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Her slim fingers moved a black piece; her musical voice sang. “Why bother so much with her? Wasn’t she but a pawn used to distract the Guardian?” She yawned, bored.

“This, my dear, is a particular game.” He whispered with a voice that resembled the sound of the wind blowing on large, broken pipes.

She arched a brow. “Is it? Why?”

His smirk froze her; his gaze burned her.  “A pawn has ascended into Royalty, my dear.” He knocked one of her Knights out of the tray with a pawn that was no longer a pawn. “In this particular game…” the other pieces adjusted to the change, and where the pawn had been now stood a taller, menacing woman, made of alabaster. “The King no longer rules.” The White King moved to the left side, no longer wearing a crown; she gasped and when he spoke next, it was in a cool, calculating tone.  “The main White piece is now the Queen.”

 

 

Prelude

 

It was so cold…

 

So very cold…

 

“Why am I so cold, father?” the little girl asked, her misty blue eyes looking up at the elven man. He did not reply, so she tugged at his tunic. “Father?” she asked again, but still, her father did not respond. She screamed his name, but he never turned to her. Around her, everyone was complaining about the heat… But what heat? The air around her was chilling to the bones, and her teeth were clattering.

The little girl with copper colored hair cried… or at least she thought she did, but it was so cold that the tears froze on her cheeks. “Father, I’m so cold…” she said, once again.

But still, her father did not turn. She saw the people around her turn to flames, then to shadows, and they started moving in. Oh Gods, she was freezing… She couldn’t run away from the shadows which came closer, and her father acted as if everything was normal…

The shadows enveloped her, and she drowned in their darkness. She thought there would be pain, detachment and death… But she didn’t feel anything besides the cold…

 

Everything was cold…

 

So cold…

 

One

Escape

Blizzard

Faith

 

 

She was blown back and fell down; scrambling back to her feet, her eyes widened at the explosions of dark energy lashing out from the crumbling body which stood a few feet away from her; she felt something fall on the top of her head and looked up.

Everything was starting to fall down.

“We have to go!” Elanee shouted; she felt Zhjaeve’s light yet firm touch grasp her arm and drag her away. She stumbled, but didn’t fall. She started running; she had to keep running, faster and faster until she reached the exit. Stones crumbled around her; a hand on her arm, this time stopping her, just in time to prevent a boulder from crashing down on her. She didn’t bother to find out to whom it belonged; turning to the right, she dashed to the pathway – the only one left.

Someone was screaming behind her, but the voice was so distant, so distorted that she did not recognize it. She sprinted through the narrow corridor… why was she running, anyway? Why was she trying to save her life when she had nothing left to hold on to? She’s already done what was required of her - the destruction of the King of Shadows – and with that last battle, her reasons to live had been swept away…

She turned left and was faced with a wide, open room… Just a few more corridors, a few more twists and she’d be out… they’d all be out.

Her breath was coming out ragged and shallow now, and every single muscle of her body threatened to become stuck. She could easily give up now… no one needed her anymore… Her companions – the ones who hadn’t walked out on her – could still run to the exit… After all, it has her who had dragged them down into this, so why would they have to pay with their lives as well?

She took a hand to her mouth and coughed, a warm liquid splattering on her thin gloves.  Her eyes widened… How could she have forgotten?

Blood finds a way. Always.

She watched as the exit corridor collapsed. She felt the others freezing behind her, but Gods, how could she have forgotten.

“Blood finds a way,” she turned to Ammon Jerro. “Always.”

Someone tried to drag her to another corridor which would lead to a place only the Gods knew; she shook the grip off and said those last sentences louder.

Jerro smirked. “Never would have thought of that. We best hurry, though.”

“Are you mad?” Neeshka burst into the conversation, despair evident on her voice. “We have to get out of here before this place collapses! Fira-” her mouth snapped itself shut when she noticed Firanis was cutting her right wrist open with a dagger.

Casavir tried to get a hold on the woman’s wrist. “Firanis, we have no time-“

She pulled back as if his touch burned her and plunged the knife deeper into her flesh. “Sand, create a portal design on the doorstep – I believe the dust is so thick that a mere touch of your finger will leave markings. Ammon,” she turned to the old warlock, smiling emptily. “It’ll lead us to where my blood is bound, right?”

