Chapter 1: A Penance Repaid

"Does it have to be so cold?" Arissa Roshad complained. With a trembling hand she pulled her cloak tighter around her small figure. She was a wisp of a girl, small for her age of thirteen years. Of course, she blamed her father for that, since he hardly let her go out as a child. For reasons she never knew he had demanded she remain in the confines of whatever home they were residing in at the time. She hardly had any friends to speak of, never staying in any place long enough to make them. Always the odd one out with children her own age, she was forced to rely on her ever twitching father for companionship.

He was always nervous, ever since she could remember. Never once had he seen the need to explain his peculiar attitude to her, but she had always been determined to not be affected by it. It was simply his manner. Some men were drunkards, other were fools, still others were conniving, but her father was a bundle of nerves. At times she wondered if he'd tried to climb back into his mother's womb at birth.

A pang of regret shot through her when that familiar thought came to mind. Her own mother had died long before she could remember. All she had by way of memories were vague impressions of comfort and joy, sensations she had probably not felt since then. The only physical connection she had of her was a ring – one of a pair – that she wore. Not a wedding band, instead the jewelry carried a rather unique mystical enchantment. Her father wore the other of the set. Since the ring was too big for her small fingers, she wore it at all times on a chain around her neck. Whenever she felt lonely, she would clutch tightly to the golden circle and imagine being in her mother's arms again.

She had never known an extended family, and her father had always evaded any questions about her kin. Eventually she had stopped asking.

"We're only passing through, darling," Edric Roshad, Arissa's father, answered nervously. "There's a merchant caravan heading east in a few days, we'll be out of the mountains and into warmer climate soon enough. For now we must endure."

"Endure," she whispered to herself. It was a familiar mantra her father used when he was evading an explanation. From experience she knew there would be no point in asking him why they were continuing on rather than settling down for a time.

Brushing unkempt and windblown hair from her face she grumbled again at the chilling winds and blankets of snow that made up the county of Bruma. Unlike most of the inhabitants, who were smart enough to clothe themselves in heavy furs and wools, she was forced to make due with a light velvet dress, thin cloak meant mostly for rain, and oversized shirt. Although, she supposed, with her frame, just about anything she wore seemed oversized.

"I'll see what I can do about getting you some warmer clothes, though," he conceded.

She looked on at the crowd of people walking through the merchant quarter of the district. There wasn't as much of a blending of people as in the other parts of the Empire. Mostly there were Nordic folk swaggering this way and that going about their daily business. It was amazing at how acclimated they were to the weather. Several wore sleeveless shirts and coats, acting as if the snow bothered them not at all. A few Imperials and Redguards were also in the mix but there were no Argonians or Khajiit that she could see. It was unfortunate because she always held a fondness for Khajiit people.

When she was younger, during one of the rare moments they were living in a small home, she had a Khajiit friend named Shariq. Her favorite thing to do was run her fingers through the soft fur of her friend, much to the annoyance of Shariq. Inevitably, however, her father relocated them soon after and she had to say goodbye to the young girl.

Feeling a bit daring, Arissa stepped away from her father's side. She wandered around the market level, trying to discover more of the area. On the level below, she could see the local guild chapter houses. Several men dressed in impressive quality steel armor were walking in single file. At the front of them was a Nordic woman dressed in Dwarven armor. Wherever they went, the crowd parted a path and allowed them clear passage. Arissa wondered if even the City Watch would dare stand in their way. From their postures the men were familiar with their armor and seemed perfectly at ease navigating the slightly steep steps leading down toward the eastern gate. Several people nodded their greeting to the group but only a few received any acknowledgement in return.

As she skittered down the steps to the lower level, she could see several people emerging and entering the Mages Guildhall. Two of the mages, only a few years older than she was, from appearances, began walking in her direction. One of them was probably the tallest Breton she had ever seen. He stood at what had to be six feet tall and was probably the most handsome boy she had ever seen. Arissa didn't like the look in his eyes, though. One glance and she could tell that kindness wasn't second or even third nature to him.

