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The Lay of the Grandmasters Way

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The Lay of the Grandmasters way

by Pyewacket

 

 

INTRO

 

Scream into the Twilight, Act I

 

The Watcher was always a bright lad. He knew of every bird's nest for a mile radius from the village square. Every patch of edible fungi and the time of year it would sprout forth from the fetid earthen floor of the woods surrounding the small settlement of humans that sprawled and leeched its living from the docks of White Stone. He even knew of the berries and edible fauna from the docks themselves, to the fringes of the foreboding giant trees of Tirnwood Vale.

 

Coupled with well learned hunting skills, the Watcher had learned to seek out more than a miserable existence and had thrived quite well, even to the point of making a small living from his woodcraft and hunting.

 

But what set him apart was his knowledge of things that were not meant to be known.

 

For instance, when the local smithy's apprentice left suddenly and inexplicably in the night, the Watcher was one of the only three who knew what had happened. One of the only three alive, to be precise. The unfortunate apprentice himself was not included, and perhaps it would have been wiser if the youth had taken the word of the girls father a little more seriously.

 

The Watcher also knew the identity of the smuggler who regularly crept off the tall inbound ships in the night and met up with Trik, the local Arms merchant. This was remarkable only in the fact that even Trik himself did not know the smugglers name, nor indeed how important that name was.

 

As to the various other secrets, conspiracies and general goings-on of the other inhabitants of the Watchers homestead, all too often the Watcher found out the very hub of the intrigue and discovered things that were thought to be kept in the dark.

 

It was his prying heart that awoke Ilias one fateful night as he lay restless in his cot of straw. The Watcher was a name he had given himself, in the privacy of his mind, and he felt it fit him closer than the coming of age name granted him by his stern eyed father. The name Ilias always seemed to him to be sickly sounding.

 

Dressing quietly and slipping out into the late night air, he padded quickly and silently into the wooded undergrowth, there to earn his hearts name and watch.

 

 

Precisely what drove him to do this was beyond Ilias's understanding, but then, as bright as he was, it never concerned him overmuch in the past and so he felt no fear of discovery, no adrenaline rush of nervous excitement at the possibility of being caught prying into the affairs of others. The excitement only came whenever he was back home safe with the knowledge that he had uncovered yet another hidden facet of the people around him.

 

This night however, he felt an intangible urge to wander around a little further than usual. Following his instincts, he crept as quietly as a woodland floor could allow and went in search of mystery. Most of the villagers, if hearing his footfall crunching a random piece of bark skin underfoot, would attribute the sound to the background noise of the woods themselves, which were never wholly quiet. The woods at night are alive with the sounds of nocturnal creatures, routinely foraging and preying upon each other. It was Ilias' knowledge that this was so, that filled him with ever greater confidence in his own abilities to remain undetected as he watched.

 

It was just such confidence that comforted him as he crept through the woodland towards a faint sound in the distance. Ahead of him, amidst trees and large standing stones the locals referred to as "old mens rocks", Ilias saw a group of figures.

 

Creeping slowly forward, he watched.

 

The four figures were all strangely garbed, he noticed, and were definitely not locals therefore. No one in the village owned such finery as these people were adorned in. Brightest blue silk, white cotton, and what appeared to be fine suede of a quality only merchants usually could afford.

 

The flickering light of four torches gave the Watcher enough illumination to glean such details about the group ahead of him, and it was his interest in them themselves that had distracted him from noticing the nature of the torchlight itself.

 

He flicked his eyes back to the torches now as his brain registered that something out of the ordinary had been picked up in his first cursory glance. His eyes widened as he realized the torchlight was of different colors.

 

One was the usually fiery orange and had nothing to distinguish itself as out of the ordinary. But the other three...one was an eye watering aqua, iridescent hues throwing out blues and greens in shimmering patterns, one a swirling white of light but no discernible flames, moving in endless fury, and the last torch set forth a burnt brown smoky light, like some ancient taproom lantern, well past its prime.

 

Now the Watcher caught the sounds of the four people within the torchlight.

 

Murmurs and chants.

 

So, this was something magical, Ilias thought to himself. And where there's magic, there's money.

 

Easing forward for a better view, Ilias noticed that the...mages he decided...the mages were talking amongst themselves excitedly as they performed whatever magicks they were engaged in. Two of the four were very obviously males, and one of the others a female, her willowy elven figure unmistakable even at a greater distance. The fourth figure however, who seemed mostly silent, was huge in comparison to the others and built like a blacksmith, yet the clothing and hair suggested a female where the build and size suggested otherwise.

 

Near enough now for better detail, the Watcher noted that this large figure was, alarmingly, of Orchan origin. Was this magick in preparation for an invasion?

 

And that one...he is a dragon halfbreed! Ilias thought quickly to himself, trying to weigh up the chances of gleaning further information and therefore value from Watching, against the now very real possibility that there was some element of danger here.

 

As he continued to Watch, his greed overcoming his instincts for the first time, he saw that each of them carried in their hands mortars and pestles of some black shiny mineral, which they were constantly working and grinding as they chanted and shouted above the ...where did that wind spring up from? Was this more magick? Surely no natural wind is this strong so late into the summer months?

 

His mind racing now, Ilias eased forward slightly more, his curiosity overcoming his caution.

 

Out of the mortars, eerie smoke spewed forth, dancing and weaving in the howling winds, racing in and out of the four figures as their chants reached crescendo after crescendo of unimaginable power. The smoke from each coalesced around the torches, and from the light of each, into the smoke, seemed to grow creatures of fantastic imaginings.

 

Fire sprites, earthen golems, water nymphs and air djinns, things not of this world, Ilias you fool you are staying too long!

 

Nevertheless, despite these thoughts, Ilias stayed longer.

 

Now the Watcher was close enough to be able to hear the individual words.

 

"It's taking too much! I can't keep this up Osreng!"

 

That was the human, he was obviously speaking to the draegoni beside him, although shrieking would be a better description at this point.

 

"Control, Jerun, bring it forth from within and use your powers to focus into the rift. It cannot get out or all is lost"

 

Despite the draconic origins, this mage seemed unperturbed by the forces battering the group of figures, although his face clearly showed signs of strain, as if some great pressure were being held at bay by mere force of willpower alone. As he stood, the very air around him boiled and hissed, as would a torrent of water at a cliff base.

 

"What is this thing anyway? Nerala hasn't spoken more than a word about it and you two have been as equally forthcoming as to its nature! I know only that this is pushing me beyond endurance! Never have I felt such power as this, that needs all four of us to use all our arts to keep it from our plane!"

 

The human, obviously quick tempered, seemed to struggle in his frantic motions, beckoning and weaving his hands in quick succession as more and more of the wind drew into the clearing and funneled into the center of the mages.

 

Now the elf spoke, bringing the Watchers' attention around to her.

 

"Is it not enough to know that Nerala called us forth to this place? You know her ways Jerun and she would not do this on a whim. If she believes this thing is a danger to this world, would you really wish to put that to the test?"

 

As the elf herself performed her spells, the ground trembled beneath Ilias. Gargoyle and golem, earthen creatures of origins unknown to the Watcher, spewed out from the torchlight and drew together into the swirling winds, becoming blurred as they were sucked into the vortex at the center, mingling with those minions the other mages brought forth. Wave after wave of power shook through the vicinity, as the very elements themselves rent the air apart.

 

Easing yet further, the Watcher fetched up against a boulder to get a better view of the fourth, as yet silent, mage. The orchan one. Ilias decided firmly that the orchan was female, the manner of clothing and the hair made it more obvious now he was closer. She stood with her back to the boulder that hid the Watcher, swaying in the elemental rage of fire and heat that cracked the very stones around her. Only the side of her face was visible to Ilias, but he could clearly see that she was crying as she wove alongside the other mages. Not from effort, it appeared, but as if from grief.

 

"I think it's working!" Jerun now more frantically gesturing his conjurations shouted to his companions, "yes I can feel it shifting!"

 

At the sound of his voice, the Watcher observed the elven woman Rivena glance over at Jerun, seemingly preoccupied with thoughts other than that for which they were gathered here.

 

"Now, we need to push it back or it will destroy everything in its path!"

 

Leaning further still, Ilias tried to see around the huge bulk of the orchan Nerala, and see into the center of the swirling mass of elements and magicks. As he did so, his hand rested on a small dried twig, blown around from the woodland undergrowth. Pure chance had placed it there perhaps, or a force unseen.

 

The screaming winds howled and rose to a feverish crescendo and beyond, as the sound of the elements went beyond the pain threshold of mortal ears and out into a white noise that was felt rather than heard.

 

It was in this sudden silence that Ilias's hand broke the twig, the sound sneaking out across the clearing. Of the four mages who still were struggling to control the flow of elemental magicks, Rivena was the one to look around at the noise it made as it snapped.

 

It was enough of a lapse to break her concentration from the center.

 

Now the sound returned in its full intensity, as the elements poured into the vortex were pushed back again, and out. Flame and steam, earth and wind, the Watcher could no longer make out the four figures as they were engulfed in the confused mass of power.

 

Still struggling to regain their control, the mages now, with unspoken agreement, shifted the focus of their power, ready to combat the surge that was to come. And come it did, forcing them to take several steps back as it struggled for freedom. It had felt the weakening of Rivena's will, and forced its way past her and through her and outward again.

 

Ilias rose in horror as he saw a dark crackling cloud, lit with a purple sparking corona form within, speeding towards him. Too late he turned to flee, as his instincts had told him to not so long before when he first came here, but seemingly a lifetime ago. Enveloped in the cloud, he struggled for breath, as if it were his first and his last combined. His legs gave way under him as if they had never before been used to his own weight. His horrified eyes fixed on his hands as they changed before him, first withering away into frailty then shrinking with bone cracking pain into smaller versions, as if a child's hands were in their place. This unbearable pain coursed though his whole being and Ilias staggered forth towards the mages, hands raised in supplication, begging for help but unable to ask, nay to speak at all. Old age had withered away the memories from his newborn mind, where no memories yet existed.

 

It was at this point that the shifting of the power from the mages took place, as they closed the rift and sent their power instead at the Watcher, blowing him back from them with wave after wave of furious elemental force. Ilias's battered body fell then, back hidden behind the very boulder that had been his last safe refuge, as the power dwindled and the storms of fire and earth and water and air subsided at last.

 

"Is it over?" Jeruns face a mask of pain and exertion at the horrors they had all just endured, he stepped out from the group and towards the boulder. His fast eyes flitted everywhere, as if searching restlessly for an answer he knew didn't exist, and his manner amplifying the notion that he was as restless as the moorland air.

 

"I hope so," Rivena following close, spoke with an undertone that echoed the feelings of them all, as they gathered to gaze down on the broken body of the Watcher, her voice resounding like the fall of deep rock into still waters, far below the reach of the sun.

