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Mechanics and Metadata

Each action uses a set of three rolls. When multiple actions are required, sets of three are taken consecutively. Two out of three rolls must beat the target DC in order to succeed a check. When rolling 1d100, criticals count inside the first ten. Criticals in the first three are supercrits. When rolling 1d20, criticals count inside the first five. Criticals in the first three are supercrits. Only the first three rolls are recorded in this archive. Rolls with a critical in the first three will be followed by ">Primary Critical Success/Failure!", and a critical in the extended range will be followed by a message of ">Secondary Critical Success/Failure". The primary die used is a d100. d20 is used as well, either as a saving throw or for allied/enemy actions. Threads 1 through 4 used a variety of systems. Beginning with Thread 5, the system described here was in effect. We rolled 1d40 and 1d5, once each. That was weird, and I'm still not sure what SM was thinking. That 1d5 roll was hilarious, though. I will report the main character's HP and Mana when it changes. I will not report passive regeneration. Discrepancies in HP/Mana are due to passive regeneration, ability purchases, non-narrative sources, Quest Master error, or transcriber error. I also track shard states. Zalgo text is occasionally used by the Quest Master. Zalgo text is available in unicode formatting, but not ASCII. If this text displays improperly in your version, I apologize. Blame the softwware I'm using to convert it.

THREAD 1
>HP 10/10 >Mana 4/4 You are. Memories strike you. You remember birds, though youve feel as though youve never seen one. You can imagine trees, though there are none where you are now. Around you is darkness. Though there is no light, you can see. You are in a small cavern. The absolute silence is complete. Why are you here? Who are you? What...what are you? Where did you come from? And why are you in this dark place, alone? It's as if something has bored holes in your mind, leaving most things where they are but extracting the rest. You consider yourself carefully, but there's nothing. You strain your ears, but hear nothing. Silence. You raise your hand to your face... ...and shadow greets you. You turn over your 'arm', as much an arm it is. You are a shadowy thing, formless, indistinct. Even as you watch your skin wavers slightly. With difficulty, you can even stretch and bend yourself slightly. You realize this is not normal. Most creatures have static form. But though it feels odd, it's all too familiar. You feel more at the tip of your mind, but it slips away. You decide to get your bearings and take a look around the cavern. It seems there's a tunnel leading away to your right. You keep turning. Behind you, there's a pool. Misty, black. You're not sure if the liquid itself is black, or that's just the lack of light. You don't think it's normal to see in the dark, either, but it feels natural. It's still there--the dark--but it simply knows to get out of your way. Further past the pool is what appears to be a small altar.

You move towards the altar. You slide and slither more than walk. But it's like breathing; it feels natural. You arrive in front of the stone altar. It's almost shaped like a chair; wide, with a large flat back rising up into the cave wall. Text and symbols are carved into the rock. You can't understand any of it. When you reach out to touch the altar, a flash of sensation runs through you. You sense yourself. And other things - seven other things exactly. They're like you, but different. Four seem closer than the others. The last four are far. Very far. One stands out. It faces you. It's like staring into the face of the sun, and after growing used to the darkness around you, you recoil from the sensation. But you know yourself. One of eight. Opposed to the bright thing. The light. And you know it opposes you, as well. Sorry, didn't see yours before I started. You are aware of yourself. You feel untapped energy surge in your body. It calls to be put to use. You recognize the pool is...good. You're not sure how, but you should probably take a look at it before leaving. You crawl toward the pool. It seems to surge with energy. You don't hesitate and reach a hand directly inside. The energy swims into your body. You remember this energy - Mana. You wish you could read the words on the altar--you're sure they're important. But it's to no avail. Perhaps it's time to move on. You return to the altar. It seems so...familiar. But you can't quite place it. You tentatively rest a limb on its surface. The sensation of the other seven existences flashes to the surface. Seven other elements. Light waits there, cruel to even look upon... ...but it seems somehow unaware of you. You withdraw your hand none the wiser. You take a few moments to stare down some of the symbols, burning their images into your mind. They must be important. After drawing them a few times in the dirt to help you memorize, you feel as though you've accomplished everything you can for the moment.

You head toward the tunnel... It's dank, and dark. You proceed forward slowly. The walls are ancient--but in between the dust and dirt you can see the cobbled brick of intentional construction. However, the nature of those intentions eludes you. You crawl forward. Strange patches of white mold glow on the walls. They darken as you pass, then lighten again once you're by. It's as if the light knows you. You can't tell how far you've gone, or how much time passes. You don't feel thirsty, and the small effort doesn't tire you. You do feel a hunger. But it's small. The hall finally ends in a wide chamber. There are several entrances to the room, all of the same ancient, crumbling brick. It's like some sort of maze. Suddenly, a light flashes from one of the tunnels! You hear voices, sharp, cautious. What do you do? The voices are getting louder. There's more than one of them! You see the light begin to haze into the chamber, illuminating some of the cracked bricks. You quickly duck into the shadows and go absolutely still. The darkness jumps at your will, molding over your form. You feel relatively secure. The source of the voices bursts into the chamber. It's a group of men - no. Elves. The elves march into the center of the room. You watch from your vantage point, silent. A small sphere of light floats over their heads. There are four of them; two males with heavier armor, swords, and shields. A smaller female holds a bow that seems much to large for her to draw, but... ...somehow, you know better. More of those memories, that knowledge from nothing.

In the center of the group stands a beautiful elf woman. She wears practical clothing, leather armor, but holds a wood staff with a green crystal. She is quiet while the others argue. There's something different about her. "Dammit, Selene, we're totally turned around!" On of the swordsmen stomps his foot. "Where in Venia are we?" The young archer raises an eyebrow. "Why don't you stop and ask for directions?" "Fuck you!" "Silence," the woman says. They instantly fall silent, exchanging looks like children caught with hands in the cookie jar. The woman takes a breath. "A moment of peace, please, while I discern its lair." For a moment, you tense. What is IT? Are you IT? The woman relaxes. She points in the opposite direction you came from. "This way." She steps forward confidently. The other three elves bound forward to keep her surrounded. However well they get along, they're well trained. "Wait." The boisterous swordsman pauses. "Something's off..." He turns back and faces where you're hiding. He takes a step forward. >Rolled 1d20: 10, 5

The elf blinks for a moment. "What?" the archer asks. "Have to take a shit?" "Would you shut up?" The swordsman glances back over his shoulder, then straightened. "Just thought I saw something move. Can't be too careful down here, right?" "Your caution is appreciated, Zeldan," the matronly elf says. "Let us proceed." "Thank you, your majesty," Zeldan says. He grins haughtily at the archer as he saunters into the tunnel ahead. The archer pouts at the woman, who simply gives a vague sigh. They begin out of the room. Just as the light fades, the woman's face turns. She looks directly at you. There is no question in your mind she knew you were there. They vanish down the tunnel. You can hear the echos their voices as they move forward. You are intrigued by the elf woman - nobility, going by what the swordsman said. And you know she chose not to reveal you. With your energies put to use, you no longer have to crawl - legs pick and shift you lightly across the ground. It's easy to stay quiet. You remain just out of range of their sphere of light, trailing along softly. The tunnel opens up ahead. You can see their light spread wide over a vast chamber. The young archer whistles. "This is incredible, your majesty." "...an old place," the woman says. "Ancient. Dark." "And evil," Zeldan finishes. "Maybe," the woman says. "What we hunt is evil. But the darkness is not so, not implicitly." "Haven't met a dark thing yet that wasn't evil."

The woman smiles. "Perhaps you haven't met a dark thing yet that you've given the chance." The swordsman scratches his head, then shrugs. His face disagrees with the assessment, but he doesn't voice his opinion further, probably out of respect. You decide you like the woman more. Something changes. Huge footsteps pound the floor. The elves fall into stances. The woman twirls her staff into a ready position, and green energy crackles around its crystal. A roar like death and suffering fills the air of the chamber. A huge monster slithers to the top of an outcropping of broken rocks on the other end of the hall. In front of the broken stone and rows of columns long since collapsed, it looks like the harbinger of doom. Its wings flap once, twice, and it darts into the air far faster than you'd expect. The elves leap into action. The archer sprints left, firing arrows that leap forward with white light. A flap of the monster's wings scatters them on a dark wind. The two swordsmen charge forward. The dragon slams down onto the ground in front of them and breathes an ugly black fire. They brace themselves for the impact, but you don't see how they could possibly survive. The woman raises her staff. Green light flares over the two warriors. The black fire rolls around them harmlessly, dissolving the columns and bits of rock on either side. They dash in and land nasty cuts on the dragon's maw. At the same time, the archer's arrows pierce its belly from the side. It roars in pain, thrashing as the white light seems to blossom on its side. Its head swivels as it tries to pick a target. You don't want to be that target, but you're enraptured by the battle. You feel a tremor shake your body - one of both fear and excitement. You feel ready to run, but the

scene nails you to the floor. The dragon roars, and then turns his body. His tail whips and strikes both the warriors. They fly through the air; apparently the protection was only magical, not physical. They both land upright, but are obviously hurt. The archer continues to fire, burying another arrow in the creature's hide. It blasts a wave of the black fire in her direction. The woman, who seemed to be preparing a spell, is forced to stop to protect her ally. The archer is barely saved from the acidic fire-smog. The dragon begins to flap its wings, building a storm of wind. Darkness rips through the air like razors. The warriors and archer hunker down against the ground. The woman uses her magic to shield them once more, but she's left open. The spell goes up, but the staff is ripped from her hands. The dragon roars. It flies toward the easy target, then begins to dive from the ceiling and toward the woman. An absurd idea pops into your head - the idea that you should preserve this woman that so recently preserved you. You'd probably die trying, and not make that much of a difference. The dragon is seconds from slamming into the ground directly on top of her. >Rolled 1d20: 8, 20 >Primary Critical Success! The trembling inside you explodes. Your shadow whips out behind you, blasting your forward as your body forms legs and lopes along. Your shadow snatches up the rod. The rod crackles with energy at your shadow's touch. You nearly fumble it, but at the last minute decide to toss it to the woman. Startled, but reacting quickly, she snatches it from the air. You run past her, just between her and the dragon. Your shadows lick at her sides and tug her up into the air and along with your run. The dragon's jaws snap only air as it lands in the corner, and it hits hard, momentarily confused by the shadows around it. But it reorients quickly. You barely have time to set the woman down when a wave of the black fire is on top of you. She raises her staff, but there's almost no time to cast the protective spell! >Rolled 1d20: 10, 17, 10 You can see in the elf's eyes that she doesn't believe she'll make it.

You launch yourself up, bending yourself around in front of her. The flames roil over your body, dissolving the walls with an ugly hiss. But your shadows protect you. The fire ends abruptly. You uncoil and settle on the ground. The elf woman's eyes are wide. She stares at you, uncertain. You try to speak, to calm her and let her know that you're a friend. A strange gurgling escapes your body. She blinks at you in confusion. "HAIL." You both snap to attention. The dragon just spoke. If you had eyes, they'd be as round as dinner plates. The dragon's voice is like roaring sandpaper. "...YOU PROTECT THESE CREATURES? I DO NOT UNDER-" Arrows of light slam into the dragon's face. One of them buries itself in the creature's eye. It shrieks, stumbles, and runs headfirst into a column. The swordsmen are on top of it in an instant. They hack at its exposed neck, cutting deeply. The dragon begins to rise... ...just in time for the elf woman to finish her spell. Stone from the column the dragon struck comes alive with green light. It shapes itself into an enormous fist and slams downward, crushing it into the ground. Meanwhile, its head is a pincushion of white arrows. Its head is nearly severed clean. The shining green fist raises itself once more, then pounds down. A sickening crack resounds through the hall. The dragon does not move again. The elf woman lowers her staff and looks to you. After that display of power, you don't feel much like hopping into her arms. She squints hard. "...it knew you." You try to give her some explanation, some message. You wobble. You shake. You end up shaking yourself from side-to-side in a sort of "no". "Look again," the woman says. You turn back toward the dragon. Its eyes, now dead, stare into space. Dark eyes. Eyes you've seen before. Memories. Memories flood into you.

Yes. You know the dragon. You know it... but where! How? The answer is on the verge of your recollection...! "Oh." You're distracted by the woman's voice. "You're..." Her voice falls to a whisper. "By the earth and moon." "My lady!" Zeldan is running over. "Run!" "NO!" Zeldan and the other two freeze at her shout. She turns back to you. "...I see...what I must do." Her rod begins to crack with green light. It flares bright, then brighter. You can hardly see with all the light. The memories...so close--if you could just reach out, you know you could-"I will give you choice," the woman says. You are bathed in the green light, and the world goes dark. You waken. You look around. The caverns and elves are gone. You are on top of a hill, whole, unharmed. A soft wind whistles by, rustling the grass under your form. The moon is bright; high in the sky. You're not sure what happened. What did she mean? She knew something about you, and then she transported you here. You search for the memories once more. You can piece this together if-You hit a wall. A wall in your mind. It might as well be built of admantium. You can't get past it. You struggle to remember, but it's like clawing at steel with bare hands. You can't even remember the symbols from that altar. Just the woman, the fight with the dragon - then nothing. Frustration burns inside you. You have to find her, and somehow make her give you your memories back. But where is she? And where is here? You gaze out over the hill...

After several fields, a town set alongside a sizable river greets your eyes. It is brightly illuminated by the moon, though you wouldn't need that to see. On one side is a large farm. Opposite that is a small graveyard. Light flicker from several windows, but they seem brightest in a large building set in a square in the town center. Perhaps this is where the elf lives? It seems a bit mundane... You decide to head toward the graveyard. It seems dark, and safe. If the sun rises, it might offer a nice hiding spot. You stride around the edges of the town, keeping distant from any lights. You pass through without event. You make your way into the graveyard. Fog has settled low around the lines of tombstones. They're etched with characters; you can't read the language, but you assume they're names and dates. Some few have flowers next to them. The older stones are weathered with age to nubs. This town has been here for a long time. That bodes well, considering you're looking for elves. You hear a shriek tumble out of the fog to your left. You peer through the fog... ...there's a small girl. She's lying on the ground in front of a grave. A human form lurches toward her, arms outstretched. Rotting skin hangs off its bones, exposing blackened flesh and sinew.

THREAD 2
>HP 10/10 >Mana 4/4 The girl scrambles back on her hands and knees. The zombie teeters along. It lets out a soft groan. The scene before you is clear. You step between the girl and her assailant. It seems to refocus on you, but does little beyond continue forward, intent on eating you as it does her. >Rolled 1d20: 10, 2, 8 Your shadow spears out toward the zombie, puncturing its chest with a sickening splat. The blood falls to the ground as your shadow unravels and fades back into your aura. The zombie steps back, unbalanced, but it's still hanging on. The girl is standing behind you. Her eyes are wide. "...who are you?" Her language isn't familiar, but you can understand the words. You try to speak, but it simply comes out as a strange murmur. She worries at your side, watching as the zombie rights itself. It comes forward once again. The zombie is stubborn. The wound you've inflicted has already stopped bleeding. But you're hardly afraid. You unleash your shadow in three pieces. Your spears plunge into its heart, abdomen, and left leg, throwing it back onto the ground and pinning it there. You twist the spears in their holes, carving the wounds larger. The zombie twitches, moans, and struggles, but it can't get free. The little girl appears by the zombie's head. You're about to push her away with a tendril of shadow when you see the rock in her hands. A moment later, it's smashing into the zombie's head. The zombie stops moving. You can feel its death. You withdraw your shadowy spears. The zombie's hunger reminds you of something, something forgotten in the rush of events. You're hungry.

Zombie's body sits there...ripe. The little girl stares at you. "...are you a person?" she asks. You tear your gaze off the zombie. The pressure of the hunger fades. You turn to the little girl. You can't speak. You nod your body up in a very obvious "yes". "Oh," she says. "You're more like a ghost. I guess you're a person though, because ghosts are people." You can only shrug at this strange logic. You notice she is definitely a human. Perhaps this isn't an elf village after all. "My name's Abigail. What's your name?" You begin to think...and then stop. You realize you don't remember your name. You shrug at her. "You don't have a name?" She seems more amused than anything else. Strange, after she was about to be eaten. "That's silly. Well, you're kind of like a shadow, so how about Mr. Shadow?" You shrug in acceptance. You wiggle yourself back and forward, trying to ask why she was out in the middle of a graveyard at night fighting a zombie. You tap the dead zombie's body. "...the zombie...it was an accident," she says. "I can talk to some dead people. I was trying to talk to my parents. But this thing came out of the ground and...well, now you're here." The girl yawns. "I should get home." She looks at you. "If you're traveling...you can stay with me, if you want." You decide that, considering your lack of options, following the girl home seems prudent. Shadow Slip allows you to anchor into her shadow, hiding within it. You discover that, while you cannot move, you move along with her shadow as she does, still as it flits and flickers past the edge of the graveyard. Abigail walks past the still-bright town center and toward the farm. She stops in front of it. You reappearance out of her shadow doesn't seem to phase her. "You know, you're the second person I've met today that was traveling." You poke your shadow about in what you hope is a questioning manner. "Oh, he's not here right now," she says. "He went to the meet house. But I'll introduce you later if you want, he said we're friends. His name is Donovan Flint." Her voice gains an admiring quality. "He's a knight of Dobshire, a city waaaaay down in Arland! It's really far, not even in Kelvere. I've never been out of the village before."

It all pours out of her mouth really quickly. You can only shrug. But perhaps you'd rather not be introduced to a knight. It doesn't sound like the sort of person that would like a living shadow. "...um..." Abigail seems uncertain of something. "...you can stay in the farmhouse, ok? But promise not to come inside. Ok?" She ducks inside the house quickly, opening and shutting the door before you can catch a glimpse of the inside. But something wafts out to you. A smell. If you had a nose, you'd wrinkle it in disgust. What on earth is that? You press yourself up against the gap to the door. The pungent smell greets you. It's...filthy. Sickening. And Abigail is in there without a care in the world? Maybe this has something to do with how quickly she seemed to brush off being attacked by a zombie. Who exactly is this girl? A chimney is perched at an angle above the main room of he house. Plenty of handholds offer a way up, but you doubt you could climb back out if you dropped in that way... You quickly scale the building. The chimney is tight, but you could fit inside without difficulty. There's no smoke. You are silent as you listen to the house below. The smell is much more faint here. There aren't any sounds. She did seem tired, so perhaps she's gone to sleep? But what is the source of that smell? You wait a few minutes, just to be sure Abigail is asleep, then drop sound the chimney. You land quietly in a puff of soot. The smell is stronger, but still subdued. You're in a long room. A bench is set in front of the fireplace along with a large, cotton-stuffed chair. In the corner of the room is the slumbering form of Abigail. She's wrapped in a nest of blankets. She rolls over, murmurs, and then her breathing settles. You creep into the middle of the room. There is a door to your right, and a door to your left. You edge to the left, and grow close to the door. The smell grows unmistakably stronger. You stand before the door. It is unlocked and could be easily opened. You're sure the smell is coming from inside. You finally place it. Rotten - that's the best word to describe it. You begin to reach for the door handle, but hesitate. Maybe...this isn't such a good idea. Maybe you shouldn't break the first promise you've ever made.

You withdraw your arm and turn back. You explore the other door. Past it is what seems to be a tool shed that forms an L-shape with the rest of the house. There's kitchen supplies, empty jars, dried food, hoes, scythes, animal harnesses and brushes...everything a farm could need. You spot a door at the far end and make your way down to it. You unbar the latch. The door opens with a slight creak. You close it, and the latch clinks shut, locking in place. You flit and walk and ooze your way toward the town center. The dirt road transforms into uneven, broken cobblestone. The buildings turn from scattered farmhouses to a small cluster of stores and specialty shops. It's a small but seemingly quite permanent setup. Most of the buildings are shut tight and dark for the night. But one building blazes with light and activity - a wide, tall meeting house at the center of the town square. It rises high from the cobblestone. Its tower, a wooden outpost with a ladder leading up to it, is even higher than the steeple of the nearby church. You can just make out a man sitting up there in a chair, resting with a single candle. What appears to be some sort of large alarm bell dangles next to him. There's plenty of noise coming from the hall. Lights flicker and shift as people move about. The babble of conversation is constant. The hall's door is cracked open. Most of the windows are shuttered, but a few are open to the night air. On the way to the town center, you practice a bit with your shadow manipulation. It seems you can split your shadow into four different parts. More than that and they get very weak. Even four is a bit much; three is the optimum. It's tough for you to focus on multiple things at a time, even with three 'arms'... You can make your shadows into a point, but you can't really sharpen them for slashes. Bludgeoning or stabbing seems possible. You aren't dextrous enough to use them as fingers, but you can wrap them about things like rope and pull or push. You stop beneath an open shutter. It's quite dark under the window sill. You feel confident no one would notice you. The babble continues. You pick out bits and pieces - something about a place called Kan-Abar. A disease. Undead. The Duke Vellik of Kelvere. "Everyone, please! Attention!"

The voice seems lost for a moment amidst all the babble. "AH, SHUT UP, YOU FILTHY IDIOTS!" The babble quickly softens. You poke yourself above the windowsill. The closest people to you are sitting at a table a few feet away, but they're all turned to the inside. A man on a slightly raised platform in the back looks like the one who's just finished shouting. He's dressed in simple brown robes. A small sun-shaped pendant hangs around his neck. There's a second man near him. He's clad in half-plate, and a long sheath dangles from his hip. You suspect he's the knight Abigail mentioned - Donovan Flint. The way he's timidly cowering from the other man seems almost comical, especially considering the knight's huge size. His arms are almost as big around as the other man's thighs, and he's easily over 6 feet tall. "Alright," says the robed man. "We need to get this straightened and under control. We're treating this like a plague until it's done. Any questions?" A single man raises his hand. "...ah...pastor...is that really-" "What? Necessary? The disease makes you shit until you die and any contact with them is practically a half chance of dying yourself. There's walking dead coming out of the woods, rising up from the burial pit! And Sir Flint here says he can virtually smell the magic leaking out of the Old Forest!" The pastor turns toward the man in armor. "Right?" "Ah, yes, pastor," Donovan says meekly. "There you have it. Double the pit's size. I want 20 men digging. 40 are going to the woods to gather wood; stick close, no wandering off alone. We have to burn everything. Clothes, blankets, anything that's been in contact with the dead or diseased. And then..." The pastor's voice grows much softer. Somehow, it's a lot more threatening than the loud version. "I need volunteers. One group to treat the infected, move the bodies. I won't like. It's risky. But we've got me, and the knight knows a bit of healing magic. We might be able to stop its progress if we catch anyone early. "And second...men willing to go into the forest and find the source of this mess." The hall is very quiet. A few scattered men volunteer to help with the bodies and treat the sick maybe ten or 15 out of the hundred or so gathered. No one volunteers to venture into the forest. "Am I going alone with the knight?" the pastor demands. The men look away from his gaze. A young boy near the back stands up. His eyes are bright. "I'll go, pastor!"

"Dammit, Joey, you're sixteen. I repeat: I need MEN." "I'm just as good as anyone! Better than this lot of cowards!" "Boy, that's enough out of you!" "Joey," Sir Flint begins. "It's too dangerous. This isn't just a bandit that knows a spell or two. This is serious magic. I can't use anyone that doesn't know how to fight." "But I do know how to-" "Or that's as young as you. Experience is important." Joey sits in a huff and folds his arms. Donovan looks like he wants to say more, but he holds his tongue. "Alright," the pastor says. "We need to get to work right away. We can sort the rest out when the sun rises. Get to knocking on doors, get people to come out of their shells, spread the word. Flint, come with me. We need to-" The bell on the roof of the hall beings to ring. Long, low, belching clanks. The men burst into whispers. There's a thudding and pounding of wood. A man leaps down the stairs leading up to the second floor of the hall. "Pastor! There's men coming! Two, three dozen of 'em walking out of the woods! I swear one's just a skeleton!" The conversation gets louder. The men exchange glances. "Arms, men!" Flint says. "The north side of the town! If you value the lives of your families, we've got to fight!" The hall bursts into action. Many men already have shovels or picks they'd been planning on using to dig. Most have knives. They crowd the door of the hall as they try to get out, then start toward the north in disorganized groups of 5 or 10 men each. Sir Flint and the pastor take the lead of the largest group. Joey sticks close to the knight. This isn't your town; you feel no compulsion to leap to its defense. But you do have a friend who is relatively defenseless: Abigail. You rise up on your legs and run as fast as you can back toward the farmhouse. You pass several groups of men who are gathering innocents into the town center for easier protection. They won't get to Abigail's farmhouse for some time. All the more reason to move faster. You arrive back in a few minutes, slightly winded, but you recover quickly. The farmhouse is still shut tight. You pound a part of yourself against the front door, loudly. It makes a satisfyingly heavy knock

against the wood. You knock again, then a third time. There's no answer. You hesitate for a moment, then slam harder, five times in a row. Still nothing. A massive strike cleaves the door in front of you. Wood splinters go flying - you barely avoid being skewered. The ugly smell of rotting flesh roils out around you. You freeze. Standing in the door is something that, even by your standards, you can only describe as a twisted monster. A warped head protrudes from its neck, distended like a human's skull elongated into a sort of crocodile jaw. A second head gnaws at the air, a defective face embedded in its shoulder. Yellowy pustules throb on its skin, the remnants of disease and rot. The creature has the jump on you. It exhales a long breath. A yellow gas bursts forward from its mouth. >Rolled 1d20: 12, 11, 15 You leap back. The gas dissipates into the air in front of you, leaving an acrid, putrid stench behind. You continue backwards, putting a comfortable distance between yourself and the monster. It seems unsteady, but it isn't like the last zombie you've seen. Its footsteps crunch into the dirt, heavy, plodding. It has weight, stamina. It raises a long, crooked arm. >Rolled 1d20: 16, 4, 11 You unleash three prongs of shadow. The first stabs straight through the exposed, outstretched arm. The second spikes through its stomach, and the third through its left leg. The momentum drives the zombie back and slams it against the wall. Your tendrils pin it into the wood of the house. The zombie struggles and groans. Your shadows buckle under its strength. Its free arm swipes at your shadow, trying to knock itself lose, and it lands a few solid blows, but you're able to hold for the moment. "Mr. Shadow!" Abigail is running from the tool shed. She stops when she sees the monster. "What...what is that thing?!" You can't answer while you're using all you strength just to keep it pinned. It turns to her voice, stretching itself toward the morsel. "Muuhhh...UHHGHGH!" "Don't hurt Mr. Shadow!" Abigail raises her hands.

Beams of orange light slice through the air, slamming into the zombie. It rattles against the wood as the energy hits it. Its arm and leg are severed clean off. In the process, it is torn free from your grip. It falls to the ground and crawls toward Abigail, pulling itself forward with one arm. Abigail's face has gone pale. She stumbles back, then falls. Her breathing is labored. >Rolled 1d20: 17, 6, 13 You launch your shadow once again. The crawling zombie is an easy target. The three prongs of your shadow meet and pierce its skull through and down inches into the dirt. And again, you attack, severing its head from its body totally, and again, destroying the second head in its torso. Abigail crawls away from the monster and toward you. She seems alright, if shaken - perhaps exhausted from her efforts. There are tears in her eyes. "...I'm sorry, Mr. Shadow. It's my fault." You wiggle and bobble. You tap her on the head. She sinks to the ground and cries. "...they...mommy and daddy died from the yellow disease thing...I wanted to talk to them, like I can talk to the nice lady, and ghosts...but, they wouldn't talk back..." the wailing grows louder, and she's practically shouting the words through her tears. "And then they came back but I didn't want that, that's a zombie, so I put them in the room and tried to practice at the graveyard but then I made a zombie again by mistake. And then the bad magic in the forest made them like this and it almost hurt you!" You're a little overwhelmed by the torrent of words. You pat her gently on the head. She wraps her arms around you, cradling your slightly gelatinous body. Her crying is somewhat muffled by the shadows. But distracted as you are by the monster and her story, you don't hear the sounds of men approaching until they're nearly on top of you! Several men are jogging up to the farm, carrying lanterns. You can see a glint of armor - Sir Flint is with them! You hop into Abigail's shadow. She blinks at your sudden disappearance. "Mr. Shadow? Are you there still?" You feel something turn in you...an Impression. You try to push the feeling at Abigail. You send her an image of you and her standing on a hill on a sunny day. You wave cheerily from her shadow. She looks at her shadow. her eyes seem to light up in recognition. "Oh, ok! You're secret place is my shadow!"

She seems startled by the arrival of the men. "Abigail!" Flint calls. "Abigail. Are you - by the light, what is that?!" The men crowd around the corpse of the monster. Sir Flint examines it, then turns back to her. He peers at her closely. "Abigail? What happened? Did you do this?" "...um...uh - the disease made the monster come," she says. "Mr. Shadow killed it." You mentally wince at she innocently denounces you. "Mr. Shadow?" Sir Flint asks. He frowns. "What do you mean?" "Mr. Shadow. He's my magic friend. He saved me from the zombies." Sir Flint eyes her a long time. You go as still as you can. >Rolled 1d20: 16, 10, 19 Sir Flint nods. "...I see. Mr. Shadow. That's what you call it." "ah...Sir Flint," one of the men says awkwardly. "What do we do?" "It's obvious." Sir Flint walks up to the zombie. His sword glows with a faint white light. He stabs it straight into the heart of the beast. There's a sharp hiss as the blade sinks into the dead flesh. He nods. "It's dead." He looks carefully at the severed limbs. "I see." He withdraws his sword... ...but overbalances. He stumbles, trips backwards, and falls on his rear. His sword clatters to the ground. The men, having been impressed by the display, quickly move to cover grins and smirks. Flint scrambles to his feet and sheaths his weapon. He coughs his throat clear. "..ah. I'll escort the girl into town. Check the building. Then...bury this thing. Deep." The men nod, humor gone. They open the house, waving their hands over their noses as they enter the

front door of the farmhouse. One of them, still staring at the zombie, wretches onto the grass. Donovan sighs. "Come on, girl." "Are we going to the town?" "Yes. Stay close." Still crouched in her shadow, you're towed along, sitting silently as they walk into the town center. You're almost up the cobble road when Flint's leather boots catch on the stone. He stumbles forward and clanks face-first onto the pavement. Abigail grins. "You're funny, Sir Flint. But you should be more careful." Flint is as red as a beet. "...good advice, Abby." It's strange. You thought you felt something...when he tripped? And when he fell, earlier. Odd, that. Maybe it was nothing. You reach the town center and head upstairs. The pastor is there. You crouch further into the small shadow cast by your friend. "Abigail," Flint says, "go downstairs and get something to eat. Talk to Linda. She's arranging dinner for everyone." "Why is everyone together? What's going on?" "...we'll explain in a bit, girl. Go, and make sure you mind." Abigail sighs and nods. As she starts to turn the corner down to the first floor, you see Flint turn to the pastor. "John. We need to talk. Her house-" She's around the corner, but not quite down the stairs. But you can't hear any more of that conversation... You decide not to risk it and stick inside Abigail's shadow. The first floor of the hall is a gathering of woman and children. Most are playing games; many wave and call out at her. She waves back and shouts a few names. The mothers sit in hushed circles, one eye on their children, another on the door of the hall. A few men keep a vigil along the walls and just outside the door. You send an impression to Abigail. It's a series of pictures; the zombies, her magic, and you followed by a finger pressed up to lips. She looks at you, her shadow, and gives a big, conspiratorial wink, and puts a finger to her lips. "It's a secret. Well, unless Sir Flint wants to know. He's a good person."

You hastily send an image of Flint with big red marks over his ears. She frowns at you. "But why?" You repeat the image. Abigail scratches her head a bit. "Well...ok, I guess." "Abby, dear, come get some soup!" A fat, pleasant-faced woman is waving from the kitchen. Abigail plops herself down and begins some menial conversation with Linda, who, judging by how Abby is eating, isn't a bad cook. You're reminded of your own hunger, but it seems a bit distant, now, surrounded by all this activity. "Where're your parents at, dear?" "...um..." Abigail hesitates. "At home." "Ah, out helping, then," Linda says. "Good, good. Well, you relax - oh." Linda turns a bit red. "Sir Flint, Pastor John. Feeling hungry?" "No, thank you, Linda," Sir Flint says. "We need to borrow Abigail a moment." "I see. You mind them, girl." "I always have to mind grown-ups," Abigail mutters. They begin to lead Abigail up the stairs. Sir Flint is in front; pastor John just behind. You stay motionless. Neither the knight nor the pastor give anything away to say they've noticed you, but you don't want to take any risks. Abigail is led up to a small room on the second floor. They close the door. Pastor John stands in front of the door. "Go ahead, Flint. You know more about this business than me." Flint nods. He turns, then trips again. He manages to catch himself on the desk in the middle of the room, then straightens. "You really need to pick up your feet," John says. "...right," Flint mutters. He sighs. "Abby, have a seat." Abigail clambers into the chair of the desk. She swallows hard. She's picked up on the score somewhat. You remain in her shadow, still and silent. "You don't have to look so nervous," Flint says. "I know you're not responsible for what's going on. It's not your fault." Abigail visibly relaxes. "But you do have magic, don't you?" Abigail bites her lip. She glances over her shoulder. Her eyes briefly wander to you, then back to Flint.

"Um...yes." "Did you use that magic to kill the zombie?" "...um..well, it's-" "I sensed the spirit residue on its severed limbs," Flint says. "And I can sense the spirit magic resting within you. It resonates with the magic coming from the forest." "But the forest is bad!" Abigail says. "I'm not like that!" Flint raises his armored palms. "I know. That's not what I meant." Abigail sits back down. Flint thinks for a moment. "This...may be a bit advanced for you, but I'll do my best. Magic is instability. That instability creates more instability...which creates more magic. Do you understand?" "...so," Abigail says, "it's a big circle that gets worse, isn't it?" "That's right." Flint seems relieved that she understood so quickly. "There's something bad in the forest - something with powerful spiritual magic. You have natural spiritual magic, and this creates a sort of loop near you - more of everything near you." "But...about the creature at your house," Flint says. "Where did it come from? Your house...let's just say it had a lot of spirit magic in it." Abigail's eyes begin to water again. "...the bad magic made the disease...and...mommy and daddy got sick...I...tried to..." She hiccups. "...they...went to heaven. But, I tried to talk to them...and...but the bad magic made them like that. I hate it!" She slams her hands down onto the sides of the chair. Orange light sizzles into the leather. "Easy, Abby, easy," Flint says. He rubs a hand on her shoulder. She starts to cry once again, and he awkwardly allows her to clutch his arm. "So?" John asks. "Abby, you're quite talented," Flint says. He looks at John pointedly. "But not responsible for anything that's happening. No more than a rock is responsible for the avalanche." "...then the forest is the source. Even the girl thinks so." "...I can feel it," Abby whispers. "A bad thing in the forest. The nice lady told me, too." "Nice lady?" John asks. "Likely a spirit," Flint says. "Alright. Abigail, keep this to yourself, understand? This is important, and people need to find this sort of thing out in a calm and rational manner." "...ok. Mr. Shadow said so too. I guess he was right."

Flint smiles and nods. "That's good. Listen to Mr. Shadow, ok?" Abigail nods rapidly. "Ok." "Then..." John sighs. "What do we do, now?" "What I figured we'd have to do," Flint answers. "Find the source in the forest, and destroy it." "You'll be marching into hell alone." "The entire town will be swallowed at this rate." John's face goes quiet and stern. He has no words for that. "What do you mean?" Abigail asks. "Is the bad thing coming?" "Don't you worry." Flint smiles brightly. "Nothing's going to hurt you, or this town. Go downstairs and play, alright?" "Ok. Um... thank you, Sir Flint." "...yes. Well, you're welcome." Abigail hops off her chair. You are towed along with her shadow. John opens the door for her, and she turns the corner. "...too much faith in a knight like me," you hear Flint say. "Honestly, I don't know if I can handle this. Actually, I probably can't. But there's no time." "You're all we've got," John answers. "But I'm with you, so that should be plenty. I can shout it do death." You hear a dark chuckle, and the door to the room closes. Abigail marches down stairs. The rest of the evening is uneventful. Abigail plays a bit with some girls that know her. More men return, and others leave. You see some of the men that went to Abigail's house spread whispers around the room. By sunrise, everyone will know about what happened there, and that her parents are dead. Eventually, the hall goes quiet. The lights are put out, and the room is stuffed with blankets. Everyone shares a fitful sleep. There's a few hours before dawn.

THREAD 3
>HP 15/15 >Mana 4/4 You decide to find something to eat. The smell of Linda's soup hangs in the air. There's a small but well-stocked kitchen behind the main room - probably for times just like these. You locate the pot of soup, well-covered to preserve as best as possible for many hungry people the next morning. You take a few gulps, discovering that you do in fact have a sense of taste. It's tasty. You feel a bit more energized after eating. But there's a hole that hasn't been filled. Deeper. Darker. An emptiness. It calls for you to consume something else... ...something alive. You push the feeling away, and it fades as your attention focuses elsewhere. You walk back out to stand amidst the pillows and sheets of the common room. Many woman and children snooze comfortably. You can see the flickers of torches outside. You creep over and nudge Abigail. She stirs slightly; you give her a pat on the shoulder. She blinks awake. "...mmm...Mr. Shadow?" You send her an image: one of you standing next to Sir Flint. You send more images like a sort of slide-reel; a zombie enters the scene. Flint stabs it, and you clobber it over the head. It falls over. "Oh!" Abigail covers her mouth and looks around. A child next to her rolls over, but no one else wakes. "Yeah," she whispers. "That's a good idea. I bet Sir Flint could use help to fight the bad thing. I'll go with you!" You immediately impress her with a sense of caution and a series of images showing her clearly sitting and waiting at the town hall. She folds her arms. "But I have magic and I can - " You repeat the image, a lot harder. She bites her lip, then nods. "...fine. Be careful, ok?" You nod, then slip out the door. The entrance is dark. A few pools of light are illuminated by torches. The men are huddled together,

nervously looking between themselves and the darkness that seems to rise from the north. Picking a direction, you walk toward the church, which is adjacent to the town square. Perhaps the knight is with the pastor on his home territory. You can see the graveyard stretching long behind the iron fence.The church itself is a sturdy stone building. You hear a grunt of effort echo across the stone. Curious, you walk around the edge of the church. Sir Flint is in a small grassy nook tucked between the church and the graveyard. He's attacking a wood post that's been driven into the ground. You're stunned by the skill on display. His strikes are light, and powerful. He slips by the post, ducking, twisting, cutting it as if he's done it a thousand times. In half a minute, the post is covered with notches and slices. He grunts hard, and launches himself forward. His sword glows briefly. With a hiss, it slices through the wooden target, loping off a section of the wood. The severed piece thumps to the ground. He ends in a measured pose, sword extended. After the rather embarrassing trips and falls that have seemed to plague him, he seems like another person, a powerful paladin ready to smite evil. If you had a throat, you'd swallow rather nervously. He twirls the blade once, twice, then sheaths it. He turns away... ...and promptly trips and falls. In a huff, he pushes himself to a sitting position. "Flint, you're out here?" Flint turns. You tuck in the shadows of the graveyard fence. John is approaching from the back door of the church. "I see the post got the best of you." "...what did you see?" Flint asks. "See? Uh..." John folds his arms and shrugs. "Opened the door, saw you trip." He looks at the beaten and weathered post. "On second thought, maybe you did get a few good hits in." Flint sighs resignedly. "I'd hope so." He folds his legs in. "Couldn't sleep. It's only an hour till light anyway. Thought I'd do...something useful." "Well, don't wear yourself out. I need you alert." The pastor walks past your position without seeming to notice your presence. "I'm going to speak with the men. I want them ready to evacuate if need be." "A good idea. I'll speak with you later."

The pastor walks off towards the town center, leaving Sir Flint alone. The knight sighs again. He stands. He punches the fence, hard. It bends slightly where he struck it. Frustration is written across his face pained, deep frustration. "...why not...when...dammit." He sighs again, then leans on the fence. He looks up at the moon. If you're going to protect Abigail, you need to work with this man. He seems to know more about magic than you do yourself, and his combat prowess - while inconsistent - would probably be a big help. You gather your courage and impress him with a vague feeling of hello - a measured, cautious greeting. Flint spins. He looks from side to side. You send him an image of a man standing in the shadows, and a feeling of patience and friendliness. "I've not many friends amongst things that speak into minds," Flint growls. His sword is in his hands in a blink. His eyes scour the shadows. "If you're a friend, then reveal yourself." He swivels, uncertain. "Come, into the open!" You quickly form an image of yourself holding Abigail's hand. You send this image repeatedly - a shadowy blob with eyes with the girl, who wears a bright smile. You edge into the open. Sir Flint stares you down. You continue to slowly feed him images. An arrival at the town. Discovering Abigail in the graveyard. And then, defeating the monster that the corrupted magic had made from the bodies of her parents. "...by the light." Flint lowers his sword. "You're that thing she kept on about. Mr. Shadow." You bob and nod at this. Flint visibly relaxes. "I see." He peers at you; squinting. You can almost feel his senses probe at you. "...a shadow spirit. First, we've too much spirit magic. And now we've a denizen of the shadow. 2 for 8. At this rate the entire town will be a mana pool." You send an impression of confusion, then ask for explanation. Flint sighs. "New spirits don't know much, do they? You're a living piece of the shadow element. A shadow elemental. Do you know of magic?" You impress him with the affirmative. "Magic creates instability, which creates more magic. When that reaches extreme concentrations, one of two things happens. Either a sentient spirit of the element forms in order to diffuse the imbalance, or a mana pool forms, usually if there's a mix of elements in the instability. It's a toxic sort of thing; pure energy. Not even you would survive contact with it." You nod in understanding...well, somewhat. But questions can wait. You send an image of yourself

and the knight attacking the zombies in the woods, and another of yourself shielding Abigail. "...you wish to protect the girl?" Flint blinks at you for some time. "...to my understanding, most elementals are savage, wild things. Wolves, at best. You seem quite coherent...but I'm not sure if - " He seems hesitant to accept your offer. You search your mind and find a good image. Abigail is pale and lying on the ground, exhausted from her spell. You use your shadow to stab through the zombie three times in quick succession, instantly finishing it. You then show an image of her holding you, and then you hopping into her shadow when the knight arrives with the men. "...so you can fight," the knight says. "And you know well enough to hide...you were right to do so. That might have escalated, had you not." You nod. Flint sighs again. He rubs his hair under the edge of his helmet. "...I need every bit of help I can get, shadow." He locks his gaze on you. "If I find you unfaithful, my sword finds your throat." Not to be intimidated, you send him a hard, powerful image of defending Abigail. He takes a breath, then nods. "I see you have priorities. About the girl. She needs training; she must learn control. A backwater village like this won't do; she'd just be subject to misunderstandings, or worse. But in the Empire, she'd be respected, raised quite high, in fact. They value every magician highly." You notice that the sky is beginning to pale. There's only a short time until dawn. You send Flint an image of a man in a robe. The man fires orange light like Abigail did. You impress him with a feeling of curiosity. "Magic?" Flint asks. "It's a wild thing. Energy. It can be channeled into spells." He shrugs. "I suppose you don't know a lot about the world...." He trails off. "I can't imagine living as a babe, born, thrust into the world without a guide." He clears his throat. "Spells are instructions which direct magical energy. We don't keep mana -that's energy-within ourselves, but rather, our souls act as conduits for the energy around us. Spells serve as a framework to control that energy, direct it to useful purpose. "One of the problems, though," Flint says, "and underlying problem...is the instability. Legends speak of a time before ours that lacked magic. It wasn't born with the world, but introduced afterward. Why, or how, is not known. But magic creates instability, which creates more magic." He gives you a grim look. "And look around. Undead. Unnatural plagues. Uncontrolled, such magic corrupts what it comes across." "As for mages, those are professional magicians that earn their living studying and controlling magical energies. Most have an affinity with 1 or two of the 8 elements - shadow, spirit, earth, water, wind, fire, lightning, and light. Each element opposes one other. Earth and wind. Water and fire. Spirit and Lightning. Light..." He looks back at you. "...and shadow." He sighs. "As you can imagine, such powerful might is useful for a state. For important tasks...and, when necessary, for military strength."

You send a feeling of thanks to the knight. Your curiosity still has room for another question, though... You send him an image of yourself, and a great feeling of curiosity. Flint frowns. "...elementals. I'm unfamiliar with specifics, but know that they're to be avoided. Most are feral. I suppose I can see why, considering they're alone...it's debated whether they're even intelligent, or more like animals. They can often use powerful magic, though." Flint looks at you. "As such, they're regarded as highly dangerous. To be reported, confronted and nipped in the bud whenever encountered. The Angels of the Ringed City take care of that, usually. I've heard rumors of mages capturing elementals and using their energies to fuel experiments. Were I you, I'd avoid public exposure. And that is all I have to say about that." You then impress Flint with a new question - who is he, a knight of the empire, to let his guard down against something like that? "Well, this...uh...conversation, settles the intelligence issue, as far as I'm concerned," he says. "I'm no great man. Perhaps, on another day, I might have been...acted differently. But I need allies, and I saw the wounds on that monster. They match with the images you showed me. You've spoken the truth. I will trust you, creature, for now." He sighs. "But beyond that, I've no love of the Empire myself. I'm loyal to Arland, and my family, and my people. No more, no less." You begin to ask him why he is here... ...but a heavy moan cuts through the night. It's different from the others - almost a roar. Angry and vicious, it rattles the air. The bell atop the town hall begins to ring. Flint leaps off his position on the fence. "Shadow, stay at the town hall, protect the innocents!" He runs off toward the sound of the roar.

You lope alongside Flint, keeping pace without difficulty. You flash him an image of fighting together. "Someone that knows a hoe from a sword needs to be defending the children!" He shouts back. His steps clank across the cobblestones as you quickly approach the hall. You see torches bobbing in the distance others have already run to the defense. You send him an image of him standing next to Abigail in the hall, and yourself confronting a zombie. Flint hesitates a moment. "...too many people. Too risky. Stay in the shadows!" You've reached the hall. Flint circles the building. Another roar peels out over the square. A series of thumps pounds the ground, getting louder, like the thunderous clopping of a 2-ton horse. A thing rounds the corner - a thing with more heads than you can count, twisted, pulsating with pustules of disease. Flint charges. His sword glows bright. A band of men round the corner, chasing after the monster. Flint falls and trips forward. A swiping hand catches him before he hits the ground, and he's sent flying, up, back towards the church. He lands hard, his armor clacking across the ground. But somehow, he finds his feet, and he's up and running in a flash - back toward the church, though not quite as fast as before. The golem looks between its new prey and the men. And it splits. Sections of its body slough off as it trods after Flint. They grow, mutating into warped, rubbery-looking zombies. The original monster is now only a third its original size, but the group of men is faced with nearly half their own number in undead. The biggest hunk of the fleshy creature continues after Flint, who is nearly to the graveyard. It roars

again, splitting the air with its ugly cry. You decide to put your trust in Sir Flint for the time being. You lope towards the men, snaking through the shadows created by their torches. Neither group has spotted you. There are five of them arrayed against 9 of the men. >Rolled 1d20: 13, 13, 3 You unleash your shadow. It flies up, and under your command, splits in three. Two prongs stab straight through the skulls of zombies ahead of you. You wrench to the side, splitting their heads open. They drop to the ground, dead in an instant. Your main attack strikes at a third zombie, but misses high. But with the numbers advantage, three men join forces to hold it off as it continues to lurch forward, and its teeth and claws find only air. Your shadows unravel back into your form. On of the men screams. "The shadows! Their shadows are moving!" "Oh my god!" "Hold them off!" The frightened man, distracted, loses his grip on his scythe. A zombie lunges forward and bites down hard on his neck. Blood splatters the stone. His gurgling cries of death rattle the others. The zombie you're hiding behind has noticed your presence. It swivels back faster than you expect, swiping down at you! >Rolled 1d20: 8, 2, 5 The zombie's movements prove no match for your reaction time. You snake your body to the side, and its swipe, while powerful, goes far wide. It unbalances and is forced into an awkward stumble to stay upright. However, the movement puts it at a bit of distance from you. You move to close the gapA knife plants into its backside, and then a hoe slams it upside the head. The zombie is knocked to the ground. Three men proceed to surround it, stabbing and hitting it until its twitching finally stops. Getting those first two zombies was enough to give them the edge. The men are still alter though. Their eyes peer into the darkness. "Did you see that shadow?"

"I saw. Stay close!" "Is it magic? Maybe Sir Flint will know?" "Who the hell knows?! Stay in the light, keep against the wall!" The men back up against the wall, pressing near the door of the hall. For now, it seems, the battle is over. With that threat taken care of, you run off to assist Sir Flint. The men's eyes can't follow you through the night; your identity seems safe for now, your movements attributed to the zombies and vague magical forces rather than an elemental. Halfway to the church, you stop, surprise. Donovan Flint is marching back toward you with firm purpose. His armor is splattered in blood. He stops, frowning. You bob up and down, making yourself obvious. "...shadow? Is the hall safe?" You send him an image of zombie corpses littering the cobblestone. You send an image of the larger monster and a bit of curiosity. "The beast is dead. I was able to corner it behind the church." You send him an image of himself flying through the air. "Relax. It winded me, but this armor has a nice enchantment on it." He knocks his gauntlet against his chest-plate with a solid ping of metal on metal. "Let's get back to the hall. Ah...you should stay out of sight?" You send him an image of yourself sitting in his shadow. He pauses, then, grudgingly, nods. "That'll do." In a moment, you hop into his shadow. He stops for a moment, focusing carefully on the slight blackness cast by the moonlight. "...it's like you're not even there. Useful for you, I suppose. Maybe that explains the elemental imbalance..." As he walks toward the hall, towing you along, you throw him a curious feeling. "Elementals aren't common by any stretch," he explains quietly, "but those of Shadow, Spirit, Earth, and Water varieties are most frequent. The other four - wind, fire, lightning, light - well, I've never heard of any incidents at all. A curiosity. Something to ask a mage, maybe." You reach the hall. The men look relieved to see the knight. "Sir Flint!" "I've slain the beast. Are the people safe? Where's John? I'd just spoken with him earlier." One of the men takes a long breath. He shuts his eyes. "...Joey...the idiot boy ran at the thing. John pushed him out of the way...he isn't good." "Shit." Flint stomps a foot. "Where is he? Take me to him, quickly!"

The men quickly lead you to the pastor. The scene is not pleasant. John is propped up against the wall of a building. His left arm is bent back the wrong way at the elbow, and one of his legs has a long gash down the side. A man is busy stuffing cloth on the wound, trying to staunch the blood. Joey is alone at the edge of the torchlight, holding his head in his hands. You can see the tears leaking out from his face. "Dammit." Flint kneels down. He lays his hands on John. "...this isn't my area of expertise. Stand back." The townspeople quickly make a space. Flint's hands begin to glow. "...no." Flint blinks, surprised. John's eyes flutter open. They find Flint. "Don't. I'm done." "John, I've got to-" "Shut up." John coughs hard. "...don't waste...the strength. Arm's gone...couldn't fight now. Both be in bed if you healed me this far gone." "You won't be in bed if I don't heal you! You'll be dead!" "At least the town'll have a chance. Get to the forest...stop this thing." "John, I can't do it alone!" The shout comes out of Flint, unreserved even in front of the people surrounding him. "I'm healing you whether you like it or -" "Fuck you," John spits. He coughs again. "...you...save my town..." He goes slack. Flint grabs his shoulder. "John. John!" The townspeople hang their heads. Joey's wails are the only sound. Though you're distant from these people, you do feel pity for them. The rest of the late night is quiet and somber. John is buried behind the church. By the time it's done, the sun has risen. You've stayed in Flint's shadow the whole time. The townspeople are in mourning for their outspoken but warm religious leader. Abigail stays with the other children, briefly smiling at you when Flint passes her by with a nod. He leaves the town, alone. You stand alone at the edge of the forest. It's surprisingly close to the edge of the buildings. "Shadow," Flint says. "I'm going in. The attacks will only worsen. Are you coming?" You briefly send Abigail an image of yourself and the knight going into the forest, followed by one of her with the children in the hall, and a note of caution. You feel as though the message has reached her, though it seems as if it was at the very edge of your range of communication.

You send Flint an impression of agreement, and an image of yourself holding off a zombie from his shadow while he decapitates it. Flint nods fiercely. "Damn right." He trods forward. The forest is quiet. His boots crunch through the leaves and snap twigs without much concern for stealth. He's a man on a mission. "...speaking of, shadow. What's your name?" You send Flint an image of yourself, with a heavy streak of curiosity. You send him what you remember of the tunnels - a brief glimpse of the altar. The face of the elf woman. The shadow dragon. A flash of bright, green light. And then you finish with another wave of uncertainty and curiosity. "I'm getting that you don't really know much about yourself. I suppose "Shadow" will do for now. What was all that, exactly? Was that an elf?" You send him the affirmative, but find it difficult to communicate the exact specifics. Eventually he shrugs. "Just tell me when you can think of how to put it." You consider this for a moment. Then you realize you don't know much about the current situation. You compose an image - a strange, glowing figure, connected by shadows to many zombies. You add a note of curiosity. "What's behind all this?" Flint translates. "...could be rampant magic. It happens. Or...it could be intentional. Directed." He frowns. "...I'm...well, I suppose you could say well read, at least compared to my brothers. I don't have much to compare myself to. Anyway, I remember something about this region in particular. Long ago, there was a strong clan of mages that specialized in spirit magic that lived here, near that town and in what's now called the Old Forest. I think that must be at the heart of it - spirit magic is closely linked with speaking to and raising the dead. Along with Shadow, in fact." Flint glances hard over his shoulder at his shadow, and you. "Don't do anything like that, if you can. Or you can consider this allegiance over."

You respond to Flint's question with a brief and sharp image: yourself, smashing zombies back into the ground with shadowy spears. Flint nods. "That's what I wanted to hear-ah, see, I guess." The journey continues. Flint breaks briefly for food and water from his shoulder pack, then walks on. The forest begins to change. Trees lose their leaves, though it barely seems to be mid-spring. The ground below grows dry and cracked as if all the water has been sucked dry. Yellowy bits of fungus clods the base of trees and here and there in bare dirt. Flint's movements begin to grow more measured, precise. You send him an image of crossroads, and curiosity. "...it's easy," he says. "Can't you feel the magic? It's like breadcrumbs. A giant road made out of them." You reach a small clearing. He points above the treeline. "There. That's where we're going." You follow his arm. Above the trees sits the tower of an old keep. Despite your efforts, you can't seem to sense magic very well, at least, not the diffuse sort that Flint seems to be so aware of. A twig snaps. Flint glances back, frowning. "Did you hear that?" You send him the affirmative. "...you, in the woods! Show yourself!" You find it unlikely that a zombie will obey that command...but then, you haven't seen many smart zombies lately. Despite your skepticism, there's a rustling from behind you. Bushes part - and Joey steps into the clearing. "What the - dammit, boy, why the hell are you out here?!

"I couldn't just sit there and wait!" Joey shouts. "I...it's..." His voice falters. "Pastor John...he died because of me." He clenches his fists. "I have to do something. My life is the least I can - " "You stupid, idiotic boy!" Flint screams. Joey is in shock at his tone. You're surprise yourself. "Selfsacrifice is the path of cowards and fools that can't face their mistakes head on! What do you think you can do against a zombie? Against 5, ten?! You think I have the skill to protect you?!" Flint covers his face. "And now we're but a half mile from the center of this chaos. I can hardly send you back through the woods alone and expect you to live." "...I got this far alone," Joey mutters. "That just shows your ignorance. 4 of them have been following us for three miles. I thought you were the fifth, but when you got close I could tell the difference." Flint folds his arms. "This is beyond you. But now you're stuck here, and I'm stuck with you." The knight leans forward. "Let me explain something to you. This isn't an adventure out of a story. I'm not going to get myself hurt trying to save you. Not because I don't like you, or I think you deserve to die - no, I'd prefer you safe and at home and tucked into your bed after your mother's pie. I won't go out of my way to save you because I now have to weigh your life against the five hundred or so other lives in your village, and I can't afford to take more risks than necessary. Sticking my neck out for you is more than necessary. This is already a Light-damned suicide mission." The 16-year-old struggles to respond to the brutal honesty of a cynical man. In the end, he says nothing; only checks his hilt and straightens his pack. "Stay close," the knight warns. "I don't know why they aren't attacking us..." His eyes wander down to you, then back to Joey. "...but it can't last forever. Just remember that your life is in your hands. The longer you live, the more zombies you get to kill, and the less Pastor John has to turn in his grave." The journey forward is as silent as ever. When you reach the keep, there are still several hours of daylight left.

A crumbling stone retaining wall surrounds the ancient keep, which lies in the middle of a large courtyard. Access is simple; there's holes in the wall, weathered down from the elements. You can see the dome of a mausoleum in the back behind the keep, and a large well is located in the courtyard as well. Flint steadily eyes the surroundings. You could suggest a course of action, or let him chose for you. You send Flint an image of the well. He gives you a subtle nod, then walks over. The wood supporting the bucket has long since broken and collapsed inside. The opening itself is pitch black. Flint drops in a stone. It clacks off the wall, then after a brief silence, you hear the distinct "plunk" of water. It has no distinguishing features. You send Flint an image of yourself stretching out from behind him, and Joey having a fit. Flint turns back. "Boy - I'll be using magic. That includes shadow magic. So don't turn into a frightened pigeon when you see my shadow move, alright?" Joey nods. His eyes keep darting around nervously. He's obviously near about to wet himself. Flint just sighs. <Jacob's Field Keep Mausoleum> You send Flint an image of the wall.

He deftly scrambles up a few collapsed stones, and he's on top of it in moments. The surrounding forest is quiet. You see a bit of motion through the trees. You send it as an image to Flint. He nods. "They're out there," he mutters. "Don't know what they're waiting for." "D-did you say something?" Joey stutters. "Nothing important." "Y-you too..." Flint frowns, then just shakes his head. You send Flint an image of yourself rolling your eyes at Joey. That gets a small smirk out of the knight, but it fades quickly. Flint walks over to the Mausoleum. Now, even you can feel the magical energy. The mausoleum is certainly the source. Images glow on the walls. In small nooks, an orange sun and moon. In the center, the orange outline of a triangle. Flint puts his hand on the triangle. It doesn't react. He probes a bit. "...I think this is an entrance of some sort. Sealed." He purses his lips. "Wonder if the key is still lying around..." He takes in the sun and moon sigils. "...maybe two keys." You nudge him to look at the keep. He walks toward the front. Joey trails like a scared puppy. The front doors of the keep have long since fallen in. It's quite dark inside, but the wide hole provides enough sunlight to cast shadows. Your night vision allows you to peer through the darkness easily. The stone is bare and devoid of furniture other than an old pile of wood in one corner. You see a stairwell leading up into the second floor, and one leading down. You nudge Flint with an image of the tower collapsing, a feeling of great caution, and then direct him to the staircase leading down. Flint moves down the stone stair. The door below is made of iron. Oddly, the iron hasn't rusted at all, despite the obvious age of the surrounding materials. There's a sun crest on the door matching the one that was on the mausoleum. Flint focuses for a

moment, then nods to himself. "I think I'm beginning to see the idea of this place. Defense in depth. We need one key to open this door. I'd bet you anything the second key is down there. Once we have both, we can open that mausoleum." His face darkens. "But what did they want to keep locked up?" "...maybe they wanted to keep something locked in," Joey mutters. "Your speaking privileges have been revoked," Flint snaps. "Think positive. I'm not going to be eaten alive by zombies. I'm going to survive what is by far the most dangerous situation I've ever been in. Sir Flint is not going to kill me out of sheer frustration." Joey swallows, but wisely keeps to his new no-speaking rule. Flint marches up the rotting wood steps with slightly more gusto than is probably wise. He opens the door to the second floor...

THREAD 4
>HP 15/15 >Mana 4/4 He peers around; you peer with him. It's as empty as the first floor. Dimmed, orange light from the setting sun filters in from a sizable hole in the corner of the wall. The stone is covered in a layer of dust, and a slight yellow haze. The disease of the magic hangs in the air palpably. Flint goes still. "...my senses are dulling. Something's wrong." "...what do you mean?" Joey asks. "I could sense four zombies out in the woods, still beyond the wall," Flint says. "Now, nothing." He glances to another flight of stairs in the center of the room, curling up into the upper reaches of the keep. "Nowhere to go but up..." The stairs creak and groan as Flint walks up them. Joey stays right on his heels, nervously glancing about as you work your way into the dimmer recesses of the broken rafters higher up. The third floor is, like the others, rather bare. There's a dusty-looking container in the corner. Two doors, wood, lead to the outside. If you remember correctly, that should probably be the upper walk of the keep. They're old, and slightly ajar. The spiral staircase continues to the fourth floor. Shafts of light beam down from above. The roof of the keep is worn and collapsed in places, exposing the highest reaches to the sky. You send Flint an image of the container in the corner. He approaches cautiously. The chest, about three feet wide and two high, is coated in dust. He reaches out a gauntlet and gingerly swipes across the top. That reveals a grey burnish. He beings to brush at the rest of it, slowly revealing a solid steel box. Like the iron doors leading into the basement of the keep, it seems untouched by time or the elements. Flint frowns heavily. "I sure hope our key isn't in there." He squints. Etched into the top of the chest are the same symbols that were on the mausoleum - a sun and a moon. You send an image to Flint of the old wooden doors. He walks over to them and places a hand on the first of the two doors. It begins to creak open... ...then tilts and falls forward. Flint, surprised, falls backward. The door slams onto the walkways with a hard WHOOMPH. He clambers to his feet and brushes himself off "...scared the hell out of me."

You walk out onto the upper level of the keep. The forest is quiet. Flint frowns deeply, then shakes his head. "Nothing." From your high position, you noticed something you didn't before - two large gargoyles on the north side of the retaining wall. You came from the south, so you didn't see them when you were down on the ground. Sir Flint proceeds up the stairs, with Joey at his heels. They groan with each shifting clank of Flint's armor. You reach the top floor. The upper room of the keep is totally exposed to the elements; the roof has been ripped and blasted away with time. Some rotting wood support beams still protrude into the air. The light of the setting sun illuminates one wall brightly, while the other is deeply shadowed. But the floor, like the other rooms, is bare. Flint glances around. The key he'd predicted is nowhere to be seen. He shoves his hands into his hips. "...shit." Joey looks crestfallen. He scuffs his boot against the floor, kicking up dust and rot. He frowns, then slides his shoe back and forward, then begins to shuffle like mad. Flint waves a hand at the approaching cloud of dust. "Boy, what are you - "

"Look! It's a picture. Like a mural, on the wall of the church." Flint peers down. You join him. Indeed, there is an imaged etched into the stone tiles that line the floor of the room. You spend the next few minutes clearing dust off the floor, then stand there, staring at it. "...this makes no sense," Joey says. "It's just random lines." "No." Flint bends down. He wedges his fingers inbetween one tile and the next. With a grunt, he lifts it up and moves it to the side. Spiders and centipedes scurry out from under the slab that hasn't moved in probably several hundred years. "...the pieces are all here. We've got to put it back in the write order." When Flint's shadow begins to move on its own, Joey nearly has a heart attack from the fear. Flint coughs loudly. "Ah...shadow, assist us move the slabs!" You stifle a response - the cover is convenient - and begin to assist moving the slabs. You Strength allows you to be of great assistance. Flint makes a show of directing you carefully, and helps you carry pieces hear and there. Joey stands back, amazed. "That magic is incredible. I didn't know knights could do that. Is...it a kind of light magic?" "Obviously," Flint answers smoothly. "Oh, well, right. Um, is it smart?" "Sort of like a golem." "Oh." Joey looks like he has no idea what a golem is, but he bites his tongue there. You quickly make out the image, but moving every piece into place takes a long time. When you're

finally finished, the sun is dipping below the trees, and it's getting dark fast. The last slab thuds down into place. The image, formerly stone, glows orange. It's like the picture of some sort of...Spirit. Something rises from the center of the floor, right where the 'head' of the spirit is. The grating of stone on stone echoes in the small space until a waist-high pedestal has settled into place. The top of the stone platform glows very bright orange, then vanishes. In its place is a talisman in the shape of a sun. Flint nods. "Now we're getting somewhere." Flint begins to move toward the pedestal. You stop him with a strong Impression of caution. He hesitates, then lets his arm drop. You inspect the pedestal carefully. It is etched with images itself, congruent with the image on the floor, as if the artist included it originally. You focus all your senses on the pedestal... >Rolled 1d20: 4, 12, 17 You can't sense anything out of place about the pedestal. So, either there's nothing wrong with taking the key... ...or your senses aren't as sharp as you'd like to believe. Having finished your inspection, you send Flint an Impression of him reaching for the pedestal. He nods, then walks forward. He snatches the key from the pedestal, then skips back. For a moment, nothing happens. And then several things happen all at once. A snap of orange energy crackles down the pedestal.

A ear-splitting screech echoes from the stairwell. A roar blasts over your heads, echoing from the edge of the forest. You're not sure what's coming, but you're rather certain it won't be friendly. You flash Flint an impression of yourself running down the stairs and stabbing zombies to death, with him at your back. You lope to the stairs and start down. "Joey, stay behind me!" Flint sprints after you. The wood thuds under their feet as they pound down the stairs after you. Another huge roar rips down the stairs after you. You can hear several smaller shrieks echo after it, along with a chorus of zombie-like moans. You hit the stone of the third floor. The room is still empty, but you can hear footsteps on the stairs leading up from the second floor! You dash toward the top of the stairs. Flint is just behind you. You stop at the top of the wooden stairwell, ready to kill. A monster tears up the steps faster than you've seen any zombie move. It's not a normal zombie...it's a ghoul! Its shriek seems to cut into your ears. With little time to react, you lash out with your shadows! >Rolled 1d20: 3, 6, 8 >Secondary Critical Success You shadow spear stabs in... ...and the ghoul leaps up, deftly evading your strike! Its clawed feet rip into the stone wall, and it rebounds onto the second floor... ...but Sir Flint's sword meets it in midair, decapitating it in an instant! The ghoul's

body drops limp to the ground, dead. Another ghoul is coming. And another - and a third! In the meantime, Joey has run over to the balcony door. He's trying to drag the wood over, but he's not as strong as either you or Flint. It's slow going. >Rolled 1d20: 13, 1, 1 >Primary Critical Failure! >Primary Critical Failure! You stab forward straight down the stairs, trying to throw off the ghouls with your superior range. But they aren't normal zombies. The ghouls react faster than you could possibly expect, twisting out of the way of your spear-attack. Your shadows can't unravel fast enough to defend before they're on top of you! The first ghoul slams into you, smashing you with a clenched fist. You tumble into a ball and fly backwards, rolling from the top of the stairwell, a mess of claws and shadow. >HP 11/15 The second ghoul is in the room, charging at Flint. The knight raises his sword - and trips. The ghoul catches him under the chin with an uppercut. His sword falls from his hands as he stumbles backwards, dazed from the blow. The third ghoul sprints up into the room unchecked! It runs straight for Joey, who was almost across the room with the door! Joey drops his load and unsheathes his knife. He's shaking, but there's a grim look on his face. >Rolled 1d20: 10, 7, 7 >Secondary Critical Success You step back from the ghoul and strike again. It manages to evade once more, but not entirely. You spear rips its arm clear from its body. The blow huts it significantly - but extending your shadow leaves you vulnerable to its speed! Its claws rake across your side! >HP 10/15 Out of the corner of your eye, you see Flint's swift recovery. He rolls sideways, grabbing his sword and popping to his feet in one smooth motion. His slash catches the overconfident ghoul from below, slicing off one of its legs! That kills its movement, and he seals its fate by slicing its head in half. Meanwhile, the ghoul facing Joey launches a series of wild clawing attacks. Joey steps backward

toward the balcony entrance, keeping his knife pointed squarely at his opponent. He's losing ground fast, but he hasn't been hit. >Rolled 1d20: 7, 2, 19 You dance across the stone floor with the ghoul, acting and reacting. You're fast, but the ghoul is just as fast. Neither of you seem to be able to land a blow. You overextend your shadow a bit too much! The ghoul rakes its remaining arm back the other way. You deflect it up with your shadow, but you don't expect its kick! You stumble back. >HP 9/10 Flint runs to help Joey, but trips. He growls in anger and shoves up to his feet. The ghoul catches Joey on the arm! The force of the blow spins the boy to the side. He sprawls on the stone with a sharp cut near his shoulder. His knife clatters across the floor. The powerful roar blasts through the room. The remaining half of the balcony door splinters inward. The ghoul that had just cornered Joey looks up just in time to be blown in half by the force.

Standing in the doorway is a gargoyle. It's as tall as a man, but nearly twice as wide. A stone tail sweeps the floor menacingly. It raises a mighty spear, turning its head from side to side as it takes in the scene. Its eyes stop on Flint, who has the Sun Key tucked into his pack. A low rumble rises out of its throat. Flint levels his sword at the new opponent. Joey crawls back on his hands and knees, his eyes wide with fear. >Rolled 1d20: 10, 1, 4 >Primary Critical Failure! You decide enough it enough. You charge at the ghoul, shoving it forward, throwing your strength and your shadows into the attack. It hits you back head on, but its rotting body succumbs to your momentum. You take several direct hits from your foe, but your shadow nearly severs its head. As its twitching body tries to get in one last hit, you rip its other arm off. At the same time, you've pushed it toward the gargoyle, hoping to distract it long enough to be of some use. The gargoyle snaps its head over at the noise. Still dealing with the body of the ghoul bleeding on you, you don't see the thrust of its spear. The weapon stabs into you, landing a direct hit. The ancient stone, bolstered by spirit magic, is much stronger than it looks. The spear pierces through the body of the ghoul and almost punctures through you, as well. You're sent back to the stone floor, hard. >HP 4/15 Flint runs up to the gargoyle and engages it in battle. His heavy two-handed sword is able to block the first swipe of its spear. He deflects its tail, but his own counter attack misses. Joey has managed to crawl into a corner, away from immediate danger. You're really hurting now. You can feel the pain of the fight, but a deeper instinct tells you your life force is significantly reduced. If you recklessly attack, you might die.

...and that same instinct drags your gaze to the four corpses surrounding you on the floor... You need energy. You need health. You Must CONSUME You let instinct take over. You roil over the nearest corpse like a cloud of black acid. The energy and warmth it used to move, still lingering form its brief time in undeath, is absorbed into your body. You immediately feel yourself begin to heal, and greedily latch on to each of the bodies in turn, sucking them dry. All that remains of each corpse is a skeletal dust. You feel the energy of undeath roll through your veins... ...yes... >HP 11/15 Joey watches you, wide-eyed. His face has gone pale. He draws his knees in to his chest, as if trying to get as much of himself away from you as possible. Meanwhile, Flint is locked in battle with the gargoyle! Neither side has made any inroads. What do you do? >Rolled 1d20: 20, 2, 15 >Primary Critical Success!

You are reinvigorated by the consumption of the ghouls...recharged...empowered. You can feel the might of your shadow grow. Your body seems to become more flexible, as if finally responding to your will the way it was always meant to. You leap into the deep shadow behind the gargoyle. With its gaze focused on Flint's sword, it doesn't notice you. Your unleash your shadow in an attack that has become familiar to you. Three spears swing out. Two stab through the gargoyle's wing - and the third and main thrust of your attack pierces through its heart. You twist your spears as you withdraw them. The gargoyle's left wing is shredded by your efforts. It staggers as your shadow unravels out of its chest, clutching at its body. Flint, wary of the beast, gives it room as it sways to-and-fro. >Rolled 1d20: 16, 12, 15 The gargoyle stumbles backward, slumping against the wall. Orange ooze is pooling in its wound. Your second strike is without mercy. You shadow spear through its body, throwing it up against the wall, one through either shoulder and the middle thrust directly between its eyes, cracking its skull in two neat halves. You withdraw your shadows, and the beast slumps to the ground, dead. The carnage of the battle has been intense, but you've survived - nay, thrived! Flint sighs heavily. "...for a moment, I was worried." He turns, then sees the drained corpses of the ghouls. He falls silent. Joey stands up in his corner. His words shake out from his mouth unevenly. "...t-the shadow ate them." "...and it used that strength to protect you," Flint finishes. Joey doesn't look convinced by the reassuring words.

You glance to the corpse of the gargoyle. Another feast awaits you... ...but your relationship with Joey could use some mending. But then, do you care what some cowardly boy thinks of you? The life force of the gargoyle is rapidly bleeding away. Instinct tells you to move quickly if you want its strength... You slowly spindle your way over to Joey. He stiffens. Flint watches carefully, but makes no move to stop you. You work a long tendril into his pack. After feeling around a bit, you find something you know a boy used to hunting would carry - bandages. You withdraw them, and your new dexterity allows you two wrap his wound. He winces as you tighten the cloth around the cut, but his trembling stops. You lift his knife off the ground and turn it so it faces him hilt-first. He gingerly plucks it from your "hand" and returns it to its sheath. You send him an Impression of confidence and warmth. Joey blinks for a moment. "...so...can a golem think?" "...well, this is a special golem," Flint lies. "My family knows a powerful mage, a family friend that gave me Shadow as a gift. Think of it as a hunting dog." Flint points to the dried-up corpses. "A dog has to eat. It can turn the power of our enemies against us. If it didn't, who knows if I would've been able to beat the gargoyle?" A small smile works up onto Joey's face. He nods. "...yeah. Um, thanks, Shadow." You send Joey the best version of "your welcome" you can muster. His smile broadens. A roar echoes into the third floor of the keep from the balcony. It's the second gargoyle - but this roar is pained more than angry. You can hear the shrieking of more ghouls.

THREAD 5
>HP 11/15 >Mana 4/4 With Joey taken care of, you flash Flint an image of the balcony and lope out to investigate. His and Joey's boots smack the stone just behind you. The sky is a dull yellow pink; the sun has almost fallen behind the trees. But that's not what draws your attention. Down in the courtyard, the second gargoyle is fighting against a mob of 8 ghouls - and the ghouls seem to be winning. The gargoyle swings his spear back and forward, trying to keep them at bay, but the undead are too fast. He manages to catch one, ripping in in half with a single blow, but three more latch on to his side. The gargoyle drops his spear to rip them off his body, but the rest attack all at once. The gargoyle attempts to use its wings to take to the air, but it's weighed down by 4 ghouls. As it manages to beat itself into the air, the ghouls grab on in a chain of bodies, forcing it to drag their weight. The gargoyle gives up, but not before using its weight to crush some of the monsters as it lands on the ground. Now it's one chewed up gargoyle against five ghouls. The gargoyle looks beaten. >Rolled 1d20: 4, 2, 5 You don't hesitate - an advantage lost here is another, harder battle. You leap of the edge of the balcony. The sun shines bright behind you. You dig your shadow into the wall of the keep. It finds the nooks and cracks in the weathered stone, slowing your fall. You hit the ground hard, but without injury. Flint and Joey are peering down at you. You flash them both an image of them jumping down and you catching them. They exchanged glances. "Did it just tell us to jump?" Joey asks. "Yes." "...I think I'll take the - " Flint grabs Joey and throws him over the edge. The boy screams all the way down. You gently catch him in your arms and set him on the rotting grass. He's breathing hard, but totally unharmed by the trip. He clambers unsteadily to his feet. Flint jumps without reservation, almost falling into a sort of swan dive. You then realize that catching

a full-grown man in plate armor after having fallen three stories is going to be difficult. Flint falls into your arms. You slow him as much as possible, but he slams into the ground, hard. He rolls over and coughs. "..dammit...Shadow...shit..." He's struggling to draw a breath - the wind is totally knocked out of him. But he's ok. You turn back. The gargoyle is missing an arm, and its tail is gone. Another ghoul is dead, leaving four still moving. The battles you've fought, consuming those monsters - it's like stretching old, rusted muscles. You're faster than you were before. You duck into the shadow of the gargoyle. With its attention on the four ghouls, it doesn't notice you. The ghouls have surrounded your position. The gargoyle cocks its head, wary, trying to watch all its enemies at once. They attack together. Two strike from the monster's front side. The other two come from behind it. What do you do? You decide to focus on the two ghouls running at the monster's backside. One of the ghouls leaps high. It's going for the gargoyle's wing. The other ghoul ducks low, trying to score a hit on the creature's legs. >Rolled 1d100: 70, 16, 72 Your shadows fly through the air... ...and slam into the ghoul that was going for the gargoyle's legs, piercing through its head and neck. Its limp body slides down your shadow spears before stopping, then drops to the ground as they unravel. You send a third spear at the leaping ghoul, but miss! It lands on the gargoyle's back and begins to tear into the stony flesh connecting its wing to its back. The gargoyle's fist smacks one of the ghouls charging from the front, pummeling it into the ground. The final ghoul strikes at the gargoyle's armless side, landing nasty blows on its stomach. The gargoyle spins angrily, trying to throw the ghoul on its back. Unprepared for the movement, the ghoul tumbles away and slides to the ground in a confused tangle - but that same motion snaps the gargoyle's left wing right off. The gargoyle faces the final ghoul and tries to smash it, but it's fast enough to dodge the attack. Two ghouls remain. Two are dead. You Must

CONSUME You latch onto the ghoul you killed yourself. Its energy becomes your own. As the two remaining ghouls attack the gargoyle, you find the other ghoul that was smashed and suck in the remnants of its spiritual energy. >HP 14/15 The gargoyle is stripped of its wings entirely, but one of the ghouls has lost both of its legs. It feebly tries to claw away from the battle... ...only to be met by Sir Flint's glowing sword. The steel pierces the monster's skull. Its body twitches futilely, then goes still. The gargoyle is in a close-range clawing match with the final ghoul. The two beasts take bites out of one another, exchanging death blows. The ghoul is only standing because the gargoyle has been so weakened. But finally, the gargoyle catches the ghoul on the neck, rending through deep. The ghoul's shriek is cut low by a spluttering of blood and yellow pus. The gargoyle finishes the beast with a punch to the head with its good arm. The gargoyle's eyes land on Flint. It narrows its gaze, but it doesn't move. You realize why - one of its feet is chewed to bits. You both stand side-by-side in front of the monster. Joey is some distance behind you, close to the wall of the keep. You feast upon the final ghoul. >HP 15/15 Flint steps toward the gargoyle. The monster tries to move into a striking position, but its damaged footing leaves it sorely unbalanced. Flint dives in, dodges the Gargoyle's attempt to strike, and cleaves off its head with one flash of his longsword. He then promptly trips and falls into the battle-churned dust face-first. The gargoyle's body falls on top of him. He's pinned, squirming and yelping. "...ow.w...shit! Shadow, get this thing off me!" You grab the gargoyle's body. With a long heave, you lift the stone off the knight. Flint gets to his feet and sighs heavily. You hear him mutter something under his breath. "...damn...always happens to me." "Sir Flint, are you ok?" "My dignity could use some polishing, but I'm alright." Joey seems beside himself. With the battle finished, he's forgotten his fear. "That was amazing! You killed the ghouls and the gargoyles too, and Shadow ate the zombies, and, Light Spirit, we jumped off a castle keep! My friends are never going to believe this!"

Flint withdraws the Sun Key from his pouch. "...focus on survival, Joey. We're only half done." Flint pockets the key. "Probably not even half, I expect. We haven't even found out what's causing this mess." Flint looks at the fallen, half-eaten foes. "...but we do know one thing. It's actively controlling these things as its minions." Joey seems puzzled by this. "How do you know?" "A wild guess," Flint says. "...oh." The knight just shakes his head. "Use your brain. Do you think the timing of that attack was an accident?" "I guess not." "No. I guess not." Flint marches toward the keep. "Let's go." You follow Flint into the keep. He marches confidently down the stone steps to the steel basement doors. "I know I saw...ah." He takes the Sun Key in his hand and slowly lifts it to the door. It fits snugly into a small, etched sun-shape embedded in the door. The steel glows once, bright orange. The key falls loose; Flint picks it up. When he pushes on the doors, they open smoothly and soundlessly. The sun is set, and the darkness beyond the doors is quite deep. This poses no problem to you, but Joey swallows audibly. Flint shuffles around in his pack a bit, then withdraws a torch. He seems about to light it, then pauses. He glances at you. "...I know a minor spell to give myself and Joey sight in the darkness. No color. But perhaps it would be better to have an invisible friend than a torch?" You send Flint and Joey an affirmative of him lightning the torch, backing that with an image of the knight feeling his way through the dark, only to trip over a rock and smack into Joey. He snorts. "Very amusing." You send them another image of yourself clearly bobbing around outside their bubble of torchlight, scouting. Flint nods. "That sounds like a plan. Let us know if you see anything." "How smart is Shadow?" Joey asks. "Very," Flint says. "A very smart wolf."

"...oh. Well, good!" Rather than frightened by your intelligence, it seems Joey has a rising confidence in your abilities. This pleases you greatly, though you're still rather miffed as being labeled a pet by Flint. It is, however, a convenient cover story, so you don't contradict him. You proceed into the darkness, continuing down the stone steps... ...your shadowy body splashes into water. "What's that?" Flint asks. You send him what you see: an image of flooded hallways. "...fantastic. Hope you've waterproofed those boots, boy." They splash into the water behind you. You creep forward, wary of any enemies. You come to a fork. The path splits left and right. You send Flint a note of caution and tell him to stop. The splashing from behind you comes to a halt; you hear Flint mutter the command to Joey. You creep off to the left. Your shadowy footfalls plink through the water. It's the only sound. The lefthand hall slowly curves to the side. A faint haze greets you. You move forward, and come to the edge of a wall. A long crack runs up its side, and is the source of the light. You peer in. You can see the shaft of the setting sun piercing down into what must be the well. The wall, cracked with age, has let the water flood into the bottom of the keep. The well is very deep. You can't see the bottom. But resting on a hunk of stone is a faint glimmer of steel. It looks like a sword... You send Flint an image of the bottom of the well and the sword, as well as a note of curiosity. He should get the message that you're going to investigate. You Ink your way through the crack, liquifying and plopping into the water on the other side. You

reach a tendril toward the sword. It springs into the air! Its metal glows hot orange. It brandishes itself left, right, then levels itself in your direction!

THREAD 6
>HP 15/15 >Mana 4/4 Surprised by the sudden enemy, you dive into the water. The dark well is inviting to your sensibilities. It seems to effect you somehow - turning to Ink and swimming about seem second nature. You can move very easily. With a splash, the sword dives in after you. Its orange glow lights the water eerily. It swipes at you, but the water slows its speed significantly. You easily bend out of the way. It slowly tries to drag back through the water to cut you, but you've already swum to the other side of the well. You have the advantage...but whatever is causing that sword to move remains a mystery. Below, the well continues, deep into the dark. You send a brief message to Flint, three successive images describing the strange situation you've found yourself in. You're getting rather good at using pictures to communicate. You focus your senses on the sword... ...it feels like Spirit. Rather like the heavy weight of magic within the keep, the same feeling Abigail radiated when she attacked the zombie with her magic. But though you've characterized the enemy, your senses are too dull to learn anything more. The sword, rather than swipe through the water, tries a stab! It's much faster that way, and nearly pierces you! You swim away, evading harm, but the sword seems to have 'realized' that stabbing attacks will be more effective. You still have the upper hand, however. >Rolled 1d40: 32, 28, 14 The sword, seemingly unprepared for your assault, is thrust flat against the wall of the well! Your shadows hold it there, though it still struggles, trying to slip away. For every inch it gains, your shadows merely compensate, sliding up and down its side without harm; you're careful to avoid touching its sharp edge. Holding it feels somehow numbing...like holding a vibrating object for a long time. Your Ink worms through the water. Your fingers grab onto the hilt wrap it tight.

The vibrating sensation increases tenfold. Suddenly, you see what you've been fighting - an orange haze hangs in the water next to you! The vaguely humanoid shape is...reminiscent of something...but you can't place it. It struggles to keep its grip on the sword. You're in a tug-of-war over the weapon! You flash images at the orange haze. The corruption of the plague. Yourself, fighting the zombies. Sir Flint, trying to help the village... The spiritual creature responds to none of it! It shrieks back at you in your own language - that of images. You see nothing, then the sword, and then the well, and then clouds, sky, rain, weather passing, changing, shifting, alone, the sword, alone, nothingness, an orange light, ALONE You pull back from the contact, shaken. It's bestial, incomprehensible. You can't understand any of it, and you severely doubt it understood you. The sword is being pried from the edge of your fingers! You Ink works to grasp at the bits it has left. >Rolled 1d100: 64, 54, 95 You feel untapped energy within you come forward as you struggle for the weapon...you feel a Great Strength surge through your arms! You pry your fingers around the hilt of the sword and tear it free from the grip of the spirit! A sound like a banshee's cry rips through the air! The shadow wavers, then evaporates. The dull vibration within the sword fades, though a sense of...discomfort, remains. It is not something you would wield - you feel that in your bones. It is Other. Alien. Not your element. Of Spirit, not Shadow. Its instinct more than anything that tells you this. For now, you hold onto your hard-won prize. You swim to the surface of the well and slip through the crack. The hilt of the sword can -just- wedge through. Perhaps it was a good decision not to run! Flint and Joey have come down the hall somewhat. Flint narrows his eyes. "Shadow? Is that you? What happened in there?" You spend a few moments describing the events to Flint and Joey. Joey's eyes go as wide as tea saucers. "...a real magic sword!" "It's not a toy, dammit. Shadow, let me see it." Flint stretches out his hand.

