Chapter Five

First light dawned and everyone was going through their morning routine. Santrista had gone to commune with nature in peace while the others finished packing up the camp and tending to the horses. Caelan waited until they had all gathered and were ready to leave before he addressed everyone.

"I know everyone wants to go search the Gnoll camp more thoroughly and I think that is a good idea, but I feel we need to have another plan after that. I volunteer to go to the fortress and speak to whoever might be in charge in good faith. I hope for a chance at peace before any more violence happens." Caelan spoke in all seriousness. "We know that they have an agenda thanks to Santrista and Cithanthalas, but we still don't know what they are doing to the prisoners, why they are here, or even if it was them that poisoned the lake.

"I would go to the fortress by myself if I have to. The only thing is I don't know exactly where it is. Cithanthalas only told Santrista. Please, tell me so I can give peace a chance."

The last part had been directed at either Cithanthalas or Santrista as they were the only ones in the party who knew its exact location as they had both been there once before. Cithanthalas didn't seem inclined to answer so Caelan knew the ranger thought this was a bad idea.

"No! No way, that's a bad idea, and I'm totally against it," Beebee spoke up. " So you can't go. They've been abducting people! What makes you think they won't throw you in some dungeon like Cithanthalas? I think Santrista and everyone else feels the same. We should just stick to the plan and search the Gnoll camp and head back to Willowbrook."

"Actually, that's not such a bad idea," Santrista stated. "We could try and parley with them."

Beebee stared at the druid in stunned disbelief. "What?! No way, you can't be serious!"

"Hear me out, I'm not suggesting that he goes alone. We can send other volunteers to go with him. The people I met when I infiltrated the fortress didn't seem all bad. They were just trying to find a better way to live," Santrista assured Beebee. She addressed Caelan. "I do suggest that you should wait until we head back to Willowbrook though. We can get volunteers there."

"That seems like a good idea I can accept." Caelan nodded his agreement. With that said everyone continued to gather everything they needed before they set out again.

The group had gone back to the Gnoll encampment and searched more thoroughly but that yielded nothing so they made their way back to Willowbrook with Faleen's family in tow. Before they even entered the town they noticed that tents had been put up just along the outskirts of town.

"Bryle must have found and convinced some people at least." Dryst said to the others.

"That's true, but I see no mercenaries, just villagers. I held out at least some hope that he would be able to find professionals, but it seems the enemy has taken them all." Once inside they headed straight for the Waverly. It didn't take long before the group was welcomed back by Tom after they stored the wagon away in the stable and unpacked it.

"Greetings! Please, come we should meet and discuss what has happened." Tom invited the group inside so everyone followed him indoors. The common room was full of people. It caught Beebee a little by surprise. They looked to be mostly families much like Faleen's.

"We noticed that we had some visitors on the way in. I assume Bryle was at least somewhat successful then." Santrista mentioned.

"Yes, he's still traveling out there letting people know along with a few others. Everyone here so far is just those he managed to convince and were closest. Still, this isn't even approaching the numbers that should be coming in. I fear that people are deciding to stay where they are and I can't say that I blame them for not wanting to be put in danger, but there's good news too. After you and Caelan cleansed the lake no one else has gotten sick." Tom was pleased to announce.

"That's good. Very good. One less thing we have to worry about. Caelan brought up a point that I think we should take into consideration," Santrista spoke cautiously since she was worried about how to broach the subject. "He thinks it might be a good idea to send a group of volunteers to speak with those in the ruins on diplomatic terms. Beebee and I plan to go with him, but we'll need at least a group of ten."

Cithanthalas spoke as he weaved his way lithely past Richard, who was running around serving drinks, to be noticed. "I'll go too. I still need to find my sister and my only hope is that she's still there in those ruins." Caelan couldn't help but think there was more to it than that like he wanted to avoid the other elves Bryle had brought from Illin.
Santrista seemed hesitant to bring someone along who was actively being hunted by the very people they were going to go see, but she couldn't deny him the chance to find his sister.

"Yes, that's fine my boy. The more the better," While Tom was initially caught off-guard he warmed up to the idea quickly. "I think that could help. I'll ask around for more volunteers and put up a notice on the bulletin board."

"I guess there's not much to do then until we get some volunteers then, right?" Dryst said hopefully but Santrista shook her head.

"Well, maybe for the rest of you but the town council will need to discuss what terms we'll offer to be left alone." While Santrista was not an actual part of the town council, she was an honorary member and sat in on meetings whenever she could.

"Yes, this will be quite the change from our usual planning of crop rotations, building projects, and trade negotiations. We've lived here in peace for generations. I just hope it doesn't all come to ruin under my leadership." Tom was the aldermen on the council so he held the most sway with everyone in town.

"Don't worry, I'm sure it won't come to that. I'll gather everyone I can, but Bryle still hasn't come back yet." Santrista said before everyone dispersed for some well-earned free time.

Amelia was about to leave and halfway to the door when Dryst confronted her. "I'm wondering why you didn't volunteer to go, is it because of Leena?"

"That's partly the reason, I didn't exactly let her know where I was going. I'm sure she thinks I'm dead by now, and it's better that way, but I at least owe her an explanation. I don't need her anymore when Santrista is teaching me so much. I think she's close to taking me on as an apprentice. I just have to find the right time to ask her." Amelia was so full of confidence that she could make it work. "The other reason was that I know that I won't be of much use to them where they are going. I wanted to stay behind and help the town prepare."

"I know how badly you want to break away from her, and I fully support it. You don't owe that woman anything. In fact, if anything, she owes you everything. You're the one that has been taking care of her for years now. I just want to make sure that you are ready for when you do." Dryst gave her a small but encouraging smile. "Just make sure you have a solid plan that will work out first before you tell her what you've decided to do."

Amelia leaned forward and gave Dryst a friendly hug when he ached to have more. He wished to have that romantic relationship with her, but it just never manifested even after they had spent their entire lives growing up with one another. These unrequited feelings were something he had to live with every day. Dryst would've bothered to tell her just how he felt, but he already knew what her answer would be because he knew who she was. Fierce, brave, independent, and proud. He could see that she already shared these traits with Santrista.

He had grown so close to her over the years that he had taken their relationship for granted, and now it was way past time to do anything about it. He should have acted a long time ago. He knew that.

"Thank you for the advice. I will keep it in mind," Amelia gave him a little reassuring smile. "Are you okay? Do you need to talk about something? I'll be here to listen if you do. You've always listened to me when I had to let things off my chest in a very colorful fashion. We could go to our hide-out spot."

"No, that's all right," Dryst had to excuse himself before the sudden emotions he was experiencing overcame him. "I have to go. Mother will want to know I'm back too. I'll see you later."

Amelia watched him leave and she was still concerned that he had avoided talking, but she had an idea what it could have been about.

