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It appeared, at least in this language, as if love could be used interchangeably between to love someone romantically, and the love that was caring love. In the Fenlyck language, there wasn’t one word which could be used interchangeably to mean both things; there was one word for these two separate types of “love”.
But as she thought back to that one moment by the lakeshore with Balden, Lara started to understand what exactly Balden had been feeling. Especially, that one remark concerning Adimar. Balden had been in love, with her. Yes he did care for her, but Lara now thought that Balden’s feeling had started to go a bit deeper than that. Was it possible that he had started to love her? Like in the romantic sense as Adimar had just explained? If it wasn’t for Balden’s comment, and in the somewhat jealous tone that Balden had said it in.....
Lara shrugged her shoulders and unbit her lip that she had been biting this whole time. She realized that Adimar had lain his hand on her shoulder, Lara reached up with her own hand and squeezed Adimar’s hand lightly while also looking up at him and smiling assuredly. [+purple “Thank you very much. I’ll try to learn as best I can.”]
After she had taken her hand off Adimar’s, Adimar proposed to take a walk through the city. After he had changed that is. Lara quickly agreed, she wanted to get out and walk about after being trapped in a limbo for six months.
As she waited, Lara took a much closer look at the staff that Balden had made for her. She traced the designs that had been carved into the metal, but it was as if they were merely an illusion. No matter where or how hard she pressed, she couldn’t feel any of the grooves. Lara gave an experimental spin, paying close attention to the designs. She spun it again, and the same thing happened. It was as if the fishes and the water came alive, with the fish appearing to swim through the water as the water appeared to go up and down. Balden had thought this through pretty well. Lara sighed heavily, it was sad that she couldn’t thank him in person. At least she had a reminder to remember him by.
Adimar had walked out, Lara joined him by his side as the two of them walked out to the city. [+purple “Adimar, how much do you know about the Medici?”] Lara knew somethings about the Medici, but she was curious as to what Adimar knew about it.
[center [I [size30 ❇❇♥❇❇]]]
Saraya was escorted to her room first. Carrick, despite everything had followed her. Ursula hadn't protested. Once inside, Carrick only watched as Saraya sunk into her own world.
She sighed as she looked ahead. Silence took her mind as the trees swayed in the gentle breeze. The quiet breeze greeted her cheeks before disappearing, saying it's goodbyes. The night peaked as the sun had set. She made her way to the balcony, avoiding conversation with anyone while she thought. The Watchers knew something... They had to.
Otherwise, Ursula wouldn't have been so quick to dismiss her.
Suddenly, her mind was clouded, and the spirit finally spoke.
[center [I Saraya?]]
She huffed to herself. [I My, my... You pick now to speak to me, Spirit?]
[center [I I am sorry, My love... I could not interfere with your trials]]
She growled, slightly frustrated. [I And when I had asked you questions...?]
[center [I I could not answer them...]]
She chuckled to herself, a dark chuckle as she cracked her knuckles one by one. [I it is funny how I am a Guardian and I cannot get a single question answered]
[center [I I am not allowed to interfere]]
This only frustrated her even more. She huffed as she clutched the balcony side, watching the moon rise.
[center [I Please, love, do not be upset...]]
[I "Why not, Spirit? Why can I not be upset? "] she blurted out. She didn't know she startled Carrick. [I "Why is it that I am out of this loop? I will have to wait until I go to the temples to find out... "] she sighed with frustration. [I "Ursula calls me the strongest out of the fellowship, but I am only angry-- "]
[center [I Saraya... Please]]
She huffed again, gripping the balcony tighter, beginning to dent it. She watched the horizon...
Hot tears fell as she watched it, trying with all her might to calm herself... When she couldn't, her head dropped as she buried her face into her hands... Everything was in riddles... Everything had to be figured out on her own... She collapsed to her knees, still burying her face into her hands, until she rolled over and buried her face into her knees, frustration and confusion flowing into the fabrics of her robes...
As the darkness surrounded her, an image came before her... A fire... With everyone sitting around it, laughing, conversing and enjoying people's company. She sat furthest, watching everyone converse around cooking bore. Aria seemed so happy, Rhuarc, Ayab... Lara came around too. Carrick was cutting the bits and pieces off of the slain beast roasting over the fire. Adimar was turning the cooked beast, laughing along with the rest... Except... Balden wasn't there... She remembered the Watcher say that he had left... Something had to be off for her to hear that he had gone... Hopefully she had the time to save him...
[I "Why are you showing me this? "] she asked the Spirit.
[center [I Don't be angry, Saraya...]]
Saraya looked ahead to the company. [I "Why? "]
[center [I Because they need you]]
She sneered. [I "They need me? They do not even notice me! Since I have taken it upon myself to save Tanaka for Aria's sake, I have felt nothing but contempt... And I still feel it, despite what you believe! The blood of the fallen are on my hands for my stubbornness!!! What can heal that?! "]
[center [I Saraya...]]
[I Leave me be, Spirit... Talk to Carrick... But leave me be right now...]
Abruptly, the illusion stopped. She stood from the balcony and silently stalked across the room, without hearing Carrick's pleas and questions. She needed to be alone. And as far as she was concerned, everyone had contempt for her because of her foolish stubbornness.
Her mind flew to Felliope. The attack at Tanaka... The face she saw... The Fade... That was not going to happen... When the time came that she had to prove her loyalty, she will... And she'll pay it... By sacrificing herself... If it meant her Priestess safety...
Her mind grew dark... She hadn't slept that night. Come dawn, she was a shadow of her once fair self...
Rhuarc listened to Aria's words as she spoke and he was glad that she was apologising in turn, she didn't need to do that and he had not expected her to react that way although perhaps he should have. As she extended his hands towards his own he took them without hesitation, she was still colder than she should be and Rhuarc extended Jai'hash's fire through himself into her body to warm her up, at least Aria should feel more comfortable now. Rhuarc could see the High Priestess steel herself and become far more determined and she once again extended a hand questioningly, Rhuarc stared into her eyes as he once again took it without hesitating. [i "Normally a Holy Guard would take the rank of General to the High Priestess, but this is not a normal situation. Rhuarc you have my respect, and my friendship. I do not ask lightly when I ask if you will be my General and teach me to protect myself, so we may both put our minds at ease.”] The Jai took in her words and thought about what they would mean, Aria trusted him that much was clear and she felt no ill will towards his shameful behaviour, he was grateful for her trust and he knew what his answer would be. [b "Ari...Priestess, I would be honoured to be your General although I do not think I need to teach you how to protect yourself, I have a feeling you know more about that than I give you credit for. If I am to be your General I feel that you should understand something. I pride myself on doing my duty, my duty to my people and my duty to Azera as a Guardian and also my duty to the High Priestess. I would gladly pledge my blade to any High Priestess that asked, but I pledge my very being to you Aria of House Tolshiv."] Jai custom forbade any Jai to lie on sacred ground and Rhuarc knew exactly the seriousness of what those words meant, to himself if no one else. His trial of Desire had shown him what he had expected, what he knew that he craved; bringing glory and honour to the Jai and being named Car'ai but what he had not anticipated was what happened after he had slain the False King Malik. Aria had placed the marriage wreath by his feet, he had not expected that to be part of his deepest desires yet he saw that as clear as day. Being the General of the High Priestess bound him tightly to Aria and while he was pleased about that for many reasons he was also apprehensive about it. [b "I'll let you get some rest now Priestess, with your leave?"] Rhuarc waited for Aria to dismiss him before leaving her room, he was going to see Ayab but he had one small thing to do first.
Rhuarc made his way out towards the streets of Kil'heed, where the people were out and about with their business. Ursula was right, the city had attracted more people in the last six months and while ideally he would prefer a Jai for what he had planned it was not completely necessary, in fact it might be even better if it wasn't. Rhuarc wandered the streets of the sacred city of Kil'heed taking in the sights, there were merchants around hawking their wares, children playing in the street and a few of Adimar's men standing guard by a gate, they gave Rhuarc a nod in greeting which he returned. Eventually Rhuarc found what he was looking for, an elderly Volshi man who had a small home that doubled as his place of work, Rhuarc saw examples of his work and after being satisfied with the quality of the pieces on display Rhuarc paid the elderly man for his work. Once the artist was finished with Rhuarc's commission, the Jai left the workshop with the sigil of the Holy Sanctum tattooed over his heart. Rhuarc felt that was a suitable way to reflect his new position as General of the High Priestess. All that remained now was for him to seek out Ayab, he was eager to see his friend and not ashamed to admit that he was equally as apprehensive to see what the Fade's whip had done to his friend.
If the wound required divine healing then it could not possibly be good. It took some time for the Jai to find his way to the infirmary where, sure enough, he found his longtime friend Ayab although not as Rhuarc had expected. With all the talk abut how bad Ayab's wound had been Rhuarc had expected his countryman to be lying in a bed but to the contrary Ayab was standing and drawing his bow to fire an arrow out of the window in an attempt to hit a knot in the bark of a tree, he loosed his arrow and narrowly missed. He adjusted his stance slightly and loosed again this time hitting his mark. He turned around to see who had entered and his face cracked a wide grin. [+red "Rhuarc! It has been a while, what happened? Where is everyone? Is everyone safe?"] Rhuarc embraced his friend and answered all of his questions as best that he could, he didn't tell Ayab what was in his visions, those were just for himself, but other than that he filled them in about everything that had gone on inside the Labyrinth. In turn Ayab told Rhuarc about his own experiences, how one of the Watchers had done something to slow the speed of whatever the Fade had done to him, he had had a fever for a few weeks earlier in the stay but once it had broken and he could recover his strength it was becoming easier to manage the wound. The bandages on his leg needed changing every week as the wound actually rotted the dressing away and that was causing no end of irritation to the physician here at the infirmary. Ayab required a staff to walk and while he was slowed he would not be a burden on the journey ahead, or so he claimed. The Jai's biggest irritation was that he had could not practice with his weapons while he was resting in bed with the wounds and even if he wanted to Jai custom for bid him from doing so anyway so Ayab had devised a clever way around that. He had whittled a number of arrows from wood around the city that would be useless in an actual battle and therefore could not be considered a weapon and allowing him to fire them from his bow without violating custom. Eventually the conversation turned to Balden's departure and Ayab grew sombre.
[+red "I saw him before he left, he came to see me. My leg was hurting badly that day, and he didn't stay for long anyway. He didn't answer when I asked where he was going but he seemed determined to go. I didn't try and stop him, not that I could if he wanted to anyway. I liked the boy, I was sad to see him go."] Rhuarc had known that Ayab had thought of Balden like a younger brother and had enjoyed the boy's company but Balden had made his choice and the one time blacksmith's apprentice needed to live with that now. [b "I know Ayab, I did too but he has chosen a different path, there is no point lamenting that which we can not change and we must move forward. Maybe our paths will meet once again."] The only problem was that Rhuarc was not actually sure whether he wanted that to happen or not.
Rhuarc followed Aria over to where she took a seat to hear him. Nothing was so important she couldn’t take a moment to listen to any of her Guardians. The bath wasn’t going anywhere, nor was the bed behind her, and she did not foresee this taking particularly long considering she knew Rhuarc to be a man of few words. So when he did speak, Aria had made certain to listen. He thanked her for taking the time to speak with him, but when he mentioned he had come to apologize, a warm smile began to fill her face. There was no hiding or stopping the grin while he tried to assure her she owed him no Toh. In fact, he tried to guilt himself, and when he fell to his knees before her she was suddenly startled by the humbling act. It dawned on her that both of them were guilty in their own ways.
