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RP:The Red Wolf and The Butcher's Blade

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Part of the What You Leave Behind Arc


Summary: Deep into the wild frontier, Kahran's heinous wraiths cast cruel possessive magics upon three wyverns in a bid to enhance their dread armies' aerial strength. Encara, a wanderer, warns the Alliance and readies her bow. In the battle that follows, she and Lionel will fast-forge a bond with lasting repercussions. In this war, few victories come free of cost.

Winter Ends Wetly Across A Xalious Peak

The mountains weep for the coming spring, their icy paths melting tears like rivers into the canyons far below. The dawning sun casts a certain light, lending sparkle and sheen to the ice. Travel here is perilous, and the corpses of several ill-fated merchants and their hired help lay strewn across the densely-forested pass, most mangled from falls. Some, however, have been hacked and slashed to pieces, and their caravans have been raided for all they were once worth. No robbers would dare traverse this stretch of Lithrydel this time of year, though, which is why the Alliance aAainst Kahran has been called to the scene. Their small scouting camp shows the telltale signs of haste; the tents aren’t especially well-suited to the environs, too thin for the briskness of the mountain air, and the soldiers’ attire is too heavy for that air’s thinness. A small fire burns at the center of the camp for paltry warmth, and two people -- a rebel witch from the former Larketian resistance and a half-elven archer from the Warrior’s Guild -- wave their hands near the flames, sweating through their thick leathers yet nevertheless cold. Lionel, dressed in his scarlet silk shirt and slacks, leans one foot against a block of freshly-chopped wood his litheness would have had great difficulty carving through were it not for the might of his sword, Hellfire. The alliance waits for signs of their foe. All is quiet.


Just beyond the range of their best ears, however, a popping shrill and shriek emanates from the lungs of wicked wraiths. They encircle three large wyverns whose scales gleam purple and whose yellow eyes have a nobleness to them. The wraiths raise their great glimmering scythes and an ethereal, nearly-invisible magical rope seems to lead from one scythe to the next, and on it goes, in a chain between the five wraiths, as if they are corralling the wyverns within a net. The wyverns trill and sneer, and occasionally they lash out, but each and every time they lash, the wraiths move one step ahead and deftly evade, or send a warning slash. For some reason, the wyverns do not fly; it is possible this pending spell has forced them to the ground. Nearby birds and foxes have long since evacuated the scene, and the alliance is none the wiser to it. But if someone were to find themselves closer to the wraiths and their prey…


Encara is nearby. Most dark elves live beneath the mountains, far down in the deep where the air is thick with a millennia of history and dust. It is home, and most know no different, but the stagnant atmosphere was like a physical weight on Encara's shoulders when she lived there. Drow society, for all its turbulent political games, casual violence, and constant change, somehow never seemed to experience a -meaningful- change; and so Encara, always the outcast, never truly found her place to belong. Up here, she's still alone and searching for that elusive sense of purpose, but at least the air is clearer - the bite of winter's dying breath is a familiar, welcome sting on her cheeks. She knows these mountain paths like the lines on her palms, knows the best spots to fish, make camp, or set up an ambush. Truth be told, Encara harbours no great love for the surface, nor the chill, but there's space for so much opportunity in these wild, wide open spaces— and that suits her better than wasting away with the dust.


It's best to depend on what you know. Back in Trist'oth, Encara was a hunter - it simply made the most sense for her to continue on that same path, learning the ways of surface creatures and their differences to the beasts of the Underdark. For the most part, she's found them far less cunning and elusive, yet here all the trails have gone cold and the forest is empty… but it quickly becomes clear why. Pointed ears pick up the shrill pop and chatter of some unearthly creature, the likes of which is rarely found this far north: wraiths. Gripping her bladed bow tight, Encara scans the surrounding woods with a frown, peering through the grey haze, then ducks into a crouch when a massive shape swoops overhead without warning, obsidian belly scales barely missing the tops of the trees. Pine needles dislodged by the shifting branches scatter down around the drow in a soft, hissing mimicry of rain, plinking off her armour and skittering down over her shoulders like spiders. Encara's eyes are on the wyvern in flight, however, watching it bank in a wide arc over a clearing a short ways ahead of her. She follows it from the ground, a silent shadow prowling the spaces between the trees. Keeping to the forest, the ranger takes in the scene playing out before her - downed wyverns snarling and snapping amidst the stench of magic, cornered by the wraiths closing in around them. Five of the awful things, at that. She exhales a soft curse. Encara does not doubt her own strength but she is also conscious of her limits and, like the solitary wyvern coasting high overhead, knows it would be foolish to engage those beasts without backup. Luckily, she also knows where to find some.