The young Breton next to him bore more of a resemblance to their race than his friend. He was shorter and more squared off. His light brown hair was almost as messy as her own, and he was constantly brushing it out of his face only to have the wind push it right back. She could tell that he didn't have the same confidence in himself that the other one did, but his expression practically shone with kindness and affection that it made up for his below average looks. Arissa found herself transfixed by his eyes. They were the color of the sea and as bright as the sun. Even as he approached, not even her embarrassment could force her to look away.

"Hello there, little one," the boy-mage said. His voice was as soft as rose petals, and his tone was as sweet as honey. "What are you doing out by yourself?"

Unable to find her voice, Arissa merely shook her head.

Chuckling softly, the boy continued, "You should go on home, little one. Likely your parents are worried about you. And this weather is too foul for a little princess such as yourself to be out in."

She risked a glance at the taller boy, and he seemed more annoyed than concerned about her. Arissa went back to looking at the shorter boy's eyes. He helped her view by kneeling down before her.

"Do you have a home, little one?" he asked.

Arissa shook her head before she realized that she was, in fact, telling the truth.

Concern shot through his face as he examined her attire. A breeze ruffled the edges of her thin cloak and she pulled it tighter around her.

"Ah," he finally said, "but a darling princess such as yourself should have a castle."

In spite of herself, Arissa found herself smiling at his words.

"But, this isn't right," he looked annoyed. "How will others know you are a princess without your crown?"

Reaching into his robes, he drew out a small circlet made of a metal she had never seen before. It looked like silver, but the shine was too bright to fit the material. She stared at the jewelry with wide eyes. Beside him, the kind mage's companion was looking on with equal awe combined with a significant amount of ire. Ignoring his friend, the boy reached out and placed the circlet around her forehead. Pressing firmly on both sides, he molded it to her head as best he could then fixed her hair around it so that it all but disappeared from view.

"There," he said, satisfied, "now at least you'll know you're a princess even if no one else does."

With that, he winked and handed her a few coins bidding her to not let anyone see her new decoration. Arissa had no intention of showing it to anyone. She knew her father would never let her keep the item if he ever saw it.

The taller boy grumbled several remarks as they moved off into the crowd. If he heard any of it, the kind mage-boy made no indication.

Realizing that she may have wandered for too long, Arissa quickly moved back towards her father. Weaving through the crowd was simple enough – she'd always been nimble on her feet – and she soon found him in sight. She stopped well before she reached him, though and caught sight of a Khajiit man standing around the corner behind her father. He was studying him intently for some reason, and Arissa briefly worried that he might be a thief. She looked to her father with concern but when she looked back to the Khajiit he was gone. Her eyes darted from face to face, but she was unable to locate him again and walked back towards Edric still shaken from the incident.

Her father was still busy bargaining with one of the store owners for information and supplies when she returned. At least that was something her father was good at. Arissa doubted if there was a better negotiator in all the Empire. On several occasions she had witnessed his skill in procuring items for less than half their initial price and sell back lower quality merchandise for elevated prices. To top it off, at the end of the conversations each seller had thought they were the clever ones. With his talent he had managed to make their meager finances last years.

It seemed odd to her, because most Bretons were not known for their skills in speech. And the supposed true talent of her race was completely lost on her father. He had not a single ounce of magical ability in his body. Whenever she had expressed an interest in the craft he had dissuaded her efforts. He claimed that it would be too painful for him to see his daughter fail so miserably at something. The words had stung so deeply that Arissa had elected to avoid the art altogether and the subject was never broached again.

"Here, dear, put this on," Edric said as he handed her a thick robe made of light blue velvet. It rather resembled the robes she'd seen mages wear except it was missing the multitude of inner pockets where they kept their various potions and alchemical ingredients.

She removed her small cloak before donning the new clothing. It was quite new, in fact, and Arissa was amazed that her father had managed to talk the merchant down from his price. The threading was the work of a tailor with obvious skill and not a wisp of the cold air managed to sneak its way through the stitching. There was even gold colored embroidery spanning the collar and a matching belt. She hugged herself tightly as the ice was swept from her veins.

"Do you like it?" he asked.

Smiling ear to ear, Arissa looked up at her father and beamed, "Yes, father, it's beautiful!"

Nearly toppling him over, she all but tackled him in a fierce hug and kept repeating her thanks. Even the merchant – who had been quickly regretting the transaction – smiled at the sight of them.

