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A Lady's Prerogative For Hallow's Eve: What Superstition Wields (Finished First Draft: Artwork to come)

This is my yearly Halloween story, though last year I kind of wove the Halloween and Santa Claus story into one if you remember and came up with a funny bit involving Barris and Sato early on in their friendship as they have guests for the seasonal holiday. This year I'm bringing Halloween and A Lady's Prerogative home to my country of Canada and my home province of Ontario. This story takes place in Ontario, though far north up into territory occupied by far fewer than in the Great Lakes region of Canada (and the United States). I hope that you enjoy it. As a side note, I recently did a rant post (the Rant-zilla post if you recall as it was the last one) really attacking the problem of harassment, as it has been plaguing me for years in both the online world (very covertly) and the offline world very overtly. Everything I stated in that post I meant with all of my heart and being, and I will not apologize for any of it. This has already gone way too far, and a post of that nat

A Lady's Prerogative: Then And Now - Athandra And Manfred (First Draft Done. Lots more art to come)

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, business, events and incidents are the products of the author's imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead or actual events is purely coincidental.





Then


The night was as it had been at any other point in its history, dark and somewhat foreboding beyond the illumination of the Sanctum Secularum's walls. In the case of the so-called Midspace, night was a very different matter as was the passage of time. This was because time simply did not pass within the spatial realm of the Midspace. Sure, causality progressed forward in a manner recognizable by all temporally bound beings and as such, one could move from one point to another as they had anywhere other than the Midspace. Insofar as their progression of lifetime was concerned, they'd remain the exact age as they were upon their entry to the Midspace. Had an observer studied the Midspace, perhaps one skilled in the sciences, especially physics, they might have noted that it wasn't time that stood still, but entropy. The progression of information towards a state of pure random equilibrium. Such as the cellular generational deterioration of DNA within Aerth-bound organisms or the fires of a star in the night sky. Things in the Midspace were different from everywhere else in the Plane-space, hence making it the prime location of the Sanctum Secularum.


Night and day didn't occur the same way they may have in other planes, but instead between varying degrees of twilight, at which point the darkest of these degrees was referred to as the night. The night it was at this particular moment in the Midspace, as a member of the Elementalist Guard walked the front parapet of the Sanctum. 


His shift had been routine, much the same as his previous shift had been, and the one before. He paused in his step, opening his mouth wide to yawn as something grabbed him from behind, covering his mouth with its large hand as it slid a piercing weapon into his spine, incapacitating the guard as completely as one could. The murderer's skin immediately adapted taking on the colours and shades of its surroundings, essentially rendering it invisible to the others walking the same wall-tops. Two more like it fell as if from the sky, landing beside it, and the trio leapt over the inner wall and into the Sanctum courtyard. 


Within the Sanctum, inside one of its many elaborately decorated chambers, a young girl sat at a desk, a scroll of parchment unrolled before her. Immediately before her, before a robed man directed her attention to a chalkboard, the numbers and symbols etched thereupon glowed with a brilliance as the man's finger passed over them. His long hair was tied up in a knot behind his head, while his long white beard was secured with jeweled clips and broaches. His blue robe wrapped his body twice, shoulder to his sandaled feet. As his attention turned away from the chalkboard, he noticed that his only student was not paying attention, her eyes directed elsewhere away from his lesson.


"Athandra! You must pay attention," the bearded tutor urged 


"But I don't like math. I want to learn about history and literature," she begged her tutor.


"She's just like her mother," a man who'd entered the chamber similarly clad as the tutor spoke.


"I was just going to say how much she's like her father," the tutor agreed.


"Papa!" Athandra cried with glee as she jumped out of her chair, wrapping herself around her father's waist.


"How are you the light of my life?" asked her father, sincerely looking to his daughter's eyes.


"I thought you said that mummy was the light of your life?" Athandra confirmed with her father.


"You are both my light. So why is it that you're not studying this lesson?" her father asked firmly yet gently.


"I don't want to study math, papa," Athandra responded with resistance.


"If you want to study history, you need to know about time, and if you want to know about time, you need to study math," her father explained to her as he lowered himself to meet her at eye level.


"But you said there is no time in the Sanctum," Athandra replied.


"She's a quick learner. She's just like her father," the tutor observed.


"She's just like her mother," Athandra's father said simultaneously.


"My little light, please answer your tutor's math question. For me?" her father asked.


"For you papa," Athandra hesitated before she agreed, jumping back to her place at the desk.


"She scribbled some notes upon the parchment as she contemplated the question on the chalkboard. 


The question involved the addition of several angles, in degrees and though she was good with addition, the concepts involved had eluded her. She wrote on the parchment several times, scratching her answers out one by one until she had a vision.


It appeared at first as a silhouette. A large round beast of a lumbering kind, though this one moved gracefully as if the air were water through which it was swimming. As it approached from within the depths of her parchment, she saw that it had the face of an elephant, its head elaborately decorated in jewels and a spire-like crown.


The elephant's trunk suddenly lifted, pointing upwards and to her right hand side, towards the sky. The trunk then split and became two, the second trunk taking the opposite side, her left, while pointing towards the sky. Together the two trunks formed a concise "Y".


She puzzled over the vision for a moment, as the background of the parchment become as the face of a clock, the elephant still in the foreground. The hands of the clock began, the little one at the first angle from the tutor's problem, and the big hand as the second angle. The two hands began moving, with each surreptitious addition indicated by the tutor's problem until they came to rest where the elephant's two trunks had symbolized the "Y".


Athandra suddenly realized what had been stumping her about the problem. The second angle would have resulted in an angle greater than three hundred and sixty, which is the limit of angles as she was taught. The problem would have required her to take this into account, for the first solution, but not the second for she'd been asked for the final two angles after the additions, and the angles between the two. Seeing the clock, she realized where she'd been mistaken.


"The answer is three hundred and fifteen for the first angle, fifteen for the second angle and the angle between them is sixty degrees," Athandra nearly jumped out of her seat with excitement as the vision on her parchment faded.


"Very impressive Athandra! You got that exactly right!" the tutor applauded her.


"You see? You just need to focus on the problem and you'll find the answer. If you give up, then you'll never find the answers to any of your questions," her father told her.


"...or her tutor's," the tutor added.


"Where's mummy?" asked Athandra.


"She's downstairs. They've just finished an important meeting in the Main Chamber Hall," her father told her.


"Can I show mummy?" Athandra asked her father.


"When your lessons are over. She's anxious to see how you've been doing in your studies," her father assured her.


"Thank you Ganesha," Athandra whispered quietly under her breath.


The door suddenly burst open, a guard opened the door poking his face into the room.


"Ishir, we're under attack! They've breached the inner walls!" the guard yelled to her father.


"I must go my light. There's danger about but you'll be safe here. Ranjeel, stay in this room, remain quiest and keep the door locked and protect her at all costs," he kissed Athandra's forehead and made his way out the door.


The tutor, Ranjeel, went over to the door, ensuring that it was closed and locked securely. After he'd checked the latch, his hands began swirling as spirals of raw aetheric energy shot forth from his hands at the door.


"That should keep us safe. Get in the corner there, behind the cabinet. Stay low," Ranjeel told her.


"I'm scared," Athandra exclaimed quietly as she huddled behind the cabinet.


"Embrace it. Use it, but don't let it use you. Fear is good sometimes. It might keep you safe in the most dangerous of times. We'll be alright, we just need to remain quiet," Ranjeel assured her.


Athandra nodded to Ranjeel in agreement.


Outside of the door they heard more commotion, and then the sound of screaming. The clash of weapons and the crash of atheric magic. The room itself began to shake as the foundations of the Sanctum bore the brunt of an all out assault.


"This is serious," Ranjeel said to himself quietly as Athandra struggled to keep herself calm.


The door suddenly exploded, bursting into a thousand pieces, some of which pierced Ranjeels clothing, injuring him. He watched as a cloaked man entered the room, his hands glowing, charged with aetheric energy. Behind him, four others in piece-mail armour brandishing glowing short blades followed.


"Search the room. None are to be spared," the man in the cloak ordered the armoured men.


They began searching as Ranjeel wound his hands charging his energy.


"I smell their aether... Hmmm... Prana..." the cloaked man said, recognizing the veil of Ranjeel's magic.


Ranjeel's hands emitted a bolt of red and violet lightning, shooting out and just barely missing the cloaked man, hitting one of the armoured men. He flew back at the wall, impacting with deadly force, the smell of burning hair permeating the room.


