Estin, The Celestial City

Erelil's letter to Gaebrith

Dear Gaebrith,
It was so good to see you again, and I’m glad that you are well. I am writing to tell you more of the situation in Hestaria, and ask for your help. The situation is getting worse, even more so than a week ago. More people have fallen ill, including Cade Tosscobble, one of the city’s best healers. Now hundreds of people have become sick with various illnesses with no explanation, and with no known cure. Many people have now gone missing, including the parents of my fellow guild member Erzaad. The people’s disappearances are mysterious and also unexplained. The sewers are blocked so that the city is filled with a stench, and the city workers can’t keep up, especially because many of them have become sick or disappeared. If that weren’t enough, Hestaria’s border is threatened by an army of orcs. And we will have difficulty building an army when most able-bodied persons are sick.
Lyle shared with us that the unexplained illnesses and disappearances mirror what happened twenty years ago when some powerful men attempted to resurrect a god, and a thousand innocent people lost their lives in the process. I fear that more people will die this time, and I don’t know if Hestaria will remain standing. I wonder if Asmoden, Arboth and Erik are drawing a magical circle around the entire city, possibly using the sewer system. They could be planning on sacrificing hundreds of thousands of innocent lives. The situation seems to be pretty dire.
Lyle suggested evacuating the city, but quickly retracted the suggestion because he thought people might not be willing to move, and they would have nowhere to go. Plus there is an army of orcs at our border. I had the opportunity to meet King Hector himself today and fight alongside him. I believe the king’s heart is in the right place, but he has no idea how to handle this situation. The young king likely will not reach out to anyone for help, and wait for the situation to resolve itself. I think it will be too late and more people will die. I think evacuation is the best course of action, but we have no way of doing it without assistance.
I suggested asking Quehara for help. I know elves and humans don’t have the friendliest of histories, and my fellow guild members dismissed the idea because they thought the elves would not be willing to give aid. I am telling you that Hestaria needs help, and I am asking you if there is anything you can do. Please bring this to the elders to ask if Quehara is able to give aid to Hestaria in any capacity. Please ask if any of the elf warriors can help us stave off the orcs, or send healers to tend to the sick, or ask if any of the elves would be willing to take in evacuees of the city. I’m sure anything Quehara can do to help the innocents of Hestaria will be much appreciated.
I hope you will speak to the elders about our situation and have them contact the King if there is anything the elves of Quehara can do. Thank you for your continued thoughts and prayers. You are always in mine.
Sincerely,
Erelil

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Questions Answered
Questions Raised

Whack, Thwap, Smack, Bapapapapap Kthunk. Tap Tap Schlunk, Whipipip Crunch.

Ryuu held his poise before the other students, his blades in front of him. Four of them, all a rank higher than him. None of them stupid oafs like he fought on jobs, these were Master Wu’s students. He couldn’t drop his guard, not here, not now.

The five circled each other, watching for weakness. Typical training free-for all sparring session, but he couldn’t let himself be distracted.

Watch the left one, he’ll make a move soon. Whap thikthik thunk. Good, an overhead followed by twin side slashes and a kick. Got to maneuver him into the others. Thwap whipipip crunch slam….

I can’t believe I’m back here. Fighting in the dojo again. Of course, this is always where I end up, no matter how long I’m gone, but things are different now. Kai’s gone. I don’t think it’s really hit me yet, to be honest with myself. He’s really gone for good this time. He’ll never piss off Master Wu, swipe my best blades, recklessly throw himself into danger. Never again. I’m gonna miss the little idiot.

…Think Twip Whapittywhapwhap. The five combatants a blur of steel, they dance a deadly step around each other. Each movement perfectly timed, and perfectly deadly.

This feels so wrong. He shouldn’t be gone. Why did Master Wu send him to the guild for training, I know he wasn’t ready. He wasn’t even close to understanding his true potential. I know his guild-mates did everything they could, aside from fighting that fight in the first place. Really, what were they expecting? Reckless of them. Erzaad wears Kai’s coat. Kai loved that coat, so I know they must have been close friends.

The fight gets tighter and tighter, faster and faster, until it simply appears that a whirlwind has appeared in the dojo. A flurry of blows, parries, counter-attacks and dodges so fast that the observers simply sit, and wait for one to be left standing. All except one. A single pair of eyes, tracking a single combatant.

The rest of his old team seem ok too. The stuffy old cleric, Seif, and the sprightly elf Erelil. They’ve both seen too much, I can tell. It get’s to you, after a while. I’ll have to try and make sure they make it. I hope they can hold their own in a fight. If it comes down to it, I’ll protect them. It’s what I’m good at. The new team, I’ve got doubts about. The lumbering oaf, Rex I think it was, clearly he’s too comfortable. Hiding something. I’m not sure I trust him. The other elf we picked up too, she’s, hmm. A bit woodsy. Been in the trees too long I think. At least they can complete tasks. Erelil seemed to have some sort of fire immunity as well when we picked up that armband for the guildmaster. Might come in handy if I get out of control.

That pair of eyes narrows as it notices a flicker of gold in the storm of blades.

