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The Gods' Game Part 2

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The Gods' Game Part 2

 

By: Liz Inverse

The game of the Gods continues 40 years after Synshlee's game ends. Now the focus is on Sharmin, a Human who, at first glance is plain and not very talented, even with a sword, but fate will send her on the Paladin path, and into the gods' game.
 
Prologue
 
(40 Years after Synshlee's Death)
She was born during the night, a violent storm raging above the shining city of Aden. Her mother was a Priestess, her father, a Priest. She was a taboo child, as those devoted fully to the teachings of Einhasad were to give up such base desires. Ashamed at them, the head Bishop separated the two, sending the father away from the church and hiding the mother away from prying eyes during her pregnancy.
The priestess cried out from around the bite wood the nun midwife had placed in her mouth, the thunder following her voice and drowning out the cries of the baby as she came forth to the world. The Bishop blessed the child as she was cleaned, and she was rushed from the house by the nun midwife and out the city gates. Huddled by a cart waited a poor farmer and his wife, the nun placing the still-crying babe in the wife's arms. The farmer then snapped his oxen to move, and they hurried away from Aden, lest they be seen. The priestess, left alone now in the little house, secretly named her baby, and wept, as the child would never know that name.
The name she would know, however, would be "Sharmin".
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Chapter 1

 

"HA-HA, FISH-EYES!" a boy taunted her, twelve years later. He ran by her and pushed her down, causing her spectacles to fall from her face and into the dirt. Blessed with poor vision that the Bishops of Talking Island could not cure with their magic, Sharmin was forced to wear a new device called 'spectacles', made from the lenses of the giant Monster Eyes of the mainland. She could see clearer, but the result on her physical image made her eyes seem larger than normal. Sharmin pulled her knees up and buried her face in them, trying not to let the boy see her cry as he continued to taunt her.

"Leave my sister be!" a little voice shouted. Sharmin looked up with bleary eyes as her seven year-old sister, Komugi, came running out of their home. She stood protectively in front of Sharmin with her arms spread, her tiny face skewed in anger.

"Ohhh noooooooo" the boy, whose name was Ryonai, said dramatically, feigning fear, "Fish-Eyes' little sister is going to hurt me, oooh noooooo."

"Dun call her that!" Komugi shouted, running at him with fists raised. Ryonai laughed and took off, sticking his tongue out at her. Sharmin pulled herself to her feet, sniffling as Komugi continued to shout after the boy.

"Komugi, stop it." Sharmin said sullenly, wiping her nose on her arm. Komugi stopped instantly, as if someone turned a switch off inside of her, and turned to latch onto her sister's waist.

"Big sissy ok now?" she asked, looking up at her with big eyes. Sharmin shrugged and looked away from her. Komugi was perfectly capable of speaking like a proper seven year old, but chose to speak in a babyish tone because it got her more attention. Komugi's eyes began welling up with large crocodile tears and she let loose with a wail loud enough to make the townspeople milling through the streets stop and stare.

"Komugi, stop it!" Sharmin yelled back at her. "If you're gonna stick up for me and then start crying, I don't want you to do it anymore!" Komugi only wailed louder. Much to Sharmin's dismay, this caused their mother to emerge from their house, wiping her hands on her apron.

"What on earth is going on out here?" she asked.

"Min is mean to 'Mugi!" Komugi wailed, running to her mother and latching onto her. "Mugi jus wan-ned to help! 'Min is mean!"

"Sharmin!" their mother said in a scolding tone, hugging Komugi close. "How many days must we go through this? Can't you be nice to your sister for once?"

"But I'm not..." Sharmin began. Her mother turned away, taking Komugi into the house.

"I don't want to hear it! Go wash up, dinner is ready." she said, waving Sharmin off. Komugi stopped crying long enough to look over her shoulder and stick her tongue out and pull her lower eyelid down at Sharmin, before bursting into a fresh set of 'tears'. Sharmin's fists balled at her sides and her shoulders shook as she tried to suppress her temper. She spun on her heel and walked towards the rain bucket at the side of their house.

Sharmin didn't always live on Talking Island. Her parents farmed in the Neutral Zone, but had moved back to her father's hometown when her mother became pregnant with Komugi. Sharmin grumbled in annoyance at the memory, the way they had acted seemed like they'd never had a kid before. She thought they were just fine in the Neutral Zone, why couldn't they have stayed there? Sharmin had a pony there, and her own little garden. Here, she was lucky if she even got to have a flowerpot. The village was a poor one, and since her father could no longer farm to earn their money, he was at the mercy of finding work to do. Times were hard if you weren't an adventurer or a merchant.

Sharmin had no real talents, and she was quite comfortable with that. Her sister had already shown a latent gift to heal, and her parents excitedly enrolled her in Einhovant's School of Magic's elementary classes. Sharmin herself just studied average things, destined to live her life as a common village girl.

Mousy was the best way to describe Sharmin's appearance. Other than her spectacles, she had long, mud-brown hair that she kept pulled back into a ponytail at all times. Long bangs dangled in her face, giving her an unkempt look, and she wore long blue dresses that were almost always smudged with dirt from the teasing the boys gave her.

"Boat from the mainland coming in!" a man shouted to the guards as he ran in the South Gates. "Someone alert Cedric, there are new students onboard!"

"Great Einhasad." one guard murmured to his companion, "MORE mouths to feed. There's perfectly good Sword masters in Gludin and Gludio, why do they keep coming here? Do they LIKE keeping our villagers hungry and poor?" He shook his head bitterly. Curiosity getting the better of her, Sharmin attempted to dart out behind one of the guards, but an armored hand shot out and caught her.

"Oh no you don't, Sharmin." the guard named Chiperan said, shaking his head at her. "You know better than to go out without an adult. There are Orcs out there who like eating little girls like you for dinner!" He gently pushed her back. "Speaking of, I can smell your mom's cooking from here; better get in before your sister eats it all." With that he turned away from her to speak to his companion some more as Sharmin glared at the back of his head. The man who had just run through the gates came back through them now, leading a horse and cart full of crates back towards the harbor. Sharmin quickly jumped on board and hid behind a stack of crates as the man passed the guards, who didn't notice her.

"Get off." a boy's voice came from under her. Sharmin looked down to find herself half sprawled on a boy with chestnut brown hair. She yelped in surprise and jumped backwards, hitting some crates and causing them to wobble.

"Ok Sharmin, Ryonai. If you're going to stow away, I'd recommend doing it quietly, or I'm going to have to tattle on you." the man said, not looking over his shoulder at them. His voice was amused, but Sharmin and Ryonai ducked down like scared kittens anyway.

"What are you doing here, Fish Face?" Ryonai asked in an annoyed whisper.

"I could ask you the same thing horse mouth." she whispered back.

"Get off, this is my cart." he whispered louder, pushing her towards the open end.

"Who said so? Stop it or you'll get us both in trouble!" she whispered angrily, pushing him back. He responded with a rougher pushing that almost sent her flying off the back of the cart. Angry, she whipped out at him with her foot, her heel catching him in the most sensitive area a boy could ever be kicked in. His groan caused the man to stop and come around to the back and stare at them with hands on his hips. Sharmin looked up at him with a guilty expression, her foot still poised in the kick she just landed. The man tsked and shook his head.

"Ryonai, off." he stated, pointing.

"What? Why me! I was here first!" Ryonai said in a raspy voice, holding himself. "She kicked me, she should get off!"

"Didn't I say to be quiet? Haven't heard a peep from anyone else but you, so off." Ryonai grumbled but complied, limping back to town and past a confused Chiperan. The man winked at Sharmin and walked back to the front, starting the horse up again.

"Won't your mother be worried?" he asked, twenty minutes later. "It's ok, we're far enough from town, no one can hear you if you talk." he chuckled, when she didn't answer. Sharmin popped her head up from around the crate like a curious prairie dog before scurrying to the front of the cart, near the man.

"She might be, but when I come home with my father she'll be ok." she said excitedly, watching the landscape. Her father worked at the Harbor, but she rarely saw anything but right outside of the village gates. "What's that?" she asked, pointing to a strange rock formation to the right of the road as they crossed a rickety wooden bridge over a river.

"That's what the scholars call a "Henge" he answered. "It's been there since before humans ever lived on this island, no one knows who built it or why. There's some all over the mainland as well." Another stretch of time passed in silence, Sharmin watching the green landscape with wide eyes. Only when she heard Orcs grunting in the forest beyond the path did she duck back down behind the crates with large eyes. The man chuckled lightly. "Don't worry, the only Orcs that come near the road are usually too stupid to identify us as enemies, so unless we attack them, they'll leave us be."

As they neared the Harbor, Sharmin peeked up again, hearing the chiming of the bell that signaled the arrival of a boat.

"Looks like we got here in time." the man said, stopping the cart. "You'd better get off here. I don't mind giving you a ride, but if you're going to get in trouble, I'd rather not get in trouble too." he said good-naturedly. Sharmin hopped off and waited until after he'd entered the Harbor before dashing in and latching onto her father who was carrying bags of grain to return on the boat.

"Sharmin! Wha..." he laughed, trying not to drop the bag. Sharmin beamed up at her father as he set the bag down. "What are you doing here, Sunbeam?" he asked, ruffling her hair.

"I came to see you!" she lied. She knew if she buttered up her father, she wouldn't be in as much trouble with her mother when she arrived back in town.

"I'll bet." he chuckled, detaching her. "I've still got some work to do before the days over. You can look around, but stay out of everyone's way until I'm finished, ok?" he said, smiling at her. Sharmin grinned and waved as he walked back to the cargo the men were stacking for the return ship to the mainland.

After the boat docked, Sharmin sat on an empty box and watched the passengers file past her, weary from the journey. She was a little disappointed, as there was only one Dwarf among them, the rest were human. She had not yet seen an elf of any sort in her lifetime, and wanted to see if they were as pretty as her father said they were.

It was at this time of quiet pouting that two passengers stood out to her. One was a shorthaired man with sheathed dual swords upon his back, whom seemed uninterested in his surroundings, while the other was a teen, perhaps not much older than herself with blonde hair that covered one eye. He had his eyes downcast, and his face was unreadable. He walked as if there were a heavy weight upon him, and this intrigued Sharmin. How could someone who was just arriving to study swordplay already look so affected by the world? He lifted his head once and glanced at her without really seeing her, only to look away and focus on his surroundings. She hopped off the crate and ran to the fence surrounding the Harbor, watching him as he began the long trek to Cedric's Training Hall.

"I'm all done Sunbeam, shall we get going?" her father said, coming up behind her, rotating his sore shoulder. Sharmin glanced at him before pointing to the boy.

"Do you know who that is?" she asked, looking over her head at him, her glasses slipping down her nose.

"It's not polite to point, Sharmin. Remember your manners." he said, gently lowering her arm. "And no, I'm not sure who that is. There was talk on the ship that he was the son of a wealthy merchant from the mainland, but that's most likely just a rumor." he said, walking with her out of the harbor.

"Why just a rumor?" she asked, trying to peer through the crowd ahead of her to see the boy again.

"Well...because if you're in a wealthy merchant family, you don't throw that away and become a poor swordsman, that's why Sunbeam." her father said, patting her head.

"That's not fair." she stated, matter-of-fact. "They should be allowed to do whatever they want."

And that was all she had to say on the subject.

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Chapter 2

 

Sharmin was made to stay indoors for a week after the boat arrival as punishment for running off. Komugi took delight in prancing outside their bedroom window, showing off that she was outdoors, as Sharmin attempted to read her studies. The desk was located under the window, which made ignoring her sister no easy task, as Komugi would come up to the windowsill and start asking her weird questions over and over again.

"Ne." Komugi started, leaning her head on the windowsill. Sharmin ignored her; her lips moving as she silently read the book. "Ne." she said again, her eyes bright. Sharmin continued to ignore her. "I know something you don't knoooow." Komugi tried again, grinning widely as Sharmin quickly glanced at her before returning to her book. "Its reeeeeally goooooood." she said in a singsong voice. She giggled and stepped away from the windowsill. "Cedric brought the students up near the village to exterminate Keltirs." she continued, twirling. Sharmin shrugged, as Keltir exterminating was common among new students. Keltirs were dog-like creatures well known for killing pets and farm animals like chickens. "That blonde boy was wiiiith theeeem..." Komugi grinned, twirling a piece of her short, pale red hair around her finger. This got Sharmin's attention, and she looked up quickly.

"How do you know about him?" she demanded, standing.

"Daddy was talking about it after mommy sent you to your room when you guys got ba~ck." Komugi said sweetly. "He thought it was cu~te because you seemed like you had a crush on someone!" Without another word, Sharmin climbed over her desk table and jumped out of her window.

"Where did he take them?" she asked, peering around the house to make sure their mother didn't hear.

"Eastern Beach. But I'm tel-liiiin; you're not supposed to be outside..." Komugi said again in her singsong voice. "Unless you give me your share of rock candy that i~s." she added slyly.

"Eat worms." Sharmin grumbled at her, taking off for the East Gate. Komugi's jaw dropped, and as Sharmin ran through the town square she heard her shout "MOMMY!" in her piercing voice. Great. I've got about five minutes at best. Sharmin thought, annoyed at the pleasure Komugi found in getting her sister in trouble.

As she darted out of the East gate behind the guards' back, she could hear Cedric sternly barking commands at his students. Nearby, the headmaster of Einhovant's was instructing his own students on an ice spell. Sharmin crouched to the grass a safe distance away from the practicing sword students and squinted as she watched them. She glared as Ryonai, now a student, paused to sneer at her and mouth the words "Fish Face." Cedric smacked him on the back of the head with a rolled up scroll as he walked past him, reminding him to get back to the task at hand.

"Leon! Shoulders straight!" Cedric suddenly barked. "If you swing the sword with your shoulders lopsided, you won't get as much power in the killing shot. Remember, these Keltir aren't going to run away like the Elpy did, they're going to fight back!"

"Yes sir." the blonde boy said. Sharmin's pre-teen heart pitter-pattered for a moment as she saw him. He was knee-deep in the ocean; practicing sword swings with a group of students while another group ran after Keltirs. So...his name is Leon... she grinned to herself, her cheeks tinting pink. His form was very graceful. It seemed like the sword was just an extension of his body to Sharmin, as his movement was very natural.

"Alright, break for five minutes then switch with the field group!" Cedric barked at the students. They sheathed their swords and made their way towards Sharmin. She blinked in surprise as she realized she'd crouched among the area where they deposited their lunches and water flasks. She froze to the spot as Leon walked slowly towards her, her heart pounding. It dropped a moment later as he walked past her to his deposited lunch some distance away from the others, not noticing her presence. She sighed and stood her eyes downcast and her face red, embarrassed that she thought he might actually have noticed her.

Two odd things happened as she brushed the dust from her skirt. The first was Ryonai mischievously calling her name and launching a lump of coal he'd picked up from a dead Keltir at her. The second was a magic student by the name of Koyori misfiring her new ice spell, which flew directly towards her. Both hit her in the head at the same time, and Sharmin saw stars and darkness as she fell over.

"Move aside!" she heard Cedric's rough voice come first through the haze in her mind. Her ears rang loudly, and she tried to open her eyes.

"I didn't think she'd catch it with her head." she heard Ryonai say next.

"No more out of you! You're going to be cleaning the lavatory for the next year!" Cedric barked. Sharmin felt her head being lifted, and the bearded face of Cedric along with the concerned faces of his students peering down at her slowly came into focus. "Thatta girl. How many fingers am I holding up?" he asked, holding up his hand. Sharmin blinked at him, the world still fuzzy.

"She won't be able to see without these." came Ryonai's voice again, holding out her glasses.

"Don't be foolish boy, those things are broken! Get them out of here!" Cedric snapped, smacking his hand away.

My glasses are broke? Oh no. Sharmin mourned, tears welling in her eyes. She searched around with fuzzy vision until the blurry face of Leon caught her attention. He stared at her with an unreadable expression, and her eyes went wide as his face slowly came into clear focus. He has very pretty eyes. She thought. Leon held a hand out to her and she took it, not once looking away from his eyes.

"Thatta girl, she'll be fine." Cedric stated as Leon pulled her to her feet. "Alright boys, back to work! There's nothing else to see here!" Cedric commanded, breaking the circle his and the magic students had made around Sharmin. Leon pulled his hand from hers and gave her a half-smile before stepping away from her and back out towards the beach. Sharmin watched him with starry eyes.

"SHARMIN!" she heard her mother's shrill voice come suddenly, and she winced. She'd forgotten about her evil tattletale of a sister. "What are you doing out here, young lady?" her mother demanded, grabbing Sharmin's arm. "And just WHERE are your glasses?"

"Huh?" Sharmin asked, giving her mother a confused look. "What are you talking about, aren't they on my face?"

"Don't sass me!" her mother scolded, leaning over to search the grass. "You know as well as I do that they're not there."

"But I can see clearl..." she began, feeling her face. Her eyes widened, as she didn't feel the heavy things on her cheeks. Her mother let out a shrill noise as she came across the shattered spectacles lying in the grass where Cedric had smacked them. They'd been stepped on a few times as well as the students scattered, leaving them a bent mess.

"What have you DONE?" Her mother asked her voice shrill. "We'll never be able to afford a new pair!

"You're in trouuuble." Komugi muttered near her.

"But mom, I can see..." Sharmin said happily. Who would've thought a blow to the head would've cleared up that problem?

Of course, her mother was too hit with disbelief at the destruction of her glasses, and didn't notice Sharmin's miracle healing until well later that night, when it finally hit her after everyone had long since gone to bed. She was so happy that she baked everyone cookies, even Ryonai and Koyori.

"Why do you keep coming here?" Ryonai asked her a month later as she crouched in the grass. The students had advanced to hunting wolves and goblins. Although a gruesome spectacle to behold, Sharmin never missed a moment to see Leon in action. She did, some days, end up loosing whatever meal she had eaten before tagging along, usually behind a tree. Ryonai never once missed a chance to point and laugh at her during those moments. However, Cedric, who cast disapproving glances towards her as she tagged along some distance behind the class as they moved, noted her presence.

"I'm not telling you." she grumbled, picking at the grass around her. Ryonai scoffed and shifted his weight from one foot to the other.

"Yeah right, you have the hots for DiValmont." he said in a scathing tone.

"No I don't." she said while glaring, ripping up larger clod of earth.

"Yeah you do, your face is turning red." Ryonai stated, poking at her with a long twig he'd picked up. She batted it away angrily as he smirked at her. She sighed and threw down her handful of grass only to begin picking another, eyes watching the field ahead of her for Leon as he ran to and from the forest, searching for goblins.

"Stop breathing on me, it's not funny." Sharmin said a bit later, scooting forward a bit.

"What are you talking about?" Ryonai asked from beside her. He turned slightly to glance behind her, and then did a double take. Fear fully manifesting itself on his face, Ryonai took a couple of steps away from her.

"I said STOP IT." Sharmin shouted, whipping a large clod of earth around and smacking it against the offender. Her eyes grew wide as a large glob of drool fell down her neck and a growl accompanied the hot breath.

"You shouldn't...have. Done...that..." Ryonai said, his voice shaking. Sharmin slowly turned with wide eyes to find herself staring straight into the yellowed eyes of a Hunter Werewolf. Pieces of the dirt clod she had hit him on the snout with tumbled off as he slowly leaned towards her, lip curling as he growled. Fear she'd never experienced before entered her legs and she couldn't find the strength to move as she stared into its eyes. It reached one bloody, clawed hand out for her and she squinted her eyes shut.

"Run!" Ryonai shouted, smacking the Werewolf's snout with his sword. The beast yelped and crouched for the moment, rubbing its nose on the grass. Sharmin could only stare at the monster, her eyes wide. "FISH FACE! GET GOING!" Ryonai yelled. The old insult seemed to bring Sharmin from her stupor and she blinked several times, then pushed herself to her feet and took off across the field as the beast dashed at Ryonai.

Sharmin ran blindly through the forest, whimpering loudly. Her lungs began to burn for air, and frightened tears stung her eyes. She ducked behind a large tree to catch her breath for a moment. To her horror, she heard the leaves covering the forest floor crunch and the panting growls of the Werewolf as he searched for her. She glanced around the tree once and then pressed herself as flat as she could against it. The beast's jowls were bloody, but his nose and left eye seemed to have been wounded. She waited until his growling receded in a direction away from her before peeling herself from the tree and taking off in the opposite direction. The beasts smell and vision may have been impaired, but his hearing was still in tact, and he quickly took up chase after her. Sharmin looked over her shoulder as she ran and whimpered as she realized it was gaining on her. She came to a screeching halt however, when she ran into a squishy, yet hairy body, which screeched as she pushed herself from it. A large spider whipped around and darted at her, venomous mandibles reaching for her. Sharmin screamed and stumbled, trying to stay out of its way. Tripping on the hem of her dress, she fell to the ground, the spider quickly advancing on her.

Leon intercepted seemingly out of nowhere, blocking the spider's hooked legs as they struck downwards with his shield. He parried by cutting off one of the spiders front legs, which caused it to squeal and roll onto its side. He whipped around and grabbed her arm, pulling her to her feet and away from the giant insect.

"I'm sorry." she whimpered, stumbling as forced her to run at his pace.

"Just keep running." he murmured. The Werewolf suddenly jumped from the trees in front of them, blocking their escape. Frightened, Sharmin wrenched her arm from Leon's grip and ducked down with her hands covering her ears, screaming. Leon took up battle stance as the beast rushed them, ready to cut him down. As Leon fought against a beast stronger than him, Sharmin crouched in fear on the pathway, her eyes scrunched shut. Above the din of battle, she heard a strange sputtering noise. She opened her eyes to see the wounded spider making its way toward them at an alarming speed; its leg sputtering strange fluid as it went. A scream bubbled in her throat but never made it any farther. Leon didn't even notice the approaching monstrosity, too embroiled in keeping himself alive against the Werewolf.

Two shining arcs suddenly lighted across the spider's body, and quicker than Sharmin could blink, it collapsed into pieces, still in motion. A gob of green, slimy, spider blood flew through the air and covered her. There was a howling yelp from behind her and she turned to see the Werewolf fall with a shower of blood, Leon shielding himself from it. A bit behind where the Were fell, the shorthaired man Sharmin had seen come in on the boat with Leon stood, his back to them. He shook the blood from his dual swords in a graceful arc before sheathing them on his back. Leon and Sharmin stared at him, one expressionless and one dumbfounded as he walked away from them without a word.

"YOU TWO!" Cedric's angry shout came as Leon and Sharmin made their way back to the practice field a bit later. He had said nothing to her during their walk back, and had not looked at her since helping her to her feet. A large group of students crowded around a Bishop who was deep in concentration, the glow of a healing spell surrounding him. Several students glared at Sharmin as she passed the crowd. In the center of the group was a pale-faced Ryonai, wincing in pain. His face had spatters of blood on it, but Sharmin couldn't tell if it were from his wounds or from the Werewolf. She turned back around to meet her father's hand as he slapped her cheek. She looked at him in surprise, tears welling in her eyes, as she hadn't noticed him, or the crowd of townspeople wandering about the field, helping injured students with potions and bandages.

"Dad..." Sharmin began, a tear falling from each eye. Her father said nothing to her, and instead grabbed her wrist, pulling her back towards town. "I'm sor-"

"Don't say anything, Sharmin." he said in a controlled voice. Sharmin clenched her jaw shut. She had never heard such anger in her father's voice before. Holding her cheek she turned and looked at the crowd behind her. Cedric and several townspeople and students glared at her, Cedric crossing his arms over his chest. The real blow hit her when Leon seemed to glare at her sidelong, before turning away to go help one of his classmates.

Sharmin huddled outside of their house a bit later, listening as her father and mother apologized profusely to an angry Cedric. Komugi sat next to her, saying nothing, and picked some of the dried spider's blood off of Sharmin's skin. She scampered away from Sharmin as Cedric burst out of the house, letting the door slam against the side. He stopped in front of Sharmin, his arms still crossed over his chest, glaring down at her. She looked up at him slowly, afraid to meet his eyes.

"I have tolerated you distracting my class long enough, young lady." he said in a voice shaking with anger. "Do you even realize how much of an honor it was to even be allowed to watch my classes? There is a STRICT rule that NO ONE is to watch or bother the students as they train, I WAVERED this rule because I felt sorry for you! What a FOOL I was!" he said, his voice growing louder with each word. Sharmin winced and tried to look down, but Cedric's hand darted out and he grasped her by the chin, forcing her to look into his eyes. His fingers bore into her jaw, and hurt her. "You are no longer welcome near my students, or my school, do you hear me?" he said, his voice once again low. Sharmin's eyes widened as she looked into his angry gray ones, and tears began to pour down her cheeks. "You caused TWENTY of my students to get injured, one of which so critically we're lucky he's still alive. Had you not been there, I would've controlled that Were before anyone got hurt, but your IMBICELIC running put that monster in hunting mode, and he tore through even my top students." He released her chin as she finally let out the sob she'd been suppressing and stood. He walked away from her without another word. Townspeople who were watching the spectacle intently suddenly scattered and pretended they had just been merely passing by.

"Sharmin, come in the house." her father said from the door. Sharmin dutifully stood and hurried into the home, her eyes downcast. She was led into her bedroom and made to sit in a chair facing the corner. "There is no punishment great enough for what almost happened out there, Sharmin." her father said in an even voice. "Some townsfolk almost lost their children out there today, and the cause is you, are you aware of this?" Sharmin sobbed and nodded, staring into the corner. "Had I known you were sneaking out to bother Cedric's classes all of this time, I would've put a stop to it long ago. While they were near the village is one thing, but what on EARTH possessed you to put yourself out there in those fields? You KNOW the Weres are thick there!" he said, his voice louder. He paced behind her, waving his arms for emphasis. He stopped and sighed, a hand rubbing his forehead.

"I'm sorry daddy..." Sharmin sobbed in a thick voice. "I didn't know so many people were going to get hurt." Her mother, whom she didn't know had even entered the room, knelt by her chair and took her hands.

"We know you're sorry sweetheart. It's the villagers whom aren't going to understand that." her mother said, looking into her tear-streaked face with pity. She made a noise and drew Sharmin off the chair and over to the bed where she sat and hugged her close. "I'm just happy you're ok." she patted her shoulder as Sharmin broke down into a fresh set of tears, the shock of the day finally gripping her. "You must've been so scared, you poor thing." her mother crooned, rocking her.

Sharmin, in that moment, had never felt so relieved and anguished at the same time. She cried for hours until her mother finally coaxed her into a bath. Komugi, who still hadn't said anything to her since earlier that day, brushed her hair for her before bed. Her mother brought her a mug of warm milk and tucked her under the covers, but Sharmin felt like she bore the heaviest weight in the world.

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Chapter 3

 

Several months passed before the townsfolk stopped glaring at her as she passed, or denying her mother groceries when she went shopping. Komugi came home a few times, her face scratched up from catfights she put herself into in defense of her sister. She never seemed fazed by it, and always grinned and said the other girl was worse off. (Surely this was true, as the number of black eyes gracing the entirety of the girl's portion of the mystic's school was growing day by day. Koyori especially seemed to always be sporting a black eye or a swollen lip and eventually earned the nickname "raccoon" because of it.) Things began to look up for the women in town, but for her father it was another story. The harbor men kept denying him work, and they were growing low on money. Some of the students seemed to be slacking in their studies, blaming it upon 'injuries' they sustained during the Were's rampage, which in turn their fathers took out on Sharmin's father. The day he came home bruised from a group beating was the day Sharmin decided enough was enough.

The next day she awoke early, brushing and putting her hair in its usual ponytail. She'd been growing her bangs out, but they weren't quite long enough to put back with the rest of her hair. She blew them from her face and quietly jumped from the bedroom window, careful not to wake her sleeping sister. After grabbing a simple bronze dagger from her father's tool shed, she snuck past a yawning guard and darted around the side of the village wall. Cedric, leading his group of students from the school, halted when he saw Sharmin standing stubbornly ahead of them. She had her feet even with her shoulders, and her arms clenched tightly to her sides, her hands balled into fists. A crisp morning breeze blew her hair, and skirt, determination set firmly in her expression.

"What does SHE want?" a student asked snidely.

"Come to lead Weres to us again?" came another.

"Nah, this time she's going to agro an army of Elpys."

There was scattered snickering with this comment. Cedric held an arm out to silence the boys before turning a stony gaze back to Sharmin.

"What do you want, girl?" he asked in an equally steely voice.

"I want to join your class!" Sharmin said boldly, her expression not changing. "Please! Take me as your student so I can repent for the dishonor I brought upon you and your students!" she bowed low, bending at her waist, her arms still stiff to her sides. There was a moment of stunned silence before Cedric began to chuckle. The boys mimicked it, pushing each other playfully and nodding.

"You? A student in my class? Preposterous!" he laughed, his hands on his hips. "Look at you, in long hair and an equally long dress. You're no more ready to wield a sword than Ryonai here is ready to be married!" he laughed harder, clapping Ryonai on the shoulders. Ryonai stumbled a bit from the force of it and turned to cast a glare at his teacher, his face red.

Without a word, Sharmin drew her father's dagger, gripped a handful of hair, and sawed through the mass with the dagger. She inwardly cringed as her head felt lighter with the lack of hair. The impact of this act stunned Cedric and his students into silence. Sharmin dropped her ponytail to the grass and then cut through the fabric of her skirt above her knees, ripping the dress high enough to allow her legs free movement. When she stood again, the boys gaped at her with wide eyes and slack jaws.

"So? I'm ready to wield a sword now, aren't I?" Sharmin challenged, still holding the dagger. Cedric stared at her for a moment before putting a finger to his chin in thought.

"You speak bravely for a simple villager." he mused. He then reached out and pulled Leon from the crowd of students to stand next to him. "Alright then! You've got guts girl. If you can beat Leon in a spar match on the beach, I'll let you join this class, right here and now. Sound like a good deal?" Cedric said, his voice quivering with laughter towards the end of his sentence. Leon gaped at him with wide eyes.

"Sir, that's not..." Leon began, but was silenced as Cedric gave him a look. Leon sighed, his brow furrowed, but walked to the beach anyway. Sharmin, now aware of the impact of her challenge, gulped and took up a stance a bit away from him. She held the dagger with both hands in front of her, her legs parted slightly, putting her determined face back on. Cedric began to laugh.

"No no, girl. You can't spar with that tiny frog poker!" Cedric reached over and took Ryonai's Gladius sword, and brought it to her. "Use this." he said, grinning at her and handing the blade to her while taking her dagger. Sharmin blinked at him in confusion while putting her hands around the hilt. "Oh, and you swing it with one arm." Cedric stated, his grin growing wider as he released the sword. The instant he stopped supporting the blade, Sharmin was pulled down by the weight, the sword landing in the sand with a dull thud. The boys guffawed while Ryonai covered his face in embarrassment.

Sharmin looked down at the sword with large eyes, dumbfounded by how easily the boys seemed to swing such a heavy thing. With one arm no less. She strained and grunted, lifting the sword slowly with both hands. Once it was upright, she took one hand from the hilt. Her balance horrid, it began to sway forward, and she moved with it, trying to balance it like a performer balancing a plate on a stick. The boys began to laugh harder, and Cedric chuckled, his arms crossed over his chest.

"Sir, this is really embarrassing. I can go get her a Squire Sword...it'll be easier for her to use." Ryonai offered, wincing away from the embarrassing display Sharmin was giving.

"No. No." Cedric said, stroking his white beard. "You see boy, Einhasad made three types of people in this world. The ones meant to wield a sword, the ones meant to control magic, and the ones who are just supposed to live quietly in town. Every now and again you'll get someone trying to cross over the boundary lines into something they're not meant to do. It's up to people like us to put them straight." He looked down at the boy. "Keeps the balance in the world, y'know?"

"I don't think this is very fair though..." Ryonai muttered, looking back as the point of the sword dropped back into the sand. Leon shifted his weight from one foot to the other, not looking at her. Sharmin, growing frustrated, pulled the sword as hard as she could, and lost foothold in the sand and fell flat on her bottom. The group of boys was doubled over from laughter, tears streaming from their eyes.

"And that's all she wrote." Cedric murmured. "Leon." he barked, motioning for Leon to rejoin the class.

"Wait!" Sharmin yelled, standing. "We haven't sparred yet!" Cedric and Leon paused and looked at her.

"Girl, you can barely lift that sword. I'd say you've lost already." Cedric said seriously, but his eyes glittered in amusement.

"Give me a chance!" Sharmin exclaimed, planting her feet in the sand. Cedric sighed and then nodded to Leon, who went back to his sparring position.

"Fine. You have five minutes." Cedric said, crossing his arms again.

Sharmin took a breath and pulled on the sword, swinging it outwards. It came to rest in the sand once more, and she panted a few times, and then focused on Leon, who was once again staring out over the ocean. His uninterested attitude sparked her temper a bit, and she found a foothold and ran at him, dragging the point of the sword in the sand until she was close enough to swing it at him. Surprised, Leon barely deflected the tip of the sword with his shield before jumping back. Sharmin, her expression now seriously intense, swung twice in a row, Leon parrying it with his sword in surprise.

"Don't just deflect boy, attack back!" Cedric barked, all mirth lost from his voice. Leon looked at his teacher, bewildered, another swing from Sharmin pinging off of his shield.

"Sir!" he managed to get out.

"Do it." Cedric said in a low voice. Leon swallowed and turned back to Sharmin, and swung at her with his own sword. Her sword caught it mid air and bounced off of it, throwing her off balance. Behind Cedric, Einhovant's morning class gathered for their lesson, Komugi pushing her way to the front to watch with large eyes. She broke free of the group and ran towards the beach.

"Stop it! He'll kill her!" she cried as a swipe from Leon's sword cut open a gash on Sharmin's chest. Sharmin stumbled back a bit and lifted a hand to the wound, staring at the blood in shock. Cedric put an arm out, restraining Komugi from running to her.

"Don't pause like that, boy! She's your opponent, treat her like one!" Cedric commanded, holding fast to Komugi's robes as she struggled against him, swinging her fists out at him and grunting.

"Sir, she's not even at a novice level yet, I can't get serious..." Leon began, but stopped, his eyes wide, as the tip of Sharmin's sword opened a small cut in his cheek.

"You took your eyes off her, see what happens?" Cedric said, ignoring Komugi as she gnawed on his arm. Sharmin's face had a strange look over it, a more mature, darker expression. Leon, still unwilling to become completely serious against her, deflected a few more of her blows before parrying her sword to knock her balance off, and dropping down, one foot sliding out to catch her leg and trip her. Sharmin released the hilt of the sword, her eyes going wide as she fell. The instant her back hit the sand, Leon was over her, the tip of his sword against her neck. Had she been a real enemy, he had a full advantage to lop her head off from this position. Their eyes met, and for the first time Sharmin saw pain deep in them. He looked away from her and stood, sheathing his sword. When their eyes met again as he glanced down at her once more, it was gone. Cedric released Komugi who kicked his shin and then raced out to Sharmin.

"'Min, are you ok?" Komugi asked, tears welling in her eyes. Sharmin nodded slightly, watching Leon walk back to his now-silent classmates. "Hold still, I'll take care of this." Komugi said, shutting her eyes and holding her hands over the cut on Sharmin's chest. Her mouth moved slightly as she silently recited the simple healing spell the elementary students were taught, and a warm glow formed underneath her hands. "Oh 'Min, your pretty hair..." Komugi said, looking at her through bleary eyes.

"I have to hand it to you girl... I never knew you had such a backbone." Cedric said, standing over them. Komugi turned her head to glare and bare sharp teeth at him.

"I get to join your class then?" Sharmin asked, looking at him with large eyes.

"No, I'm afraid not." Cedric said, shutting his eyes. "See, that was a one-handed sword. The students in my class are all required to use it, and a shield. Seeing as how you could barely handle that sword, I can only imagine how much worse it'd be if you added a buckler to it." he said, walking around her.

"Oh." Sharmin said, looking down. She sat, leaning back upon her arms, which she noticed had begun to shake from muscle exhaustion.