The cloaked man let his charge go, hitting Ranjeel square in the chest with fiery molten brimstone. Ranjeel flew backwards into the wallas the brimstone cooled, pinning him to it.


Ranjeel screamed, holding his tongue about Athandra and daring not to look in her direction.


"Are there any others in here?" asked the cloaked man of Ranjeel.


"I am the only one. I am an alchemist and you interrupted my studies..." Ranjeel told the cloaked man.


The cloaked man looked to the chalkboard, examining it carefully.


"What do sacred alchemists have to do with childhood level mathematics? You're lying," the cloaked man turned his back to Ranjeel for moment.


When the cloaked man turned back to him, his hands fired forth another salvo of molten brimstone, this time at his face. Ranjeel screamed one last time as his succumbed to his catastrophic injuries.


"Keep searching. There's a student in here," the cloaked man ordered the armoured men.


Two of the armoured men began towards the cabinet as Athandra did her best to shrink closer to the wall behind the furniture and the darkest point there within.


As one of the men passed close to the blasted doorway. As he did, a sword appeared from the doorway and pierced his chest, front to back. The armoured man looked on in amazement to see the face of his vanquisher.


He was a man in his mid thirties, clean shaven with a mop of messy dark hair on his head.


"Keep searching the room! I'll deal with him!" the cloaked man ordered the others as he moved between them and man with the long sword.


"Ahhhh, a Battlemage Norbid. Are those your minions? Good, I was hoping to find the bloke in charge..." the man swung his sword at the cloaked man, just missing him as the cloaked man prepared for his counter attack.



Another stream of brimstone shot from the Battlemage's hands, just missing the swordsman. He side stepped the streaming hot mass of molten rock, feeling the heat of it singe the hairs on the back of his neck. He then rolled, coming up onto his feet beside the Battlemage, punching him in the face with his free hand.


"Its a little tight in here for a long blade, don't you think?" asked the Battlemage.


"Good point," the swordsman quickly butted the Battlemage with the pommel of his sword, leaving a bruised welt on his cheek.


As the Battlemage stumbled backwards, the swordsman saw that the armoured men had found something, or rather, someone.


Athandra writhed and screamed as the armoured men pulled the little girl from her hiding spot. With one of her free hands, she poked the one holding her right in the eye. He dropped her, holding his eye as he screamed, and she quickly got to her feet and began running. The second armoured man caught hold of her shoulder, holding his blade to her throat. She bit down on his wrist, with her second generation of teeth and he screamed too, letting go of her to tend to his hand. As she struggled to get away, she tripped, falling forward onto her face.


The first armoured man, who'd recoverd by this point had raised his glowing blade above his head, ready to bare down upon the little girl.


The swordsman caught sight of the scene and quickly hurled his long blade at him. The sword pierced the man's forearm, pinning him against the very cabinet behind which Athandra was hiding only moments before. Athandra upon seeing her attacker readily disabled, got to her feet and ran for the doorway as the second armoured man dove for her. He caught one of her feet, slamming the little girl to the floor. He then crawled up to her with a dagger in his hands ready to eviscerate her.


The swordsman, now absent of sword weaved his hands in the air, directing a bolt of energy at the man's dagger. As soon as it hit the weapon, the dagger, seemingly by its own will, pulled itself free of the man's hands as it it had a mind of its own. It then floated before him, jabbing at him several times in attack. The first jab pieced the man's shoulder, just barely missing his face. The second and third, the armoured man had successfully dodged as he got to his feet.


Athandra upon noticing his dilemma got behind him, on her hands and knees. As he backed up to escape the animated dagger, he keeled over backwards, tripping over Athandra's trap.


He fell with his back to the floor, as the dagger flew, diving for his neck. Both he and the dagger ceased moving when the dagger had finally connected with its target. He gasped one last breath, a look of shock on his face.


The Battlemage Norbid had by this time readied an attack, which he directed at the swordsman. The air around the swordsman suddenly flew inwards toward him, colliding with a tremendous thunderclap, stunning him.


Athandra then got to her feet, looked at the door which was cleared for her to flee, and to the swordsman, who'd only moments ago saved her life.


She then thought about Ranjeel's last words to her. About using fear but not letting it use her.


She then charged at the Battlemage, grabbing onto the back of his cloak and furling it up in her hands as she tried to pull him over onto the floor.


The Battlemage was preparing to vanquish the swordsman when he was thrown off balance by someone pulling at him from behind. His brimstone spell shot off at the ceiling, covering it in molten lava and stone as the Battlemage fell to the floor on top of Athandra.


The Battlemage looked up to see the entire swatch of brimstone drip from the ceiling onto his face. He screamed as it burned through him, silencing him once and for all.


By that point, the swordsman had gained his senses and was turning in circles looking for any other foes.


"Get this filthy man off of me! He stinks!" he heard a little voice from beneath the vanquished Battlemage.


The swordsman quickly pulled the Battlemage over, careful not to spread any of the brimstone. Beneath him he found the little girl he'd saved only moments ago.


"I guess we're even then?" he said, offering her a hand to her feet.


"We have to save to my mummy and papa!" she accepted the man's hand as he lifted her.


"We have to get you out of here. They're Norbids. They're led by Lorr, the last Power Lord. This is it for the Sanctum. Even Jasmer has taken the side of the enemy. We must flee. I mean, you heard them. They have orders to kill us all," the swordsman assured her.


"I'm not leaving without them," Athandra told the swordsman.


"And I'm not leaving without you, so I guess I'm coming with you. At least until I can talk some sense into you," the swordsman assured Athandra.


"I'm Athandra. Athandra Rithyani," the little girl bowed for the man.


"I'm Manfred Maynard Of The Order Of The Undying Virtue at your service," Manfred stood and bowed for the little girl.


From behind Athandra, the last armoured man had free himself from Manfred's sword, and now wielded it. He charged at the girl from behind.


Manfred dove over Athandra as the blade swung downward for her head. He caught the blade between both of his hands, twisting as he flew, freeing it from the man's grip. As the blade fell, Manfred kicked the pommel with his, spinning it into his hands. As he landed, he thrust with the blade, directly piercing the man's gut. The armoured man fell backward onto the floor, startled that he'd lost the encounter.


"You're a pretty good warrior," Athandra noted aloud to Manfred.


"Well you're a pretty good young lady," Mandred nodded respectfully.


"Let's go, we have to find my mummy and papa," Athandra said, running for the door as Manfred grabbed her.


"Don't move too quickly. If we see anyone ahead, drop to the floor and get behind me. If there's someone behind me, stay by my feet. Sound good?" asked Manfred.


"Just a minute," Athandra held up a hand as she leaned forward, smelling Manfred's boots.


"Alright. You don't have stinky feet. Sounds good," Athandra gave Manfred the OK signal with her little fingers.


"Let's go," he said and they progressed forward together into the embattled Sanctum Secularum.


Now: On The Ground In Memory And Mind


"Watch your step here..." Sir Manfred pointed out a husk of rotten wood that had fallen across the path of the jungle close to the floor.


"I grew up here... For my whole life. When I wasn't at the Sanctum. I can handle myself..." Athandra responded to Sir Manfred Maynard, Chief Commander Of The Order Of Undying Virtue.


"So I recall. Actually you were quite adept even as a little girl," Sir Manfred responded as they tread through the dense Indian-Myanmar jungle.


"Adept? In what context do you mean?" Athandra asked the older man.


"Astute. The ability improvise. You certainly did that in the midst of danger," Sir Manfred recalled.


"There was a lot riding on us both..." Athandra responded.


"Perhaps more so on the shoulders of a little girl as I recall..." Sir Manfred remembered that dark and dismal night.


"You did not harbour any loyalty for the Sanctum before it fell on that fateful evening?" asked Athandra.


"You know very well that I did. I was one of the first to enlist in the cause of liberating it from the rule of Lorr," Sir Manfred quickly countered.


"The fact that it fell, only indicated that there was a much bigger problem of unity," Athandra once again demonstrated her ability to empathize the complex truths of politics and conflict.


"It fell as a result of force, not politics. You're leveraging the insights of your position at the Sanctum to further your own political goals," Sir Manfred responded somewhat chaded.


"I am not doing as you say. You are simply projecting your own misconceptions of politics onto my ambitions to solve long standing complex problems that have plagued the Sanctum since its inception," Athandra responded.


"Watch your step there," Sir Manfred lifted a fallen limb for her.


"I saw it, thank you... Can't you let a girl experience her own risks?" Athandra responded in question.


"Force of habit I guess," Sir Manfred replied.


