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Hero's Song - Chapter Sixteen

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"There's a man, Captain...says his name is Uncus? He needs to speak with you." Kana stood at attention.

I sighed at her wearily. "Look, relax, will you? How the hells do you manage to get your spine so straight when you stand like that?"

"It takes years of discipline and training, Captain. Um.." She leaned towards me, and Sand managed not to look completely amused as she whispered in my ear loud enough for the entire throne room to hear. "This man...well, is there something I should know? He said something about the Shadow Thieves, and then winked at me." She sounded scandalized at the latter.

"Don't take it too hard; I'm sure that display of small motor skill function was quite difficult for him. You should have complimented him on it." Sand's voice was deceptively innocent.

I elbowed him, struggling to smother my laughter. "Suffice it to say, I have a...uh...difficult past, Kana." I smiled at her warmly. "Why don't you let him in to my office and I'll talk to him later? Make him feel comfortable."

"All right, Captain." She glanced at me uneasily, but left.

I looked at Sand, eyebrow raised. "Starting trouble?"

He waved a hand dismissively. "Just fanning the flames of young love. Really, you shouldn't try to stop it, Harper."

I laughed as Aldanon walked in, followed by Zhjaeve. The latter spoke. "We have found them."

I sobered as Aldanon shoved an open book into my face, jabbing at a poorly depicted map. "Here, up north; an old Illfaern ruin site, almost forgot it was there myself, until this smart young lady reminded me of it."

It was odd hearing anyone refer to Zhjaeve as a "smart young lady," but her face was impassive as she spoke. "The Ritual of Purification can be performed there. Whenever you are ready, we must travel. And prepare yourself well; know that the road will be long and fraught with shadow, and that the ruins themselves will be held under his power."

I nodded, steeling myself. "Sand, can you...?"

"Why, I'll go right now," said the elf, turning to leave through the high double doors. "I can hardly wait to tell them all to prepare to venture into yet another sure-to-be-fatally dangerous place."

Aldanon nodded as Sand left the room. "Oh yes, it's quite dangerous. I'm glad it's you going, and not me."

"Thanks," I said drily.

o o o o o o

I sheathed my scimitars, catching my breath and examining the corpses at my feet. "You know," I said lightly, "At least it's orcs this time. I was rather getting tired of zombie's, ghasts, shadows, and evil priests."

"I'll make sure and remember that when your birthday comes around."

I chuckled at Shandra, who was dislodging her shortsword from the body of an orc. Wiping my brow, I glanced up at the plain, unassuming statue in front of us. The others gathered around.

"It doesn't look like much," said Qara, doubtfully.

Sand shot her an irritated glance. "Most objects of incredible power usually aren't labeled as such for the world to see, girl." He brushed some imaginary dust off the shoulder of his robe. "Not that you would know that."

Qara snorted at him derisively. "I don't need objects of incredible power, hedgewizard. Unlike some others."

"Not now," I said firmly, as Sand's mouth opened to retort. "Zhjaeve, is this what we're looking for?"

"Know that this is a statue of Purification. There are five; five statues, and five parts to the Ritual," intoned Zhjaeve. She nodded at me. "Touch it."

I looked at her uneasily, but stepped forward, pressing the palm of my hand against the stone; it was warm to the touch. A breeze rose up, rustling the leaves of the trees, rattling our equipment. The whispering of the slight wind grew louder, and turned into words, rippling the air around me in a language I did not understand. Suddenly, it felt as if brilliant hot fire was coursing through my veins, and I saw white light shoot from the statue into my hand, down my arm, and into my body, and the words were singing with such purity through my head that my heart ached. Cleanse the shadow with fire, they whispered.

And just like that, the light went out, and I was standing there with my hand on an ugly stone statue, being stared at by all of my friends.

"My goodness," said Grobnar in awe.

"Are you okay?" asked Shandra.

I swallowed, my throat suddenly dry. I could still feel the fire inside of me, and I gently pulled my hand away from the statue, looking at it. "Aye," I sad, my voice subdued. "Better than okay."