Bandits fear to tread the northern reaches of Lithrydel in the depths of winter, so smoke trails in the sky are an unusual sight at this time of year - the camp has been on Encara's radar for a day and a half, though she's been content to ignore its presence until now. From here, the white wyvern resembles a hunting hawk as it circles - sparing the beast another glance as she steps out of the forest, panting with the exertion of having sprinted up the hill, Encara jogs toward the hastily-erected jumble of tents. She's stopped by a couple of soldiers guarding the camp's perimeter, but after exchanging a few choice words (and several hushed threats), the men reluctantly let her pass. Encara does not visibly acknowledge when they follow, but she is acutely aware of the watchful eyes at her back. Long, purposeful strides carry the androgynous drow through the small camp with a confidence that makes it seem like she's supposed to be here, as if the suspicious glances she attracts simply don't exist. Sans cloak, the ranger's a lithe, lightly-armoured thing on her feet, and aside from her bow, there's a dagger sheathed at her lower back; a silent warning against trying to sneak up on her. It's Lionel she approaches, either because he's the only one she recognises or because he's the one in charge. "Do any of your people have eyes? Or ears?" That's 'hello,' in drow.


Old wounds flare easily in men more impulsive than refined. Lionel kicks nimbly off of the perch his leg has rested upon, and for a tense, terse second, he sees Encara like he saw the scores of drow in the Dark Immortals’ ranks, in cataclysmic war a decade hence. A war that nearly destroyed the world; a war Kahran has reignited. His azure eyes shoot like daggers in this instant as the hundred-odd memories of scraping and slinging and screaming come flooding back to him like a geyser of the soul. Ask a man tortured by drow for months, until the only things left inside him are numbed hate and bits of bile, not to experience these flashes of hatred, and it would be as well to ask sainthood of him. Lionel O’Connor is no saint.


The flash fades as rapidly as it arose. Lionel’s eyes go softer, and the smile he forces, although tight, lends him an almost boyish countenance. “Gods willing,” he says, eminently aware of the irony that is his distaste for the gods, “our enemies haven’t removed those vital bits from our persons just yet.” The two of them, so slim and agile, are surrounded by a dozen people subservient to both Lionel’s command and Encara’s imperious entry, most of whom tower over them physically. Lionel stares at Encara whilst flicking a fern from his silk shirt. He passes her with haste, twirling his left index finger toward the half-elf and the rebel witch, who stand upright and make their way forth. The half-elf does not look at Encara at all. Lionel addresses the visitor again, standing a few meters behind her and to her right so that the rest of his troops can hear him. “Whatever it is, I reckon it’s bad, because good things don’t happen to good people nearly often enough even in good places, and there aren’t many good places left right now to begin with. What is it?”


The wraiths raise their cowled skulls as the white wyvern circles. The hisses that they make are louder and more ear-piercing now by far. The sound may harm the white wyvern’s mind, for surely it is harming the minds of the purple beasts nearly ensnared within their spell. One of the trapped wyverns opens its mouth and vaults forward suddenly in a snapping motion to take one of the wraiths into its jaws and crush, but the wraith floats wayward and lunges its scythe like a shield, blade falling harrowingly close to that mouth. The purple wyvern roars but knows not to press, returning to its position within the net. Only minutes remain before the prey succumbs to the mental domination of new masters.


Oh, she has seen that look a thousand times before. It is the inevitable consequence of choosing a life on the surface, a land ravaged time and again by her own kind - whether she likes it or not, Encara is a living, breathing reminder of horrors many would prefer to forget. To ask her to feign ignorance of the hatred is to ask her to deny her own existence, and Encara Val'thyrion is just as capable of that as Lionel O'Connor is of attaining sainthood. As she stares resolutely back at him, there is something close to sombre acceptance in her eyes, visible in the half-second before Lionel smiles, and Encara's gaze hardens to sharpened ruby, and the masks slide back into place.


"The Gods' will is fickle," the ranger murmurs in response, almost with disapproval. Perhaps she thought this man might trust in his own strength over pleas to the divine. Perhaps he does… she will find out soon enough. Taught never to put her back to anyone worth fighting, Encara turns with Lionel as he steps by and continues, on the outside at least, to ignore the presence of the surrounding soldiers. What a ragtag band they are, yet they listen to him with undivided attention. She rolls her eyes all the same, huffing an impatient sigh. "You waste time with your pretty words and speeches, and then you wonder why Kahran is still alive. Speak plainly." Encara has neither the charisma or the patience to lead a group of people as Lionel does - why bother with a carefully-written script when a single blade will achieve the same result in a fraction of the time? It makes little sense to her, but then, she never quite mastered the skill of wielding charmed words over reckless violence. The drow's explanation is, thus, as succinct as it can be: "Wraiths. They are… capturing wyverns." Her voice, androgynous enough that it would suit either a man or a woman, contains a bewildered inflection when she recalls the scene she witnessed. "I've heard Kahran has such creatures in his ranks, so I believe this to be his work. What plans he has for the wyverns, I can't say, but I'm certain it won't be good." 'For you,' is the implied ending.


