Ch. 39

Mission Improbable

The air was full of the screams of the dying as they writhed in pools of their own blood. A red sky overhead was filled with ash and grit and smoke and terror as the Beast stalked the battlefield. Here it was strongest, here it was supreme. The apex predator, the monster that other monsters feared. She threw back her head and howled as she caught sight of the frightened fool who tried to run, the Kournan colors on his armor betraying him as an enemy. She was upon him in moments, claws slinking into his flesh as he gave a satisfactory scream of terror and pain.

"Please...!" he begged brokenly, his mouth filling with blood, "Please!"

A rattling laugh came from her maw, the tails on her head whipping with wicked glee as she raised her claw and listened to him scream one last time.

Rakiv woke with a start, cold sweat beading on her flesh as she panted and gasped for breath. The pounding in her head immediately made her regret sitting up so quickly and she collapsed back into the plush sheets and pillows behind her. Violet eyes were wide as they stared at the ceiling and her chest heaved as she tried to catch her breath. A nightmare... of sorts. It might have been only a nightmare, had the vision not been so very close to the truth. She ran a hand across her brow and then winced at the pain in her triceps. She examined her arm, finding it swathed in white bandages, and then glanced down at herself. Most of her was covered in bandages, the cloth concealing her otherwise naked form. New aches and pains sprung up almost as soon as she recognized that they had been treated and bound and she gave a little bit of a hiss as she laid back into the sheets again.

"Welcome back," a familiar tenor spoke to her from the side of the bed.

With some difficulty she turned her head, giving a quick puff from her lips to blow her bangs out of her face. She locked eyes on her first officer who was flanked by two burly soldiers in Dzagonur armor. She frowned when she noticed the chains they held, and realized that they led to the manacles around Kydar's wrists.

"The hell...!" she started to rise and then winced at the pain in her side.

The soldiers, she noticed, immediately tensed. The grip on their spears grew tighter as they very nearly leveled the weapons towards her before Kydar raised his cuffed hands to calm them.

"Easy... easy everybody," he said quietly, "It's alright... she's okay now. She's not gonna hurt anyone... right Rakiv?"

The ranger stared at him curiously, more outraged at the bonds upon him than she was at the soldiers reactions. She looked up and about, trying to get her bearings. The room she was in was lavishly furnished, strewn all over with silk and cushions and down. Kydar himself sat in a high backed armchair that had been pushed to the side of her bed, obviously for long vigils over her.

"How long have I been out?" she finally asked quietly.

"Four days, almost five," he said as he reached toward the bed-side table with some difficulty, given the manacles on his wrists, "It's about six pm of the fourth day now."

"Four days!" she exclaimed, and winced again when her ribs throbbed, "What's happened? Is everyone alright? What about the invasion! Where did...!"

She finally had to stop as the pain in her chest grew too great and she laid back on the sheets again, panting for breath. Kydar leaned forward, a cool, damp sponge in hand as he dabbed at her brow and neck, wiping away the sweat and bringing her some measure of relief.

"Easy ma'am, easy," he urged gently, "Everything's been taken care of. We've been guests of Ahmtur for the last four days while he distributes the forces he can spare across Vabbi. There have been some squabbles here and there, but no attacks on major centers. Scouts say that Margonite bands are everywhere, patrolling the desert and waylaying anyone they can. But there haven't been any organized attacks. Yet."

Rakiv calmed somewhat at that news as she made herself relax. She breathed in deeply for focus as she pushed the pain aside, determined to keep on top of things. She licked her dry lips and looked up at him just as he applied the nozzle of a water skin to her lips. She drank, and drank, and drank some more, hardly remembering the last time she was this thankful for water. She ran short of breath and might have kept gulping had Kydar not lifted the water skin away from her lips. He smiled gently at her and then put the water skin aside before returning the sponge to her skin, dabbing around her bandages to wipe the sweat away.

"What's with the chains?" she asked breathlessly once she had swallowed several times to ease the tension in her throat.

"I disobeyed a direct order from the Prince," he said, "I've been in custody and I'm to stand trial."

"Why the hell... did you do a silly thing... like that?" the ranger inquired, brow furrowed.

"What do you remember before you blacked out?" the elementalist countered calmly.

"I..." she began, "I remember the gates being attacked... the Whispers came to our rescue..." she paused for thought, "Then the Apprentice..."

She stopped when she had an immediate flash back. The open skin, those pale dead eyes staring down gleefully at her. She remembered the taste of the blood, it had been sweet instead of coppery, and it had felt all too good to sink her fangs into flesh. She choked on a cough and then recoiled again when the movement made her ribs twinge.

"The Apprentice came to your aid in the keep to resecure the gate," Kydar nodded slowly, "And after that, you... you changed. I guess all those times before, like in Fahranur, had just been glimpses of what you could become because this time... you really changed."

"What did I do...?" she asked breathlessly as she lay back, waiting for the pain to subside again.

"You broke ranks, charged the bridge and cleared it single handed," he explained, "You went on to retake the center bombard and then... you just ran off into the field. You killed whole battalions by yourself... Margonite battalions. You turned the whole fight around."

Rakiv took careful, measured breaths as she tried to recall it clearly. She did remember in part. She remembered the fury, the wrath and the power that she felt. She remembered the way her scythe had felt in her grip, the strength she'd been able to put behind every swing. But it was a haze of combat, nothing distinct to tell her exactly what she had been doing while she tore a swath through the demons.

"But you were alone, and completely outnumbered," Kydar continued as he dipped the sponge in the water-basin on her bed-side table and wrung out out lightly again, "So myself, Anicara and Alendra went out to get you. Ahmtur gave me a direct order, as a citizen of Vabbi, to remain on my lines with the other casters. I disobeyed and cut him out of our guild communications."

Rakiv rolled her head to fix him with an incredulous stare. The scribe returned her gaze evenly as he dabbed at her forehead again and then wiped the sponge over her torso and arms. The ranger wasn't sure what to say, and so finally just gave a heavy sigh.

"How do they deal with that here?" she asked carefully.

"Normally I'd have had a trial by now," he said, "Probably been exiled, imprisoned or hung depending on what the arbiters decided. But Ahmtur explained that I am one of your assets, and he would prefer to negotiate my punishment with you. Clever of him really. I think he's looking to turn this into profit, rather than an open-and-shut case of insubordination."

"Well... he is a merchant prince," Rakiv mumbled with a slow nod.

"That he is," Kydar responded with just a small hint of amusement.

Both fell silent as the elementalist continued to gently wash her until he was satisfied, then he put the sponge away and patted her down with a fluffy towel. Rakiv took a peek under one of her bandages to inspect the damage. As she had expected, the wounds were healing at a phenomenal rate. Mostly they just ached, but there were no signs of an open cut anywhere.

"Priests said they'd never seen anything like it," Kydar explained as he folded the towel and put it on the end table as well, "Some spells and prayers can knit flesh that way, but not consistently... certainly not for four days. I told them you were full of surprises."

"Yeah..." she agreed lowly and then cleared her throat as she changed the subject, "What's with the tin men?" she asked, gesturing to the two soldiers behind him, "They here to make sure you don't make a break for it?"

"Actually, they're here for you," he chuckled lightly, "You ah... you weren't exactly a calm patient the first couple of days. Threw one of the physicians through an oak door."

"I did...?" she blinked, "I don't... I don't remember."

"You kept having violent nightmares," Kydar nodded lightly, "And you hadn't quite... powered down, I guess. One of the priests grabbed your arm the wrong way and you pretty much grabbed him by his tunic and gave him a good toss. He's alright though, mostly just some pretty bad bruising. Luckily the hinges gave, otherwise he'd have broken something."

Rakiv gave a groan of displeasure as she pushed her head back into the pillow behind her. She closed her eyes as she probed her own mind for any lingering remnants of the battle rage. For once, she found only calm and peace in her own mind and let out another slow sigh.

"So, I think it's only fair that I ask," Kydar said, staring down at her as he steepled his fingers in front of his nose, "What happened out there? How did you do that?"

The ranger might have objected, had another memory not surfaced just then. She saw the scribe approaching in the midst of battle, shouting for her to stop. She had thrown him down, had threatened him and he had shown no fear that she could see. He'd grabbed her, done some kind of spell and then... She felt her cheeks grow a little warm and she decided she had better answer the question before she began to blush.

"It's... complicated," she said quietly as she finally turned her violet gaze back to his, "I told you how I ended up at Gandara right? Back when it was the Moon Temple?"

"Mhm," the scribe nodded, "And how you first met Kormir. Haven't heard much since then though."

"Well... I spent the rest of my young life there," the ranger explained, "There were a few programs that were run at the Temple. The dervish school trained young boys and girls from all across Elona there. Some of the Sunspears even came over to cross-train a bit with the priests and dervishes. But our class, the Khel-Varr as they called us... we were special. They trained us harder and more rigorously than any of the kids there. There weren't many of us... maybe twenty or so, all split into different little bands and units. When I arrived, I was placed with Yurukaro. She was one of the fourth-year students who ran her unit, but two of her girls had failed their exams that year. That left just her and Kormir, and then I came along."

The ranger shifted for comfort as something in her back started to ache. Kydar watched her carefully but made no move to help her, prepared to act should she require aid. Instead she managed to push an extra pillow beneath herself and prop up her shoulders. She had to pause to pant a little before she gave him a weak smile as reassurance that she was alright.

