Rise of the Orcs
February 26-27, 2005.

Reviews
Synopsis
Character Intros


"Genius!" — Wary-Eye

Reviews

"In short, tears were shed, some expected things happened, some totally unexpected things happened, and I felt like we all turned in some stellar performances as both PCs and PNPCs... My favorite scene as a spectator was Mabul and the little children in the park. It was short, but it was an image that I think will resonate... SOT2 was, in essence, about loss on a scale that no one expected: Neren's out his parents, a childhood home, a homeland he loved, and any hope of ever seeing Syra again. Nimlinor also lost his parents, but also his respect for the leader of his people, and—with the crumbling of the Tower—every ambition he's ever had. Valandil is the last surviving member of his entire race, and no longer can quench his loneliness and despair in the Bladedancer Fane. It will be interesting to see how we pick up our pieces and move on in SOT3."
— Adrian
"One perfectly crafted and executed game plus six all star cast members equals one of my favorite stories in the entire COB/SOT saga (tied with COB2 and passed only by COB5)... The use of Neren’s background story was one of the major highlights of the game. The Lance Unbroken and that entire story of sabotage, and Neren’s childhood home was GENIUS! The battle and destruction of the ToL was nothing short of epic. I really enjoyed the use of vignettes during the battle. SOT2 has put the conflict to the forefront like COB never could. The establishment of conflict was the major accomplishment of SOT2 and I think the success was overwhelming... Thank you Justin for an extraordinary game. Thank you players for wonderfully engaging roleplaying. Thank you Kat for excellent assistant GMing."
— J.P.
"If I had to choose but one campaign to roleplay in and but one group of players to play with, it would be this game and these players. My thanks to each of you for making these weekends enjoyable beyond compare and satiating my need for fantasy such that I can ride the high between games. There are, indeed, way too many high points to list: the cats, the miniatures, the story, the outstanding roleplaying by each of you... positively inspiring! But my personal favorite was Neren's home, it doesn't get much more fantastic than that! Neren's call to battle! Jeffery's descriptions, all of it. My eyes teared at the thought of Mabul's return to Kubi Algi, and again at the death of Calais. My heart sunk and sang with each of your masterful portrayals of triumph and sorrow, victory and despair. Bravo! Genius! Bravo!"
— Larry
"Thank you all for a truly superlative weekend of gaming. In spite of an all-star cast of players, I was skeptical about ever recapturing the magic of COB, but my fears have been laid to rest. This game had all the things that make these Edion games so special... epic struggles, moments of mirth, and terrible tragedy, all played out by masters of the game against a backdrop of perfectly integrated sounds and music. Yngvarr's heart may be heavy with duty and sorrow, but mine is filled with eager anticipation of the next chapter in what will surely become the only game capable of supplanting COB as the greatest RPG epic of all time."
— Keith
"I found SOT 2 to be an extremely rewarding experience all the way around... everything 'game stuff' wise was top shelf as far as I was concerned. While I do not want to sound like I take the sound and visual aids for granted, I have to say what brought it home on that front was the miniatures. The story was well written and allowed us to explore different aspects of our world and each other. This of course made for some great role playing opportunities which we all relished with delight. Once again, 'Thank you' to everyone involved for such a grand honor and splendid time."
— Jeffery
"The bonding of the Fellowship is cemented in sorrow and misery. Considering how much was lost, it’s amazing how happy I feel... The myriad of emotions that my comrades-in-arms displayed was truly a wonder to behold. Outstanding role-playing, one and all in your multiple roles! Justin, your storytelling was masterful as usual... Kat, your assistance was truly invaluable, not just to Justin but to all of us as well. Thanks for sharing the experience and keeping that sadistic S.O.B. in line."
— Drew
"I was anxiously anticipating this synopsis ever since SOT2 was finished. What an enjoyable and fantastic read! Everytime I found that you had furthered the progress of the update I was filled with glee! I had no idea how treacherous Galantir was. The duels in the streets of Galantir were brilliant, each villian separate and distinct. Gola Par was my favorite, a mancutter. Absolute genius. And how wealthy Moxirth the Mad is in shardstones! An incredible scene. Best quote for Day 1: 'No daughter of Sol-Fatara shall give her life to a heathen god.'"
— Marcus

Synopsis

Part One

On the 20th day of Manthus, the fellows of Atân emerge from Granitehome with the Bottled City, reuniting with Sheeral Warmanes and his sheriffs. Warmanes inspects the "plunder" obtained by the heroes, and following a brief argument the entire group breaks camp and departs for Galantir. The first night on that journey, Hatame convenes privately with Yngvarr when it is late. He is joined by Ryrr, a hawk who brings a summons from the Emperor of Azalan. Hatame tells Yngvarr that he must depart at once for Torand to answer the call. Yngvarr approves, stating that all freewilled men may do as they choose. Words are spoken about the hatred between Azalim and Idreshim. They part, Hatame leaving secretly in the night.

That morning it is discovered that Hatame'e name and signature no longer appear on any of the contracts signed between Uergus Warmanes and the fellowship. Much disputation arises between the fellows concerning the perceived trickery of Azalan, the sanctity of oaths and contracts, and the like. On the third day, when the group reaches Galantir, Neren insists that Narntay watch over the homunculus Dram for awhile, ostensibly so that Dram can make new friends (in truth because Neren expects to be seized and his possessions—including Dram—taken by the administrators of Galantir). Narntay and the others quickly learn from Dram about Neren's "failed" attempt to raid the gemworks at Granitehome, and Dram learns something from Neren about keeping secrets. Dram soon returns to his "boat" atop Neren's tricorn hat.

There is a brief reunion with the Mayor-Intendant of Galantir, who, after voicing his disappointment at the small size of the treasure, takes the fellows to the Temple of Matravus. Here are gathered dozens of adventurers and treasure hunters, all vying for plunder rights to Granitehome. Beyond the entrance, they encounter the vast wealth of the cultists:

Below is a series of windowless vaults overflowing with gold and silver. The wealth of the temple cannot be exaggerated in words. There are tables of ebony wrought with runes of pearl and white coral; mosaics of precious gems and many-storied tapestries; caskets overflowing with talismanic jewels; tiny gods of jade and agate. Here is the loot of ages, lying heaped and mingled in utter negligence, without lock or ward, as if free for any casual thief. But few can boast so secure a treasure vault, for these are the possessions of Matravus, the God of Greed, who dwells in Carceri. Every coin, every object—these he regards with an avaricious love, a miserly devotion that suffers no thieves.

Their arrival is announced and before long they are ushered below ground to the Vault of Appraisal. Huge metal doors swing open, revealing an iron-buttressed repository. Herein are kept ingots of platinum, gold, silver, and copper in odious pools. Three cultists attend an instrument for measuring weights, composed of two trays suspended by chains from the ceiling. When the Assessment is underway, objects of plunder are placed one at a time on the left tray, which does not yield to the weight. Matravus is then invoked by the Old Bursar, who is head of the Cult of Matravus in Galantir:

Lo! In your praise, the stern and fearful one.
We who deserve such privileges as these, ask of you, Lord Matravus, God of Usurers,
to bend from your throne, and look down on us with your cold and marble smile.

Let us hear the long death-rattles of your heart,

And regard your procession round
this fetching thing my fingers found.

As if in answer, there comes a low, miserly chuckle from the earth below. The scale falls quickly, coming to rest a few feet off the floor. The priests then stack platinum and gold bullions upon the opposite tray, then silver and copper, until the scales are even.

We, the envoys of your malison,
Are content, and weigh in gold
the equivalence of your appetite.
O Lord.

In this manner the plunder is assessed a total consecrated value, as determined by the god Matravus. After paying fees and fines, plus the 40 per cent tax to Mayor Warmanes and a 15 per cent custom on the net worth of the transaction, the Fellowship is able to keep five items: the Bottled City of Yoros, Mabul's poleaxe and magic belt, the homonculus Dram, and a magic lamp recovered from Ffluedder's tomb.

The Old Bursar tries to convince Nimlinor to leave the Bottled City with the Matravites—to be looked after by elders both wise and wary of its value—but Nimlinor declines. Afterwards, Mayor Warmanes congratulates Nim on resisting the Old Bursar, who is ever trying to "cheat men out of their hard-won profits." As a courtesy, Warmanes offers to outfit the Fellowship for their journey away from Galantir. They accept.

With new horses and provisions, the fellows take to the streets of Galantir, but all attempts to leave the city fail. The streets are maze of bafflement and eeriness. Citizens kindly give them directions, but the landmarks are misleading and always do they end up further from the walls than they started. Nimlinor determines that they are being deliberately mislead by illusions and mirage arcana. The vast, illusive reaches of the city appear to deepen as they go; and the shadows move like living things, as if from the sediment of Pernoctare. In this strange fashion, day becomes night, and the fellows find themselves in the less reputable areas of Galantir, where thieves and beggars dwell. They hear a voice, contemptuous and cruel, strengthened by magic:

"Corralled like so many pigs," it mocks. "It is rare indeed that the Abnoctim come to Galantir, and bearing such precious gifts."

Then, emerging from these foul tenements, Skyndyn Skayn appears, pointing a firelock pistol and demanding surrender of the Bottled City. He is joined by a Gola Par, an Idreshim vagathir—a mancutter—dressed ridiculously in foppish attire and wielding a heavy maul. Yngvarr and Gola, two barbarians from the North, stare each other down, old feelings long-repressed now surging forth. Yngvarr dissipates his rage with the light of Elai, but Gola goes into a frenzy and charges the company in the street [pic].

Battle ensues. Yngvarr takes to the rooftops, where he discovers Cord Basi, a duellist dressed in extravagant fashion and brandishing a long rapier. From an alleyway there come droves of lemures, freshly summoned from Carceri. Mabul dispatches Gola, cleaving the Idreshim in half with his poleaxe. Valandil dodges repeated blasts from Skyndyn's firelocks, and slays him in a whirl of twisting blades. Skyndyn's body goes down in the flames and icy-venting of Valandil's swords. Each of Nimlinor's spells is countered by some unseen force. The shardstaff Námion flickers hopelessly, its power stifled. Narntay is not hindered thus. He heals the wounded and smites the lemures with holy power. Neren discovers Octam Mezati, a cultist of Matravus, working his foul magics behind the buildings. The Abnoctim summons a buzzing bee to distract the priest, disrupting several conjurations and ending the steady outpourings of lemures from Carceri. Meanwhile, Yngvarr and Cord duel, back and forth, fist to blade. The duellist feints, dealing a crippling blow to Yngvarr, who charges the swordsman and rushes him over the edge of the roof. Yngvarr slows his fall by monk art, Cord by feather fall. The duel continues in mid-air, then on the pavements where Cord is finally defeated.

The noise of battle is broken by a dull rumbling as of distant thunder. At last the wizard Moxirth is revealed, Moxirth the Mad. His long finger bones, curving claw-like from his wrist, are set firmly around a warped staff, which bears the shardstone Molion. Dangling from his belt is a keychain bearing four shardstones—relics captured from his enemies, the wizards he despises.

"It has been my caprice to take the shards of my enemies," says Moxirth to Nim, challenging him with his staff held high. "I count five of the Quercil-ëdoni on my chain—Molion, Ajaryth, Urodor, Mor, and Miandran. But there is room enough for Námion, and I think I shall have it. Give it to me!"

Mabul comes at the wizard, bringing the poleaxe with a deadly arc. Moxirth narrowly escapes to the rooftops by magic. There he replaces the stone Molion atop his staff with Urodor, and sets Mabul on fire. "You can give it to me, or perish," he challenges to Nim, smiling darkly beneath his beard. Moxirth leaps to a rooftop directly overhead, and bellows mightily, rendering Nimlinor unconscious from the pain. But before he can descend by magic and take Nim's staff, and the Bottled City, Valandil takes Námion and challenges Moxirth. "If you want the wizard's staff, take it from me!" he impugns.

Just then, Octam is slain by Mabul. Sensing the failure of his servants, Moxirth departs instantly by teleportation. Before he goes, he speaks one final defiance, "I shall return, Nimlinor the Young, in your least hour. Covet the shard I have left you."

Crippled by battle, and convinced the Mayor Warmanes was responsible for this unmitigated attack, the Fellows of Atân depart Galantir, going West by way of Faldenhelm. Narntay gives Neren a little idol to the god Badbash, purchased that day from a street vendor. "You do the gods work," says Narntay, in reference to Neren's deception about the gemworks of Granitehome. Neren takes the trinket.

As they pass over the Ireon Fields, they stay a night with the farmsteaders Benn and Jonna Grevale in the farmers' well-built house, as is Narntay's privilege. Benn is an old Fatarim man who extolls the virtues of Azalan. He appreciates the security that imperial goverment has brought to the region, and boasts of greater yields from the family's apple harvest. That night, Jonna makes veal sweetbreads, goose eggs, and collard greens for supper, a richer meal by far than she could have offered under the Fatarim Kings.

