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Sample Chapter from "From the Ashes" Book Three


Prologue

 

Stars lit the sky with a brilliance that seemed blinding after countless days in the Darklands. Jala paused on the cobbled street and stared up at the night sky as she tried to remember why she was no longer in the Darklands, or where Valor was, for that matter. Her mind was fogged and sluggish. The last she could remember was exhausted riding toward something they didn’t know how to reach. Her gaze moved from the stars to the red moon rising in the sky. Her father had called that a blood moon. By hearth tales, it meant someone would die.

“Will it be you or her?”

The sound of the man’s voice brought her attention swiftly from the heavens to the strange city around her. It had seemed deserted before. He stood leaning in the doorway of one of the buildings, his face mostly obscured by shadows. The armor he wore was mismatched - a chain shirt, plate mail pauldrons, leather gauntlets. It was as if he had scavenged a battlefield to dress. He stepped out into the street as she studied him, allowing the dim light to bathe him. Two swords hung crossed on his back and she felt a memory stir at the sight before the fog of her mind thickened. Confusion welled in her again and she tried to force her mind to work. Should she know him? He acted as though he knew her.

“It was called Shaedrin when it still stood. Nothing but rubble and ruin now,” he said as he turned, his gaze traveling over the shadowed city.

Jala frowned and looked at the buildings around her. They were hardly what she considered rubble.

“This is how it looked when it stood, Jala. This is a waking dream. I apologize for your confusion. I’m afraid that’s my doing. I can’t let your mind work too quickly, you see. If you grow alarmed, you wake up. I can’t reach you in the sunlit lands. The others guard you too closely and my power isn’t what it once was. There are things we must speak of though.” His voice held a note of sadness and he let out a long breath.

“They guard me?” Jala asked, wondering who exactly he was speaking of. Her friends?

He looked back at her and a smile warmed his youthful face. “Guard implies they protect you doesn’t it? I’ve chosen the wrong word. Let’s say they shelter you then. I didn’t even know a child of my blood had been born. It wasn’t until very recently that I realized you existed. They have hidden you from me since your first breath. Had I known…” His voice trailed off and he sighed wistfully. “Well, spilled milk now I suppose, and no use crying over it. Let us see what we can salvage from what they have done.”

“You are Merrodin?” Jala asked dumbly and started to step back.

He laughed and shook his head quickly. “No, no. I’m not Merrodin, Jala. I’m related from your mother’s side. Your Grandfather, I suppose the mortals would call it. To me it is simply a blood tie. You are my line.”

“I thought my family was all dead.” She spoke slowly, still watching him closely. “What is your name?” She wasn’t sure exactly why she asked. Her mother had never spoken of any of her family, so even if he was speaking the truth she wouldn’t recognize it.

“True name? Not even I can remember that far back. I’ve traveled by a variety of names through the years. It depends on what land I’m in for what name I call myself. When they speak of me, however, they all use the same name, War.” He grinned again and winked at her shocked expression. “You knew the gold blood came from your mother’s line. So why do you look so shocked.” He motioned ahead with one hand and raised an eyebrow at her. “Would you like to see one of the most beautiful cities ever built? The Veyetta spared no expense when they built Shaedrin. The murals and statues here are exceptional. I almost felt bad when it was destroyed. Almost.”

Jala nodded and fell into step beside him. Her eyes roamed over the architecture as they walked. Each building was carved from black or deep grey stone with beautiful scroll work lining the doors and windows. “What did you wish to speak with me about?” she asked when the silence stretched between them.

“Partly of your journey in the Darklands and what you hope to accomplish there, and partly of those you believe allies and how they have fucked you,” War replied, his voice calm.

“I’m in the Darklands to retrieve Finn’s spirit. That is all I wish to accomplish. As to the other, I’m not sure which allies you are speaking of.” Her mind had cleared a bit. Despite that, however, his words were still confusing.

“Let’s discuss the first and then move on to the second,” War suggested, and motioned to the side toward a statue. “High Lady Veyetta. She was a remarkable woman. Beautiful, graceful, deadly, and completely and utterly insane.”

Jala gazed at the statue. Whoever had crafted the piece had been a true master. Lady Veyetta stood poised on a pillar overlooking her city, her posture looking both regal and elegant. The stone had been cut so cunningly that it seemed a strong wind would stir her long hair. “It’s beautiful,” she agreed, glancing back at him. He was watching her closely and the light shining off his dark eyes revealed their true color of deep purple.

“She is a lesson for you. That’s the reason I chose this place for our meeting. She wasn’t born mad. It wasn’t a genetic fault in her line, Jala. Lady Veyetta’s madness came from too much pain and too much power. She held every loss and every grievance close to her heart and over the years they took their toll. At the end, she was seeing enemies everywhere and punishing before crimes were committed. It was one of her own line that finished her finally. Ironically, I believe you travel with his son now.”

“What was it that broke her finally?” Jala asked, her gaze locked on the statue. Jala could understand the woman’s pain all too well. The night in Sanctuary after Finn’s death had been her own brush with madness. She couldn’t even guess how many Justicars she had killed as she vented her rage.

“I’m not sure if it was the strikes against her, or her own failures to stop them. The Veyetta were lords of darkness you see. They had a saying ‘The Shadows know all.’ That was actually House Veyetta’s motto. The shadows whispered to them and brought them news of their enemies. Despite that, Veyetta still suffered loss. Her son first, then later her husband. Despite her attempts, Death would not release their souls back to her, and unlike you, she was forced to accept their loss and her own failure. She never thought to challenge a Divine. She was arrogant, but not quite as arrogant as you.” He seemed amused as he spoke, despite the harshness of his words.

“You think I’m arrogant?” Jala asked, turning from the statue to meet his gaze.

“Undoubtedly, and more so than I’ve seen in anyone else in a very long time. You are truly a child of my line,” he replied with a grin.

“I call it determined,” Jala countered.

“Call it what you will. My question is a simple one. Can you win against Death? You’ve barely had time to train in your magics and while your skill is impressive, it is rough. She will not release his soul without a fight, Jala. You had guessed that, though, I’m sure.” There was no trace of scolding in his voice, simply a question.

“If I want Finn back, I suppose I had better win,” Jala replied softly.

“Not good enough. You risk three lives in this endeavor as well as an Arovanni, and while I’m not opposed to risks I am opposed to throwing lives away needlessly. Death is corrupt. You saw how the Rivasan boy returned, but others don’t. Death has either gone mad or has been seduced by your enemies. If you die, or Valor, or your unborn child, there is no retrieving the soul. You will be trapped here in the Darklands as countless other souls are. Death is not sending them back to the life stream or to their gods, as she should. There is no rebirth in death, only eternal darkness. Now I ask again, can you win?” He raised an eyebrow and waited for her answer.

“No, not alone, but with Valor I can,” Jala replied after a long moment’s consideration. The thought of being forever trapped in the Darklands was terrifying to her. She had, of course, known it would be dangerous to come after Finn, but the thought of actually failing hadn’t yet crossed her mind.

War nodded slowly and began to walk once more. “I suppose that will have to do. At least you have enough wisdom to know you shouldn’t attack a Divine in a fortified city alone.”

“Actually it was Valor that insisted on coming. Credit him with the wisdom. I was going to come alone,” Jala admitted.

“Jala, there are few enough people in this world that will give you a compliment. Accept them when you receive them, even if you don’t truly deserve them.” War chuckled at her with a faint smile. “Now, as to the second matter. Do you have any idea how much they have manipulated you, or are you only seeing the fringe of it all?”

“I’m not even entirely sure who you mean by ‘they.’ Are you speaking of the Fionaveir or the Aspects?” Jala asked. “If it’s the Aspects, I know they used magic on Finn,” she added with a bit of disgust.

“Let me paint a broader picture for you as to the current events and we will see if you can answer that yourself. I’ll lessen the fog on your mind for this, but do not over react. Serenity in the face of complications will get you farther than anger.” He paused and winked at her.

“That doesn’t seem like a very war-like attitude,” Jala pointed out mildly.

“On the contrary. The best commanders have the coolest heads. It’s those that lose their temper that generally lose the fight. What did you expect from the Divine of war, a bloodthirsty testosterone filled ape?”

“Well yes, actually,” Jala admitted bluntly.

War snorted in amusement and shook his head. “Not from me. It’s nearly impossible to force me to lose my temper anymore, but Lutheron has come close this time.”

“Lutheron? The Fionaveir?” Jala cut in. She had her own grievances with Lutheron for the mind block he had saddled her with as a child.

War snorted again louder and shook his head. “He is so much more than that, but I will explain it later. For now, let’s look at what they have done so far. The patronage of Fortune as your guardian was a hoax. While Fortune may have actually guarded you as he could, it was arranged to mask your own natural abilities. Merrodin is a Bloodline that thrives on luck. The wish magic they held was the most powerful of their gifts, but not the only gift. You have the ability to manipulate the odds as much as Fortune himself does. If you can learn to use the gift, that is.”

“Why would they not want me to know that? If I’m truly their ally, surely that would help both of us?” Jala asked quickly before he could continue. They were walking by gardens now and the scent of the night blooming flowers reminded her of Firym. She closed her eyes a moment and inhaled while silently wishing she was back at that point of her life.

“They don’t want you to become too powerful to control. They have a healthy respect for my line, and you are not quite as far under their thumb as they would like. As to why they didn’t keep you closer to them, the only reason I can determine is that you couldn’t have close connections with the Fionaveir when you took over the Merrodin lands,” War explained with a shrug. “Now past Fortune masking your innate skills, we have other manipulations. Shade, for example. Did you notice how quickly they replaced him when it appeared there was mutual interest there? Do you have any idea why?”

“Shade? He is my friend, or was, anyway. I will admit, when I first arrived in Sanctuary I was attracted to him. He lost my interest when he left us to rot in Rivana. I understand why he did it, but it didn’t earn him any of my respect,” Jala explained.

“Imagine your drive to fix the world combined with Shade’s desire to change things. He never could while under Myth’s thumb, but married to you as High Lord Merrodin he would have answered to no one but you. Combine that with the fact that he is a very powerful Changeling and the two of you become a force that no one wants to deal with. So they formed a soul bond with a dashing young man that had a very short life expectancy. Even before meeting you, Finn Sovaesh was courting Death daily. Understand better now?” He looked over at her with a raised eyebrow and motioned to a bench near the gardens.

