Dusk approached as Argent stood atop the Tower’s roof. He scanned the horizon as mists descended over the city, lost in thought.
Several hours had passed since Selene and Hamish first awoke.
Ari departed soon after confirming they were both okay. She had already delayed her journey a full day to ensure they were both well before she left.
With the Magus dead and the ritual stopped, all that now remained was telling the people of the Hollow the good news.
Meanwhile, Jezran was busy tending to the sick and preparing a supper fit for the occasion. Argent offered to assist, but the wizard was still convinced Argent should be resting as well.
If he was honest, he knew the wizard was right. He had lost so much blood, it was only thanks to Ari’s quick efforts that he was still breathing. Even so, Argent knew his limits better than anyone else, and he could still push them when opportunities called for it.
In this case, he had his own work to keep himself occupied.
After all, there was much to consider.
Hard to believe it was only two days ago that we were fighting for our lives, Argent thought coolly. Even harder to believe everything was saved by cleaning supplies and dumb luck.
Though perhaps ‘dumb luck’ isn’t the right word…
He closed his eyes as he relived those final moments once more, searching for any missing details. Anything that could tell him what he should do next.
And what they would have to do about the young Malenai.
Argent awoke in Ari’s arms, cradled in a cocoon of ice. He did not remember much beyond his surrender to Lendrig.
Like an angel of ice, her face hovered above him. Worry marked her features and creased her brow, but his stirring gave some relief.
He tried rising when Ari placed a gentle hand on his chest, “Illy, I know you’re confused, but you lost a lot of blood. I gave you some of the vials of Moonglow I keep, but it will take a moment before you regain your strength.”
Relenting, he relaxed into her embrace. She had saved him more times than he could count, but it had been a long time since he came so close to the final embrace of death.
“Thank you, Ari,” he whispered softly, a hand rising to cradle her cheek, “And I’m sorry.”
A smile touched her lips as she responded, “You better be, that plan of sacrificing yourself was stupid. I would have stopped you if I could, but that damned Lendrig…”
He nodded, accepting the scolding from her with all the grace he could muster. She had earned that much.
Icy tears spilled down her face, freezing before they fell past her cheeks, “You may be the great ‘Illanon Silver Eyes’ to the world, but that doesn’t mean you always have to play the hero. I’m not ready to lose you yet.”
Argent said nothing, there was no excuse he could give that would provide comfort.
“Anyway,” Ari said, rubbing the ice from her cheeks as she recollected herself, “The flooding finally stopped, we need to get moving.”
Argent cocked an eyebrow at that. “Water? What happened?”
Pulling herself and Argent to their feet, Ari explained, “Lendrig tried to drown us after Hamish broke the false Heart. I was worried about losing hold of you, so I had to leave the others behind. They might still be in danger.”
“Then we better move quickly,” Argent said, struggling to his feet on shaking legs, “With his plan ruined, Lendrig is even more dangerous than before.”
Ari nodded, placing her hand on the ice surrounding them. It melted into snow in an instant. Looking around, he could see they were in one of the grand halls beneath the ancient city. She guided him down the path, back toward Lendrig and their companions.
“How did you find an opportunity to break the false Heart, anyway?” Argent asked as he shuffled along beside her, “His powers are so great, I’d be surprised if even Hamish could handle them.”
“Jezran cast some kind of spell and used his enchanted tools from the tower. It seems he did something to them to make them more dangerous. Since they had no intelligence of their own, it seems Lendrig could not stop them.”
Argent stopped mid-step, turning to look at her, “You mean to tell me a Magus’s plan was undone by mops, brooms, and pans?”
Ari smirked, “Yeah, hard to believe, but it gave Hamish the opportunity he needed.”
Argent shook his head with a rueful grin, “Certainly something for the storybooks. A pity he washed them away with his little flood.”
His grin faded as they continued walking. He knew they would need a plan to best the Magus, but none came.
There were out of options.
Turning to Ari, he asked quietly, “Any idea how we’re going to beat him?”