He accepted punishment, but what would that solve? He had become aware of what he’d done, and as a Prideful Jai wasn’t having to absolve and apologize punishment enough? He explained himself in a way Aria was able to see his side and understand where he was coming from. She’d assumed as much, but she’d also known that when Rhuarc was ready he would come and talk to her. Here they were and she wanted to giggle at how similar they were both going to sound when she finished her peace.
[b "I never wish to put you in that position again Priestess.”] Aria studied his face for a long moment before she finally reached out and lifted his chin to face her. She saw the guilty expression he wore and maybe a glimmer of frustration with himself, but there was a hint of relief. She couldn’t fault him for any of it.
“Rhuarc of the Farlan Jai,” she chided capturing his attention and though she was tired, she was warmed and humbled by his words. “Do not fault yourself entirely in this. Perhaps we are even,” she told him gently taking away her hand from his face and folding them in her lap. “You were right to say I have Toh… I do. Perhaps not to you entirely, but to all of Azera. You taught me about Honor and Obligation. I have an obligation to uphold, to save and protect the people of this world, to usurp Malik, and to take my place where it rightfully belongs. If I do not do this, then who will? I can not abandon this world, and that day in Tanaka I did. I was selfish when I knew I should have gone back and decided to stay out. I was so desperate to feel… something… freedom?” She questioned, for she wasn’t quite sure what she’d wanted to feel that day. Her brow pinched together at the thought and she sighed. “I was never upset with you. I never expected an apology from you, and I was prideful enough to think I did not have to give you one, but I do, and I am also sorry.” She confessed looking to him. It was then she reached out to take his hands, so he might know the sincerity of her words. ‘I’m sorry I made all of you worry about me. I regret my selfish actions, my mistakes… unfortunately, I know I will make more poor choices. I am not perfect. I may be the High Priestess but I am still a flesh and blood woman,” She reminded Rhuarc. “We all make mistakes, but I never once feared that you would not be there to protect me,” She said with a prideful smile to him. She gave his hands a firm squeeze before releasing them and gave him a pointed look. “I will not punish you, I see no purpose in it. We both made mistakes, we have finally come together to speak about it, and we’ve settled the matter. For I do not wish to place you in that same position again either, so this leaves only one final matter,” she said facing him with a look of determination. "I think I have a solution to ensure my safety and set your mind at ease." When Rhuarc voiced his curiosity, she offered her hand for him to take, and if he took it, it would signify he was willing to hear her. “I will most certainly be put in more dangerous situations the closer we get to defeating Malik, and we both know you won’t always be there to protect me." She wanted to prepare him for a most possible outcome, and she did not want him to spend his life with guilt if she didn't make it. "Normally a Holy Guard would take the rank of General to the High Priestess, but this is not a normal situation. Rhuarc you have my respect, and my friendship. I do not ask lightly when I ask if you will be my General and teach me to protect myself, so we may both put our minds at ease.”
Adimar left the room sparing a single glance behind him to see Aria and Rhuarc finally speaking with one another. It was about damn time those two got over whatever issue they’d been dealing with since Tanaka. They were led down a completely different hallway. Adimar half expected for them to enter the same hall they'd left when they'd entered the room earlier, but the layout had changed. Ursula, varyis and Luther walked with them towards the next floor down and into an open hallway lined with a set of doors. Saraya and Carrick were shown their room first, and Ursula pointed to the other two doors along the same hallway.
“Guardians, your rooms are here, You have free reign of the entire hold,” She told them. Adimar nodded his head and started for the door furthest down the hall. He wanted to freshen up and eat before going off to find his men and see what they’d been up to in the six months of his absence. Adimar never made it to his door though as the voice of young Lara stopped him. She wanted his help in learning combat and how to speak with her spirit. He smiled at her and nodded his head.
“I’d be more than happy to help you, Lara. I’m flattered you’ve come to me for help.” He saw a bit of discomfort in her eyes though and it brought a concerned expression to his face. “Something else the matter?” He asked reaching out to take her shoulder in his hand.
[i “Out of curiosity, do you love me…??”]
Adimar’s face twisted into one of supreme confusion. “Define… love…” He began, “because if you mean love as in, I care about you and want you well, to see you succeed and grow -then yes, I love you. Now iff you mean romantically… like Carrick and Saraya…then no, I do not love you,” He told her gently. “What put this thought in your mind? I hope I did nothing to insinuate differently, and if I did, I am truly sorry,” he told her. In truth, Adimar was fond of Lara, he liked her spunk, her tenacity, her quick wit, and her ingenuity at learning her powers. “I look at you, the way I would look at a young cousin or a niece…. and now as an apprentice. I have faith in you, Lara. I think you have the potential for great power and to do great things, and I would be honored to help you reach that potential.”
Looking at Ursula, it appeared as if someone was extremely unhappy in their choice. But that meant, but, but that meant that Balden was not here. If he was not here, then he had to be somewhere that was not here. It meant that Balden would not be protected from Malik, Balden would have to wander by himself, without anyone else’s protection. Unlike Aria, Lara wasn’t angry at these watchers; she had a different feeling, directed at a different person altogether. She felt sorry for Balden, sorry that he had been turned away by the Watchers. Despite being the youngest in their group, he had been one of its pillars; at least Lara had started to take a likening to him. She had hoped to spend some more time with him after the trial, but now there was only some chance of meeting him on the high road.
Then came the question of what their most dangerous enemies had been up to. Had she missed out what the Lord Commander already said? Lara was confused, did the Lord Commander only tell a certain few from the group, or had she been talking with the Fenlyck spirit when the Lord Commander had made that particular announcement? Whether she had missed the previous announcement or not, the information the watcher besides Ursula told was still useful. Lara scoffed at the mention of Malik trying to scare of the Jai. From experiences of being around Rhuarc and Ayab, they were stubborn when it came to defending their values; attacking a whole nation like the Jai meant that resistance would be harder since the whole population would be defending their Jai ways of life from Malik.
Lara was completely stunned by what happened next. Saraya had walked up to Ursula, grabbed Ursula’s throat and lifted Ursula upwards, all the while in a rage. Lara didn’t breathe nor make any other movement, cautiously waiting for hopefully a peaceful resolution to this very tense situation. No retaliation from Ursula, who instead attempted to answer any of Saraya’s questions to the best of her ability. Despite Saraya yelling louder and louder, being more and more demanding, Ursula kept her cool.
After dealing with Saraya, Ursula jabbed at Adimar with the “prince” title. But Adimar parried the jab expertly, and with ease counterattacked. Ursula launched another attack of words, but Adimar parried and counterattacked as expertly as he had done the first time. The Watcher’s clarification was like a lazily swung sword, but Adimar still parried carefully and swung back. The three Watchers in the room in response, made a fist gesture over their heart before bowing first to Adimar and then to Aria.
Someone else entered, they were carrying a wrapped bundle in their arms. Ursula explained what it was. Balden had crafted something before leaving; after Ursula uncovered the first object, it was clear that Balden had crafted weapons for some of their party. The first object revealed was a sleek and slender bow staff, and as Ursula brought it closer, Lara could see the waves and fish designs etched into the metal. Lara gently took it from Ursula, it was really light. The metal flowed softly as she slowly rotated the bow staff around its axis. Lara then grabbed the bow staff in one hand, and twirled it. The whir coming from the air passing around the bow staff sounded as if the air itself was charged with electricity. But at the same time Lara felt happy, she felt as if the hole had widened. Balden, despite not being able to go further with them, had stayed and crafted masterworks of weapons for them. Lara stopped twirling the bow staff with a heavy sigh.
By that point, it was time to go to their rooms. But Lara wanted to ask Adimar two questions. Adimar had already left the room, Lara ran out the room attempting to catch up to Adimar.
She saw him, and as she started to catch up to him, “Adimar, please wait up.” Lara slowed down when she was close enough, taking a few deep breaths before continuing on. [+purple “I was wondering if you could help me. I need help in training to fight, as well as being one with my spirit. Could you please help me?”]
After Adimar answered that question, Lara asked a second question which had been slightly bugging her ever since Balden had mentioned something at the lake. [+purple “Out of curiosity, do you love me...??”]
Rhuarc was relieved to hear that Ursula and the other Watchers would answer his questions. To hear that all of the Provinces were raising arms against the False King was heartening, the Adbhu'Jai had been fighting alone for so long, occasionally the Caledon forces had fought against Malik but Fenlyk had submitted to his rule and the Volshi had hidden away in the mountains, none had stood up against Shade-stealer as fiercely as the Jai and if the other Provinces really were rising up then maybe the Jai would not have to bear the only ones to pay the blood that overthrowing Malik would cost. As useful as this information was it was not as interesting to him as the next question he asked for this was far more important to him. Ayab had been a friend and companion for as long as Rhuarc could remember, seeing what the Fade had done to him pained Rhuarc, it was an evil wound. At hearing that it was Ayab's strength of will and sheer perseverance that was helping him fight agains the Fade's evil. [b "Ayab always was a stubborn one, he wouldn't allow the Fade to kill him so easily. He shows great strength."] Pride radiated from Rhuarc's voice as he spoke about his friend. [b "Then we shall seek out this Medici and the Fenlyk hold as well. It seems the next stage of our journey shall take us into your homeland Lara."]
The news regarding Balden was far more concerning, the boy had simply left? It was unthinkable! The blacksmith's apprentice was a friend and a faithful companion...or so Rhuarc thought but what was more than that Balden was Rhuarc's pupil of the blade. The bit had shamed himself as much as it was possible, he had fled in the middle of his training and had dishonoured Rhuarc as well. While the Jai would take no blame for Balden's actions the laws of the Jai were clear...Balden had forfeited his life. Rhuarc let out a disappointed sigh at the path the young man had chosen for himself, forsaking Aria and the rest of the Guardians...Rhuarc would not have thought it possible. As Varyis spoke some of the happiness that he had felt earlier at hearing the other Provinces were beginning to stir, it made sense what the False King was doing in fact it was what Rhuarc himself would do if he was in Malik's position. Fortify your own position and push into the territories that are likely to give the most problems, obviously those were Caldedon and the Wastelands, Malik was proving himself a most capable general. [b "If Shade-stealer thinks that he can frighten the Jai then he has made a grave error, any one of our people will pick up a spear and fight even if they are not a warrior. Every baker, seamstress, herbalist and carpenter will take up arms against the False King, even the Boatmen may fight. They will find the Wastelands and inhospitable land and the sand will be stained red with their blood."] Let Malik try to instil fear into his homeland, it was a futile effort and let him send his abominations against them they would do no good.
[b "They know we need to move but do not know where we intend to go, that gives us the slightest of advantages, we must use it to our advantage."]
