The Way of the Hunter

A Neverwinter Nights 2 fanfiction by JC Martin

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Disclaimer: Apart from Alya, Calyx, Garrick and Q’ian Zang, all characters and places are the intellectual property of the creators of Neverwinter Nights 2 and the Forgotten Realms.

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Chapter 1 – The Betrayal

"My debt to you is over, Knight-Captain, and the strange thing is, I’m a little sorry about it," says Bishop, as he steps out from the shadows. She stands at the head of the group of adventurers, her short, reddishbrown hair framing her face, her expression a mixture of surprise, anger and hurt. He wills himself to maintain his casual demeanour, when deep down he is feeling anything but calm. "For what it's worth, I almost kept going for you, right there until the end. But your Uncle...some things are too hard to get past. Even…” and here his words fail, if only for a moment. “...even with everything else." Gods, he hasn’t meant for that to have come out sounding so…sincere. All the time he had been part of her little adventuring company, all the chances he had then to be open with her, he had been aloof and apathetic. And now, at the worst time of all, here he is getting all soppy… “Don’t do this, Bishop,” she says quietly, shaking her head slowly. Was that a flash of neediness in her eyes? Or is he kidding himself again, like he had so many times before with her? "I can't help it," He tries to sound his usual self. "Getting tied down...even to a feeling for someone, just isn't my style." He forces a sneer, which (he hopes) looks convincing enough. "The most frustrating thing about it? When I met you, I was thinking it would be as easy to hate you as I did Duncan. But I don't...at all."

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There, that is as emotional as he will allow himself to get. But what he really wants to do is to scream at her, let it all out. Don’t think I didn’t see you and the paladin here right before the siege! And to think, before that, I would have fought for you! I would have died for you… But no, that’s not his style either, is it? Instead, "But see, that's the reason it's going to end like this. I'm not going to be tied to anyone or anything again..." Especially not if his own feelings could get so close to scaring him at times. “Can you at least tell me why…?” she asks. At this point, the Shadow Reaver speaks, patronisingly. He has almost forgotten Black Garius is there. "Oh, go on, Bishop; we have some time before our Master arrives, and then none of this will matter." He glares at the undead shadow, not bothering to hide his contempt. But Garius is right about one thing; soon, nothing would matter. If she wants to hear the truth, so be it. Hey, it’s not like the secret’s going to hurt my chances with her anymore… “You see, Knight-Captain,” he says bitterly, with a hint of self-loathe in his voice, “for every West Harbour that gives rise to someone like you, someone great…there’s a hundred of me, that end up going down the other path…” * * *

When he has finished telling his story, the looks on everyone else’s faces say it all; shock, horror, disgust…well, what was he expecting, admiration and acceptance? After all, he has just admitted to butchering an entire village – his home village. Heartlessly herding them to a fiery death, like sheep in a corral. In a way, he is enjoying watching their expressions, amused that they all deem themselves fit to judge him; a paladin who broke his oath, a dwarf who picks fights for the hells of it, a spoilt, arrogant sorceress who wouldn’t think twice about setting anyone, let alone anything, on fire, a tiefling… But the look on her face…it seems different from those of the rest. Is that…disappointment? Sadness? And why is he feeling a tug of guilt
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just looking at her? Not guilty for what he had done, but guilty for letting her down… “So…just because Duncan saved your life, you’re going to take mine?” He manages a nonchalant shrug. “No telling what Duncan told you about me. You’re as much a liability as he. I would have tried to kill you sooner, but things just got…complicated.” “Bishop…” she whispers. Gods, why does he always feel this way whenever she speaks his name? It’s like silk brushing against his skin. “Sometimes two people caring for each other can be a strength, not a weakness.” Two people…? No, it cannot be. He will not let himself be led on again, especially not now, no matter how sincere she tries to sound. He pictures her up on the battlements of Crossroads Keep, her arms around the paladin...how they strolled, hand in hand, to her Captain’s suite. Would you do that if you really cared about me? he thought. No, you’re a liar. A good liar, but a liar nonetheless. “Say what you will…it doesn’t matter in the end,” he looks away. “Come now, Bishop, let us get on with this,“ Garius interrupts impatiently. “Our Master awaits.” Bishop is just turning to give Garius another dark glare, when he sees her slightly pointed ears twitch, ever so slightly. In a subtly teasing tone, she asked, “Was that an order I heard, Bishop?” “You watch it!” he shouts despite himself, knowing full well that she is baiting him. Damn, she knows him well. “I’m not anyone’s lackey, not anym-” “I think we’ve heard enough from this Knight-Captain of Neverwinter… and from you, ranger. Now be silent!” He tenses. Nobody talks to me like that. Slowly, purposefully, Bishop turns to face Garius. “Is that so?” he said, his voice laced with menace. “Well, in that case, you can fight the Shard-Bearer on your own. After all, you really don’t need me, do you? I think it might be better if you stopped having people stand between you and the Knight-Captain here – Torio, Lorne, your Reaver friends… I’m not going to fight your battle.”

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"You will die here if you leave, Bishop,” Garius warns, “I will come for you when I am done here." “Hmph,” he smirks, as he strolls towards the nearest exit. “Garius, you’re going to die if you stay.” He stops long enough to put two fingers to his temple in a mock farewell salute. “Cap’n…”

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Chapter 2 – The Strength of Friendship

As she watches him stride casually away, as if going for an evening stroll rather than walking away from a big, crucial battle, a wave of relief crashes over her. If he had stayed, only the gods would know how she would be able to bring herself to fight him. Yes, she hates him for his betrayal back at Crossroads Keep, when he jammed their gate open to let in the stream of undead. Yes, he is a shifty, obnoxious bastard, and she wouldn’t trust being alone with him. Still, he had been a part of the gang for so long, the gang she has started to think of as one close-knit, dysfunctional family…and even though he’s the black sheep… She glances around at her remaining companions, her eyes falling on Casavir. If looks could kill, the paladin’s would certainly tear Bishop apart. Then again, if Bishop had stayed, Casavir would have probably gotten to him first… And what was he talking about? Feelings? For her?? She never thought Bishop capable of caring for anyone else save himself, and she oddly feels a little flattered. Still, he had some odd way of showing his affection, didn’t he? Snide comments and rude remarks are hardly romantic… “You were never a true leader, even with the rituals and the Sword of Gith at your side.” Garius’ dark voice sounds confident again, after his brief hesitation and speechlessness at Bishop’s departure. “Do you think all your companions who follow you, would follow you to death? I think not.” “I would die for Alya, without hesitation!” declares Casavir, the passion and conviction in his voice warming her heart. “We are all here, are we not?” Elanee chimes in, stepping forward. “I think you underestimate us, Garius."
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“Why would we leave?” asks Grobnar in his usual innocent way. “I say, for a minion of evil, this Garius fellow doesn’t seem to be very insightful when it comes to our friendship.” Khelgar moves in front of her, battle axe raised. “From the Weeping Willow Inn to here, I’ve followed, followed gladly, and there’s no way in the hells I’m backing down now.” He looks as if he is ready to shield her from all the undead in Faerun. “In this one who leads us, I have seen the strength I lacked so long ago,” Ammon adds, surprising Alya with his support. “And as for you, Garius, I do not see Lorne or Torio standing with you.” “Know that the choice is a simple one, Garius,” Zhjaeve intones in her calm voice. “If you fight us, you fight us all.” Alya remains silent, although her heart is bursting with a clamour of emotions. She feels honoured and so fortunate to have such friends, friends who are willing to fight by her side, all the way to the end. At the same time, she feels an overwhelming dread that she has indeed led them all to their deaths. Garius seems to be watching this all with amusement. “Really, now? Well, let’s just see if I can change the minds of some of your companions with a little…incentive. And dear Neeshka,” he turns to the tiefling. “Let us start with you, just to drive the blade home.” “What? Neeshka!?” Khelgar exclaims incredulously. He has finally begun to tolerate, if not appreciate, the fiendling’s presence, despite all his complaints. During his many long arguments with Neeshka, Alya has often seen the glint of enjoyment in his eyes as they bickered and squabbled until no one remembered what they were arguing about in the first place. Now, he looks desperately at the rogue, as though willing her to defy Garius. Neeshka stands there wordlessly, her face pallid. “I tortured her, it is true,” continues Garius, smugly. “But cutting open your fiendling ‘ally’ revealed some interesting truths. Your half-demon companion has just the right touch of demon blood in her veins to make some ancient Illefarn binding spells take root…provided you shed enough of the owner’s blood on the stones of this fortress, of course. And once she ran out of screams, she learned to obey.” He looks towards Neeshka. “Didn’t you, my dear?” he asks, as a faint glowing circle appears at Neeshka’s feet. Why didn’t anyone notice that before?

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“You monster!” Alya whispers through clenched teeth. She doesn’t know much about binding spells, but she knows enough to realize that Neeshka is now bound – painfully - to Garius. “You’ll see the hells soon enough, Garius, I promise.” Neeshka said weakly. “Don’t struggle overmuch against the binding, tiefling,” Garius chides gently. “Save your energy, for the battle to come.” Suddenly, Garius clenches a fist, and Neeshka’s body twitches involuntarily in a spasm of pain. Her hands shoot up to her neck, and she struggles for breath, as if being choked by an invisible hand. “And really, I think the execution of this Knight-Captain is a small price to pay for your freedom,” he opens his clenched hand, and Neeshka hungrily takes in a huge lungful of air. Alya doesn’t know whether to run to Neeshka’s side, or to attack Garius, then and there, enough with all the small talk, and she hates how she feels so helpless to help her friend. “I am so…so sorry, but I…have to do it,” Neeshka gasps, as soon as she is able to speak. “It’s…it’s like the weight of this whole fortress is pushing down on me…all of Illefarn, all at once.” No, she thinks. Not Neeshka. I can’t fight her! Yet, can she bring herself to convince Neeshka to stay on her side, knowing full well that the thief could be doomed to a horrible fate if she disobeys Garius? “I need you, Neeshka, please don’t do this.” She hates the desperate, pleading squeak in her own voice. “Come on, fiendling…” Khelgar urges. “I, I…” Neeshka appears lost in indecision. Then, a glimmer of conviction lifts all signs of hesitation from her face. “I…can’t do this. I won’t do this!” Each statement seems to strengthen her resolve. “By the hells, I’m not going to turn on the one person who has shown me kindness – and if it costs my life, so be it!” “That’s my girl!” Khelgar cheers, as Neeshka joins his side, both of them standing between Garius and Alya. Garius appears momentarily flustered by Neeshka’s rebellion. His hollow eyes seem to grow darker as his anger simmers. “You will pay the price for your disobedience…shortly.” He warns Neeshka ominously. “But…” he slowly scans the group of adventurers. “There are others who even now question their loyalty.”
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His empty eye sockets stop at the moon elf wizard, who has been uncharacteristically quiet. “Sand…” Garius begins, his confidence returning. “I know you studied at the Hosttower…and what relics you saw there are nothing compared to the ones that lie here, the secrets of ancient Illefarn.” He spread his arms. “The power you seek is here…and I can allow you to rectify certain…inequities.” Sand regards Garius in the same disinterested way one would regard an annoying merchant with nothing worth buying. “Yes, well, as tempting as becoming one of the many Shadow Reavers we’ve already slain is…I shall have to pass. Not much future, you see – for you or them.” Alya couldn’t help smiling at the sarcasm in his voice, and is mildly surprised when the wizard turns to her, and she sees more kindness and warmth in his eyes than most people ever thought Sand was capable of having. “Besides,” he adds, “the little girl here…she needs minding, else…well, else bad things could happen to us all. And I will not allow that to happen.” Their eyes meet, and Alya mouths the words “thank you”. Trust Sand to make her feel like a naïve little fledgling, no matter how many reavers she has slain. “Ah, and then comes the matter of restraint.” As if to hide his failure, Garius moves swiftly on, barely acknowledging Sand’s barbed rejection. “I can feel your indignation, Qara – your power rolls off as your anger grows, as those weaker than you claim to understand you, when all they want to do is drag you down.” Qara steps up beside Alya, and she is about to express her gratitude for the sorceress’ loyalty when she realizes that Qara has carried out walking, straight to Garius’ side! “Qara…” she says, but can think of nothing else to add. “Even if Sand wasn’t against you, I’d still join you,” she tells the Reaver. “I’m tired of her, and all the rest, telling me what to do, and how…when I’m the one with true power!” No, no, no, no, no…she has always known Qara to be impulsive, immature, overconfident…but downright stupid? “The girl has become a child,” Sand says, sounding only mildly surprised. “And now, Qara, you are our enemy.” Alya shakes her head sadly. She knows that she must soon do the unthinkable.
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But Garius isn’t finished. “And Ammon Jerro,” he says with renewed confidence, now that he has won Qara over. “Ammon, the infernal contracts, the hordes of githyanki…both can be easily broken with the power of Illefarn behind you.” He sounds almost empathetic as he continues. “And even your dear Shandra can be returned to you, the life that you missed replaced; in time, you could know of her again.” Alya tenses, waiting for Ammon to respond. She has already lost Bishop, and Qara. What can she expect from this mysterious, unpredictable warlock? She remembers when they found Ammon standing over Shandra’s lifeless body. It took both Khelgar and Casavir to restrain her, keep her from tearing into him. Needless to say, she has never really grown close to the old man – will she finally have to fight against him now? Ammon’s expression is unreadable, his facial tattoos glowing eerily. “You could promise all that and more, but for all your empty promises, I have seen the one I follow accomplish so much more.” Alya lets out an almost imperceptible sigh of relief. “And Garius,” the warlock adds coldly. “For mentioning Shandra, I shall enjoy watching you die.” Garius utters something that could have been an inhuman cackle. “Well, don’t say I wasn’t trying to be reasonable.” All of a sudden, huge energy barriers shoot up around the Garius and Qara. “Just a precaution to protect our Lord from bloodshed,” Garius says casually. “After all, he is almost here.” Beside him, Qara recites an incantation, her hands glowing orange like they always do right before she rains fireballs down on unsuspecting enemies – only this time, her enemies are her old allies. Somewhere behind Alya, Zhjaeve starts chanting a protective spell. Sand steps forward, seemingly ready to counter whatever Qara is planning on throwing at them. She hears Elanee’s musical voice calling the creatures of the forest for aid. Grobnar is giving orders to the Construct he so lovingly repaired. “Now, Construct, do you remember what I mentioned earlier about watching where you swing your blades? That’s a good Construct…” In that split-second of calm before the battle, Alya sees Khelgar and Ammon, weapons drawn, ready to pounce at her command. Neeshka, appearing stronger now, unsheathes her twin daggers. And Casavir, dear Casavir, stands close beside her. His deep blue eyes seem to say “I am with you till the end, my lady.” Suddenly, Alya realizes that all eyes are turned on her. They are all waiting for her to give the command, the command that would
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probably send them all to their deaths. As Alya looks back at their earnest faces, she has to force back an upwelling of emotion. This gang of misfits, they have come so far. She believes she has grown to love each of them in a special way – well, perhaps not Ammon Jerro. Still, it pains her to be the one to give the order. But they all knew as they stepped through the portal that this was a quest they would probably not return from. And yet these people willingly followed her, despite the fact that they were not the ones with some githyanki shard lodged in their chests, not the ones who need to bear the burden… Her eyes are moist, but her voice is steely with resolve. “Let’s get this over with.”

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Chapter 3 – You Can’t Run From Your Own Shadow

As soon as he has stridden out of view, Bishop starts to run. The further he gets from here, the better. He negotiates the twisted tunnels of the keep by memory, his mind tormented by thoughts and visions that, try as he may, he cannot push away. Images of her, her often unkempt, auburn locks, her sloped emerald green eyes that hint at some exotic heritage, her cute upturned nose, and those lips of hers, that were once so close, close enough to kiss. Oh, how he ached to kiss those lips then, and how he still does now. Well, it’s too, too late now, isn’t it? He’s made his decision, and there’s no turning back. He remembers with bitterness the night he saw her and Casavir up on the battlements. They were speaking, possibly flirting. He recalls his blood boiling when they moved to embrace each other, and in the light of the moon he saw their lips meet. By the time they were making their way to her room, arm in arm, he had seen enough. Sneaking out of Crossroads Keep, he had approached Garius’ camp to offer his services. At that moment, all he had wanted to do was to hurt her, cause her as much pain as she had caused him. Well, he has done that, hasn’t he? Yet he doubts that his betrayal mattered much. Whether he had stayed on her side or not, he has a feeling that this battle against the King of Shadows would be her last – it would probably be his, too, had he stayed. Why else had he not once, but twice, offered to take her away from all this? To spirit her away into the forests, where they could lie low for a couple of years, until this whole thing blows over? But no, she’s much too righteous for that, isn’t she? A selfless, noble hero to the end. What was that stupid saying she had quoted? “You can’t run from your own shadow.” One of the many silly idioms she seems to follow as a disciple of The Way. Frankly, it seems no different to all that Wendersnaven rubbish that idiot gnome bard spewed. But it still struck a chord in him. As he
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runs through the dim, torch-lit hallways of the fortress, he sees his shadows bouncing crazily over the walls, ceilings and floor. For a spell, he sees fleeting images reflected in them: a burning village…a crying baby…his own father, clothes burning, pleading for mercy…a flash of raven hair…a glimpse of silvery-grey eyes…a curved dagger on a downward arc… No, he has not managed to run away from his shadows, however much he tries to convince himself that he has. He is running down a secret passage, one he was previously shown, and he bursts through the wooden door that leads out of the fortress. Panting, he sucks in a breath of forest air, but finds it stale and unnatural. The King of Shadows’ presence is building, and he knows it is folly trying to escape through the life-sapping Mere. He has no other choice, though, seeing as the portal Garius used to get him here is currently being used to summon the King of Shadows. Besides, he doubts Garius would have been very amenable to having him use the portal after what he did. “I’m not helping you, Garius, but could you let me use your portal one last time?” Trying his best to ignore the heaviness in the air, he trudges towards the woods. The sky is overcast and grey. In the distance, he can hear the roll of thunder. Pulling the hood of his cloak up, he ducks into the cover of a copse of trees, and starts to move swiftly and silently through the undergrowth, the dark, imposing fortress falling further and further behind him. It is not long before the path inclined upwards, and as Bishop reaches the top of the hill, he looks out across the vast expanse of the Mere of Dead Men. It is a bleak sight; the sky has started to spit down rain, and all he sees are different shades of grey everywhere – even the trees seem to have lost their colour. Eerily, no creatures could be seen or heard. Not a single rustle, no birdsong…the Vale is silent as death. Though the climb was not overly difficult, the oppressive atmosphere had made it seem twice as hard. Bishop shrugs off his backpack, rummaging for his water canteen…and stops. From his bag, he pulls out a crumpled strip of soft satin, stained with dried blood. His thirst and fatigue, and the fact that the rain is starting to come down harder, are all forgotten, as he stares at the piece of rag, the memory associated with it flooding painfully back… * * *

It was right after the githyanki attack on the Sunken Flagon. He was in a foul mood. Shandra had been abducted, and Duncan had called his debt due. He had no choice but to act as tracker for his niece and her companions. He did so grudgingly, not speaking with anyone as he led
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the way. They were passing through that village, Ember, the one whose villagers the Luskans later tried to accuse Alya of slaughtering. He had noticed that the place was suspiciously quiet, and everyone was on their guard. Sure enough, there was an ambush, and it was a difficult fight. At some point, he took a githyanki blade in his shoulder, but the party was short on healing supplies, and what little they had were predominantly spent on Qara, if not to save her life, then at least to stop her whining and complaining about the pain, and how no one rushed to help her when she got overwhelmed, that she could have easily blasted all the giths in one go had they not gotten in her way... While the sorceress made herself the centre of everyone’s attention, he had slipped off to wash his wound in a nearby stream. She was the only one who noticed him leave, his right arm hanging limp, and had followed. She found him as he was taking off his leather armour and his underlying tunic, and she winced when she saw the gash. It was deep and ragged, very bloody, and it was obvious that he would not be able to use that arm again in a very long while. “That’s quite a nasty nick you got there, Bishop,” she had said. From the start, she had called him by name, not just an impersonal “ranger” or “tracker” like all the others. His mood fouler now that he was injured, he had ignored her, and started splashing water over the still-bleeding wound, gritting his teeth against the biting pain. He resented her for being the reason he was forced to be there, and he was determined not to ask for assistance of any kind from her or any of her friends. She knelt down beside him and tried to take his arm. With a growl, he had a shoved her hands away. “I got it, monk,” he had grunted, putting as much venom and scorn into the last word as he could muster, the cold water stinging the deep cut. It still bled profusely, and he upended his backpack, strewing the contents on the ground, scrabbling clumsily for a bandage. He found a short length of cotton, and proceeded to wrap it around his shoulder with one hand and his teeth. The thin, haphazardly tied on gauze was soaked through with blood almost instantly. All the time, she had stood there, with a mildly amused look on her face. “You know, that wound needs more than just a strip of cloth,” she suggested in an innocent voice. “Yeah? How very observant of you,” he replied sarcastically. “And I suppose you’ve also noticed that we’re running a little short on healing supplies, too.”

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“That I have.” She appeared unfazed by his hostility, and once again knelt down beside him. “But I think I can still help.” “I don’t recall you being a cleric, half-elf.” “And I’m not one, but…” she picks up a skinning knife that he dumped out of his pack, and started sawing at the hem of her robe. “What are you doing?” he asked incredulously. He had previously noticed the fine craftsmanship of her monk’s robe. It was made of soft green satin, and even then he thought how well it brought out the colour of her eyes. The cut and the delicate embroidery looked like nothing he had seen before, and along the hem of the robe were sewn strange foreign characters. It was these exotic-looking symbols that she was hacking off. “These are magical runes,” she explained, as she tore off the last bit of the strip that still clung to the rest of her robe. The strange symbols ran along the entire length of the strip, “It confers a slight regenerative power to the robe. It may take a while, but if I tied it onto your wound, it would start to heal it.” She was partly wrong; the healing effect was almost instantaneous. By the time she had wrapped the strip around his shoulder, tying it on with a neat knot, the sharp, tugging pain had been reduced to a dull throb. He looked at her robe, the hem now ragged. Having lost the part of it that was magical, the garment was no longer protective in any way. “Looks to me like you’ve destroyed a perfectly good robe,” he remarked, trying not to sound uneasy. That robe did not look cheap… “Yeah?” she said, with a mischievous twinkle in her eye. “How very observant of you.” He couldn’t help smiling slightly at the retort. She fingered the torn edges of the tunic and sighed. “It’s an old thing, anyway…it’s probably being put to better use this way.” She stands up, her demeanour serious now. “We need to find Shandra, and we can’t do that with a wounded tracker.” As she turns to go, she added, “Put your clothes back on, won’t you, before you catch a cold?” * * *

Ignoring the rain that is seeping through his clothes, and taking off one of his gloves, Bishop rubs the satin between his fingers. Still soft, despite his dried blood encrusted on it. The runes on it look as foreign to him as ever. Alya said that the robe was an old thing, but it wasn’t any old robe, was it? It had meant something special to her.
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So why did she ruin it? Could saving Shandra have been so important to her, that she had wanted to ensure that the only person who could lead them to her be in top condition? Or was she actually just being nice to me? Bishop shuts his eyes. He can still feel her fingers dancing on his skin as she deftly bandaged his arm. Once it even brushed his bare chest. At the time, he felt a perverse pleasure having a pretty girl touching him while he was topless. Now, the memory of her touch sends little shivers up and down his spine, leaving him hungry for more. This is exactly the feeling I don’t want to have – this helpless feeling of being tied to someone. He exhales loudly. After all that has happened with the Luskans, his village…a flash of raven hair, a glimpse of silvery-grey eyes…freedom is the most important thing in his life – it should be the most important thing in his life. As if he has suddenly realized he is sopping wet, he looks around again from his vantage point at the top of the hill. Grey skies, grey hills, grey trees…grey all around, and they all appear to grow darker as he watches. The air seems to grow heavier. A faint rumble shakes the ground. The King of Shadows must have arrived. Yes, this is freedom. No one around to judge him, no one to tie him down. Is this the freedom he wants? To walk through this bleak, dreary, dead world…alone? He stands, still gripping the satin strip, and turns around, looking back the way he came. The fortress is a small, dark silhouette at the bottom of the valley. He tries to push away the crazy idea that pops into his head, but it refuses to be ignored, and it start to call, louder and louder, until his mind is wracked by a cacophony of indecision. Amongst the chaos, the vision of the red-headed, half-elven monk shines like a beacon, but underneath it all, his nightmares still stir… A flash of raven hair, a glimpse of silvery-grey eyes… He clenches his eyes. “Gods damn it!” he curses, as he drives a fist into the trunk of the tree he is standing under. The resultant pain helps clear his mind a little. When he opens his eyes, he is shocked to find them wet, and it was not from the rain. When was the last time tears came to him? Too long ago…
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Gathering his chaotic thoughts, he flexes his aching fist, then, having mentally made his decision, he draws his twin swords, and runs…back the way he came.

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Chapter 4 – Awaiting the King

“Watch out!” Alya dives out of the way of another fireball, rolling on the ground a little before jumping back up. She reaches Sand’s side and tosses him the healing potion. Gratefully, the wizard swigs it down, and relief starts to show on his face as he continues exchanging magic with Qara. All the other minions and shadows lie dead, their bodies scattered about the room. The only ones left are Garius himself…and Qara. Khelgar is battling the Reaver, his face splattered with blood, little of which is his own. Grobnar’s Construct swings away at Garius, with the bard not far behind, singing songs of encouragement. Elanee is assisting by tossing a few summoned creatures into the fray. Casavir is tending to a gaping wound in Zhajeve’s side, and Ammon lies wounded, conscious but unable to move, watching helplessly. Poor Neeshka, the binding spell apparently too strong, has passed out from some unknowable pain. Just then, a bolt of lightning shoots from Qara’s fingertips. It hits the ground at Sand’s feet, and the elf curses as he loses his spell, his concentration broken. Alya sees Qara forming another fireball aimed at Sand, now momentarily vulnerable, utter glee in her eyes. She runs at Qara, praying she would get there before the sorceress could unleash her fireball. In the girl’s hands, it is growing bigger and brighter than she has ever seen before. She’s making this one count… Alya is not going to get to Qara in time, unless… With a great leap, she covers the last few yards between herself and Qara in the air faster than she could have done on the ground. She sticks out a foot, and her entire weight and momentum crashes into Qara’s side. As the sorceress falls, the glowing orb she was conjuring floats momentarily in mid-air, then dissipates harmlessly with a sizzle.
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Alya lands on all fours, and in one swift motion, catches Qara’s head between her legs before the sorceress could try and get up. “Let go of me!” she shrieks, struggling uselessly, then she actually starts chanting again, lying down, her palms blazing. “Qara!” Alya yells. “Don’t do this, please!” “She’s calling forth a firestorm, Alya! Stop her!” Sand stands there helplessly, unable to cast any spell that would not hit the monk as well. “Qara!” she tries again, praying she could reach the girl. They are not exactly close friends, but they have been together for months now. She used to trust Qara with her life, always certain that she would always be well-covered in a fight by Qara’s spells, and never once had she ever complained that some of her fire attacks got a little too close for comfort, singeing hair and eyebrows. There has been too many deaths as it is, she thought, and I have been the cause for most of them. I don’t want to be responsible for your death as well. “Please…” Qara keeps chanting, her hands now holding a miniature inferno. “Alya!” Sand’s voice is urgent. The heat emanating off of Qara is growing, becoming almost unbearable, and the girl herself starts to radiate with some arcane light. “Do something!” Gritting her teeth, Alya shuts her eyes, takes a deep breath, and scissors her legs, quickly and fluidly. Crack! One of the most sickening sounds in the world. As she releases Qara, the girl’s body falls limply onto the ground, her neck snapped, her head tilted at an impossible angle, her blue-grey eyes locked in a surprised stare. Whatever fiery spell she was conjuring disappears in a puff of smoke. Alya sits beside her body, shaking her head. “I’m sorry, Qara…” she whispers. “Erm, girl, as much as I would like to join you in your minute of silence for our fallen ‘comrade’,” Sand’s last word drips with sarcasm, “we have more pressing matters at hand.”

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As if on cue, a blast of supernatural energy from Garius sends Khelgar and the Construct flying backwards. Khelgar hits a stone wall with a grunt, and the blade golem nearly flattens Grobnar. With one final, remorseful look at Qara’s lifeless body, Alya joins Sand, and rushes across the room. She helps Khelgar back to his feet. “By the hells!” he sputters, shaking her off before throwing himself back into the melee. As Sand starts to recite a spell, standing at a safe distance away, she enters the fray. * * *

Khelgar’s axe finally hits home, embedding itself in Garius’ neck. With a sickening gurgle, the Shadow Reaver falls to his knees…and finally dies. They have had to fight Garius so many times, she almost doesn’t believe he is really dead. Only when his body crumbles into black wisps of shadow does she finally let out a sigh of relief. The barriers disappear suddenly, and the portal starts glowing ominously. “Know that the King of Shadows will be here soon,” Zhjaeve says, still clutching her wounded side. “We must be ready to meet him.” Casavir and Elanee set to work reviving their fallen comrades, and Alya helps as best she could with her rudimentary skills with a healing kit. Her mind wanders as she works. The time is finally here. This is the culmination of everything we’ve been fighting for. Surprisingly, she neither feels dread nor fear, at least not anymore. She’s had many previous opportunities to doubt herself, and now that they have come this far, all she feels is acceptance of her fate. She remembers the questions tumbling through her head the first time she learned of her destiny, when they encountered the githyanki that held Shandra captive. By some foul magic, Zeeaire had seized her, leaving her suspended in thin air, as she extracted all the shards in Alya’s possession. She remembers the sharp pain in her chest, as if the gith was trying to tear her heart out as well. The brief, perturbed look on Zeeaire’s face showed that she was not expecting that to have happened, either. “You have a shard…inside of you.” Those were the words that sealed her fate. Yes, all that she had been through up till then, she had treated as a long errand Daeghun has sent her on. But at that moment, the realization of the implications hit her harder than any weapon ever had. In the days following Shandra’s rescue, she had sat in her room in the Sunken Flagon, speaking to no
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one, turning the same thoughts over and over again in her head. Why didn’t Daeghun tell me? What does this all mean? Why me?? Then Sir Nevalle came, bearing news of the massacre at Ember. She was accused of the crime, and Luskan wants her dead. It was all just too much. She ran. Yes, she ran. Out of Neverwinter and into the nearby woods, not stopping until she felt that her lungs would burst if she didn’t pause for air. But that is what she does whenever she feels like her problems are becoming too big, too difficult. Ever since a child, she has done that, pretending to run away from her troubles, only to come back after the exertion and clear air have cleared her thoughts, and she realizes that the only way to deal with her problems is to face it. After all, you can’t run away from your own shadows. When she ran off that time, her companions had tracked her down with the help of the newest addition to her company, Bishop. They found her sitting on a stump beside a stream, her knees hugged tightly against her chest. Casavir, Khelgar, Elanee, Neeshka, Grobnar…they had surrounded her, consoled her, promised her that she would not be alone in her journey. She was nearly moved to tears. She allowed them to take her home. Then there was Shandra. Dear Shandra, who came to her the night she was meant to spend alone in the Solace Glade, part of some silly rite to become a squire, a noble of Neverwinter, in such that she would at least get a fair trial. “All my troubles seem so small compared to yours,” she had said. “If you can bear your burden so well, I can definitely bear mind.” She had laughed. “Does this look like I’m taking it well?” “Better than anyone else would in your position.” Shandra took her hand. “You are so, so strong, and I wish I had just half of the strength you have. If anyone can pull through this, it’s you.” That was a shock coming from someone she hardly knew at the time, someone whose farm and livelihood she was partly responsible of destroying beyond repair. Why would people have so much faith in me, when I have so little in myself? And it was then that she remembered the words of her mentor: “It is the spectator that sees everything the clearest, not the ones involved.”
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And sweet, innocent Shandra was just that, a spectator, who had watched her do great things, things she herself thought nothing of, because she was too immersed in her own self-pity. She saw things clearer then than she has ever seen, and she accepted her destiny. Until the Luskan assassins attacked them, they had spent the rest of the night like a pair of teenaged girls, huddled around a fire, gossiping and laughing like good friends. And then, in her grandfather’s Haven, Shandra had embraced her own destiny willingly, so that Alya would survive to fulfill hers. Dear, dear Shandra, you had as much strength in you as I, if not more. A humming sound from the portal snaps Alya back to the present. Rays of light shoot out, and the ground beneath her starts to shudder. It is time. Before she knows it, she is surrounded by her allies. Their expressions are grim. “Go,” she tells them, “It’s not too late. You don’t have to fight my battle.” Everyone understands what she really means. You don’t have to die for me. “Have you forgotten, little one, that I hold one of the Rituals of Purification we need?” says Ammon. “I’m in this as deep as you are.” “Know that I have not come this far just to walk away now,” adds Zhjaeve. Her side wound appears to have mostly healed. “What are ye saying, lass?” Khelgar asks incredulously. “This’ll probably be the best fight I’ll ever have a chance to throw meself into! Don’t think ye can keep me from that!” “Don’t be foolish, girl,” Sand admonishes. “Duncan’ll have my head if I don’t at least try to bring you back in one piece.” Alya feels a brush on her shoulder. She turns to find Neeshka stealing a dagger out of her backpack. Her binding seems to have been dispelled by Garius’ death. “I may no longer be bound to this fortress, but I am bound to you,” she says solemnly, then, with a naughty wink, “you’re not getting rid of me that easily.”

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“My place is no longer within the Mere,” Elanee chimes in, “for I no longer know it. Now, my place is with you.” “Even if I could run off now,” Grobnar begins in his logical way, “I wouldn’t stand a chance getting through the Mere in the state that it is at the moment. That life-sapping magic would get to me in no time!” Casavir is the last to speak. He clutches her hand in his, and his gaze is as piercing as it was that night on the battlements. Alya’s heart does an involuntary flip. “I do hope that you know by now, my lady, that my heart, and my life, is yours. I cannot walk away.” And so one by one, they choose to stay. Alya doesn’t know whether to rejoice in their true friendship and loyalty, or to grieve for them. She doesn’t have time to decide. A deafening roar and a blinding flash fill the chamber. Alya is nearly knocked off her feet as the ground lurches. As the glare fades, the darkness seem to become more oppressive. As their eyes adjust, a figure materializes in front of the portal. The King of Shadows has arrived.

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Chapter 5 – The Final Battle

He hears the thunderous sound that signified the arrival of the King of Shadows as he approaches the fortress. The ground shakes violently, and the foundations of the fortress itself sway dangerously. This is a very old keep. Would it hold up if these vibrations continue? Thankfully, the shaking stops, but as Bishop enters the keep through the secret entrance, he sees dust raining down from the ceiling. Small bits of stone litter the floor. Who knows how badly the rest of the fortress has been damaged? The tunnels appear dimmer, yet the torches that line them remain lit. It’s as if a veil of shadow has descended upon everything. He could hardly see anything beyond a few feet. His heart lurches at the possibility that he may already be too late. Blindly, he hurtles through the stone corridors, his boots scrabbling loose debris. One especially treacherous slip sends him crashing into a wall, jarring his elbow badly, but he pushes off almost immediately, ignoring the pain, and keeps on running. He runs so fast, he very nearly collides with the rockslide before him. Screeching to a halt, he stares incoherently at the wall of stones for a moment. Then, cursing, he tries to dig his way through. No luck, the entire ceiling has caved in. “NO!!” he roars in frustration, throwing down the stones in his hands. His heart and his mind are both racing. There has to be another way in, but will he navigate the maze of tunnels in time? This whole place is coming down. Best to save yourself.

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He entertains the notion only fleetingly, and he is disgusted with himself. Grabbing a torch from one of the wall brackets, he begins to make his way deeper into the fortress. * * * “Grobnar!” she screams as the bard is knocked back by the force the spell thrown at him. She runs to his side, but the gnome is dead where he fell. “No…” “Alya!” Ammon’s voice is commanding. “We don’t have time! Knock down the last one!” Forcing herself into action, she practically throws herself bodily at the last Statue of Purification. The Rituals of Purification had seemed to work, but each time they felled him, the King of Shadows seemed to return, stronger than before. It took them a while before they realized that he was drawing his strength from the statues around him. Now, as she watches the last one crumble, she feels a surge of triumph as the King of Shadows lets out a screech of agony. Falling to his knees, he disappears into a mist of shadows. Is it finally over? Her heart wonders, hope washing over her. No… Out steps the King of Shadows again, looming larger than before. “How many times must we kill this thing?” gasps Sand, as a torrent of flames drives him backwards. He cannot be unbeatable! Alya thinks. Not after all we’ve gone through to defeat him! A spell lifts her off her feet, and she is flung across the chamber, landing painfully beside Zhjaeve’s broken body. Her empty eyes stare back lifelessly at Alya. As she gets up, she sees Khelgar attacking the Shadow with everything he has. Casavir fights alongside him, with Neeshka firing with her crossbow, while Ammon, Elanee and Sand fling spell after spell. Nothing seems to be hurting him. Another burst of energy from the King of Shadows sends everyone flying far from him. Khelgar is thrown hard against the frame of the portal. It shudders, and the Shadow shrieks, lunging at the dwarf. Since the last of the statues fell, the King of Shadows has never ventured far from the magical gateway… “The portal!” Alya’s own shout spurs her into action. “Destroy it!” With Khelgar distracting the King of Shadows, everyone else starts to pummel the portal. To their dismay, it seems indestructible.
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“It’s not workin-“ Sand starts, but his words are cut off as a bolt of lightning hits him. His body spasms as the electricity courses through him, the agony on his face painful to see. “Sand!” Alya catches him as he collapses. She scrabbles in her pack for a healing kit, but he stops her with a surprisingly strong grip. “No…” he coughs. “No…time…” “Sand, hang on, I can help-“ his hand squeezing her wrist stops her in mid-sentence. “The sword…” he points weakly at the Sword of Gith by her side, then his hand falls limp, and he too is gone. In her grief, Alya has trouble understanding what Sand had meant. The sword? What about it? She looks at where it hangs on her belt… The Sword of Gith, the lines where the individual shards were reforged still visible, is glowing – no, it is positively blazing. Puzzled, she unhooks it from her belt. It has never done that before… Perhaps it is the shard in her chest, but something pulls her attention to the portal. As she steps closer to it, the blade she holds grows even brighter, and she feels the slightest tug, as if the sword is attracted to the gateway. Even her heart appears to start humming. In a flash of realization, she runs at the portal, and starts hacking at it with the Sword of Gith. Where other weapons had only glanced off it, the portal screams in protest as the githyanki blade slices into it. “Stand back!” she commands, increasing her efforts, as a new surge of adrenaline flows through her veins. “Keep him busy!” “Aye, easier said than done,” sighs Khelgar, who has yet again been thrown around like a rag doll. The King of Shadows turns, and tries to protect his portal. He swipes at Alya, but she sidesteps his attack. His claws gouge the stone floor. With a cry of rage, he brings his arm down again… And his strike is intercepted by a shield. Casavir has interposed himself between the King of Shadows and Alya, but the force of the impact is so strong that the paladin is driven to his knees. “Hurry, Alya!” he grunts. “I don’t know how long we can hold him!”

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Turning back to the portal, she attacks it with all her might, long, sweeping strokes of the Sword of Gith chopping chunks off the frame of the gateway. Come on, break already! With a final cleave, the portal shudders, rays of light blasting forth. At the same time, the King of Shadows wails piteously, and he flinches as Casavir’s hammer slams into his gut. All of a sudden, the Shadow seems mortal, beatable. Alya pounces at the King of Shadows, fists flying, her punches connecting squarely each and every time. This is for Shandra…and Grobnar, and Zhjaeve, and Sand, and the people of Ember… An explosion from the portal behind her throws her off balance. Seizing his chance, the Shadow swings, catching her on the side of her head. She lands awkwardly, a burst of stars clouding her vision. Something warm and sticky drips down the side of her face. “Alya!” Casavir tries to aid her, but he is knocked aside by a swipe from the King of Shadow’s powerful arms. As she lies prone at his feet, dazed, she watches his claws descending upon her… Thunk! Something is driven deep into the side of the King of Shadow’s neck, and he steps backwards, shrieking in surprise and anguish. Grateful for the diversion, Alya jumps to her feet – and pauses. Sticking out from the Shadow’s neck is the shaft of an arrow. But no one here uses a bow… Then she sees him, partly concealed in shadow. He stands at a different doorway from the one he had left through just a few hours before, his longbow already fitted with another arrow. Bishop. Why has he come back? Her mind spirals with conflicting emotions. Which side is he on this time? And why do I feel so glad to see him? “For gods’ sake, Alya,” he barks, snapping her back to attention. “Finish him off!” Another arrow thuds into King of Shadows, but he is advancing steadily. With a primal roar, he throws himself bodily at her… And falls onto the Blade of Gith, which she had just enough time to draw before he landed on her. “This,” she says aloud, “is for West Harbour.” The King of Shadows is close enough that she could smell the stench of undeath. The Sword of Gith has been driven right through him, and it
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glows steadily. Suddenly, emitting a cry so long and terrible she has to shield her ears, the King of Shadows begins to melt before her eyes, vaporizing into tendrils of shadow. His dying scream echoes long after the last of the wisps of shadow has gone.

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Chapter 6 – Escape

“Is he…finally dead?” Neeshka asks warily, as Casavir helps Alya to her feet. “Aye…I think so…” Khelgar ventures, limping up to them. “I no longer feel the evil,” offers Casavir, as he wipes the blood from Alya’s head wound. “We did it, then,” she whispers, hardly believing herself, feeling a surge of triumph. Suddenly, another explosion rocks the room. This time it is stronger. The portal starts making a high-pitched keening noise. The ground seems to buckle under their feet. First dust, then stones, and finally huge boulders rain down on them from the ceiling. “We have to get out of here!” Elanee says urgently. “This whole place is collapsing!” Another blast. One of the exits cave in, buried in a mountain of rocks. A boulder crashes down just inches from Neeshka, who lets out an involuntary squeal. “This way!” With everything that is going on, they had forgotten about the ranger. He stands at the mouth of what appears to be the last accessible exit. Alya makes a move towards him, but is held in place by a firm hand on her shoulder. “No,” Casavir says, scowling, “it could be a trap.” “Aye,” Khelgar agrees, “I don’t trust him any further than I can fling him. Actually, I can fling him quite far, but…I just don’t trust him.”

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“But…” Alya wrestles with indecision, “we don’t have any other choice!” Just a moment’s hesitation, but it is enough. Another tremor hits. Bishop looks up. Another rockslide! The ranger dives out of the way of the falling rocks – by running out of the doorway instead of into it! Why didn’t he run back the way he came? Alya looks at the sealed exit. Now he’s trapped here with us. “The portal!” Ammon barks. “It still stands, but not for long! It’s our only choice!” “But what’s on the other side?” Neeshka asks. The look on the warlock’s face makes it clear that he has no idea. “There’s only one way to find out…” he says darkly. “Alya, look out!” She is suddenly pushed roughly backwards. As she lands on her back, she could see a huge chunk of the ceiling falling towards where she was standing. Where Casavir is now standing. Before she could utter a sound, the stone slab crashes to the ground, and the paladin disappears amidst a shower of rocks and dust. The shock waves from the impact reverberates all the way up her spine and into her heart. “No…!” her cry sounds hoarse and helpless to her own ears. She runs to the pile of debris, swiping away at the rocks. Elanee and Khelgar rush to help her. She claws at the stones, barely noticing that her fingernails were being ripped off. No, this can’t be happening, her mind races. Not Casavir, please, not Casavir! Khelgar lifts up an especially large boulder, and they catch a glint of plate armour. “Casavir…” she gasps, reaching for him. Elanee and Ammon help remove more debris from the paladin, but his legs are crushed beneath a stone slab so large and heavy that not even their combined efforts could budge it. He is bleeding profusely from a horrible head wound. His armour is twisted and dented, mangled by the sheer weight of the rocks. No doubt most of his bones underneath are broken as well. He is unconscious, his face deathly pale. The sight of him breaks her heart.
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“Oh, Casavir,” she says, her voice breaking with emotion. “You stupid, stupid paladin. Why did you have to go and do that?” Casavir coughs. His eyelids flutter, and he opens his eyes. She feels a surge of hope. Cradling his head in her arms, she runs her fingers through his dark hair. Her fingers come away stained in blood. “Hang on, Casavir,” she pleads. “We still have some healing kits left.” She grips his hand. “You’ll pull through this, you have to.” Weakly, the paladin shakes his head almost imperceptibly. “No…” he coughs, and she is dismayed to see a trail of blood seep from the corner of his mouth. “There’s…no time…leave…me…” “No!” she protests, as the tears start to stream down her face. “There is time! I –“ “There isn’t time!” Ammon interjected roughly. “The portal will blow any minute!” Alya looks down at Casavir. She finds it so hard to see him looking so weak. He has always been such a pillar of strength. And now… Casavir gazes back at her. Those brilliant blue eyes, still bright as ever. He says nothing, but the look in his eyes seems to plead with her, begging her to go. “You know as well as I do, we have no means of getting him out from under that slab!” Ammon insists roughly. The logical part of Alya’s mind hears him, and knows his words to be true – painful, but true. Unfortunately, her rational mind is not currently in control. “Ammon, Elanee, Khelgar, Neeshka,” she says, her voice steely. “Go.” “Wha-? No, Alya!” Neeshka cries, shaking her head vehemently. “We can’t leave,” Elanee protests, “not without you.” She stares back at them, her face set in determination. “This is my decision. Please…go.” “Alya –“ Neeshka begins, but she is cut off as Ammon physically drags her and Elanee towards the portal. Unceremoniously, he pushes each of them through the gateway, where they disappear in a flash of light. For once, Alya is grateful for Ammon’s no-nonsense, militaristic ways. As he stands on the threshold, Ammon turns to her. “You are a fool to stay – but you have fulfilled your destiny. The King of Shadows is no
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more. I guess that means you’re free to throw your life away now.” He nods. “May the gods bless you.” Then he too steps through the portal. As soon as they have gone, Alya turns her full attention back to Casavir. He lies on his back, his legs still trapped. Blood pools around his head. Alya takes off her cloak, folding it up, and tucks it beneath the paladin’s head to serve as a makeshift pillow. It stains red almost immediately. Remarkably, Casavir remains conscious. “Alya…I beg of you…please leave…” His voice is barely above a whisper. She tries to ignore him as she sops up his blood with some bandages. So much blood… She is moving to uncork a bottle of healing potion when the ground lurches again. More boulders crashed down a few feet from them. “This place is going to the hells, lass! Ye have to go!” Alya turns, startled that Khelgar is still there. Didn’t he leave through the portal with everyone else? The dwarf moves over to Casavir’s side. As he looks down at the dying man, the paladin’s pleading eyes seem to beg him to try and get Alya out of here. “Alya, I know this is very difficult for you, but there’s nothing more ye can do here.” She shakes her head, as if not understanding. “Listen, lass, it’s what Casavir wants as well. No point wasting yer life this way.” Her tears flowing freely now, she sobs helplessly, “I…can’t…leave him…not this way…not when there’s still a chance – “ Khelgar shakes his head sadly. “Come to yer senses, Alya! There is no chance!” He tugs at her arm, but she starts to struggle - fiercely. He fears that he is losing her to irrationality. Another large slab of ceiling slams into the ground dangerously close by. “Listen to the dwarf, monk, the paladin’s a dead man.” They both turn to see Bishop standing on the other side of Casavir’s body. He looks down at the paladin. Casavir’s breathing has grown shallow, and his face is twisted in terrible pain. “I say you save yourself.” A chunk of rock smashes into the ground right next to him, but he hardly flinches. “No…” Alya whispers. “He’s not dead –“ Before she could finish, Bishop whips out a small dagger, bends down, and slashes Casavir’s neck. Bright red blood spurts upwards, and the paladin gurgles as blood fills his throat. Alya’s breath catches as she stands dumbstruck for a
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moment, unable to believe – refusing to believe – what has just happened. Khelgar also stands there, staring in shock, until Bishop’s command spurs him into action. “Take her, dwarf!” Tentatively, Khelgar pulls her arm gently. There is no resistance. She has been broken. He half drags, half carries her to the portal, with Bishop following closely behind. All the while, she never takes her eyes off the body on the ground. She just stares dumbly, tears streaming down her face. At the threshold, the ranger looks back. Rocks continue to pelt down from the ceiling. The ground rumbles ominously. And there, like a calm oasis among the chaos, Casavir’s body lies still, as if in quiet repose. His head is tilted so that he faces the portal. He looks surprisingly at peace. As his life slowly ebbs out of him, the paladin’s piercing blue eyes start to dim. Unnervingly, Bishop sees in them something that burns bright and clear. Gratitude. With a slight nod, the ranger steps through the portal. No sooner has he disappeared across the threshold, the portal stops humming, then disintegrates in one final explosion, and any parts of the crumbling fortress still standing collapses with it.

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Chapter 7 – A New World

It feels like they have been spinning forever in some weightless vortex. The portal must have been very close to complete destruction. Just when Bishop thinks that they may be stuck in this whirlpool limbo forever, they are thrown rather carelessly onto solid ground. Bishop is the first to get up, brushing himself off. Khelgar lies in the dirt, groaning about their rather turbulent ride. “Ooh…I think I’m going to be sick…” Ignoring the dwarf, the ranger surveys their new surroundings. It looks like they could be in some sort of desert; the landscape is dusty with rock outcroppings. The sky glows an unnatural blood red, yet he cannot see the sun. He sniffs the air. The smell is unpleasant, unfamiliar… “Ranger, where are we?” Khelgar asks, getting unsteadily to his feet. “I…don’t know…” he admits reluctantly. Alya is on her knees, her expression dazed. The expression on her tearstreaked face, so lost and confused, chips away at Bishop’s heart. She has barely uttered a sound since they stepped through the portal. Incredibly, Bishop feels a surge of jealousy. The way she looked at the paladin, the way she cradled him in her arms…such tenderness and love…hells, how could he compete? If it had been me lying there dying…would she have done the same? At that moment, Alya’s blank, staring eyes focuses on him, and in their fire he sees the answer to his question. Hatred, pure hatred, burns in her emerald eyes. “You…” she hisses, her eyes narrowing. Before he can react, she springs at him, fists
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pounding. “You bastard!” she screams, as she pummels him. “You filthy, cowardly bastard!” He tries to grab her wrists, to stay her hands, but her monk’s training is sound, and the punches – and elbows, ouch – keep coming. He backs off under the barrage, and a well-placed kick in the gut sends him stumbling to the ground, the wind knocked out of him. She is on him in a heartbeat, straddling him, fists flying. He raises his arms to protect himself, but her punches still find a way through. A muffled crack and a sharp pain tell him that she may have broken his nose. For a split second, the bombardment stops. Bishop chances a peek. Through his hazy vision, he sees her unsheathe the dagger he keeps strapped across his chest, the same one he had just used to end Casavir’s life. Specks of drying blood still cling to the blade. With both hands, she raises the knife, the tip pointed towards his throat. How ironict, he thinks. The woman of my dreams is sitting astride me, panting heavily – but not quite in the way I would have preferred… Slowly, Bishop lowers his arms, spreading his hands. The steely look in his eyes issues a challenge. She is breathing heavily from her exertion. “You’re going to pay for what you did to Casavir, you traitor.” “What I did, monk, is put him out of his misery.” he rasps. He tastes the coppery tang of his own blood on his lips. Alya shakes her head, tears flowing anew. “No,” she sobs, gripping the hilt of the knife so tightly he could see her knuckles growing white. “No,” she says again, her voice taking on a hard edge. “You killed him, in cold blood. And I’m going to slit your throat, like you slit his...” “If that’s what you want…” Bishop holds his arms by his side, leaving his chest unprotected. He tilts his head back to expose his neck. “Go on, do it,” he says casually. He needs to see if she would. How wrong can he be about her feelings for him? Is he really willing to wager his life for the truth? Yes. I need to know… She seems surprised that he is daring her. She hesitates, the dagger still held high, but the blade wavers slightly.