She shook her head. “Not going to let that stop me from saving my friends, but I don’t think there’s anything we can do but hope things will be different this time.”
Both slipped into silence as they now considered the possibility that this may be their final moments together.
And she says I’m the one who acts like a hero, Argent thought as they approached a great doorway covered in enchanted darkness, Not many folks would face down death at just the chance to save a friend.
Before they reached the entrance, however, Argent shook free from her grasp. Ari, surprised, was about to ask him why he did that, when she noticed the same thing. The air hung heavy with the scent of blood and rotting flesh.
Drawing his shortsword, Argent began searching the area for the source. There was nothing in the area.
It’s possible whatever caused the smell was washed away by the floodwaters but…this feels familiar.
Seeking to confirm his suspicion, he shifted his focus from the area to the shadows around him.
Unaffected by the tidal waters, the shadows swirled in a deep, endless black.
They were engorged on the blood of living flesh. Reaching for his boot, Argent drew a small blade of gleaming moonlight. Without his longsword, this was all he had to confirm his suspicions. Approaching the deeper shadows, he focused his energy into the blade, igniting the blood inside it. It burned with a piercing light, enough to cause the shadow to shriek in pain.
Several bodies dropped from where the shadow hung on the wall with a wet smack. Around him, he heard others do the same.
Turning around, he counted a dozen corpses, barely recognizable as Sep’tha.
He sighed, it appeared his suspicions were correct.
“Wraiths,” he muttered, eyeing the other corpses along the wall, “Over a dozen. Probably controlled by a shade nearby for an ambush.”
Ari frowned, but she quickly moved so the two were back to back, “Wraiths and shades…here?”
Argent nodded, “Hard to believe, but there’s no mistaking it. We’re lucky they were already feeding. Otherwise…”
He eyed the corpses around them, knowing they could have shared the same fate.
“Do you think they…?” Ari tried to ask but could not finish her question.
Argent knew what she meant, it was a question he was asking himself. Do you think they were here for Selene?
Pushing the thought aside, he continued, “Hard to say. For now, we should keep moving, there may be more nearby.”
Ari nodded, bracing herself as they approached the curtain of black. He hovered his moonlit dagger around the enchanted darkness, wraiths could hide in pitch black with ease, but any power drawn from the Light would force their retreat. It could even cut through enchanted darkness, if enough Light could be generated.
Unfortunately, due to Argent’s state, he could only create a flicker at the time. If anything worse than a wraith awaited them, it was unlikely this would be enough to dissuade them.
Finding nothing, he and Ari both slipped through the veil to the other side.
What awaited them on the other side was enough to give both pause.
The chamber, damp from the flood waters, was devastated. Part of the ceiling had collapsed in the corner, leaving a mountain of stones burying a quarter of the chamber.
Looking around, Argent did not see either of his companions nearby. At first, he thought they might have been buried in the rubble, then he felt a hand on his shoulder. Turning around, he saw Ari’s shock, her eyes wide and free hand covering her mouth.
Argent followed her gaze further into the chamber.
Scattered shards of blood-stained crystal littered the open floor, leading towards the grisly carnage at its center.
Lendrig, or whatever was left of the torn body, lay in a small pool of murky fluid on the floor. A figure, cloaked in shadow, hovered above. Claws of shadow cut the corpse in slow, lethargic motions.
“Selene…” Ari whispered imperceptibly.
The figure’s head spun in an instant. Eyes piercing white, like dual moons floating in an endless expanse of black.
They were the same eyes he saw in Drastè Wharf from a young thief.
They were the same eyes he saw in the shadows trapped in a mirror.
They were the same eyes he saw that night when his father died.
They were the same eyes he had hunted ever since.
The eyes of the last Magus. The Magus that was never found in the war. One so feared, even the Order of Magus had to act against her. One so dangerous, she could only be trapped by the Lord Magus himself.
Sol’vanya, Magus of Night.