"That and your damned notion of Chivalry," Athandra replied somewhat frustrated as they tread through the jungle.


"That notion is sacred to me and my order I remind you," Sir Manfred maintained his civility.


"Is it the notion you worship, or actually being as much," Athandra responded.


"Are you completely without heart and memory, woman of the sacred Chordate you regard as Ganesha?" Sir Manfred countered the woman whose life he'd saved so long ago.


"Is that your answer to my question?" asked Athandra.


"Why in the hells do you have to be so difficult sometimes? Actually, everytime," Sir Manfred responded.


"My purpose has nought to do with difficulty. That is your own misgiving, afforded by your own notions and misinterpretations," Athandra tread carefully as she spoke.


"So what is there about what happened so long ago that are you unwilling to forgive me?" Sir Manfred led Athandra through the jungle.


"It is not I that is unwilling to forgive. In all truth, it is you that are unwilling to forgive yourself for your own achievements as they are a bane next to your own short comings. Those which you've chosen to elevate and worship as your own greatness," Athandra spoke without concern for his feelings, and purposely so.


"Then what I've heard is true. You are truly the destroyer of hearts. The vanquisher of compassion. The blinds of all upon the heart of the world," Sir Manfred countered Athandra.


"Now we're getting somewhere," Athandra responded as she strode the jungle path.



The True Acts Of Heart


"I'm scared..." little Athandra spoke to Manfred from tight beside his midst.


"That's good to know. Use it..." he began.


"...but don't let it use me...?" she asked.


"You're way beyond diapers, aren't you?" asked Manfred, perhaps somewhat sarcastically.


"Why? Do you wear them?" Athandra asked completely innocently and honestly.


"Me?! Absolutely not!" Mandred responded defensively.


"My papa told me that his papa wore diapers right until the day he ascended into nirvana..." Athandra smiled happily.


"Really? Please, I do beg you to just follow me and stay close. For his honour," Manfred replied.


"Ranjeel will be alright, won't he?" asked Athandra as she followed close by Manfred's side.


"Who? Oh, the tutor?" asked Manfred as he strode forward.


"Yes. He speaks like you. Really. He's very wise," Athandra kept close to his legs.


"That's difficult for me to tell. You see, I'm a Sword Weaver, not a seer. After we've repelled this attack the healers will tend to him," Manfred answered as honestly as the circumstance would allow him.


"You are a man with a sword," Athandra responded.


"I am simply a man. The sword is simply a tool," Manfred replied as they proceeded forward.


"My papa says men who use swords have issues with their phallus," Athandra shocked Manfred, catching him completely off guard.


"In all honesty, I've never thought about it like that, but then again, that is something about which I'd prefer not to be discussing at all, let alone with a nine year old girl," Manfred quickly replied.


"Then you'd prefer me to save us with your sword, because there are bad men coming at us..." Athandra pointed her tiny index finger in the direction of the corridor ahead..


"Stay close no matter what happens..." Manfred spoke between his gritted teech.


Ahead of them in the corridor, three armoured men ran at Manfred and Athandra. Athandra quickly got behind Manfred as he took up a stance in preparation for the onslaught.


He let the first one get close, holding him off defensively with his blade until the second stood beside him, ready to attack. The second one had fallen for his trap, for Manfred knew that most creatures of the world of ill intent would take the opportunity of aggression when they felt they had the upper hand. In this case, Manfred had feigned that his attention was fully on the first man, as the second approached, however in truth, this simply was not the case. He'd been keep all three at the center of his attention, and was aware of everything happening around him for a distance of thirty feet.


With the second one certain that he'd found an opportunity and opening, he rushed forward to attack. Without even changing his stance, Manfred disarmed the second, eviscerating him by way of a jab which found an opening in his armour and sunk the blade ten inches shy of its hilt.


Before the first had a chance to respond, Manfred had spun, pulling the blade from the second man, bringing it to bear on the first from his opening on the opposite side. The blade found its target, cleaving a wound in the man that brought him to the floor. Athandra looked away as the first two fell, only to see that a fourth approached silently from behind.


Athandra turned to face this fourth threat to their health and safety, perhaps inspired by the swordsman's courage. She stood, taking up a defensive stance like the one she'd seen Manfred take up against the three who'd just attacked. She then stepped forward to confront the man.


Just as the man from behind had hefted his blade high, ready to bring down upon the helpless little girl, Manfred spun, throwing his long blade at blinding speed. The blade entered his neck, at the top of his throat, and kept going until the hilt impacted his Adam's apple. The man stopped dead in his tracks, falling backwards lifelessly to the floor.


"I thought I told you to stay close!" Manfred scolded the little girl.


"But he was going to hurt you when you weren't looking..." Athandra defended her actions.


"I had everything under control, but had you stepped forward another three feet, you'd be on the floor beside them, and on your way to an eternal slumber!" Manfred raised his voice.


"But..." Athandra began wimpering, and the tears flowed as the night's stress finally caught up with the little girl.


"..." Manfred knelt before Athandra, unsure of what to say.


"Look, you need to stay close, even if you think I'm overwhelmed. Chances are, I'm not because I won't let that happen to either of us. You've already proven your bravery beyond every shadow of a doubt. Now have the courage to let me protect us both. Let me deal with the bad men. Can you do that?" asked Manfred.


Athandra's tears began to subside and she nodded as she wiped her face and nose.


"Here..." Manfred produced a kerchief and handed it to Athandra.


She accepted it and wiped her face until it was dry.


"I won't try to stop the bad men while I'm near you..." Athandra agreed.


"and...?" Manfred continued.


"...and I'll stay close, even if it looks like you don't see them coming..." Athandra nodded her tiny head again.


"Alright. That's better. Let's go find your parents," Manfred stood, looking both directions of the corridor to evaluate their strategic options.


"Can I keep this?" Athandra asked about the kerchief.


"Forever if you'd like, though I certainly hope that you don't find many opportunities that require you to dry your tears," Manfred smiled  for the little girl and she smiled back.


"Alright, I'm ready," Athandra moved close to Manfred, who'd once again started in the direction of the second floor foyer.


One floor down and they'd be less than a minute's walk from the Main Chamber Hall, where Manfred expected to find Athandra's parents.


He wasn't sure about whether they were still alive, but he kept his hope and spirits high. More so for the little girl and her parents than for himself.


Amongst The Bones


"We are nearing the location," Athandra spoke, breaking the run of a silence that had lasted for six minutes.


"Careful, there's signs that poachers are using this trail," Sir Manfred advised Athandra.


"They have been for the last thousand years, though it was only as far back as fifty years ago that they officially became recognized as poachers. Before that, they were simply hunters, living off the land for food," Athandra told Sir Manfred.


"What changed their status then?" Sir Manfred asked.


"Economics and world policy. The demand for ivory was very high, therefore the price that people would pay for it was astounding. For these hunters, it became economically sound for them to kill not for food, but for money. They were taking from the jungle more than the jungle would allow. They didn't even kill for the food, for the bodies of the fallen creatures remained unscathed, barring their tusks having been cut off from the point at which they protrude from the skull. In the nineteen seventies, some of the most severe laws in India were passed in order to protect the elephant population from ivory poachers," Athandra explained to Sir Manfred.


"I thought their ears were the valuable part?" Sir Manfred asked.


"Ivory drives the poacher economy targeting elephants. You might be thinking of the African elephant. Asian elephants have tiny ears by comparison. African elephants too are threatened by poachers, and for the same reason: the high demand for ivory," Athandra replied.


"Regardless, stay close and don't..." Sir Manfred began.


"...and don't try to attack the bad men? You're not speaking to a little girl anymore, Sir Manfred Maynard. I am a woman very capable of defending herself," Athandra responded to Sir Manfred's over protectiveness.


"Then what is the reason that I was assigned to protect you here, especially considering all that has come to pass between us?" asked Sir Manfred.


"We haven't spoken for some time. Perhaps destiny is playing its hand behind the scenes in the eternity," Athandra suggested.


"Perhaps there's a more reasonable explanation. Lannay is simply abusing the power of his temporary appointment to the investigative wing of the Sanctum Secularum, knowing that you and I weren't on speaking terms since..." Sir Manfred responded to Athandra's theory.


"...since you could not accept the fact that I have grown up and am capable of making my own decisions, while bearing the full responsibility for them?" Athandra asked him.


"This has nothing to do with your independence," Sir Manfred countered.


"In fact, it has everything to do with my independence!" Athandra stopped as Sir Manfred stood to face her, turning his back to the path ahead.


