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CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

"Wait!" Elisandrya yelled against the storm's fury, roaring through the open doors of the temple. Quinsareth would not listen, intent on leaving and tired of talk. He'd had enough exchanges in the last few days to realize he had forgotten himself. He had become involved, and it threatened to compromise his judgment. His business was in the Qurth, in Jhareat. For learning that one fact, he was thankful for this diversion to Brookhollow. The sooner done, the sooner he could go. "Stop, dammit!" Elisandrya grabbed his arm before he could step out the doors, her tone angry and desperate. Reflexively he reached for Bedlam and met her eyes. His hand never touched the blade, nor had he wanted to, but her eyes tore into him more effectively than any sword. In her eyes he saw a person he admired, a person he might have aspired to be like, who knew the difference between hope and despair and strove to act on that knowledge. He saw the humanity he had abandoned and the will to do good he had dismissed as the dreamings of wide-eyed children beset by the evils of the world. He was crushed in her stare. "An assassin, then? Is that all?"

He pulled away and turned, closing the heavy doors and shutting out the storm. They could hear the echo of the sanctuary doors slamming shut. The silence that followed was almost humbling. Alone in the small foyer, surrounded by high windows and flashes of lightning, they stared at each other, emotions unbalanced by uncertainty and the presence of each other. "Well?" Eli's question hung between them. "An assassin is a better man than I, Elisandrya. An assassin acts on behalf of his employer and receives good coin. I act only on behalf of the dead and receive little more than good riddance." "I don't believe that. We saw each other plainly in those shadows you call a road. The dark of that place could not hide the good I saw in you." "A mere trick of blood. I bear the curse of any aasimar who desires to walk a normal life, to be human" He searched her stare, seeking understanding. "To have a choice." She didn't respond, softening her stare a little. He didn't watch her long, afraid to see any glimmer of the pity to which he had no right. Instead, he walked into a patch of darkness, untouched by the few weak torches that lit the room. He looked up at the windows and watched as clouds churned and spat white fire, growling as they deluged the city with rain. Inwardly, he sought a truce between what he knew and what he felt. Quin struggled to reconcile his level of involvement with this woman and what he must do. "Tell me about the Tower of Jhareat," he asked nonchalantly. "I gathered from Sameska's words that it is well known in this region?"

Eli stared into the distance, her thoughts miles away from his question. Pulling herself back, she answered. "That tale is from the end of the Calishite rule over the Border Kingdoms, and Shandolphyn's Reach in particular," she said, still staring blankly. "It begins with the death of a young woman. "Her name was Zemaan. Captured and forced into slavery by the Calishite wizards who ruled Jhareat, she was the lover of a young Shaaryan warrior called Ossian. Many Shaaryans met the same fate as she, being fodder for the Calishites. It is said that Ossian swore an oath and vowed to destroy Jhareat. Many laughed at his wild boast, but the shamans of his tribe were not so dismissive. "The tales are numerous about Ossian's exploits in gathering the scattered tribes over the following years, leading them into attacks against the eastern edges of the empire. "The heart of the story is about Ossian's love for Zemaan and a powerful shield he wore into battle. Forged by Shaaryan shamans for his crusade, it protected him against the Calishites' magic. Its powers were invisible until tested, and then it was too late. "The only thing the shield would not let Ossian hide was the love in his heart. Its face, which had been blank until he touched it, bore the image of Zemaan, so his enemies could see what he fought for. "His war against the Calishites came to Jhareat, and the shamans and warriors of the Shaar caused a slave rebellion within the city. As his fellow tribesmen died around him, and protected against the wizards' spells, Ossian slew the lord sorcerer of Jhareat, fulfilling his oath and dying soon thereafter. "Legend says that Ossian's spirit still guards the tower with his shield, standing vigilant against encroaching evil." Elisandrya smiled bitterly and added, "I guess it's just a legend-a hero's story to tell sleepy children at night."

Quinsareth listened quietly, observing Eli's love for the tale as she told it. He nodded gently at the end. "Legends and stories are usually preferable to the truth." Eli pondered this and stared out the window at the storm's fury. "Truth edges closer every moment," she sighed.

Looking back toward the closed sanctuary, she narrowed her eyes. "I wonder what legends will come of our tale." Quinsareth did not reply.

