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  1. #11
    Paladin Quaxo9 is offline Quaxo9's Avatar
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    Jun 2004
    The Great White North
    Northern Heritage – Part 2

    Despite their chilly reception, the travelling company soon found themselves with lodgings in the Norn stronghold. A single tent was enough to house them all with room to spare. Hermand was clearly pleased with how things were progressing, though no terms had yet been set in so much as trade. They had been welcomed into the community and he had a meeting with Gunnar himself when the man returned from his hunt.

    Whenever that may be. Hermand had asked several people when they thought the hunting party would return and they had merely laughed saying ‘whenever they have caught their prey’ or some such thing. It was frustrating to him. He was a well-respected member of the merchant community. As such, people usually came to him. Still, the man he wished to see was Norn – and clearly the race deserved a great deal of respect – so Hermand was willing to wait.

    This arrangement couldn’t have suited Constance any better. Her greatest fear was to arrive only to turn around and return to Yak’s Bend having learned nothing. Father had instructed her to remain in the tent, but she had no intention of missing out on the biggest adventure of her young life. Young Connie left as soon as his back was turned, ducking out the rear of the tent by squirming under the wall.

    Once outside, the young girl realized she had no idea where to start. There were so many people – and she didn’t come up to the knees of the shortest of them. In the end, she did what she did best. She watched and listened. In a moment, her ears picked up a familiar sound. Well, not so much a familiar sound, but a familiar…series of sounds. Stories had a cadence about them, no matter the teller. A smile floated over her face and she dashed off in the direction of the voice. Finally! A real Norn storyteller!

    Constance slowed as she approached, looking for a place to sit where she’d be inconspicuous should her father come looking for her. There was a small knot of what she assumed to be Norn children sitting in a semi-circle around a huge man with a massive set of horns arcing out of his helmet. She couldn’t fit in with them, but she could sit beside the post at the top of the stairs. It was so big that the human could fit comfortably into the corner. She wrapped her robe about her for comfort rather than warmth and sat cross-legged on the ground.

    The stories. Oh, the stories. Every tale was greater than the last. The teller’s voice pounded in her ears, impressing every detail into her youthful mind. She ate it up hungrily, as though these words alone could sustain her. All too soon the great story teller said he was through and his audience let out a collective sigh, though they knew better than to complain. The children started filing off in groups, but with purpose, like they knew exactly where they were going. Constance wasn’t exactly sure what to do next when she was startled by a voice directly above her head.

    “Hey you. Human. We hear you have Norn blood in your line. You should come with us.” The boy leered down at her from where he stood, moving to face her as she walked around the pillar.

    “She is perhaps too young, Gysir.” murmured a girl standing in the small group behind him. She didn’t seem too impressed by the human’s presence, nor by her claims.

    “Of course, how old are you, girl?”

    Constance stood her ground before the towering boy and jutted out her chin just a little. “I am old enough. I will come with you.” The boy let out a hearty laugh and stopped just short of tousling her hair. The human had spirit. This was going to be fun. The girl had to run to keep pace with them, but she kept up admirably enough – and surprisingly didn’t ask where they were going. The group soon wound their way to a circle painted on the ground, where a woman waited with arms crossed.

    “You are late.”
    “Apologies, Teacher. We were picking up a new student.” Gysir pushed Constance to the front of the pack and she tried not to look like she had been running as hard as she had. There was something in the eyes of the Norn woman that made her a little bit scared – which only made her bolder. She set her jaw and nodded to indicate her wilful inclusion in … whatever it was they were doing. The child received a raised eyebrow before the master decided to continue class as usual.

    “Today’s class will be in tracking. Not all prey will come to you and you will not always kill your prey on the first blow. Attend your armour and weapons and meet me at the gate before the ninth horn.”

    A few of the children scattered off to retrieve said items, but a few circled around Constance. “What are we going to do with her? She has no armour…” began one, but Gysir cut him off. “She’s no bigger than a dwarf. We’ll borrow some from Kilroy. I’m sure he won’t mind. It’s for the hunt.” The others nodded and the older boy winked down at Constance. “Come on. Retta the Patient earned her name well, but she won’t wait for us.”

    Constance’s heart was racing with excitement. They were including her in a hunt! The fact that her father would be furious with her running off outside the Hold never crossed her mind. She barely felt the weight of the armour on her shoulders – and again it didn’t really occur to her how the boy procured it – and there was even a wooden buckler and sword for her to use! The buckler was actually a boss from an unfinished shield, and the sword was a knife, but to a child’s eye these things were the very trappings she’d always wished for.

    There was some laughter among the group when she arrived with Gysir, but a glare from their instructor silenced them just as quickly. “Are you sure she’s called Retta the Patient?” Constance couldn’t resist asking, though it was more out of curiosity than impertinence. The children nearest her snickered, which made her beam. She was really a part of this! Out the door and into the snow they ran and she had never felt quite so alive. The first breaths she took of the wind-socked air felt like her very first. It felt so good to have people around her who did what she liked to do.

    Retta spoke sparingly, but always with great impact. Her charges, for all their teasing, hung on her every word. They were eager to impress and in a rush to earn their names. Constance was right there with the rest – for the first while. The snow was deep, the armour heavy. She couldn’t even walk in the boot prints of those ahead of her due to their incredible width, and for every step of theirs she made three or four. Every time she started to lag behind, Constance could feel their looks on her. It was painfully obvious that she was not in the same league as the rest.

    Every time her energy flagged, her pride pushed her onward. She was not going to be the one who slowed everyone down. She would not bring dishonour to her family by quitting or being weak. The fierce determination in her eyes was likely the only thing that saved her from more outward derision from the other students. Finally, their teacher signalled for a stop. She pointed into the snow, a hunter’s smile shading her face.

    “Look here. Who can tell me what made these tracks?”


    Constance’s comparatively small voice piped up from the rear. The Norn children chuckled and Retta was about to ask someone else when she noticed where the girl was looking. The Norn Warrior let out a yell and turned into the hail of snow exploding from the earth – open-jawed Mandragor Scavengers within. The students, though caught unawares, were not caught unprepared. The skirmish was short, though the group was not without injury. All of the young ones were breathing hard as the air cleared and they surveyed their victory.

    “Where is the human?” The colour fell away from Gysir’s face, though he hadn’t been the first to notice Constance’s absence. A quick look about didn’t reveal the immediate location of the girl, but a listening ear did. A muffled sound was coming from under the corpse of a Mystic Mandragor and all at once, they knew what had happened. Retta put her shoulder to the hulking mass and rolled it over, half expecting to find the human child expired. Instead, she came eye to eye with the hilt of Connie’s knife where she’d buried it in the beast before it had died and trapped her under its weight. The girl had been harmlessly pressed into the soft snow. Even her greatest detractor couldn’t deny the girl’s courage.

    No names had been made during the day, but the young party was in good spirits when they returned. Young storytellers were practicing the tale, with some embellishments of course, and Constance was simply glad to be getting back. They had gone at an easier pace on the way home, not that the child had noticed. She would have had to be carried had they been any further from their goal. Kilroy was waiting for them when the returned and Gysir managed to obtain the spare piece of armour from Constance without letting her know of the dwarf’s wrath.