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Bishop’s heart is thundering. “What, isn’t this what you want?” he challenges. He could see her mentally steeling herself. “I never should have trusted you…” “Go on then!” he goads, the sound of his own pulse resounding like war drums in his head. “…how could you, you self-serving Luskan bastard…” “Come on!” He is shouting furiously now. “Kill me!” With a deep breath, Alya closes her eyes, raises the dagger, and plunges it down towards his throat. Bishop shuts his eyes… Only to hear an inhuman screech, and it appears to be coming closer. He snaps his eyes open, and in his prone position, lying face up on the ground and looking over Alya’s shoulder, he sees a flash of red diving down from the sky, and it is big. “Watch out!” Khelgar yells, pulling Alya off Bishop, giving him just enough time to roll out of the way as the screaming creature swoops over them, gouging a chunk of earth out of where he was lying. Bishop jumps to his feet, his hand already reaching for an arrow in his quiver. What is that thing? Red and scaly, with huge leathery wings, it has a long and sinuous body, like a dragon, with dagger-like claws and razor-sharp teeth. Its eyes are yellow slits with black, bottomless pupils. It hangs in the air for a moment, its great wings beating, before sweeping down for another attack. Bishop lets an arrow fly. The creature shrieks in pain as the arrow hits its arm, but it keeps on coming. Khelgar swings his battleaxe at it, but the monster flits easily out of reach. It lunges at him, and he tries striking at it again, but again it dodges, then drops back in, knocking the dwarf over. “Stand still, yer wretch!” Khelgar is getting increasingly frustrated. Bishop looses another arrow, catching the creature in its wing. With a cry, it appears to pitch as it tries to maintain its flight. “Hit its wings!” Alya shouts, as she reaches for her throwing stars. As the monster dives towards her, she whirls away, at the same time unleashing a couple of stars on its wings. One last arrow from Bishop, and the beast falters, landing heavily on the ground, its wings
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damaged and useless. Khelgar rushes forth, tearing at the creature with his axe. Its screams are shrill and terrible as the dwarf hacks it to death. Warily, Bishop nudges the dead creature with his foot. “Anyone care to tell me what this thing is?” Khelgar is brushing red scales off himself. “Whatever it is, I hope we don’t run into any more of them.” “It’s…a styx dragon,” Alya says incredulously. “I’ve…heard about them, read about them…but…” “But what?” Bishop asks impatiently. He wipes some blood off his face with the back of his hand. His nose hurt. Definitely broken. Alya’s brows are furrowed. She seems to have momentarily forgotten her fight with Bishop. “They…they’re Outer Plane creatures…” The implication dawns on them. The weird, alien landscape. The dragon. The fact that the King of Shadows was summoned extraplanarly. “Great…” Bishop says mirthlessly. He pinches the bridge of his nose and tilts his head backwards to try and stem his nosebleed. “What do we do now?” Silence. Nobody says a word. “So…we’re stuck here?” He tries to sound irritated, despite the dread building in the pit of his stomach. In such unfamiliar terrain, they are the prey for whatever stalks these wastelands. “It may be possible to try and find another portal,” Alya suggests. The ranger snorts. Only moments ago, she was ready to die beside the paladin, and now her will to survive kicks in? “And how do we go about doing that?” he asks. “I don’t know…” “So we just wander through this gods-forsaken place, asking any demons we bump into if they would kindly show us the way to the nearest portal?” “What is the alternative? To just sit here and rot?” Alya shoots back vehemently. “Unless you have a better idea, ranger, I suggest you hold that tongue of yours.”
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Ranger. She practically spat that word. The first time she’s ever called him that. Bishop feels oddly hurt. Normally, he wouldn’t let anyone talk to him in that manner. This time, however, he holds up his hands in mock surrender. “You’re the boss – lead on.” “Alya, lass,” Khelgar intercedes. “We’re not going to be traveling with him, are we?” He hooks a thumb in Bishop’s direction. “In case you forgot, dwarf,” Bishop’s voice is low, threatening. “I saved your sorry hides back at the fortress. Besides,” he tries to sound more confident than he is, “even if this isn’t woodland, a tracker could still come in handy.” Alya glares at him, apparently weighing up her options. She positively hates him now, doesn’t she? Not that he can blame her… She steps briskly pass Bishop. “As much as I hate to admit it, we’ll need all the help we can get. Let’s go.” With a brief glance over her shoulder, she adds, “Worse come to worst, he could make decent demon fodder.” Touché. “I don’t like this, lass, but ye have a point there.” Khelgar runs past him to catch up with Alya, stopping long enough to give Bishop a grim warning. “Try anything funny, ranger, and I’ll hack ye in two.” Still nursing his sore nose, Bishop brings up the rear, skulking, feeling like an unwanted stray pathetically following people who are barely tolerant of his presence. He watches her, striding briskly, never once turning back to see if he is following. He recalls their earlier tussle – or rather, his earlier beating. He can’t deny that he probably deserved what he got. In his mind’s eye, he sees the glint of the blade meant for his jugular. If that dragon had not chosen that moment to attack them, would she actually have gone through with it? He pictures the dagger on its downward arc. Was that really aimed at his throat? Involuntarily, the vision reminds him of an older memory. A curved dagger, in another’s hand, and that time it did find its mark… He shakes his head, trying to will the thoughts away. His broken nose is not the only thing hurting at the moment. He looks again at Alya. She is walking, head bent, shoulders stooped, slightly shaking, as if she is crying. He sees the dwarf beside her, a consoling hand on her arm. Neither seems to acknowledge his presence.
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This is going to be a long journey…

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Chapter 8 – Company

With the absence of sunrise and sunset, they have no way of telling how long they have been wandering, scurrying from one rocky outcrop to another to keep from being detected by the creatures of this alien realm. They have been spotted a few times, and the battle has always been intense, their attackers always strange and terrible. Their supply of food, water and medicine are starting to run low, and they could find nothing here that they would dare try to eat or drink. Alya is fast losing hope that they would ever find their way back to their own plane. She sits beside Khelgar as they rest in the shelter of an overhanging rock formation, the dwarf snoring so noisily she worries that some passing demon would hear him. The ranger is somewhere, on first watch, no doubt familiarizing himself as best he could with their surroundings. She is glad that he is not there to share the cramped space with them. She wouldn’t be able to stand having him so near. She thinks back to that awful moment in the fortress, amid the crashing rocks, when Bishop had so calmly pulled Casavir’s head back by his hair, and then slit his throat. He had done it with all the emotion of someone slaughtering a pig or a cow. How could someone be so cold? The memory makes her blood boil and her eyes prickle, but no tears come this time. She had cried so much through the first day and night (though they were never sure when one starts and the other ends), she probably has no more tears left to shed. Khelgar has been a solid rock all this time; always there, always sympathetic, and more than once, he had volunteered to rough the ranger up on her behalf. She had been tempted to take him up on his offer, but Bishop had looked so pitiful as he nursed his broken nose – and a black eye – alone, that despite how much she hated him at the moment, she thought they should at least wait till he has recovered from his earlier encounter with her.
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Khelgar gives an especially loud snort and rolls over. She smiles, immensely glad for the dwarf’s company. The thought of being stuck in this wasteland with just the ranger makes her skin crawl. As if on cue, Bishop slips under the rock. “Still up?” Alya says nothing, but just fixes him with a cold glare. The swelling on his eye has largely subsided, and apart from a slight dent where she broke it, his nose looks like it has pretty much healed. “Your watch,” he says, oblivious to the daggers she is staring at him. He flops down on the ground beside her, pulls his hood up, and puts his hands behind his head. Irritably, Alya moves away from him. She gets up, and tiptoeing over Khelgar’s sleeping frame, steps out from under the cover of the rock. She glances around cautiously, making sure there were no demons about, then, nimbly, she bounders up the side of the rock. From the top, she gains a better vantage point for her sentry duty. Alya sits down cross-legged at the top of the rock. She unsheathes the Sword of Gith, absent-mindedly turning it over in her hands. Before they fought the King of Shadows, the blade had always radiated a surreal light, shifting colours between blue, green and lilac, and it seemed to hum with a life of its own. Ever since that battle, however, the Sword has lost its gentle glow. Now it looks like any old, unspectacular blade, the crack lines where the shards were reformed standing out like fractures on a broken vase. Alya surveys the land. The same rust-coloured earth and blood-red sky they have been seeing all this time. The clouds overhead are a dark orange. She looks towards the horizon. Apart from more rocky outgrowths, nothing breaks the flatness of this world – no buildings, no trees, no mountains… Is a change of scenery a bit too much to ask? she thinks, as another worrying thought nags at her mind. Where are Ammon, Elanee and Neeshka? They had gone through the portal just a few minutes before herself, Bishop and Khelgar. Yet there is no sign of them anywhere here. The portal, though, was also used to transport Torio and Lorne from Luskan to the fortress. It was probably also how Bishop managed to get from Crossroads Keep to Garius’ side so quickly after his betrayal during the siege. She could only guess at how many other possible destinations there could be from that one portal, considering Garius’ network of spies and minions leading up to the final battle. And when she damaged it with the Sword of Gith, it could have caused it to channel its energies randomly…
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Whatever place they have stepped into, Alya reckons – and prays – that it cannot be worse than the Outer Planes. A soft flicker of light makes her glance down. The Sword has begun to shimmer, first weakly, then stronger. Odd, she thinks, frowning. Carefully sheathing the luminous blade to avoid attracting attention to herself like a shining beacon, she scans the landscape, wary and on her guard… * * *

Bishop hears the soft sound of her climbing up the wall of the rock. In his mind’s eye, he sees her scaling it effortlessly, with a cat’s grace. He marvels silently at her dexterity. He has secretly seen her in training a number of times, as she practiced on some invisible foe. He had been mesmerized by her fluid movements, slow and flowing one minute, lightning quick the next, like some sort of deadly dance. Once, he had glimpsed her amidst an intense battle, out of the corner of his eye, as she moved effortlessly about, weaving, dodging, ducking, striking. He was so hypnotized by her, it was only thanks to a well-placed lightning spell from Sand that he wasn’t beheaded by a berserker orc. Such elegance, and yet so deadly… He sniffs, still unable to breathe perfectly through his nose. Yes, he has experienced firsthand what damage she could do with her bare hands, that many would not be able to do with a weapon. He didn’t fight back, though with the way she pounced on him, he doubts he could have had much chance anyway. Rubbing the bridge of his still-sore nose reminds him again of her wrath; those flurry of fists, moving so fast they were a blur, each punch landing squarely. She was not holding anything back, was she? Alya was furious. And so she should be. He doubts she would ever understand that he did not take pleasure in killing the paladin. There is no fun in it when the quarry is begging for death’s embrace anyway. Plus, he knew just how much it could affect her and the way she thinks of him. But in that split second, when it seems like none of them would make it out alive, with boulders crashing down on all sides of them, he could think of no other way to move her stubborn hide. And now, the way she looks at him just eats him up inside. She hasn’t spoken a word to him since the day they arrived in this hellhole. But he doesn’t regret doing what he did. No, he would have done anything to
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save her from that crumbling fortress. But her hatred for him now is so clear, he wishes she had just plunged that dagger into him the other day. When was the last time you cared about what someone else thinks of you? A rustle from above tells him that she is moving about. He steals a glance at the dwarf. Sleeping like a log. What would she think if he tries to speak with her now? Just go out there, join her on top of the rock, and talk to her? Great idea. And what would you say? That he loves her. That he hates himself for being unable to admit that to her, or to himself. That he is sorry. That if he could, he would have swapped places with the paladin, if it would have guaranteed her safety and happiness. Bishop snorted to himself. That would be rich. Oh yeah, she will take that well, won’t she? “Sorry I killed your lover. Can I take his place?” More rustling up above, then a soft plop as she jumps down from the rock. “Bishop?” she says, as she pops her head under the ledge, her eyes wide, sparkling like emeralds in the dim light. For the first time in a long while, there is no contempt in her eyes. He is taken by surprise. She’s talking to me now? He sits up, and he could almost feel a childish grin forming, when she just as quickly ran to wake the sleeping dwarf. “Both of you, get up!” Khelgar starts with a loud snort. Feeling deflated and foolish, Bishop manages a sheepish “Something you need?” It was then that he recognizes the look in her eyes. Urgency. “We have company,” she whispers.

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Chapter 9 – The Ambush

“What is it this time?” Khelgar yawns, trying to wake up. “Tanar’ri? Baatezu? Dragons? Pixies?” “I don’t know,” Alya replies. “I just hear them, and it seems like they’re all around us.” “Wait here,” Bishop commands, as he cautiously peers out from under their rocky shelter. At a glance, nothing seems out of the ordinary; the same bleak, barren landscape as they’ve been seeing all this time stares starkly back at Bishop. But hark, what do my ears here? He thinks, as his well-trained hearing picks out the near-silent, yet distinct sound of padded footfalls. Judging by the time between each step, it seems like whatever it is, it’s trying to sneak up on them. Another rustle, this time behind them. Alya is right, there is more than one. Bishop is mildly impressed; she’d make a half-decent hunter. He hears a low whisper. Was that a murmur in a foreign tongue? Are their ambushers communicating? These are relatively civilized creatures then. But something about that hoarse, cackly utterance makes Bishop uneasy. It is unlike anything he’s heard from all the other beasts they have encountered here. So far, he’s heard all manners of screeching, hissing, roaring, all of which were completely new to his ears. But this, it sounds vaguely familiar, and it bothers him that he can’t put a finger on it. “Follow me,” he says in a hushed tone, as he leads Alya and Khelgar out from under the rock. He figures they would have a better chance fighting their would-be attackers in the open rather than backed in a corner. “Be on your guard.”
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No sooner have they emerged from the shadow of the rocky ledge, than they hear a rough, guttural sound, possibly a shouted command. Out jump their pursuers from behind boulders and outcrops of rock. There are at least a dozen of them. Snarling, they surround the three adventurers. And Bishop remembers exactly where he has heard their calls before. The night Alya first brought Shandra to the Sunken Flagon. He remembers how he had leered at the two attractive women when they entered. That night, the inn came under attack, and the farm girl was kidnapped. Their assailants made the exact same noises. “Githyanki!?” Khelgar blurts out in disbelief as they step out from the shadows. “What in the hells are they doing here?” “Oh, no…” Alya lets out an annoyed sigh. She draws the Sword of Gith. It gives off a vibrant glow, its shimmering hues illuminating her in a radius of light. As if knowing its rightful owners are near, the blade hums and pulsates with some unknown energy. “Kalach-Cha…” Murmurs of the word spread among the gith like ripples on the surface of a pond. They ready their weapons in their clawed, bony hands, with what could be earnest anticipation on their yellow, taut-skinned faces. “Persistent bastards, aren’t they?” Bishop comments, unsheathing his twin blades. Khelgar, appearing wide awake now, has his battle axe raised. The pack of githyanki are circling them menacingly, making clicking and grunting noises, forcing the three of them to stand with their backs to each other. Despite their perilous situation, Bishop is acutely aware of Alya’s uncommonly close proximity. They stand back to back, and he can feel the warmth emanating off her body, her hair brushing the nape of his neck, her entire lithe frame pressing up against him. And is that her hip he feels pushing against his? The gith are closing in, their blades raised. Bishop is about to charge when he feels Alya’s shoulders rise and fall in frustration. “Oh, for the love of the gods…” he hears her swear, then he feels her stepping forward, her back falling away from his. He chances a glance over his shoulder. She has the Sword of Gith laid across her hands, the hilt in one palm, the tip of the blade in the other. Crouching down, she places the blade on the ground and gets back up. Then she nudges the Sword with her foot, pushing it to the feet of one of the githyanki. “You want it?” he hears her say. “Then take it! We don’t need it anymore, and we don’t want anymore bloodshed!” The nearest gith bends quickly to pick up the Sword. At its touch, the blade explodes
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into a rainbow of colour. Yellow eyes gleaming with glee, the gith rejoins its comrades. Then, the circle begins to tighten again. “Uhm…Alya…” Khelgar begins. “I think they’re still comin’...” Fenced in by the ever encroaching wall of githyanki, Bishop again feels Alya’s body pressed against his, her shoulder muscles tensed. “What is wrong with you people?” she asks, and he could hear the desperation in her voice. “You’ve got what you came here for. What more do you want from us?” “I believe, Kalach-Cha, that you know the answer to that.” The wall parted briefly, and a tall gith, clearly the leader of the pack, steps into the circle. Its voice is deep and croaky. Its long limbs are sinewy and powerful-looking, and the skin on its face is pulled so tight against its skull, its lips are pulled back in a perpetual sneer, revealing its sharp fangs. In its walk, Bishop sees the arrogant swagger of a seasoned warrior who has seen, and won, many battles. “I must commend you for your victory against the King of Shadows,” it says patronizingly. “Thanks to you, we felt it safe once again to return to your plane and to resume our hunt.” Its already parted lips widen in what could be a smile. “But you have proven quite troublesome to track down, Kalach-Cha. We never thought to seek you here in the Outer Planes.” “Look,” Alya says evenly, her hands help up, palms forward. “You have your sword back now, and we are not looking for a fight. Please, take it and leave us be.” “And so we will, Kalach-Cha,” the gith hisses. “As soon as we have the final piece.” “But that’s the whole sword! We don’t have anymore–“ Alya stops in mid-sentence as realization dawns on her. The gith is eyeing her with a predatory look. “Oh, no no no no no…” Bishop tuts menacingly, shaking his head. “Don’t even think about it.” “It’s just one shard!” Khelgar exclaims incredulously. “Yes, just one small shard, nothing worth risking your compatriots’ lives over.” It glances meaningfully at Bishop and Khelgar. The ranger can feel Alya stiffen. “And don’t worry yourself about how you’re going to extract it. Leave that problem to me.”
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An angry roar comes from somewhere behind Bishop. Khelgar steps closer to the githyanki army, his axe raised. “Ye’ll need to get by me first before ye can lay a hand on her!” The gith leader looks at Khelgar and shakes his head. He almost seems sad. “A minor inconvenience.” He disappears again behind the wall of githyanki. They hear a barked command, and suddenly the circle closes as the gith charge them. Bishop swings his twin swords, parrying the first wave of blows. He tries to slip in for a counter-attack, but is instantly driven back. He hears Khelgar’s war cry as his axe clashes loudly with some gith blades. Alya has managed to sidestep an attack, throwing her assailant to the ground. They fight back to back, covering each other’s rear, almost as if they were one single defensive entity. One of the ranger’s swords hits home, driven swiftly into a gith stomach. He retracts it just as quickly, pressing on with his attack. A scimitar comes flying at his head. He blocks it, but the force of the impact knocks him backwards, eliciting an involuntary gasp. The horde of githyanki is advancing relentlessly. He could see Khelgar swinging wildly out of the corner of his eye, a freshly decapitated head rolling on the ground. It seems as if the githyanki are stronger here in the Outer Planes than they were when he encountered them around Neverwinter. A movement at the edge of his vision makes him turn. Alya is preoccupied with a couple of gith, and another is trying to sneak up beside her, dagger held low, aimed at the base of her spine. He tries to shout a warning, but she has moved further away, advancing into the fray, and doesn’t hear him over the sound of screams and crashing metal. Digging one of his swords into the ground, Bishop grabs a throwing dagger with his free hand and flicks it. It seems to take an eternity for the blade to cover the distance between himself and Alya, before finally thudding into the side of the gith’s neck, just before it plants its dagger into her back. Whirling around, she turns just in time to see the githyanki drop, gurgling, to the ground. For a split second, across a dead body, their eyes meet. Her face is unreadable. With a curt nod, she turns her attention back to the melee, as does he. More giths are falling, and the tide appears to be turning. Bishop feels a rush of triumph. Somewhere to his left, Khelgar is hollering. “They’ve got their tails between their legs! Push on!” Eyeing a striking opportunity, Bishop springs forward – Or at least tries to.
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What in the hells –? He tries to move again, to lift his arms, but he has lost control of his own body. His muscles refuse to cooperate. It’s as if he’s been turned to stone. From the flabbergasted curses coming from Khelgar, he assumes that the dwarf, too, is caught in the same spell. He can see Alya from the corner of his eye, also apparently immobilized. A figure appears before her. The leader of the gith. “I have no time for this nonsense,” he says, sounding mildly annoyed. “I shall just take what I’m here for and leave.” It raises a hand casually, and Alya levitates off the ground. Damn these gith and their holding spells…Bishop has never felt so helpless in all his life, as he watches, paralysed, while the gith holds Alya in the air, seemingly probing her for the shard. Suddenly, Alya gasps in pain, and the gith smirks. “Ah,” he says, “So that’s where you hide it.” Alya’s delicate features are contorted, and she grits her teeth. What is it doing to her? Bishop struggles to move, but to his dismay his muscles hardly twitch. He doesn’t like that evil glint in the gith’s eyes. Please stop hurting her… “You carry a heavy burden in your heart,” remarks the githyanki. “Allow me to relieve you of it.” With a flourish, he forms a claw with his outstretched hand. Immediately Alya cries out, her chest jutting toward the gith, as if an invisible hand has grabbed the front of her tunic and is pulling her toward the githyanki. The gith brings its clawed hand back towards itself, and what happens next will haunt Bishop’s nightmares forever. There is a sickening ripping sound, like that of tearing leather. Alya’s scream of agony is abruptly cut short. Then, excruciatingly slowly, a silver shard emerges from the centre of her chest, glowing brilliantly despite being covered in blood. Her blood. It stays there, one half sticking out, crimson spurting out of the wound it created, as if reluctant to leave her body after all these years. Finally, it shoots out of the jagged hole in her chest, trailing a red comet tail, and flies straight into the gith’s waiting hand. Bishop hears a terrible wail of pure anguish, loud and long, that resonates deep in his heart. Then he realizes that he was the one screaming.
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Chapter 10 – Taking Stock

The Greycloak army is scattered among the fortress ruins, moving rocks, shifting debris, painstakingly excavating. Their leader, a tall, well-built man, oversees the operation atop a pile of boulders. Occasionally, he shouts out an order, but he largely lets his men get on with their work. His dark eyes are troubled, and his brow is etched in worry. It has been a ten-day since their Knight-Captain and her allies were transported magically by the sage Aldanon to the King of Shadows’ lair. A couple of days later, their scouts patrolling the edges of the Mere of Dead Men reported hearing a sound like crashing thunder. Even from Crossroads Keep, they could see the murky pall of shadow over the Mere in the horizon dissipate. The oppressiveness in the air around them had also lifted, and the Keep had rejoiced at the apparent victory of their Knight-Captain. Everyone started busying themselves, organizing a massive banquet to celebrate the triumphant return of their heroes. Crossroads Keep had never looked so festive. That kobold merchant, Deekin, had even got together with the bard in Sal’s inn to write a celebratory song. With preparations complete, they waited to welcome their Knight-Captain home. And waited…and waited… An uneasy silence had fallen on the Keep as Lieutenant Kana sent some scouts to try and determine the whereabouts of their heroes. With all their Knight-Captain had gone through, no one ever doubted that she would survive this final battle – until now. The report from the scouts was not promising; the remains of a dark fortress, crumbled beyond recognition. Did they manage to get out in time? A patrol of Greycloaks were sent, with the unenviable task of trying to recovery anything – or anyone – from the ruins.

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“Sergeant,” Sir Nevalle joins him atop his vantage point. His voice carries his usual business-like quality, but his blue eyes are clouded with worry. “Anything to report?” Bevil shakes his head. “We found nothing along the perimeters, Sir, but with the help of the mages you provided, we have managed to clear a path to the heart of the fortress. Hopefully we will find some clues there.” And not dead bodies. The highly probable outcome is not lost on either man, but neither of them mentions it. Nevalle looks down at the Greycloaks, scrabbling over rocks and boulders, lifting slabs of stone. The mages are casting spells that are either raising or disintegrating anything that obstructs their path. “I wish I could have provided more help, but Neverwinter is – unable – to offer more aid.” The knight’s carefully chosen words are not lost on Bevil. As soon as his wounds were healed, Lord Nasher had happily traipsed back to his castle in Neverwinter. The threat to his realm eliminated, he had no further use for Crossroads Keep nor for its Knight-Captain, and he had left them after a glorified speech that offered his pseudo-sympathy for the loss of their leader. It took a lot of persuasion from Nevalle before Nasher was finally willing to allow him to bring a handful of mages to help with recovery efforts. Bevil looks at the handsome knight as he surveys the scene. His jaw is set in a grim line, and he runs his hand nervously through his blond hair. The member of the Nine is visibly torn between his oath of loyalty to Neverwinter, and his urge to do what is right. It angers Bevil that the powerful nobility can so easily and thoughtlessly use and discard people as they so wish. He rubs his face tiredly, and feels the coarseness of his three day old stubble. “How are you holding up?” “Eh?” Bevil starts absentmindedly, still rubbing his cheek, surprised by Nevalle’s question. “What do you mean?” “You grew up together in West Harbour. This must be hard for you.” Bevil puffs out his cheeks and exhales slowly, his broad shoulders rising and falling. “She...does mean a lot to me,” he manages, feeling more than a little awkward confiding his feelings to a knight he barely even knows. Nevalle looks into the distance, his azure blue eyes soft. “What was she like?” “…beg your pardon?”
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The knight’s gaze remains fixed on the horizon. “She’s such a strong character. I’m just curious where she gets it from.” Bevil eyes Nevalle uncertainly. “Well…” he begins haltingly. “She was always a bit of a tomboy, as far back as I can remember…she used to have mud fights with me…” He pictures them as children, she and Bevil wrestling in the dirt, while poor Amie stands to the side, dodging splatters and threatening to tell on them. The memory induces an involuntary smile. “Nope, no dolls and flowers for her.” Nevalle smiles, too. “So did you two learn how to fight together?” “Oh, no,” Bevil shakes his head. “Daeghun, her foster father, took her away when she was…how old? Twelve, I think…” he remembers their tearful farewell the day before she departed. He had asked how long she would be gone for, and she said she didn’t know. “But we will always be friends, I promise,” she had said, and they had made their childish pact to be friends forever; they spat into each other’s hands and shook on it. “She was gone for nearly ten years,” he continues. He remembers how alone he felt at times; his brother Lorne had left to fight in the army, and the Mossfeld brothers were mean bullies. Amie was a sweet companion, and a good friend, but they didn’t share many interests, and she was always too busy as Tarmas’ acolyte. “When she finally came back, she was trained in the ways of a monk. I could hardly recognize her.” The skinny, boyish little girl with dirty red hair and freckles on her nose had blossomed. Bevil remembers how he had just stared at her, at her new womanly curves, her refined features, her full lips. Her gangly tramping gait was replaced by a smooth, fluid grace when she walks. But one thing about her has never changed: her piercing green eyes, so foreign-looking – and the gleam of mischief in them. “The first thing she did when she came back was to push me into a puddle of mud.” Bevil laughs at the recollection, and Nevalle joins in. “She sounds like quite a character,” Nevalle chuckles, as his gaze falls on the horizon again. “I would have liked to have known her better,” he adds wistfully. Bevil feels a sudden pang of jealousy. Could Nevalle be smitten with our Knight-Captain? He wouldn’t be surprised; she seems to have that effect on men. She is no conventional beauty – break her features down, and her eyes are too sloped, her nose too small, her mouth unspectacular. But when one looks at the whole picture, she is strikingly attractive in her own special, exotic way. Her skin glows with
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a rich bronze tan no matter what the season. He has heard rumours that her mother’s father came from a land far to the east, on the other side of Abeir-Toril, and it is this unusual aspect of her heritage that bestows on her an uncommon allure. When she returned to West Harbour, she became the centre of attention for all of the single, and some of the married, men in the village. Bevil himself feels a profound attraction to her, but once it was clear that she still sees him as the Bevil of her childhood, he has decided to keep his feelings to himself, fearful of what awkwardness could do to their friendship. Which was probably all for the better, since she would come to him at times to escape the suffocating attention from the other men. Bevil recalls the night after the Harvest Fair, barely months after Alya’s homecoming from her Daeghun-imposed exile. They had finally turned in for the night after their revelry, Alya, Bevil and Amie on a high after winning the Harvest Cup. Then those creatures had attacked the village, and poor Amie…Bevil can still see her, bathed in a column of flames, writhing in agony till the end. Afterwards, Daeghun, being his usual cryptic self, had sent them off on some errand in some swamp ruins. Then, Alya had to leave West Harbour again. With a shudder, he remembers how those creatures had come back a few months later. They had abducted him, tortured him…those knives cutting under his skin, forcing him to reveal Alya’s whereabouts. And, cowardly traitor that he is, he had told them. It took him a long time to get over the trauma and guilt; his wounds are gone, but he was scarred mentally. Only when word came that Alya had become captain of her own keep, was he spurred into offering his services. He had apologized profusely to her for being weak in the face of the gith, and she was so understanding, so kind, he had sworn there and then to serve her with his life. “Sergeant,” the clipped voice of one of the Greycloaks brings Bevil back to the present. “We have gained access to the keep’s heart.” “What did you find?” Bevil asks earnestly, as Nevalle steps closer to listen. “I think you should see it for yourself, sir…” * * *

With a Greycloak leading the way, Bevil and Nevalle negotiate the fallen debris and rocks towards the centre of the fallen fortress. Bevil is impressed with and proud of his men; they have cleared a massive amount of stone in a short amount of time. He steps into a ring of broken columns that mark the main chamber of the destroyed keep. More Greycloaks and mages are at work here, removing the huge
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quantity of rubble littered everywhere. Only one lone wall remains standing on one side of the chamber, like a giant gravestone for the fallen structure. “My lords,” their Greycloak guide says, motioning Bevil and Nevalle to the centre of the clearing they have made. There, laid out on a large sheet of canvas, were five bodies. His heart hammering in his chest, Bevil steps closer to inspect the corpses. Their bodies are broken, their faces pale and covered in dust, their eyes lifeless and staring. He recognizes their empty faces: the female sorceress, the gnome bard, the githzerai cleric, and the elven wizard. The last ‘body’ is the metal construct Grobnar had so lovingly repaired. With its master forever silenced, the hulking blade golem is no longer animated. No Alya. Bevil breathes a sigh of relief that he instantly feels guilty for. “Sand…” he hears Nevalle say from behind him. The knight kneels down, and gently closes the moon elf’s inanimate eyes. Head bowed, he mutters a silent prayer. Nevalle is not a fan of the wizard’s abrasive personality, and has, on more than one occasion, been on the receiving end of Sand’s acerbic wit. Nevertheless, he was a wise counsel, and largely a good elf, and the loss still saddens him. “Are there…any others?” Bevil asks the Greycloak hesitatingly, not sure if he wants to hear the answer. “No, sir,” comes the reply. “But we still have a section to clear.” “My lords!” A cry from the far side of the room. Bevil stumbles over loose debris with Nevalle close behind. They reach a mage whose garb identifies him as one of the Many-Starred Cloaks…Vale, Bevil thinks his name is. He had assisted in the battle to take Crossroads Keep from Garius. “We’ve found something,” he says as the two men approach. He leads them to where some Greycloaks and mages have lifted an especially large slab of stone. Underneath it, they catch a glimpse of mangled platemail. The paladin. Bevil moves around to get a closer look. Casavir lies in a pool of dried blood, all of which seem to be his own. The bulk of the bleeding appears to have stemmed from a nasty head injury, and a deep gash in his neck. Bevil examines the neck wound; a clean cut, from a single, deadly accurate slice. From the damage, this was probably what ultimately killed the paladin.
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A flash of blue and yellow under Kneeling, he pulls out a folded up lifeblood. Unfurling and shaking distinct patterns on the material knight.

Casavir’s head catches Bevil’s eyes. piece of cloth, caked in the paladin’s it out, Bevil’s breath catches. The mark it as a cloak of a Neverwinter

“Is that…?” Nevalle asks. Bevil nods solemnly. Alya’s cloak. He could almost imagine the heartbreaking scene. Alya battling to save the dying man, supporting his head with her bundled-up cloak as she tries to tend to his wounds. He feels a pang of sympathy for her, knowing how fond she was of the paladin. It must have been so difficult for her. He glances again at the dead man, and frowns. There is something about Casavir’s face that is unsettling him. The others that have died have their faces locked in a contortion of wideeyed horror and pain. Yet this paladin, who has been found pinned under a rockslide, bones broken, throat slashed, seems almost to be at peace in his dying moments. His features are relaxed, as if he could just be sleeping with his eyes open. And…Bevil couldn’t believe this…is that a slight smile frozen on his lips? His final expression appears to be one of serenity and acceptance. But who could embrace such a fate? The dead man’s dimmed eyes, once so strikingly blue, appear to have been staring fixedly at something as his life faded. Bending over the body, Bevil follows the path of Casavir’s last gaze, locked on one corner of the last standing wall, looking at… “Aldanon?” Bevil straightens, and makes his way towards the sage, who appears to be preoccupied with something. He taps the old man gently on the shoulder, eliciting a small cry as he is startled from his thoughts. “Huh? Who are you?” Aldanon asks suspiciously. “Aldanon, it’s me, Bevil.” “Ah!” A spark of recognition registers in the old man’s eyes. “Sergeant Bevil! Good to see you! I didn’t recognize you in that armour you’re wearing.” “Um, Aldanon, I always dress this way.” “Do you?” the old man asks quizzically. “Ah, then it must be your new hairstyle! I must say it suits you quite well –“

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“Aldanon,” Bevil interrupts gently, not wanting to get dragged into a long conversation with the absent-minded sage. “What are you doing here?” “Oh, conducting my research, of course!” says the sage merrily, as he steps over the body of a shadow golem without apparently noticing it. “This is such a rare opportunity, to be able to study how Garius summoned the King of Shadows, right where it all happened!” “Uh, Aldanon,” Bevil says uncertainly, unsure of what to say. “It’s still a little dangerous here at the moment…there are falling rocks –“ But the sage doesn’t appear to have heard him, as he rambles on cheerfully about his work. “I am so happy my initial theory was correct, that this fortress was somehow immune to the life-sapping energies of the shadows, it’s like the calm eye of a storm…” “Aldanon…” Bevil tries again. How does he tell the old man that he is getting in the way of their investigation? “Already I have made some very interesting discoveries,” the sage continues, “and this portal here, why, it hums with magic even now.” For a moment, Bevil is struck dumb. “P-portal?” he manages. “Yes, this one right here!” Aldanon caresses a small, partly fallen stone archway. “Very well made, very good handiwork.” “That – that’s a portal?” Bevil asks stupidly again, the implications racing through his brain. “Yes! You know, gateways where you could travel from one place to another in the blink of an eye! Very useful for long distances –“ “Aldanon,” Bevil says, recovering his senses, a glimmer of hope in his heart. “Could anyone have transported themselves out of this place through that portal?” “Of course!” comes the bright reply. Bevil could feel the faint twinkle of hope growing inside him. “From what I can gather it was semioperational right till the end.” “Do you know where they could have been transported to?” “From my initial scrying, there seems to be numerous possible destinations,” says the sage, seemingly glad that someone is taking an interest in his research. “It looks to have been a pretty well connected portal. Of course, I would need more time to determine the exact
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destinations, perhaps even take some samples back to my laboratory –“ “Whatever you need, Aldanon,” Bevil says, “Let me know if you need help.”

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Chapter 11 – Everyone Bleeds When Cut

Just as quickly as they had come, the githyanki now retreat, disappearing through a portal that magically springs up from the ground. The gith leader, bloody shard in hand, is the last to leave, a triumphant smirk on its ugly face. The moment it steps through the luminous portal, it appears to fold into itself, shrinking up and disappearing in a flash of light. At the same time, the holding spell on Bishop and Khelgar is broken, and Alya’s limp body drops from the air, landing in a crumpled heap on the ground. As soon as he is mobile, Bishop rushes to where she lies, lifeless. Khelgar gets to her first, but he pushes the dwarf blindly away as he falls to his knees beside her. The rust-coloured dirt around her still form is stained a darker crimson by the lifeblood that is draining out of her. He turns her over onto her back, and his breath catches in dismay when he sees her face – it is pale as death. A trickle of blood hangs out of a corner of her mouth. “Alya!” he screams, shaking her a little by her shoulders. A part of his frantic brain registers that this is the first time he has ever called her by name. Another part reflects on how desperate and shrill it sounds. His eyes move from her face down to her chest. The front of her tunic is completely soaked with blood. A tear in the fabric marks the exit of the shard. Whipping out his skinning knife, he cuts away at the cloth, then tentatively peels back the material to examine her wound. His heart clenches painfully at the sight. In that instant he feels as if the gith had wrenched his heart out instead. A jagged wound gapes at him from the middle of her chest, blood welling out of it. Here and there, he sees glimpses of white bone jutting out amid all the red. In the centre of the hole, something pink and ragged is pulsating weakly, spitting out tiny fountains of blood with each feeble beat.

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With a shaky hand, he feels her neck for a pulse. Is that one? It is too weak to tell. He places a finger under her nose. The faintest hint of a breath tickles his fingertip. Incredibly, she is still alive – but she’s barely clinging to life. Where is the paladin when you need him? He thinks, his breath coming out in ragged gasps. He’s never felt so useless, holding her as her life seeps away, unable to do anything to stop it. He curses himself for his inadequacy. “Move aside!” Khelgar’s command snaps him out of his grief. The dwarf has uncorked a bottle of healing potion and is draining the contents into her wound, the bright blue liquid mingling briefly with scarlet before it is overwhelmed by the sheer amount of blood. He opens another bottle and, tilting Alya’s head back, pours some of the medicine down her throat. Most of it dribbles back out, flowing down her chin. Goaded into action by the dwarf’s initiative, Bishop runs to his satchel and rummages in it for any healing supplies he could find. He finds a roll of bandages and a couple of flasks of watered-down healing potions. He thrusts a hand back into the bag – and his fingers close around something soft and silky. He pulls out the soiled strip of green satin, its magical runes gleaming. The words she said to him all those months ago in the woods near Ember echo in his mind. “You know, that wound needs more than just a strip of cloth.” The memory of her kindness and her cheeky smile comes flooding back. He sees her dressing his wound, her robe tattered at the edges where she had cut it. He hears her soothing, melodic voice as she teasingly told him to put his clothes back on. Then, his mind flashes to the anger and hatred in her eyes, as she holds a dagger to his throat. Finally, he sees her lying motionless, her life ebbing out of her in rivulets of red. A wave of emotion hits him. Anger, guilt, grief, shame, sorrow, selfloathe…they all surge up inside him at the same time, until he feels he is about to burst from the upwelling. Gripping the slip of fabric in his fist, he holds it to his forehead and clamps his eyes shut, breathing heavily through clenched teeth, fighting to control his rampaging thoughts, to bury them beneath the layers of indifference and hostility that has acted as his emotional defences for so long. His eyes, his jaw and his fist hurt from being clenched so tightly. Something wet and salty stains his cheeks.
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When he has regained some semblance of control, he takes a deep breath, releasing it slowly, shakily. Then, swiping at his face with the back of a glove, he gathers up the healing supplies he has found, and rushes back to Alya’s side, his jaw set in renewed determination. * * *

“By the hells, lass, will ye please stop bleeding!” Khelgar exclaims, as he sops up more blood. Casting away the blood-saturated bandage in his hand, he grabs another one and proceeds to press it down firmly over her wound, trying to stem the red tide. How he wishes that the paladin, or the githzerai, or even the elven tree-hugger, was here right now. Seeing Alya’s pallid face distresses him. She is normally glowing with such vigour, and has the stamina of a horse. When Khelgar once marveled at her ability to trek for days without needing to rest, she attributed it to her abstinence from alcohol. “Monks don’t drink,” she once told him, “It dulls our senses and messes up our chi.” Khelgar doesn’t even know what a ‘chi’ is, and he still cannot fathom the idea of knocking back tankards of water – water! – in a pub. Trivial as it may seem to many, it was one of the main reasons why he decided against becoming a monk of Tyr in the end, despite having completed the trials and being deemed worthy. As awed as he is by their ability to kick his behind without weapons, a dwarf cannot live without his ale… The warm, sticky moisture on his hands tells him that she has bled through this bandage as well. As he applies another fresh one, he prays silently that her monk’s endurance will pull her through this. “Ye’ve got ta get better, lass; yer stronger than all of us put together,” he says fervently. His heart aches to see her this way. He’s always seen her as something like a little sister – well, a little sister who’s taller than him, and who could probably wipe the floor with him in a fight, but still someone he feels compelled to look out for. He’s always taken pride in being her first ever companion, before the others started joining in, before they started looking like some travelling circus – not that he minds her other companions, at least not anymore. In fact, loathe as he is to admit it, he was just about getting used to having that tiefling around. But that’s what happens when one hangs about with Alya for a while. Never in his life has he ever met anyone so free from prejudice. She took to Neeshka practically immediately despite the demon horns and tail, and she was probably the only one who could put up with that ranger’s barbed comments for any longer than a few seconds without the urge to pound his face in.
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“Everyone bleeds when cut.” That was what she said, right? Or close enough along those lines. Supposed to mean that we are all the same underneath, no matter what we look like on the outside…or something like that. Sometimes those sayings of hers seem more like riddles than words of wisdom, like the time she tried to explain to him how a fight is not always the best solution to a problem. “To learn how to fight, one has to first learn how not to fight.” Khelgar remembers how thoroughly confused he was when she told him that. Then she had offered to demonstrate what she meant, by challenging him to a sparring match. Khelgar smiles fondly at the memory, at the hard lesson he learnt that day. She never threw a single punch or kick throughout that fight, just dodged and side-stepped his advances, and redirecting his attacks in that frustrating way that only she knows. He would lunge at her, only to end up getting a fistful (and sometimes faceful) of dirt, as she used his own momentum to send him flying. After landing heavily on his backside a number of times, he had gotten the message, and had acknowledged that avoiding a fight is not necessarily a cowardly act. She had shown it by defeating him without landing a blow. Later, he had begged her to teach him what she knows. They have since trained and sparred together whenever they had the chance, and it is during these sessions, over an exchange of blows, that they had really bonded. The sound of urgent footfalls makes Khelgar turn to see the ranger returning with an armload of healing supplies. Bishop kneels across from him, such that Alya lies between the two of them. “Still alive?” he asks briskly. “Aye, she’s hangin’ on.” Khelgar chances a peek under the bandage he still holds pressed to Alya’s chest wound. “Bleeding seems to have slowed, thank the gods.” “Hmph,” sneers the hunter, as he uncorks a healing potion with his teeth. “For once, your bulk is good for something other than being a human shield.” Khelgar holds his tongue, recognizing that now is not the time to be trading insults, with their leader lying there so close to death. He watches in fuming silence as Bishop unrolls a strip of cloth. The markings on it look vaguely familiar, yet foreign at the same time. Where has he seen that colour and that embroidery motif before? The extravagant piece of fabric is marred by some reddish-brown stains, and he wonders what the ranger is planning on doing with it. With a dismissive wave, Bishop motions for Khelgar to remove the bandage, which he does carefully. Scrunching the strange material up, the ranger gently places the balled-up fabric into the open wound, then
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proceeds to empty the contents of a healing potion over it, allowing the intricate piece of rag to soak up the blue liquid. Khelgar is stunned to see that the exotic-looking runes on the fabric are glowing subtly. A part of him warns that nothing coming from the ranger is ever a good thing, and that perhaps he should stop this odd ritual. But those runes seem harmless enough; in fact, its soft shimmer has a calming effect even on him. Plus, the look on the ranger’s face shows no malice as he works, just a sense of urgent determination. This surprises Khelgar; he’s only ever seen malice in those cold brown eyes. “Hold this,” Bishop says gruffly, shoving one end of a bandage in Khelgar’s hand, as he winds the other end around Alya’s chest. With neither of them being especially skilled in healing, they have to work together to get the wound cleaned and semi-decently wrapped up. Apart from the odd barked command, Bishop says little through it all. By the time they finish, their hands are covered with blood. Alya remains unconscious, but at least she isn’t half as bloody as she was. The two men stand over her still form as an awkward silence falls. They have been so used to having their Knight-Captain telling them what to do and relaying messages, it feels odd to have to communicate directly with each other now, and to have to make a decision without her. “So…” Khelgar starts uncertainly, “What next?” The ranger is staring into the middle distance, a strange fire in his eyes. “We move,” he says curtly, in a low voice. “You carry her.” “What? Shouldn’t we stay and wait fer her ta heal first?” “She can’t stay here!” Bishop snaps forcefully, “she’ll die!” and even Khelgar is taken aback by his sudden vehemence. As if regretting his outburst, the ranger looks away, and continues in an even tone, “We have to get back to our plane.” His gaze falls on Alya’s body, and Khelgar thinks he sees the ranger’s hard eyes soften slightly. But how do we do that? Where do we go? What will we find? Khelgar’s head is filled with questions. Why do you care, ranger? Yet, Bishop’s words ring true. They have used up the last of their healing supplies. If they stayed on this plane, Alya wouldn’t last long. They have to get her back to Faerun if she is to stand a chance. And they need to get there soon.
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Khelgar studies the ranger warily. Bishop appears uncomfortable with his scrutiny, and refuses to look him in the eye. He is definitely hiding something, but for Alya’s sake, now is not the time for indecision. Gingerly, he lifts her limp body, cradling her like a child. The softest hint of a breath on his neck is all the motivation he needs. “Lead the way, ranger.”

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Chapter 12 – The Black Sea

She is swimming in a sea of darkness, darkness so thick and tangible, it envelopes her like a cloak of shadows. She hangs suspended in the abyss, floating aimlessly, like kelp swaying to the rhythm of an underwater current. How long has she been drifting like this? She doesn’t know, but it is not a worrying feeling. The stillness, the silence, the nothingness of it all, is somewhat reassuring. Vaguely, she remembers her mind and heart being troubled by something, before she had found this empty void. She thinks she remembers pain, both physical and emotional. But now her problems have been washed away by the black current. She does not even remember what had been concerning her before. It feels good to be free from cares, free from hurt, free from all thought. A dim orb of light catches her attention. Without any conscious effort, she gravitates towards it, moving from the comforting depths of this boundless ocean of darkness. As she nears it, the heavy blanket lifts a little, and she feels the rippling of the surface waves. It seems to manifest itself in the form of what feels like strong arms around her, rocking her as if she were a baby. The motion is making her feel seasick. A low muffled sound. The roll of distant thunder? The waves stop swaying her about, and sets her down gently on something hard. She is so close to the surface she could almost touch it. Through the dark water, she sees some movement in the light, and she chances a closer look. Her head breaks the surface. The light is too bright. It seems to sear her eyes as she tries to open them, making her head pound. She tries to breathe, but she feels a sharp pain in her chest, a pain that runs deep into the very fibre of her being. It causes a cascade of memories, in which she sees death,
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destruction and suffering. She sees the lifeless faces of those she loves. Casavir, covered in blood, a deep gash in his throat… So much hurt…and so cold. She shivers. The pain is unbearable. Again, she hears a thunder-like rumble. I don’t like the light, she thinks. Like a frightened little girl who has wandered too far from home, she tries to retreat to the solace of the deep water. Down she dives, trying to get as far away from the hurtful light as possible. She thrashes frantically to propel herself faster. Something coils itself around her body, something that ripples like the muscular body of a large serpent. It feels strangely comforting, and unlike a reptile, it exudes a warmth that allays her fears. It reminds her of strong, loving arms. Casavir’s arms, as he held her so tightly what seemed so long ago. Have you come back for me, Casavir? His touch is so soft, so gentle, she feels that if she were to just give herself over to his sweet embrace, he will take her back to the void at the bottom of this trackless sea, where nothing bad will ever touch either of them again. And so she surrenders herself, sinking ever deeper to the bottom of this black ocean, allowing the darkness to engulf her once more. The light at the surface fades as she moves away from it, and she hears the distant thunder again. It almost sounds like it is calling her name, before the soothing emptiness consumed her once again. “Alya…” * “Alya!” Bishop is on his knees, his arms around her. He gives her another shake. “Alya!” But she has slipped back into her coma, just as quickly as she had regained consciousness mere moments ago. “Gods dammit!” he swears. For a split second, he was sure, so sure, that she was stirring. Khelgar had just set her down with a low groan, and then left to walk off the crick in his back from carrying her for so long. Her eyelids had fluttered, and she had gasped softly. Bishop practically fell over trying to get to her side. He saw her face scrunch up in pain, and her petite frame shivered and tensed up. Then her arms started flailing wildly, as if she was in the grips of some
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*

*

nightmare. He had lifted her slightly off the ground, holding her tight, calling her name, hoping – praying – that she would hear him, and wake up. But she had merely relaxed into his arms, and slid back into oblivion. The heavy clunking of plate mail boots signals the return of the dwarf. He stops when he sees Bishop kneeling there, cradling her in his arms. An eyebrow shoots up quizzically as he looks at the ranger. Like a child caught red-handed with his hand in the biscuit jar, Bishop gently sets her back down and stands up, looking briefly uncomfortable. “She moved. Thought she woke,” he mumbled brusquely, as he brushes past Khelgar. Grabbing a piece of stale bread from his bag, he sits down and starts eating, ignoring the dwarf. The dry loaf is unappetizing at best, but it is his last bit of food. Following his lead, Khelgar plonks down opposite him and starts eating, too. The stale, crusty bread makes their mouths feel like sandpaper, but thirsty as they are, they barely sip from their canteens, trying to conserve what little water they have left. They sit in silence as they eat. “Why did ye leave?” Khelgar asks suddenly, breaking the silence. The question catches Bishop by surprise. “Huh?” “Why did ye leave?” the dwarf repeats. Scowling, Bishop wipes the crumbs off his face with the back of a gloved hand. “I don’t recall inviting you for some small-talk, dwarf.” Khelgar shrugs. “Not like there’s anythin’ else ta do, is there? Seein’ as we may be stuck here fer a while, just thought we could get a couple o’ things out in the open.” He stares at Bishop expectantly. Glowering, Bishop eyeballs him back. Under normal circumstances, he would stare anyone down. This time, however, he looks away after a few seconds. He crosses his arms, then, picturing how petulant he must look, decides to do something else with his hands. Picking out an arrow from his quiver, he starts running his fingers through its feathers. As he ignores Khelgar, it seems like minutes before the dwarf finally stops visually interrogating him. He stands. “Aye, ye can sit there and stew if ye like. I’m goin’ to go check up on Alya.” As Bishop continues to stroke the feathers on his arrow, his eyes follow the dwarf as he moves to Alya’s side. Bending down, Khelgar unscrews the lid of his canteen, then, tilting the monk’s head gently forward, tips some water into her mouth. Bishop cannot get over how frail and helpless she looks. He imagines her boundless energy, her nimble grace, her
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tinkling laugh – that pale, lifeless creature lying there just cannot be the same person. They have just used up the last of their healing supplies on her. No food, no water, no medicines – not a good outlook. “It’s like I said before,” Bishop starts in a low voice, as he fingers the tip of his arrow. “I don’t like being tied down.” Khelgar wipes some water that has splashed onto Alya’s chin. “Then why did ye come back?” Another spell of silence. Bishop presses down harder on his arrow tip, scowling into space. “Because I like being doomed in the Nine Hells with a nosy dwarf and a half-dead monk,” he sneers sarcastically. “At least I’ll die in good company.” “Have some faith, lad,” says Khelgar absent-mindedly, as he removes his gauntlets. With his hands free from their unwieldy armour, he moves aside the cloak they are using to cover Alya. Carefully lifting an edge of the bandages, he inspects her wound. “We’ve been through all sorts in the past. With the blessings of Clangeddin Silverbeard, we may pull through th-“ “Damn your Clanging Silverbutt!” Bishop interrupts angrily. “Lathander be damned, Tyr be damned…all the gods be damned!” A sting on his finger tells him he’s pressed down too hard on the arrow tip. “If the bloody gods cared we won’t be stuck here in the first place!” And Alya won’t be dying… “Whoa there, easy, ranger,” Khelgar says, raising his arms in defense. Then, as if reading Bishop’s mind, “If ye have no faith in the gods, then at least have faith in Alya.” He glances at the unconscious woman, as he tucks her bandages back into position. “Just checked the wound. It’s stopped bleedin’. Whatever that strip of rag is that ye put into her, it seems ta be workin’.” Bishop says nothing as he tries to hide the surge of hope he felt at Khelgar's words. Uneasily, he inspects his pierced finger as a spot of blood appears. He throws down the arrow in disgust. “Question time over, dwarf,” he says as he strides past Khelgar. “Let’s keep moving.” “Aye, all right, ranger.” He grunts as he gets to his feet. “But alas, I think I may have done me back in carrying her fer so long.” He groans, theatrically rubbing the small of his back. Then, he looks at Bishop with a knowing smile. “Could ye hold her for a bit?”
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Chapter 13 – The Canyon

They arrive at the edge of what looks like an immense canyon. The ground beneath their feet ends in jagged edges as it falls away into a bottomless abyss. The chasm is so wide, they cannot see the opposite side. It feels like they are standing on the edge of space itself, looking out into the nothingness beyond. Bishop stands well away from the brink, his arms protectively tightening around Alya. Well, he thinks, at least it’s a change of scenery. He was beginning to think that they were wandering around in circles; the bleak, barren wasteland was flat, rocky and unchanging up to this point. Khelgar chances a peek over the edge of the precipice and steps back, shaking his head of the effects of vertigo. “Now what?” he asks the ranger. Bishop opens his mouth, about to suggest they walk along the lip of ravine, but he is interrupted by a sudden growling coming up beside him. He ducks instinctively as a huge shadow sails over him, its sharp claws grazing the top of his scalp. “What in the –?“ Khelgar starts to say, already drawing his battleaxe. Before Bishop could even raise his head, he feels something charging him hard in the back. He stumbles forward, teetering dangerously close to the mouth of the crater. Stepping back quickly, he reels around to face their attackers. Hell hounds, a whole pack of them, form a semi-circle around Bishop and Khelgar, penning them in close to the edge of the sheer drop. Snarling, their razor-sharp fangs bared, their red eyes burn with an infernal light, and their breath reek of fire and brimstone. Their stooped shoulders are tense, and their pointed ears twitch in anticipation, ready to pounce. Bishop curses himself for having let them get ambushed in this way. Unwilling to set Alya down, he is unable to reach for his weapons.
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As if sensing his vulnerability, two of the hounds spring at him simultaneously. He turns his back to them, hunching over Alya, using his own body as a shield. They hit him with a force that knocks the air out of his lungs. Falling to his knees, he sprawls on the ground, his body on top of Alya’s, the two hell hounds on his back. He can feel their claws and teeth tearing into his leather armour, their breath singeing his hair. With his face close to the dirt, he sees the lanky legs of a few more hounds, circling their fallen prey. One of them cackles, and he smells the stench of its breath. Propping himself up on one elbow, he fumbles for his dagger with his other hand, and swings the blade wildly, slashing at the hell hounds’ legs. The searing pain in his back tells him that his armour has been breached, probably shredded; now they are digging through his flesh. A ball of fire breathed by one of the hounds causes him to curl up on top of Alya, protecting her. The acrid odour of his own scorched hair invades his nostrils. A furious war cry makes him peer up again. Chunky boots fill his field of vision as Khelgar drives the hounds back. A yelp from one of the animals on Bishop’s back tells him that the dwarf’s axe has found a target. A second howl of pain, and the pawing on his back stops mercifully. The dead hell hound falls beside him, its last breath escaping in a tendril of sulphurous smoke. With renewed vigour, Bishop hacks at the attacking hounds again from ground level. A well-timed upward swing sees his dagger embedded between the ribs of one of the hell hounds. It drops with a strangled yowl. Khelgar continues to swing his axe fervently, slicing into the pack of animals. With one final roar of bloodlust, the dwarf beheads the last standing hound. Its severed head rolls and stops inches away from Bishop’s face, its mouth still spewing noxious vapours. “Is she okay?” Khelgar asks. As Bishop staggers to his feet, his raked back burning, the dwarf picks up the unconscious woman, checking her for signs of injury. “Oh, she’s fine,” Bishop says sarcastically, wincing from his stinging wounds. He rolls a shoulder stiffly. “Ha!” Khelgar whoops triumphantly, as he surveys the carcasses littering the ground. “Those mutts will think twice now before tryin’ that on us again!” “Don’t speak too soon, dwarf,” Bishop warns. In the near distance, hidden behind rocks and dunes, he spies the red glow of more pairs of eyes, some of them gradually coming closer. Whipping out his bow, he
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fires an arrow in their direction, and sees some of the burning embers scatter, only to regroup moments later. “Move,” he tells the dwarf. * * *

“By the gods,” Khelgar exclaims. “It must’ve been hours! Are they still followin’ us?” Bishop glances over his shoulder. Like glowing coals, he sees the hell hounds’ eyes staring back at him. He has a dreadful feeling the creatures possess an infernal intelligence, and that they are tailing them, waiting until they inevitably need to stop and rest before striking again. The few scouts who dared venture too close were quickly driven back by Bishop’s arrows, but they are becoming bolder as their quarry begins to tire. To make things worse, because whoever carries Alya is basically unarmed and defenceless, they have had to stick together, which means Bishop had been unable to scout ahead. He dislikes the uncertainty of not knowing what lies before them. For all they know, they are fleeing from the hell hounds’ jaws, into… “Oh, great…” he sighs in an exasperated tone. A few hundred yards ahead of them, the edge of the canyon, which had been to their left all this time, suddenly veers directly into their path. As before, the chasm is so wide that they cannot see the other side. Their right is blocked by a wall of rock. The result: a path that tapers to a sheer drop off the edge of the cliff. Dead end… They turn around, hoping to retrace their steps before the pack of hell hounds catch up with them. But the creatures, as if recognizing their predicament, are already there, forming a barrier between them and their escape route. Fire dripping from their muzzle, they snarl as the pack begins to move towards them. “Damn!” Bishop swears, as he looses more arrows. But though a couple of the beasts are felled, the rest continue their relentless advance. Khelgar stands behind him, seemingly at a loss as to whether to risk setting Alya down to draw his weapon, when one of these hounds could easily drag her away given half a chance. As the pack of hell hounds slink ever closer, Bishop draws his twin blades in preparation for close-quarters combat. He counts the creatures. There are at least a score of them. Not good odds.
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Why couldn’t I have just walked away? Even as he thinks that fleeting thought, he feels no regrets for his decision. As certain death stares him in the face in the form of glowering eyes and sharp teeth, he gives a cry of fury, and rushes forward… Only to be stopped in his tracks by a wall of flames, a wall that suddenly shoots up out of the ground in front of him, cutting the rabid pack off from them. “Wha-?” he hears the dwarf say, just as a figure glides down from the wall above them. As it lands, both Bishop and Khelgar stare in disbelief. “You…” he says, his eyes narrowing. * * *

In her vast ocean of blackness, with vague recollections of the unpleasant experience she had the last time, Alya floats cautiously just beneath the surface of consciousness, not daring another attempt to break the surface. No thunder this time from the dim orb, but she hears voices, faintly familiar ones. “What are you doing here?” says a gruff, hearty voice with an animated accent. The sound is not unlike a heavy hammer striking rocks, and it is comforting in its familiarity. “Funny you would ask that,” A deep, resonant voice, with some slightly sinister undertones. The speaker sounds wise, and very, very old. “I was about to ask you the same question.” “Don’t play games with us,” A third voice, grating, menacing and filled with distrust, yet not unpleasant. “Where in the Nine Hells are we?” For a moment, her eavesdropping is interrupted as invisible arms wrap around her again, firm yet gentle, trying to coax her back into the deep nothingness. Wait, she thinks, as she shrugs off the dark tentacles. Not yet. She is intrigued by what is going on at the surface, and wants to hear more. Obligingly, the grip around her loosens. She moves carefully closer to the light, and catches another snippet of the ongoing conversation. “…she is dying,” the deep, old voice says.