Rhuarc pointedly pretended not to notice how heavily Aria was leaning against him, she must have been exhausted but he was interested in hearing the questions that the other guardians had. It was Saraya that spoke her questions and showed her ferocity while doing it, Rhuarc nodded in agreement in her course of actions. These Watchers needed to realise that while the city of Kil'heed might be their domain the Guardians were unlike any other guests they had. They were due respect and they were a powerful group. Rhuarc didn't understand what she was asking about this cloaked horseman for, he did not recognise why such a figure would be important, was this some new abomination Malik was sending after them or was this some new entity that had revealed itself tot he Caledon Guardian during her trials and what had Saraya's father to do with all of this. Rhuarc's fists clenched briefly at Saraya's question about her father, the Jai had never had the best relationship with his own father and by the end things had gotten so bad that Rhuarc had actually been glad that Bain had died. Saraya received no adequate answers from the Shield Maiden and then the Watcher turned to Adimar, and whether his place was with his people of the Guardians themselves. Rhuarc approved of his answer, by serving the Guardians he would be helping his people whether they acknowledged him or not, it was a wise course of action that he was taking. Just as Rhuarc assumed that the Watchers had finished talking and the Guardians might actually have some time alone with Aria a new figure entered the room carrying an array of wrapped packages, even covered Rhuarc could tell that they were weapons and once the wrappings were removed he could tell that they were of decent skill. They were not to his style of course, far too thin and sleek for his taste...Rhuarc prefered a heavy blade with as much power behind it as he could get, after so many years using the blade of black steel the thought of another sword somehow felt...inappropriate. The steel was of great quality, not as good as thrice forged Jai steel of course, no steel was as good at that, but it was excellent by wetlander standards, and the etching was fine enough for the weapons to be considered excellent possibility for his Master's Pieces. If those blades and staff were used as Master's Pieces examinations then Balden may even be awarded the title of Blacksmith in the Wastelands. It was a testament to his skill.
Eventually the Watchers and the other Guardians left until it was just Aria and Rhuarc left alone in the room, she was gracious enough to grant him his time. This was embarrassing for Rhuarc and he was grateful that Aria was was allowing him to save some face even if she was unaware of what she was doing. [b "Priestess, I thank you for your time. In truth I have come to apologise. I have acted foolishly...No, I have acted shamefully since Tanaka. You owe me no [i Toh] Aria of House Tolshiv and even if you did I absolve you of such a debt. It is I who have great [i Toh] towards you."] Rhuarc dropped to his knees in front of Aria. [b "Priestess forgive my error in judgement and know that I accept any punishment you deem worthy in order to regain my honour. Please know that my actions were not intended to be cruel, they came from a desire to protect, to see you safe. I can not do that by keeping you at arms length and due to my lapse in judgement you were made vulnerable to the Fade. That abomination was able to strike out at you and I was not there for you."] Rhuarc paused and looked to choose his next words carefully. [b "I never wish to put you in that position again Priestess.']
A tense silence filled the air as Luther and Rhuarc stared one another down. It wasn’t just Rhuarc either, Adimar had come to stand at her side as well, allowing Aria an extra person to stand and lean against. It was clear that the animosity Aria held was not unwarranted. Clearly something had happened after they’d all been separated. She was fuming with anger at Ursula. The woman had been harsh beyond necessity, at least in Aria’s eyes. Despite Aria’s anger, Ursula only looked impressed and pleased. Maybe that was the fight Ursula was trying to pull out of her, because she would have to fight to win this war. As it was, she could feel Rhuarc’s tension peeling off of him in waves. She spared a single glance to see his set face, eyes on Luther and the other Watchers.
[b “There are more important matters than that to deal with Watcher.”]
“You’re right,” Ursula stated. “I’m sure you all have many questions. I will endeavor to answer them to the best of my ability.”
[b “Tell us about the outside world.”] Rhuarc demanded. Ursula sniffled, her nose already healed though still stained by blood.
“Malik’s forces have been pushed back for now, but he has fortified Central City. He knows he can not reach you here. He can not touch you as long as you stay inside a Guardian Temple. Word has begun to spread of your return. Borderland skirmishes are up all across the four provinces. People are beginning to organize and more people have come to Kil’heed in hopes of seeing you.” Rhuarc then asked about Ayab, and he wasn’t the only one curious about that. Aria, Adimar and Carrick also looked on curiously -having seen the wound and been there when it was inflicted. “Your friend Ayab is as well as we can get him. He is quite an impressive man, his sheer will power is sustaining him from succumbing to the darkness. He will need healing from a more divine power to fully heal him,” Ursula informed them. Aria frowned, a hand clutched at her heart.
“Where can we find this divine power?” Aria asked.
“Normally you would be able to heal him, but as you are not versed in Healing…” Ursula shrugged, and Aria felt lacking. What else had she not learned by being ejected from her home in her youth? “There is a healer in Fenlyk that might be able to help you. She keeps the healing pools of the Fenlyk Temple. It is not easy to get to, but if anyone can eradicate the Fade’s handiwork it will be The Medici,”
“The Medici…” Aria murmured and nodded her head. If only Fenlyk wasn’t on the other side of the continent. Ayab had lasted this long, perhaps he could make it to Fenlyk? If that was the case though, they could not stay in Kil’heed for another six months or risk losing him. Aria had grown close to Ayab over the course of their journey. He had been an upstanding protector and close companion, helping her and teaching her of more than just the Jai culture. She considered Ayab her friend just as much as she did the other Guardians.
[b “What has Balden been doing all this time?”]
“Who?” Ursula asked.
“The young man that was with us in the Sanctuary,” Carrick said from where he stood.
“The small whelp of a boy who was first with you?” Ursula asked and frowned. “He is no longer here.”
“WHAT?” Aria and a few others asked in shock.
“What do you mean he is not here? Are you saying he left Kil’Heed?” Adimar asked.
“What happened to Balden?” Lara chimed in next. Ursula looked as if she was regretting letting him leave the stronghold.
“He left three months after your trial began.” Aria blanched at that news. Balden had left them? For what reason?! “Do not be so upset, he was weak and there was a darkness in his heart.”
“Do not be upset?!” Aria nearly shrieked with rage. “Did he say if he was coming back?” Aria asked. Exhaustion was getting the better of her and her emotions.
“No,” Ursula stated indifferently and clearly not caring. “He was here one day using the Forge and gone the next.” Aria frowned. She hadn’t thought she’d hear that. Balden was gone? Where had he gone? Where would he go? Aria feared for him, and without answers she was left to mourn his loss, for who knew if he’d make it back to them?
[b What has become of Shade-stealer, the Fade, The Mage?”]
Varyis was the next to speak, standing tall and militant. “As our Lord Commander has told you, Malik’s forces have been pushed back from Kil’heed for now. Central City is fortified, and he has begun rooting out the resistance within the City’s walls. The death toll is climbing, and his spies have been busy trying to figure out what your next move will be. They’ve been focusing on the Boarder lands of Caledon and Abdhu’Jai. Last we saw they had begun a campaign south into the Wastelands. We believe they are trying to frighten locals from attempting to shelter or help you and establishing a strong hold in that region.”
“They know you’ll have to move to the next temple soon, and so they are preparing to block you,” Luther added. “Malik means to capture you,” He said staring right at Aria. “And he will do all he can to destroy the Guardians.”
“The Mage is now working with The Necromancer, Malik has lost faith in his abilities to capture you, but that only makes the Mage that much more dangerous. We haven’t been able to see the Fade since the night of your arrival. He is a dangerous creature you had best be mindful of. Currently we have no idea what that abomination is up to, only that it’s still hunting you. Again, you are safe behind Temple walls,” Varyis assured. Aria didn’t feel particularly safe.
It was Saraya to ask questions next. Aria watched on curiously, leaning against Rhuarc to remain upright, as her legs trembled under her own weight and sheer exhaustion. Ursula arched a brow out of mild curiosity as to what the Caledonia Guardian might want from her and was surprised by her words. She wanted answers, and was clearly desperate for them. Ursula smirked even as she was lifted into the air by her throat.
“Saraya!” Aria gasped nervously, but Ursula did not retaliate, instead allowing Saraya to pose her questions.
[i “Who is my father?! Who is the hooded figure?! Why will none of you answer me?!”] Saraya demanded.
“You ask questions I do not have answers to, at least none I am able to give,” Ursula stated simply, despite being choked. Neither Luther or Varyis bothered to step in to help her either.
“Saraya, don’t,” Adimar tried to warn, knowing well the tales of the Watchers and those of Shield Maidens. Saraya dropped Ursula, who landed in a crouch before standing back up.
"You've had us struggling for six months, and now you all stand against me?! " she growled at them. Beside them Aria looked on with mild fear and uncertainty. She’d never seen Saraya so upset or angry before -though she had been made aware that Saraya had a hell of temper if released. Caledon was known for his as well.
“Saraya,” Aria whispered softly. “You are allowing your temper to get the better of you, just as I allowed mine,” Aria said with a hint of guilt.
“You are pardoned, Priestess. I was out of line earlier,” Ursula confessed. Aria was undeterred from her statement, shaking her head lightly.
“No. WE must be better,” She said and turned to Saraya, pleading “tell us what haunts you.” Saraya told them the things she had seen involving Malik, what she’d been told. It all sounded very strange, but whatever it was had shaken Saraya to her core.
[i “Now, I ask you once more... My Truth... What is my Truth!?! “] Saraya demanded of Ursula. She stood firm, resolved in what she had said earlier, but there was sympathy in her crystalline eyes.
“In time you will learn these things. You all have things to learn about yourselves. What you ask of me, this Truth… it is something I can not answer for you. Though I do wish I could… it is not my place. We serve Volshi first, not Caledon. Your spirit withholds answers because you have either not earned the right to know, or it is not the right time for you to know. I am sorry Guardian of Caledon,” Ursula said, and she meant it too, she placed a hand over her heart and gave a curt bow of her head. “I can promise you, you will find your answers, but you will not find them here, for even I do not truly know the answer you seek. What I do know, is that you [i are] Prya and your unpredictable temper and strength matches that of your Ancestor,” Ursula said plainly.
She looked to Adimar then, her expression changing to one of genuine curiosity. “What of you [i Prince Adimar]… what did [i you] learn of yourself?” She asked. From where he stood with Rhuarc, helping Aria remain standing he frowned. The jab at his title enough to make his usual carefree expression turn cold.
“I may be a Prince, but I am the Guardian of Volshi first and foremost. I can not and will not be both. If I stay within the confines of my title… my people will die. I can not save and protect them sitting on a throne. I can only do it here, at her side,” Adimar said and motioned towards Aria. She was staring at him stunned, having no idea he was a Royal Prince of Volshi.
“You will be as good as dead to your family and your people,” Ursula warned.
“Then so be it. A Small sacrifice to protect my people.” Ursula grinned, fully approving his statement and glanced to Aria who looked like she had stars in her eyes.
“You fully commit yourself to the High Priestess then?” Luther asked for clarity.
“I Vow to serve the People of Volshi, to Guard The Priestess, and ensure she is able to protect the Provinces and the people. I made my choice in my trials. I know what and who I am.”
“Yes… Guardian of Volshi,” Ursula crossed a fist over her heart, as did Luther and Varyis who then bowed to him, and then again to Aria. She could feel the Volshi totem on her back tingling and knew its lines had solidified into the elegant wings that now marked her back.
The discussions still were not finished, and a new watcher entered the room, carrying wrapped bundles.
“Your friend, Balden, the boy who left Kil’heed made these in the forge,” Ursula said taking one of the wrapped objects and unraveled it to be seen. It was a sleek bow staff of fine make, the body of it cased in a lightweight but sturdy metal etched with waving lines like ocean waves, and fish. It had been made by the hands of someone who cared and Ursula brought it right before Lara. “He left this for you. I didn’t find him particularly bright, but he does have a talent,” Ursula said and handed the bow staff to her. The next thing she produced was two short swords, also designed carefully and crafted with the skill above what any believed Balden was possible. Ursula approached Saraya next and opened the covering to show the gleaming blades. The hilt was wrapped in treated leather for easier grip, and the edge of the blades were razor sharp. From the hilt halfway up the blade was the etchings of a massive stag the other bore a dove. “He crafted these for you. He had only mentioned that two of the Guardians were ill equipped. He marked them so I would know who they go to.” Aria looked to the weapons that were given to Saraya and Lara and frowned. It still hurt to know that Balden was gone now.