 

"The poor fool, meddling in matters beyond his reckoning, are all our mortal races to be thus doomed?", Osreng spoke with quiet intensity, his outward calm apparently unsettled by this turn of events, as a river is unsettled by autumn rainstorms.

 

They each turned to look at Nerala, the silent mage who now gently but firmly pushed them back and away from the body with her powerful arms. Shaking her head in answer to the unspoken question on their faces as they looked askance at her actions, they turned back again to the body as it rose to its feet and dusted itself off.

 

"He lived? How is that possible? IS it?"

 

Nerala ignored Jeruns question as she stepped forward again to stand between the three companions and the body of the Watcher in front of her, almost as if guarding them.

 

At last she spoke, her voice as flat as her eyes, her weeping now stopping, as she announced the doom of Ilias, Watcher of Whitestone:

 

"No. It is Time."

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The Lay of Jerun, Act 2

 

 

It was spoken as such by the greatest Draian Philosopher ever known, and was disputably the reason for many of the petty wars and minor "differences of opinion" that broke out between the races of men and elves:

 

"Noble intent does not suffice, for the short lives of man are plagued by self sacrifice in name of this, yet in the end naught but Vanity was served."

 

Yet this profound observation of the acts of mankind has plagued me for all my adult years, and there have been many of those. Indeed, more than can be reckoned as true to the observation. More yet than I, Jerun, Grandmaster of Air and Keeper of the Sacred Keys of Tarsengaard Magic School would wish for. But wishes are fickle things, fleeting as a wisp of smoke on the night air, insubstantial and treacherous as fog on a lee shore.

 

My own wishes proved thus, and thus have I become the one thing I would choose to avoid, had I such allowances in my fate. Yet what is fate, if not the very essence of choice disallowed?

 

I speak of course, as only a man bereft of choice can, of the fate that led me to become a Grandmaster. Unlike any others who attain such exalted rank within Elemental Magic, it has long been the wont of the elements themselves to dictate who will be bestowed the power of mastery over Air. From the lowliest ship bound novice and storm turners, to the very foundations of administrators and Air masters within the School, not one is self taught in the arts of the Air mage. Our natural gifts and propensities for the element are granted...bestowed if you will, at the coming of age for each of our races.

 

I was a mere lad of 16 when I received my "gift"...my curse.

Working as a bellows boy for the local smith, I guess I was all hot air, as much as my trade was. But it gave me an understanding back then of how the movement of air affects the nature of things. From the smallest wing beat of a gnat, to the whirling vortices of storm and hurricane, the true power of the elemental forces comes into being and is as swift and violent as an angry god, or as gentle and caressing as a first time sweetheart.

A first time sweetheart.

Alas, that things had not gone the way they did. From the moment I first laid eyes upon the fair elf maid named Rivena, I was smote down as by some inexplicable unyielding ailment of the soul. I yearned for her from that moment on, and even now, even after leaving my mortal ways, I find my thoughts beset by her.

Working away at the bellows, with the rough and ready temper of the smith to keep me in line should my concentration lapse at my toil, I poured my sweat into the air around me. Day after day of pumping the huge leather clad furnace lungs, my lifeblood ebbing and flowing to its heartbeat in an effort to keep its molten eye white as a twilit star. It was this sacrifice of my own self into the very air that altered me, on a level I did not then know existed.

 

There had been no warnings. No magical portents at my birth. My childhood, blissfully free of strange and inexplicable occurrences of randomized ethereal influxes, passed by uneventfully, from the perspective of anyone looking for signs that I would one day become the greatest living Air Elementalist Draia had had, in its long recorded histories. The Grandmaster of Air.

 

My "turning" was arranged by those who served the School for which I am now responsible, and whom now serve me, damn them all.

 

It required one of common birth, who with willing sacrifice, gave himself to the element of air.

A seemingly unusual requirement to fulfill, as no one of common birth is usually so stupid as to sacrifice themselves for anyone or anything. Leave that to the inbred nobles of rank, and right of gods, who rule the lands. The histories of ALL the races of Seridia and Irillion are littered with such noble sacrifice.

For many years, the scholars of the School worked in quiet secrecy, researching ways in which to locate, by means both magic and mundane, the one whom would fulfill the destiny of becoming the leader of the Tarsengaard Magic School. Many years in vain, though, for all their searching was to the air, as a leaf in the wake of the wind.

 

That is, until Lustra became involved.

A quick mind that one had, and as such, she perceived that the search was failing because the words carved into the Obsidian Arches of the halls of the School were taken at their most literal and bloodthirsty sense. Not that she would be one to baulk from the spilling of innocent blood, but she DID hate the futility of failure. No doubt that is why she rethought the idea of what the sacrifice entailed. Putting the years of one's youth into the service of air, now that was truly an inspirational translation of the texts of prophecy, and it earned her my undying hatred and subsequent banishment to Irillion, to explore its vast lands and peoples, in the hopes that she would meet her timely demise.

 

But of course, being an educator of sorts as I may now be perceived, a little diplomacy was required for such a move against her. Gone are the days where I can openly vent my frustrations out on another in public, no brawling in village taverns anymore alas.

 

This is why she was "promoted" to be liaison with the peoples of Irillion.

 

Had I known that she would not only survive what I and those in my inner corrum felt to be a death penalty, but that she would flourish and succeed in her role beyond even the wildest reckonings and imaginings of the Seridian scribes, I would have sent another in her place, one more worthy of my "affection" such as it is. Probably Neru, with his unparalleled knowledge of the ancient languages. Or perhaps some other flunky from within the Schools hierarchy, gods knows there's enough of them.

 

But then, I would not have had the pleasure of parting Lustra from Gaildren.

 

Their unspoken love is a puzzle to me, for the differences between them are so similar and familiar, and yet..and yet...

 

And yet, they are both accoladed and adored by all who know of them! The gossip surrounding their special friendship has captivated an entire continent. It is exasperating beyond my endurance how these two could be so loved and welcomed wherever they ventured.

 

As I think back now, to the day when the Air claimed me as its own and I became the Air itself, I cannot imagine how it is that my own life was not so favored as theirs has been. In those days I had a tryst with Rivena, secretly meeting at the one place we could have complete security from prying eyes of both elf and man, and the wagging tongue of either race.

 

Beneath the foothills of the mountains surrounding the western shores of the Riven sea, below the outskirts of Grahm's Village, we met. The kindly dwarf that sheltered us gave no reason as to why she did, and only smiled wistfully when we asked why, replying that it was for Time to decide if love lasted and not the will of those who thought they knew better.

 

Ha! How wise that now seems.

 

But she knew more than I, this earth dweller, of what was to be and what to come. For whilst I may have met with my love Rivena in that place, so did Rivena meet later with her to learn of things that would take her on her own path to Grandmastery of the elements. Yet still, her kindness to us when all were against us will live in my mind for all the ages of my tenure here.

 

Without her, I would not have had any happiness or known of the love I felt for Rivena, nor had that love realized in truth.

 

That last day, as Rivena left, the old dwarf stayed back from accompanying her as usual to the edge of Tirnwood. Talking in a low voice, she told me then that my time with Rivena had come to an end, that Rivena was destined to follow a path laid before her and that this destiny had been decided because of me. Me?!

I swore at her foolishness. Told her that there was nothing I had done or said that would turn Rivena from me. She then told me that it was not what I had said or done, but what I was to become, that was to roll the stone dice of fate in this matter.

 

As I stood there, I felt the tingle of the air around me pricking my skin, as a warning of a distant storm can raise the heckles of a cat. But my anger at her words, burning in my ears, made me ignorant. How was I to know then, on my birthday, my bloody Birthday, when all happiness should be mine, that my fate was being thrust upon me from afar?

 

For whilst words and tempers flared in the foothills, so air and magic flared in Tarsengaard Magic School, as the power of the Prophecy was unleashed.

 

I remember those final words, even now. The meaning of course was irrelevant, unintentional coincidence perhaps, or the humors of the Gods themselves enacted by life, but the power behind them was enough to seal the spell and the Prophecy, and to end the life of one whom had shown kindness to me for the sake of kindness itself.

 

"By my eyes, may your essence be scattered to the four winds of Draia," I said. "May your words never be heard by any mortal again and your dust scattered to Time itself!"

 

And thus, with my life's sacrifice to the air, I sacrificed another to its everlasting nature, and made my destiny complete.

 

Be wary of your words, for the one who is haunted by them most will most likely be you.

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Act 3 The Lay of Osreng, as presented by Mrs Ursul Dunnikin-Diver, Washerdwarf to the Grandmaster of Water.

 

"Aluwen preserve me, I says, when he approached me with his bundle of dirty linen, Dont think I will be getting THOSE stains out in 'urry young misterman. Aint gotten no better for keeping nor pleasing neither, so you aint. Why, if your old master could see the state of your robes these days he'd have hide off'f you and no mistake. Whats a poor washerdwarf to do with you eh? Seems only a short whiles back you were just a nipper and off on ya Ad-ven-chew-ars, ne'er a thought for those as has to clean t'muck out from behind yer horns n get the filth from yer dun-ger-knees.

 

And you know what he says to me? To me, who has washed n cleaned n hot pressed his linen these long years like he was one o me own? Not that I'd compare one o them Drah-coon-Ears to any of my brood, dontcherknow, theys too horny to let loose on t'world in My opinion. Anyways, he says, plain as you like

 

"Water cleanses deepest, where its voice is loudest".

 

Dont-chew be giving me none of your sauce, says I, I see's that twinkle in your eye and I wont having no truck with any of that nonsense from the likes o you. Meek as a lamb he was then when he passes me his laundry.

"You're a wise one and no mistake", he says and off he trots as quiet as he came.

 

And thats another thing about him too, never a footfall can you 'ear from him, even in high summer when t'woods is dry as old fishbone, weird really now I think on it. But then I guess thats not the only weird thing I seen nor heard whiles I done for 'im. And I been doing for him a long time now, I reckons longest anyone has done for the Grandmaster. Not that he is one to stand on pomp n ceremony. Not that one.

 

Takes his studies serious, mind, as he does his Doo-Tease for the school, but oh he loves to lark around. He delights the Chill-Der-Ens from all over Palon Vertas with his antics, calling up water sprites n nymphs n all manner of folk from the wetland realms, just to frolic n cavort with him and the little-uns. Though some of them nymphs are a bit, well YOU know, a bit on the ROOD side if I may beg your pardon at talkin' so plain. Ne'er a stitch on em but bits o seeweed n reeds hiding their wotsits.

 

Anyways, this one time, I remember, back when he was first at the School, 'prenticin' for the old master, he was forever lockin' himself away in his room, grinding powder n potion til his fingers were black with Gods-knows what devilry. When suddenly he runs out of his room, with his hair all awry n naught but his nightshirt on, holding a steaming mortar like it was fire stoled from the Gods themselves.

