Dagoth Dagathur (The War of Wars Campaign)

Melina: After the Battle, Towards the Future

I’ve destroyed all my other journals, but I’ve decided to start a new one as I begin another stage in my—existence. If anyone else is able to read this, then I say they deserve it as a reward for the skill it takes to steal into a goddess’s chambers!

After Nerull showed up Eldarian bound him and opened a portal, and told us all to go through. I headed through immediately, but was able to hear just as I left Haldir start to protest. Eventually he and the others followed because they all showed up in the Menros safehouse with me, and I heard Eldarian say in my head, “I believe in you.”

Haldir’s prophets met us, and told us the status of things. The Dales, Essembra, Androk and the Free Cities were in the greatest amount of danger, although the Ascendant Ones were evacuating people as quickly as possible to minimize casualties. Haldir asked Feyren, Bazrik, Xaneak and I to stay behind while the rest of the Legion helped elsewhere, because something beyond evacuating needed to be done. He told us to find Venyae and obtain a means to destroy Ditrius. Speaking with the Lady of Pain would—hopefully—gain us access to Venyae herself. Needless to say I wasn’t keen on flat-out speaking with her after the brief, terrifying interaction we’d already had with her once, but I’d never let such things stop me before and wasn’t about to now.

Xaneak took some time to prepare his spells, and I climbed out onto the highest point of Menros to see the devastation being wrought on my home. Rather than fires and destruction there was merely darkness, the cold nothingness of a void. That was the most upsetting: at least charred earth can serve as a foundation for new buildings—not so with a void.

I met up with the others again and we left for Sigil. Nothing there seemed different, but as we walked the streets I was suddenly assaulted with visions of Orómmen again, only now the demons and dead dark elves came towards me, reaching out to kill me. They dissipated before they could, just in time for debris to be flung at us as we moved forward. They tripped Bazrik and a shadow grabbed for him, but I shot it and it retreated before turning to Barbarus. Bazrik had certainly come a long way by then, as his first response was to turn into an enormous red dragon and roast the damned fea alive. As he died, Barbarus called a then-unknown person out on their betrayal of him.

We quickly learned who had betrayed him, as she showed up not more than moments later: Caya. She looked like she had been tortured extensively, with burns and scars covering her, her wings reduced to mere stubs. My first instinct was to offer to finish the job on her wings, given the last time I’d had any contact with her I’d assumed she was a traitor. Later we found I should have gone through with that instinct and many others, but instead I held my tongue and let her speak, and she told us she had only recently escaped Ditrius’s forces (Barbarus had been her captor) and she was here to help us. As Xaneak asked her more questions she lead us to the courthouse, and left us to enter and face the Lady of Pain on our own.

Unlike before, the courthouse was nothing resembling “normal”. It was strange and terrifying, constantly shifting and altering itself. Even when it wasn’t horrifying, the brief reprises from the horror were as bad as the awfulness itself. None of this of course compared to the Lady of Pain herself, who still defies proper description. Feyren and I kept our composure (I use the term loosely) but Bazrik and Xaneak were much worse off, until suddenly the four of us were entirely fine. We took the opportunity to speak amongst one another, and elected to have Xaneak speak, given his previous success in arguing for our group.

All told, he didn’t do poorly. After making his request for us to see Venyae, the pair of them discussed and argued the principles of life, death, and what could or could not follow Dagoth Dagathur. Although the Lady of Pain rightly stated that as mortals our perspectives were limited, Xaneak pointed out (with equal correctness) that we nonetheless saw continuation and the chance to improve, by stopping Dagoth Dagathur. Shortly after we were all lifted into the air, and our minds riffled through as if they were nothing but stacks of parchment. It was incredibly painful, and disconcerting in ways I wouldn’t expect. Among other things I saw memories I didn’t remember having, but somehow knew to be true—as if I’d simply forgotten them.

The pain and memories stopped as suddenly as the process began, and we found ourselves in a normal courtroom with Venyae. Again Xaneak spoke with her, and she asked why she should bestow such power onto mere mortals. Xaneak tried to argue for balance and the need to keep life and death in check, but Venyae chided him for looking at the situation from a mortal perspective, with mortal understanding.

As they argued I listened and grew increasingly frustrated, until I decided to try and take Venyae’s advice and stop looking at things as mortals do. Instead of philosophizing about “balance” and “life and death” (concepts I’d never bothered with that much) I imagined I was trying to cross that damned metaphorical river Haldir had first introduced me to over a decade ago, skipping from stone to stone as I struggled to work out the machinations of fate and freedom. Each fact of the situation was a stone, solid and useful in achieving our end goal.

I began to ask Venyae questions to gather more information, and eventually I realized that if she had always possessed the ability to bestow mortals with the power to destroy Ditrius, doing so must have been part of Olorin’s plan. She asked if I was claiming that the four of us were thus fated to receive that power, but of course that isn’t what I meant at all—I meant that the option itself must have been part of creation’s plan all along, otherwise it wouldn’t exist. Whether it was us four, an entire army, or a single individual, the possibility that mortals would find their way to Venyae, seek out this option and be granted it existed, and I argued that fact alone made it worth while to pursue the destruction of Ditrius and salvation of creation.

Everything went dark suddenly, and when we could see again Venyae was at a podium with a large book. She turned to the end page, tore the final page from it, and handed it as a scroll to Bazrik. She told us it would only work once, and then sent us back to Sigil. Caya met us there, and was incredibly surprised that I was the one who had managed to talk Venyae into giving us the scroll. I didn’t pay her any mind, and instead insisted that we return to Arda as soon as possible. Xaneak’s magic didn’t work in Sigil, but Caya was able to open a portal to take us to the Astral Plane, where we would be able to find another portal to Arda itself.

As we traveled through the Astral Plane, Caya told us that she had been “right” about Eldarian, insofar as his presence had been what tipped off Ditrius to the Infinity Keep’s location. Aranal had tried to stop him when he arrived, and failed when he was killed. Caya meanwhile was captured, and tortured for information. At the time I was too caught up in getting to Arda as soon as possible to notice the contradictions in her story. It also didn’t help that as soon as we neared the portal to Arda we found a great battle, with forces of dragons, djinn, and celestials fighting demons and devils. We teleported to the portal itself, and Caya didn’t follow.

We met with Harkin and Haldir in Velarim City, in the War Room where once I and others had met with Harkin during the Second Unification War. Alliance leaders and most of the Legion (including Eldarian, who had made it back from Carceri) were all there, gathered over a map of Arda. They explained to us that Ditrius and its forces were centered in Orómmen, and our final stand would be in Unther. They planned to draw the forces out and engage them so Eldarian, Bazrik, Feyren, Xaneak and I could get in to Orómmen and stop things at the source. Given the magic surrounding the area, our only way in was by boat. We were given the evening to prepare, and when I wasn’t speaking with my comrades that were there I was writing letters to those who weren’t. I didn’t expect them to receive the letters in time, but I wanted to leave them with something in case I died.

In the morning we set out, and on the way Xaneak gave us vials of flame that Kira simply told us to use should we fall. Alice and Bartholomew both came with, more on their own insistence than ours. (Alice was more battle-trained that Bartholomew, but the dog is as loyal as her and wouldn’t leave Bazrik at such a time.) We all teleported to the shores of the Dales, where Eldarian willed a boat into existence for us to use. We were all largely silent as we traveled, with Eldarian praying often and the remainder of us quiet with trepidation and other, unnamed feelings. As we drew closer to the island a mountain erupted and hordes of demons spilled out, lead by the infernal that the other Unifiers and I had trapped inside. I would have raised my bow to shoot it but an unholy thunderstorm began to rage and it was all I could do to keep from shaking in fear, let alone aim.

Finally, eventually we arrived at the shores of Orómmen, unharmed. If the land had been barren before, when I first visited it, now it was a thousand times worse. It took us hours to climb the peak of the mountain the demons were pouring from, and when we reached the top we found Ditrius and Caya, fighting. Eldarian told us to activate the scroll, and then charged at Ditrius after it threw Caya unconscious to the ground.

Bazrik and Xaneak did their best to activate the scroll, but I could tell it was taking a toll on them both. Feyren and I protected them from debris that was thrown their way, as well as any blasts of magic. Unfortunately, no sooner were they moments away from activating the scroll than Caya began to stir, and tore the scroll from the hands of Bazrik and Xaneak alike—it actually pulled the flesh of their hands off with it!

What happened next still hurts to recount, even knowing how it turned out in the end. She threw the scroll at Eldarian, seemingly killing him. I screamed and lunged at her, only to be thrown back and pinned beneath rocks. She matched my cry as she kicked Eldarian’s corpse and cursed at him, blaming him for all the ills she had suffered and celebrating his death. I was reduced to wordless rage, struggling against the boulders pinning me. Ditrius shielded her from Xaneak and Bazrik’s attacks, and then Caya absorbed it (telling it to “return to mother”) before she began to taunt me. She told me I should have asked her more questions, as doing so could have prevented this. Even in my enraged and saddened state I knew that was a load of shit, and didn’t grace her with answers—only more curses.

Then something happened that is the only thing I will ever be grateful to Varys for, odd as it is to say it. Eldarian stood up suddenly, unharmed. Varys’s soul was still trapped in the pommel of Eldarian’s sword, and rather than destroying Eldarian’s divinity the scroll had destroyed Varys’s, the same divinity he had been given by Caya. Because of that, he was left mortal and because of her tie to him, Caya was weakened enough for us to be able to feasibly kill her. Eldarian tossed away the rocks that were pinning me and told us to end her; I was more than happy to carry out his request.

The battle was gruesome, long and difficult. Bazrik and Bartholomew fought in the form of dragons, and Xaneak and Feyren were both formidable in their own rights. For my own part and Alice’s, I fought Caya as a tyrant—an avatar of fate, which I hated so much. Although it was the six of us against one, Caya still managed to deal a horrible amount of damage. She even found a way to go back in time, to the early spring in Altrio when my city was being taken by Essembra’s Elite Defense Agency. She meant to kill me in the past, but we and Eldarian followed her through the portal and thankfully Eldarian managed to fling her back to the present before she could change a thing. We continued to fight, with Caya growing increasingly frenzied and desperate as we showed no signs of stopping. She even made to collapse the mountain in the hopes of trapping us inside! Her plan failed, of course, when I shot her through with three arrows and she froze. (I will always be glad that I was the one to end her.)

When Caya stopped we all found ourselves atop the now stable mountain, with the clouds and darkness disappearing. As the sun broke through she stumbled and fell, looking and speaking to us with gratitude as its light burned her to nothing but ash. Eldarian cried as she burned, and once she was gone he apologized to her. Then he looked skyward, and told us that although we couldn’t see it, the strands of fate that bound Arda were disappearing—that the world is free. Then Eldarian began to change, as if he’d become power incarnate. Instead of the god child we saw the god itself in him, Olorin. He released a surge of temporal energy, floating with the raw power of it for some time before returning to himself and telling us simply, “it is finished.”

I don’t remember what happened after that, only waking up in Unther without Eldarian. Things have a way of returning full circle. It was the bombing of Unther and the fall of Essembra that first set me on the path to join with the Dragon Knights and the Second Unification War, and later we invited that very city to face siege from forces commanded by the entities that had orchestrated that same war. Now I was there again at the end of the final battle, expecting to rebuild my home—the entirety of Arda.

As we surveyed what (thankfully) little destruction Unther had suffered, we made our way to the imperial tent where Harkin was waiting for us. He hugged us, laughing, and with one look at our group Gimble knew to announce to everyone then that now, truly and completely, Arda was free. It was then, hearing my friend and comrade announce something that felt like I’d waited my entire life to hear to Arda as a whole, that I finally allowed myself to cry with joy and relief and all the other emotions that follow victory.

A month of peace followed our victory, filled with rebuilding and reunions. Somehow all members of the Legion were able to remain on Arda to assist, which we all appreciated for many reasons. As for myself, I reunited with my brother and Carrik and stayed in the Dales and New Essembra to help rebuild the east of the Empire. Much of the Legion likewise spent their time there, although a sense of concern and curiosity was growing amongst us and the other people of Arda. Prayers to even the Ainur were going unanswered, and although Lady Veraxis destroyed anti-imperial groups in the North, people were still uncertain about the future of the Empire and Arda as a whole. No doubt the death of President Kale and others of importance in the battle fed in to the feelings of uncertainty and restlessness.

Finally I received a letter from who I assumed at the time was Haldir, calling me to attend “Legion business” in Menros. As it turned out, Eldarian had sent the letter, not only to me but to many other members of the Legion. He wanted to apologize for the secrets he had needed to keep during the course of the war, and answer any questions that might still remain. I had more questions than I could count, but in the end all of them were answered.

The gist of it was that Caya was an avatar of fate and choice, with her actions deciding if creation was free or not. Her own fate was to cause Dagoth Dagothur, and by choosing to facilitate it rather than fight it, she bound creation to fate. However, Olorin made caveats in her choice so that creation could fight back, and choose freedom for itself. In this way it could be truly free, because as I’ve said before: the greatest paradox of freedom is that although it is the highest good, it cannot by its very nature cannot be forced on anyone, only offered. Olorin gave us the choice between freedom and fate, as that is the only way creation could truly be free.

Unsurprisingly the fateless themselves were a way of fighting back, although Olorin did not make or choose each fateless personally, only allow for the possibility of mortals becoming fateless. It also turned out that Caya was a traitor all along, and that the scroll Aranal had been given was from Olorin informing him of that. She was also the one who killed Aranal, as I suspected. I should have trusted my gut with her: simply because I’d hated senselessly in the past doesn’t mean all hatred I had for new individuals was senseless. However, thankfully it all worked in the end.

With fate destroyed and Eldarian now truly separate from Olorin and fully a god in his own right, the surviving gods were free but without purpose. Olorin was departing this universe with the remaining fea, and Sorra and the Ainur alike were stepping down. This meant that creation would be without gods… Unless others rose to take up the mantle of divinity.

My heart caught in my throat and for a moment I couldn’t breathe. Eldarian went on to explain that he wanted the new gods to come from mortals, so they could better relate to and serve Arda. Specifically he wanted us, and when I heard him say that I nearly bolted. Anyone who knew me during my time in the Legion of Heroes knows I hated the idea of becoming a deity, for many reasons. I worried about my ability to make the right choices, about being separated from Arda and the people I love, and most of all about my own general worthiness—I had no small amounts of self-loathing, after all the atrocities I’d seen and committed, knowingly or otherwise. But I knew Arda needed me to at least consider his offer, so I stayed and listened.

He came to us each in turn and told us why he wanted us to be gods, and what he wanted us to be gods of specifically. He spoke to me of how I had struggled all my life in darkness, but nonetheless sought light. The years had scarred me badly but I never stopped fighting to move forward, even when things seemed hopeless… Because I have a warrior’s exterior and a mother’s heart, caring and striving for my people’s freedom and defending them from anything that would limit them, no matter what. He told me he needed me to be that for Arda on a grander scale now, and I could only accept with pride and trust in Eldarian’s judgment.

Officially Eldarian gave me the aspects of freedom, courage, family, hunting, home, and motherhood to take charge of, and I’ve taken the titles of “The Scarred Lady”, “Mother of the Oppressed”, and “The Great Huntress” as I fulfill this role. I want my clerics, followers, and liberators to understand the importance of not only aiding those who suffer, but changing or destroying the social structures that allow or propagate that suffering. I want them to love and care for their families, companions, people and nations, even in the face of war and suffering. And I want them to be good hunters, of tyrants or game. Creating a better world for future generations is one of the noblest tasks of motherhood, whether it’s by raising and providing for a healthy family or nation, or by hunting those that would harm and oppress others.

After Eldarian went to each person and they accepted in turn, he made contact with the people of Arda to explain to them the state of the other gods, and the existence of himself and us new gods. He told them of a bright future of true freedom and growth, with great potential and hope. Then he extended his hands and all of us began to glow. I know now that each of us experienced something different, as necessary for us to fulfill our roles as gods. The true extent of my experiences cannot be chronicled, but I lived through childbirth and motherhood in many different forms, from a noblewoman breeding heirs to a whore rearing bastards. I birthed and raised children with partners and without, as a member of every mortal race and even non-mortal creatures, through all cycles of life from cradle to grave. I was allowed to relive the beauty and joy of liberating people, and learned true empathy and connection. And then suddenly I was with the others again, myself looking only slightly changed although some of the others had chosen to take very different forms.

Finally, feeling true peace and hope, we ascended with Eldarian.

I’ve spent the time since then constructing my realm and performing my godly duties. As I mentioned I chose to keep my appearance largely the same in divinity as it had been in mortality, to remain as approachable to the people of Arda as possible. My scars are more pronounced; my stomach swells in time with the seasons, bringing new life and change; and I’m never without my bow and arrows; otherwise little has changed.

As for my realm, Corwyn and Maxius, Jozan, Rowenna, Desmond and myself all reside in the rebuilt Arcadia. Like the Pantheon that resided here before us, we each have our own realms within the plane itself. I’ve named mine Altoria, and filled it with cities as much as lush and varied forests and plains. The cities are beautiful, jumbled things filled with buildings that range in size from enormous to minuscule, each unique with a different structure and décor, while the more natural areas are as unique, wild and untamed as anything. The souls of unwanted and abandoned children live free throughout the realm, as well as those who society would see cast out and trampled on. Serfs, orcs, bastards, dark elves, social pariahs and even some sorcerers have joined with great hunters and mothers, leaders of rebellions, and champions of the oppressed. There are more planar beings here than I care to list, but all of them are wonderful and strange to mortal eyes. I’ve kept Alice beside me as my friend, and she accompanies me as she had when we were mortal. She’s larger than ever before, and more fierce and intelligent too. Carrik and I’ve agreed that when Harkin and Linoir die and Prince Jozan no longer needs him as an advisor, he’ll come to live with me as my consort.

Nearly all of us within the new Pantheon of Heroes are on good terms with one another, and visiting other gods’ realms is far from unheard of. We also have the Citadel, which is a common, neutral ground for all of us. Occasionally we all meet to discuss Arda and our own affairs, and insure that everything is running smoothly. Some of us have also taken to appearing on Arda in different mortal forms, living amongst the people. I occasionally do so myself, usually appearing as a midwife, scout, or hunter for periods of time. When I cannot join my people on Arda itself I bless them in other ways: when rebels meet in secret I cloak them in protective shadows; when mothers birth and raise their children I share their labor pains and give them strength; when the oppressed cry out I give them succor and promises of justice; and when the hunters stalk their prey I direct and protect them with subtle signs.

It’s not so bad being a god. I can share my people’s hopes, their fears, their dreams, their struggles, and answer their pleas and their prayers. I had worried becoming divine would separate me further from my people but in truth I am closer to them now than I ever could have been as a mortal.