With impeccable timing, the echoes of a wraith's foul scream reach the camp on the tail end of her words, and Encara's gaze moves past Lionel to the sight in the sky behind him. She sees the colossal white wyvern flinch in the air as though struck by some invisible force; sees the moment its jaws open as it banks round to dive-bomb the wraiths and bellows, exhaling a stream of deathly frigid ice and frozen air down upon them. Dragon's breath - a primal power that wyverns, typically seen as lesser beasts, are born without. Encara blinks, then snaps her focus back to Lionel when the thunderous sound of something heavy hitting the ground follows the display, shaking the forest and toppling a ragged line of trees. The white wyvern does not rise again. "We should hurry," the drow urges, slipping past him to begin retracing her steps.


Lionel meets Encara step-for-step as she moves, having learned similar lessons about turned backs. He scrunches his nose. He’s unaccustomed to his most typical and meandering speaking style being described as pretty, but the drow’s forwardness is far from an uncommon trait in his life, especially in his closest circles. His surrogate sister, Khitti, would either like this stranger or strangle them, he muses. The wraith’s foul shrill noise hits the alliance troops like a blunt force blow. A woman tanning hides drops her tools and curses nastily. Two frost giants emerge from the largest tent, already holding halberds. Shocked proclamations rip through the group at the sight of the white wyvern and its obvious peril. “By the meadows,” a full-blooded elf with long, braided hair kissed by fire blurts out, rising from his crouch over a pair of dead rabbits. “Wraiths mean Kahran,” the rebel witch thinks aloud, biting his lip. “Not definitively,” the half-elf replies, and she opens her mouth again as if to continue, but Lionel waves his hand to silence her. “Our guest is right. We’re wasting time. Vir,” he calls the witch, “Londo,” he calls the half-elf, “on me.” With a stretch, Lionel holsters the leather strap supporting the prismatic scabbard wrapped around his legendary blade, Hellfire, over his shoulder so that it falls snugly to his back. “I’d ask you to lead the way,” he says to Encara as he takes off in a trot with his chosen companions hot on his heels, “but I think we all know the path.” As if to emphasize his meaning, the wraithen screams continue due east, matched by the roars of numerous wyverns.


Oblivious to the pending arrival of Lionel and Encara and Vir and Londo, the wraiths snatch their scythes more defensively now, twirling their impossibly slender forms in their pitch black robes, hither and thither, to evade the conical blast of ice. But one is too close by far for even its tricky teleportation spell to take effect; it blinks out of phase briefly in a desperate bid to elude the white wyvern’s breath, but phases back only meters behind its original position, and it’s blasted to a frosty chill and howls. Its eyes flash red as it takes the full of the cold, slashing helplessly through it but only tossing stray shards. The other wraiths, untouched, let loose their net over the purples but do not snap it. In perfect harmony they move their scythes, carrying the dimly-seen net toward the white, stretching it like a cord with greater heft and longer extension than seems feasible. The leading wraith snarls and cackles; the cackling covers the area, pushing the leaves of trees clear off their limbs and filling the zone with the stench of the damned. The stench disorients the purples, making them feeble, overwhelming them, and in a jerky instant the three trapped beasts turn toward their would-be savior and lunge. Their claws knock into the colossal white wyvern’s side, shoving it to the damp ground. The earth shakes and the leafless trees crash in sudden death. Yet the purples do not follow through. They saunter back guardedly, and the four unwounded wraiths hiss at them, their toothless skeletal mouths chittering amongst themselves to discuss the meaning of their spell half-mast. The frozen wraith, jittering, crawls toward the white and chitters back. “Aeskagh,” it whispers malevolently, pointing a bony finger forward. This intruder has dared to interrupt the herding ceremony, dared to distract the prey, dared to give them the hope of free will. The wraith’s brethren move forth to surround the white as the purples shy away, their conflicted minds dizzy with pain…


