Art: Written Word

2004 : Exile

Dedication: To Spazz, pet Water Dragon. 30 inches of pure fun. Part Monkey, mostly tail and all cute. January 2002 - October 12, 2004. I'll miss you, Little.

The novel, using one of my characters from last year, but in a new setting. Going with heavy fantasy elements. This years main focus character is Thalia. My ever dangerous black eyed beauty. Nothing nearly like the previous years novels in world scope. One world, one main character.

The month progressed, the above became false... the story evovled, twisted and shifted to have no less than nine main characters, the Heroine of the adventure in the second half isn't the main character really either. Go figure.

All said and done, the story came in at 85,999 words (plus one for the 'Continued...' to make it an even 86,000) before fading out to black. I will have to clean up and continue the story later, possibly NaNoWriMo 2005. The pacing is off, the continuity is damaged, the whole thing is a disastrously wonderful shamble. Here is the unedited fun:

//00000 Introduction//

Outside, the world was full of snow. Falling, drifting, blowing and accumulating. The night was dark, cold and desolate.

Inside, Acolyte Marius ran through the massive stone monestary of the one true God Tholoth. He was nearly out of breath as he bolted down the spiraling staircase near the main foyer with it's massive eighty foot domed ceiling. He ran through a wooden door near the base and down the hall of the admintrative offices.

Fifth door on the right. Master Orcull's office, Keeper of the Crystals. His official tital was on the door in block letters of the common alphabet of the Empire of Tyriss.

Acolye Marius was under Master Orcull, his job was to tend to the Crystal Cave deep in the mountain behind the monestary. it was a good five minute sprint from the cave to the office. Marius paused in front of the door panting, waiting to catch his breath before knocking. It was late but he knew Master Orcull's hours, they usually went from somewhere around just before lunch to around the midnight bells.

Acolyte Mariius knocked on the door and waiting patiently. He gasped a few mores times in the dim light of the corridor, half the wall sconces had gone out for the night hours.

"Yes." Came Master Orcull's deep voice. Marius could imagine his eyes narrowing underneath his copious eyebrows.

"Permission to enter Master Orcull." Marius said, Orcull would know it was him by voice. Orcull made it a point to know all those who worked under him tending the Crystal Cave. The Cave was a very important thing to the Empire.

"Enter." Orcull said.

Acolyte Marius opened the wooden door, which made no sound, and stepping into the warm and rather sparse office. "I'm sorry to bother you this late Master Orcull." Masrius bowed in the manner dictated by the texts of the one true God Tholoth, which was low and at the waist. "We have a problem." He said flatly.

"Problem?" There were not many things in the cave that could cause a problem. They were charged only with gaurding their contents. And one Crystal was far to large to steal, Orcull wondered what problem could possibly arise at this hour.

"One of the Crystals has broken open." Marius said.

"Broken!?" Orcull stood up so suddenly that Marius flinched. "How did this happen? Surely nothing broke it from the outside?" Nothing he knoew of could physically crack a crystal. Magics might be able to, but the great expenditure involved in doing so would have set off a dozen or more alarms in the monestary.

"I don't know, it appears it simply cracked, and broke open." Marius was at a loss as how to describe it. The crystals simply didn't break.

"And what of the prisoner?"

"Spilled onto the floor, in some liquid." He said.

"Yes, the Crystals are liquid on the inside to hold the charge. But, they aren't escapable, I was never aware one could be broken." Orcull had started to pace. "Let us go look, fetch one of the Sisters." He said.

"Yes Master." Marius ran off ahead of Orcull who walked at his own brisk pace to the Crystal Cave.

Acolyte Marius once again ran through the monestary, this time not as far. He ran to a door on the other side of the massive staircase, down another half lit office and knocked on one of several doors, hoping the sconces lit to either side meant the Misstress who held the office was in.

"Yes?" Came the matronly voice.

"I'm sorry Mistress Othilia." Marius said reading the name on the door, "But we have a bit of a problem and Master Orcull requests a Sister to attend him to the Crystal Cave."

The door opened and a large woman stared down at Marius, "A Sister Of Mercy? In the Crystal Cave? What possible reason could there be for that?"

"A crystal broken open." He said without any fanfare.

Mistress Othilia's eyes went wide, "I shall send Sister Melai right away." She said as she went past Marius and down the hall quickly, not quite running but very close.

Marius simply ran off again to catch up with Master Orcull.

--

Sister Melai was an older woman, thin with sharp eyes. She entered the Crystal Cave with some trepidation, the hollowed out hall of rock was not much more than a massive dome under the mountain. Inside were hundreds of seven foot tall crystaline objects, spindle shaped and ballanced on rock bases. They followed a spiral path up the side of the wall that led around the entire cave's two hundred foot diameter. The crystals weren't much more than four feet across, the light in the room came from a single Star Point Globe at the top of the dome that was reflected through the crystals. Many of the crystals could be seen to have dark vaguely human shaped objects in them.

She saw Master Orcull and Acolyte Marius about fifty feet up the spiral ramp, standing over a puddle of gooey liquid and a body. She hurried up to them. The crystal appeared to have simply cracked and fallen up, spilling the contents onto the path. Those contents were a viscuous fluid a bit thicker than mucous and a woman who currently lay in the fluid. She was tall, maybe six feet, certainly much taller than average, with black hair and pale skin. She didn't appear to be breathing. Sister Melai didn't hesitate, she stepped into the goo and bent over the figure. The woman's breathing was shallow, but noticable.

"What are we going to do?" Orcull said, he seemed to be at a total loss.

"First we get her out of this cold hell, and into a warm bed."

"But.."

"But nothing Master." She nearly spat the title out. She closed her eyes, concentrated and drew an oval in the air as she whispered old words. A disc appeared and grew to seven feet long by three feet wide, floating two feet off the ground. Sister Melai bent over and with surprising strength picked up the woman and lay her on the glowing disc. She took off her cloak and lay it over the naked body. If you'll excuse me, Mistress Othilia will have the required paperwork for this in the morning." She moved past the two men and out of the Cave.

"What do you suppose it means?" Acolyte Marius said to Orcull.

"I've only read of this, but if the crystal rejects the charge then the punishment did not fit the crime. What was her name?"

"I would need to check the records, I believe she was only here five years maybe."

"Five.." Orcuss tapped his jaw, "I believe I remember, four years ago actually. She was a noble woman of the Capitol."

"A noble of Tyriss-Minoi." Marius said under his breath, "What could a noble woman do to get the Crystal?"

"That I would have to check the records for, but it would have to be rather henious, unless the council of eleven have gotten rather harsh lately." He said walking out of the Cave, with Marius close behind.

//00001 When all your memories are pain//

"How is she?" Mistress Othilia asked as Sister Melai closed the door to the small hospital chamber.

"She will be fine, healthy as the day she was brought here." She said, a bit of ice in her voice.

"I know you disagree with the Crystal Prisons Melai, but ours is not to question the will of Tholoth." Mistress Othilia said as they walked down the hall.

"Yes Mistress."

--

Inside the room, the woman lay on a bed in a small room barely larger than a small cell. She lay inert under the blankets, her pale skin a little cool to the touch. Behind closed eyes she dreamed...

--

Blackness, no sensation engulfed her. Is there a world anymore? Is this death? How can you tell? I can think.. I can dream.. but am I real anymore.

I can't remember very well. What was before? I had..

A son, a family, a happy little boy. I remember that so well. But the rest, I don't know, was there anymore? What came after that? I remember.. blood and fire. I can taste the coppery liquid and smell the flames. I don't know anymore than that.

Was there anything before that? Was there anything ever? Are these memories false? Are they real? They hurt so very much, in the blackness here. I can't remember! My son..

I remember him, I remember holding him in my arms, his small body inert, covered in blood.. his? mine? anothers?

His blood, this I remember. And nothing else.

My screams will never be loud enough.

--

Master Orcull stood in front of his massive bookcase running a finger across the spines of black leather bound volumes. Each labeled with only a date and a name. He stopped at one and pulled it out. Walking over to his desk he placed the thin volume on the desk and sitting down. He opened it and read.

A knock on the door came a little after that, "Enter." He said without looking up from the book. Mistress Othilia entered and took as seat in the chair opposite Orcull across from him at the desk. She waited patiently for him to look up from his reading.

He did so after only a moment, "Mistrress Othilia." He said.

"Master Orcull, what information have you on the prisoner?"

"Lady Thalia Olund-Mettal." He said slowly, "Sentenced for crimes against the state, murder and arson." He said. "All crimes, especially when combined, that would be cause for the Crystal Cave." He closed the tome.

"What would cause a noble woman of such high houses to do those things."

"I do not keep trial records, only sentences and information on each prisoner." He crossed his arms, "We have never had a crystal release its charge Othilia. I will have to check the archives for any distant record of such an occurance."

"So there is no protocol for this event then?"

"None," He shook his head, "We have to decide what to do. Should we alert the Council of Eleven, keep her here, kill her, or something else entirely?"

"I will not stand for murder in this Monestary." Othilia said resolutely. "And I don't feel comfortable with such a monster amongst us."

"It could be that Tholoth in his wisdom has decided she is redeemable." He offered up.

"Once the council decides, His will is done. Especially for those sentenced to the Crystal. They are, by definition of punishment, irredemable."

Orcull merely nodded, "So what shall we do? Send word to the council?"

"We are in Last Snowfall, it will clear in several weeks time, enough for safe passage down to the plains and to Tyriss-Minoi. And then it's another three weeks travel by fast carriage."

"We would have her for just over a month by the time a message reaches them, then the descicions would have to be made, no doubt one or all of them would come to see who would break a Crystal. They travel much slower, it could be half a year before anything happens." He frowned. "Would you be willing to keep her that long?"

"There is an alternative."

"I'm listening." The prospect of the entire Council of Eleven in the monestary did not sound pleasing. They liked their quiet solitude deep in the mountains.

"In three weeks time the caravan's of Linch will be here with supplies, after that they move across the Burning Wastes toward Tyriss-Callow."

He nodded, "Between us and Tyriss-Callow there are many opportunities for, trade." He said the last word after a slight pause.

"She is dead to the council and the outside world alike, I see no reason we need to entertain thoughts of disrupting their lives and keeping her around. She will get her punishment at the hands of the Bendoui, and we could certainly use the funds." She said the last part softly.

--

Sister Melai sat on a short stool next to the bed. She checked the woman for fever, her skin was still cool to the touch. Melai was a bit concerned, the woman had not stirred in two days. She knew that those put inside the Crystal went into a stasis, but she didn't thik it would last once free of the stone. But she had never heard of one getting free, so what did she know.

"You can wake up now." She said softly to the room.

The woman's eyes twitched, then opened. She took in a deep breath and let it out. "What.." The word came as a whispering rasp from her throat.

"Sshh." Melai said, putting her finger on the woman's lips. Melai picked up a small saucer of water she had waiting and put it to the woman's lips, pouring a small amount into her mouth.

The woman took the water, trying to sit up slightly to make it easier to drink. She finished the saucer after a few minutes, the water seemed to brink some life back into her.

"Where am I?" The woman said lying back down again.

"The Gorgan Monestary of Tholoth." Melai said, with a little bit of pride. They were the oldest and largest monestary in the lands. It once belonged to some ancient race, who carved great halls out of the stone, but now it served the one true God Tholoth.

"I don't know that place." The woman furrowed her eyebrows, "But it sounds familiar, maybe from a distant dream."

"Do you have a name?"

The woman seemed to think, "I don't know." She said finally. "I can't remember."

"Do you remember anything?" Melai said, she was concerned a bit now.

"I can remember, his face. Such a beautiful little face. He had blond hair, and big brown eyes. He was my little angel, he was.." She paused, the woman turned her head to one side, "He was such a bright little boy, I only have his face, his smile. I don't even know his name, or anything else save that he was mine. And he is gone." She closed her eyes and let tears slide down her cheeks to the pillow.

Melai put her hand on the woman's shoulder, "I will search the archives for your name. Perhaps that will help you remember." She said standing up, "Rest now, there is water by the bedside." Melai refilled the saucer from a pouch at her side then left.

--

Sister Melai met Mistress Othilia as she went back up the hall to the office areas, the hospital chambers were in the bottom levels of the monestary. The clergy all living and working in the top levels.

"Mistress, she is awake." Melai said as they stopped in the hallway.

"Does she remember anything?"

"Not much mistress, she spoke of a son, but does not remember much, not even her name." Melai said.

Othilia nodded, "Just as well, she will not be staying long." She said.

"We don't have record of her name to tell her? I thought perhaps it might help her remember."

"No, we will not be giving her any names, she is of the worst kind of criminal Melai. Orcull told me of the crimes she was sentenced for. She is barely more than a monster."

"But,"

"But nothing Sister," Mistress Othilia led them back up the hallway and out of the area. "She will be leaving on the next caravan in."

"Leaving to where?"

"The Burning Wastes." Othilia said.

"You are selling her to the Bedouii?" There was a detatched horror in Melai's voice.

"She is dead to the world, and little better than an animal. They will treat her as she deserves." Othilia said matter of factly.

Sister Melai did not speak anymore.

--

Sister Melai tended to the woman, known throughout the monestary only as The Nameless One, as none but Master Orcull seemed to know anything of her. And he never visited or spoke of her.

The woman remember no more over the next eighteen days, the end of that third week brought the caravan. The first of the Spring that brought fresh supplies. The caravan stayed three days and then left. And the woman went with it. She was moved in the night, when the monestary slept. Only Sister Melai would notice she had gone, the rest of the Sisters in the wing turned a blind eye.

Orcull made only a brief note of everything in the small leather book that was the only record left of the woman's life. He was, above all, a meticulous record keeper, noting that he made what he figured to be just over half the market price for a Tyrissian noble woman on the slave market. A tidy sum quietly placed in the monestaries coffers to save against unforseeable hard times. Mistress Othilia promptyl forgot the incident, more from apathy towards the situation than anything else. Acolyte Marius never again spoke of having found a Crystal broken open, he was looking to take Orcull's place in the ranks in the future and speaking sacralige of that nature would be problematic.

The woman, known in a book as Thalia, forgotten by the rest of the world, was dressed in a simple grey robe of the order, chained in the back of a caravan wagon with bars on it for transporting animals, and stared at the world through black eyes that conveyed no emotion towards her new situation. She only remembered vague dreams, the world had sensation again and she shyed away from it. As if interacting with the world actually hurt. Hugging her legs to her, resting her chin on her knees and staring at the shadows in her cage through half open eyes.

The caravan master made sure there was water and scrap in the cage with her, while the water was taken the scraps seemed to be ignored. He hoped she didn't die before he could get to the Burning Wastes. He had paid a good amount of money for her. She had the black eyes that told of Tyrissian brith, and the fair complexion and soft skin of one who never saw hardship. All indications that the old priest did not lie about her heritage. Why the monestary had her and what reason they had to sell one of their own nobles into slavery he would never know. It was none of his concern, a thing best not to think about. If they wanted her to disappear then she would. And he would make a tidy profit from it.

--

The Burning Wastes, half cracked and baked land, with nothing in it save fire grass and bones and half drifting sands with nothing in it but nomads who knew the secrets of living in such places. The caravan skirted the line between the two most of the trip, a craggy cliff line in the land. But some of the trip took them into the sands, across a hard packed path that served as a road in a place as this, towards one of the small cities of the Bedouii. They formed them around the largest of the water holes in the sands, which were few and far between.

It was here that the caravan master arranged the sale of the woman, but it was not here that she was to be traded. The buying party was some ways out into the desert, at the next waypoint, and would take the charge there. He was given half the money up front after the trader inspected the woman. He nodded as he turned her head this way, inspected her teeth and skin. Through all this she had a detached silence, as if staring at him from behind dead eyes.

They traveled on. It was two days to the next waypoint, and there was nowhere to stop so the Caravan master had to arrange for shifts. Out here the sky was always clear and you could always navigate by the stars. As long as a sand storm didn't blow in. The Bedouii they had with them assured them that the winds were not right for such a storm at this time. He believed them.

It was near the high sun of the next day that the raiders came. Out of the north, from the deep desert, riding their camels with frightening speed down on the caravan. The caravan never made it to the waypoint.

//00010 Burned by the day of a thousand suns//

Ishkal rode casually through the remains of the caravan, they were currently taking anything of value they could find, he stopped near one overturned wagon. A bent and wrought cage could be seen poking from the ruining canvas cover. Some ten feet away a body lay in the sand, a woman if he could judge a figure through the loose ill fitting robe covering the body. It did not currently stir, but that meanth nohting. He saw many a man appear dead and suddenly spring to life with a weapon in hand. He took a hold of his spear and approached from atop his camel.

Prael saw Ishkal approach a figure in the sands and went to join him, two were better at such things. Ishkal noted the help as he got close. They stared, Ishkal ready to poke the body with his spear to test for life, when a wind suddenly picked up and quickly subsided. They rearranged their cloaks to brush sand off and looked down.

The road the woman wore had started to burn away at the back, leaving it bare, the fire touched only the road and not the woman's flesh. Her bare back suddenly lit, the fire making precise lines in the flesh.

A line burned down her spine from halfway down her back to a quarter of the way from its base, then turned counter clockwise to form a circle around the line. As it did so eight lines burnt themselves into the skin radiating out from the circle, leaving a little bit of open space between them and the circle itself, the circle did not quite close as it ended. A single horizontal line half the diameter of the circle bisected the one vertical line in the middle.

The two men stared as the fires went out suddenly leaving the mark like a tattoo in her back. The body had not stirred throughout the process. The looked at each other.

"She has been marked by Uvlia the Sun God." Ishkal said

"And Mahkahl the Earth Mother." Prael motioned to the cross in the middle of the circle, it was the two symbols combined as both used the circle for their base.

"This one is not meant for us, we will leave her." Ishkal said, not wanted to anger the Gods by taking that which was theirs. The Bedouii would take from anyone save the Gods. To do so would be folly.

The raiders left the caravan with only bodies and unwanted goods behind. The woman lay in the sand, unmoving, as the sun continued to creep across the sky.

At night she dreamed. She dreamed of fire, and pain, and death. She dreamed of cool water and of cloudless skies open to the sun, warm breezes on the air. She dreamed of weapons and war. She dreamed of the land itself, she learned it's secrets in her dreams. She dreamed the dreams of two Gods. And when the sun touched the sky and dawn came, she opened her eyes.

The woman stood, the black tattoo on her back was the only blemish on her pale skin. The burned and charred robe fell away as she stood, energy seemed to be in her body again.

Out of habit she looked through the caravan for clothing, finding only that which the dead wore. She took loose pants from one man, they were white and tied off at the ankle to fit into boots and at the waist. No footware was around that would fit her so she went barefoot in the soft sand. She took a large shirt, the one least covered in blood, from a fat man and pulled it's folds over her head. She then walked north into the deep desert because that is what she knew she had to do. She took no water or food with her as she did so. No anything else save the clothes she scavanged and found fit to wear.

In the back her mind she knew she would need nothing else, the land had opened itself to her, she could feel the water in it and she walked towards the nearest oasis with unfaltering steps.

--

It took most of the day to walk the distance, her pace was much faster than it should have been across the shifting sands. An observer would have through an unnatural force guided her over the land. Her face was passive, but her march and body language spoke of determination.

Ishkal sat at the oasis edge, the days raid had brought much bounty. He currently sat at a small fire stirred foreign spices into a stew. Prael sat next to him sharpening his heavy curved blade, a smoke stick hanging from his lips. The sickly sweet fire grass smoke lifting lazily into the still night air.

The camp was alive with chatter over the day, the caravan was a rich one from deep within in the Tyriss empire. Suddenly the noise in the camp died as every face turned to watch a figure walk into the evening revalries. The sun was low in the sky, the figure walked from the west side of the oasis, a black shadow against the orange sphere on the horizon.

They saw it to be a woman, dressed in the same clothes of the Tyriss traders, some blood could be seen on them. She walked to the waters edge and knelt to drink from the cool liquid. Several men stood, drawing weapons as they did so. Most were unsure of what to make of the situation, a lone woman, especially a lone foreign woman, came walking out of the desert like that without good reason. She simply knelt at the bank of the small pond and drank slowly with cupped hands. It was as if she didn't notice the band of fifty men, all armed, around her.

"You there." One of the larger men spoke, not the leader of the band but respected in his own right for hir prowess in a fight. He used the common tongue of the Tyriss empire, heavily accented but passable.

She took no notice of him, only another sip of water. She sat up and placed her hands on her knees and seemed to meditate.

The man who spoke, Jalli, walked forward, sword drawn and ready, to where she knelt, "You." He said again in the Tyriss tongue, he spoke little of it, but enough to get someone's attention, "What are you here?" He said, his language was stilted.

He eyes opened and she glanced up at him with the barest of turns from her head. Her eyes immediately focused on the long curved blade.

"I ask you question." He said, reaching out a hand to grab the collar of her oversized shirt. Which is when she exploded into motion.

She stood in one switch motion, grabbed both the wrist of the out stretched arm and the wrist holding the blade. She twisted the sword arm so the blade was at an awkward angle, his hand going limp as she twisted the wrist, the other arm held the much larger mans empty hand still. Those watching her back saw as a fire burned it's way through the shirt from underneath, in the shape of the Sun Gods symbol, the shirt caught fire as the sword fell to the ground and she pushed Jalli away. He fell to the hard packed dirt with a thud as she bent to take his sword.

He roared in anger as he jumped back to his feet, drawing a dagger from his waist he charged. She brought the sword around with both hands gripping the hilt and drove it into the charging mans belly. He staggered backwards two steps and fell over, bleeding into the dirt.

There was the briefest of pauses, then chaos. The encampment of bandits screamed into action. The woman wordlessly turned to meet them, her body from the waist up exploded into flames as she lept forward. Great curved swords of fire came to life in her hands.

The battle lasted minutes as the woman on fire cut through the bandits, their swords seemed to have no effect on her body aflame. Her own swords shattered metal and bone alike, blood flowed freely into the sand which drank deeply. She fought without finesse, only quick brute force. In the end she stood atop of pile of corpses, the flame of her body died down, the weapons of fire faded away.

She was left standing in the last vestiges of daylight, upper body naked and one of three alive. She looked over at Ishkal and Prael, the only ones left alive, with menace in her black eyes. They waited not a second longer, each grabbing a camel and running off into the desert to the east. They knew not what they saw, only that they never wanted to see it again.

As the sun sank below the horizon the woman sat down cross legged near the waters edge, closed her eyes and waited. The camp fires died as the night closed in, the embers went cold quickly in the desert night.

Ishkal looked back once as they fled through the night, along the edge of the sky around midnight a ghostly witchfire could be seen miles back. He made a quick prayer to Muhanna the Moon God for safe passage to the morning and kept riding.

--

Dawn came, the woman stopped her motion, a trance like dance in the open sands near the oasis. She seemed to have been fighting, but nothing was around save the wind and sand. Her body glistened with sweat, still clad only in the pants taken from the dead man the day before. Her long black hair stuck to her as she breathed heavily with the exertion of effort.

As the sun touched her and warmed the air for the first time that day she paused. She pulled the hair back and off her neck then let it drop, it came to her mid back, long and strait. She blinked in the glare of the day and walked back to the oasis in a steady pace. The desert sands still seemed to not hinder her steps, though now the need and hurry of the previous day seemed gone. She knelt at the edge of the pool and drank the water. Several deep mouthfuls later she stood up again. There was another oasis further north and to the east, she would go there. It was four days travel she knew. She did not know how she knew this, only that the land told her. She walked out into the sands casually.

Left behind were the dead and all their earthly effects, effects she seemed to have no need for.

--

Ishkal and Prael made camp for the second night, they had little to eat and nothing to drink. They knew they would come upon the Jukk Oasis by midday tomorrow, so they simply sat in silence and let their thirst and hunger wait.

"What was that?" Prael finally said of the other night. They hadn't spoken a word since.

"A demon." Ishkal said, "A demon sent by the Mother Earth and Great Sun."

"Punishment?"

"Perhaps," Ishkal nodded, "A sign, I shall be a bandit no more." He said with a sigh, "I have seen the folly of my ways, we have been given a second chance Prael, we should take it."

Prael frowned, then nodded, "Perhaps you are right. Goat herding never sounded so good."

Ishkal looked off to the west, "The witchfire is in the sky again, she moves, follows us."

"Slowly, we have maybe a days ride ahead of her."

"Quickly then if she is on foot still." Ishkal corrected.

"The Fire Witch, born of desert sands and desert days, vengeance has come to our tribes Ishkal."

"Born from what reason, I do not know."

"Perhaps the Tyriss worhsip the Earth and Sun."

"No, I know their worship. They worship but one god, and they call him Tholoth."

"Tholoth? I do not know which God that is."

"It is the Tyriss God only, he has no domain." Ishkal said, "No, their God would send armies, not a demon."

"Evil magic is at work."

"Yes." Ishkal said quietly. They spent the rest of the night in silence. At dawn the quickly mounted at went as fast as their mounts would go towards the oasis.

The woman, the Fire Witch, stood in the rising sun, as if waiting to wake from the night. She continued her walk to the east when the suns rays fully hit her body. Breaking her trance and battle motions. She seemed to be fighting things in her sleep, fighting what only she knew.

She walked through the days, her pale skin turning a deep red in the sun. Her body was thin, unused to the constant sunlight, but it walked on. Seemingly unconcered with the lack food and water. Lesser men would have fallen were they so open to the elements for the three days she had walked in the open sun.

At night she stopped, coming to a halt as the last bit of the sun dipped below the horizon and brought on the full night. The moon rose into the sky, taking over from the duties of the sun. And the woman moved, not forward like her enduring daytime pace, but within a bright circle in the dark night, fifty feet across, glowing with a deep orange-red fire glow. It could be seen for hundreds of miles around, and many wondered what it might be. Some took it upon themselves to move out towards it to investigate, to know what glows with such fierce light in the desert nights.

And her motions in the circle were hurried, erratic, as if a great battle were being fought nightly by her against ghosts only she could percieve. The wind shifted any signs of commotion away in the soft sands.

Daylight broke again, she stopped suddenly during the sunrise and stood still, waiting for it to breach the line in the east before walking onwards. As soon as it could be fully seen she started her march across the sands, an even pace. Unhurried as it was, faster still than any man could travel through the sands.

Ishkal and Prael met two tribes at the next oasis, and they told their story to both tribes councils, and the elders, and they did not convince them of much. The tribes had seen the witch lights in the sky at night, but were unsure of the bandits tale. Ishkal and Prael merely took the offered water and food, for they were obviously parched and hungry, and then went off to the south again, hoping to join up with a third tribe they knew would let them join their numbers.

The two tribes spent the day talking, not knowing the woman was but a single days walk away. Being moderately superstitious in nature caution was being taken under consideration. By midafternoon one of the tribes had reached a decision, by nightfall they had packed and were leaving. Many tribes traveled at night, the stars could guide your way, unlike the blank days where the sun only marked east and west. They traveled quickly, for the Witch Fire could be seen to be very close now, perhaps less than a days ride away. They moved into the deep desert, going north west, hoping to pass by the Witch Fire far above it.

The second tribe was less cautious, and full of more warriors it so happened. They decided to wait and see what they could make of the Witch Fire traveling towards them, to see if the bandits spoke truth or lie. Their guards spent an uneasy night watching the orange-red glow to the west. The rest of the tribe did not sleep too soundly.

Daybreak, the woman takes up her pace again. She will reach the oasis in the evening.

The camp has sent out scouts to spy on the approaching entity. They know not if it is army, man or demon. Army is unlikely, man unthinkable and demon to terrifying to think much about. They hope is it the unthinkable.

The scouts go out for half the day, meeting the woman as she walks towards them like some unstoppable golem sent on a mission.

They watch for a bit, she simply walks with ease across the desert sand, almost casually. They run back to camp to report.

A woman, skin sunburned badly, wearing only leggings of a foreign design, carrying no weapons, no food and no water. Walking across the sand, walking with the kind of ease reserved for camels, snakes and ghosts. They are afraid.

The warriors show no fear, but have their doubts. It is too late to break camp and flee, it is approaching evening. The Witch would catch them in mid work, where they would be their least prepared. They decide to fortify.

The sun sinks low to the horizon, and she walks over a sandy hill towards the oasis. The walks casually, like she knows exactly what will happen. She is unhurried in her step. The sun sillouette her body, the wind picks up her hair and blows is to one side, it is a north wind, north winds warn of sand storms.

She reaches the camp, the first set of guards are in her way. She actually turns to walk around them, as if she knows they are there but chooses not to engage them, ignoring thier bristling bulk.

An archer, hidden to one side loses his nerve. An arrow is let loose towards the walking woman. The impact to her chest is absorbed with a burst of fire, her body ignites, the symbol of the Sun God burning an unearthly black fire amongst the red of her body. She cuts down the front gaurds with ease, this time a little bit of finesse hinting at skill is in her motion. By then the camp has exploded into action.

Warriors, archers and those few with magic in them come forward to combat the Burning Witch.

they fail.

Seven men and women were left alive of the whole tribe as the sun rose the next day and the woman walked onwards, furth north and to the west out into the deepest desert regions. The next oasis to the north was several weeks away by camel. She left without taking anything from the camp.

Ahmijj stood amongst the smoke and ruin of the tribe, her body had burning tents to the ground, her swords cut down everyone in her path. Be they man, woman or child. She left only seven untouched, none could fathom a reason why. They solemly gathered their dead that day and made a funeral pyre from the remains of much of the camp. They gathered what supplies they could, and by evening they went south, away from the witch fire the lit the sky to the north. They did not speak of the previous night for many days to come. For fear the demon would turn and hunt them.

--

Bashir sat by his fire, the trading caravan had formed it's wall facing to the north, to block the steady wind coming in. A sandstorm was brewing, it wouldn't be a big one, but enough to stall the caravan at the small oasis for several days. Putting them behind schedule. The caravan master was visibly annoyed but resigned to the fates of the sands. After all, there were worse things out there that sandstorms.

Fajir looked at Bashir from over the pot slowly coming to a boil over the fire, "They say the Burning Witch is far to the east of us, we should have a safe journey." He whispered.

Trades routes had changed in the last eight moons, now traders closely watched and traded news on the nightly witch fire in the sky, none would go within two hundred leagues of the light. Still, that only prevented most trade caravans from meeting the Burning Witch. Sometimes they seemed to be stalked by the creature. While it wore the guise of a woman, many thought it be the spirit of the desert mixed with the blood of innocents spilled onto it, pure hate stalking the sands. A demon of vengeance. The stories about it's origin were many and varied now, but the common theme was a foreign caravan was attacked and slaughtered, the type of caravan varied from religious, to a traveling orphanage to anything the story teller could think of at the time.

"She has taken up hunting around the Three Sisters Oasis." Bashir said softly, the oasis was a close group of three large lakes near the Eastern Edge mountains fed by a large river. Currently rumor put the Burning Witch several days travel westward of that area, already it was said a whole tribe had been taken, along with two bandit groups. None seemed to mind the bandit groups being killed by the demon, it was the slaughtering of the tribes and trade caravans that caused alarm. The Great Meet ahd decided to put efforts into magic that would banish the demon forever, the greatest Witches and Warlocks the tribes had to offer were gathering at the Southern City near the desert edge to come up with the solution. No one new if and when they might be ready to confront such a powerful creature.

"They say she can travel in the storms. Moving from one storm to another." He said.

"That is folly."

"Rumors have put her too many days apart in too few days to be anything else."

Bashir merely snorted, "She is a demon yes, but to travel in that mess of wind and sand? I will not believe that." He stirred the stew.

They sat in silence as the caravan master passed by, it was frowned upon to speak of the Burning Witch by caravan masters, they feared it brought the demons wrath to them.

The storm came in the next day, it last two and a half.It wasn't a big storm, but it seemed to last longer than most. A slow moving one going southward towards the cracked lands. Most of the bandits had moved southward to that even more desolate region since the Burning Witch had come. Not much lived out there. It rained more often but had less oasis' for those seeking shelter to find food in.

The storm ended midday on the third day. The caravan did not pack up, instead they repaired any torn canvas they could, cleaned the sand from their caravan as best as was possible, and recovered from almost three days of wind.

It was that night that they saw the witch fire, it was close and just to the north. The caravan grew afraid. A few men, scouts, went out to investigate to see if the witch fire was false or true. Sometimes the reports of the witch fire came in were false, a trick of the night desert that made the glow. Sometimes they were true, the demon seemed trapped in a circle at night, fighting unseen foes.

--

She waited in the center of her circle, the sun had fallen completely from the sky and only the night was there. Stars shining bright, the moon on the rise. She stood passively in the middle. Her skin had turned a dark bronze color now, no longer the pale pink she was born with or the deep red of sunburn.

Two men snuck over a small dune, crawling along the ground as to not make any silhouette against the sky. And they saw the demon in the circle of light. She wore noting save tattered leggings, her skin still shiny with sweat from walking the day in the sun. And she began to move about the circle, as if battling some foe if her motions were true. They saw nothing but her.

She watched the nightly ghasts rise from the sand, her true foes. How many tonight? fifteen rose from the sands, carrying weapons of various kinds. In her hands came a long pole of flames, it's end was stipped with a blade nearly as long as a sword, with a single edge. She had used this weapon before, she remmeberd the motions from the first time. The wat it moved, and she trained against her enemy through the night.

She swept the blade downwards in an arc, cutting an enemy across the chest and continuing the weapons arc around and up again, missing her next target. The first staggered back and became sand, falling back into the desert. They struck out with blades and polearms of their own, attempting to kill her as she did them. One got lucky, it's cold pale sword cutting across her stomach, she cried out in pain as the weapon burned her. No scar formed, no blood fell, but the pain lingered on in her body, cutting deep into her soul and self.

She fought through the night, the last one falling only half an hour before dawn. The scouts watching her had long abandoned their posts, back to the caravan. It had hastily decided to pack up and try and leave the area. By dawn it started to move.

By the time the woman woke from her nightly activities into the daily trance that made her more a mindless body wandering they were moving away from the oasis. She walked the last half mile from where her nightly resting place was to the oasis, reaching it as the caravan would draw just out of her sight over a dune. She seemed zombie like, her eyes held no sign of life, they were simply open and staring forward, unwavering.

She walked to the edge of the water and knelt down, a lone scout staying behind, well out of sight he hoped, to examine the Burning Witch. She drank from the water with cupped hands, slowly.

With each sip of the water her stinging wounds faded away, leaving her body feeling refreshed. Her now toned body relaxed bit by bit as she drank. With time she stood and turned to stare into the sun, as if conversing with it. Eventually she nodded, turned southward and started her march. The scout watched her go, were it not for the fact she were a demon he would have considered her to be a beautiful woman, if a bit tall. As she disappeared over the sand dunes the scout came out of hiding and made haste back to the caravan to report which direction she moved off in.

--

Archmagi Vijai paced in his newly appointed office tower in the grande city of Pulgoh, also known as the Southern City. A great port city bordering the western edge of the Sun Sea, southwest of the Tyriss empire. It did heavy trades as it was the only large port city between the Tyriss Empire and the Nation Leagues, a loose collective of kingdoms banded together to contend with the expanstionist empire. Traders hardly cared what land they were in, as long as it was land with money.

"We have a recent sighting, Vijai." Archmagi Orul said as he wiped sweat from his bald head, "She was reported to be headed southward from the Nine Palms Oasis, presumably towards the Broken Lands."

Vijai looked at him and stroked his long white beard. He frowned and walked over to the map of the lands covered by their empire, if it could be called that. They owned the desert and it's secrets only because other nations did not wish to investigate too deep into it. On it were several coloured threads, all pinned down to form lines. He placed a pin with a thread on the Nine Palms Oasis and let it hand, the other end would be pinned down when another sighting could place an end to it.

On the wall next to the map was a long parchment with dates written on it, measureing lengths of time and a quick note on which thread it belonged to. If one looked closely they could see the pins were numbered. The dates corresponded with sand storms, each had two numbers. A starting point and an ending point.

"She went between storms again." He said gravely, "She has kept mostly to deep desert, not venturing from the sands for very long. Once into the Hajj Hills and once into the Eastern Mountains, neither for very long."

"Perhaps she is searching for something."

"Perhaps, if only we could figure out what. No attacks were reported from the Hajj Hills, only sightings, mostly of the witch light."

"We know of no artifacts, or other points of great magic in the Hajj Hills, if she is searching for something I do not know what." Orul said, adjusting his moderate bulk on the chair he occupied.

"There is no pattern to her movement that any can discern. She is a most puzzling creature."

"Catching her will be the trick I suppose." Orul sighed.

"And then what? We still have yet to find a magic that can harm or a weapon that can cut her."

"There has to be something." Orul wiped the sweat from his head again, "Nothing is completely invulnerable."

"That we know of." Archmagi Vijai turned to face Orul, ignoring the map, "Perhaps we are going about this the wrong way. We are looking for a way to destroy or banish her, maybe we should look into what she wants."

"And what good could that possibly do us?"

"Once we know what she wants we make sure someone else is providing it."

"That sounds easy to say, but is it possible. From all accounts she does not talk, she barely even looks around. She is only active when slaughtering our people mindlessly or at night when, by all reports, she fights invisible enemies."

Vijai stopped and looked out the window at the city beyond and below him, "She fights, nothing more." He said absently, "Perhaps she is here to train for some unknown reason, sent by some unknown entity."

"To train?"

"The Gods, they are not so active as they used to be, yet her back is adorned with a marking from two Gods, the Earth Mother and the Sun God, the Burning God. She lives off nothing but water and battle and travels the lands as if of the earth itself. She covers as many miles walking barefoot as a camel does, no man can travel faster than her for very long."

"I think I see where you are going."

"The question remains, how long will she remain in this state?"

"Perhaps it is time to consult with the seers."

"It has been a while since I've gone to the Towers of Jakul." Vijai said and turned back to face the room, "Perhaps it is time we consulted with the seers then."

"I was afraid you would agree." Orul wiped his head again.

"Let us go tell our newly formed council then, I'm sure many will object and many will wish to come along."

"Such is the nature of councils I suppose." Orul said standing up.

"I will like it better when we have a solution and all the wandering mages go back into the desert where they came from."

"Do they offend your sensibility Vijai?" Orul said with a smirk on his face.

"Mostly they offend my nose." He said with a sneer as they left his chambers.

--

The Towers of Jakul, the holy men of the Beduii come here to study the ways of the spirits. The ways of the Gods and the ways of the afterlife. The prophets of the Beduii made their home here hundreds of years ago. It is a series of towering stones in the middle of the sands, an oasis sits in the middle, a small one, but water still. Underneath the rocky area in the sands are a series of natural tunnels made by some ancient race. Follow one of them far enough and it would take you to the Easter Mountains four hundred miles away. But that tunnel was closed off centuries ago by an unknown force. Of the rocky towers three of them are mostly hollow, a thin staircase winding up the inside wall to a chamber at the top, the rest are too thin or were never bored out. Atop one of them was a sentry, atop another a sacred prayer chamber, currently empty, atop the last was the small chamber of the Master Seer. He has no other name to go by and only one of the High Priests brings him his daily food, a small bit of water and a small bit of food.

He sits mostly, contemplating things, it is said that it was in this chamber that the first Prophets saw their visions, and in this chamber all Master Seers make their home, in hopes of gaining the visions of Prophecy.

Archmagi Vijai and Archmagi Orul made their way to the Towers of Jakul at their own pace. Not only did none of the council oppose them, none offered to come along. So they went alone, which was just fine with them. They came to the main cave entrance, a large hole in the side of the watch spire. It had a wide ramp that quickly led underground, gaurded by several warriors clad in the white of the priesthood with pairs of the long curved swords. Two of them stepped forward as the men rode up. They rode with no entourage, and light baggage.

"Who enters the temple?" One of the men said, his voice low and menacing.

"Archmagi Vijai and Archmagi Orul." Vijai said back in his own soft tone.

"Your business."

"We wish to seek the advice of the seer."

The warrior only nodded, it was not an unsual request, after all that is one of the reasons the hallowed grounds were here. To provide guidance to the Bedouii. The two men were led iside, their camels take to a large chamber off to the side, the men led to the other side.

They were led down a tunnel that had one solid side, the other was broken through in places, another large room could be seen on the other side of the wall, it was mostly a large body of water, Vijai stopped and studied it through a large hole.

The sizeable lake was fed by a series of high streams, lower streams and in one place water could be seen bubbling up from below. "How is such a place here?"

"The lake above is but a small spring, the lake below is the water of the Jakul, the great prophet, it exists by his will." The warrior said, as if reciting doctrine.

"I see, no wonder the priesthood has kept this place for so many centuries.

A priest in a white robe came to great them as they entered an antechamber, the only way to tell priests from guards were the swords. Vijai assumed that all men here were holy and they trained themselves in the use of the weapons. The priest was an older man, greying hair and worn features, like leather.

"Welcome, I am High Priest Pathul." He said clasping his hands and bowing just slightly.

"I am Archmagi Vijai." Vijai touched his brow in the custom of the roaming bands of Bedouii.

"I am Archmagi Orul." Orul made the same motion.

"Welcome to the the Towers of Jakul, what may the priesthood do for men such as yourselves?"

"We have come to see the advice of the Seer." Vijai said.

"What would men of your standing need from the Seer?" The Mages, it was common knowledge, tended to scoff at the religious order and the seers. It was presumed the more powerful the mage the more they scoffed.

"Men of your standing seek his knowledge." Vijai said, "For we know that we are not sole proprietors of such things." He said, it wasn't common knowledge that the Archmagi became so by acknowledging that others contain power as well.

"I see, in that case I shall have to see if he is available to consult."

"And how long might that take?"

"Are you in a hurry."

"No," Orul said, "But we are wondering if we should make accomadations for dinner and bed."

The high priest smiled, "Of course, I shall send an acolyte to take you to our guest quarters."

"We thank you for your hospitality." Vijai said.

The two Archmages were lead to a series of small rooms, wooden doors had been placed over the small openings to provide privacy in the rooms. Each room contained a thin pallet on an old bed, a rickety table and a chair, the chairs were surprisingly solid. They sat and chatted in the hallway after taking their charis outside, the rooms were just a bit two small for both men, the hallway was both taller and more easily navigated.

"Do you think we might get what we seek?" Orul said.

"We will get an answer, whether it's an answer we seek or an answer we can utilize I can't say."

"It would be a shame to come all this way to get an answer we can't use." Orul frowned.

"No trip is ever wasted, especially not one that gets me away from that blasted council of mages and witches. Power hungry buffoons trying to upstage each other with the next paltry palor trick."

Orul snickered, "It was not long ago that you were up to such tactics."

Vijai sighed, "It was long enough ago, I quickly realized true power came from who you knew and when you applied your power, not how much fire you tossed from your fingertips."

"A true sign of an Archmagi." Orul said, "I simply prefer the seeking of the arcane."

"Why not the priesthood then?" Vijai said.

Orul grabbed his ample belly, "I like good food too much Vijai, have you seen a fat priest yet?" Vijai could only laugh at his friends gesture.

It wasn't long before the high priest who greated them came up the hallway to them, "The Seer will see you now."

"That was much quicker than I would have hoped for." Vijai said getting to his feet, "By what honor does he grace us."

"He said he knew you were coming." The priest said, "Follow me."

Orul and Vijai exchanged glances and shrugged, the ways of seers were often the same as the ways of Magi, sectrative, unknown and full of smoke screens and magic. They quickly returned their chairs to thei chambers and followed the priest through the mazework of tunnels. They can to a staicases guarded by two the warrior priests after some time of walking. It was as if the tunnels were designed to go in circles to confuse would be invaders.

The high priest stopped, "You will go on alone, take this." He handed them a hooded lantern, the kind used in sandstorms, "I will wait for you here."

Vijai and Orul went up the many winding steps, pausing every so often for Orul to catch his breath.

"This is more exercise than I normally get in a year." He said after the second pause.

"Let that be a lesson to you." Vijai said, waiting for his friend.

"Aye aye, just as soon as I get back I'll take the stairs more and the levitation discs less." He said with a wave of his hand, not meaning a single word of it.

"Naturally." Vijai continued back up the steps at Orul's prompting.

Eventually they reached the top and came out into a small chamber with no door and only two small holes cut into the stone to allow light through. It contained mostly the same furniture as thei quarters. A palet, no bedframe, a rickety table and chair and a mat in the center of the room. The Seer sat on the mat, legs crossed and hands resting on his knees.

"Welcome great Arhcmagi Vijai and Archmagi Orul." He said with a toothless smile.

"We thank you for seeing us Master Seer." Vijai said sitting down on the stone floor in front of the thin man. Orul followed his lead and sat down with a grunt.

"You have questions to ask of me."

"Yes." Vijai said, "We seek knowledge, advice and perhaps answers."

"Answers, are not what I say, but what you hear."

Vijai nodded, "Then I seek advice and knowledge."

"You are a smart man Vijai, you as well Orul. Better than many of your peers, I will give you what you ask, but at a small price."

"What do you ask of us?" Orul said, "We will provide what we can." He too knew the ways of Seers, he knew thet only asked of what one could give.

"My request will come later, first your questions."

"We seek knowledge of the Burning Witch." He said.

"Ah yes, that one. A strange creature if there was one."

"Is she human?"

"Yes, and no." The Seer said.

"Can she be hurt?" Orul asked.

"Oh most definitely, but not by anything we posses currently."

Vijai paused for a moment, "Tell Master Seer, what is your vision of her?"

"Ah, a sensible question." He smiled wide, "When I dreamt of the Burning Witch I saw a thousand rising suns. When I envision her now, I see that four hundred and seventeen suns have set."

"When all the suns have set, is there any more beyond that?" Orul asked, an idea had formed in his head.

"No more in the deserts, the one thousandth and first sun sets in a land far away, outside my realm of sight."

Orul tapped his knees with one finger, "What is the meaning of the Witch Lights at night?"

"That, I cannot see into. I know the night wields the reason of the Burning Witch, her purpose lies within that circle."

Vijai sighed, "I have gained much knowledge, but not advice, nor have I heard answers."

"You do not listen well sometimes." The seer said, eyes twinkling.

"Perhaps." He couldn't help but disagree, advice was something he was used to giving, receiving it took a bit of effort on his part.

"They say she carries the mark of both Brother Sun and Mother Earth." Orul said, "It would seem odd to have those two symbols combined."

"It would not." The seer said.

"I think I see the answer now," Vijai said.

"Then I have no more knowledge to give."

"What is your request Master Seer?" Orul said, he would talk to Vijai later about the answer that still eluded him.

"Disband your council, it will do our lands more harm than good." He said flatly.

"I couldn't agree more." Vijai grumbled, "We will work to disband it."

"Travel safe." The see nodded to both men as they stood to leave.

Orul had a much easier time going down than up, both men walking in silence.

The High Priest met them at the bottom where he left them and walked them back to their quarters. "I shall have dinner brought."

"Thank you." Orul said as Vijai paced his chamber solemnly.

The priest left the two men alone.

"I think I missed some logic." Orul said sitting in the chair, Vijai paced when he was thinking, so a second chair would not be needed.

"A thousand suns setting, I will have to check our calendar at home, but the four hundred and seventeen that have set, that closely coincides with our first confirmed sightings."

"She will be with us for a thousand suns, a bit shy of three years. One year and almost two moons have passed. We have a ways to go left yet if that's a true statement. Surely the tribes and council will not stand still for another two years while she wreaks havoc in our lands." Orul said frowning.

