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Browsing Posts in Player Characters

It was a lovely day.

The smell and taste of the island air washed away the dullness of his senses, once more reminding Gabriel that he yet lived. Automatically, he flexed his hands, momentarily delighting in the strain and pull of muscles there. Around him, his allies … no, his friends were reacting to their emergence from that Underworld in various, expected ways. Mendel had already knelt in the dirt, his head bowed and his eyes closed as he thanked God for delivering them from such a terrible fate. Magnifico and Gestlin alike gave brief, almost cursory thanks to the Lord as well, but then, neither of them were especially devout. To no one’s surprise, Rainald was laughing, that booming voice of his almost seeming to rattle the ground. Dane and Merasiël were the hardest to read – the archer had removed his face-concealing wrap and was frowning at something no one else could see while the elven woman was breathing deeply, as if she had just finished a long run and was trying to recover. Gabriel watched for a moment, admiring the view, and then turned away. Not for the first time, he did not know what to do or how to honor the lost. His relationship with God had soured to the point that he held nothing but contempt for the Lord so giving thanks to Him despite having lost a good friend felt like hypocrisy at its finest and it had been years since he wept. So he fell back on the one thing that had not yet betrayed him.

Six steps carried him far enough away from the others that they would be in no danger followed by another two to factor in Gestlin’s inexplicable clumsiness, and with a flick of his wrist, he drew Misericordia in that long practiced motion. The blade sparkled in the sun and Gabriel stared at it for a long moment. Radskyrta was dead. Anger simmered within him, warring with the usual relief that it was not he who had paid the butcher’s bill, but Gabriel examined his rage, considered it, and then fed it to the mental flames he erected in his mind’s eye. In the Void, such trivial matters held no sway.

The forms came quickly, smoothly, efficiently and with them, his thoughts came just as easily. Two Hares Leaping. Snow in High Wind. Heron Takes a Silverback. Faster he pushed himself. Faster and with more precision. Kissing the Adder became Cat on Hot Sand, which flowed into River Undercuts the Bank. He was aware of the others speaking, but he did not hear their words. Mongoose Takes a Viper became Low Wind Rising. Arc of the Moon turned into Watered Silk.

Radskyrta was dead.

And yet … and yet … Gabriel found that he could not grieve.

The ground was shaking.

Hades’ roar and Persephone’s answering shriek split the air, shattering stone and striking like a physical blow. Gabriel stumbled slightly – it was still so very hard to think, to make decisions, and his mind was yet reeling from the rebirth of Persephone only moments earlier; it had been an audacious move on Mendel and Merasiël’s part, to put the necklace back on the zombie-like goddess, but Gabriel could not blame them, not with how sinister Hades had sounded when he demanded the ruby taken from his wife’s throat. Neither of the two … gods seemed capable of physically harming one another and were thus venting their rage upon their environment. Marble columns shattered into powder. Stone floors exploded, sending broken fragments spinning into the darkness. Concussive blasts erupted from Hades and Persephone alike, hurling the mindless back into walls with crushing force. Ribbons of light and energy coursed through the air from the twin powers raging in the center of the massive building, and one such brilliantly-colored stream slid across the distance and slammed squarely into Radskyrta’s chest, throwing him back to the ground where he slid a handful of yards. Coherence returned to his eyes abruptly and he blinked rapidly, glancing around as if in surprise.


“Move!” Dane exclaimed. He was already heading toward the exit as another torrent of light tore through the roof, shattering stone and cracking masonry. A rain of debris fell around them, cracking and splitting. Shocked into action, Gabriel sprang toward the confused-looking Radskyrta and pulled him sharply to his feet. Rainald was there a moment later, seizing the still staggered Radskyrta with one meaty hand and half-pushing, half-dragging him toward the exit. The air was thick with dust and debris which made the going difficult, but Gabriel darted toward the exit, hurdling small chunks of rock or unmoving, listless forms that had once been humans.

Beyond the doorway, he was greeted by another veritable horde of flesh statues, all staring at the trembling acropolis with their blank eyes. The island continued to rock, sometimes so intently that the quakes knocked many of the doomed souls to the ground. Still, there were far too many in the way…

“To the boat!” Dane ordered sharply, gesturing with one hand. “Rainald, open up a path!” The burly Northerner bellowed a laugh – it sounded so strange here, echoing strangely, hollowly, and even some of the dead looked in his direction, an expression of almost recognition on their faces – before lowering his shield and charging forward. Those in the way were knocked aside, some staggering away but managing to stay on their feet while many more fell to the ground. Gabriel paused for less than a heartbeat before throwing himself forward once more. He easily caught up with Rainald, then sprinted past him, ducking and evading around the unmoving bodies standing listlessly in clumps.

Down they fled, past the spirits of those adventurers they had slain in the ruins only hours earlier, through what felt like an entire army of the dead, all unmoving and staring at nothing at all, and finally through the hollow, vacant streets that were surrounded by empty buildings in a bizarre facsimile of a town. There were fewer of the dead here, but enough that it still slowed them somewhat as they raced toward the dock.

Behind them, the roof of the acropolis suddenly exploded.

The shockwave shattered the upper level of the small mountain upon which the acropolis rested, tearing apart the buildings on the lower levels and sending great chunks of rock and debris spinning into the darkness. One of the faceless statues that had been adorning the great building tumbled out of the night, smashing into one of the dead men only a handful of steps away from them and Gabriel recoiled away from the rain of colorless blood and bone that resulted from the sudden impact. Had they been anywhere else, he would have been unable to avoid the blood but here, it dissolved almost instantly into a fine mist that vanished entirely before it even reached him. There was absolutely nothing left of the poor, damned fool …

“There!” Dane pointed toward the boat they had arrived upon and the hooded figure standing at its tiller. It – Gabriel had caught a glimpse of the skeletal features under the hood on their first trip so he could not classify the thing as a He – was as much of a statue as the other soulless standing around and was facing in the direction of the great acropolis that even now boiled and trembled. At their approach, the … thing slowly turned its hooded head toward them. How would they get this foul creature to let them pass? He must have vocalized his question because Magnifico muttered something under his breath and Gestlin scowled. Rainald glanced back to the mountain – Gabriel did the same – and watched as torrents of blue, green and red fire consumed the once great building to its very foundations.

“To hell with this,” Radskyrta snarled. It was the first thing he’d said since recovering and, before anyone could react, he stumbled forward. Covering the distance in three long jumping steps, he reached the boatman.

And then, he punched the thing in the face.

The creature must have been as surprised as Gabriel was because it offered no defense and the blow staggered it long enough for Radskyrta to seize the boatman’s pole. He swung hard – the impact of the pole against the hooded creature echoed loudly and could be heard even over the roar of the twin gods dueling for dominion so far away. The boatman folded over the makeshift staff and, with a roar that sounded more like something Rainald might express, Radskyrta hurled the creature into the black river where it vanished with a sound that sounded curiously like a sigh of relief.

“Get in!” Radskyrta snapped.

“Move!” Dane exclaimed at almost the same time. Everyone crowded into the boat, automatically taking the same places they’d had on the first trip, and Gabriel found himself looking back at Hades’ island before he realized it. Great columns of fire and light were consuming the buildings now, though it seemed as though massive trees were sprouting everywhere as well. Was Persephone winning? Was Hades? How could they even tell? Another building fell apart, this time because of an immense tree that tore through the ground and climbed rapidly to full growth. Beside him, Merasiël stiffened and he gave her a quick look. She was staring at Radskyrta and Gabriel followed the line of her eyes. Icy shock washed through him.

Because Radskyrta was suddenly wearing a black cloak.

It had not been there moments earlier, but from the set of his face, Gabriel suspected that Radskyrta had known this was going to happen the instant he attacked the boatman. Was it because he was already dead, because the strand that connected him to the mortal realm had already been cut long before they ventured into the tunnels? Mendel was querying him, an expression of alarm stamped on the priest’s face, but Radskyrta offered no reply. Instead, he continued pushing the boat forward with his seized pole. His face could have been a mask of flesh for all of the emotion it showed but his eyes glittered with intelligence.

The boat slid through the darkness quickly before bumping against the shore. Radskyrta said nothing, even as he was peppered with a dozen questions, and then, with a single motion, he pointed toward the door where the three-headed dog was crouched. It was no longer a statue, but a living thing, and Gabriel sprang out of the boat, drawing Misericordia even before his feet touched the sand. The others followed suit, scrambling out of the awkward barge in the event that they would have to fight yet another beast to win free of this place. In the instant the last of them were off – Gestlin, of course, who also managed to trip and fall facedown into the beach – Radskyrta used his pole to shove the boat free. It drifted away, allowing them one final glance of their friend in the moment before he drew his hood up over his head.

