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- [+] SPOILER
- -----Day 445------
The sun has set over the Isle of Varannar. In the Great Plains, a small group sits around a campfire. Their camp is built next to the flowing waters of the Nekhar river, providing a source of fresh water for the group.
With the night set in, travelling can be dangerous for the unprepared, as these lands are filled with a particular kind of beast: sabercats. They can easily ambush a distracted soul wandering the Kingdom of Ilmara and tear it apart with their teeth and claws. Thankfully, these are experienced and resilient souls: Varannari natives have lived with these creatures for a long time, and they know how they behave. They also know how to avoid them, if needed. The group has two veteran Varannari hunters.
Wolf Fang is a young tracker from the Zomor Clan, a small and modest tribe from the Elder Forest. He is trained as a scout, and knows the lands of northwestern Varannar better than anyone. In addition, he is a master of stealth and assassination, taking out prey and human enemies without them ever noticing his approach. He's light on his feet and has reflexes unlike that of most people, reacting to dangers in a fraction of the time it would take a normal person.
Wind, on the other hand, may not be the most skilled of fighters, but he is the most skilled of healers. His origins, sadly, are all but gone: his parents were captured as slaves by Mercian soldiers, and he was born into bondage. As a slave, he learned an exceptional amount of knowledge from the local alchemist of Sydarun, and managed to be released from his duties as a miner at the quarry to become a much needed healer for the slaves and Mercian legionnaries alike, preparing remedies and healing potions with the ingredients available. Only as an adult did he escape, during a frigid night, fleeing north. Only after that did he learn the basics of combat, and became a decent warrior with longswords and a shield.
In addition, 2 other people sit around the campfire: a young Impiri mage and a Varannari woman. The mage is Tomas, the Chainbreaker, a hero to the natives and Exiled Kingdoms alike, for his service to the people of Varannar, great adventures all across the most dangerous areas of the Isle, and being responsible for the destruction of some of the most powerful monsters in the land. And the woman's name is Gwyden. She is mostly unknown to the Kingdoms and to the Varannari, but that is about to change, as she is now a part of the most successful rebel group in Varannar.
- So, what you say is that beauty is an inherent property of things? - The sorcerer asks.
- I am not asserting that. I'm merely wondering if it is the case. - Gwyden, the witch, replies. - After all, would you not say that at least some things are inherently beautiful, like the setting sun, or the full moon and starry sky?
- Awe inspiring, perhaps. But probably not inherently beautiful. Beauty isn't something tangible, measurable or quantifiable. We perceive beauty in things, but I think beauty in itself is just a projection of our own whims and animal desires upon the natural world.
- You say that beauty doesn't exist in reality?
- It does. It's just that the nature of its existance isn't what we thought it would be. It's a very vague concept, for one, and entirely subjective in its application. I think a good example of it is the barrier between my people and yours. Our pale skin can seem strange, even repulsive to Varannari that never saw one of us, and the same thing can be said the other way around. Neither green or pale skin lacks beauty in it of itself. The beauty can only be there in the eyes of someone that perceives it. Green skin looks strange, unfamiliar, unknown, and thus, lacks beauty to someone who never saw it, and doesn't understand why it is different.
- It's a fair enough perspective, but if beauty is a only a reflection of our own minds, doesn't that discredit the natural world, as something that cannot have beauty of its own?
- Discrediting Nature isn't the goal, even if it is the result. And we wouldn't discredit it, because if I am right, beauty is a concept for us sentient creatures only, and Natures sees no meaning in the word. Personally, I think it would even add more uniqueness to the human experience if it were the case that beauty is not inherent.
- Spare me, you two.- Wolf Fang playfully interrupts the conversation. - Here we are, under the starry sky of the Great Plains, cooking sabercat meat and drinking from the great Nekhar, and you two are arguing over aesthetics? Have you never heard of "beauty in simplicity"?
- Simplicity has its beauty, truly. - the Magus retorts. - But complexity is much more entretaining. And our world, my friend, loves complexity.
-Dinner is prepared.- Wind carefully removes the meat from over the fire and distributes it to everyone in small wooden bowls. - Enjoy your meal, everyone. The day ahead of us tomorrow will be filled with work.
- Let's see what sabercat meat tastes like, then.
It's truly been a very productive couple of days. Not so long ago, Tomas came to terms with his new status in Ilmara and adapted accordingly. It is an uneasy feeling, having to remain mostly hidden and avoid the guards every time he enters a town, especially since he must travel through at least a portion of Ilmara before reaching the Elder Forest, where his newfound companions live with their clans and families. Despite that, in just 10 days since the team got back together, they have freed 8 slaves, raising the bounty on their heads by two thousand coins. Every mercian leggionaire from Freetown, to Jabal and Sydarun have their eyes open for the Yellow Sands, the most notorious Varannari rebel group in all of Mercia. Being not so far away from the Mercian border of Jabal, the Great Plains are a great place to set up camp and watch over the Mercian town without fear of being spotted, as the trees provide good coverage and Mercian scouts don't come this far into Ilmaran territory. Such is the reason they come here often.
