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Into the Black - CTS Part 6

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* * *
The start of this CTS and intro here.
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

"What... what was that?" little Secia's voice was awe tinged with a vestige of excited fear. Something big and scary had come for them, yet they had walked away from it. She felt confident they'd be able to face anything else.

The big monk sighed and shook his head ruefully but it was the little bard who responded, "That, my dear girl," Fridai said in an offhand voice as the four of them continued down the shaded path of the ominous Nektulos forest, "was pure darkness given form. What is commonly called a 'Nightblood'." He held out the dagger's blade at arm's length for inspection as he walked. Meticulously, he had already cleaned off every last speck of blood from both of his weapons but old habits died hard. Finally satisfied with his work, he twirled the blade in his fingers in a restless, almost hypnotic fashion. The healing set-spell played on in the back of their minds. He really didn't hear the hum anymore, except to almost unconsciously keep it going. It was really the only healing they had...

Xenith nodded to herself, taking the information in, "I've snuck through the forest here a couple of times now," the rogue mused, "why have I never seen or even heard of one before now?"

Fridai shook his head in bafflement, "I don't know. I've not known them to venture outside of Rivervale and the Enchanted Lands." He raised a seemingly innocent eyebrow at the Kerran monk, "Have you, Toeii?"

"No, I haven't," he answered calmly.

"Passing strange," the little bard appeared unconcerned, "I do hope there are no more of them. Do you have any guess as to why we came upon one then?"

Toeii shook his head. Fridai decided to let the matter drop. As long as nobody was killed, he didn't really care. Passing curiosity aside, he did not really care one way or another if the big cat was lying. And outward calm or no, Fridai could smell the Kerran's lie. And he respected the need for it. Having seen the big cat fight, he knew that nothing short of an army of the nightbloods would be a danger to them.

So, Fridai thought, maybe there was a reason that the big cat had not pressed me right away regarding my own familiarity with Damien's 'tavern'. It was still bound to come up, though, and he was not looking forward to it. But at least I'm not the only one with secrets...

Xenith wiped her blades clean from the creature’s blood. The nightblood had been a daunting opponent but they had made quite a team in taking it down. Xenith felt more confident that she could trust the others. She wasn’t too familiar with the creature’s habitat but it bothered her that Fridai seemed concerned that they had encountered one here.

“Let’s hope we don’t run into any more of them.” She kicked at a pebble in the road as they walked along. Everyone was quiet for a bit. “Wonder how Laenerin made out on her own,” she mused quietly. “Hope she made it back ok. You know she left me a note asking me to come with her but it’s an easy trip and she should be fine. Besides, I promised I’d come help you, Fridai and you guys could use my help.” Xenith realized afterwards that she probably shouldn’t have brought up Laenerin. It seemed to irritate Fridai.

“What else did she say? Why did she run off like that anyhow?” Secia asked.

Xenith noticed that Fridai appeared uncomfortable with the discussion so she tried to wrap it up. “Nothing of any consequence. Just she wanted to get an early start to make it home for dinner I guess.” Xenith glanced at Fridai but he was looking straight ahead and did not meet her gaze. “Did that fight make anyone else hungry?” Xenith started to look along the road for any berries to eat as they continued their trek.

As the forested path wound a short distance through a cut in the rocky hillside and out onto the beach, Fridai found himself lost in idle thought. For instance, he wondered if they had gotten closer, would they have found a scent of Koada'dal on that Nightblood's breath. And considering the questions that were bound to come up, not to mention the odd looks he was getting from Xenith, he also speculated whether he'd just have been better off just hiring mercenaries to accompany him...

At least with mercenaries I'd only be watching my back... he sighed quietly to himself. The four of them approached the docks without incident: the girls walking together a little ways behind and talking softly to each other and the big monk a couple steps ahead of Fridai, setting the pace. And a fast pace at that... a not-quite-hurrying pace that further confirmed to the young bard that Toeii knew more than he was letting on.

The shallow craft that ferried folks between the Nektulos shore and the Thundering Steppes was strangely empty but Fridai just considered it their good fortune. The four of them jumped down easily and the little troubador folded himself gracefully onto one of the low benches. And opening the large bag now sitting on his lap he asked in a light-hearted voice that he did not feel, "It's lunchtime, or near enough. Anyone care to join me?"

Xenith peered over Fridai’s shoulder at the bag he had opened. “I’m definitely hungry. What do you have in there? I looked for stuff along the path but I didn’t see anything edible.”

