Author Topic: Dungeons and Dragons - A Rosarian Prelude  (Read 3429 times)

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Offline Deeox2

Dungeons and Dragons - A Rosarian Prelude
« on: October 23, 2016, 01:32:25 am »
Hello from your friendly neighbourhood prude. I'm finally ready (I guess) to post my novel on here. It's been four months in the making, I believe. Also, yes, it is DnDee, but I found that using DnDee as a catalyst for writing was a great tool, as all my previous attempts to write novels were too big in scope, and this was a good way to narrow down my vision into something concrete with a concise narrative goal. This book here details events before, during and after the key events of the Rosarian Upheaval and the Dark Tide from DnDee's history. Yes, the protagonist is Azami Sicarius. Yes, you may start groaning now. Have fun and don't be afraid to yell at me for some grammatical mistake or some plot hole or whatever else may be on your mind. I swear I've gone through the damn thing pretty fully, but I'm only human. Final things then; PG-13 rating for violence and, uh, sexual references and swearing, I guess; and I've sectioned it into chapters for easier reading, but the story was originally written as just one long thing. Yup, that's it! Maybe I'll write some author's notes later, Idunno.

Chapter 1
Hikari rested her hand against her sword’s hilt, looking down at the map spread out across the thick wooden table. “Straight to Cazavir. I don't like it. The message was sudden, and the path is awkward.” She stroked her chin. “The forests are keen for an ambush. We won't make it out of the taiga if we go by the common path.”

Her sister held a shuriken in her hand, digging a hole into the wood with the edge. “What do you think? Blackraven assassins?” Azami’s eyes darted over the path. “Tavaniri soldiers? I can't see why the man would even want us dead. We are templars, not nobility.”

“We are the last two members of clan Sicarius. We are important because we are the last two left.” She drew a line through the mountains beside the temple. “It would take a few days longer, but we could easily make up for that time by going through Dul Vano.”

“Dwarven ruins…” She took her eyes off the map, gazing up at her sister. “Hikari…” Her sister’s gaze was unwavering and solid. Azami could only sigh lightly. “We set off come first dawn then. There isn't time to waste.”

And so the two sisters, black haired and red eyed, awoke on the first dawn. They brought their provisions and equipment down to the ground floor, where the temple monk was there to see them off. He grasped Hikari by the shoulder, holding her back as she tried to leave. Azami stopped and watched. “Hikari, do you really think this journey is wise?”

Hikari rested her gloved hand on the mentor’s, and gently peeled it from her shoulder. “I am sure. I have done a great disservice to clan Sicarius by keeping us so far from the rest of the world.” She bowed lightly and quickly. “We will be back, in a few weeks time.” The two departed from the cover of the temple, finally walking across the snow and to the stables to pick up their horses. Azami took her horse, and carefully ran a hand through his mane, attaching the saddlebags as Hikari spoke with the stablehands. She had not been able to speak with her horse in quite some time, but unlike with a human, there was nothing to feel awkward about.

“Finally, Masayoshi…” She touched her hand to the beast’s face. “We last rode together so long ago. Sometimes I forget I am a templar, and sometimes I forget I am a Sicarius.” Hikari took her own horse out into the snow silently, and Azami slowly brought Masayoshi out as well. He looked at her with a dark black eye, and then away towards the path that led towards the bottom of the mountain. Azami could sense his eagerness. Instead, Hikari took both of them away and east of the temple. They rode slowly, and the path gradually narrowed until the trees disappeared and the ground became more stone than dirt.

Hikari slowed down, bringing her horse beside Azami’s. “I heard that our clan trained down here. In the summer, when the snow cleared, the young men and women would travel here with one of the old masters and train for days on end. Our warriors were the best. It was a fact.”

Azami looked to her sister, seeing the anger hidden behind the veil of her face. “The clan will not be betrayed again. We’ll return to our old ways.”

Hikari nodded firmly. “We will.”

As they continued, the snow began to fall more heavily and the wind blew fiercely. Azami wrapped a scarf around her face, looking out only a few feet in front of her as the white of the snowstorm obscured her vision. Hikari called out, steering her horse elsewhere as she sought shelter for the two of them. They stopped under the shadow of a small cave, and quickly Azami brought together a small campfire. She whispered quietly into her hands, pointing a palm towards the campfire as she gripped her gauntlet shaped pendant. “Torm, in your name I ask for fire so that we might have some comfort on our journey.” A bout of flame leapt off of her fingertips and the fire started without issue.

Hikari sat by, warming her hands by the fire. “Why Torm? Our clan believed in a pantheon of various gods; a god of tricks, a god of war, a god of fertility. Only when we became aligned with the Tavaniri and pledged our services to the templars did any of us find interest in these other gods. Do you not think about your roots, Azami?”

Azami looked into the fire, running her thumb against the pendant’s surface. “I pray to him because the most miracles that I have asked for have been from his name. Perhaps later, I may find another deity or another faith, and then perhaps then I will pledge myself to that. For now, I will pray to Torm.”

Hikari watched her sister’s face and then looked away, disappointment etched on her own face. “Very well.”

The snow cleared by the hour and the two resumed their travels. They passed silently by the frozen shards of ancient weapons, straw targets, and the occasional dead body. Both let the dead rest where they were, continuing through the valley. Hikari snarled. “This endless winter killed our traditions.” She pushed forward as angering memories brought themselves to the forefront. Azami followed behind, one hand on her wakizashi and the other firmly on the reins. Eventually, the stone and snow of the valley began to clear.

The pair emerged into a clear grassy plain. A galloping of hooves brought Hikari to attention and she reached behind her shoulder for her katana, gripping the blade's handle just as a smattering of dwarves came up over a nearby hill. The group saw the Sicariuses, and Hikari and Azami rode onward to meet them. The leader stopped in front of Hikari. He was an older dwarf, with a greyed beard and a hard look in his eyes. Hikari eyed the polished rifle on his back just as he opened his mouth to speak. “Tavaniri humans…” he said, a great deal of disdain in his voice. “What are you doing here? Gnoll territory is no place for you templars.” He spat to the side, and his comrades chuckled behind him.

“We seek Dul Vano.” The dwarf’s eyes lit up, but then narrowed on Hikari. “It is imperative that we reach it by the end of the day.”

“Here to loot our ancient fortresses… Of course you are, human.” He snarled, carefully adjusting the nose plated helmet on his head. “It seems you're in luck. Dul Vano’s now a breeding ground for gnolls. You won't last three minutes in there.”

Hikari raised an eyebrow challengingly. “And you will, dwarf? Just show us the way and we can depart.”

The dwarf just laughed in Hikari’s face. “You hear that? The templar wants see the path!” He laughed and the rest of his company laughed in equal measure. “We’ll show you the way.” He turned his horse to the side and Hikari and Azami followed behind him as the rest of the dwarves took up the rear.

They rode onward for quite some time, passing small farms, a dwarven fortress complete with shining cannons and shining armoured troops, and the remains of a large metal construct, its simple massive jaw buried and dull blue eyes ever watching. Slowly, the sound of gunfire and clashing steel sounded out across the plain until Hikari and Azami could finally see the fire. A large metal barricade stood upon the precipice of a battlefield. Armoured dwarven troops stood upon makeshift battlements as they fired volley after volley over the wall. Only when Azami was near enough could she see the giant golden faces etched into the cliff face, and the hundreds of gnolls that laid just beyond the barricade. Those who were not lying dead on the scorched ground were hiding behind the depressions in the earth. “Torm grant me strength,” Azami mumbled under her breath.

A dwarven woman in a cape stepped down from the battlements, a circle of silver painted upon the front of her helmet. “Forgrim!” she called to the elder dwarf. “What of the shipment?”

The dwarf descended from his horse and shook his head. “Delayed, Captain. There’s been a storm up north, and they don't want to risk the river.”

“Damn them then,” she said. “It’s now or never. We push these bastards back and reclaim our forefathers home, or we run out of ammunition and they get a chance to reorganize themselves.” She looked away from Forgrim and to the Sicarius sisters. “Who are these humans?”

Forgrim shrugged his shoulders. “We never traded names, but they want to pass through the city.”

Hikari said nothing as the captain turned back to her. “I am Captain Hvedra of clan Tormek. Our ancestors used to govern Dul Vano in an ancient age. Who are you?”

Hikari bowed her head slightly. “I am Hikari, and this is Azami. We are of clan Sicarius, from the Tavaniri north.” She smiled lightly. “I find it interesting that we would cross paths, Captain. The journey of my sister and I also involves our clan. Perhaps we could lend you our swords as you storm the keep?”

Hvedra eyed Hikari suspiciously, before looking to Azami. “What say you?”

Azami pointed to herself. “You are asking my opinion?”

“Yes, I am. You haven't said a word. Would you help a group of dwarven soldiers reclaim an ancient city?”

Azami eyed Hikari for her opinion, but she only saw Hikari’s gaze attempt to make her decisions for her. She turned back to Hvedra. “I see that we have a similarity. If we may pass through your city, then we shall help you reclaim it.”

Hvedra nodded, satisfied. “That’s good.”

A dwarf soldier called out from atop a tower. “Captain, they’re breaking-!” He stopped as an arrow hit him between the shoulder blades and he tumbled off the battlements.

Instead of hiding behind cover, the gnolls now stood up. Some held bows while the others held swords. With a shriek from one of their shamen, they rushed forward from the mouth of Dul Vano.

Hvedra picked up a warhammer lying against the barricade and lifted it above her head. “We fight for our homeland, my brothers and sisters! Charge the enemy!’ She turned back to the Sicarius sisters for a second just as the dwarven soldiers leapt off their battlements into the heat of battle. “Do you stand with us?”

Azami was off her horse first, Hikari following shortly after. They chased after the dwarves as they rushed into the valley to meet the charge of the gnolls. Hikari laughed, having not known battle in ages. Azami drew her wakizashi.

Azami’s steel ran through the creature's abdomen, severing tendon and organ just as she turned back to plunge the blade back into the creature’s spine. Hikari shouted over the horde, decapitating a gnoll with one slash of her katana. “Are you keeping track, sister? I have three already!”

Azami muttered under her breath as she parried a blade to her side and slipped her sword into a gnoll's heart. The creature growled in her face even as it was stuck on her blade, and she pulled the weapon out swiftly to deliver another blow to its skull. An explosion rocked the valley, and Azami turned to see an electrified crater with bodies of both dwarf and gnoll around it.

Hvedra yelled over the commotion. “Azami, was it? Kill that shaman for us, will you?”

Azami looked around, twirling her blade around and wiping it against her sleeve in the chaos. At least ten meters away, there was a beast with a dark purple hood and a solid oak staff. She could see the Spellburn marking his fur dark black like a twisted disease. The shaman gathered energy in his staff, with a large ball of lightning forming at the head of the device. He hurled it, tipping his staff forward, and it hit its mark, destroying the terrain and sending more dwarves and gnolls flying. By the time the projectile struck, Azami had found her way there. She dug her foot into the earth and put all her power behind her swing. The staff shattered as her sword connected with it, sending bits of wood and excess electrical power to the wind. Azami followed up, adjusting her stance and moving to slit the creature’s neck.

The beast had other plans, as he already brought a shortsword up to block the blow. Azami pushed against his weapon, but he did not let up. “Human…” He sniffed her carefully. “You smell of fear, and a determination to prove yourself.” He used his free hand to push her away, and Azami stumbled backward. “You are a weak creature. You think your relationship with your sister makes your life mean something, but you are still nothing.”

Azami held her blade up, keeping her guard in the face of the creature. “Do not read my mind, creature.” Yet, she felt nothing attempting to worm it's way into her head.

The gnoll only laughed, and then brought his sword down on her head. She pushed the blow off and immediately struck for his flesh, but he was one step ahead of her again. He pushed her attack away and Azami only barely was able to avoid the sword hitting her in the face as she stumbled back again. Azami spoke, “You are no shaman…” A demon? A creature from another plane of existence?

The creature laughed once again, and his eyes glowed fiercely with black electricity. For a second, Azami could swear that the shaman was a meter away, but then he wasn’t. He gripped her by the leather shirt and threw her into the jaws of Dul Vano. The gnolls were ready for her, raking into her flesh with their talons. She screamed just as the beasts stopped short of slitting her throat and killing her.

The shaman appeared as a gnoll held her head down, with a dagger against her neck. “Throw her into the pit. She is a suitable candidate.” A hand grabbed her ankle and pulled her away into the darkness.

She could hear a voice, calling out from beyond the jaws of Dul Vano. It called her name, and she knew it could only be her sister.

Azami awoke, filled with pain. Her bed was squishy, and uncannily soft. She pushed up to find herself atop a pile of corpses. Dwarven, human, elven… She could even see a tiefling somewhere in the darkness. With one hand, she pulled herself from the pile only to slip on rotting tissue and tumble down the hill of bodies onto the cold dwarven tiles. She hit the ground hard, and laid there in pain. Softly, she gripped the holy symbol still around her neck and whispered into it. This was… beyond the realm of madness she was accustomed to. She was out of her element, violated and left for dead. Her voice was soft in the darkness, but still she called out softly as tears stained her eyes. “Hikari… please…” She gripped the silver gauntlet as tightly as her pained hands could. “Don't leave me, Hikari…”

Time seemed an eternity as she laid there on the dwarven tiles, bleeding out as the stench of death and decay swirled around the room. Gently, behind her closed eyelids, the symbol glowed a gentle red. Her eyes opened slowly to look at it. She felt oddly warmed, loved, and needed. Azami pressed the symbol against her forehead, breaking out into a tiny smile as it soothed her gently. Soon, she realized her pain had faded away, and the blood stopped leaking from the gashes in her skin. The glow of the symbol faded, and then she was left alone once again in the darkness. She tested her arm carefully. Her movement felt oddly stiff, as if she were not moving naturally, but there was no reason to complain.

She pulled a shortsword from the bloated belly of a dead man and slunk out of the chamber of death and into the hallway beside it. She looked both ways, settling on a random direction - left - and hurrying quietly that way. She moved until she heard voices, and then stopped against the corner wall to listen. There was nothing discernable from the growls of the gnolls, so she peered over the edge of the corner and then continued along undetected. Azami kept on, trudging through ancient hallways of stone and metal. All around her was the smell of gnoll and death, bestial grunts and the turning of ancient machinery. Somehow, she could still hear the heartbeat of the ancient city of Dul Vano. If there was any truth in the world, then it was that dwarves once knew their craft to a degree beyond any other.

She stopped suddenly in a room filled with moving gears and cogs, just as the pattering of footsteps sounded from the far doorway. Azami moved away, crawling upon a gear and gently riding it upwards as a group of ten or more gnolls sprinted through. They looked fine, and their weapons clean of blood. Perhaps the battle above was still going on? Or had the battle ended long ago? She climbed up further upon the gears, and then through the open door the gnolls had came through. She continued upon a short corridor until finally she pushed a final door open and stepped inside the new room.

She blinked as a mystical device shone in the darkness of the room. It was a large ring, with a moving picture of a desert landscape within it. It was perhaps large enough for a humanoid creature to walk into, or perhaps through. The picture changed to one of a forest, and then a grassy plain, a port city, a tropical island. On this image of an island, a familiar figure stepped through the image and into the darkness of the room. The gnoll shaman. Azami scrambled into the darkness as quickly as she could. She stood above the device, with several stairways around the device leading directly towards it in a circular fashion. Down upon the lower level, where the device was located, were numerous tables with all sorts of alchemical and mystical ingredients and devices. Upon one was a corpse, a gnoll with a clean cut through the abdomen. Azami guessed that it was Hikari’s work.

The shaman stepped up towards the corpses, looking down at it silently. He lifted a hand gently, snapping his fingers, and then the corpse twitched, and then the corpse sat up on the table. Azami silently gasped as she knew now what she had stumbled upon.

The shaman spoke to his thrall casually. “Join your brothers.”

Azami crouched upon the ledge of the stairs, shortsword in one hand. She would have to kill this shaman, somehow. Slowly, she wiped the blade against the arm of her tattered armour and then she stood up to leap. A furry hand grabbed her arm, and she spun backwards in panic. The blunt side of her blade hit the gnoll in the side of the head, but as she lost her balance, she quickly tumbled off the edge of the platform onto the lower level. She hit the ground hard, but rose to her feet quickly.

The shaman smiled deeply and pointed his hand at her. His thrall leapt to its feet, bounding towards her with ungodly speed, beyond that of any regular gnoll. It charged forward, teeth bared. She tumbled out of the way, gripped her sword with both hands and unleashing a broad slash as the creature came back for a second run. The attack split the gnoll’s face in two, and it stopped, mouth split through the middle yet turned upward in a hideous smile. Azami adjusted her stance and waited for the next run as the creature's living brothers gathered around the top platform, merely watching the fight unfold. The undead thrall ran his hand against the ground, as if signalling its impending attack and then leapt forward once more. Azami pulled her sword down toward the ground, and then with all her might, with a scream of a battlecry, hefted the blade upward in a vertical slash.

The creature slammed into the stone staircase as its head slowly rolled across the floor. Azami huffed as she slowly brought her sword downward, wincing as she saw the massive claw marks upon her abdomen. The shaman merely applauded her, clapping gently. “You humans are always ones for theatrics and drama. How unfortunate it never saved any of you.” With a quick hand motion, he flicked a bolt of fire towards her, hitting her sharply in the arm and sending the shortsword scattering across the floor. Azami gripped her bicep as the fire quickly died out, still burning her skin black. She gritted her teeth and looked up as the shaman approached. “I find it odd that your spirit is so strong, yet your ability is so lacking. Has your sister-”

Azami screamed over the beast's monologue. “Do not speak of my sister!” She clenched her scarred fist and moved to strike the shaman in the face, only swinging through air as he casually moved backward.

“As I said, strong spirit, yet no ability.” He swung his hand down and threw her to the ground. She skidded across the tiles and hit her back against the portal. Azami could feel the cold of the mountainous terrain it showed, yet her eyes were forward on the shaman. “What do you seek, Azami Sicarius? A place? Power? Redemption?”

Slowly, Azami stood, one arm grasping the edge of the portal and the other hanging limply by her side. “Your power cannot tempt me, demon. You will be killed eventually.” And then she hurled herself backwards into the portal. She landed in the snow, and began to tumble as the terrain took a steep downward incline. She fell for a good while, rolling through the untamed land until finally collapsing at the bottom of the hill. Unconsciousness threatened her at the corners of her eyes, and then finally claimed her as she heard footsteps towards her. Surely, now, she would die.

Or so the girl hoped.

Azami awoke, yet again, covered in a myriad of blankets. She looked up, staring at the wooden beams and roof above her. It reminded her of the temples that she had grown up in, before she had left for the Tavanirian templars and fought with them. Had she stumbled back upon one of the ancient grounds of her clan's? She was in a small room, with a red and gold fabric upon the doorway to her left. The doorway covering held the image of a dragon’s head, embroidered in gold upon the red fabric. In the corner of the room, opposite the mat where she laid, was a small table where the sheath of her wakizashi laid, as well as a roll of bandages and a small set of first aid tools. She slowly pressed a hand to her abdomen, feeling the rows of bandages through the fabric.

So she was alive. Again. It felt undeserved, like the words she had said to that shaman should have been the last; as if it were some prophetic thing that the beast would remember as another warrior cut him down and finally ended his reign of terror. Apparently not.

Azami fell asleep, resting rather than simply laying unconscious. She opened her eyes again, and looked around. The tools on the table had shifted slightly, and the light from the window had dimmed.

Azami tested her body gently as she moved to get up, setting the blankets away from her as she lifted herself up gently from the mat. She pressed her arms against her chest, shivering slightly at the light breeze against her skin. Her body was naked save for the bandages against her abdomen and the pair of simple pants hugging her legs. She ventured outside the room, finding architecture similar to that of northern Tavaniria. Wood supports, bamboo as a legitimate building material, thin paper for the walling. It was just like the homes of her childhood. Upon a tall wall was a long scroll, with 'prevailing honour and justice’ written in old northern Tavaniri text. She stood there, looking at the words carefully until she was finally able to pry her eyes away and leave.

The next room was different. She climbed a pair of two steps to reach its level, and above a short wall that surrounded the white matting of the floor beyond it was a long tapestry of gold and red fabric like the ones that had hung in that small room. Across the fabric was a long golden dragon, gliding across the paper like an ethereal being and breathing out a gout of brilliant golden flame. It was a beautiful sight to behold, and it was like she had found a horde of ancient treasures all to herself.

And then she saw the creature that rested in the center of the room.

It was armoured in thick golden scales and each scale shimmered in the light of the lanterns that surrounded the sparring ring. It breathed in deep and heavy breaths of air, and expelled them with the force of a mountain. It held a massive snout, with large sharp fangs that slipped out of its mouth and hung wordlessly beside its face. It tilted its head to the side, eye filled with all the determination of a fierce warrior and yet with the stillness and calmness of an aged man. “You are awake,” it said with a deep voice that held a distinct wisdom. “It is of no concern. Come. Sit beside me and meditate beside these ancient swords.”

Azami obeyed, stepping forward across the floor and kneeling down beside the beast. She wore the same pants that he did, and for a moment she wondered how there was a pair that fit her before she noted the next oddity. There was a pair of brilliant katanas, sitting on a rack of dark wood. They were lit from behind from the light of two lanterns that rested in the corners of the blades’ small alcove. “They are… beautiful,” she said, watching the swords keenly.

“They are. They have also claimed the lives of countless individuals. Slain innocents, protected countries, dispatched villains, been reforged countless times by long dead master blacksmiths. These blades have passed from numerous hands, and now they lay here, waiting.”

“Waiting for what? Are they meant to be wielded together?”

“Destiny? A hero? A villain? All we can say is that the blades are waiting, because it is certain that someone will wield them again. I have heard that there was one who did wield both at the same time, but that man was of unusual strength.”

Azami nodded quietly and then closed her eyes. She had been told to meditate and now she would. She thought of her sister, of Dul Vano, of the future of clan Sicarius, the shaman that had nearly killed her twice. Her future had always been so uncertain to her, always guided by her sister, but now, after having flung herself through the portal and now being here without her sister… the future was more uncertain than it had ever been before.

The creature spoke, and Azami suddenly felt like they had been there for a long time. “I think it is time that we speak properly with one another. Come. It would be best if you are fed, and I provide you a shirt to keep away the winter chill.”

Azami followed him to the doorway of a small room, and entered behind upon the sounds of wooden plates falling upon each other. He dropped to his knees behind a short table, which was about as short as his feet, and gestured toward a bowl of a dark brown broth as well as a fried oval of bread. “I apologize for the lack of any hearty meats, but the season has not been particularly ripe with game. The cities to the east have been overhunting their lands recently, and the decline in animals has touched even here.”

Azami settled herself down opposite. “No, it’s fine. Thank you.” Her voice was soft, weak, and unsure. She sipped gently from the bowl, coughing harshly into her wrist as she took it in. “How long was I…”

“About…” He counted something on his claws. “Two weeks. I fed you when I was able, but, unfortunately, that was rarely. I found you among a group of wolves, and after I had pushed them back, I carried you here to treat your wounds. A paste of frostroot and angel’s tear to treat your burns, and a simple cleaning and bandaging for the rest of your injuries.”

Azami listened carefully, drinking as the man spoke. “I apologize, but… who are you?”

He set his scaled hand under his chin and slowly nodded his head. “That may have been the best line of conversation to begin our introduction with…” He dropped his hand to his lap. “I am Nadaarin. Like you are human, in the common tongue I am dragonborn.” He raised a hand towards the rafters. “This building was undoubtedly constructed by human architects, but I am its sole keeper. I have maintained the structure for countless years, using the resources of the surrounding area when I can, and trading goods that I have the skill to craft for the resources foreign to this land.”

Azami jumped to a conclusion immediately. “Who were the original inhabitants of this place?”

“It was… long ago,” Nadaarin began. “They were a people of honour and battlefield prowess. We sit upon the border of Luirenmere and the unaligned Dagger Coast, but those who lived here hailed from the north. Their crest was a red dragon, with dark crimson eyes. The name was…” he paused, tapping his snout. “I forget the name but-”

“Was it Sicarius?”

“Sicarius? That does sound like it… Oh, yes, that was the name of the clan that resided here.” He stopped tapping his chin and looked at Azami with his crisp golden eyes, and then he began to laugh. Azami held the bowl close to her chest, confused and surprised at the sudden bout of laughter. “Did you really believe I would forget the name of the clan whose building I reside in?” His laughter subsided. “So my theory was correct then. You must be a child of clan Sicarius. How does it fare now? Will you finally be returning to reclaim this dojo?”

Azami set the bowl down on the table, scratching the back of her neck. “No…” She looked into Nadaarin’s confused face. “I am one of the two last members of clan Sicarius. I am Azami, and I have a sister named Hikari.”

“I see,” Nadaarin said. He closed his eyes and Azami watched him silently, eating the bread in front of her as she waited. “This is unfortunate news, but it does not bring me any deep griefs. It is horrible that you are the last of the clan, but I will remain as the guardian of this site for as long as I am needed.”

“Thank you, Nadaarin.”

“I require no thanks. Now, tell me of your journey.”

Azami related the short adventure that she and her sister had partaken in. She began with the call to action from the Tavanirian captain, to the dwarves at Dul Vano, the shaman within the inner sanctum, and finally her escape through the portal. It was a quick tale, but Nadaarin listened to her every word. When she had finished both her story and her meal, Nadaarin stood up. “Come with me, Azami. Leave your dishes where they lay.” She offered no resistance as he brought her back to the room of the twin katanas. With a unique manner of delicate handling, he picked up one of the swords, holding it up in the candlelight.

“I said that these blades were waiting for destiny, but destiny is something that is claimed rather than simply given. Perhaps it was chance that you arrived here, or perhaps it was fate. The truth is that we must carve out our own path, rather than let it all lay to chance. Hold out your hands.” He laid out the weapon in Azami’s hands. “This sword is named Honour. Its twin is named Glory. As the ancient tales speak about the nature of clan Sicarius, they say that glory is evil without honour, and that honour is meaningless without glory. It does not say what honour or glory is within the eyes of the clan, and so that is what we must decide for ourselves, Azami.” He clasped her hands lightly around the weapon. “This shall be your blade. You are in no state to return to the harsh world outside this dojo, but I shall make you ready. I will teach you what you do not know, reinforce what you have already learned, and you will emerge as a student of the old masters.”

Azami looked up at him, confused. “You know the way of the sword? Who taught you?”

“I lived here long before you were born. I lived with the elders of your clan and learned from them. I will not be as great a teacher as they were, but I will teach you what I do know.”

Azami took the blade in her hands, nodding lightly. She held the sword up, eyeing her reflection in the steel. A scarlet eye and pale skin looked back at her. She let the sword drop back into her palm and then bowed deeply. “Thank you. Again.”

Nadaarin set a hand on Azami’s shoulder. “Get some more rest. We can begin when you’re feeling proper.”

Azami brought her shinai up and it was instantly pushed to the side by Nadaarin’s. He tapped her on the shoulder with his, signifying a killing blow and then brought himself back into a resting position. “Your guard is weak, Azami. Is there something troubling you?”

Azami shook her head slowly. “I do not know, master. I suppose that I am worrying that my sister believes me to be dead.” She brought her guard back up, adjusting her grip on the sword. “The right thing to do would be to train faster so to show her I am alive.”

“If that is what you think is best, then that is what we will strive for for the time being.” He brought his guard up, and they traded a series of strikes and blocks. “We have only done combat, and that is not all there is to the way of a warrior. We must hone our minds and bodies in different ways, and be ready for everything.” Azami moved in for an overhead attack and he easily blocked it and struck her on the leg in quick succession. She fell to one knee, and the dragonborn helped her up. “There is something I believe would benefit your adventures in the future.” He set his sword down and moved over to a small table in the dojo, picking up a small item. He handed it to Azami wordlessly.

She turned it over in her hand. “This is a symbol of Torm.” She ran her thumb over the inscription on the back, a single character reading 'hope’. “It is mine… Where did you find this, master?”

“I returned to the site in which I had found you and I noticed a faint glint of metal in the snow. It was your symbol. I waited to give it back to you because I have a lesson. Have you ever channeled your deity’s will through it?”

“Yes, I have… I have used it to light the occasional fire. Mostly small things such as that.” She wrapped her fingers around the string and brought the loop over her neck. “What of it?”

Nadaarin smiled. “I'm surprised you have never gone beyond that. Have you ever fought beside a paladin or a cleric in your time? Have you seen the power they wield because of their focus through their holy symbols? Is it a sight that is beyond words.”

“You are saying that I may be able to channel such power… Master, I doubt that I could. The power of the divine requires a strong will, something that I lack.”

“Believe in yourself, Azami, or if not, simply believe in my ability to believe in you.” Azami raised an eyebrow at him, and he only chuckled wordlessly. “We don’t have to try it now if you do not wish to, but one of these days would be best.”

Azami nodded slowly to herself, looking down at the symbol in her hands before clenching it tightly in her palm. A sudden rapping against wood reverberated within the halls of the dojo and Nadaarin stood up, dusting off his lap. “Really? This’ll be interesting…” He exited the room and Azami perked her ears up, watching idly into the main complex of the building. There was a loud slam and Azami tensed, but then Nadaarin emerged.

“Leeskin… you’re late,” Nadaarin said, stopping in the middle of the room. Azami waited for a human, or perhaps another dragonborn to appear, but there wasn’t one… A small scaled creature appeared instead, clad in a myriad of furs with a large backpack and a small sword on its hip. It took its furry hat from its head and set it to the side, smiling to reveal two rows of sharp teeth.