Athandra's face suddenly became pale as she saw what lay ahead.


The jungle had opened up into an oasis, through which a running freshwater spring flowed into a reservoir. Surrounding the reservoir, scattered on either side were groups of skeletons, all of which had been stripped of their tusks.


Tears began to form in Athandra's eyes.


"How can this be?" she stepped around Sir Manfred who turned to take in the scene.


"I'm so sorry Athandra," Sir Manfred spoke sincerely, his commanding voice simply gone.


"This grove used to be full of life! Flowers and colour! Look at it! It is all just... just...  dead," Athandra stepped into the oasis looking for any signs of life.


"..." Sir Manfred handed her a kerchief.


"No thank you. I still have the same one you gave me so long ago," she pulled the kerchief from a pouch on her pack and began wiping her eyes.


"Who could have done this?" Sir Manfred asked.


"This is way beyond the actions of any poachers," Athandra spoke solemnly.


"I'm beginning to see that. Look here, at the bone. There's blade and blunt instrument marks. Whoever killed these poor creatures did so with extreme violence," Sir Manfred pointed out.


"We must find Saihaj and ensure his safety," Athandra got to her feet, stepping back from one of the smaller skeletons.


"Where can we find him?" Sir Manfred asked.


"He was supposed to meet us here. He was our contact," Athandra informed Sir Manfred.


"Then he's in grave danger," Sir Manfred looked about, searching for signs of the trail left by the murderers.


Jungle Pursuit


After spending fifteen minutes thoroughly examining the oasis, Sir Manfred uncovered signs of what appeared to be a struggle. Signs involving the use of aetheric magic. Signs that hadn't been covered up by the purposeful  slaughter of the animals and the dessicration of the site.


Athandra during that same time, was able to determine and identify the herd, having found the remains of several markers used by regional biologists to track their habits and feeding grounds. She carefully noted the information, taking down all the tag numbers that she could find and marking the site on a paper map for the local wildlife authorities.


Sir Manfred then reported the situation to the Sanctum, using aertheric methods standardized early on in the days of its founding.


They then proceeded together, picking up and following the trail of Saihaj and his assumed kidnappers.


"When were you going to tell me of the reason we were to meet this Saihaj?" Sir Manfred pressed Athandra.


"That matter does not concern a Knight of the Order Of Undying Virtue," Athandra replied calmly.


"So this is now to become a matter of Sanctum politics, is it? I thought we were somehow beyond that, given our past," Sir Manfred responded.


"Let us pursue this matter like a book: one paragraph at a time," Athandra replied.


"This isn't about old sayings, concise wisdom or colloquialisms. A man's life is very obviously in our hands and I have every right to know the details of why," Sir Manfred countered.


"Knowing this would be akin to jumping several chapters forward in a book. You'd have no context of such information, because by not reading what was in between, you'd have missed all the details imperative to that knowledge along the way," Athandra explained to the Knight.


"Knowing such details might make the difference between his living and dying," Sir Manfred grilled Athandra.


Athandra remained silent and she considered what Sir Manfred had said.


"Very well. You've made your point. We were to meet him because he has very specific information related to activities of considerable environmental consequence in the region," Athandra told him.


"Why is getting information from you, that of which I already should have been aware, like extracting teeth without the benefit of a dentist's tools? What kind of information does this man have?" Sir Manfred continued pressing the matter.


Athandra once again kept her silence as she considered her words before speaking.


"In this region, and quite near to the border between Myanmar and India, deep within the jungle, there used to be an indigenous tribe of natives, even preceding the era of the Brahmans. They were called the vrkshon ke rakhavaale shuddh. That translates quite literally to: the keepers of the trees pure. They had been living in the region since three thousand BC. Possibly before," Athandra began.


"...and this relates to Saihaj how?" asked Sir Manfred.


"As the keepers of this jungle, they'd long protected its wild habitat and all of the fauna within that followed the laws of the great forests and biomes of the world. Take not in excess of what you need to survive, for what you take from the jungle may be taken from you. Take a fruit from a tree to eat? Take the seeds of the fruit and return them to jungle floor so that life may be renewed once again. Take the life of an animal for nourishment, then nourish and care for an animal to give back that which you once took. These are ideals by which many indigenous people live the world over and some for much longer, even preceding the Rakhavaale. In North America. South America. In Oceania and Australia. In Africa and Europe. And certainly in Asia. The Rakhavaale emobied and protected this way of life, here in these jungles, for thousands of years," Athandra told Sir Manfred.


"Now we're getting somewhere. Please do go on," Sir Manfred responded.


"Since that early time, the peoples of India were respectful of the jungles, careful not to take more than what they needed, and always giving back to the fauna, the forests and the lands. Respecting tradition and those powers that oversaw the wellness of the natural world. Then, when the trade came and the world markets started demanding ivory, the poachers broke this respect and balance of nature and the Rakhavaale declared war on all who disrespected the laws of the jungle," Athandra continued explaining the history of the region to Sir Manfred.


"Perhaps Mr. Kipling wasn't so far off from this beating heart?" Sir Manfred spoke, a smile creeping onto his face as he kept a keen eye on the path ahead.


"Who? Rudyard? Perhaps. You can still bring a smile to a girl's face in the worst of peril, Manfred," Athandra compromised.


"Forgive me my interlude. Please do continue," Sir Manfred spoke politely.


"Since the birth of world trade, the Rakhavaale have fought this war on poachers and those who disrespected the laws of the jungle," Athandra continued, Sir Manfred taking a moment to interject upon her skillfully placed pause.


"You aren't saying that world trade is the cause of this, are you?" Sir Manfred became protective of origins.


"No. No matter the extent and reach of trade, when there is a demand for a thing, there are people who will make money from the exploitation of that thing. Therefore, business and trade is not the problem. Trade is as much a part of India's history as it is the world market. However, when a thing it taken in disrespect of what nature can provide and the local customs, especially when that supply has nothing to do with survival, but rather, murderous vanity, that the trade of that commodity becomes a problem. Alternately, henna tattoos and makeup have been a colourful part of India's history, and yet such vanity comes without the same destruction to life that the ivory trade does. One could say that tattoos and makeup, both of which were a part of the global trade market early on in India had little impact because it respected the laws of the jungle and nature. The ivory trade had no such limits to exploitation and suffering it imposed upon the fauna of India's (and Africa's) jungles and plains. Therefore, Rakhavaale took up their war upon those who'd rape and pillage the jungles and fauna of the region, laying waste to entire bands of poachers, then leaving them at the mercy of the jungle," Athandra's story continued.


"Very interesting Athandra. I'm very impressed that the same little girl I knew grew to such heights of awareness. So is Saihaj a member of this tribe?" asked Sir Manfred.


"No. Saihaj is trusted historian and authority on India, since before the mass media explosion. He is from the generation of paper and televised media. You could say that he was a journalist, one of the first in India and very well trusted by the Government and the people for his sincerity," Athandra explained to Sir Manfred.


"Did his work somehow pit him against the Rakhavaale?" asked Sir Manfred.


"No. He was one of their greatest supporters until their slaughter back in the nineteen eighties," Athandra answered his question.


"What happened to them?" asked Sir Manfred.


"The Rakhavaale had a serious impact upon the trade of ivory, and all while India's and Myanmar's jungles were still considerably rich in their elephant population. Nobody knows for sure what happened, but it is speculated that the poachers somehow found backing. Someone who organized them and armed them with considerable firepower, for at that time, all the regional tribes, all twenty thousand members in some fifteen tribes had been exterminated. All of them. Children. Women, and men," Athandra's voice became quiet.


"That was during the darkest period of the Sanctum's history. When we were scattered and without each other's allegiance after the great fall," Sir Manfred now understood why he'd never heard about this.


"The Sanctum was in the hands of the enemy, and all faith in its retaking had been lost. The death cries of the Rakhavaale were never heard. They just vanished into the night, and those who'd have investigated and uncovered the truth and saw to justice had been overtaken by their worst enemies," Athandra recalled.


The Greatest Loss Of All


Manfred continued forward as young Athandra stuck close by his side, careful not to exceed a sword's length distance from him.


As they tread forward, they side stepped the fallen bodies of their comrades in arms, and the bodies of their enemies in like.


"No matter the fighting, they all seem to be united and the same in their sleep," shivers chilled Athandra's spine as she pondered the nature of conflict.


Manfred nodded in agreement, realizing that Athandra had never encountered death.


"A shame and a senseless loss. But there are things we must protect. Even if it means we could end up in a long sleep," Manfred tried his best to explain to the little girl.


