Horns of Doom

Prologue
The Shadowfell

The Blood Lord sat on his throne of bones and blood-oozing skulls, engulfed in darkness and the putrid stench of death and misery. Cries of pain and anguish played in the background of Orcus’ residence of Undeath. Nothing of this reached the dark lord. His blood-hazed eyes were lost into the distance, his mind stretching out to listen to the calls and prayers of his dark clergy and followers. Like buzzing flies, their requests and calls for favors left no impression on the Demon Price of Undeath – his schemes of power were on a level incomprehensible for his mortal followers. But suddenly his eye twitched, a prayer – no not a prayer – a whispered word that brought back memories of lost causes and unpaid depts. Orcus focused his divine attention towards the source, spanning his godlike awareness cross planes and dimensions.

Orcus

“…Master of Undeath, Tear in the shroud of Death, listen to the words of your humble servant, a maggot in your godlike corpse. I have found out where the followers of Bahamut have hidden the Rod of Ruin! The paladin of Bahamut I defiled and brought back in your name knows of its hiding place, great Master.”

The Rod of Ruin – Found! The Blood Lord clenched his fist around the Wand of Orcus, blood dripping between his fingers. This opened up new possibilities, the chessboard had suddenly shifted, and things were tilting in his favor again. As Lord of the Undead, Orcus had the everlasting patience of the dead, a trait seldom seen among his demonic cohorts and enemies. But Orcus knew that if he waited long enough in the darkness, secrets held in life would resurface in the afterlife. It was just a matter of time, and that time was now. With the Rod of Ruin resurfacing he could send his pawns to collect it and complete the task once started but never finished – turning the living world into a realm of undeath and eternal darkness. His divine mind immediately identified the hundreds of actions needed for setting the plan in motion, but first – he poured a fraction of his essence into the world of the living. His aspect materialized in the crypt of his maggot, pulling darkness and the chill of the grave with it. The priest screamed in terror as his eyes started to bleed at the sight of his true Lord. There were still questions that needed answers and a debt of a soul to be paid…

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Rivening
The South, a shrine maiden confirmed, a trust violated. -c

“Thank you again, Captain, for indulging an old woman’s affectations. Though she’s my only acolyte, she’s incredibly gifted, and I wouldn’t be able to rest properly without knowing she was in your capable hands. I hope it’s not much trouble.”

“The honor is mine, Elder Mother. Her safety is my utmost concern, and coincidentally I already have,” the dragonborn paused, flicking his tongue over his nostrils, “further business in the city at that. The Regent has denied my request to augment and resupply our garrison. He seems to believe that proximity to his own holdings dictates need. However,” he spat, “I’d like to hear him say it to my own face instead of palming the duty off to an enlisted man.”

“Our timeless vow is one quickly forgotten by the transitory bureaucrats. I trust you will remind him of his duty to the greater good.”

“That I shall.”

The ancient sage glanced aside at her pupil. “Stop fretting, my dear. Your gifts are real; I have witnessed them time and again. This is a mere formality of the Covenant, if only to assure them that I’ve not yet grown senile.”

The acolyte smiled nervously, only somewhat relieved. “Thank you, Elder Mother. I hope to not disappoint you.”

“You won’t. Believe in yourself as I believe in you.”

Having been relieved of duty by his second-in-command, the Captain and his charge exited the gates of the compound, receiving little fanfare beyond the sentinels at the wall holding salute until they were out of sight. They traveled toward the city, the journey shortened considerably by the swiftness of their mounts. Safety in this remote region was often a matter of speed more than brute strength, and this trip was pleasantly unremarkable.

Despite initial skepticism and a battery of tests of will and faith, the Covenant’s representatives begrudgingly conceded that the power of the gods flowed freely and powerfully though the chosen acolyte, and they unanimously confirmed her appointment as a Shrine Guardian.

The Captain’s appeal to the Regent was rebuffed at every level by bureaucrats, bootlicks, and blandly banal busybodies, but his calm persistence infuriated his thwarters in every way that they intended to infuriate him. After patiently enduring every torture devised by the governance, he gained audience with the Regent, and during a very small window of opportunity was able to make such a convincing case for adherence to the ancient pact that he not only secured a respectable increase in manpower, but a considerable increase in upkeep as well. As he left the offices, the Regent could only shake his head in befuddled admiration.

