It was the aftermath of a harsh fight, again. Before me stood five, shadowy, Atrianas. Each seemed so different in their actions, in their personalities. It tore my heart to pieces to see my sister shattered like this: I would do anything to make her whole. I'm tired of my friend's struggling, Vaeleroes burning his body away to keep alive our friends and family, Atriana in literal pieces. I could hear my mother's heart thumping like a dedicated lumberjack with a dying pyre as we left on this suicide mission. I nearly cut Atriana in half during our duel and she nearly brained me. This storm does truly wicked things.
None of us had much to say after everything. Personally, I was engrossed in the state of my home. I represent Sungaarde. It is where I was knighted. I can't help but think I abandoned my post. These things grate at my mind, but, there is one thing that will ease that burden. I know I am a reckless man, an honorable man, and a fool. This journey might be my end. I would sleep easier and fight harder knowing that should I fail, all is not lost. I returned to my room, with the accompaniment of Tariel, to write my will (https://docs.google.com/document/d/1t-BYjLFruPSaM0nS-kBh4n77Jmg_k6pDEHgHabSmt4M/edit) (without his knowledge). On my way up, however, I noticed many more people in the halls: it was an odd feeling, but I ushered them on with a reassuring hand on their shoulders and simple words of passing as Tariel and I made our way to my room.
Tariel acted very funny when I tried to hand the letter to him, and unfortunately, I was unable to seal it but I brought my house's signet press with me: a lovely momento I figure, as well as more pen and paper. We reconvened and hoped out the back window in the war room. Not a snowball's chance in Oren we'd try to cross back through the shadowy-halls. We rappelled down the slope with relative ease. From there? Snow banks. Snow for as long as you could see. In your eyes. In your mouth. In your ears. It was relentless, ceaseless, and exhausting. I did my best to keep spirits high.
I turned to Apolline, "Say, do you have siblings?"
"I do, two brothers."
"Hah, that must not be too fun."
I turned my head and saw Atriana, standing imposing, arms crossed, fresh as a fiddle in the storm. I chuckled,
"Well, I wasn't talking about you."
I got full well what you meant.
"You show back up in the flesh again and you're already sour? What happened?"
I looked around, and everyone was staring at me like I had grown four extra-heads. I looked at them and gestured to Atriana: who was not there. I had little excuses for myself, I definitely looked a loon. I sighed and drew my great sword. In hindsight, not the most relaxing thing for the group, but for me? There's two things that are true in this world it seems. Myself and my sword, First Frost. I'll suss out the fact from the fiction with her. At their insistence, I moved myself to the front of the party.
As we moved, for what felt like perhaps hours, maybe even days, I turned to Tariel. "Know any songs?"
"A few hymns, yes."
"Nothing like "this world is bleak and we're all surely doomed", right?"
"A few less hymns then."
"How about you Apolline, know any songs?"
"I'm afraid not."
"Harald? Maybe know any bar songs?"
Harald shook his head, "I ain't heard many songs in prison!"
I sighed in resignation, but, we did have one other companion. Of course, they were a minstrel. I asked Lucius for song lyrics, to carry our spirits and bring us forward. He confided he had been working on something for a bit, and he would give it to us. I waited, and in the blowing wind, I sang. I may not have the greatest voice, but they all know it. I hope they find some comfort in knowing that I'm here for them, as they are for me, and we're all in this together. And when the songs dried up, the time passed somewhat quicker
We neared the Path of Wounds, a pass that had seen much of the fighting between Oren and Augor. It was the entrance and exit to and from the North, many skirmishes were fought here, many fights, and the open fields and tree line made it a death trap. As we broke the tree line, I caught it. Figures darting around behind us: and one floating. I urged us forward, and with Tariel's magic, we were running on the snow as though it were true earth beneath our feet. We took off, and suddenly we all saw them. It was Rione Jane. About a dozen of her. They were running in a very disorganized, chaotic fashion, issuing orders at nothing, and shooting wildly. They were hunting, but hunting what? Either way, I had a flash back to when I was shot in the face by that awful crystalline goop, and took off screaming.
Not too long after, something more substantial, the real Rione Jane, crested the hill with her animals with her. While they seemed fine, she looked nearly more shadow than person. "OH THERE YOU ARE! GET BACK HERE, YOU'RE MINE!".
She appeared to be stark-raving mad, storm or not.
We all ran as quick as we could, being peppered by incoming shots, and I interposed myself between Apolline and their bullets as we ran. All of a sudden, Harald turned and sprinted at Rione and latched onto her, grabbing her, and glowing. I cannot imagine what he was doing, but these shadows were becoming an issue. The shadow that was on "horseback" (I say "horseback" because there was no horse but she seemed saddled to something?) rode over, and shot Apolline. Apolline took off for a hill and disappeared behind it. Tariel seemed to be following suit.
As for me? I tired of running. We were split, the shadows would not relent, and Apolline had been shot. I looked at First Frost, and in my hands, I felt an extension of me. I couldn't feel the snow beneath my feet, the kiss of the Northern cold on my lips. I didn't feel fear of these terrible shadows, I didn't feel my companions at my side. I couldn't feel anything but me. It was me and First Frost. Nothing else mattered.
I started screaming and I hacked the horseless headsman to ribbons, wounding her grievously, and Rione blasted her before I could finish her. I turned with rage in my blood and screamed as I sprinted headlong after my companions last location. As my master taught me, I put all my efforts into running and let my blade do the talking, First Frost sang a song of death to the immaterial Riones. I spun and carved one's back out and quickly moved, beheading the next. Rione rode to the hill top to support, Apolline and Tariel from the bottom, where we were able to pinch and crush the former line of rifles and pistols. We had won.