    In fact, Constance didn’t know exactly how she had gotten into her bed when she woke up the next morning.
    Winner of the dubious Vaarsuvius Award for Verbousness!

    I support altruism.

  2. #12
    Count / Countess Tigers is offline Tigers's Avatar
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    A Norn by any other name....

    A Norn by any other name....

    Sonja Redflame

    The Battle for Lion's Arch was over, things had settled down, at least for the time being. Sonja found most of her companion's doing the same as many of her guild sister's were pregnant with child or had recently given birth. This left the half Norn restless, it was time to do some more traveling while the others settled into family routines. It was time to go home.

    She packed light, she always did when she traveled. Even with all the so called refinement from her barbarian ways, she never saw the need to travel with more than she could carry. She could do all the things the Norn could do, she could provide for herself. Sonja had learned as a child and it was something she never forgot. After the celebrations, the ceremonies and the search for Logan Thackery, Sonja left for the Shiverpeaks.

    She would take her time in her travels, working her way through the Shiverpeaks, to one place in particular. A place she hadn't been in a long time, it held bad memories, and it had meant a terrible change in her life. Would her mother's grave still be there after all these years? Would time and the elements themselves have worn away at the marker? It was time to face her demons, to confront her painful past.

    She would travel to her mother's gravesite before heading on to Olafstead and then Sifhalla. There she would acquire the proper clothing for the Shiverpeaks. Until then, she would wear her Asuran and Kurzick made armor. Winter was a year round event in the Shiverpeaks, and the human part of her would have to acclimate to the constant cold. But the moment that Sonja stepped out into the brisk cool air and felt the tingle of cold on her skin, she smiled, she was home.

    It would be a day's travel to where her mother had died and already the land was heavy with winter's snow. A storm was brewing, one that Sonja needed to stay ahead of or be delayed in her travels. She moved quickly across the snow covered frozen land, knowing that she would need to remain quiet and careful through this avalanche laden land. The Elementalist had crested the hill to where her mother had been swept away so long ago. The outcropping of rock jutting out of the side of the mountain, the rock that had saved her from her mother's fate.

    It was then she heard the familiar rush, looking up instinctively at what she knew would be coming. An avalanche had been triggered further up the mountainside. One that could easily have been caused by a pebble or a tiny field mouse running across a precarious patch of loose snow. The Elementalist never had time to run, no sooner had she turned her eyes upward then she heard and felt the sounds of the moving rock that had struck her.
    "RUN!" The rock yelled as it struck her full force.

    Except it wasn't a giant rock, it was a man, a Norn to be exact and all that Sonja remembered after that was the pain of her ribs cracking upon the impact of his blow and the feel of tumbling headlong down the mountainside. Her next memory was slow awakening of her senses, first pain, the pain of drawing a simple breath. Followed by that were the sounds of a crackling fire, the smell of burning wood and a hot meal and the feel of animal fur against her...bare skin.

    Her eyes opened slowly, adjusting to the light of the room she was in, the echoing sound of dripping water and the smell of damp earth further filling in the blanks of her location. She tried to stir, but the pain brought her up short, slowly she moved her arms to confirm her earlier thought. Her top was no longer on, replaced by the tight wrappings of the bandage around her upper chest. Sonja gave a momentary raise of the eyebrow with a bit of displeasure.

    "Finally, you are awake. I thought you would sleep through the entire winter." A deep voice replied from further in the room.

    Only as her eyes took in more of her environment did Sonja realize it wasn't really a room at all. It appeared to be a cave, large enough to support herself and the mystery voice out of her sight. Regaining some of her faculties, Sonja's mouth responded in kind.

    "Enjoy the view?"

    Stubbornly she went to sit up, so she could get a view of this man in the room with her, but she had not sooner reached halfway up into a sitting position than her world began to swim and the painful reminder of broken ribs put her in her place. There was a short chortle from the other side of the cave.

    "Either you are very brave for a human, or very foolish. If I were to pick, I would have to say foolish. What human would be foolhardy enough to travel the Shiverpeaks alone in the dead of winter? Then insult the one who saves her life only by trying to undue any healing you need by moving around like a fidgety child."

    "Not that it is any of your concern, or your business, but I was raised in the Shiverpeaks. I am Half Norn." Sonja said with obvious pride.

    Her response was met by another bark of laughter. Sonja felt a little off balance and vulnerable, a feeling she did not like at all and had sworn never to allow herself to be in again.

    "Well, half-Norn, that would explain the reason why you are taller than most humans I see in these parts. And why you were not bundled up with dozens of layers of clothing."

    Sonja could not see, but her companion had a smile on his face, even if his tone belied the smile.

    "And, you would know that information on a more personal level." Sonja retorted.

    "Normally I would know the name of a man who has had his hands in places that would require an invitation." The Elementalist continued.

    More laughter was met in response to Sonja's remarks. This one had fire, surly as fiery as the color of her hair.

    "I am known by many names, Völund the Bold, Völund the Large, Völund the Daring..."

    Sonja raised an eyebrow, Völund the Large, a quip was on her tongue despite the fact that it could mean anything at all. In truth, Völund was well muscled and had thus earned the name for his crafts, but the Elementalist had other thoughts.

    " Völund the Large, is that the name the Norn women have given you."

    Sonja's comment was met with a roar of laughter. It wasn't clear if she had meant it as an insult, but her companion had found it amusing none the less.

    "Yes, you are Norn, only a Norn woman would speak so boldly and act so stubbornly."

    Whatever Sonja's intent, his final acknowledgment of her heritage had cooled the fire within. A brief smile touched her face.

    "I am Sonja Redflame." The Elementalist finally replied.

    "Ah, Redflame, I have heard that name before. You are the daughter of Hildr and as legend tells a Norn of immense beauty and strength. Your human father must have been some kind of man to capture a Norn woman of your mother's quality. A lucky man. It also seems her daughter has taken after her, in both strength and beauty."

    It was a compliment, one she had heard many times by many men. One that would have been met by the Elementalist's quick witted tongue. Should she have expected no less from a Norn man, especially one that has been called bold? Instead of a quick witted remark, Sonja took another road, again daring to sit up. This time managing a good look at her companion. A part of her was still angry at having been caught in such an awkward predicament, but she couldn't also continue to be ungrateful. When she saw her companion for the first time, Sonja's eye arched at the muscular Norn crouched beside the fire. His hair was a strawberry blond, as if the sun and moon had come to quarrel, and his dark blue eyes framed a handsome face.

    For a moment, a thought rushed through her mind, one that would make Mara blush and excuse herself from the room. But reality of her situation brought more sobering thoughts and Sonja final spoke.

    "If you will hand me my clothes I'll be on my way. You have my thanks for bandaging my wounds."

    "You might as well lay back and rest, you won't be going anywhere. You were out for days, the storm has over taken us and it has been snowing heavily since. I'm afraid we are stuck here for awhile."