Encara pays no mind to the alarmed gasps of the soldiers and only acknowledges the two Lionel calls to his back as they leave camp - Vir and Londo each get an evaluating glance, but no words are exchanged just then. That they're of practically equal height means she can match Lionel's pace easily, and the drow keeps to his right while speaking to the Hero of Hellfire in hushed tones, "Though I have encountered them before, I've never faced a wraith directly. If you have any strategies, I would hear them now." A weakness, no matter how small, is still a weakness that can be exploited. Shrugging her bow off her back, Encara fingers the string thoughtfully; if her arrows can hurt the creatures, they can kill them too. Despite that self-proclaimed inexperience, there is no hesitance in the ranger's posture, her gait a loose and confident lope as she jogs down the hill, following the cacophony of screams and cries. The quartet is quickly engulfed by the forest - the canopy rises dark and thick over their heads, a guardian providing both shelter and a shroud to obscure their approach. Between the trees, Encara moves like liquid shadow across the spongy, pine needle-strewn ground, flowing silently from the cover of one great trunk to the next. She notes the changing atmosphere with trepidation; the air fraught with a deep sense of unease, the forest growing thin and scattered until only bare branches cut overhead. A gust of winter wind sends brittle boughs scraping and clattering against one another ominously. Every flower has withered.


In the centre of the dead zone, the white wyvern finds his feet again. Clambering out of the crater of displaced earth he created with his crash, he shakes his head several times to try and clear the wraiths' taint from further clouding his mind - in that moment, the purple wyverns slam their combined weight into the larger wyrm. He's sent stumbling, snapping trees like twigs while he snarls and struggles to maintain his balance. His lethally spiked tail lashes out at the turned beasts even as he trips and goes down, landing in a heap of leathery wings and ice-dusted scales. Still he fights, lifting his head to face both the wraiths and his fellow wyverns, and in a voice that rumbles with stentorian might, the white addresses them in the guttural language of dragons and wyrmkind: "I am Ymir, Winter-Favoured, Son of the Nameless King. Release my brethren from your foul spell, you bony toothpicks!" Tail thrashing in agitation and gouging deep grooves in the earth, Ymir suddenly lunges to bite at the frozen wraith - its comrades block the way, converging on the great white while driving him back with swipes of their scythes.


Sticking to the relative safety of the treeline, Encara listens to the bone-rattle and hiss of the wraiths conversing, watches the white wyvern growl back at them, then tilts her head to regard Lionel. 'Well?' the drow's expression seems to ask.


Lionel’s lope is as brisk as the wind. The length of his legs, the tone of his muscles, and most of all the complete subservience to double-edged bravery -- these are the things that carry him forward at such a sprint. Vir and Londo aren’t far behind, but they -are- behind, and that’s precisely where Lionel wants them. The bravery Lionel wears without falter is the kind that, almost without question, will one day be his undoing. Some commanders live by the credo that their subordinates are expenditures to be replaced with pending need. Some believe it best never to ask them to do a thing that they would not do themselves. Lionel foregoes the pomp, honor and circumstance in favor of something else: there are countless things he will risk his own life over that he would -never- ask of another. Charging fierce and first into a pack of wraiths surrounding wyverns is one of them.


Yet Encara matches him toe-for-foe.


“Wraiths are inordinately strong against magic,” Lionel responds. He lets his words carry to the witch and the half-elf. This is only their first tour with him, after all, and he would not deprive them of vital information. “Their illusionary spells and unnaturally limber movement makes them hard to reach with weaponry, too, so aim true and don’t flinch when you miss. They’re relentlessly fast.” His golden-tipped red shoes crunch noisily over scattered pines and then go soft and silent over bare earth. The thinner air doesn’t faze him, but he hears a startled gasp for breath from Londo. “Be faster,” Lionel concludes, both as counsel against dark forces and the witch’s pace.


The party reaches trees’ end in a muted rush. Lionel swings his supple body to conceal it behind the bark of a leafless wide conifer. His allies do the same, but more slowly. Ymir’s bellowing boom fills their ears and Lionel’s blue eyes dart to the scene in deeper thought. From this range, he espies four of the five wraiths protecting the fifth in fluid motions, teleporting nearer to the white and then back again, then near, in a dance that lets their scythes strike with absolute subtlety. Lionel sees that fifth wraith, damaged by ice, and lets loose a soft and quiet chuckle. They may be resilient to magic, but they aren’t immune. “Looks like the cavalry’s arrived,” he sizes up Ymir. “Londo, ready an arrow and aim for that tree.” He points. The half-elf tilts her head inquisitively but nocks nevertheless. “Vir. I want a bolt of honed lightning to strike that one. Can you do that?” The witch purses his lips impetuously. “I’ll have you know, ser, I’ve killed six of Kahran’s orcs and twelve of Macon’s cronies from harder range than all that.” Lionel silences her with a quick glare. “Less lip, more zap,” he orders.


“I’m about to dive right into the wraithen line,” Lionel tells Encara, in a tone that suggests he doesn’t seem troubled by his own audacity. “Line up your shots for as many of their heads as you can manage. Those heads will be tilting, to one tree and then the next, giving you a wider target. And then they’ll be tilting straight toward you, because I’ll be running directly ahead of you, with a sword that blows infernos at people it doesn’t like.”