It wasn't long before the town council convened but it took them a while to hash out a plan and terms they were ready to give. They also allowed Santrista to speak on their behalf, they trusted that she would have the interest of everyone in mind. It took another couple of days to gather volunteers to go to the ruins and try Caelan's more diplomatic approach. That was fine because it gave time to resupply and help out with the preparations that Willowbrook was undergoing. Everyone was working hard putting up crude fortifications. Sharpened stakes lined Willowbrook's perimeter much like the Gnoll encampment had. A trench had been dug out before those stakes so it'd be much more difficult to get around the defenses.

Scouts around the village reported no unusual activity but everyone in Willowbrook was on edge and it didn't help that the weather had turned for the worst and a sweltering heat wave gripped the area making everyone more irritable.

The blacksmith had managed to forge more blades but was running low on the ore to smelt that had been stored up. Tom had to

send out a group to mine more ore from a small quarry that was half-a-days travel away by foot. Several people had nearly passed out from heat exhaustion trying to recover the ore with pickaxes.

Santrista and everyone else had gathered and were set to go. The volunteers were a group of four young men from settlements that were closest to Willowbrook. They would have to walk as there was only one wagon which was mostly full holding the supplies and had little room. The only 'weapons' they carried were farming tools like sickles, scythes, and pitchforks, but they were farmers so that was all they had and everyone would have to make due.

They allowed Beebee to sit on the wagon because she needed it to work. Beebee couldn't deny that she enjoyed the ride on the back of the wagon though, but she set to work making more arrows to replace the ones that had broken shooting the Gnolls. She had managed to gather the materials needed to make more during the time they had spent back at Willowbrook. The only thing she had trouble doing was convincing the blacksmith to forge steel arrow tips in exchange for scrap metal they were able to get off the Gnolls. He already had a lot of work to do, so he gave the job to his apprentice instead. The steel tips were so much better than the flint ones she had been used to using her entire life and she was eager to test them out while out hunting.

"I want to stop somewhere first, don't worry it's on the way but it will take a few hours to get there, so get comfortable," Santrista said. "We're in for an even longer trip this time around."

Caelan peaked out from behind the covered wagon. "I've been meaning to speak with you. This is as good a time as any since we have time to pass. You don't mind domestication of animals for labor?"

Santrista was seated in the middle guiding the wagon so it was a prudent question. "I would prefer them to be wild in their natural habitat, but as long as it's done responsibly and the animals are well cared for, no. This is just the way of nature. Many animals rely on each other to cooperate and to fulfill a vital role to create a stable ecosystem. That's why it is so essential we become proper stewards to create a truly sustainable environment. I think it's more of a symbiotic relationship than people realize."
"Okay, I understand and that makes perfect sense," Caelan agreed with her. "So, next topic then. You said you wanted to know how my healing power worked, and I'll tell you so long as you tell me how yours works too."

"Fair enough, mine's more natural and dramatically speeds up the body's natural healing process. Unfortunately, that means I can't heal what the body can't naturally. It can still be extremely useful for obvious reasons. Broken bones knit instantly, and stab wounds will be prevented from bleeding out. Even poisons can be metabolized out of the body using this method. The only problem is that it can be dangerous and has a chance to cause cancer among other complicated side-effects so I use it only in life-threatening situations. I have other powers over nature too of course."

"That's where we're different then. I don't use magic to heal, I use a part of who I am to do it. It's a natural ability that I have because of what I am." Caelan said.
"I see, and just what are you then?" Cithanthalas asked.

"I am half-Aune and half-human," Caelan didn't see the need to keep it from people whom he was starting to consider friends. "It's how I am able to heal."
"How could that even be possible? Aunes are holy spirits that were created by the Goddess to guard creation." Cithanthalas questioned. "They have avatars much like the goddess, not flesh and blood like us."

"To this day my father and mother never truly told me how it was they fell in love or received the Goddess' blessing for their union, but my mother was made mortal by the Goddess so she could be with my father. It's not something that was ever done before because Aunes don't have emotions as we think of them. What emotions they do have only serve them in the function that they were created for and even then it's not something that controls them. They have a singular purpose that they hold sacred above all else and that is service to the concepts of law and order in whatever form that may take. They are protectors, so I try to live up to that ideal too." Caelan spoke with childish enthusiasm.

"That's all well and good, but temper your idealism with reality," Cithanthalas answered back. "You may very well come to find that the ideals you hold so close aren't always what they seem. Things aren't always so black and white."

"Well, I say that reality is whatever we choose to make of it each in our own lives because in the end reality really has no meaning but what we give to it. If there was a point to living then we wouldn't be free to choose what that point was, for most Aunes it's to preserve order and law." Caelan leaned back and toyed with his block by flicking the switches on it. It was something that he always kept close.

"Hm, tell that to the person who makes it their life goal to gather wealth and power at the cost of their morality. Be damned if anyone gets in their way either," Cithanthalas murmured. "I don't know, I still think people shouldn't be able to do what they want. It seems like it could be made into an excuse. If nothing matters, and there's no point then why should we care at all about anything?"

"Unfortunately that's the trade-off to keep the balance, and that's why it's so important that as a society we need to band together to determine what's acceptable behavior and what isn't," Caelan answered. "Wisdom is needed to determine if the reason why someone's behavior is acceptable or not. Sometimes it's for a very good reason and should be enforced, other times it could be a group of people pushing an agenda because they want their viewpoint to become more dominant and that could be because it benefits them."

"Well, I can agree with that." Beebee spoke up from the back of the wagon behind Caelan. She had finished crafting her arrows and had been listening quietly to the conversation.

"It's nice to see that everyone is starting to truly get to know one another," Santrista commented. "We have a lot more time to learn from one another before we get to the ruins, so I suggest we use it."

The party had reached the destination Santrista had planned on by the evening of the next day. It was a simple roadside shrine on the way to the ruins. She hadn't been lying when she said it was on the way to the ruins.

The shrine consisted of a statue shaped into the likeness of a female in a flowing dress, but it was the strangest thing. It didn't at all look to be worked by any human tool. It was as if the stone statue naturally formed into the shape it was from the rock it was embedded in. The earth was hollowed out and the structure was large enough to provide shelter for the group and the wagon.

"I wonder how this got here." Beebee asked curiously.

"I made it." Santrista said as she hopped nimbly from the wagon. "I used my magic to mold and shape the stone, I wanted to provide a rest stop for travelers along the road so I raised the earth. We still have a long way to go, so I suggest resting while you can."

Everyone started to set up camp, but honestly, there wasn't too much that had to be set up. Everyone chose an area for their bedrolls and the shelter from Santrista's pseudo cave did the rest. A few campfires had to be made to support the entire group so they did have to gather wood however and luckily their supplies included a couple of hatchets. Everyone set out to either hunt, forage, fish, or gather wood. Santrista wanted everyone to stay close and not wander too far. Staying together as a group was too important, and no one wanted to be caught off-guard should an attack happen.