"The ritual will give you abilities that will aid you in combat against the King of Shadows, as well as his minions," said Zhjaeve quietly. "While each one is quite powerful, you will not be successful unless you have them all." She nodded up the path. "We must find the others, kalach-cha."

I nodded at her. "Lead on."

o o o o o o

The Song Portal finally stood open, shimmering in the fading afternoon light. One statue to go, I thought. My entire body felt like it was buzzing; so much energy had been forced through me that I could feel the hairs on my body standing up at attention, and my vision glowed at the edges. "Ready?" I asked somewhat breathlessly, and didn't wait for an answer as I shut my eyes and plunged into the iridescent light.

I felt a tug low in my abdomen, and a sensation of nothingness that lasted for a fraction of a second, before I was dumped unceremoniously onto my feet again, stumbling slightly. The light was different here, but I recognized the swamp smell almost immediately. As my companions appeared around me, I noticed something...a smallish fishing boat floating forlornly in the creek nearby, empty, the wood blackened and charred. I recognized it as Wyl Mossfield's, and a chill rose in my heart, spreading into my entire body.

"Where the hells are we?" muttered Khelgar. "I don't see a statue."

"We're in West Harbor," I said woodenly. My feet began walking forward, ignoring my brain, which was whispering no, no, you know what you'll see, don't bother looking...

I crossed the bridge leading into town; it was barely holding together as it was, blast marks marring the wooden planks. They followed me silently; even Grobnar kept his mouth shut for once. The sight that greeted me as my eyes fell on the main part of town...gods, it was complete, utter destruction. As if in a daze, I walked, seeing a figure lying in the roadway, sword still in hand. I knelt at Georg Redfell's side; his skin was chalk white, and there were no marks on his body that I could see, nothing that would show how he died. His other hand was empty; he had given me his shield the day I had left West Harbor...

I hadn't wept since I was a child; even now, no tears would come. But ah, my heart; it cried out in rebellion at the bitter injustice of it. We had fought so hard, and we had won. Over and over again, my village had fought for it's right to exist, and had outlasted it's enemies, and we had carried it with us with such pride. Harbormen wouldn't be killed so easily, we had said, and scoffed at anyone who claimed that living in the swamp was dangerous. We can handle it all, we had told them.

And just like that, they were all dead. And I hadn't been there to do anything about it.

I touched Georg's shoulder briefly, and stood. The look on my face must have been terrible indeed, for when Sand stepped forward to speak, I looked at him, and he flinched, backing away. I turned, and headed into the depths of the village. I found most of them; Retta Starling, the Mossfield boys, Brother Merring. Stretched out across the ground, and their skin leeched of all color, whiter than bone. As I came closer to Daeghun', I walked faster and faster, and when the edge of our roof came into view I broke into a run.

The house was crumbling on itself, the wood blackened from fire. I grabbed the hinges of the door and yanked on it; it fell away from the frame in my hands, the fire-weakened wood snapping easily. I pushed debris out of my way, struggling to get in to the house. "Daeghun!" I shouted.

"Harper...Harper, stop, you don't need..." this was Shandra, trying to pull me back.

"Daeghun!" I shouted again, my voice desperate. I wriggled into the house and began kicking through ashes and debris, imagining my father's body lying somewhere close by, white-skinned in death...

It only took me a few minutes to search through the wreckage of our house, but it was soon clear to me that he wasn't there. Shandra and Casavir helped me out of the ruined front door again, and I stood, wiping soot from my face without much success. I shook my head. "He's not in there. He might have gotten away."

"Who could have done this?" Khelgar said, anger rippling in his voice. Bishop stood behind him somewhat, staring silently at the destruction around him; when he met my eyes, there was something in them that I couldn't begin to read.

"You Harbormen are tough," he said. His voice held no gentleness, no compassion; it was firm, but lacked the usual mocking edge he used. "Whatever did this was tougher. We need to be careful, here." I noted the arrow he had readied against his bow, and realized that while I had been near losing my mind, he had been ready for an attack. As I should have been. I swallowed, and nodded at him, reaching down and giving my spine a good shaking. Steady there, girl.