“Here,” he said handing her something wrapped tightly in brown paper, “Best sandwiches in Antonica made by a little ratonga I know. Just don’t mind the hairs if you find any.” The bard almost smiled.

She took the sandwich and sat down on a nearby bench slowly unwrapping it. “Thanks,” she said. Xenith ate it quickly. She hadn’t realized how hungry she was. It was probably due to the hard work in the tavern the night before mixed with the warmth of the midday sun shining down on them. Secia sat down beside her also eating a sandwich. Everyone was fairly quiet.

“We’re making good time aren’t we?” Secia asked to no one in particular. Fridai nodded. “Will it take much longer to get to the frozen north?”

Fridai was about to answer when an old woman that none of them remembered seeing when they boarded approached them. She wore a long blue robe with a hood but gray hair peeked out the sides. It wasn’t even clear if she was human or some kind of elf. Her features were so delicate yet worn. “You’re heading to Everfrost then?” she asked.

“Yes we are,” Toeii replied.

“I wonder if you wouldn’t mind doing a favor for an old woman. Please. You will all be rewarded and it’s not much I ask.”

“We really don’t ha-” Fridai began to protest.

“What is it?” Xenith asked. Something seemed familiar about her but Xenith wasn’t sure what it was.

The lady pulled something out of a pocket and held it tightly in her gloved hand. “I cannot make the journey but there is a small cabin to the northeast from where you enter the icy lands. It is somewhat hidden but I think you will find it. Bring me back the box that rests in the mantle in there. I’ll be waiting at the dock.” She then dropped a golden key in Xenith’s hands.

Xenith stared down at her hands at the key. Secia, Toeii and Fridai all looked at it for a moment too. Xenith heard a voice in her head and it seemed to say, You are safe now Xenithellianne. She looked up and her eyes widened. “Holy Mother of All! Yes we will do this,” she said. But the woman had vanished and the others stared at her in wonder.

Fridai blinked, startled a little, after the strange old woman left. Inexplicibly, as he'd watched the old woman vanish, he'd felt a powerful yet peaceful feeling wash over him. An unfamiliar feeling of... safety. What his unconscious brain wanted to associate only with the closest of family, which didn't make sense. He'd never even seen the old woman before. And even more odd, the others all seemed to share the same look about them. Though none half so much as Xenith...

He shook his head, still clearing it, and then blew out an annoyed breath when he saw that the small craft they sat in still bobbed next to the docks of Nektulos. "Has no one started this thing moving?" he muttered, mostly to himself. The shallow-draft ferries would not budge unless you rang the enchanted bell attached to the railing.

The little bard reached up to do just that when a new voice asked from above, "Room for one more?"

Fridai squinted up at the speaker. And almost choked when he found himself staring straight up the chainmailed kilt of a smiling barbarian. In less than a heartbeat, though, his voice composed itself and he answered in an easy, amiable voice that he did not feel, "Sure, plenty of room. Jump on down."

With an inelegant thump, the big man did just that. "Much obliged," the dark head nodded, scanning the seated party. He rang the bell and the tiny vessel began along it's enchanted path towards the Thundering Steppes. "I'm Kylin Darkhome, mystic of Qeynos and student of the natural world," he grinned and reached out to take Fridai's hand in greeting.

The little bard's hands tightened almost imperceptibly on the plank seat. He nodded in return, though his smile seemed genuine, "I'm Fridai. The rest, I'm sure, will introduce themselves. Heading off to Qeynos through the Steppes then?" He made the question sound offhand, though it was anything but. If he's heading for the city, he can keep an eye out for Laenerin. But if he's heading near our own direction... any kind of healer would be exceedingly helpful...

"Alas, no," he shook his head, and little bits of... something... clicked softly in his braided hair. He sounded anything but regretful, "I must make the journey of my anscestors, deep into the frozen North..."

"It seems then that the spirits do indeed stir," Toeii said, standing to face the shaman who was nearly eye to eye with the Kerra. Kylin was a hair shorter than Toeii but was broader where Toeii was a little more wirey, though there could be no doubt that between them they had the strength to move the earth at their feet.

"We too venture for the frozen lands of the north. My name is Toeii Spiritfang, loyal to the Queen and enemy to all who wish Qeynos ill," the monk held out an outstretched, orange furred hand which Kylin readily accepted.

"Well met!" His lips spread in a warm, toothy smile. "What cause would draw four, seemingly unrelatd travelers as yourselves to the frozen homeland of my people?"

