Gasping for breath, Daren fought to sit up. Feeling as if he were swimming against a raging torrent - or rather drowning. He struggled to focus his eyes but all he could see was the red blur of Kaira's hair - or was that fire? Even that he wasn'y sure of. Groaning, he shifted his weight, the fall had knocked the air from his lungs making the struggle to remain conscious all the more painful. He winced under a wave of pain, feeling his back scrape on the rough bark of a tree as he sat up. Things were returning to their normal proportions and breathing was easier.
A sharp cry brought him to his senses. Daren blinked, still more disoriented than he'd have liked to admit, attempting to clear his vision. The blur of colors coalesced into a vague picture of indistinct edges, only to see Kaira bent over on her knees and clutching her stomach. Her hair was tousled and falling free of its braid, concealing her face. Daren didn't need to see her to know she was in a great deal of pain. It took that much to bring the headstrong battlemage to her knees.
"Kaira." His attempt to call out to her only came out as a wheeze as he tried to pull himself up. A stabbing pain suddenly ripped through his right side, emptying his lungs and sending the cleric to his knees once more. He doubled over, clutching his side, aggravation welling in the pit of his stomach.
That bastard mage probably broke a rib. He muttered a curse. This couldn't have come at a better time; now when events needed him most. He'd be out for days healing this, even with the help of an experienced healer.
When the ringing left his ears, Daren was all of a sudden keenly aware of a melodious tune. Soft, like a spring breeze through the trees. He shook his head to clear it, thinking music like that hardly belonged on a battlefield, when he realized it wasn't just his imagination.
A light and gentle touch on his shoulder made Daren recoil from the pain it sent lancing through him. He knew that there would be more broken bones and severe bruises discovered before the day was out.
Daren squinted up into the sunlight. Beside him stood a breathtakingly beautiful elven maiden, obviously a fullblood. The tips of her pointed ears could just be seen through the tumbled mass of mahogany gold hair and she moved with a liquid grace that alone belied the fact that she was an elf. Her features were refined and deep set, like a marble statue's, and her skin just as smooth. The only signs of age to interrupt her pristine visage being the small lines surrounding her eyes and lips. She seemed to radiate her own inner light that, added to the daylight, Daren could hardly make out the rest of her figure, garbed in a flowing white dress. "Kaira?" He mumbled in a puzzled tone. But the light spots cleared and he realized this nearly exact replica wasn't Kaira after all. Where Kaira's were clear violet, these were bright, crystalline blue - like the surface of a lake as it reflected the sun and clear sky above it. Though they both had the same timeless quality to them; a wisdom and sadness born of years of learning and heartache. The resemblance, was undeniable.
The apparition knelt, this time laying her fingers on the side where his ribs were broken. It was the same reassuring caress as the brush of wings only this time no pain followed it.
A sad smile touched her lips, a the timeless and haunted look in her eyes seeming to intensify. "Your battle is yet to conclude, good cleric." She said in a soft voice. "Please give her aid." She glanced up, at Kaira and Alin. Daren watched the mix of concern, grief and love cloud her face. "She is yet too young, to do this alone."
Daren nodded mutely, feeling as if there were still more to come.
The concern in the elf-woman's face was softened by a more heartfelt smile. She stood up, as to leave.
She tilted her head inquisitively.
"Who are you?" He blurted.
The woman smiled. "That is of no import at this present time." She replied kindly. "You will not remember much of this, until the proper time comes."
"You're Kaira's mother. Arn't you?" It was more of a statement than a question.
The smile faded from her eyes, replaced with a wistful gleam. "Not one she acknowledges."
"But, why come to me? Why now? Kaira won't understand any of this," He shook his head. "Neither do I."
"Twin needs provide limitless possibilities." She said mysteriously. A smile returned to her face. "As for understanding, it shall come with time. I am but a messenger myself, Daren. Just remember that I'll be here."
Daren frowned slightly. "Where?"
She swept her arms in a wide arc, indicating the surrounding landscape. "Here."
Daren sighed. "When will I know what this is supposed to mean?"
She nodded. "In time."
A sudden urgence pulled Daren's eyes away from the elf to Kaira, keeling in the exact same position as when he'd taken his eyes off her to see the strange elf maid, as if no time had elapsed at all. Confused, he glanced up at where the woman had stood only to see the clear azure sky through the leaves.
Daren shook his head, jumping to his feet before he remembered the broken rib. Surprisingly, he felt only a stiff and dull ache. All further thoughts were pushed aside after one look at Alin.
The dark mage stood, hands held high in the air above him and a mad grin on his face. He's completely lost it.
A flick of the foot brought Daren's staff to hand. He took a step toward Kaira and stopped, adjusting his grip on the engraved surface uneasily. Had he just seen a spark there, between Alin's hands?