Overland, their journey takes them to Orsemachus, where new horses are requisitioned by Neren (after much bargaining and deal-making with the horses). Nimlinor and Valandil share conversation as they travel, and their hearts are lightened a little. They arrive in Faldenhelm to find a charming city built in the local golden stone, set against a backdrop of lavender fields and oak groves. The River Trale slices cleanly through the wilderness here, and the city is passionately loved by poets and wanderers for its waterfront promenades and its ancient Cathedral of Elai, built by Calehar when the nation was young. Imbarto Bomilcar, poet, patriot, and national hero of Sol-Fatara, spent many a summer here with his wife Melora during the latter parts of his life.

The company breaks, Nim and Narntay going to the finest establishment for rest—Old Grant's Clubhouse—and Neren and Valandil going to the rowdiest place—the Cock & Hen Alehouse. Here Neren introduces the elf to the joys of humanity. Valandil dances with a bright Fatarim girl and amazes the crowd with his magical movements, though always under cover of his cloak so as not to reveal his heritage. The bards sing of Valandil before long and the elf tastes of ale, bitter and unpleasant though it may seem to his lips. That night, Yngvarr visits the cathedral and prays at the ancient altars of Dawn, Midday, and Dusk. There he takes counsel from the clerics of Elai the Sunblessed, who continue their ancient tradition at the behest of Azalan. Yngvarr sees in these Fatarim clerics, whom he reveres, men who accept—even congratulate—Azalan for their achievements in Sol-Fatara. And meanwhile, standing idle in a park, Mabul watches little children playing before supper, and long after they are gone he stands quietly, reflecting on all the wonders this world has yet to reveal to him.

The next morning, Valandil smiles. It is the first evidence of cheer he has shown in decades, and the very first in human lands. And Yngvarr refocuses his anger. He shall no longer hate the Azalim for their fathers, but for their deeds. And Mabul realizes there is something worth saving in this world. Indeed, something worth dying for. The group reassembles and departs Faldenhelm, following the road south to Destian (which according to omen is favored by Geyon this morning). Soon they encounter a desecrated shrine to the road god, which they repair. That evening the fellowship reaches Osk, a small community of trappers and woodsmen. To all seeming, the streets of Osk are empty, though many people are active in their homes. No sounds come from the one inn and stable, the Lonesome Keep, whose doors are barred reading "Due to the failure of the wells and cisterns, we are closed until further notice."

Narntay interprets the desolation of Osk as the divine retribution of Shaledaggum, the Well God. The residents of Osk have neglected their obligation to Shaledaggum and failed to make the proper sacrifice: the mayor's eldest virgin daughter. Narntay's suspicions are confirmed when a thin, stoop-shouldered man bearing water buckets enters town and tells them of Nicinda Fen, the mayor's daughter, who went missing some days past. He informs them that Knights of the Lance Unbroken are out upon errantry, and he suspects them of abducting Nissy before the appointed sacrifice.

"Doesn’t seem right that Nissy should have to die… so young and pretty. But then, there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, to appease the responsible gods. That is the way the Azalim have shown us."

The man bids them farewell, and the fellowship departs Osk embroiled in argument. "No man has the right to extinguish the Light of Elai" argues Yngvarr. "An abomination of your religion," says Valandil. Narntay defends the practice, arguing that Men have a contract with the gods, who perform services on their behalf for the betterment of society. When Men shirk their responsibility, the gods are angered and their wrath is deserved. "The people of Osk have not made the proper sacrifice," he maintains.

The road passes from the village Osk and wanders through dense woodlands, emerging a few miles south onto a wide meadow, ringed by bordering chaparral and pines. Near at hand, beyond the meadow, is a sturdily built toll house raised beside the road [pic]. The sun is now gone. In the instinctive habit of the elves, Valandil looks at the heavens to see if any stars are visible. Mounting gloriously amid the tree-tops, he counts several dozen, before the heavens are flecked by innumerable points of light: each one an elf, set forever amid the constellations. The tollhouse seems abandoned.

They ride up, and two armed riders suddenly emerge from the stables: fully-costumed knights of Sol-Fatara. Their stallions are no ordinary horses, but great celestial steeds, with silver manes and coats of gleaming gold. The two riders are attended by a third, who bears a blazing greatsword. “This is enough to crease the brow of Seviamos himself,” says the rider, with a voice kingly and proud.

It is Beroth, a great hero of the Fatarim resistance against Azalan, and Grandmaster of the Knights of the Lance Unbroken, the eldest of that order long outlawed by the Governor of Sol-Fatara.

The knight’s plate armor shows to great advantage the perfection of his shape, enhancing the natural dignity of his figure, still youthful in spite of the stoutness occasioned by living a life of war and errantry.

“Most soldiers cannot even turn on their heels without orders,” says Beroth. “But not Neren the Fey. No, he dances to whatever tune he whistles, from moment to moment.”

It is revealed that Nerenethos has been working with the resistance leaders against the Azalim, and that recently Neren took part in the sabotage of the Thirlspan Bridge, an ill-fated incident which led to the death of some two hundred Azalim soldiers. Also it is revealed that Nicinda Fen is being held at the tollhouse—which the knights have commandeered—until a rider comes in the morning to take her to safety. "No daughter of Sol-Fatara will give her life to a heathen god,” declares Beroth. “Death has no value but in Elai's glory."

Beroth and Neren argue. The company stables their horses, then joins the others inside the tollhouse. Here they are introduced to four peasant knights—Erlen, Bidian, Lotan, Edwesard—men recently knighted for their valor against the Azalim. The fully decorated knights Furian and Ernus join them inside [pic]. Lamps are lit, and words are spoken of the Bottled City and the quest to retrieve it.

Then suddenly, Mabul shudders violently and collapses upon the floor, clutching his chest. The breath goes out of him before he can scream in agony. He writhes instead.

It feels as if some demonic tumor has taken control of Mabul's body—a pearl of pain, swelling and pulsing in the dark caverns of his abdomen. It moves, floating freely into his chest, wending through bone and organ alike. The pain cannot easily be described in words: excruciating, harrowing, debilitating… these are words for ordinary pain.

Nimlinor becomes aware of a magical sensor for scrying, only this time the sensor is Mabul. He hears words in the infernal tongue emanating from inside Mabul—from the very center of his seizure—but the words are too vague, too distant to make out. Then he perceives the gaze of Aulmpiter, the Necromancer King of Viscachün, who sits idly upon a throne of decay amid the ashes of burnt-out pyres and the shards of heaped ruin. Mabul struggles on the ground in ecstatic pain, but Nim sees only the Necromancer, inspecting him from afar. Nim makes a courtly gesture, as is customary for the Abnoctim, who are great diplomats and advisors. "Greetings Aulmpiter," says Nimlinor.

“Ah! too blind wizard,” returns a voice that has known the lapse of long empty years. “Go, and become food for the monsters of Carceri.”

A greasy, cloying fog settles over the dale. Everything touched by it wilts and decays, as if touched by the very hand of death. The sturdy wood beams of the tollhouse begin to warp and splinter. Soot and brimstone rain down, blanketing the ground in ash. The necromancer king has opened a gate to Carceri, using Mabul as the point of origin. It is utterly dark.

“What is this new malison? What have you done, wizard?” demands Beroth.

Swift black shapes bob and pan confusedly in the dark. The silhouettes of others crawl lizard-wise on the walls. Beroth and the paladins make firm their oaths to Elai. The peasant knight Edwesard goes into the darkness of the courtyard, pitchfork in hand. “Envoys of Carceri be tamed!" he declaims. But a dark shape hurls down upon him, and seizing him in two great hands it rips him apart and flings him aside, shredded, like a doll.

Other shapes crash through the walls, the windows giving way to their onslaught.

You behold more clearly the thing that bulks prodigious and monstrous upon the ground: an entity wholly and outrageously unhuman; and neither does it resemble any species of animal, or any known monster of Edion. No such terror out of hell has ever burned in your face before. It is a wretched, husk of a monster—a shriveled form—with desiccated flesh drawn tight over a menacing skeletal frame. Its fanged head is an unimaginable horror: a cadaverous, obscene skull encrusted with decay. Rising over its graceful skeleton shape is a segmented tail, like the scorpion. Its limbs are wiry but strong, and the arms end in claws that reach the ground as it moves in an awkward hop.

The bone devils invade the tollhouse, intent upon the Bottled City. Beroth and his men censure the fiends and send them back to Carceri, but still they come. Neren goes upstairs, where he encounters Nissy Fen. Fragile, pallid, and simply gowned, with eyes that hold the azure of the summer sky, Nissy is a pretty girl of five and ten winters, but she is terrified and confused by all these strange proceedings. From the window there is a momentary gleaming as of white bones, then the wall is torn loose and a mighty bone devil scrapes for footing on the bedroom floor. Neren draws his blade, intent on the beast, but the devil plunges its stinger into his leg, then draws him up with his tail and dangles him from the ledge. Nimlinor arrives upstairs just as the devil butchers Nicinda, slashing her corpse to ribbons with its claws. Neren escapes and scrambles for footing. The devil summons aid, and another crawls forward, flames licking its face. Valandil joins the brothers upstairs, just as Nim and Neren flee in terror.

Meanwhile, a mighty battle has commenced outside. Yngvarr weaves between the devils, delivering blows with his yothrat staff. Biting back his distrust of the Fatarim, Narntay sides with the paladin Furian, and the two defeat one of the beasts, then another. Mabul masters his strange seizure and joins the fray. The two devils from upstairs climb down upon the lower roof. One tears apart the ceiling and eviscerates the four Azalim guardsmen imprisoned below in the strong room. The other hurls itself through the air and crashes into the battle below. It is joined moments later by the second, trailing a body straight out of a charnel-house nightmare. The encircling devils hiss triumphantly, and close in. But the paladins hold their ground; their tones fill the ears of the devils with an ecstasy near to pain. The battle is renewed. Bidian is slain and Furian is injured gravely upon a devil's slashing claws. But the last is defeated by Beroth and the darkness passes like a cloud overwhelmed by the wind.

"I, who speak, am the Paladin Beroth. Fate has decreed your ruin!"

"Devils!" scream Nim and Neren, who flee into the antic woods. When at last they stop, they turn and see Amicus, who has followed them. "His Grace Narntay of Adelland sent me to find you," informs the dog to Neren. "Are you in need?"

"The battle is over... we have won!" says Neren to his brother. Following Amicus they go back to the tollhouse. Stars are visible again and the moon shines down upon the open graves of Edwesard, Bidian, and the young Nicinda Fen. Beroth intones a prayer and the graves are sealed. "Elai light their souls, and illume their way to Solaris," he concludes. When he is finished Beroth and Neren have words. Beroth offers Neren a knightly escort to Fanal-Tîrun, but Neren declines. "Your own errand is too important, for Shevarash," he argues. Beroth and the knights depart East to Gladenshield, bidding the fellowship farewell.

Neren offers to leave the fellowship if they no longer trust him. "You're coming with us, Brother," says Nim. "You continue to earn that token I gave you," says Narntay of the Badbash charm, "but you are my fellow and we shall not sunder here." The companions, harrowed by their encounter with Carceri, abandon the tollhouse immediately. Although tired and spooked, the horses are saddled up and the company departs South.

The country between Osk and Destian is sparsely peopled, and there are great stretches of softly rolling hills and low valleys that have not known the touch of cultivation. The company presses hard throughout the night, and into the next day, reaching Destian by afternoon. The landscape here is surprising because of the sharp contrast between the well-cultivated plain that extends northward and the wild hills to the south. At the top of the tallest hill stand the ruins of an ancient fortified castle, and below that the houses of Destian spread out to the wine-growing plains of the Shieldlands. The companions are weary and exhausted from their travels, but stop only to purchase fresh steeds. "This is not what we agreed to!" say the old horses to Neren. "You have ridden us to near-death!"

At last they halt their march near the Hirthbrook river and take rest for the night. In the morning, the horses are donated to the riverfolk and the company requisitions a barge for the last leg of their journey. The skipper's name is Salek, a middle-aged Fatarim man who is returning to Jiaf to run a cargo of roofing tiles up river. At present, his barge is mostly empty. He's a polite man, albeit inquisitive and talkative. He likes to gossip about the Resistance in Shevarash.

"The Armies of Azalan will come against Shevarash in unwavering seas of shining steal. Their armor can halt the assault of ten-thousand warriors, their ballistae can fill the skies with swarms of whistling spears, and their devil-driven Stone Wardens can level walls a hundred feet high. But we Fatarim are not lacking protection, for we have Neren the Fey, and we count the god Elai on our side... Mightiest of all gods is He, Sunblessed and Wise. Let the Emperor advance on Shevarash! He shall be amazed when the noonday sun is fixed in the sky, ‘til every Azalim man is burned to ashes."

Narntay hides his contempt. Nimlinor asks Salek about 'Neren the Fey.' "They call him The Abnoctim," says Salek, "mighty and dangerous is he. The Abnoctim have sided with us in this war!" Nim laughs heartily. He and Neren have words about the responsibilities of the Abnoctim.