Jala nodded and took a seat. “You are saying they sacrificed Finn to me to occupy my heart long enough for them to get Shade out of the picture.” She spoke hesitantly, not wanting to accept that Finn had died for something so petty.

“Essentially. Notice Shade joined the Fionaveir? So ironic eh? I promise, Lutheron didn’t factor in your trip to the Darklands, though. You are supposed to be mourning right now.” He clicked his tongue against his teeth and shook his head at her in a mock scolding. “Arrogant child, don’t you know how to properly follow plans?” he asked with a chuckle.

“I won’t be their puppet any longer,” Jala declared firmly.

“Good to hear. Now all we have to do is teach you to recognize intrigue. I am going to ask you a delicate question now. Please try not to get too upset. If your emotions rise, you will wake. How well do you trust your companions? They swore fealty so quickly to you. Did they mean their vows or are they part of the puppet show?”

“I don’t want to doubt any of them, but you are right. They did swear fealty quickly and before they truly had a chance to know me. I had wondered at that, but I thought it was for Finn. But now Finn is dead and they still stand by me. Are you saying that my friends are not truly friends?” Jala asked, her stomach clenching at the thought. She forced her emotions back to calm and let out a slow breath.

War worked his jaw from left to right as he pondered the matter. “Sovann, I believe, is genuine. He has no ties elsewhere that I’ve seen. Valor is disgraced in Arovan and because of that has no ties elsewhere. Jail… Well now, he is a tricky one. Watch him and decide for yourself. Neph, he is Delvay. I can’t believe that he is following you honestly and I highly doubt he is anyone else’s lackey. Wisp, as with Jail, I have suspicions on. Her brother is Fionaveir and her House works with them very closely. Watch her. I don’t like your new addition of Joseph Walker, either. It was rather convenient that he showed up in Sanctuary wasn’t it?”

“Valor is disgraced? Why?” Jala asked, dumbfounded by the thought.

“By his knightly order, not by his family. Suffice it to say that in recent years he has broken more than one of his knightly vows. Drunken debauchery being his most frequent sin. You latched onto that quickly enough. Care to explain why?” War asked as he plucked a flower from behind them and shifted to sit cross-legged on the bench.

“If not for his help in the Darklands, I think I would already be dead. It just doesn’t seem possible that he is disgraced, but I suppose if it is from debauchery, then I understand it. I’ve certainly witnessed enough of that in Sanctuary. I just need someone to trust right now, and Valor is all I have. Without Finn and Marrow I feel lost,” Jala explained, trying to ignore the irony of her words. Even with Valor she was lost, literally. They had been in the Darklands for close to two weeks now and still had no idea of where they needed to go.

“Don’t let it trouble you. It’s Arovan and they have changed quite a bit in their captivity. Beyond the barrier they were Warlords. Here they have become Nobles. You can get disgraced in Arovan by passing wind in the wrong room. Very prickly these days. I think it all started getting worse with the fall of Veir. Arovan apparently decided that someone needed to fill the void of the Holier-than-Thou pricks in plate mail.”

“I have a question for you,” Jala began and watched him until he met her eyes. “What do you want from me? Why are you helping me? I have a hard time believing it’s simply our Blood tie.”

His smile broadened and he nodded to her. “Well, of course I want something. Everyone does. I’ll let you in on a secret, Jala. Life is one big manipulation. From your mother telling you scary stories to get you to behave, to your husband buying flowers to sweeten your mood. It is all individuals out to get what they want from you. However, what I want from you is exactly what you want, so my advice is the only bribe I need offer. I want my namesake, Jala, I want war.”

“You are going to get that regardless. Delvay is already fighting against Rivana. Even if they weren’t, though, how could I possibly provide that for you? I have no armies,” Jala replied in a disgusted voice.

“I didn’t ask for one tomorrow, Jala. Let me tell you how it will happen if you don’t prepare soon. You can trust me on this as well. I know the forces fighting and I can see the broader picture. The Blights are going to pick off Arovan and Glis like Assassins. Nerathane and Rivana will destroy Delvay. The Blights will weaken the Firym and Faydwer enough that Morcaillo and Avanti will crush them. Then Han’shy will surrender and house Morcaillo will step forward as King or Emperor, whichever title he decides he prefers.” He plucked petals from the flower as he spoke casting each down as he listed the falling houses.

“What about Oblivion?” Jala asked.

“They might stir, but let’s look at the full picture there as well. Oblivion is actually worse off than you are. Zachary and Tyber are the only living occupants of the country. Beyond them there is nothing but tainted souls in their population,” War explained and tossed two petals down onto the bench in front of her.

“You didn’t mention house Merrodin in that, at all. Who is going to kill me off, then, if I don’t prepare? Couldn’t I simply surrender like Han’shy?” Jala countered.

“Could you surrender to Avanti?” War asked with a look of amazement on his face.

“No,” Jala hissed and had to calm her emotions once more. Perhaps if he would have named any other house she would have considered it, but she would rather die than bow before an Avanti.

“Well, if you don’t prepare, it will be Avanti that eliminates your house. They have a large enough population to roll across the Greenwild and crush the little settlement that represents all of Merrodin right now,” War explained.

“So how do you suggest I prepare?” Jala asked with a sigh.

“First, you defeat Death and retrieve Finn. He has strong ties with the Firym, though I doubt they will be much help in times to come. Then you remove the curse on Goswin, but don’t release the souls back to Death. Break the curse but hold the souls there and raise them. That will take immense amounts of power. Go prepared. Place Madren in control of them. As the last high lord of Goswin he is the rightful heir. Then have him swear an oath to be ally to you.” War spoke slowly, though she could see the excitement building in his eyes. “Ensure that Arovan sends you the knights that were promised to Valor. A solid cavalry is the foundation to a fighting force. Begin training militia the moment your people are fit for it. Expect a third of Merrodin’s total population to be returned to you. Train what you are able to from that number. Do not allow your commanders to be sexist on this. I’ve seen women that can outfight most men. Sort the best from those ranks and train them for true military. By the end of the spring, you should have close to twenty thousand under your command if all goes well on the raising of the dead.”

“Aside from placing Madren in control of a country, that sounds exactly as I had planned to do. Care to explain why I should place him in charge of Goswin and not Anthe?” Jala asked, genuinely confused by his logic. While Madren was the rightful heir to Goswin, Anthe had actual experience in leading.

“I said put him in control. I didn’t say let him lead. Give him the country and give Anthe the role of Advisor and they will be fine. Madren has been crippled by fear and insecurity. Give him purpose and watch him shine,” War corrected mildly.

“To me, control implies leading,” Jala returned dryly.

“Well then, you have a lot to learn on politics, don’t you? Simply because someone’s name is on the desk, doesn’t mean they are in control,” War chided.

“I suppose, though, I can’t say that I’m looking forward to that aspect of leading,” Jala agreed with a sigh. “If what you say is true about the Fionaveir, should I really help them gain power?” she asked after another long pause.

“It’s politics, Jala. You choose the lesser of two evils. The Fionaveir are the lesser evil here. Symphony is not corrupt yet. She is just being kept as a mushroom. The only other alternative is that you step forward. Do you really want to do that?” War watched her closely and smiled as she shuddered at the thought. “That’s what I thought.”

“What do you mean, she is a mushroom?” Jala asked finally.

“Kept in the dark and fed shit. She doesn’t know half of what is going on right now. If she is truly going to lead, she will need to step forward soon. At this point she is as much of a puppet as you were,” War explained with a grin.

“Crude, but accurate I suppose,” Jala said with a slight shake of her head. “Any other advice or warnings?” she asked.

“Pages and pages, but nothing that we have time for. For now, take this as my guideline to you. Defeat Death. Build an army. Remember calm heads prevail, and above all else, don’t die.” He paused in his words and his expression sobered. “One more thing, Jala, remember this well. Life is full of difficult choices. You are going to reach many crossroads in days ahead where no path looks good. In some there will be no happy choice. You simply have to make the choice you can live with.” War stood as he finished speaking and smiled down at her. “If you don’t wake soon, Valor is going to start funeral arrangements for you.”

“What if I need to speak with you again?” Jala asked as she stood.

“I suggest you learn to Dream walk. It’s not so hard. It’s best that I don’t approach you in flesh. If I do, they will watch you more closely. They have written you off for now. Let them continue to do so. It will give you an element of surprise.” War reached a hand out hesitantly and touched her cheek lightly. “You show more of my Blood than any other child of my line. Remember that and kick her ass, Jala.” War dropped his hand back down slowly and winked as the city faded around her.


 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 1

The Darklands

War’s words rang in her mind as her eyelids fluttered open. She had expected to awaken on the horse as it trudged through the bleak landscape, but instead she was lying flat. Lifting up on her elbow she looked down to the cushion of air she lay on. At a glance it seemed as though she was hovering inches off the ground, but she could feel the solid shape beneath her. Her armor lay in a tidy heap beside the make-shift bed, neatly folded and freshly oiled. Just beyond it stood Valorous, his head lowered as he rested. The Arovanni watched her as she moved, but made no sound.

Jala moved the tangled blanket and sat up slowly. Her hair fell forward over her eyes in an untidy tangle and she pushed it back with a sigh. Looking around the camp she spotted Valor crouched several feet away with one hand extended before him. Wind stirred his long silver hair, though the air was still around her. Jala rose slowly and glanced down at the tunic she wore. It was black and silver and hung well past her knees.

“I was beginning to wonder if you were going to wake up. I hope you excuse me for removing your armor. I thought you would rest better without it. I figured after the weeks we have spent in here that we didn’t have much privacy left between us anyway.” Valor’s voice was soft, barely above a whisper. They had learned in their first days to keep silent. Their voices seemed to attract the demons and so conversations had been limited.

“I don’t mind,” Jala whispered as she moved to join him. His words held enough truth to them that she found she wasn’t embarrassed in the least. The first few days had been the most difficult. Body functions were of course necessary for both of them, but the Darklands offered no privacy for such things. In light of having to tend to such business around Valor, the idea of getting upset over his making her more comfortable seemed laughable.

In another time she probably would have laughed. Right now, though, even the effort of a faint smile was too much. If any sound broke from her lips it would likely be a sob. The loss of Finn had become a constant ache in her chest, as was the despair of their current situation. They were lost, with no bearings and very little hope of success. If something didn’t change soon, they would have to abandon the mission to keep her promise to Anthe.