Before Daren could react, a full-blown fireball hovered between the mage's hands. The red dragon on his wrist shone with a ruddy glow.
Kaira saw it too and struggled to stand.
"If you refuse to acknowledge your power in this life," Alin screamed. "You will know it in the next - in the Underworld!"
Without even thinking Daren swept his staff out in a wide arc, sending a spray of water pulled from the air around him neatly melded with a bless spell.
Out of the corner of his eye Daren caught the surprised look on Kaira's face. His attention, however, was trained on the fuming dark mage before them.
"What is this? Golden boy does party tricks?" Alin hissed, amusedly.
"If you want her, you'll have to go through me first, mage." Daren said in a ringing tone.
Kaira's head swam, she'd been so preoccupied with Alin that Daren's presence had only been secondary to her attention. Now he stood before Alin, challenging him. What is he doing! Alin has no use for him - he'll kill him!
The half-elf focused her attention on Alin, watching every move and shift of light in his eyes. For the first time she saw something other than smug determination in those dead eyes of his; for a moment all confidence dissipated and she saw the shadow of uncertainty pass over his pale human features. But the moment was gone as soon as it came, and Kaira wondered if it had really been there it at all.
Then it dawned on her, all of a sudden as the song of a cleric of the Bright One reached her ears.
Kaira spun to took at Daren, his eyes were still locked on Alin's, seemingly oblivious to the snowy owl hovering behind him.
But Alin saw it.
"Why hello, Elsanara." He purred. Kaira thought she saw the owl flinch at the cold tone of Alin's voice.
Daren frowned, turning slightly. Kaira saw the way his gaze faltered when he saw the owl. She wondered what was going through his mind at that moment.
"Well, well. How many people can say they had a second chance to correct their mistakes." Alin laughed, but the smile didn't reach his eyes. In dramatic contrast, they darkened.
Kaira tensed for the attack she knew was coming. "Daren wa-"
She was cut off when, abruptly and without warning, Alin flung his arms out. Another fireball suddenly materializing between his hands.
The battlemage sprung into motion just as the fire left Alin's grasp in a long spout, leaping into the space between Alin and Daren she threw her arms across her face as a feeble shield just as the flames reached her.
There was a blinding flash of light as the fire enveloped her, roiling and hissing against the unexpected obstacle. Kaira could feel Daren's shield in place behind her and she knew it wouldn't have been strong enough to ward off the full fury of Alin's attack. Through the crackle of flames she could hear Daren's shouts. The mage immediately took the line of Daren's shield and twisted it into a solid wall.
All the while she could feel the familiar tingle of her father's gift take hold. Flames leapt and rolled around her but never passed as far as to reach those she protected.
My father's "gift". She thought bitterly.
Kaira took a deep breath. Despite the closeness of the flames, she didn't feel their searing heat, rather a comforting warmth, and instead of consuming her air, they gave her life. It was almost with regret that she lowered her arms and banished the fire.
Invulnerable to fire. The unique ability of a Red Dragon.
The last tongues of flame wavered and died, obedient to her command. The blast of inferno that should have killed her had left the half-elf unscathed. The only sign of the should-be damage being the seared archer's band over her left wrist - the one that had been caught in the initial blast.
Shock and surprise reverberated in the minds of Daren and Alin so strongly it made her shields hum. Her only consolation was that Daren's sense of relief was just as strong, there was none of the fear or judgment she'd been afraid of. She clamped down hard on her mental shields, only to discover that she couldn't! What she could do was focus, train her mind gift away from the men. Kaira frowned slightly. Somehow Alin's attack had triggered a change in her ability.
Kaira shook her head ruefully. Usually her ability to ward off fire surfaced immediately. She couldn't understand why it would fail this way.
Now the burnt archers band crumbled away to reveal the symbol of a red dragon, glowing as if it were burning with an inner fire. Much brighter in contrast to the muted glow of Alin's mark.
She sighed, a mix of resignation and dread. "Now what have you done Alin."
A slow grin spread over Alin's young face. "Why sister, I have just destroyed any peace you once had. That is, if it's even possible for a halfblood to have any peace."
Kaira's face darkened, rage rising. Her hands balled into fists at her sides. Enough! I'm tired of holding my temper. Let's see how he likes the mage of the red dragon.
She took a step forward, her voice low and clear. "Are you satisfied now? You have found the fugitive - Alin - and exposed her. But tell me, what do you plan on now? You know my power is greater than yours." She smiled wickedly, taking two more steps. "You are only second now." She jeered.
Alin seemed to shrink into his hood, his smirk dissipated as Kaira slowly and deliberately picked her way across the field toward him.
She cocked her head to one side in feigned thoughtfulness. "You claim you've won me for the red dragon. I'm sure the Dark Queen promised you a handsome reward, didn't she?" She crossed her arms across her chest, tapping her chin with a slender finger. "But in your eagerness to gain her approval did you even pause to think that I would not hesitate to kill the only thing that stood between me and the power? You are the elder child.