Santrista had decided to stay and guard the camp, wagon, and their supplies while everyone was away, but she noticed Cithanthalas's wolf keeping watch, and she was intently staring off in a direction, which put Santrista on edge. Cithanthalas had decided to have the canine stay behind to help guard the camp as well.

Santrista hadn't yet been able to communicate with the wolf, and that leads her to believe that the wolf might not be a wolf at all. Perhaps someone's mind was trapped in a wolf body. Unfortunately, this was all just conjecture at this point, but it was something she was going to pursue and tell Cithanthalas soon once she had something more substantial to tell him.

Then she heard something off in the distance. It sounded like some sort of wild battle cry, and that was when the wolf bolted off in the direction it came from.

Well, that can't be good. She thought to herself. In order to keep pace, Santrista took the shape of a hawk to help keep pace and give her a good view of the surrounding area which would help locate where the sound came from. Already Santrista was able to locate the area where it came from which was a fallow field not too far from the camp. She would get there in minutes, but she was unsure where the wolf had gone off to which was unfortunate as she would have enjoyed the creature's help.

The setting sun streaked the sky a vivid palette of red all the way to an almost violet. She had no time to enjoy its beauty as she closed in on the field she noticed three of the young men that were part of their group. One of them was lying on the ground not moving. The other two were trying and failing to fight off a massive, muscular woman dressed in boiled hide armor. The massive woman wielded a two-handed blade which was almost the size of her. Given the way she was dressed, she looked to be a barbarian. The woman had copper skin and short hair as white as the fallen snow in winter. These were traits not native to the area which meant the woman must have traveled from somewhere far away.

What the hell is going on? Santrista wondered while circling above. She quickly ran through several plans of attack on her head. Clearly, she wouldn't want to go toe-to-toe with the barbarian. She had to rely on her ranged magic or shape change into a large creature capable of overpowering her.

The woman had to be a mercenary hired by the shadowy forces controlling the fortress. Santrista was loathed to kill the woman as she could possibly provide the sorely needed answers they sought. There were several ways to incapacitate the woman, and Santrista would have to act quickly as the woman was overpowering the two men who were woefully unprepared to face such a battle-hardened and ferocious opponent. It wouldn't be long before she killed them.

Santrista calculated how much force she was going to impart on the woman carefully then started her descent. She gained just enough speed to make sure that not only would the woman survive what she was about to do but herself too. If this failed she was going to tip her hand and possibly put herself out of the fight and get killed too. It certainly was risky, but she had to act quickly so she narrowed her options down to this.

Luckily the warrior was distracted with her current battle and had no idea what Santrista was doing or else this could end very badly for the druid. She dived to gain just enough speed and just when she was several feet above the barbarian Santrista spread her wings to slow her descent and give her enough time to shape change into a black bear and land right on top of the woman. The force was just what she had wanted. Santrista had managed to take her out and pin her to the ground as well.
The spectacle was enough that the two men had completely forgotten about their fallen comrade and just stood there stunned by what they had just seen.

"Is that a flying bear?" A familiar voice called out from the tree line. Beebee, with bow drawn and an arrow knocked, emerged together with Caelan. It seems they had heard the fighting nearby and came only to catch the tail end of the battle. "Think of what we could get for that!"

"I always thought the saying was 'When pigs fly.'" Caelan commented. "Alas, I believe we won't be getting anything for it as I suspect it is our druidess Santrista."
Santrista made certain that the barbarian was incapacitated before removing herself and turning back into her base form so she could speak again. She was able to disarm the woman and took her impressively large sword. "About time the two of you showed up."

Caelan hurried over to the fallen man and quickly inspected him. He was still alive and had no other injuries but a superficial laceration across his chest. The wound healed quickly thanks to Caelan's powers and left no scar behind. While he was tending to the wound Beebee and Santrista decided what to do with the barbarian woman.
"Wait! I know her! She's Riven!" Beebee exclaimed, clearly surprised that the women who seven years ago helped liberate her farm from Gnoll raiding parties. "She's dangerous, yes but I'm sure I'll be able to convince her to help us."

"Good, because that maneuver I pulled off only stunned her and she's coming back around," Santrista said. "We need to move. I'm sure she wasn't alone out here. There are probably more of them spread out looking for us."

"I don't imagine we'll get too far before she comes to, and we can't leave her either. She could have more answers." The man who was not injured spoke, Santrista remembered that his name was Liam.

It was then Cithanthalas appeared with the wolf at his side. "I heard a commotion and figured that someone must be in trouble."

"Trouble is starting to form a habit of finding us it seems, I'm glad you got here. I need you and Liam to watch our backs while we speak with this woman." Santrista said and turned to Beebee. "You said that you knew her and could convince her to help. You have to be the one to speak with her."

"Well, sure. I'll give it a try." Beebee nodded and leaned over the massive woman. She was more than a little intimidating even like this. The woman looked almost the same as she did seven years ago, but she had a few more visible scars. "Uh, hello Riven."

The woman looked at Beebee and didn't seem to recognize who she was and she also noticed that Santrista held her weapon. "Who are you and how do you know me?" She narrowed her amber eyes as if trying to remember but it was what recently happened that more concerned her. "Where's the bear? I swear a bear landed on my head."

"We can explain everything, but we also want to know why you attacked us." Beebee said. "My name is Beebee by the way. You helped my father clear out a pack of gnolls near our farm seven years ago. As for the bear, that was our druid here, Santrista."

"Oh, yes. I remember you now," Riven stood and sized the elf up. "Ah, so it was you who bested me in combat, even if it was a cheap shot from behind and not at all a fair fight."

"It might have been a cheap shot, but you were about to kill two men. I want to know why and if you are alone out here because I find that hard to believe and I don't want to walk into an ambush." Santrista folded her arms across her chest.

"Don't worry I'm out here alone. I didn't expect to run into anyone. I was simply out running and exercising," Riven started to explain. No one put it past her to be out running with such a weapon. She looked like a woman that would sleep with her blade within arm's reach. "The reason I was attacking is that I'm being well compensated to do so. Well, kidnapping is more like it but some people don't want to go without a fight."

"So you have joined with those in the fortress then." Beebee looked so crestfallen to hear that someone she had looked up to would do something like this.
"Yes, but I am far from being loyal to their cause. All this talk of magic and a World Tree makes no sense. If you can convince me and meet my demands I'll join you instead. I tell you right now though I don't know anything about what they are doing."

"Well, we honestly just want to parley." Beebee explained to Riven.