    A bit of irritation returned to the Elementalist's face. It wasn't a ploy to try and keep her here, she knew, she herself had been trying to stay ahead of the storm. The cave was shelter, likely their home for a good many weeks. Sonja glanced at Völund, she would see the seriousness in his face and know that they were trapped for the time being. Again her eyebrow arched at the realization she was stuck here with a man she barely knew and besides the handsome face and well built body, it was likely Sonja could find him irritating. If this were the case, it would be a long wait indeed.
    Last edited by Tigers; 02-21-2011 at 01:56 PM.
    Peace is a lie
    There is only passion
    Through passion I gain strength
    Through strength I gain power
    Through power I gain victory
    Through victory my chains are broken
    The Force shall set me free

  3. #13
    Count / Countess Tigers is offline Tigers's Avatar
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    A Norn by any other name....cont...

    A Norn by any other name....cont...

    This was how their first meeting had started. In the weeks to follow, the two would slowly begin to learn more about the other. Sonja often responding with her quick witted tongue and Völund simply responding with laughter. At times he found her stubborn and at times Sonja found him irritating with his laughter to her responses. There wasn't many things that the Elementalist feared, but a realization of one came to her in that cave with this Norn. Relationships, she had always avoided anything serious, allowed others to believe whatever they chose about her.

    She was at least half Norn, and that part of her did not care what others thought of her. But the human side, the side that was often controlled by her more inner emotions had discovered the fear. A fear of love, a fear of commitment. She was a strong believer in these things, of love, commitment, loyalty, but it had been clouded by a father's abandonment. And Sonja had feared falling into the same trap of her family, the idea of a child being abandoned after the death of a partner had kept her at arm's length from any real commitment over the years.

    But as the weeks passed, Sonja dreaded losing the small piece of world that she and Völund had been introduced too. They had everything they ever needed, plenty of food, a natural hot spring they had uncovered while exploring deeper into the cave, safety, warmth and most of all, companionship. Slowly she had regained her strength, using her craft to encourage a natural healing within her body. The wrappings were no longer needed, and Sonja had to admit she missed Völund's touch as he helped her with her bandages.

    They maybe had a week at most before they could travel and leave this little world they had lived in. Völund was already talking about where he would go but even the he sounded unenthusiastic about leaving. Sonja felt an aching, it was more in her heart than in her side.

    " Völund, would you take a look at my rib. It has been giving me trouble and I can't not see it to tell and it feels as if it is healing."

    Sonja took Völund's hand and placed it upon her back to show him which rib. A shiver ran through her as she felt his hand gently glide along the rib. He examined the skin, no bruising, no deviation, nothing that he could see that would be causing her current ailment. But it wasn't really her rib, the pain was more in her heart. Sonja had always been bold, but she found herself treading on unfamiliar ground, unfamiliar feelings. The risk she was taking, was it a warranted one, one that would be worth the risk?

    " Völund the Brave, I have discovered your weakness, where your fears are. It is the same as mine." Sonja said as he came to face her.

    "So I shall be bold for the both of us." She whispered.

    Sonja made no secret as to her intentions, and to her delight and relief it was reciprocated. They had found home, it was with each other. Everything they did from this moment on would be a joint adventure, one filled with sarcasm and laughter, love and contentment. Sonja had found peace and happiness in the very valley where she had lost it so long ago. It was her mother's greatest gift to her upon her return home. She had survived it all and come out better than ever. But it was to be expected, she was Norn after all and the Norn were survivors.
    Last edited by Tigers; 02-21-2011 at 10:06 AM.

  4. #14
    Paladin Quaxo9 is offline Quaxo9's Avatar
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    Jun 2004
    The Great White North
    Northern Heritage – Part 3

    There were many things the Flame Bard had not anticipated, and his daughter’s behaviour was one of them. As much as Constance was strong-willed, she had always obeyed him. He wasn’t entirely sure what had possessed her upon entering this land, but Hermand definitely didn’t like it. The first time he left her in the tent, telling her to stay there, he should have known better. The girl hadn’t met his eyes and had only nodded once. He should have known better.

    When he had returned to the tent later in the day, Constance wasn’t there. None of his party had seen the girl leave – which meant that no one knew where she was, either. A brief moment of panic was quelled by a burning anger. How dare she show such little regard for her father? How would it look to the Norn if he couldn’t even keep his own daughter in line? It simply wasn’t good for business.

    As the day went on with not a hair to be seen of his child, Hermand’s anger grew. If Constance wanted to go running around, she could do it at home. He wasn’t sure what possessed him to bring her along in the first place. Had he taken time to think on it, the man surely would have recalled a pair of pleading blue eyes and a hopeful grin as his daughter asked for the favour. That train of thought was unlikely, however, as a Norn girl arrived at his tent door – his daughter asleep in her arms. She passed off her cargo without a word and Hermand didn’t express any either. He was saving them for someone else.

    If he could have roused the child, he would have unleashed his anger in full. Constance, however, was down for the count. He wondered what she had been up to – her hair was matted down with sweat and dark circles lined her eyes – obviously whatever it was had completely exhausted her. The girl didn’t stir when he took her from the Norn, nor did she when he placed her on the bed. Against his better judgement, Hermand let his child sleep the rest of the day and the night away.

    He left the tent to procure some food and ale, and returned in a much better state of mind. For a long while, he just sat and looked at the small, pale, fragile thing lying in a bed so enormous she could be lost for a day simply in the bedding. This child of his didn’t belong in this place. What had possessed him? She had an iron-strong heart, but even iron could be crushed when it met rock.

    That was what he liked about her, though. Well, not always liked, but understood. She had a fierce will that equalled his – though Hermand was certain she got it from her mother – and that will was what compelled him to leave well enough alone. If she got in over her head, then all the better. It would be a lesson well learned. There was something to be said about learning things the hard way – and Terpeins in particular seemed to take to this route. In time, she’d learn that her father knew what was best and would follow in the family traditions of elemental manipulation. Perhaps this little trip was what she needed to settle her down.


    An evening and a night’s rest proved enough to return Constance to a wakeful state. Her father snored behind her, his arm curved over her in what she imagined to be a protective fashion. It would have been nicer if his breath hadn’t stunk of ale, but Constance would take whatever she could get. At least when he was asleep he wasn’t shouting and she could relish the feeling of being close to him.

    She was awake, and arm or no, she was getting out of bed. It took her a few minutes to carefully worm herself out from under the heavy blanket so as not to wake her father. He would surely keep her from leaving the tent. That thought gave her pause. Would he really be angry with her for going out? Constance bit her lip, a small crisis of conscience taking place, but in the end decided that if he had been upset that he would have told her so. The girl grabbed a scrap of bread and a piece of cheese and slipped out between the tent flaps.

    It didn’t take long to locate her new friends. A few of them seemed surprised to see her, but Gysir only laughed and said, “Back for more, are you?” The girl only smiled a toothy grin and made a spot for herself in the circle.

    “That’s it. I can’t take it anymore. Gysir, you have to tell her.” It was the girl from before. The one who said Constance didn’t look old enough. The human’s brow furrowed, lips tightening to avoid making a pout.

    “Tell me what?”

    “That he only asked you along to make fun of you. You don’t belong here – or with us. You should have figured that out yesterday.”