"A rescue mission, we have not been told much else. It also seems we have a bit of a mystery on our hands involving some old home," Toeii sat down next to Xenith and Kylin found a bench across from them. "We are two monks, a rogue and a bard."

"Rescue..." the barbarian rolled the word around in his head for a moment, "...a worthy cause for sure. Perhaps talents such as mine would be of use to you?"

"I'd be loathe to place you in any danger Kylin, though your offer is generous. Already we have been set upon by forces not of this world, the nightblood. I wouldn't feel right involving a stranger," Toeii looked to the others for support.

"Well Toeii Spiritfang, Fridai, I am no stranger, at least to you two. Perhaps I can be introduced to the lovely young lasses with whom you travel so as to put aside this stranger nonsense. Besides," he grinned that same friendly grin again, "I insist."

“Hello, I am Secia FireHeart. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Well, I suppose I don't wish Qeynos any particular ill... came Fridai's rather amused thought in response to Toeii's comment. I can't believe our luck. He wondered what was keeping Xenith so quiet, though.

Out loud he responded, "We should be glad to have you, then. Though if I may ask, simply out of bardic curiosity," he asked, his voice casual and smooth, "what does take you to the Everfrost, Kylin?"

"Pilgrimage," the big man shrugged, then grinned as the little bard passed him a large flask from his bag, "I merely seek the distant North in response to a call."

"Oh!" Secia cut in, eyes wide and unblinking as she took in his every word, "Who called? Are you searching for someone as well?"

Kylin took a long drink, downing what must have been half of the flask before passing it to the little monk, "No, no," he answered, "nothing so exciting as all that. I simply feel the pull of the homelands calling to me. The blood of our anscestors brings many to the North. Perhaps it is ancient, destroyed Halas crying to be reclaimed."

Fridai nodded solemnly, though inwardly he wanted to laugh. No healer was without their eccentricities, though. And even the bad ones were usually worth it. "Then you would not object to venture all the way in to the gates of Permafrost and perhaps beyond..."

The big man's eyes lit up and Fridai knew they had him. Damned if we might just make it out of this alive...

The shallow craft bumped against the icy dock of the Everfrost.

Kylin bounded out first, grinning hugely as he inhaled so deeply that the chain shirt strained against his barrel chest. "Ahhh! Though I've never been here before, yet still it feels like home." He reached one large, gloved hand down to Secia. The little monk blushed slightly as she took hold and the big man practically lifted her off of her feet and onto the shore. He reached out again for Xenith. The blonde Fier'dal blinked a little, though her features retained the preoccupied look she'd carried for the entire ride across the shallow ocean.

Toeii had leapt up with a singular grace as the burly mystic helped Xenith up. Large smile still plastered on his face, he reached down a third time but Fridai shook his head and finished securing the mandolin across his back. Almost sedately, he climbed out and joined the others.

Kylin looked around them eagerly, "You know where we're going, my friend?" he asked the little bard.

Fridai nodded and looked toward the western horizon, "Indeed. Though we only have about an hour or so before we'll need to make camp." He allowed himself a grim, determined smile, "Now, it's not much but I can at least save us all a chilly swim," he reached out and took hold of Toeii's wrist on his right and placed a hand on Xenith's shoulder on his left, "Everyone take hold of your neighbor and I'll jump us across to the mainland." And he began to glow as he whispered the evacuation cantrip.

The shattered remains of Luclin far above lit the vast snowscape below; Toeii crouched just to the side of a sharp, craggy outcropping on the side of the peak the party was setting camp on. For untold miles below great fields of twilight blue snow glowed with a cold light. The Kerra's eyes were closed in meditation but there wasn't a thing that moved down below that the monk did not know about.

About a hundred feet behind him the rest of the party slept or did whatever it was they needed to do to prepare themselves for the coming journey. The group was settled in a tight niche in the side of the mountain; Fridai had been unwilling to allow a fire, but for the sake of the girls he relented. The little bard had muttered in frustration that maybe Toeii would like to stand guard all night and watch for the creatures that might be attracted to the light.

Toeii thought he took more pleasure in Fridai's reaction more than he should have, but he couldn't help but smile now in his contemplations. Maybe the half elf was just cold.

He likes the snow. The world is never so quiet as it is when it's blanketed in snow. His breath came in slow measured beats that burst into the air in great puffs of frozen air. Down below a line of mountain goats weaved their way between great spires of ice and jutting rows of stone. The occasional wolf appeared and disappeared and there was a large barbarian walking up behind Toeii.