"Neren, what have you gotten yourself into?"
"I don't know if you are capable of understanding," says Neren.
"I'm capable."
"It is only a matter of time before Azalan turns its eye toward Fil-Garil..."
"Agreed," interrupts Nimlinor.
"So I will make such a controversy here in Sol-Fatara... with their gaze averted South, they won't turn it East."
"So you are saying that you're using the Fatarim?" says Nim, surprised. "You are willing to sacrifice them to save Fil-Garil? Perhaps you are an Abnoctim after all." Nimlinor leans in closer to his brother. "There is a better way. Why not Argentaamn? Why choose a doomed city over a whole kingdom?"
"It's not like that," says Neren nervously. "I really care about these people, they are good."
"And was killing all those soldiers 'good'?"
"That wasn't supposed to happen. It wasn't supposed to happen this way. It was supposed to build slowly in Sheverash and then spread. But, I messed up the bridge. And Beroth's men—you don't understand the Fatarim. If you but light a small fire in them, they become mighty and wrathful."
"Shevarash is doomed, Brother. The Empire will crush it. If you are there, you will be killed. If they catch you, you will be executed. You know this. It's not too late. The Tower will accept you back if you go, like a prodigal son returned. You will be safe there," says Nim, not in a condescending voice, but one of great concern seldom heard of him.
"I can't. I have people there, people that count on me. People I lead."
"These people think you will save them. They think the Abnoctim are behind them," dismisses Nim. "You can't save them."
"That wasn't me... that was The Ballad."

The travelers reach the River Tharch on 1 Soldai, the holy month of Elai.

The great Tharch originates as snowmelt from Mt. Farastu, where precisely one month ago your journey began. The dark hurrying waters of the Hirthbrook join the Tharch in a swirl of dim pools among the roots of tall, wild trees. Rainbows take shape in the mist, and little golden flowers float in the foam.

Yngvarr washes his face in the deliciously cool water. When he drinks it, he is consumed with with an instantaneous, all-illuminating light: a rushing cataract of deific rapture that assuages all feverishness. Another two days pass on the Tharch as the barge goes deeper into the Plain of Homesight, a land of golden plains dotted with wide-limbed oaks and over-weighted fruit trees. On mid-morning of 3 Soldai the silver gates of a great city are raised against the hem of the western horizon. Arrayed near the city are comfortable farm houses and populous villages, and beyond these there lay cultivated fields, and gentle streams meandering among poplars, and roads that run through the open plain to the high chateaux of the noble lords of Fanal-Tîrun: the City of Martyrs.

Your eyes fall on the grand features of the Tower of Elai, raised above the skyline. Although the Sword of Elai no longer rests within the citadel, the tower panes catch the dawning sun, and give back rays like a jewel held against the sky. It seems as though a mighty angel were sitting atop the pinnacle.

The capital is a remarkable sight, a metropolis of ancient buildings raised in stone and marble and sacred clay from the River Tharch, scented by the boundless overflow of vine and orchard. Of all the lands of Edion, the light of Solaris shines here the brightest. Yonder in the southern districts, great vessels and man-o’-war lay alongside the wharves, head on, so that their bowsprits stick out over the piers like rows of bayonets. Over them, too, sprawl the mermaids, goddesses, sea monsters, and other figure-heads in carved wood which give names to the ships, all gleaming with fresh paint.

The Tharch is swollen with snowmelt, and so the Tharchess has opened its doors to the Edion ocean. On the docks, in the intervals of the yards and booms, the longshoremen and visitors hail one another in all languages.

Salek maneuvers the barge to a landing on the north shore, and they set foot upon the broad Tîrun pavements. Neren speaks privately with the man, and they say farewells. Assembled before a great temple of Felish—once a shrine to Shivaji—the company goes purposefully into the measureless sprawl of the great city. The buildings are brightly restored in blue and yellow, fresh from the Festival of Paint in early Manthus. And all around is a great concourse of humanity, the Tîrunim, who take pride in their appearance and wear a great deal of silk, swanskin, and soft flannel, all of the best weave they can afford. Everywhere a prodigious collection of all kinds of goods is sold in shops and paraded on street corners. For Mabul and Yngvarr, there are no words to convey the incomprehensible wonder of it all: the rumbling of carts, the shouting of vendors, and atop everything the furious melody of the River Tharch.

They go for miles beneath the towering structures, reaching the Collegium Magica by mid-day. Here the academy of wizards is built on wide grounds and parklands, a bizarre arrangement of rectangular buildings, placed in a spiral around a pair of central towers—one larger than the others—interconnected by bridges and various walkways. The turrets are lost behind the high and interlacing trees. Opposite a broad pavement rises the Tower of Elai, raised by the gnomes long ago. A sickle-shaped pool of celestial water glitters round its base, where pilgrims lie down in prayer and holy men give baptisms.

The college seems unusually quiet as they approach the main entrance. Here they are greeted by Galadaster the Magnificent, Exarch of the School of Necromancy and Curator of the Tîrun college. He warmly greets Nimlinor, his pupil, and Nerenethos, and the rest of their companions. "Were you successful in your quest?" he asks. Nimlinor nods in affirmation. "Good. Good! Talqavist will be most pleased. But there are direr matters before us now. Come, we mustn’t waste any time.”

Galadaster conducts them to the drawing room of Talqavist the Reborn, deep within the labyrinthlike academy. In this great room are shelves overcrowded with books and deep-set windows overlooking the courtyard. Many volumes are piled high on tables or stacked in corners. There are rolls of papyrus, of parchment, of vellum; and there are scrolls of arcane lore—hundreds upon hundreds of spells, incantations, and enchantments, piled into drawers, arranged on carousels, and sorted meticulously on racks.

“If you wait here," instructs Galadaster, "I shall summon the Archon. He is eager to speak with you.”

In answer, they hear a voice endowed with authority and power. “Thank you, Master Wizard, that will not be necessary,” it commands.

Entering the room behind them is a tall man with a bald head, a full and prominent brow, and a long chin boldly chiseled and garnished with a gray beard cut to a point. He wears the full military dress of the officers of Azalan, and with the wave of his finger he dismisses the illusion of Galadaster, which evaporates like fog beneath a noonday sun. The door closes behind him.

“A light grows in the heart and spirit of men destined to accomplish grand designs," says the man, whose insignia—three points converging on one—identify him as a cleric of Rimelm, the Azalim god of strategy and discipline.

Neren puts his hand on his weapon and takes a quick survey of the exits. There are none.

“There is no need for alarm. I am here to share your crime,” says the man, his voice coming from the heart, with a certain ingenuousness of tone that bears witness to his sincerity, and stirs the listener to noble sentiments.

“My name is Ovand Nas. I am the governor of this province, which means I also command forty legions of the imperial army. But these things are secondary to my role as Predicant of Rimelm." He pauses. The look of fear on Neren's face is palpable. "Allow me to ease your concerns," says Nas. "I am here at the bidding of Talqavist. As you can plainly tell, the wizards have abandoned the College and gone hastily to Fil-Garil. For what purpose, I do not know. Having need of a messenger, Talqavist appointed me.

"He said that you were sent to retrieve an object of great power, that you were not to be delayed, and that I would have to make a stern choice: between the daring of great risks and loyalty to Azalan. It is hard indeed to believe that one of so great wisdom, and of power, as Talqavist the Reborn, would rely on me for so important a task… What, in truth, is this thing you have brought here?"

Nimlinor reveals the Bottled City.

"What need have wizards for so simple a thing?" asks the governor.

"In it are contained the Shards of Thariom, recovered from the ancient crypts beneath Granitehome. And greatly are wizards troubled by such things," explains Nim.

"I see that there is some great tale of dread in this," says the governor, "and I see now that my choice is difficult, and that no man in my position has ever to make that choice."

"But make it you must," says Nimlinor, choosing his words carefully.

"I am charged with bringing the justice of Felish to all the Cáladain and thus to end a crusade that has been started too long a time ago. To do so, I must show unfailing loyalty to my Emperor."

Nimlinor waits quietly.

Ovand broods for awhile, with his chin on his knotted hands. "Fear no more! I will not take this thing, for I respect the counsel of Talqavist, who is more than a wizard and master of lores, but a great mentor of the Cáladain. Often does he teach the words, 'In doubt a man of worth will trust to his own wisdom.' For my part, I will trust Talqavist who entrusted you. He urges you now to return to the Tower of Llómydien with all haste. A teleportation circle has been prepared for your journey. I will take you to it."

"It is well," says Nimlinor. "Show us the way." Neren looks apprehensive. The Tower is very far away and his heart lies near in Shevarash.

The Governor leads them to a chamber at the top of the main college tower. Here a network of interlacing runes is inscribed on the floor in concentric rings. "I do not know why the wizards have fled," says Nas, "nor what perils await you in Fil-Garil." He pauses, taking a long look at Nimlinor. "Is it well, is it meet, that I should dismiss you? Will there be nothing to lose, and nothing to regret?"

"...A stern choice indeed," says Nas.

Stepping onto the stones, the companions feel a sudden thrill. "Thank you for your time," says Neren to Ovand Nas, tipping his hat. The flags tilt beneath their feet, and they are gone.

Part Two

With a flash of light, the fellowship is teleported instantly to the Tower of Llómydien, a distance of 900 miles. They reappear in a well-lit sanctuary with walls that have gray bark like tree limbs. There are tall, narrow windows numbering eight, each admitting a ray of warm sunlight. A stairwell descends from the room, following the perimeter of the outer wall.

Gazing momentarily outside a window, you see that you are suspended in the clouds, in the heights of a great tower! The tower walls pierce the cloud layer, like an island upon a sea of white vapor stretching to the horizon. The sun is golden and warm upon the billowy sea.

A wizard approaches from the stairwell. He is garmented in a robe of blinking eyes, and carries in his hand a slender staff crowned with a bright jewel—called Elshieryll, the Flame of Wisdom. It is Talqavist.

“O Fair Folk of Atân! This is good fortune beyond my hope. Welcome to the Tower of Llómydien. You are safe now in the last homely house of the elven-wise. I do apologize for not meeting you in Fanal-Tîrun. I trust that the Governor was no large trouble to you?”

"No trouble at all," says Nimlinor, his spirits uplifted.

“Splendid! It is wonderful that Ovand Nas should take so much trouble on my account. Tell me then of your journeys… I will risk a brief tale for now. But quite brief, mind you.”

Nimlinor recounts their struggles and offers the Bottled City to his master. Talqavist declines the bottle for now. "I shan’t take it just yet," he says. "You Nimlinor are its finder and its bearer, for the present time."

“Fortune and fate have helped you,” says Talqavist to the others, “not to mention courage. Great songs will be written of your valor, and documented in long scrolls for men to read." The wizard informs them of a great convocation taking place in the Hall of Nine Stars at sunrise. "The Abnoctim have answered my summons; they come from Bowgentle, from Dabu-Nareen, from Sol-Fatara, and from Azalan. All the wizards have come to hear matters of great import concerning the Bottle, and other matters besides. Nimlinor, Nerenethos: Your father has come. He will be most satisfied to see you alive and in good spirits.”

Talqavist conducts them to their quarters.

The Tower of Llómydien [pic] is a vast sky-reaching structure rising over the gentle Plain of Nebrimir. Its architect, Llómydien, son of Tilaryon, raised the tower in the distant past, during the reign of the First Everqueen Sabirine. He did not build the tower so much as grow it from a confluence of divine forces. Into its impossible construction are woven the roots of Edion, like the roots of a great tree. It took centuries to build, and afterwards became the dwelling of the Farseers and Loremasters, caretakers of the knowledge of Edion. In all the long history of the elves, there have been only four farseers, and one administrator: Llómydien, Anadrieldur, Eärithrarion, and Ophelius. Talqavist is the administrator of the Tower, for he does not rightly possess the office of Farseer, not while the Farseer stone—Pelimë—is held in captivity by the Necromancer King of Argentaamn.

Architecturally, the tower is divided into a number of sections. At its base is the Grove of Dwelling, where the roots of the tower mingle with the mundane structure, upholding the entire construction. Along the outer circumference are the apartments, living quarters, and primary stairwells of the Tower. Nimlinor and Neren both have dwellings here, as do all the full-fledged wizards of the Order. Internal to these is the Well of Knowledge, where hundreds of thousands of codices and grimoires, compiled down the centuries by generations of loremasters, are enshrined, spiraling upward in endless gyre. The nucleus of the tower is a dizzying array of laboratories, private studies, workshops, and foundries, connected to the outer ring by a confusing network of bridges and walkways. Situated atop the hub rests the Bladedancer fane, the sacred temple of the bladesingers where no human is permitted to enter. This is the sanctuary of Calin Stormblade and the few surviving elves of Edion, where Valandil makes his home. Above the Bladesinger fane is the citadel of the Cult of Esus. Here the High Priestess of Esus and all her retainers tend the spellpool and nurture it with prayer. The great matrix of spell energy is contained deep within this facility, where only the cultists are permitted to go. Atop all of this are the observatories and the great meeting chambers of the Exarchs. Here are the pinnacles of the tower, sharp needles raised against the sky in eight culminations. Into these were once set the Doombrammor, the Divine Lenses of Edion… called Divine Nodes by the druids.

The fellowship takes rest. Nim and Neren are reunited with their father.