    Try as she might, Constance couldn’t keep her face from falling. “Oh.” was the only response she could get out. Tears started to form in her eyes, which helped her switch from disappointed to angry.

    “Then I guess I’m just stupid.” She spun around and stalked away, head held high until she got behind a row of tents. Only then did she cry. Crying was for babies, but she couldn’t help it. She had hoped – dreamed – of belonging here. That maybe she could finally fit in. She really was stupid to think that she could keep up with the Norn kids. They were so much bigger than her…

    The girl’s fighting spirit didn’t allow her to stay wallowing in self pity for long. Bigger didn’t always mean better. She’d seen that before – in the arena. A large man would walk into the ring and a short, skinny man would be he opponent. The first time, Constance had assumed the latter was a gonner, but he quickly proved her wrong. The other man may have been big and strong, but he was slower. The small man defeated him easily and now she knew where to use that lesson.

    She could prove that she was worthy to be in their group.

  5. #15
    Shadows and Walls: Anakita Snakecharm

    It was the last day of the Canthan New Year festival ushering in the Year of the Rabbit, and Anakita was pleasantly exhausted. She and her family had spent the last three days playing festival games, lighting fireworks, eating too much sugar, and finally joining the great feast while awaiting the appearance of the Celestial Rabbit. Anakita and Stefan had consumed an enjoyable amount of alcohol during the celebration, of course, while the children had hyped themselves up on the insanely sweet Blue Sugary Drinks which, just once a year, they weren't required to exercise moderation with. It had been fun for all of them.

    Now they were almost ready to go back to Kryta. Anakita just had one more task. She needed to visit a few of the guild halls in their alliance, and drop off crates of celebratory fireworks. It was a mindless chore, and she was eager to get it done with.

    She arranged passage with the Canthan Ambassador, and throughout the boat trip her mind was preoccupied with the mundane household tasks waiting for her and Stefan at home. Anakita glanced around at Frozen Isle, Hunter's Isle, and Isle of Meditation, taking in the new scenery with some interest but mainly focused elsewhere.

    The boat landed on Wizard's Isle. Anakita wondered which wizard. The Ranger hoped he or she wasn't the cranky and fire-blasting type. Tired from the festivities, Anakita was making an effort not to trip over her own feet, so she barely looked up.

    The thought crossed her mind that the stonework she was treading on looked very familiar. Her eyes scanned upward from the ground, and suddenly she drew in her breath with an audible gasp.

    It looked just like Ascalon! Not like Ascalon now, a sand-blasted ruin, but the Ascalon of her girlhood, the Ascalon where she had been formed. Everything was the same. The grey stonework, the maples in greens, reds, and yellows, the slightly tilted arches, the clear blue sky.

    Whoever had landscaped this island had rendered Ascalon before the Searing in perfect detail.

    Anakita couldn't breathe. She felt like she had gone back in time. The Ranger dropped to her knees, gasping, wondering if she had spontaneously developed asthma... then she realized she was choking on her own tears, which were falling in the thick hot veil down her face.

    She couldn't remember the last time she had cried for Ascalon. It had been years. She felt stabs of missing it from time to time, but she knew that her home was gone, never to return. Anakita had nodded agreement with those who spoke of reclaiming and rebuilding, but in her secret heart, she had wrapped Ascalon up and packed it away, a memory of the past rather than a hope for the future.

    Kryta was her home now. That had been a conscious decision. Anakita had needed a place to belong, an anchor to this world rather than the hereafter, a place to raise her children in peace and fresh air rather than living on ashes and ghosts. Ascalon was gone. Grieved for and gone.

    Of course, that was easy to say when she couldn't see it.

    She hadn't seen Ascalon since the Searing, not really. Not her Ascalon, just the charred rock that had taken its place. Looking at this island that was so alike, Anakita was shocked at how crushing her emotions were.

    It was gone. All gone. Seeing this fraction reminded her of the enormity of their loss. The land, the people. The people's joy. They had lost their innocence and nothing would ever be the same. Anakita sat doubled over, sobbing, as she thought of it.

    The Canthan Ambassador and the Sigil Trader were approaching the crouching Ranger, worried. Perhaps they thought she was ill. Anakita waved them off.

    "Go away. I'm fine. Just give me a minute."

    She didn't take the full sixty seconds she had requested. In half that time, she was on her feet with a faint scrape of soft leather as heaved herself up off the stone pavement.

    Without a word she hefted the crate of fireworks onto the dock, stepped back into the boat, and waited to be returned to the mainland.

    She didn't look back.


    Anakita was quiet that night, aside from a deceptively businesslike explanation to Stefan of what she had seen on Wizard's Isle.

    Hours later, they were lying in bed, and Stefan could tell she was still bothered. His attempts at getting her to discuss her feelings had been met with monosyllabic responses, though, so he had wisely let the matter drop, waiting till she was ready to come to him with her problems.

    "I feel guilty," Anakita said, seeming to be speaking more to the darkness than to Stefan.

    "Anakita, I know you're used to being the hero, but there's nothing you could have done to prevent the Searing. There was nothing anyone except the Charr--"

    "That's not what I feel guilty about!" Anakita snapped. "See, this is the whole problem. That that was the first thing you thought of. That shows I'm right to feel this way!"

    Stefan rolled over and propped himself up on his arm. "You know I love you, but right now I have no idea what the hell you're talking about, Anakita."

    She was silent for a long time, and Stefan started to wonder whether she was too annoyed to reply, or whether she had just fallen asleep.

    Finally, she spoke, still with an angry edge, her voice raised slightly, although not enough to wake the children.

    "I wasn't happier!"

    "What do you mean?"

    Now, abruptly, her voice was so low it was hard for him to hear her.

    "I wasn't happier before the Searing," Anakita confessed. "Everyone else was. Everyone else wishes it was still the same, because they were happier then, but I wasn't. I was all alone except Azh. I didn't have family who wanted to know me. I had acquaintances, but no friends except little Gwen. I didn't want there to be a Searing, and it was trauma and we all lost so much... but it happened. I was content before but I wasn't happier, and I don't wish it back. That's why I feel guilty. Because everyone else wishes it back and I don't!"

    Stefan was quiet for a moment too, choosing his words carefully. "I wasn't happier either. I don't wish it back. That's a waste. I'd rather live in the present."

    "You know what the most selfish part is?" Anakita sounded almost amused with herself, in a self-blaming way. "I can't help thinking that if the Searing hadn't happened, you wouldn't be lying here beside me. You'd be sleeping in someone else's bed. Am I supposed to wish for that?"

    "No. You don't have to wish for anything to be different. But Anakita, the Searing didn't cause me to end up with you. If you recall, I met you as a child, and then I met you again as an adult before the Searing. Granted, not long before, but we did have those few minutes..."

    Anakita shook her head. "If it wasn't for the Searing, you would have had more options. You could have found some other girl from Ascalon. Maybe you wouldn't have chosen me, if our nation hadn't been decimated. You can't know."

    "Yes I would. I do know! When I saw you at the Ascalon Academy, it was a done deal for me. Not just because rocks fell out of the sky twenty minutes later."