"So the three of us banded together," Rakiv continued after gently clearing her throat, "They looked after me... and I looked up to them. Honestly, I kind of idolized Yurukaro. She was everything I wanted to be. There was no tougher student at that school, which meant that Kormir and I had to be tough too. And damn, did we learn to be tough. We regularly outscored everyone else at the yearly exams, and we just got better and better every year. I was in my fifth year there when they finally put another girl in our unit."

"Varesh Ossa," Kydar concluded.

"Yeah," she nodded slowly, "Varesh was put into our group at the command of her father. The Warmarshal wanted his daughter to have the absolute best training that Elona had to offer... and there was no finer to be found than with the Khel-Varr. The problem was... he didn't understand what we were about. I still remember sneaking into the rafters over the conference room, where Eidolon and the man who is now the Master of Whispers were meeting with him. They tried to tell him that Khel-Varr weren't just well trained fighters. We were... different. Special, I guess."

"Chosen ones," Kydar supplied.

"I dunno..." Rakiv made a face, clearly disliking the term, "I suppose... I mean, that's what they said. Each of us was supposedly chosen by one of the five, a potential champion or something. I... I really did believe that back then..."

She fell silent again and Kydar waited patiently. She licked her lips and then turned to rearrange her pillows again. This time the scribe helped her, pushing them up into a big mound behind her to allow her to sit upright. She relaxed against the mountain of cushioning and gave a little bit of a sigh as she felt some knotted muscles start to relax.

"Anyway... the Warmarshal wasn't having any of it," she explained, "He insisted that by virtue of Ossa blood, she was god-touched anyway. Kept saying that Turai's legacy should be more than enough. Finally he started in on the threats, and Eidolon stepped out to find and speak with the elders of the school. They finally bowed to the Warmarshal's demands, and that was how Varesh ended up in our squad. Kormir and I were skeptical at first, but Yurukaro didn't seem to care. She held Varesh to the same standards as the rest of us and to our surprise... Varesh never blinked. If she took a bruising while sparring, she sucked it up. If she failed an exercise, she did it again and again until she got it right. It was... kind of cool. We'd expected a princess, and we got a trooper," she laughed a little.

Kydar smiled lightly as he watched Rakiv recall the memory. He waited quietly, not wanting to interrupt the ranger's reverie and presently she continued.

"I was in my sixth year when they first started giving us assignments," she said, "Karo was... about fourteen or so then I think... it was around then that Elona started having trouble. The heket were massing, the harpies had formed their infamous Storm Flight... corsairs were fortifying the Barbarous Shore and the Warmarshal's health was declining. He refused to give proper authority to his generals even as he waned though, pretty much keeping their hands tied as the province fell apart around them. So they secretly started 'contracting' us for help. The elders thought it was a great opportunity to see how well we had been trained so far."

"You were only kids..." Kydar balked in alarm.

"We'd been trained for this our whole lives," Rakiv shrugged, "And we thought we were ready for it too. Our very first assignment was to infiltrate the Barbarous Shore and take out a powerful pirate lord, named Admiral Chiggen. It took us a few days, and we had some slip ups, but we found him... and we killed him. It was messy though, and we had to fight our way out and make a narrow escape. We killed a lot of his captains too, which turned out to be good. It would be years before they pulled together to assault Kourna again."

Kydar stared at her closely, but was not quite able to read the expression on her face. Rakiv tilted her head back again as she rifled through old memories and chewed her lip.

"We got a few other assassination missions like that... but Eidolon started to protest," she continued after a moment of thought, "He didn't like that they were just using us like a weapon. He felt we were better than that. I think that was how we got assigned to stop the Storm Flight."

"I remember the Storm Flight," Kydar said slowly, "Or at least, I heard about it. An enormous army of harpies that managed to occupy entire villages for months right?"

"Yeah, they were something else," Rakiv confirmed with a grim nod, "They were led by one pretty powerful harpy that had learned elemental arts. Moteh Thundershooter they called him. We had to hunt down his generals one-by-one while trying to find him. By the time someone gave him up, it was almost too late. The harpies laid siege to Jahai itself, and that was our first time in a real fight. Like all out war and combat. We got strapped down in armor, and joined men on the battlefield. Everyone was kind of nervous having a troop of little girls on the field... especially with one of them being the Warmarshal's daughter. But we did it. We took down Thundershooter and Yurukaro brought back the body as proof. The harpies scattered and... and we were heroes."

She looked up at him and gave him a wry smile. Kydar frowned lightly at her expression, his own brow creased with confusion.

"And it was kind of great after that... in a messed-up childhood kind of way," Rakiv laughed lightly, "Adventure after adventure, and our trainers started teaching us cooler and cooler tricks. We felt... unstoppable, invincible. I ended up doing a solo mission when the centaurs finally asked for human aid against the heket. Big fat frog man, Tundoss the Destroyer they called him, was attacking all the centaur villages. That was how I met Mirza Veldrunner, and together we hunted down and killed Tundoss. I think it was about then... yeah, about then that I started to understand some of the... more interesting parts of my gifts."

"What do you mean?" he asked her quietly.

"I never had an animal companion back then," she said, "And I started to find that I didn't need one. When I needed to, I could hit as hard as a bear, shrug off blows like a notuka... My eyesight was clearer, my ears were sharper and my sense of smell was keener. A quick prayer to Melandru, and these gifts compounded... sometimes tenfold... or so it felt. I could stalk and spring like a lion, run like a moa... it was incredible. And I got a real test of these... abilities, when I was in my seventh-year there... when the typhoon hit."

"You mean the one in '67?" the scribe inquired with a tilt of his head, "The one that submerged like half of Istan and flooded the coast?"

"Yup, that's the one," Rakiv nodded slowly, "Only it wasn't any ordinary typhoon. It was a water elemental's wrath that whipped it up. You remember the one we met in Istan? Kinya Kela?"

"Yeah, I remember..." Kydar grumbled, "I remember she wasn't exactly a friendly elemental."

"Well she used to be even less friendly," Rakiv chuckled slightly, wincing as the laughter hurt for a moment before she continued when the pain subsided, "Mmph, yeah she went off the deep end when the Council ordered that the Priests of Grenth perform a grand ritual for all the sailors who had died at sea that year. They neglected to note that it was during one of the holy weeks during which the Maelstrom Djinn usually received their tribute for fair seas and calm winds."

"Aaaand she decided to take it out on everyone?" Kydar inquired.

"Yeah... for a few weeks every water elemental in Istan disappeared, and then they appeared again off the cost, bringing one hell of a typhoon with them," Rakiv said, "That storm raged for almost two weeks and showed no signs of stopping, no matter how many offerings Kourna and Istan dumped into the sea. So finally, when it made its way far enough north to be within reach of Gandara, I decided something had to be done."

The ranger paused to shift one of her pillows that had slipped and sat up a little straighter. She folded her hands on her lap as she closed her eyes and recalled the memory.

"The masters had forbidden anyone to go outside during the storm, we'd all been cooped up for days," she recounted carefully, "But I knew how to get out. The drain in the kitchen led to underwater tunnels that carried the waste from the mess out to sea. I'd swum it once before, on a dare of all things. So I knew I could do it again. After swimming through the tunnels I surfaced beneath the docks and took a small dingy for myself... a boat that I figured no one would miss if I failed. Scythe in hand, bow and quiver at my back, I furled its sail and let the storm whip me out to sea."

When there was no reply this time, she opened her eyes briefly to find Kydar staring at her with rapt attention. Even the two soldiers, who had been attempting to appear as impassive as statues, were now looking at her, obviously listening with great interest.

"It was one hell of a ride, let me tell you," the ranger smiled a little more easily as she closed her eyes again, "The wind howled so loud and the rain beat so hard it stung. I remember thanking the gods that I was still wearing my hair in braids back then. I sailed for... I don't know how long, before I finally saw it. Center of the typhoon, a great sphere of water surrounded by an army of djinn, all chanting and singing in that strange tongue of theirs. In the middle of the sphere, like an angry sea-goddess, sat Kela herself."

She paused again and licked her dry lips. When she looked to him, Kydar automatically offered her the water-skin and she drank deeply. As the men waited eagerly for more, Rakiv took a deliberate moment to wipe her mouth before she continued, her eyes closing once more.

"It's a tricky thing, making a clean shot in high winds," she explained, "Your fletching has to be sturdy, arrows perfectly straight. You have to feel the wind, and know where it'll carry your shaft once you loose it. You don't fire directly at the target either, you shoot away from it, let the arrow curve to the point of contact. When I finally let fly, I don't think I'd ever made so perfect a shot in my life. Broke the bubble and took the crown right off her head. She was so mad," the ranger paused to laugh in earnest, "But before she could order her forces upon me I challenged her. As Melandru's chosen, I too was a force of nature, and could challenge her for the right to rule her court. She could not refuse and so, me on my dingy and she on the sea, we fought."

"How?" Kydar asked, clearly shocked.

"How what?" the ranger asked as she cracked open an eye to look at him.

"How did you fight her?" he blinked, "Did she come aboard your boat or something?"

"Oh no, no, she smashed my boat almost immediately," Rakiv laughed lightly, "But fortunately, enough of the hull survived that I was able to jam what was left of the mast and sail into it and sort of... surf the waves."

"You surfed a typhoon... while fighting an elemental?" Kydar asked with clear disbelief.

"You don't believe me?" she retorted with an arch of her brow.

"I honestly don't know anymore," the scribe laughed.