Ereaxos is a tall, straight wizard, with bushy eyebrows and quite a significant growth of hair in his ears. Neren gets his unusual looks from his father, who has the same nose and high-placed ears. Nimlinor avoided this genetic catastrophe, taking after his mother’s face.

They have a merry meeting, recounting their tales. The brothers cook a fine meal for their father and savor it long into the evening. Ereaxos is proud of his sons and playful, even pretending to know nothing of the Shards of Thariom while Neren blunders an explanation.

Meanwhile, Narntay discovers in his quarters a map of the Encircling Sea, penned long ago by the Farseer Eärithrarion. He is transfixed by the roads that lay before him, having never known such places as M'bol Tan, or far-off Istalion.

Mabul consults Talqavist about the nature of his strange possession at the tollhouse near Osk. "It is as I feared," says Talqavist.

"The waters of the River Shator are evil and tainted with unlife. Those who drink from them develop cysts of necrotic flesh, semisolid tumors that roam the body at will. It is not a disease, per se, but an undead parasite, a worm from beyond the grave. Worse, the cyst enables a sympathetic response between free-roaming undead and itself, and the Necromancer Kings use this to work their evils. It is how the Abishaim are controlled, whether they know it or not. Great spells can be worked through the cyst; you know two already: the scrying, the gate. It cannot be cured by ordinary means, and no magical medicant is known to me. I will consult Galadaster and see if we might fabricate a cure. In the meantime, you pose a danger to the Tower. I will be sending you far from the Bottled City, for a time, but you will return to it and to your friends. They will have great need of you in the dark days ahead."

That night before the convocation, Calin Stormblade takes Valandil to see Talqavist in seclusion. None overhear the words that are spoken between them, but when the meeting is ended Valandil renounces his oath to the Bladedancer Fane. He is now a bladedancer in full standing, but he will not give his life defending the Tower. Talqavist has other plans for the elf Valandil.

In the morning, all the guests of the Tower are conducted to the Hall of Nine Stars for a great convocation. The hall is filled with the Abnoctim: wizards for the most part, but also priestesses of the Cult of Esus. Talqavist sits in a great chair at the center of a raised, crescent-shaped table, flanked by the High Priestess of Esus and her Ladies Superior on the right (including Myndine Daughter of Eira, Nimlinor's mother), and by the eight Exarchs on the left. The Fellows of Atân are accorded a circular table directly in front of and below the Archon’s table. The rest of the hall is filled with many dozens of wizards and their pupils, all seated in the round. Stationed at the entryways are the bladedancers, mighty elven warriors, ancient, but hale and deadly. Valandil does not assume that post, but sits with the Fellowship.

The Bottled City is brought forth to the astonishment and acclaim of the wizards. Many praises and congratulations are heaped upon Nimlinor and the Fellows of Atân. It is decided that the Bottled City cannot remain at the Tower of Llómydien. For Tharthammon will never tire in pursuit of it, nor will his servants Thameera and the githyanki. Even now, they are mobilizing armies against the Abnoctim.

"We have but one recourse," argues Talqavist. "The Bottle must be taken far from the Enemy’s reach. As long as the Shards of Thariom remain safely inside, Tharthammon cannot enter our world. He is forced to rely on his servants... servants which can be defeated. There are many places on Edion where the bottle could be hidden, but nowhere safe."

Talqavist decides to send the Bottled City to Mount Istalion, to be safe in the protection of the elves. But a great consternation and debate arises over this suggestion, since no man has ever set foot on Mount Istalion. Only the elves know how to find it, and they have all gone. All save the bladedancers who are doomed to die.

"At my bidding, Valandil has renounced his Oath to the Bladedancers. We are indebted to him for this sacrifice, indeed all living things may one day be in his debt. For now a great journey lies before him, and those who would stand by his side: to go beyond the Hither Lands to a distant shore, and gaze upon the Throne of Dragons."

And while Valandil does not feel the call to go there, having long suppressed it, he vows to seek the ancient island and one day walk amid the Mansions of Aldoril where his people dwell. And Nimlinor, though he wishes only to be rid of the Bottled City, is declared its protector and charged with delivering it to the elves, who are wise beyond the counsel of wizards. For the elves gathered the shards of this world, and will know how to manage the Shards of Thariom. Narntay, who is a master of roads and sees many horizons, will lead them with Geyon's blessing. And greatly is Talqavist overjoyed, for Yngvarr and Mabul renew their oaths to the Fellowship and go with Valandil. But Neren is encumbered by these tidings. His mind is never far from Shevarash, and Istalion seems so very far away. "Be comforted," says Talqavist, "our journey will take us to Shevarash first, and I will go with you, for there is much that needs mending."

At that Talqavist withdraws an opaque crystal orb from his robe. The image of an emerald eagle flies within it, its beak pointing South. "This was recovered from Essares-Luminar by my friend Ophelius," says the wizard. "It points to Lóliévar, the Floating Dragon, called Vela-Andúin by the druids. For some time, it has pointed south to the jungles of M’bol Tan, where the dragon is hibernating. And there must dwell the gnomes, who departed our lands in the Age of Seviamos. If Valandil can win to Vela-Andúin," instructs Talqavist, "and there awaken the dragon, it would serve as a ready transport to Istalion."

"The elves came to Edion upon the Dragon’s back," say the wizards. "Let it now bear the Bottled City to the Encircling Sea, and to Mt. Istalion. There is will be safe!"

"Safe indeed," says Talqavist, "but for us the real peril begins."

"You speak of the orcs," says Prantio the Earnest.

The chamber goes completely silent. It is revealed by Talqavist that the orcs, though long quieted in their prison, have been released from Shargol-Bogra and now threaten to invade Fil-Garil.

"Magrud, the Orc-Mother, who is ancient like Grandal, was released from her bondage by the Dwarf Gotri and his companions: the Treeman Verudwan, the satyr Ius, the centaur Thorndak, and the pixies Lulea and Syra Moonflower."

Neren's heart sinks. Much is taken away from him by Talqavist's words, and hope withers.

"When the last of the everqueens had passed," continues Talqavist, "plans were put into motion to fulfill an ancient pact between elf and dwarf: to release the orcs from their ancient prison, which the dwarves had built. The Dwarves sent five of their sons to Thard-Harr bearing a Golden Key, which would unlock the prison. But they were defeated by their own greed, save one, the Dwarf Gotri, and by happenstance the key came briefly into my possession. I met with all the leaders of Fil-Garil to decide its fate, and we sat before the ancient throne of the Everqueens in Isil-Gäde, where stand the lifeless boughs of Grandal. Merego was there, and Queen Lulea of the grigs, and Gwervaral, master of the Treeman, and many centaurs and beastmen. A great dispute arose. 'Hide it!' 'Destroy it!' 'Give it back to the dwarves!' they said.

"So we consulted Grandal, who is not truly dead, but only dreaming. And he is an emissary of the Artifex, who shaped the World Stone and made Edion. So we asked Grandal, 'What is to be done with this Key?' And he decreed that the Key should go to Thard-Harr after all, for that was the design of the ancient races.

"And what of Men?" I asked him. "Shall we lay down and die, judging that the elder races have seen more clearly the paths of our fate?

"To which, Grandal said with a roguish smile, 'It is the right of Men to fight, if that is their desire. It is the right of all beings of Edion to embroil and astonish the orcs, ere they go down in silence.'

"At this the pixies lifted up their swords and cheered, and the centaurs stomped their hooves. The grigs flew round and round. Even the dryads were stirred to action, and swayed the trees in their excitement. 'Grandal is very wise!' they said, and each race pledged a warrior to send to Thard-Harr with the Golden Key. And the company departed and went into that awful land, while the rest of the faeriekind and wizardkind made ready for the battles to come. A battle that is now at our doorstep.

"Yesterday morning, on the First of Soldai by the Fatarim calendar, orcs crossed the Pass of Himring, the van of a great army that has yet to reveal its full strength. Meanwhile, a second army moved west into Wych Wood, cutting and burning as they went.

"We have planned to use Azalan against this incursion, and long have we cultivated our relationship with their governor in Sol-Fatara. But the emperor’s armies will not avail us now. Something has sped the orcs’ revival, some mind of malice, and I fear it is Tharthammon. Without the Farseer Stone, I could not see what was bred in secret: great armies, driven as by devils, now coming against us at speed.

"We live now upon an island amid many perils. What defenses we have are already in place. Treemen guard the passes through Ithiltaen, and Merego’s sprites now hold the Wych Wood. But these defenses will not last. It falls to us, the Abnoctim, to stem this tide. These are merely the first of many hordes to spill from the gates of Thard-Harr. More will come. But if the first waves can be defeated here in Fil-Garil, using such weapons as we have, time will be won to rally the Cáladain to a more structured defense."

All the Council members hang their heads with downcast eyes, as if in deep thought. Some speak out against Talqavist and the Exarchs, noting the failures of their policy. Many fear to work against the orcs in any fashion and beg Talqavist's leave to withdraw. But he dismisses no one.

"This is the foretokening of a great evil that is come upon Edion," says Talqavist. "This will either be a new beginning for Men, or the final destruction of our kind. We do not like war, but it has pursued us since time began. Today, we must be ready to face it.

"I have ordered the Treefather, Gwervaral, who is eldest among the Treants, to return to Llómydien. He is safe in the gardens as we speak. I have it under his counsel that the Treemen of Ithiltaen will hold the northern forest. But I fear for the pixies, who will die bravely fighting a hopeless war in Wych Wood."

Neren is sent to Wych Wood to recall Merego and his troops the defense of the Tower. "We will engage the forces amassing in the south here, at Llómydien, whose walls cannot be assailed even by the craft of Tharthammon," explains Talqavist. Yngvarr and Mabul are sent to accompany Neren and see to his safe return. The three must go first to Neren's childhood home and speak with Calais, Neren's mother, who lives near the western edge of the Wych Wood. "Is that her name?" asks Neren, having never known his mother's forename. They are instructed to acquire a rare pouch of brownie dung from Calais, which Calais has aged for some time and which Talqavist now has need for some special defense. Talqavist tells them to tree stride from Gwervaral's trunk to the rare Tarchti tree in Calais' garden when they are ready to depart.

Narntay is to remain in the Tower and plan the journey to M'bol Tan, while there is still time for words and careful thought. Nimlinor will accompany the wizards in prayer before battle and then join in the Tower’s defense. It remains his duty to protect and keep the Bottled City. Valandil goes to the Blandedancer Fane to reflect on his new path.

"I do not foretell," says Talqavist, "for all foretelling is now vain: on the one hand lies darkness, and on the other only hope. If the orcs are not stopped, there will be no safe refuge... not the deserts of Kubi-Algi nor the peaks of Atân. But if hope should not fail, then I say to you, we shall defeat these orcs and win victory!"

The wizards begin their preparations for war. A great prayer is invoked to Esus, capacitating the Spellpool with awesome energies.

Neren, Yngvarr, and Mabul gather in the Grove of Dwelling, where the boles of great roots are woven into the walls. Talqavist sees them off, and gives instructions to Neren: "If the tree-folk should fail in their vigilance, and you return to find us surrounded by enemies, you must see to Gwervaral’s defense in the Garden. If all should go ill, I will rely on him to repopulate our armies."

Talqavist bids them farewell and they go quickly to Gwervaral, who waits for them atop a little hill in the Tower garden.

Yngvarr and Mabul see the Tower for the first time: No man who was so inspired by the gods, could have carven anything so sheerly magnificent and powerful, could have embodied so consummately in mere stone the most pure and triumphant of all forces: for the bricks of the Tower are roots from the foundations of Edion, and the mortar is Amydh itself.

Ribbons of magical energy take shape in the sky around you. Even without the wizard-sight, you can see it: helices of deep purple and coursing blue, caught in mystic orbit around a needle of stone. The tower is tall and fair and shapely, written with strange signs, and its pinnacle cuts the very sky, so that stars shine above it, like a crown of jewels in midair.

Gwervaral is a tall tree writhen with age; but hale in every limb. Buds are swelling at each tip of his twigs. His skin is twisted and knotted, heavy with centurial incrustations of bark; but there is an air of antique wisdom about him, together with a tranquil friendliness. Gwervaral ushers them into his trunk and tells them to hurry back "quickety-quick" with Merego, giving Mabul a little whack from behind to speed them off.

You step into the tree—a strange feeling, a bit like stepping into a room with no walls—then step out again, and there you are: in a strange garden, with bushes that seem to get up and walk around on woody stalks. Leaning behind you is a tree with purple, roundish fruits, that look delicious to eat.

This is the garden of Calais, Daughter of Editas… Neren’s mother. It is wild with strange herbs and plants with heavy-hooded blossoms. They arise and stare at you with the sinuous towering of green snakes; others crouch with radiating limbs that are like the hairy members of a giant spider. On the far side of the garden, you see a house approached by little paths, and you hear the faint sound of laughter and people talking.