“Come, we’ll show you to your rooms so you might rest. You still have six more months to prepare for when you must move on from Kil’heed to the next.” Varyis offered and turned to lead the way out of the room. Aria moved to leave as well, but Ursula held up a hand.
“This room is yours Priestess. The bed is already prepared and beyond that door a bath is being made for you,” Aria glanced through the pillars of the platform to the room and eyed the bed.
“Will you be alright?” Aria turned to see Adimar who posed the question and nodded. In all honesty, she did not wish to be alone further, but she could see exhaustion and restlessness in the eyes of her Guardians and watched as they filed out of the room. All of them except Rhuarc. He wanted to speak with her, but offered the chance for rest first. Seeing as they were already the last two in the room Aria smiled gently at him and his thoughtfulness to allow her to rest first should she want to. Her trials had been difficult, and while she wondered what he wanted to talk to her about she had her own matters to speak on privately. At least now they were talking again, and it seemed she had her most trusted advisor back.
“Now is fine,” She said tiredly and managed to walk herself over to the ottoman before the bed and sat down on it, holding her shoulder. It was still sore, but not as bad as it was when it had first been jarred from its socket. “I’d like to speak with you as it were,” she added looking to him curiously. “What is on your mind?” She questioned.
Adimar had a grin on his face when looking at her, that could only be from the determination and resolve to finish this experimental trial business and finally be reunited with the person who had united all four of them in the first place.
One for all and all for one, as the saying goes.
The previously cold, stony, and immobile sentinels who had barred their path to what lay behind the unyielding doors became animated when Adimar, walking in front of them all, approached nearer. With tight precision they stepped aside to let the five of them pass.
For Lara, this whole process felt like an intense buildup to a resolution in Fenlyck folk songs. The slow and happy music would’ve been equivalent to all of them arriving at this temple, then the music switching to a dark and mysterious represented their trials, and finally the slow buildup while switching from a dark and mysterious to some exciting resolution was what was happening now. Even the doors threw in some sound and lighting effects as the doors began to crack, and through the fissures light streamed; the doors broke open and all of them were blinded by the intensity of the light.
As the light subsided, Lara noticed a bird, a hawk landing on Adimar’s shoulder; so that was what had made that peculiar screeching noise. From Adimar’s reaction, Lara hypothesized that this hawk was somehow different than the hawk’s Adimar usually encountered; this was only her hypothesis of what she could observe from the close distance, she could not pop into Adimar’s head and scry his thoughts.
The hawk didn’t sit there for long, it nibbles at Adimar’s cheek for lifting off and flew through the doors where the light was still subsiding. All five of them entered into the large open room.
But then the hawk screeched. To Lara, it sounded somewhat dramatic.
But looking where the hawk had screeched from, an extremely familiar body was lying on te cold stony ground, part of the body laying over the edge. She felt as if she had been dropped unexpectedly into a dark, deep pit that never ended. At first she couldn’t believe what she saw, Aria couldn’t be dead, that had to be wrong. But as she thought about it, Lara only wanted to run to Aria and see if she was truly dead.
She wasn’t the only one who ran to Aria, all five of them ran to Aria and helped to pull her away from the dangerous drop. Lara, along with Saraya, saw the exposed back of Aria. Lara had some feeling of deja vu. Looking at Aria’s back, she could see white lines spread around the back. Had that design always been there? Lara did not know how to answer that question, as this was the first time she was seeing Aria’s exposes back.
What was even more surprising, was that even in deep sleep, Aria wasn’t covered in dust and cobwebs as the five of them had been. The skin felt damp and as cold as ice. There were scars visible through the holes in Aria’s torn clothes, in general Aria looked as if she had been tortured and left to die in some place far away from anywhere.
But knowing that a heart still beat, that Aria’s blood still flowed through her veins reversed the infinite pitfall in Lara’s stomach. Instead of falling, it felt like flying. All of them had pulled through alive and as one group.
Adimar attempted to wake her, but then a familiar voice, one to whom it belonged Lara didn’t like, spoke. It was Ursula, and she was only debriefing them on what had happened. But the whole deal about being gone six months, that was so shocking to Lara that she nearly missed what was going on with the Priestess.
At one point in time, there had been their group of six and Ursula’s group. Then at a second point in time, one of Ursula’s men was reviving Aria.
When Aria woke up, she looked around in disbelief; was this merely a dream or reality? But as Adimar helped her sit up and shortly
explain that this was truly reality, Aria’s eyes filled with tears. In Lara’s mind, this was such a joyous occasion that she began spilling tears; these tears were not of sadness nor anger, they were tears of happiness. Lara had to wipe the tears from her eyes with her arm to join the group hug.
Aria then began apologizing to Rhuarc, and then appeared ready to just sleep.
But then Aria noticed the Watchers standing off to the side and watching their group of six. What happened next stunner Lara.
Despite the obvious difficulty Aria had standing up, and the protests from some of the others, she walked straight towards Ursula.
Lara could see the fist fly towards Ursula, like watching something happen on a slowed down time scale. Lara could see the hard knuckles connect with Ursula’s nose, causing fresh blood to be spilt. Aria fell down, and Ursula grabbed her noise in reaction to Aria’s pain. It produced quite an affect on everyone who had witnessed this, it did stun Lara.
Lara had never thought that Aria could be this angry enough to walk over to someone and give them a knuckle sandwich on the nose. Lara definitely knew she would’ve probably done it herself, but Aria.....
And now the question became, what had happened to everyone while they had been on their “vision quests”? Just by looking at herself, Lara knew she had changed somehow while battling the trials. Lara maybe didn’t know what exactly had changed, but changes had been made. It didn’t seem as if the old Aria would’ve punched someone at all, but the old Aria was gone into the void. Here was a new Aria, and Lara definitely did not want to anger Aria, lest she incur Aria’s wrath and be punched in the nose.
Lara lifted her hand up to her heart, she could feel it beating confidently and strongly. She could feel the blood pulsing through her own veins. This calm and strong pulse was good to feel, especially after all this ‘confuddlement’ that had happened.
The journey had truly begun now, exactly what Lara had said inside her head. [i [+blue And there’s a long ways till the end.]] Lara smiled at hearing this voice. [i [+blue Someone’s finally smiling at my voice.]] [i [+purple I can’t smile at how you look because I haven’t seen you.]] [i [+blue As to that, you’ll see me once you reach me where I am strongest.]]
Lara opened her eyes, looking around she couldn’t find Balden anywhere. [+purple “What happened to Balden”], completely oblivious to the fact that Rhuarc had already had asked that question and some other questions, and that Saraya had also asked her own questions.
[center [size20 (๑•́₋•̩̥̀๑)]]
Carrick had silently helped her to stand as the pillars stepped aside. Light! It blinds her as she walked through, but as her eyes adjusted, she noticed a familiar sight. It wasn't swamped with cobwebs or for that matter, it didn't look fake. She gasped when she realized who it was... There was no mistaking the aura. [I "... Aria? "]
She hurried to the woman, and after checking for a pulse and confirming that she was alive, she sprung awake. Saraya stood and with everything in her, it took that for her not to over excite herself. She saw the markings on her back, and she noticed a change, but summed it together for another time. She wanted badly to hug her, but... Aria had gotten to it first. She hugged Saraya... Carrick came in, then Lara and Adimar... Rhuarc was last, and had a hug of his own from her. Saraya smiled in relief. She was real...
But as the reunion reached its peak, Ursula had appeared with her Watchers. Just the woman she needed to see.... But as she tried to approach her, Aria had intention that felt a little harsh considering situation. She punched her, and Saraya had not flinched... But, her eyebrows went up in surprise to see her so upset to see her.
[b "Priestess… you’re stronger than you look,”] she squeaked through her bloodied hand. Apparently, Aria struck true to her nose, and blood seemed to stain the front of her armor.
[b [i “Oh Shove it,”]] Aria groaned, clenching her fist so to ignore the pain before sitting on the stone. Then Aria said something that even confused Saraya... And the way she said it puzzled her even more... [b [i “We don’t care for your praise, you put us through this,”]]
[b “I did not, Volshi did,”] Ursula groaned, pinching her nose.
[b [i “It was a necessary evil,”]] One of the guards explained. Saraya breathed in, wanting so bad to curse in her language, but calmed herself before anything else could be said.
[b “If you had visited any of the other holds instead of this one, you would have been put through similar trials by the other Guardians,”] another guard spoke, walking to Aria to kneel beside her again. He began to reach out, but Aria's face said it all.
[i “Do not touch me,”] She warned him through gritted teeth. The guard suddenly frowned, and stepped back, displaying a face only she could recognize. Just what was this man's desire? Perhaps there was a hidden want in him...
Rhuarc and Carrick took it as a cue, standing up and taking guard. Rhuarc voluntarily stood before the broad Watcher, and after a few moments, the Watcher bowed down to the Jai, and in that, Saraya was satisfied with the action.
Despite it, though, Rhuarc had asked a question to the Watchers: [b "There are more important matters than that to deal with Watcher. Tell us about the outside world. How is Ayab's wound? What has Balden been doing all this time? What has become of Shade-stealer, the Fade, The Mage?"]
The Watchers took their time answering him, and afterwards, a shifty, breezy silence, and as it did, Saraya's desire to get the truth out of them became a desire unable to hold back any longer... She had to know... And everyone knew but her
[I "This trial has lasted six months. After keeping this to myself for what seemed a few days... I feel like six months is time enough and I now want answers"] she looked up to Rhuarc, then looked to Carrick, knowing he would follow her forward. She looked to Ursula as she continued to pInch her nose. [I "You have told me something about my truth before i entered... And while I was here, I have seen a hooded figure on a massive stallion... My spirit will not go in detail, and now I want answers... "]
She approached Ursula and grabbed her by the neck, her face monotone as she lifted her off her feet. Carrick turned and kept the Watchers away. [I "Who is my father?! Who is the hooded figure?! Why will none of you answer me?! "]
Her sudden anger and determination to know shocked even Aria. She never saw Saraya so demanding, or even that strong to lift an fully armored female from the ground. Everyone was compelled to stop her, but Saraya turned to everyone before dropping the Watcher. [I "You have had us struggling for six months, and now you all stand against me?! "] she growled. This side was never seen before. The armed Watchers were surprised, if not afraid of the possible damage Saraya could bring. She stared at the Watchers, she looked to Carrick before Aria. [I "I have seen things... Things in these trials that even I cannot fathom. The apparition of Malik had spoke: 'How can you destroy someone that my father could not? ' I have heard again in the next trial from Carrick's lips: 'My father would be proud... That I stopped a beast even he could not stop'"] she turned to Ursula. [I "Now, I ask you once more... My Truth... What is my Truth!?! "]
Rhuarc stood facing the massive doors into where he knew Aria would be, he was certain that this was the end of their trials but there was nothing to be done until Lara and Saraya awoke from their Trial of Desire. Rhuarc tried to be patient, to remain calm but his emotions were all over the place and he was unable to quiet the storm running through his mind. He resorted to practising his sword forms, flowing from form to form in order to bring discipline and calm himself, the forms had always worked int he past, emptying his mind of distraction and allowing him to focus. Although he didn't actually carry the blade of heavy black steel with him, working through the sword forms as if he did and shifting his stances helped him to no end. Saraya awoke from her Trial as did Lara a short time after, Rhuarc noticed that her leg injury had healed during her rest. With all of them awake and passing the trial there was only one more thing to do. They must go through those doors and reunite with their Priestess.