 

What ya got there, I asks. Me being so well Riz-Peck-Tud as I am there, he doesnt think twice about tellin' of his deeds and doings, and right out he tells me, "Its an Ocean, Mrs Dunnikin-Diver". Well, says I, aint that a sight. A whole ocean in that biddy little mortar then? Who'd a thought you could fit something so big into something so small? Now get on with you and if you dont want to share with me just plain say so!

 

To think of the hours I spent trying to clean that nightshirt of his that next day. You would not BAH-LEA-HAVE that one person could mucky up cuffs like that. But I hears tell that all alchemists as have dirty cuffs need doing. Theres good money in doing for an alchemist, and no mistake, mayhaps I be temted to try the old grindin' meself oneday, if'n I gets chance. Though he DID stop the whole business at one point, right before he left the school and went off travellin'. He SAID that it was 'cause there was no more to be learnteded from the School alchemy anymore, and that he had to go off, bold as brass, to Glacmor.

 

O' course, me being his washerdwarf I 'ad little choice but pack me stuff up then n there, and go with him. A rum time we had of it too, them Win-Ter-Ee Wul-Uffs were a bit feisty and tried any number of times to catch us unawares. Fair turned me hair grey it did.

 

But not Osreng, oh no. Cold as mountain snow he was, with em. Froze 'em solid, right there as they came a-prowling around in theys' pack. And I ME-YUN froze too, for I touched one o them out of curiousity and stone me if it werent like touchin' some cold stone Sta-Choo. "You will be safe with me", says he. I will be a bleedin' lot safer back home wi' a nice pot o hot sumthin in me and out of this gods awful snow, says I.

"Ah but we haven't found it yet", he says.

 

Found what? I arsks.

 

"There is a mineral in these parts from which I need to use this instrument to extract a form of liquid that has thus far eluded my best efforts to recreate" says he, and then he pulls this Con-Trapper-Shun from out of his robes and I near on fainted at the sight of it, for it looked for all the world like somethin' them Hoo-Man farmers use on the prize bulls when its mating season and they want yon heifers to be sired up without t'bull gettin' near enough to damage the good stock.

 

He must have thought me addled by the Wul-Uffs and in shock or summat, coz he bade me rest up a whiles as he told me that this Al-Ham-Brick was used on Sinny-Bard to extract Quack-Solver. Dont ask me what it all means, I aint be having any truck with any of that nonsense, I am just saying what he says it was, is all.

A whole sixmonth we was there, with the young master, for master he was at this point and 'prentice no longer, him having taken his Eggs-Hams before we went, and day in and day out, theres him quarrying like one o me own folks, snow or no.

 

I told him time and again that the rocks werent right for quarrying and he was like as not goin' to catch his death o cold and the ones he got out were naught but slag n flotsam but he just kept shaking his head and saying "Theres more need of a patient hand in mining than I had credited. My deepest respects to your race, however the value of these minerals I have taken so far is immeasurable". Well, I laughed, if you can't measure it you can't spend it neither, says I. And right there, he pulls out his what-ja-ma-thingy and within minutes had the spigot opened and out into a vial he pours this stuff and for all Draia didnt it look like mirror juice!

 

"There is enough mercury in here to buy Idaloran" he says.

What, the whole city? Get on with you, theres only a vialful, though it does look pretty, says I.

"Pretty? And no, not the just city. The whole Idaloran area. From the Trading Route borders to the dry desert of Bethel itself. For although this is one mere vial of mercury, it is the First and Only vial. And with it, I can at last attempt to do what no prior Water Elementist has succeeded in doing."

 

And you know, even as he spoke those words, it brought a shiver to me old bones, like they was all tingly and asleep. No more would he say though, about what he was to do with the mirror juice, just smiled away and twinkled his eyes, as he did back then, but nothing would do 'cept that we pack up our whole mess o pottage and off we wents again!

 

And would you believe it, he only went n' had me on a ship.

 

Me?!

 

No dwarf had ever gotten sealegs and I was no exception, I can tell yez. All around the coasts of Irillion we travelled, with poor me spending each mornin' losing me breakfast, and each night tryin' to wash out the brine n seasalt from his things. Passing by places I never heard of nor wanted to see again, on some misbegotten smelly ship from someplace I aint never 'eard tell of, Seer-Eid-Yar or somesuch. Maiden voyage it were, but we got on as she touched into port here n there along t'coast.

 

Why, even from the ship we could see there was some dangerous things out beyond the beaches n coves. Great beasts tall as trees with naught but one eye per head, other things like flying lions that didnt know if they was lions nor scorpions. And I swear to this day I saw me a real life dragon as we rounded the Redmoon coasts!

 

Then came that awful night, with the wind howling and the seas a-thrashing, seemed a storm had crept on us and with no air 'prentice on board nor stormturner in the rigging, we was fair caught up in it. To an' fro it threw us, like we was a babe in a runaway dung-cart led by a spooked 'orse. Then there was this Gods-awful crash, like the whole of Draia had split open and we stopped movin' sudden-like. Threw the laundry all over, it did. I was in the middle of tryin to get it all up again, when in he trots, quiet as a mouse, and tells me leave it and it didnt matter anymore as we wouldnt need much clothes now.

 

Well, dwarf of my years, I wont be having any truck with anyone telling ME my Doo-Tease, shipwreck or no shipwreck, so I picks up the lot and bundles it quicksmart, and off we get into the night sea in a tiny little thingy that looked like some wood washer-bath more'n a boat. Thought we'd go under, I did, and I wasnt the only one who thought it neither. But up he stands, calm as if he was on a picnic in a playground, and his hands out in front of him touching the waters edge, he starts to sing.

 

And you could have knocked me down with an eyelash but the water stopped moving around us! Saved us all, he did, with his singing! Funny thing was, I couldnt understand the words but it was like I knew the song too, like it was one I had always known but couldnt remember anymore, now dont look at me that way, I wont be having any truck with that type of look nor nonsense neither, thankyou VERY much, but what I says was right. It was like some forgotten nursey-rhyme or singsong I heard on my grand-dwarfs knee.

 

Fair spent I was, when we camped for the night on the beach, clothes all a-sodden with salt and sea, but the next day I was proper gobsmacked at where we was, and no mistake. We was in the desert. What I'd thought was a beach didnt have no end as it went in aways from the sea but stretched out 'n' on 'n' on forever.

 

Still, I knewed a few tricks with sand and its wunnerful stuff for scrubbin up with, so I felt none too bad at the sight, though the heat was already like some o the furnaces I grew up 'round back home.

 

Anywas, off we sets, leaving the shipfolks to try n sort out the ship, though truth be told, they never did get it to rights and for all I know it still stands there in the bay to this very day. But as I was a-sayin', off we goes, him and me, not along the coast but he heads off right into the desert, like he knows where he is headed. No canteens, no waterskins, just me with my pack and him with his little odd satchel, did I tell you about that satchel of his?

 

Oh some of the things I seen him pull out of THAT, well I will save that for another time, dont want to keep you and I got things I need doing anyways. Oh the desert? Bethel it was, and off we goes through it like it was a holiday for him. Odd times he would stop and put his hands to the redhot sand like he was searching for somethin' he'd dropped, then he would scoop the sand apart slowly and I KNOW you wont believe this but there under the sand, were puddles of clean water!

 

Took a while to get where he wanted to go, mind, for all his Cun-Jewah-Ray-Shanzes, but eventually we comes to this cliffside and he heads along it unconcerned with my blisters or my aches, until we're once again in sight o' the beach. Right there, he stops and looks at me, and again there's that twinkle of his in his eyes.

"Would you like to wash something, Ursul?"

Thats Mrs Dunnikin-Diver to you, my lad, says I, and what by Mortos am I to wash WITH may I arsk? Seawater? Or are you going to make a puddle big enough to fit all our clothes into this time?

"Ah no, those puddles are merely small reservoirs of water that already exist in certain places around the desert. Plants and animals of the region know of them, and they survive on them by burrowing far enough down. I merely called the water to us in that instance. No, this time I am going to MAKE water. Here from this cliff"

Ha! laughed I, only thing that will come from that dry sandstone will be snakes and scorpions, if you aint careful m'boy.

 

Then he takes out his vial and throws it up high on the clifftop, and it smashes right there, all that mirror juice a-sparkling in the desert sun. Then he starts to sing again, like before but this time it was like no nursey rhyme. Deep and powerful, like some dwarf miner off on his work with pick n' spade, it were.

 

And right there out of the cliff, with no stream feedin' it as I could see, comes this downpour of water.

I tell you the Gods honest truth now, that water was pouring out of the cliff as if it was made of magic, because there was no hole for it to come from nor nothin'.

 

And magic it was too, for I had no sooner put in one Gar-Mant than it was clean as the day it was weaved, no scrubbin' nor threshing needed! Just as fancy as you please but wet from the water. All the sand and seasalt washed clean away like it was never there.

 

"From this falls, life can now survive for other than desert creatures, and perhaps in time the races of Irillion may reclaim some of what the sun has taken. This will be my gift to the people, and the magic of the water will not diminish but will thrive and strengthen those whose magic is faltering."

 

and in he jumps, leaping and larking under the waterfall, like a salmon.

 

Then, I remembers, he stopped sudden-like, as if he had been slapped across the horns by an invisible hand.

"Master!" he calls out, into the water, "what have they done?!?"

 

Now, I has been a washerdwarf for many a cycle but even back then I was the best at doing for folks as needed me, and quick-sharp I knew somethin' was up, so I hurried over with all I could carry as he thrust his hands once more into the waterfall. As he parted the water between them I saw, plain as day on the other side, not the sandstone face of the cliff, but the old School itself!

 

Through into it, stepped he and I, and would you believe, we travelled all the way back like it was a second in between one place and the next, though they was many MANY miles apart.

 

Now why couldnt you have done that to go there, THAT could have been your gift to ME, says I, but he didnt reply this time.

 

He simply strode quickly and as quiet as ever towards his masters quarters. Thats when I noticed them around me. The dead and the dying. Students, 'prentices and Masters alike.

 

'Scuse me, somethin' in me eye there, ah thankyou for the 'kercheif, I will get it back to you once I done me next load.

Now, where was I?

 

Ah yes. All dead or on t'way. And the odd foul body of an orc there n' here too. They'd poisoned the well, it seems, and then when the water turned bad in everyones bellies, they'd crept up out of the caves underneath the School and come to loot the village.

 

But the resistance at the School had to be overcome first, for if once the Masters had gotten theyselves together, the orcs would be dead outright and no messin' around. But arrow and cutlass had done theys work well. Too well, for nigh on all had been sent to Mortos.

 

Worst of all was the Master, poor Osreng knelt there beside him like stone. I could barely take in the sight of what the buggers had done to him. They had staked him out on his own floor and then poured burning tar over him. The pitch had boiled all the water in his veins.