"You can't have a long sleep. You're too good a swordsman. You're a sword weaver, right?" Athandra asked Manfred.


"That I am and have been for some time. Insofar as this goes, I can have a long sleep too, but not tonight and not until we're out of here with your parents," Manfred tread slowly and carefully forward.


"All together right?" Athandra kept close as they neared the polished marble staircase to the lower foyer.


"All and together," Manfred heard the sound of fighting within the Council Hall Chamber as the carefully tread down the stairs.


"Maybe my parents will invite you for dinner sometime? They're really good cooks. You'll like our food," Athandra told Manfred.


"I am very much looking forward to that, my little friend," Manfred reached the last step, waiting for Athandra to arrive at the lower landing.


Manfred looked ahead, towards the end of the foyer, which led to the main hall and eventually to the grand doors. There and with the help of his weave, he could see a band of Norbids, perhaps twenty or more guarding the main door. In the other direction, at the far end of the foyer, another hall would take them to the portal Aerth link. A secret room designed for non-spell weavers to escape in the case of an emergency. The portals within would take them to a secret location on the Aerth, from where they could regroup and possibly launch a counter-attack upon their adversaries. 


Between these two choices and just sixty feet away, lay the partially opened door of the Council Hall Chamber. The location Manfred had to go if he was going to save Athandra's parents.


He'd promised the little girl that he'd do what he could to get her parents safely from the Sanctum, and while he considered the option of trying to convince her that it might be futile, he realized that it was not something he could negotiate.


"Alright, lets go get your parents," he said, smiling to Athandra.


"They're over there, in the big hall..." Athandra said, pointing at the room and then running as fast as she could for the door to find her parents.


Manfred was about to yell after her when he restrained himself to prevent any of the Norbids from being alerted. Instead he sprinted full tilt after her as she breached the large double doorway, running in through the opening.


As Manfred ran through the doorway, he was clotheslined by a large arm that had altogether missed Athandra but was the perfect height for his head. He flew backwards to the marble floor, rolling protectively across his shoulder and back up onto his feet again, readying his sword.


A large and muscular Norbid Beast Mage confronted him, still snickering over his initial attack.


Manfred looked past the Beast Mage, a spell weaving warrior that had taken on the form of part animal and part man. In this case, the animal was a savagely humpbacked Hyaena. It cackled and laughed at Manfred, as it drooled. Just beyond the Beast Mage he saw Athandra still running for his embattled parents, both of whom were fighting off a large group of short sword wielding Norbid Warriors.


"You looking for something? You find it...!? War! Hcha hchak hcha hchak...ssk" the Beast Mage spoke through lips not designed for speech.


"You gave up half of your brain to become that? I'm guessing that you didn't start out with much to begin with..." Manfred confronted the Beast.


The Beast Mage hissed at Manfred as it let fly a stream of molten brimstone energy at his feet. Manfred once again rolled to his left, covering great distance in averting the Beast Mage's attack.


Beyond the Beast Mage a good distance away, Manfred spied that Athandra had been grabbed by one of the Norbid Battlemages. She screamed and kicked as the Battlemage carried Athandra, to wield her as a shield against her parent's defenses.


He had to act fast and do something to help her. He looked at the pile of molten brimstone of the floor beside him, still glowing with heat and potential. He quickly thrust the tip of his sword into the brimstone. It quickly cooled, forming a hardened shell seal that grasped at his blade. Upon seeing Manfred having lost his sword to the brimstone, the Beast Mage charged at the occupied, unarmed man.


As the Beast Mage ran for him, he kicked the flat of his blade, side on with his boot in the direction of the oncoming threat, breaking the seal and launching a barrage of still molten brimstone at the half man Hyaena. His fur was set ablaze as the Beast ran in circles, unable to extinguish the flames. Its screams filled the Council Hall Chamber as Manfred ran as fast as he could for Athandra and her captor.


"If it isn't the legendary Prishna and Garjan Rithyani. Well look here and see that I have your daughter, Athandra Rithyani, the light of your life as my shield," the Battlemage held the little girl up as she kicked and screamed.


Prishna stopped at once upon seeing her daughter. Garjan continued his fight, his hands glowing with the fire of battle until he ceased, amazed to see his daughter in the arms of the enemy.


"Yield at once or your daughter dies first..." the Battlemage demanded, holding his hand to the little girl's head.


Saihaj Undone


Athandra kept her pace just behind Sir Manfred as they tread through the jungle path, the light slowly diminishing as the sun fell lower and lower, closing in on the canopy above them.


It was Athandra who noticed it first. Triggered by a gut feeling. An indescribable sensation telling her that something was off.


"There is something wrong here..." Athandra stopped, looking around to either side at the jungle.


"I agree. There is something wrong here. We've stopped moving forward and the light is diminishing quickly," Sir Manfred seemed agitated by her having paused their pursuit.


"There is no noise on either side of us. No insects or creatures. Nothing..." Athandra pointed out.


Sir Manfred paused to listen as she'd indicated. He simply heard nothing, as if all sound had been blotted out.


"You're right, there is..." Sir Manfred did not finish his sentence as they were both set upon.


The assailants made no noise, moving very quickly, completely silently and simultaneously. Perfectly in synchronization.


They first entwined both Athandra and Sir Manfred, pinning their arms to their sides with a special aetheric tainted rope. Each of them bound independently, their ropes tightened around them until they could not move either their arms of their legs.


When they were about to fall helplessly to the jungle floor, their captors caught them, holding them upright on their feet. 


"What is the meaning of this!? We are wildlife preservationists here on official assignment by the United Nations," Sir Manfred spoke immediately not giving any time to Athandra to contradict their cover.


"I take it that's why you're carrying a battle ready long sword?" asked a balding man in long white robes as he stepped forth from obsurity of the jungle path.


"Saihaj!" Athandra exclaimed joyously.


"Athandra! It is such a happy feeling to see you alive," Saihaj smiled, his pencil thin grey moustache following the line of his lips.


"I have to say the same, for we felt the worst had happened to you," Athandra sighed in relief.


"You must have seen what happened back at the oasis you so zealously protect?" Sir Manfred asked, somewhat more skeptical.


"Yes of course I did, and it breaks my heart to see the tragedy of the needless loss of life. But that sometimes is the way of jungle," Saihaj responded hesitantly.


"How is it that you're still alive with such a vicious threat abound," Athandra asked Saihaj.


"And why are we nought free from our own bindings if you would?" Sir Manfred added.


"My friends, both of these questions are complicated in the details. You see, I was never at risk. As you know Athandra, I am the custodian of this land, especially since the passing of the Rakhavaale," Saihaj explained.


"So you're a Druid," confirmed Sir Manfred.


"Of sorts. I am, in the absence of the Rakhavaale, a gate keeper for the land. A justice of sorts too. You see, I hold the power of authority here and it is me that decides what is right for the land, and what isn't," Saihaj continued his explanation.


"And what of those elephants? What did they do to incur a cruel penalty such as the loss of their life and tusks for the ivory trade?" Athandra demanded.


"Oh, they did nothing willingly of the sort. You see, the Rakhavaale failed them too, but only because a much higher power was responsible for it all," Saihaj told them.


"We aren't freed from our bindings yet. I take it there's a justication for that too?" Sir Manfred became angered.


"That is related, for I've learned in all of my wisdom to trust in reliability. Predictability. Schedules and promises, for lacking in as much, we become mere savages. Savages do vile things. Savages have vile things done unto them," Saihaj nodded to those that had bound Athandra and Sir Manfred.


Saihaj's cohorts hefted Athandra first, and then Sir Manfred over to a dry, dead tree, binding them both to its trunk.


"My friends, as the justice for this land, I am willing to offer you much mercy in order to pay for your crimes," Saihaj proposed.


"And what crimes are those!" Athandra spoke in utter shock of how the situation had turned.


"Why Athandra, my dear, I am speaking of the crimes of the failure to keep a promise," as Saihaj spoke, something became sininsterly familiar about his face.


"What promise was given by us?" Athandra demanded answers.


"Oh dear Athandra. You don't yet understand. You see, you are a part of something to which you're oath bound, and therefore, you are responsible for their broken promises. You see, something happened that caused the genocide of the Rakhavaale, and that was the fact that the Sanctum failed to meet support obligations for their people. Failed to back them up with troops in the form of Wytchkind and Sorcerers in their time of most need. They fell simply because the Sanctum failed them, and on account of a broken promise," Saihaj told them of their responsibility in these crimes.