Listen to me, I’m rambling. It still feels so wrong though. That I’m in here, training, fighting, eating, sleeping. And Kai’s not. Kai, isn’t. Kai, damn. He’s gone. And I’m in here while the ROTTEN SON OF A WYRM IS GETTING AWAY WITH IT! I need to be OUT THERE, finding this murdering scum. I swear, if I ever get my hands on him…

The whirlwind turns to golden flame, and spins faster. A single figure begins blinking around it, moving faster and faster. But only a single pair of eyes can see the rage on that figures face.

I’LL KILL EM ALL! THOSE BASTARDS! They got Kai! I’LL MAKE THEM WISH THEY’D NEVER BEEN BORN! I’ll, why I’ll, I’LL… …All around me, too many. Gotta focus, can’t let them. Can’t.

“AAaaaaaauuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuugggggggggggggggggghhhhhhhHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

An explosion of sheer force rocks the room, and the whirlwind blows itself into nothing. A lone figure stands in the center, four bodies around him. Twin blades drop to the floor. A head is raised. And two pairs of eyes meet. A head shake, a nod, a bow, an exit. And an old man is left, surrounded by devastation, as four bodies dissolve into the illusion from whence they came. And although the exit was quick, a single pair of eyes, which miss nothing, caught the lone tear on that figures face.

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Loss, Change, and Uncertainty
Rex's first impressions

Everything has been a blur lately. I don’t even know how to pull my thoughts together. It’s as if every feeling and thought of mine is a marble – one of many scattered about a hardwood floor. If I even try to move and get a handle on one, I send another dozen skittering away.

Lapis… I pray every day to know what I need to do. Have I made a mistake by leaving to join this band? Lapis is hurting so much at the moment. Not just with loosing Cal, but from this awful sickness. I feel like I need to be at his side right now to just…be a presence. I love my friend very much. I just want to comfort him. But I just… I just want him to get better. He’s been sick for so long it seems. Every few hours I think about him. Maybe if I press forward, this group can find a way to heal him and everyone else.

And Callicles is dead. I know that, but it hasn’t hit me. Even as I carry her sword. It just doesn’t feel real. She was often gone – out training. It feels like that. She’s just training. I feel like I won’t really know until I notice the absence of our little talks – er, arguments. We never really reached an answer…about if killing is needed and if so when. I have a dark feeling that I’m on my own now to figure it out. As much as it makes my stomach turn, it seems it’s going to be relevant soon. I’ve never needed to actually kill people on any of my contracts. A compromise could be found, I could merely injure people, or a town could unite and act as a singular force against a small band of thugs. But it’s obvious I’m not dealing with the same caliber of trouble makers. This is what Callicles was talking about.

Pelor, please guide me. I just don’t want to be her.

I joined this guild and this group not really understanding the consequences of it and I’m completely scared. My freedom. My lazy days. My travels in light and relatively trouble free lands. How far is all that from me now? I’ve always loved jumping right into things, but I’m just in shock.

It hasn’t been long and already I’ve heard of a massive plot to resurrect a God, I’ve seen brothers fighting, assassinations attempts, a King, an elder Elf – oh and an orchestrated sacrifice by a demon…apparently (thankfully Erzaad didn’t go through with it). Seriously, I feel like I’ve seen years – decades worth of material in such a short time!

Now that I finally have time to sit down and process everything I feel like I’m on shaky ground. I can get beyond this. I just need resolve. I almost want to say something, talk it out with the others, but I’m hesitant to do so. I pride myself on being an upbeat presence – a source of humor and levity. I don’t want to bring everyone down, especially when I’m in tune with myself enough to know this is temporary.

Especially when I can find comfort in my new companions. I have yet to really get an impression of Ryuu and Larien, but Erzaad proved to be upstanding, unwilling to kill a defenseless being even when tempted by demonic gifts. He has killed others, so I am unsure about his philosophies on it, but perhaps I can begin looking to him to know the balance. Otherwise, he just seems jaunty, which is nice. I love having a kindred spirit.

For that I can also rely on the Cleric we have in toe! A Cleric of Pelor no less! I am so happy to see a man of faith with us. I already feel his presence will keep my love of and dedication to the principles Pelor represents strong (even if he seems a bit on the crotchety side). I’m going to need him as this fight gets more serious. I believe so much in emphasizing spreading good and compassion over punishing evil. I don’t want to stray far from this. If I become tempted, the way Callicles was, I will do everything I can to reaffirm myself with his guidance.

And Erelil – oh adorable little Erelil! Really, when I first met her I just felt the need to follow her a bit to make sure she was alright. I mean, she not only had to endure being the bearer of bad news about Callicles, but apparently she was present when she died –after of course adventuring with her for a while. When she showed up at Lapis’ home, she looked very upset. It’s just not hard to tell for some people when they’re bothered… and this poor girl, she must have been feeling really down for days.

I managed to make her laugh a few times with some flirting. I can’t entirely say I didn’t mean it. She’s cute as hell and I’m hot for tiny girls (I’m like a foot taller than her, it’s intoxicating – I just want to hold her constantly. But I don’t, because I don’t rape people with cuddling. Well… okay, except Callicles those few times, but I can only be so blamed for that. That woman needed to hug a lot of stuff out whether she admitted it or not).

Also, Erelil is clearly a competent healer and archer. She seems like she’s found her way which is nice. She friendly and treats people well and that’s all a person needs to be. When I see how genuinely nice she is with others and how humble she is when she is entrusted with sacred weapons, I just feel a need to make sure she is protected. People like that are what our world needs.

