The people were starting to celebrate their survival, the vanquishment of true evil and the ascension of their own beloved Victoria and her beloved Nesh. Even now, despite her own ascension, Shanna did not feel drawn to it. She had things to do.
“I’m going to leave – this still isn’t really my scene,” she whispered to Dinnan. She scanned the room – no-one seemed to be noticing her anyway.
He looked up at her and grinned. Same old Shanna. “I know. I’ll stay for a bit though. Could be fun.”
“Meet me at…” she thought of the multiverse and the perfect place, then whispered its true name for Dinnan’s ears only. “It’s a nice and interesting little pub on the edge of Oblivion. You’ll like it. I think.”
“Until then,” said Dinnan winking and turning toward the party.
Shanna looked across the courtyard at Saran, who nodded farewell grimly, and stepped ‘between’.
Shanna sat unseen, watching Grik and Halva argue playfully in the courtyard about Grik’s snoring, then stepped out into the open. Grik cursed in surprise and was still reaching for his axe as Halva dropped into a combat stance, her dagger drawn. Then Halva grinned incredulously as Grik scowled.
“We won,” said Shanna quickly. “I’ve come for my things. I can’t stay long. Things to do.”
“They’re inside…” said Halva, glancing at Shanna’s eyes. “Your eyes are different.”
“Probably that damn elf wizard,” grumbled Grik, stomping inside then calling back over his shoulder. “How’s Nesh and Victoria?”
“They’re good. It’s more than the eyes… it’s all different. We’re all different,” said Shanna, waiting.
“Don’t mind him. He’s always grumpy when he loses an argument. Come in,” invited Halva as she followed Grik inside. “Do you want something to eat?”
“I don’t snore that badly,” muttered Grik.
“Yes you do!” exclaimed Halva and Shanna in unison, then grinned at each other.
“Are they married yet? They might want to reconsider,” grumped Grik.
“Yes, I think they are. They’re happy and together at least,” answered Shanna, still smiling.
“Bah. I’m going to check on the kid. It’s good to see you Shanna,” said Grik, his eyes twinkling despite his frown and went upstairs.
“He really is happy to see you, you know,” said Halva, searching through a cupboard. “He just needs to go out ranging for a bit. He doesn’t like being housebound too long. Gets itchy feet. And he misses his friends.”
“I know,” said Shanna wistfully. She’d loved him once, so long ago, she knew that now. “Try the cupboard to the left.”
Halva looked quizzically over her shoulder, opened the cupboard to the left, reached in and pulled out Shanna’s books and figurine.
“Don’t ask,” Shanna said in answer to the unasked question as she reached for and stowed her books. “It’s something I can do now.”
“Well then…” said Halva awkwardly.
Shanna interrupted her with a fierce hug. “Thank you for helping. Without you… If you or Grik ever need me, put the word out. I will come if I can. Eventually.”
Shanna let go and stepped backwards. “Bye Grik,” she yelled.
“Bye Shanna. Not staying for grub?” came the gruff reply.
Shanna glanced at Halva, who still looked a little stunned. She needed to remember to be careful now she was different. Power and mortals and stuff.
“I can’t stay…” she started
“…things to do,” finished Halva. “Go on then. Go out and do your ‘things’.”
Shanna nodded, and stepped ‘between’.
The figurine in her hand felt warm to the touch as she turned it over and over, waiting for the right moment. She closed her eyes: feeling the warmth of the sun and the cool salty water lapping around her feet; hearing the gentle rumble of the surf and the insistent cries of gulls overhead; smelling the slight tang of ocean air with an undercurrent of rotting vegetable matter. It was time.
She drew back her arm and threw as far as she could then loosed an arrow as she said the word of summoning. Glorious green and blue scales erupted from the small figure of jade, glinting in the sunlight, followed by a huge reptilian head and a fish-like tale. As the conjuring ended the arrow struck home and the figurine shattered.
“Free,” whispered Shanna as Silky dropped into the ocean with a perfectly executed spiralling dive. She frolicked happily in the surf, breaching the surface time and time again only to fall back with a tremendous splash. Shanna watched, smiling, then gasping as Silky landed nearby, drenching her.
After a time Silky swam up and nuzzled at Shanna’s hand. Shanna sighed sadly.
“I know, but it’s a different time now. And Flea would approve,” she said, stroking Silky’s eye ridge. “You are free now. This is a nice place – you could live here. There are friends nearby and you could give the children rides.”
She stood and looked at the mountain in the distance. “I have to go. Things to do.” She patted Silky once more and watched her slowly swim away. She was a good companion, Shanna thought with mixed emotions. A good friend.
She trudged slowly out of the surf towards the mountain. She could get there faster but she needed time to gather her thoughts. And dry off.
“I know you’re there,” Max rumbled in the darkness. “Are you going to come in?”