Neren's ankles are grapsed by slender vines, attempting to drag him into the fronds of some sinister plant. Mabul is sneezed upon by a red-throated flower sticking its head above the foliage. Entranced, he sits down to enjoy the scene (while feelers of the plant stick their bristles into his flesh and drink his vitality). And Yngvarr, trodding upon the path, is swallowed whole by a thick-bladdered root of some kind. Neren escapes, only to find Yngvarr's root-bag uprooted from the earth and carried away by enormous jointed stems, swaying and swishing menacingly. Calling quickly upon a spell, Neren switches places with Yngvarr, then cuts his way out of the root bladder. Reunited on the garden path, Yngvarr and Neren help Mabul to the safety of the garden perimeter, where they cross a lawn covered with squirming grass.

Beyond this is Calais’s house. There is a little shaded area beside it, where sit three women in their morning gowns around an old table, enjoying tea and biscuits. The youngest is Neren's elder sister Calissa, whose hair is yellow as spun gold. Beside Calissa is Calais, Neren's mother, with wheat-colored hair and blue-gray eyes. The third lady is quite advanced in age. She must be over one hundred years old, with skin like withered parchment and extremely long gray hair. Her wondrous eyes are raven black in hue. This is Editas, Neren’s grandmother, who is more feared than loved; for she was once a high priestess of the Cult of Esus and knows many secrets [pic].

"Who are these ragged creatures in my garden?" demands Calais in the Sylvan tongue, standing up.

Sheepishly, Neren greets his mother and suffers a brief reunion. He is uncomfortable around his mother, and it shows. Calissa berates Neren for being expelled from the Collegium Magica and reminds everyone present that she is the smartest ("everyone says so"). Calais berates Neren for not speaking Elvish to his grandmother out of respect. And Editas berates Neren and Calissa for their ceaseless bickering. Editas turns the conversation to Yngvarr, speaking to him in perfect dialectical Clan-speak. "Tell me the word picture of your village," she beckons him, "and why you carry that tooth and timber." Yngvarr is amazed, for he has not heard the words of his people in a long time, and never from the lips of a non-tribesman. When he is finished speaking, Editas speaks to Mabul in dialectical Abishaim, which Mabul does not understand. He stares back unknowingly until he hears the words "Erach nal ish Nilzabar" pass her lips, at which he replies in the Common tongue, "My life is poison to Nilzabar." He bows silently to the old grandmother.

Neren reports to his mother about the advancing orc armies and about his mission to recall Merego to the defense of the Tower. "Absolutely not!" protests Calais. "No child of mine will wander into Wych Wood without his mother’s supervision." She insists on coming, and so do Calissa and Editas. They disappear into the house to prepare themselves for the journey, leaving Neren, Mabul, and Yngvarr alone sipping tea on the patio.

Suddenly, a slender cat with dark gray hair leaps up onto the breakfast table and addresses Neren in Sylvan. It is Wary-Eye.

"Excuse me, Neren. I regret to inform you that Captain Halftail has lost his war against Sir Noland Poppycock, The Rooster, and his Harem of Happy Hens. He is being held prisoner in the coop. The Rooster has posted four guards, and despite my considerable intelligence I simply cannot sneak past them. Twaddlefat cannot avail me, because, as you might expect, he is afraid of the Rooster, and besides he is hiding nervously somewhere in the garden. Do you suggest a course of action?”

Neren reviews the sitation and suggests that worms be collected from the garden and used to lure the guards from their posts.

"I hadn’t thought of that. Genius!" excites Wary-Eye. Wary-Eye and Mabul go to collect worms while Neren goes to treat with Sir Noland. Yngvarr sits there at the table every bit as stupefied as one might expect.

When Neren approaches the henhouse there are indeed four hens posted at the entrance. They go crazy with clucking, alerting Sir Noland, the Rooster, who comes running from inside.

"Excuse me, kind sir, may I help you?" asks the rooster in Sylvan, his chestfeathers puffed out and beak held high.
"Greetings Sir Noland, it is me: the Boy Neren."
"I don’t believe we’ve met," says the rooster. "I am Sir Noland Poppycock. As you can plainly see, I am the master of this house, and Captain Halftail is my prisoner of war."
"It appears so," says Neren. "I have come to bargain for the Captain's release."
"Do you have authority to treat with me?"
"Well, Captain Halftail is my cat, if that's what you mean."
"Very well," consents the rooster. "The Captain is to cede the garden and the eastern lawn to the chicken-kind, and vow never to return, so that I may perform my roosterly privilege and crow at the sun!"
"Your terms are pretty severe, but I suppose they're fair," says Neren. "May I speak with the Captain to obtain his cooperation?"
"You may," says the rooster, who goes to speak with his hens.

Neren enters the henhouse and finds Captain Halftail locked in the coop. The Captain is a handsome, well-poised tabby cat, who wears upon his head a plumed helmet.

"Is that you, Nerenethos?" asks the Captain from behind his cage. "It can’t be, Neren is only eight! What devilry is this? Who is responsible?! I shall avenge you!" declaims the cat. Neren explains to the Captain that he has grown up and is no longer eight years old. He then carries him out of the henhouse, where the rooster confronts them, crying, "You tricked me! To arms! To arms!!" rallying the hens to battle. At which Mabul appears with a handful of fresh worms. He throws them on the ground, diverting the hens and the rooster long enough for Neren and the Captain to escape.

Neren's relatives emerge from the cottage dressed in the full ceremonial wargear of the Cult of Esus: blue and white robes spangled with stars and moons, covering a mantle of chainmail. Even grandmother is so attired. They wield crescent staves and Calais bears a little box in her hand. She gives it to Neren. He opens it, revealing a pair of tiny little wings, gauzy and streaked with colors. There is a note that reads, in Sylvan, "Neren my little dear, these are for you. Remember, one half-day only please." Neren takes the little wings of Queen Lulea and smiles.

Assembled, the strange company goes into Wych Wood. They are joined at last by a plump, orange cat coming nervously out of the garden. It is Neren's third cat, Twaddlefat [pic].

The wood is full of sighing voices, weird whimpers and little moanings. They arrive in Whisperleaf to find the miniature sprite village abandoned. A lone sprite soars into view with a little bow nocked and ready.

The creature resembles a miniature elf, but with longer ears and gossamer wings. Its hair is a vibrant pink. In a tone of discontent it shouts, "Halt where you are!" in the Sylvan tongue.

They learn from the scout—who is little Espa Leafwine, Merego's granddaughter—that the sprites are making a defense at the River Corsimmyr, and that the orc-kind will try to cross it by morning. Espa leads them to the encampment, some leagues away beyond fields of giant mushrooms and copses of gnarled Wych Elms, then down a treacherous weald blanketed in moss.

There by a riverbank showing silver in the moonlight, you see a thousand or more pixies armed with spears, and swords, and little bows... their gauzy wings asparkle with every color of the rainbow. They watch the river with dark, angry eyes, ready at a moment’s notice to pounce on the enemy.

Espa shows them to Merego's tent. Neren goes inside to speak with Merego, a lovely sprite with fluffy golden hair and clear blue eyes that are marvelously fair to look upon. Danderful and Stadabra are also there, Merego's lieutenants. Neren explains his business, that Talqavist has sent him to recall the sprites to Llómydien and that a second army is headed south over the Himring Delve. Merego objects at first, explaining that their best opportunity is to take the orcs at the river. But then he submits, trusting Neren's wisdom, on the condition that Neren and his friends go with him to spy on the orc camp. "Something is pursuing the orcs out of Thard-Harr," says Merego. "Something you will want to see."

Merego dismisses his lieutenants and takes the company to a narrow ford. The pixies have rigged the span to collapse if orcs use it, but Merego knows a safe way across. Beyond is the Creeping Wood, and beyond this a narrow shelving ravine overlooking a once-thriving meadowland. Far below they see the watch-fires of the orc host. All around, the meadowland is devasted; everything has grown harsh, twisted, struggling for life. Sullen shriveled leaves hang from the dying trees, their buds ridden with maggots. Flies buzz and sting all about them, and clouds of hungry midges dance and reel above the sprawl of orc-kind. They cannot see the orcs from their spot, but they can hear them quarreling, snarling and cursing—loyal beyond reason to the ideal of carnage, even when no real enemy is at hand. The stench of the sweaty, arguing orcs is stifling.

But these things arouse little concern—the diseased meadow, the rattle of orc-feet—for gliding in the night sky above the whole scene is a terror out of the East: the adumbration of a monstrous menace, unlike any mortal terror that has ever taken wing.

Much like a bird it is—misshapen and garbed in hideous black feathers—though immensely large and dreadful. From tip to tip of its shadowy wings would measure over three miles, if so vasty a thing could be measured by men. Oblivion is around it like the meshes of a sable net, blotting out the summer stars with the dusky and warped foulness of its wings. It circles above the horde, wheeling in awful menace above the decaying tree-tops. All life wilts beneath it and turns to rot, save the orcs, who are fearless of its ill renown.

A legendry of immemorial evil clings about it. Its vulturelike face is twisted in a horrible, never-changing leer, and its eyes are pinpoints of ruin, unfeeling and dark. The slow, noisome flapping of its wings is heavy in your face. Your heart flutters. Pain shoots up your neck; bearded whiskers spring from your face, prickly and gray. Wrinkles set in the cavities of your eyes, as from the sudden advance of age.

Merego turns away from it. "When the orcs cross the river, all will come to blight. And now you ask me to abandon Wych Wood to the orc-kind... and to her?"

"What is it?" asks Yngvarr, averting his gaze. He cannot stand to look upon so awful a thing, so contrary to the light of Elai.

"The elves call it Samanwë. In sylvan, we say Sibnos and speak of it rarely. The druids have another name for it: Vela-Shiven, the Node of Death, that which is ancienter than the world and older than light. It has followed the orcs out of the East; now the end is upon Edion, and Sibnos shall reign."

The fellows hang their heads in fear.

"I will abandon Wych Wood, if it’s to save the Tower," says Merego. "But understand me, nothing can withstand the winged death.”

Led by Neren and his friends, the sprites abandon their position at the Corsimmyr River and go east toward the Tower of Llómydien. The pixie host moves with incredible speed over the rolling downs, like an army of butterflies, fluttering and stalling, creeping and hopping, darting and diving. The pixies shake off a magic dust, enchanting the earth so that Neren and the others can keep up. As they travel, Editas instructs Mabul on the grammatical rules of the Abishaim language, and introduces him to some important words and phrases. How ironic it seems to Mabul that he learn his own language from an Abnoctim crone.

At evening they camp on the Fields of Nebrimir. That first night, as the pixies cheep softly in their dreams, Merego visits Neren. Neren is quietly doing dishes. The sprite joins him in this activity, confiding his fear to Neren.

"The orcs are moving fast behind us," says Merego, "and all the Goblins of Wych Wood are swept into their train."
Neren nods his head, not sure what to say.
"And worse, the Wings of Death soar upon the van. We have waited for this moment for so long—since that eve with Grandal—but now that it’s here, I’m afraid. The orcs are meaner than goblins, their skin is thicker, and they don’t fear death."
"I know, Merego. I know," says Neren. "You're the captain of all the pixies. I'm an emissary of the Tower, and all we can think to do is the dishes."
"Is the world really going to end? Like this?" asks Merego, choking back a tear. Neren doesn't know. He's not sure of anything anymore. Then Merego firms his voice, "Our first and only priority must be the safety of Gwervaral. Promise me, Neren, you will not let the Treeman fall in battle."
"I won't," says Neren.
"I command twelve hundred sprites. Danderful has another six. Stadabra has three," states Merego. "Will it be enough?"

Meanwhile, back at the Tower of Llómydien, Nimlinor and Narntay are approached by the great elven warrior Calin Stormblade. He informs them that something has infiltrated the tower, and that the Bottled City must be taken to the Bladedancer Fane until the nature of the threat is revealed. They follow him to the ancient temple, a citadel located in the tower heights.

The portals to the sanctuary are open to the Well of Knowledge and connect via four stairlike landings, which overlook a vast abyss of spiraling shelves. The only means of approach is by levitating through the Well, or by ascending one of the outer stairwells. The Fane is partitioned into four separate shrines, each connected by doorways to the Sanctuary, and by separate portals to a corridor running the perimeter of the Tower.

The bladedancers are warriors of the abstract, dedicated to an ascetic art of self-denial. The shrines are temples dedicated to their ideals. A bladedancer begins his worship in the Shrine of Reflection, where he acknowledges and remembers the life he once led. This shrine is full of personal objects left by the bladesingers when they first joined the Order. Here Valandil’s emerald eagle—a talisman wrought by Alatariel, his mother—sits side by side with Calin’s wedding charm.

Moving counterclockwise through the shrines, a bladedancer comes next to the Shrine of Balance, where he enters a state of emotional harmony, rendering all passions inert. After Balance comes Wisdom. Wise action includes rest, meditation, and profound thought. Finally, the bladedancer comes to the Shrine of War, the armory of the cult, where the warrior bonds with his weapons. Here the great weapons of the order are kept: such ancient treasures as Khraelyn’s Avarta-tië, The Banshee Sword, entrusted to the Order when Khraelyn left the Hither Lands, and the fabled Sword of the Elements, Calin’s weapon.