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Who is dying? She thinks, curious and concerned. This time, the black snakes coil around her with increased urgency. So tender, so warm… she feels so safe in those arms, as if nothing could ever harm her, so long as she gives herself in to the dark embrace. Her curiosity forgotten, she allows the tendrils to carry her away from the surface, and back to the depths of sweet oblivion. * * * Bishop eyes the newcomer suspiciously. Red eyes set into a lined, grey-blue face stare back at him in that frustratingly calm and confident way only supreme baatezu are capable of. His draconic ears twitch slightly, as if listening to their every move. Mephasm… “What are you doing here?” Khelgar asks incredulously, still cradling Alya in his arms. Was that a flutter of her eyelids Bishop saw, or just the flicker of light from the wall of flames the devil had summoned? “Funny you would ask that,” the pit fiend replies, sounding genuinely amused. “I was about to ask you the same question.” “Don’t play games with us,” Bishop growls. He doesn’t trust the devil, not when he has so conveniently popped up in this gods-forsaken place. “Where in the Nine Hells are we?” He sees Khelgar tighten his hold on Alya warily. With an ironic smirk, Mephasm answers, “That is exactly where you are.” With a wave of a blue, wrinkled hand, he adds in his calculating tone, “Welcome to my humble home. This is Baator, the Nine Hells.” “Nine -?” Khelgar sputters disbelievingly, nearly letting go of Alya in his surprise. The Nine Hells… A shrill yip behind them makes Bishop glance around. The hell hounds are trying to breach the fiery barrier between them. “Your hospitality is most gracious, demon,” he says sarcastically, “perhaps now you could call off your welcoming party.” “Unfortunately,” says Mephasm, “I do not control those hell hounds before you. They hunt you of their own free will.” “They’ve been a bit more persistent than the average pack of wolves,” he comments, as he looks again at the hounds, pacing restlessly from one end of the wall of fire to the other.
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“That is because they detect the scent of fresh mortal blood,” the words send a chill down Bishop’s spine. “All the creatures here can smell it from miles around. In fact, it is what drew me here. The scent is very strong.” Both Bishop and Khelgar look down at Alya’s pale form, still wrapped protectively in the old cloak. Bishop pictures the wound that lies underneath the cloak and bandages, raw and jagged and deep…he remembers the hell hounds clawing at his back… They were trying to get through me to get to her. “I see our dear friend here has not fared very well,” Mephasm comments, nodding in the monk’s direction. Momentarily, he closes his eyes, as if probing, sensing. “She is dying,” he declares in a monotone. “No, she’s not!” Khelgar protests vehemently, clutching Alya closer, as if holding her tighter would make his words true. “Her wound has started ta heal –“ “But she will not survive in this plane,” Mephasm interrupts coldly. “The atmosphere here is…oppressive to those from the Material Plane.” As much as Bishop hates to admit it, he knows the pit fiend speaks the truth. The subtle life-sapping effect of the place is almost unnoticeable, but it is there, waiting for the slightest trace of vulnerability, before striking. He has felt traces of the bleakness, especially right after his earlier close call with those demon hounds. His mauled back protests painfully at the memory. “So…what can we do?” he asks cautiously, knowing the folly of asking a devil for advice. “You need to make haste to your own plane,” the baatezu says. “And I can assist you.” Bishop couldn’t believe his ears. A demon is offering to help them? “I don’t feel comfortable consortin’ with a demon,” Khelgar whispers, echoing his thoughts. His twin blades raised menacingly in front of him, Bishop asks warily, “And why would you do that for us?” The baatezu’s lip curls up in a sinister smile. “Such distrust,” he chides mildly. “Is it so hard to imagine that I would want to return the favour after your leader has released me not once, but twice, from servitude?”

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“Yes!” Bishop and Khelgar say in unison, prompting a blue eyebrow to cock up in amusement. “Well,” Mephasm shrugs, “I guess there is only one way of convincing you of my sincerity…” raising both arms, he summons a whirlwind of energy that tugs violently at Bishop’s cloak, stirring up dust and grit, forcing him to shield his eyes. Khelgar wraps the cloak tighter around Alya protectively as a tornado of dirt and supernatural energy swirls around them. When the sandstorm finally settles, a shining portal is formed at the end of their path, a few hundred yards away, right where their trail drops off into the canyon below. Uncertainly, Bishop looks at Khelgar. The same doubt and suspicion he is feeling is reflected in the dwarf’s eyes, along with a look that seems to say, “Only one way to find out…” Never have I agreed with the dwarf on so much until these past few days… “I have connected the portal to somewhere I sense you have a strong affinity to,” says the pit fiend. “You may use it now to return to your plane. But…” “I knew it!” cries Khelgar. “There’s always a catch!” “But as long as I am concentrating my powers on keeping the portal open,” Mephasm continues, unfazed by the dwarf’s outburst. “I will be unable to assist you against them…” As if on cue, the wall of flames that separated them from the hell hounds sputters out. The pack of dogs look momentarily confused with the disappearance of the blockade, but then, sniffing the air, they emit a cacophony of howls as they resume their hunt. “Run,” Bishop says, giving the dwarf a nudge. They dash for the gleaming portal, a couple of hundred yards before them, as Khelgar, in a stream of dwarven profanity, curses the fact that their exit lies so far away, no doubt intentionally, all part of the game they are being forced to play. Bishop stops every few yards to loose some arrows into the ever advancing pack of hell hounds, while waiting for the dwarf to catch up. Encumbered with the unconscious monk, Khelgar is even slower than usual. In an awful moment of realization, Bishop sees the distance between them and the hounds closing, yet the portal remains cruelly out of reach. And, true to his word, Mephasm just stands there, unable – or unwilling – to help, merely watching neutrally as the beasts stampede past him.
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“We won’t make it at this rate!” he yells, firing off another round of arrows. One of the hell hounds fall, but it is like felling a tree in a forest. The others keep coming. He chances a glance at the dwarf, who has stumbled to a stop behind him, a strange look on his stout face. Something about that look makes Bishop stop in mid-aim, an arrow fitted in his bow. The dwarf’s face is an unreadable mask, as if in a state of inward contemplation. Bishop was about to snap at him to come back to his senses, to stop standing there gawking, but there is something in his eyes that stays the ranger’s sharp tongue. Then, as if he has made a mental decision, a look of grim determination descends on the dwarf’s face. His jaw set in a tight line, he thrusts Alya into Bishop’s arms, forcing him to sling his bow uselessly on one arm. The glint in those mud brown eyes gives Bishop no room for argument. “Go,” the dwarf says, as he purposefully pulls off one of his gauntlets, leaving one hairy arm bare. With a steely glint in his eyes, the dwarf adds, “And yer best take care of her, else I’ll personally come after ye.” What in the hells does he think he is doing? Bishop wonders mutely, as Khelgar steps calmly towards the charging horde of hell hounds, his battleaxe drawn. It is only as Khelgar brings his axe slashing down on the inside of his own exposed upper arm that the horrible realization of what the dwarf is doing dawns on Bishop. “They detect the scent of fresh mortal blood…” “Come on!” He hears the dwarf taunting now, as blood spurts from his fresh cut. “Ye want a piece of me, dogs? Come get it!” The hell hounds pause briefly in their advance, their nostrils twitching. Then, a feral lust sets their eyes alight with an evil glow, as they smell the coppery tang of dwarven blood. Snarling and yipping, they converge on the shield dwarf, fangs gnashing. With a roar of fury, Khelgar hurls himself into the midst of the legion of demon hounds, his axe flashing wildly as he swings it around him. One of the creatures drops dead, nearly sundered in half by an especially strong cleave. Another clamps its fiendish jaws around the dwarf’s bleeding arm, but in his frenzy, the dwarf appears not to notice the huge dog dangling from his limb. For a split second, Khelgar turns away from the carnage to see Bishop still standing there dumbly with Alya in his arms. “GO!” his bellowing cry snaps the ranger into action. He starts to run down the narrowing path, towards the shifting portal at the end. With
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the monk cradled awkwardly in both arms, his progress is agonizingly slow, and a quick look behind him reveals that a hell hound has broken loose from the pack, and has started to chase them down, fiery slobber drooling from its immense jaws. “Damn!” he curses, as his backward glance causes him to stumble. Allowing his momentum to carry him on, he hurtles onward, fighting to keep his balance. It would be bad, very bad, to fall down now…the portal is just a few yards away. Somehow, he manages to free a hand temporarily to regain his equilibrium. A gnash of teeth directly behind him tells him that the hound is practically nipping at his heels. Despite his hunter’s fitness, he is fast tiring from the sprint with the load he is carrying. His lungs scream out for more air as his breath starts to come out in ragged gasps. Come on…he urges himself, the portal excruciatingly close now. With his last reserves of strength, he dives forward, headlong towards the shimmering gateway. In the instant both his feet leaves the ground, it dawns on him that behind this thin, almost two-dimensional circle of light, is the steep drop into the bottomless chasm. Let’s just hope that demon is not fooling with us… Everything seems to be happening in slow motion, as if the very air around them has suddenly turned into a thick, viscous liquid. Right before he hits the portal, he twists his body enough to look behind him. A snout lined with dagger-like fangs, dripping venom, dominates his view. Their pursuer had pounced the same time he had jumped, and is almost on top of them. He can smell its foul breath, feel the heat emanating from its hellish claws, claws that are reaching out dangerously close to him. Somehow, he has the presence of mind to look over the attacking hell hound’s broad shoulder. He watches the rest of the horde piling on top of each other in a frenzy as they descend on their prey. All he can make of the dwarf is his bald head, and a momentary glimmer of his axe. He hears Khelgar’s battle cry. Mephasm stands calmly on the sidelines, a disturbing look of entertainment on his blue grey face. As the bright aura of the portal surrounds them, Bishop shuts his eyes, and utters a silent prayer to any god who would heed him.

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Chapter 14 – Through Another Portal

The wind stirs the high grass, whistling a low, mournful dirge. The chirping of crickets and the croaking of bullfrogs join in a sweet, melancholy symphony that pierces the otherwise still night air. Something rustles in the trees, something unseen, but not unsmelt, by the shadowy figure illuminated by the light of the nearly full moon, as it skulks silently through the grass. Its well-trained nose detects the scent of guano, confirming the identity of the tree-dweller as a bat. A breeze blows through the grey wolf’s thick coarse fur as it lifts its muzzle to the wind, sniffing the air, its golden eyes shining with a hidden intelligence. It has been wandering since the day the human it knows as its master had left it, stepping through a strange sphere of light. The unnatural brilliance of the pulsing orb had made its hackles rise. Somehow, it had reminded the wolf of that dark shadow that was growing over the land, the one that made the dread in its belly escape in a puppy-like whimper. With its tail tucked between its legs, it had hesitated to accompany its master into the enveloping brightness. Strangely, the master had not commanded it to follow like he normally does, but rather, with a wistful scratch behind its ear, he had stepped into the light – and vanished. The sun had risen and set numerous times since he had disappeared, and the wolf had been roaming since, constantly trying to pick up the scent of its master – the smell of musk and forest pines, with a faint bittersweet tinge of sadness – somehow the master always seems sad, even when he doesn’t show it. The scary shadow looming over the trees had faded in time, encouraging the wolf to brave the deeper parts of the swampy woods. But the wolf had failed to detect even the slightest whiff of its human master. Until tonight. Earlier, the wolf’s senses had been prickling. Something was in the air, not a scent, but rather a feeling. The atmosphere practically crackled
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with it, and in was this unexplained energy that has drawn the wolf, guiding it here to this glade. The charge in the air grows stronger, and the wolf’s hairs stand on end. A flash in the horizon makes it flinch instinctively. It was not lightning, that much the beast knows. And suddenly, there it was – musk, pine, sorrow. A faint but distinct odour. It has picked up the master’s scent. Quickly yet silently, the wolf melts back into shadows, following the trail, one that appears to be leading towards the direction of that strange burst of light. * * *

Mephasm closes the portal as soon as the two mortals have plunged rather gracelessly into it. The hell hound that had pounced after them now finds itself sailing through where the shining gateway once was, but what is now thin air, before tumbling to its doom in the chasm below, its long, drawn out howl of terror bouncing repeatedly off the canyon walls. The pit fiend turns his attention back to the one remaining mortal on this plane. The shield dwarf is still beset by the ravenous pack of fiery hounds. Still swinging his weapon madly, the dwarf screams as he buries his axe into the neck of one of the beasts. He is covered in blood, a mixture of his and those he has slain. Having sampled the taste of dwarven blood, though, the remaining hell hounds are in a crazed frenzy, snarling, gnashing, tearing. And yet, despite the bleak odds, the dwarf fights on, seemingly oblivious to his own wounds. This greatly interests the baatezu. Oh, how he has been entertained today. He must admit, even he was surprised to find that half-elf here in Baator, although he did mention, the last time he had seen her in the Material Plane, that they would meet again. Still, he hadn’t expected to encounter her here, in the Nine Hells itself. He wonders at the mortals’ journey to arrive here. The actions of mortal men amuse and intrigue him so. It never ceases to amaze him what they would do in a desperate situation. It is interesting that, with some, their first response to an imminent doom is to save themselves at the expense of another mortal. Others, though, would throw away their own meagre lives if it meant another would survive.
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Such an odd thing to do. A yelp of pain from the mass of writhing bodies. The dwarf has claimed another victim. He is impressed; the little thing is strong for a mortal. He remembers that human female – what was her name? Shandra Jerro, that was it – who had bled herself dry to free him and the other baatezu and tanar’ri from their summoning circles, all for saving the lives of her companions, her “friends”, as she referred to them. Their lives are short and insignificant as it is. What could make one mortal sacrifice itself to save another? And then there was that human, all ready to throw himself to the hounds, had Mephasm not stepped in first. Yet the devil felt as he assessed the mortal that he was torn between self-preservation and saving the life of the half-elf. As the pit fiend dug deeper into his psyche, he discovers that the human conceals many strange feelings, feelings unfamiliar to the baatezu, and he senses that the mortal is tormented by the conflict between some of these emotions, many of which seem oddly centred on the wounded half-elf he carried. It seems to Mephasm that the human is practically bursting at the seams with emotion, yet he has built so many walls of lies around himself, that he himself could no longer distinguish the truths from the untruths. A battle within one’s own head? Such a fascinating notion. The human would be such a compelling specimen to observe. Yes, he will be keeping an eye on him. Apparently bored now, the baatezu melts into the surrounding air, just as the battling dwarf disappears under an overwhelming crush of blood-crazed hell hounds. All that can be heard in the still, stuffy atmosphere of this bleak plane, are the hungry growls of the hounds, accompanied by the sound of ripping and tearing. * * * The portal spits them out unceremoniously before vanishing in a blaze of energy. Landing in a heap of tangled arms and legs, Bishop promises himself that this was the last time he would step through another gods-damned magic portal. Still breathless from his earlier exertion, the heat and stench of the hell hound still in his nose, and with his guts reeling from their headspinning interplanar ride, Bishop lies where he landed for a moment, eyes shut, concentrating on taking deep breaths, on filling his lungs with much-needed air. Something refreshingly cool, fuzzy, and comfortingly familiar brushes against his face, and he recognises its moist, earthy scent.
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Grass. With that single, monosyllabic word, he opens his eyes, looking around him. Trees. Another brilliant observation. He moves to a sitting position, and glances up. Moon. Stars. Night. Three words that time. He is surpassing himself. Very good, Bishop. It is reassuring to see that you have retained your sharp wit and considerable mental capacity. An immense tidal wave of relief crashes over him, as he allows himself to fall backwards, sinking into the soft green carpet beneath him. The cool grass is a welcome familiarity after the horrors of the Outer Planes. As he instinctively re-attunes himself to his surroundings, he hears the cries of crickets and bullfrogs. Funny how he had always relegated them into the background noise of the forest. Until the suffocating silence they had to endure in Baator, he had never really appreciated those soothing rhythms. The sky above him is black, not that malevolent red he thought he would be seeing for the rest of his days. Tiny pin-points of light puncture the darkness like diamonds strewn on a black velvet cloth. The moon, not quite full, glows gently, the Tears of Selune drifting lazily beside it. “We’re back,” he sighs to no one in particular, his head nestled in the grass. A soft exhalation of breath makes him angle his head to the side. He had lain down right beside Alya, their feet pointed in opposite directions, resulting in an upside-down view. From this distance, he could see every feature on her delicate face, count every eyelash, every faint freckle on her nose. Her eyes are closed, her lips slightly parted. Close enough to – Stop it. Jumping up, he places two fingers on her neck. Her pulse, though still weak, is now regular, and he can see her breasts rise and fall with deep, level breaths. That Mephasm guy was right; the atmosphere in the Nine Hells had been impeding her recovery. Now that they are
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back in their own plane, it is like the metal chains that were constricting her chest have been broken; her face looks much more peaceful, the frown of pain between her eyebrows faded. Must find some healing supplies, he thinks, as he stands up, surveying their surroundings, trying to get his bearings. They seem to have been deposited in some clearing. The woods before him are dark and quiet. His trained eyes make out landmarks in the moonlight other people would have overlooked. The layout of the trees, the marks on some of their barks, the odd rotting stump… His brow wrinkles in a frown. He has been here before. Tilting his head, he sniffs the air. The swampy, slightly smoky scent is again familiar. Horribly familiar. Certain of what he would see, but still dreading visual confirmation, he slowly turns around. You. Must. Be. Kidding. Me. Mephasm’s words as he summoned the gateway flashes back in his mind. “I have connected the portal to somewhere I sense you have a strong affinity to.” He smirks, shaking his head. That blue devil has a sense of humour. At least Bishop knows exactly where they are. He looks down at Alya’s unconscious form. She almost looks as if she could just be sleeping. Suddenly, Bishop almost misses Khelgar. At least with him around, one of them could carry Alya while the other acted as protector. Without the dwarf, or someone else, it would be madness stumbling through the forest with an armload of half-elf, unable to reach for his weapons. They would have to stay put until she heals. As he sets to work gathering firewood for the night, he appraises his surroundings again. This would make for a very interesting conversation when she wakes.

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Chapter 15 – A Rude Awakening

The light filtering through her eyelids is bright, painfully bright, and it only serves to aggravate the pounding in her brain. Screwing her eyes shut, she turns her head, hoping that she is tilting it away from the source of the glare. She doesn’t know what day it is, what time it is, nor does she care. All she knows is that this cursed light is really giving her a headache. Just moments ago she was swimming in such a comforting sea of darkness. Then, an odd glowing ball had appeared, and the shadows started to evaporate all around her, as if being burned away by the searing light, leaving her stranded, like a fish out of water, helplessly exposed to this infernal glare. Gods, how her head hurts. It feels like Khelgar had been using her skull as an anvil. She hopes he hadn’t spiked her water with ale just to get her drunk. Not that she wouldn’t have noticed… Is this what a hangover feels like? Groggily, her mind tries to suggest that perhaps it is morning and she should best be waking up. Five more minutes…she tries to curl up into a ball. Ow! A sharp finger prods her upper arm, in the same way Daeghun used to poke her as a child when she found it difficult to get out of bed. Irritably, she cracks one eye open, and just as quickly snaps it back shut. OoOoh…The light is dazzling. The throbbing in her head intensifies.
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Then, mercifully, the brightness is eclipsed slightly. Thankful for whatever is responsible for the dimming of the light, she cautiously opens her eyes again. It takes a moment for them to focus, and when they do, she sees the dark silhouette of a head framed by a blue sky, the blotted out light radiating around it like an angel’s halo. “Casavir?” she croaks, surprising herself with how raspy her voice sounded. It sounds like some rusty, old machinery that needs oiling. “No,” the floating head snarls. The tone is harsh, derisive. Definitely not Casavir. As her eyes adjust further, the head starts to develop facial features. Short, unkempt brown hair…firm, strong jaw peppered with a shadow of stubble…lips curved downwards at the corners…a slightly dented nose, as if recently broken…eyebrows furrowed in a scowl… The last thing that comes into focus is the eyes. Animal eyes, liquid brown with a tint of yellow, like staring into the eyes of a wolf. Once all the features have formed, she sees the mouth curl up in a sardonic grin. “Welcome back to the living, monk,” the mocking voice says. This time, recognition registers somewhere in her pulsating brain. Oh, it’s you… Familiarity breeds contempt, and all that… The head moves closer, shifting its position above her in the process, allowing light to shine in her eyes once more. She winces. A gloved hand comes close to her face and starts moving…up…down…up… down…sending light and shadows dancing across her vision. She feels some motion sickness coming on, and tries to bat the offending hand away, but her arm refuses to budge. Annoyed, she turns her face away with a low growl. She hears a cruel snicker. “Not much of a morning person, are you?” She ignores him as she tries to regain full use of her mental faculties. What had she been doing to deserve such a bad headache? As the fog slowly lifts off her mind, snatches of memories begin to return. Oddly, many of them appear to revolve around savage little green men. In fact, the last thing she remembers is one such individual, a particularly nasty one, doing something to her, something unspeakably painful… It was ripping my heart out…
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In her dazed and confused state, she shoots up to a sitting position, expecting to see the githyanki still surrounding them. Bad idea. Two things happen at the same time: her sudden movement gives her a head rush, causing the world to tilt and spin all around her, and a sharp, hot pain seizes her chest, as if someone had impaled her with a branding iron fresh from the furnace. Clutching her front, she lets out a strangled cry as she pitches to the side. Strong arms grab her shoulders and ease her back to a reclining position. “What in the hells are you trying to do, get yourself killed all over again?” she hears the harsh voice reprimanding her, hands pinning her down firmly. “Gith…” was all she manages to utter from behind the haze of pain and dizziness. A sardonic laugh. “Do you think I’ll be sitting here lounging if those githyanki scum were still here?” As her world stops spinning and the pain in her chest fades to a duller, more perpetual ache, it suddenly dawns on her that the sky is no longer an angry crimson, but a light cornflower blue. The naturalness of the colour is probably what made it slip her notice earlier. “Wh-where…?” He confirms her half-formed thought. “Back on our own plane, finally. Thought you would pick up on that sooner or later.” The hands that were pinning her down eases off her shoulders. She tries to prop herself up on an elbow, and fails miserably. She hates how weak she feels. Gods, she can’t even lift her head. “How…?” What else did the githyanki take, her tongue? Parts of her brain? “With the help of an old friend,” comes the mysterious reply. She waits for an elaboration but receives none. Nevertheless, the fact that they managed to leave the Outer Planes was enough to make her sag in relief. She feels him tuck a hand under her head to lift it, putting the open mouth of a canteen to her lips. Only after the first sip, when the sweet, cool water stings the parched cracks on her lips, does she realise that she is thirsty, very thirsty.
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Hungrily, she tries to take deeper gulps, but he pulls the canteen away. “Slow down there,” he says gruffly, as he sets her head back down. “Any more and you’ll be sick.” He screws the lid back on the flask and gets up. She watches him busy himself over a fire, his back to her. As her clouded mind clears bit by bit, she attempts a longer sentence – two words long, in fact: “How long…?” “…had your lights been out?” his back still turned, he finishes the question for her. The ranger must be psychic. “Days, maybe even a week.” That long? She muses. That’s the longest she’s ever been out cold. Well, she’s only been knocked unconscious twice before this. The first time was when she fell out of that huge oak tree in Retta Starling’s farm, when she was playing with Bevil. She had awoken a few minutes later with nothing more than a bump on the head and a dislocated shoulder. The second time I passed out… She shudders involuntarily and pushes that vision back into the darkest corners of her mind, but in doing so, she seems to have triggered a whole flood of other painful memories. The one of Casavir, and of Bishop’s treachery, hits her the hardest. As Bishop turns around, she suddenly remembers that she is supposed to be mad with him. “Are you happy where you are, or would you prefer to look at things above boot level?” She clams her mouth shut, not wanting to speak further with him, not wanting any of his help. But the rising sun is now directly in her eyes, the rays hammering holes into her head. And to be frank, she is getting tired of being in a supine position. Squinting, she gives a weak nod. He picks her up, blanket and all, in one smooth motion. He is strong, she has to hand that to him, though in a very different way from Casavir. Where the paladin is sturdy and powerfully built, the ranger is lean but sinewy. Not scrawny, though, oh no; the muscles in his arms and chest are hard and rippling as he carries her to the shade of a tree.
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The sinuous flexing reminds her of a python curling itself around her – sleek, beautiful, dangerous… She feels the bark of a tree scratch her back – her bare back? At that moment, her makeshift blanket falls off a shoulder. She gives a little squeal as she quickly crosses her arms around her chest. Oh, that must have sounded so dignified… Bishop is looking at her, his wolf eyes gleaming with amusement, a sneer on his face. With one arm still across her breasts, she gropes for the blanket with the other, and quickly ducks behind it, leaving only her head showing. “A little too late for that, girl,” he purrs, “You’ve been half-naked for days already.” As he looks at her, his expression changes, his smirk slowly turning into a frown. Something in her eyes, the way her breath suddenly catches, her horrified gape, must have told him that she is feeling something more than just plain outrage. “Don’t flatter yourself,” he says curtly. “Bloody and pale is hardly a combination that turns me on.” And despite the fact that this is Bishop talking, something in his tone convinces Alya that he is telling the truth, and she relaxes slightly. The ranger turns his back again, minding the fire, apparently no longer interested in a conversation, which is fine by her. Left alone for now, she surreptitiously lifts an edge of the blanket, and peeks underneath to assess her wound. It seems to have been cleaned and bandaged neatly enough. It still throbs with a dull ache, but the pain is nothing compared to what it was like before. Tentatively, she hooks a finger under the bandages and lifts it slightly. A whiff of something pungent and bitter hits her. All she sees is a mass of pasty, greenish-black mush. Eew… “I won’t suggest you delve any deeper,” Bishop warns, as he carelessly drops a small wooden bowl down beside her, causing its contents to slosh over the edge. “Not before lunch, at least; it ain’t pretty.” She retracts her probing digit, some of the slimy muck now clinging to it. She sniffs at it, makes a face, then, holding up her stained finger, looks at the ranger quizzically. “Be thankful I was…well-acquainted…with a rather friendly druidess, who taught me the tricks of her trade,” he says, his words dripping
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with all sorts of innuendo. “Herbs are so much more easier to find in the middle of a forest than bottles of healing potions.” With that, he nudges the wooden bowl with a foot. It contains what looks to be shreds of some unidentifiable meat floating in water. “Watered-down meat drippings,” the ranger states matter-of-factly. “Doubt you’re ready for solid food yet.” Wiping the herbal poultice off her hands, she picks the bowl up. The slightly greasy smell of the soup gives her a wave of nausea. If there was anything in her stomach to begin with, it would have gotten mixed with her lunch in the bowl. Instead, she merely gagged, and put the food back down. Bishop appears unconcerned with her rejection, and is happily tucking into what looks like a pheasant roasting over the fire. As she watches him eat, she wishes Khelgar was there; she has so many more questions she wants to ask, about what happened, how they got here… Khelgar… It occurs to her that she hasn’t seen him since she woke up. She glances around their campsite. No signs of the dwarf. Odd…where could he be? “Bishop…” she starts reluctantly. “Where’s Khelgar?” The back of her mind congratulates her on the longest sentence she’s said so far. The ranger stops, a pheasant drumstick halfway to his lips. He doesn’t answer, but the slight tensing in his shoulders and the shadow that falls over his eyes speak volumes. “No,” she whispers, as dread builds in the pit of her stomach. “What have you done to him?” What she had really wanted to ask was: How did it happen? But apparently her brain finds it more convenient to blame the ranger. Bishop’s shoulders appear to get even more rigid. “What did I do?” he repeats, his tone measured, cold. Slowly, menacingly, he turns to face her. “What did I do? Perhaps a better question would’ve been: what did you do to him?” He steps towards her threateningly. “What did you do to make him hurl himself into a pack of rabid hell hounds, just to throw them off your scent? In fact, what did you do to everyone, to make them willing to march to their deaths, for you?” His voice is rising, and he is gesturing with the half-eaten peasant drumstick, waving it in her face. Under any other circumstance, she
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would have found that more than a bit comical, but the fires behind the ranger’s eyes bear no humour in them. He has never seen him so uncontrollably angry, and much as she hates to admit it, it frightens her. “It’s your fault they’re all dead, Alya!” He is shouting now. “Before you start throwing blame around, I suggest you take a look at yourself first!” Throwing the remains of the drumstick into the fire in disgust, he storms off into the trees. Alya sits there alone, in mute shock, before drawing her knees up and hugging them to her chest, rocking herself slightly on her haunches. Then she begins to weep.

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Chapter 16 – Reunion

Bishop crashes through the undergrowth, not caring who or what could hear him. Woes betide any man or creature that would dare stand in his path at the moment. His mind is seething, her words of accusation burning into him like a brand. “What have you done to him?” It had come out so quickly, so naturally. Blame the ranger, he can’t be trusted. That’s what it said to him. In fact, that’s what most people have been saying about him all his life. Not that he has ever cared. So why am I so mad now? He stumbles to a stop at a pebbly riverbank. Picking up a smooth stone, he hurls it with all his might into the running water. With a loud splash, the stone disappears under a wave of ever-growing ripples. He throws another stone, and another, grunting with exertion each time, directing his fury towards a more palpable act. After his energy is expended, he sits on a fallen log, elbows propped on his knees, and he puts his head in his hands. Is he angry with her or with himself? It infuriates him that he doesn’t even know that. The words he had screamed at her echoes in his mind. “What did you do to everyone, to make them willing to march to their deaths, for you?” Including myself? Stop it, he tells himself, as he feels the uncontrollable tightening around his heart, the feeling he has sought to avoid all these years.

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The last time his heart strings had felt so stretched and taut, was with Calyx… No! He grits his teeth, banishing the dark memories that threaten to invade his consciousness. The last time he had allowed himself to think with his heart, it did not end well. Just like it’s not going well now… Would it be so hard to just walk away, right now? After all, he has done more than enough for her already; literally bringing her back from the Nine Hells...his debt to Duncan must be more than repaid. Just walk away… He pictures her leaning against the tree trunk, his cloak wrapped around her, her dark auburn hair tousled, making her look so much smaller, like a lost little girl. She has lost so much weight, her high cheekbones are sunken, her normal healthy glow pallid, her deep green eyes ringed with shadow. So helpless and vulnerable… He exhales loudly as he repeats an old mantra in his head. Those who cannot survive do not deserve to live… It is the way of the world, isn’t it? And the only way to survive is to fight, and to rely on no one else but yourself… He has learned that the hard way…she might as well do the same… A long, low howl snaps his head out of his hands. He could recognise that cry anywhere. Can it be…? Bringing his thumb and forefinger to each corner of his mouth, he blows a high-pitched whistle. The answering call brings an involuntary smile to his face. Moments later, a massive shadow lunges out at him from the trees, hitting him so hard that he is nearly bowled over. A muzzle full of sharp teeth hovers perilously close to his neck, before a pink tongue shoots out and starts licking him all over his face. “Hey, boy,” he laughs, as he tries to get the grey wolf off him. He manages to pull the excited wolf away from his face long enough to
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ruffle its thick mane with both hands. Karnwyr is panting, his tongue lolling out, his mouth open in a huge dog grin. His coarse fur is a little matted, dried mud, leaves and twigs entwined in it, as if he had been travelling for some time without stopping to groom. “How’d you find me?” he asks in wonder, more to himself than to the wolf, who has started to run around him in circles, leaping and bounding, making playful puppy calls. He has never seen the normally calm, silent creature do that since he was a mere cub. He had been tailing a couple of Luskan trappers for a few days when they came across a lone wolf’s den. From his hiding place among the trees, he had watched the men cornering the female wolf, who happened to have a litter of cubs, barely old enough to run. She was the magnificent colour of black ebony, a shade so abnormal it was probably why she was shunned by other wolves. Her golden eyes blazed as she bared her fangs at the intruders. One of the men commented that he needs a fur vest for the coming winter. As the shewolf shielded her litter, growling protectively, they took her down with arrows, being careful not to put too many holes into the prized pelt. Her cubs, all of them them grey-coated like normal wolves, scattered as soon as their mother fell, scampering away pathetically, no doubt to certain deaths in the unforgiving forest. All except one. Bishop had watched with interest and amusement as the little thing stood between the trappers and his mother’s body, all ten inches of him bristling, snarling in a high puppy-like voice. When one of the Luskans laughed and reached for the black she-wolf’s carcass, the cub lashed out, clamping his tiny jaws around the man’s hand. To Bishop’s admiration, he actually took a small chunk out of it. The wolf cub received an angry kick for his troubles that sent him flying. As he lay stunned, one of the Luskans started working on the she-wolf’s carcass, while the other, still nursing his bleeding hand, strode over to the puppy, put a hard foot over his skull, and started pressing down, slowly. Instead of terrified yelps and whimpers of pain, Bishop heard the cub continue to growl viciously, as he squirmed and fought the crushing boot. That was when Bishop put an arrow through the back of the man’s head. The second hunter fell soon after in a similar fashion. As the ranger set to work looting the dead bodies, the cub had watched him silently, warily. When he tried to inspect the animal’s injuries, he received a nip for his efforts, not hard enough to draw blood, but enough to serve as a warning. As Bishop left the area, the
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cub followed from afar, limping. When he set up camp that night, he could see a pair of yellow eyes glowing in the dark, watching him. He left some scraps of food out. They were gone the next day. For weeks, they went through the same routine, an unspoken truce between them, until the young wolf’s wounds healed by their own accord. Then, one day, Bishop was on the road when a low growl behind him makes him turn, just in time to see the wolf diving into a copse of trees. He followed, and found the juvenile creature attacking a man. His clothing marks him as a Luskan assassin, a very high level one, apparently, as he was stealthy enough that Bishop did not detect his presence. His cover blown, the assassin was dispatched quickly, but not before he managed to stick a dagger into the wolf’s shoulder. Further investigation of the man’s corpse turned up a handful of poison-tipped bolts, no doubt with Bishop’s name on them. This time, the wolf had allowed Bishop to treat his wound, and from that day on, the beast no longer trailed behind him on his journeys, but travelled alongside him. Oh, how Duncan had balked the first time he returned to the Flagon with a wolf on his heels, sending his other customers jumping onto their tables. Those who cannot survive do not deserve to live. That was what drew Bishop to Karnwyr. They are both survivors. If he were forced to place his life into someone’s hands, he would place it into the wolf’s paws. Again, he remembers how the young cub had so fearlessly defended his dead mother, fighting so fiercely for a hopeless cause, even as the Luskan’s boot threatened to crush his skull. With a stab of guilt, he recalls how he had once told Alya that their battle against the King of Shadows was a hopeless cause. Who are you to say that she is not a survivor? A voice inside his head scolds. He thinks about all she has gone through: the githyanki attacks, the loss of her home village, the death of close friends. If there is anyone who deserves a little help getting out from under a crushing boot, it’s her. Fine, he concedes to himself. He would wait for her to heal up before sending her on her way, even out the odds a little before he leaves her in the woods. Karnwyr jumps on him again for another barrage of licking. This time, he lets the wolf slobber all over his face, as he affectionately rubs its fur. He is glad to see the wolf again. The last time he saw Karnwyr, it was right after he had sabotaged the gates of Crossroads Keep. He was
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stepping through a portal that would take him into Garius’ lair, when he noticed that the wolf’s hackles were raised, his tail between his legs. The portal was not natural magic, and so the wolf was rightly reluctant to step into the strange light. Not knowing what he would find in the dark fortress, nor what would happen to him, he had not wanted to force the wolf to accompany him to an uncertain fate. With that, he merely petted the grey head, and left. And now, somehow, he has managed to track him down. If Bishop ever had a friend, Karnwyr is as close to one as it gets. An overly enthusiastic pounce tilts Bishop back too much, and this time he does topple over the log, with the excited wolf on top of him, his grey tail wagging. Craning his neck to one side, with Karnwyr lapping away at him with his tongue, he couldn’t help but laugh. And then he sees her standing there, his cloak encircled around her protectively, one hand on the trunk of a tree for support. She looks at him, in his prone position, Karnwyr drooling all over his face, and her green eyes grow so wide they look like they are about to pop out of her head. Aww…crap…

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Chapter 17 – Shocking Discoveries

She watches dumbly as he pushes the wolf off himself and scrambles quickly to his feet. He glares at her, and she could see the consternation in his eyes. The wolf, wanting to play some more, jumps up on its hind legs, and plants its front paws on his chest, tail wagging. Bishop shoves it roughly away. Playtime is over. “What are you doing here?” he demands, trying to sound angry, but she detects his visible discomfiture at being caught out of character. Was she hallucinating? Had Bishop actually been laughing? “I…” she starts, but the scene has thrown her. She had been rehearsing an apology as she tracked him to the riverbank, finally settling on one that she thought sounded contrite enough without seeming like admitting defeat. One of those I’m-sorry-for-what-I-saidbut-I-still-don’t-trust-you apologies. But when she saw the normally surly ranger rolling about on the grass with a huge wolf, like a boy with a pet dog, as if they did not have a care in the world…by the way, where did the wolf come from? How did it find them? Well, there goes the carefully prepared speech. What was it again? I remember it was quite clever and diplomatic… His arms crossed, Bishop raises an eyebrow expectantly, waiting, his eyes boring into her. Oh, to hells with it… “Sorry,” she mumbles. There, that wasn’t so bad. Nice and vague, could even just be an apology for catching him in a compromising posi–
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Now both eyebrows are up, and his head cocks slightly. “Sorry for…?” his expression seems to say, forcing her to elaborate. All traces of laughter gone, Bishop is, well, Bishop, again. Damn him. “…for what I said earlier,” she finishes quietly, reluctantly, and instead of looking at him, she stares at the wolf beside him. “Hmph,” the ranger grunts, as he brushes past her, the wolf at his heels. “Hmph”? She thinks. That’s it?? Well, what was she really expecting from him, anyway? “No, Alya, I’m sorry for yelling at you like that. What I said was unfair to you and I didn’t mean it…” would have been nice. She turns to look at Bishop, who has already walked partway up the trail towards camp. As if it were an afterthought, he turns back to her and says, “You shouldn’t be up and about so soon. You’ll keel over.” “I’m fine.” That, from someone leaning against a tree trunk for support. She looks at the rippling stream. “I’d like to take a bath, actually. I stink.” He snorts disdainfully. “You’re about as steady now as Khelgar after a barrel of ale.” She winces at his off-handed remark about her lost friend. “After surviving the Nine Hells, it would be a shame if you ended up drowned in a brook.” Snapping his fingers at the wolf, he jerks a thumb at her. In response, the beast starts padding toward her. Uncertainly, she takes a stumbling step back. “Take him with you,” he says, “he’ll drag you out if you fall in.” Before Alya even has a chance to protest, he is gone. Warily, she eyes the impressive-looking grey wolf now sitting patiently beside her. It returns her stare, and she couldn’t help but marvel at how Bishop’s eyes look so much like the animal’s. Sometimes, she thinks the ranger is more beast than human. As she takes a tentative step forward, the wolf runs ahead. Leading the way, it lopes down towards the river, turning every so often to watch her following unsteadily behind, grabbing every tree she passes to help her balance. It isn’t long before she runs out of trees.
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There is still a good few yards to the river, and her world is still swaying to the rhythm of her pounding head, but Alya is determined to make it there on her own. Taking slow, shuffling steps, she waddles her way closer, while the wolf sits and observes patiently near the water. The terrain under her feet changes from grass and dirt to pebbles as she nears the stream, which lies at the bottom of a gentle incline. Suddenly, she feels the small stones give way beneath her. Arms flailing, she lands heavily on her bottom and slides a couple of feet down the bank. Ow…she rubs her sore bum while simultaneously extracting the pebbles lodged into it. My pride hurts… At least it’s gotten her closer to the river… She tries to stand, but the impact has further jarred her brain. She can’t seem to get any traction from the shifting pebbles. Cursing under her breath, she starts to push herself forward, sliding slowly along the pebbly shore on hands, feet and butt, the cloak that was wrapped around her now hanging loose as it trails behind her. So much for dignity…I’m glad Bishop’s not here… A cold nose nudges her bare shoulder, then the wolf squirms its head under her hand until her arm rests around the animal’s shoulders. It looks at her again with its eerily intelligent eyes. It’s not like she has never directly interacted with the wolf before; through their travels, there has been the odd pat on the head or scratch behind the ear, but they were always rather civil affairs, as if the creature were too polite to protest her advances. And now she’s relying on it to stay on her feet. I feel like such an invalid… The wolf doesn’t seem to notice her weight as she uses its back as leverage to stand herself up again. Being a mere five feet tall, she is short enough that she doesn’t need to bend at the waist to hold on to the wolf. Leaning on the wolf’s firm, strong shoulders for support, she finally makes it to the edge of the river, and then, gathering up the cloak so that it doesn’t get wet, she lets the wolf help her wade into the crystal clear waters. Finding a cluster of raised boulders, she leaves the cloak neatly folded on a rock while she sits on another, her feet dangling ankle deep in the
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current. She stays there a while, her eyes closed, letting the gurgling waters wash away the tightness in her muscles and the soreness in her head. Then, scooping a handful of water, she splashes her face, savouring the cool, clean pureness. Something soft lands on her lap. A piece of rag. Covering herself protectively, she whirls to find Bishop standing right at the water’s edge. “Use that to scrub yourself,” he says, hardly looking at her, as he disappears again towards the direction of the camp. “Oh, and don’t get your bandages wet.” Gods, she hates how he can sneak up on her so easily. She waits a few minutes, and when she is sure the ranger isn’t coming back again, she starts to undo the laces on her trousers. She has the waistband down to her hips before she stops. The wolf continues to gaze at her intently. “You’re…” and instantly she feels silly for talking to an animal. “You’re going to look away, right?” In response, the wolf sits down, just out of reach of the lapping waves, its magnificent amber eyes not leaving her. With an awkward shrug, she pulls her pants all the way down. * * *

From his vantage point in the shadows of the trees, he watches as she starts to untie her cords on her trousers. When she hesitates before pulling them off, looking uncertainly at the wolf, he has to suppress a chuckle. But when it becomes obvious that the breeches are definitely about to come off, he turns away and trudges back towards camp. It’s not like he’s never spied on her bathing before. Hells, he’s seen all their female companions in the nude: the tree-hugger, the farm girl, that annoying sorceress brat, even that icy-cold keep lieutenant, Kana. He must admit that the goat-girl had a nice pert ass attached to that tail… He’s ogled at Alya naked in a stream a couple of times at the beginning of their travels, and he’s definitely liked what he saw. But since then, he’s felt oddly uncomfortable spying on her that way. As he got to know her, it’s as if he feels that she deserves better than to be a mere object of perverse entertainment. What a time to develop some stupid self-righteous notion of morality.
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In his hidden niche, he had observed as she stumbled from tree to tree as she made her way to the river. His heart had given a piteous tug when he saw her fall, and it took all his willpower to keep him from running over to help her, especially when she started dragging herself forward the way she did, after having trouble getting back up. He is glad he got Karnwyr to accompany her. Such stubbornness. Most people would have given up on the idea of a bath. Plus, if she had moped around camp and acted pitiful enough, he probably would have caved in and brought her a washing basin anyway. Tossing a piece of kindling into the fire, Bishop smirks. That’s about the only thing they both have in common: they don’t like asking for help. The rustle of grass tells Bishop that she is done with her wash, and is on her way back to camp. Her movements sound slow, erratic. All her exertions today must have really tired her out. He listens as she shuffles up the path… …another rustle tells him that she has veered off it. Guess her brain’s still not fully back in gear yet, Bishop sighs as he starts moving toward the sound of her footfalls, intent on guiding her back to camp before she gets herself lost. Suddenly, he hears her stop moving. And Bishop realises which path she may have accidentally taken. He finds her standing in a clearing, one hand leaning against Karnwyr for support, her eyes fixed on the scene before her. The charred hollow shells of what could once have been houses jut out of the ground like jagged black teeth. The crumbling structures of wood and stone are arranged in a rough circle, and in its centre stands an old collapsed well. Although the forest appears to have reclaimed most of the area – the ruins are overgrown with mosses and plants – the smell of ashes still hangs in the air like a constant grim reminder of what transpired here. It is the burnt remains of an entire village. “Bishop,” she asks him now. “What is this place?” The flash of hesitation in his eyes tells her all she needs to know.
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Chapter 18 – What Lies Within

Her eyes dart between the torched village and the ranger. “Is it…?” she begins, even as realisation dawns on her face. No point in lying, is there? He tells himself. Her sleep-clogged mind has apparently sharpened up enough to make the connection. “My village?” he finishes her question. “Yeah.” “Why are we here?” she asks as she continues to examine the gutted houses. “Don’t ask me that,” he shrugs. “Ask your blue devil friend.” He sees the look of utter puzzlement on her face. Oh, right…forgot to mention that, did I? “Did…did you really…?” And here we go…he knew she would find out sooner or later, but somehow he doesn’t fancy confessing his deeds in the middle of the scene of his crime. Just standing there makes Bishop uneasy, as if the burnt out ruins have eyes that are glaring at him accusingly… “Let’s talk about this over dinner, shall we?” he suggests, as he leads the way back to camp. * * *

Alya sits by the fire, staring into the flames, feeling physically tired but not sleepy. If Bishop was right, that she had been out for nearly a week, she’s probably slept enough to last herself a while anyway. At the moment, her mind is buzzing, not just with all that Bishop had told her, but with many unanswered questions as well. The wooden bowl
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beside her is half empty. She had managed to stomach a bit of the meat drippings and kept it down, which must be a good sign. Absent-mindedly, she rubs Karnwyr’s head as the wolf lies beside her. They are alone at the camp. Bishop had just got up and left after finishing off the rest of his pheasant, no doubt sick of all the questions she’s been asking him. Credit to him, he did answer most of her queries honestly enough, which is more than she had expected of him. Redfallows Watch. It’s a village reclaimed by the swamp. She can’t believe Bishop is from the Mere. All his talk about being in the Luskan army, she wouldn’t have thought they were practically neighbours. Alya pokes at the fire with a stick, stirring up tiny sparks that flutter up like fireflies before fading into the night. She recalls what Bishop said, about how a band of Luskans had raided their village and had kidnapped him as a child. They were the ones who had forced him into Luskan service. With all the stories she has heard about the training tactics of the Luskan army, no doubt it must have been a hard time for a young boy. She tries to picture what it would have been like, if she were snatched away from West Harbour, and forced to fight for a cause she does not believe in, being beaten and tortured if she would not or could not follow orders. She imagines being put in the front line of a battle, the first ones to clash with the enemy, the first ones to attract the hail of arrows… The first ones to die. And if you don’t die, you’ll just have to do it over and over again…until you do. She shudders at the thought. It almost makes her feel sorry for the ranger. Okay, it does make her feel sorry for him. But to slaughter his entire home village for revenge? For sure, she understands why the ranger has such a cynical take on life now. She can also understand his utter hatred for all things Luskan. She can even understand Bishop resenting the villagers, resenting his own father, for not standing up to their attackers, for not trying to save him. She remembers how she had resented her village elders, when… Let’s just stick to Bishop’s problems, shall we? Fine, so he’s upset with his village…
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But does that justify burning down an entire community? And if he wanted revenge, why had he tried to warn the villagers about the fire? Unfortunately, it was at this stage of her questioning that Bishop suddenly became evasive and agitated. Soon after that, without giving any sign of where he was going, he had left. Alya looks up at the moon. It is high in the night sky. Bishop has still not returned. Not that she is waiting up for him. She might as well turn in. Standing up slowly, she rolls up the sleeves of the shirt she is wearing. It is one of Bishop’s, so naturally the sleeves are too long for her, and the hem hangs well past her thighs, but it sure beats walking around in just a cloak. Plus, the shirt has a nice scent, but she tries not to think about that. She eases herself into the bedroll Bishop has loaned her, and pulls the blanket up to her chin. Karnwyr strolls over to her side and sits up straight, his pink tongue sticking out. Apparently he has been given orders to guard her while the ranger is away. She strokes the creature’s thick coat. She’s always been fond of animals, and she must admit, she enjoys the wolf’s company, far more than she enjoys the ranger’s. With the comforting feel of Karnwyr’s coarse fur under her hand, she shuts her eyes… * * *

The wolf watches the sleeping form beside him. He can still smell the coppery tang of her wound, although it has begun to heal. Normally, the smell of blood makes him hungry for flesh, but the master does not seem to want this one to come to any harm. He is glad he has found the master again, and the master did appear happy to see him, too. As they played together at the riverbank, he could hardly smell the sorrow that his master normally exudes, and it made him happier. It is an odd thing, that scent of sadness. Its intensity seems to change at times, and, the wolf has noticed, especially when the master is around this woman. He cannot understand it. The hand on his haunch moves as the sleeping woman turns in her sleep. Craning his neck, the wolf leans over to sniff her fingers. If he is to guard her, he should identify her smell. His sensitive nose picks up
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an earthy soft sweetness…an undertone of spiciness…and, well concealed beneath everything else, the slightest hint of fear. What could she be afraid of? He remembers travelling with the woman before. She has faced down many things that most humanoids would perceive as scary, that he has been scared of. Yet she seems to be hiding a fear of something... The wolf snorts as he puts his head on his paws. Perhaps he will find out what is frightening her soon, or perhaps, like the master’s sadness, he will never know… * * *

Bishop never came back that night – or the following night, and the one after that. If it hadn’t been for the fact that Karnwyr is still around, Alya would have thought that the ranger had just up and left her in the woods. But the wolf is still here, and if anything, he seems to be warming up to her. He’s even started to wag his tail when she pets him. So if he hasn’t deserted us, where could he be? Alya feels a brief, unexplainable twinge of concern for the missing ranger, and promptly shrugs it off. If she should worry about anyone in these woods, it would be whoever is unlucky enough to run into Bishop. That said, he seems to have left the camp quite well-stocked. A full canteen if water, a string of smoking meat, more leftover drippings – there is even a pile of animal bones in a corner for Karnwyr. Despite her opinions of the man, she couldn’t help but feel a little grateful that he’s hung around long enough for her to wake up. Perhaps he does have a conscience after all. She is recovering slowly; the headaches and wooziness have gone, and she doesn’t even feel her chest wound if she tries not to think about it. She’s still stumbling around on rubbery legs like a baby taking its first steps, yet as much as it annoys her how weak she is, she is sure that her strength, too, will return in time. But Gods, it is so boring to just sit around and heal, with nothing else to do and no one to talk to. Ironically, when the threat from the King of Shadows had loomed over them, and amidst the bustle of running the keep, with Kana constantly at her heels – yet another report to read, another contract to sign, another proposal to approve or reject – she had longed for solitude, to be able to lock herself away, somewhere no
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one can find her, and to put her feet up, King of Shadows be damned. And now that she has the opportunity… She sighs. She wishes Khelgar was there; he’s always a laugh to be with, especially after a few tankards…or Sand; she does enjoy his sharp wit and sarcastic sense of humour, even if they were directed at her at times…or Neeshka; how she had laughed when the tiefling had tried to search Nevalle’s pockets for some goodies, and had ended up with a handful of the kind of goods she had not bargained for…she chuckles softly at the memory. Hells, she would even be grateful for Grobnar’s singing right now. What she should really like, is to have Casavir with her. Those kind blue eyes, that gentle touch, that deep-throated laugh that he saves only for her… An unbidden tear rolls down her cheek. Jamming the heels of her palms into her eyes, she tries to stem the rising tide of grief and guilt. Why didn’t they leave when she gave them the chance? Why did they choose to stay with her? Why are they not here now? Why is she still here? Why? Something moist and warm flicks over her fingers. She opens her eyes to find the wolf licking her hands. If animals could express emotions, the light in Karnwyr’s eyes seems to reflect concern. I have to do something, she thinks as she wipes at her face with her sleeve. Else I’ll be wallowing in self-pity all day. Perhaps it’s time to chance another bath… This time, she reaches the water without incident, and she quietly congratulates herself for not falling over, even as she gives Karnwyr a thankful scratch behind the ear for supporting her weight once again. As the wolf dips his head to drink from the clear stream, she undresses, and gingerly wades into the river. Finding a submerged flat rock, she eases herself onto it, allowing the deliciously cool water to envelope her up to her bare waist. Aah…sweet, sweet water…she has always preferred bathing in a stream compared to within a walled room, even if the former carries the inherent risk of inviting the unwanted attention of a peeping tom. The flowing water somehow feels alive, as it washes the grime and cares off her. A mere tubful of water, even if it were heated, somehow does not hold the same promise of respite. She enjoys feeling the tide
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as it rushes past her, sometimes strong enough that she can imagine it carrying her away, far from all her duties, her burdens, her fate… As she allows herself to relax into the bubbling current, her mind again absently wonders on the whereabouts of the ranger. He’s a big boy, she tells herself. He is more than capable of taking care of himself. In fact, he’ll probably be insulted if he found out I was worried about him. Not that I’m worrying… Grabbing the washcloth Bishop had given her, she proceeds to scrub herself down, starting with her arms and shoulders. When she reaches her chest, the cloth lingers over her bandaged wound. She shivers as she recalls how helpless she had been as the gith had ripped the shard out of her. Putting a hand between her breasts, she feels both relief and sadness. With the shard gone, it’s as if a burden has literally been removed from her chest, as if she is finally free from destiny, free to choose her own path. But at the same time, it seems to have left a hollow hole in her heart. It unsettles her that she no longer senses the soothing, ever-present hum of the shard, that used to pulsate in rhythm to her heartbeat. Like the perpetual background chirping of birds in the trees, it is only missed when it suddenly disappears, like when the Mere was swallowed by shadow. She remembers something her mentor once told her: “What lies before and behind you are small matters compared to what lies within you.” He had quoted it when she was feeling upset about…well, that incident…and it served to remind her that, no matter what has happened in the past and what will happen in the future, her inner strength will always pull her through. With a mirthless smirk, she wonders what he would say now that what lies within her seems to have been diminished significantly. It then occurs to her that she has not yet seen the extent of her wound. As her fingers move to untie the bandage, she vaguely recalls the ranger warning her not to get the bindings wet. Screw it, she thinks, as she begins to undo the knot on one end of the gauze. The smell of that herbal muck is driving me nuts. She has spotted some plants by the river that can be crushed to make a more
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pleasant-smelling balm, and she could easily fashion another bandage out of some broad leaves. Some tricks of the trade she picked up from that other ranger she knows. If he knew how to, Daeghun would be proud. The bindings have been circled around her chest several times, as if they were there to keep her insides from spilling out. Released from its prison, the bitter smell of the black-green poultice comes rushing out as the last of the bandages come off, assailing her nose with its pungent odour. All she can see under the gauze is a mass of sticky crushed herbs. She splashes some water on her chest, and watches with glee as the smelly gunk dissolves away. Using the washcloth, she carefully wipes around the edges of her wound, probing tenderly. Wow, how much of that stuff did Bishop put on? She wonders, as every layer of the caked-up goo she rinses away reveals even more of it underneath. And she still hasn’t reached her wound yet. As she delves deeper, she spots something bright green protruding out from the black slime. It looks like part of a herb that has escaped the grindstone. Ah, a poorly ground leaf, she snickers. Daeghun would not have approved. She has a sudden mental picture of her foster father reprimanding Bishop for the shoddy work, uncrushed leaf in one hand while jabbing the man in the middle of his forehead with his infamously sharp index finger, just as he used to do with her, to bring the point home. The unlikely image makes her laugh out loud. She is still laughing when she fishes out the green object, peeling it off her chest. Her laughter dies in her throat when she realises what it really is.