The alliance fulfills Lionel’s bidding. An arrow zips into a tree with a high-pitched whirl precisely into a loud easterly branch, jerking the wraiths’ heads to investigate and giving Ymir a better chance to avoid their scythes. The purples turn, too, and they appear entranced by Ymir’s bold decree. They’re snarling at their captors freshly, and one is digging its claws into the ground and preparing to pounce. Seconds later, a bolt of lightning chars a tree to the west, and the wraiths scream in bewilderment, curling their sinewy selves in anticipation. None of them notices Lionel, trailing fire by his feet as the Ishaarite spirit within his sword propels him to supernatural speeds that neither his leg length nor his musculature nor even his bravado can accomplish, raising Hellfire from its shimmering sheath and swinging so hard, so exact, so forceful, that the half-frozen wraith shatters to pieces in his wake.


Death comes just as surely to those who spend their entire lives running as it comes to those who don't, and Encara was taught to never turn her back on a foe. Part of what makes them such a fearsome force to contend against, it is the drow way - 'face death without fear, win your next day alive with your own strength and guile, and know when you stand over the bloody corpse of your enemy that this is your victory alone.' Some fight for glory, others for honour, but the enlightened know the truth: it matters only that you fight at all. Encara always will, until such time that she meets her inevitable doom, and always in the knowledge that ultimately, she only has herself to depend on. That is how it's always been, after all.


Still, there's a marked distinction between rising to a challenge and leaping towards certain death, which is why Lionel and Vir and Londo were enlisted to even the playing field; Ymir, an unexpected but not unwelcome ally, is a considerable bonus. With luck, he won't be spitting ice at -them-. Taking Lionel's words in — and Vir's — with calculating silence, Encara watches and analyses the wraiths' erratic movements, searching for patterns, injuries, exploitable openings - they dance and taunt the white wyvern, scythes grating across his tough scales as he growls and flinches back, baring teeth the size of swords. Encara's focus is intense, the unblinking stare of a predator waiting for its perfect moment to pounce… however, the ranger does blink when Lionel speaks to her directly. "I'm going to dive right in," he says like it's nothing; the sharp look she gives him is -almost- impressed, although equally dubious, but she nods in reply before adding simply, "Count on my aim to be true." That said, Encara glances back at Londo while readying her own bow. The pieces are in place, the board is set, and upon the count of the half-elf's loosed arrow, the game begins.


With knowledge of the wraith's resistance to magic in her mind, Encara does not bother enchanting her arrow as she notches and draws, feathered fletch lining up to kiss her cheekbone. Ruby eyes follow the uneasy sway and flicker of the ghoulish creatures as they float protectively around their weakened comrade, and she aims her shot as soon as their heads turn in the direction of Londo's arrow. But the bright flash of light that comes when Hellfire is unleashed throws Encara off and the first arrow misses its mark, zipping past a wraith's head by a hair. The fiery sword cleaves into the horrors' midst, obliterating the frozen wraith and driving the rest into an agitated, vengeful frenzy - grotesque parodies of mouths yawn open to emit an unholy chorus of high-pitched shrieks that pierce the air like knives, and the nearest trees buckle and groan at the sound of a magic so hostile to life. Hellfire's blazing trail catches on a wraith's wispy rags and it goes up like kindling, but is relentless in its pursuit of Lionel as it lashes out with blade and burning, blackened hand, scythe carving for the warrior's unguarded back. It gives a long, hateful wail— a wail that cuts off short as one of Encara's steel-tipped arrows punches through a hollow eye socket. Another teleports out of her next shot, to her chagrin, but the feeling doesn't last - Ymir's tail hurtles round to smash into the recently reappeared wraith with such incredible force that its skeletal form snaps clean in two, sagging like a broken branch and held together by mere threads of sinew until they, too, rip and the creature crumples in a ruined heap.