The return trip was equally uneventful, though both riders were in high spirits on account of their successes. It was only upon approaching the sanctuary that the seeds of unease were planted. Though they were unable to consciously pinpoint the source of their discomfort, the forest seemed unnaturally still. Animals did not scurry, birds did not cry. As they broached the border of the shrine’s perimeter they remained unhailed by the guard, and their unrest compounded, and as it did they drove their mounts on, from an open traveling trot to a near breakneck gallop. When the walls of the compound appeared, they halted their mounts as their hearts likewise stopped. The gates were open and the walls were unwatched. They rode forward, heedless.

Inside, a scene of carnage awaited them. The bodies of soldiers and monks littered the courtyard, each corpse a collection of horrific wounds. Vicious rents and tears, severed limbs, and deep, placid pools of blood and ichor spotted the once-tranquil garden. Archers lay with their quivers empty, swords clenched in hands, each face a visage of horror. But even a single trace of their slayers there was none. Not a single corpse or remainder of the foes they had fought desperately against.

The Captain, mindful of his charge, cautiously approached the temple proper. The doors had been breached by some inhuman force, shattering the stone of the portal and dismembering the sentinels who kept the gate. The Captain’s attentiveness to duty demanded that he somehow secure the acolyte’s safety… but he quickly ascertained there was no safety here at all, save by his side. They descended the long stairway of the temple, eyes darting over the remaining few guards who had fallen in desperate service. At the heart of the shrine, the sanctified doors were rent wide.

In the middle of the garden lay the still body of the Elder Mother. The Captain was caught off-guard and could not prevent the acolyte from rushing to her fallen master’s side. The body was cool and lifeless, the soul long since departed. Beyond her corpse lay the empty altar. Undisturbed for generations, the very air of the absent artifact was alien and incomprehensible. The Captain sank to his knees while the acolyte wept over the remains of her mentor.

“All is lost,” uttered the Captain.

They combed the silent shrine for any tale of the assaulters, but there was none to be found. Room to room, floor to floor, they found cold corpses and silent mouths. As they entered the refectory, they were greeted by still more despair. One in particular commanded the captain’s mournful gaze. “Gods above, they even slew the cook’s apprentice.” Knowing no martial skill or religious devotion, the young girl lay in a pool of blood, her eyes transfixed in unknowing bewilderment at her now-absent slayer.

Without an enemy to track, or even to know, he found himself without direction. Even without a way to focus his vengeance, he was of the highest pragmatic mind. The captain immediately busied himself in collecting the dead and preparing them for burial. Scantly after he began, the acolyte was at his side, dazed, yet eager for something of purpose. They spent all the hours until nightfall methodically yet compassionately arranging the fallen. Their comrades. Their friends.

At last they made camp in the courtyard, the breached gates barred as best as could be managed. The fire grew dim as their resigned terror gave way to exhaustion, and they each fell into troubled sleep. The Captain dreamed of images of nightmare, his charges being torn asunder, unable to fight, and failing alone, each in turn, because he had not been there to guide them. This was all his fault. His head filled with screams and he could smell nothing but blood and horror.

The captain awoke with the hot splash of visceral fluid across his cheek. Above him swayed the uncomprehending face of a cultist assassin, the knife in his hand falling forgotten to the floor as his claws grasped dumbly at the tip of an impossibly wide blade sprouting from his chest. It suddenly receded, and his vitals spilled forth steaming to the brickwork, scant inches from him. Behind his collapsed corpse stood the chef’s assistant, eyes unfocused toward nothing.

Suddenly the acolyte screamed, the Captain turning in time to see another cultist assassin raising a wicked blade for the killing thrust. He barked a command, and instinctively the acolyte obeyed, rolling away even as from the shadowy corner behind the killer appeared the cook’s apprentice, and with an almost imperceptible slash deftly beheaded and disarmed the assailant. The Captain glanced furtively to his rear, if only to convince himself that the apprentice must still be as she stood a bare moment before. But of course she was not.