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Chapter 19 – I Didn’t Know You Cared

He stalks through the woods, his steps falling soundlessly on the carpet of vegetation beneath him. It had taken him a couple of days to trek to the nearest village, and another couple of days to trek back. The pack he carries is weighted down with supplies he bought from the local merchant, and at cut-throat prices too, if you ask him. But, the man was the only trader for miles, and unfortunately that greedy bastard knows it. Let’s hope that half-elf hasn’t died while I was away, he thinks to himself. Even better, let’s hope she’s no longer there. When she first discovered the burnt-out village, he had endured as much of her grilling as he could, dredging up as many of the old, forgotten memories as he could bear. When, how, what…he thought he had handled those remarkably well, but when she started on the why questions, he just got up and walked off. Some memories are better left buried… In his mind’s eye, he sees the expression on her face as he recounted his story. As he went on, she had pulled his shirt that she was wearing tighter around herself protectively, and he could see her curves accentuated through the thin fabric. But her shock at seeing Redfallows Watch had slowly faded, and in its place was a look he finds even more reprehensible. Sympathy. Those clear green eyes had frowned slightly, and in that cloyingly gentle tone of hers, she had proceeded to probe him for more information, seeking to identify with him, to understand him. That, as much as the increasingly awkward questioning, was what had driven him to leave so abruptly. He had ended up wandering aimlessly
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through the forest, his sole aim being to put as much distance between them as possible, yet knowing that, sooner or later, he would be drawn back to the camp – to her, and that had infuriated him even more. That was when he decided he might as well make his trip worthwhile. He wonders what would happen when he gets back to camp. Would she pretend their previous conversation had never occurred? Or would she start hounding him with questions again, that wretched look of compassion in her eyes? He sees a faint glow among the trees ahead, and makes his way towards it, moving swiftly and silently through the shadows. I don’t need anyone’s pity, especially not hers. Perhaps it would be best if he returns to find that she has up and left, then he wouldn’t need to worry about a possible confrontation. Illadvised, granted, for her to go gallivanting in the woods in the state she’s in, but things would be far less complicated without her around. Yep, best if she’s gone…right? …right?? As he enters the clearing, his eyes scan the campsite before landing on a sleeping form beside the dying fire. Still here, still alive. Without realising he has been holding his breath, he releases a sigh of relief. Karnwyr trots up to him, tail wagging. He pets him quickly on the head, then, knowing that the poor thing has been stuck at camp for days, gives him a quick nod of consent. Delighted, the wolf melts into the darkness of the trees, disappearing into the wild to do what wolves love to do and what they do best – hunt. After putting his satchel down near the glowing embers of the fire, he turns to her again. She is sleeping on her side, her back to him, her blanket thrown carelessly aside to reveal her silhouette in the fading firelight. She still wears his shirt. His eyes follow the contours of her body, especially where it dips down to her narrow waist, before curving up again towards her hip. As he tiptoes closer, he sees the steady rise and fall of her shoulders. He moves around her so he can see her face, relaxed in slumber. She
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looks a lot younger without the burden of the waking world on her shoulders. Although it is too dim to tell for sure, she seems to have regained some of the colour of her normal complexion. The red highlights in her dark brown hair glisten in the flickering light. It looks damp, as if she had just washed it. A wavy chestnut-coloured lock has fallen across her face, and Bishop fights an urge to brush it off. A gust of wind stirs the ashes of the fire, and she shivers visibly. Squatting down, he moves to pull the blanket over her, his fingers lightly brushing her hip as he reaches for the sheet. Suddenly, Alya’s eyes snap open, blazing green. He sees a flash of movement in the corner of his vision. The next thing he knows, his neck is in a vice-like grip, fingernails encircled around his Adam’s apple as he is pulled towards her. The Eagle’s Claw. That is what she calls the move. With it, he has seen her rip out the throats of men with one quick flick of her wrist. He can feel his jugular vein pulsing against her fingers. Her face is just inches from his, and he can smell the fresh scent of soapwort on her. “Hi,” he manages to croak through the choking clamp. As recognition hits her, she quickly releases her hold on him. Once his airway is clear, he sucks in a deep breath. “Bishop?” she asks, as he sits down to rub his sore neck, still taking long draws of air. Her fingernails have left imprints in his flesh. “That how you treat all the men who visit you at night?” he wheezes. She seems wide awake now, her eyes bright. “Bishop, where have you been? I mean, you were gone for days – I thought…” “Why, Alya,” he snickers mockingly. “I didn’t know you cared.” She stops in mid-sentence. “I don’t,” she finally says, her voice measured. “I just wondered where you’ve been…” “I hope you weren’t worrying your pretty little head about me.” Not that I’m expected to account for my whereabouts to you.
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“No.” She says this without meeting his gaze. “Good, cause I would have been offended.” He gets up, one hand still enclosed around his neck. When she continues to look at him questioningly, he sighs. “If you must know, I was out shopping.” He throws her a casual glance. “Seeing as you’ve taken my bedroll, I just thought I’d get myself a new one.” “Oh.” As he rummages in his satchel, he hears her shift in the sheets. “Bishop?” He turns. “Sorry for…” and she makes clawing motions in the air in front of her neck. He winces. “At least it shows you’ve got your wits back. Probably means we can finally break camp soon.” He turns his back to her again. “Where will we go?” he hears her ask. It’s an imminent question, and he has an answer to hand. Bishop takes a deep breath and shuts his eyes. Say it. “We will split up. You will go back to West Harbour, or Crossroads Keep, or wherever your little heart desires. I will disappear deeper into the woods, and you won’t have to hear from me ever again.” She is silent for what could be a few seconds, or a few minutes. Then, quietly, she says: “Okay.” * * *

When Alya wakes up in the morning, Bishop is gone – again. Karnwyr, who had disappeared during the night, is back at her side. He wags his tail in a morning greeting. She had only managed snatches of sleep after Bishop had woken her up. Every time she had stirred, she saw the ranger pacing around the fire. She marvels at how little rest he seems to need. But now, he is nowhere to be seen. She thinks back to the night before, when he had startled her out of her sleep. It was pure instinct that made her grab him by the throat. When she realised it was him, she had felt relieved – and glad.

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I must really be lacking in company if I was actually glad to see Bishop…cringing, she remembers blabbering something along the lines of: “Bishop, where have you been? I mean, you were gone for days – I thought…” Even as she said it, she was kicking herself at how overlyconcerned it sounded. “Why, Alya,” he had purred seductively. “I didn’t know you cared.” And she had bristled, even though she knew she had walked straight into it. Wisely, she had clammed up after that. She stretches, running her fingers through her hair to tease out the knots. Bishop thinks that she’s almost well enough to get back on the road. That’s good; she doesn’t know how much longer she could just sit around before she starts to bash her head against a tree trunk, just for something to do. Snatches of last night’s conversation trickle back into her head. Something Bishop had said: “We will split up. You will go…wherever your little heart desires. I will disappear…you won’t have to hear from me ever again.” Why had she felt oddly hurt when he said that? Was there even an alternative? Shaking her head, she makes her way to where their water skins are stored. And stops. Draped neatly over their stockpile of water and dried food is a robe. And it looks brand new. She picks it up carefully to examine it. It looks to be about her size. A pale green in colour with darker green piping along the edges, it has a red-orange oriental dragon embroidered down one side, and is finished off with an olive and gold embroidered sash. “You like it?” She spins around to find Bishop, a hare slung across his shoulder. “I –“ her eyes fall back to the tunic in her hands. “It’s…” She fingers the softness of the silk. “…nice.”
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Carelessly, he tosses the carcass onto the grass. “It’s nothing too special. About the only decent piece of non-armour that merchant had. And I know how you feel about armour.” He glances at her, but quickly looks away, rubbing the back of his head. “It’s – got a bit of elemental resistance, but that’s about it. I won’t suggest you go running into the thick of battle with it.” Startled and confused by his sudden show of kindness, Alya stands there dumbly, staring at her new clothing. “Thanks,” she finally mutters. Then, with a cheeky glint in her eye, she adds, “I didn’t know you cared.” “I don’t,” the ranger grumbles, as he sets to work skinning his catch. “I just wanted my shirt back.”

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Chapter 20 – Building on Shaky Foundations

Alya looks at her rippling image in the river as she ties the sash of her new robe around her waist. Not a bad fit, even if she tends to prefer her clothes to be more loose-fitting. This one is a little snug around the chest. She vaguely wonders if that was intentional on Bishop’s part. Well, she thinks as she turns to the side to admire the cut. He does have good taste…the craftsmanship is quite impressive, not nearly as impressive as her old robe, but still pretty good. She pulls the strip of satin out of a pocket. She had tried to clean as much of the blood and herbal goo off it. Although it is still stained in places with old blood, the fabric now shows glimmers of what it once was. The bright green shimmers in the sunlight, and the golden runes glow as if they have a life of their own. As she rubs the material between her fingers, feeling its luxuriant softness, her mind wanders… * * *

She was only twelve when Daeghun took her on a long journey out of the Mere, all the way to the High Forest in the east. There, he had led her up the Star Mounts, where he introduced her to a strange-looking old hermit living in a cave. White-haired, white-bearded, stooped like an old gnarled tree, and wearing a peculiar silk robe, the wizened old man had a very foreign look about him, but his sloping brown eyes glittered with wisdom, intelligence and kindness, and Alya took to him easily. Daeghun had introduced the hermit as Q’ian Zang, a warrior monk all the way from the kingdom of Shou Long in Kara-Tur. She was to stay with him a while as his student. Then, with barely a farewell hug, her foster father had left her there. Her understandable distress at being deserted so far from home was very quickly allayed by the old man’s generosity. He had asked nothing of her in her first few days with him, giving her time to adjust to her new surroundings. It hadn’t taken Alya long to grow fond of the hermit;
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he was much warmer to her than Daeghun had ever been. He used to tell her about the far east, describing in detail the cities and lands of his origin. His name, Q’ian Zang, means “A Thousand Palms”, a testament to the speed of his strikes, but Alya has always called him sifu, or master, as a term of respect. Soon she was ready to learn from him, and Alya remembers with fondness her first ever lesson. Her sifu had laid aside his knotted old walking stick, and had handed her a broadsword. “Attack me,” he had said, his shoulders stooped, wrinkled arms hanging casually by his side. Alya naturally hesitated, but seeing that he was not going to let her back out, she swung the blade at him halfheartedly, stopping it mere inches from the old man’s neck. He had not moved. “You stopped,” he stated simply, as if he had known she would. He insisted that she held nothing back. “But master,” she had protested. “I don’t want to hurt you.” “You won’t,” he had replied simply. “How can you be so sure?” “Because if I doubt my own abilities, I will have already lost.” With a small gesture, he waited for her to strike. This time, she tried it with more conviction, and had ended up being thrown to the ground, her sword taken from her. He gave it back, and asked her to attack again. Each time, she had put in more and more effort, until in the end, out of sheer frustration, she was really going for him, but every time she would be disarmed and floored. She was amazed at how nimble and quick the old man was, and became immensely eager to learn his empty-handed fighting method. Her sifu had trained her hard – very hard. She would normally practice from sunrise until the sun goes down, pausing only for meals or to patch up an injury. “You cannot build a house on shaky foundations,” her sifu had said, “A gem cannot be polished without friction.” And yet, despite her long hours of physical training in the day, her master had continued to teach her after dark. He taught her the principles of what he called “The Way”, a philosophy whereby one
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seeks to constantly enlightenment.

improve

oneself,

and

to

strive

for

self-

“Anyone who learns the drills can be a martial artist,” he had once said. “But only through understanding can one become a true master.” And so, she was given access to his roomful of books on all sorts of topics. Many of them were in a strange language, but the vivid pictures in them so fascinated her, she had begged Q’ian Zang to teach her the foreign tongue, and was soon going through these scriptures voraciously every night. Many of the scrolls dictated the teachings of the Way, which she soon began to identify with, and she would eventually embrace it as her religion. Some of the books, however, described faraway places of incredible beauty and splendour, of magnificent cities, a rich culture, and strange creatures. She longed to be able to travel to these exotic locations. She does not remember ever going hungry throughout her time in isolation with her mentor, as he had shown her that nature provides well. She learned to identify edible plants, berries and mushrooms, and to set traps for meat. Daeghun would visit briefly once a year, bringing her news of West Harbour, and she would get homesick for a few days after his departure. Finally, nearly ten years into her apprenticeship, he had conceded that he had taught her all he could, and that she could now only grow with more practice and experience: “I have merely sown the seeds; it is up to you to cultivate the harvest.” Her foster father came to bring her home, and as a parting gift, her mentor had given her the most beautiful robe she had ever seen. Brought all the way from Kara-Tur and made of the softest satin, it was a brilliant emerald green with gold embroidery depicting phoenixes and birds of paradise in flight, and it was imbued with strong protective magic. She had accepted it with a tear in her eye and an uncharacteristic hug. His words when he gave it to her remain ingrained in her memory: “May its uses be manifold.” * * * A low whistle snaps her out of her reverie. Bishop is leaning casually against a tree. “Not bad,” he smirks, unabashedly eyeing her up and down. “Thank you,” she replies, forcing her most polite smile. “I must say you have pretty good taste.”
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“It’s a shame you have to take it off again.” What?? Her shock must have registered on her face. Bishop gazes at her intently before snickering. “Don’t get any ideas, Captain. Just need to check on your wound.” Oh… “You don’t have to.” She pulls her collar down just enough for him to see her makeshift leaf bandages. “I re-dressed it while you were away.” “You wha-?” He seems to finally notice the strip of cloth she holds in her hand. For a split second, she thinks she sees surprise, embarrassment, and a flash of hesitation on Bishop’s face. Then, just as quickly, the mask falls back into place. “Completely self-sufficient now, are you?” he says. “Able to handle yourself sleeping alone, dress your own wounds…good. Sounds like you don’t need me around anymore. Just as well, I’m getting restless here. I’ll probably be leaving tomorrow morning.” “Wait –“ As he moves to walk away, Alya grabs him near the elbow. Her hand lingers on his arm for the briefest of moments. He stares at her hand as if it had offended him, and she quickly draws it away. “Something you need?” he growls. “Um…” Why did she suddenly panic when he said he was leaving? It’s not like she doesn’t know this part of the woods, and she’s travelled through the Mere alone plenty of times as a child…plus, she’s not even supposed to like this guy… So why is she bothered that he’s leaving? “I…just want to thank you…for…everything…” she starts uncertainly. “I do appreciate all that you’ve done.” And I’d appreciate your company for a while longer. No, stop, don’t say that… He shrugs noncommittally. “You owe me big time, just remember that.”

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They look at each other in silence. Alya opens her mouth, then shuts it again. Those amber eyes continue to stare at her, as if probing the very depths of her soul… Say something, anything! But she merely looks away, breaking eye contact. “Now, if you’ll excuse me…” he says smoothly, as he moves past her and starts unlacing his shirt. “I’m going to try that bath thing you seem to enjoy so much. So unless you’d like to stay and watch…” “Thanks, but no thanks,” she says hurriedly. That is her cue to leave. She makes her way towards the path that leads her back to camp, grateful to get away from the potentially awkward situation. What was I thinking? She scolds herself. He’s a cold-blooded, backstabbing killer! And you want him to escort you?? She glances back over her shoulder discreetly. Bishop has his back to her. As he pulls his shirt over his head, she could see the muscles around his shoulder blades rippling… And the angry red gashes running down his back. “Bishop!” she exclaims, running back to the river. “Your back…” At first, he looks at her oddly, as if not understanding her. Craning his neck to look behind himself, realisation flashes across his face. Without thinking, she reaches out a hand to inspect the gouges. “How did you –“ Bishop jerks away violently as if her touch had burnt him. “It’s – it’s nothing,” he insists, then he appears to compose himself. With a wry smile, he says, “The wench I took while I was at the village got a little… overexcited.” “But, it doesn’t look like –“ “What can I say?” he asks, smiling suggestively. “I like it rough.” Ugh.

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He disgusts me, she thinks, as she admires his sculpted shoulders and his bare chest, her eyes following the faint lines of scars trailing across his flat stomach, to where they disappear under his trou– Stop staring! As if reading her mind, Bishop cocks an eyebrow. “Like what you see?” he asks seductively, as he undoes his breeches. “Care to hang around for more?” “You…insufferable…” she sputters, mortified, even as she turns her head quickly so he wouldn’t see her face turning red. At a loss for words, she manages a frustrated “Argh!” before storming up the path, his scornful laughter ringing out behind her.

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Chapter 21 – Torn

Stupid good-for-nothing pervert-chauvinistic-asshole! Alya seethes as she stomps toward camp, her cheeks still feeling hot and flushed. The nerve of that bastard talking to me like that! Karnwyr, who was napping by her bedroll, jumps up when he sees her coming, and runs to greet her, a wolf-smile on his face. Absently, she ruffles the scruff of his neck. “What is up with that master of yours, Karnwyr?” she asks the wolf. Why was he being so difficult? What is he hiding? The lacerations on his back look nothing like anything a woman’s nails could do. And they look like they‘ve been there far longer than just a few days; they are healing, but slowly and not very well, as if he had not bothered using any healing potions or bandages on them. She was genuinely concerned, and it was not fair for him to be such a jerk about it. Of all the people in all of Toril I could be stuck with, why him? She’d rather have Grobnar singing his white thistle song to her over and over again… Why can’t I be with Casavir, or Elanee, or even Ammon…she sighs as she sinks to the ground beside the wolf, tears of frustration and grief threatening at the corners of her eyes. If Casavir were here things would be so different… Wistfully, she recalls the night they spent together at Crossroads Keep. Her heart was still beating madly after he had confessed his love for her up on the battlements, and the moment the door to her room was locked, he had enveloped her in a gentle embrace. She remembers how small she had felt, her head barely reaching his chest. At that moment, in his powerful arms, she felt that nothing could harm her, not even the King of Shadows. As she nuzzled her head into his firm chest, she could smell his masculinity and a tinge of armour polish. She
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heard his steady heartbeat, and it had made her own heart swell with emotion. Their first kiss was funny; she had to stand on tiptoes and Casavir had to bend down quite a bit. But when their lips met, she felt like melting into his arms. It started off gentle and polite, their lips barely touching, before her hands had slipped up and around the back of his head to pull him closer. As the kiss became deeper and more sensual, he had swept her off her feet and carried her to her bed. Laying her down, he started to kiss her all over her face and neck, sending shivers up and down her spine. His lips lingered over the scar on her chest, as one of his hands slid up her hip and under her shirt in a rather un-paladin-like way. As he did so, her blouse began to ride up, revealing her stomach, then the underside of a breast. She feels a finger lightly brush her nipple… And with a small gasp, she had caught his hand to stop him going further. “Is something troubling you, my la–“ and he had stopped himself, remembering her previous order not to call her a “lady”. “– Alya?” Concern was reflected in his deep blue eyes, although Alya could feel that he was highly aroused. “It’s – I’m just…” she stammered as she pulled her top down and sat up. “I am sorry.” Always the paladin, apologising when it wasn’t even his fault. “It was not my intention to –“ “No, Casavir,” she placed a finger over his lips. “It’s not you – it’s me. I…I’m sorry.” She ran both her hands through her hair in exasperation. “Alya,” he had said gently, a hand on her knee. “We will not do anything if you are not ready.” Sitting beside her on the bed, he placed an arm around her shoulders and pulled her close. “Know that I am happier now than I have ever been in my life. My only wish is that you are just as happy. So until you are ready…” he tenderly kissed the top of her head. And they had remained in that position through the night, holding on to each other, Casavir softly stroking her hair while she leaned against him, listening to the rhythm of his heart, until they were interrupted by the siege on the keep. He was so sweet and understanding… It is only when Karnwyr starts to lick the salty tears off her face that she realises she has been crying.
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She hears movement towards the river. Bishop has probably finished with his bath. She is not in the mood to face him right now. Getting to her feet, she creeps into the trees, and finding a path, starts to follow it unconsciously as she allows her mind to wander. She starts to think about a conversation she had with that ranger at Port Llast, Malin. Apparently she had some sort of history with Bishop, and from what she had told Alya about him, they probably did not part on the best of terms. “Bishop doesn’t serve anyone but himself,” she had warned her. “Don’t turn your back on him.” How right she had been. Where did trusting Bishop get her in the end? The entire Crossroads Keep had come close to falling to Black Garius, all because their Knight-Captain had foolishly ignored everyone’s misgivings about the ranger, and had chosen to try and see the good in him. And there hasn’t been much good to find. Alya remembers what Bishop had said, when she tried to confront him about Malin’s accusations: “She doesn’t know me, and neither will you.” You’re right, Bishop, she thinks to herself. I’ll never know you. I cannot seek to understand someone who does not wish to be understood. The trees around her starts to thin out, and before she realises it, she finds herself standing again in the clearing facing the burnt-out village of Redfallows Watch. The blackened ruins seem to stare back at her with hollow eyes. How could anyone do this to their own village? She wonders, hugging herself protectively. She tries to imagine what the place would have been like: where she stands, this looks like it could have been the main approach to the village. The houses were arranged in a rough semicircle surrounding the communal well, with what looks to be the remains of a farm over there…she tries to add some people into her picture: men, women, children, animals…a nice, normal Mere community. All gone now. Something brushes past her leg, making her jump. Karnwyr looks up at her intently.
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“Hey, boy,” she rubs his head. “Hope Bishop hasn’t sent you to track me down.” The wolf sniffs the air, and, catching the scent of something, runs off towards the charred remains of the village. Bishop grew up here, in one of these very houses, she thinks distractedly, as she watches Karnwyr dart inside a crumbling structure. I wonder which one was his home? As if responding to her question, the wolf gives an excited bark, and she sees his dragging something large and heavy out of the old house. “Aww, Karnwyr,” she says, wincing. Please don’t let it be a skeleton. She runs toward the wolf, intent on stopping him from desecrating someone’s dead body. As she gets closer, she notices that it was a piece of leather armour. It looks as if it had been dumped there only recently; the leather is still supple, but… The back of it has been completely ripped to shreds. This looks like Bishop’s, she thinks, as Karnwyr makes a snuffling noise beside her. But why – The deep gouges she saw on Bishop’s back… As she inspects the tattered piece of armour, she wonders what could have been vicious enough to tear through the leather in this way. She fingers a patch that looks to have been scorched. Bishop mentioned something about hell hounds… The cuts in the leather are ragged. They were not made by clean slashes, but rather by repeated scratching. It would have taken time for whatever did this to dig its way under the armour. But why would he just lie there and let a hell hound claw his back like that? Was he unconscious? Waitaminute, I was unconscious…and that would mean, at any one time, either Bishop or Khelgar would have to be carrying me…if the hell hounds were on him when Khelgar had his hands full with me, he’d be a dead man as Khelgar won’t have been able to help him… So the only plausible explanation is…that Bishop was holding me when he got attacked…

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An unlikely image forms in her mind: the ranger being besieged by a hell hound but unable to fight back because he was holding her. He uses his body to shield her from the creature… She shakes her head. Bishop would never do a thing like that… Would he? Karnwyr nudges her with his nose. The sky is darkening, and she does not fancy hanging around these ruins at night. Wrapping her arms around herself, she reluctantly makes her way back to camp. * * *

The morning is grey, drizzly and utterly gloomy, a perfect reflection of Bishop’s mood. She was not at camp when he returned from the river the day before, and neither was Karnwyr. He had not bothered to try and track either of them down. By nightfall, they had returned together. After eating dinner in silence, she had turned in for the night. Bishop could not read the funny looks she had kept giving him. She didn’t seem angry with him anymore, but she still wasn’t talking to him. That’s not a surprise, though, is it? After how you acted like some degenerate prick yesterday. He knows he could have just told her the truth, but what good would that have achieved? All he would have gotten would be more sympathy… He pictures himself jerking away when she touched his bare back. Her hand had felt cool and soft on his shoulder blade, and his skin tingled where her fingers brushed it. Something did a little flip in his chest, and he hated it. He is glad he hadn’t told her how he really got those scratches. She would probably have tried to touch him even more, trying to nurse his wounds. He doesn’t know how long he could have endured her hands moving up and down his back, before he snapped and lost control. And I don’t want to lose control. It’s disconcerting how close she had gotten him to the brink with just one touch.

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Would it be all that bad to go over the edge? A voice inside him asks. Why can’t you just tell her – No! What difference would it make, anyway? She’s still going to leave… He had returned from a morning hunt to find her packing a satchel. “Off somewhere?” he had asked, and she had merely nodded. Now he is rolling up his own bedroll as he prepares to break camp. The rain is spitting down, not heavy enough to be a problem, but wet enough to be a nuisance. Karnwyr is lying under a tree, seeking shelter from the rain, his snout under his front paws. He doesn’t look too happy either. He gathers up half the food rations and most of the healing supplies and dumps them next to the bag she is packing. She looks up at him uncertainly, but before she could say anything, he turns, and starts busying himself with his own preparations. Soon, they are both ready, their packs slung over their shoulders. Wordlessly, he leads them away from the clearing and into the woods. They trudge along a muddy path in silence, until Bishop thinks he would get smothered by the palpable tension. “So…” he tries to make it sound casual. “Where will you be heading, Captain?” She is quiet for a few seconds, as if surprised by his sudden attempt to make conversation, and is deciding whether to answer him or not. “I don’t know,” she finally concedes. “I don’t know? Never heard of that place.” He cringes at his own lame joke, but he thinks he hears a small chuckle behind him. A few seconds later: “I can’t return to West Harbour. After…” he hears her voice catch. “After what happened there, there’s nothing left for me to go back to.” Unsure of what to say, Bishop keeps quiet, but Alya soon continues. “I guess I’ll head back to Crossroads Keep.” “Returning for the hero’s welcome, are we?” he snorts. “And then becoming one of Nasher’s lackeys again.” “I guess…” she sounds wistful. “But it’s not like I have anywhere else to go. Besides, I’d like to see Bevil again. Perhaps Daeghun is still
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there. And…” she hesitates before adding, “perhaps then I could give the rest a proper burial.” Bishop turns to look at her. She is walking with her eyes downcast, and he sees a tear trailing its way down one cheek. He looks away quickly. It’s not like he’s never seen her cry before. For a hero of Neverwinter, she seems to do a lot of crying. She had cried when that Shandra girl died, and when they found that almost all the villagers of West Harbour had been slaughtered. Shedding tears at all is bad enough, but doing so in front of other people is such a show of weakness. So why is it that she still appears so strong, even now, as the tears are falling? He chances another glance backwards. She is surreptitiously dabbing at her eyes while pretending to push her hair off her face. How he longs to stop and hold her, to wipe those tears away, to tell her some nonsense about how everything will be fine… But they have reached a fork in the path. Alya stops next to him, and looks at him expectantly, all traces of tears gone now. He jerks a thumb in one direction. “You’re going that way.” “And you?” He points down the other trail. She nods distractedly, but keeps her eyes on him. Those eyes, such a deep, liquid green, like forest leaves on a dewy morning. He loves how they slope up ever so slightly at the corners. They have always reminded him of a cat ’s eyes, so befitting someone of such feline grace. He suddenly realises that they have been staring at each other for a full minute. “I…” he mutters, forcing himself to break away from the hypnotic gaze. “Go. I’ll stay here and watch until I’m sure you’re not straying offtrack.” “Okay.” She walks past him towards the indicated trail. Then, she stops. “Bishop?” she says, turning around.
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“What?” Again, those eyes, staring right at him. “Thank you,” she whispers, her hands clasped in front of her, the slightest hint of a smile playing on her lips. Bishop says nothing. Say something! He screams mentally at himself. Offer to follow her! Instead, he merely nods an acknowledgement. As she turns to walk away, Bishop watches in silence, feeling a surge of relief. He also gets the awful feeling that he will regret what he didn’t do – forever.

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Chapter 22 – Rain & Mud

Karnwyr looks from his master to the woman as they walk along the path. Neither of them says much as they travel, but he can feel a strange charge in the air between them, one that isn’t being dampened by the drizzling rain. He has been feeling the electrical tension since this morning, and it is making his hair stand on end. Where are we going? He tries to ask the woman by nudging her hand with his head. He has grown quite fond of her in the last few days. The master doesn’t seem hostile towards her, and she always seems to have time for the wolf, and frequently gives him very good belly scratches. Her pat on his head in response feels half-hearted. She doesn’t seem in the mood to play. He hears the master say something to the woman, and she replies, her tone hushed. They do not look at each other during the conversation. Suddenly, the woman’s eyes start to leak again. A drop of water tracks a course down one of her cheeks. Karnwyr remembers licking that water off her face yesterday. He had not liked the taste; it was bitter and salty. Why is she doing that again now? From the master’s quick glance backwards, it seems like he doesn’t like the woman’s eyes watering either. Is there something wrong with her? The wolf wonders, slightly concerned. They stop. As Karnwyr moves to sit between the two people, he hears them talking, their sentences short and quite abrupt. Then, they are silent again, and appear to be just standing there in the rain, doing nothing but stare at each other. The air around them grows tenser still, and Karnwyr bristles. He puts his muzzle under his front paws.
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Finally, the master utters a few more words, and the woman starts to move away. Where is she going? Karnwyr tries to ask the master, but he is not paying any attention to the wolf. The woman stops and turns, and Karnwyr’s ears perk up in hopeful anticipation. She’s coming back! But he merely hears her say something quietly. He doesn’t understand the words, but it sounded something like “Tank yew.” The master does not reply, only nods, and she begins to walk away again. Why is she leaving us? Karnwyr wonders, confused. He looks up at his master quizzically. But the master is just gazing quietly at the woman’s retreating back, the rain dripping off his hood, his expression stony as the rocks the wolf finds around the forests. And then he smells it: the bittersweet aroma of the master’s sadness, only this time it appears to be growing stronger, until it nearly overpowers all other odours, even the scent of the rain. The wolf lets out an involuntary whimper. With a sigh, the master starts to walk… In the opposite direction. The wolf looks uncertainly from one person to the other, torn between following his master, and going after the woman. Under all other circumstances, the master would have been the obvious choice, but Karnwyr senses that the woman has something to do with the master’s scent of sadness. Even now, it seems like the smell is getting stronger the further they move apart. Why are you smelling so sad? The wolf is baffled. And why don’t you want to feel better?? At a loss to do anything else, Karnwyr gives up on following either person, and sits on his haunches right at the fork in the path. Tilting his head up to the falling rain, he lets out a long, mournful howl. * * *

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The sudden wail of a wolf right behind her causes Alya to spin around. Karnwyr is sitting in the middle of where the trail branches, his head thrown back, baying loudly. What’s wrong with him? She asks herself. Has he hurt himself? Uncertainly, she just stands where she stopped, gazing curiously at the wolf. Her confusion and hesitation appears reflected in Bishop’s expression, as he, too, has stopped walking, and is looking at the wolf. “Karnwyr!” he barks sharply. “Come on!” Incredibly, the wolf ignores his master, as he continues to howl. Muttering something under his breath, Bishop marches towards Karnwyr. As he nears, the wolf stops yowling and looks at the ranger expectantly. “What’s wrong with you, dog? Get up!” he orders. In response, Karnwyr lies down, his head resting on his front paws. Exasperated, Bishop reaches out a hand to seize the wolf by the scruff of his neck, but Karnwyr jumps up suddenly and dodges him. “By the hells…” Bishop curses, as he tries to grab the wolf again, and again Karnwyr eludes him. Am I seeing things? Alya wonders. Is Karnwyr actually disobeying his master? The wolf is normally so well-behaved for Bishop that the scene is almost funny; every time Bishop steps towards him, the wolf bounds backwards, as if playing catch-me-if-you-can. The ranger is getting increasingly frustrated. With a grunt, Bishop throws himself at the wolf in an attempt at a full tackle. Karnwyr sidesteps him expertly, and the ranger lands clumsily in the mud. Alya has to suppress a giggle. Then the wolf starts running in her direction, his tongue lolling, and he stops right next to her. Alya briefly entertains the notion of helping Bishop catch Karnwyr, but then decides to just watch and see how this plays out. Bishop is uttering a string of profanities as he picks himself up, mud covering the front of his clothes. When he sees Karnwyr next to Alya, he huffs resignedly. “Fine, you mutt,” he snaps. “Don’t come! Stay with her!” Flicking as much dirt off himself as he could, he turns and storms off.
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But then Karnwyr starts to make high-pitched puppy yaps, and he stops again. As he glares at him, the wolf whines. Alya could almost imagine that they are having some sort of conversation. Finally, Bishop walks all the way over, and Karnwyr ducks behind her. The sight of Bishop, mud-covered and bested by a wolf, is too much for her, and she laughs. “Think he likes me?” she asks, as she rubs the wolf hiding behind her. Bishop says nothing, but fixes her with a wilting glare. Suddenly, Karnwyr pounces on her from behind – hard. She feels the huge wolf’s paws planted in her back before her petite frame is propelled forwards by the momentum. She runs into Bishop awkwardly, and he stumbles backwards. He is just about to catch his balance when Alya spots a flash of grey fur right behind the ranger. Uh, oh… Bishop trips over Karnwyr, sending the two of them sprawling onto the ground in a tangle of arms and legs. As they try to get up, their eyes meet. Alya is so close to Bishop she could almost count the individual golden flecks in his brown irises, and the faint scars on his face. She could smell the leather of his armour, and the scent of the man himself. Her hands rest on his chest, and she could almost feel his muscles flexing underneath the armour… Then she realises that Bishop’s arms are wrapped around her. “Erm...” she mumbles, as she extracts herself. This is awkward… Before she could get up properly, Karnwyr jumps on them again, licking her excitedly. Despite the compromising situation, she couldn’t help but laugh. Eventually, they both manage to pick themselves up, bringing a ton of mud along with them. As he brushes himself off yet again, Bishop does not look amused. He glares daggers at Karnwyr, who again runs behind Alya. Finally, with an exasperated sigh, he starts walking… Down the trail that Alya is supposed to take.

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“That mutt seems to want you around,” he grumbles, wiping more muck off his face. “Guess I have no choice but to come with you. For now.” “Oh…okay…” Alya surprises herself by feeling glad when he said that. She looks again at the wolf, now innocently sitting beside her, his pink tongue sticking out. Wisely, Karnwyr is avoiding his master for now. As she falls into step behind the fuming ranger, she picks a twig out of her matted hair. Looks like I’ll be needing another bath…

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Chapter 23 – Meditation

What should only be a four- or five-day trek is taking twice as long. Alya is not fully recovered, and has been getting tired easily. Although she has never complained about her fatigue, and has never asked to stop for a rest, Bishop could tell every time she starts to fall behind that it is time for a break. One part of him, the vocal part, grumbles incessantly about the delay to their journey. Another part of him, the secret part he has banished to the deepest, darkest corner of his mind, silently wishes for more hold-ups. Karnwyr trots beside him, looking somewhat smug. Naturally, he had not been able to stay mad at his animal companion for long; all the wolf had to do was to approach him, his head held low in a submissive gesture, whimpering and giving him his best puppy-dog look. Even as he forgave Karnwyr, the wolf’s behaviour had mystified him. Never had Karnwyr ever defied his orders before. Bishop still does not know what had gotten into him, and he feels an absurd pang of jealousy that his wolf has gotten so attached to someone else. He thinks about how Karnwyr had refused to follow him, running instead to Alya. The indignity of rolling around in muddy rainwater, trying to catch a wolf, is still raw in his mind. In the end, what else could he have done but to go where the wolf wanted? He would never walk away from his animal companion… Still, it’s worked out for the best, hasn’t it? The much-oppressed part of his mind chimes up. The wolf’s made the decision you had wanted to make yourself all along. Shut up. He relives the moment Karnwyr had knocked Alya off balance, causing her to slam into him. As he tottered backwards from the force, that
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damn wolf had decided to run behind him at that exact moment. The backs of his knees caught Karnwyr’s strong back, and he toppled straight over his animal companion, landing on his back in a puddle of mud. Even as he felt the muddy water seeping into his clothing, his hair, and down his neck, he had noticed just how close her face was to his. Her deep green cat’s eyes, sparkling like a beacon against the gloomy backdrop of the rainy day. He could make out all nine freckles that dust the bridge of her upturned nose. Her lips were slightly parted in surprise, just inches away from his own. Her hair framed her face in a red and brown halo, and he could feel a few locks tickling his cheeks. He caught a whiff of her feminine scent, something akin to a mixture of rosewater and cinnamon – sweet and spicy, just like her personality… Then he had realised that his arms were wrapped tightly, protectively, around her body. He shakes his head. To banish the sudden surge of desire, he recalls how quickly she had broken free from his embrace, how eagerly she seemed to have welcomed Karnwyr’s playful licks, avoiding his eyes as she tried to defuse the awkward situation. She had then kept her distance for the rest of the journey. That is not how someone who likes having you close would behave. He stops to ascertain their position and to confirm that they are still on the right track. As his trained eye scans the vicinity for familiar landmarks, he spots her leaning against an oak, her eyes shut as she concentrates on taking slow, deep breaths. Her arms are crossed, one hand discreetly over the healing wound in her chest. Bishop feels an involuntary wave of concern. Their path has been taking them progressively uphill all day, and the sloping incline has obviously taken its toll on her. “We’ll stop here for tonight,” he announces. “You sure?” she asks, as she pushes herself off the tree, trying to look unwearied. “We still have a few hours of daylight left,” “I didn’t come so far out of my way just to have you drop dead now,” he snaps, as he tosses his backpack on the ground and starts gathering wood for a fire, making it clear that they are going no further. End of discussion. * * *

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Bishop secretly watches her as she meditates at the edge of the grassy cliff overlooking the valley below. She is sitting with her back straight and her legs crossed, her hands resting on her knees. Her eyes are closed, and her breathing is slow and steady. If Bishop hasn’t known better, he would have thought she was sleeping sitting up. When she had first left the camp, he had followed quietly, in case she ran into any danger, all the while thinking how ridiculous he was to be concerned for the safety of the Knight-Captain, slayer of the King of Shadows. He watched her looking out over the wooded dale from her lofty vantage point, a testament to how high up they have actually climbed, before seating herself down right at the fringe of the drop-off. When he was sure she wasn’t going to fall off the cliff, he had snuck away to do some hunting. And now, more than an hour later, she is in the exact same position, as if she had never moved from that spot. A gentle breeze blows up from the valley, and her head tilts back almost imperceptibly, as if savouring the wind in her face. Her hair ripples with the air current, the reddish highlights reflecting the rays of the setting sun, setting her hair ablaze. With her serene countenance and her flaming locks, she reminds him of some sort of fiery angel, perched at the edge of the cliff, guarding the dell below. Even though he has seen her in meditation numerous times before, he still does not understand how someone could just sit there doing nothing for so long. Doesn’t she get bored? Doesn’t she fall asleep? Don’t her legs fall asleep? He sees no point in what she is doing, and worst of all, when she is in a trance, she seems almost oblivious to her surroundings. Stealthily, like a panther stalking its prey, he moves closer to her, his footsteps falling soundlessly, until he is right behind her. He watches as her shoulders rise and fall slightly, in time to her slow, rhythmic breathing. He crouches down so that his face is mere inches from the back of her head, and again he smells the soapwort she used to clean her hair. Moving cautiously, he cranes his neck over one of her shoulders until his lips are almost touching her slightly pointed ear. He studies her face in profile: her small, upturned nose, the contours of her cheekbones, her moist lips, pulled back in a tiny, contented smile, her prominent chin, perpetually set in stubborn determination… Through it all, she remains motionless, completely unaware of his presence. He stays there for a moment, then he closes his eyes, breathing in her scent. He wonders if she would even notice if his lips were to brush her… Enough!
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Just as silently as he had approached her, he gets up and steps back, looking at the still form of the monk in disgust. He had been so close to her, and yet she had no idea. Her guard is completely down while she is in that state, and it is such carelessness and disregard of one’s surroundings that gets people killed. You would think that someone like her would know better. I could have pushed her right over the edge of the cliff, and she won’t have realised it till it was too late. Still shaking his head scornfully at her ignorance, he turns and starts to slip away. “Leaving so soon, Bishop?” he hears her ask. * * *

Alya sits calmly at the edge of the cliff, her eyes closed, as she concentrates on her breathing. Slow, deep inhalations through her nose, and with each exhalation through her mouth, she imagines herself breathing out all her thoughts and troubles, all physical pain and discomfort, everything that normally weighs her mind down, until her consciousness is empty, free of all complex thinking, all burdens, as she allows her primal senses to take over. “When one sense is disabled, the other senses grow stronger to compensate.” Her mentor’s words linger briefly in her mind, before it too is exhaled. With her eyes shut, she sees nothing, but in her relaxed, thoughtless state, her other senses are sharpened. She feels a gentle breeze play across her skin, caressing her with its fleeting touch, and carrying with it the scent of grass and wildflowers from the woods below. Her ears pick up the song of every bird, the cry of an eagle in the distance, the rustle of the wind in the trees. She inhales again, and this time she pictures herself breathing in her thoughts again. But instead of falling back into a jumbled heap in her mind, like it was before, she imagines the individual ideas drifting into place, into some form of order. Feelings that are deemed detrimental are not taken in again, but rather blown far away by the same wind that is stroking her cheeks. As her higher thinking returns, she smiles, already sensing the spiritual benefits of her meditation. The Way states that the solution to any problem lies within one’s self, and it is by freeing one’s mind that one gains the enlightenment to see the answer.

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She is about to open her eyes when she hears the softest of footfalls behind her, so silent that she would not normally have heard it, but with her sense of sight still disabled, her other senses are on high alert. Only one person she knows could sneak around so quietly. The footsteps draw closer, and stop directly behind her. She is tempted to open her eyes, to turn around, but she is curious as to what he would do. The sound of cotton rubbing against leather tells her that he has squatted down behind her. That, and the heat she can feel emanating from his body informs her just how close he actually is. She has to struggle to keep her breathing steady, to appear unaware. She feels the warmth from his body moving along the right side of her face. It lingers there, and an almost imperceptible movement of air brushes her ear. He is so close, his mouth is practically touching her ear. Her skin tingles where his breath caresses her, and as a shudder threatens, she fights to remain motionless. She can smell him now, too; a hint of pine needles and musk, and she must admit, it is not altogether a bad combination. Suddenly, the warmth disappears, as more near-silent chafing of cotton against leather tells her that he has stood up. She surprises herself by actually feeling a little disappointed, despite the fact that if he had tried anything funny, she probably would have reacted by dangling him over the edge of the precipice. His footsteps start to fade as he walks away. Forcing as much casualness into her voice as she could, she calls out: “Leaving so soon, Bishop?” She listens as he stops short, and hears a sharp intake of breath. Oh, how she longs to open her eyes and see the look that must be on his face! But she remains as she is, listening for him, knowing that remaining in her calm, motionless, sightless state would unsettle him more. He makes no sound for a good minute as he just stands there, perhaps hoping that if he doesn’t reply, she would think that she had made a mistake, that he isn’t there. It is a silent stand-off; Bishop waiting for her to doubt her ability, herself waiting for the ranger to admit that he has been exposed. Finally, perhaps realising that there is no getting out of this, Bishop speaks.
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“Not bad, monk, I’m almost impressed.” His caustic tone tries unsuccessfully to mask his bewilderment. Yes! Score one for me! More silence follows. She can sense that the ranger has some questions, possibly about how she had known he was there, but he doesn’t want to appear interested. After a few moments, he finally says, “That’s not the safest of places to fall asleep sitting up.” She smiles. Trust Bishop to find a way to get the answers he wants without seeming like he wants them. She decides to play along. “For one, it’s a lovely view for when I do open my eyes at the end. For another, there’s this lovely fresh breeze blowing up from the valley. And, of course, there’s the fact that I am not asleep.” She hears him snort. “You seem well into dreamland to me,” he says, feigning disinterest. “I close my eyes so that my mind is not bombarded by unnecessary visual images,” she explains. “And concentrating on my breathing relaxes me, clears my head.” Then, cheekily, she adds, “Plus, it sharpens my other senses.” “So, you just sit there like a stone all day, thinking of nothing?” His scornful words are betrayed by an undertone of curiosity. Hey, I should shut my eyes more often when I’m talking to him! She thinks as she detects the inconsistencies in his voice. Then I’ll know what he’s really thinking all the time… “Not exactly,” she replies. “You see, it’s like trying to rearrange furniture in a cluttered room. Things will be getting in each other’s way, and you’ll end up with a big mess. But if you took everything out of the room, and started with an empty space, it’s easier to move the furniture around, and they will all fit nicely into place. It’s the same with my meditation; I remove all thoughts from my head, and when my mind is uncluttered, it’s easier for me to sort things out. It puts everything into perspective.” She angles her head slightly towards Bishop’s direction, and adds, “You should try it sometime.” “Ha!” he dismisses the idea outright. After another spell of silence, he asks, “So what are you sorting through this time?” The question is made to sound like a throwaway remark.
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She sighs. “Thoughts about the future.” Silence again from the ranger, before: “Any decisions?” “Sort of. Return to Crossroads Keep, arrange a decent burial for the rest…” an image of Casavir appears in her mind’s eye, and her heart pangs involuntarily. Hadn’t I just locked that grief away somewhere? Steeling herself, she finishes, “And if there are any West Harbour survivors, go back to the village to help them rebuild.” Cautiously, she slips in a question: “How long before we get to Crossroads Keep?” “At the rate you’re going, and taking into account the fact that we’ll be travelling downhill from here…” Bishop appears to be making a mental calculation. “Five days at most.” Alya nods absently. From behind her eyelids, she sees an orange glow that is slowly dimming. The sun has almost set. “What will you do when we get there?” she asks. Bishop stays quiet for a while before answering. “What do you think I’ll do? I’m a traitor of Neverwinter. They’ll hang me on sight.” She hears more rustling of clothing. Did he just cross his arms? “I can’t let anyone see me,” he continues. “So I’ll probably just see you on your way and be off.” She detects a slight waver in his last sentence. “Just as well,” he adds. “I’m getting tired of you slowing me down.” Something about the way he said that doesn’t sound right to her keen hearing. He’s lying. “Where will you go?” she asks again. “Who cares?” She can imagine him shrugging in her mind’s eye. “Somewhere far away…” Why is there an undercurrent of reluctance and regret rippling beneath that statement? “Bishop,” she begins sincerely, “I really do appreciate all that you’ve done. You never needed to come back for us, and yet you did. Your reasons for your change of heart are your own, and…” her voice catches. “And although I cannot seem to forgive you for what you did to Casavir,” she whispers. “I have accepted that it was probably for the best, and…I thank you.” That was her freshly uncluttered mind talking. It had been something she had wanted to say for a while now, but until today, she had never
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found the words. She is hoping that her confession would provide some sort of closure; if she has to travel with the ranger, she has to learn to trust him again. Plus, it helps to say it without having to look into those piercing eyes of his… Finally opening her eyes, she turns to Bishop, looking to see how he would react. His face is unreadable as he stands there, arms crossed, staring back at her, his amber eyes glinting in the light of the setting sun. With a smirk, he says, “Like I said before, it’s your turn to owe me a debt. I might just drop by to collect one day.” Perhaps it is the after-effects of being sight-deprived for so long, but her other senses still seem quite sharp. She thinks she detects a sort of wistful sadness in his voice. Their eyes meet for a second before Bishop looks away. “It’s getting dark,” he says gruffly, looking at the sun. Its rays are barely peeking out over the horizon now. “Come on, dinner’s ready.” “I’ll catch up to you in a bit,” she replies, straightening her legs and stretching, feeling the pins and needles shooting down to her toes from sitting cross-legged for so long. She winces, then glances at Bishop sheepishly. “Legs fell asleep.” He snickers, genuinely amused. “So you do get cramps from sitting still for so long.” He makes a move to leave, appears to hesitate, then walks back towards her. Wordlessly, he holds out a hand to her. As she takes it, he hauls her to her feet. She lets him support her as she limps, trying to walk off her cramps. As the sun disappears completely from the horizon, and faint stars start to appear in the darkened sky, neither of them says a word as they slowly make their way back to camp together.

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Chapter 24 – The Fight

Bishop was wrong about how long it would take them to reach Crossroads Keep. Alya’s condition has improved enough that she has started to keep pace with him effortlessly. By the end of the day it became clear that they would be approaching their destination before sunset the following evening, a whole day ahead of schedule. He walks on sullenly, listening to her singing a tune in a foreign language as she follows behind, with Karnwyr traipsing around her. The strange words roll effortlessly off her tongue, and her soft, lilting voice makes Bishop wonder if she has ever trained as a bard. She certainly sounds better than Grobnar. He has heard her singing quietly to herself whenever she thinks she’s alone, or when they are on the road, during a long journey. It pains him to think that this could be one of the last times he’ll hear her sweet voice. He has been mulling over their inevitable arrival all morning. What should he say when they get there? “Take care, nice knowing ya” just doesn’t seem sufficient. Should he just walk away? Maybe offer her one last chance to run off into the woods with him? No, bad idea – she’s already turned that down twice before, and the gods know he does not take rejection well. “You’re awfully quiet today,” she remarks, skipping up beside him, Karnwyr at her heels. The huge wolf has one of her hands in his massive jaws, and is gently nibbling on it. She smiles as she pats his grey head. Obviously, they’re both in a better mood than he is. He shrugs noncommittally. Since the evening on top of the grassy cliff, when she had accepted that the paladin’s death was for the best, their exchanges have been civil enough, and sometimes almost pleasant.
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She has started to treat him like she did before his betrayal; nonjudgmental, understanding, friendly in a polite sort of way. They have even begun to talk – at least, she talks while he listens, pretending not to care, although his occasional questions and prompts probably tell her otherwise. He has never volunteered information about himself, though, and she seems to know better than to probe. When it is obvious that he is in no mood to talk, Alya pouts. “Fine, Mr Sourpuss, we’ll leave you alone.” With a cheeky wink, she falls back behind him with his animal companion in tow. Mr Sourpuss?? If it had been anyone else, he’d be feeding them his dagger right about now… * * *

He sits by the fire, distractedly fletching some arrows. His mood has not improved much. Every time he tries to think of what to say tomorrow, his mind keeps harking back to the same impossible plea. Don’t go. Stay. And why would she want to do that? Why would she forgo the comforts of her own keep, surrounded by people she knows and trust, to live hand to mouth with a ranger who has nearly gotten her killed by his betrayal, and who has murdered the man of her dreams? He finishes with the arrow he is working on. Inspecting it, he realises that he has glued the feathers on backwards. You stupid ranger… He sighs. Shaking his head in disgust at himself, he throws the faulty arrow into the fire, sending up a cloud of sparks. He stares into the flames as it licks at the wooden shaft and feathers, first blackening them, then setting them alight. He watches as the straight piece of wood starts to bend and curl, and the feathers burst into flames, before both are completely consumed by the hungry fire, and all that remains is the flint arrow head. The burning shaft reminds him of smouldering roof beams growing twisted in a blazing inferno, and the feathers resemble burning curtains, clothing, hair… He hears the screams in his head, the hideous cries of anguish that haunt his nightmares. He forces them out of his mind. Flickering shadows at the corner of his vision makes him turn his head. Alya is training, practising her fighting forms, the light from the fire
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causing her shadows to shimmer among the darkened trees. Her movements are slow and controlled, as she appears to dance in rhythm to some silent music. Smoothly, she dips and rises, spins and turns, her arms and legs tracing wide arcs in the air, mesmerising Bishop with her fluid grace. Although he is unfamiliar with the styles, he can clearly see that many of the fighting stances resemble the movements of wild animals: a swooping motion with clawed hands reminds him of the majesty of the eagle; a slow sway of her body before a swift strike brings to mind a snake surprising its prey; multiple tumbles and somersaults and a crouched stance mirror the deft acrobatics of the monkey; a sudden halt before standing stock still, eyes looking his way, like… It takes him a moment before he realises that she’s noticed him staring at her and has stopped to return his gaze, a slight expectant smile on her lips. * * *

It feels good to finally be strong enough to practise her forms again. As she runs through the motions, she concentrates on the positioning of every part of her body, from the placement of each step, to being fully aware of the posture of every muscle in her being. As the movements start to flow, she feels the satisfying sensation of her mind, body and soul becoming one, meshing together as a single fighting entity. “Nature is the best teacher.” That is something her master always said. Mother Nature has blessed her children with the all the skills they need to survive. Alya remembers how she used to follow and observe a single animal for days on end, scrutinising its every move, before spending even more time afterwards trying to imitate it. Sometimes, her mentor would teach her a few forms he picked up from the beasts of his homeland, awing Alya so much by his interpretation of their grace and agility, that she yearns to see those amazing creatures for herself. Raising her arms up high, she starts her eagle form, keeping her movements constant, floating like the bird of prey in flight. Then, settling into a low crouch, she changes from fluid and smooth to slow and swaying, striking out swiftly and silently like a cobra. Next, she rolls, jumps and flips, imitating a monkey swinging in the trees. From the corner of her eye, she eventually notices Bishop staring at her. In the last couple of days, she is almost starting to enjoy the ranger’s company. He has been somewhat less surly, and although he is still not at all talkative, and is sarcastic whenever he does say anything, at
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least he hasn’t been snapping at her. Coming from Bishop, that is being very nice. She wonders why he seems somewhat distracted today. Maybe I can get him to lighten up a little. “See something that actually interests you?” she asks teasingly, as she stops to take a break. “Only because you move like some of the prey I hunt,” he retorts, seeming a little embarrassed to be caught watching her. “And,” he adds in an intimidating tone, “You know what I do to my prey.” “So…are you in hunting mode now?” she asks cheekily. He shrugs. “Depends on what prey’s available.” With a grin, she starts to move again. Raising herself up on one foot, her arms outstretched, she strikes at an invisible enemy with one hand, fingers held together in the shape of a beak. Jumping in the air, she lands and pivots effortlessly on one foot, the other leg held high, both arms raised by her sides for balance, resembling a pair of wings. “Crane,” he declares with a smirk. Her green eyes sparkle with amusement. “Not bad,” she says. “What about this?” Standing rigidly, feet set apart, she strikes with the heel of her palms in large, side-swiping movements. Her stance is solid, as she grips the ground with her toes with each heavy step. Bishop pretends to think a moment. “Bear.” “I’m impressed.” She holds up an index finger, as if to say “One more.” Lowering her stance, she stalks about silently, almost on all fours. Then, with a sudden burst of power, she pounces on an imaginary enemy, her body twisting with a catlike grace. She lands on one knee, and claws the air with both hands. He cocks an eyebrow. “Panther?” She makes a face. “Close enough. Tiger.” Brushing her hands off, she laughs. “Say, that was pretty good,” she says, before her eyes narrow mischievously. “You’ve proven you can identify your prey. Question is, can you beat them?” This time he raises both eyebrows. “Is that a challenge, monk?” he demands, one corner of his mouth curling up in a smile.
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Her hands on her hips, she nods, then beckons with a tilt of her head. “You may want to take off your leathers first. They’ll only restrict you and slow you down.” “If you say so,” he replies sarcastically, even as he moves to unbuckle his armour. “Not that it’ll make a difference to the outcome,” he adds confidently. “It probably won’t,” she shoots back. “I’ll beat you either way.” Smirking, Bishop removes his leather armour, tossing them in a pile near his bedroll. Rolling the sleeves of his shirt up, he walks towards Alya, who is cracking her knuckles. She tilts her head one way until her neck clicks, then does the same to the other side. “Ready?” she asks brazenly. Bishop raises both fists in front of himself. “Do your worse, monk.” Cautiously at first, they circle each other, sizing the opponent up. She eyes him intently. His hazel eyes are piercing, predatory, like a wolf’s. He throws a dummy punch, but Alya anticipates it, and doesn’t rise to the bait. Instead, she springs forward and lashes out at him. He backs off just in time to see her foot flying across his face. As she draws back for another kick, he seizes the opportunity to attack. His fists punch thin air as Alya neatly dodges him, before ducking under his arms and elbowing him in the ribs. He grunts and recoils from the pain. Alya dances out of range, a satisfied look on her face. With a low growl, Bishop lunges for her. She side-steps him while simultaneously giving him a sharp tug in the direction he is headed. The extra momentum sends him stumbling. As he struggles to regain his balance, she kicks his legs out from under him. He lands heavily on his back, the impact winding him. As he catches his breath, Alya saunters closer, a self-satisfied smile on her face. Too late, she realises that she is standing too close to him. Her overconfidence costs her as he grabs both her ankles and yanks them violently. Alya loses her footing and falls. Grabbing his chance, Bishop pounces on her, trying to pin her down, but she bucks and manages to squirm free. As she jumps to her feet, Bishop again lurches towards her, tackling her around the waist. They land in a heap, and something jars her knee. He attempts to put her arm in a lock, but again she wriggles free, and in a flash, reverses the hold on him. Pushing him to the ground, she grabs his arm and wrenches it uncomfortably behind his back. She hears him hiss in pain.
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“Do you yield?” she asks, breathing hard from the exertions. Knowing Bishop, he would not give up at this point, not with his face pushed into the dirt in what he would perceive as a humiliating fashion. As she expects, he stubbornly struggles to get free, so she twists his arm a bit more. “Ow, ow, ow!” he yells. ”Okay, already! Dammit, I yield!” Smiling triumphantly, Alya releases the pressure on his shoulder and lets him go. As he rolls himself to a sitting position, scowling, she holds out her hand to help him up. “Well done, ranger,” she says, beaming. Without warning, Bishop grabs her outstretched arm and pulls hard, jerking her forward. At the same time, he plants a foot on her chest and falls backwards. Caught completely off guard, she is sent flying over him. After what seems like a long time in the air, the ground surges up to meet her, and she sprawls awkwardly as she lands. Before she could recover, he is on top of her, pinning her down. “Hey!” she protests. “That was a dirty tactic!” Keeping his knees on her legs, his hands pushing down on her forearms, Bishop snickers as she continues to buck and writhe, trying to worm her way out from underneath him. “Do you yield now, monk?” Before she could reply, Alya clutches her chest suddenly and gasps in pain. “Shit,” she hears Bishop swear. “Your chest wound…” rolling off her quickly, he helps her to her feet. “You okay?” he asks, putting an arm around her. She responds by throwing him over her shoulder and pinioning him to the ground. She hears a startled “Wha–?” before he hits the turf. “Ha!” she declares, laughing, as she holds him down. “Didn’t think you of all people would fall for that!” Her laughter dies in her throat when she sees the look on Bishop’s face. In an instant, his expression has changed from concerned and surprised, to dark and stormy…very stormy. His amber eyes narrow menacingly, blazing with a silent fury. If looks could kill, she would have withered under his gaze.
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“Get the hells off me, now!” he roars, as he tries to break free. Startled by his vehemence, Alya slides off as he pushes himself up. Scrambling to his feet, he appears to tower over her; his chest heaving, his eyes on fire, his hands clenched so tightly they are shaking, he looks ready to explode. With a snarl of rage, he drives a fist into the nearest tree, and stalks away, leaving Alya sitting there, speechless. She brings both hands to her mouth before running her fingers through her hair. Alya, you stupid, insensitive bitch…