As Arda grows I look forward to watching and aiding it, and seeing what its people decide the future will hold.

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Melina: Desperation

After weeks of living on trail rations, I was more than happy to eat and drink with the others. We talked and enjoyed ourselves, and eventually I went over to speak with Xaneak. He looked awful, and I told him so. I also thanked him for bringing me back, but he told me not to. I teased him by implying that it must have only been for strategy’s sake, but he wasn’t in any mood for joking and snapped that it was more than that, and I knew it. I relented, and then told him not to be so hard on himself. He said I hadn’t done anything wrong—that I had only died because of bad luck—and that if anything it should’ve been him. (He’s more willing to attack himself than I had ever been when we’d first met, some times.) I told him again not to be so hard on himself—we all make mistakes—and he said he would. Then he thanked me of all things, for worrying about him. What else are comrades friends for?

I got up to move and get more food, and as I left told him “thank you” again, not for bringing me back but for caring in the first place; for resurrecting me for duty and friendship’s sake alike. I’m going to miss him when we win this war. All of them.

I went to speak with Eldarian, to pass on Venyae’s message to him. (The way I figure, she let me come back to life as much as Xaneak worked to bring me back. I owed her this much.) It seemed to sober him a bit, but he thanked me nonetheless. He got up to go do something after, and then collapsed. He started seizing, and neither Kira or Haldir could do anything to help him. Seeing him laid low like that scares me, not because I think he’s weak but because I know he’s strong, and can’t even fathom the kind of power it would take to harm him like that. It seemed to take forever but eventually he did recover.

He told us that the things imprisoned in Carceri had been set loose and Nerull had been killed. Haldir gave us five minutes to gather what we needed before meeting again. I rushed to Menros and found Alice again; I wanted her with me for this, and she was willing as always to accompany me. When we reconvened Haldir told us all that we’d be going to Carceri to destroy what had been let out. He warned us that we could encounter Ditrius, and made it clear that we were not to engage it under any circumstances.

We traveled to Carceri, were the plane was in chaos and there were seven monstrous creatures awaiting us. One of them I recognized as an infernal, from the last great battle I fought in the Second Unification War. I remembered it was able to eat magic, so I decided to go after it and leave the others to everyone else, who were mostly more magically inclined. Feyren helped and between her, Alice, and myself, we eventually killed it. (I often do my best work with a strong melee partner, and Feyren and I make a good team~ Alice could have helped more if it wasn’t flying.) It felt good to kill it, considering the last time I had been so desperate to do so I’d been willing to give my own life. It says something about how far I’ve come and how much I’ve improved that the battle was hard, but not nearly impossible this time around.

The other monsters were felled by the rest of the Legion, without any casualties. However, it was then that Ditrius appeared. I don’t have words to describe its evil or the skills to draw its form; even if I did I wouldn’t want to. I think I’d begin to vomit again even trying—seeing it was so bad I and many others in the Legion fell to our knees and emptied our stomachs repeatedly, and those who didn’t were still clearly shaken. The only ones who weren’t were Bazrik, Haldir, Kira, and Eldarian. He stepped forward and tried to push Ditrius back, and met his strength for a long time. In the end he was pushed back, and thrown into another seizure.

Ditrius said that Eldarian’s mortality is a weakness; that his attachments and emotions hinder him. (Even if it is true—and I doubt it is—I’ll need to hear it from something other than the source of all evil in creation before I believe it.) Then I saw what I’d hoped I’d never see. It was as if the vision Malthos had played out before me was coming to life, and for a moment I wondered if what I was seeing wasn’t just an illusion, an attempt to demoralize us at a critical moment. But it was too real to be anything but true, and if I’d had anything left in my gut I would’ve retched again. All the dark elves of Orómmen killed themselves to open a portal from the Abyss to Arda, and hordes of demons swarmed out.

Haldir immediately tried to bring us to Arda, but he couldn’t. Then Eldarian tried, with the same results. I asked if there might be something blocking them, and then Nerull showed up; he wasn’t dea destroyed after all. We need to win this fight quickly, and then we need to get to Arda. I will not let it be destroyed by Ditrius’s forces, and I know the others won’t either.

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Melina: Relief

D’vainor was there because he wanted us to help him destroy Malthos. I immediately demanded to know why we should even consider trusting him, after he not only betrayed us but attacked us, more than once. For all we knew he could’ve been working for Malthos still! He replied coldly that everything he had done was to get close to Malthos in order to stop him. He said the only way he could have done so was to make Malthos believe entirely that he was sincere, even at the cost of becoming a monster.

He went on to deride the Legion for ignoring the threat of Malthos for so long, and jabbed at me in particular by pointing out his work hadn’t forced him to be separate from Arda, or made him lie to its people. Then he said that at the very least he admits he’s a monster, unlike the Legion. That I wouldn’t abide by, and I lunged at him. He caught me by the wrists and I struggled for a moment, furious.

He stated that we need to trust him, because Malthos is too great a threat not to. Left unchecked, he could overturn and even destroy Ditrius, becoming a greater threat in the process. Regardless of our personal feelings about himself, D’vainor said, he was right about this. I turned my back to him so he wouldn’t see the angry tears welling in my eyes. He was entirely right, and I knew it. I listened without protest as he explained to us all where Malthos was, and what we needed to do to prepare for our mission there. At the end of it all I told him to give me ten minutes and I’d be ready; he said we’d have a day.

I left to gather up my things and purge the alcohol from my system. I tried not to think about D’vainor and how much I still care for the bastard despite his actions (because his reasons were good ones), and how more than anything I hate that he was pushed to take these actions in the first place. Dwelling on the past doesn’t change it.

Some time during the preparations, Haldir asked to speak with Xaneak and I. He chastised us for breaking Article Four of the Charter, and in my case for not coming forth about it and apologizing. I tried to say that we hadn’t returned under the best of circumstances, but he pointed out I wouldn’t have come forward anyways. He was right about that much, so I didn’t argue further. He still had more to say to me, however, so he dismissed Xaneak but told me to stay.

I’m not sure if Haldir is reading my journals entirely, or only the parts where I talk about him or that he deems important. He might not even be reading them at all, and knows these things other ways. (Ainur know I don’t understand how his magic works.) Either way I wish he wouldn’t, but he must have some good reason for doing so; he wouldn’t waste his time otherwise.

Unfortunately those reasons don’t make miscommunication between us any less prevalent. He was livid that I’d criticize his leadership “behind his back”, although all I had meant it as was a private note of passing annoyance. I could make an argument here for the importance of privacy, but I already know that what I’m writing has and will be read by people other than who I expect or even want. I wish it were otherwise, but I should be more mindful of that in the future. (I’ve half a mind to burn these when this war is over and Levtin’s read them, and leave history to more skilled writers.)

Even more than that, of course, he was angry with me for breaking the Charter. He assumed that I didn’t even care, and had only signed the document for appearance’s sake. That made me angry, and I told him that if he’s going to yell at me for presuming things about him, then he shouldn’t presume things about me in return. I have fought for decades to give people autonomy, and preserve their freedom. It and the protection of Arda and its people are the two causes I have dedicated myself to above any other, and I did not break the Charter lightly, because it upholds those same values.

I told him the only reason I did break it was for Eldarian’s sake, which of course meant I had broken the Fifth Article as well. Haldir told me that I need to stop thinking of Eldarian as a boy, but I counted that I didn’t; Eldarian himself had asked us to help him. I saw potential suffering in front of me and wanted to stop it, that was all.

Haldir softened at that. He said my desire to stop suffering is good, and that when I’m at my best I’m able to do wonderful things. I know that, I only wish I could be at my best more. I’m still stumbling on this path I’ve chosen, although it’s less often—and at least I don’t fly into self-loathing fits any longer when I do. I only hope I’ll be able to improve enough in time, and that my mistakes won’t cost us any more. Haldir said it’ll help if I stop letting my attachments to people get the better of me, and to look past just the suffering in front of me to see the bigger picture. That’s been my struggle since I joined the Knights of Arda, but at least I’ve slowly gotten better. I just need to continue getting better.

I told him plainly that if he thought my actions were a danger to the Legion, I’d leave. He said he was going to put me on probation instead: I’m stripped of the privileges of being a Legion member, and my rank within the Alliance of the Free Peoples. For the duration of my probation I no longer have a voice in Legion affairs, no longer am allowed to make use of its resources, and am stripped of my lodging.

He went on to say that I also need to start giving him the respect he deserves as commander of the Legion, especially since I’ve stated myself how much I hate being in command. I told him I’ve always respected him, but as a friend and never a commander. He said he needs people that listen and do their jobs now, not people who care about him; friends are a luxury in war. That statement alone made me cringe.

We’ve all lost so much in this war, and are continuing to lose it. I hate it so much. If we continue to make sacrifices like this—losing our values, our relationships, our very selves—what will we have left when we win? Who will we be? It’s not only Haldir closing himself off but D’vainor changing himself to a self-proclaimed monster, Xaneak constantly draining himself to exhaustion, my own moral compromises… And that’s only what I can think of immediately. I know without a doubt it will all be worth it for Arda’s sake but I still hate it, I hate seeing my comrades and friends suffer like this and be broken down by this war. I hope and pray such a conflict will never happen again; that future generations will never have to fight like we have.

Finally Haldir told me that D’vainor will be in charge of the coming mission, and that I’ll be off probation if the mission succeeds. I left after that to find a tavern to sleep in. It’s hardly a hardship when I’ve been staying with the people in Menros more than in the safehouses anyways. I also instructed Alice to stick to the sewers until I came back, since I couldn’t rightly bring her with to face Malthos as he was.

We left in the morning, with Xerxes and Titus accompanying us. We traveled through the Astral plane, and as we neared the portal to Malthos’s realm I spotted at least a thousand undead githyanki and a handful of equally necrotic red dragons. D’vainor told us all to focus on getting through quickly rather than fighting, so I took to the shadows and slunk my way through. I was moving a bit slowly because of how the Astral plane works, but it still took far less time than fighting would’ve.

D’vainor left us at the portal, and when we got through it everything was cold, dark, muffled and airless. Xaneak helped us breathe and move, but even then we could still hardly talk without shouting. It was awful traveling through it; I’ve never been more bored in my life, and it seemed to take forever. While we traveled Xaneak was kind enough to ask if I was alright after my talk with Haldir, and I appreciated that. I told him most of what’d happened and he gave me his sympathies.

Eventually we touched solid ground in a sort of maze. No sooner had we started to walk than six wraiths came forward and passed through us, and then turned into copies of ourselves! It sounds strange to say, but the battle was oddly soothing. It was reassuring to know that I’m more skilled than any copy of myself Malthos could make and I’m certain there were some other, more morbid reasons why I enjoyed fighting a physical copy of myself.

I took a fair amount of damage, partially from guarding Xerxes and partially because Xaneak’s double had very painful spells. Afterwards Bazrik healed me but I still had some minor cuts and bruises. Xerxes approached me and silently handed over a potion to heal the remainder of the damage, and I accepted it with surprise and gratitude. We moved forward and eventually found a large red gem, like the ones Eldarian had been hooked up to when he’d allowed Malthos to capture him. It felt like a weaker form of being around him, too, and I asked Xaneak if it was alright to shoot it. He said it was, but then I hesitated. I wondered if Malthos wouldn’t have poisoned it in some way, for lack of a better word. I don’t understand the magic behind the thing but I didn’t trust it, if it was so easily put out for us to find. Xaneak insisted that I destroy it, but I asked Xerxes his thoughts. He shook his head, and then destroyed it his own way, with some kind of magic that seemed to nullify it. Titus explained that it had been a trap meant to suck us into the gem.

Xaneak was getting exceedingly frustrated with himself by then, and when we encountered a projection of Malthos it didn’t help matters. He taunted Xaneak for failing to kill him when he had the chance, and other things. I snapped at him to leave him alone; that the past was the past and there’s no changing it, or use dwelling on it. He asked me if that was the case, had I stopped mourning for the children I’d killed? I didn’t grace him with an answer to that, and he soon disappeared.

Finally we made it to a room where Malthos actually was, and found some kind of strange device connected to the same black skull that I and the other Unifiers had seen after his tower collapsed. He said we were too late to stop him, but we didn’t waste time with retorts and attacked. I was worried about the possible effects of destroying the device when I didn’t have any idea what it was doing, but I decided to take another calculated risk. This time it paid off, as much as anything can with Malthos. I knew it was doing something he didn’t like because a swarm of souls surrounded it to protect it, and I noticed they were children.

He taunted me then, asking if I was really alright with trusting D’vainor when he would end up as bad as him in the end. I didn’t answer, so he asked next if I would really be willing harm these children all again. This time I wouldn’t be simply killing them, but destroying them, sending them to oblivion. In response I loosed an arrow at the skull and machine, praying all the while to Námo for forgiveness. It pierced through the souls and made them wail, but it hit true. I continued to attack, most of my arrows striking deep into the black stone despite my tears. Those screams will never stop echoing in my mind, any more than the first time I heard them.

The fight wasn’t easy by any means. Malthos used some kinds of wretched magic, making terrible things dance before our eyes. I saw all of Arda ruined, its people dead and ravaged. Hordes of Ditrius’s forces overran the cities and wilderness alike, pouring in from the portals of other ruined planes. But I refuse to let such things ever happen. That’s why I joined the Legion, after all. Malthos also released an ear-splitting scream, and while the others were fine, I…

I died.

What surprised me the most about it was that I didn’t feel any pain when it happened. One moment I was aiming to strike the skull, and the next I was floating up and above my body, which had collapsed on the floor. Xaneak rushed to my side and Xerxes did something to preserve my corpse and erected protective walls around Xaneak and my body both, actually speaking to tell him not to make a mistake. As Xaneak worked, Malthos pulled my soul towards him. I strained away, but it wasn’t until more of the children came forth and pushed me back that I was safe.

I don’t know why they did such a thing, and—I won’t dare to try and guess what it did mean. I don’t think I have the right. I only know I felt humbled like never before.

Not long after Xaneak finished his spell my senses were blocked out, only to revive again in my own body. He looked near death himself from exhaustion, and begged me to continue fighting since his own magic was having no affect. I told him I would and stood, only to find that Titus and Feyren had smashed Malthos’s body to the ground and destroyed it, releasing his soul. He began to laugh and mock us for freeing him, and then something poetic happened, there’s no other way to describe it.

All the souls of the children Malthos has gathered and abused began to swarm him. They tore at him and he screamed, pained and afraid. He struggled but they overwhelmed him, until he was utterly destroyed. He died with fear on his face, as he deserves.

We gathered ourselves up, but no sooner had we started to dust ourselves off than a woman approached us. She called herself Venyae, and said it was her duty to control life and death, “loaning” the powers over it to the gods as appropriate. I think that makes her a fea, but I don’t really know; she didn’t say. She thanked us for ending Malthos, so she didn’t have to. Then she asked us what we wanted to have done to D’vainor.

I wanted him to be left alone, after all this. I couldn’t see any reason to do anything to him, good or bad. He was serving Arda like the rest of us, even if that meant appearing to betray the Legion. For whatever reason she wouldn’t accept my choice to have him left alone, and insisted I make a different one. She wanted us to choose between “life” and “death” for him (and wouldn’t let me tack on the caveat of “if D’vainor accepts it”), which I’m still trying to figure out. As a lich… I don’t think he is alive. (That’s what it means to be “undead”, right? To be neither living or dead?) In the end when we all chose “life” for him, did that return him to his living self? Or did it simply leave him as he was, and it was all a matter of wording? I haven’t seen D’vainor since he brought us to the portal to Malthos’s realm, so I don’t know. I may never know, either.

Either way, she accepted our decision and told us to tell Eldarian that while some forces are against him, many more are standing strong beside him. Then we returned to the central safehouse, where Jordal met us. We told him what had happened, and he was delighted (and still needing to learn what “personal space” is, as always). Kira also overheard, and was incredibly happy as well. Jordal went on to speak about how he and his teammates were leaving, but that they expect and will need the Legion to work with them in the future. I’m starting to trust the Ascendant Ones more; I think we’ll be able to work together fine.

They left and then Eldarian rushed in, saying Haldir needed to meet with us immediately because of an emergency of some sort. We all hurried after him, and then—I was home.

For the first time in a very long time the halls of the Legion weren’t empty and hollow and I was home, with my comrades and friends and commander. The entire Legion had gathered to celebrate our victory over Malthos, and the fact that for the first time in another long while, we’re ahead in the war.

Now is no time to rest on our laurels, but it’s certainly time to give thanks.

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Melina: A Shot in the Dark

I went to Menros after I finished my archery and bath, to find Carrik and speak with him. I’d sorted out what I wanted to say a while ago, but hadn’t had the time to say it until now. He was in the garden, taking a short break from his own duties. He was happy to see me, and we exchanged greetings in Adûnaic. Otherwise I didn’t waste time with frivolities. I told him I had finally found the words for what I wanted to say, although they weren’t elegant or pretty: I told him I loved him, and wanted to be with him if he wanted it too.

He seemed a bit startled by how plainly I spoke, or was simply at a loss of how to respond. Then he told me he cares deeply about me, but he wasn’t sure if it would be the best idea for him to be with me, regardless of whether he wanted it or not. I’m a warrior and a traveler, he said, someone with a need to be free and go where her heart takes her. He loves and admires that about me, but he doesn’t share it: he’s a scholar, happily confined to Menros with his service to the royal family and the empire. I admitted that he’s right, but pointed out that I wasn’t asking him to come with me, either. Birds can come home to roost without being caged; if he promised to care for me I promised to always return to him, no matter where my travels or duty took me.

He told me he’d like that very much, and took my hands in his. Then he said that unfortunately even if it’s what we wanted, I was needed at my best in this war right now—without distractions. I could have argued that point, but I chose not to because even if I don’t like the prospect of waiting, he’s right: there are more important things at stake that need my full attention. I said I’d accept his answer, but when we both survive this war he owes me dinner. That made him smile, and he told me “of course” before he squeezed my hands and left.

It’s not exactly how I wanted or expected things to happen, but I’m satisfied with it. I know Carrik will wait for me, now and even after this war. We’re both young elves with plenty of time… And it’s oddly, wonderfully liberating to have these feelings out and understood. I feel foolishl very happy.

After I checked for and responded to letters from Levtin—there were a few, and it seems he’s settling in well with his new work—I spent my time wandering hidden through the streets of Menros, listening to people talk and simply enjoying being back in a city again. Alice fed herself with rats as always, and I slipped into taverns now and then to eat and rest. This close to the palace I knew I wouldn’t be able to pass as anyone but myself, so I didn’t try. Instead I brushed off questions, or told those who asked that I was in the capitol to do more work for the war effort. After a few days of this, one of Harkin’s prophets found me and I went back to the central safehouse with them.