"Parley? You mean negotiate the terms of your surrender," Riven simply shook her head. "I have to be honest. You aren't giving me much of a reason to join you."
"Please, you have to see reason. You're kidnapping people against their will and you don't even know what for!" Beebee cried out. Even Riven could feel the passion and emotion behind her voice. "Well, we know what for. Cithanthalas told us and I trust his word. The people are being used for some sort of experiment. He was one of the prisoners but escaped.

"I remember when you came to my house. You helped my family when no one else would. I have never forgotten that. You don't need to trust anyone, but deep down I know you know what the right thing to do is."

Riven eyed Beebee and gave up with a shrug and a sigh. "Fine. Let's play this your way. I still expect compensation for my service though. I'll get you through the front door and provide protection if needed. I honestly don't know if we should expect any trouble. Like I said I haven't really been part of the group."

"All right, well let's head to your camp then. I'm sure you have things that you'll want to collect. I'm afraid we'll keep your weapon for now." Santrista stated. Then the group escorted her back to her camp and all her items were gathered. Everyone was pleased that there was no ambush along the way and everyone made it safely back to camp.

A few hours passed, everyone finished their chores for the evening, and things started to quiet down, but if the group thought that night would bring relief from the heat they were sorely mistaken. The heat from the fire made it even worse, but they needed it to cook.

The only person that Caelan noticed who wasn't affected was Santrista. She hadn't complained once about the heat nor was she sweating. It made sense, he figured that her natural magic would allow things like temperature not to bother her.

"It's going to take us at least a week to reach the fortress, so I suggest we get everything we have on the table and make a plan on how we are going to approach this," Santrista said. "I have been there once before and know where the dungeon is, so I think it would be a good idea if I hang back in case the worst happens and the group gets captured, which means we should form two groups. There's no need to give away our entire party. That way if anyone does go missing for a few days we'll know to come in for a rescue mission."

"I think I should also hang back with you. They know who I am and are actively hunting for me." Cithanthalas added. The wolf whined her response to stay with him too. "Yes, that's fine you can stay too." The elf said as if he actually knew what the wolf was trying to get across.

"There's just one issue I have with this. The town council wants Santrista to speak with these people. They trusted her to the job." Caelan clearly pointed out.

"They also trusted me to come up with a plan to make this work. This is my plan," Santrista answered. "It was your idea in the first place. You may be young and have a lot to learn, but you have wisdom and understanding that goes far beyond your age. I trust you will do what is needed."

The main group continued talking but Beebee was watching Riven. The group was still leery about having the muscular woman among them and she wasn't doing anything to help matters either by choosing to not communicate with anyone. Riven's confiscated weapons had been locked in a chest for safe-keeping. Beebee felt bad for her and tried to offer her friendship by joining Riven by her campfire which was situated apart from everyone else but close enough that everyone could keep an eye on her. The area was spacious enough that the smoke didn't linger. Santrista had crafted this shelter well.

"Thank you for understanding about all this. I'm sorry we had to do this but you attacked us." Beebee pointed out.

"I would hardly call the scratch I gave him a life-threatening injury." Riven responded.

"I'm not the one who would know anything about that, but I want you to know that you can count on me. You have a friend here, so let's just talk. Everything will sort itself out in time," Beebee gave the muscular woman a friendly smile. "So tell me what happened. When you came to my family's farm you were part of a mercenary group."
"Oh, no. We're not going down that road. I suggest leaving it alone." Riven shook her head.

"All right, that's fine." Beebee carried on. She was stubborn and determined to break through to Riven and become friends with her. "Let's talk about something else. I noticed an interesting item that you possess. It looks like a carved stick with a nook on the end."

"Ah, yes." Riven at least admired that Beebee wouldn't give up easily. "It's an atlatl. I use it for hunting, but I can use it as a ranged weapon. It acts as an extension of your arm and allows for greater accuracy and range than tossing darts by hand. I'll demonstrate it for you sometime when I have earned more trust with this group."

"I'll try my best to help convince them that you are not our enemy." Beebee gave her a solemn promise.

"In my culture giving your word is an oath that binds you and is not to be taken lightly," Riven's amber eyes stared at Beebee. There was no mistake that the tone of her voice was intensely serious. "It's best not to give promises that you can't keep. Only I can change the minds of those who distrust me and even then only if their minds are open to being changed."

"Whatever the case, you have my loyalty for saving my family when we needed it most." Beebee gave the other woman a genuine smile. "Besides, who else am I going to get to teach me how to fight like you do?"

Riven didn't laugh, she took what Beebee said seriously. "Hm, well if you want me to train you, I'll warn you it isn't going to be easy and I'm not sure how much time I'll be staying in the area. I'll teach you what I can, but I don't think my style of fighting will serve you well. I'm all about overwhelming my enemies with brute force. Finding something that will work for you is the first thing we'll need to figure out."

"Don't worry, I promise I'll stay motivated," Beebee made fists with her hands and shook them with excitement as she bounced up and down. Not only was she excited to learn from Riven, but she hoped they would grow to be fast friends. "I won't let you down. I'll be a quick learner, you'll see. There's one more thing I want to ask you. Is Riven your real name?"

Riven shook her head. "No, it isn't. Lean closer and I'll tell you."

Beebee obliged and Riven whispered her true name into her ear then leaned back while resting an arm on her knee. Beebee grinned more and was happy that Riven seemed to be opening up to her.

"Thank you for that. You'll have to tell me how you got some of your scars. Hopefully, with enough time I'll end up knowing the story behind all of them." With that said the two continued to chat well into the night until it was time to sleep.

Another week passed and the group made good time so they were rapidly approaching the fortress around midday. They came to a point where the group had to dismount and leave the wagon and horses in a secure location before continuing further.

Just as they had discussed Santrista, Cithanthalas, and two of the young men from Willowbrook stayed behind at a base camp farther down the mountain roughly eighty miles away.

Caelan could hardly believe the time that was passing, summer was already more than half over and before much longer it would be Autumn but he was more nervous about what this confrontation would mean. He was starting to doubt his resolve. What if all he was doing was leading everyone into danger? It went without saying that Beebee was going to go with him no matter what. If he could just make it up to the gates he was sure it would get easier from there. He faltered when the crumbling half-ruined fortress came into view. His mouth went dry and a chill ran down his spine. He didn't know how Santrista had come here alone. No matter how he felt though he knew that one way or another whatever happened here was going to change the lives of everyone in the valley. There was no turning back now regardless of how he felt so he reached into his pocket and ran his fingers over the familiar children's toy he always had with him wherever he went and it helped to calm his nerves a little bit. He really wished that his mother and father could be here right now to teach him. He had started out on this journey to grow and become an adult, but in some ways, he was still a child looking for guidance. Caelan summoned his courage and vowed to make this a moment that his parents would be proud of him for and to make others look to him with respect and for leadership.