“Nadaarin… Sorry. There is bandits on the road. They is no problem for me, but… the human guards like to make trouble…” Nadaarin sighed as the creature set its backpack down. “I have what you wanted, Nadaarin… It was heavy… and expensive, but I get great deal for it…” He pulled a large metal breastplate and set it down on the floor. Nadaarin picked the piece of armour up, tapping his knuckles against it and then set it back down, satisfied.

Leeskin stopped smiling, shifting topics for a moment. “How is the human?”

“You should ask her yourself.” He turned his head and called her over. “Azami, you shouldn’t need to hide.” Azami stepped out from the bannisters and wiped the feeling of embarrassment from her cheeks.

“I am well,” she said, bowing her head slowly. “I am Azami, of clan Sicarius.”

Leeskin went back to his giggly self almost immediately. “She is one of the red ones? I wish I had known! You was barely alive when I last saw you.” He walked up to Azami, only coming up to her hips, and offered her his hand. She shook it carefully, feeling his rough scales in her hand. “I is Leeskin… You humans always want to know… what is it… race? I is a kobold, as you would say.” He tapped the side of his skull with a sharp claw, thinking deeply. “I is also… merchant… no, human word… courier?” He nodded profusely. “Yes, that is word!”

Nadaarin stepped back towards the dojo, gesturing for the two to follow. “It is fortunate that you actually did arrive, Leeskin. There is much I want to discuss with you, and Azami.” He gathered them around the small ankle high table in the kitchen room and set out a few tea cups riddled with small scratches and claw marks. Azami held her cup delicately, sipping the light black water while watching the two speak. She sighed, contentedly.

It reminded her of a time, long ago. Perhaps she was six, and her mother had set out tea just like this… She spoke with a man, delicately and diplomatically at first, but then with hints of anger and aggression as the conversation dragged on. There was a near perfect view of her sister, training with one of the elders and gripping a wooden sword as if it were made of metal. It was summer, and the birds sung gently in the background… A sadness tugged at the corners of the memory, reminding her that it was just that; a memory, and nothing else. She clung onto her smile, returning to the present.

Leeskin counted out a handful of silver coins from a small coin purse, sliding a fistful of silver and a single gold coin toward Nadaarin. “That is what I was able to get for your candles and meats, Nadaarin. I told a nobleman that your candles were made by a monk of a dragon monastery…” He giggled quietly. “That is not very much a lie, is it?”

Nadaarin scratched his head. “Well, that is about the value of their worth. Good.” He collected the coins and set them together behind him. “Is there any news from the Coast?”

“Templars was in Quntarin… They dragged mage kicking and screaming from local temple, say she is from tower of clock. Prince is mad, but say nothing. Town is upset about house, say there is necromancer… That is it… There is usual bandits, usual unfriendly creatures…”

Nadaarin gestured with an open palm towards Azami. “Do you think it would be safe for her to even set foot in the town?”

Leeskin looked confused. “Why? Is human being hunted?”

Nadaarin looked at Azami and she set her cup down. “Have you seen undead or gnolls anywhere in the region?”

“Gnoll? That is creature that look like wolf… No, gnolls do not come to Coast. Undead… Townspeople always say that creepy house or castle must have necromancer or ghost, but there never is one. You is safe.”

“Good,” Nadaarin said. “Azami, in a few weeks time, you will be going down to the local town. It is not healthy for you to stay in a home with only a dragonborn to keep you company. I will have Leeskin accompany you so you won’t get lost.”

Azami nodded. “I trust in your judgement, master.”

“Well, if we are all in agreement… Leeskin, there are some things I would like for you to secure for me…”

“The Spellburn?” Nadaarin said, blowing gentle flames from his mouth onto a small campfire. The two were outside the dojo. Azami had asked about it, recalling the gnoll shaman as she cut into a fallen deer’s flesh with a hunting knife. “The Spellburn is ancient magic, or perhaps not even magic. There are all kinds of stories about how it came to be, and really, who can say what did start it? The elves and dwarves say that it was not always around, but I don't know how much stock to put in those words…” He looked up at Azami, who held a slightly puzzled expression. “My apologies, I am getting side tracked. You say that a gnoll had black marks on its fur? That would most likely be Spellburn. If a creature is capable of casting arcane spells, then they will have it. One of my clansmen, eons ago, painted his scales white and black to compliment his Spellburn. He held a wondrous pattern that was truly a sight to see. So, one does not necessarily have to view it as a bad thing.”

“Is it a bad thing, master?” She knew better than to immediately jump to conclusions about anyone now. Certainly, why would Nadaarin speak so openly and freely with her if he was like the tales of the xenophobic honorbound dragonborn she had heard of? She only wanted his opinion.

“Like many things, it is what you make of it. You are a Tavanirian templar, correct? I am sure that the training of the order has said much upon arcane casters, but I believe it would be better for you to experience the world on your own. Not all the world is like the land of the Tavaniri Empire. I suspect even what little you did see of Asalgard was quite different than what you are used to.”

“Perhaps it was, but I only saw it as a divulging path that Hikari had elected to take. You speak so much about realizing things about the world, and my own potential, but how am I supposed to see it when I am here?” She looked at Nadaarin, his face surprised, and realized that she had raised her voice. “I apologize…”

“No. I understand.” He idly stirred the ashes of the fire, hovering his palm and then the back of his hand against the flame. “It has been a long time since I last spoke to someone on a regular basis. It has also been a long time since another member of your clan was here. He was my master, and he passed away here in the dojo.” He looked back up, holding Azami’s gaze. “When I am sure you have regained your full strength, then it will be up to you to decide your fate. You cannot learn the secrets of life from a single dragonborn, so why would I expect that of you.”

Azami looked down at the deer in front of her, laying her hand on the creature. “When I do find and learn these 'secrets of life', then I’ll be back, with my sister and a rebuilt clan.”

Nadaarin smiled. “I will await the day.”

There came a light pattering of footsteps across the snow of the mountain. Nadaarin stood, brandishing the katana Glory as he looked around for the source of the sound. Azami tried to calm him with a few words. “It is probably a deer, master. Don’t worry yourself about such a small thing.” A small familiar figure came towards them, clad in a familiar fur coat.

“Leeskin?” Nadaarin moved to sheathe the sword. “What are you doing here?”

“Keep the sword out!” He said, dropping down in front of Nadaarin. “I is so sorry, Nadaarin… Humans look for girl that look like girl… I say I know who they are looking for and they…” He looked up at Nadaarin, surprised to see Nadaarin resting upon his knee, looking at him. “Humans are coming for the girl.”

Azami looked across the path down the mountain, as several dark shapes moved slowly towards the three. She brought herself to her feet quickly, watching as Nadaarin picked up Honour and tossed it, sheath and sword, towards Azami. “There will be no practice now, go back to the dojo and I will deal with this.” Azami turned to run, but she only saw more men near the building.

“They’ve surrounded us,” she said in response, gripping the handle of the katana with one hand. “What should we do?”

Nadaarin kicked snow up upon the fire and pointed at Leeskin. “There are too many. Take Azami and run.” Both Leeskin looked at him in shock. “There is no time to argue about this, both of you. Go. Now!”

Leeskin grabbed Azami’s hand and began to tug her away, but she stood her ground, planting her feet in the ground and staring into Nadaarin’s face. “Nadaarin…” He returned her gaze, his hard resolve softening for a second, before he turned away from her fully. “Damn you…” she hissed under her breath before letting the kobold take her away.

The mountain’s ground immediately dipped downwards and the two slid down, dodging by trees and rocks as they ran. Azami turned her head around for a moment to see several of the figures following them. The kobold kept just ahead of her, weaving through the terrain without a single issue. “How close are we to this town you keep talking about?” she said, trying to yell through the wind blowing through her hair.

“Close!” the kobold said, and continued on. The trees began to clear up and then the kobold took a sudden turn and Azami slipped trying to follow. She fell onto her back, before beginning to tumble down a steep incline. She rolled out onto a patch of grass, the sword slipping from her fingers and tumbling away. Azami pulled herself up, scrambling over for it and grasping one hand upon it before a firm boot slammed into her fingers. All she let out was a gurgle of pain before she looked up at the owner of the shoe.

“What do we have here…” a man with dark green eyes said, looking down at her through tufts of dirty brown hair. He kicked her in the face with his other boot, pushing her backwards. “This is quite the sword you have here…” He put his hands around it, picking it up and pulling it slightly out of the sheathe. “It looks expensive…” When his eyes fell upon the red dragon design of the leather sheathe and a smile played upon his lips, she knew. “So you’re who we’re looking for, eh? What if I took your head with your own blade, wouldn’t that be funny?”

“Rowan,” a voice called. “The templars want the girl alive.” It was a light skinned woman, with short black hair and piercing blue eyes. There were clear signs of Spellburn running up both her arms, disappearing behind the white sleeves of a blouse that she wore behind a black leather chestpiece. Azami pressed a hand to her nose, looking around for an escape.

The man turned towards her and spat. “Quiet, new girl. You’re only here because the boss needed an extra hand. Keep your mouth shut and maybe I won’t slit your throat too.”

The woman rolled her eyes. “Yeah, whatever. Just tell me what you’re going to do with the girl.”

He growled lightly. “She’s one of those Tavaniri whores. They prance about up north thinking they mean something, but they’re worth less than nothing.”

“If you really think I’m going to let you-”

He turned around completely, beginning to draw the sword. “I told you to stop talking.”

She just smiled, slowly raising a hand. “Yeah, whatever.” A ball of flame sparked in her hand and she grabbed the man’s face with her palm. He screamed in pain as Azami began to pick herself up. The screaming stopped as the woman shoved her shortsword into the man’s chest and pushed him to the ground. “Bastard…” Azami and the woman locked eyes, but the woman shrugged, picking up the sword in its sheath and throwing it at Azami’s feet. “It's yours. Keep it.”

She wasted no time in picking up the sword, bringing it tightly against her chest. “Why did you… Who are you?”

The woman opened her mouth to speak, just as the men who had been following Azami slid carefully down the hillside with their swords in their hands. They stopped, looked at Azami, and then looked at the woman’s blade soaked in blood. Instead of even paying a second more of attention to Azami, they leapt forwards towards the other girl and struck out with their blades. Azami ran, following the creek that made itself apparent as the snow begun to clear. She ran until the snow disappeared and the land turned green.

Out of breath and with drenched boots, Azami stopped in an open field, panting heavily. She waited, but no one came; not the men that were chasing her, not Nadaarin, not Leeskin, and not that strange woman. Slowly, she brought the strap on the katana around her body and over her shoulder. Azami now had her wish to see the world… but it wasn’t right. At all.

The sun began to beat down hard upon Azami as she continued on her journey across the grasslands of the Coast. It was nothing to what she had experienced during her time with the templar order. Once they had marched all the way from the Tavanirian capital city to a border town to inspect a single fort. Hikari had gritted her teeth through the entire venture and wouldn’t hear any complaining from Azami. It was always like that, with Hikari leading the two of them through their life. It was easier that way, for both of them.

On the horizon eventually emerged the dark jagged form of buildings. A sign pole designated it as the town of Quntarin, the one that Leeskin had briefly spoken of when he had visited. Azami doubted that she would be too out of place. Adventurers could be a copper a dozen, and a woman with a sword wouldn’t raise too much suspicion. She walked into the town carefully, making sure to keep her pace steady and her head beneath her hood. What was of concern was the group that had climbed up to the Sicarius dojo. If they were here then she wouldn’t be safe, but she couldn’t pass up the lure of civilization.

She stepped up to the local inn, noting the lone horse that sat tied to a post, idly lapping at a water trough. The atmosphere inside was stuffy and almost suffocating. The floorboards near the entrance were rotten and the one behind the bar was an ugly and ornery looking woman. Azami stepped up to the bar and the woman pushed herself up, standing up straight and putting on her best fake smile. “What can I get you?”

“Bread,” she said and licked her lips. “And mead.”

The bartender nodded her head. “That’ll be ten copper.”

Azami bit her lip cautiously. “I don’t have any-” A hand placed a silver coin on the counter. Azami looked up, her fear spiking as she looked into a familiar face.

The white bloused mage looked down at her, smiling before looking back to the bartender. “She’s with me. Also, you’re overcharging people again.”

The bartender grumbled. “What happened to you and your band of idiots?”

The mage only laughed. “They thought they could beat me in a fight.” She raised her other hand, now bandaged. “Let’s just say my injuries were the least life threatening.”

With a huff, the bartender produced a half clean mug of brown liquid and a plate of stale bread. Azami took them without thinking, and the mage only walked away to a small table in the corner, beckoning Azami to sit down with her. With great care, she followed, sitting down across from the mage and resting her sword up against the table. For once, Azami spoke. “I want answers.”

The woman ran a hand through her black hair, bringing a mug to her mouth. “Well, what do you want to know?”

Azami glared. If this was how the conversation would flow, then this would be incredibly annoying to get through. “Why did you come after me? Why did you kill that man? Who are you?”

She raised a hand, displaying three fingers. “My name is Victoria. I was working with a loose band of mercenaries; bandits more like, that were chasing a bounty by the templars.” She lowered two of her fingers. “A kobold told us that someone matching the bounty’s description was hiding up in the mountains, so our leader brought us up to the mountains.” She raised one of her fingers back up. “Truth is, they were a bunch of terrible people, and the pay was terrible. So, when that man started speaking in such a way that made it sound like he wanted to do some absolutely horrible things to you, I killed him.” She lowered her hand and went back to her drink.

“Do you always answer questions in such an annoying manner?”

“Only on weekdays.” She set the mug down. “Do you even know why you’re being hunted?”

Azami contemplated her answer for a moment before simply shaking her head. “No.”

“Oh boy…” Victoria tapped her finger against the table. “So, Cazavir. Borders with Albia and Tavaniria. You heard of it?”

Azami would be hard pressed to find someone she knew that didn’t know of it. There was enough fuss with the city that it seemed that all recent politics centred on it. When a city wanted to stay neutral in the face of two larger nations, well then that was a brewing storm of trouble in itself. In fact, that was where Hikari and her had planned to travel to before everything changed at Dul Vano… There was no point in telling Victoria any of that. “Yes, I know of it.”

“The templar captain there was murdered a week ago, with an Albian sword no less. Now the templars and the Knights are at each other's throats.” Azami shrugged her shoulders. “Perhaps that sounds like meager news to you, but the templar order sent out a bounty for someone matching your description. Anyone worth their silver can tell that the templars obviously think this person did it.”

Azami broke her piece of bread in half, biting off a piece to chew.  “Why do you say that?”

“They were a northern Tavanirian, and a templar at that. That combination, especially for a Tavanirian bounty, is highly suspicious following a murder.”

Azami watched her face. Victoria seemed sincere, and Azami had to agree with her on her point. She rarely saw anyone that looked like her in the times that she did venture into southern Tavaniria, but then again, Hikari had always been the one to venture outside while she stayed with the garrison… Had she ever even spoken to anyone during those times?

Victoria tapped her finger on the table as if awaiting an answer, and Azami awkwardly cleared her throat. The bread was incredibly stale and dry. “Perhaps you have a point then. What of it?”

She sighed. “As I said, you’re a wanted woman now. I came down here to track the bounty, and I found you. You’re the only lead I have now.”

“And I’m only a lead because of what I look like? You are quite the desperate bounty hunter.” Azami took the bread and dipped it into her mead. It tasted worse than before.

“I’ll only ask you once. Do you know anything about Cazavir or the templars or anything?” It wasn’t a threat. Azami could tell Victoria only wanted answers, or at least that’s how the woman spoke. It wasn’t like Azami knew nothing. That was her and Hikari’s destination, and Hikari had wanted to speak with one of the Tavanirian diplomats at the border… She could tell Victoria what she knew, or she could withhold information. Azami nodded, she had a plan.

“I may know something, but in exchange, I want another question answered.”

Victoria shrugged. “Sure. Name your price.”

“Where are you headed from here?”

Victoria watched Azami closely, looking for a reaction. “I'm headed straight back to Cazavir. Everything could have changed while I went on this wild goose chase.”

Azami came right out with it. “I want you to take me with you.”

“What? Why?” Victoria turned a hand up in question. “Why in the name of the Gods would you want to go to Cazavir now? It wouldn't even be safe for you.” Azami said nothing and only maintained a solid glare in Victoria’s direction. “Okay, fine, but you’re not going to live off of my money. You pull your weight.”

“That's agreeable, now listen to what I have to say.”

Chapter 2
Victoria held her horse’s reins as Azami sat behind her. “Remind me why I let you on my horse?”

“The trek would take days longer otherwise, and my own horse is essentially out of the picture.” If anything, the proximity was extremely uncomfortable. Azami wasn't used to riding with two in the saddle, and neither did it seem that Victoria was. It had been Victoria’s decision to head out first thing in the morning to see if they could reach Cazavir by the week, so Azami could only blame her for their condition. Victoria seemed keen on meeting Azami's sister, stating that Hikari would probably know something. It was more than obvious that Victoria suspected Hikari, but Azami could not see her sister even being involved with such a high profile murder. It was so important that they did not damage the image of their clan, especially now.

If the proximity had any benefits, it was perhaps that Azami could see Victoria’s Spellburn from up close. From afar it looked as if it was a deep discolouration of the skin, but up close, she could see how the skin flaked and peeled, and how it looked like it was draining her life. There also seemed to be a thin layer of translucent scales upon her skin, which as far as she knew was not a product of the Spellburn itself. “You're a sorcerer, correct?”

Victoria turned her head slightly. “It is because I don't look like I stick my nose in books all day?” Azami only shrugged. “Yeah, I am. Somewhere along the way, a dragon’s blood got mixed up with my family’s. Maybe it was because of a dragonborn, or some sort of ritual.”

It was always dragons. “What kind of dragon?”

“A red one, so that means fire.” She flashed Azami another look. “I know, I know. I have blue eyes, so shouldn't it be literally any other type of chromatic dragon? Maybe a part of me didn't want to be like a red dragon, so the blue eyes were a way of telling me to be different, and pick my own path.”

“Our bloodlines do not choose our paths, we do.”

“That’s something coming from you. Are all templars like this? You read things about personal liberties and freedom but follow the guidance of your leaders without question?”

Azami huffed quietly. “It was a life of honour. We are the protectors of the empire, and we must follow the orders of our superiors; otherwise, where is our honour?”

She stopped the horse suddenly, and just when Azami thought Victoria would begin to tell her off, she instead raised her hand to quiet her. “What do you know about Luirenmeran elves?”

“I would rather not run into one,” Azami said casually.

Victoria pointed down the road, as a group of soldiers in green painted armour made their way towards them. “Keep your sword ready. I don't want any surprises.” Victoria pushed her horse onwards, and Azami set her hand on the sword on her hip. A fight was the last thing Azami wanted.

The commander eyed them immediately, but only made any motions when the two were close. She raised a hand, and the three horsemen behind her stopped. Victoria stopped as well, wearily watching them all. Azami noticed a figure slumped over the rear of one of the elves’ horses. They were far darker skinned than any of the elves or Victoria or Azami, and in fact they had pointed ears visible against their black and curly hair. Azami elbowed Victoria in the side, gesturing very acutely at the figure. Victoria blew air out the corner of her mouth, mumbling under her breath. “Shite.”

The Luirenmeran commander’s posture on her horse was straight, that it almost seemed to be an insult to how unprofessional Victoria and Azami were. “Humans…” The disdain for other races in the woman's voice was thick and vile. “You will know that this land has been claimed by the Luirenmere Dominion.”

Victoria chuckled fakely. “We're just passing by-”

“And you will also know that all intelligent creatures upon this land are now citizens of the Dominion. As such, you are expected to pay taxes and tribute to the High King. You will begin by relinquishing all your coinage.” She eyed the sword in Azami’s hand greedily. “Your passenger’s weapon will also be relinquished.”

Victoria sighed loudly. “We know you're just trying to hold us up, if you let us go, we won't report you to your local garrison or whatever have you.”

The commander only laughed, and began to draw her sword. Her soldiers were completely silent. “Dismount your horse.”

Victoria began to dismount. “Just do what she says.” She landed on the dirt and carefully helped Azami off. “When I say.”

“Now, drop your weapons.”

Victoria slowly took the sword from her sheath and began to place it on the ground. “Now.” She brought the blade back up and flicked a gout of flame at one of the rear guard, immediately having him burst into flames and fall from his horse. Azami took the signal and drew her katana, knocking another one of the soldiers from his horse.  The commander shouted at her soldiers and pushed her horse forward, missing a downward swing at Victoria, and receiving a bolt of fire in the back in return. She fell from her horse as well.

The final elven soldier, with the prisoner on his horse, began to turn away and attempted to flee. Azami stayed one step ahead, jamming her blade under his shoulder joint and twisting harshly. She pulled the blade back, now slick with blood, and the elf fell to the ground. His helmet slid off, bouncing along the dirt road, and he turned to Azami as his blonde hair splayed out across the gavel. “You human imbecile.” He reached out from her with his good arm, and Azami responded by shoving her blade deep into his gut and slowly watched as the life seeped from his face. She turned away, as he eased into the earth and withdrew her blade. Her mouth contorted into a grimace as she eagerly pushed the image of the dying elf’s face from her mind and looked out for Victoria.

Victoria fought both the last two elves on her own, blocking a blow from the commander and then dodging a swipe from her subordinate a second later. Their armour was exceptionally strong, as Victoria's counters bounced off. Azami slid in, blocking one of the commander’s strikes and shoving her away. With the commander out of the picture, the elven soldier made a slash forward. The blade sliced through Victoria’s arm, but not before she reared her shortsword back and slipped it through the elf’s throat.

Victoria and Azami stood together against the commander, and the elf only laughed. “If only I was like the pure elves of old. Then you would be quivering in fear…” She knocked away a slash from Victoria's shortsword with her bracer and laughed again, louder and with a tinge of madness. “I will enjoy killing both of you.”

Azami clenched her teeth. “The evil in your heart is beyond redemption.” She brought her katana down beside her knee and slashed upward. Her blade bounced against the commander’s, and she twisted to bring it back again one more time, cleaving clean through the commander's breastplate and drawing blood. Honour glowed red hot as fire dripped from the edge, slowly cooling. Victoria simply kicked the commander, and she toppled to the ground.

Victoria let out a whistle. “You never said you knew how to use magic. Why didn't you tell me?”

Azami breathed in deeply. “I’ve never done that before.” Her hand went to her holy symbol, and she pulled her hand back when she felt the usually cool metal, now hot. “That’s never happened before.”

Victoria returned her shortsword to her hip and then laid a hand on the slash on her arm. “Well, either way, we should see about the elf they captured. Now, where’d she get off to…”

The two looked around to find the horse and the prisoner a ways down the path. Victoria clambered onto her own horse, while Azami carefully took one of the elven horses. They quickly stopped, taking the elf off the horse gently. It was a woman, and she was unconscious. Victoria scratched the back of her neck. “Well, she's an elf, and if I had to guess, a Sidhe one at that. They probably found her and decided to haul her back to the Dominion. Probably would be a good idea to wake her up, see if we can help.” She gestured over to her horse. “I have some smelling salts in my bag… Should be right on top. Could you grab them?”

As Victoria knelt down to check the woman’s breathing, Azami sauntered to the horse and opened up the saddle bag. It was true that a container of tablets was on top, but there was quite a lot else. Lockpicking tools, several vials of poison, and oddly enough, a violin bow… “You play viola, Victoria?”

“Indeed I do,” she said casually, running a knife against the elf's rope restraints. “I picked that up when I ran with a pirate crew down along the Coast. Drinking is better with music, some say. I was just there to provide it.”

Azami handed Victoria the package of tablets. She bit her lip, hesitating before she went ahead with her question. “I’ve only ever heard the viola once, when my sister and I traveled to the imperial capital for a conference…” It had been part of a traveling act that had been denied access to the palace, and instead decided to play for the templar garrison. Somehow, that made it feel much more special than the Empress' own entertainment. “Perhaps I could hear you play? Maybe once we reach Cazavir?”

Victoria opened the leather pouch, inspecting the small capsules and tossing out a few. “Honestly, I haven't seen a viola in years. If you find one, I’d play it just for nostalgia’s sake.” Azami nodded slowly. If anything, at least Victoria seemed to be more comfortable.

She cracked the capsule under the elf’s nose and the woman snapped awake, almost slamming her head into Victoria’s from the sudden jolt. First, she spoke in the elven tongue, angry and threatening, but upon seeing two humans in front of her, and a complete lack of Luirenmere troops, she paused. “Who are you? Where am I?”

Victoria pointed at herself. “Victoria.” She pointed to Azami. “Azami. We're traveling across the Dagger Coast. A band of Luirenmere soldiers tried to rob us so we retaliated, and now you're free.” She scratched her head slightly. “We're near the town of Quntarin… I don't know if that means anything to you.”

The elf began to curl in, rubbing at her forehead with her palm. She mumbled in elvish before standing up. “My family is far from here. Near the human city of-”

Victoria raised a hand, smiling knowingly but with a slight glint of displeasure in her eyes. “Is it Cazavir?”

“... Yes.”

“It’s just gonna be one of those…” She stood up as well. “We’re headed there as well. Now that we have more than enough horses, you’re welcome to join us. That all right with you, princess?” She looked at Azami.

“Do not call me that.” Azami shook her head, realizing how that wasn't an answer at all. “It’s fine. Might I ask your name then?”

The elf set her hands on her lap, bowing slightly to Azami. “My name is Kaska.” She raised her head. “Are you royalty?” Azami quietly began to rub at her temples as Victoria’s laugh rose from a giggle to a hysterical roar. “What? You look as if you’re running from something, and that sword you have looks like an heirloom; ancient but well kept.

“If I am royalty, that would be quite the shock.” Azami shook her head and shot a venomous look in Victoria’s direction. “Victoria has said I am a wanted woman, and the sword is… it is complicated. The story would be better told on the road.”

The three clambered onto horses and left. Azami recalled the story of meeting Victoria and that the sword belonged to her clan, but nothing beyond that that would be extraneous information. She was still wary of Victoria, and of people she did not know. They all continued on, and the grass grew greener and the trees more vibrant. Victoria passed by a cart stopped in the middle of the road, and seeing that the wheel was broken, offered to try and fix it.

Kaska raised her hand. “Allow me to take a look at the wheel.” She did, and she drew her hand across the crack of the wood, mending it as a steady flow of translucent green light leaked out from her fingertips. The farmer thanked them graciously and then they were on their way.

“You’re a druid then?” Victoria asked. “That was some fine work back there.”

“That I am…” There was a slight blush on Kaska’s face. “My mother taught me much of what I know.”

“It's good to have a teacher.” She snapped her fingers, eyeing her hand as flames sparked in between her digits. “I learned everything I know myself. Might as well, right? Spellburn wasn't going to go away just because I wanted it to, so it was just easier to learn more.”

“I'm sorry you feel that way…” Kaska looked pensive for a moment, before her gaze softened. “The people on top simply love to look down on the people who are different than they are.”

Victoria nodded. “Damn right if I know that. Speaking of all that anywho; we're a group of magic users, aren’t we then? Azami’s got some holy magic running through her holy symbol, I’ve got dragon’s blood in me, and you’re a druid. I’m surprised we haven't been at each other’s throats yet.”

Kaska nodded, a slight laugh escaping her lips. “Perhaps it’s fate that we all met?”

Victoria chuckled, eyeing Azami. “What do you think, your highness?”

“That you’re insufferable, but perhaps Kaska has a point. We’re not a band of templars or Knights, adventurers or mercenaries. We’ve met by happenstance. Perhaps it's commendable that we haven't tried to kill each other yet.”

“That’s the spirit!” She slapped Azami on the back, who immediately gritted her teeth in annoyance. “We’re about a day off from Cazavir. You think you’ll go back to your templar order? Leave us all behind?”

Azami took a moment to soften before she shook her head. “I'm here to find my sister.”

“And so we shall. Well, it might be harder to even get into the templar garrison with everything that’s happened…”

Kaska shook her head. “The Cazavirians have heightened security at the gates. They’re going to search us. It’ll be much harder than that.”

“You might be a half-elf, but I trust the Cazavirian Watch more than I trust the Tavanirians or the Albians when it comes to racial sensitivity. No, the problem's not gonna be that…”

Azami sighed. “How much contraband are you carrying?”

Victoria giggled slightly before giving off a sigh of her own. “Several packages of recreational substances that I'm not going to part with. That’s not even the problem here. Azami, you’re wanted because you look like the templar murderer.”

“How are we getting in then?” Azami asked.

Victoria tapped the side of her head, closing her eyes for a moment before opening them. “There’s someone I know.”

Victoria, Azami and Kaska reined in their horses near the southeastern Cazavirian city gate. The walls were massive, perhaps not to what Azami had once seen of the Tavanirian capital, but still mighty and fearsome. Victoria guided them away as the guards eyed them, heading over to the small inn beside the road. They tied their horses up and all three walked in.

It was a quiet little inn, with only a few patrons. Azami breathed a sigh of relief, as the inn was far better taken care of than the inn she had seen in Quntarin, but then again that may have just been because of the little coin that flowed through there. Victoria stepped up to the innkeeper, an older man with a scar across his mouth, and then the two stepped into the kitchen leaving Azami and Kaska alone.

Azami settled into a bar stool, quickly ordering a mug of mead with the coins from one of the Luirenmere elves’ pockets. Kaska sat beside her, ordering the same with a bit of reservation.