The two remaining wraiths spiral together defensively, sizing up the situation they now find themselves in. Ymir to their left, trailing icy breath from his jaws, the purple wyverns roaring and trilling on the right but still reluctant to engage, and the alliance swiftly encroaching— how quickly the tables have turned. A brief series of words in a wretched tongue are exchanged before, without warning, they both teleport. One blinks behind Vir and raises its scythe high, cackling cruelly, while the other converges on Encara, for this one knows an interesting morsel when it sees it. Perhaps it is the dark scent of her magic and its concentrated taint in her gauntleted left hand that attracts the wight; or perhaps it is something else, something almost familiar. Kahran would surely enjoy this one and all she has to offer. The scythe comes swinging from the left, but it is a predictable attack that Encara anticipated - eyes flashing in silent challenge, jaw tensed determinedly, she brings up her own weapon to deflect the scythe aside, not knowing if her own strength can match the wraith's. Luckily it can, and when the scythe catches on one of the blades protruding from her bow's limbs, she's able to wrench it out of its grasp with a snarl, sending the weapon clattering across the ground. An odious hiss escapes the wraith, but it quickly breaks off into a pained whine when the drow smacks it in the face with a swing of her bow. A blink and it's gone again, teleporting behind her with frightening speed as it works its foul magic; gnarled, bony fingers clamp tight round Encara's throat, not hard enough to choke but enough to cause discomfort. She barely notices it over the chill, though, which comes on sudden and terrible like a winter blizzard, driving icy needles through her veins and through her -head-. A mental presence far weightier than the wraith's fragile form belies invades her mind, the violation so unexpected and shocking that it momentarily stops Encara dead in her tracks. For just a moment, she's frozen to the spot and silent… then, she screams, the sound truly, truly awful.


There are very few things that frighten the ranger, few things that prompt such a reaction, but the sensation of the wraith tearing through her mind is both agonising and utterly terrifying, because she has no defence against it. She remembers Oline saying her berserker rage had thrown the thing off in the takeover of Schezerade, kept it from taking control - she summons her own, but Encara's anger does not writhe like some uncontrolled beast. It is a cold, quiet thing, as deep and deadly as the silent black waters of an underground lake, but the wraith does not dive in. Try as she might, she can't shake it. Her limbs feel leaden as her vision begins to distort with tainted magic, the colours fading to washed-out negatives, the trees turning an eerie, blinding white. The clearing, the mountains, the forest all grow indistinct… with the exception of one thing. Hellfire is a shard of stark vibrancy cutting through the haze, as if its fire won't be poisoned even through her eyes. And Encara knows what she must do.


With a feral snarl, she dives towards Lionel, the wraith still clinging to her back— but there is a strangeness in what, for all intents and purposes, looks like an attack, for the drow leaves her body completely unguarded and vulnerable to a counter as she rushes headlong, her eyes fixed on the legendary sword, Hellfire. If she cannot shake this horror off on her own, she will have him cleanse it with fire…


Vir blanches and drops into a roll but lacks the finesse to do so rapidly. It’s less dodge and more tumble, and his robe protests it, sticking uncomfortably to a batch of pine needles and pinning the witch. The wraith’s laugh is raw mockery. Its scythe, freshly acquainted with the ground its target had only just departed, is lifted back up six inches like a hook and swung precisely for Vir’s torso. Vir, breathing haggardly and terrified, flicks his right wrist into the dirt and the scythe’s shimmering metal is smacked by an unseen force scant centimeters from cloth and vital flesh. The wraith recoils, the impact knocking it aside, but it’s quick to regain composure and quicker still to strike for a third time, growling archaic profanity. Londo’s arrow is thus unchecked, stabbing into its robe, causing the wraith to screech, wave its arms, and vanish only to emerge behind the half-elven woman two dozen trees from the witch. Vir has no time to process how close he’s just come to dying; disoriented but undeterred, he shouts his comrade’s name to distract their common foe and readies a spell on a prayer that he’ll not be too late.


His sword’s steel now a rolling blue blaze, the embers of which light up trail markers on the frosty ground wherever he has run, Lionel stands midway between Vir and Londo and clenches his shoulders expectantly. Time has all but stopped for Catal’s Last Prince, not for magic but for keen awareness. In battle, he’s learned to process many factors deftly and forge immediate actions based on a wide array of variables. It’s not always gone as well as he wishes, but it’s saved lives more times than it’s lost them. If fighting were gambling, Lionel would be comfortable with his winnings; yet with lives always dangling by threads in the balance, he’ll never boast over the odds he’s enjoyed, because to lose means to let someone die, and Lionel is no stranger to loss.


He puts all his pertinent muscles into a swirl to face the imperiled archer and the wraith looming scythe-up behind her, staring at the fell thing defiantly and lifting Hellfire high above his head. The flame-kissed steel gathers a greater concentration of pulsing heat near its very tip, and it’s charging up into a spherical protrusion extending from the storied weapon. If even his supernatural speed can’t take him to the woman in time to help her, then he’ll just have to rely on Halycanos, last known spirit of the long-fallen land called Ishaara, denizen of his blade and baleful judge of all things wicked. They have history, Lionel and this raging spirit, a violent and tumultuous history, and a fresh page is about to be written.


Encara’s yell rewrites the intent of that pending page entirely.