“Careful,” Valor warned as he held out a hand to stop her.

Jala frowned and looked down at his warning. The ground fell away just beyond Valor, though the darkness and gloom made the chasm difficult to spot. She felt her chest tighten again at the sight of their newest obstacle.

The wind died down and Valor looked up at her, studying her expression. His own face was somber and he looked exhausted. “I’ve found a way down. We seem to be on a plateau, though it’s difficult to gauge the actual terrain. There doesn’t seem to be another side to this, though, so just a quick trip down and we go from there.”

“I don’t like the sound of a quick trip down a cliff,” Jala returned dryly as she settled beside him on the ground. Leaning forward a bit she stared down into the inky blackness, though it was a pointless endeavor and she knew it. It was hard enough to see three feet in front of her in the Darklands, let alone down a cliff side.

“Well, we can have a slow trip down if you prefer. I had planned to ride, but we can walk if you like,” Valor said with a shrug.

Jala glanced at him and then back to the cliff side. “You mapped it with the wind didn’t you? That’s what the breeze was when I woke.” She hadn’t had opportunity to study much of the Elemental magics beyond her Windblade spell, but Sovann had managed to explain it to a point.

Valor nodded and plucked a pebble from the ground beside him. Turning it over in his fingers he motioned past her. “Two hundred yards that way and there is a rather narrow path leading down to the base of this cliff.” He paused and motioned in the opposite direction. “That way? Well, the only way I can find down is to jump, which, if our magics were working more reliably, wouldn’t be a bad plan. I don’t like the idea of only one way down. That pretty much guarantees a fight at the bottom. There will be a guardian.”

“Ahh. You are optimistic. You said Guardian as singular. I’m going to guess it will be plural. I’m not feeling optimistic in the least,” Jala replied, struggling to keep the bitterness from her voice at his reminder of her magic. She had assumed that it would work the same in the Darklands as it had in the land above. That assumption had nearly gotten them killed in every fight so far. It was sporadic, to say the least. In some situations her spells worked flawlessly. In others, they simply didn’t work. For him to say “our magic,” was a kindness. His magics seemed to be working fine. It was her failing that he was concerned about. Despair clawed at her once again and she had to fight the urge to weep. She wouldn’t allow herself that, though, not after she had dragged them both into this. If she knew they would find Finn it would be different. She would have no regrets at all then, but if all of this was in vain…

Valor watched her for a long moment, his expression unreadable and then slowly nodded. “This place gets to you after a while doesn’t it? Constant darkness, limited conversation, and I’ve begun to think it actually feeds despair into you. Somewhat like an Empath, I suppose.”

“It doesn’t need to feed me despair. I have a ready supply,” Jala said quietly and brushed her hair back from her face once more. “It’s too much like Merro here. All that is missing is a storm and it would be the same as the day my parents died,” she mumbled, looking up to the sky and half expecting to see thunderheads forming.

“I’m glad to hear that. It’s quite reassuring,” Valor said softly.

Jala turned her gaze from the sky and looked over at him in bewilderment. “What?” she asked in confusion.

“I hope it’s exactly like that day here. As I recall from the little bits I’ve been told and from the fact that you are sitting beside me, you defeated Death that day. She wanted you dead and yet you live. If you can do it as a toddler, it should be a simple matter now.” He smiled as he spoke, but the expression seemed forced.

“I had the protection of a god, remember?” Jala pointed out dryly. The very same god she had disavowed a few short weeks ago. Fortune was manipulating me, and it’s his fault that Finn is dead, she reminded herself.

“I fail to see what has changed,” Valor replied with a smirk as he stood and patted his sword hilt. He offered her a hand up and she accepted it, shaking her head at him with the barest hint of a smile touching her lips. “There is some food prepared near where you were sleeping. Eat something and we will continue. I’d like to get the descent over with as soon as possible. The longer we delay, the more my imagination will paint into the coming fight.”

“Have you even rested, Val?” Jala asked bluntly as she looked over his disheveled form. His armor was battered and filthy and his once pristine cloak hung in tatters behind him in a constant reminder of the fighting they had faced in the first days here. His face was drawn with dark circles heavy under his blue eyes. If he had slept, it certainly wasn’t showing.

“I slept for a time when we stopped,” Valor replied and motioned to the food once again. “Eat.”

Jala nodded silently and returned to her pallet. A plate had been left near the head of it, carefully covered with a cloth. Her stomach growled in response to the sight of food. “I’m amazed I didn’t notice it right off,” she said as she sat and broke off a piece of the fried bread.

Valor shrugged as he moved to his horse. “I would guess your first thoughts revolved around where the hell am I,” he offered as he began systematically checking the straps and buckles of the Arovanni’s tack.

“Something like that,” Jala agreed as she hastily broke off another bite. The food was dry in her mouth but tasted divine after days of dried beef.

“Catch.” Valor called to her and she looked up in time to see him toss a flask to her. She caught it and nodded her thanks before taking a long drink. The water was tepid and stale but it was the best they had aside from Valor’s wine.

“Val, can I ask you something that has absolutely nothing to do with our current mission?” Jala began cautiously between bites.

He glanced back over his shoulder and nodded before resuming his inspection.

“Why did you swear fealty to me?” Jala asked, her tone still cautious. The last thing she wanted to do was offend him. His hands slowed as he continued to tug on the straps and test the buckles. “It’s not that I doubt you. I can scarcely do that, considering where we are right now. It’s just… You barely knew me.”

Valor dropped the last strap and turned back to face her. He rubbed his face absently and moved to sit across from her. “At first, there were two reasons. The primary reason being that Finn wanted me to, bad enough to play the daddy card. I always knew he wanted something from me badly if he mentioned my father. The second was for the very slim chance that I might actually be able to get a fresh start. At that time I didn’t know you and so I saw the chance as a slim one.” He paused and seemed to be trying to organize his thoughts. “It wasn’t heartfelt then, Jala. I won’t lie to you about that, but after you started restoring Merro, I began to see a glimpse of what could be…” He trailed off again and met her eyes. “What you are building is my fresh start. I’ve squandered what I had in Arovan. There I would be lucky to retain my rank as Captain. The only reason I still have it is because I haven’t gone home. If I do return home I will lose my knighthood as well as my military commission. It wasn’t heartfelt then, but it is now.”

Jala nodded slowly and cleared her throat. There was another matter that she had to clear up and it would be more delicate. Once it was settled, however, her mind would be free of doubts on Valor and she would have one person she could trust beyond all others, aside from Finn of course. “When we came back from Sanctuary, Kali kept you longer. You seemed unsettled when you discovered Emily had witnessed your talk with Kali. Why?” Jala pressed gently. She wasn’t sure if he would answer this one, but sincerely hoped he would. The idea of any of her friends being manipulators was painful, but she couldn’t afford for Valor to be one, not right now. She needed his support here too much to risk relying on someone that wasn’t genuinely a friend.

Valor frowned and rose again. Pacing back to the horse he pulled another flask from the saddle bags and moved back to join her once more. The smell of wine filled the air as he removed the stopper and took a long pull. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and let out a long sigh. “Before I answer, may I ask what has raised these questions?” His tone was formal, without the faintest hint of warmth. “Have I given you reason to doubt me?” Valor asked, before she had time to answer.

Jala glanced around the camp and looked back at him. Letting out a long sigh of her own she pulled on her magic and prayed that it would work this time. She wanted to answer the question for him desperately, but knew she couldn’t if others could overhear. A warm tingle brushed her skin as the wards fell into place around them. Her shoulders sagged with relief. Had the protection spell failed she would have had to refuse him and that could have damaged their fragile friendship beyond repair. She could tell by the set of his shoulders that he was upset, though she couldn’t tell if it was actual anger or not. His moods were so much more difficult to judge when he wasn’t around Finn. Around Finn, Valor had been an open book with every emotion worn openly. Without him, the knight was guarded and reserved. “I had a dream while I slept. He called it a waking dream. It was a warning, I suppose, and I was reminded how many times I had been manipulated without even realizing it. Then it was pointed out that my friends could be part of it. I want to trust you, Valor, and in most ways I do, but I’ve trusted poorly before.

“Who said it was a waking dream?” Valor asked, his tone sounding even more guarded. His blue eyes had narrowed and he was watching her closely.

“War, my grandfather,” Jala answered without hesitation. By the way he was acting she wondered if he had the same doubts about her. “We live in a very twisted society you know. You joined me in hell. That alone should speak volumes for trust. I’m sorry, Valor I shouldn’t have pressed you.” She shook her head slowly and broke off another piece of bread.

“No, you should have. Were I actually manipulating you, I could be delivering you to their doorstep. Others might, I wouldn’t.” Valor said quietly.

Jala’s chewing slowed and she watched him with a raised eyebrow. He seemed uncomfortable and shifted, not meeting her gaze. She swallowed heavily and tilted her head, still watching him. “Valor, is there something you want to tell me?” she prompted gently.

“Not really,” Valor mumbled and let out a long breath. “Kali wanted me to ensure that Finn didn’t come back.” He began slowly and met her gaze once more. “She said that Finn was never meant for you and that the two of you would bring devastation to the world. I found that sickly ironic, considering how she is constantly trying to kill us all off with her creations. When I mentioned the fact, she laughed at me and asked if I had never heard of a common enemy before. Nothing breeds unity like strife, I suppose. Her words were still fresh in my mind when we tried to raise Finn.” Valor fell silent and shifted again and rubbed his face. “I didn’t mention it and I should have. With her words breeding doubt in my mind… What if I helped the spell fail? I couldn’t help but feel doubts about it then. I know Finn. I love him like a brother, but what Kali said is true. He is cold. He is brutal, and he is utterly without remorse. That influence combined with your power is terrifying, Jala.” She started to speak but he held up a hand to stop her. “I should have given you more credit, though. I was wrong in that. I have doubts of Finn, but I shouldn’t have doubted you. It’s your power, and how you use it is your choice. So I’m here to bring him back no matter what. I failed him when the spell was cast. I failed you when I doubted your convictions. I will not fail either of you in this.”

Jala watched him silently for a long moment and then reached a hand out slowly to take his. He raised an eyebrow at her in question but didn’t pull free. She squeezed the fingers lightly and summoned as much of a smile as she could. “I don’t doubt you in the least, Valor. I had the slightest hesitation from the way you acted after Kali’s, but that is gone now. I trust you with my life and...” She paused and looked around before giving a bitter chuckle. “And my soul, I suppose. I know I would be dead by now if not for you and I know you will do everything you can to bring Finn back.” Jala released his hand as she finished speaking and set the plate of uneaten food aside. “Can I trust the others as I trust you, Valor? You know them better than I do,” she asked softly.