That’s not to say our world doesn’t need people like Cal. It’s not like they deserve to die…

Oh Cal, I’m so sorry I couldn’t help you believe in better things in time.

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Erelil's Diary 3

Dear Diary,
Words cannot express my sadness, and I can’t seem to stop crying. Today our team went into the sewers to rescue Targen, and Kai and Callicles died. I feel like I let them down as the healer on this team. Callicles died right in front of me, and there was nothing I could do. I really looked up to her, and respected her, and I can’t believe she’s gone. I will really miss her. And I’ll miss Kai. I can’t imagine the team without them. After we returned to the Guild Hall, Lyle explained to us why our team was put together, why each of us was intended to help each other. I felt ashamed and sad.
Erelil

Dear Diary,
It’s been a few days, and I feel like I’ve already been regaining strength, and crying less over the loss of my friends. I feel more scared. Days ago, I had no idea what a lich was. Now I know that this powerful immortal evil being Asmoden is at large and posing a threat to Hestaria. Targen spoke to us about helping him convince Lyle to join the fight. Erzaad and I both tried to convince him. I examined Lyle myself, and I was surprised at his strength and stamina. I know that he would be of great help in battle, and may be our only chance of defeating Asmoden. To help convince Lyle of his strength and ability to fight, we asked Targen to challenge him to a sparring match. It was pretty incredible to see Lyle in action, and I am more optimistic about our chances if he is in battle alongside us. Especially if he uses an arm of pure force!
Erelil

Dear Diary,
Today, I was finally able to leave the guild hall and fulfill Callicles’ last request to give her sword to Lapis. When I went to Lapis’s house, I met Lapis and Rex, two of Callicles’ closest friends. It was so difficult to tell them the news of Callicles’ death, especially when they didn’t believe me at first. I gave Lapis the sword, and Rex redubbed the sword Callicles in her memory. Rex joined me back to the guild hall, and decided to join the White Dragons. After my visit to Lapis’s, we set out to my hometown of Quehara – me, Seif, Erzaad, Rex and Ryuu – a new member of our team from Kai’s dojo.
Ryuu is hard to read, and I haven’t formed a whole opinion of him yet. He seems to be guarded and maybe a touch arrogant. I hope to get to know him better.
I really like Rex. He is tall and muscular and handsome, and I swooned a little when I first saw him. He is often smiling, and I find that I’m smiling more when talking with him, almost despite myself. He keeps winking at me and calling me “Baby” and I don’t know how to respond!
Erelil

Dear Diary,
I’m home! Quehara is such a beautiful Elven forest village, and I love the familiar fresh air smell and the protection of the mother tree. It is wonderful to see Gaebrith again. After all this sadness, it was so good to see the familiar face of the Elder who I admire so much. I feel comforted by being home. I also saw Larien again – our reunion was cold and awkward. I always felt she looked down on me, but today felt especially distant. Larien may have been the closest thing I had to a friend in Quehara. Gaebrith told us she will be joining our team, and I am afraid of how she’ll react and how we’ll work together.
Erelil

Dear Diary,
Today the six of us went to the Golden Archer’s tomb to retrieve the Arm Band of Force for Lyle. We encountered several riddles and I was impressed at how our team worked together to solve them. The tomb itself was blocked by a wall of fire, and I knew I had the ability to walk through unharmed. Erzaad came in as well, and needed my skills to heal his burns! In the tomb, we saw the Arm Band and the Archer’s bow. The spirit of The Golden Archer himself appeared. He asked us if we were worthy, and Erzaad answered “No, but the one the arm band is intended for is.” I also said I am not worthy. The figure looked at me and said, “Do not make the mistake of measuring worth by strength alone,” and dropped the golden bow off the pedestal at my feet. I was surprised, excited and stunned. I cannot believe that I would be worthy of such a famous and powerful weapon.
It is more beautiful than any bow I’ve ever seen. It is gold in color, but made of some other rare precious metal that I’ve never seen before. Holding it in my hands, it feels ancient and full of history. It feels powerful, but lacking something which would make it even stronger. I am amazed that I come to hold this bow, and I hope to use it for the force of good to honor its original owner.
Erelil

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Unraveling

Crane. Silence. Beast.

The ritual completed.

“This is all wrong.” Spat Seif without preamble as the three-headed dog contentedly ripped apart his dinner. Anger and desperation and fear tinged his every word.

“We went into the sewers to investigate Targen’s disappearance after Lyle ordered us outside the city. What we found was a scheme larger than any of us anticipated orchestrated by a lich named Asmodan. In the fight with the undead sentries Kai was disemboweled and Callicles had her life drained from her.” Tears, held back for days since the fateful mission, burst forth as he held his head in his hands and sobs racked his frame.

“It could have been me!” He screamed into the flitting shadows, before whispering “should it have been me?”

Naberius stopped eating, raising all heads to watch Seif who began to calm, the repressed emotional storm of the past week subsiding.

“After returning to the guild and weathering Lyle’s indictments, his reasons for bringing us together, we were secluded inside the guild house. What a hell that was – I wanted to break the windows and beat down the doors! And all that time Lyle kept himself to his paperwork. A true hero.” He spat.