The scene was silent for an interminably long time. The twitches of the assassin’s corpse subsided, and neither the cook’s assistant nor the acolyte moved from where they stood transfixed. At length, the Captain regained his composure.

“It’s… Ellie, right? You were the cook’s assistant?” The girl did not respond. The Captain stood and approached her hesitantly, but with noble confidence placed his hand on the young girl’s shoulder. It was warm and yielding. “You’re… you’re alive? I could have sworn you were… that you’d…” He shrugged in resignation.

Suddenly, realization dawned on him. “If you’re alive, you witnessed what happened here! You can tell us who did this!” The young girl hesitated, and then nodded almost imperceptibly, her eyes still unfocused and staring at the ground. Her hand left the hilt of the massive sword and slowly rose, finger pointing northward. As she did so, a cold fire settled in the Captain’s eyes.

“Then we haven’t a moment to lose.”

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Departing the Shrine
The last living creatures at the shrine prepare to journey northward. -c

The Captain peered closer at the mangled body near his bedroll.

“Kobolds. Of course it’s kobolds. Vile little hellspawn.” His reptilian eyes narrowed, spying other, smaller puncture wounds on the body, distinct from the enormous rent in the torso. She turned toward the other corpse, eying the precise decapitation.

“Well, you certainly know how to fight. No one learns a blade like that cutting carrots. Was one of my men teaching you on the sly?” Receiving no response, he glanced aside at the massive sword the girl held aloft.

“And where did you find that ridiculous thing? It’s half again as tall as you are. I have a hard time understanding how you’re even holding it up.” Again he was met with silence.

“I feel like you’re not telling me the whole story,” he muttered wryly. “But as we are in desperate need, I am only too glad to see you can hold your own.” The Captain glanced down at the girl’s blood-drenched frock. “We should see about something to protect your skin though. I suppose a shield is out of the question,” she gestured to the sword, “but perhaps we can find—”

In a single, fluid motion, the girl flicked the sword sharply, juices and bits of kobold flying from the blade, then planted the tip of the sword in the ground. Then she held her arms out neatly to her sides, her head nodding briefly toward the kobold. The Captain and the acolyte both turned to look at the beheaded kobold. He was clad in sooty black leather of surprising quality, and even the metal on buckles and catches was blued dark and unreflective. The Captain eyed the girl doubtfully, but she only flapped her arms once, plaintively. Shrugging, they worked to unfasten the armor from the kobold and lifted it clear, then lowered it onto the waiting girl. It fit snugly around the girl’s diminutive frame, the buckles fastening neatly on the loosest catch.

The captain grinned wryly. “Try not to have a growth spurt or this thing will pop right off,” he said, and to his enormous relief he detected a faint, ghostly smile play across the girl’s lips. The girl then stooped and collected the felled assassin’s daggers and belts, strapping them around her chest, and finally retrieved her massive sword, slipping it deftly into the straps so that it lay across her back.

“Well now, aren’t you quite the messenger of death.”

The acolyte shivered and whispered to the Captain, “I hope whenever we find the bastards who did this, they’re as afraid of her as I am.”

“I won’t look a gift-horse in the mouth,” he replied. “Speaking of which, you two go fetch what provisions you can find from the storehouse. I’ll gather our mounts.”

False dawn greeted the girls as they lugged packs of rations and camping equipment back to the campsite. The dragonborn captain squatted near the ashes of the fire, scowling.

“They slew our horses before they came for us.” He spat into the ashes. “Outsmarted by kobolds. That certainly stings, but it won’t happen again.” He stood and examined the other two. “Well, let’s get moving. We’re not getting any closer to them just standing around.”

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A Chance Meeting
Two parties meet in a wayside tavern, and find their purposes intertwined. -c

The burly youth frowned into his mug, seeing naught but dregs left. He reluctantly handed off the tankard to the chittering barmaid who had been at his side since they’d arrived, and she scurried away. Glancing around the empty hall, he could easily guess why they had received such singular attention. He stared across the table at his companion.

“So it seems like we’re the only travelers tonight.”

“Mm,” the tiefling responded without looking up from her book. Three thick candles had been brought by her request and were nestled closely to the manuscript in front of her.

“Perhaps we should retire then, and get an early start.”