“Oh, what the -frak,-” Lionel mutters cynically, his words drowned-out by the roaring of the white wyvern Ymir far behind him. He swallows hard. His battle concentration isn’t perfect; if it were, he would have sensed the drow’s intentions without delay. But Lionel is, no matter the rest of it, still a man, a human being, a person with impulses and delays apropos to the feelings he endures. Right now, he’s feeling apprehensive, and dismayed, and more than a little impressed. It’s a complicated blend, but there’s no time to sort through it. Seeing Encara’s ruby red eyes affixed to Hellfire, he knows what must be done. Vir and Londo are on their own now. The witch will save the archer, or the archer will save herself, or the worst will come to pass and he’ll lose two brave souls to the darkness in the heartbeats to come. Lionel takes a surly step forward. And then another. And then one more. Somewhere in that gingerly, calculated stride, the ground behind him has risen up as if quaking, and the up-turned rocks beneath the surface shove themselves at the wraith mid-swing at an arc to cleave off Londo’s skull.


Lionel takes another step toward the fast-approaching Encara, arching his back and adjusting his grip on Hellfire’s hilt into a one-handed grab. Somewhere in that next step, the rocks that Vir has called up into the air are joined by a burst of icy breath from Ymir, which crystallizes and sucks up all the biggest stones to produce an immaculately-contained miniature horizontal avalanche. Lionel takes another step. The swirling ball of fire hanging off the edge of his blade is unleashed, but backward rather than forward, slamming into the avalanche behind him and joining it with sapphire flames, melting ice for makeshift kindling and heating it all into a maelstrom that makes even Lionel sweat through his scarlet silks. Lionel takes another step. The avalanche, its rocks whizzing in sparks around its superheated slush, blasts ahead full speed for the wraith’s arm to disable its still-pending attack. But Londo, smiling straight at the mammoth spell, has other ideas. She twists her waist and rolls, a far better roll than Vir’s, coming up beside a nearby trunk and hopping upright in time to see the avalanche leave naught but rags where previously there stood a wraith. Rags and ruined earth and a single speck of black blood.


Lionel takes one more step. He purses his lips hard and concentrates on his sword, willing its flames down from blue to white and white to red. If this has to happen, he’ll prefer Encara at least come away from it in one piece, if screaming and scarred. The swing he makes is a butcher over lambs, albeit a butcher who flinches at the lambs’ pending cry. Encara is not a lamb, but not even wolves are silent when a fiery brand cuts clear through shoulder and out the other side. Nor is the wraith quiet in its horror -- Hellfire pierces its shroud of a face on its way out of dark elven meat and bone, and that face promptly explodes. The eerie screech from its molten pop rings painfully through Lionel’s eardrums and causes the purple wyverns to collapse, exhausted and harrowed but finally freed. The headless wraith lands in an effortless thud behind a woman whose present agony must go beyond the will of words to describe.


The new page has been written.


Her name is Leliana Encara Marathil Val'thyrion, daughter of Delisha and the sixth noble House of Trist'oth, and the only man she has ever trusted is her twin. Lionel is the second, if only in this desperate, fleeting moment where her own strength is not enough but she is still set on fighting because instinct demands she must. Perhaps it is because she knows it's not death that awaits at the hands of the wraith, it is something much worse: loss of autonomy, of identity - to be enthralled and enslaved at the whim of a madman and forced to carry out his bidding. Freedom is a possession Encara holds dear, and if this reckless endeavour only turns out to be a futile one — if Hellfire kills her — she would rather accept that death over a life no longer belonging to her. At least it will have been her choice.


She does not scream. Not at first, when the heated blade punches straight through her shoulder and out the other side with the ease of a knife through butter, and her breath stutters and catches in her chest— only when that very air turns to burning and the wraith's shriek assaults her eardrums does a single sound leave her mouth, the ragged gasp torn from her throat like her last dying breath. There is an indescribable agony wrought on the drow's androgynous features, but more chilling than that is the haunted look in Encara's eyes as she stares at Lionel without seeing, trapped for a half-second between the wraith's cage around her mind and the blazing maelstrom beyond. It feels like an eternity. Then the wraith explodes with one final piercing screech, Halycanos' judgment hits with igneous fury and Encara, caught in the middle, screams too.