They are admitted to the main sanctuary, an enormous room full of unknown perfumes, hypnotic and soothing, billowing from a brazier burning strange coals. The vapors spill down onto the floor, and go tumbling over the steps into the library well. No human has ever been admitted to the Bladedancer Fane. Nimlinor and Narntay are the first. Here they are reunited with Valandil.

"The Bottled City will be safe here," instructs Calin. "Do not leave the Fane, save by my leave. As the hour of battle grows nearer, I have few warriors to spare for your protection. I give you three." They are joined by the elves Elwethan, Imranor, and Telwar [pic]. Like Valandil, their armor is woven of all colors, and if they move they shimmer and change hue so that the eye is bewildered. Calin offers them one final instruction, then leaves: "Nimlinor, as a custodian of the Tower, the bladesingers are sworn to protect you. But you do not hold them in command. In the Bladedancer Fane, they follow my word alone, to the exclusion of all others, even Talqavist. Defend the Bottle at all costs, even to your death."

Meanwhile, in the brown twilight between sunrise and daybreak, Merego and his legions see the Tower of Llómydien rising in the distance. All about its walls, the hosts of Thard-Harr rage like a storm-tossed sea—black ranks crashing in dun waves upon the outer fortifications. The treemen's army in the north has failed, and the orc hordes were barely suppressed there. Now they have come in full strength against the Abnoctim. And to the utter horror of the wizards, their black banners bear the symbol of Tharthammon: the Eye and Mountain.

Armies of elementals are summoned to the Tower’s defense. The wizards, leaning from their observatories, lash the sky with storms and livid lightnings, and great whirlwinds of death. Violently rotating columns of air uphold hundreds of orcs, destroying all in their path. The sky goes dark with energies. On the plain below, the orcs hurry to erect siege engines; but they do not waste their missiles upon the indomitable Tower walls. With many yells and the creaking of winches, they launch flaming missiles into the garden. Soon there is a great peril of fire.

With the braying of horns, the pixies charge down into the fray. Clouds of darts and poisoned arrows fill the sky. Merego leads Neren's company and a small contingent of pixies to a fortification being dug for orc catapults. "Come on, Neren," orders Merego, "let’s disable those machines. Gwervaral is helpless against fire!!"

Huge trenches are dug by the orcs and filled with fire for their machines. With a rushing attack, Merego's company is soon embroiled in battle, face-to-face with the murderous orcs [pic].

The orcs have a dark, purplish hue, and their eyes are red slits of flame beneath oblique brows with animal-like bristles. Lupine ears rise from matted masses of black hair. They prefer wearing unpleasant colors, such as blood red, mustard yellow, yellow-green, and deep purple. Strongly muscled and covered in fresh scars, the orcs are formidable warriors, brandishing heavy maces, and clubs, and morningstars, all filthy with gore. The soil beneath their feet turns rotten, and living things wither under their deadly gaze.

Editas conjures bright, glowing comets from the heavens—fragments of Thariom and Phandriom adrift in the firmament—which crash down onto the battlefield, blooming into explosions of white cloud. Calais releases a fire elemental from a bound gem and commands it to disrupt the catapults and their crews. Meanwhile Calissa and her brother Neren engage the orcs in melee, as do Yngvarr and Mabul. Neren skirts the defenses and commandeers an abandoned catapult. When the last of the defenses have been swept away, Mabul and Yngvarr join him at the captured machine and help Neren load and fire it into the orc hordes.

Unbeknownst to Nimlinor, Narntay, and Valandil, who wait quietly in the Bladedancer Fane, a war now rages on the Field of Nebrimir, and the Tower is encircled by foes. For them, all is silent and still. Time goes differently in the Fane, and all concerns are suppressed. Then new entities emerge from the shadows of the Well of Knowledge: gaunt, crouching shapes, whose bodies are virtually unclassifiable by human standards.

It appears humanlike from a distance, but primitive and alien in its attire. At first, you detect traits of the reptile and the insect, with chitinous armor plating covering vaguely humanoid thighs, supported on legs with extra joints. It crouches very low to the ground, and moves with surprising agility. Before you can master your startlement, another one appears, then another...

In three-fingered hands they wield menacing spears set with points that resemble jewels more than metal. Little pinpoints of erratic color flicker all around the blades like spinning coins. Others wield slings, loaded with the same glittering ammunition.

Their heads are small in proportion to their slight bodies, and their shoulders hunch so that their necks protrude from the front of their torsos. Their faces are sparsely featured, with eyes recessed into their sockets, small nostrils set directly in the skull without any nose structure, and virtually lipless mouths of needlelike teeth and fleshy tongues.

Dressed only in tatters, the githyanki warriors advance. With a cry of hatred that stings the ear like venom, they attack in shifting waves. No individual gith occupies the same spot for long; they constantly swap dimensions, appearing suddenly from behind, then falling back into nothingness. Their magic obeys different laws, being of Thariom not Edion, and their weapons cut deeper than any material blade. But the bladedancers accommodate their foes' tactics, entering a choreographed blade dance. They anticipate every strike, delivering their lethal blows with grace and skill. The githyanki are cut to ribbons, but more come, like insects hopping from the astral plane to this plane. The fane is overrun by the alien warriors, and repeatedly they are cleared.

From the Well of Knowledge comes a sound, startling and horrible above the din of battle: a gurgling, bubbling noise, and a long venomous hiss. Nimlinor and Narntay wheel round to see the Travesty Thameera climbing up out of the Well of Knowledge with bent legs and great knobbed joints held high above her back. The dark form moves toward Nimlinor with horrible speed, running on her creaking legs and making a sudden bound. She threatens Nimlinor, but only Narntay understands her words. The cleric disregards her, and spits back in wrath, "Curse you and die, bitch of Tharthammon!"

Snarling ferociously, Thameera leaps forward to assail Nimlinor. Slinging her abdomen beneath her bulk, and rearing menacingly, she exudes a stream of silk at the wizard. But Nim and Narntay evade the attack and the bladedancers intervene, wounding her deeply. With poison frothing and bubbling from her wounds, she retreats into the Well. More githyanki come in her wake, and moments later she returns, her wounds closed. There is a red light in her eyes; her face is twisted with rage. "The Bottle is Mine!" she declares, laying bare her teeth. "Mine!" Her towering legs carry her quickly toward Nimlinor. He holds his staff against her in futility, beholding the dreadful stare of her two monstrous and abominable eyes. Nim is rendered stunned and blind, wracked by hallucinations. Thameera comes in close for the kill, but she is intercepted by bladedancers. The Travesty responds with another web, catching Valandil and Imranor in the sticky mass. Narntay holds off more advancing githyanki with a blast of radiant shards, conjured from Solaris.

Telwar leaps to a position behind Thameera and swipes his blades across her legs. She crouches, the great bows of her legs quivering, but she renews her attack and flays Telwar mercilessly until he is dead. Valandil attacks Thameera with a bewildering array of attacks, each one delivered artfully and patiently. He is a bladedancer now: alert, impassionate, deliberate. Elwethan rejoins the battle, a trail of dead gith behind him. His final blow lands on Thameera. Imranor escapes from the web and drives his blade into her belly. Heaving up again, wrenching away from the pain, she bends her writhing limbs beneath her bulk and springs backwards in a convulsive leap. With a parting, agonized curse, she fades into the ethereal, escaping once more.

The githyanki have failed. Nimlinor picks his staff up from the floor [again —Kat] and secures the Bottled City. Telwar's death is not grieved. Such is the fate of all bladedancers in this age, to die in battle.

Meanwhile, in the warzone below the Tower, Merego leads Neren and his companions through the great gardens of Llómydien.

Most of the enclosure has been trained and topiarized in the form of an almost infinite labyrinth, balefully ingenious, from which ingress to the Tower door is impossible without the proper knowledge: a maze that conceals in its windings the most fatal illusions... the most unpredictable dooms.

But Merego knows the way, as sure as Llómydien who made the shortcuts and Talqavist who improved upon them. Rounding a bend, they find Gwervaral rooted upon a gentle hill, right where Neren left him days ago. Fires have started in the garden, despite the efforts of the pixies to disrupt the orcish war machines. Water elementals now patrol the paths, clearing the flames.

Merego and his companions join Gwervaral on the hill. The treeman is white with power, and no shadow falls on him. Gwervaral is a druid, trained in the ancient ways. He welcomes their return and gets a battle report from Merego, who raises a standard atop the hill. Droves of pixies speed their way over the garden, rallying to the banner.

"Sit now beside my roots," commands the tree. His voice is clear and musical, though deeper than a man’s. They sit and tell Gwervaral about the terror coming from the East. At this news, Gwervaral lets out an enormous sigh.

The battle beyond the garden rages interminably. Clouds of shredded pixie wings color the sky blue and red. Far off in the distance, thunderheads and tornadoes and great maelstroms of wind lash the armies. Flame-bearded meteors fall upon the orcs, gnawing dark caverns in the embattled earth. It is a rebellion of nature, the full wrath of the wizards. Then, in the midst of all this pandemoniacal fear and confusion, the army from Wych Wood advances onto the Field of Nebrimir. The murderous orcs are attended by a dark ocean of goblins, thick as rats in bilge water.

High and far up in the heavens, you perceive a cry: faint, but heart-quelling, cruel and cold. The feathered dragon, called Vela-Shiven in the ancient tongue, the Node of Death, has taken the Field of Nebrimir. With grotesque flappings of its ribbed and pointed wings, it covers the fields in utter darkness and despair. The very ground beneath it wilts and dies.

The death node angles toward the tower. The vanguard of the Wych Wood orcs crashes hard into the last defenses on the outer walls, eradicating what is left of the centaur force with ease. Danderful’s sprites disperse in terror. A truly formidable assault is now being made on the Tower of Llómydien.

"Neren, I’m afraid," says Merego.

The death node passes overhead, its shadow falling black upon the earth.

You stand beneath the radiation of a black sun, the center of malignant eons, whose shadow brings untimely decay and corruption. The garden is filled with a moaning whirlwind, by a chaos of wild cries and tossing, struggling shadows.

The trees and topiaries assume the appearance of sudden age, and wither instantly to blight. Gwervaral suffers a great agony. His bark swells and peels away in black strips. His leaves wither.

You shrink and howl and scream as you endure death’s shadow. There are no examples in your life of the excruciating destruction and catastrophe you now witness. You are wracked by visions of death and decay.

The node passes, wheeling slowly around the tower and climbing to a greater height. Over the sundered trees and stones, the orc assault comes sweeping like a dark wave upon the dead garden. Pixies regroup and make battle lines, but the defenses are quickly swept away. Others fall back and join Merego on the hill. Though caught in a rage, a power and mind of malice guides the orcs. Their wrath is disciplined, guided by an unseen hand. In moments the Tower and hill are surrounded by orc-kind.

The armies advance. The hill is ringed by orcs. Thousands more advance on the Tower, throwing their might against the walls. Monstrous forms rise up over their backs, wielding weapons the size of stout men.

Neren rises, Steel Leaf in hand. With great emotion, he takes command. It is no performance, but an enactment of the heart. His homeland is threatened to the point of complete destruction.

"My fey friends! My allies and family!
The shadow has passed us over and still we stand!
We stand and we can still fight!
Before us are the despoilers of Wych Wood, of all Fil-Garil!
Let us teach them the price of that trespass!
Treefather, pixie, human, homunculus, and feline all share this privilege of vengeance!
Defend Gwervaral! Defend life!
FOR WYCH WOOD!"

Calais distributes enchanted Tarchti fruits to her allies. Each grants its consumer the breath of a dragon. Neren takes one for white dragons, but instead of eating it himself he gives it to Captain Halftail, taking the cat in hand. Calissa casts a spell on Mabul, enchanting his blade to strike true against orc-kind.

Clouds of goblin bolts fall on the hill, killing some pixies. The wizards in the tower respond with a calamitous whirlwind, which sweeps away the goblin positions, dragging the foul creatures helplessly into the sky. The pixies charge into the oncoming hordes. Neren skirts the fray with Captain Halftail, long enough to deliver the cat's breath weapon into the flank of the advancing mob. He is soon threatened by orcs, but his position is cleared by Editas projecting a stream of stars from her outstretched hands. Neren falls back and enlarges Mabul with a spell, who readies his poleaxe for the assault. Calais is the picture of calm; she creates a magical sanctuary and waits competently to deliver aid and healing to her companions.

Massive shapes appear from the shadows of the orc horde and crash upon the hill. Their faces are those of demons and their roars would freeze the blood of a giant. Spawn born of blasphemy and hatred, these hulking orcs were created in Thard-Harr by the githyanki, who endowed them with great physical strength, and weapons of woe. The brute orcs, as they are called hereafter, wield demon-forged blades that twist and deform their victims [pic]. Rills of blood drip from the weapons, held high in rage. A number of them charge Mabul, but he denies them footing on the hill in a display of weapon skill.