- How is everything, Tomas? - Wind questions. - Adaon and Grissenda, I mean. How are they?
- Adaon is still his same old self. And Grissenda is also fine. I haven't seen them in a while, and I do plan to return to Varsilia soon to hear from them. And you two, how are your fellows?
- Ah, old Oakfell is still strong. - The tracker smiles as he speaks of his father, his last living relative. - The clan looks after the elders, him included, and I know he still has a few good years before his time comes. And he also has much wisdom to give to the young ones.
- Steel Thunder is fine too. - Wind remembers the female warrior whose clan took him in. - I mentioned your name to her, Tomas, and she says she would like to see you once again. You must've made quite an impression during your last meeting in the Inori.
- I suppose you could say that.
Gwyden looks down into the fire ahead of her as the men exchange pleasantries. Wolf Fang and Wind, both being criminals in the eyes of the Ilmaran Crown, are not low profile members of their respective clans, but Gwyden is a complete outcast to the Varannari and a heretic to the Theocracy. It is known that there are some witches that choose to abandon their ways and life an honest life, but the tales are few and far between, not to mention what exactly becomes of these women is unknown. The sad is truth is, Gwyden has no relatives of which to pass news. She gave all that up once she gazed into the dark Abyss as a young girl and became a priestess of the Night. Silent, she comtemplates her own choices as she stares into the flames.
Her family life was shattered from the moment she was born. Not long after she came onto the world, her parents were captured by Mercian slavers. She spent her infancy being traded between the hands of many hunters, clan elders and caretakers, until she had enough. One day, as she slept, the call of the Abyss came to her in her dreams, a sign that at some point, her lineage has a former witch of Orogg in it, which isn't uncommon among the people of the Elder Forest. As a young and impressionable girl, she was seduced by the promises of power the Night made, taken to bliss by the thought of being one with the Darkness, of being followed by many men and being revered and worshipped as a priestess of the Abyss. So she followed the call, abandoning her caretakers in the dead of night and embracing the dark powers.
It was a blissful feeling. The freedom, the power, the knowledge granted. Her influence was such that, like many witches usually do, she attracted the attention of a few Varannari men, who followed her as her guardians. The hatred that drove her against the Exiled Kingdoms was such that it fueled her own magic.
And then, 2 Varannari adventurers led by an Impiri mage came to her camp in the Thyr Ridges. They offered a truce, said they merely wanted to talk. Gwyden herself was interested in listening to what they had to say, but was not willing to risk a betrayal, and so, she ordered her men to attack them. They easily killed her guardians, however, and the young witch froze as she faced the whole party, virtually undamaged by the fight, all alone. She surrendered, and to her surprise, she was not killed.
They did more than spare her life that day. They saved it.
- Gwyden, you are really quiet.- Tomas calls out, breaking the sorceress out of her trance. - Anything troubling you?
- Nothing. I was just thinking. And...thank you, friends.
Her words catch Fang and Wind's attention.
-I...My days were counted if I were to stay in the Ridges. It would just be a question of time until some Ilmaran patrol or raging werewolves got to me. You...you all saved me. And I didn't get the chance to say I am really grateful for that.
-Ha. We were glad to help, sister. - Wolf Fang shrugs it off. - See, we were all in the same place you were in. I've seen the story a thousand times myself. We tire of being chased across the forest by those damned mercians, so we crave vengeance. And to have it, we accept to be servants to the Dark Powers, to claim our righteous revenge...or so we think. - He sighs. - And then, when we look at ourselves, we see we are in the middle of the woods, covered in dirt and blood, sacrificing animals and people to Gods without arms or mouth. Damnation...If it wasn't for this man right here, where would we all be?
He points to Tomas, who looks wearily into their eyes.
- It's a lesson I came to learn myself, brother. - The Magus speaks. - Hatred only breeds more hatred. And at some point, the cycle must be broken. Isn't that...why we are all out here? To make a difference?
- Yes.- Gwyden agrees. - I am a servant of the Night no more. The magical powers still run through me...they will stay until my earthly end. And I shall use the power granted to me by the Abyss to fight it wherever I may find it.
- Glad to know it. Are your powers still as strong as they were?
- Even stronger. I've learned much over the years, and I can tap into my mana pool to make the most devastating magics of all.- She clutches her fists, feeling the elemental power of Death flowing through her. - It hasn't dissipated. At all.
- Good. I take it the power was born with you, much like it happened with me, but it only revealed itself when the Darkness whispered in your ear. We can definetely work with that.
- We should sleep now. It is getting a bit late, and we'll need all our energies to take on the Legionnaires.
- You go ahead.- Tomas waves off all his companions. - I will stay here and meditate for a bit.
Wolf Fang and Wind slip into their tent. Gwyden, however, remains exaclty where she is.
- I think I'll meditate too.
