The Bait – Pt. 2

The Bait – Pt. 2

J.N. Gerhart

Read Part One of The Bait

Bel-Iris stood motionless amidst the grey stone trees of Ka’Kelhar.

The sky was arrayed in fits of red and orange glow, the echoes of light from falls of lava that churned in the distance. Layers of smoke flowed like rivers through the air and on the ground. White, black, and gray, each the smoldering residue of centuries of war between the ancient trees and the older yet fresher lava flow. But even this level of desolation broke against the silhouette of the Mother Mage. Or so I presumed, for she had ordered me to hide.

“Arak’amel, forsaker of the Black Moon Clan of Broken Maw!” I imagined that as Bel-Iris spoke, the waves of her twin voices parted the rivers of smoke like two hands clearing away sand. The tone of her twin voice carried a call to battle and yet an invitation to surrender. It was unlike any bellow of war I had heard before. My confidence was high as I waited for his reply, knowing if one should come it would not take the form of words.

“Arak’amel has not spoken since the Dire awakened within him,” Bel-Iris prepared me in the days after we left Khadassa. “Though my words will be chosen to provoke him, he will not speak to me. It is said he wears a plate over his mouth to make his dedication to silence clear.”

From my hidden perch amidst several fallen trees I nodded in the present as if agreeing with her, though I certainly did not understand why anyone would seek out the Dhaun, let alone provoke him. But I did not contest her methods, I only obeyed. Such was my charge from Khazas himself.

I should say that I obeyed in part. The mass of fallen trees blocked my view, thus I attempted to find a gap or crack in their immeasurable corpses that would grant clear view of the Archai wizard. The stone trees no longer had any bark, and in truth, they had ceased to be trees at all. Yet in the cracks of their bodies I glimpsed a mosaic of brilliant color, the likes of which no master craftsman of Khadassa could endeavor to reproduce. While turning from fibrous flesh to dead stone the layers of petrified rings became chaotic and yet glorious. I had not considered that such beauty could be hidden amidst this wasteland of ash, heat, and time. I brushed my hand along the fissures of one such tree, whispering a song of the Dwarven Queen Ry’fel, humbled as if I were touching her very own crown.

I traced the radiant crack in the tree up and over its body, hoping to find a loose splinter I could take with me. I was greedy, yes, but for a good thing. As I reached the top of the fallen tree my eyes fell upon Arak’amel, holding Bel-Iris by the throat, her booted feet pointed toward the charred earth. Like the great stone trees, she was regal but motionless.

The pressure of the Dhaun’s fingers began to crack the outer husk of her lifeless body. Even from a distance, I could hear the strain of her skin giving way, gripping my heart as forcefully as he was clutching her throat. Arak’amel’s skin was white as ash and covered in blood-red runes, his musculature wider and thicker than any Ogre I had ever seen before. His dead black eyes stared directly into the lavender crystal counterparts of the Mother Mage, yet I saw not even a glint of fear within her. Or within him.

I could suffer no more hiding from the beast of Ka’Kelhar. I withdrew Hammur from my back, descending the body of the fallen tree as fast as my legs could carry. I did not know where to strike such a creature, only that I would have one opportunity. I whispered a cadence of surety, imbuing all that I had learned from my father and the mystic adepts into the force and precision of my swing.

“Ete’om, Ngal’dru Rhaen
Ete’om, Nfol’dru Thaen”

As I spoke, the weapon of my ancestor Thanes gained weight in my hands as the twin heads of Hammur became malleable and chose a new form. (The mystery of these words I dare not write down, nor the source of their power. Indeed, I have not written them as they are truly spoken, nor do I record the new form Hammur took in my hands.) It was as if they each were mighty arms that had suddenly come alive with the flow of blood. I would bring their power to rest on the nape of the pale Ogre’s neck. As I sped toward him it was as if nothing else existed in all of Terminus but that precise spot. I held Hammur low and gained speed, leaning into the air in front of me.

I was too fast for Arak’amel. His massive shoulders did not turn at my approach, his black eyes did not even glint with my reflection. Though the starkness of his skin gave the Dhaun the appearance of an apparition, it seemed that I was the ghost of our encounter. It was then I became convinced beyond any shadow of doubt that this moment was the reason my king chose me for the task. And not for me, but for my weapon. For Hammur.