“I don’t trust Jail. I’ve never been able to determine if his mind-work on me was entirely in my best interest or if he had another agenda. I was in line for redemption that would have been followed by promotions in the knighthood before he tampered with my will. I have forgiven him for it though. What I lost is questionable. What I gained was a priceless friendship,” Valor said quietly. “I don’t trust Wisp much either but that’s probably being racist. She is Fae and they are sneaky. I truly haven’t spent enough time around her to know if she is or not, though. I don’t trust Neph, but you can. He swore an oath to you and he would rather eat his own boots than break his word. Sovann, I do trust, perhaps even more than I trusted his brother. Sovann has a rare trait that very few in Sanctuary possess - integrity. He cut all ties in his homeland because he couldn’t abide by their behavior.”

“You answered exactly as War did. He told me to watch Jail and Wisp and form my own decisions,” Jala said as she began to gather the blankets and fold them for travel. “Val, can I ask one more question? You don’t have to answer it if you don’t want to.” She glanced over at him as she folded the blanket across her arm.

“Let me do that and you get dressed. And yes, you can ask another. Even if it’s something I don’t want to answer, at least it ends this damned silence we have been living in,” Valor replied as he took the blanket from her and began to gather the rest of their gear.

“If you are disgraced in Arovan, why did Lord Arovan give you a commission to lead a thousand of his knights?” Jala asked.

Valor snorted in what could have been amusement. “That was Elijah’s way of flexing his political muscle. He helps both of us that way while retaining the true power over his troops. By giving command to me, he ensures they will never be used against his land, not that Arovan knights would fight against their home. He also gives me a chance to redeem myself out of sight of those that would like me to fail in that. On the other hand, he helps you without openly helping you. A thousand trained knights is a handsome gift and will raise quite a few eyebrows. If a faction that opposes me asks, he will say he granted them to you. If a faction that doesn’t approve of you asks, he will say he granted them to me,” He explained with a faint smile.

“Clever,” Jala acknowledged with a nod. Her mind worked over the logic as she tugged on the chain mail over her leather tunic. “Does he give lessons in politics?” she asked with a raised eyebrow.

“He does within Arovan. I learned from him,” Valor replied with a shrug.

“What was the position you were in line to receive, Val?” Jala asked, her curiosity pushing her to test his limits.

“I was being groomed to be Lord Commander of the Knights of the Phoenix. I would have been second in command within a year, and by now I would be the Lord Commander. It’s a bit of a tradition in my family. My Brother is the Lord Commander of the Knights of the Griffon, though he spends more time playing bodyguard to Micah than he does commanding his knights. There were certain difficulties, though, hence why I was in Sanctuary,” Valor answered with a hint of tension to his voice. “It’s not a good subject for now. Sometime I’ll explain it, but not now please.”

“As you like,” Jala agreed, watching him for a moment before returning to the buckles on her armor. With every question Valor answered, he created two more in her mind. They could wait though. She would have plenty of time to ask later.

 

ƒéé

 

Ink black darkness enveloped the ground before her. Jala inched forward, cautiously trying to ignore the loose gravel under her boots. She could see no sign of the path Valor assured her was there. Swallowing heavily she let out a long slow breath and turned back to look at Valor. He was leaning against the side of his horse watching her, though his face was too shadowed for her to read his expression. By his posture he seemed as calm and relaxed as he did in the gardens of Sanctuary.

“I don’t see a path at all,” she whispered, hoping her voice wasn’t quavering too much. The thought of dropping down over the ledge into complete darkness had her throat dry and her heart hammering.

“It’s about three feet down, you should be able to see it.” Valor replied as he pushed off the horse and moved to stand beside her. Gravel skittered under his plate mail boots sending small showers over the cliff edge. He glanced at Jala and then motioned over the side once more. “Right there, see.” He pointed below them and looked back at her.

Jala frowned at him and leaned forward once more. The same darkness greeted her. “All I see is darkness, Val. If there is a path there, I’m not seeing it.”

Valor seemed puzzled for a moment, then a look of utter disbelief crossed his face. “By the gods, Jala, you don’t have night vision do you?” he asked, his tone incredulous.

“What?” Jala asked, returning his look of confusion.

“You have been in here for weeks without being able to see at all?” Valor asked, still sounding bewildered. “I think I would have gone insane by now if I couldn’t see what was around us.”

“Wait.” Jala began. She glanced over the edge again then back to him. “You mean you can actually see through this? You have been able to see the entire bloody time?” she asked, her voice rising a bit louder than was safe.

Valor nodded and shook his head at her again. “That’s love. There is no doubt about it, Jala. Not only are you crossing hell for him, you are doing it blindly,” he said in amazement.

“I can see short distances, a few feet or so, and then it gets murky. If that path is really three feet below, I should see it, I think,” Jala replied, a bit defensive. She looked back up at him, her eyes narrowing a bit. “How far can you see?” she asked.

Valor shrugged and motioned a hand to the left of them. “There is a large rock formation over there that has been annoying me since we stopped. It’s a perfect place to hide for ambush so I’ve been keeping an eye on it. That’s about forty feet away, I’d say. A little beyond that it starts getting hazy, like heavy fog I suppose.”

Jala stared in the direction he indicated and nodded slowly. It was all one mass of shadows to her. She couldn’t even see the outline of a rock formation. “Well, I suppose it’s good that one of us has an idea of what’s around us. I’ll admit, I’m jealous, though. I’ve been skittish the entire way because of the blindness. Well partly because of the blindness. I suppose it’s fair to admit a lot of my nervousness stems from the fact that we are in the bloody Darklands. It makes me feel a bit better about myself to understand why you are so calm, though. I feel like less of a bloody coward.”

“Jala you are one of the last people in the world I would consider a coward. Most women I know are afraid to go into their backyard at night. Wisp was formerly the strongest woman I’d ever seen, but I don’t think anything would convince her to walk into hell, no matter what was to be gained,” Valor assured her.

“One might argue that’s insanity, not bravery,” Jala pointed out with a short sigh. Her eyes were roaming the shadowed cliff once again. If she could just get a glimpse of this path maybe her stomach would settle a bit. “Speaking of insanity, you really want to ride down this?” she asked, looking back up at him.

“It can be done. I promise you that. It really only comes down to one thing,” Valor said quietly and watched her.

Jala waited for him to continue, but realized after a few moments he wasn’t going to without her asking. “And that one thing is?”

“Do you really trust me?” Valor asked, one slender silver eyebrow arched in question. He held her gaze; his blue eyes searching her own for any sign of doubt.

“Does my trusting you really apply to my trusting your horse’s agility?” Jala countered, not flinching from the gaze.

“He is Arovanni, Jala. Part of my soul was used in his creation. I know what he can do. To trust me is to trust him,” Valor explained. Moving forward he took her by the arm gently and pulled her back toward the horse. “Here, place your hand over his nose gently. Just rest the palm there against the skin.”

Jala gave him a questioning glance, but allowed him to move her hand to the horse’s nose. Gently she pressed her palm against the flesh and marveled at the warmth beneath her hand. She had expected Valorous to be cold to the touch as his barding was. Instead he felt like a living creature, though she had never seen him eat, drink, or sleep. There was a faint stirring in her mind and she silenced her thoughts with a bit of wonder. She could feel emotions, though she knew they weren’t her own. It was almost like the bond with Finn had been, though not nearly as strong. She had felt the faint brush of the Arovanni’s mind in Goswin when Valor had handed her the reins, but it hadn’t been nearly this defined. She could sense confidence flowing through the link as well as loyalty and compassion. Fainter, there was a flicker that seemed almost too fragile to examine closely - trust. Slowly she pulled her hand back from the horse and let out a slow breath. “All right, Val, we ride,” she said faintly and wondered if he could even hear her words over the hammering of her heart. To her own ears it sounded like battle drums.

“Trust me.” Valor urged, though the words sounded more like a plea than a request.

“I do,” Jala assured him and moved to mount the horse. He can see in the dark and he wants Finn back as badly as I do, she reminded herself as he settled on the horse behind her. Certain horses are bred for certain things. The bigger they are, the less versatile they are. Blackjack might never carry a knight, but he will be able to get up paths that ol’ Buck wouldn’t consider. The memory of her father’s words came unbidden and she swallowed heavily. “Valor, this is a War Horse isn’t it? He is made for charging at enemies, right? Not playing mountain goat on a pitch black cliff.”

“He is Arovanni. Hold on to something - either me or the saddle. It will be a quick ride down. Lean when I lean and try not to scream,” Valor explained as his horse leaped forward with a speed that didn’t seem at all appropriate considering the situation.

Jala swallowed the squeal that almost broke from her lips and seized the front of the saddle in both hands. There was a moment of panic as the horse leaped, and then the only sound was her ragged breathing as the animal plunged over the side of the cliff.

“Hold on,” Valor warned just before the Arovanni’s hooves once again touched rock. Her teeth knocked together at the impact and her nails dug deeper into the leather of the saddle, but she managed to keep silent. The horse ducked its head lower and put on more speed. Jala could see the path now. It was narrow and covered with loose rocks. Had she seen the ground beforehand she wouldn’t have believed even a mountain goat could manage it, and yet they were riding a very large horse down it at entirely unreasonable speed.

Valorous’s shoulder rubbed on the first corner of the path sending blinding sparks off the metal of his barding. Jala let out several rapid breaths and considered closing her eyes for the remainder of the trip. She felt Valor lean forward against her back and faintly remembered his orders enough to lean forward as well. There was another moment of weightless terror as the horse jumped again and then the thundering descent resumed.

“Almost over,” Valor whispered to her as he sat up a bit. She adjusted her position to match his and repeated his words over and over in her mind.

Her world shrank to her own thundering heartbeat that perfectly matched the thundering hooves. She wasn’t even aware she had clenched her eyes shut until they ceased moving. Valor let out a slow hiss behind her and she cautiously opened her eyes. They were stopped with the base of the cliff at their backs. Valorous shuffled beneath them and let out a snort of displeasure. She felt Valor kick his feet free of the stirrups and then dismount.