A tight nod was what she received as a reply.

“Thought so.” Firanis wrapped a hand around her wound.

“This is going to go wrong,” she heard Sand muttering under his breath as she approached him. “You know, Firanis, it normally takes days to create a portal for a reason. The forms have to be perfectly designed and-”

“And we have no time!” she chided as she started to drip blood on the dust markings.

“And enchantments also have to be recited,” Sand went on, the monotony of his voice broken by the sudden consciousness of the crumbling floor.

Firanis smiled and said. “Blood is one key. Knowledge is another. Ammon?” she asked.

“I’ll guide you,” the warlock assented.

It seemed like hours, but only moments passed as Firanis and Jerro’s words echoed through the large room as pebbles started falling from the ceiling. Elanee muffled a scream when she saw a bright cocoon of light shining around Firanis, then turning to yellow, orange, pink, red; to a multitude of colors before getting so black that Firanis could no longer be seen. There was a churning on the druid’s stomach when the black cocoon burst into flames, and it became worse when the flames spiraled out of Firanis’s figure and settled where her blood was on the floor with an explosion. After it, there was only a glowing light in that place.

Firanis staggered to one side, but the warlock caught her by the waist. She coughed out and blood trailed down her chin. With a weak movement, she grabbed her hair and cut it by the shoulders, where the loose plait began while murmuring something to Ammon Jerro and Sand.

The moon elf nodded and caught the plait from the ground and pulled out the lace at the end. “Our fearless leader has, for once, used her head and created a portal out.” He started undoing the plait and splitting various locks. “Each one of you, stop moping around and grab a lock before the sky falls down on our heads.”

“She has to go last,” Ammon tilted his head in the direction of Firanis’s barely conscious form; the woman’s lips moved, almost soundlessly, as if she guessed the other’s reactions before they began being voiced. “And she says “No arguing”.”

A boulder crashed down onto the floor, as if threatening them not to defy Firanis’s command.

Sand almost instantly jumped into the portal first; warily, Neeshka followed, and then Grobnar; Elanee threw Firanis’s a sorrowful look before going after the gnome; Casavir’s limbs moved when he was pushed by Zhjaeve who, before heading into the portal herself, touched Firanis’s forehead with a glowing finger.

“A beacon of light in the midst of darkness. Head towards it,” the Githzerai had whispered. Another boulder crashed down next to them. “Go, Ammon. I’ll follow.”

The warlock’s grip on her waist faded, and he crossed the threshold; the only thing he saw before arriving the destination was Firanis struggling to stay up.

And then, there was a deep, thunder voice saying, “The Portal has not yet closed.” Before chains were wrapped around his feet and wrists. Casavir screamed, trying to head towards the still open portal, but… devas were holding him; Elanee was crying; Neeshka was trying to free herself from the… chains of light which held her prisoner; Sand stared morosely at the ground, as if all the will had been drained from his mind; Khelgar was cursing so hard that the deva holding him had her eyes wide; Zhjaeve looked distraught, the neutrality of her being completely wiped from her face; and finally, the gnome was completely oblivious to the fact he was tied up, completely overwhelmed by his surroundings, with his jaw hanging open and bulging out eyes.

The portal shimmered; there was an explosion of white light.

A deva moved, just in time to catch a wobbling Firanis; blood – too much blood - spurted out of her mouth and nose… She choked on her breath and her eyelids fluttered open, and the tears which escaped them were red. 

“I see,” the male deva’s voice echoed. “Go get Guerryn.”

The sound of the Silver Sword of Gith clattering on the ground was heard as the deva holding down Khelgar nodded and flew away, her white wings spread wide around her; when they looked at where the male deva and Firanis had been, they were already gone.

Elanee looked down at the Sword; it was no longer glowing with its ethereal grey mist; now it seemed like a dusty piece of cold iron threatening to shatter at the slightest touch. “She is dying…” the druid feebly mused with tears still rolling down her slim cheeks; she, too, was chained, but she made no effort to break the white shackles around her wrists and feet.

Neeshka, however, struggled with her chains. “Just the plain statement we needed to hear, Elanee… A great boost in our morale, no doubt.” The tiefling wrinkled her nose to emphasize her sarcasm. “And will someone just tell me where in the Nine Hells are we? This place is making my skin feel itchy.”