“Only because I want you to know,” muttered Shanna quietly. She’d arrived a short while ago but for some reason didn’t want to go in to the cave. Ever since the Communion and the Bonding she’d thought that she’d come back. But now she was here, she felt nervous. Almost giddy. She shook her head – no time for that – and stepped in.
The gold dragon filled half the chamber, the floor scattered with shiny objects and…
“Is this a toy cuddly dragon?” Shanna asked incredulous, holding up a soft children’s toy.
“The villagers bring me gifts. The children too. I like them,” Max purred.
Shanna looked around in more detail – there was nothing of any real monetary value in the chamber – and glanced up at Max quizzically.
Max shrugged as best a dragon can. “You changed me too. I don’t desire the normal ‘draconic’ things anymore and the villagers needed gold to rebuild. Plus my needs are few. It seemed like the right thing to do.”
Shanna smiled – the universe was full of surprises. Then stopped as she remembered why she was here.
“You are going to ask me to leave with you. To travel the multiverse and see wondrous sights. To be your companion until the end of days,” said Max glumly.
“And you’re going to say no,” said Shanna in a small voice.
“You are going to offer to elevate me to godhood, to give me some of your newfound divinity so that we could do this thing. And you know I cannot let you do that.”
“You know me and what I would be sacrificing. You’re going to tell me that I need it more, that I need all of it, that you wish you could but you won’t do that to me. You’re going to tell me that you would only slow me down and stop me doing the things I need to do.”
“And you know that is the truth of it and that is why you didn’t want to come in. Because you already knew the answer. And now we are crying.”
And Max held Shanna for a time as they both cried with joy for the glorious thing that had happened and in sadness for futures unrealised. Shanna broke the embrace first. She felt… peaceful.
“You have to go…” began Max.
“…Things to do,” ended Shanna, smiling. And stepped ‘between’.
Shanna stepped out of the ruins of the Gorgon King’s fortress and surveyed the land. She had scoured the continent, searching high and low for any sign of the death plague, undeath or followers of Modeus and Tiamat. The portal inside was destroyed and there were no lurking traps for the unwary. It was relatively clean and ready. She hoped they would do alright.
Saran stood before another assembled group of Shadar-Kai, terrible and glorious and beautiful. Shanna watched her sister work the crowd. It made things so much easier but it made her slightly uncomfortable. The portal she’d prepared glowed large and blue behind them with the now sunny lands of Karkoth beyond. It didn’t have to look so bright and cheery, but Shanna thought it best to go for complete contrast and culture shock. Let them know what they were getting themselves into.
Saran spoke in a low whisper, but it was the only sound that could be heard.
“Hear me. This place, the Shadowfell, is not a place for the living to live anymore. The portal beyond,” Saran pointed her shimmering blade toward it, “will only stay open for a short time. If you remain here you will not be permitted to live. I will see to that personally. Go."
There was a moment of stillness, and then the assembled Shadar-Kai moved en-masse towards the glowing planar portal in panic.
“Do you really need to frighten them?” Shanna asked.
Saran shrugged. “It works doesn’t it?”
Shanna mirrored the shrug. “I guess so. I just wish there was another way.”
“Sometimes there is only one way,” Saran said grimly, staring evilly at the Shadar-Kai if they dared look at her. “Besides, this way they live. Most of the time anyway.”
Shanna suddenly looked out across the Shadowfell. Something seemed… ‘off’ to her. It was like the edge of a flickering shadow of someone who had left a candlelit room. She couldn’t quite see it but if she could just…
“What is it?” asked Saran, trying to follow her gaze.
“Maybe nothing,” Shanna replied, frowning. She’d lost it and the feeling was gone. She shook her head. “Probably nothing… anyway sometime after we’re done here there’s something I’d like your help with.”
“Why not one of the others?” asked Saran, curious.
“Because sometimes there is only one way,” said Shanna. “And there are things to do.”
Shanna waited and surveyed the desolation the great Drow city, and sighed grimly. When the Abyss had imploded, Lolth and her Demonweb Pits had also imploded. And all of her matrons and temples and evil magics granted by her had exploded with spectacular and catastrophic consequences. The Drow as they used to be were no more. And there were many dead and soon the crawlers would come and feed.
She used to hate Drow, but now she saw that hatred should have been pity. They were no more free than the slaves they kept. Drow society had been enslaved by the sickness that was the madness of Lolth. They were a sick people, but the sick can heal and recover. There was movement to her left and an elderly Drow woman approached her carefully. She’d seen her hiding in the ruins but thought if she just stood and waited eventually the Drow would approach her. It was an old ranger trick for dealing with injured animals.
“Here to gloat elf?” she hissed bitterly. “To laugh at how the mighty have fallen?”
“No grandmother,” said Shanna calmly. “I’m here to help.”
“Help?” cackled the Drow. “What can you do to help?”
Shanna quickly moved closer toward the Drow, throwing back her hood to let her truly see her face. Her eyes. Her power. The Drow recoiled and began to make a sign of protection then slumped and prostrated herself.