Strangely, he was smirking as he did.

His arm still quivering, Gabriel held the final form – Heron Spreads Its Wings – for a single, extended moment, aware once more that the others had begun to gather their belongings. Rainald was hefting Radskyrta’s body, now wrapped in blankets seized from the other group who had caused so much trouble, and Merasiël was watching a bird dip and weave in the air while the three casters argued over something with Dane looking on. With a subtle twist of his wrist, Gabriel brought Misericordia to a ready position while facing the shrouded corpse, the sort of salute one would render to a blademaster of superior skill or prestige.

Requiescat in Pace, my friend,” he murmured before returning the weapon to its scabbard. “I will ensure the path is cleared,” he announced.

He did not look back.

The Tholos at the sanctuary of Athena Pronaia,  a circular building with Doric columns 380 BC . Delphi GreeceLife never tasted so good.

Merasiel inhaled deeply as she and her companions emerged from the tunnel beneath the island. She lifted a hand to shield her eyes from the bright sunlight and breathed over and over again, forcing clean oxygen into lungs that had been still for too long. Her senses were alight with colors, a harsh contrast to the hazy gray dullness of the underworld. The rippling blue of the sea sparkled and caused pinpricks of pain in her vision as her eyes adjusted from the darkness back to the light. The dusty browns and grays of the ruins around them mingled with whatever green overgrowth had taken over the buildings. The familiar tang of the sea teased at her nostrils. She squinted up at a sky pockmarked with puffy white clouds, and took several long moments to process it all.

How long have I sought death? She mused. Everything I have done since returning from the Crusades, all the lives I’ve taken, the alliances made and broken. For so long I wanted the end of it all. How much time did I waste? And when I finally achieve what I desired…

Her thought was interrupted as the cry of a sea bird echoed across the island. Her sharp eyes caught sight of the creature quickly and followed it on its journey. It twisted and twirled in the eddies of the wind and eventually dived low to the water, beyond her field of vision.

I…I want to live.

Harkwood, Midsummer, 2009ce

He barely noticed the noise of the city around him. Shopkeepers hawked their wares in his direction, but he paid them no heed. His feet carried him forward against his will, and he ignored every passerby that brushed up against him. He probably had been pickpocketed a dozen times over, but he didn’t care. The cold, iron knot in pit of his gut dulled his normally sharp, Elven senses. He didn’t want to go back to the inn. He dreaded the coming discussion with every fiber of his being, yet he could not find reason to tarry any longer. She waited for him there, he knew. Once again, he cursed his stupidity.

Mendelel replayed his own part of the conversation mockingly in his mind as he walked. “I found them! There are survivors, and one of them is a scout in the forest outside the city!” He let out an angry snort. I shouldn’t have said anything until after I knew more.

All too soon, his feet carried him to the inn, and he looked up to the window of her room, his eyes meeting her anxious gaze.


What is keeping him? If he got himself pickpocketed again…wait, there he is. But something’s wrong.

Merasiel glared out the window, her expression barely concealed behind the foggy glass pane. Mendelel’s usually jolly countenance was missing. The corners of his mouth turned downwards in a frown, and his normally springy step had been replaced by a slow, plodding walk.

“Something is very wrong”, she murmured, and bolted from the window.

Merasiel met him at the bottom of the stairs. Before he could say anything, she blurted out, “He’s dead.”

Mendelel shook his head. “No. He’s not. He is alive.”

She grabbed Mendelel’s arms with her hands, an unusual joy glimmering in her eyes, “That’s a good thing, yes?”

“You need to sit down, Merasiel.”

“Why? What’s wrong? Tell me.”


Merasiel interrupted him, shaking his arms so his teeth rattled against each other. “Tell. Me.”

“The scout I spoke of. Her name is Miratariel, and she…” Mendelel paused, then continued with a sigh. “She is his daughter.”

Merasiel’s grip fell slack, and she sank down to the steps. She couldn’t conceal the look of shock on her face, and in one swift movement, Mendelel seated himself beside her, an arm wrapped around her shoulders in support. “His daughter?” she asked quietly.

“Yes.  When we didn’t come back, he and Erianil were married. She is still alive as well.”

“Erianil.  I see.”

“Mera—” he began, but Merasiel hushed him.

“It’s alright. It’s like you said. It has been nearly a thousand years. Anything could have hap…” she faltered, no longer trusting her voice to continue.

“I am sorry my friend.”

Merasiel painted a pleasant look on her face and shook her head. “There is no need to be sorry. He survived the destruction of our home. That…is enough for me.”

“Are you certain?”

Merasiel maintained her calm expression and nodded, but within, she was a torment of emotion.

I want to die. Why didn’t I die?  Why?

Present day

The cry of the sea bird once more caught Merasiel’s attention.  She watched it for a time, and when it flew out of her line of sight again, she noticed she was alone in the ruin.  Far below, she saw her companions, all of whom had already begun the long trek down to the Gleaming Endeavor. The stout-hearted Northman, the Fool, the Priest, the Swordmaster, the Archer and the strange Mage. All of them cast long shadows as the sun began sinking towards the horizon.  One could not find better companions to live…and die with.

Merasiel picked up one foot after the other and began the long descent from the ruins after them, her mouth parted wide by a genuine smile.

He hated swamps.

The smell, the lack of solid footing, the treacherous waters that hid all sorts of unseen dangers, not to mention the vile creatures that slithered and swam and crawled … all of it combined to create an environment seemingly crafted by a cruel and malicious God to humiliate him. Gabriel was a man borne and bred for cities, accustomed to the comforts afforded by civilization, not an insane explorer intent on viewing the very armpits of the world. There wasn’t even a single flat, solid surface here! How was a civilized man meant to fight in this slimy mudhole?

He pushed the errant thoughts away as he paused, exchanging a quick look and nod with Merasiël before stepping closer to help Dane to his feet, which was not an easy task in this damnable bog. The archer was grimacing with pain – the skeleton only just dropped by Mera had caught Dane by surprise and had somehow torn a vicious chunk of flesh from his face. Blood was gushing forth freely and as Gabriel pulled him upright, Dane wobbled. This was not good. If he slowed even more, they would not make it.

“Push through the pain,” Gabriel murmured, glancing up as he tried to locate Mendel. “You’ve had worse.”

“Gyns’Vail Swamp,” Dane said by way of agreement as he staggered forward. Gabriel nodded.

“We survived that nightmare,” he said as he pulled the archer toward more steady ground. “We’ll survive this.”


Eight Years Ago, The Otherworld

The situation had just gone from bad to worse.

Muttering darkly under his breath, Gabriel scrambled over the soggy terrain and crouched alongside Dane. The archer was kneeling in the muck, peering over an overturned, half-rotted log and staring into the mist-shrouded swamp. For a change, he’d pulled down his face-concealing cloth mask, though Gabriel had no idea why, not with the horrid stench all around them. On the bright side, he did not have to guess at Sardock’s mood, not with the dark scowl stamped on his features.

An eerie-sounding horn rolled out of the mist and was quickly joined by another and another and a third, all sounding from different locations around them. It unsettled the men and elves on this bank – even that pretty one with the cold eyes and lethal grace they’d found in that … Mortuturesihad, wasn’t it? – but Dane simply held up a hand and they quieted.

“And to think,” Gabriel murmured, “I almost stayed with Wallace.” Dane grunted in reply before glancing briefly at the small group of warriors arrayed around them. Numbering a little over fifty, they were visibly exhausted from the forced march, especially the three Huallapans who generally served as translators or local guides. One of them was also a fairly capable spell-weaver, though he was nowhere near as competent as Patch. Getting these three to the Bear Clan had been the primary objective but somehow, the damned Vasar had tumbled onto their plan. For the last three days, they tried to shake the pursuing bugs and Dane had finally opted to try this swamp, hoping that the Vasar’s inability to float would prevent them from pursuing. Unfortunately, it seemed that too had been anticipated.

“We have too few to hold long,” Dane growled. His eyes flickered to Gabe and then away. “We need reinforcements.”

“Rainald is closest,” Gabriel replied with a frown, “but he’s on the other side of this swamp with the Bear Clan.” Again, Dane grunted. Almost at once, Gabriel caught the line of his thoughts and flashed a grin. “You do not have to ask,” he said before gesturing for the spell-weaver to approach. The cold-eyed elf beauty – damn. What was her name again? It was so close to Miratáriel’s name – drew closer as well and was studying him and Dane. Of course she’d likely overheard … all of the elves probably had. No matter. “Friend,” Gabriel began in his halting Huallapan, “Need weave. Point me to … Bear Clan.”

“You mean to leave us?” the man asked rapidly. Another horn sounded and he visibly jumped.