Haldir was there, along with Mystra and Rowenna. I was extremely glad to see a sister-in-arms from the Knights of Arda, and greeted her happily. Before giving us our next assignment, Haldir told us the state of things with the remainder of the Legion as usual. (It’s strange, how I’ve finally adjusted to the rhythm of this life even if I don’t wholly love it.) Bazrik is in Arboria, helping the Ainur fight the Dark Powers. Corwyn, Maxius, Keypa and Almod are speaking with the dragons, hoping to forestall any attacks on Arda. I wasn’t surprised to hear that Almod had joined the Legion, but I hadn’t thought it would happen so quickly. I’m not sure if I want to see him or not after his mission. Haldir also mentioned that Feyren was with someone called “Namú”, investigating the Ascendant Ones. I didn’t know who Namú was at first, but Haldir outright refused to clarify that he and Nightblade are one in the same. I don’t know why he still insists on not revealing any kind of information to us that doesn’t directly relate to our missions, but it irks me. He needs to remember that we’re not simply pawns on a board to be moved or children to be herded, and even if he doesn’t think that sometimes the way he treats us makes it feel like it.

Anyways, he said Xaneak, Rowenna, Mystra and I were to go to Elysium to fight against the Dark Powers that had sent forces to besiege Sorra. Xaneak had to go get something (probably for his spells) and when he came back he told us he’d spoken with Eldarian. He warned us that we need to keep Sorra out of combat at any cost; otherwise we’ll lose her, too. (He also mentioned something about all the deities thus far having had their own strengths turned against them.) It’d be bad enough to lose another god, but more than that I don’t want Eldarian to be forced to take on any more of a burden. He’s bearing enough.

But even knowing that, I wasn’t happy with the prospect of using “any means” to keep Sorra in her fortress. We’re supposed to be helping people be free of fate, not replacing it by forcing them to survive. I wish all beings—mortals, gods, and whatever else is out there—could be free and make choices without them rubbing up against each other and coming into conflict. I wish my choice to act to protect my son wouldn’t potentially jeopardize whatever freedom a goddess may or may not have.

I wish things simply worked right.

Anyways, you can’t make choices and be free if you’re dead so it’s better in the end to keep Sorra alive. We went on our way to the Fortress of the Sun, and Obdiel let us through without difficulty. Kira met us in the throne room, and explained the state of affairs. She told us flatly that our help was unnecessary, but I pulled rank for one of the few times in my life and told her that Haldir had given us orders to be here, and I intended to follow them. I think the fact that I’m willing to fall back on laws when they suit me annoyed her as much as my insistence that we stay.

Despite her irritation, she showed the four of us through the fortress. After she left, Rowenna wondered what it was that’d annoyed Kira. I told her Kira likely didn’t want help for the same reason we had to be careful to not let Sorra over-work and sacrifice herself. I mentioned that as someone with such close ties to Sorra, Kira was (is?) probably affected by fate similarly to the way she is, although not completely; the fated and fateless sides of her were warring. Then Rowenna asked who Kira was, although a better phrasing would have been “what”. She already knew Kira had founded the Knights of Arda originally, but was nearly overwhelmed by being in her presence. She thought because I’m a wood elf I couldn’t sense the radiance around Kira, when in truth I’ve simply gotten used to it so that I don’t even think about it anymore. I explained to her that Kira is bound to Sorra’s phoenix in a way similar to how Corwyn and Maxius are bound, and that’s why she sometimes seems more than mortal.

Mystra of course took the opportunity to show off and derided me for using such a simple analogy, saying that Kira’s bond is nothing like Corwyn and Maxius’s because they are both mortal and fateless, while the phoenix is divine and thus chained to fate—and that is why Kira is affected. I knew that already, and had said as much to begin with! The analogy was a good one, besides, and not untrue. Leave it to an Arch Magister to need to show off no matter the circumstances.

Some time during our arguing Jozan, Lawthra and Olmas landed in the courtyard. They were battle-worn and weary, but still found it in themselves to greet us and tell us what they’d found. Reinforcements with Velarim (he’s recovered, it seems) were four days off, but enemy forces were only two. Sorra came out during this time and thanked us for coming to her aid, and mostly left us to our own discretion on how best to fight during the coming battle. After she left, Lawthra, Jozan, and Olmas told us that they’d encountered a new kind of wound, or magic, or perhaps a disease. Their divine magic can’t heal it, and the wounds fester with a green, necromantic energy. I felt my heart freeze at that description, but they quickly reassured me it was a different color than D’vainor’s. Small comforts are still comforts.

We split up to get a better feel for the terrain we’d be fighting on, but I later found out that wouldn’t be much help. Apparently anyone who isn’t a follower of Sorra gets lost in the fortress. I can understand how it might be a useful defense, but it didn’t make it any less embarrassing when I had to ask Olmas for help finding a tower to shoot from. Some time after he left, he and the others came back to try and “quietly” (I use the term loosely) discuss plans to go on a scouting mission. Apparently Jozan wanted to know more about the forces we’d be facing, although Rowenna was worried about us disobeying Sorra’s rules. Sorra had never explicitly told us not to go scout out enemy forces, however, so I saw no conflict~

I insisted that whoever else went I go as well, since I was the only one in the group who had any chance of non-magically hiding themselves. Eventually Xaneak and Mystra said they’d accompany me, and we set out. We found hundred of warships, and in the center of the fleet I spotted Melkor. I knew it was him the instant he locked eyes with me: I felt as if my entire body, my very being, simply… snuffed out, like a hot coal suddenly frozen and crushed.

Of course, then I dropped like a stone into the ocean, because he had dismissed the fly spell Xaneak had given me and frozen my limbs as well. I’m glad Xaneak had also put a mental link between us all on my request, so I could shout out to him for help. He got to me before the sharks did, thank the Ainur. By that time the forces had noticed us, and Mystra was fighting them off while Xaneak fled with me. (I’ll admit, when she isn’t running her mouth Mystra can be impressive in battle.) It took him longer than I would have liked to break the enchantment on me (my own attempt to do so failed), but once he did we all beat a hasty retreat.

When we returned, Kira was furious. She demanded that I tell her who had come up with the plan to go scouting, but all I told her in return was that it didn’t matter. (I can still hardly believe she’d expect me to shift the blame on to one of my comrades like that!) Anyways, we three had been the ones to volunteer regardless and Xaneak finally stretched the truth by saying it had been all of our idea, and that was enough to have Kira throw all of us but him in a cell while he went with her.

I’m fairly sure he went to speak with Sorra, because when he came back he told us that she would give us a chance to “atone” now. I wasn’t quite sure what he meant by that, but at least he got us out. It was well timed as well: not long after, the plane began to darken as Melkor and his forces drew closer. Kira finally asked us where we wanted her and Sorra… and we told her someplace safe, at least in Sorra’s case. She reluctantly agreed and left.

The battle itself wasn’t difficult at first. The long ones rarely start out badly, when you can fire at foes from miles away and not miss. The fight was easy before the fleet actually landed, and we managed to destroy a large portion of it. Xaneak and I in particular were able to work extremely well together; we continued to use the mental link he’d established so I could direct his blasts of magic with my eyes and arrows. More than a few times we were able to use balors’ tendency to explode when they die against the other demons~

We could only hold out against the forces for so long before Obdiel called a retreat back into the fortress. I didn’t need to move, but the others hurried back while he remained. Xaneak, Mystra and Olmas were quick to join me in the tower so they could blast the demons with their magic. Kira, Jozan, and Lawthra flew about outside to fight as well. Throughout this, I noticed Melkor had simply stood, watching without expression. I thought to take aim at him with a single arrow, stilling my breath and slowing the beat of my heart so my aim wouldn’t falter.

He caught it, without even looking. Then he turned it over in his hand, and looked at me as if in thanks. A chill ran up my spine. Then he shot it straight towards Obdiel. I had half a second to react, but I managed to shoot another arrow at that one and deflect it into a balor. It turned a sickly green before it dying…

The battle continued for some time, and finally Obdiel told Kira to return to the fortress. He said the church needed her, but with what later happened I wonder what he meant by that. I don’t think she can actually die. She refused to do as he said so he hurled her back through the barrier, not harming her but keeping her back. Obdiel fought hard but it was easy for Melkor to kill him, although after he did his body exploded with holy light, melting half of the Dark King’s face from its bones and destroying many of the demons that were left on the shore.

We continued to fight for hours after that, possibly even a day. Inevitably the fervor of battle always starts to wane and be replaced by exhaustion, and this was no different. Even when Xaneak and Mystra would rest to restore their spells, it didn’t seem as if they rested enough. It was then that Sorra began to restore the entire fortress, and some of us began to worry. That worry was lessened when Velarim showed up with his reinforcements, but it didn’t take long for Melkor to challenge Sorra herself once his forces were all but wiped out.

She accepted, and Xaneak begged her not to. I pleaded with Kira to ask her to refrain, but it was no use. She fought with and eventually disarmed him, before turning to leave. She said he was ours to deal with now, and in his weakened state I thought it would be safe to try and attack him again.

I thought wrong.

Like before he shot the arrow back at another target, but unlike before I missed when I tried to deflect it. Instead Kira pulled the arrow away from Sorra and to herself, and nearly immediately after that Melkor ran Olmas through the chest. Sorra whirled on him then and lit herself with flames that were colors I can’t describe, because I have never seen them before or since. She grabbed Melkor and watched him melt from the heat of her flames before knocking his head clear off with her mace. That, she said, is what happens to those that harm her children.

The battle was easy to finish after that, although it was not without losses. We gathered in the throne room, where Olmas and Kira lay dying. I apologized, over and over. No matter how many times I told myself I’d taken a calculated risk and that sometimes they don’t pay off, I felt like such a fool for that missed shot. I always do. She told me to worry less about her and more about Olmas. I reluctantly turned to him, and he begged Xaneak and I to give his belongings to Haldrith. I was surprised to hear that name from him of all people, but it seems he’s Olmas’s descendant and it’s possible to awaken what angelic blood in him remains. Xaneak promised we’d do so, and he died with peace.

When I turned back to Kira, there was nothing but ash in her place. I stood to ask Sorra if I might leave, but no sooner were the words out of my mouth than the ash lit on fire and Kira stepped from them, alive and whole! No wonder she’d told me not to mourn for her.

We did mourn for Olmas. Xaneak wanted to stay and put him to rest, and I wasn’t going to begrudge him that. It took a few weeks, and I mostly stayed out of the way. He was my friend but not near as much as Xaneak, and I’ve rarely been one for sentiment anyways. An arrow to the sky is enough for me most times, although I’m starting to wonder if I shouldn’t start waiting a few extra weeks before mourning someone. I say this because when we finally returned to the central safehouse, Olmas was there—only he was an angel now, not mortal at all. Xaneak of course was overjoyed, and I caught sight of Eldarian and he game me a look that told me somehow he had managed to do this.

We received more good news from Haldir: with Melkor dead, only two of the Dark Powers remained, as Lorgan and Thuringwethil had been killed as well. Hades had also been entirely destroyed, so there will be less of those slave-loving Yugoloths around. Sorra is in hiding for the time in Sigil, while Kira and Velarim are rebuilding her realm. There were some losses, of course, but none were wholly unexpected. Arcadia was destroyed, and the dragons are fighting amongst themselves as much as they’re planning to fight Arda. No doubt Ancalagon has something to do with encouraging the latter, but I trust Corwyn, Maxius, Keypa and Almod to handle things.

Haldir encouraged us to go meet with the others who had also come back from their missions (Hennet, his wife Ehlona, Olmas, Desmond, Mystra, Rowenna, Bazrik, Jozan and Lawthra) and of course I had no qualms with that! (One day I’d like Haldir to drink with us too.) On the way I asked Xaneak if he was alright after the news we’d heard—I saw the way his face twitched when he heard about Arcadia and Hades—and he tried to brush me off at first but eventually admitted that he had family that would have ended up in Hades that was now… Gone, completely. Maybe in a way that’s better than the torment they’d have continued to suffer there, and that’s why when he told me he was content to leave the past as it was I believed him. He still insisted on going back to ask Haldir something else while I went ahead, however, although eventually he did join us all.

It was nice to sit and unwind with my fellows. We swapped stories and boasted about ourselves, and eventually I got into a drinking contest. Of course, it was then of all times that Feyren and Namú came back with the Ascendant Ones, and Haldir wanted Xaneak and I to come see them. The timing couldn’t have been worse.

Jordall greeted us in his usual obnoxious way, but eventually he finally told us why he was there. He and the others wanted the protection of the Legion (ha!) because Ditrius had found out what he and the others were doing. Apparently they also had more information on Malthos (it wasn’t actually anything Titus hadn’t told me already) but in exchange for that information, they had promised to give their source a means of meeting with us in the Legion.

As if they’d rehearsed it, a lich enveloped in green fire and long robes stepped in. I may as well have never touched a drop of alcohol in my life, for how quickly I sobered when I saw the talisman around that abomination’s neck. It looked exactly like the one I had given D’vainor, the very one I still had in my bag after cutting it from the neck of his corpse.

He greeted us as if we knew him, and I am going to permanently murder that worthless whoreson. He can’t possibly think we’ll trust him after all he’s done, all he’s betrayed

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Melina: Opportunity in Uncertainty

Our next assignment came to us unexpectedly. We were called in to meet with Eldarian and Haldir, and found Andall there as well, bleeding and dying from a wound in his stomach; no one had been able to heal him, even with magic. He told us the Pantheon was trapped in the Ring of Doom, and had been since it was activated. No sooner had he given us a small package and told us to hurry, than he died.

Inside the box was a copy of his faith’s holy book, the Divine Compass. It was very old, and Xaneak was fascinated by it. While he looked it over Feyren, Bazrik, Eldarian and I devised a way to get us in to the Ring. Enemy forces surrounded it by miles, so rather than wasting our time fighting through them I suggested Feyren turn untoucha ethereal while I hid Bazrik and Xaneak on my person as small animals. Eldarian said he would serve as a distraction to help Alice and I sneak through the forces more easily.

When we arrived and got through easily enough; I took so little damage sneaking through I didn’t even bother having Bazrik heal me. Once we entered the center of the Ring, a door appeared. I tried to open it and go thrown back, and it wasn’t until Xaneak and Feyren worked together to read the first lines of the book that the door opened.

Bazrik turned to a bird and scouted for us. He told us he saw a group of warriors, scouting and carrying crude weapons of stone and bronze. Xaneak wanted to approach them despite my warnings not to, and eventually got himself and Feyren and Bazrik captured and brought to their king and queen as prisoners. I at least had the common sense to stay hidden during this, and watched everything carefully. I didn’t trust them or their rulers to treat my companions well, and wanted to be able to protect them if the need arose.

They claimed their rulers were “chosen” by the Father and the Mother, the same of the Pantheon as near I could tell. Xaneak and Feyren tried to tell them about the Pantheon, and that we were seeking gods, but the king was so hard-headed and stubborn he only had the three of them thrown in cells. I followed them to the cells, and then returned to the throne room to listen to the king and queen discuss. Apparently the very notion of their gods working with others was “heresy”, and he was all the more upset because Torm’s gift to him supposedly allowed him to see that Xaneak was not lying when he spoke of the need for unity. The queen suggested that there could be truth in what they’d heard—she said the Mother made new things every day, and change was not so bad—but her husband wouldn’t hear it. The king was so agitated to the point of distraction that I could have cut a square of cloth from his cloak, had I wanted to.

Once he and the queen retired to their quarters I returned to my companions, who were wondering where I was. I told them what the king and queen had said, and how they were no the first so-called “heretics” to talk of such things. Xaneak had found notes in the margin of the book, talking about Andall’s own journey to unite the Pantheon. He mentioned something about the need to “submit to judgment” by the Father and we assumed that Andall had been one of those heretics mentioned.

I slept lightly and woke often to move and remain hidden. In the morning guards collected the others from their cell, and brought them before the king and queen for trial. An enormous crowd was gathered to watch the spectacle. Xaneak put forth his argument for the need of unity again, while Feyren explained that there are other gods needed beyond the father and mother—neither could account for death, for instance. Things were not going very well despite the clear strength of their arguments; the common folk were swayed but the king was not. Xaneak mentioned how Andall had come before us, and then the king said no other blasphemers had been before.

I thought I knew that to be a lie, and supposed that if this “chosen” of the Father would break his own god’s paladin-like code to preserve “order” and useless tradition, then the only way to make him yield was to back him into a corner. I called him a liar and stepped from the shadows, telling him I had heard him speak of heretics with his queen only last night. He told me that he had spoken of heretics, but none by the name of Andall or who preached what Xaneak did.

I cannot understand how I was found to be in line with the same god as this stubborn, thickheaded man. He next claimed I was a “shadow priestess” from the north, sent to kill him and sow dissent, and seemed to think Xaneak and I traveling together was a herald of other clans uniting in preparation for war. He never stopped to think and realize that I had been in his keep an entire night with many opportunities to kill him if had I wanted. Besides, what kind of alliance sends a group of people to preach about religion in preparation for war?

Fortunately, the queen was a voice of reason and told him that the shadow people of the north had never allied with the “abominations” (magic users) of the west, and that our presence here was a sign of the gods’ unity, not of war. The king eventually relented once he saw Xaneak’s book had been written in “the language of the gods”, and as soon as he accepted that it split into three. Xaneak gave a copy to each, and kept the remaining one for himself.

With that, the king gave us guards to protect us as we traveled to the borders of his land, and a map to help us in our journey. According to the Divine Compass Andall had traveled south to speak with the “Martans” about their god of death, so we went there next. By then we had realized we weren’t following Andall’s path, but re-living it. Xaneak was also extremely upset that I’d stepped out of the shadows as unexepectedly as I had, so I told him to set a hand-signal for us to use in the future when he or the others need me to become visible. It wouldn’t hurt for us to have an entire, basic language set up that way… Perhaps I’ll work on that.

When we arrived in the lands of the Martans (later to be the Martels, from what I recognized in the buildings and lands), it was little more than a large fishing village. Like in the Bloodlands, the people were maimed, silent, and often sickly. They sent us to a river’s shore when we asked about a religious leader, where we met a man who called himself “The Shepherd”. He was as unpleasant a man as you could expect from someone who worshipped death; he spoke of its necessity to give “comfort” to those who suffered, but refused to acknowledge that changes could also be made now, in this life to reduce or cut off that same suffering, and that other gods could help do that.

Even once Xaneak showed him the book he refused to listen, and instead had a man drowned. Then he challenged Xaneak to give the man “new life”, and to the surprise of everyone, he did. He pounded on his chest and breathed into his mouth, and before long the man was alive again! I didn’t know such a thing was possible… No one there but Xaneak did, in fact. Needless to say, the Shepherd was willing to listen after that, and took the copy of the book that split from the original.