Sand snorted, but he did not lift his face from the ground and when he spoke there was no hint of irony or malice on his voice. “More like where in the Seven Heavens are we,  Neeshka. Our fearless and, apparently, also selfless leader is an aasimar – and it seems to me as well that her beloved ancestor was a high-ranking celestial.”

“But why-” Khelgar started.

Sand cut him off, guessing his question. “She did not have enough knowledge nor time to set a specific location to the Portal’s destination; after she babbled those sentences twice, I realized that what we needed was a circle,” the elf stopped, gulping dryly. Gods, why was it so hard to talk now? “a circle which would create a circuit that would combine the power of her blood with the eldritch magic she possesses. I figured that would be enough to rip open a pathway between planes – because he blood would undoubtedly lead us to a place such as this.” He tilted his head to one side, but still did not dare to look up. “Then our friend Jerro here, with all his experience in opening portals and gateways between the Lower Planes and the Prime Material Plane in which we live, guided her raw power so she could channel it the right way and here we are.”

“And Firanis is dying!” Elanee shouted before she let out a sob.

“She knew there would be a price the moment she stopped running,” Ammon coolly noted. “And she chose to pay it, druidess.”

“You could have refused it!” Elanee bit down her lip to prevent another sob from escaping it. Jerro laughed miserably.

“We both know that it wouldn’t have led us anywhere.”

Someone exhaled. It was Zhjaeve, who had her eyelids closed as if she was meditating. “I wonder if the price for our lives won’t be too high, though.”

Her sentence was the only thing hanging between them as the silent following hours passed.

 

 

There was pain… so much pain…

She was walking barefoot on the snow. The sky above was completely blocked by a grey mist, which was also spreading around her, blocking her view of the path; so, she kept walking forward. Her feet were numb, but she still felt needles sting them every time she set them down on the ground again; the cold wind, as if it’d been split and reshaped into sharp knives, sliced at her legs; she realized she was completely naked when she looked down and saw a thin trail of blood making its way down her thighs. An emotion flooded her, but she couldn’t discern which one was it because her body was completely frozen… But it felt like… shock. But why shock?

Her abdomen throbbed so hard that she thought she was going to be broken in half. Her breasts ached; her breath seemed to freeze on her throat before she could expel it. And, after it, came chilling blood.

Gods, why was she in so much pain?

She kept walking forward. If she looked back, maybe there would be an answer; thus, she closed her eyes tightly and tried to remember.

Blood. A white, glistening light where only shadow had been before; her power being channeled through a portal. Blood.  Cries of surprise, resignation and fear. Shadows and… more blood. Betrayal… Eyes… Eyes of the same color as melted honey, boring into her, scrutinizing her, seizing her… reading her. She felt something stir within her when she remembered those eyes, but what?

She was so numb… she couldn’t feel anything besides the pain… But those eyes… She focused on them, tried to find why they whirled her mind beyond the hurting. She saw them in lots of ways… far, close, alert, distasteful, surprised, mocking, glazed… there was a time in which she could swear those eyes even showed care. But she wasn’t sure… Why wasn’t she sure?

She tried to remember what surrounded the eyes… And found shadows; shadows dancing, enveloping, twisting and turning around them, as if the eyes were haunted. But even though those eyes of honey were disturbed, she felt herself trying to smile, but all her frozen features allowed was a mere light lift of the corners of her lips.

Why did she like those eyes?

She started to look below them, then, but her memory was suffering and the traces of the rest of the face were faint. And Gods, the pain was becoming unbearable now! She could no longer keep walking as the wind threatened to throw her down, as the falling snow started to crush her with its intensity.

She screamed, but she had no voice; it was frozen.

You’re cold.

She looked up. Who was that?

You know why I’m here, so don’t play innocent; hypocritical people are the worst thing there is.

But she did not know. Truly, she did not know.

So, it’s a curse. Only we can feel it. As far as I’m concerned, that isn’t too bad.

She gasped, but the blizzard wind made her teeth and throat ache. Curse?

You’re growing colder. Why?

Her legs gave in and she fell flat on the snow. Why was the voice speaking over the blistering blizzard? And why couldn’t she remember its owner?

This has to end.