"What if," Vijai stopped and looked at Orul, "What if we convinced them that the Burning Witch would leave our lands if the council were disbanded and all throughts of it erased."

"They would expect immediate results, we would have to orchastrate it carefully to acheive success."

"We have five hundred and eighty three days to time things perfectly. I'm sure our scheming can come up with something." Vijai said.

"I've always enjoyed our schemes." Orul smiled, "It will remind me of our youthful climbs to power."

Vijai crossed his hands behind his back, "Yes, perhaps this will prevent us from losing our edge."

"We know nothing we have, or presumably can come up with, will harm her."

"We need patterns in her movement." Vijai said.

"There are patterns, but they are complex and hard to predict." Orul said.

"You see patterns in her movement?" Vijai looked at the larger man.

"Some, they grow erratic with sandstorms, but they follow a rather old pattern." He said.

"Why did you not speak of it before."

"I didn't remember the pattern until we came here." He said with a shrug, "Her walking path follows the lines of the bandit kings of days old." He said, "Every starwatcher knows them at least in passing."

Vijai laughed, "Of course, her true targets have been bandits, all others were simply unfortunate enough to get in the way."

"I will only run into problems when sandstorms rise in two places at once or are very large indeed. Her traveling through them throws some of the pattern off."

"Perhaps they bring her closer to desired targets in this modern time, the paths of the bandit kings has long been relegated to history books."

"That would be my best guess." Orul said. "Whatever force guides her is clever, but is old as well."

"Perhaps two forces guide her then." Orul said, "The earth knows the paths, the sun that looks down sees the way."

"Very cryptic." Vijai commented.

"Thank you."

"Been practicing."

"Here and there."

"How to convince the council to disband?"

"Misdirection." Orul commented.

"We put them in the wrong places then go to the tribes stating there is nothing we can do, make it look like others are responsible for being in the wrong place."

"A conspiracy."

"Of sorts, more like leading by the nose away from the issue at hand."

"And when the end is near?"

"Claim that the only way to break the curse of the Burning Witch is to disband the council and anything like it for a thousand years."

"A year for every day she spent wandering the desert, very poetic."

"I doubt history shall remember it that way."

"Let's hope not for our sakes."

"Wouldn't want to besmirch your good name." Orul poked fun.

"Or yours." Vijai poked back.

"It may work."

"It probably will, but it may not."

"I hear that there are great lands to the south with much knowledge to be gained."

"A good second plan if I ever heard one, though let us make sure we do not pick the same foreign land as the Burning Witch."

"I should hope not, if it comes to that."

"If it comes to that." Orul echoed.

--

The great tribal leaders say at the massive stone table, staring at nine council members. None of the council of mages spoke. In the last one hundred days since the return of Vijai and Orul from their meeting with the Master Seer, who it was said turned them away, the council had tried to predict the movements of the Burning Witch. They had used ancient maps that showed the migration of the First Tribes. It always seemed they were just a step behind, with the exception of the last step. Where they came upon the Burning Witch at high noon. They lost seven members before retreating.

"Your continued failure has costs us nothing but lives, money and time." One of the tribal elders said, "What have you to report."

If the Magi held power of primal forces, the tribal elders held power over tradition and money. The common man feared the Magi, and respected the Elder. While the Elders always had a healthy fear of the mages, the cultish status and mystery they generated themselves put only an unhealthy fear of them in the common man. And a commoner in a mob with torches was more than any but the most powerful of the Magi could handle.

"We have had but one run in, where we tested some of our magics. We will have another encounter." The head of the council said, a thing man with a neatly cut black beard, "We are confident that the next time she will not escape our traps."

"How confident?"

"Very." The two men were not exchanging polite gestures in any fashion, they seemed to be trying to bore holes in the others skull with their eyes.

"In that case we will give you but one more chance. Then we shall look to other means." The elder said. And that was that, the meeting was over. The Elders stood, the Magi stood and all turned and left the room.

Back up in Vijai's tower he and Orul met for the afternoon chat.

"Was it design or accident that they encountered the Burning Witch?" Vijai said looking at his maps. They had added a new set of map. One with the old routes superimposed over each other, the tribal routes and the bandit routes. They met in a few places, but not very often. Dates were on them as they were traveled in patterns according to the stars.

The orginal map still sat, tracking the movement of the woman, he had magically superimposed that one over the second.

"Accident, the sandstorms are unusually common for this time of year." Orul said puffing on a pipe.

"I see." Vijai said, he gestured and spoke arcane words, drawing glowing symbols into the air. A part of the first map came into view over the second, "Here are all the points where she enters one storm and exits another, that we know of."

Orul stood up and walked over next to Vijai, studying the maps. He was better at finding patterns than Vijai was. "She enters at one point in a path, and exits in another, no real pattern to it." He said after seveal minutes of silence. "Whereever the storms seem to lie."

"A tactic to avoid capture?"

"Most likely." Orul said, "It would seem to be a smart thing to do."

"The Seer said we had nothing that could harm her." Vijai said.

"Harm, sure." Orul puffed, "But what prevents us from building an elaborate trap to hold her?"

"I see. Why didn't you mention that idea before."

"What do you do with the beast once you have it caged?"

"Depends on the beast."

"If we can't kill it and we can't control it, and we know it will move onto other hunting grounds later, why capture it and risk the ire of whatever hell spawned it?"

Vijai nodded, "That makes sense."

"Of course it does." Orul said going back to his seat and sitting down.

"Perhaps it is time we started to put the next phase in place, since the council has so nicely fouled up their own plans." Vijai offered.

Orul studied his pipe for a moment, "It might be a bit early, but I see no reason not to."

--

The Burning Witch, scourge of the burning sands, walked steadily forward. She came to an oasis shared by only a few travelers. A large man named Gorrin traveling alone, two emmisaries who moved quickly across the desert. And another lone traveler, an escaped prisoner from other lands.

The four watched the woman walk to the waters edge, kneel down and drink with cupped hands.

No one moved while she drank. After close to half an hour of steady slow drinks she washed her body with the water, cleaning it of the desert sands. She stood and stared forward, her eyes did not scan around her, as if she already knew those around her and where they stood. Gorrin moved slowly to cover his weapons, many and varied. He had spent many moons tracking and following the Burning Witch. He was possibly the Bedouii's greatest hunter. And he knew when to strike quarry and when not to. Now was not the time. He wore no weapons on his body, no visible ones anyway.

The two emmisaries wore their ceremonial daggers of office and a sword each. The fugitive seemed covered in weapons, but not looking like he wanted to fight.

Gorrin studied the markings on her back, as she faced away from him. A black tattoo, a combination with both the sun and earth Gods holy symbols throughout the lands. Though the Bedouii replaced the strait lines of the sun symbol with waved ones, the idea was the same.

He studied her body, a dark bronze color now, well muscled and lean. She wore only tatters around her waist, as if covering her body were no longer a concern.

His eyes twitched to one said as the fugitive moved a bit, the woman seemed to turn to walk around the oasis, ignoring the men. The fugitive moved again, this time a little more nervously. The woman turned suddenly, a bow of fire in her hands. She let loose the arrow which struck the suddenly frantic fugitive in the chest, killing him. The fire of the arrow burned for a short time before going out.

The two emmisaries panicked, before they could mount their steeds to flee they were each stricken down with a flaming arrow from the Burning Witches bow. Gorrin hadn't yet blinked.

The Burning Witches tattoo had become a river of flame in her back, like the lava flowing from the fire mountains in the west. He knew the source of her power now. She was sent by the Gods themselves. And he would not hunt such quarry. Gorrin stood still as the tattoo's movement stopped and it went to black again. The firey bow disappeared from the woman's hands. She turned slowly and looked him in the eye.

Gorrin met the blank gaze of the woman.

"Be well on your quest." He said softly, "I know not what errand you run, but may you regain your humanity soon." He offered her the blessing. He knew the gaze, the look was of one under control, not in their own power. His hunting had taken him far and wide and he'd run into many strange magics. He recognized her eyes as being of Tyrissian decent, none of the Bedouii, even with their darkest brown eyes, could match the black that this woman had. "You are far from home, do not let this one man interfere with your walking." He said.

She made no motion, but turned and walked onwards, around the oasis and southward.

Gorrin waited for her to cerst over the dunes and out of sight before moving again, he went to take care of the recently dead. Or at least to see if they had any valuables worth stealing. The emmisaries were delivering a message from one city to another. He decided that in payment for all the gold they gave him just now he would see to it that their message was delivered, mostly on time.

--

Vijai stood at his window, "Two days." He said out loud.

Orul was busy studying a very large map of the realms in the middle of the room at about waist height. It's glowing counters interrupted by his bulk, the magical map took up most of the chamber. "What was that?" He said looking up from his studies.

"Two days."

"Two days? Oh yes, well, three if you count today." He said looking back down.

"What are you doing?" Vijai turned back to face the room?"

"Trying to figure out where she is going to end up." He said flatly.

"Whatever for?"

"Curiosity." He said, "I've done some reading on ancient prophecies lately." He waved his hand and a series of complex mathematical formulae came into being in the air in front of him, "And it seems the Burning Witch was predicted by the ancient Seers."

"I see."

"They also predicted our little council of comedians." He said casually as he manipulated numbers and symbols in the air.

"Oh?" Vijai's curiosity was now piqued.

"Seems that they'll be the downfall of our civilization." He said.

"I guess it's a good thing we disbanded them."

"Publicly at least."

"Oh don't tell me the fools have made a secret pact or something."

"I'm not sure, but it's a strong possiblity. You don't get together that many power hungry people without odd alliances forming."

"We can deal with that later, what of the Burning Witch?"

"She is only a tool, a very powerful tool, but still only a tool."

"For what?"

"A champion, avatar." He said making his equation disappear then rearranging the magical map around him to bring another place into view, it was the Tyrissian Empire. "These people believe in but one God, Tholoth they call him." He said pointing at the map of light around his waist, "And that has angered many Gods still worshipped around the lands."

"My understanding is that they officially recognize only one God, but the people worship the others."

"Correct," Orul said, "Back to the angry Gods, the prophets managed to predict that each would choose a champion to walk the earth and either unite to destroy a dark imposter, or fail."

"And how is the Burning Witch predicted in all that?"

"The Day of a Thousand Suns." Orul said flatly, "Silly title, but appropriate enough, it seems the poor soul that was that woman was chosen by Brother Sun, a War God in many other lands."

"And the Earth Mother?"

"Perhaps she has been chosen by both, it seems odd to do so."

"Odd indeed."

"Aha!!" Orul said shifting the map one more time, "I think I know."

"Know what?"

"Where's she's going."

"Dare I ask how and where?"

"How? I drew a map from her movements in the storms and sands, very clear path really, And then I put it over the entire world." He said with a big smile, "Whereever she stops in the desert determines where she starts in the world."

"Oh." Vijai said, as if he could have figured it out himself. Which he probably could have, but in years instead of weeks like Orul had managed.

"If I predict her last few days movements correctly, and my sources say no sandstorms are on the rise so I believe I have, then she will begin day one thousand and one here." He pointed to a land of forest and hills. "Somwhere around there at least."

Vijai studied it, "That lies in the middle of Gypsy country."

"Estavanni, yes." Orul said stroking his chin. "There should be other avatars walking the land already, I wonder how they'll do." He was talking abesntly to himself now.

"What happens if the Gods lose to this, what did you call it, Dark Imposter?"

"He stays as the only God, the Tyrissian Empire spreads to encompass much of the world and, people go on being people for the most part." Orul shrugged, "Only we'd probably be speaking Tyrissian instead."

"Ah, I don't suppose we can help in any way?"

"We did by not trying to stop the Burning Witch." Orul said, "Now onto this possible secret council of ours."

"What of it?"

"First we have to determine if one exists."

"Naturally, I don't suppose you received your Secret Council invite have you?"

Orul shook his head, "I'm afraid not, you?"

"Nope." Vijai sat down behind his ornate desk, "That leaves hard work."

Orul nodded, "It is what we do best."

"How do you find such a thing?"

"Start our own perhaps?"

Vijai nodded, "Only two don't make a council."

"I quite liked that Master Seer." Orul said blinking the map out of existance and plopping himself down on a chair.

And so they plotted.

--

The Burning Witch walked across the sands, she was in open desert, not a sould for hundreds of miles. She had no memories except that which she learned in the days with no nights, she knew only that she must fight. She did not know why, why never figured into her thoughts. Her memories were of sun, sand and blood. Her eyes saw nothing but a path in front of them, a path that must be walked, outside the path was nothing, only darkness. Occasionally others stood on the path, and they were cut down, removed from her way.

Deep within the recesses there was more, something just outside her grasp, something intangible. She walked the path to catch it, the feeling just beyond her grasp, just another step down the way. Today, nothing was on the path, the path was coming to an end.

She didn't know how or why, only that she was taking her last steps on the path. What lay beyond, she didn't know, only that it was next.

Slowly she became aware of her body, slowly she saw beyond the path.

The sun sank low and she stopped walking. She fell to her knees, tired now. Cool wind slid over her bare skin. She wrapped her arms around her torso, suddenly aware she was not covered. She blinked for the first time in a long time. Hot sand below her feet radiating the heat that the night stole from the sky. The sun sank lower, her name she did not know, but her memories seeped back in, what little there were of them. Her previous life, a noble woman from a far away land whose name was lost to her now. A husband, a family came, a son. Her son. And her sons murder. And her vengeance that burned in her blood like fire still. Her trial, eleven men judging her deciding her fate. Eleven men denied her proper vengeance for the death of her innocent son. And the darkness of the prison, a prison that taught her to be removed, to be distant from her own self as if the self never was. And her short stay in a cage, and the desert. A day that lasted for a thousand. Only that one day could be remembered. The day her body burned with that vengeance again and spilled blood in rage again. The day that had not ended for her. A walking nightmare.

The sun set. The woman known as the Burning Witch fell forward into the sand. And as she closed her eyes she fell into a dreamless sleep. A sleep without a nightly enemy, a sleep of peacefulness.

If any souls were around to watch they would have seen the desert sands swallow the woman, taking her body into their depths, leaving an unmarred surface behind cooling quickly in the night air. The Mother Earth took back that which the sun had borrowed.

//00011 Estavanni Moonlight Dance :: Part I//

Running water came first. A distant sound in her ears. Wind in trees, rustling the leaves gently. She felt soft grass underneath her body, against her cool skin. She opened her eyes to a blue sky, her body ached to the bone. She sat up painfully and crawled to the edge of the brook to her left. Lifting a small amount from the stream in one cupper hand to her mouth she sipped the cold water. It felt good at it touched her throat. She lay back down, and closed her eyes again. The day could wait, her body wanted rest. She fell asleep to the sound of the wind and running water.

--

Dahlia walked through the woods, looking for the right plants. She leaned heavily on an old gnarled cane, back a little crooked. Over her shoulder she had a sash slung, it's bagged end divided out into several compartments. Occasionally she bent her old frame down and plucked a plant from the ground. Sometimes careful to get the roots, sometimes only wanting a leaf or two. Everytime they disappeared into her satchel.

She took a swing of water from an old waterbag she had at her waist, only to find it was nearly empty. "My old age will be the end of me." She said to herself, "Forgot to refill the water bladder." She sighed and walked off towards a brook she knew to be nearby.

Dahlia walked past the trees to the edge of the tiny bank of grass on the side of the brook and stopped. She examined the scene before deciding what to do next. Lying on the banks was a body clad in tattered rags, she judged by the curves that it was a woman, lying face down as it was. Her body was a little thin, but all muscle. The kind of muscle you get from years of training with weapons. Even lying still as she was Dahlia judged her to be a quick person. No other effects could be seen.

On the woman's back was a black tattoo, it was the symbol of the Earth Mother, her own chosen patronage, and with it, or rather around it was the symbol of the War God, Sol. Dahlia thought it a rather stranged tattoo to have placed on ones back, but there is no judging the foreigners. Her body was a deep bronze color, as if she spent her days in the sun probably in the state of near nakedness she was in now.

Dahlia, not one to give into fears, stepped forward. She moved cautiously, she was old and all her years of experience probably wouldn't make up for a young warriors reflexes. The woman appeared to be sleeping peacefully. Dahlia moved upstream a bit. Let sleeping bears lie, her teacher always taught her.

The old woman bent low and dipped her waterskin into the moving stream to fill it back up with the cool waters, something she decided would be welcomed on this day. She took a swig from it then refilled that little bit back up before standing. She looked over at the young woman, and was startled to find she was awake, and staring at her.

They didn't move for a minute. Dahlia studied her face, were it not for the dust and grime she would be considered pretty by most standards. The most striking feature were her eyes, which were coal black. Dahlia knew that made her Tyrissian by birth, with noble blood.

"Hello." Dahlia said with a friendly tone. The woman blinked, "Let's start right in, how did you get here?" Dahlia said, she had long since decided to take the direct route with things.

The woman knit her brows and seemed to look confused, then she shook her head.

"Don't know, that's to be expected." Dahlia said. "I bet your hungry."

The woman nodded slightly.

"Well then, best get you cleaned up," Dahlia unslung her bag and placed it carefully in the grass, "and into something other than those rags." She took a step forward, the woman changed her posture ever so slightly. She now had the air of a tiger ready to spring.

"I can assure that I am not something that can hurt you. Not physically at least." Dahlia said pausing in her step.

The woman seemed to relax, she shift so she sat on her knees.

"Do you have a name?"

The woman shrugged and held out her hands as if to say she didn't know.

"Well then, it seems you can't talk."

The woman shook her head negative, then placed her hands on her knees with the elbows bowed out. She knit her brow, then opened her mouth as if to say something. Her first sound was a cough, dry and rasping.

"Dust," Dahlia said, "Into the water with you, it's only knee deep in the middle but that's enough to clean you up a bit." Dahlia made a motion for the woman to get into the stream.

She did so, cleaning the dirst from her body, she seemed to study herself as she did so. Dahlia got the impression her own body seemed foreign to her.

"I suppose you're not aware of the mark on your back then?" Dahlia ventured a guess, she got her station in life by learning to read people.

The woman knit her brows in confusion, or possibly concern, and tried to turn to see her back.

"I have a mirror at home, we can look at it there. For now put this on." Dahlia handed the woman her own traveling cloak.

The woman took it after making sure she was clean of all the sand and dirt and wrapped the coarse cloth around her shoulders. Dahlia was much shorter so it only came to her knees where it fell at Dahlia's ankles. The woman held it closed and carried the tattered rags of her former vestments back as she followed Dahlia.

It was a bit of time before the woman spoke, her voice was soft but firm, "Why have you helped me?" She spoke in Tyrissian, her accent palced her as the nobility Dahlia first thought her to be.

"When one such as me finds one marked by the Earth Mother I help."

"Is that the mark on my back then?" The woman asked.

"Yes, it is part of it." Dahlia answered, "Where are you from?"

"I'm not sure," The woman said, "I've no recollection beyond waking at the stream.

"You have a name?"

"None that I can remember."

"We'll have to think of something to call you."

The woman shrugged, "I've no past, no name, my future is suspect."

"Suspect?" Dahlia said, stopping short, she reached into her satchel and pulled out a few dried leaves, "Can you tell me what this is?" She held out the small leaves in her hand.

The woman looked at them, she picked one up, "Mint." She said.

"You are familiar with many plants?"

"I don't know."

"How about this," Dahlia put the mint leaves away and pulled out a few dried roots, the woman took one and examined it.

"Echinacea root." She said putting the small bit back in Dahlia's hand.

"You have a good eye for herbs, and I suspect many other plants. I'm in need of an apprentice, especially since I'm getting too old to go trapsing around the country side anymore."

"Was that an offer?" The woman said.

"Yes it was,"

She semed to think for a minute, "Then I accept."

"You'll need a name if you can't remember your own." Dahlia said. "And you'll have to learn Ruvani if you want to speak with the others."

"Ruvani?" The woman seemed to think about it for a minute, "I don't know what that is."

"It's the Estavanni language." She said.

"Estavanni, the gypsy people?" She seemed to ask more than make a statement.

"You are Tyrissian? A noble then?"

"I don't remember where I'm from, if that is the language I am speaking then I must be." She said flatly.

"Practical. A good girl." Dahlia patted her on the arm and continued walking, "I suppose.." She thought for a minute as they walked in silence, "Nina, a fine name for a girl."

"I'm hardly a girl." The woman said.

"Young lady, when an elder says you are a girl, then you are a girl. For all I know you're but two hours old and dropped by that river by the Gods."

The woman smirked, "For all I know, you're right." She said.

"So, Nina works then?"

"Nina will be fine." She smiled, she had a name to call her own. It felt like it had been a long time since she had a name someone else would call her by. "And what do I call you?"

"Dahlia." The wold woman answered.

--

They walked in silence back to Dahlia's home. Which was an encampment of wagons, from small to large, off to on side of a dirt road through the woods. Dahlia's cabin was towards one outside edge, late afternoon had most of the people out and around. Dahlia got her into her wagon, one of middle size, without encountering anyone.

"Let's see if I've anything that will fit you better." Dahlia said putting her satchel down, "Up there, that trunk." Dahlia pointed to a small square trunk at the back of the wagon that contained the trunk and several blankets as well as some closed baskets, "That has my old clothes I could never have the heart to get rid of." The wagon had a higher roof than one might have expected, Nina reached up and carefully pulled the trunk down. It wasn't too much over her head but it was over Dahlia's.

She put it down on the small, but soft looking, bed at Dahlia's direction. Dahlia had sat down in a seat in front of the wagon's table. There wasn't quite enough room for both women to walk about.

Nine opened the trunk and looked inside, it was packed tightly with neatly folded clothing, she pulled out the first thing she came to, a brightly colored skirt that was open up one side.

"That should fit I think, Dahlia said, "Rummage through it, see what you can use. I'll make us some tea." Dahlia got up and went to the middle of the wagon. It had three distinct sections, though all were open to each other. The back was obviously a bedroom area, with a bed and a small set of dresser drawers under it and the shelf above it.

The middle was a sort of living area and kitchen combination. There were a number of drying herbs and flowers hanging against one of the two windows. Under the window was a comfortable looking couch with a number of knitted items on it. The second window was at the back on the door.

The last setion was the smallest and was not unlike an entrance area at the back of the wagon. It had a small table with hinged legs leaning against the wall and a curtain could be seen that would stretch across the width of the wagon. It was a cozy, if small, single room house. Nina figured it was the best set up for a traveling people. Her memory was hazy on the subject, all she knew was that she knew of the Estavanni, but nothing else came to mind.

In the middle of the ceiling was a trap door with a ladder rolled up at the ceiling. She must have been examining it because Dahlia spoke up.

"That's the top door to the drivers seat, once you take up the steps and close the back door it's the only way from inside to drivers seat." Dahlia said. "How does it fit." Dahlia motioned to the skirt that Nina had put on.

"A bit loose in the waist." Nina said examining the skirt, if she let go it threatened to fall off her hips.

"You're a bit thin, all bones and muscle." Dahlia said, "You'll get cold in winter months without any meat." She said flatly, "There should be a sash in there you can tie it off with, the skirt has a loop or two for that."

Nina pulled out a few more articles of clothing, trying to find a sash that didn't outright clash with the skirt, everything had a bit of color to it. Finally she found a plain white one and tied the skirt off so it wouldn't slip down as she walked. Next she searched for a shirt of some kind, finding a thin blouse and put it on. The skirt was short on her, not quite reaching her ankles, the blouse wasn't quite the right size, her shoulders were wider than Dahlia's and her torso longer, but she was much thinner. It didn't quite close in the front though, so she removed it and went through a few more items.

Finally she found a large thick pullover that was oversized for pretty much everone. She pulled it on, one shoulder immediately slipped off, the sleeves were also a bit long. It was a thick grey thing, obviously designed for wintering months.

"I was wondering where that went, It cost me a pretty penny that sweater." Dahlia said putting two large mugs of tea on the table, "I've thought it gone for several years, it's yours dear." She said, "Though it might be a bit warm for the summer months as we travel in the south here for a while. We'll have to get you some clothes you can fit, perhaps some trading of those old things for some new ones." Dahlia said, "There's always a young girl who could use a bolster to her wardrobe."

Nina sat down at the table and sipped her tea, "Chamomille, honey, something else.." She said softly.

"I believe if you weren't sent by the Earth Mother, than you were a practitioner of her arts before." Dahlia said sipping her own tea. She got up, "I think I have a book around here that might help you." Dahlia said, she rummaged in a cupboard stacked with old leather bound books. "Ah, here it is." She pulled out one of them and handed it to Nina.

Nina looked at the cover, then opened it to scan one of the pages, none if it made sense.

"Every family has but a few of those, our language is rarely written down, but it had a written form. We can start with that to help you learn. It's for children mosltly, not all Estavanni are taught to read and write our own language, we prefer if anything must be written it be unimportant. And unimportant things can be written in any language."

Nina only nodded.

"You don't talk much do you?"

"I've little to say I think." Nina said, truth be told she was having a bit of trouble assimilating everything. She wasn't quite sure that this wasn't a dream, but it seemed to real not to be. And her inability to remember anything before waking by the river troubled her a bit, she was starting to wonder who she was. "The mark?" Nina said, remembering Dahlia said she had a mirror that could be used to see it.

"Ah yes, the mark." Dahlia stood and pulled a curtain aside to reveal a round mirror with a simple frame. "You can use this." Dahlia said.

Nina stood and pulled her shirt back off to look in the mirror. She faced away from it and turned her head to try and view the marking. It appread to be a black tatto in her skin, nothing more. She recognized the symbols seperately, but didn't know why they would be combined in such a way. The tattoo only added to her puzzlement over her situation.

Nina sighed and put the sweater back on, she sat down heavily in the chair and sipped her tea, "Lemon." She said. She didn't know how or why she could identify plants by smell, taste or look. But she could, and that was more tangible than everything else in her mind at the moment.

"I take it that didn't help much? And yes, lemon."

"Opposite." Nina said. "Just the opposite." Her eyes shifted to the back as someone knocked on the door heavily.

"I was wondering what was taking them so long." Dahlia said, Nina looked confused, "Don't worry, just because we didn't see anyone doesn't mean no one saw us come in. I'd certainly hope someone did to be honest. An ungaurded camp is a lost camp." She got up to go to her door, Nina put her tea mug down very slowly.

She eyes the room, the moveable objects, the door in the ceiling and it's latch. She quickly judged how fast she thought it might take to get from her seat and on the roof with people coming at her. Something in the back of her mind flared to life, something with menace.

Two men entered the back of the wagon, one large and one thin and wirey. The large one held a woodsmans axe, the thing one was unarmed. Nine shifted her plan in her mind to deal with the axe first.

"Welcome Rupert, Costel." Dahlia said in a friendly voice, then switched to the Estavanni language, Nina couldn't follow the conversation. She watched with wary eyes, the large man with the axe watched back. He seemed to immediately show distaste for Nina.

It was several minutes before Dahlia turned around, The large man shifted uneasily as the smaller one talked to him, then left. Dahlia and the smaller man came into the main area of the wagon, which was a small step up from the entrance area.

"Weclome." The man said in the Tyrissian tongue, though heavily accented.

Nina eyed him, then Dahlia, suspicion playing in her eyes.

"I am Rupert, Father of the family." He said, Nina studied him, short and thin, balding but he had wisdom in his face. He was dressed nicely, his clothes more expensive than Dahlia's but not by much.

"Nina." She said by way of introducing herself.

He smiled, "That is an Estavanni name," He said, "You appear Tyrissian." He was blunt.

"I don't remember my name, or my home. Dahlia was kind enough to give me something to be called by." Nina said.

Rupert nodded, "Dahlia is our healer, seer, and a wise woman." He said, "She has told us that she plans to take you on as he apprentice."

"Yes." Nina said, the edge from her voice was fading back to her normal soft tones.

"Welcome to Family Rosela." He said, "You may find your welcome will come over time, we travel through all lands but are still warry to let outsiders in our homes."

"I understand." Nina said, she noticed that he had a small marking on the inside of his arm, the larger man had the same one. It was a short waved line connected to the top of a slash going diagonally backwards, coming off the bottom on the other side was a similar waved line. "That marking, what is it?" She said.

"This?" He pointed to the tattoo. "It is our family mark, all adults in the community get one, they don't have to, but I've not met one who doesn't. It's our family symbol." He said.

"I see." Nina seemed to think, "So I am welcome into the family?" She cocked her head.

"You have been."

"Should I get a similar marking?" She inquired.

"Perhaps later dear," Dahlia said, "The whole family must welcome an outsider before you are given the rights of full family." She said.

Nina nodded and sipped her tea, "Fair enough."

"I shall leave you with Dahlia for now, and gather a Family meeting." He said and left.

Dahlia shut the door behind him, There will be some trepidation on the part of the families elders." Dahila returned to the table, "But not much outright resistance. We will treat you with suspicion for a while."

"Why did you take me back?"

"Dear, let me tell you some of our people. Everyone has a job in a Family, sometimes two. Mine is to be a healer, and occasionally a seer as I have bit of gift with the second sight. I was supposed to take on an apprencite to pass my craft onto, many will tell you I'm a stubborn old woman for not doing so many years ago. If I should die before I pass my on my knowledge the Family will suffer."

"Morbid but practical," Nina stood up and refilled her mug from the hot water pot.

"By taking on an outsider it may be a sign to them that I've gone crazy."

"Ah." Nina turned around and remained standing, "I see how I could be reason for concern."

"I told them of your tattoo, of how I found you. But I could not tell them why you cam with me."

Nina pushed up one of her sleeves before it threatened to dip into her tea, "Because I had to, or rather something told me that I needed to. I don't know what purpose I have." She sipped the tea, "But I do know that I feel at ease here, a comfort that has sunk in since leaving the riverside. It's like a little voice in the back of my head guiding me gently to here, though for what reason I don't know."

"Perhaps to learn, it has to do with your marking I'm sure of it."

"I think so to." Nina said.

Rupert hadn't returned until the evening, Nina had sat on the couch reading. She had pulled out several of the books to study them. Only a few were in Tyrissian so she read those. They were all books on caring for certain plants, the best times to gather them and methods of treating them various ways for different needs. Dahlia had busied herself about the cabin with the herbs and leaves she'd gathered that morning.

Around evening a knock on the door came, Dahlia went down to answer it. Nina looked up from her writing to watch.

A much older man was as the door, though most of him was obscured by Dahlia. He was invited in and followed Nina up to the main portion of the small wagon. Three people in the room was a bit cramped, but not bad. Nina briefly wondered if having such small quarters forced their society to a small number of children at once. She couldn't imagine more than four people trying to live in such a place for very long.

"Open the window Nina," Dahlia said sitting at the table, the old man sat across from her. Nina looked up at the latch and reached up to undo it, she saw that it pushed outwards, she pushed it gently with her hand until it swung easily outwards, she didn't take her eyes off the inside of the wagon. "Thank you, Nina this is Goury.

"Hello Nina." He said, Nina looked at him, she heard that he was speaking Estavanni but she also understood the words as if she spoke the same language. "No doubt your wonder why you can understand my words?" She nodded, "I am a Speaker In Tongues." He said, "I speak all languages as one, you will understand my words as if you spoke them."

She nodded.

"You can only speak truth to me, I will know if you lie." He continued, "The Family asked me to use my talents to determine where you came from, and to verify your markings." He said, "Where are you from?"

"I don't remember." She said, "I woke up this morning next to the river east of here."

"What is your true name, given by your parents?"

"I don't know that either."

"Why are you here?"

Nina paused she seemed to think for a second, "Because I'm supposed to be." She said.

"What purpose does it serve?"

"I don't know yet." She said. She was listening to the cadence of his voice, she knew the words as if she knew the language, she tried to remember how he spoke them.

"May I see your markings."

Nina stood and turned around, she pulled the sweater off over her head. She turned her head so she could see Goury and Dahlia as he looked at her back, she pulled her long black hair out of the way.

He seemed to study her back for a minute before taking his eyes from the mark, "Thank you." He said. Nina put the sweater back on and sat down on the couch again, one legged tucked under.

"May I ask a question?" She said.

"Yes."

"If I am allowed to stay and join the family will you teach me the language?"

He stopped, "Yes." He said and stood to leave.

Dahlia saw him to the door, "I think that final answer means that you're welcome to the Family."

"Is everyone here related as family?"

"Oh no, Family Rosela is the name of the first family to gather our group together. We have been a Family for nineteen generations. We currently have seventeen family groups with us, over time is has been more, and less. Though this is a low number by accounting of our history. Our numbers depend on how many younglings leave and go to form their own families. Sometimes they stay with our Family Group, sometimes they go with another." Dahlia said. "And of course we have those that aren't family, like myself. There are only four wagons like that at this time." Nina nodded.

The light is going down, we should make accomadations for your sleep."

"I can sleep on the couch, the night feels warm. She said, "Does it get very cold at night?"

"Not so much I don't think. These old bones feel the cold much more sharply than they did in my youth." She said.

"Then I'll shut the window to keep in heat," Nina said, "The couch is comfortable."

"Should you need a blanket?"

"This sweater is warm enough for two blankets." Nina said.

"We'll have to get you boots at some point." Dahlia said.

"At some point." Nina said.

"Are you sure you're all right?"

"I'm fine." Nina said with a smile, "Finish your work and then sleep." Nina said.

Dahlia lit a lantern that hung to one side of the cabin, it lit the inside with a warm yellow glow. Nina noted a second similar lantern near the front, closer to Dahlia's bed.

It wasn't very long after dark that Nina grew tired, she suddenly felt her eyelids droop. Putting the book aside she lay down on the couch and quickly fell into a deep sleep.

--

She dreamed that night, of a burning wasteland. Sand seemed to reach from horizon to horizon. A figure came walking from the haze of the heat rising off the ground. The figure barely seemed real, marching inexhorably towards her.

The sun was burning high in the sky, unending heat from all directions. The figure marched onwards towards her.

--

Nina woke suddenly, the first light of dawn gave the outside world a twighlight edge to it. She sat up, sweating. Nina pulled the heavy sweater off her body and breathed shallowly. She looked over at Dahlia, who lay peacefully asleep in her bed.

Nina knew the sun was rising, she knew its position in the sky like she knew the position of her hand. She let out a long slow breathe and relaxed. The dream, such as it was, put her on a bit of an edge. She wasn't quite sure what to make of it yet.

Dahlia woke only an hour after dawn, to find Nina up and reading the books again, she would be through all the ones she understood by the end of the day at her current pace.

Dahlia started to make breakfast and found Nina watching her intently.

"I'm seeing what you do." Nina said, "I may remember what all the plants are, but I certainly can't remember what to do with them or how to cook." She said. Something inside her let her know she never did know how to cook a meal, she ignored it.

Dahlia only smiled and continued to cook. She had a light stew made for the morning meal, and a bitter drink she called Black. Nina wasn't sure how she felt about Black, but drank it. To her it was missing something essential, but she wasn't sure what. The stew had meat in it, something salted probably left over from the winter.

By midday Rupert and Goury had both returned, Nina had pulled the sweater back on as Dahlia answered the door, the day was much too hot to wear it all the time. The windows were all open at the moment.

"Come Nina." Dahlia said back over her shoulder, "It's too hot to talk inside today."

Nina out the book down and walked to the back of the wagon. She sat down in the doorway, on the steps. Dahlia and the two men had positioned themselves in a semicircle outside, facing her.

"Well?" Dahlia said, she seemed a bit anxious.

"The Family has decided," Ruprt said, "We will take her in, in a years time we will decide if she is to have our mark and become Family." He said.

Nina listened with a detached disinterest. Deep down she knew this where she belonged, and nothing anyone could say would change that. It helped that they had accepted her into the fold, at face value. She knew that their Talker played a large role in that. If he could hear lies then he heard none from her.

"I shall take you on as a student first." Goury said, "So you may learn our language and some of our ways. But you must keep up any duties you have to Dahlia as well."

Nina nodded, "Thank you." She said.

Dahlia was smiling with a sparkle in her eye, "Thank you gentleman, you have made an old woman happy." She said.

Nina stood and went back into the wagon, "Tomorrow morning?" She said to Goury, "At what time?"

"Two hours after dawn, no later." He said.

"I will be there, which wagon is yours?"

He pointed to a wagon across the camp, "The blue trimmed one." He said.

Nina fell asleep again within an hour of sunset, she dreamed again.

--

Same sands, same burning sun, same oppressive heat. She stood, as if rooted, waiting as the marching figure came towards her. Marching steadily, unhurried by anything. Heat came off the sand in waves. turning the air a shiny grey color.

She felt no sense of dread, but the figure had it's own menance, she knew the one coming towards her to be dangerous. More dangerous than anything she had ever known. She had an uneasy patience to her vision.

--

Nine woke at the break of dawn again, her body hot with sweat. She pulled the sweater off to cool down, breathing heavily. The twilight in the sky creeped in through the windows, over the trees.

She stood and went to the back door, pulling the sweater over her head she stepped out into the cool air and wiped her brow with one of the sleeves. She sat down on the steps, a hard wood treated with something, they retained their lush brown color from the day they were cut. She watched the world go from grey to color in the rising sun. Once the sun was up the dream had faded to vague memory, she forogt about it and went back inside.

Dahlia woke soon after Nina came back in, once she was awake Nina pulled down the water pot and began to heat it for the morning cup of Black that Dahlia had told her was her own morning ritual. Nina watched carefully as Dahlia prepared the morning meal, some form of sausage with cooked vegatables around it and heated bread. They ate in silence.

"You'll like Goury, he's a good man." Dahlia said, "He will teach you well."

"Is there anything you need me for today?" Nina asked.

"No, I still have to figure out how to have an apprentice, I've been doing things so long by myself it will be hard to let go and let you do some work." Dahlia said, "Be home by dinner, I'll show you a good recipe my mother passed to me."

"Very well." Nina said with a slight smile, she got the feeling she had been adopted as Dahlia's daughter more than her apprentice. Nina walked across the small camp, she ignored several of the stares she received as she did so.

From the short walk she gathered that they didn't really live inside the wagons, but in the camp that the wagons made, the wagons were made for travel more than as permanent homes. Several morning fires could be seen outside the wagons, mostly the women were cooking. Children went from group to goup, though there weren't many of them at present. She did note that it appeared every adult was equally a parent in the open camp.

Nina knocked on the door of Goury's wagon, he answered within a few moments.

"It two hours past sunrise then?" He said, he looked as if he'd been up a while already.

"Just a bit before." Nina answered.

"Come in," He said walking back to the middle of his wagon. Nina noted that his set up was very similar to Dahlia's, only instead of a couch he had a set of books shelves built into the wall opposite the window and the table underneath it. The place looked much more like a traveling library than someone's home. The front end where his bed was seemed the only place where books weren't stacked.

"Can you read Tyrissian?"

"Yes."

"Anything else?"

"Nothing I've come across." She said.

"Well then," He settled himself at the table in a large chair. The other chair was a standard rickety wooden one. "Tell me why you think I can teach you to speak Estavanni."

"Because I can understand you, if I show you an object you will speak the sound in Estavanni and I will learn it." She said.

"You are a smart girl." He said lighting a pipe, "Mind if I?"

She shook her head.

"Make some tea if you'd like," He pointed at his stove.

"Thank you." She said and went over to the stove, she filled the water pot with water from the jug and lit the fire. She turned around and held out a ceramic mug, "What's this?"

"Tea Mug." He said.

She picked up a tin mug of much the same dimensions, "Coffee Mug." He said, "But they're interchangeble if you don't have one or the other on hand."

"What's it made out of?"

"Tin." He said.

And her day progressed, sometimes in writing if he didn't have the object, sometimes not. About halfway through the day she stopped and started over, only she spoke the Estavanni word and was corrected on pronunciation more than not. Around evening she excused herself, saying she would be back at the same time tomorrow if he didn't object. He didn't, she got the impression Goury enjoyed having a student.

Dahlia showed her an Estavanni dish, and cooking in general that evening.

The night was the dream again. Same dream, same heat. She wasn't sure if the figure was getting any closer or not.

She woke in the morning, this time she slept without the sweater, though that didn't not help much. She took the first hour before Dahlia would wake to step outside and clean herself up some. She took a small amount of water and a cloth, it briefly crossed her mind that someone was probably watching. She dismissed the thought.

The day progressed the same, Goury teaching her more of the language, mostly pronounciation of many of the previous days lessons, and new words in the afternoon.

"If you keep up this pace you'll be learning grammar by next week." He said, "I'd almost swear you were remembering and not learning something new."

"I wish I could tell you." She said and left for the day.

When she got back to Dahlia's cabin she noted they had a guest, a thick, but not too heavy, woman sat at the table with Dahlia.

"There you are," Dahlia said, "Nina this is Rhianna, one of our seamstresses."

"Greatings Nina." Rhianna said.

"Greatings." Nina said.

"She's here to take some measurements, get you some clothes that fit better." Dahlia said.

"Thank you." Nina said. She endured the measurements and the torture of both women as they clucked over how thin she was. Nina didn't particularly mind, if she kept eating the way she was she'd gain weight with in short order. Keeping the figure would be the hard part she figured.

Rhianna left as Dahlia started dinner.

"Don't worry about payment on those." Dahlia said, "Everything within the community works on trade, I got rid of a lot of my old clothing for new."

"I didn't have to do that." Nina said as they ate.

"Nonsense, what was I going to use them for? I can't wear them anymore and they don't fit you, best they go to some use." Dahlia said, "It was silly of me to keep them in the first place."

--

Nina dreamed every night for a week, the same dream. The same sun burning down, or was it a different sun each time? She watcehd the figure come ever onwards. With time she knew the figure was getting closer, the shape resolved itself to that of a woman, or was the heat playing tricks? She didn't know, only that she had to wait.

She quickly learned the language with the help of the Talker. By his counts she learned it must faster than he would have expected. Rhianna had brought her three skirts and four blouses so far, with promise of one more skirt. The skirts were all colorful, one red, one black, and one white. The blouses were red, two white and a light blue. She figure the last skirt would match the blue dress. She saw no one who wore a black top anywhere in the camp. She kept some of Dahlia's sashes for around her waist, but had no jewelry like all of the other woman, some had more or less than other, but all had at least a little bit. She also had no boots, or footwear of any kind. But it seemed many others in the camp didn't either, or didn't wear them if they did. It had been two weeks since Nina had joined them, and she saw signs of the camp breaking up to move again.

"We never stay much longer than a few weeks in one place." Dahlia said as she showed Nina how to get a wagon ready to move again. It wasn't a complicated process but it did involve securing many heavy objects, most of which were already secure since Dahlia did little rearranging of her wagon. She told her that many took the opportunity at camps to completely move around their homes, for variety. Nina was shown the wheel blocks, but they were removed only right before they got ready to travel again. The hitch was taken down from the top of the wagon and put in the front for the horses. The horses, that Nina had seen but not gone up to investigate, were large beasts. Larger than she thought they should be. Though to be honest with herself she couldn't ever remember being near a horse, only having a recollection of what they looked like, she knew a horse when she saw one, but couldn't tell you if it was big or small for its size.

The next morning had them hitching up horses, a man named Joules came to help drive Dahlia's wagon. She was too old, in her own words, to do such a thing. She remained inside, though Nina saw fit to climb into the drivers bench and learn. Dahlia made sure the top latch was open just in case she wanted to come in.

"Greetings." Joules said as Nina settled onto the bench, she noted that a leather cushion had been brought out from a holding place underneath the bench, "I understand you're to become Family."

"So I'm told." Nina said, "Who is driving your wagon?" She said.

"My wife." He said, "She is more than capable of driving such a thing." He smiled.

"Will you teach me how?" Nina asked.

"Of course, all able bodied Family should learn to drive." He said. He spent a good part of the morning explaining everything to her, she spent the rest of it asking questions and getting it reexplained. By midday they stopped, pulling their train off to the side of the dirt trails near a field, it was time for lunch. Nearly everyone helped to prepare the meal and everyone ate together. A few men ate atop some of the wagons, facing all directions as look outs.

After lunch they continued onwards, Joules explained that first they would travel south to the Goblin Sea, and then westward along its edge skirting the southern edge of the Tyrissian Empire until they reached the Five Kingdoms. Then they would travel northward into the Open Lands, so called as they were mostly city states. The Estavanni prefered the Open Lands as they were free to roam without the issues of armies marching around of underlying laws, only collections of towns that welcomed independant trade, mostly.

Early on in the afternoon Nina took the reigns and took over, which wasn't hard as they were currently moving down a very strait stretch of road. Joules was giving her instruction on how to keep the wagon moving at the correct steady pace. Making sure that they didn't get too far from or too close to the wagon in from of them, and how to look out for major divots in the road and a gentle way of swaying the wagon around them.

Mostly it involved her keeping an eye on the wagon in front of her and watching its movements, which she did without too much trouble. The horses themselves were so used to the routine they kept their own speed, not much concerned with the drivers behind them, only going along with the gentle persuasions to move to one side of the road or the other. Nina found that she did need to concentrate on the wagon, and couldn't much wander to see the countryside around her, Joules was watching her, used to looking at one thing for hours on end.

As evening drew down the wagon train pulled to one side and out into the field just off the road. They circled the wagons, Dahlia's wagon was near the middle of the camp since she was alone in hers and one of the elder members. Joules helped Nina guide their wagon into place and stop it.

"You catch on quick, are you sure you've never driven a wagon before?"

"I couldn't say," Nina said, "I don't remember any of my past."

"Well, you did good, I'll let you drive all day tomorrow if you'd like."

"I think I can handle that." Nina said.

"Lessons not over though," He said as the climbed down, "Drivers also have to learn to care for the horses before they can eat dinner." He said unhitched the four that pulled their wagon. Nina helped as she could, but wasn't very familiar with the care of horses, though they seemed to like her well enough. Joules had told her not to worry, she'd learn in time.

Nina walked into the wagon to be greated by the smells of a rich stew brewing, along with several other smells. Dahlia had spent most of the day treating herbs. The wagons insides were a mix of various smells, some good and some rather pungent. Nina had to open both the roof top and the windows to get any fresh air in.

"Sorry dear, my nose has gotten so used to it I don't even smell everything anymore." Dahlia said serving up the stew.

"That's ok, it was just a rather surprising thing to walk into after a day of open air." Nina said.

"Your pronounciation is getting better." Dahlia noted.

"Joules helped me some today." She said, "He found it a little frustrating that I insisted he speak Estavanni to me."

"Joules is a good young man."

"Friendly." Nina said.

Nina did not dream that night, her sleep was silent. In the morning she woke at the normal time of dawn. She silently climbed up to the top of the wagon and watched the sun rise. Within thirty minutes some of the wagons began to come alive. She noticed several woman come out to make a morning cooking fire, presumably for the drivers who would spend most of their morning getting the wagons ready for travel again. She decided that today was not the day to introduce herself to the others, she'd wait until she knew the culture and language a bit better.

The day was warm with a cool breeze coming in from the south. She noticed that children often spent time atop of the moving wagons, seemingly playing at shouting games or watching the sky. Nina learned that the children were active lookouts as the train traveled, the drivers spent much of their time focusing on the driving, that lookouts were helpful. And not many would suspect that the children on top would be serving such a function. Nina understood that they spoke Estavanni, or rather shouted it, to each other. But couldn't understand it.

"What is they're saying?" She asked Joules, two boys had taken to shouting out things, the other children responded in echoes up and down the wagon.