“I am sorry m-my lady, I-I-I knew not what I was saying,” she babbled, frightened.
Shanna reached out gently and helped the old woman to her feet.
“Gather the people, those who will come. Those who were slaves too. I will lead them through the darkness to new lands and safety,” she said pausing slightly and smiling. “So that was what the prophecy was talking about…”
“My lady?” asked the Drow, confused.
“Just something I heard once… never mind,” replied Shanna. “Go on, get everyone you can. I’ll wait for you.”
And she sat. Watching, waiting and thinking of a scrawny and stubborn thirteen year old that really had no idea. And she smiled. She was taking her people home.
The Treespeaker stood watching the dark-skinned new arrivals step through the portal and look cautiously around at their surrounding brethren, the ancient trees and the starlit sky. He chuckled like the sound of rustling leaves.
“So I was right about that prophecy. I knew it in my roots.”
“Oh shut up,” said Shanna playfully. “You know as well as I do that I was no Chosen One when I was thirteen. Now… maybe.”
“Prophecy,” intoned the Treespeaker sonorously, and then lightened his tone. “They are never quite as accurate as you want them to be.”
“Or as clear,” countered Shanna. She watched the group carefully – she’d already had to stop a few fights between the children of darkness and the children of the trees. Started by both sides. Old habits die hard.
“Yes, it will be a painful transition. But all growth is,” agreed the Treespeaker. “This is a good thing you have done Shanna. A wonderful unbelievable thing. Our people can be whole again.”
“Thanks,” said Shanna awkwardly and they stood side by side for a while, simply watching and being.
After a while, Shanna turned to the Treespeaker. Something was troubling her.
“Treespeaker…” she began slowly. “I think I’m a god now. What if I don’t want to be one?”
The Treespeaker smiled. “Then do not be one. If you do not want to be a god, do not be one.”
Shanna tilted her head, puzzled, an waited for an inevitable obscure explanation.
“Gods are immortal beings of great power, that is true, but gods are also worshipped and seek out that worship. Just because you wield the power, you do not have to be one who is worshipped or seeks worship.” The Treespeaker explained. “I chose not to be a god. I chose to be something else. I am respected and revered by the People, but I am not worshipped.”
Shanna nodded. It made sense… sort of.
“But what if they worship anyway?” she asked.
“Then they worship and you get on with doing what you do,” smiled the Treespeaker.
“But what if they need me and I let them down?”
“Then do not let them down… meet their need,” chuckled the Treespeaker.
“But then… then I have a responsibility and duty for the people who worship me even if I don’t want it,” complained Shanna.
“And then, perhaps, you are a god,” laughed the Treespeaker wheezily.
“I’m confused… am I a god or not?” asked Shanna plaintively.
“That is for you and you alone to decide Shanna,” the Treespeaker said, putting his warm dry arm around her shoulders.
“Thank you for confusing me again,” Shanna said grumpily.
“You are always welcome,” replied the Treespeaker as Shanna shrugged gently out of his warm embrace and stepped back.
“Right then. Things to do,” said Shanna grinning and hoisting her pack.
“Travel safe,” he called as she stepped ‘between’ then turned back to the scene before him and murmured. “You are no longer Drow… perhaps Night Elves is a more suitable name for you, my long-lost brothers and sisters.”
Shanna stood back out of respect as the son and mother talked. She could hear everything anyway, but sometimes the illusion of privacy was all that was needed. She smiled wryly – she was getting better at this people stuff.
She remembered clearly the look on Jonas’ face when she’d stepped into his room in the inn, and the screams of the two beautiful girls he was with. How he’d dropped the devil-may-care attitude and dismissed those same two girls when she told him about the Eladrin and their departure. How quickly he’d dressed when she said she could take him to see his mother. They’d rushed downstairs to tell Mourn where they were going, then Shanna had summoned a portal and they’d gone to the Feywild.
Shanna was pleased to see it was intact, and that the Eladrin could no more remove the entire Feywild than they could grow three extra heads. Their city and finery was gone, of course, as were the echoes of their magic. She examined the planar membrane and found it strong and undamaged. The Eldest was skilled at his art and the weave showed evidence of his delicate touch. She also found the trail and they had left to find the Eladrin.
They weren’t where she had expected them to be. She had been pleasantly surprised. Instead of hiding away somewhere in the multiverse she found them sailing their cities and towers through the Sea of Wonder and setting course for the Womb of Transfigurement. Leaving and cutting their bonds to the Feywild had turned their eyes and minds outward, and they appeared determind to explore and map the multiverse.
She had, of course, met with the Eldest on arrival and there had been many questions answered by both parties. And then she had presented Jonas and made her request on his behalf – that he speak with his mother.
She brought herself back form contemplation as mother and son finished talking, embraced and Jonas approached. He’d been crying but didn’t look sad.
“Let’s go,” he sighed. Shanna could tell he didn’t want to talk about it but could see he was torn even though he had made up his mind. He wanted to stay but had decided to go. To go home.