 

I cried when I saw that.Wept til t'tears soaked me jerkin through and through. Yet not one tear did I see from Osreng. He who could create a Manafall in the desert, who could still the very sea, and call forth water form sand, shed not a single tear. Not one, I tells you. Not then, mind, not til after She put him straight again.

 

Who is She? Oh I will tell you another time. But before that, there he was. Still as rock and as stonyfaced to boot. Hands clenched tight as if holding his last penny. Fair broke me heart it did. But then he turns, and no twinkle eyed youth was there now. Up gets he and taking another of his mirror juice vials from his robes, for he'd made a whole mess of em, he goes out into the School courtyard.

 

"They will all burn as he did," he says.

 

Put the wind up me, that did, the way he said it more'n what he said. It was like something had died in him, like he had lost that playful child within and only something dark remained. You can still see that look on him, if he is caught unawares, sometimes, til he remembers himself.

 

But there he was, anyways, pouring out the stuff from the vial all over the body of one of the orcs, eyes closed and once again he sings. But this was neither the deep powerful song of the desert, nor the child-like song of before that. No, my dear, this was horrible. Like somethin' on th'edge of a nightmare, or a half-awake dream that catches you on the bad side of t'bed and sings into the fear in your heart, it were. Aluwen preserve me but I never want to hear that song again.

 

I could feel what he was doing without his saying it, neither. It was his ...his..aura, I guess you could call it, it just went out from him like a tidal wave, crushing everythin'. The mirror juice bubbled and boiled on teh orcs body and burnt through it like a hot dirk through cheese.

 

"So to one, so to all, the orcs blood-water will heed my call, from foul finger to orcish eye, the waters will all burn dry" was what he said next, as he bent and touched the horrible melted fingers and face of the creature before him. I looks around us and I am not kidding you now, they was ALL melting the same way.

 

Those nearest us were worse off, but it was spreading out like a whirlpool from him, like the skin was being boiled from underneath or somethin'. Oh and the smell, gawd it would take me a month of washdays to clear it, but I did, and thats why I's one of the best there is, Dont-Chew-knows.

 

But thats when She came. Oh I may as well tell you anyways, this load can keep a bit longer I reckons.

So, as he is doing all this, theres this sudden rumble beneath me feet. Knocked me down it did but not for long, eh? Cant keep a good washerdwarf down for long, thats what I always says. So anywas, up into the sky come huge columns of flames, all surrounding the School and everything. The whole ground just surrounded by fire and lava like we was in some volcano.

 

And then out of the fire She steps.

 

An orc.

 

But she was crying. Though her tears were steaming off her face like the fire was burning em away I could tell it wasnt the fire that did it, 'cause the flames didnt touch her skin nor hair nor her tattered rag clothes neither. It was his magic that was boiling the tears from her. And it was stronger now, for the sight of her must have angered him still more, if that was possible and I'd reckons on it being hard to do, he fair loved his old Master, did Osreng. Taught him all he knew from being able to crawl. Why there was this one time..no.. I's best be leaving THAT story for another time I guess.

 

So, as I was a-telling, there She is. And She takes a step towards him, like. But up he throws his hands, as if putting all his effort into making the magic go onto Her. Yet She takes another step, slowly but She kept going. One step at a time it was, like She was walking against a tide, or trying to walk opposite to a river current.

 

"Fire will not aid you against ME, orc. I can extinguish you. I WILL." and then he has both hands out to ward Her off, and his horns, I swear they was glowing from within.

 

I could barely breath, the power coming from him was so strong even I could feel my skin pringling away and my face heating up, though I was a safe distance from both of them, and as far from the heat of the flames and lava as I could possibly get.

 

Yet on She stepped, crying all the way.

 

"Your power cannot even begin to match my own, orc! Use what magics you will against me, I will destroy you utterly and all your foul race thereafter!"

 

He was screaming at Her then, like he wanted Her to stop, to give in and die.

 

And he was putting all he had into making Her die.

 

Yet She took step after slow step towards him, though it was, oh I dunno, like it was tearing her apart inside but outside She did not appear to suffer from his magic. Yet no magic did She unleash, I remembers, not a fireball nor a willowwisp, no not even flinging the lava at him by Her will, although those fire elementalists can do things like that, I hears.

 

Just one step after another, tears still steaming away from her as She went.

 

Finally She stood before him, and thats when he lost his rag with her good and proper.

 

"You cannot kill me! Die damn you! You took him away from me! I will kill you ALL!"

 

And I remember as he said this, me own fingers were starting to heat up like they was on fire, and my eyes burned from within as if I had been starin' the sun too long after a sixmonth in the mines.

 

That was when She stopped him.

 

It wasnt magic as such.

 

Not the kind he was expecting, anyroad. But, speaking as one who has had a brood o me own and raised em right n proper, I knows the magic She used and its always worked on my lot as well as it worked on him that day, when they wants their own way but cant have it and be damned to anyone who nay-says em, then theres but one magic that can stop even the most far-gone and petulant brat, and it were this magic She used.

 

She slapped him a right ringer around t'lughole.

 

I almost wet meself when I saw it too, and would have too, I reckons, if'n all me waters werent dried to kindling by t'magic.

 

He jsut staggered back and fell flat on his a...hem..his Poe-Steer-Ee-Ahr. I will always remember that sight.

Strongest Water Elementalist in the lands and he was brought down by a clip round earlug.

It'd make any mother proud, that would have.

 

Thats when She knelt besides him and..well send me to Mortos in me own laundrybag if She didnt simply cuddle him then n there. She just rocked back n forth with him. And thats when he cried. Poor lad just broke down then, as if all his anger had been washed away.

 

O' course that was all a long time ago, and since then he's become Grandmaster of Water. Well, truth be told, since he was the only one left alive back then that MADE him the Grandmaster by rights, but he could have left if he chose I guess. Though he didnt, did he? Not him, no, he stayed here, took in new 'prentices, turned em into masters and they in turn trained up new students and so on.

 

And now we got us a load of folks running around again, playing with nymphs in the fountains and cavorting with watersprites like the old days. But not he. No, not anymore. He even keeps the lava surrounding the School, as a reminder of what might happen should he not keep his head.

 

For I hears tell since, he was on the verge of killing us all. Aye. He'd lost control so bad it werent just orcs who would have died from his magic that day, had She not taken the brunt o' it all. Ah look at me, standing here gossiping with the likes of you when theres work to be done, these clothes dont wash themselves, y'know. This is Palon Vertas, not Bethel Falls, now be away with you, I cant stand here all day gassing away like this. I wont have no truck with any of that nonsense, no sir!"

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Act 4 The Lay of Rivena

 

It is hard to imagine the solitary existence of an outcast. Most people, regardless of their race, like to think they can sympathize, or at the very least pretend to have the ability to empathize, but few indeed know the truth of the matter, of the heart rending seclusion from one's friends and family, even one's own people, whether by choice or ill favored fortune.

 

But from the dust of coal are diamonds made, and Rivena was never one to bow to pressure, nor crack under the strain of intolerance. Academically speaking, she was quite an adept, learning the ways of her kin as all elves must, if they wished to proceed into wood magery. Caring for the homelands of the elves was no easy task, and the training alone ensured that those whom set forth to protect their lands were well equipped to do so, with more that just bow and woodcraft to aid them. The ability to call forth the very essence and nature of the trees and woods around them in defense of their realm was a dire and all to often relied upon necessity. This and other things Rivena learnt with not so much a passion as a determination that she would at least be seen an equal to those who seemed to find it far easier to master the way of the elven mages, than she herself did.

 

Her talents and aptitude for certain spells were varied, and oft times puzzling to her stoic tutors. It was, they said to each other in their private discussions on student matters, almost as if she was ill matched for magery, yet possessed the latent ability of magic to a degree that seemed flawless when untried, foundering only upon its application into anything of a practical nature.

 

Such was the words that were used to describe her abilities, when a report was made to her father of her progress, or, in certain areas, her lack thereof.

 

Ill pleased, to say the least, was her father's reaction to these tidings, and he arranged private tutelage to begin without delay, to avert the disaster of disgrace at having so "wayward and inconsistent a daughter".

 

But alas, these too proved ineffective in teaching Rivena how to master those very magics that were the basis of all Masters of the Woods. He was recommended therefore to send her to learn of alchemy in the local areas.

 

The very nerve of it. A daughter of his to go and be some common powder-grinder! He was once again displeased, almost as much with Rivena and her inability to focus herself, as with the tutors he had arranged at no small cost to himself for suggesting such monstrous things. Yet, in the end, he believed it futile to try and continue inviting Mage and Master around to impress into Rivena the things she was lacking as a student. He considered it a far easier lie to live with by sending her off as recommended, to learn Alchemy. Yet to all who inquired, Rivena was, of course, merely visiting distant relatives.

 

The most convenient, and therefore expeditious method of maintaining this deception, was to send her to be 'prenticed by an Alchemist on the outskirts of Grahm's village. "Old Ursul" was the one he should try, he had been told. He had, of course, absolutely no knowledge of how old Ursul was, nor indeed anything else in the way of knowledge about this person, other than she was an Alchemist and had contacts as high up as the Grandmaster of Water.

 

Had he known at the time that this "Old Ursul" was a dwarf, and that Alchemy was a mere hobby of hers, and her means for support came not from her skills as an Alchemist but rather from being a washer dwarf, he would have probably thrown the tutor who suggested her, bodily out of the treehome he lived in. It would have been, of course, the only proper thing to do, for as any elf knows, theres "no trusting in one who digs beneath the roots".

 

Of course, by the time he DID discover Ursul's nature and true profession, he had other, far more immediate concerns regarding his daughter. But that came later.

 

Rivena herself was intensely ashamed at having failed not only her fathers will, but also her own self made goals. But in spite of this, or perhaps because of it, she did as her father bade and journeyed away from the home she had known so long, and made her way to the south-western regions of White Stone.

 

Ursul herself was not as Rivena had expected, for she, like her father, knew nothing of the old dwarf woman beyond that she would take in a 'prentice for Alchemic studies. It was something of a shock to Rivena, truth be told, to find she was taken on, not for the aspect of the teacher wishing to share knowledge acquired through long study, but rather because, as "Old Ursul" put it bluntly:

"Nowt wrong with earnin' a bit o spare beer gold on the side, eh? EH?"

Nevertheless, Rivena adjusted quickly enough, and, for all the old dwarf woman's raucous and annoying laughter, and tendencies to "get legless then I don't look so small", Rivena learnt much from Ursul.

As time passed, Ursul began to shy away from more traditional Alchemic studies and, noting Rivena had a propensity to magic without a focus for it, Ursul began testing Rivena on a variety of lesser Earth magics. At first, these were mundane enough to be loosely associated with Alchemy; such as the mixing of powders that, when a spell was spoken over them, allowed the powders to emit enough light for a miner to work in, underground.