“The others were convinced that only Lyle, the agent of the Asmodan’s previous defeat, could be the answer to this new threat. I tried to convince him to stay out of the fray, but I was unsuccessful. The last battle damaged more than just his body, I fear.”

“Their plans came to fruition and Lyle took up his hammer again. He sent us to Erelil’s home to meet with the elder there and retrieve an artifact to replace Lyle’s lost arm. We did so, but the elder saw through me. Offered me advice….” A strange, icy gleam appeared in Seif’s eyes.

“Now the oracle has disappeared as well. Things are getting out of hand and I need to bring them back under control. Let Lyle and his merry band of elites perish in their crusade. I have my own obligations.”

Naberius gave a quizzical look but heard the note of dismissal in Seif’s tone. Without a word, the beast took to his paws and left the circle.

In only a few minutes a new seal was drawn, a new pact made, and a black raven dispatched to the Elven village with a note clutched in it’s talons.

“What can you do for me?” it read.

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What is Luck?
Maybe don't hurt me, don't hurt me no more?

The following is an exact transcript of Erzaad’s thoughts immediately following the battle in the sewers. You have been warned…

Oh crap oh crap oh crap oh crap, Kai’s been eaten. He can regrow his limbs through sheer willpower, right? Is that something he can do? Oooh, maybe he’ll burst his way out through the morgue’s stomach with some awesome victory cry!

Shakes head No, Erzaad, stop it. Don’t be stupid. You know he’s dead. But Cal’s just sleeping, right? Some wispy wraiths couldn’t take down the Iron Lady of the White Dragons, right? I better go check on…

Holy shit, Targen just obliterated that guy! He’s literally just dust now! Oh my gods, that is so coo…

Focus, Erzaad! Cal is lying on the floor dead, or worse! Wait… what would be worse than death? Oh no! What if she’s alive, but her whole body is paralyzed forever?! Should… should I put her out of her misery? Is that what she’d want me to do?

Erzaad runs over to Cal’s body If I make the wrong call, she’s totally going to haunt me in the afterlife. How could I explain that I was just trying to help? Maybe she’ll put a curse on me! Ghosts get one free curse on someone who wronged them during life, right? That’s how that works? I don’t think I can do this…

Erzaad feels for a pulse and finds none. Oh thank the gods, she’s already dead… WAIT, THAT’S A BAD THING! She was my friend! Even though she yelled at me a lot, she was a guildie. We gotta stick together!

I guess I’m lucky that I didn’t die too. I have always been lucky… but is that even a good thing? I survive, but everyone else around me has terrible misfortune? Is this what they call “survivor’s guilt”? Maybe I really AM cursed…

Wait, is this my fault? It was my idea at first to ignore Lyle’s orders and go after… AAAH! I FORGOT ABOUT LYLE! He’s definitely going to kill us when we get back! This will all be for nothing!

Wipes away some sweat from his brow Take it easy. Lyle will be upset, but he won’t kill us, right? He’ll probably just kick us out of the guild…………OH GODS, THAT’S WORSE! I’d rather he just finish me off quickly. Heh, that’s what she sa, NO! This is no time for making jokes!

Was coming down here even the right decision? I mean, we saved Targen and all, but we lost two good members in the process. Is Targen’s life worth more than Kai’s and Cal’s? Hmm, that’s rhymes with guys and gals. I just noticed that. Recovers his focus Well, Targen IS one of our guild’s strongest members…

No, strength can’t be the only measure of one’s worth. They might not have been as powerful as Targen, not even close. I mean, look at that pile of ash; that used to be a dude! Targen evaporated him with lightning! Anyway, Cal and Kai were my friends, my guildmates. Regardless of their rank, they were just as important as anyone else in the guild. And I… let them down. Targen knew what he was doing when he came down here alone. We should have listened to L…

No… no, given a second chance, I would have made the same decision. Targen was in trouble, and the White Dragons don’t leave a guild member behind! Targen may have known the risks, but so did we. We knew it’d be dangerous, but we ALL decided to come anyway. There were casualties, but our mission was a success! Cal and Kai didn’t die in vain. And isn’t that all any of us can ever hope for in life? Maybe the meaning of life is…

Erzaad, distracted by his thoughts, slips on the floor Wah! What did I just slip on? Is… is that Kai’s liver? I think I’m gonna be sick…

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Final Breath
Final Countdown

Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud

Blackness.

Total deprivation from all senses. A darkness so deep, not even I can climb out of it.

You know, I thought I had it.

I really did.

Thought I made it even.

And yet, blackness. Nothing. Dark.

Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud

The twilight shadows fall over the street, casting it in a semi-gloom. But it is not a forbidding gloom, not in the warmth of late summer, with the firebugs flittering and the cool country air whispering in over the wall.

A single pool of warm light shines forth from an old lantern hanging above a door. Next to the door is a battered old sign that reads, ‘House of Wu.’ The door is ancient as well, built in the old style, firm and well appointed despite it’s age.

It is a peaceful scene. One only slightly broken by the flickering appearance of a young boy. He runs to the door, almost appearing as he blips in and out of existence. Upon reaching the old entryway his outline solidifies, as he raises a tiny fist and proceeds to bang on the door.