"When was this promise made, and by whom!" Sir Manfred demanded to know the details.


"That is simple my Spell weaving Swordsman friend. By her parents, Prishna and Garjan Rithyani," Saihaj told Athandra and Sir Manfred.


Athandra was suddenly thrust into her deepest memories, as a large lumbering beast swam through the ripples of time and space. At once, she recognized her supreme protector, the Great God Ganesha, in the form of an Elephant.


She followed the chordate as it navigated time and space with ease, leading her to that fateful night in the halls of the Sanctum Secularum, where a council of hundreds, representing all the mystic nations of the Aerth was in session. Her own mother, delivering an address of extreme importance regarding the survival of one of the Aerth's key biomes in the growing climate disasters of the twentieth century.


"...it is on this night, that I stand before the council in its six thousandth and fifty first session of the Ninth Epoch of the Midspace. I stand before thee, humbly in dire need of your support and the support of the veto wielding Orders of the Sanctum, in the greatest hour of need upon the Aerth, in all her beauty," Prishna spoke before the session, giving the time of her attention to each member present during her delivery.


"Please make your point, as we have many issues with which to deal on this session," a much younger Lannay spoke impatiently, perhaps sacrificing himself for her purposes.


"Please do go on Prishna. Your testimony is always welcome," Yirfir Lacharme spoke in support of her sister in the council.


"We are in the midst of a great crisis, where the lawless of the land, those who'd profit from the murder of innocent life for the purposes of vanity, have taken hold of the world markets, by ignoring the strict standards preserving and protecting life abound in the border region of India and Burma, in towards north-western India, the elephants of this region are in grave danger and their front line protectors are in dire need of our assistance," Prishna addressed her peers in the Sanctum.


"I am requesting the support of the Sanctum, and the powers within for troops in the form of Wytchkind and Sorcerers to backup and support an indigenous tribe in the region, formally referred to as the Vrkshon Ke Rakhavaale Shuddh, against a warrior force of poachers seeking to protect their trade interests in the region, effective immediately," Prishna gave her proposal for all present.


There was immense chatter amongst the representatives as one of the representatives stood and spoke.


"I for one support Prishna's proposal and I'm willing to meet the request for troops with thirty trained Night Wytches, ready for any challenge," Thara Lansmore stood, her long and shadowy hair rolling over her shoulders.


"She will have her troops," Kenshi agreed with Thara.


"Yirfir, we are nearly stretched to our limit and security advises that we sustain from any further deployments, lest we put the Sanctum itself at risk," Zanthar of the Order Of The Elementalist Guard responded to Prishna's request.


"Zanthar, I applaud you in all of your wisdom. We are already over-extended. We should consider this request carefully," Lannay advised the council.


"I agree with Prishna as does the Totem. The Aerth is the source of life for us all. Should we neglect to protect her, she will no longer sustain us and we will wake to the sun no more, forever," Gitchi-Waish-Ke of the Order Of The Great Totem backed up Prishna in her protection of the Aerth.


"I think Prishna is out of her mind! She should be drawn and staked, and then burned alive! Ha ha ha!" Xushu stood, speaking in a sputtering madness of explitives as his sister stood to speak.


"My brother agrees with me, though in his own way. We should support Prishna fully, for the balance of life has been overdrawn, and we are over-due," Xenshi spoke for the Order Of The Way (Tao).


"We of the Order Of The South Central Tropic of Ecuador agree that our resources should be used to protect the Aerth. I as senior Wytch back this proposal up fully," Geomancia CariƱosa spoke on behalf of her membership.


"I, John Forester McCaul, am a supporter of truth and liberty. I, in speaking for the Order Of Golden Liberty am completely behind Prishna and her request, and am willing to back her up with troops for her call to action," John Macaul showed his support for Prishna.


"Zanthar. Have I interpreted correctly that you are willing to use your power of veto to block support for this proposal?" asked Yirfir of the Elementalist Guard leader.


Zanthar, a white haired Frost Sorcerer stood at Yirfir's request for clarification, considering his political position should he use his power of veto to block support for Prishna's proposal.


"I in all honesty cannot say that there is any reason for us to support this cause realistically. However, in the risk that my assessment of this crisis is unsound, I am unwilling to use my power of veto to block this proposal from the Council," Zanthar backed down, drawing a frown from Lannay.


"Very well. Then we shall vote immediately, in order to deal with this timely matter," Yirfir initiated the vote.


Within the midst of the chamber, an aetheric glowing ball floated upwards with every vote of support, while descending for every vote against. As the ball changed altitude, it also changed between one of three colour, much like a traffic light. Red indicated that the vote had failed to pass. Yellow indicated that it was neither failed nor passed and could upon request, require a re-vote. Green indicated that it had passed entirely.


After a minute of the ball remaining just above the yellow line, it passed into the green and did not descend thereafter.

"We are all in agreement that this vote, in support of Prishna Rithyani's proposal has succeeded in achieving the council's approval?" she asked of her peers.


There were no voices of discension of opposition.


"Very well..." Yirfir began as a messenger guard ran into the chamber.


"We're under attack! They've breached the inner walls!" the guard screamed as the sound of spellfire broke the relative peace of the Council Hall Chamber.


Many of those in council immediately stood, scrambling for cover while the more capable of spellcraft made their way to the floor.


"Set up a defensive line at once! Lannay, you're going to lead the vulnerable out through the emergency exit, and to the Last Stand Portal. Evacuate everyone in here. If we don't repel this attack, we'll regroup as per our emergency procedures," Yirfir commanded.


Thara, Prishna, Xenshi, Forester McCaul and Xushu took up positions covering the door as the standing members of the Elementalist Guard took flanking positions.


Members of the Sanctum started to stream in through the doorway, in small groups as the sound of battle approached. It was at that point that Athandra saw her father, Garjan run into the room. She realized that at that moment, she was seeing the first moments of the first fall of the Order Of The Sanctum from an entirely new perspective.


There was a moment of silence in the Council Chamber, and then the sound of screams outside of the double doors.


"Ready yourselves!" Yirfir commanded her front line.


At that moment, they came pouring into the room, one after the other. Norbid Warriors. Norbid Battlemages. Beast Mages. The spells began to fly from either direction and the first casualities of the Sanctum's last stand fell amidst the battlefire.


She witnessed as her mother, Prishna and her father, Garjan were key elements in this final defensive stand as the evacuees poured out through the emergency exit and to the Last Stand Portal.


The flanking Elementalists managed to bring down the first and second waves of the attacking Norbids, before the right flight was overwhelmed by them. Athandra saw as the Norbids quickly and brutally eviscerated the embattled Elementalists. With one defending flank gone, the Norbids quickly encircled the defenders, chipping away at them one by one.


Zanthar ran forward, a flame barrier protecting his person and turning him into a living weapon.


"Fight on my friends! We shall meet again in another life!" he screamed as he charged the advancing Norbids.


His advance met with that of the Norbids. The Norbid frontlines immediately were lit ablaze by Zanthar's flame barrier. They ran screaming in all directions as Zanthar pushed forward. He let fly a wave of fire from his hands, hitting several of the Battlemages, bringing them down as they burned.


It was one of the Battlemages that stopped Zanthar's heroic charge, having created a javelin from molten brimstone, he cast the weapon at Zanthar. It pierced his body, front to back, stopping him dead in his tracks. He gasped one last breath, falling forward onto the marble floor. When he hit, he exploded in a fireball that brought down several more Norbids.


"Damn you Norbids!" Yirfir screamed as she watched one of the ruling members of the Council fall.


"They're getting by us. If they pursue those fleeing, they might actually manage to gain access to the emergency portal. We must improve our efforts of all is lost!" Thara informed her peers in the defensive line.


"I won't let that happen. My friends and peers, it has been an honour," Forester McCaul ran in pursuit of Norbids who were in chase of the evacuaees.


As he moved forward in pursuit of the cowardly Norbids who'd set about attacking the unarmed and fleeing civilian population of the Sanctum, he began bringing them down one at a time, shooting them each in the back with his own uniquely specialized spell: the sparkfire bolt weave.


The Norbids fell one by one as he cleared the pursuers of the evacuees one by one, while he dodged those who'd taken to pursue him.


When he reached the door and all the Norbids were cleared from the rear flank of the fleeing civilians, he turned to face his pursuers.


"The Legendary Forester McCaul? Step aside or we'll be going through you rather than by you," a large Battlemage demanded of him.


"Over my dead body," Forester replied defiantly.