There was a searing pain on her back, as if she’d been stabbed there; she opened her mouth and this time, she heard her own screams escaping it. Everything surrounding her was pure white, except for the stain of blood under her which tainted the snow with its red color.

She felt the voice grow silent; still, she did not remember to whom it belonged… but she felt something for it… something so deep that it reached her in the midst of this blizzard.

 

 

There were Celestials all over the room, circling a bed, hands united, their lips moving in almost silent prayers. Casavir approached the circle and saw Firanis, glowing softly with a white light, lying inert on the bed, dried blood covering the soft lines of her face; and holding one of her hands was a male deva, his head bowed down so that all that could be seen of him was his bright curly red hair.

“She was far away,” the deva who’d brought him here said. “But not so far away that we could not reach her.”

“So she’ll live?” Casavir asked hoarsely. Why was there so much blood around her when she’d only been bleeding from her mouth and nose?

The deva nodded. “We’re not completely sure, but yes, she most likely will. We fear more for the other, though.”

 The other? Casavir said to himself; the deva, as if he’d read his mind, answered. “Yes. She bears another life inside her, though I wonder for how long.”

The Paladin’s light blue eyes widened in astonishment. “Excuse me,” he said before leaving the room; the others were outside, expectant looks on their faces as he closed the door.

“How is she?” Elanee asked from her seat, her hands wrapped in each other as she tried to control their seemingly incessant trembling.

Casavir pursed his lips; Tyr be blessed, why was he shaking? “They said she’ll most likely recover, but-”

“That’s great news, right?” Neeshka stopped his sentence with her brisk comment. “I mean, she’s pretty bad now, but she’ll get better and-”

“And she’s pregnant.”

A swift, cutting silence filled the room; Sand had stopped his pacing and was staring at Casavir with his eyebrows raised; Elanee’s nails were digging so deep into her skin that they cut it; Neeshka coughed as if she’d been trying to swallow the information, but had choked on it; Khelgar had his jaw hanging open; Grobnar muttered a “Oh Gods.”; Zhjaeve and Ammon, however, looked completely unsurprised, with her patiently watching the group and he simply shrugging.

“You knew?” Neeshka directed her question at both the Githzerai and warlock.

“I felt it; I am attuned to such things,” Zhjaeve stated.

“And it’s kind of unsurprising because that, even with all the pillow play going on, she never took any potions when we were out of the Keep,” Jerro added.

“She didn’t?” Sand intervened as if someone had just insulted him. “All the trouble in making them and she didn’t even bother take them in secret?”

“You-” Elanee’s voice was cut off by a deafening scream coming from the healing room; it was horrible, so horrible that Elanee had to shut her eyes tightly and bite her tongue to prevent herself from screaming as well.

“Doubt assaults our hearts,” Zhjaeve softly spoke once the wail had died out. “And in such doubts lies her death. No matter how betrayed you feel, or how neglected you think you’ve been… She never said anything that she thought would hurt any of us; and she did not lie to any of us either.” She paused, removing the veil from her spotted yellow face; her thin lips were parted in a stern sigh. “As long as we believe that she will be saved, she will. Question her intentions, her motivations, her strength… and she will be lost.”

Her dull gold eyes glistened with tears. “Firanis won’t have a reason to come back if we do not welcome her among us anymore. But,” she bit down her lower lip, “it’s not only in our hands. Others – one in particular – will have to believe as well.”

Khelgar snorted. “So, in the end, if a human who surpasses even Tieflings at backstabbing – no offence, fiendling,” the dwarf quickly added to ease a frowning Neeshka, “does not believe in her, she’ll die anyway.”

Zhjaeve tilted her head back and breathed in and out several times before replying, “Even with everything that was said and done, she did not doubt him; hence I do not doubt him. Do you?”

“I do…” Khelgar stopped his words and smirked; if blind faith was the cost of Firanis’s life, he was willing to believe a lie as big as that one. Hells, even if he had to believe Faerûn came out of a hole in the ground of the Multiverse, he would, so as long as the waif got to see better days than this one. After all, even though she had omitted something from them, that did not mean that she deserved to be scorned for the rest of her life and by Tyr’s right buttock, it also did not mean that he did not trust her! So, he added another word to his sentence. “Not.”

Zhjaeve nodded at him and, for the first time in the hours they’d been here waiting, there was relief on her features.