Bel-Iris lifted her right hand and sent a blast of air against my throat, just as the force of my arms brought the new head of Hammur up toward the naked nape of Arak’amel’s neck. My strike missed him by a hair, catching only the smoke behind him, leaving trails of gray curling against his skin. Though the violent force of that gust alone would have knocked over any of my brethren, the Ogre did not move even a muscle.

I tumbled to the ground, rolling in a cloud of ash and calamity. I did not stop until my head struck the base of a petrified stump, cracking my helm and blacking my vision. In a moment I was aware, turning quickly to see Arak’amel set Bel-Iris down on her feet. She bowed her hooded head to him slightly, and I thought I sensed a tremor in her movement. Arak’amel turned and strode away, pulling the black-bladed weapon known as Moonfell from the stump above my head in one splendid motion. The Ogre I had heard the legend of, but his weapon I had not. In his hand it moved as majestically as a dancer’s staff, humming a pitch that seemed utterly unlike the screams of death it no doubt brought its victims.

“You ought to have stayed hidden,” Bel-Iris spoke, one of the twin voices raspy and strained, the other so light and graceful I thought she must have another head hidden under her hood. “Fortunately, we fared well enough to proceed.” I exhaled forcefully, as much from disappointment as satisfaction at her revelation.

The Archai reset her hood and tilted her head to the side. “Were you badly injured?” she asked.

That night we rested at the edge of a simmering pit of lava, the heat of which gave my body aches. Arak’amel had arranged several of the fallen trees in the form of a V, giving a measure of protection from the ash storms that were said to frequent Ka’Kelhar (though, I could not imagine him needing such protection for himself). With the peerless blade of Moonfell he had cut a wide seat out of a stump of one of the trees, with a large, spiny hide over the back. In the light of the lava pit, the exposed mosaic of the petrified rings draped a veil of colors over the black and gray of everything else.

In his seat, Arak’amel looked like a warlord of myth, resting on his throne after years of bloody conquest. Yet I wondered if any other mortal had ever seen him there, besides the Mother Mage and myself.

“He was reading me,” Bel-Iris spoke, her voices gentle but unapologetic. “Or rather, the Dire was. I was in no danger.”

I had no reply, though my gaze must have betrayed a childlike concern. “Very well,” she restated. “I was in no great danger.”

I nodded out of respect, though I could not disguise the distance growing in my heart. I had begun to despise this adventure, the command of my king, and even the Mother Mage herself. I did not need to leave Khadassa to learn that I was but a vapor in this world, I need only look at Khazas. I did not need to crack my helm and my skull to learn that I had no great power within myself, I need only to hold Hammur. Before Bel-Iris and Arak’amel, two titans of Ka’Kelhar, I was like an infant struggling against his wrappings. Even now I felt as though Bel-Iris was waiting to put me to sleep before resting herself.

After a moment of silence, she rose and looked over the radiating pit.

“None of this will work without you, Dothane.” Without Hammur, I wanted to object. It was the weapon she wanted, not the Dwarf. And it was the cold of Tenebrous that I wanted, not the ever-burning, false winter of Ka’Kelhar.

“I would have liked to have waited to give you this, but I believe it is now time.” The Archai pulled something small from within the folds of her robe, a blue, radiant crystal. For a moment it floated just above her hand, spinning softly before she snatched it up and set it on my knee.

“I trust you know ‘Winter’s Sorrow’, the song of Ry’fel, your queen.” I nodded, puzzled.

‘Winter’s Sorrow’ was a ballad of hope in dark times, written by our high mortal queen Ry’fel, for the faithful dwarf who has lost a loved one to the endless winter of Tenebrous. It had a peculiar enchantment within its melody, meeting deepest sorrow with deepest hope. Thus, in our Thane house with the legacy of Vitrius, it was spoken and sung as often as others might a hymn of prosperity or cry of war. At the mere mention of the ballad, the words began to stir within me.

Bel-Iris put a finger to my lips. “Not now, lord Thane. The stone is one of my blossoms, instruments I have fashioned for specific cause and purpose.” She motioned for me to put the blossom away, which I did with feigned comfort. “We shall discuss its use at the proper time. For now, keep the blossom safe as a fragile flower, and do not utter a single line of ‘Winter’s Sorrow’, lest you kill the Dhaun and me.”

At this she passed on to Arak’amel, leaving me a puzzle box of longing, fear, and yet curious elation. Their conversation was short, predictably one-sided that it was. Soon Bel’Iris was by herself, sleeping peacefully on her back. I felt the weariness of the day deliver me to slumber even as I sat against the petrified stone.