“Azami? That is your name, right?” Azami offered a nod. “Where are you from? I haven't quite heard a name like that ever before.”

“The Tavanirian north.” She swirled the drink in her hand before taking a long sip. “I said I came down here with my sister. We were separated in the dwarven city of Dul Vano. There were gnolls, undead, and a portal.”

Kaska’s ears seemed to perk up at the last word. “A portal? How do you mean?”

Azami scratched the side of her head. “It was made of stone, and in the centre of it was an image of a distant location that shifted every few seconds. I fell through it… by accident.”

“That sounds like an ancient elven device…” She tapped her chin. “It certainly isn't a dwarven contraption, because I’ve seen the ancient iron rails that ancient dwarves used to travel upon. Your Order of the Watchtower make similar portals I’ve heard, but not with so many destinations, and probably not within dwarven territory.”

“The gnoll’s shaman stepped into the dwarven ruins from it. Gnolls are… gnolls. I do not think the gnoll built it.”

“I think a gnoll could build a portal such as that, but a gnoll could never design one. Most gnolls lack the intelligence for something such as that.”

Azami set her mug down. “The gnoll’s shaman spoke common, and moved as if possessed by a demon. I studied much about the demonic planes and the magic that runs through the blood of sorcerers. That was not something I was taught. That was new, something a Tavanirian research team would want to document.”

Kaska closed her eyes for a moment, opening them as she spoke. “The world is ever changing. Perhaps this was demonic possession, or perhaps this was a very particular gnoll. We cannot say, can we?” She watched Azami’s lack of reaction carefully. “When we find your sister, perhaps we can ask what transpired.”

“I thought you would have left by now. Why are you staying?”

Kaska chuckled lightly to herself. “I'm interested in this story. The life of a Sidhe elf gets awfully repetitive at times. I’ll have a story for when I return to my family.” She looked to the side, as Victoria stepped out from the back rooms, still talking to innkeeper with a cocky smile placed on her face. “Plus… I find your companion quite intriguing.”

Azami raised an eyebrow. “I barely know her, if that is what you're asking. You can have her.”

“You don't find her interesting? Talkative, and she seems reliable, and perhaps even a powerful mage?”

A scowl found itself on Azami’s face. “She is an annoying woman, but she can get me into the city.”

“So, you’re leaving us when this is over?”

Azami cracked the hint of a smile. “Yes.” And then downed the rest of her drink.

Victoria arrived, rubbing her hands together. “Well, congratulations. Turns out the innkeep is still running folks in and out of the city. Come on, there’s someone I’d like all of you to meet.”

The three left the inn and headed back behind the inn. They continued for a time, until a small stream of water emerged from the brush, leading them towards a larger stream; one large enough to fit a small boat into. Victoria lead them onwards, until a small dock appeared, cloaked in the shade of several trees. A light skinned man sat on top of a wooden crate, eyes glued onto the page of a novel in his hand and completely inattentive to the world around him. “Errol!” Victoria called, and he jolted up.

“Gods, Victoria…” he pressed a hand to his chest before looking to Victoria companions. He tossed the book over his shoulder and it clattered in the dust. “What can I do for you lot?” he asked as he stood up, leather chest piece jiggling lightly.

Kaska suppressed a giggle. “Was that Hearts of the Templar? You’re into romance novels, eh?”

“What?” he yelped. “No, it was one of those crime serials by that halfling author…” He scratched his head. “Ah, bollocks… what’s his name…”

Kaska clasped her hands together. “Oh, it was, wasn’t it! Henry and Sir Percival are just perfect for each other aren't they? A forbidden love between templar and Knight…”

Errol raised his hands. “Okay, let’s just… slow all of this down, all right.” There was a thick blush on his face. “Victoria… what’s this all about?”

Victoria unclasped the hand over her mouth suppressing her laughter. “We're here to get into the city. I was surprised when I heard you were working down here. Thought you’d be working in the merchant’s quarter with the mages.”

“You know how it is,” he said with a slight sigh. “Isha puts us out on some big mission to spread the word and then someone starts a riot just because we wanted a few words. Now, I gotta lay low while the Watch sorts things out.”

Victoria clicked her tongue. “I guess I gotta talk with Isha too then.”

“Eh, don't even bother. She’s still mad about what happened.”

“Still? I told her I was… Whatever, it can wait.”

Azami crossed her arms against her chest, quite unamused being relegated to the background. “Can one of you tell me what’s happening?”

“Of course, your highness.” Victoria have a small bow, and then pointed at Errol. “Me and Errol worked together for the Free Mages for a year or so.”

Azami raised an eyebrow. “You’re a Free Mage?”

Victoria covered one side of her face with her hand and then leaned in beside Errol. “She’s a templar or whatever, don't even worry about her.”

“I'm standing right here.”

Errol clapped his hands together. “Templar or not, if you want access into the city we’ll have to wait for nightfall. The entryway is not ideal during the day, and us getting caught is not high on my list of to-dos.”

Kaska nodded. “I’ll start working on a fire,” she said and headed off into the bramble.

Victoria, Errol and Azami stood idly. Errol offered a hand. “It’s nice to meet-”

“I'm going to clean my sword,” she said and walked off.

Victoria simply patted Errol on the back. “She’s never been outside of Tavaniria before, and when I met her, I saved her life. Don't blame the girl, it’s not her fault she doesn't wanna trust us.”

Errol shook his head quietly. “She could at least make an effort.”

Several hours later, after the party split up to gather supplies from the bush and finally settled down around the campfire, the sun had finally settled behind the horizon and laid itself to sleep. The moon laid hidden behind the clouds of Rosarius, with the campfire the only real source of light. Kaska had sidled up beside Errol, finally getting him to speak about their apparently shared interest of romantic novels. Azami sat down on a log, opposite the two, gazing quietly into the fire as she ran a cloth against the steel of Honour. Victoria sat beside her, whittling away at a piece of wood with a hunting knife.

Victoria frowned for a moment before tossing the piece of wood into the fire. She looked to her side, eyeing Azami. “You’ve been polishing your sword for awhile. Frustrated?” she asked with a stupid grin.

Azami continued as she was, not feeling the innuendo fly over her head. “If my sister is not there, then this journey was all for naught. There was no point in all of this.” She stopped her hand, looking up and at Victoria. Azami paused, watching as the light flickered on Victoria’s face, with one side shrouded in shadow and the other illuminated by fire. The smile was gone, replaced by a thin line. “What do you seek to gain in this all, Victoria?”

“Understanding.” There was no pause from question to answer; it was immediate. “Someone killed someone important for a reason, in a city rife with tension between two powerful nations. People don’t just murder without a purpose to it. Money, power, revenge, catharsis, anger, schadenfreude… there is always a reason to it. I want to know why.”

Azami took up the sheathe of her sword and slipped it back onto the blade. “You sound like some investigator.”

“Perhaps of a sort. Someone needs to see about dispensing justice.”

“Why aren't you an Albian Knight? You sound like one of them.”

Victoria shook her head. “I’m not a knight in shining armour. I'm a mage. People don't trust me when they look at me.” She looked at Azami plainly. “I know you didn't when you met me, and you still don't. A king doesn't want an outcast as a champion, so I don't pretend to be one. I do my part, whether I'm appreciated for it or not.”

Azami looked away, propping the blade up against the log to look as if the reaction of looking away had reason. “You can be an insufferable woman sometimes, Victoria, but…” She screwed her mouth shut, slowly pulling the words out of herself as she turned back. “Thank you, for saving me back there.”

Victoria sighed deeply. “Thank me when we find your sister.” She stuck her hunting knife in the log between them, turning her head away. “I'll let up with the jokes for now… maybe.”

An hour later, Errol pushed his canoe into the water, and the three women piled in, with Victoria at the helm. He pushed off with an oar, and the stream took them carefully down, just as the clouds parted and let the moon shine through unhindered. “I'll take the horses and the rest of your gear in through the front gate eventually,” Errol said. “Things should be clearing up in the city, or at least that’s what we all hope.” The stream lead them directly into a masonwork tunnel, bricked up on all sides, and Errol continued on. “This is an old Cazavirian waterworks tunnel… It goes right under the church. The lord regent’s office doesn't even remember it exists as far as Isha says.”

Azami huffed. “It sounds like the Cazavirians are barely holding their city together.”

“You're not wrong there. You’re a Tavanirian, right? I doubt you’d want Albians in your city, or well… dwarves or elves…” He paused for a moment. “Anyone else really… Anyway! Victoria, could you light that lantern beside your foot? I can't see a damn thing.” There were sounds of metal hitting wood before Victoria held a flame up upon her fingertips, gently lighting the candle in the lantern.

Kaska stood up, pointing out into the darkness. “Something moved!”

“You sure?” Errol asked. “I’ve been running these tunnels for a long time.”

“I’m absolutely sure. It ran off as soon as the light hit it.”

Victoria held the lantern out. “I can’t see anything… Errol, how long ago was anyone through these tunnels?”

“We haven’t had to use these tunnels for a long time.” He kept the boat moving. “It’s either we keep going, or you find a wizard to teleport you into the city.”

Azami shook her head. “We keep going.”

The canoe glided ever onwards, with the entire tunnel silent save for the sound of water flowing gently. Azami watched behind Errol, wondering if something would start running along the smooth stone pathways on either side of the tunnel, but nothing did. Kaska huddled down on the bottom of the boat, face full of nervousness and hints of fear. Azami bit her lip, and looked at the back of Victoria’s head before leaning down towards Kaska. “What’s wrong?”

“I met a group of adventurers… a long time ago.” She looked down at the floor of the boat, and then into Azami’s face. “They had lost one of their own exploring a cave. It had been filled with water, and while they were walking above the underground lake, high above on stone walkways jutting out of the cave walls… One of them fell and drowned, pulled down by their heavy armour.”

“Are you scared of drowning?”

Kaska nodded softly. “Fighting against the water… Fighting for those precious breathes of air, all the while as water fills your lungs and the corners of your vision slowly fade into the dark abyss, gently pulling you deeper… and deeper… The whole time, you scream and gasp and shout, but you have no air to say anything…”

Azami pursed her lips, putting her hand on Kaska’s shoulder. “You have the imagination of a bard… You’ll be fine.” She took a breath in, hardening her features for a moment. “You are under the protection of a templar of the Tavaniri Imperium, and I'm sure neither Victoria or Errol would want any harm to befall you.”

She smiled softly, laying her hand over Azami’s. She mouthed a thank you, and then turned away, leaving Azami to return to her designated spot on the canoe. Errol smiled at her, but said nothing.

They continued, eventually reaching an opening in the tunnel leading into a large vast oval like room. The walls were as tall as ten men stacked upon each other, and the room could easily fit an army had it not been filled halfway with water.

“How deep is this, Errol?” Azami asked, peering over the side.

“Deep. I don't think you could reach the bottom without simply…” he looked over at Kaska for a moment. “You know… You just couldn't make it.”

Victoria stood up suddenly. “I saw something, in the water. Errol, hurry it up.” Errol picked up the spare oar and threw it to Victoria. The two began to paddle in sync, with Azami standing up, looking out into the vastness of the reservoir.

The water began to ripple in vast streaks that slowly converged on the canoe. On the other end of the reservoir, they could see a small landing clear as day and lit up by a single lamp. Azami withdrew her sword, holding it up and gritting her teeth. “Victoria,” she shouted. “Give the oar to Kaska. You're the mage!” Victoria swore under her breath, handing the oar to the wobbly Kaska. She rolled up her sleeves, spouting flames from one of her hands and drawing her shortsword with the other.

There was an eerie silence and Azami began to let down her guard. “Maybe they were scared off?”

Victoria relaxed her sword arm. “Wouldn't that be a relief-”

A hand grabbed onto the side of the boat, webbed and disgustingly slick. A amphibious head raised itself up to look at the crew, blinking at them with transparent horizontal eyelids. Victoria gripped both of her hands around her sword and plunged it into the creature’s skull, splattering blood all over the side of the boat and nearly taking Victoria off the edge as the creature sunk off of the side. It splashed, and drenched Victoria in water.

Kaska breathed in heavily. “Was that a frog? A giant frog?”

Errol shook his head, looking out over the sides of the boat. “Keep paddling! Frogs don't clamber onto the sides of boats.”

The two picked up the pace, dragging water behind them as they reached out towards the shore. They shook, as the boat hit something, and then more arms began to grab onto the boat. Six pairs of hands, and six heads pulled themselves up onto the sides of the boat. One pulled back a spear, jamming it towards Azami’s stomach before she slashed both of its hands off. Victoria received a blow to the thigh, before stabbing one and burning the face off another. Errol haphazardly beat one back with his oar, pushing it back into the water. And then Kaska screamed as one grabbed her hand and another pushed her off the side of the boat, dragging her down beneath the surface.

All three of them stared in utter disbelief. Errol fumbled for a knife from his vest, but Azami tore it from his hand, dumped her sword and her cloak onto the ground, and then leapt off the side of the boat and into the water.

Everything was cold and dark, but illuminated by the light of the boat's lantern was Kaska, and the two amphibious creatures that dragged her down into the depths. Azami kicked and pulled herself towards the stationary creatures as they held Kaska in their webbed grips. One saw her, and broke off towards Azami, a stone spear in one of its hands. Azami backed down first, kicking away just as the spear sliced through the side of her shoulder. She winced, as the creature’s tongue slinked out of its mouth and wrapped itself around her arm. She kicked hard, tossing the knife to her free hand and severing the creature’s tongue at the base. Azami held back the reaction to scream in its face as she slammed the knife into its eye, tearing through nerves and flesh before kicking the creature off her. She kept on immediately after, beginning to feel the need to breath weighing down on her. The last creature, with its arms wrapped around Kaska, looked at Azami once and began to kick away.

Azami was faster, and dug the dagger deep into its back, wrenching it out only to stab again and again before simply leaving it in the creature’s carcass. She tore it's hands from around Kaska’s body and wrapped one of Kaska’s arms around her before she kicked for dear life. It was just as Kaska had described… the sides of her vision began to darken as she continued to hold her breath, before she finally gave in and took in a breath of disgusting water.

She breached beside the landing, Victoria and Errol already on land to receive Kaska. Azami crawled up onto the stone, coughing violently and sickly as water came up from out of her lungs. For a moment, she thought she might vomit before her legs gave out and she rolled onto her back.

Victoria had already rolled Kaska onto her back and began to press into Kaska’s ribs, leaning down to breath into her mouth. “Come on, dammit! I'm not losing someone down here!”

Errol leaned down beside Azami. “Are you okay? Do you need help?”

Azami lifted her hand up weakly. “Do you have… my sword.”

Errol held up the sword, placed back into its sheath and set it down on the ground. “You’re fine. Don't even worry.”

Kaska coughed and Victoria held Kaska’s head to the side as she coughed up water onto the stone tiling. She took in a shuddered breath, looking up to take in Victoria’s wet appearance from the splashing of the creature. Azami pushed herself up, grabbing her sword to steady herself with and walked deeper into the landing.

Azami and Errol ascended into a small storage room and immediately entered the main room of a large church. Without a doubt, Azami realized she had just walked into the headquarters of the Free Mages. There was at least a hundred or more people in the large room, speaking, moving crates, even practicing small shows of magic. Errol stepped ahead of Azami, taking a deep breath in. “Welcome to the Free Mages.” He handed her a cloth and she proceeded to wipe her face with it. The walls were adorned with purple banners proclaiming magical independence, freedom from prejudice, and general calls to action. Azami rolled her eyes and handed the cloth back to Errol. She was a templar, and she had put dangerous mages into their towers for a reason.

“Errol!” a voice called and a woman with light brown skin stepped out from the throngs of people standing around church pews, crates, and walls.

“Oh, Isha!” He turned to Azami, gesturing with an open hand towards the woman. “This is Isha Darzi. She’s the leader of the Free Mages here in Cazavir.”

“Not by title, mind you.” Isha said, extending her hand to Azami. “Any friend of Errol is a friend of mine.” They shook quickly, with Azami pulling back first. Isha wore the clothes of a commoner, a fisherman if Azami’s guess was accurate at all, but the lack of stains of any kind told her that Isha’s job was definitely not physical. She was an organizer, a leader, or in the words of a templar captain; a rabble-rouser.

Isha continued nonetheless. “One of the lookouts at a certain inn tell me you’ve been traveling with Victoria Wolfe… Tell me, how is she?”

Azami quirked an eyebrow in a slightly awkward manner. “She is fine, as far as I can tell. I’ve been with her only a week.”

Isha nodded. “Well, no surprises then. Where is she?”

Errol snapped his fingers. “Dammit. Isha, call the healers and block off the reservoir passage until we have time to investigate. There are creatures in that water.”

“Creatures? I swear, there are more problems by the day. Bless the gods for giving me the patience for this…” With a few shouts from Isha, several people ran off for a stretcher, and Victoria finally emerged from the storage room, with Kaska being carried by her and another Free Mage. They took her away to one of the other backrooms, carrying her through the main room of the church and through a door beside the preacher’s stand.

Errol looked at Azami. “You're bleeding from the shoulder… Gods, can you not feel that?”

Azami pressed a hand to her shoulder, looking at the thick crimson that remained on her hand when she pulled back. “I had better things to do than remember I had been stabbed.”

Errol and Azami followed Kaska's stretcher into the backroom. A few steps down, and Azami was confronted by the smell of death, blood, and suffering. Behind hanging curtains partitioned across a great large hall was the sounds of moaning, and far off, screaming. Isha stepped down into the room and Azami immediately turned to her. “What happened to your people?”

“This city has no ordinary government. When the people in the industrial district heard of the death of Captain Tywell, there were riots. Suspicion and blame was immediately pointed towards the people they distrusted the most, the Albians and the mages.” She gestured for them to follow her through the hall. “The poorest labourers of Cazavir wish the city would join the Tavaniri Empire. They’ve said for years now that the reason they live in such horrible conditions is because of the Cazavirian government and the Albian presence across the river.”

Azami scoffed. “I suppose you’ll say that it is the Tavanirians.”

“Cazavir does not govern that district any longer.” She shook her head. “Can you say that this mass violence was necessary? That these wounded mages deserve their fates?” Azami did not respond, peering through the gaps in the sheets only to see blood and injury. “Exactly,” Isha said.

They stood outside Kaska’s newly claimed spot, pulling the curtain up. She sat upright against the wall, as a woman in a dark brown robe pressed her ear to Kaska’s chest. Victoria stood to the side, drying out her hair with a towel. The woman shooed them away with a wave of her hands and the entire group finally pushed themselves to the very end of the hall, where a tiefling with red skin and small horns finally came to Azami's aid. Azami held her breath, suddenly fearful, but no one else said a word of worry. He cleaned and bandaged her shoulder, looking at Azami’s holy symbol silently.

“She is a templar, Victoria?”

Victoria looked up, slightly confused for a moment. “Yeah, she is, Fortune. Don't hold it against her, she’s better than some of the templars I’ve met.” Azami rolled her eyes and Victoria went back to speaking with Isha.

“I am surprised you have not recoiled with disgust yet, templar. My foster father was a farmer, and he always had me hide when the templars would ride by our farm.” He tied the bandage firmly, and perhaps a little too tight for comfort. “He was taken away by your kind when they learned of my existence.”

“I investigated magical disasters. What happened to you was out of my control.”

“Yet you belong to an organization capable of evil and do nothing to stop the spread of it.” He collected his kit. “You do not understand, templar.” He left without another word, eventually fading into the darkness of the hall. Azami looked down at her feet, clasping her hand over her mouth in quiet thought. She just wanted to find her sister.

Victoria clapped her hands together, getting the group’s attention. “Okay, I know the night is still young, but that’s been enough excitement for one day. We’ll head out for the templar garrison in the morning, but for now, we’ll all get some rest.”

Isha nodded, looking at the group, but Azami felt her gaze to be pressed upon her. “You may sleep in one of the tower rooms, but we do not have the space to permanently accommodate you. You will need to leave come morning.”

“That will not be an issue,” Azami said. “Our business ends once I find my sister, Victoria.”

Victoria pursed her lips. “Yeah. You’re the boss.” There were a hint of dissatisfaction in her voice, immediately replaced by indifference as she continued.“Follow me, then. We’ve all been awake for long enough.”

Azami awoke in the early morning, eyes tired and dark, and without a sound, came into the church’s main room. It was quiet and deserted, as it seemed that all the Free Mages had either gone home, or were still asleep wherever they resided in the church. Azami stood in front of the preacher’s stand, looking up at the murals of gods that she knew only so much about. Their eyes all looked towards the Free Mage banner hanging in the centre, as if they had always been looking towards the freedom of mages. Azami knew better than to believe the church had been constructed recently or with the intention of housing Free Mages, but wherever the priests had gone, the building now belonged to the mages.

Azami gently brought herself to the ground, kneeling in front of the white marble altar. She set Honour in front of her, and closed her eyes as she sat there, composed and patient.

“Gods…” she said quietly, resting one hand on her knee as the other clasped her simple holy symbol. “Please offer me guidance in my time of need. I am here, in this foreign city, with people I do not know, nor know if I should trust, and I am lost without your vision.” She wrapped both hands around the symbol dangling from her neck and pressed her thumbs against her forehead, trying to deepen her connection to her god. She leaned forward, prostrating herself further. “Please allow me to find my sister, so that we might be able to return to the life we had; the life that was peaceful and happy and without so much violence and danger.”

There came a set of footsteps from behind her, stopping a few feet away. Azami dropped her hands back to her lap and slowly turned to look around. Victoria stood there with her hands on her hips, looking down at her with a casual look on her face. “I don’t mean to interrupt.”

“No,” Azami said. “I was just finishing.” She gently pressed the symbol against her lips and began to stand, but Victoria raised a hand in protest as she began to sit on the floor herself.

“I heard your prayer, sorry, but I’m curious. Can I ask where you’re from?” Victoria’s tone was soft and careful, skating around on thin ice that she wasn't sure existed.

Azami responded simply. “Why do you wish to know? This information will be useless once I leave.”

“I told you that I wanted to understand, and that wasn't a lie. I can read other people; Kaska is a kind and good hearted soul, Isha is focused on the movement, and Errol just wants something calm and romantic. You? I can’t sum you up in a few words. I want you to tell me about yourself.”

“You cannot sum people up in several words, Victoria. People are complicated individuals, with infinite nuances and their own drives and desires.”

“I know that. I know that…” Victoria took a breath in and scratched the bridge of her nose in thought. “I said that to produce a point. Do you want a summary of what I think about you? You’re mysterious, honourable, and irritable, but that’s just three descriptors. What drives you?”

“I want to find my sister.”

“But why?”

Azami eyed Victoria carefully. “Anyone else would say you have an ulterior motive to this, Victoria. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt.” She grasped a hand around Honour and held it out for Victoria. “Hold it.”

Victoria took it in her hands, testing the weight. “It’s a fine work of craftsmanship. Probably more than a few decades old.”

“Think centuries. A few days ago, I had never known the blade existed. My full name, as far as I understand, is Azami Sicarius. I come from a clan of proud warriors; many whom served the Tavaniri Empire as templars.”

“I had guessed as much,” Victoria said, handing the sword back. “Your templar status seemed like it ran in the family.”

“You would be correct. When I was thirteen, I left my family's estate to become a templar, joining my sister, who had just begun her third year of training. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life to feel myself change into a proper warrior.” She closed her eyes, setting Honour back on the floor. “Hikari said that we should have been taught by the old masters of our clan, but I thought that the training by the templars was well enough. We fought for a long time on what our future should be, but in the end, I decided that winning the argument was not as important as the bond we shared.”

Victoria looked a little stunned. “But it’s your life.”

“Sacrifices must be made, and we had sacrificed our time to start our first tour of duty across Tavaniria. We served as investigators, wandering the countryside and aiding nobility with problems of magic affecting their people, crops, and what have you. The clan had been called back to the mountains for an important meeting, but Hikari wished to stay, hoping to put a mark on the world through completing our tour. In the end, it was perhaps the greatest decision she had ever made.” She took in a deep breath, shaking her head at the memory. “Clan Sicarius was betrayed on that night, and the entirety of the clan was slaughtered. We traveled back to see the destruction, hoping to find survivors, but for the month we stayed in the region, we found none. We were… are, the last two members of our clan.”

Victoria sat quietly, gently reaching out a hand to lay on Azami’s. “Go on. Continue.”

“If I cannot find my sister here in Cazavir, then I must be the last of my clan. I am a single woman without purpose and without family.”

Victoria bit her lip. “Your entire clan can’t have been killed. It’s impossible.”

“Then where are they?  Where are my cousins and elders?” She pressed the palm of her hand to her eye, pulling back to see the wetness on her hand. Her gaze pulled up to eye Victoria, wondering if she was being manipulated. Why was she telling this woman anything? She exhaled and wiped at her eyes. Azami wanted to tell someone these things about her life and self, and Victoria was listening to it. It was as simple as that.

Azami stood, hauling the strap of her sword over her shoulders. Victoria pushed herself off the ground, hugging herself closely. “Sorry. You didn’t have to tell me anything if you didn’t really want to.”

“It’s of no consequence. Hikari would have gone to the templar garrison first. We can trace her steps from there if we must.”

Victoria nodded, changing her mood to fit the change of pace. “Okay. We’ll head out right away.” She tapped her chin. “Kaska can stay here, but you.. People are still probably out for your bounty, and you still have your clothes from the mountain. Come on, let’s fix that.”

Victoria stepped out into the warm Cazavirian air, and Azami followed out shortly behind her. Immediately, Azami noticed the huge groups of people crowding the streets. It was a huge surprise, especially when Victoria pulled Azami into it all. It was like wading through a sea, where the high tan buildings of Cazavir were mighty cliffs. Victoria laughed a bit at Azami’s uncomfortableness. “Just hold onto my sleeve if you need to.”

“I am not a child.” And yet, she kept a firm hand on Victoria’s shoulder.

Victoria dragged Azami along, stopping at stalls and vendors, speaking like she knew each and every one of them like friends. In a way, she must have. Cazavir was Victoria’s city, and years as a Free Mage must have forced her to get to know as many people as possible. Each and every time anyone bothered to ask who Azami was, Victoria constantly shifted the story around. Once she was a runaway princess, next she was a bodyguard, next a deadly assassin. Victoria just chuckled to herself as she continued on. Azami watched Victoria smile and wondered, at least briefly, how all of this would have turned out if she had traveled to Cazavir alone.

Victoria finally found her destination, stepping into a corner shop. It was incredibly dusty, but smelled of incense and smoke. An elderly woman sat behind the counter, a long metal pipe in one hand. She held the end in her mouth, slowly removing it and exhaling smoke. “Victoria,” she called. “I am not here to help you bed women.”

“No, no.” Victoria shook her head profusely and Azami began to look around, sifting through the smoke to find numerous objects and knick knacks hidden in the fog, albeit quite tacky ones. Victoria continued. “My friend here needs a new pair of clothes, and I thought… who better than Zhang?”

The woman took a pause, eyeing Azami carefully. “She looks like a northern Tavanirian. No one else would have a sword like that.”

“Is that going to be a problem?”

She shrugged, pulling out a drawer and setting a spool of thread on the counter. “Perhaps if this was not this city.”

As soon as Victoria was able to pull Azami to the front, Zhang wrapped the thread tightly around Azami’s waist, sliced the thread off the spool and immediately went to measure Azami’s height. In a matter of moments, Zhang had numerous lengths of thread all laid out across her countertop, and then she went to work. From a lengthy roll, she pulled a huge panel of dark fabric from the roll, and then sliced through it as if it were melted butter. She shaped everything out on a rudimentary mannequin, attaching extra intricacies and layers with a simple flick of needle and thread. Azami stood there, dumbfounded, and Victoria stood there, a smile on her face. “Is that… is that magic?” Azami asked.

“I might just know the right people,” she said, adding a wink for effect.

Quite suddenly, Zhang appeared in front of Azami with a garment wrapped around her arm. “Strip,” she said.

“Excuse me?”

“Strip!” This time with the force of a drill sergeant.

Azami wasted no time in tossing her clothes and she found herself being reclothed almost immediately. All the while, Victoria quietly turned around, pretending to look at the numerous objects lined across the shop’s walls.

“It is done,” Zhang announced and she returned to her seat. The pipe returned to her hand and she blew out another breath of smoke. “That will be a gold piece from you, Victoria.”

Azami looked down at herself, examining the dark hooded cloak now upon her body. It was far superior than the old tattered cloak that she had been wearing for the past week. She wrapped her hand across one of the belts across her front, tightening it slightly. “I feel like a wanderer, or a mysterious traveler.”

Victoria fished a coin out of her purse and set it onto the counter. “Well, I’d probably think you were, if I didn’t know you a bit better.”

Azami wrapped the strap of her sword over her shoulders once again. She gripped the handle of the blade, motioning to unsheath it to see how it would be drawn with her new clothing. “This is a beautiful set of clothes. Thank you.”

Zhang only waved the pipe at them. “Yes, yes. Now get out of my shop.”

The two walked back into the crowded streets of Cazavir, and Victoria began to lead the way once again. It was back to the mission once more. “Okay,” Victoria began. “I don’t really go around the templar side of the city really… ever, so you’re going to have to do most of the talking so I don’t accidentally say something that gets both of us pushed onto an executioner’s block.”

“I am sure that I will be able to find someone that at least knows of my sister or myself. There should be no problems.”