“Ok,” she said taking his hand and summoning a portal. “You’re sure?”
And they left together.
They arrived together a mere moment after they left.
“Oh. You’re both not dead. That was quick,” intoned Mourn, polishing a glass. “That’s nice.”
“Yes I suppose it was and is,” grinned Shanna. She looked down and realised she was still holding Jonas’ hand. She let go and he snatched it back, shaking it. “Sorry.”
“Oww,” he said, blowing on it and eying her guardedly. “It’s ok – just a little singed. A tiny zap. Or something.”
“Oh well, got to go. Things to do,” she said hoisting her pack, then stopped. She put it down and began to pull out book after book after book. Each quite large and meticulously numbered and indexed. Jonas recognised them immediately.
“Your sketch books?” he blurted excitedly, reaching for one. “May I?”
Shanna stopped taking out the books for a moment and grinned. “Sure.”
Jonas took one at random and opened it. He gasped – the images jumped off the page and he hungrily turned to the next one. “There are brilliant.”
Shanna blushed. She didn’t think she could still do that. It made her happy. “Thanks. I was never good at words like you or Berradin, so I just drew what I saw. And I saw a lot.”
“I can tell… you’ve even labelled some of the pictures?” he said, stopping. There was almost too much here. “Not that you need to… the pictures… they say everything that needs to be said.”
Jonas then noticed the piles of books. It was all of them he figured. Every single sketchbook she had. He glanced at Shanna, slightly bewildered.
“Yours,” she said simply.
“I can’t…” he began.
“You can and will,” she interrupted firmly. “They tell the tale of an elf named Shanna who was born under important signs and destined for important things. She didn’t believe it at first and fought against it along the way, but it seemed to work out that way in the end. Her tale finishes when Tiamat fell. It’s a saga. It’s yours. You can add your own words to it or leave it as it is.”
Jonas looked at her, wide-eyed with wonder and disbelief. Shanna looked around the Red Carpet Tavern. It seemed so small for somewhere so important. Then she focused on Jonas again. She wanted someone from her old life to understand.
“I’m not really that elf anymore. I’m something… different,” she explained.
Jonas sweated nervously. “Are you… a god now?”
“No… at least, not like the ones just past. I just know that I’m not her anymore.”
“If you aren’t Shanna… what should I call you if I write about this?” he asked.
Shanna smiled. “I’m sure you’ll think of something. ‘Shields of the Vale’ grew on me in the end. You can still call me Shanna if you like.”
She picked up her pack, somehow lighter now. “Bye Jonas, til we meet again. “
“Bye… Shanna until I think of something better.”
She smiled, and stepped ‘between’.
She knew Berradin was in his newly-built Fortress of Freezing Fire in Arvandor, his late father’s realm. She supposed this realm was his to inherit but she had come here first anyway to take, hide or move certain artifacts, beings and concepts. There were some things even the gods should avoid.
She and Saran had already ensured that the fortresses and havens of the departed evil gods were cleansed. It had been a bloody business but it was done. She wouldn’t call them safe places by a long shot, but the major threats to the safety of everything had been disposed of or dispatched. She’d then wandered the other realms of the departed gods, ensuring that the greater magics and conjurings had either departed with their masters or were also no threat.
She’d also ranged further, through the Elemental Chaos, to the edge of the multiverse and back again. She’d even been secretly to Hell to witness the war for dominance. Throughout, she’d started to notice a pattern. The hint of an indistinct shadow of something. Something definitely magical. And it disturbed her. And so she sought Berradin.
She sat unseen on the fringes of between and watched him manipulate the raw essaence, weaving and bending and shaping it to create a thing of beauty. An astral diamond with a core of fire and ice floated in the air before him and he reached out and plucked it from where it floated in the air.
“Thank you for waiting Shanna but you can come out now. I don’t know where you are exactly but I know you are nearby. I can see you have learnt some manner since your ascension. You are welcome,” Berradin proclaimed.
She stepped out lightly and examined Berradin with a critical eye. Godhood agreed with him, she thought. He wore the divinity naturally and was finally as powerful as he had kept telling them throughout their adventures. His hair and face shone with inner power and he moved with more grace and confidence than he used to. Yet she could see he was still who he was meant to be and she relaxed.
“I like what you’ve done with the place,” she said looking around. “And you look good – godhood suits you.”
“Thank you. Of course it does,” he preened. “What brings you into my magnificence? I’ve been trying to keep tabs on you and everyone else but I’ve had so much magic stuff to deal with. You wouldn’t understand – that’s why I’m using the little words. And you are a very slippery fish to keep track of.”
Shanna grinned. Definitely still Berradin. “I move around a lot.”
“Well so do I and I find it slightly rude that you flit in and out but you always did lack my social graces. I am trained in diplomacy you know.”