“Mm.”

The barmaid came sailing around the corner, smiling, with a fresh tankard spilling over.

“Belay that, here we go again,” he muttered.

“Mm.” She flipped over a page.

“So are we the only guests you have this evening?” he asked of the barmaid.

“‘Fraid so, dear. Some days we have a dozen odd from the road, some days it’s empty. I daresay I’m tickled you’ve dropped in, though!” she twittered, all smiles.

He grunted. “And the locals?”

“Busy as bees this time of year. They oft stop in at week’s end, but we scarcely see them when their orchards need tending.” She leaned in conspiratorially. “Truth told, with all the ill happenings, few as like to travel after dark on these roads anyway. Safer inside, in the light.”

“And what are people afraid—” the central door creaked open, interrupting their conversation. The warrior and the barmaid both turned, eyes on the yawning door. The tiefling turned another page, oblivious. Presently out of the darkness strode a stalwart dragonborn, shield and sword clanking idly against his heavy chainmail hauberk.

“Oh great, a scaly,” the barmaid muttered, then suddenly darting her eyes toward the tiefling, “I mean, not that it’s a bad thing or whatnot, always great to have customers.”

“Mm.”

The fighter sighed in relief, hopeful to have another traveler to exchange information with. As he prepared himself to stand and greet the stranger, he saw a second form appear in the doorway. Seeing the familiar patterns of her robe, he bolted to his feet, almost spilling his beer and eliciting a caw from the barmaid.

“Daughter of Kord!” his voice carried across the quiet inn, the new visitors looking toward him as he strode across the room. He quickly dropped a knee and bowed deeply to the shrine guardian, her dragonkind guardian looking on, wearing what passed for a tolerant smirk.

“My lady,” he began, but was interrupted by a throaty grunt from the dragonkind.

“If you please, do not draw attention to us, lad. Not,” he amended, “that there’s anyone here to see.”

The shrine guardian smiled down at him, “Rise, warrior. I’m but newly a priestess, and at that,” she frowned, “somewhat hurried into things. May we sit with you?”

“The pleasure is ours, my lady.”

The dragonborn made arrangements with the proprietor, and they quickly divested themselves of their gear to their room and returned to the hall. At length they all found seats around the table, the barmaid bustling about to serve them each in turn. The tiefling grunted a greeting but still seemed unable to avert her eyes from her book; with an apology the fighter segued into an easy dialogue.

“If it is not too impetuous of me to ask, what brings a royal marshal and a daughter of Kord down this lonely road?”

“Bold, yes; impetuous, perhaps not. We seek stolen property, and those who have wronged us. Have you heard the name ‘Kalarel’?” at this, the tiefling finally glanced up.

“He is the priest of a cult,” she said suddenly. “A cult we may soon have unfortunate dealings with. Where did you hear his name?”

“Our friend says she heard his name whispered among the thieves who stole from us.”

The fighter’s eyebrows raised, and he glanced around quizzically. “Your friend?”

The dragonkind gestured behind them, and as they turned, the lithe blonde cook’s assistant stepped from the shadows, the enormous sword across her back gleaming dully in the lamplight. The fighter started suddenly, almost falling from the bench. The barmaid let out a muffled squeak. The tiefling merely shifted forward, peering intently.

“Intriguing,” the tiefling uttered.

“This,” replied the dragonkind, “is Ellie.”

“No,” revised the tiefling. “At least, not really. This,” she paused, scattering a handful of bones and gems before her, then glancing up. “Is Talion, is it not?”

The blonde’s head jerked toward the tiefling as if struck, but her eyes remained unfocused and angled off toward the room.

“Fascinating,” she purred. “She is in the service of the Queen, and yet,” she smiled, glancing toward the shrine maiden, “loyal to you. To the both of you. Fascinating indeed.”

The dragonkind’s claw snaked across the table, grasping firmly around the tiefling’s arm. “And how is it you know this?”

The tiefling smiled easily. “I merely spoke to the stones and spirits. They eagerly follow you, as if something heavy hinged upon your actions. And your friend,” she said, looking up again at Talion, “is incredible. I have never seen or heard of anything like her.”