But as the year progressed, Rivena soon found her studies contained more of practical magic than Alchemy and, surprisingly, that it was easier to master than she had ever thought possible of any magics.

 

That is not to say that her Alchemy studies discontinued, for Ursul still insisted that her fathers wishes in that area be complied with, and on many an occasion, she sent Rivena off to collect various ingredients from suppliers in the area, local and otherwise.

 

On one such occasion, Rivena was sent to arrange a delivery of sulfur from the Blacksmith to the far east of Ursul's humble hovel, and to negotiate payment in much needed fire essences, which the Smith was all too pleased to accept in kind. Whilst there, the lad working away on the bellows caught Rivena's eye. Although a human, she found him captivating, and became quickly enamored of this wayward youth.

 

His restless nature and unending determination were things she identified with on so many levels, and it was not long before the two fast became friends, and then more. Despite knowing that her father would doubtless explode with fury if he...when he found out, she allowed their love to flourish. And flourish it did, throughout the summer months Rivena knew happiness with Jerun. Days in the sun and the tempered winds, and the air like wine, filling them with the joy of living, peace surrounding them between their hours of toil, Rivena at the mortar and pestle, Jerun at the bellows.

 

Ursul, being somewhat wiser in the ways of the world, knew of the trouble to come before they did, however. So when Rivena's father summoned her to return home, it came as no shock to Ursul. She simply ensured that Rivena took with her a letter to her father, in which Ursul assured Rivenas' father that the progress made by the "wayward and inconsistent a daughter" had turned Rivena into a promising Alchemist, but that her studies would need to continue for a while longer before she could be considered a Master of the Mortar.

 

In this way, Ursul managed to ensure Rivena's return to her. The condition, of course, was that Rivena was forbidden to continue this dalliance that her father had heard rumors of, from traders with the human village around which Rivena had been seen consorting and fraternizing with this bellow's boy. But this condition was set to Rivena, not Ursul. Had her father outlined that, then things may have turned out quite differently, for Rivena, for Jerun and for poor Ursul.

 

There was, of course, no holding Rivena to such a condition, however emphatically her father insisted upon it, but when it came to covering the truth up, she had learned by this point to be her fathers equal, if not his better.

 

Therefore, despite having had to endure his wrath and raging fury for a short time, she was released back to Ursul once more to resume her studies. Old Ursul, in keeping with her worldly ways, no longer sent Rivena to the smiths for trading. But instead, much to Rivena's delight and everlasting gratitude to the old dwarf, Ursul arranged for the ingredients from the smith to be delivered to her home instead. This delivery, of course, was arranged by Ursul herself to be made by Jerun, and the lovers were then free to continue their romance unhindered by those who would report back to Rivena's father, for the sake of a few coin or more favorable trades from the elves.

 

Time, however, is a fickle thing, and apt to run out on those who think they have it in abundance.

 

Ursul, forewarned by her art in Earth magic, knew there was a change in the stones, in the rock and soil around her. Casting minor fortune spells to try to glean the source of the change, she was amazed to see the coming of the Air Grandmaster within her very presence, and it was to be soon. With mere days to prepare, she enhanced as much of Rivena's Earthcasting knowledge as she could, ensuring that Rivena once again carried with her at all times a letter that was for Rivena's eyes only, should anything happen.

 

"Ah don't-chew fret so, lass. I's an ole dwarf, and none too limber anymore, so i b'aint. Time mayhaps come one day when I don't be gettin' up from me bed, then you's'll need to know where to go from here. For I will not be having any truck with you skipping your training just coz I be laying with me Ahn-Sess-Tahs. Oh no, me gal. You WILL keep goin' on the path you is on. Its in the stones now."

 

With that, she had bidden Rivena to leave for home that last time, and, puzzlingly enough to Rivena, Ursul remained behind this time, seemingly to talk to Jerun.

 

She had been home a few days, once again undergoing the sniggering of those advanced students and Masters around her, her fathers disdain, the old stigma never letting up, when she heard the news.

 

A more subtle manner might well have saved the taunting youth who imparted the news of Ursul's demise to Rivena. But, with jeering friends about him, encouraged by the fact that this lowly girl who was fit only to lay with humans and grind them as much as powders, this half-wit child who had no mastery of the wood that was the right, nay the very nature of the elves, could do nothing to him in retaliation. Even if she dared, he had jibed, she would lack the basic ability, why even his own pet woodsprite had greater power in its smallest digit. Why on earth, he had said, is she even pretending to be able to read that letter she is holding?

 

It is of note that this elven youth's body still stands in Tirnwood even now, centuries after. His stone face staring in eternal disbelief at the forces that were unleashed by his unwitting error in underestimating how hard diamonds can prove to be, when they are squeezed hard enough by pressures beyond normal endurance. For, although the jibes themselves had not unsettled the fair Rivena, it was the letter which she had read whilst this taunting was being endured.

 

"Me dearest Rivena.

 

Time has come for me, and I gots to hang up me pegs for teh lastest time. The stones dont lie, me gal, and I knows whats to come. No doubt you will here of Jerun and what has happened and no doubt it'll all be twisted up in the telling as these things oft are where folks is meddling into others business. So you listen up now, lass, and heed me, Jerun is not to blame. I knows you wont find it in you to forgive him, it aint in you. Hard as diamonds you is, but as unforgiving too, I seen it in your eyes first day I saw thee. He got his path to follow now, coz of whats gone on, but so's you. And go on you MUST. Theres a path laid for you that aint no use tryin to turn from nor dally over no matter. You will finds a map on the other side of this here letter that'll take you to the one who will train that rage you now got into something worthwhile. Right now though, you need to know, you have the Mastery of Earth in you, and always have had though you dint knows of it. Nor would you, if I had done meself a service and kept Jerun aways. Guess things never work the way we wants eh?

Focus that will of yours into the Earth, not the woods, me girl, and you will see where your path leads you.

 

Now dont be sheddin no tears for me neither. Wont be having no truck with that and you knows it gal. Time for you to polish your edges on somethin more worthy.

 

Your friend,

 

Ursul Dunnikin-Diver (widow)"

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Act 5 The Lay of Nerala. Part I.

 

As a purely scientific undertaking, it was perhaps the most ambitious project ever devised by the Council of Ergo-Gnomic Technicians. In theory of course, it sounded not only practical but also practicable. The harnessing of geothermal energy and conduction, to convert into raw transpositional magic waveforms, in order to power multi carbon based repositioning technology seemed flawless on paper. True, there were questions raised as to whether the input of the power equations was realistic at first, since they were truly massive requirements on spec, but these minor quibbles were soon laid to rest by the multitude of reports submitted from the CEG's hastily-found experts in geothermal geography.

 

The fact that there had not previously been experts in geothermal geography before the reports were required, raised no concern; for no one outside the CEG team was aware of this strangely instantaneous propagation of expertise, and the CEG's went to great lengths to ensure this remained so.

 

The reports themselves stated that sufficient power to power the, as layman put it, "teleportals" could be found in abundant supply from the various volcanic sites around the Irillion continent. These volcanic sites could be harnessed carefully, and the geothermal activity from them would be used to convert to energy for powering teleportation anywhere on the continent, "with a possible capacitance of stored power, it is conjectured there may indeed even be sufficient power conversion to allow travel to places outside of the known continents and islands, providing a suitable point of egress is researched and implemented".

 

With such glowing recommendations behind them, the CEG's (colloquially known as "kegs", less from the lettering and more from the gnomes abilities to empty barrels of local inns, alas, mostly from the inside out) quickly garnered enough power and influence, as well as having substantial private fundings from various anonymous sources, to get the project from the planning stage into actual groundwork.

 

It quickly became apparent however, that the two sites that had been recommended for the volcanoes were in fact far too dormant to produce the power requirements. So much for instantaneous expertise. However, the CEG's were undaunted and merely extended the project timetable, whilst they sent out these now humbled and ridiculed experts out "into the field" in order to research better and more suitable locations.

Due to the nature of some of the private funding, however, it was felt necessary by the Council as a whole, to provide escorts for the volcano experts. Not for protection, more a case of persuasive encouragement, although this of course would not be admitted by the Council if anyone inquired.

 

The term "for their own good" can have a multitude of meanings, some of which are entirely in contrast to the term itself.

 

It was under these circumstances that a small group of volcanic researchers and engineers traveled to the outer regions of Irillion, searching the wild lands and more inhospitable places for better sites for the project. Such was the fear amongst them, however, that they soon realized that using the more dormant sites, a suitable yield of explosive combustible materials could be a viable method of increasing localized volcanic activity.

 

This would not only take the all-too-immediate pressure from them to produce results, but also save them considerable time and effort in exploring the harsher and less well known environments around the continent. A carefully calculated mixture of saltpeter, charcoal and sulfur, it was felt, would be a good catalyst for creating enough tectonic movement, if the quantities involved were sited in the most prime position, and then the alchemical mixture ignited.

 

The researchers reasoned that since it was the job of the CEG overseer to ensure they performed their task on time and to an adequate standard, it was therefore the overseers' "privilege" to be "allowed" to ignite the mix and be the one to blame if anything went wrong to take credit for a job well done. It is to be noted by the casual observer that the researchers made no effort to educate the overseer into the properties or indeed the nature of the alchemical mixture in any way whatsoever, beyond a simple "make sure the fuse stays lit, will ya? But don't light it until it is Time".

 

And so it was, that the researchers packed their campsite up and retreated to a nearby lakeside and watched the distant hills in nervous anticipation.

 

It is again to be noted that the words "nearby" and "distant" are both somewhat vague descriptions applied to distance, and it is in fact this very vagueness that proved an almost fatal flaw in their plans, coinciding in direct proportion to their new-found understanding of just how ignorant they truly were about matters of expertise in regards to volcanoes, and in specific relations to the area of knowledge surrounding the phenomena of eruptions.

 

 

A peculiarity to all bipedal species however, is the ability to generally proclaim those whom survive such dire straits; as being experts. There is probably a good reason for this. Unfortunately, there are definitely several bad ones. And since none of them bear any relation to the rest of this tale they are all omitted.

 

What is also worthy of note is the fact that, not only were the researchers not as expert in volcanic matters as they should have been, they were also not experts in more mundane matters relating to natural geography. Such areas of neglect included facts about water drainage.

 

Whilst this also seems at first glance to bear no relation to the story, it is necessary to point out the words "distant" and "nearby" once again. These now bring into sharp contrast the fact that the water from the lake drained off from the hillsides under which the now not so dormant volcano lay. And if water flows in a specific geographical direction, it is not unreasonable for even those who lack expertise, to conclude that lava too will also flow in the same direction, if it begins from the same point of origin. And whilst any volcanic expert will tell you that lava moves at a slow but unstoppable pace, an expert on gnome physiology will tell you that gnomes have bloody short legs.