"Well it wasn't easy at all," Rakiv assured him, "The first attack was pretty brutal. I mean, she was in the center of her element. Fifty-foot waves, gale force winds and all that. Capsized me a couple of times but that little boat just didn't quit, until she managed to crush it between a couple of waves. The back end splintered and I had to act fast. Cut the lines to aft and let it fall forward. It broke in half and that was when I had to jam the yard arm into the forward hull. With the lines cut the sail was just flopping about in the wind, so I managed to catch hold of the ropes, lashed them around one arm and then used the wind to keep the wreck of my little boat moving."

"You held the sail against gale force winds?" Kydar inquired, "With the ropes lashed around your arm? That would have torn any man's arm off!"

"I know," she smiled.

One of the guards gave a low whistle, before he caught himself and then quickly cleared his throat. Rakiv smirked knowingly at him but brought no further attention to his break from decorum.

"Kela closed in for what she thought was the kill, but I'd been waiting for her to get close," Rakiv smiled again, obviously still proud of the maneuver.

"So you could bring your scythe to bear?" Kydar assumed.

"No, so I could get her out of the center of the storm," she grinned, "Out of that bubble where she could command it completely. But when she finally left it, I showed her that I could control the winds too. See while I'd been sailing, I had been calling up the three spirits I knew would help me most. Spirits of Favorable Winds, Energizing Winds and Roaring Winds. With them at my back, my arrows couldn't miss, I could keep up a truly withering rate of fire and best of all, the winds would no longer heed the chant that her army was singing. As soon as Kela was out of the eye of the storm, I loosed the sail and emptied my quiver into her. Took every single arrow I'd brought, but she finally went down and the storm began to break up. I surfed my broken dingy into the eye and retrieved her crown from the waves. At my order, the djinn stopped their chanting and the storm simply began to dissolve into rain clouds and wayward blusters."

The men were more than a little captivated and the red-head laughed lightly as she recalled the moment of triumph, her grin broadening a bit at the incredulous stares of her three man audience.

"Kinya Kela picked herself up out of the sea and came to admit defeat, as well as swear her loyalty to me in the hopes that I wouldn't just kill her," Rakiv continued, "Instead I told her to take back her crown and lead her people properly, and to remember the friendship she'd once had with humans. I also might have threatened to come find her if she ever whipped up a storm like that again."

"Which explains why she panicked when you and I walked into the Cyclone Palace," Kydar nodded slowly with understanding.

"She probably thought I was there to kill her," the ranger chuckled lightly, "But that's also why she did what I asked. Anyway... I gave her back her crown and she told me that by right of my victory, I had earned a mark of honor of some kind. I just asked for a ride back to shore and on the way she seemed deep in thought. It wasn't until she and her djinn were dropping me off at the Gandara docks that she announced to the whole fort that for my victory, I would be known as The Maelstrom. Which was how I finally got a surname."

"Rakiv Maelstrom..." Kydar chuckled lightly.

"Yeah... that fight... that was the one where it really, finally clicked," Rakiv said, "I was much more than human... and me and my sisters started to investigate just what that meant. But it'd be awhile before we really understood..."

The ranger flinched as something in her side shifted and she threw her head back with a wince of agony. She took several quick breaths, trying to ignore the pain as Kydar quickly reached for her and began to remove pillows from behind her back to lay her down again.

"Alright, I think you over did it with that little performance," Kydar chuckled lightly, "You should get back to resting. Tell me the rest later."

"We'll... nngh, see," she managed to chuckle cheekily through the aching in her ribs.

Kydar smiled as he pulled her covers up and Rakiv began to relax. The ranger gave a sigh as her muscles released and the pain started to ebb away. As she reflected on the events that had led her here she was distracted by a jingle of chains. Kydar rose to his feet as the guards stepped up to either side of him. The ranger felt the hairs bristle on the back of her neck, but did not voice her objection to seeing her first officer in manacles. As if he sensed her displeasure, Kydar gave her a reassuring smile... and then the memories rushed back. She had been berserking across the field, tearing into anything that moved. Then suddenly he had been there, had grabbed her... chanted something, and then everything had devolved into a montage of flashbacks. Her brow furrowed as she quickly pushed herself up on one elbow and raised a hand.

"Kydar," she called to stop them, "Before you go, one question."

The guards paused as Kydar turned to face her again. His hazel eyes met hers with their regular intensity, and for once Rakiv didn't feel compelled to look away.

"On the field, when you came after me," she said, "What were you thinking?"

Rather than answer, the scribe only raised an eyebrow inquisitively.

"You grabbed me, and cast that spell?" she clarified, "Filled my head with memories of you and me? Like a lot of them too. Every talk we ever had, every mission we went on together, big flashbacks to just... all of it. You could have gotten yourself killed. I might have picked you as a new target instead of just passing out from the overload. What the hell made you think that would even work?"

Kydar remained silent for a moment as his eyes began to twinkle with amusement. His lips curved up as his shoulders started to shake and finally he could not hold back the hearty chuckle that rose up in his chest. As he began to outright laugh, Rakiv fixed him with an even more frustrated stare. The scribe however was quite incapable of caring as he laughed hard enough that it took several moments before he was able to calm himself.

"I'm sorry..." he laughed and waved his hands, "I am, I mean... it's just... let me explain."

"Better do it quick," Rakiv muttered without amusement.

"The spell I cast was called Soothing Images," Kydar chuckled, "It's a fairly simple hex that shuts down the target's adrenal system. Basically, that surge of strength you get when you're mad? Stops that dead in its tracks. Forces you to calm down and, if you've been running on an adrenal high, will make you pass out from the sudden loss of the stimulant."

"In common tongue, if you please first officer," Rakiv sighed, her head already starting to ache from the explanation.

"It forces you to calm down," the scribe repeated, eyes still filled with mirth, "By showing you images that you find calming, peaceful or soothing. Thing is, the caster doesn't get to choose what those images are. If we did, we might get it wrong and make you madder. So instead the hex pulls from your mind those images and memories that you find the most calming. Any memories where you felt calm, safe or secure, it plays those back to your conscious mind and immediately calms you down."

Rakiv felt the color start to rise in her cheeks as her violet eyes went a little wide. As her eyes grew rounder, Kydar's grin grew even wider.

"So whatever you saw," the scribe continued, "It's basically what some people might call 'your happy place'. I had no control over what flashed through your mind when I cast the spell."

The ranger worked her jaw slowly, annoyance and embarrassment mingling within her and making her scowl ever more darkly. The elementalist only smiled at her glare as he gave her a light bow.

"Will that be all guildmistress?" he asked, his amusement still lightening his tone.

"Yes, that will be all first officer," Rakiv replied tensely, only barely managing to not snap at the infuriating scribe.

Kydar couldn't help a final snicker as he turned to walk away and the guards followed with him. It wasn't until the doors of the bedroom clicked shut that Rakiv flopped backward into the pillows again.

"Dammit... dammit, dammit!" she swore as she flailed a bit, and then immediately regretted the movement as more pain coursed through her side, "Argh... why can't he play fair!"

The ranger sighed as she tried to relax again and stared at the decorative arches that crossed the ceiling. The immediate question in her mind was perhaps the most annoying one. If what Kydar said about the spell was true, then what the hell did her visions mean? She had to admit, he was her most trusted ally at this point. No matter what, he managed to come through in new and ever more impressive ways. If she didn't know better, she might have thought he'd had Khel-Varr training or something. But it wasn't anything more than that. And he certainly wasn't her 'happy place'. Of that she was quite sure.

"Dammit..." she grumbled again as she rolled carefully onto one side.

She wasn't sure at all anymore, and that made her angrier than anything. She had a war to fight and win, and she didn't have time for all of this... drama. She decided that if there was anything she was sure of, it was that tomorrow morning she would be having a discussion with Ahmtur. No guildsman of hers was going to rot in jail for showing loyalty to her or her guild. With this determination in mind Rakiv closed her eyes and gently drifted off to sleep.

-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x -x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-

Dressing in the morning was a painful affair, but the red-head managed well enough. A wrap top with flouncy harem pants were the only clothing that she could find in the room, until she uncovered a sari in rich crimson. She ran her hand over the fine, handwoven cloth and gave a small shake of her head. This province had too much money. She wrapped the garment about her torso and carefully folded and tucked before letting the rest drape over her shoulder. A brush was found in the vanity and after taking several minutes to brush out her hair, wash her face and scrub her teeth, the ranger felt much better. A snuffle at the door alerted her to a visitor and she shuffled carefully to the entry to open the door.

"Oh, there you are buddy, I was getting worried," Rakiv smiled down at her crocodile companion.

The reptile gave a slap of his tail against the tile and sniffed at her before he opened his mouth and gave a loud snap of his maw. Rakiv frowned as the crocodile's brow shifted this way and that before he gave her a final disapproving snort.

"I know... I know, I'm sorry," the ranger finally sighed, "I didn't mean to scare you... but we were kind of out of options and... I didn't see any other way."

The crocodile scuffed the tiles with one claw and gave a stomp of his hind legs. The reproach was quite clear and the ranger gave a small chuckle and nodded as she accepted her companion's chastisement.

"Yeah, yeah I know," she responded to him, "I'll do my best to keep it under control. You know how it is..."

At this Butter bobbed his snout in acknowledgment before he decided she had been thoroughly lectured on her misbehavior. He shuffled up and laid down at her feet and the ranger carefully bent to brush her fingers over his scales.

"I'm glad I'm okay too boy," she assured him gently, "But we've got some work to do today. I need to find the throne room... or wherever the hell Ahmtur is. Think you can show me the way?"