And so they do. The complete emptiness of the mind, they say, is a state of ascension, of elevation above the material plane and into the World of Forms. And the closer you come to it, the best you can replicate the results. A proper meditation session each day can allow a magician to better know himself, his powers and limitations, and thus access his inner mana pool more effectively, even increasing it. As such, the two spend a good 15 minutes in a complete silence, the only stimuli being the gentle flow of the Nekhar waters and their own breathing.
- With each time, you can feel the power within you flowing, pumping through your body.- Says Gwyden.
- True. Some have to resort to mamba poisons to achieve bliss and ecstasy. And we are lucky to have ascension through nothing more than the power of mindfulness.
- Well said. Hmm, Tomas? I...I didn't want to ask this to Wolf Fang or Wind, because I feared the worst about it, but...is Hawk Eye alright?
-He is. You don't have to worry about it. He was shaken and weak, but we took him somewhere safe, and now he will only need rest. It won't be long until he joins the Yellow Sands again.
- Oh, good.
Truly, what happened with Hawk Eye was the best scenario possible. After being sentenced to death by the Guardian of the Faith for aiding the Witches and opposing the Church and Ilmara alike, Hawk Eye was thrown into the city dungeons to await execution. His capture during a visit to Fögas was unfortunate, as the rest of the group escaped from a regiment of troops coming directly from Nivarian. However, it was a mistake not to kill him that same day, as the night after he was put in the dungeon, the group sneaked into the prision and freed him, incapacitating no less than 10 guards. They also freed a couple "heretics", who they tried to reason with, but were broken by their time in hail, or by their defiance of the Three. The two former Clerics took to the streets, causing quite a scene, and actually allowing the Yellow Sands to escape without being seen.
An extraordinary success that was. That was weeks ago, however, before Tomas was considered a criminal in Ilmara.
The name Yellow Sands was actually chosen by Tomas, inspired by an ancient Imperial tome he once read. It told the story of a bunch of defiant slaves that took arms against the Orcs that enslaved them, slaugntering the whole tribe and claiming their freedom. And so, the Varannari had no problem in honoring those free spirits by naming their own rebel group after them.
- Tomas...- Gwyden addresses the wizard one more time. - I just...wanted to say I really admire you.
- Well, thanks, I suppose, but...
- I'm serious, Tomas. I'm not just saying "thank you for saving me" again. No. I really do appreciate everything you do for...for us. You know, not many would sacrifice so much to help a people they have nothing to do with. Very few would be willing to help someone else fight their battles. And...even fewer would help me stop seeing Varannari or Impiri, and just seeing "human". You have honor, Tomas. Actual honor, not the lousy "honor" those presumptuous Varsilian nobles always talk about. And...I wish there were more like you in Mercia. I know we wouldn't have to be here if there were enough.
-I...- Tomas stutters.- I don't even know what to say, Gwyden. - He breaks out into nervous laughter. - How is a guy supposed to respond to that?
-S...sorry.- She blushes. - I didn't want to make you...You...
Silence. For a couple of seconds, Tomas stares into her eyes. They were once empty and soulless, when he first saw her in the Ridges, but ever since, a life has been growing in them. Like all the Witches, there was something demonically beautiful about Gwyden, but now, her beauty is more pure, not malevolent or insane.
She's mesmerizing. There's no way around it. And it takes Tomas all too long to understand how close her lips are to his.
-Ah!- Startled, the sorcerer takes a wide step back, almost tripping and falling over.
-What is it, Tomas?
-By the Powers! I think...I think I was way too close to making the worst mistake of my life.
The way he phrases it makes her heart sink. And he realizes that too late to fix it.
-Wait! I...That's not what I meant!
-Well, what did you mean then?- The sorceress holds back tears. - Tell me, Tomas, what in the hell did you mean if not what I think it is?
-You don't understand, it's not you, it's...
-Do you even hear youself, Tomas?! "It's not you, it's me" ? Is that the best you can do!? Is that the only excuse you can spout!?
-No! I mean, yes! AH! Gwyden, listen to me, this...- He points to both her and himself, gesturing with his finger and moving it rapidly between both of their directions. -...will never happen. It cannot happen!
- Of course it can't...you're a Wizard's Guild member, a hero to the Kingdoms, you could have anyone. Why would you want to lay your hands on some filthy witch? Is that it, Tomas!?
-Of course not!
-Because!...- He's about to reply, but hesitates for a moment. The truth was obvious all along, and he's felt it for a long time now, but the reality of it never seemed as present as it is now. But for what it is worth, he owes an explanation to the witch, and lying would achieve no purpose. So the mage looks up to meet Gwyden's eyes.
-...because my heart already belongs to someone else.
Upon hearing it, she remains silent for unending seconds. Speechless, she opens her mouth to speak but nothing comes out. It takes some time for the truth to sink in, but when it does, her face goes red with shame and embarassment.
She just tried to coerce a man into being unfaithful? Of all the sins a person can commit, she never expected that to be the one she felt worst about. Her hypnotic gaze was something she had trained as a witch, but never actually used before. And Gwyden just attempted to use her magic powers to seduce one of the few people in this damned world she could call a friend.