As one the Guardians passed through the doors and an impossibly bright light obscured their vision as it blinded them. The flash of light only lasted for a heartbeat or two but it was enough to set the Jai on edge, a bird's call rang out but Rhuarc ignored it instead his eyes took in the large room in front of him when the light cleared, or more precisely the unmoving figure lying on the floor of it. Adimar barely had time to get his whisper out but Rhuarc was already moving towards the prone figure, he saw the markings on her back for the first time but he didn't care about that he was far more preoccupied with whether she lived or not, in his eyes everything rested on her, she was the High Priestess, she was the one to lead them to the Holy Sanctum. The world needed her alive. It was painful seeing her so still, the Jai cast an eye over her wounds, living in the Wastelands gave all Jai an understanding of what wounds were lethal and what ones were not, and thankfully none of the Priestess' injuries looked mortal. As Adimar gave the Priestess a small shake they were joined by a figure that Rhaurc wasn't particularly happy to see, Ursula the Shield Maiden sent the other Watcher Luther to wake Aria, Rhuarc watched him intently, one hand resting on his belt knife. [b "Six months?"] Could they really have been down in the labyrinth for such a long time? That would mean that half of their year of sanctuary was over already and then there were other questions. What had happened to their allies who had not come into the labyrinth? How was Ayab's wound? What had Balden been doing all this time? How was the war faring back home? There were so many questions and so few answers. He was determined that these Watchers would give them to him.
At Luther's actions Aria did indeed wake up and at her question Rhuarc knew that she too had faced her own trials. [b "Of course we are real, we are here aren't we?"] Rhuarc would be totally oblivious that his answer echoed the one that his reflection had given to Aria during her Trial of Desire, she embraced the guardians one by one until only the hulking Jai was left, her apology caught him off guard, clearly it was preying on her thoughts. Rhuarc hugged Aria backed and Jai'hash's warmth flooded from his body into hears, heating her cold skin back up to a normal temperature. [b "You have no apologies to make Priestess, you did not leave me, you were taken. There is no reason to be sorry. You have not acquired any [i Toh] to me."] Rhuarc released Aria from their embrace and although he yearned to keep holding her he did not, his face held the same expression as it had before their embrace but his eyes burned with a warmth previously absent. The High Priestess attempted to manoeuvre herself towards the Shield Maiden, obstructed by Adimar and Carrick but they submitted to her insistence and gave an almighty strike to Ursula, even drawing blood! In his homeland such a strike upon meeting someone would symbolise an enormous respect for their strength but Rhuarc suspected that this was not her intent in this regard. As Aria stumbled, her strength expended after her strike, Rhuarc repositioned himself so that she could lean against him and remain upright, the floor was no place for someone of her station, she was far too dignified for that. It was interesting to hear what the Watchers said, they would have been tested at any hold they had visited, if they were in his homeland would the trials have been the same? Would they still have passed? It gave him much to think about, the Watcher named Luther approached yet was halted by a harsh word and cold glare from Aria, he recoiled and ended up facing Rhuarc. [i “No hard feelings about leaving you on the field?”] Those words were met by silence, if Aria's glare was cold it was nothing compared to how cold Rhuarc's look was, his knuckles were white as they gripped the hilt of his belt knife as hard as physically possible. Rhuarc wanted to react but he knew anything he did would shame him, Luther was not worth the dishonour that reacting how he wished would bring.
[b "There are more important matters than that to deal with Watcher. Tell us about the outside world. How is Ayab's wound? What has Balden been doing all this time? What has become of Shade-stealer, the Fade, The Mage?"] These were more important than anything else, while they had been enduring their trials the enemy would be moving against them somehow, whether that be marshalling their forces or making plans to break them some other way. He turned to Aria, [b "Priestess, it is clear that your trials have been difficult but we need to talk, privately if possible. I understand that you need rest so I will leave the decision with you. Shall we talk now or in a few days when you are better rested. It is not so urgent that it can not wait."] Regardless of Aria's decision Rhuarc would need to check on Ayab, his friend had been badly wounded the last time they had seen each other and Rhuarc worried that Ayab would never truly recover from recieving a wound at the hands of such a dark weapon. The Jai stared at Luther, Ursula and Varyis...they did not impress him, perhaps it would be different if he were Volshi, growing up knowing about Kil'heed and hearing legends about the Watchers but as it was they had done nothing to earn his respect. The battle against the dead showed they could fight but there was so much more to being a warrior than simply being able to kill, it was about honour and Rhuarc was not convinced that they had showed any honourable behaviour either towards the Priestess of to any of the other Guardians.
The Pointe was quiet again, and it had remained quiet for many hours. The Hawk had returned, but it stayed to one corner of the platform preening its wings. What if the Guardian’s succeeded in their trials, but she failed in hers? Would they find an empty room? Would she rot to death up here after she died of starvation and dehydration? The only way she saw getting off this platform was just to fantastic to believe. She didn’t want to voice it either or be perceived as insane. Didn’t matter, she’d been going a little mad since Malik had found a way to whisper in her mind since Tanaka. She laid staring at the clouds that passed over head and by her, when she suddenly heard a voice. She sat up and frowned, only to feel someone tap her shoulder. She turned to find Saraya. Beautiful as ever and smiling kindly at her as always. With an elegant hand extended, Saraya helped Aria back to her feet.
“Come now Priestess, you know just what to do, in here,” Saraya said and put a finger to Aria’s chest where her heart beat nervously under her breast.
“You have to jump, whether you can transform or not,” She saw Lara next, who appeared out from the veil of clouds beside Saraya.
“We are counting on you…” Rhuarc appeared and spoke next. Aria nodded her head in understanding.
“I don’t want to let you all down,” Aria confessed, and though she was afraid, Saraya smiled kindly at her and cupped her cheek.
Around them a new cloud rolled in, this one dark, and heavy. Aria could feel her hair starting to stand on end from the electricity in the air. The cloud seemed to engulf everything. Including the guardians. The cloud rumbled around Aria, wind whipped past her, trapping her inside a storm cloud. She called out for Saraya, circling herself and shouting into the all encompassing storm.
“Saraya! No please! No… don't leave me alone. I’m so confused!” She shouted into the cloud kicking up a storm around her.
“Then quiet your mind,” Aria gasped at the stern voice of Adimar behind her, and this time the Hawk sat on his shoulder. She turned to look at him.
“You will jump, because that is the only way to test your faith.”
“My… faith? ”She was more confused than before she’d arrived here.
“You have powers not yet unlocked,” Adimar’s voice sounded different, and Aria realized it was because the hawk spoke through Adimar. [i Volshi] spoke through Adimar.
“Will I turn into a dragon?” She asked. Adimar smiled warmly at her, as if amused and shook his head.
“Perhaps…” He said. Aria watched him as he walked towards her with silent steps, and the storm quieted. “With time. That is up to you to discover.” Aria reached a hand up to touch the smooth flesh of her back shoulder. The totem of the guardians were impressed in her skin, and she felt the wings of Volshi’s totem vibrating under her skin. The knowing told her she had the map to that goal on her back. Aria met Adimar’s challenging gaze knowing what needed to be done. She looked out to the edge of the platform, and took a shaky breath, walking towards the edge.
Adimar and the hawk followed, coming to stand beside her. “You are full of fear,” Adimar noted. Aria couldn’t move, staring below where all she could see were the clouds underneath the platform. From up on the point the world seemed so small, and so very far away… but as she glanced up, she saw the stars dancing brightly above. Suddenly she felt vert small.
“Yes,” she admitted truthfully. “I’ve always been afraid.”
“That sounds tiring,” Adimar observed, but when Aria turned to look at him Adimar’s gaze was elsewhere. It was the hawk that was staring her down. [i “You do not strike me as someone who lives in fear,”] The hawk said plainly now speaking in her mind. [i “You waded through sewage and waste to reach the Guardians in a city where nearly every person was looking for you. A Place where you would surely have been caught and killed. You went anyway. You put your faith in strangers, helped a guardian in battle, and you’ve fought your own battles too.”]
“I had no choice,” Aria said. “It was my duty,”
[i “Is this not different?”] Volshi challenged. Aria’s brow furrowed and she looked back over the edge. He was right, and even if she couldn’t turn into a Dragon just yet, she would certainly aim for it. She still had to jump, no matter what. She still had to defeat Malik.
“No… I suppose not. If I can defeat my fear of Malik… I will defeat this too. Death is inevitable…” She whispered, quoting Malik from her trial. She took a calming breath, and closed her eyes. She heard the wind gently breeze by, felt her heart hammer in her chest, adrenaline pumped through her body, but her mind was finally quiet. Toes on the edge of the platform, she let herself fall forward and swan dived right off the Platform.
The wind rushed past her, and she broke past the clouds that shrouded The Pointe. Below her was all of Volshiv, and ahead of her were the floating cities hidden in the clouds. She stared in awe of them, but below was where she wanted to go. She could see the Mountain of Kil’heed and the great wall that protected it. She was surprisingly calm about her speed, and the height. The wind made it hard to see clearly, but she had faith she would go where she needed to go. Zipping past her went the hawk, and she followed him down. Like flipping a switch, the Volshi totem on her back came alive, and the wind came to rush at her back. She felt it carry her quicker towards the ever revealing platform. Was this what it felt like for Adimar? Was it always this satisfying? Aria spread her arms wide and let the wind carry her down to the platform.
She came up at the last minute to drop her feet down on the stone. As soon as her toe touched the platform, the weightless sensation died off and the wind carried itself away from her. She looked around breathless, her eyes filling with exhausted tears. She felt her wounds roar with pain, and of all things she began to laugh. She was broken, bruised and bloodied, but she was not defeated. She collapsed to her hands and knees on the platform where she began fade. She was too exhausted to go further, and felt she had been running a marathon that lasted months. She had no idea how true that was. Her eyes lazily looked to the door, it didn’t move, and remained as closed as ever. She winced in pain and wondered if the others were alright. She had confidence they would reach her, but at what cost? How much was Kil’heed willing to put them through? Unable to think much more, she let her eyes drift close as the wind rushed over her.
Rhuarc was the next to wake with as confused a face as Adimar’s and Carrick’s. He asked how long they’d been asleep and Carrick frowned.
“I do not know, in my dreams I felt months had passed…”
Their talks were silenced as the women came awake. When Saraya came awake in his arms, Carrick was there, holding her and brushing the hair back from her temple.
“Welcome back,” Carrick teased with a small grin, and helped her to sit up and regain her composure.
“You’re real…” She breathed trying to sort out the same confusion of truth vs illusion that Carrick and Adimar had been doing. Carrick smoothed a hand over her back in comfort as she muttered something else to herself. Once Lara finally woke up, they were pleased to find her leg wound had healed during the time they were asleep. Surprisingly they all felt amazingly well rested. They all looked to her and when she met Adimar’s gaze he grinned back at her to see the flint of determination and resolve in her eyes. Without words he knew she was ready to move froward, and if she was -they all were.