Victoria took them through the merchant district, and the further they went, the more the crowds cleared and the fewer people they saw. Soon enough, they reached a long stone bridge arching over a river that branched off from the mainstream. Victoria stopped, set her hands on her hips and gazed out across the water. “This city is always moving, Azami.” She pointed out, and Azami eyed the far river bank, with ships passing by and countless people walking along the dock. A group of Albian Knights even stood on the edge of one of the dock landings, in bright steel and blue highlights. In truth, she had never seen a city quite like this one. She had never traveled far enough west to see the Tavanirian port cities, nor had she even been along the Dagger Coast before.

“It is truly something,” Azami said, nodding. “I never thought I’d see something quite like this in my lifetime.”

Victoria gestured for them to continue their walk. “Maybe you’d like to become an adventurer? Just think, the whole wide world of Rosarius, right at your fingertips.”

“I have a duty to my clan, Victoria.”

“Yes, but that doesn't mean you can’t see the world. Maybe you could see if your clanmates traveled elsewhere?”

Azami opened her mouth to argue, but then promptly closed it to think. Would Hikari like to see the world as well? Maybe they could make their mark on the world as adventurers? Would that be enough to satisfy her sister?

Victoria and Azami marched upon the far gate of the Cazavirian templar district, and were immediately stopped by two templars in chainmail. “What business do you have here?” One held a shield at his side bearing a red eagle. They had to be templars.

Victoria looked at Azami and beckoned her forward. She stepped up. “I am a templar, brothers. There is no need for fear or rash action.”

One sneered. “You look like a vagrant. Leave before we have to detain you.”

Azami sighed and straightened out her stance. “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.” There was a reaction from the one with the shield, but not the talkative one. “We are imparted that phrase in training.”

The man with the shield lifted up his helmet and looked at Azami carefully. “Who are you then, and what do you want?”

“The garrison commander, we wish to speak with him.”

The two exchanged glances before entering a conversation of their own. “We can't just leave our post.”

“Well, what if she tells the vice captain that we didn't let her in.”

“Fine. I’ll get them to the fort and I’ll get someone to cover for me on the way over.”

“Good enough.”

Azami tapped her against the cobblestones impatiently. “Are you done?”

One turned to walk through the gate. “Come with me. Don't lag behind.”

Azami and Victoria followed the templar through the gate. Immediately, there was a drastic change in atmosphere. There was almost no one in the streets, and the few that did looked like they were there because of impoverishment, and not choice. A child in rags picked up a small malnourished dog and ran into the shadows of an alleyway, staring at Azami fearfully as he stroked the sickly head of the animal. An elderly man looked out at them from against the wall of a neglected building, his eyes sunken and almost lifeless. A woman fell down at Victoria’s feet, pleading in between pained sobs, completely indiscernible to a startled Victoria who apologized profusely as she walked past.

“What has happened to this place?” Azami asked aloud, taking in the squalor and the depressing atmosphere. “Where are the templars?”

The guardsman said nothing, and only continued walking. Victoria set her hand on Azami’s shoulder, shaking her head. “Isha said this was bad, but to see it in the city for myself…”

“You didn't grow up in Cazavir, did you?”

Victoria shook her head once again. “I wouldn’t have let this go on.”

The templar turned a corner, waving to three other templars standing under a flag. “Oi. This woman here says she’s a templar and wants to see the boss.”

A woman with a bright red streak in her black hair looked at Azami. “She’s a templar? They must lower the bar every day.” Azami couldn't help by glower at her. “Go back to your post, I’ll deal with her.”

“But-” The guard began to protest but she pushed him to the side.

“The commander doesn't need to hear about your subordination. Leave.”

The man looked to Azami and then to the woman before turning around and walking away. Victoria stepped up beside Azami, setting her hand onto her sword. “You look like a piece of work,” she said, eyeing the woman carefully. “Don't tell me your name's Scarlet. I really am going to laugh if it is.”

“Felicia, mage. Keep your hands where I can see them.” She looked at Azami. “Is this woman your partner? You’re lucky this is Cazavir, or she would be in chains already.”

“I do not need arrogance from some guardswoman. Point me in the direction of the fort and I’ll find it myself.” Azami snarled. She had had enough of this.

Felicia waved a hand at her fellow templars and stepped away. “Come. I’ll have you detained if you don't.”

Victoria gestured in disbelief at the woman, but Azami only shrugged. They’d just have to deal with it. They followed her begrudgingly, with Victoria’s eyes firmly planted to the mace on Felicia’s hip. Victoria shifted her eyes up, to the back of Felicia's head. “Where’d you get the red in your hair? Are you leaking from your skull?”

“Wild magic. One of your Free Mage lackeys struck me in the forehead right before I caved in his skull. They were trying to free Watchtower mages, can you believe? We killed each and every one of them.” She looked over her shoulder, smiling darkly at Victoria. “Perhaps you’d like to join them?”

Azami reached up instinctively for her sword, withdrawing her hand before she touched the hilt. “She is under my protection.”

Victoria looked at Azami, raising an eyebrow. “Am I now? I thought it was the other way around.”

“You know what I meant.” Azami sighed. “This isn't what the templars are supposed to be. Trust me, Victoria.”

“Well, it isn't the first time I’ve been threatened by some idiot with a blunt object. Just didn’t think I would be here.”

Felicia interjected. “Are you two done?”

Above the tips of the district's houses grew the walls of a defensive structure. It held a large portcullis, a steep incline leading up towards it. Azami and Victoria exited from the rows upon rows of houses and began the walk into the keep, eyeing the crossbow wielding templars that looked down at them from the walls. Crossing the threshold, the inner courtyard was surprisingly green and busy. A group of templars held sparring matches in a corner while a blacksmith hammered away at a sword on an onyx anvil. Victoria looked around, uneasy as people stared at her. She gripped at her sleeves, unconsciously pulling at them to cover her forearms.

The keep's main hall was up a flight of stone stairs, and they quickly scaled it, entering through a set of double doors. A long red carpet led the eye straight through the room as large stone pillars stretched up towards the far roof. Dark red banners hung between each pillar, eagles and swords adorning each and every one of them. At the far end of the keep stood several men and women, gathered around a wooden table with a map of Rosarius pinned upon it. Felicia walked up, ignoring the obvious discussion happening. “Commander Archer, someone wants to see you.”

A man looked up, straight blond locks combed away from his face. “Is this truly important?”

Felicia jerked a thumb at Azami. “You tell me.”

He looked at Azami, slowly raising an eyebrow. He stood and addressed the table. “We shall conclude this matter at a later date. You have your orders. Felicia, go stand by the tower.”

The room cleared and Azami stepped up to the table. “Do I know you?”

“You don't remember me?” He looked offended. “I served with your sister and yourself. James Archer?” Azami only drew a blank. “You don't remember me…” He paced around the table, settling at a different end. “Who’s your friend?”

Azami looked to Victoria for a response. “Victoria,” she said clearly. “Free Mages of Cazavir.”

He nodded. “Of course you are. You do have the markings of a mage, and this is Cazavir. I am surprised, Azami. I wouldn't think you would keep company such as this.”

“I find her nothing like the crazed madmen that terrorized those towns in Tavaniria. Hikari would agree.”

“Your sister was particularly hard on those mages. I would find it hard for her to sympathize with any mage.” He looked at Victoria pointedly. “Nonetheless, Azami, why are you here?”

“I am looking for my sister. She and I were separated on way to Cazavir.”

James shook his head. “I have not seen your sister. If she was slated to appear here, she never showed up.”

Azami was slow to respond. “She… never appeared? She was supposed to come here to see the commander. She came to see you.”

“The commander? I don't know how long ago you left for Cazavir, but Captain Tywell was killed by an Albian. We found one of their swords driven through his body. I stepped up as the vice captain and we’ve been trying to bring the killer to justice since. Maybe your sister was smart and decided to go home instead of come to this chaotic city.”

Azami could do nothing but stare in utter disbelief. “She wouldn't leave without looking for me…”

“I don't have the time to help you find your sister. Ever since we were given charge of this desecrated district, our workload has been endless. If you are not here to help us, then I will ask you to leave.”

Azami took a bow quickly. “No, I am sorry. I must find a way to find…” she trailed off and turned to leave hurriedly. “Good day.”

Victoria quickly turned to follow. “Your sister’s not here? That just sounds completely odd.” She quieted her tone. “I don't trust that man. He sounds like he’s hiding something from you.”

“He’s a templar. What reason would he have to lie to one of his own?” She pressed a hand against her forehead. “There is only one other place we can go then… We have to find the Blackravens.”

Victoria crossed her arms against her chest. “No. We are not seeking out the 'Ravens. They’ll gouge you for every copper you have, and then they’ll stab you in the back. There is no way we’re going there.”

Azami walked out of the keep, descending back into the residences. “What other option is there? I only came to find my sister and she’s gone!”

Victoria opened her mouth to speak but softly clamped her mouth shut as she looked Azami in the face. “There are always other options. You just need faith, Azami. We can find your sister.”

“All you want from Hikari is information! In fact, you heard what the commander said, she hasn't even been here! What do you even want now, Victoria? Why are you still here?”

Victoria was quiet, looking down at the ground. “You’re right. Why am I still here…” She shrugged. “This was just another dead end, and another waste of my time.” Victoria raised her head. “Maybe I thought we made a good team. I had someone to talk to for once.”

Azami calmed herself and frowned. “I am a templar and you are a Free Mage. We are diametrically opposed. It is impossible for us to work together.”

Victoria began to narrow her gaze. “Is that what you thought this whole time, Azami? You never once thought of me as a person, and only thought of me as a mage?” There was anger there now, hiding a look of betrayal as Victoria covered it with anger. “I should have left you with the mercenaries. Find your sister on your own. You don't need the help of a 'mage’.” She pushed past Azami, walking down the street and eventually out of sight.

Azami stood there in front of the templar garrison. It was dead silent before she finally picked up her feet and began to walk. She would need to go back across the river to find the Blackravens. They wouldn't want to place their base of operations near the templars.

Azami went at a slow steady pace, listening to the silence of the district. She tried to clear her mind and not think of anything, but she was angry at herself, at Victoria, and at her sister. Azami only ever wanted to live peacefully, or at the very least with safer levels of danger. Coming here to Cazavir went against that wish. She gripped at the collar of her coat and tugged at it. Why had she accepted this to begin with?

“Leaving so soon?” A familiar voice. Azami looked up to see the templar, Felicia, standing in the centre of the road. She held her mace in her hand, cradling it in the palm of her other hand. There was a sick, twisted smile on her face. It reeked of sadism.

Azami stood her ground, widening her stance. “What do you want?”

“Where’d your Free Mage run off to? She abandon poor little you?” She pouted, slinging the mace over her shoulder and taking the shield from her back into her free hand. “You do realize there was this little thing about a bounty. Did you really think any of us bought your innocent façade?”

Azami raised her hands in utter disbelief. Obviously the woman had bought some of her actions, as this was happening now and not before. “You really believe I killed the templar captain? I don't even know the man’s name, not to mention I wasn't even in the city when the murder occurred!”

“A likely story. We’ll see how it holds up when we hang you from the ramparts.” Felicia raised her hand up, and two soldiers came out of the shadows, flanking Azami. “You can give up now, or we can have a little… fun.”

Azami wrapped her hand around Honour’s handle and withdrew it, entering a blocking stance. “You’re a pox upon the templar order, but if I must fight you, then I shall.”

Felicia ran her tongue over her lips, laughing darkly to herself. “Just how I like it…”

The three templars began to slowly encircle Azami but she stood firmly in the middle, pivoting and adjusting her guard as best she could. One of the auxiliaries made a move first, raising a handaxe into the air and bringing it down sharply. Azami caught the handle of the axe with her sword, pushing it back and then slicing into the man’s armour. There was blood, but barely. He barely noticed the papercut.

The other auxiliary pushed his shortsword forward, but Azami easily moved out of the way, only to meet Felicia’s mace as it was introduced to her ribs. She choked, feeling her bones crack, but she kept her sword up. It hurt. Azami brought herself to the offense, jabbing her blade into the leg joint of one of the templars and then pulling it out through the untorn ligaments. She half severed his leg, and he fell to the ground easily.

Felicia grumbled angrily. “Keep your guard up!” She brought her mace up and swung through the air where Azami once was, bringing her shield up to clatter against Azami’s attack. An axe came towards Azami’s hip, and in retaliation, she slammed her elbow into the templar's face, knocking spit and teeth from his mouth. As he stumbled back, she gripped both hands on the hilt of her sword and disarmed him in one clean motion by cutting off his hand before slamming the hilt of her sword into his chest.

Felicia twirled her mace in her hand, watching her two comrades fall to the dirt. “A proper fight is one warrior versus one warrior anyway. I’ll enjoy beating you into the ground.”

“A proper fight is one of honour. There is no honour to this. We are both templars. Why are we fighting one another?” Felicia only smiled and leapt forward. Azami backed away as the mace whipped in front of her face, and then another attack passing inches away from her chest, and a final attack almost hitting her in the kneecaps. Felicia shunted her backwards with her shield.

“Stay still, dammit!” She reared her mace back and swung it wildly. It missed completely and Azami pulled her own blade back and aimed it right for the woman’s back. She missed. Felicia turned around and swung the mace into Azami’s chest. Azami fell back, her sword clattering to the ground as she hit the ground. She gasped for breath, but Felicia was still on the offensive. The mace hit her in the stomach, knocking the air out of her once again, bones snapping indiscriminately, and then Felicia was on her. A metal gauntlet hit her in the face, and then another. Metal hands clasped around her head and slammed it into the ground. Everything became blurry, pain clouded her vision, and she felt herself slipping away.

Felicia stood, picking up the shortsword of her fallen colleague as he writhed in the dirt. “Recruits. Useless. You call yourselves Tavanirians.” She held the blade in her hands, standing above Azami as she shifted both her palms to the hilt. “You’re dying. I can't believe you were the one to kill the old commander.”

Azami reached out for Felicia's throat. “I did not kill your captain.” She gasped for breath, feeling blood well up in her throat and leak out from the sides of her mouth.

“If you were innocent, you would have came along. I’ll just take your corpse back.”

Felicia raised the shortsword up, and pointed it towards Azami’s chest. A flicker of light cast itself over Felicia’s armour, and a great roar of fire blew through the air and pushed itself against the templar. She stepped back, yelling in pain as the fire touched her skin. Felicia ran, leaving Azami in the dust as a hulking figure blocked out the sun and a familiar voice called out for her.

“Azami. It is a shame that this is how we meet again.” Powerful hands wrapped around her waist and pulled her onto the figure’s shoulder.

There was another voice. “Oh gods… I left her for five minutes and this is what happens.”

“It is of no concern. We will have our moments to apologize to her, but now we must ensure that she does not slip into death’s cold embrace.”

Azami was somewhat conscious the entire time she was carried away from the Tavanirian district. All her senses were dull from the pain and she barely registered sight, hearing and touch. She faded in and out, only barely recognizing the passage of time by the intensity of the sounds around her. A raw thump, and she was set onto a table.

“What in the…” A voice came, Kaska’s. “What happened to her?”

Victoria provided a quick answer. “Templars jumped her. She’s practically dead already.”

“And who is this?”

“Nadaarin Delmirea. We can go through the motions when we have ample time, but our friend is dying and sand continues to pour from the cracks in the hourglass. Can you help us?”

Kaska rubbed at her forehead. “If only my mother were here… I shall need some materials for natural magic.”

Nadaarin took command. “Victoria Wolfe, was it? That shall be your domain. I shall borrow some Free Mage resources to allow me to apply some basic medicines. Time is running short. Go!”

The three began to dash about and for a moment, the room was silent. Azami brushed her hand against her holy symbol, her fingers scraping against the metal, before dropping her hand uselessly to the side. Her strength was gone, dripping onto the floor as it leaked from her body in scarlet rivulets. Kaska returned first, followed shortly after by Nadaarin. They worked tirelessly with mortar, pestle, plants and herbs. Kaska even began to pray, communing with her own gods to aid her with the magicks she would need to perform. Azami stared up at the ceiling, feeling as her pulse pounded in a dull rhythm. It was almost serene. She was at death’s door yet again. Maybe it would be better to just let go for once. Without her sister, and without purpose, what reason was there to continue on? For her country and the order that had deserted her? No, of course not.

Victoria barged in, carrying in her hands an armful of supplies. Kaska dove upon them immediately, like a dragon upon a pile of gold, and began to pick apart what she needed. Nadaarin came to rub a paste into her wounds, singing softly in a language that Azami felt like she knew. It calmed her further, and she felt as if she would melt into the wooden table, at peace, before she finally passed out.

Chapter 3
Azami slept much longer than she had thought she would, and by the time she awoke, stiff and sore, the sun and moon were just beginning to trade places. Yet, she was still tired, both in the sleeping sense, and the depressive sense. She stepped around the small room that Isha had let her sleep in and began to pace, her hands clasped behind her back. The Cazavirian templars were, beyond a doubt, corrupt in Azami’s eyes. There were no allies to be found here. Yet, she felt betrayed by the very order she had served with for so long. She had been but a young girl when she had joined, and now she was a woman. Had she been so blind to put so much faith where it was undeserved? What was left for her in this world? With her sister she had felt camaraderie, but she had also felt that with Victoria and Kaska as they had traveled up the Coast. She came to regret what she had said, judging herself in the mirror and reprimanding herself in silent whispers.

A knock came at the door and it opened to reveal Nadaarin. “Azami, you are awake…”

She bowed to him. “Nadaarin… my thanks will never be enough for everything you’ve done for me.”

He shook his head and placed a hand on her shoulder as she rose. “A teacher does not throw his student into the world like that. I will apologize for that.” He embraced her, placing his scaled chin upon her head. Azami felt wetness tug at her eyes and soon she was crying into his chainmail. She tried to stop herself, but all she could think about was everything that had happened, and the uncertainty of the path forward.

“Azami… You should not cry.” He lifted her chin up, and she saw the softness in his draconic eyes. “You still have so much left to your story, and you should be out there, winning your victories.”

Azami wiped the tears from her face, breathing in. “Where are Victoria and Kaska?”

“The Free Mage and the druid?” He stepped back, setting a hand under his chin. “Kaska is at the Drunken Sow, asking around if anyone knows anything of her clan’s current whereabouts. Victoria is by the docks, she did not say anything other than that.”

Azami made up her mind. “Thank Kaska for me when she comes back. I am sure that Victoria and I will have much to discuss, that it may extend past the time it takes Kaska to finish her business.”

“Very well. The Free Mage leader has asked me to stay and aid them with their sick and wounded. I shall remain here until you come back.”

“I will come back.” She bowed again, very quickly. “It is good to see you again, Nadaarin. This will not be our last meeting.”

He nodded. “And if you see that kobold… tell him I want a word.” Azami began to leave, but Nadaarin stopped here as he remembered something. “Your holy symbol, we used it in that ritual.” He raised his hands to soothe any panic. “We’ll have it fixed shortly. Thankfully, only the thread was damaged.”

“Please do, Nadaarin. That is important to me.”

Azami left the safety of the Free Mage headquarters and exited into the street. It was near abandoned compared to the morning, and the evening was very quiet. She walked, noting with some surprise that the blood had practically all disappeared from her clothes, save for a few drops here and there. Magic was a profound power.

She arrived at the Free Mage district's docks without issue. Several Cazavirian native guards walked back and forth. Some asked her why she was here at such late hours, and she responded as to not arouse suspicion such as saying she was meeting a friend. She did not need to be mistaken for a smuggler. She was simply searching for a Free Mage that was here before the woman got into trouble. This seemed to please the guards, noting general acceptance of the Free Mages before walking off to continue their rounds.

The district politics of Cazavir were odd and intriguing. Albians to the north, Tavanirians to the west, and the native Cazavirians to the south. Undoubtedly, the Dominion, Asalgard and far-off Razfar had to have some sort of presence in such an important trade city, but these were the biggest players. How the governor of Cazavir could have possibly allowed this was beyond her. Corruption? Buyout of the land? Knights and templars were in your city without restraint or surveillance. It was simply insane.

Azami continued on, walking along the wooden docks as the water lapped at it from below. Victoria was either hidden well, or not there at all. That was not especially surprising. Victoria was the kind of woman to sneak off and do her own thing after all. If not here, then where was there to look? A tavern? A brothel?

A call disturbed her train of thought, and she half expected Victoria to appear out of thin air simply to save her the trouble of having to find her. Instead, it was someone much more troublesome. An Albian, dressed in shining steel chainmail, with the lion emblem watching wisely forward, a crown upon its head. Despite being around Azami’s height, she looked down upon her with bright blue eyes, shaded by curled blonde locks. “What is your name?” she asked, more demanding than polite.

“I don't owe you anything, Knight. Leave me.”

She looked unimpressed. “I am asking for a reason that will not involve your arrest. You do realize I have no jurisdiction within the merchant district, right?”

“A templar is taught to be wary of Albians.” A pause. “I am Azami Sicarius.”

“Congratulations. You are who I am looking for then.” Azami reached for her sword instinctively, but the woman raised a hand in restrained protest. “My commanding officer ordered me to seek out the other Sicarius sister.”

“The other? You know where Hikari Sicarius is?”

“Perhaps. Nonetheless, my commander would be upset if I did not say that a Sidhe elf and a dragonborn informed me of your whereabouts.” She quietly surveyed the area. “Have you not found who you are looking for?”

“No.” Azami eyed the Knight, noting the longsword at her hip. “Who even are you?”

“Catherine Lasiin. Do you want to know where your sister is?”

Azami swallowed her pride and nodded. “Take me to her.”

The trip to the Albian district was incredibly less resistant than the trip to the Tavanirian district. All it took was a nod from Catherine for them to pass, and that was if the Albian Knights even cared enough to stop her from simply passing with Azami in tow. Instead of poor and disparaged individuals, she found the district to be incredibly peaceful. Taverns bustled with common folk and adventurers alike, children played in the streets, and everything seemed happy and serene. Nothing even seemed fake. Catherine continued, not letting Azami stop and sightsee. She approached a large building built atop a hill. By no means was it a castle or a fort, yet there were archers and watchmen positioned high above. It seemed more a university, but Catherine did not even hint to the possibility of it being one, and continued up the hill, stepping in through the grand doors.

The Knights in the atrium turned their heads towards Catherine, nodding their heads in respect. Some eyed Azami with nervousness, while others paid her no mind at all. A Knight approached Catherine, handing her a scroll. He eyed Azami and gave her a nod of respect, but spoke to Catherine. His dark nappy hair was fashioned into rows along his head, ending in a braided ponytail behind his head.

“The Blackraven messenger was here again. I already sent word to the captain.”

“Good. We can discuss this later, when our guest has left us.”

He nodded, looking to Azami. “So, who is the guest?”

Azami would rather introduce herself. “Azami Sicarius, and you?”

“Isaias Sall. You’re the Sicarius sister then. I thought you would be much shorter than your sister, I wonder why. You do have the physique of a templar, that much is certain.” He turned his head back to Catherine, and Azami noticed a dark marking upon his neck, snaking upwards and touching his jawline. Spellburn?

“We’ll be off to see Ryker then. If you see that Free Mage…” Catherine coughed into her elbow in a very forced fashion. “Send him to my quarters…”

Isaias laughed. “How saucy…”

With that, the two women departed. They walked through the aged halls of the building and took a detour before they could enter the loudest and most crowded parts of the garrison. Up a flight of stairs and Catherine stopped in front of a heavy door. It looked like the entrance to a headmaster’s office, and perhaps it was once. Without even knocking, Catherine threw the door open and strode inside. Azami followed. Inside, she found two men engaged in a lethal staring competition.

One of the two was an aging man, with silver hair and a light beard, accompanied by a thick and fluffy moustache. He held his hands on a large wooden desk, eyeing the man in front of him with annoyance, veiled behind a wall of polite and diplomatic smiles. The other man, which Azami had seen countless lookalikes in the halls of the Tavanirian imperial palace, was a man almost snake-like in demeanor, with a yellow and black robe. The grey haired man eyed Catherine and nodded thoughtfully.

“Chancellor, as much as I would like to help you strengthen Cazavirian land to the south, there are far too many things at play. The Tavanirians would see this as an act of expansionism, and that is not something I will allow them to use against us when politics between us are so tense. Additionally, it is not even within my power as commander to give such an order. I would need to send a message to the king’s office, and we both know how long that would take.”

“You are even more passive than your predecessor was. So be it then. While the beasts and creatures of darkness continue to assault our outposts and towns, you can hide idly within your walls.” He turned, gave a sour look to both Azami and Catherine and left without another word.

The commander set a hand on his face and shook his head gently. “I feel like I am getting too old for this job.”

Catherine stepped up the three steps to his level and set the scroll on his desk. “No one else is qualified, so you better get used to this.” She threw a thumb over her shoulder, pointing at Azami. “I found her. It didn't take long.”

“Really? I thought she would be in hiding. No matter!” He set both hands on his desk and pushed himself up. Around his shoulders was a long blue cloak, complementing the similarly coloured clothing on his person. Azami heard a clinking sound, and noted how his clothing did not conform to his body like it should. Chainmail? That made him paranoid, but smart enough to hide it. She’d have to see. “Come up! There’s no reason to be shy or afraid. I don't bite.”

“Yet you look like an elderly bear,” she said with an upturned smile, almost groaning at herself. Was this how Victoria was rubbing off on her? Now she was trying to crack wise? She stepped up nonetheless.

“Well, your sister certainly didn't have any sense of humour. Unfortunately, my news comes in both forms of good and bad. Would you like to hear them in any particular order?”

“Give me your most horrendous news first.”

“Your sister is no longer here.” He raised a hand to silence her immediate reaction. “No, to what we understand, she is still alive and well. What she told us is that something occurred in the dwarven city of… Dul Vano, was it? Yes. She made it very clear that it went beyond your possible death, or simple necromancy, but of course like all clichéd stories much go, she did not tell us anything exact.”

Azami crossed her arms, settling her fingers tightly around her forearms. “Where is she then?”

“She went to seek a dragon. Yurik the Immolator.” He let it sink in, and Azami sighed, rubbing at her forehead. “They are a red dragon, supposedly hibernating since their last torrent of destruction some three hundred or so years ago. Hikari did not say why she was interested in this dragon, or what she hoped to accomplish, but we can quite easily extrapolate.”

Azami could tell there was a point to all this. “Why tell me about this? What is your stake in this?”

Catherine rolled her eyes. “That dragon needs to stay dormant, and its hoard is rumoured to contain dangerous weapons; weapons that should not fall into the wrong hands.”

“So you want a templar to stop another templar before these weapons are turned on Albia.”

“It is not simply because she is a templar, but because we cannot tell where these artefacts may end up after the fact. If a bandit were to recover one, it could be disastrous, for all mortals.”

Azami was slowly growing more and more inpatient. “Why me?”

The commander dropped all hints of happy front and his mouth turned into a thin crease. “I send an expedition of Albian Knights, and your sister will die. She will not be talked down by an Albian. I send you, there is a chance that there will be no bloodshed.’

Azami tilted her head downwards, closing her eyes as she thought. She shook her head and sighed. There was no point in holding off on her answer, she would only respond in one way. “I’ll do it, once you prove absolutely that she was here.”

The man beamed, and Catherine nearly cracked up, smiling to herself. “I told her she would, Ryker.”

“So you did, Catherine… so you did…” He returned to his desk, opening up one of the drawers below. He pulled out a sword wrapped in fabric, and set it down in front of Azami. “Your sister left this here. She said it was a… wakizashi.”

Azami scooped up the blade, gently unwrapping the cloth that covered it from end to end. Without a doubt, it was hers. There were notches and imperfections that she remembered distinctly, and holding the grip in her hand felt familiar. Hikari had been here. No one else would have bothered with it. Azami set it back down. “When do we begin in full?”

“Why, right now.”

Midnight. Harbour gulls sang in the darkness like ravens worshipping their queen. The night was as black as death, and the water stiller. Commander Ryker sent a page to the Free Mage headquarters, and retrieved Kaska, Nadaarin, Isha, Errol, and a handful of Free Mages.  A group of Knights was paired up with them all.

“A handful of Knights may be the tool required when facing a band of goblins, gnolls or other simple minded creatures, but to send them solely to the hoard of a dragon? That would be incredibly foolish.” Ryker had gathered them all in the dining hall, but took Azami off to the side to speak privately. “Pick your team however you wish, but keep in mind the strengths of those around you.”

“If I have learned anything these last few days, it is that the sword alone has failed me more times than I would care to admit.” And that was that conversation.

Azami returned to the dining hall, watching over the group as some spoke quietly, while others busied themselves with textbooks and their weapons. Azami offered the question that was perhaps most obvious to her. “Where is Victoria?”

Isha was the one to answer. “This is how Victoria is. She stays to complete a job, and then she is gone. I would not be surprised if she had already left Cazavir.”

Azami shook her head and brought the group to attention. “Commander Ryker has already informed you that this meeting is on the topic of a dangerous expedition and mission. My sister, against the wishes of a great many people, has decided to make a trip that could put a great many lives at risk. My job is to stop her, and to bring her back if I can. I would not ask anyone to accompany me if this was a purely personal affair, nor would I have thought to ask anyone to accompany me if it was not, but the facts are that my sister’s actions threaten the arousal of a sleeping dragon.”

Errol exclaimed. “A dragon? You want us to go to a dragon’s lair?”

“If you are disinterested, you may leave.” Some of the unknown Free Mages began to leave, and some of the Knights looked around nervously. The rest remained, and looked on curiously.