What in the hell was she thinking?
-I'm...I'm sorry, Tomas.- She covers her mouth and looks down. Before the Magus can react, she runs to her tent and hides.
Tomas takes a few hesitant steps in her direction, but once she closes herself inside, he can't quite force himself to burst in and say something. Defeated, he turns away and covers his face with his hands. Only after looking up does he notice the figure leaning against another tent, staring at him with a lifted eyebrow.
- How much of it did you hear?- The mage asks his tracker.
- Probably too much.- Wolf Fang responds.
- I figured. - He sighs. - So? You're not going to comment? Maybe tell me about what I could've done differently?
- Me? Oh, no.- the Varannari approaches his comrade. - It's not my job to make suggestions. Know this, though: I' ve actually been where you're standing right now, and I know it's an uneasy place to be. The only worst position to be in is...well, hers. - He gestures towards the tent where Gwyden has barricaded herself. -But you did good, Tomas. Me, I actually did fall for the temptation, and ended up losing one of the great loves of my life over it.
- Thanks... I guess.- Tomas looks down in comtemplation.
- Fall for temptation or not, the solution for the worries and regrets is the same.
Wolf Fand reaches for one of the backpacks near the campfire, and pulls out a bottle of Friguld Rum, which he hands to the wizard.
- Try not to abuse it. We have to wake up soon tomorrow. Good night, chief. - With a friendly smile and a pat on the shoulder, the tracker says his goodbyes and returns to his accomodations.
Once alone, Tomas stares for a few seconds to the bottle, before turning his attention to the Nekhar River. The sound of the moving waters is soothing, and helps ease the worries in his mind.
He sits by the river and opens up the bottle, swallowing a third of its content at once.
- Damn it, Tomas...- He mumbles to himself.
It is a clear night. In the green valleys surrounding Mount Storme, the world seems wide open. A lone mage appreciates the landscape from one of the highest balconies of the Castle that sits on top of the mount. It is quite a privileged view: to the north, he can see the Sagar Forest, and to the south, the mighty Imperial Coast, where the Exiled first set foot in Varannar after the destruction of Andoria. To the east he cannot look, but there lies the Steel Coast and the thrunderous crashing of waves into the Nilomar Cape. And to the West he can see the lights coming from Kingsbridge, from beyond the steady and quiet Bluemist. The gentle wind blows against his face as he gazes into the distance, thoughtful.
Behind him, the figure of a woman approaches him, coming from the chambers inside the castle.
- Wonderful view, is it not?- Grissenda smiles as she waves her hand, pointing to the valley stretched out around them.
- Definitely. - Tomas agrees.
- But it is late. You should get back inside and rest. It was a hard day, after all.
She isn't wrong. The upper levels of Castle Storme have been cleared for a while: Eirenda has already settled in them, after the legal problems regarding the property were settled and Erienda was recognized as inheritor of all of House Storme's belongings, being the last known Storme herself, with Dobros and Andrys out of the picture. However, deeper into the fortress, there is still much chaos and danger. The Hall of the Blue Star is still crawling with the Undead and a few Vampires still remain, hidden deep within their former Sanctuary, as the unholy ritual that once made them invulnerable has been torn into pieces by Tomas long ago. They spent the day venturing into the less secure regions of the Castle, clearing out skeletons and vampires by the dozens. All the effort they have been putting into this project is most definitely paying off: the fortress, slowly yet steadily, is being purged of the dark influence upon which it was once built. It will take a long time until the threat is completely gone, though, and for now, the only way to make the castle safe is seal off the entrance to the tomb and only open it to venture in and attack the undead. A generation may pass until the Hall becomes nothing but an empty dwelling, a testimony to the power the Tolassians once had, but that is now lost. Despite the fact it will take a few years before it is properly renamed, in spirit, this is already becoming Castle Mae'Ran.
- You're probably right. There will still be plenty of things to do tomorrow.
- Tomas, you seem worried about something. Is there anything troubling you?
- Who, me? No, no worries at all.
- Come on now, you. - She smiles deviously. - I know that look on your face. I've seen it a thousand times. You're sad about something. If you don't want to tell me, that's fine, but don't pretend like it's not there. Hiding your emotions like that isn't healthy, you know?
- It's nothing, Griss. I'm just standing here, appreciating the view of Varsilia, wondering about what adventures we'll have in the future.
- Alright, then. I hope you don't mind if I join you, if that's the case.
Damn, she is persistent. You wouldn't expect anything less of a former Royal Knight. There is no way of hiding the uneasy feeling, no matter how hard he tries to.
- Are you planning on returning to Ilmara to meet the others?- The warrior inquires.
- Yes. Haven't set a date yet, but at some point in the next few weeks I'll return.
- I really must join you all one day.
