along all of the walls. There's a blind spot toward the back and right that we'll need to get an angle on. I can't see what else is in there." Floki reported when he came back, "Who knows what lies deeper in those caves. Otherwise, it as silent as a crypt in there."

Bromm looked at Floki.

"Those long grasses on the approach to the tree should give us good cover. We need to see what is happening at the Bulwark." Bromm said, patting at a pocket on his dark long coat.

"We'll be back." Floki said to the rest of us.

I watched them approach the tunnel's exit and hunker down, sliding into the grass that covered the earthen floor, disappearing from sight.

Time passed slowly after Bromm and Floki disappeared. I could sense a tumult of emotion through the thin veneer of my connection with Silah. It was strange, how deeply she had sunk into me had given me more of a connection to her in kind. Perhaps she didn't realize how close we now were.

Is there something wrong? My thought returned nothing but silence.

I expected to hear the sounds of engagement come from the cave at any moment, but Bromm and Floki slunk back in the way they had left, tiptoeing quickly to where we stood.

"There is a handful of scouts on the right side of the cave waiting for anyone to poke their heads out. We didn't get a clear view into the caves, but I assume there are more of them." Bromm said.

Floki was shaking his head as Bromm spoke, looking overwhelmed.

"And the Bulwark?" Danin asked.

Previous to now, Danin was the only one who had seen the Bulwark, if I had followed their stories correctly. Now Floki and Bromm had also see into that great beyond.

"There's a steep, muddy hill climbing out of the pit that the tree lies in. It looks treacherous, but I could see spots for cover along the way that could work in our favor." Floki spoke, then took a deep breath, "There was a single, well armed, giant at the top of the embankment. He was on guard, but didn't look like he had been alerted. His gear reminded me of the same sort that Sig dealt with back at Kellas House."

Back when Duncan was alive. I thought, feeling my jaw clench involuntarily.

"I could see the banners that ring the Bulwark and I found the gap." Bromm added. "What lies beyond that we couldn't see, but we should be wary."

"We could avoid this." Sig pondered aloud waving a hand toward the cave, "We could move through the tree, travel to Sidhe Lara. Attempt the Bulwark from there without the threat of the orcs."

I watched as Tagaern gave Sig an aggravated sidelong look then turned to Danin who seemed to be taking all of this in stride.

It pained me to draw this out any longer than it needed to be, but I was willing to go along with what was said. However, with that thought I felt a heat from Silah as her will tightened against mine, yet no words were spoken. Her aggravated silence had done little for my confidence.

I fiddled with the horn around my neck that I had taken from Duncan's body. Sig had said that, when blown, this horn created an obscuring fog. Unfortunately, it made also made a deep echoing noise in the process. Perhaps the noise wouldn't matter if we could still hide in the mist? I looked at what was ahead of us and wondered if it would create an obscured path to the tree. I didn't feel comfortable stepping into a wide open cave, fully visible with a half dozen archers waiting with arrows nocked and ready.

Sig and Floki looked concerned, weighing their options. Bromm's fingers had found the coin in his pocket and traced absently around it putting a crease in the fabric. Tagaern looked determined, his teeth bared because of the delay. Danin hefted his axe, watching the others.

"We need to make a plan. Put your thoughts out on the table, but be quick about it." Bromm said tersely, "We don't have much time."

(Get to know Akeron.)

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Hakaar - Chronicle 26.1 - Infiltration

We walked quietly through the tunnels. The light formed in pockets as the roof overhead opened to the sky, letting in shafts of brilliant light. Floki led, but I followed closely behind, looking into the darkness where he could not. I felt my armor tugging at me as I moved, needing to take extra caution to keep from the metal buckles from clinking against Duncan's breastplate.

Maybe I've outgrown this. I thought against the darkness. Silah was lingering there, but she had been unnervingly quiet.

Floki put out a hand just ahead of me. I repeated the gesture to those behind me.

"I hear voices. Orcs." He said with a hoarse whisper.

The tunnels were lightening up again as we moved deeper. Floki moved to a wall, quietly, and turned and looked at us with his finger to his lips. His other hand held his bow with an arrow held nocked loosely.