"However..." Cedric continued, kneeling down to look at her. "I'll have to admit, that was pretty impressive work there for someone not even a novice, with a sword much too heavy for her. Leon's one of my better students, not many can put a scratch on even his armor, let alone his face." Cedric began to grin widely, and put a massive hand on her head. "I want you in my school, girl. You sure proved my theories wrong. There might be a great future for you with a sword in hand." With that he winked and stood, Sharmin staring at him with her mouth agape as he walked back to his students. "I expect to see you in the Novice classes come Firesday! Don't worry about armor, tell your parents I'll personally supply everything you need." he called without looking back at them. Both Komugi and Sharmin stared at him with wide eyes, and then looked at each other.

"Komugi...?" Sharmin asked in a small voice.

"Yeah?" she answered back, her voice equally tiny.

"Did I just fight against Leon and actually hurt him?"

"Uh huh."

"Oh..."

"Sharmin!' Komugi exclaimed as she fainted.

Cedric kept true to his word. A simple set of squire armor was provided to Sharmin, as well as a sword that she could actually lift with one arm, the day she began her classes at Cedric's Training Hall. Her parents had not been too keen on the idea of her taking up sword studies, but they eventually gave in after Cedric personally told them of her brave standoff against Leon. (Her mother seemed more upset over the fact that she'd probably never have long hair again more than her swordplay, oddly enough.) Her first year of studies was simple, as it was only bookwork and practicing of simple sword techniques on wooden dummies. Sharmin excelled at this, and learned quickly. Cedric only taught her class once a week, his primary class being the one Leon and Ryonai was a part of. Even though she lived in the Village, all of Cedric's students were required to stay in the dorms of the training hall. Her mother attempted to visit her a few times, but was turned away at the long stairway entrance. Every holiday and Darksday she was allowed to return to the village to visit. Each time her mother mourned over how broad her shoulders were getting, and how unladylike her calloused hands were. The small muscles Sharmin was developing from wielding a sword enthralled Komugi. Sharmin tried to ignore her disappointment as she came to discover that she wasn't seeing Leon nearly as much as she used to just living in the village. She comforted herself with the fact that one day she'd be equal to his strength if she kept up her studies.

It was one day, during the start of her second year, when she noticed the mysterious dual-wielding man standing outside of Einhovant's. Sharmin had been on the beach, practicing her sword swings when she saw him. Now that she did not fear for her life, Sharmin sized him up. He was of medium height and build; his brown hair was short and slicked back. By the looks of his armor he was an accomplished fighter, but nowhere near legendary. (It was a tradition in Aden, the stronger and more renowned a fighter became; the fancier the armor was that was offered to him by merchants.) He gazed into one of the school windows, watching Komugi and her friends play a strange dancing game, the girls clapping and chanting a little song as it went. Sharmin frowned and approached him, holding her sword firmly.

"You'd better not be looking at my sister, you pervert." she said boldly, standing behind him with her feet planted firmly in the grass. The man perked up a bit and blinked before turning to look at her.

"Excuse me?" he asked, his voice shaking lightly.

"You heard me. I'll alert the guards if you don't stop peeping." she said roughly. The man stared at her a few moments before sucking in a long breath of air.

"You thought I was..." he started. His sentence never finished, as he dissolved into a fit of hysterical giggles. He put a hand to his forehead and turned away from her, laughing louder as he walked away. "That's rich...that's really rich." he roared with laughter, as if Sharmin's accusation was the funniest thing in the world. Sharmin watched him walk away with an eyebrow raised as Komugi and her friends gathered at the window, alerted by his laughter.

"You have weird friends, 'Min." Komugi said, giving Sharmin a skeptical look. Sharmin turned to Komugi, shocked.

"That wasn't a friend of mine!" Sharmin sputtered; offended that Komugi would say such a thing.

"Whatever. You'd better get back to the Training Hall lest mom see you and try to steal you away back into the village again." Komugi said, turning away from the window. Her friends giggled and followed her back into the school. Sharmin stuck her tongue out at her sister's back and dashed back to the Hall.

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Chapter 4

And thus began the start of the worst part of the swordsmanship training Sharmin faced. The students were brought outside of the training hall, where the teachers had released previously caught puppy and juvenile Keltir, and tiny rabbit creatures known as Elpy to the courtyard. The teachers had tied armor upgrades, jewelry, potions and even money to the beasts, that the students were to collect after they slayed them. The teachers explained the rules, once they retrieved at least one piece of armor and two pieces of jewelry, they were to report back to the teacher, who would follow them out to the beach where the adult and elder Keltir were scattered to be evaluated to move to the next class. Sharmin gulped and approached an Elpy, which obliviously munched upon grass. It was wearing a copper necklace which made Sharmin giggle somewhere in the back of her mind. Ignoring the sounds of her classmates already eagerly beginning their assignment, Sharmin crouched in front of the Elpy and eyeballed him, who in turn eyeballed her back. She made a pained face and slowly reached out and poked the animal with her sword. It squeaked and hopped away from her to the edge of the courtyard, where it stared at her with large, frightened eyes. Sharmin found herself blinking back tears of guilt and she sighed. Pulling a carrot slice from her pocket that she'd stowed there from lunch for later, she held it out as far as she could towards the Elpy.

"Here, let's trade. You take the carrot; I'll take the necklace, ok?" Sharmin coaxed, waving the slice. The fear left the Elpy's eyes and it hopped a bit closer, its nose twitching as it tried to smell the carrot.

"Ooh hey, a necklace!" a teen named Gatz said, running the poor creature through right in front of Sharmin's eyes and plucking the necklace from it's neck. Sharmin stared at the Elpy as it twitched in front of her for a moment before her face twisted into a mournful expression and she burst into wailing tears. Her classmates and teachers all turned to stare at her, and Gatz gave her a bewildered look, unsure of what it was that he'd done.

That evening, Sharmin sat on the steps as the rest of her class was out on the beach, being evaluated for the next class level. She had her knees drawn up to her chest, and she rested her chin upon them. Her sword lay beside her, still gleaming and unbloodied. She had been unable to finish the lesson. She saw the hem of Cedric's yellow hakama pants as he knelt beside her.

"You know...wielding a sword means taking lives." Cedric said his voice neither gentle nor harsh. Sharmin watched as a mayfly, its wings still wet, landed on her arm. "Becoming a warrior of the blade means that you're not always going to be taking the lives of the ugly or evil. Sometimes you're going to have to guide even the most innocent of creatures to Gran Kain's embrace." he continued. He slapped his hand down upon the mayfly, Sharmin jumping at the impact. "The most merciful way is to do it quickly, before they know what's hit them. That way they leave without fear, without sorrow." He lifted his hand, the mayfly laying smooshed against Sharmin's red and stinging skin. "If you cannot grasp that, then maybe I was wrong about you after all." Cedric said seriously, standing. He made his way down the stairs towards the field, leaving Sharmin to stare at the dead insect with tear-filled eyes.

As the sun was setting into the western sea, Sharmin made her way to the beach, her classmates long since gone back to the Hall for dinner, and began practicing her sword moves. She heard Keltirs calling to each other around her, each yipping noise sounded to her as if they were mourning their dead family. She sliced at the air angrily. Why had she not realized how cruel of a thing learning the way of the sword was? How foolish she'd been.

"Your shoulders are drooping." came a voice from behind her. Sharmin jumped as an arm came around her and grasped her wrist, guiding her arm in proper form, the other holding her would-be shield arm at the elbow. She looked up, her eyes growing larger as she saw Leon's expressionless face watching her sword arm intently. Sharmin snapped back to looking forward and gulped, her heart pounding loud enough that she was sure he could hear it.

"Uh...th...thanks..." she said, trying to take over movement. Leon put his hands on the sides of her shoulders.

"Now you're too tense. Loosen up." he said gently.

"Ok." she said, shutting her eyes and relaxing.

"Now your shoulders are drooping again." Leon stated.

"Ok!" Sharmin exclaimed this time, scrunching her shoulders up. Leon's visible eye shut as he chuckled and stepped away from her. Sharmin blinked at him and lowered her sword, surprised, as she had never seen him show such an emotion before.

"I had trouble killing them at first too..." Leon said, standing at the edge of the ocean and looking out over it. He was barefoot, his boots discarded in the grass behind him. The wind was picking up, blowing dark clouds in from the west, blocking out the last of the sunset.

"The Elpys?" Sharmin asked when he didn't continue. He nodded.

"When I was younger, I had a soft spot for animals. I'll admit, it's rough at first, but at the same time, they take what we kill and use their meat for food and pelts for money. In the end we're just helping life go on, you know?" Leon said, turning to look at her. Thunder rumbled in the approaching clouds, and the wind whipped their hair around their faces. Sharmin looked down at the ground, gripping her sword. "Just keep telling yourself it's hunting so your family can live." Leon offered, stepping out of the water and back over to his boots. "In the end, who would you rather survive, yourself or the Elpy?"

"The Elpy." Sharmin said sullenly. Leon looked at her in surprise for a moment before laughing.

"You're a good person, Sharmin." he complimented, sitting in the grass to put his boots back on. Sharmin's eyes widened at this and her face turned bright pink. She turned away so he wouldn't see it. The blush faded as she noticed movement behind the darkened windows of the magic school. Curious, as everyone should long since have gone home, Sharmin wandered towards the building as Leon struggled with his shoes. As she entered the main hall of the Einhovant's, she heard a strangled noise come from one of the side rooms to the back. Her heart pounding, Sharmin gripped her sword tighter and hurried towards the sound.

Lightning illuminated the room as she entered, and a gruesome sight met her eyes. The headmaster of the school was pinned to the wall, a sword through his heart. Dark liquid pooled about his feet and soaked the richly decorated carpet. The brown-haired man from before stood at a once-locked set of bookshelves, paging through a book as if nothing were out of the ordinary. He turned as Sharmin drew in a silent breath in horror and dropped the book, grabbing his remaining sword from its sheath on his back and starting towards her. Sharmin fled from the room, slamming into the doorframe and stumbling away from it, pushing herself onward. She let out a frightened yelp as the man slid out of the room and dashed after her at a surprising speed. He grabbed her by the back of the neck and slammed her against the wall, one hand at her throat, the other on his sword, the tip of which was pressed against her stomach. Sharmin gasped as the blade pierced through her thick cotton shirt and slowly entered the skin of her abdomen. She dropped her own sword and gripped the blade of his, the sharp edge biting her palms, trying to keep it from going in farther. She winced and drew in a gasping breath, staring into the man's eyes, trying to plead with him. The childish curiosity she saw in them chilled her to the bone. He was taking pleasure in watching her writhe in pain, eager to watch her slowly die. It was like he was learning from it. Her arms shook from pain as he pressed the blade onward, blood dripping from her hands as she tried in vain still to stop it.

She drew in a loud gasp as the blade was withdrawn, the man jumping away as Leon swung a powerful blow at him. He stood in front of Sharmin, glaring at the man. Sharmin slid to the ground, her legs weak from fright.

"Feh, the over-achiever arrives." the man said, spitting. "You'll have to excuse me now; I'm at a slight disadvantage over your shield without my other sword. If you'll let me go get it, I'll be glad to continue this." he said, moving back towards the room. Leon darted forward and held his sword tip under the man's chin. "Or not..."

"Drop your sword." Leon said, holding his shield ready. The man licked the inside of his cheek for a moment, pondering this command.

"How about, no." he said, whipping his sword forward and discharging a burst of energy from it. Leon went flying across the hall and landed, sliding a bit before stopping against the wall. By the time he pulled himself to his feet, the man had darted out of the school and into the night. Leon let out a 'tch' before returning to Sharmin, who was holding her stomach. She lifted her head and stared at him with large eyes.

"It hurts..." she said, hyperventilating.

"It'll be the first of many, believe me." Leon said quietly, putting her arm around his neck and helping her to her feet. The wound, although bleeding quite a bit, was not deadly. Leon brought her to the church, where the head Bishop hurried about, setting up a bed to treat her on. A pretty light elf that Sharmin always had heard lived in the church for years, but never seen, kneeled by her side. She called, in Elven, for the power of her goddess Eva to assist her healing, and began her spell. Shock and blood loss setting in, the concerned faces of the Priests and Bishops, and the expressionless face of Leon swam about in her vision, before comforting unconsciousness settled over her.

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Chapter 5

 

Sharmin was ordered to take a month's rest at home after the incident at Einhovant's. Classes were cancelled in both schools as the Ivory Tower sent mages and guards from Aden to investigate the crime. It had been over twenty years since there was a murder anywhere near Talking Island Village, and the entire place was alive with gossip. The dual-wielding man had apparently returned to Einhovant's to retrieve his sword from the headmaster, and a series of books detailing the components of magic, and how to counter them from the locked bookshelf had disappeared with it. No one knew where he had gone since then, but traces of him had been found in the library of the old Elven Magic School (commonly known now as the Elven Ruins) on the northwest part of the island.

Towards the end of her second year, Sharmin had been chosen with a group of students to protect the harbor, as a small band of Orcs had decided to try and conquer the place. Although not quite strong enough to take on the Orcs by herself, Cedric had wanted to her to accompany the group in hopes of stiffening up her resolve. She showed amazing potential against when fighting against mere Keltir and the occasional wolf, but her stomach and emotions were still too weak to be completely dependable in a real battle. The shock from her attack in Einhovant's had shaken her so much that for days after it happened, she had woken with nightmares as she tried to sleep at night.

Komugi, Koyori, and several other Einhovant's students helped with the battle, Komugi and Koyori being the primary healers for the students who would get wounded by the occasional arrow or sword swing. It seemed to Sharmin that the two girls had some sort of unspoken rivalry going on between them, as they would turn to cast each other a dirty look while the other's back was turned.

"I'll get him!" they both said in unison as a student fell, an arrow lodged in his chest. They both turned to glare at each other, Komugi bearing sharp fangs. It almost looked as if they were shooting bolts of electricity at each other. Another student fell, and Koyori scampered off to tend to him, leaving Komugi with the first. Sharmin smiled, proud of how strong her sister was. It didn't seem to bother her to be in the midst of battle one bit, even though sometimes an Orc would turn on her and wound her as she tried to help a fallen student. No one ever got seriously injured, and if it looked as though someone were going to be, Cedric or the new Einhovant's headmaster would step in and take over killing the Orc.

Sharmin turned away from the battle as the harbor bell dinged, signaling the arrival of a ship from Gludin. She gave a worried look to Cedric who regarded her with a tight-lipped smile.

"That's what we're here for, girl. Those passengers will be fine, the Orcs attention is focused on us." he said, answering her unspoken question. Sharmin nodded slightly before turning back to watch the passengers slowly wander down the path towards town. A few had frightened expressions as they came past the battle zone, while others ignored it. Today, Sharmin noticed, there was a light elf warrior wearing top novice quality leather armor wandering among them. The light elf, a girl, had silver hair that layered about her face and fell nearly to her waist. She was not as pretty as the elf in the church, as her skin had a green tint, and her cheeks and eyes seemed sunken in. She paused for a moment on the side of the road before leaning over and vomiting in quite an embarrassing manner.

"Ugh, not again." a young man said, hurrying past Sharmin. "She's been doing that since we left Gludin." Sharmin pursed her lips for a moment before leaving the field to wander over to the elf and offer her a hand up.

"Are you all right?" Sharmin asked, holding her hand out. The elf looked up at her with bleary eyes and sniffed. Her face seemed to be the same green as her armor.

"Yeah...I'll be ok. I jus' get seasick..." she said in a weak voice, taking Sharmin's hand and allowing herself to be pulled to her feet. Sharmin gave her an amused half grin and took her elbow, helping her walk down the path.

"Why didn't you take the Gatekeeper then?" she asked with a chuckle. The elf looked at her with swollen eyes and sniffed again.

"You think I have that much money? Heck no!" she exclaimed suddenly, then winced and put a hand to her head. Sharmin blinked, surprised at her manner of speaking. It was incredibly human-like. The elf glanced over Sharmin's shoulder at the battle, and then at Sharmin. "Shouldn't you be out there too?" she asked, walking a little straighter. Sharmin sighed and gave her a tight-lipped half smile.

"Nah. I'm kind of on break right now." she began, and then sighed again. "I'm beginning to wonder if I'm really cut out to wield a sword after all." she said more to herself, her voice soft. The elf frowned and raised an eyebrow at her, but didn't say anything. They walked in silence for a while, the elf's face returning to its normal color. She still seemed too weak to walk on her own, as she allowed Sharmin to continue to help her.

"Narlafayn." she said suddenly, causing Sharmin to jump, startled. Sharmin blinked a few times before it registered as an introduction to her.

"I'm Sharmin." she responded, smiling nervously. Narlafayn paused and took a deep breath, standing straight as she let it out. She stretched, and then wandered around Sharmin, looking her over. Sharmin blinked in confusion, watching Narlafayn with a raised eyebrow. Narlafayn paused by Sharmin's left shoulder, putting two fingers to her chin in thought. She then reached over and prodded the exposed skin of Sharmin's back through her shirt, causing Sharmin to yelp and jump away from her. "What are you doing?" Sharmin demanded, covering her chest protectively with her arms. Narlafayn tilted her head in confusion.

"Well you seem rather cut out to wield a word to me. You've got great muscles for a girl." Narlafayn stated, putting her hands on her hips. "I don't even have muscles that nice." she pursed her lips and looked away, adding "At least here I don't."

"Excuse me for having large muscles." Sharmin glared, offended. Narlafayn blinked at her, raising her eyebrows.

"Well it's not as if they don't look good on you, so don't get all offended. I'm just saying, since you've already gone this far, it'd be a waste to just go back to living a villagers life and loosing all of that." Narlafayn stated, shrugging. She turned away from Sharmin and walked ahead of her, waving as she went. "I think I can take myself the rest of the way to town. You'd better get back to your battle; they probably need you out there." With that she was gone, leaving a bewildered Sharmin alone on the path.

"I thought you were gone back to town." Cedric said in a hard voice as Sharmin returned with her brow creased in thought. She shook her head and looked at the headmaster square in the eye.

"I want to become a Knight." she said, squaring her shoulders. Cedric's eyes widened in surprise for a moment before crinkling with a wide grin.

"The three of you always seem to follow each other..." he chuckled to himself. Sharmin blinked at him and tilted her head.

"Sir?" she asked, confused. Cedric shook his head and then motioned to Komugi who came trotting over eagerly.

"Komugi, I want you to follow your sister with whatever she kills and keep her healed, you understand?" Cedric commanded. Komugi frowned at him.

"Did my teacher ok this?" she asked stubbornly.

"While you're out here in battle, you're MY student, understand?" he said in a no-nonsense tone, looking down his nose at her. Although her expression remained stubborn, Komugi retreated away from him and over to Sharmin. "Go out and find whatever it is you wish to train on, Sharmin, until you feel stronger." Cedric said in a lighter tone. Sharmin blinked stupidly at him a few times until Komugi grabbed her by her wrist and led her away from the battlefield.

"What a jerk." Komugi grumbled a bit later as Sharmin hunted large toads around the river. "How can you stand being taught by someone like him?" She leaned against a tree twirling her hair.

"He's not that bad." Sharmin said, slightly out of breath. She stood after finally managing to land a killing blow on the toad and wiped sweat from her brow. "He's strict, but he means well. Everyone who's been directly under his tutelage has advanced quickly and risen to be great sword wielders." She scanned the riverbank for more toads.

"Yeah whatever." Komugi scoffed, tossing her hair behind her shoulder. Her hair had grown out to where she could pull it back in a high ponytail. Her bangs framed her heart-shaped face, and set off her bright green eyes. Her hair was now a very light red, almost rosy pink in some lighting. Sharmin frowned, as her sister was already very pretty and just turned ten years old. The still-feminine part of her stomped it's feet in jealousy, as although she had lost the glasses and long hair, she still looked very mousy.

A goblin wandered behind her and snorted, digging in the ground with his club. He paused and looked at the girls before snorting and returning to his task. Komugi frowned at it.

"Are you going to kill it?" she asked, pushing herself from the tree. Sharmin's lower eyelid twitched as she stared at it, and she gripped the hilt of her sword tighter. She wanted to take it on, but her muscles seemed to have frozen. "Oh fudge it, I'll do it." Komugi finally said, and then quietly chanted a wind spell.

"Komugi, wait!' Sharmin said, turning towards her sister. Komugi let loose a ball of wind, blowing the goblin over. It pushed itself to its feet quickly, running at Komugi with its club raised, shouting. Komugi calmly ignored it and began chanting her ice spell next. "KOMUGI!" Sharmin yelled, the goblin reaching her and thwacking her upside the head with its club before Komugi could finish the spell. Komugi cried out and stumbled. She tried to smack the thing with her staff, but missed, another blow hitting her stomach. Without another thought, Sharmin charged forward and lopped the creature's head clean off. As the goblin's body fell, Sharmin knelt beside her sister and inspected the forming bruise on her temple.

"Are you alright?" she asked, looking into her eyes. Komugi gazed back at her, tears of pain falling. Her eyes seemed a little glassy, but otherwise she wasn't in any immediate danger. Sharmin sighed and hugged her close, relieved. It was during this tender moment that Sharmin's sword arm began to shake in uncontrollable tremors. She stared at her hand for a moment before clenching it into a fist and sat away from Komugi.

"I should ask you that." Komugi said, casting a simple healing spell upon her temple. "You just killed something that wasn't on four legs for the first time."

"Don't remind me." Sharmin muttered, trying to fight the shivering that had come over her.

"It's ok sissy." Komugi said in her childish voice, "You did great when you didn't think about it. I've never seen you that powerful before, it was kind of cool!" Sharmin looked at Komugi who grinned, her compliment honest. They both perked up and turned their heads as the sounds of fighting met their ears. Ryonai was out in the field facing off against a Werewolf Chieftain that had chased him from the woods. He was covered in scratches, but was still in good form.

"He's not bad." Sharmin found herself saying in surprise. Watching him was inspiring and made her wonder how he could face off against those beasts when one injured him so gravely before.

"Yeah...he's great." Komugi said in a dream-like tone. Sharmin looked at her skeptically, and she quickly cleared her throat and stood. "I'm going to go heal him for a bit. Why don't you take a break for today?" she offered maturely, which caused Sharmin to stare at her evenly, one eyebrow still raised.

"Sure." she said flatly. Komugi giggled lightly and waved before turning on heel and trotting over to Ryonai who now sat in the grass, catching his breath. She watched them for a bit before standing and wandering back to the beach near the magic school. She paused, looking into the door-archways leading into the main hall. All was dark inside the school, as the school was temporarily set up for classes at the Training hall since the murder. Sharmin shut her eyes, remembering the dark shadow she'd seen run across the now-tapestried window. She knew her fear of killing anything bipedal was from that night, but she couldn't understand why. Taking a breath, and feeling inspired yet from watching Ryonai, Sharmin forced herself to walk stiffly towards the school and through the dark archway leading into the main hall.

It was deathly silent inside, the sounds from outside seemed to be reflected by some invisible barrier. Not even a cricket chirped from the grass. Sharmin's breathing was the only thing that echoed off of the walls. The memory of the strangled cry flashed through her mind's eye, and she held her temple in pain. Another flash of memory, seeing the dead headmaster and the Gladiator came next, causing her sword arm to shake, which she gripped tightly at the wrist trying to quell it. Another flash of the Gladiator chasing her, and then slowly stabbing her with his sword, his other hand gripping her tightly around her throat came next, and she fell to her knees.

"Oh hello there, may I help you?" a voice came. Sharmin blinked out of her state of trauma and focused on the body the voice came from. A Dark Elf stepped from the shadows, a staff held in one hand. Sharmin scrambled to her feet and put her hand on her sword, as she'd heard Dark Elves had a bizarre fetish of killing people for the fun of it. The elf chuckled and put his hands in the air in a motion of surrender. "Whoa now, I'm not here to hurt you. The Ivory Tower sent me to inspect the crime scene." he said. Sharmin relaxed a bit, taking her hand from the sword hilt, but not moving it away.

"How can I believe that?" she challenged, hoping her nervousness wasn't visible in the gloom of the darkened school. "You're in here in the dark, there's no way you're inspecting anything." she said, trying to swallow the rasp from her voice.

"I'm a Dark Elf, we perform better where there's no light." he said simply. "My name is Amari, and you are?"

"Sharmin." she said, still not fully convinced. Amari's eyes lit up suddenly and he came toward her, causing her to back up a few steps.

"Oh! You're the one!" he said, his tone suddenly excited. Sharmin kept stepping back as he stepped forward. Her eyes widened in surprise and she glanced over her shoulder quickly as her back hit a rough wall. Amari advanced until he was within touching distance of her and inspected her face with oddly eager eyes.

"The one what?" she asked uncertainly, trying to suppress the nervous shivers that threatened to start.

"The one who tasted Vlad's blade and lived to tell the tale!" Amari said excitedly. "Tell me? Where did he stab you? Was the pain burning or cold? Did he really intend to kill you or was he just trying to cripple you? Please, do tell!" Sharmin's eyes were now wide with bewildered fear.

"You're...mad..." she said, her voice choking in her throat. Amari's excitement melted away and he stepped back, mulling the accusation over.

"Mad? Oh no, quite the contrary." he said intelligently. "I prefer to call myself a 'genius'. You see, Vlad is someone I've been looking for quite some time now." he began, pacing back and forth in front of her. "It's quite bizarre that he would leave someone alive, there must've been a reason." he said more to himself than her. He paused in pacing as an idea hit him, and turned back to her, getting quite close. "Do you have any magical powers of strange origin? Something that could be used to conquer a small nation?" Amari asked, his eyes once again back to its eager excitement. Thoroughly creeped out, Sharmin threw her hand out, smacking Amari. She pushed him away with this motion and ran back out through the archway. She yelped as she ran into a body, that grabbed her to keep her from falling.

"What the heck Sharmin?" Gatz said more than asked, bewildered by her state of panic. "What's got you so upset now? And why were you in the school?" Sharmin attempted to draw in enough air around her panicked lungs to explain, supporting herself up by holding onto his forearms. She looked over her shoulder with wide eyes as Amari emerged from the school calmly.

"That wasn't very nice." Amari said, rubbing his cheek and frowning. Gatz stood up a little straighter and pulled Sharmin closer to him, glaring at Amari.

"Who are you?" he asked in a voice bolder than most 14-year-olds could muster. Amari stopped, his eyebrows rising in surprise.

"Are you...Leon?" he inquired. Sharmin felt Gatz' grip tighten on her elbows. He drew in a sharp breath through his nose.

"What if I am?" he asked back. Amari stared at him for a moment, his forefinger on his temple and his thumb resting under his jaw in thought.

"No, you can't be Leon. I'm told he's much more serious." Amari decided, turning away from the pair and heading back into the school.

"Wh...WHAT? What makes you think I'm not Leon?" Gatz stuttered, letting go of Sharmin and stepping forward. Amari paused to regard him coolly over his shoulder.

"Well for one, Leon would've put the frightened girl behind him to shield her from any attacks I might've thrown, not leave her unprotected like you did." he said smoothly. Gatz froze, clearly unable to think of a retort, as Amari retreated back into the darkness.

"He really asked you that?" Gatz asked incredulously as he and Sharmin made their way back to the Training Hall. Sharmin nodded, hugging herself in the sudden cool breeze that blew. "'ve had bad luck this year." Gatz breathed, pushing a piece of his hair behind his ear.

"I'm seriously thinking of just going back and being a normal villager." Sharmin said, her teeth chattering slightly from cold.

"No, you can't!" Gatz suddenly exclaimed, stopping. Sharmin turned to look at him in confusion. Gatz cleared his throat and diverted his gaze from her, rubbing the back of his neck. "I mean...you've already come this far." he said. Sharmin shrugged.

"I haven't really when you think about it. I can't kill anything past a wolf without getting scared." she said in a low voice. Sharmin turned and began walking up the long stairway entrance to the Training Hall, eager to be out of the cold.

"I'm...really sorry...about killing that Elpy earlier this year..." Gatz apologized, coming up beside her. Sharmin shrugged.

"Why are you sorry? It's what you were supposed to do." she said, her teeth chattering a little harder. Gatz' brow furrowed and he pursed his lips, looking away from her.

"Yeah, but you seemed really upset..." he said. He walked around to stand in her way, stopping her from entering the Hall. Sharmin looked up at him in confusion as he took a breath and put his hands on her shoulders. "Sharmin..." he began, swallowing nervously. Sharmin glanced over his shoulder as she saw movement from the side of the school. "For a while now I..." Gatz continued, and then paused to take a hand from her shoulder to rub the back of his neck. Sharmin squinted at the shadows as she identified two figures that appeared to be... kissing? "What I'm trying to say is that I like yo..."

"KOMUGI!" Sharmin shouted, stepping around a bewildered Gatz and towards the shadows. Komugi suddenly jumped away from the wall with a sheepish look, her cheeks pink. "What the hell are you doing? You're ten years old!" she shouted, waving her arms.

"Calm down Fish Face, you're going to get us in trouble." Ryonai said, stepping out from behind the wall. Sharmin's eyes bugged out.

"R...Ryonai?" she stuttered, shocked.

"That's my name..." Ryonai said, sticking a finger in his ear and turning it.

"You...You...You... I can't even think of a word for you!" she exclaimed. "What on earth possessed you to kiss my SISTER of all people? She's still a kid! You're 14! This does not work!" she said, crossing her arms in an x-shape for emphasis.

"Oh come off it, Sharmin. It's just a little kiss." Komugi scoffed, shifting her weight to one foot.

"Just a little kiss?" Sharmin repeated incredulously. "Do you even comprehend how wrong this whole situation is?"

"Sharmin." Gatz started, reaching for her.

"Uh-huh. You're jealous because I've gotten farther with Ryonai in a month than you have with Leon in two years." Komugi sneered. Behind Sharmin, Gatz lowered his hand, his eyes widening and his lips parted slightly. Sharmin's face turned pink and her fists shook at her sides.

"That is none of your business." Sharmin said in a tempered voice. Komugi tossed her hair and grinned at her.

"No, but everyone in the magic school knows you like him, it's so obvious with how you watch him. I'm surprised no one else here noticed, but I guess that shows how dim most swordies are." she paused and gave Ryonai a shining smile. "Except you of course."

"Get out of here, Komugi." Sharmin seethed, pointing a shaking arm towards the village. "I don't want to see your face for a long time."

"Ok." Komugi said, shrugging. She began walking lightly towards the village. "Oh, by the way." She stopped give Sharmin another smile. "Leon and a bunch of students are leaving for the mainland tomorrow. You would've been with them had you not had such issues. Sad for you though, I guess you missed your chance to tell him." she waved sweetly and skipped her way back to town. Sharmin breathed heavily a few times through her nose, her jaw clenched tightly shut. Hot tears stung her eyes and she whipped around and ran into the Hall. She ran directly to her dorm room and threw herself on her bed to bury her face in her pillow so she couldn't hear herself cry.

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Chapter 6

 

The next day was Darksday, and Sharmin was released from the Hall to return home for the day. Most of the villagers made their way to the harbor to see the students off. Cedric was going with them, returning to Aden for guard duty. Sharmin however, was not among the farewell crowd. Instead she sat on the beach on the southwestern side of the island, a bit north of the harbor. She was wearing a dress her mother had made for the occasion, but was no longer used to the confining thing and had hiked it up to expose her legs to her thighs. Gatz and Ryonai were leaving on the ship as well as Leon. It would be a lot quieter without them around. She dug her bare feet in the sand, wriggling her toes.

"Oh hey, what are you doing all the way over here?" Narlafayn asked, making her way over to her. "Uh oh...you're wearing a dress...did you give up after all?" Sharmin shrugged and leaned her chin on her knees.

"No. I'm just wearing it for today." she mumbled.

"Oh." Narlafayn said, shifting her shield on her arm. She was silent for a moment, but Sharmin didn't look at her. "I suppose this is goodbye then." Narlafayn said, holding out her hand in a very human gesture. Sharmin stared at it in surprise and then took it, Narlafayn grinning and shaking her hand.

"You're leaving too?" Sharmin asked as she withdrew her hand. "You weren't here for long."

"Nah. I didn't have much to do here." Narlafayn said, standing again. "Besides, I made a friend who's leaving today, so I figured I'd accompany him along, take him back to the Elven Forest. It's a much kinder place to train, in my oh so humble opinion. Leon's a good kid, but much too serious for someone so young. He really needs to lighten up" she sighed; not seeing the bug-eyed stare Sharmin was giving her. The ship bell began dinging, signaling the ships' departure in five minutes time. "Well, there's the bell. I hope I'll see you again sometime. Hurry up and train so you can come to the mainland!" Narlafayn waved and ran off towards the harbor.

The ship pushed off right on time, and Sharmin stood as it came past the beach. She quickly climbed up a ledge to get to the cliff above her so she could watch the ship better. She squinted, scanning the ship for any familiar faces. She saw Cedric standing on the bow of the ship, his arms folded. Nearby, leaning on the side and watching the island pass was Leon. Tears welling in Sharmin's throat, she took a breath and cupped her hands over her mouth.

"LEON!" she shouted. Without checking to see if he heard her or if the sound was lost in the wind, she shouted again. "LEON! I LI..." her shout died away and she lowered her hands. They dangled limply at her sides as she watched the ship move farther out of view. She was sad, but oddly no tears came forth this time. She took a breath and squared her shoulders, watching the ship move farther away. "I'll get stronger and see you again soon." she promised. "And then I'll tell you properly." This decided, she gathered her shoes up from the grass and made her way back to the harbor, determination for the future renewed.

It was just past the second year after the boat carrying Leon departed for the mainland when the first disaster to befall Talking Island Village in years happened. Now that Cedric was in Aden, the amount of students coming to Talking Island had slowed, even though his nephew had taken over headmaster duties. Sharmin was making slow progress overcoming her phobia, and was finally able to hunt goblins and the occasional bat in the Elven Ruins. This frustrated the new headmaster, who encouraged Sharmin to return to village life several times. She ignored him, however, remembering Cedric's words to her, to take things at her own pace.

The day the disaster happened; Sharmin noticed it was strangely quiet in the fields that day. She and Komugi had been hunting goblins all morning, and it was around noon when she noticed that the number of them had diminished, and there were no Orcs in sight. Even the wolves and Keltirs seemed to be hiding.

"Wow...is it just me or is it really quiet today?" Komugi asked in a hushed voice, as if she were scared to speak loudly. Sharmin nodded, scanning the hillside for any more goblins. It was then when Sharmin noticed a faint rumbling in the earth, and a rising dust cloud to the north. A Knight, whom Sharmin knew by the name 'Montavious' suddenly came racing over the top of the hill, his face white with fear.

"RUN!" he cried as he came, waving his arms frantically. Komugi and Sharmin stayed put, staring at him in confusion. "The beasts, they're coming! RUN!" his voice cracked and he ran past the girls, shouting, "The beasts are on the move!" Sharmin and Komugi both slowly turned their heads, as the rumbling became a more pronounced earth shake. Their eyes widened in unison as scores of Orcs, Werewolves and Skeletons came racing over the top of the hill, shouting and growling in a hellish manner.

"'Min..." Komugi whimpered in a frightened voice.

"Run." Sharmin said, turning towards the village and pushing her sister ahead of her. They raced through the town gates just as the first set of monsters arrived, hopping over the walls and downing villagers as they raced to the safety of the church. The guards shot arrows into the horde and clashed swords with them, but it was in vain. There were too many of them. The two girls raced towards the church, Sharmin pulling her frightened sister. Monsters scattered about the village, breaking into homes and jumping on the villagers to kill them. Screams filled the air all around them, and Komugi began to cry.

"What about mommy and daddy?" she asked, clinging onto Sharmin's hand tightly.

"Don't think about that now." Sharmin yelled over the din and clatter of battle. Komugi screamed as a skeleton landed in front of them and let out a hissing roar. In one movement, Sharmin pulled a tiny flask of holy water from a chain about her neck, pulled the cork with her teeth, and poured it over her sword. She spit out the cork and sent the blade through the middle of the undead creature's spine, causing it to hiss and gasp before dissolving into dust. Without pause, Sharmin reached behind her to grab her sister's arm again, determined to get her to the safety of the church.