The door opens, and an equally ancient man steps up to the threshold. The two figures converse, the man calmly, the boy insistently. The old man steps back, the boy slips through the door, and the ancient portal is closed. Peace returns to the street, barely disturbed by what had just occurred.

Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud

Kai struggled upwards after having been hit yet again by the annoying wraiths. Come on! Sensei would kill me if he knew I hadn’t paid attention during his undead lessons. How do you stop these things?! He quickly ran across the floor, before leaping over the channel and skidding to a stop. Ok, last switch has gotta be somewhere, think think think, wait! That wall, that spear was leaning against, what’s Arelil doing by it?

Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud

The young boy is seen sitting on the ground before the old man, surrounded by dozens of other children of every age and race. They are weaving mats as they listen to the old man.
“…And each strand of bamboo stands for one of the truths of the art of kung-fu. The layers represent how each of these truths rely on each other, building upon the foundations laid and allowing us to reach great heights through the will of our souls. Even the bamboo itself tells a story…”

Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud

Oooooooh crap! Kai sprinted across the room, vaulting over and sliding under countless wraiths in his attempt to reach the wall.

Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud

The boy duels with many other children, and wins most bouts. Until he faces a particular child, older than himself, whom he cannot beat. Day after day they fight, and the young boy trains, glaring at the old man and his rival.

Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud

Kai could see Erzaad running out of the side room, dodging a Morg as he headed towards the melee. Oh no you don’t. That wall is mine. Only person who beats me is Ryuu-san. Kai vaulted the other Morg, barely avoiding it’s tongue, and bounced to a stop at the wall. Come on come on come one, there’s gotta be something here!

Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud

Both boys sit on the front porch of the Dojo, facing each other, cups of Sake before them. They utter a few words, touch their bowls together, and drink as one. They then both stand, and clasp hands, feet firmly planted, and proclaim each other blood brothers.

Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud

Aha! A button! Awesome! Kai smacks the button firmly, turns to express his triumph, and is solidly stung by the Morg’s tongue as it whips him straight in the stomach. He falls to the ground, a comical rictus of his last pose. This can’t be good. That thing looks all kinds of hungry and I can’t move. He watches painfully as his comrades fall, rising again and pulling Targen up with them. Amazement crosses his eyes as Targen smites two wraiths into nothingness, before he realizes he is alone by the wall, and the Morg has noticed him.

Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud Thud-ud

The two boys stand on the porch once more, both older, one wiser. They clasp hands and nod to each other. The older bows to the old man, and then walks out of the ancient doorway and onto the street. The younger grumbles something once he is gone, and receives a smack from the old man. They both head back into the dojo, and the door slides shut behind them.

Thud-ud ……………..Thud-ud ……………..Thud-ud ……………..Thud-ud …………….Thud-ud ……………..Thud-ud ……………..Thud-ud

Kai mouths a silent scream. All movement gone. His entrails ripped from his body and dangling from the Morg’s death head. Blood pools the floor. He looks frantically around for a savior, and catches a glimpse of Callicles slicing into the Morg. He smiles. He’ll be fine. They’ve saved him before.

Thud-ud…….Thud-ud……….Thud-ud…………………Thud-ud……………….Thud-ud……………………………. ……..Thu…….d……….

Blackness falls. So deep and so dark that he doesn’t even notice when the end comes. One minute he’s there, full of life and just waiting to spring back into action, the next he’s gone, nothing but a cloak full of gear wrapped around a lifeless corpse.

I really thought I could do it, y’know. All of it. Become a real ninja before Ryuu returned, show Sensei Wu that I could handle it, that I wasn’t a screw up.

Guess I screwed up, then.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

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The Never Ending Flame
The Fall of Callicles

Heavy pants rattled Callicles’ ribs as she ceased running. She was fatigued in a way she had never experienced. What were these things doing to her? It took everything she had left just to partially retreat. She couldn’t even think of poor Kai right now. She looked ahead, meeting eyes with Erelil who stood a bit beyond the doorway.

Oh good. That tiny thing should be safe there.

Cal continued to pant as she looked over her shoulder. Perhaps the most of them would survive this now that Targen was awake and free. And perhaps they would, but all Callicles could see was another wraith coming to her side. On instinct she turned, ready to battle again, but as she tried to lift The Furnace she noticed it actually felt heavy to her. She was that drained.

She looked to her beloved instrument, horrified by this sensation. She was too weak to wield it properly anymore. And defeating the wraiths was already difficult for her. For all of them. It was in that moment she knew chances were better she was going to die rather than live through this.

And her heart dropped, not from fear, but from waves of regret. She wasn’t done yet! But there was no time for her feelings. With an inhale, a last effort to steady herself, she sheathed The Furnace for the last time and turned to the doorway. The scabbard skidded along the floor, reaching Erelil.

Facing death was not unlike facing battle for Callicles. One could only acknowledge the situation and still act despite it. Cal had spent a lot of time preparing for this day and it wasn’t time to panic or cry or give into fear. It was time to execute a plan. With a confident voice and steady eyes, Cal spoke. “Erelil, look at me. I’m going to die.” Her tone was very matter-of-fact, such news being said with the same gravity as when Cal told a server the food she would like to order.