Bromm moved forward and looked, I saw his mouth counting out the heads he could see. Floki looked in and shook his head. I managed to peek beyond and saw many of the orcs looking at readying for their nighttime. The sun was high outside, but there were drapings that hung over the openings in the roof, giving a reasonable amount of shade from its penetrating rays.

"... but with the giants, we are stronger! We will push these humans back and take their lands for our own." I could see the orc standing over small fire pit that held no fire, looking down at another. Both wore collars around their necks.

Slaves. And they think themselves free. I thought with distaste.

Floki flagged us back into the cave with a concerned look.

"There were at least twelve that I could see. I can only guess that there will be more. The caves on the sides could be full of them." His trepidation was apparent. "Whatever happens next, there may be no going back."

"We can only go forward." Tagaern said quietly. "We're here for a purpose."

"Vengeance is not a purpose!" Sig hissed then pointed into the cave, "Going out there could mean any one of our deaths."

"No." Tagaern lowered his head, "This isn't about Duncan. We need to close the gap or we're going to have far worse problems to deal with."

I nodded, feeling heat rise in me with Duncan's memory. I held it for a moment then I let it fade.

"Whatever we slay along the way will be in Duncan's memory." Tagaern said, "I'll take that as consolation. For now…"

His voice trailed off as his turned to look into the darkness.

"I don't agree with taking this head on." Sig said, "I'm sure that there is another way."

Floki was nodding and looking to the rest of us. It hurt me to think we would come this far to turn back for safety.

"I can't leave. This is what needs to be done. I am committed." I whispered, more to myself than the others.

There was a quivering response from the sword in my hands.

"My beast. We align perfectly. We both understand that we can't turn back with so much at risk." Silah whispered through the dark corridors of my mind.

Tagaern nodded toward me and spoke gruffly, "I go with him and once this starts, we press until the end."

His choice of words were ominous.

Bromm seemed quiet and slightly detached from the conversation, but he was absently working the musket trigger, releasing the hammer and locking it back with a click.

"Shall we then?" Bromm finally said, moving toward the entrance.

Tagaern coughed slightly, "You should probably hold off on firing that thing until we know there aren't any others."

"Oh?" Bromm said glancing at him.

He brought the gun up and sighted down the barrel.

"You should probably get ready to move." Bromm said.

Tagaern's eyes widened as the rifle jumped in Bromm's hands. The sharp report rolled over all of us and set my ears to ringing. The barrel shot gouts of smoke and flame toward the standing orc, sending him reeling forward over the orc sitting at his feet.

"Follow me." I growled as I bolted into the cave.

I moved around a high standing tent and caught one standing alone. I brought the blade down hard on him, feeling a the blade tremble in my hands. There was a humming in my ears coming from Silah that was setting my teeth on edge.

Tagaern moved to the opposite side and rained blows down on another orc. The rest of the group, except Floki, fell in around the tents, using them as cover. I could see several orcs readying bows and looking for targets.

There was a heartbeat as another orc rounded the corner and saw me. His face twisted with disgust as his eyes met mine. I felt my pulse pounding my head as I rushed him and thrust the greatsword clean through him. His eyes went vacant with the twist of the blade and I withdrew Silah easily with a sharp tug. Tagaern had felled his behind me and moved up on my side.

"Shield wall. We'll stick together. Yes?" Tagaern grunted, looking suspicious of my expression.

"Keep up if you can." I grit my teeth with my words.

I was feeling deadly, but the grimace that came from Tagaern made me recalculate.

Shield wall it is, then. I thought amidst Silah's throes from another kill.

There was a bright flash at the far end of the cave. A few orcs stumbled around, covered in a sparkling dust. Two of them seemed to be blinded by it.

We moved toward those that were blinded and formed up together. The remaining orcs had been attempting to establish a defensive line, but having difficulty with what Sig had been throwing at them. I could hear shouts from the other side of the tents telling me that there was more action going on than I could see.

I stepped in front of the line and readied my blade. An archer peeked at the end of the defensive line fired off an arrow, sinking it deep between the slats of my armor, then fell back into the caves. I could feel it like a pinprick against the rage that was consuming my vision. The line of orcs grimaced at me and the first charged headlong with his weapon held high.

I swept my blade up catching him in the gut and pulling free, nearly severing his spine. The next approached and laid his blade into me, carving up a chunk of my left arm, my shield arm, in the process. Tagaern moved to my side and slashed at him in response.