With a snort, Butter rose up and waddled off down the hall, leading the way through the mighty citadel. Rakiv closed her door behind them before she moved to follow.

The Citadel of Dzagon was actually quite beautiful when it was not on high alert. With the invaders successfully repelled, all war preparations had been directed to the outlying forts and to the Bastion itself to defend against any other attacks from the Wilderness. The civilians had returned to the Citadel and the commerce for which Vabbi was known had returned to normal. Rakiv walked through an open air hall that allowed one to look down into the Prince's gardens on one side, and into the merchant's courtyard on the other. The courtyard was bustling with men and women going to and fro from the numerous stalls and shops that were doing a brisk trade in weapons. Plumes of smoke rose from the forges as blacksmiths rushed to fill some of their heaviest workloads ever. Rich men stalked from shop to shop, demanding the finest weapons and shiniest armor for their personal bodyguards, while mercenaries aplenty offered their services to protect the well-to-do during the coming conflict.

"Even war is just another form of commerce for them..." the ranger marveled aloud as they passed through a tower and into another open air hallway.

This one allowed for a view of the prince's marshaling grounds, where things were proceeding much more seriously. Commanders barked out orders as they rigorously drilled their soldiers. Every man who wore Ahmtur's colors moved in perfect sync, obeying orders almost before they were actually spoken. It gave the ranger some measure of solace to know that someone was giving their situation the gravity it deserved. Butter led the way across the walkway and into a rotunda mounted on the citadel wall. Cool breezes blew in from all sides and Rakiv stopped at the entrance as she took it all in.

The rotunda was yet another of the prince's war rooms. It held a commanding view of the rocky hills to the south, a vista of the glittering lake to the west, and a majestic portrait of the mountains to the north. Indeed, attack from the western side of the Citadel would be impossible to launch without being noticed from this point. Many tables were set up in the center of the rotunda, and as Rakiv stepped past them she realized they had been arranged to contain a large map of Vabbi. Several tacticians surrounded the table, moving models across the map as they argued over the best course of action. Rakiv smiled as she took note of Koss and Melonni at the tables, giving their expert opinions on the capabilities of demons and which strategies were unlikely to work. Both guildsmen gave quick salutes to the ranger, who waved them off and bid them to return to their work with a nod.

"Well well, look who's awake," came a silken voice that made the ranger tense for a moment.

"Morning Dawn," Rakiv replied with little real welcome in her cool voice.

"Aww, not angry at little old me are we?" the beautiful necromancer grinned broadly with her perfectly white smile.

"I haven't decided yet," the ranger answered truthfully, "Where are the others?"

"Well our corsair associate has been making a nuisance of herself, getting into places she shouldn't," Dawn nodded, "Hasn't taken anything though, so no harm done. The young water caster is in audience with Ahmtur now, as she has been for days. She seems to think she can convince him to release Kydar with words alone."

"Mmm... well good on her for trying," Rakiv muttered with a slow nod, "What about Alendra and Anorah?"

"Oh... oh yes that's right, you don't know do you?" the Apprentice of Whispers giggled.

"No I don't," Rakiv half snapped without amusement, "Do tell."

"Our talented tactician discovered the secret of that little ring I used to bear," Dawn smiled, "You recall, the power that can slay demons you asked Kydar to acquire from the Whispers?"

"Yeah... the Lightbringer thing?" Rakiv blinked.

"The very same," Dawn nodded graciously, "When Kydar, Anicara and Alendra went to rescue you from your rampage, the paragon elected to remain behind and give the others a running chance to get you to safety."

Rakiv felt a lump in her throat at that, but said nothing as she waited for Dawn to continue.

"It seems that somehow, in the midst of merely fighting long enough to be a distraction," the necromancer went on after her dramatic pause, "The ring responded to her, and imbued her with some rather fantastic qualities. Really, you must see her for yourself."

"Where is she?" Rakiv asked.

The necromancer pointed to a small alcove near the edge of the rotunda. Rakiv squinted as she made out the tall form of one of her guildswomen, Anorah it seemed, standing perfectly still.

"She asked for a quiet place to stay and said that she would need to speak with you when you awoke," Dawn explained, "Since then, she has not moved to either eat or drink, and strangely looks none the worse for wear. Anorah has been standing vigil over her, pausing only for necessities. They should probably be your first stop."

"Fine..." Rakiv sighed and nodded in agreement, "While I go see what's up, fetch Ani for me. I'd like to talk to her before I go see Ahmtur."

"As you wish, guildmistress," Dawn agreed as she curtsied and then sauntered off to carry out the order.

The red-head took a deep breath as she cleared her thoughts and took careful strides toward the southern end of the rotunda. Small bolts of pain reminded her of her wounds and she took further care as she made her way across the polished tiles. She approached Anorah from behind and raised a hand to gently tap the taller woman's shoulder. Anorah turned to face her, her gold eyes sporting dark circles around them that spoke of her long watch over her companion.

"You're relieved," Rakiv said immediately, "Go take a rest, Adept Basilisk."

"Ma'am..." Anorah began to protest.

"That's an order," the guildmistress said gently, "And I mean it. A rest, Anorah. No drills or regimens. Find something relaxing to do and do it."

The Zaishen only hesitated a moment longer before she bowed and pressed a fist to her breast as a salute.

"Ma'am, yes ma'am," the dervish finally accepted.

"I'll catch up with you later," Rakiv promised.

Anorah only nodded silently as she strode away, her pace long and swift as usual but a slight shuffle betrayed her fatigue. Rakiv gave a small shake of her head and sighed lightly. At least her guild knew the meaning of loyalty. With that thought in mind she turned to the task at hand and lowered her gaze to the seated form of Alendra Soleer.

Alendra faced west, her legs folded neatly one over the other and her palms resting on her knees. Her posture almost reminded Rakiv of a meditative form, had it not been for the rigidity that made it clearly a military posture. The paragon sat stock still, and her luminous eyes stared unmoving and unblinking at the western mountains. Rakiv carefully slipped down next to her guildswoman, wincing a few times at the pain in her sides before she managed to sit on the tiled floor. The two sat in silence for several long moments, before Alendra finally spoke.

"You are awake," she observed in an oddly even tone.

"Yeah... heard I was out for awhile," Rakiv confirmed.

"The sun has risen five times since last this vessel was in your presence," Alendra intoned, "It is reassured by your return."

"Uh huh..." Rakiv nodded slowly, "Mind if I ask who I'm speaking to now?"

"Alendra Soleer of Istan, Brave Lightbringer," the paragon replied.

"Clearly not, or you wouldn't keep referring to my guildswoman as 'vessel' and 'it'," Rakiv rebutted calmly.

"If I were to explain the difference, you would not understand," Alendra claimed.

"Try me," Rakiv demanded, starting to get short tempered from her pain and being treated so flippantly.

The tactician was silent for a moment before she smoothly turned to face the guildmistress. Rakiv arched an eyebrow as the luminous gaze cast rays of light across her, and the paragon took in a slow breath.

"The members of the Lightbringer Corp. surrender to something greater than themselves," Alendra explained, "A unifying force that binds all who wear the ring. It is this centered will that grants each unit the might to cast down demons."

"So you're some kind of… uni-mind?" Rakiv asked.

"No, we do not share thoughts," the paragon shook her head, setting her pretty curls bouncing, "Only will and purpose. Emotions may be transmitted as well. We share courage and valor, allowing each Lightbringer to be strengthened by the might of his allies."

"You still haven't explained why you called Alendra a 'vessel'," Rakiv pointed out.

"The light can be expressed only through the purest and bravest of souls," the paragon clarified, "Those whose mettle has been tempered in the fire of battle, but have not been burned by its flame. For example, you would not have made a suitable vessel for this power."

"And why's that?" Rakiv asked, though she knew the answer.

"Yours is a life of violence and rage," Alendra answered blatantly with an authority in her voice that almost made the ranger cringe, "You fight because you know naught else. You kill because it is your purpose. The pure heart fights because it must do so for the greater good, it kills only when it must remove evil that hangs as a threat over the heads of the innocent. You know this vessel well. You have seen its compassion in both peace and war. Its soul is a suitable conduit for this power."

"Alright, so then where is Alendra?" Rakiv inquired.

"She is here," the paragon answered simply, "Allowing the Lightbringer's will to speak through her. In time she will speak fully for herself, but she has allowed that control be relinquished that a message might be delivered."

Rakiv hesitated for a moment under the intense glow of Alendra's gaze. She was suddenly unsure if she wanted to hear what the message might be, but she knew she would have to hear it sooner or later. Taking a deep breath the ranger tried to relax as she met the paragon's eyes and let out a slow exhale.

"And what message is that?" Rakiv asked carefully.

"Forsaken you have been, Rakiv Maelstrom, but not forgotten," Alendra answered, "The time is coming when the Slayer will be needed to fulfill her purpose, and justify the injustice done to her so long ago. And when that moment comes, you will have to choose. Choose to act out of anger and fury, or compassion and mercy."

Rakiv was silent as her stare hardened and the hairs on the back of her neck bristled. Her arms flexed as she grit her teeth, the creature stirring at the back of her mind through its peaceful slumber despite her attempts to remain calm.

"Who are you?" she demanded, only barely managing to keep her voice down.

"I am Lightbringer, and my message has been delivered," the paragon answered simply as she took a deep breath and then released it, "I am Alendra Soleer of Istan, and I am at your command."