"Whoever has done this, know that this is not where the portal was meant to take us," said Zhjaeve. "This is your home, kalach-cha?"

I nodded. "It was." My voice sounded empty to my own ears.

"Do you know of any ruins close to here? Anything of Illfearn?"

"Aye...actually, there's some ruins that lizardmen inhabited some ways into the swamp," I said, my mind racing. "I've only explored them once, briefly, but it's possible..."

"It is something, at least," muttered Casavir, pushing his hair out of his eyes...the damp swamp air was slowly but surely drenching us. "The portal brought us here for a reason."

"Be cautious," warned Zhjaeve. "Something has kept us from finding the statue. I do not know what will meet us when we reach it, but we should be prepared."

I led them through the rest of my village, no longer looking at the faces of the dead as they watched us walk by. The edges of the buildings soon dissappeared into the swamp, and I felt my resolve slowly returning as we put more distance between us and West Harbor.

You're the leader, my thoughts whispered to me. So be one.

"Weapons ready, everyone," I said, drawing my scimitars. "This place wasn't friendly the last time I was here, and I don't think time has improved it."

I heard the rustle of metal as my companions obliged. My jaw tightened as the ruins came into view.

The doors were wide open.

o o o o o o

He felt it, drawing near...the slow, burning pain that crept through him whenever the shards were close to him was enough of a warning. "She is here," he whispered, and the shadows gathered around him, waiting...

She stepped through the doors, two dully gleaming blades in her hands. She reeked of Illfearn, of purification magic. He pointed a skeletal finger at her, and the shadows leapt at her, hissing.

He turned his back on the fight, his attention on the statue in the center of the tiny structure. It's magic was gone; someone else had come and performed the ritual before he or the Shard Bearer had reached it. But just to be safe...he extended an arm towards the thing, muttering an incantation that was slippery with thick words. A dark ball of energy shot from his outstretched hand and smashed into the statue with a blast that rocked the entire room.

He turned to see his shadows defeated, and the mortals picking themselves off of the floor from the after effects of his spell. The statue was crumbling behind him, useless. "You come for nothing, shard bearer," he said, his voice dripping with satisfaction. "One has already stripped this place of it's ritual magic. Oh, how sweet it is to see you fail..."

He let his hood drop from his face.

o o o o o o

"My gods," I heard Sand mutter in horrified awe behind me. "What is that thing?"

"I am a servant of shadow, reaver of souls," the thing said. Where it's head should have been, only skull remained, black and purple flames licking around a hideous grin. It's voice was hollow, deep, and my insides cringed as it laughed at us. "You made me, Shard Bearer. The ritual at Crossroad Keep that was our undoing, was also the catalyst of my creation."

"You're one of Garius' mages," I said, repulsion in my voice.

"Oh, no longer. Garius is but another of His servants. And with His power, we cannot be destroyed."

Zhjaeve stepped slightly in front of me, her staff readied. "Nothing is invulnerable. Have you tested your strength, reaver of shadows?"

"I have not needed to, zerth. But my master's power is stronger than anything you could bring against me."

There was a note of uncertainty in his voice, and I narrowed my eyes. "You don't sound sure."

He chuckled, and the sound was like a blade sliding through gravel. "Even if I were to be defeated, I would reform with time. You cannot destroy me, Shard Bearer."

"I'm willing to try my best, just for you." And I leapt at him, executing quite a clean double-swipe that would have made Georg proud. My blades passed through his body, shadows trailing after them, and I heard the others spread out into a battle formation; spells flashed by my ears, and Khelgar was at my side in an instant, swinging at the thing. I saw Casavir and Neeshka circle to his back, then had to throw myself to the ground to dodge another one of those earth-shaking spells from the thing's fingers. Then on my feet again, swords swinging.