"It's a sort of code he said, we call it Mevadi." He explained, "You take the last two syllables of the word and make them the first two syllables, we all learn it as children."

"So I have to learn your language in two ways?" Nina said.

Joules laughed, "Partly yes, Mevadi doesn't have structure, it uses nouns mostly, look they shout about a stump and tree." He said as they shouted across each other, "The one in front spies the object, and each one in turn shouts out when they spy it as well, look off to the left."

Nina looked to the left and saw a stump half uprooted next to a tree.

"It's a game of sorts, see who can spot it first, front wagons have an advantage on close objects, but they sometimes go very far out."

"What's the purpose?"

"Besides seeing who can find the object fastest?"

"Yes."

"Think about it, if the first boy sees an eagle, but the last boy sees a roc then somethings amiss, it's a way of making sure the horizon stays the way it's supposed to be."

"Unmoving."

"Mostly unthreatening, but yet, unmoving."

"Clever." Nina said. Joules laughed.

"Mevadi is easy once you understand the concepts."

"I'll work on the words strait ways before bending them." Nina said.

Nina didn't dream again until the fifth day. It was the same as before, the desert sands, the figure marching ever onwards towards her. In her deepest heart she knew tragedy to be coming. She did not know how or why, only that it was.

--

She woke to her usual routine, Dahlia had gotten used to Nina being awake at the crack of dawn. She put the pot on for tea and went outside into the morning air. She stretched and pulled a long pole from the side of the wagon by the door. She took a stance and went into a series of practiced motions. She had taken up practicing with the polearm to keep in shape. She'd had the blacksmith put several metal bands around the ends to weight it properly. She also did most of the labor required to maintain the wagon, which had been shared by other able bodied men in the camp since Dahlia couldn't do it.

They had accepted her over the last five months, more or less. It was Rhianna who first invited Nina to join the women in the morning as they made breakfast. Nina was always the first one awake in the camp so she took the opportunity to get a morning exercise in. Around thirty or forty minutes after sunrise the other women began to rise and come out of their own wagons. Nina joined them, bringing several spices for the morning meal.

Dahlia would be awake around this time, and making herself tea from the hot water Nina left on the stove. It wasn't long before Nina looked a little troubled.

"What is it dear?" Rhianna asked, stopped her work.

"The light isn't on yet." Nina said.

Rhianna looked over at the wagon that Nina shared with Dahlia, "Perhaps she doesn't need it, it is a bright morning."

"The window is facing west, it would still be dim in the wagon." Nina said moving towards the wagon, Rhianna followed.

"Let me go in first." Rhianna said, she had an idea of the situation, she knew how old Dahlia really was.

"But,"

"Nina," Rhianna said, "I'm sure everything is fine." She opened the door and went inside, Nina hesitated only a moment before following.

Rhianna was already at the back of the cabin where Dahlia still lay in bed. Nina wasn't halfway there when Rhianna turned around and stopped her.

"Nina, you should wait outside, send in Caitlin." Rhianna said.

"What's wrong?" Nina's voice wavered only slightly.

"Please Nina," Rhianna said, "I'll be out in a moment."

Nina nodded, the dread she had felt in her dream returned. She knew what had happened, Dahlia had died in her sleep. Nina went outside and walked slowly back ot the fire, "Caitlin," He voice was softer than usual," She stopped the portly woman, "Rhianna asked you to join her." Caitlin was their undertakers wife.

Caitlin only nodded, noting Nina's saddened look. She wiped her hands on her apron as she walked to the wagon. Nina watched her go. The full weight of the situation was starting to press on her, she felt herself go numb.

Nina didn't dream that night, and the wagon train didn't move. They always took two days stopped, if they could, to mourn the passing of a Family member. She went through the morning routine on autopilot, not really paying much attention to what she was doing. The wagon seemed suddenly large for her. She sat on the couch in the early morning with a mostly untouched cup of tea in her hands on the third day. A knock on the door broke her trance. She stood and went to answer it, Rhianna came in before she got to the door. It was the custom to leave the door of a mourning wagon unlocked.

"Morning." Rhianna said greeting Nina.

"Morning." Nina said, her voice sounded tired.

"We'll be moving again in a few hours." She said, "I'll make sure Joules is here to help drive your wagon."

"Thank you."

"Nina," Rhianna put her hand on Nina's shoulder, "You're part of the Family, Family always watches out for Family."

Nina smiled, "Thank you."

"Death is just another part of life." Rhianna said.

"I know, I just didn't.." She sighed, "I was afraid of what would happen if Dahlia passed, if I would be allowed to stay."

"Of course you are." Rhianna said, "You were her apprentice, now you're our healer. We accepted you from the start." She said. "When we reach Ushael I have a feeling that Rupert will make it official by asking you to take the mark of Family Rosella."

Nina smiled, "I'm begining to feel like I belong."

"Becuase you do. Now, if you haven't had breakfast take a bowl for the road." Rhianna said.

Nina followed her out and took the last bits of the breakfast stew and went back to prepare her wagon to move again. She found she could go through the motions needed with little effory. Joules came over, he had stopped driving with her several months ago.

"Morning." He said.

"Morning." Nina greeted him.

"Eat before it gets too cold." Joules said, "I'll finish this up. And make sure the inside is secure."

Nina went into the wagon and put away all the loose pieces in the cabin. She didn't realize how much she would miss Dahlia until all the little things started to come out. She heard a double knock on the roof to signal that the wagon was going to start moving. She sat down at the table and ate the stew slowly as they moved back onto the road and onwards. They were approaching the fall season as they travelled northward now.

Just before the midday break Nina came out and joined Joules at the drivers bench.

"Feeling better?" He asked her as they drove.

"No." She said.

"You're brutally honest, you know that."

"I don't see any other way to be." She answered.

"Not sure if that's a good or bad thing to have in our healer."

"A little of both."

He laughed, "You fit in well Nina, you're liked by all." He glanced at her, "Don't worry about the future, you're Family."

"Thank you." She said, "It's nice to belong."

"Everyone belongs somewhere."

They pulled off to the side of the road for the midday break, lunch was bread and cold meat. Nina had decided that they needed something else, she would have to go through her spices and herbs to find a suitable companion.

As they got back onto the road a cool wind picked up, Nina was paying attention to the wagon in front of them as they drove onwards, as if she were the driver.

"You'll need boots for the winter months in the north." He said.

Nina looked down at her bare feet and shrugged, "I suppose I will."

"You have any coin saved up to deal with the towns?"

"A little." She said, "I've also some rarer herbs in a bit of surplus I can sell if I need." She said.

"That's good, make sure to get a sturdy pair."

"I'm afraid I wouldn't know a good pair of boots from a bad."

"Ask Vladmir to help. If you bring him materials he'll make them himself."

"Sounds like a better deal."

The Family troupe traveled northward, the fall grew cold quickly, more quickly than usual. Vladmir had agreed to cobble her a pair of good walking boots, he would get the materials needed. She tried to give him some coin to do so, he accepted a little but not all of it, saying it was better that Family worked in barter. When she pointed out that she didn't have much to barter with he laughed at her, explaining that a healer would be needed someday not matter how careful one was. Any debts she attained within would be quickly worked off and turned to favor given time. Nina accepted it, but was still slightly uneasy.

As the first cold day his she pulled on her boots, they were a black leather and came to mid calf. They fit a bit tightly around her leg, the leather was soft to the touch. She drove her own wagon again, only asking someone to help if she had to tend to a pot of herbs being treated or some other medicine. Which wasn't much around this time of year. Dahlia had made sure they entered the winter months when plants were scarce with as much of a surplus as possible.

They finally reached a good sized walled town called Ushael. They camped just outside, forming their wagon circle, Nina's wagon was still towards the middle, though not as much as before. Goury's wagon was now in the close center spot where Dahlia's used to be, Ruperts was next being the Family Head.

Nina sat on her steps watching the children play in the afternoon sun, the day was cool but windless. The twelve children in the camp under thirteen ran and played as children did. The four between thirteen and sixteen tried their best to want to act like adults and still play like children.

"Nina!" A young girl seven came running up, holding a scraped elbow.

"Well, what did we do here?" Nina said as she made a point of looking at the minor scrape. "I bet you fell."

"Jael was trying to get me, I tripped on a rock." The girl explained in a hurried pace, stuck between tending her wound and getting back to the game.

"Well, hold on a second and I'll fix this up." Nina went into her wagon and came out with a wet rag and a leaf spread with a bit of ointment to dull the sting. She wiped the wound clean then spread the ointment on, "Good as new, now play." Nina said, the girl ran off as fast as she came up. Nina put her tools of the trade away and sat back down on her steps.

Rupert came up around evening as the adults gathered in, some families coming together for time alone. Several men had gathered around the central fire to drink ale and share stories.

"Rupert." Nina greeted him.

"Nina." He said, "How are things today?"

"As can be expected, several scraped and cut appendages and one small accident with a tree saw." Nina recapped her day.

"A small accident with a tree saw?" Rupert raised an eyebrow.

"Joules walked into the saw after putting it down behind him, putting a small but nicely bleeding cut into his shin." Nina said.

Rupert laughed in a short burst, "Well that doesn't sound so bad."

Nina smiled, "He'll heal."

"You've become an invaluable part of the Family." Rupert said.

"I do my part."

"I think it's time we formalized it," Rupert said, "If you don't mind another tattoo that is."

"I certainly don't." Nina replied, "At least this one will mean something to me, and I'll know where it came from."

Rupert smiled, "Good, Family Cooper has set up camp a bit to the west of town, they have a skin artist who can do the mark for us."

"When?"

"Mid day should work." Rupert said, "Oh, and don't worry about payment, Family marks are always free, Families watch out for Families."

Nina nodded, "Withing as without." She said, it was a saying she'd picked up from her new home. It indicated that all Families are really just part of one big Family. They didn't tell outsiders but that's what the word Estavanni meant, Great Family.

The next morning came, and Rupery came around midday with Beryx, a massive oxe of a man.

"An escort." Nina said as she closed her wagon door with a smile.

"Morning Nina." Beryx said, he had managed to aquire a bit of a soft spot for Nina. He moved between treating her like a little sister and like a daughter. His affection rarely went past that though, his wife would probably kill him. He once remarked to Nina that she reminded him of his real little sister, long since married and off with another Family.

"Beryx." Nina greated the large man, "Come to make sure no harm befalls me?" She chided him as they walked across the camp.

"I've some business in town." He said to cover, "Thought I'd walk you that far at least."

"Thank you." She said with sincerety.

"I've some political bits to talk with Family Cooper," Rupert said, "So I'll leave you with the skin artist if that doesn't bother you much."

"Not at all, I'm a big girl." She said.

The other Families wagons were in a similar circle to their own, the skin artists wagon lay on the outside, last in line. Nina noted he had three sons, two near grown. Which made him a dead ringer for the last wagon in the chain, therefore the outside wagon in the circle.

"Greetings, I am Adel." The beefy man greeted Nina and Rupert.

"I am Rupert, this is Nina." Rupert introduced them both, Nina gave him a friendly smile.

"I expected a younger woman." Adel said, "Not that you're not young." He quickly backtracked as Nina gave him a stern look. She'd had some time to practice her motherly look on people of all ages. Being the Family Healer brought it out in her as she instructed one hard headed child or adult to do something or other to heal quickly.

"She is adopted." Rupert said, "Is Codrin around?"

"At the hearth fire I believe." Adel said.

"Thank you, if you'll excuse me I've some business to attend." He nodded to both Nina and Adel and took leave.

"Come in Nina." Adel said stepping into his wagon, "You are Rosela's Healer from what I gather?"

"Yes." She answered.

"Then I'll not need to instruct you on how to care for skin art?"

"A little instruction to best care wouldn't be unwelcome." She said sitting on the stool Adel had pointed to while he got out his inks.

"You speak Estavanni well, I understand you've been family for only a year or so."

"Yes, about that." She replied.

"Your right forearm if you don't mind."

Nina rolled up her sleeve to her elbow and offered her forearm.

"You're built strong," Adel said, "I've met men whose arms don't look so muscular."

"I get my exercise." Nina remarked.

"I can tell." Adel said, "This may hurt a bit, it may not. It doesn't take long, less than an hour." He pulled out his needles sticks and tap hammer.

The tattoo hadn't taken that long, Adel wrapped it in a leather bandage with an oil on it, he told her to remove it by evening and gave her ingrediants for a moisturizing oil to use. He recommended it be used daily from now on, though most never did that.

"Thank you." She said.

"No problems." He was rinsing his needles and placed them into a small pot of boiling water to clean them.

"I was wondering if I might ask a favor."

"Depends on the favor."

" I want you to tell me what you can about another tattoo I have."

"Sure." Adel turned to her again.

Nina turned around and opened her shirt and pulled it down to reveal her back.

"That's some art." He said, "Very black ink, and you don't oil it everyday?"

"Can't reach it." She said.

"Well, let's see here." He looked at it, "This is much blacker than ink can be." He ran his hand over the marking, "It's not a tattoo, my guess is it's some form of magical mark. Of what nature I can't tell you. I'm not magician."

Nina pulled her shirt back on and buttoned it up again. "Thank you."

"Sorry I couldn't be of much help."

"No worries. I don't know anything about it either."

"I wish I could give you the name of someone who might, but magics are rare in the Family."

Nina shook her head, "I'm not that anxious to find out to be honest. I have a feeling that the less I find out about it the better off I might be."

"Perhaps." Adel said, "But it's always good to know ones past."

"Well, there I'm at a total loss." Nina stood, "Be well Adel."

"Be well Nina."

Nina left his wagon and didn't see Rupert anywhere, Beryx was still in town for all she knew. So she walked back to her own camp alone, enjoying the cool fall afternoon. The sky had a light grey color to it, threatening to snow sometime in the near future.

Evening came without much incident, Rupert had come to check on her around mid afternoon, Beryx not much after that. The sky had started to spit snowflakes at them. She closed her door, leaving it unlocked should her services be needed, started a small fire in her tiny stove and let the heat fill her wagon. The wagons were well built, they used some form of altered tree sap at the seems to make them near airtight. She had rearranged things a bit so the table was underneath the window and the couch opposite it, she sat on the soft bench watching the sky through her window. She had polished her boots and put them near her bed and sat cross legged unwrapping her arm. She placed the leather wrapping to the side, it could be used again after she cleaned it and retreated it.

Nina looked at her marking, the stylized 'Z' shape in the middle of her forearm on the underside. She finally felt complete now that she had it. She was where she belonged, a sense of total calm overcame her.

She watched the sun set into the west over a treeline on the horizon and lay down on the couch. She closed her eyes and fell into a calm sleep.

//00100 When all your rage beomces hate//

Lady Thalia Olund-Mettal waited patiently as her attendand did the buttons on the back of her over coat.

"There you go M'lady." Ophilia said making only one more slightly adjustment.

Thalia nodded and left her dressing room, tonight was a great dance for the nobles of the city, her husband was already behind the scenes making his political moves. She greated her second attendant who had her sun.

"And how is Paeter?" Thalia said smiling at her little boy of four.

"Mommy." He held out his hands while Julia attempted to get him into his own version of formal dress.

"Hold still Paeter." She chided him.

"Hold still for mommy." Thalia said crouching down, bending over was not an option in the formal dress she wore. Paeter did as he was told.

"I'm glad he listens to you." Julia said as she finished buttoning his top jacket.

"All good boys listen to their mothers." Thalia held his bright blue eyes with her deep black. "Isn't that right Paeter?"

Julia let go of the little boy who ran the four steps to Thalia, "I don't like it mommy." He said pulling on his collar.

Thalia scooped him up and stood, "Well, if you wear it just a little bit for me then maybe I'll make sure you get a berry-tart later on." She said. Paeter immediately stopped fidgiting with his collar.

"That's a good boy." Julia said taking him from Thalia, "The carriage should be ready M'lady."

"Thank you both." Thalia said as they walked down the wide marble stairs of the estate home. She always enjoyed the city stays, the people and the parties were her style. Though her husband Antolii said her prefered the country estate with its hunting grounds she knew he enojoyed the politics of the city too much to stay away for long.

Her two lady attendants stayed back at the estate as she and Paeter rode off in the carriage with her assigned guards. Two thin men with rapiers at their sides, the nobles employed duelists as guards for their elegance. As a result the number of duelists in the city was astounding. So many schools of the dueliing arts had opened that Thalia decided to take classes of her own to pass the time. She was told she was quite good at it, a natural duelist. Though a noble lady would never be caught in a duel.

The carriage made its way through the city in the early dusk, the lamps were still being lit in much of the city itself, though the upper portion with the nobles grounds on it was already lit with the kerosene globes. She was busy fussing with Paeter when she looked out the window, "Where are we?" She asked one of her body guards, a man named Brody.

He looked out the window and knit his brow. "I'll find out M'lady." He said and stood. He went to the opposite door from Thalia and Paeter and opened the window to lean out and talk to the driver.

His body jerked suddenly, and then fell limp, Thalia and her other body guard looked in shock. The carriage came to a quick halt, jolting those inside.

Thalia caught Paeter to prevent him from getting injured in the sudden stop as the guard braced himself and tried to catch Thalia. She stopped herself short on the opposite bench, Paeter in one arm.

"Kivain?" She looked at the guard still inside with her, Brody was hanging from the open window.

"I don't know." He said and opened the door to check, he jumped out, unsheathing his rapier. "Brody?" He touched the man, "Shit." He said and suddenly turned to face off an attacker Thalia couldn't see.

Thalia looked at Paeter, "Get down," She whispered and her finger to her lips, Paeter shrunk down into the corber between the seat and wall, hugging his legs. Thalia pulled Brody's body inside to find he'd been stabbed in the throat. She unsheathed his sword and took a look out the open door. Kivain was busy with three attackers, all swordsman, he was keeping them at bay using the carriage to prevent them from getting to his back.

Thalia heard the door behind her open and whipped around, sword at the ready. A single man stood there with a knife in hand. Thalia didn't hesitate and thrust her weapon in an attack. She caught the assailant in the shoulder, driving him back. A bolt struck the door near her arm as she withdrew the sword. She made a grab for the door handle, shutting in just as a second crossbow bolt struck the seat next to her.

She took a quick glance over her shoulder, Kivain had killed one assailant, but wasn't fairing well against the other two who seemed to work in tandem against him.

She turned to try and help him after locking the door when the window next to her seat shattered, a third bolt had embedded itself in the leather back. She knelt down to provide a lower profile from the unseen attacker. The fourth bolt was alight with flame as she reached the door that Kivain defended.

Thalia had to pull the bolt out of the carriage wall before it caught, she tossed the flaming missile at one of Kivain's attackers, distracting him momentarily. That's when the opposite side exploded, she turned to find that magefire had smashing into the door, setting it on fire and shattering the windows. The inside was now covered in glass and Paeter screamed in terror.

The door gone a bolt came through and caught her son in the chest.

"PAETER!" She screamed, dropping her sword and not paying any attention to the rest of the fight around her. She almost fell down in front of her son and pulled him to her, turning herself to shield his body with hers. The bolt had struck his heart, "Paeter!" She cried out, tears already flowing down her cheeks as her sons life bled onto her hands.

"M'lady?!" Kivain said climbing back into the carriage, which was now catching fire. "We have to get out." He grabbed her shoulder to get her to move. He ended up half dragging her as she became frantic over her son's limp body in her arms. She immediately fell to the cobblestone as Kivain cleared her from the now burning carriage. His three attackers dead around them, the others had apparently run off as no more bolts were forthcoming.

"M'lady?" Kivain kneeled down over her, "I'll summon a healer." He said standing to look around. The traitorous driver had put them in a mostly unpopulated area. A park near the south edge of the wall. Someone would see the burning carriage soon enough, but it might be a while before they got to them.

"Kivain." Thalia looked up at him, "Stop." She said softly and pointed to the bolt, "It's enchanted." She whispered and put Paeter on the ground. "Just tell me who did this."

Kivain looked at the bolt, the enchantment on it caused the bolt to kill instantly. He looked around numbly, "House Loviath." He said, his voice a monotone.

"Then I will kill their children." She pulled a sword from one of the dead attackers grip.

"M'lady1" Kivain grabbed Thalia's arm and spun her towards him as she started to walk off.

"Kivain, if you put your hand on me again, I will kill you." Her voice was a soft even tone. Her pitch black eyes impossible to read, they had gone to glass. Kivain slowly let go of her arm and took a step back.

"M'lady, we should leave this matter to the watch and the council." He said.

"The watch? They care not what warring houses do as long as we do it up here on our grounds." She said, "The council has already made it clear that they remain neutral in such disputes." She had a dangerous edge to her voice.

"It is a good distance to House Loviath." He tried to reason with her.

"A few miles, means nothing." She started to walk, slowed by her gown. Stopped she tore off the outer layer and tossed it to the ground, wearing only her bottom skirt she stormed off.

Kivain looked a the carriage, then dead men and Paeter than ran after her. He caught her quickly enough and intended to stop her. This time he jerked her short but grabbing onto her shoulder.

She spun around hard, putting the sword she carried deep into his gut. He let go and staggered backwards, dropping his weapon. Thalia bent down and picked it up, "I told you I would kill you." She said, her voice had only malice in it.

--

The watch had been called, the Houses called in their own policing force as well. House Loviath was on fire, all four stories burning into the night. On the lawn several bodies lay dead.

Everyone who was able had a sword drawn, the fire squad had been called as well as several mages who could quell the flames. They waited as scream from inside died out, and only the flames crackling broke the night silence.

A figure emerged out of the front door, silloughetted in flames. It stalked forward and into the light where the gathered men could see her.

Thalia had tossed aside her last remaining weapon, having taken from the dead as she cut them down. Her clothes were covered in blood, torn and shredded as she stalked slowly forward.

Her eyes were glassy, a depthless black and utterly emotionless. She stopped her march at the gate and fell to her knees and then forward, unconcious.

Later, in her trial, the nearest man to her claimed she uttered the words "Blood vengeance is mine, their house is no more." just before passing out.

//00101 Estavanni Moonlight Dance :: Part II//

Nina woke with a start, swallowing a scream of pain and terror. She breathed hard as she swung her legs down onto the wagon floor from the couch. Sweat dripped from her brow as she caught her breath.

She pulled her shirt off, it felt abbrasive to her skin suddenly, her back felt as if it were on fire. It wasn't quite dawn yet as her eyes adjusted to the dim predawn light. She pulled out a water skin and took a long swallow before dropping it onto the table and trying to relax her racing mind. The fire on her back had not gone away, it seemed to intensify even.

She staggered to the mirror, turning on the lamp by her bed and turned her back to it. She looked over her shoulder to see her back and her eyes went wide. The black marking, the Adel said was no tattoo, was moving. It had gone from a pure black to looking like a flow of lava, coarsing over her skin inside the lines made by the mark. It was as if her back were suddenly alive.

She fell to her knees heavily and tried to make sense of anything. Of the dream, the mark, anything. The figure that came out of that burning house, it was the same slow steady walk of the one walking across the sands to her.

Was she the woman in the dream? Thalia? She didn't know, the whole dream up tot he burning house from the woman's eyes only. The woman's hands, they might have been hers once. She was a young woman, much younger than Nina was now.

Nina shook her head to clear it, try and make some sense. The boy, he had died, thinking back it seemed as if he was the real target in the attack, certainly not the woman.

She knew, as certain as she knew anything that the woman, Thalia was her as she was in her past. The boy, Paeter was her son. Now gone, lost to her.

But the hate, that pure hate she felt as she left the scene of the attack, that couldn't be her. She would never accept that she could feel that way.

Rupert knocked on her door a little over an hour after sunrise. He always had a way of knocking to let you know it was him.

"Come in." She said loud enough to be heard, her voice was a bit hoarse.

Rupert opened the door and saw her on the couch, hugging her knees to her. He closed the door behind him and walked up to her, he noted the stove's flame had died to embers from the previous night, she hadn't yet stoked it for the day. He stoked the wood a bit a put another of the slow burning Mirth tree logs in it. He put some water on for tea as Nina watched him from behind red eyes. He sat down in the chair across from her.

"Want to talk about it?" He said, it was obvious she had been crying. She was only wearing a skirt, her shirt was still discarded in front of the mirror.

"I finally remembered." She said.

"Your past?"

She nodded, "My family, and" She put her head down on her knees, "Everything I lost."

"Tell me." Rupert said, his voice full of concern.

She looked up at him, a fresh tear rolled down her cheek. "I'm Tyrissian, like everyone said. A noble, part of one of the High Houses." She paused, "I was." She wiped away the tear as it hovered on her chin.

"I had a beautiful son, Paeter, all blue eyes and smiles like his father. We were attacked one night, he was killed. They were after him and only him. They left me alive, my husband wasn't even there to witness anything. Warring houses, but why a little boy. He was only four." She said, her voice was weak.

Rupert stood up to check the water, it was still cool, the stove had gone to cold to heat the water quickly. "Go on." He said.

"I went off on a murderous rage," She whispered, "In the dream, I could feel it like I can the earth. I burned their house, I mindlessly killed everyone I could find." She said, "My family gone, I took justice upon myself. And I was a monster. And everything is gone."

Rupert looked at her, he took ahold of her wrist, and pulled her arm free from its grip wrapped around her knees, "See this?" He pointed at her fresh marking. "This means you have a family, it means you have everything you need." He said calmly.

Nina looked at her arm, the blue black inking into her arm, "I need to treat this." She said looking around for her medicines.

Rupert walked over and picked up her blouse, "Here." He handed it to her, "Where do you keep your oils?"

"There is a cream in that cabitnet." She pointed at a small hutch with thin drawers next to the table near the bed as she pulled her blouse over her head. Rupert opened the first two draers before finding the small glass jar with a off white cream in it. He handed it to her as she rolled up her sleeves, "I'm sorry." She said taking it, "I didn't mean to be such a mess."

"It's ok." Rupert sat back down, "Everyone falls. Just remember we're all here to help you get back up." He said.

She smiled, "I've never felt so at home." She said putting a small amount of the moisturizer on her arm, "Tell me," She looked at him, "What I did after they killed my family, does your culture condone that?"

"Only under one condition." He said, his face gone graven, "If there are only a few survivors, or even just one, and the rest of the Family have been killed we call it BloodOath." He stood and looked at the water, it was starting to steam. He pulled down a mug and got out the tea leaves, filling the small wire sphere for steaping them. "We do not speak of it, you may only call a Blood Oath if there is not enough left to start over with, that is to say a lone survivor. It's swearing you will not rest until the enemy is destroyed, or you are." He handed her the mug, "It's for when there's nothing left to lose. Now drink." He said sitting back down.

She took the mug and sipped the still brewing tea, her throat was soar and her lips parched. "It comforts me to know that I'm wanted here." She said, "After my deeds I was found guilty of many things. I was stripped of title, name, everything. And I was locked in the Crystal Cages." She said.

He looked at her, "I've heard only rumors."

"They're giant magically sealed," She searched for a word, "Things. You're sleeping, but not asleep. You have only your dreams and your nightmares with you, nothing else." She said. "I was in them for sometime. I don't know how long it's been since that night." She sipped the tea, "I still can't remember anything from before or after it until waking up by that stream."

"Does it matter?" Rupert said, "This is who you are," His arm swept the wagon, "Sometimes it is best to forget who you were and move forward."

She smiled, "Thank you for coming over." She said.

He stood, "It's my duty to find out what is wrong when someone breaks routine. We feared our healer had gotten sick herself." He said, "I'm glad to see you're allright."

"I'll be fine, I may spend today inside, just gathering my thoughts again. It's comforting to know others watch out for me."

"You are Nina Rosella. Family." He said, "Be well."

"Be well." Nina said as Rueprt left. She leaned back against the couch and folded her legs underneath her. Nina sipped her tea and watched the grey morning sky through her window.

The day went by without much incident, Nina stayed in her wagon keeping herself busy. She cleaned, reorganized her herbs and medicines and took account of her stock. It would be her first winter with the Family and she wasn't sure how much of what, if anything, went on. Outside there were several members gathered around the central fire, but most seemed to stay inside their wagons, if the smoke drifting from the top smoke pipes was any indication. She checked her small stack of the Mirth wood, she would probably need a little more to last all winter. One log could burn two days if it was stoked right.

As she felt the sun start to sink low a knock came on her door. She opended it to the smiling rosy cheeked face of Rhianna, "Evening Nina." She said.

Nina stepped in to allow Rhianna entrance to her wagon, "Evening Rhianna, and to what pleasure do I owe the visit? Nothing hurt I hope?"

"Oh no," Rhianna said, "Fit as a fiddle, I came to invite you to the first snowfall dance."

"The what?"

"You've not had much opportunity, but we pride ourselves on being able to dance."

"I see." Nina looked a bit sheepish.

"Oh come, a fit girl like you can dance."

"I'm flattered but..."

"But nothing you lady." Rhianna wagged a finger at her, "We'll teach you to dance and teach you that there is always occasion to do so."

"Like the first snowfall?"

"Yes."

"I can't refuse can I?"

"No you can't, not and still be fit to call yourself a proper Estavanni woman." Rhianna said smiling wide, "Wear your boots, we've got an inch of frost of the ground."

"And a sweater I assume?"

"Two layers of shirt might do better, an hour of dancing in all but the coldest weather warms up the body and soul." Rhianna said as Nina pulled her boots on and looked for a heavier skirt. She found one and changed quickly and pulled on an additional overshirt.

"Let's go then." Rhianna said practically pulling Nina out her own door and into the cold evening air. "We always start the first dance as the sun sets." She said, "In grey weather like this we just guess."

"It won't set for another thirty minutes." Nina said.

"Oh and how do you know?"

"I don't know how, I only know I do. I can tell you the exact place in the sky the sun hangs at any moment. You always wonder why I'm awake so early?" Nina explained, "I wake up the second the sun breaches the horizon."

"You don't fall asleep when it sets do you?"

"No, not normally, thought sometimes I want to." Nina said. "I don't think I have to sleep when it's not in the sky, but I can almost never sleep when it is."

"Must be that mark you've got."

"Only thing I can think of." Nina shrugged.

"Ok then, I'll show you a few steps while the others gather," Rhianna said, "Here's how it works, the men play the music and the women dance." She nodded, "Not it's mostly in the hips and shoulders. You have to feel the rhythm."

"How can I feel the rhythm without any music?" Nina said.

"I'll just show you some basic moves, you'll figure out the rest when you get into the circle. With your legs and hips I think you'll be able to dance for hours."

"My hips?" Nina put her hands on her hips.

"You have a wonderful shape, take advantage of it." Rhianna said and stepped in front of Nina to face her, "Like this." She said and did a short dance step with a twist to her hips.

Nina cocked an eyebrow, "Do that again."

Rhianna repeated the step, Nina mirrored it.

"There, you've got it. Now, sun set or no, the musicians gather." Rhianna said walking towards the camps main fire.

"Wait." Nina said, it was too late, Rhianna had already gone off, "I don't have much of anything." She sighed and followed.

It was only a few measures into the opening beat that Nina got it. The rhythm was ressonating in her, it seemed to come from the earth itself. She understood why only a single step was shown to her once, the rhythm was the dance itself. The motion was merely a mirror of it. She felt the pull from deep within her soul, The beat matched her heart as it raced with excitement. It felt as if this were the most natural rhythm there was.

And an hour later as the night closed in and the music continued Nina found herself with the camps other woman dancing around the fire to the sound produced by their men. Occasionally a man would lay down his instrument to join in the circle, where he would playfully be passed from woman to woman until her was finally ejected from their dance and put back to his instrument once again.

The children watched for some of it or running between musician and dancer. Sometimes they joined in the dance, where they received better treatment than the men it seemed. The men played on drums with their hands, or fiddled with zeal. A few had tin flutes as well. It wasn't until close to midnight that the dance settled down. The men had finally used their energy, and the women were coming up short of breath from the constant dancing.

Nina leaned on a nearby stump, watching her breath mist in the air in front of her as she caught it. Rhianna came up to her, leaning drunkenly on her husband, "I told you you would get it. Natural rhythm." She said with a laugh and patted Nina on the shoulder. She went off with her husband to their wagon, the two leaning on each other.

Nina smiled as they walked away and stood to go back to her own wagon. She made her way through the cold night as the camp dispersed itself to finally sleep the day away. She pulled off her shirts and boots quickly as she entered her wagon and barely made it to the bed before collapsing. She managed to get her skirt off and crawled under the covers, she hadn't done that much activity since she didn't know when. Her body was already aching from the effort, she almost dreaded the morning. Still, she slept soundly with a smile on her lips. She did not dream of anything, even her faded memories seeing fit to leave her in peace this one time.

Nina awoke in the morning at the crack of dawn as normal. She opened one eye and looked into the gloomy twilight of her wagon from under the covers. The only light came from the soft glow of the wodd oven in the middle of everything still burning the Mirth log. She moaned lightly as she moved her aching body and quichly decided that the day could start without her. She rolled over to face away from even the dim light of the stove and closed her eyes again. She dozed lightly for a little less than an hour before the rising sun seemed to tug on her.

"I'm up." She said to the air as she threw the blankets back and sat up. She stretched and yawned from her sitting position on the edge of the bed and let out a deep breath, "I'm up." She said again and stood. She found a light skirt, the wagons retained more heat than she would otherwise have thought and walked over to her stove to fix her morning tea.

She dressed and went out into the cold morning air, the day wasn't going to be as overcast as the previous days, but it was going to be cold. She did her morning exercises as the camp woke up for the day. She noted that many of the women slept a little later this morning, the men managed to get up at the normal time. She smiled as they went about their business. Mostly they were checking every wagon to make sure it was winter ready and gathering any extra materials from the town that they might need.

Joules had wandered Nina's way as she put her staff away just inside the door of her own wagon. "Morning." He said.

"Morning, how's your leg?"

"Oh, it'll be fine." He said.

"Good."

"Just came to make sure your wagon didn't have any problems that needed fixing."

"None I'm aware of, it keeps heat like an oven.

"Good, you'll need it in deep winter." Her said, "Mind if I do a bit of inspection?"

"Not at all." Nina said, "Why do you come north in the winter? Why not go south?"

"Because," He said checking her wheels first, "All seasons are good seasons, it is best to experience a regular cycle." He said looking at one of her hubs closely. "Your pins are cracking a bit, they'll need replacing come the first thaw I wager."

"Why not replace them now?"

He shook his head, "Because we don't move in winter so there's less strain on the old ones. They won't crask, and there's no need to expose new ones to the weather just yet." He said, Nina nodded. Joules continued his inspection, pulling down the harness to check it as well. The leather reigns and seat were safely stowed in a locked front box unederneath the drivers couch.

"Where do the horses get kept?"

"Ah, that's the reason we winter near a town," He talked to her from around the side of the wagon, "So we can stable them safely, that way we don't lose any. Horses are exspensive, the whole Family would likely need to chip in to get even on new one." He said. "By most folks standards we're nothing but poor gypsys." He used the Tyrissian word for them. Amongst the Estavanni they only used the word gypsy when describing an outsiders view of their culture.

"I see." She said walking around her wagon to talk to Joules without yelling, "Poor is a relative word I suppose."

"That it is lass." He said.

"Want some tea, or maybe a cup of black?"

"No thank you," He said, "Belly's still full from a big breakfast." They had reached the back of her wagon again, "Mind if I do an inside inspection, last is the roof."

"Go right ahead." Nina opened her door for Joules.

It didn't take him long to check the inside, mostly the seems and looking for any rotting boards. He went up onto her roof to check the smoke pipe and for any outside damage. Nina was tidying up a bit when he climbed back down, "Well?" She asked.

"Everything seems good." He said, "This is a fairly new wagon, only a few seasons old." He said, "Next year we might have to reseal the edges."

"What is the seal?"

"A treated sap, we have to get it and make it in the south." He said, "We do all that in the summer when the cold isn't such an issue. And when it's easier to get the ingrediants we need."

Nina nodded, "Joules, this is going to be an odd question, what year is it?"

Joules looked at her, he was a bit perplexed.

"You know I don't remember my past, well, I'm not even sure of the year, my age, or much of anything."

"By Tyirssian reckoning, or Estavanni?"

"Both." She said sitting down in one of her chairs, "Sorry, it's a stupid question."

"Don't worry, by our counting it's three-thousand-forty-three. By the Tyrissian calendar it's only eight hundred."

Nina knit her brow, "Why the big difference?" Her mind was trying to reconcile the years, she wasn't have much luck.

"Tyrissian's count from what they call the Ascension, when their God Tholoth ascended to the heavens. According to them it's been eight hundred years since that time, so it's eight hundred post ascesion." He explained, "Estavanni count from when we first had a written language."

"What else is different from the two?"

"Estavanni have thirteen months a year, each with twenty eight days, and one Last Day at the end of the year as a celebration of all we learned and the experiences we had from the previous year. Tyrissians have 12 months, each with thirty days and five holidays in the year, I don't know where they are though."

"That's fine, none of it really makes any sense. We follow the lunar cycle in our calendar don't we?"

"Yes, I don't know what the Tyrissian's follow." He shrugged.

"Doesn't matter, I'll just count by our reconing."

"It helps to remember the Tyrissian year when trading." He said, "The time of year matters less, but Rupert has a calendar he's written down to keep track of everything."

Nina nodded, "Thank you Joules."

"My pleasure, your wagon should get you through the winter." He said.

"I hope so." Nina smiled, "Have a good day. And be careful with that leg."

"I'll be fine." He waved her off as he went out the door, shutting it behind him.

Nina leaned back in her chair and thought about everything, not remembering anything about herself or her past was starting to become a point of aggrevation for her. Especially since the other nights revelation about some of her past. Without any other memories she didn't know if she should believe it or put it down to bad memories.

She spent the day watching the children play in the thin snow still on th ground as she stewed a good sized pot of stew for herself to last a few days.

//00110 When all your dreams are memories//

Fall passed into winter as the encampment settled in. Nina spent the colder days inside, borrowing books from Goury to pass the time. At nights she dreamed.

She still stood in the desert, surrounded by nothing for miles. There was no wind, no sound, only the heat and sun. The figure walked towards her, briefly sihlouetted by a burning house.

She saw the fight at the manor after the attack. The cold precision with which her enemies were cut down. In the dream she felt the rage, the hate coming off her in waves. She was driven by it. It was interupted with brief flashes of happy moments with her son and husband. Of springs spent in fields with tall grass and bright flowers.

She saw images of her trial by the council of eleven mages, it seemed far away and distant. She heard their voices, but not their words. It made little sense. She only knew that it meant a living death to her. The Crystals they trapped you in were nothing more than a magical stasis.

Some nights she felt the utter lonliness that was her time inside the crystals, trapped with nothing but her memories and her emotions, she remembered in her dreams as the Crystal slowly stole her memories, leaving only a cold desolate feeling, even emotions were gone in them.

She remembered her childhood, in the cities, in the country sides, on her families castle estate in the southern reaches of the Empire. They were a prestigious family, with several principalities under their control. They had manors in three of the empires largest cities and the estate in the south where they wintered. At sixteen she was married off to another family, to increase boths sides power within the Empire. At eighteen she her son was born, and was her reason for hapiness as her husband played at the power games of nobility.

He wasn't cruel, just mostly negligent of his family. Still, she played at being a good wife, raised a noble woman of the Tyrissian empire.

Slowly everything seeped back in, her husbands name of Andrei, her mothers and fathers lands and holdings. The laws she lived under, the places she'd been. Everything came back over time, her birth name which she kept to herself.

All of it to the backdrop of the endless sands, the figure walking relentlessly towards her. And reached her, a mirror image of herself. Only the figure had a look of a person controled, a spirit possessed.

Her dreams settled on the time in the desert, where she heard, but did not understand. The hundreds she killed, a walking curse named The Burning Witch by those that lived there. The desert was far to the east of where she now lived, a place far enough away she would never need visit it again. Her nightly training with every weapon imaginable. It was through this she understood at least part of the marking on her back. The Sun God, the War God, guided her through a thousand days, hoing her into the perfect weapon. She learned how to call the flames out in the dreams. She made a vow to herself that she never would, knowing she would have to break it someday.

Nina woke up, the last day of the year. she finally remembered everything, as she sat on her couch staring at the grey sky in the twilight hours of the morning. She was born on the final day of the year, today she marked off her thirtieth year. Today she knew, beyond any doubt, who she once was, and who she was now.

--

She left her wagon to catch some fresh air as Rhianna ran up to her, "Nina, good you're awake."

Nina looked at her, "It's daylight." She said flatly.

Rhianna smiled, "Naturally." She rolled her eyes, "We've got a lot of work to do.

"Work?"

"Yes, it's Years End." She said by way of explanation and pulled Nina's arm to drag her off.

Nina followed Rhianna over to where most of the camps women were gathered, "Mind giving me a little more background?"

"Years End Celebration." Rhianna said, "The Coopers and Menada's are also in the area, which means we have three families to make for one big party." She winked with a laugh.

"Party? I think I can handle that. I take it the Menada's are camped on the far north end of town?"

"Yes, the town itself probably won't celebrate, so we have to find a large enough space to hold the celebration in." Rhianna explained, the Cooper Family dug out a pit for the bon fire to the south of their circle, the Menada's aren't but a few stones walk from them, so the celebration will be nearby." She said as the women divided tasks up. Mostly their Family was going to be responsible for as much drink as possible.

"I see," Nina said, "Feast, drink, music and dance, all because the year ended."

"Naturally, we celebrate everything. This is for the wisdom of the past year, for luck next year and to remember all those who are close to us that aren't with us anymore." Rhianna said, again pulling Nina off, towards her own wagon, "I've got a small keg cached away for this day." Rhianna explained.

"Define small?" Nina looked at her suspiciously.

"Smallish." Rhianna said as they went into her wagon. Rhianna saw fit to decorate the inside of her home with as many brightly colored scarves as could be hung somewhere, created cascades of color through out the one room. She had no children, only a husband who obviously put up with her decoration. Nina had been in most of the wagons as she made it a point to go to the sick instead of making the sick come to her, and none were decorated as loudly as Rhianna's.

Rhianna started to pull a decent sized wine keg from under her kitchen table with a bit of effort.

"Hold on." Nina said, "Let me get that." She reached under and rolled the keg out with less effort than Rhianna was expending.

"Maybe I should work out as much as you do." She commented.

"You sleep to late." Nina said as she tried to figure a way to get the keg from Rhianna's wagon to the party, "Today is the first day I've ever seen you up early. We're going to need some way of moving this." Nina said and crossed her arms. "A small cart should do."

"I don't know if anyone has something like that." Rhianna looked from Nina to the keg and back, "I can't remember how we got it in here, we've had it most of the year."

"Let's build one, I'm sure others will have use for it." Nina said, "I'm going into town with Beryx to help me." She said, "I'll be back by midday."

"Ok." Rhianna shrugged, "That's not going anywhere."

"I know." Nina smiled and left to find Beryx and steal him away from his current activity.

Nina came back with Beryx shortly. He had gotten one of the flat wagons they used to haul wood back from where they cut it. A short wagon with low sides and small wheels. The keg took up most of the wagon as Beryx and Nina moved it's bulk from Rhianna's wagon into the wood wagon. Nina was left pulled the wood wagon and Beryx went back to his other tasks at hand. Today was his day to go check on the horses in the towns stable.

As Nina felt the sun set on the short day the excitement in the air increased. From what Nina gathered this was one of the most important holdiay's to the Estavanni, which is why it was a day outside any month and marked the end of one year and the change over to the next.

Even the children were trying to help in any way they could.

"We've got to get you something more colorful." Rhianna said as the evening drew near. Nina looked down at her clothes, deep red skirt and a white blouse with a red and black vest. Her sash was a simple black.

"I'm about to my color limit." Nina said looking at Rhianna who had more color than any other four people.

"You've nothing in your hair, and only one sash." Rhianna exclaimed, "Come," She took Nina's hadn and led her off to her own wagon for the second time that day. Nina got visions of being assaulted by a thousand loudly colored sahses upon entering Rhianna's wagon.

"Ok. first, you're base is the red, so we have to compliment it." Rhianna said, "Yellows will work, oranges to." She said, "No green, wrong time of year for that." She was shuffling through a drawer full of neatly folded sashes and through her hanging collection. She pulled out a yellow and white short sash, "This is for your hair." She said and pushed the taller Nina down into a chair so she could tie it into Nina's hair. Nina had kept her hair just over shoulder length, which Rhianna now fussed over, "You have beautifully strait hair, you should grow it out." Rhianna said, "Hold still." Nina rolled her eyes and obliged.

"As long as I don't give anyone motion sickness when they look at me." Nina said.

"Oh hush, color is a wonderful thing, this way you can't get lost in the snow or the night." She said tying off the knot, Nina had a headband now, wide across her forehead and tied off in the back underneat where her hair fell down over the short sash.

"Time for a little color on the body."

"I need more than one waist sash?"

"Oh you need at least three." Rhianna said, "Properly stacked of course." She said taking out an orange and a white with a splash of red across it, as if whoever died it threw the die on the sash instead of doing in the normal way.

Nina was instructed in the subtle art of making yourself look as colorful as possible. There were a number of ways to tie of the sashes so they overlapped and created what looked to be a continuous cascade of their colors around her waist.

"There." Rhianna said stepping back, "Now you look like a proper Estavanni woman." She smiled, "If this doesn't catch you a night with a nice man I don't know what will."

Nina stopped, "Now wait a minute, this is to lure in a man?"

Rhianna smiled, "It is how I caught my husband, and how many women catch theirs."

"You make it sound like fishing." Nina remarked.

"It is." Rhianna winked, "If nothing else you'll wake up to a warm bed in the morning." She said.

Nina crossed her arms and stared Rhianna down.

"Here's how the tradition works, just in case you're interested. We're a free people, as long as your single you're welcome to a bed a night if that suits your fancy. Though there's little opportunity for that. It's up to the man to invite the woman, even if they end up in her wagon." She said, "If you do retire to a wagon, especially if you share the wagon, tie one of your sashes around the door knob." Rhianna explained while Nina patiently listened, "It's a helpful tradition. If you want the boy to continue to court you, when you wake up in the morning put his shirt on instead of yours and leave," Nina cocked an eyebrow "It's a silly tradition I know, but it's a tradition, and a fun one. It lets the whole troupe know you've made a choice. Practical, see, any other man interested in you will no longer pursue." Rhianna said, "Now uncross your arms, if you're not serious then don't wear his shirt."

"What makes you think I even want a man?"

Rhianna looked back over her shoulder, "You're into girls?" She raised an eyebrow.

"No." Nina shook her head and tossed her hands out, "A partner then, what makes you think I'm looking to be with anyone?"

"All women are, eventually." Rhianna said, "It's good to test the waters first before plunging." She said, "Test the waters before you decide you're Mekala."

"Mekala?"

"Old maid." Rhianna smiled and bounced out the door.

"Now wait," Nina followed quickly, stopping to shut the door behind her, giving Rhianna time to skip off to the safety of numbers.

--

The celebration started early, Nina pulled the small keg with a troupe of women out to the bonfire, a track in the snow had been made by frequent back and forth for celebrants setting things up already. Nina felt the sun start to sink, the cold air nipped their noses.

Beryx came up and held out a flask for Nina as she came to a stop near a hastily set up table. "This'll take the bite out of the wind." He smiled at her, his nose red with alcohol and cold air.

"Dare I ask?" She said taking the flask.

"Whiskey Ale." He as she took a small swig.

"Goes down like silk, kicks like fire." She said handing the flask back to him, "I think I'll stick to wine." She said.