Editas calls on the powers of death—the very powers that drive and animate the orcs—withdrawing it from their bodies, leaving them as shriveled husks on the ground. Now the orcs reach a terrible frenzy. Everyone is drawn into the melee. Yngvarr weaves between the orcs, delivering blows with this yothrat staff. Fireballs and electrical storms rain down on the battlefield. The whirlwinds gnaw relentlessly at the orc battle lines. Neren is terribly wounded and subsequently healed by his mother Calais, who cautions him to retreat up the hill. In a whirl of rage, Mabul denies all enemies his position, bringing them down in deft blows. The companions rally to him: the giant warrior full of wrath.

The silhouette of a githyanki captain endowed with impressive horns and a death’s head mask emerges from the hordes of orcs to challenge the heroes. The githyanki exudes an aura of ferocious power, and his gleaming silver sword—sharpened on the skulls of centaurs—cuts deeper than any mortal blade. With ferine agility, the warlord hurdles forward on many-jointed legs, threatening Yngvarr. But before the captain can fell the Idreshim, Editas intervenes. Neren's grandmother is mighty, full of power; death is her servant. With a touch, she destroys the captain utterly, who falls in a smoldering slump.

But the battle still belongs to the orc-tide. The brutes impale the defender's ranks with their cruel swords, and Mabul loses position. Neren and Calissa join with Merego against a brute, and all around the lesser orcs swarm in. Mabul is bloodied and mutilated, having suffered grievous injuries at the hands of the brutes. Calais sacrifices her position to heal Mabul, but in doing so she exposes herself to a brute coming ferociously up the hill. She is cut down with a single stroke. The wound is fatal. She falls silently, without a cry. Neren moves to embrace her. "She's sleeping," he tells his grandmother, who looks back in confounded silence.

The hill is finally won, but at great cost.

Neren lifts his mother up and hands her body to Gwervaral. "Treefather, wake her. She is only sleeping."
"My dear Neren," says the treeman. "Your mother has died." Gwervaral hoists the woman with his ashen arms and closes her eyelids. "Many thousands have died today, dear Neren."
"No!" defies Neren. "She can't be dead. I..."
Neren's friends gather round him, and listen.
"Her name was Calais," he says, crying. "I learned that... just three days ago."
Gwervaral places a hand on Neren's shoulder. "Her name is a sweet music, Neren. But all music tends toward silence, and so must she. But do not be sad. Calais was more than a visitor to this world—she helped change it—and when the end came she didn't find herself sighing and frightened, but glad. Glad for her children."
Neren weeps. His sister weeps beside him while Editas looks on. Neren takes the bag of brownie dung from his mother, to give to Talqavist.

Against the Tower of Llómydien, the hosts of Thard-Harr roar like a sea. Orcs spring up the walls like bloodthirsty apes, scrambling higher and higher. Many are cast down by the wizards and air elementals, but many more replace them.

Meanwhile, in the Bladedancer Fane, long stretches of time have gone by without incident. Thameera's intrusion is but a distant memory; the threat is long passed, if it was ever real at all. Elwethan and Imranor sit it meditative poses with Valandil. Entering into Nimlinor's thoughts are words from Talaqavist, a magical communication—a sending:

"The Tower door is breached. We make our last stand in the Grove of Dwelling. Come quickly. Don't forget the Bottled City."

Following the bladedancers’ lead, they evacuate the Fane and descend the Tower stairs. During their long descent, the tower is rocked by a strange convulsion from within. Somewhere in the Tower above them, the Spellpool has failed with a cataclysmic explosion. Chaotic spell energies are unleashed throughout the structure. The High Priestess of Esus and all her retainers, who tend the spellpool and nurture it with prayer, are slain instantly. Nimlinor is sickened and dazzled, his connection to the Spellpool severed irrevocably.

After many zigzag plungings of the stairs, Nimlinor and his company reach the Grove of Dwelling. Here the great gray trunks of the tower uphold the foundation, leafless but beautiful in their shapely grandeur. They sweep up from the floor, dividing into crowns of many interlacing boughs, holding up what is now a chasm’ed and collapsing roof. The whole suspended ruin threatens to subside. But this is a secondary matter, for the archway of the Great Door has been sundered, and hordes of orc-kind now pour into the Tower.

Now the wizards and a few bladedancers make a desperate last stand. Several of the Exarchs, and Talqavist himself, are gathered here, bringing every last spell to their defense. A wall of iron was hastily constructed to secure the breach, but it failed in a matter of seconds. A wall of force still stands further inside; behind it are the murderous orcs. Their guttural snarls are muffled by the bodies of slain wizards, whom they are tearing with their teeth.

The bladedancers prepare for their imminent death. Nimlinor joins his brethren in the Tower's final defense. Narntay is with him, and Amicus. And so is Valandil, who has renounced the Bladedancer Oath. The wizards have few spells left to them; Talqavist is completely drained of power, and so is Nim. Elwethan and Imranor stand ready with arms spread, weapons ready. They will be the first to die when the magical wall fails. Calin Stormblade and two other bladedancers, Artimion and Elaryon, defend Talqavist.

The tower rocks suddenly. The roof collapses in sections, burying victims and disclosing new horrors: living spells—animate energies created when the Spellpool failed. Each one is unique, combining aspects of many spells into a mindless vapor; the first is a lightning bolt married to a flashburst in a blinding, dizzying cloud of electric energy. Others follow.

A warlord gith emerges behind the wall of force, inspecting the carnage only briefly. His head is adorned with a death’s head mask and huge horns, which terrify and thrill the orcs under his command. In his left hand, he hoists a silver sword, in his right, an empyrean dagger—a jewel-like weapon forged on the astral plane, which is straightbladed, and suitable for stabbing. With a swift stroke, the warlord scores the wall of force with a circular motion. The spell fails, and orcs spill ravenous over the breach.

Nimlinor calls wearily on the stored energy of the Shard Staff of Námion to enervate the orcs. His wizard allies struggle to cast their remaining spells. Soon they are overwhelmed, encroached on all sides by enemies. Elwethan and Imranor take the initial wave, fighting and dying gracefully in the deluge of orc-kind. Calin slays dozens of orcs in a whirlwind of carnage. Talqavist raises his shard staff against the living spells, trapping them and recasting the component spells against his enemies. Narntay calls upon the joy and splendour of Solaris, inspiring his allies. They shall be defiant in the face of death.

In the vicinity of the great arch, there is a roar and a blast of darkness.

Through the aperture of wreckage, there comes something that moves stiffly and rapidly into the Grove. The walls crumble, and the rifts widen as it enters. What emerges from the ruin is a monster made of flesh and steel—the perfect hybrid between orcs and the greatest of demons. Showing a rare ferocity, yet completely subject to its creators, the monster seems to tower over the orcs like some fabulous beast above its prey. Its body is broad and barrel-chested, with billowing muscles straining beneath tautly stretched hide. But its physical characteristics are the least of its dangers. Neither does the hideous, spiked armour bolted to its flesh arouse much concern, for the creature is surrounded by an aura of corrosive, negative energy that erodes fabricated structures, withers plants, and decomposes the living.

The beast springs as if hurled from a catapult, in some unnatural nightmare fashion. Moments later, a second one emerges and enters the fray [pic]. Out of its fanged mouth there gushes a sickening torrent of scalding, acidic blood, mingled with dark, filiated masses that may be half-dissolved hair, and floating gelatinous lumps like molten bone. Narntay and Nim are burned by the acidic filth; Valandil and Amicus escape the main torrent. Calin destroys one of the beasts, his hand jarred on the sword-hilt, the shock driving him backward. The monster falls thrashing at his feat, its jaws clenched on the Sword of the Elements, the point protruding beyond the stiff armor of its neck.

A shadow falls dead upon the Grove of Dwelling, cast from the tremendous bulk of the Node of Death, which has asserted itself atop the Tower's pinnacle.

A lethargy and weakness comes over you, as if whole decades of senescence have fallen upon you in the drawing of a breath. The thread of your thoughts is broken. Your memory, even your fears, seem to totter on the edge of some final forgetfulness. With dulled ears you hear a sound as of timbers breaking and falling somewhere in the Tower; with dimmed eyes you see the lights waver and go out beneath the swooping of a bat-black darkness.

Time seems to stop. Talqavist's voice reaches out to each of the warriors—all who survive. "The Tower is Lost. Make haste for the Tree," he commands.

A bloodied and battered elf with flowing gray hair emerges from the mass. It is Calin Stormblade. He is silent and stern, as one lost in thought of things long past or far away. There is carnage all around. He does not speak any words to Nimlinor, whom he approaches, but the wizard understands his purpose. They are to follow him, beyond the Great Arch, through the army of orc-kind, to the hill where Neren, and Yngvarr, and Mabul are foundering in a gathering sea.

Limping desperately, swinging blindly at the enemies all around you, you go behind Calin. His sword carves a passage through the wall of orcs, spilling their blood in a grisly torrent. It is a hideous path, one that leads not to safety, but to greater peril.

Through the gate and past the great mounds of dead orcs, you fly in Calin’s wake. There is a crack. The keystone of the arch crashes almost on your heels, and the walls above crumble, and fall into ruin. Only narrowly do you escape, but you don’t look back. All you see is the tempest of ruin carved out by Calin’s blades. The wounds he sustains are grievous. It shall be his final bladedance... the last dance of the elves. Hundreds, maybe thousands of orcs fall beneath his blade.

Deeper the hideous path is delved, and neither strength nor wisdom carry you far upon it. Only by Calin’s sheer will are you saved from annihilation.

When at last you reach the hill, and join your friends in the heart of the ruin, Calin falls. There is no ceremony, no chorus of remembrance. Only by your lives will he be remembered.

Valandil is the last surviving elf in Edion. The brothers Nim and Neren are rejoined at the little hill. All is madness and chaos. One by one, the wizards rally on the hill beside Gwervaral. With an urgency of swift, sudden flight, the tower is abandoned. Some teleport, others fly, a few walk and crawl where they can.

Everywhere the havoc of earthquake and war is manifest. It draws now to evening by the hour, and the light is so dim that even far-sighted wizards can discern little clearly out upon the fields, save only the burnings that ever multiply. Round the hill, the garden is disarrayed with stricken orcs and slain fairykind. Great forces are flowing in from the South.

Talqavist joins them on the hill. Narntay is overcome with grief. He lashes out against Talqavist. "You have destroyed this world," he condemns. Neren joins against Talqavist, for his beloved Syra Moonflower, who was sent to Thard-Harr to die. Nimlinor casts the Bottled City on the ground. "All has come to naught," he says, "I will carry the Bottled City no more." "If you will not, wizard," says Valandil, leaning down to pick the bottle off the ground, "then I shall. Everything still depends on it." Yngvarr pledges his companionship to Valandil; the monk has placed his hope in the completion of Valandil's quest, and will see it done.

Talqavist looks back at the Tower, and raises his staff in hopelessness. Like ragged purple cloaks, the shadows of the Tower are drawn close to its walls and portals, and crowning the summit is the bird of death, perched triumphantly, rending the clouds with a ghastly shriek.

"Now, as last," screams Talqavist, "the Node of Death reveals itself and shows its wings. Enthroned above all knowledge, it shall be the vulture that devours us, our family curse." He spins round, his voice elevated to a high roar. "Abnoctim, here me! All that once was strong now proves unsure. Hasten your step to Gwervaral. Pass into his bark! Go to Aardavan!! Flee! Flee!!"

The bird roosts upon the tower, black-mantled, huge and threatening, like a vulture that expects its fill of doomed men’s flesh. Orcs pour into the lower halls and spread like a black disease, cutting and killing.

On the hill, the wizards crowd around the great-limbed Treeman, each one passing into his trunk and transporting themselves—by way of the Tree’s magic—to the Forest of Aardavan, far off in the land between Sol-Fatara and ancient Fil-Garil.

All the defenses are taken and swept away. The orcs wail in delight, for the Tower’s doom seems certain. The enemy seems to have grown rather than diminished in number; still more are pressing up from the south.

There is a crash and a great tumult. Then a roar and a convulsion of shattered stone. The foundation of the Tower of Llómydien, laid when the world was young, cracks and scatters as if by a thunderbolt. The tower breaks apart and tumbles down in a catastrophe of smoke and dust. The sky is rent. Those who are left cast themselves on their faces and cover their ears with their hands. The black smoke is driven by a mounting wind, spreading outward, consuming the hill in a holocaust of choking ash.

Forspent and weary, the Abnoctim abandon Llómydien to its doom. The companions go into the tree as the orcs tighten around the hill. All save Nimlinor, who succumbs to hopelessless. "The world is dead. All struggle is vain," he argues to Mabul. "You will not abandon us, wizard!" commands the barbarian. "The fellowship will not sunder here!" Mabul forces Nimlinor into the tree. Talqavist steps in behind them.

Conclusion

They emerge from Gwervaral’s trunk to stand on the edge of a rock-encircled pool, above which the hoary oaks and ashes, and other strange and nameless trees of the dense wood, twine their tops. They are in a portion of the forest of Aardavan where the trees are older and taller than the others. Overhead, the moon sheds its silver light, and they see stars again.