“Yes, I know,” she said, smiling. She knew that Berradin was just wearing the blowhard mage veneer for fun and that he was more complex than that, but she appreciated the moment. She hadn’t been smiling as much lately.
“What’s wrong?” Berradin asked, frowning slightly and adopting a serious tone. He gestured and two Seats of Infinite Comfort appeared. Shanna gingerly lowered herself into one and sighed. She realised she hadn’t sat down in… a very long time. She cast her senses outwards – they were alone.
Shanna took a deep breath.
“I have been busy, as you know. So much to do, to protect and watch over. So I have seen a lot since… we all changed. And when you see so much you can start to see patterns and ripples in the fabric of everything,” she explained earnestly, her hands on her knees.
“Hmmm… go on,” Berradin encouraged, slowly clasping his hands in front of him.
“And there is something there Berradin. I can never quite sense it.”
Berradin raised an eyebrow.
Shanna nodded. “Yes, hidden even from me. It’s like the warmth of a rock long after the sun has set – you can’t see the sun but you know it was once there. All I see are the echoes and ripples in the fabric that are left. But something is making those ripples, something that is hidden behind a cunningly woven veil of magic. Magic that I can’t penetrate…”
“But that the new god of magic can,” finished Berradin. “Well you…”
“I’m not finished!” Shanna interrupted.
“How rude,” Berradin snorted but settled back, discontent.“What if these past events that led to our ascension were not simply chance, destiny or prophecy?” Shanna spoke quickly, her lips dry. “What if there was… a being who sits motionless like a spider in the centre of its web, but that web has thousands upon thousands radiations, and this being knows well every quiver of each of them? What if this being, with a nudge here, a whisper there and some forgotten knowledge passed on to the right people… was able to bring about the absence of the gods? ”
“Spiders? Are you referring to Lolth?” asked Berradin thoughtfully.
“No, she went the way of the Abyss,” answered Shanna with finality. “She is gone.”
“In recent times I have been conscious of a vile presence on the planes, leaving behind a subtle stench that cannot be hidden even if the source is,” Shanna blurted rapidly. “Again and again I have felt the presence or influence of this force, and have attempted to breach the veil of secrecy that covers it and track it to its source. I was finally able to seize the tiniest of trails and followed it, until it led me, after a thousand windings to the edge of Pandemonium and only one possible conclusion.”
Berradin sat still, processing the information. It wasn’t like Shanna to speak so poetically, but he was sure she had her reasons.
“Tell me Berradin, for while I am able to sense infinitely more than you, you have an infinitely better memory than me. When we were fighting Tharizdun and the gods assembled to help us…”
Shanna paused and lowered her voice. “Do you remember seeing Vecna? Because I don’t.”
Berradin was troubled. He looked at Shanna and realised she looked terrified. She didn’t like not being able to sense or find something – it was an unusual feeling for her he supposed. He cast his mind back – so much had been going on and there was lots of fire and ice and he was magnificent and there was the portal and the gods and he stepped through and Halva was there and all the gods were there…. except…
“No. I do not remember Vecna being there.”
Shanna sighed and stood up. Berradin followed, dismissing the chairs with a wave. “What are we going to do?” he asked.
“I can’t really do anything except what I have been doing. I can’t hunt it if I can’t find it,” Shanna sighed bitterly. “You, on the other hand are the keeper of magic. A god. Maybe you would have a better chance of penetrating the veil now you know that it is there. And of defeating what lies beyond it.”
“True, I would,” Berradin nodded. He thought it was a humble admission from Shanna and a wise decision to ask for his help. He grimaced slightly at a thought. “Why not Flea? He… might be… useful.”
“Flea has another calling and other things to do. I am sure he will know if Vecna decides to take a casual stroll on the Prime Material Plane. I’m more concerned with the rest of the multiverse. There is a power vacuum and a lack of balance… and a lot of dispossessed worshippers of absent gods,” Shanna explained, preparing herself for travel.
“You’re leaving,” Berradin observed dryly. “And when did you get so clever?”
“I’ve always been clever,” Shanna replied with a quick grin. “I just don’t talk about it.”
“Hmmm,” Berradin mused. “Travel safe friend.”
“Good hunting Berradin,” Shanna waved. “Got to go, things to do.”
And she stepped ‘between’.
Shanna stepped lightly over the drunken Slaad and ignored the Ochre Jellies copulating in a nearby doorway as she walked towards the pub. She saw Dinnan ahead, entertaining an ever increasing crowd of various races with his amazing acrobatics. He saw her and waved, and she smiled and waved back. As he bowed to the crowd her mind wandered to the myriad journeys still ahead of her.
So many things to do, she thought, and joined her friend for a drink.
The moon he waxed gibbous, hung as a great violet sphere and finally popped awaiting it’s rebirth. The 47th day had passed, as he would have known they would had he given it thought. He lay back on the sumptuous liquid metal pillows and allowed the images to fall into time with the Music. He lazily watched the procession of bedded lovelies, lavish feasts and deposed despots swirl and dance with each other in his mind’s eye. A corner of his mouth quirked upwards. Good times? Yes. Sweet: like an overripe peach just on the cusp of turning. His insouciance was perhaps marred by the faint buzzing discord that seemed to be corroding the Melody of late.