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Chapter 25 – Weakness

The woods are silent except for the chirping of crickets. The night is clear with a chill in the air, and the silver moon and stars shine brightly in the cloudless ebony sky. Despite the calm and peaceful atmosphere, Bishop’s mind is raging. He had enjoyed their good-natured tussle, although it did bother him when she had gotten him in an arm lock so easily. After he managed to throw her over him and pin her down, when she had suddenly cried out, her hand on her chest… Fuming, he breaks off a twig from the tree he is sitting in, and starts to snap it into smaller pieces. He thought he had hurt her. As he tried to help her, he had felt so guilty. For that brief moment, he had hated himself for being so thoughtless, for having completely forgotten about the healing wound in her chest, for having been so rough with her. And then it had turned out to be one lousy joke. Absently, his arm reaches for another branch, and he starts breaking it apart. Yes, he had been angry. In fact, he was absolutely furious, as he still is now. Furious with her for her cruel trick, and furious with himself for falling for it in the first place. She is a weakness of his, and he hates weaknesses. Just leave her, he tells himself. Leave her at Crossroads Keep tomorrow and forget about her. You won’t hear from her ever again. Then she will no longer be a weakness.
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He hears a rustle in the undergrowth below. Alya emerges from some bushes and spots him in the shadows of the oak tree. He looks away before she can say anything. “I take it you’re still mad at me,” he hears her say, her voice sounding chastised. Ignoring her, he slinks deeper into the darkness. “Bishop…” “Go away,” he growls, crossing his arms as he dangles his legs off the branch he is sitting on. He hears her moving closer, until she is right underneath him. “Bishop, I’m sorry. It’s just that, I didn’t think –“ “That’s the trouble, isn’t it?” he interrupts. “You didn’t think.” He throws a quick glance below. Her neck is craned upwards as she looks at him. “At least come down from the tree,” she sighs. “I’m getting a crick in my neck.” “Which part of ‘go away’ did you not understand?” he asks brusquely, before saying slowly, deliberately, as if to a child, “I – don’t – want you here.” Silence down below. Then, he hears some rustling, and the next thing he knows, she is on the tree branch next to his, having bounded up the oak like a cat. Despite himself, he is impressed by her agility. Damn her stubbornness. “I’m sorry, but I need to talk to you,” she insists softly, tilting her head so that one side rests against the bark of the tree. “I feel terrible for what I did.” When he doesn’t reply, she goes on, “I was being stupid and insensitive. I should have known better.” Bishop has heard enough. Huffing irritably, he lowers himself off the branch, landing softly on the forest floor. He is starting to walk away when he sees Alya deftly swinging from the tree, and touching down nimbly next to him. “Will you please leave me alone?” he snarls as he whirls away, but she holds him back with a hand on his shoulder.
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“Under any other circumstances, Bishop, I would,” she moves around him so that they are facing each other. hand on each of his shoulder now. “But…” she falters with this being the last night before we reach Crossroads she stops briefly, her eyes downcast. “I don’t want us to part on such angry terms.”

says, as she She has one slightly. “But Keep, well…”

Surprised, Bishop says nothing, although his mind is demanding, why not? “After all the hells we’ve been through together,” she adds, as if anticipating his question. “I’d hate to leave thinking that you‘re still mad at me.” Bishop hesitates, his mind in turmoil. What would be the best way to forgive her without admitting he has forgiven her? And why is she being so nice to him? Why does she care what he thinks of her? Don’t give in…don’t give in…don’t give in… He suddenly realises how close she actually is. Her face is barely inches away from his, and all he can see are those liquid green eyes of hers, sparkling like deep emerald pools that he could drown blissfully in. Don’t give in! Don’t give in! Don’t give in! The gleaming pools shimmer, inviting him further into their depths, as she gives both his arms a gentle squeeze, “All this anger…” she muses, smiling slightly at him. “This is not the Bishop I want to remember.” She wants to remember me?? He is still standing there indecisively, in stunned silence, when Alya rises on her tiptoes, and gives him a quick peck on the cheek. There is nothing amorous about it; he has seen her give the same kind of kiss to the likes of Sand, Grobnar, and the top of Khelgar’s bald head. Just an affectionate, platonic peck… But it is the first time she has ever kissed him… And he finally loses control. Before he could stop himself, he grabs her behind her head with both hands, his fingers entangled in her auburn tresses, and he presses his
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lips hard against hers. He hears a muffled “mmph?” of surprise as she tries to push herself away, her hands on his chest, but he holds on tightly, one arm moving to the small of her back to pull her body closer to his. He kisses her intensely, hungrily, as all his pent-up desires are finally released in a rush of passion. Alya’s resistance is brief. He soon feels her relaxing into his arms, and instead of pushing against him, her hands start to rub his chest. Her lips part as she starts to kiss him back, tentatively, almost shyly at first, before becoming more sensuous. He feels her soft, velvety lips enveloping his own bottom lip, sending a tingle down his spine. Her arms snake around his neck, and he feels her clutching at his hair. As he greedily tries to delve deeper, her mouth opens invitingly, yielding to his fervent probing. He feels her warm, moist tongue caressing his, just as her breath escapes in an involuntary sigh. His lips never leaving hers, he pushes her up against a tree, pressing his body firmly against hers, his hands running roughly up and down her arms. The front of her robe falls open slightly, revealing a bare shoulder, her bandaged wound, and a teasing peek of her cleavage. The smell of rosewater and cinnamon invades his nose as he buries his face in her neck. He hungrily kisses the tender area around her collarbone, and he bites the soft flesh of her neck, eliciting a tiny moan from her. Her fingers travel up to his face, lightly caressing his cheeks, and he shudders under her touch. He can feel himself growing more and more aroused with each stroke of her fingertips along his jaw line. Panting, he reaches for the drawstring on her trousers, and fumbles at the knots. Their teeth clash awkwardly as his kisses become more frantic and needy, and his longing threatens to explode inside of him. He needs to taste her, to smell her, to feel her, and the clothing separating his bare skin from hers feels like miles of agonising distance between them. At least he is not wearing his leathers; he is glad he had taken them off before their wrestling match. He gasps when he feels her cool hands on his bare chest. She has partly unbuttoned his shirt, and has slipped both hands underneath, her kneading touch sending jolts of electrical pleasure through his body. The stirring in his loins grows almost painful as his manhood strains against the confines of his breeches. His fingers get tangled in her cords as he clumsily tries to undo her laces. With a feral growl, he finally loosens the knot with violent yank. In his frenzied state, he thinks he hears her call his name, but he ignores it as he runs a hand down her hip, tucking his fingers under her waistband. Her skin feels smooth, soft and hot, as his hands move from her hip to her stomach, feeling the firm muscles of her abdomen beneath his fingertips.
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“Bishop…” she gasps again between their breathless kisses. From her navel, his hand moves down towards the radiating warmth. He brushes the inside of a thigh, and the first wiry strands of hair… “No!” she cries, as his exploring hand is suddenly grabbed at the wrist, its progress halted. Confused by her sudden resistance, and practically bursting at the seams with desire, he looks at her. Her hair is tousled, her breasts heaving, and her cat’s eyes are wide. “Don’t play games with me,” he rasps hoarsely. Please don’t deny me… Desperately, he tries to thrust his hand down, but again, he is held back. She has both hands on his wrist. Her grip is vice-like, her knuckles white. “No, please…” she pleads breathlessly, shaking her head. Is that fear in her eyes? Please don’t let this be happening… In a flash, he realises that he has revealed too much in his brief moment of abandon…and that despite it all, he is still going to be denied. Abruptly, he backs away from her, still breathing hard, his hunger still crying out to be sated. Her hair and clothes unkempt, she stares back at him uncertainly, even as she pulls her breeches up and re-laces them. This can’t be happening… “You…” he pants, his eyes narrowing menacingly. “You manipulative bitch.” “Bishop, please…” she takes a step forward and reaches out towards him, but he is in no mood to listen. With a roar of utter frustration, he pushes her roughly back into the tree trunk, and storms off into the deep, dark woods.

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Chapter 26 – On the Road

The morning was grey and gloomy, with the distant rumble of thunder. It started to drizzle around midday, and now it is a torrential downpour. The wind blows sheets of rain across the land, as the thunder rolls across the bleak, overcast sky. The ground underfoot has grown slick and muddy, the soil completely saturated by the deluge. They trudge in silence through the storm, their boots sending up splashes of brown muddy water with each step, the wet squelching sound of their feet sinking into the bog audible even above the booming thunder. Alya pulls her hood tighter around her head as a gust of wind whips more water into her face. With visibility obscured by the curtains of falling rain, she can only see a dozen yards at best in any direction. Up ahead, barely discernible in the gloom, she spots the stooped, shadowy outline of Bishop’s back, as the ranger stomps ahead, leading the way. And keeping his distance from her as much as he could. No words have been exchanged between the two of them since last night. After he had stormed off, she had waited up for him, but he never returned. Eventually, she had fallen asleep, only to wake up to a dreary, cloudy morning. She found him sitting on a log, his satchel slung over his shoulder. The fire was already covered with sand and put out, and Karnwyr was beside his master, waiting patiently. He never met her eyes as she busied herself with her own packing, and when she was ready, he had merely started walking, not even turning around to make sure she was following. When it started to rain heavily, he made no move to stop, to wait out the downpour, and even now, weighted down by soppy clothes and impeded by the sticky mud, he marches on, as if he wants her to reach her destination as quickly as possible.
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As if he wants to be rid of her as soon as possible. Not that I could blame him, she thinks to herself, as she bows her head and leans into the wind. After how she had led him on last night, she had half-expected to be making this journey on her own. She had felt terribly guilty for tricking him the way she did during their sparring match. She just didn’t think he would get so bothered by it. She had tracked him down, intent on apologising, and what she had told him was heartfelt and sincere. Somehow, she just didn’t want him to be mad at her, which is odd, seeing as she had never once cared about what he thought of her. Perhaps, considering the fact that he had risked his life to save hers more than a few times already, and had nursed her back to health, she didn’t want him to think that she was being ungrateful… She was startled when he suddenly grabbed her and forced his lips onto hers. The intensity and desperation in the kiss surprised her, and it also scared her a little. She had tried to protest, pushing against his chest, trying to struggle out of his grip. But the feel of his lips on hers was not at all unpleasant, nor was the sensation of having her body pressed tightly to his. She could feel his firm chest muscles rippling beneath his shirt, and she caught a whiff of his masculine scent. Something possessed her then to say “screw it”, and to give in to his hunger. She remembers returning his kiss, and he had shivered slightly when she lightly nibbled his bottom lip. Their kisses became deeper, and she felt his tongue invading her mouth. Soft and moist, it reaches for her own tongue, sending a tingly sensation running up and down her spine. She remembers her arms around his neck, her fingers running through his short dark hair. Somehow, she had ended up pushed against a tree, the grainy bark scratching against her back. Her robe was slightly open – had he done that? She couldn’t remember. He started hungrily kissing her around her neck, and she had gasped when she felt his teeth on the sensitive spot around her collarbone. Their gaze met briefly, and she saw a fire in his wolf’s eyes that set the golden flecks in his irises ablaze. She felt a sudden longing to have that fiery passion inside of her, to let it burn her to her very core. Something about his ferocity, his wild thirst, was somewhat arousing, and when she stroked his cheeks, feeling the coarseness of his stubble, she felt something hard pressing against her leg, and she knew that he was as stimulated as she was. All of a sudden, she had a sudden yearning to feel his bare skin, and at that moment his thin cotton shirt felt as thick as any plate armour. She undid the top two buttons and slid her hands into the resultant
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opening. She remembers the small strangled cry that escaped his lips, the warmth of his exhaled breath tickling her neck, as she massaged his firm chest muscles, her fingers feeling the raised scars on his smooth skin, and the fluid tensing of his strong muscles. She felt his hand running across her hip towards her stomach, lingering briefly at her navel before it started to descend, and it was only then that she realised that he had unlaced her trousers. His fingers brushed her inner thigh, and suddenly, the old fear had returned. Without thinking, she grabs his probing hand before it reached its destination. The look Bishop gave her was one of confusion and consternation, as his hand strained against hers. “Don’t play games with me,” he warned, his tone low and menacing, as his hand tried to thrust downwards again. But she had held on in a blind panic, and he eventually backed off. As she clumsily pulled her pants back up, he stood staring at her, his hair mussed, his shirt partly open, showing his well-defined chest muscles as they heaved with every breath. His eyes still burned with an inner fire. But this time it was flaring with anger. “Bishop, please…” she had started, but he pushed her away, and rushed off into the darkness, leaving her leaning against the tree, her hair in disarray, her dishevelled robe hanging off a shoulder, and her mind in turmoil. He hadn’t given her a chance to explain… And what would you have said if he had stayed to listen? She asks herself, and sighs when no answer comes to her. Even if she had the chance to justify her behaviour, he would probably still have been angry. Bishop doesn’t seem like the sympathetic, understanding type… In fact, he doesn’t even seem like her type, so what in the hells had possessed her last night? He’s rude, brash, obnoxious, self-centred…sure, he’s attractive with a good body, but… He’s a traitor, she tries to convince herself. He sold you out, he sold Neverwinter out…and he killed Casavir in cold blood… Alya feels a pang of grief at the thought of the paladin, and an overwhelming sense of guilt that she has betrayed his memory so quickly.

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What has gotten into her? All this time stuck in the woods with the ranger, with no one else for company, must have done things to her head. As soon as she gets back to civilisation, things will be different, and she will forget all about him. She glances ahead. She catches a glimpse of amber eyes as the ranger peers over his shoulder briefly before turning away again. She watches the lithe movements of his powerful shoulder muscles as he walks on. Yes, she thinks wistfully. Things will be different. But will I forget him? * * *

The rain finally starts to let up around early evening, slowing to a light drizzle, although the sky overhead remains dark and imposing. Karnwyr, who has been slinking quietly beside him, looking cold, wet and miserable, shakes himself, spraying the ranger with dog-smelling water. Bishop hardly notices this as he steps past the last trees that mark the edges of the Mere of Dead Men, and onto a large road, one that winds its way down a hill. In the distance, just about visible amid the grey gloom, they glimpse the twinkling fires of torches lining the battlements of Crossroads Keep. They are less than an hour away now. He knows he should go no further. As it is, standing on the open road, he risks being detected by a Greycloak patrol. His intention is to leave Alya here, and then disappear back into the woods. Whatever foolish notions he had entertained about begging her to stay, or having a civilised farewell, are all quashed now. The memory of how she had led him on last night, deceiving him into letting down his defences, into revealing so much, only to deny him at the very last moment, burns in his mind like a red-hot brand. Any common wench who would dare toy with him in that way would not have had a choice anyway in the end, and he would probably have cut her up a little while he was at it, as punishment for her insolence. But with her, he had merely run off like a coward, his libido unsatisfied, and he then had to degrade himself by getting reacquainted with his right hand… The thought of that alone is enough to steel his resolve.

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As he stands in the middle of the deserted road, he hears her catching up to him and stopping just behind him. He doesn’t glance back, but he imagines that she is looking at the lights from the keep in the distance. As the misty rain continues to fall all around them, they are both silent. Several minutes pass before he hears her call his name. “Bishop?” Quiet, careful, uncertain. “Just go,” he states tersely, still gazing into the middle distance, refusing to meet her eyes. No doubt the witch would try to shake his resolve if he were to look directly at her. More uneasy silence, then, with a sigh, he hears her trudge away, her boots making squishing noises with each muddy step. Karnwyr whines beside him, and he grabs the animal firmly by the scruff of his neck, in case he tries to bolt for her again. Despite himself, he chances a quick peek. She is looking back at him over her shoulder, her hood pulled up to protect herself from the rain, a soggy lock of reddish hair plastered to one side of her face. He cannot read the expression in her green catlike eyes. Her cheeks are wet, but whether it is rainwater or tears he does not know. He turns away quickly, ignoring the twinge in his heart, and starts to shrink back into the shelter of the trees, dragging the reluctant wolf with him. But then he notices a horse-drawn cart trundling towards them from the other end of the road. A lone man steers the dun coloured horse as it pulls a wooden wagon covered by a sheet of tarpaulin. He appears to be a merchant travelling with his wares. Except that Karnwyr is growling at him. Still holding on to the wolf’s neck, Bishop could feel the snarl sending vibrations of caution up his arm. He hopes the merchant has not seen him, allowing him time to melt into the darkness of the swamp. But the man is eyeing him intently as he pulls his horse to a stop. Part of his face peeks out from under his hood: a jagged pink scar runs diagonally across one eye. The eye sparkles with recognition on seeing the ranger.

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“Bishop,” the mysterious man says with a sneer, his voice low and rough, and somehow menacing. Shit… Karnwyr growls again.

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Chapter 27 – A Stranger from the Past

The flickering lights from the torches of Crossroads Keep are like tiny beacons in the gloom, beckoning invitingly to Alya as she walks down the muddy road towards them. Finally, after weeks, she is on her way back. She almost couldn’t believe that she is here now, barely a couple of miles from the keep. Her spirit lifts a little with the possibility of seeing Bevil, and perhaps Daeghun, again. She wonders how everyone is doing: Sal, Kana, old Jacoby, the weapon smith; she has always been quite fond of the amiable old man… A plaintive whine from behind makes her glance backwards. He stands motionless in the drizzling rain, his hood around his head, a firm hand on Karnwyr’s neck, the animal whimpering at her. His head is halfturned towards her, and she sees the liquid glint of his golden-brown wolf’s eyes, hard and emotionless, and yet flashing briefly with what looks like regret. As the memories from the night before comes flooding back, she fights a surging desire to run to him, to feel his strong, protective arms enveloping her, to smell his musky scent mingling with the heady aroma of his leathers, to hear him breathing in her ear, to drink deeply from his lips… She shakes her head of the graphic imagery, reminding herself of the burning fury in his eyes last night, and convincing herself that what childish reconciliations she has in mind is never to be. I have nothing to offer him. And Bishop is not the type to give without expecting something in return…

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Her eyes start to prickle suddenly, and she turns away quickly. She is not going to let him see how much this is affecting her. Why is she feeling this way about him, anyway? It just doesn’t make sense! Hells, just a few weeks ago, she had a dagger over his throat… Would she really have gone through with it if that styx dragon hadn’t shown up? Her mind is whirling. She can’t think straight with him so near. She has to get away. She needs to get to Crossroads Keep now. Her footsteps quicken as she makes haste towards the glowing lights in the distance. The clatter of a wooden cart and the clopping sound of a horse’s hooves stop her in mid-stride. She turns to find a horse-drawn wagon pulling to a stop. The lone traveller, his short and stocky stature marking him as a dwarf, is looking at Bishop, who is standing at the edge of the trees, just about to vanish into the depths of the Mere. The stranger’s hood is drawn over his head, cloaking the upper half of his face in shadow, but peeking out from the darkness is bluish-grey skin and a silver beard. A duergar… For some reason, Karnwyr’s hackles are raised, and he growls at the newcomer. “Bishop.” Apparently, the strange man knows the ranger. His tone is cold, dangerous. His hood falls open, revealing a bald, grey-skinned head, and an ugly scar running across his face that splits one of his eyelids in two, its pinkness contrasting with the rest of the dark dwarf’s complexion. “Garrick,” Bishop practically spits the name. “What a pleasant surprise.” The other man, who seems to be in his forties, snickers. “I see you haven’t changed much since I last saw you. Still know how to make an old friend feel welcome, eh?” “You, on the other hand, have changed quite a bit,” the ranger sneers just as menacingly. “Last I saw you, you were dead.”

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The dwarf’s eyes narrow dangerously at the retort. The scar on his face appears to flush, turning a deeper red. “Almost dead,” he corrects. Then, he makes a tutting sound. “You made a fundamental error, my boy. Very disappointing, considering your potential.” “Rule number one for assassins: almost make sure your quarry is really dead,” Bishop recites, his tone mocking. “Trust me, Garrick, I’m regretting my oversight already.” Who is this man? Alya wonders, intrigued yet concerned. Whoever he is, if Bishop had nearly killed him once before, there can be only one thing on the duergar’s mind. Revenge. “Now now, my son, don’t be too hard on yourself,” the man known as Garrick chides sarcastically. “After all, you had taken a couple of blows, so I’ll understand if you were not as…thorough, as you would have been.” Then, with a sadistic gleam in his scarred eye, he continues, “Of course, there’s also the emotional distress, after what happened with Calyx…” Alya hears another snarl, and it takes her a while before she realises that this one had not come from Karnwyr, but from Bishop himself. She sees his blazing eyes narrowed into slits, and the muscles in his jaws clenching with barely concealed anger. Whatever Garrick meant, he has certainly touched a nerve. “I’ve killed you once.” He threatens in a low voice. “And I can easily kill you again.” Glaring venomously at the dark dwarf, he adds, “And this time I’ll be thorough.” The duergar laughs heartily, the sound chilling Alya to the bone. “My dear boy, you’d be a tad naïve to think that I would come after you without a bit of…insurance.” One grey hand reaches under the waterproof sheet covering his wooden cart. His dark lips pull back in a malevolent grin. “You don’t know how long I have been waiting for this…” Bishop reaches behind himself for his twin swords, as Karnwyr, teeth bared, readies himself to pounce. Thunk! A throwing star embeds itself into the wood of the wagon, barely inches from the duergar’s fingers.
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In an instant, both men are staring at her, as if they had not noticed her presence before that. Um…hi? Garrick is the first to regain his composure after the surprise attack. “Bishop,” he coos treacherously. “You got yourself a new girlfriend!” Unashamedly, he proceeds to appraise her with his eyes, a lascivious grin on his scarred face. Alya could almost feel him mentally undressing her, and has to suppress a sudden urge to shudder. “Not bad, son,” the dwarf finally comments. “Not quite Calyx, but still a pretty good catch.” Why that no-good son-of-a… Alya hates the man already. “Your fight’s with me, duergar,” Bishop says, as he unsheathes his blades. To her, he orders bluntly, “Go. This is none of your business.” The dark dwarf chuckles. “My, such protectiveness. Is it safe for me to assume that you have gotten over our dear Calyx then?” Who in the world is this Calyx he keeps talking about? Alya wonders, feeling an unexpected, illogical pang of jealousy. Although it is plain that the other man’s words are riling the ranger, Bishop keeps his attention focused on her. “Alya!” he shouts across the distance between them, and it occurs to her that this is the first time she has ever heard him use her name. This must be important… She returns his gaze with a quizzical look. “You’re not involved. This is between the two of us. So go away!” Normally, she would have done as he asked; as malicious and strong as that dark dwarf looks, she knows Bishop is probably capable enough of handling him alone. But something about that cart just does not seem right. Garrick has his hand on the tarpaulin sheet again, his hand right above her throwing star, which is still stuck fast into the side of the wagon.
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She cannot out a finger on it, but that cart is making her uneasy… Plus, she is feeling an unexplainable concern for the ranger’s safety. The only response she could muster is a dumb, stubborn shake of her head that plasters more of her dripping wet hair to her cheeks. This seems to amuse Garrick. “At least this one’s loyal,” he remarks, sneering smugly at Bishop. “A shame she’s forcing us to involve her. Such a waste to have her killed.” He smiles that malevolent smile again. “But enough small talk, as much as I would enjoy catching up on old times.” With that, he grabs an edge of the sheet and whips it off, sending up a shower of rainwater that had been pooling on the waterproof surface. And Alya realises what had been bothering her about the duergar’s wagon.

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Chapter 28 – Welcoming Party

The ever-so-slight movements underneath the tarpaulin, that little twitch she elicited from under the sheet when her throwing star hit the cart… It was all so obvious… She curses herself for not realising the implication sooner. As the wagon covering is pulled away, up springs a gang of similarly dressed people, weapons at the ready. They all wear black leather clothing bearing the distinctive markings of assassins. Luskan assassins. Alya does a quick mental calculation. Including Garrick and counting Karnwyr, they are outnumbered seven to three. They’ve had worse odds before, but something about how these attackers are carrying themselves, with the smooth grace of those who have done this many times, tells her that they are seasoned killers. This is not going to be easy… Bishop sneers disdainfully. “This is your ‘insurance’?” he asks. “What, too much of a coward to fight me man to man?” The duergar shrugs, unaffected by the ranger’s jeer. “You know us assassins: any unfair advantage for the upper hand.” He returns Bishop’s smirk with one of his own. “You, my boy, should appreciate it more than anyone else.” Garrick’s smile broadens even as his eyes sparkle with a sadistic glee. “It’s time for you to pay for what you did to me.”

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Casually, he gives his order, “Don’t kill them too quickly.” The dwarf begins to unsheathe his blade, a rather lethal-looking rapier. Almost as an afterthought, he adds, “Oh, and try and make him watch his girlfriend die, first.” Almost immediately, a couple of crossbows are trained onto her. She barely has time to spin out of the way of the bolts, as they whiz past her shoulder. A feral growl tells her that Karnwyr has joined the fray, teeth gnashing. She sees Bishop, his swords drawn, engaging two assassins. Another bolt zips by, this one whistling past her ear, barely an inch away. She gasps involuntarily. Reaching for her throwing stars, she rolls away from her rather exposed spot in the middle of the road, and dives behind a copse of birches, the thin trunks of the small trees offering some protection from the incoming missiles. Holding a star between her index and middle finger, she peeks out from her behind a trunk, and with quick flicks of her wrists, lets two stars fly in succession. She dodges back behind her scant shelter in time to hear a bolt thudding into tree bark. Another furtive glance reveals that one of her stars has found the thigh of one of the marksmen, but that is hardly going to slow him down. If anything, the lanky man looks incensed, as he starts to approach her hiding place, limping only slightly, crossbow at the ready. Time for the heavy artillery… She produces a handful of throwing knives impregnated with elemental magic. Holding them by their blades, she fans them out like a pack of cards, the energy imbued within them causing them to thrum in between her fingers. She picks out two of the knives, turns around, and whips both of them at the sniper with the injured leg. They both find their mark in the man’s chest. One of them explodes in a ball of flames, and the other crackles with electricity, sending blue sparks conducting up and down his body. With a strangled cry, the man drops into the mud. Alya is about to try taking out the other ranged attacker, when an almost imperceptible rustle right beside her catches her attention. From the corner of her eye, she spies the glint of metal, and only just manages to duck away, as a dagger slashes the air where her neck was a fraction of a second ago. “What the –?“ Even as she watches, a dark elf materialises out of the shadows, her silvery white hair hidden beneath a black cape. Her red eyes burning with malice, she advances on Alya, her scabbard raised high.
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These people are good… Staying behind the birch trees to avoid being shot at by the one remaining crossbowman, Alya evades a lunge from the drow. Grabbing the assassin’s wrist, she tries to disarm her, but the other woman whirls around, swinging her free elbow into Alya’s gut. She exhales loudly, losing her grip on the elf. Before she could recover, she feels herself being pinned against the cluster of trees, the drow’s forearm leaning painfully across her neck, right under her chin, choking her. Alya’s lungs scream out for air as she tries unsuccessfully to draw breath. The dark elf’s other hand holds the gleaming scabbard, its tip hovering above her heart. Black spots swim around her vision as her oxygen-starved brain threatens to shut down. Suddenly, the crushing pressure on Alya’s windpipe is eased, and she slumps to her knees, gasping as she breathes raggedly, greedily inhaling the sweet, rain-soaked air, allowing it to fill her empty lungs. As she regains her senses, it takes her a moment to realise that the drow woman is screeching in agony. She is cowering beneath a huge grey shadow as the beast savagely tears into her, all the while growling fiercely. Alya watches in mute horror as the wolf clamps his jaws down on the assassin’s neck, and starts to shake her violently from side to side, like a rag doll. The dark elf’s tortured screams turn to bloody gurgles as her throat is torn to shreds. The sight and sound of the brutal mauling send a shiver down Alya’s spine. When he is done, Karnwyr looks up from his victim. His tongue lolls out as his lips part in a wolf smile, and he wags his tail, as if seeking approval for his actions. Apart from the deep crimson blood matting the fur around his face, he seems every bit the friendly, playful animal companion she has been travelling with, who has on many occasions gently gnawed on her hand with those same sharp fangs. “Good boy,” she manages to croak hoarsely, as she gingerly massages her sore throat. * * * Bishop parries the oncoming blade with one of his own, and simultaneously drives his other sword deep in between his attacker’s ribs. When he withdraws it, it is coated in the assassin’s sticky blood. As the dying man falls to the ground, Bishop turns to face his other aggressor. He has managed to move around in such a way that there was always one of the swordsmen between himself and the other assassin, thus allowing him to fight just one at a time. The second assailant is also a two-weapon fighter, equipped with a short sword and a dagger. As they clash, their blades collide in a shower of sparks in spite of the wet weather. From his brutish features,
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snout-like nose, and the lower canines jutting out from his bottom lip, the man is probably a half-orc, which explains his sturdy build. And his immense strength. With a grunt, the assassin gives a mighty push that sends Bishop stumbling backwards. As he tries to regain his balance, the half-orc swings his short sword at his head. As the ranger brings one of his own blades up to deflect it, the force f the other man’s blow knocks his weapon out of his hand. It sails briefly through the air before landing with a splat in the mud. Shit… He ducks to avoid being beheaded a second time, both hands tightening around his one remaining sword. As he jumps back up, he lunges at the assassin, and their weapons crash together again, the sound ringing in Bishop’s ears. Their blades lock, and his arm muscles are straining as he tries to push the Luskan back, but the burlier, stronger man is unmovable. With a cruel grin that reveals his sharp orcish teeth, the assassin again starts to force the ranger backwards. Bishop senses a tree coming up close behind him, and he swears under his breath. If he gets backed into it, he would be in trouble… Freeing one hand from his sword handle, he forms a fist and punches the other man in the nose. The half-orc is not expecting it, and so bears the full brunt of the blow. Bishop feels something give way under his knuckles, and he hears an ominous crack. As the assassin’s head snaps back, the ranger seizes the opportunity to strike, but again his attack is deflected by the powerful half-orc. Apart from the blood flowing freely from his broken nose, the assassin does not seem at all dazed by the blow, as his yellow eyes narrow in fury. He brings the hilt of his short sword down, catching Bishop in the temple. The impact sends the ranger sprawling onto the ground, splashing as he lands in a puddle. An explosion of stars cloud his vision, as his head throbs sharply in rhythm to his pounding heart. He tries to will himself not to black out. As he rolls himself onto his back, his vision clears enough for him to see a hulking figure looming over him. A flash of light bounces off the assassin’s blade as it swings downwards, aimed at his throat. With a gasp, Bishop scrambles out of the way, just as the sword digs into the ground where he was lying, sending up a shower of muddy water and moist dirt. Staggering unsteadily to his feet, his head still spinning, the ranger realises with dread that he has lost his remaining sword.
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And the massive half-orc is rushing at him, both his blades raised. He’s too strong! I can’t keep fighting him like this… From somewhere in his thumping head, Bishop recalls something Alya had told him once, about one of her philosophies in a fight. “Yield to the greater force.” He had scoffed when she first said that; he would yield to no one, he remembers answering. But with the powerful half-orc bearing down on him as he stands there, vulnerable and unarmed, he figures he might as well give it a shot. The assassin thrusts his sword at Bishop’s gut, and in that split second before the blade would sink into his flesh, he steps aside. As he has seen Alya do numerous times in a battle, he grabs his attacker as the big Luskan rumbles past, and the ranger gives him an extra heave in the direction of his forward momentum. Thrown off balance, the heavy man is propelled ahead, and slams face-first into a solid oak. Bishop is on him in the blink of an eye. Wresting the momentarily stunned man’s sword from his loosened grip, he drives it deep between its owner’s shoulder blades with such force that it rips right through the assassin and into the tree. Without a chance to even cry out, the half-orc dies, impaled to the tree trunk. Breathing heavily, Bishop retrieves his fallen blades, while at the same time surveying his surroundings warily. The wooden cart that carried the Luskans, still tethered to the horse, is now unoccupied. The first assassin he felled lies in a pool of his own blood. Further away, he sees another Luskan body. The man’s eyes stare lifelessly at the rainy sky, blood still spurting from a gaping hole where his throat once was. Karnwyr’s gotten to this one, the ranger thinks proudly. He hears an ear-splitting shriek. A few yards ahead, beyond the body of a crossbowman and behind a copse of birch trees, he sees a flurry of motion, as a black figure wrestles vainly against a large grey one. From between the trees, he sees Alya’s sitting form as she, too, watches the battle between the assassin and the wolf. After what seems like an eternity, with a sputtering cry, the Luskan stops moving. Bishop’s well-trained hearing catches the sound of padded boots slipping into mud. Barely visible in the shadows, he spies another assassin, crossbow in hand, as he tries to sneak around the cluster of trees to get a better shot at Alya. The monk seems to be unaware, as she sits there, appearing to catch her breath.
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Whipping out his longbow, Bishop quickly notches an arrow, aims, and fires. The flying missile lodges in the man’s head with a satisfying thunk. Alya turns around in time to see the assassin, an arrow sticking out of his skull, a surprised look on his face, topple over dead. Bishop jogs up to Alya and Karnwyr. She has a hand around her neck, her breath coming out in wheezes. He feels an urge to put his arms around her protectively. The words “Are you okay?” dances tantalisingly on his tongue before he pushes the thought away. Instead, he briefly scans her for any signs of injury. Satisfied and relieved when he finds none, he merely offers her a hand to help her up. No need to let her know you were worried about her. “You’re hurt,” she begins, as she reaches for the swelling on the side of his head, which is already turning an angry purple. Her fingers dance lightly on the bruise before he jerks away irritably. “I’ll live,” he says curtly. They both scrutinise the carnage around them. At some point during the melee, the rain had intensified again, not as bad as before, but heavy enough to obscure visibility. Their eyes meet, and she asks the question he is wondering in his head. “Where’s Garrick?” Both Alya and Bishop glance around cautiously. Through the drizzle, they can see no one amid the gloom and shadows of the trees. The constant sound of rain falling among the leaves makes hearing out for any telltale rustling almost impossible. They look to Karnwyr to sniff the duergar out, but the wolf merely growls in a low voice. “Can’t you, like, tell him to fetch, or sic, or something?” she asks Bishop. The thought of the dark dwarf watching them unseen seems to be unnerving her. “I could, if he knew where that bastard is,” the ranger scowls, his eyes darting about warily. “But, why can’t he smell him?” “Simple trick,” Bishop replies, his tone derisive, as if he were lecturing to a novice. “He’s masking his scent. Rolling about in mud usually does
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the trick. Better yet, if you manage to find any wild animal droppings…” “Oh…” she says dumbly. “Eew…” They wait in silence again, straining to see or hear anything that may reveal Garrick’s whereabouts. When they still find nothing, Alya asks again, “Just how much should we be worrying about our missing friend?” “If you’re thinking he’s run off like a coward, don’t bet on it. That’s precisely what he wants you to think.” Looking up, his amber eyes scan the tree tops as water drips onto his face. “He’s still here – somewhere.” “You seem to be quite sure you know what he’s up to,” she remarks. “Of course,” he replies. “Tricks of the trade. He taught them to me.” Alya’s head snaps around, her eyes wide as she stares at him. “He’s your mentor??” Bishop shrugs nonchalantly. “If you want to call him that.” To him, the word ‘mentor’ conjures up an image of a wise old teacher who is patient, kindly and nurturing in his teaching. And Garrick possesses none of those traits. “Gee,” Alya mutters, shaking her head incredulously. “If he’s as good as you are, then we should be worried.” Was that a compliment? Another spell of silence follows. The light has begun to fade as evening approaches, casting even darker shadows all around them, but they stay where they are, their backs against the copse of birches. At least from this vantage point, they have their rear covered. Frustratingly, all sounds appear to be drowned out by the drip, drip, drip of raindrops. “So…” Alya begins, trying to sound casual, even though he can see the curiosity glowing in her eyes. “What happened between you two? He seems to be going through a lot of trouble to hunt you down…” And here come the difficult questions… Bishop is still trying to decide on how much he should tell her, when something crashes loudly in the bushes. They spin around just in time
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to see a massive shape springing out from behind the shrubs, completely black except for the glint of sharp fangs and claws, and a pair of glowing yellow-green eyes. The dark shadow hisses viciously as it pounces at them. Even as they scatter to avoid the creature, Bishop knows that this is a decoy. Their attacker, a large, sleek black panther, dangerous as it is, is merely a means of diverting attention. Keeping one eye on the big cat, which is having a snarling match with Karnwyr, Bishop urgently scans their surroundings, searching for what he knows would be there. He hears Alya’s surprised exclamation, as she is forced to tumble out of the way when the panther lunges suddenly at her. He barely notices that she has her throwing daggers in hand again, as she slowly circles the jet-black animal. And then he finds it. Nearly invisible to anyone who is not actively looking out for it, a drawn bow, partly concealed, peeks out from behind the leaves and branches of a tree. There is an arrow nocked in it… And it is aimed straight at the monk. “Watch it!” he shouts, as he starts running towards her. Alya looks up and around, seemingly confused as to what he is warning her about, but the panther swipes at her again, its fully extended, razor sharp claws barely missing her by a couple of inches, and she returns her full attention to the cat. Shit! He reaches for his longbow, hoping to get off a shot before the sniper does. But the twang of a taut bowstring tells him that it is too late for that. And he sees the loosed arrow zipping unerringly through the air towards its unsuspecting target. Shit, shit, shit... Without thinking, he dives towards Alya, interposing himself between her and the oncoming arrow. With a thud, the arrow is driven deep into his flesh. Staggering a few steps backwards from the force of the impact, Bishop feels a searing pain directly beneath his right collarbone where the missile has
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penetrated his armour. He hears Alya gasp from somewhere behind him. Grabbing the protruding shaft, he grits his teeth as he pulls out the arrow, the serrated arrowhead making a ripping, sucking sound as it tears at his flesh on its way out, bringing a trail of crimson along with it. “Bishop…” Alya’s voice is tinged with concern. He is ready with his usual terse retort. “I’m fine. It didn’t hit anything vital.” At least, that is what he wanted to say. But before he could get the chance, he is hit by a sudden wave of dizziness. The ground appears to tilt beneath him as the trees start to spin crazily round and round. He feels his knees buckle as he sinks onto the grass. He hears Alya call out, but he cannot discern what she is saying; her voice sounds muffled and far away. The pain from his fresh wound intensifies, and it changes from a sharp, piercing pain to a more malignant, burning, spreading one. Poison! Garrick, you son-of-a-whore! I should have known… And that is one of his last coherent thoughts.

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Chapter 29 – Garrick’s Revenge

“Bishop!” Alarmed, Alya rushes to the ranger’s side. She had not seen the arrow until the very last moment, when Bishop had suddenly nudged her aside. She felt him back into her a little as the missile slammed into him, throwing him slightly off balance. Then, grunting, he had yanked the arrow out from his collarbone. She had winced as blood spurted out from the hole in his armour, but she felt a surge of hope and relief, that he was not seriously injured. But when she called out to him, she noticed that he was staring blankly into space. All of a sudden, he lurched forwards, falling to his knees before collapsing onto the ground. She cries his name again as she turns the ranger over. Bishop’s eyes are clamped shut, his rugged features contorted in pain. His breath is coming out in ragged gasps through his clenched teeth, and his muscles under her touch are bunching up as he writhes in agony. Her eyes fall on the bloody arrow he still clutches in his hand. It has a jagged head on one end, and on the other, black feathers that look like they came off a raven’s tail. With an accumulating sense of dread, she realises that the arrow tip was probably laced with poison. Shrugging off her satchel, she starts to rifle through the contents for an antidote. Producing a flask of luminous green liquid, she bites down on the cork, and moves to open the bottle. “That’s not going to work.” She whirls around at the sound of Garrick’s sinister voice. The duergar emerges from the shadows, his bow drawn and aimed at her. Another
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one of those black-plumed arrows is nocked in his shortbow. The enormous black panther, which she has nearly forgotten about, pads tamely to the dwarf’s side. He gestures at the bottle between her teeth. “That’s not going to work,” he repeats simply. Glaring stubbornly at the dark dwarf, Alya pulls the cork out with her teeth, lifts Bishop’s head, and gently prises his mouth open. She pours the contents of the bottle down his throat, all the while expecting Garrick to put an arrow into her for her defiance. But he merely stands there, his ranged weapon still trained on her, a cruel sneer pulling up the corner of his mouth. The ranger coughs as he chokes on the bitter liquid, then… Nothing. Bishop continues to struggle in the throes of some unknown pain. The antidote does not seem to have alleviated the effects of the poison. If anything, his breathing appears to become increasingly laboured as the toxin spreads in his bloodstream. And Garrick starts to laugh. “Told you, doll,” he chuckles. “That’s no ordinary poison. It’ll take more than a bottle of watered-down antidote to neutralise.” He looks at the twitching body of the ranger with an expression of amusement. “Too bad he got in the way. That arrow was meant for you, dear girl. I didn’t count on him trying to be a hero.” He shakes his head. “That’s not like him at all,” he muses. Then, a shadow falls across his blue-grey face as he continues. “And I wanted him to watch you die, to feel how I felt, and then kill him.” “You’re a monster,” she whispers, shaking her head, and as she desperately tries to still Bishop’s spasms, she asks, “Why are you doing this?” Garrick snickers as he moves menacingly closer. “You don’t know? Looks like your boyfriend’s been keeping secrets from you.” As the duergar closes in even more, Alya bites back the urge to childishly retort that Bishop is not her boyfriend. “Let’s just say his past has finally caught up to him.” Another step closer, until now he is just a yard or so away. The dwarf starts to
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regard Alya in that lecherous way again. “It’s such a shame I have to kill you now,” he says. His tone is so casual, he may have been commenting about the weather. “But I can’t risk having a vengeful lover on my tail.” He pulls his bowstring back further. “Such a waste of a pretty woman…” He’s too close, Alya thinks. I won’t be able to dodge the arrow. She could only watch helplessly as Garrick releases his taut bowstring… Just as a ball of grey fur latches itself onto the dark dwarf’s arm. The duergar cries out in surprise and pain as Karnwyr’s teeth sinks into his flesh. He jerks his arm as he fires, causing his arrow to fly off harmlessly into the trees. Alya would normally have seized that opportunity to strike, but she still has Bishop’s head in her lap. By the time she has gently laid him down, Garrick has freed his arm with a vicious punch to the wolf’s snout, causing the animal to let go with a pained snuffle. With the element of surprise gone, though, the dwarf is not going to have time to notch another arrow. Alya moves to fling herself at Garrick, but he has quickly drawn his rapier, swinging it in a wide arc. The monk has to brake suddenly to avoid running headlong into the tip of the sword. “Get that mangy mutt, Sable!” Garrick yells, shaking the pain out of his bitten hand, and it takes a moment for Alya to realise that ‘Sable’ is his black panther companion. Even now, as the creature hisses dangerously, its fangs and claws bared, its eyes glinting with a feral light, she cannot help but find the sleek, ebony coloured animal majestic and lethally beautiful. As it moves, she could see its powerful muscles flowing fluidly under its glossy coat. With one effortless leap, the panther lands between Karnwyr and Garrick. Alya feels a twinge of concern for the wolf; the cat is almost twice his size. The sound of a blade slashing the air in front of her reminds Alya that she has more pressing issues to worry about. Garrick dances with the rapier, slashing and stabbing, forcing her to dodge and retreat repeatedly. He is obviously skilled with the weapon. Alya gasps when one of his slashing attacks slits her sleeve, nicking her arm. She feels a biting pain as warm blood trickles out of the cut.
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The duergar grins, relishing the fact that he is in full control of the fight. She cannot keep eluding him this way. Somehow, she has to stop defending and start attacking. Watch his shoulders, something in her mind tells her, reminding her of her training. They’ll betray his every move. Her heart hammering in her chest, she carefully observes the dwarf’s shoulders, trying to ignore the sharp blade whizzing past her vision every other moment. Eventually, she begins to notice some patterns in his movements: jab, slice, thrust…jab, slice, thrust…each action is smooth and sure, a testament to the man’s fighting prowess. But then she spots a slightly inconsistent jerkiness in his motion, right before one of his strikes, imperceptible enough that she would have missed it had she not been scrutinising so closely. His muscles appear to twitch in anticipation of some form of sudden exertion. He’s going to make a big lunge… As Garrick raises his rapier, an expectant glint in his eye, Alya takes a deep breath, and steps forward just as the duergar charges, his blade levelled at her gut… She spins out of the way at the very last moment, and feels the sharp blade whistling by. At the same time, she grabs Garrick’s passing sword arm. Startled that his target is no longer there, and carried forward by his own momentum, the duergar stumbles ahead. Wrenching his arm in an awkward angle, Alya falls in the opposite direction. The loud pop! and the sudden extra give in Garrick’s arm confirms that she has yanked it out of its socket. Garrick screams as he falls, clutching his dislocated shoulder. Quickly, Alya disarms him and pins him to the ground, putting the dwarf’s own blade to his throat. The assassin tries to struggle, but Alya places one knee on either side of his ribs, and squeezes hard enough to deter any further squirming. She hears a gasp. Glancing up quickly, she sees Bishop’s back arch off the ground as his body seizes. Involuntarily, the sight makes her heart clench.
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“Tell me,” she pants, pressing the edge of the blade into the tender flesh of the duergar’s neck. “The poison…what’s the cure?” The dwarf glares up at her, the ugly scar across his face an angry red. Then, incredibly, he starts to laugh. He seems to be looking at something directly over Alya’s shoulder when he pursed his grey lips together and blew a shrill whistle. Something hits Alya’s side with the force of a barrelling downhill, knocking her off the dwarven lands heavily on her back, she has the presence of arms up in front of her, just in time to stop a set of clamping down on her jugular. runaway wagon assassin. As she mind to raise her razor sharp teeth

Grabbing the panther’s upper and lower jaws, being careful not to impale her fingers on its fangs, she tries to push the creature’s massive mouth away from her neck. She smells the rancid reek of the animal’s hot breath, as it snarls, straining against her hold. Warm saliva drips from its open maw, and its whiskers twitch continuously in anticipation of a kill. The panther’s jaws inch ever closer as its weight, combined with its superior strength, starts to overwhelm her. She will not be able to muscle her way out of this one. Desperately, she wriggles until one of her legs is freed from underneath the big cat. With all her strength, she drives her knee upwards, into the soft underside of the creature. The animal’s yowl of pain rings out right next to Alya’s ear as it staggers off her. Jumping to her feet, she kicks out again at the creature, and again, repeatedly aiming for its vulnerable underbelly. The panther swipes at her with its dagger-like claws, and she skips out of reach. Launching herself on the cat’s back, she latches both arms around its thick neck. Growling angrily, the creature bucks and writhes as it tries to throw the monk off. It even tries to reach over its own head to paw at her, but she tightens her grip, cutting off the animal’s air supply. As she hangs on, she can feel the panther tiring, as its struggles grow more sluggish, and its breath starts to escape in strangled wheezes. Finally, after what feels like a lifetime dangling from the big cat’s neck, the panther staggers and falls. Even as she lies beside the creature on the ground, Alya keeps her arms firmly around its windpipe, until the rise and fall of breathing in the animal’s body has completely stopped.

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As she clambers to her feet, she sees Garrick not too far away. Scraps of cotton gauze and an almost-empty bottle of blue liquid lie strewn at his feet, as he gingerly flexes his freshly healed shoulder. Their eyes meet across the distance, and they both simultaneously spot the rapier that lies on the ground between them. Garrick dives for the sword, but Alya kicks it away, and in the same motion, follows through by swinging her foot into the duergar’s chest, sending the assassin stumbling backwards. The dwarf is tough; he steadies himself quickly, and steps back in with a cocked fist. Reading his movement, Alya catches his punch in her hand. Her trained fingers quickly find the pressure point on Garrick’s fist, between the thumb and the index finger, and she digs her nail into it. The dark dwarf yelps in pain as he withdraws his fist. Twitching uncontrollably, his hand goes limp at the wrist, rendering it temporarily useless. Eyeing a striking opportunity, Alya ducks in, pretending to hit low, but then she lifts her elbow in an upward motion as she stands, the solid joint catching Garrick squarely in the chin. Alya feels a jarring sensation up her arm, and she hears the sound of the duergar’s teeth clashing together, as his head whips backwards from the force of the blow. He falls awkwardly on his back, and the monk is on top of him in a second. A scarlet line traces its way from Garrick’s mouth to his chin, and Alya waits for his dazed eyes to refocus. When she is sure he is looking directly at her, she grabs the front of his throat with her fingernails, holding his jugular in a vice-like grip. As the duergar attempts to fight back, she gives his neck a little squeeze for good measure. With a small gasp, the dwarf stops struggling. Logic tells her that she should end this troublesome dwarf’s life right now. He does not seem the type to graciously retreat with his tail between his legs. But out of the corner of her eye, she sees Bishop’s still form, no longer gripped by seizures. She has no idea if that is a good sign, as the ranger now appears to have lost consciousness. Worse still, she can’t see any sign that he is even breathing, and her insides twist with worry. Despite the feeling in her gut warning her that the duergar cannot be trusted, she wonders if she would be able to live with her conscience if she doesn’t at least try. So she tightens her grip slightly on the assassin’s throat.
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“The antidote,” she states evenly. “Now.” Garrick’s eyes widen as her nails dig deeper into his flesh, until she could feel his pulse beating against her fingertips. A pitiful whimper escapes his split lips. “P-please…” he stammers, spraying bloody spittle on her hand as he speaks. “Let me go…I’ll give you the antidote…just…please…don’t kill me…” “Give me the antidote first,” she demands warily. “Or I’ll rip your throat out.” “It’s…it’s in my back pouch.” He reaches a hand behind himself and fumbles clumsily, eventually managing to pull out a small felt bag. He tries to open it, but his fingers are trembling so hard, he could not untie the string keeping the pouch shut. Frustratedly, he makes another piteous squeak. “Oh, gods, please don’t kill me!” he sobs. “Just take the pouch! It contains the neutralising powder!” The pathetic thing actually seems genuinely scared. What little respect Alya had for the dwarf is completely erased now by his piteous whining. With one hand still encircled around Garrick’s throat, she carefully picks up his pouch with the other. The contents in the bag shifts fluidly in her hand, and Alya feels a surge of hope. At least the dwarf isn’t lying – it is some sort of powder. But she is not going to administer it to Bishop unless she is sure it is safe. She undoes the drawstring of the purse with her teeth, and peeks into the open mouth of the sack. It contains a strange yellow powder. Putting the pouch closer to her face, she sniffs it tentatively. It smells slightly acrid, and oddly familiar. With a flash, she recognises the pungent odour. “This is –“ she begins, but her hand that still holds the bag of dust is suddenly pushed forcefully into her face, scattering the unknown powder into her eyes, nose and mouth.

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Chapter 30 – Fire & Darkness

Alya gasps in surprise when the bag of powder is tipped into her face. She inhales involuntarily, breathing in some of the dust through her mouth and nose, as even more of it flies into her eyes. And then she starts to burn. Every orifice that the gritty powder manages to get into begins to blaze with a blistering pain. Her eyes, her nose, her mouth, even her throat… it’s as if someone has rubbed hot, glowing embers into them. The prickly sensation tickles her airways, and she coughs uncontrollably. With a hoarse cry, Alya brings both hands up to her face, trying to wipe the fiery dust out of her eyes. But the harder she rubs, the more it seems to sear her eyeballs. Hot tears start to flow reflexively, to attempt to flush out the caustic powder, but the salty water does nothing to relieve the excruciating sensation that her eyeballs have been set on fire. Something hits her hard in the stomach, knocking the air out of her. She tries to look around, but her eyes refuse to cooperate. In fact, they refuse to even open, as if they have been welded shut. Another blow, this time across the side of her head. The stunning blow, combined with her blinded state, causes her to lose her balance, and she falls heavily. She hears Garrick’s cruel laughter, and she curses herself for being so stupid and naïve. “And to think I was intending on saving that mustard powder to season my dinner tonight,” he chortles. From the sounds of his footfalls, she guesses that the dwarf has stepped right up beside her. The steel-toed boot driven swiftly into her ribs confirms her suspicions.
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Alya yelps as she feels a rib crack, the piercing pain shooting through her body, disabling her momentarily as she rolls helplessly on the ground, clutching at her injured side, coughing and gasping for breath. Then she hears what sounds like a foot being dragged back for another kick, and she quickly tumbles away from the noise, hoping to put as much distance between the dark dwarf and herself as possible. “You have been more trouble than I’ve bargained for, wench,” Garrick is saying. “And have you any idea how difficult it is to procure a decent panther? You’re going to pay dearly, sweetheart.” She still sees nothing but bleary darkness, her eyes and throat are still burning, and her bruised ribs are throbbing. She winces as they protest painfully with every move she makes. She continues to stumble away from the dwarf’s voice, one hand gripping her side, the other held out in front of her, groping blindly. She forces herself to stay calm in spite of her dire situation. Let’s hope all those blindfolded training works… Keeping her breathing steady, she wills herself to ignore the pain from her broken rib, her raw throat, and her impaired sense of sight, and to concentrate instead on relying on her other senses to determine the duergar’s location. The soft squishing noise of a boot sinking into mud, the barely audible exhalations of breath…and Bishop is right; she smells the faint stench of animal droppings that Garrick used to disguise his scent from Karnwyr. With the sensory information, Alya builds herself a mental image: the assassin is circling her slowly, perhaps trying to hit her from behind, or side on. She focuses on making sure she is always facing what she believes is his general direction. A series of quickening footsteps tells her that the dwarf is rushing swiftly towards her. She steps to the side, her outstretched hand searching for and finding Garrick’s wrist. Knowing that his head is attached to the end of his shoulder, she uses his limb as a tactile guide, her fingers tracing a path up his arm until she finds the assassin’s neck. With lightning speed, she chops at the side of his neck with the blade of her hand. Garrick grunts in pain, but he doesn’t go down. Damn his toughness! She hears the dwarf back off hastily…
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And then she hears nothing. Alya freezes. Still holding her aching side, she strains her ears, hoping to detect a rustle, a footfall, any sound that could betray the dwarf’s whereabouts, but she can sense nothing. Damn it! She thinks. He’s gone into stealth mode! She rotates slowly in a circle, listening out for anything that may give the duergar away. Her pulse is pounding so loudly in her head, it is probably drowning out any telltale noise. Thankfully though, her vision seems to be returning slowly, although her eyes are still stinging, and everything seems to be an unintelligible blur of light and darkness. She is glad that what Garrick threw in her face was merely mustard powder, and not something that could have had a more damaging, permanent effect. A sudden clattering off to one side makes her whirl around, her body reacting before her mind could interpret the noise. By the time her brain grasps that the sound was that of a handful of pebbles being thrown against a tree trunk, a mere ruse to divert her attention and to throw her guard, it is too late. She hears a more ominous sound coming up behind her. It is the whooshing sound an object being swung hard at her head. Something blunt crashes into the back of her neck, sending her sprawling into the mud. Her still cloudy vision is made worse by dancing stars, before everything goes black for a brief moment. Perhaps she momentarily lost consciousness, but when she regains a vague awareness of her surroundings, she finds herself staring into the cloudy sky, drops of rain falling on her cheeks, a dull throb at the base of her skull. Through a teary haze, she sees a dark, squat figure looming over her, wielding something shiny and metallic. As her vision clears, she recognises the duergar and his rapier, which he has managed to retrieve. Its sharpened point is aimed at her chest. The true extent of her predicament finally dawns on her dazed mind, and she tries to move, to raise her arms in defence, but her limbs feel like lead weights. With a sneer, the dwarf raises his sword, then sends it plunging down towards her heart.