 

 

“I can’t believe they’re all dead.” Bevil heavily fell on a chair of the War Room; there was a strange emptiness about it now, and the relief of the end of the War could not be found anywhere within the Keep.

“No one wants to, Bevil,” Nevalle gravely whispered, sauntering to a corner and leaning there, in the shadow. “We were ready to die in the battle and lose everything along with our lives; we were ready to win as well… But no one was prepared for this.”

With her elbows on the table, Kana’s hands were placed firmly at the sides of her head, holding it. “Either we all went down, or we all survived. Sure, there would always be casualties, but… no one even considered that they all… especially Firanis, would be among them.”

“They can’t be dead,” Bevil stated; Nevalle looked at him with weary eyes, wishing he’d just shut up and stop repeating that sentence in such desperate tone… It was as if he didn’t trust his own words.

And truly, who did? Merdelain’s walls had crashed down and no one had come out before then; no one could survive tons worth of stone crumbling on top of them, no one. Not even the Knight-Captain of Crossroad Keep. And that crude, bare reality was crushing.

The funny thing about this all was that he’d hated Firanis in the beginning; thought she was no more than a dishonorable, sleazy, backstabbing, despicable, selfish thief who enjoyed wreaking havoc in the streets of a city… until he met her. At first, he’d thought he was mistaken, for she seemed such a frail thing, with her light movements and soft words; she could not be, in any way, the one who’d murdered a whole village; but still, he couldn’t let her go off the hook so easily – plus, she could be hiding her emotions. So, he waited; he waited to see what she really was like.

And she was not the person he’d thought her to be. And for that, he was glad.

“I fear we won’t hold long now; Crossroad Keep, I mean,” Kana murmured shyly, interrupting his trail of thought, daring to look up at the two men who were with her.

The Knight of the Nine arched a brow, which was enough for the female sergeant to fixate her gaze on the table again before saying, “She was the heart of this place, Sir Nevalle. She had a… way of handling things which is… rare to see nowadays.”

That was exactly what he meant. The aasimar knew how to turn a blind eye when it was needed, and it had been because of that that the Keep had prospered so much in only a few months. Oh, he’d chided her for not abiding the Law; she was, after all, a Knight of the Nine: she had to set an example. But, upon spending a few months on the Keep, organizing the War Effort, she’d made him understand that, when in charge of people, one needed to look at what would benefit them as a whole and restrain oneself from doing things which would shun one’s people away. And without them, there would be nothing but walls for her to defend.

“And Sir Nevalle, you have to agree, as sturdy and as polished as they might be, walls are quite the dull things when you try talking to them.”

In that aspect, Kana was right: Firanis was the heart of the Keep. “As long as we keep this place alive,” Nevalle said aloud, “she will remain so as well.”

He’d taught her in weapons – and she’d taught him in people. So, for what she’d struggled to build, they’d struggle to maintain whole; because one day, she’d return.

One day…

 

 

“What do you mean she’s dead?” Axle said in his calm, deep voice, piercing Uncus with his dark brown eyes.

The other thief held his hands up in an excusing manner. “It’s what I saw, my Lord,” he’d said that word with obvious disdain, “Axle. Merdelain’s Walls crumbling and no sign of the Lady of Crossroad before or after that.”

Axle only sighed before dismissing the underling. This was an unexpected setback. The aasimar had been an important key towards opening the heavily locked door which led to the hegemony of the Shadow Thieves in Neverwinter; with her gone, things would undoubtedly prove to be more… difficult.

No, he couldn’t allow himself to be overthrown by anyone, now that Firanis wasn’t at Crossroad Keep to make certain things easier. He needed to keep the Shadow Thieves who were operating in Neverwinter under his control, lest he’d be nothing but another has-been gang leader starving on the streets.

Well, he hadn’t become the head of this branch of Thieves for nothing; he’d most certainly find a way around this… and with luck, he might even use Firanis’s past ties to him to strengthen his word.

Yes, she was the key. Alive or dead, she was still one of the Nine, and one of Nasher’s favorites. Whether she was in the Nine Hells of in the Seven Heavens, she was still respected, and so were her former Alliances. And so was he.

Axle smiled a crooked, dry smile.

Who’d say the dead could be so useful?