“Eat, drink and be merry,” thought Dinnan wryly. With an air of maudlin introspection, he realised that the “eating” and “drinking” were no longer necessary. Funny this immortality thing. Removing his need for sustenance had made satisfying his appetites a lot less…satisfying. What had they told him that he was the god of? Jests? Shadow puppetry? He probably should have been paying attention, the Music was so insistent and the talk of inconsequential things. He should check with Shanna; she of all people would remember!
He raised an eyebrow! Alas, there was a fortress he’d never breach. But she had a glide in her step. The kind of walk that passes through a dozen planes of existence. The Music sweetened and the buzzing stilled.
She’d said she knew a pub, a special place…one last drink for old times.
- * *
Dinnan and Shanna sat in a dark corner of the tavern. The dusky-skinned serving girl took their order and floated away on shoes with small wheels attached to the soles. A band of three, wreathed in smoke, blew into convoluted golden bugles.
“Gnomish?” Asked Dinnan.
Shanna shook her head, smiling slightly. “You should get out more.” She looked somehow older, odd for an immortal.
“You look as delightful as ever,” Dinnan ventured, inclining his head slightly.
“Mmmm,” murmured Shanna, sipping her drink. “Control your pupils and heart rate if you are going to flatter, Dinnan.”
“Actually, I was going to ask you something…the Music,” he gestured expansively, “is like good fruit on the verge of turning. Can’t you taste it?”
“Yes,” she said bluntly. “It’s hard to describe…. the best way is that it is the consolidation of power in the Far Realms. Boundaries between multiple planes are being eroded by an ancient and patient evil. What you can feel is a mere foreshadowing – the nausea of the multiverse if you will.” She paused. “But despite this, I have more immediate concerns to deal with.”
“I haven’t. Everything is slightly out of key and it feels as though it’s getting worse.”
“It is. There will not be any direct physical danger for a score of years. But there are other sorts of danger.”
“But surely people feel it!”
“Not as keenly as you but they would experience some… psychic… yuckness.”
“That’s it! I’m…I’m…I need you. I don’t know how to fight something like that.”
Shanna took a slow measured breath and extracted a large tome from her Handy Haversack. “For someone who hears as well as I see, you are still sometimes blind. The entities from the Far Realms are creatures of entropy. They seek to unmake and unbind. They don’t serve chaos, they are chaos. You, on the other hand, are a servitor of order.”
“Phnerghhh!” Dinnan was amused to see that, as a God, he was still able to shoot ale from both nostrils.
“Order at its most fundamental and profound.”
Shanna exhaled slowly. “Scale, rhythm, refrain… coda.”
“The same goes for dance.”
Dinnan arched an eyebrow. Around him people unconsciously began tapping their toes and nodding to the music coming from the three piece in the corner.
“Still…I don’t know what to do. I need your plane walking and a target at least. I don’t think-”
“Then don’t. That has always been your strength, Dinnan. Don’t think; do!”
- * *
And so it began as any other dance: with order, with rhythm. Dinnan sank into the Music, the pure core of the Music. He stepped within and without the Rhythm weaving a melody, a sweet lilting ditty that was maddeningly catchy, knitting it, knitting Himself, into the very fabric of the Music. He wasn’t…and yet was everywhere: in the rhythm of young lovers, the first steps of an infant, the wedding march of gods. As His music sustained them so theirs sustained Him.
- * *
An ancient evil probed forth with a tentative pseudopod: squamous and rugose. It burnt. For the denizens of the Far Realms, the wall of Joy, of incomprehensible…Music, was so incandescent that to venture too close with the senses was too risk ascent to sanity. Slowly, one-by-one, the monstrosities snorted panchromatic effulgences in vague defiance and returned to contemplation of the non-Euclidean geometry of their cyclopean bed chambers before drifting backing into their deathless slumber.
And the the Celestial dance continued instant and eternal.
Although Juran had often lusted after Leesa, the tavern wench, tonight he barely noticed her, even as she reached across him to wipe down the table. Tonight his attention lay elsewhere. Even as the commotion broke out and Leesa started screaming, he filed it all away as insignificant trivia. Tonight he was wrapped in the most urgent of stories, a story that would mean everything for Juran.
Juran had only met this storyteller for the first time tonight. He had sat at Juran’s table, and simply started the story; and from the moment he’d begun, Juran knew in his very being that this story was everything to him. The storyteller wove together this grand story of the great bear, the world tree, the fearless acrobat, the dragon lovers, and the wandering sentinel. Though the storyteller told his tale simply, and even awkwardly at times, the tale itself swept Juran up completely.