An inhuman shriek escaped her lips, setting Argent’s teeth on edge. Instinctively, he put himself between Ari and his student.
The last time he met their gaze, he was not prepared. It was only for an instant, but it was enough to shock him to his core. He dropped his guard, and nearly lost his coin in the process.
Now as he stared down those eyes, he knew the consequence of dropping his guard would be far worse than a few missing coins.
Death…for Ari, for myself…maybe even the world. I have no choice. I only hope I have enough fight left in me.
She let out a pained wail as her body flew across the room, claws outstretched.
I am sorry, Selene. I had hoped it would not come to this.
Then something in the rubble shifted. The figure paused its advance, studying the rubble intently. A massive hand reached through and began pulling itself out.
A moment later, a broken and battered Hamish appeared from the rubble. Barely conscious, he only managed a pained gasp as he gulped in air before passing out entirely.
A voice called from the darkness, “Hamish?”
The body, floating in air, fell to the ground. It took cautious steps toward him. The shadows around her, a swirling, raging torrent, now slowed and faded. Her strength faded with them, as her body stumbled and fell to the ground. Struggling to get back up, her arm stretched out, reaching toward the unconscious half-orc as she, too, fell into unconsciousness.
It was only then that the shadows faded entirely, leaving only the body of their companion.
Ari was quick to drop her guard, hurrying to their fallen companions. Argent remained on high alert until they finally got everyone back to the Tower.
Throughout their journey, every time he looked back, he swore he saw something lurking in the distance.
Watching from the shadows.
He still could not come to a decision. So little was known about Selene’s connection to the last Magus. He did not know if she was the Magus herself, or if perhaps she was but another innocent pawn in her games.
Ever since he found her, Argent had debated what to do with the young Malenai. Pragmatically, using her to find out what the Magus was planning seemed to be the best outcome. It could lead to answers, and may even be the key to solving a mystery he had sought to unravel for over an Aeon. On the other hand, he had seen what the Magus did to her pawns, and he did not want that to happen to Selene.
Even if I had to kill her, it would be a mercy. Better death than becoming a Shade…
While lost in his thoughts, he felt something light land on his shoulder. He turned to see a woman, no larger than his hand, standing there. Her skin was pale, but covered in a tiny layer of snow that fell softly from her body as she moved. Long, flowing white hair fell behind two large, pointed ears and down past her shoulders.
Icy, shimmering wings fluttered softly on her back. They appeared so delicate, as if a mere touch would shatter them into pieces.
She stretched her arms and legs as she stood before proceeding to plop down on his shoulder. She let her feet dangle off the edge, kicking them back and forth like a small child before she looked up at him with a large, toothy grin. With a round face and large eyes, it reminded him further of a small child. Her eyes were a dazzling blue, like two sapphires.
Most recognized this creature as a pixie, a lesser Fae most commonly known for their mischievous natures. This was not the full truth, but the Fae were always secretive, even before the War. Outside his people, he doubted any even recalled their purpose or knew mention of the Court of Seasons.
All that was lost, and so much more.
The pixie in question was Ari, he knew it the moment he saw her eyes. She could change everything else, from her race to her face to her eye colour, but none of that would ever hide the truth buried deep in those eyes.
She was also the only Fae he knew that felt comfortable enough to use his shoulder as a seat.
His time for thinking was at an end.
“It’s been a while since you last were a pixie,” Argent said flatly as he returned his gaze to the horizon.
“Hard to find a good time to change,” Ari said, spinning around so she could lay down. Stretching out along his shoulder, she sighed, “Can’t remember the last time I stayed the same shape for so long.”
Argent smirked, “I’m surprised you’ve managed to hold it together. Normally, you start switching the minute no one but me is watching.”
Leaping from his shoulder, she landed beside him, now a halfling, “I don’t change that often…do I?”
Argent shrugged, “I don’t know, we’ve never met a race that can change as easily as you.”
Ari thought for a moment, changing to a dwarf, then a human, then back to a pixie again before finally nodding, “I suppose you’re right.”