We traveled north next, to find worshippers of the Smith. On our way we encountered a few hundred people on horseback, most unarmed but for a few scouts for protection. Those scouts approached us cautiously at first, but once their leader, Heiken, caught sight of us and heard we were traveling north they all took us in as guests. We were clothed and fed and welcomed in like kin. They follow the Traveler, and appropriately enough Heiken seemed able to read the “paths” we had all traveled so far in our lives. He seemed wise in his own way, despite his eccentricities.

We all rode with the people for a number of days, speaking with them about the Pantheon and learning more about their lives. I was happier and more at home with these people than I had felt in ages. Traveling and living with a group of people, bound by bond and ideals… I’ve missed that freedom, and that sense of camaraderie: the simplicity and joy of coming to know a people and helping them in my own way. Some people call me more human than elf, but by the Ainur I miss it all as much as I think any “proper” wood elf would miss life in a clan.

The halls of the Legion’s keeps are empty and impersonal, nothing like my village or Altrio or even Harenhall. I’m happy enough now—and very thankful for my current three companions—but when this war ends I’ll be glad to return to my people in Altrio and wherever else my heart takes me.

The others seemed to enjoy their time with the people as much as me. Feyren deigned to smile at Heiken’s words at least once, and Bazrik seemed happy enough. Xaneak even proved that he has a sense of fun after all: he sang! He’s no bard, but he wasn’t horrible. I even accompanied him with a dance, something I haven’t done in a while. I was very sorry to leave them, even if our mission was successful and Heiken gladly took a copy of the Divine Compass.

When we finally reached the north, I realized it was the future seat of the Vygold family. From what I knew of them from rumor and had seen with Cedric, I expected the people to be harsh and stubborn, if not outright cruel. Instead we found kind, helpful people and were welcomed in as guests by a man named Thurdane, a great blacksmith. He was friendly but the local customs were strange. He spent a great deal of time insisting I was “too pale” despite my own complexion being darker than his (and many of my wood elf kin), and that I needed to be warmed and fed “properly”. (Perhaps he thought Feyren and I were related; he seemed to think she and Xaneak were wed because of their similar complexions.) At least he was easy to convince, once Xaneak said the book was something meant “to be shared” and Feyren began to recite passages from it to him. Before we left, Bazrik asked him to look at his war axe. He said it was good—apparently Bazrik could be an excellent smith, if he dedicated himself to it—but that it lacked passion and love. He spoke about needing to pour your heart into the things you make and I respect that; I treat each bow I craft with similar care.

We left on good terms, and rode east to the Rift, where followers of the Warrior lived. When two of the people approached us they tried to kill Xaneak on sight, but Feyren blocked one’s sword with her hand and demanded to go and speak with their leader. He was a tall, imposing man, named Azorahai. He said he respected Feyren for her strength, but wasn’t going to listen to people preaching religion when the strength of their own warrior faith was all they needed… Unless one of us could beat him in combat. Feyren volunteered, and challenged him to fight without weapons.

He agreed, saying if Feyren could best him he would listen to us and take a copy of the book, but if she lost then he would get to “mount” her. Of course I’d have put an arrow through his skull before he so much as touched her, and it isn’t as if she was going to lose regardless. He barely had time to react before she’d won and smashed his face into the ground, in fact! I haven’t seen someone beaten so soundly in a while. He begrudgingly took the book, and we left to travel west to the followers of the Mage.

We were nearly in Cormanthor by the time we had slogged through the swamp and people with pitchforks surrounded us. They said they would only take Xaneak to their leader, and he told me not to follow although I did insist he leave his cat behind. The people guarding us weren’t overtly hostile, so we simply waited. After a while I heard many magical blasts being set off, and then they suddenly stopped. Soon Xaneak returned, charred by lightning and fire alike. As Bazrik healed him, he told us he had been successful!

We went north to the Iron Hills next, where followers of the Rogue live. Xaneak, like many others, seems to think that there is no difference between “stealth” and “subterfuge”, and said it would be up to me to out-do the followers of this god. I live in the shadows as a hunter, not a trickster. Of course, he was right in as much that between the four of us I’m the only one who’d stand so much as a chance; I at least know how to pick pockets and charm locks.

We arrived in a mining town, and were met by a drunk who introduced himself as Angvor. After a great deal of prodding (and me leaving to search on my own, but continuing to listen) he directed us to the owners of the mines. I eventually learned that the six of them were wealthy merchants, but people who tried to speak out in the mines or dissent in any way often disappeared. After hearing that I promised myself I’d hold my tongue while Xaneak spoke with them, and I did although nearly every word that came out of the eldest’s mouth made me want to shoot him then and there.

Our first attempts at conversion failed, and I spent some time skulking through the town. Angvor was “conveniently” everywhere I was, and before long I gathered the others up to speak with him. He tried to continue his drunk act for a while, but after I grabbed hold of his hood and made it clear we wouldn’t let him leave, he dropped it and also told us his real name, Radir. He told us he was the leader of the resistance movement in this town, and explained that one of the brothers masqueraded as “The Grey Fox” and killed miners that dissent. He wanted us to help him find and kill this man, and told us whichever brother had a wolf pelt would be the one who was killing people. I told him we’d help, and we set to work.

I told Bazrik to change his face to pose as a new miner, and start causing trouble. While he garnered a reputation I snuck into the mansion and searched each brother’s room for a pelt. The one who had spoken with us, Lan, had a very nice one. I also found that they were all followers of the Rogue, although none seemed to be particularly blessed by him. In a few days Bazrik started to gain more attention and I switched to trailing him, since we couldn’t use the wolf pelt alone as proof of Lan’s guilt. Finally one night Bazrik was attacked in a forest, but I shot the fucker through the knee before he could hurt him. Tulkas I have missed that feeling of striking down those that deserve it!

Unfortunately, the feeling was short lived. No sooner had Bazrik blindfolded Lan than I heard people panicking in the village, and told Feyren and Bazrik to finish tying Lan up while Xaneak and I investigated. A corpse was in the town square, and I had Alice track the scent of the attacker to the edge of a separate wood. The figure pulled back its hood and it was Radir underneath! My blood boiled, and after my first shot missed he turned into a wolf and fled. Xaneak helped Alice and I give chase, and we quickly pinned him. I had half a mind to tell Alice to crush him where he stood for killing that man, priest or no, especially when he started laughing. I reminded myself repeatedly that this was all only an illusion, but even then it was for the best that reality started to fade to blackness once he took a copy of the book.

We all found ourselves outside another door, and this time it opened as soon as we approached it. Inside was the Pantheon, weak and nearly gaunt. We brought them out with us where we met Eldarian, and hurried back to the central safehouse. Haldir and his prophets met us all there, and everyone wanted to know what had happened. Apparently the Pantheon’s divinity was gone; it had left the moment Andall died. Torm and the rest of the Pantheon got on their knees and begged Eldarian to return their divinity to them, calling him “the creator” and even getting upset when he said that he couldn’t do what they wanted. He was clearly unsettled by the entire ordeal and I can hardly blame him; he told them he wasn’t the creator and hurried to leave.

Xaneak and Torm said some words to one another, but I only heard without listening. Once he and the rest of the Pantheon left I went to find Eldarian, and the others followed. He was still disconcerted but he told us he’d be fine. We all expressed our solidarity, and then he told us something interesting: he couldn’t restore the Pantheon. Their divinity had died when Andall had; without the unity he provided, they were no stronger than mortals like… Us. That’s quite a statement: I’ve become as strong as a god that’s lost their divinity.

I don’t know what to think of that.

Eldarian also told us that he has taken over the divine responsibilities for Gruumsh, Moradin, and now the Pantheon as well in order to keep divine magic on Arda. All of us were shocked and worried when we heard that, and Eldarian confessed that some days it all seems nearly too much. He carries the weight of nearly half the world on his shoulders, in addition to all the other things he must do for the Legion. He constantly hears souls asking him for things, and some days he nearly buckles under the strain of giving them magic and all the other things they need; wants to do nothing more than toss it all away and drown all the sounds out.

And yet, he said there were other days when he was glad for the opportunity. He said he isn’t the creator, but it can see through him, and understand the burdens and needs of both gods and mortals because of it. He said days when he dwells on this fill him with such hope and joy that it makes all the pain worth it.

Hearing him speak I felt bad that he had to bear such a burden, and so did the others—especially Xaneak. But more than pity I felt pride that Eldarian had grown into such a bright, beautiful, brave man capable and happy at times to take on this task. Even thinking back on it makes my heart swell, knowing my son has such strength.

—That’s strange. I’ve never felt comfortable calling him that until now.

Anyways, I thanked him and hugged him because that’s all there was to do; some things can only be left for gods to manage. I know he’ll find us if he needs anything. We all went our separate ways soon enough, and I headed to the archery range to clear my head after the mission and relax.

While I was practicing, Nightblade appeared and of all things praised my archery. That’s hardly how I expected him to greet me upon returning to the Legion, especially when it seemed I hadn’t gotten any better at hearing or seeing things. I mentioned that to him he said I had improved, but so had he. In fact he had improved more than he had ever thought possible, because Eldarian had done something for him that had allowed him to finally “unlock” the potential in him and improve further. I was happy he was given the chance for that and told him as much, but I can’t say I’d ever want the same for myself.

I also apologized to him, for failing to realize that he would ever want companionship beyond that of a student and teacher. He said it was in the past and not to worry, and I had to marvel at how much lighter he seems now, not unlike Feyren does now. He also said that he’d never particularly liked me as a student, for reasons I didn’t expect.

Essentially, I had listened too well. When he started helping me hone my stealth and perception, those were skills I’d have improved on my own. When he started encouraging me to hold my tongue and speak more guardedly, he had expected and wanted me to do the opposite: to get angry and scream at him for it, not give him empty gestures of respect. The irony is that I had given him those so-called “empty” gestures and held my tongue because I thought he was right, and wanted to show him respect.

In response he told me to stop trying to hold back my brashness, and re-kindle the fieriness he thinks I’ve started to loose ever since coming to the Legion. (It’s always been my true strength.) He told me I shouldn’t allow the world and this war to push me around, and he warned me against making the same mistake he did. I told him I wouldn’t and he gave me the first true smile I’ve ever seen on him before he left, telling me to “keep practicing”.

View
Melina: Disturbances of the Spirit

Very little had changed with Xaneak and Bazrik when I checked on them. When we all gathered to go meet with Haldir for our next assignment, I heard and then saw something very amusing~ Lady Veraxis was in the safehouse with Haldir, who introduced her to Corwyn and Maxius. When the former took her hand to shake it, he paused and got a very strange expression on his face. Then he smiled wider than I’ve seen in a long while and kissed her! It was all I could do to keep from laughing out loud; apparently he recognized her scent! She wasn’t displeased but didn’t indulge him, either, and I’m fairly certain Corwyn likes that in a woman. It’s good to see both my friends find what happiness they can in this war.

Haldir told us that our next assignment was to find out more about Almod, and see if Corwyn was right when he guessed Almod was possessed. Apparently he’d been successful with finding the exorcist. We went to a traveler’s chapel in the Crownlands, where we were met the exorcist, Mother Trawthra. She was very concerned about the fact that none of us were followers of Sorra, as some followers of the faith can be. Lady Veraxis convinced her that we had all served Sorra in our own way, which is certainly the truth.

She told us we needed to bring Almod here, so she could test to see if he was possessed or not. It’d be easier in a holy place, since she would have more power that way. She warned us that once the exorcism began it could be very hard to watch, and we may be tempted to speak with the demon. Under no circumstances were we to do so. It’s good she told us that; once it started more than once I was tempted to beg her to stop.

We devised a rough plan to get Almod to the chapel. He had made his camp in Harenhall, adding insult to injury. Corwyn and I agreed to travel there under the pretense of wanting to intervene, while I brought Xaneak’s cat with me and Bazrik turned into a horse for me to ride. Feyren followed in the trees; Maxius and Lady Veraxis stayed behind. Once we arrived we were stopped by guards but Almod welcomed us as guests. Between Corwyn and myself we managed to convince him to come back with us, under the guise of speaking with Brother Vardok gauge Harkin’s potential reaction to Almod’s choices. Almod (the demon, really) claimed he had never intended the burning of the Crownlands to get this badly out of control; he claimed he only wanted to put the suffering of the Bloodlands to “use” and draw out the traitorous north now, so the Empire could smash its weaknesses.

Once we reached the chapel, Mother Trawthra gave him a sigil to hold to see if it burned him. It did, but I think only she and I were able to see the flicker of pain in his face. Next she gave him (and us) holy water to drink, not telling him it was anything but common water to refresh him after a ride. He coughed and cleared his throat from it, as if it was irritating. As soon as he sat down Mother Trawthra began her attempt to exorcise him, and it was the strangest relief to hear another voice come from Almod, to know it wasn’t him that had done all of those things after all.

The relief was short lived, of course. He screamed, thrashed, and cursed violently at her and at us. I hated every moment of it, but kept myself in check. I told myself over and over that this was the only way to save him, the only way to bring my brother back. Eventually he thrashed so badly and so dangerously that I aimed an arrow at his shoulder in hopes of pinning him to the chair, but my arrow jerked unnaturally and pierced through his chest instead. It wasn’t enough to kill him; I think the demon had only done it to scare me and attempt to make me cry out to it. I didn’t, though. It was then Mother Trawthra pressed her sigil to his forehead and forced him unconscious, before collapsing herself. Corwyn and I helped her to her feet, and she told us that she needed more power. She wanted us to gather people close to Almod beyond ourselves, and meet us in Velarim City in a week.

We agreed to do so, but as we were leaving Corwyn said we should find a stronger exorcist as well: the archangel Raziel, keeper of the fifth layer of Celestia. Lady Veraxis said she would find Keypa and others in the meantime. With that we left, ending up on the ground layer of Celestia despite Xaneak’s best efforts to take us further. The entirety of it had been reduced to a battlefield; we dodged falling angels, debris, and demons alike as we forced our way forward.

Finally we arrived at the fifth layer, where Raziel was fighting off fallen angels. We helped him, and because of that he said he’d help us although he did not like the Legion. However, he said we must first help him and Sealtiel kill Semyaza as well. We traveled with him to the sixth layer, where we arrived in time to run Sealtiel through, saying his brother was in the way of his vengeance for being “cast off” and denied the right to guard the sixth layer.

At the time I didn’t much think on what I was doing, or helping accomplish. I simply concentrated on the task at hand, and poured all my focus into the draw of my bow and path of my arrow. Then before I knew it an enormous, radiant being was stepping through a portal and calling Semyaza his son, and telling him he was meant to be a proselyte and paragon, not a guardian. He shattered Semyaza’s sword, then turned him to ash, and did it all with genuine sorrow. Then he made all of the mountain collapse, although—thank the Ainur—we were all flying because of Xaneak’s spell by then.

Then he started to rebuild the entire plane, as if it were nothing!! Raziel explained that the mountain had become so corrupted with bloodshed and carnage it could no longer be truly “good”, so a re-forging was necessary. I understand that much, but I was still glad to leave. It’s disquieting even now to think on it.

Raziel took a mortal guise once we arrived on Arda. Eldarian met us in Velarim City, and told us on the way that the demon in Almod had woken up and Mother Trawthra had been killed by it. We found him being restrained by Corwyn and Maxius, one gripping tightly to each of his arms and even then struggling to hold him down. Harkin, Elros, Lady Veraxis and Keypa were there as well, watching and apprehensive.

The exorcism wasn’t easy to watch. At times it seemed like Raziel came close to nearly killing Almod’s body, things got so violent. More than once I had to bite my tongue and turn away to keep from vomiting. More than once I felt tears well in my eyes. It wasn’t only that, though. The words that thing made Almod say were horrible, and I won’t give them recognition by repeating them. When it got bad enough I shot him sideways through the mouth, which shut him up for a time because he couldn’t speak, but it didn’t keep him from screaming in Almod’s voice, and then in Jaelen’s and even Carrik’s. Eventually he gnashed through the wood of the arrow…

Things kept getting worse. The room darkened, smelling of brimstone and blood. Raziel seemed to be loosing strength, and the demon in Almod’s body was growing stronger in proportion and about to rise up out of the chair when suddenly Eldarian blasted him in the chest with what I can only guess was some kind of holy energy. Before this, Eldarian has always had a sense of ancientness about him. An old, steady magic like I’ve felt in Eldammar, Arboria, and when I first met Haldir.

This was different.

It was holy and it was fearful. I can’t describe it properly; the closest I can come is saying it was like the light and heat of Sorra and the ancientness of the Ainur with all the power and fury of a world-shattering storm. All of us in the room took at least a step back, and the demon began to grovel and blubber in Eldarian’s grasp. It spewed answers to every question he asked, begging and pleading for its pathetic life. Eldarian reached into Almod’s chest and bodily pulled the monster from him, and threw it to the ground. Raziel pinned it with his sword and then Eldarian killed it in some way that seemed as if it tore the demon apart, shredding it between extremes of pleasure and pain.

I don’t understand what happened. I’m only glad it suffered.

Almod slumped unconscious and Raziel carefully restored and healed him. As soon as he woke up I went to his side, asking how he felt and what he remembered. He was bewildered, and confused. The last thing he recalled was stepping through the portal Aranal opened for him to return to Arda…

He couldn’t even stand without help, but he was insistent on being told what he’d missed in the past decade. Eldarian took his hands and showed him… everything, I think. Tears began to course down Almod’s face and when it was finished he demanded Harkin kill him for his crimes.

Understandably Harkin blanched at the thought, but Almod insisted that if had been anyone else and if Harkin hadn’t seen the exorcism himself, he’d have them killed. Harkin was at a loss for words and I couldn’t hold my own back anymore, so I begged Almod not to choose death. I told him it was the coward’s way out: that if he lived he could atone if not on Arda than outside of it. His death wouldn’t bring back the people he’d killed, and if he stayed alive he could actually work to fix the damage he’d done.

He wanted to know why I even cared; I told him he was my friend and I didn’t want to see him die, or lose him again. He told me I didn’t have a right to tell him to live after the suffering he’d gone through, and said if I truly cared about him I wouldn’t make him continue to suffer. He demanded to know if I would take away all I’d suffered at Malthos’s hands if I had the choice; I told him not if it meant abandoning Arda when it needed me. He said he couldn’t serve Arda now but I told him he still could, by living and joining the Legion. He refused to consider it, and eventually cursed me and stormed out. I tried to follow but Harkin stopped me short. He said I’d done enough damage already.