“What is it?” she whispered, leaning over the saddle toward him. As far as she could tell they were the only occupants of this shadowy corner of hell.

“Cast a light. You will need it,” Valor whispered back as he drew his sword slowly.

Jala nodded faintly, not liking the sound of his words at all, and summoned the light spell. She closed her eyes as she cast the spell to avoid blinding herself and centered it in front of them and above. As she opened her eyes once more, pale violet light illuminated the area around them.

The landscape was rock strewn as it had been on the plateau above, but here and there an occasional tree grew, though they were twisted and gnarled things. They were not alone here either. Crouched on every rock and in the branches of trees were dozens of twisted little creatures. In comparison with the demons they had already fought these things seemed pathetically small, but there were so many of them. “It is plural guardians. Hell is no place for optimists,” Jala said softly. “At least they aren’t big,” she added in what she hoped was a reassuring voice.

“My father’s favorite quote, Even the strongest man can be taken down by rats, comes to mind,” Valor replied dryly. His gaze was locked on the creatures and it was clear that he planned to let them make the first move. “He used it in reference to infantry swarming knights but I think it applies fairly well here.”

“Well, strongest man, maybe, but I’ll be damned if I’ll be taken down by rats,” Jala retorted in the same soft voice. Her eyes were locked on the beady glinting eyes that surrounded them. She had been wrong about her estimate of dozens. It was more like hundreds when you truly looked for the creatures. They covered the ground like a carpet of flesh. They were simply everywhere a body could fit - on the rocks, below the rocks, everywhere. “A Firym would make bloody short work of them. Sadly my Flamebolts seemed to be one of the more unreliable spells here,” she said absently and searched her mind for a spell that would thin the numbers down quickly.

“I want to know what the hell they are waiting for,” Valor grumbled as he shifted his stance and moved his sword to a guard position. His eyes swept the area, and had it not been for the cliff behind them she thought he might have rushed in to fight. Valor had been trained too well to sacrifice good ground however.

Movement toward the trees drew her attention and Jala watched silently as a larger shape moved forward. The smaller creatures parted like water before it as it lumbered through their ranks. “I’m going to guess that,” Jala replied, motioning toward the thing. It began to grow as it neared them. It’s body contorting in sickening jolts. At first it had resembled a mangy dog. Now it was taking on more human-like aspects. Its gait changed from four legs to two as it finally stopped no more than twenty feet from them. Yellow eyes glinted from the canine head. Its black skin was stretched so tight over its bones it seemed more skeletal in appearance than living.

“A bloody shifter,” Valor hissed beside her.

Jala raised an eyebrow and studied the creature closer. She had never seen a shifter in battle form before, though she doubted this was an accurate representation of what a living shifter would look like. It stood perhaps twelve feet at the shoulder with a hunched human posture. Its arms seemed far too long for its body, almost ape-like, though the long talons that tipped each finger were certainly not ape-like. Smiling down at Valor, she winked and then looked back toward their monstrous adversary. “We have no quarrel with you. We seek Death. There is a matter I must speak with her about,” she called in a loud voice, her words echoing off the stones around them clearly. While she sincerely doubted the creature would back down from the fight, it never hurt to try.

“It amazes me how you shift emotions from terror at a ride down a cliff to perfect calm in the face of a twelve foot demon and a horde of his minions,” Valor commented dryly, his sword still held in the guard position. From his posture he apparently didn’t expect the Shifter to back away from the fight either.

“Die,” the shifter responded, his voice so guttural even the single word he spoke was difficult to understand. There was no mistaking the intent, however, as he spread his talons and rushed toward them. Valor moved quickly to meet the charge, placing himself between the creature and Jala. His sword rang off the creature’s talons with a metallic hiss as he parried its first attack and neatly ducked under the creature’s second wild swing.

Jala hesitated in joining the fray, keeping her eyes focused on the smaller creatures instead. She had no doubt that Valor could handle the shifter, but they would both be dead if the smaller demons rushed them while their attention was focused on the leader.

The smaller forms ducked and shifted where they crouched. Their desire for blood was obvious, but they showed no sign of making any moves toward the fight.

Jala started to turn back to the fight but paused as she caught a glimpse of white in the corner of her eye. Turning in the saddle quickly she spotted a form well off from the demon horde, standing pale against the shadowy landscape. It wore armor and a mottled white cloak, but was too far away to determine much else. Jala kept her gaze on it a long moment as the sound of Valor’s fighting shattered the silence of the night behind her. She let out a low growl in frustration. She was torn between the need to help Valor and keeping an eye on their audience.

A low grunt of pain from Valor made her decision instantly and she turned back to the fight. Several slash marks showed on the creature’s body though there was no sign that the wounds were impeding its fighting. Valor had fallen back a bit and was moving forward once again, his sword upraised in defense. A jagged line tore through his armor on his left arm and she could see the dark wetness of blood across the metal.

The shifter lunged once more at Valor with claws extended and mouth spread wide to bite. Valor nimbly dodged to the side of one arm while driving in closer for a strike at the creature’s neck. Summoning her power quickly, Jala sent a bolt of force straight into the creatures gaping jaws. A howl of anger burst from its throat as its head was snapped back and broken teeth went flying. Valor seized the opportunity immediately and delivered a savage swing toward the creature’s neck. The blade glanced from the creature’s skin and drew a ragged tear down its shoulder. Letting out a muffled curse, Valor danced back from the Shifter’s returned blow.

The creature let out a savage snarl but didn’t advance again. Yellow eyes filled with hatred flicked from Valor to Jala and it motioned quickly with one taloned hand and uttered another guttural word. This one Jala couldn’t understand at all but she could feel the tingle of magic that followed clearly enough. The ground rumbled beneath them as the rocks began to shift. Valor moved quickly to keep his balance as the creature lunged again.

Valorous danced beneath her and Jala shifted in the saddle, alternating her gaze from the ground to the creature. She couldn’t tell what spell it had cast. It was possible the only result of the spell would be the shaking ground, but she doubted it. No countering what you don’t understand. Suck it up and keep fighting. Learn from the fight and counter the next time, if you live for a next time. Neph’s words sounded in her mind and she summoned another spell to hurl at the Shifter. There was no countering whatever it had done. Best to follow Neph’s advice and suck it up and pray they lived. The wind began to pick up around Valor as she sent bolts of ice toward its legs. With luck she would damage the joints there and at least slow the creature down. Valor was calling on his own magics with the wind and she had no idea what he planned. She kept part of her attention focused on him. If she could determine what he cast she might be able to amplify it.

The shaking of the ground increased again and Valor had to fight to keep his footing. Valorous let out a loud snort of unease and she felt the horse tense beneath her as the ground below them exploded in a shower of rocks and dust. The horse lunged to the side and Jala had to grab the saddle to keep her seat. She could hear the snarls and ringing metal that told her the shifter had attacked once more but she could see nothing through the cloud of choking dust around her. The Arovanni continued to dance away tossing his head in frustration at the shaking ground.

Jala tried to grab the reins to force him back toward the fight but something latched onto her wrist as she moved. Pain lanced through her as she looked down at the thick black tentacle that circled her arm. Another wrapped around her ankle and she felt herself torn from the saddle. Valorous let out a furious scream as the tentacles pulled her up into the air.

Not tentacles, roots, she corrected herself. Her gaze flicked to the gnarled trees for half a breath as she tried to assess her situation. The ground where they had been fighting moments before was a rubble strewn waste. Dozens of black roots waved in the air below her seeking anything they could grasp. Valor had shifted his fighting away from the cliff to avoid the roots and his back was now exposed to the smaller demons that crouched with bloodlust clear in their eyes.

The pain on her wrist grew more intense and she had to fight back a scream. That wouldn’t help Valor at all now. He needed to focus on the shifter and she needed to solve her own dilemma without distracting him. Her eyes watered as she examined the root on her arm as best she could. They had lifted her unevenly and she was balanced with her head tilted toward the unforgiving black rocks below with most of her weight supported by the root entrapping her ankle. From what she could tell, the roots were coated in a sort of slime, that judging by the burning on her wrist, was acidic.

She swallowed heavily. “Well, at least when the acid burns through and they drop me, I won’t have to worry about being crippled,” she whispered, her imagination providing her with a splendid image of her body lying broken on the rocks below. “Use every advantage,” she whispered, repeating a lesson Neph had pounded into her skull over and over. The only advantage she had as far as she could see was height now. Her view of the battle was perfect. “Help Valor kill it and this spell will end,” she whispered as the roots pulled at her, stretching her body to a painful angle. “Then die horribly on the rocks below as the roots vanish,” she added in a pained growl. Options were limited, though, and helping Valor seemed the best course available.

The leather on her boot was giving away and she could feel the acid reaching her skin there. Jala inhaled deeply and tried to summon her power but concentration had never been her strongest virtue and it was nearly lost in the pain now. The pressure on her body increased again and she felt her ankle give with a sickening pop. A gasp of pain exploded from her lips and she had to fight back tears. Training with Neph had been painful, or so she had thought. In reality she hadn’t really known what pain was until now, she realized.

The roots shifted their hold on her once again and she found herself staring straight down at the ground. The pressure on her wrist fell away and her heart rose to her throat as she swung free, dangling from her broken ankle. Spots danced before her eyes as the pain ripped through her. “Don’t faint, fight. Don’t pull a Rivana. Don’t fail Valor as you did Finn,” Jala hissed through clenched teeth. She summoned her power once more, her eyes locked on the Shifter below. Another of Neph’s lessons sprang to mind and she was praying it would work. Though who she was praying to, she couldn’t really say at this point. She supposed it was anyone that would listen. Valor had noticed her predicament and she willed him to ignore her and keep fighting. His right hand flicked toward the roots that held her as the Shifter surged in again.

Jala released her spell just as the creature’s jaws opened to bite. Everything blurred together as the Shifter’s huge clawed hand hit Valor full in the chest. Despite her wish for him to ignore her, he had been distracted. His boots dug trenches in the ground as he was forced back, but he managed to keep his feet as their combined magics took effect. The shifter staggered back clutching its skull as her spell unleashed and the roots holding her hostage crumbled beneath her. She began to plummet, the black rocks racing up to meet her. A sob broke from her lips as the wind whistled in her ears and then she was slowing. The wind cradled against her, easing her plummet to a gentle descent. Jala forced her eyes open once more as she dropped gently to the ground beside Valor. Her ankle gave at once and his arm was around her supporting her weight in an instant.