"I was hoping that you'd say that," the Battlemage replied.


Forester let fly aetheric barbed wire, which flew wrapping itself around the Battlemage, piercing both his cloak and armour. The Battlemage screamed as he broke the wire and let fly a barrage of liquified ice at Forester. He didn't move as the ice hit him, and it froze him solid in the emergency doorway.


"You're still not getting through here," Forester spoke one last time as he let fly his aetheric energy reserve.


He exploded, sending ice shard shrapnel flying at his pursuers, piercing them with a multitude of projectiles. They all fell dead, the water of melted ice pouring from their wounds.


"We've lost another..." Yirfir said as she dispatched another four of the Norbid Warriors.


"Go my friends! We'll cover your retreat!" said Prishna as she and Garjan had become isolated from the main defensive group and were now surrounded.


"We'll get to the door and cover it for you. When we get there, we'll have two volunteers attempt to break an opening in their rear flank for you to flee!" Yirfir exclaimed.


"Understood, now go!" Garjan shouted above the cacaphony of spell fire.


Athandra watched as her parents fought wave after wave of Norbid, completely surrounded by their foul enemies. For the first time, she truly understood what her parents had gone through in those final moments of the original Sanctum's last stand. Not only to defend each other, but to buy time for the fleeing civilian population within the Sanctum walls.


Yirfir had sent a team of the only six remaining members of the Elementalist guard to break open the rear flank of the Norbids so that Prishna and Garjan could flee and make it with them to the emergency exit. That group, never made it, having been quickly overwhelmed by Norbids as they tried with futility to achieve their mission.


It was at that point, that Athandra saw a little girl come running into the Council Chamber, running between the legs of a tremendous Beast Mage, avoiding the monstrosity all together. Not far behind her, she saw a younger and dashing Manfred, as the Beast Mage attacked him, he managed to get to his feet and overcome it with its own spells and brimstone.


Everything became crystal clear to her from that moment. For when she saw the Battlemage catch her as she ran for her parents, she realized that she was looking at a much younger Saihaj.


He'd been playing for the enemy all along.


She fought tears and a growing rage within her as her memory of the past and that night returned.


Innocence Lost


"Unhand her at once!" Manfred yelled from behind the Battlemage.


"I want all of the Blade Warriors to dispatch this sword wielding buffoon . Remaining Battlemages and myself will deal with Prishna and Garjan," Saihaj ordered the Norbids without even looking in Manfred's direction.


Manfred suddenly found himself surrounded by twenty one Norbid Warriors as Saihaj and thirteen other Battlemages surrounded Prishna and Garjan.


"Now these are the kind of odds I like," Manfred kept his guard, quickly turning to face any who'd become bold enough to advance on him from behind.


"Keep them occupied and I'll do the rest," Saihaj addressed the Battlemages who then proceeded to attack Prishna and Garjan.


Prishna and Garjan kept back to back as they covered each other protectively.


The first spell, fired by one of the Battlemages, missed Prishna narrowly as she dodged. The spellfire hit one of the Battlemages directly across from the caster.


"Watch your fire!" he screamed as he stamped out the flames on his shoulder.


Garjan immediately took advantage of the opening, firing his own spell at the Battlemage that had been lit ablaze. The aetheric energy, of a green and purplish haze hit the flaming Battlemage. He immediately stopped any attempts to extinguish the fire and instead ran at full speed for a wall on the other side of the chamber. He hit the marble wall with a tremendous force and fell flat on the floor. He then once again got up, and did the same thing, on the other side of the room. This continued until the Battlemage was a broken mess of flesh and bone.


"Unhand my daughter you foul betrayer of our people," Garjan demanded of Saihaj.


"That will not happen. However, I can offer you this..." Saihaj let fly a spell of his own, keeping his eyes on Garjan but firing at Prishna.


She was struck by a similarly coloured aertheric energy, and she struggled against the force within her.


"Garjan my love, run!" she cried as she turned on him.


Young Athandra watched as her own mother attempted to kill her father. She screamed at the top of her lungs, crying as Saihaj watched the events unfold between the two lovers.


Prishna's arms, now not her own, let forth a blazing spark of violet light. It impacted just beside Garjan, as if she were fighting against whatever it was within her that was making her attack her own husband.


"I'd say we have a family quarrel here, don't we?" Saihaj laughed as he watched the antics unfold.


Manfred was keeping his attackers at bay in this stand-off. He'd seen that the situation had changed drastically for Prishna and Garjan. He had to make his move before all was lost.


He decided to force an attack from those behind him by ignoring his rear defense long enough for it to trigger their instinctual propensity for a surprise attack. He only had to wait three seconds before he had a taker in his trap. The Norbid had advanced beyond his imaginary defensive circle, one of which all master swordsman were aware. Once that line had been breached, Manfred simply side stepped and spun, in one motion, bringing his sword to bear on the attacker. He fell quickly as another two from either side rushed in to take his place, not hesitating to attack Manfred.


He dodged the first attack easily, but was hit by the second. The blade cut his off hand arm, leaving a serious wound just below the shoulder. He winced in pain as he dispatched the first attacker. His vision momentarily blurred with the pain, and he bit his tongue in order to focus his attention.


In one instant, he advanced immediately upon the Norbid presenting an opening, the sword piercing him quickly and felling him, leaving seventeen still Norbids still standing. Their circle had a large opening on the one side closest to Prishna and Garjan, and he ran for it. That's when all hell broke loose.


As the force within Prishna readied itself for another attack upon Garjan, using her body to do so, Prishna and Garjan managed to trick Saihaj.


Garjan had slowly circled so that he was between Prishna and Saihaj. When Prishna's next attack came in the form of an aetheric scatter bolt,  Garjan barely dodged it. The bolt of energy instead continued on its path on an upward arc, hitting Saihaj's left forearm, leaving a considerable burning but bloodless wound. He immediately dropped Athandra, who fell to her feet with a thud, rolling with the force as she'd watched and learned from Manfred.


The little girl was up and on her feet once again, and she ran over to Prishna.


Prishna upon seeing her daughter free, found the strength to break the spell controlling her body.


"Enough! Kill them all!" Saihaj ordered the Battlemages who immediately began a terrible onslaught.


Meanwhile, the Norbids Warriors had pursued Manfred as he attempted to regroup with Prishna and Garjan. Manfred saw that one of the Battlemages was clear for a spell upon her father, Garjan. He ran with all of his might and fury bringing his sword to bear upon the Battlemage, but it was too late.


Saihaj let forth a tremendous bolt of firey brimstone energy, directed at Athandra and Prishna. Garjan jumped into the path of the spell and it impacted him, shielding both his daughter and his wife from the attack. He fell before them covered in brimstone, his body burning.


"You are both the light of my life... and always will be..." he spoke with his last breath, and then died.


Saihaj managed to dodge Manfred's attack, without exposing his face to Manfred as the Norbids quickly set upon him. He fought them furiously, felling three of them at once before he was overwhelmed. He fell to the cold marble floor, surrounded by Norbids and their blades, all of which were held to his face and chest.


Prishna stepped before her daughter and in her fury, fired a tremendous violet bolt of aetheric energy at the Norbids surrounding Manfred. Of the fourteen that had overwhelmed him, nine were immediately vaporized, leaving five standing, in complete shock of the change in their advantage.


As Prishna's bolt left her hands, Saihaj's attack left his, plunging into Prishna's heart, stopping it dead. She fell beside her daughter, her lips moving one last time.


"You must live and fight on my daughter. Do right by us and this world..." Prishna lungs pushed out their last breath of air in the form of her dying words.


Athandra's tears welled up as she fell on the bodies of her dead parents. Inside of her, a rage burned within and her pain was felt throughout the cosmos.


"What should we do with them?" asked one of the Battlemages of Saihaj.


"Kill them both. We do not want any lines of vengeance leading to us. We must make way for Lorr and live by his commands. Leave none alive," Saihaj ordered the Battlemages.


Moments later, Norbid reinforcements began arriving in the room. All had seemed lost, except that there was one in the cosmos who'd felt the tears and pain of Athandra.


The Norbid Warriors dragged her screaming from her parents' bodies as she kicked and punched at them with all that she had.


They relieved Manfred of his sword and carefully picked him up from the floor, dragging him over to where they'd taken Athandra.


Manfred suddenly found strength enough to fight against their grip on him. They held fast as he used every skill he'd known to free himself but to no avail.


That was then it happened. Something nobody had been expecting in all of the realms of possibility.