“Get help,” Gabriel replied in the same tongue before giving Dane another look. “I hope you’ve been brushing up on your Huallapan,” he added in Anglish, earning yet another grunt.

“Alone?” the Huallapan asked, his eyes widening. Gabriel shrugged – based on personal observation, he was the only one who could outrun a Vasar on solid ground and, as much as he loathed swamps, they provided plenty of places to hide if he got himself into a tight spot. The spell-weaver added something else that Gabriel could not begin to translate before shaking his head. “I will add another protective weave to help.”

“As long as they don’t have an Alpha,” Dane murmured, “I think we can hold this spot for a few days.”

“Right.” Gabriel shucked his travel pack – it would only slow him down – and checked the straps on his armor. He gave their surroundings a foul look. “Have I mentioned how much I hate swamps?”

He set out an hour later, his skin tingling from the bizarre magics woven around him. The six elves tracked his departure, their bows strung and nocked, and he felt more than heard the whistle of twin arrows flash by him, thunking heavily into a Vasar warrior creeping through the swamp toward their tiny island. It recoiled, stumbling back into its equally hidden comrade, and the two made such noise that Gabriel was able to slip by them without notice. He paused briefly, looking back at the island – the mist shrouding everything made it nearly impossible to see anything, but he thought he could almost make out the shapes of the elven bowmen. With a grin, he tossed off a jaunty salute in their direction and turned away.

When the sun began its descent some hours later, darkness set in fast. Gabriel’s progress, already slowed due to the absolutely terrible footing – he ended up doing more swimming than walking or running – came to an almost standstill. He knew which way he needed to go thanks to that Huallapan’s weave, but being unable to see a damned thing made for slow going. Thankfully, the other weave worked marvelously: the lizards and snakes and other swamp denizens gave him a wide berth.

He crept along for hours, pausing to rest or to wait until the moons provided enough ambient light to illuminate his path, but after nearly breaking his neck for the tenth time, he sought out a suitably solid land-mass and settled in to wait for dawn. The many long hours of effort demanded their price and he quickly slipped into a light doze. It was far from restful – the noises of the swamp kept startling him awake and as tired as he was, his instincts could not ignore the danger he was in – so he was up and preparing to move the moment the sun began peeking over the horizon.

And to his absolute horror, he realized that he’d somehow managed to camp out in the middle of a fairly large Vasar contingent.

Most were simply collapsed on the ground, though if they slept, he knew not, but a handful walked the perimeter of the landmass. There were dozens present, most of a hundred perhaps, far too many for even a would-be blademaster to handle alone, but they had not appeared to notice him just yet. Strange-looking boats were shoved upon the shore and he wondered how in the name of God he’d failed to see the damned things the night previous. Gabriel slowly climbed to his feet, wincing at the sharp protests his muscles made, and quickly calculated the best escape route. It would take him … there, right past the Vasar … the awake Vasar who was looking right at him.

Reflex took over. Adrenaline coursed through his veins and he sprinted forward, drawing his father’s sword even as his long stride ate the distance. Already, the Vasar was beating its wings in that too familiar sound of alert and it was scrambling for its glaive. Gabriel reached it a heartbeat later, slipping around the creature’s wild swing. The forms came smoothly, instinctively – Kissing the Adder, followed by Snow in High Wind – and the Vasar fell with a hideous gurgle. Its brothers were moving.

So Gabriel ran.

Later, he would never quite be able to remember the running fight in the swamp and would instead recall only momentary flashes. Five Vasar in hot pursuit and a nightmare sprint over partially submerged crocodiles. The sound of insectoid screams as the reptiles, startled awake by Gabriel’s steps upon their broad backs, bore the Vasar under water. Another trio of bugs trying to corner him and the sword forms flowing into one another. Apple Blossoms in the Wind. Mongoose Takes a Viper. Leopard in High Grass. Bundling Straw. Blood and ichor splashed – one Vasar would fall and two more would take its place. The fierce swamp creatures became his unwitting allies – the Huallapan weave rendered him invisible to them somehow but they perceived the bugs well enough. Even the water was useful as the Vasar seemed incapable of traversing it easily. And always, Gabriel kept moving. To stop, to slow, even for a moment, that was death. He used every trick in his repertoire, took advantage of any misstep or hesitation by the Enemy, and somehow, someway, he won free.

He stole one of the smaller boats and used it to put as much distance between himself and the Vasar as possible, but this quickly became a losing proposition. They crowded onto their skiffs and pursued frantically, nine or ten or more strong rowers to just him, so Gabriel grounded his boat on the nearest landmass and sprang out. Once again, luck was with him as the ground was solid. They were not yet out of the swamp, but this was most definitely the periphery. The magical weave that acted as an internal compass tugged him in that direction and he threw himself forward. Now, more than ever, he needed speed.

How long he ran, he knew not. The bugs were still there, hot in pursuit and making so much noise that surely the dead could hear them. He stumbled, tripping over a concealed root, but managed to roll back to his feet just as the Vasar reached him. There were too many. Gabriel grinned then, fiercely, madly, and drew his rapier. If he was meant to die here, then so be it. But he wouldn’t be alone.

And then, he wasn’t.

Rainald charged past him, bellowing that ground-shaking warcry of his, and a wave of Huallapan barbarians followed, howling their own challenges. There was no precision to their attack, no grace or beauty, only raw strength hurled at the Enemy. Gabriel shook his head slightly, took a long moment to reclaim his breath, and then joined them.

“Running like rabbit, lítillbróðir,” Rainald said with a laugh as soon as Gabriel reached his side. Snow in High Wind felled another of the bugs and he gave the Northman a foul look.

“Dane sent me,” he hissed. The Falling Leaf redirected a glaive into the dirt rather sloppily and Rainald took advantage, smashing Gramjarn through chitin and carapace. “Surrounded and need aid.”

“Hah hah!” Rainald smote another of the Vasar, though this one mostly parried … which left him wide open to Kissing the Adder. “Many much fighting to do then!” He powered forward, laying about with that hammer and shield. “To swamp!” he roared and the Huallapan barbarians cheered, though it was likely they didn’t have a clue what the burly Northman had said.

And despite his bone-deep weariness, despite the heaviness of his still sodden clothes, despite how utterly filthy he felt, Gabriel followed. After all, he had promised Dane that he would be back.

God, he hated swamps.

It was a surreal experience. He was dead – they were all dead, though somehow they yet spoke and breathed and bled – and even still, in this impossible place, there were these moments of exquisite beauty. The melodies drifting from Magnifico’s lute were both haunting and ethereal, tugging at the parts of him not entirely rendered callous by the experiences of life, and the urge to dance was overwhelming. Merasiël was at his side, her expression pinched as she forced herself to sit still even as the others – Rainald, Gestlin, even Dane – swayed alongside the music the one-time hunchback crafted.

“I do not dance,” she had said in that flat, irritated tone of her’s when Gabriel had urged her to join him. She’d explained briefly that others had attempted to teach her but all had failed, which frankly surprised him. In combat, she was so very graceful.

“My first instructor with the blade was also my dancing master,” he said with a smile. For a moment, he almost mentioned Harkwood, but at the last moment, wisely held his tongue. He had some pride, after all.


Twelve Years Ago

The urge to draw his father’s sword and simply murder the incompetent fools in front of him was hard to suppress.

Fidgeting slightly, Gabriel shifted awkwardly, a false smile plastered upon his face as he tried very hard to determine how best to say what he was thinking without insulting the four fools in front of him. They were all nobles of sufficient rank that he was, ostensibly, supposed to bow and scrape to them, but this identity Miratáriel had devised for him, this Maestro Gavriel Costigan was just quirky and difficult enough to avoid that sort of thing. He was an artist, after all, and nobility of any real standing vied for the ‘pleasure’ of his time. Thus, his Megalan accent was thick, his gestures grand and his temper short. He wore strange clothes and carried a strange (to Caithness eyes) weapon on his person at all times. Why, he even lived mostly with the elves and to these provincial fools, nothing was stranger. And because of those foibles, these Harkwood nobles would smile, nod, and inwardly laugh at him.

Gabriel hated Maestro Costigan.

“No, no, no,” he said crossly. “You must move faster, yes? Be the air!” He tried very hard not to look at the ridiculous hats that were the latest fashion – thankfully, this identity allowed him to scoff at such things, but he had little doubt Miratáriel would try to get him in one later simply because she could see how much he disliked them. How she had convinced him to playact as this chattering fool continued to elude his comprehension. “Like this,” he added before flowing into a heavily modified version of Willow Embracing the Breeze. One of the noblewomen frowned, something resembling recognition flickering in her eyes, and Gabriel stepped closer to her, elbowing her idiot husband and his feathered hat out of the way. “Count begin,” he ordered the musicians along the far wall before leading the woman through a couple of steps. Her dress made it difficult to judge her footing but of the four, she was the only one with anything resembling grace.