Grissenda never actually raids slave hauls with the rest of the Yellow Sands. Thanks to her privileged position, she can easily guide the escaping souls into their new life. Most of them stay in Varsilia, while others, more apt to make the journey and having the right skills to thrive in their destination, travel to Thuram, to settle Whitetower. Until they settle, though, they all need someone to give them advice about the town they find themselves in: its people, the costumes, traditions and such. In a city like New Garand, very few can actually make a living, as foreigners find it difficult to purchase a house in the town, but Kingsbridge and New Anthur are perfect for travelling wanderers looking for a home: as growing trading towns, you would expect no less. By this point, no more than a few dozens have found a new beggining in one of the eastern kingdoms, away from their past in Mercia. It truly feels like they are doing a big difference, and it is understandable that Grissenda wants to have a more active role in it. But given how the gang's usual tactic is stealth and ambush, Griss' strategy of rushing on, sword swinging, isn't a very favorable addition to it.
- Maybe one day, when sheer power is all we need. I'm affraid what we do usually requires a bit of a...more subtle approach that what you are used to.
- I can be subtle!
- Sure you can...- Being a woman of medium frame, looking at her without her equipment would not give you much of an impression either way, but seeing her in full plate armor, wielding a two-handed, fire enchanted Greatsword taken from a Greater Demon would probably not scream "subtlelty" to anyone looking.
- It's fine. I've met your Varannari friends. I have no doubt they are good people, and good fighters too. You're in good hands.
- I certainly feel the same way.
- It feels great, doesn' it? Knowing we are having a positive influence in the world?
- It does, yes. It's easier to fight when you know you're battling for a good cause. It makes more sense.
-And by the way, how have you been adjusting to your...- She coughs. - Situation in Ilmara? It probably hasn't been easy for you.
- I used to purchase all my supplies in Nivarian when I was in the kingdom. I could still go there with a disguise, but it would be too risky. Other than that, I manage: I take all I need before I go, and anything I don't have I can get in Rhoenis or Fögas. To be honest, my reputation with the Church is what really inconveniences me.
-Because....they're almost everywhere I go.
To keep a low profile, Tomas doesn't travel much around Mercia, where the Three's presence is minimal, but he does visit Icemist plenty of times, and he travels all over Varsilia: all places where there is a shine of the Three. Everytimes he passes by the shrine of brother De Frere in the Thuramian capital, they share a look. Knowing he has the protection of the Wizard's Guild and all the kingdom (and even if he didn't, it wouldn't make much of a difference), the Magus stares intently back to the Priest, who looks away in resignation. What can he do? Preach to the wizard about the virtues of the Three? He would be laughed at by the magicians and showered with magical pranks, at best, and banished from the city at worst. In Varsilia, the situation is the same, as King Saladar III himself has made clear that Thorenheim is an ally of the kingdom and will support him for as long as he remains so, but there the presence of the New Garand temple, standing proudly in the southern part of the town, is quite a dreadful reminder that there are not so many places where he can escape the influence of the Church.
- It must be akward. Considering how you helped out all the locals shrines over Varsilia, and in Icemist too.
- They don't call me the Fallen for nothing. - He grins malevolently. - The priests fear me, I can sense it. Every time I pass one of them, they dare not say a word. To any other "heretic", they would make a speech an hour long demonizing him for all his sins.
All of the sudden, Tomas is reminded of a question that has been sitting at the corner of his mind for quite some time now. It's something he has avoided, but now, it seems like the perfect time ti bring it up.
- Are you a follower of the Three?
The question makes the noblewoman speechless for a bit, as she tries to join together the words to make a response.
- Just out of curiosity, I mean. Don't...I don't want you to feel like you have to answer a certain way to me.
- I know you don't. - She laughs. - Well, I honestly don't know, actually. I admit I've often prayed to the Three in my moments of doubt, but having seen what you've seen, learned what you learned, it all...it all brings to light some problems with the faith.
Everything, from meeting Tol, the God of Death to speaking to the Archbishop after defeating Duremas, points into a very clear direction.
- There are things about the Church that I do not approve of. And having read the Book of the Moon too, I just...I have to agree with the intrepertation the priests would call "heretical". But I don't know, Tomas. I just don't.
- Forget the Church, Griss. I know you don't like them. They are a honorless and despicable bunch, and honorlessness is something you would never approve of. - He lifts an eyebrow. - I'm talking about the Three. Not their half hearted representatives outside the Cathedral, I mean the actual, living gods.
- I have no opinion about them. How could I have? I've never seen them, or heard of them in my dreams like the clerics do. And having said that out loud, it feels as if you are in the right. I do not trust their preachers to deliver the doctrine, and I cannot trust the Three as I know nothing of them. So, I'm probably just looking for answers in the living gods. You know, like all of us are.
- Yes. As a non believer, do you not struggle with your morals? If you can't base your morals in the Three, where else can we find meaning?