Azami went on. “I cannot guarantee anyone’s safety, nor can I guarantee that you will be remembered for this, but what it is is the adventure of a lifetime. You have lived countless years between the walls of castle keeps. You have seen battle once or twice, risked life or limb once or twice, but where was the glory, the thrill and rush of adrenaline? If you tasted it once, now is your time to taste it again. You will feel fear, but you will feel exhilaration, joy, and profound pride at what you will accomplish. This is no trade run to the nearest town, this is the call of adventure knocking upon your door!” She could practically feel her chest swell with pride at her own words. “Now, who stands with me?”

Nadaarin, Kaska, and Errol shouted a resounding “Huzzah!” While the rest clapped loudly at her speech. A great shuffling of feet and bodies began, and people lined up in front of her. Azami counted quickly in her head. Some had left in the commotion, and the number that Ryker had given her matched up nicely with the people presented to her. She had a spot left, and she motioned to the sitting Isha in the background. Isha only raised her hand in protest. She had an entire branch of an organization to run, yet she smiled, and raised a fist in support of Azami’s endeavour.

When everything finally settled down, she began to record names in a journal. She had Nadaarin, Kaska, and Errol, which only seemed natural. Ryker had attached Catherine to the group immediately as Azami’s second in command. Azami knew that she was there to keep tabs on her. From the Knights, she acquired the Knight from earlier, Isaias, as well as a dwarf and a half-orc. From the Free Mages, there was a gnome, and two elves. Isha and Ryker signed off on the participants. They had no qualms with the proceedings, and it was time to continue to the next phase.

She directed them all to a bunking area that Ryker had given to Azami, and while Isaias showed them all the way, Catherine led Azami away. “Ryker has given you an office. It is nothing special, but for the night, you may reside there.” She stopped outside and handed Azami a key. “I may have my qualms about allowing you to lead us, but it is because I do not know you, not because you are a templar. Prove me wrong, Sicarius.”

“Torm watch over you, Catherine.”

“Blessings of Lathander upon you, Azami.”

Azami took the key in hand and entered her office. It was small, but it held a desk, several cabinets and storage containers, and a small bedroom off to the side. Once upon a time, it might have been the abode of a college professor, but now it was hers. There was even a balcony. She stepped out onto it, looking out across the silent waterway of Cazavir. For a moment, it almost seemed like this was her life now. Respected, content, and on the cusp of adventure. If she had tried, she could have been a templar lieutenant. Her teacher had said she had the mettle for it, but instead she had followed her sister into a tour of duty. It had not been a waste, but… she wondered simply if this was always what she had wanted in life.

A pair of boots entered her office and she turned. Raven hair, blue eyes, and the scars of Spellburn. Azami blinked, and rubbed at her eyes as if she was looking at a ghost. Perhaps it would have been better if it was a ghost. “You’re back.”

“I heard you were getting cozy with the Albians.”

Azami crossed her arms defensively, resting her back against the railing. “Isn't the templar supposed to be the one who distrusts the Albians?”

Victoria waved her hand at Azami. “You were never that distrusting.” She settled herself on the corner of the desk in the room, pulling her foot over to rest it on her knee. “I'm not distrustful of Albians or their Knights. I'm wondering if a certain templar I know has lost her better judgement.”

“If you’re here now, then you were here for the gathering in the dining hall. That's how you are. So, why didn't you challenge me in public, and ask me what my real intentions were in front of Kaska and my teacher?”

Victoria was silent for a moment as she recollected her bearings. She summoned a flicker of orange flame in her hand, and instantly squashed it. The act seemed to grant her some calm. “I am not here to belittle you, or to stop you before something I perceive as horrible happens. I am here as someone who has a good deal of respect for you.”

Azami was taken aback. “That is not what you made it sound like.” She straightened herself out, standing up to cross back into the office space. Azami unbuckled her sword belt and set it on the desk. “I came here to find my sister, Victoria, and if someone is willing to help me, I will let them. There is nothing else to it.”

Victoria shook her head. “Something’s clicked inside you, hasn't it. A desire to lead? To claim glory?”

Azami looked up into Victoria's eyes. There was something there too. “I lead if I must.”

Victoria nodded, looking off. “So it has then. That's who you are. You could lead an army if you wanted, as a beautiful icon of power, but you never wanted to. Maybe you still don't really want to, but the desire is there, hidden away in your heart…” She peered back at Azami through the corner of her eye, looking down, and then back up. “Hidden among… other things.”

Azami crossed her arms. “What do you mean?”

Victoria pushed herself off her perch on the desk's edge. “Ever in your life, have you had someone to confide in?”

Azami spoke reactionarily. “My sister.”

“Someone you could tell anything to? Someone who would support you in near everything you did, but still remained there to help and protect you when you did make mistakes?” Victoria began to advance, and Azami retreated, eventually hitting the wall.

“No. I’ve never had that type of person in my life.”

Victoria gently set her hand beside Azami's head. “I have a simple question.” A pause, seemingly only for dramatic effect. “Do you trust me?”

Azami took her time to look Victoria in the face. This woman she had met along the Dagger Coast. Easily, if she was what she had been taught to resent and fear, Victoria would have had ample opportunity to throw a spell at her and kill her. The Free Mages she had seen in Tavaniria… they weren't this woman. What had happened in the Tavanirian district… Azami knew that was not Victoria's fault. They had both said things that were disagreeable and that neither really wanted to say.

“You saved my life,” Azami replied. “Twice. I trust you.”

Victoria looked relieved and smiled happily. “I’ve made mistakes in my past, just like everyone, but I don't want to repeat them. I want to do better.”

“Come with me, Victoria. Join me on this new journey. You cannot do better if you never do... Please.”

Victoria lifted her hand from the wall and set it against Azami’s cheek. Azami asked softly, “What are you doing?” There was nervousness in her voice, but not fear or disgust.

Victoria sighed. “So many words never really mean anything if you don't do anything with them. A few words can do the same thing, or simply, an action.” She touched her thumb to Azami's lip. Azami could see so much doubt in Victoria’s eyes, but she could not understand why. Victoria always seemed to be confident.

Instead, Azami wrapped her arms around Victoria’s waist and pulled her in closely, resting their foreheads together. Victoria was surprised, but said nothing. “If you want to continue with this, then do it. Don't doubt it if it is something you would do.”

Victoria parted her lips, biting down on her tongue as she shook her head. “I don't want to ruin it. I’ve always ruined it.”

“You will never know if you do not try. You can never grow if you keep your heart closed. You’ve shown me that, Victoria. I let you in. I trust Kaska, and I’m working with Albians. Help me continue to be a better person.”

Victoria’s gaze grew soft. “Only if you'll help me to not fear who I am.” Without anything else, Victoria leaned in and they kissed. A simple kiss, and nothing more.

Victoria pulled back, nervous. “This all sounds so… cheesy.”

Azami rolled her eyes and pulled Victoria back in. “Stop talking and kiss me, you insufferable idiot.”

Azami awoke as sun poured in through the open shutters, with sounds of the awakening harbour in the distance. She untangled herself from her recently acquired lover’s arms, dressing herself and putting her sword in its sheath. Certainly, this was not how she had thought she would ever awake in her life, but she had. She combed her fingers through her messy hair in a mirror and returned to looking like Azami Sicarius rather than someone who had just slept with a Free Mage. But then again, what was the difference...

“Oh, Azami… Come back to bed would you…” Victoria sat up, as naked as one could be, and Azami immediately threw Victoria’s clothes at her.

“Get up. We leave today. This trip needs to be made immediately. My sister isn't the kind of person who waits if she doesn't need to.”

“If only it wasn't a dragon… A giant snail? Why, we wouldn't even need to leave today. We could wait all week, maybe all year.” She pulled her blouse over her shoulders and began to tighten up her leather vest.

“That doesn't mean I would neglect my duties and just lay with you the whole time. Now seriously, get up.”

“Yeah, yeah.” She sprung up and looked over Azami’s shoulder. “You look fine, but…” She took something from a pocket, and gently placed it around Azami's neck. Azami looked to see her holy symbol now dangling around her neck.

“So you did go and rethread it… Thank you.”

Victoria pressed a kiss into Azami’s cheek. “Come on. I doubt Catherine Lasiin is someone you can keep waiting.” Azami only laughed. Trading in some of Victoria’s snark for affection? Why hadn't she tried it sooner…

It seemed that the rest of the group was already awake by the time they arrived in the common room, but so was the entirety of the rest of the Albian Knights. It was loud, but even within the foreign room, Kaska hugged Victoria and Nadaarin clapped Azami on the back as they both went to sit. In front of them was quite the feast, mostly of meats, but Azami was quite bewildered by it all. It seemed almost on the level of the banquet she had partaken in during her stay at the Tavaniri capital, but simply on a smaller scale with only Knights in the room. Either this district’s natural wealth bled into the Knight’s lifestyle, or Knights were funded as well as the templars usually were.

Nadaarin set a plate of warm chicken and turkey, and a goblet of wine in front of Azami. There was a smile upon the dragonborn's features, and he spoke in a hushed tone. “Victoria came to you, instead of the other way around… She must truly enjoy your company.”

Azami simply looked up at him with a blank expression. “You don't know the half of it, Nadaarin.” And she brought the goblet of wine up to her lips, drinking as Nadaarin chuckled to himself.

Kaska reached out from the other side of the table, laying her hand in front of Azami for her attention. “We actually went out to load the equipment we knew we’d need last night. So it won't take long for us to get going.”

“All the better then,” Azami said. A shadow fell onto Azami and quietly she turned around. “Vice-commander Lasiin… How are you?”

She sat down, hair curled to perfection. Azami rolled her eyes quietly. “As much as you all would probably like to stay and enjoy yourselves in Captain Ryker's headquarters, you all actually have a job to do. Azami, we are to head out immediately after this.”


Azami finished quickly and left to inspect the gear that had been requisitioned. One of the stable hands outside pointed her to a cart, and then a set of oxen in the stable. She clambered atop the cart, spying the bags, backpacks and bundles. She knew about what she had to pack for herself, but someone else had handled the rest during her time in Tavaniria. In all honesty, she had no clue if this was right or wrong. She hopped down, wondering what to do with her time now, until she heard the neighing of a horse that attracted her attention. It looked at her curiously, and she approached, eyeing the stable hand that was watching her, but continued. She pressed a hand against its face, peering at how the mane was shaped, and the look in its eyes.

“Masayoshi…” she whispered. “I never even gave you any thought throughout my journey… That was disrespectful of me. I apologize.” She brushed his mane, and wrapped her arms around the horse before calling to the stablehand. “This horse belongs to me! I’ll take it up with the captain.”

A voice approached. “The captain? Well, I am here if I am required.” Captain Ryker clasped his hands in front of him. “Did you sleep well? Are you ready for your journey?”

She turned to him properly and gave a quick bow. “Catherine has informed me that we are to leave immediately, and that will be the plan. Everything seems to be in order.”

“Very good. This expedition cannot wait any longer.”

She shifted the conversation over. “About this horse… I know him. It is my horse from my days in Tavaniria. Masayoshi.”

Ryker ran a hand along her beard. “If I recall correctly, this horse did come in around the time that your sister arrived, but I did not realize that they might have been a correlation. You are welcome to take him with you.” He smiled. “Will there be anything else that you will require of me.”

Azami looked off to the side, scanning her mind. “There is something that has been clawing at me. What happened to the templar garrison here? They are all…” She chose her words carefully. “On edge.”

Ryker frowned and gestured for Azami to follow him. They climbed up onto the second level of the courtyard, eyeing the river and the industrial district beyond it. He settled against the brick battlements, resting his arms upon it. “Look at the district, Azami. From here, you can see nothing wrong with it. The buildings are the same as any other district’s, and there are no fires and no smoke that would raise an alarm.”

Azami took her time, watching the sun light up the buildings. “You’re right. I wouldn't even guess.”

“From the governor’s office, that is the case as well. You look upon it and you see nothing wrong. For years, it grew poorer and poorer, and the conditions of those within only grew worse. This was far before either Albians or Tavanirians held a base of operations in Cazavir, but now…” He paused, shaking his head. “This is the reality we live with, and the one the templars live with. That was the area they received from the Cazavirians, and now, that is what they live with. The Blackravens, and other factions of organized crime, the district is a safe haven for them. As a templar, you deal with the poor, the disparaged, but also the criminal.”

“They’ve grown scared. Using fear and brutality is all they think that works.”

“The Knights… I cannot say a similar situation would not have occurred if it was us who received it, but with the captain murdered by a northern Tavanirian-”

Azami stopped him immediately. “A northern Tavanirian killed the templar captain? Not speculation, not prejudice; without a doubt?”

Ryker closed his eyes and took a breath in. “Your sister can tell you more. She was the one who confirmed it.”

Azami gritted her teeth. “Good day, Captain Loyal.” She departed down the stairs, as the rest of her party gathered around the cart, settling the oxen in front and standing ready. A stablehand brought Masayoshi out, and Azami clambered onto him. Victoria came up next to her, on top of her own horse.

“Azami, what happened?”

Kaska handed Azami her wakizashi and looked up, expecting an answer as well. “Are you well?”

Azami set her wakizashi on her hip and tightened the straps of her katana’s harness. She gripped Masayoshi’s reins and looked up. “I have a bone to pick with my sister.” And to everyone else. “We leave at once!”

Azami, Victoria, Kaska and Catherine all spearheaded the convoy, riding on top of horses. The rest sat in the cart, or on their own horse at the back. The Knights had horses, but none of the Free Mages or Nadaarin did. Instead, Nadaarin drove while Errol read a book beside him. The rest of the Free Mages played cards in the back. Errol looked up from his book, gazing curiously at the dragonborn beside him. Nervously, he asked. “Nadaarin, was it?”

“Indeed. Of clan Delmirea. I hailed from what is politically Luirenmere, not that the Luirenmeran elves care much for borders as Kaska has told me.”

“You used to cities? For most people, you might give off the wrong impression. The most a commoner might see is a kobold or a goblin, they don't know what dragonborn even means.”

Nadaarin looked down at his hands for a moment, but regained his composure quickly. “Some of my dragonborn brethren were descended from red dragons, but others in my clan were descended from gold. I am gold, but within my clan, we all fought with what we thought we should be. The reds wondered if their heritage defined them, and the golds wondered if their heritage contained them.”

Errol asked the obvious question. “So, what happened? Why are you out here?”

“We clashed with another clan of dragonborn, as all races eventually turn against themselves. In the snows of the Dagger Coast, a few generous humans nursed me back to health after I fell in battle.” He called out. “Azami?”

“What is it?”

“Thank you.”

She huffed with a hint of a laugh. “I’ll thank my great aunts and uncles in the afterlife.”

Catherine turned to Azami. “That brings a point with it. You’ve certainly had a convoluted journey to end up here with us.”

“Only as convoluted as anyone else’s journey.” She threw a glance over her shoulder. “Can I ask how you ended up with books-and-Free-Mage back there?”

Catherine raised an eyebrow. “Ended up?”

Victoria chimed in. “Come on, Cathy, we aren’t all stupid.”

She looked between Victoria and Azami and rolled her eyes. “Takes one to know one… Fine. I busted his ass when the Free Mages were pulling a stunt in the noble quarter. He fell in love immediately, and after I let him off the hook, he started trying to see me at the garrison. The rest is history.”

Victoria laughed out loud. “Errol? Sleeping with the vice-captain of the Cazavirian Albian Knights… That’s a joke for the festivals.”

“Is she always like this?” Catherine asked Azami.

Azami looked at Victoria’s smug grin. “Yes.”

They continued onward, Cazavir long having left their sights. They passed through a forest, and a long open prairie. Kaska breathed in the fresh air, a smile coming to her face. “This is the life… Oh, I forgot to say, I won't be coming back to Cazavir with you all. My clan went up north, so I'll be departing when we are finished.”

Azami bowed her head. “It was still a great honor to have you with us.”

Catherine looked up at the sky, grabbing Azami’s attention. “We’ll be entering Albia soon. From there, we only need to head up to the cavern.”

Victoria elbowed Azami in the side. “Asalgard, the Coast, Cazavir and Albia, all in one journey. That’s quite something. All you need now is Luirenmere and Razfar and you’ve seen all of Rosarius.”

“Please. I barely saw the Coast, and I was on Asalgardian soil for a mere hour.” She turned back to Catherine. “How long will we be traveling in Albia? I'm still a templar, and I'm still a Tavanirian. I don't want to cause any situations.”

“One town, and then we’re at the dragon’s lair. I doubt your sister stayed there long so we won’t either. Besides, if we all want a round of ale, we can get it on the way back.”

Azami raised an eyebrow. “You make it sound like this is your expedition.”

“I'm here to keep the timetable. Your jurisdiction is still the tactical and snap decisions. You still lead.”

Azami looked at Catherine carefully. She didn't want to put pressure on her, but it was necessary. “I better, Catherine. That was the entire purpose of my coming out here.”

“You will,“ she responded and she turned back forward without another word.

To Azami, Catherine seemed the type to believe in unwavering loyalty to her own cause. They may all seem to be getting along for the most part, but when the chips were down, Catherine wasn’t the one Azami would go to for help first. This was a military mission first and foremost for the Knight, and Azami was not one to ignore such a blatant truth.

The group came up over a hill and on the other side, clear as day, was a large town. Red roofs dotted the greenery, but nothing stood out particularly to Azami. It seemed the same as any other town she had seen in Tavaniria or passed by on the Coast. “Annris,” Catherine said. “There’s a vineyard here, exports wine to Cazavir in the summer months.”

“I think I’ve had a glass or two,” Victoria said. “Montregon, right? It’s damn good, that’s for sure. Expensive too.”

Both of their accents were near perfect, and Azami couldn’t help but feel a little jealous. “Where’s a tavern, and what direction is the dragon’s lair in relation to the town?”

“Near the town master's office, and if we follow the path out we’ll reach our intended destination. What’s the plan, Sicarius?”

“Timeframe. I want to know when my sister was here, and if she bought supplies.”

They descended into the town, and all the townsfolk that were out and about watched the group pass through. Not everyone saw many elves, fewer ever saw dragonborn, and if anyone could even distinguish them, seeing a templar, Free Mages, and Knights all together was something new entirely. None of them gave the group any trouble though, and soon enough Azami had gotten off of her horse, beckoned Victoria to follow and they entered the nearest inn. The Drunken Bee.

It was lively. A group of dwarves in the corner drank loudly, spoke louder, and showed off their raw strength even louder. Asalgardians, certainly. They were on the tip of Albia, the tip that touched Cazavir and the Coast, Tavaniria, and Asalgard. Azami nudged past two men nursing their ales and rapped her knuckles against the wooden countertop to attract the attention of the barkeep.

The man turned around, running a hand along the inside of a mug. “Hello, yes… What do you need?” He spoke with a slight accent, as if Rosarian Common wasn’t his first language. It probably wasn’t.

“I’m looking for someone. Tall, hails from the north, looks like I do, and probably carried similar weapons.” She tapped each of her swords for reference.

He nodded carefully. “That was a woman that I certainly would remember. She was here around two days ago, asked about…” He searched for the word, mumbling in the local dialect as he collected himself. “Ancient ruins. I said to go to the mountains.”

“Thank you. This woman is family.” It was the truth, but also someone to keep the man from thinking she might be a bounty hunter. “Did she ask about supplies? I need to know if she’s emptying the family coffers.”

He scratched the side of his head with his finger. “I did think she went to the local hedge witch for some…” He shook his head. “I do not recall. I am sorry, but the witch is just down the road, you cannot miss it..”

“That’s perfectly fine.” She set a few silver pieces on the counter. “As thanks. We’ll surely be back soon enough.” And with that, Azami left, dragging Victoria out with her.

Azami informed the rest of the party and was quickly off again, once again dragging Victoria with her. Victoria smiled and chuckled softly to herself. “You know how to deal with people, it seems. Makes me wonder why you aren’t a templar commander.”

“It wasn’t the life I wanted, Victoria. I want to live through this, settle down somewhere, raise a family. Staying full time with the templars wouldn’t have allowed me that.” And Hikari had taken her up north… Victoria raised an eyebrow. She could see plainly that Azami wasn’t saying everything on her mind, but Azami kept the front up and Victoria let it go.

“It’s good that you know what you want. So few of us seem to really know these days.”

They came to a small hut, not very large, but enough for the type of operation that had been described. There was an image on the front, a potion drawn in white chalk. Azami raised her hand to knock and tapped the door thrice before a voice exclaimed for them to come in. They entered, and immediately were confronted by a woman resting upon a silken cushion. Her skin was a deep brown, and a veil rested in front of her mouth, revealing her eyes, but not her mouth or her nose. Her clothes were red, and form fitting, as well as being a material Azami and Victoria rarely saw in central Rosarius. The woman opened her eyes, revealing a stunning green hue. Suffice to say, she was absolutely beautiful.

Victoria shook her head, as if in a spell. “Miss, you’re… a Razfarian this far west? What are you doing dealing in some Albian town?”

She smiled, and one could see her upturned lips through the fabric of her veil. “If I only did business here, then yes, this would all be quite a waste.” She pointed to a standing closet, barely perceptible in the darkness. “You’ll find in this magical world of ours, that traveling from one side of it to another is quite easy.”

Azami crossed her arms defensively. “You’re a traveling mage then. Are you using a beauty spell then as well? To hide the Spellburn?”

The witch laughed. “No, no. If you would believe me, this was the face given to me when I was born, but of course, no witch is complete without being able to change it.” She moved her hand past her face and instantly it was that of a light skinned elf. Again, and she was an elderly northern Tavanirian lady. Once more, and she returned to how she looked when they had stepped in. “As the Free Mages say, magic is not to be feared for being magic.” She focused her gaze on Victoria. “Do you know, in Razfar there are no Free Mages? It is perhaps the only place where one can show the spell scars freely and none would judge you or look down upon you.”

Victoria gave the witch an unconvinced look. “Yet you’re hiding your markings. You’re a changeling mage too afraid to embrace who you are.”

The witch only smiled. “You’re quite the clever woman.”

Victoria shrugged and continued. “It’s near impossible to get into the city these days. The Razfar Empire doesn’t welcome outsiders, that is if you even get through the desert.”

The witch nodded. “You are right, but I also know that neither Free Mage nor templar would come here to discuss magic for so long. Why is it that you two are here?”

Azami spoke up. “The barkeep down the road said that my sister, Hikari, came down here to see you. I need to know what you all told her and sold her.”

“Well, if we are going to discuss business, then you might as well sit.” She gestured to two of the three other cushions in the space and Victoria sat down without reservation. Azami took her time. “I was surprised when I met this woman. She does look like you, and not in the simple way that people would say that all people of one skin tone look the same. The eyes are the most similar, naturally. Red is not a common eye colour.”

“So, Hikari was here.”

“Indeed. She said she needed to see the future, and I gave her an option. Tea leaves, or cards. She chose cards. As she is a templar undoubtedly, my surprise came when she even asked me for this. Perhaps in Razfar, people would ask me for a scrying regularly, but a templar is not someone who would regularly trust in any magic that was not of a divine nature.”

“What did the cards say?”

The woman was quiet, but she drew a set of cards from beside her, hovering them in the air and bringing them to her hand. They were worn, but the imagery and designs were striking and bold, like the fabric had aged but the material that gave the colour was frozen in time. “The cards showed me The Tower. I informed her that the cards had informed her that there would be a time of crisis in her future, and perhaps through this crisis, she would find something that could potentially enlighten her, or send her down a path of darkness. Your sister looked worried at this, but on her face, she only showed me her steadfast resolve.”

Azami sat in thought for a moment. That was little to go on, but at least her sister was alive and well enough in health. She looked to the witch. “Could you see what the cards will say about my future?”

She nodded politely. “I can. Do not worry. The world is chaotic enough as it is, if I can reveal something to you, then it will be without charge.” Without any other words, she began to shuffle the cards in her hands. Azami watched her, mesmerized by the act. The witch stopped, placed the deck on the ground and then flipped over the top card to reveal it. Two humans clad in robes stood against a golden backdrop. “The Lovers.” She smiled humorously. “Do not worry, this has nothing to do with your Free Mage friend here.” And then she returned to her serious demeanor.

“You will have a decision to make in the future. A decision like no other you have faced before. It will shape the direction of your life moving forward, and perhaps even the lives of every single creature around you. You have a heavy burden upon your shoulders, but if you do not decide, then your fate will be even worse than if you made the wrong choice.” She placed the card back within the deck. Azami was bewildered. That was quite the fortune.

The witch looked to Victoria. “Would you like your future?”

She shook her head. “As much as I like finding out the truth, I’d rather not have some sort of grand prophecy hanging over my head. Besides, the mystery’s half the fun.”

“Very well. Will that be all?”

Azami spoke. “Did Hikari say where she was headed?”

“She did, but you already know exactly where she went.”

Azami bowed her head as she stood. “Thank you. I think you’ve taught me something about my sister. Good day.”

“If we do meet again… then you will have changed in both body and mind.”

Azami and Victoria returned back to the cart and the horses. Azami pulled herself onto Masayoshi and looked to Catherine. “Hikari left here two days ago. If she is still within this dragon’s lair, then she’s in trouble, or the place is more complicated than one first thought. No more distractions. We need to delve into it immediately.” She called out to the group and then they began once again. Victoria was quick to slide up beside Azami.

“So, what did the woman say to actually tell you something? Sounded like she was just saying anything to please you.”

“Hikari wouldn’t have gone to a fortune teller unless she was desperate for a divine sign. She’s scared, and she also doesn’t accept the shrines of the commonly accepted gods. Hikari believes in old pantheons, and this was her way of communing with them.”

“Well, I guess my next question is if you believe your own fortune.”

“Even for a back alley arcanist, I believe in the message she gave me. I already know I’ll have to make a decision when I meet my sister again, but this helped to ease my mind. This will happen, and there is little I can do to change fate.”

Victoria nodded. “Okay then. Hopefully none of us die on the way.”

Chapter 4
Isaias whistled. “Now that, ladies and gentlemen… That is a mountain.”

A craggy rock face stared down at them, continuing onwards for what seemed like miles. The dwarven Albian Knight nodded, unbundling a grappling hook. “Aye. This place… it feels tainted, as if a great evil swept through ‘ere… And we ain’t even inside yet.”

Catherine looked at the dwarf. “Thordon, does any of this look like it was excavated by dwarven hands?”

“Nay. It could be elvish, what with all the flowing cuts in the rock up above, but there is not artwork to be found on the outside ‘ere.”

Azami stepped forward, addressing them all. “There’s no time to waste then. I agree, this place doesn’t set right with me. It’s a bright afternoon, it’s not raining, and we haven’t even seen a monster yet, but it still feels wrong.” She turned around and regarded the rock for a moment. “It doesn’t look like someone climbed up, so there’s bound to be an entrance nearby, but we don’t have as much time as we’d like. Get a grappling hook. Kaska, Victoria and I can handle ourselves as a smaller group. The rest of you are with Catherine as you try and find the real entrance.”

“Understood, Azami.” Catherine nodded.

“No one is to engage this dragon. Our main objective is to meet up, or clear the area of hostiles. If the other group locates my sister, take the nonlethal option, but…” She paused for a moment, considering. “If she becomes violent, take her alive.”

Nadaarin and Isaias tossed up the grappling hooks, catching them on a high above ledge. Azami stepped up beside Nadaarin and caught his attention as he finished. “There is one thing on my mind, Nadaarin, and with everything that has happened, the unending chaos and our mission, it never came up before. What happened to the dojo?”

Nadaarin frowned. “I will not lie to you, but you can feel fine knowing that the dojo itself is safe and unharmed. There were wards and barriers placed upon it long ago.”

“Then what is the issue?”

“The sword, Glory. I had placed it back upon the rack as I gathered my own supplies to come and find you, but when I returned to the room, it was gone. It seems impossible, for there had been no sounds, but yet, it was gone.”

“I don’t like that, Nadaarin. Not to say it is your fault, but the sword…”

“I understand. One day, we will find it, but today, we find your sister.”

Azami, Victoria and Kaska all took up one of the ropes and with a few farewells, they began to climb. It was easy for Victoria, less easy for Kaska, but the hardest for Azami. Never had this been part of her templar training, whereas Victoria had once been a pirate, and Kaska was a Sidhe wood elf. They sat down at the top, laughing when Azami finally pulled herself up alongside them. “Very funny, you lot…”

The outcropping had revealed a passageway, and the three proceeded down. Victoria simply held a flame in her hand as they went onward. There were scratches on the stone walls, not fingernails, but claws. Kaska ran her finger against one, noting its elevation from the ground. “Kobolds, perhaps goblins… but kobolds are more likely.”

Victoria regarded the scratches as well. “No, it’s definitely kobolds. Greenskins are further east.” She paused. “Or maybe not. We met a Kazfarian in Annris. Maybe Kazfar’s letting up on security. Tribe could’ve made its way west. Set up shop.”

Azami drew her wakizashi, peering out deeper into the darkness. She continued, gesturing for the two to follow as she went on. A gentle sound of running water entered their ears and eventually the passage opened up into a larger cave room, a small stream running through it. The three avoided the water, following the stream even deeper into the cave, eventually stopping at a stone door resting in the cave wall. Victoria tapped it, feeling around for a hidden trigger or a switch, but nothing. The smooth stone offered her nothing. “Well, it looks elvish. Could just be a wall that no one remembered they built. Elves could have been driven off during the ancient wars before they finished.”