Adimar was the first to rise up to his feet, and start towards the steps. The stone sentinels stepped aside and allowed them to pass. The doors cracked, fissuring cold air from the seams and finally the doors gave way. The other Guardians came to his side as the doors finally opened. Blinding white light illuminated the space and made it hard to see, but from the light came a hawk’s screech. Adimar blinked as the Hawk circled above and came to land on his shoulder. Adimar dared not move and noticed that the eyes of this hawk were different than his own. They were far more intelligent, a milky blue, and brimming with magic. It nibbled at his cheek before flying back through the doorway. By then the light had faded and they saw a large open room. Adimar entered first looking around, but the Hawk’s screech caught his attention to see a large platform of stone jutting out over the city of Kil’heed. The Hawk was standing beside a fallen and twisted body. The white hair and slender limbs gave her away. For a moment Adimar was rooted to the ground in horror -she looked just as she had in his Trail against Fear. Dead.
“Aria…” Adimar breathed. She was precariously laying alongside the edge of the platform, able to tumble over at any moment. He hurried over with the others to pull her from the edge, and noticed her back was exposed. Only Saraya and Lara would be able to tell that the totem along her back had changed. The Wings of Volshi now spread across her back in white lines. She was not covered in cobwebs or dust the way they had been, and when they reached her; she was ice cold to the touch. Her skin damp as if she’d been wet. Adimar felt out her torso for the multiple stab wounds he could see that tore through her tattered dress, but found that all that remained were angry red scars. Her shoulder was still discolored and swollen, and her other arm was caked in blood, but poorly wrapped. Pale sickly skin with dark circles under her eyes like bruises, she looked as if she’d lost too much weight, and had been through hell.Whatever had happened to Aria, rocked her hard. Saraya was able to confirm that Aria was at least still alive by listening to her heartbeat. Just knowing she was alive allowed the entire group to let out a collective sigh.
“Aria?” Adimar asked giving her a gentle shake.
“Give her a moment,” A Voice suddenly said as footsteps entered the room. Coming to greet them was Ursula and her men. “You all passed. Congratulations, I know the past six months could not have been easy.” She came to stop at the edge of the room where it met the platform and gazed out at the Guardians with appreciation. “Luther, wake up the Priestess.” The first Watcher from the battle approached the group, stopping only when Adimar and Carrick both moved to stop him.
“I won’t hurt her,” He assured them. Carrick hesitated, but backed away, as did Adimar and allowed Luther to kneel beside Aria. He held out his hand over her forehead, and for a moment it glowed faintly. Once the light was absorbed into Aria, he removed his hand and stepped back.
Finally her eyes opened and looked around as if confused, and disbelieving that her Guardians were with her. She didn’t move from where she laid, and instead bore her gaze into each and every one of them.
“Are you… are you all real?” She asked. Adimar smirked, slowly helping her to sit up.
“As real as can be… we think… this place really messes with your head,” Aria actually gasped on a laugh. Her eyes filled with tears and she gave Adimar a great hug. She quickly turned to the others, grabbing Saraya and Carrick at once and hugging them, and turning to Lara to hold her too. She finally turned to see Rhuarc and was shocked to find he looked no different then when she’d left him behind on the battlefield. A small sob broke her control and she reached for him. She hugged him last. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t want to leave you there,” She whispered holding his gaze a moment longer before she looked back at the others. “I’m so glad you’re all alright,” she breathed looking at them all with supreme relief and exhaustion. Aria was ready to pass out again, and just sleep for months, but as she brushed the tears from her face and caught her breath; she saw that the Watchers had returned and were standing on the far end of the platform watching them. She glared and forced herself to her feet. Adimar and the others got up to stop Aria from moving too much, but she ignored their protests and walked right for Ursula. Ursula was caught off guard by Aria who had walked towards her and with the very last bit of strength and energy, decked the Shield Maiden square in the face.
Aria fell down at loosing her balance, and shook her hand that now throbbed in pain. Ursula stumbled back slightly in shock, and cradling her nose. Ruby red blood trickled from her nose and Ursula’s tongue darted out to taste it, causing her to grin. “Priestess… you’re stronger than you look,” she mused with a distorted voice.
“Oh Shove it,” Aria groaned and sat back down on the stone. “We don’t care for your praise, you put us through this,” Aria stated coldly.
“I did not, Volshi did,” Ursula groaned behind her pinched nose.
“It was a necessary evil,” Varyis intoned.
“If you had visited any of the other holds instead of this one, you would have been put through similar trials by the other Guardians,” Luther told her and came to kneel beside her again. He reached out to comfort and hold her, but Aria pushed him away, a cold glare on her face.
“Do not touch me,” She warned him through gritted teeth. Luther frowned, and stepped back to standup looking defeated and hurt. She felt two of her Guardians on either side of her, to help her stand up again as she glared at the three Watchers. Carrick and Rhuarc had her back, and Luther coming face to face with Rhuarc, took a small step back from him.
“No hard feelings about leaving you on the field?” Luther tried, but he even saw how Aria gave Rhuarc a side glance. Permission to attack him, if the Jai so wished it.
Rhuarc helped her stand back up, and it was he who helped her to walk. In a way it felt gratifying, as it meant that Rhuarc was not holding any grudges towards her. Or at least Lara thought that that was the case. She was no mind reader, able to pry into the privacy of people's minds, she could only feel around and guess the thoughts of others. Unless they decided to express themselves truly, who knew what thoughts a person had bouncing around in their heads.
The actual walking itself was not the most comfortable of walks. It was similar to a three-legged race that occurs at events, parties or other joyous event, except precisely one-half of the third leg wasn't pulling its effort. From Lara's point of view, it did not seem that Rhuarc was having any trouble. Her wounded leg could only drag uselessly across the ground, but Rhuarc's physical strength overcame her terrible balance.
If the passages had been as the passages had been previously, then this weird 'three-legged walk' would have been near impossible. The passages had been only wide enough for one big person, maybe two extremely small people to walk abreast. But this passage, it was as if someone had finally heard all their wishes for wider passages to be installed. This passage was wide, wide enough to where one could ride a troop of horses down the passage if it hadn't been for the pillars keeping the ceiling from crumbling on them.
Sine she was mostly focused on walking, she did not notice what everyone else had managed to see up ahead. Rhuarc's sudden acceleration, and then deceleration, it was all she could do to keep herself stable and upright. There was pain, but it felt awkward and she could only look around in painful confusion. She could see a mist start to fill the room, and it had a smell of a sea breeze and dinner. As she was slowly falling asleep while standing, Rhuarc fell down and brushed against her wounded leg. She let out a yell of pain as she fell down. The pain in the leg cleared her vision, allowing her to see some sort of gate with some suits of armor before the gates, before falling on the floor and falling unconscious.
Lara opened her eyes. There was a table in front of her. Looking around, there was a fire roaring and crackling in the fire pit. Above the fire, a small, thick and pitch black cauldron stood on a tri-leg. The smell, it was one of soup came from the cauldron. Occasionally one could hear a bubble pop lazily.
Turning her head around the other way, there was a space between the two walls which led to the kitchen area. The smell of roasted fish came from the kitchen, and it mixed with the smell of the spicy soup. It made her stomach rumble lushly. Looking down at the table, it was set for a total of three people; she was sitting down at one of the spots which had been set for: a ceramic plate, metal fork, metal spoon, metal knife, and a ceramic cup. Looking at the other two seats, they had also been set up in the same manner. One of the cups looked extremely familiar. Cocking her head and squinting at the cup, Lara noticed that it had a specific design on that cup; it was her dad's cup! She was going to have dinner, at her house, and with her parents. Lara couldn't believe this was happening.
As if that feeling of joy was a que, her mom and dad walked in from the kitchen. They were ecstatic, big smiles on their faces. Even though it couldn't have been possible, it looked as if te smiles on parent's faces turned up even more. She could only smile back, but it wasn't an artificial happiness that was filling her. It was a happiness which could only come from the heart and soul.
The dinner was cheery and loud, just as it always had been. It always started with das telling about how the fishing had gone, unless the weather had been too stormy that day, and on some days he would include something funny that had happened while out on the waters. This evening, her dad had nothing funny to relate, but that did not dampen the atmosphere. Not one tiny bit. Even when there was no talk at all, only the sound of utensils cutting food, food being eaten, drinks being drunk, and even the fire continuing to spark and crack occasionally, the atmosphere still felt intensely charged with just joyousness. Lara did not know the last time when she had felt this happy, but that was now completely inconsequential.
After all the eating and drinking, she went through the process of cleaning the dishes. For that, Lara walked down to the beach with the dirty plates and bowls to where the water quietly and consistently lapped against the sand. It was dark, but the moon was bright and illuminated the beachhead just enough to see clearly. The water was cold, but she wasn't planning to swim in it. Looking back away, away from the dishes, she could see a road made of light as the moon shined itself over the water; so beautiful, but it was not the only
beautiful object to fill the sky and water. In the night sky, stars filled the darkness with tiny pricks of light.
After putting away the dishes, Lara went to her own room. In her room, there was a bed, it was a simple one but it did its job well enough. There was a door which opened into a small closet, she didn't need much in the way of clothes either.
And she went to bed. She felt so good, it was just such a good feeling that she felt asleep with a big smile on her face.
Awakening the next day, she could already hear her parents up and about. Her dad would be leaving soon to the port city, where his fishing boat would be. She was about to swing her legs over the side to sit when her dad walked in. He was whistling a tune which he stopped once he was right beside her bed. Even though his smile was small, she could see the joy in his eyes at seeing her. He leaned down and kissed her forehead, Lara both smiled and blushed, which caused her dad to smile even more and lightly chuckle, before saying a final farewell. As she swung her legs over and stood up, she smiled once again. It just felt so good, so deep in the bones to be back home with her parents. A nice and safe place, with the occasional sea monster popping up at the nearby beach but not doing much.
The rest of the day, until her father returned from fishing the deep blue seas, she was up and about the house helping her mom. Whether it was cleaning the house, washing and drying the clothes, making clothes, it felt good to do them. Especially when her mom was around. With her mom, any task didn't seem as hard. Whenever her mom worked at a task, she would always sing a song; Lara would sing along and both of them would begin to smile. The day was filled with such small shores before her dad arrived back in the evening, hauling the day's catch to the market, occasionally bringing back a few fish that he had caught. Then preparations for dinner began.
And it was like this day after day, after day.
At some point, Lara began to notice some fish engraved on the doorway. She didn't pay any attention to it at first, but something curious happened. Each day, the engraved fish became more and more clearer, and began to have a more detailed design. It looked oddly familiar, but Lara couldn't recall where she had seen such a fish design. It was the next day. She was sitting alone in the small dining area, when her eyes fell again upon the fish. It seemed to beckon to her, it seemed to want to make her open the door and walk away. But why should she walk away from here? Here it was a fine life that she had with her parents. What was the point in ditching a comfortable life for one that was completely unknown.
A voice inside her answered, [i [+purple "This is not real, this is simply a dream."]] This was her own voice, and Lara was taken aback by it. If this wasn't real, and it had been all a dream, then why was everything portrayed so vividly and in great detail? Or had all this detail simply be an exaggeration?
It was as if a disillusionment came over her. She had been living a life which did not exist anywhere at all except in some minute part of her subconscious. Could one even call it living if all the events had happened inside one's head while dreaming? And as a matter of fact, she had never once left the house, yet something inside Lara's mind was telling her that she had been outside plenty of times before the house had burned down.
Instead of being a charming place, it turned into a haunting place. A place where one was haunted by their biggest desire. It was so sickening, the feeling was of one's life being wasted.
Lara stood up, looked around one last time before walking to the door. She closed her eyes, found the handle on the door, and pulled at it with all her might.