- I've said this before often, but I don't think you were ever there to hear it, so I'll say it again. The Three give you an empty meaning. Compassion, Wisdom and Strength are things of Humanity, not of Gods. Good and Evil are inherent to us, to our nature, and no gods have to steer us towards one path or the other, for we walk the paths of our own choosing. Humans don't need demons corrupting them to do unspeakable things. You don't need Nivaria whispering in your head to know that if a man is being tortured for crimes you know for certain he did not commit, something has to be done about it. You don't need the inspirations of Thelume to seek out the truth and crave to understand the world we inhabit. You don't need Arbenos' spirit to fuel your soul into fighting for justice and freedom for your people. To claim we need gods and spirits and demons guiding us one way or the other is disrespectful to our own capabilities, and removes all sense of accountability from morality. My morals and the morals of everyone else come from the exact same place. The Three just take credit for it.
The warrior takes in all the Magus said, considering carefully every word.
- But if that is the case, from where does meaning stem? From us?
- Well, it is not as simple. Meaning doesn't "come" from us, it is made by us. "Meaning" has no significance to the natural world, as a meaning implies an intention, and Nature has no intentions. Meaning cannot be discovered by digging deep into the earth, or exploring the world, not even by looking into youself. Meaning comes when you understand who you are, why you are here and what is the point of it all.
- No meaning to be found?
- No. Only to be made.
- I see. And...what is the meaning? If we are not servants of a higher power, what are we? What is the point of it all? What purpose do we have in this vast and unfeeling world, if meaning is only an illusion we make for ourselves?
The way she phrases "illusion" makes Tomas saddened.
- We are meaningful to each other!- He retorts. - I've told you about the things I learned in the Ark. The Oracle gave me knowledge about the true nature of the stars: millions, billions of times bigger than worlds like the one where we stand right now, shining in all the corners of the Universe. They seem small because they stand far away, further than anyone can ever travel in a thousand lifetimes. How small are we all compared to that?
- Small. Very, very small.
- It's easy to feel small and insignificant when compared to an entire star, or to the endless distances between us and them. But...why does that matter? Your kingdom, your friends, your family...will you tell me that they mean less to you than some tiny dot of light in the night sky? Of course you won't!
- I hadn't really thought about it that way. - She scratches her head. - So it's all just relative?
- If meaning can only be made, it will always depend on the maker. Obviously.
- And what about you, Tomas? What makes you think what you do matter? Why is there significance in what we do? What is the point of freeing slaves?
The sorcerer thinks for a few seconds before responding:
- It certainly does matter to the people we help, doesn't it? And that's the beautiful thing about the human condition: empathy. The ability to give a damn, to know when someone is in pain, and share their sorrow and their suffering. To feel glad and fulfilled when you see that the people areound you are so as well. Without this, Grissenda, there would be no point to what we do.
- Without compassion, nothing would be worthy about Humanity. That is true.
- The truth is saddening, truly, but it is true nevertheless. - The Magus recalls what he came to understand aboard the ancient Muud' Ari vessel, after his talk with the Oracle. - Humanity is a slave race, Grissenda. We are spread out across the cosmos, bound by alien masters and held by their whims. The Oracle said so himself. Who knows how many worlds are there, full of countless humans enslaved by the Muud' Ari, fueling a galactic empire? This world, the world in which we were born and currently stand, is the only free bastion of human civilization! The only place in this damned Universe humans are free! And Mercia dares to take that freedom away? I will not stand by it. Slavery is an abomination to what this planet should stand for, to what Mercia itself claims to support: liberty. It is what defines our condition more than anything: being able to write our own stories, forge our own destinies! So for as long as I know that Humanity itself is defined by its need to be free, I'll know where to base my morals. And I'll know that there is purpose in what I do.
- Wow.- The warrior exclaims. - It's amazing, really. I didn't think you'd give me a good justification. I was clearly wrong.
- And besides, is the alternative any better?- The spellcaster continues. - The Three, I mean. What do they know of us, of our nature, of our condition? They're immortal! That enough puts so much of a divide between us. Not to mention they are supposed to be gods. What are gods, beings so mighty, supposed to know about what it is like to be human, to feel like we do? And even if they did, would their teachings really be all that relevant? There is no point in pretending that authority alone justifies belief. Acting supposedly good because we were told how to behave by someone else? What a waste! A waste of our own thinking skills, I say. We can come up with much better ways of justifying our morals, and our existence without the need of any gods.
- You make good points. But...something confuses me about it.
- And what is it?
- You, Tomas. You're a Muud' Ari, are you not? And yet you speak of yourself as part of Humanity?
The wizard's eyes open wide.
- I am a human, first and foremost.- He states. - Damned be my lineage if that is what dictates where I belong. I know exactly where I belong, and it's right here. - The mage closes his eyes as he remembers what was said to him a long time ago, by a very wise man. - This is my world. This is the world where I was born, where I was raised, where I suffered, where I grew and learned, where I...- Then, he stares profoundly into the knight's eyes. -...where I loved. Who cares about Noutamet? That is not my world. It never was.
- It's reassuring to hear you say that, Tomas. After you destroyed the Deep Gate, I had no doubts you felt that way. But hearing you say it makes me...it makes me happy. But still, were you not tempted by it? By the dreams of immortality?