"Too excited to sleep Kylin?" Toeii asked serenly, not opening his eyes.

"Yes my friend," the mystic said taking a knee next to Toeii. "Isn't it beautiful?"

"It's a sight I don't see myself forgetting Kylin. It is difficult to grasp that a place of such beauty could be a place of such danger."

Kylin nodded silently next to him. "Yes. Stories of home have been based down through my family for generations. Even as children who doubted ever seeing the homeland again we were taught the dangers of the tundra."

"Your people are very resilient. I have spoken to many barbarians and they all believe firmly in their ability to reclaim their ancient home."

"Have you given up hope of seeing your home again Toeii Spiritfang?"

"My home? No, I am confident I will return to my island home. I will be called back in it's time of need. My homeland?" Toeii's eyes opened for the first time in hours. He looked at Kylin, a look of peace and understanging on his face, then he looked up to the shattered remains of Luclin. "My anscestors are Vah shir, my homeland is gone and over run with monstrosities to foul to name. Like you I am attuned to the spirit world, I commune with them even now. That is enough."

Kylin smiled, "Truly?"


"Tell me of the others, the girls, Fridai."

"Xenith is a mystery to me thus far. Oh sure, I know her story. She is lost in time. She comes from before the shattering and the disappearance of the Gods. She is trustworthy though, and a potent ally. Secia is a monk of my order; more specifically, she is a monk in training. She's become entangled in this, just as I have. I should send her back to the temple, but I fear I would only be sending her to expulsion. Besides, recent events lead me to believe she would be in more danger on her own than in the middle of this." Toeii sighed. "She is young yet, but her heart is in the right place."

Kylin chuckled softly to himself. "She reminds me a little of myself. It is kind of you not to send her back, knowing she is only to be punished."

"The very young do not always do as they are told. My feeling is that if she comes away from this with more knowledge of the world than she started she will be better off for it. Too many are afraid to leave the city's walls and instead lose themselves in their minds. We can't ever be victorious that way."

"You are wise monk. Fridai?"

"I do not trust him," Toeii said without hesitation. "Not because I fear for myself or the girls; it is simply that I feel he has not told us the whole truth about why we are out here." Toeii met Kylin's gaze, "We were trapped inside Freeport. The girls had been taken and I was determined to rescue them. He could have left us. While I do not yet know whether it was out of altruism or for selfish need of our continued help I do know that he made our escape possible. I do not trust him."

"The stars are easier to see here," Kylin said softly.

"Yes they are."

"If it is a path you seek, perhaps you will find it here in this pure land," Kylin beamed.

"You are a wise man Kylin Darkhome."

Xenith & Kallysti
Xenith couldn’t sleep. The cold night air made her shiver and she rubbed her hands up and down her arms. She dug around in her pack for another blanket but her search came up empty. Fridai was away from the group and rather quiet. He wasn’t even playing. She realized this might be a good time to talk to him about the old woman. Xenith had a feeling it would take a good bit of convincing to get Fridai to allow this side trip. She didn’t know if it was more important than helping his friend but she was pretty sure he was still hiding something from them.

Xenith wrapped the cloak around her tighter and walked over to Fridai. “It’s colder here than I remember.” The bard nodded silently and she sat down next to him. “I couldn’t find the other blanket I had and it’s hard to sleep when you’re so cold. I think I must have let Secia have it. Got anything to warm a girl up? A drink?” She grinned at him with blue lips and her teeth chattered a little.

"Aye, it's colder than I remember, too," he replies softly, as if to himself. Shaking his head, he picks up the bag at his feet. "I'm afraid Kylin and Secia took the last of the tequila I'd packed," he nodded over towards the fire where big man and the slender half elf were talking animatedly, "but I still have some very nice, strong ales left." He pulls out two rather large flasks and hands one to Xenith.

She opens the flask deftly but sniffs it before taking a taste. There is a sweet, fruity flavor to it but a strange under-taste she can't quite put her finger on. It's not altogether unpleasant, quite the opposite, yet it's... odd. "What is this?" she asks.

"Xegonberry," he smiles a little, watching as she takes another drink, "and fish," he adds. He grins as the second part makes her choke a little but notices with approval that she does not spit it out. Alcohol is alcohol, after all. "Do you think we should join them then, at the fire? Or perhaps we should let them get to know each other?" His smile at this last is thoughtful now and just a touch melancholy.