She remained relaxed, speaking steadily and clearly. “If my body and gear can not be recovered, I at least need The Furnace to be returned to Lapis Hardis back in the city. Tell him there is a letter inside the scabbard for him and that I didn’t suffer. Even if you think that is a lie say it.”

She looked back to the wraith, judging how long she had. Perhaps she could say one more thing. Maybe two.

“Erelil, there was nothing you could have done. Any of us. Don’t you dare feel guilt.” Suddenly, Cal felt herself being drained again, knowing the wraith was upon her. She refused to look back, she wasn’t done. Her voice boomed as she yelled, her eyes commanding the girl in front of her with a ferocity she had yet to ever summon,

“Now turn around! Don’t watch this Erelil. Look away!”

It was the last time Callicles would ever connect with another person.

Callicles did the opposite of what she commanded, turning herself to face the wraith and the utter loneliness of her final stand. Glaring, Cal cringed as she was forced down onto her knees, her strength giving out. Every ounce of fire in her flickered on however. Though her body was failing, her mind clung to sobriety and Cal allowed herself time to reminisce. Memories poured into her vision and she was surprised to feel herself not think about the day she was cut open when her village was attacked. No, all she could think about was Lapis and how relieved she was that she made the decision that she did.


“It’s only… I don’t understand the necessity of you leaving. Cal, come on, you were just about to be able to bring some income into this shack for me. All that time together and you want to leave just as you can start paying rent. That’s cold blooded woman, even for you.” Lapis grinned, flicking his hand dismissively toward Cal.

“Well sweetie, you should have known I was a lazy gold-digger when I had you make me a sword for free.”Lapis laughed, sauntering over, “Oh you’ll be paying for that in blood and sweat I’m sure. Which I still think this is insane. I mean, I’m glad you’re not on a revenge kick, but I think delusions of power are definitely going on in that head of yours.”

Cal gave a short snicker, looking back, “Quite the opposite. YOU’RE the one who thinks I’m superhuman, not me. I know I could die.”

The jauntiness in Lapis’ eyes faded at the thought as he moved closer to her, his voice softening slightly. “No…I know. Which is why I’ll just ask. Cal, please don’t move out. I know you’re better now and ready to fight and train. You know I don’t have any plans to stop you. But then why not come home after a hard day with the guild?” He gently cupped the sides of Cal’s upper arms as he looked to her, “Please. Stay with me.”

Mirroring the mood of her beloved friend, Cal had softened as well. With a sigh she shook her head.

“No, Lapis.”
“Cal, do you understand what I am telling you?”
“I do.”
“Do you?” Lapis firmed himself as he moved to cup Cal’s face in his hands.

“Cal, I love you. I don’t know if you feel the same. You don’t have to. But let me take care of you because you very seldom do it for yourself. I see you everyday hold back and bottle things up. I see the echoes of how tired or scared you are sometimes. What happened to your village, what happened to YOU was horrible. And you just beat those feelings away. Rex is right about you. You don’t need to move forward like this alone.”

Cal took a deep breath, wrapped her fingers around Lapis’ hands, and slowly pulled them down. She looked to this man, who had and was continuing to offer her so much and could only feel more adamant about her decision.

“But I do Lapis.” She pulled back, speaking to him with respect, “Logistically, you are correct. I could train with the guild and come home to you.” She shrugged, “And I might as well tell you. Lapis, do you really believe my feelings haven’t been tempted?”

“But that is irresponsible. Are you telling me I am supposed to stay here and let us grow closer? To let you wrap your life and your love and your future around a life that is not assured? I’m not moving forward to be a jaunty adventurer. I’m not trying to be a beloved and idealistic hero of the people. I’m moving to become a killer of evil men. Of sick men. I’m choosing to pursue people who could very easily kill me. I’m not fully competent. I’m in training.”

“The path I’m choosing is one of death. But I need to do this for myself. It is beyond selfish, beyond something I could do to you to walk that line and still be here and position myself as if I have a guaranteed domestic future.”

She softened again, frowning slightly as she traced this good man’s face, “Lapis…I’m on the cusp of loving you. So I still have the strength to do the right thing. If I do die, I rather you lose a close friend than a wife. Let you take care of me? Let me take care of you.”

It was perhaps, the most intimate thing Callicles ever got to experience in her life. But as the wraith siphoned her life away, Cal could only bow to the weight of gratitude she felt of being able to experience such a thing. Being saved and nursed back to health over a year… her tenure in that man’s home and care was the single greatest time of her life.

As she laid down, taking her last breaths, she smiled. She had lived her life on her own terms. She was proud, even in this. Even if her singular life burned out, she felt her essence wouldn’t. She was not the only one in this world with her temperament. People in the end will always campaign forward, even if their motives are different. There would always be something to fight for.

Her passion to fight, to defend… as long as there was sentience in the universe, that flame would never end.

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The Black Eyed Threes

“So there we were, having just saved Seif from certain death and Erelil from certain perversion, our party ventured down into the secret basement of the Black Eyes’ tavern. Cal was able to… let’s say, ‘extract’ some juicy information from one of the lowly bandits relating to their three high-ranking members. I don’t remember their names, but their titles invoked a sense of fear and power: The Blind Monk, whose sense of smell was strong enough to make up for his lost eyesight (I assume); The Wild Mage, a feral battlemage who was likely raised by badgers; And the Stone… um, what was it… Barbarian! The Stonebarian! A man whose muscles were as large as stones, and whose stones were as large as… nevermind.”