“Maestro,” the feathered fool began, a frown turning his already plain face ugly, and Gabriel stepped back, allowing the man to retake his place.

“Again!” Gabriel declared loudly. He caught sight of Miratáriel lurking near the doorway, her eyes dancing with glee, and gestured toward her in the imperious manner that Maestro Costigan favored. For a moment, their eyes locked and he could see her brief irritation, but he only smiled again. This stupid job had been her idea, after all, and Gabriel had gone along with it simply because he had not wanted to deal with finding other work. He hated the necessity of it – he’d had a need for money enough to live on and a place to recover from his injuries that was large enough to practice the forms, and nothing good had come of him selling his sword in recent years – but if he had to suffer, then he would share his misery. “Come, Mira!” he said loudly. “Let us show them how it must be done!”

“You will pay for this,” Miratáriel hissed in Elven as she joined him, but he only flashed her a grin before reaching toward her hand.

And then, they began to dance.

They twisted and spun and twirled, their feet constantly moving. She was a feather in the wind, a doe bounding through the woods, or perhaps a falcon swimming through the sky, and it was so much better that the heavy footed stomping that the nobles here called dancing. Back and forth they went, never actually touching because that would thoroughly ruin the tease. The four nobles watched, sometimes laughing, sometimes frowning, but never silently, and finally, Gabriel let himself spin away from Miratáriel, arresting the half twirl so he stood before the nobles.

“Much better than the clumping around like horses, no?” The other nobleman – not Feathered Fool, thankfully – scowled and Gabriel once more donned a fake smile. “Tomorrow, we shall increase the tempo, yes? Speed and grace!” He gave them all a bow that was only a half shade away from looking totally insincere and waited until they and the musicians had departed before rounding on Miratáriel. She was leaning against the wall and grinning.

“You look ridiculous,” she said in Anglish and Gabriel had to grunt in agreement. He tore his lacy jacket free and tossed it aside, not really caring where it landed.

“I do not think I can do this much longer,” he said as continued to strip the accoutrements of Gavriel Costigan off. Clad only in his pants, he drew his father’s sword and stared at it for a moment. “A dancing master,” he muttered darkly. “My first fencing master called himself that, but he never dealt with fools like that.”

“How do you know?” Miratáriel pulled two of the sparring blades from where they were cleverly concealed … on the wall, in plain sight where fools like the ones who had just left would barely glance at. She gave him a questioning look and Gabriel nodded. He placed his father’s rapier atop the nearby table and caught the sparring stick she tossed toward him. Almost before he’d even accustomed himself to its weight and balance, she slid forward aggressively. Their blades clashed.

And for a second time, they danced.

In this, Gabriel knew himself to be far better, so he stayed on the defense, calling out pointers and corrections to her stances. Her inability to connect clearly irritated so Miratáriel did as she always did when she was losing: she played dirty.

“My father wishes to speak with you,” she said and Gabriel grimaced slightly. He batted aside her clumsy thrust before twirling around her follow-up swing.

“How lovely,” he lied before falling into The Grapevine Twines. Miratáriel’s sparring sword clattered the ground. “We must work on your grip, my dear,” he said. She smirked then and he read the thoughts in her eyes. When she pounced this time, he willingly offered no defense.

And for the third time that day, they danced, though this one was more pleasurable than most.



2007, March. Hive Ri’Tal

Deep within the bowels of the Vasar hive Ri’Tal, Merasiël, Gabriel and Dane wandered among strange company. The Huallapan they had freed a short time ago now led them unerringly through the endless maze of tunnels that seemed to continually twist and turn back on themselves at random. Merasiël occasionally glanced at the silent people, her unease very apparent. Despite the events of the earlier fight, Merasiël still distrusted them; how easy would it be for the liberators to be abandoned in the tunnels and left hopelessly lost, or worse, to be turned over to the first Vasar patrol they encountered? Yet, none of the others shared her concerns. Gabriel followed along in his usual easy stride, and Dane ghosted along behind them, his bow ever held at the ready and an arrow nocked. The few remaining Crusaders that had originally joined this mission were scattered throughout the growing pack of Huallapan. Those who were too wounded to continue had been sent back in search of the way out. There are so few of us left. Even if the Huallapan do not betray us, what good will all of these empty hands do? Merasiël had little faith now that they would succeed, but Dane insisted that his plan would work. And so they pressed on.

Occasionally they would be brought up short by a motion from Eli, the Huallapan who had overcome his fear and rallied the prisoners to action. After a brief conversation with Gabriel, he would send a pair of armed Huallapan down a side tunnel. A few minutes later, they would return, accompanied by more prisoners. Merasiël grated at each delay, however her protests were largely ignored, and they continued at their slow pace, freeing more and more prisoners as they went.

As those in front of her stopped abruptly once more, Merasiël expelled a frustrated sigh. She elbowed her way to the front where Gabriel, Dane and and Eli stood. Upon reaching the front of the group, she saw Eli gesturing at some sort of ventilation shaft in the side of the tunnel. From what she could tell, it was wide enough for a single person to pass through at a time and seemed to lead upwards at an angle. Gabriel scratched his chin and stared at the small entrance, a somewhat bemused look on his face. Eli continued to speak hurriedly to him, gesturing more than once at the portal.

“What is it?” Merasiël asked when she was within earshot.

Gabriel’s glanced at her briefly in acknowledgement, then his gaze shifted back to the tunnel. “It seems that here we are to part ways with our friends. This shaft will lead us near the main entrance and we should be able to see the gate when we reach the other end.”

“And what will they be doing?”

“I don’t know the exact words he’s using. But it seems that there is a large group of prisoners further down this passage. They are well-guarded, and he wishes for us to move on to the gate while they try to free their friends. They will be a…rivodza…whatever that means.”

Merasiël shook her head. She had not bothered to learn any of the Huallapan language, believing it too rough for Elven tongues to bother with. She turned and dropped down to a crouch before the the shaft entrance and muttered in Elvish, “That will be a difficult climb.” The walls were smooth and waxy, just like the rest of the tunnels, however the angle wasn’t too much to climb if one were careful. She buried the rest of her complaints, dropped to her hands and knees and disappeared into the small passageway. A soft grunt from behind let her know that the others had joined her in the slow, painful ascent. The silence was marred only by the sound of feet, hands and knees gaining purchase in the tunnel behind her, heaving the men onward. The sounds paused, and Gabriel’s voice drifted from just behind her.

“Lovely view in here,” he murmured, amusement fairly dripping from his voice.

“How can you say that?” Merasiël grimaced as her hand sought another secure hold to grasp. “There are no windows.”

Dane’s soft laughter drifted from below Gabriel’s feet. Merasiël stopped and glowered over her shoulder at them, beginning to suspect some sort of joke. Gabriel’s knowing smirk and brief glance at her posterior was all she needed to see and she turned back to her task. “Very funny,” she said, without a trace of amusement.

After several minutes of climbing, the dim light around them lifted as daylight filtered down from the end of the tunnel. Merasiël turned to look over her shoulder once more, a finger placed on her lips to caution the others to silence. She wormed her way up the last few feet to the end and found herself peering out of a grate into an large, open courtyard. As Eli had promised, she had a clear view of the main gate and the mechanism to open it. She also had a clear view of the large number of Vasar guards swarming the courtyard in between themselves and the gate. An iron fist clenched in her gut. We must continue, for good or for ill, she thought grimly and tested the grate, only to find it locked. She twisted herself around and planted her back against one side of the tunnel and her feet against the other to hold herself in place, allowing her hands the freedom to begin working the lock open.

The tell-tale sound of the lock opening seemed loud to her ears, and Merasiël froze. A glance out the grate showed that none of the nearby guards had heard. In fact, she saw that there were now fewer guards in the courtyard. Much fewer. Many were leaving swiftly, accompanied by the sounds of angry clicks and snarls, but couldn’t see where they were going. But now, the way to the gate was clear. She felt a tap on her boot, and she looked downward at Gabriel.

“Many guards,” she murmured low. “But they are leaving. The way is open.”

Gabriel looked as confused as she felt, but some sort of buried knowledge came to light and his face lit up with understanding. “God. Rivodza. Diversion. The Halluapan are sacrificing themselves so we can get the gate open. We need to move. Now!”

One by one, they scrambled out of the tunnel and tumbled into the courtyard. Merasiël immediately sought some sort of cover, praying to the Eternal that they had not been noticed. Whatever diversion the Halluapan were causing was working, and all of the Vasar eyes were turned elsewhere.

“Dane? Are you ready?” Gabriel asked curtly.