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From Prichan's Crossing To Winterhaven
The party sets forth in search of one answer to many questions. -c

“Joelle, this is madness. You’re arbitrarily changing our course based on a ‘feeling’ you have?”

The tiefling shrugged. “I didn’t say we came here as a direct route to somewhere else. We came here to find them, and now the spirits say our paths move in unison.”

“You have to be kidding me. Okay stop me if you’ve heard this one: a priest, a lizard, and a dead girl walk into a bar.”

“Haw haw.” She glanced him over. “We agreed to meet them at sunrise. Be sure you’re ready. I’m going to wash up.”

“I beg you to reconsider this folly.”

The tiefling paused. “I detected no malice in that,” she paused, “that. Girl. The Marshal speaks truth, guarded though it is, and the oracle of Kord is likewise guileless. It’s my job to judge minds,” she replied curtly, “and I judge they are as they seem. And the stones never lie. So our paths converge and we will see this through. You were enlisted for your muscle, not your council.”

The young warrior winced, causing the tiefling to purse her lips. “I apologize, Kettil. I value your input, but you can’t let your superstitions overrule the obvious truth. Whether it is for us to aid them, or for them to aid us, we met here for a reason. And at the end of this waits Douven.”

“Or what’s left of him,” replied Kettil glumly. The tiefling pretended not to hear him and turned toward the communal washrooms.

- – -

The lumbering fighter marched at the point of the line, his forearms resting easily over a massive longspear perched across his wide shoulders. His eyes were lively, however, darting unceasingly across the unfolding landscape. The tiefling and the priestess spoke at length of countless subjects, from the mystical to the mundane. The priestess was at occasion reminded of proper prudence with a coarse throat-clearing by the dragonborn captain, but was otherwise at her leisure to compare notes with their companions.

Through the trees and bramble darted their shadowy companion. Long since had the novelty of her quicker-than-the-eye nimbleness worn off, the young girl flitting from trunk to trunk and brush to brush, always just out of sight, at the corner of one’s vision. The warrior had uneasily come to rely on her rapid scouting as they progressed. As they reached yet another clearing, the warrior paused, interrupting the conversation behind him.

“Say I haven’t seen uh. Talion, in a while.” They glanced at each other, and then around.

“That is strange.” The tiefling closed her eyes in concentration, reaching out. Her eyes snapped open as her finger rose to point toward an outcropping.

“‘Kobolds,’ she says.” Where she pointed, small reptilian creatures scurried over the rockface, clearly arguing with each other.

“Now she tells us.” The fighter heaved a sigh, whipping his spear into a guard stance. The kobolds, realizing they had lost the advantage of surprise, charged toward them. A kobold at the top of the rock edifice began winding up his sling, but before he could properly aim his projectile, a large blade arced across his hips, cleaving his legs from his torso. Talion stepped out from behind him.

The priestess Plura’s eyes closed as she began to chant in an ancient tongue. As the kobolds edged toward her, huge arcs of lightning burst forth from her staff. The heavy stench of ozone and charred flesh hung in the air as the bolts crackled between kobolds along the pathway, their bodies collapsing. One slinger managed to loose his payload, the heavy ceramic crock arcing toward the dragonborn warlord. Captain Q’pla sneered and made to bat it aside with his shield, but as the vessel ruptured, gluey tendrils splashed over his hip and legs. He spat in irritation as he struggled against his bonds.

More kobolds erupted from the treeline, heavily armed and angry. The tiefling reached out with her mind, sowing images of annihilation into the kobolds’ consciousness. Some fell immediately, their minds turned upon themselves. The clear captains of the group mustered what courage their squad had left in order to engage the party.

With an agitated roar, Q’pla tore free of the strands of drying glue and charged forward, brusquely knocking a kobold from his feet and lancing him to the ground with his longsword.

The fighter hew a wide arc between two remaining kobolds, cleaving their shields into splinters and rending wide their ringed armor.

Seeing the fight lost, the last slinger turned to flee, only to have a slender dagger grow out of his back. Talion flickered into solidity above him, deftly retrieving her knife.

The clearing was suddenly still, the slain kobolds having no other allies at hand.