You hand the sword over to the more experience warrior without complaint. You flash him a strong image of the orange spirit, along with a note of confusion. Flint takes the sword, then fumbles the weapon and drops it. "Shit!" He gingerly touches the blade, then hurriedly withdraws his hand. "How can you touch this thing? It feels like my hand's getting stabbed when I try to pick it up." He turns around. "Here, put it in my back. There's a spare leather sheath in the large pocket. Not a perfect fit, but it'll do." You stick the sword in the sheath. Flint adjusts his pack. "...looks like it only hurts to touch. Well, I'll have a friend take a look at it later. Might be powerfully enchanted." You move off back down the tunnel. You send Flint another image of the spirit. "...probably a Spirit...ah...spirit," Flint says. "With all the magic around, I'm not surprised one formed here." Flint turns as if he's speaking to Joey. "Most elemental spirits are just raw, condensed magic. Barely alive. Shadow is different...though I'm not sure why, exactly. Something for a wizard to know, not me." "I though you knew magic," Joey says. "Well, a little," Flint admits. "Enough to sharpen this sword, or do some impromptu healing. But magic is a physical science. I'm no real expert. It's something that requires years of dedication. With my sword training and political studies, I hardly had the time." Joey seems yet more impressed with all the talk of a lifestyle he's never witness, let alone experienced. You walk down the hall until you get back to the fork. Flint looks at you. "Taking the lead?" You scout ahead of the group, slipping into the deep of the shadows ahead of the torchlight. It's quiet. The bend of the dungeons continues the opposite way... You see something in the dark. You stop. It's a ghoul - one that's been chewed in half. Its lower section is sawed cleanly from its torso, both legs spread over the floor. Blood pools in a trail around it perhaps where it tried to struggle forward before ultimately dying. You can faintly hear sounds up ahead. Scratching, clawing. A rattle of metal. And a faint...clicking sound, almost like a clock. You send an image to Flint of the ripped-in-half ghoul. You faintly hear a sword being drawn, and a gruff command spoken to a young boy. You move forward. All the sounds get louder, including that incessant ticking. There's definitely something moving up ahead, but it's still past the bend in the hallway.

The ticking is bothering you. It doesn't sound natural. More...mechanical. You slither about, peering at the stone. You press against the stone. The sound seems louder. No - you can feel it in the wall. You press harder. A part of your body sinks into a long crack you hadn't noticed. You draw back to look at it. Not a crack - a long, smooth bevel carved into the wall. You glance behind you, can you can see a similar line beveled into the stone across the hall. But why is it ticking? You continue your investigate by probing near the fallen body of the ghoul. You can see the bob of the torch clearly - Flint and Joey are almost to your position. >Rolled 1d100: 32, 48, 99 You stop and listen hard. Click-CHUNK WHIIIRRRRRRR Orange light flashes around you as two spinning blades fly out of the walls! You barely duck below the two weapons, falling back onto the floor before they strike you. The heat of the magical energy brushes over your shadow like a reaper's scythe on the back of your neck. The blades continue to move, slicing up and down the hall on what you realize is a track. Staying below waist-height, you crawl forward... ...and the stone you stood on moves slightly. The blades snap back into the walls. "Shadow!" Flint and Joey are almost there. "What the hell was that?" You send him an image describing the trap, as well as a very, very strong image of the slightly raised stone near the body of the ghoul. Your friends carefully stick near the sides of the wall as they move past. You begin to move ahead, but it isn't long until you find the source of the sounds you've been hearing. The hall opens into a series of iron cells. While rusted, the ancient bars still hold strong to the stone of the dungeon. Within the pens, animated skeletons move about, rattling and cracking the iron or scraping at the walls. They move with a relentless drive, trying to escape their prison. "...what the hell was this place?" Joey asks.

"I don't care," Flint says. "Let's keep moving." You stay ahead of them, but something in one cell catches your eye. There are two skeletons. One is huddled in the corner. The other beats its arms on a particularly rusty part of the iron, but to no avail. A rusted keyhole, perhaps still useable, is of no use to prisoners without a key. In the back of the room is a strange, silvery talisman. After checking with Flint, he nods to you, his eyes on the talisman. "...reminds me of something..." He snaps his fingers. "Remember that steel chest? Doesn't it look like that?" You nod, then prepare your shadows for an attack while the skeletons are still trapped in the cage. They seemingly ignore your presence... >Rolled 1d100: 6, 19, 39 Your aura of shadows stabs through the bars! But like any weapon, you can fumble it. You smash into the first skeleton, blasting most of it to dust. But in the process, you rip the iron bars right out of their holes! The last skeleton glances up, and its eyes flare with orange light. It snags the talisman off the floor and sprints right toward you. Just as you attempt to reduce it to the same state as its partner, it leaps over you, evading your attack. Its movements remind you of a ghoul - and its speed is hardly different. It's gone down the hallway before you can blink, deeper into the dungeon. "There's only one way out," Flint growls. "Let's go." You move along down the hall, and the dungeon opens into a wide chamber. It's a long room, all the same stone as the rest of the dungeons. Pillars of rock support a flat ceiling. On the other end of the room is a pedestal, and resting on the pedestal is a softly glowing orange light, illuminating a key to match the one you already have - a small iron trinket in the shape of a moon. And behind the pedestal is what looks like a giant man made of boulders. An orange light glows in its core. Even you, in your inexperience, can tell that this is the guardian of the treasure.

The skeleton is nowhere to be seen, though it seems as though you're standing at the only entrance to the room. It might be in the shadows behind a column. You send Flint an image of him blocking the door, and then of you finding and killing the skeleton. He plants his feet firmly. "Kid, get ready. Shadow's going to find that skeleton." Joey nods hard, and grasps his knife in both hands, scanning the darkness. Flint holds his torch high in one hand, the sword low in his other. You slip forward. And your best attribute takes over - your ability to remain unseen. You slide across the floor in search of the skeleton, keeping to the dark shadows cast by the pillars... >Rolled 1d100: 96, 75, 2 It's quiet. The slight crackle of the torch burning follows you through the room, along with the softest pat...pat...pat as your shifting feet slip across the floor. You find the skeleton. It's huddled in the shadows of the last pillar, eying the pedestal and its apparently guardian. It has its back turned to you. You unleash your shadows. Your attack strikes the skeleton's leg, shattering it to pieces! The skeleton skitters across the stone toward the golem, then, recovering from the surprise, begins to desperately push itself forward with its other limbs, in an attempt to reach the pedestal. You feel a very strong need to stop it before it gets there. >Rolled 1d100: 93, 42, 68 You shadows fly up, then unnaturally bend and change direction at a right angle, piercing into the skeleton's body like so many dark stalactites. Its head is smashed to pieces. Half its ribs are gone. You break both its arms several times. The orange light of its eyes dies, and it stops moving. You whisk the trinket up and away from the body. It's a key, but unlike the one you already have, it has both an image of a sun and a moon in a sort of etched drawing. It's exquisitely detailed, showing a small landscape. Half of it is lovely farmland in the sun; another, the shore of a peaceful ocean with the reflection of the moon. You wonder what, exactly, is in that steel box that justifies such a key? ...if it's even the key to the box

at all. You bound back toward Flint and Joey and signal them forward. Joey takes a few choice stomps onto the remains of the skeleton, then spits on it. "...here." Flint points. Some characters are etched into the front of the platform. "I can't read this language, but it's got to be something important. Like how to pick this thing up without fighting a golem." Joey looks up at the looming statue. "...how strong do you think it is?" "I don't know, boy. How strong do you think a boulder smashing into you might be?" Joey swallows hard. "It's familiar..." Flint sights and sits down. "Old Elvish? Let me see if I can't figure something out." You glance at the stone. You feel something within you...and a Translation seems to come to mind even as you read it. The characters don't change, but their meaning resounds within you as if you've spoken the language every day of your life: I can convey emotion without a word; I can bring forth swords or still men's hearts. I am without silence, but always bounded by time. Guess me, and the night is yours. Answer wrongly thrice, and know magic's wrath. You gesture a murky arm at the stone, then point at yourself. You give send Flint and Joey a great sense of curiosity. "What?" Flint asks. "Can you read the words?" You nod vigorously, then send him more curiosity. He frowns. "I don't get it. What do you mean?" "Hey, I know," Joey says. "What if it's a riddle? Like in a story." "Boy, I believe I told you earlier that - " He's interrupted by you practically forming a halo of shadows around Joey. "...it's a riddle?" Flint nods and folds his arms. "Well. Alright then. What's it say?" You send him an image of a violin. Then a trumpet. Then chimes, and drums.

"Musical instruments?" Flint asks. "Or do you mean music in general?" You send Flint the image of many people playing instruments. "Music. The answer is music?" You nod vigorously. Flint turns toward the statue and pedestal. "...ah..." He clears his throat, and enunciates the word directly at the Moon Key. "Music." The core of the golem glows bright orange... The core of the golem falls lose from the statue. It's a orange, smoky orb, clearly imbued with strong spirit magic. Flint picks it up, then ends up juggling it from hand to hand before dropping it. "Dammit! That fucking hurts!" It clunks to the ground, but it seems made of stronger stuff than glass. You pick it up and feel a numbing sensation in your arm, even stronger than the enchantment of the sword. The orb is almost crackling with power... You affix your grip to the sphere a bit harder to keep it there. The numbness stops before reaching your body...but it is clearly something NOT you. Something that exists strongly, but draws that existence from another place. You send Flint an image of the eight elements. You then send him a picture of a bubble of murky darkness and a bubble of orange light, rotating, and then a sense of curiosity. Flint makes a big show of treating you like Joey thinks you are. "What's that Shadow? Yes, the Spirit and Shadow elements are very close. I thought you knew that already." He pats your head in a very condescending way. You resist the urge to hit him. "Shadow, Spirit, Water, Earth." "Wind, Fire, Lightning, Light." "The two elements have always been grouped like that...each four have more harmony with each other than the others," he explains. "Though they don't always get along." You suck the ball into your midsection and let your instinct take over... ...you hunger... ...you must CONSUME! The orb cracks. The power shoots out, sparking, snapping, orange energy bleeding into the nether. You snap up as much of it as you can - not an insignificant portion.

The tide settles, and you feel a surge of untapped power sitting within you like a reservoir, greater than any thus far. "I suppose that takes care of that problem," Flint says. "Good work Shadow." Joey nods. "With Shadow helping, we can do anything!" If you had eyes, you'd roll them. Flint stretches his arms, then reaches a hand for the key. He grasps it and lifts it off the pedestal. Nothing happens. He and Joey heave a sigh of relief. You feel a bit relieved yourself. You flash Flint an image of the steel container. "My thoughts exactly," Flint agrees. "Let's move." You get back up to the top of the keep without incident, ignoring the skeletons and slipping by the trap. The steel container is where you left it on the second floor. Flint takes the key...but there's no keyhole. "Huh." He kneels next to the chest. "...funny. Do you see where you - " The key flies out of his hand and hovers over the chest. Both the key and the chest glow bright orange. You hear a solid -click-. The glow fades, and the key clinks onto the chest, seemingly spent. Flint opens the chest. Inside, resting on untouched velvet, is the shard of a sword, a piece of the blade. It gleams in the light of Flint's torch. Characters are etched into the steel. You glance hard at them and discern their meaning: -oon, the void twBut there the words end, cut off where the blade is broken. Flint moves to take the shard... ...his hand stops halfway there. He withdraws his fingers. There's a look on his face you haven't seen before. He's been nervous, bemused, frustrated. But never afraid. And his expression is unmistakably terrified.

"I'm not touching that thing." Joey leans forward. "Correction: -we're- not touching that thing." Joey seems a bit put out, but he stands straight. Flint sighs. He moves to close the chest... You stare at the sword. Your gaze seems drawn, no, STUCK on the thing. Time seems to slow down. Flint's footsteps fade into the darkness. You're reminded of something. Something even the wall in your memory can't hold back... ...your senses flash back to you. Eight flames burn in your vision. Of the eight, three are close - three others, three existences, pillars, foundations, three Others...spirit, like orange mist...water, like blue rivers...earth, soil, the smell of a spring morning... And then, distant - so far you're not even sure they're in this world, but so clear you know they're there absolutely - wind as the searing air of a desert, fire like a volcano's wrath, lightning from an angry thundercloud Light to pierce darkness. The sensations fade. But they're there, hovering. Spirit - you can feel it - Spirit is close. Just to the south. Water is far to the southwest. Earth, far to the southeast. The other four...impossibly far, even for you to tell. You gaze upon the the world with new eyes. Joey stands behind you, nervously regarding the container. He seems...plain. Empty. There is no element there. Or, perhaps, just a tiny bit of each. But Flint is different. Light blazes in his core so brightly it hurts your eyes. But something keeps it back...like chains of shadow...lingering there. Something is in Flint's shadow. It's watching you. And it knows you can see it. But it makes no move, merely sits and watches. You turn away, and it ignores you, as well. You lay your eyes upon the sword. And you see that it's no ordinary blade. The weapon is sheathed in black mist, an aura like a dark void so deep not even your sight can pierce it.

You flash a note of caution to Flint. He stays his hands. "What is it?" You send him an image of the shard. "...I'm not sure that's a good idea," Flint says. You send Flint an image of him next to a ball of light, and yourself next to a ball of shadow. You place the sword inside the ball of shadow. Then you clash it up against the ball of light, very hard. "...I guess it's your area. Don't blame me if you get cursed." You reach toward the shattered piece of blade... ...a spark of energy thrums between you and the blade at your touch. It's like shaking a warm hand. But though reassuring, it gives you no energy. Surely, you think, the other pieces must be out there somewhere. But if you consume this now...this housing of energy aligned with you...you'd grow even stronger. But is the short term gain worth the sacrifice? You flash Flint an image of the sword in his pack. "Not a chance," he says flatly. You flash Joey an image of the sword in his pack. "I can hold it?" Joey asks. "Cool!" Joey takes the shard from your 'hand'. "Dammit, boy, that's dangerous!" "What?" Joey looks at the shard. "It's sharp, but I've used a knife before." "It's..." Flint has no argument for the fact that the blade has illicit no response from Joey. He sights. "Alright. Just...be careful." "I'm always careful." Joey wraps the blade in cloth and sticks it in his pack. "Careful enough to follow a knight not worth half his armor into a magically corrupted forest filled with the undead," Flint says. "Really, really careful." You leave the keep and walk to the Mausoleum. Its foreboding building reeks with spirit magic. It's even more pungent with your recently rediscovered senses... ...but below the building lies a source of magic even stronger. The source. Ghouls aside, you can see

why Flint was so sure this is the place But it's not THE Spirit. That doesn't seem to be near here. But perhaps they're related. Flint glances at Joey. "Boy...Joey. Something very dangerous is in this place. Stay behind us. Do you understand?" Joey nods. "Good." Flint walks up to the building. This close, you can see the indent in each sigil where the keys fit. He inserts the Sun and Moon keys into their appropriate slots. The triangular sigil glows orange, and the stone of the door fades into thin air. "...let's go," Flint says. You march into the Mausoleum... The inside of the mausoleum is a round stone room. A spiral staircase leads directly down. You lead in front of Flint, with Joey behind. It's quiet but for your footsteps. Patters of dust follow your feet down the dark shaft. You descend deep into the ground - possibly deeper than the dungeons. The stairs end. You stand in another stone chamber. Opposite you is a simple wooden door. In the center of the room is a ring reminiscent of the well - only this is filled with a hazy, orange murk that lights the room. Flint draws in his breath. "...a mana pool. Boy, do not touch it." Joey nods, his eyes glued to the source of magic. You feel as though you've seen something similar before... You walk up to the pool and dip your hand in. You feel refreshed...but nothing else happens. Flint seems surprised. "...I'm beginning to think something's wrong with you, Shadow. Nothing can survive that. Nothing." You make an elaborate shrug his way. You flash Joey and Flint an image of the wood door. "Right. Guard up." He works his grip on his sword and rises the torch. Joey flips his knife from one hand to the other. He's contributed little, but seeing you and Flint best the monsters you've faced thus

far seems to have bolstered his confidence. You approach the wooden door and reach out a hand for the rusty knob. It opens itself before you can get there. "Come in, come in!" A voice calls. It sounds like angry sandpaper and hissing snakes. "I was wondering what was taking so long..." You slip into Flint's shadow. He nods, accepting, then pushes through the door after handing the torch to Joey so he can use his sword with both hands. Joey holds the light in a death grip. The other thing in his shadow seems to ignore you...seemingly, only a part of it is really 'there', almost like the shadow's shadow. The rest seems to be inside of the knight himself. The next chamber is a crypt. Three tombs are set into the wall in the back; coffins resting in each tomb are already open. Two ghouls stand to either side of the central coffin. And before the center is a rotted creature in dark, patched robes. "Greetings." The hissing voice rattles even you. "I've been waiting for some time." "Are you responsible for this?" Flint demands. "Speak! Did you command the undead to harm the innocents in the town?" "Innocents?" the lich muses. "Innocent. I wonder. Descendents of a people not so innocent, perhaps?" "...I neither know nor care of past crimes," the knight says. "That justifies nothing." "If I am frank with you," the necromancer says, "you will allow me to speak." Flint hesitates. You Urge caution to Flint. Flint works his sword in his grip. "If you have something to say, say it." "...not much, to you," the lich says. "I can see the light rolling off you in waves...would you work with something like myself? Ever? In a thousand years, mayhap?" "...not likely." "As it is for me," the lich adds. "But I have words for the Shadow Spirit, there." Flint tenses. You go still. "Yes, I sense you," the lich says. "You fool the mundane easily, but my senses are quite attuned...I've spent the better part of a millennium mediating on the mana pool next door, you see.

"You're different than a normal elemental spirit. Unlike that cloud of nothing that was polluting the well...you're special. Unique. Intelligent. I can see the potential within you." The lich leans forward. Its eyes burn into you. "What are you fighting for, Shadow? Why are you here? Have you asked yourself those questions? What, exactly, do you care, to come down to my crypt on a...witch hunt?" "There's no witch hunting here," Flint says, "only justice for lives taken!" "Really? I wonder if that little girl would feel the same way?" "The hell would you know?!" Flint says. "What did you do to her?!" "Me?" the lich asks. It seems honestly surprised. "Another budding mage of Spirit...I've no ill will toward her. But I've a minion in town, now, staying quiet," it continues. "I can show you what it sees. Would you like to know?" You Impress Flint with caution, and a slight hint of curiosity. He doesn't move. You slide out to the left of the knight, revealing yourself in full for the first time. You send an impression toward the lich - a tentative affirmation. And something a little extra... ...a darkened threat of potential retribution. The lich cocks his head, nods, and waves a hand. "I see. Observe, Shadow, and know for yourself." An image forms on the wall to the left, a magical projection. Abigail is curled into a ball, sleeping in pile of straw. You can see a cut on her forearm. There's bruising on her wrists. The image backs up. She's behind bars, locked in a cell. You feel a deep, simmering anger. You send a wave of emotion at the lich - anger, clenched tight like a fist - but restrained. Barely. The

feeling radiates out from you, as well, not just directed at your target. Flint shifts uncomfortably. Joey nearly drops the torch. Even the ghouls crouch lower. The lich raises skeletal palms. "Not I, Shadow. Them. The townsfolk. I've been keeping an eye on people of note...she accidentally used a bit of magic. Such is life for the young mage." The lich shrugs. "A friend saw. The friend told her mother. The mother told other mothers...and with the return of the mayor just this evening, well. He wanted something done for the death of his brother, the pastor." "A death you caused!" Flint shouted. "...ultimately..." the lich is still. "It is my responsibility. But the deaths were not intentional." "Not intentional?!" Flint shouts. "The hell do you mean, not intentional? You just accidentally commanded the undead to rise and kill people?!" "You know of the Elementomachy?" "...every child knows of The War," Flint says. "So it's history, now?" the lich asks. "I suppose it would be so. I was a soldier, of sorts. On the side of Spirit." "Dear Light. You fought in the Elementomachy?" "As I said," the lich nods. "My last command to my minions was to free me from my shackles...this command persisted, beyond my control. "Locked in here, I've been reduced to this to survive. A barely-cobbled together enchantment of selfapplied undeath...it was never my specialty. I had no interest in it. But when we began to lose, I did things I never would have thought myself capable. "There's been a recent surge in Spirit magic here," the lich continues. "My old spell took on some of that latent energy, killing, spreading, making its victims rise once more. The townsfolk are indeed descendents of those I fought against, or they wouldn't have been targeted. Regardless, they were beyond my control until very recently." "I see," Flint says. "So the attacks on the town were unplanned. Just...chaos from a remnant." "Yes." "And the attack on myself and the boy, while we were in the keep?" "...that was me," the lich admits. "Then why should I trust you more than half a second?" "I admit what I did," the lich says. "But you just yourself said you were here to end the cause of this

problem. You've come here with sword raised, prepared to kill me. In reality, I couldn't have done anything even if I'd wanted. And then you have the gall to ask me how I dare have the audacity to defend myself?" "What if I don't believe an undead monster that tried to destroy the Great Light?" "Then I believe our discussion had no meaning from the beginning," the lich says. It looks back at you. "Shadow. An old ally...but a close one. Together." The lich clenches its fist. "Together we could punish those ignorant fools that squeak and panic over the sight of a simple spell. Restore the dominance of Spirit, Shadow, Water, and Earth. Restore order, and peace, as it was meant to be." The lich raises its head. "The Light won the war?" "Spirit save us, it did," Flint confirms. "And Its servants live and reign from the Ringed City and bless us with their strength. Fuck you, you undead piece of shit! You'd start another war to rip this land apart?!" "If the light is what I remember, I severely doubt the outside world has transformed into a magical utopia," the lich drawls. "Ive heard enough!" Flint roars. He raises his sword, and it glows white! Orange light crackles in the lich's hands! Flint leaps forward! You leap between them, your shadow spreading across the room! You've got to stop this fight before it begins! >Rolled 1d100: 21, 58, 99 Your aura rolls across the middle of the room. You speak. "STOP!" Flint pulls up short and lowers his sword, stunned. The lich slowly lowers his hands. The two ghouls flinch back, cowering away. "...you can talk?" Flint asks. It seems you've pulled them from each others' throats. But what do you say while you have their attention? "I can." You murmur the words with some difficulty, but it's understandable. "You must not fight. No one is at fault here." "Not at fault?" Flint points his sword, no longer glowing, at the lich. "He just invited you to start a war!"

"...I was attempting to recruit an ally for immediate defense with...inspirational language," the lich responds. "I'm rather tired of war." You nod. "What is your name?" "...Adavan," the lich says. "Adavan. You will reign in your minions and leave the town in peace. Is that acceptable?" "Of course. But what of the girl?" "...I will deal with that." You look back at Flint. "Or we, perhaps?" "...I..." Flint shakes his head. "I am a knight of the Light. My code compels me to...to take some action to - " "To protect innocents," you finish. "That has been accomplished. Adavan goes his way, and leaves to live how he will. You go yours. Did you not enlist my aid at the edge of the wood? Have I not shown you I am more than my element?" Flint swallows. He licks his lips, then slowly sheaths his sword. "...creature. If you go back on your word...there is no hole you can hide in, no crevice into which you may crawl - if you take refuge at the bottom of the Timorian Deep itself, I will find you and kill you." Adavan shrugs. "I've heard more impressive threats, Sir Knight, but I acknowledge your word." You turn back to the lich. "...I would know about this Elementomachy. And my nature. I have many questions. Many...but for later." "I see." Adavan nods. "Come to visit me later. I will gather my magic and work on restoring the wood." He looks at Flint. "Just tell the villagers to keep out of it for the time being. It will be easier work if I can walk about..." He chuckles. "...in the flesh." "Fine." Flint turns about. "Let's get the hell back to the town and sort this out." You both turn around, only to realize Joey is standing there with his jaw open. The lich coughs loudly. "Perhaps a bit of memory editing might be in order...?" You look expectantly at Flint. "What do you think?" "...memory magic, to my knowledge, is an imprecise thing." Flint narrows his eyes at Adavan. "Not that I'd trust him as far as I could throw him." The lich shrugs. "Fine. Have a young boy run about spouting rumors about a lich and a talking shadow spirit."

"...uh..." You all turn to look at Joey. "Can I say something?" No one moves. "...I promise I won't tell." The lich gives you a pointed look. Flint frowns. "Allow me to clarify: I do NOT approve of this." You turn back to the young boy. "Joey?" "...yes?" "This is a lot for a young man to handle," you begin. "Perhaps it would be better off...if you remembered the journey, but if it ended with us destroying the magical stone. If I stayed a pet, and you never met Adavan." You look at him. "Do you want this on your conscience? A lich, ghouls? Can you really keep that - " "Of course I can!" Joey says. He stomps his foot. "I'm sick and tired of everyone treating me like a kid. I can keep a secret, ok?" You feel skeptical. Adavan doesn't hide his open disdain. Even Flint isn't convinced, but he's made his position clear. ..."I do not question your ability." You loom closer. "But if you speak of this, three things will happen. I will be hunted for what I am. Sir Flint will be hunted for not taking action against the lich, who means no harm to you or your village. And Abigail will burn. Do you understand?" Joey swallows audibly. His knees are practically knocking together. "I understand. I won't tell." "Good." You slough back into a smaller shape. "...it's an effort to speak. Let us leave this place. Until later, Adavan." "A fair night to you, Shadow. Good travels, Sir Knight. I will keep the pool and the forest in check." Flint sniffs, then turns away. You walk back through the room with the mana pool. Night has fallen, and the trek back through the forest is difficult. Still, by the time you reach town and hour or two before sunrise - the edge of the yellowing rot has retreated significantly, leaving brown, untouched dirt behind. "...I suppose he's at work," Flint mutters. You send Flint a brief image of him and the lich holding hands. He stares at you a moment, then shakes his head. "In your dreams, Shadow." You feel rather...bemused.

The town is quiet in the pre-dawn light. Flint sighs heavily. Joey yawns. They've been walking, fighting, and running for nearly 24 hours, and it shows. You feel a bit tired yourself, but that's more mental than anything. They're physically exhausted as well. "...John mentioned his brother," Sir Flint begins. "Fredrick. It seems there's a little family tension there...John is the perfect older child. Fredrick was resentful. John told me he's always had to keep a tight leash on local politics." Flint sighs. "Village drama. Just what I don't need." "What should I do?" Joey asks. "...I'll escort the boy home," Flint says. "Shadow, you head to the gaols. It's the stone building opposite the church in the square. Make sure she's all right, keep watch until I get there." You nod and head toward the gaol. As you turn away, Flint trips and falls hard on his chest. He groans, slowly picking himself up and rubbing his cheek. Your sense flashes at you. The thing inside him has shifted somewhat... But they're gone in a moment, and you have a friend to check up on. The gaol is a squat, featureless building. There's a tiny barred window on one side. The doors offer another possible entrance. You peer through the window. The pre-dawn glaze illuminates Abigail's cell. She's still sleeping. You Ink down into the prison cell. Abigail's breathing is soft. In person, you can see that the bruising is worse than you thought. You feel a tendril of rage crawl under your skin. You push the feelings back and, gently, send her a light impression of you holding hands with her. She stirs slightly. "...mmm...missershadow..." The tension leaves her face, and there's a slight smile on her lips. You feel something well up in you...strange, but...good. You sit and meditate while you wait. You have so many questions...starting with what you are. Though even Adavan seemed unsure, seemed to believe you were unique.

But what was the war they were talking about? The Elementomachy? And what is the nature of the world you live in? It strikes you that you know nothing. You don't know where you are, what country, what place. You have no idea what kind of a world you're in. You don't know yourself. You don't even know your own name. What you do know seems all the more precious...the bits of your memory, of your power that you still retain. The knowledge that you can absorb, CONSUME if need be to restore and revitalize yourself. But the frustration of early times lingers. Who was that damn elf woman, and why did she block your memory? The minutes tick by, but Flint does not appear. Suddenly, sound echo from the next room. "ake, he'll be here in a minute. Damn nosy bastard." You hear doors slam open. "What the hell is this?! I've been given the runaround by every damn - " "Pipe down! Knight or not, this is Kelvere, not Arland. This isn't your damn playground!" The door to the prison slams open. Flint is standing there, furious. Behind him are two men, a surprised and uncertain peasant and a rather corpulent-looking but well-dressed man you assume must be the mayor, Fredrick. "...why is this girl in a gaol cell?" Flint says. "She can't be more than ten at most!" "She's the cause of all this!" Fredick bellows. "I know a good deal about magic myself, -Sir- Flint." He puts an condescending emphasis on Flint's title so obvious even Abigail couldn't miss it. "This is the work of Spirit. A forbidden element, dammit! And hell if I'll just let a witch walk around my town and -" "She has nothing to do with it!" Flint shouts back. "I just spent the entire night defending myself from ghouls so that I could crush the magic sphere causing all this up in the keep in the woods!" "Prove she had nothing to do with it," Fredrick says. "That magic might have built up, gotten out of hand. But a spell like that had to act through someone. Or something." He turns to the cell. "I've a mind this is just an illusion, a trick! She's been acting, replaced the real Abigail with some sort of - " "Would you listen to yourself, you paranoid bastard?" Flint says. "She's 9 years old!" "Derek saw her cast a spell, and there's no one else with that magic!" Fredrick declares. "Dammit, man, see reason!" "Reason?! Reason!?! I didn't stay here and risk my life to see a perfectly innocent child get manhandled into a gaol cell! How dare you call yourself a mayor, you ignorant pig! John is rolling in his grave!"

"....get the hell out." Fredrick points toward the door. "OUT!" "She's coming with me." "She'll face trial and be burned alive for what happened to my brother!" "She's a girl!" "She's a witch!" Fredrick shouts. "I don't have time for this. Kan-Abar is knocking down our doorstep. The town has to be organized. This has to be dealt with, now, by any means necessary, and because it's dressed itself up sympathetically you're falling for it like a sack of bricks." "I will not allow any more harm to come to this girl," Flint growls. "What are you going to do?" Fredrick asks. "Kill me to have your way? I know your family, Flint. You'd start a war." Flint is silent for a moment. "...this is wrong, and we are not finished. Damn you, if she gains so much as another scratch - " "...Sir Flint? Mr. Mayor?" Abigail has awoken. She looks back and forward between the two men. Flint takes a breath. He leans in to Fredrick's ear to speak, but you can still hear him. "...one more scratch, Fredrick, and maybe I don't care if I start a war." He turns back. "Abby, you just be good and sit there, alright?" "Will Mr. Shadow help?" "You see." Fredrick looks triumphant. "Age 9, and summoning familiars. This is why Spirit is a forbidden element." Flint ignores him. "Yes. Mr. Shadow will help. Be a good girl. Everything's going to be fine." "Ok." Flint struggles not to storm his way out of the gaol in front of Abigail. Fredrick narrows his eyes. "You don't fool me, witch. I'll see you turned firewood, mark my words." "...it wasn't my fault," Abigail says. "And I didn't mean to - " "Whether you meant to or not makes no difference! The pastor, my brother, is dead!" And with that, Fredrick slams the door behind him. You hear a few muttered words muffled by the door, and then the front door opens and closes.

Light shines in through the window. You're alone with Abigail.

THREAD 7
>HP 21/21 >Mana 4/4 Abigail shifts and sits upright against the straw. She tries to brush some off her dirty clothing, but it sticks, and she promptly huffs and gives up. She draws a finger in the dirt. Curious, you stay silent for a moment and watch. People emerge in her drawing. There's a small stick figure holding hands with two larger stick figures. Then, a fourth is added, holding a sword and wearing a square helmet. Finally, above them, is a big blob with eyes and a smile. You bob out of Abigail's shadow. "Mr. Shadow?!" She grabs your squishy side and hugs tight. "Did you beat the mean thing in the forest with Sir Flint?" You send her an image of the affirmative and bob up and down. "We did." "...you can talk?" She stares at you. "Since when?" "I've recently...remembered. But it's rather difficult." "That's ok, I like picture messages. Maybe I can do it to, if I practice." She tilts her head. "So what happened?" You explain the major points of your recent adventure. You don't hold back the details about Adavan, describing him as a good wizard that was trying to stop the plague all along, but couldn't because he was imprisoned. "...wow..." Abigail falls back. "Can I meet him?" You send her an Impression of the affirmative and bob a yes. "Cool. Maybe he can show me more magic stuff?" She frowns, and something crosses her features. "...maybe...not. The mayor doesn't like it, and..." She begins to tremble. "...am I a witch?" "No." You bob next to her. "You are a remarkable young lady. None of this was your fault." She nods. "...ok." But she starts crying anyway and latches on to you once again. You let her, quietly absorbing her tears into your inky form. "I miss my mom and dad." An odd thought strikes you: you have no parents. A Shadow Spirit such as yourself is simply born from instability...a physical phenomenon. A thing that happens, like the sunset and the tide. The thought is sobering.

You lazily contort yourself into various shapes. Abigail considers each one with the too-serious attitude of a child. Time passes. The light of the window slowly rotates through the prison as the sun follows its course. You duck into Abigail's shadow when she's brought food - soup and water. Her jailer seems sympathetic, but makes no conversation. In the meantime, Abigail quietly tells you about herself - not line by line, but in a sort of meandering way, hopping from subject to subject as her mind grasps different things. She likes climbing trees. Her mother makes great pumpkin pie. Her parents were turnip farmers. She's been able to see ghosts since she was five. She can make things move with her mind if she tries, and sometime orange sparks fly from her fingers when she gets angry. She does her best not to get angry. She's glad she met you and Sir Flint. Turnips are really tasty, you know. What kind of magic does the wizard use? Sounds turn your attention to the outside. You peer out the window of the gaol. Abigail tries to hop to get a view, but she's not tall enough. You grab her by the back of her old dress and lift her so she can see. A large number of men are moving into the town center. Fredrick leads. Flint is nowhere to be seen. You continue to watch. A moment later, Flint appears, Joey and a few others in tow. They head into the hall. Over time, more people gather. The hall is packed with lights and sound. Whatever Flint's going to do, he's probably going to do it soon. Though it's tempting to take action, you're unwilling to take any chances. You decide to put your faith in Flint and sit tight with Abigail. But you do wrap your arms tight around the window bars...and tug, hard. The stone is firm...and the metal is sunk in deep. It might make too much noise to just rip them right out. You turn back to the longer, thinner bars that wall off the cell. You put about half your strength into it, and you're able to bend them slightly. Confident you can do more as soon as needed, you turn back to the hall. You bend your senses toward the town hall in an effort to discern more...but it's too far to hear clearly. However, you are able to vaguely sense the position and movements of the souls within. Someone is standing at the front of the room, before a panel of individuals...the hall has fallen silent but for a single, muffled voice. It must be some kind of speech. After he's finished, another soul moves to the front...one that's bright as a sun. Flint. He stands there, moving to and fro on the stage. You can hear gasps and voices from the hall reacting to his words...maybe he's telling the story? You can almost feel the crowd coming around to his side,

like a pendulum of emotion swinging back....and Flint's soul seems to -react- to the warmth of the crowd, glowing brighter. Something slithers across your senses. The black thing bent around Flint's soul suddenly warps. It twists, constricting, rattling like a snake. Flint trips. You can hear the thud from here. Laughter echoes from the hall. You wince. But the sense of a turning tide is suddenly gone. The muffled stream of Flint's speech is stolen - he's practically stuttering. You hear what might be Joey adding something into the mix, but it falls flat. You don't have a good feeling about this. You Impress Abigail with yourself standing next to Flint, propping him up. "Gonna help?" You bob a yes. "Ok. Be careful. Um...thank you, Mr. Shadow." "You're welcome," you say. You Ink out through the prison window and slip into the town hall. It's crowded, but there's a lot of light. Shadows play everywhere as people shift and move about...and Flint's all the way across the room. People are frowning and giving Flint looks as he tries to find his place. "...there's...the thing is, in the keep - " "This is ridiculous," Fredick says. "Out with it, or quit wasting our time. I don't care who you are, this is our town and this needs to be dealt with in a serious manner, not like some sort of bedtime story." A rumble of agreement rises from the crowd. Flint's face twists between nerves and frustration. You blast him with Impressions. You and him, fighting side-by-side against the ghouls. Abigail, locked in a cell. And Flint himself - promising her it'll be alright. Flint's head jerks up. He gives a subtle nod. "...you don't care who I am?" He turns. "Then you're an ignorant fool. I am Donovan Flint, fourth son of Timerius Flint, Lord of Dobshire! And you will hear me out before you put to the stake an innocent young girl!" Fredrick sits back, stunned. The townspeople go silent. You use the opportunity to sneak up through

the shadows. None of them notice you, and before long, you've slipped into Flint's shadow! "Not just an innocent," he continues. "A girl you've all known all your lives. A sweet, goodhearted child - and yes one with magic, but one that never meant or did harm to anyone. She...she's - " The black thing twists on the light of Flint's soul - and now you see it stealing the light away, siphoning it off as if its sipping from a drink. Flint clutches his head. He shakes himself. "Proclamations of authority will do you know good here!" Fredrick says, taking advantage. "My brother is dead. Our friends, families - our loved ones are dead!" You send Flint an Impression of his brightness in chains, along with worry and confusion. Flint raises his head and tries to shake the distraction. You send Impressions into the crowd as he begins again, images of Abigail picking turnips, smiling, playing near the river. You can see the faces of the people you're working on change once more... "While in the keep, we found a Spirit dynamo. This is a special type of magic that perpetuates..." Donovan's speech continues, and you focus on the creature. It's snake-like indeed, wrapping about him like a rope. It eyes you warily. You strike with your shadows! ...nothing happens. Your shadows, though magical, slip by your target as if it isn't even there! It slithers and rattles...almost as if it's chuckling. >Rolled 1d100: 36, 23, 73 "...concentrated instability, thereby continuing a very old spell," Flint finishes. "I believe that it may have stemmed from as far back as the Elementomachy." The room watches him...but doesn't react in horror. You've escaped notice. "You expect us to believe something like that?" Fredrick asks. "More likely than a 9-year old witch bent on destroying her own neighbors," Flint shoots back. "Clearly she's possessed!" "If she were, I would know," Flint said, "and if I couldn't do it, I'd bring her to Heavensgate myself if need be to exorcise her." "Then it was intentional," Fredrick insists. "Spells don't work on their own. They need a human

channeler." "That's not always the case. With a dynamo - " "A magical dynamo, an object capable of powering an airship - but one of the Spirit alignment, a forbidden element - just so happened to be located under an ancient keep deep in the Old Forest, a remnant of the great war of the elements," Fredrick summarizes. "Or, Abigail, as awful as it may be, is a witch. I think that makes things clear." "I saw it!" Joey says. "He's telling the truth. There was a big orange ball, and we cracked it open and the ghouls died!" "I'm calling this vote right now," Fredrick says. "By a show of hands, those over 18 years of age shall vote. For those believing Abigail guilty of witchcraft?" >Rolled 1d100: 7, 91, 7 Fredrick's hand leaps into the air to proclaim Abigail guilty... ...as does a solid majority of other hands in the audience. Fredrick nods solemnly. Now that he's won, he's all the serious pillar of leadership. "We'll do it calmly, and humanely." "There's nothing humane about this!" Fredrick says. "Good folk, please reconsider. There's -" The black thing twists. Flint nearly loses his balance, but catches himself on the pedestal. The brightness of his soul is dimmed back. But it cuts off his words. "We've heard your case, Sir knight, and no one here doubts that your intentions are pure. But the town has made its choice." Fredrick frowns. "I'd hoped we'd not see a noble of Arland try to bend us with his influence...but in the end you felt pushed to it. You have no place here. We can take care of our own in Jacob's Field. And in Kelvere." A grumble of agreement strikes the crowd at large. It seems that the mayor is playing off of foreign tensions... The crowd begins to mill near the doors. Fredrick is rallying several men to help him gather the wood for the stake. You overhear them planning to simply hang Abigail, then burn her so as to spare her the prolonged suffering. The injustice makes your skin boil with rage, but you carefully hold yourself still within Flint's shadow. There's not much time. You speak directly into the knight's mind. You feel your words echo, ethereal, unnatural. But plain to

hear. <Flint.> Flint jerks his head back from the view of the townspeople. He looks at his shadow - and at you. He does not look happy. <There's some kind of curse upon you...some being actively thwarting you. It is wrapped about your soul.> "What?" he hisses. <It is making you clumsy and lose your words,> you clarify. <...siphoning something off from you.> Flint seems stunned. He says nothing. <I will get Abigail and retreat into the forest, to Adavan's keep. Follow afterward.> Flint glances back around the room. "...no choice. Do it. Wait for me on the forest's edge. I'll create a distraction." <What happened to the shard of the sword we found?> "With my things," Flint hisses. "Get going!" You slip out of his shadow and out the back door of the hall. You cross the cobblestone square and get into the gaol. "Mr. Shadow?" Abigail stands up. "What happened?" You send her images - angry townsfolk not understanding. Pitchforks and fire. And then you and her, running into the forest with held hands. "...ok. Um, but how do I get out? I can do that thing you - " You bend the bars open. They grate and creak, nearly snapping. Abigail's eyes go wide. "You're really strong." You snatch her around the arm and drag her toward the entrance. The doors of the gaol burst open. You can sense them - Fredrick is there with a group of other men. That was fast. You lift Abigail and tuck her into a corner deep in the gaol. You wrap her up and send her a sharp image of fingers pressed to lips. And then you go very still. The door to the small cell block opens. Fredrick lifts a torch high to see in the dark space. "...did you move her?" "...no."

He marches down the block. His eyes pass over you sightlessly. "She's gone!" Fredrick kicks the bars. "I knew it! This proves everything!" Suddenly, Flint is there. "...by the light. You were right. I can't believe it." "Of course I was right," Fredrick snaps. Flint shoves his gauntlet into the stone. "I can't believe I was fooled. Dammit!" He freezes, cocks his head. "Wait. A spell. I can sense her!" "Where?" someone asks. "She's headed east, out of the village! She must be trying to use the river to escape!" Flint glances around. "Where are the boats? Where would she head first?" "Her family was good friends with the Millers!" someone calls. "They have a fishin' boat!" "There's no time to lose," Flint declares. "With me!" And just like that, Flint is leading the march for blood. A rather surprised Fredrick waddles behind as the men sweep through the village toward the east. You hear a heavy clank as Flint trips and falls flat on the cobblestone outside. There's a heavy sigh. "Leave the leading to me, Sir Knight," Fredrick calls. "To the river!" In his haste to co-opt the spotlight, Fredrick's witch hunt has backfired... You bring Abigail along for a shadow-ride. It's a simple matter to duck past the few people still remaining in the square. You've pass into the forest edge... ...and stop dead. The yellowed rot of the keep has rebounded closer to the village than ever. "Hello, Shadow." Adavan steps out from behind a tree. "I'm glad you managed to get away from the knight. Everything's fallen into place rather well." "...what is he?" Abigail whispers. "Fear not child. I am a wizard, living in the forest. We are of a similar nature, you and I - both able to do magic, see the spirits of the dead. Spirit magic runs in our souls." "...you look like a zombie." Adavan's hand twitches toward his face. "...so I do. There's no denying it." He looks at you. "When I told the knight I had no intention of starting a war, I lied. This isolated river town is the perfect foundation for an undead army. The knight is hardly an honest fellow, either - I expect that, upon arrival to his home, I would have been outed in short order. In any case, Shadow, I'm sure I have your

allegiance in this matter...?" "Wait," Abigail says. "What do you mean? You want to make the whole town zombies?" "That's exactly what I mean," Adavan says. "But - " "But what?" he says. He looks at Abigail. "Do you know what they were about to do? I was watching, young lady. They were going to kill you and burn you at the stake for being a witch - simply because of who you are, even though you had nothing to do with the, ah, zombies, and never did anything wrong. I am sorry your family died - I am. But these people do not deserve mercy." "...but...even though they did bad things to me, doesn't make it ok to do bad things to them," Abigail says matter-of-factly. "...to be young again," the lich says wistfully. He looks to you. "Well, Shadow? I'm afraid the knight...will have to be made a permanent -friend- of mine, to ensure at least temporary secrecy. Though I do not plan to make a stronghold here. The keep is aged, and we are too close to...whatever force backs the new strength in these lands." You set yourself back. <During the meeting,>" you project, <Flint spoke of the source of the magic in the keep. He spoke of a large crystal ball that caused the undead to rise - when it would have been easy to claim you as the source. He has already had a chance to -out- you.> <And when I first approached him...a Shadow spirit that did not know its own name...he accepted me quickly, when I showed I meant well. He is a righteous man. It is you who is unwilling to put your faith in Light, not the other way around.> "...I did not believe the day would come when a Shadow Spirit would defend a man aligned with the Light." <The war you fought is over,> you add. <Perhaps it is time for more.> "...never speak to me of the war again, Shadow. Ever. Clearly, you have yet to be reminded of the terror of the Light." <But it is over. If you cannot live with the town in peace, I must ask that you leave.> Adavan frowns in thought. >Rolled 1d100: 26, 29, 75 Adavan hesitates.

<They follow a fool,> you add, <but only some raised their hands against Abigail. Do women and children deserve to die over this? Walk as undead?> Adavan clenches his fists. His eyes are distant. For a moment, you see a man layered over rotting flesh, a man trapped in a room for hundreds of years and forced to turn himself into what he wrought to survive. "...they do not, as much as my soul cries for blood." Adavan heaves a sigh. "...I will leave this place. But to where I go, or for what I live...I do not know." <There is a young mage that could use your guidance.> Adavan perks up. He glances down at Abigail. "...would you like to learn magic, little one?" "Does it mean the town doesn't become zombies?" she asks petulantly. Adavan's rotted lips crack in a smile. "...I suppose so." "Then I want to learn magic and do good things for people. I bet I can make turnips grow really well, right? I tried that once, but it just burned it sort of." Adavan laughs, and, despite the rattle of a dried throat, it's filled with warmth. "You might have to find an earth mage to help you with that." A sound rises in the distance. All three of you snap your heads to the west. BaaaarrrrRRROOOOOM BaaaarrrrRRROOOOOM Torches line the edge of the dark horizon - men, hundreds of them, pouring down a hill towards the village! "...what is this?" Adavan asks. You can send him only uncertainty. You hear shouts rising from the village. Torches scurry around the town center. Many boats are being corralled into the docks close to the town square. "Ironically, it seems war has found me," Adavan says. "...I will not harm these people, but I will not save them." <I wouldn't ask you to,> you say. <You're a teacher now. Not a soldier.> "A teacher, hmm?" Adavan nods. "Mayhap." <Take Abigail to the keep. I'll meet you there when I return.>

"The keep? No. The enemy has several mages; I'm too weak to defend myself should they discover me. I am happy to protect her, but we'll be leaving. And getting as far away from that magic to the south as possible. I head northeast. Far northeast. Where, exactly - wherever I feel it is safe. I do not know the land anymore." <Magic to the south?> "...your senses need tuning," Adavan says. "And were you not of the Shadow element, you'd need a lesson in concealment as well. A powerful force of Light servants is south of here - far to the south. But I know that they'd destroy me in an instant. I'm weakened from my long time sealed." <Is there any way we could keep in touch, a way I could track you?> Adavan rubs his forehead. "...in my current state, I'd need a few minutes preparation time, and a few minutes casting time." He glances out at the rapidly approaching army. "A few minutes which should be spent getting as far away as possible." <What about a trail of breadcrumbs? Some kind of symbol I could use to find you?> "...you care about this girl, don't you?" "Of course he does." Abigail plants her fists on her hips. "He's my best friend. And stop talking about me like I'm not here!" "You require discipline. That will be attended to in short order." Adavan thinks a moment, then nods. "Yes. Here." He draws a symbol upon the ground. It looks like a circle with a triangle within it. It flashes orange, then fades. "...the best I can do on short notice. The symbol of Spirit." <I am going to try to reach Joey and Flint,> you say. <Wait as long as is prudent. If things go well, I will join you and Abigail again shortly. If not...take care.> "You won't convince that knight to abandon the town," Adavan says. "I've been watching all day. I know his type. He has something to prove." <I have to try.> You turn toward Abigail. <...you are my best friend as well, Abigail. In my short time...> You have been alive not a handful of days, and suddenly you're risking that tenuous existence for the life of this young girl. You briefly wonder what's wrong with you. But there's no doubt in your conviction. You feel more solid about it than you could form your own body. "Don't worry, you'll be back soon, right?" Abigail says simply.

<Right. Take care.> "Shadow, before you go." You pause and glance back. "There's something...under this town. A strong presence of Spirit. Very strong. It feels...like you." "That's probably the nice lady," Abigail says. <What? Like me? Who is the nice lady?> "Um...she's a lady, and nice," Abigail says. "But she doesn't talk. Just like you! Well, before anyway." "If we have a chance, I will help you investigate later," Adavan says. "It may be beneficial to me as well, to have an ally such as yourself of my own alignment. But for now, go." You rush down to the town. Men are everywhere, shouting, gathering spears, pitchforks, hoes, anything that could be used as a weapon. Women and children are being loaded into the boats. Fredrick is directing the transport of those that can't fight, while Flint works the men, getting them ready to defend the docks. Most of the boats are already gone, but there's still several boat-loads of women left. There's enough transport for everyone, but it's going to take time to bring them into the docks and up on the shore. <Flint, I'm back.> Flint stops and glances down. "Shadow?" He runs off to the side a bit. "What's going on? Where's Abigail?" You lift out of the shadows and face him directly. <She's with Adavan. He'd been watching from the forest...and was prepared to intervene on her behalf, if necessary. He'll get her to safety.> "I don't want to know what form that intervention would have taken," Flint says. "There's no way we can hold the town. But -" BAaaaAAROOOOOM "Shit. We've got to fight them off long enough for the boats to get downriver." <We owe nothing to these people, and they've given us nothing but grief,> you say. <We should take Joey and leave.> "Take Joey? What? From his family?" Flint shakes his head, then leans forward. "...you've done enough. You knew no one here. Hell, you were just born. If you want to leave, then leave. And go with

my blessing." Flint draws back. "But I have to stay. Their backs are already straight from having been shouted at. Fredrick is not a line commander. He's never seen battle. I can hold. Long enough." <You'll get yourself killed.> "...I might," he says, "unless I can count on my shadow." <What if I go for the enemy leaders?> you ask. <Try to kill them?> "That won't work," Flint says. "This is your first battle, too. Dammit. Magic makes it easy to assassinate specific people, if you really try. Most command structures have triplicates waiting in the wings. That won't do enough." Flint shrugs. "Better plan - I need to you stall. Raise as much hell as you can, scare them, whatever. I can get the men ready in the meantime." <Adavan told me of a Spirit force under the town,> you say. <He said it felt similar to me. Perhaps we can recruit it?> Flint frowns. He puts a hand to his head and closes his eyes. "...I don't..." He blinks. "If you hadn't told me, I would have missed it. Under the church. But it's far. Very far, half a mile deep. We don't have time to reach it. And with that keep, who the hell knows what we'd find on the way, besides." BAAAAARRRROOOOOOMM "They're on our doorstep!" Flint yells. "Now or never!" <I'll hold them as long as I can.> Flint turns away from you as your begin to run. You can hear his shouts echo over the rooftops. You dash through the buildings to the edge of the town center. The army is nearly upon the town! A fireball from the back ranks arcs high and smashes into the town hall. It explodes on contact, sending a wave of fire out in a sphere. The bell tower is vaporized, and the rest of the hall goes up like kindling. And Adavan said there was more than one mage. You immediately realize that, if the Kanians are so inclined, the town will be ashes within the hour. The enemy lines face you. You let out a shriek, using Ink to warp your voice in the most ear-splitting manner you can. It cuts through the air with near-physical force. The front lines of the enemy troops hesitate. You can see the war paint on their faces - faces that, for a moment, are hesitating. But you can't put on a show. You'd just make yourself a big target. Flint doesn't know about their magical power - that's what you need to get after.

You slip into their ranks, throwing out random Impressions like a war cry. You twist the images, ghouls, children, the diseased freak that was Abigail's parents, ripped limbs of your fallen foes, consumed, bone-dry corpses. You mash them together and unleash them like nightmares as you duck between the enemy ranks. The men cower in fear... "They're using illusions!" "Don't be fooled!" "Ignore it!" ...but without occupied on getting to the back, your visions pass by those in the front. The well trained force picks up its pace again. You see man after man, rank after rank, all with the same layered, leather armor...where are the mages? An awareness strikes you suddenly, hard. Fire. Flaming volcanoes, pure heat - a man to the left, wearing a cape over his armor... He's not looking your way, seemingly focused on another fireball... You know what you have to do. You lunge at the mage, slamming your body into his. His cry is muffled as you drag him to the ground. You Must CONSUME You unleash the instinctual urge to devour his gleaming, fiery soul... ...and it flares back! You've never tried to consume something still alive! The mage's spirit is strong, but you've got the edge of surprise. You latch onto it, and you can feel tentacles, fangs of shadow leach into the very fiber of his being. The fire rages in anger as you try to snuff it out... >Rolled 1d100: 84, 32, 66 ...but your advantage proves the greater! You feel his soul peel away from his body as you latch upon it with greater and greater force, a mouth gnawing at a open vein to puncture it over and over. An ugly cry rolls over you...but you're rather certain you're the only one to hear it. The fire is sucked into your form, and you feel the energy serge

within you. ...yes...more difficult to eat something still kicking...but oh so more...MORE. ...but a small part of you wonders what might have happened had you lost the battle. "Oh my god!" "It's a monster!" "Yacobe!" You turn at the last word - a name, cried in dispair. Another mage is there. Fire forms over his head as his eyes light up in anger! >Rolled 1d100: 58, 75, 3 You burst into a sprint. The mage's features clench hard as he tries to complete his spell... ...you slam into him! The fire flies out of his hands, arcing high, high, then down, slamming into his own soldiers! An explosion rocks the ground, and unbalances you! You hit him, but not with any coordination. You knock him over but fly past, tumbling to a stop. When you get up, it seems as if an entire battalion has pivoted to pen you in with spears. The mage is starting to get up... >Rolled 1d100: 39, 35 ,66 The spears stab in for you... ...and they slice across your form! You can feel the pain as your body is twisted in a manner you did not direct... >HP 19/21 ...but you're through their line! The mage has just gotten to his feet. You unleash your shadows. Disoriented, you manage to slice a nasty gash on his leg, which puts him back on the ground. The spearmen must have faced similar magic before, because they don't hesitate to protect their comrade. They're already trying to flank you. You can see another mage running toward you in the distance...he's holding fire above his hands, poised to strike, but his throw hesitates with the risk of hitting allies. >Rolled 1d100: 97, 57, 43

You latch onto the enemy mage.... .....you.... ....must.... ....CONSUME With his lifeblood pooling onto the ground, his soul peels away from his body like the skin of a banana. Your maw churns it to mush and sucks it into your system. >HP 20/21 But the spears have surrounded you once again! Though horrified by the sick display, the men attack you nonetheless. But you manage to duck back, and your shadows through their vision enough for you to evade damage. You're still surrounded, and the enemy mage is approaching fast. The fire above his head is rotating like a minature sun...he's shouting something. Maybe he felt his friend's soul get eaten alive by a shadow. You feel...satisfied by the thought. You begin to move... ...and you rocket forward, faster than you thought possible. The darkness around you responds to your will, sliding, pushing, increasing your speed beyond its previous limits. You dart past the spears in a flash. The mage stops - it isn't fooled. It can see you clearly. He unleashes his spell. A line of fire erupts from the sun-sphere and pours toward you! Not expecting the different, faster magic, it almost strikes you dead on! Your speed carries you out of the way, but not before you suffer serious damage... >HP 16/21 But the fire roars past you, striking the mage's allies, cutting them down like a scythe cuts wheat. Some are separated from limbs, while others simply ignite. The acrid scent of burning flesh and leather fills the air. The mage's spell begins to rotate once again...it's going to fire! You rush forward at lightning speed, sprinting inhumanly fast!

But the mage tracks your every movement. You duck through the flames and leap over corpses as you work your way closer. His gaze keeps moving... ...and you change direction! You've lost him! You lung in. You feel your body condense for a powerful blow. You reach within yourself for more power. You have to do more... ...and you find it. Magic, waiting, ready to be used. You unleash your shadow - but this time, it's coated in -you-, your essence. Pure darkness. You unleash Shadow Strike! The mage swivels at the burst of magical energy. You're in midair, plowing toward him, needles of darkness raining down on his face! His sun flares near-white with heat! >Rolled 1d100: 4, 39, 26 >Secondary Critical Failure The mage's stream of fire erupts in your face! It slams into you, hotter and fiercer than even the first attack. Your magical energy pierces through the fire, only to be shrugged off by the mage's magical defenses. You're flung back, rolling, singed, barely coherent. Fires rage all around you. You push yourself back up. >HP 8/21 >Mana 2/4 The mage's sun begins to spin again. "You're mine, you corrupted piece of filth! You will die here!" You gather your power. You aura glows a deep black and crackles with purple energy. The mage's spell still needs a moment to charge back up. There's time to make it. You're fast enough! You have to be fast enough! You lunge forward! For Joey!

For Flint! For delicious mage souls! For Abigail! Needles of darkness rain down with your attack. The mage growls and clenches his fists tight... >Rolled 1d100: 78, 46, 31 Your rain of darkness slams into the mage as his spell is unleashed. His arms are severed from his torso. The sun warps, destabilized. It explodes. BOOOOM You're sent flying, part of you on fire. You land heavily on the ground a short distance away. Pieces of your shadow, shredded by the force, are lying here and there, twitching. Fire and smoke are everywhere. The mage is vaporized. >HP 3/21 You crawl forward...the desire to consume burns within you. ...there. A soldier, still alive. His leg is seared nearly to the bone in one spot. A knife in his hand, he struggles out of the flames. You roil toward the wounded soldier. He's barely making progress across the ground, scraping himself away from heat on instinct to survive more than anything else. You fall on top of him and hook yourself into his soul. His struggle ceases quickly. >HP 4/21 Feeling slightly better, you lop your way out of the smoke. There's chaos within the enemy ranks. The backside of their force is a flaming crater. However, they're still pushing into the buildings. Mages or not, the battle continues. But at least that's over and done with. You see flames spread across the roof of another building. You find yourself hoping it's mundane,

rather than magical fire. You can see the twinkle of lights on the river - the boats are moving swiftly. But there's still more to go.

THREAD 8
>HP 4/21 >Mana 0/4 You roll across the grass in search of... ...there's no other word for it... ...prey. And you find it in a recently charred corpse. A trendril of energy hangs onto its body...you CONSUME it. Like a trail of breadcrumbs, you latch onto a second corpse, and consume it as well. >HP 8/21 You've reached a farmhouse a short run from the town center. Flames lick the sky. Smoke, stained red and orange from the fires, billows up, blocking the stars. This army is clearly here to destroy, not to conquer. You suppose Jacob's Field isn't a place worth holding - and you can appreciate the idea of striking fear into an enemy. You hear a sharp gasp of breath from the other side of the farmhouse. You creep to the corner. There's a Kanian soldier propped up against the wood wall. A thick bandaged is wrapped around his leg, which another man just finished tying off. The would-be medic isn't doing well himself - he's sporting a deep cut on his forehead and a bandage around his arm. "Grit your teeth, you bitch." "Easy for you to - " The man tightens the bandage on the man's thigh. "SHIT!" "Aww, shut up. You'll be fine once we can get a wiz to look at you." "Wizards? Did you see that explosion? I heard from a man that spoke with someone that ran - well, before he cut him down - that it some kind of shadow magic." "Bullshit. Kelvere might not like the Empire, but they're not suicidal." "Unlike us."

"The difference being we've got a pair and they don't." The more injured man manages a smile despite his obvious pain. You can only see them as ripe targets for consumption...but you also notice a small group of spearmen a short distance away. If you're not quick, you'll draw attention... >Rolled 1d100: 19, 59, 32 You slowly creep to the side... ...the babble of the spearmen goes on in the background. Your attention is on the conversation in front of you. "...but seriously. What if they did it?" "I don't see any angels descending from the sky. Want some water?" "Yeah, thanks." The medic's back is turned to you. Your shadow stabs into his spine. He lurches straight. His arms twitch wildly. Spittle forms in his mouth and he gasps and gags. And then you're on top of him, roiling over his body like so much black acid, dissolving him to the bone and and then chewing those up for good measure. The man, still propped against the wood, lets out a shriek - which is suddenly cut off when you throw yourself over his mouth. You liquify, Inking into his nose, down his open throat. Part of you tries to sink in through his cut, slip into his veins, but you're too solid, too thick. You burst open the inside of his leg as you go. Blood and flesh fly apart as you literally tear him into pieces from the inside out, feasting as his soul naturally drifts apart from his body upon his death. In a moment, you Ink back, free of any gore or blood. It simply slides off you. The spearmen are staring at you, mouths agape. One of them runs, and then they're gone, screaming into the night in the direction of the town, shouting of demons and shadow magic. You feel quite satisfied. >HP 18/21 You feel your strength almost return in full... ...but surely there's still a little room for improvement.

You're well enough - your friend could need help. And the memory of the shadow creature latched onto his soul bothers you... You sprint back into town. You can see how the battle has unfolded. Flint's leadership has done wonders - the men have formed a perimeter around the docks, blocking in the alleys between the houses with furniture, scrap wood and metal, and anything else they could find on short notice. Bottlenecked, the soldiers aren't making good progress. Though the untrained peasants are furiously defending their families, they're slowly being pushed back. The major front is on a short grassy stretch between the buildings and the docks. You can see Flint's sword flashing, a bar of light flickering in the darkness as he lops of heads. But suddenly, the light of his sword dies. The ground rumbles under your feet... ...thrum... ...Drum... ...DRUM... One of the ramshackle palisades explodes outward. A construct of earth and rock thunders forward across the cobblestones - a golem! It's quickly surrounded by a wave of stalwart peasants, but the golem brushes them aside like dominoes. Your sense flares as the golem moves and shifts. It's being controlled...but from where?! You focus your senses and try to locate the mage... ...a house to the south...somewhat in-between the barricade and Flint's line. The peasants don't stand much of a chance against the golem, but they're almost certainly dead if you can't kill what's animating it. "Don't attack head on!" cries a voice. You blink, then turn. Fredrick is standing at the back of the nervous farmhands. "It's slow! Stay out of its reach and give ground!" You run toward the source of magic, following your senses. The defenders quickly adopt the strategy of baiting the relatively slow golem to-and-fro rather than face it directly...that should buy you a little time. Perhaps you -won't- torture Fredrick before you consume him. You reach the house. It's just outside the town square, relatively isolated. A column of spears runs past, headed for one of the barricades - probably to back up the golem's advance. You keep in the shadows until they march by. There's a posting of five or so spearmen in front, and in back, guarding both entrances. A second-story

window offers another means of entrance, if you can climb up without being seen. Your senses tell you the mage is on the first floor. But other than that, he's alone in the house...if you can get inside, you just might pull this off. >Rolled 1d100: 89, 12, 7 After your last bout against a mage, you feel as though taking one head-on would be a mistake. You slip past the side of the guards. One of them turns toward you. You freeze. He picks his nose a bit, then turns his head back to the group's conversation. You slink up to the side of the house. Your strength easily pulls you up several handholds to the shuttered window. It's locked tight, but the old wood leaves a gap plenty wide enough for you to Ink through. You pass through the wood and dip through a bedroom. A warm, earthy sort of soul glows from the first floor...you creep down the edge of the stairs, pausing at the edge of the light shining from a fireplace. The mage is sitting at the kitchen table. His eyes are closed, and his features bent, as if he's deep in thought. A brown light folds and twists around his hands. As you watch, his fingers stir slightly, as if pulling the strings of a doll you can't see. You know you've found the right man. The room is well-lit...shadows are few and far between. But you're a little far for a surprise attack...and considering your last fight, you're not sure if you're willing to take risks now... >Rolled 1d100: 30, 18, 62 You launch yourself off the stairwell. The mage snaps his head up. His hands clench tight, and he raises his arms in front of himself in a defensive posture. Brown light starts to flare up... ...but you're there before the full effect of his spell takes place! You crash into him, taking some of the brunt of his enchantment, but landing a serious blow! >HP 17/21 The mage is struggling fiercely underneath you. His enchantment somehow stops your weight from

pressing down on him completely...you can feel another spell welling up quickly! >Rolled 1d100: 100, 77, 25 >Primary Critical Success! You realize something - the mage's shadow is right below him. And you're practically sitting in it. You've already won. Your shadows rage up from below him, tearing through his skin. A spear of darkness rips up through his stomach - and even while that occurs, you smash yourself into him, breaking his bones and pulverizing him into the wooden floor. He's dead. And you know what do you... ...you hunger... you must CONSUME You suck the mage's soul away like a thirsty man drinks water... >HP 18/21 >Mana 2/4 But the noise of your struggle has altered the guards! The spearmen burst into the room. "Wise one, is something - it's the demon!" The men shift and hesitate. Their faces glaze over with fear at the sight of your form perched like a vulture over the dead and drained body of their mage. "Hold your ground, men! It can't beat us if we work together!" It's a man in the back speaking - you note that his rather ornate helmet has several colored plumes draped from its tip. A commander? Regardless, it seems they're firming up at his words... >Rolled 1d100: 11, 30, 15 >Secondary Critical Success You simply let go of your aura. It flares around you, twisting, curling like smoke come alive. The men shy back. "Spears up!" the commander shouts. "It's just smoke and mirrors! Get ready to -"

His words are cut off because you've already barreled through his ranks and slammed into him. Your momentum carries you out the door and into a crowd of more men that was quickly forming up around the house - and through them. You bodily lift the commander and sprint through the streets, quickly leaving the men behind. The commander struggles in your grip - and you -accidentally- smack his head into the wall of building you pass. He goes limp, but you can still sense life within him. You're in no-man's land between the lines. The battle falls oddly silent around you, punctuated by shouts, clashes of metal, and the crack of fires in the distance... ...something's coming back to you...a sense of the souls around you... <...erebus...> You slow. What was that? <erebus> <erebus> <Who speaks?> <erebus> <EREBUS! HEAR ME!> <I can hear you! Where are you?!> You turn about, but there's no answer. You feel something...Spirit. It brushes against you... <...help...four keys...find to...weak..please....> The sense falls dead. You stand there, unsure of what just happened. You feel tense and distracted. Was that...the thing under the town? It's message was too broken to understand...keys? Your mind flashes to the key you found in the keep. It held strong spirit magic...perhaps that has something to do with it? You struggle to call out to the thing, but there's no answer. Weak...perhaps too weak to continue to speak? You hesitate a moment longer, the but sound of shouting drags you back to the present. There's no time to consider the words - perhaps Flint can help you make sense of them.

You charge back toward the barricade... ...to find the peasants fiercely engaged with the soldiers! They've been pushed almost to the edge of the docks. Only fifty men remain - the rest are in boats. You are not surprised to see Flint defending the peasants. He probably wouldn't do anything other than leave on the last boat. "Help!" You glance back. Fredrick is pinned under a log. A Kanian solider is walking toward him with a sword and a smile... You turn back toward the line to see Flint stumble and fall. A mace pounds into his backside! But it clangs hard off his armor. Other men move to close the gap, and Flint scrambles to his feet. His face is coated in soot, and he looks exhausted. >Rolled 1d100: 58, 81, 66 You grab the commander in your hands... ...and you throw him at his own soldiers! The commander's heavy armor slams into the line pinning down Flint's position. He barrels over them, unconscious. <An enemy commander! Save him for later!> Flint is aghast as you soar by. You have time to see him nod and shout an order to some of the peasants, who drag the man back through the line. But you delay has cost you...the enemy is nearly at Fredrick! You leap ahead as fast as your shadows carry you... But not fast enough. A knife sinks into Fredrick's backside... ...you're there a second later, plowing through the offending soldier! He flies through the air and smashes into the side of a building. The wood cracks where he hits - and he slumps down, nearly dead. You lift the beam of flaming wood off of Fredrick. He's comatose - not out, but totally shocked. The knife is still sticking out of his back. You're too unfamiliar with the specifics, so you leave it where it is and hoist him into the air, trying not to disturb his injury. You charge at the enemy lines with the man in tow!

>Rolled 1d100: 13, 11, 91 You slam into the enemy lines, relying on your natural strength and momentum to get you through! Your attack instantly thrusts you into the midst of chaos. You shove, and get shoved back. You can't Ink while you're carrying Fredrick, and you have no choice but to take the hits. Your speed stutters. A spear gashes your right side! >HP 15/21 You lose your grip on Fredrick. He tumbles down...but you're through the line! His body hits the stone of the docks hard, but he rolls only once before stopping. The knife has been ripped from his back, leaving an ugly wound. Flint is there an in instant - and you take the opportunity to hop into his shadow. The line is in total chaos; between throwing the commander bodily and charging into it yourself, you're pretty sure no one knows exactly what the hell happened. "Shit! He's bleeding like crazy." Flint kneels down. "...this is bad. If I don't heal him right now, he's gone. But...that'll put me out of commission." Flint grits his teeth. "...I could cover for you. Say you're a magic spell I was saving for an emergency. But you'll have to get us out of here. Or..." Flint swallows. "...I could -not- heal him. He defended the town...but there's a lot of lives I could save if..." Flint is torn between his greater sense of responsibility and the dying man before him. You could probably sway him either way. You find it an endearing testament to his character that he ignores his own recent history with Fredrick. >Rolled 1d100: 12, 92, 66 The lines have parted somewhat. The Kanians are regrouping for a final shock attack. You might not hold through another one... <Heal him,> you say. <Tell them...that I'm a gift from Abigail.> Flint nods. He looks up to the villagers and bellows like you wouldn't have believed him capable. "Men! Stand firm! Because there's something you have to know!" Flint stands. The light inside him starts glowing. "Abigail wasn't a witch! I can sense it with my magic..." Some of the faces are surprised, but they're listening, caught up in hsi words after he's lead them through a life-or-death situation. "...a mage, yes, but not one to hurt her own town! Her people! She's sent us something...I can feel it!" The shadow within Flint twists tight...it drinks...but it's as if it can't drink fast enough. His light just keeps growing, brighter, making you wince and retreat into the far reaches of his shadow.

"Abigail stands with you, even though you rejected her! Stand firm, and hold this line! Her gift is coming...watch for it! It will strike those invaders down!" The horn sounds... BAAARRROOOOOMMM The Kanians charge the final circle of the peasants. Flint withdraws to the boat, dragging a nearlylifeless Fredrick. He lays his hands on the man, and his light flares so bright your shadows vanish, clearly exposing you for all to see. The wounds on Fredrick's back ripple and roll and seal themselves up. Color floods back into his pale features. Flint collapses, totally spent. The shadow thing rattles, then settles again. You rise up to face the Kanian lines. With Flint's light gone, your shadows return in full force. You take the top of the villagers' formation. And both the defenders and the attackers are awed by your revealed presence - no stealth, no shadow, just darkness and death. You slam into the enemy line as more men withdraw onto the boats, drawing back into a tighter and tighter circle... >Rolled 1d100: 84, 2, 13 Flint has inspired the townspeople...and your sudden, dramatic appearance on their side drives them to greater strength... ...but you, yourself, have been inspired by this man. You widen yourself and attack, spearing your shadow at the enemy again and again. But for every soldier you cut down another takes his place. You attack, and attack, and attack, but it just isn't enough. As the circle tightens, you'll run out of room for the villagers to retreat. And when that happens, getting a boat will be nearly impossible for any of them...the last left will inevitably be a bloodbath. But you won't let that happen. You stretch yourself wider, dangerously wide, straining to hold yourself so the villagers can escape. Your shadows still leap at the enemy soldiers, stabbing and unraveling as fast as you can will them, but you're a huge target. Spears and axes pierce your flesh. But for every axe you stop, you save a man's life. You're pushed back, back to the brink. The last boat is already gone - your sense of time is totally shot by the fighting. You just have a vague sense to keep stabbing, keep defending. You panic when you realize you're out of room. You fall into the water of the river. Exhausted, you're swept away... >HP 5/21

...the boat. You're almost there. You can see the glint of Flint's armor...if you can get an arm up on the wood! >Rolled 1d100: 88, 21, 84 Your shadow snags the edge of the boat. You drag yourself up. Exhausted. You're totally exhausted. It's more than just your health...your feel tired of fighting, tired of thinking, tired of everything. Too much has happened to quickly... ...you slunk down into Flint's shadow. And for the first time, sleep comes to you...a sort of halfawareness...drifting, senseless, but rather awake all the same...

You sit up. The sun is high, almost noon? On either side of you are the widening banks of the river. The boat drifts with the current, though a few men are holding paddles to steer it true. Ahead, the town's flotilla forms a snake of wood in the middle of the water. "...awake, huh?" You start. Flint turns to you. "Greetings." "You know this...thing?" Fredrick asks. You glance between the two men, uncertain of your position. "...I knew that if I spoke of it, you'd condemn her for sure," Flint said. "Abigail sent this with me to the keep. The gargoyles would have killed me if not for her intervention. When she broke out of the gaol, like you, I thought myself tricked...but she helped us in the end. She was just afraid of misunderstanding." Fredrick doesn't look convinced. "...I'm skeptical." "Saved my life, it did," a man says. "And mine." "Make that three!" chimes in a younger voice. It's Joey. He made it - though he's a bit worse for the wear, with scraps and scratches up his arms and chin. You notice another man in gleaming, overly-ornate armor, bound and silent toward the front of the boat. The commander. <I've questions,> you say to Flint. "I bet," Flint answers.

"That thing can talk?" Fredrick says. "To those with magic," Flint covers quickly. He glances at Joey pointedly. "Otherwise, just pictures." "...hmph. It saved us, maybe, but count me out of conversation." Fredrick retreats to the other end of the wide boat, eyeing the prisoner carefully. The other men, though seemingly grateful, shy away from your presence. That does provide you and Flint with a bit of privacy. <Where are we, exactly?> "The Tairns," Flint mutters quietly. "Jacob's Field is adjacent to a smaller river that feeds into it. It's the biggest river in Venia. It goes from Kelvere, down through the tip of Archon, near Vischon, through Arland, and down into the Empire of the Light. We're only a few hours from Evinbrook that's the capital of Kelvere." <...I believe I need a map.> "I'll keep that in mind." <Do you have the sword shard? And those keys?> "They were on the boat long before we were driven back to the docks," Flint says. "I know better than to leave something like that lying around. But why do you ask?" <The blade is of note. But something in the town spoke to me.> Flint hunches lower. "...you mentioned something...on me. A creature. What did you mean?" You tell Flint the details of what Adavan said - a mighty force of Spirit under the town. You match this with Abigail's tales of the "Nice Lady". You begin to relate the words the Spirit sent to you...but you hesitate. <...about the Spirit,> you begin. You relate to him that is sounded like it was trapped and was calling for help. It mentioned several keys, but you didn't learn anything else. Flint frowns. "...the keep...all that spirit magic...Jacob's Field...and..." He lowers his voice. "...a lich that fought in the Elementomachy. This isn't a coincidence. Something is there - something powerful, and possibly dangerous." <...Flint...do you consider me a friend?> Flint leans back in surprise. He considers your words carefully. "...frankly, Shadow," he begins, "you've shown more -humanity- in the past few days than I would have ever expected or believed possible. ...a sight more than one of my brothers...well." He stops, then shrugs. "If you're not a friend, I

don't know what a friend is." <...the spirit mentioned something else. It was calling a name...I think it was directed specifically at me.> "What name?" <Erebus.> "WHAT?!" The crew of the boat simultaneously turns to look at Flint. The knight flushes slight and coughs. "Ah, sorry." A few men shake their heads, shrugging in a sort of what-can-you-do sort of way. Fredrick narrows his eyes, then looks out over the river bank. Joey stares at the two of you, intensely curious. <What is Erebus?> "Shadow," Flint says gravely. "Erebus is the shadow elemental. THE Shadow Elemental. The Lord of the Night. The Prince of the Moon. Regent of the Void, Consumer of Worlds. Bringer of Justice - well, the last one is only according to some." <...sounds intimidating.> "Considering your nature," Flint says, "I suppose...it mistook you?" Flint snorts. "If you were Erebus, we'd know about it. Even non-magical folk would be able to feel you like a lead weight on their backs. Well, that's what the histories say, anyway. The elementals vanished during the war." <What exactly is this war?> "...we've got plenty of time for history lessons. I'd rather know about the...uh...whatever you can see sitting inside me," Flint says. You spend a few minutes carefully detailing your observations, including how it seems to thrive and stamp out his rising...efforts. Glory. Speeches, everything. You mention your failed attack during his speech back in the town hall. "...and you couldn't hurt it?" <My attack slipped through it as if it were air.> You eye Flint, putting a bit of focus into your senses. The creature is still there, unmoving. <I can see it now.> Despite himself, Flint shivers. "...I feel like I have worms." <That's not far from the truth.>

"But...if it's doing what you're saying..." Flint's face almost seems to crumble. He turns away. For a long time, he's silent. You begin to wonder how long this thing has been inside of him... "In that case," Flint starts. He turns back, and he's his usual self. "I've got to get rid of it. Shadow there's a mage at my home, renowned and wise, and he never mentioned this to me. Which tells me, you're special, in your ability to see it. I have a feeling I'll need your help." Flint takes a breath. "If I can have it." <...what about Abigail? I feel...a certain desire to go after her.> "You know..." Flint looks into the distance. "I would have made certain she was treated well, but...she would have been..." He shakes his head. "Mages gifted in the four...ah, lesser, elements, are not as high regarded by many. Spirit and Shadow, especially. She would have been watched for the rest of her life. Well-taken care of, and educated, and comfortable...but used, and watched. As much as I loath leaving her in the hands of a lich, perhaps..." He shrugs. "You left her with him. If that isn't judgement enough for me, than nothing is." <That you value my judgement and friendship...thank you.> It's all you can manage. Flint nods. "That said...if you want to follow them, I will respect your choice. She would certainly enjoy your company." His smile fades as he looks down the river. "But these people need escorting, at least as far as Evinbrook. And if they're as far as Jacob's Field, they've already taken Westport. I'll need to meet with Lord Vellik on the subject of the invasion...he's the ruler of Kelvere. Our captive should prove quite valuable. Perhaps this...this can be the start of mending relations between Arland and Kelvere. Things have been growing more and more frayed, lately..." <Who are you, exactly, to meet with Lords and speak of diplomacy?> "The fourth son of the Lord of Dobshire, ruler of Arland," Flint says simply. <...you're a prince?> "The fourth son is not a prince," Flint says. "...neither are any of us. That is not how things work in Arland. But...I did...choose to leave, after...certain things came to pass. I wanted to strike out on my own." Flint punches his gauntlets together. "But now I know my failings were not my own. No - this thing curses me." Flint nods. "Perhaps Vellik can help. He is a shrewd and cunning man, but he cares for his people, and my allegiance would certainly be of value to him." Flint looks back at you. "I could use you, Shadow. But...what do you want to do? You know next to nothing of yourself. Your nature is different...radically different. But perhaps my contacts would be of use in your personal investigations?" <...as much as I want to accompany - > Flint snaps his fingers. "Of course. You mentioned keys. What sort of keys?"

<...I imagine them as the one that opened the container with the shard of the sword,> you say. <Perhaps that very key opens two locks. But what makes you...?> "There's a key like that in Dobshire," Flint says. "My father's. The Key of Arland...legend has it, it opens the vault to a legendary power, or treasure, or both...it's more a family heirloom with an interesting tale to back it, but it's been passed down from lord to lord before Arland solidified as a kingdom. Perhaps it's one of those keys?" <You're trying to tempt me.> "Well..." Flint looks sheepish, but then grows solemn. "I can see your desire to leave. But you're the only one that can see this thing inside me." He leans forward. "I...I must...I will be rid of it. Please, help me, my friend. And when the task is done, I will do everything in my power to assist your quest, whatever it may be - to find Abigail, to learn of yourself, what have you." "I do not mean to pressure you into a decision," Flint says. "Only to communicate...how I feel." You think hard... ...and images of Abigail run through your mind. Her laugh...her voice. A young wizard trying to grow turnips, and accidentally sizzling them to ash... You don't know much about the world. But somehow, you feel as though that simple dream is worth fighting for. You turn back to face Flint. You stop. Something's changed... You feel your sight shift, warp...a sight that's different than before...a Spirit Sight. You can see the parasite more clearly. Its mouth is sunk into Flint's soul, and its body winds down the length of his... ...and a trail extends back from its tail. Whispy, ethereal, leading off into the distance and over the horizon. A funnel for the magic it drinks. You feel a chill. This is no random creature. No odd curse. This was placed with intent. You communicate this, and your thoughts, to Flint. "...I don't know what to say," he says. "Where is it leading?" <Downriver. What direction is that?>

"Almost straight south." <...I feel...as though it's Spirit-related. What element is your wizard?> "Wind. Though he's quite diversified, capable of minor things in every element...well, not that he makes that public if it's one of the lesser four." Flint narrows his eyes. "I see where you're going with this. The answer is no." <Adavan is the only expert in Spirit magic I know.> "And I want nothing more to do with him." <Then you're a fool,> you say. <And I mean that as a friend.> "Some friend." <Do you know anyone else that could guide in such a matter?> "...well - " <Do you, or do you not?> Flint heaves a sigh. "...no." <Then you have no choice.> "...I wonder...where does it lead?" <I'm not sure we want to know,> you say. <only that we want to cut it and be done with it.> "...perhaps you're right." Flint nods. "Alright, Shadow. Let us go as far as Evinbrook. I would speak with Vellik, and finish this matter with...I suppose they're refugees, now." <Yes.> "Perhaps Vellik can aid us." Flint frowns. "Though I feel we won't get away without trading him back something of value. Likely, he'll want a promise of some sort from me. Sealed in ink. He's that sort of man." Flint looks back to you. "So. Are you with me that far? Then back to..." Flint's face contorts as if he's smelled something rather nasty. "...Adavan?" <Let it be so,> you say. "Good. Now, you wanted to know about the Elementomachy..." Flint frowns for a moment, thinking of where to begin. "Essentially, magic was spinning out of control," Flint says. "The more magic, the more instability.

The more instability, the more magic. It grew, and grew, until sentient beings of each element formed - the Elementals. "Oh...I always forget their names," Flint says. "but everyone knows the two most important. Hyperion, the Lord of Light, and Erebus, the Lord of Shadow. "The elementals quickly gained followers - worshipers, even. The creatures used their great powers to bring boons to their peoples. In time...tensions formed. The elements that so naturally opposed each other kept their distance, but their people did not. "Things came to a head when Erebus began calling himself the one true god. Lines were drawn in the sand...four elements on each side, allied to take down their opposites. Shadow, Spirit, Water, Earth. And Light, Lightning, Fire, and Wind." Flint sighs. "Many normal people and mages were granted powers by their patron elementals, making them what were called Van'Ath...I think that means servant in Elvish, or something. But these superhuman armies clashed alongside great armies of normal men, and finally, the elementals joined battle themselves. The world was pretty much ripped apart. "Eventually, to prevent further destruction, Hyperion sacrificed himself," Flint says. "His allies joined him...and they effectively canceled out the other elements. Undid the instability, culled back the actual quantity of magic in the world itself. But they planned it well - their enemies were mostly destroyed in the annihilation, but their own armies remained. "The battle continued for some time after that, until all were greatly reduced. But in the end, the forces of the light won." Flint slaps his knees. "700 years later, here we are. Still watched by the angels in the Ring City - that's their island fortress to the south of the the capital of the Empire of the Light. The capital itself is Heavensgate." <Where do I fall into this?> You ask. "...perhaps..." Flint grows quite serious. "...a sign. Instability is returning once more...you're not Erebus...more like one of his servants. Not feral, like a normal elemental." Flint looks up. "If that's so...we're on the edge of something." <That doesn't sound good.> "...no. No, it does not." <...does all the world bow to the angels?> "...hardly," Flint says. "Kan-Abar is accepting of the elves, who wield great earth magics...this puts them at odds with the Empire. And its allies - Arland, Ulund, and Kelvere." Flint shrugs. "Kelvere has been drifting lately...but this attack will no doubt drive them back the other way. And then, the Elvish Isles themselves, far to the east. Independent is an understatement. And there's Atlantis, just west of the Empire - they're neutral to most things, keep to themselves. Now, Felnoir, that's in the center of the continent, and home to the Great Forest. They take all kinds there - and the Empire detests all non-

humans. Mostly, they look the other way, but it's always a source of friction." Flint's face darkens. "...and to the north, past the great Valendrak peaks...once named Temerland, renamed Vampiria 150 years ago. Ruled by the Black Lady. A bastion of the shadow." He looks at you. "And not the good kind." <...I could sorely use that map.> Flint chuckles. "We'll get you one." You ride in silence for a time. Flint's expression slowly changes as he thinks. Eventually, it settles on something grim. <You are not pleased to go to Adavan.> "Gee, how'd you guess?" You send Flint an image; an image of him skipping hand in hand in a meadow with Adavan, with Abigail and yourself following behind, throwing rose petals. Flint bursts out laughing. "What?" Fredrick asks over the group. "Are you going to tell me that...that thing, has a sense of humor?" Flint has to struggle to get his words out through his smirk. "Would you believe me if I said yes?" Fredrick's face darkens. "Forgive me if I don't feel like laughing, considering we just lost a hundred lives and our entire home." Flint sobers quickly at that. "I meant no offense." "...whether you meant or not, makes no difference," Fredrick finishes. And he turns back around.