The group of Riven, Caelan, Beebee, and two of the young volunteers from Willowbrook came up to the guards at the gate and more on the rampart. No doubt about it, these were hired professionals much like Riven.

"Who goes there?" One of the guards called out when the group approached to make themselves known. There were several guards at the gate and more on the rampart on each side of the gate. "Well, well it's about time. Frankly, I thought someone was going to show up weeks ago."

"Yes, it also seems that they have Riven with them. So, I assume you are here to speak with those in charge." Another older man spoke. They were all armed with proper weapons, and even wore leather armor which stood out to Caelan because he couldn't think of anyone skilled enough to craft such armor in the area.

"Yes, that's why we are here. There are some things that need to be discussed." Caelan approached and carried himself with quiet dignity even if on the inside his heart was in his throat.

The guards glanced at him then looked to Riven. "I thought they were with you."

The simple act of Riven crossing her arms over her ample chest looked intimidating enough that she didn't even need to draw her sword. The group had decided to trust Riven with her weapon since they weren't going to leave her defenseless in what could easily become a very dangerous situation. "They are." She answered. "It seems there may be more going on here than we were led to believe. He has been chosen as the messenger."

"Hm, really? I guess there are a lot of things that are going to come to light soon then. Come on, I'll let you inside but I'm afraid you'll have to wait a moment while we alert those in charge." The other guards seemed to agree because they began the process of opening the portcullis on the gate and the inner door. As the group proceeded through, Caelan tried to imagine what the fortress was like when it had been in use. The portcullis would keep whatever forces that tried to invade from breaking down the inner iron-fortified heavy oak door.

Beebee stayed close to Caelan with her bow slung over her shoulder with arrows in a quiver attached to a belt around her slim waist. It was a sign that she was prepared to use it if necessary as it was not unstrung and stored properly like it had been for most of the entire journey here. No one seemed to give it any notice, the guards didn't know how deadly she was with a bow, but that was a poor excuse for dismissing her out-of-hand.

The sun blazed overhead and the heat had yet to relent. As the group was led into the inner courtyard Caelan noticed several other buildings and structures apart from the main compound. Judging by how run-down and caved in they were, Caelan assumed that the buildings were unusable. The group was led to one of the few buildings that hadn't collapsed. It was the largest one in the fortress and the one that Santrista said that she had spent the most time in. There were three floors and it was connected to what looked like a blacksmith and a stable.

"Wait here. I'll be back in a minute." The guard commanded before leaving them alone with two other guards near at hand and several more scattered around the perimeter on the battlements. Caelan suddenly felt that they were in a very vulnerable position. It was then Beebee reached out with a wet palm to smooth out a cowlick that was sticking out on the crown of his head.

Caelan gave her a look as if to say 'Must you do this now?'.

Beebee grinned and gave him an innocent look then shrugged her thin shoulders. "Hey, if we're going to do this you must look respectable."

Caelan felt more at ease and less tense because he understood that this was her way to diffuse the situation with humor. "Thank you. I appreciate you trying to calm my nerves. We can do this."

"Of course we can. I have faith," Beebee smiled and gave him a wink. It was an action he was starting to attribute to her. "My advice is to approach this with a sense of clarity and rationality."

"You're right, and you read my mind." Caelan was pleasantly surprised at Beebee's insight into the situation.

The group only had to wait a little while longer for the guard to return with a rather androgynous-looking person. It was difficult to tell where the person was male or female judging by looking at just their face. The clothes were also no help as they were large and baggy hiding any gender-specific features the person might have. This person looked human enough however and seemed to be around Riven's age.

"Hello, I was told that we had visitors. I suppose it is about time someone showed up. My name is Searin Melecant." Even hearing Searin's voice didn't help anyone assign a gender. "I have an idea about why you are here. Please come join me for an evening meal so we can talk, also there are some others that I would like to introduce to you. You'll have to forgive the accommodations. This is definitely not what I'm used to," Searin led them into the inner section of the fortress which contained private chambers and a dining area that was more like a mess hall. "I wish we had a more private area to speak, but we have to make do with what we have. You would think a fortress like this would have a war room of some sort, perhaps it lays buried in a forgotten area of this place. A few of the guards will make sure we will not be interrupted."

The guards stayed at the entrance to the room. Searin took them to a table where a small woman who looked more like a girl but was obviously an adult judging by her figure, was sitting. She was wearing a form-fitting black dress embroidered with red roses that crawled up the front of her right side then crossed over her chest to her left shoulder.

"This is my sister, Sedira. I would like to include her in what we are going to discuss. Please, have a seat," Searin asked as he took a seat beside his sister. Everyone took a seat and introduced themselves each in turn. "Now, where should we begin?"

"I'd say start with the food!" Riven said.

"That is fine by me," Searin waved a hand over to a pot cooking a savory stew and pantry filled with freshly baked bread, a barrel full of water, a keg of ale, and even some cheese. "We will eat and discuss our business."

It wasn't long before everyone had dished up some food and began to eat and talk.

"Well, first of all, we would like to know what is going on here." Caelan said.

"Hm, this might sound strange, but I would like to answer that with a couple of questions," Searin leaned forward and looked at everyone in turn. "What would you do if you were given a second world and along with it another chance at life? Would you choose to be who you are and the life that you have lived, or would you become someone else?"

"I don't think there is any value in debating a hypothetical situation that will never happen," Caelan sat up straight in his chair. "But if it will help us get to know one another I see no harm in it. I will only answer for myself, if I had the chance I don't think I would change a thing. My life has been without the want for anything."

"You have been very fortunate then. Or maybe not as fortunate as you think from a certain point of view," Searin answered as his cold blue eyes studied Caelan. "You said you have been provided with everything you needed, but didn't you want for something more in your life? Something greater than just day-to-day survival?"

"No," Caelan said simply and shook his head negative.

"Fair enough, what about you Beebee?" Searin said and arched a brow, it appeared that he took more interest in what she had to say as she was someone who has obviously been through such a rough life.

"Me?" Beebee was honestly shocked that anyone would be interested in what she had to say on the matter. "Forgive me if I share too much because I don't want to get too personal but I would change a lot about my life. Ever since my pa died I had to fend for myself, and my sick mother. It was hard, really hard especially early on when I was just starting to build on the archery and trapping skills my father taught me." Beebee continued on to tell those at the table fragments of her story that defined who she was straight from the heart.

"Ma! Do you know when Pa's coming home?" A twelve-year-old Beebee asked. "He promised he would take me out hunting."

"I don't know dear," Susan said. She knew that her husband had been gone far too long on a trip to trade for supplies and that something must have happened to him, but how was she going to tell her daughter that? More and more these days she was finding it hard to gather the strength to move. It was only going to get worse. Susan knew that her health was starting to turn for the worst. She took a deep sigh and decided that now was as good a time as any to try and explain this to her. To burden someone so young with the knowledge of mortality seemed so wrong but it was her job as a parent to teach her daughter how the world worked. Susan just hoped that she could get through it without breaking down. "Beebee come here and sit down. I have something to try and explain to you."