“Well I’m not sure I’m ready to tell our barbarian friend the truth just yet. I can’t believe this was a chance meeting. Besides, they look like they’re having fun with each other.”

Fridai raised an eyebrow inquisitively and tensed up. “Just what truth do you mean?”
Xenith took in a deep breath. She wasn’t sure how he’d respond. “I’ve been doing some serious thinking ever since we met that woman. That’s why I’ve been so quiet if you hadn’t noticed. Make sure you have enough to drink cause this is a long story starting back with my first trip to Qeynos.”

"I assume you mean the old woman at the docks and not our... former companion," he grinned a moment so she knew he was joking. "I have indeed noticed your preoccupation since we met her, Xenithellianne. And I do indeed have plenty to drink, both for the storyteller and for her audience. An explanation would be most interesting, I'm sure." He spread out his cloak on a patch of near-dry ground. It was still cold where they were, though the occasional breeze off of the fire wafted a breath of warmth at them every now and again.

"One moment, though, before you begin..." the little bard sat very still for a moment, his eyes closed. He took several deep, measured breaths as if in sleep... or meditation. Suddenly the cold seemed to lessen around them and he opened his eyes again. "There, a new set-spell: a resistance to the elements. I don't like to use this version of it often, as it does not really protect one from physical damage, you just don't feel it until later. It's very dangerous if you're unaware of it. I think we'll leave the others alone for now, let them enjoy themselves while they can." He arched one thin, black eyebrow at her expectantly.

“Thank you. I feel warmer already.” She took a long drink before continuing. “As I said, this was very long ago when I first visited Qeynos to see my cousin. I was walking along exploring the city near the docks when I heard a dark haired woman calling out to passersby, ‘Fortunes told! Learn your fate! Madame Serena sees all!’ One man had stopped and she asked him what god he followed. I didn’t hear his answer but she gave him a rather generic and cryptic answer. Curious, I decided to stop and talk to her. She asked me the same question and I told her ‘I follow no one.’

“She looked at me and laughed. ‘That’s not really true now is it child of Tunare? You may have lost your faith in your goddess but she still believes in you. What is your name? I can give you the answers you seek.’

“I was still skeptical at this point but I told her my name and she asked me to sit with her. Mostly out of curiosity, I coughed up the coins she asked for to read my fortune. It started with her making some good guesses about my background. She was lucky I suppose to guess my parents were gone and I had suffered a lot in my life. Then she warned me of danger in my future, my abduction, but I dismissed it. She was right about this but that’s another story altogether. Here’s the important part. Madame Serena told me, ‘Seek out a man named Kylin in the lands of ice and snow. He will assist you in the Mother of All’s darkest hour. It will be a long time before you find him and you will be quite alone in your heart but you will have allies. Take the quest laid out before you and save faith.’

“She couldn’t make it any clearer than that. The gypsy said that when the time comes it would make sense. And now here I am centuries away from her and her words ring true. I meet the man she mentioned as well as receiving a key from a strange lady, a lady that might even…”

“Don’t say it,” Fridai said staring at her in disbelief. His face appeared as stone to her. Xenith couldn’t read him and wasn’t sure what he thought about some gypsy foreseeing her encounter with Kylin some 500 years later.

Xenith shook her head. “I know it sounds crazy but I really think that might have been Tunare or some agent of hers. I think the gods are trying to return. That would explain Kylin’s ‘calling’ and my meeting him. After my parents died I stopped believing. But then I had several friends that persuaded me to rethink that; especially after my dear Eli met her. Right now I don’t know what to think but I know we have to go to that cabin. I think more rests on that than we could possibly imagine. We will do it right? What should we tell the others?” She gulped down more of the Xegonberry and turned a half smile to him. She could feel the drink’s warmth all thru her. She felt a little woozy and laid back on some of Fridai’s cloak that covered the ground, pulling her own around her like a blanket. Xenith gazed up at the stars hoping that his silence so far meant he would allow this side trip.

The night only grew colder. Fridai flexed his fingers almost obsessively to be sure they were not effected too terribly. His eyes watched Xenith sleeping nearby but his mind was miles away. "Damn you," he whispered without any force or volume. Even sharp elven ears would not have picked up his words.