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Talion, The Plane of Dreams
in dreaming, Talion finally begins to wake -c

Talion sat up, rubbing her eyes sleepily. Beneath her was a floor of clouds, the edges of which disappeared in a bank of fog that surrounded her. She yawned, long and lazily, arms stretching to her sides and behind her back.

“Oh. I’m dreaming. I wasn’t sure I could do that anymore.” She hopped to her feet, finding solid ground beneath her. As she took a single step forward, a lone figure burst through fog, walking toward her.

“Who’s there?” she called suspiciously.

The approaching woman was dressed in a grey, flowing robe, arcane symbols embroidered in white and black around the sleeves and lapel. She also wore a thin smile. “No names. As you shall one day find, names are things of power. And to call them, especially here, would draw unwanted attention.”

Talion shivered. “Well then, what do you want?”

The woman turned, waving her hands. An ornate table rose from the cloud floor, accompanied by two heavily stuffed chairs. She gestured for Talion to take a seat, putting herself in the other. She sighed as she leaned back.

“Long have I wandered the Shadowfell, ever searching for a conduit through which to reach you.”

Talion’s eyes narrowed. “Why?”

“To remind you of a promise made. Perhaps the only promise you shall ever make.”

Talion paled. “Y-you’re from,” she paused. “From her. What does she want of me?”

“Be at ease. Though you are correct in that your promise was made with my own mistress, she is not the one who spurned your soul’s peaceful passage.”

“Then who—?”

The woman smiled benignly.

“Ah, yes. No names.” Talion scowled. “Well then. What was this promise I made? When did I make it?”

The woman’s eyes tilted upward, her lips moving silently. She stood up suddenly, causing Talion to start. She strode a few paces from the table. “My word. Has it only been ten years? Scarcely a decade has passed since that day, but for you… for you, it has been as lifetimes.” The woman turned back, and Talion could see her eyes were wet with tears. “I am so sorry. Sorry for all that you have lost. Sorrier still for all that you will lose.”

Talion made to speak, but the mage raised her hands, causing trees to erupt from the clouds below them. Grassy hills followed, and then they were standing in a small summer glade. Before them, a child stood at a tiny outdoor shrine. A handful of ghostly figures stood behind her, but all eyes were on the little girl. Her hands were at her sides, small feet planted solidly. She began to recite in a high, clear voice.

“I am of shadow. Without the light, I am nothing. Without the darkness, I am nothing. Though fate shall find each of us in time, I go to find mine and face it, head-on and unafraid. I bow to none.” As she completed her verse, the two nearest apparitions closed on her, one’s arms wrapping around her, the other’s hand ruffling her long, straight hair. She beamed up at them.

The tranquil moment was a bubble suddenly burst. The heat of flames engulfed them, ears filling with the sounds of battle, of screams, their senses awash with the rusty smell of blood and terror.

No!” Just as suddenly, the scene swept away at the mage’s firm touch, and they stood again in the clouds. Her eyes were again wet. “I am sorry to deny you, for that too is yours. But not now. Not yet.”

Talion tried to clear her head. “So my promise was to… to she who brought me back, after all?”

The mage smiled. “That one is hardly unique in claiming the domain of shadow. But no, though my own mistress induced your promise, you did not make it to her, either. The promise was made to yourself.”

“I’m not sure I understand. What then did I promise?”

“That you are beholden to no one. Answer to no one. Trust no one.”

Talion grinned wryly. “Including you?”

At this, the mage smiled. “That’s my girl.”

As she felt herself about to smile back, an interrupting thought faded it. “And what of my companions?”

“Travel with whoever you wish. Fight alongside whoever you wish. Fight against whoever you wish. But let the choice be yours. Yours and no other. For when you wake—” she paused to glance around the roiling dreamscape, “when you truly wake. Yours will be a power unchained.”

“But the Ra—” a firm glare stopped her. “She brought me back. To avenge what happened to me and to those who cared for me. Do I not owe her for that much at least?”

“You may rest assured that for whatever purposes she brought you back, they were her own and not yours. It is possible she is your friend… but probably not. It is possible she is your enemy… but again, probably not. And even were it true this moment, what about the next? Probably not.”

“But what if she should… what if she rescinds it, then? If she undoes what she has done?”