“Either way, I’m surprised how well you managed, though I think our friends know you’re not an elf, exactly,” Argent said, leaning forward against the wall around the edge of the roof.
She flew this time to land on the wall beside him, turning to look up at him as he leaned against it. Her hands were on her hips as she said, “If I had known we were having company on this journey, I would have never picked an elf. Humans and elves are far too similar for me to keep them straight.”
“Even after all these years of watching them?” Argent asked, a smirk playing at his lips as he watched her turn away from him, her tiny arms crossed in annoyance.
While he certainly preferred her true form, he would not deny the charm of each shape she took.
She refused to look at him as she responded with a harrumph, “Yes, they may act different, but the looks really aren’t all that different. Especially when you’re mimicking them.”
“Well, maybe you’ll have a chance to explain after everything else dies down,” Argent said, consoling.
Ari said nothing, but decided to take flight and buzz around his head.
It was as adorable as it was distracting for him. Finally, he decided to push the conversation toward more practical matters, “Anyway, I take it you found them?”
Ari gave a final loop around his head before finding a comfortable perch on his shoulder, “Yes, I did. They were quite a ways from shore, but they’re on their way back now. Should be another day before they make it back.”
“Good. Good…” Argent’s words trailed off slowly, as he found himself increasingly unable to avoid the subject.
A silence fell over the two, as neither wished to broach the subject.
“So…” Ari said in a calm and measured tone, belying an obvious tension in her words, “Selene’s back to her usual self.”
“So far, at least,” Argent said, choosing each word carefully.
“Do you think she’s…?” Ari whispered, turning away from him.
He sighed, “I don’t know.”
She nodded, still turned away from him. It was obvious Ari had taken a strong liking to the girl. Argent himself would be lying if he said he did not feel the same way, but they needed to be careful.
In all their years of fighting against the Magus, they had never once determined her goals. Even now, they could not see the game she played.
“The Magus know so much we don’t. Our ignorancehas left us at a disadvantage, and I cannot see a clear answer,” Argent said, reluctantly.
“Well…” Ari spoke slowly, giving the appearance she was struggling to come up with an idea mid-sentence, “…we know that Selene is…involved, but there’s nothing to suggest she’s…aware of it, right?”
Argent nodded, “Unless she’s very good at lying, I believe her when she says she doesn’t remember anything. Meaning she’s a victim in all this.”
“Meaning we should keep her wellbeing in mind, right?” Ari asked.
“Yes, if we can,” Argent said, sighing, “I just don’t know how we do that.”
“Perhaps we should wait, then? Maybe more answers will come as we follow her through Syndramire?” Ari asked, failing to hide a hopeful tone.
He mulled over her words for a moment.
“That may be the best course of action,” he calmly reasoned, “Selene is here for a reason, and perhaps following her will be enough for an opportunity to intervene.”
Both turned to face the other, her eyes told him all he needed to know. She was drained, exhausted from the events of the past few days. At this point, she could not bear the thought of losing anyone.
Caressing her cheek with his finger, he gave her a soft smile and said in a voice as soft and soothing as he could muster, “We’ll both keep an eye on her, and we’ll do everything we can to figure this out. But for now, I believe we’ve all earned a rest. So how about we go see if Jezran has finished preparations for dinner?”
Ari’s tiny hands grasped his finger, giving him a teary smile as she nodded. Turning around, she hopped from his shoulder and returned to her Elven form beside him. She gripped his hand tightly as they made their way to the stairs.
They descended slowly, at first, but as they left the roof behind, so too did Ari leave behind her dour thoughts. Her smile returned as her mood brightened.
One thought remained for Argent, a conclusion he made upon seeing Ari’s pained expression.
If no answers come, and we have no way of saving her…I will be the one to end this. After all she has been through, I do not want Ari to lose anyone else.
I pray it does not come to that, but I will do what I must. For Ari’s sake…and Selene’s.