His eyes scanned the campsite: Secia still sat with Kylin by the fire, her head leaned against his shoulder in what Fridai suspected was slumber. The big man appeared to be staring into the flickering flames, perhaps seeing something noone else could. On the other side of the fire, a faint shadow against a rock, sat Toeii. Though the little bard may not have spotted him there, had he not seen the monk travel there earlier. Above them all the clear, shattered moon of Luclin stared down indifferently. He took a deep breath of the clean, frozen air. "I can't do this."

Unconsciously, his fingers found the tiny pocket in his belt. Removing one glove, he fished out the single item contained therein. The entire journey he had avoided even thinking about it. Even thinking burned: his heart as well as Dylana's enchanted ink embedded in his skin. He took another deep breath, the freezing air burned in his lungs as he steeled himself.

The artist had captured her face perfectly. Even though the portrait stopped at her neck, he could still picture the thick, black curls- her pride and joy- spilling down past her waist. Solemn grey eyes, far too old in that face, stared back at him, answering his unspoken question. Fridai nodded slightly, closing his eyes and gently closing his fingers around small likeness. He took several more deep, steadying breaths, stubbornly ignoring the continued burning both on the surface of his chest and within. I won't, he returned her answer silently.

His mind made up now, he quickly but carefully tucked the tiny portrait back into his belt. He pulled a few necessary items from his bag and tucked those away on his person as well. Then, he sat down with paper and pens and began to write.

In only a few minutes, the bag sat next to the deeply sleeping rogue. Pinned on it were three letters, one addressed to each of the original party. Of the little bard, there was no sign save for a few footprints that were rapidly disappearing in the light wind.

"We have a couple options," Toeii said firmly trying to sound confident. The others sat around the dying campfire as the sun began to rise, turning the vast expanse of once pale blue snow into a sea of glittering diamonds.

The others looked shocked, but Xenith especially looked particularly jilted.

"We have a decision to make," the monk continued, "we signed onto this for a specific reason. Now that Fridai's left we have to decide whether to continue on or not. I'm not going to ask anyone to divulge anything they may not be comfortable with, but did Fridai leave any indication where he was going or where his missing friend might be? If not, perhaps we could investigate this cabin Xenith seems to have an interest in. Or we can go our own seperate ways. I'm sure we all have our own lives to worry about but I'm not going to tell anyone what to do."

"Now if we continue on with the original mission we know we are headed to a place near Permafrost. I can only tell you though that without our... guide, the journey will be more dangerous than it already was. Something that I do not have a problem with myself. I intend to press on, I promised to help Fridai, but this isn't the army, so I leave it up to you all."

Everyone was quiet for a few moments after Toeii had presented the options. Secia was the first to speak up. "Well, Fridai didn't leave any clues as to where he was heading, at least not with me. Did he say anything to you guys?"

"He mentioned when all this started that we were heading to a place near Permafrost. Nothing more specific than that though," Toeii said.

"So we either try and find him again, or start looking for this cabin?" the young monk asked.

Toeii nodded. "Those are our choices, yes. Though I don't think that we could find him with the four of us; might have some chance on my own but I don't want to leave the rest of you alone."

Xenith pulled out what looks like her note from Fridai. "He marked this map for me with the most likely spots for that cabin. He wrote we shouldn't have trouble finding it and if we wanted to see him again he will head back to that tavern we met at eventually. I know I plan to track him down when this is through and give him a good smack upside the head!"

"Perhaps the sure path is the right one in this case? Fridai seems to have made his choice," Toeii said.

"So does this mean we are looking for the cabin? What about you, Kylin, you are very quiet?" Secia looked up to the tall man.

"You don't understand. Kylin has to come with me. It's fate." Xenith's face was very serene and serious.

The barbarian spoke in such a soft tone that was unexpected from a man of his size. "The most obvious choice would indeed be the one we are surest of..."

Secia blinked slowly a bit confused.

"The cabin it is then. If we do not hear from Fridai then we can help him afterwards if we are able," Toeii said.

"Would this person we were rescuing wait for so long? Or do you think our bard friend can perform this rescue on his own?" Kylin asked.

"Honestly I don't know. Fridai has told us nothing of this person or why they need rescued."

Kylin frowned. "I see. Perhaps we should travel to this cabin then and see what comes along as we travel? We may yet discover signs of him or... other things."

Toeii nodded in agreement.

"What kinds of other things?" asked Secia. She was interested in learning all she could before heading home. She was savoring the entire experience.

"You never know what kinds of things lurk in a wild land,” Kylin said. “Surely you know that?"