Komugi cried out as a Werewolf landed from a long aerial jump near her, and scratched her shoulder. Without a thought, Sharmin whipped around and ran the beast through, and it howled in pain as it fell. An arrow suddenly landed in her hip, and Sharmin cried out, stumbling forward a bit before glaring over her shoulder, her teeth bared. An Orc Archer snorted and growled some distance away, pulling another arrow from its quiver and placing it on the bowstring. Sharmin sucked in a hissing breath of air and ran towards the archer, shouting a loud battle cry as she raised her sword. She deflected its next arrow with her shield, and swung her blade as hard as she could, and beheaded the creature in one blow. Blood covered her, but she took no notice and grabbed her sister's arm once more, toting her the final length to the church. She pushed Komugi in the door and then turned to run back out into the chaos.

"Sharmin, where are you going?" Komugi asked, frightened. She grabbed onto Sharmin's arm, tears streaming down her face. "Don't go back out there!" she pleaded desperately, trying to pull her into the church. Sharmin kissed Komugi's forehead and gently pried herself from her sister's grip before shutting the door firmly. Sharmin ran back into the fray, dark determination set in her features. She cut down monsters as they came at her, her goal to reach her home and protect her parents firmly set in her mind.

A Werewolf Chieftain growled and snapped right in her face, but she paid little notice, and ran him through methodically. His claws scraped at her back, leaving deep scores in her wooden armor, but she only thrust her sword deeper, waiting for his useless fighting to cease. As soon as he weakened she threw him from her sword and pushed onward, barely feeling the pain in her hip from the arrow that was still embedded there. She slid to a stop as her home came into view, her breath catching in her throat and her eyes widening. The thatch roof had caved in at one spot, and the windows were all broken. The door hung off its hinges, and there were crashing noises coming from within. Sharmin wanted to scream for her parents, but instead found her legs moving towards the house, her sword ready.

"Don't, Sharmin." Gatz's voice suddenly came, his arms wrapping around her tightly to pin her arms and hold her back. Only half-hearing his voice, Sharmin struggled against him, a groaning noise coming from deep in her throat. "Sharmin, don't do this to yourself!" he said louder, pulling her back. Sharmin suddenly let out an animalistic, scream, her legs giving away underneath her. He kneeled with her, letting her lean towards the ground, his arms still pinning hers to her sides. She began to cry, sobbing at the top of her lungs. Somewhere beyond her grief she heard the shouts of warriors as they ran into the village, killing monsters in their path. The monster's siege was over in mere seconds, those lucky to survive it running back into the wilderness.

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Chapter 7

 

"That was an extremely lucky arrival time." A dual-sword wielding light elf said later to her companion. Her name was November, and she was a Swordsinger, come from the mainland for an Elven festival that happened once every fifty years among the Henge ruins of the island. It was a festival very few elves remembered, and kept as a well-locked secret, not even the scholars in Ivory Tower knew of its existence. Why November remembered the festival was a mystery that no one would ever know. She had arrived on a ship full of visiting warriors, including Gatz, who came just in time to dispel the monsters that had attacked the town.

"Hey Nov, there's some injured people over here!" a human named Tex called from around a half-demolished home.

"Oh dear, I'm on my way!" November's companion and lover, Glarawen, shouted back. November put a hand on Glarawen's arm and gazed into her eyes with concern.

"Darling, you've been healing every person we come across, even those near death. You must be exhausted, please let the Bishops of the town take care of them and think of yourself." November said gently. Her blonde hair covering one eye, Glarawen smiled sweetly at November and put a hand on her cheek before pulling out of her grasp and turning towards Tex.

"I'll be fine my love. The Priests in this town aren't nearly strong enough to take care of everyone. I should help as much as I can!" Glarawen said as she made her way towards their human friend. She rounded the corner to find Gatz kneeling next to Sharmin, whose eyes were wide with shock. She was stiff and un-moving, as if she had frozen to the spot. Gatz had pulled the arrow from her body, and held his hands over the wound, trying to stop the bleeding.

Glarawen smoothed the skirt of her brown and white robes as she knelt next to Sharmin. She held her hands over the wound without asking Gatz or Sharmin for permission and began to heal her. Sharmin was covered in scratches, but nothing needing immediate attention like the wound to her hip. Sharmin slowly raised her eyes as two official-looking men circled her destroyed home. One ventured inside only to come out a moment later and vomit next to the stairs. Gatz stood as the other made his way over to the trio after conferring with his sickened companion.

"This house is the worst out of all of them." The man was saying to him in a low voice. Sharmin stared, unblinking. Their voices seemed to echo in her mind, and she struggled to grasp their words. "We're going to have to postpone the funerals; those girls are going to be finding pieces for days." Sharmin began to shiver.

"You couldn't possibly expect Sharmin and Komugi to go in there." Gatz said next, his voice incredulous

"The other townsfolk have to do it for their family, why should those girls be treated any different? They'll see no different on the mainland, might as well desensitize them now." The man shrugged. Sharmin's mind suddenly detached itself and she found herself screaming at the top of her lungs, her arms clutched to her chest. She rocked a moment before leaning over to continue her mournful screaming. Glarawen, her own eyes brimming with tears, put a hand on Sharmin's shoulder, saying comforting words that Sharmin could no longer hear. Pressure built up in her face as she screamed and her nose began to bleed, but she paid it no mind. Her voice eventually gave out, and Sharmin fainted, giving in to shock and exhaustion, thankful as peaceful unconsciousness overcame her senses.

When Sharmin woke again, it was night. She found herself lying on a bed, staring at the sky through a hole in the roof above her. A body shifted next to her, and Sharmin slowly turned her head, her sister's tear-streaked face coming into focus. Komugi was curled near Sharmin, murmuring something in her sleep. Her eyes had dark circles underneath them; no doubt she had been forced to heal the injured until she herself finally collapsed from exhaustion after the attack.

"Are you with us?" Gatz asked from the seat he had set up next to the bed. Sharmin turned to face him, her eyes still large.

"Where am I?" she asked in a raspy voice. She shifted, attempting to push herself up to look around.

"My Uncle's house." Gatz said, pushing her back down gently. Gatz was the nephew of Sir Collin Windawood, a knight who became the Governor of Talking Island. Sir Collin was frequently seen at the Obelisk of Victory, a large, pointed tower of stone, eager to tell any passer-bys of its history. Gatz himself was born near Windawood Manor, and grew up playing amongst the dried bushes of the Wasteland until his Uncle insisted he come to Talking Island to learn swordsmanship there, under Cedric. Ironically enough, Cedric was also Gatz's uncle, having married Collin's elder sister, making Gatz quite the social icon on Talking Island and connected to the Athebaldt family as well.

Sharmin lay back down willingly, finding that when she was upright, her head would pound. She turned her eyes back to the hole in the roof and stared through it. Wisps of smoke passed over it and Sharmin sat up quickly this time, staring at it.

"What's that?" she asked, alarmed. Gatz sighed and took her hand, holding it until she moved her eyes from the smoke to him.

"It's your house." He said sadly, squeezing her hand. Sharmin stiffened, but made no move to get up. It was now that she noticed crates stacked behind him, some of her and Komugi's belongings peeking out the top. Most of what she saw was nearly destroyed; whoever had packed the crates had probably just grabbed whatever was in their bedroom. "Your…" Gatz paused and took a breath. "It was better just to burn the house down. Save what's behind me, there was nothing salvageable left in there." He said carefully, trying to tell the truth without revealing all of it. Sharmin slowly lowered herself back down on to the bed. Tears welled in her eyes and slid out the corners.

"What happened to the others?" she asked as Gatz released her hand.

"The Priests and that Elven Elder healed as many as they could. Those that they couldn't they…" Gatz paused and shifted uncomfortably, unsure if he should be telling Sharmin so much, so soon after her panic attack.

"They put them in my house, didn't they?" Sharmin concluded. "A quick way to bury all that had died, right?" Gatz didn't acknowledge her statement with anything more than a heavy sigh.

"Try to get some sleep if you can. We'll talk more in the morning." Gatz said, scooting his chair a little closer to the bed. Her mind strangely calm, Sharmin nodded slightly and shut her eyes.

Months passed. Sharmin and Komugi had come to stay with a woman several miles from the Village, near the Elven Ruins. She had opened her house up to all the orphaned children from the attack; Sharmin and Gatz had been employed as bodyguards for the house against the Werewolves, Orcs and the occasional Giant Spider that attempted to intrude on the land. No longer able to study at the Training Hall because of her new job, Sharmin's strength training all but halted. She had slowly become accustomed to killing Orcs and the Werewolves, but would still get the occasional panic attack if she thought about it too much. When she focused on nothing but protecting the children in the house, she found herself able to fight off anything that came at them.

It took Komugi weeks before she was able to even muster up a tiny half smile, and she was still unable to fully show many of her emotions. She had gone into a type of lasting shock since the attack that she would one day recover from, it was just questionable as to when that day would be. Gatz forced Sharmin to talk through her grief and shock through weeks of prodding while they made rounds outside of the home, and she was recovering quickly.

The more time Sharmin spent with Gatz, the more interesting of a person she discovered he was. While in school he was always just the kid in the background, he didn't stand out, nor did he make any type of effort to stand out. His weapon skill was average, as was his intelligence. His golden blonde hair was cut at his jaw, which framed a bit more than average handsome face. Sharmin discovered that he had a good heart, but tended to act a bit impulsively, especially when it came to fighting large groups of beasts. He seemed to like running into fights headfirst, and then think later. Koyori was brought from the Village to heal the pair as they scouted the area around the house, and more times than naught nearly collapsed from exhaustion of over-casting her healing spells on him. Gatz not once seemed to realize his recklessness was leading to early gray hairs on the Cleric, and cheerfully continued on.

"You're going to be the death of me!" Koyori screeched at Gatz one mild early summer evening. She had her face near his, seething and waving her arms frantically. Gatz had his head drawn back slightly, one eyebrow raised at the strange display she was giving him. "Why can't you be more cautious, like Sharmin? I'm sick and tired of always having to pull your almost-dead carcass from the other world! I'm getting old before my time!"

"I'm a Warrior; running into battle is what I do." Gatz said nonchalantly, picking at a small blemish on his cheek. Koyori made an aggravated noise and gripped two handfuls of her shaggy, short black hair. Sharmin giggled at the two, their arguments over Gatz' lack of healer compassion was a daily occurrence.

"If it's too much for you, then just stop all together." Komugi's voice came from the porch of the house. Koyori snapped to attention, turning an electrified glare towards the spindly girl. The two were nearly the same age, but Koyori seemed more mature in physical shape. Komugi was still very childish. No one knew what started the girls on their lifelong rivalry, but it only seemed to grow cattier with puberty.

"Oho, big words coming from an underdeveloped RUNT like yourself who can't even concentrate enough to heal her own paper cuts!" Koyori sneered, planting herself in front of the porch and jutting out her chest, as if to point it out. An amazing recovery came over Komugi, and Sharmin witnessed her hair slowly prickling out as her temper flared to life and slowly made its way through her body. Her shoulders rose up a bit as she clenched her fists, and she took a stiff step towards Koyori.

"Well at least I don't have two gigantic melons bouncing on my chest when I run." Komugi shifted to put her weight on one leg and tossed her hair. "Seriously though, I've heard you're progressing slowly even though you made Cleric first, are those things absorbing your intelligence or what?" Komugi scoffed evilly. Koyori's mouth opened and closed in disbelief.

"Don't be silly my dear little Komugi." Koyori sneered, recovering from her stupor. "Everyone knows intelligence is based upon breast size, which explains why YOU'RE so behind." Komugi growled and stomped a foot towards her, taking on a challenging stance, an action which Koyori mimicked. Behind them the children of the home crowded the window with eager faces. Some older boys watched with a bit too much glee, the hope that the girls would get into some sort of physical fight apparent in their expressions.

"They're going to be at this for awhile, want to go take a walk?" Gatz offered with a grin. Giggling at the two girls (and knowing that a fight between them would never amount to more than a bruised eye or a split lip) Sharmin nodded.

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Chapter 8

 

Gatz led Sharmin through the woods towards waterfall near the Elven Ruins. Along the way they chatted of Village gossip and the children of the house they protected. The hike was peaceful, save for the occasional snort of a goblin from the trees around them. The Orcs and Werewolves seemed to have retreated for the night. Fireflies lit the air around the pool the waterfall dumped into, and several couples had seated themselves on the rock ledges surrounding it to cuddle. Sharmin blushed as she passed them and kept her gaze focused on Gatz' back. He didn't seem to notice the people already there.

He finally stopped and took a seat near the path that ran under the waterfall to the northern part of the Island. It was a more dangerous roosting spot, as Blade Spiders ventured dangerously close to this part of the waterfall and were known to attack wayward young couples who didn't know any better. Seated under the ledge, it was louder, but more fireflies had gathered there, giving the spot a more ethereal, beautiful glow.

"Wow, I've never been here before." Sharmin breathed, drawing her knees up to her chest and hugging them. Gatz gave her a surprised look. He stretched his legs out straight in front of him and leaned back on his hands

"Seriously? From what I've heard your sister's been out here quite a bit." He mused, crossing his legs at his ankles. Sharmin stiffened; her sister's reputation of never being without a suitor of some sort was quite renowned. She never got serious with any of them it seemed; despite always having a boy following her with starry eyes, her standards were incredibly high. Sharmin sighed gloomily and plopped her chin upon her knees.

"Yeah well Komugi seems to always be a few steps ahead of me." She grumbled.

"How so?" Gatz asked, turning to face her. In the corner of his eye he saw a familiar figure making its way slowly towards the waterfall on the path behind him. He drew in a deep breath as his muscles stiffened, his temper flaring for a brief moment as he never seemed to get a moment alone with Sharmin without getting intruded upon.

"Well she was the first to show any sort of useful talent for one. I was just a common villager, remember?" she stated, watching a firefly land on her arm.

"That's not necessarily her being ahead of you." Gatz said, scooting a little closer to her. Sharmin shrugged, not noticing his movement.

"That's just one example. She's really smart, and she was able to make friends before I was. She got pretty way before me." Sharmin laughed shortly. "I'm still working on that one."

"I think you look fine." Gatz offered gently, scooting a little closer. He glanced behind him; the familiar person had paused in their trek towards the waterfall to kill a spider that had come from the trees. Gatz' eye twitched at the ease the person displayed as they cut through the giant insect.

"Heh. Thanks. It doesn't help either that she seems to know how to get a boys attention easily either. I mean, she's had countless boyfriends now and I haven't even had my first kis-.." Sharmin trailed off, her cheeks pink. She hadn't meant to ramble that much to him. He was a good listener though; she was finding it hard not to open up to him.

The person slowed as they approached the waterfall, their eyes trained upon Sharmin and Gatz in surprise. Without a word, Gatz gently grabbed Sharmin by the chin and kissed her hard upon her lips. Her eyes widened in shock, her brain not quite figuring out what was going on. She finally regained enough sense to pull away from him and stare, speechless. Gatz gazed at her with half-shut eyes and a cocky smile upon his face before turning to look behind them.

"Well look who's here. You're a few months late DiValmont, they've already repaired the Village from the siege." Gatz stated, his voice gathering an icy tinge. The shock from the kiss instantly forgotten, Sharmin jumped to her feet and whipped around. Sure enough, standing behind her, was Leon. He wore red and blue Brigandine armor, which was spattered with spider blood. A firefly lighted the air in front of his face, revealing a very surprised expression. Sharmin looked down, her face red with embarrassment.

"What are you talking about?" Leon said a few moments later. If there was any emotion in his voice, it was hard to read which emotion it was.

"Oh, so you didn't get the memo?" Gatz asked sarcastically, standing up. Sharmin cast him a bewildered look for his attitude. "The monsters laid siege to the village a few months ago. I managed to catch the boat coming back, on time to help stop things. Where might you have been, oh great Knight?"

"Gatz..." Sharmin breathed, shocked at him. Another firefly lit up to show Leon's brow furrowed in confusion.

"Oh that's right, you were too busy playing with the elves to come back to help, weren't you." Gatz said, his voice becoming more and more challenging.

"Now see here..."

"I can see clearly DiDumba…"

"Gatz, ENOUGH!"

Sharmin stepped away from him and looked him square in the face, angry. "What has gotten into you? Why are you being such an asshole?" she asked, glaring. Gatz blinked at her, expressionless, before shrugging and turning away. Without a word he began to walk back the way they had come. Sharmin watched him leave with a sour expression before turning back to Leon. She opened her mouth to welcome him back, but her voice caught in her throat and her face went crimson.

"I'm glad you're ok." Leon said, sheathing his sword. Sharmin's head flew up at the sound of his voice, her eyes wide. "Were many people hurt?"

"Several were killed," she began, clutching one of her arms with her hand and looking down, "including my parents." She jumped as Leon placed a hand on her shoulder. She looked up into his face to find him gazing at her in honest sympathy. Her cheeks once again grew pink.

"I'm so sorry..." he began. A loud clattering sounded above them, interrupting his sentence, and the silver-haired elf Sharmin remembered as Narlafayn fell from the ledge above them. She landed on her side and groaned, rolling onto her back and holding her hip. She wore yellow tinted Mithril armor now; its style a strange form of bikini with pointed metal skirt covering her rear like bird feathers. A large white shield dropped a moment afterwards, followed by deep sultry laughter from the ledge above.

"Vuylay…I will KILL you..." Narlafayn groaned, curling into a ball as she winced.

"Go ahead and try." A husky voice giggled, peering down at them. In the dimming light, Sharmin could make out violet hair and pale skin. The voice obviously belonged to a dark elf.

"Sorry to interrupt your tender reunion." Narlafayn apologized, pushing herself to her feet. "SOME people can't mind their own business and not cause trouble." She cast a glare above her, and Vuylay ducked back from view, grinning wickedly.

"No need to apologize." Leon responded, rubbing his forehead.

"Hey!" Narlafayn suddenly exclaimed, standing close to Leon and peering into his face. Sharmin's temper gauge went up a notch at the friendliness she displayed towards Leon.

"What…" Leon said uncertainly, leaning away from her a bit. Narlafayn glared at him for a few moments before turning towards Sharmin and leaning an elbow on Leon's armored shoulder.

"Has this guy always been so serious? I mean really. I've been traveling with him on and off for close to two years now and all he does is BROOD." Narlafayn stated more than asked, not noticing the bewildered look that returned to Sharmin's face.

"Do you have to go over this with Sharmin too?" Leon winced, clearly familiar with Narlafayn's speech and dreading it.

"Suck it up you ninny." She commanded, sticking her tongue out at him. She turned back to Sharmin. "I keep telling him, he needs himself a good woman to get his stick out of the mud." Narlafayn paused in annoyance as giggles erupted from the ledge once more. "Anyway. You interested?" she finished, staring directly into Sharmin's eyes.

"Interested..?" Sharmin asked, uncertain. Narlafayn nodded enthusiastically and patted Leon on the top of his head.

"Yeah! To become his wife! I think that's the best thing he needs right now." She said happily. Both Sharmin and Leon's souls seemed to explode at that moment, both of their faces turned identical shades of maroon.

"He's already got a good woman." Vuylay stated matter-of-fact, jumping gracefully from her perch.

"And who pray tell, would that be?" Narlafayn asked, lowering her eyes in annoyance.

"Me of course." Vuylay responded, placing one hand on her hip, inspecting the fingernails of the other and jutting her chest out in a similar manner that Koyori had done. Sharmin's head whipped around quickly and she gave Vuylay the look of burning daggers. Leon's face turned an even darker shade of red (it was a wonder that there was a darker shade for him to turn to). Vuylay met Sharmin's glare with a smirk, and a new rivalry was born.

A bit later Sharmin led the group towards the Orphan's Home. Gatz had long since gone on ahead, leaving her to lead the group back alone. Leon trailed along behind the girls, the distance putting Sharmin's tense mind at ease and giving her a chance to mull over the events that had just occurred. Her cheeks grew pink as she realized she'd had her first kiss, finally. Vuylay, walking a few steps behind her, noticed her flushed face, even in the dark. Unable to resist an opening in her new subject of teasing, a smile pulled at her plump lips and she matched her pace with Sharmin's.

"So he kissed you, hmm?" she began, enjoying how Sharmin's eyes widened.

"What are you talking about?" she asked. Vuylay's grin turned a little wicked at how Sharmin attempted to hide the embarrassment in her voice.

"It's ok to talk about it; all of us saw you guys." Vuylay urged, trying not to giggle. Sharmin's face had gone pale at this comment and she halted in their trek. Narlafayn, not paying attention, smacked into her back and stumbled.

"Why are we stopping?" she asked, flicking off bits of Sharmin's splintering wood armor from her breastplate. Sharmin stiffly turned her head to glance over her shoulder at Leon, who gazed back at her with an innocent questioning look. She turned back quickly and started walking towards the house again at a brisker pace.

"What's the hurry? Why don't you tell us about the island as we go?" Vuylay called after her, her voice wavering with suppressed laughter. Sharmin didn't answer her, and instead sped up, her shoulders hunching as she swung her arms to keep up with her pace. The house was in sight, and Sharmin lowered her head, squinting her eyes shut as humiliated tears stung them.

"Welcome back, Sharmin." Komugi said from the picnic table in the front yard. She was cuddled against an attractive boy on top of it, reclined slightly from watching the stars. The boy was one of the few older ones living in the house, and had pined for Komugi for weeks. The miraculous recovery Koyori helped her through seemed to have put her back on track in the dating world as well. Sharmin didn't say a word to her and rushed into the house, slamming the door behind her. Confused, Komugi pushed herself up and stared at the door.

"It's not my fault she's so sensitive." Vuylay stated airily, tossing the end of her high ponytail over her shoulder. Komugi turned her head towards the direction their voices carried from. As they came into view she scooted herself off of the table to greet them.

"That's not the point, Vuylay. You just met the girl and you're already giving her a hard time. Can't you have some sort of good behavior period so people can get used to you before you start ripping into them?" Narlafayn shot back, angry.

"What good is that? I don't get the reaction I'm looking for that way." Vuylay answered honestly, her token wicked smile returning. Narlafayn sighed and rubbed her head.

"Do you think Sharmin is ok?" Leon asked suddenly. Narlafayn twitched and looked at him.

"Leon…. are you that dense?" Narlafayn asked, lowering her eyelids in annoyance. Leon blinked and scratched his head in thought.

"I don't think so…that must've been some fierce stomachache Sharmin had though to make her run off so quickly. You think it was something she ate? We'd better tell someone to make sure no one else ate it either." He stated. Both Narlafayn and Vuylay stared at him with wide eyes.

"You really are in your own little world there, aren't you?" Narlafayn stated, bewildered.

"Welcome back Leon, good to see you're as clueless as you've always been." Komugi said, interrupting Vuylay and Narlafayn's dumbfounded ness.

"Good eve, Komugi. I'm not sure what you meant by that, but it's good to see you again too." Leon responded, smiling nervously. Komugi sighed and shook her head.

"Don't think about it too hard, you might break something important. Anyway, come on in, and introduce us to your friends. Dinner's almost ready, so you got here just in time." Komugi said maturely, leading the way into the house. The boy on the table watched her go with a sad expression; obviously unhappy their cuddling session got interrupted.

Leon was well received by the children of the house, as he often times played with them during Darksday while studying at Cedric's. Several girls around Komugi's age suddenly grew shy in his presence and fidgeted in the background, their cheeks pink. Narlafayn proved to be a new playmate, and was soon giving the smaller children spinning aerial rides or letting girls play with her hair. The girls seemed to be awed by the silvery-ness of her hair, and spent more time brushing it to get it shinier than actually doing anything with it. Vuylay was stuck in a chair staring uncertainly at a toddler who was staring wide-eyed at her chest. Several boys gathered around her to stare at her speechless, some with mouths agape and Vuylay smiled nervously. She was used to grown men giving her this kind of reaction, but she didn't know how to deal with it coming from kids.

"Yes, yes. That's enough." Komugi stated, rounding up the boys and pushing them away. "Why don't you just ignore the old woman in the corner and go play with Leon?" she offered, casting a cynical grin towards Vuylay. Vuylay caught it instantly and stiffened.

"I can't say that I blame them." Vuylay began, lifting the toddler and looking him in the face. "Boys do know a good thing when they see it. I daresay they aren't looking at YOU, now are they?" she finished, her own barbed smile forming.

"Oh I like her." Koyori said, leaning on the wall near the stairwell. Komugi's hair prickled and stood out for a second time that night, and she began to resemble an angry cat.

"Yeah right Vuylay, your boobs are about the only thing that leaves people speechless." Narlafayn put in, sitting up from tickling a giggling girl on the floor. Her hair was full of static from the multiple brushings the girls had given her, and flew out in all directions. "I mean c'mon, has a guy ever gone for your intelligence or charming personality?" Komugi's hair flattened again and she turned a beaming smile towards Narlafayn.

"So sayeth the elf that can't get a man." Vuylay shot back. "Really, you've said yourself you find Dark Elf men attractive, and Shilien knows Dark Elves aren't that picky when it comes to lovers, explain to me again why you can't seem to get one?" Narlafayn's face turned crimson, and she stood up, her shoulders tense.

"Don't you dare bring that up here you big breasted bi-"

"Oh hey! Are you feeling better Sharmin?" Leon suddenly asked loudly as Sharmin wandered down the stairs. She had removed her armor and wore a blue leather skirt with a white sleeveless cotton shirt. This had been her armor at one time, but now she wore it as her at-home clothes. Sharmin paused at the sound of his voice and her eyes went wide. She had fallen asleep after making a beeline for her room and had forgotten that Leon was there. Vuylay turned away from the seething Narlafayn to cast a beaming smile in Sharmin's direction. Sharmin stiffened under it, but wandered to the table to munch on a leftover roll from dinner, pretending she didn't notice.

"Aren't you the lucky one? Now you have another chance to tell him." Komugi murmured to her, leaning down near her ear. Sharmin's cheeks turned pink again and she paused mid bite. "Why don't you start things off by asking him what he's been up to? It's a grand way to flirt without being obvious." She suggested. Sharmin promptly shut her eyes and finished biting through the roll and chewed. Komugi glared at her, familiar with Sharmin's method of ignoring.

"So Leon, Sharmin wants to know what you've been up to since you left." Komugi said loudly over the giggles and chattering of the children. Sharmin's eyes shot open and she dropped her roll.

"Komugi, don't!" Sharmin hissed, pulling on the sleeve of her tunic. Leon looked up at Komugi, his eyebrows raised, as children climbed over him. A girl had latched onto his shoulders and giggled as he moved, pleased with herself. Behind him, Vuylay made her way into the kitchen, still holding the toddler, followed by a train of dumbstruck boys watching her walk. Komugi's new boyfriend was among them, and she shot him an acidic glare, which he never noticed.

"Well, I haven't really done much…" Leon started, pulling himself to a chair and unhooking the girl from his shoulders. He launched into an average tale about life on the mainland. Sharmin was surprised to find out that he hadn't stayed with Narlafayn as much as it appeared. They'd paid the Gatekeeper to use her displacement magic on them to send them back to the Elven Forest once they reached Gludin. Narlafayn stayed with him for a bit after that, helping him train, before leaving him by himself to travel to Gludio.

The most prominent parts of his tale seemed to be that he was invited into a clan of lower status, and that he'd met a young dwarf by the name of Junk Pixie, who helped him get the armor and weaponry he needed. Narlafayn interjected an opinion or her own addition to the tale here and there, and by the time Leon had rounded back to the present, the room erupted with questions from the children. Sharmin smiled at an embarrassed answer he gave to a boy who asked if the Lireins of the Elven Forest were really naked as the tales said, and glanced towards the window as a passing figure caught her eye. She quietly excused herself and pushed away from the table to make her way towards the door. Komugi watched her go with a questioning tilt to her head, then shrugged and turned back to listen to Leon.

Sharmin stepped outside and took a breath of air. It was getting stuffy in the house with all the occupants gathered in one room; the coolness of the evening was a welcoming change. Her eyes widened as she saw Gatz come around from the back of the house, a bag slung over his shoulder. He glanced at her without expression, and plopped his bag on the picnic table, which he began to rummage through, making room for the daggers he'd grabbed from the back shed. It came to dawn on Sharmin that he was packing to leave, and she rushed towards him.

"Where are you going?" she said, her eyes large. Gatz paused for a moment, and then shrugged, not looking at her. "Gatz, what's the matter? Are you angry about earlier?" Sharmin tried again, her voice taking a desperate edge. Gatz shut his bag with force, his hands hitting the table with the movement.

"Yes and no." he finally said. He sighed in frustration and went over to a cellar door to gather some food stored there. "But don't worry about it. I'm sure DiValmont can do a better job than I ever could."

"What are you talking about? Leon's just is visiting! He'll be gone in a few days if not sooner!" Sharmin said incredulously. She couldn't believe what she was hearing; Gatz was leaving because of Leon? "You and Leon are completely different, right down to your profession, what could he possibly have that is making you act this way?" she demanded, putting a hand on his arm as he descended into the cellar. He turned his head slowly, first to glance at her hand, and then gazed directly into her eyes. Sharmin stared back for a moment before her cheeks turned pink and she turned away, clutching the hand she'd used to hold him back to her chest. She kept her back turned to him as he returned from the cellar and added what he'd grabbed to his bag. She quietly gasped in surprise as his arms suddenly circled her shoulders as he embraced her from behind.

"This is probably for the best anyway. I need to get back out there and train myself to become stronger. Please understand, it's not like I haven't enjoyed myself here, with you, but Leon returning is just the fates saying it's time for me to move on." He said quietly, his breath blowing the tiny hairs by her ear. Goosebumps rose up over Sharmin's arms at the sensation, and she placed a hand on his forearm, acknowledging the hug. "You can come with me." Gatz offered, hugging her a bit firmer. Sharmin squinted her eyes and sighed. This was the first time someone had ever shown an interest in her, but it distressed her with the object of a many-year crush being in such close proximity to where they were then that she didn't know how to react. Her heart began a conflict over how she felt for both men. Even though one was interested, she still stubbornly stayed rooted in her affection towards Leon, as oblivious as he was to it.

"I…can't. I can't leave Komugi here…" she said quietly. This was only a half-truth, as the real reason was she didn't feel she were strong or brave enough to leave the island. This was also coupled with the fact that she wanted to stay within range of Leon after not seeing him for so long. Gatz sighed heavily, another action that sent tingles down Sharmin's neck and arms and he released her slowly. Before she pulled away completely, he gently cupped a hand to her cheek and turned her head to face him and kissed her again. This kiss, unlike before, was softer, gentler. A goodbye kiss. He pulled away, almost reluctantly, and took his bag from the table. Without a word or backwards glance he made his way down the path from the house, leaving Sharmin to watch him with a forlorn expression, hugging herself as the air around her suddenly felt cold.

"That was quite the dramatic exit." A voice came as Gatz passed a tree. He glanced sidelong as Koyori pushed herself from her lean against it. Gatz shut his eyes in annoyance as she came to walk beside him.

"It's not polite to eavesdrop." Gatz stated deadpan, not looking at her. Koyori batted her eyes sweetly at him, causing him to roll his own.

"Oh don't be such a puissant. You should be glad that I've decided to come with you." Koyori stated, very proud of herself. Gatz paused to stare at her, his brow furrowed in annoyance. He silently began his trek up again, at a faster pace. "Hey!" Koyori shouted, trying to keep up with his pace. "What kind of reaction is that?"

"Nobody asked you." Gatz mumbled.

"Oh sure you didn't, but could Sharmin have kept you healed like I can? We all know how you like rushing into battle. You should feel honored that I'm even willing to go with you after the daily trauma you put me through." She snapped. "Heck, don't enjoy my company, I just need someone to travel with for awhile. If I get that annoying, then we'll part ways after three months, got it?"

"Fine." Gatz gave in wearily. Koyori made a victory motion with one of her arms before taking up a comfortable pace behind him, her hands folded in front of her as she hummed happily to herself. The only one, who would end up missing Koyori surprisingly, would be Komugi, as she came to realize the absence of her rival several days later.

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Chapter 9

 

"Leon..." Vuylay said one morning as Leon exited the house to wash his face in the water basin. Sharmin, who had been sitting at the picnic table having breakfast with Komugi and the two elves, turned beet red and stiffened in her seat as she looked at Leon, who was shirtless. Leon paused for a moment, his washcloth pressed to his cheek, to glance over his shoulder at Vuylay. She pressed herself against his arm lightly and traced a muscle in his shoulder with a long fingernail. "Take me out hunting today, won't you? We've been on this island nearly a week and I haven't gotten to see the northern side yet." She glanced at Sharmin sidelong, a pleased smile forming on her face as she saw how Sharmin was fuming. Next to her, Komugi hid her face with a hand, recognizing the flames of rivalry, and Narlafayn ate, accustomed to ignoring any mischief Vuylay attempted to cause.

"Well I suppose…." Leon began, sighing.

"Mmm...Thank you." Vuylay said in a sultry voice and leaned up to kiss him under his ear. Unable to take any more, Sharmin stood and slammed her hands down on the table, causing everyone's dishes to rattle. Both Vuylay and Leon turned to look at her, one face annoyed and the other surprised.

"Leon, would you kindly take me hunting as well?" Sharmin demanded more than asked. Her cheeks turned pink as he stared at her in surprise.

"Sure, why not?" Leon said good-naturedly, a smile forming. "The more the merrier. Let me go get dressed and I'll meet you guys back down here in a few minutes." With that he turned back towards the house and disappeared inside of it. Vuylay made a few tiny protesting noises before growling to herself and shooting an icy glare at Sharmin.

"Good going 'Min!" Komugi complimented as Sharmin sat back down. Narlafayn paused, her mouth open with her fork poised in front of it, as she glanced at Sharmin and Komugi.

"Did I miss something?" she asked, eyebrows raised. Komugi stared at her, her eyelids lowered in a familiar annoyed expression.

"Leon's rubbing off on you, isn't he?" Komugi asked, deadpan. She squeaked and jumped a moment later as Narlafayn's fork came down and lodged itself in the wood of the table, scarcely centimeters from her hand.

"I'm sorry; I thought I heard you say something unpleasant." Narlafayn said through clenched teeth, her hand still on the handle of the fork. "Would you care to repeat that?" she asked, squinting her eyes shut in a glare. Komugi shook her head rapidly, her eyes bulging out in fear. Her expression suddenly changing to pleasant, Narlafayn smiled sweetly and stood to take her dishes into the house. She left the fork where it was, and Komugi stared at it, her eyes still large.

A few hours later, Leon led the two girls through the northern part of the island to exterminate spiders. He reminisced along the way about his days at the Training Hall when Cedric took them out to kill spiders. The Blade Spiders where the strongest breed on the island, and Cedric had said that if one could destroy a set amount of this kind of arachnid, then he would deem them strong enough to take on the mainland. He then went on to explain the best way to first immobilize their venomous fangs, and then take them out methodically, a lecture that Vuylay sighed and grumbled through, but Sharmin absorbed with a renewed eagerness to learn.

Before they left to hunt, Leon had taken them to the Village and pulled a worn but still effective set of bronze armor from storage in the warehouse, and given it to Sharmin to replace her crumbling wooden set. She accepted the gift with a blush and had eagerly changed into the new armor. Now out on the field she found the new set extremely confining around the chest, and a bit too bare around her hips. The blacksmith had modified the armor for a woman, at Leon's request. The design left Sharmin in something akin to a bikini for the trousers, and she felt rather naked compared to the short skirt her wooden armor had.

"Dark Elves are rather comfortable in designs such as that." Vuylay smirked, amused at her discomfort.

"That's not saying much, I thought your race was comfortable being naked even." Leon said from behind her. Vuylay jumped and turned, unaware of his presence and he grinned at them, shutting his visible eye. "Is that too uncomfortable for you, Sharmin? I can get you a new set of wooden armor if that's what you feel better wearing." He offered. They had paused in their trek through the northern woods for a breather under a large tree near the path. Sharmin shook her head rapidly, her eyes large.

"I'll be fine." She said quickly, "I'll get used to it. I've heard armor for women is um…all kind of similar to this…." She said, fidgeting.

"Well, I have to say that's true." Leon chuckled as he stood. "Shall we continue?"