With those words Alendra closed her eyes and shuddered before she inhaled sharply and opened her eyes again. No longer did they glow, returning to their usual amber color as she blinked and then looked up at Rakiv. A smile spread across her face and the bubbly tactician sprang forward to wrap her arms around the ranger's shoulders.

"You're okay!" Alendra exclaimed happily.

Rakiv immediately let out a groan of pain and Alendra quickly released her.

"I was," Rakiv winced as she felt a muscle in her shoulder start to cramp.

"Oh my gods, I'm so sorry!" Alendra exclaimed, "Do you need a quick prayer?"

"No, no I'm fine..." Rakiv answered with a soft sigh, "I'm alright. And I'm honestly very glad to see that you are too. I... I heard what you did."

"Oh... yeah..." Alendra smiled a little sheepishly before she looked up nervously, "You're not like... mad, are you?"

"Why would I be?" Rakiv asked, blinking several times.

"Because you've pretty much said this entire trip that you didn't want to be responsible for people making sacrifices for you," she explained, "Hell, you tried to leave us behind because you didn't want us getting hurt. I was actually kind of hoping that I would die so you wouldn't be able to yell at me when you got better."

"Well I'm not mad," Rakiv laughed lightly as she shook her head, "I don't feel great about it, but you guys saved my life... so I'm just grateful you were there."

"Oh good," the paragon sighed with relief.

"I like the new outfit by the way," Rakiv gestured.

"Oh my gods I know!" Alendra grinned as she hopped up to her feet, "Isn't it so cute?"

The paragon did a twirl to show off, her heels clicking against the tiles as she did so. Rakiv gave a mildly impressed nod, before snickering lightly to herself.

"Whaaaat?" the tactician asked.

"Oh I was just thinking that we can't complain about Anicara being the most impractically dressed member of the team now," the ranger laughed.

"Yeah well... apparently this is what Lightbringers wear," Alendra sighed with a small shrug, "Honestly I'm just glad it looks nice."

"And it does, it does," Rakiv chuckled, "Congratulations on that by the way. I don't think we could have won that battle without you."

"Without either of us honestly," Alendra pointed out, "You turned a losing fight into a victory really."

"That's what we do, isn't it?" Rakiv smiled without humor as she struggled up to her feet.

"Sure seems like it," Alendra answered as she helped her guildmistress up.

Rakiv stood and took a moment to be sure she felt okay before straightening her back and giving her guildswoman a reassuring smile.

"Well you should go get some proper rest," Rakiv pointed out, "I'm told you haven't eaten anything in days."

"Really? Funny... I don't feel hungry..." the paragon began before her stomach gave a low, rumbling growl, "Ah... hah, maybe I should head down to the mess hall."

"Good idea tactician," Rakiv smiled, "Glad to have you back."

"Glad to have you back, guildmistress," Alendra grinned as she clapped a fist to her chest in salute.

The ranger gave a nod and the paragon skipped off, leaving Rakiv to breath out a slow, almost shuddering sigh. She didn't like having this weight on her shoulders, and it seemed all the heavier now. The responsibility that she had to these people was almost too much at times, and when they nearly got themselves killed to save her... The red-head pushed her bangs back behind her ear as she cleared her throat and focused on her task. She still had other guildsmen to talk to. She stepped away from the alcove and strode back into the rotunda as she cast about for her guild mates. Melonni was becoming rather frustrated with one of Ahmtur's older generals, who no doubt was refusing to take her seriously. Koss was attempting to intervene and keep their war meeting on track. Rakiv shook her head with a small smile, glad to see that the two seemed to have ceased their feuding for now.

She cast her violet gaze to the northern end of the rotunda where she caught sight of the two tall forms of Anicara Nyrin and Dawn Jedasros. The necromancer was attempting to placate the young elementalist, who seemed all too eager to bolt back up the stairs behind her. Rakiv made her way as quickly as she could across the rotunda, her ears pricking as she began to pick up their conversation.

"... with treason, Apprentice!" Anicara was saying, "And Ahmtur is a warrior. You know what the punishment is going to be!"

"It will not come to pass, blue child," Dawn sighed as she delicately pinched the bridge of her nose, "Doubtless your will alone might see to that. But Ahmtur is a merchant prince. He stands to gain nothing and lose much were he to carry out such a sentence."

"That won't stop him!" Anicara protested, "And he could give the order at any minute! I have to get back up there and..."

"Easy, easy ladies," Rakiv interrupted with a wave of her hand, "Somebody give me a report."

Dawn gestured to Anicara, who gave a quick nod and stepped forward. She clasped her hands behind her back and stood at attention, clearing her throat lightly before she began.

"Five days ago, during the siege, Kydar, Melonni and I..." Anicara began.

"I already know what Kydar did," Rakiv interrupted, "What's happened since then? With you talking to Ahmtur. What kind of charges are we looking at?"

"Ahmtur has charged Kydar with treason," Anicara stated, "He claims that Kydar acted in direct opposition to the safety of the Citadel and the citizens within. Since Kydar is a citizen of Vabbi, he's the only one charged with a crime, as the rest of us are under your jurisdiction and not Ahmtur's. I convinced him to withhold sentencing until he has a better war plan put together, but I don't think he'll wait for long."

"Kydar seemed to think that Ahmtur wanted to discuss the issue with me," Rakiv said.

"I... I hadn't heard that ma'am," Ani replied, still staring straight ahead, "I just know that one of our guildsmen is on the line."

"Well you've done a good job keeping him safe," Rakiv nodded and then waved a hand at her, "At ease. Look, I'm going to go upstairs and have a chat with our royal buddy. Dawn, the Whispers hold some sway here. Think you can get Anicara down to wherever they're holding Kydar and they can have a talk?"

"I believe that I can," Dawn nodded and then tilted her head as she gave the guildmistress a little smirk, "Are you certain that is a good idea?"

Rakiv was about to answer when she caught the look on Dawn's face. She immediately decided she didn't like the necromancer's insinuation and scowled deeply.

"I didn't stutter, Apprentice," the ranger clarified firmly.

"Of course not ma'am," Dawn said with a small smile as she bowed, "It shall be as you command."

"Good," Rakiv nodded curtly, "See that it is. I'll see you all when I'm done. Get going."

As her guild mates departed Rakiv took in a deep breath and blew out another sigh. Things seemed to keep getting more and more complicated, and now she would have to haggle for the life of one of her men with a merchant prince. As she started up the stairs the ranger tried to think of means by which to secure his release. Threat after threat rolled through her mind, before it occurred to her that threatening the warrior prince of Vabbi was probably not the best idea. Especially not since she still needed him and his army to fight Varesh. She gave a small sigh and ran her fingers through her hair. Usually Kydar handled this sort of thing, and she missed his extensive vocabulary and sly speechcraft. As she crested the top of the stairs she found herself standing in a small pavilion that had been built atop the rotunda. Its view was even more impressive than the one below, granting one an excellent vantage of the fort and the Citadel as well.

Ahmtur stood in the center of the pavilion, dressed in a surprisingly simple tunic and trousers and soft leather shoes. His trio of mesmers knelt at a table in the center of the area, mumbling incantations softly to themselves as they produced their ever changing war-map. A handful, of advisers milled about him, arguing with one another as they discussed the long-term effects of the war on the nation. Rakiv strode in with every ounce of confidence she could muster, trying not to be off-put that she had apparently been ignored. As the arguments rose in intensity and the advisors tempers grew heated Ahmtur took a deep breath.

"I can only assume you gentlemen have taken leave of your manners and your senses," the prince said quietly, though the chatter immediately stopped as every man present paid attention to his words, "For I can think of no other reason why you would employ such language in the presence of a lady."

The men turned about to lay eyes upon the red-head. For her part Rakiv lifted her head a little and flipped the train of her sari over one arm in an attempt to appear more regal. Salutes were given all around and heads tipped to her as the advisers stepped away to allow her a path to the prince.

"Welcome to yet another of my war rooms, Rakiv Maelstrom," Ahmtur said, not looking up from his map, "As you can see, I have quite a few."

"I imagine you need them," the ranger said with a nod, "But I didn't come up here to be impressed by your fortress again."

"No, I assume you're here to discuss the matter of your imprisoned man," he said before he looked up at his advisers and gave a light flick of his fingers, "Leave us."

The men made their way to the stairs and filed down one after the other. The mesmers made no move to rise, only softening their chanting as they kept their map available to Ahmtur's eyes. The prince stepped forward and dipped a hand into the map. He closed his fingers around the violet image of one of the Margonites and lifted it out of the map. A flex of his fingers made the illusion expand so that it occupied the breadth of his palm and he turned to look at her.

"Three hundred wounded, one hundred and thirty irreparably maimed and ninety-three dead," he said as he looked at the image, "And we had a wall. I can only imagine how many more of mine they would have taken if we'd faced them on open plains. My advisers say that the numbers are 'good'. That we should have lost many, many more. But I cannot call the death of any man in my service 'good', can you?"

"No," Rakiv answered simply.

Ahmtur stared at the illusory image of the demon a moment longer before he dropped it back into the war-map where it was disassembled by the mesmeric magics. He turned to finally look directly at her and crossed his arms.

"We have an interest in the same man," he stated factually, "Kydar Raelesin is one of my citizens, and as such is subject to my rule. However he is also a member of your guild, and there was once a time when guilds meant more than nations. That time has passed, but I am not so blind as to not see that were I to see him punished for his crime, it would damage our relationship. Would it not?"