Dane had already returned his arrow to the quiver on his back and had withdrawn a new one, the point of which was wrapped in cloth and coated with oil that would burn in a bright flash. They would give a signal to the army camped outside that they were in the courtyard and would open the gate soon. Dane nocked the arrow and took aim as one of the elves lit the cloth with a spark from a flint and tinder.

Outside the gate, the Crusaders waited. Rainald, Magnifico and Brother Mendel stood just ahead of the lines of warriors, their eyes trained on the Hive walls. The setting sun made it difficult to see, but they shaded their eyes as best as they could and continued to keep vigil.

“Have faith, my friends,” Brother Mendel broke the silence. “The LORD is with them. They will succeed.”

“Is strong, yes,” Rainald agreed.

A flash briefly lit the sky above the Hive, and Brother Mendel smiled as cheers began to sound out around them. “And the scriptures say, ‘Arise, shine; for your light has come, And the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.’”

Within the hive, Merasiël kept to the shadows as much as she could and moved swiftly to the gate’s locking mechanism. Their time was short, she knew, as the Crusaders would begin their march as soon as the signal was sent. Dane’s arrow, while bright enough to be seen by the approaching army, was also bright enough to alert the Vasar that something was amiss. In the confusion, she and one of the other elves with them were able to reach the gate and begin the slow process of opening it. The sounds of fighting broke out behind her, but she tamped down the urge to join them and stayed at the gate.

She heard the elf next to her cry out in pain and she then realized that she was alone. He lay in a pool of blood by her feet, felled by a hurled vasar glaive. But still, she worked the gate as quickly as her strength would allow.

A black blade nicked her shoulder and she stumbled to the side, narrowly avoiding a thrust through the center of her back. A huge Vasar towered above her, poised to deliver a spear strike into her heart. Instead of delivering the killing blow, however, it shuddered oddly as the tip of a rapier thrust through its body, and the spear fell to the ground with a clatter.

Merasiël heard the song of the Crusades echoing over the wall. The army would be at the gate in moments.

“Merasiël! Get that gate open!” Gabriel called out as he turned away, holding his blade ready. He joined Dane to stand against a large, writhing black mass of Vasar.

With as much effort as she could muster, Merasiël threw herself on the mechanism and forced it to move. As the gate opened, a blow from somewhere behind her left a loud ring in her ears and a film of hazy darkness roiled around the edges of her vision.

The last sight she saw was that of Rainald barreling through the opened gate, bellowing his trademark, blood-curdling war-cry, and then everything went black.

“…will be fine, she just needs to rest. That was a nasty blow she took to the head.”

Merasiël stirred as voices disturbed her slumber. Her eyes flickered open and her vision swam as she focused on Brother Mendel and Gabriel standing nearby. No, not standing, lying down?  Are we dead?

The ever-patient Brother Mendel tended to Gabriel’s many wounds. Gabriel, for his part, was not happy about his situation. “I should be out there. Fighting. There are still bugs to kill!”

“You’re exhausted and have more holes in you than our LORD’s brow as it was pierced by thorns. You will go nowhere until I am done with you!”

Not dead, then.  Merasiël smiled at the idea of Gabriel’s discomfort, but the effort sent pain shooting through her head and she groaned.

“Ah, she’s coming to. How do you feel, my dear?” Mendel approached and settled down with a sigh. He looked exhausted, but he didn’t pause, laying a cool hand on her forehead. He then held up his other hand with all of his fingers extended. “Tell me. How many fingers do I hold before your eyes?”


“Beg pardon?”

Gabriel’s answered for her, his tone impatient. “Ten. It’s Elvish for ten.”

Mendel frowned down at her. “Still need some time off your feet, I see.”

“What happened?” Merasiël forced her eyes to focus on the two Mendels that swam before her.

As Mendel spoke, he lay hands on her bloody shoulder and blessed it with healing power. “Well, after you three opened the gate…ah, I won’t bore you with the details. While you slept, the Crusaders took the Hive, Magnifico danced on the wall and the Vasar have been routed. Those that escaped have fled towards Hive Ves’qal. Although it will take some time to clean out the tunnels beneath us, I’m afraid.”

Gabriel interjected, “It would go a lot faster if I was there with them.”

Mendel glared over his shoulder, but Gabriel was spared the priest’s rebuke by the tent flap flying open. Rainald entered, Radskyrta’s arm draped over his shoulder as he drug the warrior to one of the empty spots beneath the tent. Radskyrta’s leg was twisted at an odd angle, and it didn’t seem to be working properly. Both of them were covered nearly head to foot in insectoid goo.

Gabriel sounded somewhat bitter when he spoke. “Having fun Rainald?”

“Hah! Yes, lítillbróðir! Killing much bug-mans today.” With that, he departed, the tent flap snapping closed behind him.

Mendel rested his face in his hands as Radskyrta began to curse from where he lay. “LORD help me, it’s going to be a long night.”

In the days that followed, the Crusaders solidified their hold on Hive Ri’Tal as the last of the Vasar that hid in the tunnels beneath were flushed out. The Huallapan that had provided the distraction that allowed the opening of the gates had suffered grievous losses, including the brave warrior Eli. There was little time for sorrow or rest, as the Crusaders soon turned their sights on the last of the Vasar strongholds.

He was bleeding memories.

It was a bizarre sensation – cool without being cold yet warm simultaneously, while being both draining and fulfilling, all at the same time – and Gabriel watched as another rainbow of color broke free from his body before dissolving into nothing. He felt different but could not explain why. His skin crawled, as if it was too small for his body, and the dragon-mark tattoos itched and burned and froze. Something was wrong…

It would be so easy to just give up. He was bleeding and aching and so very, very cold. Snow hung heavy in the air around him, blanketing the woods with white. Biting wind curled through the trees, cutting through his sodden clothes as if they were not there. The surviving ambusher was gone along with his allies, confident that Gabriel was dead and that he was safe from retribution. No one would care or even notice if he let the cold take him and right now, it would be so very easy …

Gabriel blinked and fought back the urge to shiver. Of course there was something wrong, he snarled at himself. He was dead. They were all dead. He didn’t know how the others fell … no, that wasn’t entirely true. He’d seen Gestlin die, trapped in the grip of that beast that killed them all. And then, it had seized him, tore at him, ripped him apart…

Kneeling before his father’s cooling corpse, Gabriel fought the urge to just give up. There was a whimpering man behind him who held the secrets in his heart but Gabriel wondered … was it worth it? He could simply kill the man and vanish into the multitude of people in this wretched town, could forget that he had ever been an Auditore or that he possessed a certain skillset. Disappearing into the crowd would be so very easy and he would no longer have to struggle …

At his side, Merasiël shivered, though he didn’t know why. She was still gripping Angrist tightly and, while a part of him felt strange seeing someone else with the knife, Gabriel did not regret passing it on to her. If nothing else, he’d seen a flash of actual emotion on her face and that alone had been worth the gesture. It had not been a smile, but God help him, he would coax one out of her yet.

He stood quietly on the hilltop, concealed by trees heavy with leaves, and stared down at the crumbling ruin now swarming with activity. Auqui was dead. He’d seen the boy fall, seen him buried under stone and masonry, and the part of him that had kept him alive for so very long whispered that a strong man could survive such terrible injuries. Gabriel shook that away and concentrated on his next step. Auqui was dead and his damnable bishop yet lived. Challenging a man with that much political and spiritual authority … it was to court death and Gabriel was tired of this chase, tired of this life. It would be easy to turn away, to vanish into the populace. He could go elsewhere, Araterre perhaps, or that rumored Sahud far to the north. No one would know and it would be so easy.

“I feel … strange,” Rainald murmured, though even that was louder than it should have been. He waved one hand around, frowning at the after-image of light and color left in his arm’s wake. Mendel murmured something – it may have been a curse or a prayer; with how strangely the priest had been acting, Gabriel did not know which was more likely – and Magnifico danced a strange little number before pronouncing something Gabriel did not understand in that overly elaborate style of his. Gestlin and Dane stood apart from everyone else, frowning. They were all staring at the whispers of lost dreams and forgotten memories.

“You look like you want to quit,” his father whispered to him from twenty-five years earlier. The madness that would send them fleeing from Craine was three summers away and the rest of Gabriel’s family yet lived. “When life becomes difficult, everyone wants to quit. They look for the easy path, the one that provides the greatest reward for the least amount of work. So what you must ask yourself, Gabriel, is whether you wish to be like them or if mean to take the harder path.”

No. Gabriel’s hand automatically sought out the weapon at his side. The familiar sensation of the rapier’s hilt grounded him, reminded him of who he was. Surrender? Bah. Had he surrendered when facing that beast in the water with only Angrist to strike with? Had he surrendered when they stared at hills black with Vasar? Yield, hell. He had just gotten here.