A bit later, Sharmin ventured out into an open field overlooking the ocean to wait for a Blade Spider to venture out of the woods. She glared as Vuylay pressed herself close to Leon and spoke too softly for Sharmin to hear. Leon shrugged to whatever it was Vuylay said and shifted, as if uninterested in her. A spider suddenly came screeching out of the woods and made a beeline towards Sharmin, who blinked in confusion for a moment before remembering what she had come out to the field to do. The spider screeched at her and stabbed with two of its front legs, the claws bouncing off of the metal of the armor. It managed to open up cuts and scratches with each stab it took, and Sharmin winced in pain, determined to bear it. She recalled Leon's instructions-take out the mandibles first, and then focus on killing it quickly.

Glancing at Vuylay and Leon from the corner of her eye, she saw Vuylay press herself close to Leon in an attempt to kiss him. Her eyes widened as she turned her head to look at them fully, and her sword missed the spider's mandible and sliced into its mouth. It screeched as she sliced its poison sac, amber colored poison spraying from the arachnid's mouth and snapping her back to attention. She shielded herself from the spray, but before she could release her sword, the spider drove a mandible between the plates in her gloves, piercing her skin through the thick leather of the under glove and pumping poison into her bloodstream. Sharmin groaned in pain and pulled her sword free of the things mouth. She thought she heard Leon shout something, but her head had begun to pound from the poison and she couldn't really tell. Her vision swirling, she managed to stab the monster in the wound she'd already made and forced her sword down, opening up a large slice on its underside. It gurgled, the green slimy blood spurting out from it as it fell, immobilized and dying. Sharmin fell to her knees, the poison coursing through her body. She felt like lying down until her head would stop pounding. Her entire body began to hurt and she groaned again.

Sharmin heard Vuylay chant something in her Elven language, and a comfortable feeling swept over her. The pain from her head and body vanished in an instant and she blinked several times to clear the remnants from her vision as she sat up straighter. Vuylay chanted again, and a warm glow surrounded her, healing her wounds and revitalizing the strength the poison had taken away.

"Are you ok?" Leon asked, kneeling beside her. "Do you still feel ill? Are you hurting anywhere?" His concern caused Sharmin to blush for what felt like the millionth time since he'd arrived and she looked down at her hands.

"I'm ok now..." she mumbled, trying to mute the giddiness in her voice.

"That's what you get for not paying attention." Vuylay stated in annoyance. "You're lucky I could heal this poison, next time we might not be so lucky." Sharmin glared at her and thought; well you shouldn't have been so distracting in the first place. What's the big idea being so touchy-feely with Leon? Have you no self-control? She resisted the urge to put her thoughts into words, deciding it would be less embarrassing if she remained silent.

"In any case, I think that's a sign to call it a day." Leon decided, helping Sharmin to her feet. "I think we've done enough hunting, let's go back to town." He smiled at her and patted her head like a kids before walking in the direction of the village. "You did well today Sharmin. I think you're just about ready to head to the mainland yourself. You've come a long way from when I last saw you." He complimented. Sharmin's blush deepened, and she didn't bother to hide the smile that formed with his words.

"You realize he was complimenting you as a brother would to a little sister, don't you? Really he's quite-" Vuylay stated in an almost pitying tone. Sharmin turned her head slightly to glare in her direction.

"Don't ruin it for me." She commanded, interrupting the rest of Vuylay's sentence.

Sharmin lingered in town long enough to pick up a few groceries after they returned. Vuylay had gone straight to the house, claiming she wanted to take a bath before the children got home from school and took over the heated washbasin located in the basement. It was a device that one of the Sorcerers of the village had come up with, a heated indoor washbasin, and he was currently trying to market it across the continent. It was quite an ingenious design based off the hot springs in Elmore, and Vuylay's new favorite way of bathing.

As the trader wrapped up her purchases, Sharmin's eyes wandered over to the wall where wanted posters were pinned detailing to any traveling adventurer the fiends that were wanted for crimes on the Island and the reward that would be given if they brought the criminal's head in. She tilted her head in confusion and wandered over to the wall.

"Huh. It's not here anymore." She said to herself in thought.

"What's not there anymore?" Leon asked peering over her shoulder. Sharmin tensed up and a shiver that started at her feet traveled up through her at the close proximity Leon was in. She scooted, quite comically, a few feet away from him before whipping around and laughing nervously.

"The wanted poster of that Gladiator that killed the Einhovant's Headmaster is gone now." She said, trying to recover her lost composure. Leon tilted his head and glanced over the wall, putting a hand to his chin in thought.

"You're right, it is gone. I haven't heard anything about charges being dropped…how odd." He said to himself. His face darkened after a moment and he excused himself, hurrying out of the store. Sharmin stared at him dumbly as the trader called her name several times to pick up her packages. He didn't return to the house that night, and in the morning Sharmin and Vuylay found he and Narlafayn had gone.

"I can't believe they left me…." Vuylay grumbled several months after Leon and Narlafayn disappeared. Sharmin sighed and inspected her sword as she polished it. There hadn't been a day that had gone by when Vuylay didn't complain about being left behind. "Of all the nerve, they left ME, BEHIND." She grumbled louder, irritated when Sharmin didn't respond.

"Nobody's asking you to stay here. You could've left a long time ago." Komugi said as she exited the house.

"Nobody asked YOU for your opinion." Vuylay stated, sticking her nose in the air. "This conversation is for us adults, not underdeveloped runts like you."

There was a moment of silence, and Sharmin braced herself for the acidic comeback that she was sure Komugi would fire. She never expected Komugi to clamp her mouth shut to stifle a laugh, the resulting noise sounding similar to an explosive snort.

"Sharmin? An adult? Boy where have I been?" Komugi finally let out, laughing. She turned and retreated back into the house, Vuylay glaring at the back of her head. She made a disgusted noise and folded her arms underneath her breasts. Sharmin shut her eyes in annoyance, trying to control her temper.

Help me.

Sharmin lifted her head quickly, hearing the whispery plea, trying to find its source. Vuylay noticed her movement and quirked an eyebrow.

She'll kill me soon, please! Somebody!

"Who is that?" Sharmin asked, alarmed. Vuylay frowned at her

"Who is what?" she asked. Sharmin motioned for her to be silent.

Hurry! Please!

"Can't you hear that?" Sharmin turned towards Vuylay who regarded her skeptically.

"Are those blows to the head the goblins gave you that one day finally showing some lasting damage?" Vuylay asked, deadpan. Sharmin glared at her and then strained to listen again, but the voice was gone. Her ears perked as she heard the distant tolling of a ship bell, signaling the arrival of a ship to the harbor. Sharmin stood, as if in a trance, and took a few steps towards the gate of the fence surrounding the house. It was strange; the tolling of the bell stirred a feeling inside of her. Somewhere, in the back of her mind, she thought she could hear music. Later she would recall that feeling and muse if she had gone mad at that moment, but now she only had one thing on her mind.

"Komugi..." Sharmin said as her sister exited the house once again. Komugi made an answering noise, a spoon in her mouth from the dish of iced milk she had been eating. "Get anything you need together, we're going to the mainland. It's time."

The spoon was then heard clattering to the porch as Komugi's mouth dropped open in shock. Even Vuylay's lips had parted in surprise, as these were words people had begun to think would never be uttered by Sharmin.

Their send-off was a calm one, only the lady of the house, a few children, and a flock of Komugi's admirers and exes bid them farewell from the harbor. Sharmin began to feel the weight of her sudden decision as the boat sailed away from the island, and nervous shivers threatened to set in. Sharmin seated herself near the back of the boat, hugging her knees, as Komugi flitted this way and that, excited like a child about their trip. Vuylay plopped herself beside Sharmin, noticing her discomfort, but not teasing her about it.

"The mainland's not so bad." She offered, smiling. Sharmin lifted her head a bit from where she had buried it in her arms to glance at her. "There are so many places to see and different kinds of people..."

"Including those that would kill you upon first glance?" Sharmin muttered, hugging her knees tighter. Vuylay pursed her lips.

"Well…. yes, there will be people like that there." She began carefully. "But the key is to stick together with a few friends at all times! You're less likely to get hurt that way." She finished quickly, seeing the dark shadow cross Sharmin's face. "Besides…. Leon is on the mainland." She added slyly. Sharmin's eyes widened and her cheeks, although half-hidden by her arms, were most definitely pink.

"Don't try to trick me; you know it'll be nearly impossible to find him on that big continent." Sharmin said, sitting up a little straighter to glare.

"Oh, don't worry. I have a few ideas where they could've gone." Vuylay promised, her eyes lowering in annoyance at the memory of being left behind.

The ship was at sea nearly four days; during that time Komugi and Vuylay amused themselves by flirting with the sailors manning the ship or other passengers. Vuylay seemed to take the place of Koyori, and she and Komugi started up a silent competition to see who could flirt with the most men successfully. It was hard to say if they were really keeping tally, or if there were any benefits to being the winner. Sharmin spent most of her time watching them with a smile on her face.

"Long trip, eh?" a slurred voice suddenly came from beside her. Sharmin slowly raised her eyes up a set of armored legs to see the drunken face of the knight known as Montavious grinning down at her. She stiffened and scooted away from him a bit, trying to get away from the acrid stench of alcohol and unwashed body. Montavious was a plump knight, by far not her idea of what a true knight would be at all. Rumor had it that he had received a wound one day while training in the Partisan's Hideaway and it had not healed correctly, causing him pain. The result had left him unable to go out and fight as he used to, and instead he spent most of his days at the bar of the Inn, drinking himself to a stupor. He'd approached Sharmin before, not long after the raid on the Village, and attempted to 'woo' her in his drunken manner. She'd been nice to him, hoping that gentle refusal would put him down enough to leave her be, but it only seemed to make him more flirtatious with her. While Gatz had been there, he'd kept away from her, intimidated by the young Warrior.

"Yes…but we'll be there soon." Sharmin mumbled, trying to feign a half-smile although the odor around him made her want to screw up her face in disgust. To her dismay, this wasn't enough of a dismissal and he plopped himself down next to her, pulling out a flask.

"Wanner drink?" he asked, pushing the flask at her. Sharmin let the disgusted look come out fully now and she tilted her head away, pushing the flask back towards him.

"I don't drink." She stated flatly, trying to scoot a bit farther away from him.

"C'mon, don't be like that." Montavious insisted, putting his arm around her. "You've been so mean to me since we were in the Village, why dontcha be nice to me fer once?" Sharmin attempted to push him away as he leaned in closer to her. "I've done nothing but be nice to you, c'mon." he prodded.

"Hey!" Komugi shouted from the other end of the ship, seeing Montavious' advances on her sister. Sharmin pushed herself away from him to stand up.

"I said NO, Montavious. Now leave me be!" Sharmin shouted. Montavious stood and pushed her against the side of the ship, his face dark. He attempted to kiss her while one hand felt her breast. Although she was well protected by her armor, this motion was highly humiliating, and Sharmin put a stop to it immediately. She kneed him in that wonderfully pre-programmed stop button on men, and then punched him across the jaw. He cried out as he fell, holding himself.

"It'd be kind of you to respect the wishes of a lady." Vuylay said in a cold voice, lifting Montavious up by the collar of his under-tunic. She regarded him with an equally cold face, lifting him a few inches from the deck effortlessly. He gasped for air, his face turning purple.

"Hey now, stop that!" a voice came. Vuylay looked around Montavious' purpling face to the owner of the voice. A dark elf fighter of some sort with short hair stared back at her, taking on a challenging stance. Around them a crowd of passengers had begun to form, and the ships' captain forced his way between them.

"All right, enough!" the captain shouted in a gruff voice. "I don't care what you do on the mainland, but I won't have any killing on my ship, go it?" the captain shouted. "You put him down this instant!" he commanded, pointing at the ship deck. Vuylay made a 'tch' noise and dropped Montavious. He landed heavily and rolled to his side, coughing. Vuylay walked towards Sharmin, who was now being hugged by a glaring Komugi. She paused briefly and glanced over her shoulder quickly at the crowd, who jumped and then dispersed quickly, pretending they hadn't been watching. She turned back towards the girls with a satisfied smile.

On the deck near them, Montavious wiped at a splatter of blood on his mouth and glared at them. He spit once, and then stood, making his own way below deck to sleep off his hangover. The rest of the trip was made in uneasy silence, Komugi and Vuylay forgetting their competition with one another and staying near Sharmin's side. When the boat finally docked, they found lodging in the inn and rested after the long journey, thinking it finally over.

Unbeknownst to them at this time, it had just begun.

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Chapter 10

 

It is at this time that we find Shilien in her audience chamber somewhere in the demon world where she had been banished, behind the Forbidden Gate. Shilien has waited here for centuries, contemplating and gathering strength for the day when the Seven Seals would finally be broken and her power released. For now she had found amusement in toying with the lives of the people on the other side of the Gate, be it through her own demonic children that she would send through the growing cracks in the Gate itself, or through influencing lives and watching the outcome. She mostly toyed with the Elves and Orcs, as her sister, their mother-goddess, Maphr, fondly looked after the Dwarves. Humans proved to be too stupid and dull since the Elmoreden Empire, and sect that chose to revere her as their goddess fell, to be worth her time…. until now.

She pursed her lips, her expression sour, as she gazed into the dark pool at the base of her dais, watching the images displayed there. This was her Camera Obscura, her only portal into the outside world. Occasionally she would send an astral projection of herself into the mortal world, but it was no more physical than a mirrored image, and she could only sustain it for so long. Dreams were also where she could creep about, unchained, especially the dreams of her creation-children or the dreams of the truly dastardly. But it had been eons since the last time she found humans worth any more attention than that of a passing fling in the dreams of a warrior now and then. The situation, now, had changed, and she didn't like it.

"You look unhappy, sister." Sayha, her younger brother said in his deep voice as he appeared in a gust of wind. Sayha was flighty, and chained himself to no one, not even his or her mother, Einhasad. Sayha was the only of her siblings that would frequent her prison with friendly visits, the others only checking in when they had something to say. His nature was prevalent in his creation-children, who had locked themselves up on an island, refusing to bother themselves with the state of the world, refusing to take sides with anyone, be it mortal or immortal.

"Sayha, would it be giving our disgusting father too much attention if I began the game with his abomination-children?" Shilien asked, leaning her cheek on her fist in thought. She stared hard at the Camera Obscura, her brow furrowed.

"He has long since abandoned those fools. He instead laughs at their idiocy at worshipping Mother, with their claming it was she who created them, putting them in the same league as the Angels. Nobody even misses them when they join your realm; instead there is rejoicing every time one of the fools perishes. Mother often plays her own games with them, you know." Sayha stated dramatically, sitting at the foot of her dais. He could not see the images that she could in the water, and could only imagine what it was she was gazing upon. When she was quiet for a stretch of time, he asked, "What has intrigued you so to ask such a question?"

"Humans." She answered shortly. She stared at the Obscura for a moment longer before sighing and reclining back on her dais. "They have always been stupid little insects with illusions of grandeur, but never any that could cause us distress. "She paused again, frowning in thought, bitterly remembering the Emperor Shunaiman, the one who cast the seals years ago.

"Are you saying one has been born that actually can be of some trouble?" Sayha asked. Shilien extended a hand out to him, and he knelt beside her dais, removed his helmet, and kissed it. Shilien purred and pet her brothers' hair gently in appreciation. Sayha was a beautiful creature, the most beautiful creature that could ever come from her cursed mother and disgusting father. He was frightening, in his beauty, and even the immortal gods could not gaze at him for long without feeling the awe of fear. Einhasad created the Angels in the image of her son, but not even she could match the utterly perfect beauty that he was. Shilien was the only one who did not fear him, and thus he was closer to her, albeit secretly, than any of the others.

"No… not one. Several. It was not expected, and it discomforts me. It would not matter so much if they weren't connected to one another already." She sighed and twirled a lock of his silvery white hair around a finger.

"Call one to your embrace and then their numbers will dwindle." Sayha suggested, gazing into her eyes. "Humans are fragile, and rely heavily on the bonds they make with one another. If you destroy one, it will discourage and destroy the rest in time. Then we have nothing more to worry about."

"Your daughter is one of their bonds, shall I start with her?" Shilien sneered. She took pleasure in the uncomfortable look that graced Sayha's pretty face. He looked away from her, shifting in discomfort. She chuckled and took her hand from his head to place it under his chin and raise his head slowly to look at her again. "Do not worry my brother, your daughter is both my niece and creation-daughter, no harm shall befall her at this time." She released his chin gently, turning the motion into a caress. "No… it is best to start with the weakest, as humans tend to grow fonder of those who are helpless." A dark grin touched her lips and she sat back again on her dais. "I've already begun to remove them."

Un-noticed in the shadows, Shilien's elder brother Paagrio listened and watched with a scornful expression. He believed in honor, and the games his siblings; even his mother played with their creations angered him. The fires of the afterlife had consumed many of his own creation-children before their time due to these games, and he could take no more. His creation-children were barbaric, and violent, but they were straightforward, and did not play games. He would put and end to them, those games, even if it meant the destruction of the Great Flame from which his creation-children drew their strength. A roaring ball of flame consumed him as he disappeared from the chamber, his decision made.

Nearly half a year passed before Sharmin, Komugi and Vuylay left the safe confines of Gludin. Sharmin, now a Knight, was quite content living in the city for the rest of her life, the long time on the Island leaving her somewhat introverted. Through insistent (and sometimes quite violent) urging from Komugi, she and Vuylay finally convinced Sharmin to start a long journey to the Dark Elven Village. Vuylay had received a note saying her surrogate mother had fallen ill, and wanted to visit her to make sure it was not life threatening. They had all just purchased stronger armor and robes (Sharmin's armor had to be, of course, Brigandine, like Leon's.) and were left with no money for a Gatekeeper spell. It would be nearly three months before they would reach the Village, and Sharmin was not looking forward to the long journey.

"Are we there yet?" Komugi asked, her staff resting across her shoulders with her arms over it. In front of her, both Sharmin and Vuylay visibly tensed. Sharmin instantly squinted her eyes shut, trying to ignore her. Every day, since they had left Gludin nearly three weeks prior, Komugi had made sure to ask the same question at exactly noontime. Neither Sharmin nor Vuylay could understand why she'd picked up this pattern, but both were at their wits end. "I'm bored, let's go kill something." Komugi said a little while later, breaking the silence. Sharmin heard a popping noise come from Vuylay, and she looked at her as she swung around and raised a finger to Komugi's face.

"Listen you little pink-haired pest, I'm going to warn you this one time, and ONLY this one time. Either stop with the idiotic questions, or I rip those little lips off of your face and place them someplace inappropriate!" Vuylay seethed. Komugi glared at her in annoyance, unaffected by her anger.

"Yeah right, and just where could that be?" Komugi challenged. Vuylay's grin turned the most evil it had ever been, and Komugi's eyes slowly widened.

"Do you really want to know?" Vuylay asked wickedly.

"No, I'm good." Komugi answered quickly.

By the time evening arrived that day, they had made it to the crossroads of the Orc Barracks and the Fellmere Harvest Grounds, their journey only a quarter of the way through. They made their camp that night inside an abandoned house near the road. The shack creaked and leaned in the wind, threatening to topple over but never really doing it. The upper floor had nearly rotted away, leaving a large gaping hole above them. Sharmin built a fire in the crumbling fireplace, and the girls sat, chatting peacefully about the journey to come.

"What is that?" Komugi suddenly asked, sitting a little straighter. Sharmin's heart skipped a beat for a moment, remembering the voice that no one else seemed to have heard on the island. "Do you hear that?" Komugi asked in a hushed voice, "It sounds like sobbing."

"Ah, that." Vuylay said, pulling a blanket from her pack and laying on a broken down bed in the corner of the room. "We're near the Ruins of Agony, you know. Spirits from there sometimes wander over here seeking solace from the torment and anguish they must relive every day in the Ruins." She settled down comfortably, oblivious to the large-eyed stares she was receiving from the sisters behind her. Komugi closed the space between her and Sharmin, and latched herself onto Sharmin's arm in fear.

"Min, are we going to be safe here?" Komugi asked in a tiny voice.

"In all honesty, we'd probably be safer camping outside of the Orc Barracks in the open rather than an abandoned house like this." Vuylay answered. With that she shut her eyes and left the two sisters to stare at her once again in fear. Taking a breath, Sharmin looked down at her sister and gave her a brave smile.

"We'll be ok. Vuylay's just was teasing us." She said, making sure she sounded certain. "Try and get some sleep." Relaxing a bit, Komugi nodded and curled under her own blanket, cuddling close. Sharmin stared into the fire for some time after the two healers fell asleep, lost in thought. The past often came up to replay itself in her mind at night, and she lost herself in the images that she remembered. Her vision began to blur as she watched the flames, and a face seemed to appear in the fire. She jumped, rubbing her eyes hard. When she looked back into the fire, there was nothing there but burning wood and ashes. Sighing, and deciding she was more tired than she had thought, Sharmin removed her chest armor and lay down next to her sister.

Later that night, when the fire had died down to popping, smoldering ashes, Sharmin woke with a start. Her sister sat in the corner, in a broken chair, whispering to the shadows. Alarmed, Sharmin pushed herself to her knees and knuckled sleep from her eyes, trying to see clearer.

"Komugi, who are you talking to?" Sharmin asked, her voice raspy with sleep.

"Ah! Wait!" Komugi suddenly cried. The door to the shack suddenly opened and slammed shut, and Sharmin jumped to her feet.

"What was that?" Sharmin asked, her heart thudding in her chest. "Komugi, who were you talking to?"

"Sharmin, how could you? Why did you have to scare mother away like that?" Komugi asked, her voice choking up with tears. Sharmin felt as if ice were forming in her body at Komugi's words. "Now I'll have to go and get her to come back, and she traveled such a long way to see us too!"

"Komugi, wait!" Sharmin cried as her sister flung the door open and ran out into the night. Without thinking to grab her sword, shield or armor, Sharmin ran out after Komugi wearing nothing but a short bodice and heavy blue shorts. She raced after Komugi, who was running east, waving and calling at something Sharmin couldn't see. Fog began to descend around them, and Sharmin grew fearfully aware at how close they were getting to the Ruins of Agony. The abandoned city had become home to various sorts of undead and imps as well as the restless spirits of the former residents that could not find peace.

Sharmin heard a familiar scuffling noise, but before she could turn, two giant mandibles had wrapped themselves around her waist, and she was lifted into the air. Sharmin looked over her shoulder to see the biggest green spider she'd ever seen in her entire life, and it was holding her in a strange sort of bear hug. She kicked her legs uselessly in the air and pushed against the mandibles, but it wouldn't budge. Sharmin took her elbow and drove it as hard as she could into the arachnid's eye. It exploded at the force, sticky goo covering her arm. The monster screeched loudly and drove two venomous fangs into the naked skin of her back, right below her bodice. Sharmin screamed loudly as the spider lifted her over its head, the fangs driving deeper for a moment before throwing Sharmin forward, releasing her from its mandibles. She tumbled weakly to the dry grass, already feeling the effects of the spiders poison.

"Mother, wait!" she heard Komugi shout in the distance. Sharmin looked up with blurring vision to see Komugi's figure disappearing into the fog ahead of her.

"Komugi..." Sharmin said in a choked voice, weakly reaching a hand towards where she had disappeared. The spider stabbed down with its two front legs, catching her in the shoulders, tearing through her bodice and stabbing her deep in her muscles. Sharmin screamed again, and crumpled weakly into the grass. She heard a voice chanting in Elven then, and a felt a sudden gust of wind as it hit the spider. It moved from Sharmin and began making a fast trek towards its offender. There was another chant, and the spider squealed as it was hit with a killing blow. Sharmin weakly looked up as an Elf paused to look down at her. Her vision was too blurred, she could not make out the face of the Elf, but she could tell the Elf had long, pale, moon-colored hair. She tried to ask the Elf to help her, but she could no longer form words and her voice came out as a choked noise. The Elf tilted their head at her for a moment before turning away and retreating into the fog.

Sharmin passed out and regained consciousness several times before finally struggling to her feet. She knew Vuylay could heal her like before; she just had to get back to the abandoned house. Everything would be better if she could reach the house.

She walked for what felt like hours, when she finally emerged from the fog and into a grassy field. Her vision still blurred, she scanned the area around her for the house, but could not see anything that remotely resembled it. She sobbed once and stumbled to her knees as she realized that she couldn't remember the way back. This was not where she had started from; she did not recognize this field. She attempted to stand again, but her legs had gone numb from the poison, and she fell to her side. Her breathing shallow and mind clear, Sharmin let her eyes slowly drift shut, feeling nothing but cold peace.

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Chapter 11

 

"My God!" a voice came through the black haze of her mind some time later. There was a loud clattering of metal against metal somewhere nearby. "C'mon, don't die, please don't die." The voice came again. This time it was accompanied by a bitter, rancid taste from a liquid that was being poured into her mouth. Sharmin let her mouth fall open weakly, unable to find the strength to swallow the awful-tasting liquid. There was a frustrated sigh, and then Sharmin felt what she dimly was aware of being another mouth, closing over hers. Her jaw was gently held open by a hand on her chin, and she once again tasted the bitter tasting liquid, this time being transferred by the person's mouth. Her chin held up by the hand, Sharmin had no choice but to reflexively swallow the liquid. The person then stood, and lifted her effortlessly, and she completely blacked out again as they began to move.

She did not know where she was taken, just that it was silent there save for an occasional creak of wood. Shivers and fever from the poison and wounds in her shoulders wracked her body, and she instinctively curled into a ball, trying to keep warm. The person, who was a man, said gentle words to her that she could not remember moments after they were uttered. She felt him remove her bodice and shorts, and she tried to command him to stop, but a groan came instead of words. A heavy blanket covered her moments after her shorts were removed, and she hugged herself underneath it. Her hair felt wet, and she wondered, somewhere in her mind, if she were sweating despite being cold.

More rancid tasting liquid was forced down her throat through that strange kiss, and she choked on it. "No more." She finally managed to say, and rolled onto her side.

"It's finally taking effect; you've regained the use of your tongue." The man said, chuckling. Sharmin rolled back slightly and attempted to look at her savior, but her eyelids were heavy, and she could only lift them enough to see a blurry outline in the gloom. His voice was comforting, though it made her homesick.

A bit later, Sharmin felt the blankets move away from her slightly, as the man climbed underneath them with her. She was still shivering from fever, and he wrapped his arms around her firmly (a memory sparked, didn't this happen before?) and held her close. She faded in and out of sleep, her dreams ridden with strange images and fast-moving scenes. Every time she awoke, sometimes sobbing from the frightful things she saw in the darkness of sleep, the man would murmur comforting things to her, and nuzzle the nape of her neck. Even though she knew, somewhere in her muddled mind, that she shouldn't allow a complete stranger to do as such to her, she found she didn't mind.

Her fever finally broke many hours later, and she felt the comforting warmth of the man move away from her. Sharmin reached out blindly, not wanting her newfound comfort to leave her. She was still unable to open her eyes more than a crack without them heavily shutting again.

"Shh…it's ok. I'll be back in a moment." The man said gently, kissing her forehead. "Sleep now." Sharmin let out a whining grunt, then instantly succumbed to sleep.

When she was finally able to open her eyes, she was greeted with a dark room. She could barely make out the figure of a man sitting over her in the gloom. Her eyes were still slightly unfocused from the poison, and she blinked hard trying to clear them.

"The blurred vision is normal. It'll leave once the poison is purged from you." The man said, taking her hand and squeezing it lightly. "It was a little scary there, I almost thought you wouldn't make it." He said, his voice giving away his relief. Sharmin blinked hard again and then squinted at him, trying to make out his face.

"Do I know you?" she asked. The man tensed for a moment, as if upset or surprised, it was hard to say which, before sighing and releasing her hand. He began to back away from her a bit, but Sharmin sat up and reached out, grabbing the sleeve of his tunic. "No, don't leave, I'm sorry!" she said desperately. "Please, stay with me. Please!" She knew she was delirious from the after effects of the poison and fever, but it didn't concern her. She managed to grab onto his tunic with both hands, and attempted to lie back down, pulling him with her.

"Sharmin..." the man said in a strained voice. He placed his hands on either side of her, resisting her gentle tugging. "Please…. Don't." he pleaded softly.

Perhaps it was complete delirium, or perhaps the man was really someone Sharmin cared for (how would he have known her name if he wasn't?), and wasn't aware of it in her delirious mind, but she found herself kissing the man. His resistance slowly faltered, and he lowered himself onto her, deepening the kiss. She clung to him desperately; afraid he would leave her if she didn't hold on as tightly as she could. What happened next must've been a dream, she later thought to herself. She must've dreamt that she laid in his arms the rest of the night, different from before, in a manner that lovers do. In her sleep that night, she dreamt of her time on the island, with Gatz. She dreamt of the good times they had together, and for the first time ever, she wept over his leaving. She felt a hand brush her cheek, wiping her tears away, and then deep sleep claimed her.

She awoke with a start, sitting up quickly. She looked at her surroundings with wide eyes, her vision clear. She was in a small bedroom, lying in a comfortable bed, covered with thick down blankets. She wore a long nightshirt, much like what she used to wear as a villager. Beside the bed was a table with a half-drank bottle of red healing potion. Remembering the wounds she'd received from the spider, Sharmin reached through the back collar of the nightshirt to feel her shoulders. The wounds were almost healed. She sat for a moment, staring at the pattern on the blanket, trying to recall all that had happened after the spider had stabbed her. It was fuzzy, but she remembered having an awful lot of strange dreams.

Sharmin emerged from the bedroom warily, one hand on the wall as her strength had not yet returned. Sitting at a small table with their back to her, looking out the window was a silver-haired elf wearing a blue shirt and skirt. Sharmin's eyes widened at her.

"Narlafayn?" she whispered. Narlafayn jumped and turned to look at her. Sharmin was shocked at the tired, defeated look on her face. Surely this wasn't the same elf that she had just seen, not yet a year ago? What had happened to her?

"Oh…I'm glad you're ok. You've been so dead asleep, I was worried you were in a coma or something." Narlafayn said, smiling weakly.

"Did you bring me here?" Sharmin asked, looking around her. The house was sparsely furnished, but Narlafayn had filled what seemed to be every dish she owned with flowers.

"In here, yes. I found you outside of my house two days ago." Narlafayn said, turning back to the window and gazing out it with her chin resting on her hand.

"My sister and Vuylay, have you seen them?" Sharmin suddenly asked, darting to Narlafayn's side and kneeling next to her. Narlafayn didn't respond, and only continued to look out the window. "Narlafayn!" Sharmin exclaimed, offended that she would ignore such an important question.

"No. There's just me and a couple of farmers out here, I haven't seen anyone but them, and you." She finally answered, not looking at her. Sharmin sunk to the floor as the realization that she'd been separated from her sister finally hit her.

"I have to go…I need to find Komugi." Sharmin mumbled, her eyes suddenly growing large.

"Your weapons and armor are in the broom closet." Narlafayn said airily. Sharmin darted to the closet and flung it open. Sure enough, her supply bag, armor, shield and sword were stacked neatly in there beside the yellow Mithril armor she'd last seen Narlafayn wear. She undressed right in the middle of the room and put on her bloodied bodice and shorts, followed by the red armor. She paused as she put her gloves on to look back at Narlafayn, who hadn't moved.

"Will you come with me?" Sharmin asked. Narlafayn responded with a short chuckle.

"Sorry, but no." she said blandly.

"Why not?"

"Because."

"Because why?"

"Do you have to be so nosy?" Narlafayn shouted, bringing her hands down hard on the table as she turned to look at Sharmin. She sighed and turned back to her window. "Things have happened. I'm not who I was last time you saw me. It's better if I stay here." She muttered.

"Narlafayn…" Sharmin began, taking a concerned step towards her. Narlafayn stood, hitting the table as she went. A vase of flowers that had sat in the middle toppled at the movement, and water spilled on the table and over the side.

"You are welcome to stay here if you need to recover, but if you are fine, I want you to leave." She said in a tempered voice. When Sharmin didn't move, she clenched her fists on the table and shouted, "There's nothing for me out there anymore! Take what you need from here and go!" Sharmin pursed her lips for a moment, ready to argue back with Narlafayn, but when she saw blood slowly dripping from her hands at her tightly clenched fists, she left it be. As she'd commanded, Sharmin packed enough provisions from Narlafayn's storehouse to get her to the next town. She paused at the door before leaving, to glance back at the Elf. Narlafayn hadn't moved from her spot, and was staring hard at the tipped flowers. Sharmin cast her one last saddened glance before exiting the tiny house. Whatever it was that was hurting Narlafayn, Sharmin hoped it would be cured soon.

As she stepped out into the bright mid-morning light, a transparent, aggressive wind spirit almost immediately attacked her. Caught off guard, Sharmin managed to drop her bag and hit the spirit with her shield, stunning it. She then swung her sword out and through the spirit's midsection, the enchantments on it giving Sharmin the ability to cut the spirit in two. The spirit let out an echoing gasp as she dissolved. Sharmin blinked in confusion and took a good look at her surroundings. The house Narlafayn had taken up residence in was near the edge of a cliff that overlooked the ocean. All around her flew wind spirits of all shapes and sizes. Large spirits, bigger than an Orc, as tall as the house behind her, passed by her without giving her a second glance. Sharmin wandered around the side of the house, her sword still drawn, staring in wonder at the multitude of spirits.

"Where am I?" she wondered aloud. A smaller spirit turned to look at her and giggled, as if she understood what Sharmin had spoken.

"Windy Hill." A gruff voice came from behind her. Sharmin turned quickly to find a grizzled farmer watching her with a grin. He was leaning lazily on a pitchfork, a few wind spirits flying around him and pausing to nuzzle his aged face.

"Windy Hill?" Sharmin repeated, her jaw dropping. "How is that possible? That place was nearly two weeks worth of travel from the place where I fell!" She paused and quirked an eyebrow at the farmer as a wind spirit kissed him as she passed. "Doesn't that bother you?" she asked.

"Nah. These gals are really very friendly, unlike their sisters in the Elven Forest. Occasionally you'll get one that has a nasty attitude, like the one you disposed of outside of the house, but usually they all have a good temperament." He said, grinning widely. "Pretty affectionate, ain't they?" he laughed as one kissed Sharmin's cheek as she passed. Sharmin's eyes bugged out and she stiffened, feeling very uncomfortable. "As for how you got here, your guess is as good as mine." The farmer pushed himself up straight, pulling his pitchfork out of the ground and walking to the hay pile he'd been shoveling. "It might've been that young feller that I saw wandering around outside of Narly's house the night you appeared. Can't imagine him carrying you and all of that heavy armor for a week though, so who knows."

"Young man…?" Sharmin echoed, her eyes wide. Her face slowly began to turn red from the memories of what she thought were dreams.

"Yeah, attractive young feller wearing Brigandine armor like yourself. It was dark when I looked out and saw him wandering away from Narly's house, but he looked like he had blonde hair. Friend o'yers?" the farmer asked as he paused in his shoveling to look up at her.

"I…. I don't know." Sharmin replied, staring into nothing. There was only one blonde young man she knew wearing red and blue brigandine armor, and her heart pounded at the thought that it could be him. She left Windy Hill after asking the man to keep a watchful eye out for Vuylay and her sister. She also requested that he look after Narlafayn, a task that he then replied he was already doing. Relieved by his kind smile, she thanked him and began east, retracing her steps.

The journey was slow, her body still weak from being bedridden, but she found, for the time, she no longer feared killing the rat-beasts and Ol Malhum that came at her. Reaching a familiar field a week later, she raced south, the abandoned house in sight. She burst through the door quickly, and scanned the room madly. There were bloodstains on the broken-down bed now, and Sharmin's eyes widened. Had Vuylay been killed in her sleep? She heard a creak above her, and dust suddenly littered down from the gaping hole above her. She glanced up quickly, her heart nearly stopping in her chest as the curious face of the Gladiator from that night in Einhovant's stared back down at her. She stumbled over her feet as she backed up, her breath becoming rapid and shallow. The night, which she had begun to forget, came back in startling clarity; the curiosity in his eyes now echoing that of when he slowly stabbed her. Her back hit the wall behind her, and she scooted along it, trying to find the door.