THREAD 9
>HP 5/21 >Mana 2/4 The hours pass lazily... ...and the riverbank starts to change. You see houses, farms more frequently. Clusters of homes dot the countryside. Soon, they've become regular occasions, and a road joins the side of the river, winding between hills. "Evinbrook is actually one of the most populous cities in the world," Flint comments. "It's just very spread out because of the space. We should be just - " He stops. "There is is." You gaze upon Evinbrook...the home of Duke Vellik. You stare up into the sky. What looks like a flying boat is steaming up through the air, circling the fortress. <What is that thing?> "Airship," Flint says. "There are only 27 in the entire world, as there's only 27 dynamos left that are capable of powering them. Artifacts made by the elementals. Duke Vellik owns four - one always on post here. Two constantly moving between Evinbrook and Detson - that's the mining city north of Jacob's Field," Flint clarifies. "It's the biggest source of iron in the world, and it's perfected into fine steel right here. The envy of the rest of Venia's armies. And then, the last airship is usually traveling between here and Dobshire and Heavensgate, ferrying officials. The river is used for mundane trade." <It sounds as though the resources give Kelvere a powerful advantage.> "Indeed. They might be on their heels at the moment, but ultimately, Kelvere will defeat Kan-Abar and retake Westport. Especially with Arland's help, which I'd expect my father to give." There's a few minutes until the boats reach the docks outside the duke's fortress. <Sir Flint, is your armor and sword of Evinbrook Steel?> "My sword, yes. My armor is a family piece. The enchantments were done in Arland." <What do you think about Joey?>

"Him? Why?" <I think he'd make a good squire.> Flint seems surprised, then frowns, then purses his lips. "...well...I suppose it's...perhaps I'll mention that to his parents." Flint looks at you. "I tried to scare the shit out of him back at the keep to help him keep his guard up, but he did well during the battle. Saved a man's life, killed at least three. There's some potential, with training." <Would you ask Fredrick about the spirit elemental under the town?> "Hmm. Perhaps I'd better do that." Flint makes his way over to Fredrick. "Something I've been meaning to ask you." Fredrick doesn't respond for a moment. He slowly lifts his gaze from the water. "...yes?" "A lot happened in Jacob's Field," Flint says. "Too much for it to be a coincidence. I was wondering if you knew of anything about the town's history that stands out...any old ruins, legends? Something a leader such as yourself would need to know." Fredrick seems suitably flattered by Flint referring to him as a 'leader'. "...well...there's the old tale from the Elementomachy. Jacob's Field was a bastion of the Spirit Elemental. Lucky for us, the forces of Fire came to free the people after the Spirit allied itself with the Shadow Lord. There was quite a battle, but ultimately, the spirit retreated." Fredrick shrugs. "Other than that, I don't know anything specific. Why do you ask?" "Curious as to the source of the problem," Flint said. "I expect the duke will be after some answers." "Mmm." Fredrick turns away, and it doesn't seem as if he has more to say. "Did John ever mention anything about it?" Fredrick just cuts Flint with a look, then turns away. It seems the subject of his brother is a sore spot... Flint walks over and sits back next to you. <Flint. What happens if we ARE on the edge of something big? Something bigger than either of us? What happens if Erebus shows up tomorrow and tells me I'd better be a loyal servant, and that he wants revenge on the world for rejecting him?>

"...you're a pessimist, aren't you?" Flint says. "Do you always imagine the worst possible outcome?" <I have to account for every possibility.> Flint sighs. "The angels would destroy...well. In-between running the empire, they seek out and reduce latent magic. It would have only been a matter of time before Jacob's Field was dealt with. They try to prevent the elementals from manifesting again. It's been working for 700 years." Flint looks at you pointedly. "...and maybe they're starting to run out of room to maneuver." <...if it meant stopping another war,> you say, <would you take action against me?> Flint looks at you. "I'd hope, that if it meant stopping another war, you'd do something about it yourself that would stop me from having to make that choice." Your boat, the last, pulls into the docks. You duck into Sir Flint's shadow. There's already a commotion up on the stone. City guards are rapidly collecting and organizing the townsfolk with practiced precision. You get the feeling that this has happened before, but it's clear they're well trained. Their well-maintained armor glistens and gleams without a creak. The prisoner is quickly offloaded. The man makes a show of protesting his rough treatment, demanding recognition and ransom as his status demands. He's about as ostentatious as his colorful helmet. The guards shuffle him into the castle without much ado. "Where's the creature?" Fredrick asks. He's turned around, and his eyes are suspicious. "Where did it go? Sir Flint, it was near you last." "...I think it must have vanished," Flint says. "Perhaps returned to Abigail?" "...hmph." A primly dressed man walks up to Flint and Fredrick as they disembark. "Mayor. I'm sad to see you again so soon under these circumstances." "So am I. Can I be of aid?" "Runners are being sent to the duke with details of the situation. We saw you coming from a long way off. Stay with your people, keep them calm. We'll find places for you. There's plenty of work to do in preparation for the counter assault. Winter is long off, yet." "I will." Fredrick looks at Flint. "...you stood by my town in its time of need. I thank you." He marches away before Flint can respond. The man bows low to Flint. "Sir Flint. The duke wishes to speak with you." "I wasn't aware the duke knew I was here."

"He was informed when you passed through on your way north. He pays well for such information." "I see." Flint nods. "Take me to him." You decide to remain in Flint's shadow. You're curious as to the nature of this Duke Vellik. You're taken through the castle. It's a grand place, arched ceilings, thick pillars dotted with arrow slits, polished floors layered with carpets. It's a splendid combination of aesthetics, functionality, and practical defense. Your senses can pick up hums and throbs of magic here and there - magical items, and mages, no doubt. You ascend the stairs and reach a more cozy set of halls. The messenger bows out of Flint's way before a set of doors. He walks in. Sitting in an ornate painted chair at a desk stuffed with quills and stacks of parchment is a man in lustrous red robes. He glances up from his work, then stands. "Lord Flint. Or should I say, Sir Flint. How goes the revival of the Aeolus's Order? "...of course, you'd know," Flint says. He bows. "Well met, Duke Vellik." "Well met indeed." Vellik leans forward. "I hear you played no small part in defending my people. For that, I owe you much. It is no small thing for you to risk your life in such a manner. I'd tell you not to be so foolish, but if what I hear of you is accurate, you'd tell me I was the foolish one." Flint smiles. "I just might." "Tell me everything," Vellik says. Flint pauses for a moment. His head shifts toward you slightly, and you realize he wants your opinion. <Leave Adavan out of it,> you say. <...use your own judgement in mentioning me.> "How do you feel about the Empire?" Flint asks. "Hmph. Would you like the usual political bluster, or the truth?"

"...well, the truth, of course." "I detest the empire," Vellik says. He gestures to the side. "Kelvere would be better to stand alone and make a trading partner of Kan-Abar, and strengthen ties with Imil and Felnoir. If the northern nations forge an alliance, we don't need the empire's military strength to stand firm against the Black Lady, and we certainly don't need the interference and micromanagement of individuals blessed with the light that call themselves holy angels to win weaker minds." Flint looks taken aback. "...I see." "And now," Vellik says, "let's trade. My honesty for yours." Flint nods. He begins the story...and tells everything. You take the prominent role of Abigail's accidental familiar, summoned by her powers. You and Flint killed the lich attacking the town, and then worked together to defend it during the attack. "...has Westport fallen?" Flint asks. "Yes," Vellik says. "Our aim is to take it back, but with Jacob's Field fired, they've finally penetrated to the river. At this rate, the country will be divided. We have to strike back, and hard. But as to this sentient shadow...what became of it? And the girl?" "She fled the town," Flint says. "The shadow was with us for a time, but I missed it when we arrived at the docks. I assume she summoned it back." "I see. Well, I'd like to -" "That's enough, Thomas." Flint flinches at the new voice, surprised. Duke Vellik stops, then nods toward the back of the room, and withdraws to a corner. A crackle of lightning sparks in your senses...

...a man steps from behind a darkened curtain - a curtain that gleams bright gold and silver with the snap and spark of Lightning. A man emerges. He is dressed all in black. His hair is as sharp and trim as the rest of him. His soul flares with lightning, snapping, crackling, a match for Flint's blinding Light, a twin with Abigail's cloudy, smokey Spirit. "I am Duke Vellik," the man says. Flint looks between the two men, aghast. "But then " "My double, Thomas. I can't afford to be exposed for things like this. The empire's assassins are...proficient." A bit of static sparks up his hand like arc lightning. he clenches his fist, and it stills. "Now then, Sir Donovan Flint, fourth son of Lord Flint...why is there a sentient shadow sitting on the floor behind you?" Flint gulps. He tries to form words... ...the black thing twists, smothering him before he can get started. You feel concern welling up within you... >Rolled 1d100: 44, 50, 64 You slowly edge out from Flint's shadow. You use Mimic to make yourself less...threatening, contorting into the vague form of a human. While shadowy, you think you've done a fine job of balancing your appearance...with a bit of intimidation thrown in for good measure. <I mean you or yours no harm, Duke Vellik. But it is true that Sir Flint has avoided outing me in my entirety.> Flint is about as expressive as a hunk of marble. Vellik smiles, but you can feel his magic crawling on his skin, ready. "A talking shadow. Fascinating. Are you the girl's familiar, or do you exist by your own merit?" You get the strong, absolute feeling that this is not a man to be trifled with. <My nature is something I am still trying to discern,> you say. <I appeared in this world but a few days past. If you mean that I am a spell of hers, then no...but I do have a strong concern for her.>

"Where is the lich?" <...in friendship with them both, he retreated from the battle with her in his care,> you say. <I stopped him from taking action, and he agreed to watch over her and tutor her to better control her abilities. They have gone north, far away...from the place called the Ring City.> Vellik nods. He smiles. And then he begins to chuckle. "Incredible. It's true, then - magic has continued to build. The angels cannot forestall the forces of nature themselves." Vellik folds his hands together. "What is your name?" <I suspect that naming the only sentient shadow would be an exercise in futility. Call me what you will, but I am I, the one and only.> Vellik smiles. "As you would, Shadow." Vellik walks over to the wall, and he rips down a banner of cloth. "War is coming. We are at the center of it." Stretched across the wall is a map. The word Venia is scrawled across the top. It's covered with markings, notes, the positions of troops, even the names of important people. But below that is a simple physical map of the world. "The time has come for Kelvere to stake its ground independent of the empire once and for all," Vellik says. "I plan to use the war against the Kanians to my advantage. Of course, the war was started by the empire in an effort to reduce Kelvere's burgeoning strength, but that won't - " "What?!" Flint asks. "The empire isn't perfect, but it wouldn't - " "Naive as reported," Vellik says smoothly. "The Lord of Kan-Abar, Nulis, was supported and installed by the angels. Otherwise, he never would have managed to supplant his brother. You must have seen it - Kan-Abar's increasing belligerence toward Arland and Kelvere? They're trying to scare us into staying united. They need us to fight the Black Lady while they continue to reduce the magic in the world, because..." He looks at you. "...because it's getting out of hand. Because it's finally slipping from their fingers. Kelvere will ride this wave to the top."

Vellik continues to pin you with his gaze. "A living shadow. A harbinger of Erebus, perhaps? I can sense your strength. I feared your reaction, but banked on this - and my gamble, I feel, was well placed. Work with me, Shadow, and your girl will have all the protection and tutledge she needs." "What the hell is this?" Flint asks. "Why are you telling me all this? Why would you let me - " Flint stops. A mote of fear passes over his face. "Oh, relax," Vellik says. "I've no intention of harming you. Besides, I own you. If it was revealed you were traveling with a living Shadow, you'd be ostracized from your family and hunted down by the empire." Flint gulps. "I'm a man to seize opportunities," Vellik continues. "And this...THIS is an opportunity. I've much work to do. Shadow, you could be the pebble to tip the scales." Vellik turns toward the map. "Imil. Kelvere. Kan-Abar, once it is subdued, and Nulis is replaced...and Felnoir. The Northern Alliance will face the south and flaunt its independence, and the Angels can only come and put the lie to the preaching if they try to shove us back in line by force." Vellik turns to Flint. "...and perhaps, Arland? Oh, the jewel puppet of the empire turning against its master. It would be a glorious comeuppance." "Arland is no puppet," Flint says sharply. "You delude yourself, -Sir- Flint." "My father - " "You father has been invalid for three years. Your brother rules now, and he bends to every beck and call of the angels." Vellik looks at you. "What do you want, Shadow? What price for the alliance of nature's assassin?" <An alliance with you? You're a lightning mage. What - > Vellik waves a hand. "Our elements clash. So do the colors teal and pink. I care not for petty idiocy, categories such as "lesser" and "greater" elements. I could do with a lich. I could do with a Spirit mage. I could do with every element on my side." It's quiet. "What are you trying to do, exactly?" Flint asks. "What is the point?" "Why, simple," Vellik says. "Kan-Abar is raging out of control. The Black Lady grows more daring by the day. The angels are getting desperate - I can taste it in the air, and now I know why. They're afraid

that their plans aren't working. "My people." Vellik narrows his eyes. "My people will be caught in between these great, grinding rocks - unless we are the rock that grinds. Kelvere must surround itself with powerful allies for the coming storm. I admit..." A snap of electricity crosses Vellik's arms. "I foster the storm, in part. I welcome it. But first and foremost, justice and peace will replace this hypocritical theocracy." Vellik faces you. "I give you a home, and shelter for your friends. Honor. I have many contacts...we can learn more about you, and how you can use your unique status to greatest advantage. "You haven't been around long, Shadow. Let me tel you." Vellik's face softens. He looks away. "The things you wish to protect...what you do is never enough. You must do more than what is necessary. You must account for all possibilities." He looks back at you. "Surely, the things I've discussed are worth your attention?" <Might I have a moment with Sir Flint?> "Of course," Vellik says. "Use the joining room." You retreat with Flint into the offered door. Suspicious, you extend your senses around you, but you can't feel any hint of some sort of magical eavesdropping...but then, you've been mistaken in the past. <Don't speak, just in case,> you say to Flint. <What do you think?> Flint thinks hard. His brow is furrowed. He starts to shake his head, stops. He ends with a shrug. <Is there another place that would accept me as he has?> Flint licks his lips. He doesn't move for a long time. But when he does, it's to shake his head in a definite no. <...Abigail needs protection. He could offer it.> Flint accepts this with a tilt of his head. But he gazes shiftily at the door back to the other room. <I don't trust him fully, either. Not yet. But perhaps we take a day to think on it?> Flint looks thoughtful, then nods to you. You walk back into the other room. <Duke Vellik. Your offer is...intriguing. A place for all elements - that is something I can imagine. But though your vision is strong, I'd like to take time to consider my decision, at least until tomorrow. And, before you say more, I've promised to assist my friend, Flint, in a certain quest.> "Of course," Vellik says. "I'd be skeptical if you jumped into my arms. But what quest of the good knight do you pursue? Perhaps I can help."

<I doubt you don't know it already, duke. Regardless, I shall refrain from talking about his pursuits. It isn't my quest to discuss.> The duke smiles. "You learn fast. Well, Sir Flint?" "It is something I must handle on my own," Flint says firmly. He cocks his head. "A day to decide, then. Sir Flint, you shall have my best guest room, and Shadow, you may feel free to claim the adjoining suite. Until we can afford public exposure, which is a rather distant destination...we'll keep this under wraps." Vellik grins a conniving but amused grin. "Though if I'm perfectly honest, the amenities you'd require, if any, are beyond even my not-insignificant intellect." <I'm exceptionally hungry,> you say. "I wouldn't have expected you to get hungry." Flint snorts. "Not in the way you'd expect, either." Vellik raises an eyebrow. <Food. A lot of it. And frankly, I'd appreciate further discussion with you, duke. I need information, as well.> "A meal and a nice chat over a game of stones sounds like an excellent plan," the duke says. "I've some matters to attend to, so, in a few hours. You're free to move about as you please - I'll have a man summon you when the time arrives." Flint nods. You begin to walk out of the room. "And, Sir Flint." Flint turns. "My lord?" "Two points. A revival of Aeolus's Order - one aligned with Kelvere - would be as great an event as the allegiance of a shadow. I believe we could accomplish great things." Vellik smiles a thin, knowing smile that makes you extremely nervous. "And if you have need of assistance on your quest...perhaps a little Lightning could deal with Spirit." You leave the chamber. The prim man that guided you up to the room leads you to your quarters. You have a suit adjoining with Flint's. Flint closes the door. He walks over to a table and slumps into a chair. "...by the light, that was tense. That man frightens me."

<That lightning put me a little on edge.> Flint nods, then slouches nearly half-off his seat and yawns deeply. Suddenly, you realize your friend is exhausted - he's been up for hours, fought ghouls, defended a town against an invading army, and if you know him, likely took little rest on the boats in the name of vigilance. You begin to wonder what sort of a man he'd be without a magical parasite latched onto his soul. "I need a rest." Flint walks over to the bed, stripping pieces of his armor across the floor as he goes. He's out like a light before you can say a word. Perhaps he deserves a good nap. You're fascinated by the architecture around you. You set off to explore the castle. It's a maze-like place - probably by intention. You wander carpeted halls, across bare stone, and up and down spiral staircases. Guards are very frequent, and servants even more frequent. It's easy to keep in the shadows. with so many walls and nooks and pieces of furniture. Mundane eyes simply roll over you without notice. You feel balls of magic bobbing about...probably mages. You move so as to avoid crossing their paths. You discover what appears to be a large library. There are a few balls of magic, inside, though, so you pass it by, noting it for later. There's a dungeon lower down, but plenty of guards. You make a note of it. A tower window gives you a look at the airship dock. It's set along a piece of land that juts out over the river to the side of the castle. The steaming craft is abuzz with activity, mostly the loading and unloading of cargo. You can feel a burning ball of magic on the inside of the hull. You stop at a corner to consider your next move. A few guards are having a conversation down the hall... You lean toward the guards... "...mers just in from some river town. Jack's Field or something." "That's the third group this week," another guard says. "What's the duke doing?" "Planning." "He's always planning." "Planning out the counter attack," the man adds. "Just you wait. My brother always tells me stories about when the duke personally lead a battalion up at Wallfront on the frontier. That was before he

was even a duke, mind you." The guard lowers his voice. "Here's the thing about him. He's always playing games, always thinking, changing pace, that sort of thing. Gets his opponents on his road. And just when they think they're starting to see through the tricks, he brings out the big guns and smashes their heads in." The other guard smiles. "Damn glad he's my duke, and not the other way around. I'd be shitting my pants if I was a kanian." "How 'bout those hicks, though?" one guard says. "Practically falling over themselves worshipping the light. One saw our water mage heal a man and nearly had a had a heart attack getting over to tell him off. I mean, he's saving lives." "Duke's right about that," the man says. "The war was 700 years ago. A man does good, a man does good. Don't need some angel telling me what's good and bad when I can see it plain for myself." The others nod grimly. Their conversation turns to less interesting things - the pretty servant girls they've been trying to land in the sack. You briefly wonder what the metaphor "land in the sack" refers to, then shrug to yourself and decide to explore elsewhere... ...you decide to start with the dungeons. Perhaps the prisoners there will give you some insight as to the nature of the duke's justice... You sneak into the dungeons. They reek of shit and piss grown over with mold. This doesn't particularly bother you. More importantly, they're very dim. You feel secure in your stealth. You hear a shriek as a whip snaps. A man is lashing another. You slide and slither past a row of cells. A few have occupants - and they generally look the part, ugly, brutish men that are probably guilty of more than what they were locked up for. There's a few less-obvious types, but there's nothing to say whether they're innocent or not. Despite the conditions, there's a regular posting of guards, and you see one giving out bread and water. A few prisoners even get soup. "Two more days, Harold," a guard says. He sets a bowl inside the bars of the man's cell. The occupant looks relatively harmless. He nods up and down. "...can't wait. I won't be thieving again, I swear." "Just remember the second offense is worth your off-hand." The guard walks away. It seems you've explored anything of note here. There's nothing incriminating of the duke's policies. You feel a faint sense of magic lower down in the dungeon. It's probably a mage.

Your sense of curiosity gets the better of you. You sneak down lower into the dungeons. The dungeons become progressively...cleaner? The smell starts to fade back. The torches now all have nice brackets. Oddly enough, the rows of cells transitions into a hall with doors. Perhaps a place to keep more important -guests-? One door has four guards posted outside of it. You hear footsteps behind you can duck into the shadow under a brazier. A man comes by with a tray of food. The guards open the door for him. You hear a voice from beyond the door. "About time! Where is the duke? I demand an audience!" He continues to berate the food man. The sense of magic has grown stronger...it's further under the castle. It feels muffled, somehow. Definitely not a person. Perhaps its just the distance. Then again, the castle likely has magical defenses to bolster its strength... You decide to leave the dungeon and move back toward the library. The library is a neatly square room with only one story. Shelves of books are split into several sections. A few balls of magic are scattered about in the shelves and sitting at tables...you should probably be careful. You look into the shelves about geography and politics. A few books catch your eye. >Titles are links, where the books text has been provided. Select them to skip down to the book text >Return links will be provided at the end of the book text Expanding Vampiria (Text never provided) Atlantis: A Watery Road (Text never provided) Archon and the Empire: The Long Armistice ...and you come across a fiction section. Hmm. Abigail flits across your mind...perhaps she'd like a story? Which one would she like? The Hero of the Light (Text never provided) The Magic Turnip The Zombie That Could Talk You decide to take The Magic Turnip and The Zombie That Could Talk.

Heroes of the Light sounds cliched. And certainly no young friend of yours needs that sort of rubbish around. You move on to the next shelf... ...hmm. It seems to all be magic-related. Duke Vellik isn't fool enough to leave spellbooks lying around, but there is plenty on random magical phenomenon... Keystone of Atlantis The Sky-Sever Nelmar You decide to skim all three books. Because, why not? Besides, you'll read them more later. You yawn. Nelmar can wait. You should get back to the suite. You sneak back without anything special happening.

THREAD 10
>HP 5/21 >Mana 2/4 You bob your way over to Flint's room and open the door. It's unlocked. You enter... ...but Flint is gone. Well, it's been several hours. He probably wanted to get his armor tended to or something... You hear a sharp rap on the door. "Pardon, m'lord...Shadow. Dinner is served, if it is your pleasure." Briefly concerned for Flint's whereabouts, you focus your senses... ...his distinctive flare of white Light prods your mind. It seems he's out on the grounds below the castle, in the town...hmm. You assume use mimic to assume your more humanoid form before opening the door with your shadowy 'hand'. The primly-dressed manservant is there again - apparently he's been assigned to you. He guides you down the hall toward Duke Vellik's side of the quarters. <I have a question.> The manservant stutters a step, but nods. "Of course, m'lord." <How are mages treated here? Do they have an important presence?> The manservant nods. "Of course. The duke is an accomplished mage himself...nothing on the order of Li Fang, but certainly formidable by any stretch." <Who's Li Fang?> "Ah. That would be the ruler of Archon. He's one of the most powerful mages in the world - and a lich, if the rumors are true. Though, considering how long he's been alive, seems unlikely elsewise..." The servant takes a breath. "But to your original question. The duke treats his mages very well, and accepts all who live and work for his people in benevolence as citizens of Kelvere. Though...even he hesitates to accept Shadow magic, with the Black Lady's forces constantly antagonizing the Ring City." The manservant purses his lips. "Though it seems he's decided on a change of policy." He bows out in front of a door, and opens it for you. You walk in. You're in a small dining chamber. A bright chandelier illuminates a wide table that is absolutely

bursting with food enough to feed half of Jacob's Field. Duke Vellik leans casually at one end, his back to the window displaying a rather magnificent sunset. "Wasn't sure how hungry you'd be. Will this suffice?" <Greetings, your excellency. I appreciate the table...I'm quite hungry. Starving, in fact.> "Oh, don't mind me." The duke stabs his finger through the air. "Have at it!" You dive into the food and CONSUME it. Chicken, beef, and pork dissolve into you, along with a balanced diet of vegetables and occasional fruit. You find it rather delicious. When you withdraw, the plates are shining clean. You feel extremely satisfied. >HP 21/21 "Well," the duke says. "That's not something you see every day. You do seem to have perked up slightly, if I may say so." He thumps the table near him. "Come, sit! Stones!" He raises a finger. A shock of yellow lightning crackles on the table to your left. A metallic board with metal pieces flies over and arranges itself on the table. It's a long flat piece with several large indents. The pieces are all uniform stones sitting in the indents, arranged in a uniform pattern. A longer indentation perpendicular to the others marks either end of the board. <I'm afraid I haven't played before,> you say. "Simple. Each turn, you can move one of the eight pools. See how one has four stones, while another has but three?" <Yes.> "You draw all the stones from your chosen pool. For each pool you pass, you deposit a stone. When you pass your goal-pool-" He indicates the too longer indents at either end. "-you deposit one, there, earning a point. But if you pass your opponent's pool, you skip it. The player with the most stones in their goal-pool when all the stones have been deposited is the victor." <I see.> "Don't worry, practice makes perfect. I'll go easy on you..." >Rolled 1d100: 65, 92, 23 <Tell me about Evinbrook.> "Originally a garrison under Rajin, before the Elementomachy," the duke says. "I still carry that old bloodline." As you each pick and move the stones, they clink and clatter across the board. It's a simple game, but

it feels as though thinking very far ahead is difficult - there's too many moves for each player. "The castle was built a hundred years ago, as an offensive base against Archon - that was before Arland was established, and Archon was a much larger threat to the empire. The borders have grown far from here since then, but it remained an important trade hub for the whole of the country, and now, its capital." <Will Sir Flint be joining us?> "He was already here, in fact," the duke said. "Dropped in for a quick bite and then was off to see to the latest refugees..." The duke sighs. "I understand his concerns. Being concerned is important. But if you're too concerned, you'll just end up killing yourself trying to please everyone. A good man, though. None other I'd pick to restore a knighthood to its former glory. Better than that brother of his by a far sight." Vellik grins. "I can just imagine the look on Gerald's face when he sees his brother has been consorting with Duke Vellik." More clattering. After a few minutes of play, the duke is winning, 15-12. <Tell me honestly," you ask. <What do you stand to gain by siding with me? From what I understand, the Black Lady is the prevailing force of shadow in the world.> "And so much to gain by stealing her power away from her," Vellik replies. "Why should she have a monopoly on the shadow? I'd co-opt the strength she uses to keep the angels at bay and use it for myself. I'll beat her and them at their own game, and make a place...a new place, Shadow. Where people don't give a damn about this element or that type of magic. That's my goal." He looks up from the game and looks at you. "Do you understand what it means to be a ruler? To weigh 50 lives against 5,000 and make the call that 50 must die so 5,000 can win? Because that is what it means to rule. It means you must put a price on life. "I seek a world in which my successors no longer have to make those choices. In the meantime...if I have to break a few eggs for my omelet, so be it." >Rolled 1d100: 26, 84, 52 <Concerning Arland...what do you make of them? Would you say that Sir Flint is a good representative of his people, or would I find a less warm welcome in his lands than I have in yours?> "Ah, Arland. A glorious bastion of wind and light. Defenders of the empire, thorn of Archon, and annoyance of Kelvere and Felnoir." The duke looks at you. "Arland is a puppet state of the empire. Sir Flint's father was a just man, and did much to reduce conflict in the world. But Gerald, the de factor ruler, and Flint's eldest brother, is not as he was." Play has gone on for about fifteen minutes now. As the number of available stones dwindle, your moves both become slower and more measured. However, the duke has maintained the upper hand. <I understand your goals better...but what purpose would I have in your fight?>

"The king rules the chessboard, but he can only move but 1 space," the duke says. "Pawns are important, but he needs rooks, knights, bishops, a queen. He needs his power-pieces. Pieces such as yourself." The duke meets your gaze squarely. "A powerful fighter to turn the tide of a crucial battle. An assassin to remove a particular obstacle from the field. A being capable of treading where other men fear to go to strengthen Kelvere's hold over magic. That would be the roles I would ask of you." <Committing myself is one matter, but what of my companions?> "They are their own people, of course," the duke says. "I've already had more than my fair share of Sir Flint simply by talking to him. Gerald will be having fits once he hears about it. If you have an obligation to the good knight before you can take more formal tasks under my direction, that is perfectly acceptable. I have many resources, and Sir Flint owing me a debt would be...advantageous. As for the girl, my mages will be happy to shelter and educate her." He pauses, then squints. "The lich is...a more complicated matter. A fellow from the Elementomachy...a fine scalpel of great power. I'd shelter him as well, of course. He'd prove a fine companion for your undertakings, should that be his wish. Though I'd have to keep him a closelyguarded secret. That kind of concentrated knowledge is something many people would wish to use...or destroy." <Let us say that all goes well and all factions fold into yours. What then? Will you stay in power and rule over all, or will this change continue beyond the conflicts of beliefs?> "Of course it will continue," the duke says. "If you have any need for evidence of the fact that men are unable to live in peace without the rule of law and society, well - you need merely look at the world around you. We are divided. We hate subgroups of ourselves. Many of us are wary of elves, for all the difference they have with us, pointed ears and better balance..." He waves a hand vaguely. "Nonsense, all of it. Though, I suppose making friends with orcs will take some doing." He nods. "A great union will bring the end of war - stability through acceptance and tolerance of all those that live by their fellows in peace. Though, I have no wish to rule over such a place - it sounds rather boring. But in any case, I've no delusion that I'll live to see it. But perhaps, if I'm lucky, I shall place its foundation." >Rolled 1d100: 91, 43, 40 <How will the people see all this? Am I too be a guarded secret, or a leashed pet at your beck and call? > "For now, a secret." The duke raises an eyebrow. "I'd be a fool to leash you. Much better to give you reasons to follow me and let you accomplish things as you would." He leans back. "But you wouldn't be secret forever. Why should you be? Secrets are at their most powerful in the moment in which they are revealed." The duke smiles. "How did you feel when I revealed my ambition to you, so suddenly, so dramatically? How did you feel when I stepped from the corner and revealed that I was the true duke, and was merely speaking through a double until then? You felt suitably impressed - otherwise we wouldn't be having this conversation, would we? The revealing of a secret is a stage act that captures the heart of a man and sweeps him up into your hand. Your reveal - it's time will come. And I can guarantee you it will be one of my finest acts." The duke

smirks. "Though, strangely enough, it seems the rules of men apply to you, as well. You're rather like us, it seems." <I have many questions about myself and the world. What could you offer me on that front?> "Of knowledge, I have plenty." The duke nods thoughtfully. "I will have my best men look into the war of the elements, into the elementals themselves. Surely we can find some reference, some clue that relates to your existence." You think back to the time when you appeared...a few fleeting images. The strange altar...the elf noblewoman...the shadow dragon...the flash of green light. You've managed to turn the tide of the game. The duke furrows his brow and smirks as you bring your score back to even, and even gain a few points on him. 32-35, you. <Wars between the elements...the angels losing control of stability. Tell me. What do you really think my existence means?> The duke raises his palms and shrugs. "I've no idea, Shadow. It could mean any number of things. Tomorrow, the elementals could rise again. You may be a harbinger of chaos. Or, perhaps, you're just a random fluctuation, spawn of a mana pool in some dark place in the world, lucky enough to have a will of your own...I doubt anyone could truly answer that with perfect certainty." <An odd question.> "Try me," the duke says. <Do you know anything of a dragon of shadow?> "...you likely refer to Do'Vak, the Terrible." <...what can you tell me about him?> "A thing that lived in the caverns under the Frozen Hand, far to the north, where the sea turns to ice," the duke says. "A pet of the Black Lady. The elves and the empire are technically involved their own unsettled conflict, but even they pull aside to point their swords at the vampires. I'd heard rumors he was slain by Queen Kalladar, though at great personal cost...I suspect she's either invalid or dead, though the elves won't tell, of course." He looks at you. "Do you know something of the matter?" >Rolled 1d100: 1, 34, 74 >Primary Critical Failure As the number of stones dwindles down, the duke's play becomes sharp as a knife. You quickly lose ground...

...you realize there aren't enough stones left to make a comeback. <I'm afraid I must yield.> "So it is." You've lost to the duke, but he seems pleasantly surprised by your performance. Final score: 42-37 <...a fleeting image. A grain of sand in things long forgotten.> The duke, for the first time, has no immediate reply. <What do you know about Flint's condition?> "What makes you think I know anything?" <...you implied you did, earlier.> "Now, now," the duke says. He smiles. "I'll trade secrets for secrets, but nothing less." <...my memory...> You stop, then start again. <I remember an altar. Darkness. Then an elf woman...a shadow dragon that attacked her and...two...three others? I can't remember.> You shake your head. <There was a flash of green light. I remember she was responsible...I felt as though I was on the verge of something, and then when I woke from the spell, I was on the edge of Jacob's field. And my memory is now blocked.> Vellik frowns deeply. "...this is disturbing information. I know not what to make of it. And I'm like to be very cautious about things I can't understand." <Can you tell me anything about Flint?> "Honestly, all I caught was a glimpse when we were speaking. Give me time, and I'll see what I can tell you." You feel somewhat cheated, but are mollified by his promise to help in the future. "A good game, Shadow," he says. "We should play again." He glances out the window. The sun has fallen low. "I've matters to attend to. By the way, you don't need to jump around my mages. They've been told I've been working with various familiars lately...and to expect and ignore a shadow such as yourself." He stands. "Feel free to do as you wish until tomorrow. I'll take your answer at midday, or sooner, if you would." You walk out of the room together. The manservant bows to you, and he an Vellik are about to leave... <I have a word or two for the prisoner I captured at Jacob's Field.>

"Oh, that fool?" the duke asks. "I already interrogated him myself." <And?> "He's dead," the duke says flatly. "I don't take kindly to men that attack my defenseless villages. I'd planned on sending a force in a few days, but..." He frowns. "They moved faster than I predicted. What happened to Jacob's Field is my fault." <...honestly, your excellency, you don't seem a man to make that kind of mistake.> "No? Good." The duke's frown doesn't leave his face. "...I try very hard not to underestimate my opponents. But I was wrong. This time. It won't happen again. Our counter-stroke will be swift and brutal." Vellik looks at you again. "He didn't know much of any importance, but he did tell me one thing - they're unabashedly using demons, summoned from the Nether. Did you see any at Jacob's field?" <No. Nothing that could be described as such.> Vellik nods. "Good. Perhaps it's on a limited scale, then. That sort of thing will draw the attention of the angels. And that is something neither you nor I want. A fair night, Shadow." They walk off. You make your way through the castle back to the dungeons. You're soon at the part you were before - nice rooms, carpeted flooring. A stairwell leading down awaits at the far corner. You creep down, down... ...the dungeons shift back into cold, wet stone. It smells earthy and dank. Old air, poor ventilation. The torches grow more and more infrequent. The stairwell ends in a simple storeroom piled with old furniture. There's dust and cobwebs everywhere. The source of magic picking at your senses is further down, but you're closer than you were. You'd estimate perhaps 1 or 2 stories deeper. >Rolled 1d100: 71, 13, 85 You move about the room, shifting furniture and brushing aside cobwebs. Maybe there's a lever for a door? You try moving all the furniture...but nothing. You flatten yourself to the stone and feel along the seams...

...you stop. There's a stone that's looser than the others. You pick yourself up and look at it. You can see it now that you've picked it out. Slightly less dusty than the ones around it - and the grout around it is very thin. This is the way forward, you can feel it. But you can't wedge yourself around it, and there's no real crack to Ink through... ...maybe it would be better to simply ask the duke as a condition of your alliance? Then again, maybe you shouldn't give away that you know about this place...who knows what's down there. It could be as simple as a vault, or...something worse. You try pushing the stone down. You grunt and strain, but to no avail. You glance back at the entrance to the stairs. Getting caught down here is probably not a good idea. Feeling a bit put out, you leave the room. Perhaps you could tail someone down there later... ...you decide to investigate the airship. The sun has set. The moon isn't out tonight, and it's quite dark. Perfect. You move toward the airship. Despite the hour, torches keep the area brightly lit, and it's still a hive of activity. You stay in the shadows. Two men nearby are talking. One is holding a clipboard - and you recognize the second. It's the primly-dressed manservant. The airship itself is a hulking craft. While the body somewhat resembles a sea-ship, the underside houses a cylindrical engine almost as big as the rest of it. The entire thing is ribbed with bars and plates of a gleaming, turquoise metal. You remember reading that airships have to be reinforced with adamantium to survive the trip through the sky...how strong is that stuff? You can feel a throbbing pulse of magic from inside the engine. It's the airship's dynamo. Comparing it to the magic under the castle is like comparing a sun to a candle. You creep closer to the two men. "...on schedule?" "Yessir. About a quarter ton more adamantium, 3 tons steel...1 of coal left. Should be good for takeoff just past noon."

"I'll inform the duke. Keep up the good work." "Yessir." The man walks off. The man with the paper makes a few notes with a pen, then holsters it in a small portable inkwell he has attached to his belt. Looks useful. All these people with pockets and bags...something to carry things with would be helpful. You wait for a group of men to march off the airship with crates, then duck inside. Energy thrums under your heels, restrained, but waiting to be unleashed again. You make your way through tight wood and steel passages, deep into the engine room. The thrumming turns into a buzz you can feel inside your chest... You pass into the innermost room. The machine churns with steam and smoke. You can see a few men sitting in a corner nearby. They were thick ear coverings, smoky goggles, and thick leathers. They're playing a card game. In the center of the pistoning, rotating machine is an orb of blue fire. It wavers lazily, but screams with magic. ...you feel a deep urge to consume it... ...the duke probably wouldn't like that, though. You try to move closer... ...the power it exudes pushes against you. It's certainly Fire. Though you can tell that if you could take hold of it, it's energy could be yours. The flame almost seems to spin...diodes attacked to the surface of the sphere pulse in time with the motion, sparking, almost igniting themselves. The energy seems transferred to the motion of the steel...which conduct magical energy to the rest of the ship. You're not sure what the moving parts have to do with that. You move closer, and it pushes harder. It's like walking through water...you're slowed down, somehow. You think that, with effort, you could get close enough to touch it, but there's no real reason to push things. You slip out of the airship and wander down to a darker spot on the cliffs. The dynamo inspires you with an idea. You recall the smaller orb that was in the golem back in the

Old Forest Keep. Having something like that around of your own element might be quite handy. You try to gather your shadow together in a ball... ...but it unravels. You try again, pushing harder. But as soon as you release your efforts, it just falls apart. How does the dynamo stay in one piece? ...hmm. Perhaps that's exactly why they can't make any more. But if you were an elemental, shouldn't you be able to do so? You sigh. More questions than answers... If you had fingers, you'd snap them. Motion. Spinning. Perhaps that's the key to the stability? You push your shadows together, and this time you twist them, spin them over and over in a little cyclone. Delicately, like a child releasing a top, you let your arms drop from your creation... ...and like a top, it spins for a short time, then falls. Your shadows unravel. But it definitely lasted longer. Perhaps you're on to something...you file your little experiment away for later. You move to the cargo. There's a small encampment positioned on the dock where the goods are being unloaded. A few men with more pens scurry around, checking things in. Most of it's raw ore, but there are a few odds and ends. You find a small section that seems dedicated to leather and cloth goods. A quick glance reveals a few choice containers... >Rolled 1d100: 67, 97, 11 The utility belt really draws your eye. All those different-sized compartments...and the large purse looks big enough to hold keys and the shard of the sword you found. You snatch it from the pile and clip it around yourself. It fits snug and concealed against your side. You decide you really ought to find out what Flint's been up to all day.

THREAD 11
>HP 21/21 >Mana 4/4 You spread out your senses... ...Flint's shining light is easy to see in the darkness. Points of life float like little candles...but he's a bonfire. Oddly, you can't sense Duke Vellik. He probably makes an effort not to be sensed in such a manner. Flint is across the bridge leading over the river, in a clustered group of houses. You slink your way through the darkness, holding still to avoid detection by the frequent patrols. You're soon outside the building he's within. There's plenty of lights and noise coming from inside. Men are carousing and conversing...thinly dressed women are serving them large mugs filled with frothing brown liquid. There's several musicians playing lively, cheery music in one corner. You locate Flint quickly. He's leaned up on a long counter near the back. He's slumped low on the wood. You send Flint an impression of yourself waving a shadowy hand at him from the window of the bar. Flint's slumped form doesn't budge, but he raises his right hand. At first, you think he's making a subtle attempt to return the greeting, but his hand lowers to stop a mug slid his way down the counter. He raises himself up and - in one long motion - chugs the entire mug. He slams it down on the bar, though it's only a small pat in the middle of the noisy room. He fishes a few coins from his pockets and scatters them on the wood, then winds his way out of the bar. He slowly meanders toward your position at the window. His feet keep getting ahead of his torso, and his eyes don't settle. Something about him is off. "...eh, Shadow. Hey!" Flint stands next to you. He paints a striking picture. He cleans up rather nicely with a red and white shirt and coat, but he's practically falling over himself. "How're things...'n...you know?" <...I'm fine. I played a game of stones with the duke, and I've learned a bit more about his goals...assuming he was honest with me. What's the matter with you?> "Ah...drunks as shit, is s'matter." <What's a drunk?>

Flint barks a laugh. <Fuckin' thing don't even know what drunk is. Jeeze. Drink beer, get drunk. Problems go bye-bye!" Flint pumps his fist. The motion nearly knocks him over. You hurriedly move to prop him up, but he catches himself at the last minute. "Shit. Gonna headsache in the morning. Let's get the shit out of here and leave." He promptly marches off, ready to trip and break his neck. You leap into his shadow and keep on your toes. <If that 'beer' makes you like this, perhaps you shouldn't drink it. It's not solving problems that I can see.> "Don't solvesing shit, dummy. Just makes you stupid and not thinking." <...an ignorance potion? Humans are strange.> Flint coughs and splutters a weird giggle. "Of course you'd put it like that...shit." <Did you see Joey or the townspeople today?> "Ah yeah! Joey...fucking kid. Can't believe...shit. You know, I...asked him to be my squire. Parents liked the idea...thinkin', 'hey, get with a noble and everything'...and he's up for it. 'Cause you mentioned it. Well, so that's that...guess he can polish armors is something..." <You're a bit...difficult to understand.> "That's the beer talkin'. I'm drunk. Dammit, listen whenna man speaks, you know?" You cross the bridge. He nearly teeters off into the river. You leap into position as a hand rail, but he sways back into the middle before reaching you. You pass a patrol and duck into his shadow. The men give Flint looks, but just mutter and shake their heads after he's gone.' <Speaking of ignorance, I've a few questions.> "Well shit, just ask. You're my friend er somethings...?" <What does the phrase "get her in the sack" mean?> "Dumb idiot," Flint says. "Means you take a woman and roll in the hay. Bed 'er." <What does "roll in the hay" mean?> "Take a tumble. Sleep together. Bed a woman. What's I wanna do to Megan. Fuck, man. Fuck." <...copulation?> "Shitsis stupid, but yeah."

<...oh.> The thin clothing of the women suddenly has context. Easier access. <This beer seems rather popular. Do the women serve it as a profession...?> "Nothin' like a good bar maid." Flint makes a lopsided grin. "...couple times. Not anymore. I'm not in my teens now, shit." It strikes you that women seemingly primed for copulation via thin clothing would make excellent marketing for male beer consumption. The nature of the bar becomes more clear to you. The castle guards have a quiet chuckle when Flint passes, but he's in the doors without a problem. <Do you think the duke is sincere? About his wish for peace?> "...shit, I dunno. Probably. But whatsayin' his'is...ah, the pieces...shit. Um, so, you think world's just gonna fall into place? That's what I'm saying. Bloody. Forcing the world...into a vision. Maybe a bigger bite than anyone's chewing, you know? But...hell. Might as well try if you got the time and the power and the...shit. Who gives a fuck?" Flint sighs. "Anyone does it...maybe him, I guess. But he's not so, you know, nice and all. Ain't cuddly and fucking happy. He's political demons and...that's what I mean. Peace...at what cost?" <The duke told me it's a folly to care to much...but you're a better man than him, because you know that, but you care nonetheless.> "Yeah...?" Flint eyes you for a moment. He seems briefly surprised, even happy...but the drunken grimace crosses his face once more. "Easier if I didn't. Didn't care." <So, you drink beer to become stupid.> "S'bout the sizeofit, yeah." <What good does that do you?> "Stupid means think less. Think less, hurt less, shit man, don't you get it? Fuck. I hate thinkin' about shit. Gerald and Megan and...fuck. Fuck it. Not thinkin' about it." You're going up the stairs. You keep your arms on either side of him as he thumps back and forward, one arm leaving heavily on the railing. <I don't understand Kan-Abar's position. What good they get from waging war like this? No acceptance of surrender, no peace?> "...shit man, s'have times s'to educate you on every damn thing...n'...well,'skinda simple n'...Obis was gonna rule, Nulis, younger brother, drove him out. Got the war hawks on 'is side...no one knows where Obis is...prolly dead, poor sonovabitch. Nulis keepin' his rule...uniting his people by making the rest of the world enemies, get me?" <I think so.>

<What would you say if the duke could do something about your curse?> "...I'd go home and find somethin's else to help," Flint says. "...not gettin' in debtors prison to that...that man." <What would you do if you were me?> "I can'ts hardly understands you when you don't even fucking know BEER, man. Not even beer. Shit, you just wanna keep Abby all safe and cozy...should just build a fuckin' cabin in the woods and live there 'er something. Why be a servants of dukes...shit." <Are your memories so unwanted that you wish not to think over them? I have very few and most are filled with either questions or conflicts. But...the few I have...I cherish.> "The many I have...I wish I didn't," Flint says. You've finally made it to the top floor. You probably won't have time for many more questions... Flint stops at the door to his suite. He leans against a tapestry hanging from the stone wall. He droops low. He's silent. You're just about to ask if he's alright when he slams his fist into the wall. And then, again, harder. "...shit...shit. Never fuckin'...goes away." <What are you talking about?> "You wanna know? Whatchyou wanna know about? You gonna laugh at me too? Huh?" <Flint, I don't - > "Fuck, man." He crashes through his suite door. Concerned, you hurriedly rush in after him and close the door, hoping he's not making too much noise. "You wanna fucking know? You know what they call me at home? Dummy Donny. Idiot. Shithead. The fourth son - and the first three got all the good shit, and I'm the dribble. That's what they say. "And fuck. I worked - I TRAINED - day and day and day after days, over and over. I studied...I read the whole library twices, and even learned a...some magics and things...I'm best at the sword, but...I can't...I never..." Flint falls back on his bed. "...No one's ever sees it...always fall right when...just when I thought I'd finally show 'em...then you tell me it's...this thing is on me...who? Who fucking did it? WHY?!" Flint slams his fist into his pillow. "SHIT! WHY DID THIS HAPPEN TO ME?!?"

He draws his pillow in. He sniffs. His eyes are red and wet. "...stole her from me. Stole Megan. That things stole Megan...and now, Gerald...shit. Shit!" He pounds the pillow again. And before you know it, he's out cold. You have a feeling you heard things that Flint considered of greatest privacy. Flint lies on his bed, fully clothed, breathing slowly, but soundly. His hand still clench the pillowcase tightly. You feel... ...you feel...? You have no name for it. But the feelings direct your actions. You untie his shoes and set them on the floor next to him. You push him into what appears to be a more comfortable position, then throw the bed's blankets over his form. You stand away from him, watching him for a moment. You try something you haven't before...you send him an Impression. Calm. Peace. Balance. Flint's clenched features relax. His grip on the pillow softens. ...balance... ...you can feel them. Water...somewhere south. Earth, far southwest. Spirit, now north. And the other four...impossibly far. But there. The feeling fades. You try to bring it back, but it stubbornly refuses to coalesce. You open Flint's pack, which is leaned up next to a chair elsewhere in the room. You stow the SunMoon Key in a pocket on your belt and the Shadow Sword Shard in the largest pocket, the purse. The Spirit Sword has its own sheath, now - perhaps Flint bought one while he was out. You could hook it on your belt if you were so inclined... As you stare at the sword, an idea strikes you. You remember the sword's ethereal former master...the spirit elemental. Perhaps it can strike the parasite? Or cut it off from its other end? You draw the sword with an Articulated Fist. The numb vibration of the spirit magic hums in your hand. You turn. The parasite lingers...passive. You see the misty trail leading from Flint, across the room, and through the wall...you level the sword over the connection, and, bracing yourself, swing.

The sword passes through the trail and thuds into the carpet. Nothing happens. You sheath it and heave a sigh. You decide to leave the sword with Flint. No reason to put all the eggs in one basket. You retire to your room and sit on your bed. Sleep...it doesn't seem to be something you need. But the quite is nice. The dark is nice. You've found out so much in such a short time. The only thing you've truly confirmed is how little you know. The duke's propositions are intriguing...but in this world, you're an ant, and he's a giant. Any deal he'd make would seem tempting. On the other hand...perhaps you do want to be a part of that vision. Would you be satisfied with a Abigail and a log cabin? Would she even want that sort of life? You wonder where she is, and what she's doing. You hope Adavan is keeping his word. Why do you feel such an attachment to her? It's strange...but then...she was the first person to know you. Her acceptance was easy, and immediate. A child's affection, simple - but too sweet to ignore...something worth protecting, fostering, growing. Flint's situation seems complicated. You realize you know little of his past, or his family. It seems that the parasite has been with him a long time...you remember the duke mentioning that Gerald was his eldest brother, but you wonder about that other name he mentioned, Megan...who is she? More importantly, who is she to Flint? ...the night passes...you slip into a deeper meditation. Your thoughts float in black space...you see the world as pinpricks of light in a void... ===== A thumping at your door startles you from your reverie. "Shadow?" <Flint.> The door creaks open. The man scratches his ears and works a hand through disheveled hair. "Damn. My head is killing me. How did I get back here?" <I found you at the bar, drunk. I escorted you back.> "Oh." Flint leans on the door frame. "Guess I was really out of it?" <'Out of it' does not accurately describe your behavior,> you say. <You intentionally imbibed beer, which you informed me was an ignorance potion, to make yourself stupid. You taught me several

euphemisms for human copulation, including 'get her in the sack', 'bed her', and 'take a roll in the hay'. From these I deduced the purpose of the bar.> "...well..." <When I asked you what I should do if you were in my place, you said that, considering I don't understand beer, you couldn't possibly understand me. You then proclaimed that if my goal was simply to protect Abigail that I should build a log cabin in the woods and live with her there rather than involve myself with the duke.> Flint has flushed a rather deep red. "...well...I suppose I owe you an -" <You also informed me that, even if the duke could help with your curse, you'd rather seek help elsewhere than be subjected to his 'debtors prison'.> "...that one I'd tell you sober, too." <You also...> You hesitate a moment. <You mentioned frustration over...past failings. Though you weren't specific. You mentioned your training, and...your family's regard for you. And your brother, Gerald, and a woman, Megan. You...> You are unable to meet Flint's eyes. <...you seemed to think that your parasite somehow stole this Megan from you.> The room is quiet for a long time. "...I see." <I realize...those things, perhaps, were not meant to fall on my ears.> "...I..." Flint shakes his head. "...we'll speak on it another time. But for now..." <Whenever you feel it is appropriate.> "Thank you." There's a knock on the door. "...come in," Flint calls. The door opens smoothly. It's - once again - the duke's manservant. His hair is as smooth as his finepressed coat. "Gentlemen. Brunch will be served shortly." He glances up. "There's plenty of water, as well." Flint mutters something under his breath. "...ah, good. Could you be so good as to have a bath drawn up?" "Already done," the man says. "Across the hall."

Flint spends a few minutes bathing. Without much else to do, you sit in the room and wait. When he reappears, he's fully dressed in his armor and pack. <I see you're ready.> "I figured we'd want to be on the road as soon as possible...no matter your response. By the way...did you have the key, and the shard of that sword?" <I do. You seemed reticent about them...> "No, it's fine," he says. "Just wanted to make sure we hadn't lost them. Nice belt, by the way." You adjust your single article of clothing. <Thank you.> "Leather needs to be kept well-oiled. I'll show you later. Oh, by the way, I've asked Joey to be my squire, and he's - " <You informed me of that as well, last night.> "Oh. Great." The manservant once again calls on you, and you're taken to the same dining chamber you were in previously when you played the game of stones. The duke and his double, Thomas, are both at the table. The manservant takes an out-of-the-way place on the wall to the side. "Sit, sit! Eat!" The meal is quiet. The duke and Thomas share conversation about the state of Evinbrook. The main body of the army is headed north the next day. At some point, you notice that the manservant has left. Probably to attend to something somewhere. That man is everywhere. The clink and clatter of silverware slows to a halt. You've long since absorbed your plate of food. The duke clears his throat. "Well, my friends...have you come to a decision regarding my proposition?" >Rolled 1d100: 39, 58, 16 <I have decided...> You look at Flint, then back at the duke. <Prior obligations call me elsewhere. There are people to whom I owe debts...and people I must protect. <But I respect you, your excellency, and your goals. Though lofty and idealistic, they resonate with me. Your show has won an audience. I would have us part as friends - and perhaps, when the time is right, I can offer you my full allegiance. But for the moment, I can't tie myself down.> The duke sets his fork down on his plate. He folds his hands. "...are you sure?"

<I am.> "I could offer great help in tracking down the lich, and Abigail. And my resources could certain aid our mutual friend -" He nods toward Flint. "the good knight Sir Flint." <I know. But these are our problems, and we will solve them.> "I see." The duke sighs. "In that case - " The door bursts open. It's the manservant. "Your excellency, angels are here! They're up the stairs, they'll be here any moment!" The duke rises. "What is this? Calm down and explain." "There's no time. I've tried to slow them with formalities, but asking a man to stand and stall an angel..." "Which ones?" "Auriel and Raziel." "When did they arrive? How?" "The Velarion just warped into our airspace but minutes ago. I ran to get here." "What?" Flint asks. "What are two of the high council doing here so suddenly?" "You are with Thomas," the duke says quickly. "Sir Flint. They'll be able to sense you easily, so don't move. Don't act alarmed, just surprised." The duke looks at you. "We've only got one hope - that they haven't sensed you. Get behind this." The duke pulls a drape of the wall. At his touch, it mists orange - not with the electricity you expected. You hesitate, confused. "Hide you with my own magic and implicate myself?" the duke says. "You must be mad. Now slip behind the tapestry before they move another inch closer!" You leap behind the hanging. The duke withdraws behind another tapestry, and that one sparks and snaps with electric energy. And so you wait there, tense, uncertain. You stretch out your senses... ...you can feel nothing. Angels. Aren't they aligned with the light? They should flare brightly...or perhaps they are good at concealing themselves. The doors open. Two angels step inside.

The first is beautiful. A cowl is pulled low over her silver hair. A blue circlet is pinned to the waist of her dress. It sparkles with light energy. White wings are folded neatly behind her back... The second is like light incarnate. Light defines his features, glows in patterns on his clothing, illuminates the four swords sheathed on his back. He's like a totem of light. Thomas, the double, stands. Flint also stands, and he bows almost double. Thomas nods his head respectfully to the silver-haired woman. "Auriel." He nods to the gold-lined angel. "Raziel." "Spare me this idiocy," Raziel says. His voice cuts the air like a sword. "Vellik. Get out here." Thomas raises an eyebrow. "...high one?" The hilt of Raziel's swords begins to glow white-hot. You feel the power from your position... ...and you feel fear. "Don't make me ask twice." "Peace, Raziel," Uriel says. She turns toward the curtain hiding the duke. "Your excellency, if you would. I'm afraid my companion has little patience for games, today." The duke reveals himself with a smile. "High ones. How can I be of service?" "You requested aid against Kan-Abar, did you not?" "...aid was requested from Arland." "And so we have come, for it was reported that the Kanians were making use of demons," Uriel clarifies. "Is this so?" "I've no reports of that, no," the duke says. "But then, my ears are not always accurate. I had thought to settle this without involving the Ring City."

"...I see. Perhaps we shall investigate for ourselves. Why have they attacked you?" "Expansion," Vellik answers. "Nulis seeks to consolidate his rule at home with external military conflict. They are the aggressors in this war, I can assure you." "We will be the judge of that," Raziel says sharply. Uriel looks at him. Raziel folds his arms and settles back on his heals. He turns to the duke, after glancing at Sir Flint. "I see you have guests of Arland." "Sir Flint has been - " "We are aware of his goal to restore Aeolus's knighthood," Uriel says. "A worthy goal, Sir Flint, and one worth commendation." Flint bows double again. "I am honored, highest. That is too much for myself." The duke clears his throat. "Yes. Sir Flint's intervention saved hundreds of my people. You can ask him, and them - Kan-Abar attacked outright, and without provocation." "We will be speaking with Nulis, and soon," Uriel says. "Sandalphon is watching this conflict closely." The duke swallows. You decide you never want to meet Sandalphon. Raziel sniffs. He twitches his nose. "...something is...off." "You think so?" Uriel says. "I sense it as well." "Darkness," Raziel whispers. He scans the room. >Rolled 1d100: 13, 43, 28 >Secondary Critical Failure Raziel's gaze locks on your position behind the tapestry. "Darkness?" the duke demands. "In my castle?!" "An elemental, no less," Raziel says. "A parasite, no doubt. I'll handle this." You feel a stone cold grip on your heart. But what can you do? There's nowhere to run! You shrink back further, trying to reduce your presence... Raziel's hand behinds to glow like white fire. "Now, Raziel," Uriel begins. "Show restraint. You wouldn't want to - "

A beam of light explodes from his palm. BOOM The wall of the castle erupts with fire. The light sears you, and then you're in open air, falling, tumbling! You slam into the castle wall and keep falling! >HP 11/21 >Rolled 1d100: 81, 9, 88 >Secondary Critical Success You form a hand with your body... ...your Fist crushes into the castle wall! Stone and mortar are chipped out as you drag yourself down. You strike the ground hard, but land on your feet. You blast out as fast as your can! SHEEEWWWW BOOOM Light explodes behind you! The force carries you forward even faster!

You spare a moment the glance over your shoulder... ...Raziel is flying down out the hole he made in the duke's castle! He's preparing another magical attack, and all four of his swords are drawn, floating in the air around him! You realize you've landed at the airship dock. Crates and supplies are all around you. The dynamo within the craft thrums at your senses. People are screaming, scattering away from the explosions. You can feel mages condensing around your position. If you're caught in the open, Vellik will have no choice but to disown you. >Rolled 1d100: 27, 14, 67 You Mimic a person and slide into the crowd... "Foolish creature!" An explosion of light detonates in the ground in front of you. People stumble back...but the light passes though them harmlessly! The wave of light pushes you backward, sending you flying, tumbling. You land on your feet...you feel alright, but the spell has separated you from the crowd! You've been pushed all the way near the airship! "Feel Hyperion's wrath!" Raziel raises his hands, and his swords fly forward! >Rolled 1d100: 71, 41, 88 The swords of light fall like blazing spears... ...and you lift yourself up, zipping to and fro the the shadow of the lightning bolt! The spears pound into the ground and send out waves of light, but you're already gone! You find yourself pushed back to the entrance of the airship. You try to get down to escape down the cliff... Raziel throws another sword, and you leap back further into the ship! The weapon pierces through even the steel and wood of the hull! The airship roars.

It lifts off the ground. In half a second you're high in the air! ...you only now remember the noon takeoff time. Raziel flies forward, coming even with the cargo hatch. "Not afraid of heights, are you?" >Rolled 1d100: 29, 93, 30 You form your body into a big, inky hand and point over his shoulder. "What's that behind you?!" Raziel is stunned that you've spoken. Out of habits ingrained by a lifetime, he glances back with a dumbstruck look on his face. You tear into the airship. "THIS IS ALL JUST A BIG MISUNDERSTANDING!!!" You quickly lose yourself in the tangle of wood and steel hallways. They're uniform and regular...everything looks the same. You can feel a pulse of light pursuing you, but he's not trying to rip out the innards of the airship...yet. You do have some sense of direction. The engine room is just below you. A set of stairs offers a way down...the power it exudes might just hide your aura. The power offered by the dynamo picks at the back of your brain...it's like nothing you've felt before. Or, perhaps you'd be better off in a crew deck, hiding amongst people. Either way, if he saw through the duke's enchantment, normal concealment seems shaky. >Rolled 1d100: 43, 18, 35 You dart down to the engine room. You're greeted by the thrumming dynamo. Blue light swirls in its depths... ...you give yourself a shake and duck into a cranny between two moving pistons. Hopefully the motion will distract him. It's quiet. Several engineers move about, checking dials and inspecting the parts of the machine that surround the dynamo. None of them seem to be mages, but with all the power swirling around it's difficult to tell. You settle back against the corner to wait. Time passes...but there's no way to tell how long its been.

You glance around. The engineers are gone. Gold light flares from around the corner. You shrink back into your hiding place and freeze absolutely still. "...shadow..." Raziel's footsteps somehow echo inside the noisy chamber. "Come out, come out, wherever you are...." <Come out? Why? You'll just try to kill me again.> "So you -are- down here," Raziel says. "I'm surprised you can talk. That's rather advanced." <...advanced?> Raziel ignores your question. "It's just like the shadow...slinking, creeping, crawling in the dirt and the muck like a coward and striking from the shadows. How many times have I played out this scene with shadow mages?" His swords flip lazily in the air around his body. "If I didn't clean them, even my swords wouldn't glow for being so stained with the blood of shadow mages. They sing for it..." <...I mean you no harm. Nor the people of Evinbrook, nor anyone harm. I merely wish to be - > "Left in peace?" Raziel finishes. "I'm afraid that alone puts us at odds." You send him an images of a burning wreck of an airship. <You'll kill me and everyone here at your pace.> "You're right. And if everyone dies, no one will be left to tell the story but me. Such an evil shadow...consuming everything it could in a desperate attempt to live. No choice but to use my full strength... "...but I like hide and seek. Let's play." He raises his hands. A sphere of white light glows bright... >Rolled 1d100: 49, 3, 25 White light glows from his hands. And there's no explosion of power...it's a seeking ray, turning, twisting like smoke, billowing over the room. It's subtle, somehow evading the pressing force of the dynamo... It finds you! "Found you," Raziel hisses. He snaps his fingers.

>Rolled 1d100: 38, 100, 85 >Primary Critical Success! You lunge out of your hiding spot... ...and just in time! The white smoke condenses like a thousand knives, blowing a hole in the floor where you stood! Your momentum carries you through the air toward your foe... ...and you latch onto his face with the burning urge to CONSUME "AUGH!" One of his swords scrapes your flank as you dig your tendrils into his soul and rip at his wings. He isn't expecting the brutal assault and is sent stumbling backwards, trying to get his balance. >HP 10/21 >Rolled 1d100: 58, 25, 83 Raziel grabs you with his hand. Burning hot claws sink into your flesh and peel you away. He screams as he does it, a terrible, ugly screech. You're sunk in deep, and you have to be ripped out by force. But he does, and he throws you across the room. You slam into side of the engine. >HP 8/21 You stand. But you feel as though you're under some huge pressure...what is that? Raziel is clutching at his head. Where you tried to consume him, his skin is melted nearly to the bone. "...my face...what did you DO TO MY FACE?!" He raises his hands. "DIE YOU PIECE OF FILTH!" His swords snap to his command and glow whitehot once more. You're pinned against the engine...there's little room. But you realize you're sitting right next to the magical dynamo powering the entire airship. It's the source of the pressure squeezing you... Raziel's spell continues to build. A network of interconnected gold lines is spiraling between his

weapons. It's glowing brighter and brighter. The power dwarfs anything he's cast thus far. If that thing is unleashed, he'll blow away half the ship. You don't have the power to protect or stop Raziel's spell. You magic would probably just bounce off him...and you doubt he'll let you get close while he's charging the spell. You see only one possible option. You latch yourself on to the dynamo. Your trendrils sink deep into it. The ball of power cracks. Snaps. Erupts. Fire roars over you...into you. Pure energy. And you feed on it... ...consume it... ...CONSUME!!! You're filled with more power than you've ever felt before. Your strength could move mountains! You could raise cities! Wait... ...something's... >Temporary Eclipse Activated >HP 56/56 >Mana 64/64 Darkness overtakes Evinbrook. The power of the dynamo roils through you... ...burning...evaporating quickly... ...but you can still grasp it! The power of the eclipse is upon you. Raziel's eyes have gone wide as your form warps and trembles with sheer energy. His spell is about to be unleashed. >Rolled 1d100: 73, 43, 66

Your energy moves of its own will. But you force it under your control. It will bend...and erase this magic! The air trembles. It warps. It shifts. It tears open! A terrible howling wind answers your call, twisting the very fabric of the world around you and sucking it down in pieces. Raziel's swords and spell are annihilated. And so is the engine all around you. But without a power source, the airship would be falling anyway. Raziel stumbles back. "What...WHAT ARE YOU?!" >Rolled 1d100: 5, 24, 39 Your ray of darkness pierces the angel's chest The power blasts a fist-sized hole through his armor, his flesh, and out the other side. He spits blood. The ship rattles beneath you. And then... ....wwwwwhhhhWHWHWHWHWHWHWOOOOOO "...shit..." Raziel mutters. He drops against the wall, still alive, but barely. The roar of the wind increases. It rips, tears, churns against the hull of the airship. Something is very wrong. A lesson you learned from a book in the duke's library comes back to you... Anything that attempts to fly - disconnected from the ground - for more than a minute or so is quickly attacked by winds capable of ripping apart solid steel. As such, much of an airship's power goes toward magical shielding, and the hull of airships has to be reinforced by adamantium to withstand the pressure. The Sky-Sever - an ancient spell capable of tearing down the airship - is attacking the hull. Without the power of the engine protecting them, the crew is defenseless. Raziel sputters up more blood from the corner. It seems he's trying to gather his power. <You will have to wait for another day,> you say. <I must save these humans.>

"...you don't...kill me here...I'll hunt you down." <Their lives are more important than yours, you pathetic creature.> You feel your power coalesce on your back as it answers your call. Wings of darkness grow. You fly into the widening hole in the hull of the ship. The airship is assaulted on all sides by a torrent of hurricane winds, wrapping it in a sphere of storm force. The airship itself is plummeting out of the sky, only a half minute from crashing into the earth. It reminds you of something... ...you push your power into the wind, -spinning- back the other way. It howls against you, but you will not be denied. You shove more and more force, more power into the act, using everything you have. Slowly, the winds churn to a stop. The air is stained black with streaks of purple energy. And then it turns, back the other way. The ship is consumed in a globe of black inky shadow. It surrounds it, holding the winds at bay. Slowly, the ship settles to the ground. A cloud of dust is hurled into the air as the ship grinds to a halt. Your wings begin to shrivel up. The power is slipping from you. You manage to land next to the crashed vessel before it leaves you entirely. A figure of light drifts out of the hull of the ship. Raziel's wings flap weakly, but steadily. He drifts away over the horizon. You don't have the strength to pursue him. Crewmembers are crawling out of the wreckage. They appear mostly unharmed, aside from some bumps and bruises. The last of the power fades... ...but something is different... As your power burns away, the pressure of your Shadow roars across the lands... ===== Sir Flint and Duke Vellik feel the power. Flint shivers. "By the light." ----A lone swordsman in a deep canyon glances up at the wave of power. He can only believe that a powerful demon walks the earth. ----A lady in black glances up from a throne she did not build. "...a dark thing walks Venia."

----The prince of a swamp feels a shiver crawl down his spine. ----A criminal grown man feels the shadow churn from his tree. ----An elven woman twists and turns in her sleep. Sweat rolls down her face. Concerned attendents rush to her side. ----A Spirit yearns for release. A Keystone's calls go unheard. The earth ignores all, mad with rage. ----A lich-king thumbs a crystal ball and considers how to bend the new energy to his whim... ----An angel looks up from a portal. "...even you must feel this." "It is beginning," says a voice from the portal. "This time...we will not fail." ----A young girl feels the power of darkness tremble. "What's that?" "...trouble," an old lich says. ===== You raise your head. The sun has come out again. The darkness, for now, has passed. >Temporary Eclipse Deactivated >HP 21/21 >Mana 4/4

THREAD 12
>HP 21/21 >Mana 4/4 ...wait a minute. Your belt...your belt is gone! Where's your belt?! You focus your senses... ...the shard of the sword stabs into your sense like a bolt of shadow. You jog toward the airship. A beam of steel is laying on top of it. You grab the bar and, with effort, roll it to the side. Your utility belt is muddy, but unharmed! You clip it around your waist once more. Phew. "Help! Somebody!" You glance up at the voice. It's away from where most of the crew is exiting the ship, near where part of the wing is shredded up and heaped like a pile of rubble. "Can anyone hear me?! Help!" You glance over your shoulder. Raziel is faltering, but still moving. You might just be able to catch him... You call out in your best imitation of a normal man's voice. "Over there! There's a man pinned under the wing of the airship!" A few men start at your voice. They jog around the edge of the wreckage and help their friend. But you don't have time to stay and help. You've got to get after Raziel before he can get back... ...you sprint after him. His flight is slow and unsteady, and soon you've caught up! It can't be long

until that other angel shows up... He's a few dozen feet above you. What's your plan of attack? >Rolled 1d100: 24, 77, 90 You run ahead of the angel, making your way to a slight rise in the terrain. He's flying above the river, panting, oblivious. You wait until he draws near... ...then sprint, and leap! You fly at your foe! Raziel's head just starts to turn toward you. His eyes are filled with terror. You land on him...and instinct takes over. You Fangs pierce into him, crushing against his light. It burns brightly...good thing you didn't use magic. But it's no match for your sheer crushing force! His screams pierce the air as you rip at the base of one of his wings and tear it aside. Your momentum carries him over, down, and into the ground. You land on top of him. He's buried under you. You tear a claw into his healing chest wound and rip out a hunk of glowing flesh. He twitches, convulsing, but somehow still alive. It's time to end his pain... ...and CONSUME. Something flashes in your senses. A star of light - and it's approaching fast. You know what it is. Uriel is coming, and swiftly. You grab Raziel and wrap him tightly. Your soul-dissolving tendrils hover just over the core of light at the center of his body. He groans. You punch him in the face for good measure. You hear a hiss of air...that turns into a WHOOSH. Auriel lands before you, a dozen feet away. Steely grey eyes stare at you from beneath a cowl. Her gaze quickly assesses Raziel's condition. Her hands are on the pommel of her blue-white sword of light, but she doesn't move. <I had hoped to speak with you,> you say, breaking the silence. <You seem more reasonable than this one - willing to massacre an entire ship full of innocents to slay one elemental. He has received due punishment.> Her eyes flick to Raziel, then back to you. "...yet you have not killed him."

<That would only prove that I am the murderous beast he sought to slay. I am a rational being. I can show mercy. Perhaps more mercy than an angel...?> "...what of the ship?" <I saved it from destruction,> you say. <Most of the crew is unharmed, though I did not linger. I had other matters to attend to.> You tighten your grip on Raziel. He's fallen unconscious. "What do you want?" Auriel asks. <A peaceful, orderly resolution to this...predicament.> "And what does that entail?" <The first thing you will do is throw down your weapon.> Without hesitation, Auriel draws her sword - and tosses it forward. It lands to your side, sitting in the grass. The blue-white light fades. <I came into this world four days ago, angel,> you say. <And in that short time, I have learned that my existence is despised. I am a living anathema. I am hunted by yourself, and this one, simply for being what I am. I do not understand this.> "The power you demonstrated earlier gives reason for that," Auriel responds. "The little peace we have cobbled together from the nations of man since the Great War is threatened by your very existence." <Threatened?> you ask. <I have no wish to involve myself in your situation.> "Conflict always finds power," Auriel says. "Whether or not you seek it out, you would inevitably act to change something, and then you would be in conflict with the established order - an order that has persisted mostly peacefully for several hundred years. You seem most ignorant of these basic facts." She eyes you. "Raziel is a passionate fool, but I see between the lines. Our friend the duke has great ambitions...high enough to make use of the shadow." <You look for enemies that do not exist. Have you considered that by searching with such intensity you may, in fact, create them? Your established order of peace and harmony dictates that I must die? It reeks of hypocrisy.> Auriel grits her teeth. "Do not speak to me of hypocrisy, creature." You feel a chuckle bubble up from within you, deep, but sharp. Auriel swallows, but says nothing. Her fists are clenched tight. <Why not? Does it bother you? Yes, your peaceful order, your inquisition of rulers and slaughtering of life that exists in opposition to your own element, for all the meaning it has.>

"...get to the point." <I want to be left alone. I want to live in peace. I will accept working within a framework to do this.> You stare her down. <I will not accept anything that does not lead to my peaceful existence. I have a right to exist. These are my ideals, these are my demands.> "And if I refuse?" >Rolled 1d100: 44, 51, 1 >Primary Critical Failure! <Then he dies, here and now.> You glance at your prisoner, than at Auriel. <He has already threatened to chase me down if he lives. I need an assurance that he will not be allowed to do so. One way or another, I will not permit him another chance for him to do what he did today.> "...permit," she repeats. "No, shadow. You do not define justice, nor law. You define only chaos." Auriel raises her hand. "You must die, here and now. You may have bested him, but you are sure to be weak. Prepare yourself, shadow." The sword flares white-blue! >Rolled 1d100: 26, 92, 88 This is a powerful foe. You know what you have to do. you must CONSUME And your tendrils, already settled on Raziel's soul, hungrily devour him. Raziel's unconsciousness doesn't survive having his soul attack. He wakes, and begins to scream a torture, gurgled cry that freezes Auriel in horror. You fall over him, eating away at his flesh, his being, his very EXISTANCE until it is yours, all of it, YOURS! Auriel charges at you! You dodge, but not fast enough! Her sword nicks your side, and light burns you, almost twisting in the wound... >HP 18/21 You dance back lightly on your shadows. Auriel's wings snap taut, ready to propel her across the ground in another charge. Her sword spins a foot away from her hand, controlled by telepathy - and it moves faster than any arm could swing it.

You feel the angel's power condense inside you...a raw soul, bent to your will. The air around you is no match for this power. New limbs unfurl from your back, a bat's broad wings, wreathed in shadow. You take to the sky, and prepare to pour on the speed... ...Auriel is right after you! She lunges forward with her sword! >Rolled 1d100: 37, 88, 6 You beat your wings forward and stop dead. Auriel's sword flies past you, and her momentum carries her past you. She turns... ...and you've already bent double. Power condenses behind you. Your shadow goes still... ...then erupts! BOOM You blast through the air at supersonic speeds! A trail of sound like an explosion follows your passing, making the clouds themselves waver. Your power is steadily returning... ...returning...? The thought confuses you. Returning from what? But you've got other problems. Something's wrong. The air around you is shifting, changing. The air itself is pursuing you! >Rolled 1d100: 56, 74, 47 The air burns at your sides, scraping, clawing. You brace yourself against it, but it continues to slash at you, cut like a thousand swords prickling from every direction! >HP 17/21 Your belt is slashed free... ...but you're just able to snatch it with your shadows! You tuck it in against your underside.

The Sky-Sever continues its relentless assault. Evinbook castle is coming up fast! The pins and needles of the Sky-Sever are rapidly turning into something more deadly... ...you cut the power of your flight and dive down, away from the sky. It chases you...the air itself, surrounding you, is trying to cut you to ribbons. You shield yourself as you can. >HP 15/21 You fly back into the crater left by Raziel's spell, landing in the duke's dining chamber with a heavy thud. Almost instantly, the wind vanishes. You allow your wings to vanish into smoke and keep your feet firmly planted on the ground. <Flint! Duke! Are you there?> The door bursts open. Flint storms in, then stops, a shocked look on his face. "I thought you were dead for sure! What the hell happened out there?! I could feel that power all the way from - " <No time,> you say, cutting him off. <Auriel is right behind me, and I don't know how fast she can fly.> The duke appears from behind Flint, along with his double, Thomas, and the manservant. "Shadow. Are you convinced, yet, that my asylum is the only asylum?" <Getting there. But are you sure you still want to offer me that with angels your open enemies?> "Obviously, you'll sneak back in later," the duke says. "Besides, they're already secretly my enemies. They don't want any power shifting away from the empire. After I deal with Kan-Abar, of course." <Flint. I'm going to Jaocb's Field.> "...give me a day, and a horse, and I'll meet you there." A star of light is fast approaching your position. You stretch out your senses. Auriel's light is...hopping. Slowly. She's flying for a short time, and then landing. Then flying. Of course. Fooling the Sky-Sever. You can't imagine what kind of aerial battle must have taken place to justify such a powerful spell. <She's closing fast. I have to go.> "Fair travels," the duke says. "Sir Flint shall have two of my horses to meet you will all due haste. Though I urge caution - you're heading into enemy territory."

<Then I'll become a shadow.> You turn toward the hole in the castle. You've got to fly as fast as possible, but you're sure the SkySever eagerly awaits your return... You fly up and away from the hole, gaining altitude...then... BOOM You explode through the air. You cover ground quickly... ...but soon enough you feel the prickling of the air surround you once again. You let the speed fade, and plunge directly into the Tairns river. You remember your little trip in the well back at the keep...you're a natural swimmer, and Ink makes it even easier. You slip between the currents and press yourself to the bottom as you continue to head north. Auriel's star of light stops at Evinbrook, and, as you gain distance, it fades from your ability to sense. It seems that you've escaped - for now. The bottom of the river is deep and dark. You can feel yourself healing...as if you're absorbing the ambient darkness....you begin to Regenerate. ...time passes... >HP 21/21 You surface from the river near the mill. Despite the battle, it's relatively untouched. Night has fallen just an hour past. Jacob's Field has been occupied by a force of Kanians numbering in the thousands. Tents are set up around and through the town, and lights burn brightly in many of the buildings. Some of the men are even making repairs...this isn't just to cripple their foe; it's a war of conquest. You can feel sparks of magic everywhere...you're not sure what the duke has prepared for his offensive, but you hope it's big. You climb on top of the mill. The wheel creaks and groans as the water pushes its paddles along. The forest of tents spreads far and out across the hill coming down into town. Earthworks have been thrown up on the highest hill, and you can see teams of men hacking into the woods, probably to use as materials for more permanent construction. Mages seem concentrated in the town proper, though there are more than a few lights buzzing about in the church... ...perhaps they've discovered the "nice lady"? You wonder if this was any kind of motivating factor for

attacking... A growing -thumping- draws your attention. You glance over, pinning yourself down flat against the roof. A stone golem nearly three times the size of the one you faced earlier is stomping down from the hilltop fortifications. It begins to walk around the edge of town, but away from you. A group of ten or so men divided into two groups patrol along with it, five ahead of its path, and five behind. Abigail's farmhouse is isolated and quiet. You wouldn't have trouble reaching it. You make your way toward the church. The lights of patrols are easy to outmaneuver. You reach the edge of the church. Closer, you can tell more - there are five bright lights inside. One is of mostly spirit; another is a sort of mix between lightning and fire. Then there's one that's bright light, an earth mage, and a water mage. It seems the Kanians have no problem with elemental diversity... ...something strikes you. Why would these people be attacking Kelvere? Certainly their new ruler, Nulis, wants to firmly grasp the reigns of power...but why not do that through trade and friendship with a new ally? That would also demonstrate competence. Though, the duke did seem bothered by their use of demons. ...there's more going on here than meets the eye. You're sure of it. You slip into the church. The five men are gathered close to the altar. They're having a soft conversation, but there's nothing to say they've discovered some ancient magic... >Rolled 1d100: 43, 68, 8 >Secondary Critical Success You creep in under the pews, sticking to the shadows close to the floor. You stop under one of the wood benches. "...there's no way down, I said it once, I'll say it again," says the man with a core of spirit. "Unless you want to throw the dice and blast your way through...but we could end up annihilating ourselves." "Lord Vin has said his peace," another says. "Our task is to get down there, and he'll not be satisfied with failure. Unless -you- want to be fed to a minotaur." The mage sighs. "It's surrounded by...force. It's not just spirit that's locking this thing in - all four of the greater elements, fire, wind, lightning, light. If we just casually dig it up, we could unleash a trap on the scale of the elementomachy. We're not getting in by force." "There has to be another way." "Maybe there is. I don't fucking see it. Do you?" The other mage stomps his foot. "This is your realm of expertise. Too bad for us, you're a dumbass."

"You want to duel and find out just how much of a -" "Hey!" says the earth mage. "Enough." The other two settle back on their heels. "Keep analyzing the area. It's definitely concentrated here, under the church. There's got to be something we're missing. Scour over the writings, the priest's journals, everything. Every inch of this church has to be spit shined." Three of the mages move off. The water mage turns to the earth mage. "How's the southern force doing?" "I expect they'll be nearing Evinbrook soon," the earth mage says. "Wait..." he puts his hands to his temples. He's silent for a moment, then nods. "A day's march. But they're pretty sure the duke's going to be aware of them any minute. That demon lord is handy, but even he can't hide an army that large forever, not that close." "...do you think Nulis still has control over it?" The earth mage is quiet for a moment. "No idea. We could be working for Abaddon right now, for all I know. The lord...it was definitely taxing him, last I saw him. But he was still in his right mind. He's surrounded by his mages, and they'd certainly help him banish it if things were getting out of hand. I think we're ok..." the mage squints his eyes. "But...keep a backup plan in mind." The water mage nods, and sighs. "...Nulis never should have taken the throne. It wasn't his to take..." "That isn't our call." "No. It's a woman's call, isn't it? And she's poison. She's the one that pressed him to demons. I don't even know why we're here. Why are we here?" "Do find a magical artifact that can secure victory," the earth mage says. "Keep your opinions to the whoring tents and get moving." They split up, and the two move off. It seems as though Vellik has a lot on his plate. You hope he knew about that attacking force... You creep out of the church and flit across town to the edge of Abigail's home. You walk up to the house. You can clearly see where the creature died - the grass where it fell is shriveled and black. The body itself is probably long buried. The house seems as it was. The small shutter, covering the only 'window', if you can call it a window, is bolted tight, just as it was before. You feel memories drift in you...just a few days ago, you met a little girl and she took you to her home. Sheltered you without hesitation.

The angels must be wrong. You are not something that has to die to preserve balance and order. You have a right to be... To be. Your curiosity gets the better of you...you open the front door. It creaks open. The smell of decay assaults you - putrid, but less so than it was the day before. You don't really mind it. You can just tell it's rotting, nasty...perhaps -abnormal- is a better way of putting it. After fighting the twisted freak, you know what caused it. You wonder how her parents got that way. The kitchen in empty. The shelves are dusty and undisturbed. There's a hatch near the back, probably leading down to a storeroom. You pause. Something's coming from the storeroom...a little tingle of magic. You walk over and put a hand on the door. Something stops you. Perhaps...you don't want to know. You open the hatch. It's dark. That's no problem for you. You climb down the ladder. It's a normal storeroom, cool, slightly dry. Shelves are lined with jarred, preserved fruit, and dried plants and roots of a wide variety. You carefully examine the shelves. Up above the top shelf, nestled in a corner where a child couldn't see, is a lever. You can't turn back. You pull the lever. A shock of spirit cracks down the wall and into the floor...a stone slab, covered in an inch of dirt, groans as it shifts to the side. You peer into the hole. It's a room filled with orange light. You drop down, and peer around. You're in some sort of laboratory. A shelf piled with loose-leaf books is in the corner...it's all handwritten. A long bench is filled with beakers. Delicate, specialized condensers and supporting metal form a net of glassware serving a function you can only guess at. Notes and papers are scattered across the table, pinned by weights or pieces of the structure. Multiple pens are scattered about. An inkwell is set into the corner of another desk.

The third corner holds a raised platform...on the platform...is drawn a diagram. It's a circle, with a 9pointed star. Characters and images and numerals are scrawled across it in exacting, measured detail. You think it's written in blood. The prick of magic grabs your attention. In the final corner is simply a hefty book, and a pen. ...it seems that the pen is the source of the magic... You walk up to the circle. It's a confusing tangle of pictorials...but your ability to Translate shifts the words...slowly...parts of a message become clear. But even your natural power can't unravel it all. To Bind and Keep Kept, but Free Freedom --- -- - - Human Child of ---- -- - - Blood, the Only To be Able -- ----- restrained from --Locked, in ------ -- -- - Plane of Man The Void of the Nether Calls Forth from the - -------- --- ----Zek'Ata ---- ----- - Stable, a Presence --- ----You glance to the desk and walk over. You hesitate. >Rolled 1d100: 53, 93, 75 You carefully examine the chair, the desk, and the book and pen... ...and you find it completely free of traps. But then, the lever was probably meant as security enough. A researcher wouldn't wants traps near his work. Right? You look at the book and the pen, staring them down. They appear to be perfectly normal. The book is leather-bound. The pen is a normal quill. You delicately reach out a hand and touch the book. Nothing happens.

You heft the book in a hand, and set it down. No explosions, no traps. You look at the pen. You touch the pen. It leaps into the air! The book flaps open with sudden force, then stops, open on a fresh, blank page. -What's going on?- You think. The pen scrawls the words 'what's going on' on the page of the book, then dips itself in the inkwell, then poises over the book, ready for more. ...what? The pen writes -...what?- on the page, complete with ellipsis. Apparently this pen can read and write your thoughts. The pen duplicates those words on the page even as you think them. -...stop writing- you think at the pen. The pen zips into its resting position and sits there, quiet. Huh. You pick up the book and turn to the first page... >Titles are links, where the books text has been provided. Select them to skip down to the book text >Return links will be provided at the end of the book text Jen Fang's Diary You close the diary and set it gently on the table. This was the workshop of Abigail's father...a spirit mage. You frown, then open the diary to the first page. Something is scrawled on the inside of the cover... "To Jen Fang, my dearest brother. Congratulations on your graduation from the Archonium. I have high hopes for you, and will continue to support your growth and happiness." Jen Fang. Abigail's last name is...Fang, then?

That name seems vaguely familiar...but what's the Archonium? You tuck the book into your purse and the pen into your belt. You take a spare jar of ink and put it in a separate pocket. A thought strikes you. You withdraw the shard of the sword from the purse... ...it's warm in your hand from the power. You walk toward the circle. ...the sword's humming increases. You frown, and step over the circle. A part of the circle flashes. The rest vanishes. A dark sphere appears in the air over the stone platform. Something's coming. There's a flash of purple light... ...the dark sphere vanishes...but something is left behind. A small, dark mote. Darkness, floating, moving on its own...darkness that isn't a part of you. You feel an Impression cross your mind. The moat floats above your head. A man walks up from behind you with a club. The mote zaps the man with shadows. You send it an impression of the affirmative in reply. The wisp of shadow dances around your head, seemingly pleased with itself. Fascinating. You pocket the sword shard and head up out of the laboratory. The shadow wisp follows you, bobbing about. You feel as though you've uncovered something you've forgotten...a way to open something...a passage somewhere else. You stand outside Abigail's house. You glance at the house. Abigail's parents were full of secrets...that much you know. Abigail Fang. Who is this girl? What is her place in the world? Suddenly, you remember. The duke mentioned a mage - Yi Fang, the archmage and ruler of Archon. Archon, Archonium...it can't be a coincidence. Abigail is not just a normal girl. She's very, very special.