"You look lovely, child. It suits you," the tall Nordic man commented.

"Thank you, sir," Arissa curtsied politely.

After a quick chuckle the merchant turned to her father once more, "If you need frugal accommodations then Olav's Tap and Tack has decent rooms at a fair price. Since you'll be staying several days its possible Olav will offer a discount."

"Many thanks, good sir," Edric nodded in gratitude.

The merchant had been right about Olav's generosity and later that day her father had managed to negotiate three night's stay for the price of two. As she settled into the only bed in the room – her father had elected to use a bedroll – after a hearty meal of venison stew and rice her father kissed her goodnight before heading into the common room. It was a ritual of his that he wouldn't leave the common room of the inn until all the inhabitants had either gone to their rooms or were forced out by the owner. This being Nordic country, however, Arissa knew it could be some time before he came to sleep. Nords were notorious for their love of spirits and ale.

It was something she was accustomed to, however, and she soon found herself drifting off into sleep. As was typical, her dreams were filled with visions of the happier moments of her childhood. She found herself playing the grasslands with Shariq and swimming in the cool pond near a forgotten farm. Arissa always enjoyed the outdoors, and loved to dance on the bare grass. She spun in a circle as her vision altered as her mother held her tightly and sang a haunting tune in a voice so pure and sweet that she could never hope to duplicate the melody. Playing outside once more, she could hear her father's voice calling her in.

"Arissa, dear, wake up!"

"Wha-?" Arissa sat up in bed and rubbed her eyes. "Is it morning already?"

"No, my love, but we must go, now," Edric kept his voice to a whisper.

The urgency in his voice was not disguised by the volume, however. He was scared, not nervous, not impatient, but truly frightened to the very core. Suddenly, Arissa felt her throat tighten with anxiety.

"Why do we have to go, father? It's still dark," she whimpered, trying to keep the welling tears from overflowing.

Edric abandoned his hasty packing and knelt before her. In the dim light coming from beneath the door she could barely make out his face.

With a moist hand he brushed back the hair from her small face, "I'm sorry, darling, but there's no time, we have to leave immediately. Please, get dressed, I'll gather our things."

Recognizing but not understanding the need, Arissa nodded and quickly dressed herself in her thickest clothes. If it was as late as she thought they would be dealing with the coldest temperatures of the night, and this far north, she didn't want to be caught unprepared.

Within minutes they were standing before the east gate and arguing with the guard.

"I'm sorry, sir, but my orders are to allow no one passage out of the city until daybreak," the Watchman stood, arms crossed and feet wide apart.

"What do you mean? Who gave such an order and why?" Edric demanded.

"That is none of your concern."

After a tense moment, her father accused, "They're paying you, aren't they?"

Eyes narrowing, the Watchman shot back, "I'm sure I don't know what you're referring to, sir." His expression was one of absolute resolve and Arissa doubted if even her father would be able to negotiate their passage.

Oddly, though, Edric didn't say another word, at least, none that she could hear. Instead he stared into the Watchman's eyes and whispered softly. Clutching her father's hand as she was, Arissa thought she felt a quiver run through him. Only seconds later, the guard was moving aside and unlocking the door. He had a strange look on his face and paid them no regard as they made their way into the frosty night.

More confused than ever, Arissa was about to ask her father the obvious question when a second guard approached them.

"Halt! How did you get past Windon? No one is supposed to be allowed out of the city!" the man stalked towards them, hand on his sword.

With another quiver running through his hand, Arissa's father caught the second man's eyes and stopped him in his tracks.

"You saw no one," Edric said, his voice was devoid of any emotion.

"I saw no one," the man repeated.

Not another word was spoken as the pair ran off into the north and towards the looming Jerall Mountains. He was setting a grueling pace and Arissa found herself hard pressed to keep up with her father. The cold winds were biting into her cheeks and she tried to pull the cowl of her robes more tightly in a futile attempt to block them. The rocky ground was rough on her quickly turning tender feet. Regardless, Edric kept their pace at a dead run and seemed to have an endless supply of endurance. Suddenly, just as she felt herself reaching the point of exhaustion he squeezed her hand tightly and she felt another shudder run through him.