The Gladiator, whom she remembered the Spellhowler saying his name was Vlad, jumped gracefully from the top floor, shutting an old, mildewed book as he landed and stood. Finding the door, Sharmin whimpered once and pushed herself around the doorframe, stumbling as she came back out into the sunlight.

"Be careful, you'll hurt yourself." She heard him say, walking after her.

Feeling fear she hadn't felt in ages, Sharmin ran blindly. She didn't stop running until she was well into the fog that always surrounded the Ruins of Agony, where she paused at a dried, dead tree to catch her breath. She heard the skittering and squealing of a spider somewhere behind her in the mist, and she looked over her shoulder. There was silence, and then an awful sputtering noise, the spider letting out a gurgling squeal. Her breath caught in her throat as a dark figure became visible through the mist, and Vlad slowly walked into sight, shaking spider blood from his swords and sheathing them on his back. Another frightened whimper coming from her, Sharmin pushed herself from the tree and began running again. Surely, surely this time he was going to kill her.

"I'd be careful about running that way if I were you." She heard him call. Ignoring him, she ran past crumbled walls and right into the heart of the Ruins before pausing with wide eyes. Shutters shook on skeletons of houses that still smoldered from fire even though it had been years since fires had broken out there. All around her she heard moans and sobs of the spirits who had died. She spun quickly, lost in her fear, trying to get her mind to work properly. She backed up a step and spun again as she bounced off of something large. She gasped as a large Bugbear warrior, a kind of large, human like ogre, came into sight. He was a massive creature, his legs thicker than Sharmin's waist. Her head barely came past his belly button and she backed up a few steps, unable to remember to draw her sword as he raised his club overhead, growling. The points of two swords suddenly burst through the creature's chest, right under its massive pectorals. Sharmin shut her eyes and raised her shield as the blades separated, cutting the monster right through its ribs and lungs. There was a horrid pained, wet gurgle from the monster, and Sharmin backed up, her head still shielded, as she felt disgusting warm liquid spraying over her legs as the body fell. She barely had begun to lower her shield when she felt a cool hand close around her sword arm, which began to pull her through the Ruins.

"N…no!" Sharmin said weakly, as the back of the Gladiator's head met her vision. Dark red blood, almost purple, covered him, and her from the waist down, and she felt ill. She attempted to jerk her hand from his grasp, but his grip was firm.

"You'll do nicely. You're quite lively." Vlad said, pulling her around and releasing her. She tumbled to the ground, caught off-balance. Sharmin pushed herself up quickly, brushing her chin length hair from her face, scared that he might run her through once her back was turned. She stopped as she stood, as he was no longer in sight. She scanned the houses around her, confused at how quickly he had disappeared. He had been there, right? It wasn't just another phantom like that Komugi had chased? Wary about an attack still, Sharmin drew her sword and took a few cautious steps forward. She strained to listen for any signs of life, but could still only hear the gasping and sobbing of the restless spirits. Occasionally she heard the grunt and growl of a Bugbear, but there were none within sight.

Now frightened for a different reason, Sharmin wandered slowly through the Ruins, unsure of where she was, and how to get out. What was going on? Everything was suddenly strange and happening so quickly. The ruins about her were all bleak and gray, as if the fog that never seemed to blow away had washed everything out. The houses were close together, and she found it hard to tell which direction she was going in. She cried out in shock as she rounded a house and a Basilisk came into view.

"Behind you." The beast stated calmly. Sharmin turned just as a Zombie wrapped its arms around her in a bear hug and bit her shoulder, trying to take a bite from her. Its teeth hit her armor, and she changed the grip on her sword to stab backwards into its abdomen. She then turned quickly and, bringing her sword around again, cut off the creature's head. There was no blood. A moan came from the Zombie's body as it fell, unmoving. Sharmin took a deep breath and shut her eyes, composing herself. Zombies were closer to a human than skeletons or Bugbears, and she tried not to think about it lest her resolve crumble. She looked then, at the Basilisk, who blinked at her calmly.

"Did you…. just speak?" she asked it, taking a step.

"Of course, who else would have? I don't think that Zombie could have, his habits of speech seem to have dissolved into 'huuuurrrgh'." The Basilisk stated. It shifted a bit and moved its tail, as if getting comfortable.

"You're…a Basilisk." Sharmin said, disbelieving at what was going on.

"And you're a human, but you don't see me staring dumbly, ignoring my surroundings." It said sarcastically. Sharmin rounded it curiously, to see if it was some sort of large puppet being controlled by a hidden puppeteer. It watched her walk, and yawned, its large mouth full of sharp teeth.

"How are you talking? And aren't Basilisks supposed to be in the Wasteland?" she asked, crouching and peering under its short legs. Basilisks were large, rust colored, lizard like creatures. Their bodies were covered in plates; their tails had spines at the end, much like a dinosaur. Each Basilisk had eight legs, four on each side that were short and stubby. They mostly lived in the Wasteland, a wide, barren canyon that laid to the south of the continent. Seeing one here, let alone one that could talk and reason like a human, was an oddity Sharmin never thought she'd witness.

"How rude. I'm talking just like you are. But you are correct; most of my family lives in the Wasteland. I am a spiritual representative of the Earth. I was placed here after I died many years ago, while helping an Orc escape the Ant Nest. I was labeled a traitor among my kind, and unable to enter into our afterlife. My duty is none of your concern, as it deals with ancient rituals that no one is to know of, save the people who actively seek me out." It lowered itself to the ground, a motion that Sharmin identified as laying down. "I learned to speak through listening to the travelers who come through here to hunt the undead, and from the last intelligent occupant who lives here."

"Somebody lives here?" she asked in surprise. The Basilisk nodded.

"Of course, you'll see him soon too." It stated. Sharmin opened her mouth to inquire how, when an arrow hummed through the air and landed in the small of her back, where one of the spider's fangs had stabbed her not long before. Sharmin's mind swirled and she fell, looking over her shoulder at whom had shot her. A large group of skeletons gasped and wheezed behind her, one archer letting out a noise that sounded akin to laughter. "I told you, you shouldn't have ignored your surroundings…" she heard the Basilisk say before darkness claimed her.

Sharmin came to again moments later. She became aware that she was being dragged through the Ruins, a skeleton on either side of her, pulling her. Not conscious enough yet to be frightened, Sharmin idly wondered where it was that they were taking her, and why they had not finished her off there. Skeletons were usually mindless undead, jealous of the living for their flesh, for their ability to feel.

"Lift her head." A raspy voice commanded. A skeleton grabbed her by the hair and jerked her head upright. Her eyes widened as a frightful, skull-faced ghost wearing a long robe met her vision. The ghastly thing floated several feet above the ground and gazed down at her with empty sockets. It was transparent, and parts of it were invisible against the grayness of the fog. "Foolish child, venturing this far into my domain." It said, wheezing. Sharmin stared at it bravely; curiously absorbing its mannerisms and movements. She found herself feeling pity for this wandering soul, and its skeleton minions. How much pain do these lost creatures feel on a daily basis? How long must they be tormented with the past that they cannot change? She wondered if she would join them in their tormented afterlives once she was dead too. "You who are weary and tired…" the ghost began, leaning down until it was only inches from her face, "…surrender your soul to me."

There was the sound of metal hitting bone, and the skeletons behind her suddenly gasped and groaned. The ones holding her arms released her, and she fell heavily to the ground. Just as she lifted herself to her knees the ghost was in her face, and it began inhaling. Sharmin felt a strange tug inside of her, and a strange tingle as if she were stuck in a vacuum tunnel. She was paralyzed by the ghosts' action, and could not move to pull away from his reach. Her eyes widened and her face began to pale, her lips turning purple. She felt as if she couldn't breathe, and her limbs had become cold and numb. She could only stare into the ghosts' skeletal face as it inhaled a never-ending breath.

"Not so fast smoky." The Gladiator's voice came from behind Sharmin. The ghost released his hold on her as a dagger with a silver-plated cross hilt was driven into its head. It screamed and rose into the air again, flailing at the dagger it seemed to not be able to touch. Sharmin fell to her side and watched as Vlad calmly poured a clear liquid from a crystal flask over his swords, and then slowly circled the writhing ghost, as if inspecting it. A chill came over Sharmin's insides as she realized he was watching the ghost's reaction to the holy dagger with the same curiosity that he displayed when he stabbed her. He was learning from it.

Seemingly satisfied with what he found, Vlad shut his eyes and stabbed the ghost with both swords. It howled and dissolved into a white flame. Before the flames subsided, he reached into it and withdrew a silver pendant that seemed to glow with unholy power. Then the ghosts' flame exploded, and white clouds flew in every direction. One came at Sharmin, and she was shocked to find her own face in the cloud, staring back at her mournfully. It passed into her, and she drew in a gasping breath, not realizing until now that she hadn't been breathing. Drawing in shaky breaths, she glanced up to find Vlad staring down at her. Her heart began to pound in fear again, but he sheathed his swords instead of killing her, and leaned down to grab her arm and hoist her up, putting one of her arms over his neck. He paused for a moment to pull the arrow from her back, which caused her to cry out in pain. He then picked up her pack, to which he attached her shield, and hefted it over his shoulder before making a slow trek out of the Ruins.

"Here we are, safe and sound." The Gladiator said, sitting her against a rock outside of the Ruins several hours later. Without asking for permission, he dug out a healing potion she'd stowed into her bag and handed it to her. Sharmin shakily pulled the stopper from the bottle and took a swig, wincing as she swallowed. The healing potion was decidedly better tasting than the antidote her savior had given her after the spider attack, but it still didn't taste good. As bitter as the antidote was, the healing potion was just as potent, only sickly sweet in flavor. "That was fun, wasn't it? Thanks for the help, the Soul Scavenger would have never come out for me otherwise." He said cheerfully, pulling a flask of water from Sharmin's bag and taking a drink, again without permission. Sharmin stared at him with large eyes, the healing potion dropping from her hand and spilling into the grass.

"What…." She breathed, hoping that what he said didn't sound like what she thought it did. Vlad let out a satisfied breath as he lowered the flask from drinking, and put the stopper back on it.

"I said thank you for your help, did your hearing get taken when your soul did? I've heard that happens sometimes, but no worries, it'll return once your soul gets used to being in your body again." He said, his voice still cheerful. Sharmin found strength suddenly and sprung to her feet, staring angrily at Vlad as he stood.

"You…put me out there…knowing what would happen?" she managed to get out.

"Of course I did. The Soul Scavenger is particularly attracted to defeated, weaker souls, and comes out like clockwork to claim them. My soul is full of far too much ambition, I would have never been able to get him to come out on my own." He replied in a knowing tone.

"You're SICK." Sharmin spat, shaking in fury. Vlad raised his eyebrows at her in surprise. How dare he put her out there, knowing fully well that she might die, and think nothing of it? How dare he call her soul weak and defeated, he knew nothing about her!

"Sick? No, I once new a fellow by that name, did you know him as well?" he inquired honestly surprised. "My name is Vlad; might I inquire yours since we'll be traveling to Gludio together?"

"Traveling together? Don't make me laugh, you're just going to kill me as soon as you have the chance!" Sharmin retorted, taking a step away from him. Again, Vlad looked at her with a surprised expression.

"Kill you? My dear girl, whatever would I do that for?" he chuckled, shaking his head. "For what reason would it benefit me to kill a simple…" he inspected her for a moment before continuing "…knight, who most definitely had nothing of use to me?" Sharmin blinked at him evenly, her brow furrowed.

"But you…" she began, but stopped before fully stating her thought. He didn't remember her? Had she changed that much in nearly four years?

"But I what?" he asked, quirking an eyebrow and pursing his lips. Sharmin averted her gaze from him and clamped her mouth shut, refusing to answer him. Vlad shrugged then, dismissing the conversation as uninteresting and dull, and turned to make his way down the path leading to Gludio. "Hurry up then, I'm sure you don't want to be around this place when the sun sets and the undead venture out looking for meat." Sharmin thought for a moment, not wanting to go with the man that almost killed her twice, and left her traumatized for years, but not wanting to stay at the Ruins either. He paused down the path to turn and look at her. "Are you coming or not?" he asked, folding his arms. Finding no better alternative for now, and knowing she needed to get into town to find Komugi, Sharmin put her shield on and hefted her pack over her shoulder. As she followed behind Vlad, she cast a worried glance over her shoulder back to the Ruins. She said a silent prayer to Einhasad then, praying that the Soul Scavenger had not taken her sister.

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Chapter 12

 

The journey was several days long; most of it spent in silence, as he'd take their camping time to read books from his pack that seemed to be devoid of anything but them. Dark circles began to form under Sharmin's eyes, as she was too scared to sleep properly at night, afraid that he would gut her if she let her guard down. She continued to push herself onward, despite her exhaustion, praying that they'd reach Gludio soon.

It was evening of the fourth day when they finally passed through the gates. The guards posted at the entrance eyed them warily, but said nothing.

"Well, we've arrived. Now if you'll excuse me I must deliver something." He said, bowing slightly to her and then walking away. Sharmin followed at a distance, and ducked behind the corner of a house to watch where he went. Vlad spoke to a Dark Elf stationed outside of the Dark Elf Guild for a moment before disappearing inside. Sharmin then bolted towards the church at the other end of town. Once inside, she approached the first Magister she saw and requested, quite breathless, for anyone representing the Ivory Tower.

"I am the representative of the Ivory Tower here, what seems to be the matter my child?" the head Bishop said, waddling out of a back room with a Priestess. He was a plump, aged man with a bitter looking face. Behind both he and the Priestess, a good-looking older man with gray speckled brown hair exited the room and shut the door. He paused as he saw Sharmin, his eyes widening.

"Please, you must help me." Sharmin pleaded, taking a step towards the Bishop. The Bishop took a step backwards from her, as she was still covered with blood from the now-healed arrow wound and the Bugbear. She was also dirty and grimy from days of travel, giving her a wild, barbaric appearance.

"We offer no Sanctuary for murderers, please be gone with you." The Bishop said, backing up another step.

"No, you don't understand, I'm not a murderer. The man who killed the headmaster of Einhovant's on Talking Island four years ago is in this very town! He's in the Dark Elves guild at this very moment, please believe me!" Sharmin tried again, shaking.

"Killed the headmaster of Einhovant's? What rubbish are you speaking girl?" the Bishop stated icily. Sharmin's eyes widened. "The headmaster is alive and well! I just took a sabbatical out to Talking Island and spoke with him myself, and he is no more dead than you or I."

"What are you saying? Four years ago I saw the former headmaster die! He was run through by a Gladiator who is in this very village now!" Sharmin stated, her voice high. Several parishioners ushered their children out, giving her frightened glances.

"Young lady." The Bishop said sternly, glaring down at her, "As a representative of the Ivory Tower I am required to memorize the faces and bounties of all whom the Ivory Tower releases warnings for. There have been no humans, nothing, wanted for the murder of an Einhovant's Headmaster, ever. I'm sure I would clearly remember a dastardly deed such as that, if it had been done." He turned away, casting another angry glance over his shoulder. "I'll have you not come in here, in the presence of our holy Einhasad, looking as if you came from a massacre, should you enter here again. You've frightened good people with this display I hope you realize. Go rest child, you're obviously delirious from your travels." Sharmin watched him mournfully as he waddled back towards the brown-haired man, who still stared at Sharmin with wide eyes. Sharmin inhaled a shaky breath, trying to swallow against the sob that threatened to come out. She turned slowly and made her way out of the church, and towards the inn. After a bath and forcing some bread and cheese into her stomach, Sharmin rented a room and collapsed onto the bed where she fell asleep the instant her head hit the pillows.

She awoke, within a dream, lying across the lap of a bronze-skinned man. She was wearing a thin, red orange dress that shimmered as if made of flames, and through the fabric she could feel that his skin was hot. He gazed down at her with an almost fatherly expression, cradling her head as if she were a child. She gazed into his eyes, which were red as the deepest flame, his hair black like charred wood and wrapped into tight dreadlocks that hung down past his shoulders. His face was wide and his jaw strong and squared. His appearance reminded her of an Orc, only more beautiful. He helped her sit, and she folded her legs underneath her to rest on her knees. The dream-area she was in was devoid of anything except a thick gray smoke. They regarded one another for quite some time, as if sizing each other up.

"You are in danger." He finally said. His voice had a crackling undertone, like that of fire. Sharmin tilted her head curiously.

"In danger? You mean that Gladiator?" she questioned. The man shook his head slightly, not taking his eyes off of her face.

"No. You are in danger from something far more dangerous than a half breed." He replied. Sharmin's eyebrows twitched slightly. Half-breed?

She watched as the man stood slowly. He wore nothing but a simple brown loincloth around his midsection. His arms were laced and decorated with beads and teeth and strange tribal tattoos. He moved as if he were accustomed to wearing much heavier garments. She stood as he held a hand out to her, and took it without question. He began leading her through the smoke, which slowly rolled away to reveal the landscape of Aden. She stumbled, as she suddenly realized she was standing high up in the air, on nothing. The hot-skinned man held her hand firmly, pulling her back up straight. She glanced at him a moment before turning and looking out over the land. They were so high in the air that the trees looked to be specks below them, and she could clearly see the peaks of the highest mountains. The sun was just rising, casting a pink glow over everything. Such a beautiful sight… she thought, the gods must see this every day. It was then that slow realization came over her, and she turned back to look at the man again. He gazed at her wisely and nodded, knowing her thought.

"You're…a god…" she breathed in disbelief. She had notion to release his hand, but she feared that she would surely tumble to the ground if she did.

"Yes, I am." He said, his voice deep. They began walking, Sharmin feeling solid ground beneath her bare feet even though there was no ground there. "I am saddened to say that you will not vividly remember this dream as you wake, as is the penalty for us lesser gods contacting the mortal world, but your unconscious will remember enough to guide you from here on." They passed through a fast moving cloud, and Sharmin shielded herself from it. This god spoke intelligently, but his voice faltered, as if he were again, unaccustomed to speaking so gently. When they emerged from the cloud, they stood in a large stone room; green glowing veins criss-crossing through the cracks in the walls and pulsing with light. With wide eyes she searched the room in awe, everything was larger than she'd ever seen in a room before. Strange beasts that looked familiar yet did not roamed freely in this room, growling and whining. Some had blocks attacked to their heads, others looked as if they were suspended in a state of decay, still living, but yet dead.

"Where are we?" she asked fearfully. A half decayed bear ran at her and she winced and shut her eyes, waiting for it to attack. She opened them in surprise as the beast passed through her and paused at the other end of the room.

"Many years ago my mother went on a rampage to destroy foolish beings who had dared to challenge her powers of creation." He led her through an archway and out onto a bridge leading into another stone room. "These pitiful creatures called upon the protection of my father to save them from her wrath. Through careful reasoning, he convinced her to leave them here, in these caves, where they have grown insane, and their lust for fooling with the balance of life leaving them sad shadows of what they once were." He paused in front of a monster that seemed to be just a torso, its arms and head covered with the strange blocks she had seen attached to some of the beasts. It pulled itself along, holding a heavy club in its hand. Strange stones floated around the block on its head, suspended in mid-air by magic. "There are few of the original ones left now, they hide deep within these caves. Their own children, these pitiful creatures you see before you, will not even venture that far, afraid of their madness. It is sad, really, how my mother took pleasure in watching this great race fall, but it is even sadder that these beings sought to toy with the balance of things initially."

"Are these giants?" Sharmin asked with wide eyes. The god did not answer her, but instead led her into another room. The scenery changed now, and she found herself climbing a stairway of what appeared to be a tower. Two giant statues stood on either side of the stairway as pillars, their poses showing how they held up the floor above them. Sharmin glanced about herself again in awe. What was this god trying to tell her?

"Years later, the creation-children of my siblings and myself found their own ways in the world after the rule of their lords had ended. One race in particular was ashamed of the god who had created them, for the god himself was ashamed at his creation, as it did not exceed the others. They turned their back on him as he had to them, and changed history in the favor that it was my mother who created them. She found favor in this, as she could use this weaker race as her own army against my sister, whom had gained her eternal wrath." The stairs split at the top and he led her around to one side. Wind blew over her, and Sharmin found the walls had broken away up here, leaving the stairs exposed to the air. He paused in front of a set of massive doors and stared at them with an unreadable expression before continuing his tale. "She sent the favorite of her own creation-children to help them wage war against the forces favoring my sister, to show them how pleased she was with their denial of their original creator, thinking they could pull themselves from the dishonor in which they were created and prove to be useful after all." He led her through the door then, Sharmin was amazed at how she passed through it as easily as water passes through paper.

Breath caught in Sharmin's throat as what looked to be a large statue clutching a spear lodged into his midsection met her eyes. The statue looked almost like a man, but more like a demon, its mouth frozen open in a silent shout. Tall angels stood nearby the statue, unmoving, guarding it.

"This favoring was lost when the king of these creations sealed her favored daughter into the darkness with the ones she had sent her to fight, lost in the dark for all eternity and unable to return to her mother's grace." The god continued, leading her towards the statue. The angels shifted as they approached, as if they could sense their presence. "Mother did not fully become disgusted with these creations until one king, many years later, sought eternal life and built this tower to make his demands to her, himself. Disgusted that the spawn created by my father, her husband, made from the cast-off leftovers from her children's creations had dared to enter her palace, she banished him to this tower, to remain for all eternity. She then turned her back on all humans, listening to their prayers with scorn and finding true favor with few, using the humans as her own personal toys when she grew bored." He said calmly, looking at the sealed king. He then turned to her, his red eyes staring deeply into her dusty blue.

"Since then my siblings have joined in this on their own, turning those living in this world into their playthings, forming a game, a competition to see who can influence the lives of mortals the most and change the pass of time the greatest." His grip on her hand tightened as he visibly struggled to control his temper, and Sharmin began to feel afraid of him. "I have lost too many of my own creation-children to this foolish game, my siblings toy with each mortal as if it were their right. There is no honor in this game, only foolish pleasure. My family grows as weak-willed as those mortals, only intent on pleasing themselves and letting life around them slowly fall to pieces." His voice began to take on a growling edge, and Sharmin began to shiver.

"Why are you telling me this?" she whispered, pulling against the grip he held on her hand. Tiny tears fell from her eyes. Gran Kain, the very god of destruction himself, had created humans, her kind? They were that despicable? It couldn't be true! That couldn't be what he was telling her!

"Right now you are the thorn that is preventing their game from advancing. My sister has taken drastic steps to remove you from this world so her game would continue. Loosing your sister, the spider who poisoned you, even loosing your soul to the Scavenger were all intricate patterns she had forcefully woven into the fabric of your life. I have protected you as much as I can without calling attention to myself, but there is only so much I can do. You have within you the spirit of the dying fire, my gift to my father when he insisted on creating beings in his own image." He paused and raised her hand to his chest, placing it directly over his heart. Sharmin cried out and winced, trying to pull away, as it felt as if he had placed her hand in the heart of a flame. "At first glance a dying fire is dishonorable, but if you add good tinder to it, it can grow, and regain life. With careful tending, it can soon become the roaring flame that will consume anything in its path." He stated, staring at her evenly and holding her hand firmly at his chest despite her pained whimpers and insistent pulls. "This is my gift to you, a renewed spark to the dying flame. Use it to renew the dying flame placed in all you bond with, and create an impenetrable force that not even Shilien can undo."

Finally unable to stand the pain any longer, Sharmin cried out and gave a mighty tug to her arm. She stumbled away from him and collapsed. She grabbed hold of the first thing she could reach to balance herself, her hands closing around the stone-covered spear lodged into the former emperor's midsection. Jolts similar to electricity surged through her, and in an instant she saw images of hundreds upon thousands of lives that had been toyed with by the gods. A spear suddenly sliced through her own stomach and she looked down at it in disbelief, her hands wrapping around it. The platform of the tower washed away and replaced itself with a room similar to that of the caves she had been in. Behind her, a giant orb pulsated in the middle of the room, casting everything in a green glow. Choking on her own blood, she followed the length of the spear to its owner; a tall, bare-chested man wearing a white robe over his hips and a large golden helmet over his head. He had two snow-white wings upon his back that shifted as he drew the spear towards himself. Sharmin had no choice but to follow with it, and watched, paralyzed, as he placed one foot on her midsection to hold her steady as he slowly withdrew the spear from her. She stared at him for a moment as he turned away from her before crumpling to the ground.

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Chapter 13

 

She awoke with a start, jerking to a sit and gasping for breath. She panted a few times and looked down at her stomach, which she had been reflexively holding. As the god had stated, she did not remember her conversation with him, but the final imagery of her dream, and the feeling of being impaled upon a spear was too clear for comfort.

"Ask me what I had to do all night." A slightly slurred voice came. Sharmin turned her head quickly to find Vlad sitting at the table of her room, an empty mead bottle on the surface next to him. "No please, do ask me, I'm dying to tell you." He said, propping his elbows up on the table and chair back and lacing his fingers together in front of his chest.

"How did you get in here?" Sharmin demanded coldly.

"Locked doors are no more of a hindrance than a mosquito bite." Vlad mumbled. "You didn't ask the proper question though, try again." Sharmin sighed, irked that he would intrude upon her room so boldly without permission. How long had he been there?

"Fine then, what did you have to do all night?" she asked, giving in. A smile lit Vlad's face that chilled Sharmin to the bone.

"I had to spend the night behind bars, can you imagine that? Someone had gone and told people of my past exploits, which caused me to be brought in for questioning. During this time it was discovered that I had several books of ah…questionable nature, of which were promptly removed and destroyed." He stated professionally, leaning forward and resting his arms on his knees. He stared at her evenly then, the mirth lost from his expression. Sharmin gulped under that gaze and scooted a little farther away from him, wishing to hide at that moment. "Miss Sharmin, do you have any idea how long it took me to procure some of those texts?" he asked, his voice steady. When she didn't answer, he scooted the chair towards her and said in a lower voice, "I should kindly ask that you do not bring up the past again with parties who have no need of involvement, or must I finish what I began that night and make it so you cannot speak of it again?"

With this, Sharmin pushed herself from the bed and bolted past him, falling into the door and flinging it open before racing down the stairs. She didn't pause to see if he were behind her this time, and ran, still in her nightgown, through the inn. Several morning diners looked up at her in surprise, as it was unnatural to see a human lady in her undergarments. She burst out the front doors of the inn and collided, head first, with a solid set of armor, causing both her and the one she ran into, to tumble to the ground. She winced and held her head, waiting for the worst of the pain to be over. She looked up at the person to apologize at the same time they looked at her, and identical screams emanated from both.

"FISH FACE!" Ryonai screamed, pointing at her.

"HORSE MOUTH!" Sharmin screamed back, echoing the point.

"Chicken legs!" a pale pink-haired light elf said from beside them. Both Sharmin and Ryonai shut their mouths and looked up at her. She had her eyes shut and one arm thrown into the air to emphasize that which she had just stated. She opened her eyes at the stunned silence she was receiving and blinked in confusion. "I thought we were playing a game." She said innocently. Sharmin's eye twitched and Ryonai sighed, putting a hand to his head.

"Fish Face, how in the world did you get here? Last I heard you were still on the island." Ryonai asked, helping Sharmin to her feet. Sharmin recovered from the stupor of running into her old nemesis and grabbed his shoulders, staring at his face intently.

"Ryonai, you've got to help me, the guy who killed Einhovant's headmaster is in there, and I think he means to kill me!" She said in a low voice. Ryonai frowned and lifted an eyebrow. "Please tell me you remember the headmaster getting killed!" She pleaded. "Nobody here seems to remember it!"

"Well, duh, of course I remember that, but why would the killer-" he paused and looked over her head, a smile forming on his face. "Hey Vlad! How's it hanging? Did you find what you were looking for?" Ryonai suddenly said cheerfully. Sharmin froze and slowly turned her head to look behind her. Vlad stood in the doorway, a forced smile planted on his face. Yelping, Sharmin ducked behind Ryonai and the pink-haired elf.

"You know him?" Sharmin asked, her voice barely above a whisper. She didn't have to see his face to know that Ryonai was rolling his eyes.

"Well duh, he's my clan mate." He stated in an annoyed tone. Sharmin's eyes bulged out at him

"Don't you know he's the..."

"MISS Sharmin was just telling me how she was going to accompany me back to the Wasteland, as it appears the copies of some of my books have gone missing and I need to grab what I hid there." Vlad said over her, staring at her evenly.

"Like hell I will." Sharmin muttered. The pink-haired elf turned to give her a curious look, obviously not understanding the situation, but not seeming to mind either.

"Hey, that's a great idea; I was just telling Shizuka how I'd like to head down there soon. Ant eggs are highly valued on the market, so grabbing a few would be a great business venture." He said cheerfully, ignoring Sharmin. Sharmin glanced at the pink-haired elf that she could only assume was Shizuka, who grinned back at her. Sharmin's eye twitched, she could almost hear the wind blowing through the elf's head.

"You can't make me go anywhere." Sharmin grumbled, her feet planted into the brown gravel that made up the town's roads.

"You're absolutely right, we can't." Vlad said, staring at her evenly. "However, I think it would be a wise choice since I so kindly escorted you from the Ruins of Agony to this town." Even though his words said differently, there was a strong implication in his voice that stated that she really didn't have a choice in the matter. Grumbling to herself, Sharmin shuffled past Vlad and retreated back to her room to change and prepare. She needed to be searching for her sister, not going jaunting into the Wasteland to find some books some nutcase stowed there. Wearing freshly cleaned armor, Sharmin rejoined the trio a moment later. Ryonai handed each of them a small sack of money, and before Sharmin could question its use, the trio approached the Gatekeeper and requested a displacement spell. The Gatekeeper accepted their money with a nod, and then held her hands in an arc shape in front of her. A swirling ball of light appeared there as she concentrated, and as she released it, the trio disappeared before Sharmin's eyes.

"Uh…um…" she stuttered, rushing to the Gatekeeper and fumbling with the tiny money pouch. The Gatekeeper gave her a beaming smile and gently took the bag from Sharmin's hand.

"Northern Pathway to the Wasteland, yes?" she said in a singsong voice. Sharmin blinked at her cluelessly as she formed the ball of light between arched hands once more. The world seemed to stop around her as the Gatekeeper lifted her arms, and then suddenly Sharmin had the sensation that she was falling. In the inky blackness ahead of her, she saw a pinprick of light, which slowly grew. In the light she saw a girl, perhaps her age, perhaps older, huddled on the edge of an ottoman, weeping. Her long, illustrious blonde hair streamed out from underneath a strange headpiece that resembled a shell. As she grew closer, the girl looked up at her with a tear-streaked face and sobbed once. Sharmin then suddenly flipped and landed hard on her back, darkness surrounding her.

"Noob." She heard Ryonai say. Sharmin coughed once and rolled to her side, wincing in pain where her armor had dug into her skin at the impact. She discovered she was lying on arid red dirt, packed hard from lack of rain. A pale hand reached down to her, and Sharmin looked up to find Shizuka smiling sweetly at her, her eyes shut. She took her hand with a half smile, and Shizuka pulled her to her feet with surprising strength. "Only the truly lame land on their back, you know." Ryonai grinned at Sharmin, hugging Shizuka around her waist from behind and leaning his head on her shoulder.

"I've never traveled by Gatekeeper before." Sharmin said, rolling her eyes. "Besides, what do the awesome do, land on their faces?" she grinned back at him, pointedly staring at the dirt smudges gracing Ryonai's cheeks. His grin dropped instantly and his face turned red.

"Come along children, we've got ground to cover." Vlad called, sheathing his swords. An archer skeleton lay at his feet, broken into pieces. Ryonai kissed Shizukas neck, glaring at Sharmin before catching up to Vlad and sliding down the rock ledge. Sharmin rushed to catch up, accustomed to being on the front line of whatever beast they would battle.

"No, stay back with Shizuka." Ryonai said, halting her. Sharmin glared at him, clenching her fists. "I mean it, we're going somewhere you're not strong enough to handle by yourself yet. Just protect Shizuka for now, ok?" he said seriously, staring at her.

"Where could we possibly be going that's so dangerous that it needs a formation? This is the Wasteland, we can see for miles." Sharmin stated stubbornly, batting away the arm he had held out to stop her.

"In there." Ryonai said, jerking his head towards the rock pillar behind him. Sharmin's eyes widened as Vlad calmly cruised into the gaping hole located at the base of the stone.

"That's the Ant Nest, isn't it?" Sharmin asked, glancing up the pillar. It extended hundreds of feet into the air; it's point a strange unicorn horn design.

"Yep." Ryonai answered, turning away from her.

"There's poisonous insects in there, aren't there." She asked again.

"Yep." Ryonai repeated, disappearing into the entrance.

"Oh gee." Sharmin grumbled, shutting her eyes.

Sharmin nervously glanced at the tunnel walls around her several minutes later as they made their way past the first cavern. The nest seemed to be composed of tunnels that led to caverns, which had more tunnels sprawling in different directions from it. Vlad and Ryonai methodically took out the insects they met in each tunnel, but Sharmin could hear the squealing and shuffling of more in tunnels above and below her. She shivered and hugged herself, desiring to not be poisoned again.

"How much farther until we get to the books?" Sharmin asked as Ryonai stabbed an ant larva through the middle. It squealed and squirmed around his sword, blue-green blood squirting from the wound.

"To the center." Vlad said lightly, checking a compass. Sharmin's eyes bugged out.

"That's suicide! The queen is in the center!" Sharmin sputtered, her voice rising.

"Exactly. What better place to put texts in which you don't want anyone to find but with the queen?" Vlad said, smiling. "It's the most ingenious hiding spot that I've come up with yet."

"Just stay with Shizuka, Fish Face, you'll be fine." Ryonai stated, walking ahead with Vlad. Sharmin lingered behind for a moment, puffing out her cheeks and glaring at the two men who jaunted on ahead as if they were taking a stroll along the beach. Shizuka paused by her and placed a hand on her arm, smiling at her and gently leading her along.

The deeper they went into the ant tunnels, the thicker the ant guards became. Soon black ants became red armored ants, which attacked with deadly precision, coming from deep within the tunnels in waves to stop them. They squealed as they were methodically cut apart, sometimes managing to bite the men with poisoned fangs before they were destroyed. Shizuka never once missed a beat, and healed them of their poison before it could take effect and hinder their progress. The journey was made in silence, trying to travel with the least amount of encounters the closer they ventured towards the queen. Sharmin traveled nervously behind Shizuka, holding her shield close to her body. She watched as the two fought, suddenly ashamed and embarrassed that she was not as strong as them. She wondered why Vlad had insisted that she come along, as she was proving to be useless to help them cut through the insects, until Vlad motioned to her. She looked around her, thinking he meant Shizuka, but saw that Shizuka had moved near Ryonai, and was casting a healing spell on a cut one of the ants had left on his face. Gulping, she shuffled towards him, holding the strap of her supply bag tightly.

"Come, come, and don't dally." Vlad said, grabbing her by the arm and pulling her along after him. She whimpered to herself and looked over her shoulder at Ryonai for help, but found him to be indisposed, his lips fully locked with Shizuka's. She went into a glare, hoping there'd be an unfortunate cave-in over just him. Vlad ducked behind a stalagmite, pulling her down roughly to her knees beside him. "There she is, as beautiful as always." He said in a low whisper. Wincing at now scraped knees, she peered around the other side of the rock.

What she saw, at the far end of the great cavern Vlad has pulled her in, was far from beautiful. The Ant Queen was large, as big as four men, standing on each other's shoulders. Her front section was raised, as if she were some bizarre form of mantis. Her head was uglier than her ant minions, as if she had tried to morph herself into a human, but had failed. She was surrounded by small black ants, smaller than the ones who had been at the entrance of the tunnels even, but they were numerous, and she could only surmise they were quick in attack.

"You have strange taste in women." Sharmin mumbled, raising her eyebrow as she glanced at Vlad whom seemed entranced by the Queen.

"Ah yes, she's guarded them well. Such a wonderful lady, I'll have to thank her." Vlad stated more to himself than anyone, a smile forming on his face. Sharmin's eyes widened enough to fall out of their sockets, had they not been held in by flesh. Secured to the Queen's waist, half buried in scarred over flesh-armor, was a bulky brown sack.

"How in the hell did you get it THERE?" Sharmin choked, still staring.