Harkin followed him out. I tried to listen, but found my hearing muffled. I (rightly) thought it was Eldarian doing that, and mentally reached to him to see if I could even do that, and to try and speak privately. It turns out I can, but I realized whatever I wanted to ask him wasn’t anything I couldn’t say in front of everyone else gathered. Out loud, I asked him what happens next.

He asked me what I wanted to happen next. Obviously I told him I wanted Almod to live… But even if I hated his choice, he should be allowed to it. He has a right to die how he wants, just as much as I have a right to scream at him for wanting it and he has a right to hate me for that. Corwyn derided me for calling Almod’s choice cowardly (imagine that, when I’d done the same to him a decade before) and said he hopes I won’t be so unkind when he falls on hard times. That hurt to hear.

He tried to give me some perspective: Almod had just seen his own body, out of his own control, kill and desecrate people for ten years. Ten years of suffering, and ten years living as a prisoner in himself. Understanding that, I— I can’t blame him for wanting to die. Almod was never a man to serve in the same way as the rest of us; he was meant to love and live on Arda more than even me. For him to betray that so completely, to loose himself entirely—

It’s not cowardice for him to choose death; Corwyn was right to point out I shouldn’t hold Almod to the same standards as myself. Elros said there were still places Almod could serve on Arda without being seen, and Eldarian pointed out that he could join the Legion. I doubted out loud that he’d want to, given that I’d just suggested it to him not five minutes before, but then Xaneak said Eldarian meant Almod could join the Legion the same way he had: after death. He then went on to nominate Almod to Eldarian, who said he would take that nomination to Haldir.

After that we returned to the central safehouse, and I excused myself from the others. A few days later Almod was found guilty for war crimes against the Vanyar Empire and we were called to Menros to watch his execution. I only went for Almod’s sake, to stand by him in this even though I hated it. An enormous crowd was gathered, and we were horribly close to both Harkin and Almod. The emperor executed him himself, with his own sword and tears welling in his eyes.

When Almod’s head fell the people cheered. I slipped into the shadows and left. I know there’s an unsaid expectation that as a Unifier I’m beholden to Harkin and the Vanyar Empire; that I was there for appearances and “solidarity”. Probably it was expected I’d stay and cheer the decision, too.

Two of my brothers-in-arms have been killed in disgrace. I nearly expect that I The people of Arda can think of me what they will.

I returned the central safehouse and my room. I didn’t loose an arrow for Almod; I’ve mourned his death once already. It was bad luck after all. On my bed was an unsigned, un-sealed letter in unfamiliar script. It was an expression of condolences, and sorrow for my loss. Once I finished reading four signatures appeared: Jordall, Serlina, Titus and Xerxes. I attached the letter itself on the next page over. (I don’t know what to think of it, if it’s a play at sympathy or a genuine overture of friendship. I’d like it to be the latter, but…)

After a while I sought out Maxius and Corwyn. They were in the garden. We talked for a short while; I thanked them for pointing out my stupidity with calling Almod a coward, and apologized that they had to suffer through it. Corwyn said it wasn’t a problem but needled at me, saying that for such a good ranger I’m very impulsive. I told him it’s one thing to deal with people as targets—a collection of arteries and vital points to simply snuff out—and another to deal with them as… people. It’s a problem that’s gotten worse for me during my time in the Legion, and sometimes it worries me. I don’t know anymore how to tell people when they’re in front of me, scared and hurt or angry, that I care and that I’m scared for them and don’t want them to hurt.

Maxius brilliantly suggested that I simply tell them that, instead of doing what I normally do. I agreed, and said that my failure to do so makes me more of a coward than either Nightblade or Almod. Cowyn started to say that’s one way of thinking of it, and then Maxius said it could also mean I’m compassionate. (They’re finishing one another’s sentences now.) They said I try and protect people from things that could hurt them when I talk like I do, to shelter them from the truth because although it sets us free, it hurts getting to that point. That’s… a fair point. However I could still do to change it. I want to help people, not just protect them. Corwyn reassured me that I’m doing fine, and that things will be alright.

Maxius also mentioned that he and Corwyn will be spreading stories about who Almod truly is: not a knight that fell, but a man that was tricked and sought out redemption. (They made a crack about how I’d called bards useless once, even though they both know I have more respect for them and their craft than that.) They also told me that they will both be fine, and are handling things without difficulty. We eventually parted ways.

A few hours later, Eldarian gathered myself, Bazrik, Xaneak and Feyren. He brought us to Velarim City, in the dead of night. He explained to us that Nightblade had left because the Ascendant Ones had led him to believe that Kira was bound by fate now, because of her and the phoenix’s bond. In reality, her fateless soul and the phoenix’s fated one are struggling with one another… It could go either way. As he said that, Nightblade appeared and demanded to know why we were here. Eldarian told him it’s time he told us his story.

I have some hesitations about writing Nightblade’s story down, because it isn’t mine to tell. If these were personal journals that only I would read, or a select few like Levtin and whoever else I allowed, I might not hesitate as much. However, I think once we win this war many others will eventually read them, although whether they’re believed or not is another matter. But, it could be that’s for the best if they’re read. Like Almod, if more people know the truth of Nightblade’s life… Maybe they’ll understand him more and fear him less.

Like many street urchins, he was an orphan. He lived and grew up survived in Velarim City, until a man took him in and trained him as an assassin. He loved this man, the “Blood Father”, as any child would love a parent. Once he was brought into the Blood Knives organization officially, he quickly rose in power and prestige. He was happy like this, until the “Dark Hand” came to him and demanded he kill the Blood Father. They wanted to kill the man off because he was hindering their ambitions, and as his superiors in the Blood Knives organization Nightblade was bound by their laws to follow their orders.

Instead of following their orders, he killed them. No sooner did he tell the Blood Father this, than the man signed his death warrant for breaking the chain of command. What a fool. Nightblade escaped and killed those who came after him, and began to become truly feared for his skills. When Kira approached him and asked he join the Knights of Arda, he only heard her out at first because he was impressed she had the courage to seek him out at all.

He enjoyed his time as a Knight of Arda, however. He didn’t kill anyone, only found information and sought out new recruits. He began to know what it was like to be happy. Then the war ended and he killed off what remained of the Blood Knives organization, and the rumors about him intensified. He worked secretly for the Church of Sorra, but resented that he couldn’t serve it openly, and was treated as little more than a tool.

When he died—he didn’t tell us how, but looking at the numbers it could not have been from old age—he waited unclaimed in the afterlife for a century, although he followed Sorra’s teachings. Then he was taken by demons from the Abyss, and tortured and forced to work the lowest of the low assignments for thirty years, until the Legion called on him.

At the end of his story he flew into some kind of rage, screaming and cursing and thrashing until he collapsed on the ground, sobbing. Xaneak started to approach him, and with some encouragement from Eldarian and myself he knelt down beside Nightblade and told him simply that he was sorry. He used a name I couldn’t hear because Eldarian blocked it out and that seemed to calm him. With Eldarian’s help Nightblade stood, and then Eldarian did some kind of magic (I think it was temporal…) that looked as if it gave Nightblade peace by the end of it. He turned and disappeared, and Eldarian said he would be back within a fortnight.

We went back to the central safehouse after that. I briefly spoke with Bazrik about mostly unimportant things, wanting to know if he was alright after that and all the other things we’d witnessed. He said he was, and I am inclined to believe him. Some people take oddities in stride better than others, and we all cope with problems differently. I told him I and any others were free to talk regardless, and then took my leave.

I will not be getting any sleep this night, I know that much. My thoughts are still buzzing like angry wasps.

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Quotes of the day
  • “I am so glad the voices havn’t told me to kill anyone yet, that would be terrible”.
  • “A book? They should have given us more tamborines. I love those things”!
  • “Does anyone know how to read”?
  • “Why isn’t there any music”?
  • “Why is there music? you young hooligans and your damn music”!
  • “I enlighten them to the floor”
  • “You are in a swamp, you are moving from point A to point B in various ways”!
  • “This beats out retard Malthos”!
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Melina: Voices for the Voiceless

I met with the others in the central safehouse, and when we went to find Haldir for our next assignment we heard Harkin and Linoir arguing with one another about whether to send a member of the royal guard with Eldarian and Prince Jozan. Harkin was insistent on it, citing a need to set a “legal precedence” or something and of course Linoir wouldn’t stand for that, when adding a royal guard would add a potential for a spy or other complications. Eventually Eldarian suggested making himself a temporary royal guard, with temporary oaths, and both Harkin and Linoir seemed pacified by that.

They left, and then Eldarian left with the prince. I’m glad he’s in good hands; it made it easier to focus on our mission. Harkin said we were to go to the Beastlands, to help “Forest Claw” and his group called “The Emerald Elite”. Draugluin and his forces were invading the plane, and we were needed to help drive them back—and maybe even kill Draugluin!

We were in charge of finding our own way there, although Haldir mentioned travel via the River “Osaenos” would be our best bet. We went to Kyleigh, but she didn’t remember any of us. At first I thought it was only because it had been a few years since we’d needed her services, but she didn’t remember the Legion or our past contract either… And she wasn’t lying, which was strange. We talked a bit about the price of travel, and I ended up giving her a bit of extra gold to forget (again) that she’d ever seen us. It’s not bad to keep quiet about our activities when we can help it.

Xaneak was kind enough to pay for all of us once Kyleigh got us a boat and captain. I’ve been getting really sick of boats—there’s nothing to do on them—but this time I didn’t mind the travel. We went through whitewater rapids! It took about a week, and once we got closer to the Beastlands we saw how beautiful they are. Unfortunately the captain of our boat talked as if it’s treated as nothing but a vast hunting ground…

When we got off the boat Bazrik entered some kind of trance, and seemed as if he was speaking with nature in some way. He was attempting to find Forest Claw or even Draugluin, but he didn’t have any luck. Since it’s hard to track people when you don’t know what they smell like, and I guessed our allies wouldn’t leave any trails when they walked or camped, I suggested that we stay in one place to make ourselves easier to find. The others agreed, and Bazrik found us a good clearing to settle down in. I slept twice in the time we waited so I think it was about two days, but the sun never set which was very disconcerting.

While we waited I spent a lot of my time foraging for plants for everyone to eat (Bazrik and I were the only ones with any idea of what was edible). I also explored the area around our camp with Alice; she really enjoyed being out in such a warm forest. While we were exploring we stumbled across a wounded dire wolf, looking as if it’d had its two front legs broken. I approached it carefully, but as I knelt down to get a closer look it suddenly sprung on me! A moment later a number of other animals came out of the underbrush. I had half a second to tell Alice to head back to camp for help. No sooner than I did that then a wood elf woman appeared in a tree, demanding in Sylvan to know who I was and what I wanted.

After I explained to her I was with the Legion and who I was, she called the animals off and introduced herself as Leena. She apologized for the rough welcome, but explained she and the others had to make sure we weren’t poachers. She also suggested that we should head back to the camp as soon as possible, so we could tell her comrades that Xaneak, Feyren and Bazrik weren’t a threat. She was fairly cheerful about everything; I liked that.

When we got back at the camp sure enough Xaneak and Feyren were being held up in a tree, and Bazrik was cornered by a huge dire wolf. Once Leena called them off the tree turned into another wood elf woman (Gilatea) and the dire wolf became a male orc (Kozakh). We made introductions again and they brought us back to their camp, where four more people were waiting. There was a female human (Beshea), a male wood elf (Dekolar), a male human (Krotan), and a man I think was a wood elf but it was difficult to tell because he had scales, fur, and many other features to him. His name was Rendella.

We all made introductions again. Everyone spoke in Sylvan, and I enjoyed that. Then Forest Claw appeared behind me without me noticing, which is a feat itself! I’d never seen a fey before but he looked like all the stories make them out to be: exotic, vaguely elven, and wholly natural (his hair was leaves). He wanted to set out immediately, and informed us about the state of things on the way. Draugluin and his forces are in Karasuthra, a layer where it’s constantly night. They’ve been capturing animals and corrupting them, then sending them to the Abyss to aid Ditrius’s forces. He said we have four objectives:

1. Free the captured animals that haven’t been corrupted yet
2. Destroy Draugluin’s base
3. Kill Draugluin himself
4. Create a force to keep the Beastlands safe after Legion forces leave, likely by asking the different centaur tribes that live here for aid

We decided that splitting up would be the best way to get everything done, and shared our talents and histories so we could effectively distribute people.

  • Leena is a “beast master”, someone who works with and communicates with many animals. She wanted to help hunt Draugluin.
  • Gilatea can change into any living thing, from the smallest plant to even a dragon. She wanted to hunt Draugluin as well.
  • Kozakh is a wolf lord; he described himself as a “wolf in orc form”. He would be happy hunting Draugluin, or destroying his encampment and freeing the animals there.
  • Beshea specializes in combat within the natural world, and Forest Claw said they’re similar in abilities. She wanted to destroy Draugluin’s camp and free the animals, or hunt Draugluin.
  • Rendella is a “geomancer”, someone who has merged with parts of the natural world. That explains why he looks the way he does… He said he would be happy helping wherever he was needed.
  • Krotan is a “storm lord”, someone who specializes in controlling weather and calling lightning. I hoped we wouldn’t have to work together on an assignment, and fortunately we didn’t; he wanted to destroy Draugluin’s base of operations and I wanted to hunt Draugluin himself.
  • Dekolar specializes in using magic that he draws from magic, and as a former Elder of a clan in Cormanthor he said he was very good at diplomacy as well. That piqued my interest. The Elder that led my parents and the rest of their clan east to Essembra died when I was young; I never knew much about him or what his job was like. I would’ve liked to talk with him for a while and learn a little more about that. Anyways, because of his skill with diplomacy he wanted to help with talking to the centaurs.

We ended up with the following teams:

Hunting Draugluin Destroying the camp and freeing the animals Speaking with the centaurs
  • Myself
  • Forest Claw
  • Kozakh
  • Leena
  • Gilatea
  • Xaneak
  • Bazrik
  • Krotan
  • Rendella
  • Beshea
  • Feyren
  • Dekolar
  • We split up and went to work. Within our team, Forest Claw and I agreed that we should all split up further to cover more ground; we planned to signal one another if we found anything. He and I would go together, Leena and Kozakh would be another team, and Leena and her animal companions would be the third group.

    As we hunted for Draugluin, Forest Claw and I talked. He mentioned his disdain for arcane magic, saying it’s the “sick product of a sick society” or something like that. I don’t see how he can think that when it occurs naturally in sorcerers, but bigotry isn’t always logical. It bothered me that he thought so little of Xaneak because of his magic, which would have surprised me once. I wasn’t about to let it distract us from the task at hand, though, so I let it be. What genuinely surprised me was his attitude towards Bazrik.

    He said Bazrik was confusing to him and something of a hypocrite, in a way. He explained how he thought that being a druid meant Bazrik was “healed” from society, but was frustrated that Bazrik made no attempts to bring that same healing to others. He’d hoped that him coming here would be something of a revelation for him, and teach him to be more involved. I can understand that, to an extent: Bazrik is extremely quiet and reserved, sometimes to a frustrating degree. But Elros has always been a man and teacher to let people discover themselves on their own time, and I think Bazrik reflects that. (Forest Claw mentioned that, but said he didn’t agree with it although he still respects Elros.)

    Most of our conversation was filled with different degrees of surprise for me. I was certain that if we talked at all, it would be him lecturing and deriding me for my choice to live in and fit myself to cities. At the very least, I though he’d try and convince me that I was “wrong” for doing so. Instead he asked why I only fought for mortals’ freedom, and not that of all of creation, including animals. That startled me, because I had never thought of doing otherwise. When I told him that he stated his reasons why he thought the creatures of creation were just as important: they are living things, deserving of life and dignity; they are as complex and important as mortals (he even said they have whole cultures!); and they are all made by the creator, like mortals.

    Before either of us could say more, we caught sight of Draugluin and moved in to attack. (The creature looked the same as the one I’d stalked in Arboria but hadn’t been able to shoot.) Forest Claw told me to ready a shot for once Draugluin raised his head, and I did. What Forest Claw did next was amazing. He notched two arrows, and then shot them each in separate directions at the same time! They bounced off two nearby trees, and then hit Draugluin. I have never seen someone shoot with such flair while also managing to put it to use; most of the trick shooters I’ve seen are all show and no skill. It was a pleasure to fight alongside him; it’s rare I find another archer so skilled and so in their element. Fighting and stalking Draugluin himself wasn’t all that difficult, which we soon learned was because we weren’t hunting Draugluin at all but a decoy.

    After we (thought) we killed the First Werewolf, we heard two whistles from opposite directions; signals from the other groups that they’d found Draugluin (or so they thought). Forest Claw and I split up, and I arrived to find Leena and her companions finishing off a monster identical to the one I’d killed. We hurried to join with the others, and Gilatia and Leena both turned into giant eagles so we could rush to Draugluin’s camp, where we (rightly) assumed he was.

    We arrived to a flash of light and peal of thunder louder than I’ve heard in a long time, and then I saw Krotan collapse as the electricity around him died. He’d scorched a huge amount of Draugluin, however. I told Gilatea to drop me in as close as possible, and she dive bombed towards him. Feyren soon showed up and pinned the beast, and Bazrik wrapped him in vines. Alice dropped off of Gilatea to help pin Draugluin, and I managed to shoot an arrow deep into one of his paws and the ground; the others bounced off his hide. Forest Claw did the same. Finally Xaneak summoned a sword like he had in the Dismal Delve and sliced open a rift that started to suck Draugluin in. For a time he managed to hold on to the earth with a single paw. Forest Claw and I raised our bows to strike, and shot the remaining paw in tandem. He let go, and got sucked in to the void entirely.

    We killed one of the Dark Powers.

    I can still hardly wrap my mind around it! It didn’t come without a cost, though. We found Rendella’s body, torn in half. I loosed an arrow for him like I do for every fallen comrade, and Forest Claw and Beshea restored his body to some wholeness before burying him and raising up a patch of lilies above him. Then Forest Claw came over to us, and said he wanted to show us something. We returned to the layer that’s always day, and after traveling through a forest for some time we came upon a grove of unicorns. They’re stunningly beautiful, in a way I can’t describe. Stories don’t do them justice when they speak of them. Forest Claw said they were part of what we’d helped save today. He also asked us not to forget this place and the creatures that live here, even once the rest of the planes have. I told him it’s been an honor to work alongside him and the others; he said it’s been eye-opening to work with us.

    I have a lot to think about after this mission. I don’t ever expect to hold Forest Claw’s devotion to the natural world, but it wouldn’t hurt to keep non-mortal creatures in mind when I strive for others’ freedom. If he’s right about them having societies, loves, and many other things that mortals do, then they deserve a voice as much as anyone. In the meantime I hope he’ll realize not all mortals can become like him, nor should they. Cities and civilization are important for progress and our ways of life, not a “sickness” that needs to be torn down and “cured”. Nature and civilization don’t need to exist at the cost of one another.