Beryx laughed, "Probably best." He staggered off to his wife who was busy carving a large roasted pig one of the other Families had brought.

Nina found a mug and filled it half way with some wine before wandering around the party. The main bonfire was lit, twenty feet across and six or more into the air. She danced through a small circle gathered at one point before spying Rupert talking with several others. She thought it best to let him know of her dreams.

She'd been talking to him every now and then about then, but last night was the night it all made sense for her, and he should know that.

"Rupert." She smiled coming up to him and the other two men he sat with.

"Nina." Rupert smiled, "This is Peter Cooper," He motioned to the first, a large man with a heavy beard and darting blue eyes, "And Jelai Menada." He introduced the second who was a tall thin man with a neatly cut beard on his chin.

"Greeting gentleman." She said to them both.

"Nina is our medicine woman." Rupert said with a bit of pride, "And she makes an excellent tea." He smiled.

Nina smiled, "And how are things?" She asked them.

"Greetings," Jelai said in a deep voice, "Things are well."

"Good evening," Peter said, she couldn't tell if he smiled behind the beard or not.

Nina was about to speak when she heard her name being called, she turned to see who it was. Leila, a girl of eighteen had called her. "Excuse me," She smield, "I'm being summoned." She moved away from the men to the girl.

"Leila, everything alright I hope?" She said.

"Sort of," The girl bounced from one foot to the other, "I need a favor." She looked a bit sheepish.

"Dare I ask?"

"Well," She bit her lower lip, "I've kind of met someone, he's wonderful. And we've been waiting for year end and all that.." She rambled.

Nina put her hand on the girl's shoulder to steady her, "Leila, stop and make some sense. Please." Nina said, her voice was a soft matronly one.

"I need to borrow your wagon?" Leila dug her toe into the ground and clasped her hands behind her back.

"And he doesn't have one?"

"His parents will probably use it, and then there's my parents. I don't even know if they'll like him." She said.

"All night?"

"Maybe." She smiled sheepishly.

Nina rolled her eyes and just smiled, "Yes, go ahead."

Leila jumped and made a squeeking noise as she hugged Nina tightly. Nina held her wine mug at a distance to prevent it from being spilled, "Oh thank you so much." Leila said, "I'll repay you somehow." She ran off, Nina just shook her head.

"So," She found Rhianna after refilling her mug with wine, this time two thirds of the way up, "Is it common for young ones to borrow wagons then?"

Rhianna looked up at her from her perch on a log, "Depends on the young one." Rhianna said, "I take it Leila hit you up."

"Good guess." Nina sat down next to her.

Rhianna took a bite from the small pile of meat on her plate, "It's a bit of tradition to sneak off, gives the whole thing a sense of rebellion." Rhianna offered Nina her plate, "This is good boar."

Nina took a small piece and chewed it, "Don't suppose you know her prospect is?"

"You didn't ask?"

Nina shook her head, "I barely got the girl to ask me without babbling." Nina said.

Rhianna laughed, "She's seeing a Cooper boy named Grigorie."

"Aha, good boy?"

"Not any less or more so than any other boy his age."

Nina shrugged, "Would it be prudent to tell her parents, or his?"

"Either one, just to let them know whose wagon they should barge in on."

Nina raised an eyebrow, "Really?"

"No, but it's good to know these things."

Nina looked at Rhianna's plate, "I think I'm off to find some more of that."

"Not too much," Rhianna said, "We still have dancing to do!" She called after Nina who simply winked over her shoulder and walked towards the large table piled with food.

"Beryx." Greated the big man as he chewed on a turkey leg.

"Nina." He said with half a mouth full of bird.

Nina picked up an apple and took a bite, "Incidentally, Leila has taken over my wagon for the night." She looked up at him.

"I was wondering when that girl would run off." He shook his head, "With that Grigorie fellow I hope."

"So I understand, but I didn't actually meet him." Nina confessed.

"For the best," He said taking a swig of wine from a nearby mug, "Girl's been impossible since she met him."

Nina laughed, "Well then, I suppose I better find accomodations for the night then."

Breyx smiled wide, "I hear there are several elligable Cooper men about." He said.

"Just sleeping." Nina shook a finger at him, "Now if you'll excuse me, I hear a dance calling my name." And she slipped off into the night.

Nina danced through almost the entire night, fending off several men, married and otherwise, throughout it all.

Early on she ended up begging couch space off of Goury for the night, who just smiled knowlingly and told her to be quiet when she came in since he wasn't as young as he used to be. She noted her retired a bit before midnight.

The moon sank low into the night sky before Nina made her way back to her Family camp. She stopped once when alone, halfway between the two and looked up at the stars, "I just wanted to thank you for this new Family." She said to a large stone, intending it for the Mother Goddess, a new year thought expressed.

She quietly slipped into Goury's wagon and fell asleep on the fold out bench he called a couch. She woke at dawn, as usual.

Nina opened her eyes to the darkness of Goury's wagon and looked around, Goury was still asleep. She slipped outside and closed his door behind her. The morning was a crisp cold, no wind.

She made her way to her own wagon, and found a sash still tied around the doorknob, hasitly it looked. She smiled and shook her head.

Nina went to the camps central fire pit to find dying embers. Instead of picking up new wood she thought it best to see if there was anything left from the bonfire last night. She made her way to the scene of the celebration. The bonfire was still going and there were still a few celebrants around. Rupert was among them.

"Rupert." Nina said taking a seat on a log by the no considerably smaller fire to warm up a bit.

"Nina." He smiled at her, he had that tired but still awake tone to his voice.

"How are you this morning?" She asked.

"Good." He said, "It was a good celebration last night."

"Is it morning?" Jelai said, he was making effort to produce a tune on a tin whistle.

"About thirty minutes after sunrise." Nina said.

"How can you tell in such an overcast sky." Jelai asked.

"I know." Nina said, "I always know where the sun is." She said without looking up from the fire where she warmed her hands. Jelai gave Rupert a rather dubious look.

"It's true." He said taking a sip from a mug. "She knows the exact time of day, every day."

"Is that tea?" Nina asked.

"Yes, last little bit of some of the brew you gave me a few weeks backfor that cold I had."

"Is there a pot with it steeping? Or just your mug?" She eyed him.

"Your supply still behind locked doors?" Rupert said with a smile.

"It is, unless there's no more tea, in which case it won't be." She warned him.

"Over there." He pointed to a small fire to one side with a tiny iron pot on it.

"That's just what I need." She said going over to the pot, finding a discarded mug along the way. She rinsed it quickly with some cold water before pouring herself some from the pot. "You were supposed to drink all that I gave you." She eyes Rupert as she sat back down, mug in hand.

"Well, the cold went away before I finished it," He defended himself, "So I kept the last little bit, just in case it came back."

"I see, well, seeing as it's saving my morning I'll let it slide." She sipped the brew, heavier in medicinal plants than her normal morning fair.

"That's your brew?" Jelai asked her finally giving up on the tin whistle and putting it in his pocket.

Nina nodded.

"That's some good stuff." He said, "Don't suppose you've got anything for hangovers do you?"

"I have an untested recipe." She said, "I haven't had much opportunity to try something for those yet." She said.

"You'll have plenty of opportunity today." Rupert said with a laugh.

"I may even be able to refine it in one day if that keg of Rhianna's was emptied."

"It was emptied, and one other just like it." Jelai said, sitting down on the log with them.

"We had two?" Nina said, "I don't suppose your healers have any recipes for hangovers?"

"Cooper's medicine man isn't any good for that kind of thing. In fact, we're not sure he's good for much." Jelai asid, "Ours is ok, but most complain that her cure makes them shit too much."

Nina choked back a laugh, "I see, well I guess I should hope my brew works a bit better."

"You only use tea?"

"No, but when I don't I mix it with a tea." She said, "People tend to like it better than the traditional methods."

"All the power to you lass." Jelai toasted her with his mug. "Tea smells a damn sight better than ointments and oils."

"Rupert," Nina looked at him, "I thought I should let you know, my memories have finally returned. Completely I believe." She said.

"That's good then." He said, "Nothing too bad I hope."

"You already know the worst thing I did." She said, "It's a good sign to have the past done with last year. I feel as if I'm starting fresh."

"That's what the New Year is for." He replied, "I think I should sleep some." He stood, "I've seen the old out and the new in." He smiled, "I'll be in touch later Jelai."

"I'll be waiting." He said as Rupert walked away. "Rupert tells me you're descended from Tyrissian nobility."

Nina nodded, "I was."

"Well lass, you can't change who you were, but you can change who you become."

"That's what I'm hoping." She said.

"No one's looking for you I hope?"

"The nobles believe I'm in the Crystal prisons, the priests at the Great Temple believe I was either sold into slavery or killed when the caravan was attacked." She said with a shurg, "If anyone does meet me who knows who I was they'll be a bit shocked." She smirked.

"I'd say. But nothing is counted dead until the body is in the ground. And even then it's suspect sometimes." He said.

"Yes well, I never lived better now that I'm dead."

"That's the spirit." Jelai stood, "Don't let anyone tell you you're not Estavanni, you've got the spirit of one, and that's all that counts." He said, "Now if you'll excuse me I've a party to sleep off." He said.

"Who cleans all this up?" She motioned the general wreckage around her.

"Everyone who participated," He said, "It takes a few days sometimes." He walked away with a wave.

Nina sat and enjoyed the morning. It was cold, and not warming up much, but the general feeling of happiness and goodwill set that off a bit.

She stood and walked back to her wagon, to check on things. She came up to find the sash removed from the door. She figured the two younglings had taken off for the morning so she entered.

"You're still here?" She said looking a bit surprised.

The boy, Grigorie, was seated at the table with a mug of black in his hands, Nina could smell the coffee and wrinkled her nose. She didn't have any which meant they brought it in. Leila was at the stove cooking something in her frying pan, sausages of some nature by the smell.

"I'm glad you got back before we had breakfast," Leila said with a smile, "We wanted to thank you for last night." Grigorie blushed a bit. Nina came in and took a seat on her couch. The bed was still a bit of a mess, no doubt the sheets would need cleaning.

"It's, um, traditional we repay you somehow." Grigorie said, he was a well muscled young man, but still a bit thin. He had no shirt on at the moment, Nina noticed that Leila was wearing it.

"Just be happy." Nina said, "But offerings of tea never hurt." She said behind her mug, which was dangerously low.

Leila placed a place of sausages on the table and went looking for plates, "Below." Nina said as Leila opened the cabinet on the wall. She bent down and opened the low cabinet under Nina's countertop, a two foot long piece of marble. Leila got three plates and put several sausages on one and handed it to Nina who didn't look like she'd leave her spot on the couch. There were only two chairs at the table, Leila sat across from Grigorie.

"Thank you." Nina said taking the plate and finding a fork, she ate in silence, letting the other two stare whistfully at each other.

"You need a sweater to borrow Grigorie?" Nina put her empty plate on the counter, "It's a bit cold outside."

"No, I'll be find." He said, "It's kind of a pride thing." He said meekly.

"Ah yes," Nina smiled knowingly, "I know about things of that nature." She pulled off her own heavier outer shirt, leaving a thin comfortable blouse for the heating inside of the wagon, "Just don't stay out to long, frostbite never looks good on a man." She said.

"Yes ma'am."

"What time is it?" Leila asked.

"Two hours after sunup." Nina responded looking down at her ruffled bed.

"Are you sure?" Grigorie asked checking the sky only to find it completely overcast.

"The only thing that knows where the sun is better than I do is the sun." Nina explained.

"Then I'd better get going, I've got to help Olaf with the horses today." He said standing.

"Don't forget to stop home and get a shirt." Nina told him as he walked to the door.

He turned back, "I won't," He bowed, "Thank you very much for the gift." He said and left.

"He's a bit shy." Nina looked at Leila.

"But he's so sweet, and strong, and.." She paused, "Good." She said with a small bit of blushing.

"I'll leave that up to my imagination." Nina said.

"I'll make sure your bedding is cleaned." Leila said going back to take the sheets.

"Non need," Nina waved her off, "I've got nothing else to do today anyway."

"You sure? It's only fair."

"Fair has nothing to do with it," Nina said, "Go show off your new shirt." She said, Leila blushed.

"You think I'm rushing things? I mean, he's my first and only. Rhianna says.."

"Forget what Rhianna says." Nina rolled her eyes, "Go with your heart. But be careful with it." Nina put a hand on her shoulder, "You only get one heart, try not to break it too often." She smiled, "If he is the right one, and your heart tells you so, don't doubt yourself."

"Thank you Nina."

"I'm always hear if you need someone to talk to." Nina said, "Now, run along."

"Thank you again." Leila said and left.

"Kids." Nina shook her head. She pulled her bedding apart, pulled out her wash basin and started to hear some water. Her day would be taken slowly, she had little else to do.

--

Nina brought the axe down hard onto the Mirth wood, it was always hard to cut the logs. The town had a supplier come through, rare but not unheard of in the middle of winter, and Nina saw fit to aquire several logs. She had enough for the remaining winter days but Beryx had said the best time to prepare for an emergency is long before it becomes one. The logs were thick, and larger than her oven, so she decided to split them as well as shorten them.

She knew the wood was hard, but it was much harder than she had anticipated. Sawing it down in length wasn't much trouble, she had cut the log in half. It was splitting them with the axe that was causing problems, and working up a sweat, not to mention her sleeves kept getting in the way.

Nina went into her wagon, found a suitable blouse she wouldn't mind mangling and cut the sleeves off. Putting that one on it was cooler and the sleeves wouldn't bother her. Most of the men went shirtless when chopping, a little less practicle for women, and a lot less socially acceptable. She tied off the shirt at her mid riff as a solution, considering the unusually warm winter day.

Setting the log on end she took up the aze again and shifted until she was chopping with the grain, and remembered.

She put the axe down and thought about it, she could use the strength provided by the mark, assuming she could call upon it at will. That was part of the trick, she wasn't sure she could. She was sure that it burned, and would burn her blouse with it. That was the other problem she would have to solve. She went inside, she was no seamtress but she did have an idea.

Nina knocked on Rhianna's open door before going in. Rhianna was an excellent seamstress, and occasionally did something other than sashes.

"Have a favor to ask." Nina said as Rhianna looked up from her work, she was prepping dies for some new thread.

"Ask away." Rhianna said putting a bottle down on her table.

"I need some specially designed shirts."

Rhianna cocked her head, "How specially?"

"Well, ones without a back actually." Nina said.

"Finally showing off that tattoo of yours?" Rhianna smiled. "I've got a design from a Juvai village I got once several years ago. But it's definately undershirt material." She paused to open a drawer in a dresser, one thing about Estavanni wagons was that they were designed to the job and tastes of the owner. Rhianna had many thin drawers for clothes and threads, Nina had many small divided drawers for drying plants, not to mention deeper ones to store bottles in, as well as cabinets and racks for spices.

"Here it is." Rhianna pulled out a single piece, it went the length of the body, both bottom and top, underwear and a corset in the same article. It went all the way up to clasp at the top, instead of going around the shoulders it clasped at the neck, though there was a thin band for around the center of the body. "I'd have to rework the design to remove the middle support." Rhianna said, "But it's doable, do you need bare shoulders?"

"No, just the back so the mark is open to the air."

"Well, let me see how much open that is." Rhianna said, "And I'll have to retake measurements, this will be a form fitting thing." Rhianna said.

Nina stripped down so that Rhianna could take the measurements and patiently obliged as she was twisted about and repositioned for just about every possible measurement that could be taken.

"All that for a single thing?"

"Well, no. I thought I'd retake everything, you're a bit thicker than you were last summer."

"Thicker?"

"You keep working out like you do and you'll be as strong as an oxe." Rhianna commented, "Not there's anything wrong with that, but it's unusual for a woamn."

"I see." Nina said.

"It'll take a day or two for this, I'll bring them to you." Rhianna said, "Any preference in color?"

"Something neutral? Back or grey?"

"Black it is, maybe a white one, and another color that suits you." Rhianna shooed her out of the wagon.

Nina left back to her own day. She left the wood for now, she'd get back to it later, instead she decided to take stock and see if the warm late winter had brought out any early plants or softened the ground enough for some needed roots. She gathered a waterskin and her satchel and closed the wagon door behind her.

"Afternoon Nina." Brianna said as she walked up, a lanky girl of fifteen trying to walk the line between child and adult. Her light grey eyes bright with the wonder of trying to take everything thing in at once.

"Brianna." Nina nodded.

"What're you up to?" Brianna asked.

"Thought I'd see if there were any roots or other items I might need around to restock with." Nina said.

"Oh." Brianna said.

Nina looked at the girl, "Want to come?" She offered, Brianna wasn't any good at sewing it turned out, and was looking for something to learn so she could become a full adult and do her part for the Family.

"Sure." She perked up immediately.

Nina had a feeling she might not have the patience for the healing arts, but one never knew until they tried.

They walked into the woods, snow still lay on the ground in patches where the shadows fell for most or all of the day. Nina pointed out various places plants might grow and what to look for. There wasn't much in the way of actual plants right now, there was still a morning frost that would kill off early buds.

Nina did find several mushrooms worth taking and a few roots that she could dig up, explaining some of the uses for each as she did so to Brianna.

"You never told me what the mushrooms were good for." Brianna said as they walked back in the late afternoon.

"Stew." Nina said, "Though beryx swears that cooking them up in bacon grease and serving them on bread is a healthy breakfast." Nina said.

"Beryx has strange tastes in food." Brianna made a face.

"But he does have some excellent recipes for all his experimenting." Nina countered.

"To some." Brianna shrugged, "So, have you hear anything about Leila and Grigorie's joining?" Brianna asked, as long as Beryx had come up.

"I've heard some." Nina said, truth be told Leila confided in Nina more than she did in her own mother.

"Well, which Family are they choosing?" Brianna asked.

It was customary for the couple to choose which family they went off with once they decided to join together. Unless there were reason for the Family heads to step in and decide one way or the other for them. Nina knew, but it was supposed to be between the couple until the day of their joining.

"Nope." Nina lied.

"Oh come on." Brianna said, "Everyone knows that Leila tells you everthing."

"Yes well, everyone knows that I don't tell secrets." Nina pointed a finger at Brianna.

Brianna sighed, "Well, yeah, there is that." She said. "So, um," She looked down at the path, "I was wondering, you know since I'm of age to apprentice, if you thought I was any good for learning how to heal?"

"Are you willing to try?" Nina asked her.

"Well, um, yes I guess." She answered.

They reached Nina's wagon, "You guess?" Nina raised an eyebrow. "Tell you what, let's talk about it over some dinner." Nina said going inside, Brianna followed. The evening had cooled off considerably, a cold wind started to come in from the south. Nina pulled her windows and door shut and lit her stove.

"First, why me?" Nina asked her taking off her satchel and spreading it carefully on the table so she didn't damage the contents.

Brianna sat at the table, "I'm not good at much," She said, "I'm kind of clumsy and stuff." She looked down at her hands, "And you're the only one who shows any patience with me." She said.

"I'm sure that's not true, all teachers have to show patience." Nina said pulling out the roots and getting a pot of cold water to clean them in.

"Oulga just shook her head and said she couldn't take a first year apprentice on when I asked her, I like to cook, and this is the next best thing." Brianna said, "And as much fun as sewing is, I'm definately no good at that." She sighed.

"Plenty of other things to do." Nina said, "But if you like to cook, then this is similar enough you'd like this too."

"You make a better rabbit stew than Oulga." Brianna offered.

Nina laughed, "Flattery, while nice, isn't required." She said, "Oulga is a good cook, she knows how to cook any meat out there better than just about anyone else. But she never did learn spices for stews." She said, "She overpowers most of them with too much of one thing or another."

"So, um, is that a yes?"

"I'll think about it." Nina said, "I'll tell you after dinner, first test, cutting mushrooms." Nina put the small pile on a cutting board for Brianna and put it on the table with a knife. "Not to thick, not to thin."

"How do I know?"

"You'll know." Nina said and turned around to clean her newly gathered roots, "Careful not to cut yourself, take it slow." Nina said over her shoulder as Brianna picked up the largest mushroom and the knife.

Brianna took her time cutting them, Nina patiently waited as she prepared her stock for soup. She hadn't prepared for a heavy stew, since those usually took all day slowly cooking to make correctly.

"Ok," Brianna said, putting the knife down, "Sorry I was slow."

"That's ok, better slow and unwounded than quick and missing a finger." Nina said taking the cutting board from her, the mushrooms were cut a bit erractically, one or two was mangled. "Not bad for a first try." Nina said.

"I kind of ruined a few."

"We'll get their flavor if nothing else." Nina put them into her soup and put the lid back on, "It's a light soup," She said sitting at the table and fcaing Brianna, "Hope you don't mind."

"No, not at all." Brianna said.

"Do you like tea?" Nina asked.

"Sometimes, I occasionally drink coffee."

Nina made a face, "Never did like the taste of that, drink isn't supposed to be so bitter."

"I put honey in it." Brianna said.

"Ruining perfectly good honey." Nina said, "But then, it's not my business to tell you what to drink or how." Nina said, "I'm afraid I've only got tea." She put her pot on the small stoves other burner.

"Sounds good." Brianna said.

They ate in silence, Brianna looking a bit sheepish as Nina watched the night settle in.

"Ok," Nina said putting the bowls on her counter, "I'll take you on." She said, "Starting in the spring you ride with me. You don't have to but it will help to move in with me." She refilled her tea mug, "The couch is pretty comfortable." She said.

It was only half tradition that the apprentice moved in with the teacher, depending on the nature of the art. Nina thought it best to have her own apprentice on hand to see the process from start to finish. And she had to admit to herself she could use the company sometimes. She liked to stay in or near her ome most of the time, so people could find her if she were needed. Any time she left for more than a short period she put a little wooden sign up that said Backk Soon, Wait. Most of the people could deal with any wounds until Nina got back.

"When can I move in?" Brianna said.

"As soon as I get the place ready for two." Nina answered.

"I can help."

"You're anxious." Nina leaned against her counter and looked at Brianna.

"I don't," Brianna sighed, "I don't feel very welcome anywhere, not as long as I can't do anything useful." She said.

"Family are always welcome." Nina said, "Any feelings otherwise are your own doubt." Nina looked down at Brianna, "You have to get rid of your doubt Brianna, trust in yourself."

"I know." She said.

Nina smiled, "Go get some rest, we'll talk more in the morning." She said, the sun had set and dark settled in. Brianna stood and went to the door.

"Thank you Nina." She said and left. Nina smiled, it would help the Family to teach someone else her arts as soon as possible. Two healers are better than one.

Brianna was more than eager to help Nina rearranged the small wagon to accomdate two people. Nina put up a series of taperstries to divide the wagon out into what could only be described as rooms. They split down the middle and most of the time were held open by ties in the walls. One was just beyond Nina's own bed and tiny bedside table. The second was the couch and table, Brianna's room effectively. Brianna put most of her bleongings in drawers under the couch and the rest on a recently clear shelf about it. The third was the oven and short counter along with all of Nina's medicinal cabinets, the last was the back end where Nina kept a few more taller medcine cabinets and a few spare chairs with folding joints in them.

It took them the better part of the week to get everything sorted so they could both live in the very small space. Halfway through it Rhianna came over with Nina's requested clothing. She knocked on the door as Nina put her tall cabinet in place in the back, the one with all the spice racks in it. All her spices had been removed and placed on every flat surface in place. Brianna was off packing her belongings up at Nina's request who said that two people in the wagon while moving everything was a recipe for disaster.

"Rearranging I see." Rhianna said with a knock, "So you said yes to Brianna."

Nina looked down at her, "I'd offer tea by my pot is currently buried" she said.

"Well, I've got your request." Rhianna held up a small bundle of clothes.

"Come in." Nina said, "And how many masters did Brianna ask before me?" Nina said.

"Four, one in another family." Rhianna smiled, "Poor girl is as awkward as an oxe on two legs." Rhianna said.

"All she needs is a bit of self confidence." Nina countered pulled her shirt off. "I see we made a very loud version." She pulled out a bright yellow under garment. "Got a name for this particular piece of clothing?" Nina asked looking at it.

"No." Rhianna said, "I'd just call it a backless one piece undergarment." She shrugge, "Let's see how it looks, I could find a market for these somewhere in the Kasslishan Kingdoms."

"Right." Nina closed the partition between couch and kitchen and stripped. She took the black one up, "Soft, is this silk?" She asked.

Rhianna shrugged, "Something that close to your body should feel good."

"I'm not sure I've got enough to repay for silk." Nina said.

"You're the test subject, you get a severe discount." Rhianna said, "Now put it on so I can see how it looks." She rolled her eyes.

Nina obliged and pulled the underwear on. The waist in the back stopped at the small of her back, she pulled the front up her body and to her neck. She noted it was a rather tight fit to get the clasp on at the back, it was a series of very small metal hooks going into loops, a small piece of clothe kept them off her neck itself. "Tight." She said examining the fit.

"It's supposed to be." Rhianna examined her handiwork, "It's the only way to get something without a back or shoulders to actually stay on." She explained.

"I see."

"Wear a shirt over it until you need to take it off." Rhianna said, "Yes, I do believe there is definately a market for this amongst the nobility of Kasslishan."

"I'd suggest Tyriss but they wear far to many corsets to want something like this." Nina said.

"I don't trade with Tyriss if I can help it." Rhianna said, "Too many local taxes designed to keep non-Tyrissian merchants poor and out of work." She said.

"I had no idea." Nina said pulling her skirt back on.

"Believe it," They charge me half of what I sold anything for just because I'm unliscenced. And you can't get a liscence to sell if you're a foreigner." She huffed.

Nina pulled a dark blouse on over the black article, "I'll tell you how the rest fit later, I want to put my spices away before it gets dark." She said.

Rhianna stood, "Days are getting longer, maybe one or two more snows."

"When do we travel again?" Nina asked.

"Late second month, early third." Rhianna said, "Depends on the weather. We'll probably travel west all the way to the coast and then down and then follow the Kyrik river back east until we hit the southern coasts again."

"I'll need a map to figure all that out." Nina said.

"Rupert knows the way, I just follow the wagon in front of me." Rhianna said on her way out, "Good luck with Brianna." She waved and disappeared.

Nina shook her head, "Poor kid, has her work cut out for her." She said to the air and went back to adjusting her spice rack and securing it in place with a series of clasps and rope, possibly thinking it might be a good idea to just nail the thing there. As is in the slightly lower back portion it took the whole width and left room with a small shelf at the top. She would have to talk to Beryx about that, his specialty seemed to be making furniture immobile in the wagons.

She walked to his wagon to find him out and about, she would have liked to have the shelf in place before putting the spices away, so she didn't have to go through it twice. She finally found him sitting by a fire in the late afternoon haze with a pipe.

"Nina." hed said puffing, "What can I do for you?"

"Need something nailed down." She said.

"I was wondering when you'd get around to getting all the stuff put in proper." He said, "Too many shelves and drawers now to nail 'em down. I should put string locks on the drawers for you to." He said getting up, "Nothing is more upsetting than an overturned wagon."

"That happen often?" She asked as they walke back to her wagon.

"No," He admitted, "But it only needs to happen once to completely ruin your day." He pointed at her with his pipe.

"Naturally." She said as they arrived at her wagon.

"Splitting Mirth Wood?" He said, "There's a day long chore." He said.

"Tell me about it. I got it two days ago and haven't gotten back to it." She said. The splitting log was still outside her back door with the Mirth wood on it, the axe was safely inside her cabin and out of the elements.

"Well then, what are we doing?" He said, "So, I guess it's true that you took in Brianna."

"Yes." Nina said, crossing her arms in wait for the speech regarding Brianna's apparent incompetance.

"I was hoping you would, some people can be as hard headed as a Mirth log when it comes to people. You've got enough patience for three of that girl." He said, "Glad to see she's in good hands." He first looked at the empty thin shelf near her door, "Need this spice rack and hutch attached here I take it?"

"Yes, if your not to busy."

"Let me guess, now? Don't want to take your spices down again a second time."

"Something like that."

"You're lucky I like you lass," He said, "Let me get my tools and see what can be done, no promise you won't be up late putting those spices away." He said, "And ye owe me dinner."

"I'll see what I can do, said spices currently occupy every open surface I've got." She shrugged.

"I'll be back." He said and went off to get his carpentry tools. It was about an hour later but he had firmly attached the shelf unit to the wall, it wasn't being relocated again. "Anything else?"

"I'll give you some warning for the rest, I think now is a good a time as any, before we move again."

"Aye, I'll be getting busy soon." He said, "We'll probably start moving again within the month."

"Don't most people work on their own wagons?" She asked.

"Most, but I'm master carpenter so I get to do a lot of spot checks on request." He said.

"Thought you seemed awfully busy lately.

"Aye, well, it goes that way." He picked up his tools and put them in a small wooden box, "Storm looks to be coming." He said checking the sky to the north.

Nina followed his gaze, "I better get the wood split sooner than later," She sighed, "I can put spices away inside at least."

He laughed, "Luck to you on that lass, I've some things of my own to do before we get snowed in again.

Nina watched him walk away and pulled off her blouse, it was time to try out the new top. She got her axe, set the log and concentrated. She felt the burning deep inside her, a fire unquechable. She exhaled and opened her eyes, her back felt warm, hot almost. She brough the axe up and with a swift drop enhanced with an inner strnength split the hard wood in a single blow. She reset the halves a chopped them as well. She could feel the flow of fire on her back, through the mark, into her skin and into her body. It felt good, warm all over. The cold of the evening faded from her as she gave off heat.

She split the wood with little problem and taking no time. Putting the axe away she let the heat fade, breathing slowly until the fire on her back was no more. The heat gone she realized that she was sweating and found a rag to wipe it from her face. She carried in the rest of the wood, her body temperature still moderately high from the effort.

Brianna showed up as she put the last of the logs in their little bin opposite her spice rack near the door.

"Nina." She said, "I brought some things for dinner." She held up a plate with some meat on it, legs from some fowl.

"Looks good." Nina said.

"You, um, always go around without a shirt?" Brianna asked as Nina got her blouse off the door knob where it hung.

"Only when splitting wood." Nina said as she turned to go inside and put her blouse on.

"Wow." Brianna paused outside the wagon.

"Wow?" Nina half turned to see what Brianna was looking at, only to realize it was her. "You've never seen my mark have you?"

Brianna shook her head, "No, I mean everyone knows it's there, but I don't know anyone who's actually seen it." She said.

Nina smiled, "It's just a black tattoo." She said and went inside, "Put the plate on a chair while I clean some of this up." Nina said.

Brianna looked about, the spice rack that had sat to one side of the table was near the door and the space was empty. It's place was neatly bisected by one of the curtains. "Looks cozy." She commented putting the plate on a chair and occupying the other.

"It will be." Nina said, "You have any furniture that's coming with you?"

"Just a small chest, about this high." She held her hand up to just under the window sill.

"How long?"

"Not very. Um, maybe a little wider than the space between the chair and curtain?"

"We can deal with that." Nina said picking up several of her spice bottles and examining them. "Spices are labeled and alphabatized." She said going to the spcie rack, "Help me put these away." She said.

"Ok," Brianna stood and stared at the vast number of little bottles. Short and wide, tall and wide, narrow, tiny little ones and bigger ones. A select few were small jars.

"Start on the table, start handing them to me, I'll put them in the right spot." Nina said. Brianna complied and handed Nina two bottles at a time as they were alaphabatized. It didn't take as long as Nina had feared, first her memory of where on the shelf they went was better than she actually thought. She was so used to going to the right spot that the actual order didn't matter as much as it's placement on the rack. Second having Brianna hand her the spices as she put the away was easier than going back and forth two or three bottles at a time.

The drawers were for drying leaves and flowers, they were thin and had two parts, the top lifted out to reveal the compartment below where the plants went, then was replaced to create the weight needed to flatten then/ Nina had placed clothe lining in the bottoms to absorb and stray juice or sap from whatever she was pressing in them. The bottom two drawers were deeper and deisgned to store sealed jars of various things. Currently they were mostly empty.

"What have we got here?" Nina picked up the plate.

"Turkey I think." Brianna said, "Oulga gave it to me."

Nina looked at it dubiously, "She say anything?"

"Just wanted to know how it was." Brianna said.

"Right. It's either woefully underspiced or you're going to choke on garlic." Nina put the wooden plate down on her countertop. "It's cooked, you like cold turkey?"

"It's ok." Brianna said.

"This and maybe some cheese. I know I've got half a wheel around here," She opened her coupboard doors and peered into them, "Yep." She pulled it down and unwrapped it, putt it on the table with a knife and the turkey legs, "Preference for drink?"

"No." Brianna said.

Nina pured them two cups of water and then put her pot on for tea. "I don't drink much ale or wine so I don't have any on hand." Nina said, "If you want some with dinner you'll have to get it on your own." She sat down.

"Ok." Brianna said slicing a piece of cheese off.

Nina bit into the turkey leg and chewed thoughtfully. "She can definately cook meat, but spicing it needs work." Nina said, "This isn't too bad."

"It tastes kind of," Brianna search for the words, "Sweet."

"There's honey cooked into the meat, and something else." Nina said, "Oulga is a good cook, just don't ever try one of her soups." Nina said.

"How friendly is the rivalry?" Brianna asked.

"Rivalry?"

"Everyone knows that you and Oulga argue more about how to stock a soup than any ten other people."

"Ah that, well, she came to me once wanting some spices, knowing I collected anything that grew. I gave her one, but not another stating they didn't mix well and suggested a third. Since then she's been on me about how to spice a soup properly."

"Everyone likes yours better." Brianna said.

"I'm flattered." Nina sipped her water. "Sun's down, it will get dark and cold pretty soon."

"I know." Brianna said, "If it's not to bad can we move my wardrove over tomorrow?"

"Why the rush?"

"I kind of want to get out of my parents wagon. They have my baby brother and sister, five is way to many in one wagon." Brianna said, "I'd be helping them by leaving sooner."

"Ah yes, that dilema." Nina smiled, "As early as possible we'll move your chest and everything else." Nina said.

"Mom will be happy." Brianna smiled.

"Good." Nina replied, they finished dinner in silence, Brianna stayed on the couch that night instead of going home, Nina stayed up late going over some notes from an herbalists book she'd found in town. It had a lot of information she already knew, but it's focus on some medicinal uses for more common plants interested her. Around midnight she looked through the open curtains at Brianna who slept soundly and smiled.

--

Torential rain poured down in buckets as they moved down the muddy lane. Nina sat at her bench, no leather seat to prevent it's ruin in the heavy rains. She was in a heavy cloak, hood pulled up and her head deep within it's recesses. She only needed to see the wagon in front of her. She was drenched to the bone, the wagon lurched along, the muddy from the rain not very deep. The lane was used so often it was nothing but the hardest packed dirt. Inside Brianna would have tea ready, and hopefully would keep the warmth up. It was a cold spring downpour, Nina simply watched the wagon in front of her from under the hood counting the hours.

The Estavanni traveled for a certain number of hours a day, Rupert always guided them with a sort of inner intuition regarding how long to run a day. Sometimes it went a little longer as they looked for a suitable place for the wagon train to spread itself off the road proper. The sun sank low behind black clouds, Nina stole a glance to either side, the area was a bit too muddy to try and stop the wagons in it. Ahead she spied trees, massive pine trees. They would provide some cover from the rain, the forest bed underneath would be hard dirt and densely packed needles, Rupert was driving them onwards to the small woods.

It was an hour after the sun had set before the wagons pulled off. They didn't have enough space to circle so they pulled off to both sides of the road and stopped in a way that would allow them to pull back onto the road in the morning. It made for a slightly haphazard looking camp setup. But they had years of experience in this, Rupert guided each wagon to a spot, creating a staggered line of wagaon to either side of the road. Nina's was near the outside to the south of the road.

She got off her seat, mud at least made for a less bumpy ride most of the time, and tended to her team of horses. She brushed them clean and pulled out the large canvas overtent. She set the tent up, like all the other wagon drivers, over her horses where they stood at the harness. She tied them loosely to it by reigns and undid the harness itself. She brushed all the wet from them and fed each some carrots she had found last week before giving them their grain bags. The canvas tent was secure against all but heavy winds, and not many heavy winds would make it into the woods, not as deep as they were. Once that was done she made her was to the wagon itself.

Nina sat on the low step bewtween entrance and the rest of her wagon, door firmly shut against the continuing downpour, and removed her boots. Brianna had removed all their cloaks from the hooks in the back for Nina's very wet clothing. Nina stripped out of everything and took the blanket left for her down from the hook. She wrapped herself in it and went back to sit in front of her stove. The wagon itself was warm and smelled of a flowery scent. Deciding that soft was better than in front of the fire Nina curled up on her bed. Brianna, still standing over the small stove hadn't said anything yet.

"Welcome in." She finally looked up from the pot. Nina had encouraged two things in Brianna, one was the art of going slowly. Brianna's problem was mostly in her desire to rush everything to completion. Nina started her out with simple soups, mixed with proper herbs and vegetables, that had medicinal qualities.

"Thank you." Nina nodded from her position on the bed, she had wrapped her still very wet hair in a towel and pulled her heaviest blanket around her body.

"Cold out there?"

"Wet, cold, dark." Nina said softly.

Brianna poured her a mug of tea, the second thing Nina taught her was to expirement with tea, find the best combinations of scents and flavors. They had recently gathered several kinds of flowers so she had mostly those to work with.

"It's mostly flower, but some of your cold medicine is in there." Brianna handed her the mug and sat on the couch cross legged, "The soup will be ready soon, it just needs to sit a little more."

Nina sipped the tea, "Not bad, smells pungent, but not bad." She said.

"Too much rose petal I think." Brianna said, Nina nodded. Teas were an easy start for her to teach. Most Estavanni had a recipe for a tea of some kind as it was their prefered hot drink. Everyone who was old enough to heat water was taught how to make a few basic tea recipes. It was familiar ground for Brianna.

"This rain had better stop by tomorrow." Nina said from behind her mug.

"It's been two days, three would be unusual for this area." Brianna said, I can't remember many travels in this area where we were rained on so much."

"Well, we're turning south soon." Nina said, "It rains less in the southern areas this time of year, and the summers aren't as oppresively hot."

"Summer, that will bring us into the Tyrissian Empire, or skirting it." Brianna said.

Nina nodded. "It does. And a chance to collect some much needed herbs, either by trade or by gathering." She said.

Brianna stood up and checked on the soup, "Want me to bring you a bowl?" She looked over at Nina, who just nodded and put her mug down on the tiny bedside table attached to the wall. Her bed was the only piece of furniture actually built as a part of the wagon, the small table next to the head of it was also built coming out of the wall.

The rain didn't stop for two more days, by that time half the train had some form of head cold, despite Nina telling them to drink at least two mugs of the medicinal tea Brianna had brewed. She wasn't surprised to find her customers were men, not all of them wagon drivers either. She got a lot of their lookouts as well. The kids tended not to play they game during rain, especially not heavy rains, so they had to post several actual lookouts on the caravan. Not that anyone seriously expected an attack in weather like this.

As they headed south Brianna got used to waking up at dawn every morning and going out to gather any herbs they could before the caravan woke up and prepared to move for the day. She usually complained about the early morning rousals, but only halfheartedly. She did complain about any cold mornings they encountered, liking cold weather even less than Nina apparently. Nina simply tolerated them and when back inside the wagon wrapped her heavy blanket around her shoulders for a while until it was time to ready the wagon and drive it for the day.

As they moved south and later into spring the days grew warmer, longer and generally brighter. It wasn't long before they reached the southern coasts and perpetually warm days, the kind of weather Nina liked the most. She was teaching Brianna how to drive as both of them spent much of several days outside on the wagon top. Brianna had brought up a large blanket and held it down with blocks and lay on it for the better part of several day, Nina had seen fit to annoy her by asking for things to be checked inside, such as curing leaves or roots, or just to fetch her some water.

Brianna slowly grew into her confidence over the summer as Nina became more of a sister than a mentor. She found she rather liked the healing arts much more than she might have otherwise thought. By summers end she knew how to apply basic healing, some of the ointments and teas Nina used and how to cure things. She still had a ways to go before trying anything without Nina close by however.

//00111 Fire and Blood and Tears//

Summer passed into fall as they went westard. Rupert had decided that this winter would be spent in the southern reaches, crawling north into the Tyrissian Empire, through much of it's middle actually. The part they were crossing into was mostly Tyrissian by name, and not so much by deed. Only town constibles and passing Tyrissian troops really cared it was part of the vast Empire. The people themselves simply lived day by day. Many were suspicious of the Gypsy people, as the Estavannni were called, simply because they didn't outright worship Tholoth. The worship of Tholoth was about the only thing that had been assimilated into the people's daily lives over the past few generations.

Nina remembered well her own belief in that particular God, and might even still have believed in him if she didn't wear proof of two the Old Gods as a mark on her back. She did well to hide it while they were in the Empire, most of the time she cared little for who saw it. She had adopted wearing the garments Rhianna had made without a shirt most of the time. Rhianna saw fit to make some of a slightly thicker material than the thin silk of the first ones because of it. Nina didn't seem to care that you could basically see through the tops of the silk ones, especially the lightly colored ones. In the hot summer months Nina found the backless sleeveless tops much more comfortable. A few of the Estavanni women saw fit to follow suit, it was a fashion trend slowly catching on, during the summer at least.

Once fall came only Nina wore them without a blouse regularly, the rest went back to the traditional dress against the fall winds and cooling air.

--

Fall progressed into winter, Rupert had turned the back towards the southeast, hoping to avoid a lot of the winter snow and the need to hole up somewhere. By year's end they had reached a small village where three other Estavanni Families had saw fit to stop for a while. It was a warm winter for the area, which usually didn't see that much snow anyway. The Families gathered to make repairs, or even replace some of their older wagons. And to celebrate Years End as well.

As they traveled, where ever they went if there was enough of a reason they would have one of their gatherings. Nina discovered that if they did it near a town the local folk figured it to be some form of pagan Gypsy celebration and came out en masse to purchase their wares. Nina saw fit to make a tidy sum selling specialty teas to the merchants and wealthier of the local folk they encountered.

She used most of her coin profit buying supplies for the Family at large since she felt it fair to charge the merchants a much higher price than she might otherwise for Estavanni Teas. She also bought the raw materials for the teas, looking for local herbalists as they went instead of spending all her days searching for flowers. Luckily Tyriss still had pleanty of herbalists in the countryside. They avoided major cities altogether, being almost completely unwelcome there by the Tyrissian Empire and it's people.

--

Winter pass back into spring as they headed west again, slowly this time. Brianna spent a very biref time in the late winter showing interest in boys in general before simply ignoring them in favor of her work with Nina. Nina figured it would be another year or two before Brianna got serious about looking for a husband.

Nina was still completely uniterested, desptire Rhianna's, and several other women of the Family, pushing her to find someone to settle down with. Nina was become very adept at pushing them away, confiding in Rhianna that she had a vision from the Earth Mother than the right person would be in her life someday. That mostly helped to stave of Rhianna. But not completely.

Leila and Grigorie had thier first born that winter as well, a baby girl. By the end of spring Leila was expecting with their second child, Grigory hoping for a boy.

And life continued on for Nina, counted by seasons more than anything else. Spring changed to summer. Fall brough them going up north towards the city states again, and wintering outside a fairly large town with seven other Families.

Nina's third Year End Celebration as an Estavanni was by far her largest to date. Eight Families all celebrating at once required two bonfires, nine boars had been roasted not to mention all the wine and ale they managed to purchase from the town. For a while they town had a small Estavanni village outside it's southern walls as they all brought their wagons together into one big group for the winter.

Brianna had, as Rhianna liked to put, started to test the waters with men. She spent several nights away from Nina's wagon in the colder nights. Nina was happy for her, and enjoyed some of the nights of privacy alone. She didn't really enjoy being alone so much as just felt content with it. Something inside her was telling her that nights alone were part of her nature. She had perfected several different types of teas by that time, naming them odd things to better entice and please the rich merchant class that she enjoyed extracing money from. For the poorer she simply sold them as less lofty prices, occasionally just giving away small bundles. She felt it was a small way of making up for her previous life as a Tyrissian Noblewoman who had once looked down upon the poor as less than herself. And she never denied anyone her healing arts, rarely if ever charging for such services, even for the richer families.

--

Spring brought them to the southern borders of Tyriss again, skirting along it, occasionally entering the Empire to get near a town. But mostly they kept out of the Empire this spring. The grapevine had spread rumors that the Empire was gathering armies to move either west or south again this year, making it a bit more dangerous for the Estavanni.

They were never in direct danger of being conquered since you can't really conquer a splintered mobile race of people such as the Estavanni. But their ways did not mesh with the ways of the Chuch of Tholoth. While the merchant class saw the Estvanni as a bit of an asset the Church didn't. To the merchants the Estavanni served two pruposes, sometimes it was to group up and travel with them as part of a caravan. A purpose that the Estavanni tolerated, but didn't usually like much. They were paid for the service, usually in goods instead of money, which made the whole thing sit with them much better. The other was information, the merchants knew that the Estavanni passed on news from Family to Family whenever two of their traveling groups met. News spread far and wide with them, it didn't so much spread faster as it did much more accurately. The Estavanni were never given to exageration, especially not amongst their own people. Many merchants and towns paid well for news from an Estavanni Family, counting on it to be accurate even it did travel through five people before getting to them. It was said that an Estavanni never lied to an Estavanni.

While Nina knew that to be only mostly true, no one ever once refuted it. They enjoyed a certain reputation amongst those that weren't Estavanni that allowed them to continue their lives as they saw fit. As far as the Estavanni were concerned everyone one in that situation.

--

Lord Yoland Mettal say astride his horse, his commander at his side as they talked while their troupe gathered up for the mornings march westward. They were only two days out from the request to make sure the town of Parul was suffitiently quelled, a recent movement to try and break free from the Empire had reached his brothers ears.

Yoland looked out over the rolling landscape and the road to the west. His commander had told him of a Gypsy caravan coming their way, supposedly from a very brief stop in Parul.

"My Lord," Commander Veis said, "Perhaps we can gain some information from the Gypsy's before going onwards."

"And why would we do that?" He said, he had no love of the Gypsy people seeing them as heathans.

"Because," Veis said, a bit more practical on the subject, "They will have the most recent news. And will be, in all honesty, very acurate with their news." He said.

"And why would they not lie to us?"

"They know if they lie then we'll turn around and come after them. They trade information for safe passage my Lord. It's not an uncommon practice with them. They are often the most reliable news source you can come across."

"Very well, you have convinced me." Yoland said, I shall ride with you to greet them and gain news. Commander Folce." He yelled out, a man came running up from where he was getting several men together, "You are in charge of the march until we return." The man saluted and ran back to his men.

"Let's ride ahead." Veis said as the two men headed off ahead of the small army.

They rode for most of the morning at a good pace, the Gypsy's came towards them at their own leisurely pace. Veis and Yoland caught up to them a little after they pulled off the road for their midday break. They were stopped at the perimeter by two large men, one weilding an axe.

"We would like to speak with your caravan master." Veis said in Tyrissian to the guards. They looked at each other and the one without the axe disappeared into the ring of wagons. A small group of the gypsy's could be seen inside the loose circle, sitting on stools and eating some form of stew. Children were seen on top of and running around the wagongs.

The man came back with a third within a few minutes. "Greetings. I am Rupert." The short balding man said, he was dressed in loose black pants and a brightly colored vest over a plain white shirt. He spoke in Tyrissian, though accented.