Kaska pressed her hand against the wall, beginning to feel around, but the wall instantly began to fold in on itself, transforming into an open passage. Blue magical torches lined the hall and continued even further inward. Kaska looked at her hand and then down the passage. “I suppose my forefathers were as prejudiced as the Luirenmeran elves.”

Victoria held the two back. “This is beginning to look like a maze. Maybe we should go back to the others. I don’t want us all getting lost.”

“No.” Azami was firm. “If this path is faster to the inner sanctum, then we must continue. My sister wouldn’t have climbed up here, she always takes a path filled with danger. We need to reach the inner sanctum immediately.”

Victoria shrugged her shoulders. “She’s been in here, what, two days? She could be anywhere, and we don’t even know how big the place is.”

Kaska looked off to the side, in thought. “A dragon would take up residence in the main hall. If my elders taught me anything about elvish history, it’s that we built a large amount of hidden military complexes in the mountainous regions, or at least the drow did…” She was quiet for a moment, but she shook her head at her thoughts. “This kind of ruin would have a major hall to use as a final stand in the case of invasion. Fight dwarves on elven terms, usually with copious amounts of magic.”

Azami nodded in response. “Okay. We find the dragon’s hoard in this main hall, and we find Hikari. Kaska, you’re on point.”

Kaska put her hand on the shortsword at her hip and led the group through the corridor. The further they went, the more the stone seemed to shift and move around them. A huge crash behind them, and Azami turned around to see the entire passage closed shut. A section of the walls began to close in shutting off another section, and then another section, and then another… Azami shouted. “Run, dammit, run!”

All three bolted as the passage gained its own momentum and began to close itself off at a faster rate. Kaska jumped out of the passage, having found the end, but Victoria stopped at the edge only for Azami to barrel into her and the pair of them to fall down into a new room. Azami found herself face to face with a human skull as she opened her eyes and stood up quickly.

This new room was piled with skeletons, but not in the somewhat organized way that the bodies in Dul Vano were put. These were haphazardly thrown about like garbage. Kaska covered her mouth with a hand and turned away, finding a doorway at the end of the room. Victoria and Azami pushed their way around the remains of the corpses and joined Kaska, as the warm glow of a fire filled the darkness as well as a familiar voice.

“Brothers… You do not has to do these things. I is sorry that I came back here but I has no choice! Roads are not safe for kobold!”

The three crept out of the darkness, huddling and hiding behind rocks as they peered out into the light. Victoria chuckled. “Guess it was kobolds.” A group of the creatures huddled around a fire as another one was suspended above it.

One of the kobolds, on their own two feet, jabbed a rough and curved dagger at the kobold in the air. “We tell you not to come back, Leeskin. You disgrace us with your words. You always say about…” The kobold struggled to speak. “Mercantile… and we exile you because of it!”

“I is sorry! Please do not kill Leeskin! I will make it up to you!”

Kaska took the bow from around her shoulders and notched an arrow. “What’s the plan, Azami?”

Azami thought for a moment. She could trust that kobold to an extent, and having some sort of ally or informant now would help them find their way around better. Additionally, if she got Leeskin out of there… then Nadaarin could finally have his word with him… “Kaska, you stay out here, fight from range. Victoria, with me. We save the kobold.”

Victoria looked confused. “Well, if you say so.”

Kaska pointed her bow downrange and let loose an arrow just as Azami and Victoria scrambled out of cover, drawing blades. The arrow slammed into the back of one of the kobold’s skulls, throwing him over the fire, dead. Azami pushed the advantage, digging her sword into the gut of one and immediately moving to slice the throat of another just as a bolt of lightning shot out from the darkness and fried the few remaining dead. Victoria stepped out into the light, shaking her smoking hands out. “Haven’t done that in awhile.”

Leeskin spun and reached out as he dangled from the rope. “Azami, you came to save me! Please, help me down from this…” With a quick motion, Azami cut the rope, caught Leeskin in her arms and then put him down. “Is… Nadaarin all right?”

“Nadaarin’s fine, but I came here for something more important than just saving you.” Leeskin looked slightly unhappy that this wasn’t a rescue operation, but perked back up, beckoning for Azami to continue. “We need to find the quickest path to the dragon’s hoard room. Can you help us?”

Leeskin ran a claw against his chin, drawing something in the air with his other clawed hand. “Yes… other kobolds say something about human lurking in shadows, and that human must not get to dragon. Most important part is that dragon must not be disturbed!”

Victoria crouched down beside Leeskin, looking him up and down. She looked up at Azami, wondering why she would just trust a kobold. “Well, I honestly don't think we can just tussle with this… Yurik the Immolator, so the faster we find this human, the faster we can all get out of here.”

Azami paused. “Leeskin, if one was traveling through the main entrance, how much resistance would they face, and how long would it be to the main hall as opposed to us right now?”

Leeskin looked around, eyeing the walls and listening to the sounds of the water splashing and running through the caverns. “I see many kobolds when I came through all sneaky like… They would reach main hall… half hour after us if they is smart?”

Azami nodded. “Good enough, let’s go.”

Leeskin plucked the jagged knife from the dead kobold’s hands and ran off. The trio followed,and the caves began to wind and turn, but somehow Leeskin always seemed to know which turn in the forks to follow. All of them ran for what seemed to be a quarter of an hour before Leeskin beckoned them beside a pile of rocks. He peeked out, pointing out at least twenty kobolds, milling around a larger room. They carted around bodies of various species, goblin, human, dwarf, elf. There was no real pattern to it. Their destination was a room off to the side, where the sounds of sharpening metal and violent disgusting squelching emanated from. Victoria posited the question. “Kobolds just like… eat anything?”

Leeskin shook his head. “Kobold usually eat livestock, but farmer have bad season, not enough meat even for thieving kobold.”

Azami peeked over, looking for an exit. “Rosarius never stops being horrid.” She pointed up at a hanging pot, filled with logs and suspended by a series of ropes. “Kaska, spill that. We run for the door on the end.”

Kaska drew an arrow, notching it onto her bow. “Am I just the woman with the bow now?” She hit her mark, and the arrow slit one of the suspending ropes, spilling burning wood onto the floor. As the kobolds looked at it and yelled at each other, the group moved around the side and into a new room. The sounds of fighting began to echo throughout the passageways, and the group began to hurry along, spurred on by both curiosity and concern. The cave passage broke through a stone wall, exiting out onto an elven crafted walkway built into the wall of a seemingly infinitely large cavern.

Victoria ran up to the railing and pointed out across the darkness. Out there, across a stone bridge spanning the expanse, was the other half of the group. Kobolds dropped out from the darkness, hovering on huge leathery wings. Catherine lead the group on, as spells flew overhead and swords clashed against leather and metal. From what seemed to be the destination came a surge of new kobolds, all rushing forward. Nadaarin breathed in and let out a breath of flame, burning kobold flesh and armor alike.

Azami gritted her teeth, watching the chaos unfold. They were too far away for Azami to see if they were winning or losing. “Leeskin, we need to go. They’ve gotten the attention of what looks to be the main force, so we have to take this chance.”

Leeskin looked around nervously. “Yes, yes… must hurry…” He began to go but stopped short as a new creature stepped forth from behind them. The ground seemed to tremble as it took heavy steps with its massive scaled feet. Its eyes glowed a furious red, just as its scales seemed to heat up with fire. Spellburn ran across its face and body, accompanied with black and white warpaint. Dragonborn, in the flesh. It snarled in an ancient language, voice deep and booming, before it shifted to the common tongue. “Sicarius, I know your kind.” It stepped forward, and Victoria and Kaska stepped up, entering a combat stance. “You are far from your homeland.” Instead of the kind voice of Nadaarin, this dragonborn spoke in a reptilian voice, snarling yet also commanding and powerful. He slammed his staff into the ground, the rock breaking with the arcane impact.

Azami returned her wakizashi to her hip, reaching upwards and grasping the hilt of her clan’s katana. She drew it, flourishing with it and pulling the hilt against her chest with the blade pointed forward. “We will fight you if we must.”

He began to walk slowly, across from them. “I received a vision, from the gods of old. They told of your journey here, and of your sister's journey here. You should not be here. You all disturb what is beyond your comprehension.”

Victoria flipped her sword around in her hand. “So, what? You gonna kill us, and then go kill Azami’s sister?”

“If that is how it must be, then I shall do what is necessary to maintain balance.” Kobolds began to leak out from the tunnels and passageways, blocking off any hope of escape.

Kaska knocked an arrow on her bow. “Dragonborn don't work with kobolds.”

“The tribe and I… we understand what we do is necessary for the balance of this realm. There must be good, but there must also be evil. Without it, there is no Rosarius.”

Victoria pointed her blade at the dragonborn. “We fight you, and not any of your kobold lackeys.”

“So be it.”

Victoria attacked first, and was easily countered with a blow from the dragonborn's staff. She spun around him and like clockwork, Kaska pulled her arrow back and let it loose. The shaman threw up a wall of ice, and the arrow only pierced halfway before stopping and clattering to the ground as the wall fell. Azami went last, driving her blade forward to immediately feint and bring her sword down. He only blocked it, and thrusted his staff forward to fling a bolt of fire into Azami’s chest. It sizzled and burned, but Azami pushed her feet back into position and flung herself back into the fight with the rest of them. All the while, Leeskin cowered in the corner, slowly climbing over the ledge and beginning to climb down the rock face.

Every single blow, arrow, attack or magic they threw at the shaman dragonborn, he either blocked, countered or dodged. He seemed more like a warrior monk than a tribal shaman, but yet his magic was characteristic of a shaman; powerful and untamed. The three were hit with the brunt of his spells, always staggering but never simply going down.

He tossed Victoria and Kaska aside, jabbing his staff into Azami's gut before grasping her by the throat and lifting her off the ground. Her sword clattered to the ground and her hands instinctively went to pull at the claws around her throat. “Enough of this. You are not worth the effort.” The sword began to float as the shaman focused on it. “This sword is a curse upon your clan. Take it with you.” He reeled his hand back and threw Azami before tossing her sword after her as she began to plummet off the cliff. Kaska shouted something and then Victoria climbed up onto the railing and dived after her. In an instant, the darkness swallowed both of them.

Air rushed past her ears and then a loud crack as she hit water. The katana hit near her, sinking past her. Azami went up, gasping for air. Something else hit the water, and then another something. Azami couldn't see. Victoria? Kaska? She rubbed at her eyes, splashing clear water into her face. Fresh water. A miracle. Her eyes adjusted slowly and she went for the nearest wall, clambering up onto a rocky outcropping and crawling out into the nothingness. She still couldn't see anything, but something scampered around in the darkness. “Azami?” A frightened and scaley voice. Leeskin. She said nothing, still in shock. “Come with me!”

He grabbed her hand, and they ran. Azami didn't stop to check for anything, because there was no time. Azami stumbled and tripped but Leeskin dragged her on further throughout the darkness. They entered new passages and caves, but still Azami could see nothing. A trap activated and a deadly weapon narrowly missed her, but still they kept on. Eventually they stopped, and Leeskin pushed open a door into a new unknown.

Azami stepped into the dimly lit room and paused, staring at the massive corpse of an ancient red dragon. It was a mere fossil, a skeleton of a once deadly creature, but yet it laid there. Yurik the Immolator, dead. Doubts filled her head. Had Ryker known about this? Why was Hikari here? What was the path forward now that everything had flipped upon its head?

Leeskin stepped in front of her, hands pressed together in front of him. “This is what you sought, Azami?”

She set a hand on his shoulder, pressing past him. “Go back. See if the others still live.” She looked up at the vastness of the room, stepping over piles of gold and treasure. “I need a moment.” Leeskin disappeared into the darkness without another word, leaving Azami to her thoughts. She strode about the marble floor, letting the feeling and sound of her boots hitting the stone soothe her.

Azami stopped and stood there, hands clasped behind her back. She had made a decision to split up the expedition, and here was the fruit of it. She made it here first, but there was no Hikari. Her friends and allies were being attacked by a horde of kobolds and now Victoria and Kaska were nowhere to be seen.

A series of steps echoed through the hall and Azami looked to see if Victoria, Kaska or the rest of the group had made it, but it wasn’t any of them. It wasn’t even the dragonborn shaman back to finish her off. The same red eyes that she had in her own skull looked at her with a hint of shock, and then the usual stone cold look replaced them. Hikari walked out into the room, not stopping until she stood face to face with Azami. “You’re alive.”

“I am,” was Azami’s reply. Instead of the joy that she had expected to feel, she felt anger. Anger she had been holding for a long time. She pushed it down, gritting her teeth. “You didn’t even look for me.”

Hikari narrowed her gaze. “The necromancer declared you dead. You were nowhere to be found. You disappeared.”

“You left for Cazavir immediately, didn’t you. You went to the Albians and then you left.” She could feel her temper flaring. “You did not even go to the templars to see if I had made it out of Dul Vano. Do I mean nothing to you, Hikari? Was my presence an annoyance?”

Hikari stepped back, hand clenched above her katana’s handle. “I set out to regain the glory our clan had lost. I did not have time to search for you, nor did I have time for petty distractions like socializing with the templars sitting behind their walls in Cazavir. I set events in motion that you would not even understand the implications of.”

Azami nodded, confirming what was obvious. “So you did kill the templar commander.”

“I did.”

“I didn’t want to believe it. It was so obvious. That’s why you went to the Albians. To hide yourself and plan your next move, and then you came here. For what? A magical trinket that will help you lead? A potion to control the masses?”

Hikari shook her head and simply looked over Azami’s shoulder. Azami set her hand on her wakizashi and spun around, looking out for whatever relic Hikari had set her eyes on. Instead, there was a man, someone entirely new to Azami, standing beside the bones of the dragon. He was evidently from the Tavanirian north, just like Azami and Hikari, and he wore a dark set of robes. Azami immediately turned back to Hikari. “Who in the Nine Hells is that?”

“Tadashi Sicarius. Your cousin, Azami.” The man joined with the two women.

“So this is the Azami Sicarius I’ve heard so much about? She certainly looks a fighter.” He eyed the holy symbol at her chest. “Devout? Firm believer in what the templar order has to offer. I see.” He reached a hand within his robe, pulling a weathered sword sheath from within and handing it to Hikari. “Here. What this journey was all for.”

Azami watched the exchange and stared in disbelief. “You met a living member of our clan? And you plotted with him to find some sword? Not to try and preserve what remained of our history, but to stir the pot of Rosarius’ politics?”

Tadashi shook his head at her. “I met your sister on the way to Cazavir, and I proposed what we all needed. We need war, Azami. War is in our blood. It is what made and makes clan Sicarius what it is. That is why we were betrayed, and that is why our clan is dying. The Tavanirians are too scared to simply declare war on the Albians, so we must expedite the process.”

Hikari nodded, strapping the new sword to her belt. “This is the only path forward for clan Sicarius. We cannot concern ourselves with preserving the old while those who are present slowly die. A new name must be made for our clan, one forged through blood and iron.”

Azami took a breath in. “So that’s how it is. That’s how it always was.”

Tadashi nodded with a smile. “So you finally understand. The blood of clan Sicarius runs through you then. Are you ready, Hikari? Shall we depart?”

Azami interrupted immediately. “The Tavanirians know this is a setup. War won’t come to pass.”

Hikari raised an eyebrow. “Will it? The Tavanirians don’t care, and even if the Albians say again and again that it was not them, what Tavanirian would listen honestly? Even now, word has most likely already reached Empress Alexandria. She sits in her chamber, discussing with her advisors how they will wage war. Not because they murdered the templar commander, but for a myriad of other reasons. All we did was provide another reason for a war that is inevitable. Inevitable, Azami.”

“I see.” Azami looked away, a deep sigh escaping her lips. “Where do we go now? What is the plan going forward?”

Hikari beckoned the group away and they began to walk towards the exit. “Back to Tavaniria. We have much to do within the empire.”

“Azami!” Victoria shouted out, stepping out from the passageway in the wall. She gripped her arm, matted and bloody as Leeskin pulled her along. He looked out, seeing Hikari and Tadashi and instantly moved to hide in Victoria’s shadow.

Hikari and Tadashi looked at Victoria, and Hikari drew her sword. “Who is this? Someone following you?”

“She is a friend. A good friend.” She said the words firmly.

“You made a friend in a mage? What were you thinking?”

Azami stepped forward, crossing the room between her and Victoria. She moved to support Victoria, helping her to keep standing. “What happened? Are you all right?”

“Kobolds. Near the water. Heard us plunge into it and came for us.”

“Where’s Kaska?”

Kaska appeared behind Victoria, holding a familiar sword in her hand. She was still drenched in water. “Azami. Your sword.” She handed it to her. “I know it's important to you.”

Hikari shouted. “Leave them, Azami! We need to go!”

Azami returned Honour to its place behind her back. “I will not leave my friends, Hikari!” She looked at Victoria’s bloody arm, trying to distinguish the intensity of the damage. She didn’t wait for a diagnosis to speak her mind. “You’ll be fine, Victoria. This is nothing.”

“Certainly doesn’t feel like nothing…” She grimaced, looking about. “Damn dragon’s dead. Guess that means this trip was for nothing.”

Azami turned as the main gate opened, and Catherine Lasiin entered the room. She was worse for wear, scratches and scorch marks were easily noticeable. Catherine locked eyes with Hikari, drawing her sword. “I said I would track you down, Hikari Sicarius.”

Hikari nodded, smiling with a cocky grin. “So you did, Lasiin. Will you really fight me, here? In front of my sister and all those she’s apparently met?”

Catherine looked at Azami, who was simply stunned as the developments continued. “You have to answer for your crimes, Hikari.”

“You didn’t tell her that you came here to kill me, did you? You obviously left out such a simple fact.” Hikari looked over her shoulder at Azami. “The Knights want me dead, Azami! Wasn’t it obvious all along!”

Azami shook her head in disbelief. “That was the point of this, Catherine?”

“What else would it be! Hikari killed the templar commander, and she wants a war that will devastate Albia and the Coast! If she won’t face a tribunal, then all that remains is her death! Why would we tell you that when we knew you wouldn’t want us to!”

“Why bring me along? Why put me through this!” She yelled because there was nothing else she could do. The fight was gone. She was tired of it all.

Catherine pointed at Victoria. “Because Victoria Wolfe already knew everything. She went to the Blackravens. She knew that Hikari had been in the city and that Hikari came to us! If I didn’t bring you in, then you would have came to us!”

Azami looked at Victoria. “You went to the Blackravens, and the Knights saw you do it?”

Victoria nodded. “I’m sorry.”

Azami shifted her gaze from Hikari, to Catherine, to Victoria and her eyes shifted from their anger to resignation. A power struggle that she had had no hope in even affecting. Conspiracies right under her nose. A war at the gates. Was there something else that could possibly ruin anything? She dared it to happen.

Tadashi laughed at them all. “Now, this is all very heartwarming, but Hikari and I have an appointment.” She gripped Hikari by the shoulder and looked to Azami and Azami alone. “Anyone who says our clansmen never knew magic was lying.” Without another word, Hikari disappeared, leaving only a burst of violet energy and residue, and a second later, Tadashi followed suit, disappearing in the exact same way, leaving nothing behind.

The remaining five looked at each other. Silence was replaced with a dull rumble, and the rumble grew. The main door of the great hall began to shake and something pounded on it with a large heavy fist. Kaska laughed in disbelief. “He called the kobolds. He actually called the kobolds.”

Catherine drew her sword and then the door slammed open. The horde of kobolds once again poured out upon them. Azami pulled Victoria’s arm over her head, and dragged her back into the caverns, shouting to Kaska and Leeskin to follow once more. Leeskin resumed leading them through the caves, and once again they moved as fast as their small injured group could move. Passages moved past them in a blur, walls of stone merging together as they simply ran. Without much warning, Leeskin tripped, Azami and Victoria ran into him, and Kaska pushed them all off. This time, an underground river claimed the four of them, pulling them all beneath the surface. Azami fought against the current, pulling herself above the water. It was dark, again, and as she was swept along, she saw nothing. Without any warning, she was pulled back under again, only to resurface soon after, the sun bearing down on her and the water continuing to sweep her away. Her weapons threatened to pull her down, but she refused to let go of them. She reached out, trying to grip to the shore of the raging river, but came up short, hitting a rocky wall with her body.

Pain erupted from the impact site and she gritted her teeth, once again reaching out for land as the scenery changed from wide open sky to oak trees. Instead of rock and dirt, a hand wrapped around hers and pulled her out of the water. She hit the ground hard, gasping for breath and hacking up water. Azami had had enough of water. Almost drowning her, and almost dying to the monsters within its depths had put her off it for good.

Azami looked up at her saviour to see an elf, but not Kaska. He was a dark skinned elf just like her, but he was definitely not her. “You shouldn’t play near the river,” he said.

“Did you see a woman? A mage. Or an elf? Or a kobold?” She gasped, breathing deeply and heavily. “Victoria, Kaska, Leeskin… you have to save them.”

“Kaska?” He looked back at the river. “Wait here.” And then he was off. Azami planted her face in the dirt and laid there. She had had enough for one day. All the strength had left her body, and now… She rolled over and looked at the tree leaves flowing in the breeze above her. She was done.

As fate would have it, Azami had run into Kaska’s cousin, and he quickly went to alert the others stalking the riverside. They were all detained for a moment in the middle of the clan's camp while Kaska spoke with their elders. With Kaska vouching for them, immediately her family opened their arms to them and brought them into the fold. Victoria’s arm was quickly bandaged, and while Leeskin had been harder to convince the elders of his trustworthiness, he took up a seat near the campfire, helping out where he was able. Kaska dragged Azami out into the forest and eagerly she spoke.

“You’ve been through a lot today, Azami. A lot these last couple of weeks perhaps even. The templars, Knights, and your family; all of them seemed to have betrayed you in some way.”

“I'm just glad you stayed by my side the entire journey, Kaska.”

“I'll admit, I tested you to see if I even could trust you. In the beginning, I only saw anger in your eyes, but as we went on…”

“I felt it too. Nadaarin helped tear down that wall, and meeting you and Victoria…” She took a deep breath. “Once I hated mages, and I hated dwarves, elves, kobolds, all of them. I thought that the Tavaniri Empire and the templars were the best Rosarius had. Now look at me. I'm don't feel like a templar or a Tavanirian. I feel like I'm Azami Sicarius, and someone who stopped hiding behind those labels.”

Kaska smiled, nodding. “Did I ever say I was a half-elf, Azami? Perhaps you already knew. I’ve lived my life trying to become either a human like my father or an elf like my mother. In the end, what does it really matter? What matters is what I do with my life, and like you say, not the labels I try and conform to. The kingdoms and the empires and the clans of this world all want us to be a certain something, but when we don't fall in line, they hate us for it.”

Azami laughed. “You truly are stronger than me, then. If you can accept yourself, then nothing stands in your way.”

They returned to the campfire where Victoria and Leeskin sat, helping cook, sew and craft with the Sidhe. Kaska joined in with the rest, but Azami took a seat beside Victoria.

“So?” Victoria asked. “How are you?”

“I’ve been better, but I’ve also been worse.” She squeezed Victoria's good hand, looking up at her solemnly. “There is a war brewing in this land, Victoria. It is an inevitable disaster that we have no chance of ridding of on our own.”

Victoria looked away, setting aside a filleting knife and a partially gutted fish. “What do you have in mind?”

“You need to be with the Free Mages when it happens. You need to make sure they live through this. I’ll go back to Tavaniria, and I'll rejoin the templar order in full.”

Victoria looked heartbroken. “Come back with me, Azami. We can do anything you want. Adventure, action, calm, serenity; whatever you want I’ll give it to you.”

Azami kissed Victoria, looking her firmly in the eyes as she pulled away. “I want to see you at the end of this war, alive, well, and having protected those who were innocent. And I want you to see me having done the exact same thing. I love you, and everything that you are, but keeping my beacon of hope for myself is not who I am.”

Victoria could feel the tears stinging at her eyes, and she brushed them away with her hand. “If you die…”

Azami put on a melancholy smile.“I won't forgive you either, Victoria.”

Kaska hugged Azami, Victoria, and even Leeskin as they departed. The three traveled through the Albian countryside, cracking jokes, talking, and continuing onward. They reached the supposed entrance to Yurik the Immolator’s lair, finding their horses still alive somehow. Azami found a series of notes attached to Masayoshi’s saddle, labeled for Azami, Victoria and Kaska. The three sat there in the dust, reading notes and apologies from Nadaarin, the Free Mages, the Knight Isaias, and even Catherine herself. It was straight and to the point at the end of Catherine's note. Azami was not welcome back in Cazavir. Azami understood completely. Victoria held onto Kaska’s letters, knowing that between the two of them, if anyone was going to see Kaska first, it would be Victoria.

They traveled back through Annris, and at the crossroads between Cazavir, Albia and Tavaniria. Azami and Victoria said their goodbyes in full, embracing once more with a kiss for good luck and then went their separate ways. Azami began the trip back to Tavaniria, and Victoria took Leeskin back to Cazavir.

Victoria stopped, watching Azami as she departed. Leeskin tapped his claw rhythmically against his jaw. “You doubt Azami?”

“No. It’s just in our nature to doubt ourselves.”

Azami looked out across the green field as red and gold Tavanirian banners blew proudly in the wind behind her. As always, she still held her sword Honour at her hip, but now she held a shield at her side, emblazoned with the red dragon of clan Sicarius. Her superior, Lord Dryden, stood beside her on horseback, just as she stood beside him upon Masayoshi.

“My lord,” she spoke, looking out across the field from their vantage point on the hill. “A year ago, when this all began, never did we think that the Albians and Asalgardians would ever gain the advantage and push so far into the empire.”

“Yet they did. When we have won this battle, we shall burn these fields and leave nothing for the Albians to retake.”

“That is not necessary, sir. What if we hold onto this land? What if we win this war? These fields belong to our empire, and we would be leaving the children of the nation only ash and ruins.”

The man looked back at her, proud and condescending. “Very well then, we shall hope your theory is not proven wrong.” He was handed a spyglass from a subordinate templar and looked out. “The Albians have made themselves known then.”

Azami took the device, gazing out of it herself. Blue and white banners, shining silver armour. Albians, and from the look of it, Knights. She handed the spyglass off. “They’ll try an archery barrage followed by heavy cavalry. Set the Watchtower mages with our strongest shield bearers.”

“I am trusting in your advice because you’ve fought these miscreants before. Do not confuse respect with admiration, Azami.”

“Of course, my lord. I am only a templar.” Now a commanding officer, but… he didn't need to hear that.

Their immolation mages were paired up with heavily armoured templar soldiers in turtle formations among the rest of the army, and a defensive call was sounded. Both armies steadily advanced upon one another, and Azami’s superior fled into the wings while she took the stand in the front. She brought Masayoshi into position. A templar eyed her from under his helmet, bringing himself closer. “You still get the jitters, commander?”

“Few of us have the pleasure of getting used to war. The secret is to not let anyone know you’re scared.” She smiled, and lifted her helmet onto her head, drawing her sword.

A horn sounded and a charge was initiated. Fireballs flew through the air, arrows fired back. Steel clashed and soldiers died. It was bloody, inevitable war, just like Hikari had predicted. Even faster than the battle had begun, it was all over. Arrows stuck in corpses, bodies burnt to a crisp, and the dead littered about the field.

Azami cleaned her blade off, watching as Lord Dryden reappeared to her as the dust began to settle. “Well done, Sicarius. I see you are your sister’s sister. The local town is our next concern. Go when you have the time.”

She stopped him before he could leave. “Has word come from my sister?”

He reined in his horse, shaking his head. “The high commander has not sent word to us.”

“Very well. I’ll report to this town at my nearest convenience.”

Azami gathered her templars, taking them towards the nearest actual road and heading onward. Sure enough, a town made itself present as the sun casted down its rays upon it, giving it a gold tinted hue. Kingsbury, a definite Tavanirian name. They rode in, townspeople immediately stopping to stare at them in fear, horror, or simple confusion. A year under Albian rule and suddenly they looked upon those who had protected them with fear. The town master’s hall sat in the middle of the town, and the templars made their way there first. As the townspeople slowly realized they were not carrying torches or riding with weapons drawn, they began to go back to their business, seemingly uncaring.

Azami pushed open the town master’s door and stepped inside, watching as an elderly woman looked up from the papers upon her desk. The woman looked surprised by for a moment, before she set her quill away. “Templars. I haven't seen your kind for quite a few winters… What do you want?”

Azami pulled her helmet from her head, shaking out her hair as it freed itself from the confines of the metal. “I represent Lord David Dryden, ma’am. I am simply here to ensure that Kingsbury won't be in conflict with the Tavanirian army as it makes it way through. We are camped nearby, but many of the soldiers may come into town.”

The woman shook her head slowly. “My name is not 'ma’am’. It is Susanna. The people of this town were just getting used to being conquered by the Albians, and now we’ve been 'liberated’ by Tavanirians… At least no one’s been killed.”

“Susanna, you have my word that no one will be harmed.”

Susanna looked at her, pursing her lips. “You seem to actually believe that. I'm surprised. Templars seem to be more cynical.”

“I’ve seen that this world is a harsh one, but I can still believe there are good people within it.”

The town master nodded softly. “I’ll have a word with our innkeep. We’ll welcome in your soldiers.”

“Thank you, Susanna. I appreciate your cooperation. Previous negotiations were not as smooth.”

“More bloodshed is unneeded.”