“Her power is over death, but not the dead. She made her choice, and did not seek your permission before doing so. Though it will be to your advantage that you have returned, one can hardly call it a gift, and even if it were, it is deeply unoriginal: that was not even the first time she has turned you away from death’s gate.”

Without warning, a heavy, rumbling roar engulfed them. Far in the distance rose a tumbling black wall. It grew quickly, pouring over everything, a tidal wave of nightmare.

“They have found you. Our time is done.” The mage took a hesitant step toward her. “Remember your promise.”

Talion nodded. “I bow to none.”

The mage took another step, her arms folding around Talion’s lithe form, but before they could touch, she vanished into nothingness.

Talion stood a moment more, then turned toward the onslaught. Her fullblade appeared in one hand, the other bristled with daggers. She sneered, and spat one word.

“Come.”

And with that, she dashed forward to face her enemy, head-on and unafraid.

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The Old Man and the Canaries
She falls again into the plane of dreams.

It seemed the same dream as the night before. The dark corridors, the whispering voices, and the blood were all identical, but Talion couldn’t find the door. The dream had always ended at a door, every time she slept in this cursed place. Sometimes she opened it, sometimes it opened itself, but she hadn’t yet seen beyond that terrible portal, and now she couldn’t find it at all.

Instead, the hall opened into a tomb. At one end, rows of the dead in elaborately carved stone graves, at the other, a shrine. A canary flew by. An old man knelt in prayer at the altar. No door.

“Who are you?” she called out. “Why are you here?”

The old man smiled, “What have you learned about names in this place, child?”

She stared at him coldly. A canary landed on his shoulder and chirped. His smile grew. “Young one, there is so much for you to learn. Come, pray with me.”

Talion looked at the altar. It had runes carved into it, and above a painting of a dragon. She stepped back, “I bow to know one.”

To her surprise, he laughed gently. A singing canary in the rafters awakened a chorus of chirps in the sunlight. “Of course you don’t, yet, the burden you insist on carrying alone grows. In time, you will falter beneath it, and then you will bow to everyone. Come, pray with me.”

She stepped back again, and a canary lit on her shoulder. “No, you don’t understand, I made a promise. I bo—.” The yellow bird chirped loudly in her ear, cutting her off.

“I know all about your promise, child. I am the Binder of Oaths, the Keeper of Vows. Do you love me?”

“I—what?” She blinked, trying to refocus on him, trying to recognize him.

“I don’t require your subservience, dear. But if I am to travel with you, and aid your quest, you must love me. I can ease your burden, but not if you refuse my aid.” A canary flew around his head 3 times before flitting into the light. He watched it go.

She briefly wondered how it had come to be daylight in this dark place. She couldn’t see the sun, but the shrine was bathed in its radiance. The songs of the birds made it seem outside on a spring morning. A canary landed on her other shoulder. Her knees felt weak.

“How can you help me? I was sent by…”

He sternly interrupted her. “Names, child! Do you think I do not know who sent you? Do you think She alone dictates the fates of mortals? There is more for you to learn than I realized, and you are a willful girl. Only the strongest hearts may be set free from the chains of destiny. Does freedom weigh heavily on you?”

Talion struggled to keep her legs straight, and stared at him defiantly. The old man smiled again. She heard the flapping of wings to either side of her head, but the birds were holding fast to her cloak.

“Yes, willful. That is well. You will need such strength when the time comes to write upon the pages of fate with your own hand. What tale will you tell? Has my trust in you been misplaced?”

She blinked, “I don’t understand. Pages? Your trust?”

“Yes, child. It was I who insisted you be chosen for your quest. And it is a greater one than you know.” He was holding her hands, and peering intently into her eyes. She didn’t remember him standing. His grip was strong. “Your mistress does not even understand the purpose for which I have chosen you. I will be with you through all your labors, but you must let me. If you lean on me, I will lift you. If you walk with me, I will be beside you.”

Talion shook her head, “I…I can’t.”

The old man frowned, “You can…but it’s up to you. Remember, you need not bow, only love.” He let go of her hands, and she began to sink. As her vision faded to darkness, the last thing she saw was a bright, yellow canary.

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