"We seek news." Veis said to him while Yoland waited mostly patiently.

"Of what nature?" Rupert asked. He was wary to give information to army men, but they were inside Tyriss and he thought it best to simply comply and be left alone.

"Of Parul and their recent condition." Veis said, "There's talk of an army forming there. I understand you just came from there."

"We are a day and a half from the town." Rupert nodded, "We did not enter the town, I'll see if anyone overheard much." He said and talked to the unarmed camp gaurd in their tongue.

Yoland shuffled impatiently in his saddle and leaned over to Veis, "What is the problem?" He hissed, "Why can't they give us the information." He hadn't been paying much attention to the conversation, something inside the camp had caught his eye.

"They didn't trade with the town, he's finding out if any of them overheard anything, they only spent a night outside the walls." Veis said, "Patience, the gypsy's will give us any information they have."

"How do you know?"

"Because, for all their ways they respect whichever land they travel through, and generally fear armies. My guess is they'll move a little faster from Parul once we leave."

"All the better." Yoland said, "I've no love of gypsies."

The unarmed gaurd returned with a tall dark hair woman, who talked with Rupert in their own language. Yoland immediately riveted his eyes on the woman. She was tall, long strait black hair with well tanned skin. She held a kind of dangerous beauty about her, soft features with an edge to them. And her eyes, coal black and peircing. She glanced up at the men and said something to Rupert and left. Yoland watched her go, something tugging at the back of his mind.

Rueprt turned back to Veis, "No army, but it seems the townsfolk have felt the need to stockpile weapons of various sorts." Rupert said.

"Thank you." Veis said, "I bid you goodday."

"Goodday." Rupert returned the sentiment and watched the two men go.

"They're definately planning on a visit from us, or a rebellion." Veis said, "Or perhaps they're stockpiling for an advancing army, creating an ongoing supply chain." He rubbed his chin, "My lord?" He turned to the unusually silent Yoland.

"Yes, General Kreigan used a similar tactic taking the western march." Yoland saidm "Veis, I have to return to my brother for a short peiod." He said, "I leave you with the troupe to take care of Parul."

"My lord?"

"Something urgent has come to my attention." He said, "I have complete faith in your ability to take care of the situation in Parul, use of force is granted should you need it." Yolands said.

"As you wish my lord." Commander Veis said, "Should I send Seargent Ishvan with you?"

"No need, keep all the men, I shall meet you in Parul within a week." He said, "I must go, Tholoth be with you." He said and his horse took off at a medium run, passing the army quickly as Veis let his horse walk back with them more slowly. He had to keep with the troupe and their pace for the next day or two. The walking men went much slower than the gypsy caravan. It would take them at least two days to reach the town, three if they wish to arrive in a battle ready state. Time was on his side still if there was indeed no army in Parul.

What worried Commander Veis was Yoland's sudden need to return to his brothers estate, he knew it had something to do with the gypsies but he would be damned if he knew what.

Yoland traveled quickly back to the estate of his brother, Ishvadd. By horse it was merely a days trip back, he wasn't slowed by foot troops. The gate guards were surrprised to see him, especially returning alone. He dismounted and gave his horse over to the stable.

"Yoland, what is going on?" Ishvadd said coming to the manor dooras Yoland came up to him.

"I'll tell you inside, Veis is en route to Parul to take care of that problem." He said going inside.

"So there are revolutionaries there?" Ishvadd followed him inside.

"They are stockpiling weapons, that much we know, it's all we need to know." He said.

"Then what is this urgent news you have returned alone to deliver?" Ishvadd said impatiently.

"I'll tell you in your private quarters." Yoland said as they walked to the back of the house.

They reached the large back room where Ishvadd saw fit to do any business he had. It overlooked his well tended garden on the inside of his estate. It was large containing two oak desks with marble tops. "Speak brother." Ishvadd said, through all his social climbing his brother had been his right hand, no good at politics but excellent at waging war.

"I've seen a ghost." Yoland said, slumping down into one of the large chairs.

"What?"

"I saw her, your wife." He said finally.

"I've no wife." Ishvadd dismissed the statement.

"I'm telling you I saw Thalia with that band of Gypsies." Yoland stood back up with a start.

"Impossible." Ishvadd said.

"Ishvadd, listen to me." Yoland looked him in the eye, "Would I leave my men on petty suspicion? Would I ever lie to you about this? I am telling you I saw her. She is with the Gypsy people, and she is headed this way."

"To this estate?"

"Passing to the south if they keep to the road."

"But how?"

"I don't know." Yoland said, "I only know what I saw."

"She is sentenced to the Crystal Cave for three hundred years, it's been seven." Ishvadd said, "There's no way to release someone early." He reasoned, "Are you sure you didn't see someone who just looked like her?"

"I'm positive."

"Even for her this is sinking low." Ishvadd said, "She is nothing but a vile witch." He spat.

"What do we do?"

"You rejoin your army, let no one know of this. I will take care of it before the council of eleven ever hears of it. Continue your campaign.

"Very well." Yoland said, "I'll leave in the morning when my horse is refreshed."

"As you wish." He said and looked out his glass doors to the setting sun, "Thalia, leave it to you to be so cold hearted that you crack even the crystals." He whispered, "Which demon did you align yourself with to pull such a thing off I wonder?" He say at this desk to think about the best way to go about things.

Both lords left the castle the next day. Yoland left just after sun up to catch up with his small army. Ishvadd left at midday to consult privately with a merchant, as he told his estate guard.

Lord Ishvadd Mettal, lord over five principalities within the Tyrissian Empire, rode out to meet with her private mercenary group. He'd found it useful to have nonsanctioned men at his disposal, letting him act without connection to the Empire, which also let him act within the Empire.

"Ishvadd," Garrou The Mighty greeted him as he rode into the camp in the hills, "What brings us your visit."

"I'm in need of some assistance Garrou." Ishvadd dismounted and joined the man outside his tent.

"Business as usual." Garrou smiled, "What is it this time? A merchant, a noble?"

"Gypsy." Ishvadd said.

"The Estavani? What could they possibly due to you?" Garrou looked skeptical.

"They always carry news with them." Ishvadd said, "And this troupe has news I need to make sure never reaches the port of Galain." He said.

"Well, then, I think that can be taken care of." Garrou said, "Gypsies carry good supplies with them, we're in need of restocking." He laughed.

"I will ride with you to make sure we get the right caravan." Ishvadd said.

"What if we don't?"

"I would not want to draw attention to my actions if I have to start killing off entire Gypsy groups." Ishvadd said, "It would look better as a single isolated incident, easily forgotten and overlooked."

"That's why you're a Lord and I'm merely a Lord's butcher." Garrou said with a smile.

--

Ishvadd peared over the ridge with Garrou and one of his scouts, they were looking at the gypsies as they traveled through the morning. Ishvadd scanned the group looking intently at the wagons. His eyes went wide, it was definately Thalia driving one of those wagons. He enjoyed the time he shared a bed with her, never really forgetting her face. He would never admit to himself that he once loved her.

"That's the right one." He said, "I shall leave you to your work. I want them all killed down to the children." He hissed to Garrou.

"None shall live." Garrou said to him as the three men snuck off and away.

The caravan pulled off to the side of the road, finding a mostly flat area between rolling hills, the wagons had to pull off to both sides so all of them could fit into the area. It wasn't the most defensible place, but they expected little trouble inside the Empire from bandits and any army coming for them would be using the roads.

--

Nina opened the windows to her wagon and pulled out one of the chairs to sit on while her tea brewed. Brianna was outside with the others in the warm midday sun.

The commotion was sudden, and complete. In one swift moment the afternoon silence shattered in screams. Two arrows, both with fire rages on them, came streaking into her open window as she immediately heard the sounds of battle. Deep inside her something pulled, something wanted out.

Nina moved quickly, pulled one of the arrows out of her curtain before it lit, snuffing with a quick twist, the second arrow hit her counter and bounced away, she stepped on it as she ran to the wagons door, not noticing it didn't quite go out.

She grabbed her only available weapon, a wood axe on a pair of hooks over her door, and stepped out to carnage.

Two dozen, or more, bandits were in the camp, wantonly slaughtering people, the Estavanni fought back, a few of the bandits lay on the floor.

"Nina!" Brianna yelled as she rushed towards Nina, she was unarmed and illfit for combat against experienced warriors.

"Brianna!" Nina yelled out, "Inside!" She yelled, two men in black leather came running up, one grabbinh Brianna by her waist and tossing her aside. The other drew an arrow on his bow as Nina raised her axe. The arrow impacted her stomach as she came forward, she din't stop but did slow. The warrior drew a short weapon and attacked her, she tried to get the upper hand, and was failing. He drove her back into the wagon, the arrow in her side preventing Nina from doing much but defending, she held up the axe to block a downward swing, and kicked the man hard in the stomach. Her axe handle split she had dropped it to one side. Scrambling up into the wagon she went for a kitchen knife, hardly useful against swords but better than hands. The warrior recovered and ran over a short distance to a fallen fighter, grabbing a crossbow.

He aimed and fired at Nina as she reappeared in the door. The bolt impacted her chest and she staggered backwards, inside the flames had caught her table on fire, Nina heard the distant screams of Brianna through the din. As the world went fuzzy, and then got.

The warrior over Brianna hit her once in the jaw, leaving her whimpering on the ground, and threw her over his shoulder.

"Garrou said kill them all." Another warrior said in passing.

"And I will, as soon as I'm done with her." He barked back, "Garrou said nothing about when to kill them." He went off to hog tie hear as his comrades went about their wholesale slaughter.

The explosion caught everyone's attention.

Garrou watched his men, having stepped aside from the fight once the small band of gypsies were mostly slaughtered. He looked over at he sudden booming noise in the middle of the fray. One of the wagons had seen fit to explode rather than just burn. He was trying to get his men to get some of the goods from inside the wagons before setting them all on fire, most of the people were dead. True to his word he was killing everyone, from babe to elderly, in the camp.

The first arrow of fire went unnoticed, the second and third caught attention. They came from the inferno of the exploded and burning wagon. A figure came out of the flames, bathed in fire itself.

One of them paused, he had just sent a woman back into that wagon with an arrow in her heart, and out came a beast of flame, a demon from the nine hells. Only that could burn and live.

What came at them was a woman with a upper body bathed in fire, on her back a black tattoo moved as if it were made of lava. Her hands held weapons of flame. Her first target was the man standing over Brianna, a single flaming scimitar came down and cleave the man. Brianna screamed and scrambled out of the way of the blood pouring onto the ground.

A secnd sword was tossed at the enemy who shot her, the weapong spinning end over end and striking him in the chest. He fell with the flames still going.

She stalked and slaughtered with amazing speed, weapons of fire were thrown or shot at any man foolish enough to run. Those even more foolish to attack strait on found their weapons did nothing to her body a flames, a few of the less well made ones snapped and shattered on her own weapons.

She cut them down to every last man, Garrou looked on and grabbed his own aze, an enchanted thing of ancient making. He lashed out with rage and fury at the flaming demon.

She returned his efforts double fold, her own rage built to unimaginable levels. Pure rage poured from her body in gouts of flame as she struck out at Garrou. His axe blocked much of the attacks, but he was tiring where she was not.

Finally she created a massive blade of fire as tall as herself and brought it down with enough force to shake the ground.

"I am the Avatar of War." Her voice hissed with the crackle of fire and the resonance of battle rage. "You will fall before me." And she brought the blade down again, shaking the earth once more, Garrou lay dead in a pool of blood. The massive metal head of the ancient magical axe split in two.

Nina felt the flames die and the heat disapate as she stood over the broken body of Garrou, breathing heavily. She looked around at the destruction and slowly came to her senses. Trying to focus again, and focus on the last minutes of her rage. She remembered the arrow in her heart, and looked down. There was a small line between her breasts where the bolt struck, a thin scar to account for her actions.

She wasn't quite sure what triggered her calling on the spirit of the sun, her death and or the death of her family. The idea of losing a second family hurt her heart more than any arrow ever would. And she looked around at everything in disbelief. They were dead. Everyone was dead.

Brianna staggered to her feet after the second thunderous boom that shook the ground passed. She walked forward on shaky legs to the center of the camp, covered in blood and tears, she spun around frantically, looking for anyone that was alive. And she stopped short, the battle had ended in the middle of the road.

Nina stood over the broken body of a large man, a split axe to the side. She stood in a bloodied and torn skirt, her upper torso naked, the tattoo on her back still had signs of life in it, as if it were made from living fire. Nina turned and looked at her finally.

"Nina?" Brianna said, her voice shaky and mind in shock.

"Brianna." Nina said walking towards her, tears started to flow down her cheeks. "You're alive." Nina said throwing her arms around the girl as she came close.

"What happened?" Brianna choked out as she clung to Nina.

"I don't know," Nina said, "I don't know."

"I want this to be a dream, I want it all to fade away when I wake up." Brianna said.

"So do I, but it's not." Nina said standing up strait, "We have to build the pyre." Nina said softly, she didn't want to do any of this. "I need your help, gather together supplies, we have a ways to go."

"Where? where do we go?" Brianna said.

"Away from here, it's not safe." Nina said, "Just, please, be strong a little while longer until we're safe." Nina touched her cheek, "We have to walk out of this alive."

"Ok." Brianna said, the whole thing still hadn't sunk in yet.

Brianna found a shirt for Nina who had started to build a funeral pyre out of a wagon husk and gathered the bodies of their Family. The brigands she left for the worms and buzzards.

Brianna gathered up what she could to travel with, they would be on foot to avoid the roads and because no wagons were fit for travel. Nina let all but a single horse loose, a large black mare that waited patiently for Nina and Brianna to finish their work. The rest of the horses had fled as a group to the north.

They watched the fire climb into the evening sky, a tower of smoke was all that was left of their Family. Brianna let tears flow freely as they watched, Nina stood silently, her face blank.

"Let's go, we need to be as far from here as we can be when that army returns." Nina said, taking their horse by the reigns and walking off. Brianna lingered a second longer and followed quickly. They walked in silence in the gathering twilight and southwards away from the Empire's lands. Nina didn't know why or how, but she knew that her business with this wasn't finished and that they needed to travel south to a port city and go west again. Nina needed to find another Family willing to take Brianna.

//01000 Gathering Pieces//

Dawn put the last of the empty mugs on the bar with her tray and looked at the common room. Most of the patrons had been kicked out at this hour. The only ones allowed to stay had a room in the inn above them. Currently she had two men, probably doing something illegal, in a private room and one man near the hearth fire slowly sipping a mug of ale.

She got a bucket of water and soap and her mop out to clean at least some of the place. Jurgen had retired to leave her with the bar and the bouncer. Olaf was a massive bear of a man sitting next to the door with a deck of cards playing solitaire. Olaf slept in a room behind the bar, his rent was free and he got two meals a day to pretty much stay at the bar.

Dawn started to mop up the spilled ale, and bits of blood from the occasional, and brief, fight. Olaf didn't like fights inside the bar, most of the blood on the floor was caused by him reminding the patrons to fight outside. The other bar wenches had all gone, leaving Dawn to the clean up. She lived in the smallest room upstairs, little more than a closet. But her rent was as free as Olaf's and she also got two meals a day. It was a deal that was hard to turn down. Any tips she got she split with Olaf so they both had some spending money at least. Currently the small amount of coin she had procured was sitting in a pouch under her apron, jingling slightly as she mopped.

The two men in the private room left, their business done. She would collect their glasses and empty wine bottles later. That left the man near the hearth fire, still sipping his ale. Dawn kept an eye on him in case he wanted a refill, but payed little attention beyond that.

It took her an hour to clean the bar to Jurgen's satisfaction, the visitor had politely moved to a table she had cleaned so she could mop around his, then moved back to his seat. Dawn got a good look at him when he stood to move.

He was a very large man, possibly bigger than Olaf, full of muscle. He wore the skins of a hunter, mostly leathers and furs. No weapons were seen on his body, that would be against the tavern's policy, but she figured he had at least one hidden knife somewhere. One his bicep was a tatto of the God of Hunting, it was a pitch black mark against his dark skin. She briefly wondered if he weren't a priest to the Hunt Master or just a very zealous follower.

Finally she put her bucket away and started to clean the mugs at the bar, rinsing them, wiping them clean and putting them on the rack under the bar so Jurgen could get to them easily. The stranger came over to the bar, putting his empty mug down and sitting at one of the stools near Dawn. Olaf glanced in his direction then went back to his cards.

"Refill?" She asked wearily.

He nodded, and studied her as she refilled his mug. She was young, less than twenty winters. Bar work had given her a solid physique, but she was still thin and a bit scrawny in his opinion. She had long wavey brown hair tied loosely back, several strands had come loose in her busy night giving her a ruffled appearance. Her feature were soft and unthreatening, with bright green eyes. He hadn't seen her smile once the entire night.

"Dawn Torres?" Borrin asked her, he was pretty sure this was who he was looking for.

Dawn stopped and looked at the stranger, no one knew her family name. She never told anyone what it was. She had run away from her merchany family and disappeared here, prefering to never be found again. Her first fear was that her father had sent someone after her.

Borrin nodded, he had his answer and sipped his drink. Dawn just stared, her astonishment at someone knowing her family name put her off guard, there's no way she could pretend something else or that she didn't hear him. Olaf looked over at them as she swallowed hard.

"Who?"

"I am Borrin." He said, his voice was quiet, not friendly but not hostile either.

"How?" She was still in a bit of shock from being found, her mind was racing but not getting anywhere.

"I always find what I'm looking for." He said, "I'm not here to hurt you." He looked at her, his deep brown eyes locking with her green ones. He'd seen her look before, in quarry just before he struck. She was a combination of shock and fear.

"Did," She licked her suddenly dry lips, "Did my father send you?" She whispered.

"No." Borrin shook his head, "No earthly thing sent me." He sipped his ale.

"I don't understand."

"You will." He put his empty mug on the bar, "Soon enough." He said dropping several coins on the bar and going towards the stairs.

"Wait." She said not looking at the coins, he stopped and half turned to look at her, "What's?"

"You are safe Dawn." He said, his voice had total confindence behind it, there was no way Dawn could doubt it. "Sleep well." He turned a left.

Dawn was left dumbfounded at the bar, several minutes passed before she took her eyes from where the stranger disappeared and looked at Olaf, who was looking at her with concern. "I don't know what just happened." Dawn said.

Olaf shrugged, "He know your family name. Never a good sign." Olaf said, "You be careful, take back stairs to your room." He said and stood up.

"Good idea." Dawn nodded and picked up the strangers mug to clean it, the last for the night. She went upstairs the back way, without a lantern to guide her in the darkness of the rear hallway. She knew the path like it was second nature. She slipped into her tiny room with worn sleeping palet on the floor and overturned apple crate for a table. She sat on the palet in the dark and replayed the conversation in her head. She had no idea what it was about, or what was going on. Pulling out her tip pouch she placed it in her tiny little lock box, the key hung around her neck, and lay down to sleep. He room was thankfully against one edge of the chimney so she had a tiny bit of warmth from it, but not much. She curled up under her thin blanket and dreamed of her life before. She had the comforts of wealth, as well as the obligations of being a third daughter, which meant she was little better than property to marry off to another merchant to solidfy business ties.

She woke up after only five hours of sleep to the sound of noise below her. Taht meant it was sunrise and Jurgen was taking in his morning delivery. Ula, Jurgen's wife, would be up cooking the morning stew, probably already had dished out a full pot by now. Dawn got up, shaking off the nights dreams and down the back stairs. She visited the outhouse, ran some water over her face and arms in the rain trough by the back door and went inside to start her day. Dawn slipped into the morning routine, helping one of the other girls deliver the stew that Ula was cooking up, she would get her own breakfast once all the customers were served.

Mid morning came and Dawn sat down at the kitchen table with some left over stew and a chunk of bread. Her morning was routine, the man from the night before was not in the tavern that morning. She felt a bit of relief for that, not sure what she would do if he were, or what he would do for that matter.

Noon came, and the crowd thinned out. The tavern didn't do too much business from noon to late afternoon. There were always the regulars, the drunks and the occasional traveler. Dawn was usually the sole bar wench for the afternoon, help arriving just before sundown to take care of the night crowd, then leaving again for Dawn to mop up.

She wasn't sure if she actually enjoyed life, it was hard, mostly thankless and almost completely without excitement. But it beat being married off to a merchants son and slaving away for nothing, luxeries or not. Here she had a precious few coins to show for her labors, and the occasional gratitude.

And Olaf. Olaf was the closest thing she had to a true friend. He was also always there in the inn. Usually by the door with his deck of cards, the tavern's bouner. He was a massive man, given to acts of violence when called for, but always civil to Dawn.

Presently she sat at his little table playing at a game of cards with him. They made a show of playing for the coin they earned, but in the end it all got divided up evenly between them. Neither of them had much opportunity to spend it, but Jurgen tried to give them both a day off every month to go shopping for both the needed and unneeded things. Olaf liked food, occasionally he spent his coin on extra portions from Ula's kitchen. Dawn spent her money mostly only the basics, occasionally splurging. She was fourteen when she ran away in her expensive merchants clothes, that was five years ago. She had come far in that time. By her count at least, no more ties to the petty merchant class, no more unnecessary needs and no constant degredation by her supposed family. As a bar wench she took her share of degredation and prejudice, but she figured it was warranted at this station in life. Or at least expected, no one took notice of a bar wench, and no one epxected them to do anything but serve food and drink. Or the occasional overnight. Which she had managed to avoid so far, usually feigning attachment ot Olaf, and no one in town and most visitors didn't really want to see if Olaf would defend his woman.

The man from the night before came into the bar from the front door, Dawn hadn't seen him leave for the day, but she didn't catch everything. He was dressed very similarly to the night before. He didn't glance down at her as he passed the table by the door, just headed strait to the stairs up and to the inn above. Dawn shrugged and went back to the card game.

Three men. all dressed in black, entered the tavern. They were foreigners, if their dress was any indication. Olaf leaned over, "Tyrissian." He whispered.

Dawn knew of the Tyrissian Empire, but they were a long way from it's western borders. She didn't see any of the merchants that they would travel with to get this far west, and they didn't look much like visiting tourists. Each one was dressed as a warrior, short slightly curved swords could be seen at their belts. They took a seat at an empty table near the middle of the tavern common room.

Dawn stood and walked over to the three men, "What can I get for you today?" She asked as cheerily as she could muster. A sudden chill had gone down her spine as she got near the men. The menace could be felt in the air around them.

"Ales." One of them said in a soft gruff voice.

Dawn stepped away from the table and went to the bar, Jurgen was off somewhere so she had to get the drinks herself. From behind the bar she poured the first of the three drinks.

Borrin came downstairs then, his pack in one hand and an axe in the other. He walked slowly across the common room, keeping his eye on the three men.

Dawn poured the second ale as Borrin put his pack, but not the axe, down on a table near the door. The three men seemed to get the signal as they shifted slightly.

Dawn poured the third ale as the tension level in the room rose. Olaf looked on intently, he could sense something about to start, but wasn't sure from where. Borrin stood still, his vision divided between Dawn, Olaf and the three men. The few patrons in the bar began to twitch nervously.

Dawn had all three drinks on a small tray and brought them over, hoping that the introduction of ale might calm things down a bit. The world became a motion blur as she set the first drink down.

One of the men stood, making a grab at Dawn. A blur in the air and he had a small axe in his chest as he fell to the ground, nearly dragging Dawn with him.

The other two stood abruptly, one going for Borrin and the other for Dawn. Olaf made his way to his feet but was going in slow motion compared to the others. Dawn couldn't remember seeing anyone move as fast as these four did.

As she fell over she saw the one go for Borrin die with a sword poking out his back as Borrin rushed forward towards her. The third man in black had a weapon out and brought it down to where Dawn was standing. Had she not been knocked off balance and fallen to one side she would have a sword in her neck.

Dawn hit the ground hard and then heard the crunch of breaking bone as the third man in black was disposed of by the hunter. Olaf had joined the fight, but found himself at a loss for what to do. He stood by both Dawn and Borrin. Not sure if he should help her or stop him.

"All is well." Borrin said in his rough voice as Olaf stood defensively over Dawn who lay stunned on the floor, "It is time you engaged in your quest Dawn Torres." He said walking to the first man to retrieve his axe from the body.

Kayal just stared up at him open mouthed, "What?" she managed to get out.

"You are the chosen." Borrin said flatly, "Men like this will continue to come and hunt you down unless you accept your gift." He said, his voice was near monotone.

"I don't understand." Kalya said, she slowly got to her feet and started to back away, Olaf positioned himself between Dawn and Borrin.

"You have been marked by Fate."

"You have me confused with someone else." She said, suddenly stopped by the bar.

"No. I see the mark in your eyes." Borrin's voice seemed to come out like stone, unmoving and uncompromising.

Dawn looked away, "Just leave me alone. I don't want any of this."

"You don't have a choice."

"I think it's time you left." Olaf said, his voice had a rising anger in it.

Borrin opened his mouth to speak when a crunching noise came from the doorway, wood splinters flew everywhere.

The three of them looked over to see a creature had force a larger hole into the entrance way. It stood half again taller than a man, a massive beast with a bears head and a man's body. It roared loadly.

Dawn covered her ears and screamed, ducking down. Olaf and Borrin both turned to confront the monster. Borrin threw his axe as Olaf charged forward.

The fight moved into the tavern as Olaf was tossed backwards and the creature charged Borrin who knocked it upside the head as he dodged to one side. the creature smashed into a table, shattering it. Olaf climbed up out of his own wrecked table and reenaged the monster. Borrin pulled a long thin knife from somewhere and waited a moment.

The creature and Olaf grappled, in the end Olaf went down as the things bear head bit into his shoulder, Borrin took the opportunity to jump and attack, his knife slid easily into the creatures back, piercing the heart and severing the spine behind it. The thing twitched once and fell, Borrin pulled his knife out and wiped it clean.

"Olaf!" Dawn cried and ran over to his side. Olaf lay on the ground, bleeding from the neck and shoulder.

"Dawn," He said softly, "I'm sorry." He whispered and died in her arms.

"Olaf." She mumbled and began to cry. She looked up at Borrin who stood passively to the side, "What do you want from me?" Dawn cried out.

"It's not what I want." Borrin said, "I was sent to protect you. Nothing more."

"What do they want from me?" Dawn wiped away tears.

"They want to kill you."

"I don't understand."

"You are the chosen, you're gift is and your curse is that of Fate." He said.

"Fate of what?"

"Our world."

Dawn just stared up at him. Jurgen came into the room to see what the commotion was, running with an old sword in hand. He stopped upon seeing the carnage and wreckage in the room.

"What is going on here?" He demanded.

"There was some trouble." Borrin replied, his long knife ahd disappeared somewhere. "That beast is using Anima-Magic." He pointed at the bear headed creature, "Dawn, understand that one power you have is to reveal the truth in all things."

Everyone in the room stared at him.

"Touch the beast." He said. Dawn didn't move, staring blankly at him.

"Touch the beast and you'll see."

Dawn reached a quivering hand out towards the dead creature.

--

A bear handed man lumbered towards her in the darkness, slowly it's head began to melt away, revealing a human skull underneath. The thing continued it's forward lumber in halting steps, arms limp at its sides. Slowly the skull began to change, revealing a human face, a man's face now sat in place on the head. It was the true face of the man, the bear head was grown from fowl magics, altering the poor farmers head to create the monster. Stripping him of his will, his intelligence and turning him into a simple tool, a machine to hunt down and kill the intended target. In the man's mind, as in the beasts mind, the target was clearly visible.

Dawn saw herself looking at her own face in the minds eye of the monster, and she screamed.

--

Dawn woke up suddenly in the predawn light. She lay on the ground in a heavy cloak with a bunched up spare shirt as a pillow. She sat up breathing heavily, the nightmare still fresh in her mind. She looked over at the campfire, its embers were barely lit, the fire having gone out in the night and the embers cooled off.

She looked around, Borrin wasn't in sight. She pushed the cloak away and slowly stood up on the cold dirt. His things were still where he had left them the night before. She found a spare log and with no better ideas put it on the dying fire to restart it, hoping some food was in his pack with which to have breakfast.

"You're awake." Borrin said coming silently out of the bushes. Dawn turned suddenly in surprise at his arrival. "I've brought food, good we'll need the fire to cook." He sat down cross legged on the ground next to a stone. He lay two rabbits across the stone and pulled out a piece of cured leather, a smallish tarp that he spread out on the ground. Taking one of the rabbit and his long thing knife he skinned and gutted the creature quickly and then the second. Pulling out two skeweres he put them over the flame to roast.

Dawn watched as he work, and then slowly turned the two rabbits to evenly cook them. She didn't normally get fresh food like this, the stew being whatever meat was cured in the tavern from the previous days purchase off of town hunters. She watched with a kind of detached fascination.

Borrin made sure the skins were cleaned and then stretched them tightly across a pair of small sticks tied off with leather thongs. He stacked them to one side, intending to cure them. The guts he simply discarded into a nearby bush for the vermin and scavengers to eat.

"Sleep well?" He asked Dawn as he sat back down crosslegged in front of the fire.

Dawn shook her head negative, "I had that nightmare again last night." She said.

Borrin frowned, "I was hoping it would be easier for you to adjust to your gifts."

Dawn just stared at him, it had been four nights since she left the tavern that day. Most of her money she gave to the undertaker so Olaf would get a proper burial. Half of what was left she gave to Jurgen as an apology for leaving so abrutply and to pay for his tables. She kept a few precious coins for herself, though Borrin didn't seem to think she would need them for a while, he said he would provide, along with the others. When she asked what others he only smiled and told her she would find out. "I still don't understand why it has to be me." She said softly.

"We don't choose our destiny, we only control our fate and our uses of the gifts life gives us." He answered, "Your destiny and your fate are the same. I cannot stop you if you turn back." He paused, "But the more you fight who you are the more tragedy will follow."

"I don't like being pushed around and manipulated." She said coldly, "Tell me what is going on."

"I can't," He answered, "I only know that my destiny is to serve the Lord Kullin, the Hunt Master and he gave me the task of finding and helping you." He said, "What your quest is, I do not know. I do know it holds the fate of this land and of the Gods with it."

Dawn simply stared at the pair of rabbits as they cooked over the renewed flame and remained quiet. She wasn't sure why she ended up trusting herself to Borrin, only that she felt she had no choice. In some ways it was exactly what she ran from when she left her family. Was she shirking responsibility then, or freeing herself from it? She didn't know, but this felt right. She always knew when people could be trusted and when they lied to her. Borrin never lied, his truth was so sincere it almost felt solid in the air between them. Perhaps that was always a part of the gift he alluded to, maybe it was her destiny to be something greater than a tavern wench or merchants daughter and wife.

What it could possibly entail, she didn't know. And the only way to find out was through time.

"The rabbits are done." Borrin broke her thoughts with his voice.

She looked at the small creatures and nodded. She took one of the sticks and sat back, cooling the meat a bit after it was on the direct flame. Borrin took his own and didn't wait very long for the meat to cool down slightly. She ate slowly, Borrin ate at a steady pace, not fast but not taking his time. As if eating to him were just another thing to do before getting up and going on. Dawn thought the meat only slightly more bland than the morning stew she was used to. The stew was usually far too salty, but on the days it wasn't the potatoes and occasional other vegetable in it added some taste. Eating just rabbit did not excite her appetite. She finsihed eating as Borrin put out the fire, dousing it and making sure the coals were out completely, and packed up their makeshift camp site. He left behind no sign save the tiny fire pit that they were there for the night.

"We should get you some good walking boots." Borring said as they walked southward along the main road to the sea.

Dawn looked down at her bare feet and shrugged. She had bought shoes once, but they lasted barely more than two months before the soles had worn through. Truth was she spent her days on her feet, walking the wooden floors constantly. The softer dirt, and occasionaly treck into the even softer grass when letting a cart pass, was a welcome change. "I'm fine." She said.

"You may be, but I have a feeling a good pair of boots made for walking will be much relief."

"Maybe." She didn't really feel like discussing the idea.

They walked the day in silence, he seemed to prefer it and Dawn was lost in thought about her situation, what she was going to do. Where they were going, and why. Her future was now undetermined, and it was slightly upsetting. She had settled into a life of drugery, accepted her place as merely a bar wench and was happy with nothing but the next day ahead of her. She knew where she was and that she wasn't leaving it. Now, she didn't know anything. Even the next day would be a mystery to her.

Was this adventure? Was this the thing she'd heard so many boys and men talk about. And even the occasional woman. Going off, in search of fame, fortune or both. Or in search of adventure. She didn't know, she only knew that she enjoyed her mediocrity and obscurity.

She wasn't even sure why she was going, only that she was. An unknown destination lay ahead of her. Borrin had said they needed to head south, and beyond that she would know where to go. She doubted that very much. Borrin seemed world traveled, he gave the impression that he had in fact seen and done it all already and was merely along as a guide into the uknown.

His reverence for the Hunt Lord was unquestionable. Not only did he bare the mark as a tattoo but he always came back with a fresh kill, every time. The tattoo was just a bit of concern for Dawn, she swore she could see it moving. Not along his skin, but in place, like the ink inside it was alive with something. What she didn't know, but something, it seemed to have a flow to it. Sometimes it was simply a matte black marking on his upper arm. That arm was always bare, though it was summer so bare arms wasn't to uncalled for.

And they walked, southward along the main trade road. Where they were going Dawn had no real idea. She knew that the southward road ended at Portscall, a city she'd visited as a child with her father and found it far too noisy. After that it went eastward, or you could take a ship further south into the Desert lands, or east along the coast. Sometimes shipd went west into the open sea, but not often. She didn't know what lay beyond the open sea at all. The Eastern road followed the edge of the Tyrissian Empire until it reached Shallalee.

--

The Port city was humming with activity, which made Dawn a little uncomfortable. She had grown used to the small town bustle. Sure the tavern could fill up, but it was never as active as the city streets seemed to be. Borrin himself didn't seem to feel at home in the large port city, but he plodded onwards to their destination. He said that the last thing his dreams had told him to do was take them to an inn called Gulls Call. So they went.

Once they reached it Borrin managed to get them a room, and baths. Dawn hadn't quite realized how dusty road travel can be, especially walking a main road where wagon and caravan traffic was high. It became almost constant when they passed the lat crossroads outside Portscall, about a days walk away. Borrin seemed to ignore it, but Dawn was thirsty, and dirty.

She finally climbed the stairs back up to their rooms, clothes and body cleaned. She hadn't been taken care of in a long time and felt a bit odd when the woman took her clothes to wash the dirst out of them. Borrin was in the decent sized room sitting by the window looking down at the street. On the rooms table was a large pitcher and some mugs. Dawn took a look inside, it was water. She immediately poured herself some and drank, sitting down in a chair by the tiny fireplace.

She had realized in the bath how much her feet hurt, walking all day in the tavern was one thing. She didn't know how much she missed the rest breaks where she got to sit for a while until she walked all day on the road.

"It is still midday, we should go down and get you proper traveling clothes." Borrin said turning from the window to her.

"Can it wait until tomorrow?" She asked, "I just don't have the energy." She had slumped a bit in the chair.

"We can." He said.

"What are we waiting for?" She asked.

"You." He said flatly.

"Me? I don't even know completely why I've been following you for the last week!" She said.

"Because it is what you feel is right. We have time for now." He said. "Rest, enjoy the tavern downstairs if you want." He said.

"Rest sounds good." She yawned.

"I will be back this evening." He stood, "You should be safe here, but I recommend against leaving the inn."

Dawn stood and stretched, "If you insist." She said as he went out the door. Dawn looked at the bed, it was a large comfortable looking thing. Borrin had gotten a room with an actual bed in it, she pulled off her skirt and crawled under the bed covers in just her shirt. She fell into a deep slumber as soon as she settled in.

--

In it she saw the symbols of the Gods, the Old Gods that were still named but fading from worship. The Gods that were preached by the spreading Church of Tholoth as heathen Gods. With each sybmol she saw a figure shadowed behind it. She watched them spin slowly in twighlight air.

Some merged to form an amalgamation of symbols, having one figure behind the two holy symbols. And they spun in a slow lazt circle around her. The Lord of the Hunt symbol was greyed out, the figure behind it was Borrin.

She began to see what was needed of her. She had to find those behind the symbols. She knew without any voice telling her that each one was the avatar of the chosen deity, sent to protect her.

From what, she didn't know. She also still didn't have an answer for the why of everything. Only that she needed to find all these people. And the shadowy figures behind each didn't tell her anything about them.

Was she supposed to looked for the marking, like Borrin had on his arm? Would they know her? She didn't know.

Dawn awoke as the sun cast gold shadows into the room. She didn't understand how she knew anything, only that she did. She hugged her legs close to her, the world became a fearful place again, full of uncertainty and out of her control.

She dressed and went downstairs, she had a bit of money to order some food and drink with. Hoping that Borrin would be back soon, she didn't have anyone else to rely on currently.

//01001 Collecting stars in the sky//

Adalade ran down the street, only two of his pursuers were still with him. He glanced behind him, down to one. The most persistent, the one he slighted, but just a little. He didn't know she was his sister, really.

He turned a corner, down an alley and into another main street. He glanced up and down, there, a tavern. He ran as swift as the wind up the block and into the Gulls Call, he was pretty sure his pursuer was too far behind him to see him duck into the bar.

Once inside and straitened his belt a bit, unruffled his shirt, lamented the loss of yet another expensive rapier and huffed. It was warm, full of people and noise. And most importantly, full of women. He made his way to the bar, ordered an ale and turned to examine his pickings. The night was young, it had just barely started, and he had to find a place to sleep tonight still.

He made his way through the crowd and made attempts to engage a well dressed young woman in conversation.

--

Dawn sat at a tiny table to one side, it had but two stools at it and barely enough space to fit a couple of mugs and a plate of food. She ate slowly, trying to ignore both the crowd and the rather annoying young man behind her trying to talk up the woman at the next table. She saw Borrin enter and scan the bar slowly, his eyes finally rested on her and he mover her way.

He sat down across from her and ordered an ale from a passing waitress. "Get some rest?" He asked.

"Yes, got your errands done?" She attempted to return his deadpan look, and failed.

"Yes." Borrin ignored her attempt to mock him.

Behind them the fop was getting nowhere, but trying valantly. He bumped into Dawn once, and didn't notice. Dawn did.

Her eyes shut tight as a sudden waking dream hit her. The symbol for the Moon God formed in her mind, a silver curved sliver that shimmered like moonlight on water, a single horitonzal slash bisected it. The holy symbol went black and the figure behind it came into vision, it was a young man. He had blond hair, and bright blue eyes. His smile was infectious and rogueish in the vision. And it left.

"Dawn?" Borrin looked at her concerned, half out of his seat.

She put out her hand, "I'm fine." She said shaking her head, "Just, I don't know, I had a dream this afternoon." She said, "And a vision just now." She blinked and sat up straight again, though not letting go of the table. The world still felt like it might dump her off at any moment. She waited for the fog in her head to clear before trying to continue on.

Borrin waited patiently as she came out of the waking dream, he remembered his first given to him by his Lord. The first was always the worst, after that he had little trouble with them.

Behind them commotion had started. He kept one eye on Dawn, one of the potential bar fight.

Adalade had just met his match, in the form of one beautiful woman's very large and angry brother.

"I've heard of your deeds scoundrel." The large angry man said with a gutteral growl.

"I'm sorry sir, you must have me confused with someone else. I was just having a nice talk with your sister here. It's all a misunderstanding." He was backing away slowly, trying to talk his way out. The was a normal situation, he could get out no problem. "I'll be on my way if you feel that strongly," He said, "Why don't we ask.." He motioned to the girl, as he never did get her name.

"I have a better idea." The man said, pulling a sharp looking dagger from sheath on his waist.

"Oh there's no need for that." Adalade has positioned himself to try and make a break for it, which meant he was no longer against the wall squished between to tables. He glanced to either side. His right contained a table with three drunk and slightly amused men, they were getting a show with their drinks. His left contained a man who reminded him more of an animal than a man with his furs and leathers, and a girl no older than twenty winters looking very drunk. He wasn't getting much help from this crowd so he backed up a step.

"Oh, but I think there is." His attacker threatened with the dagger.

Dawn blinked out the last of the fuzz in her brain and her eyes met that of a young man, the fop behind her from the sound of his voice. Her eyes went immediately wide, he was the man from the waking vision, there was no doubt about it. She wasn't sure what to do, currently he was being threatened with a dagger.

The dagger whipped across the air, Adalade fell backwards, a slash in his shirt but no harm done. He hit the ground with a thud and stared up at a grinning man with a dagger.

Dawn saw him fall and his shirt fell open with the slash from the dagger. On his bare chest was the mark from her dream, the silver moon. Only it was black now, like Borrin's tattoo.

"Wait!" She said putting herself between the dagger and the man on the ground. "Leave my brother alone!" She said to the attacker.

The surrounding crowd stopped short, "What have you gotten yourself into this time Orin?" She glanced back at the man on the floor. "Look, I'm sorry, he gets this way when he's a bit drunk." She tried to look apologetic.

The dagger hadn't moved, "What say you step aside little girl and let me give him a reminder to not get this way?" The attacker said with menace.

"Let my siblings go." Borrin said standing slowly, he moved like a predator.

The man with the dagger looked from Adalade, to Dawn and finally his eyes rested on Borrin. And his confidence wavered. Borrin had a stare like stone, utterly unmoving and passively aggressive. The dagger wavered then lowered, "Get him away from my sister." He said with as much authority as he could manage.

Borrin simply reached down, picked Adalade up and moved off towards the stares going up. Adalade wasn't sure what just happened, he left himself be carried along as long as it got him away from that dagger. Dawn followed them quickly.

Up in the room Borrin shut and locked the door, Adalade dropped to the floor again when Borrin let go but bounced right back up. Dawn simply sat in the chair and tried to stop her hands from shaking.

"I'm sure you've seen plenty of bar fights." Borrin said to her.

"Seen? Yes, lots." She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, "But I've never been in one."

"That was hardly a fight my lady." Adalade said, feeling he should include himself in this somehow, "But I do owe you my gratitude for saving my life." He smiled.

"What's your name?" She looked at him.

"I'm usually called Adalade by those who use my name, and Dale by my friends." He said, "Now, I must really be going." He looked at Borrin and decided his chances of bedding the lass were zero, maybe less.

"No," Dawn shook her head, "You can't." She slowly poured herself a drink from the pitcher and took a sip of the water, "I am Dawn, this is Borrin." She motioned to him.

"I can't leave?" Adalade twitched nervously as he looked from Dawn to Borrin and back.

"That tattoo, where did it come from?" She asked him.

"This?" He pointed to his chest, still exposed, "Oh, I'm no more than a casual follower of Brother Moon, or Sister Moon in some lands, depends on who you ask." He smiled.

"Casual? And you mark yourself with a symbol that covers your chest?" She cocked an eyebrow.

"Well, if I told you I was a high priest would you believe me?" He asked.

"No, I would believe you are an avatar." She said flatly.

Adalade stopped and stared at her, "Really now." He rubbed his chin with his index finger and thumb, "And why would you believe that?"

"I'm the Chosen of Fate." She sighed.

Adalade stopped his movement, "My lady?" He bowed low, "Had I known I would not have acted to rudely near you this evening, in fact I would have been at your service immediately." He stood back up.

"You are here now." She said, "Borrin is avatar to his Lordship of the Hunt." She said.

"So I see from his marking." Adalade said, "So I assume it is safe for me to spend the night in your company?" He stopped, "Not in that sense, I mean.."

"I have a room across the hall we can share." Borrin said, "The lady does need her privacy."

"Of course, but is it wise to leave her alone?" Adalade said.

"I'm not your Lady" Dawn said with exasperation, "I'm Dawn, please use my name."

"Is it wise to leave Dawn alone?" Adalade rephrased his question.

"None know we are here yet, it is safe." Borrin said.

"Are you sure? I mean, I know you know the ways of the wilds, but the city is more my domain. And here the walls have eyes." He said.

"Then we sleep in shifts." Borrin said, "And take guard outside her room."

Adalade thought for a second and then walked to the window. He closed is and locked the latch, then checked for loose panes. "If we're going to wait outside then all other entrances should be secure." He said as they watched him.

"Thank you Adalade." Dawn said, "I'm not entirely tired, but the night has me shaking." She said, "I don't suppose either of you have a deck of cards?" She looked at them.

"I can aquire some." Adalade offered, I just need to retrieve my things." He said.

"Where are they?" She looked at him.

"In a safe place, near the warf." He shrugged, "It won't take but half an hour there and back." He said.

"We'll wait for your return." Borrin said, "Tell know one we are here."

"Of course not, I've had dreams of meeting Her Lady.. meeting Dawn for nearly five months. Now that it's happened I've no intention of failing my duties to the Moon." He said with a smile and disappered out the door.

"He's a loud boorish sap of a man." Borrin said after a few minutes.

"I think he's kind of charming actually." Dawn smiled.

Borrin only shook his head, "You have had a long day. But tomorrow we need to outfit you properly for long travel."

She sighed, "I've a feeling we'll be walking most places we go." She said with a heavy heart, "My poor feet."

Borrin merely smiled, "Shall I wait outside?"

"Only if you want," Dawn said, "I'm not tired but I don't have the heart to go back down to the tavern to try and finish my dinner.

"I shall bring it back up to you then." Borrin said, "Ale?"

"No," She shook her head, "Thank you very much Borrin."

"You are welcome, I am here to serve you." He bowed slightly and disappeared out the door.

"But I don't want servants." She said quietly to herself, "I want friends." She looked at the tiny fireplace and started a small fire going to warm the room against he cooling night.

Adalade returned within the promised time, with a large ruck sack and a lute slung over his shoulder.

"You're a bard?" Dawn said, her empty plate on the table. Borrin had waited patiently until Adalade had returned then excused himself to get some rest.

"Of course." Adalade said setting his things down on the floor and leaning his lute against the wall, "I'm avatar to the moon, the Dancer and Singer. I'm a lover and a musician." He smiled and rummaged through his pack.

"I'm afraid I don't know all the Gods," Dawn said. "My father always willing to please the Tyrissian Empire is a believer of Tholoth and the village I lived in only had small shrines to Lady Harvest and Lord Hunt." She said, "And old man Korric worshipped the sky."

"Ah yes, all good deities." Adalade stood up with a small box in hand, he opened it and pulled out a well worn deck of cards, "And what is my ladies game?"

"Fives is all I know." She said.

"Well then," He put the deck on the table, "We've nothing to bet with so shall we make it a friendly game then?"

"Ok." She smiled.

"On the subject of the avatars, you are to find us all then? The appointed time is near?"

"I guess." Dawn said as Adalade dealt the hands. "I don't know much of anything, you and Borrin know more than myself."

"It just hasn't come to you yet." Adalade smiled and looked at his hand, "An avatar knows what they are, and who they serve. You'll find that the avatar matches in profession and appearance their deities pantheons."

"So the moon is irrisponsible and boorish?" She poked fun.

"Ha," He faked a laugh, "The moon is a free spirit, a lover and never one to turn down a good party." He countered.

"So, what can I expect of the others?"

"I'm just speculating, but I'd say that whomever Mother Earth has chosen will be sympathic and kind, someone to confide in. The sun, now he would be arrogant, aggressive, possibly more trouble than he's worth."

"Oh?"