Within seconds, she could feel the tension leaving her legs. Her aching muscles loosened but continued moving and she was gifted with a surge of relief. Though they had been running for nearly ten minutes her body felt as if they had only begun. Not sure what to make of the sensation, Arissa continued.

He was staying well off the trials, she noticed, and at one point turned around completely and began heading west. Periodically, whenever her legs threatened to give way beneath her, she would feel the wave of relief surge through her and, replenished, she was able to keep up with Edric. After a while, the sensation began to feel familiar to her.

Wondering if there was more to this than met the eye, she turned her thoughts inward and searched for the source of replenishing energy her father had been drawing upon. With her mind focused as she was, the next time Edric imbued her with relief, she followed its path. Within moments she was certain she had found it.

Like a pool of flowing water, she could feel the energy swirling. It was everywhere! Invisible to the eyes, nonetheless it was apparent to her. As she reached out with her inner self, the energy suddenly began to move towards her. Draping her in a soothing embrace, she implored upon it to relieve the ache beginning to creep its way through her legs once more. Almost as if it were eager to please her reverent tone, she felt the waves surge through her and even as her own legs regained their strength she sent another surge through her hand and into her father.

He almost fell when he turned to look at her with wide eyes. Even as they continued their exhausting pace, he stared long and hard. She couldn't help but smile at him as she realized what she had done.

It was magic! She was channeling magic! It had to be Restoration magic because… well, it was restoring her, wasn't it? Not only that, but her father was using it as well. Even though he had always claimed to have no talent in the art here he was restoring the both of them through their marathon. That had to mean he had talent, didn't it? A normal mage couldn't have done what he was doing without exhausting their ability, could they?

They continued on through most of the night, legs pumping furiously through the thickening snow. Whenever they felt the other beginning to falter, they would tap into the magic and send waves of relief to the other. On and on they went, covering one mile after another until Arissa could not even make out the light of civilization. Finally, several hours later, her father stopped in a small clearing deep in the Colovian Highlands.

Even with the magic assistance they were both exhausted and their clothing was soaked with sweat and melted snow. Gasping in and nearly chocking on the cold air, Arissa collapsed in a heap on the ground.

With gentle hands, her father laid his palms on her shoulders and she felt waves of heat sweep through her body. In seconds, the cold bite of winter was gone.

What sort of magic was this? She touched the snow beneath her with a bare hand and watched in awe as it melted away almost immediately. It was as if her very skin was on fire, but she felt no pain or fever. Her eyes looked into her father's quizzically.

"A shield of fire," he answered with a smile, "from the school of Alteration. Something I learned in the Mages Guild."

"Mages Guild," she was shocked. "But I thought you never learned to use magic."

The simple statement struck him deeply, Arissa could see that in his eyes. He looked away briefly and sighed.

"I'm sorry, Arissa. There's so much I haven't told you about your past, about me," he gritted his teeth, "and about your mother."

Arissa's eyes went wide. Her mother? What did her mother have to do with any of this?

"What about mother? Why didn't you tell me about magic? Why did we have to run away like this? Why do we always run away?!"

All the questions came pouring out at once and only his finger on her lips stopped them.

"You have a right to know, you do, and in time I will tell you everything," he took her hands and stood up. "For now, though, we have to keep moving. There are people after us, bad people. I had hoped we could reach the pass to the north and run beyond their reach, but they found us in Bruma. I don't know how…"

His voice trailed off as he looked up towards the east. Eyes wide and mouth agape, he stared off into the distance and began shaking his head slowly.

"It's impossible," he whispered. "How?"

"What?" she asked, and looked behind her. When she saw no signs of anyone she turned back to her father.

Instead of explaining Edric grabbed her roughly and pushed her toward a cluster of tall brush. He sat her down and began piling snow around her trying to blend her in with the frosted vegetation. It worked fairly well especially since, in the dark light, her dress matched almost perfectly with the snow.

"Why are you-?" she started to ask, but once again he silenced her with his finger.

"Quiet, Arissa!" he whispered harshly. "Whatever happens now, you must promise me that you will be quiet."

"What-?"

"Promise me!" he whispered again. "Promise daddy that you will stay still and stay quiet, no matter what happens!"

Not sure what to make of his tone, Arissa nodded, "I promise, daddy."