In the snow, aching and bloody and wounded, Gabriel ground his teeth together and kept walking. Three months later, he would kill the crossbowman who had tried to murder him.

Staring at his father’s body, Gabriel thrust aside his grief and honed it into a weapon. He would leave this Caithness town in four weeks time, leaving behind nineteen bodies and one missing lordling who would never be found.

Concealed by the trees, Gabriel turned away and took the first steps on a new hunt. It would take him to the Fortress of Tears where he would earn his dragon-mark and then across Megalos to far-distant Serrun where he would become the Angel of Death.

And in the land of the dead, surrounded by listless ghosts and the only people in this world or the next he considered friends, Gabriel Auditore straightened. By God, he would not quit now. How did that quote go? Into the shadow with teeth bared, screaming defiance with the last breath, to spit in Satan’s eye on the Last Day.

“There,” someone called out. It was Dane, of course, with his eyes that could see the wings of a gnat at a hundred paces. He was pointing at an impressive structure atop the hill. Every ghost stared at it, expressionless faces somehow betraying their … longing? Yes. Longing. They had given up. Gabriel frowned as he glanced around. Well … this certainly looked like the Shadow to him.

Perhaps … perhaps it was time to begin screaming defiance.

“Let us go say hello,” Gabriel declared with a smile.


“Angrist! Now!”

The command rang through her mind, but around Merasiel the only sound to be heard was the drip of water as the ferryman’s pole broke the surface of the pool, propelling them onward. Mendel had ceased his mad rambling, and the rest of her companions were silent, each of them lost in their own thoughts.

Merasiel clutched her remaining dagger in her hand, replaying the battle in her mind many times as she sought a different outcome that would have prevented them from this hell. As much as she considered each misstep, once again Gabriel’s command echoed in her ears and she flipped Angrist around hilt first and returned it as he requested. She felt again the keen loss as the weapon left her care, but she reminded herself that the dagger was not hers to keep. Once again, Gabriel and Gestlin never surfaced from the water. Once again, Magnifico fell, then Dane, Mendel and then herself. The Northman outlasted them all, but even he was overcome in the end by the creature that would not die.

In the midst of the fevered battle, one of her own daggers had been knocked from her hand and disappeared into the depths of the pool the hydra-creature had called home. It had not made the trip with her into the afterlife, and she mourned.

900ce, Estrelere

The still of early morning in the Elven city of Estrelere was broken by the hurried arrival of a scout from the north. Merasiel usually slept lightly and would seek out each scout that returned, anxious for news of orc movements in the area, but for once, exhaustion caused her to miss it. She had worked late into the night with her daggers, and had fallen into bed well after the midnight hour. She awoke in an instant, however when the door to her chamber opened. She blinked a couple of times as her vision came into focus on Lesthial, Elder Oronthil’s wife.

Merasiel opened her mouth to wish her a good morning, but froze at the expression on Lesthial’s face, her greeting held prisoner on her tongue. She stared at Lesthial expectantly, and eventually the purpose of the early morning intrusion came to light.

“A Scout from the north arrived while you slept. There is news…”

Merasiel arose and began to dress hurriedly, the familiar scowl settling on her face. “What is it,” she stated, already suspecting that the news was not good.

Lesthial folded her hands together and shook her head, wisps of her golden hair rippling with the movement. “I am sorry Mel-hên. The orcs they had been tracking attacked with greater fury than before. Your parents did not survive….”

Merasiel heard no more. She finished dressing, and left the room at a run. The scout was in the main chamber still, head bent in whispered discussion with the Elders. His head was bloody from an injury that had yet to be tended. All heads looked up and conversation ended when she entered the room. The silence screamed in her ears. The scout approached her then, grief resonating from his every movement. When he lifted his hands to her, she saw what he carried: a bloody belt with a pair of sheathes attached. From the tops of the sheathes, the pommels and hilts of a pair of matching daggers could be seen.

“We were able to recover them after we defeated the orcs. I am sorry.”

My mother’s, Merasiel thought. She always said that one day they would come to me.

Merasiel’s sorrow never showed outwardly, but her hands trembled as she took the precious gift. All that remained of her parents lay in her outstretched hands.

The ferryman’s boat rocked gently as Merasiel’s thoughts returned to the present. She gripped the dagger more tightly than she realized, yet she felt nothing. And why would I? I am dead. She slipped the dagger into her boot, taking great care to secure it so that it would not fall out, and then instinctively shook out her hand, silently musing over the absence of the expected pins and needles sensation. Across the boat, Mendel had begun to ramble again. The jolly priest had ever been a source of comfort to them all, bringing healing and light to dark places. He rarely lost his temper, and to see him in this state caused her some concern.

Her worry over the monk ceased as she felt the pressure of something being slipped into her hand. She looked down and saw Gabriel’s gloved hand retreating from her own, leaving Angrist in her outstretched palm. In an instant, she felt the shift as the dagger once again became linked to her. She continued to stare at the dagger as she spoke. “We are dead. What need have I for this?”

Gabriel shrugged, and a tendril of mist that had crept close to the boat twisted in the disturbance of air and dissipated. “Perhaps there is a need, perhaps not. In any case, I believe this was meant for you to have. And,” he paused and nodded towards her boot. “You seem to be missing one of your own.”

For a brief moment, Merasiel’s mask crumbled, and the sorrow she had buried for her family, and her people, for so long showed starkly on her face. And then just as suddenly, the mask returned, the lines on her face smoothing themselves back into the soft frown that marked her aloofness. “Thank you for the gift, Gabriel. I will ensure that it’s taken care of.” With that, she slipped Angrist in the sheath on her belt. As the snap of the hilt meeting the top of the sheath met her ears, she considered the gift of something so precious and her concern over the state of those around her. While she felt no less dead, she felt comforted in the company of…..friends.

A cleaved head no longer plots.

The Northern proverb uttered by Rainald kept rolling around in Gabriel’s head, even as he climbed down the rope ladder, although he knew that he should be focusing on the task at hand. It was a statement that was both simple and yet obvious, and something he would have to keep in mind for the future. How many of those he’d encountered in the past had returned to haunt him because he held back from finishing them or erred by not finding a way to end them as they deserved? Gabriel scowled. Zabka was certainly one…


Eight Years Ago

They were arguing again.

It was the usual disagreement – his student wanted to join the fighting and he had forbade it – but there was a touch more anger in Auqui’s voice than Gabriel had recalled hearing of late. Anger and sullen defensiveness, neither of which should have surprised him, not with Auqui having entered those difficult years where he was no longer a boy but not quite a man. For his part, Gabriel was too exhausted to deal with this nonsense at the moment, not to mention hungry and cold and sore. All he wanted to do was find his blankets, curl up underneath them, and forget this day ever happened. Such a thing was not feasible, not with tonight’s planned raid against the Vasar’s lines.

Though there was no ice on the ground, winter had not yet completely lifted its icy grip from the Huallapan land, which should have given them a massive advantage over the Vasar, but thus far, they had yet to take this damnable Hive. Coordinated assaults by the crusaders were a thing of the past, with the leaders of the rebels and royalists factions both jockeying for overall command. Lives were being spent liberally – the older knights especially seemed more interested in dying heroically than actually accomplishing anything useful – and senseless attacks were ordered on an almost hourly basis. Though he’d long ago sworn off returning to old habits, Gabriel was seriously considering assassinating some of the more intransigent fools in command on both sides just so someone else could lead.

“No,” he said in response to Auqui’s latest entreaties. “You are not ready.”

“I’m better with a sword than half of these fools!” the boy retorted fiercely.

“More than half, I’d wager,” Gabriel replied with a tired smile. “But you are still reckless and too confident by a large margin.” He held up a hand to stop Auqui’s next line of reasoning. “Your leg still has not fully healed,” he pointed out, which immediately caused the boy to flush in embarrassment, “and I well remember how you gained that injury.”

“I could have handled it,” Auqui muttered sullenly.

“If Dane had not shot it,” Gabriel retorted, “that bug would have killed you.” He did not bother pointing out that Auqui was not even supposed to be in that particular skirmish, nor that the boy had ignored explicit instructions to stay out of it, mostly because his student too often only heard what he wanted to hear. Instead, he took a seat on the large rock that Rainald had declared ‘the singing rock’ … though what that meant, no one but the Northerner knew.

“This is not fair,” Auqui said. “When you were my age,” he began.

“When I was your age,” Gabriel interject calmly, “I was arguing with my father who kept telling me that I was reckless and overly confident.” He smiled softly, intent on remembering those days instead of the ones of terror and fear that came later. He was about to add more when he noticed the approach of a man he had little desire to interact with. “Your grace,” he greeted as Bishop Zabka drew closer. A lifetime of Catholic teachings drove Gabriel to his feet but he did not offer to kiss the man’s ring nor did Zabka offer it.