"The sun is worshipped as the War God in many places in the land, though not all, but most." He said, "He'll be a mighty warrior for sure."

"And the others, I saw thirteen symbols."

"The Harvest and the Forests, those two may come together or perhaps not. They are sisters to Lord Hunt. Borrin will know what to look for in them. I'd expect kindness and giving, a quiet ferocity. The winds and sky, Father Sky watches over all, I wouldn't be surprised if he were some coddled old man." He made a gesture as if he needed a cane, Dawn laughed.

"That's mean." She said trying to make the smile go away.

"The Winds and Storms, daughters to Father Sky. They would have tempers on them for sure." He cautioned, "Moody to say the least. That leaves the three unaligned. The Mage Lord, for sure he will be a powerful magician. The Sea Queen, I'm sure we'll meet her avatar if we stop in every port from here to the end of the world, or take a ship." He nodded, "That leaves the King of Thieves, the prankster, that's anyone's guess as to who he might choose."

"What about the thirteenth symbol?"

Adalade shook his head, the old panteon has only twenty one Gods, Nine of Light, the Three Unaligned, and of course the Nine in Darkness." He reshuffled the cards after losing the last hand, "I doubt any of them would turn to join with us. Rumors say that they are the true power behind Tholoth." He said.

"What rumors?"

"You know, Rumors. The Moon, he is also the keeper of secrets. I learn many things in my dreams." He winked and dealt the cards.

--

The next day Adalade saw fit to take Dawn shopping for travelling clothes, Borrin went along but was upstaged by the rogue. He frowned or shook his head when things were frivilous in his eyes. It was his money so he had final say. Though if Dawn showed any real interest in anything he gave in.

By the end she had a good pair of walking boots, they came to just above the ankle and tighted off tightly. She also wore trousers like a man, though very loose ones, she wore her skirt over it. She also had on two shirts, a thinner undershirt and a heavy overshirt. The overshirt was immediately put into a brand new pack and she went with the sleeveless undershirt in the hot summer weather. Rolled up was a heavy thick cloak that could be used as a blanket and protection from any elements they encountered.

By midday Adalade complained of an empty belly. Dawn saw fit to use her own coin for the lunch meal, Borrin didn't argue and Adalade couldn't. They ate simply, though well. Dawn could spot a good tavern from ten blocks out and knew what to look for to find the good cheap ones as well.

"It is too late to travel far today, tomorrow we should leave as the sun rises." Borrin said as they made their slow way through the large city.

"But to where?" Adalade said.

"East." Dawn answered him as she gazed off to the south where a cool breeze was coming off the waters. "I've felt a subtle pull, I guess you could call it, in that direction."

"East." Borrin looked down at the shorter Adalade.

"And there you have it." Adalade said, "By boat or land?"

"Land." Dawn didn't glance over her shoulder to answer, something in the crowd had caught her attention. "Why are those men following us?" She said without moving her gaze. Borrin and Adalade both glance in the direction she was looking, they hadn't stopped moving.

"Servants of Shadows." Borrin hissed.

"Like the ones from before?" Dawn asked him.

"No, those were Servents of Murder." Borrin answered, "Shall I take care of them?"

"No, we are in a larger city. The Watchmen will take you in for sure. It would be irresponsible of me to loose one of my helpers so early on."

"Then we should make haste back to the tavern, if they come at us there we can claim self defense." Adalade said.

Borrin nodded, "Good idea." Dawn said, and they moved quickly back to the inn they had a room at.

Back in Dawn's room both men were arguing, "I say it's safer with one of us in here with her." Adalade was advocating they stay in the room with Dawn.

Borrin was taking the stance that a lady required privacy and was simply making his arguement by trying to state Adalade down and saying "No," a lot.

"Look Borrin, they're of Shadow. Doors mean nothing to them. I don't even think locks mean anything to them."

"A lady requires privacy." Borrin said.

"Guys!" Dawn finally had to break the arguement, "I have to agree with Dale, I mean. I don't want to make anyone uncomfortable, but.." she blushed, "Look, wouldn't it be better if we all were in the same room at night?"

Borrin looked at her, "You may have a point." He said to her, then smiled.

//01010 In Darkness, In Light//

The two Shadow Walkers slipped along the buildings edge, they barely made a noise, and no one saw them at all. The moved past the lighted areas as if they weren't there. They came to a halt outside the inn, underneath the second floor window of one of the main rooms. They slipped up the wall like it was ground, sliding in the shadows of moonlight like they weren't there. They were on either side of the window and reached out in unison to touch the glass.

The glass panes seemed to go dark, the dark room inside lit only by the dying fire was full of shadow. The both slid inside, and emerged from the shadows on either side of the window inside the room. They crept forward slowly, quietly and drew black blades. They approached the bed, and the sleeping figure under it. Suddenly the room was bathed in light from a bright lantern.

"You should check the light a little more often." Adalade said, his bare chest had the symbol of the Moon glowing a fluid silver, "It makes the shadows." He smiled and raised a rapier in a defensive stance.

The two Shadow Walkers had no chance to react, the one under the covers sat up and tossed a pair of daggers at them. One fell with a gargling sound as he clutched the small blade now in his throat. The other caught the dagger in the shoulder and turned to run back the way he came. Dawn, holding the lanter, swung it to follow him, keeping him bathed in light. He reached the wall and touched his own shadow there as Adalade struck out.

His blade his only the wooden wall, the man had disappeared using his own shadow as a gate out.

"Damn!" Adalade yelled.

"The other." Borrin said getting out the of the bed, the second man lay dead, but his form quickly changed. He seemed to fade, as if disappearing, then melted into the shadow underneath him on the floor.

Both Borrin and Adalade ran to where his body was and stopped. The thing had completely melted and was gone, leaving nothing behind but a black dagger.

"Shadow Walkers." Borrin said.

"Most likely sent by those following us today." Adalade resheathed his sword, "Are you ok Dawn?"

Dawn nodded from her spot in one of the chairs.

"I doubt we'll see anymore tonight." Borrin walked across the room to the door, "Get some rest Dawn. We should leave as early as possible."

Dawn stood up and went over to the bed, "Thank you." She looked at both men and sat down. She pulled her boots off as Borrin left the room.

"Are you going to be alright?" Adalade asked, sensing her discomfort.

"No." She whispered removed her skirt, leaving only her blouse and pants on, "Things want me dead and I don't even know why!" She said, tears forming.

Adalade was at the side of the bed with his arm around her, "It will be ok, you have Me and Borrin to help protect you, and others will join in."

"But what is it I'm supposed to do?" She said, crying now, "It's all so confusing."

"The Gods are never straitforward. Either because they like games or because they can't be." He said, "The Church of Tholoth has taken a lot of power from them. They are weakened and may be doing all they can to help you." He tried to make her feel better, "I believe you are to defeat the False God Tholoth." Adalade said, Dawn looked at him.

"I'm no fighter." She said.

"You don't often have to fight Gods to defeat them." He smiled, "Sleep, I have a feeling Borrin will wake us up far earlier in the morning than either of us really wants."

Dawn smiled, "I usually get up early."

"Well, then I'll be the grumpy one on the trip tomorrow," Adalade went to the door, "Pleasant dreams." He said and slipped out the door.

Dawn undressed and slid under the covers to a dream filled sleep.

--

The morning was overcast as they made their way out of the town gates and along the eastern road. At this hour most of the traffic was going into the city as outlying farmers brought goods to market or came into town to buy things before their days really started. The city was already full of activity by a little after sunrise.

They walked in silence for a while, ignoring those who shared the road with them. A peasant girl, a bard and a hunter is all they saw. Not an unusual group for those with an experienced eye. Probably some fools out looking for adventure or fame and fortune.

"What is the next town?" Dawn asked Adalade.

"Small thing called Bull Bay." He said, "More of a way stop on the way to Opalen to the north."

"So the road turns?"

"The main road turns, there is a smaller road that continues along the coast. Mostly traveled by the Gypsy folk."

"That's good then." She said, "Every winter we'd get at least one Gypsy group outside out town, the more the larger the year end party they threw became." She said.

"Most places don't like the Gypsies." Adalade said, "Believe them to be bad luck."

"Whatever for?" Dawn looked a bit shocked.

"People can't understand how they live as a people travelling around in those wagons like that. Not very proper, no Gypsy towns, just caravans." He shrugged, "I personally prefer their company sometimes, they know how to throw a party."

Borrin just looked back at Adalade, "You would do well to remember the importance of what we're doing." He said to him.

"Of course!" Adalade said, "But you can't deny a man a good dance." He said in rebuttal. Borrin just grunted and ignored them again.

--

It had threatened to rain for two days, and one the third it did. Borrin seemed to ignore the rain, not having put on a cloak of any sort to keep it off him. Dawn hadpulled hers on and clasped it shut against the rain and the cold wind coming off the sea. Adalade had his cloak on but seemed less bothered by the wind than Dawn.

"I don't suppose it would be prudent to move a little further inland and just inside the tree line of the forest?" Adalade said to Borrin as the two men walked slowly, Dawn was beside Borrin on the inside of the road, away from the sea to the south.

"The road is easier to travel." Borrin said.

"But the trees cut the wind and rain down a bit." Adalade pointed out, "And our lady seems less accustomed to the elements of travel than you or I."

Borrin looked down at Dawn who was hunched a bit against the rain and had her cloak pulled tight, "Perhaps." He said, "Dawn, let us move to the tree line to the north a bit and see if we can get out of the wind."

Dawn looked up at him and just nodded. They cut across the fields beside the road, being sure to use one of the paths the farmers used and not to trample the crops growing there. It took them to lunch to reach the forest line and get inside the cover of trees. The heavy oaks provided a good amount of cover from the rain but not a lot. The wind was much less severe now that they were further inland, even if only by a few miles.

"I'm not sure I like being off the road." Borrin said.

"If we're going to get attacked they won't care where we are." Adalade whispered to him as they sat on a wey log. Dawn was eating some rations that Adalade had in his pack, "And here you're in your element more." He pointed out.

"True, but what about you?"

"I'm not much of a fighter," Adalade said, "The rapier is more for show than anything, I lose them more than I use them." He said with a smile.

Borrin only shook his head, "Very well."

"I hope we find the Avatar of Sun soon," Adalade said.

"I thought the Moon and Sun were opposites?"

"We are," Adalade pointed out, "He's the fighter, I'm the lover. Just because we're opposing pantheons doesn't mean we don't get along, somewhat."

"Very well then."

"What of you, what avatar's do you hope we run into next? Lady of the woods? Mother Earth?"

"It does not matter to me." He said. "The avatar of War, how do you know it will be a man?"

"How many women do you see running off to fight wars? They're much to sensible for that kind of thing. I'd imagine that my Brother would choose someone with great fighting prowess. A general or great fighter." He said matter of factly.

"I see." Borrin said, "Perhaps the Sun would do best to pick someone who understood the implications of war more than the techincalities."

"He's not subtle enough for that." Adalade said, "The Sun is anything but subtle."

"With this rain, we might encounter Sister Storm first." Borrin changed the subject slightly.

"Perhaps, perhaps. Or Sister wind if the summer chill keeps up."

They continued onwards through the day, the forest cover keeping some of the wind and rain off of them. They followed a sort of half trail along the forests edge, about two trees in from the fields to the south.

By nightfall they had bypassed a tiny hamlet to the south of them, Adalade said is had a tiny inn, at best they'd all have to get one room to share. Borrin seemed to have relaxed and prefered the forest. Dawn simply shook out her wet cloak and leaned against a tree.

"I'm fine with camping here." She said, not wanting to make the mile and a half trek to the hamlet.

Borrin gethered some firewood while Adalade set up a small fire pit. Wet ground was nice in that fires couldn't spread quickly, but it was a pain to get anything to burn. Borrin had returned with some mostly dry wood and then went off to find fresh meat for dinner. Adalade was left to get the fire going. Dawn had pushed aside some wet leaves to find damp ground. She sat down at the base of one of the large oaks and rested against it as she watched Adalade work.

Watching the two men quietly go about setting up a camp made her realize how little she knew about traveling in the wilderness. She'd been on caravan's and trips with her parents before, but there was always someone else to set up a fire. Most times the trade caravans had a special cart just for that purpose, the cook's cart. The two men knew exactly what to do, and how to do it and neither gave a thought to who did which job. Borrin was the hunter so he found the food, Adalade was not so he prepared the fire and made the camp ready. Once the fire pit was lined with a few rocks he found the logs lit he cleared out the campsite of the wet undergrowth leaving the damp and slightly muddy ground. He rolled a large log over to get some drier ground and lay a blanket onto it for sleeping.

"You sleep on the dry ground." He said, the rain had stopped by sunset leaving only the stray drop to fal from the trees above.

"What about you?" she asked.

"Borrin and I will use that ground," He pointed to a spot opposite the dry patch that was cleared of wet leaves, "We split the night watches so only one place to sleep is needed." He explained.

"Shouldn't I take a watch?" She asked.

Adalade shook his head, "I don't mean to be unfair, but you're hardly a warrior and you look new to this. When there are more of us share a watch and learn." He said.

"What do you think of Borrin?" Dawn asked.

Adalade looked at her, "He's a bit stuffy for me. But then we met in a city which is not his domain. Out here is his place." Adalade sat down in front of the small fire. "I would defer to his judgement out here."

"You trust him?"

"To an extent," Adalade said, "My years of experience say not to, but it's hard to deny what he and I are. We are cut of the same clothe so to speak. Gives him some credibility." Adalade leaned back against a poplar, "Besides, he knows the wilderness, I know the city. The key to a group travelling group is knowing who is strong in what areas and who is weaker."

"I'm afraid I'm not very good at much." Dawn said.

"I beg to differ, you can spot a good tavern from a bad one. That's no small matter after a week or more on the road. After a month any tavern sounds good, but a good tavern can be heavenly." He said.

"How old are you?" Dawn ventured.

"Old enough, I lost track. Maybe twenty six years." Adalade said absently, "Been a wandering mintrel for most my life, since I was about twelve I think."

"Oh."

Borrin returned with a pair of rabbits and a pair of squirrels, "Not much, but it is hard to hunt after a day of heavy rain and I avoided the larger game." He said sitting near Adalade after inspecting the layout. Dawn hadn't moved from her nook in the large tree, it provided a good deal of protection from the wind. "You should get out of that wet cloak." Borrin said as he skinned the small animals.

Dawn hesitated then slowly stood and removed the cloak, Adalade quickly got up and took it off her hands. He found a branch to hang it from and folded it over to drip dry. Dawn hugged her shoulders, she was still a bit cold.

"It will be a cold night." Borrin said handing one of the rabbits to Adalade who put it on a spit and started to roast it.

Adalade stepped towards the edge of the wood and looked up at the moon, "We'll have a full moon in a weeks time if we need to travel by night then." He said absently, "Watch over our sleep." He said in soft prayer to his deity and returned to the fire to turn the rabbit over and spit another.

They ate in silence, the food warmed Dawn up as she settled in on the blanket that Adalade had put down. Adalade constructed a taller frame to hang her cloak by the fire so it would dry and bit more over night, as long as it didn't start raining. Dawn watched the flames only a few feet from where she lay, she shivered slightly in the cold night, her clothes damp from the day and went into a deep sleep.

Borrin took first watch, waking Adalade who lay on the ground with no cover. Borrin had put on sleeves for his vest to guard against the cool night winds and lay down where Adalade was who took position to watch their camp for intruders. He added another log to the fire to keep it lit but low. The cloud had gone as the night progressed, he guessed they would have a warm day when the sun rose.

He looked down at the sleeping Dawn and watched her for a while. He was not what he expected, but the choice was not his to make. She was young, inexperienced and he could sense her reluctance. She seemed to go because she felt she had no choice, she had resigned herself to the situation. He frowned, she would have to take charge once the group got larger. He knew each avatar would have an agenda, he knew his was slightly selfish. He pushed the thought away, he knew what his Diety wanted of him, he knew what was needed of him from Dawn and he knew that the stakes at hand were larger than the agenda presented. He briefly wondered what Borrin's God given task was, whatever it was had to be of noble cause.

Morning came with only hard rations to eat and some hot coffee that Adalade claimed one couldn't get through the morning without. Dawn found the stuff bitter to the taste and only drank it when there was sugar or honey available. There were neither so she passed, Borrin drank a cup with Adalade, both men drank it black. And they started off for the day, which was already warm. The clouds had kept going west and passed by them by this time.

Dawn had rolled her still damp cloak up and attached it to her pack for the days march. Adalade and Borrin started off at a slow pace as Dawn seemed to drag a bit. She woke up cold, and even the heat of the day wasn't warming her much.

At midday they stopped by a well used spot, there was a caravan there heading west that shared the spot with them. The traders caravan gave them both stew for lunch and some supplies as Borrin traded them several cured rabbit skins in return. Adalade saw fit to play his lute for the gathered travelers during some of the meal. Dawn hadn't taken off her heavy shirt at all, still acting lie she was chilled.

As they set to leave Adalade noticed she hadn't eaten much either.

"Are you alright." He approached her as she slung his lute back over his shoulder.

"I'm fine." She said resolutely.

Borrin had snuck up beside her and placed a hand on her forehead, "Slight fever, the rain did you little good yesterday." He said, "You have chills?"

Dawn squared her shoulders, "I said I'm fine, we should go." She said moving off to the road to walk eastward again.

Borrin and Adalade looked at each other with a silent exchange of knowing. Both men nodded and caught up with her. She needed rest but neither man would force her into it.

They let her get a few paces ahead to talk quietly, "She's getting a bit of fever." Borrin said.

"The next town is almost a two days walk, if the weather stays warm we should make it with little trouble." Adalade said.

"She's not hardy enough for travel like this, perhaps we should pick up with a trade caravan going eastward." Borrin suggested.

"I like the idea, but I'm not so sure it's the best."

"We can't be prepared for much if she's sick."

"Perhaps if we take it to Jivvin Port." Adalade suggested, which was a decent sized town on a pennisula. It did little trade from the roads, but had a large river and good sized port. Mostly it was a stop over for the trade ships and not the land routes.

"Then what?"

"Take a ship across to Shallalee?"

"If the lady says we must go by land?"

"Then we're back where we started, but she needs rest." Adalade shrugged.

By evening Dawn's paced had slowed siginifcantly, her fever had grown gradually worse through the day though she wouldn't admit it. She shivered slightly by the fire as Borrin and Adalade prepared the campsite.

"Dawn," Adalade said, "Are you sure you're feeling alright?"

"I'm fine." She said with just the tiniest edge in her voice.

"I hope we find the Earth Mother next." Adalade sighed and leaned back against a flat stone while slowly turning the cooking quail with his foot.

"What does she do?" Dawn asked.

"She's a healer amongst other things. The Mother is possibly the greatest of all our kin. She is the land upon which we walk, the giver of life, the reason the moon and sun rise, watched over by the Sky in her silent strength." Borrin said as if reciting something.

Adalade nodded, "Quite possibly the strongest of the Old Gods to yet live." He pulled the roasting bird off the fire and cut it in half, handing the plate to Dawn, "Eat, you need the strength."

She took the half of the bird and nibbled at it as the other two men sat in silence. Adalade looking lazily at the clear sky and Borrin at the westward horizon.

Dawn woke the next day with a head cold, she felt miserable and could barely keep up with the two men as she dragged herself onwards. They slowed their pace to match hers, though she denied their requests to help her along. Adalade offered to carry her on his back, which she adamantly refused. She seemed determined to tough it out.

"Hard headed, determined," Borrin said.

"A bit too much so I think." Adalade said, a head of them they saw a train of wagons coming towards them, "Gypsies, what a fortuitous sight." He said.

"Oh? Looking for a party?"

"No," Adalade glared at Borrin, "Medicine. Most Gypsy trains have a medicine woman or two." He said.

"So you can think with the head on your shoulders." Borrin said.

Adalade ignored the comment. By midday the slow moving trio had managed to meet the oncoming train which stopped for their meal. Adalade approached one of the camp gaurds who was sipping some soup on the perimeter, "Excuse me," He said, "We don't mean to intrude but we're in need of some help." The guard looked passively at him. Adalade had made sure he was far enough away from Dawn and Borrin so she couldn't hear him, "Our lady is ill and requires something to clear her head and a fever." He said.

The guard looked past him and took some interest, The Gypsies rarely trusted the outsiders, less so in recent years it seemed. Especially within the Tyrissian Empire. But they weren't in the Empire, and none of the three appeared to be from it. "Stay here." He said in an accented Korinth, the most common trade language of the kingdoms in the area. He stood and went into the wagon circle off the road, another guard nearby watched Adalade closely. He returned shortly with a young woman.

She was vuluptuous and in Adalade's eyes gorgeous. She had fair skin, though it looked as if she spent plenty of time in the sun. The first thing he noticed was that her family mark on her arm was different from the guards, it was a sort of stylized Z. She was in her early, maybe mid, twenties with grey eyes.

"Who's sick?" She asked in a soft tone of Adalade, concern in her eyes.

"Our lady." Adalade said after taking a moment to regain his voice, he tried hard to forget his freewheeling days an focus on protecting Dawn.

"Bring her to me," She said, not wanting to leave the proximity of the camp.

Adalade looked over at where Borrin and Dawn sat. Dawn seemed tired and listless as Borrin got her to her feet and they came over.

Dawn was passive as the Gypsy girl touched her forhead and looked into her eyes. "A cold." The girl said, "Wait here I've got something for that."

She returned five minutes later with a mug of hot tea and a small pouch. "Drink this." She wrapped Dawn's hands around the warm mug who sipped the brew. She handed the pouch to Adalade, "Give her some twice a day, it should clear up in a few days." She said.

"I thank you, how can we repay the kindness?" Adalade said.

The girl eyed him, "No need," She looked at Dawn, "We all need help every now and then. Help another when they need it as payment." She started to walk back into the camp.

"Wait," Adalade caught her attention, "I didn't catch your name."

"No, you didn't." She said and turned to disappear inside the wagon circle.

Borrin only smiled as Adalade turned back to him.

"You can keep the mug." The guard said sitting back down on his stool and picking up his soup again.

"We thank you for your kindness." Borrin said, "May your family be well." The guard nodded in return.

The three of them went over to the log they had been using the on the noth side of the road and waiting for Dawn to finish her tea.

"This is good." She said softly as she sipped it, "I'm sorry." She looked at the ground.

"For?" Adalade looked down at her from where he stood near the roads edge.

"I should have listened to you, rested. I was foolish."

"You're young." Adalade shrugged, "Young people do foolish things, trust me. If letting a head cold get the better of you is the most foolish act you've committed recently then you're way ahead of me." He laughed.

Dawn smiled at the humor, "You two are very kind to me." She said and finished off the tea.

"We should keep moving." Borrin said, "Are you okay?"

"I think so, the tea acts fast, I feel better already."

"Well, let's move slowly and not overdo it." Adalade said helping Dawn to her feet. She merely nodded as they continued up the road.

She had another mug of tea with dinner and then fell into a peaceful rest for the night. Borrin and Adalade split the nightwatch the same as before.'

Adalade had made sure she had another mug of tea in the morning, she was still groggy from a head cold but her energy was up. It was another warm day and her fever had gone. She spent the day without her heavy shirt or cloak, enjoying hte sunlight on her face. They mostly traveled in silence.

They reached the next town with little incident. Both Adalade and Borrin insisted that a days rest would be the best idea, Dawn had little room to argue the point.

She ate heartily at the towns only tavern, the inn was a seperate building next door. She had one of the small rooms, Borrin and Adalade the other. Both men still slept in shifts, worried of another attack from some agent of evil. The Tavern served the food and most of the drink, but the inn had seen to put in a small bar for patrons only.

Currently the three of them were at a small but nice booth. Dawn was drinking another mug of the tea and seemed to be over the cold, quickest recovery Adalade had ever seen. He hid the remaining tea leaves in a pouch just in case. He and Borrin were drinking lightly, which didn't seem to bother the hunter but Adalade was wishing he could polish off the pitcher himself.

And olf man in dark traveling robes entered the inn's front room and after a brief talk with the innkeep and then made his way to the small bar.

Dawn sat with her mug in hand and watched the steam slowly rise from her tea. She was grateful for the day of rest but felt bad it was her that caused them to slow down. As she watched the steam rise she saw it shift unnaturally, focusing she slipped into a waking vision for mere moment.s

The steam had formed the symbol of the Mage Lord and then she saw an old man's face in it before she blinked and snapped out of the vision.

It was so sudden she jumped and looked around suddenly, both Adalade and Borrin caught that something was up and went on their gaurd. Dawn saw the old man sit down at a small round table near the middle of the room and order a drink from the waitress, who doubled as barkeep, maid and innkeeps daughter. Adalade had been warned by Borrin to stay away from her. Adalade complied on the grounds that Dawn needed rest and not trouble, though truth be told he was getting a bit anxious for a little fun.

"That's the Mage Lord." Dawn whispered to Adalade who sat next to her.

Adalade looked over at the old man, his features were well weathered, his hair and beard a deep grey color. He looked like he was used to the rigors of travel, though Adalade bet they were at a very slow pace. "Are you sure?"

"Yes, well, mostly." Dawn said, "Only one way to find out." She pushed to get Adalade to let her out of the booth. He looked at Borrin who looked at the old man then at Adalade and showed a small throwing dagger from his shirt sleeve. Adalade nodded and stood up, Dawn got out of the booth and approached the table, Adalade a few paces behind her and Borrin waiting at the booth.

"Excuse me sir." Dawn said approaching him.

He looked up at her with nothing but patience in his eyes. On his forehead he wore the mark of the Mage Lord, a vertical waved line with two symbols unknown to her in the curves of the line, one on either side. It was a very small tattoo compared to Borrin's and Adalade's, but it was of the same black color, almost as if it were burned into the skin.

Adalade knew it wasn't uncommon for the mages to tattoo themselves on the center of the forehead with the Mage Lord's holy symbol, they rarely thought of it in that context, the two symbol that it contained were knowledge and power in an ancient script used only by the mages guilds. He had his reservation about this being the actual avatar, he went along with Dawn, but stayed ready.

"Yes young lady?" He said in a rough voice, not unfriendly but not entirely friendly either.

"I was wondering if you," She paused suddenly self concious, "I'm looking for someone and you, um, look like them." She said biting her lower lip.

"Is that a fact?" He raised an eyebrow, "And who might this someone be?" He asked.

"That symbol, it is of the magelord?" Dawn asked tentatively.

"It is," The man glanced at Adalde who stood a few paces behind Dawn.

"I'm Dawn." She said holding out her hand in a gesture of friendship.

He looked at it and took her small hand in his long fingered one. Upon touch Dawn's vision was filled with white light, she saw his name carved in black letters against the light and she saw his power, complete and total.

Dawn gasped for air as he let go and fumbled backwards a step.

"Dawn!" Adalade stepped forward and put his arm around her shoulder, Borrin had stood behind them, at the ready.

The mage stood as well, his face full of concern for Dawn, "My lady." He said suddenly, "I am glad I've finally found you." He said in a bow.

Dawn regained her composure, "Orjunn." She said softly and shook her head, "Dawn will be fine please." She said.

Adalade and Borrin both relaxed as they realized they found the third avatar.

"I am Orjunn." The man said as they sat around the larger round table in the middle of the room, Borrin had brought their pitcher of ale over, "A mage of the sixth circle, and not as used to travel as I once was." He said with a bit of humor.

"I'm not used to travel at all." Dawn said with a hint of a smile, "I'm afraid I'm more trouble than I'm worth." She shrugged.

"No trouble at all." Adalade said quickly, "Everyone is new to something once." He consoled her.

"How many circles are there?" Dawn asked.

"Of mages, nine." Orjunn said, "Most rarely go beyond the eighth."

"I'd have expected the avatar to be higher." Adalade said.

Orjunn smiled, "I've a few skills left to master yet, I serve the Mage Lord and he grants knowledge to those who need it and those who seek it. I've a mastery of my magics like no other, but have not explored certain areas that prevent me from attaining a higher circle officially." He said, "The circles are really measurements of how much you've studied overall. I've seen third circle thermomancers best fifth circle generalist mages in combat with ease." He said. "I've focused a bit more on certain magics than most of my circle." He said.

Borrin was paying little attention to the conversation, Adalade and Dawn were listening closely.

They talked into the late night of several things, getting to know each other a bit more. Orjunn had left his studies when he received the call from the Mage Lord and travelled from his tower in southern Tyriss to find and join Dawn in her quest to rid the world of Tholoth. He hadn't believe in Gods until that time, the Mage Lord's mark being little more than a badge of honor and position. He knew something of the reason for the quest given to Dawn, her task was to gather the avatars together and locate the Ungod of Tyrissian mythology, the opposition to Tholoth, and kill it. From what he understood that would sever the link between the nine Dark Gods and Tholoth, whom they controlled to an extent. He knew little of the how and when of much though, his strength was not in divination.

He had a room of his own at the inn and retired to it as Dawn retired to hers.

"He's a bit stuffy I think." Adalade said to Borrin as they sat in their room.

"He is knowledgable." Borrin said.

Adalade shrugged, "You want first or second watch tonight?"

"I'll take first." He answered and went out into the hallway where he stood like a statue through half the night. Being a hunter he long sinced learned the patience of sitting still for hours on end, waiting for his prey. Adalade on the other hand couldn't stand still.

He made every effort to make little to no noise, but eventually he gave in to slowly pacing the short hallway, sitting on a stool and playing solitaire on the floor outside the door to Dawn's room.

As morning came and Borrin woke first Adalade went over the the taven to procure breakfast while the others got ready. Orjunn woke just after Adalade left and came out of his room to find Borrin waiting, they greeted each other and Borrin knocked on Dawn's door.

"I'm awake." She said opening the door and stepping into the hallway, "Where's Dale?"

"He's gone to get breakfast ready." Borrin said, "Are we leaving today?"

Dawn nodded as she walked down the hallway, "We should, I have a kind of bad feeling about this place at the moment, all I had were nightmares last night." She said as they left the inn and went next door to the tavern.

"Nightmares?" Adalde said around a mouthful of bread as they sat and ate, "Of what?"

"These, I don't know they looked like dogs but weren't. All black and they looked like they were made of smoke or something." She said.

"Shadow hounds." Borrin said grimly, "We would be wise to leave the village quickly and spare the populace their horror." He said.

"You've hunted them before?"

Borrin nodded, "It is no easy task to kill a Shadow hound, they walk the day and the places without shadow easily. By far one of the Shadow's most potent weapons. They fall easily to the right sound blast directed their way. But it is difficult to catch them witout the proper traps in place. They ignore all form of man made weapon, save iron." He nodded.

"I've a few magics that could harm them." Orjunn said, "It seems Fate has let me joing your group in the nick of time."

"It seems so." Adalade agreed, he wasn't liking the high amount of danger and fighting they were going to be getting into. He secretly kept hoping they would find the avatar of sun soon.

//01011 Darkness rising//

The four of them walked quickly eastward on a smaller road, one a little less traveled. It arced northward towards a tiny hamlet about half a days ride away. They hoped that be staying off the main traveled roads it would be both harder for the enemy to find them and less danger for the inhabitants of the lands.

A little after midday they reached the hamlet and stopped in horror of the scene. The small little town of maybe a dozen building clustered together, most of them single room homes, was in ruin. Bodies lay in the path that ran through the place. As they stared a large dog like beast came around a corner from one of the buildings and stared at them.

It's dark body looked to be made of smoke. Two more joined it from around the same corner. Three more from the opposite side of the lane.

The four of them stood facing six shadow hounds. Orjunn began to chant, Borrin drew a thick blade from his pack that he set on the ground, it's black dull sheen indicated it was made from iron. Adalade simply moved near Dawn and put himself between her and them.

They heard a rush of wind to one side and turned to see a seventh shadow hound bounding towards them, it's leap was suddenly cut short by a bolt of something that caught it in the head and pinned it's skull to the ground. It gave out a whimpering hiss and lay still. Their eyes followed up to the crest of the nearest hill where two figures stood. A large man with a staff and a small woman with a bow, she had already cocked another arrow and was slowly making her way down the hill towards the group. The man followed with her, staff in hand and at the ready.

Dawn got a flash in her head of three symbols, the Sisters of Wind and Storm and of Father Sky. She shook her head to clear the vision as Adalade put a hand out to support her.

Borrin crouched into a defensive position moving forward to prepare for the other six. Orjunn's hand were glowing with a blue green mage fire as he held his spell ready. The six beasts charged as one, their paws making a hissing noise like water on fire as they bounded outwards.

Orjunn's spell lashed out in a blot of light, Borrin suddenly lurched forward as the leader came at them and swiped with his blade as he rolled sideways. The woman let loose a hail of arrows at the beasts, never missing the mark, though not always connecting with a fatal shot.

The six shadows hounds lay dead, their bodies slowly dissolving in a thick greasy smoke from the iron and magic onslaught. Adalade and Dawn simply waiting, hoping for the best.

As they stood to inspect the surrounding area the woman started to recover some of her arrows. They were hard wood with iron heads and bands on them. Dawn saw the two symbols of the Sisters on the backs of her hands, the right hand had the blue white lightning bolt of Sister Storm and the left hand had the white disk with the grey waved lines of Sister Wind on it. They both glowed slightly, her power adding the strength needed to make the heavy iron arrows fly far and true.

The tall and large man was wearing a vest, on his right bicep was the half eye of Father Sky, the All Seeing. It glowed a fair blue.

"There are more," He said in a deep voice.

"How many?" Borrin asked, turning in all directions to look for them.

"A dozen." He said, he looked at Dawn, "I'm sorry we are late my lady, we epxected you to take the main road." He bowed his head in apology.

Adalade guessed they were both nomads from the great plains across the ocean to the south. They had traveled far to join Dawn in her quest.

Dawn looked at them, "Dawn, please." She had a bit of fear in her voice, "Can we outrun them?" She looked at Borrin and Adalade.

"I'm afraid I'm not good at running." Orjunn said, "But I have a different option, it will take a minute to prepare though." He said and started to chant.

The man marked as avatar to the Sky came to join the group, the woman followed him, her bow at the ready. "Make no offensive actions." He said and held his staff above his had, parallel to the ground and chanted in a low rhythm. With the two men chanting a cadence started up and the hairs on the back of Dawn's neck stood as latent magical energy in the air began to charge.

Within moment a dome with a rainbow tint to it, like a soap bubble, had formed around their small group and the man stopped chanting, though keeping his staff aloft.

Twelve more shadow hounds came bounding out of the hamlet at them, intent on attacking. Borrin and the woman readied their weapons but made no move to attack. The first of the beasts impacted the shield and bounced off, landing in the dirt a good ten yards from them.

Orjunn stopped chanting as the other eleven came to a sudden halt, realizing a barrier lay between them and their quarry. The circled and paced, as if knowing it had to come down eventually. They were tireless things from the Shadow World, time was on their side.

"Hold hands." He said to everyone, who put away weapons and picked up packs as they all grasped hands. Orjunn and the Sky Mage linked thier hands last, a nod of under standing between them. The staff came down quickly as Orjunn took his wrist to complete the circle. The beasts charged the second the staff started to come down, leaping into the air as Orjunn's spell completed itself.

The beasts impacted the empty ground in a loud hiss and looked confused. The largest of them sniffed the air and let out a horrible cry of rage, the twelve living shadow hounds sniffed the air around them and finding their target gone ran into the woods to take the shadows back home to their master.

--

The group appeared on a small road leading north and south, the smell of the sea was in the air around them.

They let go of each other and looked around, "We should be safe here." Orjunn said, "We are near one of the many ancient standing stones used by the Forgotten Race to move about the world as they saw fit without roads." He explained.

"Who are our new friends." Adalade said immediately turning to the man and woman.

"I am Shar, this is Milai." The man said. Milai merely bowed her head, "Milai is a silent stalker of the great fields. I am a Shaman Mage." He said.

"Silent stalker?" Dawn looked perplexed.

"They are warriors who have let the gods take their gift of speech in trade for other gifts needed to hunt the great plains." Adalade said, "I'd never imagine I would meet one in person." He smiled at the short woman.

She was a deep bronze color, almost a red, her hair was cut very short and her eyes were a deep brown. She had black paint under her eyes and wore animal leathers like Borrin did. Both were kindred hunters.

"I have met many, they are hunters of the highest regard." Borrin said, "The honor is mine to be in your presence Milai." He extended a hand in friendship.

Milai, who stood just over five feet, looked up at the great hunter and clasped his forearm in greeting. She bowed low when they released, to show the honor was hers to be with the avatar of the Hunt.

Orjunn sized up the massive Shar, "Are all Shaman of the plains as large as you?" He asked.

"No." Shar shook his head, "I was to be a great warrior, but I have the gift of Sight granted by the Father, so I am Shaman to my people." He said, "When the Great Father saw fit to give me the vision of our Lady's quest I was honored."

"Please, just call me Dawn." Dawn said with a slight blush.

"I don't mean to break the mood of a battle won," Adalade said. "But where exactly is this stone in relation to the rest of the world?"

"Deep inside the Tyrissian Empire." Orjunn said, "Likely they did not see us enter through the gate if anyone was watching, but using it again will surely attract attention, I had no time to choose my desitination so took the first one I found."

"Which way to the coast?" Dawn asked.

"South." Adalade said, "Tyris takes up most of the land north of the ocean."

"We should stay off the main roads until we leave Tyris." Borrin said.

"I can't agree more," Adalade nodded, "As good as an inn sounds the last thing I want is to attract the attention of the Church."

Dawn looked around the small road, to the east lay a light wooded area, the west was mostly open fields and rolling hills. "Use the woods as cover?" Dawn suggested.

"Better hunting as well." Borrin said, they trecked in a south east direction towards the wooded area. When they reached the thin forest of aspen and pine they followed its inside edge. Borrin and Milai went ahead to scout, silently moving along faster than the rest of the group. Traveling in the light woods was easy, though it wasn't quite dense enough to conceal them much. But it was better than the open road.

--

Two days later as the forest covered rolling hills, rocks became a little more common. They crested one hill where they say Borrin and Milai crouched against trees looking down. The waited halfway up the hill where the two hunters waited. Borrin came back down to them.

"A camp has been attacked on the other side." He said indicating the hill.

"Is anyone hurt?" Dawn asked with concern.

"Alive? No, it looks to be bandits, all the bodies were put into a funeral pyre days ago. We can get some supplies, but should move on quickly." He said.

"I don't know.." Dawn paused, "Can we just go around?"

"We'll go around," Adalade said, "Get whatever you think is needed." He said to Borrin as they went to the south, leaving the forest temporarily to go around the carnage in an effort to avoid it.

Borrin met them on the other side. They had walked deep into the night to get as far from the destroyed camp as possible. He slid into the camp they had made, Milai was out scouting.

"I collected some rations, and a few water skins." He said sitting by the fire.

"How long ago were the bandits attacked?" Shar asked.

"Several days." Borrin said, "Maybe a day before our arrival."

"Attacked by a Tyrissian contingent?" Adalade asked with apprehension.

"As far as I can tell there was only one attacker, and about twenty defenders."

"One?" Adalade said in disbelief.

"It is not impossible." Orjunn said, "If they ambushed the camp."

"I can't tell what state of preparedness they were in, but the attacker entered the camp proper to attack." Borrin said.

"We should hope we don't meet this attacker." Shar said grimly.

Adalade nodded, "Oh most definately."

It was then that Milai slid silently into camp and up to Shar, she used a series of hand gestures to communicate with him.

"Milai has found someone." He said, "She will show you." He looked at Borrin.

Borrin nodded and the two of the hunters slipped into the dark woods. They traveled westward into the woods, going deeper. Less than an hour of travel and they stopped, Milai pointed towards a tiny little camp fire with only one body at it. It was a smallish person, hunched low near the flames and covered in a cloak.

Borrin circled around one way and when he was opposite Milai who waited in the shadows he entered the firelight.

The young figure looked up suddenly and tried to back away, tripping on their cloak in the process and falling on their backs. They had a look of terror in the eyes. It was a young boy, a little younger than Dawn.

"What are you doing out here?" Borrin said, the boy had no weapons on him.

"Me?" The boy spoke, he was not native to the land, "Um, I'm.." He looked frantically around, "You're not with the demon right?" He said tentatively.

"Demon?" Borrin said crouching down in front of the fire, "No, I am with no demon." He looked at the fire, "Tell me of the demon."

"It was like a nightmare made real. It walked into the camp, drew black blades and just started killing." The boy shivered, "Flames came from her hands, her back flowed with a river of fire.." The boys voice trailed off.

"You were with the bandit camp?" Borrin looked at him.

"Kind of, I was using them to wait for someone, but that demon got there first."

"Waiting?" Borrin looked at him, "Have you any food?"

"No." The boy shook his head. "I ran from the camp, no supplies, haven't eaten in a few days except for a squirrel I got lucky and caught." He said.

"Come with me, our camp has space." Borrin said and put out the tiny little fire the boy had managed to start. Once the boys eyes adjusted to the darkness lit only by the half moon he saw another had joined them. The three of them walked eastward back to their main camp.

Borrin and Milai came into camp, between them was a young boy. Adalade was tending a small pot that Shar had produced, a stew was brewing. Dawn drank another cup of tea as she sat against a tree just within the fire's glow.

"You brought a friend for dinner." Adalade smiled, "Survivor?" He said looking at the boy.

"Yes," Borrin sat on a log, Milai sat cross legged near the boy who sank down into the glow of the warm fire.

"You have a name?" Dawn asked, she looked at him across the fire.

"Pivot." He said meekly looking at the assembled crowd. A giant man dressed in strange totems, a mage if the mark of his forehead meant anything, a peasant girl, what appeared to be a bard, the hunter next to him and the other woman. She was short, almost tiny, but had a strange quickness about her, she never spoke and was dressed in the same leather skins as the giant man, her hair was cut very short. She was possibly the most beautiful person he'd ever seen.

Dawn stared at him as he inspected the group, and slowly the symbol of the King of Thieves superimposed itself over his face in her minds eye. The black and white half smile half frowning mask of the Prankster. She blinked and shook the image out of her head. As soon as she focused back on Pivot is returned, superimposing itself over her vision.

Finally Dawn stood up and walked over to Pivot, he looked up at her as she stood over him, "I'm Dawn." She said putting her hand out as a friendly gesture.

Pivot stood, she noticed he was very short, just under five and a half feet, not much taller than Milai.

"Pivot." He said with a smiled that was both wicked and innocent. He took her hand in his and shook.

Immediately Dawn saw the circle of symbols in her mind. The King Of Thieves' symbol was outlined in a bright orange and faded to black as the figure behind it came to the foreground. It was Pivot behind the symbol. Dawn took a shaky step back as she snapped into the real world again as soon as Pivot let go of her hand. Adalade was already up and had an arm around her waste to prevent her from falling into the fire.

"Are you alright?" He asked her, eyeing Pivot suspiciously.

"I'm fine, I really hate those waking visions." She said blinking the sight out her mind.

Pivot looked up at her, "Waking vision?" His face was a question mark.

"I don't suppose you have a symbol of the Prankster anywhere on your body do you?" Dawn asked.

Pivot looked at her, the smiled, "I thought I recognized you." He said and pulled his cloak all the way off and pulled his shirt collar down. On the left side of his neck was the symbol of the King Of Thieves. It glowed with a slight orange red outline and faded to the dull black that the marks all had. "I'm glad I finally found you." He said.

"Welcome to the party." Adalade put out his hand. The tension in the group disappeared and the atmosphere became friendly. Because of what they were, and what was asked of them by their chosen patron there was an inherent trust built in.

Dawn went and sat back down against her spot by the tree, only three positions in her minds eye were still dark, leaving five of the Old Gods unaccounted for. She knew that they were not far behind from joining them. She tried to think which would have joined their power to make one avatar. The Sea Queen would surely be alone, as one of the unaligned. That left the Forest Maiden and the Lady of Harvest, The Sun God and Mother Earth. Would the forest and earth be as one? She tried to think how the pantheon had been drawn in the old days, it was always in circles of three. She shrugged, however they came didn't matter.

--

Dawn woke the next morning and looked over at the fire. Adalade was tending to it. Borrin and Milai were both missing, presumably hunting. Orjunn was snoring softly, Pivot lay curled by a log and Shar was so still he might have been mistaken for dead. A slow rise and fall of his chest told her otherwise. She sat up and rubbed the sleep out of her eyes.

"Morning." Adalade said softly, "Should we wake the others or let them sleep a bit?" He said.

"Let them sleep." Dawn said with a yawn and stretched. "Borrin and Milai are getting breakfast?"

"They got breakfast." Adalade pointed to Shar's small pot to the side, full of stew ready to be heated, "They're off looking around. They got curious as to who or what attacked that camp, want to make sure it's gone and doesn't bother us much." He said.

"Probably a good idea." Dawn remarked as Adalade finally got a good flame and hung the small pot over it to heat.

He had already heated some water and let a cup of the tea steep, "Here," He said handing the mug to Dawn.

"I feel fine."

"Drink." He said in mock authority, "It's done you good and let's keep on letting it do good." He said as she took the mug and sipped it.

"I've never tasted anything this good, or that worked as well." She remarked.

"Aye, I snuck a mug myself last night. It's one of the best tating tea's I've ever had." He say back, "Might almost make me a tea drinker if I could get a steady supply."

"Well, all we have to do is find that Gypsy caravan."

Adalade shrugged, "Will be harder said than done. The girl who gave me that wore a family tattoo that doesn't exist anymore. She may well be the last one who knows how to make it."

Dawn looked at him inquisitively.

"I don't know a lot about the Estavanni, as they call themselves. But I do know that every family has a unique tattoo that all, or almost all, their adult members get. Her's was of a family reportedly slaughtered several years ago. It was done inside Tyrissian borders by bandits. Only thing is, the bandits were all killed too."

"If everyone was killed then.."

"Not everyone was killed. From what I heard a great Estavanni warrior lived and protected some of their kin, while killing all the bandits. All except one, who played dead and when they left ran for his life."

"How did you hear about it?"

"I met the fellow, he's an opium addict now in a tiny little village. He sits at the tavern all day with this distant look in his eyes like he's seen hell. He described a great demon of fire laying waste, called up by the wrathful anger of the Estavanni wronged in the attack."

"Sounds far fetched to me."

"Just don't cross the Gypsies, they can lay a curse on you to make a God beg for mercy."

"Poppycock." Orjunn said from his position against a tree where he sat. He lit a long pipe, "Everyone knows the Gypsy Curse is just a myth used to scare small children."

"I'm tellin you, he was speaking truth." Adalade said.

"And how do you know?" Orjunn pointed the stem of his pipe at Adalade.

"I represent the God of Secrets, I know truth from fiction, most of the time." Adalade defended himself. Dawn had crept forward to stir the stew.

"Still," She said, "If this tea did come from someone from that family, they may well be the last to know what really happened."

"We're a bit far from that caravan now." Adalade said, "If only I remembered the story earlier, I could have verified it."

"I still say the curse is poppycock." Orjunn looked off towards the east.

"Perhaps," Adalade answered, "But something sure spooked this guy something good and he swears it was a fire demon summoned from the earth by the Gypsie's wrath." He shrugged.

"Rumor has it." Pivot said sitting up and stretching, "That an Estavanni warrior travels through Tyris with vengeance on their minds killing all bandits and Tyrissian nobles alike." He yawned.

"Oh?" Adalade had sudden interest in the story again.