Relief sweeping through his features, Edric stood up quickly and stepped away back into the clearing. He drew an elven dagger from his boot. Arissa had seen him practicing with it on several occasions and she knew him to be skilled with the small blade. When he reached the center of the clearing, he stopped and waited.

With only the dim light of the moons to see by, Arissa could barely make out her father's features, but his stance spoke volumes of his determination. Even from where she was her senses could detect the changes in the currents of magic swirling around him. He was preparing for something and gathering all the magic he could.

It was several minutes before she saw what he had seen. From the edges of the clearing, two figures cloaked in blackness emerged from the shadows. They wore leather armor as dark as the night and each step was as silent as the moonlight on the snow. As they approached her father they separated, forcing him to turn and face only one of them at a time. Rather than fall for the ploy, Edric stood perfectly still and trusted his senses to warn of their approach.

Both stopped well before they were within striking distance. The figure on the far side of the clearing spoke.

"Where is the girl?" he asked. His voice was thick with an accent of the Heartlanders.

Silent as the night, Edric balled his fist at his side.

"You were clever to hide this long," the other spoke, an elf from the sound of his voice. "But you must know that none can evade the will of Sithis forever."

"Give us the girl and you will live through this night," his companion added.

Her father took a deep breath before answering, "Over my dead body."

With speed she had never seen – it had to be magical – he spun around in a complete circle and swung his free arm toward the elf. Shining brighter than any light she had ever seen a bolt of lightning shot forth from his fingers and struck the elf in his chest. The force of impact sent the assassin flying backwards several feet and Arissa saw his dagger fly off into the trees not far from her. As he landed hard on the ground he squirmed for several seconds before lying perfectly still. With one massive burst of magic, her father had killed one of their assailants. Of course, that meant he had used up most if not all of his reserve which left little to none for the other man.

"So the stories were true?" the first man remarked. Appearing unphased by the death of his comrade he crouched low to the ground and began creeping toward her father.

Obviously drained by the exertion, Edric was staggering on his feet slightly. He recovered fairly quickly, however, and swirled his blade around his fingers with deadly skill.

Seeing the display, the assassin slowed his approach. Rethinking his methods, he taunted her father.

"You have some skill, Spellsword," he chuckled. "And here I thought this would be a dull assignment."

In response her father lunged toward the man, blade extended. The two daggers met in quick cuts and parries. Neither man appeared to have the advantage. Arissa watched in awe as the man who had always seemed so fearful suddenly became a different man of confidence and danger. The only light came from magic as the pair lit up every time he launched another ball of fire, ice, or thunderbolt at his opponent. The bulk of each shot, however, was absorbed by two rings worn on the assassin's either hand. Arissa could see them glow bright with each hit. As the two spun, slashed and ducked they began to breathe heavier and it wasn't much longer before they leapt back from each other.

Both chests heaving for air, the assassin chose to taunt her father again.

"I've never actually killed a child before," his voice dripped with poison. "I'm curious… if her skin will melt more quickly under my blade."

Letting out a shout of rage, her father jumped forward so high he cleared the assassin's head by several feet. Somersaulting behind him, her father stabbed at the killer's back but found only air. As if expecting the tactic, the other had bent backwards at an almost impossible angle. Successfully dodging the attack, he brought his legs back over his head. Both feet landed squarely on her father's face.

Staggering back from the blow, Edric swung blindly.

His opponent rolled backwards and landed on his feet. In rapid succession he swung his left fist and spun his right leg to kick Edric in the stomach.

The assassin wasn't done with his surprises, however, and he drew a second dagger and launched it toward her father's unsuspecting form. Burying itself deep in his left shoulder, Edric cried out in pain.

He quickly drew the blade out and tossed it aside.

Rising slowly, the assassin chuckled as he stepped away.

Arissa felt her breath catch in her throat as her father began stumbling. He was trying desperately to hold his footing but it was obvious he wouldn't last much longer.

"What's the matter?" the assassin taunted again. "Getting tired?"

Edric fell to the ground in a heap. He had no magic left in him to heal and his breathing was ragged.

"Time to pay your penance, Spellsword," twirling his dagger, the man in black stepped toward his body.

The sight made her eyes go wide in fear and she realized that she may well be witnessing her father's murder.