"Do you realize, Alin, that you attacked me?" She paused, within arm's reach of the dark mage. "I don't imagine that was wise. Did you ever consider that?"
Kaira held her left arm up for him to see the mark of the red dragon. The half-elf narrowed her eyes. "I don't think you did, Alin."
Alin stumbled back a step shaking his head, as if trying to ward her off. "No - no..."
"Poor, Alin." She said in mock sympathy. "Hearing the truth seems to have clouded your crystal clear perception of things."
All of a sudden Alin burst into flame, burning from the inside. "Kaira! Kai-!"
Kaira averted her eyes to the trees besid her, unable to watch anymore. Alin's screams were cut short as black vine-like tendrils shot out of the ground, engulfing the smoldering mage. When they disappeared beneath the ground once more, Alin was gone.
She stood silent for a moment, breathing heavily, face concealed by stray strands of hair. The sounds of battle resumed as Alin's containment shield faded. Kaira didn't have to look to know that the undead armies were beginning to retreat. Already they were a good distance away from where she and Daren stood. But it would only be a matter of time before they regrouped and attacked again.
So Alin's not invulnerable to fire. She mused. Strange.
Somewhat distracted with her own thoughts, Kaira looked up straight into Daren's eyes, she hadn't noticed him walk up. Her stomach twisted in anticipation of the barrage of questions he'd undoubtedly have.
"Are you alright?" He asked quietly.
She shook her head, the sense of gratitude overwhelming. "No. But I will be." Kaira smiled as best she could. "Thank you."
Before she knew it Daren had swept her into a warm embrace. "Gods, Kai." He was silent for a while.
Kaira smiled inwardly. I had you worried sick. She could already hear him saying it.
"You were... incredible."
Kaira couldn't help but let the smile surface. She squeezed him tighter, tears threatened to start flowing as the weight of everything began to sink in. "I didn't kill him." She whispered.
"I lost it, Daren. What are the Elders going to do? Everyone will know about - about me. This whole battle is my fault."
"No." Daren said firmly, pushing her back to look her in the eye. "This isn't your fault. As for the Elders - forget about them." He smiled. "You saved the day, Kai."
Kaira shook her head. "They'll be back." She sighed.
Mage and cleric stood contemplating the withdrawing forces. The area around them was buzzing with activity. Healers and Guardians carried the wounded into stationed gates that lead to the Healer's wing of the Keep. Daren knew as well as Kaira that this was far from over, but that wasn't what was bothering him.
He glanced at Kaira, her violet eyes were bright and clear, intently focused on him. He watched her for a moment, the way her firey mahogany hair dance with the breeze. The sun made the shades of red crackle like a fireworks display. "Is something the matter?"
Daren shook his head, trying to avoid her penetrating gaze. Her eyes had taken on an eerie, timeless look ever since Alin had released her gift. "I'm fine."
Kaira's gaze remained steadfast. "You're not projecting 'fine'." She said matter-of-factly.
His eyes snapped back to hers. The fact that she could read his emotional projections meant she was no longer shielded.
Kaira must have noted that because she answered the unspoken question. "I can't shield anymore." She said simply, turning back to the battlefield. "My empathy is different somehow. I'm not being bombarded by every thought and feeling. They're out there, and I can choose where my focus is. It's no longer the intolerable buzz that used to flood all my senses."
She sighed, a slight frown creasing her flawless brow. "What happened? What did you see that's bothering you so much, Daren?" Her eyes returning to his.
He shrugged, looking away. He was at a loss for how to explain. "I -"
Daren felt the light touch of her hand on his shoulder. "Just imagine it then."
He hesitated a moment, he knew she would be able to see it as he did. To feel his fear. Daren studied the carvings on his staff, trying to keep his mind blank, wondering if he could just tell her about it instead. Thinking that, he knew immediately that Kaira would feel as if he were cutting her off. She was already worried about the repercussions of Alin's appearance.
Daren took a breath, recalling the flames as they shot from Alin's hands and spiraled wildly around Kaira, the glittering violet of her own unique aura instantly melding with the roiling inferno. The image of the flames as they leapt skyward from Kaira's small figure, growing in intensity and then fanning out, creating the unmistakable illusion of a dragon spreading it's wings.
Kaira pulled her hand away, turning towards the Keep. Her face was blank. "We'd best find a way to end this."
Daren resisted the urge to question her about the significance of what had happened and fell in step beside her.
Starfire watched the battle with glee as her explosions tore great holes in the enemy forces. A sudden growing rumble drew Starfire's attention towards the northern watchtowers to a great spout of flame shoot into the sky. She frowned. "Reyo! I told ye to aim the fire machine t' th'east! Th' army's a comin' from th' east y'clod!"