For in the middle of the floor, in the Council Chambers, there appeared a large beast. An elephant, clad in shining golden armour and magnificent crowned jewels. None of the Norbids could look upon the elephant, for it was brilliant with light. They retreated away from it, backing away to the walls, some of them even running out the main doors to flee the beast.


From out of the emergency exit doorway, the one that had been severely damaged by Forester's heroic protection of the civilians, came a trio of familiar faces.


It was Thara, Matron of the Order Of The Night Wytch. Kenshin, Master of the Order Of The Budo and Xushu, Xenshi's brother.


"Make an opening for them at once!" Thara shouted as she summoned a tremendous shadow beast.


The elephant began a stampede, crushing many of the Norbids underfoot as Manfred got to his feet, his captors now fleeing for their own lives. He quickly grabbed Athandra in his arms as he ran for the emergency exit. On his way, he found and retrived his sword, sheathing it.


Thara and her summoned beast had cleared out most of the Norbids blocking their only route of escape, while Kenshin and and Xushu cleared the remaindeer. Manfred ran with Athandra still in his arms until he reached the emergency exit.


He then put Athandra down.


"You must run down this hall as fast as you can. Get to the emergency portal. There will be someone there waiting for you to get you to safety. I must finish this. I'll see you again soon," Manfred told the little girl.


With tears in her eyes, she reached out and hugged Manfred, who hugged her back.


"Now go! Quickly!" he demanded as he returned to the Chamber.


"Kenshin, we need to retrieve Prishna's and Garjan's bodies. It is imperative if we're going to save the soul of that little girl from a lifetime of loss of faith in life and humanity," Manfred told Kenshin.


"Xushu, are you with us on this?" Kenshin yelled over to his Shaolin Spirit disciple friend.


"Me! Never!" Xushu exclaimed as he joined them.


The three of them fought their way down to where Ganesha in the form of an elephant was holding Lorr's forces at bay. Manfred picked up Prishna's body delicately in his arms, as Kenshin picked up Garjan's. Xushu covered them as the trio returned to the emergency exit where Thara was waiting.


Upon their safe arrival, the elephant waved to them with its trunk, disappearing in a brilliant flash of light.


The River Always Returns


Athandra remained still, as if in shock though in all reality, she was deep inside herself, pondering the flow of memories she'd suddenly recalled.


"Now you understand how Sir Manfred, the man with whom you placed all of your trust is responsible for the death of both your parents," Saihaj explained to Athandra.


There was another moment of silent and then, Athandra spoke.


"You, Saihaj, killed my father. My mother. It was you who sabotaged the Sanctum's ability to help the Rakhavaale. You prevented the Sanctum from fulfilling the obligation of its promise to the Rakhavaale. It is you that is responsible for their deaths and the deaths of countless others. You are the cause of this whole ordeal. Sir Manfred did everything he humanly could to save my parents. He saved my life, while you took theirs," Athandra spoke.


"A promise is a promise Athandra. It pays no bearing as to whether you broke it of your own accord, or as to whether someone prevented you from achieving its intended goal, by sabotage or any means. You simply are responsible for a broken promise to the Rakhavaale, made by the Sanctum, and you must be made to pay for their loss, for it is I who is the justice in these lands and this jungle," Saihaj informed them of the brutal reality of truth.


"You're mistaken," Athandra responded completely confident with her stance in this regard.


"No my dearest Athandra, it is you who are mistaken," Saihaj spoke callously as the sound of roars and grunts could be heard beyond the jungle path.


A large bengal tiger appeared, stepping fearlessly onto the path looking directly at Saihaj.


"Be gone, beast! Get! Be off! Go!" Saihaj demanded, using his hands to scare the beast.


It merely snarled at him as another three tigers joined the one.


Behind Saihaj, trees began shaking and moving as something large moved through the jungle.


"Oh my gosh! What is going on?! I am the justice here in this jungle!" he spoke defiantly, the fear very obvious in his voice.


Three of the largest elephants they'd ever seen stepped out ontgo the path, trapping Saihaj between their midst and the four tigers ahead of him.


Athandra's and Sir Manfred's captors had abandoned them, running for their lives into the jungle to avert the karmic justice that had arrived to collect the bill. They were hunted and quickly felled by other beasts waiting for them in the jungle.


"Are you alright Athandra?" asked Sir Manfred as he freed himself from the bindings.


"I'm fine. I think I just got free," Athandra said as she snapped the bindings under her aetheric spellcraft.


The animals ignored Athandra and Sir Manfred, keeping their attention entirely upon Saihaj as they left, walking down the path the way they'd come.


"Wait, don't leave me here! Perhaps we could work out a deal? A compromise? I could stand trial before the Sanctum Council..." Saihaj pleaded with them as they left.


"I think the courts of the jungle are doing just fine. Don't you agree?" Sir Manfred asked Athandra.


"They certainly seem to be. Perhaps you could plea bargain with them?" Athandra responded as they continued on their way.


As they left, the elephants waved their trunks, saying their thanks and goodbye to their allies. The tigers roared for them, and then they all focused their attention on Saihaj.


His screams didn't last long. Not nearly so long as the sense that justice had finally been done.


Final Respects


Prishna's and Garjan's bodies had been set upon a decorative funeral barge, covered in flower petals, vedic herbs and the written tidings of their relatives and loved ones.


Athandra took a silent moment with her parents as she stood on the barge and wished them well in their journey. She then stepped off the barge and said goodbye to them one last time.


She walked over to Manfred, who was now known as Sir Manfred Maynard, Knight Of The Order Of The Undying Virtue. He offered her his hand and she accepted it, looking up to him.


"Could you be my papa for me? Until I see my papa again," she asked him.


"I suppose I could be that. I could be like the older brother you never had," Sir Manfred told her as they watched them light the pyre.


"I just don't want anyone to take you away from me," Athandra said, her hand tightening.


"Don't worry. Nobody ever will. When we reclaim the Sanctum, and we will one day, and when you're there, you can visit me anytime you'd like," Sir Manfred assured her.


"Do you like elephants?" Athandra asked him as the funeral pyre grew, drifting further out onto the water.


"Yes. I very much do. Especially after having met your friend," Sir Manfred told her.


"I'll let Ganesha know you say hi. Besides, Ganesha likes you," Athandra smiled.


"I'm sure that the three of us will be seeing each other again," Sir Manfred replied.


"I feel much better," Athandra's tears flowed as she watched the funeral pyre drift further and further out onto the Ganges River as the sunset coloured the skies in a violet rainbow.


Epilogue


The body lay in the thick dense brush of the jungle, rotting for days. Ultimately, Saihaj had been rendered unconcious by the attack of one of the tigers, but it was the bite of an Indian Krait snake that had killed him. The jungle having dispatched justice against the one who'd been protecting the poachers, returned to business as usual.


The tigers parted ways, living their solitary lives. The elephants returned to their herd, rearing and defending their young. The other fauna had all returned to their way of life and lived peacefully in the jungle until one day, something dreadful occurred.


Saihaj's body, which had rotted and was covered in maggots, cleaning the putrid meat from his bones began to move.


His arm twitched at first, several times. Then one of his legs. His neck twisted from side to side as tattered flesh jiggled on his face. Saihaj then leaned up and screamed. Then, he got to his feet, still rotting and covered in maggots and other larval decomposers.


He could see clearly, though everything had taken on a putrid yellowy green haze. When he tried to speak, nothing but gurgles emerged from his throat which frustrated him, for he'd need to verbalize in order to weave spells.


He set about weaving a spell without his voice. One that would restore his ability to orate permanently despite the condition of his mouth, tongue and lips. Upon casting this spell, he was able to speak his first words post rebirth.


"It would seem that I am risen once again and that there is much to do, for I have an army," Saihaj spoke clearly through the magic of the aetheric weave.


Several kilometers away, in the same oasis from which Athandra and Sir Manfred had pursued Saihaj, the bodies of those elephants he'd killed began rising once again. In fact, all around him, the bodies of animals felled by the poachers he'd protected and supported began rising from their graves. No matter how distant they were, in this jungle near the border of Myanmar and India, the risen animals found their way to him.


"There is much to be done my creatures. For we must deal with the Aerth. And we must deal with the Sanctum!" Saihaj gathered his army of the fallen fauna of the jungle and began his reign of terror as the Pranic Lich Saihaj.


Artwork: Amy WongWendy PuseyGhastly, Brian Joseph Johns

Tools: Daz3DCorel PainterAdobe PhotoshopLightwave 3D, Tender Loving Care...


Brian Joseph Johns 

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