The man turned her father over and relieved him of his weapon. Edric's body shuddered violently as the assassin drove his own dagger deep into his chest.

Tears streaming down her face, Arissa knew she had to do something or she would lose the only person in her life forever. Fear and her promise made her hesitate.

What good could she do against this man? He was strong, stronger than her father, and trained to be the perfect killer. What could a little girl do against such power? She wasn't strong enough.

It was then she realized it. She didn't need strength to save her father. Just as the assassin used stealth and tactics against her father, she could use the same skills against him.

A second time the man drove his dagger into Edric's chest.

Desperation moving her, Arissa reached out again to the magic and begged for help. She needed to sneak up on the killer, and she needed to catch him unawares.

Swirling around her once more, the mystical energy built up and swept through her body. Not understanding the sensations at first, she worried that her spell was cast in error. But her fears were abated as she saw her skin begin to fade. Just as ripples in a pool of water, her body shimmered and vanished. Around her, the night breeze blew.

She was invisible.

Realizing that she held no weapon, Arissa turned to see the second assassin's dagger lying several yards from her. With another plea to the magic, she bade the knife to come to her hand. In seconds, the dagger had crossed the distance and fell into her grasp.

Arissa knew there was no time to waste, and she quickly rose from the brush and crossed the distance to the killer. He looked up in her direction but saw nothing and went back to his dirty deed.

Before he could stab her father again, she jumped forward and wrapped her arms around his neck. With her right hand she swept the dagger deep and firmly into his throat. Showing no hesitation, she slashed the blade out wide and slipped away before he could grab at her.

Sputtering and trying desperately to stem the gush of blood from his wound, the assassin fell back off her father and rolled away.

The task done, Arissa let the magic fall away from her and she became visible once more. She had unintentionally covered her father in the other man's blood and she worked to sweep it away.

"Daddy!" she cried, the tears falling feely from her eyes. "Please, don't die, daddy! I'm sorry I broke my promise, but I'll be good from now on if you don't die! I hide wherever you say; I'll never talk to anyone! I promise, daddy!"

Blood pouring from his mouth, he couldn't respond except to pour tears of his own.

"NO!" Arissa screamed. She knew he was dying and only magic could have any chance of saving him. Desperately, she reached out with her mind and tried to draw on the energy. As she sent waves of healing energy through him, she quickly realized that he was too far gone. The poison in his system had worked its way through is heart and had done more damage that her skill could repair.

Unwilling to give up, she drew on the magic again and again, trying to repair the damage even as more appeared. The poison was working too fast!

His fingers stroked her cheek feebly, then fell away.

"Help me, daddy," she implored, her voice barely audible. "Please, help me save you!"

When she looked into his eyes again, there was no life in them.

The tears stopped flowing, and time itself seemed to stand still. Not even the night wind was audible to her ears along with the cries of the wildlife in the woods. All was silent. Only the sound of her own heartbeat roared through her senses.

Until she heard the assassin groan, that is…

All emotion gone, Arissa stood from her father's corpse and she turned to face his killer. She bent down and pulled Edric's dagger from the blood-soaked snow. Both blades in hand, she stalked toward the crawling murderer.

The ice in her veins made the night air seem warm suddenly and with each step she felt the rage build up within her small figure.

He was on his back, still trying to hold back the flow of blood from his neck while shuffling backwards. Some of the wound had actually healed and Arissa caught sight of a small vial lying empty nearby. So he had used a healing elixir? Unfortunately for him, her cut had proven to be more than it could bind. Pity that.

Panic showing on his face, the man swung wide with his own dagger.

Arissa caught the blade with her own and sliced open his wrist with her father's blade. Cutting through tendons the wound forced the weapon out of his hand. She smiled as the blood began to pour from the second cut.

He tried kicking her legs out from under her, but she met the blow with both daggers. As he tried to draw the damaged leg back, she lunged forward and stabbed one of her blades into it. She struck with so much force that the weapon pierced bone and dug deep into the ground, pinning the appendage in place.

The assassin tried to scream, but his cry sounded more like a watery gasp.

She reached for the magic again and called into the very earth for help. Suddenly, roots sprung forth from the ground and wrapped themselves around his free leg. He leaned forward and tried to pull his leg free.