The sound of flesh being torn apart woke me the next morning.

Though it was well past dawn the thick air of Ka’Kelhar muted the brightness of the sun, (which I later confided to Bel-Iris as to why I had slept so late into the day). Arak’amel was off his throne, the carcass of whatever large armored creature that dwelt in the forest hanging upside down from a rope thrown over a tree. I should say that half of the beast was hanging, for the side with the head was cooking nicely on a spit over the lava pit. I was famished at the time, though that feeling would soon be taken care of.

The Dhaun was resting against the trunk of the tree, next to the severed corpse of the creature. With one clawed hand he reached into the body and withdrew a large chunk of meaty flesh, the fibers so fresh they smoked in the air. Hot blood ran over his hand, pooling in drips beneath his fingers. Then, he stared at the meat and waited, watching it bleed in his palm for a curious amount of time. I did as well, unaware that I was so fixated until the meat began to disappear into his hand.

It did not happen all at once. At first, his desaturated skin began to ripple, pressing against the edges of the meat like a swarm of worms feeling for moist ground. Then in sickening silence, ribbons of the warm flesh began to pull into his hand, that is to say, into his physical hand. The creature’s flesh dissolved like salt beneath a stream of water, eaten away until there was nothing left. Not even the blood that had pooled beneath his palm remained, and I swear that even the hairs on the back of his hand were left clean.

I swallowed hard, suddenly aware that for all Arak’amel’s physical might, it was what dwelt within the Dhaun that made him a terror. The Dire, a thing which defied comprehension, just as what I had witnessed defied explanation. I thought of that same hand dug into the neck of Bel-Iris, and I wondered what manner of war had been fought between them the previous day. For the first time in my life, Hammur seemed unfit for a battle.

I realized that Arak’amel’s black eyes were turned on me, even as he tore another piece of flesh from the side of the beast and waited for his hand to consume it, plainly as any other mortal might take a second serving of well-cooked meat. Perhaps it was good to be unlike these two titans, I thought.

Arak’amel moved past me and toward the lava pit, crouching to check the doneness of the meat. My eyes fell upon the nape of his neck, a sudden charge of fight welling in my hands. Yet it was soon replaced by terror, for in the very spot I had aimed my weapon the day before there was carved a rune of blood. The marking was burned into the back of Arak’amel’s neck, like countless others that decorated the tablet of a body.

My feet froze in place as I stared at the spot, the wound suddenly oozing in a fresh flow of blood. As if aware of my presence, the blood leaped toward me in a dark, liquid hand. It covered my face, silencing the memory of that day in a sanguine sleep.

I awoke in the cave once more, drifting and alone. Alone? Had I killed them, I wondered? Had I unleashed Bel-Iris’ bloom? No. No, I still had the bloom somewhere, I was certain of it, though I could not remember where I had hidden it. While the words of Ry’fel’s ‘Winter Sorrow’ were indeed echoing in my mind, I had not yet spoken them aloud.

“Very well,” I tried to say my attempt ending in a dehydrated gasp. I could not even speak those two words, so dry and parched was my mouth from the heat of this cave. In addition, it seemed that coarse bits of fine stone coated my mouth and throat, grinding against my teeth with each dry swallow. Though the grains were much larger than sand, they were nonetheless suffocating.

I looked around for any source of moisture that could quench and cleanse my mouth, but though this foul cave was damp, no moisture pooled on the ceiling. Yet why would moisture pool on the ceiling, I wondered, it must pool on the floor. It was then I realized that the floor was above me, for I was hanging upside-down from the ceiling of the cave. My back tensed anew at the revelation.

My feet were held fast in a strange, viscous husk that seemed to have hardened up to my ankles, the true floor was still several feet below my head. It seemed that my feet were still booted, however. I could not reach any of the walls, each of which still shuddered and seemed to have a constant, low rumble behind them. I could swing my body with great effort, but the heat of the cave and the pooling of blood in my skull made any movement an exercise of agony.

My armor was still littered on the ground, yet I noticed one piece was missing. My helm, the one I’d cracked in Ka’Kelhar, was no longer among the group. Neither was Hammur, yet for some inexplicable reason, I felt assurance instead of panic at its absence. At that moment I sensed the rancid cave stench reach through the deafness of my smell like hot water poured over a rotting tooth. Once more, I was running out of time.