And her father ran away from home, for one reason or another. And she and Adavan are out there somewhere, alone. You feel a shiver run through you. Auriel's words echo in your head. "Conflict always finds power." What is your place in the world? What do you want to do? Would you truly be content with living with Abigail and Adavan in a log cabin in the woods? Waiting until something finds you, or until the world falls apart? You have too many questions to be satisfied with that. Questions about what you are, why you have the powers you do, why you're hunted - and why your memory still lingers behind a wall of steel. You feel at it... ...it's gone. The steel barrier in your mind is gone. For a moment, you feel a rising sense of joy as you plunge forward...! ...but you're only greeted with emptiness. Whatever was there, is gone. Anger boils inside of you. No. A quiet life alone, in ignorance, will not do. You will find the elf noblewoman...and you will have an explanation. Or there will be hell to pay.

THREAD 13
>HP 21/21 >Mana 4/4 For what seems like the hundredth time, you push the frustration away. Immediate concerns must take precedent. Jacob's Field is occupied by a force numbering in the thousands - no doubt working to solidify KanAbar's control of the river, dividing Kelvere in two. It's no scouting expedition. They're building a fort, there's mages everywhere, and they have an earth golem nearly two-stories tall patrolling the edge of the village. You've learned that an attacking force led by the ruler of Kan-Abar, lord Nulis Vin, is headed for Evinbrook, and at its head is a demon lord. You're not sure whether the duke was prepared for that, or not, but Sir Flint is probably already halfway to Jacob's Field by now. And you also have a strange wisp of darkness floating about your head, seemingly summoned by your power. You've uncovered something there...a way to open a path to someplace...else. You decide that sitting around and waiting wouldn't accomplish much. You have to hit them where it hurts. You don't need food, beyond eating to replenish your stamina. But humans must eat just to live - and frequently. You wonder how they'd react if you consumed their stores. You decide that you'd like to find out. You slither and slip and sneak your way up toward the half-constructed fortress. There's a lot of torchlight, but you clamber up a darker side of the wall and perch near the top for a better view. The inside of the fort is a hive of activity. A wide breach in the north end, opposite you, looks like the foundations of a gate. To the west is a long pen sloping down the hill holding what must be several hundred horses. The square fort itself is divided into quadrants. Two are filled with rows of small tents; another, larger pavilions and tents. The final fourth is set with long tables crowded with soldiers, and has several long, wide pavilions with crates and barrels stacked inside. It seems as though you've found your target. There's more than a few mages, but they seem concentrated in the section with the larger, fancier tents. Perfect. You sneak toward the storage tents...

>Rolled 1d100: 59, 19, 94 You slink along in the darkness near where the earthen wall rises. Soon, you're at the entrance to the supply tents. A man is standing outside one with several leafs of paper and a harried look on is face. A group of men enter, then leave, all carrying several crates and barrels back toward the mess tables. The man makes some scratchy notes, then scurries away. You're alone. You slip into the tent. You can taste the aroma of food...and in the barrels, water, and something else it smells a bit like the bar Flint was at. But more like the red drink that the duke was always sipping at meals. You spread out like a tidal wave of black ink and consume the tent, piece by piece, eating through wood, paper, acidifying water, liquifying dried meats and hard biscuits. You feel full, but as if you could consume forever. If you had lips, you'd smack them. You do it anyway, using ink to make large, heavy smacking sounds. Human peculiarities are oddly entertaining. When you're done, all that remains is several sizable barrels of what you think is beer and twenty caskets of wine. You've no desire to imbibe any of Flint's ignorance potions. You turn to leave... ...the frazzled counting man is standing at the entrance to the tent. He stands there, stunned. His pen and papers slip from his hands and scatter across the grass. His mouth opens and closes without making any sounds. >Rolled 1d100: 98, 82, 21 You shock the man with two impressions. In your first image, he tries to flee. A shadowy tentacle grabs his leg, then drags him back, kicking, screaming all the way until you devour him in your form. A dark stain forms around the man's crotch. He whimpers. You send him a second image of him crawling into the corner, putting his hands over his head, and of you walking out of the tent. The intent of the message is clear. The man scrambles into the corner and ducks his head, sniffling and shaking. You smash the barrels to pieces, breaking the wood and spraying the wine and beer everywhere. The liquid pours across the ground and is soon muddied and useless.

You slip out from the tent just in time to evade a group coming to investigate the source of the sound... You dig your claws into the earthen wall and quickly scale to the top, and burrow in slightly to watch the chaos you've created. You hear shouts of anger and a terrified voice echo from within the tent. More men gather when they hear. Whispers and words become a confused, babbled roar as the commotion draws the attention of more and more soldiers. Eventually, one group is fed up and begins to rip the cloth of the pavilion away. Finding it empty, a majority of the crowd goes silent. They begin to work faster, lifting the cloth up and over the several wooden stakes supporting its girth. It's not long until they realize all their supplies have vanished, and the caskets have been broken. The soldiers mob the now panic stricken man for an explanation. The word of a shadowy creature spread quickly. Officers are quick to arrive next, shouting the men off from the supply area. They snap back to other tasks - the Kanians aren't without discipline - but you know that they're still thinking, no matter what their orders. Your work here is done, for the moment. Balls of magic are headed your way...a confrontation with the mages on their turf might be pushing things. You leave the fortress, sneaking down the hill. A few horses shy away and whinny at your presence. A passing patrol gives the animals an odd look, but after glancing around, they shrug and continue on. Your quickly reach the edge of the trees. The lumberjacks have made quick work of the outer forest, leaving it a narrow field of stumps. Torches light the work area. It seems they're cutting through the night. They're scattered up and down the edge of the wood in a thin line. Perhaps a few dozen soldiers are amongst them, holding conversation and watching the night. You work your way to the edge of the line, where there is less light and fewer men. Three soldiers stand at the end of the line of lumberjacks, a short distance from the next group. Two men are working a long saw on a tree. The soldiers are quiet for the moment. The background of axes hacking and saws grating wood covers the sound of your footsteps easily. You settle just inside the trees, further in the dark.

>Rolled 1d100: 47, 53, 40 You creep up behind the soldiers. One shifts from side to side. "Hey. You hear what - " Your shadow pierces his skull. His words turn into a rattling gurgle, then die as his corpse slides back on the spear of your shadow. Blood trickles onto the ground. The other two soldiers turn at the odd noise. Your shadow attack pierces the other two soldiers in quick succession, one in the head, the other through his chest. The one struggles and coughs, spluttering blood for a few long, painful moments. He goes slack. You release your shadowy spears, and the bodies fall to the ground with a thump. You steal away back into the trees just in time for the lumberjacks to stop sawing. They look over, freeze. Their cries for help are quick to go up over the rest of the line. Men and lumberjacks gather around the fallen corpses. One of the men, wearing a rather fancy helmet with a red plume, quickly takes command of the situation. Runners head off toward the fortress. The lumberjacks are pressed back to work. Their work proceeds slowly, and fitfully. They mutter to each other, keeping one eye on the dark wood. You pose as a tree, using mimic to hold your form. You put a bit of effort into making your outside look like bark. In the flickering half-light of the torches, you blend in easily. Two lumberjacks begin to move toward you. "...I dunno. I want my shift to be up already." "Think it's some kinda magic? I heard a mage talking about something under this town...and I heard another rumor they found a pit full of dead bodies past some of the farmhouses. Sounds like plague." The other man shivers. "Don't want to think about it." They reach your position and raise their axes. You warp, shiver. They stand there, stunned, and their faces slowly transform into masks of horror. You leap on the first, consuming him, eating away at him head-down until you've reached the ground and there's nothing left. The other man is petrified with fear. His face is white.

You Ink yourself into a new form, Mimicing something you've noticed before...a spider. You snatch a claw toward him. The man screams and flees into the night. You withdraw deep into the trees and watch the men under their torches. The terrified man is babbling and nearly incoherent. A brief search for the missing lumberjack turns up nothing - as there's nothing to turn up. The lumberjacks begin throwing down their tools one by one. This time, the officer's shouts don't persuade them back to the trees. And even he seems a little sweaty, a bit to eager to keep his eyes on the forest... You can feel two balls of magic walking down from the fortress and toward the forest. >Rolled 1d100: 52, 70, 68 You blast a flurry of images at the nervous crowd of men. Bodies, ripped open. Innards spilled onto the ground in pools of blood, hanging from the branches trees with glowing red eyes that greedily gobble up the intestines. "It's the monster!" "I told you!!" "Calm down!" shouts the captain. But his voice is cracking. "It's magic! Illusions!" "It ate Henry alive!" "Pull yourself together!" You blast the captain with an image of him being devoured alive by a ghoul. Its claws rip into his stomach and tear out chunks of his flesh. The captain pales and falls to the ground. He scrambles back from the woods on his hands and knees. The rest of the men are in a near-panic. You assault them with the same vision, generalized. One of them breaks and runs. Another follows. And then, like a horde of ants, they scramble back up the hill, away from the terror in the wood.

This pleases you greatly. You decide you've done enough for the duke, and you retreat toward the keep. With your new, greater speed, you make it in record time. There's still a few hours before dawn. The darkened, ruined keep is silent. In the courtyard still rest the crumbled remains of the gargoyle you defeated. You walk back to the mausoleum. The building, opened, is quiet. You walk in and down the winding staircase. The mana pool still rests in the center of the chamber, a deep ring of still, glassy liquid. It seems to be Spirit...concentrated spirit. It feels different than the power under the town, however. More...chaotic. You dip a hand into the pool. Nothing happens, and you withdraw your hand. You remember Flint being surprised that you survived contact with it...he seemed adamant that nothing could survive that. You glance at the wisp. Undirected, it has followed you silently, hovering near your head. You send it an impression of it touching the mana pool. It sends you back an impression of it going up in a puff of purple smoke, but also an acknowledgement if that is what you want, it would be happy to oblige. You lean back over the pool. All this raw magic... You know what you have to do. You Must CONSUME You extend yourself over the pool, dipping you tendrils down into the energy, and You hit it, hard. Confused, you try to CONSUME it, but it's like trying to bite down on a bar of steel. It's simply there, and it won't budge. A useful construction material...? But not something for eating, apparently. You feel a slight sense of disappointment at finding something you cannot simply consume. It seems that your greatest talent cannot solve -every- problem. You move into Adavan's chambers. It's the same as before, cracked, aged stone with three inset resting places. They're empty, now. Other than that, there's nothing remarkable about the room.

You walk up to where Adavan was resting. It strikes you that he was able to survive down here, locked away, alone but for two of his ghouls...for hundreds of years. He must have slept and meditated quite a bit. And have a will made out of adamantium. You're surprised you were able to convince him to abandon his old war and take care of Abigail. He must have seen things during the elemantomachy. Terrible things. A sudden fear strikes you. What if he lied? What if it was an act? These humans are chaotic creatures, prone to lies and secrets... ...but you've made your choice. Worry will not help the situation. You walk up to Adavan's resting place and peer into the nooks and crannies, but it's empty. Wait... ...a tingle of magic grabs at your senses. The key...it's reacting. You withdraw it from your pocket. It glows a soft orange. You move it closer to the lich's burial alcove... It burns bright. You hear a thunderous sound... CLICK It echoes into the ground and vanishes. Adavan's resting place sinks into the ground, leaving only a dark hole. You jump out into the hole. You fall. ...and fall. Faster, now. You slow your descent with your wings, and continue to slowly fall. Finally, you settle on the ground. This place...is dark. You feel right at home. You're at the end of a massive cavern. You walk forward, keeping your guard up and your wings ready. Your wisp seems to sense your attitude...it buzzes near your head, darting here and there in constant vigilance.

You walk for a long time. The cavern continues, wide, lengthy, a deep bore through the earth. You're rather certain you're heading south, toward Jacob's Field...because the sense of the Spirit under the town is growing larger with every step. Finally, you reach the end of the cave. A door looms above you. The ancient vault soars all the way to the ceiling. It is divided into four sections. Each is carved with a different symbol; one for wind, fire, lightning, and light. At the bottom of the door are four round holes. They show slightly different pictorials within their indents. Each one shows the matching elemental opposites - a wave and a flame, a mountain and a cloud, a bolt of lightning and what appears to be a ghost - and then a sun and a moon, just like on the key you hold. The door radiates power... ...you're wary of disturbing such a thing alone, with an army above you trying to get to this very spot. You shouldn't do anything rash. You pocket the key. You remember the voice that spoke to you during the battle for Jacob's Field... <Hello?> you project toward the door. <Can you hear me? Hello?!> There's no response. You sigh, then turn and head back the other way. Confident in your surroundings, you take flight, flapping up and into the air. You soar up back through the hole... ...something pricks at your backside...a familiar feeling of wind...?! Even here? You flap your wings faster, but the Sky-Sever pursues you. The rush of air increases around you... You shoot back into Adavan's chamber and roll onto the ground. The air dies, and goes still. Nowhere is safe from that awful spell. You stand, and glance at the wisp, still hovering by your side. Wait a minute. The wisp...it's constantly flying. Why isn't it getting attacked? You press your thoughts at the wisp. It only answers with uncertainty. Just what you don't need - more questions.

You decide to meditate and settle in next to the mana pool. You close your eyes and easily enter the half-sleep you've experienced before... ...you see darkness, spotted by points of light. One of these points is just next to you...are these...mana pools? You examine the darkness, looking at the lights... Footsteps awaken you. "Shadow! Shadow, are you - ugh! Whoa, whoa, ahhh!" You hear a bang, and a crash, and a tumultuous tumble of steel clanking and mashing against stone. Sir Donovan Flint tumbles to a halt at the bottom of the stairwell. He groans, then rolls over. "...fuck me." <Flint?! Are you alright?> "...good, you're here." Flint struggles upright. "Believe it or not, I've had worse." He picks himself off and brushes his armor. "I got past the Kanians without bringing them all down on my head, so I guess it had to catch up to me sometime..." <Well, if you say so.> You settle lower. <Are we off? In any case, I've got some things - > "No," Flint says. "We've got problems. Big problems. Nulis Vin - uh, that's the lord of Kan-Abar - he's marching on Evinbrook. They'll be in full combat by now, and Vin's come with a near army of demons." <I know. I've been...-helping- the Kanians adjust.> Flint grins. "So that's what got them riled up. I sort of figured." His smile fades fast. "What do I need to know?" <I've found a way under the keep to where the great force of spirit is sealed,> you explain. You raise the Sun-Moon key. <This opens the way. The Kanians are looking for a way down, but they don't know about the keys. We need three more.> "For what, exactly?" Flint asks. <Answers - I hope.> "...well. Anything about the attack?" <Apparently this Lord Vin has summoned and is controlling a demon lord. Does that mean anything to

you?> Flint goes white. "...demon...lord. You're sure you heard those words. Demon lord?" <I'm sure.> "Oh dear light. Shit, I'm standing here. I might as well pray to the shadow, too." Flint holds his head in his hands. "If it ever gets out that there's any kind of relationship between us, I am going to be hunted down and skinned alive by my own family, you know that?" <Flint, focus.> "...a demon lord," Flint mutters. "Last time one was around was when the Black Lady summoned one. That was the last time the war in the Frontier escalated to open combat, fifty years ago. Two angels were able to bring it down. One of them, Raphael, is still famously crippled to this day. He was the greatest healer in the land - well, he still is. But he can't walk any more." <...I thought he was a healer.> "Even he can't cure the curse the demon lord put on him, stealing his legs. But he got the last laugh banished it back to the nether." Flint pounds his gauntlets together. "But in a way, this is good. Auriel stuck around Evinbrook, poking around a bit. I had to pretty much tell her everything about Jacob's field..." <What do you tell her?!> Flint raises his hands. "Hey, what was I going to do, refuse her?" <...fair enough.> "I told her you appeared out of nowhere. I was...as vague as possible. But she probably got all she needed to know about Abigail from the townspeople." Flint sighs. "On the other hand...she is suspicious of the duke, but she'll fight on his side against a demon. That's dark magic right there, if nothing else is." <What exactly is the nature of the nether?> "An alternate plane," Flint says. "No specialty of mine. Nasty things live there, mages can bring them here to do their bidding." Flint takes a breath. "The duke asked me to get you back there just before I was able to get away from Auriel. He needs all the help he can get." <Help? With a war? With an angel and a demon lord?> "Don't know if you've noticed, but you're pretty powerful," Flint says. "And..." he frowns. "I still...demons, Shadow. Nulis isn't just an enemy of Kelvere. He's an enemy of everything decent in

this world, using them just to power his ambitions. Like a dark mirror of the duke...if that's possible." Flint sighs. "I guess what I'm saying is, I feel like I should be a part of this battle." <With that thing attached to your soul?> "I've gotten this far," Flint says firmly. "I won't let it stop me from doing what I think is right. And I say we can't well adventure after a lich and Abigail while our backside is being overrun with demons, and good people are dying." <What's stopping Auriel from calling in backup?> "The Ring City is very far from here," he says. "It'll take the angels half a week to fly, probably, and they'd be exhausted. Their two airships - the Velarion and the Noiralev - are the greatest in the world. They can even warp from place to place, but only once per month, or thereabouts. The Velarion just warped into Evinbrook, which is how they surprised the duke. And if the other could warp in, it would have done so already." Flint frowns deeply. "We're on our own. Unless you join us. I saw your speed, before. It's unlike anything I've witnessed before. You - we can make a difference in this fight. Even if it's just to save one life, it's worth it. Isn't it?" <...you've thought this through, haven't you.> "...had a lot of time on the horse," Flint mutters. <I would say that saving one life might be worth it. It depends on the life.> "Cynicism doesn't suit you. You're better than that." <My actions have saved lives, but ended others. I am no hero.> "You could be," Flint says. He looks at you. "You could be a hero if you wanted. You could show them that a man's element has nothing to do with his character, with his goodness." <Why do you care do much?> Flint looks slightly hurt by this comment. "...because I met you." You have no response to this. "...Shadow..." Flint swallows. He looks away. "...I'm...I'm the screw-up of my family. I left home to restore a knighthood because I had to get away before I drove myself crazy. I thought...if I could get out from under them, I could show them that..." Flint stops, then starts again. "...I never had a friend that simply trusted me like you did. That joined me on what I believed was a suicidal adventure. That showed me a shadow elemental...could feel, like a human. "When the survivors of the airship crash returned to town, they spoke of a dark thing - a thing that drove back the Sky-Sever and saved their lives. That was you, wasn't it?"

<It was.> You look at him. <I consumed the angel, Raziel.> "...he's not unknown for his belligerence," Flint says. "I don't doubt he forced you into it. But you know - Auriel tried to press the crewmembers into else. But they were adamant that you'd saved them from a rampaging angel. They seemed to think it was the duke's work, protecting them from the unwanted influence of the Ring City. He was quick to spin it that way. It bothered Auriel, their defense of you." Flint raises an eyebrow. "Many Angels had no love of him- will be glad he's gone." <What happens when she sees me on the battlefield again? She's made her position clear.> "What happens when she sees you fight at her side against demons?" You go quiet. If you go off on your own, Flint will just drive his horses dead to get back to Evinbrook, alone if he has to. He places upon you the qualities of a human. Perhaps there is something to that. <I don't know,> you say. <I hope she puts aside her crusade for the moment. But I do know that I can fly faster than a horse can run. We need to get back there as soon as we can.> Flint grins. "I knew I could count on you." You both run up the stairs. Your wisp still bobs around you. "What's that black thing?" <A...wisp.> "Good," Flint says. "We need all the help we can get." You reach the courtyard. >Rolled 1d100: 99, 97, 44 <Alright. I'm going to fly us back.> "Uh...I mean, we have to get back quickly, but we're not going that fast." Flint looks at you. "Right?" You grab him. "Shadow? Shadow, just put me down for a second!" You aura gathers behind you and goes still, like a shadow frozen in place.

"Shadow, let's plan this out!" BOOOM You zip over Jacob's Field so quickly the buildings blur in your sight. The sound of the air around you vanishes as you outpace your own ability to hear. Flint's face is contorted in a constant scream of terror. You can't hear him, but you can see his adam's apple bursting from his throat. Serves him right for twisting your arm. And then you hear it... ...the Sky-Sever. Wind, rustling, stabbing, needling! >HP 20/21 You pour on the speed. You can't stop now! >HP 19/21 The river turns into a undulating snake as you cruise along. The force of the wind steadily increases, but your aura slashes back, holding it at bay! Hills ripple beneath you. Farmland flickers in your sight, then is gone. The wind continues to assault your sides! >HP 17/21 The wind is getting fiercer, but you're almost there! You think you can recognize the terrain! >HP 16/21 You cut out your supersonic. WHOMPH You beat your wings, then land on a nearby hill. The winds fade, and vanish. You release Flint. He stumbles forward, then falls onto his hands and knees. "...thank you, earth spirit." Flint collapses. "Never again. Never, ever again, do you hear me?" You're about to make a smug response... The roar of an explosion, muffled by distance, cuts you off. You turn around.

You're on the opposite side of the castle from the battle, but you can see and hear it very plainly. The horizon beyond the castle is stained red and black. Lights pulse amongst the clouds and around pillars of smoke. The castle's highest keep has a hole torn in its side. The Velarion circles the battle. It's unlike the other airship - almost solid steel, all lights and shine, but it's scarred from the battle. Its hull is smoking, and there are tears in its armor plating. Lights still pulse from its underside, bombs of fire and lightning. You see clouds gathering around a small form on the top of the keep. Lightning pulses around him, arcs of gold energy snapping and cracking across the battlefield like the sound of a thunderstorm. Bolts of the energy strike the ground, doing damage you can't see. You recognize that aura - it's the duke. You're glad you didn't try to fight him. A flash of light like a sunray pierces the sky from near the Velarion, boring a hole through the clouds. A might dome of darkness thrums suddenly, humming with power. A deep rumble roars over the entire field as the powers clash. The ray of light snakes across the dome, leaving an ugly red scar, but it's ultimately unable to penetrate. The darkness fires back. It's like a missile of shadow, aimed at the airship. The blast strikes home. It seems to be partially deflected by the airships energy, but another smoking tear is ripped in the hull. "War," Flint whispers.

THREAD 14
>HP 16/21 >Mana 4/4 Flint shakes himself. He points to the top of the castle, where the duke is seemingly commanding the heavens down upon his enemies. And here you thought he was merely magically competent. Obviously he was playing his cards close to his chest, because with his power unleashed, you've felt no other mage like him. He might be on par with an angel... ...well. Might. "He's sure to have a plan," Flint says. "And either way, he can't keep that up forever. My money is that he's forced to play himself as a stopgap. We should fly up and speak to him." You can feel the resounding crash of battle around you. You're unsure where to even begin. Flint's suggestion is a good one. The now-silent and smoking airship catches your eye. It still drifts over the battle, but its attacks have been halted by the damage it's sustained... ...perhaps its magic dynamo would serve your side better in your stomach. Aside from these competing plans, you can feel Auriel's light flaring like a star up beyond the clouds. And then, you see her - she touches down briefly on the roof of the Velarion to stop the Sky-Sever, and then is off again before the Demon Lord can pinpoint her. It's probably not a good idea to take a random action right now. Whatever the duke is planning, it's sure to be carefully choreographed, and you might have an important role. You grab Flint. <Time to fly.> "Slow this time!" You spin up into the air, tugging along a green-looking Flint. In short order, you reach the top of Evinbrook's keep, which is crackling with gold lightning. <Your excellency!> The duke thrusts a hand forward. The last of his lightning burns into the battlefield, exploding, and leaving a crater where there once was a square of red-dressed Kanian spearmen. Kelvere soldiers, marked by their orange-gold tabards, rush in to take advantage of the break in the enemy line. The duke exhales. "Shadow. I wasn't sure you'd come." <I have.> You land on the keep next to him. Flint wobbles for a moment, then catches himself. It's a

long way down. You can see the battle spread out below you like...a game of stones. A distance away from the castle, there's a large fortified building, surrounded by walls and palisades. This seems the centerpoint of the Kelveren defensive. Occupying a hill further back is the center of the Kanian army, surrounded by a smoky sphere of darkness. You focus your senses, trying to pinpoint the demon...but you feel nothing. Strange, despite it using that much magic. <Do you have a plan?> "The Velarion was the variable to tip the scales," the duke says. "Before you arrived, the demon hit it with something - it's engines can't be working right, because it's stopped firing, and its shielding isn't stopping more blunt attacks. We need to get up there." The duke clenches a fist. "I know for a fact it has a Lightning-based dynamo. You will convey us to the airship, and I'll do what's necessary to get the engine going." <What of the angel?> "She's working on getting through that." The duke points at the sphere of darkness. "Maybe you'll have more success, but later. We need the Velarion to hold our lines. They outnumber us nearly 2-to-1. If it goes down, the battle is lost." He shakes his head. "A demon lord. Arland might not like Kelvere, but now they'll be forced to align themselves with us - because they know they'll be next if we fall. We'll drive the Kanians back, but we have to win here." <Then let's get going. Are you ready?> "I've done more insane things. To the ship!" You grab Flint and the duke. <Hold on.> The duke braces himself, and Flint tries not to squirm too much. You flap off from the roof of the keep, a bit slower for the weight, but without too much effort, heading for the airship. A few moments after you take off, a twinkle of darkness zips out of the sphere, straight for your former position. You instinctively feel you must get away. You flap harder, flying as fast as you can without going supersonic. The twinkle of darkness strikes the keep, and an orb of shadow expands, booms, and collapses. The roof of the building is gone, eaten away in a spherical pattern. "I'm glad I wasn't standing there!" The duke shouts. You're nearly to the ship...

...when all hell breaks loose from the black orb in the middle of the Kanian army. A storm of demons emerges from the smoky sphere. There's every monster you can imagine, and more harpies, twisted birds, even what look like tiny dragons; wyrms. "They can feel me moving!" The duke shouts. "They're trying to intercept us! Go, go!" You flap harder, but burdened by two weights, you're not quite at the ship when a wyrm lunges down to attack! >Rolled 1d100: 66, 38, 100 >Primary Critical Success! You twist sideways! The wyrm flies by, missing you completely... ...but even stuck in your grip, Flint has his sword free. The wyrm has too much momentum to stop it's like running headfirst into a light-enhanced guillotine. The wyrm's head is lopped clean. In a twist of shadow and spirit, it vanishes, and is gone. "There! Into the hole!" You dive through the smoking hole in the airship's hull. A buzz of lightning passes over you as you go through the ship's shields...but the duke reacts quickly, creating a barrier around you and Flint both. You're through, and you land on the inside without event. Flint stumbles to the side and puts a hand on the wall. "I...hate...flying." "Perk up, we've got work to do." The duke frowns, then nods. "This way. I could feel that core from a hundred miles out." You march through the halls of the airship. You turn a corner...

...you face a satyr! "What the - " the duke begins. The satyr crouches, ready to attack! The hallways are wide enough for about two men across, and only 7 feet high - a tight space. >Rolled 1d100: 78, 72, 1 >Primary Critical Failure! <Get to the engine room, I'll hold it off!> The duke nods and dashes down a side passage. Flint tears after him. You're about to charge, but the Satyr's claws flare with Fire! Uncertain of what to expect at close range, you hesitate. You dodge its first aggressive swipe, and its second, but its third catches you straight on! Searing flame burns you... >HP 12/21 As you fall back, the Satyr pauses for an instant, then catches sight of your wisp! A fiery claw destroys it in a puff of purple smoke! >Rolled 1d100: 10, 71, 59 >Rolled 1d5: 5, 5, 5, 5 The satyr goes for another flaming claw attack. But its fourth strike isn't anything special - just like the last three you've already seen, and felt. You flicker to its side. Its claws rake the steel of the hallway, leaving glowing gashes, but you're unharmed. Your Fist catches it on the side of the head, slamming it into the side of the corridor. The demon stumbles, dazed. Your follow-up punches him in the gut, once, twice, three times, pounding him so hard the steel bends and cracks. Your shadow finally stabs into its neck... ...AND YOU CONSUME. ...it goes easily...the satyr was near death. But...there's no Soul. It's just magic...strange. You feel more of that untapped power surge through you, but you don't feel as revitalized, physically.

>HP 13/21 You turn... ...and see someone standing just behind you. It's a woman...she holds a strange pose. A sharp, short blade protrudes from a contraption under one of her wrists. In the other hand is a wide punching dagger. She's lightly clothed... ...but it's hard to focus on her. She seems wreathed in shadow. It emanates from her, and her clothing. Darkness. You find yourself in approval of this human. "...impressive, creature. You fight demons." The woman slowly lowers her blades, but her posture is balanced and tense. You have no doubt she is ready for a fight. "You are no demon yourself...though recent events have me feeling...cautious." <I am no demon,> you confirm. <Only a shadow that seeks to remove them.> "The we have at least one enemy in common," the woman says. Her voice is low and soft. "But who do you fight for in this battle?" <I fight for justice.> "What justice?" <My own.> The woman smirks. "Really? And what does the justice of a living shadow entail, exactly?" <If we both survive this battle, I might have the time to tell you.> "Your allies ran toward the engine room," she says. "I aim to restore it. Don't get in my way." You realize she's been watching since the beginning of the fight. That bothers you.

But somehow...you find yourself oddly pleased that it was Shadow magic that fooled you. <We share a goal, then,> you say, <for that is our aim as well. Come.> You dash after your allies, and she follows behind you. It's easy to keep an eye on her. You don't have a head that can only look forward, like these humans do. But it's difficult...as if your gaze wants to slide off her. You wonder if that's what it feels like when people look at you. You clank across the metal and slide down the railing of some stairs, turning to Ink to speed your passage. She vaults over the banister and lands next to you, and you both continue to run. "Useful body you have there." <You are agile. That is good.> "An eloquent, too." You suddenly realize her movements and footfalls haven't made a sound the entire time she's run along with you. It seems you have some room to grow... You can feel the pressure of the dynamo rushing up upon you as you grow closer. There's still no sign of the duke or Flint. There's a moment left until you get there, however. Perhaps time for a quick question. You glance at the woman. <Eloquence? Unnecessary.> "You have me there." You reach the engine room... The vast chamber is in chaos. Demons are everywhere - two more satyrs and three fae, imps, are dancing about. Flint's holding them off by taking them on one at a time from the bowels of the engine, but he's giving ground fast. Three wyrms are flitting about up above like vultures, waiting for an opportune moment. A hulking minotaur is challenging Vellik directly. Forced into hand to hand combat, the duke wields two knives sparking with lightning, deflecting and parrying the Minotaur's shadowy greatsword. The demon isn't giving him time to prepare any larger magic spell. The dynamo itself is...covered with something. Shadow wraps it like a cloak. The engine is moving in starts and stutters, coughing with the lack of power. The lights strobe on and off. "Like I said," the woman says. "Don't get in my way."

Flint could stumble at any moment. You've got to help him! >Rolled 1d100: 42, 65, 88 You shove an impression at Flint - he pushes the demons, then ducks for cover. Flint's trust in you is realized. He reacts immediately, slamming himself into the demon he's fighting. His armor takes a nasty blow, but holds. The satyr falls back and smashes into the creature behind him. Flint is prepared for his own attack, and he leaps back - just in time to collapse in a heap in the corner. But he's out of the way. You draw upon your full mana pool at all once, something you've never done...darkness rises in you... Bright missiles of shadow leap out from your form, spraying across the room toward the demons. The fae just have time to glance up before your attack hits them head on. The three are vaporized in an instant. The rest of your shadows plow on. The majority hit the satyr on your side - which blows it full of wholes. The other satyr is protected from the attack by the meat shield, but is still stunned from Flint's charge. The satyr you struck begins to twist and waver. It vanishes in a cloud of magic. You would have liked to consume it...but it seems that dead demons don't linger. The woman hasn't moved. Her mouth is slightly open. <Don't get in -my- way, either,> you say. "Hmph." She leaps up the machinery along the wall next to you as if she's practiced the moves her entire life. You blink, stunned. You've never seen a human move like that. She's fluid as Shadow. An instant later, she'd flying through the air, launched toward one of the wyrms. Her punching dagger stabs into its back. The monster screeches, twisting left and right. She jerks her knife, steering the creature where she wants it to go with pain, and then leaps again, aiming for the second wyrm. It sees her coming, and dodges. She falls... ...only to catch a pipe, swing, redirected, and leap onto its back! The other wyrm is flying to help its ally... ...but you think she can handle it. You dash towards Flint. "Shadow, was that you?!"

<It was.> You pull Flint up to his feet. A growl makes you both turn. The Satyr is charging, both claws wreathed in flame! >Rolled 1d100: 69, 44, 12 You hop into Flint's shadow and flash him an impression of him hacking off its arm, and then you devouring it whole. He meets the Satyr's flaming claw with his sword, striking it upwards. You spear your shadow forward, deflecting the second claw. The satyr is reeling from your combined defensive! Flint move in for his attack... ...this close, you can see it clearly...the black thing constricts, eating at Flint's light as it tries to flare. He stumbles, and the Satyr has time to give ground and get its balance back. You're in the middle of the room, now. Flint and the Satyr strafe one another; the Satyr's eyes flick from you, to Flint, and back again. The duke barrels by. He's bleeding from a wound high on his arm. The minotaur is chasing after him, but it looks even worse - black, scarred pockmarks all over its body show where the electric knives have pierced its flesh. You can hear the cries of the wyrms from above, but you don't have time to look and check on the woman. You want to consume the Minotaur and be done with it, but you hesitate...it hasn't been hurt. >Rolled 1d100: 36, 18, 45 <Flint, the duke needs help!> Flint grunts in acknowledgement. You dash out of his shadow. The Satyr's gaze flickers after you as you leave. Flint takes advantage of the distraction and lunges forward, but you're not sure how he fares. You dive at the minotaur's backside and dig in, clawing at it with your shadows and your body. It growls in pain, and your momentum forces it down to the floor. It reaches back for you, tossing and rolling to shake you. A shadowed claw scrapes your back, but you hold on tight! >HP 12/21 You latch onto the demon's...existence?

You're sure of it, now. These things have no souls. Then again, they're demons. Perhaps that is their defining characteristic. But soul or not, it has plenty of energy. You dig into the minotaur. You tendrils dip and reach into every scar and burn, sinking it, slurping the magic right out of it. The creature gives a plaintiff cry, then finally falls slack as your consumption takes hold in full. When you're done, there's nothing left. The duke has taken a knee. He reaches a hand to his arm. His face contorts in pain, but he grits his teeth and ignores it as he cauterizes his own wound with lightning. You run back toward Flint. The knight is winning, pushing a now-scarred satyr back across the steel floor. You're nearly positioned at its back... ...a black shadow drops from the ceiling. The woman lands like a lithe panther on the beat's shoulders. Her knife stabs into the creature's spine, and then she's away, flipping back and landing gracefully on her toes. The satyr twitches, then slumps, limp. You're already there, anyway. You might as well CONSUME The duke sidles up to you and Flint, watching the woman carefully. <She aims to fix the engine,> you explain. <She killed the wyrms.> "...who are you?" The duke demands. "A servant of angels," the woman responds. "For now, a crew member. If you can do anything about the core, lightning mage, I suggest you do it before Lord Vin asks the Demon Lord to stop conserving mana and annihilate the ship entirely." A roar snaps everyone's heads toward the door of the engine room. A wyrm clambers in - so big you're surprised it fit through the halls. It rises up on its haunches. It's an intimidating beast, 7 feet high and 10 feet long, almost like a miniature dragon. It opens its mouth in a low growl. Fire and shadow twist in its jaws. "Buy time!" the duke shouts. He runs toward the dynamo.

THREAD 15
>HP 17/25 >Mana 0/4 >Rolled 1d100: 34, 29, 40 You hop into Flint's shadow, sending him an impression of his shadow growing and moving on its own to fend off attacks. Flint has confidence in your ability, and he takes point against the wyrm. "Try to get behind it!" He shouts at the woman. The woman runs for the wall of the engine room without acknowledging Flint. The giant wyrm lowers its mouth and unleashes its breath. A roiling pile of flame and shadow tumbles toward you, catching Flint by surprise. He raises his sword, almost as if to cut the blackened flames. It glows bright - but his magic stutters. The parasite twists hard on his soul. You grab your friend around the waist and drag him sideways. The fire twists over the both of you. Flint escapes with some singed hairs, but you take a portion of the attack. Luckily, the dark magic seems to slide off you... Flint settles back into a combat stance. He wraps his gauntlets tight around his hilt and sets his stance. You can see the frustration building on his face. >HP 15/25 You send Flint an impression of confidence, and his sword buried in the wyrm's head. He nods, and takes a widened stance. Flint lunges forward, pulling you along in his shadow. The wyrm's right claw lashes out to intercept! >Rolled 1d100: 19, 73, 1 >Primary Critical Failure! >Secondary Critical Success You strike upward with your shadows, aiming to deflect the heavy arm away from Flint - but your aim isn't center! The massive claw slides off your shadow spear easily, still heading straight for Flint! It slams into his side, rending his armor, and sending him tumbling across the floor. But before the wyrm can follow up, it reels backward in pain. The woman is on top of it, jabbing her

knives into the back of its neck! It shakes side to side, trying to throw her. She grabs on to one of its spines and holds on for dear life. Flint stands. His chest plate looks like it's been torn apart by giant can-openers, but he's blessedly unharmed. Light flickers on the enchanted armor, then dies. He snaps the leather straps holding it in place and lets it fall to the floor. "...I'd cut myself up if I kept wearing it anyway." You send him a brief impression of the next attack cutting his chest...and a sense of worry. He bends his knees. "Look at the positives. Now I've got more freedom of movement." His words don't inspire you with much confidence. Flint is eyeing the writhing wyrm, looking for an opening. The woman is still hanging on, but she can't do anything else without being flung across the floor. You send an impression of Flint throwing his armor at the wyrm to distract it while you dart in to do what you can - either trying to blind it or attacking its underside. Flint's face goes blank. And slowly, he grins. "I'll do the blinding! Do as much damage as possible!" >Rolled 1d100: 92, 65, 89 You split off from Flint and head for the worm. Flint grabs his plate mail... ...and it glows a bright, golden white! He grunts, then hurls the armor up at the wyrm! The wyrm's head twists from side to side as it tries to shake the stubborn woman off its back - and the plate mail connects squarely with its eye! On contact with the demon, the mail shines even brighter, then flares over the entire room! You're forced to shield your eyes. The wyrm rears back on its hind legs, pawing the air in a panic. You're underneath it. You slam your Fist into the underside of the demon, punching through its scales and carving a rut through its muscle. Blood gushes out in a torrent. The wyrm roars in pain. It's moving, turning around your head! Tree-trunk legs stomp around you, trying to smash you. >Rolled 1d100: 44, 37, 23 The clawed feet stomp around you, but the wyrm is injured, blinded, and confused. You flit between the feet with ease. The gash you've made in its scales catches your eye...

...you Articulate your limbs and grab into the sides of the tear in the flesh. You can see the injury already beginning to regenerate... That won't last long. You pull, throwing all your strength into the act. The scales begin to peel back with a long, sickening rip. The wyrm thrashes from the excruciating torture of having its skin ripped off its muscle. You turn to ink, and pierce through its flesh... Where guts and organs should be, fire and shadow rage inside the demonic creature. It's a shell of something real...a terrible sort of half-existence, part magic, part flesh. You grab onto that energy nonetheless, ripping and tearing at it - and your shadowy form can indeed touch it, rend it just like any other thing you've encountered. >Rolled 1d100: 98, 100, 61 >Primary Critical Success! The energy claws back at you, and you tumble inside of it, warping, Inking, fighting a strange back and forward with pure energy in a sort of territorial tug-of-war. Something strikes you as odd. This isn't an enemy. It's a feast. You. Must. CONSUME You spread like a blot of ink dropped in water, in all directions, absorbing the energy as it tries to attack you. As you consume it, it stops, then tries to flee, pressing to the edges of its fleshy container. You're sure its aware - yes, this energy is the wyrm itself. You can feel its terror. You show no mercy. You suck it down like a man sucks meat from a lobster tail, and soon, you're at the edge of the wyrm itself. You devour its flesh, starting from its head, then work your way down its neck like a unified swarm of locusts picking a corpse clean. Your body wraps it like a cocoon, turning around its scales and claws and breaking them into viscous energy ripe for absorption. When you are done, you rest on the floor where the wyrm stood, a simple shadow. Nothing remains of your enemy.

>HP 20/25 Flint stares at you, stunned. His mouth is slightly open. His sword is loose in his grip, touching the ground. "Dear spirits." The woman is hanging off the edge of the wall. She hops down and crouches on the floor. Her eyes don't leave you for an instant. <You excellency. The engine?> The engine coughs, splutters, and roars to life even as you speak. The shadow over the dynamo is gone, and roiling gold lightning crackles and spins in the center of a cage of moving pistons and steel. The duke waltzes out from behind the intricate contraption. "Online. We need to get up to the control room so I can coordinate with the crew." He glances at the woman. "I thank you for your efforts. Can you guide us to the control room?" "...the engine is running. My work is done." The woman glances at you for a moment. "But I will take you to the bridge." You pause. The Velarion is running smoothly... ...but you wonder if the duke appreciates exactly what happens when you consume a dynamo. ...you turn away from the dynamo's lingering pressure. It isn't going anywhere. Power surges through the engine and down through the ship...the steel beneath you rocks and shudders periodically. "We're firing again," the duke says. He glances at the woman. "Lead on." She jogs ahead, and you all follow behind at a brisk pace. You glance at your friends. <Are either of you injured?> "My arm doesn't work too well after that cut, but I'll live until we get to one of my healers," the duke says. "...probably bruised a rib or two," Flint says. "Nothing major." "I notice you lost your chestplate." "Casualty of the fighting." The duke nods. "We can substitute it with something, once we're back on the ground." The uniform halls of the airship change as you ascend the stairs. You reach a wider, longer hall with several doors leading off it to either side. The steel there is bent and twisted, blackened in places. On

the other side is what appears to be a ramshackle barrier of metal seemingly grown out of the airship's corridors. "Who's there?!" calls a voice from across the room. "Duke Vellik, and allies!" the duke calls. "We just came from the engine!" A head pokes out from behind the barrier. "The duke himself. Well. Come along, then!" The woman trails behind the group as you march forward. You keep an eye on her...her forms grows steadily more indistinct, hazy. "...feeling shy?" the duke asks. He hasn't missed her reticence. "I keep my own company," the woman replies shortly. "You could at least give us your name." The woman is silent. The duke shrugs, then turns away. "Shadow, stay close. I'll give you a bit of shelter. Though...if Auriel is around, we'll probably not be keeping you secret long." You hop into the duke's shadow and go still. You reach the barrier. You can feel another lightning mage. He focuses, and magic bends the metal out of the way. The duke waltzes into the control room, a curious Flint and silent woman trailing. The airship's command module is a strange blend of magic and technology. A glass view port encompasses nearly half the room in a sort of dome. A huge gaping hole is open to the air, a tear in the glass like a wyrm came and took a bite out of it. Magic hums around the opening, preventing air from coming inside. Below, the battle is unfurling. The duke quickly makes his way out onto a long deck of steel set over the glass. In the airship's absence, the battle hasn't gone well. Kelvere's lines have been pushed back to the brink of the last fortifications before Evinbrook castle. The Kanian armies press against the Kelvere soldiers in a long line, and their efforts have bent the defenders inward, encompassing them in a U-shape. Their core is still surrounded by that fog of shadow. Mages exchange blasts of magic. Some are deflected or reflected off shields of energy. Others are blocked by rising tides of water and rock. It's like watching the earth fight with itself. You can rather make out the core strategy from your vantage point. Each squadron of soldiers is assigned a core of mages that protects and defends it, while the soldiers themselves protect their magical support.

<What are you thinking?> you ask the duke. "...what aren't I thinking." The duke's gaze lingers on the battlefield, then he looks back to Flint. "This is not good." A star of light makes you flinch. Auriel cruises down level with the hole in the airship, directly in front of the glass plate. She raises her sparkling blue sword of light, and levels it at the enemy lines. The control room bursts into activity. Men and women in crisp white uniforms work manual controls with levers and knobs. You can feel the flow of Lightning within the airship redirect itself... ...a hail of light and lightning rains down on the Kanian front line from the underside of the ship. The mages don't stand a chance against the concentrated power. A gaping hole is blasted in their forces. You can hear the roar of the Kelveren rally even from this high up as they push back, gaining lost ground. "Recharging!" shouts a man at the front of the controls. A missile of darkness spears out from the cloud of mist. Everyone in the room automatically flinches back at the power cruising straight for the glass wall... Auriel flies out to meet the magical attack. Her sword glows bright, brighter, extending and lengthening nearly five times its size. She swings, hard, and cleaves the missile in two. The darkness explodes to either side of her, and she flies back toward the airship, smoke trailing from her form though she seems unharmed. It isn't long until she flies directly into the hole in the glass. She alights hard on the steel. "Duke! You did it!" You're surprised. When she's happy...she doesn't seem all that bad. The duke smiles. "Naturally. But we're not firing very fast." "Report," Auriel says sharply. "Critical damage to three of the energy converters," a man says from a console. "We can barely crawl, and the main gun's going to take twice as long to charge even with all power diverted there." Auriel takes a deep breath. Then she pauses. Her glances left, then right. Then straight at you.

>Rolled 1d100: 8, 46, 93 Auriel steps forward...her hand flinches to the hilt of her sword... The cloaked woman butts in front of the duke, throws you a subtle glance, and strides up to the angel. You note that the way her shadow falls intersects with the duke's... "High one. The engine was restored without problems. Do I have another assignment?" Auriel blinks. Her face twists as if she's smelled something bad, then sighs. "You are to seek and kill enemy mages in the lines. Use your magic to glide down. I've much to speak of with the duke." The angel glances at Flint. "Sir Flint, I see you've lost your armor? We can replace it." Flint doesn't miss a beat. "I wouldn't want to impose, highest." "It's no imposition. Arland's royal family demands more than casual protection." She throws a pointed glance at one of the crewmen, and he scurries off. "What happened down there?" Flint launches into a detailed and shadow-less version of the battle, mostly using the woman as a substitute for your actions. The woman pauses a moment longer... Auriel glances away from Flint and squints at the woman. "Get going, now." With the shadows crossing each other, you don't even have to move. You subtly -shift- from one to another. The woman is off with a leap. Her aura allows her to cruise out the hole in the glass, and then she drops precipitously. A buzz of lightning passes over you as you drop through the magic shielding of the airship, but it doesn't seem to mind things leaving as much as things going in. It's a bit of a trip back to the ground, and she isn't aiming to land right in the middle of enemy territory. You send her an impression of gratitude for her help. She doesn't respond. <What's your name?>

<I cannot tell you. What is yours?> <...I am simply called Shadow,> you say. <But is a name so important you can't speak of it?> "It isn't important," she says. "I can't speak of it." <Why not?> Her mouth twitches, but her throat works, and she chokes the words off. She swallows, and remains silent. You're drifting slowly toward the east end of the Kelveren lines... <I'm surprised the angels have a shadow mage as a servant.> The woman says nothing. <I think I may have misunderstood,> you continue. <Can you literally not speak of it? What could cause such a thing, if you can say?> The woman says nothing, and makes no indication either way. She doesn't even look at you. You feel confident in your assessment. <You are not a willing servant, but a slave.> The woman's throat convulses. She looks at you. But she says nothing. You bend your senses toward her...but you feel nothing. No locks or chains, no light holding her back. She feels... ...empty. Like a demon. The thought bothers you in the extreme. You're approaching the ground rapidly. You glance at her. <You can't tell me your name?> Her lips snarl back over her teeth. Breath forced out her mouth stops, stutters. But she says nothing. <Know I am not your enemy.> "This I can acknowledge," the woman says. "How will you fight? I would know before we land." <Do you have an opinion?> "...staying together would give us a stronger defense. Moving apart would allow us to do more damage, and we would reduce the risk of getting in one anothers' way. But we run the risk of being cut

off if the enemy surrounds us." >Rolled 1d100: 100, 72, 41 >Primary Critical Success! <I'll stay in your shadow. Move as you will. I'll watch your back.> "Alright. Get ready." She cruises down toward the first Kanian unit at the edge of the U-shape although now it has a hefty bulge in it where the Velarion helped. "We're going to help the Kelverens bend back out before they're overwhelmed. We need to take out the flank in its entirety." <Understood.> She lessens her aura, and your speed increases. Soon, you're whistling toward three mages at the core of the first Kanian spear squad. She flies like an arrow, arms tucked at her sides; you flap behind her like a shadowy cape, tucked into her aura. "I take left and center." She shouts so you can hear over the air. "You get right!" You extends her arms with knives ready. Like a hawk, she plunges toward her chosen targets. You let go of her and the two of you separate. Her knives slash out. Shadow crackles against magical barriers, then cuts through. The heads of her two targets fall to the ground. Her aura pulls her up short, and she rolls down to a stop. You lever your aura in front of you as a single spear and fly toward your target. You burst through his magical shield like a hot knife through butter, and bore through his chest. Blood explodes past you, and you roll to a stop next to your... ...partner. The corpse of the mage suddenly missing his heart and most of his lungs thumps to the ground. Before anyone around you can react, you spin, Lashing out with physical attacks. Unprepared spearmen are caught by your Claws. You sever arms, cleave legs, and dig through leather armor. The woman is a whirling dervish of knives and shadow. The spearmen are faster to pinpoint her - but only because she's lifted her stealthy cloud and turned it into a weapon. It stabs and strikes along with her blades, a third and fourth arm seemingly reacting to her thoughts. It's not long before you're fighting within a ring of corpses. The grass, churned to mud by the battle, is slick with blood and innards. The enemy stops coming. The Kelvere lines are pushing foward. A blast of magic several yards away takes out a group of spearmen. Without their magical core, they're totally vulnerable. "We need to move on," the woman says. "Dangerous to linger, when you're a shadow."

You grab the corpse of the mage you punctured. <Energy.> The woman's lips twitch, but she says nothing before starting off at a quick run. You lope behind her as best you can while you acidify the body of the mage... >HP 24/25 An idea strikes you. You should use your Impressions to raise the morale of the duke's troops... >Rolled 1d100: 36, 22, 27 You send the approaching Kelvere troops images of victory - raising their flag back over the lost fortifications, driving the Kanians into a rout. You throw other images at the Kanians ahead of you - the army being driven back. A retreat under heavy fire, and men dying in awful explosions. A magical curse eating away at their skin. You hear few cries of triumph from the Kelverens, and see little fear on the looks of the Kanian spearmen. The area around you is obviously in the duke's favor, but it doesn't seem as if you've had much effect. "...you can speak in images, and feelings" the woman states. <Yes.> "Did you try to do something just now? I felt it." <I tried to encourage the Kelverens and discourage the Kanians...it doesn't seem to have worked well.> "Too much battle," she says simply. A tiny point, but an important one, apparently. Drained and exhausted, perhaps they're just too into what they're doing to be frightened or pumped any further. You hop into the woman's shadow. She runs toward another group of mages - two, this time. One of them seems to be focusing on defense. The other one is lobbing balls of fire at the Kelverens. Some nasty memories crop up in your head. "...you aren't quiet," she says. "Distract them. I'll finish them off." <My distraction might kill them before you get there.> You put on a burst of speed sprint ahead.

>Rolled 1d100: 34, 14, 78 >Rolled 1d100: 90, 79, 89 >Rolled 1d100: 91, 96, 23 You blast an Impression at the two men - getting their faces immolated by fire as they're stabbed by spears from every direction. The mage on defense jerks in surprise, but the other mage looks over at you immediately. A fireball flares your way! You're fast enough to dodge before it hits. A gout of fire throws up a cloud of earth at your backside, but you're unharmed. With the fire mage trained on you, you can't just run at him. So you stab a claw through a nearby spearman and lift him bodily into the air. You throw the squirming, screaming man at the two mages. The mage on defense raises his hands. A wall of rock rises up out of the ground, shielding him from the flying spearman. The spearman's head collides with the wall, snapping his neck at an ugly angle. But his body is forced by, and he slams into the fire mage! The fire mage drops his fireball. The rock wall contains the explosion in a smaller space! You can hear the screams rising high and sharp. You arrive on the scene. The fire mage is still alive - relatively protected from his own magic - but the earth mage is a blackened corpse. The man flinches at your presence. He flings a hand at you, shooting a thin beam of fire toward you. But he's dazed, and you're too fast. The fire burns a line in the mud behind you, and in a moment, you're on top of him, ripping at his face! >Rolled 1d100: 77, 21, 64 The fire mage gets another flame-shot off, striking you in the side. But with his concentration on the shadowy thing ripping his nose off, it doesn't do much damage. >HP 22/25 You latch onto the mage's soul. Exhausted, bleeding, and confused, he yields easily. You consume him without much struggle, and then you pick away the corpse of his friend, too. >HP 25/25 >Mana 2/4

A flare of Water makes you turn to the side. A water mage you didn't sense has cast a spell while you ate! A storm of ice spears flies toward you! >Rolled 1d100: 99, 39, 76 You throw yourself to the side and evade the spikes of ice. They thump into the ground beside you, burying themselves halfway into the mud. The water mage raises his hands, and the ice springs back into the air under his command. They swivel to face you! You rise up, ready to run... And then they collapse back to the ground. You blink, then turn. A knife is buried in the mage's neck. The body is kicked forward. The woman wipes her blade on the corpse. You sprint over. She gives you a look. "We're in the middle of a battlefield. Control yourself." <Thank you for helping me. I will do so.> She nods, then looks around. The intense magical fighting is actively avoided by the normal troops, so you've got a bit of space. You're higher toward the hill on which the Kanian core is camped. With two major magical ballasts gutted, the entire eastern flank of their offensive has started to collapse. Even as you watch the Kelverens surge forward, turning the U into an L. A rumble cuts the air. Streams of light and lightning leap from the airship. Fire and earth is spat into the air as the Velarion crushes the western flank. Kelvere's comeback is at hand. "Shall we continue?" <We shall.> She begins to move, then stops. "...something is coming." You can see it rise from the ground clearly. A golem - two golems. Three. Then five. When the spell is fully unleashed, ten two-story earth golems pound across the ground toward the Kelvere lines. Their arms end in angry, irregular morning stars of rock and metal. When they hit the Kelveren lines... "Let's go," the woman says immediately. <Should we coordinate with the Kelvere mages?> "I don't -coordinate- with anyone. Are you coming, or do I fight alone?" <Of course I'm coming. Do we aim for the source?>

"Yes." Her face goes grim. "Don't underestimate the Kelverens. Looks like someone's coming to compete." You can feel the rapidly approaching star of Auriel. And she's carrying something - another star, smothered. Flint. And a crackle of lightning - the duke. They land near the center of the Kelvere lines, where four of the golems have almost reached. A storm of lightning appears at their landing point. You watch, amazed, as a new golem arises. A lightning- golem. It's as pure energy, golden lines making the framework of a tall, spindly creature. While not as study-looking, the lightning golem has twice the height and a greater reach than the earth golems. You can feel the duke controlling his magical creation from the Kelvere lines. Just before the golems clash, another barrage of fire erupts from the Velarion, tearing through the golems like rice paper. Three of them explode in a torrent of light and lightning; another loses an arm. But that still leaves six that are unharmed. From within the cloud of shadow, darkness swirls... "We don't have time to stand and watch! Come!" You run after the woman, keeping an eye on the dome of darkness. <Can you feel that?> "The demon lord is preparing something. Be on your guard." You sprint off alongside the woman. Her path puts you on a collision course with a golem on the eastern flank. The lightning elemental has engaged three of the earth elementals. The hulking giants exchange ground-rocking blows. The lightning elemental is faster, but it's surrounded. Every strike carries a surge of magic across the plain. You're only yards from your target. <I'll distract the golem. Find the mage.> "Understood. Don't die." <I won't. I still have to tell you what I fight for.> The woman's lips curl up in a very tiny smile. And then she's away, sprinting, sped by her shadows. You reach the golem. It's aware of your presence. A huge hand begins to move!

>Rolled 1d100: 33, 51, 33 You try to stop and turn, but the golem's arm slams into you from the side. Earth magic rocks through your aura. You land on your feet, but you can feel the blow, heavy and hard as steel. >HP 21/25 The golem is raising a foot to squash you like a bug! >Rolled 1d100: 19, 75, 58 You barely get out of the way in time. A rocky protrusion scrapes you, but it's hardly an injury worth noting. >HP 24/29 The golem stepped wide to attack you - and it takes a moment to find its balance. For the first time, you're on even footing with the creature. You can sense a ball of wind heading your way. A wind mage is moving up to support the line... >Rolled 1d100: 56, 32, 11 You shove at the golem's back foot, throwing your weight against it. The golem takes another step, but keeps its balance - and you lose your initiative as a result. A giant club-hand is swinging for you once again! >Rolled 1d100: 28, 68, 48 You feel the WHOOSH as the arm passes by your side. You barely escaped that one. Thank goodness you're faster than the average shadow... You position yourself to try to gain your advantage once more... ...and the golem collapses. The magic is cut from it like a puppet's strings, and in a moment, it's a pile of rock. A beam of green-glowing wind blasts into the rock! You duck, and a boulder just misses you! The wind mage has arrived. He stands on top of the rubble. You can tell he's powerful. Green spheres of wind wrap his hands like little cyclones. A tremendous wave of shadow falls upon the battlefield. You can feel the pressure...it doesn't really phase you. But the raw power is still staggering. The wind mage, on the other hand, nearly outright falls over.

Something is emerging from the swirl of dark clouds over the center of the Kanian forces... An orb of pure shadow emerges from the cloud. It's... ...wrong. You can't describe it. But that shadow isn't right. It's...lonely. That's the only way you can put it. The battle has practically halted in the face of this spell. Every mage is reeling; even the soldiers can feel the press on their souls. The sphere rises rapidly, then hovers in the sky, almost directly above the lightning elemental. The sphere erupts. Sparks of shadow fly in every direction - mostly toward the Kelveren forces, but scattering across the entire front lines of the Kanians. A huge portion flies toward the Velarion, still hovering up in the sky. Where the shadows strike, the world is erased. Orbs of destruction eat away at the terrain, leaving perfectly smooth craters. An earth golem loses its upper body and head, and collapses to the ground. The front lines of both armies are completely decimated, and pockets of death further line the reserves of the Kelveren forces. The Velarion fires back into the shadow. Its bolts of Light and Lightning punch through the voidbombs...only to split them into smaller and smaller pieces. The airship's fire strikes hard on the Karnian troops, but the bombs reach its hull an instant later. The shields deflect some of the magic. The rest explodes on contact. Holes dot the sides of the ship. Explosions follow. A cloud of smoke rises into the air as the airship steadily begins to drop. It's not in free-fall, but it can't maintain its position any longer. The lightning elemental takes the brunt of the force at the center lines. The duke intentionally warps his creation, making it less humanoid and more like a flat shield. The Lighting absorbs most of the blow, sparing the core of his army. The Kanian side is not so lucky. You can only think that Lord Nulis Vin is insane...or that the Demon Lord isn't fully under his

command any more. Your position far out on the flank was lucky enough to avoid the worst of the attack, but the wind mage is still stunned by the wave of magic. You prepare yourself to attack.

THREAD 16
>HP 24/29 >Mana 2/4 >Rolled 1d100: 3, 19, 84 >Rolled 1d100: 58, 30, 54 You lunge toward the mage! He snaps his head over to you and puts his hands together just as you're halfway to his position. A blast of teal wind roars from his hands like a cyclone. It rips and tears the stone as it passes over. You leap! But not high enough - so you spread your wings and flap to boost you over the gust of energy. The wind catches your open wings and sends you tumbling to the ground, but you've evaded the worst of the blow. >HP 23/29 You set your leg(s). The mage has prepared a large spell...an orb of wind is spinning faster and faster above his raised hands. >Rolled 1d100: 69, 17, 15 You Lash your body toward the mage. A tendril of your shadow form whips out and strikes with a sharp crack! It strikes... ...but something stops it! A shield of wind deflects your attack upward! You feel as through a solid blow could penetrate, but this isn't a normal mage... The man grins. "Time to get yours!" The magic sphere condenses. A dozen small pockets of wind scatter in your direction! >Rolled 1d100: 28, 13, 96 You flicker left, right, up, down, around! The arrows of wind blast into the ground around you, but there's too many! You're overwhelmed! A concentrated set of three hit you straight on...but your aura comes to your defense. The wind seems to bend around you, absorbed, deflected. When it strikes you, it's greatly dissipated - but it still hits hard.

>HP 21/29 You keep running, building speed. The mage follows you with his shots, and soon the ground is churned into pits of mud. You duck, dive, and sprint to avoid the barrage of wind magic. He can't lead you fast enough! The magic bullets are starting to slow...either he's getting tired, or the spell has had its day. But you're feeling wary after he blocked you the first time... >Rolled 1d100: 20, 72, 75 You sprint faster. You learned the hard way that attacking a wind mage head-on can be disastrous. And even as you leap across another pit, the flurry of attacks suddenly increases beyond anything that's come before! The sphere unravels in a cloud of green, wind strings that whip forward, gashing the mud. But you're gone! At full speed, he can't follow you! The mage falls to a knee. His breath is coming in heavy gasps, but his head is still on a swivel. >Rolled 1d100: 50, 95, 17 You keep moving. The mage stands. He gathers his power into a fist and shoots wide waves of air out, scattering it wide. He fires again, again, throwing up rock and bud and tossing corpses into the air. You wonder where he's aiming, because you're already behind him. He starts to turn just as a lunging ball of arms and legs and shadow lands on top of him. You claw at him, gashing him across the chest and arms. The wounds are many, but shallow - his wind magic is slowing your blows. You fall from the top of the pile of rocks and land on top of him in a pile of mud. The wind is rallying around him, but he's still at a huge disadvantage. >Rolled 1d100: 26, 12, 15 You raise your Fist and pound into the mage like a madman. His wind shields him. It looks like he's collecting himself. You Articulate a second arm, and a third, stretching your capabilities to their limits. All three of your hands are pounding and clawing, but his wind makes the blows shallow at best. The wind is gathering to a single point...

A blast of hot air expands! You're thrown up, out of the pit. Shocked, you try to orient The mage is standing upright, holding a hand in your direction. A bright green light gathers at the center of his palm - ! The woman appears from nowhere. Her dagger is thrust in under the mage's chin, and the sharp aura of shadow surrounding it pierces through his shield as if it isn't there. The man's body goes limp and hangs off her weapon like an old green tapestry. You land next to her. Her dagger *shinks* back into its sheath on her wrist, and the mage's body falls dead. You can feel lightning energy building in the distance...is that the duke? "I thought you had him," the woman says. "You need work on your finishing technique." The words are delivered flatly. It's the statement of an observation more than any criticism. <I see,> you respond. You decide to opt out of eating the mage. She did ask you to control yourself...and for some reason, you feel rather indignant at the prospect of consuming a corpse you didn't kill yourself. Perhaps this is that thing called 'pride'. <I appreciate the assistance.> "It was my pleasure." <...pleasure?> "Taking life." The woman stares at the corpse. "It's the only thing I have left." <What do you - > A flare of magic makes you snap your head up. Four mages are marching toward your position, backed by a battalion of Kanian spearmen. This part of the battlefield has been scattered melee, but it seems as if the Kanians are trying to flank the Kelverens once more...and they're practically on top of you! <Do you have new orders?> "No. I will kill them." She drops low. You duck into her shadow. <I am your shadow. I will watch your back.> She watches you meld into the darkness. seemingly impressed. "...then let us attack, Shadow."

She sprints toward the enemy, a wavering, shadowy phantom. ...you can feel the duke's magic still building, gathering. He must be planning something...good. >Rolled 1d100: 81, 26, 8 The woman vanishes. You're dragged at what feels like a speed greater than your Supersonic flight. She reappears behind one of the mages. You don't have time to react before she's punched both her daggers into the mage's backside. You lash out with your shadows as best you can, taking out spearmen in every direction. Five fall dead before they can blink. The woman turns to the next mage, but he's already shrouding himself in wind. He manages to block her daggers with his hands, green light pulsing to deflect the attacks. The other mages are preparing their own spells. The woman turns on a heel and sprints away. Spearmen are everywhere, but you manage the knock the points of their weapons wide. She loses herself in a tangle of the enemy. Shouts fly into the air. "Find her, now!!" "Where is she!?" "She passed by me, I saw her!" "Where?" "Here!" "She's over here!" >Rolled 1d100: 55, 9, 9 The woman doubles back toward the mages... ...she leaps over the heads of the confused spearmen, aiming at the neck of the wind mage once more! Green spheres of light deflect her back. She takes the deflection almost as if she planned it, using the momentum to turn past the man and flicker back into the ranks of the mundane. You send a few feeble licks of shadow at the mage, but he's alert enough to deflect them. The spearmen are well trained, but they don't have the capability to sense her position. The mages are having trouble tracking her with all the people around, and so far they haven't been willing to fire into the crowd. She knifes one here, there, keeping them a panicking, uncoordinated mass. You note this strategy for later.

"I'm going back in," she shouts. It's noise in the crowd, but you can here. "Don't mess up this time!" >Rolled 1d100: 72, 97, 60 The woman flickers back into the inner circle... ...and the wind mage's back is turned! She stabs one knife into his kindey, and, grabbing her wrist, drags her blade upwards, eviscerating him! But the other mage wasn't turned the other way. Fire roars in a sphere above his head, and the woman turns, almost as if in slow motion... You shadows are unleashed. Three spikes of black death stab into the fire mage. With his concentration on his building spell about to fire, you encounter no magical resistance. You punch through his stomach, heart, and left eye. The flames warp out of control!!! You've seen this before. >Rolled 1d100: 21, 18, 59 <Explosion! RUN!> The woman immediately leaps without trying to assess the situation, powering herself away with her aura. You're dragged along in her shadow. A vertical column of fire blasts upwards and expands, raging toward you. You wrap yourself around her exposed side. The flames roar across you. Your aura curbs some of it, but you still take heavy damage. The pain is sharp and hot. >HP 20/29 The woman lands. The last remaining mage was of Water - and he was able to defend himself and his men from the fire. The globe of liquid he summoned to shield them evaporates to steam, countering the fires easily. The woman barely hesitates before exploding off her heels toward the mage. She's trying to get him while he's distracted... >Rolled 1d100: 89, 68, 96 This time, it isn't the mage that responds, but the spearmen. They gather around their protector in a

ring of pointed steel. The woman is good, but she's not made of shadows. She starts slicing her way through the front ranks, but the mage's hands are beginning to glow... ...luckily, you ARE made of shadows. You slip through the legs of the men like Ink, clawing at their hamstrings as you go. You drop a dozen before you reach the mage. His spell isn't ready, but you are. You Ink into a piledriver and slam into his chest, blowing him into the men gathered behind him. A pile of spears and armor and flesh collapses to the ground. Men are shouting, struggling to get away. You stab a few for good measure and to bog the rest down. The water mage is gasping for breath. You're pretty sure you've crushed several of his ribs, and maybe more on the inside. >Rolled 1d100: 56, 27, 5 You consume the mage. It is done rather professionally and quickly. He was pretty much dead from the internal injuries, anyway, but you're not scaring anyone in the middle of a battlefield. The woman has reached your position. You work together to clean up the spearmen immediately around you. Her efforts have singlehandedly turned a flanking action into a rout. Burned and drenched spearmen without their mages are breaking back for their main lines. You can see a plume-helmed man trying to organize things, but with explosions of lightning beginning to erupt in the unshielded troops, he isn't helping much. In the distance, you can still feel the lightning energy building. It's twisting, turning. You wonder what the heck the duke is thinking. Two more earth golems still stomp the field, chipped and torn, but alive. They're far in the western flank, though. The Kelverens have continued to press the Kanians back up the hill towards that smoky cloud of shadow. You have a blessed moment of peace. "You saved me from the fire," the woman states. <You saved me from the mage.> The woman nods. "Then we're even." <...is that important to you?>

"...few things are..." She looks away. "Surely that can still be among them." You send her an Impression; one of balance. Scales with you on one end, and her at the other. They tip even. You give her a second image. Fire roils near her, but a darkness rises to rebuff it. "Such is our nature," you say aloud. She blinks in surprise. And when that fades...there's the hint of something else...curiosity? "...our nature," she says, prompting you forward. You begin to <Shadow! Can you hear me?!> You snap your 'head' around. That sounded like... You bend your thoughts toward the building lightning magic and shout them hard. <You excellency?> <Ah, good! One of my spirit mages is lending a hand with this...wasn't sure if it would work! Get back over here! It's time for the assault!> <What of the angel?> <She's with us. Are you still with that woman?> <I am.> <Bring her, stay in her shadow! Worked well last time!> You turn to the woman and relate what the duke said. The woman nods. "We've done enough. Auriel will have new orders." You hop into her shadow and she speeds toward the growing force of lightning. It seems to have changed...the power isn't increasing, but its nature is. It's getting...sharper. <...I am not in the angel's favor,> you say to the woman. "I have not been ordered to check my shadow for elementals," the woman responds. You feel a sense of satisfaction. Scattered men are running two in fro, some in melee, some seemingly with messages. The lines have parted...the Kelverens are preparing for another shock attack. The Kanians seem to be disrupted.

What's going on in that sphere? There's a short time until you arrive at center of the Kelveren army. <I appreciate your discretion.> "I think...discretion, is also in our nature." <I would agree.> You think for a moment. <Can you tell me anything about Auriel?> "She is an angel. A mage-knight blessed by Hyperion himself. Living since the Elementomachy. Not immortal, but nearly, by our standards. She hates the shadow." Her face clenches. "All the angels hate the shadow." <Surely not all.> "I would - " Her words are choked off. She sighs a breath through her nose. <I will stay in your shadow,> you say. <I'd prefer not to be spotted.> "I'd prefer to never see her or them again." <What's stopping you leaving?> She merely looks at you, then puts her eyes forward. You've reach the center of the Duke's armies. Men and mages both are massing around what looks like a giant spear of lightning. It's at least three men across and a dozen long. You think back to when the duke revealed himself to you...you imagine that the duke's true identity must be the worst kept secret in Kelvere. The duke himself is standing inside the magic, as if it were a conical tunnel - which, you can see, it is. Flint and Auriel are standing just behind; they're engaged in conversation. The woman works her way into the center. The men don't seem to even see her...or they do, but strangely don't voice any objection. "...you can beat it?" "I do not know," Auriel says. "But I will try." "I have faith, Highest." Flint nods to her, and the determination is written on his face. "We will drive this thing back to the Nether."

Auriel smiles. She doesn't seem like the cruel hunter you remember her to be. "With your support, Donovan, I'm sure we will." "...I am honored. Too honored, highest." "We have fought together now, son of the light. You may call me by my name." Flint stutters a bit, then gets the words out. "As you wish...A...A-Auriel. I thank you." "...hmm." She pauses, then turns toward the approaching woman. "Ila. It's about time." Ila? ...is that her name? "My apologies." The woman - Ila, takes a knee, never meeting the angel's gaze. "What are your orders?" "Our main assault is soon to begin, once the duke feels confident his weapon is prepared." The angel nods. "Impressive magic." "To pierce their shield?" "Indeed. We've little choice but to kill the demon, here and now. Letting it ravage the land unopposed is not an option. The refugees have had little time to retreat." Auriel's face is set. "And if we die, than at least we will have bought them a bit more ground. The Dawnflight will avenge us." "Yes, highest." The angel's slowly turns back. Her eyes narrow. She looks at you. >Rolled 1d100: 2, 97, 36 "Ila." "Yes, highest?" "Step a bit toward the lightning there, if you would." Ila stands. You can see the confused frown on her face, but she complies. As she nears the large light source, her shadow swings out and lengthens. The angel puts a hand on the hilt of her glowing blue-white sword. It flares like an arrow of sunlight. She whips it down, right at you! >Rolled 1d20: 4, 17, 16

"STOP!" Flint dives forward, spreading his arms wide. Auriel's swinging sword freezes. She looks like she's been stabbed in the heart. "...I don't understand." "You can't." Flint heaves a breath. "Don't hurt it." "...I see. It's controlling you." Anger takes Auriel's features. "This time, Shadow, you will not escape me so easily!" "It's not controlling him!" comes another voice. Everyone looks up as the duke strides over. "Highest. Don't touch that shadow. I'll be needing it." "Explain. Immediately." "It's the tip of the spear," the duke explains. "Nothing's been able to get through that barrier. We need to attack the problem from the other direction. Shadow won't be expecting shadow." "...did you know of this...this -thing's- presence before my arrival in Evinbrook?" "No." Auriel stakes her sword in the ground, and what happens next shocks even you. Orange light glows around her - and you sense the magic. Spirit. A little thread of it winds itself around the light inside of her. The spell completes itself. "Answer again," Auriel growls, "and if you lie a second time, and Evinbrook will have a new duke." "I knew of the Shadow's presence." Auriel turns to Flint. "Donovan. Why did you defend it?" "...it saved Jacob's Field." Flint gestures sharply. "You know it isn't controlling me. You can feel it. Ithere's-" The parasite constricts Flint's soul. He loses his words. >Rolled 1d100: 97, 6, 51 The parasite rattles... You send Flint an impression of him lifting a boulder as if he had the strength of ten men, and standing tall.

He glances back at you - and smiles. His light shines brighter than the parasite can control. "...the shadow has been at my side since I was in Jacob's Field," Flint begins again. "It saved the townspeople from the undead. It protected me from gargoyles, and ghouls. It protected a young girl that would have been hurt." "That does not - " Flint takes a few steps toward the angel, closing the distance between them. "It has no memory of itself. I wasn't sure if I could trust it, either. In fact, I thought I couldn't. But despite knowing nothing about its origins, or its own abilities, or even its own name, time and time again it put itself on the line for strangers it hardly knew. I saw it at the end of the battle at the village - it stretched itself out over the docks so that the villagers could escape on boats. Overextended, even. It took the swords, and the axes, the spears, just to buy time. And for what? People so superstitious of the shadows that they jump at their own. "I met the shadow at Jacob's Field, when I rode out for reinforcements," Flint says. "It -was- the reinforcement. And when I asked - despite having no connection to these people, this city, having pledged no loyalty to the duke - it came, because it believed me when I said I needed its help. Because it considers me a friend. As I do it." "...call me a skeptic," Auriel says. But her voice is quiet and subdued. "...you lied, then. When you said you thought you'd do more good if you stayed yourself, then to ride out for help that wouldn't arrive in time. The shadow brought you back here." "I am sorry I deceived you," Flint said. "But if you need proof it's been helping..." Flint glances at Ila. "The eastern flank...?" >Rolled 1d100: 46, 13, 23 "...the Shadow was a fierce ally," Ila says. "It...saved me from fire." "Wonderful," Auriel snaps. "I know that...perhaps, there are things here that cannot be reconciled," Flint says. "But I do know one thing for sure." He points at you. "Right now, that is not your enemy." He points at the sphere of darkness. "That is. The shadow isn't attacking anyone. If it wanted to do damage, it's had plenty of chances - kill me, kill Ila, kill the duke, anyone, really." "You weren't there, Donovan," Auriel says. "You didn't experience the Black Hand. You didn't see your friends and partners cut down by spies that sat in waiting for years! You didn't have your village burned down by an army of the undead!" "Auriel - "

"Do not speak my name with lips that have lied to my face to protect the Shadow!" Flint swallows. "Highest. If we don't work together now, those demons are going to eat the people of Kelvere alive," Flint says. "I don't know what happened in the Elementomachy, but I know what's happening now." He glances at the duke. "You need the Shadow." The duke nods. "It's absolutely necessary." Flint turns back to Auriel, and waits. Auriel raises her sword, and with a growl, she slams it into its sheath. "I'm watching you, Shadow," she hisses. "One false move. One toe out of place!" She storms to the edge of the inner circle. The duke turns back to his spell. Flint rubs his hair under his helmet. "Well...I'm glad that worked out. Sort of." <Maybe you should say something more to her,> you suggest. <Smooth things over.> "...yeah. I'll try." Flint walks toward Auriel. She doesn't look at him, seemingly ignoring his presence. He moves to get her attention more obviously, and then immediately trips and falls on his rear. He blushes as red as a tomato. Auriel heaves a frustrated sigh she puts a hand on her face. She extends a hand to Flint. He takes it, and she pulls him up. "...I'm sorry." She turns away, and says nothing more. Flint, downtrodden, sulks back to the center of the ring and twiddles his thumbs. The magic is solidify. You can see the shape of a spear, now. The inside is particularly interesting...it's almost like there are alcoves and crannies. Lightning made physical. The duke is highly skilled. <I thank you for you words, Ila. That is your name?> "It is." <It matches you.> "...matches me?" <Precise. Exacting. Discrete.>

"You can really smooth-talk a girl." <What is smooth talk?> "...unnecessary, really." She looks at Flint. "Essentially the opposite of what the knight just said to Auriel." <Oh. I see.> Yes, the nature of this "smooth talk" does become more clear. Perhaps you should practice this "smooth talk" with women so as to earn their trust more readily. Combined with beer for men, you'll be able to stop more misunderstandings and gather information...though it might be difficult to get other people to intentionally imbibe ignorance potions. But that can wait for another time. <You deserve to be free.> "...I have been told all my life that the shadow is evil," she said. "And I have just watched a knight of Arland with a soul of light defend a shadow elemental. What I deserve, Shadow, is beyond me." She looks at you. "No one has ever spoken to me of our nature. The nature of shadow...what is it?" <I have no great memory, Ila. But what I have seen...I will relate.> <Shadow is that which everything in the light casts. It soothes and hides those blinded or pained by the light. The shadow consumes threats without a trace, but the light can sear and burn. We are not evil, or malignant, but merely the other side of the coin. You send her the impression of a cat hunting a mouse. <This is shadow.> You send her a second impression, that of the mouse slipping away without being caught <This is shadow.> You reach up with a single Inked finger and touch her right in the center of her chest. <You are shadow. Shadow is what you make of it.> You lower yourself back down. <As to my own nature...that I aim to find. But I have found some things, already. I have discovered within me humanity. As you humans think and feel, so do I. <I have discovered a sense of balance. That things must weigh each other out. As you have already told me yourself - this is precious. You know it by instinct.>

Ila is listening carefully. She nods when you say that, partly murmuring the words with her lips. <I have discovered Justice. That I have a right to exist, that beings have a right to live, and that those who are innocent ought to be protected. <And I have discovered Temerity...that my protection shall be firm, my justice swift, and my humanity great to behold - as I have found humanity so - terrible, and strange, but great. My shadow will consume as much as it shades, and it will flow where I will it, when I will it, as I will it.> Ila swallows hard. Her lips tremble. "...I-I see. I understand."

THREAD 17
>HP 23/29 >Mana 4/4 The army around you is tense. Men are scurrying to-and-for-carrying messenges as the formations gather. Mages are speaking tersely in small clusters. This is going to be big. Auriel still stands alone, back turned to the clearing. Flint seems uncertain of whether to stand next to her, the duke, or you, and so he worries at his hands in the center. You notice he acquired a new breastplate at some point...it has a bright sunburst emblazoned on the front. Ila is silent. "Shadow, to me," the duke says. The rest of your haphazard part glances up, but doesn't move. You bob over to the duke. <Your excellency. I believe everyone in your kingdom will know who you are, now.> The duke smirks. "What are you talking about? I'm a well known public figure. Davel Zoran, the duke's most powerful mage and chief magical and political adviser." <...clever.> "I thought so too." He leaned in. "But you'll think me more clever still if I have anything to say about it." <What do you mean?> "I lied to the angel when I said you were necessary for the plan." You're stunned. <...you lied? After that threat?> "Spirit magic to read the mind of a lightning mage?" the duke asks. He smirks. "Her soul is mostly light. Clearly, it's not her specialty." <You're bolder than I.> "And more successful for it." The duke leans closer. "You ate the dynamo on my ship." You're unsure how to respond. "Oh, come now," the duke says. "You and Raziel fly off. When all is said and done, a giant wave of shadow buffets my face, my crashed airship has no engine, and Raziel is dead. What else could have happened?"

<You...are not angry.> "Well. You've cost me an important tool. I'm counting the interest." He gives you an gleefully calculating look. "But what is lost is lost. What we must focus on...are the possibilities. The Velarion has fallen just across the river, there..." The duke glances up over the heads of his troops, then back to you. "The dynamo is still intact. What if a shadow ate it? Why, we'd have a lot of power to throw at the demon...and one of the Ring City's airships would be out of commission. Permanently." <What of your lightning spear?> "It should work without your intervention," the duke says. "Though speed will be important. Once we're inside that thing...Auriel alone will not be able to defeat it. And I've already spent too much strength to help fill the gap. We'll be buying time until you can arrive." The duke shrugs. "Alternatively, you can come with us now...if you're there the entire time, you just might be the weight to tip the scales." <It sounds like I have a dynamo to consume.> "I thought you'd agree." The duke gestures toward the front end of his massive, slowly rotating lightning spear. "Slip around to the front and act like a speartip. It's time." You dash to the front of the spear. The power of the spell seems drawn there, crackling, snapping in a constant surge of gold light. You stretch yourself out in what you hope is a convincing representation for the duke's purposes. The duke begins giving dramatic orders and gathering the group into the inside of the spear. Along with Flint, Ila, and Auriel are a squadron of mages and the duke's elite guard. The rest of the army forms up behind it on a long, pointed arrow, with mages concentrated in the center. <...hear me?> the duke's voice comes in like static, as if the lightning magic is interfering with the spirit. <I can hear you.> <...go...when...light shines...hide your aura.> <What?> <...ready.> <Wait, I didn't quite - > The tip of the cone flares like the light of a thousand lightning bolts. >Rolled 1d100: 73, 16, 49 You know what you need to do in this situation.

Your aura is already gathering behind you. It stills, quiet before the roar of the lightning spear. BOOM SCHREEEEE You explode away from the spear just as the spear roars forward, carrying along its passengers. The sound helps to hide your rapid escape, and in an instant, you're over the river. WHOMPH You end your Supersonic and flap to a halt. You land on the ground, Quiet, and quickly Mimic the shadowy form of a man. The airship is battered and smoking. Holes are scattered along its length. Even if you didn't eat the dynamo, it would probably need extensive repairs. Most of the crew has gathered at the far end of the ship. "Help!" cries a woman's voice. "Help me!" You walk toward the ship, and the cries grow louder. You try to put them out of your mind...this is a battle. You've got a mission, and can't afford to rescue cats from every tree you pass. "Help, please! Can you hear me?!" You hesitate as the voice seems to address you. And you see her - a woman is pinned under part of the collapsed frame of the airship. It reminds you of what you saw before, when the duke's airship crashed... ...flames are spreading up the inside of the rubble. The woman's cries grow more desperate by the moment. If you ignore her, there probably wouldn't be enough time for the other members of the crew to reach her. You remember cries for help...Abigail's cries. You run back toward the woman. You grab the wooden support and heave. It's slow going - solid adamantium is not light - but you're able to clear it off her. "...t-thank you." She winces, hard. "...hurts." Her legs are not in good shape. She seems to be in too much pain to wonder how you had the strength to help alone. You extend a hand to her. Red eyes glow like little fires, and her hand grabs onto your arm. "Mortals. All the same." >Rolled 1d100: 83, 44, 49

Instinctively, you try to pull free, but she has you in a grip like steel. "You're mine." She rises up and plants a kiss on your body. Nothing happens. Before you can wonder about her strange and pointless attack, she recoils in shock. "...what are you?" You Ink and slip out of her grip like water. "What are you?" Bat-like wings form from the young woman's back, and her nails turn to claws. Fire dances in her eyes. "You'll find out soon enough!" <I don't have time for this. There are humans that way.> You point toward the surviving crewmembers. <Attack me at your peril.> You fly into the air over the airship and land on its hull. A large hole near the bottom catches your eye. You can feel the dynamo quite clearly, and it seems to be the closest entrance. "Hey! Don't ignore me!" the female demon flaps up after you. "Are you a demon as well?" <Begone.> "You're worse than the lord," the demon says. She gives you a big pout. "Doesn't it feel good to finally exist here?" <I wouldn't know. I'm not a demon.> You march purposefully toward the hole. "You sure feel sort of like one. Kinda" She flaps after you lazily. "Hey, don't you want to eat the humans?" <I have other matters to attend to.> You drop into the ship and are quick to navigate the halls toward the engine room. The pressure of lightning magic quickly increases... "...sure is stuffy. I don't want to get near that thing." <Then go.> "I dunno, could be fun. You seem interesting...no one's ever resisted my kiss, you know." The creature flaps around your head incessantly, somehow twisting through the tight spaces of the hall with ease. "So you don't work for the lord? Were you summoned by one of the mages on the other side? Or are you unsummoned?" The dynamo is just in the next room. You turn toward the strange female demon and -

<If you don't leave now, you probably won't survive what's about to happen.> You march into the dynamo room. "I'm tougher than a look!" She flies in after you, but lands quickly. She seems laden by the magic pressure. "Besides, now I want to see. What are you up to?" <You've been warned.> You latch onto the dynamo and consume it. It cracks... ...Power floods the room. The pressure forces the winged woman to the floor. "What's going on?!" You don't try to consume it all this time...you learned the consequences of that before. Too much greed, and you couldn't control it. Cracking the dynamo releases its magic in a powerful flood. You stick your tendrils into it, siphoning off as much as you safely feel you can. The lightning magic snaps, compresses, warps, and dissipates in a wave across the room. The magical pressure fades. Snaps of gold light spark around your form as you twist the energy into that well of untapped power that sits inside of you. "...wow," the demon says. "Cool!" You feel the power condense and turn within you. You feel stronger - much stronger. You could strike anywhere, at any time. Behind, above, below - your confidence in your physical attack has increased greatly. And something lingers at the tips of your claws, at the end of your fangs...an aura of disease, ready to sink into an enemy. >HP 29/29 You glance at the demon. <I am going to kill the demon lord. Stay out of my way, or I wil consume you as I did the dynamo.>

You flicker back the way you came. You've wasted enough time in this place. "Wait!" the female demon flies after you. "Did you say you're going to kill the lord?!" <If you try to stop me, I will - > "Stop you?" the demoness asks. "I'll help you!" You continue to move out of their airship, and the demon flaps along above you. <Why?> "The lord summoned me, not a mage," she explains. "If he dies, I'm free. My own existence! That would be so...refreshing. All the humans I could eat, and no boring fighting all the time. All he wants to do is fight...where's the fun in that? You understand, right?" <I neither understand nor care.> You spare her a slightly glance as you clamber out of the hole in the airship. <There's an angel. It will destroy you.> "Heh." The demon leers at you. "If it can. I'm pretty fast, when I want to be." <Do what you want,> you say. Worst case, perhaps she would make a good meat shield. "Ok!" she says. "I want to go with you. At least, for now." You turn toward the shadow sphere. A gaping whole has been blasted through the side of the magic. The shield still stands, swirling...and yet, where the spear struck is left a crumbling entrance. The edges of the gashed shield glow red like melted steel. Flashes of light and magic are coming from inside. The Kelveren army has pushed a column of men through the Kanians in a huge shock attack. Golems are smashing each other to bits, constructs of earth and water and fire fighting amongst explosions of other spells. Men surge beneath the titans like waves of steel and flesh. They're doing everything they can to keep a path cleared to the shadow sphere. <Is there a way to get through the shield?> "Well..." She grins. "Why don't you just ooze straight into the hole?" <Aside from the obvious.> She puts a hand to mouth and blushes. "I'm not that kind of girl!" This demon is even more useless than Joey, and that's saying something. You fly up into the air, then let your wings vanish and glide forward, trying to stay inconspicuous. The demon flies next to you, keeping pace. For a moment, you're afraid you'll be caught in a magical bombardment that targets her bombastic appearance...but no one seems to notice her.