I could see a yellowish smoke rising from the other side of the tent. Coughing and gagging erupted from the thick, chalky yellow cloud.

Sig's magic at work. I thought, nodding to myself, remembering the same smoke in the belltower at Kol's temple.

The archer shooting from the cave sank another arrow in me.

"I need him off of me!" I shouted over my shoulder.

In response, I heard a shot ring out from the musket, hitting the archer squarely, and giving him a new target to focus on. Moments later, I heard some swearing from Bromm as he fiddled with his weapon. The archer shot an arrow his way, prompting more swearing.

"Bromm? You need help?" I shouted back.

"I've got this." He said with a darkly heated rasp.

"Hakaar, focus front. They can do their jobs. You do yours." Tagaern said while slashing at the orc ahead of him. I saw more orcs stumbling around near the back of the cave, but one had pointed and arrow up to a floating Sig and let one loose, hitting him squarely.

"I have to get back there." I said aloud.

"You focus on the threat in front of you, soldier." Tagaern growled, annoyed.

"He is in front of me." I growled and charged the next orc who looked to face me.

I swung and my blade skittered off of his armor and his eyes gleamed as he attempted to return the blow which bounced off Duncan's breastplate as I brought the blade around. The orcish archer to my left was leveling another arrow at Bromm when a shot rang out and putting a hole through his head.

Tagaern continued to press, his armor deflecting the majority of blows from the orcs around him. I could see Sig pointing to the orcs that he hovered over, and they would slump to the ground. One continued to elude him, but a series of arrows sunk into him in quick succession, sending him earthward. The gagging had ceased from a few of the others, but the thick yellow cloud persisted, blocking vision for whatever was happening on that side of the cave.

I brought the blade around to the grinning orc and lopped off his head. Yelling at the next one and seeing him grow wary as I approached. He attacked low as I approached, piercing the layer of armor and gashing the outside of my left leg. I responded with a deep gash through his chest, loosing his armor, and baring his ribs and guts. He fell backwards in a spurt of blood, dropping his blade and choking wildly.

Each death set Silah humming more fervently, there's was a power building in her and it made me apprehensive. I knew that she gained potency with each kill, but I was unsure of what it would mean other than the cryptic words she had said about it. I did know that each time she gained power, she seemed to crawl even deeper into every crack of my brain that she hadn't had access to before. I was worried, but there was too much at hand to give it any more focus.

Tagaern had moved toward where Sig was hovering. I was starting to feel weak from blood loss, but I moved forward to follow him. Bodies were littered with arrows as the cloud dissipated. I could see Danin moving up from the far side of the cave with Floki and Tenner not far behind.

Tagaern sunk a blade deeply into one of the sleeping ones and offered the last to me. I shook my head, pressing back against the unsettling humming that seemed to penetrate everything. There was a moment of need that slipped briefly from Silah as I waved Tagaern forward. Her need faded quietly as his blade ended the sleeping orc.

"See if they have anything we can use." Floki said, as he quickly strode forward.

He picked up a quiver of arrows and tested some of their bows.

"These were scouts. Lighter, more about mobility." He jostled one of the arrow-filled bodies with his foot. "And these bows are very decent. I'd suggest you both take one and grab a quiver of arrows. Better make that two, just in case."

He glanced between Tagaern and I with the words. I picked a bow up, tested the string, and could immediately tell what he meant. The pull on the bow itself was considerable and their craftsmanship was impressive. I slung one and gathered two quivers while Tagaern did the same.

We fanned out and moved through the tunnels, listening and looking for signs of movement.

"The giant's tracks lead this way. They're a couple days old, at least." Floki said as he mused over them.

"I found these jars." I pulled out a wax sealed jar with three slashes on it.

Danin looked on then gave a few quiet words and looked closely at it.

"That looks like a healing tincture." He said with a nod. "We should find as many of these as we can."

I looked at the jar and popped the lid, drinking some of the thick warm liquid. It was like drinking blood with a sharp herbal taste to it. I could feel it course through me and I watched as the wounds where the arrows lay and the cuts to my arm and leg almost completely sealed up. Danin approached me as the healing took place.

"I'm still feeling it, but these seem to work well." I told him.

"The ones with more slashes on them are stronger than the lesser slashes." He said, "Let me take care of that for you."