It was then I saw my helm, moving toward me. It was in the mouth of an insect-like creature that was not much smaller than myself. It hopped along the corridor from floor to wall to ceiling, its arms and legs looking more like a mammal than a bug. Soon there were four or five more, then ten and twenty. Somehow I knew that these were the wretches who’d hung me upside down and torn my armor from my body.

At this sickening sight, it took every ounce of my resolve not to try and sing ‘Winter Sorrow’, unleashing the secret power of the bloom. Yet Bel-Iris had not said I would be spared, or given indication that it would only harm Arak’amel and herself, had she? I simply could not recall what it was for, or why it was significant. Or even where it was.

Instead of summoning the power of the bloom, I waited until darkness claimed me for one final strike of recollection. The memory of that very morning.

From the prow of a long wooden ship, Arak’amel stood watch amidst a storm. The ship was lightly laden, equipped for speed rather than a long voyage. To that end, its power came not from sail or oar, but four large sea serpents, two lashed at either side beneath the waves. The captain of the vessel, a short human woman, bald and anxious, controlled her beasts with a series of strikes against a drum. The cadence of her beats when driving a straight line was effortless, but I found it set my mind in a dull, driftless state.

“If the storm does not break soon we will turn back,” she barked at Bel-Iris. “The sea speaks more loudly than coin, understand? We ought not draw near the Vells when such warnings lie about them.”

“The storm will break,” Bel-Iris replied. Every time she spoke I saw the human shake her head as if she could not reconcile the twin voices. Her wide mouth opened to show a row of silver studs in place of teeth, but before she could counter the Archai, Arak’amel pointed Moonfell off the stern of the vessel. The human’s beating changed swiftly in response, the sea serpents elegantly turning the ship in that direction. After a few intense moments of pounding upon the drum and speeding upon the sea, the fog of the storm broke into a bright blue sky.

Before us lay a series of pure white rocks, rising from the sea like fingers belonging to unseen hands. How many of the rocks there were I could not say, but they stretched on as far as I could see. As we neared them I realized they were quite tall, some just over a tree in height, others more like a great hill. Between the white rocks were several large islands, their landmass a mix of grey and black stones that continued on to the water’s edge. The land was flat and featureless, without flora or fauna, save for orange shrubs that clung desperately to the white stones, and a few colonies of colorful birds that nested in the heights.

“At last we arrive at your day, Dothane,” Bel-Iris said in one deep, rich resonance. “Welcome to the D’dyglian Vells.”

“The heat is unlike anything I’ve endured,” I said as we reached the shoreline. “I should think to lose my armor, else my muscles become a well-cooked meal.”

“A meal you may yet be,” she replied evenly. We will all be better served if you keep it on, Lord Thane.”

Arak’amel stepped off the boat before it came to a stop, his calloused feet bare but unconcerned with the sharp rocks on the shore. I waited for the serpents to stop churning the water, but it appeared that would not happen until the captain fed them, which she would not do until I debarked. She dumped several pitched jars of indecipherable filth over each side, into greedy mouths. I was once again thankful for my limitations of scent.

I turned to the shore and stopped, for all along the shoreline there were bones, bleached by Siros the sun into a uniform sheen. Fish, serpent, bird, human, elf, and dwarf, no doubt. Everything I could think of and countless more I could not lay littered on the shore like a hundred puzzles all mixed together. The Dhaun had already crushed several walking up the rise before us.

“Wizard!” the weathered captain yelled. “I’ll be setting off now.” She pointed at the bones on the shore. “Before any of those start actin’ up.” Bel-Iris placed her hand on the ship, spoke a few words, then turned and began walking up the rise after Arak’amel. As she did, a great sheet of ice began to form on the front half of the ship, encasing it in a frozen vise, anchoring it to the shore. When the spell ceased, the ship itself was stuck to the shore, with no hope of coming free until the lock had thawed.

“We thank you for continuing to support our efforts from here,” Bel-Iris said, her back turned to the speechless captain. “Should we be detained longer than morning, you will be free to go.” I followed Bel-Iris quickly, for I had nothing clever to add and no time in which to deliver it.

At the top of the rise the island opened wide before us, forming a wide expanse that was, as I had believed, utterly devoid of life. But here there were no bones either, only a few simple structures that hung from the white rocks in places, and most of these were badly broken. The ground was a curious mix of tiny rocks, smaller than pebbles but thicker than sand, and streaks of broken, reddish glass.