    "It doesn't bother you that I wasn't happier before?"

    "Not at all. Believe me, not at all. For some of us... the life after doesn't mean less than the life before. You're still living. Not just alive, but living. That's not a bad thing."

    "Are you sure?"

    "Yes. I wasn't happier, either. And that's the truth."

    Anakita nodded, and wrapped her arms around him. All night she dreamed of grey stone and maple trees disintegrating into ash and rubble.
    Last edited by Monkey Kitty; 09-16-2013 at 02:50 AM.
    "Sleep to dream, and we dream to live..." -Great Big Sea

  6. #16
    Paladin Quaxo9 is offline Quaxo9's Avatar
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    Jun 2004
    The Great White North
    Northern Heritage – Part 4

    It was going to be difficult to do something worthy of Norn attention when she had no armour or weapons of her own. She wasn’t even sure of where Gysir had gotten the items from for yesterday’s adventure. Still, Constance was determined to make her way into that circle of people. That girl had said she didn’t belong, but the thing was that she felt more like she belonged here than in Yak’s Bend. She could understand the people here better than her own family, it seemed. At the very least, they seemed to find the same things important.

    That was why she had to succeed.

    There was a high crest behind Gunnar’s Hold. A large mountain of craggy spires and monstrous possibility. To Constance’s young eyes, it was the biggest mountain she’d ever seen, therefore it was the biggest mountain in existence. She was going to climb that mountain and make a name for herself. How couldn’t they recognize such a feat?

    The girl studied the cliff face behind the fires of Gunnar’s great hall from a secluded nook above most of the encampment. It wasn’t going to be an easy climb – but that was the point. Unfortunately, it didn’t look like she could start from the Hold itself due to the massive chasm between it and the mountain. She would have to go outside of camp and come at it from another side if she was going to make any headway. Climbing all the way down just to climb back up would be a waste of time and supplies.

    Supplies. She would need food for the journey and a blanket to make a tent. A knife and flint could also be helpful – if not to make a fire to keep her warm at night, to light something at the top of the mountain to declare her triumph. Constance was certain it would only take her two days to make the journey and snuck into the Terpein living quarters to acquire enough bread and cheese for the trip there and back. She considered asking around for armour, but decided that it would only alert the wrong people to what she was planning and slow down her ascent.

    The Norn didn’t seem accustomed to watching out for tiny creatures such as human children at their gates. That was what Constance considered as she crept past the guard into the vast expanse of white. The man at the shrine surely could have seen her, though the child’s skin and hair were nearly the colour of the snow itself. The snow didn’t seem as deep now that she wasn’t weighed down by a breastplate and shield. All she had for insurance against an attack by wild beasts were her size, her sleight movements, and the tiny knife strapped to her thigh. Her odds of success were high in her books – a child’s enthusiasm coupled with a warrior’s spirit – and she did make good time rounding the base of mountain.

    There had been no packs of Mandragor, no roaming ice golems and no wolf packs. Things were going well and Constance threw herself into the climb with gusto. A mountain eagle soared above her, but she only watched it for a moment before continuing onward. As she climbed, the wind picked up its speed and began hurtling past her to imbed ice like shards of glass in her skin. The girl had never felt the cold until now. Untying her bundle, she tossed the blanket around her like a cloak and carried her meagre foodstuffs in its smaller skin pack. The arrangements were not ideal, as she soon found she needed her arms free to climb up the larger rock faces. The path-like orientation of the lower-lying stone had been a false indication of what the climb would be like further up.

    Eventually, the wind had gotten too strong for her to carry on. Her food pack had unravelled and been lost in the swirling white. All Constance could do was pull herself into a crevice and wait for the wind to die down. Her spirits were suffering by this point. She must be getting close to the top for the wind to be so fierce. The gnawing in her stomach reminded her that she hadn’t eaten much that day, but she only hugged her knees tighter to her chest and thought of victory.


    The child raised her head. Did she really hear her name through the whistling of the wind passing over her primitive shelter? She stared intently out into the snow, straining her ears to hear what she thought she heard.

    “Constance, where are you?”

    An eagle’s cry sounded directly above her, causing the child to jump and stare upward, drawing her knife. The bird’s black eyes studied her intently before its beak opened to release another scream-like call. She could hear them now – footfalls on hard-packed snow, rocks pulling away from the face as fingers looked for holds – and soon enough white wisps of breath were floating into her space.

    “There you are! Why were you hiding?” Gysir’s face appeared in its typical jovial mien, though the child before him completely missed the layers of concern hidden within.

    “I wasn’t hiding.” Constance firmly stated, unravelling herself and standing up within the confines of the rock walls. “I was waiting for the wind to die down.” Her chin jutted forward in defiance of his insinuation that she was afraid, lip threatening to push forward into a pout.

    The Norn boy chuckled, “But what are you doing up here to begin with?”
    “I am climbing the mountain.”
    “With naught but a blanket and a knife?” The incredulity was evident on his face and in his voice. It only served to make the girl bolder.

    “My bread and cheese fell, but I didn’t really need them.”
    “The summit is a three day’s climb for a Norn, human. You may be small, but I am sure you would still need food to last you a week’s journey.”

    Constance considered this new information. He seemed serious, though Gysir had apparently lied to her before. Making believe that she could participate with the other kids was cruelty to someone who dearly wanted to be included. Her face turned pensive before she nodded, speaking as one would to an equal. “I may have miscalculated the distance.”, the girl allowed. “I suppose I may have to return and make a new plan.”

    Gysir grinned, but did his best not to appear mocking. “That seems wise, Constance Terpein. We will accompany you to camp.”

    And so the human stepped out through the gap in the rock, scarcely hearing the flapping wings of the eagle as it too made its way back down the mountain. It was much more difficult going down that it had been coming up. It was hard to see the handholds she had used from this new vantage point and the wind now contained snow – a blizzard was upon them. Clambering down a particularly long stretch of vertical rock, Constance lost her grip and dropped to the ground below. Hands reached down to pull her out of the snow, but she pushed against them to stand on her own.

    “I’m fine.” She asserted, a quaver in her voice giving her away. The wind was quickly sapping her strength as it pulled at her cloak, threatening to take her up into the sky with it. Constance could barely open her eyes against the tiny hail drops beating against her face. She was pushed backwards by invisible forces, lost her footing and fell back into the drift she had just been plucked out of. This time, she didn’t resist the arms that lifted her up until she was in the crook of an arm with her face pressed into thick fur.

    “I can do it. I really can.” The human girl whispered even as she clung to the leather armour of her saviour. “I know, little one. But right now we need speed to reach the Hold before the blizzard strikes full-force.” The voice was gruff and low, but carried notes she recognized. Constance smiled when she realized that her face was indeed buried in the fur of a bear. She could handle the indignity of being carried for such a thing. The Norn strode on, impervious to the wind and it seemed such a short while to when the wind stopped altogether. At the sound of the heavy gate being closed, Constance raised her head and hopped down even as she was being lowered to the ground.