    We returned to the central safehouse to the sounds of Harkin and Linoir screaming at Eldarian. I knew better than to get in the middle of that, so I hid and crept towards the room. Apparently Eldarian had taken Prince Jozan to the North, and down to the Bloodlands. He wanted him to know the strife and lives of his people, and the truths of the lands he’ll inherit. I can understand why Harkin and Linoir were upset—they were rightly scared for their son—but I agreed with what Eldarian wanted to do. The prince was born into privilege and would likely view his rule as a right, not a duty, if never exposed to the plight and needs of the common people.

    After he’d made that argument Eldarian stormed off, and Harkin and Linoir were left to sheepishly admit that he was right. They walked away with Jozan, and then the four of us came in to speak with Haldir. He was glad to hear things had gone successfully, and told us that Forest Claw and the Emerald Elite would be sent to Arboria to help Hennet and his wife protect the Ainur. I was relieved to hear that the effort there is going well.

    Normally I would pray to the Ainur that it would continue to go well, but… My own gods are fighting and threatened. Who do I pray to, then? I hope the death of one of the Dark Powers will help their efforts.

    Haldir told the others that Gruumsh had fallen, and told all of us that the souls in his care are gone to oblivion—including Krusk and Burz. Moradin is also possibly already dead, and the Pantheon has been driven to the Ring. I haltingly asked if we’d lose more in the Legion if more gods fell, trying not to look at Xaneak.

    Unfortunately, we will.

    What followed was a mix of good and ill news: The Great Kahn is dead and his people are in chaos; Ditrius’s forces are attacking Hades with little resistance; the mind flayers are being driven back and the refuges are being taken in as needed; and the Crownlands are still burning, with Almod leading the forces of the Bloodlands. Haldir also told us that Corwyn and Maxius are looking into finding the exorcist Corwyn told me about earlier, and our next mission will start as soon as they return. I hope they bring back news of success…

    Haldir left and Eldarian soon arrived, to tell us more about the state of Anrok and the orcs now that their god had died. Now that their shamans had lost their powers delegations were already arriving from Anrok, asking for entry into the alliance of free peoples. It came at a large cost, but it’s still progress in the right direction. Xaneak made a comment about it coming at too large of a cost, and Eldarian reprimanded him for being so narrow-minded: war always has costs, this is only the first one he’s felt personally. That upset Xaneak so badly he left without arguing.

    I remained because Eldarian was explaining what happened with the Ascendant Ones. It was easy for him to fend them off, but not before they gave him the same proposal Titus had mentioned to me. Eldarian said the idea was “interesting” but foolish, because it didn’t make sense to replace beings created specifically to be gods with fallible mortals. I agree. (He said he’s already thought of where he’d put us, too, which is fine but I asked him please to not tell me. Feyren wants to know so I hope she learns it on her own time, but I don’t even want to think about being a god.) Eldarian’s worried about how the orcs and possibly dwarves will react to their shamans and Olams loosing power, however, and how he will tell them why—if he should at all. That’s a decision I’m glad I don’t have to make. He also mentioned he’s going to send his tarrasque to the Beastlands as an added means of protection, which is good.

    After Eldarian left, Nightblade approached us with a bag in his hand and demanded to know where Xaneak was. I offered to track him for him, and he accepted that and demanded Bazrik and Feyren follow along as well. They weren’t about to say no and I could track most mages in my sleep (Xaneak included) so we all followed him to his room. On the way I asked Nightblade if something was wrong, but he refused to say.

    Once Xaneak opened the door, Nightblade stormed in and threw the bag down. The Great Kahn’s head rolled out, as well as a great deal of money. He said this was a “final gift” to us, and then left. The others were all so shocked by his actions that they didn’t move but I ran after him, demanding to know what exactly he meant by that! Then he of all people had the gall to ask me if I would pry, if he told me it was “private”. Imagine that, coming from him! A man who makes it his job to know as much about everyone as possible, a man who half the time doesn’t even choose to respect common decency when it comes to a person’s own room! I nearly screamed all of that at him but I held my tongue instead and told him that I wouldn’t pry. He decided to tell me anyways: apparently the Legion is “too restricting” and doesn’t let him perform to his full capacity and be “entirely himself” and put him to “full use”. He said he’s going to a group that allows him this, that actually “values” him and his talents.

    He disappeared into the shadows and then I did scream at him, calling him a coward. He didn’t respond, but Serlina appeared and started to chide and mock me. She went on about how her team is better because unlike us, they’re “cohesive” and “together”. She also said they aren’t “held back” by morality, and how that’s what really appeals to Nightblade: he doesn’t have to bother with all the Legion’s rules and expectations, and is free to be nothing but his purpose. I didn’t bother paying attention to her worthless arguments; I was so angry I couldn’t even think straight. What did she think she would accomplish by bragging like that? We’re all fighting for the same cause! I just quipped and yelled at her until she left and then I stormed back to Xaneak’s room.

    I explained to everyone what’d happened, and it didn’t take long for Xaneak and I to get in a shouting match. I ranted about how stupid Nightblade was for leaving, and how he was a coward not trying to change what he disliked and how I had no idea that he’d wanted to be closer to any of us in any way, especially when he’s always avoiding people. Xaneak came to Nightblade’s defense, saying that I’d gotten closer to himself, despite our differences. I told him that was different because he was actually around and able to be seen. You can’t have conversations with phantoms! Finally I said if Nightblade had actually wanted people to get close to him, he wouldn’t have kept pushing people away no matter what, verbally or otherwise. Xaneak countered that those who push others away always want people to keep trying, and at that point all I could say was in that case Nightblade shouldn’t have hid so fucking much.

    Feyren got between Xaneak and I before our tempers got any worse, and told us to calm down. She said we should acknowledge our grief and anger, but not let it consume us; we had more important things at stake right now. Once she was satisfied Xaneak and I had quieted down enough she left with Bazrik, and I stayed behind for a bit longer. Xaneak started to go through his journal. I noticed he was reading the very beginning, which I’d never seen before. I told him I’d tell him what I’d come here to speak with him about later, when I wasn’t so upset—I sound like a bitch when I’m angry. He countered that I always sound like a bitch, and I snapped a correction that in that case I sound like more of a bitch, but stopped short of saying anything that made things worse.

    I calmed myself down before speaking and told him I was sorry for his loss. Krusk and Burz were his friends and our allies and they’ll be missed. I also told him that I didn’t want him to die leave any time soon, because even when we’re screaming at each other he’s my friend. And I told him that he’s more than just his “usefulness” and his “purpose”, and that I’m sick of people in this Legion seeing themselves and each other as nothing but that. We are all mortals, with wants and needs and loves and worth, not because we’re “useful” or because we have “purpose” but simply because we are. Purpose and power are important because they make our lives meaningful to ourselves and can help others, but they don’t give us worth. If we start treating people as worth nothing but their use, then we might as well be Caya or Varys or even Malthos! And if we devalue ourselves, it’s even worse.

    Xaneak appreciated my sympathy but insisted he isn’t worth more than his usefulness, and then went on to say how he’s convinced we’re loosing this war and that we must be doing something “wrong.” He isn’t a soldier, in any sense of the world. He’s built and bred for research and study, not fieldwork and warfare. There’s no shame in that, but it means he’s going to struggle more and more as the war gets worse. He doesn’t understand you can do everything right and still loose; that there are always factors in life outside of our control. (I told him I trusted Haldir in the meantime.) He also doesn’t understand the difference between loosing a battle and loosing a war. (We’re fighting fate itself! There are going to be losses.) I tried to explain these differences to him, but he didn’t want to believe me and insisted that Eldarian would know if we really were doing the right thing.

    Of course, Eldarian arrived just as I was saying that even if he did know, he might not say so. He told us that truthfully even he doesn’t know if we’re doing the right thing. Unsurprisingly he’d been listening in on our conversation. He said he wanted to help us, because Xaneak was grieving the loss of his friends and—even if I didn’t admit it—I was grieving the loss of a teacher. He talked about how we need to not just call ourselves a team, but believe we are one. He also reminded me that the Legion contract isn’t going to change (even if someone like Nightblade wanted it to), and tried to explain to Xaneak what I had: war is messy, and people die no matter what. I think he did more good for Xaneak than he did me, but I also think Xaneak needed it more than I did.

    Once Eldarian finished speaking and left, Xaneak asked if I’d said everything I wanted to him, so I asked him if he’d heard me. He told me to repeat myself if I really wanted to be sure so I did. I told him I’m sorry for his loss. I told him that even when we’re arguing, I like having him around and don’t want him to go away. And I told him that he’s more than just his usefulness. That we all are.

    Then I left, and went to the training room. I didn’t practice on the archery targets, but used my short sword on a dummy instead. There wasn’t any rhythm or grace to my movements because I wasn’t trying to clear my head like when I use my bow. I only wanted to vent my frustrations and anger and hurt and hurt. After a good while Feyren arrived, and asked to speak with me. I reluctantly agreed, and asked if she wanted to talk here or somewhere else. She said she didn’t have a preference so I said I’d like to walk through the safehouse, because I don’t like staying in one place and people are going to hear us talking in this place no matter what.

    She said she wanted to know if I was alright, and what I was feeling. She said she wanted to listen to me, and I laughed because even I didn’t know what I was feeling, at least not in any way I could put into words. We bantered for a while—she wanted me to respect his choice to leave, and I told her I do but I was still pissed off about it. She insisted it was alright to be upset, but that I had to manage it and not let it hurt other people and myself. She said even though she’s a monk she understands compassion and recognizes its importance, and the potency of connections between people.

    Finally she got me to tell her that I was angry and frustrated with Nightblade for leaving; for being a coward and running from things he didn’t like instead of facing them and trying to change them. She said he still had a right to leave, and wondered if I really thought the Legion would change after all the time he’d been here. I know the Legion probably wouldn’t have changed for him, and also know that if I didn’t agree with it like I do I know I would’ve left, too. It isn’t even as if he’s become a traitor, just gone from one team to another but serving the same cause.

    She wondered instead if I didn’t feel betrayed that he left more than anything… He was a valued teacher, and I hoped I’d eventually win his respect. Now I don’t have that chance any more. I wanted to prove myself to him, and thought he actually valued who we all were as well.

    I’m not sure if it’s healthy or frustrating to have so many people around that know me so well. Probably both.

    I finally relented and told her that she was right: I did feel betrayed, but more than that I’m upset with myself for caring and being angry about it in the first place and feeling like I somehow failed. She said it’s okay for me to care, and that it’s about time I finally admit that. I couldn’t do anything but go quiet and tell her that she’s right because she is.

    Nightblade is a coward, not for leaving but for not saying anything to our faces and always pushing people away. There aren’t many things more selfish and cowardly than that, and I know it because I’ve been there myself… And I think that makes me that much worse for not trying harder to break through anyways.

    I asked her if she had anything else she wanted from me, and she said no, so long as I felt better. I told her I did and asked if she wanted to spar tomorrow; she agreed. I also told Feyren that she seems lighter now than before—not happier, because this change seems deeper than a change in emotion—and more open, too. She told me it’s because she’s sorted things out with her Code at her monastery, and has a better sense of herself and the world now. I’m glad for that, and so is she. I have a feeling we’re going to be talking a lot in the coming days, and becoming even better friends.

    In the meantime I thanked her and she said goodnight. We went our separate ways and I went to take a bath.

    I still think Nightblade’s an ass and a coward, and I’m still furious. But I’m not going to worry about it now, either, or let it distract me. There are more important things to think about, and bigger things at stake.

    Dwelling on mistakes doesn’t change them.

    When I got back to my room I slept more soundly than I have in a while. I didn’t dream, and I feel mostly better now. I think I’ll check on Bazrik and then Xaneak later, now that I’ve calmed down. I have a feeling our next mission will be difficult for many reasons.

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    Melina: The Politics of Gods

    Before we left to return to Sigil, Feyren asked for some time to go to her monastery to sort some things out with her code so she went there. When the rest of us got back, I met Arymyr for the first time in person. He’s an enormous dark elf, at least two heads taller than me and more than twice as wide with muscle. I didn’t think it was possible for any elf to look so much like an orc! He’s as friendly as a dwarf, too: he gathered us all into the same kind of bone-crushing hugs Vardoc is fond of after we were introduced. I like him.

    Before he told us what he needed us to do, he gave us a letter from Harkin. Xaneak read it aloud but as he did I looked it over and checked for forgery as best I could; I wasn’t about to be fooled again. It seemed to be legitimate as far as I could tell, but that’s not saying much since I could hardly remember what Harkin’s handwriting looks like. (Either way it sounded like him.) It was an update on the war effort rather than a request for aid. Things are going well, with Linoir taking over running the Empire while Harkin mobilizes for the war and leads the alliance of the free peoples. The free peoples of the nations don’t know the truth of why they’re mobilizing—they think it’s to fight Orómmen and Anrok—but aren’t against it. (With luck there won’t be any war at all.) He also gave us military rankings, should he need us. I’m a Lieutenant, which could put me in charge of a force roughly the size of those I lead in Altrio if it’s necessary.

    What Arymyr needed us to do was find something called the “annulus”. Apparently some of Moradin’s priests, the Olams, had been having dreams about this artifact that they claimed would help them against the mind flayers. (They’d been getting more aggressive than ever before lately, to the point where they’re overrunning and mentally enslaving many dwarves.) He wanted us to find it and bring it back to him, while he kept fighting. I’d rather be on the battlefield in Nargathron than running errands, but I can understand the necessity of his request.

    Haldir told us to speak with Thrazun, a former follower of Moradin before he became one of Haldir’s prophets. He said he could go speak to Moradin, but it wouldn’t be good for any of us but Bazrik to come with, because he didn’t appreciate “tall folk” visitors very often. Xaneak and I went to the library in Sigil in the meantime, although we couldn’t find anything on the Annulus. Bazrik didn’t have any luck either, but Nightblade was able to tell us that the Annulus was made by a smith, Firi, who also made the mind flayers to help the dwarves have a better, more complete understanding of the tunnels that they lived in. However, the mind flayers eventually became corrupted so he made the Annulus, although he didn’t have permission to make it with the soul forge like he had with the mind flayers, so Moradin cast him and the mind flayers out of Arda. Apparently that’s why there are only seven dwarf clans, not eight.

    He told us we should speak to Eldarian to learn more, so we thanked him and left to do that. He was still working with Andall to restore and protect the Ring, so it wasn’t hard to find him. After we explained the dreams the Olams had been having, Eldarian was able to tell us that the Annulus was in Minethrys, a layer on the plane “Carceri”. He said it was in the care of Nerull, another servant of the primordial evil—like Ditrius. Then he did something I’d never seen him do before: he showed us all the history, with image-magic illusions like Xaneak sometimes does when he’s bored, but on a grander scale. It was like the Map Room back in the Keep, but with people and places instead.

    He showed us Nerull’s history, explaining how he had been banished to Carceri when the primordial evil was tossed to the void. He eventually became ruler and keeper of the plane, as gods began to use it to hide secrets they wanted forgotten. When he finished explaining he looked nervous and somewhat frightened by himself; this was the first time he’d ever said or shown something he hadn’t ever learned before. It hurts each time I see him like that, but I held my tongue. He was fine after a moment or two, and he doesn’t need me worrying about him.

    Eldarian said the yugoloths would be our best bet to get to Carceri and back out, since apparently no one can (usually) enter or leave unless Nerull allows it. We went to the portal town of Hades called “Hopeless,” and I approached a few of the merchants there to look for a way in. One said it(?) would give us passage in exchange for 1,000 souls or the crown of the “Oinoloth”, the head of their people. I don’t doubt that we could get it, but it’d disrupt the soul trade and probably turn Asmodeus against us. Another yugoloth offered us passage in exchange for six undefined favors at a later time, which I thought would be the best deal because I planned to simply kill him when we were done.

    We traveled on a boat on the River Styx. It was manned by slaves, which I didn’t like, especially because we were stuck on it for an entire month. We had to wander through Carceri itself for ten weeks, too, before we finally found the layer filled with sand. Of course we had to wonder through that next, which took another seven weeks and was awful because the sand kept tearing away at our flesh; if it weren’t for Bazrik’s healing we’d have died within days. Finally we saw a city, but then Xaneak got pulled into and under the sand and I had to have Alice dig and pull him out. She brought up a giant stone ox with him, which isn’t what I was expecting!

    Xaneak killed that one easily, but ten more arrived soon after. We killed those, too, and went into the city. I took to the shadows, because even if everything seemed dead it never hurts to be careful. We noticed most of the skeletons were dwarven, and there were some mind flayer statues on the giant pyramid structures. We traveled to the largest pyramid, but as soon as we got close we heard awful, painfully loud noises in our heads. We kept going, though. As it turns out that was only the first of many traps, although except for near the end when Alice and I switched bodies it wasn’t so bad. (It was strange being a snake. I could smell everything with my tongue and if Bazrik hadn’t been there I wouldn’t have been able to talk at all. Alice probably thought it was just as strange being in my body, especially because at first she tried to move just by rolling around on the ground! Between Xaneak and Bazrik they helped her figure out how to walk at least.)

    There were also pictures on the walls of the pyramid, telling some kind of story. It showed dwarves and mind flayers living and working together, but one of the giant brains (hiveminds?) and Moradin didn’t approve of it. It also showed some kind of ring that we found out is the Annulus being made by another hivemind, use against the one that disapproved of the coexistence. It ended with the dwarves and mind flayers that worked together being banished.

    We eventually reached a room with a half-dead, rotting hivemind that explained to us the rest of the story: apparently, mind flayers had been Moradin’s first creations, but he considered them imperfect and even shameful, so he cast them out. Firi was the first to find them, and wanted to make peace with what he saw as elder siblings, and some mind flayers agreed. Others wanted revenge for being cast out, so when a place called “Payratheon” was made by Firi and his clan and the peaceful mind flayers, the vengeful mind flayers (they called themselves the Collective) tried to destroy it, while Moradin scorned it. Also apparently the peaceful mindflayers made the Annulus to stop the Collective, but Moradin stole it and Firi stole it back, and so Moradin banished him, his clan, and the peaceful mind flayers, to this city. That explains all the dwarf corpses we saw… The hivemind said the dwarves sealed it, the other mind flayers, and the Annulus in here to protect from the sandstorm, since the dwarves were already dying from being worn at by the sands.

    The hivemind said it would be dead by the time the Collective was killed with the Annulus, but was still willing to give it to us provided we passed on the story it told to others when the time was right. Apparently it’d known our intents from the beginning, but hadn’t been able to de-activate the traps we suffered because they weren’t under its control. It did switch Alice and I back to our proper bodies, though, which I am very glad for.