“After descending into the depths, we stumbled upon a magic door locked by three keys. Three leaders, three keys. It couldn’t be a coincidence. It was clear that we would have to defeat the officers in order to proceed. Even though tensions were high, I couldn’t help but get excited. We were like heroes in a storybook, battling evil foes to save a fair maiden locked in a dungeon!”

“I led our team down the first hallway, which dead-ended at a room containing our first foe, the Blind Monk! For a villain, he was actually pretty polite. Before we even knocked on the door, he invited us in. We entered the room to find a man wearing a blindfold and two acolytes. He threw a few clichéd threats our way before springing into action. Our group made quick work of his minions, but the main guy proved much more resilient. Though blind, he managed to see through Kai’s tricks and catch Erelil’s arrows. I played support while Cal and Seif fought up close. They both took a beating, but managed to make quick work of the enemy.”

“Though she was uninjured, Erelil had used all of her magic power for the day and decided it best for her to turn back. We wished her well, grabbed a brown key from the monk’s robes, and continued on to the next challenge. And what a challenge it was! We next came upon the lair of Wild Mage and we were in trouble as soon as Cal opened the door. A harpoon trap had been set for us and it pierced Cal’s breastplate like it was paper! With one of our own already seriously wounded, I knew we had to finish this battle quickly. Kai turned invisible and rushed into the room, but soon realized his mistake as a floor trap lit him ablaze. He quickly recovered, but it looked rather scarring.

“Having a clear shot at the scoundrel, I launched an eldritch blast which hit her square in the face. Looking quite perturbed, she then vaulted over a torture rack in the center of the room and began slashing all of us mercilessly with two longswords! I had never seen such agility. Except for the fact that we were on the receiving end, it was pretty awesome.

“Kai and Cal were able to dispatch her companions, but the minor victory was short-lived as both were cut down in a flash of red. Praying that they were still alive, Seif and I focused our strength on defeating the bitch. We trapped her in the doorway, but soon found that to be a mistake. My maneuverability was extremely limited due to the width of the hallway. Seif defended valiantly, but finally succumbed to her blades. It was now up to me to kill the Wild Mage and to save my friends.”

“I tried to lure her into the hallway away from their bodies, but she shut the door and proceeded to strap Cal into the torture device. I knew if I hesitated, she would be dead within seconds. So I kicked in the door and locked the Wild Mage in melee combat once again! I could see the spikes getting closer to impaling Cal. I had to finish this quickly, but my blows were having little effect. Luckily, the Wild Mage was having trouble hitting me as well. So, I dug in deep and went all out. Forming my glaive, I lopped off her arms and skewered her to the floor! I wanted so badly to rest, but there was no time. My friends could bleed out any moment. I ran back into the room and cauterized their wounds with my wand, bringing them back to the land of the living.”

“With everyone fully recovered and the silver key in hand, we continued onward to what was most likely the room of the Stonebarian. At first, he seemed to mistake us for some new recruits, but after some unsuccessful bluffing, he finally caught on and trapped us in the room. Cal and Seif immediately went to battle against the massive mountain of a man wielding a greataxe. However, I had noticed that Kai was just outside of the room when the gate closed. After the battle with the Wild Mage, I did not want to fight this guy with a man down. So, a mere utterance of some dark speech, I shattered the iron bars of the gate, allowing Kai to slip through and join the fray.”

“Kai ran towards the Stonebarian and mounted his throne to gain some tactical advantage. However, this turned out to be quite the mistake. In the process of slicing up Kai something fierce, the grey man destroyed his throne, which he clearly loved dearly. Its destruction threw him into a fit of rage that sent Kai flying, knocking him unconscious. Cal was next to draw the attention of his rampage and was soon also bleeding on the floor. Seif began to attract the Stonebarian’s aggression, taunting him all the while. Taking advantage of the distraction, I tried to heal Cal, who was nearly dead from blood loss. However, my magic wand fizzled and Seif fell a few second later.”

“Again, I was the last one standing. There was no way to heal my guild mates now. I had to defeat the stone man first. Thankfully, luck was on my side. His lumbering axe missed my head twice and my eldritch glaive struck true. Cal and Seif must have really put the hurt on him, because he immediately collapsed to the floor. Wasting no time, I healed my friends yet again, preventing their untimely demise.”

“Though they were uninjured and we had recovered the gold key from a hidden chest, I was worried for my friends’ safety. Twice now they have barely escaped the icy clutches of the underworld. However, they were convinced that continuing on was the best course of action, so we headed back to the locked door. After inserting and turning all three keys, the magic door swung open to reveal a small waiting room. Waiting for what you ask? Well, settle down and I’ll tell you!”

“Seif, eager to leave this dingy place, opened the door, revealing the man we had encountered in the sewers! And he was torturing a malnourished maiden hanging in chains! I would have blasted him off his feet had he not cowardly teleported away. We had no choice but to ignore him for now and free the girl. I shattered the chains and Seif carried her off the altar. We then attempted to leave, but she shrieked and convulsed in pain. Get this: Apparently, her soul was trapped in a crystal at the bottom of a pool of blood. Seriously! I can’t make this stuff up!”