 

If I had been like you back then, maybe you’d never have to go through this sacrifice.

Firanis looked up. It was not the same voice she’d heard before… this one was raspy, yet strangely deep and wise; she knew it, but at the same time, it was something completely foreign to her.

And not only you… but others as well.

She cocked one eyebrow. Firanis knew that what was being said should have some meaning to her… So why did it lack it?

Where I failed, you succeeded… It’d be unfortunate indeed if your ending is something as pitiful as this.

For moments, there was a spark of lucidity in her confused mind. Jerro, Firanis said to herself, but just as she was ready to scream out for help, another voice came… A voice so calm, so focused, that it calmed the itch of her skin, closed the gaping wound on her back.

Hold yourself together, Firanis. Your journey isn’t over yet.

Firanis squatted down on the snow. Zhjaeve? Her mind whispered.

You fought for so many, Kalach-cha… It’s time to fight for yourself now.

Firanis thought she was crying, but nothing came out of her eyes. She was so tired, and so frozen, and so hurt… she just wanted to let go and let the blizzard bury her in its fury.

It’s almost funny to know that all this time, when people have been saying I am cursed, that you’re the one who’s been eternally doomed… But it’s not. Nope. Not a single bit.

Neeshka? Firanis blinked and reached out with her arms to the misty sky. Neeshka!

Oh, well, Firanis… Cursed or not… I don’t want you to bleed to death, okay? Even though you got lots of things wrong, and made lots of mistakes, this isn’t the price you have to pay.

Firanis wrapped her arms around herself, her nails digging deeply into her flesh. She jumped forward, in the direction of the voice, but fell square on her face; the ice numbed it even more than it already was, and her lips began to burn.

Because I… like you, get it?

Neeshka’s voice vanished; the aasimar tried to lift herself up from the snow, but her arms gave in and she fell again.

It was the most amazing thing, Firanis!

She breathed into the snow and rolled over.

The lights, the shimmering, the shadow… I’d never thought it possible! But it was terrifying, too.

A hoarse cry escaped her throat. Grobnar? She willed her body to move, but all it did was twitch violently.

Just don’t go to Shandra yet, please? I know you miss her and all, but I think she’d just kill you over and over again if you died now.

She would have smiled if her face weren’t so stiff.  

Grobnar’s chirpy voice faded, muted down by the blizzard’s winds. Firanis gasped as she felt the iron-like skin of her legs split in a thousand cuts.

For every God in every single pantheon, deity and demipower, Firanis, you’re making a show.

Firanis frowned. Dry, witty, sarcastic… Sand. She acknowledged, lightly biting into her crusted lower lip.

Just come back quickly so we can go home. Please? It’d be no fun to travel only with people who have an intellect of the size of a shrunk pea and can’t discern irony from appreciation.

She breathed in, centering herself.

Plus, we can’t get back without you; so, if you die, how will I ever get to undermine, chide, mock and humiliate Torio again?

Even though she felt calmer now, the severe pain on her abdomen gradually increased with the last of Sand’s sardonically pathetic comments. She opened her mouth to scream again, but she did not hear anything escaping it.

I watched you for so long…

            She coughed, and blood surged on her mouth. The ice seemed to be slowly melting off, but the blizzard was so powerful, that the melted ice was soon replaced.

            In the end, you became like a child to me, Firanis.

            A thin, lazy sunbeam touched her face. The aasimar thought of that voice, of its serene, understanding warmth and bashful gentleness. Elanee?

            I guess a mother must feel so tied down like this when her child is dying.

            Firanis fought, but she was powerless against the blizzard’s vicious fury; Elanee! Elanee, don’t worry… Please, I can’t see anymore of you hurt…

Firanis?

She tilted her head. Deep, quiet, cool… Casavir, her senses whispered.

I bore so much for you already… But please…

She had to close her eyes; her whole body ached with the now burning touch of the snow… But at least now she wasn’t numb… Now she could feel.

Don’t make me bear the sight of your lifeless body.

Casavir was… sad? Yes, he was sad. But why? Had she hurt him that much? Possibly, because her heart ached with something that resembled guilt… Guilt because she could not love him in the amount he deserved… because that part of her heart had already been given to someone…

She gulped down. Yes, she’d given herself – in body, heart and soul - to someone…

But to whom?