    “Thank-you.” The girl looked solemnly up at the bear-headed Norn who had carried her through the snow. The ursine features melted away to reveal the fair-haired girl who had disputed her inclusion in their circle. A blush rose to Constance’s pale cheeks and she ducked her head in shame. Why did she have to see her failure? Now it would be harder than ever to make her believe she, a lowly human, was worthy! The Norn made no response, but walked away as though she hadn’t even heard the girl. When Constance raised her head, she found that she was alone with the guard at the door – even Gysir had left without a word. Her shoulders slumped. Not only had her plan failed, it had definitely set her back in achieving her goal.

    She would need a new plan. Something bigger. And something she wouldn’t need rescuing from.

  7. #17
    Mortal Sins, Part One: Anakita Snakecharm

    Halloween, 1078 A.E.

    She wiped the dirt off the purple silk of her skirt with silken black gloves. "Well, that's the last of them," Anakita said, poking the recently-disturbed ground with the pointy toe of her boot.

    "I don't see why we bothered to bury them," Livia commented conversationally, as though discussing the weather rather than a pile of corpses. "They were already undead. They'd rot away in a day or two."

    "Mhm," Anakita agreed. "But it would be... a hassle... if someone found them in the meantime. You still have the book?"

    Livia nodded and patted vaguely at her thigh; Anakita couldn't figure out where the Necromancer had managed to conceal a book in her skimpy skirt, but didn't question it.

    "Good," Anakita said. "Let's get this stuff back to the Mad King. I hope he'll be pleased with it."

    Abruptly, the Ranger glanced behind her, some sixth sense telling her she was being watched. Keiran Thackeray ducked out of sight, completely concealed by the tree at the last second, and Anakita shrugged and turned away, not seeing anything. He'd been following her all day, and this had happened more than once - her seeming to sense him, even when he was sure he wasn't making enough noise to catch her attention. Like an animal that knew it was some hunter's quarry.

    Keiran wasn't hunting to kill, of course. He had actually started following her initially to prove her innocence, when rumours had started to fly that she was betraying Queen Salma to her undead enemy, the Mad King Thorn.

    Proof of Anakita's innocence had been hard to come by. In fact, in the time Keiran had been following her, he'd seen her commit multiple acts of treason in service to the Mad King, trying to help free him from his rightful prison. Keiran had half expected it of the Necromancer, but the Ranger? Well, that was a surprise.

    Even as he hated to think ill of her, Keiran had seen with his own eyes that Anakita was a traitor. Still he had followed her, hoping to find some whisper of mitigating circumstance. A threat, or blackmail, or mind control... anything to explain why she had turned against the queen to whom she claimed loyalty. He'd come up with nothing. Not the slightest indication of anything except a Ranger acting of her own free will to betray Queen Salma.

    Still he followed, finally convinced but trying to figure out why.


    She was bent over a slain ettin, hacking off its head with her sharp boot-knife, when he put his dagger to her throat.

    "What are you doing?" Keiran asked through clenched teeth, regarding her as the lowest of the low, the dirt beneath his feet, since she had betrayed her queen, who was also supposedly her friend.

    "I'm knitting a sweater," Anakita replied with annoyed sarcasm, ignoring the knife. She was cold, that one; he had to give her credit.

    "Why are you dressed that way?" Keiran asked, knowing it was a stupid question considering the magnitude of the situation, but it was the first thing that came to mind.

    "I like this dress," Anakita said, running a self-conscious hand along the purple silk. "Believe it or not, I'm a female, and I can be feminine."

    Keiran wasn't sure of the being feminine aspect. He'd never seen her in a dress; even at her own wedding she had worn a Vanguard uniform. "You look just like one of them! Like one of the Mad King's court!"

    Anakita gave him an intentionally bored look, in spite of the knife at her throat. "I'm on a schedule here, so if you would..."

    "A schedule? You mean before the seals close and the Mad King is banished from the mortal world for another year?"

    "Yes," she replied tersely, and he was surprised she had admitted it. "So either help me or leave. Leaving would be preferable. You shouldn't be mixed up in this."

    "Neither should you!" he bellowed back at her.

    Anakita shrugged, and said, "You're probably right."

    He wasn't quite sure how to respond to her casual acceptance of his anger. "How dare you betray Queen Salma?"

    Suddenly her eyes flashed. "I have never betrayed her. I serve at the pleasure of the queen."

    Keiran laughed at her. "How can you stand here with the evidence of your betrayal in your hands and still claim that?"

    Anakita knocked the knife out of his hand, shoved him away, and glared at him. "You aren't listening. I have always. Only. Served at the pleasure of the queen."

    He processed this for a moment, and his eyes widened. "She ordered you to do this, didn't she?"

    The Ranger shrugged again, confirming by not denying.

    Keiran was still confused. "Why would she do that? Why would she order you to work for the person actively trying to topple her throne and take her land?"

    "You're answering your own question."

    He nodded, realizing that indeed he was. "She wants to keep an eye on him. To know his moves before he makes them. You're doing as he asks to win the Court's trust, then reporting back to Queen Salma."

    "Within reason on what he asks, yes. I'm not slaughtering innocent villagers or anything, but... yes."

    Keiran stared down at the knife on the ground, feeling rather ashamed to have doubted her.

    "Don't," Anakita said. "Don't feel bad. You believed what you were supposed to. That's why she asked me. Because she trusts me, of course, but also because I'm someone whose honour can be compromised without raising suspicion. Because I've had to do things in the past that were... unsavoury... and everyone knows it. People's opinion of me is already right on the borderline between hero and complete monster. Would anyone really be all that surprised if I switched sides?"

    "I suppose not," Keiran admitted.

    "I need to get back to work. There's not much time left. Oh, and the dress? It's a disguise, of sorts. Consider it a Halloween costume. But..."


    Anakita grinned suddenly. "I really do like it."
    Last edited by Monkey Kitty; 10-25-2011 at 03:51 AM.

  8. #18
    Mortal Sins, Part Two: Anakita Snakecharm

    Halloween, 1078 A.E.

    Anakita - her arms full of bottles of various types of alcohol, exotic and ordinary - walked to the quietest corner of Droknar's Forge, away from the pounding of hammers on anvils and the crowds gathered around the merchants. This place was a little rocky outcrop, overlooking the sea, and there was no reason for most people to come here.

    "Hello," she said quietly.

    She'd come here every night of the Halloween festival, and she couldn't quite explain why, even to herself. To Stefan, she had just said "it's a feeling," which was true - and he'd believed her.

    Somehow she had sensed that her fate was bound to that of the Lich woman, so she had come again and again, bringing drinks to share, even though the first few times they had just stood in silence. Now that they were speaking, she still didn't even know her maybe-friend's name.

    It was just a feeling, a sense. The sense of a soul who needed her help. Anakita had saved hundreds of lives - probably more than hundreds. Yet she had felt this bond that was an unspoken plea for help, a stranger she needed to make part of her life, a total of twice. The second had been Kimi, who was now her adopted daughter. The first was Ryder Vespera, her spiritual sister. Anakita had learned to trust this feeling.

    "How much longer?" Anakita asked quietly.

    The Lich woman looked out to the sea. "Not long now."

    "You're sure you won't be able to stay?"