Beebee obeyed and went to her mother's side then Susan took her by the hand and they both sat down at the kitchen table. "I can't stop putting this off anymore. I think it's time we face that your father is not coming back. He has been gone too long. Do you understand?"

Beebee's face looked confused. "Not coming back? You mean I won't be able to see him again? Why?"

"I wish I knew sweetheart but from now on it's just going to be the two of us." Susan replied.

"Fine! Then I'll go myself. It's about time I learn how to hunt on my own anyway." The head-strong girl grabbed the bow that her father had made for her and a quiver of arrows.

Before she could bolt from the house Susan called out to stop her. "Wait, if you're going, please stay close to home. I think it would be best to just practice on the targets your father has set up for you for now." Susan knew that Caelin had never gotten around to teaching her how to clean an animal even if she had been able to successfully hunt one.

So it went, Susan knew that in her heart Beebee still held onto that hope that her father would return, but as weeks turned to months and then again into years there was a moment when true realization set in.

Beebee was now fifteen and she had gone out hunting. Her mother was bed-ridden by this time and she knew that if she wasn't successful this time things were going to be very dire. The years of being malnourished were taking a heavy toll on Beebee's body, her growth was stunted, she had lost muscle mass and she had stopped having her period altogether. She was constantly fatigued and dizzy so it was encouraging when she picked up the tracks of a deer along the edge of the Misty Lake. She followed it and eventually lost the trail which almost sent her into a panic but she found a tuft of fur snagged on a dead branch and was able to pick up the trail again. Before long she found the doe grazing in a sun-filled meadow. Beebee crept as silently as she could into a position where she had a clear shot. Her heart started to beat rapidly, this was it. Life or death could very well rest on if she was going to be able to make this shot and take the doe. Beebee prayed to whatever spirits or powers that would listen to let her aim be true. She took the shot and the arrow flew but just as she loosed it her body had finally given out. She had pushed it too far and she collapsed to the ground from anemia amid the foliage.

A cool breeze blew over and caused Beebee to stir. She groaned a little as she came to and was immediately confused as she tried to get her bearings straight. Then it hit her, she had passed out, but what about the deer? She looked to where she had last seen it in the meadow and it was gone. She was about to collapse into tears right there, but she realized that it was still possible that she had hit her target and the doe just took off to fall nearby. She'd gone out to where the doe had been and sure enough, there was a pool of blood that trailed off in the opposite direction to the tree line.

She followed the trail and found the doe dead in the underbrush. Beebee struggled to drag it out for easier access and began to cut off pieces of the dear with her makeshift knife. It was then that Beebee broke down into tears. This one simple victory in a sea of failures was just what she had needed, but she was also terrified of the future. Beebee realized that the reason she was only able to get this far was thanks to her father and that she had truly taken his place now. Sure she was able to take this doe, but now her concern became where was her next meal coming from? The struggle was real and it was going to be constant for what felt like was going to be for the rest of her life.

"To this day I clearly remember sinking to the ground in tears. I've known the kind of hunger that gnaws at you day by day. It makes you faint, and weak. So since you asked me if this is what I wanted the world to have in store for me I would say no. I can say that things have been getting better though." Beebee finished her story.

"Thank you for sharing. Sadly I understand why your plate has been piled high with food now. Be careful not to eat too much on an empty stomach or you'll make yourself sick." Searin said earnestly and his words caused Beebee to blush faintly as if she were ashamed of herself. "Your story is exactly what we're trying to prevent happening to anyone else. Since you've told me about yourself, I will tell you about myself and why we are here."

The dark-haired man looked over to his sister and gave her a nod. At that moment the woman began making articulate somatic gestures with her hands and began a chant with words that seemed to change the very nature of reality. She was using magic to create what seemed to be a floating portal in the middle of the table and no matter what angle you looked at it from it was always facing you. It caused Beebee to squeak and jump a little in her chair. This was something she had never seen before, but Caelan's healing powers seemed just as miraculous, if not, more so.

"Forgive me, I was always one to show and not tell." Searin gave her an amused smirk.

The portal began to show them an image that was static at first but soon began to animate. of what looked like people standing before an immense beautiful temple. The people did not look happy and they were shouting as armed guards in steel full-plate armor kept them back. The armor was emblazoned with a symbol somewhat familiar to Caelan. It was a basic sunburst pattern but was emblazoned on a shield and had a vertical sword beneath it engraved with words in the flowing curved script of the Aune. He could read it since his mother had taught him the language as well as the common tongue. It said 'All are equal in the eyes of the Divine.'

The masses surged forward and knocked one of the knights to the ground causing the helmet to fall off and clatter down the steps of the temple. The knight looked up giving the group a look at her face. It was a woman with stunning bi-colored eyes, one being an almost sky blue and the other a deep emerald green. She had long blond hair tied back in a tight, braided bun. Another woman clad in the robes of a priestess and who looked to be an identical twin came running from inside the temple to aid her sister.
"This is an image from the Free City-State of Great Haven where we came from," Searin began to narrate. "Dissent is growing and Illysandra is growing more and more unpopular among the common citizenry. I can't say that I blame them. Have you ever heard of the golden rule?" Searin paused as if he was expecting them to answer.

"Oh, you mean 'treat others how you would like to be treated'?" Beebee replied.

"Not quite. 'Whoever has the gold makes the rules' is more what I was thinking." Was his answer.

In response to an unspoken word from Searin, Sedira made another gesture causing the floating portal to shift and display another animated image. This showed a large room that had auditorium style seating that faced an empty throne.

"This is the seat of government within Great Haven. It is here the laws of the land get passed. Corrupt bureaucrats have themselves convinced that greed is good and have it confused with ambition and drive. They forget that even unchecked ambition can be extremely dangerous. They say that acting in your own best interest isn't always a selfish act, I could agree with that if they didn't twist it to mean that being greedy isn't a bad thing. Greed by definition means an insatiable longing for unneeded excess, especially for excess wealth, status, power, or food. They are addicts and don't even know it." Searin gave a nod to Sedira who ended the spell causing the scrying portal to disappear.
"None of this tells us why you are here." Riven responded flatly with an even measured tone in her voice.

"You're wrong. It does and I'll tell you why," Searin tapped his finger on the table inconsequentially. "I'm assuming you don't get many visitors out here as you are rather secluded and news doesn't travel here often. The Goddess has withdrawn from the public. People think that she has abandoned the world. Honestly, even with my contacts and resources, I am unable to determine if this is true. Unrest grew and I knew something had to be done. So, I did what I do best and worked towards a solution together with my sister. I thought about what would solve the problem of everything and I researched.