Her eyes opened with a jerk, and she coughed and then sneezed. [i [+blue You've woken up."]] It took Lara a few seconds to understand where that voice had come from. [i [+purple Looks like someone has come out of the blue all of a sudden."]] [i [+blue I hope you do realize that you've been sleeping, and dreaming for quite the while?"]] [i [+purple Seriously, this again? Stop pulling on my legs, one has already been pulled enough on.]] [i [+blue Why not look at yourself, and see for yourself.]]
With nothing else to do, Lara looked over herself. She was covered in dust and cobwebs, and that could only mean one thing and one thing only. [i [+purple If I'm covered in this much dust and cobwebs... then....]] [i [+blue You are finally realizing what had truly happened young one.]] It had been another test, another experiment of Ursula's. [i [+purple But, the fish I saw, was that..... was that your work then?]] [i [+blue Indeed that was my work, it was part of me that was engraved on that 'door' within your dream.]] [i [+purple But did you only come sometime after this dream began?]] [i [+blue No young one, I was there from the time you started to dream.]] This puzzled Lara. She would've have noticed anything odd, like a fish engraved on a door right away. The Fenlyck spirit could read her confusion, [i [+blue Why you couldn't see me right away? Your hopes and dreams were too strong, you could only start to see me as a part of you within you began to realize that it was merely a dream. You know that now, that you had to overcome your deepest desire.]] [i [+purple I know that now, but why have you stayed silent until now?]]
There was a pause, and then Lara heard a sigh inside her head, but not coming from her. [i [+blue I as a spirit, never above the surface. Do the animals living under the water seek to go above the surface? No. It is only by going below the surface if one is to have hope of seeing an animal. You, you at first ignorant at whom you carried with you. But as you learned, you blocked me out. If one closes the surface completely, how is an animal like a fish supposed to rise to the surface and listen? There is just no way. You, ever since this dream began, you have started opening up. Somewhere deep inside you, I know not from where t comes from, a realization has dawned on you. You have slowly begun to uncover the surface, and attempt to probe what is below the surface.]] There was a pause, and it was completely quiet inside Lara's head. She mulled over what she had just heard, but she had a question.
[i [+purple But if I "closed the surface" as you say, then how was I able to summon that sea serpent from the water?]] [i [+blue That happened in a moment of desperation, when you were attempting to do anything that would save your life. You opened the lid wide open, but then you shut it even tighter.]] [i [+purple So what you are saying, is that I should start delving deeper.]] [i [+blue Exactly. You have much to learn of what is below the surface. Now, you should go and join the rest. You'll find that the leg is alright to stand and walk on.]]
And the spirit was right, the leg was fine enough to stand on. She noticed everyone else was standing, she did not mind being the last one to awaken. She averted her gaze on Adimar, a gaze that was filled with determination to finish this puzzling business.
She did jump in fear when she felt a warm hand press against her back. It startled her, and she wasn’t expecting it. She turned around ready to throw fisticuffs and spotted Rhuarc. His expression always a glower, but at the moment he looked concerned. She didn’t think, having last seen him on the battlefield, and the horrors of her first trial still fresh on her mind; she simply turned and dove into his arms. Hiding her face in his chest, she could smell him, hear his heartbeat, and felt the warmth of Jaihash’s fire within him. She trembled, shaken to her core and wanting to cry. Rhuarc stood patiently as she gathered herself. It helped to calm her nerves, but not enough to calm her completely.
“Please tell me you're real!” She finally breathed, and looking up at him in her madness. Rhuarc cupped her cheek and smiled faintly.
“Why do you ask such questions? I’m here, aren’t I?” He asked. Aria sniffled and welcomed the gentle reprieve of being held. It was nice, it was comforting, and it felt safe. She didn’t bother to step away, and allowed herself to be held by him.
“You are! I was so afraid, and I’m so sorry! I never wanted to leave you behind. I don't know what’s going on, where are the others?” She asked looking around.
“I did not bring them with me. I came for another reason.”
“Run away with me,”
“What?” Aria blanched at that chuckling in disbelief, and watched in surprise as Rhuarc took her small hands in his much larger ones and held them tightly. He placed them over his heart and, again he felt so real. She gasped at the feeling. She must be going mad, the blush that burned her cheeks was evidence enough.
He should not have felt so real, so warm, or so safe. He should not be doing these things to her and making her heart hammer the way he was. There was no way the Watcher knew more about her own emotions, than she did… right?
“Rhuarc, what are you saying?” Aria asked. This couldn't be true…
“Let’s go as far away from here as possible.” She blinked in shock, and with a loss for words. “Come with me, the Farlan-Jai will welcome you, and we will be so far south Shade-stealer will never find us,” Aria’s heart was racing. His hand lifted her chin up to look at him. Her eyes nearly bugging out of her head with shock. He wasn’t about to do what she thought he was, was he? His eyes bore into hers with an intensity that rooted her to the floor. “I’ll never let him hurt you.” She believed him… for a moment. If her previous test had taught her anything it was that no matter what… Malik would find her and destroy all she loved if given the chance. This was surreal, from living an absolute nightmare, to being offered a chance to cast away her fate and live a life of her choosing. For a moment she considered it. Leaving with him, discovering what it was she was beginning to feel for this man, and desperate to know what it would be like to live as any other person. She could almost see a picturesque future playing out in his eyes. She saw a sea of sand cut with a brilliant emerald green river. It was The River Nine, and she could see the cities of terra-cotta gleaming under the warm sun. She could see them racing one another on horseback across the desert, cool nights tucked safely away in a hut under animal furs. She saw the freedom of roaming the world with him. She saw dances by large fires, learning to hunt, and to fight. She saw laughter, warmth and happiness in his eyes… but it was a future that would never be.
This was clearly not Rhuarc. Rhuarc would never suggest running away and hiding. It was not in Rhuarc’s nature to concede to the enemy. Rhuarc would never allow her to turn her back on her Arak’toh either. She had her own obligation and honor to uphold. He was right… she did have Toh, and she finally understood it now. A part of her had always wanted to run away, to kill off the name Aria and become someone new. Someone free… someone that didn’t have to save the four provinces and everyone in them. Someone who could be a normal woman. Who could grow old, enjoy her leisure, fall in love, and do all the things she’d only ever dreamed of doing. She realized this was her deepest desire, and it was toying with emotions that were just starting to grow inside her. Tempting her with things not meant for her -just like the old woman said. She could not turn her back on who and what she was, and it was high time she embraced it. She smiled at him, her eyes growing misty, and delighted how this vision of Rhuarc smiled at her with so much ardor. She didn’t think Rhuarc had it in him to smile like that, not a large smile like the one this vision gave her now, one with all of his teeth showing. It was almost amusing… and contagious. He cupped her cheek intending to draw her close, but Aria stilled him. “Let’s go away, together,” he tried. Aria continued to smile at him, and though this was not [i her] Rhuarc, she reached up to cup his face in her hands.
“You know we can not,” She told him gently, taking in the sight of him.
“Who says we can not have what other people have…” he whispered. “Come with me and you’ll never be lonely again.” Aria didn’t sniffle, even as her tears came fresh. Definitely not her Rhuarc… but it was a nice try on the Trial’s part.
“I’m not worried about being alone… I’m worried I will fail those oppressed under Malik. Liberating the people of Azeroth means more to me, than being alone.” She looked away from him and towards the clouds. “This is my burden to bear!” She finally shouted up to the sky around her slamming a fist to her chest. “I will not abandon this world!” She said stepping away from Rhuarc, and looking at him with longing. He represented all she wanted and couldn’t have. She had to let him go, and so she released her hand from his. “Not even for love,” She said her voice wavering. If she couldn’t have both, the High Septum and love -she’d take the High Septum and fulfill her life’s purpose. Rhuarc smiled at her, seemingly proud, and leaned in kissing her temple. Real or not, Aria took the moment to relish that one small moment of contact… when she opened her eyes again, he was gone. She was alone once more, and a quiet calmness settled over the platform. She had passed the second test.
Everything went black and still, just before Aria felt air filling her lungs once again. She came awake, startled and confused only to find herself in a dark cell. Fear settled over her as she realized what was about to happen… again. Over and over again she relived capture by Malik, torture, rape, and murder at his hands. She watched her Guardians go through violent ordeals that always ended in their deaths. she watched the four provinces burn to ash, and the Holy City become a haven for the dregs of the underworld. She was killed over and over again, just to wake back up in a veritable Hell. She felt she had spent a lifetime reliving Malik’s cruelty, but something in her was changing. She woke up for what seemed like hundredth time, but instead of experiencing shock at the sensation, she felt a weight of exhaustion. She woke up this time on the floor, a heavy collar around her neck, and naked. She was forced to sleep at the end of Malik’s bed, chained up like a dog. Instead of bothering to sit up she laid there and looked around, of all thing, bored. She heard his boots before she saw him, but by now she’d learned who it belonged to. She glanced over to see Malik grinning wickedly as always at her. Perhaps Aria had lost the will to fight, or maybe she was no longer frightened of him, but whatever it was Aria seemed not to care and looked away from him.
“Hello my pretty,” He said and she mocked. It earned her a kick in the stomach and she doubled over. More frustrated and angry about it than frightened. She curled over to her side and away from him, but she felt his hand reach in her hair and rip her head back, the metal collar digging into her skin. “You are either one stupid cunt, or very brave,” he hissed in her ear. Aria caught herself as he threw her into the floor. “I own you!” Malik snapped.
“You do not have to shout. I’m stupid not deaf, remember?” Malik sneered in frustration. This image of Malik clearly didn’t know how to respond to Aria talking back. It was the first time she’d seen him nearly speechless. She wasn’t surprised when he lashed out and slapped her across the cheek. She simply turned her head back to face him and frowned.
“I wish my horse had the speed of your tongue. Though I hate the sound of it, I’d rather put it to other uses,” He reached for her, ready to trust her face between his legs, but Aria had other plans. She realized then, that she wasn’t afraid of Malik…. not anymore. He carried a knife in his boot, which on multiple reenactments Malik had used to carve her flesh from her, or the other guardians. She let him man handle her, while her hand carefully removed the knife from his boot. When the moment was ready and she was faced with his exposed self, she placed the knife right under his balls.
“You’re going to think twice about this today…” she warned. Malik tensed and sneered at her.
“You’re the one still chained up, my pretty,” He growled at her.
“And yet I’m holding a knife at your cock,” She warned back with a look of her own. What was the worst that happened? He killed her again? She’d just wake up in the same Hell over and over again until she learned some sort of lesson. She’d been violated enough, and had seen enough carnage he really couldn’t do worse then he’d already done countless times now. It was strange to look upon his face and feel…. nothing. “Keys,” She demanded digging the knife just enough to make him flinch and growl at her. “Now.”
He growled and handed over the key to the lock and stepped away from her. He clearly coveted his balls more than whatever carnage he could bestow on her. Aria slowly stood up still holding the knife towards him and used the key to unlock her chains.
“You will rue this day,” He warned. Aria remained impassive, and unimpressed as the locked collar fell to the floor.
“We’ll see,” She stated.
“Are you not afraid?” He asked, almost hurtful in a sense. Aria frowned herself. Wasn't she? Was she really as afraid of him as she’d been before coming here? She’d been put through Horrors no person should go through, and yet here she stood. She did not tremble, she did not cry, she felt a resolve in her soul that was empowering.
“I am, but not for the reasons you might wish I was,” Aria stated and dropped the knife to the floor and at his feet.
“You [i should] fear me stupid girl.” He bent down, eyes rapt on her as he picked the knife up.