"As you said, highness," Rakiv said coolly as she stepped up to the other side of his war-map table, "I cannot call the death of any man in my service 'good'."

"Indeed..." Ahmtur said as he rubbed his chin, "Still I am owed some recompense. He directly disobeyed my orders and put my war plan in danger."

"I'm not a negotiator, Prince Ahmtur," Rakiv admitted, "But I know a bluff when I hear one. He didn't endanger anything. One man, one of my men off your lines did nothing to change the tide of that battle. In fact, while we stayed true to your plan, we were losing."

The ranger stopped there, quite sure she had overstepped. Still, she felt she had spoken the truth and stood by it. She raised her eyes to meet his, and found the prince giving her an appraising stare.

"You are right, Rakiv Maelstrom," the prince finally nodded, "You are not a negotiator."

The ranger gave a slightly helpless shrug but made no attempt to retract her statement. The merchant prince gave a light chuckle as he stroked his beard thoughtfully.

"Whether my war plan was endangered, effective or not, the fact remains that a crime has been committed," he stated, "Do you agree?"

"I can't deny it," Rakiv allowed.

"And by our laws, this particular crime is subject to capital punishment, up to and including execution," he continued.

"If you wanted to execute him, you would have done so already," Rakiv pointed out.

"And have you rampage across my Citadel when you woke to find that I had killed one of your guildsmen?" Ahmtur chuckled, "I think not. I respect you as both a warrior and a leader, Rakiv. I would have us be in accord on this matter."

"Then let's start by taking execution off the table," she said plainly, "Even if I didn't fight you over that, there's not a member of my team who would just stand by and let it happen, and you've seen what we can do."

"That I have," he nodded, "And I will remove execution as an option, for now. What then is your suggestion? I cannot allow this grievance to go unpunished. I have laws to uphold and precedent to maintain."

"I would suggest that we deal with this the way leaders should," Rakiv said, "It was my man who caused this problem, therefore it falls to me to see the matter made right. So tell me what you want from me."

Ahmtur stared at her and smirked before he gave a shake of his head and a hearty laugh.

"You are certainly not a negotiator," he chuckled, "You put yourself at my mercy by making such a suggestion."

"If it saves my guildsman, so be it," she answered evenly, "Consider this me owing you a big one Ahmtur. So what do you want for it?"

The prince turned back to his war-map to consider the offer. He placed a palm over the illusion and gave it a quick swipe of his hand. The illusion scrolled across the lands of Vabbi and he gave a low snort.

"What does a man who has everything ask for?" he wondered aloud, "It strikes me that you would make an excellent companion, Rakiv. 'Tis too rare a thing to find a woman both powerful and beautiful in this day in age. Your exploits are legendary, as are mine. Together I doubt there would be anything we could not accomplish."

The ranger balked and her expression blanked a little. She shifted her weight a little nervously, desperately hoping that the prince was not about to propose marriage or something similarly foolish.

"But I also know the look in your eye," he said without looking up, "You are a thing of the wilds, free and untamable. It would be folly to attempt to cage you for any purpose, even with the best intentions. No doubt you would tear yourself, or others, apart when your instincts demand that you be free once more..."

"You might be underestimating me, highness," Rakiv said slowly, "But then again, you might be right. I never was one to stay still for long."

The prince chuckled and gave a nod as he turned to face her. He stepped close and lifted a hand, lifting one long lock of crimson hair curiously and giving a small smile before he reluctantly let it slip from his fingers.

"I have other audiences to attend this day," he explained, "So let it suffice that I return your guildsman to you now, with your word that I can count on your guild's aid. I'm sure I will soon have a suitably dangerous mission on which to send you. Something that sounds like a death sentence I think, though I'm certain you will overcome."

"Overcoming is what I do, your highness," Rakiv answered, willing herself not to blush under his attention.

"So I have seen," he nodded, "I will send word down that Kydar is released into your custody. I thank you for your time, guildmistress Maelstrom."

"And I thank you for yours, Prince Ahmtur," she said with a light bow.

Ahmtur smiled and gave a small nod before he forced himself to turn away from her. He cleared his throat and clasped his hands behind his back as he stepped up to his war-map once more.

"Show me Makuun and her outlying territories," he ordered his mages, ending the conversation with his return to work.

Rakiv took this as her cue to leave, and quietly turned to make her way back down the stairs. It was only once she had started down that she realized her heart had been beating a mile a minute. She really did need to work on the negotiation thing. But even so, she couldn't help but be quite flattered. It wasn't every day that a prince expressed so much interest in a girl. With such thoughts in mind Rakiv returned to the rotunda floor, where she found her guildsmen eagerly awaiting her.

"He's going to be released," Rakiv informed them with a light clearing of her throat, "Immediately, actually. And in return, we owe Ahmtur one suicide mission."

"Well that don' sound so bad, now do it?" Margrid drawled, "I ain' been on a trip wiv this crew yet what didn' look like suicide."

"True enough," Koss grunted obligingly, "How'd you manage to get the prince to agree to that."

"You know, I honestly am not sure," Rakiv admitted with a chuckle, "I said all the wrong things up there, and still somehow got what I wanted."

"Mayhaps he wished to avoid your rather impressive ire?" Dawn smiled.

"Maybe..." Rakiv said, not looking at the apprentice, "At any rate... where's Ani?"

"With her beloved mentor," Dawn reported, "As you commanded."

"Good, then she can bring him to us," Rakiv nodded, "Someone get on the emblem and tell her to meet us down in the market. I need to shop for some new armor."

Melonni lifted her emblem to her lips and tapped its enchantment into activity. Rakiv turned on her heel to stride toward the stairs, comforted by the flap flap of Butter's webbed toes on the tiles beside her. With most of her team in tow, the guildmistress headed down to the center of the Bastion, to see if the Dzagonur armor smiths kept as diverse an inventory as their Kodash counterparts.

-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x -x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-

"Got it, we're on our way," Ani responded into her emblem.

Kydar glanced over at the younger elementalist as one of the guards approached with a ring of keys in hand. He lifted Kydar's manacled wrists and applied the key to the lock, giving a quick turn to snap the bolt out of position. One cuff came off, and then so did the other and Kydar rubbed his hands and wrists as he gave a small sigh of relief.

"Word just came down," the guard said, "You're released into your guild's custody. But you are not to leave the Citadel without express permission from his highness himself."

"Hmm, understood," Kydar confirmed with a nod, "Thanks."

The scribe stretched out his arms as he rose from the cushioned couch upon which he sat. The room to which he had been confined was an interior one, lined all around with heavy stone and mortar. Still it had been comfortably furnished, with a hand spun rug upon the floor, and cushions and couches all around. It was clear that it was a holding room, but one meant to keep the detainee in reasonable comfort. The guard stepped away and Anicara led the way out of the holding room with Kydar right behind her.

"Well... I feel a lot better," the younger caster said with a smile and her own sigh of relief, "Are you okay?"

"Eh, jitters are going away," he said with a chuckle as he held out his hands, "Was starting to get just a little shaky there."

"I noticed," Anicara said with a small, sympathetic smile, "But look, we'll go see Rakiv, get the whole scoop on what's going on... it'll all be okay. I promise."

"Trying to comfort me?" he chuckled lightly.

"You and me," the girl admitted with a sheepish smile, before giving an exasperated sigh, "I just don't get you! Do you have to gamble with your life all the time?"

"It's not a gamble when you know the outcome," Kydar laughed.

"Then why were your hands shaking?" Ani pointed out stubbornly.

"Just cause you know how something is going to end, doesn't mean you don't still fear the 'what if's," he said with a shrug, "I knew that there was a good possibility that this wouldn't end well for me but... I trusted in you guys. You kept Ahmtur arguing for days until Rakiv could wake up and take care of all this. I believed in you guys, and you came through."

"Ugh, you have no idea how hard that was," she sighed, "I had to sneak past his guards once just to make sure he would keep withholding sentencing."

"And I appreciate it, a lot," Kydar smiled, "But hey, you kept at it right? Even when it looked like he might not listen? Or that it might take Rakiv a long time to wake up?"

"Yeah, yeah... faith and all that," she waved him off, "Doesn't make it any easier when you put your head on the chopping block again and again."

Kydar laughed as they made their way up a flight of stairs and passed through an open arch way. A corridor ahead of them funneled the sound of a busy marketplace to them and Kydar smiled as he patted his apprentice's shoulder.

"One thing I've learned Ani," he said, "Is that every organization needs someone who is willing to do what needs to be done, despite what the consequences might be for him. If we aren't willing to put ourselves out there, to jump in front of an arrow for each other... well then, what are we even doing fighting together in the first place?"

Anicara nodded slowly as she chewed her lip thoughtfully and then released another small sigh. She looked up at him and smiled.

"I'm just glad you're okay," she said.

"Me too," he chuckled, "C'mon, let's see if we can find the others."

The marketplace in the Bastion bustled loudly as the two elementalists emerged into it's organized chaos. Carts were wheeled back and forth as merc groups marched about, their heralds proclaiming the deeds and services that its burly members had performed. Into the din the stall tenders and shop keepers shouted their sales and deals, constantly attempting to one-up each other as they vied for customers. A group of gypsies had seen the opportunity for extra coin that day, and in the middle of the square, four beautiful women danced whilst juggling swords. The gleaming steel threw reflections of sunlight across their smooth, ebony skin as they gave whistles and excited calls whenever they performed particularly daring tricks. Passers by stopped to watch, often scattering coins toward them in appreciation for the show. Kydar chuckled as he led Ani through the noise and bustle before catching sight of Margrid's signature Red-Wing armband as she stumbled through the crowd.