"I got my hands on every bit of arcane knowledge I could read, and I collaborated with the greatest minds and listened to the voices of everyone I spoke with. I spent a decade of my life in this pursuit. I wish I could make you understand what I have learned, but if I could try and distill it down into a few words it's this: This world is the second time that the Goddess has tried to create a sustainable world with life and sentient beings. The first failed and fell into decline. Almost nothing survived from that time, which makes researching extremely difficult, but these ruins we are in are fragments of that world the Goddess used to create this world. If we're not careful that is going to happen again and I'm not going to leave it to chance."

"This brings us to why we are here. We have been conducting research on these ruins. We are on the verge of finding out the key to the True Source, or the World Tree. Remember these ruins are of another world unlike our own. Different, yet familiar. If we could find out how it is different from our own world we might be able to unravel why it was destroyed and perhaps keep ours from following the same fate."

"Just how do you plan to do that? Does it involve the prisoners you have in the dungeon here?" Caelan was starting to grow tired and wanted to get to the bottom of this. He knew Searin wasn't going to be straight with him about everything that was going on here. Caelan was starting to get a good impression on what kind of person Searin was and he was someone that trusted no one. Everyone stared at him directly, even Beebee and Riven. They didn't think this was the best time to mention something like that.

"Hm, I was hoping to keep that part a secret as long as I could, but yes, you are correct. It seems that the elf has spread the word, how unfortunate. Don't expect me to tell you anything more about that," Searin narrowed his dark eyes. "Or let them go. What we are doing here is far too important to simply give up now."
"Yes, and the poisoning of the lake. That was done by you, wasn't it?" Caelan accused Searin directly.

"We had to stop the escapee from spreading the word somehow. That seemed the best way. We wanted to keep what we were doing here as quiet as possible for as long as possible. You don't know the lines I have crossed to make a difference. Nothing I tried was ever permanent. Corrupt politicians, sex traffickers, more always seem to fester to the surface like cancer because there's nothing people won't do for power and I am ashamed to count myself among them even if my motivation is different. There's nothing I won't do anymore," Searin watched Caelan intently. "You and me, I have a feeling we are more alike than you care to admit."

"Perhaps, but it seems you would rather force your view and opinions on others rather than show them that there is a better way." Caelan returned. "Power must be tempered with restraint."

"Oh, really?" Searin leaned back in his chair. "You can't tell me that there aren't people out there who need to be forced into doing the correct and moral thing whether they like it or not. I'm sure your mother has taught you if you abuse a privilege you should have that privilege revoked until you learn to use it properly."

"I can't say that I know any better what the state of the world is. I was raised in seclusion out here so the world has largely remained a mystery to me," Caelan said. "To be honest I feel like you have given us all that you will and will not release the captives or stop whatever dangerous experiments are going on."

"You would be correct, so it seems this was just a big waste of both of our time then. A shame. I had really hoped to convince you. I can give you some good news though, no more people will be going missing. We have everything we need."

"I'm afraid you are not going to convince anyone of anything unless you tell them the exact methodology you are using to promote this change you seek in the world. I doubt that will be of any comfort to the families of those imprisoned here," Caelan sighed and stood to his feet. Everyone had finished their meal at this point. "I will take this news back to the village."

"What?! We can't just leave things like this," Beebee blurted out and stood to her feet suddenly. "The people in Willowbrook will never decide to risk rescuing those in the dungeon. What are we supposed to do about that?"

Riven chimed in to help calm Beebee. "This isn't the time or place to discuss such things."

"Very well, you may leave now, but know that if we are attacked the fortress will be defended." Searin made his intentions clear.

Everyone was able to leave just as Searin had promised. It was a journey of a few hours down the mountainside to where they had left Santrista and Cithanthalas. Santrista had used her natural magic to obscure the location of the camp with foliage that hid the fire. The location was chosen because it was out of the way and secluded in the nook of a massive cliff face that had a waterfall rushing down it. The heat of the day was waning as night started to fall but the night would bring little relief.

"So, what was decided?" Cithanthalas asked eagerly without evening waiting for the group to dismount from the wagon. "Were you able to secure the release of the captives?"
Caelan had a despondent look on his face and shook his head silently after jumping down from the wagon. Beebee watched him silently. Silence had been the story of the entire trip back which ate at her. They needed to figure out something! Searin wasn't going to be reasoned with.

"Searin implied that some captives were still alive at least, but honestly we are at square one again. It's entirely possible that he has moved them to a different location. They might not even be in the fortress anymore," Riven said with a frustrated tone in her voice. "If you ask me, I suggest just storming the fortress and cutting down anything that gets in our way so the Goddess can sort it out."

"No, we need to find someone who can help us. Someone who knows what's going on. I'm sure not everyone in the fortress agrees with what's going on there." Beebee insisted.

"I doubt anyone knows anything. Searin is someone who keeps his plans to himself and will not be swayed," Caelan finally spoke. "Though I wonder if his sister could be the same. She never talked, but I have a feeling she could be the answer we're looking for."

"I think I've had just about enough of this. If the prisoners will not be released then we will force a rescue." Santrista said. "We will find some way of locating them. Someone must know something. Even if the dungeons are empty we will be able to form a search party or look for clues."

"Santrista, are we really going to resort to armed conflict?" Caelan seemed unwilling to take up arms.

"I don't see that Searin has given us any other choice. We've tried to do things your way and this is where it has led us; a dead end. The only thing left to do is force the matter. I'm sick of this and I will do what it takes even if it means bringing that blasted ruined fortress down on top of them." Santrista said. Everyone started to gather around the campfire and leftover pots that had contained the evening meal for Santrista and Cithanthalas. "Besides, I don't think it's a stretch to assume that Searin is using these people to gather small parts of the World Tree."

"What do you mean by that?" Riven asked.

"I have explained a little bit of this to Beebee, Caelan, and Cithanthalas but I suppose going into a little bit more depth couldn't hurt," The druidess explained. "The World Tree is basically the essence of the Goddess herself. When she created the world she gave up a vast amount of her divinity to create life. Everything branches off from there, so if we are the branches then the Goddess is the trunk. I've been thinking a lot on this and I suspect Searin has found this out and somehow found a way to harness the essences of the Goddess residing in everything. The more complex the organism is the more essence it has. I've said before that this force is what makes everything behave and do the things they do but it's so much more than just that. How this all plays together in the consciousness of a person's mind is beyond my understanding as the World Tree doesn't directly make you do anything. You are free to make choices. It's more like because it is there it is the reason you can make choices. Things are not predetermined by destiny. Chaos causes order or order causes chaos, I don't know which."

Keep in mind this is just what I have learned from my time studying nature and what knowledge the Goddess imparted to me. I have been trusted with guarding the World Tree by the Goddess herself. It's a long story so please sit down and I will explain everything I know."