<You are hidden.> She smiles. "Humans see what I want them to see, silly." You land on top of the shadow sphere. It's like hard stone. The shadows seem to lick at your feet, but they seem to recognize a superior and leave it at that. "Ick. I wouldn't touch that stuff." You lower yourself closer to the shadows...surely if they avoid you, you could get through them? >Rolled 1d100: 51, 66, 32 You press your will at the inky shield... ...it bends. The shadows swim apart like water. You drop through the hole and begin to glide. The demon zips through the gap before it snaps closed. "That was close!" she says. "Warn me first!" She's about to spout more nonsense, but the scene below chokes her off. It's total chaos. Demons are everywhere, flying, shrieking bird-men, minotaurs, satyrs, smaller fae. You even see a few more of the humanoid female demons launching spheres of shadow and fire. The Kanians are below them. But they're all being pressed by a torrent of Kelveren magic. Explosions are ripping through the air. The duke's lightning spear has reformed into the giant elemental, and it is thundering through the melee with him suspended in its center. The great effort serves to keep a large area clear - and the demon lord and Auriel are fighting like nothing you've seen. The winged woman wields her sword grown several times, shining like a blue sun. The demon lord itself is a twisted creature, fighting back with claws wreathed in black fire. Auriel's attacks are fierce and unpredictable, but she can't break its iron defense. She takes wing and shoots a ray of light at the enemy. The demon swipes at the light with his hand. the spell is deflected into a crowd of soldiers, where it explodes, turning them all to dust in a white explosion. Auriel continues to fire her magic from the air, but the demon takes wing himself, dodging her attacks like... ...like a shadow. It reaches her, and they enter midair combat at close range. Far below, you can feel Flint's light. He's fighting at the front of the Kelveren lines, leading the

mundane troops against the demons on the ground. Ila, on the other hand, is nowhere to be seen. You soar toward Flint, allowing yourself to drop quickly. The demoness follows behind you You drop heavily next to the knight and slam away a soldier running in at his flank. Flint turns, prepared to confront the foe, then stops when he sees you. "Shadow! The duke filled me in!" You both retreat back slightly, and the Kelveren lines swallow you up. The disciplined elites hardly spare a second glance at what they believe is just another spell on their side - as it must be, considering it isn't trying to kill them. <Let us clear this ground, first,> you say to Flint. "...uh..." Flint looks at the demoness, who has landed next to you. "...another new friend?" "My name's Annette," she says. "Shadow saved me back outside. Right, Shadow?" <...Flint. What do you see?> Flint clears his throat. He leans closer to you. "...ah...a, uh, attractive young mage. Dressed like a woman from the bars." <Is it a distraction?> "Well...the more the merrier?" Flint says. He turns away. "Lady...Annette. I am Sir Donovan Flint, of Dobshire. Please stay behind us, where it is safer, and support us as you can." The demoness raises a hand and fires a bolt of dark fire at an approaching minotaur. It growls in pain as its hand and the axe it was holding evaporates. The elite troops smell blood and gang up on it for a quick kill. The demoness licks her lips. "Can't I stay a bit closer, Sir Flint? I'm sure I can be much more helpful at your side." "...uhh...o-ok." Flint gives himself a shake, and jogs back toward the front of the line. His sword begins to glow. You stare at the demoness. "What?" she asks. "I can't have a little fun? He's handsome." <If you harm him in any manner, I will consume you from the inside out.> The demoness goes very quiet, then nods. "As you wish." You leap after Flint. The demoness trails behind you... ...something bothers you. You hear Auriel's words repeated in your head:

"One false move. One toe out of place!" You feel... ...hypocritical. The demoness is...vapid...but have you merely condemned her as Auriel condemned you? ...no. You feel no guilt for reprimanding a creature that was lying in wait for easy prey. With Auriel, and Raziel, you sought discussion. You sued for peace. The demoness sought only an easy meal. She does not deserve further consideration until she proves otherwise. You march forward to the front lines. The tides of men are pushing against one another. Flint is engaged with a Satyr. You've opted to fight alongside Flint and press the lines forward on your own merit. You step up next to Flint. With his sword locked on the Satyr's claws, the beast is easy prey. You unleash a barrage of tentacles, beating the creature's head to the side, slicing off its arms, and stabbing it in five different places. The creature falls back and vanishes. Flint looks up at you. "Guess you learned a few new tricks!" You stand together as the Kanians form up for another attack. <Flint. The sorceress that arrived with me is a female demon.> "Wait, what?!" You send him a series of impressions depicting the strange demon and its odd fascination with you. "...how do you get yourself into these situations?" <I would like to know that, so I can stop them from happening.> "Alright. I'll keep my guard up." He looks at you. "...demons summoned by mages vanish when you kill the mage. But summoned by another demon...they call that unsummoned. This might be something to take care of before the battle ends." "Sir knight!" cries Annette. Flint glances up as a minotaur's war hammer plummets down toward his head! But blast of shadow-fire forces the demon to fall back. Annette appears behind you and continues firing. The minotaur growls and raises its axe in a defensive posture, using its magic to deflect the shots.

"Be more careful," she shouts. "The shadow wouldn't like it if you got hurt!" Flint raises an eyebrow your way, then tightens his grip on his sword. You face the enemy lines as the Kanians and their demons charge in. >Rolled 1d100: 64, 18, 100 >Primary Critical Success! You release your new power...and it feels as though chains holding you back have finally dropped away. You surge forward like a wall of swords tied to the end of whips, slashing, cutting, hacking through enemies as fast as they can present themselves. The Kelveren army can barely keep up with you. Flint runs to keep pace at your side, watching enemies that try to get behind you, but it's a wasted effort. No enemies live to get behind you. In your wake you leave mud churned with blood, severed arms, innards cut from the bowels of your foes, and the evaporating dust of demons. A trio of minotaurs surges toward you, trying to halt the advance. Annette strikes one with a blast of her shadow magic, and its head evaporates. You barrel headlong into the other two and stab through their chests a dozen times before they can react. The demons evaporate in a cloud before you. What began as a clash of armies turns into a rout. The Kelveren line balloons out behind you, herding the Kanians back into the wall of shadow like cattle. You take advantage of the press, slaying even more as they begin turning away from you, screaming in horror and pain. Even the demons fear to face you.

Your intense burst of effort finally begins to slow. You can't keep it up forever. You allow the lines to surge forward around you and let your limbs draw back into your body. Flint drives his sword down and leans forward, breathing heavily. Blood splatters down armor, meeting the mud splattered up his boots and pants. Despite his state, a smile is bright on his face. "...damn. We did it. We beat them." Annette walks toward you. You tense as she gets a bit close for comfort... ...and you feel all the more surprised when she takes a knee before you. "I am your servant." <...are you not subservient to the demon lord?> "Not if you kill him," she growls. She seems like a different person. Her illusion has no effect on you - you still see her original form. But even as you watch, she changes. The childish gaze peels back to reveal something...different. <You threatened to slaughter humans indiscriminately, and you expect to serve me?> She seems surprised. "...but...we are greater existences than they. You would condemn me for crushing ants?" <Could an ant immolate you in fire?> "...if your command is not to harm humans, I will do so. Though I do not pretend to understand." You say nothing...but you Impress upon her a feeling of disappointment. She looks away from your gaze.

"We need to keep moving," Flint says. You glance around the battlefield. The duke has taken heavy hits. His elemental looks to be on the verge of collapse. It's swarmed by a flock of freakish demons with crows for heads. Lightning snaps at them on contact, but there's too many. The duke's surrounding support isn't done, but it's been greatly damaged by aerial bombardment. The demon lord and Auriel have returned to the ground. Flashes of shadow and light thunder across the inside of the shadow dome. You can't tell who is winning or losing. <We need to support the duke. Let's move!> You begin to run, and Flint runs with you - and alongside you runs battalions of the Kelveren army and squads of mages. After that last performance, you've won a bit of influence. "Shadow," Flint says. He moves close and speaks so only you can hear. "...what are you planning with the demon?" <Nothing, if she is useful and does not harm anyone.> "You think Auriel will approve?" <I do not seek her approval.> "Dammit, you're not making this easy." "Oh Sir Flint!" Annette dashes over, ruining any of privacy you might have had with the knight. You wonder if that was intentional. "Might I say that you were quite dashing during our charge...you'll protect me during the next fights, won't you?" "Uh...w-well, I wouldn't - " You can feel a tingle a magic pass between her and Flint. <Stop that,> you say. "It isn't harming him." She shrugs. "That Shel'kath attached to his soul should really be taken care of at some point, by the way." Flint stops dead. "What?" Annette pokes a finger at Flint. "Shel'Kath. On your soul. Can't you feel it?" Flint swallows hard.

<Perhaps you will have use for this one,> you say to Flint. "...dear spirits. Bargaining with demons. Auriel won't so much as speak to me ever again, if she doesn't kill me outright.> <She already seems to be ignoring you.> Flint holds his head in his hands. "First a shadow elemental, now a succubus. I'm going to die a terrible, ugly death." "Oh, come now, ~Donny~." Annette sidles up to Flint. "I'll protect you from the meany angel." "T-that won't b-be necessary." The succubus leers forward. "It almost sounds like you don't want me around?" "W-well...I...there's, sort of - " Annette makes a deeply hurt face. "But...don't you like me?" Flint raises his palms. "Now, I...I just don't..." "I knew it! You do like me." "That's not what I - " <Enough. They're coming.> You spread your wings and soar up off the ground, aiming to take down the more dangerous enemies the succubus. >Rolled 1d100: 25, 12, 51

The succubus see you coming, and unleash balls of shadowfire! You dodge, drifting to and fro, but a flame catches your left wing! It roils around you, bending past your aura. But the force sends you spinning to the side. The flock of crow-men surrounds you in an instant. Disoriented, you're pecked and clawed from every angle by long, ragged beaks and claws like steel. >Rolled 1d100: 12, 5, 53 You lash out, but you've lost your sense of direction. Black eyes and feathers are everywhere, chocking off every route of escape. You slice a wing there, and stab another here, but only because there are so many to hit. They continue to rake you with their attacks... >HP 23/29 >Rolled 1d100: 73, 85, 12 You unleash a burst of magic power. An image of you is left behind, turning, flapping. You blast through the wall of feathers. The coordinated strike, refocusing on your "new" position, can't adjust fast enough to catch you! You take a bit of a scrape on the way out, but you're through! >HP 23/29 >Mana 3/4 You emerge from the wall of feathers - and you turn, slashing back into your foes with limbs extended. The tips of your wings become blades, and you spin against the motion of the flock, slicing them as they fly by! They drop like flies. But before you can do more damage, magic flames rocket past your position. You're forced to beat your wings back to evade the shots. One of the succubi is closing in. A tremendous blast of magic roars past you, evaporating the succubus. The lightning pours on, slamming into the crows that are still trying to reorient. A follow-up barrage of other elements peppers the flock, felling crows one after another. You turn. The duke's elemental is gone, but with you distracting a large portion of the flock, the ground forces were able to rescue him. You manage to land next to Flint. "Shadow? Are you alright? I couldn't even follow where you were!"

<Neither could I.> Annette is running toward you. Fire still flickers in her hands. >Rolled 1d20: 6, 10, 16 Annette opens her mouth to say something as she lowers her hands Ila appears below the succubus. Her knives are out, extended. Annette tries to dodge. She gets out of the way of the slice aimed for her neck, but the punching dagger drives up into her abdomen. Ila withdraws her weapon and kicks the succubus down onto the ground. Annette's breath is shallow and uneven. Ila raises her knives for the killing blow... >Rolled 1d20: 15, 13, 2 <Ila, stop!> Ila stops. She glances at you, confused. You slide to a halt next to Annette. You're not an expert in demonology, but the wound looks lethal. You lean down. <Tell me of the Shel'kath. Hurry!> "...two...twins," Annette wheezes. "One...Donny...second...." <What else? How do I kill it?> "...need..." She coughs blood. It splatters over her body. "...resummon...me...master..." Her head falls limp. And just like the other demons, she vanishes in an implosion of magic. You feel a slight sense of loss. But no matter. There is still Adavan. "...was this demon important?" <Somewhat,> you say. <But not irreplaceable.> Flint finally reaches you. He seems unsure of how to react. "...I admit, I feel pity for her." "Demons are not to be trusted," Ila says flatly. "I would utilize whatever replacement you have, Shadow, and forget this creature."

An explosion of magic grabs all your attention. The demon lord and Auriel are unleashing powerful blasts directed at each other, countering power with more power. But the shadow is steadily snuffing out all the lights, in a slow, inexorable wave. "She needs help," Flint says. "Indeed." The duke walks up between you. "And help she shall receive."s

THREAD 18
>HP 24/29 >Mana 9/10 Fire slams into the ground next to your group, tossing up soil in a gout of flame. But a nearby water mage counters with a wall of water, protecting you and the nearby troops. Two of the three succubi summoned by the demon lord are still alive...well, counting Annette, two of four. Half the flock of crows is still swarming the air, dive-bombing the troops, but the mages are fighting back and their numbers are dwindling fast. Explosions of magic rock the inside of the sphere. Auriel and the Demon Lord are locked in closerange combat. Auriel's sword is blasting hard against a shield wielded by the lord. Her attack is ferocious, but he's holding his ground without much trouble. She's doing everything possible not to give him an opening. "We need to help her, immediately," the duke says. "But timing is everything." His brow furrows. "...I'm exhausted," he admits. And he looks it - gone is the sharp, calculating confidence, replaced with shadows under his eyes and a drooping posture. "If I have time to gather power, I might be able to fire a good spell or two at the lord to support you." The duke is looking tired...but you think you've got a solid plan. <Ila. Are you under orders?> "I was told to help the Kelverens as I could," she said. "Vague. Open to interpretation." <I think you'd best help if you focused on the remaining succubi before they rain down more fire on us. Right, your excellency?> The duke hasn't missed much. He nods. "I agree. That would be very helpful to Kelvere." Ila's lips curl in a slight smile. "Then I'll do that." She vanishes. <You stay here and prepare,> you tell the duke. <I'm going to clean up the crow demons. Then we can all focus on the lord.> You glance toward the fight. <Auriel can hold a little longer.> "...probably. But don't be long." Wings spread from your back. The flock is scattered in a melee with the duke's forces, but you know from experience they could reform quite quickly. This first strike needs to count... >Rolled 1d100: 14, 34, 61

You soar up through the flock of crows, slashing at every one you pass. You down them quickly. Alone, they're light and frail. It isn't long until a group forms up and hones in on your position in a flying-V. You collide with them, blowing a few of them apart and taking some damage yourself. >HP 24/29 Meanwhile, one of the last succubi has mysteriously vanished...you silently thank Ila. >Rolled 1d20: 9, 12, 6 A barrage of magic is unleashed from the mages on the ground. The last succubus ignites, then gets hit with a blast of water...then gets electrocuted. It drops from the sky like a lead weight, corpse still smoking. Apparently the duke had one more trick left. There's still a significant number of the crows, but they're thinned out quite a bit. You glance down toward the main event. Auriel is now on the defensive against the demon lord, who is mauling at her with his claws. She's deflecting them with her blade, but she's giving ground, fast. Flint has organized a company of mages and elites, and they're charging at the demon lord from its backside! You fly towards Flint, clipping a few crow demons along the way. Compared to the rest of this battle, its easy going - they're trying to survive, now, rather than attack. You land heavily on the ground next to Flint and merge with his shadow. The other men with him are briefly surprised, but smile grimly. They remember your previous work. It's probably a relief for them to have you with them. "We've got to hurry," Flint says. "I don't know how much longer she's going to - " The demon lord roars. A powerful shockwave of shadow and spirit blasts at Auriel. She drops her sword and raises her hands. Lines of white light twist into a complex sigil. The disc of magic takes the shockwave attack, but she's driven back, back, her feet leaving ruts in the ground as the powers push against one another. Finally, the spell dissipates. Auriel raises her right arm, and her sword vanishes and appears back in her hand. But then, she crouches low and waits. "Tired already?" The demon grins. Black smoke escapes his mouth when it speaks. "Come closer so I k a c n ea yo u. r " b Auriel straightens, and levels her sword out. "I'm just getting warmed up."

The demon laughs for a moment - then turns. He stares at your approaching party. "More worms? And t's ht me so ai t t b the Shadow, too. I a bo you r ug me en e r nm ent." t ti u me o The demon glances up into the sky and takes note of his decimated army. "Ah. They're dead. Well en h t . .." Magic flares! The demon raises its arms. Discs of shadow and spirit appear on the ground around it. 2...then 5...then more. They multiply until there are dozens. Black spheres warp and condense over the sigils, and they all flash brightly. Spirits fly out of the spheres! Ghosts, wraiths, some like wisps, others more evil specters with eyes of fire! The phantom army flies toward you, cutting down the troops to either side of you. "What's happening?!" "Take cover!" "Ghosts, get down!" Magic leaps from the hands of the mages. A few ghosts are scoured out of the air, but a dozen are still attacking your group. The rest of the mob flies by, heading back for the duke's army! "We've got to kill this thing," Flint says. "Keep them off me!" He charges forward straight at the demon lord, dragging you along with him. The demon lord sneers at the lone knight. "Pathetic. What are you, Shadow, a pet? I'll do you a favor and kill this one." It raises a hand, and a ray of darkness pulses toward Flint! You do not fear the shadow. You dive in front of Flint to shield him. >Rolled 1d100: 76, 49, 29 You twist in front of Flint, wrapping his front side with your body! The shadow strikes you - !!

And for you, it's like taking a warm bath. The ray strikes you, then dissipates to black mist that floats to either side of you. It kills the blades of grass it touches, but Flint is totally unharmed. The demon settles back. It takes a long look at Auriel. She's set low, still breathing hard. He looks back at you as you separate from Flint and stand up. <You call me a pet...but you're a puppet yourself,> you say. "Hardly," the demon growls. "That fool's sanity is crumbling at the seems. It's only a matter of time...and then, I'll exist here by my own merit." The demon grins. "You had reason to save that thing?" <My ally is worth saving.> "Ally? Can't you feel his soul? He's like a miniature version of the flying rat." The demon jerks its bony thumb at Auriel. "I was under the impression that you beings hated one another." <Apparently you had a false impression.> The demon's laugh rumbles loud and long. "So what did they promise you? Protection? Or merely your life? Oh yes...glory to the wonderful angels, who deem your existence worthy to go unnoticed, un-purged-." The demon shrugs. "We can easily destroy these fools." <Why would I help you?> "Why not? Join me, and we will rule as we might. We will make slaves and servants of these...humans...and secure ourselves a foothold in this Reality. Alternatively..." The demon raises an eyebrow. "Help them, and be tolerated as a second class citizen...until they decide you've grown too dangerous for their precious sense of -balance- and rub you out like chalk on slate." <That won't happen.> "Am I not under assault by those very forces right now? Have you been different? Did they make some special exception, just for you? or did they label you a disgusting thing to be destroyed just because of what you are - what you look like?" You remain silent, for you have nothing to contradict. "As I thought," the demon says. It smiles its evil smile. "You have potential, Thing of Shadow. With my power, these lands would be ripe for you to consume. I care not for the tools of mine you've slain there is no debt to pay. No conflict between us. Join me, and prosper." "Flint!" Auriel shouts. "Get away from the Shadow!" Flint's head snaps back and forward between you and Auriel. He settles his feet. "He won't betray us."

Auriel's face is strained with exasperation, but she doesn't try to reach you. She's worse off than she's letting on. <Do you believe you could sway me with a display power and an eloquent speech? I have seen power. I have heard speeches. The outcome of this battle is clear.> "My army will prove otherwise. If you - " <I will not join you. You are wrong.> "...what?" the demon growls. The image of a small girl forms in your mind.. You may not know what you are, but those memories are clear. <I have been rejected, by some. Not all. I will not abandon those that have accepted me.> Flint grins. <But you're right about one thing,> you continue. <I am of the shadow...and my darkness will consume whatever lies in my way.> "We shall see who consumes whom." Black light flares around it. The dome of darkness encompassing your battlefield begins to swim and churn...it's beginning something big! Auriel leaps, and flaps your way, strafing the demon by a good margin. It watches her, but does not move. She lands heavily next to you. "You see?" Flint asks. Auriel snorts. "You're naive." Auriel stares at you. "And don't think you've won any points with me." You ignore the jibe. <Do you know what it's doing?> "I got in a few hits." She examines the demon a long moment. "It's casting a regeneration spell, and then planning on resummoning its full army. We need to strike hard, now." <What about the man controlling it? Nulis Vin?> "I've searched," Auriel says. "He's was never here. Probably back in Kan-Abar." Flint spits on the ground. "Coward." "...Shadow..." Auriel begins. "...with me. And if I see a hint of intent against me, I'll annihilate you."

<I've enough of your threats, angel, to last me weeks. But I will fight with you.> "What about me?" Flint asks. "This enemy is beyond you. Keep your distance, help the other men." Flint works the pommel of his sword in his hands, but he grudgingly nods. <I am your shadow. Go with caution.> You slip into Auriel's shadow. She swallows, staring at you for a long time. Slowly, she turns her back on you. Over 700 years old...a survivor of wars, plagues, demons, and who knows what else. It must have been difficult for her to look away. That, or she's very desperate. You decide it is probably the latter. She clutches her sword of light high and beings to carefully make her way toward the demon. "Do you discern anything I may have missed?" You closely examine the demon. >Rolled 1d100: 99, 60, 72 <...I thought you said the spell was for regeneration.> "I think so." You note scars and burns on the demon's arms. <It isn't healing.> "Then what...?" The demon roars. Purple lightning leaves its body and rises up into the sky. It strikes the dome, and the rate of the spinning increases, faster, then even faster. It's like your in the eye of a black hurricane. You sense something. <...that took power,> you say. <Its defenses are weakened! Strike, hurry!> Auriel nods. She lunges forward at blinding speed, swinging her sword as she does so! >Rolled 1d100: 47, 78, 30 Auriel's sword swings from top to bottom!

The demon shields with his forearms, but her attack leaves thick gashes! A strange mixture of blood and magic ooze sprays from the demon's wound. The demon roars and spins, lashing out with his tail to catch her while she's bringing her sword back up - but your limbs catch the demon's tail briefly, stopping it. He struggles to escape, and frees himself, striking you hard as he jumps away. >HP 26/29 Auriel presses forward on the retreating beast. <If the opportunity arises, I'm going to try and bind it!> She nods, and positions her sword for another attack. >Rolled 1d100: 42, 27, 52 You throw your thoughts back across the battlefield. <Your excellency, can you hear me?> There's no response. Either he can't hear you, or he isn't in a position to use a spirit mage to communicate back. The ghosts are still rampaging through his forces...mages are alright, but the normal troops have no defense against invisible phantoms. It's all they can do to stop a slaughter. <If you can hear me, I'll try to bind the demon! Use that moment to strike!> Auriel presses forward at the demon's retreating back - and it turns, firing a barrage of shadowy missiles! Remembering your earlier success with flint, you react quickly, wrapping around in front of her like a sail. The missiles strike into you, exploding to either side. This shadow seems different...wrapped in a bit of wind. You take a few hits, but hold strong! >HP 25/29 Auriel slams hard into the demon with her shoulder, forcing it back. It's warding her attacks with its aura and its claws, but she cuts here, there, and slices its chest with another strong blow! The shadows high above continue to spin... >Rolled 1d100: 23, 47, 98 >Secondary Critical Failure >Rolled 1d20: 8, 6, 4

You leap up from above Auriel and VUUM The air around you vibrates as you teleport behind the demon. Your spell is already ready! All your mana blasts forward in thick ropes of spirit magic! The magic strikes the demon and wraps around him with a mind of its own, binding up his legs and tightening one of his arms to his side. His muscles strain to free himself But Auriel is there before he can! She swings down, driving through his arm, nearly severing it clean from his torso! But in the process, her sword cuts your magic. The binding drops free! A crack of lightning snaps across the battlefield. Auriel and the demon leap away. The spell catches her on the wing, and it on one of its legs. She goes flying through the air, spinning away from you. The demon lord lands heavily, its right foot blackened and cracked. Its injuries are slowly healing... The spell above you continues to spin. The hurricane's pressure increases...the battlefield is cast in even greater darkness. >HP 26/29 >Mana 0/10 The demon lord faces you, growling heavily. >Rolled 1d100: 73, 7, 68 You charge at the demon, lashing him with you arms as you close the gap. He crouches and shields with his good arm and wings, taking the blows one after another. It's like hitting solid steel. You can feel his flesh give somewhat, but your damage is limited. However, the pressure visibly stops his regeneration... You've entered close range. The spell above is still churning...you hope the duke is working to do something about that. >Rolled 1d100: 18, 38, 4 You barrel into the demon. You open your body like a giant set of jaws and CRUNCH down upon him. The demon throws out its arms, catching you wide! Your jagged teeth of shadow catch it on its wrists, digging in, making new cuts, but its strength is enough to keep you from completing your attack!

"Errrrgh....RAAAH!" The demon's claws dig into you. It lifts you up, off the ground, then slams you into the dirt! Its foot tries to stomp into you, but you manage to slip out of the way. >HP 21/29 Stunned, you try to put a bit of distance between yourself and your foe. He turns away from you and raises his hands. Spears of darkness leap forward, but they go wide! Very wide...as if he isn't even aiming for you. Auriel, who was trying to slip around to the side, takes the full brunt of the attack. She deflects some of the missiles with her sword, and they explode into the ground around her, cutting rivets and channels in the earth. But one slips through her defenses, blasting a hole in her armor! She clutches at the wound on her side, but she's still standing, and she hasn't lost her grip on the sword. The demon pauses. It puffs a breath of air through its nose, and raises its good arm up, up, straight toward the roof of the dome. A twisting rope of shadow swims down to meet him like a tornado extending down from storm clouds. You instinctively know something bad is about to happen. The shadow does not frighten you. You can stop this - with your own body. You leap up, above the demon lord, and place yourself between it and its twisting spell. The lord looks shocked. It rapidly descends towards you. You bend your senses toward it, trying to gain a clue before it arrives and strikes you. You sense... ...nothing. There's nothing. You can see the shadow, but there's no magic. But more than that, it's -devoid- of magic altogether. Empty. Terribly, horribly empty. And yet...Something is there...

And it's staring back at you. A thousand minds, a thousand voices, screaming, clawing at you like nails on slate stolen and amplified a hundred thousand times. You can't hear, you can't think, but you can see the eyes of the beast as if they surround and dominate your entire existence. And then, they're gone. The shadow plunges through you... ...and nothing happens. It's as if it isn't even there. Or...it is there...but not in the same way you are. Uncertain, you fall back toward Auriel. She's recovered somewhat, but her wound still has a long way to go. <What is that thing?> "I don't know." That statement, coming from her, is perhaps more frightening than the creature in the shadow. The shadows reach the demon. It wraps the beast like a cloak, shivering, shaking, warping. The ground trembles. "Auriel!" Flint is running toward you both. "What's going - by the light, what is that?!" The void-like darkness around the demon explodes outward. The shadows blast outward like all the hell in the world unleashed on Venia.

They sweep the field and pass through you, Flint, and Auriel. Nothing happens. At first. Shouts go up from the men behind you. The phantoms vanish. Auriel's wings begin to shrivel. "What...what's happening?" A glow flickers around her back, and her wound, and then dies. She collapses to the ground. Her wound isn't bleeding anymore, but it's a giant, raw scab. "...I...my magic...I can't feel it!" Flint goes down on his knees. "I still have mine. What the hell was that?" You...feel...lessened. You're...ok...but something's gone. You feel for your magic, your aura... ...and nothing is there. The sense of the world around you is gone. >Rolled 1d20: 10, 15, 18 You hear the stomps of the demon approaching. You grab Flint and Auriel and throw them to the side. A giant arm plows toward you - but you Ink below it, dodging the blow! The demon overbalances, and you punch back at its head! That knocks it back several paces, and it falls over, stunned. You rush back to your allies. <Angel! What is happening?!> "...my magic...it's just, gone!" She's holding her wound. "I...my sword..." She glances down into the grass beside her. Her sword is now just a tiny shortsword...unremarkable in any way. You listen to the shouts in the distance. The ghosts are all gone...the mages are doing the shouting. Their condition is similar to the angel's.

"I can still use my magic," Flint says. "I can - Shadow, look out!" You turn. The demon is lumbering forward. You can't sense him coming any more...but his magic isn't working, either! Thanks to Flint's warning, you're not caught off guard >Rolled 1d100: 6, 26, 22 >Secondary Critical Failure >Rolled 1d20: 14, 5, 5 You spin to the side of its bad arm, striking the demon as hard as you can in a flurry of punches-it grabs your arm! You pull back...but it's as if you're not even as viscous as you were before. It squeezes, then throws you. You land a good distance away, hard. >HP 18/29 The demon's momentum continues forward. Flint steps up to attack. His sword bites into the demon's arm, but alone, it's not enough! The demon's backswing contacts with his chest bowls him over. It reaches Auriel. He grabs her and lifts her into the air. She struggles, crying out in pain, but there's nothing she can do against the demon's brute strength. "...so weak, now." The demon squeezes harder, and you can hear a few nasty cracks. He throws her, and she tumbles across the ground. Bits of blood trail through the mud where her wound has reopened. She struggles to stand upright, then falls again. She's pale, and her breath is shallow. "It'll be a simple matter to restore my own power with a few...easy snacks," the demon says. It chuckles mercilessly. "Unless the good knight thinks he stop me?" But Flint is already running toward Auriel's side. "Highest? Highest!" "...Donovan...get...away..." >Rolled 1d100: 24, 58, 52 You glance down at your belt... ...and sense nothing. You feel at the sword shard with an inky nodule, but there's nothing to it. ...has it been ruined?

<Flint! The spirit sword! Is it working?!> Flint ignores you. He's kneeling next to Auriel. "Highest..." "...dammit...call...me...Auriel...idiot..." "B-but you said - " "...fuck what I said!" Auriel coughs. "Get yourself...together!" "...I can heal you. We can - " The demon doesn't care for their conversation, but you intercept! You slam into him from the side with all your weight, and you go down in a tangle of limbs and Ink. You slam into him, targeting the nasty slice in his arm and the cut Auriel made on his chest. He roars in pain. <Flint, the sword! I need your help!> "Don't...waste strength. I...I'll live." "But - " "Go!" Auriel coughs hard after struggling to say the louder word. Flint stands, and turns. He grasps the spirit sword...and finds it useless. He leaves it in his sheath and draws his main sword. Light flares around him... >Rolled 1d100: 57, 90, 57 >Rolled 1d20: 4, 17, 10 You Crunch into the demon, ripping hard into his chest! He growls, twists, turns, and gets in a hit or two, but you've got the upper hand! You tear a hunk of flesh out from his chest, exposing his inner core... ...it's still magic, twisting, writhing. Somehow, the spell keeping the demon here is still active. >HP 17/29 "Shadow!" Flint calls. You can spare him a glance, but you can see flickering light. "...something about my magic is different! It's really...give me some time!" <Hurry!>

You continue to attack the demon. >Rolled 1d100: 43, 74, 12 You claw across the demon's shoulder, tearing the wound that Auriel cut in its arm deeper It grabs you! "ENOUGH!" It gets its feet under itself and stands, holding you in midair! You scrabble and scrape, but its hold doesn't break. It throws you down to the ground, then brings its hands together and smashes you into the mud! >HP 11/29 You're disoriented, but you see follow-up stomp coming and slip back! You face the demon on even footing once again. You've done a lot of damage, but it hardly seems to care. The wounds aren't regenerating, though... "Almost...!" Flint shouts to you. Your eyes widen when you see him. A blanket of light surrounds him like a gleaming cloak, and its growing larger every passing second. Auriel is gaping at him. The demon doesn't miss it, either. It snaps its head back to you. "Time for a meal, I think." >Rolled 1d100: 61, 32, 13 You send the demon an impression of you swallowing him up like so much magical mist...he vanishes, and you rise above where he laid, swelling with power. "We'll see." You dart in and lash him across the face! The blow strikes him hard, but he grabs you! You strain backward, but he pulls you in like a boatman hauling rope. When you're finally in range, he heaves on last time, then swipes you back the other way, gouging you with his claws! >HP 7/29 The demon runs after you, but you lash at its legs. It stumbles, growls, and picks itself up! You flicker around it, leading it away from the knight. Flint still hasn't moved...he needs just a little more time!

>Rolled 1d100: 58, 20, 44 The demon claws... You dodge! The demon swipes... You dodge! The demon roars, and punches... You dodge, and kick its face! "DIE!!" The demon lashes out with its claw, just nicking you. But you're away before it can do any real damage! Light bursts like a flame behind the demon. You both turn... Flint stands before the fallen angel. Light flickers around his form, wafting, wavering like...like your shadows. He sprints ahead, his sword held high! >Rolled 1d100: 64, 1, 28 >Primary Critical Failure! >Rolled 1d20: 10, 12, 2 >Secondary Critical Success Flint runs forward... ...his light flares brighter. Then brighter. Then BRIGHTER "Shadow, get away!!" The light around Flint detonates. You leap for a crater bombed in the ground... ...the light scorches you, but you fall into the dirt, preserved by the faintest of shadows on the inside of the pit!

>HP 3/29 The demon's screech roars out into the air! . ..... . . . ..... . . . . .. ... . . ....... . . . . . . R H G H H A A H ! H RA !! ! . ... .. . . . .. .. ..... . . . . ... . .. .. . .. . . . .. The light dies - a torch suddenly snuffed. You peer out of the hole. A blackened corpse lies at Flint's feet, who is now free of the light. The dome of shadow high above you is beginning to dissipate already. Your aura flickers back to life around you and your senses return, as if they'd never left. You sprint toward the corpse. But first... You hold up a shadowy hand to Flint. "...I think...I did it. I lost control of it at the end, there...whatever it was." He looks at your hand. "...what?" <I have noticed this gesture amongst humans. We are to slap hands in congratulations.> Flint laughs, then smacks your hand. "No shit, huh Shadow?" <No shit, Sir Flint.> You know what you have to do now, of course. You Must CONSUME You leap onto the corpse of the demon lord. Much of the magic has already bled away...but there's so much, it hasn't simply evaporated like the other demons. You suck it dry. You run alongside Flint. He slides to a stop near the fallen angel. "Highest! We won!" "...told you...Auriel...dammit." "...Auriel." Flint kneels next to her and grasps her hand. "We did it." "Yeah...I...need a rest, I think..." Her head sags back, and she's out like a light. "...well." Flint closes his eyes and focuses. "...she will live. But...she was so bright, before, it was like I could sense her from a mile away. But now...I thought her wings would come back."

<I sense similar changes. Her soul still holds magic, but not like before.> "...Shadow...that power I used...is the parasite...?" <My thoughts exactly. A moment.> You bend your Spirit Sight toward the knight. The parasite stares back at you almost haughtily. It was only suppressed...not destroyed. <Still there. Just beaten back, for a time.> "...damn. Well." Flint faces the lady and gingerly reaches his arms around her form. "Forgive my presumption." He lifts her up and carries her from the field. You slip into his shadow, and let him tow you along. Curious, you check his sheath. The glow that was on the spirit sword has gone. Unfortunate...but the sword itself is intact. You're certain it could be remade. The shard of the shadow sword in your purse ravels and flickers once again. It is made of stronger stuff, apparently... ===== >HP 18/37 You're in the duke's drawing room. Flint, the duke, Thomas, the duke's double, and the primly dressed man, seemingly the duke's steward, are all in attendance. Auriel is absent. After the dome of unmagic faded, the mages regained their talents. They had to gather mana once more, but their abilities were intact. You've gathered from Flint that something more permanent seems to have happened with Auriel, but he refused to say more. "What about casualties?" Flint asks. "Overall, the Velarion spared most of my troops, but we still took very heavy losses," the duke says. "On the plus side...we annihilated the Kanian army. As bad a shape as my men are in right now, we're still much better off than we were before this fight." He glances out the window, and you follow his gaze. Mass pyre-pits have been dug for the Kanians...there's simply too many to bury in any reasonable amount of time, and there's a war to fight. The fields north of Evinbrook castle are devastated, grasses changed for mud and blood. The scent of death seems soaked into the land, though the mages work to restore it, and repair the holes in the duke's keep. "So, Shadow. Sir Flint." The duke sighs. "I believe...long before this all got out of hand...we were having a conversation about a certain alliance."

<Your excellency. After this last battle, I don't think we can be anything but friends. In the future, I may find that my path runs alongside yours. But for now...there are people I must find.> "...I see. Are these two...the girl, and the lich, so important?" <They're all I have.> The duke folds his hands behind his back, then quietly nods. "Then I look forward to when we meet again." He extends his hand, and you shake it. You turn to Flint, nod, and you both walk from the room. Flint sighs heavily. "...you know...I think I like the duke a bit more, but...I'm glad that's over. Know what I mean?" <I think I do.> "Shadow," Flint begins. "...one day, I'll see that you have a home. A real home, not one you work for as a strategic tool to be moved around a board...so that you don't have to say those words again." <...what words?> "All I have," Flint says. "...I hate those words, Shadow. We're more similar than you think." You do not press further, for you feel that, if Flint had wanted to continue, he would have. "Before we leave...I wanted to speak with Auriel. If that's alright." <Certainly. What are her plans?> "...I don't know. But..." He drifts off. You work your way down a flight of stairs and through some carpeted hallways. A shadowy presence tingles at the back of your neck... You turn. Flint stops with you, confused, and then jerks back in surprise when he sees Ila. "Shadow," she says. <Ila. You are unharmed.> "I am." <Good.> "I...am pulled. Back."

<...back where?> Her throat works, but she says nothing. She looks toward the door at the end of the hall. "I am a servant of angels...only angels." She glances at you. "In Heavensgate, there is a tree in the public park...in spring, it blooms with black flowers." <Do shadows meet under that tree?> She looks at you pointedly. "But Heavensgate is close to the Ring City." And with that last last, rather chilling warning, she walks away. Flint shivers. "Woman gives me the creeps. Something not right about her." <I could say the same of Auriel.> Flint sights. "That's a Shadow's taste in women, for you." He walks to the door and pauses before it. "...I...should probably see her alone." You nod, and move off back to the intersection. Flint knocks upon the door and calls Auriel's name. A soft voice responds, and he opens the door and closes it quietly behind him. You briefly direct your thoughts at Flint. <I'll be in the library.> You wander back down through the castle. You don't have to hide, now...though the servants have a habit of leaping back in raw terror when you pass. You walk into the library. The large, intimidating shelves rise up around you. There's a lot to leaf through, and you're not just browsing like you did last time... ...hmm. A water mage is reading quietly at a table. Maybe you could ask direction? But it might get back to the duke. Do you want people to know what you're looking for? You walk up to the mage. <Excuse me.> "...just a moment..." The mage traces a finger along the lines he's reading, then turns to face you. He stiffens in surprise. "...uh..." <I'm unfamiliar with the layout of the library. Could you direct me to any text regarding summoning rituals, specifically regarding resummoning? Failing that, I'm also looking into the nature of demonic parasites.> The mage adjusts his spectacles and scratches his head. "Are you that shadow that was in the battle?" <I am.>

"...you're more lucid than I realized." The mage clears his throat and points down the shelves. "You want three rows back from here, top shelf. There's some red-bound books on rituals. I've never heard of a demonic parasite myself, but it's not my field." <Thank you.> The mage nods. "Uh, sure." You move to the shelves indicated. Indeed, on the top shelf are some red leather books. You reach up to grab the lot of them... >Rolled 1d100: 56, 70, 74 >Secondary Critical Failure You reach up for the books and nab them all. But one hops out of your hands! You fumble to catch it - but it flaps like a bird and flies around the shelves! You dash after the mad book! >Rolled 1d100: 49, 16, 40 You leap up a shelf, quickly clambering to the top of the library. The book flaps harder in an attempt to escape. You lunge off the wood, engulfing it in shadows. You land hard on top of it. It struggles to escape, but you can easily hold it down. "Oh, hey, sorry!" The mage runs over after all the ruckus. "Forgot about that one. Happens every time we get a new mage...everyone wants to try for a succubus at least once." The man clears his throat. "Just stroke the binding. It'll relax." You brush a shadowy appendage down the book's backside. It audibly sighs, then flaps open. You grip it tightly, then walk back over and gather up the other books, feeling rather annoyed at the mage. "You know, if you're planning on...uh..." the mage shrugs. "Well, read up on the reagents you're interested in, then see the apothecary in town. He can probably help you out, he stocks a few common things for us." The mage leans down. "Keep that under your hat, though. Officially, the duke doesn't allow summoning of any kind." The mage turns and walks off. The news bothers you a bit...you hope the duke soon changes his policy. Then again, you've vague plans to do summoning yourself...

You sit at a desk in the farthest corner you can find and prop open the offending book first - just in case. For the first few pages, images assault your eyes. There are demons all over the inside cover and adjacent pages...all, it seems, with a bent toward human copulation. You see a few naked succubi, and their male form, incubi, carefully drawn and labeled. There's a hobgoblin-seeming creature with abnormally large genitalia. Following is what appears to be a man wearing a hat...to hide a blowhole, because his true form is a dolphin. You're uncertain what to make of this human fascination with copulation...first the bars, then the beer, then Flint and his blushing, now this. What is it with these people? You flip to the section on succubi...the details for a summoning ritual are all there, along with plenty of warnings of all kinds. Apparently all needs to be just right, or the succubus will escape its 'command structure' and suck out the summoner's soul. You feel as though you could probably handle such a situation without much difficulty. But more troubling is the threat of accidentally summoning something else if the sigil is off or the reagents are not of the correct type, quantity, or purity. Obviously, more reading will be required, but you feel confident that in time you will grasp the mechanics of the ritual. You note the various ingredients required for succubus summoning. As you leaf through, about to close it, you discover further information. A resummoning requires a slightly different ritual that is not described in the text...the sigil must be different. Apparently, after a summoning, a demon leaves a mark on the soul. Not visible, or otherwise detrimental, but an irregularity that must be accounted for - and something that can be used to intentionally bring back the same demon. Still, you never summoned Annette personally, so that's not really an issue. But it may be useful in the future. You decide that your next stop should be the apothecary. You browse through the books for any mention of parasites, but find nothing. You put the books back on their shelf, confident you know where to find them, then exit the castle and head into town. You wander into the town, keeping to the shadows. There's no need to cause a panic. There buildings clustered below the keep near the river are a bustling hive of activity. The crowd is thick with people and soldiers babbling and jostling one another on the way to various destinations. The scent of forges, cooking food, and horses hangs heavy over the cobblestone. Plumes of smoke rise from blacksmith after blacksmith, and the ringing of hammers on Kelveren steel overlays all the rest. You keep to the rooftops, evading the gaze of archers posted on platforms here and there. They don't notice your passing. You pass by a large podium in a square. A man is reading a long document, and a

few others are standing near loops of rope. A short distance further, a naked man in chains is being displayed in front of a crowd of merchants. You wonder what all these rituals are for. Soon enough, you locate a building with a mortar and pestle on the sign above its door, back away from the busiest streets. You slip inside. The shelves of the apothecary are lined with ingredients. Some are roots, others, green plant material. Still more are powders or crystals packed into jars. The sound of a man humming comes from behind a long counter, and you hear a rhythmic grinding from a back room. You decide that discretion is the better part of valor and mimic a vague humanoid form. You layer it with what you hope looks like shadowy clothing. You Ink some words up from your lips, deciding upon a rather neutral male voice. "Hail, apothecary." The grinding stops. "Just a moment, didn't hear you come in!" A warm-looking and very fat man comes out from the back room. He pauses when he sees your form...then a sly look crosses his face. "...let me guess. Succubus?" You feel a sense of panic. Can this man read minds? "...indeed." "You can drop the intimidation act." The apothecary leans an elbow on the counter and raises a knowing eyebrow. "We've all been there, kiddo. Hell, half my profits come from it." "...I had no idea." "Yep." The man flies around the shelves with an expert hand - he knows where everything is, apparently. He quickly packs a series of reagents into bottles and lines them on the counter. "Duke'll compensate me for the price. But for the service, I've got my own request." You lean forward. "And that is?" "Well...simple." The man smiles. "This is enough for two. When you're going about it, let me know. Got it?" "...certainly." "There's a good man." The apothecary hands you the bottles in a satchel. "Anything less discrete you need?" "I wonder...do you know of any brews that could be made to hold mana? For storage, in case of need?" The man leans back. "...that's beyond my pay grade, son. You'd need a top alchemist for that kind of work. Bottling mana is a dangerous business. It's the stuff we're made of. Highly volatile. I can light a candle or two, but I've no serious talent." "I see. Thank you."

"No problem. Hope to see you again, real soon." "Ah...yes." You leave the apothecary feeling rather unsettled. How many mages have accidentally come upon a succubus lying in wait and then needed to summon them once more for information? Perhaps the duke is prying into your affairs more delicately then you realized...but when would he have learned all that? You shake you're head. You're reading into this too much. Humans are simpler creatures than that...well. Something to ask Flint, later. You pack the bottles into your satchel. It's rather full, now, but there's a bit more space. You spread your senses into the town... ...it's very difficult to find one, single person. But you've nothing else to do, so you keep up the search. Eventually, at the edge of town in a small apartment, you find a very familiar presence. You slip in through the top window. <Joey.> The young boy leaps up as if he's been stung by a thousand needles. "...Shadow?! How did you - well, I guess you'd sneak up on me pretty easy." <I hear you're a squire.> "Yes I am!" Joey puffs out his chest. He looks rather buffoonish, but you let him have his moment. "Do you know what that means?! I can be a knight. A knight! One day, I could own -land-!" <Is ownership of land a worthy goal?> "Of course!" Joey says. "The duke owns Kelvere, don't you get it? He rents to other nobles. And they rent to knights, who rent to peasants. That's the tithe. The higher up you are...well, the better. Owning land means you're somebody. The duke is really fair to us, though. In Arland...well, the tithe is a lot higher than it is here." <I see. Land ownership represents a source of income, and power.> The thought turns in your head. <Perhaps I should acquire some -land-. It may prove useful.> "I bet Flint would give you some if you asked. Well..." Joey sighs. "We haven't done much lately. We've been put up and promised work, but refugees are pouring in from all the north. Not much work to go around. I would go in the army, but my parents already worked things out with Sir Flint...and, besides, I guess that's better anyway." Joey grins. "I heard YOU and Sir Flint destroyed the demon! I'll be the squire to the most famous knight in Venia! There hasn't been a demon lord in years, and Flint killed it! And we've got a monster on our team!" <...am I...the monster...?>

"Well, yeah," Joey says, matter-of-factly. "You're a freaky shadow monster. You're scary, you shapeshift, you have shadow magic...what's not to like?" <...monstrosity is a good thing?> "It is when you do good things and help people," Joey proclaims. "I mean, you're not REALLY a monster. You just look like it, and have monster powers. But you know...secretly, I think people really like it even more when something bad is on their side. Because you know it's going to do bad things...but to the things that deserve it! Know what I mean?" <I do,> you say. <But who told you the shadow is bad?> "Well...everyone." <Have all those people met a shadow?> "Well, no." <Have I done anything bad to someone that didn't deserve it?> "Well...I guess not." <Then why do you think I'm bad when the only thing you have to go on is the word of other people that have no evidence to back their claims?> "Well, I mean, the angels are light, and they protect us and fight the shadow. You don't do bad things, but shadow and spirit does all the time." You impress Joey with a feeling. It's no singular emotion, but a mixture you can barely describe yourself...that of your roles reversed. Of humans being bad because a distant authority claims it is so...and there is no debate, and no argument. That no matter what a human thinks of himself, he is bad, because humans themselves are bad. Isolation. Anger. Incomprehension. Sadness. Joey shivers. "...oh." <That is how I feel.> "...I never...knew." Joey looks at you. "I'm sorry I called you a monster. I won't again." <It's fine.> <We'll fetch you at sunrise, tomorrow,> you say. <And then we leave.>

"Ok. Guess I'll see you then." Joey sits on his bed. His eyes are far away. It seems your words have put him deep in thought. Humans have a great capacity for change. But you realize, if anything, that you are quite similar...for you haven't stopped changing once since you entered this world. You make your way back to the castle. The sun hangs low in the sky. You search for Flint's aura... ...a twinkle stings at your senses...and you recognize the location. The bar. Not again. You heave a sigh, then change direction, and walk across the bridge toward the bar. You straighten, suddenly. You...sighed. Audibly. Like a human. But you didn't think about it...it just sort of happened. Like with them. Well...it stands to reason you'd probably pick up a few of their habits, spending so much time amongst them. You're almost at the bar... You peer in through the window. It is as you remember - boisterous conversation, a noisy band, and women in skimpy clothing serving mugs and mugs of "beer". Flint is at the bar once more... ...and he has company. Auriel, dressed in conspicuously mundane clothing, is sitting next to him. They're both leaning hard on the wood. You have a bad feeling about this. You sneak into the bar. The noise and the shadows would make good cover, even if your targets weren't drooping from the effects of the potion. Curious, you nip a bit out of a mug you pass. You have to make an effort not to immediately spray it onto the floor. Humans crowd taverns to drink...this. This bitter, nasty water flavored with plant matter? Truly, the nature of humanity surpasses any one being's understanding.

You sidle up below Flint's seat and rest in the shadows... >Rolled 1d100: 93, 26, 59 Flint thumps his empty glass on the table. "eeeEEEY barkeep!" The bartender doesn't even turn before he moves to the casks lined up behind the counter. He fills two frothing mugs and plants them down in front of Auriel and Flint. "Das 9, er 10?" Auriel asks. "Dunno. Whatever, been the same for both us." "Yeah." Simultaneously, they lift their mugs, take a good few gulps, then plant their mugs back on the counter. Auriel smacks her lips, and Flint sighs contentedly. They both wipe their hands over their mouths. Flint burps. Auriel giggles. "Ha. Haha." They both burst into laughter, and in half a second, they're falling over the counter and each other, pounding the wood with their fists. You're beginning to feel a little worried for their sanity. Is it possible to overdose on these things? No that you comprehend how they stomach the material... "Ahhhh...shiiit." Auriel straightens slightly. "Been like...twenty years since I been to'a tavin'. An'...damn. Had to disguise, y'know? Fucking wings, can't turn 'em off." Something dark passes over her face. She slumps low. "...can't turn 'em on, now, though." Flint makes an admirable attempt to steer the subject away from that fact. "Disguise to go 'n bar? Huh?" "...yeah," Auriel says. "Angels, drunks? I mean, people'd all, y'know, what? But...shit to do, can't drink, I mean...when the war was on we drank every fuckin' day. EVERY. FUCKING. DAY." She slams her palm on the counter to enunciate the words. It goes unnoticed in the incredibly noisy bar. "Cause y'know...shit. Every fucking day you hear about more death. More dyin'. More errything bad. It gets you, after while. Really gets you. So...tired of it." Her eyes grow distant, and her voice gets softer. "...sometimes...you just don't want to live...another day...another year...700...it'sis...too long, maybe..." "Hey, fuck you." "...wha?"

"I said a big fuck fucking to you!" Flint says. "You're 'n angels, right?" "...well...now, I'm - " "So you're 'n angels," Flint says, riding over her response. "Blesseds Hyperion himself. You gets' live centuries. Fightin' shadow, loved by all thats good and everything like all that, so...shit. You got errything. Ev-er-y-thing you wanted. How y'think someone...ain't got nothin' feels? Someone ain't ever had no glory, or...life...stolen away." "What's your point? You means, you like that? Demonslayer? I ain't thinking so, no more, bucko." "...shadow did all the work anyway. Look...just sayin'...think of it like...a holiday. Seabathin' on the elvish isles, right? Another...adventure." "...maybe," Auriel says. "So wassa girl gotta do get in bed wit' a demonslayer, huh?" Flint blushes, but not that deeply. "Jus' gotta ask nice and dress poor." "N'here I'm thinkin' you's all polite 'n nice..." Auriel leans in toward Flint. "...so...I wonder...what's nice Flint like when the lights are off?" It's at this moment Flint sees you sitting on the stool opposite Auriel, probably because the bar has quietly significantly since you chose to make an appearance. "...uh...uh...duh..." Auriel frowns at him, then looks at his eyes staring over her shoulder, then looks behind her. She sees you. She cocks her head. "Da fuck you want right now?" <It's time to get you both back to the castle before this ignorance potion leads you to engage in drunken, irresponsible copulation.> "Fuck you," Auriel says. She turns back to Flint, grabs him by the collar, and drags him into a kiss. Flint is more surprise than anything else, so he doesn't really make much of an effort behind waving his hands to keep his balance on the stool. Auriel lets him fall back, chugs the rest of her beer, then stands. "I'm goin' back." She takes one step off the stool, then promptly begins to fall over. You catch Auriel, who is rapidly falling into a state of semi-consciousness. Flint moves as though to help you, and falls off his stool onto the floor. The three of you make quite a scene hobbling out of the bar, but no one says a single word the entire time. <...hmm.> You hoist Auriel over a "shoulder" you Ink up for the purpose. <Woman have fleshier chests than men.>

"...fucking tits, Shadow. Fuckin' tits." <So what happens when the lights are off, Flint?> "...ideally speakin'...I fuck that pretty lady you got...but..." Flint sighs. "...les just go. And if I start talkin...again...just tell me to shut up." You tell Flint to shut up four times by the time you reach the upper quarters of the keep. You lug Auriel into her room and unceremoniously toss her on her bed. Flint sort of half-walks, half stumbles over. It looks as though he's moving to put the blanket over her, but he sort of just...slows down. The soft bed traps him before you can blink, and he's asleep, half on top of the angel. It seemed Flint wanted to copulate with Auriel...well. Reproduction is an important part of the human existence. His choices are none of your business. It rather begs the question...what exactly is Auriel? But she seems to have all the right parts. The book of sex demons showed many humanoids laying together in beds. This is probably the ideal scenario for Flint, and a good learning experience for you. You arrange the two so they are sleeping side by side, with Auriel tucked slightly within Flint's larger form. You observe them for quite some time, but nothing happens. Clearly they require more assistance...the pattern of imbibing beer and then copulating is no doubt a common one. You decide to strip their clothing to assist their efforts. With a few tugs, your many limbs easily leave them naked and willing upon the mattress. Unfortunately, it seems as through they've had too much of the potion...they're both slumbering soundly. Well, when Flint wakes, you can at least report that your made a good effort of it. That should cheer him somewhat. A strange sound escapes Auriel's mouth...and suddenly, bile forms and sprays out, across the bed and floor. While smelly, it doesn't particularly bother you. Perhaps her body is rejecting the excess of potion. Humans should really know better. You wait, and watch. Slowly, the moon rises, then sets. The sky slowly starts to lighten, and eventually, it's several hours past daybreak. Flint stirs. Flint yawns, then stirs. He blinks. His eyes are groggy and bloodshot. You've leaned in directly in front of his face. <When does the copulation begin?>

"WAH!" Flint rolls himself back on the bedsheets. "...w-w-w-WHAT - " <You were both intoxicated with beer,> you explain. <And you complained about me not knowing dick about anything. To satisfy both our needs, I arranged for you to copulate with Auriel, and I decided to stay and observe through the night. When does the mating begin?> "It doesn't fucking work like that!" Flint's voice is cracking. "It doesn't just...begin!" <Then how does it work?> Auriel stirs, murmuring. She works her head deeper into her pillow. Flint carefully works his way off the bed... The parasite twists inside of him. You feel a flash of worry... Flint falls over Auriel, knocking her off the bed. They both end up in a tangle on the floor. Auriel splutters awake. "What-where-uh..." She falls silent. "AAHHHH!" Flint desperately tries to escape, and does, but not before he takes several bruises on his arms and legs. You're more confused than ever. Auriel snags the sheet off the bed and covers herself with it. Unfortunately, it's the sheet covered in her own bile. She drops it, shrieking, and runs into the adjacent room holding the chamber pot and and tub. She slams the door shut. Her voice comes through muffled. "...what...what happened?! What did we do?!" Flint runs a hand through his hair. "...I have no idea." "That's no help you idiot!" <I was watching the whole time,> you begin. "WHAAAT?!?!" comes Auriel's shriek. "...Shadow..." Flint says. "...what...is wrong with you?" <Wrong with me?> you demand. <Nothing is wrong with me. You're the ones that have something wrong- with you. First, you spend half the night consuming ignorance potions at the bar, forcing me to

drag you back here. Despite that - despite all that trouble - you both said you wanted to copulate with one another, and I thought it would be a valuable learning experience. I keep hearing about all the things I -don't- know, all the things that are such a -burden- to explain to a creature that simply popped! into the world a week ago. So I go through the -additional- hassle of removing your clothes so that you might both copulate easier. Favor after favor, Sir Flint, and you have the gall to demand what is wrong of me.> Flint swallows hard. "...well. Did we?" <Did you what?> "DID WE FUCK OR NOT, YOU IMBECILIC SHADOW?!" comes Auriel's shrieking voice. <That's the whole thing,> you say. <All that, and you both just slept the entire night. What do you even need all that sleep for? I've had enough humanity for 1 day, thank you. I'll meet you at breakfast.> You stomp out of the room, feeling annoyed and quite justified in your several frustrations.

THREAD 19
>HP 37/37 >Mana 2/10 You stop at the intersection to the upper quarters, resting on the red carpet. You waver and slide and slip and bob into the dining chamber. It's unchanged - a long wood table laden with food. You see one setting surrounded by five plates stacked halfway to the ceiling. Clearly, the duke learns quickly. "Shadow! Good morning. Did you rest well?" <I didn't sleep, your excellency.> You plant yourself in the chair and CONSUME the food in one fell swoop. Mmm. The duke dines quietly. The room is empty. It seems he usually eats alone. <Do you have much family?> "...I wouldn't have expected you to take an interest." The duke sips from his cup a moment. "An only child. My parents are passed. I've been delaying marriage, waiting for the right partner..." He sighs. "Nothing, as of yet." <How old are you?> "29. Still plenty of time." <I suppose so.> <I have a few questions for you...?> The duke opens his palms. "Have at me. After this incident...I think I'd like to abdicate for a day, leave things to Thomas. Give myself time to process." <I am curious about the nature of angels. I realize I do not exactly know what they are.> "Angels," the duke says. "Well, they're humans. Mages, or great warriors, originally, chosen by Hyperion as his champions. All elementals 'blessed' some of their followers. The unique angelic magic - wings, and powerful Light strikes - comes from the remnants of his power, which, by all accounts, is as strong as they day on which they received it, even surviving Hyperion's own demise." <It seems as though Auriel has lost her abilities.>

"Indeed." The duke nods slowly. "It's something that has never happened before. I don't know what to expect of her, though she seems...distraught." The duke looks at you pointedly. "There was fierce competition amongst angels for Hyperion's attention, for rank within his army. Competition which has continued for 700 years. Surely, she's made an enemy or two, stepped on a few heads on her way up. Something to use, perhaps." <Any idea why it happened?> The duke shrugs. "No. The only other non-magic space I've heard of is Nelmar, which is where Raijin, the Lightning elemental, and Hecate, the spirit elemental, had a fight. That one is permanent, but does not steal an angel's blessing permanently. This one has gone with the demon lord, but Auriel's magic has yet to return. I have no explanation." <...another question. Have you heard of something called a Shel'Kath?> "Shel'Kath..." The duke says the word slowly, trying it on his tongue. "Sounds demonic, but I'm unfamiliar. Why?" <It involves my...quest, with Sir Flint. I would refer you to him for specifics. It is not my place to say.> "I see." <On that note, I have a mind to attempt a summoning ritual to gain information about the Shel'kath from a more...direct source. Can you tell me of anything I should know before I do so?> "Be careful," the duke says immediately. "Extraordinarily careful. And do not believe for one moment that anything you summon lives on this plane for any reason but its own agenda. Demons are chaotic, fickle creatures." <Thank you for the warning.> The duke nods solemnly. "Of sigilized rituals themselves...I know they remove, somewhat, the many penalties of using a raw spell to summon a creature. But then, they are much more involved. Personally, I stay away from such magics. Demons corrupt, given time, given room to speak." The duke gestures toward you. "You might well be resistant to such eventualities, but I'd still not turn my back on one." <Are there any limits to these circles?> "Beyond reagents and time? Not that I know of. But each one burdens the soul...many mages have fallen from summoning too many creatures, warped into a living, mindless prisoner to serve as a magic shell to summon demons. Not an attractive fate." <That woman that was with us on the airship, and in battle,> you begin. <The shadow mage, Ila. I...could not feel in her a soul. Was she a demon?>

The duke's face darkens. "Not a demon. A slave. I had a suspicion, at first, but seeing Auriel order her about confirmed them." <...a slave.> The idea...grinds inside of you. <The angels enslaved a shadow mage?> "They need someone to do their dirty work," the duke says. "Who better?" <...she seemed...physically unable to answer my questions, when I pressed her about it.> "Naturally. Her soul has been separated from her body and is kept secreted inside the Ring City itself. She is bound by a strict list of commands to answer only to the angels. If she disobeys, she is met with pain intense enough to stop her disobeying, no matter how far she tries to run. And then there's the thread of imminent destruction should she try to escape her chains nonetheless." <Disgusting,> you growl. The duke rubs his chin. "My castle's wards alerted me that she's just left...no longer responsive to Auriel. Normally, she would gravitate toward the closest angel...failing that, return to headquarters. Auriel truly has fallen." The duke glances back at you. "It is rather disgusting, though, isn't it? The empire combs the land for shadow mages. It catches them young, and then either disposes of them, or separates their souls from their bodies and makes them slaves...in the name of peace and justice, of course." <They do not know the meaning of the words.> The duke grows quiet. "Kinship is a heavy burden." <...what sort of blessings did other elemental bestow?> The duke smiles. "You want to know more about the shadow. There are a few that survive...Ellendra Kalladar, the queen of the elves, was blessed by Geb, the Earth Lord. Though I rather suspect she's dead, now, after killing the shadow dragon. The Elven Isles have gone silent." <Any others?> "No. They were mostly caught in the final battle between Erebus and the other four elementals." <Erebus fought the other four elementals alone?> you ask. <What of the others?> "They had been defeated by then." The duke leans back in his chair. "One by one, the elemental lords were destroyed. I have a sneaking suspicion that the Spirit power under Jacob's Field is related to Hecate, or one of her powerful underlings, sealed away. Leviathan, the Wave Lord, is gone, vanished with the four higher elementals. Geb still survives today, actually, intact...depending on your definition of intact. His is the saddest

tale." <...what happened to Geb?> "Well, before the Elementomachy, two peoples were pledged to Geb," Vellik says. "The elves, and the dwarves. The dwarves were a race of the rock, masters of iron and magical machines. The elves were surface dwelling, like humans, but came to Geb through their affinity with the products of the soil trees, animals, life. "As such minor differences in beliefs go...they hated each other with a terrible passion. What records remain from so long ago tell of a civil war amongst Geb's followers, brutal, devastating, even before the elementals began to fight amongst themselves. Geb, divided between his children, simply withdrew. "Then, of course, during the Elementomachy itself, he had twice as much ground to cover," the duke continued. "Aeolus annihilated the Dwarven Empire at Tarun Gakth. The remnant of their battle still stands...twisted, endless canyons. There hasn't been sighting of a dwarf since. "When Geb was finally pinned down during the great battle in the southeast, Hyperion cursed him, and Aeolus trapped him in a giant cyclone. He's still there - raging mad, totally insane, stomping across the plain, buffeted by a tornado that has surrounded him since the war." <...that's...awful.> "Quite tragic," Vellik agrees. "From what I gather, Geb never wanted war. He was always defensive. Aeolus hated him because, naturally, everything sentient and magical lived on the ground. Xile was a sort of refuge in the air...but Geb was king of the ground we all call home." For a moment, you're quiet. It's a lot to take in. <...Erebus...what kind of allies did he have?> "The Shadow Lord," the duke murmurs. "Last to join the war. Arguably, the most powerful. Only Hyperion could stand against him for long." <He was strongest?> "What do you see at night, Shadow?" the duke asks. "Tiny pinpricks of light in a vast darkness so huge that is might as well be endless. The sun brings us light during the day...but it's just a ball of fire, fighting against the dark. Fires bring light, but their flickering creates huge, warped shadows. Wind is too ethereal...it doesn't move the shadow. Even lightning..." the duke rubs his chain, at the end of which hangs a small key. "...lightning blasts back the shadow, but for an instant. And then, your allies - consider them. Spirits dwell in shadows. The deep places of the earth and ocean harbor the shadow. The world is born of elements placed against a great, endless background - a blank slate of Darkness." The duke looks at you. "Of course it's the strongest. Not strong enough to beat all combined, otherwise we wouldn't exist as we do, you see. But strong."

You feel rather...pleased. "Blessings, though. The few servants of Erebus that existed could move their own shadows and control others. They commanded powerful dark magics, often using illusions of sound and shadow. The greatest of these - unnamed in the histories - could even cancel magic itself. That was something that even Erebus was never capable. Odd, that." <About Jacob's Field,> you say. <I believe the Kanians there are attempting to breech the seal on that source of power.> "...disturbing news. Retaking firm control of the river is already a priority. Not to worry, though," the duke says. "My governor at Detson hasn't been idle. The rest of Kelvere's forces are moving south as we speak." <Actually, I doubt they'll breach it. I found a remote, underground passage into the seal.> The duke is taken aback. "Did you, now?" <I did. The seal itself requires four keys - keys I aim to obtain.> You raise the Sun-Moon key from your belt pocket. <And one of which I already have.> You replace it, and then point at his key. <And one of which I suspect you possess.> The duke hesitates a moment, then lifts the chain from up around his neck. "...a family heirloom. It holds a mote of lightning, but the enchantment is subtle. Good for an emergency." You take the key in your hands. It feels... ...the same. The same as the one you own, the same as that door...ancient. Solid. Existent. <This is it,> you say confidently. <This is one of the keys.> The duke raises a hand, and you give it back. He loops it around his neck. "Well, I'll keep even closer watch on it. But are you sure you want to open that seal? I've learned...the hard way...things like that are not to be trifled with. Besides." The duke shrugs. "Let's assume a most chaotic-case scenario. The elemental lords are returning." He shakes his head. "My position isn't quite ready. It's too soon." <I have another question,> you say. <When I explored your castle, I sensed something below the dungeons. A magical something. I'm greatly curious.> "...well, at least you couldn't access it," the duke says. "That gives me some small confidence." He folds his fingers across the table, and closes his eyes for a long moment. "...we are alone. Good." He opens his eyes. "Research is under my castle, shadow. Dwarven technology uncovered from Tarun Gakth. If we pivot toward the empire, they will pivot toward us. We need an edge." <What kind of technology?>

"It was the dwarves that pioneered airships," the duke says, "and their destruction is what keeps us from making any more. Aeolus percieved it a great insult that a people of the earth would try to raise themselves into the skies...one of many logs on the fire of the Elementomachy," the duke says. "If we could rediscover that - well. That would be more than an edge." He shrugs again. "At the moment, the Engineering Guild holds a monopoly on the maintenance of airships - which is the only knowledge that was left by the furtive dwarves following their destruction. And the Guild is headquartered in Heavensgate. As long as Kelvere toes the line and contributes men to the frontier to fight the Black Lady, our airships stay well-maintained. Breaking that monopoly will be key, going forward." <I see.> You nod. <What of your campaign? What are your next moves?" "We retake the river. I want to push back to Westport before winter...but we might not make it. The port has been totally leveled, and Kan-Abar's fleets are harrying Isle Imil, which is cutting off their support. It's going to be a long war, Shadow." <I may have an insight regarding dynamos.> The duke sits up at that. "Do tell." <After exploring your airship, before the angels arrived, I tried to make a small one,> you explain. <Spinning seemed to help keep my shadows stable. But it fell apart without a constant input. And even then, it was just a tiny thing.> The duke nods. "Yes. The momentum is key. We discovered something incredible in our experiments - small, but incredible. You see, spinning objects actually maintain their forward momentum better than objects that are not spinning. If you spin something, then throw it, it will fly straighter, longer. We've felt this principle is key to the dynamo. They all spin. But the power source..." He taps a finger on the table. "Well. A good confirmation of what we heavily suspected. Thank you." <In regards to the spirit underneath Jacobs Field...a friend seemed to acknowledge it as a spirit, and referred to it as the 'nice lady'.> "That would be the young girl you mentioned?" <Yes. The spirit itself also spoke to me...called out for help.> "I see," the duke says. "...I will ask my mages to pursue this. In the meantime, let's both keep alert for the last two keys." <And about myself,> you say. <I have the ability to use more than one element. Is that common among mages?> "Usually, a mage has one dominating element that rules their soul, along with one, perhaps two, and rarely, all three other aligned elements. It's almost unheard of to have both a lesser and greater element together, though. The two groups don't mix. I myself am Lightning...with just a touch of Wind." The duke continues to gesture as he speaks. "When the elemental lords forged their alliances, the nature of the world itself changed to match their will. They made pacts with another another, and

could use a varying amount of magics. Being what you are, I'm unsurprised you can access other realms of magic, especially Spirit. It would be odd if you could not." <I see.> You nod. <That settles quite a few matters for me. I appreciate your time, your excellency. I fear I have too much ignorance to sponge away.> "As do we all, Shadow." <Now...one final thing. It's been plaguing me all night, actually.> The duke purses his lips curiously. "After all this, I can't imagine what it might be." <I'm sure you're aware that Auriel and Flint imbibed much, much to ignorance potion last night.> "I think everyone in Evinbrook is aware that the demonslayer bumbled home with the angel herself and...well, your current cover is that you're my summoned familiar. Not demonic, but of the shadow element." <Indeed. Everyone expected the same thing I did, then.> The duke slowly raises an eyebrow. "I'm not above gossip. Go on." <They both wanted to copulate. I tried to help,> you admit, <but I feel I did more harm than good. Could you explain the nuance human mating rituals? I'm suspecting I was too blunt.> The duke smirks, then looks past your shoulder. "Why don't you ask Sir Flint? I'm sure he'd be happy to explain." <No, he was most upset with me this morning. I've concluded that the ignorance potion itself made them both willing to acts they'd otherwise have the sense to avoid...I was presumptuous in assuming they wanted to mate, even if they did rail on about it.> You chortle slightly. <Sir Flint is most talkative when he has imbibed 'beer'. He asked me to tell him to shut up, which I did, four separate times. Each time he'd begin, it was on the subject of the unconscious angel I was carrying. I think they were rather lewd comments, by your standards, but I'm still working it all out. Too many euphemisms.> "Yes, those can be problematic," the duke agrees cheerfully. "So, what sort of euphemisms did the good knight use? Perhaps I can - " "Please, no!" Flint's voice shouts. The duke grins. "Oh, I like to air these kinds of things in the open. So, Shadow, what did Flint say about the drunken angel slung over your shoulder?" Flint runs into the room. He puts his hands on your form and leans in close. "...please...spare me the humiliation. If you're any kind of friend."

You glance at him, then at the door. Auriel is standing there, half-hidden by the door frame. She's blushed even redder than Flint was this morning. "Come now," the duke says. "We're all friends here!" You feel as though a little demon is dancing inside of you, prodding you on. You slowly turn to look at Auriel. <I don't suppose you'd like to hear them?> Auriel's lips shrivel like a dried prune, yet her face is similar in color to a ripe strawberry. You glance at Flint and quietly speak so that only he can hear. <You'll teach me all their meanings, later. For that, I will hold your silence.> You look at the duke. <I do apologize, your excellency, but the good knight has invoked my friendship.> Flint swallows, and nods. He mechanically lurches to the other side of the table and sits in his chair opposite you. He doesn't reach for any food. He seems a bit shellshocked. Auriel slowly glides over. Her blush fades to a slight pink, but that doesn't stop her from being the picture of elegance. She lowers herself into the chair on the other end of the table, opposite the duke. You look at Auriel. <I'd be happy to list them for Flint and yourself in private.> "...just..." Auriel sighs, and says nothing. You feel a giddy sense of power at silencing her with words alone. "My hopes, dashed," the duke says. He seems exceedingly pleased with himself. "Ah well." <Ignorance potions,> you grumble. <You both spoke so much and yet said so little. Avoid them.> Flint puts a hand on his face. He forks some food onto his plate. "...pasta, your excellency?" "I enjoy pasta for breakfast," Vellik says. "Every great leader has an eccentricity or two." "Great leader, hmm?" Auriel murmurs. She spoons some of the buffet onto her own plate, then throws you a hard glare. "I didn't realize you'd eat at the table, Shadow. I thought you'd be in the corner, licking water from a bowl." Flint freezes into that block-of-marble state he seems to take when he has no idea how to react. The duke smiles in a way that says -the show is not over-. <What were those euphemisms again?> "I don't believe you mentioned them," the duke says innocently. <Ah, how could I forget. Let me - >

Flint raises his palms plaintiff. "Shadow..." <I tried, Flint. I really did.> You glance at the angel, who has visibly retreated into her chair. <Unless...> "...unless what?" Flint asks. <Have the good lady accompany us,> you say. <And she can explain it all at a later date. As you tell us both.> The duke flops back. "How anticlimactic. Do I get to witness none of the fun?" "What if I don't like that idea?" Auriel hisses. You heave a forlorn sigh. <You're right, of course. How could I have been so presumptuous? Might as well get it all in the open and - > "Stop!" Auriel shouts. She slams a hand to the tablet. "...I will not...have the Duke Vellik...hear - hear this." "It's not as if I'll tell everyone I meet at every diplomatic meeting for the next year," the duke says. "I'm sure plenty will be curious about the - exploits - of the demon slayer." "I am NOT an exploit!" <The ball's in your court, Auriel,> you say. "I might have lost some power," Auriel said, "but none else. You -will- address me as highest." <I don't think a fallen angel is very high.> Auriel grits her teeth. Flint looks panicked, but says nothing. The duke tenses slightly. You begin to shift. Slowly, you take on a solid, more humanoid form. Wings grow from your back, textured with layers of feathers. Your Mimic of an angel sits in the chair, staring at Auriel. "Why would I call you Highest when you're a shadow of your former self?" you say aloud. "...I - you...stop that." Auriel's voice breaks. "Let that illusion drop! This instant!" You relax, and are again just a misty, formless shadow. <I am tired of you,> you begin. <Very tired. I am tired of being hunted. I am tired of being told I am evil. I am tired of being called monstrous because of what I am, least of all by someone that

knowingly condones isolating the soul from a mage to turn them into a slave. It must be difficult to eat your pasta without Ila at your beck and call, threatened to pain she cannot bear should she disobey your most casual request. Is that the righteousness of angels I hear of? Is that one of the acts that beget your title of Highest?" "...you know not of what you speak," Auriel retorts. "You did not fight in the elementomachy, shadow. You did not see the undead horde raised by Hecate. You did not see Geb destroy the Archon Highlands. Peace is best served by - " <PEACE?!> You shout. Your voice fills the room. Your aura flares like black fire. <WHAT PEACE? WHAT DO YOU KNOW OF PEACE?! YOU WHO DOES NOTHING BUT ATTACK, WHO REFUSES TO LISTEN TO REASON, WHO LAYS THE BLAME OF SINS AND WARS CENTURIES PAST AT MY FEET?! WHO KNOWS NOTHING OF ME, AND WHAT I AM, AND WHAT I HAVE DONE?!> You slowly sit back into your chair, and a darkness that had fallen over the room lifts. <...your hypocrisy sickens me, -Highest-. I have done nothing to deserve your anger, or hate. Apparently, because I am shadow, I must die. And that is all there is to your logic. I refuse to accept such single-minded idiocy. There is no peace to be had there - only war, with all that deign to disagree.> You lean away. <I will spare you your precious pride, if only for Flint's sake.> <There is no justice in your words,> you say. <Only conflict. I believe you have confused justice with conflict. I believe you and the rest of your angels continue to fight a war that has long since ended. I believe that you are causing a world problems by keeping the elements one sided. Because otherwise...I do not think I would be here.> You stand and walk to her side. She grows more and more stiff as you approach. You feel her soul start to swim with magic, but she holds it tight. <You helped me defeat the demon lord, and you protected my ally, and my friend, Sir Flint,> you say. <For that, you have my thanks, as little value it probably holds to you. I mean you no harm, Highest. I want no part of conflict with angels. I merely want to be left...in peace. Is that too much to ask? Tell me why.> "...we kill the shadow to prevent the shadow rising once more," she says. "The world was once cast in darkness. Even...if we take as true that you are not necessarily bad...you are the sacrifice that must be made to protect the rest of the world." She seems to find her momentum, and her voice firms. "Would you truly want to live if you are the source of chaos that plagues everyone you know? If your own life, for living, makes Sir Flint's worse?" <...I would find a way to prevent such a thing,> you say. <Though I will note not to expect help from you and yours. Whatever your destination, I wish you...peace.> And with that, you walk from the room. <Flint. I shall await you near the stables. Joey will be meeting us.> You glance back at him. <If you'll still have me, that is. If not...I go alone. Either way, count me as your friend, now, and always.> You head to the stables.

Joey is already there. He's wearing thick leather, and he's standing outside, holding the bridles of two horses. You slip over to him and sit. The horses ignore you. The people nearby whisper and scatter quickly. A monster, then. Maybe she's right. Maybe they're all right. You're not like them. You have no sex. You have no constant form. You have no memory, no origin, no family, parents, nothing. You are vapor. A flicker under a torch. Half-there, half-not. How can something so inconsistent preach justice? A few minutes pass. "Hey, Shadow?" Joey asks eventually. <...yes, Joey?> "Where's Flint?" <...coming.> "Oh. Ok." Joey scuffs a boot on the grass. "...you know...I thought about what you said." <Hmm?> "You know, about...monsters, and stuff," Joey said. "You know, you're right. You're not a monster. You've never been a monster at all. You look it, I guess...but who knows what a monster looks like, right? You aren't a monster...you're just different. Not a monster, not a human. Something different. Maybe similar, some ways. But something else." <...I am...something else...> Footsteps sound over the grass. You turn. Flint is headed your way. He walks over to Joey. "Did you oil the armor, and weapons, like I told you?" "Yes sir." "Good. Time to learn something useful." Flint shows Joey how to put the armor on. Joey awkwardly manages to hinder more than help, but eventually, Flint is armored as usual, though with his new sunburst breastplate. Joey has a few pieces of his own - guards for his wrists, knuckles, shoulders, and other joints and vulnerable spots. Flint grins at you. "So...did you really think I wasn't coming?" <...a small chance.> "Have a little faith."

<Faith?> you say. <It's not my strong suit.> Flint glances at you, then past you. "Think again, Shadow. Think again." A person brushes past you. You hardly recognize Auriel, fully clad in her armor. She moves into the stables, and comes out with a large gelding. She clicks her teeth, and the horse responds to her command. She rides it over to Flint. "It's been some time, but...it comes back quick, apparently." <What are you doing here?> Auriel stares at you. "As if I'm going to let Sir Flint, forth in line to the Seat at Dobshire, ride alone with a young boy and a sentient shadow in search of the solution to a demonic parasite wrapped around his soul." <You told her?> Flint shrugs. "...she asked." You look at Auriel. <The Ring City isn't going to miss an angel? What is this?> "...the duke promised to relay a message for me, and Ila is on her way back as we speak, besides. They'll soon learn everything." <...and you won't be there to clarify.> "Enough. I'm coming with you. Get used to it." <That, -Highest-, will be difficult. But I suppose I can try.> "At Sir Flint's request, I will also try to subsist alongside a monster." You feel a...grin. A smile spreads up your body. <I am not a monster. But I am not human, either. I am something else. But call me what you will. Highest.> The party rides towards Jacob's Field... You're more than halfway to Jacob's Field by the time the sun sets. Flint spies a large overhang near the river, and suggests you make camp there for the night. Auriel agrees. <I'll keep watch,> you say. <You get rest.> "...yes, I think I'll keep watch," Auriel says. "You...do whatever it is you do to sleep." <I don't sleep,> you say. <Maybe I should just watch -you- all night. Again.>

"Can we not fight?" Flint asks. Auriel cuts Flint with a look, then sits with her legs folded, back to the overhang. She rests her hands on her knees and closes her eyes. "...as I said, I will keep watch. Take your rest." "I won't have you up the entire night," Flint says. Auriel opens one eye. "I am not glass," she says. "Take your rest." Flint sighs, then begins to unpack the bedrolls from the saddles. Joey walks off to water the horses. Eventually, the two of them are asleep. Auriel sits, motionless, but you're sure she's perfectly alert. You take note of her new sword - a one-handed blade. She also has a fat buckler strapped to her back. You move toward Auriel, and speak so as not to disturb Flint and Joey. <You trusted me in your shadow at the battle. There were more than enough times that I could have had a little snack and had one less person in this world that wanted me dead. Do you not trust me to keep watch, or do you just think me unobservant?> "Take a good guess." <...you said...I was not at the Elementomachy. What is it that makes you hate me so?> She opens her eyes. "Was there something about me that said I felt like a conversation? Because all to the contrary." <If we are going to work together...in some minor capacity...> Auriel is still. She glances past you, then back at you. She looks down in her lap. <...what? I believe my statement has merit.> "...you said...Flint..." A blush starts to creep up her neck. "...he said certain, ah, things, about me...while...intoxicated. I was curious as to what they were." <Then ask him.> "...I couldn't bear to." <Why not?> Auriel rubs the bridge of her nose. "You have no tact. You don't even know what tact is." <I know what tact is. Tact is the refusal to communicate to other people things that bother you or that they find bothersome. What fool came up with such a useless idea is beyond me.>

"...well. My trade stands," Auriel says. <Why do you want to know?> "...that's not important." <Alright,> you say. <He asked me if I had ever seen the ruevids in bloom around Dobshire. Obviously, being so intoxicated, he'd forgotten I'd never been to Dobshire...> You pause. <To the point. He said you were more beautiful then all of them put together.> "...oh." <Now. Your turn.> "...what do you want to know, exactly?" <Why do you hate me?> "...I don't...hate you," she said. "...it was...a lifetime ago, Shadow. I was just a village girl...I knew nothing about the world. And the Black Hand - those that pledged themselves to Erebus - came and destroyed my entire town. I was allowed to live. After a 2 year imprisonment." <And so you hate the shadow.> "...there's more to it than that." <Then please, continue.> "...conversation with you is like exchanging words with a brick." She folds her arms. "It's -your- turn." <He also said that he loved to climb on the ruevids when he was a child, and that he was certain he'd enjoy climbing on you even more.> Auriel promptly turns the color of an eggplant. ...why do you find yourself comparing their faces to fruits and vegetables? <Your turn.> "...they...used me. I escaped...I was broken, then," she says. Her eyes fade away. Her voice is small. "...never again." She shakes herself. "...I found the Dawnflight. Hyperion's army. And I never looked back. Revenge." <And that one thought carries you through to this day?> "...no. But it's your turn."

You shift your form into a large stone block. "...what are you doing?" <You said conversation with me was - > "...like a brick." Auriel sighs. "And you have a terrible sense of humor. What's next, birds?" <Flint said that you were as strong and clear as a ray of light in the dark.> "...sweet," she murmurs. <And that you had physical endowments equally blessed by Hyperion. He specifically cited your 'tits' several times.> Auriel swallows hard, but says nothing. <Your turn.> "This has got to be the strangest conversation I have ever had. And I have lived a very long time." <Stop stalling.> "...do you know how many liches I've seen, how many demons I've slayed? I fought against Hecate's undead army, smashed down skeletons that pieced themselves back together over and over. I fought against the Black Lady, and she didn't hesitate to turn many of her own into vampires, to raise an entire army of demons nearly single handedly. I fought in every war between the empire and Archon and always, Archon turned to Shadow and Spirit, to darker magics that should not be touched. They tried to set a disease upon all the world's forests - and it worked. The Spirit Blight. If not for Sandalphon's work in turning it back, it would have gone from being a disaster that was eventually mitigated into something that destroyed the way of life for the majority of the world. "Do you know why the Black Hand raised my village?" she asked. "Because Erebus wouldn't acknowledge them. He rarely communicated with mortals. So they did outrageous, terrible, awful things to try to get his attention. Like a cult of rampaging, insane children." Auriel cocks her head at you. "How should I feel, Shadow?" she asks. "One good bit of darkness floats a long, and then, oh, up and everything's alright? All is forgiven?" <When will it be enough?> you ask. <What keeps you fighting?> "...your turn." <Flint said he liked your hair. He said it was as bright and fair as the full moon's shine.> "...he said that drunk?"