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Act 5 The Lay of Nerala

 

Part II.

 

She was a simple child. Thats what they said of her, in their grunting language. Fit for cooking, if she were watched over.

 

But even this task was thought to be beyond her, when she burnt down her father's hut, allowing the meat to burn to cinders and the straw matted floor to catch light, while she stood staring at the dancing flames, as if transfixed; like a rabbit will stare into the eyes of a snake about to strike.

She was chided and beaten for her negligence, and since these were orchan folks, the beatings were brutal in the extreme.

 

Yet from the time of the fire, all in the village were wary of her, and even her father and mother were afraid of her, despite being the ones to inflict her punishments. For she had walked unscathed from out of the burning hut, even though the village warriors themselves were unable to get even close enough to douse the flames with their buckets of swamp and marsh water. Not the walk of one who flinches and fears the touch of flame, but the sure and steady step of one who has walked out this same path all her childhood days and does not notice the wall of flame she is passing through.

 

The village Shaman declared her as unfit to follow his ways, being unable to comprehend the simplest of bone castings. He watched in angered astonishment as she buried the bones and placed a sprig of Ivy on the small mound, as if she were burying a kin.

 

But being orchan and a part of the village, she was tended to and fed and allowed to live with them, for the laws of the tribe decreed it. Only the murder of one of their own would allow exclusion from the tribe, and if the murder were of a child, then the exclusion would be from life as well as the tribe.

 

So she was taught simpler tasks. Gathering herbs, wood or various root vegetables seemed to be within her limited capacity of understanding, although she outright refused to go anywhere near a pumpkin, even beatings failed to cure her of this wayward and unorchan-like fear. Something about them simply made her recoil in loathing, screeching terror, much to the delight and entertainment of the younger male orchans in the village.

 

And thus it was that she was accepted, if somewhat uncomfortably, into village life, and her contribution to the village stores of herbs was recognized alongside that of the other hunter-gatherers in the tribe as being equal, despite the fact that occasionally there were odd plants she had gathered that had no use or value to the villagers. The gnarly-toothed old herbdrier who took them from Nerala simply patted her on the hands and smiled encouragement to the "simple one".

 

It was a small number of years later in passing, that the fire-fever hit the village. The shaman claimed it had been brought down upon them by Mortos, who was angered that his usual tributes were slackening of late. The warriors themselves muttered darkly about some of the herbs the kid-head had put in for the broth. The old herb drier, a dwarfish slave who had won her right to live amongst the orchan village through right of combat, knew for certain that no herbs of ill effect were to blame, instead thought that some of the meat that had been brought into the stores had been tainted somehow, perhaps by wild magic from the swamps.

Whatever the reason was for it though, the fire-fever was swift in laying hold of half of the orchan inhabitants in a matter of only a few days.

 

Nerala's own mother was struck down with it and writhed in extreme agony as her internal temperature soared, and cooked her organs from within, slowly but with inevitable certainty to the point where she would die without intervention of some kind.

 

It was then that Nerala went to the old herbdrier, and asked for her plants back.

Not quite understanding, the herbdrier was grabbed forcibly by the hand then, and dragged around to the store hut, with Nerala saying the word plants over and over again.

 

Once inside, Nerala quickly ran amongst the hanging and fragrant dried bunches of flowers and herbs, stopping here and there as she found those odd few things she had added but had no apparent value or use. Who, for instance, would associate a snapdragon with anything even remotely useful?

 

Yet these flowers and herbs Nerala gathered in from the store hut's beams and baskets, her intense child-like face a mask of concentration on her task, so much so she knocked over the store hut's heather besom in her haste. Shaking with shock that she had done wrong, as the clang of the wooden handle boomed around the hut, she stopped instantly on the spot, until the old dwarf patted her once more on the hand and smiled her encouraging smile. It was like a gnome-switch in her head suddenly turned her on again, and Nerala reanimated once more, this time taking the gathered flotsam outside to the water hole.

 

Stooping low, she dumped her bundles beside the village bucket, used for pulling water up manually from the waterhole, and began grinding the flowers and herbs into the bucket itself, crushing them mercilessly into the inner base.

 

The old dwarf looked on in vague amusement, as, apparently satisfied, Nerala lowered the bucket hand over hand into the waterhole, then drew the bucket back out again, now dripping wet. Nerala then spun quickly and snatched the herbdrier's knife that was hanging from its aged leather thong around the dwarfs waist, and she cut the rope on the bucket handle.

 

The water dripping constantly from the various small leaks and cracks in the bucket, Nerala then ran fast amongst the huts, first to her home and inside, then out again to the other huts in the village, each in turn. And as she went, from the first to the last, the water each time she appeared was steaming forth vapours and fumes, in ever greater abundance after each hut.

 

The Shaman came then, demanding to know what magic this was that was being done without his consent, and threatened to knock the bucket out of Nerala's hand. But the hand he raised to do so fell to the floor unused, as Nerala continued silently on her way from hut to hut again, with vapours streaming and the Shaman's blood dripping from the knife she still held.

 

The screams of the Shaman brought those warriors still able-bodied, quickly into the village clearing, and they discovered not only the now livid and one handed orchan Shaman clutching his stump in incomprehensible rage, but also emerging villagers from the nearby huts.

 

Villagers whom this morning had been on their deathbeds.

 

And that crazy kid-head running around with a bucket of fire and a bloodied knife!?

 

It took several days of deliberations for the village Elders to decide the fate of Nerala, after this. Whilst on the one hand, or lack of, there was the attack on the Shaman, an unforgivable sin against the Gods, on the other hand there was the fact that Nerala seemed to have single-handedly cured the fire-fever, with the only loss (apart from the hand, of course) being the now burnt and charred remains of the waterhole bucket.

These deliberations were themselves interrupted three times in total.

 

The first time was, predictably, by the Shaman himself. As was his right, he entered the Elder's hut without awaiting admittance or permission, for he was answerable to the Gods, according to his ways, as were they all. In an almost screaming voice, he denounced Nerala's cure before the Elders, and claimed the credit to himself, for was it not the sacrifice of his own flesh that had appeased Mortos the Almighty One?

 

The "simple one" should also be offered up as a sacrifice, he exclaimed, for Mortos would not take kindly to her attack on those Chosen to do His Will on Draia. Expecting overwhelming support from amongst the superstitious Elders, he was beside himself with rage when the Elders themselves dismissed him to continue their counsels. But the Elders themselves were somewhat surprised at this openly declared worship of The Decayed One. In spite of the allegiance they held to Glydoc, they still held to the old customs of offering tributes to the "lesser" gods, as an appeasement rather than a sign of worship, and it being at end of Fruitfall, and the days of Mortia close upon them, they were now somewhat suspicious of the Shamans prior enthusiasms in arranging Mortos's tithe.

 

Perhaps, they deliberated, it was by Glydoc's will that the Shaman had suffered his loss, for being untrue to his faith? Whatever the reasons, the Shaman was spitting with anger once more as he stormed from the hut, with thunderous brow and furious step, even the stalwart warrior guards, true of faith and heart as always, would not dare meet his gaze. For though he was injured, he was Shaman still, and no lessening of his powers could they perceive in his stride.

 

It was as he left that the second and perhaps most innocuous interruption occurred. It was the old herbdrier, having sought permission and been granted it by the Elders, since she was under right of witness, according to the Tribal laws, whom now stood before them. Speaking in a low voice, so low in fact that the warrior-guards outside the hut could not hear what was said, she told the Elders of Nerala's cure. How, years before her capture and indenture into servitude to the orchans, she had known of the magics of herbs and powers of powders, moreso when they were mixed in certain quantities with various ingredients to produce "medicines and spells, even fire itself". At first the Elders were somewhat disinclined to listen to old Ursul, as she stood and told them tales of "Alchemy" but slowly they discerned that the things she said made sense, despite the obvious difficulties inherently involved when discussing matters that were wholly alien to them. For these were proud warriors, and beyond the healing properties of certain herbs or the improvement of taste when used in cooking, they knew nothing of these supposed magics of mixing and grinding powders in a mortar.

 

These flowers and herbs had mixed together to create a combination of the essence of fire, and a special catalyst (the dwarf woman had some difficulty explaining this part to them) was used that inversed the essence, drawing heat into the water in the bucket. What this catalyst was, the old herbdrier did not know, for it did not appear to be amongst the flowers and herbs that Nerala had used. The sulfurous properties of the water, however, was a part of the ingredients, it being from an underground stream that ran down from the distant hills where sulfur must apparently be abundant. These are magics, she said, that are handed down from generation to generation amongst other races, through all Time.

 

Such was the wisdom that the dwarf woman spoke, that the Elders summoned Nerala before them, to ask her directly what this catalyst was that she had used to pull the fire from the sick For with this knowledge, the village would quickly gain power amongst their enemies, having a bargaining chip that would pave the way to unrivaled strength in both trade and war.

 

When she replied that it just came to her, the Elders quickly became angered by her apparent flippancy over such an important matter, mistakenly assuming that her reply referred to the cure coming to her somehow, as if in a dream-trance, for all knew she often appeared to be in a trance-like state. Privately, this trance-state had been thought by many of the orchan villagers to be yet another source of reviling by the Shaman, who himself used this method to appear in close connection with Mortos on occasion (but apparently only when there were someone around to observe him).

 

Nerala was saved from the wrath of the Elders, however, by the third and most undecidedly final interruption to the Elders moot.

 

That was when the ground shook and fire rained from the sky.

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Act 5 The Lay of Nerala

Part III.

 

 

"What now Nerala? You said this thing was unclean, what did you mean?"

 

Jerun hissed out of the corner of his mouth, yet his eyes remained fixed on the thing before them, whatever it was. Even his eyes, which were accustomed to the vagaries of the Air on a scale unknown to any of his race, were watering at the sight of the body.

 

No set pattern of change was recognizable, it simply shifted from one age to another and another continually as it advanced towards them, stepping slowly forward. His hands motioned themselves in readiness for spell and counter-spell against the attack that would surely...must definitely...be unleashed.

 

Yet as he stood prepared, his eyes had sufficient time to gain enough detail from the approaching figure. It seemed to fluctuate violently from within, at each step, as though at one moment it was but a child taking its first haltering steps, then a fleeting glance of a proud tall man, and a step afterwards a shuffling rambling old gum-tooth, back twisted in arthritic agony as it came, hands hooked into the painful stasis of the aged. And again, beyond the years of life, it seemed, this thing existed, for now it was naught but a rotting and fetid corpse, shambling along disgorging carrion insects by the multitude. And back once more to the haltering youth.

 

"Nevermind," he said, "I think I can see enough of it to work out your meaning. It is an abomination indeed!"

The four grandmasters stood apart from each other as the creature that was once Ilias came closer still, each ready in their own way to protect themselves, or each other.