“Nice catch,” she whispered, the spots once again dancing in her eyes. The pain was making her light-headed and nauseous.

“Nice, whatever the hell you did to him.” Valor replied motioning feebly toward the still twitching Shifter that lay sprawled on the ground several feet from them.

“I healed him,” Jala gasped with a faint chuckle at the bitter irony of that. It didn’t seem fair that her healing was sporadic when she tried to use it to help her and Valor, but she could use it to kill with. Valor gave her a puzzled look but didn’t question her. The countless bruises and pains were fraying her wits and it must have shown on her face. Hoof beats sounded faintly as Valorous returned snorting his displeasure at both of them. Valor motioned him closer and Jala grabbed onto the saddle to support herself. Nodding his thanks, Valor stepped back and bent, bracing his hands on his knees, his shoulders shaking with his ragged breathing.

“Are you OK?” Jala asked ducking her head a bit to try to get a look at his face.

“Broken ribs. Breast plate is bent back on them. Rather uncomfortable,” Valor replied, his words choked. He stood once more, slowly, and she could see the aftermath of the last savage blow the Shifter had delivered. His breastplate was caved in as he had said with jagged holes punched through it where the talons had found flesh. Blood seeped from the holes, though he didn’t seem to be paying any attention to his wounds now. His gaze was focused on the figure approaching them, dressed in white plate mail and a mottled white cloak. Long dark hair showed from under the hood as well as a delicate pale face.

“Symphony?” Jala whispered as the woman drew closer. It made no sense whatsoever for the future Empress to be in hell with them, but this woman was a mirror image of the girl she had met in Firym. The white armor looked battered and the cloak wasn’t mottled she realized suddenly, it was bloodstained.

“Fiona Veirasha,” Valor breathed as the legendary knight of House Veir continued to approach in deathly silence.

            Valor shrugged as he moved to his horse.  “I would guess your first thoughts revolved around where the hell am I.” he offered as he began systematically checking the straps and buckles of the Arovanni’s tack.

            “Something like that.” Jala agreed as she hastily broke off another bite.  The food was dry in her mouth but tasted divine after days of dried beef. 

            “Catch.”  Valor called to her and she looked up in time to see him toss a flask lightly to her.  She caught it and nodded her thanks before taking a long drink.  The water was tepid and stale but it was the best they had aside from Valor’s wine. 

            “Val can I ask you something that has absolutely nothing to do with our current mission?”  Jala began cautiously between bites.

            He glanced back over his shoulder and nodded faintly before resuming his inspection. 

            “Why did you swear fealty to me?”  Jala asked her tone still cautious.  The last thing she wanted to do was offend him.  His hands slowed but he continued to tug on the straps and test the buckles.  “It’s not that I doubt you, I can scarcely do that considering where we are right now, it’s just…you barely knew me.” 

            Valor dropped the last strap and turned back to face her.  He rubbed his face absently and moved to sit across from her.  “At first, there were two reasons.  The primary reason being that Finn wanted me to bad enough to play the daddy card.  I always knew he wanted something from me quite badly if he mentioned my father.  The second was for the very slim chance that I might actually be able to get a fresh start.  At that time I didn’t know you and so I saw the chance as a slim one.”  He paused and seemed to be trying to organize his thoughts.  “It wasn’t heartfelt then Jala.  I won’t lie to you about that, but after you started restoring Merro I started to see a glimpse of what could be…”  He trailed off again and met her eyes.  “What you are building is my fresh start.  I’ve squandered what I had in Arovan.  There I would be lucky to retain my rank as Captain, the only reason I still have it is because I haven’t gone home.  I have no doubt if I do return home I will lose my knighthood as well as my military commission.  It wasn’t heartfelt then, but it is now.”

            Jala nodded slowly and cleared her throat.  There was another matter that she had to clear up and it would be more delicate.  Once it was settled however her mind would be free of doubts on Valor and she would have one person she could trust beyond all others, aside from Finn of course.  “When we came back from Sanctuary Kali kept you longer.  You seemed unsettled when you discovered Emily had witnessed your talk with Kali.  Why?” she pressed gently.  She wasn’t sure if he would answer this one, but sincerely hoped he would.  The idea of any of her friends being manipulators was painful, but she couldn’t afford for Valor to be one, not right now.  She needed his support here too much to risk relying on someone that wasn’t genuinely a friend. 

            Valor frowned and rose again.  Pacing back to the horse he pulled another flask from the saddle bags and moved back to join her once more.  The thick smell of wine filled the air as he removed the stopper and took a long pull.  He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and let out a long sigh.  “Before I answer may I ask what has raised these questions?”  His tone was formal without the faintest note of warmth in it at all.  “Have I given you reason to doubt me?”  He asked before she had time to answer his first question. 

            Jala glanced around the camp site and looked back at him.  Letting out a long sigh of her own she pulled on her magic and prayed that it would work this time.  She wanted to answer the question for him desperately, but knew she couldn’t if others could over hear.  A warm tingle brushed her skin as the wards fell into place around them.  Her shoulders sagged with relief. Had the protection spell not worked she would have had to refuse him and that would have likely damaged their fragile friendship beyond repair.  She could tell by the set of his shoulders that he was upset, though she couldn’t tell if it was actual anger or not.  His moods were so much more difficult to judge when he wasn’t around Finn.  Around Finn, Valor had been an open book with every emotion worn openly.  Without him, the knight was guarded and reserved.  “I had a dream while I slept, he called it a waking dream.  It was a warning I suppose and I was reminded how many times I had been manipulated and not even realized it.  Then it was pointed out that my friends could be part of that.  I want to trust you Valor and in most ways I do, but I’ve trusted poorly before.

            “Who said it was a waking dream?”  Valor asked his tone sounding even more guarded.  His blue eyes had narrowed and he was watching her closely.

            “War, my grandfather.”  Jala answered without hesitation.  By the way he was acting she wondered if he had the same doubts about her.  “We live in a very twisted society you know.  You joined me in hell, that alone should speak volumes for trust.  I’m sorry Valor I shouldn’t have pressed you.”  she shook her head slowly as she spoke and broke off another piece of bread.

            “No you should have.  Were I actually manipulating you I could be delivering you to their doorstep.  Others might, I wouldn’t.”  Valor said quietly.

            Her chewing slowed and she watched him with a raised eyebrow.  He seemed uncomfortable and shifted not meeting her gaze.  She swallowed heavily and tilted her head still watching him.  “Valor is there something you want to tell me?” She prompted gently.

            “Not really.”  Valor mumbled and let out a long breath.  “Kali wanted me to ensure that Finn didn’t come back.”  He began slowly and met her gaze once more.  “She said that Finn was never meant for you and that the two of you would bring devastation to the world.  I found that sickly ironic considering how she is constantly trying to kill us all off with her creations.  When I mentioned the fact she laughed at me and asked if I had never heard of a common enemy before.  Nothing breeds unity like strife I suppose.  Her words were still fresh in my mind when we tried to raise him.”  He fell silent and shifted again then rubbed his face.  “I didn’t mention it and I should have, with her words breeding doubt in my mind…What if I helped the spell fail?  I couldn’t help but feel doubts about it though, I know Finn.  I love him like a brother but what Kali said is true, he is cold, he is brutal, and he is utterly without remorse.  That influence combined with your power is terrifying Jala.”  She started to speak but he held up a hand to stop her.  “I should have given you more credit though, I was wrong in that.  I have doubts of Finn, but I shouldn’t have doubted you.  It is your power and how you use it is your choice.  So I’m here to bring him back no matter what.  I failed him when the spell was cast, I failed you when I doubted your convictions.  I will not fail either of you in this.”

            Jala watched him silently for a long moment and then reached a hand out to take his slowly.  He raised an eyebrow at her in question but didn’t pull his hand free.  She squeezed the fingers lightly and summoned as much of a smile as she could.  “I do not doubt you in the least Valor, I had the slightest hesitation from the way you acted after Kali’s but that is gone now.  I trust you with my life and..” she paused and looked around before giving a bitter chuckle “my soul I suppose.  I know I would be dead by now if not for you and I know you will do everything to bring Finn back.”  She released his hand as she finished speaking and set the plate of uneaten food aside.  “Can I trust the others as I trust you Valor? You know them better than I do.”  She added softly. 

            “I don’t trust Jail.  I‘ve never been able to determine if his mind work on me was entirely of my best interest, or if he had an agenda.  I was in line for certain promotions before he tampered with my will.  I have forgiven him for it though.  What I lost is questionable, what I gained was a priceless friendship.”  Valor said quietly.  “I don’t trust Wisp much either but that’s probably me being racist.  She is Fae, they are flighty and sneaky.  I truly haven’t spent enough time around her to know if she holds those qualities or not.  I don’t trust Neph, but you can.  He swore and oath to you, he would rather eat his own boots than break his word.  Sovann I do trust, perhaps even more than I trusted his brother.  Sovann has a rare trait that very few in Sanctuary possess…integrity.  He cut all ties to everyone because he couldn’t abide by their behavior.”

            “You answered exactly as War did.  He told me to watch Jail and Wisp and form my own decisions.”  Jala said as she began to gather the blankets and fold them for travel.  “Val, can I ask one more question?  You don’t have to answer it if you don’t want to.”  She glanced over at him as she folded the blanket across her arm.

            “Let me do that and you get dressed.  And yes you can ask another.  Even if it’s something I don’t want to answer at least it ends this damn silence we have been living in.”  Valor replied as he took the blanket from her and began to gather the rest of their gear.

            “If you are disgraced in Arovan, why did Lord Arovan give you a commission to lead a thousand of his knights?”  Jala asked. 

            Valor snorted in what could have been amusement.  “That was Elijah’s way of flexing his political muscle.  He helps both of us that way while retaining the true power over his troops.  By giving command to me he insures they will never be used against his land or allies, not that Arovan knights would fight against home or ally.  He also gives me a chance to redeem myself out of sight of those that would like me to fail in that.  On the other hand he helps you without openly helping you.  A thousand trained knights is a handsome gift and will raise quite a few eyebrows.  If a faction that opposes me asks he will say he granted them to you.  If a faction that doesn’t approve of you asks he will say he granted them to me to redeem my honor.”  He explained with a faint smile.

            “Clever.”  Jala acknowledged with a nod.  Her mind worked over the logic as she tugged on the chain mail over her leather tunic.  “Does he give lessons in politics?” she asked with a raised eyebrow.