"A good magician never reveals his secret my girl." Vlad said, moving out from behind the stalagmite at a crouch. "Come along, seeing as how our good friend Ryonai is currently indisposed with his lady friend, you'll have to assist me in retrieving it."

"How about I go get Ryonai? A well placed kick can do wonders…" Sharmin suggested quickly, scooting away from him.

"Don't be silly, it would be rude to interrupt, come along." Vlad said smoothly, grabbing her by her wrist before she could move away and pulling her, once again, behind him. As he led her into the center of the cavern, she noticed skeletons littered along the walls of the cavern, some fully armored, some in tattered robes. There was an awful stench emanating from behind one of the stalagmites, and she saw a partially fleshed leg sticking out from it. "Ok then." Vlad said after the short stretch of silence. "You stand here." He said, placing his hands on her shoulders and planting her in an open area. "And make sure that once the guards start moving, you move too, got it?" he said, walking away from her.

"Wait, WHAT?" Sharmin shouted in disbelief. The sound echoed off of the cavern walls and the ant guards' antennae moved like radars, and 200 or more heads turned in her direction. She squeaked and froze, staring at the guards as they conferred with one another for a split second before making a beeline towards her. She screamed and took off for the nearest tunnel, opposite of the one she had entered from. The horde of guards squealed and chattered, following after her in close pursuit. "Why me, AGAIN?" Sharmin cried, pealing through the tunnel blindly. Her fast trek was halted as she smacked into the hard body of a winged Ant Noble, which squealed as she grasped around its thorax tightly, trying to regain her balance. It took off through the tunnels, spooked, as its own kind attempted to attack it, trying to get Sharmin. It flew out of the entrance to the ant nest and into the sky, Sharmin still clinging tightly to it as it weaved this way and that, trying to shake free of her. She peered over her shoulder to her feet, which dangled freely off the back of the insect's body, and saw the ground far below her. She groaned to herself and scrunched her eyes shut, gripping the insect tighter.

The insect finally began to slow down and droop in altitude nearly an hour later. Sharmin's muscles burned with pain, and she released the ant as it slid into the dirt. She stretched out on her back, grateful to be back on the ground, and turned her head to look at the bug. It lay unmoving where it had landed, most likely dead from exhaustion and stress. She found, as she rolled onto her side, that her arms lacked the strength to lift her armor-clad body from the dust. As she rolled onto her back once more to stare at the sky, the square face of an Orcish woman stared back down at her curiously. Sharmin yelped and hoisted herself to her knees by propping her shoulder against the ground and pushing against it. She attempted to reach for her sword, but again her arms would not cooperate, so she did the next best thing, run.

No sooner did she turn to bolt in the opposite direction, she felt the hand of the Orc woman grasp her armor, at her back, and lift her into the air. Sharmin yelped and swung her feet uselessly as the Orc woman carried her off, Sharmin helplessly dangling over the Orc's head. She found that she was no longer in the Wasteland; the Noble Ant had carried her into the lush woods outside. The woods bordered the ocean, and Sharmin surmised the ant had brought her to the southern portion of the continent.

"What have you got there, my delicate calf?" a man's voice came from around the side of a house they approached. The home was built on the outskirts of the woods, and Sharmin could smell the stench of Ol Mahum nearby.

"Dinner." The Orc grunted, dropping Sharmin unceremoniously to the ground. She landed on her chest, groaning as the triangular point of her chest armor dug into her stomach.

"I am not dinner!" Sharmin exclaimed, rising up to look over her shoulder. The Orc grunted and folded her arms, staring at Sharmin evenly.

"Oh dear me, dearest Emixis, this isn't food, why this is a female of my race." The voice came again, chuckling. A hand appeared in front of Sharmin's nose, and she followed it up to the face of a weathered human who smiled at her. The Orc grunted again, this time aggressively, and hoisted Sharmin to her feet again, spinning her around to glare at her.

"Female, competition." She growled, placing a hand around Sharmin's neck. "No competition. Aron mine."

"Now Emixis, stop that. You know very well you're the only woman in my heart." The man, whom Sharmin figured to be Aron, said, placing a hand on her muscular arm.

"Yeah, that's fine, I don't want him." Sharmin said, her voice coming out strained as Emixis began to squeeze. Satisfied, Emixis released her hold from her neck and placed her gently on the ground, patting her head and giving her a thin-lipped smile.

"Sorry about that, Emixis means well, she just is a little protective." Aron said, holding a hand out in apology. Sharmin struggled to raise her hand to meet his, her entire arm shaking in exertion.

"She's uh…wonderful." Sharmin said, wincing as she struggled with muscles that didn't want to cooperate. Aron didn't seem to notice and took her half lifted arm, shaking it vigorously. He then put an arm over her shoulders and led her towards the house.

"Come you must stay for dinner. She may not look it, but Emixis is the best cook of wild game. She can make even reptile meat taste like a delicacy." He said, good-naturedly. Sharmin looked over her shoulder at Emixis, who was standing at a wooden table, watching them retreat with a cleaver knife in one hand. Without blinking, she brought the knife down, cutting off the head of some small wriggling creature with a loud "THWACK". Sharmin grimaced.

The man, who introduced himself during dinner, was Sir Aron Tanford, a retired Paladin who passed on his knowledge to young Knights who would seek him out. He was a kinder man, seemingly softer than Cedric had been, or even the Master who had overseen her tasks to become a Knight. She wondered why he chose to live in such a strange place, so far from any civilization, but she did not voice this curiosity.

"So what brings you out here? Emixis says she found you lying next to a Noble Ant? How in the world did you drag one of those all the way down here?" Aron asked after they had finished eating. Sharmin found, much to her surprise, that the Orc was a good cook.

"I got dragged into the Ant Nest by an idiot, an airhead and a sadist." Sharmin said, licking her fingers. "The idiot and airhead got distracted and left me with the sadist, who used me as bait to get some books that he's not even supposed to have from where he hid it, the method of which left me running for my life through the tunnels, where I ended up running into a Noble Ant that decided to take me for a ride. I think it died though, and that's when your girlfriend found me." Sharmin said in one breath, relieved to get the story out.

"That's quite an adventure." Aron said, chuckling. "Do the Idiot, Airhead and Sadist have other titles, or did their parents really give them such bizarre names?"

"Ryonai, Shizuka and Vlad." She grumbled, biting a fingernail.

"Oh, Ryonai? How is he doing?" Aron asked, gathering up dishes and standing.

"You know him?" Sharmin asked, surprised.

"Of course, he came to me for training." Aron stated, putting the dishes in a washbasin near an indoor well pump. "Let's see… Yes, it was nearly a year ago now that he came to me. He had an Orc Shaman with him, her name was Sprissa I believe… is she still around? She seemed to have a lot of potential." Aron continued, putting a hand to his chin in thought.

"Er, no… He was with an elf this time…" Sharmin said uneasily. Ryonai's relationship actions were reminding her of her sister's. Not wanting to hear about Ryonai's former girlfriends, Sharmin asked, "What kind of a student was he?"

"Ah I remember it like it was yesterday." Aron began. Emixis grabbed his arm and pulled him down onto her lap, as if he were the girl and she the man. Sharmin's eye twitched in disgust. "After Leon had left I hadn't had many students, so it took me a bit to get back into teaching mode."

"Wait, did you say Leon?" Sharmin interrupted, scooting forward and staring at him with eager eyes.

"Why yes, Leon DiValmont was my student, do you know him as well? Such a small world this is." Aron said, blinking at her in surprise. "Such a fast learner, that young man. Very eager to become a Paladin and serve to bring glory to Einhasad's name." Aron smiled at the memory. Sharmin's own eyes glazed over, imagining Leon practicing knee-deep in the ocean as he did back on the island as a student. Her heart pitter-pattered for a moment until she saw Gatz' sad face turning away from her in memory of the night he left the island. She dropped her fantasy and frowned, wondering why he would appear.

"Will you train me to become a Paladin too?" Sharmin asked eagerly, pushing the memory aside. It would be a wise choice, she decided quickly, as she seemed well suited to protect, rather than to attack. This however, was not the true reason, as the childish side of her still desired to be near Leon.

"Well, I suppose you've had enough battle experience…" Aron stated thoughtfully, pulling away from Emixis' embrace and circling Sharmin thoughtfully. "Any experience you do lack, why, this is the perfect place to gain it. Let's see…yes, I think you'll do quite nicely as a Paladin. Einhasad knows we don't need any more Dark Avengers running about…. Poor souls are the offensive form of a Necromancer sometimes, no glorifying Einhasad there, it's purely honor for Gran Kain." He said, shaking his head in pity. A fuzzy memory was sparked in Sharmin's mind, and she blinked, trying to retrieve it as it quickly slipped away. The thought that she was left with unnerved her; and what's wrong with honoring Gran Kain?

"How soon can I begin then?" Sharmin asked, sitting up straight. Excitement surged through her limbs like electricity, and she forgot about her sore arms.

"Patience, there requires some time of book study before the physical training. A Paladin is a mesh of healer and fighter, perfectly suited to protect. You must also meditate to unlock the sleeping well of magic within you, as Paladins are well known to heal as well as fight." Aron stated, his aura changing to that of a teacher. He then launched into a speech detailing the advantages to being a Paladin, as well as the disadvantages. Sharmin absorbed all of it eagerly, wondering what the future was to bring from now on.

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Chapter 14

 

Her training was an intense, four-month long course with Aron. She would not officially become a Paladin until she made her way to Oren by Gatekeeper, a task in which Aron promised to help her with. She trained until her hands bled, one of the tasks Aron had given her was to go into the Wasteland and kill the reanimated skeletons of warriors who had died there years ago and not found rest with an old rusted sword. He taught her that first and foremost the Paladin's duty was to protect, second was to help the undead find rest. She was given texts of spells to learn, one of which she was advised never to use unless it was imperative, as it would transfer her life to one who was near death. Aron was a good teacher, and she found herself more confident under his tutelage than she had under Cedric.

When it finally came time for her to leave, Aron supplied her with a scroll that held the displacement magic gatekeepers used. It would send her to the nearest Gatekeeper, and dissolved upon use. Aron also gave her a letter of advancement, which she was to give to the Grand Master in Oren. After hugging her tutor goodbye, and given a crushing hug by Emixis, Sharmin turned away from them and unwrapped the scroll. The magic burst forth, and she found herself in the black vortex once more. Curiously, she was alone this time; there was no pinpoint of light with a crying girl ahead of her.

Ground met her face and she landed on her chest, sucking in a nose full of dirt in Dion. She pushed herself to her knees quickly, coughing and trying to blow the dirt from her nose. Several Dwarven merchants sat around her and snickered. Cheeks burning, she quickly pushed herself to her feet and smoothed her hair before trying to make her way to the Gatekeeper as if she meant to land that way. Dion was a small town, relatively new as far as established places went, the houses set around dirt roads that extended in an "X" fashion. Bards had set up residence in the small town, playing music for the merchants that set up shop where the roads met.

"SHARMIN!" she heard someone shout, just as the Gatekeeper had begun her spell. She looked over her shoulder with wide eyes as an equally wide-eyed Gatz stared back at her. A smile forming on her face despite herself, she opened her mouth to say something just as the Gatekeeper finished her spell, and Sharmin found herself in the blackness. She landed on her side this time, glaring out ahead of her as the spell cleared, wondering if anyone ever landed on their feet.Well, it was good seeing Gatz for a moment… she thought, staring at the gray rock of the ground she landed upon.

Her promotion to Paladin was unceremonious, and she felt a little saddened by this. Near her, a family stood near a young man, not much older than herself, as he received the title of Treasure Hunter. He was received with hugs and kisses from all, and Sharmin found herself missing her family. She sat in the inn a bit later, staring at her new Chain mail armor. It was quite plain; the armor was a dull brown color, and in a similar bikini-bottomed style to her old Bronze set. She had upgraded her sword and shield to match her armor, and sat dumbly, unsure as to what to do to test her new power. After a few days she began wandering outside of the city to help small groups of people sent out to push back the Lizardmen who attempted to advance upon the stonewalled city.

"Come on Valimos, what do you need to do still? We've been here for an hour." A female voice whined from outside the inn several weeks later. Sharmin sat by the door staring at a mug of cider, and had been entertaining herself by listening to those who passed.

"Patience, Komugi, I'm done now." A lower voice came. The girl was heard exclaiming excitedly as they moved away from the door. Sharmin's eyes had widened at the name and her heart began to pound in her chest. She jumped off her stool so fast that it was sent to the floor with a clatter. Ignoring the surprised stares around her, she took up her shield and sword and bolted out the door, eyes scanning the merchant-browsing crowd wildly.

"Komugi?" she called above the buzz of voices. She pushed her way through the crowd, trying to make her way past street vendors and their patrons quickly. "Komugi?" she called louder, breaking into a run. Behind her, Komugi turned to look around.

"Something wrong?" Valimos, a dark elf Palus Knight asked, raising his eyebrow at her as he purchased provisions from a street vendor. Komugi frowned and squinted into the crowd.

"I thought I heard someone calling me." She frowned. She shrugged then and returned to glancing over the necklaces the merchant had set out for purchase.

Sharmin ran through the town gates and out onto the pathway leading towards the Ivory Tower, scanning the departing travelers for the tell-tale hue of pink that her sister's hair had become.

"Excuse me; have you seen a pink-haired girl, about fourteen years old, really skinny?" Sharmin asked, grabbing an elf wearing a bow and quiver by the arm. The elf frowned at her and shook free of her grip, not answering her question. Sharmin let out a frustrated noise and gripped her hair at the scalp, searching the crowd. That had to have been Komugi's voice. There was no mistaking it. Making a quick decision, she took off down the path, hoping to catch her.

"Well, are you ready to go?" Valimos asked Komugi as they made their way past the gates. Komugi groaned and rolled her eyes at him.

"I've been ready to go for ages, have you not been listening?" she grumbled.

"Of course not, you're quite the nag, sometimes I wish you'd shut up." Valimos sneered, proud of himself.

"Bastard, I'm not healing you." Komugi hissed, her hair standing out.

"Ok then, I'm letting you die." Valimos reasoned, walking away from her. Komugi stared at his retreating figure for a moment, her temper in full tilt before stomping down the hill leading from the town after him. They turned south, making their way towards the Skyshadow Meadow, as Sharmin ran north, towards the Ivory Tower.

Sharmin soon found herself standing alone amidst tall trees and large ferns, the traveling crowd long since tapering out and going in separate directions as she passed Oren Castle. She pursed her lips and scanned the forest around the path, ears straining to hear any signs of intelligent life. Her ears picked up the faintest sound of a conversation from somewhere off in the distance, and her heart leapt in her chest. Held her scabbard close to her body as she ran in the direction it emanated from, to keep it from hitting her legs and hindering her progress.

"Komugi?" Sharmin breathed excitedly as she burst through thick brush into an area cleared for camping. Her hopeful expression dropped as four men came into view, one urinating against a tree. Sharmin's cheeks went pink and she turned away from them, embarrassed. "I…I'm sorry, I was looking for someone, and I thought they might be here…" she apologized, moving back into the plants.

"Why Sharmin, funny seeing you here, did you get separated from Komugi?" a familiar slurred voice came. Sharmin froze and lifted her head quickly to find the four men slowly moving towards her in a half-circle formation, Montavious directly ahead of her, giving her a lopsided drunken grin. Her heart began to pound for a different reason now, and she began to feel trapped. She didn't like the expressions the drunken men wore.

"Uh… just momentarily, she was supposed to meet me here any minute though." Sharmin lied, taking a step backwards.

"Really." Montavious mused, his tone cocky. "It's dangerous in these woods, Timak Orcs tend to wander through here, you'd be better off waiting with us." He was coming closer; she could smell the alcohol on his breath.

"No, its ok, I'll just go to our meeting spot." Sharmin tried to keep the nervous quiver from her voice. Her sword arm twitched, ready to draw her sword if she needed. She didn't like the looks the men were giving her, or the stench of alcohol that they were giving off.

"Come now, don't be shy, we're nice guys," another said, taking her arm. Now a bundle of nerves, this was all Sharmin could handle, and she whipped her shield out, stunning him. She bolted into the forest then, sense of direction lost with her fear.

"Don't be mean, Sharmin!" she heard Montavious guffaw. Her heart pounded so hard in her chest she felt as if it were going to burst. She was loosing them quickly; the mead they had consumed was slowing them down. The path back to Oren was in sight, and she drew in a hopeful breath. Surely there'd be someone to help her on the road…

Just scant feet before the trodden dirt, an ice spell hit her legs, freezing her muscles and tripping her. She fell to her knees, and tried to push herself back to her feet, her muscles too cold to function properly. A frightened sob emerged from her throat as she heard the men nearing; panting loudly from what she hoped was exertion. Instincts overriding her senses, she whipped around as they neared, swinging her sword and shield, trying to prevent them from coming nearer.

"Somebody help me!" she shouted, praying to Einhasad for the feeling to return to her legs. The only response she received was drunken laughter from the men. The Sorcerer who had cast the ice spell swung his staff, stunning her as it hit her head and causing her to fall on her chest. She lost her grip on her sword and shield, and they kicked it away from her reach. Tears streamed from her eyes as they converged in around her, and she began to wish that he had hit her hard enough to knock her out.

The men left her, several hours later, lying on her stomach in the ferns, bruised and naked. They left her armor and weaponry scattered in the bushes around her, taking none of it. Montavious lingered near her for a bit after his friends had retreated, ashamed of themselves for what they had just done and afraid someone would see them. Montavious stroked Sharmins shoulders and back, smiling at her with a lust-filled gaze.

"I love you so much, Sharmin." He slurred, smiling. Sharmin squinted her eyes shut hard and sobbed, too humiliated to move. He stood then, frowning in annoyance when she didn't return his endearment, and retreated into the forest.

She didn't know how long she lay there, cold and alone. The events that had transpired kept playing across her mind and she cried, wishing someone; something would come and kill her. What did she do to deserve this? She wished then that she had never lifted a sword, and had never seen the boy named Leon who inspired her to be something she was obviously not.

You are that which is keeping her game from continuing. A voice said somewhere in her mind. Sharmin shut her eyes, more tears dropping from them.

Then let her remove me. She thought back.

She heard the grass moving some time later, as someone trekked through it. Her body tensed, thinking it was the men coming back to abuse her again. There was a surprised gasp, and the sound of running. There was a heavy sound behind her head, and she was lifted and turned gently, Leon's frightened face coming into view.

"Great Einhasad…. Sharmin…" He managed out. His expression was that of shock and horror, and he looked as if he might cry.

"Leon…" She managed out, weeping in joy. Leon lifted her to a sit, clutching her near his armored chest. He pulled his sleeping blanket from his pack and wrapped her in it tightly.

"Pixie, can you manage carrying her armor and weapons?" he asked someone behind him.

"You betcha!" a cheerful voice said, and a dwarf with red hair skipped out from around him. Leon picked her up gently and carried her to the path, the dwarf skipping behind him. The action caused the armor to clink together, the sound seeming to make her happy.

Although they were near Oren, Leon did not take them in. Instead he made camp outside of it, near a broken-down wagon. He seemed to realize Sharmin's humiliation, and lingered outside the city as to not draw attention to them. The dwarf named Junk Pixie helped her dress in the dark brown leathers that she wore under her armor, but Sharmin resisted when Junk Pixie attempted to put the rest of her armor on. She sat near the fire Leon had built, pulling the blanket across her shoulders tightly and staring into the flame.

"Who did this to you?" Leon asked gently, offering her a slice of bread. Sharmin stared at the food but didn't take it; instead she huddled deeper into the blanket. Leon watched her face for a moment before standing as someone approached their camp.

"What are you doing with my woman? Get away from her, she's mine!" Montavious' slurred voice came from just out of the range of light the fire cast out. Sharmin raised her head, her eyes wide, and she scooted away until her back hit the splintering wood of the broken wagon. She began to whimper in fear, and Junk Pixie scooted near her to hug her protectively.

"Funny, as 'your' woman seems to be frightened of you. Mind explaining why?" Leon asked smoothly, no trace of emotion gracing his features. It was this cool, business-like expression that he was best known for.

"She ain't scared of me, she's so happy to see me that she's speechless." Montavious said, taking a step forward. "I was worried when she disappeared from our private spot, I shoulda known you would've come and tried to steal her from me." Montavious spit, disgusted, before continuing, "Pretty boy like you doesn't know when to keep your hands to yourself." He stepped into the ring of light from the fire. He held a mead bottle in one hand, which was half empty. "C'mon Sharmin, lets go."

Sharmin cried out in fear as he came into view, pressing her hands to her ears as she had done so many years ago with the Werewolf attack. Junk Pixie, her short arms not long enough to wrap around Sharmin's larger frame, instead opted to shield her head from view, glaring at Montavious with her lower lip pouted out.

"She doesn't like you fat man in a tin can, go away." Pixie said angrily. Montavious stiffened up and drew his sword.

"Why you little half bit twat," he growled, taking a step towards them. "How dare a dirty little mountain-dweller like you speak to a human that way!" He was halted by a swing from Leon's sword.

"Leave now." Leon said, his voice wavering with controlled anger. "And never, EVER come near Sharmin again, got it?" Leon shoulders shook, perhaps with fury. "And if I hear you do…." He brought the tip of his sword under Montavious' chin, "I will take you down without hesitation." Montavious spat again, but sheathed his sword and turned away, casting one last glare towards Junk Pixie and Sharmin.

Later that night, after Sharmin had fallen into a fitful half-sleep, a new group approached the camp. Leon stood and drew his sword, not trusting anyone to come near.

"Good gods DiValmont, put it down, it's just us." A female voice came. Koyori came into view of the campfire light and shifted her weight onto one leg, holding a staff point first in the ground as if planting a flag into the soil. She glanced at the sleeping form of Sharmin and the groggy one of Junk Pixie, who pushed herself to a sit and blinked sleepily at her, rubbing the grit from her eyes.

"Well isn't this a quaint reunion." A cooler voice came. "So you're Leon. It's a pleasure to finally meet you." Amari stated, holding a hand out. Leon blinked at it in confusion and Amari retracted it, as if embarrassed.

"Is that Sharmin?" the third voice came, and Gatz walked out of the dark last. He carried a heavy spear which towered nearly a foot over his head.

"Duh, who else would it be, Leon's here after all?" Koyori huffed, rolling her eyes. She was now dressed in blue and cream colored skirt and shirt, a robe set commonly known as Blue Wolf. "You know that whenever we see Leon, Sharmin will be close behind. Hey Sharmin, wake…"

"Let her rest." Leon said quickly, holding a hand up to silence her. He glanced over his shoulder to make sure she hadn't woken. Sharmin shifted under the blanket, and Junk Pixie yawned from her spot where she'd fallen asleep next to her.

"Why, what's the matter?" Gatz asked, his eyes alive with concern. Koyori frowned at him, annoyed. Leon thought for a moment, and then led Gatz away from the camp a bit, a hand on his shoulder. Curious, Amari and Koyori lingered nearby as Leon explained what had happened, by the evidence presented. Koyori's jaw dropped open slightly in surprise and Amari turned and walked away, not wishing to take part in the drama surrounding the former residents of Talking Island. Gatz turned away and started back towards Sharmin, but Leon put a restraining hand on his arm, shaking his head and talking in a low voice. Gatz jerked free of Leon's grip and covered his face with his hands for a moment before picking up his spear where he'd dropped it.

"Amari, come with me, would you?" Gatz commanded more than asked, his voice hard.

"Sure thing." Amari said cheerfully, his face bright.

"What are you doing?" Koyori asked quickly, grabbing Gatz's arm. "It's a bad thing, but don't get involved, let Leon take care of it." She said, pulling on him. Gatz's head turned quickly and he gave her a stone cold glare, one that Koyori had never seen before. She released his arm and backed away, her eyes large.

"Stay here." he commanded, and retreated into the darkness of the woods.

"Why aren't you going with? It's you she likes." Koyori said icily, looking at Leon after Gatz had disappeared into the gloom. "Why don't you finally become the hero she thinks you are instead of the wishy washy devoted drone of Einhasad?" Leon seemed to pause, as if her words both stung him and surprised him, before sheathing his sword and taking a seat near Sharmin.

"I was going to, but since Gatz and his friend are taking care of it, I shall remain here to protect her. That is just as honorable as finding the one who did this, I think." Leon murmured, glancing down at Sharmin. "She needs someone she trusts nearby right now; it's going to be long night for her." Sighing in what appeared to be helplessness, Leon took her hand and held it as he settled himself against the wagon. Koyori sighed in disgust and turned away from them, trekking across the field and towards Oren, not wanting to spend any amount of time outside. Junk Pixie, who watched the entire exchange with heavy eyelids, blinked sleepily at Leon before yawning one more time and flopping back down, fast asleep.

Sharmin woke from a nightmare just as dawn was breaking. She dreamt of being impaled on the spear of the winged man once more, only Montavious held the weapon this time. The sun had not yet risen, but the land was cast in the pre-dawn gray light. A heavy fog covered the ground, so thick that trees only a few feet away were obscured from view. She sat up, rubbing her eyes, and looked down, surprised to find Leon loosely gripping her hand. She blushed and withdrew it, holding it close to her chest. She smiled wistfully at him, his head had drooped toward his chest with slumber, and he reminded her of a small boy. The plants rustled as someone made their way towards them again, and Sharmin felt panic, drawing her blanket up over her chest protectively.

Gatz came into view, splatters of blood decorating his face and chest plate. His face was dark, a look she'd never seen him have before. She stood, the blanket dropping from her grip and into a heap at her feet. She walked to the edge of the camp as he halted, staring at her and breathing in shaky breaths. The Dark Elf she remembered as Amari stood behind him, grinning like the cat that ate the canary.

"Gatz…what have you done?" Sharmin breathed as he turned from her gaze.

"What needed to be done." He said quietly, walking away from her.

"That was great fun." Amari said lightly, following Gatz. "Quite satisfying in the end, really. I'm quite impressed at how it all came together…" Sharmin watched them until they disappeared into the fog and she could see them no longer.

Although still afraid and ashamed, Sharmin found that she desired to take up the sword again after a few days, and was soon fighting demons and beasts again with renewed fervor. She felt like a fire had been placed in her chest, and that there was no reason she should become weak with what the gods threw at her. She thought she would separate from Leon and Junk Pixie after she recuperated enough to wield her sword again, but Leon insisted that she stay nearby (a request she happily complied with). She told him what had become of her after he left the Island, but couldn't get any more than 'there was something that needed to be done' when she inquired as to where he had gone. When she told of her savior after the spider bit her, there was no sign of recognition or familiarity in Leon's expression, just interest of her well-being. Sharmin's heart dropped, had she given herself to a stranger that night? A nauseous feeling passed through her when an evil voice suggested it might've been Montavious. Leon then offered, (thankfully interrupting her traumatizing thoughts) that he and Junk Pixie would help Sharmin locate her sister, as Pixie had passed an elf and a pink-haired Prophet herself not long ago and overheard someone who fit Komugi's description speak of traveling to Heine.

"Mama Pixie always said it was good to listen to others, even when they weren't talking to you. You might just get a business venture that way." Pixie then added with a proud grin, swinging her large moneybag. Sharmin had never seen a moneybag quite as full as Junk Pixies, and she wondered how she managed to accumulate so much money. It seemed to grow as the days passed, as if it were absorbing various things around them and turning it into money.

Sharmin cast one last glance over her shoulder at Oren as they made their way south, away from it. She hadn't seen Gatz or Amari again since that day, and she wondered where they could've gone. She had wanted to see Gatz again, for what reason though she couldn't place.

"Sharmin." Leon called, ahead of her. He and Junk Pixie had paused on the road and were watching her patiently. Sighing, Sharmin turned towards them and smiled, ready to begin the journey anew.

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Chapter 15

 

Leon traveled quickly across the continent, and within a week they were through the Plains of the Lizardmen and heading through Death Pass towards Giran. The lush greenery of the Plains gave away to more arid scenery, and the beating of dragon wings could be heard in the distance. Death Pass was given its name as it was a narrower strip of land that fell between two steep cliffs. Drakes and Basilisks were known to pick off unwary travelers, as there was no terrain to protect the hapless wanderer from the beasts. Dusk was descending upon them as they began the trek through the Pass, and Leon urged them to stay close together. Leon and Sharmin sat beneath a half-dead spindly twig of a tree, watching Junk Pixie chase a frightened Basilisk. She shouted in what could've been Dwarfish, (but was most likely gibberish according to Leon), waving her Tarbar, a large headed short axe, with menace. The Basilisks in the Pass were usually quite aggressive, but this one fled like an Elpy seeking cover from a storm, making high pitched whimpering noises.

"Sharmin, over here." Leon called her softly, motioning her over to a large rock. He pointed at a strange blue-skinned zombie some twenty feet ahead of them. It was tall, its head in a strange vice that rested on its shoulders. The flesh had rotted away in its midsection, exposing its spine. It swayed as it stood, making strange moaning noises. "Have you ever seen one of those before?" he asked, his voice barely above a whisper. Sharmin shook her head, staring at the undead creature. "They're called Shackles, and are tortured men who died by their own greed. They remain here, killing anyone they can in honor of the Bloody Queen. Sad, isn't it? Forever bound to that demon, never knowing true peace…" Leon's voice tapered off as he lost himself in thought.

"Is there any way to help them?" Sharmin asked, tilting her head to look at him. He smiled at her warmly and she looked away quickly, her cheeks pink.

"Of course, we're Paladins after all." He said, still smiling. "You said yourself that you haven't traveled far from Oren since becoming one, so I thought I'd bring you out here to let your true skills shine." He drew his sword and moved away from the rock bravely, walking straight towards the Shackle. "I shall draw the attention of the creature from you. Once it comes towards me, defeat it to the best of your ability, ok?" The Shackle noticed him and covered the space between them at a strange tip-toed run, holding its arms out as if to hug him. Before it approached, Leon waved his shield arm in a strong arc, casting a blinding spell upon the monster to blind it from seeing any other person but him. Raising his shield to block the blows from the zombie's limp arms as it swung at him, Leon looked over the shoulder at Sharmin. She took this as her signal to begin, and drew her sword as she quickly approached the zombie. Without thinking, she thrust her sword at its neck. The head, still locked into the shackle bolted to its skull, swung freely as it continued to attack Leon.

"You can't behead them?" She asked, bewildered as the Shackle's flesh seemed to repair itself, reattaching the head to the shoulders. Beheading seemed to work so effectively before on the zombies she came across in the Ruins of Agony, were these undead so different?

"That won't work." Leon stated, wincing from the blows. Sweat began to bead across his brow, and Sharmin began to panic, as it appeared his endurance was running out. She began swinging her sword in frenzy, trying to dismember the creature before it caused Leon further harm. Each blow she landed healed up a moment after it opened, her attempts in vain.

"Use magic, silly-head." Junk Pixie stated, standing a safe distance away, her Tarbar over one shoulder. The Basilisk lay unmoving behind her, its tail stripped of spines. Sharmin pursed her lips and held an arm out, willing holy power to flow from it. Please, she thought, shutting her eyes hard. Sir Aron had told her to use a prayer as she cast this magic, to properly guide the undead to Einhasad's paradise, but Sharmin could not muster any plea to send to the goddess. A ring of light surrounded the Shackle and closed in on it, covering it in an intense light. It groaned and turned, breaking free from Leon's spell and advancing upon her. She backed up, one hand still extended, watching the creature as it tip-toe ran towards her, its arms extended again as if to hug her. She stared at it steadily, no fear showing upon her face as she willed the power to flow once more. The light surrounded the Shackle just as it raised one of its limp arms to hit her. With a loud groan the creature crumpled and fell as if all the bones had been removed from its body. Sharmin stared at it for a moment, then at her hand in surprise. She'd never used magic before, and it left her arm with a strange tingling sensation.

"Are you all right?" she asked, hurrying to Leon. He knelt to the ground, one hand to his head where the Shackle had managed to land a skin-splitting blow. Blood trickled down his forehead in a thin stream underneath his hand, and his eyes were shut, as if concentrating. "I'm so sorry, I should've acted faster…" she apologized grimly, her eyes welling.

"Its fine, I knew the risk when I took it." Leon managed out with a pained smile. "You did well for a new Paladin, most try to cast some sort of healing spell instead of using the Holy Strike magic." He winced again and curled towards the ground as much as he could in his armor. Junk Pixie held a beaker full of white, sparkling liquid in between them, and Leon took it without looking up.

"Stupid head, remember what Mama Pixie said about showing off?" she scolded, folding her arms across her chest as Leon drank the potion. "Never show off unless someone's gonna pay you for it!"

"I wasn't showing off, Pixie. I was teaching." Leon said around the tube. Junk Pixie shook her head, the ponytail on the side of her head flopping back and forth.

"You were showing off cuz there's a girl around." She insisted, grinning at him. "But you know, the only way to properly show off to a girl is to give her lots of shinies! Brute strength an endurance is so fifty years ago." She said, waving her hand as if shooing away something unpleasant. Sharmin lifted a hand to her mouth to hide her budding grin and giggled as Leon cast Junk Pixie an annoyed look. She turned as the sound of fast approaching footfalls echoed softly off of the gorge walls and met her ears. A Dark Elf and Orc came running at them, swords drawn. Sharmin backed up a few steps, her eyes wide.

"Sharmin, start running." Leon murmured, holding his sword ready. She ran backwards a few steps before turning and bolting in the opposite direction as Leon met the Dark Elf in clashed swords. The Orc bypassed Leon and went directly after Sharmin. Junk Pixie had disappeared, knowing what was to come and hiding from it.

Sharmin glanced over her shoulder to find the Orc gaining upon her fast. She whipped around and deflected his sword as he swung it at her, the force causing her to stumble backwards and land on her rear. She rolled out of the way as he swung at her again in a downward arc, his sword cutting the rocks which she had landed upon with frightening ease. Sharmin rolled to her feet and blocked his next swing with both sword and shield, locking his blade between the two. He began to push down on her shield, the pressure slowly bringing her to her knees.

"Why are you doing this? What have we done to you?" Sharmin asked in a strained voice, her arms shaking under the mighty strength of the Orc. He didn't answer her, but smiled darkly, pulling his sword free of the lock and swung at her once more. She barely blocked it with her shield, the tip of his sword cutting a thin line in her stomach. The force from his blow sent her flying a few feet through the air and onto her back.

"Sharmin!" Leon shouted, using his shield to push away the Dark Elf and turning to run towards her. Momentarily knocked off balance, the Dark Elf stumbled a bit before regaining his foothold and sprinting after Leon. Sharmin shakily pushed herself to her feet, the wind knocked from her lungs. Leon darted in between her and the approaching Orc. The Dark Elf thrust forward and took another swing at Leon, who avoided it and swung his shield out, smacking the elf in the head and causing him to stumble, stunned. The elf wobbled this way and that, swinging his sword blindly with one hand to his head, trying to stop it from spinning.

"Stop this!" Sharmin pleaded, as Leon parried a few swings from the Orc. Leon swung his shield out again, in attempts to stun the Orc so they could escape, but the blow seemed to not affect him. He grinned at Leon before dropping his sword and pulling an axe from a loop of leather around his waist. He blocked a blow Leon attempted to land with his shield. The short moment Leon's arm was raised; sword still locked against the Orc's shield, the Orc swung his axe hard, breaking through Leon's silver armor and embedding itself in his side. Leon winced and groaned, pulling away quickly before the Orc swung again.

Sharmin flew at the Orc, trying to help Leon, who had raised a hand to his broken armor, trying to quell the flowing blood that spilled over it, dying it crimson. She yelled as she thrust her sword, cutting through the Orc's exposed side. He growled and swung his shield, hitting Sharmin on the side of the head and causing her to fly through the air once more.

"Don't! I told you to run!" Leon shouted at her, fury showing on his handsome face. Sharmin pushed herself up slowly, sharp pain coursing through her skull. Blood poured onto the grass, and her eyes widened at it. She slowly raised a hand up to her face, finding that the blood was coming from her mouth and nose. Her vision was distorted, and she blinked hard to clear it as she stood. She turned back, stumbling slightly as she moved, towards the Orc and Leon, who continued to fight. The Dark Elf regained his senses, and glared at Leon a moment before darting forward, his sword extended.