It was only when the little storyteller came to the part about the raven who killed him that Juran started to realise that the commotion in the tavern had something to do with him. There were vague memories of people leaving his table, of an elven woman more beautiful and terrifying than he could possibly imagine, of her words of condemnation, of a horrifying darkness …
… but that seemed so long ago. Juran settled back on the grass once more to hear the rest of the story. He was keen to hear how the story would end, knowing that he would somehow become part of it; and yet the shade of the great tree and the sounds of the birds and animals within it were lulling him to sleep, and Juran was exhausted, so exhausted that he decided to hear the rest of the story another time.
“Yes, close eyes now. Time to rest a little. Go to Tree and rest. Heal broken spirit. Come back when ready.”
As Juran’s spirit drifted away from them, Saran spoke from the darkness. “That’s better than he deserves.” Flea simply shrugged and got to his feet, as Saran continued, “He was a monster. The things he did to his wife and daughter …”
“Saran Raven stopped him, punished him. Next time, he be better.”
“You don’t know that. No, for what he did, I should have drawn it out, really made him suffer.”
“Saran Raven seen evil much worse than that. Can punish those ones better.”
Flea felt uncomfortable even as he said the words. After all their time together they were an uncomfortable pairing, the exquisite elf and the unassuming goblin, Saran dedicated to punishing the wicked, Flea dedicated to offering their spirits another chance. They were opposites in many ways, yet Flea knew that each was essential for the wheel of souls to turn its proper course. It did not make Flea enjoy what Saran did any more though.
They sat in silence in each other’s company for a moment, and Flea could see Saran’s mood begin to change. “I hear there’s a war starting up,” she said.
“Flea hears same thing. World not happy.”
“It’s down in Vailin. Their wars are often messy affairs.”
“We should go. Many spirits in need of healing.”
“Many souls in need of discipline.”
“Maybe. We see.”
“Yes we shall.”
With that, the two young gods stepped out of the tavern and across the continents.
As Nesh and Grik silently regarded their empty tankards, they mutually realised this evening had reached an end. The half-orc yawned as he leaned over and took the mug back from his guest.
“Right. It’s all bloody well for you god types to sit up all night, but some of us mortals need to get some sleep,” he growled.
“Of course, brother.” Nesh stood. “I’ll take my leave.”
“Right, then. Don’t get all full of yourself and forget to visit the little people.”
Nesh smiled. “I love you too.” Leaping from the parapet, he allowed himself to fall, twisting in the air, before spreading his wings and soaring away.
“Fuckin’ showboat!” called the voice behind him.
Back at the flying citadel, Nesh found his lady deep in thought. Victoria stared down at what was once her family estate below, now a sea of lights and industry, as more believers arrived and erected lodgings and shrines. The sound of heavy carpentry and masonry carried upwards. The huge central structure was beginning to take shape as a temple.
Nesh whistled softly. “Sweet Heaven, there’s thousands of them! And more coming. If your Father’s not careful, he’s going to find himself surrounded by a holy city.”
Victoria sighed. “He’s gone just as pious as the rest of them. Uggh, save me from all this adoration. How do I tell them to get off their knees and do some good in the world?”
Nesh laughed. “Knowing you, my love, you’ll tell them exactly that.” He kissed her. “Now, with your leave, I’ll be off to follow an inspiration.”
“To do what?”
“To start a family.”
The way Victoria crossed her arms and narrowed her eyes told Nesh he better start explaining…
The boy tested his handiwork, swinging the wooden sword back and forth. Finally, on his fourth attempt, he had crafted a true weapon; light, balanced and polished painstakingly polished with oil until strong and hard enough to rival a metal blade.
The boy showed to the girl who had helped mentor him in this latest sword’s making. Many of these children who had been here longer had assisted him and were mentoring other newer arrivals at work on their blades.
“Well made,” said the girl. “This is truly excellent. I believe this is a blade you can show the teacher, if you feel ready.”
The boy did feel ready. He waited at the great fire. Time passed. He ate, he slept, stretched and chatted with other children who stopped to compliment his wooden blade. The great fire burned all the while, patient and strong.
The teacher arrived, descending from the night sky, the tiny shape of an underfed and beaten girl cradled in his arms. In the girl, the boy saw himself some months ago, when the teacher had taken him from his life of cruelty and neglect and flown him to this place.
The teacher called, and older children came to take the girl gently from him.
“Plenty of good broth and plenty of rest,” he said gently. “This one will need much care to find her strength.” The teacher turned to the boy. “Hello, Alix. I see you’ve brought me a blade.”
Nesh took the wooden sword and turned it over in his hands, before handing it back to the boy.
“Well made, Alix. It’s practically perfect. A sword worthy of a champion.”
Nesh squatted down on his haunches and looked the boy in the eye.
“Now, will you take your champion’s blade and go from here? Remembering that patience, gentleness and humility will inspire the downtrodden as much as skill at arms can defend them? Or will you stay, hoping for a new way and a new world?”