While he was distracted, she used her free hand, balled up a fist, and swung hard at his nose. As he fell back she straddled his chest and brought her father's dagger edge-first against his exposed throat. With cold determination, she threw her weight down and pushed the sharp blade down through his neck.

He tried grabbing at her with his good hand and even found her own throat at one point, but her progress was deep enough to steal the strength from his grasp. Eyes wider than she thought humanly possible, he looked at her in shock.

When she was halfway through his neck, he began to convulse violently; which annoyed her to no end because it made her work more difficult. Undeterred however, she continued until the blade cut through his spine and hit the frozen earth.

Finally, his body lay still. She reached out then, grasped the head by its hair, and lifted it free. Disgusted by the sight of the killer's face, she tossed it aside. It landed somewhere in the brush with a soggy thump.

She thought she heard a whisper in the air, and quickly turned to survey the area. When she saw no one for several minutes she allowed herself to relax.

After looking over the body one last time, she turned back to her father. Still finding no tears, she knelt beside him and straightened his limbs. Closing his eyes and mouth, she went and found his bedroll and covered him. Suddenly concerned that some animal might come by and desecrate his body, she clutched his dagger tightly to her chest and lay beside him.

Arissa knew that she was alone now. Her father would never be there to take care of her again. He was dead, and she was alone.

With no regret, Arissa undid the clasp of her cloak and shrugged off her robes. She undressed until she was wearing nothing but her shift. Immediately, she felt the freezing air of the winter night attack her skin. Settling down next her father's body once more, she closed her eyes and waited for the inevitable. Sleep soon fell upon her.

Her dreams were filled with tormented images. Flashes of fire and ash, sounds of metal hitting metal, and screams of people plagued her. She saw visions of a stag running through a burning field and a giant skull made of dripping ash and eyes of fire. A hand draped in shadows reached for her but was pulled away as a wolf with glowing white fur appeared and snapped violently. The images rolled back and forth but neither held for long.

The forest itself seemed to come alive as tree branches swung wide but they were all wilted away by flame. The skull looked at her and reached out once more, but again, the wolf appeared and chased it away.

Fire blazed all around her, reducing the trees to cinders, but more came to replace them. Rain fell in torrents, but could not douse the flames that had taken hold. In the distance, she could hear animals calling.

Figures in black stalked about in the blaze, unaffected by the heat. One by one, she could see the creatures of the forest come forth into the flames. Each was met by a shadowy figure. Some never saw their killers, so intent were they on reaching her, and others managed to vanquish a few of their opponents, but all fell before coming close. The ashen skull screamed in rage and stalked toward her, two arms extended.

She actually reached forth to meet him, but the wolf leapt between them, snarling. Falling back, Arissa watched as the two figures stalked around each other. The ash swung but missed as the nimble creature dodged. The wolf countered by intensifying its glow and as the light shone forth, the black figure stepped back in fear.

But it was not beaten; all around the robed figures emerged from the flames and attacked the wolf. Several of the figures were taken down by various animals braving the burning brush, but most made it into the fray. Outnumbered, the wolf spun around, trying to fend off the attacks, but to no avail. Taking advantage of the distraction, the ash figure stepped toward Arissa once more.

Her eyes snapped open suddenly. She was back in the clearing lying next to her father's body. All over, her body ached from the cold, but she no longer felt the cold wind.

As she turned her head, she realized that she was covered by a thick blanket made from bear skin. Sitting up, she pulled the cover tightly around her and looked around. Standing several feet away from her was a man clothed in black robes. Beside him was a roaring fire.

At the edge of the woods, a stag appeared and pawed at the ground loudly. It looked directly at her before shaking its head.

Curious about its behavior she frowned.

He walked towards her and extended his hand. In her mind, she flashed back to her nightmare and the skull of ash.

"Welcome back, child," the man said.

Her mouth was oddly dry, but Arissa managed to croak out, "Who are you?"

He smiled, before responding, "My name is Lucien Lachance, dear child, and I come to offer you a choice. It is a chance to begin anew. To be with those who would fill the love lost."

She felt the tears beginning to fall again. As Arissa took his hand, the stag ran off into the woods and let loose a haunting cry.