"Margrid!" Kydar called and waved, "Margrid!"

"Oi shipmate!" the pirate woman cried with a bit of a slur, "Yer in one piece! Thank the gods n' pass the firewater! Speakin' o' firewater..."

She paused as she lifted a hefty bottle to her lips and chugged for several moments before ripping the drink away from her lips. She cleared her throat heartily and belched proudly before she fixed her drunken grin on Kydar once more.

"These Vabbians know how to make the good stuff," the captain chuckled, "Not the swill ye usually 'ave ta drink out on the seas. Only good thing 'bout bein' on land 'at I've found yet."

"I'm happy for you," the scribe said with a sigh and a shake of his head, "Where's the guildmistress?"

"Oh, didnja hear?" the pirate asked with a drawl as she wiped her mouth, "No sooner 'n we went ta shoppin', mess'nger comes runnin' down ta tell us we been summoned back. Ahmtur's wantin' ta meet. Somethin' 'bout provincial security I think."

"Uh huh..." Kydar nodded, "And they all left you here?"

" 'ad to see the spirits salesman," she grinned unrepentantly, "Slipped away while they wasn' lookin'. On me way ta catch up. Care ta join?"

"Yeah, yeah let's go," he said with a chuckle, "Can you walk?"

"Oi, oi!" Margrid protested, "I've 'ad a keg in me belly, a bottle in hand an' trod the deck in th' middle of a bloomin' t'under storm. Dun be questionin' me balance, ye overgrown quill swinger!"

"Alright, alright," Kydar gave a laugh as he held his hands up in surrender to her beligerance, "I'm sorry I asked. Let's get a move on."

The trio pushed their way through the madness that was the marketplace. Everywhere cries and shouts went up as buyers and sellers of goods tried to be heard over the din. It was not until Kydar listened closely that he began to realize it was not the usual chatter one expected in a marketplace.

"Strong swordarms wanted here!" a herald boy shouted from he crate on which he stood, "Odola Company lookin' for brave men to share in a purse! Searchin' Makuun for survivors! Strong swordarms wanted here!"

"Only the best and the bravest need apply!" another man shouted, his girthy belly swinging as he turned this way and that, his rich robes betraying his wealth, "Each member of the household found is another platinum on top of the base pay! Step lively gents, my lord's not likely to keep this offer goin' for long!"

"Please... please someone help me!" a woman cried out, "The heket hit Yahnur Market. My son stayed behind with my two daughters! Please someone, someone..."

Kydar paused as the woman locked eyes on him and immediately rushed over. She gripped his hand as she stared up at him pleadingly, and through her grasp he could feel the trembles that shook her form.

"Sir! Sir you are from that hero's guild arn't you?" she exclaimed as she pointed to the emblem on his shoulder, "I recognize your symbol. They say you liberated Kourna!"

"Uh... that's not exactly right..." he began to clarify.

"Please, please my family is in danger sir!" she exclaimed, "I haven't much money, but I'll give you all I have! Please, name your price and I'll find some way to pay it. Someone has to help my family!"

"Look 'ere ye land-lubbin'... wailin'... woman!" Margrid attempted drunkenly, "We ain' got the time ta..."

"Marg..." Kydar stopped her, before he turned to the other woman, "Do you know where your family would be?"

"Yes... yes there was a safe place, in the mountains," she explained, "My husband built it. My family would have gone there."

"Could you lead a group of men there if you had to?" he asked her.

"Yes, yes!" she exclaimed.

The scribe took in a deep breath before he dug into his coat pocket for his notebook. From his belt he withdrew a pad of ink and a small quill and set to scribbling in the book.

"I cannot help you personally," he informed her as he wrote, "I have my own duties. But perhaps this will improve your chances."

Kydar pressed his thumb to the page and a hiss of smoke rose from the parchment. He withdrew the digit and ripped the page out of the book, fanning it in the breeze for a moment to let the ink dry. He turned the page around and handed it to her.

"This is a writ of payment for the services of a mercenary group," he said, "With this, they can bill my house for the cost of the expedition. It has my name, signature and the seal of my house on it. Guard it well and chose your aid wisely. I hope you find your family in time."

The woman took the note and quickly read through it. Her features brightened a little as she looked up at him and gave him a smile.

"May the five bless you sir," she thanked him gratefully as she bowed low.

"I wish I could see the deed done myself," Kydar assured her, "Remember, chose your men wisely. That note will pay for whatever you need for this venture. Be careful... and good luck."

"I will, I will!" she assured him as she clutched the note to her chest, "Thank you, thank you sir!"

With that she turned away and began shouting out with renewed purpose, advertizing a financed expedition into the southern range that merely lacked for men and arms. Kydar breathed a slow sigh as he watched her go.

"It's going to be like Kourna all over again," he said to no one in particular.

"We'll stop it before it gets that far," Anicara assured him.

"Maybe..." Kydar responded as he stroked his gotee thoughtfully, "C'mon... Rakiv's probably waiting for us."

The three guildsmen proceeded away from the marketplace and made their way to the grand stairs that led to the upper levels of the Bastion. Though many servants, warriors and nobles rushed up and down through the fortress city, the three members of Dormant Vengeance proceeded in relative silence. Upon reaching the rotunda they were approached by a small contingent of guards who pointed them toward the stairs leading up to the pavillion.

"The prince and your guildmistress are already in session," the guard commander stated, "Your presence is required immediately."

Kydar gave them a nod as he and the two women with him made their way upwards, climbing the winding stair way until they broke out into fresh daylight once more. The day had worn on and the sun was blazing at it's afternoon height. Under the shade of the pavillion Kydar recognized the shapes of his guild mates and the Prince... as well as a very tall burly man, and the unmistakable lime green suit of one very ostentatious actor/director.

"So this is why I have not received word from them..." Ahmtur was saying as the trio approached and filed into line with their fellow guildsmen.

"Indeed sire," the obnoxious alto of Norgu the Fabulous explained, "My partner and I found them dead amongst the lower hills of the Mirror of Lyss. They seemed to have been slain by Margonites, we even brought the arrows we found for proof."

"No need for that," Ahmtur said as he raised a hand and examined the scrolls in his hand, "Mmm... yes these are my seals... the very letters I had sent to Chokin... how did you come to find this? Unless you were looting the bodies of soldiers of Vabbi."

"I assure you we were up to no such criminal activity," Norgu expressed with a low bow, "We found but one of them alive, though he was mortally wounded. Alas I am no healer, but I attempted to soothe his final moments with the gift of song, bestowed upon me by my fair lady Lyssa. He gave the missives to me, and bound me with great and suspicious oaths to make my way here and report all that I had seen to you."

"Auspicious," Ahmtur corrected him, "Did he say if he reached Chokin at all?"

"Nay, he did not," Norgu replied, "The poor soldier told me, with his final labored breaths, that he and many others encountered the Margonite forces that had occupied Mihanu Township. They fought valiantly, but were forced to retreat. They were overcome before they could return and give you word of their unfortunate defeat."

"Damn..." Ahmtur growled as he tossed the scrolls across his table, "If the Margonites have gotten that far then Mehtu and his whole house are surely within the Hidden City by now... which means I have no means of contacting him and calling him out."

The room was silent as the prince clicked his tongue and then looked up at the guildmistress.

"What do you make of this, Guildmistress Maelstrom?" the prince asked her.

"Well, Norgu is a lot of things," Rakiv shrugged, "But he's no liar... at least, not usually. And he has a good memory. He's probably told you exactly what the soldier reported. What I want to know is, what happened to Mehtu's army."

"He will likely have withdrawn everyone from the Halls of Chokin," Ahmtur explained, "Both he and Bokka have secret entrances that lead to the ancient underground roads. The Hidden City lies beyond them. I have no such passage myself, else I would simply go in after them. The prince of Dzagon stands with his men, and falls with them if need be."

"So... there are two entire armies of Vabbian soldiers somewhere underground?" Rakiv said with an arched eyebrow, "That's what you're telling me?"

"Essentially, yes," Ahmtur nodded, "And their princes with them."

"So we go into Chokin or Makuun, find the secret entrance and go after them," Rakiv asserted.

"Impossible," Ahmtur sighed, "Even if you were to get through the Margonites, an ordeal in and of itself, there are still the defenders of the city itself to contend with. They stand down for none save by direct order from the lips of a Prince himself."

"How bad could these defenders be?" Rakiv queried.

"They are Djinn," Ahmtur said through a tensed jaw.

The room was silent for a moment as the group processed the information.

"I'm sorry..." Koss finally spoke up, "It sounded like you said, Djinn. Like the shifty elemental things that don't really bow down to anyone, least of all humans."

"I did say Djinn," Ahmtur said with a sigh as he gestured to his mages.

The mesmers shifted their hands and the war-map changed, the purple haze of illusion clearing to show the images of three djinni, one of each of the major elements of Vabbi.

"Ahdashim is no normal city," Ahmtur said, "It was once the dwelling place of the ancient Djinn. When men first came to these lands, we were tribal and primative and we began to build. There was little love between us and the djinn, but we mostly ignored one another. That changed, when the reign of Palawa Joko began."

The map changed again to show all of Vabbi and a black smear wiped across the whole province.