“Do you know the history of the Vells?” Bel-Iris asked me. I nodded, though she sensed my knowledge was wafer-thin. She continued as if I had claimed ignorance, “Once a series of thriving port islands, the D’dyglian Vells have been abandoned for thousands of years. Though it seems impossible now, this expanse was once a fertile oasis of the seas, a respite for countless ships and sailors. Yet it came under the force of great tremors in the deep and the city could not survive.”

I looked around for any sign of this heralded past, but it was, as she said, impossible to see. “Yet it wasn’t the shaking of the earth alone that finished D’dyglia, it was the beasts that lived below the surface who were awakened and given access to the city by the violence underneath. The great D’dyglian Wyr, a creature of immense size and ferocity. These wyr can often only dwell in the depths of Terminus, where they feast on young Dragons of the Earth. Yet where gaps in the mantle of the planet arise there are tales of wyr dwelling nearer to the surface, devouring all life until they die of starvation and old age.”

At this, I heard the drumbeat of the human captain begin again, though somehow it seemed as if she stood right between us. “We will coax a wyr out of hiding, Dothane. You will be our bait.”

Suddenly I awoke once more. I was inside the cave again, the insect creatures gathered around my helpless body in even greater numbers. Their movements were rhythmic now, a clicking that hailed a change in their disposition. It seemed some of them were being driven mad, lashing violently at one another, kicking filth and bile onto me as they skirmished and slew each other.

In their fury, I began to remember everything in between the drumbeats and now. I remembered the trek we three took farther into the empty island, the wide expanse of terrain we found as suitable for our ploy. I recalled Bel-Iris, giving me one last chance to change my mind, and Arak’amel nodding when I did not. I remember the tremors in the ground, deep but always on the move. I remember the words of the Mother Mage as I stood alone amidst the desolate expanse, just before the fury of her magic came down upon the rocky soil.

“We must make the wyr think we are a large and noisy meal, or else it will not waste the strength to reach the surface. Thus I will shake the ground as you have never known, but I swear to you and your king, I will not harm you.” In every word, Bel-Iris spoke the truth.

She brought a rain of arcane terror upon the ground, causing ripples of surging rock, reducing some of it to sand. It fell in cadence like a drum, pounding over and over, shaking the earth beneath my feet in terrifying percussion. When the barrage subsided I was to run to the very spot she was razing, then wait for one last strike from above, one last face reaching toward me. The last I saw of my two companions was Arak’amel, holding Moonfell high above his head. Light glinted from the black blade toward my tiny speck on the expanse, a promise of future deliverance I took to heart.

Then the wyr broke through the earth, its body larger than any creature I had ever seen, surging through the air with a terrifying roar. The wyr bowed back toward the earth suddenly, its unbreakable beak open wide, cut into six parts, just as Bel-Iris had described (though thereafter I confided to her that such depth of detail would not be necessary.) Yet it was not this beak I was concerned with, it was the things that hid on the wall of flesh behind the beak, a curious artifact of the creature’s creation: 6 massive eyes, five searching for the nonexistent party, and one trained wholly on me. The creature hissed in disappointment and dove at me, swallowing my entire body and turning everything black.

Thus I was never in a cave, but inside the wyr. The shuddering movements of the walls were the tremors of the wyr, moving through the earth. It seemed it was angry, perhaps even furious, at our deception. Bel-Iris told me these wyr were old now, likely near starvation after exhausting D’dyglia as a resource ages ago (though some cultures over the centuries had used the islands as a prison colony, with obvious results, and some believed the ruins of the port to be laden with hidden riches). The insects living within the wyr were welcomed guests, cleaning whatever meals the parent creature swallowed and tossing the body into the acid pit of the wyr’s stomach. That was the stench I had smelled. In turn, the wyr kept the insect species alive by letting them nest and nibble on its insides, forming a twisted symbiosis.

The eyes of the wyr were our prize. For reasons I was not permitted to know, Bel-Iris, Khazas, and yes, even the Dhaun wanted one. But there was no way to access them from outside, for the beak was truly unbreakable. Thus some unfortunate soul needed to venture within the beast, one who would not faint at the stench, at least not right away. Lastly, someone who would not forget where they placed Bel-Iris’ bloom, and I had not, for it was locked safely away in the heel of my boot, fastened to the ceiling of the wyr’s fore-stomach chamber.