            “He does within Arovan. I learned a bit from him.”  Valor replied with a faint shrug.

            “What was the position you were in line to receive Val?”  Jala asked her curiosity pushing her to test his limits.

            “I was being groomed to be Lord Commander of the Knights of the Phoenix.  I would have been second in command within a year, and by now I would be the Lord Commander.  It’s a bit of a tradition in my family. My Brother is the Lord Commander of the Knights of the Griffon.  Though he spends more time playing body guard to Micah than he does commanding his knights.”  Valor answered calmly but with a hint of tension to his voice.  “It’s not a good subject for now though, sometime I’ll explain it but not now please.”

            “As you like.”  Jala agreed watching him for a moment before returning to the buckles on her armor.  With every question Valor answered he created two more in her mind.  They could wait though, she would have plenty of time to ask later.

 

 

äääää

 

 

            Ink black darkness enveloped the ground before her.  Jala inched forward cautiously trying to ignore the loose gravel under her boots.  She could see no sign of the path Valor assured her was there.  Swallowing heavily she let out a long slow breath and turned back to look at Valor.  He was leaning against the side of their horse watching her, though his face was too shadowed for her to read his expression. By his posture he seemed as calm and relaxed as he did in the gardens of Sanctuary. 

            “I don’t see a path at all.” she whispered hoping her voice wasn’t quavering too much.  The thought of dropping down over the ledge into complete darkness had her throat dry and her heart hammering.

            “It’s about three feet down, you should be able to see it.”  Valor replied as he pushed off the horse and moved to stand beside her.  Gravel skittered under his plate mail boots sending small showers over the cliff edge.  He glanced at Jala and then motioned over the side once more.  “Right there, see.”  He pointed below them and looked back at her.

            Jala frowned at him and leaned forward once more.  The same darkness greeted her and she frowned at Valor.  “All I see is darkness Val.  If there is a path there I’m not seeing it.”

            Valor seemed puzzled for a moment then a look of utter disbelief crossed his features.  “By the gods Jala, you don’t have night vision do you?”  he asked his tone incredulous.

            “What?” Jala asked returning his look of confusion.

            “You have been in here for weeks without being able to see at all?”  Valor asked still sounding bewildered.  “I think I would have gone insane by now if I couldn’t see what was around us.”

            “Wait.”  Jala began.  She glanced over the edge again then back to him.  “You mean you can actually see through this?  You have been able to see the entire bloody time?”  She asked her voice rising a bit more in pitch than was safe.

            Valor nodded and shook his head at her again with a faint smile.  “That’s love, there is no doubt about it Jala.  Not only are you crossing hell for him you are doing it blindly.”  he said in amazement.

            “I can see short distances, a few feet, or so, then it gets murky.  If that path is really three feet below I should see it I think.”  Jala replied a bit defensive.  She looked back up at him her eyes narrowing a bit.  “How far can you see?” she asked slowly.

            Valor shrugged and motioned a hand to the left of them.  “There is a large rock formation over that way that has been annoying me since we stopped.  It’s a perfect place to hide for ambush so I’ve been keeping an eye on it.  That’s about forty feet away I’d say, a little beyond that it starts getting hazy, like heavy fog I suppose.”

            Jala stared in the direction he indicated and nodded slowly.  It was all one mass of shadows to her.  She couldn’t even see the outline of a rock formation.  “Well I suppose it’s good that one of us has an idea of what is around us.  I’ll admit I’m jealous though.  I’ve been skittish the entire way because of the blindness.  Well partly because of the blindness, I suppose it’s fair to admit a lot of my nervousness stems from the fact that we are in the bloody Darklands.  It makes me feel a bit better about myself to understand why you are so calm though.  I feel like less of a bloody coward.”

            “Jala you are one of the last people in the world I would consider a coward.  Most women I know are afraid to go into their backyard at night.  Wisp was formerly the strongest woman I’d ever seen, but I don’t think anything would convince her to walk into hell, no matter what was to be gained.”  Valor assured her.

            “One might argue that’s insanity not bravery.”  Jala pointed out with a short sigh. Her eyes were roaming the shadowed cliff once again.  If she could just get a glimpse of this path maybe her stomach would settle a bit.  “Speaking of insanity, you really want to ride down this?”  She asked looking back up at him. 

            “It can be done, I promise you that.  It really only comes down to one thing.”  Valor said quietly and watched her.

            Jala waited for him to continue but realized after a few moments he wasn’t going to without her asking.  “And that one thing is?”

            “Do you really trust me?” Valor asked one slender silver eyebrow arched in question.  He held her gaze his blue eyes searching her own for any sign of doubt.

            “Does me trusting you really apply to me trusting your horse’s agility?”  Jala countered not flinching from the gaze.

            “He is Arovanni Jala. Part of my soul was used in his creation.  I know what he can do, and to trust me is to trust him.”  Valor explained.  Moving forward he took her by the arm gently and pulled her back towards the horse.  “Here, place your hand over his nose, gently just rest the palm there against the skin.” 

            Jala gave him a questioning glance but allowed him to move her hand to the horse’s nose.  Gently she pressed her palm against the flesh and marveled at the warmth beneath her hand.  She had expected him to be cold to the touch as his barding was.  Instead it felt like a living creature, though she had never seen him eat, drink, or sleep.  There was a faint stirring in her mind and she silenced her thoughts with a bit of wonder.  She could feel emotions though she knew they weren’t her own.  It was almost like the bond with Finn had been, though not nearly as strong.  She had felt the faint brush of the Arovanni’s mind in Goswin when Valor had handed her the reins, but it hadn’t been nearly this defined.  She could sense confidence flowing through the link as well as loyalty and compassion, fainter there was a flicker that seemed almost too fragile to examine closely, trust.  Slowly she pulled her hand back from the horse and let out a slow breath.  “Alright Val, we ride.” she said faintly and wondered if he could even hear her words over the hammering of her heart.  To her own ears it sounded like battle drums.

            “Trust me.”  Valor urged, though the words sounded more like a plea than a request.

            “I do.” Jala assured him and moved to mount the horse.  He can see in the dark and he wants Finn back as badly as I do, she reminded herself silently as he settled on the horse behind her.   Certain horses are bred for certain things, The bigger they are the less versatile they are.  Blackjack might never carry a knight, but he will be able to get up paths that ol’ Buck wouldn’t consider.’  The memory of her father’s words came unbidden and she swallowed heavily.  “Valor this is a War Horse isn’t it?  He is made for charging at enemy's right? Not playing mountain goat on a pitch black cliff.”

            “He is Arovanni. Hold on to something, either me or the saddle.  It will be a quick ride down, lean when I lean and try not to scream.”  Valor explained and his horse leapt forward with a speed that didn’t seem at all appropriate considering the situation.

            Jala swallowed the squeal that almost broke from her lips and seized the front of the saddle in both hands.  There was a moment of panic as the horse leapt and then the only sound was her ragged breathing as the animal plunged over the side of the cliff. 

            “Hold on.”  Valor warned just before the Arovanni’s hooves once again touched rock.  Her teeth knocked together at the impact and her nails dug further into the leather of the saddle but she managed to keep silent.  The horse ducked its head lower and put on more speed.  Jala could see the path now. It was narrow and covered with loose rocks.  Had she seen the ground beforehand she wouldn’t have believed even a mountain goat could manage it, and yet they were riding a very large horse down it at entirely unreasonable speeds.  

            Valorous’s shoulder rubbed on the first corner of the path sending blinding sparks off of the metal of his barding.  Jala let out several rapid breaths and considered closing her eyes for the remainder of the trip.  She felt Valor lean forward against her back and faintly remembered his orders enough to lean forward as well.  There was another moment of weightless terror as the horse jumped again and then the thundering descent resumed.

            “Almost over.”  Valor whispered to her as he sat up a bit.  She adjusted her position to match his and repeated his words over and over in her mind.

            Her world shrank to her own thundering heartbeat that perfectly matched the thundering hooves.  She wasn’t even aware she had clenched her eyes shut until they ceased moving.  Valor let out a slow hiss behind her and she cautiously opened her eyes.  They were stopped with the base of the cliff at their backs.  Valorous shuffled beneath them and let out a snort of displeasure.  She felt Valor kick his feet free of the stirrups and then dismount.

            “What is it?” She whispered leaning over the saddle towards him.  As far as she could tell they were the only occupants of this shadowy corner of hell.

            “Cast a light, you will need it.”  Valor whispered back as he drew his sword slowly.

            Jala nodded faintly not liking the sound of his words at all and summoned the light spell.  She closed her eyes as she cast the spell to avoid blinding herself and centered it in front of them and above.  As she opened her eyes once more pale violet light illuminated the area around them. 

            The landscape was rock strewn as it had been on the plateau above, but here and there an occasional tree grew, though they were twisted and gnarled things.  They were not alone here either, crouched on every rock and in the branches of trees were dozens of twisted little creatures.  In comparison with the demons they had already fought these things seemed pathetically small, but there were so many of them.  “It is plural guardians. Hell is no place for optimists.” Jala said softly.  “At least they aren’t big.” she added in what she hoped was a reassuring voice.

            “My father’s favorite quote, ’Even the strongest man can be taken down by rats.’ comes to mind.”  Valor replied dryly.  His gaze was locked on the creatures and it was clear that he planned to let them make the first move.  “He used it in reference to infantry swarming knights but I think it applies fairly well here.”

            “Well strongest man maybe, but I’ll be damned if I’ll be taken down by rats.”  Jala retorted in the same soft voice.  Her eyes were locked on the beady glinting eyes that surrounded them.  She had been wrong about her estimate of dozens.  It was more like hundreds when you truly looked for the creatures.  There covered the ground like a carpet of flesh.  They were simply everywhere a body could fit, on the rocks below the rocks, everywhere.  “A Firym would make bloody short work of them, sadly my Flamebolts seemed to be one of the more unreliable spells here.”  She said absently and searched her mind for a spell that would thin the numbers down quickly.

            “I want to know what the hell they are waiting for.”  Valor grumbled as he shifted his stance and moved his sword to a guard position.  His eyes swept the area, and had it not been for the cliff behind them she thought he might have rushed in to fight.  Valor had been trained too well to sacrifice good ground however.