- The Forsaken tried hard to convince me.- The sorcerer stares into the medallion he wears around his neck, given to ghim by the leader of the Forsaken, Magister Idemnus. - And of course I was tempted by it. I thought about abandoning it all, seduced by the promises of endless adventures in another world. But once I knew for sure the Horrors were real, I threw the whole idea out the window. It wasn't worth it. Because, Grissenda, I don't care that the blood running through my veins is alien. The Kingdoms, Varannar, all of Humanity, Adaon, and you...You...
Tomas pauses, and then takes Grissenda's hand in his own.
-...You matter more to me than Noutamet, some world far away, in which I do not belong. You always did.
Silence falls upon the balcony. Grissenda is pale and mute, while the mage just rolls his eyes around the place, avoiding her stare.
-I...- She stutters.
And then, the two of them break out into laughter for several seconds.
-You know...- Tomas says. - I don't think things should be as uneasy anymore. I mean, it's...it's been a couple of months already.
- A couple of months since what? - She teases.
- Since, you know, we...
- Alas, it is done. -The Magus examines the full suit of plate armor in front of him. It is incredibly shiny and made of fine steel painted bright red. - A full suit of Myrosian Plate armor.
- Impressive. - Grissenda, the warrior comments as she passes her hands through the armor. - But I abandoned this kind of armor when we discovered the sunken citadel and the Ashen plate.
- Ashen armor is superior, no doubt. But a private collector in New Garand is willing to pay 50 thousand coins for this suit, which is a value much above its actual worth, if you ask me.
- Certainly that's a lot of money.
- It better be. We went through some trouble to get this thing.
They no doubt did. Krysoradir, the Frost Elder Dragon inhabiting the ruins south of destroyed Deepfrost, held a Myrosian breastplate as part of its treasure, but the rest has been gathered all across Varannar. A Fire Dragon hiding in Bloodpaw Cave held the gaunlets and boots, while the leggings were retried from Syxadris, a Green dragon, and the helm from Basradaxul the Elder. It is a mighty collection built on the blood of several Elder Dragons, and the young mage couldn't be prouder of his work.
- This ancient steel was mined, refined and forged in Myros, in the Empire.- Says Tomas. - That's the place where my grandfather lived. The Elder Dragons, flying across the ocean, brought it here to their homes and stored it as their treasure. Myros was a land of legendary blacksmiths, forges and steel crafting, the finest in all of Andoria, as the legend goes. It is no surprise Varsilians are crazy about this, and would be willing to pay 50 thousand coins for a single suit.
- They are quite rare...and it is beautiful. Not like this one. - Grissenda points to her own suit of Ashen armor. All the pieces were crafter by the minotaurs of what remains of Galade, except for the chest piece, a vest made of mechanical plates of an unknown and highly resilient, yet incredible light metal, taken from the Ark of Lothasan during one of Tomas' expeditions into the hazardous lower levels.
- What about it?- Asks the mage.
- I'm not complaining or anything, it is quite more durable and practical than Myrosian plate, but it is terrible. It makes me look terrible.
- Does it though?
- Have you seen me? I look like a Death Knight, a dark spirit or something.
- Don't concern yourself with how you look in plate. The armor does its function, which is to save your skin.
- Ha! Wouldn't have it any other way. So, Tomas?
- That actually is a lot of money, no? 50 thousand coins. From our adventures, we've been hoarding a lot of money with us.
- Doesn't even scratch the surface, this payment.
- You have most of it stored in the Castle, right?
- Yes, in the upper levels, where it's safe. Eirenda watches over it. I think it has about...half a million coins?
-That...- Grissenda's eyes open wide. - That is a lot.
- What are we supposed to do with so much coins? And why get more, really?
- I...well, now that you mention it, I've been thinking about it.
- About what?
- About the money. You know, I sort of joined the adventuring lifestyle for riches at first. It seemed like a good goal, given my poor origins. But now...now it seems excessive. So, I think it's time I employ all of that money into a good investment.
- Griss, I know it's been hard for your sister to receive the approval of the Church of the Three. Without them, purging the Hall of the Blue Star from the Undead will be hard and tedious. So, I've decided you should use the money to rebuild the Castle. Hire a new army to guard it, hire clerics not associated with the Church to help clean the place, who knows, maybe get some new decorations.
- What!? - The warrior jumps in surprise. - Tomas, are you sure about that? We are talking about the whole of your savings!
- The whole of our savings. - He corrects her. - I couldn't have gotten as far as I have without you, or the rest of the guys. And besides, I'm not stupid. That's most of it, but not all, I have plenty to spare here at the Tower. - He gestures towards the chest by his bed. - I won't starve, if that's what worries you.
- But still...would you be willing to give all that money up?
- Not giving it up. Investing it. After all, future Castle Mae'Ran will always welcome me in it, right? Eirenda said so herself. And besides, don't think I do this solely for the Castle. I intend for a portion of the money to be used to develop the small village down in the valley, by the mount.