All Santrista remembered of her birth was becoming conscious while being covered in darkness. She started to panic instinctively as there was a great weight pressing down on top of her preventing her from moving. A soft and feminine voice spoke directly to her mind.

"Be at ease, I am here. I have given you the power that you need to escape. Use them and reach deep inside yourself," Santrista didn't have any clue who was speaking to her, but the voice calmed her and felt familiar in a very intimate way. She reached out with a sort of sixth sense and tapped into the imitate power of her surroundings. She didn't know how, but she knew the earth covered her and she was buried in the ground.

Using the natural magic she urged the earth to move and it lifted her up to the surface. When Santrista broke free the earth continued to rise and pushed her into a completely upright position. The earth soon fell away forcing her to stumble forward on wobbly legs like a newborn. Bits of dirt and snow clung to her naked body and yet she was not cold at all. Took in her surroundings for the very first time and with the knowledge imparted to her by the Goddess, Santrista knew she was at the roof of the world and very much alone, at least in the physical sense. More immediately in front of her Santrista saw a sparse snow-covered coniferous forest and high above was the sky in which the Flow danced in the darkened sky along with the aurora borealis. After turning around she was stunned by the sight of a nearly ice-locked bay and could see floating icebergs farther off in the distance.

"This is the world I have created just as I have created you and will soon create many other living creatures to populate it. I am Illysandra, or at least that is the name I have chosen to give myself," The voice spoke to her again but there was a hint of sorrow in her voice. "I am sorry, but I have created you for a specific purpose to fulfill in this new world so I have given you some measure of power over the earth for this purpose. I want you to guard a source of great power and make sure that none will seek to ever obtain it, including myself. This World Tree is what spawned me or rather where I came from. It is from another plane of existence, and should someone ever figure out how to obtain it the consequences will be nothing short than the destruction of the world. Do not worry I will tell you everything I know in time."

"I understand. You want me to protect this world and I will do so," Santrista replied with her own thoughts. The elf walked forward to explore her fascinating surroundings and test the power that the Goddess had given her. She started by wandering out onto the ice of the glacial bay, light snow began to cover her dark long hair during the hike.
Once she got to the water Santrista stared down into its mirror-like surface before slipping into the ice-cold water. She sunk beneath the surface and just as she thought the druidess was able to breathe the water just as easy as the air. She was also able to bend the water to her will and caused it to swell around her form. Tentatively at first, she used it to push herself out further into the bay, and more confident she grew the faster she pushed herself. She reached a top speed of close to thirty knots when she got an idea and dove deeper into the water only to shoot herself upwards to gain more speed. She broke the surface of the water and created a localized geyser to help launch herself a good fifteen feet in the air only to have the waterfall away beneath her leaving her stranded in mid-air. She flailed momentarily before falling back to the surface of the bay and landing into an unceremonious belly flop. The elf floated back to the surface and lied there face up in the water and groaned.

"Ow..." And that was the first word that Santrista had ever spoken.

"That really was quite the story you told, and I'm surprised you even left in the embarrassing bits." Beebee giggled lightly. "I am confused though. You look young even by elven standards. How is that if you have lived for so long?"

"I wanted to be accurate, and that's not the point. My creation is unique even among my kin as I was not born from a mother and have no father. To answer your question I am more druid than elf at this point. My connection with creation means I am more of an aspect of nature so I do not physically age but I will still die when my time comes and return to the planet." Santrista said as the group listened intently to her story. "I am afraid that to this day Illysandra still hasn't told me the complete story. Which is really strange. It's like she set me up for failure in that regard. She doesn't speak to me anymore. I wish I knew why. I... I think her powers might be waning. I do know however that she has an avatar that resides in the Great Temple in Great Haven."

"Well, that would fit with what Searin said. He said that she has mostly withdrawn from the world." Riven mentioned.

"I'm not sure how much of what he said we should trust." Beebee chimed in. "Besides I still think we should give those inside a choice. I'm sure there are those that aren't that loyal to Searin like Riven."

"You've been pretty quiet," Caelan spoke to Cithanthalas. "What do you think about this?"

"I'm in agreement with Santrista. We should force them. Each day that goes by I lose more and more hope that my sister is still alive." The ranger said.

"We'll give them a chance to surrender. I don't plan on going easy on them though," Santrista said with a little chip in her voice. "Speaking of which I need to prepare. I have a few surprises in store so this won't be a complete disaster. I suggest you all do the same thing. Caelan, I will need you to tell me everything you can so I can best prepare for what we will encounter. Come along we will need to gather a few things I have stowed away."

Caelan complied and the two of them gathered some material components from the back of the wagon such as dried acorns and birch sap for a ritual Santrista was going to perform. With what little light remained everyone split off to finish what needed to be done to prepare. Beebee left with Riven to exercise and spar with crude wooden weapons which were the best they could come up with for the moment. The weapons were still functional enough to perform basic drills to build muscle memory. It was starting to become a ritual for them and while Beebee hadn't developed muscle from it yet, but Riven promised that if she kept it a routine every day she would see results in a couple of months.

After Caelan had finished helping Santrista with gathering the resources she needed he went to the waterfall to scrub the sticky sweat and grime from the heat of the day off his body. Yes, even higher up in the mountain the weather was still only marginally cooler than down in the valley. Caelan was lost in thought as he began to clean himself, it seemed her plan was to summon some sort of elemental creature to help break into the fortress. He didn't even hear someone approach since the waterfall was quite loud even if it wasn't that large.

"Hey! Quit hogging the prime time; daylight's burning mister. There are others that need to wash up too you know!" Beebee called out. She was hot and sweaty from her exercise with Riven and was looking forward to a cool bath. Beebee was naked except for a towel slung over her shoulder and to make matters worse Riven was right beside her in the same state.

"We're not going to be waiting all night for you. You've already wasted enough time that we have to get cleaned up together." She added with a smirk.

Caelan was too blind-sided to respond but the strangest thing stood out the most in his mind. The two of them seemed exact opposites. Riven was large and muscular, while Beebee was tiny and skinny. Riven had darker copper skin, and Beebee had fair skin that was just a touch sun-burnt around her face.

The two of them stood there with a smug look on their faces which meant they were enjoying watching him squirm. Had they planned this or did this thing sort of just happened? He sighed and decided to just go with it, there was no point in acting embarrassed anymore. Besides he thought this meant there was an interesting dynamic that was growing within the group as everyone started to grow closer.

"I get it, I get it. Sorry. I've finished here anyway." Caelan scooted by the pair and started to dry and dress before he left the two to bathe.

It wasn't long until night came and the group settled on a guard rotation. Everyone else settled down into their bedrolls. Caelan couldn't sleep well as he still couldn't shake the feeling that everything was about to change and it made him restless.