He motioned to the still moist wounds and I could feel the power from Derum Ebbar flow from him into me, knitting the remainder of my wounds.

"Someone come and listen to this," Sig called from across the way standing at a series of caves that stretched out of sight. "There's something strange going on in there. It sounds like shifting sand?"

As they gathered, I looked through the remaining tents and gathered what I could, then moved to where the rest of them were. I spent time handing out the vials and listening to the conjecture about what lay beyond.

"I'm not concerned about what lay beyond here. I want to get to where the giants are, that's where the tree will be." I said frankly, feeling like time was slipping by.

"I'll look into this quickly." Sig said, and he began to fly, darting between the seams of fabric covering the roof.

The sound of sand shifting grew more agitated and almost immediately after that, Sig returned and touched the ground.

"We don't want to go back there. Nothing good that can come of it." Sig said with a worried look, "It's like a sacrificial pit, with a very large snake in it."

Everyone glanced at each other. Floki had already moved to the entrance where the giant's tracks led.

We began to move deeper into the tunnels through the darkness. As the light waned, I took the lead, seeing considerably further than Floki in the darkness. Sig had touched a few of Floki's arrows in the quiver to give the others some light to walk by.

There was a moment of quiet as we moved along the long dark tunnels. The paths wavered only slightly. They seemed hewn by more than natural means.

Should I be worried? I thought, probing the cacophony that was coming from Silah.

"Our enemies should worry." Her echoing voice sounded as if it was taking considerable control to keep her voice level.

You've been quiet and cryptic since we left the plains. I felt anxious with the thought. I'm not sure what charge we're leading, but I'm near certain that some of us won't be coming back.

"If any of us falls, it will be for the greater good." She said, with some sullenness. "I have enjoyed us and hope that we continue, but I've avoided this for far too long."

Her form appeared as she spoke, more vibrant, more majestic than before. She glowed softly and the usual consuming darkness was replaced by starlight with an ensemble of props that she hadn't pulled on before. Her long chair, though, was ever present. She was a vision, herself, glowing eyes and now luminescent skin shone through the thin fabric of the silver laced black dress.

As I gazed on her and knowing the certain danger we were in, it brought with it an ache of a future that may not happen. A future where I die, fading into history and from her memory, forgotten.

"Not forgotten, my beast. Honored and remembered. A stalwart among those who held the line against those who would take your home from you." Silah slid close as she said it, tracing her hands down my chest. "But to fight and survive, you will see this world unroll before you. There is so much more that you haven't seen.

"Stay with me. Keep me company for a time more." Silah whispered looking at me with adoration pushing back her sullenness and brightening again.

What if we don't succeed? What if they were right that it is certain death to come here? The thought tore at me, making me feel hopeless.

Her hands fell away from me and her expression turned disdainful and her burning eyes bored into me.

"Stop with your doubt. Quit placating these others at the expense of yourself. You keep your own greatness locked behind a sense of contrition that's unbecoming. It's something I've cautiously avoided for far too long." She said pointedly.

In the starlight of my mind, she took my hands and held them tightly.

"You know who is truly forgotten?" She said, her glowing eyes now burning red, "I am. I don't even know my real name. For as long as I've been in this form, I've been nothing more than a tool, a weapon. One that has been forgotten and unneeded, until now. I didn't ask for this, but I still feel compelled."

"What we have shared has shown me so much more than that. Yet, I can't change my path. You can change yours. Nothing need disappear if you let your greatness shine. Your adoration has given me so much more than you know, but I understand that I will slip away and disappear into the ages again, unneeded until my time comes."

I grimaced at the intensity, feeling her ancient power just below the surface. I fidgeted under her gaze. She had come to terms with all these things she'd been required to do. It was fortuitous to forget those she bonded with, but it made me wonder if she may have been tuned to forget the wrong memories.

"You have the freedom to reach out and claim greatness. You've been too timid, too meek, to step up and take it for yourself." Her grip tightened on my hands uncomfortably as her intensity grew, "Your memory can live on if you're bold enough to claim it. Who are you, Hakaar?"

"There's an incline up ahead." Floki said, as he slowed his pace, "We should be quiet and scout ahead."

I broke from my conversation with Silah, feeling the reverberations of the energy flowing from her and the intensity of her gaze.