"Secia, Toeii, did you sense anything strange when that old woman approached us. Fridai wrote that he felt something and that that may be more important than we realize," Xenith said with a twinge of excitement in her voice. She was feeling surer by the minute that this task was one she had to complete.

The big cat spoke. "I felt for a moment as when I commune with the spirits of my ancestors, though I do not recall seeing any woman. Perhaps she chose not to appear to me yet was unable to hide herself completely?"

Xenith raised an eyebrow. "You didn't see her? What did you see then?"

"Tell me of this old woman. Perhaps I can shed some light from a priest's perspective." The barbarian leaned forward resting his elbow on his knee and his chin on his fist.

"I saw nothing,” said Toeii. “I only felt this feeling of 'otherness' about me."

"I felt really safe, something I haven’t' felt in a long time." Secia blushed slightly.

"To me the woman appeared as somewhat old but her face was hidden. I couldn't even tell if she was human or elven but I felt safe like Secia and calm. I felt like I was home back in Kelethin. Oh! That's another story Kylin if Toeii or Secia haven't told you. After she left I heard a voice in my head say that I was safe. The voice was soft like my mother's and called me by my full elven name. I know you all may find this hard to believe but I felt she may even have been Tunare herself." Xenith exhaled deeply feeling good to finally get it all out. She worried that they would all think she was crazy.

Secia smiled somewhat and nodded. "She seemed more elven to me, but I couldn't see very clearly. And I was also strangely at peace, like I have never felt before."

The big man nodded slowly, "Yes. I have indeed felt the spirits stirring much more often of late..."

"There isn't much cause to feel safe in the world these days. If it is genuine I believe that we should most definitely pursue this. However I urge caution because it is most often the most dangerous and cunning wolf that uses the sheep's clothing." The kerran monk said.

"I haven't been safe for a long time but now my enemy must be long dead and I would indeed be safe. But then of course I get here and make a new enemy in that Val jerk. I probably am not totally safe no matter what. If Teir'dal still recognize the marks they place on their property and any kin have survived of Silveria's, I could still be in danger. But if that was the Mother of All and she says I'm safe I have to believe that.” Xenith wrung her hands nervously before continuing.

"I stopped believing in Tunare after my parents died. I thought she was horrible to leave me an orphan at such a young age. I only had my uncle and I hated him. Years later my sweet Elijah met the goddess while on a routine mission with a high elven cleric friend. She blessed them both and I started to wonder if I shouldn't follow her again. I was on the fence for many years. I met a gypsy woman in Qeynos who foretold of many things in my life, not all pleasant. Most important to the present is that my fate would be to aid Tunare in her darkest hour. Is this not a dark hour for the gods? Strangest though was she told me to seek an ally in the frozen north." Xenith paused a moment and took a deep breath. "She told me to see a man named Kylin and this was over 500 years ago in Qeynos."

"Well then perhaps we should head to this cabin and find what we are looking for?" Secia looked the others for a decision. She would follow them wherever as long as she didn’t have to miss out on the adventure.

Kylin blinked a little. "Not that I doubt your words and certainly I feel the spirits stirring once again… I suppose I have just never been... specifically in one. Truly our fates are indeed intertwined." He nodded, accepting this with seemingly little trouble.

"Well, based on what I know of the gods... if one is involved there are sure to be more. We must be wary." Toeii’s concern for the group grew more and more. He wished he had sent Secia home already. Now he would need to make sure to keep her safe. He was fairly confident that Xenith could look after herself even if she was a stranger to this land and he knew very little of Kylin.

Xenith bit her lower lip. "I admit I'm a bit scared. I mean why would Tunare want help from me. I turned my back on her for years off and on. And yet I know we should get going and find that cabin. Then maybe we can try to find Fridai in case his friend still needs help too."

"If we start moving now we might be able to reach the cabin by nightfall... which would be good if you girls don't want to freeze to death." Toeii said tersely.

"Freezing is not something I really look forward to, but Fridai did leave me the booze, it might help a bit,” Secia said.

"I'm afraid it doesn't quite work that way. All the alcohol will do is trick your mind into thinking you're not freezing to death when that is exactly what will be happening." The elder monk seemed to always be teaching the young girl.
Xenith had her own warning for Secia. "Stay away from the Xegonberry. I think that's extra strong and why I didn't hear him leave in the night."

"Toeii, I didn't mean it would help like that, but it is warm going down." Secia grinned. Xenith laughed at the young monk's naivety. "Think I had a bit too much tequila last night."