"Yep," Pivot turned to face them and crossed his legs under, "The Black Blade they call him, or her depending on which drunk you pay attention to. They kill any noble unfortunate enough to cross their path as well as hunt down bandit's either singly or in groups."

"Why nobles?" Dawn asked getting out some bowls, noticing that Shar was awake and watching the conversation quietly.

"Rumor says it was a noble that hired the mercenaries to attack that Gypsy caravan Adalade spoke of." He said watching Dawn measure out the stew. He was still very hungry from two days running without food, and mostly running in circles if he was as close to the bandit camp as they said they were.

"Do the rumors say how many Gypsy survived?" Adalade took a bowl and passed it over to Shar, and the next to Orjunn.

"Two." Pivot took his own bowl and Adalade the next. Dawn served herself last and they started to eat.

"Just two?"

"The warrior and a girl." Pivot said between mouthfuls.

"So we did meet one of the survivors." Adalade said, "I'll have to track that caravan down again after we're done making everything right again." He said.

"And how do you propose to find them?" Orjunn pointed out.

"I saw their tattoo, recognized it even. Family Cooper." He smiled triumphantly. "I know they winter in the indepentdant lands to the west." He said, "Just have to find which town."

"Easier said than done, there are many towns in that area that the Estavanni winter in."

"I'll find them, I'll get that story." Adalade said matter of factly. "It's what I do as a bard."

They finished up their food, Pivot having a second helping, and packed up the camp. Shar made sure the fire was out and no longer smoking as they got up to set off for the day. Borrin had returned out of the forest as they got ready to move.

"Southward, there is a small town ahead, should we go into it or around?" He asked.

"Around." Dawn said, the rest agreed.

"Then stick to the woods, Milai and I will watch for intruders." He disappeared back into the dim light of the woods as they set out.

"Does Milai ever say anything?" Pivot asked Shar as they traveled along.

"No, she is a Silent Stalker." He answered.

"What's that?" Pivot asked, the people of the southern contient were a mystery to him.

"She is a great hunter of our people. The greatest are chosen by the All Seeing Father to be given a gift. In exchange for the gift they give up the ability to speak with words. Instead they have their own language of hand symbols."

"What's the gift?" Pivot asked, full of curiosity.

"It is different for every stalker. In Milai's case she was give great speed and strength. Like that of the plains cats. In your tongue her name means Great Lion."

"Oh." Pivot said, "Um, can anyone learn the hand language?"

"Anyone who takes the time and whom the stalkers are willing to teach." He said.

"How do I ask her?"

Shar laughed, "She can hear just fine." He said, "Are you interested in her?" He looked down at the much shorter boy.

"I, well," He looked up at the massive mountain of Shar's body, "I was, but if you're.."

Shar shook his head, "I am merely a good friend of hers, there is nothing between us." He said.

Pivot had a slight look of relief in his eyes and his shoulders visibly relaxed. "Yeah, I knew that." He said with a wave of his hand, trying to play it cool. "So, you guys traveled pretty far." He said.

"We have."

"All to save everything."

"It is a worthy cause."

"Oh, I know." Pivot said, "But you know, can we even stop it all?"

"I believe so, if you don't why are you here?"

Pivot looked up at him, "Because it never hurt to try," He said, "And, I really didn'y have anything else going for me." He shrugged.

As the day wore on Dawn kept getting little tugs at her mind, like something was trying to tell her something. She pushed it off for a while, then gave it. She stopped, "We have to go to that town." She said. "This way." She said pointing to the fields.

"Are you sure?" Adalade said, "We may not be welcome in Tyris is they find out who we are." He said, "There's dark Gods trying to kill us you know."

"It hasn't been anything we can't handle." Orjunn said.

"Tell that to the little village that was killed because of us." Adalade said to him.

"Look," Dawn stepped between them, "I don't like it any more than anyone else. Probably less. But we need to go to that small camp fire of there." She pointed to a thin line of smoke coming over a hill.

Borrin was following them from behind for a while, when they stoppe he circled around, and met up Milai who had been shadowing them from deeper inside the woods. The two hunters had a wordless kind of communication, a base form of conveying ideas with a look and slight motion. Milai found she didn't need her sign language with Borrin, the Lord of Hunters knew how to communicate with her through eye contact, not exactly thoughts, but feelings and basic ideas.

She nodded as his eyes motioned to the group then a little in front of them, she went one way, he the other. They circled to the edge of the woods and looked out at the fields to find nothing, the group had simply stopped and was arguing amongst themselves.

Borrin and Milai completed the circuit and slid up to the group from the shadows. Pivot nearly jumped when the two of them seemed to materialize out of thin air as they walked out of the woods, his little yell drew the attention of everyone else who turned to see what was going on.

"Borrin," Dawn said, "We need to go to where that campfire is." She pointed to the thin line of smoke.

Borrin looked at it, they were a good distance from the smoke, the line was a bit heavy for a camp, "Milai, run ahead and scout that, we will follow." Was all he said.

Milai nodded and she took off and a run. For her it was a slow run, a bit above a good jog. For most men it was very close to a sprint, her unnatural speed carrying her far and fast over the ground. She crest several hills, her small body barely noticed as she used shadows, rocks and the occasional tree as a bit of cover.

The others set off towards the destination. Dawn had a sense of urgency about her and was half in a jog already, the other simply walked behind her at a slightly faster pace than before. They knew the importance of trying not to do a forced march if possible, Dawn was still too new to travel by foot to get what that would do to her stanima.

As they moved closer they met Milai who had already gone out and come back in the space of a little over an hour. She crouched low on a hill next to a tree with low hanging branches looking towards the fire once she saw them approaching.

Borrin crested the hill first and knelt next to her, the others waited just below the crestline.

They saw a small farmstead of maybe half a dozen buildings, several of them were on fire and there was commotion amidst the burning buildings. Most of the creatures moving weren't human, or at least they didn't look that way from this distance. Several the creatures appeared to be armored men, possibly. They were a bit over a half mile out.

"Can you see that far?" Borrin asked Milai.

She shook her head, indicating her vision was no better than his, she looked back down the hill at the group, Borrin followed her gaze to Shar. She went down and talked with him, he watcher her hands and frowned then closed his eyes and chanted in a very soft tone.

She went back to the crest of the hill and watched the farmstead with Borrin while Shar used the Sight Of Birds. "Shar is using the gift of the Father I assume." He said to Milai who nodded.

Shar opened his eyes after a few moments, "Several farmers and what appears to be a noble lady from the Southern Kingdoms are being attacked." He said to the group, "The farmstead is just under a half mile from us."

"What are we waiting for, we have to help them." Dawn said going up the hill.

"Wait." Adalade caught her shoulder, "What are they being attacked by?"

"Goblins of various races, and other monsters." Shar said.

"Are we going to be able to help anyone? Or will we just rush to our deaths?" He asked.

"We won't know until we try." Dawn said, "And I'm helping them." She shook free of his grasp and ran up the hill past Borrin to see for herself. The others just followed her as she stopped briefly then ran on.

Adalade reached the top "I do believe we have a full fledged heroine on our hands." He smirked.

"Would you expect less?" Borrin asked, Milai had already run off to match Dawn's pace, drawing and stringing her bow. She had precious few arrows but they were the heavy iron lined ones designed to be recovered. She could usually use an arrow two to three times before the shaft broke.

Adalade simply shrugged and ran after them. Borrin and the others followed closely behind. Borrin quickly caught up to Dawn and Milai ran ahead to assist first. The others lagged behind somewhat. Orjunn not used to such activity, Pivot having short legs and Adalade was no runner himself. Shar, used to the plains was having little problem. Orjunn finally stopped about a third of the way there and caught his breath. Pivot came up short as well panting. Dawn showed no sign of relenting her pace, though it could be seen she was slowing due to fatgiue. Borrin stopped her.

"Dawn, you will be in no condition to fight if you keep this pace up." He said, "Here," He handed her a long thin knife, "Take this if you wish to join that fray, I will help Milai until everyone arrives, we should be able to hold them off." He said and then took off running.

Dawn caught her breath and looked down at the long blade in her hand, she hadn't actually thought ahead to the point of fighting. She just realized that the blade was nescessary. She had little idea on how to use it. Adalade caught up and stopped, panting.

"Dawn," He said bent over and breathing heavily, "Do you have any idea on how to use that thing?" He asked.

"No." She shook her head, "But I have to try." She started at a walking pace to the farmstead.

"Wait." Adalade walked with her, "You can't just run off into battle with no idea on what to do."

She looked at him, "And what would you have me do? Go around? Look on as they are killed?" She spat.

"No," He said, "How about you at least hold it like a weapon." He said and took her hand, "Like this." He positioned the blade so it's sharp edge pointed outwards and the top down. "You can slash and stab that way." He said showing her the motions as they walked.

"Thank you."

"Right," He said, "I'm sticking next to you, no need to go get yourself killed here." He smirked.

Suddenly there was a gust of wind above them as Orjunn came to a halt in the air, "Need a ride?" He smiled, Pivot and Shar came up to a halt next to him.

"This is so cool!!" Pivot shouted.

Adalade and Dawn stopped and looked up at them.

"What good is a mage without nifty spells." Orjunn smiled and pointed his open palm at them. A blue light engulfed them both and they lifted into the air, "Just thinkg of going forward and you will." He said and went off.

Adalade had been under a Fly Spell before and took Dawn's hand, "I'll guide." He said and rushed foward. The five of them went with the wind as they approached the farmstead.

They came upon Borrin on the ouskirts, he had two dead North Goblins dead around him and two more attacking. They landed in a puff of air and shar immediately cold cocked one with his iron staff. Pivot pulled out a small throwing dagger and caught the other in the leg as Borrin lashed out with a pair of daggers. The piglike creature fell with a gurgle as its throat was slashed.

"Where's Milai?" Shar asked.

"There." Borrin pointed to the middle of the circle of buildings. She was standing next to the well with two other figures. One was dressed in greens and browns, a slim blonde woman weilding a pair of long daggers similar to Borrin. The other was tall with chesnut hair, dressed in the manner of a noble woman from the Southern Kingdoms, practical and armored as a traveler, but still wearing silk and jewelry. She weilded no weapons but one hand was extended with a red glow to it, she had magical training. Milai stood with her bow ready. The three women were back to back in a protective circle as several goblinoids circled them. There could also be seen Shadow Hounds and other creatures of the dark.

A thing in the shape of a human whose head was much too large had a mouth lined with sharp needle like teeth and no eyes that they could see. Its black arms ended in sharp white claws like knives. It stalked slowly towards them as if relishing the hunt before the pounce.

The group of six now cut their way into the middle, attacking the goblinoids from the rear, they closed the gap to the women and formed a larger circle. Adalade pushed Dawn into the middle who protested slightly and gripped her knife.

"Now what?" Adalade said sarcastically. Suddenly there were a lot more creatures than could be previously seen. They had been waiting for them.

Dawn looked at the other two women whose rescue they came to. The blonde woman was sleeveless, she had intricate tattoos wrapping around her upper arms in knotted designs, the back of her forearms each bore a symbol of a God, the left was the Lady of Harvest and the right the Lady of the Forest, she dress indicated she was trained well in the ways of the woods. The noble woman had a small cresting wave design marked on her cheek, the symbol of the Sea Queen. Dawn sighed as her minds eye indicated that she had found two of the last three avatars she was to look for and gather. The eight avatars closed the circle a little and prepared for battle.

"I'm not sure we're going to live long." Adalade said, "If I am to die I would like to know the names of the two ladies whose name I shall die in." He said, rapier at the ready.

"Caily." The blonde said, "And who said we were going to die?" She shot him a look out of the corner of her eye. "I serve the Lady Elizza." She said, who had a spell at hte ready and any speach but the trigger word would break it.

"Glad to meet." Adalade said, "Any plans on how to get out of this mess?"

The two of them were facing down one of the openings between the buildings.

"That." Caily inidicated towards a dark cloaked figure coming down at them.

"Isn't that an enemy?" He asked.

"I watched that slaughter a band of brigands several days ago, who ever it is weilds great power." She said.

The group took a moment to steal a glance at what Adalade and Caily were talking about.

Dawn suddenly grew dizzy as a wave of power overcame her. Her head spinned as she saw both the real world and a dreaming vision at once. She fell to her knees gasping for air. The twelve symbols of the Old Gods spun madly in her mindseye whirling into a rainbow colored light and then stopped. They formed sets of three, some with connecting lines to make circles, others formed triangular shapes. Her companions faces could be seen, the last one now came into view. A tall woman with black hair and coal black eyes emerged. She stood with both the symbols of the Sun and Earth. Her features were soft, she seemed both caring and utterly dangerous in her stance.

"Dawn!" Adalade said breaking the circle to kneel by her side as she knelt on the ground, hugging herself with eyes shut tight. The harder she tried to seperate the visions the more than solidified inside her waking dream.

The dark creature of nightmares with the knives for claws and hundreds of razors for teeth shrieked loudly as the dark clad figure emerged into the center area and stopped. Borrin looked at them hard, there was something about this person that became familiar to him, and an uneasy feeling crept up his spine, the hairs on the back of his neck stood out.

A black glove came out from under the cloak and undid the clasp, the next motion was a blur. Her left arm came out, a small crossbow on her forearm, and pointed at the walking nightmare, the cloak fell away to the ground as she did so, the bolt loosed itself turning into a missile of pure white fire as it hurtled through the air.

The nightmare beast roared loudly as a sign to attack and then stopped short. The bolt of flame stuck out of its chest. It reared back in pain as the fire spread across its body. The hoards surrounding the group stopped for just a second, letting a second bolt impact the nightmare that lead them. It fell to the ground.

The group stared at the nightmare then at the woman. She wore a garment that covered her from neck downwards, but had no back to it, letting the symbol of the War God be seen on her back. It covered almost it's entirety and seemed to flow with lava as if alive. She wore leather pants, the right leg wrapped in a bandalier that carried a host of very small bolts for her wrist crossbow, the left leg held a sheeth for a slim knife made from a black shiny metal, something other than iron. She wore heavy black boots that came just below her knee. She cocked another bolt into the crossbow and drew the dagger.

She looked directly at the group, "Fight." Her voice was soft and commanding at once. A shadow hound launched itself from the roof above her head, she spun hard bringing one leg up in a roundhouse kick that caught the shadow beast to the side of the head as her leg completed the arc. Stunned it flew to the side and rolled to a stop on the ground. Shadow hounds were incorporeal to everything but iron, it was stunned into nonaction by the mere fact that it was even hit, though the damage was negligable.

Milai did not hesitate, she brought her bow around quickly and put an iron arrow into the creature, peircing its neck on the side, it whelped with a hiss and fell to the ground. She cocked another arrow, looking for more of the shadow hounds, letting the others tend to creatures of a more mundane kind.

The Goblin horde charged with a blood curdling scream and surrounded them. The woman cut through them easily, her motions and attacks blindling violent and fast, she never hesitated, always moving. Her entire attack was one long motion as she spun, rolled and stepped through the mass of creatures. The others followed suit. Orjunn and Elizza stayed near the well loosing bolts of magic at the enemy, they stated close to Dawn who had finally passed out from the strength of the visions. Adalade held onto her, having picked up the dagger she dropped in case anything actually got close to them. Caily's two weapon style easily sliced through goblin's of every size from small little lizard like things to the large pig like ones. Milai stalked and hunted down the shadow hounds as Borrin and Pivot went with her to fend off the goblins. Shar stood near the well, moving to fend off the enemy from whichever direction one of the mages wasn't currently facing as they prepared and fired off their magic.

It was near twenty minutes of intense battle later that the remaining goblins were routed into the wilderness, the last shadow hound fell to Milai's bow as it tried to charge down Dawn and Adalade.

They gathered back to the well slowly, keeping an eye out for any stragglers that might try and attack them if they put their guard down. Milai collected as many of her iron arrows as she could, several were broken from eithera miss or a back strike angle. She was down to precious few and would have to find a place to forge more soon. Especially if they kept sending the shadows hounds after them.

The nightmare beast was little more than a smoldering pile of bleached bones at this point, the two bolts on the ground and charred themselves. The woman in black walked up to them and looked down at Dawn.

"Is she hurt?" Her voice was soft concern, gone was the commanding nature they had first heard.

Adalade looked up at her eyes and had to blink once to refocus, "She fainted." was all he said.

The woman crouched down and removed a glove, the others watched carefully as she reached out and put a hand on Dawn's brow. "She has a slight fever." She said standing back up. The mark on her back had stopped moving as flowing lava and went to an inert black as she stood back up. The others could see it was actually two symbols in one, both the War God and the Earth Mother, "She'll need some rest. There's a town not to far from here, we should put up at the inn and let her sleep the fever off. How long has she had it?"

"Several days." Borrin said.

"And you didn't let her rest?" The woman looked at him hard.

"She wouldn't let us stop." Adalade said.

The woman smirked, "Sometimes the children need to be told what to do." She sighed and went over to pick up her cloak.

"Do we get the pleasure of your name?" The woman mage, Elizza, said. Caily stood near her, hands on her now sheathed blades.

"Nina." the woman said picking her cloak up. "You are Elizza, your attendant and guard is Caily" She looked down, "You are Adalade I assume, Pivot," She pointed at the boy, "Milai, Shar, Orjunn and.." She looked at the hunter, "Borrin," she paused, "We've met before." She more asked than said it.

Borrin looked at her and nodded, "Once, a long time ago." He said, "You were known as the Burning Witch then." He said.

She nodded, "Ah yes, I remember, the day I walked out of the desert I saw you, you had hunted me for a long time hadn't you?"

"I had." He nodded, "But it turned out you were not my prey." He said.

She shrugged, "We had better get her to a bed, she needs medicine."

"What about the farmers here?" Orjunn asked.

Nina looked around, "A funeral pyre." She said, "I'll make it and catch up."

"We'll all help." Shar said, "This was a trap, now that we are finally together it would be unwise to seperate."

Nina looked up at him, "Perhaps." She said, "You gather the wood, I'll gather the farmers." She said and walked off towards one of the main houses. The others looked at each other, she had an authority to her voice that none could find the will to disobey.

"Well, she's definately Mother." Adalade said sarcastically, "I hope it's not rude of me to make sure nothing happens to Dawn here." He said not standing up.

The others started to move off, Caily motioned for Elizza to stay with Adalade and went off with Orjunn to gather some wood to make the funeral pyre with.

"You're not helping?" Adalade looked up at Elizza.

Her armor looked partially useful, a banded leather coat with shoulder guards and no sleeves. Underneath she wore expensive silks. Her legs had similar armor on them, though only on the thighs, even her loose pants were made of silk, they were tucked into soft leather boots with hard soles. She had no weapons on her, "Despite my status as an avatar Caily insists on treating me like nobility." She sighed.

"Aren't you?"

"I'm merely one of five sisters, daughter to the King of Julai."

"One of the largest Southern Kingdoms," Adalade said, "You're a princess. You're royalty." He said, adjusting his position so Dawn's head was in his lap and his leg wasn't falling asleep anymore.

"Circumstance of birth." She said, "I studied magics so I could be locked up in a tower and not a castle married to some prince or king." She said, "I'd rather be a mage than a queen."

"I don't suppose your father approves does he?"

"I have four older sisters, chances are he'd have run out of places to marry me off to, I did him a favor." She said.

The others returned shortly with some wood, Nina came out of the first house with two bodies in her arms. She placed them on the ground and then went off back to the house. Milai and Caily had found some of the farmhands in the barn, killed, they brought those bodies out while Nina finished gathering the others from the main house.

They watched the blaze for a while after lighting it, each silently giving a prayer to the departed, and apology for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Then they started off towards the town, Dawn still unconcious as Borrin carried her.

//01100 The Completed Circle//

"They say there's no room in the inn." Adalade said coming back out to where they all stood.

"We only need the one room." Nina said, "One of us will stay the others can camp right outside town."

"I already tried that," He answered, "The guy doesn't like us, or maybe just me."

Elizza stepped forward, "I'll get a room, royal titles have to be good for something." She said and marched in, Caily in tow.

Pivot smiled at that, Orjunn only shook his head a little.

"Excuse me." Elizza summoned up her haughtiest voice. "My attendant says you have no more room available." She stared the merchant down. Her brown eyes were peircing.

"I'm sorry M'lady." He said sheepishly, he'd dealt with royal people before and never did like it, and by the expensive looking clothes he was now dealing with nobility of some kind. Especially if all the people outside his inn were her persnal guard.

"One of my attendants is sick and needs rest." She said, "You will be compensated." Her mouth was a thing line, her eyes hard. Caily stood by her, eyeing the room and the innkeep. It was the kind of inn common to the area, with a common room that acted as the town's tavern.

"I may have one room left." He said quickly, "Give me a short time to ready it." He looked over at his barmaid who just rolled her eyes and went off to prepare a room. Most of the rooms were empty so she just went to the back half of the building to pretend to ready a room.

Elizza reached into a pouch by her side and pulled out several gold coins, she placed them on the counter, "I assume that will cover everything?" She knew the common coin of the area was silver or bronze. "No change requested." She answered.

The innkeep merely nodded and they waited for the barmaid to return several minutes later, "Number five." She said dispassionately and went back to her seat near the bar.

Elizza and Caily left the inn and went outside, "Number five she said, I will stay with Dawn." She announced, still using her voice of authority. "Caily go with the others." She said. Caily looked as if she were going to protest.

"I have to stay as well." Nina said, "I'll make sure nothing happens to your lady Caily." She took Dawn from Borrin and walked into the inn.

Elizza followed shortly after and the two of them took Dawn to the back room labeled with a bent horseshoe into the shape of a five. Nina lay Dawn on the bed. She pulled off Dawn's travelling boots and opened her shirt to allow some cool air to circulate over her skin.

"You're Tyrissian noble aren't you?" Elizza stood to one side out of Nina's way.

"Was." Nina said briskly and removed her cloak. "I need to gather some medicines and retrieve my things from my camp." She said, "Stay with Dawn."

"I'll not leave this room,"

"Would you like me to have Caily come back while I'm out?"

Elizza shook her head, "No, bless the girl but she is a bit overprotective. I'm more than capable of fending off intruders long enough for help to arrive." She said. Nina just smiled and left.

She tracked back to her last camp to retrieve her things. She picked up a pack she'd stashed in the crook of a tree containing all her belongings, mostly medicines and plants of various kinds. She'd learned how to cure things quickly and on the go over the last several years of travelling alone.

She stopped as she was about to go back to the town and looked over towards on of the medium sized trees. "You can come out now." She said slowly, tightening her fist with the crossbow getting it ready to fire a bolt.

Adalade stepped out from behind the tree, "Sorry, but I had to see where you went." He said

Nina lowered her arm and walked onwards. Adalade quickly caught up.

"I wasn't expecting the Mother and War to be in the same avatar." He tried to strike up small talk.

"Neither was I." She said.

"That mark on your arm, it shows you as Gypsy, but you look Tyrissian to me." He said.

She looked at him as they walked quickly back, dark was approaching soon. "I am Estavanni." She said, "What I was born and what I am are not the same."

"I see." He decided that line of questioning was not a smart way to go. He found her to be intensely beautiful, more so than any woman he'd ever met. Her mysterious nature only managed to add to his fascination and her allure. "So, you, um... killed those bandits?"

She nodded, "I did."

"Any particular reason?"

"They were bandits." She said, "Are you going to continue to ask stupid questions?"

"I..." He stopped, "I'm just trying to make small talk." He said.

She smiled and cocked her head to look at him, "Fair enough. Any question you ask me, you have to answer first." She said, the sun started to set low as they walked quickly back towards town.

Adalade sighed, "I can do that." He said with some resignation.

"You were born Tyrissian Noble weren't you?" He asked.

She looked at him.

"Right," He rolled his eyes, "I was born to a cartwright's daughter. A bard passed through town, had a night and left. That leaves me. The whole family business wasn't my style so I took after my father." He shrugged.

"I was born to the Olund Family of Tyris-Minoi. I was a noblewoman in every sense of the word. Set to marry a Mettal nobleman I did so and loved my husband as I should. I bore a son to him and was happy with my life." She said, "And one night he was killed in an attack, in my grief I lashed out and killed many people, some women and children." She stopped talking, Adalade waited for several minutes to see if she would continue.

"How did you get from there to here? Are you fugitive?" He ventured.

"No, I believe the empire as a whole believes me to be dead." She said, "I wandered the burning wastes of the Bedouii for a thousand days, and after that was taken in by the Estavanni and they are my people and my family now." She finished.

"What's your favorite color?" He asked on impulse. "Green." He said quickly afterwards.

"Why pick one? I choose as many colors as is fit for the occasion. I like reds and yellows." She shrugged.

"How did you know everyone's name?" She looked sideways at him, "I learned them as we met up.

"I'd been following you for a day, I'd slept outside your camp last night." She said.

"How in the nine hells did you get past Borrin and Milai?!" He exclaimed.

"I'm the Earth Mother." She said, "And they forgot to check the trees." She said. "Milai is of the plains, not many trees out there, Borrin had a simply oversight I think. He is a dangerous man, I would hate to be one of his enemies."

"You're the most dangerous I'd wager." Adalade said mostly to himself.

"Why? Because I'm the avatar of war?"

"Well, it makes sense."

"Depends on what you call dangerous. In a one on one fight I could triumph over almost any foe. There's plenty of things out there bigger than me." She said.

"Like what?"

"That nightmare thing, if one catches me by surprise I would be a bit of trouble." She said. They crested a hill that overlooked that won, "Conversations over." She said, "Towns have ears." She walked in silence.

"I, uh, should get back to the others." He said. She only nodded as he diverted his path away from her towards the camp they had made outside of town.

Nina entered the inn under the suspicious looks of several locals, she was still dressed as an obvious warrior, though she had removed the wrist cross bow and put it in her pack. Her movements indicated nothing but imminent danger of some kind. She simply went to the back rooms and knocked on the door. "It's Nina." She said as she opened the door.

Elizza sat by the window, she had removed her armor and set it on the table. Dawn still lay on the bed, though under the covers. Her clothes were folded neatly next to Elizza's armor. A fire had been started in the small fireplace, warming the room. "I was getting worried." Elizza said standing up, "Tell me what I can do to help."

"Heat some water." Nina put her pack down and started to rummage in it. She pulled out a hard leather case divided into several small compartments. She opened a few removing some herbs from each. Elizza had taken the small kettle Nina handed her and filled it with the pitcher by the bedside.

"You're a healer?" Elizza asked as Nina placed the herbs into a small clothes contained inside a small metal ball.

She dropped it into the heating water, "I am." She said removing her armor for the day, "I was the healer for my Family."

"They didn't hire one?" Elizza looked puzzled.

Nina smiled, "No, my Estavanni Family."

"Ah yes, the Gypsy Caravans that we get rumors of, not unlike the Plains Nomads." She said.

Nina nodded, "Though that word, Gypsy, it's more of an insult used by outsiders."

"My deepest apologies, it seems the relationship in the north with the nomadic peoples is not the same as in the south."

"Oh?"

"They are one people, we are another. No one is greater or lesser." She said.

"I see, sounds like a nice relationship."

"Ideals are one thing, sometimes the friendship breaks down." Elizza shrugged.

"Like everywhere." Nina responded sitting on the edge of the bed and checking Dawn's forehead.

"Do all, Ehstavvani, dressed as warriors like yourself?"

"No," Nina shook her head, "Just me. I'm somewhat unique amongst my people."

"Are black eyes common amongst the Ehstavvani?"

Nina looked at her sideways, "No." she said, her voice had gone just a little cold.

"I am sorry, I do not mean to offend, but I've only recently come north and know little of your cultures." Elizza apologized.

Nina shook her head, "No, it's fine. I should apologize. The eyes are a trait unique to Tyrissian's. Partiuclarly those with noble blood." She said.

"So you are a noblewoman of Tyriss as well?" Elizza looked a bit confused.

"It is a very long story, I was born to a noble family but have since traded that for the Estavanni Family." She explained.

"I understand," Elizza said, "I traded much of my rights to title by joining the magequilds." She said.

"By choice?" Nina looked at her.

"More or less, the other choices were less appealing on the whole."

Nina stood and checked the tea, it was brewing slowly.

"All in all, I believe forgoing my title was for the best." Elizza said.

"The tea is almost ready." Nina said, "So, how does Caily fit into your background?"

Elizza smiled, "She was one of my father's huntmasters, a gentle woman in most cases. She is young for such a role, when my father learned of my wish to join the Mageguild he sent Caily with me as my guard."

"I see."

"We've been together for many years now." Elizza said, "I don't know what I would do without her."

Nina studied Elizza for a moment then picked up a mug, "You are more than friends." She said.

Elizza looked at her, "We are." She said cautiously.

"I'm the Earth Mother incarnate." Nina said, "I know these things." She brought the tea to Dawn and placed the cup on the bed next to her, "Mostly this is for the aroma." Nina said, the scent in the room was fairly strong. She took a clothe from her bag and wet it in with water from the tea pot, she placed the warm rag across Dawn's brow and pulled the covers so they came just below her shoudlers.

"Do you know what it is we are looking for?"

Nina went to the window and leaned against the sill, "We're looking to kill the Ungod. The Tyrissian representation of evil." She said, "I know it is the key to thwarting the plans of the Nine in Darkness."

"She is the key to killing it? She is no warrior." Elizza said.

"No, she is the reason we gather, she is the one who will find what we seek." Nina said.

"You have anyone in your life?" Elizza switched the conversation again.

"No." Nina said. "Not anymore."

"Adalade seems to show a liking to you." Elizza ventured.

"Oh?"

"You can tell by the way he looks at you."

"He is little more than a boy." Nina countered.

"You and I, we are not so far apart in age. Caily is close to Adalade in age, there is little difference in the situations."

"Oh, but there is." Nina said.

"Perhaps a little."

"Perhaps a lot. Caily at least isn't halfway into the next relationship when she begins the first." Nina said, "Like most men of his nature.

"And what nature would that be?"

"He's a bard, never trust wandering men."

"You are of a nomadic people."

"Different kind of wandering." Nina pointed out.

"Perhaps, still, give him a chance." Elizza said.

"Aren't I supposed to be the wise Earth Mother herr?"

"I am Queen of the See," Elizza shrugged, "I have my own children to care for." She countered.

"When you were small, did you ever think you would be chosen in this way?" Nina looked back out the window and up at the moon.

"No, I don't think any of us did. Our minds are unclouded by religious doctrine, we know only what we are."

"We are our souls, and our souls are our fate." Nina said. "We should sleep some, I hope the accomdations aren't to bad."

"I've slept in worse places." Elizza said, "One of us should stay awake." Elizza stood. She chanted a few words softly and spread her hands out in front of her, at waist height a shimmering blue platform appeared, but the size of a bed. "We can sleep on this." She said pushing it into a corner so it ran along the wall under the window, Nina had gotten out of her way.

"You want first watch or second?"

"First if you don't mind, I am a bit tired from the day." She said.

"Don't mind at all." Nina said, Elizza lay down on the magical bedding, crossed her arms and closed her eyes. She fell into an easy sleep.

Nina studied her in her sleep, and studied Dawn for a while. She sat in the chair and poured herself some of the tea from the hot pot. She drank it slowly and thought over Elizza's word regarind Adalade.

She woke Elizza with a gentle shake about five hours before sunrise.

"My turn already?" Elizza asked with a yawn. She sat up and got off her sleeping spell, "This will give you a good nights rest." She said patting the thin blue field of magic."

Nina sat on the edge, it felt as if she were on a bed, she lay down and noticed it gave a comforting warmth off, and it was soft. She closed her eyes and quickly fell into a peaceful sleep. Elizza watched her drift off and took a seat at the table. She noticed that a warm mug of tea had been left for her. She took a tentative sip and smiled, it tasted good. She couldn't remember the last time she had a good cup of tea. She sipped it slowly as the night wore on. She listned carefully to the hallway outside. As a precaution she prepared a noise spell. While she had little doubt that Nina could fend off a great number of attackers she had little training in combat and war magics. The noise spell would create enough of commotion to wake Nina should an intruder appear.

As sunrise approached she listened to the morning birds start to sing. She epxect that Nina would sleep late into the morning, and was surprised when she rose before the morning light had come into the rooms small window.

Nina got off the sleeping spell and checked Dawn first.

"You didn't sleep long." Elizza pointed out.

"Sunrise." She said, "I wake the second the sun breaks the horizon." she explained as she took the now cool clothe off of Dawn's forehead and wrung it out into the chamber pot.

"I suppose you always know what time it is."

"I know exactly where the sun is at any given moment." She said.

"I don't mean to sound worshipful, but I believe you might be the most powerful of the avatars." She said.

"In all honesty, I'm probably not." She said, "Orjunn's magics are immense in their own right. Borrin would be a formidable opponent to say the least, Milai as well."

"And the others?"

"I have more skill in war than them, that's about it." She said, "Not all our strengths lie in combat however." She sat on the edge of the bed.

"I've little training myself." Elizza said, "I specialize in creation and alteration."

"Valuable skills." Nina answered. "I suppose one of us should see how the others are doing?"

"I'll go, I'm sure Caily spent all night worrying about me."

"She loves you, people do that with loved ones."

"That and she was charged with protecting me, the two make for a recipe of overbearing protectiveness at times." Elizza said standing, "Thank you very much for the tea."

"You're welcome."

"It's been a long time since I've had a cup of tea that good." She opened the rooms door.

"Tea is my specialty." Nina said, "Have one of them bring food back, stay out there with Caily and ease her mind for a day." Nina said.

"Yes madame." Elizza gave a mock bow and disappeared out the door, Nina smiled after her and relaxed in the rooms one chair.

Caily stood anxiously watching the town as the morning light came in. They could see the inn from their camp, but only by the back. She relaxed a bit as she saw Elizza come out of the inn and make her way towards their camp. She relaxed visibly as Elizza neared them and was the picture of calm resolve by the time Elizza reached them. "Morning M'lady." she greeted Elizza with a bow of her head.

"Morning." Elizza said back, "Has breakfast been made?" She said walking with Caily back to the camp.

"Yes." Caily said.

All expect Milai and Borrin were present, the two women joined them at the small fire. Caily poured a bowl of stew for Elizza who took a seat on a log they had found.

"How is Dawn?" Orjunn asked.

"Still unconcious I'm afraid." Elizza said taking the bowl. Caily say on the ground next to Elizza.

"How about Nina?" Adalade spoke up.

"Still with her, hoping someone brings her breakfast." Elizza said.

"Ah, I didn't even think!" Adalade scrambled for a moment and put some stew into a bowl to carry to Nina down at the inn. He hurried off, trying not to spill the meal.

"I'm not sure she will appreciate his advances." Shar said.

"She may, she may not." Elizza said with a wicked smile, "But the two of them were practically made for each other I think."

"I think it'd be great fun to watch him try." Pivot said.

"You would."

The small boy only shrugged, "We are what we are." He said looking off towards the forest.

"And are your wayward glances and stares at Milai also in jest?" Orjunn asked.

Pivot blushed deeply and turned away with a huff.

"I guess not." Shar said. "I don't suppose Nina gave any indication on how long Dawn would be asleep?"

"No." Elizza said, "She seems to be letting things take their course. She is a healer, I trust her judgement."

"We've little choice. We don't know where to go, we have to wait for Dawn." Orjunn said. The others nodded in agreement.

Adalade knocked on the door of the room.

"Enter." Nina said, she had one of her black blades on the table just in case. She wasn't surprised to see Adalade come in, with a bowl of stew.

"I brought some breakfast." He said to Nina.

"Thank you." Nina said standing to take it, She leaned against the wall and picked up a spoon from her pack, "Have a seat." She motioned to the chair.

"It would be improper for me to sit while a lady stands." He said.

Nina fixed him with a stare, "Flattery won't get you very far. Not of that nature at least." She said.

Adalade looked a bit stunned, but sat down, "Um," He looked over at Dawn, "Is she ok?"

"She'll be fine, her fever is almost gone. I suspect she is having a vision of some nature or another." Nina said.

"And how do you know that?"

"Something is keeping her asleep, certainly not the fever she had." Nina answered.

"Oh."

"So, tell me. What are the others like?"

Adalade sat back in the chair, "Borrin, he's a bit stiff. Seems far too serious for his own good at times. Orjunn, he's an old mage. Wise in years and naive in people. Shar is a nice enough fellow, though he seems a bit standoff. Milai, well only Shar actually talks to her since she doesn't speak. She seems far too much like Borrin. Pivot we just met the other day, but I bet he's nothing but trouble. And you've spent more time with Elizza than any of us have except Caily. And Caily could do nothing but watch this inn like a hawk last night until Borrin told her to sleep and said he would make sure nothing happened to the building. So I'm guessing she takes her job way to seriously."

"So you think most of them are stuffy?" Nina ventured.

"Maybe."

"What about me?"

"You? I don't know. You've got this Don't Touch sign on you, kind of like a wild animal." Nina raised an eyebrow at that, "I mean, I didn't mean you were an animal, oh to the Nine Hells with it. You're an avatar of War, only a fool would provoke you." He threw his hands out, "But you're Estavanni, and they throw great parties." He said.

"I see." She said.

"Though, you're lacking a bit in the color department for most Estavanni." He said.

She just rolled her eyes. Their attention was suddenly drawn to a very awake Dawn.

"We have to leave!" She practically shouted as she sat bolt upright. Nina dropped her bowl of mostly finsihed stew on the table and took the two steps to the bed quickly.

Nina put a hand on Dawn's forehead, "Fever's gone." She said looking down at Dawn. "You were unconcious when we met, I'm.."

"Thalia, yes I know."

Nina looked down at Dawn with a look of shock on her face, "Nina." She siad quietly.

Adalade looked momentarily confused.

"Nina, of course, I'm sorry." Dawn shook her head, "We have to leave, spies saw us, they send a powerful man down to kill us." She was speaking quickly.

"Hush." Nina put her finger on Dawn's lips, "Slowly."

"Some, General, is coming. Someone who knew who we were, or at least what, summoned him, how long have I been asleep?"

"A day." Adalade said.

"What time is it?"

"Early morning." Nina said.

"We have until evening to get as far as away as possible, we have to go through the woods." She said.

"Those woods?" Nina pointed off in the direction of the woods behind the town, "About a mile into those woods they turn into the Black Forest. No one just goes through those." She said.

"We have to." Dawn looked up at her, her eyes were hard and unrelenting.

Nina looked back with her own black eyes, "Then you'll need time to get deep." She said, "Adalade take her to the camp, wait outside while she dresses." She pushed him out of the room, he was trying to protest, and failing.

Dawn got out of bed and found her clothes neatly folded and cleaned. She dressed quickly, "You have to come."

"I'll follow. I know what I'm doing." Nina said. She pulled part of her pack apart, pulling out weapons and more crossbow bolts. She handed the now much emptier pack to Dawn, "This has medicine, food and tea leaves. It also has my spare clothes, so don't lose it." She said.

Dawn took the pack, "No, you have to come with us."

Nina stood over Dawn, looked down at her and into her eyes, Dawn's eyes had a hard resolve to them, Nina's had a passiveness about them that you couldn't read. "No." She said in a soft and commanding voice.

Dawn backed up a step, she felt something animalistic about Nina now, something that set her hairs on end. "There is a standing stone on the other side of this forest, near a town called Four Wells." She said.

"I know the town."

"We will wait there if you don't find us in that wood."

"I will be along." Nina said and opened the door.

Adalade was waiting outside, Dawn looked at Nina once and then at Adalade, "Hurry." She said and the two of them ran off.

--

Adalade and Dawn reached the camp at a dead run, Milai and Borrin had both returned with some food they had hunted. A few birds and a large rabbit.

"We have to leave." Dawn said as they all stood to great her, "A small army is coming here by tonight, Nina will hold them off to give us some time to get deep into the woods." She said.

"Those woods?" Borrin said, pointing at them, "Barely penetrable a mile and a half in." He said.

"I know," Dawn said, "But it's the only way to escape this enemy." She explained.

"What about Nina?" Elizza asked?"

"She's meeting us at a town on the other side of the woods." Dawn said, "We don't have a lot of time, please."

The group broke camp quickly and readied themselves for travel. Borrin and Milai wrapped the food in skins for later. As they prepared to leave Adalade started to walk back towards town.

"Adalade?" Dawn said grabbing his arm, "Forest is this way."

"I know," he said, "But someone has to make sure Nina makes it out that place alive and meets back up with us." He said.

"This is no time for false chivalry." Orjunn said briskly.

"Look old man," Adalade pointed a finger, "I'll do what I feel is right, and this is what I need to do." He turned, "Take care of Dawn." He said and walked back to town.

"Fool." Orjunn said.

"He will be fine." Elizza said, "Let's go." She turned and walked to the forest, the others followed.

--

Adalade walked back to the room where Nina was busy with somewhere near a thousand blades he figured on a quick count. She had reloaded the bandalier around her leg that contained the crosbow bolts, strapped the crossbow to her wrist, he saw it was attached to a heavy leather guantlet. Her left leg had a number of various sized daggers on it, from throwing to stilleto's. She had a long dagger in a sheath in each boot. Her torso had a hard leather piece of armor on it, her back was adorned with nothing. She stood up as he walked in.

"What are you doing?" she looked at him, sliding a knife into a sheath on the back of her right arm. She put one boot up on the chair and started to tie on a spiked spur.

"I, thought you might some help." He tried to think of a reason she would need help.

Nina attached a spiked spur to the other boot and looked at him, "Help? From you?"

"Look, I'm not that bad with a sword, and two are better than one."

"Sometimes. you should catch up to the others while you can."

"Someone has to make sure you get out of here alive." He said.

Nina stopped, "Well, since you're staying," she picked up her cloak and put it on, hiding her crossbow underneath it. "We might as well give them something to remember us by." She picked up a long black blade.

"What kind of blade is that?" He asked, it was similar to the black blades the shadow walkers had used.

"It's a blood sword." She said, "You can only use them if your soul contains hate." She walked out the door.

Adalade followed quickly, "I find it hard to believe that the Mother's avatar would be evil to any degree."

"I'm War right now," She said, "And believe it, because I can be as bad as any nightmare you could think of." She said.

Nina stormed through the common room and out into the street she looked about, listening to the wind.

"Why are we out here so soon? Dawn said tonight."

"Just in case." Nina said then face to the south. She shoved the sword point into the hard dirt of the road and stood waiting.

"Why did Dawn call you Thalia?" He asked looking the direction she faced.

"If we live past today, I'll you." She said.

--

They were making decent time into the forest, which was quickly becoming dense and nearly impassable.

"This is going to be rough." Orjunn said, "Are we sure this is the only way?" He looked at Dawn.

"I'm sure of it." She answered.

Borrin and Milai had stopped at the root of a large oak, "I'm not sure of which way to proceed." Borrin said, "It's rather difficult terrain."

Shar looked about the forest, "We go much deeper and we'll spend as much time looking for ways around the vegitation as we will walking." He said.

Elizza looked at Caily, then at the group, "You know," She started, "Not to point out the obivous, but we do have the avatar of the Ladt of Forests." She said.

Caily stepped forward, then went up and down the way a little. "Follow." She said to the group and led them slowly through the undergrowth. Her arm glowed with a soft green light as she went through the woods.

The way she led them wasn't easy, but seemed to be easier than most of the other options looked. Their path was steadily forward and eastward. Borrin and Milai both stepped aside as scouts to her skills in this terrain. The group travelled close together. They all worried slightly about the fate of their two companions left behind in the town.

--

"We've been standing in this road for three hours." Adalade said pacing, "What for?" He demanded stopping.

"Watching." Nina said, "Seven men came in from the west side, and are positioned in the alley both in front and behind us. Twelve men came in from the east, some are circling behind us. There are at least two birds in the air probably trained to attack. The main force will be here around lunch." She said.

"That's a bit ealier than evening."

"I have a feeling evening is about the time things will be decided one way or the other." She said.

"I see." Adalade sat down in the diry next to her, "Just let me know when to fight." He said.

"You'll know." Nina said.

--

"We need a break." Orjunn said, "This is a hard trail to traverse." He sat down on a large root in the ground to catch his breath.

Pivot stopped with him, "I agree." He said.

Shar and Dawn stopped as well, looking back at the others. "I suppose lunch wouldn't hurt." Shar said.

Elizza, who was out front near Caily got the young woman's attention. Caily had little problems with the terrain at all, she seemed to glide through it as if it were open ground. Borrin and Milai had taken up rear guard and came up to the group.

"Lunch so soon?" He said sitting on the ground and taking a breather. Milai stood, motionless, off to one side.

"Does this jungle get much thicker?" Dawn asked.

"Yes and no." Caily said. "Once we get into the heart the underbrush lessens considerably. But the roots of the great trees can be as high as a man." She said, "So the path will wind more."

"Just no more vines." Orjunn said, "I keep tripping on the things."

"There will be less vines." Caily said.

They sat in silence eating some trail rations. The good news about making so little forward progress was that any pursuers would have as hard a time. The best news was that there is no way they could follow with horses, supply wagons or probably even heavy armor. The bad news was it slowed them down as well.

//01101 The Battles Din//

Nina waited patiently as the advancing general came up the lane on his horse. He had with him fifty men, not including the ones that had entered town and flanked them. Nina estimated that group to be around another twenty five.

Adalade and stood and had his hand on the hilt of his rapier, though he saw that Nina hadn't shown any weapons so he left it sheathed for now.

The general, in shining armor, came up to them and stood in the middle of the street. With him was a robed man on a horse and another armored man. Nina knew this man, and her face fell into a grimace.

"Thalia Olund." He spat, "You should be dead twice over."

She just stared at him from behind hate filled eyes.

"You will not escape alive this time." He said.

Nina looked at the man that was her brother in law a long time ago.

"I no longer have that name, don't you remember? It was stripped from me." She spat.

"My brother should have had you killed along with your son." He said, his hand reaching for his sword.

Nina became a blur as her left arm came up and her right went for another bolt on her leg. The missile fired and caught the robed man in the throat, he rolled backwards off his horse even as Nina reloaded the crossbow.

Her cloak fell to the side and then it burst into flames as she discarded it woth a toss from her right hand as he left came up again, the crossbow reloaded and cocked.

Adalade worked to get his blade free, drawing it in a swift motion. Nina still moved much faster, the symbol on her back quickly shifting from the flowing lava pattern to an actual flame crawling over her skin and up her spine. The second bolt caught the second armormed man in the face as he drew his own blade. He fell sideways into the dirst.

Yoland Mettal drew his blade and cried out in rage as he charged her down. Nina stepped forward and grabbed the black sword out of the dirt then rolled to one side as the horse chanrged down at her. Yoland's blade missed her by inches as she came back up to her feet again.

Adalade had his blade out and at the ready. Just in time to meet the men charging up the street and out of the alleys.

Yoland's horse turned and charged Nina down again, this time his blade connected with hers. His blade broke and the force knocked him off balance. Nina looked unmoved by the effort, her back had become a solid flame that was slowly spreading over her bare shoulders and upper arms. She turned to the crowd of charging men and rasied her weapon and charged back.

Adalade had his hands full with several men from the nearest alley as Nina deftly cut through the oncoming group of soldiers. She cut them down in pairs as her right arm weilded the blood blade and in her left hand a dagger slashed it's way throgh her foe.

Yoland had dismounted and withdrew a great sword from his pack, the massive thing needed to be weidling two handed. Adalade took care of seven men, suffering minor cuts as he did so, relying on his nimble nature rather than armor to save him. Nina was cutting through the fifty attackers like they were half that.