Aria’s expression was muted and unreadable. “I fear what you are capable of, and what you might do to the people I love. But I am not afraid of what you can do to me… not anymore.” He lunged for her, but Aria side stepped at the last moment and watched him stumble past her and to the floor. Her lack of fear seemed to weaken him. She turned to leave the room then, leaving Malik behind even as he raged and roared for her to stay.
She walked right through the door and into a bright light. It wrapped her in warmth right before she felt the chill of the quiet platform once more. She was laying down as if she’d simply fallen asleep. It was hard to tell how long she’d been contending against the illusion of Malik, but by her guess and the length of her hair, nails and how dirty she was she’d say it had been a long time. The ordeal had felt so real, it smelled real, it sounded real. She looked down at her chest, She was dressed again, but her clothes were beyond repair. Blood stained her clothes, but there were no wounds on her where Malik had murdered and tortured her. She certainly felt like she could still feel the throbbing pain of his attacks on her. Her entire body was sore all over. Aside from the fatal wounds, any injury Aria had incurred during that trial still remained. She scratched at her own skin to get the feeling of Malik’s hands off her. In a way she had just lived through her worst nightmare. She recognized the lesson in it. Though she could learn to fight and defend herself, the likelihood that she would die was high and she had to accept that. She could not fear him anymore. He was her enemy, not a monster under her bed. She would have to kill or be killed. She couldn’t stop the tears that began to trickle down her face. The dirty feeling that still clung to her skin even though Malik had not touched her or connected their bodies. It had still felt real, but she reminded herself she had fought him off and while she had still failed and died, she still fought. However, to have seen her fellow guardians in such situations, was going to be hard to shake from her mind. It showed Aria, Malik’s deadly reach, and after what he’d made her see and what he’d done to her… real or not… Aria was shaken to her core. It had been a tiring and long ordeal. She wanted more than anything to know that her friends were alright. The only good that came from this was she did not fear what Malik could do to her -not anymore. She was finally resolved to stop cowering in fear.
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Saraya was quiet along the trekking. She worried intimately for Aria. For that while, she could see that there was a reason for her testimony. It appeared to her that she would collide with the worst of the horde. The notion for sacrificing herself seemed stronger than ever thought possible. The reason why was still a mystery, but the only thing in her mind that could come close to explaining the feeling was that she had to do what was necessary to protect Aria.
As her mind ran faster than a carriage, Carrick had draped his arm around her in reassurance. She felt ease and that darkness seemed to calm from within her. But, the vision she had saw shook her core. She had to protect him. [I "I saw him... I saw Malik... "] she said simply... The doors had opened and it was quiet.. The air was stiff, so she felt weaker. The hallway was dark, and Volshi statues scaled the length of the hall. Every step forward through it, she began to smell the scent of lavender... She became disoriented, but she watched as Adimar tried to help Carrick from falling and failed, collapsing with him... Rhuarc went down next, Lara safely on the ground she followed suit. Saraya was the last to pass out, and as her head hit the carpetting, everything went black.
She dreamed soundly... And as she dreamed, she felt a soft pair of hands rub against her bare skin, from her thigh, to her hip, to her shoulder before she felt a delicate kiss on her neck. She stirred softly to it... There was none other than one who took his time caring about her... And as she opened her eyes, she saw Carrick and felt nothing but contentment as he planted one on her lips. There wasn't a thought to be had. His body covered hers and she could tell it was night, the full moon rested on his skin perfectly. She marveled at the sight before his face neared hers, and he whispered [I "I love you so much"] . She couldn't remember a thing before this... And as he cradled her body and made them one, she didn't want to. There was no memory of what was happening... And as he hyped up the rhythm, it wasn't a thing she would want to think about...
Her voice sang as loud as her heart could carry. His touch was hypnotic as he made love to his wife. He made sure she was satisfied, and it was more than enough for her. Fingers intertwined, sheets in disarray, the steamy uninterrupted intimacy between the two was paradise. He loved her voice as it sang out his name, and begged for more.
All night, they were too busy in each other's arms, and the scent of their love could be smelled by even them come dawn. She was safe... But as the sun rose into the window, she felt that there was something off about it. Yes, she was content, Carrick was her husband... But... This was too perfect.
[I Your Highness, The Priestess seeks audience with you and mi'Lady]
Highness? Saraya had sat up, then looked around the room. It was luxurious. There was the softest of sheets and most glamorous of robes sitting along her powder seat. She had not the words to say, but Carrick did. [I "Aye, We will come"] sounded. He was holding onto her hips tightly to prevent her from deserting him. His rhythm wouldn't stop... And she didn't want it to. At some point, however, that one word peaked into her mind. [I "highness? "] she asked as he smirked and kissed her soft skin [I "This surprises you? We have been married for more than five years, I have been called that since then"] he then got back on top, preventing her from asking any more questions... But, Saraya and he were interrupted when the door had opened and in ran a child...
Carrick laughed as Rhuarc ran after him. As he covered her up and slid behind her, her eyes were fixated on the child. He was no older than six... His hair was white and curly, bouncy. His eyes were sky blue and his cheeks were rosy as if no sad day had touched his fragile face. Saraya couldn't move. [I "Rhuarc, has Aramis been behaving himself? "] he asked. Aramis... The child's name is Aramis... [b "Aye, he takes after his mother, Carrick. He is quite an unpredictable child"] he admitted, the child then pretending to stab his leg with a wooden sword. [I [b "I got you, Uncle Rhuarc! "]] he yelled and ran away with a heartfelt giggle. Rhuarc chuckled. [b "Augh! The demon cannot be taken down with such feeble blows! "] he played along. He chuckled and looked to them two. [b "I'll let you guys be alone. I know my wife called for you... I'll let her know you two are just getting up"] he said before closing the door.
After the door closed, Carrick had forced himself to get out of the bed, the sanctum that was Saraya had to close for now. [I "Am I dreaming? "] she asked. Carrick looked to her in confusion. [I "What do you mean? "]
[I "Everything seems... Too perfect, my love. I wake up with you in my arms... But I cannot remember any other night before it"] she admitted
[I "As you shouldn't, Saraya. The battle with Malik was torment enough for you the past year... And after you found out your truth, it revealed that you were much more than a mere Guardian.. Or Prya for that matter"] he explained vaguely as he slid on a shirt. Saraya stared at him as the scars had disappeared behind fabric, then he turned to his bride. [I "You are Queen of the Holy Council, the guide to light for tortured souls, the very thing that a Priestess needs... As it is your place to be. "]
[I "My place? This does not make any sense to me, Carrick... What battle? And what Holy Council? "]
He smiled and kissed her. [I "Just relax, Saraya. You will understand when you ascend the throne. Tonight is a big feast to celebrate our son's birthday. You ought to be proud"]
Saraya looked to the door in disbelief. [I "Aramis is my son? "] she asked, shocked to even see another child that belonged to her. [I "I... I thought I could not... "] her breath was literally taken away. She couldn't fathom the joy in her heart knowing that she bore Carrick a son... It was too good to be true.
Saraya had walked into her throne room husband in hand. Aria, Lara, Adimar, and even Balden had stood and bowed to her grace, and for some reason she felt authority. The knights along the walls had done the same, and Carrick had smiled a gleaming smile that would brighten up the room. At last, she saw her throne ahead of her, dressed in the finest of fabrics and next to it, a seat befitting a king. With each step towards it, she felt all the more confused. Though she was wearing a gown that shimmered in the sunlight, and he, a robe that was a beast fur, she didn't feel like any queen at all. She felt that she didn't earn it just yet.
Suddenly, she heard [I Wake up, my love] in her ear... Why... That sounded like Carrick... But, Carrick was right next to her... Wasn't he?
The oddness of the situation didn't stop there. Aria was draped in goddess- like robes, but it never hid from the important asset she noticed... Aria was heavy with child, almost ready to give birth. Saraya kept her gasp inside, seeing Aria carrying. She was about to bow to Saraya, and she halted her before she could move. [I "Do not bow to me, Aria... You are the high priestess, not I"] she said. Aria expressed a face of confusion. [I [b "Why not? "]]
Saraya looked to Carrick before stepping down the throne to face Aria. [I "I do not consider you a subject, or a citizen... You are kin as are the other guardians"] she explained, before looking to her swollen belly. [I "You are... "] Aria blushed and rubbed her belly a moment before smiling. [I [b "Oh, Rhuarc would be shy of this... "]] Saraya smiled to her and put her forehead on hers. [I "I blessed this Aria ... I cannot wait to meet my next kin"] she said soundly. Afterwards, Rhuarc had walked into the room with Aramis on his shoulder. She looked up to him, joy in her eyes as he set her son down, and he threw his hands up. [I "Its my birthday, mommy! "] he yelled before running to him. She embraced her son before picking him up. She kissed his temple, then hugged him. [I "Of course it is, my son... And we are sure to celebrate it"] the guardians gathered as she looked to Carrick. [I "Let us prepare for the big night! "]
The night came slowly. Rhuarc and the group kept Aramis preoccupied as Saraya and Carrick tended to each other. They needed clothes, they needed to prepare for the night... But, throughout the day, Saraya felt all the more confused. What battle? Malik was already defeated? But, how could that be? She was sitting in a hot spring as her thoughts began to run about. There was only one thing making this too perfect... Carrick. And what about the... The Spirit!
As soon as she though of her spirit, a voice suddenly whispered into her ear
[I What you see is what will become... Not all is what it seems...]
She thought a moment... So, this wasn't real, but what was to come?
Every walk of life in her kingdom had came just hours before the sun had set. The throne room was filled with different walks of life. Ayab appeared, and he brought along his kin, who stayed within her kingdom walls as a new home. The people of Tanaka were there, Fenlyk people, at least those they could find, and Caledonians that had been wondering for a new home. Aramis was the center of the party. And Carrick and she sat upon the throne as everyone enjoyed the festivities. Throughout the time, she still felt that something was off... The words her spirit spoke rung in her ears... Carrick noticed that she wasn't enjoying the party. He set his hand on hers, and She slowly looked to him. [I "Are you alright? "] she sighed as she nodded in reassurance, but she still felt the same. Carrick nodded and smiled. [I "Ah, well, this is the reward for destroying someone your father couldn't... "] she felt something click when she heard it. [I "... I'm sure he would be proud... "]
She gasped when it started coming back to her. She wasn't where she needed to be... Not now. Saraya looked to her shoulder... She felt a warmness that felt oh, too real... She remembered now... She had to go back... [I "I have to go... "] she said. She stood. Carrick stood with her. [I "Go? "]
[I "This is not real, Carrick. I cannot be fair if I stay here..."] He looked confused. [I "You are waiting for me in my reality... If this is to happen... I must go back and make this happen... "] Carrick thought a moment, but he kissed her forehead, then her lips. [I "Then... I will see you when you wake "] he said. She took his hand and smiled before hurrying on. Before she could get to the gates, Aramis grabbed onto her dress. [I "mommy, where are you going? "] he asked, full of worry. She smiled and kissed her son.. [I "I will return for you, my son... I love you so much"] she hugged him before saying. [I " But, my world awaits... "] she sighed as she stood and opened the door, and walked into the light...
She slowly opened her eyes to the hallway. She looked around before seeing Carrick. With effort she lifted her hand to his cheek. She pulled him gently enough until she could kiss him. She sighed, but she felt relief that she was back. [i "Your real... "] She nodded and sighed in contentment. She felt well rested, and she wanted so bad to tell Carrick what she saw... But, there was something she had to solve... [I "Who is my father? "] she whispered to herself.
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