You nod. <He also wondered aloud if you'd ever masturbated using your magic.> Auriel reels back. She blinks, gaping. Her mouth opens and closes without sound. <There's no such thing as guilt by association,> you say. "...what keeps me fighting." She sits upright. "Sometimes...I walk about in Heavensgate. To see the people. They...crowd me. Adore me. I like to play with the children..." She turns her face away. "...to protect them, Shadow. That's what keeps me going." <And I must die, so they might live.> "That is correct." <Do you find that fair?> "Fair?" she asks. "I never claimed it was fair. It simply is. And if I had to trade your life for theirs...I'd do it. It's as simple as that. And since that's the way the world is, I'll be the one to do it. They deserve more than that...but it is all I can give." <I see.> You stare at her. <Put another way...you have merely decided you will become a monster yourself to spare them greater monsters.> Auriel says nothing. <Have you considered there might be alternative solutions?> "...alternatives?" Auriel says. "I've considered alternatives for -seven centuries-, Shadow. I wouldn't do this if I didn't believe it was right with every fiber of my being." <Then it is left to me to find the path you have missed.> "Good luck with that. But you won't succeed." <We shall see what happens first,> you say. <Whether I succeed, or your friends hunt me down. In the meantime...I will be myself, and see what the world makes of it.> "...fair enough." <You said I cannot expect you to forgive me, just like that,> you begin. <But I wonder. What is it that I have done that needs forgiveness?> "How about consuming an angel, for starters?" <He forced me into it. I'm not sure if you noticed in your time with him, but Raziel was completely insane.>

"Passionate in his duty. Bloodthirsty, it's true. But some of us got that way after decades of the stuff. You become what you do. If you knew something other than the end of his blade, you might think differently of him." <It sounds like you are scrambling for justifications.> "I made a statement. I wasn't scrambling for anything." <It matters not. In then end, I was merely defending myself from immediate and reactive prejudice.> You glance at her. <You said those trying to get Erebus's attention were at fault. It sounds that in this instance, mankind was evil, not the shadow. You would hold Erebus responsible for their actions?> "He could have - should have - stopped them. It would have been finished with but a command from him. His inaction let people die. He's no less guilty than they are." <If Erebus was truly at fault,> you say, <I would have helped stopped him or his self-proclaimed underlings myself, no matter what element they were. Element, I find, matters little in determining what is good, and what is evil. It is on this point we disagree.> "It's easy to say that, 700 years after the fact," Auriel says. "Actions speak louder than words." <That, we agree on.> You turn, and glide toward the other end of camp, keeping a close watch on the night.

THREAD 20
>HP 37/37 >Mana 2/10 The dawn slowly comes without your camp being disturbed. You do a few laps around the surrounding plains, but find little other than a nest of rabbits. You kill two and drag them back to the camp. Flint and Joey seemed pleased by your find. If Auriel is tired for having spent the night awake, she doesn't show it. After the three of them eat, they mount up and trot up along the river, staying away from the road farther inland. With a war on, that's an invitation to be set upon by bandits, or worse. You jog along the horses at an easy pace. Your 'legs' waver and stretch in the sunlight. Even you think you look a bit odd - a shadowy nothing on top of stretching stilts. But it gets the job done. You shorten your stride and go even with Auriel. <What has Flint told you about who we're looking for?> "...a young girl, with Spirit magic. And a local specialist to whom you both entrusted her, an alchemist of little note." <...and what is your opinion on Abigail?> "She needs to be taken to the empire so her magic can be sealed. Barring that, she'd be separated from her soul, but I think you made your opinion clear on that option." <What if I like neither option?> "Then we have a new problem. I'm not about to let a talented spirit mage raise an undead army out in the wilderness." <Abigail would do nothing of the sort. She's nine years old.> The angel gives you a hard look. "Donovan already told me she could commune with latent spirits and accidentally summoned an undead creature. That young...it's unusual." You stare back at the angel. <Let me make something clear,> you say. <I am tolerating your presence, not the other way around. If you try to harm her - by which I mean my OWN definition of harm, not yours - there will be dire consequences involving your immediate health.> Auriel stares you down for a good while, then eventually sets herself straight on her horse. "You don't get it, shadow. Do you think I enjoy persecuting a girl that isn't old enough to appreciate her position? Do you think I enjoy persecuting you, even? I can face facts. You've done good. You've helped

Donovan, and the people of Jacob's Field. You fought the Kanians, and killed the demon lord." She glances back. "That's not the point at all. Even if you yourself are good, your existence creates shadow magic, creates physical unbalances. The elementomachy was a combination of friction between peoples and too much magic. One way or another, that has to be dealt with, and the safest, surest, and least cruel way is to simply remove the source of instabilities. Let's say I can trust you. I can't trust the next lich, who'd use your power for his own ends. Yi Fang proves that in Archon every single day. The only reason he hasn't attacked the empire is because we face a greater threat in the Black Lady, yet still his schemes try to poison us from the inside. So my apologies if I seem a skeptic to your liberal attitudes - I've only the evidence of seven centuries riding behind my words." You fall silent for a time. This woman believes what she says with a conviction wrapped in the same iron she wears, and she's fought for those ideals for much longer than you've been around. It might be impossible to talk her out of them. But if you could...if SHE could change... An experiment, then. Like she said, actions speak louder than words. And if she still doesn't change... ...you're always hungry. <Have you heard of a person called Adavan?> Auriel glances at you sharply. "...where did you hear that name?" <That's irrelevant. Tell me why you ask, and what you know.> "I ask because that is the name of one of Hecate's greatest generals. He led a legion of undead. I fought against him many times, though I know not what became of him." She sighs, glances at Flint, then back to you. "As we're trapped together, for the time being...I'm curious as to where that question came from. I'd like to know." <What would you do if you found out what happened to him?> Auriel pauses, then shrugs. "...an old bit of the past, settled, I suppose. It's not like he's still kicking. I doubt he survived the fight when the four greater elementals finally pinned Hecate down." <A moment.> You leave her looking curious as you sidle alongside Flint. You speak so only he can hear. <...have you been listening?> "I got the gist," Flint said. "Can you try to drop the shadow against light discussion? That's the kind of thinking that caused the Elementomachy. We need to put aside differences and focus on how - " <That's all well and good,> you say, <but what happens when she sees Adavan, still alive, a lich?> "...I hadn't thought out that far," Flint mutters.

<I'm going to tell her.> "I don't think that's a - " <Good idea? Obviously not, if you lied to her about it. But what happens when we find them and Abigail is put in danger because Auriel reacts...badly?> Flint swallows. He licks his lips, then nods. "...let me do it." He clicks his heels, and trots his horse over toward Auriel. You follow. Joey watches the comings-and-goings curiously, but doesn't say anything. "Highest, there's..." "Donovan. For the last time. Auriel." "Ah...Auriel." She smiles. "Yes, Donovan?" "About the alchemist with Abigail...he's...Shadow brought him up with you. His name is Adavan. He'd been sealed under the forest near Jacob's Field for some time." "...you...let one of Hecate's generals...alone...with another budding spirit mage..." Auriel seems stunned. "Donovan. There is optimism...and then there is stupidity." She grips her reigns so tight the leather squeaks. "...what have you done?" Flint waves his hands rapidly. "It just turned out that way! I had three thousand Kanians to deal with!" <I was the one that made that decision,> you say. "...then you're even more naive than he is," the angel says to you. "Unbelievable. Absolutely unbelievable. I was informed of the trail he'd left us. He'll lead us, alright. Right into the wilderness, then abandon us to our own devices. You're both mad." She stares at you. "You entrusted an innocent little girl to -a lich-. With the time and preparation you've given him, she could be a complete slave by now." "...no," Flint says. "I don't think he'd do that. Despite his...history...Shadow stopped us from fighting. We came to an understanding." "And then you promptly turned your backs on him. Hyperion help us." <If he has done anything, there will be nothing left of him when I am finished.> "Little good that will do the girl!" Auriel shouts. "For spirits' sake, you're both incorrigible!" <And yet here you are, riding along side us with the whole rest of the world to get back to in the exact

opposite direction,> you say. <In any case, we need Adavan's expertise in dealing with Flint's parasite. Unless you know something about it, and you haven't told us. Because at this rate, it could very well kill him.> "...I haven't even sensed it," she says. <Then we don't have a choice. I can see it, but no one else. No one. And I believe following the trail back to its source is too dangerous without guidance.> "We're going to hell in a handbasket." Auriel clicks her heels, spurring her horse a bid faster. "I only hope I'm strong enough to save you from your stupidity, Donovan." Flint sighs, and you continue onward. <Actually, there was a demon that could see it,> you say. "...you exhaust me," Auriel says. "First a lich...and not just any lich. And now, demons? Are you insane?" <I ignored it,> you say. <It spontaneously decided to follow me, and fight alongside me. For what purpose, I don't know. I was toying with destroying it. In any case, it related that it could see Flint's parasite. I have no pretense to ally myself with demons, but under controlled conditions, perhaps a summoning might be worthwhile.> "...a last resort," Auriel says. <On a side note - > "Enough!" Auriel said. "Do you ever shut up? Talk, talk, more talk! I thought shadows were quiet!" <Does it bother you to confront and be shaken in matters you had long thought black and white?> "Shut up!" <Adavan told me a story much like yours,> you say. <Amazingly similar to yours, in fact. Family and friends butchered by the light, non-combatants slaughtered for their affinity with the Spirit or Shadow. Many years of pain and betrayal. Yours is not a unique case, Angel. Have you considered that those you fought felt the same about you as you do about them? I wonder, if they had won, would the world be as it is now, but flipped, with Light mages hunted or made slaves? It wouldn't make the Shadow right. They'd be just as wrong as you are now.> <I suppose 'ifs' and 'buts' are only good for discussion,> you say. <But it was the feelings he related that made me trust him. Even then, they were written plain on his face, as yours are written on yours. Strange, though - I find that an angel has most in common with a lich.> You fall silent. Auriel remains unresponsive. Her face is clenched tight.

"You've said enough, Shadow," Flint says. "When a lady asks something of you...you should respect it." <I see. Then silence, until the angel requests otherwise.> "Don't hold your breath," Auriel mutters. <I don't have to breathe.> An ugly look crawls over Auriel's face, but she lets it drop at that. You arrive a half-mile outside Jacob's Field. The fortress on the hill is still a hive of activity...you can see the giant earth golem still patrolling the town. You wonder if what you did had any effects. "Where do we pick up the trail?" Auriel asks. <The forest on the other side of the village.> "In that case, we're probably better off avoiding this rat's nest altogether and going around." Flint nods to her. <...I might be able to gather some useful information,> you say. <I could meet you on the other side.> "No," Auriel says. "I want you where I can see you." <It was only a suggestion,> you say. <Avoiding any potential of conflict is also wise.> Auriel nods, then clicks her heels. "Press your aura low, Donovan." "Naturally." Your group travels around the village, giving it a wide berth. You eventually reach the forest, then arrive at the clearing where you met with Adavan that last time. ...where you saw Abigail for the last time. It's been too long. You wonder what it is about her that draws you to her. She's just another human...and yet...pure. Much to grow, much to learn... Perhaps you see something of yourself in her. "Shadow?" Auriel asks. "Is there a trail here, or not?"

<...it should be here.> You slink to the center of the clearing and press the ground. The spirit sigil flares. The triangle in its center rotates...and points directly northeast. <Our heading, I'd assume.> "Then we'd best be off." It's been five days since you started traveling, and it's been rather uneventful. Flint is noting your progress on a map. You've skirted the towns and villages you've come across the river, not wanting to draw much attention. You're now only half a day out from Detson. <Flint, something I've been meaning to ask you.> Flint stops rooting in his bag for his tobacco and looks at you. "Yes?" <What are tits?> Flint quickly glances around the spot at the river at which you'd made camp to take a midday break and water the horses. Auriel is some distance away, splashing water on her face. He leans close. "...a woman's chest...ah...has, ah...two breasts." <I know that.> "Tits are...those. Slang. It's...rather lewd." <I find it odd that some words are lewd and some are not, despite the fact they have the same meaning. I suppose that's just humans.> Flint shrugs. "I guess. You're the only outside perspective I've got." He nods. "Thanks for keeping quiet, the past few days. I think..." Flint glances at Auriel again, then back to you. "I think losing her powers hit her hard. And I think she's giving more thought to what you say than you realize. I get that feeling when I speak with her. I'm glad for it." <...hmm. Actions speak louder than words.> "I guess." "What are you two mumbling about?" Auriel asks. She's walking toward you. <Tits and outside perspective.> Auriel flushes slightly, then shakes her head. "And you can stop right there." In short order, your companions mount up once again. The Tairns has noticeably shrunk by the time you reach Detson, with creeks and streams and other tributaries slowly subtracted on your way north. Vessels are quite absent from it...with the war on, you suppose that makes sense.

Detson looms ahead of you, nestled high in the upper foothills of the Steelback mountains. The mining city is like a nest of dark towers. You can see one of the duke's three remaining airships floating in the air above the towers, patrolling a lazy circle. You reach the next marker several miles from the city, on the road. It points you northeast... "Well," Flint says. "I'd like a comfy bed, but we don't know how much ground we've made up, and we were already several days behind. We should probably keep moving." "No argument," Auriel says. Joey doesn't say anything. He's been looking very droopy, lately. After the first night, Flint has been drilling him in swordplay with sticks every single day before they fall to sleep. >Mana 10/10 <Indeed. Let us continue.> Another two days pass... ...and you arrive at the edge of Tarun Gakth. The sheer plateau of the unnatural rock rises from the plain like the stratified bones of the earth. "Can you sense the next sigil?" Auriel asks. "They probably just went around the edge." <...yes. Here.> You press into the ground. Adavan's spell reacts to your presence... The triangle turns, rotates, and points directly into the canyons of Tarun Gakth. Silence. "...no," Auriel says. "This is it. This is the part where he throws us off on a wild goose chase. We go around." <If you're wrong?> "I won't be, if he truly is the man...or the thing, I should say...that I remember." Flint looks uncertain. "I don't know what to think. Tarun Gakth is not...a friendly place." Auriel sighs. "It's obvious, Donovan. Plain as day. He's either running into the Great Forest, or straight

to the Black Lady." <He doesn't know about the Black Lady,> you say. <He just woke up from a 7-century nap.> "Unless he can dreamwalk, in which case, he absolutely knows." <You forget that I could easily fly over it,> you say. <I could carry you.> "And the horses?" <...the horses, we might have to leave behind. I can carry the saddlebags.> Auriel folds her arms. "What happens when you inevitably get tired and we're forced to land inside that place? You've no idea what's in there, do you?" <No.> "Wild orc clans. Wyrms that burrow through the earth. Mad machines of the dwarves, running amok. Criminals and outcasts and exiles from every nation seeking refuge. And the place is littered with openings into the Timorian Deep, which is even worse. The ability to fly would just make you exposed. We'd be infinitely safer on foot - if you can call it safe. Besides, I'm not about to trust you with me 1000 feet in the air, even if I could slow the fall." "...she's right, Shadow," Flint says. "Flying over it is a bad idea. Maybe if it was you alone, but not with all of us." <I can fly fast,> you say. <Danger would not have a chance to catch us.> "Genius," Auriel says. "And then we miss all the sigils, just as everyone else misses us." <Then we have no choice but to go on foot.> "I just finished explaining that - " <I heard your opinion,> you say. <I am going into the canyons. If I have company, I suggest we camp for the night and then go on in the morning; otherwise, I leave immediately. Sir Flint?> "...alright." "Donovan, please, you can't be serious." "I'm deadly serious," Flint says. He turns to Auriel. "And you should be too." "I'm more serious than this naive piece of black fluff we're trailing around." "That's enough!" Flint shouts.

Auriel looks taken aback. "...what's wrong?" "What's wrong?" Flint says. "What's wrong is that you're trapped in thinking that caused a war so great it made THAT!" Flint jabs a gauntleted finger at the cliffs of Tarun Gakth. "Donovan, I'm beginning to suspect that you actually trust this thing with your life. You should know better." Auriel folds her arms and cocks her head. "This is why I can't let you alone. It's rather endearing, really. But I - " "Do not speak to me as if I'm a child." "You weren't alive when I - " "Enough about the light-forsaken elementomachy!" Flint shouts. "-You- weren't there when the Shadow used its own body to protect the villagers! It almost died, Auriel! I had to pull it into the boat and pull out the arrows! And what does it get in return? Disdain. Fear. Suspicion. It gets hunted! What other recourse does it have to survive if you make it into a monster and treat it like one?!" Auriel is unable to respond. She seems horrified. You feel a deep sense of satisfaction. "I'll tell you what's wrong with what you preach," Flint says. "It isn't that there was too much magic it's that people were people. We had too much power, and we abused it and hurt each other. In the elementomachy, it was on a huge scale because of the magic. But those conflicts have never ended. They've kept going, and you've helped keep them going because of your close-mindedness. What needs to change isn't the magic in the world - it's US. People need to change. Society itself need to change. If we're too irresponsible to handle the kind of power we toss around every day, maybe we should take a second look at ourselves and learn some goddamn discipline!" By the time Flint has had his say, his light is flaring brightly enough to make you shrink back. The parasite rattles and twists, and slowly shunts it back. "...so...that is how you feel," Auriel states. Flint tries to say something else, but the creature latched to his soul steals the words. "No more words for me, Flint?" Her voice cracks. "Please. Tell me more about how I've been wrong and killed people for the hell of it." "T-that's not...I don't..." Flint can't find his voice. <The parasite is stunting his speech,> you say. <Flint. Calm down. Say what you need to say.> He can't force the words out. "Yes," Auriel says. "I'm sure. Because he had such a hard time with his --speech- just earlier."

She guides her horse a distance away and stares at the canyons. Flint bites his lip. He works his reigns in his hands. But he does not move. Slowly, you make camp for the night. Joey and Flint sit silently by the camp. Normally, Joey would already be waving his sword around, but he senses the mood. He's been quiet, of late. You wonder what he thinks about all this debate. Auriel is a bit back from the fire. She and Flint have been avoiding each other's gazes for the past half hour. You can sense the awkwardness, the strange hurt that doesn't want to go away. It bothers you. You will not let it go unresolved. You move toward Auriel. <A word, angel.> "...I'm not an angel anymore." She puts her head between her knees and draws them in close. "I've had enough words for one night. Just leave me be." <It's not about you, or me. It's about Flint.> She slowly lifts her head. "...what about him?" <The parasite chooses when to rob his words. It works with pointed, malicious intent. Before the Kanians attacked, the mayor wanted to burn Abigail at the stake.> "He what?" <...you are surprised. Does that not meet with your approval?> "Death by burning alive is cruel and unnecessary. Especially for one so young. They should have contacted the imperial embassy in Evinbrook." <Undead killed the mayor's brother.> "...I see. That explains it." <Yes. When people close to another die, they seem to act more on emotion, rather than logic.> Auriel's gaze darkens. "You said you had something to tell me about Donovan." <I did. Sir Flint spoke out against the mayor's action in front of the townspeople. The parasite actively prevented him from from convincing the villagers with words. That was not the first time such a thing has happened, and it has not been the last. I can see the creature move - wrapping, constricting around his soul. It chooses the worst moments for him to stumble, either over his feet, or his words. It does his best to destroy him. It drinks of him, when he'd otherwise shine brightest.

<I do not know why, and I do not know how, but that parasite must be removed. That is why I am going into the gorge. It is not to prove a point about a lich - it is because I believe this is the best chance we have of helping Sir Flint. If we can find common ground on something, surely, it's there.> "...I'm not sure how he feels about me, after...that." You sigh heavily. <Even -I- can see he is infatuated with you.> She blinks, her face blank. <Are you surprised?> "...I...yes." <I will...help you, in that. Because he is my friend, and I believe he has affection for you. If - IF - you will set aside our differences and focus on what needs to be done. I cannot fear a dagger at my back in battle, if it comes to that.> >Rolled 1d100: 19, 44, 91 <Understood. Then, to business. Now, the night you both imbibed ignorance potions, you asked Sir Flint what it would take to get in bed with a demonslayer. He said you would meerly need to dress poorly and ask nicely. I suggest you take off your armor to facilitate copulation, if that is your immediate goal.> Auriel doesn't blush, this time. "Your as blunt as a club...but I think I'm getting used to it. Did...uh...I phrase it that way?" <You did. You were quite blunt, yourself. I was with the understanding that -smooth talk- was preferable in such situations. Do you not have much experience in the matter?> "...it's been a while." <Why does Sir Flint attract you?> "...when we were on the airship...we spoke. It wasn't for that long...but...something about the way he stands." <...the way he stands,> you state flatly. "When you've met as many people as I have, Shadow, you come to know them at a glance," she says. "His posture...said he carried a burden as large as the sky. And still, he stood, and took it all, refusing to bend. And...well, he did rather sweep me off my feet...what woman wouldn't..." She sighs. "...I don't think I'm explaining this well." <I believe I have the essence of your argument.> "...and...he is, of course, physically attractive. That makes more immediate sense to you, I'm sure." <That makes less sense. I'm unsure why humans judge things by appearances. The appearance of

something often has nothing to do with the thing in question.> "...well...so it is." Auriel opens her hands. "If he...does...have feelings for me, why doesn't he say so?" <Why don't you say as much to him?> "...I don't know." <Let me tell you what I have observed,> you say. <I have observed that humans hesitate to say exactly what they mean. He cannot be blunt about his feelings for you - for the same reason that, when sober, he doesn't talk about your tits. And probably for the same reason he keeps calling you -Highest-, rather than Auriel. <I think Flint has lived with this parasite - survived - since he was quite young,> you continue. <He has spent most of his life mired in failure. He is strong, but his confidence is fragile. He does not really believe he has a chance for your affections. He thinks you are too high, -Highest-, to far above to reach - and even if he did, that thing on his soul would crush his hope. And so he doesn't even bother. Perhaps he's taken all he can take. Perhaps he can't bear another failure.> "...dear spirits." <He mentioned some events in the past that continue to trouble him,> you say. <I cannot mention specifics. It is not for me to say. But despite working as hard, if not twice as hard as the rest of his brothers, he feels that he's always compared negatively to them. A runt of a litter, if you will. I believe there was once a woman he cared for, deeply, and the parasite ruined the relationship, or otherwise stole him from her.> Auriel is very still for some time. "...you...understand him...far deeper than I do." <That is not for me to say.> "...I thank you, Shadow." <You are welcome.> Auriel nods to herself, then stands. She strides toward the campfire. Auriel plants her feet directly in front of Flint, who had been sitting on the ground, rubbing his sword with a whetstone. He starts when he sees her armored legs, then sits up. "...ah...Highest?" "Highest? Again?" "Uh, well, yes, but I - " "Stand up." "I - "

"I said, stand." Flint stands. Auriel grabs him and pulls him into a long, ravenous kiss. Joey's eyes bug out of his head. Eventually, Auriel leans back from it, and faces a stiff, totally bewildered Flint. "I thought I told you to call me Auriel. Don't forget again...or I might have to make a punishment of it." "Yes, High - " Auriel's face warps into a mask of death. "Er, Auriel. Auriel." "Better." She inches back from him a bit. "...what I said earlier was unfair. I apologize. I was...frustrated." "...you don't have to apologize...Auriel." She looks at him, and smiles. "No. I do. The...shadow...and myself...have come to an understanding. I'll not trouble you further until we get whatever curse plagues you removed and gone for good. And in exchange, you - you should be more open with yourself." "...y-you too." Auriel smirks. "Hmm. I already am." She walks back across the campfire and plops back down without another word. You sit next to her. <...that was...unexpected.> "I thought to take a leaf from your book." For the first time, she extracts a bedroll from under her saddlebag and spreads it out on the ground. She lays down, shutting her eyes. "...exhausted..." She cracks an eyelid and stares at you. "You kill me, I haunt you for life." <I wouldn't want that. I plan on living a very long time.> The edge of a smirk turns her lip, and then she rolls onto her side, facing away from you. You hop over to Flint. He slowly turns his head to you. "...what just happened?" <I believe you have moved one step closer to achieving copulation, and playing with her Hyperion-

blessed tits, and sheathing yourself in both of her two holes. Which holes are those, by the way?> "...later." <As you would.> You stay alert through the night, patrolling the edge of camp, as had become your habit. The sun rises. Auriel stretches like a cat, then sits up. She rubs her eyes with the back of her hands. "...sleeping in armor, again." Flint is already awake. He glances over. "You know, you get used to it, on the road." Auriel joins him and Joey at breakfast. "You must have traveled alone for a time, but that's not what I meant." "What did you mean?" "...when the wars dragged on, I slept in my armor so much...going back to a bed was strange. I had to wear it just to sleep, the first few weeks. Sometimes I just slept on the floor of my rooms." Flint nods slowly. "...I suppose so." He raises his head. "Then...are we into the canyons?" "Forward to Tarun Gakth," Auriel says. "Against all better judgement." <It will turn out well. You'll see.> "I'll believe that, Shadow, after I actually see it." You wrap up breakfast quickly, and soon, you're on the move. The canyons approach quickly. Close up, they seem much higher, walls of pained stone in reds and whites and bold orange. Earth fought wind, here, and wind won...though it seems strange to think so. You're relatively high up...and you can see the lands beyond the entrance you've chosen. The winding canyons stretch on like a forest of stone, over the horizon. It's like a maze and a desert fused as one, though the shade at the bottom of the canyons is cool, almost chill.

An hour passes, and you come to a fork. <Wait.> You stretch over the center of the fork. A orange sigil glows into existence. The triangle spins, then points directly to the northern passage. <Our heading. As predicted.> "...or a one-off trap to get us nice and lost," Auriel mutters. You ignore her and lead the way down the towering corridor. Branches of stone connect the rock above, like little bridges. The width of the canyon warps and ships up the sides, all the way to the sliver of sky high, high above. It feels unnatural...rock pulverized, cracked by a furious wind, and then worn smooth as glass. You reach another intersection...much larger, this time, a big break in the stone. Spears of rock like oversized stalagmites dot the small plain. The sky above had grown grey with clouds. Many different passages split off from this section. <There's sure to be another sigil, probably in the center.> "Mmm," Auriel agrees. "Nice and exposed down there. Perfect spot for some kind of magical trap." <Your pessimism is not helping our efforts.> "No, but annoying you is my last recourse for entertainment in the middle of blasted, light-forsaken lands such as these." You decide to ignore her, and lead the way toward the center of the field of rock. ...booom.... "...what was that?" Joey asks. ...booom... "...run," Flint says. "Run! Gallop!" ...BOOOM....

The horses break into a gallop. Joey's horse rears, then takes off even faster than the other two. You sprint behind them, not quite at full speed, but putting effort into your run. ...BOOOM! A huge golem emerges from behind a thick spear of rock. Its arms hiss and grind as it turns to look at you.

EERRRRRRAAAAAHHHHHH A huge foot crushes the ground next to you. Cracks spiderweb through the rocks. The blast throws you slightly, but your wings guide you back to your friends. The robot turns to chase you, each stomp of its feet like a miniature earthquake. >Rolled 1d100: 31, 55, 27 You bounce up onto a pointed stalagmite and fly back toward the golem! It swings hard! You try to dodge, but you've got too much momentum - and as it closes in, you realize that fist alone is the size of a shed! It scrapes along the ground, blowing away rock and dust. You flap furiously, trying to gain altitude, but the debris from its sweep knocks you about, and its fist smashes into you! You're sent flying! >HP 33/37 You're able to right yourself, and you land hard, then leap into the sky once more. The golem has turned back toward the horses, which are halfway across the valley. Stomping feet shake the ground. Joey's horse slows, bucks, and he rolls off! You're there. A giant foot comes down from the sky, but you're gone, dashing with the speed of shadow before it contacts. Joey rides on your shoulders, gripping your shadowy aura as hard as he can.

He glances up behind you just in time to see the horse get swatted into the canyon wall. It smashes to blood and gore on the stone. He turns white as snow, then pins himself against your body. "RUN SHADOW, RUUUUN!!!!" The golem unleashes its screech of steel and steam. EERRRRRAAAAAHHHHH The ground shakes. ...but it's different...the shaking isn't from a footstep...it doesn't stop, and gets louder, louder! RUMBLE - CRASH ROOOOOUUUAAAAAGGGGHH A huge worm emerges from the stone, a titan of flesh and scales. Its face is a giant mouth, circular, lined with hundreds and hundreds of rotating teeth. You're caught between two giants.

THREAD 21
>HP 33/37 >Mana 10/10 Joey screams. You quickly gather your shadow and cast a projection of yourself, sprinting forward! >Rolled 1d100: 14, 74, 14 >Rolled 1d100: 88, 39, 93 You take a sharp right as your projection speeds forward toward the worm, shrieking and growling like a version of yourself gone mad. >Mana 9/10 The golem sweeps down with a hand...aimed straight at you! But you dodge, flickering to the right before it hits. A gust of air blasts dust in your face as the hammer of stone rockets by. Joey seems too scared to scream anymore, but you've gotten by the golem! The worm rumbles across the ground toward your projection, engulfing it within its mouth. You can feel the magic burst on contact with it. The worm continues forward straight toward the golem. The golem lifts a foot as the beast nears...you think it's going to try to kick it! >Rolled 1d100: 23, 88, 60 You turn and sprint for the far wall of the canyon. The golem's foot reaches the worm, and there's a tremendous smack of stone on flesh. The golem's foot actually lifts the worm up into the air, crushing into its side... ...and the worm reacts, twisting, constricting around the leg of the golem! They fall together, tumbling across the ground. <Hold tight!> You extend a few arms and strap Joey to your back. You sprint faster, then faster because the rolling mass of worm and golem is headed straight for you. You're running as fast as you can.

You flit by the edge of the canyon like a shadow, and an instant later, the golem and the worm crush into the stone wall. The jagged canyon rock cracks and falls in a landslide of dust and rock. It billows out behind you, rushing over you as you continue to sprint. But the cloud slows, and eventually, you're free. The roar of the worm fades slightly, and a long rumble shakes the ground. You reach the end of the canyon. <Flint! Angel!> "Shadow! Here!" You find Flint and Auriel astride their mounts, hesitating at the mouth of another canyon. They both look relieved when you stop before them and drop Joey off. He rolls on the ground, then props himself up on his hands and knees. "...holy...shit..." "Never a dull moment," Auriel says. You all glance back into the canyon. The shower of dust is slowly drifting across the stone. The worm's rumble continues to fade... <Hold here,> you say. <I'm going to find his last sigil.> "Alone?" Flint asks. <I'm faster, quieter,> you say. <And I can take a hit from that golem and live.> Auriel nods. "The shadow, in this instance, is right. We should stay out of this one." "Use caution," Flint says. "Find the sigil, and get back." <Indeed.> You creep down into the gorge. After the tumultuous battle, its quiet. You keep your aura pressed low and stay as quiet as you can. Eventually, you enter the cloud of dust hanging over the stone. It's like a fog of yellow silt. You press yourself to the floor of the valley and search for the sigil... >Rolled 1d100: 50, 9, 58 You spend a few minutesspent combing the canyon... ...buuuzzzz... The sigil flares. The triangle rises, turns, and points toward the end of the canyon you just came from, but you think it's indicating the canyon one over from where Flint and Auriel are waiting.

You begin to creep away... ...but a break in the dust clouds catches your eye. The wrecked canyon wall comes into view. Dust roils over the body of the golem. Pistons jerk irregularly in its joints. The lights on parts of its face and eyes flash and blink. Half-buried by rock, it doesn't move. Nearby, you can see a second titanic hole carved into the rock - probably where the worm drilled back into the earth. You send Flint an image of the wrecked golem, and a feeling of curiosity, and, of course, great caution. You work your way toward the fallen mechanical monstrosity. >Rolled 1d100: 42, 86, 5 A grey-brown glow flares from the robot's head. You freeze. A broken arm lifts off the ground. Rock pieces itself together, melts, fuses, and solidifies. Its left arm looks as good as new. The robot doesn't move, and the remainder of its body is still pretty busted up. But then, it lasted this long out here...it's probably fixing itself as you stand there. >Rolled 1d100: 51, 41, 48 >Secondary Critical Failure You rush toward the creature. If you can find what's powering it, you can take it out of commission for good. The creature's chest shudders. Steam pours from cracks as a sort of door extends, then folds away, revealing the internal metallic workings of the huge creature. You're suddenly flooded with a sense of the magic on its insides... Machines clank out from its belly. There's five eight - no, twelve in total, soldiers made of iron. They tower at least several feet above the largest humans you've seen, and they move much faster and with more precision than their larger friend. Glowing brown eyes are all focused directly on you. You hold your position.

Perhaps these things can communicate? They don't seem to be controlled by any nearby mages. You send the machines a feeling of calm, and an Impression of great curiosity. The machines are silent. But their eyes flicker. Suddenly, the machine in front moves. It points a finger over your shoulder. A garbled series of pops and clicks and static rises from it. But even with your natural ability to Translate...you can't understand a word of what it's saying. You Impress a feeling of confusion. You send images of them talking, and you not understanding. You waver in uncertainty. You then impress them with an image of peace. But as you're trying to from the last image, the lead iron golem jabs its arm a second time. You hear what you think is the same pattern of sounds, louder, more forceful. It's capped by a short, extra bit. The giant golem's other arm is piecing itself together...the legs are still crushed, and its torso hasn't moved. >Rolled 1d100: 59, 99, 54 >Rolled 1d100: 76, 54, 16 That magic inside the golem is powerful. You've tried to communicate with these things, but it's been a useless endeavor. Besides, the golem attacked you outright. These smaller soldiers must just be stalling for time. You sprint forward. Three robots converge with unnatural speed, hammering in with their fists and connecting with solid strikes. A fourth robot digs its hands into the ground. A brown aura twists around its chest, and the combination attack is completed as a stalagmite spears from the earth and right into the heart... ...of your projection. >Mana 8/10 The image shatters, but you're already by, sprinting toward the door to the golem's core! But another row of the robots sprints to meet you. What do you do? >Rolled 1d100: 70, 75, 53 These iron creatures aren't normal...not soft, like men. You can't hold back.

You feel as though you flick a switch somewhere inside you...and instinct takes over. The robots move in unison, surrounding you. Some of them glow with power. Others prepare steely fists. Your arms lash out to reach them. You punch one with three of your arms twisted together. It flies backwards, bowling over a companion, its chest dented in so far as to cut it in half. Another robot leaps at you from behind. Your tendrils spike out without you thinking. You impale the golem, then throw it off your body, sending it careening into a robot that was preparing one of the earth-manipulating spells. You slam into the line of robots blocking entrance to the core. They fly back. Two of them grapple your body, clawing, beating at you, but you simply drag them forward. You sweep through the entrance to the core, knocking them off of you by slamming them against nearby protrusions of rock and steel. You've damage some of the robots, and killed four. The other six are right behind you. Your senses tell you that the source of magic is above you. >Rolled 1d100: 44, 73, 31 You can feel a pulse of magic above you, sending out shoots and sparks into the body of the golem...you clamber up into the tangled metallic innards of the machine, using pistons and thick supporting beams to lever yourself up. You ink through spaces that have been crushed tight. The robots are right on your tail! Their steel bodies are more articulated than you realized...they're easily following you through the nest of the machine. One of them grabs you! It pulls you down, clawing at you! You manage to slip away, but the rest of them are parallel with you. You're in danger of being surrounded. >HP 28/37 You struggle upward...you suspect the power source is in the golem's head. >Rolled 1d100: 5, 61, 76 You blast up through the tangled weave of steel, gaining back your lost ground. As it gets tighter toward the neck of the robot, you suddenly have the advantage, inking and slipping directly upward. They're forced to take another route, a slightly wider passage on either side of the neck.

You burst up into the head. It's relatively spacious. Strange outputs glow on the walls...dots, text, flickering with magical power. A display of the golem itself is front and center. Both arms are shown in green light. The torso and head are red. The legs are yellow, and steadily turning green. Perhaps this indicates its state of repair? But you don't have time to ponder it. In the center of the room is what appears to be a small dynamo. The pedestal is rests on is connected by a hundred cables and bolts and beams, out to the rest of the structure like the center of a brain. It reminds you of the orb you saw on the smaller golem, far back in the Old Forest Keep. You didn't come this far to admire the inner workings of the golem. >Rolled 1d100: 77, 90, 70 You have to yank hard...but the metal bends for your strength. You grunt and strain, beating and striking the connecting shell away from the mini-dynamo. You lift it off the pedestal. The inside of the golem goes black. Of course, that poses no problem for you. The dynamo still glows slightly. The robots arrive in the head-room. They line up on either end of the entrance, seemingly unhampered by the dark. They stare at you, holding the orb. On impulse, you raise the orb, as if to smash it. They all flinch. ...oh ho... Now that you have their attention...you decide another attempt at communication is in order. You impress upon them a sense of peace, and of you talking. <Can you understand me?> you say. And then you impress two feelings, one after the other...confusion, and acknowledgement. One of the robots lifts an arm to the others. It steps forward, then speaks in its garbled language. It shakes its head, then points at its head. You don't find that particularly enlightening. Any meaningful communication seems quite unlikely. You slowly withdraw your pen and journal from your satchel. You extend the two implements to the robot. It doesn't move. You waggle your arm slightly, emphasizing your intent. The robot hesitantly takes the book and pen.

The pen leaps to action. The book flips open in midair. The robots tense slightly, but don't move. The pen starts scribbling across the pages at a furious pace, scratching, scraping, scrawling. it flies over to you, then jabs at your belt. You remember the portable inkwell. You open the pocket. Immediately, the pen dips itself, then flies back to the journal and continues to write. You Impress the robot with curiosity, and a sense of peace once more. You impress it with an image of words flying out of its brain and landing on the book. The eyes of the robots blink in quick succession. The pen freezes for a moment. The lights stop blinking, and the pen begins to write again, somewhat more slowly. Then it stops. You reach out for the book and examine the freshly minted pages. The first few pages are totally unintelligible, and repetitive. You flip past the nonsense to the part where the pen wrote more slowly. You have a feeling, that if anything nonsensical has been written, it will be there. It's in another language...but as you stare, the words shift, and become meaningful. MECHANIST MISSIVE CURRENT STANDING ORDERS -noneCURRENT STANDING DERIVATIVES -reparation attempt active (enemies: 1)--sub derivative: protect power core ---sub derivative: discern enemy intent ----sub derivative: destroy enemy -ENEMY 1 --Element: Shadow --Nature(s): Elemental, Vaporal, Shapeshifter, Converter --Assessment: Aggressive. Extreme danger. ---subassessment: Shadow element(?) -> earth ----subassessment: communicative. Reasonable(?) -communicae received: telepathy. data reconstruction successful. -communicae attempted: lang-1. Comprehension(?) ...there's a certain logic to the writing...but it's intensely...alien. You stare at the bottom few lines. Communicae...successful. Perhaps that means they understood your impressions somewhat?

You decide to try asking a question outright. <How long have you been here?> The pen begins to write. Some of it is the numbers and strange characters you couldn't make sense of, but a few things become clear... >time here --defined: here, Venia ---construction - 894.2 --define: here, Va'ad ---unknown --define: here, power core ---0.0000000000... ...you feel as though it is trying its best. By 894...894 years? That's a long time. You decide to impress it with a series of images. Humanoids construct them. You show their builders dying. And then, the sun and moon rising and falling, faster, until the images flicker and dance, and the landscape turns into desert-like canyons. Finally, you show them an image of them following you. The eyes of the robots all blink brown, on and off. And then the pen starts to write. CURRENT STANDING ORDERS -noneCURRENT STANDING ORDERS -noneCURRENT STANDING ORDERS -noneThe pen stops, then starts again. CURRENT STANDING DERIVATIVES -reparation attempt active (neutrals: 1) --sub derivative: regain power core ---sub derivative: discern neutral intent -Neutral 1 --Element: Shadow --Nature(s): Elemental, Vaporal, Shapeshifter, Converter --Assessment: Possible hostile. Extreme danger. ---subassessment: Shadow element(?) -> earth ----subassessment: communicative. Reasonable. -communicae received: telepathy. data reconstruction successful. -communicae attempted: lang-1. Comprehension(N). communicae attempted: missive log. Comprehension (?) <Why is the power core important?>

The pen moves. STATUS -steelstone shell golem: offline -power controls: disabled -unit charging stations: offline --last repair status: critical

Unit 1: charge 987/1000 Unit 2: charge 945/1000 Unit 3: charge 876/1000 Unit 4: charge 709/1000 Unit 5: charge 893/1000 Unit 6: charge 201/1000 Unit 7: charge 403/1000 -criticalUnit 8: charge 366/1000 -criticalUnit 9: charge -offlineUnit 10: charge -offlineUnit 11: charge -offlineUnit 12: charge -offline<Who gives you your orders?> CURRENT STANDING ORDERS -none<...what were your last standing orders before right now?> LOG 8023489021934 CURRENT STANDING ORDERS: -escape destruction --logged: mechanist 345-B (Tal'ok) <Who or what is Tal'ok?> ...accessing database... TAL'OK -rank: master mechanist --ID: 345-B ---deceased <Does anyone give you orders now?> CURRENT STANDING ORDERS: -none-

CURRENT STANDING DERIVATIVES -subject to self-input--subsubject Steward directive-You're getting a bit frustrated. You impress it with an image of individuals building the orb, and then placing it in the golem, which moves about. You send it an image of you and them producing a second orb. You return their orb, and leave with the second one. The pen moves, pauses, then moves again. ...accessing database... Access failure. Data corruption. Maybe if you can come up with a replacement, you can move on from this strange situation. You try to focus your shadows once more, trying a different approach. You make a small core of shadow, then another shell outside that, then another outside that. You try to spin them together. The small orb tears itself apart before it even gets going. Dammit. You glance at the robots. You bring forward an Impression of what you just did, then you hold up the power core. You compare the two images side by side. ...accessing database... ...access failure. Data corruption. You feel rather put out. All this stuff about orders...maybe they need orders? <Can I give you orders?> UNIDENTIFIED NEUTRAL (1_ -rank: unknown --ID: unknown ---access level: -none<What's the difference between a derivative and an order?> --defined: order ---routine or command input ----higher rank = greater weight

--defined: derivative ---self-input or Steward directive ===== This conversation isn't getting anywhere. The robots seem to be somewhat self-directed, but you can't control them. They still surround you on all sides...you're certain they want their 'power core' back in its place. You draw yourself back up. <I need to get through these canyons in peace,> you say. <If I return the core, will you help me and my companions?> MISSIVE NOTES (mechanist's eyes only) -exception 23.B --exif: vital communication -request (1) - return power core -request (2) - vacate premises -request (3) - leave -note (1) - conflict avoidance protocol (abif_34-5 active) Then pen falls silent, and does not move again. It seems they've grasped the idea behind its enchantment. A normal being probably wouldn't be able to 'stop' their thoughts like that. It seems they don't want anything to do with you, and they aren't particularly pliable on the matter. But apparently they're willing to let you go without any more trouble. You've attempted negotiation...and that failed. But then, perhaps robots just aren't the negotiating type. You grip the power core tightly as you prepare to flee... >Rolled 1d100: 63, 4, 68 You lunge at the line of robots! Your speed catches them by surprise after the long conversation. You smash their line aside, but not without taking a few hits. >HP 26/37 And drop down through the giant golem's mechanical cavity.

You slam into the floor, hard. A half-dozen drumbeats of iron hitting the floor snap into the ground around you! You can't lead these things back to your friends. You sprint forward, heading for the still-open door to the golem. The sunlight makes you wince after such a long time in the dark. Far below, in the center of the canyon, Flint, Auriel, and Joey have moved out in search of you. They're still quite a bit away, though. You turn back and plant yourself as the golems quickly approach. You gather your mana. Your aura condenses... >Rolled 1d100: 53, 87, 62 Spears of darkness storm forward! They plunge into the golems, stabbing through steel and ripping off arms and legs. One loses its head, and falls, dead. Another is shredded to pieces. The remainder of your attack flies into the golem's open cavity, dissipating in the steel and stone of the giant. >Mana 4/10 Only two golems remain after the attack, but they're right on top of you! >Rolled 1d100: 67, 58, 51 You flicker aside, but you're just a bit too slow. A steel fist slams into you as you roll away. >HP 24/37 Your allies are riding fast toward the battle. The two golems face you cautiously, one to either side. You glance back and forward between them. What do you do?

THREAD 22
>HP 24/37 >Mana 4/10 >Rolled 1d100: 2, 51, 9 You've already faced twelve robots and lived...the two remaining won't last long. And they've conveniently divided their own forces. You lunge toward the robot on your right to take it down before they try something - but you're surprised when it leaps back, avoiding your strikes! It dives to get out of the way of your follow up, but you pursue faster than it can run. You raise a nest of tentacles for what is sure to be a decisive blow A wall of rock blasts out of the ground in front of you, cutting you off from your target! You slam into it, crushing through - but not without taking it head first. You're stunned by the blow! >HP 20/37 The robot you chased returns to its companion, who withdraws its hands from the earth, having finished its spell. They don't try to press you while you're stunned. You face your enemy again, more wary. Flint and Auriel are almost there. >Rolled 1d100: 57, 69, 86 You Blink behind the robots! You don't feel the movement. It's as if the two spaces were, for a moment, one space, and you simply step from one to the other. You rise up in the robot's shadow, baring the Power Core between sharp, shadowy teeth! You Impress a wave of thought at them. <STOP!> The robots ignore you completely, leaping for the power core! But you knew it might not work. Even as they attack, you Ink out of the way, and your tentacles are swift to wrap them both in a vice-grip! You coil yourself around them, constricting their limbs to their chests. The robots shift and articulate their many joints, trying to escape, but you keep up with their

movements easily. You smash them against the ground once, twice, three times like ragdolls. They stop moving, and you dump their bodies to the stone. The shells of the other robots have long since lost their energy...but these two still glow with magical residue. You roil over the two robots, acidifing their metal. They have tiny power cores of their own...rapidly degrading, but still available for consumption. >HP 26/37 "Shadow!" Flint and Auriel finally ride up in a cloud of dust. "We felt the magic from up the canyon," he says. "What the hell happened?" <The duke is researching dynamos,> you say. <I thought dwarven technology might be valuable to him.> You raise the glowing power core. <I retrieved this from the golem. It was also trying to repair itself...I figured that the source of its power was better off in our hands.> Auriel's eyes widen. Flint nods, glancing around at the broken and shredded golems. "I guess it had a few guards. Everything ok?" <Yes.> "Well...be careful when you do things by yourself," Flint cautions. "But good work. Did you find the sigil before all that happened?" <I did. I can guide us to the appropriate entrance.> You lead your allies to the correct canyon and start down the winding passage... You begin down the canyon. Joey rides behind Flint, as his horse met an untimely end. It deepens, and narrows rapidly. Soon, it's so narrow you can reach out and easily touch both walls. The canyon continues down, down. It gets very cool, and eventually the floor actually pools with a few inches of water. But it doesn't get any deeper than that, and the horses slosh through without a problem. You continue forward... You continue through the cave. You push the well of untapped power back into your form...it's a familiar feeling, now. You don't remember whatever you were before you lost your memory...but your body does.

A new feeling of magic wells inside you. The water within the living things around you becomes clear...you feel as though, with a bit of a push, they could be Healed. Along with that is a greater sense of life. You sense the bugs buzzing around the water's surface, landing, creating the tiniest of ripples. A lizard crawls into the crack between two rocks. Spiders make their webs in the nooks and crannies of the canyon. Bits of mold and moss and water-born weeds pop out at you. The barren rocks are teeming with more life than you suspected. Eventually, the party emerges from the watery sections of the canyon, though, so far deep, it remains cool. Eventually, you reach a wide clearing with three more passages leading out. The sigil jumps up when you touch it, indicating the canyon to the far right. But this deep...it's getting dark. And fast. "...we should make camp," Auriel says. "This place is dangerous enough in the day. I don't want the horses to break a leg." Flint nods. "Let's hold the fire, tonight. We shouldn't draw attention to yourselves." You make camp. Your companions have a filling if unappetizing dinner of hard biscuits and jerky. You scout down a short distance through each canyon, but they are devoid of any dangers or interesting features. Auriel stretches back on her bedroll. "...been a while since I did this sort of thing. Feels...good." Flint raises an eyebrow. "It feels good to trek though this place and hurt your teeth chewing biscuits? Might as well be rocks." "I don't see you complaining, either." "I'm used to it." "Well..." She sighs. "...too much pomp and circumstance. Too many red carpets, palaces, fluffy beds. If you live soft, you get soft. Live hard, stay sharp. Aware." "I think I know what you mean." Joey looks up at Flint. "Um...Sir Flint..." "Sparring?" Joey nods excitedly. "I don't know where you get the energy...or the enthusiasm, after today." "...Shadow saved me," Joey said. "But it won't always be there. I've got to get stronger on my own." "...you've changed." "What do you mean?"

Flint shrugs, then stands. "You know eventually." He draws their wooden practice swords from a saddlebag and tosses one to his squire. "Ready yourself." You walk over to Auriel while Flint and Joey practice. There's a couple smacks of wood on wood, and then Joey hisses and clutches his shin. "Ow,ow,ow!" "I've taught you the parry you should have used." Flint grabs Joey's wrist, then moves the sword into the appropriate position. "Deflect, yes. But deflect AWAY from the body. Again. And this time, I'll hit harder if you mess up." Joey swallows, and nods. They start up again. Auriel's eyes are on Flint. You sidle up to her. <You have not done anything since you kissed him.> "...not much time," she says. "Not much privacy. He's fairly wrapped around my finger, I think, the way he's been looking at me all day. I've caught him staring at least ten times." <Wrapped around your finger?> "An expression. It means he's under...my...uh..." She clears her throat. "Well, he's attracted to me, and that gives me a certain influence over him." <I see.> You face her directly. <Do you know anything about the power core?> "That depends," she says. "Is what I tell you going to go straight back to the duke?" <The duke, unlike some people, trusts and respects me for what I've done.> "And you're a fool to trust someone you barely know based on a few pretty words," she says. "Why do you think I turn my nose up at you? Your thinking isn't unsound. But there are considerations beyond a logical argument. You can't trust the duke." <You misunderstand,> you say. <While I respect the duke for his willingness to see Shadow as not inherently good or evil, I do not fully trust him. He's an ambitious man with many goals and many plans, and I know perfectly well he's capable of lying.> You raise the power core in your hand, then return it to your belt. <I'm merely interested in the potential of such a tool. If you have no words for me, that is fine. I understand we aren't exactly...'buddies'.> "...you just don't get it. You haven't listened to a word I've said." She sighs. "...those power cores are useful for their energy. We've retrieved some over the years. But the empire and its engineers don't have to know-how to take advantage of them like the dwarves did. We can't replicate their technology. Their unique magics were inherent in the designs, the forging of the parts and pieces...we don't have that, and we never will. We can only maintain what little is left. As to how the core is formed, I know not." <I see. Thank you.>

"...what, no rebuttal? No long-winded response?" <You almost sound as if you enjoy it.> "Hardly." <How do they maintain current reserves?> She shrugs. "Ask an engineer, Shadow. I'm no expert. I only know that they do. The guild was under the purview of other angels." You nod, then move off. Joey manages to defend himself somewhat better than the first few nights, but he's still going to wake up with plenty of bruises. He heals fast... You watch the night as your companions slumber. >Rolled 1d100: 35, 86, 83 You pause. ...something grabs at your senses. You step forward into one of the other canyon you came from. The night parts for your gaze...in fact, you see more easily during the night. No light to get in the way. A slithering lizard crawls up over the stone. It's soaked in water...you can feel water swirling within it. It's sizable, at least as large as a man. Scales coat it in thick layers. The scales thin up toward a long snout holding rows of sharp teeth protruding from its lips. You wait in silence, bending your senses toward the lizard as it crawls forward. Its snout hangs low...doesn't seem to have noticed you yet. >Rolled 1d100: 46, 23, 49 You sit and watch, trying to discern the nature of the lizard. You're certain it is at least quite resistant to magic...but you don't think it could use any strong power. The scales are definitely thinner toward the head, but that weakness is balanced by an intimidating pair of jaws. It still hasn't noticed you. >Rolled 1d100: 62, 99, 13 Your shadows leap up, then bend at an unnatural angle.

The lizard doesn't even twitch before your attack spears down through its skull, pinning it to the stone. It's dead before it knew it was being attacked. You already know what you have to do... ...you roil over the lizard and CONSUME it. >HP 29/37 You slowly walk back to camp, feeling satisfied. You pause. Auriel is awake. She's leaning over Joey. Her hands are glowing. You wait, and watch. The glow in her hands faces. She seems to examine him for a moment, then nod to herself. She turns, looking at Flint's sleeping form for a moment. Then she slips back to her bedroll and lays down. You walk into the center of camp. <Angel?> Auriel doesn't move. <...I saw you casting magic over Joey.> She sighs, then sits up. "Just taking the edge off those bruises," she whispers. You stare at her, and wait. "...and making sure there wasn't any shadow over him." You decide to ignore the implication. <I see. Healing magic is useful.> "It was...what I started with, way back when. Eventually, when things got bad, I was forced to fight. Turned out I had more talent for that than healing." <Why didn't you simply heal him before he went to sleep?> "A young man's pride is a sensitive thing," she says. "Let him have his little victories. If he climbs this obstacle, he'll be stronger under greater pressure, later." <What if he overestimates himself?> "I hardly think he'll do that because he got over a few of the worse bruises, proud or not," she says. She smirks. "Besides. There's a subtly to healing...mend and strengthen the flesh, but leave the ache and the lesson."

<I see.> <I feel as though I could use Water, to heal,> you say. <Would you have any advice to impart to me?> "I've no talent in water magic. Different elements work very differently." <I see. Good night, then. I will continue to patrol.> Auriel nods, then rests on her bedroll. The rest of the night is uneventful. Just as night quickly fell in the deep canyon, the day leaps up all at once. After a brief breakfast, the party gets moving. You wander down the canyons. You pass ten more sigils, but for all you know, make no progress. The canyons have been thin, winding for some time. The rock is warped and twisted above you, streaked orange and scraped raw by the wind of an elemental and the water of time. Ahead, there's an opening that is very brightly lit. The twisting canyons seem to be at an end. Auriel cocks her head. "...I feel something." You bend your senses forward. >Rolled 1d100: 43, 17, 71 "Five of them," Auriel says quietly. <I count at least eight,> you reply. "Keep moving," Flint says. "Don't give sign you noticed." The party walks along toward the opening. Flint slows his horse just slightly to buy more time. Joey bites his lip. The eight -feelings- are up above, high in the rock, out of sight. They move along with you as you continue forward. <What are they?>

"I don't know," Auriel says. "More robots? Bandits? Could be anything." You're confident in your ability to survive...but that's a lot for Joey to handle. And then there's Flint's curse... You're nearly at the exit of the gorge. <I'm going to try and take a look.> You grab the nearest handhold and begin to lift yourself up "Stop!" Flint hisses. You settle back down into his horse's shadow. <What?> "You're our trump card," he says. "They probably don't know you're there. Besides, if they wanted to attack, they could have - before we noticed them." "...I don't like agreeing with Shadows...but we could use information on our pursuers," Auriel says. <...I'll remain hidden.> You settle into the shadow of Flint's horse. Slowly, the hooves of the horses clop forward. the sound clacks across the rock, echoing upward, then back. You draw closer to the exit of the canyon, and as you do, you begin to hear a new sound...a low, constant roar. You emerge into bright light. You're standing on a wide, flat shelf. To your right is a tremendous waterfall. Mist rising from where the water lands creates a permanent rainbow against the rock. Standing before you are three men. But they aren't exactly men. Their faces are ugly, disfigured. Their skin varies between mottled green, brown, and olive. The one on the right is bulging with muscle enough to dwarf even Flint, who isn't a small man. A huge sword is strapped to his back. The one of the left is more slight, but has the presence of a raised dagger. A quiver and bow are strapped across his back, and his clothes are dotted with pockets and dangling with loose knives. The one in the middle is dressed in simple brown robes. He holds a wooden staff. A thick chain of beads falls around his neck. You can feel the magic pulsing inside him - mostly water, a large amount of earth, and a dab of shadow. He's no doubt quite powerful.

It is the mage who speaks. "I am Rogul. Who are you, and why do you trespass upon our lands?" Flint and Auriel exchange glances. He flicks his eyes between her and Rogul. Auriel dismounts, then steps forward. "I am called Auriel. This is my companion, Sir Flint, and his squire. We pass through these lands in peace, in search of our friends, who we believe also passed this way." Rogul slowly tilts his head. "...no other has passed. This land is sacred; tread-able only by those with permission. Return from whence you came." "The arts of concealment are not unknown to our fourth companion," Auriel says. "He is a powerful mage, and has led us this far through the canyons by signs he left behind for that purpose. We do not wish to trespass, but it is imperative we continue forward. A life is at stake." Rogul slowly rubs his chin, then drops his hand. "Perhaps the mage came. Perhaps not. But your troubles are your own, and I, nor we, want any part of them." Auriel grits her teeth at the orc's stubbornness. Flint draws a breath. <Flint. Anything I can do?> Flint subtly lets his arm drop low. He points at Joey. <Protect him?> Flint makes a thumbs up under the horse's flank. "We don't mean to make you part of them," Auriel says. "We only wish to move through as quickly and with as little disturbance as possible." "You're already a disturbance. Leave, now." Auriel looks as though her patience has worn thin.

<Flint. You should step in.> Flint makes a thumbs-down and jerks it several times. <She's going to blow up any second.> Flint's face twists, but he slowly dismounts. "Don't move," he mutters to Joey. He walks up to Rogul. The two orcs on either side of the mage tense at his his approach. But Flint stops with plenty of room remaining. "Rogul. Respectfully, I ask you ear a second time." "...speak." >Rolled 1d100: 63, 95, 78 "Kan-Abar and Kelvere are at war," Flint says. "I was in a village called Jacob's Field when it was attacked by a force several thousand strong. A young girl named Abigail was sheltered by and fled with our friend, the mage, while I stayed to help in the town's defense. "I swore to her parents that I would protect her, and see her safe. The mage chooses an odd path, but I follow nonetheless. You said that those with permission could pass. Please. What must I do to earn that permission?" "...why would this mage come into Tarun Gakth?" Flint hangs his head a moment, then meets Rogul's gaze. "She is of the Spirit element. Strongly. You know what the empire would do with her." Rogul points to a bandage covering one of his eyes. "I know, knight." The finger is crooked at Flint. "What I fail to see...is why a knight so obviously of Arland, the dog of the empire, seeks to protect a girl who lives strong with the great Hecate?" Flint begins to open his mouth. The parasite grabs onto him. You launch your own attack. You flood Flint with Impressions. Abigail, in trouble. Abigail, in need of help. Him, standing tall, speaking with confidence. Flint's teeth grind with effort, but he manages the words. "Justice...my honor...does not begin at one element and end at...another. She is young, and innocent. I made a promise. And I will keep it." Rogul is silent for a long time. He taps his cane, and looks to the cliffs. "Who will vouch for this one?" Flint and Auriel glance up. You follow their eyes. Eight more are scattered along the cliffs, watching

you, bows drawn. None of them move. "...your honor is strong, knight," Rogul says. "But if there is no one moved to vouch for you whilst in our lands, you may not pass. This is our law." A voice rings out from behind a rock overlooking the waterfall. "I'll vouch for him." A man stands. You're surprised - you didn't notice him at all. Auriel and Flint both look surprised as well. And what's more is that the man isn't an orc - he's human. The man walks forward with easy grace. He wears thick, scored leather armor. It's decked with pockets and sheaths and belts. A quiver and bow are slung over his shoulder. A rope with a claw on one end is tied around one of his forearms. A balled up roll of red cloth hangs near his waist. There's even a cup dangling from a sash at his midsection. He looks like he's ready for any and every possible scenario. His soul feels like a fire that will never go out. He's a match for Flint's light...for the Duke's lightning. You wonder how he stayed hidden. "...Kirt," Rogul says. "You are certain?" The man named Kirt nods. "I am. I have a feeling Taremtis will want to see them." "...is that so." Rogul taps his cane on the rock. It thumps into the ground with a solid finality. "So be it. Know that any wrong done by them will rest upon your shoulders as well." "...the last marker pointed us forward." Flint glances across the waterfall. Another passage begins into the canyons almost directly across from you, starting on another shelf. Flint points to it. "I'd assume that's where we're headed." "Well, two things," Kirt says. "First of all, that leads toward the Dead Plain. Break in the cliffs - and a nest of Rock Worm larvae. I don't know what the hell your friend was thinking, but he sure didn't want anyone but some very determined people following him." Auriel looks annoyed at that. You imagine she still suspects Adavan is trying to throw you off the trail...but if he wanted to do that, he could have stopped leaving sigils a long time ago. "And the second?" Flint asks.

"The second." Kirt stops at the edge of the shelf, and points. "Bridge is down there. And you're going to want a day's rest for that, anyway." You reach the edge of the cliff. Stretching below you is a great city of wood and rock. Much of it is built into the walls of the cliffs surrounding the river. Newer sections with more wood protrude from the stone, houses, stairs, and other frameworks. Joey whistles. "Cool." "Welcome to Refuge." Flint scratches under his helm. "Where'd they get the wood?" "Giant fungus, actually," Kirt says. "They farm them on the upper layers of the Deep. Most of the town is dwarven in construction, old ruins." "...we -could- do with a rest," Auriel says. "And who is this Taremtis you mentioned?" "A sage. He's completely insane, but he's good for advice in his lucid moments." "...wonderful," Auriel mutters. "I can't imagine we'll get a warm welcome. Where will we be staying?" "There's plenty more room in the city than the clan takes up," Kirt says. "Follow me." He starts down stone stairs carved into the cliff. There's no railing, or handhold - just four feet of stone, then a 200 foot drop. Joey clings to the inside while Flint and Auriel carefully lead the horses down to the ground level.

THREAD 23
>HP 29/37 >Mana 4/10 You eventually reach a long building set into a wall. Kirt leads you inside. The inside of the building is cool. The stone cuts the heat of the canyon down to nothing. Dust motes spin in the rays of light coming in through the windows. A counter lines the back wall, and scattered tables fill the front of the room. It's mostly empty, but there are a few patrons here and there. A feeling of exasperation rises up in you as you realize it's just a glorified bar. "Hey, Olga!" A plump but warm-looking orc woman walks from a back door. "Kirt? What do you - well. Hello there." Flint introduces himself with a formal bow. "Sir Donovan Flint, of Dobshire. It's my pleasure to meet you." Olga smiles. "So polite." She raises a hand. Flint moves to take it - then trips over a chair. He scrambles to keep his balance, slapping his hands on a table. He just ends up dragging it on top of him, ending up a the bottom of a pile of wood. He groans. "Donovan!" Auriel hops over to help extricate him from the wood and brushes him off. "Are you alright?" "...fine," Flint mutters. "But my pride could use a bandage." Olga bursts into heavy laughter. "A knight, indeed. You've always been a strange on, Kirt. I suspect you've vouched for them, if old Rogul let them inch a toe in refuge." "You don't miss anything," Kirt says. "Well, I'd also suspect you all want to stay here?" "Ah...if it won't pose trouble," Flint says. "We mean to leave...in the morning, I suppose. I have plenty of - " Olga waves a hand. "If Kirt's vouching, I don't want your money. Kirt, dear, show them to the rooms next to yours. I'll get dinner ready." The orc sways back into the other room. You catch a glimpse looks like a kitchen. You reach the upstairs hallway, and Kirt guides you into two rooms. Auriel is given her own space,

and Flint and Joey share another slightly larger room with a bunk bed. Kirt stands there for a moment as they all strip their gear and heave sighs of relief. You glance at Kirt. His fiery soul hasn't abated a bit, but he seems as ease. Perhaps you're getting better at this hiding thing...or perhaps he doesn't mind. <Flint,> you say, <Now might be a good time to reveal my presence. I have no wish to deceive this man.> Flint scratches his head nervously. <I'm sure. Go ahead.> "...ah...Kirt." "Mmm?" "About our group," Flint says. "Something you should know...or rather, someone you should meet." "I was wondering when you'd introduce me," the man says. "He's quite good at hiding. But not good enough to fool me." Kirt plants his hands on his hips and looks around. "Well...I don't know exactly where he is, so he's got that much going for him." "...oh," Flint says weakly. You slowly step away from Flint's shadow. You Mimic a humanoid form, more or less a man, if dark and wispy. <You have my thanks, Kirt,> Shadow says. <I was glad our confrontation with Rogul ended peaceably.> Kirt stares at you. "...that's some trick." He shrugs, then smiles. "Well, I figured if a knight and a sorceress burning with light were traveling along with a shadow mage, they couldn't be all bad. Just keep your nose clean. Rogul's not the type to make empty threats, and I'd prefer not to get kicked out of Refuge." "So what's a human doing in an orc settlement, anyway?" Auriel asks. "Long story." Kirt turns to leave the room. "You should relax. Tarun Gakth isn't easy traveling, even if you didn't run into much trouble. I'll see you at dinner." <About...my presence,> you begin. "Didn't see a thing," Kirt says. They door clumps closed. You hear footsteps as he returns down the stairs. Auriel glances at you and Flint. "...he's not normal. I'm quite curious as to his story."

"Well, it's none of our business," Flint says. "If he tells us, he does. Until then, I think our best bet is to enjoy having beds for the night and move on at the crack of dawn." "...I'll be keeping one eye open," Auriel says. "I doubt all the orcs like strangers." Flint makes a face, but he nods. "It's not a bad idea to keep our guard up." Your companions unpack, though they keep their true valuables on their person. You decide your purse and its assorted contents are best kept with you, as well. Flint directs Joey to take care of the horses, and he and Auriel set out to take a look around the city. It's an old place, crumbling at the edges, but you find it appealing in its own way. Orcs dot the cliffs and stairs here and there, going about their daily lives. <Are such places common?> you ask Auriel. "...we're aware of the orc clans," she says. "We don't have the resources to root them out. And even if we did, they aren't hurting anyway." <I knew you could be reasonable.> "This and the Shadow are two different things," she says sharply. "Would the two of you stop?" Flint asks. "Light. Let it rest for a day." Auriel pouts at him. "He started it." Flint rolls his eyes. Auriel frowns, then glances at you in Flint's shadow. "...actually...are you a he, or a she? Or an it?" <...I do not identify with your split of genders,> you say. <It seems as though...it is, -right-, for beings such as humans, and orcs. But I am simply different.> Auriel shrugs, and you continue on. Eventually, you reach an interesting rock formation. Part of the river is diverted by a high stone levee, which pools in a wide basin. The basin itself is capped on one end by a large wooden house. Orcs move in and out of the building, going in dirty and coming out clean. Another small stream leads back out of the house and down into the river. "Public baths," Flint says. "They're more civilized than I expected." His next words are murmured more to himself than you or Auriel, but, resting in his shadow, you can still hear him. "...maybe an alliance is closer than the duke realizes..." Auriel grins at the building. "Dear Hyperion, a bath is exactly what I need. Excuse me, boys. I've some grooming to take care of."

<I just finished telling you I'm not a - > Auriel waves a hand at you. "Ah, whatever. You and Flint are too much the friends for me to think of you like a girl. I'll be back..." She flips her hair out and starts walking. "Oh, when I feel like it. Before sundown. Probably. Try and do something useful in the meantime." A few orcs give her looks as she enters the female section of the baths, but Auriel unabashedly continues inside, still clad in her armor. <Her armor is going to rust, like that.> Flint sighs. "She's not going to bathe in her armor, Shadow." <Ah. So she'll be naked, then?> "...well...that is how people bathe." <It's also how people copulate." "Dammit, Shadow." Flint turns around to face you, his shadow. "We need to have a talk about that. A good, long, informative -discussion-, because you're slowly killing me with my own embarrassment." <She's attracted to you, and stripping herself naked for bathing within that house,> you say, <after pointedly informing us of her destination. The situation seems clear to me.> "...what are you getting at?" <She is readying herself for you and your imminent copulation.> "...t-that's ridiculous. I - she - there's no - " <You heard it from her own lips,> you add. <She's grooming. Preening herself for sexual display. And I don't see any other demon-slaying knights around here. Do you?> "Well...I mean, you and her did most of the - " <This is an excellent time to give her your opinion on her kiss. With the stipulation that you imbibe no more than three ignorance potions each. Or this time, I shall leave you both to bask in your own vomit without assistance.> "That..." Flint trails off. He bites his lip. He looks back at you. "...do you really think she feels like that?" <Of course. At this rate, I'll be an expert on human mating rituals.> Flint slaps his face. "...for a moment, you were reeling me in. No. No. No."

<Yes.> "NO!" "No, what?" Kirt asks. Flint jumps. You stiffen in surprise. Kirt has snuck up behind you without so much as a whisper to hive him away. You're not sure if you're entirely comfortable with that. "...ah...Shadow...and I...were discussing..." Kirt grins widely. "You got a thing for sweet tits and blonde hair?" "Uh...well...that's not exactly how I'd - " <Yes,> you say. <That's exactly it. He just doesn't admit it to himself.> "Ha!" Kirt punches Flint on the arm. "The cultured nobleman, seduced by the free-spirited witch?" "...not exactly." Kirt's big smile fades. His face goes blank for a moment. He shakes himself, and pats Flint's shoulder. "Well, no sense being nervous. How about a spar? We can go to my place." "I thought you lived in that tavern." "Ah, Olga lets me stay there when I get drunk. I'm her bouncer," he explains. "My place is up on the cliffs. Come on, I'll show you." He starts off at a quick pace. Flint stands there for a moment, then shrugs and follows. You're dragged behind... You climb a long set of stairs that winds around a steep plateau. Flint keeps pace with Kirt without problems, despite his heavy armor. "...you know, don't you think her hair's more silver?" "Eh," Kirt says. "White blonde, silver. Same difference." "Ah."

You reach the top of the plateau. Flint stops to stare out, and you stare with him. Surrounding you is an endless forest of stone. The moon hangs in the sky as the afternoon steadily transitions to dusk. Kirt's abode is impressive. A cave is carved into the wall of the plateau, but perched higher are several smaller shacks clustered around one house. "This is all yours?" Flint asks. "Took some time to build," he says. "...I like the orcs. Fierce. Independent. This is a nice spot, too. A bit lonely...but out in the wind. Exposed." He points a thumb over his back. "Shacks are for storage, mostly. Sometimes I hunt the animals out in the gorges. Sell the skins, and the meat. A few guest rooms, too." He draws a short sword, and a knife. "...so...want to play around a bit?" Flint rubs his helmet. "Well..." He smiles. "Maybe just a little." Flint draws his two-handed blade. "Clean?" "As a whistle," Kirt says. >Rolled 1d100: 37, 18, 11 >Secondary Critical Failure You step out of Flint's shadow. The two men clash swords for a moment, slipping and sliding past each other. Flint does well... ...but suddenly, his foot catches on a rut in the stone. He tumbles down. Kirt laughs, and offers him a hand up. Flint takes it and stands straight. "Aww, come on!" Flint's face isn't amused. But he sets himself again. They spar a moment longer. Kirt dives in close, using the maneuverability of his shorter weapons to his advantage. His hands move in a blur, independent of one another. His knife reverses directions almost faster than Flint can give ground. Flint trips and falls on his butt. Kirt taps his shoulder with his short sword, then helps him up again. "You need to work on your footing."

Flint's jaw grinds. But then, he sighs. "Yes, I do." Kirt seems to sense his frustration. He loses a bit of his cheer. "...sometimes, things just don't work out the way you'd like them to." "I can relate to that." They stand in silence for a moment. Kirt walks toward a fire pit in the middle of his plateau abode. He wordlessly begins to build a fire. Flint walks over and sits. Soon, the two men are laying back in front of a fierce flame. You sit next to them. <We encountered a large golem, earlier,> you say. <Do you know anything about them?> "The Dwarven machines?" Kirt asks. "They're all mad. Attack anything they find. I'm surprised you lived to tell the tale. But I don't know about them much, no. Why?" You shrug. <Curiosity.> You look at him. <You mentioned a sage, earlier.> "Taremtis. A mage. Human. Lives out here. He's even madder than the machines, and that's saying something. But he likes travelers. I think. He'll probably point you in the right direction. Did for me." "What direction was that?" Flint asks. "To stay here," Kirt says quietly. "...how long have you been here?" "Two and a half years, just about," Kirt says. He glances down at the flames. "...seems like yesterday I got here." Flint clears his throat. "I apologize if I was prying." "...it's not really any secret," Kirt says. "I...there was some trouble, back home. I was forced to run. Ended up here. If it wasn't for Taremtis, never would have been...accepted, by the orcs, I suppose. He and Rogul go waaay back. Rogul's clan is originally from the Great Forest, and Taremtis used to be with Archon. Don't know much more than that, though." "What did the sage tell you?" "...he told me to rest here," Kirt said. "The way he said it...it was as if the very foundation of the world spoke through him. You just knew it was true." Kirt sighs. "And that's probably the only lucid thing I've gotten from him since. He's an amusing fellow, but I wish he'd crack open a bit more." Kirt looks over. "What about you? Knightly honor, and all that?" "More or less," Flint says. "When I met the girl I mentioned...I believe her parents had already died.

Her village was cursed was a magical plague." "I thought you said you promised them you'd protect her." "I made that promise on their graves," Flint says. "...I see. You're a good man, Sir Flint." "...I don't think so." "I do," Kirt says. "Me...I ran away from my problems. I've made my peace with that. But you're sprinting through Tarun Gatkh to find yours." "I never really thought of it like that." The men fall quiet. <What would you both say to another spar?> you ask. "I'm game," Kirt says. "I suppose," Flint answers. You stand up. <I'll take you both at once.> "Overconfident, are we?" Kirt says. He saunters to the edge of the fire and draws his sword and knife. Flint stands, but he hesitates. "...that's a bit ambitious, Shadow." <I realize something,> you say. <I've never practiced combat before. How can I hope to improve without pushing my limits?> Flint smiles, and draws his sword. "Training...that, I can understand." >Rolled 1d100: 14, 77, 42 Flint and Kirt charge you from both sides. They work their blades in a flurry. It's difficult for you to keep up. You have plenty of arms, and you're fast, and your skin is as hardens steel - but despite your seeming advantages, they work together as if they can read each other's mind. Flint's attacks are brutal. His sword swipes are extremely heavy, but compact. He flows from one strike into another, hitting, hitting, hitting, over and over and over like a blacksmith on an anvil. Kirt is entirely different, but frighteningly complementary. His sword is like the tail of a scorpion, and his dagger is like a darting fang. He begins to swing one way, only to change direction and go the

other. He slashes his sword up, and his knife stabs in. He cuts high, and swipes slow. His hands each have a will of their own. You lose ground to these swordsmen alarmingly quickly... >Rolled 1d100: 35, 67, 72 You dig in and whip your arms faster. It pushes you to your limit, but you're an even match for the two men. You hold your ground, not just defending against their strikes, but whipping randomly, striking at their legs and arms to cut off the source of their blows. That cuts off their momentum. But the duel could go either way... >Rolled 1d100: 67, 27, 43 You're so focused on keeping them at bay, you don't realize there's a plan unfolding before you. Suddenly, Flint and Kirt leap back, then, just as suddenly, lunge forward, switching places. They knock your limbs away faster than you can adapt. Their swords reach your body, prodding you ever so slightly. "Our win!" Kirt says. Flint just smiles. <I yield.> The two withdraw their swords and sheath them. They're both sweaty, but they seem happy. They take their breaths in big gulps. "...should do that again some time," Kirt says. "Was kinda...fun, huh? Haven't trained like that in a while." Flint begins to move away, then promptly trips and falls flat on his face. Kirt bursts out laughing and slaps his knees. "You go that whole damn fight, and then just fall over...what in the Light, Flint" "...oh...shut up." Flint dusts himself off. He looks around at the darkened sky. "...we should get back. Joey and Auriel are probably missing us." Kirt winks. "Little cleanup for the lady, at least. I've got some water." Kirt directs Flint to several barrels of water in one of his sheds, and they douse themselves to clean the grime and odor away. <...perhaps...I should clean, as well.> Flint looks at you, then shrugs. "You never seem to get dirty. And you don't smell. I don't think you

have to." You promptly decide to splash into the water bucket, spraying Kirt and Flint with water. They shield themselves. You bob up and down in the water, sloughing it all over them. "Hey!" Flint says. Kirt's just laughing. You emerge from the water and wring it from yourself as if you're a giant washcloth. Then you stand straight. <Nice and clean.> Flint snorts, then dries his face with a towel. Kirt keeps laughing. Kirt lends Flint a spare set of clothes. They're more rustic than what Flint usually wears, but he doesn't hesitate to don them. They both head back down the plateau. "So what's the deal with you and sweet tits?" Kirt asks. "And I mean that in the most serious way possible." "Honestly, I don't have any idea anymore," Flint says. "I mean...she's...beautiful." Kirt rolls his eyes. You look at Kirt. <Don't be fooled by his false modesty. He wishes to climb her like a tree and gaze upon her Hyperion-blessed features. She wishes to know how to bed a demon slayer. Of course, the nature of their having sexual intercourse was put this way after they'd imbibed quite a few -beers-, so I hardly know what to think.> Kirt bursts out laughing so hard you're briefly worried he'll fall from the stairs. But he rights himself. "...Shadow...you've got a real sense of humor." "It doesn't know what a sense of humor is," Flint growls. <I certainly do.> "I'm inclined to agree with the blob," Kirt says. "So, Shadow. They want to fuck?" <Both have expressed a want for copulation, but have subsequently denied these claims when confronted about them more openly. It's rather confusing.> Kirt nods sagely. "People can be confusing." <So I've learned. I think more ignorance potions will help. In moderation. Strict moderation.> "Ignorance potions?" "That's what it calls alcohol," Flint mutters.

Kirt chuckles. "Hey. While we're on the subject. Sort of." He looks at you. "What the fuck are you, exactly? A demon?" <I don't know,> you answer honestly. <I have not long been in this world. I have some suspicions. An intelligent lesser elemental is probably the most accurate description. But...it doesn't matter.> "It doesn't?" Kirt asks. "I'd say that's pretty damn important." <Maybe. But I have begun to believe that -what- I am is much less important than -who- I am.> Your companions go quiet. After a while Kirt nods. "...you have me there. You have me." He leans back and throws an arm around your 'shoulder'. "So. We getting by buddy Sir Flint laid, or what?" <If by laid, you are referring to copulation, then yes. But I've been trying, and it hasn't gone very well.> "That's because you didn't have me." "Just keep talking like I'm not here," Flint says loudly. "It's not like I have feelings or anything. I'm just a giant cock, ready for copulation." "Now, Flint, that's not fair," Kirt says. But he has to spit the words through his grin. "The Shadow's just trying to help out." "It's helped enough." <She is attracted to you,> you tell him. <If you reciprocated her affection, you could - > "And how would a genderless shadow that's spent the past week arguing with her about the nature of the universe know if she's attracted to me?" Flint asks. <She told me so.> Flint gives you a look. "Oh really? And what did she tell you?" <She told me that she likes the way you stand. You stand like a man with a heavy burden...but one that bears it without complaint. She told me that you're handsome, and that your feats in battle impressed her greatly. And that you swept her off her feet. I'm afraid I don't know the meaning of that euphemism, but it sounds positive.> "...you're not..." <She said those words exactly,> you say. You reach the bottom of the stairs. The noise of Olga's tavern increases as you approach across Refuge. Flint looks between the two of you. "...I just...I couldn't...if it turns out that things aren't - "

Kirt interrupts Flint with a huge sigh. "Dammit, man, just grow a pair." <She is merely waiting for you to act,> you say. "...alright." Flint's face firms up. "Ok." "Heeey!" Kirt slaps Flint on the back. "There's a champ!" "But I need a stiff fucking drink. Several." <I will not pick up the pieces again if you overindulge,> you warn. "Ah, don't worry," Kirt says. "He knows better, unless he wants limp dick." <What is -limp dick-?> Kirt doubles over with laughter, and he doesn't stop. Eventually, he's half-hanging off Flint, pounding the larger mans shoulder. Flint looks like angry granite. "...sometimes, Shadow, you just need to shut the fuck up." <Well. See if I carry you to bed a third time.> You reach the entrance of the bar. "Well. Here goes." Flint pushes the door in. <I will remain in your shadow,> you tell Kirt. "Sounds good. Wouldn't want to miss the show, would ya?" You burst into the tavern. This late, it's packed with orcs. Most of them are loudly carousing and banging thick mugs on their tables. Slight fangs curl up the edges of their lips. <I think it best we let Flint do this himself,> you say. <I know he isn't much without my help, but he can't expect me to hold his hand forever.> Kirt looks like he's struggling not to give in to his convulsing abdomen as he returns a near-chorus of waves and greetings from the tables. "EH KIRT!" Kirt reaches up and catches a thrown glass without even looking. Olga is staring at him from behind the bar. Other members of the help are scurrying to keep up with the orders for food and drink. "Make yourself useful and dry a few glasses!" Kirt leans up against a post a short distance from where Auriel is sitting at a table, awkwardly alone in the middle of the bustling room. You focus your senses and detect Joey up in the room, likely asleep. He's put out a lot of energy lately.

Flint is quick to join her. She immediately perks up from her mug and smiles. Flint hesitantly begins some conversation. Auriel chirps in happily. You have difficulty making out the words over the noise of the bar, but inbetween Flint trying not to blush every other moment, it seems to be proceeding fine. <Like watching a bird leave the nest,> you remark to Kirt. He snorts into the cup. He raises it up, rubs a bit of snot off the inside of the cup, then shrugs. "Meh, I'm healthy" He grabs another mug the counter and keeps drying. Flint and Auriel share a drink, then two, then three. And a fourth. You really hope they don't go for a fifth. But your worries were baseless. They linger on the fourth drink for some time. Auriel has leaned in further and further toward Flint the entire night. Flint looks a lot more relaxed. His nerves are settled. Flint picks her hand off the table and holds it in his. Auriel smiles at him. She leans very close. The intent is clear... ...something passes over Flint's face. You bend your senses toward him, toward the parasite. But...it's quiet, tonight, for once. It isn't moving. Flint brings her hand to his lips and kisses it. He says something to her, then stands and walks out of the bar. Auriel sits back with a stunned look on her face. She rises. Her hands clench. Eyes follow her as she marches across the floor after Flint. "...hmm," Kirt says. "What do you think?" <I think it's going well,> you say. "If she's that determined," Kirt mutters near the cup, "I can't believe he hasn't fucked her already." <Flint isn't the type to jump at happiness. I think...his past holds him back. He's lost too much to jump, anymore. He's tired of it.> Kirt's swirling cloth slowly stops. The man stares into his mug. "...yeah? Too bad." He clumps the upteenth mug down. "Break," he shouts into the kitchen. One of the serves waves at him in acknowledgement. Kirt steps out of the bar.

Flint and Auriel aren't in sight, though you can feel two sources of life down closer to the river. Kirt heads the other way, behind the tavern. He leans against the rock and folds his arms. His good cheer seems to have vanished. <...did I say something?> "...no. Just the past, Shadow." <It always seems to be the past, with everyone,> you say. <Doesn't anyone look forward?> "That's easy to say, when you don't have much of a past," Kirt says. "When you do...it's like a rock in an ocean, something you cling to, myabe just to have something to hold. But it's a rock made out of shards of glass. So rather than getting dashed against the cliffs, you're just bleeding to death. Slowly." <It doesn't sound much better than dying.> "You know why I live on a plateau, Shadow?" <...why?> "So I can stand at the edge and ask myself that question, every light-damned day." He looks back at you. "So far...I've been too afraid of death to jump." <In my short time I have been hunted, burned, shunned, and called a monster. I have been told that, inevitably, I am evil. That this evil is an intrinsic part of me. That my actions, even if good, mean nothing, because on the larger scale of things, my very existence will cause chaos and harm to others.> "And?" <And I choose to live and find a way.> "Good for you, Shadow," Kirt says. "We've discovered that those without a past have nothing but the future. Sounds nice." <Let's go see this sage of yours.> "...Taremtis? Now?" <Yes. If you think our arrival here might jolt him into lucidity, then let us see. Perhaps he'll have more words for you, as well.> Kirt says nothing for a moment. Then he leans up off the stone and walks into a back door of the tavern. The kitchen is a mess of dishes and activity. Orcs call and shout to one another. It's a harsh contrast to the stark silence of the alley you sat in just before. Kirt finds Olga quickly. "Hey lady."

"I'm no lady. What do you want, you layabout?" "...night off." Olga leans back. She eyes Kirt for a long time. "...you haven't asked me for a off time in...ever." "First time for everything." "I sure as Light hope not," Ulga sighs. "Alright, get out of here." Kirt ducks back through the kitchen and starts up toward the other end of refuge. The cliffs become more wild and jagged. The relatively neat, carved stone of the Dwarven ruins fades into rocky paths. You're on the border of the Tarun Gakth wilderness. But you continue to climb, up, up. Not as high as Kirt's plateau, but high enough to poke above the walls of some of the canyons. A star-covered sky twinkles high above you. You reach the edge of the path. Perched on the end, leaning out precipitously over a deep gap are two haphazard towers. Bridges and wood and rope connect the buildings, as it it was half-planned and half slapped together by a child playing with blocks. A fat wooden sign reading "Taremtis" points into the first tower. <...why the sign?> "Didn't want anyone to miss him." You peer further into the buildings. Something is flying in the air around them...a group of things with wings, like chickens. But they're in the air, and they're much lighter-looking. They circle the tower once, twice, three times, drifting, flapping. The Sky-Sever should have long struck them down by now. <What are those flying things?> "They're called birds," Kirt says. "Taremtis raises them. There used to be a lot more, all across Venia. A type of animal that could fly

in the sky, believe it or not." The idea seems...totally unfamiliar. You've never heard of such a thing. <Strange.> "The Sky-Sever killed them off," Kirt says. He walks forward on the path and up to the tower door. If this mage's magic can resist the Sky-Sever...he must be powerful.