Ye’re tougher than this, girl! This voice was like a hammer falling on steel, and it pounded at her senses with every syllable. I’m not going to let ye die now! We need to get back home ‘nd gloat, and get really pissed, ye hear?

Her fingers twitched when Khelgar’s last words broke down into echoes.

‘Nd we’ll get well past the twelfth tankard, I promise ye! His grunt-like voice stubbornly returned again before vanishing for good. Her body seemed to gain new strength and she snorted, remembering the last time she’d drowned herself in ale with… Khelgar, Neeshka and… someone else.

That same someone who held the last – and the biggest – pieces of her.

Firanis got up to her knees with great effort; her whole body seemed to be made of the heaviest, rustiest metal, moving only when great strength and effort were applied. But she had to get up and she had to walk.

But she couldn’t.

 

 

It had been days.

Daeghun emerged from the forest, twigs, leaves and dirt embedded on his clothes, hair and skin.

His daughter. His light-hearted, ever-understanding daughter. Buried under Merdelain. Buried under the weight of a nation. Buried so she could save them. Buried so the survivors would smile and cherish their lives in the hearth of a family.

But what about her? What about Firanis? She wouldn’t.

Had it been partially his fault? He’d always been distant, afraid to tie himself and his daughter down to each other, so when a thing such as this happened, none of them would be dragged down by feelings of loss…

But it had been worthless.

In the end, she really was his daughter. He’d raised her from babe, to teenager, to adult, and she’d become someone he was proud of… and someone he loved.

After Shayla and Esmerelle’s deaths… There had been a spark of a new beginning, a glimpse of light… there had been Firanis. Were the Gods so cruel that they’d take everything from him yet again? How could… how could he allow himself the luxury of feelings that, whenever he opened himself to them again, he’d always, always end up with a maimed heart?

Daeghun steadied himself against a tree.

Her body had not been found. Stone had been removed, earth had been dug, but everything that was left was her cloak, not her body. Not even the Sword of Gith.

Some said she’d been consumed by the last of the shadow; some said that she had to sacrifice herself, and turn into light with the powers of the Ritual so the King would be truly destroyed.

But there was no body.

And so, he’d keep searching. He would keep searching because his daughter was not dead! And he would find her, alive and well.

 

 

Child…

She gasped. That voice…

I can’t lose everything again…

“Father!” Firanis was aiming for a shout, but all she managed was a petty whisper.

Come back…

Now, tears fell. Now, her breath clouded the chilly air of the blizzard. Now, she could get up and walk. Now

She had to find the rest of her pieces.

 

 

“It’s been a month,” a quiet, resonating voice stated behind his back.

He closed his eyes fiercely, pulling the ale mug closer to his chest. Not again… “What do you want, kid?”

“Did you know that, in the end, the only shadow that remains, is the one we have in our own souls?” she said while skirting around his hunched figure to sit beside him.

He sneered, “I don’t feel like philosophizing with you.”

He saw her pouting through the corner of his eye. “But you should.” She critically squinted at his ale mug. “Besides, alcohol is not a good liquid to drown in. Mom always says the hangover is worse than the sorrows you’re trying to bury.”

One of the corners of his mouth lifted. “Your mother, kid, is a backstabbing thief and assassin.”

“And you, Mister, are a backstabbing liar and coward, so forgive me if I don’t respect your opinion.” The look he gave her would have been enough to make people scurry away in fear; she only smiled. “There’s a reason you’re still here.”

He gulped down some of his ale, ignoring her.

“You can’t let go.”

His expression became sour; his lips trembled. This kid had been driving him mad for at least three days, always bantering on and on about life, and the world, and the past and the ominous struggle of the living soul; why couldn’t she go away and bother someone else who’d actually pay attention to her?

“The blizzard is strong… But you’ve reached her among it before, haven’t you?” she straddled herself back and forth on the chair, her nonchalant movements making him dizzy; the ale was starting to take its toll on his mind and he’d better start thinking about going upstairs to his room and sleep. Yes, sleep; sleep and forget everything during those blissful, unconscious hours…

“Oh, you’ll end up dreaming about her, don’t worry,” the girl’s strangely vibrating voice grasped his attention again. “Because…” her tone deepened to a mythical, sultry, wise rumble. “When you break a soul after it had a taste of wholeness, it’ll wail and cry until it’s complete again.”