Adalade went on to face more men ambushing them from the rear as Nina turned to face Yoland while still cutting down other soldiers. She no longer withdrew daggers from stabbing attacks, letting the body fall with the weapon in it. Her boots were covered in blood from kicks that had injured or killed a dozen soliers as the battle raged.

Her bloodsword was holding it's own against the great sword that Yoland weilded. Nina felt her rage increase as the enormity of his last words before engaging the fight sunk in, the flames threatening to engluf her entire body grew to a white hot intensity.

Yoland's sword came down in a great arc, only to be stopped by her black blade.

"My brother should have listened, he should have killed you instead of feeling mercy for a wench." He said.

Nina smashed her crossbow into the face of a possible attacker and grabbed her blood blade with both hands, "I would have served him to death!" She spat out as her weapon came up with such force it created a wind. "I would have done anything," She swung again, her intesity increasing with every swing. Yoland was doing all he could to block her weapon. "All these years I thought a dispute caused our son's death." Her weapon swung across again, a hapless soldier got in the way and was cleaved in half. "Now I find out it was my own husband who kill our son!" She screamed and whipped the balde around in a final swing, using the momentum to create a thrust that caught Yoland in the chest and picked him up off the ground. Nina's flame rushed from her back up her arm and into the sword and then to Yoland, who burned as his body fell back to the earth. Nina pulled her blade out and stalked forward to kill every last soldier in the field. Some of which were already fleeing after seeing their leader fall.

Nina stopped and looked around the battlefield for anyone else who might still be willing to fight. Adalade finally saw that the flames from her back licked up from the symbol on her back, which was a pure white light of heat. He understood her unusual style of shirt now, anything else would surely burn. Her cloak had caught a little bit of the fire and was a nicely smoldering heap right now. She turned and looked at it.

"Shit, I hate replacing these." She said stomping the flames out. With a deep breath the fire on her back died out and disappeared. The symbol turned into the image of flowing lava then to black.

"Nina!" Adalade said looking behind her with a look of terror in his eyes. Nina barely turned when she felt teeth sinking into her shoulder.

Immediately she flared into a rage, she twisted around tearing the teeth off her shoulder as she brought the blood sword up to strike whatever had attacked.

She drove the blade upwards into the skull of a Nightmare Beast, similar to the one she had killed the previous day at the farmstead. The blade pierced its skull neatly and she dragged it outwards as her momentum continued. The blade dragged sideways and then through the things head. The blade came out with a black ichor on it, the same ichor sprayed from the Nightmare's wound as it fell backwards, dead.

Nina felll to one knee catching herself with the sword by driving the point into the ground. Adalade rushed up and was about to touch her when she let go of the blade and pushed him backwards with his good hand.

"Don't touch that wound." She said forcefully. Her left arm arm was numb with pain, the back of her shoulder had been ripped open, a few thin gashes were on the top, the creature hadn't gotten a tight rip on her when she pulled away.

Adalade looked at her from his sprawled position on the ground, "But we.."

"Get clean cold water. A lot of it." She said, she felt the stinging pain of the things saliva in her wound and winced in pain, "Hurry!" She yelled.

Adalade scrambled to his feet and looked around for a source of water. He spotted the well not far from where they stood and rushed to it. He drew a bucket up and ran it over to Nina who hadn't moved from her position. She kneeled on one knee, head bowed low, a thin line of smoke came up from the wound on her shoulder.

"It's smoking." He said as he came up to her.

"That's the things saliva mixing with my blood, pour the water on the wound." She said and braced herself.

Adalade poured the water over her shoulder and back. He dropped the empty bucket and waited.

Nina stood up, and pulled the sword out of the ground, "We need bandages." She said looking about the town, "There." She said and walked to the towns small church.

"That's the church of Tholoth." Adalade said as they walked to the building.

"It's also the best place to find someone who knows how to bandage a wound." She said, "I'll take what I can get before this gets infected." She said.

Inside the church one of the priests came up and stopped short. Nina still held the blood sword, which continued to drip with the creatures thick black blood.

"I need a healer." Nina said, her wound had started to bleed in earnest, which was good for her since it meant the creatures saliva was washed away. It also meant she was losing blood, which was bad.

"You are the heathens.." The priest said.

Nina raised the sword at the man. "You forget your oath." She said leveling the blade at him with her good arm.

He paused momentarily. "I will get a sister." He said hastily and hurried off. Nina let the sword drop.

"What oath?" Adalade looked a bit confused.

"To help all those who need it, regardless of belief, race or station." She said, "The prieshood is supposed to be the peacful end of things." She had a little bit of sarcasm in her voice.

"That hurt?" Adalade had to ask.

"Yes." She said in a measured tone.

The priest returned shortly with a woman dressed in a simply grey and black robe, he stopped some feet off as she rushed forward. She saw the blood flowing down Nina's arm, "Come quickly." She said taking Nina's right wrist and pulling her to the back. Adalade followed.

"You have to wait outside." The Sister said to Adalade.

"No, he needs to learn to warp the wound." Nina said going in and placing her sword against the doorway. Her right hand worked the gauntlet that held her crossbow, "Pull that off." She said to Adalade, her left arm was numb with pain and she was having some difficulty.

Adalade worked the gauntlet off her arm as the Sister ready some water and a bandage. She pulled out some ointmet as well.

"Not that one," Nina said to her, "Use the other." She motioned to a second jar on the wall. The sister looked at her incredulously, but did as she was asked something in her sensing it would be unwise to disagree. She spread the thin white gel on the bandage and got a clothe to wipe the wound clean.

Nina reached up and undid the clasps to her top at the back of her neck, "Get this armor off." She looked at Adalade.

He reachforward and found the clasps that held it to her shirt front, no strap went around her body. The shirt was a very tight form fitting thing, and currently wet with blood and sweat. It clung tightly to her body, Nina peeled the black silk garment down to reveal her upper body.

"Are you sure you need me?" Adalade was suddenly a bit embarrassed.

"Yes, pay attention to how the Sister cleans and wraps this wound, you're going to have to do it for me in the near future." She said.

"I,"

"Shut up and watch." Nina's eyes were hard as the Sister began clean the wound, wiping the blood away.

The gashes were thing and deep, but clean swipes, the beasts teeth had been razor thin and sharp. The Sister took the long bandage and began to wrap it around Nina's shoulder and torso to hold it on. The sister covered her breasts with the thin bandage after several wraps angling up to cover the wound. When she was done the wrap covered most of her left shoulder and went across her torso, covering up her mark on her back. Nina held her arm still for the process.

"There." The Sister said sitting back, looking up at Adalade, "Can you repeat that?"

"Yes." He said, he had paid close attention.

"She lost a lot of blood, she needs rest." The Sister said.

"I'll be fine." Nina stood and pulled her top front back up, "Close this." She said to Adalade. He stepped forward and quickly clasped the shirt closed, and let her shoulder lenth black hair drop back. "You have any coin?" Nina asked him.

"A little." He said.

"A small donation in thanks." Nina said to him as she went to the door and picked up her blade. "Burn or sell the breast plate as you see fit." She said to the Sister and opened the door to leave. She only moved her left arm from the elbow down, and then only when she had to.

Adalade followed as she stalked out of the Church, he had grabbed her crossbow gauntlet after leaving his coin purse with the Sister.

"You think we can just walk out of town?" Adalade said as they went into the street.

"You see anyone stopping us?" Nina looked at him, "Let's go, they've probably already dispatached a messenger to the Lord's Keep nearest here." She said going off towards the forest.

A man in armor emblazoned with the crest of the local lord stepped into the street. Nina turned and looked at her as he raised a crossbow.

"Do not move." He said to them.

Nina's fist gripped the hilt of her blade, "Are you a fool?" She said.

Before he could answer a small crossbow bolt struck him in the face, he fell backwards firing his crossbow into the air.

Nina looked at Adalade.

"Sorry, took me a second to figure out how it worked." He said holding up her gauntlet.

Nina smiled, "Here," She held out her left hand. Adalade worked the gauntlet onto her arm and tried it tight with the leather straps. "Let's go." She said to him as they walked off, this time unmolested.

Adalade finally took the sword from her and tied it to his back with some rope he had on him, he had learned to travel with not so much a pack as a series of pouches all over. Some on his belt, some sewn into his cloak and some on a bandolier under his vest.

They made slow but stready progress to and then into the woods. They walked as far as they could, slowed by the thickening forest as they went. The two of them stumbled in silence through the afternoon and into the evening. As night fell Nina finally sat down against one of the ancient trees. "Sunset." She said.

"You can't travel at night?" He looked at her.

"I can." She said, "But I've lost a lot of blood, and I'm tired." She said.

Adalade sat down near her, "No fire tonight." He said, "Not until we have a couple of days between us and that town." Nina only nodded. "So, are you going to tell me?" He asked her.

Nina looked at him a bit confused then remembered, "Yes." She put her head back against the trunk of the tree, "Thalia was my birth name, it what I was known as when I was a Tyrissian noblewoman." She said, "Anyone in this land who calls me that is an enemy." She said.

"I can live with that."

"I could use some tea." She sighed.

"It have to be hot?" He asker her.

"No." She shook her head, "Just needs to steep longer if it's cold."

"You need the water," He said pulling a small tin cup from somwhere and a small pouch out of a belt pouch. He filled the cup with some water from his waterskin and put some of the tea he had in it. "How long?"

"I'll let you know." Nina said. They waited ten or so minutes, "It should be drinkable." Nina reached out for the cup with her good arm.

Adalade handed her the cup and took a swig of water from his waterskin.

Nina sipped the tea and looked at him, "Where did you get this tea?" She demanded.

Adalade looked at her and shrugged, "When Dawn first caught her cold we ran into a Gypsy, sorry, Estavanni caravan and their healer gave it to me for her." He said.

"This healer, they have a mark like this?" Nina held out her right arm so he could see the family tattoo on the inside of her arm.

"Yes." He said, "That was her family tattoo. Friend of yours?" He asked.

"Apprentice." Nina said with a smile, "She learned well, was she well when you saw her?"

"She looked sad," Adalade said, "But she was healthy."

"Brianna," Nina said, "I need to find her and let her know I'm well." Nina said.

"After we're done with this." Adalade pointed a finger at her.

"Of course." Nina finished off the cup of tea.

"Are you going to be ok?" Adalade asked her.

Nina nodded, "I'll sleep it off." She said.

"Here." Adalade stood up and removed his cloak, Nina had no shirt and her cloak was left behind in the street to smolder. He draped it over her half asleep form and sat back down across from her. Her head leaned back against the tree and she fell into an easy sleep.

Adalade stayed awake as long as he could, keeping an ear out for any sign of pursuit. He fell asleep somewhere in the small hours.

"Wake up." Nina tapped him on the shoulder. He opened his eyes to find her crouched in front of him, "We have to get moving." She said.

"What time is it?" He asked and yawned.

"A few minutes after sunrise." She said, "Here." She handed him his cloak. He stood and draped it over his shoulders and slung her weapon over his back as she stepped away.

"You always wake up this early?" He said yawning again.

"I wake at sunrise everyday." She said.

"You ever roll over and go back to sleep?"

"No, why would I?" She looked at him, "Here, it doesn't taste very good but is nutritious." She handed him a rolled up lead with what looked like some berries and maybe a mushroom in it.

"How do you know it isn't poisoned?" He said taking the leaf.

"I know every plant that grows." She said, "It's part of the job." They were walking through the dense undergrowth now. Nina's bad arm slowed them down as she was careful not to use it too much. Rougher terrain was harder for her to traverse.

They traveled mostly in silence through the day, Nina took breaks a little more frequently as the day wore on Adalade noticed. She never stopped for long but she had to catch her breathe often. She also seemed to sweat a little more than her light dress would probably cause.

"You're not well." Adalade said finally as evening drew on, the forest had grown a little less dense in the undergrowth.

"I have a fever." She said flatly.

"She we take a look at the wound?" He asked.

"When we stop tonight, clean and change the bandage." She said, "But I have a feeling it has more to do with what bit me than anything physical." She said, stopping again to talk.

"How so?" He looked at her, noticing she kept her eyes on him at all times.

"Because." She said, "I'm hallucinating and my mind is try to trick me into believing things that aren't." She said.

"How do you know?"

"You have worms on your face?" She asked him.

He ran his hand over his face, "No." He said.

"Don't leave my line of sight or I'll get lost." She said standing back up from the tree she was leaning on.

Adalade was a little more careful from that point to make sure he was no more than a few feet from her, always in front and keeping a frequent look out to make sure she hadn't fallen behind. He was deeply worried about her at this point, wondering if there were anything that could be done at all.

"Sun is setting." Nina said, "At least I know that is still true." She stood, wavering slightly.

"Here." Adalade took her hand and guided her to the food of a massive tree. By late evening the underbrush was easy to traverse but the roots of the trees were above ground, sometimes several feet tall. The trees themselves were ten, or more, feet in girth. He sat her down on a low root, "Hold still." He said and undid the clasps of her shirt, carefully folding it down. She looked at the bandage which had signs of a little bit of blood seepage. The Sister had only given him one spare bandage so if he needed to change it our again he would have to find a way to clean this bandage. He slowly unwound the bandage, mkaing sure to gently hold up a wobbling Nina. He rolled the bandage up and stuck it into an empty pouch, pulled out a clothe and cleaned the dried blood off the wound. The wound was still open for the most part. He wrapped the new bandage around her and got her shirt back on. He guided to the base of the massive tree and sat her down against it, making sure to be careful with her shoulder. He pulled off the crossbow gautnelt and tied it onto on of the ropes he attached to the sword.

"Tea?" He asked her, pulling out the tin cup and filling it with water and some of the tea leaves. He was hoping it would help with her fever now as it did with Dawn's before. Though somehow he was doubtful of that.

She nodded weakly, closing her eyes, "Do you believe in fear?" She asked softly.

"There's plenty of things to be afraid of." He said.

"No, do you believe in Fear, do you believe your fear can eat you from the inside." She said.

"Yes." He said, "Cowards live their lives being eaten alive by fear." He said.

"So it's ok to feel like something is gnawing on my heart?" She asked.

"Yeah, the trick is to act inspite of it." He said.

"Just, don't leave me behind here." She said.

"Not a chance." He looked at the tea, tomorrow he would build a fire and give her hot tea, maybe some hot food. He pulled out some rations, "Hungry?" He asked her.

She shook her head negative, "Thirsty." She said.

"Tea is brewing." He chewed on the rations. They sat in silence for several minutes. He timed the tea, he'd probably let it go longer than he needed to. He knelt next to her and touched her brow, "Tea." He said placing the tin next to her lips. She parted them slightly and he tipped some of the liquid into her mouth. She swallowed in small gulps until the tin was empty. "Sleep." He said to her. He removed his cloak and put it over her as a blanket again and sat back against the root, and fell asleep himself.

In the night he dreamed. The moon came down to talk to him.

Adalade stood in a glade deep in a dark forest. It was night and a bright full moon cast its light down onto the soft grass. To one side of the clearing a small brook gurgled past.

"The red flower." A soft voice said to him, it was hard to tell if it was a woman or a man, maybe a childd.

Adalade looked around on the ground and saw a small patch of red flowers.

"They will drive the evil from her." It said, "follow the moon path."

Adalade looked out across the forest and through the trees. His vision flowed for miles as he followed the moonlight through the leaves and past the trees. Quickly he came upon two figures sleeping against a large tree, he knew them and he knew where the path led. He nodded.

Adalade snapped awake and looked around the dark forest, he saw as clearly as day in the dim light, the moon barely penetrated this far down, but his eyes could catch it.

He stood up and woke Nina gently, "We have to travel at night." He said softly to her.

She nodded, obviously still groggy. He got her to her feet. He clasped his cloak shut so it fell around her shoulder, took her right hand and led her along. She followed willingly, from exhaustion or trust he wasn't sure which.

As the moon set and the dawn came he lost the trail. He would have to wait until the night to follow it again. He sat her against a tree, she was awake now but delerious.

He took a chance and made a very small fire from a few branches that had fallen from the heights above. Where they were it was a good twenty feet to the first branch of any tree. The bottom ones were mostly bare of leaves, those being much higher up in most cases.

He heated some water and brewed the tea properly this time. He helped Nina drink, who mostly sat against the tree with her eyes closed, twitched every now and then under her lids. He slid the water down her throat and sat down, waiting. Had he thought it safe he would have tried to forage for food, or hunt for something to eat. Instead he sat watching her, eating rations.

As the day wore on she became a bit more lucid.

"Hey." She said hoarsely, "Got any more of that tea?"

"Yeah." He put the water back on and restarted the fire, "Give me a few minutes."

"Good." She said.

"Told you you would need me." He said with a smirk.

"Thanks." She said, "Sometimes I forget to rely on others a little bit." She said.

"Tell me about this sword." He said, "You called it a blood sword. I've only heard about them." He said.

"Long story." She said. "You have to bleed on the blade with your own life as the swordsmith makes it. In order for the blood to embed in the metal you have to have enough hate in you." She said.

"And how does a lady such as yourself get enough hate to forge a weapon of such a nature?"

"My son was murdered, I was sentenced to a living death, I was carted off to be sold into slavery, I found a new family who took me in, taught me to live again and then was slaughtered." She said, "That's how." She was looking up at the sky, "And the same man has murdered my family twice now." She hissed, "There isn't enough hate in this world to describe my contempt for him."

"You give into the Dark Gods and we lose the battle." Adalade said.

Nina looked at him, "I lost my hate in grief years ago to be honest." She said. She cast her eyes to the ground, "In due time he will get his." She whispered.

"Who is he?"

"He was my husband." She said.

"Oh," Adalade looked at the fire, "Water's ready."

"I don't love in him anymore if that was your next question."

"It wasn't." He poured the hot water into the cup with the waiting tea. "We've got enough for this last cup." He said.

"Damn." She tried to add sarcasm to her voice.

"Can't you gather more?"

"If the world would sit still, sure. But nothing makes any sense." She said.

"Is anything in focus?"

"You." She sipped the tea slowly, using her good arm.

"I'm flattered."

"You're an avatar." She said, "And not that bad to look at."

"A compliment? That fever must be pretty bad." He smiled.

Nina just sipped her tea.

"I have a question then, rumors and tales have that a bandit group killed an Estavanni family and one of them now stalks the land killing bandits and Tyrissian nobles, that you?"

"It is." She said.

"I'm in the pressence of a legend." He said, "A bard could ask for no greater honor."

Nina shook her head, "I'm just one angry fool." She said, "I should have stayed with Brianna."

"But then you would have missed out on this adventure."

"Or I would have joined you sooner." Nina said, "You met Brianna before me."

"Or that." Adalade shrugged, "You should get some sleep, we have a long night ahead of us."

"Why are we traveling at night?"

"I had a vision, a way to get you better." He said.

She looked at him.

"The Moon showed me the way to a small flower that will cure you of the living nightmare you're caught in." He said.

"Good, because it's hard to keep a grasp on things." She said.

"Sleep." He said.

"I can't." She whispered, her eyes had locked onto him.

"Not tired? Can't sleep while the sun is up?" He was searching for a reason, so he could try and talk her into it.

"It gets worse when I'm asleep." She whispered, "At least awake I can keep anchored by knowing you're real."

"You can't stay awake forever, it could take us a while." He said, "And we'll just keep going slower as you wear yourself down."

"I'll be fine." She said.

Adalade went over and knelt in front of her, he put a hand on her bare right shoulder, "It will be fine." He said.

Her eyes jumped when he put his hand on her, she visible relaxed with him so close. "Don't move." She whispered, barely audible.

"What?" He didn't hear her.

"Don't. Let. Go." She said very slowly, as if she didn't trust her own voice.

Adalade looked into her eyes, coal black and hard to read. Finally he saw it in there, she had fear in her eyes. A kind of terror that gripped the soul. He sat down against the trunk of the tree next to her, making sure he had an arm around her, trying not to touch the wound. She didn't hesitate, as soon as she sensed he was sitting she rolled into his lap. She lay against his chest with her good shoulder, head over his heart. He put one arm around her body, under the shoulder. She clutched his shirt with her left hand as if her life depended on it and breathed lightly.

"I won't let go." He said softly, it was several minutes before she drifted to sleep in his lap. Adalade stared up at the sky and around at the forest. It seemed empty, though he heard and could occasionally see signs of life. Squirrels, other rodents, birds and most likely any number of lizards and insects. He briefly wondered if any fae lived in this forest, probably not. But you could never be sure.

It wasn't long before he drifted off into sleep. He felt the moon rise over the horizon as lay awake sometime later. Nina was quietly sleeping against him still. Her breathing was steady, he eyes were still, she looked peaceful. He brushed a stray hair off her temple, "Wake up." He said in her ear.

She stirred, her eyes fluttered and she finally opened them to look up at him. "Where?"

"Forest, still." He said, "Remember?"

"Yes." She pushed away from him and tried to stand. She let go of him as she got up and almost fell back down. Adalade was up in a flash, catching her as he fell against the tree. She staggered and blinked, then lay still against his body.

"Fuck." She said, "I was dreaming, it wasn't the nightmare." She said.

"Care to tell me what the dream was about?" He asked.

Nina looked up at him, "No." She said, not taking her eyes off of him.

Adalade only rolled his eyes and reached into his belt, he pulled out some rations, "Eat this, we have to get moving." He said. The moon trail was starting to appear and he wanted to follow it for as long as he could. The faster Nina was cured of this evil the better off they would be.

Nina ate the hard rations silently as Adalade led her through the forest. He lightly held her left hand as they walked. She didn't protest, the only way she could keep from slipping into the chaos of her nightmare was to keep focused on him.

They walked slowly through the dark forest. Anyone watching them would see two figures walking through the darkness with out possibly knowing their distinatio. Sunlight had trouble reaching the forest floor, much less the dim moonlight of the quarter moon. Still, they walked assuradly and in a mostly strait line, curving just a bit to the south.

As the end of the night came they were traveling almost due south along the ling of the forest. Adalade finally stopped as he lost the moon trail. They were in a part of the forest where the above ground roots were massive, some as tall as a man, some of the thinner ones made archways.

Adalade found a deep root and sat down on the ground, Nina sat with him, she dared not take her eyes off him at this point. She feared she would lose him if he left her vision, and his touch grounded her as much as anything. Again she sat against his body, feeling him physically there gave her the courage to look away from him. She kept one hand clutching his shirt, as if she might be afraid that letting go would cast her adrify in her increasingly haunting visions.

As the sun rose she felt its pull on her as a distant tug, almost not there anymore. Walking all night, working hard at keeping Adalade in her field of vision as they stumbled in the dark had tired her out. As the morning rose she fell asleep against him.

Adalade chewed idly on a piece of ration as she silently slept against his body. He felt the rhythm of her breathing, glad it seemed to be another peaceful rest. He wondered how much of this she would remember, and if she would be mad at the constant contact. He knew she wasn't in her right mind at the moment, normally a woman sleeping against him like this would be taken in a different context. Now he only feared for being too late to help her and a bit of concern and pity for her condition. He couldn't imagine hsi find so gone that the world itself betrayed you.

He drifted into sleep himself around midday, closing his arms around Nina and holding her close as he did so.

The next night was the same routine. Walking through the dark, Nina desperately trying not to lose him as they wandered. Twice she almost lost him and desperately cried out to find him again. Both times he stopped and pulled her into his arms, hugging her close as she slowed her breathing down.

Dawn came, Nina seemed worse now. Her eyes were glassy and her movements unsure.

"I can't see." She said as she rested against his body, "All I have is your body." She said.

"I've been told worse things." He tried to make a joke. She simply breathed against his skin, having opened his shirt to touch his flesh.

"Don't leave me here." She whispered, barely audible. Adalade thought there might be tears at the brim of her eyes.

"I won't, I promise." He said hugging her closely, trying not to press to hard on her bad shoulder. He hadn't replaced the bandage, though he knew he should. He looked at it as she finally fell into a coma like sleep. A little blood had seeped through, it was dried brown and stiff. A tiny little damp red spot was at the center, fresh. He knew that it needed real care soon, but had no idea how. His only hope was to get her out of the living nightmare so she could tell him what to do.

Night came, and they started again. Only the moving was very slow, Nina really had no visual connection to the world anymore. Her grip on Adalade's hand was nearly crushing. Finally he just move to her side and put his arm around her waist, and hers around his. Walking side by side as he guided them along the trail she linsted to her breath.

She was whispered so quietly he couldn't hear her, but he knew the tone, it was a voice lost in fear and terror. She had lost most of her grip on reality and was now inside her head completely. Only his touch kept her grounded enough to keep moving in the directions he lead them.

A little after midnight he finally reached the end of the moonlight trail. He stopped them at the edge of the clearing. Nina was now constantly whispering to herself, in a tongue Adalade didn't understand. A white barely there figured stood in the middle of the glade, over the flowers he was told to find.

The ghost of a man stood in a moonbeam, white robes fluttering in an unfelt wind, "This is what you will need." He said.

"What do I do with it?" Adalade asked.

"Brew it as a tea in water from the stream, then wait after she drinks." He said.

"Thank you." Adalade said and offered a small prayer to the moon God as his form faded from view. Adalade took Nina to the middle of the clearn and lay her down on the soft grass. "Nina." He said to her.

She didn't acknowledge.

"Nina!" Adalade almost shouted. Her fogged eyes looked only strait forward as she clutched his shirt. He needed to let go of her to get the tea ready. He removed his shirt and let her hang onto it as he got out the small tin cup and filled it with water from the stream. He watched Nina carefully.

She curled to one side and into a fetal position, clutching his shirt desperately. Her eyes had closed tight and soft sobs were coming from her. He picked one of the little red flowers and broke off the petals. Crushing them slihtly he put the seven little petals in the water and held it, waiting for the water to absorb the flavor from them.

He waited and watched, the water leached out the color from the flowers which seemed to glow ever so slightly in the cold stream water. Eventually he held the water which was a reddish color and glowing slightly to Nina's lips. She swallowed the water as he put it in her mouth. A soon as the cup was done Adalade stepped back, Nina fell to the ground, and low moan escaped from her lips.

He was about to bend over and check her when she emitted a scream.

It was deep, primal and loud. She let go of his shirt and covered his head with her arms, the strain of movement reopened the wound on her shoulder, fresh blood cold be seen on the bandage. Then she fell silent and unconcious on the grass.

Adalade sat down next to her and wondered what next. Something told him to remove the bandage and clean the wound with water from the stream. He listened to the instinctual voice. He pulled her top off, stick stiff with blood and un wrapped the bandage. She lay unconcious in his arms as he did this. Bandage off he soaked his shirt in the stream and used it to clean Nina's wound. As he wiped the old blood away he saw the wound close finally, and heal and then there was little but thin white lines to show any wound had ever been there. He wondered briefly how to get the blood off her top, and noticed is was a one piece the went below her waist. Instead he soaked the silk with water from the cup and cleaned it with his own shirt.

As the dawn rose he examined his now bloody white shirt and cleaned it in the stream then hung it to dry on a low branch from a small tree near the edge of the clear. Above he could see the tops of the massive four and five hundred foot trees circle above them. Dawn came and he lay down on the grass, exhausted. The night had been long more than physically demanding. But Nina lay still now, breathing easily, her fever was completely gone. He closed his eyes and slept.

Nina woke with a sudden start as the midday sun glared down on the glade. She looked around, Adalade was shirtless and sleeping peacefully off to one side of the glade, in the shade of a small tree. His shirt hung from a branch like it was set to dry. She first noticed that her own top was un clasped and barely covering her. She pulled it back up and clasped it again at the back of the neck, and noticed that the blood she'd remembered being there was gone. Her next thought was her shoulder which she reached up to feel. It was healed completely, faint scar lines were traced under her fingertips.

In a haze she remembered most of the past days, what parts of it she could tell reality from nightmare at least. Adalade had all but carried her here. She found her sword and crossbow on the ground near the stream and picked the weapon up. She looked at the black blade under the sun and then over at Adalade.

"I can't weild this anymore, the hate has left me." She said quietly and placed the weapon in the stream and on the bottom of the water. The heavy sword was not moved in the light current. She knew that over many years the sword would be washed clean of the blood forged into its steel and would be pure. It may take a lifetime or two. And the blade would serve someone when it had been washed clean, Fate always took care of that part. She got up and stretched, realizing how hungry she really was. Putting the gauntlet on she loaded it and went a little ways into the forest. She might not catch some meat, but she would forrage for something to ear. Coming across some small berry bushes beside the stream a little ways up she examined them to see what they were. She picked a few and found some other edible items to eat. Going back to the clearing Adalade was still asleep.

She knelt down and shook him awake. He blinked up at her as she smiled down at him.

"I have to thank you." She said, "I'd cook you dinner but all I have is this right now." She held out the small concoction, the berries wrapped in small leaves. some crushed to create a spread with their juices. There were maybe a dozen of them.

Adalade sat up and took one, he ate it and smiled, "Not bad." He said, "As for the thanks, we'll call it even as long as you never scare me like that again." He said.

"Deal." Nina said and they ate the meal in silence. "Where are we?" Nina asked as they lay in the afternoon sun.

"Honetly? I have no idea. The moon showed me the way here and I was less concerned with getting here than I was with drawing maps."

"That way is west." Nina pointed in a direction, "Sun is moving that way." She said as an explanation.

"I'll believe you." He said, "So we want to go west then?"

"Yes."

"After that?"

"Don't know, we'll see where we come out." Nina said.

"It's all we have really."

"I hope the others made it."

"Relax, they have the avatar of the Forest with them, all we have is the sun and moon." He said sarcastically.

"And the Mother." Nina corrected.

--

As evening came on and the stars came out they lay on the soft grass, their heads side by side, bodies pointing in opposite directions.

"I haven't looked at the night sky nearly as much as I should." Nina said as they gazed at the growing twilight.

"It's a wonderful sight." He said, "Were we in an open field I could name the stars for you." He said.

"Too bad you left your lute with the other." She said.

In repsonse Adalade took up a wordless tune, humming and whistling alternately. Soon enough he added words to it, a slow song in a language Nina didn't know. She listened to his voice as he sang the tune and finally stopped.

She turned her head to look at him, a smile on her lips. Adalade turned his head to meet her gaze, her black eyes were easy for him to read with the help of the moonlight, she had happiness in them.

Nina got up on one elbow and bent over Adalade's face, her black hair cascaded down over his chin as she placed her lips on his. He returned the kiss, a light touch that lasted several moments.

Breaking apart Nina sat up and looked at Adalade, who got to his knees opposite her. "It's been a long long time since I've had the urge to do that." Nina said.

Adalde simply got closer to her and put his hands on her hips as he leaned in, "You are the most beautiful by moonlight." He whispered as he kissed her again.

She leaned into the kiss, then pulled back, "No." She said.

"No?"

"It's.." She stopped and looked at him.

"My reputation." He said with a sigh, "I knew it'd get me trouble one day." He looked at her, "All I can ask of you is your trust that you are the only one my heart yearns for." He said.

"I trusted you with my life." She leaned forward, "Now I trust you with my heart." She kissed him again.

She lay sleeping against him, for the first time out of want instead of fear. Her head rested on his shoulder as her hand lay over his heart on his bare chest. He felt her warm body against his, she had pulled her top down to sleep with him. Though they still wore their pants, not finding it prudent to do more than kiss in the wilderness. He looked at the moon as it passed overhead and saw the face of his God in it's image, who was smiling down at him. Adalade smiled back and drifted off to sleep.

--

They traveled mostly in silence the next day, Adalade following Nina this time as they travelled west out of the woods. Though they were still in the deepest parts right now. Her energy had returned, he felt the travel out would go faster than the travel in had gone. He had noticed the black sword resting at the bottom of the stream when he washed his face that morning, but spoke nothing of it. He saw it as a good sign that she no longer felt she needed a blade weilded in hatred and anger.

At night they slept in each others arms when they could travel no longer. He felt he could become a morning person in act if she was the one waking him every day with something to eat. She always woke the moment the sun broke the horizon and managed to get something to eat be it nuts or berries before he was awake. Always with the promise of an actual cooked meal when they reached civilization again.

He liked this side of her much more than he did the warring side. It was interesting to see the caring side of her nature.

"You know where we're supposed to meet up with the others?" Adalade asked as they wandered through the forest, it had grown much less dense as their day wore one.

"A town called Four Wells." Nina said, the day was growning long but the going was much easier at this point. It also helped that they seemed to be slowly moving downhill.

"And you know where that is?"

"Roughly. Once we reach a place with landmarks I'll be able to get us there." She said.

"How many bolts do you have left?"

"Nine." She said.

"We're practically weaponless." He commented.

"No." She said.

"No?"

"I am a weapon, remember. I use steel out of convenience." She said.

"How long until sunset?" He asked.

"About an hour, why? Tired?" She glanced back at him.

"No, just wondering how long it is before I take the lead and can't watch you anymore." He said.

"Just because I've fallen for you doesn't mean you get to be a chauvinist about it." She said rather sternly.

"Sorry." He apologized quickly.

They moved in silence, picking up the pace as they went. Both of them had a sudden sense of urgency they couldn't place.

They traveled into the night, stopping a little before midnight, both of them tired.

"You feel that?" Adalade said sitting against a tree.

"Yes." Nina said sitting down against him, she still had night terrors and waking up next to Adalade was of comfort. She could tell they were merely dreams now, but the memory was too recent for her to simply pass it off.

"Sleep, I think tomorrow will be long." He said.

"I was about to say the same thing." She smirked and closed her eyes, feeling safe against his warm body.

Morning came, Nina woke first as usual and collected some food for them. She woke Adalade up and they ate as they walked. As the day wore on they picked up the pace. By nightfall they reached the edge of the woods, which were denser at the edge than they were on the other side.

"Do we travel out at night or wait until daylight?" Adalade said as they stood at the edge of the forest.

"We wait until day we get a good nights sleep, either way I have a feeling it'll be a pain in the ass to get from here to there." She said.

"There's sign of a town that way." Adalade pointed southward to several small trails of smoke curling up into the sky.

"We could make it by full dark." She said.

"Got any money?" He asked her.

She reached under her belt and pulled a pair of coins from a hidden slot, "Just two silver." She said, "Enough to get us a room for the night." she said.

"Here." Adalade handed her his cloak, "To cover your back." He said.

She took the cloak and put it on, the brown didn't exactly match her outfit but it really didn't matter. They took off at a brisk walk to reach the town.

--

They reached the town close to an hour after sunset, find the tavern and inn was easy. There were two inns in this town which was of decent size. One had the attached tavern, the other was next door in an attached building.

They went into the inn itself, hoping for a better room and service. A short round man waited behind the counter looking bored. He had a flagon next to him and a ragweed stuck between his teeth.

"A room." Adalade said walking up to the counter, Nina looked the place over. Stairs next to the counter went up to a balcony that overlooked the entrance room they were in, and disappeared off their right. She saw lanters that illumianted the hallway beyond. The building was long and it was apparent that the inn and tavern were one large establishment and not two.

"Half a silver." The man said.

"And a bath if you've got it." Adalade added.

"Baths can be drawn in the room, I'll have a maid have hot water brought up." He said. And took the single silver piece from Adalade, there was no change. He handed them back a large iron key, "Seventh door." He said pointing up above them.

Adalade and Nina went upstairs, her left arm hidden under the cloak to appear that they had no weapons on them. They entered the room, which was fairly spacious. Certainly larger than most of the inns that they had encountered thus far. It had two rooms, one contained the bed and a table, the other a bath tub and the chamber pot along with a basin for washing.

Nina dropped the cloak on the back of one of the chairs and bent to start a fire in the corner fireplace that butted up against the room next to them. They heard a maid come up and knock on the door, Adalade let her in as Nina moved so her tattoo wasn't visible on her back. She had removed the gauntlet and place it on the table.

"You asked for hot water?" The main said.

"Yes." Adalade answered. She moved past him and into the bathroom where she took a key and unlocked a small cabinet over the bath and pulled a copper pipe down, she turned a handle and waited patiently for the steaming water to make its way from the boiling pot in the bottom floor to the pipe at the bath. It soon poured out with a gush of steam and she waited patiently for it to fill, showing Adalade where the bath salts were if he wanted them, carefully explaining the different scents of each one. When the bath was filled she turned the handle again, using a rag so she didn't burn her hand and put the pipe back up into the cabinet and relocked it. When she left Adalade looked at Nina.

"Contraptions like that common in Tyiss?"

"Moderately." She said, "We're on the edge of the heartland, they have them but still locked the spigots and charge extra. Another fifty miles to the east and it would have been free and unlocked." She said.

"I see." Adalade said.

"Washing should still be free." Nina said pulling some towels from the same cabinet where the bath salts had been stored under the wash basin. Nina pulled out the salts and carefully smelled each glass jar one at a time. She chose two and poured some of them into the bath, "If we leave our clothes outside the door they'll be washed fairly quickly." She said.

She sat in one of the chairs and pulled her heavy boots off. She stretched her legs and feet now that they were finally free of the hard leather. She stood and undided the belts around her legs, the empty dagger belt and the mostly empty bolt belt both were dropped on the table next to the gauntlet. She undid the belt to her leather pants when Adalade caughed, "Yes?" She looked at him.

"Um, would you like some privacy?" He said with just a hint of blush.

Nina looked at the one bed in the room then at Adalade, "If I were a maid of twenty winters I might, I'm not only much older, no longer a bashful girl but I really could use that bath." She said, "And besides, I hope the intent was to end up in that bed together, in which case being shy is stupid." She continued to undue the belt and open the buttons on her pants.

Adalade shrugged, "You can tell I've spent too much time trying to seduce maidens and the dainty." He sighed and pulled his shirt off.

Nina just smiled as she pulled her pants off and undid the clasp to her one piece top. Adalade fetched the small basket for the clothing and dumped his shirt into it followed closely by Nina's own top. Her leath pants she left out, they were nothing she wanted some maid in a cheap in to ruin with her washing. Adalade's pants were of a more common soft leather and he dumped his in there as he wrapped a towl around his waist. Nina simply went naked into the bathroom as he placed the basket outside the door and followed her.

She was already in the tub and had dunked her head to wet her hair when he entered. "Joining or waiting?" She looked at him.

"What would you prefer?" He asked.

"You're not used to someone so forward are you?" She rolled her eyes, "Get in, it's easier to wash each other if we're both in the tub." She said grabbing the bar of coarse soap off the small dish on the floor as Adalade dropped his towl and stepped into the steaming water.

"You never know just how much your body needs this until after you get into the water." He said relaxing.

"Turn around." Nina said, he obeyed as she washed his backside with the soap and wet his hair. Working up a lather on her hands she ran the soap over his scalp and through his short hair She washed the soap off his head with a pitcher kept to the side of the tub. "Use this on my hair." She said handing him a bottle of soap chips, they smelled very different from the coarse body soap and were smooth.

He took a handleful and created a lather he ran through her hair as she faced away from him, rubbing it gently into her scalp. She leaned back almost into his lap as he rinsed it out of her strait black hair. He washed her back next. They faced each other, legs intertwined as the washed the rest of their bodies, the water was cooling quickly. Nina stood as and reached for her towel as Adalade admired her body.

She stepped out of the tub, "Done oggling?" She asked as she wrapped the towel around herself.

"Not if I have a choice in it." He said, catching onto the playful forwardness of her nature.

"Good answer she said pulling a long metal comb out of the cabinet under the wash basin and combing out her hair. She'd kept it at shoulder length for ease of care, she wastched Adalade get out of the tub out of the corner of her eye as she combed out her hair. "It's been nearly an hour." She said, "See if our clothes are clean." She walked into the bedroom and to the bed.

Adalade peaked out the door, and indeed the basket had been taken and returned. Their clothes were neatly folded in it and smelled less of dirt and more of soap. He pulled it into the room and just placed it on the table.

Nina had pulled the towel off her body and tossed it to the end of the bed. She sat on the edge and waited for Adalade to come over to her. She smiled up at him as he stood in front of her and pulled his towel off his waist, tossing it to the side.

"Tell me my lovely little letch, what is it you coax the girls into doing first?" She ran a hand up his side. Adalade just stared down at her, he managed to be at a loss for words.

Nina grabbed his arms and dragged him down onto the bed and climbed into the middle, she kiss him deeply as he followed her.

"I think I've met my match." He said breathlessly.

"Maybe," She said, "It's been a while for me." She kissed his chin.

"You seem to have a grasp on things." He said feeling her hand slide down to his crotch. Adalade drew his body close to hers, "Lay back." He pushed her against the bed and slowly kissed her body starting with her lips and moving down her torso. He reached her taught stomach and went back up, lying against her. "How much foreplay do you like?" He asked her.

"As much as you want." She said softly, she'd closed her eyes and felt his body against hers.

Adalade got them under the covers where they made love slowly.

She was dozing lightly after they went a second time, Adalade spooned her from behind with his arms wrapped around her.

"I can't think of the last time someone felt so good." Adalade whispered in her ear.

"Neither can I." She said back settling herself against his body. He listened to her breathing slow as she drifted off to sleep and closed his own eyes.

--

Nina woke at sunrise as usual. Adalade had rolled over in the night and was lying on his back next to her. For the first time in years she fought the urge to get up and slid up next to her, placing her body against his and her head on his shoulder. Instinctively his arm wrapped around her body as she lay next to him half awake.

"I thought you didn't sleep in." He whispered a little later as he felt her warm body next to hers.

"I don't sleep in." She said, "But getting out of bed didn't really sound like an option." She slid her body so she was on top of him. She looked down into his eyes, "You're much more interesting than what I was probably going to do." She said as she slowly starting to fuck him.

Adalades hands rested at the curve of her hips as she rocked back and forth on him. She lay down pressing their bodies together, her head next to his and his arms wrapped around her. She tensed with orgasm as he followed quickly.

They spent some time kissing lightly and exploring each other with their hands. "We should get going." She said softly. It was several hours after sunrise. "Four Wells is a bit to the north." She said.

"Still have that voice telling you to hurry?" He asked as she got out of bed.

"It's returning." She said finding her clothes, "You managed to drive it away for a while."

They dressed and went downstairs, Nina had rearmed herself and hid the weapons under the cloak. They took in a meal at the tavern next door, the first thing they'd had that counted as a real meal in days. They got only a few stares from the locals, but were left alone for the most part. News of the other town probably hadn't reached this far since there were no direct lines through the forest this far north.

They walked north out of town, deciding that the dirt road was faster and less of an issue at this point. They traveled mostly in silence, neither of them big on small talk.

As night came they found a common stopping point for travelers, it was a bit disused as many travelers in this area used cart and horse instead which could make it further. They lit a small fire and dined on rations as some berries Nina had found a short distance away. They lay down together as the fire died down and slept through most of the night.

As usual Nina woke in the morning first and gathered berries and found a tree with nuts on it for breakfast, she gathered some extra into a now empty coin purse. She arrived back at the campsite as Adalade woke up with a long stretch and yawn.

"I liked it better when you slept late." He said getting to his feet.

"We have to move, I'll sleep late some other time." She handed him a small pouch of berries, "Here, eat on the road." She said.

"How far after sunrise?" He asked as they made sure the fire was stomped out and headed onto the road.

"An hour." She said.

By late evening they arrived in the town known as Four Wells. It was a fairly large town, almost a city. Adalade briefly wondered how they would find the others when Nina tugged on his sleeve while he looked around.

"What?" He said.

"This way." She commented walking up the large main street, a wide cobbled lane.

"How do you know?" He asked.

"Woman's intuition." She said, Adalade shrugged.

They wandered through the city, almost aimlessly Adalade thought, until Nina stopped them at a corner and looked up the street. "There." She said. She motioned to an inn and tavern called the Pounded Nail.

"Let's go." He said and Nina followed him up the small side street.

They entered the dimly lit and decently large tavern by going down several steps. Adalade looked through the darkness and spotted what he wanted. Pivot and Milai sat at a table near the back, apparently Pivot was learning the hand speak she used. The two made their way to the table.

"We meet again." Adalade said as he got to them.

"You made it!" Pivot said, "We were thinking the worst." He said. Milai greeted them with a nod.

"Where's Dawn?" Nina asked coming up behind Adalade.

"She's in the room," Pivot said. "She's been kind of anxious lately, worried a bit too much."

"That's what we felt." Nina said, "Her stronger emotions are echoed in us." She said, "Which room?"

Milai held up five fingers, then two. Nina nodded and went to leave.

"Mind if I stay for a drink?" Adalade said.

"No." Nina shook her head, "Just not too many, we're broke." She said.

"Oh, I'm not." Pivot smiled wickedly.

"Stay sober." Nina pointed a finger at Adalade.

"Yes, yes." He said sitting down at the table next to Pivot. "Don't mind me," He said to them, "I plan on getting a bit happy." He said with a smile and waved a bar wench over.

Nina made her way to the second floor and to the door marked with a five. She knocked lightly on it.

"Who's there?" She heard Borrin' voice from the other side.

"Old friend." She answered back.

The door opened quickly with Borrin standing there, "I was hoping it was you." He said quickly, "In." He grabbed her arm and pulled her in, "Where's Adalade?" He asked as Nina stumbled into the room.

"Downstairs with Pivot and Milai." She said.

"You're both ok then?" He asked.

"Yes." She nodded.

Dawn came out of the doorway to what apparently was an attached room, "Nina?" She said, and upon seeing her ran and threw her arms around Nina. "Oh, I'm so glad you made it out." She said, almost to tears.

Nina hugged her back, "Of course we made it, what did you expect?" She said, holding the girl.

"I kept having these nightmares, visions, about you caught in some hideous trap." She said.

"You felt those?" Nina asked.

"Felt what?" Borrin said, "We were hoping it was residual from her fever." He said.

Nina pulled her cloak off and turned so he could see the thin white lines of the scars on her shoulder, "A Nightmare beast bit me, I spent several days in a delirium." She said, "Adalade saved my life. Dawn here felt the nightarish visions that filled my life for several days, I don't know how many." She said.

"Had we known.." Borrin started.

"What? There's no way you would have found us in those woods, you did what you were supposed to." She said, "Get Dawn here. Where are Shar and Orjunn?" She looked around.

"Getting supplies, Elizza and Caily are resting in their room next door." He said, "Did you know those two.."

"Yes." Nina nodded, "Supplies for what?" She asked.

"We have to go to a place called The Great Monestary of Oryxx Mountains." Dawn said.

Nina froze, "What for?"

"I had a vision of a great cave of crystals, one of them holds the UnGod and he must be destroyed." She said.

"So that's what they really hide there." Nina whispered, "They place is well defended, hard to get in and out. But secluded, should be breach the defenses help is weeks away from it." She commented.

"And how do you know the place?" Borrin asked.

"I was kept there as a prisoner for some years." Nina said, "All I saw was the way in and the way out, but it was enough." She said, "I don't suppose there's a spare bed anywhere?" She asked, Dawn had finally broken the hug and stepped back.

"You can stay in the room with us." Dawn said, meaning her and the other women.

"Actually," Nina hesitated the shrugged, "I was hoping there might be a spare room a little more private." She said.

Borrin smiled, "I see then, we can secure another room I'm sure." He said.

Dawn looked confused, "I don't think I get it." She said.

"I would venture to guess that her and Adalade grew a bit close over the past week." He said.

"Just a little," Nina smiled, "Just a little."

"Oh!" Dawn exclaimed, "I, um, of course get a seperate room." She blushed deeply.

//Continued...//