"Palawa was particularly harsh to the Vabbians," Ahmtur explained, "And we were easily conquered. But during his rule, the djinn and the humans achieved an alliance of convenience. A resistance force was made to fight against Joko's rule. True success would not come until Turai Ossa's victory at the battle of Jahai. But it was under lich occupation that we found some common ground with the djinn. The rest of this tale is largely legend, and I do not know the truth of it, but I will tell it as it was told to me."

The image changed once more, this time displaying a fourth kind of djinn, one that none present recognized. Ahmtur stepped up to the image and lifted it into his hand, splaying his fingers to enhance its clarity.

"When Joko's forces assaulted the city of Ahdashim, it's elders, the Emerald Djinn, were afraid," Ahmtur relayed the tale, "Fearing that they would be completely conquered, as we humans had been, they enacted a great magic to sink the city of Ahdashim. Thus was the great city consumed by the earth and became the Hidden City. But the other djinn felt that the Emeralds had acted hastily and foolishly, and caused great destruction to their ancestral home. Thus the Emerald Djinn were cast out from the accord of the four elements, and few now can be found in all of Elona."

Ahmtur placed the image back on the table and watched it as it changed into the figure of a young woman, dressed in gypsy clothing and wearing an ornate crown. She held up a handful of gold and jewels to three, very large djinn who looked down upon her.

"Some forty years later, Amaki Voss became our first 'Prince' of Vabbi," he continued, "A few of Joko's generals still plagued our lands. One mummified warlord in particular, Eshwe the Insane, sought to ascend to the throne of undead king by reconquering our lands. So, to forge an alliance that could withstand the undead scourge then and in the future, Amaki Voss brokered a trade agreement with the djinn themselves. In return for our treasures and works, they would rise and defend the land of Vabbi when called to action and our princes would forever find safety in their city."

The image fizzled away and returned to the prince's ever changing war-map. Ahmtur stared at it for a moment before he gave a sigh and crossed his arms.

"Of course we know very little about the real exploits of Amaki Voss," Ahmtur shrugged, "But that's not important now. The truth is that the Djinn are oathbound to the princes of Vabbi. At our word, they will act, but it requires that one of us go to Ahdashim in person to command them. At present, my fellow Princes have barricaded themselves inside the city, and the Djinn will be on alert. They will suffer no trespassers to live, and I cannot leave my post here in the Citadel. I must oversee the defense and rescue efforts, else Varesh will sweep over us all as Joko did long ago."

"So there are three armies under our feet right now," Rakiv clarified, clearly still quite incredulous, "One of them being an army of djinn... and instead of rising and fighting, Mehtu and Bokka choose to hide?"

"Trust me, I am as infuriated as you are," Ahmtur said gravely, "But they too are oathbound to me, as I am to them. If my message makes it into their hands, then they must heed my summons. If they do not, they grant me freedom to seize the rank of Clanmarshal of all Vabbi for myself. Which, in this case, I will most assuredly do."

"Answer you or forfiet their crowns," Rakiv nodded, "That should get their attention."

"It will, if only the message can be delivered," Ahmtur said as he stared at the map on his table, "The problem is... there is no reaching either Chokin or Makuun now. And even if you were to get there, I could not tell you where the entrance to the city lies. It is a secret that each prince guards for himself."

"Beggin' yer pardon, yer handsomeness," Margrid interrupted as she straightend herself and tried to even out her speech, "But there's 'nother way in."

All eyes shifted to the pirate captain who almost teetered a bit and then looked down ruefully at the empty flask in her hand. She turned it over and licked at the mouth of the bottle before giving a sigh and looked up. The corsair blinked in surprise when she found everyone staring at her.

"My drink's gone," she said a little mournfully.

"What was that?" Ahmtur asked as he narrowed his eyes at her.

"I said me drinks all gone," Margrid sighed, "I'll 'ave to swipe another. 'Scuse me."

"Ah, no," Ahmtur raised a hand to stop her, "You said there's another way in to the hidden city. How could you possibly know that?"

"Cause I'm a theif yer highness," the captain grinned, "I know all sorts o' things I ain' supposed ta know. Like I 'appen ta know there's a fancy ring in yer pocket, but I dun know who it's fer. Lady's ring from the look 'o it. Dun worry, I put it right back where I found it. 'Sall good."

"Can someone keep her focused please?" Ahmtur growled.

"Margrid, attention," Rakiv said quickly, "Sober up now crewman. Need you clear on this."

"Mm, sir, yessir," Margrid said as she snapped to attention quickly.

"Ahdashim, you say you know a way in?" she asked.

"Oh yes, well... I know that there's a way in," Margrid explained, "An' I know me way 'round once I'm in there. But I dun know where the door is."

"How do you know this?" Rakiv asked patiently.

"Cause when we was all busy 'avin' the feastin' at Bokka's fancy palace," the pirate reported, "Oi overheard 'im talkin' ta the big-guy there. Ask'd 'im if'n he'd like ta bodyguard for 'im again."

The captain pointed directly at the broad shouldered form of Goren, who had been standing as unobtrusively as he could behind Norgu. The thespian whirled about to stare incredulously up at his partner, who in turn scratched his head as his features scrunched up curiously.

"He said he wanted ta stay wiv Norgu, which I thought was sweet," Margrid grinned before she quickly composed herself again, "An' Bokka told 'im that if'n 'e changed 'is mind, he was welcome ta use... n' lemme quote 'ere. He said, "If you change your mind old friend, you are welcome to use the other door. The Lock will allow you to pass if you carry the Key.'"

Everyone now turned to stare at Goren who blinked several times before his mouth opened a little and he rubbed the side of his face.

"Oh yeah..." the big warrior said slowly, "Yes, Mister Bokka did say that... I forgot."

"You mean you know where the door to the fabled Hidden City is, and you never told me!?" Norgu spluttered.

"Mister Bokka said it was a secret," Goren shrugged and then nodded dutifully, "And I always keep a secret. I don't tell anyone."

"And a good and loyal servant you are sir," Ahmtur said, obviously struggling to maintain his own patience, "Now as a Prince of Vabbi I release you from your oath of silence. Can you tell us where the door is?"

"I'm sorry Mister Ahmtur," Goren shook his head, "But Mister Bokka said I couldn't tell no one. Not even other princes."

Ahmtur looked quite ready to explode and he rose to his full height before Goren suddenly smiled and held up a finger.

"But he didn't say I couldn't show anyone!" Goren smiled, "Is it okay if I just show you the door?"

"Yes, that will do just fine, won't it Ahmtur?" Rakiv put in quickly as she could see the prince's temper rising.

"Yes, yes I suppose it will," Ahmtur sighed as he rubbed his brow slowly.

"Oh you big, dumb, addled oaf," Norgu huffed as he crossed his arms over his chest, "Sometimes I wonder why I love you so much."

"Because I can help," Goren grinned at his partner's outburst.

"Hmph, indeed," Norgu said as he wagged a finger at the larger man, "But you and I are going to have a talk about this whole 'secrets' thing."

"Yes dear," Goren said, more than smart enough to know it would be a long and boring talk.

"So... I assume you called me and my guild here for a reason, Prince Ahmtur," Rakiv said as she turned to the prince again, "What are your orders?"

Ahmtur rubbed his chin as he stepped away from the table and strode to the edge of the pavillion. He stared out at the lands around them, dark eyes flickering from the smoke that rose out of the territories of Makuun in the south, to the pure waters of the Mirror of Lyss in the west. Finally he clasped his hands behind his back and without turning around gave his orders.

"The Princes of Vabbi are locked away in the most secure location in all of Elona," Ahmtur said, "They are surrounded by an army of djinn who will not let you pass without a fight, and our time is drawing short. Varesh's armies will not be left reeling from this defeat for much longer, and already her demons are raiding across my province."

He half turned his head back toward the assembly of guildsmen behind him, all of whom stood waiting eagerly for his words.

"Your mission, should you chose to accept it, is to infiltrate the Hidden City of Ahdashim itself," he stated clearly, "Find a way past the Djinn, locate the princes and deliver my call to arms. From what my men tell me, enemy forces are already on their way to the Kodash Bazaar and the Grand Forum of Vabb. You have twenty-four hours to complete your mission, or I fear we may not be able to save my people."

"Will this complete that suicide mission I owe you?" Rakiv inquired.

"I'll think about it," Ahmtur chuckled lightly with a smile.

"Fair enough..." Rakiv sighed as she ran a hand through her long crimson locks, "I accept."

"Good, then report downstairs to General Poruk," Ahmtur instructed, "He will open my personal armory to you. Take anything you need and deploy immediately. We have no time to waste."

"Understood, your highness," she nodded as she turned to her guild, "Dormant Vengeance, move out."

The guildsmen filed out with Norgu and Goren in tow. The actor continued to quietly fuss at his companion as Goren gave small nods as he pretended to listen. Rakiv smiled lightly and shook her head as they left and then turned to exit the pavillion herself.

"And Guildmistress," Ahmtur said, still not turning around, "Try to come back I one piece. I can't afford to lose my greatest asset at this stage in the war."

"If anything, you're my asset, highness," Rakiv laughed lightly, "I've been fighting this war a lot longer. I should be welcoming you to the party."

"Mmm, most of my parties don't involve sending a small team into the hands of some of the most powerful and hostile entities in my province," he chuckled in return.

"Have no fear, highness," Rakiv shrugged as she headed for the stairs, "We're DV. This is what we do."

"Please, call me Ahmtur," the prince responded.

"I'll think about it," Rakiv quipped with a smile before she disappeared down into the rotunda.