Joining the fellowship at the pool are the survivors of the Siege of Llómydien: Talqavist, the Exarchs—save Aganazzar and Hadrith, who fell with the Tower, and Jaed the Semblant, whose whereabouts are unknown—and about two dozen other wizards. Nim and Neren lost their father Ereaxos in the war, or so it is believed. A few of the clerics of Esus survived, but the highest ranking women of the Order perished when the Spellpool failed. Merego and a few sprite warriors, numbering a few dozen, also survived. They alight the branches of the trees, weeping loudly. Not a single centaur survived the battle. Their kind are vanished from Edion forever. Standing amid the survivors is the twisted and knotted form of Gwervaral, the Treefather.

The wizards have depleted all of their resources. No spells remain to cast. No charges linger in magic wands. No ink remains on scroll or parchment. Many are weary and feeble, so that nothing matters greatly to them anymore.

Talqavist is the first to break the silence.

"Courage will now be our best defense against the storm that is at hand. The might of the orcs is now a thing seared on our souls. It did not take the Farseer Stone to see this outcome... though sorely do I wish I had it now.”

"Our race can no longer abide its theft," says Galadaster, the old exarch of Necromancy.

"No, we cannot," says the Archon. "My eyes are blind, while the Abishaim foresee and do nothing. The night of Tharthammon’s power is now heavy upon Edion; and we others, moving in that night, are as shadows of a withered moon. Death has become a slave in his citadel, toiling among other slaves, and striking only at his foes. But Tharthammon is not yet overlord of all kings and sorcerers. Even as the orcs fare in the East, the might of Azalan has yet to be challenged, and the necromancer kings are strong in the South.

"But, lo! Tharthammon has failed! We still have among our treasures the Bottled City, thanks to the Fellowship of Atân. And this has been a heavy stroke against his power, for Tharthammon cannot yet enter our world while we have it and he does not."

"What is your counsel, Master Archon?" ask the wizards.

"The Bottle will go to Istalion. There we shall plead our case to the Elven-wise. Many do we count as friends among the Elves, and not a few who still hate orc-kind. Mightiest Khraelyn, for one, will be moved by these events. And Padrielindë, who is the last daughter of the Everqueen, may yet have the strength to lead, for she is young and courageous. Much we could still accomplish together, to heal the disorders of the world."

"Is it counsel you seek, Master, or allies?" begs Ireon, one of the exarchs.

"Both, perchance," answers Talqavist.

The wizards argue. Some speak of folly, others of courage. A few speak out against Talqavist. "It is wisdom to recognize necessity, when all other courses have been weighed," reminds Galadaster in Talqavist's defense. "Plans are in motion that cannot now be stopped. Nothing has transpired that would affect our designs, our conviction to see them done, or our many devices. The mustering of the Cáladain is imminent. We are greatly indebted to Talqavist and the Silver Prophet for the certitude of their vision, and for their continued leadership."

The Abnoctim praise their leader Talqavist, who is a man of Edion and simultaneously an entity that is beyond the world and part of its semblance. "What is your will?" they ask. In turn, Talqavist commands them, sending them across Edion on errands of war and politics. Some are sent to Bowgentle (including Neren’s sister and grandmother) where the Cult of Esus is to be reestablished. Others are sent to evacuate the free cities of Corianton and Dabu-Nareen. Wizards are dispatched to Fanal-Tîrun, and still others go to Torand, to counsel the Emperor. Merego and the pixies take up the defense of Aardavan, which shall be a place of meeting for all Abnoctim in this time of war.

And of course, the Fellowship is to go South with the Bottled City. Talqavist will accompany them to Shevarash where he and Neren have much to heal.

"Suffering is a faithful companion," says Talqavist, "who long has bound himself to the destiny of the Abnoctim. Since the creation of our race, we have had to fight to preserve our freedom... And we have endured."

"What of the orcs?" ask the wizards. "Surely they will not sit idle while we carry out our plans."

Talqavist takes the bag of brownie dung from Neren, which Neren's mother Calais had collected. He gives the bag to Gwervaral with a sly wink. "Old friend, it is time."

A queer half-knowing, half-humorous look comes with a green flicker into the treeman’s eyes. He takes the pixie dung in one limb and dips a long fingered stick into it with the other. Then he goes from tree to tree, painting little characters on the stoutest-limbed specimens.

When he is finished, Gwervaral looks up at the moon, intoning some strange manner of druid words with a deep voice, like a very deep woodwind instrument. The leaves of the trees all rustle at once, and then, where stood ordinary trees now rise hundreds of mighty treants, all clad in stuff like green and grey bark, with brown smooth limbs and extraordinary faces.

"Come now, my children," commands Gwervaral. "Go as far as your limbs will carry you. Admit no orc from your borders!"

And so the treants, led by Gwervaral, get up and walk away, going east and north. And the wizards and priestesses go back into the world, to the places ordained by Talqavist. There are many partings at the stony pool. Masters take leave of apprentices, priests farewell to wizards. Neren takes leave of his grandmother and sister, who go to Bowgentle to be with Voster’s people. Neren orders his cats to stay in Aardavan with the sprites, careful to explain to Captain Halftail that Merego is a superior officer.

"I love you, Brother," says Calissa to Neren, as they embrace for the first time in their lives. "I love you two," he says quietly back.

Narntay apologizes to Talqavist for speaking against him on the hill. "I was wrong to condemn you, Talqavist. I am insolent and foolish. You are a leader of Men, and I will follow you to the end." Neren too apologizes to Talqavist, for it was Syra's choice to go to Thard-Harr, not the wizard's.

And so, under the light of the moon, the Forest of Aardavan is thinned, but grows in length along its borders, such that the Fynrond Fields become wooded, and reach all the way to Finilmandel, so that it can no longer be called a field at all, but a forest. They name it after Calais, whose efforts made it possible. And though orcs may yet come, and spill forth their armies from Fil-Garil, they will be amazed, and their progress halted awhile.

Afterward

The fellows stand in a clearing, where once was a dense forest. Among their companions they now count Talqavist. All the other wizards have gone, save one, who stands plainly in the moonlight at fifty paces. It is Moxirth, leaning on his staff. He came secretly in the night.

"Tell me, what fools work is this in which I find you engaged?" asks Moxirth. "What brings you now from your lurking-place in the Tower? Could it be orcs?"

"The time is short, Moxirth, in which you can hope to atone for your deeds of malice and make your peace with Esus—if indeed it is possible for you to make peace. Go back to your cave and leave us alone!" orders Talqavist.

"Esus may take me in the end, if she will; but not until I visit my vengeance on the Abnoctim, who have long hated me for my wisdom and have held me in derision for my sorcery."

"You did not come so far to weary us with words, Moxirth," states Talqavist, growing irate. "Whatever grievances, real or fancied, may lie behind us, state your purpose and go."

Moxirth draws himself up and begins to declaim, as if he were making a speech long rehearsed. "The Days of the Elves are gone. The Days of Men are passing. And listen, Old Fool, the Days of Tharthammon are beginning. But he must have power to rule, power to order all things as he will. Such power as to be found in the Shards of Thariom. This then is one choice before you: Give the shards to him, and prove yourself his friend, or give them to me, and prove yourself mine."

"Fool!" cries Talqavist, "No man of Edion can ever master the Shards of Thariom. Go then, and be satisfied with nothing."

"Why not Moxirth?" says the mad wizard with a lust not easily concealed. "I count five shards on my ring, and I shall be leaving with more."

"Here then," says Talqavist. "I give you my shard, Elshieryll, the Flame of Wisdom, but spare these others, and leave us the bottle." Talqavist removes the shard from his staff, and holds it before him, the flash of his anger now plain to see.

A dreadful awe is upon Moxirth; his native fierceness, his savage volition, are tamed by the offer of incredible power. But he retains the advantage, ready to work a hundred spells from memory, whereas Talqavist is fully depleted from war.

"Long have I desired this," says Moxirth, reaching for Elshieryll, "but I desire more."

"Then take these as well. If you are but a picker of bones, a carrion-fowl that grows fat on war, have all the shards you can carry." Talqavist takes a small pouch from his robe. Inside it are all the shards of Edion not entrusted to wizards; dozens of jewels collected by the elves and handed down through the Farseers. Mostly these are lesser shards, mere flakes compared to wizard-stones, but in them are hints of power, and more than a few are still as potent as Námion.

With a cold laughter in his eyes, Moxirth takes the bag and the shardstone Elshieryll, leaving Talqavist powerless. With one backward look, Moxirth withdraws obediently, disappearing to some far corner of Edion in a flash of light. But he does not have the Bottled City. He was averted from that by a lesser greed, one Talqavist could afford to exploit.

Talqavist looks to the others, planting his barren staff on the ground. "Do not despair," he counsels, "for despair is only for those who see only darkness. But there is still light if you look for it. Let us turn our attention South, to Shevarash, and beyond to Vela-Andúin. Narntay, my friend... would you lead the way?"

Narntay nods quietly and puts his weight on his staff. They depart.

The End


COMMENTS: Please post your comments and suggestions in the SOT Forum.

Return to SOT1.
Go to SOT3.


Character Introductions

Mabul

Mabul soaks in the sun’s rays for a moment. He is quiet, more so than usual as he contemplates the ruined glaive in his hands. He strokes the ebony wood with disgust. His collection of scars has increased considerably and the dried blood of recent wounds cakes his torso, arms and hands.

There is something “different” about him. His body is still tense, like a jungle cat before the kill, but there is a certain calmness of purpose that was not there before entering the depths of Granitehome. His eyes sparkle with a fire, not of rage or madness, but something else…

Could it be hope?

He moves a short distance away from his companions and holds the useless relic of his past, the hated Sword of Nilzibar in the air over his head, he speaks aloud but the words are distorted by the wind, echoes and timbre of his voice “free” and “curse” are all that can be distinguished of his words as he lifts his well muscled leg and drives the shaft of the broken weapon down across his thigh, snapping it like kindling. He flings the pieces in opposite directions, then turns to rejoin his new companions. Is there a smile on his face or is it just a shadow?

Neren

Bluest eyes turn upward to meet the matching sky. My wide, crooked mouth breaks into an honest smile.

“Hello again,” I murmur. With my eyes turned upward, I miss the large rock at my feet, and stumble a bit. Quickly glance to see that no-one noticed! Abashed, I rub my nose, flattened as if by a stone warden’s tread, and continue my jangly walk down the mountainside.

Each step becomes heavier than the last, though, as I remember what I’m marching toward. Also a little because I’m still soaking wet, mostly because I remember…Galantir. The Mayor-Intendant knows, he must.

Suddenly, climbing over my left ear (an imperfect twin to my right) is the homunculus, Dram. His tiny claws scrabble and catch at the black forest of my hair until he perches in my tricorn hat, but I don’t mind. Let him enjoy the first bit of sunlight he’s had in a long, long time.

Then I pause, and when I resume walking I arc my gaze upward once more. I may fall again, but I’ll look at something beautiful until I do.

Nimlinor

Standing on the verdant sea of the Granitehome foothills, Nimlinor leans heavy on his staff. His shoulders are hunched forward. His head is bent into his chest. Only the unseen power of the Staff of Namion keeps him from collapsing in exhaustion. With a hand he pulls back the cowl of his robe, his muscles protesting even this meager task as Herculean. Slowly and with great effort, he raises his face to the warming rays of Solaris. He is awash in physical and arcane exhaustion. His skin is pale. His checks are sunken. His eyes are bloodshot. His lips are pressed tightly into a thin line. After a few moments of renewal, he reached into his robe and withdraws the Bottled City. Holding it close to his chest, he stares at its simple beauty.

”All praise Esus. We have survived the horror that Granitehome as become. We have overcome the ancient trickery of the gnomes. We have defeated the new evil of Carceri. We have sent the bitch of Tharthammon fleeing into the Abyss. We have recovered our salvation - the Bottled City of Yoros. Truly, Esus must spin the tread of fate to favor our divine quest. The most dangerous test is passed. Now, we need only conclude our contract with Warmanes and ride, as swift as death, to Final-Tirun.”

“Dare I allow myself to hope that our fellowship may succeed? Dear I allow myself to believe that the world of men may survive? Is there hope yet remaining? For twenty years everything I have learned would tell me the resounding answer is no. Failure is man’s destiny. And yet, I hold in my hand the fulcrum of our fate. If it is the will of Esus, perhaps there is still a fool’s hope.”

Yngvarr

The quiet disciple of Elai stands among you, his tattered cloak of heavy grey wool brandishing a few new tears and a medley of stains, both mud and blood. The flesh of his hands and face is windswept and leathery, and his expression is one of determination mixed with calm resignation. He is much as you have come to expect him to be…except for his eyes. His narrow eyes of frosty blue harbor a glimmer of something else. This glint was given leave to act during the fight in the gem works. In a frightening display of anger and hatred, Yngvarr walked a razor’s edge between an artificial sanity imposed by discipline and a bloodline of rage and chaos. It is obvious that masking that glimmer has become much more difficult for him outside the structured confines of the God King’s monastery.

Bowing his head slightly, Yngvarr mutters a few of the words to a long forgotten epic…

The blood-wrath had come,
And the feeders of wolves
Walked a path of woe
Stained with mead of ravens.

And now the oath-bonders bemoaned
Their plight and prayed
That the Beast deliver them from
The coming roar of steel.