Azami returned to the outside of the building, greeting her subordinates. “You all have the day free. Lord Dryden won't issue a march until at least tomorrow.” She nodded to all of them. “You’ve all earned it.” There was a round of 'thank you, commander' as the templars departed. Azami went to Masayoshi, carefully patted him with her metal gauntlet covered hands and watched as the town moved around her. A week ago, they had hung the mayor by an oak tree. It was not to be a rerun, thankfully.

There seemed to be a small shrine, tucked away where a meager stream, perhaps a few inches deep, ran by the town. She noticed the fake gold upon the roof of the gazebo, and she approached, tying Masayoshi to a nearby post. Steadily, she knelt down in front of the small shrine to Chauntea. Whatever priest had been here was elsewhere, but the rose and grain emblem of the goddess was carved neatly into the stone. She dusted it off, blowing gently against it and then lifted up her holy symbol in her gauntlet. Once, it had been the gauntlet of Torm around her neck, but now it was the shield of Bahamut. How many nights she had contemplated that decision, she had lost count long ago. Yet the thread was still the same as her old one, the thread that Victoria had found to fix her old symbol, now frayed and worn.

Something crashed quietly, and Azami stood to look around. She couldn't see anything close enough to have made the sound, and in fact, it sounded muffled, and incredibly close. She looked at the ground under her feet before beginning to search around the shrine. In the brush, near the stream, was a wooden trapdoor hidden under leaves and bramble. She brushed it away with her feet, pulling it open and quickly beginning to descend before anyone noticed. Immediately there were voices, worried and nervous.

“Do you think anyone heard?”

“We’re underground. We will be fine.”

“Listen, the Tavanirian army is nearby, and I don't want to be caught by a templar looking for someone to take out his frustrations on.”

“If the templars arrive or not, we still have a job to do-”

“Did you hear that?”

Azami set her feet on the ground, setting her hand on her sword. She edged out into the light, looking about. A tiefling and a halfling looked at her from across the room, hands reaching for vials of alchemist's fire and acid. Slowly, the tiefling's hands retracted. “I know you.”

Azami raised an eyebrow. “You do? I find it hard to believe some criminals would know who I am.”

The halfling looked at the tiefling, to Azami, and then back to the tiefling. “She thinks we’re criminals. A templar thinks we're criminals. That's real rich.”

The tiefling placed a hand upon his chest. “She is trustable up to an extent.” He looked Azami in the eyes. “I am Fortune. We met once in Cazavir. I bandaged your wounds.”

Azami looked away, trying to remember the small forgettable details of those days. “With the Free Mages? That was years ago. How do you even remember me?”

“Victoria talked about you for quite some time after that. It would be quite surprising if I didn’t remember you when it was always ‘Azami Sicarius’ this and that.” He waved to a fallen cabinet, glass strewn about the dirt floor. “Nonetheless, if you know we’re here, I’ll have to ask that you do not reveal we are here. Doing so would jeopardize the Free Mage operation in the area, and surely,” he said pointedly, “you wouldn’t want this to get back to the Free Mage headquarters.”

Azami furrowed her brow, stepping past the two Free Mages and into the room proper. It seemed a workshop, with many a brewing stand, vise, and toolbox. Azami looked around, tapping the hilt of her sword with her hand. “I saw enough of the Free Mages to know you do good work.” Or at least that’s what she thought. “In fact, if you require my help in any capacity, I’d be happy to aid you.”

“A templar? Helping us?” The halfling shook his head. “We’d be better off asking a kobold for help.”

Azami looked at him, eyes focused on his in a cold stare. “Maybe you would be.”

Fortune crossed his arms, tapping his foot impatiently. “Errin, we might not have a choice. Help me pack up. Azami, close the trapdoor and knock down that ladder. There’s another exit elsewhere.”

Azami went back, clambered up the ladder and bolted the trapdoor shut. With a few blows of her sword, she sliced off the lowest rungs of the ladder before pressing down on one of the remaining rungs with her foot and bringing the whole thing down to clatter in the dust. She waited a minute, listening for any possible respondents to the noise. No one tried to open the trapdoor, and she retreated back to where the Free Mages were waiting. She was surprised they didn’t run off without her.

“Errin, is it?” she asked. “What stake do you have in the Free Mages?”

He looked up at Azami, not at all intimidated by how she stood above him like a high tower. “I don’t need a stake in the Free Mages, templar. I just need to be a decent human being.”

Azami rolled her eyes at him. “That is why I went to the templars, so that I could do good where few else could. Few templars try to save the lives of those conquered by the empire.”

Fortune flicked him in the side of the face. “She’s asking if you’re a magic user.”

He nodded slowly. “Free Mages changed since you were last there, templar. The non-arcane are joining the ranks in larger numbers than ever before. The Tavaniri Empire and the Dominion conquering all of Rosarius? Well, that’s something few of us want. I used to be a research assistant before all of this. Now just look at it all...” Azami let him be.

They came to a room that resembled a prison. Cells lined the walls with iron bars blocking them off from the inside world, but as the light began to shine in the right way, she quickly realized that the iron doors to these cells were all either open, broken, or gone entirely. Inside, families looked out at her. Some with fear, some with disgust and anger. It was a makeshift camp, built in such a way that seemed to elude that they would all soon be leaving. There were elves, humans, halflings, and gnomes. She turned to Fortune. “Some of these people don’t look like they’ve ever casted a spell in their life.”

“They haven’t. Some of them are refugees from the early days of the war, and some are Sidhe elves whose homes were destroyed in the wake of the Tavanirian warmachine. This war’s blurred the lines between who we help and don’t help.”

Azami set a hand on Fortune’s shoulder. “Life will be better in time; better for you, myself, and everyone.”

He shrugged off her hand. “I suppose that is easy for you to believe.”

Azami dropped her hand down to her side. “I'm sorry I said anything.”

A child ran by, pointed ears attached to her head, and a crude stuffed rendition of a bear cradled in her arms. She tripped on a floorboard and the toy skittered across the wood, stopping as it hit Azami’s boot. The girl looked up at Azami, eyes quickly filling with fear, and when Azami crouched down, she recoiled, crawling backwards. Azami picked up the doll, putting on a smile. “There’s no reason to be afraid,” she said, but the girl only began to cry as her mother came to scoop her up. The woman shot daggers at Azami, and so did the boy who came and took the toy out of Azami’s hand.

Azami stood up and set her helmet back upon her head. She was quiet for a moment, before she looked up and faced Fortune and Errin again. “When do you plan to move these people out of the city?”

“Tomorrow night,” Errin said. “We would have gotten out sooner, but your little armies decided it was a good time to invade the Kingsbury area.”

“So what am I needed for?”

Errin looked to Fortune, trying to confirm if they could really trust her. Fortune nodded at him and spoke for him. “We are using the cover of darkness to move ourselves back into Albian territory. After that, a group of Knights have promised us safe passage to Cazavir.”

Azami raised an eyebrow. “Cazavir is safe now? Is the Free Mage headquarters still active?”

“Nine Hells, no.” He shook his head. “After all the fighting in the streets, Isha took us all down further south.”

“Is that better?”

“No more templars or Knights… Less politics… But we can't help the people we're supposed to help. Victoria has some very particular opinions on it. Maybe you should ask her yourself?”

Azami let out a grunt. “Does she really want to see me again that badly?”

Fortune crossed his arms. “She’s a clingy one. You would think you would be, but…”

Azami nodded. “I’ve heard enough. You need me to keep the templars from you while you escape. I can manage that.”

The two Free Mages nodded to themselves. “Tomorrow night. We can handle keeping ourselves hidden in the meantime.” Fortune gestured for Azami to follow him further into the underground area, eventually finding a door embedded into the rock. He opened it for her, letting her out into a small cave, with light peering out from the entrance. “Careful, Sicarius. I wouldn’t want our trust in you to be misplaced.”

She looked at him from the confines of her helmet, staring at him with piercing red eyes. “I keep my promises.” She left before the conversation could possibly continue.

The Tavanirian encampment was bright with the light of campfires, and loud with the sounds of laughter, singing and conversation. She handed her horse off to a squire and headed off to her tent. A group of templars waved out to her, gathered around a campfire. “Commander Sicarius!”

She stopped, giving a short glance to each of them. They were green, and probably still running off the adrenaline of that singular battle. Also neither of them looked like her, all of them being from the Tavanirian south or somewhere around that. “Yes?’ she asked, raising an eyebrow but remaining rooted in place.

One of the templars raised a mug and patted a cask of ale resting beside him. “Care to join us for a drink, commander?”

“Really, I must speak with the noble commander-” All of them groaned in disappointment and Azami sighed. “I suppose I could have a sip.” Groans were replaced with cheering and a mug was slapped into her hand.

One of the templars, a young woman, leaned forward in her seat. “Is it true you once fought and killed a dragon?”

“The dragon was dead by the time-”

“I heard you fought an army of Luirenmeran elves because they insulted your commanding officer!”

“I was saving the life of-”

“Didn't you survive in a swamp while monsters dragged your comrades under the water one by one?”

Azami looked at her cup and drank heavily of it. “Yes, I did.” She looked at each of them again, fully realizing that they were all incredibly inebriated.

“I knew it,” one of them said. “Damn, I wish I could be an adventurer than fighting in this damn war.”

“Yeah! Bloody Albians having to start a damn war. Bastards don’t know when they have it good.”

“Albians? Everyone knows that the damn nobles just wanted an excuse to claim more land for the empire. No one seems to remember we keep expanding too fast.”

Azami looked up. A noble would definitely find that treasonous, but she she just set the mug down. “Those who want war, do not seem to fully understand what war truly entails. What we are doing is fighting until someone decides to sue for peace.” Azami stood. “Keep your wits about you. We may move soon.” She went to sleep immediately, too tired for anything else.

In the morning, as the birds began to come back to the areas and sing their songs in the place of marching drums and war ballads. A squire was sent to fetch Azami from her tent, bringing her straight to the doorstep of her commanding officer’s own tent. She had once again donned her armour, and stepped inside. The man was regarding a book behind a makeshift desk. Set upon it was a bottle of Albian wine, opened and poured into a glass, and a set of quills and scrolls. He looked up, and clasped the book shut. “Sicarius, good day.”

“Good morning, my lord. Did you require me for some errand?”

“If you truly believe I would want the commander of my templars for a simple errand, you are extremely mistaken.” He took up the glass, sipping gently from it. “Word has come from the templars in Catarina. We are to begin finding mages within Kingsbury.”

“Finding? You need to be more exact in your meaning, my lord.”

“Capture or execution. Lady Follen’s army marches from the west, bringing reinforcements. While we wait, we are to reclaim the town for reintroduction of proper Tavanirian policy.”

Azami took a breath in, nodding. “I understand, but this is not a mage town in any capacity. There are no mages here.”

Dryden set a piece of parchment in front of her. “There are now.”

Azami plucked the parchment from the table, smoothing it out with her thumbs. The first name was Susanna, with a subtitle of “the town master”. It wasn't about mages, it was about removing unsavory individuals. What should she have expected… The empire she pledged her allegiance to loved to test her loyalty. There was good and bad men and women everywhere, but those harmful individuals in her homeland… she found them the most unsavoury.

Azami tucked the parchment away. “I understand, my lord. I shall take my templars and we shall commence operations.” Dryden gestured for her to leave and she did immediately. She traveled back to the common tents, and retrieved those who were awake and immediately able. Azami had a dualistic duty to fulfill, both to the empire, and to the Free Mages. It would not be an easy task for her… The templars she had stood at the ready, and as soon as she was upon her horse, they were off, and back to the town of Kingsbury. Azami brought them first to the town master’s office and unfolded the list in front of her. The town master, the local blacksmith, an apothecary… it seemed more of a purge of local figureheads… No, she knew for a fact, that is what it was.

She divided her force into sections, and designated each small group a person to arrest. Naturally, she preferred for an arrest and she made that clear, but they were templars, and they knew what they had to do. She let them all go off, and then left immediately. Azami rode to the edge of town, clambered off of Masayoshi, and began to run. She blew through the thicket, descending into the nearby forest as she pushed through the foliage. No, this was not what a commanding officer should be doing, but that was not what she was thinking about in the slightest. Quickly, she retraced her steps to the door in the woods and pulled herself inside. She paused, calmly walking through the small corridor before reaching the main area.

Fortune looked down at a book in his hands, with that young girl from before trying to climb upon his lap, the doll in her hand as she jumped up and down as she tried to ascend. Fortune only further buried his head into the book, patting and ruffling the hair on the child’s head, but otherwise paying no attention. It was an odd feeling, to see a child have no fear towards a tiefling, almost an embodiment of what most people considered the worse part of the world, but have fear cloud the girl’s vision when she laid eyes upon a templar. It made so little sense, but it also made so much sense.

Fortune looked up to see Azami and instantly pushed the child back towards her family. “Sicarius, why are you here?”

Azami shook her head, looking behind her carefully. “The templars are searching the area for people.” She handed Fortune the name of lists, and he unfolded it, scanning the document.

“This list has someone from our group on it… I told him not to…” He shook his head and handed the list back. “This seems almost natural. Life on Rosarius is never dull, certainly.” He picked up a backpack, hauling it over his shoulder. “Azami, I need to know your templars aren't looking here.”

“They’re not. You have my word. I would never betray the Free Mages.”

He stared at her, his yellow eyes unblinking, before he nodded. “You seem better than that woman I met in Cazavir. She would not of said anything like that, I know that, but if you are caught with us, you know what’ll happen to you.”

“I’ll take my chances.”

Quickly, Fortune and Errin rounded up all of the refugees and had them gather their belongings. It barely took any time, and a lot of the belongings were to be left behind. Azami went back for her horse and checked the path ahead. They began to march out of the their hiding spot and away from Kingsbury. Azami lead in the front with Fortune, Masayoshi stepping over roots and fallen branches on the forest floor as Azami held onto his bridle. “Fortune, did anyone else know about the Free Mage operation here? Anyone that could compromise this?”

“The townmaster had been in contact with the Free Mages for awhile, but she wouldn't compromise us for anything. I spoke with her personally.”

“I hope you’re right. How long do we have to go to reach these Albians? Will they even be there?”

“No,” Fortune said. “We’re on our own for a good while. Perhaps even until nightfall or until the Albians arrive.” He took a breath in. “If this war decides that Tavaniria and Luirenmere are the victors. There will be challenges for the Free Mages beyond anything we’ve ever faced before. We’ll need people like you to help us. We need people who aren't mages, because no one cares to listen to our voices when we are not like the people who hate us.”

“You’re asking me to join the Free Mages?”

“I'm asking you to be a full ally of the Free Mages. This war will only result in an even worse hand for mages, you know that, right?”

Azami simply did not understand what he meant. “I am helping you evade capture. What else would I need to do to become a 'full ally’?”

“Think for a moment, Azami. Why are you helping us? Is it because you genuinely care for the movement? Because you cannot see innocent people be hurt? Or is this for Victoria?”

“You’re saying this is my way of being closer to Victoria, is it?” There were subtle hints of anger in her voice, hints she let show through. “I can assure you that is not the case.”

“It wasn't an accusation. It was a question. Why are you helping us?”

Azami looked into his yellow eyes, and found nothing within. Instead, she turned away, looking into herself. She did not like what she saw in the mirror, but she knew that it had been a much more horrid image in the past. “Perhaps my reasons for helping you are selfish, Fortune, but I am helping you, and I will not betray you. Is that not good enough? Compare me to a Blackraven if you wish, but I am here, aiding you.”

Fortune regarded her carefully. “Perhaps, but only perhaps.”

They cleared out of the forest, coming to a river. Azami looked both downstream and upstream, finding only a singular bridge. They went across it, with Azami watching the treeline they had came from. From what Azami could tell, as they found a dirt path and continued along, is that they had finally crossed back into Albian controlled territory. It was a feeling and nothing more, but she was once again leaving her empire behind for something else. Would a lie suffice if she chose to return? Tell them that she had encountered a Blackraven, or a group of Albian Knights prowling along the border. She simply didn't know anymore. Even if this decision was of her own volition and not Hikari's, there was still that lingering of doubt that she had felt ever since Hikari had decided, once and for all, to cut Azami out of her life. The question always came back to what she wanted to be. Hikari’s sister, or her own woman.

“Are you still with us, templar?” Errin asked, having came to the front.

“Yes…” She had definitely left her own mind for a moment. “I will be fine.”

They continued to follow a dirt road leading through a thick oak forest, beautiful as nature often is. In the distance, the mountains of the East Marches sat like kings watching the feeble minded mortals play their games of war. The rich scent of fall filled the air as they simply walked. Seasons always seemed to pass like strangers in a city, and this one was no different. The leaves had not quite began to fall, and the trees sat with their leaves brilliant shades of yellow, orange, and red. Fortune stopped, running his hand against the bark of a tree. “This oak… is dying, yet there is no visible signs of decay. Its heart still beats, yet it knows its end is on the horizon.”

“Have the Sidhe left this area?” Azami asked.

“Perhaps it is that, but perhaps it isn't. A sick world, this is. Cancerous, yet still somehow brimming with life.” And with that, they passed through the forest, and the next town came into view. Footsteps sounded from behind them, quick and loud.

Azami spun around, hand on her sword’s pommel. In the treeline, there was a glint of metal, and she yelled loudly for the refugees to either get behind her and Masayoshi or find cover. She braced for the arrow, but there wasn't one. Instead, the glint of metal disappeared, and a figure descended from the trees. “Keep your hands where I can see them, templar!” Azami still kept her hand on her sword, but the figure came closer. A bow was in their hand, with an arrow knocked. Yet, they kept the arrow pointed at the ground.

Finally, the figure came close enough for Azami to realize it was an Albian, and a Knight at that. She looked out from her cowl, watching Azami intently. “What are you doing with these people, templar?”

“I'm aiding the Free Mages reach your people, Knight.”

She looked behind Azami’s shoulder. “You the tiefling we heard would be coming?”

Fortune nodded. “I am. Are the Knights here?”

“Indeed they are. I heard you were supposed to arrive tomorrow. What’s with the rush?”

“The Tavanirian invasion force was right on top of us,” Fortune explained. “This woman here helped us. I would suggest you stop threatening her with your bow lest she decide you should stop herself.”

The arrow was put back into the quiver, and Azami took her hand off her sword. The Knight began to lead them into the town, and in the distance, Albian soldiers looked up, confused and ready to leap into action. None did. Azami felt herself shake slightly. Was she nervous? For what?

The captain of the local Knights appeared and shook hands with Fortune and Errin, only glaring at Azami from behind the confines of his helmet. Azami stared back, feeling quite fed up with the judgemental nature of the people around her. Yet she shook again. Was it the cold? She was wearing full plate. She should be boiling.

The Knight captain signaled for someone to begin leading away the refugees. “This concludes our business then. Tell Isha that the war isn't going to let us do this again.”

Fortune nodded. “We were happy for this opportunity.”

Azami felt her holy symbol rattle against her chest, and she pressed a gauntlet against it to keep it in place. The ranger Knight looked at her, smirking. “You scared, templar?”

She opened her mouth to retort, but no sound came out. Everything seemed to tilt, as a green light was cast over everything. Masayoshi was gone, seemingly having ran away. The ground seemed to crack and splinter around her. The viridian light seemed to pulse and Azami turned her head behind her as energy seemed to pool in the sky, swirling around a focal point in midair like a vortex of mist. There was a single word in the silence, out of the mouth of the ranger. “Tiefling!” a shout from right beside her, yet it sounded like a whisper. A knife was drawn from the woman’s hip and she moved, her eyes on Fortune as he stood dumbfounded just like everyone else.

Azami moved faster, and the dagger bounced off her shield before she gripped the arm of the ranger and bent. There was a look of immense shock and pain on the woman’s face as her arm bent in the wrong direction just as a sickeningly loud explosion threw everything into chaos.

A gnoll, eyes mad and dead leapt onto the templar captain and tore out his throat. A soldier, ancient and long dead, swung an axe into Errin’s chest, spilling blood and vitriol. In a matter of moments, all she held was the severed arm of the ranger as a cabal of rotten undead tore her from Azami’s arms and began to feast on her flesh. A festering kobold jumped atop Fortune and began to claw and bite at his face as he desperately tried to keep it at bay. Azami stood there, eyes wide with pure shock and dismay. The arm dropped from her hands. Standing in the middle of it all was that girl, the girl who was scared of her. Tears streamed down her cheeks as undead killed her family; her father, mother and brother in front of her. Azami took a short breath in like a shuddering gasp of fear. She couldn't hear anything. Not a single word or action or deed. Only when a corpse shambled towards her and opened its disgusting maw wide as it went for her throat was she pulled from her trance and she acted.

Azami clamped her gauntlet around its throat and she slipped her blade into its chest cavity. She pulled the blade to the side and wrenched it out of the creature’s hip. Blackened blood coated her sword and her armour, but she moved on. She slammed Honour through the skull of the undead gnoll as it went for the girl, and then swung her blade up as she split the kobold upon Fortune’s face in two. She dragged Fortune to his feet, shunted a corpse away with her sword before she pointed to the girl and they ran. Azami cut through the horde as best she could, but the sheer number of creatures slowed her down. Claws raked through her skin and claws bit through leather. Fortune, the child, and Azami pushed back into the forest as the wind bit at their wounds. Slowly, her hearing began to return to her, and the screams of the dying and still living echoed through the afternoon air.

The trio descended into the brush as undead began to walk through the forest around them, all moving further into what was supposedly Albian controlled ground. Fortune held the child close, whispering elven lullabies in the girl's ear as a skeleton walked mere feet away from them. They stayed like this for a time, with Azami’s hand firmly clasped around her sword and shield, and Fortune continuing to try and soothe the girl as best he could. There was sounds of fighting in the distance, which died down, regained its vigour, died down again, and the cycle continued for some time. The forest empted of undead as they traveled to find the biggest concentrations of the living, and only when Azami was sure, did she make a motion for them to move. Fortune did not object. They found the bridge and the river, and a plain soaked with blood and littered with corpses. A hound prodded at a far-off body. Several horses grazed about, looking for the owners they had ran from and thought would still be here when it was over.

Azami found a horse, and began to massage its mane carefully. She took the child from Fortune and pointed at the saddle. Fortune nodded. He understood. Azami’s ears were still ringing. She didn't want to talk.

Fortune quickly mounted the horse and set the child seated in front of him. Azami spoke, her voice quieted by the constant buzzing. “Find a druid circle or a Sidhe clan. Something. Have them take you and the girl in. Do not leave until you are sure it is safe outside. Do not abandon the girl. Do not die. Do not let the girl die.”

Fortune nodded once. “What of you?”

Azami looked around her and at the body she had her boot upon. “I don't know.”

Fortune left and Azami was left alone in the field. There was the occasional undead that stalked the perimeter, but she stayed away. Eventually, she found the body of her horse, Masayoshi. A sword had pierced his chest and punctured his heart. She covered his face with a cloth from her saddle’s pouches and began to remove her armour. Azami moved a few bodies and sat down in the blood soaked grass. Still, she did not want to speak. Nor did she want to truly process this.

Time passed, and she finally saw that the creature that was so close was actually a deer. Blood was splattered upon it, but it was otherwise fine. She let it go.

She came to realize that almost all the bodies were templar soldiers. It did not surprise her, nor has she expected it.

An hour passed, and she finally realized that there was no army of anyone's that would come back through here. She stood and strapped both of her swords to her and took everything that was worth carrying from Masayoshi’s saddle bags. With a deep breath, and some dead templar’s horse, she headed off once more. There was a method to her apparent madness. Even if there were people who would call her selfish, self-absorbed, evil, idiotic, or obsessed. She still needed to know. Azami needed to know if Victoria was still alive. There was no way around it, because she simply needed to know, and she would not stop until she was dead or she knew.

Two hours, and Azami had crossed into what was considered to be Dagger Coast territory by the Dagger Coast. There had been very little undead on the road. In the distance, she had seen cities burning, towns deserted, and corpses simply laying in the dirt as if by random. If anything was true, then this incident that she had been witness to was more spread out than simply two towns on the border. This was chaos, nowhere near what was seen during the war that had seemingly ended mere hours ago. A great wave of death that had to be sweeping the continent. Azami knew in her heart, only surer in the theory as the weight of her holy symbol pulled against the string on her neck.

The sounds of battle came ever closer, and she climbed a hill with her horse, looking out upon the ever darkening Dagger Coast. A mass of soldiers and undead fought in the valley, the sounds of clashing metal echoing in the evening air. Beyond the mass was the city of Cazavir, burning brightly. Azami dipped down into the valley, pushing her horse onwards. Creatures broke off from the fighting, hurling themselves on all fours after Azami. She clamped her hand down on her katana, spinning it out from its sheath and to her side as she kept her other hand on her horse’s reins. A wolf jumped for her, and she turned abruptly to run her katana through its side. It crumpled to the floor, trying to stand as its limbs failed to move. She kept on, spurring the horse to as fast as it would go. The undead stayed fast on her trail, but she sped through bloody roads and paths, eventually finding the large gate to Cazavir broken open. Her horse jumped over the arm of a dead ogre, entering the city of Cazavir. Overturned carts, corpses and debris blocked her way, but she navigated around the near barren streets, not giving anyone who was still alive or undead a second of her precious time. She could not spare a single second.

A crossbow bolt slammed into her side and she toppled from her horse, collapsing into the filth and blood. She pushed herself up with her blade, grasping at her new injury. Only the tips of her fingers could grasp at it, and she clenched her hand tightly into a fist as she pushed herself onward, her horse having ran away. Skeletons appeared from an alleyway, clad in cloaks and old leather armour. Azami sought shelter in a building instead of facing her enemies head on. She brought a cabinet crashing down in front of the door and pushed out into the back alley of the store of knicknacks and charms. This was the merchant district, which means she was close. She was so… close.

She ducked in and out of buildings to evade the dead that roamed the streets. There was no living inside, only shops that were thrown into disarray as people ran for their lives. The church itself laid visible above the usual buildings, pointing out like a beacon in the night. Azami ran for it, drawing the attention of corpses as they followed the limping woman towards the chapel. She pushed inside and found it utterly barren. Pews were pushed to the side, and the prominent banners of the Free Mages were gone. She should have known, but she just wanted this to be the answer. She backed up as the corpses came towards her and she readied her sword for the fight.

“Azami? Azami!” A man came out from one of the doors, a crossbow in his hands.

“Errol? Why are you-”

“Come on!” She ran to him and into the familiar backroom. He pushed a crate up to the door as a force thudded against it. “Down the ladder. Go!”

She crawled down and he followed her down, leading her through the cellar and back to the familiar canoe. They pushed off without a second’s notice and both of them began to row. Azami looked at Errol, eyeing his newly found stubble. “What happened? Why are you back in Cazavir?”

“You think I know? We never stopped moving people in and out of Cazavir, Azami. Undead just poured into the city and we got as many people out as we could!”

Azami was exasperated. “What about Isha? There were Free Mages in Kingsbury.”

“Kingsbury? You came all the way here from Kingsbury? Why the hell did you do that? Did you come when the undead came or before?”

“As soon as it happened. Everyone except two of them died. Errol, what happened to the Free Mages?”

He opened his mouth to speak but they hit the side of the tunnel into the reservoir. “Damnit. We’ll walk. Come on!” Both of them ran, picking up their weapons and sprinting for dear life. They stumbled out of the tunnel, tripping on rocks and earth as they clambered back onto flat ground.

Free Mages and refugees stood in a group, weapons drawn and spells readied. Isha looked at Azami and cocked her head, utterly confused. “Sicarius? Is that you?”

Azami didn’t even bother to answer. Victoria stood there, dumbfounded, a flame engulfing one hand and her shortsword in her other. Azami dropped her sword and wrapped her arms around Victoria, feeling as tears began to stain her cheeks.

Chapter 5
“So, did you find what you were looking for, Azami?”

Azami stood on the Dagger Coast beach, sand in her boots and sun in her eyes. She watched the waves crawl in and out as light hit the ocean and let out a brilliant amber hue, when it wasn't reflecting directly into her eyes. In the distance, the Free Mage headquarters stood upon a high natural fortress above the ground, a commandeered castle hanging the all too familiar purple banners of the organization. Men and women dragged corpses on pyres, changing the beach from a body strewn mess to what it was before. It had been a week since it all happened, and Azami took her time to mourn alone. They all knew that undead still littered parts of Rosarius, and still cities and towns and countrysides were rife with undead, but that was a task for another time and for different people.

“I let people die, Victoria. I did exactly what I said I was trying to prevent. I don't even know why I still stand upon this ground before you. What did I accomplish? What did I find in myself? I found that I am no better a person than I was when I left you.”

Victoria sat in the sand behind her, resting herself on a traveling cloak. She looked the same as she did before the war, though there was a slight hint of a change in her eyes. At the very least, Azami found some solace in seeing that Victoria had not changed in her appearance. Azami didn't need Victoria to change, because Azami wanted to change for Victoria. Perhaps that too was selfish in some backwards way.

“No one can blame you for losing yourself in the chaos. Whatever this all is, it was what killed those people, and not you. I don't even know why you blame yourself, because it obviously wasn't anything to do with you. I know you feel guilty about a lot of things that aren't your fault, but that isn't helping you go on, Azami, and I want you to go on.”

“What's the point? Everything's been destroyed in this chaos. So many have died. I should have been killed as well.”

Victoria grew a scowl, but replaced it with a calmer frown. She stood up off the sand and began to pace idly, wholly ignoring Azami as she gathered her thoughts. Soon enough, she stopped. “You changed, and yet you also haven't. You feel a sadness, and that is all you focus on. I want to be there for you, Azami, but you make it hard for me. You know you’re worth so much, yet you fail to believe it.”