Thus as the insects worked themselves into a greater frenzy, I began to sing the words of Ry’fel’s ‘Winter Sorrow’. My mouth was still parched and caked with the soil of the surface, yet I found a strange cold filling my mouth even as I spoke the words aloud. Mercifully I did not have long to wait, though neither did I have long to prepare myself. The endless winter of Tenebrous Tundra was unleashed within the body of the wyr.

There began a bright, radiant glow that arrested the furious insects and caused them to click in slow, curious movements. The D’dyglian lurched suddenly, as the incandescent light became a wind, then frost, then storm, and last a blizzard. Wherever the blue light traveled, frozen death followed, snaking up and down the cavernous throat of the writhing beast, pushing it violently toward the surface. The entire space froze, then cracked, then froze again, and I hung amidst it all, wondering if this was at long last the moment that Tenebrous would claim my life.

Yet there came a sudden shuddering within the wyr, a final frozen exhalation, then everywhere fell silent. One of my feet had broken free, the boot which held the bloom, yet I remained fastened by the other to the ceiling. I had never felt such cold, yet also such relief. I was not my father, but I had one such victory as him, defeated as I must have looked at the time.

The bloom let out a final few rays of blue, illuminating the ice-laden belly of the beast and all its insectoid decorations, then turning into a quiet crystal once more. I was shivering in the dark for whatever came next, yet once more, I need not wait long.

The belly of the D’dyglian opened in a long, wet gash, layers upon layers of membrane sundered with a series of powerful strokes, each one louder and closer than the previous. I knew the sound of that blade, remembered its melodic hum. It was Moonfell, cutting through the body of the D’dyglian with rhythm and zeal.

With one final stroke, the light and sound broke open the darkness. The clawed hands of Arak’amel rent the wound even further, wrenching bone and muscle apart in a single sustained tear. The Dhaun brought light to my upside-down form, revealing the matted mess of frosted hair, blood, and bile I had become. He walked upon the icy ground, cracking frozen wyr flesh with every step. Moonfell released me with one final swing, yet before I hit the putrid innards below, Arak’amel caught me under my arm, setting me rightly upon my feet.

He moved on toward the head of the wyr, seeking out the eyes from within the creature itself. I drained my lungs of the last of the foul air, which the freezing had graciously reduced to within mortal tolerance. I looked after my armor, with great effort releasing it from the hold of frozen liquids and insect bodies. It was worse for wear and would need mending, but it had endured a great trial, as had I. At last I found my helmet, still in the decapitated head of the insect thief. The crack in it was even wider now, but I did not mind and hoped to somehow preserve it. After a few moments, a thin shadow crossed over the glinting expanse.

“The bait of Khadassa has survived.” Bel-Iris stood in the doorway of the wyr’s wound, light rested on her shoulders, but the darkness of her face blended in the background. Yet those lavender eyes found mine, just as the day I saw her across Khazas’ table. “Shall I help you collect your things?”

There was a sound hidden within the twin ripples of her voice. Something I had not heard before. It was stark and clear, light but not the least bit delicate. It was joy, yes, unmistakable joy. For the Mother Mage had always carried a winsome but at times insufferable contentment, even from the moment she first spoke my name. Yet this was something different, something pleased beyond words, and I know no other name for it but joy.

Arak’amel returned, the large wyr eyes hanging tightly in a sack with ropes carefully binding the eyes individually. In his right hand there was a single eye, which he stared into for a moment before looking at me, then back to the eye. I followed Bel-Iris out of the wyr, leaving Arak’amel to himself.

In the brightness outside the wyr corpse I fell to the ground, breathing heavily and looking over my wounds for the first time. I had not liked to weep, yet I felt tears under my eyes and considered not how their presence reflected upon me.

Bel-Iris knelt beside my hunched position. “And this, O Dothane of the Three Thanes, is your Hammur.” She set it upon my knees before sitting quietly for a moment. After a long quiet she stood, the dust of the D’dyglian Vells falling off her like snow.

“Must we all return home so quickly?” I called after her. “I should think we made a suitable group, did we not?”

Bel-Iris turned to the dead wyr. Arak’amel exited its massive corpse with the bag of eyes and a clean, empty hand.

“Quite suitable,” she said.

In the silence I traced my memories back to my youth, searching for a moment where I anticipated the ache of longing as I did now. I could find but a few such moments.

“But my dear Dothane, our homes are not where we once were. Not anymore.” I nodded, resting Hammur in my palm, thinking of both its past and wondering at its future.

“We are the few,” she replied in one voice. “The few who must find the many.”

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