Who am I? I dipped my head and grimaced.

Bromm moved up, but Tagaern put a hand out.

"Are you going to…" Tagaern eyed the musket in Bromm's hand.

"What makes you think I'd do something as silly as that?" Bromm said wryly and then stepped quietly away.

Tagaern looked at me with concern wrinkling his forehead. I shrugged in response.

There was a deep quiet as Bromm and Floki ascended the ramp. I dug around in my thoughts, returning to where I had been speaking with Silah just earlier, but she had retreated, leaving me to think in the darkness of my own mind. However, the humming emanating from her was ever-present.

I was startled as Floki's voice pressed in on my side.

"There's two at the top. I couldn't get an angle on what else is in there." Floki spoke low while the others gathered close. "We need to take them quietly, if we can."

I nodded in the darkness, realizing that others might not be able to see.

"I could call out to them in orcish." I suggested. "Or we could send Silah up to draw them down and attack?"

"They have orders to report anything suspicious. Anything too strange would raise an alarm." Sig added.

"What do you suggest?" I shrugged, looking at Sig then the others.

Bromm whistled sharply, echoing off of the walls.

"Probably something like that?" Bromm said and stepped back against the wall.

I fell back and prepared to run ahead and strike with the others. Floki was on one knee with his bow out and Tenner ready to spring on command.

The two guards talked back and forth then both turned and descended down the ramp into the darkness. I could see their silhouettes, but knew that in a few moments, we'd be in clear view of them knowing how well they could see in the darkness.

I heard the rapid strum from Floki's bow, sending a number of arrows into the orc on the right. On Floki's command, Tenner ran up and knocked him off of his feet, sending him to the ground. Tagaern rushed the orc to the left and laid down a blistering attack engaged him while the others fell in line. Danin approached with his axe and connected, but did not land a killing blow. While the orc on the right struggled on the ground, Tenner knocked the other orc to the ground, tugging at his leg. Another few arrows from Floki silenced the right orc immediately, but the other bellowed before Tagaern landed the killing blow.

I was on approach to engage when the bellowing happened. Bromm and I pushed past the others and ran to the entrance of the cave, looking for runners. One looked back at the opening and caught sight of me as he moved into the far cave. Bromm swore under his breath.

"I see him, but he's already into the cave." Bromm called out behind him.

I took position behind the first tent and Tagaern fell in behind me. He was wiping his blade, readying it for the next victim. I looked back and nodded at him, rushing around the side and barreling into an orc that was on the far side of the tent. I landed what felt like an impressive blow, but the orc gave a hearty laugh and struck a blow in return.

"Abomination!" He seethed in orcish through bloodlined teeth as he faced off with me.

Tagaern got the best of him, though, rushing up from behind and piercing him through from behind. I grit my teeth and spat.

That one should have been mine! I raged with the thought.

I turned to the next victim, seeing Danin moving into the middle of a converging force. I was bewildered by the move, but rushed to assist. Many of the orcs emerging from the tents were wearing very little armor yet seemed much bulkier, heartier than the ones we had faced earlier. I Pushed forward as they converged, seeing a handful more emerge from surrounding caves and stream toward Bromm and Floki near the entrance of the cave.

Three pressed in on Tagaern and I as we pushed toward Danin. I took another blow, bloodying my shoulder, but returned the favor as I gouged at his side. The orc still stood, his face sneering at me. The falchions they bore were heavy and dangerous, biting deep with each blow. I was bloodied and feeling vulnerable as I watched Sig swoop in to help Danin, but after taking a blow from a blade, Sig had to fall back. Danin shot skyward, using his own ability to fly, slipping out of the clutches of the orcs that began to surround him.

As their targets left, all orcs eyes turned on Tagaern and I.

"Fall back!" Sig yelled toward me, "Get to the cave entrance."

I glanced at Tagaern.

"You're right behind me, yes?" I said, blood covered brow furrowed in earnest.

"Right behind you, boy." He said, looked like he had put his armor to good use, but still had a pained look on his face.

I dodged through the converging force, seeing slumped bodies here and there that Sig had sent to the ground with his words. The orcs roused them and they stood again. I grit my teeth in annoyance.

Why do we have such a hard time working together? I thought angrily, watching us scatter in disarray as we fell back under the heavy blades.