    Bazrik held on to the Annulus, and we followed the hivemind’s directions to leave the pyramid. Unfortunately, we found that in the short time since we entered, it had become buried in sand. Bazrik turned us all into badgers so we could dig our way out. Being a badger was slightly less disconcerting than being a snake, but it could’ve been that I was more used to changing bodies the second time around.

    Anyways, we didn’t get past the border of the layer when Nerull approached us, and said we weren’t allowed to leave. He was really disgusting looking, all rotting flesh and tattered clothes. It was a hard fight, but eventually he fled—and that worries me, because we were far from winning, or even doing lasting damage. I even shot him in the eyes and he didn’t seem blind at all! Even with him gone we knew better than to stick around, and Xaneak teleported us back between layers until we reached the boat. A single slave was waiting for us with a contract, stipulating that we sign our souls over to a nameless yugoloth merchant once we died. I was furious that the merchant would even make that demand, but it wasn’t there to negotiate and soon enough Nerull showed back up with even more undead than he’d had with him before.

    I snatched the damned contract from the slave’s hands and signed it, and the others did too. I planned to kill the fucker anyways so I’d hoped it wouldn’t be binding for long. Unfortunately, once we got back to the portal town the merchant appeared and immediately Xaneak was bound in chains—because he was already dead! I protested and was ready to attack the merchant, but Xaneak told me to go and I protested that until he told me again to go, because Arda needs me.

    It’s not fair, using that argument against me! But Bazrik and I still left to the safehouse in Sigil. Eldarian was the only one there; he said Haldir was at the “northern safehouse” in Arda, which we found out is between Nargathron and Alaron. He took us there, and after we handed the Annulus over to Arymyr Haldir told us the state of things. There are many new safehouses now, scattered throughout Arda and connected to one another, with added protections provided by the djinn. Unfortunately the Crownlands are burning, from forces in the Iron Hills rallying under Tarthalian’s wife Circe and forces from the Bloodlands—although no one knows if it’s Quenten’s loyalists or Almod leading them. I pray to the Ainur it’s the former, although neither would surprise me now… Someone should kill Circe either way; she should’ve died after her trials in New Essembra.

    I told Haldir about the contracts, and he said he’d have Nightblade take care of Xaneak, although that wasn’t necessary because not more than an hour or so later Xaneak appeared and told me Jordall had bought him and wanted us all to speak with him. We gathered Bazrik and met in a tavern in Menros with the other fateless, who still insist on calling themselves “The Ascendant Ones” and really I think that they couldn’t have come up with a more pretentious name if they tried.

    Jordall immediately tried to take my hands, probably to kiss one, but I pulled them away before he could and shot him a look that I think made him understand I have higher standards than that, because he didn’t try again. It’s bad enough he and the others are playing at this game of false trust—acting like our allies without sharing anything of themselves in return, while they carelessly wave around information about us—but his personality is so grating. He talks more than anyone I’ve ever met and is a lecher, too. It’s like he has all the words of a bard and none of the charm.

    I softened a little when he tore up Xaneak’s contract to free him, though. That’s a sign of trust I’ll respect, regardless of his personality. He and the others told us that they’re to kidnap Prince Jozan for their next assignment, and they want us to stop them. They didn’t seem to think that we’d be capable of that, but just because they beat us once doesn’t mean it’ll happen again. Besides, we have numbers on our side.

    We said goodbye to them (less tersely than we’d said hello) and returned to the northern safehouse. Eldarian and Haldir were speaking, and I caught snippets of what they were saying—something about the Keep, Aranal and Caya, a portal and the Sphere of Annihilation. They finished talking by the time I got close enough to hear more.

    Haldir told us that Nightblade would take care of Bazrik and I’s contracts, for which I was very grateful. Haldir didn’t seem to think so, though, and told us all to be kinder and more appreciative of Nightblade. He went on for a while about how too many people see him as a monster and fear him for his past, and that no one but Kira has ever treated with him anything resembling compassion. (Come to think on it, why didn’t he include himself alongside Kira if he’s so worried about him? Haldir’s as compassionate as anyone…) I was frustrated by his demands and more than that myself, because I don’t know how to do what he wants; I wasn’t even aware it was a problem! He must have thought the frustration was with him, because he singled me out and all but scolded me like a child, and I hadn’t even said anything! Sometimes I have to marvel at my ability to make people angry without meaning to.

    Even now I’m still not sure what Haldir wants from me concerning Nightblade. I do my best to treat him with the respect he deserves, and I certainly don’t fear him; even when he has a knife to my throat I know it’s a lesson, not a threat. I strive to follow what he’s taught me because I value his input, and I wouldn’t ever ask to be the student of a man I considered a monster. If anything I think Nightblade would resent it if I treated him with any kind of softness; he’s never taken any familiarity I’ve shown him (intentionally or otherwise) well.

    Probably Haldir was talking more to the others than myself, except when I pissed him off. Xaneak has no qualms referring to Nightblade as the “boogeyman” of Arda and Feyren is obviously unnerved by his presence. Bazrik probably is too, but I still can hardly tell with him.

    Anyways, I was so thrown off by Haldir getting angry at me that I nearly forgot to tell him what the other fateless had told us about their plans to kidnap Prince Jozan (Eldarian had to remind me to, since Xaneak and Bazrik had apparently forgotten as well). He said he’d speak with Harkin, Linoir, and other necessary people to keep the prince safe. Xaneak also told him and Eldarian about the story we’d heard from the hivemind, and they asked him to write it down for later consideration.

    That was all he had for us for missions, so I went from the northern safehouse to the one in Menros to look for Carrik, because I wanted to see him had things I wanted to discuss with him. He wasn’t in the library, and when I went to the garden to look for him I found Corwyn instead. I was happy to see him, too. We talked for a while, catching up on where we’d been and what we’d done. He and Maxius speaking with the djinn had been what convinced them to aid Arda with their defenses, and he was glad he’d been able to do that but wanted to be out fighting, instead, where he feels he can do the most good and make the most of his talents. That I can always understand and agree with, although we also both agreed we trust Haldir’s commands. (I also asked him if he’d been down to the Free Cities yet, but apparently he’d only just gotten back from the Citadel of Ice and Steel.)

    Since I’d been meaning to for a while and it seemed relevant, I asked him for help with being better at speaking with people—specifically, not making them angry. He was surprised by that, and at a loss of where to start. He said I’d have to first be more genuine in my desire to not make them angry, but after I pointed out that I can’t be more genuine than now, when I’m asking him for help and not even trying to make people angry in the first place (and not even discussing politics or freedom with them when I piss them off!) he relented and said there were a few other things I could probably try: be less gruff with people, not be so open with my reactions to things, be more willing to hear others’ views, and sound less like an “acolyte of freedom” when I talk. He thinks that when a lot of people see me they don’t see me, but my history and past actions. That much I can’t change because it comes with having a reputation of any sort, but it isn’t anything new either. I can work on the first two things he mentioned, though, and probably the last one. I’d thought I was getting better at listening to other points of view, and when I mentioned that Corwyn admitted I had, but still have a ways to go. I guess that’s fair.

    Corwyn also wanted my advice regarding Almod. He’d also heard the Crownlands were burning, and thought Almod was probably responsible for sending the Bloodland’s forces. Given what he’d heard about his behavior with Quenten’s assassination, Corwyn suspected that Almod is possessed. I don’t know if that can be detected by magic or not, and it could be that the thing possessing him is only detectable when it takes control. Either way, it sounded like something worth looking into, and I told him that. He was happy to hear that, and said he’d look into finding and contacting an exorcist he, Almod, and D’vainor had encountered before I had met them… Apparently that’s when he had first met Arya, too~ I offered assistance if he wanted to track the exorcist, but he was confident he had enough connections that he wouldn’t need me to help.

    I’m always glad Corwyn and I are able to have these conversations. After we said goodbye he left to rest and I decided to start looking for Carrik again. This time I was more thorough in my searching, since I didn’t want to ask any of the servants where he was. When I finally found him he was leaving a meeting with other mages, and after saying the proper farewells to them he came to speak with me. We didn’t bother with formal greetings and blessings this time, and that felt strange but also nice nice. He asked me about the war effort on the Legion’s side, and I told him it was going well for us; no one had died yet. He was quick to remind me that no one I knew had died yet, and I felt like an idiot for that remark because of course people are going to and probably already have died, that’s the way war is. He reminded me just as quickly not to feel bad about my remark, of course.

    I changed the subject quickly to thanking him for his help with the Dales, since I hadn’t had the chance to properly do so yet. He said it was no trouble, and then he asked about Eldarian. He wanted to know what role he’d play in this war, and I told him even I don’t know. Lots of people have called him the “key” to winning and that’s probably right, but I don’t know how that’s going to happen. Carrik also wanted to know if he had kind people around him, and good teachers. I told him yes, of course: everyone in the Legion has taken care to give him what he needs and support him. Then he wanted to know if I counted myself among those people and I faltered. I try to, but Ainur only know how much good I actually do for Eldarian. He said I probably do more than I think. I don’t know if I

    He also admitted that he wishes he could have helped teach him. Even though he knew we didn’t necessarily need his help, during those four years I was gone in Hell and Eldarian was growing up, he kept expecting me or someone else from the Legion to arrive with Eldarian. He seemed genuinely remorseful of the fact that he hadn’t gotten the chance to know, teach and help him, and I felt awful. If I’d known he’d be so disappointed and that we wouldn’t need him to teach Eldarian, I never would’ve brought the idea to him in the first place. I lamely suggested that he could always meet and talk with Eldarian now, since we’re not always running missions all the time, but he declined.

    I felt bad about that, so I asked him instead what he’d been doing since I saw him last. It’d been nearly three years since we’d so much as looked at one another, and close to seven since we’d spoken in earnest. He said he’s doing well, and still formally serving as the Master of Magic under Linoir. He’s also advising Harkin informally, which is good because (especially now) Harkin needs people like him around. He doesn’t mind his work in Menros and is happy to be able to serve the people he loves, and Arda.

    Eventually I told him part of what I wanted to—that I’d broken off my engagement with Jaelen—and he said he was sorry to hear that. Some days I wonder if he’s a real person at all to be so kind that he can mean that, if only because he knows I suffered in the years leading up to that decision, and even in making it. I told him I was ultimately glad for the decision, though, and he said so long as I’m happy with it, that’s what matters. I half expected him to say something to me after; to finally put these feelings we have out in the open but that’s not how he is. He respects my decisions and what’s important to me, and actually knows enough to offer his affections but to let me be the one to accept them or not.

    He could tell I wanted to say more, though, and even asked me if there was something else I wanted to tell him. I nodded and told him there was, but then I couldn’t find the words. I could feel everything I wanted to say: the heat and warmth, the happiness, the peace he gives me, but couldn’t think of how to say those things without sounding foolish or stupid or soft.

    After I was silent for what felt like a painfully long time for me he put his hand on my shoulder, and told me to find him once I knew what I wanted to say. He said that he hoped the Ainur would continue to watch over me in the meantime, and then he left.

    I clenched my hands into fists and I immediately stepped into the shadows so no one would see how red my face was, and so no one would bother me as I wandered the halls. I was so embarrassed but strangely grateful, too, because I know he’ll wait and he’ll be here when I can find the right words. I know he understands me, more than anything. Ever since we first met it’s been like that, knowing he’s there and praying for me when I can’t see him, and beside me and saying all the things I need to hear when I can see him, even if I used to try and block those words out and push him away.

    I’ll find the right words eventually. I don’t need to be elegant or well spoken about it, just honest and a bit brave because I know getting close to him like this puts him at risk, but there’s nothing in this world I’m so afraid of loosing I won’t even try and hold onto it in the first place.

    Once I felt my complexion was back to its usual color I stepped out of the shadows, and soon enough Titus approached me. I was surprised he was even allowed inside the palace itself, but it’s a rather open place to begin with. (Xerxes could’ve gotten him in, too.) He wanted to talk so I told him to walk with me through Menros proper; there’s anonymity in cities. He seemed to think there were more spies there, too, and of course there are but they’re also much easier to loose~

    He said he and his companions had read the charter, and didn’t like it for one obvious reason: we left the gods to their own devices. He said he was surprised we hadn’t thought of the problem with that already. It took me a moment, but then I realized that if the gods are bound by fate and we leave them to their own “choices”, fate will always force them to act in a way that brings Dagoth Dagathur that much closer. (I knew fea were bound by fate, but… I hadn’t thought the gods were.)

    Titus was convinced that all the gods will fall, starting with Gruumsh, followed by Moradin, the Pantheon, and then either Sorra or the Ainur, followed by whichever of them wasn’t destroyed before the other. It’s scary to think of the gods themselves falling. It’s one thing for them to be attacked, or to fall ill, but to be killed… What happens to a god that dies? And the souls in their care?

    I don’t mind speaking with Titus because he doesn’t bother with frivolities like Jordall, or insist on showing off like Serlina. However, I was surprised by how much he hates his own people. More than once while he was talking about the gods dying he called orcs “animals”, and said their culture was nothing but thinly veiled barbarism that would cause them to take pride in being slaughtered. He even said he would be glad to see Gruumsh die! It’s good Krusk and Burz weren’t there to hear him.

    I pointed out that Moradin dying would cause the loss of many clerics in Alaron, Nargathron, and the Iron Hills, and that the loss of any other gods would significantly weaken Arda as well. Titus agreed, and said that he thinks Eldarian should take over as the primary deity, with spaces filled by fateless as he saw fit. Titus seemed to think that Eldarian has the capacity to make fateless immortal… I think even if he could, turning mortals into gods doesn’t sound like a wise decision.

    I asked him about what he and the others thought of Malthos; he said he liked the concept of him but said Malthos’s end goal was different from their own. Apparently there are two planes of “energy”, positive and negative that heal and harm respectively. Malthos doesn’t want to just control these but merge with them, to give him ultimate control over life and death. I can’t imagine the havoc that would wreak. Disgusting.

    I told Titus I wanted more time to consider what he said about the gods, and he said that’s reasonable. Even if he was right it isn’t like I’d suddenly become a turncoat, but I guess it’s good to think about these things now that they actually make sense to me, finally. He also told me before I left that Eldarian is the only way we’ll be able to protect Prince Jozan; Xerxes will be able to counter or dispel anything Xaneak comes up with. I told him I’d consider that too, and left. (I’d like to get Xerxes alone and take care of him myself… A few arrows through the hands and then mouth and a mage is as good as useless anyways, and it’s the least he’d deserve.)

    I went to go find Haldir, to apologize and ask him a few things. He was busy going over maps and strategy, but said he had time to speak with me if I’d like. After I apologized he said it was fine, as casually as if it had never happened at all, which surprised me considering just how angry he was. But he’s probably still mourning Aranal, and his emotions are running raw. It’ll be good for me to remember that.

    I asked him if there was some way I could insure protection for my brother, since I didn’t want him to be hurt or used to manipulate me. Haldir considered it for a moment, and then said he could have Levtin work with Lady Veraxis to keep him safe. Keeping him useful would also keep him close, and I’m sure he’d enjoy Lady Veraxis’s company as much as I do. It’s just a matter of him agreeing to do so, but I’m not worried about that; he’ll jump at the chance to learn more stories.

    I also asked him about what Titus has said regarding the gods, and he confirmed what I had wondered about Caya at least once: it may be possible that by interacting with fateless, those bound by fate are given some measure of freedom from it. He said giving the gods the choice to be involved or not is “a matter of faith”… I imagine in his god, and maybe even the idea of freedom itself.

    He also said that Titus was right about at least one thing: Gruumsh is dead, as of no more than twenty minutes ago when we spoke. Moradin was cut off from communications and aid alike in his attempts to “seal” the mind flayers in with him to fight them, so we don’t know if he’ll survive. If Moradin falls that’ll be a harsh blow to Arda’s forces… And come to think on it, Ditrius seems intent on removing the divine from Arda entirely; that was part of his intent with the plague that nearly took Mandos, too. I wonder if there’s a reason for that beyond the obvious?

    Anyways, we talked about Eldarian a bit as well. I mentioned what Titus had said about him being necessary to keep Prince Jozan safe, and Haldir said he’d keep it in mind—along with all the other things he’s considering having Eldarian do. He’s worried he’s expecting too much of him. Apparently what I’d overheard earlier was him asking Eldarian to examine what was left of the Keep for any sign of Semyaza (he survived, apparently) as well as what the Sphere of Annihilation had done to the area. He also wanted to know more about how Caya and Aranal had died… And this was all on top of a few other things he’d asked him to do, too. I did my best to console Haldir and tell him it’s understandable he wants us all to use our abilities to their greatest potential, and told him he’s not the only one expecting great (even huge) things from Eldarian.

    That seemed to help him a bit, especially I went on to mention how it grates on me when people like Titus—or anyone, really—thinks of Eldarian as nothing but the “key to winning this war” or “the God child” or only as what he can be used for, and that I don’t think Haldir has or ever will do that. He wants to utilize Eldarian’s abilities, but still cares about Eldarian himself. Haldir did point out that Eldarian isn’t a mortal, though, and that people are right in a way when they call him “the God child.” He isn’t the scared boy anymore that I first met. He said Eldarian can’t ever have the “normal” life I want for him, although what I want more than anything is for him to be happy and for people to look at who he is, not just what.

    We also talked about what it means for Eldarian to be both a mortal and a god, and Haldir was confused and somewhat worried about how much Eldarian actually knows. Eldarian hasn’t told Haldir anything about how Aranal and Caya died, and Haldir is certain that he must be lying about that—he thinks that with a simple glance at their bodies, he could find out the causes of their death, and is convinced he must have looked at them at least once. (I think he’s right about that much; Eldarian saw their bodies just like the rest of us.)

    I wasn’t so convinced that Eldarian would know just from looking at the bodies, however. He knows a lot of things about a lot of subjects, but sometimes he doesn’t even know that he knows! I told Haldir how Eldarian had been surprised at his own knowledge when he’d told and shown us about Nerull, but he still thought Eldarian was lying to him. I reluctantly pointed out that this wouldn’t be his first deception, but that he should still trust Eldarian because if he is lying, it’s going to be for a good reason like it was for us with Malthos.

    Haldir said his deception would be easier to bear if he was a superior and not technically a subordinate, and that surprised me. I never thought he’d be one to put stock in hierarchies—doesn’t he realize that titles are only that? It could be just the stress of leadership causing him to say that, though. He even later admitted that he’s worried about his own decisions, and how to make the right ones. (I don’t envy him that; being a leader isn’t all people think it’s cracked up to be.) He’s always been a man that understands the weight of each action he takes so I’m not worried about him making the right choices; I just hope he has people to support him as he makes those decisions. I told him as much, and he seemed to appreciate it.