The young apprentice appeared at her side instantly. "Yes m'Lady. It is targeted thirty-six notches eastward."
Starfire turned to look at the launching mechanism. "N'deed t'is!" She muttered and spun back to the fire spout, her eyes widening. "Reyo! That be a dragon! Gods we be attacked by 'em dragons!"
Reyo watched the fire-dragon with fascination. "But m'Lady - it's purple." He turned to the Gnome scurrying around her lab, mumbling.
Starfire turned to the window just in time to see her 'dragon' dissipate. "Well I'll be..."
The dumbfounded gnome began to pace, contemplating this anomaly when she collided with a solid wall. "What? Who put a wall here!" Starfire grumbled absentmindedly.
"Am I interrupting something?" The 'wall' rumbled amusedly.
Starfire squinted up at the source of the voice. "Ranger! What ye be doin' here, lad?"
"Have you misplaced your glasses again, Starfire?" Marshall laughed.
The gnome grunted. "They be 'round here somewhere." She said fumbling around her desk.
Marshall reached down, plucking the spectacles from her unkempt mass of steel gray hair and deposited them on her nose. "There you go, Star."
Starfire blinked up at him. "Now don' be gettin' all superior on me jus' b'cos ye're all bigger than me an' all!" She scolded.
The ranger smiled at her fondly. "Well Artisan Starfire we need a way to get rid of those pesky undead out there."
"Well," She grunted. "Lot o' luck I be havin'. All boy an' I can figure s' if them monsters out there all be undead - an' we've been usin' spells of life 'gainst 'em. Then we jus' need somethin' on a larger scale."
"But, what could that be?" A distinctly female voice questioned.
Gnome and ranger turned simultaneously. Standing in the doorway was a tall woman with brown hair that just brushed her shoulders, garbed in a standard issue of rangers greens, the only indication of her high rank being a deep red cloak draped over her shoulders. It was fastened at the shoulder by a gold medallion bearing the Guardian's dragon that only added to her already regal bearing. Her hazel eyes shone with a secret smile at the startled reaction of her comrades as the assembled group bowed.
"Lady Falwyn," Marshall straightened, tugging his tunic. "We didn't hear you come in."
The Guildmistress smiled. "Getting a little rusty in detection, Ranger Marshall?" She teased.
Starfire watched the ranger grope for an answer for a moment before interceding. "M'lady, how do th' warriors fare?"
Shi'ar sighed. "The clerics and mages are starting to run low on resources. We need a solution. Soon."
"The only thing that will destroy these undead are the blessed spells of the clerics." Marshall said.
Shi'ar began to pace. "That's the obvious."
A silence descended over the group.
Three pairs of eyes snapped towards the young man standing by the window.
"What?" Shi'ar and Marshall said in unison.
Reyo seemed to shrink in on himself. "I -I..."
Starfire groaned. "Now's not th' time fer bev'rages, boy!"
Shi'ar's eyes narrowed attentively. "No, let him speak. Reyo?"
The young apprentice hesitated, as if at a loss for what to say with the highest authority listening to him. "Well, since the only way we have been keeping them back is with spells of life..." Reyo spread his hands, his brown eyes alight.
Marshall shook his head. "Your point is?"
"Water is life."
Shi'ar nodded. "So you're saying that water is our weapon here. It could possibly work. Being something of life and movement, it would make sense to think that these undead would have some weakness against it. The only problem is, how do we get that much water out on the battlefield."
The three continued to toss ideas around, but Starfire was no longer paying attention. She turned to her equipment chest and began rummaging through the assorted items. Finally the gnome found what she was looking for; a small blue sphere, not much larger than her hand. It had been gifted to her after saving a water nymph from the sun after her lake dried up one drought season. Starfire turned the small trinket in her hands, it's smooth surface shone in the light, almost appearing to move like the surface of a lake. She recalled the nymph's words.
"When in dire need, drop this charm. Life shall flow, the good 'naught fear harm."
Starfire sighed inwardly, it was a pretty little thing. She hated to have to break it. Trotting over to the window she glanced over the sill at the ground.
"Starfire?" Shi'ar stepped up beside her just as the gnome released the bauble. "Starfire what was that?" The young woman leaned over to try and see what had fallen.
Starfire didn't get to answer. She was interrupted by a low rumble, first distant but with growing intensity. The gnome could feel ground began to vibrate along with the strange sound.
"Lady Starfire, what did you just drop?" Reyo almost seemed afraid of the answer.
Starfire shrugged. "Just a charm that a water nymph gave me once."
The young apprentice's eyes widened. He glanced out the westward window and then to the guildmistress. All color had drained from his face. "My Lady Falwyn, I suggest you order everyone on levels below us to higher ground... Now."