"Look out!" she cried. Something snapped in her jaw when she shouted, and a new pain shot through her face. She found her mouth wouldn't shut properly when she tried, and she lifted a hand to the joint, panic jolting through her body. Upon hearing her shout, Leon turned just as the Dark Elf's sword found the spot under his arm where the armor did not cover, and thrust. Sharmin cried out as Leon fell, groaning in pain. He hit the ground hard and did not move. The Orc dropped his axe and pulled a long spear from where he had secured it upon his back. Sharmin backed up until her back hit the steep rock wall, her eyes wide with fear as the Orc slowly approached her. Behind him, the Dark Elf looked down at Leon's body with a pleased expression, his sword still dripping with blood. He shook it before sheathing it, and folded his arms across his chest, waiting for the Orc to complete his task.

Sharmin's vision blurred as the Orc approached her slowly, and she squinted. Don't do this, not now! She cried to her body silently. Stay conscious! Don't pass out! The Orc suddenly became a tall man with large wings, and her eyes widened. She slowly looked down, as if in a dream, and found herself holding a large golden sword in her hands. Her skin had turned a pale color, almost grey, which echoed a green light that shone from somewhere. That's right, she thought, pushing herself forward, holding the sword ready, I came here to kill him. What have I been doing up until now? She let out a loud shout as she ran towards the winged man, who took a step backwards, as if surprised, and swung the great golden sword. The tip cut through his golden helmet that hid his head from view as if it were nothing more than bread, and he let out a choked cry. Gold laced blood spilled down the tall man's chest as he withdrew in shock, lifting a hand to the wound. Confident that she drew blood, she swung again, leaving herself open. The man took this opening and thrust his spear hard, impaling her through her stomach. Sharmin halted, her eyes wide with shock, and doubled over, dropping the sword to grip the spear. Blood welled up in her throat and she choked, sputtering it out.

"Synshlee!" she heard someone shout behind her. She turned her head slightly to find the very Orc she and Leon had been fighting a moment ago staring at her in worry. He seemed younger though, as if he were just starting out into the world. Who's Synshlee? She thought, as the winged man put a foot on her shoulder to hold her steady as he withdrew the spear. I'm… Who am I again? Her body fell limply, and she watched with unblinking eyes as the winged man stumbled, supporting himself on his spear, one hand clutching his throat. He stood after a moment, his blood spattering to the floor of the stone room that she now noticed she was in, before moving towards a portal of light which slowly faded back into the scenery of Death Pass. The Orc stared down at her without expression, a scratch adorning the armor covering his collarbone where her sword had hit him.

"That was too easy, I feel dirty now." He stated, turning away from her. Sharmin's eyes burned, and she attempted to blink them, but found that her eyelids would no longer move. Her vision slowly faded as the Orc retreated back to his friend, and the darkness claimed her.

 

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Chapter 16

 

Sharmin's sight returned to her a moment later, and she found herself lying on cold black stone, in a circular room made of the same. Moonlight filtered through a hole somewhere above her, casting a thin stream of silvery light upon her. She found she was naked, but she did not feel cold. She could hear voices arguing somewhere distant, and followed the sound. The cavernous room gave away to a long corridor, red-orange light emanating from the end and drawing her in. It was hard to see clearly, her surroundings seemed to waver and distort, as if she were walking through a mirage in a hot desert.

"It is impossible! There is no mortal, no being save us capable of doing what you are suggesting!" a female voice said angrily as Sharmin approached. She slowly entered another large cavern, this one lit with red-orange light from lava that poured down the sides of the rock walls. The room seemed to be a platform, as the lava flowed past the floors, never touching the polished stone. Upon a raised dais at the end of the room, Sharmin could blurrily make out a tall figure with flowing silver hair and white wings, and a shorter one with pale blue-grey skin and inky black hair. The female voice came from the shorter, and she paced angrily in front of the taller figure.

"The present does not lie, sister. Look, a scar upon my throat where there was not one before. I remember the feel of the blade cutting into my flesh. Someone managed to cut through the barriers of time and lend strength to the bitch." The taller figure said, obviously a man. A hand grabbed Sharmin's wrist and pulled her back into the corridor as the two people turned to glance behind them. Sharmin found herself staring into the eyes of a shorter girl who had bright red hair cut into a boyish style, wearing a cape that appeared to be a modified fisherman's net. She held a finger to her lips, silencing any questioning protests Sharmin would've uttered, and glanced into the cavern once more. The two figures on the dais stared for a moment, not seeing Sharmin or the girl, and returning to their heated debate. She then led Sharmin silently through the caverns until she was back in the room she had regained consciousness in.

"You shouldn't be here." The girl said. Her voice was small, as if she were but a child, but her eyes held wisdom that gave away her true age.

"Where is 'here'?" Sharmin asked, trying to see through her wavering vision.

"The Abyss." She answered. She gasped softly and peered around Sharmin to the gloom from which they had come. "You shouldn't be here, only those she permits can enter, and she'll banish you to eternal torment if she sees you." The girl said, her voice lowering to a whisper.

"Wait, I'm dead?" Sharmin asked, incredulous. To her dismay, the red-haired girl nodded.

"But it is strange that you would end up here instead of with the other spirits." She mused, inspecting Sharmin's face. Her expression changed as she stared into Sharmin's eyes, slowly changing to a look of wonder. "Oh, so it's you!" she breathed. "The one whom Paagrio restored! I've wondered since that day why he would help the abomination-creation of our father, but now that I see you, I understand why!"

"Err…huh?" Sharmin managed out, not quite following what the girl was talking about. The girl held her hands to her face, the tips of her fingers covering her mouth as her eyes crinkled at the edges with a happy smile. Tears sparkled in her eyes and threatened to spill forth.

"This is so wonderful! I shall help you too!" the girl exclaimed happily, and then wrapped her arms around Sharmin's shoulders in a tight hug. "My favorite should be calling you back soon, so don't worry about being dead." She added before closing her mouth over Sharmin's in a strange sort of kiss. Sharmin's eyes widened and suddenly blackness surrounded her. She began to struggle, feeling as though she were suffocating, buried under hundreds of feet of heavy dirt. Sharmin clawed for what she hoped was the surface, her lungs burning for air. Light suddenly exploded in her eyes, blinding her and swallowing her up.

Sharmin sat up quickly, gasping for air as if she had indeed been buried in the ground. A sudden wave of pain washed over her and she curled up on her side, clutching her stomach. Junk Pixie stood over her, holding a blank scroll, and stared at her in surprise. Someone wearing dark green pants kneeled beside her and supported her head while holding a tube of the white potion Junk Pixie had given Leon earlier to her mouth. Wishing the pain to subside, she drank it eagerly, as if she were dying of thirst. She looked up into the face of the one who held her, and found the attractive older man whom she'd seen in the church in Gludio the day she tried to report Vlad, staring back at her with a relieved smile on his face. He helped her sit up as the healing potion went to work, then went about the task of collecting her belongings from where the Orc and Dark Elf had scattered them. Sharmin noticed, as she looked around, that Leon still lay on the ground, unmoving. Her heart leaping into her throat, she crawled over to him, her eyes wide with fear.

"Leon?" she asked, her voice cracking. He lay with his eyes open, staring and lifeless. She sat back on her ankles, covering her mouth with one hand as tears spilled down her cheeks. Beside her, Junk Pixie rummaged calmly through her pack and dug out a scroll sealed with red wax.

"He'll be alright, watch." The older man said, crouching next to Sharmin and giving her a warm smile.

"Leon, Leon, come back home!" Junk Pixie chanted, doing a little twirling dance as she held the scroll. Sharmin and the man stared at her with dotted eyes, both unsure of how to take her display.

"Is that standard?" Sharmin whispered, leaning towards the man.

"Not usually…no…" the man answered back. Junk Pixie stuck her tongue out at the two as she unrolled the scroll.

"Mama Pixie says that if you don't make some noise when unwrapping a rezz scroll, they'll just sleep in." she stated, matter of fact. A bright light suddenly flared forth from it and surrounded Leon in a ring. A smoky orb of light, brighter than the ring around him, floated down from the sky and entered his body. Leon drew in a gasping breath, life returning to his eyes. He blinked a few times as he breathed heavily, restoring oxygen to his blood before pushing himself up to sit. The words disappeared from the scroll as the light subsided, and Junk Pixie rolled it back up and shoved it into her pack.

"I hate it when that happens." Leon said, putting a hand to his head.

"I toldya we should've taken the Gatekeeper in Oren." Junk Pixie stated, pulling another white healing potion from her pack and handing it to him.

"Not all of us have unlimited money like you, Pixie." Leon mumbled, taking a drink.

"That's not my fault." She said, puffing her chest out proudly. "I find the shinies rather easy to come by, what's your excuse?"

"Hmm, let's see, for one we have the money I spend on the healing potions and resurrection scrolls which we seem to always need…" Leon began. He paused and looked at Sharmin, who was staring at him with tears still running down her face. "Sharmin, are you alright?" he asked, lowering the healing potion. Sharmin's face screwed up in grief for a moment before she threw herself forward and latched onto his shoulders.

"I thought you were dead." She sobbed, pressing her cheek against the cool armor on his shoulder. Bewildered, Leon stared at the side of her head before raising an unsure hand to pat her on the back of her head.

"Well…I was dead, for the moment." Leon stated softly. Sharmin pushed herself away from him to stare in shock.

"You both were, actually." The older man interjected, reminding them of his presence. They turned to look at him, as if realizing he was there for the first time.

"But I brought you back to life." Junk Pixie said, trying to puff her chest out farther. "It was a long journey, full of peril and strife! But the wise teachings of my Mama Pixie shall always pull us through! It all began one snowy evening…"

"My name is Ferrol." The man introduced, ignoring Pixie's rambling and helping Sharmin and Leon to their feet. Leon shook his hand firmly and nodded.

"Thank you for your help. I suppose it was your healing potions that helped us?" Leon stated, giving the man a friendly smile. Ferrol chuckled and blushed, rubbing the back of his neck, suddenly stricken with shyness. "Are you strong enough to travel?" Leon asked, looking at Sharmin.

"I think so…" she answered uncertainly, looking down at where the spear had impaled her. The wound was healed, but her stomach and her legs were covered in blood, as well as her face. "Can we find some water before heading into civilization? I can imagine I look like a Bugbear decided to tap dance on my head."

"So dying is normal?" Sharmin asked some time later. They had been trekking all night through the Pass, trying to get through lest they be found by people who would wish them ill will again. Dawn was breaking, and Sharmin was beginning to wear out.

"I wouldn't exactly call it 'normal'…" Leon began, looking over his shoulder at her. "It's happened a few times now though. I'm lucky I've been within range of someone who can call me back before my soul wanders too far. Most aren't that fortunate, however." He said, his expression grim.

"What does your soul wandering have to do with being brought back?" she asked, recalling her strange journey through the caverns. She wondered if it had really happened, or if it had just been a hallucination caused from the shock of being stabbed.

"There is a certain time frame in which a being can be brought back from the depths of the Abyss." Ferrol answered this time, walking next to Sharmin. "There is only a short amount of time before a body completely dies for the soul to return to it effectively. Those who attempt to reanimate a body after that time frame only return life to the corpse." When he received a confused look from Sharmin, he cleared his throat. "The brain instills a type of psychic barrier after a time, preventing the soul from re-entering, even if the organs are revived. It's quite fascinating, and we're still studying the exact chemistry of the change…"

"You're a Necromancer, aren't you?" Leon suddenly said, stopping and looking at Ferrol. Ferrol blinked at him in confusion for a moment.

"Yes I am actually." he answered without hesitation. "Is there something wrong?" he inquired when Leon continued to stare at him. Leon blinked once and then turned to continue walking, not answering his question.

By noontime they were halfway through the Pass, and paused to rest at the mouth of Dragon Valley. Sharmin wondered, as she settled herself against a boulder to doze, how Leon managed to travel so fast. Such a journey alone would take her weeks to travel through Death Pass, let alone the entire distance between Oren and Giran. Sharmin was roused from sleep as the cry of a Drake sounded nearby. She jumped to her feet, adrenaline pumping through her muscles, trying to regain her senses. A male Dwarf ran as fast as his short legs could carry him from Dragon Valley, a blue grey Drake flying close behind.

"Is that Stubby?" Leon asked Junk Pixie, who watched the Dwarf run with large eyes.

"I think so, looks like his fat nose from here." She answered. "Should we go help him? He owes me money."

"Do you even have to ask?" Leon stated, drawing his sword and running towards the Drake. Junk Pixie shrugged and pulled out her Tarbar, following close behind. "Sharmin, stay here with Ferrol in case some Basilisks decide you guys look tasty." Leon called to her as he ran.

"So Sharmin, where are you from?" Ferrol asked, drawing her attention away from Leon. She looked at him, curious as to why he decided to strike up a conversation now.

"I grew up on Talking Island." She answered shortly, turning back to watch Leon. They were about halfway across the gorge, the Drake hovering in one spot as they ran towards it.

"Were you born there?" Ferrol asked, stepping into her vision. Sharmin pursed her lips, her eyebrows drawing together at the insistent tone in his voice.

"My parents told me I was born in Aden while they were there visiting my mother's family. They were on their way to the Neutral Zone where my father started farming. Why are you asking such personal questions?" she demanded, putting a hand on her hip. Her annoyance faded as Ferrol's expression of wistful joy brought her up short. Why did he look so happy all of a sudden? She had often heard that Necromancers go mad during their studies, and she wondered if he had snapped. He opened his mouth to say something when a cry drew Sharmin's attention away from him. At the other end of the gorge, the Dwarf had fallen, and was weakly trying to bat away the Drake which was ripping into his abdomen, clutching something that looked suspiciously like viscera. Leon tried, unsuccessfully several times in a row, to cast his spell that would draw the Drake's attention away from the Dwarf. Just as Leon swung his sword, the Dwarf suddenly stood, drew his own sword, and stabbed the Drake in the belly. His own torso was ripped open, various organs dangling from where they were still attached. The Drake howled in pain and breathed fire.

Shocked at the sudden revival of the Dwarf, Sharmin looked next to her to find Ferrol with his eyes shut in concentration, his mouth moving in a silent chant. She could see his eyes moving under his eyelids, the reanimated Dwarf moving in the direction his covered eyes moved. Leon and Junk Pixie seemed stunned by this too, as they had come to a complete stop. Leon recovered first, and leapt into the air, swiping his sword as he came down, slicing the beast's throat between the scaly plates that covered its body. Blood sprayed from the wound and the dragon fell with a whine. The Dwarf stood still for a moment, then, much to Sharmin's horror, began a slow trek back towards them. His movements were jerky, like a wind-up doll's, and Sharmin felt bile rising in her throat at the sight of his exposed organs. She looked away as the Dwarf came to stand in front of them, trying to swallow against her gag reflex.

"Poor, poor Stubby BigNose." Junk Pixie stated sadly, shaking her head. "He owed me money, but ah well, that's how it goes."

"Thank you Mr. BigNose." Ferrol stated, opening the Dwarf's pack that was still miraculously hanging off of his shoulder. He began rummaging through it, searching for something.

"What are you doing?" Leon asked in alarm as he approached. Trying to avoid looking at the gutted Dwarf, Sharmin turned quickly to stare at Ferrol, who had pulled a scroll from the Dwarves pack.

"Resurrecting him, what else?" Ferrol answered honestly, holding the familiar scroll with a red seal. Sharmin's mouth opened in surprise, and Leon paused for a second in shock.

"Don't!" Leon suddenly shouted, and darted towards them as Ferrol opened the scroll. The bright light surrounded Stubby and his soul returned, life lighting up in his eyes once more. He took in a rattling breath, his exposed lungs expanding like twin sacs. Shocked, and most likely in a massive amount of pain, he slowly looked down at his open chest. Tears welled up in his eyes and he began to hyperventilate, as his body wished to die from shock, but Ferrol's reanimation magic preventing it from doing so.

"What have you done?" Sharmin choked, staring in horror at Ferrol.

"It's purely for study; I shall give him peace in a moment." Ferrol stated, watching how Stubby's organs quivered and expanded, still trying to work despite their displacement.

"You madman! How could you do this?" Leon shouted, grabbing Ferrol by the tunic and lifting him a few inches from the ground in fury. "Have you no compassion for the dead?"

"Compassion for the dead? What silliness are you speaking of boy? This is science! Through Mr. BigNose here, we are able to accurately see how the living body works! This is a great breakthrough!" Ferrol stated excitedly, pulling himself from Leon's grip. Junk Pixie stood a bit away, her eyes large. She had dropped her Tarbar in disbelief, staring at them.

"Mother Goddess Maphr!" Stubby suddenly sobbed, then began screaming. Sharmin winced and covered her ears, as Leon continued to argue with Ferrol. The voices seemed to coalesce into one terrifying sound, and Sharmin could endure it no longer. She drew her sword and stabbed Stubby through his quickly beating heart. His voice cut off in a 'pip' noise, and he fell limp, his body falling onto hers. She let go of her sword and took a step backwards, her hands shaking uncontrollably. Leon and Ferrol had stopped arguing, and stared at her in silent shock. She hugged herself, hunching her shoulders as she shook, unable to fathom what she had just done.

"Sharmin…" Leon said, reaching a hand to her. Just as he touched her armor she screamed loudly and then bolted away from them, frightened of herself, as she had vowed to never kill someone who did not intend her harm. Her trek was brought to a quick end as she ran headfirst into an armored body once more, knocking the person over and onto their bottom. A hand closed around her arm and pulled her back as she attempted to continue running, tripping her. She looked up with watery eyes to find a black-haired Dark Elf staring at her with a raised eyebrow. Behind him peeked the surprised face of Vuylay, and on the ground sat Narlafayn, whom Sharmin had bowled over.

"Geez Sharmin, what's the hurry?" Narlafayn asked, annoyed. She stood up and rubbed her bottom underneath her armor. Relief flooding her senses at seeing Vuylay and Narlafayn again, Sharmin released the wail she had suppressed until now, and succumbed to heavy sobbing. The trio she ran into stared at her in bewilderment.

"I know I'm that good looking but geez, I didn't expect I'd ever get a reaction like this." The Dark Elf said. Narlafayn cast him an annoyed glare and knocked the back of her hand against his chest lightly. Vuylay kneeled next to Sharmin and put a hand on her shoulder, giving her an awkward smile.

"Hey, it's ok, we're here…" she attempted, unused to comforting hysterics. Sharmin latched onto Vuylay who stared at her in shock as Sharmin buried her head between her breasts to continue crying. Unsure, she raised a hand and patted Sharmin lightly on the head. "There, there. It's ok" she attempted, not enjoying the moisture dripping into her cleavage.

"Leon!" Narlafayn exclaimed as he, Junk Pixie and Ferrol approached. She dropped her sword and shield and darted out to give her old companion a tight hug. "Pixie!" she exclaimed again, turning to hug the Dwarf with equal enthusiasm.

"Hey Panties Lady!" Junk Pixie exclaimed in response, hugging her back. "You're still showing them off, I'm so happy you didn't change!" she said, referring to the half-covered bikini style of the armor gaiters. "Are you charging money now for viewing pleasure?" Narlafayn withdrew from her hug quickly to bop Junk Pixie on the back of the head. Large crocodile tears welled up in her eyes instantly, and she began sobbed once before wiping her eyes, fully recovered.

"Neat, is there a switch back there or something?" the Dark Elf asked, moving next to Junk Pixie and whapping her on the back of the head to get her to cry again. Her response for him, however, was a swift kick to the shins and an annoyed glare.

"Can someone please dislodge Sharmin so I can greet everyone too?" Vuylay requested in a whining voice from the ground. Leon knelt beside them and gently pulled Sharmin away from Vuylay, taking her by the chin to make her look at him.

"Sharmin, it's ok. You did the right thing. It's ok to cry for what had to happen, but I was going to do the same thing if you hadn't." Leon said in a soft voice, staring into her eyes intently. "What Ferrol did to him was unforgivable. You didn't do anything wrong." He took his hand from her chin and brushed the tears from her cheeks as she allowed his words to comfort her. He gave her a tiny smile that she attempted to mirror as he helped her to her feet. Narlafayn cleared her throat behind them and Sharmin jumped, as she had forgotten they had an audience.

"Should we leave you guys be?" she asked, amused.

"Whatever for?" Leon asked, his face now a mask of blank curiousity. Narlafayn visibly twitched and put a hand to her head, a vein popping out at her temple and pulsing.

"Now see here you…" she began, her voice steady.

"I'm soooo happy to see you Leon darling!" Vuylay suddenly exclaimed, throwing herself at Leon. He stepped backwards and she fell comically to the ground, missing her target. Junk Pixie began to laugh and point.

"The big boobies do make her bounce!" she exclaimed, holding her stomach with her laughter. Grief momentarily forgotten, Sharmin, covered her face as she suppressed her laughter.

"Don't laugh!" Vuylay stated, her cheeks dark with embarrassment. "Terebel, a little sympathy for a fellow Dark Elf would be extremely handy right about now." She grumbled, staring pointedly at the other Dark Elf. Terebel turned away from her and folded his arms behind his head, gazing into the sky.

"Better you than me." he said, aloof. Vuylay growled and pushed herself back to her feet, brushing the dust from her smoky black skirt.

"As fun as this reunion is for all of you, might I suggest we continue it as we move, as the longer we linger here, the more likely it is that we'll draw unneeded attention to ourselves?" Ferrol suddenly said, walking past them. "I would like to arrive in Giran before the week is up, thank you. I have much to report now."

"Why don't you just use a Gatekeeper scroll?" Narlafayn asked. A blank look passed over the faces of Leon, Sharmin, Junk Pixie and Ferrol before a unanimous "oh yeah!" came from all four of them at the same time. The vein popped up in Narlafayn's temple again, and Terebel stared blankly, not believing the four could've been so dense. The group began to rummage through their supply bags at Narlafayn's suggestion, each pulling out their own scroll and unrolling it. Darkness surrounded Sharmin again, and she folded her arms across her chest as she fell, waiting for the inevitable ground that would meet her face soon enough. She felt uneasy still for what she had done to the Dwarf, but at the same time she believed Leon when he told her it was a mercy killing. Her thoughts were interrupted as she landed, this time on her bottom, underneath a tall statue on a pedestal in the center of Giran.

All around her sat merchants, some with stalls, and some with blankets displaying their wares. They were so thickly situated together; it was hard for the shoppers to move from place to place. The square was thick with people all the way up to the Gatekeeper, who stood stiffly at the top of the steps leading to the Cathedral, looking as if she might drown in the sea of bodies. Sharmin scanned the crowd around her intently, looking for her companions. Ferrol waved to her from beside the Giran Crop Manager, who stood near his wagon speaking with a farmer. She winced, wishing instantly that it had been someone else, but making her way over to him anyway.

"Quite a crowd, eh?" Ferrol asked brightly. He shielded his eyes from the sun and gazed up at the statue that stood in the center of town. "I haven't been here for years. Place hasn't changed a bit though." He sighed and looked back at Sharmin, who still searched the crowd for everyone. "Well, since we can't find our friends in this mess, shall we retreat to the Inn until they come to us?" he offered, smiling. Finding it hard to dislike the man, even after what had transpired, Sharmin mustered up a half smile and nodded.

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Chapter 17

 

They sat in tall chairs in the corner of the Inn a bit later, watching the people around them. Sharmin had received bewildered stares when they had entered, her armor still bloodied and dirty, and was thankful for the out of the way seat. Ferrol chuckled as two boys wielding wooden swords chased each other through the crowded tavern, pausing to whack their swords together before resuming their game.

"I must apologize, Sharmin, for what I made you go through at the expense of my need for study." Ferrol suddenly said, turning his gaze away from the boys to look at her. Sharmin looked up from the bowl of noodles she'd ordered in surprise, unused to receiving an apology for someone's selfish actions. "I did not intend for you to have to witness or experience that, and I am truly, truly sorry."

"I… um… That is… It's… ok?" Sharmin managed to get out, stumbling over her words. Ferrol smiled warmly at her and patted her hand.

"No, it's not ok. I shall live the rest of my life and think only of how I have wronged you, my girl, and only hope that one day I can make amends for causing you such pain and grief." He said eloquently, sighing. Sharmin's fork fell from her hand and clattered to the table as she stared at him in disbelief. She picked it up quickly, trying to mask her emotions by returning to her food. "How is it, being a warrior of the church?" Ferrol suddenly asked, breaking the silence that had fallen between them. Sharmin stared at him for a moment, unsure of the nature of his question and how to answer.

"Well… I'm not sure." She began, setting her fork on the table gently. "I haven't been a Paladin for very long, and it's still rather new to me…"

"I see…that explains why you have no qualms about talking with me then." He said, smiling at her. "The Holy Church of Einhasad doesn't look kindly upon a Necromancer, especially one such as me who has denounced the teachings of the Holy Mother Goddess." he said in response to her confused look.

"Denounced the teachings?" Sharmin asked, curious now despite herself. Ferrol nodded solemnly and sighed.

"I was once a Priest in the Church, the grand Cathedral in Aden in fact. Priests and Priestesses from all over the continent compete against each other for a place within that church, and I was one of the few lucky ones chosen to teach the healers who wandered through on pilgrimage. I was even in line to become a Cardinal, can you believe that?" he paused his tale to grin at her surprised expression.

"That's quite an honor." Sharmin said with her eyes large. "What happened to turn you into a Necromancer?" Ferrol turned away from her gaze for a moment, and looked down at his pint of mead. He sighed and raised his head again, tears sparkling in his eyes.

"Love." He stated simply, his voice thick. "I fell in love with a Priestess named Deirdre. She was young, having just completed her training here in Giran and had come to Aden to teach, replacing an older Priestess who was retiring into nunnery. I fell in love with her the moment I laid eyes on her." Sharmin's heart swelled in pity towards the older man, as the look of grief that graced his face moved her own heart. He took a breath before continuing. "She was the most…beautiful creature that could ever walk this earth. Her hair was an illustrious golden brown that hung down past her waist. She had a heart-shaped face and lips that weren't too thick or thin…" Ferrol sighed in fond memory, his eyes glazing over. "When she walked, it was graceful, as if she were tiptoeing around clouds that she must not disturb. I thanked Einhasad every minute for allowing me to gaze upon such a beauty as her, telling myself that just to see her was enough. But Einhasad laughed at my gratitude, and punished me in the cruelest way possible."

"It was by chance that one night we would meet during a festival in Aden's town square. At my foolish request, she accompanied me the rest of the night. Ah, I can remember it now…" he paused, sighing once again in memory, "…the feel of her arm linked with mine as I escorted her to the various displays and games set up by the merchants. We watched a traveling band of performers; she had been enthralled by the tumblers," he paused to take a drink of mead. His expression darkened as he swallowed, his memories turning unpleasant. "She was quite taken with me, and requested that we continue to meet, outside of the church, as she yearned to know me better, not as a Priest, but as a man."

"How is any of this a cruel punishment?" Sharmin asked, propping her chin up with her fist. Her finger tapped the stabbing end of her fork, causing the utensil to rock. "It sounds like you were having a good time to me."

"Ah, that's the irony of it that they don't tell you when you first join the church. Those fully devoted to the teachings of Einhasad must give up base desires and devote their entire being to her. Things such as romantic love are forbidden, and if you are caught, you are stripped of your title and banished from the light of the church. Deirdre and I continued to meet in secret, usually under the light of the moon, until it happened one night that I could no longer bear to suppress the extent of my love for her, and we consummated it. We were happy despite our taboo, and continued like this until the Head Bishop happened upon one such meeting. We were separated then, the Bishop not wanting to loose either of our devotions to banishment as we were highly sought after teachers, and brought money in to pad his pockets. I was sent to Oren under the guise of a teaching exchange. I taught there for a few months until I received word that my last meeting with Deirdre had been fruitful, and she was with child." Ferrol paused again, swallowing against a lump in his throat. When his voice came again, it wavered. "I was so happy beyond belief. I knew we would both surely be stripped of our titles and banished from the church, but then we could be happy and raise our child together. Sadly, it did not happen as such."

"Deirdre was not released from the church when I was, the reasoning behind it as I found later, was that she exuded some strange magic that the Bishop wished to use for himself out of greed. I tried to return to Aden to be with her when she was to give birth to our child, as the Bishop had promised to give the child to me after it was born, as long as I remained as far away from Aden and Deirdre as possible. This was not to be. As I neared Aden, I was captured by a paid mercenary force that left me in the Tower of Insolence with nothing more than a dagger and one healing potion. By the time I escaped there, the child had been born, and taken away by a couple I did not know."

"Deirdre had been taken to Rune by the Bishop, in an attempt to gain alliance with the Bishop in the church up there. She fell ill while making a pilgrimage through the Cursed Village, and died soon after. I denounced Einhasad, for what Holy Mother would cause suffering to people just because they wished to be in love and happy? What kind of god deserves worship when all they do is laugh at your prayers? She is not worthy of my worship. She is not even worthy of my spit." Ferrol finished angrily, slamming his fist down on the table. Sharmin watched him with tear-filled eyes, wishing to say something but unsure as to what. He looked at her then, his face back to the wistful smile, and put a hand over hers. "It's ok now though, as I have found…"

"Hey Sharmin, there you are!" Narlafayn shouted from the door, waving to her. Terebel and Junk Pixie flanked her, one looking bored, and the other inspecting their surroundings with dollar signs in their eyes. Sharmin smiled and waved back, grateful for a break from Ferrol's sad tale. She did truly feel pity for the man, but it was awkward. What was she to say after being told a lengthy story such as that?

"Hi there." Sharmin greeted them as they weaved their way through the crowd. "Where's Leon and Vuylay?" she asked, rising up slightly to look behind them for the missing people.

"Leon went to the Cathedral, and who knows where Vuylay is." Narlafayn stated, rolling her eyes.

"Checking the bounciness of her boobies!" Junk Pixie offered, hopping in place.

"Alright, enough about Vuy's boobs. What's so fascinating about those things anyway? All they do is get in the way." Narlafayn stated with a disgusted face, putting a hand on Junk Pixie's head to calm her bouncing.

"We like to call them 'fun bags'" Terebel began, cupping his hands and holding them in the air in front of him. In one smooth movement, Narlafayn took Sharmin's half-empty bowl and turned it over on Terebel's head. He froze in his movement, his hands still cupped in front of him, as noodles dripped down his nose and over his shoulders. "You're lucky I think you're cute." he stated, deadpan.

"I think I'll go look for them…" Sharmin said slowly, scooting out of her chair.

"Okie dokie slow pokey, have fun!" Junk Pixie stated cheerfully, waving at her. She plopped herself in the seat Sharmin had vacated, and pulled out her supply bag to inspect the things she had pulled off of the various monsters she had killed in Death Pass. Sharmin wandered out of the inn and into the late afternoon light, shielding her eyes from the sun that momentarily blinded her. She didn't notice the sad look that Ferrol gave her as she exited. She made her way through the crowd and towards the grand Cathedral that sat to the north of the square. Darting through the busy foot traffic, she entered the church with her armor clattering loudly. Pausing at the entrance, she took a breath, several exiting parishioners giving her strange glances. Once composed, she calmly made her way down the center of the church, filing past praying people. Leon stood at the altar, speaking softly with the Head Bishop. A smile forming on her face, Sharmin took a breath to announce herself.

"…Should be considered extremely dangerous." The Bishop was saying, "He has fashioned himself into a prophet of Gran Kain since his dismissal from the church, and goes around preaching of a false Genesis, as well as studying and teaching the forbidden magic of the Giants!"

"He was once of the church?" Leon asked curiously. His back was to Sharmin and did not notice her presence.

"Yes, once he was a priest who broke our laws. Now he performs such blasphemy!" the Bishop whined, biting a handkerchief he'd produced from a pocket inside of his robes.

"So I've witnessed." Leon stated grimly.

"Ah, you've seen it then! His disgusting obsession with living organs. No wonder he was driven from the church!" the Bishop stated, crinkling his nose at the thought. Sharmin's eyes widened as it dawned on her that they were speaking of Ferrol. Her heart began to pound and she ducked behind a pillar to hear more.

"So what are my orders?" Leon asked seriously, staring at the Bishop.

"Bring in the Necromancer, one way or the other. If he complies and comes in without a fight, good, but if he resists…well…I think you know what to do from there." The Bishop stated his voice dark. Leon shifted uneasily, but nodded his head in agreement.

"As you command, sir." was the last thing Sharmin heard before darting away from the pillar and out the church doors.

She exited the church quickly, biting her thumbnail, her emotions swirling around inside of her. On one hand she knew that what Ferrol did was unforgivable, and for that he should be punished. But on the other hand, she felt as if he had suffered enough in life. She stopped as she noticed Ferrol standing to the side of the church, watching her with a solemn expression.

"So, they've finally put a warrant out for my arrest?" he asked, smiling lightly. Sharmin chewed on the inside of her mouth and averted his gaze. "Your silence is answer enough." he turned away from her and walked slowly into the square. "Do not hate your friend for what will transpire, Sharmin. He will be acting on what he feels is just, according to his faith." Her eyes widening in slow realization, Sharmin darted forward and caught Ferrol by the sleeve of his tunic.

"Where can you go that's safe?" she found herself asking in a desperate voice. Ferrol's eyebrows raised in surprise.

"Sharmin, don't get yourself involved in this mess for my sake…" he began; placing a hand over the one she had gripping his sleeve.

"Where can you go that's safe?" she asked again, her voice more insistent. Ferrol's mouth parted slightly as he stared into her eyes. He shut his own eyes and sighed, shaking his head as a grin touched his mouth.

"She was always so stubborn too, once she'd set her mind upon something." he said to himself, more than to her. Sharmin tilted her head in question, but he ignored it. "Hardin's Private Academy. The research I've been conducting was for him. He and anyone who enters his Academy are instantly under the protection of the Lich King Icarus, so I will be safe there from the church."

"Then go. I'll make sure Leon doesn't leave Giran until you're far enough away." Sharmin decided, releasing his sleeve. "Can you make it there on your own?"

"Yes, I'll be fine. I only need find a corpse to act as my shield, and there are plenty of those lying about Death Pass." He stated, smiling. It faded a moment later, and he raised a hand to pat Sharmin's cheek. She suddenly noticed that she was taller than him, and he had to look up slightly to meet her gaze. "Be well, Sharmin." he said sadly before turning away from her. Sharmin watched him retreat into the crowd, feeling sad but not understanding why.

She leaned against the side of the church, and stared down at her feet as she waited for Leon. She had lodged her hands behind her bottom and rested against them as a kind of cushion. She tapped her heel against the cobblestone ground, trying to dislodge a few pebbles. Leon paused as he stepped out into the fading daylight and took a breath, as if composing himself. Sharmin pushed herself from the wall and approached him, forcing a large smile to her face.

"Hey Leon, there's this merchant selling the craziest things, you should come look!" she stated brightly.

"Not now Sharmin, I have an assignment I must complete." Leon murmured, dismissing her and gazing into the crowd. "Have you seen Ferrol?" he asked, squinting at the people still shopping in the square. Sharmin shook her head; making her eyes large in what she hoped was an innocent expression. "All right, but if you see him, let me know immediately, ok?" he said seriously, staring at her. Sharmin's act faded and she frowned. His tone of voice was similar to one a person would use to speak to a child to make sure they understood a command.

"Ah! Wait!" she exclaimed, moving forward to grasp his arm as he walked away from her at a brisk pace.

"Sharmin, I really have to do this. I'll go shopping with you later, all right?" he said, gently lifting her hand from the black and white checker print of the under tunic.

"Hey Leon!" Narlafayn called, coming into the square. "Where ya goin'?" Junk Pixie, Terebel and a very dejected looking Vuylay followed her.

"The Head Bishop has given me a very important assignment that I must complete. I'll see you later." He said, trying once again to move into the crowd. Narlafayn planted herself in front of him and leaned forward, inspecting his face.

"How long has it been since you've rested?" Narlafayn asked, glaring.

"I don't need rest, I feel fine." Leon began, his voice low as if he were a child being scolded.

"Three whole days!" Junk Pixie exclaimed, hopping forward. "I made a bet with my brother Spore that he can go another week without sleep!" Narlafayn folded her arms as she stood, and tapped her foot, giving him an even look.