- That village... - Grissenda remembers. - You did much good for the people there. And for the veterans in the forest near it.
- Ah, old Raegar. Haven't seen him in a while. I should pay a visit.
-How much of the money goes to them?
- At least 50 thousand. And I plan to add another 50. What do you think this is for? - He gestures towards the suit of Myrosian plate.
- I...I don't know what to say, Tomas. It's your money.
- Ah, come on! What would I do with it, donate it to some street shrine? We have an actual chance to do good here, and I won't pass it. Just humour me, alright? Take the damned money. Trust me, I will still have more than I can spend. After all...Griss?
Tomas notice a single tear running down Grissenda's cheek. Out of nowhere, she rushes towards him and hugs him. Without her magical equipment, her strength is no longer superhuman, but it is still far above that of the mage. After all, he's a man of the Arcane Arts, which require great endurance, sure, but not muscle power.
- You helped me save my sister from the claws of a cult of madmen, you helped so many people across the Kingdoms, and now this? - She smiles. - Haven't you done enough?
- We all do what we can, Griss. - The Magus responds. - I'm just lucky to be able to do more. And so I do.
As the two lose their words, they fail to notice how close they are, until they've been in each other's arms for long. From the depths of the Maze of Lamth, to the edges of the Isle of Varannar, from the scorching Inori to the frozen wastes of the White Plains, the warrior and the mage have been fighting the hostile creatures of the land longer than they can remember. They've saved each other's lives so many times that counting favors became pointless. It takes a great deal of trust to be that close. A lot of trust, a lot of friendship, plenty of respect, plenty of...plenty of love.
It happens naturally. That night in the Tower was but a consequence of over a year of adventures together. There's only so much closeness you can have with someone before the truth becomes clear.
By the time morning arrives, the Magus is lying in his bed, with the figure of her companion beside him. The Plexifiber robes he war wearing, as well as the regular clothes Grissenda uses below her armor, are spread out across the floor. They wake up at the same time, when the first rays of sunshine pass through the window. And when they look at each other, they both smile.
- Do we tell the others? - Tomas asks.
- Probably not a good idea. Deal?
- Deal, I guess. - A half hearted and cofused nod comes from the bed next to them. It is no other than...
- ADAON! - The two shout simultaneously, as Tomas nearly drops off the bed and Grissdena covers herself with the covers.
- What in the Hell are you doing here?!- The mage aggressively questions the rogue.
- Oh. I was black out drunk. Passed out here. - As he tries to get up, a bottle of Friguld Rum falls from the bed he's on. - So don't worry, I didn't see or listen to, you know...- He gestures to them. -...your thing. But damn it, you two, took you long enough!
- Wait, what?
- I mean it took you long enough! And I'm glad you finally sealed it, because now Hirge owes me big time.
- You guys made bets on...this!?
- Sure did. And don't blame me, Miss Puritan herself was just fine with it too. I guess the Book of the Moon doesn't say much about gambling.
- Just...get out of here, will you?- Defeated, the wizard point to the door.
In retrospective, the whole situation was a bit funny.
- So yes, it's been a while now. - Tomas continues. - I figured we'd be used to it by now. It's been months since we are...- He pauses. - What are we, really?
The warrior playfully tilts her head in confusion.
- By now, I figured you were my lover. - She responds. - That's what every tavern from New Garand to New Anthur is gossiping about, you know?
- Oh, really?
- About the misadventures of the Dragonslayer. You're famous, remember?
- Right...So, this is where we stand. It's kind of surreal, actually.
- Aren't you a noble? Surely, being in a relation with a common born isn't within the best interests of your House.
- In case you don't remember, you're also rich, so don't worry about it. - She laughs, but then, her expression becomes serious. - I would't care if it wasn't the case, though. You're not noble of birth, but I know you are noble of heart. More so than any New Garand upper class boy I could find. And that's what matters. To me, at least.
-Ah. Thanks, Griss...I mean, my darling.
- Stop it...- She blushes and punches his shoulder. - I mean it.
- I...- The Magus struggles to complete his sentence. In distress, his mind fills the gaps as well as it cans.
- I think we should do it again.
- You know...
- Wow, you're just terrible at this, aren't you? - She kisses him. - But you have point. It's been a while, after all. Why don't you meet me inside?
As she walks away, the sorcerer looks into his Bag of Holding. Between magical trinkets, wands, staves and potions, he can clearly see what he really meant. He stares into the Ring of the Star Traveller in resignation.
The mood was perfect, the place was perfect, everything was perfect!
- Damn it, Tomas... - He mumbles to himself, wondering about the words he could've said. - Meh. Tomorrow is another day, I guess.
When he finally notices, he sees the naked figure of her companion lying across the bed, in the chambers just behind the balcony's curtains. She seems a bit impacient.
- Huh. - He thinks. - This whole adventuring thing turned out pretty good after all.
And begins removing his robes before he's even inside.
As a wise man once told me on Twitter:
The secret isn't knowing what you're doing. It's knowing who you are.