“Sir Gabriel,” came the calm reply. The honorific still felt uncomfortable, though even the royalists had taken to treating him as a knight, no matter that the status was bestowed upon him by Lord Wallace. “And … Auqui, is it not?” His pronunciation was wrong, but only slightly.

“It is … your grace,” Auqui replied, stumbling over the title. The boy’s Anglish was still heavily accented, but he improved daily and it was certainly better than Gabriel’s Huallapan and quite frequently, more comprehensible than Rainald’s attempts at speech. Together, Gabriel and Auqui had developed a curious pidgin tongue that used both of their native languages. Zabka’s eyes widened slightly.

“You speak Anglish well for one of your world,” he began before looking back to Gabriel. “The Church has need of translators, my son,” he said before he glanced back in the direction he just came. Gabriel followed the line of his gaze to a larger group of tents – a handful of armsmen were watching over a cluster of Huallapans while a pair of harried-looking priests visibly struggled to communicate with the former slaves. “Would your young student be so kind as to assist us in our time of need?”

“May I, Master Gabriel?” Auqui had slipped back into his native tongue and the eagerness pulsed off him like a living thing. “I want to help and this could be important!” Gabriel almost frowned – he saw through Auqui easily enough. This was an opportunity for the boy to strut around in front of his fellow Huallapans and be the focus of their awe since he was clearly a warrior and not just a fisherman. Had anyone but Zabka been involved, Gabriel would not have hesitated to give permission, but with this man …

“Go,” he ordered after a moment of consideration. “Be back before dusk,” he added as Auqui’s grin lit up his face. The boy nodded and then turned away, almost instantly falling into the arrogant strut that was Cat Crosses the Courtyard. His limp spoiled it a little, but only to Gabriel’s expert eye.

“Many thanks, sir knight,” Zabka said as they both watched Auqui attract exactly the kind of attention the boy sought. “My flock were ill prepared for this crusade so this will assist tremendously.” Gabriel said nothing, though he did offer a slightly nod. “We began poorly, I think,” the bishop said abruptly. Gabriel gave him a flat look.

“You tried to have an innocent woman murdered because you thought she was a witch,” he replied in as cold a voice as he could manage.

“For which I have sought atonement and absolution,” Zabka stated. “I have asked for the Lord’s forgiveness for my sins.” His gesture encompasses the whole of the crusader host. “Is any man or woman here without sin?” Gabriel observe none of the expected tells that would see in a man speaking a mistruth, but then, an exceptional liar would know to hide such a thing and if there was anything he’d learned in his nearly thirty years of life, it was that men of Zabka’s station were often such exceptional men.

“And yet, your grace,” Gabriel said slowly, “I find that I mistrust you.”

“An honest reply.” The bishop smiled. “And understandable to one who has known only conflict.” He glanced away. “I remember you,” Zabka said abruptly. “From Craine.” His expression darkened. “And I remember well Abbot Publius’ sins … may God have mercy on his poor, tormented soul.” He crossed himself and, automatically, Gabriel followed suit. The bishop eyed him for a moment. “We have similar goals, I think,” he began, “and I would not wish to have us as enemies.”

“Goals?” Gabriel gave him a look. “My only goal is to train my student to become the best swordsman he can be.” For a long moment, the bishop was silent.

“An interesting application of your particular talents, scion of Auditore,” he said. “We shall speak again, my son.” He made the sign of the cross before Gabriel. “Go with God,” he added before turning away.

And, exhausted by a day of bitter, harsh fighting, Gabriel let him go, not entirely registering the implications of the bishop’s use of his family name. He might have even puzzled it out if given a moment to relax but Dane’s approach distracted him.

“Come with me,” the archer ordered. “I have need of your eyes.”

“You cannot have them,” Gabriel replied. “I am rather attached to them, actually.”

“I think I know how we can get into the Hive,” Dane said in an irritated voice. He was hiding it well, but to those who knew him, there was no hiding how insulted he was over not being allowed to command due to his birth.

“Well, then,” Gabriel said as he straightened. “You have my attention now.”

freeze00The witch snarled.  Falling.  Down.  Down.  Impact.

He felt himself go.  It felt like falling, and as though he’d stopped long ago.  No sound.  I’m cold, he thought.  The heat leaves the limbs first, the heart and head last.  It’s cold.

No, there was sound.  Crunch, crunch, crunch.  A wind.  Were his eyes open?  Louder: crunch, crunch–

“Ow!”  A boot came down on his head.  “Mind your step, if you please!”  The sound of the boots halted, and he looked up.

“Oh, it’s you, fool,” said Radskyrta.  “Reckon you’d best get up.”  The soldier offered an icy gauntleted hand.

Magnifico let himself be drawn in a direction that might have been up.  “You.  You’re here.  We’re here.  Where?  My head aches.  What happened?”

“You fell down.  I did, too, but I’m not gonna just lie there.  Always got to be moving, right?” said Radskyrta.  “You stop moving, you…don’t get up again, maybe.  You freeze.”  He shrugged, and drew a cloak around him.

“Where are the others?”  Magnifico shivered, becoming aware of a frigid twilight, and of snow.

Radskyrta shrugged again.  “Back there,” he muttered, barely inclining his head in a familiar gesture.  “Think I’m done.  You coming, or what?”

“No,” said Magnifico quickly.  “You go ahead, friend.  I will see what is keeping the rest.  Don’t go too far.”

“Got to keep moving,” said Radskyrta, trudging on through the snowy wood.  “Miles to go.”

“Don’t go too far,” Magnifico heard himself repeat, and turned–back?–in the direction from which the plodding Radskyrta had come.  The forest was darkening, and still but for the scuffle of his own feet, or the echoes of Radskyrta’s.

No, there was a light that flickered.  That would be Mendel, or Gestlin, or a fire built by the others, and it would be warm.  He would find out what had happened.  Fight.

It was a blue light, and the light was armor, and the armor encased a man, tall as Rainald, and the man moved gracefully from tree to tree, seeking something or other.

“You there, sir knight!  Hail and well met!” cried Magnifico cheerily.  “I am a performer who has lost his way, and would welcome your company.”

Shaking his head, the glowing man in blue turned on the clown.  “Who…ahhhh…you?” his voice rasped.freeze01  Glittering eyes pierced, and a chill stabbed at Magnifico’s heart.

“I, sir, am Magnifico, fool and songster.  What is your pleasure?”

The stranger looked long, pointed, and said in his oddly accented Anglish, “Your clothes.”

“These are but the trappings of my trade, sir knight, and in my charming gear I seek with my friends to rid the land of evil.  I was just looking for them–”

“You put on…dot…and fight crime?”  The thick vowels made him hard to understand, and he began to chuckle.  “With your friends?”

“Eccentrically put, kind sir, but essentially correct.  My friends are around here somewhere, and would no doubt make a place for you at their fire.”

The blue knight laughed, pointing again at Magnifico.  “You…AHHH…super!  You need to”–he drew from his back a kind of rod that made a whining sound–“chill out.”

Magnifico fled, numb feet leading him away into the gloom.  Behind him, the knight’s voice mocked him.  “You’ll be back!”

And then it was warm. and there was dear Merasiel, arguing with Sir Dane over the disposition of the corpses, and Mendel was there, watching him wake.  “Radskyrta,” said the monk sadly, shaking his head.

“Yes,” replied Magnifico, remembering snow and the fresh track of familiar boots.


The stench of blood was still thick in the air.

Gabriel leaned heavily against a shattered stone column, trying very hard to ignore the throbbing agony in his leg. After all, with how close they had just come to dying, with Magnifico grievously wounded, Rainald missing an eye and Radskyrta dead, it would seem the height of folly to complain about a simple arrow wound. He scowled. Four of the five hostiles were dead, the fifth missing … and Gabriel still didn’t know what this nonsense had been about.

“Here.” Merasiël drew alongside him. Like nearly everyone else, the elf was badly injured. Automatically, Gabriel shifted slightly to give her room so she could get off her feet, which seemed to irritate her at least a little though the slight grimace of pain she made when she took the offered seat hinted at injuries worse than he thought. Wisely, Gabriel held his tongue and waited. She offered one of the strange-looking pronged weapons to him. “Thought you might want to look at this.” Gabriel accepted it, tested its balance for a heartbeat, before finally grunting softly. It reminded him of a main gauche, though he would be the first to admit that he had only rarely used a parrying dagger. By his calculations, it had been almost twenty years since Father first showed him the basics with such a blade and, though he had used one infrequently throughout the decades since, he was long out of practice with it. Abruptly, he realized that Merasiël was studying how he held the weapon – what was the bloody name of this thing again? – and a flash of amusement stabbed through him despite the grim circumstances. Of course she had an ulterior motive. Didn’t everyone?