And so we danced, blades flashing, spells flying, and not a thing really seemed to make any difference to the reaver. He threw another spell at Neeshka, and she dodged clumsily, crying out at it grazed her and sent her smashing into the floor. She was moving slow; we had fought many battles that day and I knew we were all tiring rapidly. This was not going to end well.

Zhjaeve shouted to me. "Kalach-cha, the rituals! Use the powers you've been given!"

Oh. Well, no shite. I chanted the words from the first ritual, Cleansing Nova...the liquid hot light burst from me in an explosion of divine magic, and with it, the soaring, piercing notes that I had heard from the statue filled the room and struck me to my core. It was beautiful, and terrible, and that small part of me that was still West Harbor farm girl cringed from it, frightened, begging me to stop it; but that part of me was too small now to make much of a difference. The intensity grew until I thought my entire body would be torn asunder from the force of it, spreading out with the ripples of power that echoed from me. It wasn't until the last, dying notes faded away and the spell ended that I realized the song had been coming from my own throat.

The shadow reaver was gone. Silence filled the small chamber as my comrades looked around, the fight suddenly over. I exhaled, long and low.

Qara looked at me, her eyes awe-struck. "By the gods," she whispered. "What the hells was that?"

Zhjaeve placed a steadying hand on my shoulder. "There is much power in cleansing. The King of Shadows is stagnation. Illfaern is dead and yet he continues to exist, refusing to change. Refusing to die." She looked at me, her eyes bright. "Such is the nature of Purification, that the old is cleansed to make room for the new."

"Thanks for the completely useless information, but as much as I am just loving this place, we need to leave before that thing comes back." Ah. The cutting edge we so dearly missed was back in Bishop's voice.

"Know that the portal we should have entered from is here, at the back of the chamber," Zhjaeve said softly. "We can leave from it safely."

I looked back towards the door, where beyond the swamp people I had grown up around, lived with my entire young life, lay dead, scattered to the elements. Zhjaeve shook her head at me. "Kalach-cha, there is nothing more you can do for them. We must leave."

I turned, following the others as they filed through the portal. No...there was something I could do for them...

o o o o o o

I set the last stone gently on the barrow, steadying it so that it remained in place. The bustle of the keep was faint from where I stood, alone in the open field that stretched before the main gates. The wind toyed with my hair, blowing it crossways in front of my face, and I straightened up. No bow, no fiddle, no audience except the spirits of the dead, but I lifted my head and sang.

The world behind, the road ahead

no others walk the path you tread,

Sun and shadow, light and shade,

all will fade, all will fade.

But know ye memory lasts in stone

And know you shall not walk alone

So rest, be still, and sleep ye true

For long will I remember you.

I knew no prayers, and I wouldn't know which god to pray to. Deneir did not cast her luck on the dead, who no longer needed it. I simply stood, for a long time, feeling the sun drop lower in the horizon, my eyes on the stone barrow I had built, not really seeing it. For the first moment since this entire affair had started, it had been me who was hunted, victimized, slandered, schemed against. I admitted to myself that I had been willing to bleed, even die, to stop the King of Shadows. Obviously I had not wanted it, but if I'd have to pay that price, well...I'd pay it.

But I was not willing to have others pay it for me in my stead. Not those I loved. And the ugly truth I had been dancing around finally looked me in the face; if I failed, or fled, they would pay that price in full. There was no dodging this swing of the axe, no choosing a champion to fight in my stead. Whether I wanted the responsibility or not, it was mine to own or ignore, and everyone I had grown to care for was riding on my choice.

Bishop's offer to run somewhere faded from my thoughts, albeit reluctantly. Who couldn't be tempted by that? But...whatever happened next, this bard wasn't running.

Not long after sunset, I made my way back towards the keep, feeling a strange, still peace where before was all restless doubt and fear. Whatever happened, I would see this through to the end. What awaited me there, though...well, I would just have to see.

But if I lived through it all? By the gods, what a song this would make...

Hero's Song - Chapter 16 © Avariel

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