She's ignorant to her surroundings; Vir and Londo's plight, the crash of molten avalanche in the trees, Ymir's triumphant roar shaking the earth underfoot; it all goes unnoticed, passing by as if in a dream while her voice raises to a banshee wail, then breaks. Bow falling from nerveless fingers, Encara throws her body backwards in sudden panic as her clothing catches fire, almost wrenching the legendary sword out of Lionel's grasp in the process. Luckily, the blade comes free - she stumbles on legs that minutes ago carried her through the forest with unfaltering surety but now seem incapable of holding her weight, left hand coming up to frantically slap at the flames threatening to consume her right side. Trembling knees give out and she collapses to the ground with a bitten-off cry of pain. Every movement comes with the sensation of being stabbed all over, but despite this she's able to quell most of the flames, though her attire suffers greatly - by the time the fire is extinguished, half of her leather jacket is scorched and crumbling, the woollen shirt beneath burned away across her shoulder to expose the blistering, diamond-shaped wound that saved her life. While the flesh has been partially cauterised by the heat, it's still a nasty, open puncture oozing blood from each side. Some of her silver hair is smoking and brittle, yellowed by the smoke. Sat there on the hard earth, Encara breathes heavily, several shaky curses escaping her lips while she stubbornly fights against the shock trying to overtake her body.


Behind Lionel, Ymir is slowly approaching the pair. Possessing bat-like forelimbs not suited to walking, wyverns tend to be somewhat ungainly on the ground, but there is a certain edge of elegance to Ymir's movements that grants him almost regal bearing. Still, he looks tired, the wraith's magic having left its mark. His voice rumbles out again in greeting, and he speaks now in the common tongue. "I am Ymir, Prince of Ice and son of the Nameless King." The words are rough and grating as though his jaws are not made to utter such sounds, but they're altogether intelligible. With a nod, the white wyvern addresses Lionel directly, "It appears we have a common enemy in these foul wraithlings. Prince of Fire, I am thankful for the assistance of you and your comrades and would return the favour, if it suits you." His gaze shifts to Encara, who appears preoccupied by her pain and has yet to notice the majestic beast towering over them both. "This one is brave to face the fire," Ymir murmurs, before one of his purple brethren exhales a weak trill from where it lies exhausted nearby and catches his attention; Ymir dips his head, the impression of a smile etched in his draconic features. He says to Lionel, "My kin are not able to speak to you as I can, but would like to express their gratitude all the same. They need rest - I will remain with them until they can fly, then I will join you."


"Mmgh," Encara says from the ground before Lionel has a chance to respond. "Talk later. Get me up."


At first the rain’s a mist, light and airy, and the sky, still blue, gently gives way to grey. A distant crack of thunder sounds and the greyness takes the blue totally. Ice along the pass turns to sleet and mud slicks gush downward from the mountain trail. Lionel’s shoes turn to filth and Londo’s knee-high leather boots get submerged in the muck all the way above the hem. Vir, suffering cuts and blisters through his torn robes which only seem to bother him whenever he looks wayward of the mess that is Encara’s shoulder, finds occasion to apologize to Londo no fewer than four times as the party traipses across difficult terrain on the way back to the camp. The witch also reminds the rest of the small crew that they just heard the words of a powerful wyvern and that he happens to know a bonnie lass down Enchantment way who would pay handsomely to turn their tale into a ballad.


Lionel, however, spends the duration of the journey helping along the drow he’s just stabbed. Forty minutes ago he saw her for the first time, and forty minutes later they’ve formed a bond that takes most soldiers weeks and months to attain. It’s happened in a gruesome way, and only time will tell how badly Encara will suffer for it when the very literal smoke has settled upon her body and the scars of painful price remain.


“Get her to Bereth,” Lionel orders the dwarf who scurries up from the edge of the rain-soaked camp as soon as they reach their destination. With the water pouring down so heavily now, he barely hears his own voice. The dwarf takes Encara’s undamaged side delicately and leads her to the dry safety of a frost giant shaman who serves as healer within this camp. There, Bereth assesses the situation and acts accordingly, in the sort of grim stoic silence that only frost giants can effectuate in the midst of live-or-die operations like these. The rain pitter-patters on the tent’s outer cloth and the roaring thunder comes and goes with the wind. Metal tools are handled with care and regenerative spells are cast to the tune of green refreshing light. Bereth will do what can be done for the woman who risked life and limb to warn them.


In another tent, a shaven-headed elf in an emerald robe with olive lining lofts a brow to hear Lionel’s tale. “The Nameless King,” Esche repeats. Curiosity fills his features. “And he called you the ‘Prince of Fire’ at that.” Lionel makes a face at Esche’s annoying astonishment as he pulls the buttons from his silk shirt and tosses it to the floor, revealing the many scars running down his back and shoulders. “Lionel,” the elf continues, his hands already at work hoisting up one of the ten thick tomes he insisted they bring to the vast frontier despite the weight. Turning to a certain page, Esche taps his finger on the faded image of a pearly white wyvern. “I do believe you gained for us today an ally of great benefit in the battles to come.”


“I know,” Lionel answers, reaching for a replacement shirt and tossing it over his head. “And Bereth’s tending to her now.”