The boy regarded the work of his hands.
“I will stay.”
“Are you persuaded by my mad ramblings?” smiled Nesh. “You have heard me say that the world is made young and innocent by the passing of greatest evil. You have heard me say that evil exists in this world now only in it’s infancy, and that we have a chance to embrace hatred and cruelty with love, rather than fan it’s fire by seeking to again stomp it out.”
Nesh gestured to the fire.
“Are you truly ready to give up the security of force at arms for the fire of hope and love in your heart? Dare you to believe in such folly?”
Alix stared into the great fire. The pyre was made of the godling hero Nesh’s weapons and armour, whose magical energies burned enduringly.
“I dare,” said the boy, and threw his sword into the flames.
Time passed for mortals, many years, and those that had known the Shields before they became gods started to pass with the seasons. One such old friend and his wife had passed on and all the Shields had come to show their respects to the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Grik and Halva. They missed their friend and wished to tell stories of their time together and all that had been.
Halva and Grik were laid in state on biers in the main hall of the Draconic Academy. Lord Commander Helena Palladine had arranged a full ceremonial funeral for Commander Grik and Lady Halva’s funeral.
The Shields so rarely saw each other, and usually only at the passing of their oldest friends, but they did their best to toast their friends to Flea’s promised next lives. Away from them Jonas was performing to the Academy students, they overheard “It was seven versus Tiamat that day and they were magnificent” before going back to their own conversations. Jonas’s wife Rhianna, once cursed into the body of a Hag, thought back to her failed attempts at pursuit of Berradin, "How can someone so intelligent have been so clueless”.
The mourners had finally all left and the chamber fell into silence. Halva leaned forward on her bier and swung her legs over the edge, slowly getting to her feet. The silver hair, WRINKLES, stooped posture and age fell away as she allowed her true form to return.
Shanna stepped out of the shadows and stood there appraisingly. “When did you figure it out”
“I have always suspected but it was your SECRET to share. It makes sense that the Gods’ essence has also infused you. So what now?”
“My children are grown and no longer need their mother, I think I shall take up exploring again. Care for some company?”
“Where I go often leads to GREAT trouble and even the risk of madness”
“Sounds wonderful.” Halva moved to Grik’s bier and gently patted his cheek, she then collected a pack from the mourners’ gifts and sheathed some daggers in her boots, “Well then, no time like the PRESENT”
Shanna OPENED a portal and the two of them stepped through.
Warlord Goridus Vahn surveyed his warband’s handiwork. The heads of their enemies were being spiked onto poles and planted along the road to his fortress. The bodies were unceremoniously dumped into a pit and covered in lye. His outriders were returning now with news of the evacuation of the next series of towns in their path.
Life was good. Running his enemies down and hearing the lamentations of their woman was such a sweet way to live.
His grin faltered as he noticed his warriors begin to drop to their knees and beg for mercy. Walking through his warband towards him was an exquisitely attractive elven woman, she radiated a calm confidence and every step towards him was timeless and measured. His men were frozen in fear as her implacable gaze fell upon them.
Saran stopped right before the warlord and time seemed to pause as she turned to survey his watching warriors. Cold daggers ripped through their souls as her unnaturally quiet, yet carrying, voice began to flow over them.
“I do not abide demagogues, those who prey on the weak for their amusement will always come to my attention. Know this, you will all be punished. Your leader will get to watch as I end the worst of you, those who gloried in what they did for this worm. The rest of you will get to watch me finish him and then you will walk from here, weaponless, and return to your families. You will tell all who will listen that this is the fate for all who hurt the defenceless, who live off the suffering of others. Now stand still and be quiet”
Saran moved through the terrified ranks of the warband. The warriors were frozen in place by the sheer terror in their hearts. Saran looked deep into the eyes of all she passed and judged them. Those she found wanting were put to death on her cold blade. Time stood still on this field as Saran went about her deadly business. Saran eventually returned to the warlord. She looked at the paltry remainder of his force and then smiled at Goridus Vahn.
Goridus could not move, his body had failed him, only his eyes could move and follow the trail of devastation laid out by the slender goddess. Saran stood before him and moved her weapon towards him. His limbs easily separated from his body and he fell to the floor. he could vaguely hear words leaving the Elven horror’s mouth but he could not focus through the incredible pain. He felt himself lifted and then could see the whole battlefield again as if he was standing on his now-severed legs. The pain washed over him and he could only scream.
Saran stared at Goridus Vahn strapped to the pole and felt satisfaction. He would live for several days, his cauterised wounds would allow that. He would be able to view the many fallen bodies of his most powerful army and weep at his failure.
She felt a small hand fill her own. “We go now. You happy?”, Saran looked at Flea.“I do not enjoy this but it sends a message”, Flea shrugged.“always be bad men, but spirits heal and return better” It was Saran’s turn to shrug. It was a conversation that they had had many times and probably would keep having.
The two companions stepped to their next destination.