    "I'm quite certain. The seal will pull me back with the others when Halloween is over. Personal feelings aside, I'm part of the Court. One of the damned souls." Her voice was calm, but there was the slightest hint of trepidation.

    "For now," Anakita said casually, taking a swig of Dwarven ale.

    "What do you mean?"

    "I mean there has to be some way to fix that, and I'll help if I can."

    "Why? I could be evil."

    "You aren't," Anakita said with certainty.

    It was hard to see an expression beneath the hood, but Anakita thought she saw what might be surprise. "Most of your people would call me a fiend, just for what I am."

    The Ranger shrugged. "Like humans are really so superior? We can be pretty fiendish too."

    Now Anakita was sure she could detect a smile. The woman looked out to sea again.

    "My time is just about up. You'll come back next year?"

    "Yes, and by then hopefully I'll have figured out a way to help."

    "Is that a promise?"

    "I promise."
    Last edited by Monkey Kitty; 10-25-2011 at 03:46 PM.

  9. #19
    Mortal Sins, Part Three: Anakita Snakecharm and Chava Blue

    Halloween, 1079 A. E.

    "I'm sorry I had to ask you to do this again," Queen Salma said, with genuine regret in her voice.

    "It's easier this year," Anakita replied thoughtfully. "Last year, everyone treated me like I had the plague. How could I betray you and work for him? Then the world didn't end after all, and we went on. Not that The Flux is nothing, but it doesn't affect the common people's daily lives. I think everyone breathed a sigh of relief when last Halloween ended, and this year... they just don't care as much."

    "Still, it's not the most comfortable position for you to be in."

    "It's fine," Anakita said. "It suits my purposes, actually. I have something I need to do."


    Anakita skeptically surveyed the ritual setup. "Are you sure this is going to work?"

    Chava Blue scrambled to her feet, brushed the dirt off her knees, and did one last check too. "No. I'm not. I'm sure that it has a chance of working. I am reasonably confident that I'm doing the ritual right. But sure it's going to work? No, sorry. I can't promise that."

    The Ranger nodded speculatively, oddly reassured. If the Ritualist had promised success, Anakita would have doubted more, considering it overconfidence. This more measured reply indicated that Chava was being realistic, which made success actually seem possible.

    Chava gestured around the circle she had made. "So you just... had this stuff on hand? I thought I was giving you an impossible list, especially with a time constraint, but..."

    Anakita shrugged. "It wasn't hard to find."

    "The blades wielded by the hands of Shiro Tagachi? Those were just lying around the house?"

    The Ranger shook her head. "They weren't at the house. Those were in the guild hall. We all defeated him together, so we just kind of ended up with his stuff. I borrowed the blades for this. No one was using them."

    "And the immortal essence?"

    "Was a Mursaat. From a friend, taken out of another friend's brain. Poor Ryder was tormented by it for awhile, but Eve says it's totally neutralized now. She's been doing some experiments. It should still work, though."

    Chava chuckled. "Of course. Naturally. What really puzzles me is the where you got a lock of Shiro's hair, and blood from his mother. I don't even know who Shiro's mother is, and you've got a vial of her blood for me ten minutes after I told you I needed it?"

    Anakita grinned suddenly. "Oh, that one was the easiest. I just hope those work. It was a bit of a... substitution. You ever wonder why Miles looks kind of Canthan?"

    "I figured you had a dalliance in Cantha, but I didn't ask. I wasn't sure if Stefan knew."

    The Ranger laughed out loud. "Nothing like that. When I was pregnant I got infected by the soul of Shiro Tagachi, and Miles is an identical copy of him. Nothing like an affair."

    "Of course, nothing as weird as an affair," Chava agreed, hiding her amusement fairly well. "I'm so glad I met you and Stefan. Being the wetnurse for your babies has turned out to be the most interesting job I ever had."

    "In a good way, I hope."

    "Yes, actually. And... I've said this before, but thanks for helping me finish my Ritualist training. After I got knocked up, I never expected I'd have a chance to go back, and I was resigned to life as a civilian. This is... better."

    "You're welcome. So are we ready?" Anakita asked, suddenly serious.

    Chava took a mental inventory, and then said, "Yes, I think we are."


    The ritual took longer than Anakita expected, and she did her best to sit in meditative silence as Chava chanted and danced. The Ranger was good at not speaking, but less good at sitting still. She tried to focus on the goal, not on the fact that her nose itched and her leg was falling asleep.

    "What are you doing?" asked a cold voice with a cruel edge.

    Both women startled, then Anakita replied calmly. "Hello, Countess."

    Anakita wasn't exactly sure what the Countess's role had been in life, though now she was clearly an important member of the Court. She called herself the Countess of Hakewood - but Anakita had been to Hakewood, and it was just a tiny little Krytan hamlet populated by farmers and herders, indistinguishable from other villages except to the commoners who called it home. It wasn't the sort of place one would expect to find nobility. Perhaps long ago when the Lunatic Court had ruled the land, Hakewood had been different. Just about everything had been, under their rule of violent revelry. Anakita hoped she didn't ever see with her own eyes what a return to such rule would look like.

    The Ranger didn't introduce Chava, and Chava didn't correct the apparent error. They both knew that not being known by name to the Lunatic Court was better for personal safety. Anakita herself didn't have much choice.

    "What are you doing?" the Countess asked again, a threat of violence in her voice.

    Anakita was fairly sure she could take the Countess in a flat-out fight. The undead woman had never shown any particular battle skill in Anakita's presence... and the Countess was so perpetually tanked on absinthe that Anakita was surprised she could stand upright, let alone imagining that she might manage to win a brawl. The problem was, her disappearance would be difficult to explain or hide if they killed her - and Anakita didn't think she and Chava could take the entire Lunatic Court if they discovered she had attacked one of their own. And of course, even if they somehow survived to flee against all odds, Queen Salma's plans for ongoing espionage would be ruined. If possible, Anakita would need to talk her way out of this.

    "It's a ritual, to restore an undead person to the mortal world permanently," Anakita explained - truthfully. The Countess of Hakewood probably recognized the ceremonial preparations, anyway. No point in telling a stupid lie. Then the Ranger added the fiction to it, hoping that it would be made believable surrounded by the truth. "It's for King Thorn, of course. I didn't tell him yet because I don't think it'll work, and I didn't want to disappoint him."

    The Countess nodded, looking approving, and said to Chava. "You have done well, little one. Your setup is quite impressive. You have a talent. Perhaps you will come work for..."

    Abruptly the Countess stopped talking. Anakita didn't know why, but she was fairly sure it wasn't a good thing. She followed the direction of the undead eyes... to a single black feather in the centre of the ritual circle. Not an artifact of the king. This was from a lich's wing.

    The Countess's eyes narrowed at Anakita. "Do we have a little Halloween Night treason here, my dear?"
    Last edited by Monkey Kitty; 11-03-2011 at 03:14 PM.

  10. #20
    Mortal Sins, Part Four: Anakita Snakecharm and Chava Blue

    Halloween, 1079 A.E.