He gathered his cloak around his shoulders and pulled the hood over his head. Walking toward the temple doors, he reached to open them, but Eli's voice stopped him. "What did you speak of to Sameska? About Logfell and Targris?" He let his hands fall to his sides. Closing his eyes, he remembered the rain and the growls, the taste of blood as the ogre's magic tore at his body, the old man standing calmly as his people picked up the pieces of their interrupted lives. "Targris was attacked. A small force of gnolls led by an ogre wizard took the city by night." He turned and regarded her from beneath the cloak's cowl.

"They were undefended and unprepared, a tempting target for a savage foe that did not fall easily." "You fought them?" "Yes, and I was nearly killed in the effort." She nodded thoughtfully, and though he waited for her to question him again, he hoped she wouldn't. She looked up at him, questions in her eyes, but he waited. He sought the words, the explanation she needed. Truthfully, he did not know the entire answer, only what he'd seen. The silence between them became ominous, and finally she pushed him to continue. "And Logfell?" He reached again for the brass handles of the temple doors. He sighed forcefully, grinding his teeth as his jaw tightened. "There is no Logfell." He uttered the words quietly, nearly a whisper, but they seemed to fill the world with their weight. "There was nothing left but dried blood and the body of a little girl." He saw her turn pale as the horror of his words settled in her gut. The realization was clear on her face, that Logfell's fate foretold the future of Brookhollow. "I'm sorry," he added. "There was no prophecy to save them, nor prophets to deliver it." "You're a liar," she said, but he saw the truth in her eyes. She wanted him to be a liar and he wished he was. She wiped the wetness from her eyes, her lip curled in anger.

"No. I'm sorry. The liar," she said as if confessing a long held secret, "has been here all along." She no longer looked at him, and he was thankful for that. He knew the look in her eyes. Blood hid in the future of her steady, blank stare, and he would leave her to what she must do. She turned toward the sanctuary, nodding sidelong at him-a solemn thanks before walking away. He threw open the doors, walked out into the driving rain and chill wind, and steadily made his way to the eastern gate. He splashed through the streets, the city's details blurred by sheets of rain, all blended together in grays and darker grays. He wasn't looking, didn't care, and wouldn't allow himself to feel any more than he already did. If nothing else, he thought, if my quarry has gone before I find Jhareat, then this city, its people, are bait. I'll know where to come back, to finish. The eastern gate was unbarred and it creaked as the wind pushed against it. Nearby, the light of a lantern illuminated a game of dice and cards. Hunters whose minds were clearly somewhere else sat around a table beneath the roof of an open stable. Their weapons leaned against the stable wall, but their eyes were alert, their faces nervous, anxious. Quinsareth almost blended into the scene of charcoal gray light and heavy rain, nearly invisible as he observed the undefended gate and distracted warriors.

Homes nearby were locked tightly with curtains drawn. Not a soul peered out the darkened windows at the storm, the hunters, or the empty streets. Between the gates, through the gap, he could see the darkness of the Qurth Forest waiting for him. He leaned against a wall in a narrow alley, staring at the puddles, the splashing rain, and the flashes of lightning. He felt the pit of his stomach grow cold as the shadows answered his silent call, filling his insides with ice and needles as they gathered. He did not open the shadow road right away, however, holding on to the power. Concern for Elisandrya held him in place. It is not my place, he thought, to stay here and die with these people, with her. He fought the selfish urge to turn around and return to the temple, to convince Eli to leave if no one else would. He knew she wouldn't listen, that she would rather stand alone and face what threatened her people and her home. He envied her. Pushing away from the wall, he walked to the center of the street and faced the gates.

Several of the gaming hunters noticed him then as he splashed through the rain. They narrowed their eyes at him, squinting through the storm suspiciously. Quinsareth noted that a few of them reached for their weapons resting against the wall. He raised an eyebrow. "Perhaps there is hope yet," he whispered. Releasing the shadows, he watched the rain-filled air ripple with power as it was forced open, tearing wide to reveal his path. He focused on Jhareat, what he knew, what Eli had told him, and stepped forward, prepared to face the legend he'd heard in her voice. As the swirling black doorway pulled him in, he thought of her tale about Ossian and his shield. He walked the shadows alone this time and was more aware of their chill than before. In moments, he knew Brookhollow and Elisandrya were far behind him, left alone to await what fate had been made for them. He closed his eyes against the darkness and put a steady hand on Bedlam's dormant pommel, concentrating on the task that lay ahead, leaving behind what was beyond him. The void that was the shadow of the forest enveloped him, comforted him in nothingness as his steady stride devoured the distance to his destination. "There are no heroes in this tale, Elisandrya," he told himself, hearing his words echoing through the blurring shadows all around. "I'm sorry."



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