“A sai,” Gabriel said suddenly. “This is called a sai.” Merasiël gave him an impatient look and Gabriel offered her a tight smile. “My father taught me to use a weapon like this. It was a parrying dagger.” That certainly drew her attention, but she was a connoisseur of knives, so was that any surprise? “I am somewhat rusty, but once my leg is attended to, I will be happy to show you what little I know.”

“There is something wrong with your eye,” Mendel was telling a seated Rainald. The monk looked somewhat the worse for wear himself, but was still seeing to the injured.

“This thing?” the burly Northman exclaimed loudly, jabbing a finger toward the practically-empty socket. “Gone! Like Odin!” He frowned darkly. “Hildra will not like, I think maybe.”

“Who is Hildra?” Merasiël murmured under her breath in Elvish. Gabriel grinned and responded in kind. If for no other reason, he enjoyed having Merasiël around because it let him use Elvish. It was such a beautiful language…

“His wife.” He twirled the sai around one finger, then casually swapped it to his other hand with an expert flourish. Yes. This would be a nice weapon to use. “You would like her, I think.” Automatically, his eyes returned to Radskyrta’s unmoving form.

And he remembered.

nature trees forest path sunlight

Six Months Ago

He was not sure how he had been roped into this.

Walking alongside Cometes, Gabriel listened to the unintelligible gibberish that passed for a language among Rainald’s family. Hildra was driving her cart with expert skill while somehow managing to keep the two boys under control with little more than a stern look or sharp word. Clearly, it was some form of magical ability he did not comprehend.

“I take Uncle to monk-healers,” Rainald had said some hours earlier. “Go with family to village for me. I owe you favor.” Hildra had exchanged some forceful words with her husband, but had finally agreed after several long minutes of loud argument. It was so very strange to see the big Northman back down from such an unassuming woman and, if he was honest, Gabriel would have to admit that was at least most of the reason he’d agreed. Any woman who could make Rainald obey her had to be an impressive lady. Besides, he very badly needed to replenish his own travel rations and a mug of decent ale (or, since this was Caithness, flavored piss that passed as such) would not be unappreciated.

So here he was, several miles out of a village he didn’t know the name of and wondering if there was any way he could convince Hildra to pick up the pace. He was on foot and moving faster than her damnable cart.

As the terrain smoothed out, Gabriel could not shake the feeling he had been here before. There was something terribly familiar about this place, something … ah. Yes. He, Rainald and Dane had killed a handful of deserters near here some years ago. There should be a collapsed windmill somewhere nearby, although that had been six or seven years ago. It might have collapsed entirely by now. He frowned. Zabka had pointed them to this place. Had that been part of his grand scheme even then?

The road curled through the woods, drawing closer to the small village, and Gabriel immediately felt familiar instincts begin tingling. They were being watched. He fell into Cat Crosses the Courtyard without thinking, noting immediately how Hildra broke off her comments in mid-sentence. Very softly, she called out his name in that curious accent of hers, but he ignored her. Where? Where were they, dammit?

Six poorly dressed men carrying rusty axes and swords stumbled out of concealment. None of them had anything resembling actual armor – one carried a battered, much abused shield that probably could not protect the man from a stiff breeze, and the rest wore tattered rags that might have once been clothes – but they had numbers. Had he been alone, Gabriel would have not hesitated to attack but his eyes darted to the cart and the three inside. Rainald would be displeased if he let harm come to them…

“That’s close enough,” he said flatly as he took a ready stance in front of Cometes. With an almost casual gesture, Gabriel flicked his cloak back, exposing the burnished gauntlets bearing the dragon-marks upon them. Here, so deep in Caithness territory, it was a toss-up whether any of these men even realized what they meant, but at the very least, they’d see he was both armed and armored. “Take another step and I will kill you.”

The calmness of his words, the casual confidence in his posture, and the fact he wore steel upon his chest when they did not gave them pause. One of them – the nominal leader, Gabriel guessed – glanced back and forth between his men and the cart, before licking his lips.

“We only want the cart,” the man said. His expression darkened when he looked at Hildra. “And the woman,” he added as he took a step closer.

So Gabriel killed him.

After so many years of dealing with hardened warriors and deadly Vasar, these men were no more dangerous to him than a blind and dumb ten year old wielding a wooden practice blade. As Gabriel sprang forward, his father’s rapier whispering free from its scabbard, the men reacted with open surprise that turned abruptly to panic when they saw their ‘leader’ suddenly stagger back, his throat opened by Arc of the Moon, and Gabriel flowed through the forms like water rushing down a mountainside. Kissing the Adder dropped another of the men and Kingfisher Circles the Pond batted aside a wild swing from a panicked defender, leaving the fool wide open to Mongoose Takes a Viper. A fourth man fell, his body pierced through by a spear – so, Hildra was not totally useless in a fight, then – though he was not dead, and then the fifth shrieked as Gabriel disemboweled him with Snow in High Wind. At this, the sixth would-be robber turned to flee but Gabriel barely hesitated: the familiar weight of Angrist fell into his hand as he twirled in place and he hurled the elven blade with every ounce of his strength. It was a lucky shot – he’d simply hoped to strike the man, perhaps to slow him down long enough for Gabriel to reach him and finish him with the rapier, but in mid-step, the would-be bandit stumbled over a half-buried root. Angrist punched through the back of his skull with a meaty thunk. The man staggered forward another three steps before spilling forward onto his face. He twitched twice, and then a third time when Gabriel summoned the knife back to his hand.

“I did warn you,” Gabriel said as he drew abreast of the one with the spear through his belly. He was still squirming in agony and had no time to do more than jerk in agonized surprise when Gabriel thrust his father’s sword into the man’s heart. He twisted the rapier, then pulled it free. “Good throw,” he remarked calmly as he pulled the spear free before glancing up toward Hildra. She had retrieved another spear and a battered old shield. To Gabriel’s surprise, the oldest boy who could not be more than five was off the cart, armed with a knife, and ensuring that the fallen would not be getting back up. He should have been horrified, but Rainald’s casual acceptance of violence over the years implied a far less civilized upbringing.

Says the person who killed his first man when he was little older than this boy, Gabriel mused darkly. He frowned before tossing the spear back to Hildra.

“Safe?” she asked as she snatched the spear out of the air. Or at least, he guessed that was what she said. Her accent was even thicker than Rainald’s. Her eyes quickly tracked across the fallen men, then back to Gabriel. This was the first time, he realized, that she’d seen him do more than simple form practice and if Rainald was any indication, Northern warriors were accustomed to skirmishes made up of long, protracted exchanges that relied more on strength and toughness than anything like precision.

“Safe enough,” he replied with a nod and a shrug. If she understood him, he had no idea – how exactly did she intend to negotiate with the townsfolk? – but he guessed she understood the gist of his intent as she snapped another order to her eldest son and he went to work checking the corpses for valuables. Naturally, he found nothing of use – these bandits had been desperate to have struck like they did – but Gabriel simply watched, his attention more focused on their surroundings in case there were more of these fools than those on the ground. The forest was oddly quiet, so if there were any more, they were wisely staying hidden. He yawned.

“Ready?” he asked when the boy had rejoined his mother at the cart. They’d thrown the rusted weapons into the back, possibly to sell, though Gabriel doubted they would get much for them. Hildra gave him a pointed nod and flicked the reins. The sullen-looking pack animal snorted angrily and set off. Gabriel glanced at the bodies before him once more, then gave the forest another look. He was almost certain that there were others watching now.

Before he realized what he was doing, he’d dug a handful of silvers from his purse and tossed them onto the ground. Cometes blew out an irritated (or perhaps amused) breath as Gabriel climbed into the saddle.

“See to these fools,” he called out. “And reconsider this life. You’ve seen how it ends.”

One day, Gabriel mused, that would be him in the dirt, bleeding out.

But not today.

“Not today,” he murmured as he stared at the corpse that had once been a friend. Merasiël gave him another sidelong look and Gabriel forced a smile on his face, no matter that he did not feel it. “You’re holding it wrong,” he said. “Ease up on your grip. Yes, like that. Better?”

“Better,” she replied with approval.

After a moment, Gabriel began to suspect that she was intentionally trying to distract him from his darker thoughts – he had been thoroughly useless during this fight thanks to that damnable force dome and the dead archer, and because of that, Radskyrta was dead; it was taking every bit of his self-control to hide the rage swimming in his belly, rage that was focused almost solely inward – but he did not call her on this, even if it gave lie to her oft-stated lack of concern about the feelings of others. Merasiël was far more layered than she pretended to be. But then, aren’t we all? Gabriel mused briefly before turning his focus back to the elven woman before him.

He would find a way to repay this kindness, one way or another.