    "Of course not," Anakita replied in a level tone, but her mind was racing. She hadn't expected to have to explain this away, so she hadn't thought far beyond the initial story, and she wasn't all that good at coming up with lies on the fly. "Look, I didn't want to say anything because I didn't think you'd approve..."

    Where was she going with this? Anakita's mouth ran inanely as she tried to come up with something.

    "But it seemed like the best thing to do. I mean, this is so important, and..." Anakita babbled.

    "Yes?" The Countess was running out of patience, and her tone was getting even more icy, which the Ranger hadn't realized was even possible given how emotionless the undead noble always sounded.

    "...We're going to sacrifice the lich woman for the ritual," Anakita finally blurted out. She wasn't sure if she had just helped, or made things worse. "That's why we had a feather from her wing. Sorry. I didn't want to tell you because... well, I didn't know if it was allowed. But surely no member of the Court is as important as the King."

    "You are correct." A faint smile was causing the Countess's lips to curve upward again. "That would be an acceptable loss to restore King Thorn to the mortal world."

    "Good. Well. Yes. Good," Anakita said awkwardly. "We'll just get on with it, then."

    The Ranger was now leaning more toward the 'not helping' opinion of her lie. The Countess seemed to be buying it... for now. But what happened when the lich didn't die and the Mad King didn't escape? The Court would attack them, and even with a third person, they couldn't take on everyone at once. If Anakita stalled long enough, the seals would pull the Countess back into the Court's prison realm - but then it would also be too late to help the lich.

    The Countess drew a long, shiny dagger, and Anakita's hand went to her shortbow, instinctively preparing for a fight. The noblewoman just laughed. "Not for use on you or your friend, my dear. This is a powerful weapon, that maims the soul as well as the body, putting the victim beyond the reach of even the Envoys. It will increase the power of your sacrifice tenfold."

    "Oh... um... great. Thanks!" Anakita said, faking a grin. "I'll just borrow that, and then we can..."

    "Oh no, little one. That is impossible. Only the undead can wield this. Not the living. I will perform the sacrifice myself."

    Chava looked alarmed. "I'm afraid that will not work. The ritual setup is very particular, and..."

    The Countess silenced her with a sharp look. "You think I am unfamiliar with this sort of magic? Arrogant child! I have been performing these ceremonies since before your ancestors were born. You would dare to instruct me on their parameters? You let my earlier compliment go to your head, it seems. You are a marginally talented mortal, and nothing more."

    Anakita was about to attack the Countess, and just apologize to Salma later for the consequences to her plan, when the shrill sound of an unsettling hunting horn cut through the air, sending an involuntary bone-deep shiver through the two mortals.

    "The Court is coming!" Anakita whispered to the Chava. "Dammit, I thought they would be busy in Lion's Arch or Kamadan for a few more hours."

    Already the Ranger had paid her own dues, bowing and kneeling and simpering before the Mad King. Accepting painful bursts of magic when he was displeased with her in some small and capricious way, and pretending to treasure his praise when she managed to please him. It made her ill, the feigned obsequiousness - but it had worked. King Thorn had been assured of her loyalty by her performance, and had filled her arms with Halloween treats and then sent her on her way, like a teacher patting a prized student on the head before a terse dismissal. He hadn't paid attention to what she was doing for the rest of the night while the Court made merry... which was good, because Anakita knew he would never allow her to rescue the lich woman.

    "What is this?" King Thorn bellowed, standing a pace behind his guards, but a full head taller with his pumpkin visage. "Do you dare to betray the rightful and majestic sovereign of Kryta and of all Tyria?"

    Anakita shook her head. "Oh, no, of course not, my King. The ritual was for your benefit."

    "My benefit?" he looked skeptical.

    To Anakita's surprise, the Countess of Hakewood spoke up. "They planned to sacrifice the lich to restore you to the mortal world, m'lord."

    The King seemed to grin, but it was hard to tell, as his expression was always a twisted smirk. "Oh really? What an excellent idea! I am proud of your audacity, mortals. Bring the lich woman."

    Two guards manhandled the lich forward, and she stared at the others of her Court with hatred as they shoved her before King Thorn. When she turned her face to Anakita, her feeling of betrayal radiated even from beneath the shadow of her hood, and caught Anakita like a stab with a dagger. The lich didn't realize it was a bluff. After who knew how many years with the Lunatic Court, she wouldn't expect loyalty, wouldn't see this as a ruse... because who else would ever lie to their master for her? The idea that Anakita had turned on her to gain favour with the king seemed far more likely, in her world. Anakita hoped she could make it up to her.

    "Well, do it!" King Thorn said impatiently. "I am waiting."

    Chava shook her head. "It is a complicated process, and I cannot simply..."

    The Ritualist screamed, suddenly, and collapsed, her body twisting in agony on the frosty ground. She scrambled back to her feet when the grip of the magic released her, and continued, sounding a little winded but otherwise acting as though she hadn't been interrupted. "It is a complicated process, sir, and I cannot do it instantly. Would that I could, sir, to please you. But it simply is not possible."

    "I could kill you where you stand, you pathetic worm," Thorn told her.

    "I realize that, sir," Chava said evenly. "But I am sure that one so wise as yourself realizes that to do so would not benefit you. If you are angered that I am too slow, surely preventing me from completing my task at all would not avail you any better?"

    "Perhaps not," Thorn replied. "And since I realized that long before you did, I am graciously allowing you to live. For now. Yet I doubt your loyalty, and the Ranger's. You must prove yourselves to me if you wish to survive."

    "Of course, my liege," Anakita replied, dreading what was going to be required to demonstrate fealty. She hoped she could just send a few arrows into the should-be-dead lady of Hakewood on his orders as proof, but that seemed unlikely, since the Countess was a favoured one. More than likely Anakita would be ordered to kill one of her friends. And have to refuse. And die.

    Sure enough, the Mad King proclaimed, "I will supervise the sacrifice of the lich. Personally. You will doubtless benefit from my tremendous expertise, and learn more about magic this night than most mortals learn in a lifetime. First, though, you may have the privilege of entertaining me. Dance before the King!"

    It was humiliating to be ordered to do so, but there was little choice but to comply if they were going to maintain the ruse. Anakita's dancing was always awkward and stiff, but slightly too provocative at the same time. Chava's was different. She moved like a snake, graceful and twisty, more than a little exotic. Anakita was almost distracted herself, watching her as the Ritualist's feet wove carefully through her ceremonial site, while her arms periodically called attention back to the elegance of her upper body. Chava seemed a little too into this, Anakita thought. Or maybe that was just sour grapes.

    Abruptly, the Ritualist stopped dead, and dropped her arms. A single spirit rose from the centre of the circle, and switched places with the lich, so the lich woman was suddenly standing freely and the guards were clutching at something as insubstantial as mere air.

    "It's done," Chava said with soft triumph. But they all already knew anyway.

    Not a dance, Anakita realized. Chava had completed the ritual right in front of them, and none of them had realized it - and now it was too late for anyone to interrupt the ceremony. Something like sisterly pride welled up in Anakita.

    Then the Court fell upon all three women like a pack of wild dogs.
    Last edited by Monkey Kitty; 11-01-2011 at 12:34 AM.

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