            Movement towards the trees drew her attention and Jala watched silently as a larger shape moved forward.  The smaller creatures parted like water before it as it lumbered through their ranks.  “I’m going to guess that.”  Jala replied motioning towards the thing.  It began to grow as it neared them, its body contorting in sickening jolts.  At first it had resembled a mangy dog, now it was taking on more human like aspects.  Its gait changed from four legs to two as it finally stopped no more than twenty feet from them.  Yellow eyes glinted from the canine head.  Its black skin was stretched so tight over its bones it seemed more skeletal in appearance than living.

            “A bloody shifter.”  Valor hissed beside her.

            Jala raised an eyebrow and studied the creature closer.  She had never seen a shifter in battle form before, though she doubted this was an accurate representation of what a living shifter would look like.  It stood perhaps twelve feet at the shoulder with a hunched human posture.  It’s arms seemed far too long for its body, almost ape like, though the long talons that tipped each finger were certainly not ape-like.  Smiling down at Valor she winked and then looked back towards their monstrous adversary.  “We have no quarrel with you, we seek Death.  There is a matter I must speak with her about.”  she called in a loud voice her words echoing off of the stones around them clearly.  While she sincerely doubted the creature would back down from the fight, it never hurt to try.

            “It amazes me how you shift emotions from terror at a ride down a cliff to perfect calm in the face of a twelve foot demon and a horde of his minions.”  Valor commented dryly his sword still held in the guard position.  From his posture he apparently didn’t expect the Shifter to back away from the fight either.

            “Die.”  The shifter responded his voice so guttural even the single word he spoke was difficult to understand.   There was no mistaking the intent however as he spread his talons and rushed towards them.  Valor moved quickly to meet the charge, placing himself between the creature and her.  His sword rang off of the creatures talons with a metallic ring as he parried it’s first attack and neatly ducked under the creature’s second wild swing.   

            Jala hesitated in joining the fray keeping her eyes focused on the smaller creatures instead.  She had no doubt that Valor could handle the shifter but they would both be dead if the smaller demons rushed them while their attention was focused on the leader. 

            The smaller forms ducked and shifted where they crouched.  Their desire for blood was obvious but they showed no sign of making any moves towards the fight. 

            Jala started to turn back to the fight but paused as she caught a glimpse of white in the corner of her eye.  Turning in the saddle quickly she spotted a form well off from the demon horde standing pale against the shadowy landscape.  It wore armor and a mottled white cloak, but was too far away to determine much else.  Jala kept her gaze on it a long moment as the sound of Valor’s fighting shattered the silence of the night behind her.  She let out a low growl in frustration, she was torn between the need to help Valor and keeping an eye on their audience. 

            A low grunt of pain from Valor made her decision instantly and she turned back to the fight.  Several slash marks showed on the creature's body though there was no sign that the wounds were impeding its fighting.   Valor had fallen back a bit and was moving forward once again his sword upraised in defense.  A jagged line tore through his armor on his left arm and she could see the dark wetness of blood across the metal. 

            The shifter lunged once more at Valor with claws extended and mouth spread wide to bite.  Valor nimbly dodged to the side of one arm while driving in closer for a strike at the creature’s neck.  Summoning her power quickly Jala sent a bolt of force straight into the creatures gaping jaws.  It let out a howl of anger as its head was snapped back and broken teeth went flying.  Valor seized the opportunity immediately and delivered a savage swing towards the creature’s neck.  The blade glanced from the creatures skin and drew a ragged tear down it’s shoulder.  Letting out a muffled curse Valor danced back from the Shifter’s returned blow. 

            It let out a savage snarl but didn’t advance again.  Yellow eyes filled with hate flicked from Valor to Jala and it motioned quickly with one taloned hand and uttered another guttural word.  This one Jala couldn’t understand at all but she could feel the tingle of magic that followed clearly enough.  The ground rumbled beneath them as the rocks began to shift.  Valor moved quickly to keep his balance as the creature lunged again.

            Valorous danced beneath her and Jala shifted in the saddle alternating her gaze from the ground to the creature.  She couldn’t tell what spell it had cast.  It was possible the only result of the spell would be the shaking ground, but she doubted it.  No countering what you don’t understand, suck it up and keep fighting.  Learn from the fight and counter the next time, if you live for a next time.’  Neph’s words sounded in her mind and she summoned another spell to hurl at the Shifter.  There was no countering whatever it had done, best to follow Neph’s advice and suck it up and pray they lived.  The wind began to pick up around Valor as she sent bolts of ice towards its legs.  With luck she would damage the joints there and at least slow the creature down.  Valor was calling on his own magics with the wind and she had no idea what he had planned.  She kept part of her attention focused on him, if she could determine what he had cast she might be able to amplify it. 

            The shaking of the ground increased again and Valor had to fight to keep his footing.  Valorous let out a loud snort of unease and she felt the horse tense beneath her as the ground below them exploded in a shower of rocks and dust.  The horse lunged to the side and Jala had to grab the saddle to keep her seat.  She could hear the snarls and ringing metal that told her the shifter had attacked once more but she could see nothing through the cloud of choking dust around her.  The Arovanni continued to dance away tossing his head in frustration at the shaking ground. 

            Jala tried to grab the reins to force him back towards the fight but something latched onto her wrist as she moved.   Pain lanced through her as she looked down at the thick black tentacle that circled her arm.  Another wrapped around her ankle and she felt herself torn from the saddle.  Valorous let out a furious scream as the tentacles pulled her up into the air. 

            ’Not tentacles, roots.’ she corrected herself silently.  Her gaze flicked to the gnarled trees for half a breath as she tried to assess her situation.  The ground where they had been fighting moments before was a rubble strewn waste.  Dozens of black roots waved in the air below her seeking anything they could grasp.  Valor had shifted his fighting away from the cliff to avoid the roots and his back was now exposed to the smaller demons that crouched with bloodlust clear in their eyes. 

            The pain on her wrist grew more intense and she had to fight back a scream.  That wouldn’t help Valor at all now. He needed to focus on the shifter and she needed to solve her own dilemma without distracting him.  Her eyes watered as she examined the root on her arm as best she could.  They had lifted her unevenly and she was balanced with her head tilted towards the unforgiving black rocks below with most of her weight supported by the root entrapping her ankle.  From what she could tell the roots were coated in a sort of slime that judging by the burning on her wrist was acidic. 

            She swallowed heavily.  “Well at least when the acid burns through and they drop me I won’t have to worry about being a cripple.’ she whispered her imagination providing her with a splendid image of her body lying broken on the rocks below.  “Use every advantage.” she whispered repeating a lesson Neph had pounded into her skull over and over.  The only advantage she had as far as she could see was height now.  Her view of the battle was perfect now.  “Help Valor kill it and this spell will end.” She whispered as the roots pulled at her stretching her body to a painful angle.  “Then die horribly on the rocks below as the roots vanish.” she added in a pained growl.  Options were limited though and helping Valor seemed the best course available.

            The leather on her boot was giving away and she could feel the acid reaching her skin there.  Jala inhaled deeply and tried to summon her power but concentration had never been her strongest virtue and it was nearly lost in the pain now.  The pressure on her body increased again and she felt her ankle give with a sickening pop.  A gasp of pain exploded from her lips and she had to fight back tears.  Training with Neph had been painful, or so she had thought.  In reality she hadn’t really known what pain was until now, she realized.

            The roots shifted their hold on her once again and she found herself staring straight down at the ground.  The pressure on her wrist fell away and her heart rose to her throat as she swung free dangling from her broken ankle.  Spots danced before her eyes as the pain ripped through her.  “Don’t faint, fight.  Don’t pull a Rivana, don’t fail Valor as you did Finn.” Jala hissed through clenched teeth.  She summoned her power once more her eyes locked on the Shifter below.  Another of Neph’s lessons had sprung to mind and she was praying it would work.  Though who she was praying to she couldn’t really say at this point she supposed it was anyone that would listen.  Valor had noticed her predicament and she willed him to ignore her and keep fighting.  His right hand flicked towards the roots that held her as the Shifter surged in again. 

            Jala released her spell just as the creature’s jaws opened to bite.  Everything blurred together as the Shifter’s huge clawed hand hit Valor full in the chest.  Despite her wish for him to ignore her, he had been distracted.  He fell back hard as their combined magics took effect.  The shifter staggered back clutching it’s skull as her spell unleashed and the roots holding her hostage crumbled beneath her.  She began to plummet the black rocks racing up to meet her.  A sob broke from her lips as the wind whistled in her ears and then she was slowing.  The wind cradled against her easing her plummet to a gentle descent.  Jala forced her eyes open once more as she dropped gently to the ground beside Valor.  Her ankle gave at once and his arm was around her supporting her weight in an instant.

            “Nice catch.” she whispered the spots once again dancing in her eyes.  The pain was making her light-headed and nauseous.

            “Nice, whatever the hell you did to him.”  Valor replied motioning feebly towards the still twitching shifter that lay sprawled on the ground several feet from them. 

            “I healed him.”  Jala gasped with a faint chuckle at the bitter irony of that.  It didn’t’ seem fair that her healing was sporadic when she tried to use it to help her and Valor, but she could use it to kill with. Valor gave her a puzzled look but didn’t question her. The countless bruises and pains were fraying her wits and it must have shown on her face.     Hoof beats sounded faintly as Valorous returned snorting his displeasure at both of them.  Valor motioned him closer and she grabbed onto the saddle to support herself.  Nodding his thanks Valor stepped back and bent bracing his hands on his knees, his shoulders shaking with his ragged breathing.

            “Are you ok?”  Jala asked ducking her head a bit to try to get a look at his face.

            “Broken ribs, breast plate are bent back on them.  Rather uncomfortable.”  Valor replied his words a bit choked.  He stood once more slowly and she could see the aftermath of the last savage blow the Shifter had delivered.  His breastplate was caved in as he had said with jagged holes punched through it where the talons had found flesh.  Blood seeped from the holes though he didn’t seem to be paying any attention to his wounds now.  His gaze was focused on the figure approaching them, dressed in white plate mail and a mottled white cloak.  Long dark hair showed from under the hood as well as a delicate pale face.  “Symphony?” Jala whispered as the woman drew closer.  It made no sense whatsoever for the future empress to be in hell with them, but this woman was a mirror image of the girl she had met in Firym.  The white armor looked battered and the cloak wasn’t mottled she realized suddenly, it was bloodstained.

            “Fiona Veirasha.”  Valor breathed as the legendary knight of House Veir continued to approach in deathly silence. 

                         

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