    I also asked him if he knew if Gimble was involved in the current war effort, and he told me he didn’t know; he’d have to ask Harkin. He offered to go ask for me, or to send me to Harkin to ask myself, but I told him not to bother. He and Harkin both have enough going on without satisfying my personal curiosity. As we said our goodbyes he asked me to do him a favor: to ask Eldarian about Aranal for him, the next time I saw him. I told him I would.

    I wanted to speak with Eldarian anyways about some things, so I kept Haldir’s request in mind as I sought him out. He’s surprisingly easy to find, even more than most people who use arcane magic. I think it’s because of that—feeling? aura?—around him that we elves can sense. Anyways I found him in Velarim City, looking at the old throne of the empire where many kings had sat, including Menalcar. It was a bit strange for be back here and looking at it; I hadn’t seen that throne since the day we won the city back and Harkin took his vows.

    Eldarian was happy to see me, and mentioned he was here to learn a bit more history. He also shared his thoughts about Emperor Velaryon himself—mostly he wondered why everyone seemed to love him, when he was a conqueror and even a tyrant. Personal charisma aside, I told Eldarian that it’s because Velaryon won. People who win are the ones who write history; my loss in Altrio and the piss-poor reputation I had in Essembra for so long because of it are proof enough of that.

    He agreed with that idea, and then wondered how the Legion would be remembered after all of this, and how he’d be remembered too. I told him that for him at least it depends on what he becomes more than anything, which I don’t think was very helpful because he said he doesn’t know what he wants to do with that, either. I suggested what Nightblade had told me: find a purpose, and hone yourself to it. He said Nightblade had told him exactly that (unsurprisingly), but that his advise could only do so much good, considering Nightblade isn’t a god. That’s a fair point.

    He also talked about his desire to learn more about his own powers, and what he wants to do after all of this. I’m still focusing on just surviving to the end of this war, but for someone like him it’s probably never too early to start thinking ahead. We talked for a bit about what Titus had said, about becoming a god (completely?) or making other people gods. He says he’s not sure if he can make mortals into gods but it might be possible, although he’s not sure if it’d be wise, either. He said more than anything right now he wants to learn the extent of his own abilities, so he can learn to help people better.

    He also really wants to learn how to heal, and I can understand that. Healing is the most immediate and obvious way to help another person… But he also wants to understand how life and death itself work. He mentioned that he’s frustrated by the fact that he has a lot of knowledge, but doesn’t always know when it’s right or wise to tell people things, or how much to tell them. Since it seemed close enough to the topic at hand I said it might be good to consider Haldir’s grief, at least, and desire for closure with his teacher’s death. He said he would consider it, but right now what he did know about Aranal and Caya’s death would only make things worse for Haldir. He said he didn’t know all the details because sometimes things are “fuzzy” when he knows them, but he thinks that as things are it could even make Haldir doubt his own faith. If that’s the case, I don’t blame him for keeping quiet for now.

    I also asked Eldarian if he could send me to Moondale, since Xaneak had wandered off after he’d brought me to Velarim city. He said he would, but first he did something surprising and thanked me for our conversation. He said it was nice to talk with someone as a regular mortal. That made me ha I’m glad I was able to give him some kind of comfort.

    He also made a joke about needing to consider where he’d put me in his new pantheon of gods, and I am so glad it was only a joke because I do not need or want that kind of power. I have a hard enough time knowing what decisions are the right ones as is, without mortals praying to me for intervention.

    Eldarian sent me to Moondale right outside Gimble’s bardic college, and I noticed right away that it’s less busy than it was before. It’s still in good repair, but there are far fewer students than there once were. I went to Gimble’s office, knowing I could either find or wait for him there, and the former happened. He was talking to some people but excused himself from them once he saw me, and shut the door behind them once they left to give us privacy.

    For a moment he just stared at me, and I couldn’t help but stare back. He looked so old. It’s been one thing to see Harkin, Linoir and Almod gradually age every few years over the past decade, but it’s been seven years since I saw Gimble last and I don’t think it’ll ever stop being strange and sad to see humans grow older so quickly.

    I weakly said hello, half-expecting another tirade like before, but instead he only asked me what I wanted. He sounded tired, not angry. I told him plainly I wanted to apologize, and hoped for forgiveness. I told him I was sorry for leaving, for not telling him why I left, and even for not having taken some things that he said to me seriously. I told him I wanted to be friends again if he was willing, because I value the friendship we had and we made something great together: a nation with real equality and merit. He said things could never be exactly the same between us, but I don’t mind that and I think we both know that’s for the better.

    He told me he already knew why I left; Raiden had come by a while ago and explained everything to him. He admitted he probably would have done the same thing if he’d been in my position, but he didn’t understand why I couldn’t have told him where I’d gone. When I told him I was afraid Caya would’ve killed him if I had, he seemed to understand.

    However he didn’t understand why I and the other Unifiers had been given the choice to fight for the Legion and not the rest of those in the Knights of Arda or Westrosi Special Forces; why “some fateless are better than others”. The idea that power makes someone somehow “better” isn’t a new one; I’ve heard it from many people. However, a true Dalesian—and Essembran—knows that power doesn’t make someone better than others: it gives them more responsibility to protect and help those who have less power. How else could a meritocracy function without becoming corrupt?

    Gimble was mostly satisfied with that answer, I think. He did also ask if he could speak with Eldarian, which I wasn’t expecting. I asked him why, and he said because he’d heard rumors that those who so much as meet him come away changed for the better. I pressed him a bit more and he admitted that in these past years he’s become unhappy teaching and feels like he’s stagnating. He loves seeing his students learn and grow and they adore him as a teacher, but once they leave he never hears from them again in any real way, and he can’t see the good he’s doing anymore. Peacetime has been hard on him, because he feels confined to a single place on Arda doing just one thing, and the people he used to fight against—the ruling class—are now some of his closest friends. He doesn’t know how to do good in the world any more, or what to fight for.

    I’d felt that same way not long ago, so I offered him what advice I could. I told him the best we can do is adapt, keeping the pieces of ourselves that work and tossing out those that don’t. I reminded him that change isn’t always bad, and that it’s possible to re-invent yourself while still staying true to yourself and your beliefs. I don’t know if I made much sense or helped at all, but he seemed less tense by the time I finished speaking. I also asked him when the last time he’d taken a break and spent time for himself was, and he admitted he couldn’t even remember. I suggested he take some time off to go riding with me and see at least part of the world he’d help make, since I wasn’t needed back at the Legion for a while and he obviously needed some kind of break. He thought about it, and then said he’d meet me in an hour.

    It was nice to spend time with Gimble again. Even if it was different from how it once was, that’s for the better and we both know it. He was quieter than he used to be, but I was able to goad him into to singing a song or two and even racing our horses. By the end of it he was honestly having fun! It was good to see him smile.

    Eventually we went back to the school and said goodbye to one another. The rift and the safehouse there aren’t too far, so I rode back instead of waiting for Xaneak or someone else to come get me. Hopefully it won’t be too long before our next assignment~

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    Melina: Added Complications

    Haldir didn’t have anything for us to do for nearly a week, so I spent the time exploring Sigil~ Alice came with, and since I didn’t have to worry about keeping anyone but myself hidden, I was able to go wherever I wanted. I kept a sharp eye out for the Great Kahn’s men but I doubt they’d have reason to look for us after what happened at his palace, and no one else showed any interest in me or Alice whenever I did decide to step out of the shadows.

    It was good to get out and stretch my legs, and spend some time by myself. I’ll never love a city more than Altrio, but Sigil is a good second place. It’s easy to get lost but each place I ended up had new things to explore and people to watch and gossip to listen to. I stopped back at the Safehouse often enough, and eventually Haldir did have an assignment for us.

    Before he gave us our assignment, though, he wanted us to read and sign a giant sheet of parchment he called “the Charter”. Normally I feel like those kinds of formalities are a waste of time at best, but once I read the Charter I changed my mind. It was all the things he’d spoken about to the Legion, but formalized and written down, with a few small things added. Haldir said we were free to not sign it, but we’d have to leave the Legion if we did. I could’ve signed it as a simple formality, of course, but I actually meant it when I put down my name. These are ideals I can strive to uphold.

    Once we all agreed to and signed the Charter, Haldir gave us a copy of it to hold on to and told us we’d be working with the Pantheon to “re-establish trust” with them. I know that’s just a necessary pretext but I didn’t say anything about it, especially because I’m fairly certain the Pantheon did genuinely need (or want) our help. Eldarian sent us to the Ring of Doom, where Andall was waiting for us. He told us the gods of the Pantheon were off fighting their own battles right now (we could see eight plumes of smoke from each direction) and that what he wanted from us was to help him defend the Ring, if we were all still able to pass Xaneak, D’vainor and I had taken before.

    Xaneak went first, and got the same result as last time. I went next, but it was different for me. I remember last time I’d gotten “Rafe”, the warrior. This time I got “Torm”, the father. Andall seemed intrigued by that, and after I stepped off the compass I asked Xaneak what it meant. Apparently Torm is the god of judgment and justice (his symbol was a gavel), and for me to be aligned with him now is something of an honor or compliment. Hearing that, I was just as surprised as Andall looked when he saw the change.

    Bazrik got the “mother” goddess of the Pantheon, whose symbol is a tree, which wasn’t surprising. Feyren went last, and the compass seemed to spin longer for her than it had for any of us. Eventually it settled on Mandos, the death god that we saved and that D’vainor spent so much time working with. I know I shouldn’t draw comparisons between them but it still makes me worry. At least Feyren doesn’t have the same sick fascination with necromancy.

    After we’d all taken the test, Alice, Feyren and I went to scout the southern half of the area while Xaneak set up fortifications and Bazrik gathered information about the northern half of the terrain. Alice had to help Feyren from getting lost while she followed me, but that’s to be expected. The area around the Ring was very pretty, but not very good for either of us to fight from; even the forests in the northern area weren’t dense enough to be much help.

    Fortunately most of the demons we fought weren’t even able to get close enough for that to be a problem. We handled the scouting groups that came our way every few days, and for about a week killed them easily enough. Then the sky went dark only above the ring, and at least a dozen meteors came crashing down! (There was lightning, too, which was even worse.) It happened so fast Andall wasn’t even able to raise the defenses of the Ring (we thought), and it didn’t help that the shadow-creatures that showed up weren’t something any of us but Feyren could hit.

    It was an awful fight, and I nearly died because one of the people we were fighting managed to pull me up into the sky itself and drop me, as well as reflect my own arrows back at me which wasn’t just dangerous but insulting. Fortunately Xaneak was able to turn the orc into a mouse which prompted them to call a retreat, and after that he helped me land safely and Bazrik healed my wounds. He healed Andall as well, since one of the shadow creatures had stabbed him through the chest.

    Andall set about repairing the Ring and put up every barrier within his power, and left the four of us to do what we wanted. A few days of this later and we heard the orc from the fight bellowing outside to the south. He wanted to parley with us, and threatened to unleash an even worse attack on the Ring if we refused. Andall said we should at least speak with him and find out what he and his allies wanted.

    Xaneak told the orc we’d meet him in an hour, and he gave us directions to where to meet. The four of us headed out, and met up with the orc and his companions soon enough. There were six more shadow creatures there, as well as a gaudily dressed dark elf who was rather prissy, too. He likes the sound of his own voice too much, but then again that’s not always a bad thing~ His name is Jordal, and the orc’s name is Titus. The dark elf also knew my name, which was somewhat surprising at first but then I remembered that all of us are becoming more known around Arda and the planes, so it only makes sense.

    Jordal said he and his “masters” could take the Ring right now, but the losses would be so significant that they’d rather bargain with us. Of course, he and his companions work for Ditrius and so we said no. He made a big show about regretting that we’d come to that decision, and generally said a lot of words without actually talking. Then he and Titus finally left, and once they were out of earshot I asked if I could just shoot them both now, but Xaneak said no because of “honor” and the need to “keep things simple”. For a mage he sure is an idiot, but being educated doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have common sense either. I just hope it doesn’t come back to hurt us later.

    When we got back to the Ring, the late Archmagister Xerxes was there and I went pale. I went even more pale when we saw he’d run Andall through again, and then blasted the four of us away from the ring. We ended up miles south from it, but hurried back all the same. When we arrived we found all the barriers had been put up, and neither Xaneak nor Bazrik were strong enough to break through them. I asked Xaneak if I could use his amulet that let him go back to the Safehouse, so I could get reinforcements from the Legion while the others kept an eye on the situation. He agreed, but the ass wasn’t able to hide the amusement and exasperation on his face as I struggled to get the damned thing to work.

    Finally I did get it to send me back to Sigil, although it startled me so much that I dropped it and of course Haldir saw that, but he at least he didn’t so much as smirk. After I explained the situation to him he sent Eldarian back with me. Once there, Eldarian easily broke through the barriers and helped us start to look around the inside the Ring. It was pitch black and empty, with no trace of Andall. Eldarian offered to search for him using his magic, and in the meantime said Xaneak could go and pursue the requests in letters we’d received, that he’d brought with and gave to us.

    Xaneak had gotten one that was supposedly from Mialee, asking for his council about New Essembra’s role in the coming war. I got one from Levtin, asking for me to come to our village so I could sign some papers regarding our house… He wanted to sell it so he could join the war effort. I was surprised by his letter for a number of reasons: normally his notes stay in Menros until I collect them, his tone was far too formal, he knew about the war, and most of all he wanted to join the effort for “the good of Arda”. Levtin is a kind, loyal man, but he’s never been one to think on the large scale. Even in Altrio he only joined because of myself and Jaelen, and the desire to be in the thick of history in the making. Still, if I of all people could broaden my horizons, I saw no reason why he couldn’t as well. I imagined if he’d asked Harkin or Linoir to send his letter directly to me they would’ve done so, too. I didn’t dwell too much on the other inconsistencies because it was his handwriting, as far as I could tell, and the thought of selling the house we’d grown up in made me somewhat upset. In retrospect I should have been more suspicious and at least brought someone with, but I like to keep my personal life private and saw no reason to bother anyone else with my affairs.

    Feyren stayed behind with Eldarian, while Bazrik and Xaneak went to New Essembra after they dropped me off in my village. I made my way to the tavern to meet Levtin, but instead of my brother I found my own shadow. It pulled itself off of me, and then turned into a female wood elf who sauntered over to a table and sat down. She spoke with an accent I’d never heard before, so I couldn’t tell where she was from. She was snooty, too, casually waving around all the facts she knew about me. She hadn’t harmed Levtin, though, which is what mattered. In fact she’d simply forged the letter, which explains why it didn’t sound like him at all.

    She introduced herself as Serlina, and didn’t mind showing off her ability to manipulate shadows. That makes her the bitch that’d dropped me from the sky, and shot my arrows back at me. She told me she and the others work for Ditrius, although when I pressed her for more information she eventually implied that they’re on their own side—that of the fateless. They’re working from the inside to stop Ditrius at least, which explains why she was so willing to insist that I stop working on my own so much, and be more careful with my visits to Arda: I need to get Xaneak to not just buff me, but ward me from enchantments, scrying, and spies. This war is on a scale far larger than that of the Second Unification War, and I can’t expect Arda to be a safe haven any longer.

    She also said that I in particular have been a thorn in Ditrius’s side, which surprised me. How have I done more to harm him and his forces than anyone else involved in this war effort? I’ll need to look into that, as well as how she knows so much. She seemed to know everything about me, from my former friendship with D’vainor and his eventual betrayal to my favorite drink. I don’t like it, and I don’t like its implications. I didn’t feel too bad about what she wanted from us, though, which was simply a copy of the Charter in exchange for Andall. She and the others want to know more about our Legion, probably to determine if they want to work more closely with us or not. I told her I’d speak with the others first, and she told me Jordal was already off speaking with Xaneak and Bazrik now. Still, I wanted time so she gave us twenty-four hours to send a copy to a location she wrote down for me.

    After that she left, and soon enough Bazrik and Xaneak came to collect me. They told me that Jordal wanted the same as Serlina had, but also mentioned that he’d stressed the importance of us four becoming a more cohesive team. He’s probably right about that much, but we didn’t dwell on it just then. Instead we went back to the Ring, and after explaining the situation to Feyren we all agreed to give them a copy of the Charter. Not more than an hour or so after we put it in the designated place, Eldarian was able to find Andall and we brought him back to the Ring. Once he was back to tending it, it seemed as if it almost returned to life—the insides lit up again, and filled with all the things that’d been there before.

    We all returned to the Safehouse afterwards, and told Haldir about our mission. He considered it a success, and said he’d have his prophet Raiden look into Serlina, Titus, Jordal and Xerxes. Nightblade happened to be there while we debriefed, and I asked him if he would be helping gather information; he said only if Haldir told him to. I told him that if he did, he should consider talking to Lady Veraxis—and that if he can’t find her, he should look for things other than her face. He asked me if Arya had told me to tell him that, and I smiled because of course he’d have found that out, but he didn’t take my good humor or affirmation kindly and snapped at me for doubting him in the first place. I should have cut my losses then but I asked him when my next lessons would be, and he very irately told me I wouldn’t have more until I’d mastered the first two and proved myself “worthy”.

    That’s fair, but still frustrating. I know at least I finally have the first lesson mastered: the freedom of Arda and creation is my cause and my purpose, something I’d give my life for and intend to continue serving even after this war. I could still work more on being more precise with my strikes, though, and focusing more on single targets… Although for all my skill and practice, I can still only strike people within sixty feet or less with my most deadly accuracy. I should probably practice my stealth in combat even more so I can get in closer, more safely.

    After that Haldir said our next assignment would be with Arymyr, also called the Knight Below the Earth. He wants our help once we have the chance, probably with the Mindflayers. I’ve wondered for a while when we’d hear from him again. Before that though, Xaneak asked Haldir for a week for us to work with one another and become a more cohesive team. Haldir didn’t see a problem with that, so after discussing where to go Xaneak warded us and we went to The Rift.

    I was very happy to be back in The Dales, even it was nowhere near civilization. Feyren and I both do very well in the mountains, after all. That aside, it was… an interesting week. We spent our time learning more about one another, telling in detail stories from our pasts and what we aspire to. It felt a bit strange to go into such detail about some things, but it wasn’t bad. I know talking about some of my exploits would have felt like opening up old wounds once, but I’ve made peace with most of my failures now.

    I learned a lot about the others in return, and it was nice to get a truer sense for what all of them stand for, especially Bazrik and Feyren. I also feel like living with and depending on one another for even such a short time helped us learn things we couldn’t put into words, too: Bazrik wants to prove himself, Xaneak is temperamental and afraid of himself, and Feyren is trying to reconcile her life as a monk with serving the outside world. We still have a ways to go with understanding and trusting one another, but it’s a good start.

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