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In the instant before the blade sinks into her flesh, she shuts her eyes, and waits for the pain to come. She hears the whistling sound of something slicing through the air, followed by a hollow thud, and she flinches reflexively. Oddly, though, she feels no pain, nor the warm spray of her lifeblood spurting from her punctured heart. Is this what it feels like to die? Do the dead feel no pain? Cautiously, she opens one eye. No blade protrudes out from the centre of her chest. No crimson blood stains the front of her garment. She sees the rapier, suspended a hair’s breadth from her breast, and Garrick, standing over her, still clutching the hilt. He is staring down at her with an odd expression on his scarred face. Correction: he is staring down at his own body. At the shaft of an arrow sticking out from the middle of his gut. An arrow with black fletching. His own arrow? Confused, Alya searches for the source of the missile… And finds Bishop, propped unsteadily on one knee, his longbow in his hand. Their eyes meet briefly, before the ranger, apparently exhausted by his effort, crumples to the ground. Alya is contemplating running to his side, when an inhuman roar stops her in mid-thought. She looks up to see the duergar, his own arrow still stuck in his belly, shaking with fury and pain. The scar on his face burns a bright red, and there is a mad glint in his eyes. With another enraged howl, Garrick raises his rapier again, and stabs it downward towards her. This time, though, she is clear-headed enough to roll out of the way, and the blade buries itself harmlessly into the ground. Leaping to her feet, Alya strikes at Garrick before he could pull out his embedded sword, driving the heel of her palm into the side of his jaw.
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His head snaps around awkwardly as she feels his jawbone shatter, but still he stays upright. Wrapping her arm around his neck, she attempts to throw him to the ground, but fuelled by his anger, the dwarf shoves her back with pure brute force, causing her to catch her balance. She hears another bellow as Garrick charges at her like a crazed bull. Alya redirects his advance with a spinning kick to the side of the dwarf’s head. The force of the blow flips the duergar through the air before finally knocking him over. Pouncing on him, Alya makes sure he stays down by pinning his neck to the ground with her forearm. “This is the last time I’ll be asking you nicely,” she pants. “Give me the antidote.” Garrick’s eyes flash wildly as he struggles against her hold, his fractured lower jaw hanging slack, blood flowing freely from his mangled mouth. He stops when Alya closes a fist menacingly around the arrow that still protrudes from his stomach, her eyes steely with cold determination and intent. And to the monk’s consternation, he starts laughing again. “You’re definitely a keeper, you are!” he rasps, spitting blood and dislodged teeth. “Never thought the lad had it in him to snare such a catch!” As he chuckles, red bubbles popping on his lips, he continues, “Do you seriously think I’ll be carrying the antidote to a poison I intend to kill someone with? Do you really think I’d give my target such a possible chance of survival?” He throws back his head, and his laugh is maniacal. When he finishes, his eyes are narrowed. “By this time, the poison has permeated every single part of his body. Even if you do find the cure, you’re way too late.” He smiles, his mouth a gaping hole containing a mass of bloody pulp. “Not exactly the revenge I was hoping for, but I’ll be satisfied with the knowledge that he’ll die a slow and painful death.” Alya has had enough of his gloating. Giving the arrow a quick twist, she drives it deeper into the dwarf at an upward angle. Garrick’s laughter is cut short as his eyes widen. When she steps back, they remain staring lifelessly up at the falling rain. * * *

Pushing himself up on his knees was hard, but drawing back the bowstring and concentrating on aiming straight had taken the last of
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his strength reserves. But he’d be damned if he was going to let Alya get hurt on his account. Why didn’t she just leave when he had told her to? Why must she get herself involved? Stubborn girl… He had been in a pain-induced stupor since he got shot, but he stirred when he heard Alya cry out. Craning his neck, he saw her lying prone on the ground, with Garrick standing over her, preparing to impale her with his rapier. His eyes fell on the black-feathered poison arrow he still clutched in his hand. Dragging himself off the ground, he cursed his own lethargic movements. With great difficulty, he notched the black arrow in his bow, and pulled the bowstring back. His vision was swimming, and he had to will himself to focus on his target, but he felt so tired… When the dwarf thrust his blade downward, Bishop let go of his bowstring. The arrow’s flight seemed agonisingly slow, and he prayed that the missile would get there in time. As soon as he saw the arrow thudding satisfyingly into the duergar’s gut, he let out a breath he didn’t know he was holding. A sudden dizziness swept over him, and he allowed himself to go limp. He fell forward, and darkness consumed him. Now, all he feels is pain, intense pain. He can feel the poison burning as it surges through his veins, enveloping his entire body in a searing agony. His blood feels like a river of lava coursing through him, and every ragged breath he takes sets his lungs on fire. His heart flutters in his chest, as it dances frantically, surrounded by licking flames. Fire and darkness…this must be what the Hells are like… It reminds him of Redfallows Watch, only more unbearably painful. Back then, he had suffered burns, stab wounds, arrow wounds...but they were all external. Now, he feels the pain inside of him, carried through his body by his own blood, wrenching his guts in a white-hot vice, extending deep into his heart, reaching into his very soul… He feels himself being turned onto his back. He forces his eyes open. Through his haze of pain, he could make out Alya’s features as she bends over him. Her brow is creased with worry as she looks at him, and he couldn’t decide if he should be touched by her concern, or offended by her pity for him. She has a hand on his chest, her fingers
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lingering over his arrow wound. Her arm is splattered with blood, but it reeks of the duergar, so he is not too bothered. In fact, he thinks he manages a slight smile at the thought that the dwarf is dead. Alya’s hands start to fly around his chest. He glimpses a flash of metal. It may have been his skinning knife. He hears some ripping sounds, and somehow his poison-addled mind manages to register that the monk has cut through his armour and shirt. A splash of cool liquid temporarily eases his burning wound, but not for long. Alya then proceeds to force something down his throat. It tastes like some form of healing potion, and he chokes when it goes down the wrong tube. The coughing fit seems to stoke the flames in his veins, and he hisses with pain, his body stiffening. Alya is saying something. Her lips are moving, but he hears nothing. He feels her hands on his chest, then the cold tip of a blade… Then her mouth. It takes a moment for Bishop to realise that Alya had cut deeper into his arrow wound, and is now trying to suck out the poison. He watches through heavily lidded eyes, as she spits out a mouthful of his blood before placing her warm mouth around his wound again. He feels her soft lips pressed over his collarbone, and perhaps even a hint of her tongue. Despite the excruciating pain, he finds the sensation more than a little arousing. As his vision starts to dim, he thinks, This is not a bad way to die… He absently wonders if she would miss him as badly as she missed the paladin. Everything around him fades momentarily, but the touch of her hand on his face brings him back. She is holding his face in her hands, saying something he couldn’t hear. She wipes a drop of his blood off her lips, and then… She leans over and kisses him lightly on the forehead. What was that all about? For a brief moment, he imagines an alternate reality, of what could have been had he not betrayed her, if he had only told her how he felt.
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He pictures himself embracing her, feeling her body pressed to his, stroking her smooth cheeks, his fingers running through her hair. He could almost feel his lips on hers, smell her womanly scent… Then he remembers that he had experienced all that, only to have her push him away. He is gripped by another wave of spasms, and somehow his hand finds one of hers. As his vision starts to blur, he sees her face, standing out clearly amid the failing light, a fiery haired angel come to take him away. Again he wishes he had been more open with her. You’ve got nothing more to lose…tell her now! Instead, clutching her fingers tightly to his breast, he hoarsely whispers an echo of a past comment, one he had said teasingly what seems so long ago. “I didn’t know you cared.” With one final weak smile, he lets the darkness claim him.

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Chapter 31 – Burying Memories

It is another gloomy day. The light from the sun is obscured behind a thick blanket of grey clouds, depriving the sodden earth of the warmth of its rays. A light rain is falling, and the rumble of distant thunder holds the promise of another approaching storm. She stands silently with her cloak pulled tightly around her, water dripping off the rim of her hood, as she ignores the cold rain pelting down mercilessly on them. The few people around her are silent as they focus their attention on a white-haired old man in a priest’s garb, who is droning on about the assurance of hope and salvation in the afterlife. But lost in her own thoughts, she barely listens. The last couple of weeks have been difficult for her. She had spent many sleepless nights pacing around the Keep, fretting, hoping and praying. She had been powerless to help in any way, and she hated that feeling of helplessness. Then, in the end, they had told her that there was nothing more that could be done. And being the one in charge, it was down to her to make the necessary, and unpleasant, preparations, and she did it all with a heavy feeling in her heart. She looks up at the slate grey sky. The rain continues to fall incessantly, making the funeral ceremony seem even more depressing. The priest finishes his sermon, picks up a handful of dirt, and sprinkles it into the open grave.
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Then he looks at her expectantly. She sighs, dreading what she has to do. But I have to look brave for the troops. With a deep breath, she steps forward calmly, forcing down the despair that is welling up inside her. Bending down, she scoops up some earth in both hands, the wet soil feeling clammy and sticky in her palms. As she moves to the edge of the gaping hole in the ground, she spies the wooden coffin at the bottom of the grave, simple and unadorned, with a wreath placed in the centre. Her composure very nearly crumbles then, as grief clenches her throat. Tilting her head up into the bleak cloudy sky, she has to close her eyes to will away the tears. Icy cold drops of rain sting her cheeks, as they mingle with the hot tears she is fighting to keep at bay. She feels a gentle hand on her shoulder. She turns to find the white haired priest looking at her, his grey eyes reflecting sympathy and patience. Take as long as you want, his kind eyes seem to say. She inhales deeply as she tries to regain her self-control, the fresh scent of rain, grass and damp earth permeating her nostrils. Then, with renewed determination, she strides right up to the edge of the open grave, holds out her handful of dirt, and slowly lets the soil trickle between her fingers. She watches as the earth speckles the surface of the wooden coffin, marring the simple smoothness of the lid, and she utters a silent prayer. Her role completed, she steps back as two men with shovels set to work on their grim task. She watches with morbid fascination as they ladle up huge piles of dirt, and toss them rather unceremoniously onto the coffin. The casket slowly disappears beneath the accumulating mound of earth. She doesn’t notice when everyone else has gone, and continues staring until the grave is completely filled, until the last spade full of soil is patted into place. Then, when even the undertakers have left, she slowly walks towards the freshly filled hole, and kneels down beside the tombstone. Reaching under her cloak, she removes a small bouquet of white lilies, and places them reverently on the grave.

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The headstone is no more ornate than the coffin, a simple slab with some words and numbers carved into its face. She gazes sadly at the name on the stone as she feels a rush of guilt. Fate can be so cruel. They were just starting to connect on some level, and she was just discovering how many things they had in common. We don’t seem very different at all. And then this happens. I’m so sorry it has come to this, she thinks, as she lowers her head. But you will never be forgotten. You will always have my utmost respect. She turns at the touch of Bevil’s hand on her arm. The sadness in the lieutenant’s eyes is apparent, and she could see her own grief reflected in them. “Come along now, Captain,” he urges gently. There is much to do at the Keep. “Just give me another minute,” she whispers, and Bevil bows understandingly before retreating behind a copse of trees to give her some privacy. Turning her attention back to the tombstone, she wistfully traces a finger across the name etched into the slab, feeling the cold stone and the indented grooves of the letters under her fingertips. Then she stands up, and with one final look at the empty grave erected in memory of their missing Knight-Captain, the new Captain of Crossroads Keep, Kana, trudges slowly through the gates of the fortress.

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Chapter 32 – The Search Continues

Bevil stomps through the halls, ignoring the rainwater dripping off his face, and the mud he is tracking across the clean flagstones of the Keep, as he seethes with the memory of what he just had to endure. The order had come from Lord Nasher himself: the Knight-Captain has been missing far too long. Hopes of finding her alive are fading with each passing day. Neverwinter cannot continue to expend its resources on a cause that is increasingly becoming more and more hopeless. Time to stop dwelling in the past, and to look towards the future. Crossroads Keep needs a new Captain, and Alya Elvawiel, saviour of Neverwinter, shall be remembered with a hero’s funeral. The page who delivered the message said that Lord Nasher was giving the command “with deepest regret”. Bullshit… Nasher is just concerned about lining his own coffers. Crossroads Keep has been thriving since Alya rebuilt it, and Neverwinter has been reaping the economic benefits with their share of the tithes. No doubt Nasher is eager to see the Keep’s prosperity continue in the absence of their Knight-Captain. The sooner the Keep’s residents stop pining for their lost hero, and get back to making everyone more coin, the better. And so, within a couple of days of receiving the dispatch, Kana was appointed the new Captain of Crossroads Keep, Bevil was promoted to Commander, and arrangements for the burial were hastily made. What a joke…

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He brushes roughly past a group of Greycloaks, disregarding the questioning glances they exchanged at the sight of their Commander’s thunderous face. He is too preoccupied with his own thoughts to care about what they might think. He had practically begged Kana for just a bit more time, just one more week, perhaps, to search for Alya. He didn’t need many men, maybe just half a dozen of them. Surely she could spare a few Greycloaks for their missing Knight-Captain? But Kana had merely sighed, and reminded him of his new duties as a Commander. After all, he is now even more of an example to the troops than when he was a sergeant. Bevil was understandably mad when she rejected his request, but he knew he couldn’t direct his anger at Kana. Her hands are tied; she takes her orders directly from Neverwinter now, and as much as she doesn’t agree with some of the commands, he knows that she is not the type to question the authority of her superiors. If anything, Bevil couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for the woman. Despite her icy demeanour, she is a good soldier, a loyal soldier, and he couldn’t shake the impression that she doesn’t always feel she belongs with the other Greycloaks. Her exotic heritage and foreign beliefs make her very different from the other soldiers. Combined with her superior rank, these unusual qualities isolate her from the men she leads, and he had noticed how she often sits alone in the mess hall during mealtimes. It was no wonder that she had taken an instant liking to Alya, as they are both followers of the Way, and hence they share the same philosophies on life, although Alya had always tended to be less serious in her interpretations. He had often seen them together, when they should be going over paperwork, just sitting around and chatting like old friends, or animatedly debating some ideological viewpoint. It looked like Kana had finally found someone she could relate to. And now that Alya is gone, she is expected to fill the monk’s shoes. Bevil can imagine how difficult that must be for her. The woman’s eyes practically shone with respect and admiration every time Alya was around. He wouldn’t be surprised if they had become the best of friends if only they had been given the chance; they had so much in common. He has no doubt that Kana also believes that the monk is still alive, and is loathe to usurp her position as Captain of Crossroads Keep, when it is still possible that she could return. But he also knows that Kana would never disobey orders from higher up.

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His mind flashes back to the funeral ceremony, just an hour ago. In the cold drizzle of the grey morning, they had buried an empty casket, and erected a tombstone with Alya’s name on it. As if that ridiculous gesture would give us all some sort of closure. He pictured Kana during the ceremony, when she had picked up a handful of dirt to sprinkle into the open grave. She had hesitated, reluctant to go through with the charade, wracked with guilt that she had taken over Alya’s captaincy so soon after her disappearance. He thought she would break down then and there, but for the sake of the men, she had managed to hold herself together, and the rest of the ceremony went off without a hitch. But after everyone else had left, Bevil had found Kana kneeling beside the grave. She had placed a small bunch of lilies in front of the headstone, and was thoughtfully running her hand across Alya’s name. As if she were saying goodbye. Perhaps she, too, has given up all hope of the Knight-Captain returning. So that leaves just me… Permission or no, he will not give up on his search. Not when he seems so close to a breakthrough. Bevil bursts through the door to the Keep’s library, startling Aldanon out of his thoughts. “Oh!” the old man exclaims, dropping the book in his hand. “Who are you?” Bevil sighs, as he goes through the ritual of re-introducing himself to the forgetful sage. “It’s me. Bevil.” He sees the glint of recognition in Aldanon’s eyes, and before the old man could say anything more, he adds, “No, this is not a new suit of armour. And no, I have not had a hair cut.” The sage’s eyes widen in surprise. “My, Commander Bevil, you must be some sort of psychic! You seemed to know precisely what I was about to ask!” He strokes his white beard thoughtfully. “Although I could swear something’s different about you today…” he muses.

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Bevil shrugs nonchalantly, even as he holds back a chuckle. After dealing with Aldanon enough times, one learns to speed up the initial reacquainting part. But his mirth is quickly replaced by urgency as he explains the reason for his visit. “I came to see if you’ve made any progress with the portal.” Aldanon blinks vacantly a few times, and the ensuing silence is almost unbearable. If he says anything like “Portal? What portal?” I swear I will throttle him, wise old man or not… “Ah! The portal!” the sage finally declares, and Bevil lets out a visible sigh of relief. “Yes, I have made some most fascinating discoveries! Come with me!” Bevil follows closely behind as the old man shuffles to the very back of the library, where the bookcases have been moved to clear a space for a makeshift workshop of some kind. There, in the midst of a jumble of books and scrolls and equipment, stands the reassembled portal. Its archway is cracked and chipped in some places, and parts of it appear close to crumbling, but the runes etched into the stone are mostly intact, and thanks to Aldanon’s restoration efforts, a number of them have started to glow with an eerie light. “Isn’t she beautiful?” Aldanon gushes proudly, as he lovingly strokes the stone arch. Bits of gravel start to come off in his hands, and he quickly pulls away. “She’s not in, er…pristine condition, though…” “Aye, I can see that,” remarks Bevil, grimacing. He half-expected the archway to collapse at the sage’s touch. “But is it functional?” “From the initial test runs, I don’t see why she shouldn’t be,” replies the old man. “Of course, in the state she’s in, she may disintegrate immediately after a teleportation, but at least she could be used once, eh?” “Will you be able to put it back together again, though, should it fall apart?” Bevil asks again. “Maybe…” Aldanon answers, a finger to his lips. “Depends on how damaged she gets.” “I see…” Bevil says distractedly, as he grimly contemplates the implications of what the old man had told him.
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They may have only one chance to get her back. “Any luck on determining where the portal was last connected to?” “I have managed to recover the coordinates of the portal’s last destination, yes.” Aldanon brightens considerably as he starts to explain his research. “It was difficult at first, considering the damage, and the fact that the portal didn’t want to be scryed, but then I realised that all it took was a pinch of sulphur and some quicksilver to –“ “Uhm, Aldanon,” Bevil interrupts, trying to sound gentle despite his rising excitement. “Where was it, then?” “Huh? Where was what?” Bevil resists the urge to slap himself on the forehead. “The last destination of the portal,” he reminds the sage, forcing his voice to sound patient. “Where was that?” “Ah! Of course!” Aldanon snaps his fingers. “Yes, quite extraordinary, really. You see, this is not an intraplanar portal, but an interplanar one.” He pauses for effect, only to find Bevil staring blankly back at him. “Uh, in Common, please, Aldanon?” The old man tut-tuts in annoyance. “Really, Commander...intra? Inter? You must know the fundamental differences between the two!” “Humour me, Aldanon.” “Very well,” the sage sighs. “What I’m trying to say is, that this portal doesn’t merely transport someone from one place to another.” The old man’s eyes gleam with enthusiasm before continuing. “She transports people from one plane to another.” Bevil’s head snaps up. “She, er, it, what?” he blurts incredulously, correcting himself hastily when he too, started to assign a gender to the inanimate archway. Aldanon puts his hands on his hips. “I say, Commander, don’t tell me you don’t know about the different planes?”

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“N-no, I do…” the younger man mutters, sparing himself another long lecture. He glances at the fragile stone archway with a mixture of hope and apprehension. That must be why they hadn’t been able to find any sign of her…at least, not on this plane… “So where exactly was the last destination?” he asks, this time not bothering to hide his impatience. Aldanon doesn’t seem to notice his anxiousness. “Now, I didn’t manage to pinpoint exactly where the portal was connected to,” he explains. “But I have narrowed the location down to being somewhere in the Outer Planes.” “The Outer…” Bevil feels a heaviness building in the pit of his stomach. He is not a man of vast knowledge, and he doesn’t know much about the other planes of existence, but what he does know, is that they were no place for a half-elf. But he has come too far to give up now. The chances are minuscule at best, but he has to at least try. “Aldanon,” he urges. “Can you reconnect the portal to the Outer Planes?” “Most definitely!” the old sage says cheerfully, and Bevil feels a surge of hope. Then they stare at each other for a good minute. “Well?” Bevil finally prompts. “Well, what?” Aldanon asks. “You said you could reconnect the portal to the Outer Planes.” “Huh? Oh! You mean it wasn’t just a theoretical question?” “No, it was not a theoretical question,” the Commander says through clenched teeth, willing himself to keep calm. “Listen,” he continues heatedly. “This portal could be our last hope of finding Alya, and if she is somewhere in the Outer Planes, by the gods I want to get her back here as soon as possible!” The old man’s jovial expression turns serious. “What? The KnightCaptain’s in the Outer Planes? Now why didn’t you tell me that before? We must get to work immediately!”
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This time Bevil does slap himself in the forehead in exasperation – with both hands. “Just give me one minute…” the old man motions, oblivious to the Commander’s frustration, as he sets to work tinkering with bits and bobs Bevil couldn’t even begin to identify. He watches as Aldanon inscribes a rune onto the floor in front of the portal, all the while mumbling some magical incantation. With a soft hum, the portal starts to glow and vibrate, the pulsations causing even more pieces of its shaky foundations to flake off. Bevil eyes the stone frame anxiously, silently praying that it doesn’t collapse just yet. After a while, the light from the portal stabilises, and the gateway starts to glow steadily with an incandescent light. But the ever-present pulsing is shaking the arch dangerously. “There,” he hears Aldanon saying, as the sage brushes his hands off on his robe. He, too, is looking worried at the showers of debris coming off the frail structure. “Now what?” he queries, glancing quizzically at the Commander. Now what, indeed? Now that it is operational, Bevil has no idea what their next plan of action should be. He gazes into the swirling lights in the centre of the portal, almost hypnotised by the undulating colours dancing all around. Every now and then, the curtain of light parts slightly, offering him a glimpse of a barren, rocky landscape and a blood red sky. He hesitates. Should he go in and try to search for her? Or should they just wait and see what steps through the portal? How likely is it for Alya to spot the portal if she were in the Outer Planes now? In any case, how long can the brittle archway hold? Before he could decide, bright rays of light shoot out of the portal as a hand, a humanoid hand, protrudes out from the mass of rippling colours. The hand is followed by a slender arm, as whoever, or whatever it is, steps directly from the Outer Planes into the Keep’s library. Bevil’s faint glimmer of hope is overwhelmed by a mounting trepidation, as his fingers close reflexively around the hilt of his
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longsword. The portal starts to hum louder, and proceeds to quake dangerously. Both men could only watch as large chunks of rock start to tear off the archway, as it inches ever closer to complete implosion. Finally, a slim figure steps out of the pool of light, but the beams radiating outwards from the portal bathes the newcomer in a dazzling brilliance, obscuring the stranger’s identity. Then a second hand emerges from the portal. There are two of them?? The portal sways ominously as its foundation crumbles, and no sooner has the second person crossed the threshold, than the entire stone archway disintegrate in an explosion of light. Bevil shields his face as the blast sends rocky projectiles flying out at them. As the dust begins to settle, the shapes of the two creatures that came through the portal become more discernible. Bevil realises that he had unknowingly drawn his longsword, and is holding it in front of him in a defensive position. He gapes when he recognises the familiar form of the two women, one a tall tiefling, the other a petite wood elf, both looking tired and bedraggled, but otherwise alive. Everyone stares at each other in shocked silence. Then, as she glances around at the Keep’s library, and back at the mound of rock that used to be the portal, Neeshka utters a simple exclamation that sums up how everyone is feeling. “Woah.”

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Chapter 33 – Help

Heavy boots stomp through the mud as the Greycloak trudges halfheartedly along the road, stumbling occasionally as he walks, and swigging every now and again from the bottle in his hand. His uniform is wrinkled and in disarray, and although his tunic marks him as a sergeant, anyone meeting him may be forgiven if they mistook him for a drunken sailor. His surly, unpleasant attitude, coupled with the everpresent reek of alcohol that seems to permeate his very being, would be more fitting on some rowdy sailing vessel than among the ranks of the Neverwinter army. And today, the soldier’s mood is distinctly more sour than usual. He hacks up a mouthful of phlegm and spits it carelessly onto the road. Stupid foreign bitch, he curses, as he wipes the spittle from his mouth with the back of one hand. Acting all high and mighty already! He hadn’t really cared when their Knight-Captain never came back from her epic battle, whatever that was about. Why should he? He was still getting paid for doing minimal work, and that suits him fine. Sure, that Lieutenant Kana hates his guts, and always seems all too happy to send him far away on some special assignment, but he doesn’t mind that; after all, he’s good at those jobs. He has ways of making people talk. But then word had come from Neverwinter, ordering them to abandon the futile search for their missing leader. Why waste resources hunting for a lost Captain when we could simply appoint another one? And so they made her the new Captain. Kana had wasted no time in hauling him up before her, telling him in no uncertain terms that unless he started behaving in a more
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‘acceptable’ fashion, she would not hesitate to discharge him from service. Why else would he be on patrol duty now, in such gods-forsaken weather? Why else but to make it seem as if he is putting in some effort to conform? Until a better offer comes along, this job pays pretty well, and he’ll be damned if he’s going to get fired by that imperious wench. Sanctimonious little bitch…wonder how self-righteous she would be if I get to have my way with her? He chuckles to himself as he imagines all the different ways he could violate that pert little body. You wanted me discharged, did ya say, Cap’n? Well, I got my discharge for ya right here! He snickers at his own crude joke, then snorts loudly as he launches another offensive projectile. Sniffing, he glances up at the cloudy sky. At least it’s stopped raining. Just another hour before he goes off duty. Then, it’s back to the Keep, and the Phoenix Tail Inn for more ale. Screw that half-witted barkeep Sal if he doesn’t like his patronage. He has the coin to pay for his drinks, after all… The man stops short at the scene before him. His bottle drops from his limp hand and rolls away, leaving a trail of frothy beer in its wake. What in Toril happened here?? He gawks at the corpses littering the ground. Most of them are in pretty bad shape. A couple of them have their throats torn out, as if they were attacked by some large animal. They all wear the same black uniform, and he easily identifies the distinctive markings on their armour. Luskan assassins. What are they doing here? He sees an empty cart. The dun-coloured mare tethered to it is calmly chewing on roadside vegetation, seemingly oblivious to the carnage around it. Some sort of dead animal lies not far from the wagon. It resembles a gigantic black cat.
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Could that be what killed these people? Then he sees her, kneeling over yet another body, and his eyes widen in disbelief, wondering if this could all just be some alcohol-induced hallucination. She glances up when she senses his presence, and recognises him almost immediately. “Jalboun?” He carefully steps over the dead bodies to get to her, all the while thinking that this can’t be a drunken dream; the corpses, the coppery smell of blood mingling with muddy rainwater, her…it all just seems too real for that. “Jalboun!” she cries again, as she jumps to her feet. Her movement is slightly unsteady, as if she had taken a few hard hits, and she is bleeding from a cut on her arm. She grips his arm tightly when he approaches. “Oh, thank the gods for leading you here! Please, you have to help us.” For a moment, Jalboun merely stares at the woman as he tries to convince himself that he is not imagining things. She may look thinner than he remembers, and the rain had plastered her auburn hair to her face, but his eyes are not deceiving him. “C-C-Cap’n?” he manages incredulously. “By the hells, how did ya get here? We’ve been searching for ya for weeks!” But she doesn’t seem to have heard his questions. “We got attacked. He’s hurt. We have to get him back to the keep, now!” Her tone is urgent and a little anxious. “Huh? Who’s hurt?” It takes Jalboun a while to realise that she is gesturing towards the body she was bending over earlier. He steps closer to the injured man, who appears to be unconscious. His armour and shirt had been cut away, exposing his bare chest. A hastily applied bandage covers his right collarbone, the pure whiteness of the cloth blemished by a slowly spreading circle of blood. When recognition dawns on him, he draws back as if he had been scalded. “Woah there!” he exclaims, pointing excitedly. “Tha-that’s the ranger! The traitor!”
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“Yes, but…” she begins hesitantly, before continuing in a softer voice, “but he was the one who saved me. We have to help him!” Jalboun’s mind is racing. Confused, he glances at the woman, and then back at the ranger. What does she mean, he saved her? He’s a traitor, and he very nearly got them all killed! He has half a mind to slit the bastard’s throat right now for jamming the Keep gates open during the siege, forcing him to fight what seemed like an endless stream of undead that surged into the fortress as a result. He had barely survived that assault, and he still has the scars to prove it. Waitaminute… From somewhere in his foggy ale-clouded mind, he retrieves bits and pieces of a proclamation he heard not too long ago, one that had been announced in every town, village and hamlet across the region. Wanted for crimes of treason...generous reward…dead or alive. Generous reward… He couldn’t quite recall the exact sum, but he knows it is a substantial amount of coin. In fact, it is probably enough for him to retire very comfortably from active service. I could then tell Kana to stick my job up her… “Jalboun?” Her insistent voice interrupts his thoughts. She is eyeing him expectantly. Imagine the look on Kana’s face when he returns from his patrol with both the Knight-Captain and the betrayer in tow! Surely there must be an extra reward for the monk’s safe return… He tries to decide on the best way to transport his precious cargo back to the Keep. His eyes fall on the horse and cart. How convenient – the gods are definitely smiling on him today! The trick now is to make her think that he is trying to help. Forcing sympathy into his voice to mask his increasing glee, he tells her, “Give me a hand with him.”
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It doesn’t take long for them to load the wounded man onto the wagon. Jalboun is about to grab the reins when the Knight-Captain calls out, “Wait.” He watches with curiosity as she places both her hands on the ranger’s bare shoulders. Her thumbs wander down towards his chest, and linger briefly over an area directly above each pectoral muscle. Firmly and with a twisting motion, she pushes both her thumbs deep into the soft flesh of each spot. The action causes the unconscious ranger’s body to jerk in response. “That’s gonna leave a bruise,” he remarks, wincing at the sight. “Pressure points,” she explains, as she unclasps her cape. “Hopefully it will help slow the poison’s course.” Covering the injured man with her cloak, she looks back at Jalboun, her intense green eyes gleaming with worry. “Let’s go,” she finally says, as she clutches one of the ranger’s hands. “Oh, and Jalboun?” A faint smile plays across her lips. “Thank you.” Jalboun smirks, revealing a row of yellowing teeth. With as much sincerity as he could muster, he tries not to slur his words as he replies. “Just doin’ my duty, Cap’n.”

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Chapter 34 – Indecision

He picks up the harness and urges the horse away from the grassy verge, all the while daydreaming about the bounty he is about to collect, imagining all the ale and wenches that amount of coin could buy. And who knows? With the monk back, perhaps she would regain the captaincy, and maybe he could keep his job and the reward… provided she doesn’t get too mad at him for selling the ranger out when they get back… He is so preoccupied with his own thoughts that he doesn’t notice the shadow running up alongside the wagon until it is too late. Something big pounces at him from the side, knocking him clean off his perch on the cart. He lands heavily on the ground with the growling figure on top of him. He cries out involuntarily at the sight of rows of sharp teeth just inches away from his face. He hears the Knight-Captain shout something, but amid the snarls of the frenzied animal and his own screams, he cannot make out her words. Mercifully, the creature backs off, but as Jalboun sits up, he realises that it is the Knight-Captain who has pulled the large wolf back by the scruff of its neck. The creature strains against her, gnashing its fangs at him. It is a magnificent animal, with a rich, thick pelt and shiny yellow eyes. There is a nasty gash on its flank, where its fur is matted with blood, as if it too, had been in a violent fight. “Karnwyr, no!” the Knight-Captain is saying. “He’s trying to help!” Is he going mad? Or is she talking to the animal? Jalboun vaguely remembers the ranger owning a pet wolf. This must be his animal companion then, although why the creature is not turning on the Knight-Captain when she is wrestling so roughly with it is completely beyond him.
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Without warning, the wolf breaks free from the woman’s grasp, and sinks its teeth into Jalboun’s leg. He roars as the sharp pain shoots up his limb, and he kicks out savagely at the creature to drive it back, but the Knight-Captain has again managed to restrain the animal. As he struggles to stand up, the creature growls menacingly, and it glares at him accusingly with its eerily intelligent eyes. The combination of pain and the animal’s insolent stare triggers an alcohol-fuelled fury. “Filthy mongrel!” he snaps angrily, nursing his bitten leg. “I’ll see you hang with your traitorous owner!” The part of his brain that is not steeped in ale cringes inwardly. He hazards a glance at the Knight-Captain. Her arms still around the wolf’s neck, she looks at him, her face frozen in a wide-eyed expression of shock. Shite… He mentally kicks himself as he stands awkwardly before her, trying to think of a way to salvage the situation. Finally, he decides to just ignore his earlier slip of the tongue, his alcohol-ridden logic telling him that if he pretended he never said that, then she would as well. Limping towards the wagon, he urges, “Come along now, Cap’n.” Apparently still too shocked to speak, she merely shakes her head dumbly. The wolf grumbles throatily beside her. With an exasperated sigh, Jalboun cautiously approaches her, but stops at a safe distance from the grey wolf. Holding out a hand, he says again, this time more gruffly, “I said, come on!” “No!” she protests, finally finding her voice. Summoning up her authority, she orders, “I forbid anybody from hanging him!” Jalboun’s expression is momentarily unreadable before he suddenly bursts out laughing. His laughter is harsh, with a grating quality to it. “I’m afraid, mighty Cap’n, that you have no jurisdiction in this matter,” he snickers, slurring the big word he tries to use, making it sound more like jurr-eesh-dick-shun. “The order comes from higher up.” “What?” her face registers her disbelief.
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“C’mon Cap’n, what did ya expect?” Jalboun continues. “He committed treason. Against Neverwinter.” He eyes her steadily. “Nasher wants his head.” He could see her hesitate as she struggles with the implications of what he has just told her. It still bemuses him why she is so bothered about the traitor’s wellbeing. “He tried to kill ya, Cap’n,” Jalboun says. “Why in the hells are ya trying to protect him?” She doesn’t answer him, seemingly lost in her own thoughts. He could almost see her mentally weighing up her options. Being missing all this time must have done something to her head, but he is sure that she’ll come to her senses soon enough when she’s back at the Keep. And as soon as Nasher is through with the betrayer. He goes on, “Listen, in any case, ya have to come back.” When she still doesn’t reply, he decides it is time to play his trump card. With a cunning twinkle in his eye, he says almost casually, “They’ve found ‘em, ya know. Your friends. And they’re alive.” He could see the woman’s slightly pointed ears twitch up at his words. As she looks at him, her eyes reflect both suspicion and a faint flicker of hope. “I ain’t lying,” he insists. “They found that elven druidess, and…” he involuntarily breaks out in a lustful smile. “And that sexy tiefling.” “Elanee? Neeshka!” she gasps, either not noticing or choosing to ignore Jalboun’s thinly veiled lewdness. He has to suppress a selfsatisfied chuckle as he senses her building excitement. But she’s a careful one. ”How did you find them?” she asks warily, her eyes narrowed. Aww, Cap’n, I’m hurt. Don’t ya trust me? “I didn’t find ‘em,” he says simply. “It was that nutty old guy in the library. I don’t know all the details, but apparently he put together some old portal and, well, out they popped.” “What about Ammon?” she asks again.
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Jalboun looks at her blankly. “Who?” “Ammon Jerro. The warlock. He was with Elanee and Neeshka when they disappeared.” “Oh, that old guy.” There have been rumours at the Keep about what the two women had said after they were rescued. “Something about some infernal contract he was bound to,” he shrugs. “He never made it back.” She grimaces at the news, but he could tell that she is satisfied with his answers, certain now that he is telling the truth. Stifling a triumphant grin, he adds, “They asked about ya, Cap’n. We all want ya back.” He is impressed by how heartfelt he managed to make that last sentence. Jalboun delights in the torn look on the woman’s face as she wrestles with indecision, her gaze wandering from the Keep in the distance, to the ranger, and then back again. Gods, does she have the hots for the man or something? “Cap’n,” he says again, his tone gentle as he could make it. “We need ya.” He sees her close her eyes as she draws a long intake of breath. When she exhales, she looks back at the Keep with a look of steely resolve. “Okay,” she whispers simply, the one word evoking in Jalboun’s mind the jangle of a sack full of coins. She lets go of the wolf, which seems to have calmed down during their talk, and no longer seems intent on ripping the man’s throat out. With another toothy sneer, he says, “This way then, Cap’n,” as he leads her to the waiting cart. He is surprised when she puts a hand on his shoulder. Glancing back, he sees her smiling warmly at him. “I know I may seem a little out of sorts at the moment, Jalboun, but I have had such a crazy journey.” Moving in front of him, she continues gratefully, “I’ll be fine when I get back to the Keep, I’m sure, but I just want to thank you for talking me to my senses.” And without warning, her arms embrace him in a hug. Startled by the sudden show of affection, Jalboun could only stand there, rooted to the
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spot. When was the last time a woman had thrown her arms around him without being paid to do it? Never… Her head rests on his chest, and he could smell the womanly scent of her hair. When she pulls back, she smiles again, and her hands start to travel up his neck, tickling him with her light touch. “Why, Jalboun,” she purrs. “You have such strong neck muscles…” He couldn’t believe this was happening to him. The reward, finding the Knight-Captain, and now this? Talk about a lucky day! He could feel himself becoming aroused when her fingers trail to both sides of his neck, lingering on a sensitive spot behind his ears. As he feels himself shivering, a goofy grin breaks out across his face. That is when he feels a sudden shooting pain in his head. And everything goes black. * * *

It took all her willpower not to gag when she wrapped her arms around Jalboun. Gods, the man reeks! She tried to hold her breath as she caressed the sides of his neck, all the while trying to act seductive. Considering his stench and his bad breath, it wasn’t easy. Thankfully, he was too stunned by her advances to think about trying to grope her. Finally, her fingers found the soft point behind his ear right under the hard ridge of his skull. She noticed that the man’s eyes were halfclosed, and his breathing had quickened. He had a dopey grin stuck to his face, exposing a row of crooked yellow teeth. With a final forced smile, Alya plunges her thumb deep into the vulnerable spot. She watches as Jalboun’s eyes widen with surprise before they roll up into his head. As she steps back from him, the man’s limp body topples gracelessly onto the ground. Well, most of his body is limp… “Perve,” she mutters at the man’s inanimate form, and finally allows herself a disgusted shudder. That was revolting! she thinks, as she unconsciously rubs herself, attempting to brush off all traces of the man. She is glad that he was too drunk to catch her out on her bad acting. With a cringe, she remembers what she had said: “Why, Jalboun, you have such strong neck muscles.”
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This time she does gag. But her mind quickly returns to the dilemma at hand. If what Jalboun said is true – and despite what she thinks of the man, she doubts the drunkard is capable of lying so smoothly through his teeth, not after he has just downed a gallon of ale – then she couldn’t go back to the Keep. Of course you can go back there, she corrects herself. You just can’t bring Bishop. She runs over to the wagon to check on the ranger. His breathing is so shallow, Alya could not even see his chest rising and falling. It is only by feeling for his pulse and finding a faint flutter in his neck that she knows he is still alive, but barely. She could feel dread building up in the pit of her stomach. She gazes again at the twinkling lights of the Keep, so tantalisingly close now, and yet it seems miles away. She thinks about Elanee and Neeshka, feeling a surge of relief that they have made it back safely. She longs to be reunited with them, with everyone at the Keep: Bevil, Kana, Wolf and the other kids… The lights in the near distance wave at her, beckoning her, drawing her to the Keep like a moth to a flame. All that she had fought for, all that she holds dear, are waiting for her there. So why is she hesitating? She hears a whimper and looks down. Karnwyr had jumped onto the cart, and is now by his master’s side, licking at the ranger’s pallid face. The unlikely yet tender scene makes her heart clench slightly. “Why in the hells are ya trying to protect him?” Jalboun’s earlier words ring in her head. Why am I? Because I owe him, that’s all, she tries to convince herself. A life for a life. I’m just repaying my debt. Gods, she flinches. Now I’m starting to sound like him!
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She is snapped out of her thoughts by a groan coming from behind her. Jalboun will be waking up soon. They must get out of there before he stirs. She looks again at the ranger. His normally tanned face is distressingly pale. I could hide him somewhere, she schemes. Leave Karnwyr to guard him, and return to the Keep myself. Then I could try and come back with a cure. Provided, of course, that no one stumbles across him while she is gone. And provided that no one else knows of the bounty on his head. Why not just bring him along instead? I’m sure you could persuade Nasher to spare him… But what if I can’t? Do I deliver him to the gallows myself? She runs her hands through her hair in frustration, her mind grappling with the difficult choices she has to make. Leave him, and he will die. Take him with her, and he risks being executed. The only other alternative seems to be to go somewhere else for help. But where? Even now, she is wasting precious time. The poison is surging through his veins. There is no other village for days in any direction. How much longer will he hold out? The pit in her stomach continues to grow, and she wills herself to remain calm. Panicking now will help no one. Still clutching at her hair, she forces herself to take slow, deep breaths. She stares longingly again at the torch-lit Keep, barely half an hour’s walk away, the flickering lights mesmerising her for a moment with its hypnotic dance. When she finally breaks her gaze away, her eyes carry a glint of determination. It is going to be a gamble, but one she feels she has no other choice but to take. Delving into her satchel, she finds some bandages and medicine, and crudely patches herself up. Then she whistles, calling Karnwyr over. Producing a bottle of healing potion, she pours it over the wolf’s gaping wound, courtesy of his encounter with the panther. Karnwyr yelps once when the liquid stings his cut, but he settles down once the potion starts to take effect. With both of them in relatively better condition, she climbs into the driving seat of the cart, motions for the wolf to jump on, and snaps the reins. With a grunt, the mare reluctantly tears itself away from the grass at the side of the road.
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Knowing that every moment they waste without seeking treatment is bringing the ranger closer to death, she manoeuvres the wagon until it faces the stretch of road ahead of them. Clicking her tongue, she urges the horse into a fast canter towards their destination.

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Chapter 35 – The Lost Boy

He is in a dream, that much he knows. He could tell it by how he seems to be experiencing some form of tunnel vision; he sees perfectly clearly in front of him, but everything in the periphery of his sight is merely a shimmering blur, as if the subconscious mind has not bothered putting in such minor unnecessary details. He looks to be in some sort of village. Simple but well kept houses made of wood and stone stand in arced rows, forming a rough semicircle around what looks like a communal well. People are milling around, going about their daily business, many of them busily tending to their crops and livestock. The atmosphere is neither pleasant nor unpleasant, but normal. These villagers harbour no idealistic delusions about happiness; there is hardship and poverty, yet they appear to be content with making do with what they have. He sees a child playing beside the well, a young boy with a head of tousled dark hair. He is running around with a wooden sword, swinging it wildly at imaginary foes. A woman, probably the child’s mother, sits on the front step of a nearby house, sewing. “Easy there!” the woman admonishes gently, when one of the boy’s overenthusiastic lunges nearly clips her. “You’ll be taking my head off next!” The child laughs, his cheeks flushed from his exertions, as he leans on his toy sword. “Don’t worry, Ma!” he says breathlessly. “I won’t hurt you! I only hurt the bad guys!” “Well, you could have fooled me…” his mother jokes, as she pretends to feel her head for missing strands of hair. “You nearly gave me a bald patch there!” “That was my special move, Ma!” the boy replies. “Watch!” He holds up his sword in both hands and slices the air in front of him, from left
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to right and back again, the wooden blade making a whooshing sound as it goes. “I use it to cut my enemies in half!” he declares triumphantly. “My, what a strong cleave!” the woman gushes, as she motions the boy over. Brushing his messy hair out of his face, she playfully chucks his chin. “You’ll be as strong as Pa in no time!” The boy nods solemnly. “When I grow up, and become as big and strong as Pa, I want to be a knight.” “Oh?” The mother raises an eyebrow. “Why’s that?” “’Cause knights are heroes! They fight bad guys!” With a warm smile, the woman puts an arm around the boy. “You know, you don’t have to be a knight, or to fight bad guys, to become a hero.” The child’s eyes widen incredulously. “I don’t?” “No,” she says, as she tenderly rubs their noses together. “Anybody can be a hero. As long as they are willing to do anything for the people they love.” She motions towards the men working in the fields. “All those men there, they work hard all day to make sure their family have food and shelter. In my eyes, they are all heroes.” “So Pa’s a hero, too?” the boy asks, his voice filled with awe. His mother barely manages an answering nod before a booming voice interrupts them. “Someone call for me?” A burly man with a beard strides up to them with a hoe slung over his shoulder. “Pa!” the boy shouts as he runs towards his father. The man easily plucks the child up with one hand, cradling him in the crook of one massive arm. “Ugh,” groans the big man. “Is it just me, runt, or have you grown heavier since this morning? Soon you’ll get too big for me to hold you like this!” The child giggles as he throws his arms around his father’s neck. “Ma says you’re a hero.” “That so?” the man asks, as he bounces the boy on his arm.
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“Yes! She says that anyone willing to do anything for the people they love is a hero.” “Aww…” says the father, as he winks at his wife. “Well, you know what, runt? It’s your Ma’s turn to be a hero now.” He flashes a huge smile. “She’s gonna save our poor rumbling bellies by making us some nice supper!” He glances at the boy’s grubby hands. “But I think you need to clean yourself up a bit first, don’t you think?” The child shrugs as he looks at the dirt on his hands. “I guess…” He gives his father another quick hug. “When I grow up, I want to be a hero, just like you!” With that, he jumps off his perch on the man’s arm, and races into the house. Alone now, the man puts an arm affectionately around his wife. “Been putting more soppy ideas into his head?” The woman gathers up her sewing and punches him playfully. “Well, you have been filling his head with way too many stories of knights in shining armour. A little soppiness never hurt anybody.” The observer watches as the couple walk arm in arm into the house, and shuts the door behind them. * * *

The dream fades suddenly into black. Then, he realises that he is in a darkened bedroom. There is a strange reddish light shining through the thin curtains from outside the window, casting flickering shadows on the walls. That, combined with the smell of smoke and the muffled cries of people screaming, tells him that something is wrong. The figure on the bed stirs and sits up. It is the same little boy from earlier. Nervously, the child tiptoes to the window, and parts the curtains just enough for him to peek through. Curious, he moves to look over the boy’s shoulder, to see what the child is seeing. He hears the lad stifle a gasp at the scene before them. The village is bathed in an eerie orange glow. Some of the houses are ablaze, and people are running about in a panic, screaming. There are a few villagers who seem to have fallen down, but they seem unable to get back up. Many of these have burning arrows sticking out of their twitching bodies. Amid the cries of fear and pain, the sound of horses’ hooves could be heard, thundering ominously. One of them, a magnificent stallion the colour of smooth obsidian, trots into view, nostrils flaring, bearing a
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man dressed all in black. The raging fires surrounding them are reflected in the creature’s eyes, and in the blade wielded by its rider, as if both were radiating some infernal light. The effect makes the rider look like an apocalyptic horseman straight from the flaming depths of the Nine Hells. He hears the child draw a sharp intake of breath as the demoniclooking horseman ruthlessly cuts down a fleeing villager, slashing the hapless man across the back with his deadly blade. With a small whimper, the boy runs back to his bed, and kneels down beside it. For a moment, he thought the child was about to wriggle under it to hide, but then realises that he was rummaging underneath it for something. Heavy footsteps reverberate through the house before the door to the bedroom is thrown open with a bang. The child jumps in fright, nearly hitting his head on the wooden bed frame. The doorway is filled by the towering bulk of the child’s father. He could see the boy’s shoulders sag in relief. “It’s a raid!” The father’s baritone voice is quaking slightly. “Come, we have to go!” Grabbing the child’s hand, he practically drags the boy out of the room. As if tethered to the child by an invisible rope, the observer finds himself being pulled along as well. Silently and unseen, he glides right behind the man and the boy, and watches as they meet up with the child’s mother, her eyes wide with worry. She clutches a small cloth bundle protectively in her arms, no doubt trying to salvage what little valuables the family has. Suddenly, he finds himself being reeled in towards the boy, closer and closer, until he thinks he would soon be colliding with the child. Instead, he goes straight through the boy, and feels himself merging with the child, becoming one with him, entering the lad’s mind, until he finds himself seeing through the boy’s eyes. And tasting the child’s fear. His parents lead him hurriedly to the back door of their house. A blast of smoky air hit them as they rush through the exit. Running as fast as they could with a child in tow, they make their way to the relative shelter of the surrounding woods. The boy trips once on a raised tree root, but his father quickly hauls him back up, literally carrying him until the child regains his balance. He hears the sound of rushing water up ahead. They must be close to the river.