 

Finally, having reached some unknown but evidently predetermined proximity to them, the creature stopped, as if satisfied, and slowly raised its arms and hands, palms upward.

 

"NOW!" shouted Osreng.

 

And in the now it was, that the creature was bombarded and blasted with element and spell, essence and spirit. Magic poured out in unfathomable and immeasurable power and intensity, and into the creature, knocking it back a step...two steps..three.

 

The earth beneath its feet glazed into blackened glass and glowed then whitehot, beyond the extremes that a normal eye could endure to gaze upon, and yet...and yet this creature seemed to regain its balance against the sheer combined forces assailing it and retook one then another and the third final step through the molten morass that was good earth but moments before.

 

Raising its head towards them then, arms still outstretched and palms upwards once more, it slowly closed its hands into upside down fists, and brought the fists together with a snapping finality that precursored the cessation of the magic. Exhausted but still standing the grandmasters looked upon the creature in a mixture of fear and awe, for it remained apparently unscathed by their assault. Yet these were no ordinary conjurers or summoners, nor yet mere masters of magic steeped in knowledge and power.

 

These were the grandmasters of the elements themselves, and they rallied their arts once more, in readiness to defeat this foul thing before them.

 

It was then, that the creature spoke.

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Act 5 The Lay of Nerala

Part IV.

Gnomicodic Dispatch #ZedZ9-PluralZAlpha

Zarun/Fruitfall

 

*****REPORT ON FINDINGS*****

 

Sire,

 

I have good news! Mostly good news. It seems that our original intent to harness the power of the Volcanic source of energy was somewhat lacking in exact technical equipment required and our calculations had not taken into account the small and largely insignificant detail that tectonic pressure from underneath the central plates of the Irillion continent is to a magnitude equivalent to 2-267,000:1 - possibly much higher. We have therefore the need for urgent field extraction from the region.

 

Despite the fact that the released energy was somewhat undercalculated, a mere oversight I assure you, we can at least report success that the energy itself was..um...released. And in such violent vigors as to by more than adequate for our purposes. Our initial studies however led to an erroneous conclusion that this energy emission was far greater than we could actually harness for practical purposes. There was some minor loss of equipment and sundries during this period, a list is included below for supply replacements as standard.

 

5 All weather Camouflage Tents

3 Pack mules and tack

100 Barrels of Black Powder - field grade

365 assorted pairs of underwear *note some survived the lava but are frankly unusable all the same

1 pair of leather "Piper" pants ™

3 weeks food supplies

50 pickaxe heads and hafts

20 seismic accousticators

1 prototype thermic magi-viewer

1 trading box [editors note: this box was invented by gnomes who preferred to do trades at eye level with other races]

 

We have used the gold we had remaining to procure some minor items that will sustain us until eventual extraction, such as food supplies and clean underwear, however the only source of trade in the area was a local orchan village, which means the underwear is about as palatable to our constitutions as the food itself is.

 

And now the good news. Amongst our procurements, we have purchased a new device from these orchans which will allow absolute control over the lava flows AND the preceding eruptive forces unleashed by the magma core, regardless of the amount of energy expenditure used in enticing the volcanic agitation. Using sound scientific and magical precedents and procedures, this device can even channel the volcanic effluences as required, to whatever end the device controller deems necessary.

 

 

To conclude therefore, we have found what we need here. We can successfully complete the Project.

Two minor points however that I have yet to inform you of, trifling matters really but I fear that lack of inclusion of these details may cause some distress if not disclosed:-

 

1. The Lava control and manipulation device is called Nerala. And she likes chicken and henbane soup.

2. I regret to inform you that Overseer Burnout has....lived up to his name. May he rest in pieces.

 

Humbly, your servant

 

Horris Neversmile De Arius - GSVE, GPV, GNU.

 

***** REPORT ENDS *****

 

 

 

Act 5 The Lay of Nerala

Part V.

 

Nerala looked down, and clung tightly to the ropes, as the scenery passed swiftly far below her.

 

Despite the assurances of the gnomes around her, she felt very afraid up here in the balloon's hanging basket, as it skimmed the clouds and seemingly challenged the Sun for the right to be in the sky.

 

Beneath her feet, the city of Arius sprawled and twinkled, as mica deposits in the buildings stonework and tiles glinted bright in the morning sunlight, flashes of fire that burned the eye and were gone with the swiftness of birds in flight.

 

The gnomes themselves had been grateful when she had come to their rescue, and had mistaken her redirection of the Lava boiling down on them as being a heroic act of rescue. If they had known she only moved the Lava aside to prevent it from continuing its journey downhill where its eventual destructive onslaught would have razed her village, they would still have been thankful, perhaps.

 

They seemed to take great interest in the fact that she had moved the Lava aside. Lesser educated gnomes might have suggested that perhaps the geography was responsible, unless they had been there and seen with their own eyes what had happened.

--------------------------------------------------------

It had come like a slow tide of burning tar, oozing its way forward, with a malevolent heart of molten fire occasionally gleaming out from within as it boiled over the grass towards her. Yet she stood her ground in front of it, and within mere inches of her feet it stopped to her outstretched hand, building up behind itself as if it had encountered some unseen force or invisible wall, until it was at least as high as the orchan girl herself.

 

Then, gently swaying from one side to the other, she moved both hands in unison, as if in a dance, the wall of searing Lava moving with her motions.

 

As she swayed back and forth, the motions simple and gentle, almost childlike in their fluency, but with none of the associated awkwardness that those whom knew her would think were her only characteristics; the Lava swayed also. Keeping in time with her movements, it followed her dance, like a silent partner of sinister intent, dangerous beyond measure yet held at bay by the unseen music of the fire within.

 

As they moved in unison, Nerala motioning ever wider to the side and away from the path towards the lake and village, the Lava followed suit. The gnomes were transfixed as they watched, awe overwhelming their natural fear for their safety. They watched, chattering excitedly to each other, as the Lava was diverted away from them, step by step, in swaying movements. A huge wall of terrifying power, frightening them more from the fact that it would destroy them without a pause, than anything could frighten them that would kill them with a purpose. And yet there it was, at the whims of the girl that danced with fire.

 

Such power, they agreed, would suit their needs beyond their wildest expectations!

--------------------------------------------------

 

She wasn't sure why she was with them, only that the Elders and gnomes had had a long debate about her.

 

Old Ursul herself had been once more before the Elders, and had left with a bright glint in her eye, and gone back to pack her own belongings.

 

"If there ain't no room for you here, my lass, ain't room for me neither. Not a backbone in the lot of em for what needs done, and no one they wanna lay it on as is up to the task. Now, my girl, you will be goin' with these small uns, why don't seem right for folks as being smaller than I, but they're good folk, for all that they mess with stuff they's should as rights leave be. Don't be lookin' at the ground, no hiding in that for you!

Stones said you was special, so they did, and so you is.

 

'Course, I had no ken you was this special, just figured you was special like all children is. But the gnomes'll look after you, if you let em. And you. You look after them, ya hear? They got somethin' they plan on you helpin' em with, somethin' thats good for us all, but they's need watchin' like hawk, my girl, or they'll be apt to burn theysens in the fire.

 

Now, giz a hug and get ya stuff. I will see you again, I's sure."

 

---------------------------------------------

 

 

And she was gone. As was the village. And all that Nerala had known.

 

From that fateful bumpy landing as the Balloon hit the ground in Arius, just south of the white scarred quarries, to the founding of the Mage school, Nerala had grown stronger in her power and mastery of Fire. Unlike any who normally learnt such magic, she had not the fiery nature and temperament within her. No anger, nor fear, only childlike wonder at the world around her. This, coupled with her unparralled power and knowledge of Fire Magic, was the reason she was chosen as the Grandmaster of the School, and with the blessing of the Fire elements, became Grandmaster of Fire itself, in time. Administrators and Gnome Masters ran the day to day mundanity of keeping the School running under her, but her insight into its needs were never questioned, for all knew of the power she possessed, despite her childlike ways.

 

The Project never worked.

 

Oh Nerala had more than ample abilities, and could direct as much power as the continent below could provide, but sadly there were not the techniques nor technology available to the gnomes that could deal with such massive scales of raw power, no matter how much magic they tried to utilize to convert the energy. The CEG, for once, admitted they had not appreciated the lack of expertise involved in the Projects management. Several notable CEG personnel disappeared under mysterious circumstances soon after, and the Project was archived as being currently unachievable.

 

Perhaps one day, though....given Time.

Edited by Acelon

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Act 5 The Lay of Nerala

Part VI.

Elsewhen

Nerala ignored Jeruns question as she stepped forward again to stand between the three companions and the body of the Watcher in front of her, almost as if guarding them.

 

At last she spoke, her voice as flat as her eyes, her weeping now stopping, as she announced the doom of Ilias, Watcher of Whitestone:

 

"No. It is Time."

 

-----------

 

Elsewhen

Ursul drew out another stone tile from her velvetine drawbag and added it to those already arranged in front of her on the floor.

 

"Oh my! I gonna be havin' too much o Time on me hands, seems like!"

 

And she went off then to empty her large Gypsum washpot of its soapy contents...

 

 

----------

 

Elsewhen

As she read on, with whitening knuckles, and tears blurring the words of the letter she clutched, she at last began to take note of the taunting youth before her.

 

And as the Power subsided from the spell Rivena had unleashed, its energy dissipating in rolling waves out into the now silent Vale of Tirnwood and its surrounding woodlands, she spoke with quiet, gentle menace into the cold stone ear of the stricken elf:

 

"I want you to THINK about your unkindness. I have left you the ability to do that at least. Take as long as Time permits you."

 

----------

 

Elsewhen

"You cannot kill me! Die damn you! You took him away from me! I will kill you ALL!"

 

And after the slap he receives, Osreng will sit.

Bereft and forlorn

Comforted by one of orchan race, a child outside of her Time, who will tell the weeping Osreng, in halting words:

 

"Your healing will flow, with Time."

 

----------

 

Elsewhen

Jerun stared with murderous intent upon the diminutive form of Ursul, incredulity on his face at being told that he would not be with Rivena again as her lover and consort.

 

"By my eyes, may your essence be scattered to the four winds of Draia! May your words never be heard by any mortal again and you Dust scattered to Time itself!"

 

----------

 

Elsewhen

"Its a girl!"

 

Rivena looked up, exhaustion and anxiety on her sweat ladened brow.

 

"Oh Jerun! We have a girl this time, my love!"

 

----------

 

Elsewhen

"It worked! It worked! Nerala that was bloody awesome! We managed to send him ALL the WAY this time! Right to Seridia! And he is in tact! Way to go gir...um...I mean well done Ma'am!"

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Act 6 The Final Act.

 

 

"You pitiful retches! What welcome did you hope to accomplish by this murderous attempt?"