Her furrowed his brow at her, turning his face to fully look into the girl’s calm, icy blue eyes. “Just what are you exactly, kid?”

She seemed taken aback by his question, because her jaw was left hanging open for some very long moments; then, her appalled look became a smile, but it was filled with pain and sadness. “I’m the Twice-damned. The Homeless. The Unbelonging.”

The girl gracefully leapt out of the chair, strands of bright red hair flowing behind her lithe figure. “There are betrayals of many kinds, and some can never be forgiven.” She giggled light-heartedly, her eyes shining with joy. “You betrayed her feelings; yours, too. I…” she looked down, sheepishly, before nodding with some newfound conviction. “I think you should at least think about which ones you let down on the first place. And then…”

The look she gave him was as choking as a tight rope around his neck. “And then, you should face them.”

He smirked, cocky. “Should I? What do you know of life, kid? What do you know of the things you speak of?” he sized her up with his heavy gaze. “You’re like, eight? Well, forgive me if you think I’ve been lending a deaf ear, but I’m not following a kid’s advice.”

Her back was already turned to him by the time she shrugged. “I never said you had to.”

 

 

Firanis kept on walking.

Lady,” whispered someone; the aasimar turned back and nearly lost balance when she saw a small, thin redheaded girl standing in front of her, untouched by the wrath of the blizzard.

“Who…” Firanis’s throat dried immediately after she’d pronounced that first word; she took a hand to it, massaging the cold skin.

It does not matter, Lady.” The girl smiled. “This place is of fury; of madness; of division. That is why I can reach you here.

“Why am…” Firanis coughed, pain searing her vocal cords.

It’s a refuge of the soul, I think. Or maybe it’s where your soul is bound to.”

The girl approached her, each step she took made her seem bigger, ancient, wiser, and suddenly, there was not a small, meek child with her anymore; there was a woman, with a delicate sharp complexion, thin lips, small nose and the most exquisitely shaped eyes Firanis had ever seen; eyes of a blue so transparent, that they resembled ever-running water; eyes shining with such a bright insight of this world that, when under their scrutinizing, she was the child, naïve and clueless. Her long red hair contrasted with the glacial landscape, ebbing and flowing around her at its own free will…

And then, there were the wings, black, like the depths of the abyss, their feathers spreading wide and free behind her, moving with the thick wind as she closed down the distance between them with steps that seemed to make her curves undulate, slither, whisper.

The girl who was no longer a girl touched her; Firanis’s skin didn’t react to her at first, but slowly – very slowly – she felt it pulsating, throbbing!

Frimma, the Frozen Fire,” the girl who was no longer a girl murmured. “The one who sees good where others think there’s none; the one who loves that which thinks it can’t be loved; the one who made darkness wish for light...” her ebony wings twitched and spread to the sides before closing around them, enveloping them both in shadow – a shadow which was countered by a light that was seeping from her own skin!

The part of your soul which you are searching for now, won’t come to you yet,” the girl’s… no, the woman’s twisted voice dripped sadness and sympathy. “It’s left a deep, agonizing wound in its place…” the woman bit into her lower lip as the fingers of her free hand tenderly grazed Firanis’s chest. “You will have to live with it, with incompleteness, until what you lost is returned to you.” She took a step back, and the woman’s frame started diminishing until she became a child again. “Please, do not despair, Lady…”

Before the frozen landscape shattered and slowly started to fade away, as if it were being pulled, ripped from where she was standing, an unclear smile flickered on the girl’s lips and her old, ever-knowing voice softly crooned, “You two will meet again.

Firanis started falling, falling into a void, and the more she fell, the farther the blizzard was. A whisper; a caress; a promise; emotions, unleashed; confusion; emotions so strong that they threatened to make her heart explode; a love, requited, but forsaken out of fear; a smile; a backstab; a plea; a hope…

Air seemed to invade her lungs, and the shock of that sudden realization made her choke on it. No longer insensitive, she could discern all the emotions flooding her now, and the memories - the recent memories – plunging into her, twisting and turning around her like currents of thought.

And, after three months of winter, after the maiming blizzard threatened to cover her, the spring breezes blew into her, and Firanis finally awoke from her slumber.