"When you are trained you will be able to do that all on your own,” Toeii said. “Bring the alcohol anyway though, fires can be hard to start in this cold."

"Toeii why don't you take the map.” Xenith handed the map to Toeii and he took it. “This terrain all looks the same to me."

"Perhaps when we stop for the night, you can train me a bit more, before we have to sleep?" Secia asked.

"Very well. We will have to move fast, no stopping. If you get too tired to continue on Kylin or myself will carry you. If you still have the energy," Toeii grinned back at Secia.

"I can keep up just fine." Secia said a bit sullenly.

"Did everyone have breakfast? We should try not to stop for a few more hours for a quick lunch,” said Xenith.

"No stops. Eat on the run or when we stop tonight at the cabin!" Toeii’s voice was firm and commanding.

The young monk stood up. "Ready when you are, Master Toeii."

Everyone gathered their things and prepared to leave. Toeii became agitated at how long it was taking. “I will not be the one freezing to death if we delay any further.”

Xenith whispered to Secia, "Cranky cat. We should pull his tail.”

"You pull it, I need to have him train me still." Secia whispered back.

"Kerra have excellent hearing Xenith, about as good as elven hearing if I'm not mistaken. Lesson one Secia." Toeii turned, looked at the map, turned again and took off in the direction of the cabin at a solid jog.

"Here goes nothing," Secia said as she prepares to take off after Toeii.

Xenith muttered something nasty in elven about the elder monk. "Come on Secia. Pick up the pace but no need to run. Just walk briskly. It'll keep you warm and you won't tire as quickly as running." She turned to look at Kylin and he smiled knowingly. The barbarian wove his hands in an arc canting in a mystical language. The girls and Kylin began to move faster and soon were caught up with Toeii without running.

"Thanks for the advice, Xenith." Secia grinned.

Xenith bent down and scooped up some snow packing it tightly in a ball. She ran up to a rock cropping out of a hillside and jumped onto it. She had a better vantage point to see Toeii there. She fired the ball into the back of his head and laughed. Secia giggled so hard she almost stopped breathing. The big cat turned around and shot them both a harsh look before admonishing them for delaying them further. Kylin chuckled and offered the snickering younger monk his arm. Xenith fell in step behind them to act as rear guard. Toeii shook his head in frustration and continued moving forward in silence.

The bright light of late morning shone on either end of the short, dank tunnel. Fridai knew he would have to slow his all-out run soon. Even bardic speed and stamina had it's limits, he'd just wanted to put as much space between himself and the others as quickly as possible. The little rogue, Xenith, though strangely new to this world, would most likely track him down easily, if he left her close enough. Most rogues could out-track him. He was certainly a safe distance by now. The only difference now was, was he now running from something or to it.

Just running, he thought, always your answer, isn't it? Large, furry spiders scattered throughout roomy passage. He brushed by them, showing them as little interest as they showed him. This would have been easy, if he hadn't started listening to them, if he hadn't started to care so much...

Sunlight reflecting off of the glittering snow blinded him for a moment as he exited the tunnel. His feet hit the hard-packed snow and suddenly he felt them catch, slowing his movement considerably. The little bard stopped dead in his tracks, blades appearing in his hands as if out of nowhere. He spun around, trying to search in all directions at once for who had snared him to this spot.

A derisive chuckle sounded from behind him, "Wasn't there supposed to be someone with you, boy?" Came a familiar voice.

"Val," Fridai sighed, his weapons vanishing as quickly as they'd appeared. He squinted into the bright white snow, still unable to see the Tier'dal brigand who had dogged their steps since the old tavern, "has the Brotherhood finally lowered their standards enough to let you help them or are you merely concerned for my welfare?"

Without a sound, the veteran rogue dropped down from where he'd been crouched above the tunnel mouth and landed lightly a few feet from the unflinching half elf. Sparkling blue eyes, now cold and unamused, stared directly into the little bard's, "They lowered them years ago," came the soft, dismissive answer, "when Dylana apprenticed her little half-breed messenger toy. Now," he paused for a moment, as if enjoying the flashes of anger and impatience that were cracking the younger man's mask of resolve, "how about we take a little walk and you can tell me why you're no longer bringing in the one we asked for in exchange for your, I'm sorry, I mean, in exchange for Dylana's... artifact?"

Fridai shook his head, now looking straight ahead of them, "Do I have a choice?"


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