 

The being stepped forward now, with renewed confidence and vigor in its stride. With a mere wave of its arm, all motion ceased.

The sparkling elemental forces garnered and unleashed by the four greatest living powers of magic shone like a tableau of frozen ice sculptures, iridescent in their hues and brilliance, and still demanding of awe despite the fact that all were now as still and silent as the grave.

 

Only the eyeballs of the frantic grandmasters moved, apart from the creature before them, swiveling balls of panic and ultimate dismay as they each realized that the other three companions shared their individual stasis, unable to move muscle nor tongue in defiance.

 

"You are fools. Think you that even combined you can stand against Time in all its eternal might and power? Even the Gods fear to hear of my footfall at their doorstep!"

 

Almost drooling with rage and spittle as it capered, the thing danced around in mock merriment before each of them in turn.

 

"By my hand alone does Mortos wield his power over death and its dominion, and so to Aluwen, for whom life would ne'er flourish were it not for My Whim to allow it so. No force can withstand me, neither mortal power or God can stay the onset of Time...spitwizard"

 

These words it all but whispered into the ear of Osreng, whose eyes now bore the sting of furious tears.

 

"For naught did you try to destroy me, I am the Master of Paradox, Destroyer of Worlds...I was there when the Fire within was quenched and all was lifeless! Arsonist"

 

It all but spat out the sentence in vehement hatred at Nerala, watching gleefully as her eyes burned with unquenchable inner rage.

 

"When the first molecule stirred in the depths of space, to the last burning winds of the end of all things am I made. Windbag"

 

Malevolent intelligence studied Jerun carefully as it spoke this last to him, seeking that telltale sign of emotion within the Air Grandmaster's eyes, the very windows of the soul betraying perhaps the volatile nature of the Master of Winds. Yet no sign was there, instead a steady gaze came to meet the eye of the creature.

 

"Defiance will not do you the least of good, Oh mighty Jerun, forget what foolish plans you are laying in your mind, you are already thwarted beyond your measure. Were you not always so before me?"

 

Ah. There it is, emotion at last...hate? fear? No, not those.

 

Puzzlement? Of course. It rubbed its hazy shifting hands together in glee.

 

"Ah yes, Jerun. You who thought you were always the master of your own destiny have had naught but a mere token allowance into how the path of your life has been tread. Each choice you seemed to make for yourself was designed by my hand. Each turning point in your life that led you to becoming the Grandmaster of Air was not the will of the Elements you have placed your foolish pride and faith in, but nay, they are mere connivances in the schemes I have placed before you."

 

Now the creature stepped to the last Grandmaster, and gazed levelly, coolly into her fair elven eyes.

 

"Before you ALL."

 

A twisted smile formed, shifting from youth to aged leer and back through the years again to a babies first smile.

 

"I it was that chose the time and place of the attack on the school of Magic, Osreng. Were not that done you would not now be Grandmaster. You, Nerala...simple child...power you may have had from birth and a mastery of fire, but were it not for my guidance at the right Time, you would not have seen a living gnome to this day. Jerun, think on this as you will, had it not been for the critical moment of the release of the Air Elemental power now under your command, when you first came to power as Grandmaster...when you were "chosen"...well...I hardly need tell you that the death of one your lady friend here held so dear to her heart was a mundane matter of coincidence, when all such matters of Timing are My Bailiwick."

 

Spinning now and gloating as its hands clawed and rubbed, the thing studied them in turn, watching the turmoil this news was having. Jerun, whose thoughts still did not appear to betray his inner feelings, merely blinked, as his gaze shifted momentarily to Rivena and back again to the creature.

 

"You still doubt My Power, Master of farts? Your own powers are incapable of even harming me, their very essences are but a fleeting moment in Eternity when they reach me. What is fire but a fragile thing that burns and is gone? Where is the wind in the vacuum of The End? What power water when naught but dust remains? When even the stars die out, where is the power of earth?"

 

"Earth...rock mud and stone...it is small wonder there is no heart within you. You of all should understand. You came here thinking that it was I who was an abomination? Because of the orchan simpleton? She tried to burn me and found I was already ash and dust. You tried to drown me and found I was nothing but algae. What hope had you that I can be bested by the likes of you?"

 

Once again staring into the eyes of Rivena, the creature now spoke low.

 

"Should it have been this way? Am I not worthy to be thine kin and equal? Or has it become spare the rod spoil the child so soon in our relationship....mother?"

 

"BAD BOY!"

 

No one knew when she'd arrived. But..as the gypsum washpot flew through the air from the outstretched hand of an old dwarvish woman, the creature turned in alarm. With a look of dismay on its face as the washpot completed its journey through both the intervening space, and, since it was simultaneously a large gleaming new washpot, an old rusted lump of twisted mineral and a solid unshaped clump of pure gypsomite, also through time, it thudded with considerable force into the creatures' skull.

 

The thing fell back, staggered and collapsed. As it did so, feeling and motion returned to the four Grandmasters, their powerful spells quickly dissipating as they stood around the fallen body.

 

"Is it dead, this Time?" asked Jerun, although he didn't expect an answer.

 

"Oh no deary. Cant be a-killing him. He'll be right as rain in a few, give him a bit. Meanwhiles get on over here and let us see yez? I been away from things a little too long it looks tell like."

 

"Ursul?!?" Rivena cried out with disbelief and ran forward to sweep the diminutive figure up in her slender embrace.

 

"But how? I....but I..." Jerun stammered, also incredulous and at last overcome with unleashed emotion, tears and bewilderment flooding his windswept features.

 

Nerala stepped up to Ursul and spoke low, "He was wrong. One other is stronger than him?"

 

"Yes my duck. And its why I am here, o' course. Can't be having this mucking around with things without the Boss's sayso. Gonna be hard put getting things to rights around here though, for all of you, looks like a part of the lands is fractured by more'n just earthquake, fire n flood."

 

As they glanced around the clearing about them, they noted the devastation around them, caused by the unleashing of the fundamental energies of creation they had called forth. They noted in amazement that already signs of growth were appearing in certain places. Buds forming and sprouting forth from the ground in certain parts of the ground and growing rapidly before their very eyes.

 

"What IS this devilry?" the voice of Osreng wavered in awe, not only at the appearance of one whom he long thought dead and gone, but at the sights around them.

 

"Look, the land is scarred by Time now, not just by yourselves. There'll always be something odd at this point. And as for me...well...laddo here may have thought himself all powerful but in truth there be just the one power that even he will answer to in The End. And its from there I am sent..as a guide if you will. Now..you lads take Nerala and get some berries and water, n' suchlike. I will make us a nice brew up shortly, but first I needs must have a little chat with our Rivena here. There's things we need to talk about and I ain't be having any of you lot prying and poking your nose in, ya hears me? Be off with you!"

 

Hands on hips, the old dwarf women scowled at the three Grandmasters as they left, bewildered and unsure of themselves for the first time in what seemed like centuries, picking their way through the broken ground and tree roots towards the deeper wooded glades nearby.

 

"Ursul...what IS all this? Who is that..thing? He called me mothe..."

 

"And so you are, my duck. Think it was a mere turn of phrase? Oh bless you no. No. You are not so young and green as you once were, as I once remembered you being. Not now. You feel the truth of the matter don't you deary? But daren't believe it? No Time for pleasantries on this nor breaking it gentle like. Go to it..him...tell me what you see..what ... who he is. Off you go m'girl."

 

With that, the slight yet rotund woman gently pushed the slender elf towards the recumbant form on the ground. As Rivena bent down, overcoming her fear and revulsion at the hazy shifting figure before her, it seemed to her as if the rapidly phasing aspects of the creature slowed, becoming each intermediate age of its cycle for a little longer each time. Amazed as the cycle slowed yet further, she saw an outline within the form take a more solid and defined substance, as if the true shape was either revealing itself, or it was merely being fixed to one particular state. Which it was she could not tell, yet as she gazed down and the figures ragged breathing become more apparent, she saw it was a child, laying there unconscious. The hazy effects still continued, but her perception of it had now altered, as if seeing through a mirage or uncovering the finest illusion. Yet no illusion was this.

 

"Its..he...a boy? But....how? I never...my..?"

 

"Master of Paradox, aint it? Able to bend Time to his will, that one, and create, control and undo all Paradox, for time itself is no more than that, and most certainly no less. Yet for all that power there was one Paradox over which he had no control. One which he yearned to change and alter to his will, but was denied by his very existence from tampering with. The one in which he was created, my dear. His birth. As a Paradox, its a rather nasty one. Y'see, being Grandmaster of Time isn't like being one of the others. You can't have a beginning, not a true one leastways, if you have to be there at either end. From start to finish, if you gets my meaning? So he was born and the birth became...removed...it couldn't exist or he would not be who he was..is..will be..erm..."

 

"So he..I saw glimpses of things...I was in labour but thought that might be the future...? Yet this..you are saying it has already HAPPENED??"

 

"Could be...could be, yes...hard to say really, don't know for sure and only way to find out is to live on and see. Eh?" Ursul gave a sly wink to Rivena and nodded in the direction of the woods where the others had gone off to, out of earshot but albeit not out of sight, for Rivena was in no doubts that the nod was directed specifically at Jerun.

 

"What do I...I am not..I can't.."

 

"No Time for pleasantries I said. Not for you, perhaps. So here it is. He is a child, and he is hurting. Angry because although he has grown in power and wisdom beyond his years he has lacked that which has given the rest of you understanding as to why your powers need careful handling. Balance. In short he has not had any contact with anyone, other than superficial observances throughout time. Enough to know what it is he is missing out on, basically. A family. A mother, a father....Love, guidance, the whole package," Ursul dropped her voice to a tender tone and continued, "I am all too aware that the guidance and love you received from your own family were not..ideal...but that merely gives you a far greater responsibility to ensure those same mistakes made in your OWN upbringing are not repeated BY you."

 

"I understand," said Rivena, as she bent down and carefully, lifted the child thing into her arms, feeling him stir, "Ursul...I don't know what to say..how to thank you or..."

 

"No needs my lamb, you knows I always looks out for those in me care, one ways or t'other. Now...only other thing I needs leave you to sort out is how you intend to tell boyo over there that he is an altogether too-proud-for-his-own-damned-good-sometimes father. But that's your affair and how you deals with it is none of my beeswax, I'm sure."

 

Gathering up her bent and misshapen washpot the old dwarf woman set to work then, making a small ring of stones to build a campfire and heat up some water. The returning group saw Rivena sat before the dancing and welcoming flames of the fire, cradling a small boy, apparently sleeping, in her arms.

 

As they approached with a gathering of berries and more firewood, Rivena looked up at Jerun and spoke quietly:

 

"Jerun..sit down...there's something I need to talk to you about..."

 

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But that is another tale, to be told by someone else perhaps. This one ends here..

Edited by Acelon

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