“Worthless… that was Hikari's opinion of me, and yet she never said it. I lived in her shadow for twenty years. My parents, my elders, my teachers all saw me as simply Hikari's sister…” She let the waves fill the silence between, organizing her thoughts in that moment. “I know you think highly of me, just as I think highly of you… but how can I believe it when I have thought the opposite for so long?”

Victoria raised an eyebrow. “Mages? Other races? The knights? Hells, even I was more opposed to the Blackravens than you were.” Azami sighed, knowing that this was simply one argument of many to come that she would lose to Victoria. She seemed to notice her change in demeanor. “You know why I'm saying this, Azami.”

“I do, and I'll surrender to your logic.” She extended a hand to Victoria. “Shall we depart to the castle?”

Victoria took Azami’s hand, and upon Victoria throwing her cloak over her shoulder, hanging off the tips of her fingers, they went on to walk along the beach back towards the castle. It was a beautiful morning for sure, and Azami was sure Victoria was thinking something clichéd about how she was more beautiful than the sunset. What was the harm, Azami supposed. Perhaps they had earned this small respite for simply surviving such a catastrophe, or perhaps she just was feeling selfish enough to believe she deserved a break. She felt like she had never had one for a long time. There was always a pressing issue at the forefront of her mind, but now there was just calm, something she had missed dearly.

“How will this story end for us, Azami? Out in a blaze of glory, or out in a bed surrounded by family? Where will we go? What will we accomplish?”

“Are you simply asking me that because you know I'll stay with you? Do you really want to hear that come out of my mouth?”

Victoria chuckled. “Maybe I do.”

“I'll stay with you, for as long as we both need.”

“And after that?”

“Who knows what will happen? Will I be needed in Tavaniria? Will the knights come for me? Will more evil arise in this world? I cannot say because I do not know.”

Victoria looked at Azami questioningly. “So, you’re a hero now?”

“History will decide who among us are heroes and villains. I am just a woman, perhaps a capable woman, but a woman nonetheless. We fight for reasons we deem to be our own, and we alone cannot decide if we are truly just in our actions.”

“If you are righteous, then history will remember you as being such.”

“History will remember me however it wishes.”

Azami had been surprised to find that Isha was so accepting of Azami’s arrival at the Free Mages’ new headquarters. Perhaps it was Victoria’s doing, or Azami was someone that Isha found trustable, she simply wasn't sure. Azami lodged with Victoria, who had been given a room because of 'personal entitlements for services’. Simply put, Victoria was being cocky about something she had accomplished in the past. Azami didn't blame her, for Azami felt like she herself could act in a similar manner depending on the circumstances. Victoria and Azami seemed to get along well enough for Azami. It was almost as if those years of being apart had never happened. Azami was unsure if that was a good thing or a bad thing. She still had very little experience.

Azami kept herself busy for the most part, but occasionally she would find a moment of respite to lose herself in thought as she usually did. She thought of Fortune, the girl, and the soldiers that had been under her command that she had simply left behind. If she had been in a clearer mind during those events, then surely she would have done things differently and saved more lives. Victoria told her not to worry, and that what she had done was honourable enough… but she simply wasn't sure. She was a templar, and a templar was supposed to save the lives of the innocent. There was always the fact that she wasn't entirely sure if the templar order still existed given her isolation from everything, but her point still stood.

Victoria was quite chipper for the most part. She laughed, joked around, and was serious when she needed to be. Every so often, Isha would call Victoria into her office and they would speak quietly behind the doors. There was a certain hint of jealousy that Azami felt - as they were lovers after all - but she dismissed it and thought enough to place a real possibility upon it. The Free Mages were getting ready to find survivors. Surely, the chaos had finally ceased to a reasonable level.

Azami found Errol in the courtyard, spinning a grindstone against his shortsword. There was a thin layer of stubble on his face that she had noticed being present before. Azami assumed he was feeling much older now.

He looked up as she approached. “Azami…” he said, looking at the blade in his hands before putting it to the stone again. “Good to see you up and about.”

“Same to you, Errol. How are you? Have you gotten much sleep?”

“I've gotten more recently. Whatever’s plagued Rosarius… it still haunts me. I was with a caravan escorting a bunch of children when it happened. I saved some of them, but…” He ran his hand over the flat of the blade. “It doesn't take a genius to figure out that war’s a plague upon mortals. We just couldn't get enough of the monsters hiding in the dark so we just saw monsters in each other.”

Azami sighed and nodded. “Speaking of the war… What happened to the Knights in Cazavir?”

“They pulled out of the city as soon as the templars started fighting them in the streets. For a while, the templars controlled the city, so the Free Mages packed up and left too. We came here to Castle Cinder and the rest is what you know.”

Azami knew the walls were high and with the Free Mages here with such a high density of magic users, it would be near impenetrable to most undead. Though, she wasn’t sure if the academics and humanitarians of the Free Mages were really capable of defending the castle. “How did Isha even manage to acquire an entire castle?”

Errol stopped, looked into Azami’s eyes and spoke. “Blackravens.” He went back to the grindstone immediately. Of course it would be something like that, but if Errol wasn’t going to share the information with her, then she wouldn’t push.

“What of Catherine?”

“She didn’t-” He grimaced and finally decided he had sharpened the blade enough. He set the blade back into its sheath on his hip. “The Knights left quickly, so I guess she just never had time to tell anyone what was happening.”

“She left and never said goodbye then. How classical.”

“Tactless as always, Azami.” He shook his head. “Romance isn’t what the books all make it out to be, I suppose.”

There was an awkward silence between them. A call from the wall caught their attention and Azami clambered up the stairs, joining the lookout as he pointed out across the plain. It was green for as far as she could see except for the approaching shades of darker colours on the horizon. They waited for a time, with Errol and eventually Victoria joining up at the wall. Soon the indistinguishable mass became a group of people, and soon the people became distinguishable from one another. Noncombatants for the most part, save for the people in the front of the group. A Knight and a Luirenmeran soldier. That was a surprise, especially due to the fact that the Luirenmeran wasn’t in chains or disarmed.

Isha arrived at the gates, watching out as the group stopped outside and waited, seemingly for the Free Mages to come out and speak with them. Victoria whispered silently into her hand, nodded, and joined Isha at the gate. Azami stood by, waiting for some sort of official line.

Victoria jerked her thumb over at the gate. “I sent a message. The Knight said that they came from Albia and they’re looking for refuge. It sounds like it’s really bad out there.”

Isha nodded slowly. “While I would usually be happy to allow so many people within our walls… we don’t have the supplies we usually have, and nor do we have people that would be incredibly happy to be with a Luirenmeran elf.”

“Well, they need an answer, Isha.”

“Go out to them. Take Azami with you if you wish. Ask their numbers, their composition. Make a call.”

“You want me to make a decision, Isha? You’re the leader, not me.”

Isha set a hand on Victoria’s shoulder. “Having a singular leader within an organization like this? Stupid. Now go. They need an answer.”

Victoria gave a look to Azami and then a shrug. They walked over to the main gate, waiting slowly for it to open. Victoria straightened out her blouse, and adjusted her collar nervously. “It’ll be fine, Victoria.” Azami said. “These are not Blackravens, not templars, and not bandits. We will be fine.”

“Ain’t what I’m worried about. I just never really wanted to be a leader.”

As the two stepped out of the castle gate with it closing behind them, the Knight and the Luirenmeran watched them approach wearily. “Hail, Free Mages,” the Knight said, lifting up her visor. All of the noncombatants behind them stood a good distance away from the four gathered, perhaps believing that a fight could spring at any moment.

Victoria gave a small wave with two fingers. “I’m Victoria, of the Free Mages. And this is Azami, formerly of the templars? I don’t think she’s decided yet.”

“We’ll see,” she said.

The Knight looked from Victoria to Azami, and then back to Victoria. “Well then. I am Heather and this is Sithryn. We’ve come from Portsway, gathering survivors along the way. We, unfortunately, are here to seek refuge for a time. We’ve run out of supplies and I’m not sure if we’ll be able to make it much further.” Sithryn looked down at Azami and Victoria as Heather spoke, the eyes in his helmet tired, yet sharp and watchful.

Victoria nodded, counting the people behind the two. “Well, I’ll get right to it then. We’re gonna need your numbers and what kind of people you got with you. Humans, elves, mages, working folk.”

Heather looked over her shoulder for a moment. “We’re humans and Sidhe elves except for Sithryn here. No mages, just regular people. They’re not soldiers.” She clicked her tongue. “We got about fifty?” She looked to Sithryn, telling her that it was fortyseven in a low voice. “There you go.”

Victoria blew out a breath of hot air. She covered her mouth with a hand and supported that arm with her other, tapping the fingers of her hand against her cheek. Heather cleared her throat nervously and waited for Victoria’s response. Azami tried to clear the air. “Victoria isn’t quite used to the position bestowed upon her. If you would allow her a moment-”

“We can house you for a week. Longer than that, and our food stores won’t let even the Free Mages alone make it through the winter. I’m sorry.” Azami was surprised at Victoria’s decision, but not overtly so. It was a decision that was intelligent and thoughtful, as Victoria was.

The Knight nodded solemnly in response. “I suppose I’ve been looking for a miracle. Whatever this was that’s ravaged Rosarius… it is the antithesis of a miracle.”

“Cities destroyed overnight and an entire war halted in its tracks. I know, and I’m sorry we can’t offer you anything better than this.”

Azami turned to the side, beckoning them all back. “We’ll take them in then and get everyone situated. There’s no point in standing in this field and waiting.”

As the week came into its second day, the refugees became situated in the castle’s courtyard. Tents had been pulled from dusty cellars to serve temporarily, and Victoria looked into some sort of more comfortable option. She couldn’t find one with their current supplies. Food slowly began to dwindle, and a miasma of uncertainty coupled with a layer of fear set itself upon the castle. What would kill them first seemed to be the question on everyone’s mind and so Isha sent a scout into the nearby forest to look for some sort of source of supplies or a local surviving group. They never returned, and no one ever brought up the scout’s mission again. As time went on, Isha and Victoria became ever concerned that they might not even make it to the winter, and so they both decided to let the refugees stay and simply wait to see what could possibly happen. Both boredom and depression were kings in this new land and Azami took it upon herself to see if Victoria was still of sound mind every single day. Azami knew that she herself, even if she would be uncertain or sad, would always eventually return back to how she would normally behave and feel. Victoria was another beast altogether. On the first days, she would smile politely and nod, stating that she was all right and that Azami didn’t need to worry about her. Eventually, Victoria’s reassurances became more stressed, extended only as Victoria stated simply that Azami should stop asking her. Azami did without issue or relapse, but there was always that idea in her mind of wondering if she should begin again and ask once more. They stopped holding each other's’ hands, or embracing, and after awhile, even sleeping in the same bed as the other. Azami knew that there was something wrong by then, and not simply something minor and easily fixable, but even so, Azami lacked the resolve to seek any sort of resolution.

In the dead of night, Azami awoke to the sound of near silent footsteps in the hall outside her room. This had been nothing new during the war, and in fact, finding an Albian sneaking around the camps was practically common. She pulled herself out of her bed and began to dress and stepped out into the hall with her hand on her wakizashi. Torches flickered in the darkness and a few Free Mages sat at every few corners in watch. Azami asked each one she passed if they had heard anyone running about or if they had been walking about, and they all responded in the negative. She continued on, looking for a child or someone who had gotten lost, but she didn’t find anyone who shouldn’t be within the castle proper walking around in the whole half an hour she looked. She descended into the castle’s courtyard soon after, finding it quiet as many slept their hunger and fears away. A hawk perched upon the castle’s gate and she looked at it carefully. Its eyes were unsettling, yellow and yet almost burning. It flew away silently and she watched it disappear into the night.

Something flickered in the shadows with the glint of metal and Azami lifted her arm up instinctively to block a potential blow. Nothing came. She immediately inspected the area but found nothing but dust, stone, and dirt. Azami took up a post in the courtyard and sat there waiting and watching. An hour turned to three, and then six and then the sun rose above the castle. Whatever had happened had happened, or Azami had simply been hallucinating. She found the latter to be a better option, but she knew she was of sound mind.

She stood up as the refugees began to leave their tents and walked back into the keep, all the way back to Isha’s office. She knocked twice and then pushed the door open. Victoria and Isha were already in a conversation and paid her little mind as she entered. Both of them looked tired and hungry.

“Our options are dwindling, Isha. We need action and soon, because whatever threat the undead might pose, it's better than just letting our people starve.”

“I agree, Victoria, but we can't rush into this. We cannot afford to take an uncalculated risk. No one has even sent a message from Portsway, so we may be the only bastion of Free Mages left, and we cannot allow ourselves to be the last.”

“Okay, I'll think into it, but we’re going to actually do something about this, Isha.”

“We will. Now…” She looked over Victoria’s shoulder. “What do you need, Azami? You look quite tired…”

Azami stepped up to Isha’s desk and gave a tired look to Victoria in acknowledgement. “Someone was sneaking around the castle.”

Victoria was on it immediately. “Who?”

“I don't know, they left or ran before I could confront them. I believe there was magic involved.”

Isha raised an eyebrow. “One of our own then?”

“I don't know, and I can't tell from what I could even discern. Someone is watching us, I have no doubt about that, and we are not safe.”

Victoria nodded at Isha. “I agree that we’re not safe. I'll form an expedition. We need to know what's happening outside.”

“If you deem it necessary, Victoria, then you can go ahead. I'll give you full control over this. Our morale needs lifting, and the sooner you bring good news back, the better.” Victoria nodded and began to leave. Isha looked to Azami and sighed. “Follow her. You know she’s not in the right mind.”

Azami followed Victoria out of the office, walking through the halls of the castle. Victoria mumbled to herself, and Azami followed behind her, readying herself to speak her mind to Victoria. Before she could, Errol bolted up the stairs into the main hall. “Victoria, Azami! You need to come outside. Now.”

The three hurried outside, clambering up onto the battlements. “More refugees?” Azami asked.

“No. Gods, no,” Errol responded as they finally stepped up to look out. There were no displaced peasants or anyone else looking for shelter. Azami felt her throat constrict as she laid her eyes upon the red and grey armour of the templars.

Victoria gritted her teeth and tightened her grip on the stone of the battlement. She pointed a finger down range and Azami followed it to the woman on horseback in the front of it. She, and the rest of the templars, stood there waiting. The woman set her hands on the side of her helmet and pulled it off. Black hair unraveled from the confines of the helmet, and two piercing red eyes looked out at Azami. “Hikari…” Azami breathed. “She must have been spying on us, but she shouldn’t be here. The undead must have been in Tavaniria too.”

“You’re right. She shouldn’t be here, but you must know why she’s here. It’s obvious, Azami.” For a moment, Azami thought that Victoria was blaming her, yet there was not a directed malice in Victoria’s eyes, but rather a singular outward anger towards everything.

Errol set his hand on his shortsword. “We can’t fight these many templars. They would win no matter what we do. We need a plan, Victoria.”

Victoria looked to Azami. “Bring her in and allow her to bring a small guard with her. We will negotiate with her.”

Azami nodded. That seemed the best course of action, but… she would finally need to confront her sister after three years of being away from her. Azami descended the battlements as Victoria and Errol began to prepare for Hikari’s arrival. The gate of the castle opened once again and Azami stepped out alone. The templars watched her approach. She felt that perhaps she should feel nervous or fearful, but she held onto her resolve. Hikari’s stare was a threatening glare, and she was the first to speak. “Azami… I would not think you would continue to associate yourself with this scum.”

“You knew I was here, Hikari. Is this revenge?” There was a perceptible change in Hikari’s aura. Once, Azami had felt some form of compassion and love in Hikari’s personality, but now… “What do you want, High Commander Sicarius?”

Pure and utter hate flooded her eyes. “The Free Mages are to answer for their crimes, and the rogue templar who continues to aid them is to be brought to justice. Do you understand, Azami?”

Azami gritted her teeth, looking her sister in the eyes. “I understand. Nonetheless, Victoria Wolfe requests your presence. She wishes to negotiate with the templar high commander. You may bring two guards within the castle.”

“Tell Victoria that I accept her offer.”

Hikari descended from her horse and selected two templars to accompany her. Azami led all three into the castle courtyard where Victoria was already waiting. Naturally, Victoria had set herself in an advantageous situation, settling the Free Mages on the walls with spells ready. Yet, Azami had the odd feeling that both Hikari and Victoria had settled themselves on equal footing. It seemed the culmination of a great many years. The two most important women in Azami’s life, staring each other down like great generals upon the battlefield of Castle Cinder.

Victoria descended the stairs, walking directly in front of Hikari. “So, you’re the templar commander that I’ve heard so much about… The tales do you more justice than your actual stature does.”

“I would have thought the woman that my sister had taken such a fancy to would have been someone in an actual position of power. Do you call this threatening, Free Mage? Easily, I would kill more of you in the same time it would take for you to kill an insect.”

“Thank you for your vague threat, Sicarius.” She spat on Hikari’s boot. “I know you’re here because you think the Free Mages have done whatever it is that has tainted this land, and I know you’re not going to believe me when I say we had nothing to do with it.”

Hikari looked at her boot and then tightened her grip on her sword. “Perhaps not you, Free Mage, but your organization is vast. I will find out which one of you did this if it takes me the rest of my life.”

Victoria gripped the clasp of Hikari’s cloak and pulled her and Hikari face to face. The two templars went for their swords but made no real action. It was obvious this was no real negotiation, but a trade of threats between two angry women with both everything and nothing to lose.

“If you touch anyone here, I will kill you, Hikari, even if I have to die to make sure you stop breathing.”

“Really? In front of impressionable Azami? What will it take for you Free Mages to finally realize you are the real villains in this world. Will you resist until finally the entirety of this world has its life drained from it? There are two options for you, Victoria. You surrender, or we burn this castle to the ground, kill those you call kin, and salt the ground in which you stand upon.”

Victoria pushed Hikari away. “These people are innocent. Most of the residents of this castle do not even have the Spellburn. You would be the villain here, Sicarius.”

“All I want is the Free Mages, Victoria. You provide me yourselves freely, then I will allow your refugees to remain.” Hikari lifted her chin upwards, maintaining her newly acquired stance of superiority. “You have your choices, Free Mage. Now, make your decision.”

Victoria clasped her hands behind her back and looked behind herself, at one of the windows of the castle. When she returned her gaze to Hikari, there was a look of acceptance. Everything Victoria had ever worked towards in her life had come crashing out in an instant. She swallowed, looked to Azami, and then back at her sister. “I surrender with my dignity intact. Know that we are the Free Mages, Hikari. Even if we are in chains, we are still free.”

In an instant, the templars flooded the courtyard. Free Mages were bound, subdued, and the screams of those unfortunate enough to fight back echoed through the dead air. Azami was stripped of her weapons, and the two blades were strapped to Hikari’s horse. Despite all of this, Hikari stayed true to her word and only took the Free Mages, except for one. Azami, even in the chaos of being rounded up with the Free Mages and dragged out of the castle, did not see Isha. Perhaps that was a small miracle for the Free Mages. Hikari would think Victoria was the leader, and no one would say anything to compromise Isha. That was what the Free Mages were, a family.

For that matter, she also did not see Errol, and while she hoped he had managed to escape, she could not say that he might be among them.

The templars marched the Free Mages through the fields of the Dagger Coast, past forests and rivers and streams. They did not stop, and those who fell to the dirt, unable to continue walking, were either beaten until they got up, or killed on the spot. This was not the work of the templar order, this was the work of Hikari. Still, Victoria and Azami should have anticipated such actions from Hikari, but Victoria had made a decision, and all Azami could do was continue walking, head held high even if Hikari tried to take her dignity away from her.

“What did you think would happen if you went to the Free Mages, Azami?” Hikari asked as she rode beside her. “They are an absolute evil in this world. Mages wish to destroy us with their very existence, and only through subjugation can they be tamed to be productive members of the world.”

“I’ve been away from you for long enough to know that is wrong, Hikari, and if you truly believe your own lies, then I am sorry for you, sister. Three years ago, we rode through mountains together on a quest. We spoke of our differences, yet always… you looked down upon me. Now you are doing it again, but this time… you realize you’re doing it.”

Hikari shook her head. “You’ve lost the right to call yourself a Sicarius.”

Victoria shouted at Hikari from behind. “Where do you plan to take us, Hikari?”

“You’ll see, Victoria.”

They continued to march through the Dagger Coast, stopping for a day to make camp. The Free Mages rested in the mud, arms still bound. Some cried, others prayed, and the rest were silent. Hikari made sure to separate Azami from Victoria. Azami predicted that Hikari was taking them to Catarina to answer for their supposed crimes, but the journey would take a long time. A week or two if they didn’t stop to rest… Azami didn’t acknowledge what was surely truly happening. She didn’t want to believe that Hikari could possibly be capable of such tremendous evil.

In the morning, the Free Mages were all brought to their feet and began to march once again. More dropped from exhaustion, but the templars pushed them on further and further. They numbered around two hundred at this point, Azami reckoned, and the number was only going to continue to drop. They stopped in an abandoned town, with the corpses of both townspeople and undead littered about the streets. “Do you see what you’ve wrought upon this land, Free Mages? Death and despair. You do not care who they are, as long as they realize your superiority. Is that not it?” None replied, for fear of retaliation. Azami only stared her sister in the face.

Finally, they entered Tavanirian land, or at least what was Tavanirian land when the war was still going on. Slowly, snowflakes began to fall upon them all. Winter had finally come, and it fell hard. In mere hours, the land turned from orange to white. Azami shivered and tried to shrug her shoulders to pull her cloak further upon herself. It didn’t work.

Hikari stopped them once again by a shallow river and she gave a single order. “Strip them.”

The templars did, and the Free Mages were forced to stand in the cold, completely naked, dusted with snow, shivering and bound. They were lined upon the river’s edge, fearful, tears streaming from the eyes of some, but still, some kept their dignity, holding their heads up high as they gritted their teeth against the cold. The templars began to push them out into the river, forcing them back in if they tried to come back onto the close riverbank. Azami pushed forward, gripping her toes into the stones as she waded through. Each step made her nearly lose her balance and be swept away by the force of the river, but she walked forward. Many fell in, and some fought to stand once again, but others stayed in the water, motionless. When she reached the other side, already Hikari was ready for them. Those whose knees buckled and faces portrayed the closeness of death were pushed to their knees. Another order from Hikari, and their throats were slashed.

Victoria shouted out at Hikari, black hair drenched as she visibly shivered. “You bitch! This is what you wanted all along wasn’t it! That’s why you did what you did all those years ago!”

Hikari pointed to Victoria with a gauntlet as the templars dropped the Free Mages’ clothing in front of them. Victoria was promptly forced to dress and then hauled away into the nearby forest. Azami scrounged up a set of clothing, awkwardly pulling them onto her body. Hikari left, following the templars as they dragged Victoria off. Azami watched, and gripped her holy symbol in her two hands.

She fell to her knees, squeezing her hands tightly around the emblem of Bahamut. She pressed the shield into her hands. “I require your aid. Please, allow me this one favour.” There was no response. Only a gust of wind that blew towards the forest that she knew she had to go to. Azami pushed herself back to her feet and she ran. She pushed her weight into a templar as he tried to swipe at her with his sword and he toppled over. Azami sprinted away from it all as others began to run and crossbows were loaded. Bolts flew past her but she descended into the forest, and she slid down into the brush. There were voices, somewhere.

She stalked around the bushes, tracing the sounds of Hikari and Victoria’s voices. Soon enough, she found Hikari’s horse, spotting Hikari with her sword drawn, looking down upon the hunched form of Victoria. Two templars watched. Azami drew Honour from the sheath attached to Hikari’s saddle, cut the bindings on her wrists, and began to walk towards them.

Hikari set the flat of her blade against Victoria’s chin. “You took my sister away from me, Victoria. You do realize that, don’t you?” Victoria looked up at the woman, one eye swollen and bruised. “You took a woman who could have been by my side as I reclaimed a dying empire from its own faults, but no… You corrupted her with your ideals of so-called peace and equality. Equality comes at a price, Free Mage, but we are not equals. You will see that mages are the scourge of this world.” She pulled the blade away.

“I didn’t do anything to her, Hikari Sicarius.” She doubled over, coughing out red onto the white. “What do you want me to say? That the Free Mages are wrong? That I never really loved Azami? Do you want me to beg for mercy?”

“I want you to realize you are going to die like the dog you are.”

“Hikari!” Azami screamed, brandishing the blade for all to see. All four heads turned to look at her. Victoria began to laugh, seeing only madness in it all.

Hikari sent both the templars forward, but Azami easily blocked the first blow, slashing through the gaps in his armour before moving to the next and stabbing him in the throat before he could parry her blow. Azami wiped the blood from her face, snow falling all around her and stared her sister down. This was it. Her story would end the way it would begin. Azami, Hikari, and bodies in the snow.

“You’ve made your decision then, Azami.”

“You made it for me.”

Their blades clashed, were drawn back, and then clashed again. They knew each other, had trained together as children, and fought like honourable warriors. Two soldiers, two templars, two sisters, two paths that had diverged so distinctly. One abandoned and forced to find herself in a world of hostilities, and the other who claimed destiny through cruelty and hard work. One loved, and the other unloved.

Hikari sliced into Azami’s abdomen, but she twisted away before the blade dug in too deep. She fought through the pain, bringing her sword back up to fight.

“What would our mother think about this, Azami? What would our father think?”

Azami sweeped for Hikari’s legs but missed. “Father loved you more and mother died protecting us! You would insult me with their names!”

“Mother hated me, Azami. Father would have saw us die to protect his interests. I brought us into the light. I saw us become elite. I saw us bring about a new age.”

Azami’s blows bounced off of steel and plate armour. “It was always you. I am not a doll that you would shape for your cruel desires! I am my own woman! You do not own me!” Her sword made it past Hikari’s block severing Hikari’s hand from her arm. She fell to her knees, gripping the wound, rage bleeding from the stump. Azami was surprised at her ability to have even done that, but with her eyes locked on Hikari's, she pulled her blade back in preparation to strike.

“Do it. Prove me right.”

Azami swung her blade forward, slashing across Hikari’s face. Her sister’s head snapped to the side, blood splattering into the snow. Slowly, she began to fall backwards. Hikari hit the ground, hair sprawled out, black against white, and then she was still.

Azami let out a few shuddering breaths, planting her sword into the earth as she walked forward towards Victoria, who laid in the snow, eyes closed with tears frozen against her cheeks. Azami brought Victoria’s head onto her lap, cradling her head in her arms. She looked back to see Hikari gone, leaving nothing but an imprint in the snow, but she didn’t care.

This was only the beginning of something greater.
« Last Edit: December 23, 2016, 03:18:57 am by Deeox2 »

Offline Elvis Strunk

Re: Dungeons and Dragons - A Rosarian Prelude
« Reply #1 on: October 23, 2016, 06:23:03 am »
Well, I already gave my feedback via PM, and I won't repeat it all here, just to avoid spoiling anything, up to and including character names. I'll just say, I enjoyed this story a lot. I read it all in one sitting, and it kept me captivated the entire way through. I would definitely recommend taking some time out of your day to delve into it as well- you won't regret it~

Offline WeAreTheMeta

Re: Dungeons and Dragons - A Rosarian Prelude
« Reply #2 on: October 23, 2016, 11:33:18 am »
* WeAreTheMeta groans and add that to the list of things he needs to read. Might take a while, or not~

Elvis Strunk [Aug 10, 2016, 12:40:11 am]:   Meta is eternally a loli~
Arraxis [Sep 23, 2016, 11:37:43 pm]:   Love you too Meta

Offline BlackStarLine

Re: Dungeons and Dragons - A Rosarian Prelude
« Reply #3 on: October 23, 2016, 01:53:29 pm »
That was very good. Nice stuff there Dee.

Offline ShadowX

Re: Dungeons and Dragons - A Rosarian Prelude
« Reply #4 on: January 06, 2017, 12:15:24 am »
So much to say, so much to think about... While I consider, take a pat...
Your love was handmade for somebody like me
Come on now, follow my lead
I may be crazy, don't mind me
Say, boy, let's not talk too much~💕

Offline Deeox2

Re: Dungeons and Dragons - A Rosarian Prelude
« Reply #5 on: January 06, 2017, 05:06:22 pm »
If I've learned anything through this experience, it's that all of you look at different things and enjoy different things, and as a writer, it's basically impossible to please all of you.

Also none of you can agree on who Best Girl is.

Offline Revontulet

Re: Dungeons and Dragons - A Rosarian Prelude
« Reply #6 on: January 06, 2017, 05:44:55 pm »
But we do agree that Dee has some latent talent for creating best girls tho lol
Deeox2 [Feb 14, 2018, 08:33:51 pm]:   I KNOW WHAT SEX IS
Milten [Sep 13, 2016, 03:31:18 pm]:   Come on, Rev's soul is 99% lewd, 1% Kurumi
Deeox2 [Dec 16, 2016, 01:31:10 am]:   ... Wow, I think Jannti broke my world solely by existing, lol.

Offline ShadowX

Re: Dungeons and Dragons - A Rosarian Prelude
« Reply #7 on: January 06, 2017, 10:46:09 pm »
But we do agree that Dee has some latent talent for creating best girls tho lol
Oh yeah most definitely
Your love was handmade for somebody like me
Come on now, follow my lead
I may be crazy, don't mind me
Say, boy, let's not talk too much~💕


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