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The trees surrounding the three people start to thin as they reach the stream. There are a few other villagers there, familiar faces to the boy, all huddled together in fear. Someone screams, and they all turn back towards the trees. A couple of black-clad robbers, their weapons drawn, emerge from the woods, apparently having left their horses to track their quarry on foot through the tangled underbrush. As the two men advance menacingly, the villagers step back, hemming themselves in between the raiders and the river behind them. They hear the sound of hooves thundering through the vegetation, before the same ebony coloured horse the boy saw earlier crashes out from the brush. Both horse and rider step right up to the trembling group of villagers. It is obvious that the horseman is the leader of this raiding party. “So this is where the rest are hiding,” remarks the dark rider, his face concealed under a black hood. “You don’t know how much of an inconvenience it was for us to track you all down. I am not happy.” With that, he slashes his blade across the throat of the villager standing nearest to him. Amid shrieks of horror from the other villagers, the man, whom the boy recognises as old Janus the baker, slumps to the ground, his eyes bulging with surprise as his lifeblood spurts out from his neck wound. A pair of hands falls across the boy’s eyes as his mother tries to shield the child from the horrific sight, but he could still hear the sickening gurgles of the dying man choking on his own blood. He suppresses a horrified shudder at the man’s death rattle, but he could not tear his gaze away, and peeks out between his mother’s fingers at the macabre scene. “Tell you what,” the horseman says, his tone casual even as he flicks the blood off his sword. “I’ll make a deal with you. Hand over all your valuables willingly, and I may consider not killing anyone else.” With that, the other two raiders proceed to relieve each man, woman and child of their possessions, roughly snatching away bags, pulling rings off fingers, tugging pendants off necks. One of the raiders, a swarthy, brutish looking man with missing teeth, approaches the boy’s cowering family. He plucks the sack of valuables from the mother’s arms, then greedily eyes the woman’s simple gold wedding band. Brutally, he grabs her wrist with one hand, and starts to prise the ring off her finger with the other. The boy hears his mother cry out in pain.
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“Hands off my Ma!” he shouts, the toy sword he retrieved from under his bed now firmly clutched in both hands. With all his might, he swings the wooden blade down onto the raider’s fingers encircled around his mother’s wrist. There is a resounding thwack on contact, and the man draws his hand back, yelling and cursing. “Me knuckles!” he roars as he clutches his injured fingers. “You broke me knuckles, yer li’l wretch!” His eyes gleaming with violent intent, the man swipes at the child with his good hand. The vicious backhand connects squarely with the boy’s temple, sending him sprawling onto the ground, dazed. His head throbbing, his vision swimming both with tears and dizziness, the child hears the sound of footsteps coming towards him. He recognises the cold and calculating voice of the leader of the raiding party, asking what the disturbance is about. As his vision stops dancing, he sees a pair of soft leather boots near his face. He looks up to find the horseman staring down at him with apparent amusement. Now that he is off his mount, he no longer appears as hellishly scary as before, seeing as he only stands as tall as the boy, but his stout, sturdy build and his cruel gaze harbour no illusion: he is still a dangerous man. He realises the dwarf is laughing. “You’re not going to let a little kid get the better of you, are you, Jared?” he chuckles. Nudging the boy with a toe, he comments, “Look what you did to the poor lad. He’s all covered in dirt now!” He glances down again at the child, his eyes glinting with malevolent glee. “You’ll need to give him a bath.” The boy is still trying to comprehend why the dwarf is so concerned about getting him cleaned, when he feels himself being picked up roughly by the collar. The man known as Jared drags him unceremoniously towards the river, and before he could protest, his head is dunked forcibly into the frigid waters. The shock of the icy stream quickly clears up his dazed mind. Instinctively, he tries to lift his head, but he is held firmly in place. He claws desperately at the hand gripping his hair, but it only succeeds in getting his face shoved even further into the depths of the river. His heart beats loudly in his head as panic consumes him. Thrashing wildly, he watches helplessly as streams of tiny bubbles trail out of his nose and mouth. The harder he struggles, the more bubbles escape, until he feels a crushing pressure in his lungs, as if a metal band was being tightened around them. He tries to fight the urge to draw breath,
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but the band continues to squeeze his airless lungs like a vice, and he feels they would implode if he does not take in some air soon. Unable to bear the pressure any longer, his mouth opens, and a torrent of water rushes down his throat. He feels the freezing liquid flooding his lungs, the cold piercing him like a thousand icy needles. Reflexively, he coughs, and the reaction makes him suck in even more water. He could feel his lungs distending as they fill up, yet the band around his chest continues to tighten. His lungs are about to burst. Suddenly, the hand forcing his head down is lifted. Pushing himself hastily out of the water, he takes a big gulp of air, sweet air. Sputtering breathlessly, he leans his dripping forehead on the ground, his little body convulsing with each mouthful of water he coughs up, his pulse still pounding madly in his temples. He hears some sort of commotion in the background, but he ignores it for now as he concentrates on expelling the fluid from his lungs, and filling them instead with precious oxygen. When the tightening in his chest finally starts to subside, he looks up, his throat feeling raw from all the hacking. His mother is lying on the ground with Jared pinning her down. Her eyes are shut, and she is groaning, blood dripping out of her nose. Jared is swearing furiously at her, his uninjured hand still balled into a fist. Jagged red scratch marks run down his face, as if he had been clawed by an angry cat. “Ma…” the child manages hoarsely as he coughs again. The leader of the raiding party stands nearby, snickering. “Poor, poor Jared. Not a good day for you, is it? First the kid, then the mother… although I do see now where the lad got his balls from.” Jared says nothing, but merely glares daggers at the dwarf. The leader eyes the unconscious woman appraisingly. “Y’know, she’s not a bad-looking wench. Since you’ve already got her in a…horizontal position, no sense wasting a chance to…vent your frustrations, eh?” And he gives the other man a meaningful wink. This time, Jared breaks out in a gap-toothed grin. The boy has no idea what the dwarf is implying, but he does not like the predatory looks on the men’s faces as they ogle at his mother. His father, however, knows of their intentions all too clearly.
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“Please…!” he pleads, stepping forward and falling to his knees. “You’ve taken all we have. Please spare us…” The boy stares at his father’s submissive display in wide-eyed confusion. Why is Pa kneeling before them? Why is he begging to them? The raiders are snickering at the big man’s grovelling. The leader ambles right up to the man. With his father on his knees, the dwarf is just about able to look him levelly in the eye. “I suggest that you don’t try to be a hero, peasant,” he snarls menacingly, his blade at the larger man’s throat. Come on, Pa, you’re much bigger and stronger than him! Fight him! Save Ma! But his father merely blubbers helplessly as he flinches away from the dwarf’s sword. As the raider backs off, the boy could only watch, mortified, as his Pa covers his face with his massive hands, muttering, “Please…please…please…” With building horror, the boy watches as all three raiders converge around his mother’s body. And his father does nothing to try and help her. The child gapes at his Pa, the big, strong man he has always looked up to, and feels a pang of shame. The men surrounding his mother have started laughing raucously. Without thinking, the child picks himself off the ground, still sopping wet, and launches himself on the back of the dwarf. He hears a cry of surprise before a hand clamps down on his shoulder. The child bites down hard on the offending hand, eliciting a yowl of pain from its owner. Then something solid hits him in the base of his skull, and everything spirals into darkness. In the obscure gloom of semi-consciousness, the child is vaguely aware of the sounds of grunting, shrieking and crying. Then, he hears a highpitched scream, followed by a long, drawn out wail. When he awakes, the hair on the back of his head is matted with something sticky and warm, and it hurts. He is lying face down in the dirt, and the brown sand is stained with a few drops of something darker and reddish.
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He tries to get up, but he could not move his body. For a moment, panic hits him, as he wonders why his limbs are not responding to his brain. Eventually, he realises that his hands are bound behind him. His feet, too, are tied up. “Pa? Ma?” he calls out groggily, his voice a terrified squeak. The wailing he heard before waking up is still sounding in his head. Turning his head, he finds the source of the piteous cries. His father, his big, strong Pa, is rocking on his hands and knees, keening mournfully. The boy is frightened. He has never seen his father weep before. What has upset him so? He cranes his neck in the other direction. The three raiders have stepped away from his mother, but something is wrong with Ma… Her eyes are open, but they do not seem focused on anything. They just stare vacantly into space. And as the raiders step back even further from her, he sees the blood. He chokes back a scream. There is so much blood: on her hands, her clothes, her hitched-up skirt, her bare legs, her exposed thighs… It all seems to be flowing from the gaping hole in her stomach. “MAAA…!!” This time he does scream, long and loud. His Ma does not seem to hear him. She remains unmoving, her dimmed eyes still gazing blankly at nothing. Why isn’t she moving? What’s wrong with Ma? Tears start to roll down the child’s face as he whimpers plaintively. One of the raiders approaches him. Gruffly, he picks up the child and tosses him over a shoulder. The man’s shoulder is bony, and it hurts where it juts into the boy’s ribs. He tries to squirm free, but his bonds are tight. ”Paaa…!” he calls out to his father, terror-stricken. “Pa! Help me! Please!” His father hears him, that much he is certain, but he makes no move to get to his feet, to come rushing to his rescue.
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Instead, he merely crawls pitifully on all fours toward them. When Jared strides towards him, his weapon raised, his father stops, tears streaming down his face and drenching his beard. “My son! No, please, not my son, too…” and he breaks down in uncontrollable sobbing. The child could only stare at his father, all hopes in his little heart crushed. Still carrying him, the raider starts to walk. Where are they taking me? What will they do to me? Like any child, his imagination runs wild with all sorts of nightmarish possibilities. He cries out to the other villagers, who have been crowded together all this time, entreating, praying, for one of them to aid him. He sees some familiar faces among them: Amos the innkeeper, Sven the carpenter, Hogarth the farmhand…all big, strong, capable men. But not one of them tries to stop the raiders. There are so many of you! There are only three of them! Why won’t you fight them? “Someone, please, help!” But they just look on as the black-clad men amble off with the boy slung over a shoulder, trussed up like some animal on its way to the slaughterhouse. Their eyes show fear, resignation, and pity. Pity… The child does not stop screaming until he is flung ungraciously over the back of a horse, his face buried into the mount’s firm flank. Consumed with grief, dread, and abject terror, the little boy starts to bawl. A hand roughly grabs him by the hair around his head wound, sending jolts of pain through the child. The hand jerks his head up, and the boy finds himself staring into the dwarf’s face. He glimpses the strange greyish-blue hue of the dwarf’s complexion, and the evil glint in his red eyes. The child flinches in fear. The dwarf is laughing. “I like you, kid. You have fire.” He visually assesses the child. “I could find some uses for you yet…if you survive long enough.”
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A small whine escapes the boy’s quivering lips. He does not like the dwarf’s tone at all. The man glances back towards the trees, in the direction of the river. “Your Ma tried to be a hero, kid,” he tells the child, as if giving him a fatherly lecture. “Fought to the very end.” His fingers are still entwined painfully in the boy’s dark locks. He shakes his grey-blue head. “Trust me, it was a bad move. “You don’t want to be a hero.” He lets go of the boy’s hair, and pats him on the head. Then, the dwarf mounts the horse with an agility that belies his short stature. “Take it from me, lad, heroes are the first to die.” With that, he snaps the reins, and the black stallion breaks into a gallop. The child sees a few horses ahead of them, and more behind them. He bounces uncomfortably as the dwarf’s steed starts to run faster, leaving the burning village behind. The child could only stare dumbly at the retreating village, at the burning houses. At his home. His Ma’s words from what seems so long ago echo in his mind. “Anybody can be a hero. As long as they are willing to do anything for the people they love.” He sees his father again, his big, strong Pa, who has always been a hero in the child’s eyes, begging pitifully for mercy, unwilling to stand up for his family, for Ma. Does he not love us? Is that why he didn’t do anything? The child is suddenly overwhelmed by a river of shame, as he realises that his Pa, whom he has admired and adored, is no hero. Then he hears the dwarven raider’s sinister, mocking voice. “Heroes are the first to die.” The image of his Ma’s bloody, violated body burns freshly in his mind. Ma had tried to save him, had she not? Now look what’s happened to her.
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He is engulfed by a sudden rush of guilt. As the raiding party picks up the pace, the fires of the burning village fade slowly into the distance. His little spirit broken, the child lays limply across the horse’s back, ignoring the throbbing pain in his head and the discomfort of his bonds. “You don’t want to be a hero.” The dwarf’s words invade his thoughts again. No, I don’t want to be a hero…the child thinks, his cheeks stained with tears, blood and grime. Not anymore… The observer could almost feel the child’s little heart crumbling in despair. Everything starts to flicker, and before he knows it, the dream ends, fading into nothingness.

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Chapter 36 – Sanctuary

The evening air is cool with a light breeze. The harmonious chirp of crickets, coupled with the rhythmic clip-clopping of the horse’s hooves on the road, is like a soft lullaby, lulling her slowly into the welcoming embrace of sleep. The gentle rocking of the cart soothes her further, and her eyelids begin to droop as she drifts blissfully into slumber. Suddenly, she feels a falling sensation, and she wakes up with a jolt, just in time to catch herself from tumbling off the front of the wagon. Her heart thudding, she grips the reins tightly with one hand while slapping her cheeks with the other, hoping the stinging pain would help wake her up, but her eyelids still feel heavy, her senses dulled, and her movements lethargic. You can’t keep going like this. You need to rest soon. They have been travelling for four days without stopping, journeying through the night to cover more distance, and she is suffering from the full-blown effects of lack of sleep. Stifling a yawn, she shakes her head to try and refocus her bleary eyes on the road ahead. Her muscles are stiff and aching, and her backside is feeling sore from all those hours sitting at the head of the wagon. It would be so nice if she could just pull over to have a quick nap, maybe just a couple of hours…the gods know she needs it… But as she glances over her shoulder at the still form of the ranger, still covered by her cloak, she knows that they cannot afford to stop. Alya has all but used up their entire healing supply to try and slow down or reverse the effects of the poison…or at least to just try and keep the man alive. Worryingly, there has been no improvement in his condition. If anything, he seems to be getting progressively worse.
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She cringes as she remembers how he had gone into some form of seizure the other day. Out of the blue, he had begun to thrash violently, and she had to stop the cart to grab hold of him, fearful that he might hurt himself. Her heart hammered in her chest as she tried to pin him down. His arms were flailing wildly, and he seemed to be having trouble breathing. For one frightening moment, he reminded her of a drowning man, struggling desperately to draw breath, and she had felt a wave of helplessness as she held him down, stroking his head, calling his name, and cursing her own impotence, unsure of what else she could do. Thankfully, the convulsions finally stopped, and he took in a heaving gulp of air before becoming as still as death again. But when she examined him for any self-inflicted injuries, his skin was hot to the touch. He was burning with fever. She hears a whimper behind her. Glancing back, she sees Karnwyr lying beside his master, his head resting on his front paws, looking dejected. Bishop’s brow is furrowed, and his head twitches occasionally. She hears a soft groan amid his shallow breathing. Is he in pain? Or having a nightmare? Concerned, yet unwilling to stop the cart, she reaches an arm behind her and lightly caresses his stubbly cheek, hoping the simple gesture would help to calm him somewhat. His skin feels flushed and clammy under her fingertips. Not for the first time since their encounter with Garrick and company, she feels a pang of anxiety for the ranger. If we don’t get there in time, I’ll never forgive myself… Alya forces down the up welling of guilt. She had taken a risk on his life by not going straight to the Keep for help, but it is too late to change her mind, to turn back, now. Besides, they are almost at their destination. Just one more day to go. Hang on, Bishop… They arrive at the banks of a wide, meandering river. Alya pulls the horse to a stop, and jumps off. Kneeling down by the edge of the stream, she scoops up some water, and drinks from her cupped hands. The water is sweet and refreshing, and she splashes the remainder on her face, letting the cool liquid trickle down her cheeks and drip off her
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chin. With a sigh, she douses her face again. The chilly water is invigorating, and it will hopefully wake her up a little. Something furry nudges her, and she turns to find Karnwyr beside her, lapping at the water with his tongue. Grabbing her satchel, she pulls out a piece of cloth and dips it into the river. Wringing out the excess water, she carries the damp rag to the wagon and climbs back on. She bends over Bishop, and gently dabs his face with the cool, wet cloth. Then, folding the fabric neatly, she presses it onto the ranger’s febrile forehead. It’s not much, but hopefully it will help keep his temperature down. Leaving the cloth on Bishop’s head, she moves back to the front of the wagon and whistles for Karnwyr. The wolf leaps onto the cart and lands effortlessly beside her. Ruffling the animal’s mane, she looks towards the beginnings of a forest ahead of them. A wooded mountain towers out from the tops of the trees. They could probably manoeuvre the wagon through the undergrowth for another hour or so before the vegetation becomes too dense and tangled, and before the route begins to slant steeply uphill. When that happens, they will have to ditch the cart completely. She glances again at the unconscious ranger, and her heart clenches involuntarily. She reaches out a hand to gently squeeze his shoulder. Then, with a snap of the reins, she urges the horse onward. * * *

He is in another dream. This time he is surrounded by drab stone walls, in a chamber dimly lit by some candles. There is an altar with an intricately carved statue on it. Judging by the missing right hand and the sightless eyes, he guesses that it is an effigy of the Maimed God, Tyr. He sees a woman sitting with her back against a wall, facing the altar. Her expression is pensive as she stares at the stone sculpture, one arm hugging her knees tightly to her body. Her other hand twirls the fringes of her auburn mane, and he sees her chewing on the end of a lock of hair. “It’s just a statue, you know.” Did he just say that? He feels himself walking out from the shadows as the woman jumps, startled by his presence.
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“Gods, stop sneaking up on me like that!” she scolds, even as she gives him a slight smile. He hears himself snicker. “You know, you could make it harder for me by actually being aware of your surroundings,” he retorts, as he moves to stand beside her, leaning his back casually against the wall, his hands in his pockets. Neither of them says anything more for a spell. It is not an uncomfortable silence, as if the woman is just glad for his company. Something tells him that she has been alone in that room now for a long time. “You really going to do this on your own?” he finally asks as he looks down at her, his tone nonchalant. She shrugs. “What choice do I have?” Her fingers start to play with her hair again. “Lots by the looks of it,” he replies, as he leans his head back against the cool hard stone. “Running away from it all still seems the best option, but we’ve been through this before, haven’t we?” He casts a sidelong glance at her. “I take it you’re still not changing your mind?” She sighs. “Bishop, you can’t run –“ “From your own shadow,” he finishes for her. “Heh, wonder where I heard that before?” Shifting his weight, he leans his shoulder against the wall so that he now faces her. He catches the gleam of resolution in her eyes. “You’re stubborn, you know that?” She says nothing as she gazes thoughtfully at the stone idol. He crosses his arms in front of himself. “If you won’t take off, then at least get one of those lackeys of yours to be your so-called ‘champion’. That dwarf is always itching for a fight, and that paladin,” he practically spits out the last word. “He seems all ready to throw himself at a herd of berserker orcs for you.” He raises an eyebrow. “Wasn’t that why he was in here earlier? I doubt he visited you just to preach about Tyr.” Sitting cross-legged, she swivels around to face him. “Bishop, I appreciate your concern, but –“ He laughs harshly, interrupting her. “Concern? Don’t flatter yourself,” he snaps, his tone more biting than he intended. “I’m merely
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concerned about repaying the debt I owe that uncle of yours.” He eyes her fixedly. “And you’re making it very difficult for me. How do I protect someone who is so eager to die?” She meets his gaze unflinchingly. “I am not ‘eager’ to die,” she states firmly, indignantly. He has obviously hit a sore spot. “If anything, I don’t want to go through with it any more than you do.” Her piercing green eyes start to shimmer. “I’m scared,” she continues with a quake in her voice. “I’ve been scared ever since all this business with the shard fell into my lap.” She looks away, embarrassed by her outburst. “There have been too many deaths already,” she whispers. “And if I sent someone to take my place tomorrow, and he dies…the gods know I will never be able to live with myself.” She smiles a bitter smile. “Hells, I’ll hang anyway if my champion dies. The way I see it, doing it myself, well…better just one death than two, eh?” He watches in silence as she brings her knees up, and hugs them tightly to her chest. She continues to look away from him, her reddish hair covering her face. He feels his heart twinge when she surreptitiously swipes something off her face. She suddenly appears so small and helpless, and he feels an overwhelming urge to gather her up in his arms, to comfort her, to protect her. But he quickly quashes the temptation. He is afraid, too. Afraid of the unexplainable depth of feeling he has for her, afraid of what it would mean if he actually does try and hold her. So instead, he remains aloof. “Didn’t think you were the pessimistic type,” he remarks. “The way I see it, you stand a pretty good chance against him.” She makes no move to reply, or to turn back to face him, but he carries on regardless. “I’ve seen guys like him fight. They don’t think. They’ll just come barrelling at you with everything they’ve got. All he has going for him is his strength. You’re much smaller and faster. Weave in and out. Use your ranged weapons. Keep hitting him till he goes down. Just try not to get hit yourself.” He notices that she is finally looking at him. With a wry grin, he taps his temple with a forefinger. “Fight smart, and maybe you’ll live.” He sees her smirk, her eyes still shining. “You didn’t just come here to tell me how to fight Lorne, did you?” He shrugs. “I have to at least show Duncan that I tried to help.”
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Another minute of silence follows as he struggles with what he wants to say next. “Look,” he finally begins, sliding his back down the wall until he is sitting beside her. “I can see you’re loath to risk the lives of your friends. So why not send me instead?” She whips her head around in surprise, but it is his turn to look away. He wonders if she had detected that hint of self-loathing in his voice. “I think I’d enjoy killing that bastard,” he rushes on. “And I might do it, if you ask me nicely enough.” This time the silence between them feels uncomfortable. He concentrates on scrutinising a particular corner of the ceiling as he continues to avoid her gaze. Cobwebs, dust…the monks should really clean this place out. He feels a hand on his knee. Glancing down, he falls straight into her luminous green eyes. “No,” she says simply. He cannot help himself. “No, what?” “No, I don’t want you to fight my battle.” She smiles gratefully. “Like you said, I don’t want to risk the life of a friend.” He cringes inwardly as his heart does a ridiculous little flip. Did she really mean that? It dawns on him then that they are alone. And that her hand is still resting on his knee. And that they are sitting very closely together. Pressed shoulder to shoulder, her face is only inches away from his. From this distance, her emerald cat’s eyes sparkle with an invitation for him to lose himself in their embracing depths. He counts the faint freckles on her nose. Nine of them, ten if you include that almost invisible one right on the bridge, between her eyes. He catches her feminine scent, sweet and a little tangy. Her mouth, those soft-looking lips, close enough to… He hurriedly pushes himself off the floor. “Well, don’t say I never offered my help then,” he says, forcing his voice to remain calm as he strolls towards the exit, all the while
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ignoring the torrent of conflicting emotions crashing around in his head. Before stepping through the door, he turns and salutes her with two fingers. “Happy hunting tomorrow.” The dream fades to black as he leaves the room. * * *

The old man is sitting at the top of the rocky cliff, his eyes closed in meditation, when he hears the distinct clattering of a horse’s hooves pounding its way up the narrow trail. It surprises him, for he almost never gets visitors. The animal is galloping, and he can hear the slippery pebbles shifting dangerously underneath the creature’s feet. Very unwise to be riding so fast on such a steep, treacherous path. Perhaps the rider has some form of urgent business. He waits until he hears the horse pulling to a stop behind him, snorting and panting. The creature sounds very tired, as if it had been running for a long time without rest. The rider dismounts smoothly, and he recognises the quiet, fluid movements. “My child,” he says in his native tongue, as he opens his eyes and turns towards the red-headed half-elf. “You have returned.” “Sifu,” she reverently falls to her knees before him. Her face and clothes are dusty, and there are dark rings of shadow around her eyes. She, too, looks very tired. “Get up, child,” he urges gently, as he stands, supporting himself on a gnarled walking stick. He helps the woman up by her elbows, then looks toward the dun-coloured mare, head lowered, foaming at the mouth. A man’s limp body lies strapped across the horse’s back. Just then, he hears padded footfalls. A large grey wolf bounds up the trail, its tongue lolling out. “I see you’ve brought company,” the old man remarks, his tone and expression neutral and calm in spite of the unexpected guests. She nods grimly. “He is hurt, sifu,” she explains, speaking hurriedly, fumbling slightly over the foreign words. “It’s poison…I know not what kind.” Her eyes glimmer with concern as she clutches his hand.
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“Please help him.” Slowly, the old man shuffles over to the horse. He examines the unconscious man briefly before frowning slightly. The man’s face is waxy, his features contorted in pain. Placing a finger on the man’s neck, he finds a thready pulse, and his skin is burning hot. Quietly, he instructs the woman, “Help me carry him.” They do not have much time.

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Chapter 37 – The Observer

Alya helps her master move Bishop into the cave that serves as the old man’s home. Despite his stooped and frail appearance, her sifu is still able to bear half the ranger’s weight with apparent ease. They put him gently down on a pile of furs, and Alya steps aside as her master kneels down beside the ranger, and removes the cloak that was wrapped around his body. He runs his bony fingers along the bandaged area around his collarbone. “Is this where the poison entered?” he asks. His tone is crisp and urgent while still managing to sound patient and kind. “It is,” she answers, as she watches him peel back the dressing to inspect the wound. “The wound is old,” the old man remarks, as he prods at the scab lightly with a finger. “When did this happen?” “Five days ago,” she answers, as she squats down beside him. Her master eyes her with an inquiring expression. “That is a long time. You travelled far to get here, then.” He turns his attention back to Bishop. “Was there no closer place to summon help?” She sighs. “There were some…complications, sifu,” she explains vaguely. Her master nods as he looks at her understandingly. “Maybe you can elaborate later, when we have the time.” He gestures to the two deep purple bruises on Bishop’s chest. “Did you do these?” “I did, sifu.”

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He studies the contusions appreciatively. “You have done well. Those pressure points are probably what have been keeping him alive.” Alya bows. “That and everything else I tried.” She hugs herself tightly, and observes in anxious silence as her master busies himself with a thorough examination of the ranger: checking his pulse, pulling his eyelids back to inspect his pupils, opening his mouth to scan his tongue. Finally, the old man straightens up, and sits back on his heels. “Interesting,” he muses, as he runs a hand thoughtfully through his white beard. “It is a strong poison indeed, but it acts slowly, with the purpose of intense suffering before death claims the victim. Whoever administered it must be cruel indeed.” Alya shudders at the diagnosis, and at the memory of the malevolent duergar. “Yes, he was very cruel.” Slowly, the old man picks himself up. “I have some herbs to help alleviate the symptoms, at least temporarily. I cannot do much else until I identify this mysterious poison.” He looks at Alya to find her covering her mouth to stifle a yawn. “You are tired, child,” he states. “You need to rest.” Alya shakes her head. “I want to help,” she insists, glancing again at Bishop’s still body. The old man places a hand gently on her arm. “You have already done much more than can be expected. Go. Rest. I will take care of your friend.” Reluctantly, she allows her master to usher her to the back of the cave. It is dim and cool here, and she feels a sense of nostalgia at the familiar sight of the bookshelves, stacked with all the scrolls she used to read. As she unrolls her sleeping bag, she finally realises the extent of her fatigue: every muscle in her body feels cramped and stiff, her head feels congested, and there is a dull thudding in her temples. Perhaps a short rest is a good idea… She is asleep as soon as her head touches the pillow. * * *
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The observer finds himself in another dream. It is a clear, bright morning. Throngs of people are crowding in on him on all sides, and they all appear to be waiting for something. The air is buzzing with nervous excitement as they all gaze expectantly at the empty arena before them. He glances around and spots some familiar faces, all of them looking just as anxious as everybody else. The dwarven fighter is wringing his hands nervously; the female tiefling’s tail is twitching with anticipation; the elven mage stands stock still, his face impassive, but his complexion is paler than usual, and his hands are clutched so tightly behind his back his knuckles are turning white. And then there is the paladin, his hands clasped together, his lips moving slightly as he mutters a silent prayer, his intense blue eyes fixed on the stadium before him. Finally, he sees the ranger, standing some distance away from his companions, his arms crossed in front of him as he calmly surveys the scene around him. The observer finds himself invariably drawn to the man, and as the sound of drumbeats begins to reverberate through the amphitheatre, signalling the start of something important, the observer feels a sudden quickening of his pulse. Then he looks back at the ranger, and catches the imperceptible acceleration of the man’s breathing, as his chest starts to rise and fall faster. So he is feeling the ranger’s emotions… Curiously, he pushes through the crowd to get closer to the man, just as he sees two figures walking onto the arena floor from different ends of the coliseum. One is a hulking monster of a man, bald, heavily built, and armed with a lethal-looking falchion. The other person could not look less similar: petite and unarmoured, she is instead dressed in a basic monk’s robe, a simple wooden staff in one hand. The observer recognises her as the red-headed half-elf from the previous dream. Clever girl, he hears in his head, before realising that they are the ranger’s thoughts. Using a staff to improve your reach. The two people in the ring are now face to face, apparently sizing each other up. An announcement echoes through the stadium, eliciting a chorus of cheers as the two combatants are introduced. When the fighters have retreated to their respective ends of the arena, walls of flames shoot out in front of both entrances into the ring, effectively sealing both combatants in and blocking their escape.
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The ranger draws in a long breath and releases it slowly as the fight begins. The large man charges headlong at the woman, his weapon held high. Deftly, the girl spins away right at the last moment, swatting the man in the back with her pole as he trundles past. Growling, the man whirls around, his blade slashing the air, and the monk parries his blow with her staff. That’s it, keep that up… The observer glances at the ranger beside him. At some point, he had removed an arrow from his quiver, and is now stroking the feathers on the end of the shaft, his eyes fixed on the battle, seemingly oblivious to the shouts and applause around him. The observer turns his attention back to the fight. The big man is running at the woman again, but this time, as if anticipating her dodge, he swerves suddenly, bringing his falchion with him, forcing the monk to dive out of the way of the swinging blade. She rolls as she lands, ending up in a crouched position. Before the girl could stand up again, he is looming over her, his blade tracing a downward arc towards her head. Instinctively, the monk brings up her staff to protect herself. With a loud snap, his powerful cleave chops the stick clean in half. Shit… The ranger appears to catch his breath, as his grip tightens ever so slightly around the arrow shaft. Seizing his advantage, the man attacks again. The woman tumbles out of his way, still clutching both ends of her broken staff. As she jumps to her feet, she twirls them about in her hands, wielding them as if they were twin swords. Neatly, she deflects a thrust with a stick, and hits out with the other, catching the man across the neck. Grunting in surprise, the big man stumbles backwards, and the monk follows, piling on the pressure as she strikes at him repeatedly with her twin staffs, while simultaneously ducking the man’s wild swings as he tries to defend himself. Each one of her blinding flurry of blows is aimed with deadly precision to cause maximal damage, cracking skull, knuckles, kneecaps, ribs… Finally, with a swipe behind his knees, she fells the large man. With one foot on the hand gripping the falchion, she levels the splintered end of a stick at the man’s neck.
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Finish him off… But as the observer watches, the monk merely stays standing over the fallen man. Her lips move, as if she is speaking to him. No! he hears the ranger scream internally in frustration. Don’t go soft on him just because he’s a fellow Harbourman! He sees the big man glaring up at the woman. Suddenly, he grabs her ankle with his free hand, and with a snarl of rage, flings her bodily across the arena. He sees the monk try to break her fall, but she lands heavily and awkwardly, sending one of her sticks clattering away from her. “Stupid girl!” This time the ranger mutters it aloud, his fist closing tightly around the shaft of the arrow in his hand. The huge man is on her in a heartbeat, gripping his falchion in both meaty hands. She barely tumbles away in time, before the mighty sword digs itself deep into the dirt where she was lying a split second before. Scrambling to her feet, she dances towards the far end of the arena, out of her opponent’s reach. Don’t be too proud to use your ranged weapons… The big man hurtles towards her like a raging bull, lurching slightly because of a fractured kneecap. Again, she evades him and sprints across the ring. Fumbling in her pouch, she produces her throwing stars, and starts flicking them one by one at her advancing adversary. The observer watches as each of the missiles pierces into the man’s flesh, until the front of his chest is studded with protruding stars. But the huge man appears to have gone into some sort of barbarian rage. His face, all the way up to his bald head, is a bright, angry red, and he appears not to even notice it when the throwing stars hit him. Instead, he rushes towards the woman, screaming in frenzy, waving his falchion like a madman. She tries to avoid him again, but the big man is surprisingly quick on his feet, as he turns with her, swinging his sword in a wide arc. A collective gasp escapes the crowd of spectators as the man’s blade is driven into the woman’s side.

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“No!” the ranger utters through clenched teeth, flinching, as the monk utters a strangled cry of pain. She staggers backwards, clutching her side, crimson blood oozing out between her fingers and dribbling onto the sand at her feet. The observer could feel the ranger’s heart pounding, and his jaw is clamped so tightly he could see the man’s veins pulsing in his neck. Sensing the woman’s vulnerability, her opponent charges at her with renewed vigour. With one hand still pressed against her bleeding wound, she parries his attacks as best she can with her remaining stick, but the big man continues to bear down on her, a crazed look on his battered face as he relentlessly backs the monk into the wall. All the while, the woman is trailing a track of blood, as the sticky red liquid continues to pour from the gash in her side. How much blood is in a human’s body? The observer finds himself wondering. Ten pints? How much has she lost already? As if in answer to his silent question, the monk sways unsteadily on her feet. From the way her shoulders are rising and falling, he can see that her breathing is becoming increasingly laboured due to the combination of exertion and blood loss. Her opponent continues to hack at her mercilessly, each swing chipping bits off her stick, as she frantically tries to block his powerful attacks. Move! You’re getting cornered! The ranger’s pulse is thundering in the observer’s head, almost drowning out the shouts and screams from the rest of the spectators. Too late, the woman finds herself backed savage cry, the man lunges at her. She falchion, but not the roundhouse punch afterwards. His massive fist catches the side off her feet and into the wall. Alya! No! As the woman crumples to the ground, the ranger’s entire body tenses with a sharp intake of breath. The observer feels the man’s heart clench painfully, all the while rattling noisily against his ribcage. His throat is dry, and there is an ominous pounding in his head. Roaring triumphantly, the huge man limps towards the woman’s listless form, his falchion at the ready. Dazed by the force of the blow, the monk lies there, unable to move. “Get up…” the ranger hisses. The observer catches him glancing down briefly at the arrow in his hand. He could almost see the man’s mind weighing up the risks.
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against the wall. With a manages to deflect his he throws immediately of her head, knocking her

Everyone’s attention is on the two combatants on the field. No one would notice if he fired the arrow, would they? And what are the consequences of doing that? Would the fight be annulled? Postponed? Or would he save her from Lorne only to send her to the gallows for the unfair assistance she got? And if he got caught, would he be executed alongside her? The big man is towering over the monk now, an evil glint in his eye. The woman rolls herself onto her back, and appears to wince in pain, her eyes still barely open. His mind racing as fast as his heart, the ranger unslings his longbow, and notches his arrow in it, his fingers trembling. Holding the falchion in both his beefy hands, the man raises the blade over his shoulder, preparing to swing it downwards at the woman’s neck. By the gods, woman, if you don’t move now, I swear I will do it… The ranger’s fingers twitches nervously, as he prepares to pull his bowstring back… Just then the big man howls in pain and lowers his falchion. For a moment, everyone seems as confused as the observer. Then he sees it: the monk, still lying on her back, clutches one half of her broken staff. The sharp, splintered end has been impaled in her opponent’s foot. The big man stares dumbly at his foot for a moment before bellowing loudly with rage. He raises his blade again, but this time the monk tumbles away, leaving only a bloody stain on the sand where she was lying. The man tries to follow, but yelps again. The stake is rammed in so hard that it has gone through his foot, and is embedded into the ground, effectively pinning the man in place. The woman pops up behind her opponent. Grabbing his shoulders, she tugs sharply while bringing her knee up swiftly at the same time. With one foot stuck in place, the big man loses his balance and starts to fall backwards. The base of his neck connects with the monk’s rapidly rising knee with a sickening crunch.
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For a moment, time seems to stand still, as the two fighters remain frozen in position. There is a hushed silence all around the stadium. The observer feels a building pressure in his lungs, and realises that the ranger is holding his breath. Finally, the monk steps back, breathing heavily, and the big man collapses, lifeless, his head flopping about loosely, his spine severed at the neck. The amphitheatre erupts in a cacophony of cheers and applause as the woman sinks to her knees. The ranger, ignoring the celebrations around him, is already pushing his way towards the centre of the ring. Clearing the barriers in a single bound, he enters the arena and starts to run towards the woman, her other companions and the observer following not far behind. He reaches her in time to catch her as she lurches forward, and holds her in his arms for what seems a split second longer than necessary, before laying her down gently on her back. Her eyes flutter open briefly, and the observer could see the ranger riffling through possible things to say in his mind. After rejecting “don’t die on me”, “hang in there” and “you’ve done it”, he finally settles on: “You took some stupid risks there, you know that?” The woman merely smiles weakly at him, and the observer could feel the ranger’s heart clench again at the sight of her blood on his hands, with even more pooling on the ground around them. Just then, her other companions arrive. The tall paladin runs up and roughly pushes the ranger away before bending over the monk. The man’s face darkens with a scowl, and the observer senses that, under any other circumstance, such rudeness would not have been tolerated. In fact, it would probably have earned the other man a dagger in the back. But he also senses that the ranger is feeling completely powerless to help the monk, and so he merely crosses his arms and stands aside. The elven druidess is now alongside the paladin, as they both set to work tending the woman’s wounds. “Can’t you two work faster?” the ranger snaps impatiently as he watches, praying that no one notices his uncharacteristic anxiety. No one, that is, except the observer. How very, very interesting…the observer thinks with a chuckle. With that, Mephasm slowly melts into the crowd of spectators as he leaves Bishop’s dream.
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Chapter 38 – Facing the Past

The old man sprinkles the crushed herbs into a small clay bowl and shakes it gently. Picking up a glowing incense stick, he places the burning end into the desiccated mixture. The dried spices catch alight, and they start to smoulder, releasing a curling wisp of purplish smoke. Lifting the unconscious man’s head off the pillow, the old man places the bowl of burning herbs under his nose, and watches as he slowly breathes in the pungent vapours. When the bundle of herbs have burned itself out, the old man sets the bowl aside. That should help with the pain. He puts the man’s head back down, and produces a long, slender tube made of clear crystal. It is hollow, with one end tapering to a needlelike point. Pulling the bandages on the younger man’s chest aside, he places the sharpened end of the tube over the entry wound, and presses down, piercing the hollow point through the man’s skin. Holding the other end to his mouth, he starts to suck slowly, and watches as the crystal straw fills up with dark red liquid. When the tube is nearly full, he pulls the needlepoint out from the wound and replaces the dressing. He then blows gently into the straw, forcing the blood out and collecting it in a small vial, which he corks and holds up to the light, inspecting its contents. There should be enough there for him to run his tests on. The old man shuffles to his workbench, and begins to mix reagents in a shallow dish, muttering some incantations as he goes along. He hears a whine and turns. The grey wolf that had accompanied the man has padded over, after having kept its distance while the old man was treating its master. Now, the creature lies down on the furs beside
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the injured man, snuffling softly. The unconscious man has begun to writhe again. His chest heaves as his breathing quickens, and he starts to toss his head from side to side. He keeps clenching and unclenching his hands, and his teeth are being ground together so hard that the old man could see his jaw muscles flexing. He hears the man’s ragged breathing, and detects a hint of fear in them. With a sympathetic shake of his head, the old man calmly returns to his work, ignoring the commotion behind him as the man continues to thrash. He hears a distressed bark from the wolf, and sighs sadly. He can easily relieve any physical pain the man may be suffering. But any mental anguish he has, he will have to bear alone. * * *

Bishop sits at the far end of the bar, merely watching as the duergar gets increasingly drunker and rowdier with every shot of rum he knocks back. Knowing Garrick, he’d probably get in a bar brawl later on, beat a couple of people to within an inch of their lives, fall asleep on the floor, and wake up the next morning with a splitting headache. And an awful temper. He knows better than to mess with the dwarf at times like this. As he nurses his own drink, his mind wanders back to the first time he had ever seen Garrick stinking drunk, back when he was still young and naïve enough to harbour childish fantasies of running away. It was one of his first excursions with the duergar, having been locked up in a cold, dank cellar for a few months after the raid for the purpose of “acclimatisation”. The dark dwarf had downed an entire bottle of firebelly whiskey, and was sprawled on the countertop, muttering gibberish. Bishop was seated next to him, fletching the duergar’s arrows as commanded, when Garrick started throwing insults at a nearby group of sailors. The men, three of them, seemingly as inebriated as the dwarf, converged on Garrick, surrounding him threateningly. “Care to put those words into action, duergar?” one of them asked menacingly. The dark dwarf had merely laughed, grabbed the boy by the collar, shoved a skinning knife in his hand, and plonked him down between the duergar and the sailors. With an amused gleam in his red eyes, Garrick had told the child to defend himself.
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Bishop was confused and scared. Was this the dwarf’s idea of fun? Pitting him against three full-grown, burly men? Credit to the sailors, they seemed hesitant to fight a child, and were standing around uncertainly when the boy glanced back at his captor. The duergar was swaying unsteadily on his stool, his eyes unfocused. He was roaring drunk. How fast could Garrick run in this state? Especially if… Gripping the knife handle tightly, he plunged the blade into the dwarf’s thigh, all the way up to the hilt. He had pushed past the startled sailors and was halfway across the tavern floor before the duergar could let out a scream. He spent the next three days running and hiding, trying to put as much distance between Garrick and himself as possible. Unfortunately, he got himself so hopelessly lost in the forest, he ended up wandering around in circles. That was when Garrick tracked him down. And dragged him back to the dark cellar for a whole week of torture and punishment. The fact that Bishop can’t recall exactly what the duergar had subjected him to is probably a good thing. His mind has blocked out the traumatic memory of that week, and all he remembers is the dwarf’s taunting words: “You know, boy, if you had fought those seadogs, you would’ve been brave, but stupid. If you had started crying for your Ma, I would have killed you myself. I have no use for cowards. But for you to do what you did? Man!” Garrick had chuckled amid the sound of a cracking whip. “That takes both brains and balls! You have some potential there, so I may not kill you just yet.” And so, they had come to an ‘agreement’. Garrick would show Bishop all the tricks of his trade, and in return the boy would do all his “dirty work” for him. “But if you pull another stunt like that again,” he warned, “I will make sure your death is slow and painful.” Since then, Bishop has never gotten lost in the woods ever again.

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Garrick pounds the counter with his fist, hollering at the barkeep for more rum. Bishop watches the dwarf from a distance with thinly veiled disgust. For the first couple of years, every time the duergar got drunk like this, he had briefly entertained the notion of slipping away. But as the months wore on, he had started to learn more and more from the man – and he was picking it up fast. After all that had happened to him, it felt satisfying to be good at something. Besides, if he were to run away, where would he go? He doubts he has much of a home to return to. He does think of his Pa sometimes, but after what happened, after how he had just stood by and watched while his wife got raped and killed, and while his only son was snatched away from him… Bishop pushes the thought away as he takes another swig of his ale. Well, it’s not like he’s bound in chains at the moment anyway. In fact, he can go wherever he pleases now, even disappear for days on end on a hunting trip. Garrick lets him go, because he knows that he will always come back. Not that they have developed any kind of friendship, far from it. Call it grudging understanding, perhaps. As long as he continues to do the duergar’s odd jobs, he gets the freedom to do whatever he likes. Freedom… Bishop snorts derisively at the word as he fingers the hem of his Luskan army uniform. Ah yes, there are some drawbacks with being the dwarf’s ‘apprentice’, aren’t there? Fighting for a cause he didn’t believe in was one of them. The training is difficult, to say the least, and on more than one occasion, he had barely managed to return from the front line alive. Plus, he hates the fact that the dwarf has such a psychological hold on him. He could go anywhere he wants, for as long as he likes, but sooner or later he would come crawling back to Garrick, knowing that he has no other future to speak of, save for learning from, and working for, the duergar. With self-disgust, he likens himself to a scared, whipped dog, forever tied to its master. But what is the point of even considering leaving? Where would he go? What would he do? How long before Garrick would hunt him down? He rubs his chin absently, feeling the soft fuzz of his first growth. This isn’t freedom…
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He no longer sees the chains around him, but they are definitely still there, binding him to the duergar. He wonders what it would take to finally break them. A string of profanities and the sound of a tankard smashing tell him that the barkeep had unwisely refused the duergar more alcohol. He ignores it as he smirks into his own mug. Well, at least he has developed a knack for killing people. Like all things, the first time was the hardest, and it only got easier. After all, he is learning from the best. “This seat taken?” a silky voice asks, interrupting his thoughts. He looks up to find a woman smiling at him coyly, a slender finger trailing around the rim of her glass. He tries not to stare. She is tall and slim, and the armour she is wearing hugs her womanly figure in all the right places. Her long, lustrous black hair falls carelessly around her shoulders, so shiny that it resembles a star-filled midnight sky. It is a stunning contrast to her porcelain pale skin. Her features are sharp, without being unpleasant or seeming too severe: high cheekbones, a slightly aquiline nose, a pointed chin. Her lips are bright red, full and sensuous, and she has hypnotic grey eyes, so light and shiny they almost seem silver. But she must be at least a few years older than him. Maintaining a casual composure, he motions for her to sit. She shifts her stool closer to his. “You must be Garrick’s protégé,” she purrs in that velvety voice of hers. “I have heard a lot about you.” He cocks an eyebrow. “Not all bad I hope…” She laughs, a deep, throaty laugh. “Well, the fact you have a smart mouth is true, at least,” she teases. She pulls her seat even closer, until her knee brushes his. “I’m Calyx,” she says, eyeing him unashamedly up and down. “Calyx…” He lets her name roll on his tongue, savouring the sound. “Nice name.”
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She smiles. “I hear you’ll be the latest addition to our little troop.” He assumes she means the Luskan assassin squad. Garrick has finally felt that he is ready to join the duergar’s elite group. At least it’s a definite step up from being a lowly soldier. He shrugs in response. “Lovely,” she remarks, as she lightly traces a finger on the back of Bishop’s hand, her touch leaving his skin tingling. “That means I’ll be seeing much more of you.” He smirks. “I hope you’re not content on just seeing…” and he lets his sentence trail off. He hears her seductive laugh again. Leaning forward, she whispers hoarsely in his ear, “I’d like to know if that mouth of yours is good for anything other than wisecracks…” she licks her lips suggestively. He eyes her challengingly. “Care to find out?” * * *

The tavern is quiet except for the muffled sounds coming from the darkened room at the end of the corridor. Inside, the bed creaks noisily as the two figures on it writhe beneath the sheets, moaning in pleasure. The blanket falls away, exposing the graceful curves of a woman’s silhouette, as she straddles the man beneath her. Her ebony mane falls down her back and over her shoulders, tickling Bishop’s face, the floral scent of her hair making him giddy. She pants as she moves, sliding herself up and down his entire length. His hands grab her firm buttocks, and he pushes her down as he thrusts his hips up, feeling himself going deeper into her inviting embrace. The hot pressure in his loins builds as they move faster and faster, until with a carnal scream, they climax, and the pressure is released in a flood of ecstasy. With a shudder, she collapses on top of him, both of them breathing heavily. Bishop wraps his arms tightly around her, his eyes closed, enjoying the feel of her body pressed to his, and the smell of spring blossoms in her hair. It has been a couple of months since they have gotten together, but no matter how many times they do this, it amazes him that each time seems to get better and better. There have been times when he wonders why she is even interested in him. She could have any man she wanted, and yet she chooses a mere
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boy like him. Somehow, after all the crap he has been through, he finds it difficult to accept that it was just a matter of luck. But Gods, every time she does this to him, he is willing to believe anything. Finally, she rolls off and lies beside him, one hand rubbing his chest. Bishop watches her through heavily lidded eyes, relishing the feel of her fingers playing across his skin. “Love?” she murmurs. “Hmm…?” He turns his head to look into her pearly eyes. “Have you thought much about your…induction…next week?” Her hand moves lower, settling on his hard stomach. He shrugs lazily. “What about it?” “Well…” she starts to trace little circles on his abs with a fingernail. His core muscles tense in response to the ticklish yet pleasant sensation. “Have you chosen a village yet?” He stares at the ceiling. “No,” he replies simply. Choosing a village to burn down, with all its inhabitants in it? He would never admit it, but he finds the idea disturbing. Killing a few people at a time is fine, but a whole village? With women and children? He wasn’t at all keen on the idea, and the fact that he has to select a village to burn, as if singling out a cow for the slaughter… “I think I’ll just pick one randomly off a map.” Calyx is silent for a while, her finger continuing to draw shapes on his torso. “What about Redfallows Watch?” she suggests finally. He props himself up on his elbows, and frowns when he looks at her. How much does she know about his home village? She appears unfazed by his discomfort. “Why not?” she goes on. “What better way to get them back for what they did…or rather, didn’t do?” Sounds like she knows a lot.

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He curses Garrick for his big mouth, and rolls over, turning his back to her. “I don’t really want to go back there.” He feels a hand round his waist. “Think about it,” she insists. “They’re weak. They couldn’t even stand up for one of their own.” She whispers in his ear, “Not even your own father.” Bishop shuts his eyes at her last sentence, as he swallows the lump in his throat. Calyx starts to brush her lips over his shoulder blades, gradually moving to the nape of his neck, tickling him with her warm breath. “Bishop, love?” she says in between her kisses. “Do you love me?” He rolls around again to face her. Does he? He knows that no other woman has ever made him feel this way. He knows that he does care for her, that he is probably willing to do almost anything for her. He knows that she is the only thing that is going right in his life. “Yes,” he whispers, as he gently caresses a porcelain cheek. She smiles as she nuzzles her face into his palm. “Then you would know that I want what’s best for you.” Putting her own hand over his, she presses it into her chest. “It hurts me to see you like this, always so bitter about the past.” She reaches her own hand towards his face, and rubs his developing stubble. “The only way to let go of the past is to go back and face it.” Bishop is still mulling over what she said when Calyx suddenly mounts him again and starts to kiss him fiercely. Her hands are all over his body, and she presses herself hard into him. Once again he feels a stirring in his loins. And he decides that he would do whatever she suggests, as long as she doesn’t stop doing what she’s doing to him…

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Chapter 39 – Family Reunion

The fire surrounds the village within minutes, and spreads rapidly thanks to the trail of starter fuel Bishop had first doused along the boundaries. He has left only a small gap in the ring of flames, just enough for himself to escape through. He saunters through the village, a longsword in hand, as the blaze closes in, and the sounds of terrified screams fill the evening air. He sees some villagers running around, others frozen in place, and even more huddled together crying. Many of them are faces he remembers from years past, but not one appears to recognise the ranger as they rush about in a panic, salvaging valuables, seeking an escape route, or just grouped together, helplessly awaiting their imminent doom… Pathetic weaklings…even now they’re incapable of saving their own hides… Those who cannot survive do not deserve to live… He ignores the throng of stampeding, hysterical villagers as he walks past familiar landmarks, homing in on a dilapidated looking house beside the communal well. As he approaches it, he sees the flames advancing on the wood and stone structure, licking hungrily at the eaves of the roof. He could feel the heat from the fire from where he is standing, as he scans the surrounding area. Someone runs out of the burning house, clutching a small satchel. The man screeches to a stop in front of Bishop. “Hello…Pa,” greets the ranger. His hair may have started to go grey at the temples, his hulking shoulders may now be stooped, and his face may be deeply lined with age, but there is no mistaking the hulking giant of a man.
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“Bishop?” the man whispers incredulously, his expression a mixture of recognition, disbelief and hope. After another moment of staring, the big man’s face breaks out in a wide grin. “Runt? You’re back!” He steps forward, arms outstretched. “Heh, look at how you’ve grown!” For a split second, Bishop is tempted to run into his Pa’s arms, like he had done everyday as a child when his father came home from work. Those massive arms used to be what comforted him when things went wrong. Perhaps they could still make everything all right again... Biting down on the inside of his cheek, he fights the urge by reminding himself of how the man had done nothing the night of his abduction, the night Ma died. “Stand back, old man,” he says coldly, forcing his voice to remain level as he holds his blade up to his father’s chest. The man’s eyes widen in confusion, his smile frozen in place but twitching uncertainly. “R-runt…what – what’re you doing?” He catches the look of hurt in the big man’s face. A hand gently caresses his shoulder as someone walks up behind him. He catches a flash of raven hair illuminated by the light of the fires. “Calyx?” Bishop says, surprised. He was supposed to be doing this by himself. The others are only there as observers. “What are you doing here?” With a smile, she leans her head over his shoulder, and brushes her lips lightly along his jaw. “Just here to give you some moral support,” she purrs. Then she eyes the man before them critically. “So this is your ‘father’.” Her voice has taken on a harder edge. “The coward who let his wife die and who couldn’t even save his own son.” Bishop says nothing as he continues to glare at the old man, his Pa whom he has not seen in more than ten years. He wonders what the past decade could have been like, had he been able to grow up here, with his family, with his father. They could have gone on fishing trips together, gone hunting together, worked the fields together…and Ma could always be waiting for them at home, ready with a nice hot meal… The past ten years could have been so different.
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They are also ten years that he will now never have the chance to experience. And all because Pa… The old man is looking back at him pleadingly, his eyes shining as realisation dawns on him. “Y-you’re not one of them raiders, are you, runt? You can’t be…” Bishop cannot bring himself to look at the disappointment on his Pa’s face. Instead, he focuses his attention lower down, his eyes settling on the bundle in his father’s arms. Calyx’s hand squeezes his shoulder. “Now’s your chance, love. He’s been the reason you’ve suffered so much.” The grip on his shoulder tightens. “Make him pay for what he did to you.” The harsh tone that Calyx’s voice has taken is not one he has heard before. His blade wavers as his throat constricts, his mind battling with conflicting emotions. He is angry at his Pa, for sure. He resents him for his cowardice, for having been so weak and pathetic… But can he bring himself to kill his own father? The older man clutches his bag in front of himself protectively. “Son…” His voice quivers as he speaks. “I’m so sorry for what happened. I was too weak…I’ve been living in guilt since…please… forgive me…” There is a shimmer in the man’s eyes as he looks at the ranger. He fights to steady his sword arm, taking deep breaths to maintain his composure. He refuses to try and reply, afraid that his voice would betray his discordant feelings. His eyes prickle suspiciously, and he puts the irritation down to the smoky air. “Look at him,” Calyx snorts in derision. “He’s begging for mercy. How pathetic.” She eyes Bishop expectantly. “What are you waiting for? Put the pitiful wretch out of his misery.”

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Bishop didn’t think it was possible for his father’s eyes to grow any larger. “Runt…I – I…” He stumbles over his words in his haste to get them out. “I’ve never forgotten about you…I always hoped you were still alive… w-we all did…” He’s never forgotten about me… Everything around him seems to grow louder as the chaos in his mind rages: the roar and crackle of the fire as it continues to eat its way closer to them, the ululating screams of terror-stricken villagers, the increased thundering of his own pulse…all these noises meld together, creating a cacophony so loud and disturbing that it drowns out all logical thought. Calyx’s urgent voice pierces through the tumultuous racket. “He’s trying to talk his way out. Don’t let him.” Almost as an afterthought, she adds, “That will make you look weak.” He grips his faltering blade with both hands, and bites down on his lower lip to stop it from trembling, so hard that he draws blood, and he tastes his own bitterness on his tongue. “My son…” his father is saying. “We’ve been searching for you for so long…” His weapon drops slightly, as does his jaw. He was searching for me? “He’s lying! Don’t listen to him!” Calyx’s voice is more impatient now as she hisses. “Kill him.” His inner turmoil becomes almost unbearable, the noises around him overwhelming. He covers an ear with his free hand, trying to drown out the chaotic din. But the disturbing noises are all inside his head. “Listen to me, son…” he thinks he hears his father saying. Has the man taken a step forward? Bishop cannot be sure in his state. “Kill him!” Calyx snaps again, her voice rising.
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With one hand still pressed to his ear, Bishop jerks his head from side to side, partly to show refusal, and partly to try and clear his jumbled thoughts. Too much noise, can’t think… “I can show you…” The old man reaches down, moving to open his satchel. “Kill him!” Something finally snaps. With a frustrated cry, he lashes out blindly with his sword. It hits something, slashing straight through it without much resistance. He feels a splash of warm and sticky liquid on his face, and opens his eyes. His father stands before him with a bewildered expression, one hand still clutching his satchel tightly Bishop can only gawk dumbly at the jagged gash running directly across the man’s neck, and at the torrent of blood gushing out from it, running down the front of his father’s chest like some macabre waterfall. He stares blankly at his longsword, at the drops of red dripping off the tip. He wipes his own face with his hand, and it comes away streaked in crimson. With a watery gurgle, the older man drops to his knees, a hand to his throat, as if trying to staunch the flow of claret pouring out of him. Spurts of his lifeblood shoot out from between his fingers as he crumples to the ground. The ranger continues to gape stupidly at the scene before him, his mind still struggling to comprehend what he had done. Calyx strides over to the fallen man, her hands clasped casually behind her back, and bends over him, examining him as one would an item in a shop’s display. Seemingly satisfied, she returns to Bishop’s side, and kisses him on the side of his face not covered in gore. “Well done, love,” she praises him, although her voice lacks any trace of emotion. “Finish off here and we’ll all meet you later.” Speechlessly, he watches as she saunters off, disappearing behind a curtain of smoke.
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A reedy whistling noise diverts his attention back to his father. With small, unsteady steps, he warily approaches the sprawled form on the ground, until he is standing right over the older man. His father is lying on his back, blood welling up from the gaping wound in his neck and pooling on the grass around him. His chest is heaving, his body desperately struggling to draw breath through his severed windpipe. It is the air rushing out through the hole in his neck that is making the whistling noise he hears. A long forgotten image flashes through Bishop’s mind. Garrick, mounted on his coal black horse, a silver rapier in his hand. He sees the blade slicing into old Janus’ neck, sending up a shower of blood, and he hears the man’s dying gasps as his life ebbed out of him. Then he realises that the dying gasps are actually coming from his father. He clamps his eyes shut. Not only has he become the man he hates so much, he has surpassed him; at least Garrick had slain someone he didn’t know. Bishop killed his own father. The older man’s wide eyes appear to focus on him, gazing up at him accusingly as the blood continues to flow. His father’s expression is sad, pained, and he thinks he also sees a tinge of disappointment. And pity. “Are you happy now?” he blurts out before he can stop himself, and before he knows it, he begins to shout uncontrollably. “Look at me, Pa!” he screams, holding his hands up to his sides. “Look at what I’ve become!” His voice is filled with guilt and self-loathing as he directs his hatred for himself at his father. “Look at what you did to me!” His eyes dart around briefly, as if only just noticing the blazing inferno surrounding them. “Look at what you made me do!” The horror of everything he had just done finally hits him like a pile of bricks. Tears threaten at the corners of his eyes, and he blinks them back. His voice cracks as he whispers. “This is all your fault.” His father is still staring up at him, his lips moving wordlessly. Is he trying to tell him something?
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He notices the small bag, still gripped tightly in the man’s hand, now slick with blood. He vaguely recalls that his father was reaching into the pouch when… “I can show you…” Despite himself, he crouches down and pries the bag out of the dying man’s hand. Ignoring the stickiness of the pouch, he investigates its contents. He is more than a little surprised to find a substantial amount of coin and what looks like a stack of documents inside. Where did the old man get all the money from? There is more there than his family had ever had at any one time. And why is he salvaging bits of paper? Curious, he pulls out the parchments, smudging them with his bloody fingerprints. On closer inspection, they are letters and contracts between his Pa and a certain group of people – mercenaries, hired by his father, by what he can tell from the contracts. Their job is apparently to hunt down two people, and judging by the more recent correspondences, the adventurers are closing in on their mark. He finds a briefing with a description of each target. His blood runs cold when he reads it. Duergar…bald…bearded…red eyes…apparently Luskan…eliminate at all costs… Human boy...would be eighteen years of age by now…dark brown hair…light brown eyes, almost golden in colour…retrieve and return… He cannot read further. His hands are trembling too much, his eyes are misting up, and his throat is constricting in such a way that he is finding it hard to breathe. He hears his father’s haunting words: “We’ve been searching for you for so long…” His breath coming out in ragged gasps, he looks back at his father. The old man has stopped wheezing. His eyes gaze emptily at the sky as an ominous rattling reverberates in his unmoving chest. “PA…!!”

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Dropping the bag and the papers, he throws himself on the old man, shaking his lifeless body violently, praying that he would at least see that his son has finally understood. But the man’s eyes are glazed over, and his head flops limply with every shake. Even the bleeding from his wound has slowed to a trickle. “No…” An inhuman wail bubbles up in his throat as he grabs the dead man by the shoulders and pulls the body to himself in a fierce embrace, oblivious to the blood and gore seeping into his clothing and his hair. Rocking on his knees, he keens loudly and mournfully as he clings to his father like a drowning man, the familiar earthy scent of his Pa now all but overwhelmed by the sharp tang of coppery blood.