“Kai, for what I could only imagine was for the most noble of reasons, dove into the pool to attempt to retrieve the crystal. However, evil enchantments quickly forced him to surface. But Kai doesn’t give up that easily. Kai would never leave a lady in peril! So he proceeded to strap some weights to his arms and jumped into pool once more, sinking like a rock. I couldn’t see what happened next, but the blood pool exploded as he was expelled into the air, clutching the crystal! The woman, ever gracious, took her soul back and awarded us with a magical elixir. I’m not sure what it does yet, but Seif collapsed shortly after drinking it. We were fine, so he just must have been exhausted.”

“Having defeated the Black Eyes and their masters, we returned to the guild hall safely, leaving the Oracle in the care of our medics.”

Some murmuring could be heard throughout the mess hall

“Hmm? What do you mean I didn’t mention that she was the Oracle before? I’m sure I did. That was super important! I wouldn’t have left a detail like that out. You guys just must not have been paying attention…”

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A Moment’s Rest
Callicles After the Tavern

With a heavy ache, Callicles set The Furnace on its wall mount, the last of her battle gear to be taken off of her. Still in the midst of exhaustion and pain, she labored to pull on a basic set of sleeping clothes and let down her hair. These missions were really threatening to push her over her limit. But Callicles was not one to be moved by such.

Despite her body’s screams, she took a seat at her bed’s edge and held her posture as she applied salve to her muscles. With silent dignity and discipline, she resisted just collapsing into the mattress and falling into sleep. Callicles’ brow furrowed slightly as she attended to her abdomen. She lightly traced, feeling her skin turn to scar tissue and then back again as she passed over a thick, horizontal scar left just below her navel some years ago. She then treated her side, which had been severely punctured earlier that day. She lightly grinned, feeling proud to be able to claim that she had taken down an enemy after being harpooned.

When finally ready, she pulled the covers over herself. Everything immediately went black. But only for a while.

Hazed images assaulted her in her sleep, jumbled and without order. Blood, a woman with a grin and blades, a man with a grin and blades, desperate hands scooping back an organ, a voice – a deep and pleasured purr “I always love finding that yes… we really are all pink on the inside”.

Callicles’ eyes snapped open. When nothing but the ceiling beam met her vision, she relaxed, taking in a deep breath to collect herself. It was nothing to be afraid of. Nightmares were familiar, but so too was the fact that the interval of time between them had been lengthening. As she cracked her neck and laid her cheek to the other side of the pillow, Callicles took the time to reason her way back to calmness. It made sense she was having a nightmare. She had come close to death twice just a handful of hours ago. It was understandable that her body was alert and her mind vulnerable to fear. Callicles took in another breath, deep enough to extend her stomach. But, the mission was over. All of the threats dealt with.

With another breath, Cal focused, bringing herself into the present. With a clear mind, she took note of how tense her body was and began working on relaxing it. Over the next half hour, from her feet to her neck, she let the physical manifestations of anxiety fade from her. Her mind was occupied with nothing else but that task. She took another breath.

I’ve let myself get too emotional lately – yelling at Kai, letting my mind seize upon paranoia about Lyle, feeling incompetent after being almost felled. I need to recollect myself. What is legitimate? Which intuition do I need to follow now? Which decision do I want to make?

For a while, Cal laid in the dark thinking to herself. Not having to rush her thoughts, she carefully evaluated her options. Feeling satisfied with her deliberateness, she was even further relaxed, feeling reassured that she could still trust herself.

It is clear I am not yet who I want to be. The Wild Sage. Clearly, that woman was a sadist. Just the kind of target I want to specialize in dealing with. It is true; I am horribly disappointed and angry that I was not able to be responsible for her fall or to be awake when it happened. But in the end, she was killed. Those types being eliminated is my ultimate desire. It should not matter so much to me whose hand it was to do her in. I still need to train, but I will be their guillotine. One day. Even if not today.

And for other matters… Lyle’s behavior was suspicious. I am not merely being reactive and emotional about that. Usually, when people are taken off a case by a superior it is because they are being protected or they have made a horrible mess of things and are no longer trusted. Neither of those things are applicable here. We are already known by the Black Eyes and the guarantee of our safety is now forfeited, especially since we left with the Oracle. Taking us off to protect us would be ineffective. Lyle knows that.

The tavern was made a mess, but with good reason as we have found. Clearing that place is not an issue. Also, Lyle did not seem upset with the report that the tavern was partially burned and gang members were killed. And he is not afraid of letting others know when he is displeased. We got the desired information, felled three strong leaders, and recovered the Oracle. This was not a failure by any means.

It is possible Lyle is attempting to claim responsibility and handle the case alone for personal or emotional reasons. That seems plausible. It seems odd that he wouldn’t just tell us outright that that is why he wanted us to stop, but he did frame this as something he had to do. Still, it seemed abrupt.

Concerning Lyle, I need to merely be on alert rather than convinced of what he may be doing. Of my team members… I should talk to Erelil. She was definitely shaken. As for Erzaad… even though I do not understand his personality, it is clear I do not need to worry over him anymore. I don’t recall Seif being so on edge in other encounters, but this was a tense time. As for finding Targen, the decision has already been made. I might as well sleep. It will be an opportunity to reaffirm my discipline.

I will do everything I can as correctly as I can.

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