"Your orders can wait until you've rested. Would your superiors like it if you dropped dead from exhaustion in the middle of carrying out a mission?" she scolded. "You. To the inn, on the double. There you will get some rest and some food and you can start your mission the moment you wake up." She got behind him and began pushing him towards the inn.

"Uh oh, Narlafayn's in mother mode. Everyone beware." Terebel muttered to Vuylay who snickered.

"Narlafayn, stop. I have to find Ferrol." Leon said stubbornly, planting his feet into the ground. "I'll rest after I get him. If he's not with you now it means he's taken off and I must go locate him before he gets too far."

"He went on ahead to Heine." Sharmin suddenly spoke up. The group turned to stare at her, and she blushed. "He said that he needed to report his findings to someone there and used the Gatekeeper not a half hour ago." Leon took a few steps towards her, his face intense.

"Why didn't you tell me this sooner?" he asked, placing his hands on her shoulders. Sharmin gulped and made sure she met his eyes, knowing that if she averted her gaze, her lie would be seen through.

"He told me not to tell anyone." She lied. "I didn't see any harm at not saying anything…at first." Her voice faltered and she inwardly winced."Hey, that's great, weren't you guys headed in that direction anyway?" Narlafayn stated, clapping Leon on the back. Sharmin blinked at her cluelessly before remembering why they'd traveled to Giran in the first place.

"Oh yeah, Komugi is going there!" she exclaimed. Vuylay put a hand to her forehead and shook her head, sighing.

"That settles it then! Leon, rest for tonight and then we'll all go to Heine when we wake up, alright?" Narlafayn decided, grinning.

"This isn't the way I want to do things…" Leon grumbled, but allowed Narlafayn to lead him towards the inn anyway.

"I hear ya man, but when Narla gets something in her head, you can't resist her." Terebel sympathized, walking behind them.

"You would know." Vuylay said in a sly tone. Terebel paused for a moment before clearing his throat and folding his arms behind his head.

"Hi-ho, Hi-ho, it's off to Heine we go!" Junk Pixie sang as she skipped behind them. Sharmin watched them walk away for a moment before letting out her nervous sigh, relaxing now that Leon wasn't staring so intensely at her.

"Deirdre?" a voice suddenly exclaimed behind her. Sharmin turned to find an elfin priest staring at her with large eyes, his face pale as if he were looking at a ghost. "Oh no, I'm sorry, you couldn't be Deirdre. Please forgive me." The elf said hastily, retreating back into the cathedral.

"Wait, why did you call me Deirdre?" Sharmin called, taking a step towards him.

"Deirdre was a friend of mine, many years ago." The elf said, turning around slowly. "Please forgive me for the mix-up, it's just you looked just like her for a moment." He smiled nervously and rubbed the back of his neck.

"Where is she now?" she asked, even though she already knew the answer.

"She died, almost eighteen years ago now, at the hands of her former lover." The elf stated, tilting his head at her. "Why do you ask? Did you know her as well?"

"Sort of…" Sharmin said slowly, thinking hard. "But I thought she died from an illness she caught in the Cursed Village."

"Oh Heavenly Pool no." the elf's eyes were large with surprise. "Her former lover had been studying forbidden magic in the Cursed Village and she raced there to see him. He had gone mad with the power he'd invoked and killed her; along with the missionary group she'd traveled to Elmore with. Quite a sad end, isn't it? They say her lover is still at large, so I'd be careful if I were you. He might see you and mistake you for Deirdre." He said, shaking his head. Sharmin stared into nothing, shocked by this new tidbit of information.

"Thank you." She said, slowly retreating away from the elf, who watched her go with a skeptical look. As she lay in bed that night, her mind swirled about all that she'd learned that day. What her mind was suggesting was impossible for her to fathom; could she be the child that Ferrol had been talking about? No, that couldn't be! She was the daughter of Zephan and Prisca Kerr. She was born in Aden…

She rolled onto her back to stare at the dark ceiling above her, her heart beating hard. Sighing in annoyance, as her mind would not let her sleep; Sharmin scooted out of the bed and tiptoed out of the room she was sharing with Junk Pixie.

Your father had blonde hair and your mother red, you know. Both Ferrol and Deirdre had brown. The evil voice in her mind said slyly.

Shut up. She told it, walking down a darkened hallway with one hand on the wall to guide her.

Komugi has pink hair, why doesn't yours echo either of your parents then? The voice continued. I know you noticed how Ferrol's eyes seemed to be the same color as yours…

"Shut UP." She said aloud. The door she'd rested her hand upon swung open quickly, and Leon poked his head out, startling her.

"Is something the matter?" he asked, looking up and down the hall. "Were you talking to someone?"

"Yes… I mean no, I wasn't." Sharmin stuttered. Leon had removed his armor and wore a brown pair of leather trousers. He'd left the checkered under tunic on, and now that armor wasn't confining it to his body, it billowed out in a poetic style. "I can't sleep, so I was taking a walk."

"Oh. Shall I accompany you then?" he asked, stepping out of his room. Sharmin held her hands out and shook her head quickly.

"No, it's fine. You need your rest the most, don't worry about me." She insisted quickly, feeling guilty still for lying to him earlier that day.

"Please, I insist. I'd feel better because I'd know you were safe then." Leon argued, smiling. Sharmin's will to argue melted away, and she sighed in silent defeat.

Leon walked beside her with a clueless smile upon his face as she made her way out of the inn and towards a large tree the city had built around. A circular bench surrounded it, and she sat down, gazing up into the branches as a nighttime breeze blew through it.

"It's been quite a month, hasn't it?" Leon asked, breaking the silence. Sharmin nodded, leaning back against the tree. She shut her eyes as the wind blew over her, relieving her of all stress.

"Hey Leon, why did you become a Paladin?" Sharmin found herself asking a moment later. Leon cocked his head at her in surprise, and then thought for a moment.

"To protect." He stated simply. Sharmin's eyes fluttered open and she looked at him. He gazed into the distance without expression, but his eyes were peaceful. He turned to look at her, his visible blue eye staring intensely into hers. "Why did you become a Paladin?"

Sharmin's face turned beet red as she searched for an answer. She couldn't tell him that he was her main inspiration for drawing a sword; that would seem so dishonorable and silly.

"I'm not sure, actually." She faltered over her words, causing her face to turn a darker red. Clearing her throat, she attempted to change the subject. "So…before you came to Talking Island, where did you live?" she said casually. Leon smiled at her before settling against the tree himself.

"That's a long story…" he said, chuckling, and then began his tale.

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Chapter 18

 

It is now that we join Paagrio, as he is pacing the silvery hallway of Einhasad's palace, his hands folded behind his back. Heavy armor adorned his body, but he moved as if it were nothing more than cotton. The floors began to shake beneath him, and he paused to sigh.

"You can come out now Maphr." He said, his voice heavy. The red haired girl wearing the net cape that spoke with Sharmin in the Abyss peeked out from behind a pillar, a grin upon her face.

"Hello big brother!" she said happily, twirling once and making her ruffled skirt flare out around her. "You wanted to see me?"

"Yes." he kneeled so her could stare directly into his sister's earth-brown eyes. "Did you meddle in the affairs of mortals?" he asked straightforwardly. Paagrio was not known to be a conversationalist, and when he wished to know something, he would ask first thing. Maphr stared at him, her eyes large and innocent.

"What are you talking about, big brother?" she asked, her voice innocent enough to match her expression. Paagrio growled in frustration and stood, staring down his nose at her.

"Don't play around Maphr, did you or did you not replenish the barren earth you'd given father for the humans in that human girl?" he demanded, his voice rough. The playful gleam in Maphr's eyes faded and she shrunk down in the shadow of her brother.

"I only acted as you did." She whined, pulling her cape up around her. "I thought it was part of the game."

"You little FOOL!" Paagrio exploded, the pillars rumbling with the force of his shout. "This is not one of the foolish games you participate in with our siblings; this is in attempts to end them!" He did not worry about revealing any pieces of his plan to Maphr, as she did not speak with Shilen or Sayha. She did not understand the destruction the games her family played with the mortals, as she thought they were just fun escapes from the monotony of eternal life. Large tears welled up in her eyes and dripped down her cheeks, her lip quivering at the rage her brother displayed. Paagrio sighed in exasperation and turned away from her, disliking seeing his sister cry. "Find other things to do to amuse you, Maphr, and remain free of the games they play." He said wearily, his voice tired.

"But brother, if there are no games to play, what do we do with our time?" Maphr asked honestly, sniffling. Paagrio turned his head to face her quickly, his dreadlocks whipping around and smacking his shoulder. He opened his mouth to speak, when the long, brightly lit silver corridor behind them elongated and retracted, the glowing figure of their mother appearing before them. Maphr shielded her eyes against the glory that was Einhasad, her eyes more accustomed to dimmer light, as her home was within the ground. Paagrio faced her fearlessly, and bowed in respect.

"Sixty years have passed since their banishment and now their spawn returns." She said in a booming voice. "Remain far from Eva, as I am preparing to remove the threats today." With this cryptic and confusing statement, Einhasad disappeared as quickly as she had appeared, leaving Maphr and Paagrio to stare in awe. The expressions they wore were grim, as they knew of what their mother spoke of. Paagrio sighed and called forth his flame to bring him back to his domain. Something far more serious than the pathetic games his family played were going to fall into place very soon, and he did not look forward to it.

The next morning dawned bright and sunny. Sharmin winced and covered her eyes with her arm, light streaming in through the slatted shutters and hitting her right in the face. She groaned and rolled over, trying to return to sleep. She snuggled down under the covers and sighed contentedly, drifting off.

"Hey Leon, wake up!" Narlafayn exclaimed, bursting in through the door. Sharmin shot up like a rocket, her heart pounding from surprise. Narlafayn stared at her in shock, her mouth falling open.

"Are we ready to go yet?" Vuylay asked, peering around Narlafayn's shoulder. Her mouth fell open too.

"Oh I see…" Narlafayn said slyly with a grin to match. Sharmin blinked in confusion for a moment before she realized she was in Leon's bed. Her face turned red for a moment.

"It's not like that!" Sharmin exclaimed, scooting out of bed.

"Uh huh. You just so happened to teleport into his bed, huh? Where is he by the way?" Narlafayn quipped, glancing about the small room.

"Narla, please. This is LEON we're talking about." Vuylay stated icily, rolling her eyes. "As if anything indecent would ever happen to him. They were probably hanging out last night and she fell asleep while talking to him, so, being the gentleman, he put her in his bed and slept on the floor." This time Sharmin's own mouth fell open, as that was exactly what had transpired the night before. She couldn't remember falling asleep though…

"I hate it when you're right." Narlafayn grumbled, turning and walking out the door. "Sharmin, get dressed! We're going to Heine!"

"Good morning everyone!" Leon said cheerfully as the group made their way groggily towards the Gatekeeper. He stood next to her, his armor freshly polished and his hair clean, a large grin on his face.

"Are you sure nothing happened between them last night? He's in an awfully good mood." Narlafayn whispered to Vuylay, who made an aggravated noise.

"Oh that's nuthin, that's just how he gets when he doesn't sleep for four days." Junk Pixie stated happily. Everyone halted in their trek towards the Gatekeeper as Leon put his hands on his hips and began laughing loudly at absolutely nothing.

"That's it, this Paladin is defective. I demand a refund." Terebel said, scooting away. Narlafayn grabbed his arm to prevent him from moving any farther away, and dragged him to the Gatekeeper.

"Let's just go." She mumbled, giving up on keeping tabs on Leon's health. Leon's laughter continued through the Gatekeeper's spell, and faded as Sharmin fell through the black vortex. She squinted as the pinpoint of light shone ahead of her again, her eyes widening as she saw the blonde girl huddled against the ottoman, hugging her knees. She looked up at Sharmin, tears brimming in her aqua blue eyes.

"Help me." She pleaded, reaching a hand out. Entranced, Sharmin reached out to her, urging herself through the vortex faster, to take her hand. Her eyes widened in shock and she gasped as she actually touched flesh. Her body jerked, and the suction in the void changed, pulling her forward instead of down. The girl finally released her hand, and Sharmin tumbled precariously from the vortex.

"OH MY GOD I'M DYING." A voice suddenly groaned from beneath her as the world returned. Sharmin pushed herself to her knees, holding her head, trying to get the world to stop spinning. "Watch where you're falling you fat cow." The voice said again, brushing off her sleeves. "Not all of us wear armor, so that crap hurts."

"I'm sorry…" Sharmin began and then paused, the voice striking familiarity in her. She opened her eyes and stared, the pink head of Komugi lowered to inspect a tear in her skirt.

"Oh man, I just bought this too…" she grumbled, fingering it. "All because this cow decided to land on sweet little me… I'm not a landing pad you know…"

"KOMUGI!" Sharmin squealed, latching onto her younger sister in a fierce hug and bowling her over. Komugi let out a surprised noise as her back hit the sand they were seated in.

"Sh…Sharmin?" Komugi asked, uncertain. Sharmin released her sister long enough to stare at her, happy tears rolling down her face. "Oh my God what happened to you? You look older." She observed, her voice giving away her surprise. Sharmin didn't answer, and instead hugged her sister again.

"Where have you been? I've been searching for you since we were separated." Sharmin sobbed, twirling a lock of Komugi's hair around her finger. She never thought she'd be so grateful to see her rose colored locks as she was at that moment.

"Oh here and there…" Komugi began. "It's a long story though…" Sharmin freed her sister from her death hug to let her sit back up. She was just about to question where it was she'd gone, when suddenly there was surprised yelling, and several bodies appeared in the air and landed around them in the sand. She and Komugi blinked at them in surprise. "You brought company." Komugi observed, standing. "Sorry I haven't cleaned up. You know how it is; the ocean just keeps bringing the sand in." Sharmin then noticed that they weren't in Heine, but had landed on a large sandy beach. Large silvery pillars stood in the water ahead of her, and she blinked at them curiously.

"This doesn't look like Heine… Unless they've remodeled…" Narlafayn stated, pushing herself to her feet. She wriggled, trying to get the sand out of her gaiters.

"GATORS!" Junk Pixie suddenly exclaimed, pulling out her Tarbar and racing after a giant crocodile known as a Nos. The Nos were over sixteen feet tall, stood on two legs, and wore heavy bone armor. Most smart travelers hesitated to approach them, as they could throw kunai with deadly accuracy. This Nos, however, turned and fled in fear the instant he laid eyes on Junk Pixie.

"Did we get the dense Gatekeeper or something? This is definitely not Heine." Vuylay asked as she stood. Next to her, Terebel coughed, trying to get the sand out of his throat. "Oh hey, Komugi lives." She stated, unimpressed.

"Nice to see you too." Komugi said back, deadpan. A Dark Elf and a human girl with short brown hair came over a hill behind Komugi, staring at the group in surprise. Next to the human stood a large white cat walking on two legs, dressed in a brown coat and hat.

"Well, we have a nice crowd to help us now. Where did you find them, Komugi?" the Dark Elf stated, walking calmly after them. Komugi frowned and opened her mouth, but before any sound came out, something dropped heavily into the ocean, causing a large splash. The group stared in silence as Leon pulled himself from the ocean, water pouring from his armor.

"That's a good way to wake up." He said lightly, pulling a fish from his breastplate. "Where are we?"

"Outside of the Garden of Eva." The human girl with the cat said, smiling. "My name is Melissan, and this is Valimos and Komugi. We were about to go explore the Garden, would you like to join us?" her voice was soft, and she smiled warmly.

"Garden of Eva? What the heck are we doing here?" Narlafayn asked, her voice incredulous. "Is there even a dimensional spell that brings people here?"

"Not that I know of, what happened in there?" Terebel wondered himself, digging in the sand for his dual swords. Junk Pixie chased the Nos across the landscape behind him, waving her Tarbar.

"There was a girl…in the vortex." Sharmin spoke up. Seven pairs of eyes turned to stare at her. "She asked for help and I took her hand…" When the others continued to stare at her in shock, she added, "Didn't you guys see her too?" Four heads shook in unison, and a cold feeling settled throughout Sharmin's body. Junk Pixie had caught up to the Nos behind them, and was happily beating on him with her axe. Melissan's cat stood next to her, swiping with his paws, trying to help.

"Well now what, it's at least a full day's travel to Heine from here." Narlafayn asked, putting her hands on her hips.

"We continue onward." Leon stated maturely. "Something obviously called us here for a reason, and it's our duty to see who it was and why."

"This is great! We'll whiz right through the Garden at this rate." Valimos stated in a business-like manner, clapping his hands together and rubbing them. "But if you get any treasure off of the guardian beasts in there, it goes to me, got it?"

"Not if I get it first." Junk Pixie stated, matter-of-fact. She was busy trying to stuff a large club head and several pieces of heavy adamantine into her pack unsuccessfully.

"Well you WON'T get it first then, will you." Valimos said coldly, glaring at her.

"Now now…" Melissan interjected, holding her hands up. "It's not fair to demand such things from someone if they're the one who kills the monster." She said with a smile.

"Shut up, human." Valimos growled.

"Alright, ENOUGH." Komugi finally shouted, holding her hands out. "This is nutty enough as it is. Valimos, shut up. Leon, you're insane, but if your idea gets us moving, then we'll go along with it. The rest of you, either go away or start walking, I'm tired of just standing here staring at everyone like a dumbass!" Komugi seethed, her fists balling at her sides.

"You haven't changed a bit." Sharmin said happily, earning a glare from her sister.

Komugi and Vuylay performed a spell upon the group that allowed them hold their breath longer than they would normally, and they dove into the ocean. The pillars that Sharmin had seen led the way down to a temple entrance about twenty feet below the ocean's surface. Sharmin swam behind Valimos and Terebel, Leon taking the lead and inspecting the inside of the Garden. He motioned them all through, finding it safe to advance. The inside of the Garden was lit by a glow that would brighten and dim slowly, its source unknown. Sharmin gazed around her, confused, as the inside of the Garden seemed to only be a stone-carved room. Three jellyfish swam about, content. Unable to resist, Junk Pixie began pounding on one of them with enthusiasm, moving easily even though she was out of her natural element. She pouted in disappointment when it had no harvestable body parts.

Komugi tapped Sharmin on the shoulder and motioned for her to follow, leading her to a hole in the back of the room. The others had gone on ahead, and were swimming down. There were several rooms below the first, each with the floor broken away leading to another underneath it. A door sat at the bottommost floor, and the group swam through it. Sharmin paused for a moment, her hair swirling about her, to look at the door. As she pushed herself onward, to swim after them, a small pair of hands grabbed her ankle and pulled back with tremendous strength. Sharmin looked down quickly to find a blue fairy with large eyes completely colored a deep blue and a fish tail hissing at her. The fairy had sharp teeth like a cat, which made her a very frightening creature to behold. She struggled against the hold the fairy had on her, surprised at its strength. The spell was wearing off, and Sharmin's lungs began to burn for fresh air.

She whipped her shield out to stun the fairy, and then swam quickly for the door. Just as she crossed the threshold, her ankle was grabbed again, and she was pulled back. She pumped her arms wildly and kicked her free leg, but she could not shake free of the hold. She looked over her shoulder to find a group of smaller fairies clinging to her leg, hissing, their leader still stunned. Sharmin curled around and began batting at the fairies, which would swim back as quickly as she yanked them from her leg to grab on to her arms and torso, biting her skin. Dark speckles began to float behind her eyes, and she squinted, willing herself to stay conscious.

A burst of energy suddenly discharged from behind her, hitting the fairies and knocking them away, momentarily stunned. Sharmin lifted her head to find Vlad next to her, who waved and linked arms with her to tow her to the door. The leader fairy came to and halted their progress, grabbing onto Sharmin's leg once more. Leon's shield whipped out and hit her this time, stunning her once more. He grabbed Sharmin's other arm and assisted in hauling her to the surface. She broke through with a loud gasp, and coughed as the men swamp up a ramp to deposit her on the stone floor.

"That was fun." Vlad said lightly, slicking his hair back to squeegee the water from it.

"If you say so." Leon sighed, turning away from him.

"Does the over achiever not know how to have fun?" Vlad questioned in a babying tone, sheathing his swords upon his back.

"If a near death situation is your idea of a good time, then by all means, please return to the foyer and dispose of the Guardian Fairy. The rest of us will stick to more comprehensible means of entertainment that are more logical than nearly drowning while trying to dispose of an immortal creature." Leon said, helping Sharmin to her feet.

"How many of you are going to show up, anyway? What is this, a planned reunion or something?" Komugi asked, exasperated and interrupting their budding argument. Sharmin wiped the water from her eyes and looked around. In addition to those who had come with her, she saw that Vlad, Amari and a light elf Spellsinger she'd never seen before had joined them. "Good grief, this is like the Talking Island convention." She grumbled, wringing her tunic out.

"Beats me, I was just told there'd be killing." Vlad stated cheerfully. He turned to Amari. "There will be killing, right?"

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Chapter 19

 

The now large party made their way through a series of ramps leading down; each landing had a set of monsters guarding it. They breezed through quite easily, Valimos complaining the entire time that all found treasures were to go to him. They reached the end of the ramp corridor, and found themselves staring off the edge of a broken set of stairs, down into a deep pool below them. From the corridor Sharmin could see the entire expanse of the Garden, and it took her breath away. The Garden itself was enclosed in a giant circular room lit by a golden light that seemed to emanate from the water itself. The center had a tall golden tower spiraling up to a circular opening that water spilled through in a kind of waterfall. The walls surrounding the path seemed to be in a bull's-eye shape, golden in color, with no visible direct path to the center from where Sharmin could see. Running water sounded loudly, and reflected off of the walls, giving the entire Garden a very ethereal, very beautiful presence.

"Did I mention I hate heights?" Vlad suddenly said, standing a bit behind Sharmin with a distasteful look on his face. "Oh, hello there Miss Sharmin. We wondered what happened to you after you disappeared from the Ant Nest. Thank you for your help by the way. It was incredibly useful." Sharmin glared at him as he smiled, the annoyance from nearly five months past resurfacing.

"And did I mention I hate water?" Amari added, looking down with a distasteful expression.

"Then why are you here?" Vuylay asked with a sneer. Amari slowly turned to look at her, his eyes lowered into an annoyed expression.

"You know, you're beginning to remind me of your mother, and I don't like that." He stated, glaring.

"Come on, what's the hold up?" Valimos called from behind the crowd and interrupting Vuylay as she opened her mouth. "Get moving already!"

"Look who's talking, mister slow ass himself." Komugi growled. "Just shut up already."

"Is something wrong?" Leon asked, pushing himself forward.

"Nope, just admiring the view." Vlad stated sarcastically, twisting his pinkie finger in his ear.

"You know, if you're scared, one of us can jump with you and swim you to the pathway, you'll just have to keep your eyes shut." Leon offered, trying to move things along.

"You mean entrust my life to someone else? Are you INSANE?" Vlad exclaimed, looking at Leon fully.

"Tally Ho!" Junk Pixie suddenly shouted, running forward and bumping into Vlad and Amari. The two lost their balance and stumbled. Amari sighed and allowed himself to fall, knowing the struggle to stay upright to be futile, while Vlad waved his arms precariously, trying to balance himself. He grabbed Sharmin's arm for leverage, causing her to loose her balance herself and fall into the pool below. She broke surface coughing and glared at Vlad whom seemed to have recovered from his acrophobia and was swimming calmly to the pathway.

"Must you always do things that have a chance of potentially injuring and or killing me?" she asked between coughs. Leon, Junk Pixie and Terebel jumped into the pool behind her, Junk Pixie doggie paddling as fast as she could to the treasure chests sitting along the bottom.

"What can I say, you're expendable." Vlad stated professionally, pulling himself from the water. Amari stood to the side, his arms folded around his staff, glaring and resembling something akin to a wet animal. Soon they had all gathered at the path except for Melissan, who stood on the ramp trying to coax her cat familiar to jump into the water.

"And onward we go." Valimos stated, rushing ahead. Sharmin paused as they passed a doorway blocked by a heavily flowing waterfall and gazed through it towards the tower. She felt a strange tug inside of her as she gazed upon it. Pushing the feeling aside for now, she hurried to catch up with the group.

The party advanced through the Garden slowly, the archways leading to the next circular path blocked by a heavy waterfall that poured down so hard it would break the bones of anyone who tried to pass through it. Every hour the water would cease, and the party could move forward. Guardian monsters grew more numerous as the paths thinned, and soon the entire group was fighting to advance.

"Uh, guys, what's that?" Narlafayn asked, peering through the water to the next path. "It looks like some sort of pale lady wearing black… She's got a bunch of floating guys wearing robes around her." The light elf, which Amari called Aerin, rushed to the doorway and peered through.

"That's Eva's Guardian, Millenu." She breathed in awe, her eyes large. "She guards the Garden from those who wish to harm our goddess, how could you not recognize her?" she asked, looking pointedly at Narlafayn, who cleared her throat nervously.

"I guess I didn't pay attention in school…" she said, giving Aerin a half-grin. Aerin frowned at her and returned to gazing at the Guardian.

"So how are we going to get past her?" Terebel asked, peering over the two light elves heads. He turned away, wincing. "That looks like it could be painful."

"Well, we could go with this strategy…" Vlad began, scratching a square into the polished stone they stood on.

"We don't have time too cook up something as moronic as that." Valimos stated, turning away.

"Ok then, how about we send in a decoy, and the rest of us run to the next doorway before they close?" Vlad suggested, staring pointedly at Sharmin, who stiffened and glared under his gaze.

"I'll do it." Leon offered, and everyone turned to stare at him in surprise. "Vlad and I are the strongest ones here, and I can take a beating longer than he can, so I'll do it."

"The over-achiever strikes again." Vlad mumbled. "I don't think endurance is the deciding factor this time." Leon stared at him expressionlessly, and it seemed to Sharmin as if he were controlling his temper. Sharmin turned to see Melissan approach the archway and stare at it for a moment. The water ceased to flow and she stepped through calmly, her cat following close behind.

"Melissan!" Sharmin cried, rushing through the archway after her. Melissan slowly descended the stairs towards the Guardian, her cat already rushing ahead, drawing the attention of the monsters from the doorway.

"Hurry, there's someone waiting for you." She said mysteriously, her voice low. Strangely enough, Sharmin discovered she could hear her plainly, despite the roar of water. She smiled calmly and then continued down the stairs. Her cat yowled and hissed, scratching at the immortal creatures. Millenu's head rose as she saw Melissan approach, and she flew at her. Millenu's body lacked feet, and she floated above the ground. Sharmin screwed her eyes shut and took off down the steps and past the guardian, whom only seemed to notice Melissan. The group behind her suddenly shouted something, and she could hear them running. Sharmin didn't look behind her to see what was happening, and continued towards the last doorway to the tower area. She could hear shouting, and the horrible, awful screeching that Millenu was emitting, and she winced, forcing herself not to look behind. Something was pulling her stronger now, and she needed to get inside, at all costs, even if it meant loosing those she cared the most about.

The waterfall dropped once more just as Sharmin dove through the archway, landing on a ramp leading down to a shallow pool that covered the entire circular spanse of the inner Garden. Large floating phantoms regarded her silently, arms folded high to obscure the lower part of their faces. Their heads looked like skulls carved from wood, and their robes hung down, tattered at the edges. They seemed to have no legs, and floated several feet above the water. Water Giants, large green men with algae growing off of them stood nearby, and seemed to not notice her. Sharmin gulped and slowly descended the blue ramp to the pool. The water, she found, was warm, like bathwater. Another doorway caught her attention, its fancy golden archway topped by a blue orb lantern, and she made her way towards it, hoping the monsters around her would not take notice of her.

"Sharmin!" she heard Leon yell from behind the waterfall. A heavy waterfall obscured the archway, like the ones around her, and she peered through it. A ramp led down, and she crouched to see if she could see the room beyond it. The water ceased after a moment, and Sharmin moved to descend the ramp. One of the floating phantoms suddenly rushed to block her path, and Sharmin jumped backwards, drawing her sword in fear. The phantom did not attack her, and regarded her with empty eye sockets, its breath coming out slow and heavy. Its arm slowly creaked out, pointing to the wall next to the doorway. As the water blocking the archways leading into the pool ceased, the stone slid open, revealing a corridor. Sharmin glanced at the phantom again and inched past him. He moved to watch her as she slid around him, but did not attempt to attack her.

"Sharmin, what are you doing?" she heard Komugi yell as the group, now through the archway, thundered down the ramp. Several of the phantoms moved towards them and began attacking. Music suddenly filling her ears, Sharmin stared straight ahead, entranced by the sound. She had never before heard such beautiful music, and she wanted to find its source so she could worship it. She moved slowly into the corridor, and the wall slid shut as she entered, darkening the hallway.

She walked on bravely, not afraid of what might be waiting for her at the end of the tunnel. The stone here was a silver-grey, plain compared to the grandeur outside. The music she followed grew louder, and Sharmin found herself in a large square room. Water ran down the walls and flowed past the floor, never touching the polished grey stone. In the center of the room was a two-tiered fountain, and on the edge of it sat the pale skinned girl she'd seen in between the dimensions. Her hair flowed about her like clouds, held out of her face by the strange shell-shaped headpiece she wore. She wore yellow shells over her breasts, a yellow bikini for pants, and a filmy, cream colored skirt that slanted up to her hipbone adorned her waist. Her boots climbed up to her thighs, and were the same yellow color as her clothes. The music Sharmin heard came from the lute she held gingerly in her lap, her eyes wistfully staring into space as her long fingers moved gracefully across the strings. She stopped as Sharmin neared, and stood up quickly, staring at her with a panicked face.

"Who are you?" she asked, taking a few steps backwards. "Have you been sent by her to kill me?" her voice was soft and melodious like music. Sharmin blinked a few times, the spell cast by her music broken.

"N…No, I…" she looked over her shoulder and motioned towards the corridor that she had just entered from. "The phantom showed me this door, and I heard your music and it was so pretty that I just had to see…" her voice trailed off, aware of her babbling. "I've heard you calling for help for a long time now." She began slowly, certain that this girl's voice was the one she heard pleading on Talking Island before. "You pulled me through the Gatekeeper's spell to here; didn't you want me to help you?"

The girl stared at her with large blue eyes for a moment before recognition clicked in and her mouth opened to an 'o' shape. "That was you? You looked so different in the dimensional rift!" she exclaimed, moving towards Sharmin. "You bore a sword of the darkest obsidian and had wings of pure fire. I thought for sure you were blessed by my siblings to protect us from that One!" Sharmin frowned, not understanding what the girl was saying.

"That 'one'?" she asked, her face screwing up in thought. The girl nodded enthusiastically, and took Sharmin's hands. She noticed that the girl's skin was warm, like the water in the room outside.

"Yes, now that I look at you, I'm sure of it. A little more time and you will be the one who will save us!" she exclaimed happily. She smelled sweet, like fresh water and water lilies, and it began to dawn on Sharmin that she was in the presence of something more than human. "Might I inquire your name, one who will be brave?"

"Sh…Sharmin." She faltered, her body shaking in nervousness. "Who…who are you?" she managed to asked, and then winced at how rude and forward the question sounded. The girl blinked at her in surprise, her pretty long lashes fluttering.

"Don't you recognize me? I'm…"

"Eva!" a voice came from behind them. Sharmin turned to find the group barreling down the corridor and into the room, staring at Sharmin and the girl in surprise. The voice had come from Aerin, and she dropped to her knees in deep reverence. "Oh holy goddess, how you have graced us with your presence." She said, her voice shaking in excitement as she bowed low.

"She looks normal." Narlafayn stated in surprise, stepping forward. Eva began squeezing Sharmin's hands tightly, and she turned back to look at the goddess. Eva stared past Sharmin in fear and began to whimper.

"No, it is the one who will kill us all…" she sobbed, tears falling fresh from her eyes. The party looked between themselves, confused and unsure of whom she was staring at.

"It's ok; we're not going to harm you." Leon stated gently, stepping up beside Sharmin. Eva pulled her hands from Sharmins and backed away, wincing in fear.

"Or will we?" Vlad's voice came. Aerin instantly shushed him. Eva drew back farther, her eyes squinted shut, her hands to her cheeks and her shoulders hunched.

"Stay away from me, destroyer of gods!" she wailed. A waterspout erupted from nowhere and encased her within it. Sharmin took a step forward, her hand extended, but Leon held her back and shook his head. When the water receded, Eva still stood before them, but she seemed taller, and more mature. She lowered her hands and stood up to her full height, towering above them all a good foot, and stared down at them with a gaze as cold as the deepest parts of the ocean.

"Eva?" Aerin asked in a tiny voice, standing. The entire group had gone silent, awed by the change.

"The ones you requested are in place, mother." She said, her voice as cold as her eyes, and as hard as the stone they stood upon. She held her arms out and another waterspout surrounded her. Sharmin shielded her face from the sudden gush of water, and Leon placed himself in front of her instinctively, protecting her from it. As the spray subsided, the light dimmed in the room and a portal of light opened. It slowly expanded and elongated until it was as wide and long as the wall in front of them. Images emerged on the other side of it, and Narlafayn stepped forward in awe. Sharmin lowered her hands and stared, her eyes as wide as Leon's, as Narlafayn approached the portal.

On the other side was bustling city; very different from anything Sharmin had seen before. The houses were made entirely out of white stone, the sides and roof rounded like a meat bun. A great cliff towered around the city, and blocked much of the sky from what they could see.

There was a great fountain in the distance, and large groups of creatures that Sharmin had never seen before gathered around it to socialize or sell their wares. There were humans and elves, but the elves were tall, and had brown skin, like the Dark Elves before they were cursed to live under ground. Large, grey furred beasts that seemed similar to Orcs but with long straight tails lumbered past, and Sharmin could see a red-haired girl who resembled a cat more than a human dart past a merchant to steal one of his wares. Tiny, squat people, no taller than Sharmin's knee, performed magic tricks at the other side of the fountain, cheered on by a small group of children from all the races she'd seen.

"Holy Mother Einhasad, what is that?" Sharmin heard Leon breathe. He was holding Sharmin by her elbows, his grip firm, as he stared into the portal with awed fear. The rest of the group seemed just as shocked, none moving to stop Narlafayn from approaching it.

"It's Bastok…" Narlafayn said softly, reaching out a hand to touch the portal. "It's my home, the place I came from…" Sharmin pulled away from Leon and took a few steps forward, amazed at what she was seeing. This world looked peaceful compared to the one she lived in now, and she wanted to see more of it. A light bubbled forth in the air behind the group, and a body shining with bright light emerged from it. Sharmin turned and winced, shielding her eyes from the glow. No one else moved, and it was now that Sharmin realized time had frozen; only she and Narlafayn were unaffected. The figure of light produced a great bow, and gracefully loaded it with an arrow, and drew it taut. Sharmin's eyes widened as she followed its projected path of flight; right into Narlafayn's back. She darted forward and pushed Narlafayn aside just as the figure let the arrow fly, and it hit her directly in the center of her chest. Time began moving once more as the portal began to swallow up, enveloping around Sharmin like a thick jelly. Leon raced toward the portal, one hand extended towards her, and Sharmin reached for it.

"Leon!" she exclaimed, her voice echoing and fading to nothing as the portal closed on her. Their fingers barely touched, and then she was suddenly pulled back by a great suction, the dimensional rift sealing up.

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Epilogue

 

"The block preventing us from continuing our game has finally been removed." Sayha said, kneeling at the end of Shilien's dais. "We can continue as planned now."

"So I've noticed." Shilien stated, tossing her hair over her shoulder as she stared into her Camera Obscura. "How ironic that it was my cursed mother and schizophrenic sister that did the duty for us, it's quite amusing."

"But that leaves the one prophesized to destroy the gods at large, should we not be worried?" Sayha asked, touching the raised scar adorning his throat. "Could it be that one who changed history?"

"I'm appalled that you believe the idiotic banter of fortuneteller Giants." Shilien said smoothly, pushing herself to a sit gracefully, her long legs swinging over the side of her dais to rest on the polished obsidian floor. Her shackle clinked on her ankle softly with the movement. "There is no one capable of destroying us, we are eternal. We are the ones who created this world." She paused for a moment, gazing into her Camera Obscura with an unreadable expression.

"Without us, there would be nothing."

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