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Chapter 40 – Those Who Cannot Survive

He doesn’t know how long he stayed in that position, clutching his father to his chest, but when he next looks up, the fires have spread even closer, and are almost on top of them. He feels the blast of heat from the flames, and reluctantly releases his Pa’s body, stumbling backwards on unsteady feet. He gazes down at his hands, his clothes… every single part of him is drenched in blood. His Pa’s blood… His stomach gives a sudden lurch. Whirling around, he retches as he bends over, throwing up the contents of his gut and spewing them onto the grass. Gripping the edge of the well for support, he coughs and gags as he vomits, disgorging everything from his stomach, until his throat feels raw, and until his insides start to feel as empty as his soul. He hacks dryly a few more times, the exertion squeezing fresh tears into his eyes. Keeping his head down, he wipes his mouth with the back of a bloody hand, the bitter taste of bile on his tongue. His mind slowly begins to clear, and when it does, he experiences a flash of insight. Despite what he thinks of the man, Garrick is no fool. He would have known if there were people spying on him, trying to hunt him down. Killing the mercenaries would be easy, but it would not stop whoever was sending them from continuing to hound him with more hired assassins. To truly halt the attempts on his life, he would have to find out who wanted him dead. And it looks like he has. He knew about this… His mind races back to the night with Calyx, just days before.
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“What about Redfallows Watch?” she had suggested innocently. Garrick had told her about Bishop’s past, probably for a reason. He recalls how she had followed him into the burning village, against all protocol, and how she had egged him on while he confronted his father. “Kill him.” Her voice was cold, calculating, insistent, revealing a part of the woman she had kept hidden from him until now. Why else would she care so much about what he wanted to do with his father? Why else would she be so keen on seeing him die? She knows, too… A heavy feeling of dread builds up in the pit of his stomach, threatening to make him nauseous all over again. Breathing raggedly, he holds his spinning, throbbing head in both hands, and squats on his haunches, leaning his back against the well. He has been a fool, a blind, love-sick fool, and they have capitalised on his weaknesses, playing him like a puppet on a string. He feels used, but more than that, he feels betrayed, guilty, remorseful, and disgusted with himself. Above all, he feels angry, not just at himself, but at Garrick, at Calyx… At everything. The sheaf of papers he had been holding now lie scattered about him, some of them fluttering in the hot convection currents caused by the encroaching blaze, others stuck in the puddle of his father’s blood, soaking up the crimson liquid. Pushing himself off the side of the well, he gathers up a handful of the documents, his fingers staining them red. With one last look at the body of his father, barely a few feet from the fire now, he turns and runs, past the other screaming villagers, past the burning houses, until he finds the little gap in the wall of flames, growing smaller now that the blaze is spreading, and slips through. The other assassins should be dotted all around the village’s perimeter, and he heads towards where he knows Garrick is stationed. He and Garrick need to talk.

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He crashes through the underbrush, a fistful of crumpled, bloodstained papers in one hand. He isn’t sure what he would say when he confronts the dwarf, but he figures he will worry about that once he gets there. Garrick should be right around this bend of trees… He skids to a stop at the sight before him, feeling as if someone has punched him in the gut. Calyx is there. On Garrick’s lap. With a hand in his pants. And they are kissing. She gasps when she sees him, and promptly retracts her hand, but she doesn’t leave her perch on Garrick thighs. Bishop feels as if a knife has been thrust into his chest. He catches the smug look on the dwarf’s face, not seeming at all fazed by the awkward situation. “Finished with your massacre already?” the duergar asks casually, as if making out with Bishop’s lover was an everyday occurrence. The blade in Bishop’s heart is twisted mercilessly. He stands motionless, taking in the scene before him, his mind branding it forever in his memory, alongside the other horrific things he has seen today: his father killed by his own hands, his home village being razed to the ground, with all the people still in it… His anguish seems to dredge up a torrent of older memories: his Ma’s lifeless, violated body, her stomach slashed…himself as a child, living in the cold, dank cellar…chained and beaten like an animal, made to feel worthless and wretched, just like he is feeling now. When he looks at the duergar again, a red haze descends on his vision. He did this to me… A feral roar escapes his lips as he lunges towards Calyx and Garrick. The dwarf, reacting deceptively quickly for someone of his stature, shoves Calyx aside and draws his own weapon, just as Bishop’s longsword is brought down on him. Their blades throw up a shower of sparks as they clash, before Garrick kicks the young ranger’s legs out
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from under him. Bishop catches his balance just in time to parry a counterattack by the dark dwarf. With their swords crossed, Garrick begins to laugh. “Ah, have you finally worked it out then, boy?” he sniggers, his red eyes gleaming sadistically. “I was kinda hoping you wouldn’t. You have been so useful to me...” Bishop is shaking with barely controlled rage. “Why?” he demands through gritted teeth. The dwarf laughs again. “Why not? Apart from the fact that I get my dirty work done for me?” Suddenly, Garrick swipes Bishop’s sword aside with his own, and seizes the opening to drive his fist into the ranger’s solar plexus. The air rushes out of his lungs as Bishop falls to his knees, winded and gasping for breath. Moving around, the duergar kicks him in the back, sending him sprawling forward. Before he could recover, a padded boot lands in front of him, and he feels a second one on the back of his head, grinding his face into the earth. He twists his neck to the side, trying to keep his face out of the dirt, and sees Calyx, her arms crossed in front of her, her expression unreadable. “Calyx…” he calls to her. Why is she just standing there? Why isn’t she trying to help him, or at least ask Garrick to stop? As if unable to look him in the eye, she turns her head, avoiding his gaze, and Bishop feels a stab of pain in his crumpling heart. He shuts his own eyes, humiliated by his own naïveté to have ever trusted her. At that moment, he wishes for the duergar to end his life swiftly. Garrick must have seen the despair and resignation on Bishop’s face, for again, he hears the dwarf’s hateful laughter. “I can’t believe you honestly thought that she could love you! Look at you, crawling about in the mud, with no future to speak of. Did you seriously think that would impress her?” The boot presses down harder on the back of his head. His next words are dripping with scorn. “You’re just my lackey, a lapdog, and you always will be.” The dwarf bends closer to hiss cruelly. “You’re nothing, just like your worthless father.”
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Something about that last sentence makes his blood boil again. Bishop’s eyes, which until then have been shut in shame, now snap open, glowing with an angry fire. Ten years of living in disgrace, of feeling nothing more than selfcontempt…ten years of being treated worse than an animal…ten years of being used, abused, manipulated… Not again…never again… All at once, his emotions come to a head. The red haze that was clouding his vision earlier returns, darker and more malevolent than before. Somewhere deep inside, a dam bursts, releasing a flood of pure, unrestrained fury. All of which are directed at the duergar. Growling lowly, he bucks himself off the ground, throwing off the foot that was holding his head down. Then, with a savage cry, he bodily tackles the dwarf, and they both hit the ground heavily, with Garrick beneath him. He feels the duergar’s rapier biting into his shoulder blade, but in his anger-fuelled state he barely notices the pain. Pinning the dwarf’s sword arm down with one hand, he punches Garrick in the face with the other, again, and again, and again…all the while screaming like a man possessed, until the blood on his fist is no longer just Garrick’s, but his own, as his cut knuckles begin to bleed. When the dwarf loosens his hold on his sword, Bishop prises the weapon out of Garrick’s hand, and holds it to the duergar’s chest. His face bloodied and still dazed from the flurry of blows, it takes a moment before the dwarf’s eyes manage to focus on the blade. When he does, he glares at the young man challengingly. “You wouldn’t…” he rasps through his split lip. The rapier comes down, slashing the dwarf in the face. Bishop stares in fascination at the long, deep gash running across the man’s eye, as dark blood wells up and flows down Garrick’s face. The sight seems to whet his bloodlust. He wants to see the bastard bleed even more. He wants him to feel the pain. He wants him to pay for everything he’s done, to watch as his life is destroyed completely, just as he has destroyed Bishop’s life. And so he plunges the blade into Garrick’s gut, then withdraws it, and stabs the duergar, again and again, all the while roaring at the top of his lungs, in a blind frenzy, relishing the warm blood spraying all over him with each vicious thrust. The wild glint in his eyes, the carnal
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screams…it is as if he were a bystander, watching as some demon controlled his body. Calyx’s shrill scream behind him brings him back to his senses. She is still standing where he last saw her, but now she has her hands up to her face, her lower lip trembling, her eyes wide with fear. He looks down at Garrick. The duergar’s eyes stare blankly into the distance, the front of his torso a gory mess, his guts dangling outside his body. Shakily, he gets to his feet, still gripping the blood-soaked rapier. He turns to Calyx, and hears her whimper as he approaches her. It pierces his heart that she would find him so repulsive. Part of him wants to gut her for her treachery. But the other part… “Go…” he commands hoarsely. She is a weakness of his, and he can’t trust himself when he is near her, yet neither can he bring himself to harm her. Even now, you love her. What a fool… Calyx stays rooted to the spot, gazing at Garrick’s blood splattered body. The thought of the two of them together sends a new surge of anger through is veins. “I said, GO!!” he barks, and this time she stumbles backwards before running into the brush and disappearing from view. Left alone now, he stares vacantly at the carnage he has caused, still letting it all sink in. He must look a sight, all covered in blood and dirt. His shoulder blade begins to sting. Reaching a hand behind him, he feels a warm stickiness, and his fingers come away covered in crimson. The background screams he has blocked out of his mind suddenly grow louder and more terrified. The fire has spread. The villagers… Garrick’s manipulations have already cost his father’s life. He doesn’t want any more deaths on his already heavy conscience, if he can help it.
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He runs back to the gap in the flames, only to find that it has almost completely closed up. Huge columns of heat and smoke rise up on either side of the narrow slit. The people are trapped. Garrck’s derisive words ring again in his head. “Heroes are the first to die.” Fuck you, Garrick… With a deep breath, he dives through the tiny gap. The heat of the blaze singes his hair and eyebrows. The hem of his shirt catches alight, and he pats at with his hands to put it out. When he looks up, he could almost believe he had just leapt into the jaws of the Hells. The entire village, every single house, is now engulfed in flames. The night sky glows with a flickering orange light. The furious heat is overwhelming, and the thick, billowing smoke clogs his airways. Worse of all, he sees people running about in a panic, only unlike earlier, their clothes are on fire. A few bodies lie writhing in agony, rolling about on the grass, vainly trying to smother the all-consuming flames. The acrid smell of burnt flesh invades his nostrils as the heartrending screams of the dying pierces his very soul. Oh gods… He sees a woman clutching a crying baby to her breast, frozen in fear before the rapidly advancing flames. He makes his way towards her. “This way!” he shouts, reaching out his hand. The woman gapes at the blood and gore covering his body, then at the rapier by his side, and backs off, her eyes wide with horror. He tries to step closer again, and with a shriek, she turns and runs into a burning house. “Wait!” Stupid wench, what does she think she’s doing? He is about to rush in after her when he hears an ominous creaking and cracking. He stops just as a wooden beam collapses in front of the entrance, sealing the woman inside the fiery structure. And she begins to scream.
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Shit… He grabs one end of the fallen beam, ignoring the searing pain as the glowing hot wood burns into his palms. Grunting, he tries to move it aside, but it is too heavy. With a cry of both pain and frustration, he withdraws his scorched hands. As he inspects his blackened palms, a whimper somewhere behind makes him whirl around. A group of villagers are huddled together, shying away from the flames around them. He shouts at the men in the group, “Help me lift this!” All he gets back are scared, distrustful looks. No one makes a move to volunteer. A few of them even shrinks back from him, a look of repulsion on their faces. With dawning dread, Bishop realises that it is happening again. They’re not standing up for one of their own… “What is wrong with you people?” he utters in exasperation, shaking his head in disbelief. Then he hears the agonised shrieks of the woman trapped in the house, mingling with the shrill cries of her baby, as the two of them burn alive inside. The screams seem to go on forever, growing louder and more drawn out by the moment, until they climax in one final bloodcurdling howl, a terrible wail that echoes throughout the village, before a chilling silence finally descends upon them. Only then does he realise that he had been pressing his hands over his ears. He glares in shock at the cowering villagers before him, weeping and snivelling as they cling desperately to each other. Pathetic weaklings…can’t even save one of your own… He is surprised by his own vehemence. You all deserve to die here… He stumbles as he backs away from them, a look of complete revulsion on his face, as if he were staring at a group of lepers. They disgust him that much.
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Turning around, he starts to run, but it isn’t long before he finds his path blocked by a crackling wall of flames. The gap in the ring of fire has closed off completely. The heat and smoke are becoming unbearable; he feels like he is roasting inside his own armour, and his lungs feel as if he were breathing in fiery brimstone. Must get out… The well… He rushes to the village’s communal well, forcing himself to avert his gaze from the charred corpse of his father as it is devoured by the gathering blaze. Hastily, he draws a bucketful of water and tips it over himself, dousing himself completely in the icy liquid. When he is satisfied he is soaked enough, he pulls his hood over his face, and mutters a silent prayer before plunging through the flaming barrier. The water on his skin evaporates within seconds, and as he ploughs through the blaze, he grits his teeth against the scorching heat, as it eats away at his exposed flesh. Only a few more feet to go… He bursts through the wall of fire just as his clothes catches alight. Dropping to the ground, he rolls on the grass to try and extinguish the flames, all the while biting back cries of pain as his burnt skin protests fiercely against each and every movement he makes. When he is no longer smouldering, he slowly picks himself up. The village is now completely engulfed in a raging inferno, the terrified screams of the trapped villagers piercing through the crackling of the flames. With morbid fascination, he stares in silence at the devastation before him, at the death and destruction he has caused. Suddenly, he feels a sharp pain tearing into his thigh. With a snarl, he pulls out the arrow stuck in his leg, just as another one whizzes past his head. The other assassins are shooting at him… They can’t have discovered Garrick’s body yet. No one was supposed to leave their stations until Bishop completes his initiation. No one should have any idea yet of what he has done.
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Unless Calyx told them… The wrenching pain in his heart at the thought hurts him more than even his burns and wounds. Another arrow slams into him, this time hitting him in the arm, sending him staggering sideways. Gritting his teeth against the pain, he whirls around, trying to discern the sources of the missiles, to pinpoint where the assassins could be hiding. This time, a bolt tears into his side, and he nearly loses his balance. He has to get away. Limping and clutching his injured side, he dives into the trees, just as an arrow nicks him in the back of his neck. Breaking into a lumbering sprint, he runs away from the assassins, away from the burning village, away from his past. Low-hanging branches whip him in the face, but he stumbles on, until, in his weakened state, he begins to feel dizzy from his exertions. Pulling to a stop, he bends over, his injured arm hanging uselessly by his side, as he places his other hand on his knee to catch his breath. His head throbs, his vision swimming before him, and as he stares at the ground, he feels something warm and sticky trickling down his neck. Drops of blood are dripping off his body and falling into the soil, staining it a reddish-brown. A slight rustle from behind prompts him to gingerly turn his head. In the flickering light of the burning village in the distance, and through his haze of pain, he sees a flash of raven hair, and a glimpse of silverygrey eyes. “Calyx…?” His voice catches as his heart swells with hope. Still looking over his shoulder, a smile was about to play across his lips when he spies a glint of metal. Too late, he realises that it is a dagger, an intricate one with a characteristic curve in its blade, and semiprecious gems set into its hilt. Calyx’s dagger. The blade is thrust downwards with force, and he feels it being driven deep between his shoulder blades. He cries out as his back arches, his body convulsing in reaction to the sharp, excruciating pain.
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But the pain is nothing compared to the agony in his heart. “Bishop, love, do you love me?” “Yes.” Another wave of pain and a wet sucking sound tells him that she has withdrawn the blade. With the last reserves of his strength, he turns around to face her. Even as she stands there with a wicked smile, the dagger in her hand dripping with his blood, he finds her beautiful beyond words. As black spots crowd his vision, and as he sinks to the ground, he watches as Calyx walks calmly away, taking with her the last of his foolish, lovelorn hopes. Pain…so much pain… A warm wetness is spreading out from under him, the coppery smell of his own blood assailing his nostrils. In the cloudy darkness of semiconsciousness, all he sees in his mind’s eye, is a flash of raven hair, a glimpse of silvery-grey eyes, and a curved dagger on a downward arc… He had been a fool, and now he has paid for his stupidity, for his poorly-placed reliance on someone else, for his childish notions of love… For his weakness. Those who cannot survive do not deserve to live. But none of that matters now. Perhaps it is the loss of blood, perhaps all the pain is making him delirious, but somehow his body feels so much lighter, as if a great burden has been lifted off his shoulders, as if the heavy chains imprisoning him and dragging him down have been broken. The darkness begins to close in, bringing with it the promise of relief from all his physical pains and mental torment. Perhaps even the promise of freedom at last… He closes his eyes, waiting for oblivion to claim him, welcoming it even… “Ye gods!” From somewhere far away, a gruff voice seems to be calling out to him.
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Forcing his bleary eyes open, he sees a blurry image of what looks like a man, a half-elf, by the look of his slightly pointed ears. The stranger is kneeling over him and frowning. “Lad, yer hurt bad! Lemme help ye…” If he had the strength, Bishop would shake his head. No…don’t…his freedom is so close now he can taste it: warm, bittersweet and metallic… Or is that the blood he is coughing up? Too weak to resist, his vision dims as the stranger hauls his body off the ground. For a moment, his head rests on the man’s shoulder. Just before everything turns dark, he thinks he sees a second person standing not too far behind the half-elf. Only that this being has blue skin and red eyes, and it seems to exude a sinister, otherworldly aura. What in Faerun is that? Sweet, dark oblivion claims him before he can find out.

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Chapter 41 – A Deal with the Devil

The wolf whimpers. He is very anxious. The master is thrashing again, as if in the throes of some excruciating pain, but the creature can see nothing wrong with him. He licks the man’s face in the hope of calming him down, or waking him up. To his dismay, the master’s skin feels burning hot on the wolf’s tongue. The one thing that worries the wolf most is the fact that the master seems to have been asleep for too, too long. No amount of nudging or whining had stirred him from his fitful slumber. Karnwyr’s mother had fallen asleep for a long time, too, and had never woken up. The wolf is afraid that the same may happen to his master. The man’s back arches, and the wolf hears the master’s breathing quicken. That ever-present smell of sadness around the man is now combined with an even more troubling scent. Fear. Please wake up, the wolf pleads fretfully, prodding the master with his muzzle. Why are you so hot? Are you ill? Where does it hurt? Why are you scared? Karnwyr yelps plaintively, catching the attention of the person working nearby, the elder-looking one with long white hair growing from around his mouth. The man is unfamiliar to the wolf, but the creature senses that he is trying to help the master, and the aura of calmness the stranger exudes is reassuring. The old man approaches, one hand holding onto the long piece of wood he always seems to have with him, the other cradling a vessel of
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some form, with something burning inside it. The purplish smoke it produces has a strong, bitter smell, and the wolf snorts, making a face. He remains at a distance as the man places the smoky vessel under the master’s nose. The last time the strange man had done this, the master had stopped writhing, at least for a while. The wolf’s tail wags slightly, hopefully. But this time the master continues to struggle against some invisible force, even after he had inhaled every trace of smoke. His hands are clenched into fists, so tightly that the knuckles have turned white. The wolf can only watch helplessly as the master tosses his head from side to side, his eyes clamped shut, his teeth grinding together. Karnwyr sees the white-haired man frowning. What could it mean? The wolf is horrified when the man merely shakes his head sadly, and hobbles off, leaving his master still convulsing violently. Karnwyr yaps. Where are you going? Aren’t you going to do anything? But the man ignores him, turning his back and returning to whatever it is he is working on. After a few more desperate yips, the wolf gives up. The strange man is either unable or unwilling to help. Perhaps that woman the master travels with could do something… It doesn’t take long for the wolf to pick up her distinctive scent: soft and earthy, sweet yet tangy, with that odd tint of fear. Karnwyr follows her smell, the trail leading him deeper into the cave. Scampering through a short tunnel, he comes to a small chamber, and finds the woman asleep on the floor. Rushing to her side, Karnwyr emits shrill puppy barks to try and wake her up. Pulling the covers off her, he nudges her with his nose, and licks her hand. But like the master, she doesn’t respond, his disturbance eliciting only a faint twitch as she turns away from the wolf. Not you as well! The wolf whined frantically. What could be wrong with them? Thoroughly confused and distressed, Karnwyr sits on his haunches and starts to howl. * * *
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Bishop suddenly finds himself in a strange but disturbingly familiar place. The desolate landscape is almost entirely flat, punctuated occasionally by some rocky outcrops. The sky is an ominous red, and so too is the dusty earth. A huge, gaping chasm lies to one side of him, so wide that he cannot see the opposite side, and so deep that the bottom disappears into complete darkness. Where in the name of the gods…? Then it hits him. He is back in Baator. The Nine Hells… How did he get here? The last thing he remembers is Alya bending over him, trying to treat his arrow wound. Since then, all he had been experiencing was one nightmare after another, as his mind relived every single harrowing memory he had ever tried to suppress. This has got to be another dream. He looks down to find himself topless and barefooted, dressed only in his trousers, a bandage over his right collar bone. He vaguely recalls that Alya had cut through his clothing to get to his wound. Well, she owes me a new set of clothes… “Bishop?” He whirls around at the sound of his name, surprised that anyone else is here in this deserted wasteland, and even more surprised when he recognises the soft, tinkling voice. “Alya??” She is staring at him, looking just as bemused as he. Her expression when she saw him seems to be a mixture of confusion, and perhaps relief, or gladness. For a brief moment, he considered bridging the distance between them and holding her close. It seems like ages since he last saw her. But he is stopped by a flash of burning pain surging through his body, one so intense that it feels as if the blood in his veins had suddenly turned into molten lava. His chest constricts in response to the searing sensation, and the entry wound on his collar bone feels as if a whitehot poker had been stabbed into it.
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With a strangled cry, he doubles over, clutching at his arrow wound, and falls to his knees. His breathing comes out short and ragged, as his lungs begin to burn with each inhalation. As if from afar, he can hear Alya calling out to him, and her footsteps as she rushes towards him. “Hello, Bishop. Hello, Alya.” That voice…deep, calm and chilling…where had he heard it before? Alya had stopped a few feet away from him, and is staring in the direction of the cliff. He turns his head to find Mephasm hovering above the sheer drop-off. “What in the Hells…” His exclamation of surprise is cut short by another wave of hot agony. To his consternation, he hears the devil emit a rumbling chuckle. “Not a pleasant sensation, is it?” the baatezu is saying. “Your enemy must really dislike you to use a poison as powerful as this.” Bishop would have shot back a scathing reply, if he were not in so much pain that he is practically writhing on the ground. He growls through his clenched teeth as his face contorts in agony. “Yes,” the pit fiend remarks, seemingly unfazed by his suffering. “A very potent poison, red dragon’s blood. It takes its time, but it’s thorough. Symptoms include a high fever, convulsions, coma…” His tone is measured, like a sage reciting some scholarly facts. Then, almost casually, he adds, “Oh, and the feeling that someone is cooking you alive and eating you, from the inside out.” He regards Bishop with unconcealed amusement, red eyes gleaming, his lips parted in an inhuman looking smile. “Death will be a welcome release.” If Bishop could move, and if the devil weren’t levitating over a bottomless pit, he would have attacked him then and there. But as it is, he merely hisses as he is gripped by another round of stabbing pain. The feel of Alya’s soft hands on him, although pleasant and unexpected, does nothing to quell the raging fire in his veins. “Why are you doing this to him?” He hears her demand, as she kneels over him. Mephasm’s blue eyebrows shoot up in a mock show of aggrievement.
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“Why, I have done nothing, my dear,” the pit fiend replies, sounding mildly shocked by her accusation. “I am merely stating my… observations.” “W-what are you talking about?” Alya’s eyes narrow warily. The pit fiend grins, revealing a row of white, pointed teeth. “You see, we devils can be rather…inquisitive,” he explains. “And my particular area of curiosity concerns the matter of what you mortals call… emotions.” He begins to drift slowly in a circle, his hands clasped behind his back, as if he were pacing in thin air whilst contemplating. “What are these emotions? What is fear, hate, sadness, love…? Why do mortals subject themselves to these…feelings, when they can cloud one’s judgment, resulting in rash decisions and actions? And why do these feelings evoke such powerful reactions?” He stops moving, his gaze alternating between Alya and Bishop. “Is this susceptibility to emotions just another one of the many flaws that make mortals inferior to us? “And then there are some who seek to hide their true feelings from others, by concealing them behind false ones, erecting wall upon wall of conflicting sentiments, until they themselves can no longer distinguish the real emotions from the fakes.” Mephasm eyes Bishop intently, and despite being wracked by terrible pain, the ranger gets the disquieting feeling that the baatezu is delving deep into his soul, and inspecting his very private thoughts. “From the day I saw you here at the edge of this very cliff, your emotions, Bishop, have really piqued my interest. Never have I seen such a complex mesh of feelings. It aroused my curiosity so much, that I sought to understand it. So, I decided to follow your movements, to observe you, for a while.” The devil smiles again. “You may be pleased to hear that I have not been disappointed.” Bishop glares at the pit fiend, feeling strangely violated. Had the devil been watching him all this time? How did he do that? What had he seen? What does he know? His train of thought is interrupted by a particularly intense stab of pain, one that cramps up his chest, causing his muscles to spasm uncontrollably. This time he does cry out, his back arched, his fingers digging into the dirt. Mephasm’s grave voice penetrates his cloud of pain. “Ah, looks like the poison’s full effects is being realised. By this time, the dragon’s blood would have spread through your entire system. You should be feeling
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as if your heart, lungs and guts are being twisted into knots, before being wrenched out of your body.” The expression on the devil’s face is almost pitiful, and it enflames Bishop even more. “I am afraid you will be suffering like this for another couple of days at least before death finally claims you.” “What do you want from me, demon?” he manages to growl through gritted teeth, his entire body shaking with the effort. His hands are balled so tightly into fists that his nails are digging into his own palms. The baatezu’s evil grin widens. “Believe it or not, mortal, I have been so entertained while observing you, that I am willing to offer you some…assistance.” “Assistance?” Alya interjects, her tone cagey. “Why would you do that?” she asks, echoing Bishop’s own reservations. She eyes the devil suspiciously. “What’s the catch?” Mephasm shakes his head, clucking his tongue. “Such mistrust. And after I have helped you on several previous occasions as well…have I ever asked for anything unreasonable in return for any of my services rendered?” Both Bishop and Alya are silent as they eye the devil cautiously. While it is true that Mephasm has helped them numerous times, against Zeeaire, in Ammon Jerro’s haven, and most recently, by transporting them back to their plane, something about the pit fiend tells them that he has an ulterior motive. Mephasm sighs theatrically. “Fine, I do have my reason for offering my help,” he admits, his glowing red eyes twinkling with mirth. “Consider it a…behavioural experiment, something to satisfy my curiosity.” He glances at Bishop’s convulsing form. “I am intrigued by what I’ve seen of you these past few days. So many different feelings, each one contradicting another…your mind is such a chaos of warring sentiments. And each layer of emotion I tried to peel away only revealed another underlying layer.” He snickers. “You almost remind me of an onion, but with onions, they are completely made of layers, with nothing in the centre. The question I am wondering is: if I were to remove all the layers from you, would there be anything left?” Cocking his head, he scrutinises the ranger, as if examining some test specimen. “Would you, too, be empty deep inside?” Bishop would have laughed derisively at the ridiculous analogy, but he feels oddly affected by Mephasm’s words. With another grunt of pain, he looks away.
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“What would you say, Bishop, if I offered you not just relief from your current suffering, but also a chance to alleviate past torments?” The ranger’s head snaps back towards Mephasm, who seems quite smug that he had gotten Bishop’s attention. “Yes, I can see that my proposal interests you. Would you like to hear more?” The sensible part of his brain is buzzing with alarm, warning him that the baatezu cannot be trusted, that no good would ever come from a deal with a devil. But reason and logic at the moment are being drowned out by the tortuous pain wracking his entire body. He convulses in the throes of another torrent of searing anguish, one that appears to have clamped his insides in a red-hot vice, and filled his lungs with brimstone. Anything to stop the pain… As if reading his thoughts, the devil nods. “Excellent. Give me a moment.” He floats closer to them, and draws a circle in the air, his finger trailing a line of blue-green magic. The disc begins to fill out with a rainbow of colours, swirling and dancing in the centre until an image appears. Bishop stares in disbelief at the familiar wood and stone houses, all characteristically clustered around a well. Redfallows Watch. But it is intact, not burnt to the ground. The baatezu is speaking again. “Have you ever wished, mortal, that you could turn back time? To right a past wrong? Ever had things you wished you had never done, and some things you wish you had done?” Mephasm’s eyes narrow as he once again studies the ranger with his penetrative gaze. “It seems to me that regret and resentment are two very strong emotions within you.” “Runt?” Bishop’s blood runs cold at the sound of the distinctive booming voice, as his Pa emerges from the shimmering portal. The huge, broadshouldered man looks at him tenderly before a smile spreads across his bearded face.
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“Heh, look at how you’ve grown.” His father’s words send a chill down the ranger’s spine. Before his shocked mind could formulate a coherent response, another figure steps out from the portal, a slight woman, her mahogany hair pinned up in a bun, who daintily approaches his Pa and threads her arm through one of his. The last time Bishop had seen her, she was lying dead in a pool of her own blood, gutted like a fish, her body violated… “Ma…?” His own voice cracks as a flood of old memories come rushing back. The woman’s kind eyes are shining. “Son, we’ve missed you so much.” Don’t be fooled…it’s a trick… Despite the burning hot pain shooting through his body, Bishop shuffles backwards, away from his parents. His heart is aching terribly, but it is a different sort of pain, not one caused by the poison’s effects. “What foul magic is this?” he demands, glaring at the baatezu. The devil sniggered humorously. “Foul? That’s not a very nice thing to call your dear parents, is it?” Almost lovingly, he caresses the pulsing orb of light, his touch causing the image of the village to distort slightly, as if it were a rippling reflection in a pond. “I suppose I can understand your...reservations. After all, not every mortal has much knowledge of the Temporal Plane.” “The Temporal…?” Bishop hears Alya blurt out, a look of dread and recognition on her face. Until then, he has almost forgotten that she was present. “Ah, yes, you know of it vaguely, do you not?” Mephasm regards the monk approvingly before turning his attention back to Bishop. “The Temporal Plane is basically a plane of existence where time can be… manipulated. Past events can be replayed, even changed. Future events can be foretold, and avoided if one so wishes…it is also where one could find what you mortals call parallel worlds.” “Love…” Bishop freezes, almost afraid to glance behind him. For years, that breathy, teasing voice had only ever haunted his dreams. It has been so long since he’s actually heard it.
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“C-Calyx…?” When he finally looks, she is every bit as breathtaking as he remembers her: tall and slender, curvaceous with a narrow waist and rounded hips. He drinks in the sight of her pronounced features, her smooth porcelain complexion, her full red lips. Her thick mane of jet black hair falls carelessly and seductively around her shoulders, and those piercing silvery eyes, the same one that had so captivated him all those years before, are now gazing at him, looking somewhat softer than he has ever seen them. It can’t be her… Speechlessly, he watches as she approaches him, her hips swaying slightly, alluringly. He half-expects her to fade, or shimmer, or disappear, at any moment, betraying her for the illusion or figment of imagination that she is. But her form remains solid and clear even as she kneels down beside him, and he once again smells the heady aroma of spring blossoms as her long hair tickles his face. The excruciating pain gripping his body appears to lift momentarily when she bends down, cradling his face in her hands, her touch sending shivers up and down his spine. She leans towards him, and their lips meet in a soft, lingering kiss, one that brings a surge of memories rushing to the fore: the recollection of her flawless, naked form straddling him, her lustrous black hair cascading down her back, her hips undulating as they coupled feverishly… The kiss is broken all too soon. Calyx caresses his cheeks for a while longer, a loving smile on her face. “I’ve missed you so much, love,” she whispers, as she runs a tapering finger over his bottom lip, eliciting an involuntary shudder from him. With that, she stands back up, and walks over to join his Ma and Pa near the glowing portal. Bishop makes a move to get to his feet, to run after her. And the burning pain that appeared to have been alleviated by Calyx’s touch returns with a vengeance, the searing sensation more intense than before, rendering his limbs weak and buckling his knees. With an anguished groan, he again slumps to the ground, clutching at his constricted chest. The blue devil hovers closer, his bluish lips turned up in an amused smirk. “Consider that a taster of what could be, if certain conditions are met.”
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“Conditions?” Alya’s voice is angry as she interrupts the pit fiend. She looks bewildered by everything that is going on. “You mentioned nothing about conditions! You said you would help him!” “I said this is going to be an experiment…” Mephasm corrects her in a patronising tone. “In the name of research, I am going to give him a choice.” He turns back to Bishop. “As you probably have found out, and in a rather pleasant way, I might add, these people before you are not illusions. They are real, and they exist in a parallel world, one where certain…” He pauses, as if trying to find the right word. “Traumatic events have never happened.” The baatezu falls silent as he regards the ranger again in his stony, scrutinising way. Bishop is assailed by yet another barrage of agony, this one tightening his airways, causing him to cough and choke, the spasms further stoking the flames in his lungs. “This is when it really starts “When your system tries to the process. But not to anticipation. “Make the right to hurt,” the pit fiend comments casually. fight the poison, wreaking more havoc in worry,” his demonic eyes glow with choice, and your pain will be gone.”

“Tell me…” Bishop rasps, his jaw clenched so tightly that the pulsing veins in his neck stand out prominently. “What I have to do.” He curses himself for sounding so desperate, for feeling so completely helpless. Above all, he curses himself for actually being tempted by the devil’s offer, after having convinced himself so many times before that he no longer cares about what had transpired in the past. I still don’t care about the past…he tells himself. I just want the pain to stop… Slowly and deliberately, Mephasm rubs his clawed hands together in apparent glee. “Listen carefully then, mortal,” he instructs, his fingers pressed together to form a steeple. “Consider this a test. If you pass it, all this…” He sweeps a hand towards his parents, Calyx, and the shimmering image of Redfallows Watch. “Will be yours. I will remove the poison from your system, thereby ending your suffering, and I will allow you to pass through the portal, to start your life afresh in a parallel existence, one where the sacking of your village, your kidnapping, and the murder of your mother, had never taken place. You will then be able to relive your life the way you want it.”
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Bishop gazes longingly at his Ma and Pa, and at Calyx. His parents are holding on to each other, while Calyx has her hands clasped nervously to her chest. All three of them are looking back at him with hopeful expressions. All his life, he had imagined what could have been, had he never been taken from his parents, had he grown up in Redfallows Watch, living a normal peasant’s life, with no bloodshed, no killing, no bounty on his head... Now, he no longer has to content himself with merely imagining the possibilities. He has the chance to actually experience them. And Calyx…beautiful Calyx…how different could it have been between them had he not been Garrick’s lackey? Had she not been a Luskan assassin? Under any other circumstance, would she have truly loved him, like he had loved her? He believes he now sees the answer in the liquid depths of her silver eyes. “And what if he fails the test?” Alya’s apprehensive voice rings out, bringing him back to the present. She is standing over him protectively, her muscles tense, poised for a fight. Mephasm’s answer is frank. “Then he would simply die from the poison – slowly.” The devil glances almost sympathetically at Bishop. “And he will never know what might have been…” The baatezu’s reply is enough to help Bishop make up his mind, but another tide of agonising pain slamming into him confirms his decision. “I’ll do it!” he gasps, as the pain causes him to curl up into a ball, the dusty dirt sticking to his bare skin. The devil laughs, his deep voice rumbling like distant thunder. “Such strong feelings,” he marvels, his red eyes glowing. “And I have not even set you the task yet.” Mephasm drifts even closer, until he is just a few feet away. Defensively, Alya interposes herself between the pit fiend and Bishop, but the baatezu ignores the monk, and speaks directly to Bishop. “Very well, mortal, I have but one question for you before I set your task.” His infernal eyes narrow menacingly.
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“What would you be willing to do for this second chance in life?” Bishop barely hesitates, the blinding pain wracking his body spurring him on. “Anything…” He stares up at the pit fiend resolutely. For a moment, Mephasm appears lost in thought, as he contemplates Bishop’s answer. The devil absently scratches his wrinkly chin with the talon on one finger. “Interesting…” he muses, a slight smile playing across his blue lips. “Now let us see if what you say is true.” He snaps his bony fingers, and disappears. In the blink of an eye, Bishop finds that the devil had retreated to his original position, hovering above the deep canyon. How did he…? That’s when he realises that the fingers that were clutching at his chest are now weighted down with something. Glancing down, he finds a dagger gripped in his hand. Its blade is curved exotically, its hilt encrusted with jewels. It is a knife that has hounded his nightmares for years, and he recognises it instantly. Calyx’s dagger… Thoroughly confused, he glares questioningly at the pit fiend. Mephasm has an unsettling look of enjoyment on his lined face. “You said you would do anything for that second chance,” he says ominously. “Well, now’s your time to prove it.” Casually, he nods towards Alya, who is still standing beside Bishop. “Kill her.”

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Chapter 42 – A Difficult Decision

Bishop gawks at the devil, thunderstruck. Alya is staring at the pit fiend with an equally dumbfounded expression. He can not be serious… Ignoring the blazing pain ripping through his very being, he wordlessly shakes his head, slowly and uncertainly at first, then with more resolve. Mephasm feigns a look of abject disappointment. “What, have you changed your mind? That’s a shame…” With a wave of his hand, the figures of Bishop’s parents and Calyx begin to blur, just as the glowing portal starts to shrink. “Your loved ones will be very disappointed…” Bishop watches in horror as his Pa and Ma, and Calyx, all huddled together in apparent fear, their saucer-eyed expressions disclosing their distress, slowly fade in and out, as they begin to vanish right before his eyes. He hears a heart-rending sob from his mother, and a frightened whimper from Calyx. “Runt…” His Pa’s voice is quaking with alarm. “What’s happening to us?” So close…he is so close to gaining everything he had ever wished for… “Wait!” he shouts out desperately before he can stop himself. When he turns to the devil, there is an almost pleading look in his eyes. Mephasm lowers his hand, and the three people before him, although still translucent and seemingly evanescent, have at least stopped fading away. The pit fiend eyes the ranger questioningly.
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Now what? Another bolt of pain tears through him, clenching up all the muscles in his body. He feels his fingers closing around something cold and hard, and realises that he is still gripping Calyx’s curved dagger. Hesitantly, he glances from the jewelled knife to Mephasm, then to the portal, his parents and Calyx, before finally looking to Alya, who is still standing in stunned silence beside him. For the chance to relive his life the way he wants, with the family and lover he thought he’d lost forever…all he has to do is sacrifice just one person… This shouldn’t be such a difficult decision… His gaze shifts back and forth between Alya and Calyx. They are both so different in every way: one is tall, statuesque, mysteriously alluring, the other petite, tomboyish, unpretentious, probably more cute than beautiful… Bishop recalls how Calyx had won him over with her elegant beauty, how she had plied him with sweet words, teasing touches, sensual kisses, mind-blowing sex…but above all else, he remembers how she always made him feel special, made him feel like somebody when he is in fact a nobody. Whenever he felt sorry for himself, or resentful of how his life had turned out, she was there, showering him with affection and attention, making him feel like the most important person in the world. When he was with her, he forgot all his troubles. But will he ever be able to forgive her betrayal? He turns her dagger over in his hand, inspecting the rubies, emeralds and sapphires studding its hilt, and the odd curved shape of the blade. In his mind’s eye, he sees the weapon arcing through the air, right before it embedded itself in his back. No…he shakes his head to rid himself of the memory. It’ll be different this time…it has to be… As if reading his mind, Calyx’s shimmering image calls out to him. “Bishop, I love you, please come back to me. I’ll never leave you again.”
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She loves me… Hot, fiery pain rips through him once again, and he doubles over, his forehead pressed against the dusty earth, his breaths coming out in ragged gasps as his congested lungs continue to burn mercilessly. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Alya kneeling down beside him, and feels a comforting hand on his back. She seems to be saying something, but her voice sounds garbled, as if she were speaking to him underwater. While Calyx had treated him as a lover, Alya had always treated him as anything but, although she was never abrupt or unkind to him. Well, except when I killed her dear paladin… Perhaps it’s one of the principles she has to stick to as a follower of the Way: never pre-judge anyone, or something along those lines…but she had always shown him kindness and patience, more so than any of her other companions, or anyone else he had ever met, for that matter. And she most certainly shows him more kindness than he deserves. Unlike Calyx, Alya treats him as a friend, something no one else had ever tried to be. But she had never seemed physically attracted to him. If anything, hasn’t she always been in love with Casavir? Perhaps that is what enraptured him about her in the first place: that despite how nice she is to him, she has only ever cared for him as an acquaintance, and has never fallen for any of his suggestive remarks or advances, nor has she ever let any of his barbed comments get under her skin. Her kindness draws him irresistibly to her, and her apparent imperviousness to his seductions, plus the fact that she seems more interested in that paladin than in him, are challenges for him. But that’s not all, is it? From the first time he saw her, strolling into her uncle’s tavern with her group of ragtag compatriots, she seems to exude a quiet courage, never once complaining about her unchosen fate, about the heavy burden of being the Shard-Bearer. Sure, she had been frightened at times, and she openly mourned for the friends she lost, but rather than making her look weak, her occasional battles with self-doubt, fear and grief only seemed to make her return stronger. As stupid as he thinks she is for accepting all the crap and responsibility people dished at her, and as much as he disagrees with her compulsion to help those too pathetically weak to defend themselves, he cannot help but marvel at her stubbornness and conviction. Once
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she has made a decision, no one could talk her out of it, and there is something distinctly alluring about that. Perhaps it is also because the hardships she had to face, leading up to the final battle against the Illefarn guardian, mirrored his own past sufferings. The loss of loved ones, the destruction of her home…but, instead of wallowing in self-pity, she had fought to regain what she lost, to try and rectify injustices, despite the overwhelming odds. And she had succeeded in the end, hadn’t she? It had nearly cost her her life, but she had righted what seemed impossible. It sometimes made him wonder if he could have done the same, if he could have salvaged some shred of his former life, had he not been so full of selfcontempt. In being so steadfast in the face of all the adversity she encountered, she almost gave him back something he had lost a long time ago. Hope. Yes, she almost made him believe that there could be something beyond his mangy existence, that life could be more than ambushing and torturing Luskans, repaying debts, and evading bounty hunters, that perhaps he could make a difference, not just to his own life, but to the lives of others. Bishop feels another stab of burning pain. The blurred images of his parents and Calyx are now as intangible as a mirage in the desert. How much longer is Mephasm willing to wait for him to make a choice? This really shouldn’t be such a difficult decision… After all, one of them has openly proclaimed her love for him. The other sees him as no more than a friend, if that, and before all this crap with Garrick and the poison arrow, she was leaving him, and they would probably not see each other again. He never had a chance with her… Then what was it that happened between them just a few days ago? It had all started after that stupid play-fighting session, with an innocent peck on the cheek. He recalls how he had foolishly lost control, embracing her and kissing her with unbridled fervour and hunger. He remembers his surprise when she returned his passion in
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kind, her hands kneading his bare chest, leaving his skin tingling with pleasure at her touch. But then, just when it seemed like he would finally have her, she had stopped him, stayed his hand just as he was about to dip it into her trousers. Why had she done that, without giving any reason at all? It had left him feeling frustrated and unwanted. Even now, just thinking about how she had played him made his blood run hot with anger. Could he have read her so wrong? Is she really just another manipulative vixen? Bishop growls as a new wave of pain crashes over him, interrupting his own rambling thoughts. He is grasping Calyx’s dagger so tightly he could feel the individual gemstones imprinting themselves onto his palm. “Take your time,” Mephasm’s cold, deep voice sounds infinitely patient. “I understand that mortals can be rather…indecisive.” The ranger glares at the devil even as he writhes in the dirt, a haze of pain obscuring his vision now, bathing everything in a foreboding red mist. His breathing becomes increasingly laboured, as each inhalation constricts his airways and sears his lungs. His guts twist inside of him, and his heart pounds erratically, pumping fresh needles of fire through his veins with every beat. Clutching his cramping mid-section with both arms, he cries out in agony. The pit fiend’s rumbling laughter pierces through his dense miasma of pain. “Now, I may be able to wait, but I’m not sure how much longer your body can take all that battering.” He eyes the ranger curiously. “You know,” Mephasm suggests, almost matter-of-factly. “You can so easily rid yourself of all this suffering. It surprises me that you hesitate at the opportunity.” He points a talon at Alya. “Could this one person really mean more to you than purging yourself of the effects of the poison, and a second chance in life, with your family and lover?” Bishop glances at Alya, but he can hardly make her out through the cloud that has descended on his vision. All he sees is her vague outline amid a soupy red haze, as every fibre of his being screams for relief from the poison coursing relentlessly through him. He hisses again as another convulsion wracks his body, and his resolve crumbles. The devil is right…must make it stop…
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Only one way… With an anguished snarl, he lunges at Alya blindly from his crouched position on the ground, with Calyx’s dagger levelled at the monk’s chest. He hears a startled gasp as she sidesteps him just in time. He stumbles past her, his spasming muscles making his movements jerky and uncoordinated, but the flaming agony in his blood is somehow fuelling his strength, as it triggers a primal survival instinct, one that is bent on stopping the pain, no matter what the cost. Whirling around unsteadily, he charges at her again, and again she spins away, leaving Bishop swiping at thin air as he trips and sprawls to the ground. “We’re counting on you, runt.” He hears his father’s voice through the murky red veil of pain. The shimmering forms of his parents and Calyx appear anxious, as they hang on to each other. “It’s so nice and peaceful where we are, son,” his mother says. “All that’s missing is you…” “Come on, love…” Calyx seems to be rooting him on. He turns back to Alya, who is looking at him mutely and uncertainly, her green eyes wide. Bishop cringes again as the red haze thickens, and he clenches his teeth against the burning pain. He has to make it stop, he can’t take it anymore. Either he kills her to relieve himself of the pain, or he dies trying. He doesn’t really care either way. Just as long as this pain goes away… He slashes the dagger at her, and Alya steps backwards. In his weakened condition and agonised frenzy, he knows he is fighting wildly, taking too long to recover in between each lunge, exposing himself easy counterattacks, especially from someone of Alya’s capability. But the anticipated blows never come, as the monk appears hesitant to seize the many openings to take him down. After a particularly clumsy lurch, he falls to his knees at her feet, the vulnerable base of his skull practically presented to her on a silver platter, but instead of seizing the obvious striking opportunity, she merely dances out of his reach. What is she doing? Why isn’t she trying to defend herself?
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At this rate, he’s eventually going to get lucky with one of his wayward swings. “Damn it, monk!” he snarls through gritted teeth. “Fight me!” He sees her shaking her head vigorously from side to side, her reddish hair tossing about her shoulders. Damn her stubbornness… A hoarse cry escapes his lips as he rushes at her again. He sees her back-pedalling, trying to keep her distance from him, before diving out of his way. He hurtles past her, only to see the gaping chasm that Mephasm was floating over fast approaching. His momentum is carrying him dangerously close to the sheer drop-off. He tries to dig his heels into the ground to stop his forward motion, but his muscles are not cooperating with him. He manages to skid to a stop right at the edge of the cliff, his arms flailing as he teeters on the brink, trying to catch his balance. The ravine is so deep that the bottom is obscured in pitch blackness. His foot slips on the shifting sands, and he feels himself falling forward into the canyon. For a split second, he feels a rush of panic, but then… A quick death…an easy way out…no need for difficult choices… He closes his eyes, almost welcoming his free fall into the fathomless void.

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Chapter 43 – The Price of Freedom

Bishop surrenders himself to the tug of gravity drawing him inexorably downwards as he falls forward into the gaping chasm. But just as his feet leaves solid ground, he feels something clamping onto his arm and jerking him sharply backwards, pulling him away from the edge of the abyss. No… He staggers backwards and lands in a heap on top of Alya, whose hands are still gripping his arm tightly, her cat’s eyes large and shining and filled with concern. She seems unaware of his body weight on her as she gently helps him up to a sitting position before kneeling beside him, her face inches from his, her intoxicating scent assailing his senses. She smells of rosewater and cinnamon… “You okay?” she asks him, speaking her first words since he had started attacking her. He could only stare back at her dumbly. Of course I’m not okay! His mind rages, the constant crippling pain assaulting his body pushing him to the brink of insanity. Why did you do that? Why didn’t you just let me be? Why didn’t you just let me fall and die? Why are you prolonging my suffering? His amber eyes burn with a wild fire as his tortured brain starts to think illogically. You are the reason I’m still suffering…

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His vision still blurred by the red-tinged haze of pain, he lets out a feral, anguish-fuelled roar as he lashes out at her. Their close proximity gives her little time to react to his sudden aggression, and as she tumbles backwards to try and avoid him, he feels the dagger clipping her, slicing into her flesh, and he hears her gasp as she falls awkwardly, clutching her upper arm. Thick crimson liquid starts to seep out through her fingers, and a dark maroon stain begins to spread out on the sleeve of her robe, as her blood soaks into the material. Her blood… For a moment, as if fascinated by the grim sight, he could only gape wordlessly at the scarlet trails running down her arm, trickling off her elbow and dripping onto the dirt, turning the rusty earth an even darker shade of red. Just a few weeks earlier, her blood had done the same thing, on the same soil. When the githyanki had torn the shard out of her. But this time her wound is not caused by a gith. I did this to her… The dreadful realisation makes his breath catch, as he continues to be hypnotised by the blood oozing from her gash. He feels an irrational twinge of guilt for having hurt her, despite how hells-bent he had been to kill her just minutes earlier. “The first cut is the hardest, isn’t it, mortal?” Mephasm’s cool, calm voice snaps him out of his daze. The devil is smiling cruelly. “Don’t worry, it’ll only get easier now.” He regards Bishop with his infernal glowing eyes. “And, I am sure you are already feeling the benefits.” It takes a while for Bishop to understand the pit fiend’s last sentence. He hadn’t noticed it earlier, but now that Mephasm has mentioned it, the red mist that had clouded his vision has cleared a little, and the gut-wrenching pain that had been surging through his body, although still unbearable, seems to have been dulled somewhat. The twitching in his muscles appears to have subsided, and he is also breathing relatively easier, as if the white-hot chains binding his lungs have been loosened slightly. He casts a quick glance in the direction of the portal. The shimmering circle is now shining brighter, the image of his village in its depths more tangible than before.
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More importantly, the apparitions of his parents and Calyx are now more solid and opaque, as if his deed had turned them from a mere dream into reality. Their outlines are much clearer now, the fear in their eyes now replaced by hope and longing. Above all else, when he had made the cut, he had felt a great load shift slightly off his shoulders, as if the bonds chaining him to his wretched existence are being washed away by Alya’s flowing blood. From somewhere within his mind, a voice urges, Finish the job…you’re so close now… But…I can’t hurt her… She doesn’t love you…why should you care? Hesitantly, he looks back at the blue devil, and Mephasm raises his eyebrows expectantly. “Are you a little torn, mortal? I sense a war raging within you.” He eyes the ranger almost sympathetically. “As with all wars, the ultimate prize is freedom. I’m afraid that one must always make sacrifices in battles. That has always been the way.” The pit fiend’s gaze shifts towards Alya, still nursing the gash in her arm. “Blood must be shed for freedom.” Bishop stares blankly at the dagger in his hand. Its curved blade is coated in a crimson liquid, and he sees a drop of claret forming at the tip, before breaking off and splashing softly onto the earth. Again, he feels a pang of remorse for what he had done. I can’t do this… But I must… “Almost there, runt…” He lifts his head towards his Pa. The older man’s eyes are soft and hopeful, filled with an unspoken love. He sees the same expression on his Ma’s face, and Calyx’s, as they urge him on: “You are so close, son…” “You can do it, love…”
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Bishop shuts his eyes and covers his ears with his hands, trying to drown out their voices as he struggles to think. The pain coursing through him seems to have concentrated in his temples now. His pulse pounds loudly in his skull, and his head hurts as he wrestles with indecision. Need to think… There’s nothing to think about…the decision is obvious… No… Opening his eyes, he gazes again at Alya. She is still sitting where she fell, a hand clutching her bleeding arm. He looks towards his parents and Calyx. He sees them smile encouragingly, lovingly, at him. Finally, his eyes fall on the incandescent portal, the inviting scene of his home village waving at him from its centre, as if beckoning him towards it, towards his gateway to a new life. All at once, he reaches a decision. When he does look back at Alya, his eyes are steely with determination, his jaw set in resolve. Closing the short distance between them in a sudden leap, he throws his arms around her, pinning her own arms to her sides. She makes a tiny noise of surprise, but otherwise puts up little else by way of resistance. Good, it’ll be easier if she doesn’t struggle. Kneeling on the ground, his arms still holding her in a vice-like grip, he pulls her body so close to his that they are almost fused together, until he can feel her heart thudding against his chest. He gazes into her luminous green eyes. This will be the last time he sees them so big and bright. He may as well make the most of it. “Alya…” he murmurs, almost apologetically, before leaning in for a hungry, bruising kiss. He can feel her body tensing up at the unexpected gesture, but she doesn’t recoil from him. His arms slowly encircle around her waist, pressing into her back and bringing her even closer to him. She may not be returning his affection, but that doesn’t deter him from going on, from drinking thirstily from her sweet lips as he makes their final kiss last.
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Once he is sure that she isn’t going to try and struggle, he slowly slides the hand that still holds Calyx’s dagger from behind her back, slipping it discreetly between his body and hers, his remaining hand still pressing her body against his. All the while, their lips remain locked together, even as he grips the handle of the blade tighter in preparation. When his lips finally leave hers, his golden eyes are dark with a desire he knows will never be fulfilled. His hand on the small of her back pulls her towards him further before snaking around her shoulders, holding her in a strong embrace. “I’m sorry,” he whispers softly in her ear. And then he drives the dagger home. The sound of the blade sinking into soft flesh is accompanied by a shocked gasp, as her eyes grow wide with horrified realisation. He feels her entire body going rigid, but still he hangs on to her, hugging her tightly to him. Gazing into her stunned eyes, he smiles as he twists the blade deeper, feeling the long-awaited release from the clutches of the poison. With her exhaled breath, he could feel the red haze of pain lifting, and he imagines the chains around him finally breaking. When he finally lets her go, he looks down at the dagger sticking out from his own chest, watching with morbid fascination as his lifeblood starts to pool around the blade and splatter onto the dirt at his knees. He imagines the poison, his pain, his troubles, all being carried out of his body by the crimson current. “Blood must be shed for freedom.” Slumping slowly to the ground, he catches a glimpse of his Pa and Ma, and Calyx. Their expressions betray their disappointment in him, as they gradually fade into the air around them. The swirling portal collapses in on itself, as it, too, disappears. Somehow, that doesn’t upset him as much as it should. Now that the pain is over, nothing else seems to matter anymore. His eyes start to glaze over as he stares up at the angry red sky. A weak smile plays across his lips when he sees Alya’s worried face looking down at him.

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“Could this one person really mean more to you than…a second chance in life…?” Bits of the devil’s earlier question echo in his mind, even as dark spots begin to fill his failing vision. Yes… But why? Flashes from the past replay themselves in his head: he sees her in her beloved old robe, the soft green bringing out the dazzling colour of her exotic eyes. He sees the jagged hem of the same garment, as she tore the magical healing runes off it to wrap around his injured arm. He hears snatches of their conversation the night before her trial by combat, when she had called him her friend…why did that stick in his mind so? Because no one had ever seen me as a friend before… And because I have never seen anyone as a friend… He sees himself cradling her head gently in his lap, as he waited for her to break out of her coma after their sojourn into the Nine Hells. He sees himself stroking her hair gently, murmuring soothing nonsense into her slightly pointed ear, praying to all the gods that she would be all right. He hears himself whispering things to her as she lay unconscious that he would never say if he knew she was actually listening: “It’s all over…you’re safe now…please come back…” “I love you…” He recalls how distraught he had felt when she lay so close to death. Now, in the fading light, she is kneeling over him, a hand to her mouth, her eyes wide with worry and shock. Her arm is still bleeding where he cut her, but otherwise she is relatively healthy and alive, and he feels his heart lifting in relief. He knows that he has made the right decision. As darkness falls, his body relaxes, and he feels the heavy burdens finally falling off his shoulders, leaving his soul light and carefree. If he could, he would have chuckled at his last delirious thought, that in a way, he was a true hunter until the end. His final quarry: peace and freedom.

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