"Hold the line here!" I said, turning to face the encroaching enemy, forming a semi-circle at the cave entrance.

I grabbed one of the vials with three strikes on it and drank it, feeling that this one could be poison. I attempted to resist the effects, but felt the healing eddies take hold. Danin called out and I felt another burst of that light energy fill me. I looked down at my healing wounds and felt immediately refreshed. I grinned menacingly at the first orc that approached me.

I struck as he approached, slashing neatly through his already bloodied body. I watched him fall as I laid him open. There was a blinding crescendo that filled my mind as the orc's body fell limp. Silah's power erupted from within, filling every crack and crevice of my mind. I could feel her reaching just under my skin, testing, feeling, being one with me. I fought against the prickling feeling.

What are you doing? The thought echoed in the darkness, but there was no response. I felt an all consuming ache as her power took hold. I was suddenly feeling very uncertain of what lay ahead.

I stepped forward, heaving the silently surging greatsword, cutting another bloodied orc down. Floki was unleashing arrows as quickly as he could place them in his bow. And Bromm's shots rolled over us, taking down one orc and deeply wounding another. Danin went to Tenner's aid after a bloodying strike that sent him yelping away, leaving Floki undefended. Floki took his vengeance immediately, filling the prone orc full of arrows.

Tagaern moved to my side.

"The final push, right?" He said with a grisly smile, his face bespectacled with red.

I nodded and we rushed the remaining two. My blade bit deep into the wounded orc, sending him to the ground quickly. I slashed at him while he lay, just to be sure he wouldn't get up again. Silah's reaction had become more subtle as the orc bled out at my feet.

Tagaern struck, but a round of arrows and a gunshot punched through the remaining orc, sending him crumpling to the ground.

I was breathing heavily, looking at the others and seeing if there was any other movement from the caves. My head was spinning and I was having trouble seeing clearly. Moments passed as we watched and waited, expecting something else to emerge, but the caves and passageways remained silent.

I looked down at myself, wearing the blood of so many. It mixed readily with my own. I was a violent half-breed taking vengeance against his violent ancestors. The thought had a certain irony to it. Silah glimmered with gore and viscera in the filtered sunlight. I looked closely at the blade, trying to peer into what was happening in there, but she had again fallen quiet. I ripped cloth from one of the tents and wiped the blade off slowly, carefully.

I must have been there for some time, standing alone. The others had filtered through the tents and gathered a pile of items.

"We found more of those jars. Just a couple this time, but the these blades and this armor is very well made." Sig announced as others added to the pile.

I looked down at the armor and blades. I picked up a blade and hefted it.

"These would fetch a fair price in Dowry. I bet Blackrose would love to do an exchange with us." Sig continued. "I'll fit as many as I can in this haversack, but you and Tagaern should probably grab one as well."

I shrugged, looking at the blade.

This is the last thing we should focus on. I thought. I won't need it, but I'll carry it.

"You may need it." A whisper and the feeling of a knowing smile came from Silah, she seemed far away and … different.

I tried to focus in on what she said, but Sig continued to speak.

"You may want to consider this armor, too." Sig had hunched down and was putting the swords and armor carefully in his bottomless bag.

The sentimental value of Duncan's armor was painful to consider, but I had been feeling the weakness of my mobility in this armor since we came to the cave.

"I'll try it and see." I said, a bit begrudgingly as I unbuckled the breastplate with the Grasslions symbol etched right above the heart and set it gently on the ground. "It's there for whoever wants it."

While the leather armor fit nicely, I felt extremely vulnerable. It was much different than having a wall of steel between you and a sword. Yet, I felt fast and deadly.

"We best get moving." Tagaern spoke with an annoyed expression as he watched the goings on. "Who knows what will be waiting for us."

I sighed at the thought. I could see Sig and Danin looking especially wearied from their expended effort. I had a few of the tinctures in my hand, but I couldn't imagine that it would be enough to save me when facing down a gigantic maul. The giants were here, and we were nearly too spent to approach, but this had to be done. There was no other way.

"We're almost there. They're counting on us to close the breach." I said flexing my arms and rolling my head side to side while I tightened my grip on Silah.

And they don't even know it. I thought with a wry grin.

(Get to know Akeron.)