THREAD 24
>HP 29/37 >Mana 5/10 Kirt walks up to the first tower, picking his way across a narrow stone bridge. He ducks under an ornate overhang and knocks on the door. "Anyone home?" There's no response. Kirt knocks again. "Hey, old man! Are you awake?" The door flies open. Standing there is a man in blue and gray robes. He has a thick beard that droops over his neck, and wears a pointed hat. In his hand is a twisted wood cane. "The hell do you want you bothersome piece of shit?!" "...well," Kirt says. "Refuge has a few visitors. You've mentioned interest in visitors, should any come, so - " "VISITORS?!" The old man roars. He crouches low and peers out from under the wide brim of his hat. "Peeeeeople?" "Well..." Kirt clears his throat. "Not exactly." <Greetings, sage,> you say. You stand independent of Kirt's shadow. <I am - > "A SHADOW...!" Taremtis cries. His voice drifts down to a whisper. "...elemental? Oh, that's not good, not good at all. Not good. Good, not." <It isn't?> "I never saw or heard a worse thing since my diarrhea two weeks past!" He declares. Taremtis abruptly stands and looks at Kirt. "You know, one of my birds died the other day. Her name was Cawly." His eyes water over with emotion. "Poor, sweet, beautiful Cawly. She was the most wonder dove...feathers like white snow...oh..." Taremtis grips his cane and shouts into the night. "CAWLY!!!! WWHHHYYYY??!!" For a few seconds, the tail end of his moan echos back off the canyon walls, then eventually fades. <...is he alright?> "...told you he was insane," Kirt mutters out of the corner of his mouth. "Probably wouldn't last a month if I didn't bring him food every week." "A month?!" Taremtis says. "A fine estimation of my independence! I'll beat that, I say! Don't bring me food for a month, let's see how I fare."

"Let's not." "I don't need some idiot boy telling me when and how I can't starve myself! Get out, and come back with all the visitors, or don't come back at all!" Taremtis mutters a stream of curses under his breath as he turns and slams his tower door shut. <Well. That was...interesting.> "Stark, raving mad," Kirt says. It seems the experience of the sage has brought him back out of his depresses reverie. "A nice fellow, though, if you catch him in the mood. Well...what do you say to coming back tomorrow morning, assuming out two lovers aren't tired from their big night?" <I suppose it couldn't hurt,> you say. "Good. I...hope you're right. Maybe this'll get him lucid again." Kirt starts back down the path. <You weigh what he has to say quite heavily, despite him being...mentally handicapped.> "...kinda funny, isn't it?" Kirt doesn't add to his statement, so you let the subject drop. He makes his way back toward Refuge proper. <I wonder if Flint will stumble in bed.> Kirt rubs his nose. "Let's hope not, hmm?" He glances at you. "Why? Are you a voyeur or something?" <What's a voyeur?> "Person that gets off watching other people get it on." You nod in understanding. <I see. Actually, the last time I tried to watch them copulate, I was not aroused to any such acts myself. But overall, it didn't work out well.> Kirt bursts into laughter. He doubles over and slaps his legs. "Now THAT sounds like a story I need to hear. But I guess we'll leave them to it, huh?" By the time you near Kirt's plateau home, it's very late at night. You decide to stick with Kirt, sitting in shadow as he walks home. <I think I've done enough harm in my ignorance for one day.> Kirt snorts. His feet clod up the stairs. "I didn't realize you were aware of your own lack of tact." <It's become clear, over time. I have as much to learn about humans as I do about myself.>

"So do we all, Shadow." He sits down heavily near the embers of the fire. After a few moments work, he starts it up again. The flame quickly grows to a healthy size. You notice something in his clothes. That roll of red cloth pinned to his waist seems to almost reflect the firelight...it's odd. <That red cloth at your waist is strange,> you say. "This?" Kirt grabs the bundle off his waist. "Check this out." He wraps the cloth over his forearm and holds it around himself. It's not quite big enough to cover his whole body, almost a cape more than a cloak. What appears to be a ram's face with long, curled horns is imprinted in black in the middle of the cape. And yet, suddenly, it's as if he's vanished. His fiery soul is simply gone; his life force isn't there. He still sits there, easily visible, but invisible to all other senses. <Incredible. I sense nothing.> "...a certain treasure of mine." He wraps it up and pins it back in place in a quick, deft motion. "Something from home." <Where are you from?> "...far away," he says. <I am surprised...you do not fear me.> Kirt shrugs. "The empire's propaganda grows weak beyond its own borders." <What do you think the orcs would make of me?> "They'd judge you as you presented yourself," he says. "They're an enclosed people, stubborn, and distrusting. But for good reason. They were created by Archon during one of its wars with the empire, as weapons, enhanced humans. Orcs are highly magic resistant, and they heal quickly, if they're given time to rest. Valuable skills, indeed. But they were treated as slaves." <I see.> "Rogul's clan escaped into the forests, and then eventually sough refuge here." He shrugs. "I you can get your foot in the door, they're fair. Hard, but fair. I was lucky enough to do so." He sighs. "It's probably better for you to stay undisclosed, at least for now. We'd have to explain to Rogul that he'd taken on one more person than he realized. And...they get real bothered by magic, when they think it might be aimed at them."

<Yes.> You decide to change the subject. <Is there anything I can hunt nearby? Preferably, something magical.> "...not really," Kirt says. "Canyon lizards. A few Deep Hounds prowl the mushroom grove under the city every once in a while, but they aren't magical either. If you need food, I suppose either one will do." <Feel like joining me?> "Not really. I've had enough for one day, I think." <Alright. Come meet with us tomorrow.> "Sure. I'll be in the tavern." You walk back down the plateau. Curious about Flint and Auriel, you cut near the tavern. It's died down significantly, now that it's really late. You sense several souls floating up in the rooms above the bar. Joey, on the top of the bunk...and Flint, sleeping below him. Auriel is in her own room. Hmm. You walk toward the entrance to the inner city you spied earlier and slip within. It's quiet, and empty. You follow the carved stone halls along, and head down. Soon, you reach a wide, expansive chamber. It's damp and reeks of mold...the rock between the chamber and the river must be thin. Huge mushrooms dot the floor like a small forest. They have stalks tough enough to pass as tree bark. >Rolled 1d100: 81, 4, 83 You creep between the mushroom stalks, heading toward the back of the cave, where the dark turns as thick as pitch and more holes open up below. The dark poses no problem for you. When you sense a flicker of life, you wait. Sure enough, hounds emerge. They're not like any dogs you've seen. Their eyes are slits, buried under thick, frowning lids. Their ears are perked high like a rabbits, and wide as dinner plates. They approach a mushroom stack and begin to gnaw at it. It seems they like the bark. They don't notice you at all. You pierce four of them with your shadows and consume them in an instant. The rest scamper back into the lower caves. >HP 32/37

You feel satisfied. Perhaps you've hunted enough for one night? ...but something is...off. It's below you. But indistinct. You wander into the deep. It's dark. Stiflingly, excruciatingly dark. You feel right at home. The darkness might as well be light itself. You come to a broken bridge. You hop over to the other side and keep walking, taking a good look around the cave. It's strange...a mix of natural rock and intentionally carved paths, blended together. You can't tell where nature ends and architecture begins. The feeling grows in your senses. Shadows. You move more quickly, certain there's something important to find. A hole grabs at your attention. Yes. That way. You drop inside. It's like going down a slide. You end up in a new chamber. Round, relatively small, but very high. You can see other holes and paths branching out in other directions. You carefully note the one you emerged from. Before you lies a door. On either side of the door sits an intimidating-looking golem, both heavily armored and wielding spiked maces as big as a man. They are as statues. You approach the door. Words are carved into it...words you can understand. "I begin in fog, but long and dark, distended; Middling I linger, small and silent; By the time I fade, again I am great." "Speak my name, and enter."

"I...am Shadow," you say aloud. Silence. A pulse of magic shoots through the rock. A long, groaning creek cracks the rust on the hinges of the door as it begins to open. Metal shrieks on metal, and you can hear the strain of gears about to break from age. Slowly, the stone settles to a halt. A flash of magic pulses across the arch of the stone, and you hear a deep, thundering click. Beyond the two doors is a blacker sort of darkness. It feels...like you. You enter the dark place. Something...isn't right. >Rolled 1d100: 13, 25, 66 >Secondary Critical Success The feeling is strange. It's like walking through a curtain of rain...water stained with shadow. But oddly, it doesn't feel bad. Rather...it acknowledges you. You feel somehow refreshed. >Mana 7/10 The room within is dark. A spiral staircase leads down. You follow them. The feeling of darkness grows stronger, and stronger. Finally, you reach the bottom of the stairs. There's a wooden door. You open it. The rusty hinges break off completely. You leap back, surprised, as the door falls inwards. A clod of dust puffs off the floor and around the room. You slink inside. Sitting in the middle of the room is what appears to be a well...and within the well is a pool of darkness. A mana pool - of your own element. But that strange feeling still persists...it feels like you...but it isn't you.

You spread out your senses. This time, you truly Focus. There's something underneath everything...energy. Mana. You peel back the first layer...and the world comes alive. The pool of mana beams at you like a dark sun. Your power core spins with earth magic. Your enchanted pen almost seems to squirm and vibrate in its pouch. The shard of the sword you carry wavers and mists. Something that feels just like it lies across the room, behind what appears to be a statue similar to the two you saw outside. To your left...far in the shadows..is a presence. It wavers, hovers...watching. It -is- shadows. Lonely, silent shadows. Before you investigate this...presence...it would probably be best to revitalize your mana. You touch the mana pool. >Mana 10/10 The essence of your being resonates with this darkness. You feel like a bell. Ringing... HUUM Ringing... HUUUMMM Something is different. The mana around you...you could change it, if you wanted to. You could change a soul. Change...

You turn toward the shadowy presence. It lingers against the wall...flat...emotionless. It is stained with something unique...you...but not you. Loneliness seeps from it in a wave, thick in the air. Isolation. You raise yourself up. <My greetings.> The presence tenses slightly, but does not move. <Can you understand me?> There's no response. It sits there, watching you. Words don't seem to work. Perhaps images will. You send it an impression of it being alone with the door shut. The door swinging open, and an image of you enters. You send the feeling of loneliness washing away, replaced by a warm sense of belonging. ...you send the image...but it's as if that warmth you ended it with is swallowed whole by the shadow. Absorbed. Sucked in. It cocks its head at you. >Rolled 1d100: 26, 44, 79

The shadow stares at you. Loneliness rolls out from it. Alone. Darkness. Nothing. Alone. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. <STOP!> The shadow lunges at you! >Rolled 1d100: 57, 2, 55 You slam into it with half your body. It's flung across the room... ...and slams into the statue of the golem. The golem doesn't move, but the Shadow is up in an instant. Arms pop out from its form, twisting, contorting. It begins to crawl forward toward you, slavering with a chomping mouth! >Rolled 1d100: 53, 37, 50 You stick your arm in the mana pool... ...and throw your strongest spell at it. Your Shadow Assault slams into the shadow...but the spikes of magic roll around it, or simply disappear. It has no affect! But when it's about to reach you, your water strike catches it straight on, blowing it back against the wall. You lash it with a spirit whip for good measure, slicing off once of its arms. It doesn't bleed, but ragged shadows protrude into the air. It shrieks and claws at the wound. You draw all the power you can, and throw Binds of spirit at it, wrapping it up as tightly as you can. A grind of steel and rock snaps your attention to the side. The golem is coming alive! The shadow struggles with your binding...but it's shifting. Inking! It won't be held long. >Rolled 1d100: 42, 5, 67

You leap onto the shadow, clawing, punching, tearing. Still trying to extricate itself from your bind, it's caught helpless. You reduce it to a quivering heap of shredded shadow in moments. You never see the golem's blow coming. A giant mace slams into you from behind, and now it's your turn to fly across the room. You slam into the far wall hard enough to crack the stone. >HP 27/37 You stand, dazed from the strike. Meanwhile, the golem grinds the remains of the other shadow into dust with a few massive blasts of its mace. >Rolled 1d100: 62, 63, 53 You cast Bind at full power. Orange ropes snap out around the golem and wrap it up tight. Its brute strength strains against the weave, but for now, it holds without a problem. You cast Nightflare. The world around you resounds with a shock, as if time itself were jarred by your magic. The magic in the air warps and shudders. The cavern is cast in a negative of itself, light where it was shadow, shadow where it was light. The image lasts only an instant. The golem starts and sputters wildly, the magic that keeps it animated struggling to maintain coherence. You blast it with Shadow Assault. You send the spell at it again and again, cracking it, then breaking off its limbs, then shredding it to rubble. Your magic unravels and slams into the walls, sending a tremor through the room. Dust and rock trickles from the ceiling. The golem is dead. You remember the golems outside the doors to this chamber. You glance back to the wood door at the base of the stairs, but you don't detect any sounds or sense any magic that would indicate golems are coming. You sigh - but almost in regret, than relief. With this mana pool...your magic is strong. Perhaps you should devote more energy toward perfecting those abilities... You hop over to the golem. A hint of life still flickers through its stone. You acidify it into your being. You slide over to the shadow... It lunges at you!

>Rolled 1d100: 53, 93, 66 You duck out of the way of the shadow and slam it with your limbs as it tumbles past. You feel like you've landed a heavy blow - and you do. It flies into the wall and slumps to the floor. Cracks spiderweb up the walls of the chamber...the fight has done some damage. But even as you watch, the Shadow picks itself off the floor. Shadows from around it are almost drawn in to its form, piecing it together, repairing it...its ability to regenerate is frighteningly fast. It shrieks at you in a wild rage. >Rolled 1d100: 90, 24, 34 You bind the shadow once again. This time, it dodges, flickering to the side...like a shadow. Your ropes of spirit constrict only air, and vanish. But it's wide open for you follow-up attack. Your water strike blasts it straight on, stunning it still. You unleash a flurry of spirit whips. Like you, it isn't weak to spirit...but your superior force prevails. One limb is bent the wrong way, then hacked off entirely. A leg follows, then another. Soon, it's just a writhing torso. You whip it a few more times for good measure, but even then, it's still regenerating, fast. >Rolled 1d100: 69, 67, 96 You tear into the shadow with claws bared at the end of a dozen limbs! It tries to scamper away with its regrowing stumps, but it stumbles helplessly across the stone. You rip it in half! The bigger half is STILL moving. You have to commend it for its persistence... ...but now, it's over. You Must CONSUME You roil over the shadow, and your essences latches on to it... ...and it latches on to you! You roll over and over, fighting as you each try to outmaneuver the other in a battle of consumption. Your soul spikes down, and it fends off your attacks. It lashes back at you, but you absorb its attempts without trouble. It's weakened from the fight. You slowly drain its energy...but most of it struggles on, desperately

trying to get away! >Rolled 1d100: 61, 70, 30 You affirm your grip on the writhing shadow. Its soul shrieks at you like a thousand voices screaming in pain. You press on, absorbing it into your own body...taking its power for yourself. Taking everything. The loneliness bleeds into you...stark...cold... Waves of loneliness pour over you. Isolation. Stronger for it. Purer. A shriek pours from the shadow. Pours from you. Pours from the darkness. You are the darkness. You are the things people cannot see. You are dread of fear. You are the sickening reek of paranoia. You are Isolation. <NO!> You snap back your tendrils and roll away from the shadow. No. That's not right. That isn't right. The core of the being sits on the floor in front of you. Even as you watch, bits of shadow gather around it. You slam it with your limbs. You chop it to pieces. You pound it until you ache from striking the stone. It still moves. Slowly, slowly it regenerates. Then faster...it can't move, but its building momentum. This thing... ...it just won't die! >Rolled 1d100: 60, 100, 68

>Primary Critical Success! >Secondary Critical Success You shrink back. A tingle of fear crawls up your spine as this indomitable enemy continues to grow back after being beaten down again and again. ...and you realize something. You've been afraid of its loneliness - and yet it's exactly like you. You lost everything. You have been on the brink of death time and time again...and time and again, you overcame. You grew stronger. You grew back! This shadow is nothing to be afraid of. You are shadow...and it is you. You blast it with a wave of Impressions, fighting its loneliness. It shrieks back at you. A call like a lonely man, trudging through blizzard. The icy solace of Isolation is overwhelming. You dig in and fight back. An image of you and Flint, slapping hands. And image of Joey riding on your shoulders. An image of a former angel turning her back on you to fight a common foe. The image of a shadow mage caught in emotion. The image of a small girl with her arms wrapped around you, crying into your form. And you cap this with power. An overwhelming darkness springing from a dynamo. You are not something cowed by loneliness. You are a force to be feared, to be respected. <YOU WILL SUBMIT!> For the first time, the Isolation cowers away from you. <...where are you going?> You step forward. You pin the Isolation to the wall. It is frozen, unable to move...alone. <You are not alone.> You close the distance until you are touching the other shadow. <YOU ARE ME!> The shadow cracks with purple energy. You twist your tendrils into the thing, plunging into it...not fighting...but merging... The force makes the stone tremble... You swirl together.

And then you are one shadow... ...greater than two apart. Something rests inside you... ...a piece of something great. You know not what it is...but you have a sense of what it could be. A solid bit of that untapped energy you gain from consuming souls...concentrated. The room stills, and goes silent. You are a being of darkness and shadows. You move close to the back of the room. Sitting in the alcove behind where the golem stood is a steel lockbox. Etched into its surface is a detailed vista of a sunrise matched against a setting moon. You recognize it. You withdraw the Sun-Moon key from your belt and raise it near the chest. The key snaps over the chest. It glows briefly, the clinks onto the steal. You hear the latch click loudly. You open the chest. Lying on red velvet cushions are the shards of a sword. These aren't the solid sliver you found before...more smaller bits and pieces. A lot of them. Wavering shadow surrounds them...just like the other pieces. You draw out the larger shard of the sword and move it near the tiny bits. They leap to life before your eyes, arranging themselves in a long, lengthwise fashion. It all floats in midair. While unconnected and distance, the bits and pieces form the vague outline of what is unmistakably a colossal weapon. Unfortunately, you can't make out any more words...the largest fragment only reads: "-n, the void tw-" You replace the shard in your pouch, and, conveniently, the bits and pieces fly in with it. You take the opportunity to summon your wisp, considering you have access to a mana pool. A tiny gateway opens, and closes. The wisp flies out and buzzes around your head, then settles against your backside, well-concealed. You focus your senses and check around the room.

The world flashes bright at you. The mana pool is as a sun...no, a brightened moon of shadow. The inner glow of the golems up the stairs catches your attention, but they haven't budged. Good. Something sees you. You cut off your focus, surprised. Something was looking back at you. ...it didn't feel particularly friendly. Whatever that thing was...you're not sticking around to find out. You dash up the stairs and stretch your arms to the ends of the open door. You heave to shut the gates on the mana pool. Rolled 1d100: 52, 99, 50 The gates creak, groan, and then rapidly begin the close. As you bend them inward, it becomes easier, and you slam them shut hard. A snap of magic flies over the doors. You hear the click of the lock, as you did when it opened. You quickly dash up into the hole you slid down, climbing, clawing, evening flapping a few times to get back to the upper level. Soon enough, you're back in the mushroom garden. You wander outside. The sun hasn't poked above the edge of Refuge's canyons, but it's starting to get light. You head up into Flint's room. He and Joey are still sound asleep. Joey is snoring slightly. You sense that Auriel is awake. She seems to be moving about her room, probably dressing. You feel as though something in you has shifted...you could hold a shape. Not just a shape, but an appearance. Whatever your imagination can think of. ...perhaps you'd like to appear as a human, to blend in? ...or something more intimidating. A shadow mage...with a decidedly otherworldly bent. In any case, it's probably best you stay low-profile until you leave Refuge. Undecided on a regular form, you bob over to Auriel's room. What is it humans do at this point...?

Ah! Knocking. You rap a Fist upon the door. <Auriel?> There's a pause, and then footsteps approach the door. It opens. Auriel is fully dressed, and it seems as if she's working on getting her armor on. "...shadow." What do you say? <The others are still asleep.> "So they are." <May I come in?> "...sure." She backs away from the door. You close it behind you. Not even a hint of argument. Now you're worried. <...would you like some help with your armor?> "...sure." You buckle the plates and pads around her body, tightening each one firmly. She stands with her arms out, patiently waiting. You have the feeling this isn't a new experience for her. <Not worried I'm going to stab you in the back?> "...who cares," she says. "I'm not an angel anymore. I'm nobody." <You don't sound like yourself.> "I don't really feel like myself." She snorts derisively. "Correction. I'm not myself." Oh, goodness. <What do you mean?> "...I don't know." <You seem to be yourself as much as you were the day before...as far as I can tell.> "Confirming, once again, that you have the sensitivity of a pebble!" Auriel snaps. <What's wrong?>

"What makes you think something's wrong?" <Because you haven't been that rude to me since the first few days of our traveling together,> you say. <...and because I encouraged Flint to confess his feelings for you...but you don't seem happy.> "...his feelings..." Briefly, Auriel's face clenches. Her features twist in pain. But a hand is quick to hide her expression. "...there is someone else that holds his heart. He admitted he feels attachment for me...but that he cannot, in good conscience, allow that to sway him. He told me he doesn't deserve me. He told me that I belong back at the Ring City, helping the people, not out on the road with a cursed knight errant that's avoided his own home for years. He doesn't understand...my position. My feelings, he understands. And he's rejected them out of some damn sense of dignity. Fuck dignity!" She slams a fist against the walls. "I'm so tired of politics. Of society. Of everything. I just want...I don't know. I've no idea what I want." <If he believes he knows where you belong better than you do, then he is a fool - albeit, a fool that cares for you.> "...he does, Shadow. But his honor will not let him court another woman while his heart is elsewhere. And that just..." She trembles. "...makes me...even more..." <Then why are you giving up?> you say. <You faced a demon lord alone. This is hardly the time to allow mere words to stop you.> "I was an angel, then!" She shouts. "Now, what am I? Just another mage, at best." <If you allow your lack of wings to define you, then you are not half the person I thought you were. What you are is not as important as what you choose to be.> Auriel is silent for a long time. Eventually, she looks at you. She blinks rapidly, obviously holding in tears. "...thank you, for saying that." <I've been saying that to you for days, now. For likewise, I do not believe my Shadow defines me. I am the Shadow, and the Shadow is as I choose - not the other way around.> You bob in place once. <Flint's heart may be distant, but with time, I believe you might draw it to yourself. And I think that will be a good thing, for you, and for him.> Auriel glances away from you, but doesn't respond. <Kirt asked me to bring yourself and Flint to meet with the sage after breakfast. I expect he'll meet us downstairs momentarily. I will see you then.> You leave the room. You wander into Flint's room. After a time, he wakes, yawning. He stands, starts slightly at your presence. "...that you?"

<Yes.> "...you sound...miffed." <That,> you begin, <is an appropriate description of my state of feeling. Why did you not simply tell me you still had feelings for another woman? Did you think that wasn't important? I would not have pushed you so hard had I known. Auriel would not have had to build her hopes up.> "It's a long story. I..." Flint glances at Joey's sleeping form, then lowers his voice. "...it is shameful, Shadow. I have not been home in six years. Not because I don't miss home, but because I can't bear to see my own family." <Why not?> "Because I am in love with my eldest brother's wife," Flint says, "and I chose to leave before I made a terrible mistake." <...explain.> Flint sits at the small table on the opposite side of the room. He speaks quietly. His gaze wanders across the floorboards, never resting in one place. "...Megan, is her name. As you know. A noble from a notable family Heavensgate, who came to our court when I was 16. "I was...always somewhat of an outsider, in court. I couldn't keep my words straight. Two left feet. Now..." Flint clenches his fists. "...now I know why. But...whatever the case, I kept my own company. My father and...others...tried to encourage my social development, as was proper for a young man, but I couldn't take it. After your every public appearance carries with it an inevitable embarrassment...you give up. "It's funny..." His eyes goes still. "...that's what drew me and Megan together. She came on an extended stay in the Dobshire court. It's common, when a girl needs to be wed off, to present in another court. Doubles as a sort of diplomat of the family." Flint waves a hand vaguely. "...she hated court. And she wasn't the prettiest girl...slender figure. Wispy. One day, I was practicing the sword, alone..." He makes a faint smile. "When I started tripping up, I knew someone was watching. I always figured it was performance anxiety, or something. Well, she complimented me on my craft...and made fun of me a bit, too. For some reason...she put up with my stuttering. "In any case, we were fast friends. My brothers...ignored her, at the time. We took lessons together from the head wizard of Dobshire, and Flint family friend, Hemmelus. She was a talented healer, in fact. "...I came to love her," he whispers. "I don't know when. I don't think I realized it, for a time. Until she grew a bit older, and her figure grew to match her inner beauty...and suddenly, I had competition on all fronts. "I knew my father would approve. I can't remember how many times I tried to ask her...ask for her

hand. I...couldn't, Shadow. I couldn't do it. Something stopped me. Close my throat. I nearly swallowed my own tongue, once. She had to fetch the herbalist for me because her magic wasn't working. I wasn't exactly injured. But you know...she turned down everything else. She waited for me. Always waited." Flint hangs his head. "When I was 23, Gerald proposed to her. Politically...she couldn't refuse marriage to the heir to Dobshire, and essentially, Arland itself. She refused it, actually, but her father was quick to override that little rebellion. And then...it was done. "I couldn't live with it, Shadow. I still loved her. Flint finally looks at you. "...she loved me back. I could see it in her eyes. The pain. The longing. She came to me, not a week after the wedding. She asked me to take her away. She begged me to throw everything away and run away with her to Felnoir, and hide on the border of the Great Forest. She seemed convinced I'd make a fine ranger, and we could have new lives, free..." Flint laughs. It's a cold laugh you've never heard from him. Cruel, and full of hurt. "Of course...I couldn't do that. I told Hemmelus and my father I wished to travel, see the world. Restore glory to the line from which we're descended - Aeolus's order. So I did. I ran, because I didn't think I deserved her if I couldn't even muster the courage to ask for her hand in marriage. But that's just an excuse. I ran because I was a coward. All the more reason I didn't deserve her, really. "And now...after not really doing all that much for six years...here I am," he says. "So, no. I cannot extend my heart to Auriel. I'd be giving her second-hand goods, you see. It's already torn to pieces." You shake. You tremble. You tower above him. Flint blinks and looks up at you, surprised. <I DID NOT RISK MY EXISTENCE TO ASSIST SECOND-HAND GOODS!> you roar. "...um...ok," Flint says. You slowly drop back down. <Never. Never will I hear those words from you again - words that devalue your own life. Unless you mean to insult me, and our friendship.> "...of course not." <Then perhaps you should take your own advice,> you say. <How do you expect to move forward if you are always caught in the past? What happened then is done. You would ignore what lies before you, throw away opportunities in order sit and linger in times gone by?>

You step back from him. <I have heard heard foolish things before, Flint, but what you said was among the worst of them. The man who has found room in his heart for both light and shadow would never believe that this same heart was -second-hand goods-!> Flint only stares. <You have it backwards,> you say. <You made a choice. You decided that you wouldn't turn your back on your brother and destroy your family. You gave up love for that purpose, and you did what you had to do - you left your home. That is true courage. The coward's way out would have been to steal her away and run. You slump slightly, feeling drained. You've had a long day. <...whatever you chose, Flint, I am your friend and ally. But I believe that the past is the past, and you should move on. You taught me that. Don't linger on the sunset behind you. Seize the rise of the moon before you.> Flint swallows. For a long time, he's quiet. Eventually, he looks up at you. "If someone told me that the best friend I would ever have would be a sentient shadow...I would have killed the fool and dumped his body on the side of the imperial highway," Flint says. <Consider the body dumped.> "...you're right," he says. "Light dammit. Light dammit, what the hell of the nether is wrong with me?!" Flint stands. "It's been six years, and I'm sitting here like a 16-year-old boy wetting my pants. Lords, what have I done. What have I done to that woman?" Flint bursts out the the room. You Ink out the window of Flint's room and sit on the roof. The thatch roof, which doesn't not stop any sound from reaching you. You here a knock. "High - Auriel, are you awake?" A door creaks. "...Donovan. Good morning." "Auriel...I - " Flint's voice stops. "...dammit...I...will...say...these...words!" You hear panting. It sounds like Flint is struggling. You bend your senses forward. The parasite is twisted around him like a python. Dammit. "...forgive...a...idiot...I'm...so...stupid...Auriel..." "...what are you trying to say?" You ready an encouraging Impression...

...but Flint doesn't need it. "...fuck...you...parasite!" Flint shouts. His light flares. "Auriel...what I said...I was wrong," he says. "I've been living...clinging, to the past. But I realized that what's in front of me is more important than things I've long since lost. So much more important." He goes quiet. "...I...beg your forgiveness...if you'll have it. I should never have...I..." His words are cut off. You sense their souls hit the wall, at very close proximity. There aren't any more words. They stay like that for a rather inordinate amount of time. After a bit, Flint's laughter drifts up through the thatching. You interpret that as a good thing. They wander over and wake Joey, and the three of them head downstairs. You note a fiery soul wandering in the front entrance of the tavern. You sit, and reflect. Your companions are quite an interesting bunch. But you feel that life is more interesting for their company. You look to the rise of the sun over the canyon walls. You're collecting the keys to the source of power under Jacob's Field... ...but why, exactly? You're not sure. It feels like the right thing to do. You remember the voice that called Erebus's name...and can only believe that answers await you there. Are you Erebus? You aren't sure. What was that shadow you ate? It was a strong elemental...but it wasn't like the spirit elemental you encountered earlier. Something about it was different. Flint's curse continues to endanger him. It must be removed. That has to be first priority. You need to find Adavan, and Abigail. And the keys...you own one. The duke has another. There should be two more...one for wind, and one for fire. Perhaps Flint's family possesses the wind key, as he seemed to believe...but where would the fire key be? You glance at the canyon walls. Where is Adavan heading? And then, there's Ila. She's waiting for you in Heavensgate...to meet her alone, beneath a tree that blooms with black flowers.

And beyond that...who knows? All things considered, you've got a lot on your plate.

THREAD 25
>HP 37/37 >Mana 10/10 You decide you've had enough conversation for one morning, and sit on the roof of the tavern and wait patiently. After a time, Kirt, Flint, Auriel, and Joey walk outside. Your three companions gather their two remaining horses from the nearby stables. Joey and Kirt stay on foot. You slip into the shadow of Flint's horse. <How was breakfast?> Flint nearly falls out of the saddle. He heaves a breath and straightens. "Don't sneak up on me like that." "What, you didn't sense him?" Kirt asks. Auriel gives Kirt a look. "He's rather thick-headed, at times." "...oh..." Flint sighs, then grumbles something under his breath. Auriel chuckles, then flashes him a bright smile. It's strange on her face. The past weeks, there's hardly been a moment she wasn't scowling. The grin steals away that firm, tense demeanor, the angelic agelessness...she seems, then, to just be a normal woman. Flint notices. His grumbling subsides, and he smiles, too. Auriel puts her hand on his arm, and he takes up her hand, squeezing her fingers. Then he lets her arm drop, and they move their horses forward. You slowly make your way up the cliffs toward Taremtis's towers. Joey is quiet, hands strung tight around his pack's straps. Kirt's face is set and grim. You wonder what he's thinking. You wander up toward Taremtis's towers. You reach the towers. The odd architecture assaults you once again - windows, arches and balconies strewn about at random, patched together like afterthoughts of other houses. A few birds flap about the stone. Others are perched here and there in nooks and crannies. "...by Hyperion's light," Auriel whispers. "Those are birds." "He raises them," Kirt grunts. "Sky-sever stops near his towers. Some spell he made up years ago, before he went totally insane."

Flint tears his eyes off the flying creatures and stares at Kirt. "...so, how mad is he, exactly?" "Oh, benevolently addled," Kirt says. "He wouldn't hurt a fly." "...if you say so." You reach the door of the tower. Kirt moves forward... The wood flies open. "AH!" The bearded sage stands before you. "VELERON! DRAGON-KIN, I KNEW YOU'D COME FOR ME ONE DAY! HAVE AT THEE!" A bolt of green wind whips from Taremtis's finger. Kirt barely dodge. It cracks the bridge under his feet. "You old fool, it's me!" Taremtis lets his hand drop. "Oh. Why didn't you say so in the first place?" Kirt just sighs. "...are you going to let us come in, or are we to convene a hundred feet over the precipice?" "Oh, come in! I've got tea, and cockroach guts, ground up for a spell, but I've got extra to spare if you care for it." He marches back into his house. Kirt walks in immediately. Flint and Auriel exchange glances. Joey looks pale. "...what do you think?" Auriel asks. <What's the worst that could happen?> "I can think of a few things," Auriel says. <Knowledge is power. If you wish to wait outside, you may.> You walk through the door. You hear a sigh, and the other three come in behind you. The inside of the tower is surprisingly cozy. Tall shelves line the way all the way up the curved walls. Walkways and staircases crisscross the open air, providing access to the odd library. Some books, a desk and a few chairs float in midair. A globe soars over your heads and floats up into the middle of the room. The bottom floor seems entirely compose of red velvet. There's a large wood table lined with red velvet chairs, all positioned on a red velvet carpet. Velvet also coats the walls where there aren't bookcases. Kirt looks back at you. "Don't touch the books without permission. A wizard's prized possessions are not to be tampered with." Taremtis emerges from an adjoining doorway with a wide tray. It rattles and shakes as he waltzes

forward. He loses his grip on the tray. Most of the glass breaks on the floor. The liquid seems into the velvet. He doesn't even break stride, waves a hand, and the liquid and shattered cups gather themselves up. The tray and glass all reassembles on the table. The liquids, which had gathered into balls in midair, pour themselves back into the appropriate locations. Kirt takes all of this in without much surprise and seats himself next to the head chair, which Taremtis has already taken. The rest of your party shakes off their incredulity and moves in around the table. You take the last remaining seat. Green ooze sits in your cup. You take a sip from the cup, with your pinky out. It tastes pond scum and rotting meat. This doesn't bother you in the slightest, and you drain the rest of it. "Oh, another fan of cockroach?" Taremtis grins toothily. "Delectable, isn't it! It's all about the texture. Smooth, but with those little gooey hunks mixed in!" You say nothing, because you're not sure what to say. Auriel glances down at her own ooze-filled cup, then pointedly looks away. Flint and Kirt and Joey each sip from their tea. Taremtis himself downs his cockroach in one go. "So," he says, "what did you want to talk about?" Kirt just looks at him. "You invited us, Taremtis. You said you wanted to see them." "Me? See them? Let's see." He gazes at each of you in turn. "A Shadow Elemental. A young boy, unremarkable. A former angel. And a would-be knight? What strange company you keep." You all just stare at the wizard. Kirt leans forward. "Is that it?" "Of course not! But you haven't even introduced yourselves." "How did you know all that?" Flint asks. "Isn't is obvious?" "...not really." "Well." The sage clears his throat. "I am Taremtis. Who are you?" "...Sir Donovan Flint, of Dobshire. Fourth son of the Lord Flint." "Auriel Lightcho - " She stops, and licks her lips. "...just, Auriel," She says. "Uh...J-Joey Erikson," Joey stammers.

Taremtis looks at you when you remain silent. "And yourself?" <Shadow will do.> "That's so -boring-," Taremtis says. "How about Donovan Auriel Erikson the Great?" <...I think not.> "If you say so, Donovan," Tarmetis says, still looking at you. He glances back at Kirt. "...what were we talking about?" Kirt is visibly growing more frustrated. "I had -hoped- that YOU would have something to talk about." "There's no need to raise your voice." "No need." Kirt rubs the bridge of his nose. "Just tell me something, dammit. You said you'd have something to say when I brought them all here." Taremtis sits at the table, silent. He stares at the wood. His eyes don't move. His hands sit together, holding his cup. The cup vanishes. And steadily, something else appears. A ball of light forms, slowly twisting and turning. Green-blue mists swirl within it. "...a Telling crystal," Auriel whispers. "He is a sage, then." "I am," Taremtis says. "Do you know the price of a telling?" His voice is different. Solid. Deep. His eyes are focused on the ball. Auriel nods solemnly. "...you never spoke of a price," Kirt says. "To glimpse at what -could-, what -should-, what -may-, steals my mind away. Too many are the possibilities. I am a tiny candle in a storm of potential. And now, after many Tellings, I am a kernel buried in kindhearted madness. Your impatience does not lighten that burden."

"...my apologies. I did not know." "No. You did not." Taremtis looks up from the ball, and glances around the table. "I have only a short time. I cannot Tell for long, these days, and still preserve what remains of my own self. Ask your questions. One each. One, and only one." Kirt clears his throat. He takes a breath. "...as you told me before, I have waited. What should I do, now?" There's a moment's pause, and then the sage speaks. "Go with them. Reclaim the truth of your birth. If the Shadow does not help you, you will certainly fail, though even if it does, you may still fall short. And if you fail, you -will- die." "...you told me to wait for this long," Kirt begins, his voice rising, "and now I'm simply to go and take it all back? Just like that?!" "One question, no more." Taremtis looks at Flint while Kirt fumes in his chair. "Lord's son. What of you?" Flint hesitates a moment, thinking. Flint licks his lips, then nods to himself. "...how can I be rid of the parasite on my soul?" "There are many ways," Taremtis says. "None preserve all those for whom you care. Seek the lich with the young girl. Or, seek the aid of the Black Lady. Or, find and use the four keys. In any case, you must return home to end your curse." Flint seems surprised by this, but nods. Taremtis looks at Joey. "Your question?" Joey swallows. Then, his face goes firm. "...I want to be stronger, and be a great knight. How can I do that?" "Trust the Shadow. Trust your teachers. Trust yourself. But be careful, or you will die." Joey nods. "Angel?" Taremtis prompts. Auriel is quiet. She starts to speak, then stops. She seems torn. Then, she decides. "...how can I protect Sir Flint?" "Trust the Spirit within you." "...no. I cannot. There must be another way."

"If there was, I would Tell you. If you refuse to bend on this, he may very well die." "I cannot!" Auriel shouts. "What else can I do?" "One question, I said." Finally, Taremtis faces you. The crystal ball glows like green fire. You can feel its Wind swirling harder. "...the crystal dislikes you, Shadow. Ask quickly. I will bend it to my whim." <What cost must be paid to restore true harmony between the elements?> "...you know nothing," the sage says. His hands seem to tighten on the ball for a moment, then relax. "Harmony? Between the elements? There is no harmony to be had. It is their interaction, their very disharmony that forms the world we live in. Would you return the world to nothingness? Learn the difference between disharmony and peace." The sage tenses, then relaxes. The wind is spinning faster. "Ask your question before I can no longer answer." <How can I bring the Earth Elemental, Geb, back to sanity?> "Remove the curse upon Sir Flint - his power will be needed, or you will die in your quest. Then, speak with Yi Fang, the Lich of Archon. Seek his aid in acquiring the Staff of Winds. The staff will part the storm holding Geb captive. The parasite of Light keeps him mad. You must - " Spears of wind spike at the edges of the crystal. Taremtis's arms are thrown backward. Almost as quickly, he lunges forward, putting his hands in place around the sphere. He can barely contain the rising force. "...one...last...thing..." He looks at Kirt. "...to reclaim what is yours...Blackwater...you'll need her..." He clenches his hands, and the crystal fades back to nothing. Light returns to the room. Taremtis smiles at you all. "Well, my birds need feeding. TALLY-HO!" He flies up into the air, his robes flapping wildly, and soars out of a nearby window. "...that was weird," Joey says. Flint looks at you. "...you're planning to help Geb?" <He is bound and tortured mad. From what I know, he is a friend of the Shadow. But it seems as though we have a long path ahead of us.> "...I..." Kirt stands. He looks at all of you. "We don't know each other well...but...if you'll have me, I wish to travel with you. I have a feeling that I need to do so, after what he said. In exchange...all my skill as a warrior, and ranger, against any obstacles you may face."

You look at your companions. <I would approve.> Flint nods. "I won't say no to your offer." Auriel thumps her elbows on the table. "I've got a few questions. Who the hell are you, and what did he mean about 'take back what is yours'? I've got enough on my plate without getting dragged into someone else's mess." You wish she was a little more subtle, but you have to admit she gets to the point quickly. <I, too, would like to know these things,> you say. <Apparently, you need me. I would appreciate honesty.> Kirt seems about to say something when Taremtis flies back in through the window. He uses his wind magic to propel something down to the floor. It nearly slams into Kirt, but at the last moment, it stops dead, then falls to the floor. "Don't forget your shit, you ungrateful canyon rat!" He cackles like a madman and flies back outside. Kirt lifts one of the fallen objects. It's what appears to be a metal shield. A large ram is carved into the front. Auriel cocks her head. "That shield is Kanian." Kirt turns toward you all, still holding his shield. He looks at the ground, then back. "...I...am not entirely sure I want to do what he says. But if I don't travel with you, I lose the option." He looks at the face of the ram on the shield. "...if I do...then, I will tell you." <You don't need to tell me,> you say. <You are Obis Vin, rightful ruler of Kan Abar, ousted by your brother, Nulis Vin. Though most believe you dead.> Kirt is stunned. Auriel, Flint, and Joey all look at you. Kirt takes a breath. "...what makes you say that?" <It is simple,> you say. <I have learned in reading that the remnants of the True Flame - those dedicated to Logi, the Fire Elemental - settled in Kan Abar after the war. It makes sense that their descendents would retain their fiery souls...as you so obviously have. Secondly, your cloak, also painted with a ram, carries a powerful enchantment that hides you from detection. Such a great treasure would naturally be possessed by one of your status, and would also explain how you escaped from your brother in one piece. You also related to Flint that you were familiar with the comforts of a noble home, revealing that you were likely of highs status. Finally, the sage said that you needed to take back what was yours - and what else could he mean, but the throne stolen from you?> "...damn," Auriel mutters. "You're an observant one," Kirt says. "I guess there's no point in hiding it. I am indeed Obis Vin. Formerly, the prince of Kan Abar. Now, an anonymous exile." <Why did you leave Kan Abar?>

"...my brother drove me out." <I remember hearing Kanians lamenting your brother's heavy-handed rule, and wishing for your return. Would you deny them?> "...you know who I am, but you don't know the half of it." <I am listening.> >Rolled 1d100: 55, 68, 95 Kirt grits his teeth. Then he sighs, and slumps back into his chair. "...Nulis...he was always the general - our greatest. I was an administrator. Good with politics, in handling the noble families, popular amongst the people. When our father withdrew from the public eye, in poor health due to his advancing years, he relied on us to run the kingdom. And run them we did. Very well. New trade agreements with Arland, and Imil, and the elves. The long tension between ourselves and the empire seemed settled. Our people prospered. "Nulis never resented me for my position as the elder. He was always my friend, and ally, and more importantly, my family. I trusted him implicitly." Obis rubs the bridge of his nose. "One day, that changed. We were visited by a large diplomat contingent from the empire. Amongst them were several of Heavensgate's merchant councilmen, and several angels. And a large noble retinue." Auriel nods. "I remember this. It was to bring Kan Abar into the fold against the Black Lady. Tyrael and Sandalphon both went. A high honor." "Indeed," Obis says. "...I've never been much a mage, myself, beyond a few tricks. No talent. But I remember my brother's face when he saw the Highest of the High." Auriel nods again, but says nothing. "...amongst the nobles was a woman that captured my eye...and, soon enough, my heart," Obis says. You glance at Flint and Auriel, and you make a rather not-subtle smile. Auriel goes stony-faced. Flint just ignores you. "The meeting ended after two weeks, and the retinue all flew back on their airship," Obis continues. "But for the lady, Kullia Nesteral. Daughter of the Councilman Nesteral. A beautiful woman, and kind. Fiercely intelligent. I'd courted many women, if just for show. But her...she was different. "It wasn't long until we were engaged. The match was a good one - a very prominent lady of Heavensgate, through whom I could open much trade with the empire proper. It was seen as a positive for both sides. My father approved, and the engagement was set. But though all this, my brother changed. Through my informants, I heard rumors he coveted Kullia. I ignored them. Few men

wouldn't covet her, I believed. I ignored how he grew distant. How he began working with some of the nobles behind my back. "I knew something was wrong when he started pushing me to attack Kelvere," Obis says. He stares up at the rows of books lining the walls of the tower. "At a time when another push was being made to reclaim Temerland...he seemed to believe that was the time to strike. He'd ignore all our promises of friendship for territory, for war. And on top of that, if half of what I'd heard about the duke was true, he'd be planning much worse for us should we strike at him. I held firm to my position - a cautious extension of some troops to Gaphold, while stoking further trade agreements from the imperial council. "Then I discovered his experiments with demons. A secret weapon to guarantee victory against Kelvere." Obis hangs his head. "...I believed it was the work of a group in league with Archon, who wanted to reconquer and divide up Arland and Kelvere. Yi Fang is a strong ruler, but I believe that the path to peace lay with the empire, and trade, not through yet war. Not realizing the truth, I ran to my brother with what I found. He pretended to share my concerns...and then led me into a den of traitors." Obis holds his face his a hand. He leans low from his seat, tense with memories. "...he ranted at me, then. Saying how he'd rule the world with Kullia. How I was a short-sighted fool that was leading Kan Abar toward becoming a mere puppet of the empire. And he went on about her, again, and again. Telling me that they were meant for each other, and I was using my status as the heir to get in the way and steal her from him. "...if it wasn't for one precaution I'd taken when I found out about the traitors, I'd be dead. An old ally, Vidar Blackwater, gave me distraction enough to slip away. There was a fight in the palace, then, between my loyal followers and the much larger faction my brother had turned to his side. It turned into a slaughter. I tried to reach Kullia...but Nulis beat me to her. He held her hostage, threatening to kill her if I persisted." His hand clenches tight. "There was no time. His men were surrounding me. I ran. Abandoned her. I ran. Kept running. All the way here." For a time, it's quiet. "...how did you end up in Refuge?" Auriel asks. "...I was lost in Tarun Gakth," he says, "barely surviving. I collapsed from exhaustion, and hunger. When I woke up, I was here, in these towers. Taremtis used his crystal...and told me to wait, until the time was right." Obis looks at you. "...I would travel with you, Shadow. I do not know if I have it in me to return...but to close that door entirely..." He clenches his fist. "...not yet." <Are you aware of the war between Kan Abar and Kelvere?> Obis draws back, then sighs. "...war, then. What's happened?" You glance at Flint and Auriel. They nod at you. It takes a while, but you tell Kirt the details of the war and your defense of Jacob's Field and Evinbrook. Kirt sadly sighs. "...that fool. What is he thinking?"

<It seems Kan Abar is in need of leadership,> you say. "...I already failed once." <Well. If you do chose to go back, let me make something clear,> you say. <If I then chose to help you, I will help you attain justice - but not vengeance. Remember that.> "Fair enough." You extend a shadowy appendage, which is in no way phallic or otherwise sexual in nature. It forms into a hand. <Then you are welcome to join us. For now, we seek to remove Sir Flint's curse. After that...we'll see.> Obis looks at your 'hand' for a moment, then grasps it and gives it a firm shake. "Alright." <Who exactly is this Blackwater you mentioned?> Obis smiles slightly. "My family has been friends with theirs for a long time. Vidar was a thief, pirate, and, for Kan Abar, a smuggler. Head of the thieves guild of Kan Abar, which, officially, does not exist." He frowns. "But...the sage said 'she'. Blackwater is a man. I don't know what he meant by that. Perhaps he was talking about Kullia. Or the images ran together. But either way, I know not what became of him after my brother took over." <I see. Well.> You raise yourself up. <Shall we depart?> Your companions nod. Auriel takes a long breath. "It's long past we get back on the road. I doubt they've traveled faster than we have, with a girl in tow, but we don't want to lose time." "Where exactly are we going?" Obis asks. <It's a long story.> "It's a long story." You and Flint both glance at each other, then smile and shrug. Obis chuckles. "Apparently, it is." Auriel looks concerned. "...you're getting to know Shadow a little too well, I think." "Oh, if it wanted to eat me, it could have done that ages ago," Flint says. "Let's go." "I'll be out in a moment," Kirt says. You wait outside the tower for Kirt... Auriel looks at you. "You seek to free Geb?" <He was captured and driven insane, and has wandered those plains for 700 years,> you say. <I admit I

feel pity for him.> "...with that...I can never help you," Auriel says. <Then you can enjoy cockroaches with the sage until we return. As I'm sure Flint will join me, and Joey knows he can trust me. Isn't that right?> "Well, I already knew that," Joey said. "I guess the sage said so too, though." "Flint," Auriel says, pointedly looking at the knight, "would not be so foolish to violate what is in no uncertain terms an edict from Hyperion himself that Geb must be kept firmly locked away. A spell of the Light Elemental himself rests upon the Earth Lord, and it is not to be tampered with." <I see you seek another debate on the nature of good and evil to pass the time on our travels. Should Geb prove destructive after we free him, and his mind, I will change my opinion. But as far as I know, Aeolus attacked him - not the other way around. Geb was not aggressive." "Tell that to Hyperion," Auriel snaps. <When were you born?> "What?" <Answer the question.> "...29 B.E." <There. You were not witness to the beginnings of the war itself. Hyperion defended his allies against Geb's attacks, yes. But Geb only attacked because he was pressed into it by the Wind Lord. Leaving him insane and trapped for all eternity is not justice.> "It is as Hyperion has done." <Think of it this way,> you say. <Surely the good and great Hyperion did not intend such a cruel, vindictive punishment. The curse was to take him out of the war, not to lock him in madness forever. He probably had something else planned.> "What's your point?" <If Hyperion is as good as you say - and therefore, wouldn't want Geb in the state he's in forever - it would align with his will to free Geb.> "...and what happens if Geb goes on a vengeful rampage?" Auriel asks. "Are you going to take responsibility for that?" <So it's acceptable to leave someone in a state of eternal torture because they might be angry about it when you set them free?> You look at her with derision. <You're smarter than that.>

"Don't be naive," Auriel snaps. "If his continued torture prevents the death of hundreds of thousands of innocent people, then yes, I have no moral qualms with it. Do I think it's fair? No. But life isn't fair, either. You're an ideologue if you actually think you're going to just waltz in and patch things up between the elements." <I wouldn't say that. I think I've made plenty of progress with you.> "Progress. Is that what you call it?" She raises a fist. "I'll show you some progress." Flint puts his hands on Auriel's fist and lowers it back to her side. "Now, children, let's not argue." Auriel seems surprised. "...Flint. You're on my side. Right?" "Perhaps, if we brought enough force to bear - enough to reseal Geb should he prove belligerent - it might be worth something," Flint says. "That would be a Nether-ending hell of a force," Auriel mutters. Flint smiles. "The elves have an interest in settling the matter of their patron, one way, or another. With their aid..." Auriel raises an eyebrow. "I'm an island of realism in a sea of idiots. First, Geb, now, an alliance with the elves. What's next? Use Spirit magic to bring the dwarves back to life?" ...you begin to wonder about that. "Look at you!" Auriel says, waving in your direction. "You actually took that seriously! You two are impossible. Even if - alright. Let's say your crazy plan to have a force capable of calming him worked. The sage still told you you'd need Yi Fang's help to get the Staff of Winds. Firstly, the Staff hasn't been seen since the Sky-sever was cast. Secondly, Yi Fang is an iron-fisted dictator that would make you into a dynamo as soon as help you." "We'll settle it later," Flint says. "But - " He squeezes her hand and kisses her on the cheek. "Later." Auriel pouts, and folds her arms. "We will settle it," she says. But then she clams up. Flint winks at you. You're surprised he actually got her to stop. Suddenly, the advantages of their relationship spread wide before you

Footsteps make you all glance over. Obis is walking toward you - and he's clearly dressed for success. <Impressive armor,> you say. "...leftovers, from when I first arrived." His ram-head shield is strapped across his back. His red cloak is draped behind it. You can't detect his presence at all. "You still haven't exactly told me what's going on, by the way. I'd appreciate at least the bare bones." You exchange a glance with Flint. You tell Obis everything. He's quiet for a moment as he absorbs all the details. "...that's some story. Flint. Your life could be in serious danger." "It's been in danger for a while," Flint mutters. "No, but...what if it gets worse with time? We know next to nothing about this Shel'kath. You could drop dead tomorrow." Flint blinks at that. "...well...I've never really felt it get worse..." Auriel looks worried. "...he makes a good point. But...there's nothing we can do about it, anyway." Obis shakes his head. "You mentioned a demon told you the name, correct? We need merely summon the demon." <...you know of summoning?> "I'm no expert, but...Rogul might be able to help us," Obis says. "Assuming he has the reagents we need." <Actually, I have the reagents on hand. I was hoping Adavan could help us.> "Then, by the eight, what the hell are you all waiting for?" Auriel throws up her hands. "Gee, summoning a demon to solve our problems with the help of a angry old orc shaman. What could possibly go wrong with that? What a great idea!" She folds her arms. "You people have a death wish. All of you." "I've dealt with them before," Obis says. "I'd never dare with an army of the things, like Nulis has used. But they can be useful, properly controlled." <Auriel.> You turn to her. <If we have a chance of summoning a good source of information...even a potential cure...we need to take it. Immediately.> Auriel glances down. She sighs, then looks at Flint. "...if you're sure."

"I am," Flint says. "...ok." You look at Obis. <How can we get Rogul to help us?> "...let's make a deal," Obis says. "I can use...some leverage, I have, to get Rogul's help. In exchange...if I ever decide to go home, I want your allegiance. Not even just to me, but to what I represent - Kan Abar, and its people. After we cure Sir Flint's affliction, of course, and find your two friends." <...allegiance.> "Yes. We would be allies. Kan Abar would be a haven for you, should you wish to stay there." <What if you don't decide to go home?> Obis shrugs. "Then I cash in a favor with Rogul I'd probably never use otherwise, and that's the end of it." <There's a problem.> "Yes?" Obis asks. <I have a good relationship with the duke. I have fought with Kelvere against Kan Abar. To align myself with you would be to turn my back on him.> Obis rubs his forehead. >Rolled 1d100: 97, 53, 96 He sighs. "There are too many 'ifs' and 'buts' here for my taste. But...if I were to take the throne...I would not seek conflict with the duke. In fact, I believe I'd seek quite the opposite. For even if my brother was misguided, if we grew too close to the empire, we'd just end up a puppet, as he believed." <I can accept this.> "Good. Kan Abar values its independence." Obis glances at Flint. "Unlike some other countries I could mention." Flint bends his brow. "I am tired of repeating this. Arland is not a puppet of the empire." "You admit you've been away from home longer than I have, and you claim to be abreast of politics?" Obis says. "We would have allied with Arland long ago, had you let us. Your brother licks the boots of the angels on a monthly basis." "We have never asked for our boots to be licked," Auriel says sharply. "We have to present a solid

front to the Black Lady. And Archon, if need be. Arland won its independence with our help. Of course we're close allies." "Allies," Obis says. "If you say so." "I do," Auriel insists. Obis lets his arms drop. "I have no desire to argue." He looks at Flint. "But you should be wary. Auriel, or even other angels, may not wish to use Arland as a meat shield against Arland and Kan Abar, if need be. But the imperial council certainly does." <Enough,> you say. <This discussion is getting nowhere. We have a demon to summon.> The party marches down to Rogul's home. The Shaman lives in just another one of the houses carved into the walls of the canyons, though there are many beads, cloths, and symbols draped about the door and windows. Obis knocks hard three times. "Chieftain. It's me." The door opens... A young orcling answers the door. She's young, between thirteen and fifteen years old. She smiles brightly. "...wow, Kirt. You look handsome in all that armor." Obis smiles. "You flatter me, young lady. Is your father home?" "He is." She looks at the rest of the party, ignoring you, as you're hiding in Flint's shadow. "Kirt's friends are welcome to share our home." It isn't long before Rogul sees you. He pats the girl's head, then examines the party. "Kirt. Has the time come at last?" Obis nods. "I have a favor to ask, Rogul." "You know I cannot refuse." Kirt explains the relevant details of Flint's curse, and the proposed solution. Rogul snorts at the end of it. "...a succubus. Hmph. Who will be the summoner?" "...a familiar of Taremtis, that he lent us," Obis says. He looks in your direction. "Come, Shadow." You reveal yourself to Rogul, keeping the form of an indistinct blob of shadow. Rogul looks you over. "Hmph. Decades later and that crazy bastard still surprises me." He turns. "Come."

You wander down some stairs in the back of the building. You speak so only Obis can hear. <What favor did you do Rogul that he's willing to help so readily? He seemed so stubborn, before.> "That was his daughter, Niaga," Kirt whispers. "I saved her life, once, a month or two after I first arrived." <...about this. Do I have to do anything to be the summoner?> "One beauty of summoning magic," Obis says quietly. "The caster, and the summoner, are two different entities. Control of a ritual summon is about willpower, not mana. So it can be passed to anyone, given the right setup." You reach the next floor...and then descend another set of stairs. You end up in a large stone room, square, musty and damp. Symbols, numbers, and sigils are carved into the floor in complex patterns. You lay out some of the materials. Rogul quickly arranges the powders and jars into seemingly random locations around the floor. He then begins to mutter to himself, a soft, continual chant. He drags his cane across the floor. Where the wood slides across the stone, the symbols brighten. It isn't long before half the floor is glowing as if lights are imbedded in it. Most of it is bright orange - the color of Spirit - but flashes of shadow, water, and even fire spurt here and there. "Stand here." Rogul indicates a relatively blank area. You move where indicated. He glances at all of you. "Prepare yourselves. If this...familiar...falters, if will be on your shoulders to slay whatever comes through. We will be isolated until we fish out the right thing." "We don't know the name of the demon," Flint asks. "Isn't that important?" "It was summoned once before," Rogul says. "Once, I was an orc of Archon. I learned much. Information from demons one comes in contact with imprints itself on the soul. This can be extracted to summon specific demons. It is, however, an imprecise art. Be prepared." Flint draws his sword. Auriel does likewise, also preparing her shield. Obis looks ready for just about anything, as usual. The sigil glows until the light is cast up on the walls and ceiling. Rogul's face is coated in half light,

half-shadow. He looks at you. "Ready yourself, creature." >Rolled 1d100: 9, 99, 68 The room shudders slightly. Rogul closes his eyes in concentration. The seal on the floor flares and strobes. Your companions clench their weapons tightly. The magic begins to lift from the ground. It hangs in the air...and again you can see that other place, the gateway to the nether. Something's coming through. The creature walks through the portal. "Ah..." Annette unfolds her wings. "It's good to be back. Greetings, Master." <Shadow will do. I have heard that demons possess true names. What is yours?> "That's - my - little - secret!" You are not amused. You did not bring this demon here for her incessant, annoying conversation. You need to show her who's in charge, immediately. <I asked you a question.> >Rolled 1d100: 57, 34, 22 She Annette blinks. bows to > } _ In the l you. "...I am _ common tongue...Xella." Oddly, you feel the name as more an...Impression...than a word. But you understand nonetheless. The spell fades, and Xella is left standing before you. She glances behind you. "Oh, Donny! How have you been? I feel like it's been ages. I suppose you both took care of that nasty, ugly brute of a lord, didn't you?"

"...uh...sort of," Flint says. He's working hard not to stare. Auriel pointedly steps in front of him. "Demon. We require information. You know of the parasite on Flint's soul?" Xella looks at Auriel, then turns back you without answering. "How can I be of service, Mas-ah, Shadow?" <I want you to tell me everything you know about the Shel'Kath.> She nods to you. "I know some little," she says. "The Shel'kath is an artificial demon." She puts a finger to her lips. "Well, technically, all demons are artificial. From a certain perspective. Succubi are related to the Shel'kath, actually." <How so?> "We both feed on souls," she says. "Now, I rely on..." Xella grins evilly. "...shall we say, more subtle methods of predation? But Shel'kath are just nasty, ugly brutes that attack and feed. Disgusting lumps of shadow." She looks at you and smiles. "Not like you, of course, Shadow. You have control...mastery..." She bends forward and wriggles back and forward, staring you in the eye. "...it's rather intoxicating to think about it...all that strong, powerful control...how you can just -use- the shadow like your little plaything..." Flint's jaw has gone slack. Even Obis's weapon is in danger of slipping from his hand. Auriel clears her throat loudly. Flint glances at her, then straightens, but too quickly - he starts coughing on his own spit. He pounds his chest to clear his throat. Auriel taps her foot, glaring at him as he struggles. <Get to the point,> you say. "Oh, yes, you don't care for that sort of thing." She straightens. "Well, I digress. The Shel'kath on Donny has been split in two pieces. One on him, drawing from his soul. Another somewhere else, delivering energy. That travels through the nether, rather than this plane of existence...so it's secure, and quite well hidden." <Is Sir Flint in any immediate danger?> Xella looks at him. "...no. His soul is quite strong. Even...unique. Maybe tasty." <I'll have none of that.> "...aww." She bats her eyelids at you. "None at ALL?" >Rolled 1d100: 37, 55, 57

>Secondary Critical Failure >Rolled 1d20: 16, 18, 5 <You are not to touch any souls,> you say. <Ever.> "Well, Donny, I can understand," she says. "But what about the boy there? He looks tasty. You don't need him, right?" <I said no.> "Just one little suck?" Orange light flares under Xella's feet. Energy cracks over her like a whip. She shrieks, and falls to a knee. Rogul glances at you from behind the succubus with a pointed and annoyed look. His face says -don't screw up again-. <None means none. I will not compromise on this. Pray I find someone vile enough to feed them to you. Otherwise, I won't send you back to hell. I'll send you to the Ringed City.> Xella stands and nods quickly. "Yes, Shadow. I understand." A slow smile forms on her face. "I didn't know you were into whips, though. I like whips." <How do we get rid of the Shel'kath?> "...well...I don't know." She holds up her hands. "Honest. I've seen it split like that before, but I've never seen one destroyed. Although...I could attack it, if you wanted. But it's sunk in pretty deep. There's a good chance Donny wouldn't be doing so well afterward." <What do you mean?> "Well, he could be driven insane because half his soul is ripped out with the demon. Or, put into a deep sleep he never wakes up from." She cocks her head at you. "If that happens, can I eat him?" <No. Do you know of any other method?> "...well...no. The mage that created it might be able to help. Or someone who's seen it done. I don't think it's the sort of thing made to be undone." You glance back at Flint. <Trying to kill it outright sounds risky.> Flint swallows. He nods. "If I'm not about to drop, we should wait until we reach Adavan. Hopefully he can tell us something." That sounds reasonable to you. You turn back to Xella.

"Mas - ah, Shadow?" She gives you a lopsided smile. "Sorry. Habit. Will I be traveling with you and Donny? I'm so..." She squints. "I...would...like to not go back." <I see. Be sure to keep that desire in mind. If you disobey me, I will rid myself of you on the spot. One way, or another.> "Yes, Shadow." You think this demon might be useful. But a discussion might be profitable. It is clearly a dangerous thing to have around. You turn to your companions. <With that motivation, she could be a helpful ally.> Obis nods. "I agree." Auriel shakes her head. "Absolutely not." "It seems like she respects Shadow, somewhat," Flint says. "You can't be serious," Auriel says. "Donovan. It's a demon." "It helped us in the battle." "It will do what is best for it, and no one else." "I won't hurt Donny," Xella chimes in. "I sort of like him, anyway." "His name is Sir Flint," Auriel says sharply. "He likes Donny," Xella says. "I can tell." "Shut up." "Let's not argue," Flint says. "Stay out of it," Auriel snaps. "It's ok, Donny," Xella says. "You don't need to defend me. The angel's just worried because she knows you think I'm beautiful." Auriel grinds her teeth together. "Shadow," she says, "banish this infernal creature before I choke it to death." Xella grins broadly, showing two fangs on either side of even, white teeth. "Jealous? Maybe you should take the rod out of your ass. We could have some fun, all three of us." Xella's smile turns cocky, and she flaps her fibrous wings. "By the way, where are your wings, Miss Angel?"

"One more word, you disgusting bat, and I'll rip your wings out of your back." "Donny," Xella says. She cocks en eyebrow. "What -have- you been dealing with while I've been gone?" "That's it!" Auriel shouts. Light begins to glow in her hands. "If you care about Donny all that much, maybe you should let me stick around." Auriel's spell swirls in her hands, but she doesn't move. You all face the demon. <What do you mean? > you ask. "Shadow," Xella says. "Can you see the Shel'kath easily?" <...easily. No. With effort, I can bring it into focus.> "Ah, you see." Xella raises a pointed fingernail. "I can see it plain as day. If there are any changes, I can let you know immediately. I don't know everything about the spell that split it. Perhaps it can be controlled from the other end. To protect Donny, we need to stay vigilant." <I thought you wanted to eat him.> "Well, I changed my mind. And you wouldn't like that. I'm sure we'll meet plenty of nasty people I can eat later. Why eat your friends and make you angry?" You glance at Auriel, who has since dropped her hands, and her spell. <She offers a reasonable point,> you say. "...demonstrate complete control over this demon," Auriel says. "I will accept nothing less." It seems, where Flint is concerned, Auriel is willing to compromise beyond usual limits. <You don't want to go back to the Nether?> you ask Xella. "...no...master...Shadow. It can be...painful, there." <Do you know why I don't want you to attack humans?> "...you like some of them?" she says. <It goes beyond that.> Auriel taps her foot loudly on the stone. "I'm waiting." <It should not take a threat from me for you to show restraint. Are you of the Shadow?> "...I am, in part," Xella says.

<The Shadow consumes,> you say, <but not indiscriminately. Not without purpose. The Shadow is arbitration. It is justice.> "...I don't understand." <Then listen.> You wave of Impressions strikes her. You show her a shadow of chaos, oppressed by the light...and then another, resting on moonlit scales. You display them images side by side, contrasting them. You show her a world that becomes coated by shadow. The world vanishes, and disappears. And then the shadow itself disappears, and there is nothing left. You show her the image of yourself leading the battle at Kelvere, and the mages of many elements following behind you. And then you show her an image of yourself fighting alongside an angel, confronting a demon that is interested only in chaos, in consumption, and domination. You make clear this is not only at the detriment of everything else, but ultimately, to the demon, as well. "You are like me, is that what you mean?" <It is. And so you should see my logic.> "I do...but it doesn't matter." <Why not?> "We are monsters. Demons are of energy. We have no souls. We are created as figments of spells, made real by the thoughts and pressure of souls that have their own existence. We have no existence of our own. We already are nothing. Tortured in a nothingness that never goes away...that can only end when there is no more pressure to form us." "You seem real to me," says a young voice. The room turns to face Joey. The boy has been silent for some time, but his face is firm. His hands are clenched tight. "You're real, on your own. You can think and understand. And you're not a monster. You're just something different. Like Shadow." "...something different." Xella gestures around her. "The spell keeping me here, holding my existence, is quite apparent. I am no more real than a screwdriver. And we can only rest when there is nothing left to force us into reality. We never asked to be made." >Rolled 1d100: 72, 86, 34 She still doesn't understand. You speak so only she can hear. <Do you think you are somehow special?> you say. <That you are the only thing which suffers? To not

exist is to be free. It is existence which is true suffering. <I never asked to be thrown into a world I did not understand with my memories torn from me> you tell her. <I do not know what I am. I do not know where I come from. But these worries are ultimately unimportant, because it is I who defines who I am, and it is I who chooses my purpose. To allow pain and worry to chose your purpose is ultimately to be controlled by the world around you. I rebel against that control.> You seize the Shard of True Darkness within you. <Feel this, and understand what you seek.> Loneliness blasts out at her in a wave. Xella flinches backwards. Her eyes widen. She trembles as the cold, searing Isolation grips her. You cut it off. She's fallen to both knees. You stand above her. <Nothingness. Loneliness. Isolation. They are not the peace you imagine them to be. They are not the silence of a easy rest. They are terrible to behold, are they not?> "...yes." <I will create a place for myself, and those for whom I care, that is free from that pain. A place of life, that avoids that pain. You again speak so the room can hear. <That is why you cannot consume everything,> you finish. <Do you understand.> Xella nods. "...I understand. Please, spare me that feeling. I don't want it again." <It is not my intention to intimidate you. Merely to demonstrate what you ask for.> You step back. <Stand.> Xella stands. She bows low to you. "I shall not question your will on this matter again, Shadow." <Good.> You look at Auriel. <Are you satisfied?> Auriel glances at Rogul. "Chieftain...is the demon under strong lock and key?" "As best I can manage," Rogul says. "The Shadow has bent the creature to its will, as you asked." "...fine. But when this is done...the demon is as well." <Then you're with us,> you tell Xella. <I've given you a chance. Don't waste it.> "Yes, master." You turn. <Shadow will do, Xella. Shadow will do.> You look at the party. <We need to move, quickly.>

They all nod. "Let's go." Obis walks to Rogul and clasps his shoulder. "...thank you, my friend. For everything." "I need no thanks." He glances at Xella. "Keep an eye on the creature." "We will." You march up into refuge. Obis takes a moment to say goodbye to Rogul's daughter, and then you trek off up the other side of the river. You reach the canyon into which Adavan's symbol points. You glance back at your party. You've the son of the Lord of Dobshire, the exiled prince of Kan Abar, a former angel, a young village boy in deep over his head, and a demon following just behind you. You feel as though your life has swiftly grown rather complicated. You enter the canyon. <I've been considering adopting a more human form, to more easily interact with humans," you tell them. You shift into the shape you've imagined...

<What do you think?> "Are you supposed to be a man, or a woman?" Obis asks. <Neither. Your opposing genders give me enough grief as it is.> "I like it," Xella says. "It's kind of kinky. Do you have both sets of parts, too?" "Can we -not- have this conversation?" Auriel asks. "What?" Xella says. "Afraid of exploring your hermaphroditic fetish?" "I'm warning you, demon. I'm not as lenient as the Shadow." "You're more lenient than it is," Xella says solemnly. She's been flapping around in the air, but she hovers over Flint's horse, and lands directly behind him, just behind the saddle. "Mind if I join you, Donny? My wings are tired." "...well...uh...that's not really...um..." Auriel's words come short and hard. "Get. Off. The. Horse." Xella sticks her tongue out at her. Auriel looks ready to begin another spell, but Xella takes off once more. But not before pecking Flint on the cheek. "We'll have plenty of private time later, Donny." "Uh...m-maybe we shouldn't...um...things like that...don't..." But Xella is already off, scouting ahead down the path. Auriel's gaze bores into the poor knight. He scratches the back of his neck. "What?" "Enjoy that, did you?" "No, of course not," Flint says immediately. "Good." Auriel straightens in her saddle. "Otherwise I'd have to kill you."

Flint swallows hard. Obis sidles up to you and gives you a nudge. "This...is going to be entertaining. By the way, your new look is good. Very Shadow Mage." <Entertaining is the not the word I had in mind. But thank you.>

THREAD 26
>HP 37/37 >Mana 10/10 You sense Xella's magic signature drift up, and then down. She lands to trick the sky-sever, then takes off again, scouting the path ahead. "If we keep going in this direction, we'll hit the rock worm nesting grounds," Obis says. "Here's hoping your necromancer -friend- was smart enough to avoid that." You sidle up to Flint. You've been meaning to tell him about the Shard of True Darkness and the shadow mana pool you found underneath Refuge... You give Flint the short version of what happened. "Another shadow..." Flint murmurs. "...but it wasn't like you. Rabid. Maybe just an elemental?" "No. This one was different. It was aggressive...but this thing I consumed from it...I don't know what to make of it." Flint shrugs. "I know less than you. Maybe Adavan will know something? Or the duke?" You feel doubtful. Something tells you this isn't the kind of thing even Adavan would be an expert on. Time will have to tell. You were able to push its power onto Xella as a form of communication...but you don't believe that's all it can be good for. You continue to walk through the winding paths. After a few hours, the path abruptly ends at a sharp opening. Joey whistles. A wide valley, almost like a miniature desert, lies before you. You can see the rocky cliffs ringing the flats in a wide circle. The valley itself is filled with rugged piles of rock, as if it too was cliffs, but they were all blasted to rubble, but much of it is flat. The entire thing is dotted with black holes leading into the earth. You feel out the ground before you. Adavan's sigil pops up from the ground...and it points left, along the rock wall. "At least he was smart enough to hug the edge," Obis says. "Keep to the rock. Avoid softer ground. We don't want to disturb thi-" What sounds like an explosion blasts over the group. You all swivel. A huge worm leaps out of the ground nearly its entire body length. It slams back down, and its mouth chews and parts the rocky sands like water. In a moment, it's gone, leaving two more holes. A rumble shakes the ground

periodically. "...they're territorial, and it's mating season," Obis says grimly. "Like I said. Keep to the rock." Your party starts around the ridge of the nesting grounds. >Rolled 1d100: 85, 15, 34 You walk along the edge of the rock wall. It looms high to your right. The desert keeps rumbling, but it feels distant. You keep an eye on Joey. Seems like he's doing fine, but you don't want him to get himself killed with a trip. So far, so good. Xella alights next to you and picks her way behind you. "Master?" <I told you that Shadow would do.> "...my apologies. What, exactly, are we doing? I mean, I know we're trying to help Donny with that whole Shel'kath problem...but what then? Ah...what I mean to say, is..." <You mean to ask how long you'll be useful to me after we rid ourselves of the parasite.> "...I suppose so. Will you have a role for me when the deed is done?" <If you follow my orders and behave, you have nothing to fear. I extend to you the very same chance I seek from those who fear the shadow.> You turn to look at her. <Earn my trust, and I will strive to protect your existence. But know that it isn't just my trust you must earn - it is theirs. If Sir Flint insists, you will find yourself back home sooner rather than later.> "...understood." <Have you heard of something called humanization?> Xella frowns in a pouty sort of way. "...I have not, Shadow." <I see. Never mind, then.> Xella nods, and takes flight. You continue to walk along the edge of the wall. >Rolled 1d100: 67, 93, 8 The ground rumbles heavily. The party stops, and gathers closer together. Joey swallows hard.

The rumbling slowly dies. You all breath a sigh of relief. After that, you make good time. It isn't long before you come across a new obstacle. A huge hole has been burrowed into the canyon wall. It looks like a black, perfectly round cave. You don't expect the sigil, but it pops up when you step over it. The orange light glows, rotates, and points directly into the cave. Obis takes a swig of his canteen, then wipes his face with the back of his glove. "...you sure this guy wanted you to follow him?" "No," Auriel says flatly. <Yes,> you say. <Come.> Auriel sighs. "I'll light the way. Let us be off." You start into the mouth of the cavern. >Rolled 1d100: 14, 3, 81 The ground rumbles. You all stop. Dust falls from the ceiling. The rock cracks sharply. "MOVE!" Obis shouts. You take off at a sprint. A worm careens up through the ground - not as large as the one you saw in the distance, but at least half as wide as the cave itself. It protrudes out of the ground, then swivels toward the party, still retreating into the cavern. It lunges toward the person at the end of the group - Auriel. >Rolled 1d100: 59, 98, 89 >Rolled 1d100: 76, 41, 34 >Rolled 1d100: 82, 38, 13 You speed toward Auriel. <Xella! Distract the worm!> Xella zips past you. Black-gold fire outlines her form. You cast a Shade, and it splits off and charges for the worm. The worm turns toward your shade, distracted by the screech it emits! >Mana 9/10

The worm lifts its head up, then digs under your shade, consuming it with the floor of the cavern. It pops in a cloud of shadow magic. You snag Auriel's horse and heave. In a moment, you're soaring away from the monster. She clings to the saddle for dear life as you put distance between yourself and the danger. Xella's fire explodes inside the mouth of the worm. And angry roar echoes off the walls, but it seems a lot more angry than hurt. It turns toward her, but she bats her wings, carrying herself backward and out of reach. She continues lobbing fireballs as she flies backward, slowing its progress, but most of it deflects off the worm's hide. It's slowed, but it steadily churns forward. >Rolled 1d100: 72, 78, 73 Purple globes of light form around your body and leap forward, turning into flying beams of shadow. You land a direct hit into the mouth of the worm. The spell explodes into its throat. >Mana 5/10 The worm roars its loudest yet. It shrieks in pain, and begins to thrash back and forward, slamming its body into the walls. Rock tumbles from the ceiling. Xella continues to chuck her fireballs, further disorienting the injured rock worm. But she doesn't see the stalagmite falling straight for her! >Rolled 1d100: 39, 70, 17 <Look out!> The roar of the cave worm is too loud, and the entrance to the cavern is collapsing around you. She can't hear. You burst into the air, flying for her as fast as you can. >Rolled 1d20: 11, 5, 14 You grab her as you fly past, pulling her aside - but not in time to avoid getting hit yourself. The edge of the stalactite clips your wing, throwing you into a roll. >HP 35/37 But a moment later, you stabilize. You separate from her, and the two of you fly as fast as you can. The roof of the cavern is collapsing behind you in a shower of rock and dust! >Rolled 1d100: 88, 59, 21 A chunk of rock tumbles down in front of you. You swerve to the side, turning sideways to avoid getting hit.

You dive down to the cavern floor to gain speed, running along the ground like cloud of shadow. Xella follows just behind. The sound of collapsing rock suddenly fades. You glance back. The tunnel is totally jammed with rubble from floor to ceiling. You might be able to dig out, but it would take a long time. Luckily, it's only blocking the way you came in, not the way you need to go. You and Xella quickly arrive at the party. A spell cast by Auriel hovers over them - a small globe of light, illuminating the surrounding rock. You and your demon land on the edge of the group. "Well, that was exciting," Obis says. <Is everyone alright?> A chorus of "yes" and "yups" answers you. You glance at Auriel. <That was a little close. You are unharmed?> "...I'm fine." She looks about to say more, but then turns away. <What is it?> "...nothing. Let's get going." There's only one way forward. You walk deeper into the round cave. Your light is a small island in the vast dark. "...well," Obis says. "The good news is, this cave was made by a worm. So it's just going to be straight all the way through." "What's the bad news?" Flint asks. "It was made by a worm." "...right." You trudge forward through the dark. You feel right at home. >Rolled 1d100: 25, 53, 20 >Secondary Critical Failure Kree-kre-kreeee! The party glances around as the odd noise echoes off the walls around you. "...what was that?" Joey asks.

"It was shut up and don't make noise," Flint mutters. Kreeeee! Kreeeee! Keeeeaa. KeeAAAA. Keee-keee. Kreeeaaa! "Shadow," Auriel mutters. "What do you see?" You glance into the dark. You catch glimpses of movement. But they know you're watching, and they duck out of site behind boulders and outcroppings. You can feel them burrowing in the ground below you. More lie ahead. <...there's dozens of them. I do not know what they are. They stay out of site.> "Obis?" Flint asks. "No idea," he says. KREEEE-aaaa Kaaa-reee keee keekee "...what do they look like?" Auriel asks. You keep watching. >Rolled 1d100: 99, 15, 46 You manage to spot one clearly. It ducks out of sight, but not before you take it all in. <...small, perhaps two feet tall. Long arms, ending in large claws. Shorter legs. Its limbs are jointed in many places. It has no visible head. Its torso just ends.> "Vog," Auriel mutters. "Shit. Shit." "What?" Flint asks. "What are Vog?" "...small, burrowing creatures that infest the Timorian Deep." She glances around at the party. "The sounds are to distract us. They're highly intelligent. Plotting an attack as we speak." <I can sense some below us,> you say. <They're gathering into groups.> "...they're small, but vicious. Cruelly vicious. And determined. They'll just keep coming." "How many would you say?"

<...thirty or so. More are arriving at the edge of my senses.> Auriel's face takes a grim cast in the faint light of her orb. <Is that bad?> you ask. "The more their are, the smarter they get. The more difficult it is to protect yourself." "What do we do?" Flint asks. "...we run," Auriel says. "On three, everyone runs. Get ready." Everyone sets themselves. "Three. Two. One. Go!" You take off at a sprint through the caverns.

THREAD 27
>HP 35/37 >Mana 5/10 The party bursts forward. The two horses quickly trot while the rest run as fast as they can. <Xella, with me,> you say. <We hold the rear.> The succubus moves next to you. <Auriel, Flint, you two take point.> They guide their horses in front of the party. The height should help them clear a path. <Obis, take the center. Support whoever needs it. Joey - stay in the middle.> Joey looks too frightened to argue. The others nod, and keep moving. With his life-force concealing cloak, Obis will help shore up the gaps - you hope. The Vog, who have been screeching and shrieking periodically, fall silent. They move quickly, staying abreast of your group with long, galloping strides of their arms. The ones under the ground move even faster. You sense them split into two burrowing groups. They flank you and Xella. They dig up toward the surface. <Xella. Back, and just to your right.> "I can't sense anything." <They're coming in two groups. Prepare an attack. I'll take the left.> The vog burst from the ground behind you! They swarm out of their holes and gallop foward to watch you. Shrill cries echo off the cavern walls. >Rolled 1d100: 97, 13, 80 >Rolled 1d100: 14, 24, 19 >Secondary Critical Success You seize the Shard. The energy sits within you like the shadow of a blizzard - cold Isolation. Its the feeling of every connection to every other thing frozen over until it's unrecognizable. You throw the feeling outward. It blooms out form you, stealing the very life from the air - cold - so cold it doesn't feel cold. But cold, not in the sense of heat - cold, without ANYTHING. It shocks the cavern in a huge radius. The Vog go wild. Some fall flat, seemingly dead. Others trip and writhe on the ground, hurting each

other and those around them. Still others shriek like mad and burrow back into the ground, or run screaming down the tunnel. Even the Vog surrounding the other sides of your party feel the effects, some turning tail, the rest freezing in place as if cut off from one another. When you leap at the confused enemy, it's almost unfair. But you already know the world isn't fair. There is only Shadow, and Justice. You eviscerate them like so many cattle. Your limbs warp and stab through the air, killing them all in an instant. Their blood spills across the ground. Xella throws her magic in exploding balls of flame and shadow, taking out her own distracted group in moments. You and your demon hurry up back to the flanks of your party as they pass through the still-reeling Vog ahead. Her magic and your shadows tear into them, taking out at least another dozen. And then, you're through. >Rolled 1d100: 50, 98, 31 The party begins to grow distant. Auriel's voice echoes back to you. "Don't linger!" Silence. You feel a few Vog in the earth, scattered here and there, but none grouped together. <Xella, stand guard.> "Yes, Shadow." She goes alert, eyes scanning the dark. You roil over the bodies of your fallen foes. The dribble of life remaining in each one is sucked into your body as you latch onto their corpses. You become a liquid cloud of acid, dissolving and absorbing every torn up bit. It gives you a good chance to study them. They have no heads; their jagged, gaping mouths are where their necks should be. Their arms are rotated so that their natural position is hanging up above their bodies. You assume this is helpful for burrowing, or scooping prey toward the mouth. You consume six of the Vog. >HP 37/37 >Mana 15/20 There are plenty of Vog to eat...but you can feel the rest of them gathering into a group underneath you. They haven't moved as of yet. You feel at your Shard of True Darkness. The Isolation lingers there...but it feels...fragile. Used. You feel wary. Perhaps you're better off not messing around with it too much until you fully understand it.

You want to consume the others...but there's no sense pushing your luck. It's time to move on. <Come. We're heading back.> You both take wing. You make quick progress up the cavern. Xella glances at you, then away. Then she looks back at you. She wears a curious expression. <...what?> "...it is nothing." <Ask your questions. You are my servant, but you are not a slave.> Xella frowns. "...you command me not to eat souls...but you consume them yourself. I could not eat the Vog, myself. But still." <They'd be a waste, left to rot.> You glide closer to her. <But the difference is, they attacked us without provocation, and we slayed them in battle. Most humans are innocent of any action that deserves the punishment of having their soul stripped from them.> "...as you say." She doesn't look all that convinced. You both land for a moment, then take off again. You almost let the matter drop, but then begin to think once more. Xella has potential - if she can reign in her darker impulses. Perhaps, if you seek understanding, you should offer it yourself. <Those who seek to take life must be ready to lose their life,> you say. <Those who sought my end only had what they wished to steal from me taken instead. In battle, you make take souls, if necessary.> "Thank you." <But only to defend yourself - never to prey upon the defenseless.> "I need to eat to live," she says. "I can subsist on ambient mana alone, but I will grow weaker. We are predators, Shadow. You are like me in that respect. Humans slaughter and eat their cows. We slaughter and eat them. Such is the order of things." <Do cows think, and feel? Do cows have souls?> "Bulls have horns," Xella says. "Intelligence is just a mechanism the developed to defend themselves. Souls are merely a form of motive energy. You yourself salvaged such energy from the Vog." She shrugs her wings mid-flight. "Rather than eat flesh, and crudely digest that energy, I suck it up all at once. Humans are right to fear me, but to say that is evil - is eating, evil, then?" She shrugs again. "I care not. They brought me into existence. They can reap that evil, if that is what they choose to call

it." <What do you mean, exactly?> "...it is strange, how ignorant you are in some respects. I will explain." "Bulls have horns," Xella says. "Intelligence is just a mechanism they developed to defend themselves. Souls are merely a form of motive energy. You yourself salvaged such energy from the Vog." She shrugs her wings mid-flight. "Rather than eat flesh, and crudely digest that energy, I suck it up all at once. Humans are right to fear me, but to say that is evil - is eating, evil, then?" She shrugs again. "I care not. They brought me into existence. They can reap that evil, if that is what they choose to call it." <What do you mean, exactly?> "...it is strange, how ignorant you are in some respects. I will explain." <Consider me young,> you say. <My knowledge is marked with holes.> Xella nods. "The nether is energy," she says. "Chaotic, unformed energy. Life draws its power from this pool of energy. But have you asked yourself, where, then, do demons come from?" <I have not.> "We are made out of that energy," she says. "Humans, and other forms of life, grasp that energy for themselves in the act of birth. But demons are made." She looks at you. "Demons are imagined. It is magic power that creates and brings forward a demon. Artificial life, in a way. "The form, shape and power of a demon is limited only by the will and power of the mage. Demons can BE anything that can be imagined, assuming someone has enough power to carve that something out of the nether. Common, well-known demons, like fae, and even succubi like myself, are merely templates created for ease of use. "Demons, at their core, are weapons created by human mages to attack other human mages. What better weapon than one that can think for itself, use magic? One that strikes fear or entrances with its very appearance?" Xella makes a flat smile. "So you see, Shadow, teaching me morality is like teaching a rock how to be water. A rock simply is what it is. The rock might get wet, but the water rolls right off of it." <...then I must make rocks into water?> "I suppose so." <The spell that holds you here is linked to me, isn't it?> "Indeed."