Rione, mad in her pursuits, would not relent. She had followed us into hell itself for Apolline, and wouldn't negotiate without her coming along being part of the deal. I approached and began to negotiate, but Harald had his own (much better) idea. He thumped her across the dome, and she immediately passed out. In truth, it was for the best. We approached, grouped, and moved forward. Ator had been telling us of a "sanctuary", not too much unlike his own, and we were moving for it still. Rione's animals were very disciplined, and much kinder than they were when we had encountered them originally. I got to pet the dog, and he seemed content by it.
As we approached, we saw it: a clear circle, a line drawn in the storm, where light-snow, and greenery remained. It was nothing natural, and when we approached and passed through, it was immediately disorienting.
We entered the circle, the sanctuary, and saw a large, stone wall. Following it around for some time, we eventually came to a wood gate, which opened before us. Inside was heaven, at least, I believe it was. I turned to Tariel, equally struck with awe.
“Is this Gronn’s Garden?”
“Do you think he’s here?”
I looked around. I had always wanted to meet my maker. But regardless of whether or not he was here or not, this told us we were on the right track, and the Gods above wanted to see us take our task through. Much to the dismay of the party, I disrobed, and entered the hot spring, soaking in the perfect, crystal clear waters, joining the serene fish who made it their home, as I steamed. Everyone went to do their respective business: Apolline cleaned her clothes, Tariel to pray, and Harald to meditate. A pious man myself, I too went to pray. To thank Thronn and Gronn for this. Morrigaen and I have a strained relationship currently… but I like to think I’m acting out her will as well. I could hear her though.
You’d better pray for luck.
I cannot tell if it is Atrianna, or not. Perhaps the spirit I bested haunts me. Perhaps it’s a manifestation of my own self-doubt. Regardless, Atrianna knew how to piss me off.
I eventually found Apolline, who seemed flustered at first: probably because I was just wearing my kilt. Ladies past the North have too much humility. I took a seat not far from her though.
“You never got to tell me what you’d do for your siblings. You know. Before I had a psychotic break.”
Apolline has two brothers… one is an ass. The other is a fine brother. She’d do a lot for the one, and not the other, accordingly. I’m not sure it’s what I expected… but our families differ and are the same. I find it hard she can’t understand why I need to sort these things out with my family, just as she must. Her family is going to come for her, and I’ll kill every one of their soldiers, knights, break their catapults, and storm their walls for her, but when the time comes, she’s got to look her folks in the eyes and do… well, whatever they do. Personally, my father became some sort of corrupted monstrosity, so I need to kill him. I’m sure the circumstances are different for her. But that’s on me.
Harald arrived, broken from his meditation.
“Yer’ book is scribbling. It’s fer’ Apolline.”
He handed us off the book and headed off not too long after. I let her talk with Lucius, I wasn’t trying to pry too hard. My own head was swimming with the future battles to come, the struggles, the losses we’ll take and triumphs we’ll make. I hope they write a song. All good Knights are sung of, after all.
The book ended up in my hands after a moment, and Apolline seemed flustered, forcing it to me. “You talk to him, convince him he’s making a mistake.”
I was a bit confused, and alarmed, but I skimmed through the book. Lucius intended to go into the storm, and use his magics to save his people, possibly putting himself in… another timeline? Is that how these shadows work? They’re possible endings? I was stunned momentarily, at the thought my Atrianna was… gone. Sent away. My heart froze for a moment, and I thought of myself too. Where had my story ended and carried me elsewhere? But I dismissed these thoughts. Bridges to cross. But even more occurred to me. Lucius was going to another timeline to find an Apolline who wanted to be with him. Lucius had a liking to Apolline? I was stunned. Everything made sense suddenly.
He seemed startled to see my familiar handwriting, and explained his situation to me, much as he did to Apolline. It was the only way. I didn’t need long to digest. I can be thoughtful… but the circumstances are dire. “I understand what you’re doing, I wouldn’t do any less for my people. I know I’m not the person you want to hear this from, but take care, and I hope you return safely.”
When I returned the book to Apolline, she seemed even more flustered. I’m not sure what she was expecting. Handing me the book was a lot like asking oil to put out a fire.
I rose and walked away, to let her conclude her business. It truly wasn’t for me to be there. I went and explained the gravity of the letter I wrote to Tariel. I told him, if Atrianna was gone, he was my heir. I love my cousin, he sees not his own potential. I left him in good hands, with good people. Of my blood, I trust none more. He was startled, and panic stricken, but it would pass. At the very least, it was good motivation to keep me alive (not that he has ever let me down in that respect).
To be honest, I don’t remember exactly how, but Atrianna was in my head again. Calling to me. I looked for her and saw nothing. She said something along the lines of…
Catch me outside.
I ran to the gate and saw her, standing, hammer ready about eight feet from the gate. My eyes widened. Whatever she said, stirred my fire. I ran to my armor and began donning it. Harald ran to me,
“Hold on hold on, Ator said ye’ can’t go out there ye fool!”
“ATRIANA IS OUT THERE AND I’M GOING TO KICK HER ASS.” I screamed.
“Ye daft loon, yer’ crazy. There ain’t no one there!”
“SHE’S RIGHT THERE.” I gestured to her pacing form, outside, with my sword.
He remained unconvinced, and replied with his stare, his mouth opened,
“No she ain’t. Yer’ loosin’ it.”
“JUST LET ME GO TO HER, RIGHT THERE. AND IF IT GOES BAD, JUST PULL ME OUT.”
“NO, EZE’KIEL.” His voice raised at me, much like a parent.
I whined in protest and threw my sword, kicking the air. I ran to my pack and grabbed a javelin, throwing it through the gate. It flew true, but still just short. The bloody wind caught it.
“I’LL FUCK YOU UP, YOU BITCH.”
She laughed and I threw my breastplate down, angrily, and resigned.