<Then I'll work on it.> Xella chuckles. "I see. Let me know how that goes." <Meanwhile, control yourself.> You stare at her. <I admit that consuming the Vog was for my own selfish purpose. But it made me stronger, and strength is useful. I have few things of worth in this world; my companions among them. I need strength to protect them.> "I understand the usefulness of power." <Good.> You look away from her. <But even for all its use, for all I could gain...stripping the soul of another sentient being for no reason, other than to feed...it is wrong.> "Why?" <Why is what wrong?> "Why is it wrong to feed on what is so obviously your prey?" she asks. "You are -higher- than they are. You do not need to eat, or drink. You don't even need to breathe - even I must do that. Even now, it is difficult for me to even see you. I don't doubt you could erase me, should you chose to do so. I have seen swords slip off your skin. I have seen you dodge spears merely by contorting to the side. I have seen you kill ten men at once, all in different directions. She takes a breath. "You are greater, perhaps, than demons. Your potential may be greater than even the angels. You are an elemental - and not just any elemental. You are superior. Do you not recognize this?" <I am different, but that does not make me greater. I may be stronger and tougher, but I do not judge worth through power. We are all equal in our ability to think, to feel, to suffer, to hope - and if you were wrought by human hands, then I place you among us. If the world worked as you believed, than the Elemental Lords would have long since killed all human life. <Superior,> you continue. You linger over the word. <You think me superior. How? In that I kill easily? I am Shadow, not Death. I am inferior in many ways. Though there are many things I have that humans do not, I lack many things they have. I was born a feral, emotionless blob of nothing. I have learned - absorbed - so many things beyond power, beyond strength. It is only because of what humans gave to me that the strength I possess has any meaning in the first place. And even if humans are inferior, they value their lives no less than we value ours, and suffer no less keenly when deprived of that life. <Like you, I am hated for what I am. I have been blamed for evils I have never committed. A stereotype of Shadow traps me, an inherent ignorance that labels each element as if they have some inherent quality. They do not. In this manner, so you have labeled yourself - as if your intelligence, your existence is the lesser, simply because it was made, rather than born.> "...I am what I am," she says. "I am carved from energy. A golem of magic."

<You belittle yourself,> you say. <You were made from a template, but you are not that template. If you can think, you must therefore have the potential to grow beyond that. It is not what we are, or how others perceive us, that determines our value. It is who we choose to be that is important. The world does not lock us into predetermined motions, simple roles that we must play as if we have no will of our own. What I am - what I will be - will be as I choose, and of my own making. No one else's. <But moreover, Xella. Might does not make right. Power is not Justice. Justice IS, independent of power, of perception, of good, and evil. And Shadow is Justice.> You stare into her eyes. <So when I tell you something is wrong, it is because I have weighed the action upon the scales of my morality and found that action wanting of any justification. As long as you accept my will, you will accept my arbitration.> Xella says nothing. She stares back at you, then nods. You fly the rest of the way in silence. You land once more, then continue flying. It isn't long before you hear the clomping of boots and horses on the cavern floor. You pull even with the group and land, blending your flight into a quick trot alongside Flint's horses. "You were gone a while," Auriel asks. "Anything happen?" <A few Vog were gathering underground, but we left them behind. The rest are dead.> "Good," she said. "We really got lucky." <Are they that dangerous?> "They didn't have time to use magic," Auriel says. "Whatever you did took them by surprise. What did you do, anyway?" <I sent them impressions of...disconnection. It seemed to disrupt their communication.> "Good work," Obis says. Something picks at the back of your senses. You feel around your for life, but nothing presents itself. Just a general sense that you're not alone. <Does anyone else feel that?> You get a chorus of "no's". You slow slightly as you focus... The world around you explodes to life. Spiders. Bugs. Worms. Fungi. You can feel them all. ...somewhere...other elements...

But something more immediate grabs your attention. Five groups of Vog are tunneling in behind you. There's at least 10 Vog with each group, and they're burrowing forward in tight packs a lot faster than the party is moving. Something surrounds them...some kind of shield. Were they hiding themselves? <More Vog coming up behind us, underground. At least fifty. We need to move faster.> "Dammit!" Auriel shouts. "Joey! Grab my hand!" Joey runs over and clasps Auriel's wrist. She hoists him up onto the saddle, then spurs her horse faster. Joey clings to her back as the horse breaks into a gallop. Obis runs toward Flint. He doesn't need any help to lift himself into the saddle. Flint snaps the reigns, and the horse takes off alongside Auriel and Joey. You sprint alongside them easily; Xella flaps hard to keep up. The Vog don't gain any more ground, but they don't fall behind, either. A point of light grows in the distance. "It's the exit!" Flint shouts. He snaps his reigns again, urging the horse forward. "Are they still following?!" Auriel asks. <Yes, but we're keeping ahead of them!> Auriel looks surprised. <What's wrong?> "They can burrow faster than a horse can gallop!" <They aren't gaining!> Auriel turns back, but her scowl doesn't go away. >Rolled 1d100: 63, 69, 41 You launch a Shade back toward the Vog behind you. It walks a short distance, then flails around and shrieks a bit. Two Vog groups emerge from the earth like coordinated sharks. They leap through your shade. It dissipates. The two groups merge into one larger group that burrows back into the ground. It might have slowed them a few seconds, but it's not what you were hoping for.

You dive into the Shadow of Flint's horse, then Focus ahead of you. <...oh.> "What is it?!" Auriel shouts. <More, up in the ceiling of the cavern!> Their life force blinks at you, Earthen nodes interconnected by sharp lines of Spirit. <Dozens! We've almost reached them!> "Is there a safe spot?!" <...they're scattered around, everywhere!> "If you have any defensive magic, get it ready!" Auriel shouts. "We've got to charge through! Expect Earth and Spirit magic!" She says that...but you feel as though you're being herded like sheep. >Rolled 1d100: 36, 6, 87 >Rolled 1d100: 33, 19, 83 You ride into the attack zone. Webs of Spirit flare bright, connecting wider groups of Vog. Each group casts its own spell - six, in total. That's the last thing you can clearly see before your Focus fades. Stalactites begin to form on the ceiling. You unleash nightflare. For an instant, the world turns into a negative of itself. The images fades. A group of stalagmites quivers to a halt. The rest shoot toward the party, aided by gravity and magical power both. You raise and stretch your aura over the heads of the horses. Xella launches blasts of fire, exploding a few of the stalactites, but where she doesn't score direct hits, the earth pushes through with just a few scorches. Light magic appears over head, bolstering your own defenses. The stalactites rain down on your aura, beating you down. But you hold out. >HP 34/37 The Vog underground are burrowing faster. They've almost drawn even with the party. The light is growing brighter, but the exit to the tunnel is still a ways off.

>Rolled 1d100: 65, 78, 1 >Primary Critical Failure! You blast Shadow Assault up toward the roof of the cave as the Vog emerge. >Mana 10/20 Spears of shadow collide with stalagmites. Most miss, and soar on to strike the cave. The explosions rip through the air. The Vog tunneled through the ceiling...and then they used part of it to attack you...and then you tried to blow them up. The cave rumbles. Cracks spider across the walls. The ceiling begins to collapse. The Vog are desperately trying to dig away, but most of them are falling along with the huge chunks of rock. This is not good. >Rolled 1d100: 58, 53, 6 You grab Xella and hurl yourself between the two horses. They've pulled up short, whinnying as rocks crash around them. <BRACE YOURSELVES!> You throw your body up above the party as hundreds of tons of rock bear down on you. You're crushed by the weight. ===== You burst out through the rock. You were nearly cut in half by the force...and you're greatly weakened. But you're still alive. >HP 13/37 You glance around. Life forces poke out at you. You hear a moan. You stumble forward across the jagged rubble. <Is anyone there?!> You stumble around a pile of rock toward the life you can sense. Auriel and Joey are on the ground. Joey appears unharmed...he's surrounded by a soft white light. It quickly fades, then vanishes. Auriel herself is in rougher shape. One of her legs is broken - you can see the exposed bone of her shin. A long cut across her forehead is bleeding profusely. She must have used most of her power to protect Joey.

Both of them are unconscious. "Shadow." You glance back. It's Xella. <Good. Assist me in moving them. We need to get out before the Vog recoordinate.> "...get out, with an angel," Xella says. "...this is your chance." <My chance?> "Of course. Consume the angel and be done with her." <What?!> Xella gives you a look. "Shadow. What do you think will happen when this is done with? She's only here for Donny - even I can tell that. As soon as he's fixed up, you'll be dead weight. All of your goals are opposed by the empire - she won't help you, if she doesn't outright try to stop you. And she'll pull Donny away from you, to boot." Xella shrugs. "Or, you eliminate the problem, here and now." >Rolled 1d100: 81, 50, 85 You stare at Xella for a long time. You are forced to conclude that she might be a lost cause. Auriel, at least, debated the points with you. Xella simply doesn't acknowledge them. Maybe she can't. Maybe, the fact of the matter is, the magical template of a summon is just that rigid. The fact sobers you. Demons are dangerous creatures. The immediate frustration you felt fades. Provoking Xella won't get you anywhere. You say nothing, and turn to Auriel. You see the Water within you. It's harder to find than the shadow...tucked away in a corner. But you dredge it out, and pour it into her wounds. Her bone makes a nasty crack, but it realigns and swiftly mends. The muscle and skin knit and stitch themselves back together. The cut on her forehead rapidly scabs over, but doesn't fade completely. She blinks. "...what...Shadow?" <The cave collapsed. I healed you. Come, up.> You offer her your hand. She takes it, and you pull her to her feet. "Where's Jo - oh." She kneels next to him. "Oh, thank Light. He's alright." She glances around. "Where's...Donovan?" <I haven't had a chance to search yet.>

"Hey! Shadow!" You all turn toward the voice. Obis is slowly meandering over a pile of rubble a few yards distant. Blood is running down his face, but he's in one piece. Flint is draped over his shoulder. "They're coming!" You dash forward to meet them. You stiffen. At least fifteen Vog are swarming toward you not ten yards away. >Rolled 1d100: 81, 46, 43 You grab Obis and Flint. <Hold on!> You soar into the air, barely avoiding the lunging Vog. <Xella! Get Auriel and Joey and get out, now!> Xella hops to obey your command. Auriel doesn't protest as she's lifted into the air under one of Xella's arms - rather, she prepares a spell. Light twists between her hands. You fly toward the exit of the cave. It's not far. You've never been so happy to see the sun. Another group of Vog burst from the ground up and to your left. You can feel them beginning to cast a spell! >Rolled 1d100: 64, 9, 45 A flurry of stalagmites leaps up from the ground to strike you! You roll to the side, dodging the attack. The rocks smash into the ceiling behind you. But the weight is far more than you're used to! Your momentum carries you on. Obis shouts as you tumble into the wall. >HP 17/37 You're almost out of the cave, but it looks like the Vog are preparing another attack... >Rolled 1d20: 15, 19, 12 You flap as hard as you can to escape the cavern. Xella is churning her wings beside you. Auriel drops her spell. You confused for a moment. You hoped it would be something to distract the Vog, at least. The ball of light splits in two. And then each piece splits. And again, and again. A shower of multiplying white sparks drifts down through the air. The lights explode in a cacophony of light and sound. Streamers of every color soar through the air, flashing up against the walls of the cave. Booming cracks echo around you like the sound of a hundred

spells going off all at once. The Vog spell shrivels up. You can feel them burrowing under the ground. You make it out of the cave. The sun is just setting, and everything is cast in red and gold. Plains stretch before you. Scattered stands of trees mark the landscape. Directly ahead lies a mountain range. The mountains are huge. It makes the Steelback Mountains around Detson seem like toys in comparison. Deep green pine forests rest around their bases, but fade into black, rocky cliffs halfway up the slopes. Almost all the peaks vanish somewhere up into clouds. You and Xella briefly land. You set Flint out on the ground. Auriel sprints over. It's the first time you really get a good look at Flint. A shard of rock has punctured his thigh. Cuts run up and down his arms. His face is pale, and he's losing a lot of blood. "Donovan!" Auriel throws herself next to him. Gold light is already forming around her fingertips. She presses her hands to his chest. <...can I help?> Auriel glances up at you briefly, then sets her face back to her spell. "...I barely have any mana. If you can...we need to heal his leg. He's losing too much blood." <Understood.> You set yourself down next to Flint. Auriel sweeps her fingers up his arm, focusing on restoring the minor cuts and lacerations. You look at his thigh. The rock sticking out of it looks a lot bigger close up. >Rolled 1d100: 67, 12, 94 You focus your energy into Flint's leg. >Mana 2/10 The rock is slowly pushed out. There's a spurt of blood as his heart beats - but then the vein seals itself. You shove hard on the force of water, and you manage to shove some of the blood back in. The muscle around the vein wavers, then grows back around it. You feel the strain building on your body as you push the spell forward. When you're done, the wound is still exposed - barely scabbed but its sealed, and most of the color has returned to Flint's face. Auriel is lying on top of him, shivering. She cries into his chest. She murmurs something - in a language you've never heard before. But you feel the Translation unravel in your mind. "Please don't die."

Flint's hand moves. It brushes the back of her head. "...hey, look." Auriel draws her head back. Her eyes are red and puffy. "...Donovan?" "An angel fell out of the sky to save me," Flint mutters. He closes his eyes and sighs. Auriel cries harder. "Shadow," Obis says. He's spent the last few moments with Joey, tying some bandages on the nastier scratches. "We need to keep moving." <We do.> You spread your senses thin, and - without any trouble at all - you find the next sigil. It floats into the air, rotates...and points along the curve of the mountain range, almost due east.

THREAD 28
>HP 25/37 >Mana 2/20 <Xella,> you say. <Carry Joey and Obis. I'll take Auriel and Flint.> Without a word, the succubus moves to collect the young boy. Joey hasn't said much. He's pale, and his eyes are wet. Clearly, he's in a bit over his head. Obis accepts the demon's embrace stoically. She takes off with both of them in a firm grip. <Come.> Auriel doesn't voice a complaint as you wrap a tendril around her waist. She does, however, look back to Flint. "Be careful when you move him. You might reopen the wound." You nod to her, then gingerly cup Flint under your form. You unfurl your shadowy wings and take off into the skies, gliding up next to Xella. You fly for a short time, land, and repeat, heading in the direction of the mountains. After another hour, the sun is almost gone, but you've made good time. The painted cliffs of Tarun Gakth have almost faded down into the horizon. You reason that the Vog probably won't follow you this far from the underground. You make camp. There are no horses to water, anymore, but thanks to the loss of the horses, and their saddlebags, the party is dreadfully short on food. You manage to hunt down a few rabbits, which make a good enough meal for one evening. The fire burns low. Eveyone is quiet, contemplating what amounted to a very close brush with death. Auriel sits next to Flint, tending his wound with heated water and a soft strip of cloth. Xella patrols the skies around the camp. The mood around the campfire doesn't lend itself to conversation, serious or otherwise. You decide that the best thing to do is let everyone work it out for themselves. You meditate quietly. You slip into something...a feeling you've had before. Wide, dark space. Tiny pinpricks of light blink at you here, there, everywhere, like a map of stars. Two of the lights feel different than the rest. You try to pick them out...discern something about them...but it doesn't come to you. They feel familiar, but you have no power in this strange world you see when you meditate.

When you draw yourself back from the present, it's dawn. Auriel is sitting with her legs crossed, arms resting gently on her knees. The rest are asleep. Xella still scouts the perimeter, keeping strictly to your command. You turn toward the angel. <Are you awake, Auriel?> She opens her eyes and nods. <How is Flint?> "...not well," she says. "But I've spent the night gathering mana. I should be able to help his injury along over the next few days. My powers...are not what they were." Her brow bends deep. On her face rests a mixture of frustration and sadness. "...a few weeks past, he would already be completely healed. A few weeks past and we wouldn't even have had that fight." <I have faith in your ability,> you say. <You distraction helped us escape the Vog...whereas my magic collapsed the ceiling.> Auriel waves a hand. "They had us surrounded and on the run. The collapse might have been the very thing that gave us a chance to escape...though, it -was- lucky that no one died." <Perhaps.> You turn away. You should probably do some early-morning hunting. "...Shadow." <Angel.> "...I'm not an angel anymore. My name works just fine." <What is it, Auriel?> "When the rocks were about to hit...I saw what you did. If not for that...we wouldn't be here." <...it was more a reaction, than anything.> "A good instinct to have." She looks away. "...thank you, for helping me," she says. "And for...me...with Flint." <...you are welcome.> You start away. The early morning dew on the grass rolls off your body as you use your senses to locate a new rabbit hole. The plains seem full of them. One piece of good news, at least. ...maybe, just maybe...Auriel is slowly starting to change her mind about you. But you find yourself changing your mind about Xella. If she truly is as she is, there will be no

changing her...unless you fundamentally alter the spell that -is- her existence. As she is now, she could explode as soon as your vigilance wavers. You are glad to know that Obis can be relied upon. He went back for Flint, and he seems to be a good man in general. But you wonder if he has it in him to return to the position he once held. Breakfast is a simple affair. Obis was able to save some of the hard biscuits, so the party isn't limited to just pure protein. Auriel uses her gathered mana to work on Flint's wound. The scab improves significantly, and he's able to walk along without problems. You lend him your support as you move forward. Your party continues to trek across the plains. <A question, Auriel.> She glances at you from Flint's opposite side. "Yes?" <How to you gather mana? I have been unable to do so without a more direct...source.> She shrugs. "Gathering mana is the most basic of magical skills. Latent energy lingers in the world around us; it merely takes time to collect. Can't you feel it?" <...yes...but to my perspective, it is immovable.> She shrugs. "Frankly, I don't know what to tell you. How you can cast spells without first gathering mana is beyond me." You feel disappointed. Perhaps that ability is within the purview of humans...but not elementals? "Hey, Shadow," Flint says. <Sir Flint.> "Thank you, my friend. You saved my life." <You would do the same for me.> Flint smiles, and nods. He glances up at you. "...about Geb...and whatever power lies beneath Jacob's Field...are you sure you want to continue toward those goals?" <I've never been sure in the first place. It just seems like the right thing to do. Whatever was under the village was in pain. It was crying for help.> You speak so only he can hear. <And...as you know...it called me Erebus. Perhaps, whatever it is, it has answers for me.> Flint nods. "Answers are well and good...but what about Geb? The Empire keeps people from trespassing on the waste where he dwells. Not that anyone in their right mind would go there anyway but so it is. Freeing him - ally of the shadow or not - would really stir the pot. The world is unstable

enough as it is." <...I will consider your words.> Flint nods. "Good." Obis glances up. He cocks his head. "...anyone else hear that?" You focus your senses. Something is coming up the plains from behind you. <I sense something.> "I as well," Auriel says. You stop, and turn. Rolling up the grass of the plains is a small, steel box. It feels like Earth magic...mixed with quite a bit of Spirit. But it's not a soul...closer to the power core still in your satchel. What in the world could it be? <Ready yourselves,> you say. <Auriel, take Flint.> You hand off your friend her. "Be careful," she says. You move to the front of the party. Xella lands just behind you, tense. Obis draws his sword and readies his shield, and stays back next to Joey and Flint. You slink out to the right, away from the party. The steel box follows you. You use Focus. A small core of Earth and Spirit powers the center of the box. You can detect hints of all the elements working in harmonic concert. Surprising...but then, you realize that they are carefully compartmentalized. Separated. Opposites are set far away from one another. You still have no idea what the thing actually is. <Xella. What is this?> "I am unfamiliar," she says. "I think it can move faster than that, though. It isn't using its full power." You have the sense she's correct. The core isn't really pushing itself...if it even is a "self". You Impress the box with a mixed feeling of greetings and curiosity. The steel box rolls up a few yards in front of you, then stops. It opens up...then begins to unfold. Slowly at first, and then more of the unfolding pieces begin to unfold themselves. It continues to grow, as if assembling itself - and assemble it does. Green lines of energy connect larger portions of green-grey metal. An incredibly large amount of material was packed extremely tight within that simple box.

When the box finishes assembling, before you stands a steel construct - but one more humanoid than any you have seen before. "Greetings," says the robot in a metallic, echoing voice. "I am unit 234.X4-B, from City 001. I have been programmed with updated linguistics for means of emergency communication as per the most recent interpretation of Derivative 29.3.1. I am here to investigate the recent disturbance in Shadow energy as conjoined with my mission to retrieve extant wild power cores." You glance at Xella. She eyes you sidelong, then shrugs. You look back to the construct. You see no reason to be aggressive - this robot seems a bit more open to conversation than the last you came across - so you decide on a straightforward explanation. <The recent disturbance was likely...me. I am a Shadow elemental. I was traveling through Tarun Gakth with my companions.> You gesture to Xella, and your party behind you. <I did not mean to disturb you, or yours, however...though I am unfamiliar with City 1.> "I see. Once again, I am 234.X4-B. May I inquire as to your name?" <Shadow will do. This is Xella,> you say, indicating the demon. Xella smiles and curtsies. Do you have a...simpler name?> The construct pauses for a moment. "Steward 2, Mobile Form. -Steward- is acceptable." <Well, Steward,> you say. <We're in a hurry. So if you have business with me...> "The Shadow is aligned with the Earth," the construct says. "I am glad to see that the power core has fallen into good hands. However, I request that it be returned to us. Many outmoded constructs were, unfortunately, unstable, and had to be put down. Retrieving their energy cores is an important task." <On who's authority do you act?> you ask. <What is this City 1?> "City 1 is the semi-permanent residence of the Constructs, Golems, and Processor-Engines as designated by Derivative 4.5.1. Its exact location is classified, as directed by Derivative 4.5.4. I act on my own authority." <...what I meant was, who is your leader? Who gives the orders?>

"I am the mobile thought-copy of Processor-Engine 234.X4-A, known as Steward. I am the leader of City 1. However, I do not give orders. City 1 is comprised of 23,546 individual mind-states, which first come to consensus, and then act as one body." You feel stunned. Before you stands the leader of a race of Constructs that you didn't even know existed until just a few moments ago. <I don't understand. I thought the dwarves were wiped out in the Elementomachy. How did you come to survive?> "I see the line of your logic," Steward says. "However, such information is ultimately irrelevant, and classified." <You just said I was an ally.> "In element, in theory - yes," Steward says. "But times change, and so do allegiances." You ponder that for a moment, then look back to him. <What do you need the power core for?> "We do not have the means to create more such power cores," Steward says. "The construction of their housing is unknown to us. Therefore, we ask that you return it." <I would point out that the -wild- construct in question attacked me, and thus taking the core to incapacitate it seemed justified.> "I see," Steward says. He gives a mechanical nod. "You did what was necessary to defend yourself. We are attempting to deal with this problem in a methodical manner, but Tarun Gakth is not of insignificant size.> <Indeed. However, to reaffirm what I believe should be friendship between Earth and Shadow, I will return this to you.> Steward's lips turn upward with a click. "Excellent." <But before I do...> "Yes?" You heft the power core in a Shadow fist. Earth magic swirls in its depths. <I held onto the core with the intent to look into the methods of their construction - doing so without a specimen would be rather difficult. I believe, as an elemental, I am in a unique position and possess unique perspective to understand what allows these cores to take form.> "I see. The idea has merit." <If you and yours would be content to remain allies with myself, I would be willing to share the fruits

of my research upon its completion. Of course, that would be easier if this one remained in my possession...> "I see." Steward gives a mechanical nod. "One moment." A spout of spirit shoots out from Steward's back. It flies off, then dissipates. >Rolled 1d100: 1, 62 >Primary Critical Failure! >Rolled 1d20: 5, 20, 6 >Primary Critical Success! A long, quiet moment passes. You look back at the party. They make a bunch of faces at you. You send them an impression of patience, and hopefulness. A line of Spirit suddenly shoots back into Steward. He looks at you. "The collective has decided to seek the return of the power core, immediately." <...I see.> "However," Steward says, "an alliance with forces of Shadow is thought to be potentially fruitful. And yet, it has been long since Earth and Shadow fought together." Steward looks at you directly. "If you will permit me, I will observe your affairs on behalf of the Constructs, and on this basis, we shall judge whether to open formal diplomacy with you. I will not interfere in your affairs - to help, or to harm. Merely observe. If there truly exists an opportunity to discover a method to create more power cores, as you claim, then it will arise during the course of my observation." <...as potential allies, could you give me a bit more information about the Constructs, and City 1?> you ask. "No," Steward says simply. <Those terms are acceptable,> you say. You raise the power core, and Steward holds out a hand. You hesitate, and look him in the eye. <The Shadows do not take betrayal kindly.> "This is noted." Steward takes the core. "Neither does the Earth." <Have you ever seen constructs of Shadow, or cores made of Shadow?> you ask. <Creating such a one might be easier for me.> Steward pauses for a moment. "...yes, but they were all lost in the Elementomachy. It is thought that cores of any element are possible." <And, as to my current goal,> you ask, <have you noticed a young girl with a spirit mage pass through your lands? They are both strong in Spirit magic.> "Not two days past," Steward says. "That was within the canyons, on the other side of the worm-made

cavern. After that, I know not what became of them." You're only two days behind. Just two days! You feel a budding sense of excitement. You glance at Steward. <Let us be off. If you have questions, let me know.> "Understood." Steward follows behind, remaining in his "unfolded" humanoid state. <Why were you in that smaller form?> "My compact size if for stealth, energy conservation, and faster linear movement," it says. <I see.> You get back to your party. It takes you a moment to explain all the particulars. You carefully avoid mentioning around Auriel that the duke is investigating power cores to undermine the empire's monopoly on airship maintenance and repair. Flint just smiles. "Well, the more the merrier, I suppose. We've got a living shadow, why not a construct?" "Forgive me my skepticism," Auriel mutters dryly. "I'm with Flint," Obis says. "Hell. Leftover constructs from the dwaves? Imagine the secrets they're holding onto!" "Unfortunately, that information is classified," Steward says. "Ah, you'll come around. The Shadow's a friend worth having, let me tell you." "That remains to be seen," Steward says neutrally. "Unfortunately, your testimony is biased through previous interaction." Obis raises an eyebrow. "How...logical." Joey's eyes are like saucers. "A talking golem." He looks at Flint and points at Steward. "A talking golem!!" Joey sidles up to the construct. "Joey, stay away from that thing!" Auriel calls. "Hey, did the dwarves really make you?" the boy asks. "No. I was made in City 1. The dwarves created my thought-copy-template, Steward 1."

"So...you're like, the grandson." Steward cocks his head. "A crude metaphor, but not inaccurate." "Cool!" Joey says. Auriel sighs. Flint smiles a murmurs something to her, but she doesn't seem very appeased. The party continues onward... Joey continues to talk Steward's ear off. Steward answers the hundred questions plainly, and without much embellishment - but you notice he avoids giving away any information of serious import. The best you can gather is that City 1 is located either in Tarun Gakth, or in the Timorian Deep underneath it. Since it's gone this long without discovery, and the dwarves also lived underground, you'd put your money on the Timorian Deep. If you had money. And if you had any inclination to gamble. To travel faster, you and Xella continue to fly the party. Stewart can run fast enough on the ground to keep up if you fly at a medium pace. Auriel focuses on healing Flint's leg. It's getting much better - he says he could put up a fight, now. The parasite has been quiet for some time. You hope it stays that way. He could use a break. You find several more sigils, and they paint a straight line in the ground. It's getting colder. You remark upon this to Auriel, who says it's because the plains leading up to the Valendraks actually slope up quite steeply. You're gaining altitude. That, and fall is really starting to set in. By the time you reach a river that your party declares the Palorian, you've traveled for three days. You hope you've made up some time on your friends. The next sigil points you north, upriver. Auriel is rather certain, from having sailed the river several times in her long experience, that Palthair, a vast mining town, is only a day or two north. After a night spent in rest, you're pretty sure Flint is back to 100%. He's been quiet the past few days, but now his wounds are totally gone, and he's back to his normal self. Auriel's mood improves exponentially with his health. A few times, you're pretty sure she event forgets you're the Shadow she's supposed to hate. When Steward is not patiently speaking to Joey in his mechanical monotone, you can feel his eyes on you. He's said nothing regarding his observations. You wonder what he's looking for. It begins to snow.

Soon enough, you arrive outside Palthair. The sun has an hour or so in the sky; a dusting of snow covers everything. The town is nestled in the crook of the mountains, continuing lengthwise for some ways up and down the slopes. At the head of the many creeks that converge to form the Palorian, it boasts impressive architecture. "The city is an important city," Auriel says to the party, mostly to you and Joey, as it comes into view. "Over 60% of the empire's mineral resources come from the vast mines here, which are funneled down the Palorian and out for trade at Port Vanta. Tin, Iron, Copper, Silver, and even Adamantium. That's one reason it's protected by Gaphold at one end, and Wallfront at the other." She glances at you. "Before the elementomachy...Paloir was a country. Rich, prosperous. Peaceful. It was where the Black Hand first struck, after consolidating Temerland, to region north of the Valendraks. It became the meeting ground of many armies, and the war shattered the Frontier into constant chaos." She looks back to the town. "Eventually, the Empire joined Ulund in reestablishing Palthair, and it has since slowly healed into what it is today." <I see,> you say. "I see,> Steward says. You glance at each other, nod, then look away. Auriel fingers her temples. "...anyway. The last sigil clearly pointed to the town.What's the plan?" You glance at Steward. <Do you have a means of blending in with...humans, perhaps?> "Indeed." Steward seems to pause a moment. A bit of the shadow and spirit him in flares slightly. The green energy panels on his outsides glow. A moment later, he takes the form of a nondescript man with brown hair, brown eyes, and dressed in normal traveling clothes. You wouldn't glance twice at him. "Is this acceptable?" <Perfect.> You morph into your human form. <Let's get moving.> You walk into the town, keeping to the main road. It's relatively quiet. The party leaves a trail of footprints behind them. You inch up towards your truest and most loyal companion, Sir Flint. <Flint. A word.> "Mmm?"

<Well...acting human...is...new, in a sense. I will require guidance.> Flint grins and slaps you on the back. "I've got you. Might want to try talking out loud, though." You create a passage through which to speak normally. "...how do I sound?" "A little deeper than I'd expect," Flint says, "but normal enough. Just don't sprout an extra arm or something dumb like that." <Right. Proportion is everything.> You frown slightly. You're quite used to bending and warping every which way as it's convenient. Now, you'll actually have to -turn- to reach something. How...restricting. You enter the town. It's quiet. Lights burn in many houses, but the streets are empty but for a few passerby crunching through the snow. You receive some curious looks, but nothing more. Auriel seems confused. "What is it?" you ask her, to practice your new voice. "...it's quiet," she says. "I just finished telling you how important this town is. It doesn't just stop during the snow. They're used to it." She glances at you. "I just realized something. On our way up, I didn't see a single boat going downriver. There's usually more boats than water." She frowns deeply. "Something's up." "I will stay alert." You glance at Xella, who should merely appear as a normal human to any that see the party. "Xella. Stay modest, and subdued. We don't want attention." "As you say," she says simply. She's been giving you one-word answers for a while, now. Obviously, there's a disconnect there. <Auriel,> you say, <I am speaking so that only you can hear.> Auriel looks at you, but, taking the hint, says nothing. <I believe...we need to rid ourselves of Xella, as soon as possible. She is unstable, and cannot be trusted.> Auriel goes blank. She walks over to you, and you both hang back slightly, away from the others. Slowly, her eyebrow raises to the top of her face. "Are you saying I'm right?" she whispers. <...you were absolutely correct. If a demon is based in magic, there is no changing a demon.> Auriel nods. "Then we should do it tonight. Desummoning is simple; just a matter of -willing- it, so I

understand. We can support you, in that." <...tell me. If Xella is unable to change, because of what she is...is that why you believe I cannot change?> Auriel says nothing, but her expression speaks volumes. <I am not like her,> you say firmly. "You don't know that," Auriel says. "You have no memories. You admitted as much." <But look at my actions. Have they not spoken for me, as even you said they would?> "Unless you..." Auriel stops, then starts again. "Unless, the act of gaining trust is completely intentional...and betrayal comes only when it is unexpected. How are you to know you aren't merely the summoned creature of a powerful mage? How are you to know that you yourself aren't being controlled right this moment? Your nature hides any insight into your being and form. I've...I admit I've tried to discern that, many times. But I cannot. That is why I can't trust you, Shadow. You can't even trust yourself." She leans forward. "What if you -were- made? What if, at the worst possible moment, you are forced beyond your control to attack us? What if - " She lowers her voice even further. "You were sent to ensure Flint did not rid himself of that parasite? Why is it you can see it, and no one else...nothing else but a demon?" You send Auriel an impression of worry, and concern. But that concern swiftly hardens into determination. <If I'm secretly evil and trying to gain your confidence, nothing I say can convince you otherwise,> you begin. <I am worried by the prospect that a summoned creature might not realize its own nature, but the seer was able to see the parasite just fine, and he seemed to have confidence enough in my presence with Flint. But even if it were the case that I am being controlled,> you say, <I can't do anything about it. I've no choice to proceed as if I'm not. If we operate on your assumption, then what is to stop us from believing that everyone and everything is simply a magical construct adhering to its programming? How do I know you are not a cleverly disguised demon sent to stop me?> "That's ridiculous," Auriel hisses. <Is is possible for summons to be of the light element?> "I'm telling you that is - " <Is it possible?> "...they can be of any element. But Shadow and Spirit are many times more common, as some component of them is required in summoning magic." <There you are. I could just as easily wonder if your downtrodden angel act is just that - an act put on to investigate me and gain my trust, for some purpose I do not yet understand.>

"...you don't actually believe that." She gives you a sober look. "Do you?" <Of course not,> you say. <It's obviously a stupid idea. So, perhaps, you could admit the same, and grant me at least the fact that I'm in control of my own sensibilities.> "But - " <If I were sent to look after the parasite, I would not have brought it to his attention in the first place. I would not have tried to harm it. Surely my -programming- would have stopped those sorts of things.> "...a fair point," Auriel admits. "...I suppose...that either way, it is what it is." <More importantly, we need to get rid of a known unstable variable - Xella.> "...alright. We do it tonight." <Angel,> you say. You stop, and begin again. <Auriel.> "...what?" <Two things,> you say. <If...it comes to it. If I am being controlled.> You look at her with your human eyes. <I will rely on you to do what is necessary.> Auriel nods grimly. <Just try not to be too eager.> You're not entirely comfortable with the smile that grows on her lips. "Just be sure to keep in line." Her face goes serious again. "And the second thing?" <It's...about Jacob's Field. During the battle, I - > "Are you two arguing -again-?" Flint says. He comes over and rests and arm around Auriel, all smiles. "You can pontificate about the meaning of the universe another time. We're here." <Where's here?> Flint points. You glance up at the sign for a tavern. It's a large, three-story building with plenty of noise tumbling out onto the snow-covered street. Engrossed in your conversation, you've hardly noticed the crowded buildings. Flint starts talking to Auriel, and guides her in the door. You don't get a chance to tell her about the voice. But then...perhaps you should think about that carefully. Either way, you'll be seeing her later tonight.

The bar is relatively crowded. It gets noticeably quiet as the patrons take your large party in, and then the noise starts up again, glasses clinking, the sound of taps snapping open and closed, mugs thumping on wood. Flint and Obis deal with the tavern keeper and arrange for enough space to keep the party comfortable. Yourself, Xella, and Steward will share a room. Neither you nor Steward mind the arrangement, but Xella seems frustrated watching Flint and Auriel take their own quarters. Auriel throws Xella a pointed look, and flips her the bird as she and the knight walk up the stairs. For a moment, you see an ugly rage flash over Xella's face. And then the next moment, she's calm as could be. You make your way to your rooms. Xella twiddles her thumbs and sighs impatiently. You and Steward sit at a table in silence. Something comes to mind. <Where's the power core?> Steward taps his chest. A break in his illusion shows a metal plate. It snaps open, revealing a storage compartment, wherein rests the core. He taps the plate again, and it seals itself back up. <How are your observations?> you ask. "They are as they are," Steward answers cryptically. The bar is relatively crowded. It gets noticeably quiet as the patrons take your large party in, and then the noise starts up again, glasses clinking, the sound of taps snapping open and closed, mugs thumping on wood. Flint and Obis deal with the tavern keeper and arrange for enough space to keep the party comfortable. Yourself, Xella, and Steward will share a room. Neither you nor Steward mind the arrangement, but Xella seems frustrated watching Flint and Auriel take their own quarters. Auriel throws Xella a pointed look, and flips her the bird as she and the knight walk up the stairs. For a moment, you see an ugly rage flash over Xella's face. And then the next moment, she's calm as could be. You make your way to your rooms. Xella twiddles her thumbs and sighs impatiently. You and Steward sit at a table in silence. Something comes to mind. <Where's the power core?> Steward taps his chest. A break in his illusion shows a metal plate. It snaps open, revealing a storage compartment, wherein rests the core. He taps the plate again, and it seals itself back up. <How are your observations?> you ask.

"They are as they are," Steward answers cryptically. <Steward,> you say. <You wanted to observe me. In that case, follow me.> Wordlessly, Steward stands from the table. You head out of the room. <Xella stay here.> Xella sighs loudly. <Is that understood?> "Yes, mast - Shadow." <Good.> You exit the room with Steward behind you and walk to Auriel and Flint's room. You open the door. Flint and Auriel are standing in the back of the room. Their mouths are locked onto each other. Flint's hand is working its way down Auriel's back. <Auriel, have you informed Flint as to our plan?> They both jump what seems to be a few feet in the air. Flint grins and rubs the back of his head, but Auriel blushes deep red. "Dammit, Shadow, you -knock- on people's doors!" <Ah, yes. I forgot. Well?> "...I was getting to it." Auriel clears her throat. "Flint. The Shadow has admitted I'm right about the demon, and that it needs to be banished as soon as possible - that is, tonight. Speaking of, where is it?" <In my room, ordered to stay put.> "Good. That'll do as well as anything. We can pin her there and have this done quickly." Flint frowns. "...Shadow...not to argue in favor of keeping a demon around...but..." "But what?" Auriel says. She folds her arms. "Sounds like you're going to say something along exactly those lines." "Well," Flint says, "she's been pretty valuable. In battle, guarding camp. That sort of thing." "She could go off at any moment," Auriel says. "Or maybe you've developed a fondness for her, is that it?" "N-no!" Flint says. "Why would I - " "That's what I thought," Auriel says. <Flint as much as I fight for the belief that everyone needs a chance to prove themselves, Xella told

me that I should consume Auriel while she was unconscious. Thats when I realized Xella in her current template is forced to be as she and all demons are. I might try to save her some other time, when your life's aren't on the line and I don't have to worry about her attacking you when I'm not looking.> <Do you have an opinion, Steward?> "You would be foolish to trust any demon, but a subdued demon makes a useful tool," Steward says. "The choice, ultimately, is yours. I - we - are not experts on the subject of demonology." You think for a moment. And you come to your decision. It's too risky. Until you can alter the summoning spell itself, you judge it flawed. <She poses too great a danger to the rest of you,> you say. <It's time to be done with this.> When you go to retrieve Obis, you find him already set to go. Joey has fallen asleep on the bed. You explain the situation, and he nods and follows you back toward your room. "She'll suspect something immediately," Auriel tells you. "Desummoning is a contest of wills. Catch her by surprise after you open the door, and force her back." You nod, and place your hand on the door. >Rolled 1d100: 22, 13, 59 You burst in through the door. Xella is standing in the middle of the room - and she's ready for you. You shove your will at her. She buckles to one knee. The glow of a summoning sigil appears under her. Despite her readiness, you're winning. She looks up at you. "...I...could feel you all...I hate you..." She stares at you. "...naive...idiotic...ignoring your own power for bags of flesh and blood...I hate you...I HATE YOU!" Her will pushes back on yours, hard. She forces her existence into this reality, and it's working. Her emotions are raging into you like hammers. >Rolled 1d100: 40, 64, 65 You realize something. Pushing Humanity onto this thing is a wasted exercise. That's what you've been doing - wielding your humanity as a weapon. And she's ignored it - because she's flawed. She has no Humanity.

But she does have Temerity. You slam her with it. She crumples to the floor. You grab that part of you - cold. Callus. Calculating. Forceful. There is no good, or evil. Only Justice, and the power to carry it out. Xella tries to claw back to her feet - and Aurel's sword meets her torso straight on. Auriel grunts, and rips her blade out through Xella's flank. She steps back as the succubus flails and screams. And slowly, the dark hole starts to swallow her up. She begins to disintegrate - magic, forced back into the nether, back to raw, uncarved energy. You feel her resistance fade to nothing. You've won. And then it stops. Her disintegration begins to undo itself. Something is wrong. >Rolled 1d20: 5, 12, 6 Her form begins to regenerate. "Take her right!" Auriel says. She nimbly heads left. "Shadow, stay center!" Flint and Obis surround the writhing form in the center of the room from the other side. You stand around it, watching. You try to press your will at it. You're met with something that isn't Xella. Something huge. Something terrifying. A thousand eyes stare back at you. A chill is cast over the room. Your three companions flinch backward. Even Steward crouches low, just at your shoulder. e u l . H o l .. . E b us ow h v e y o b e n re a e ? H <...what? What are you?!> The thing picks itself off the ground. The flesh is rotted and warped. A eyeball grows at the end of what was once Xella's arm. old friend? Your old arbiter of that silly thing you call justice? n 't r D o y u rec ognize yo u o

<My...what?> The thing laughs. You feel as though you've been dipped in icewater. And you feel fear. ic. re e ally . Not u You don't remember a thing. But...you aren't Er u s , a b re yo . How p athet <What are you talking about?> You let your illusion drop. <Explain yourself!> Explain myself? The thing laughs again. You, demanding anything, of me? You, a shard of a shard of h nki rwise. i t on me fo Shadow? You aren't Erebus. Yo u 're n o ing. S h am e n g othe r th This form is delicate, but it will do. Fear me, Shadow...for all elements fear me. And you will kno w am Le me - for I gion. It raises a hand. n rst...an hi k e you, f I I'll i n, to bus in es s. t eras t he d >Rolled 1d100: 38, 58, 13 >Rolled 1d100: 67, 97, 95 You leap to the side as a ray of black escapes the thing's hand. It catches you on the side. You feel a searing pain. >HP 18/37 It's darker than dark. You can see into the dark - it holds no fear for you. But this isn't darkness. It's emptiness. What the ray strikes, it strips away, -unmaking- it as it touches things. Steward barely ducks away as it blasts through the door, widening into the cone that continues straight through the building and on. But though you took a hit, you're in perfect position to attack. It's arm is out, and its leaning forward. It begins to turn toward you... And your limbs rip up into it, chopping off the arm in an instant. It shrieks and stumbles backward. Even as you watch, the limb begins to rapidly grow back. It steps back toward the window - but Obis's shield catches it right on the side. It tumbles backward, and Auriel lands a nasty slice all the way down its leg. >Rolled 1d100: 2, 27, 83 You lunge toward the creature. It wildly waves a hand up over its body, shooting another black ray. It catches you almost straight-on.

>HP 13/37 The ray eats through the roof of the tavern, and through half the floor. The room cracks in two. But your companions aren't deterred. They swarm the creature even as you fall back, hacking off its limbs, smashing it into the wood. The room groans heavily. The thing still struggles, still alive. >Rolled 1d100: 81, 58, 91 You sprint forward and dive at the creature. You roil over its limbs. And just like anything else... ...YOU CONSUME IT. As its body disintegrates into your form, briefly, you feel a flood of power... ...and then, it's shut off like a tap. But not before you CONSUME a substantial portion of it. >HP 28/37 >Rolled 1d20: 20, 18, 20 >Primary Critical Success! >Primary Critical Success! The house continues to lean. You friends lose their balance and slide to the wall. You tumble down with them. Steward buries a hand in the wood and hangs on. Support beams crack like dry twigs as the third story of the tavern collapses sideways like a deck of cards. i th yo fr i a ttle eca e o m tha d tle Shad t s .B u'll f o er back r D d u get pow t? I t oe n at m t , lit use y nd a l ow i I 't ack. om ke p c in g b . e . ai .. . g A n ag And ai n . . . g A a a n . . i . nd

A N D GA I A N crashes house The to the ground. You desperately ride it out as wood flies around you. is quiet. You poke your way out of the timber. The night sky is cloudy. The snow continues Everything to steadily fall. The echo of the voice fades, and this time, you think its presence is gone for good. At least, for now - if its threat holds true. Noise makes you jerk in surprise. Auriel and Flint emerge from the wood like divers coming up for breath. They glance at each other, then at you. Obis and Steward are next. "...everyone ok?" Obis asks. "Yeah," Flint says. "Totally fine," Auriel answers. "Well. That was lucky." "You know, Shadow," Obis says, as he extracts himself from the "you really come in handy some times. I wasn't sure how we were going to kill that thing. Whatever it was." <It seemed to think I was something I'm not,> you say. "It called you Erebus," Auriel said. <...yes.> Auriel looks at you. "...you, Erebus." <It seemed confused about that, really,> you say nervously. <I don't - > Auriel starts laughing. She slaps a piece of wood and bends over double. "You - you, Erebus?! You've got to be kidding me!" <...it isn't that funny...is it?> "You're a blob of Shadow. How could you be Erebus?" Auriel addresses you in a tone reserved for 5year olds. "I've SEEN Erebus. You realize this? If you were him, I think I'd know it. Hell, I'd feel it.

We all would." She waved a hand. "Maybe when you ate that dynamo, you sort of reminded me of him...in the way a cloud remind you of a thunderstorm. Whatever that thing was, its mind was corrupted beyond belief." Well, at least that problem is solved, one way or another. "...hey, guys?" calls Joey. You all look up. Standing on a tiny platform still supported by one beam is Joey, his hair still messed from bed. "...uh...what happened?" "It demands rather in-depth explanation," Steward says. Obis chuckles. "Yeah...that's one way of putting it." "People," Flint says, "We have company." You realize people are starting to surround the tavern. A lot of people. ...and something's off about them. You can't quite place it. You quickly adapt your normal form and join your companions. Joey nervously ducks back into a half-collapsed nook. "Uh," Flint says. "Real eloquent, there," Obis mutters. "I'll handle this." He steps up in front. "Good people. An explanation is at hand, if you'll lend me your ears." "None will be required," comes a dry, rattling voice. You stiffen. That sounded like Adavan. "No torches," Auriel says. She glances around. "None of them have torches. It's practically pitch black." You realize she's right. A man in dark robes steps forward from the crowd. He draws back his cowl.

Auriel's eyes widen. Her mouth drops open. "...Magnock." "...I know your face," the lich says. "...Auriel." "...you can't be alive. You should be dead!" Magnock chuckles long and slow. He drags a new breath through rotting teeth. "Dead? How can you kill something that's already died, I wonder?" He slowly casts his gaze on Flint, you, and Obis. "...hmm...Adavan's friends, no doubt." Magnock raises a hand. The tip of his staff glows. The people of the town begin to shuffle forward. In the distance, you hear a slow, even rumbling. After your battles, you know that sound well - the footsteps of a golem. Or several golems. "He'll be happy to see you," Magnock says. "I've almost broken him. And after he's done with...the girl, and the rest of you." Magnock grins. "What a joy to have my old nemesis as my personal slave. I'll have plenty of fun with you, Angel." Auriel tightens her grip on her sword. "You're old, you rotting sack. Weak." "And I've been busy rebuilding." Magnock's grin grows larger. "But it looks like you're the pot calling the kettle black, my lovely -Highest-." He licks his decayed lips with a tongue that's just a bit too long. "I'm looking forward to seeing how every part of you tastes." You glance at Flint, and you see a look on his face you've never seen before - a murderous rage, barely restrained. Your party backs itself into a circle as the enslaved townspeople draw closer. Magnock laughs again.

THREAD 29
>HP 35/44 >Mana 2/20 "Shit," Obis mutters. "Auriel, you know this lich?" "...an old enemy, from a long time ago." You stand in the middle of your companions. Their eyes shift back and forward over the approaching crowd. Magnock hasn't moved. "Watch his staff. He knows powerful mind magic. These people are innocent, but..." "But we don't have much of a choice," Obis says. "If we can slay Magnock, or at least disrupt his concentration, they'll be freed," she says. "Oh, great." Obis rolls his eyes. "All we have to do is reach the lich on the other side of the mindcontrolled horde. No problem. I have mentioned I don't know any magic?" "...Shadow could do it," Flint says. Auriel glances at you, then back to the people. "Maybe." Joey is still up in the tiny fragment of the tavern still standing, safe, for the moment. You're almost out of room to back up. The rumbling sound in the distance is increasing in volume...and tempo. >Rolled 1d100: 32, 19, 79 >Rolled 1d100: 89, 93, 37 >Rolled 1d100: 20, 2, 86 >Rolled 1d100: 35, 69, 11 <Try to hold out,> you say. <I'll take him down.> A new found strength surges through you. You burst off your feet and into the air. Glowing whips of Spirit magic snap up at you. You didn't expect the sudden attack, and one of them catches you in the side - but it's only a glancing blow. >HP 33/44 You fly across the crowd in an erratic pattern, dodging what is rapidly become a continual flurry of Spirit attacks from Magnock. But your speed keeps you safe. You unleash Nightflare, hoping to disable some of the magic!

>Mana 0/20 Abruptly, the stream of magic is cut off. Magnock freezes. Now's the time. In an instant, you Blink. The world drags blurs as you warp through space. You come out of the teleport just behind your target. You blast forward a single arm, as hard as you can with all your might behind it. Your attack goes right through him. Magnock's form wavers, and vanishes. You hear an ugly cackle from above you. You glance up to see the lich perched on a nearby rooftop. A orange missile speeds toward your position! >Rolled 1d100: 22, 33, 77 You dive away as top speed. The missile cracks into the ground. An explosion rocks the cobblestone street behind you, throwing up dirt and snow. Tendrils of snaking orange energy burst out in a net, searing and disintegrating a dozen mindless slaves. A few bits lash your back, but you escape nearly unscathed. >HP 32/44

A booming sound rumbles under your feet. You turn. Thundering down the main street of Palthair are two giant flesh golems. They're hulking monstrosities, knitted together from a hundred corpses. Their flesh trembles and warps even as you watch them move. They smash through two enchanted townsfolk without a second thought on their way straight toward you. >Rolled 1d100: 27, 86, 54 Magnock is controlling the beasts. If he dies, so do they. You Focus. The world flashes with life. You see lines of power connecting Magnock to the townspeople, and his golems...not the spells themselves, but the flow of energy. You feel two pinpricks far below you...both of Spirit...one is vague, but the other... ...Abigail. She's under the town. Likely in the mines. Three much more powerful sensations of Spirit grab your attention. Two are...foggy...indistinct. But a third feels -real-. You pause a moment. You wrap an arm around a iron hitching post, rip it out of the street, and throw it at the golems. It catches one in the leg, making it tumbles to the ground. Hopefully that slows it down somewhat. You race toward the real Magnock - he's in an alley, sitting complacently on a wooden crate in the middle of the tight intersection. His eyes are closed in concentration. You grab a wooden crate and chuck it at him. It explodes in midair before reaching him, contacting what appears to be some kind of barrier made out of Spirit. He opens his eyes and stands up. "Interesting. An Angel traveling with a Shadow summon? You're quite a strong one." A golem steps out from the intersection. And you realize another - the one you

didn't trip up - has pinned you into the alley from behind. "But I am stronger," Magnock finishes. You've got his attention...your sense of his other, indistinct 'selves' vanishes. At least your companions won't have to worry about being flanked. Hopefully they can hold out against the townsfolk. >Rolled 1d100: 57, 81, 46 You quickly form a plan. It's not subtle, but it should get your point across. You glance around. The alley is empty. There's nothing to throw. Well. There's a wood building on either side of you That'll work. You crunch your tendrils through the wood as the golem from behind closes in. You rip out a support beam from the dirt, spin, and shove it into the golem. He's too heavy to change direction. Your wooden stake pierces it through the stomach. It isn't nearly dead - still clawing and salivating, trying to get to you - but you've got it right where you want it. You lift it up, up, directly above you. Even for you, it's an effort to get the mass of muscle off the ground. You turn, and slam it down into the other oncoming golem like a hammer. Its partner is crushed into the snow. Bone breaks and snaps. Blood and entrails squirt out onto the ground. The golems aren't dead - but they'll have trouble moving, for the moment. You race forward, using the squirming mass for cover. You leap over the tangle, forming your Shadow into a solid fist. <We shall see who is stronger, lich!> Magnock is stunned. You slam your appendage into the barrier of Spirit. Sparks crack against you, numbing your arm. The barrier breaks, but it's like shoving through glass with your bare hands. >HP 25/44 >Mana 12/20 (Experience Burn) Magnock raises his staff. You stand opposed to him in the midst of the intersection of several alleys. "Darkxis, to me!" Magnock shouts. You prepare yourself, ready to counter any spell he throws at you. Sparks of spirit gather around his staff. They twist together, forming into something more...the time is now!

>Rolled 1d100: 87, 67, 17 You use Nightflare! >Mana 10/20 The world shocks into a negative of itself. The spirit magic on Magnock's staff fizzles and dies in a plaintiff puff of smoke. "...how...!?" This time, you've caught him by surprise! You lunge forward! You feel yourself slowing down. Held back. As if you're being held. >Rolled 1d100: 9, 48, 39 You freeze to a halt. You strain, and struggle another step forward. <You know,> says a voice, <no one's ever moved while I held them. You must be really strong.> You look over your shoulder. A shadow stands there - a vaguely humanoid form with blank white orbs for eyes and teeth like daggers. A long black tendril stretches from its base to where you stand. <I'm curious as to how strong you are,> it says. <Real curious. I want to know.> Saliva starts to drool from its mouth. <If I eat you, would I know, do you think? I think I'd like to know. Eating sounds good.> "You're late, Darkxis," Magnock says. He waltzes up to you. You wrench a claw forward, but then Darkxis reaffirms his grip. Magnock grins, revealing a line of hole-pocked teeth. "I guess you aren't as strong as you think you are." You growl, and strain. You manage another step. But Magnock just smiles and moves away. "I've got an Angel to corrupt. I don't need a second talking Shadow. Darkxis, feel free to eat this one. But hold

it for a good long while, first. It needs to learn some patience." Magnock walks off. Darkxis grins. <Did you hear that? I get to eat you. I get to know how strong you are, how STRONG, how DELICIOUS, I bet you're DELICIOUS. I wonder how long a WHILE is, do you know, maybe I'll know when I eat you!> You think rapidly, combing through your options. You feel ready to Blink. Maybe you could blink out of its grasp and get behind it? But then what? If it's anything like you, like the last shadow you met - it won't be easy prey. And even if you did manage to consume it...would you be the same Shadow afterward? You feel at the Shard of True Darkness. Isolation trembles...it doesn't feel as though it's gotten 'better'. Fragile...easily broken. You're not sure if you're willing to sacrifice it. Maybe magic? Your most powerful magic is of the shadow element, and that probably wouldn't work. Water, then? You look up at it. Whatever the case, you don't want it to attack you right off the bat. <A while is a while,> you say. <At least five minutes.> <Five whole minutes! Liar! It's only two minutes. Two minutes and then I eat you! EAT YOU!> It trembles in anticipation. You're not hopeful about your chances with reasoning with this thing. >Rolled 1d100: 66, 44, 46 <My companions are in danger,> you say. <I don't have two minutes to waste. We settle this now.> <Can't make me!> Darkxis shrieks. You activate your Berserk. You rip free of his control in an instant. You explode across the cobblestone, slamming into your foe. You tumble and twist in a confused tangle of shadows and claws and teeth, each attacking the other - but the suddenness of your strike has given you an advantage. You grab him, lift him up, and slam him down straight into the stone. You follow with a fist, crushing hard enough to crack the street. Darkxis manage to Ink free of you, slashing as he slithers away. But it's merely a scratch. >HP 26/44 You circle one another, darting in and out. He's fast - maybe as fast as you.

The golems up the alley are starting to recover. >Rolled 1d100: 26, 91, 88 You feel...off. Something's inside you...eating at you. You don't have time to worry about it. You roar, and fly toward Darkxis, scraping the street with your tendrils as you do. A shower of cobblestones and dirt flies up, pelting your opponent long enough to distract him. You crush him back down into the dirt with your first, then grab him by the middle and slam him down, again, and again. Darkxis Inks away again. He's weak, but he's a resilient bastard. He gnaws on your limbs as he escapes your attacks, injecting something with his fangs. >HP 24/44 You don't have time to think. You've got to crush him while he's still reeling, retreating. You move forward - you sense a golem just behind you! >Rolled 1d100: 24, 50, 97 You duck out of the way of the golem! The fist buries itself in the ground next to you - the ground that you dug up. The golem struggles to free itself, but it's momentarily stuck. The other golem either retreated, or was too damaged to move - you can't sense it. Darkxis flickers at the edge of your senses. He's moving fast, waiting for an opening - you must have done some damage. Your Berserk isn't helping you keep track of him. You feel as though you could cut it off now, if you wanted. You end Berserk. You concentration washes back over you in a wave. >Rolled 1d100: 70, 44, 28 Focus pings out. You find him - right behind you! You turn just in time to catch his attack. His jaws clamp down on you. <Tasty, tasty, TASTY,TASTY,MORE,I WANT MORE,MORE OF THIS!> >HP 22/44

<I can bite, too,> you say. You stretched your entire body in the shape of a mouth, looming over where he's latched onto your arm. <Better than you can.> You crush down on him! The attack feels different than before. Darkxis shrieks in pain. You're -piercing- through something. You open your jaws, and then Crunch again, mashing him between stony, Shadowy teeth. Between beating him senseless and chewing him alive, you're pretty sure you've done a lot of damage. The golem wrenches its arm free from the ground! >Rolled 1d100: 23, 77, 11 >Rolled 1d100: 10, 86, 39 You crush in again, and this time, you stay there. You sink -into- your foe, burying yourself in his being. <IT'S BEEN TWO MINUTES!> Darkxis screams. He matches your efforts, fighting back and latching on to your existence! You battle for control. The golem's fist slams into you both - but it didn't seem to care who it hit. The both of you fly across the alley and slam through a wall. You tumble to rest inside a small room with a fireplace and several chairs. >HP 19/44 You and Darkxis crack the floorboards and smash the chairs to bits as you roll over and over, trying to leverage yourselves into some sort of advantage. >Rolled 1d100: 77, 27, 3 You subsume part of Darkxis. He steals part of you. You grab it back, mixed with some of him. He dissolves one of your arms. You eat away half his face.

His face reemerges from another part of his body, and he sucks in part of your jaw. >HP 17/44 He's definitely weaker than you, after the fight. You've got to finish this! >Rolled 1d100: 98, 14, 20 His efforts are slowing down... You burst through Darkxis's defenses! You've reached his core, and you know what you have to do... you must CONSUME >HP 22/44 He's on the ropes. This is it... ...but you can feel the danger. His existence will not be denied so easily. >Rolled 1d100: 42, 54, 61 You subsume the core of Darkxis. Hunger gnaws at you. Hunger...and something else... The two feelings swirl within you. The threaten to grow greater than your own self. Wouldn't it be nice to just CONSUME everything...to have it as part of yourself? Wouldn't it be easier? A simple life. Eat, or not eat. Eat. Eat. Eat. Take everything. No. Your rail against the feeling. Too much rides on this. Too many companions... ...friends. Flint. Abigail. They need you.

You wrench yourself back from the brink of ignorant Hunger. For a moment, you feel the two feelings sitting there, collected like two crystals - and one simply disintegrates. Whatever it was, is lost. The other, you know, is the Hunger you've felt all along. It's not an unfamiliar feeling. >HP 36/44 You stand in the midst of the room. You Focus your senses. Immediately, a ball of Light jumps out at you like a sunray. You feel at it, confused - but it's indiscernible. It isn't moving. It's also right where you left the others. A strong Spirit soul is standing next to it. That has to be Magnock. What is going on? You begin to move off - and then, an idea strikes you. You Replicate Darkxis's form, complete with glowing white eyes and shark-toothed grin. You add a bit of saliva for good measure, and then start off through the city. You come across the golem, but it's heading the other way. It ignores you. Whether it simply didn't notice you, or the disguise worked, you're not quite sure. You reach the site of the collapsed tavern. The hundreds of townsfolk are dispersing - no less mindless, but slowly, without any urgency. You gingerly meander between them. They don't pay you any attention. A glowing, egg-shaped sphere of Light rests on the cobblestone. Magnock is busying himself walking around it in a small circuit. A glowing orange sigil is swiftly growing underneath it. Three flesh golems stand guard, and you can feel a Spirit barrier identical to the one you smashed before. You surmise that Auriel, backed into a corner, must have used some sort of defensive spell to protect the group. And Magnock must be trying to crack it open. You gingerly walk up to the outskirts of the barrier. You grasp the Shard of Hunger... ...and you feel something envelope you, more lucid and coherent than Isolation ever was. You channel that feeling into words, and they roll out of you. <That looks tasty, can I eat it? I want to eat it, can I, eat it, that is, I want to - >

Magnock doesn't even look up. "Shut up, Darkxis." He fritters over something for a moment, then straightens. "What of the other shadow?" <I ate it.> "Good. You'll make quite the assassin, someday. And then you'll have every soul you can eat, as promised." He looks to the egg. "The angel is weakened, but she retains her knowledge, and experience. I can't open this alone." Magnock grins. "But I know another lich that might help, if I break him just the right way." Magnock glances at you. "Do as you will until I call upon you. I'm transporting this into my laboratory." The sigil under the egg flares with orange light. You leap forward. <I want to go, too! Will there be things to eat?!> You slam into the magical barrier, then fall backward, stunned. Magnock gives you a tired look of disdain. "I've told you before, Darkxis. Don't get close to me." The teleport spell activates. The three golems, the egg, and Magnock all vanish. You feel a bright point of Spirit flash far below you. You didn't expect Magnock to include Darkxis in the barrier spell...but then, given his Hunger, maybe you should have. Frustration rages through you. You punch the stone, cracking it. You force it back, slowly, steadily. Anger won't help the situation. As Flint said to Joey all those times they sparred, you need to keep your head on straight. Magnock's lair no doubt rests within the mines below the town. He's ancient, adept in magic, has had who knows how long to take over this town, and he has all of your friends captive. And you've no doubt he's working on Adavan right now. Time is short. You need to get moving. You trudge through the snow, keeping an eye on the subdued townsfolk. For now, it seems they don't consider you an enemy. He still doesn't expect that you're against him - at least you have that.

THREAD 30
>HP 34/52 >Mana 10/20 You're going to need all the strength you can get. You sprint back toward the corpse of the golem. You use the term 'corpse' roughly. It's smashed into the ground, but it's still writhing a bit, slowly repairing itself. It can't move - you're feeling pretty confident about your chances. And Magnock will likely write off your consumption as Darkxis being Darkxis. You roil over the flesh golem. >Rolled 1d100: 12, 5, 10 >HP 37/52 You feel a bit more power seep into your core. It sits around the two shards... What are those things, anyway? They're like solid pieces of shadow. In any case, they bear investigation. No time for that now. <Darkxis!> You pause, then look around. Where did that voice come from? It almost sounded like <It's me, you idiot!> Magnock shouts into your mind. <Uh...> <I told you a thousand times - don't eat without my permission! Or I -will- finish what I started when you found me! Is that clear?> <Yes.> <Good. Now get back to the cells, and stay there. And if you eat the girl - either of the girls - there'll be hell to pay.> The sense of contact fades. Magnock can feel when you consume his magic, apparently. More likely, knowing Darkxis, he set that up on purpose. You should probably avoid being blatantly consumptive. You don't have time to spend getting back to full health. You run up to the first townsperson you see. <Cells? Where are the cells? Are there things to eat there, maybe?>

The man stands there for a moment, then points in the direction all the rest of the townspeople are heading. ...makes sense. As you lope along, you notice something you didn't before - shadows. People's shadows. They flick and flitter across the ground, changing as they move across different surfaces, independent from the surroundings. You reach forward. You gasp the shadow of a person as if it's a thin layer of paper. You peel it up from the cobblestone and, on impulse, chew it down. It's not very substantial, but you feel a little better. If the enslaved townsperson cares that you ate their shadow, they don't show it. You run toward the mines, grabbing a few more shadows as you go. >HP 41/52 You clear the back side of the town and reach a series of steep slopes. The Valendrak mountains loom above you, piercing the dark night sky. A large entrance supported by wood beams forms an opening directly into the rock. A stream of people leads into and out of mines. A flesh golem stands guard with three men. They're wearing grey clothing, imprinted with an orange, inverted triangle. It's the same symbol Adavan used to guide you this far. Judging by the way they're look at the crowd, eyes alert, they don't seem to be enslaved. Assuming Magnock took over here, it stands to reason that not everyone fought his influence... You don't even bother to stay in the line of people, but instead walk and warp and shift your way up to the guards. The flesh golem doesn't budge an inch, but the three men stiffen in surprise as you draw close. One of them takes a step backwards, a mask of fear etched on his face. Clearly, Darkxis doesn't distinguish much between the help and his next meal. <I'm hungry, but Magnock told me not to eat the girls,> you say. You loom over the frightened one. His knees are shaking so hard they knock together. <Are you a girl?> "U-uh-uh...yes," the man whimpers. <Oh.> You sit back. <Where are the cells? He told me to go to the cells, but I got hungry and forgot where they were. Actually, I'm still hungry. Maybe I'll eat first.> "Go down to processing, take the big steel door!" one of the men shouts. "Just follow the main hall! There's a ton of things to eat down there, I swear!" <Oh. Ok then.> You wander off down the halls. You bob along between the people, trying to move quickly without overtly sprinting. You don't want to appear in any kind of hurry. You've got to make sure Magnock stops focusing on you, at least until now.

Up ahead, the lines of people swivel and swerve. It's odd - the hallway is neat and straight, marked by wooden beams at regular intervals. But they snake through quite purposefully... You walk along the lines of people, following their path carefully. You glance at the hall, peering intently. Amidst the dust and rock of the floor, you see a few wide, raised stone plates. You're not sure what they activate, but you don't want to find out. You continue down, and the path opens into a large room. The massive cavern is a hive of activity. A winding maze of platforms and mine tracks crisscrosses the floor, connecting together all the mine shafts. Mine trains are being hauled by men and women and beasts of burden, bringing loads of raw ore up from one of the many tunnels. That is then sorted for what you think, at a glance, is purity, by a large troop of mostly women and children. The sorted ores are then carted off en masse further down a prominent tunnel, out of which a smaller, but steady stream of people leads. Holes in the ceiling far overhead look like intentionally-cut air shafts for ventilation. It's an impressive operation, one that shows decades of effort and careful construction. You doubt Magnock did it all - he just took over what was already here, and he's driving it at full force. You wonder what his plans are. You take a glance up into the side tunnels. They're a product of careful engineering, supported by regular wooden beams, but you don't notice anything particularly distinct about them. You continue down the main tunnel. The line of people has thinned, but remains steady and straight. You feel it getting hotter. A bit of smoke fogs the air, whisked away quickly by the mine's good airflow, but marking what must be the processing area the guard mentioned. You come to a halt. Two flesh golems stand before a sort of wrought-iron gateway, built into the stone - but it obviously hasn't been there long. A faint orange light glows in the air underneath it. The people pass in and out of it without harm, but you see the magic flow over them as they do. A crack in the wall to the side catches your eye. You feel a bit of air coming through. Maybe it leads outside? That doesn't sound helpful at the moment. The gate makes you more than a little worried. You explore up the crevice. It's thin. Very thin - if it came down to it, you probably wouldn't be able to get anyone else other than Abigail through such a small space. The wind whistles shrilly. After a minute of climbing, you slither up and out of the crevice, and into free air. You're high on the slope above the entrance to the mines. Palthair stretches before you, around the curve of the mountain.

Dammit. This was a waste of time. You slither back down the crevice. It's a lot faster flowing down than creeping up. You arrive back in front of the gate, take a breath, and walk through. >Rolled 1d100: 66, 30, 75 You walk through the gate. You feel a brush of Spirit flow over you, as if walking through a curtain made of magic. In a moment, the feeling is gone. You tense up. The golems don't move. The people keep walking. Magnock's voice doesn't shout in your head. You let out a sigh of relief. Maybe you were worried for nothing. After a short walk, the tunnel opens up again. A room even larger than the last greets your eyes. Huge furnaces line one wall of the room. Mine carts arrive on platforms from above and below, then dump their sorted ore into one of the furnaces. The slag is collected below in cupcake-like molds of bars. The molds are set onto huge trays, which are wheeled away into yet another chamber to cool. On the other side of the room, many of the bars are put right to work. The greenish-grey of adamantium lies under many hammers, alongside steel and what you think is copper. Piles of coal sit in the room, feeding the hungry furnaces. The adamantium forge has several mages standing next to it - one feels like earth, another like fire, another of water. They work together to help the blacksmiths work the tough metal into a finished product. There are a lot more of the grey-clad guards in this room. They patrol in teams of three, keeping an eye on the proceedings. You note that many of the blacksmiths, as well as the three mages, don't have the glazed eyes of the enslaved...they feel relatively free of any spirit magic, too, and they aren't wearing the grey clothing. A dozen or so flesh golems line the room. That's a lot of golems - a lot of corpses. Magnock has been busy. Three hallways lead off from the forge room. One is where the cooling bars are being taken. You see finished swords and helmets being carted into the second. The third has several guards standing in front of it, but nothing moves in or out. You walk up to the guards at the one door. They draw back on instinct. <Let me in.> They practically fall over themselves getting out of your way.

You hold in a smile. You could get used to this. You open the door. A winding path wraps around a dark mine shaft. A few more guard patrols lay here and there. You can feel spirit magic below your position. You drop down to the bottom of the shaft. You use your wings to slow your descent and alight gently on the stone floor. An orange glow permeates the room. A long line of cells cover both walls. They waver as you look at them it appears and feels as through the cages are made of solid Spirit magic. You creep through the Shadows, staying as quiet as possible. There's a woman in one cell. She's sitting with her arms folded around her knees, head drooped low. Brown hair scraggly and unkempt from time spent in a prison drapes around her shoulders. You hear the creak of a door open from the other end of the hall. You stay where you are, at the corner of the hall leading from the dropshaft. Maybe you'll hear something interesting. A man with mussed black hair that feels like crackling lightning comes into view. He's wearing a grey robe with an orange triangle. He plants himself in front of the woman's cell. "Samantha." The woman doesn't look up. "I came here to talk." The woman doesn't respond. "You shouldn't ignore the person who holds your father's life in his hands." Samantha finally looks up. You can see she's actually quite young - eighteen, nineteen. She stares at the man. "Leave me alone, Gabriel." "If you were more compliant, you wouldn't be in this situation. It's been some weeks, now. Magnock isn't going anywhere." Gabriel smirks. "And I'm his right-hand man. So when I talk, you listen."

"Go fuck yourself." Gabriel wags a finger. "Tsk tsk." "You sold us out to a lich," she says. "You sold my family - the town - the whole damn empire to some undead fool. When the angels arrive, they'll - " "The angels haven't come. They won't be coming. They've got Archon and the Black Lady to deal with. By the time they show up, Magnock will have returned himself and his armies to full strength." Gabriel leans up close to the orange bars. "You need to decide, and soon. Work with us - with me - and save your father's life." "I'd rather rot in the Nether than work with -you-. You were always a piece of slime, Gabriel, but I never suspected you had no heart at all." Gabriel chuckles. "Oh, feisty. That's why I like you, Sam." "Leave her alone!" a small voice shouts. "Ugly!" You know that voice. Abigail. Gabriel turns toward a cell you can't see from your position with a twisted look on his face. "If it isn't the little spirit rat. I don't know why Magnock wants you around - I don't think even his deviance extends to children. But as soon as he doesn't need you, I'll enjoy taking you apart. Maybe I'll make you into a rat. Would you like that?" It takes an extremely large portion of your self control to stop yourself from leaping out and tearing the man into bite-size pieces. "Addy's going to come and - " "Addy? Adavan?" Gabriel scoffs. "He's being broken in half by Magnock as we speak." "Then Sha - " "Shadow, Shadow, Shadow, Mr. Shadow will come and save me," Gabriel mocks. "Have you met -ourshadow, yet?" You here only a small whimper from Abigail's cell. "Well, guess what? Our shadow ATE your shadow up, and then he burped and laughed about it. Your shadow is dead, and the rest of your friends are trapped at the bottom of Magnock's laboratory. So shut the hell up and speak only when spoken to, like a good girl." "Don't speak to her that way!" Samantha shouts. She stands up and balls her fists. "She's just a girl! By the Light, Gabriel, can you even hear yourself?!"

"I always hated your old man," Gabriel hisses. "Palthair. The loyal, productive little city of the Empire. A -slave- by any other name! In times of old, we were great. We were the center of our own kingdom. But he always kowtowed to them, always appeasing, just like the mayor before him, and before that one. Palthair will rise, and I will be its head, a general in Magnock's army." Gabriel fully turns back to face Samantha. "He was a servant of Hecate, in the elementomachy. He is ancient, and powerful beyond your comprehension. He has the knowledge to outmaneuver and defeat even angels." "War, with angels?" Samantha whispers. "You're insane. You're fucking insane. Palthair has never been more prosperous, and more peaceful, than when it's been under the Empire. The empire keeps the Black Lady at bay. Turning our back on them means - " "What does it matter?" Gabriel says. "He's wiser even than she. Than Yi Fang himself." He turns away. "I won't wait forever, Sam. I want you by my side...and I'll have you, one way or another." He begins to walk off. You step out from behind the corner and walk down the line of cells. Samantha, still standing at the bars of her cell, sees you first. She falls back on her rear and shuffles back on her hands, all the way to the back of her cage. Gabriel turns, stiffens slightly when he sees you, but doesn't display the open fear you've seen from the other guards. He's surprised, not scared. You look for Abigail. She's crouched in her cell. She's dirty, and her hair is a mess. Her face seems pale. Purple bruises mark her cheek, and her forearm. Her eyes widen when she sees you, and she holds her legs against her chest. When you see that reaction, directed at you, for a moment, your will wavers. Your form shakes. But you act as if it's just another part of your gait, and continue toward Gabriel. "Darkxis. Magnock said you'd arrived..." He raises an eyebrow. "Have you been here the whole time?" <He said to go to the cells, and not eat the girls,> you say. <You aren't a girl. Can I eat you? I'm hungry, I want to - > A spark of lightning cracks across Gabriel's fingers. "You know better than that. Come on." Gabriel walks to the end of the cages. He focuses on a symbol resting on the ground. It glows orange. The bars of the last cage fade. You realize the same design rests in front of every cage. Some kind of control mechanism, then? Gabriel waves into the space. "Well. Get in." >Rolled 1d100: 99, 43, 46 >Secondary Critical Failure You turn and slam a limb into Gabriel's head.

A shock of electricity leaps down your arm. Some kind of barrier he had around himself. >HP 40/52 It's not nearly enough to stop you. He's sent flying. He slams into the wall at the end of the hall and slumps down, still alive, but out like a light. A meal on a silver platter. <Darkxis, what the hell are you doing!> shouts a voice in your head. Well, you knew that was coming. <I'm coming up there. Don't you move a muscle. Or whatever the hell it is!> Magnock's awkward threat cuts out. You can feel a bit of spirit moving down below, heading up rapidly. You've got maybe a minute, tops. >Rolled 1d100: 59, 59, 52 You've never been one to let a good meal go to waste with powerful enemies on the way. YOU MUST CONSUME Well, Abigail's right there. You cover Gabriel with your body, shielding him from view and muffling the sounds, then rip him into easily digestible pieces. You dissolve him into your own body quickly and quietly, and not a drop of blood is spilled. It might be the neatest meal you've ever eaten. >HP 45/52 >Mana 13/20 You jog back to Abigail. She's wide-eyed and staring. You morph into your normal, amorphous form. <Abigail, it's me. Shadow.> Abigail's mouth drops open. She leans up off the wall. "...Mr. Shadow?" You send her a series of images...you and Flint, fighting at Jacob's field, while she runs away with Adavan. You sail down a river and meet a caricature of a duke, and then the three of you fight a demon. The duke waves goodbye to you, and you and Flint run across a changing background of plains and craggy cliffs, eventually arriving outside Palthair. You show her the lich and a weird, Darkxis-looking shadow facing off against yourself and Flint. The lich slaps Flint in chains and takes him into the mine. The Shadow then turns into a mouth, trying to eat you. And then you turn into an even bigger mouth and eat it. Then, you wander into the mine, changing into Darkxis. The lich sees you, and a question mark appears above his head. He wanders off. Then you reach the prison cells, and change back into

yourself, with a happy smile and a wink. <Do you understand?> Abigail jumps up and down and claps her hands. "Mr. Shadow! Ohmygosh! Wow!" Suddenly, her face goes serious. "But Addy and Sir Flint...Addy put a spell on me so the lich couldn't read my mind, I think." "Abby," Samantha says, "what on earth is going on?" "Remember the good shadow I told you about?" Abigail says. "This is him, Mr. Shadow! He beat that other mean shadow and now he's here to rescue us!" Samantha just blinks. "...I thought you made that up." "Why would I do that?" Abigail asks. You turn toward Samantha. <Magnock is coming. Quickly. Does he have any weaknesses? Anything I should know about?> Samantha bites her lip, then shrugs. "I'm sorry. I don't know anything. They...they were holding other girls hear. Hostages, so the blacksmiths and the mages would keep working. But they've been dragged off the past few weeks, one by one. I'm the last one left. I...I don't know..." She starts to cry. "It's ok, Sammy," Abigail says. Samantha just cries harder. Abigail leans toward you, letting Samantha be for the moment. "I knew you'd come, Mr. Shadow. Because you said you would." Magnock is almost to the chamber. You have time to ask one more question or say one more thing. <Abigail, Samantha, I'm going to pretend to be Darkxis. Stay quiet, don't give anything away.> Abigail gives you a fierce nod. "Got it!" Samantha manages to bob her head. This is it. You move down the hall and stand in its center. Nervously, you feel at your magic, checking that its still there. You have to throw everything you have into this. Magnock bursts through the door. His staff clacks on the stone as he marches forward. "Dammit, Darkxis, he might have been an idiot, but he was a useful idiot! Now I need to waste time going through the ranks, picking someone out...and he was certainly the most magically trained of the bunch, I know that for certain!" Well. That's not what you expected. But you can use this lure him in, maybe? <I was hungry, you said, don't eat the girls, so I didn't.>

Magnock slowly draws a breath and sighs. He puts a skeletal finger to the bridge of his nose. "...don't do this again, or I will erase you. This is the last straw. One more bit of shadow out of line, and I swear, you'll wish you hadn't been born into this world. Is that understood?" <Yes.> "Good. Now - " Something shakes far, far above you. You and Magnock - and Abby and Samantha - all look up. A Spirit like no other you've felt is near where you suppose the entrance to the mine to be - an orange fire like a miniature sun. Magnock's mouth is open. "...what...in Venia...?" You focus. The world flares to life around you. The Magnock next to you becomes hazy and faint - it's just an image of the real thing. But the Spirit above - it's massive. You've never felt a soul more magically potent than this one - it even beats out Auriel at her full strength, if only somewhat. "Good thinking," Magnock tells you. "What did you learn?" You remember your act at the last moment. "Big. Spirit. Can I eat it?" "...you might have a bit of trouble." Magnock narrows his eyes. He grits his teeth, then relaxes. "...it just took over command of the guards and golems at the entrance to the mine." Magnock looks at you. "Meet me in processing. We need to meet this with full strength." The illusion of Magnock starts down the row of cells. This isn't something you can handle by yourself. You follow Magnock. <Abby,> you say so that only she can hear, <I'm going to pretend to be on his side a little while longer. Don't worry. I'll be back.> Abigail gives you a small smile and waves from behind Magnock's back. Magnock's illusion 'hops' up the mineshaft, blinking from spot to spot. The guards are all rushing up the stairs, apparently under some command you didn't hear. You fly up the mineshaft and land to meet the illusion. You walk into processing. The place is a scurrying mess. Smelters and blacksmiths are rapidly being horded into side chambers. Standing in the center, directing, is Magnock. But Magnock is also standing high above the furnaces, on a platform, holding his staff ready. A fourth Magnock is tucked away low by on the other side of

the mighty chamber. Flesh golems are in position around their masters. Four Magnocks. All put together...they're powerful. Not a strong as the rapidly approaching Spirit, but strong. "Darkxis, conceal yourself," the Magnock next to you says. "But before that, try to pin him down again with your senses." You use Focus. The burning ball of Spirit hasn't gotten any clearer from being closer. Actually...it's foggy...hazy. You can see it, but it just won't come into focus. It occurs to you that it might be concealing information from you intentionally. You spend the short interval studying the four copies of Magnock. You try to discern which one is real... ...but...what? They all feel the same. You notice something else. The staff they're all holding feels different...as if its activated, in some way. Does that have something to do with it? In any case, for the moment, you're glad he's on your side. A plan begins to form in your mind. If this newcomer is hostile...you play them against one another, keeping out of the heavy fighting. And then, just when Magnock thinks victory is assured, the enemy defeated...you strike with extreme prejudice. <I focus better in the dark!> you shout. You run back into the mineshaft. It's quite dark at the top. You sit there, ready to dive down below to your friends, if need be. You Focus harder than you ever have. An awareness blossoms around you - hundreds of men, the pulsing swarms of Flesh Golems, the four identical Magnocks, the bright sun of Spirit magic. It's the third one you've seen, now, and they have a certain...flavor...that sets the apart from other souls. The presence...is a lich. But your awareness continues up, out, further, higher. You're shocked - several thousand souls are poised in the city far above - soldiers, clad in adamantium. But before you can gather more information, your awareness keeps moving, up, higher, into the sky. Your surprise grows greater. An airship hovers above the town - one with a core of solid Light. It reminds you of the Velarion - it's

practically its twin. And then it hits you. Duke Vellik mentioned another such airship - the Noiralev. Commanded directly by the ring city, capable of instantly jumping to a new destination once each month. Apparently, that time was now. That explains why the empire's response has been delayed. They were gathering their forces. You awareness echoes within the airship. You stiffen in cold fear. Sitting within it is a presence of Light - three - no, four souls of Light. Three of them are greater than Auriel, and the fourth... ...the fourth. A crushing, condensed spirit like you've never felt. The Light magic weighs on your soul, even as you look at it. And you know very well that it's looking back at you. The contact shakes you. You withdraw back into yourself, struggling to make sense of what you just discovered. It all falls into place. A lich. A powerful lich with influence to make angels act - Yi Fang, the Archmage of Archon. And he's working with the angels...you thought they were enemies! But...Magnock. He's taken away the Empire's prime source of minerals outside of Kelvere...and their adamantium. It makes sense they'd respond with deadly force - they're all enemies of the Black Lady, after all. They can't afford to allow Palthair to be compromised. Maybe Fang is using the situation to his advantage, considering he's advancing as the tip of the spear, and the angels aren't moving. It makes sense...but it's all conjecture, based on what you've read, what you've heard. You know from Raziel that the angels can't be trusted - they they aren't as good as they claim. For all you know, some sort of demon lord could be on its way down to kill you. All you know for sure is that you may be about to face the most dangerous situation of your short life. You're not sticking around long enough to get destroyed by a clash of powers of this magnitude. It's time to get what you came for and get out. You dive back down the mineshaft. <Darkxis!> Magnock's voice echoes in your head. <What are you doing?!> <Hiding!>

You land hard in front of the prison cells and sprint toward Abigail. You focus on the symbol in front of the cage. Nothing happens. You slam your limb against the bars. The spirit magic wavers, but holds firm. >Rolled 1d100: 81, 16, 73 You use Nightflare. >Mana 11/20 The world shocks to a negative of itself. The cages of Spirit flicker briefly, then vanish - the whole hall's worth. They must have been linked together. "Shadow, what's going on?" Abigail asks. "I can feel so much magic!" You don't pause to explain. You grab Abigail with one limb, Samantha in another, and sprint on. ...maybe, just maybe, you could make contact with Yi Fang. If his working with the angels is an alliance of necessity - he might just be your ticket out of there. As long as he doesn't find out who Abigail is. But if you're wrong, you're in trouble. But then, you're in trouble anyway. You shoulder through the steel door at the end of the prison block, blowing it off its hinges. A long, dark, square shaft rests below you. You dive down without hesitating. You fall straight down for a good ten seconds before the ground rushes up at you. You land softy, then burst forward again. A steel door looms in front of you - heavily reinforced, with a magical barrier imprinted clearly on the front. You can't sense anything beyond it. You smash through the magical barrier and blow open the door, but not without a scratch. >HP 44/52 You glance around the new room as the dust clears. It's...gruesome. Corpses lay over tables, some disemboweled. Buckets of limbs and organs are arranged about the room in a twisted filing system of human parts. You find yourself relatively unbothered by it, but you slide a nub of shadow over Abigail's eyes. <Don't look.>

You pause. Three doors lay around the room. You briefly extend your senses. One room holds what is unmistakably a Spirit mana pool. The second holds an egg-shaped sphere of light. Your companions! The third door leads to a hallway that extends up beyond your senses. An explosion of Spirit erupts above you. The room shakes. The stone rumbles. You extend a few legs to keep your balance, then stand upright. You rush into the egg-room. You briefly shout into the egg that it's you, you're breaking it open, and cross your fingers that they could hear you . Chained to a chair, welded to a wall, and bound in several thick barriers and ropes of spirit magic is none other than Adavan. His head is strapped upright, and his eyelids are pinned open. They widen slightly when they see you. You set down Samantha; she falls to the floor, breathing hard. You keep Abigail on your 'shoulder' and keep her eyes covered. She doesn't need to see him like this. Another explosion of Spirit rocks the room. Dus