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Harsov the Harsh (Chapter Seventeen)

Brokenbranch sighed heavily. Since the defeat of Brambleheart, he had sought his long lost love, torn from his side when Harsov had summoned him. All to no avail. It was pure torture to have found her at long last, only to lose her once more. True, she had seemed distant, hesitant...yet he could not fault her, after all she had endured.

A nagging feeling told him he should return to the realm of flesh, to see how Lorash and his grandson fared. He had left them prior to their clash with an invading force of ice demons. Here in the spirit realm, time was meaningless. Had he been gone an hour? Perhaps a day? Surely it could not be longer than that? Regardless, he had obligations he could not ignore. He had indulged his own selfish desires long enough.

Focusing his will, the great shaman pierced the veil twixt the realm of spirit and flesh. What he saw there stunned him, and sent his poor heart reeling. Adriana was alive!

How could this be? He had been torn from her spirit when Harsov had summoned him, she claimed to have been imprisoned since the Great War! How came she here? Yet his heart sang within him, proclaiming what his mind refused to accept. Adriana, the woman he loved and had sought for a century, was alive!

Surely this must be some mockery, no human could survive so long, this much they had both known from the moment they met. Yet their love for one another had been so deep and strong, they had been willing to share what little time together life allowed them, rather than mating with another. Sadly, even that short time had been snatched away from them by the Great Betrayal.

He, the mighty warrior Ironwood, she the lovely and caring had seemed a perfect match. Then the War had cleft them apart, he as a leader of men, she as an advisor and healer. The moment of their parting, their last kiss, was indelibly ingrained on his memory.

Knowing her lost to him in life, he had become a shaman, seeking out her spirit, that they might at least be reunited there. All the long, wasted years of searching, seeking, while around him life went on. His daughter becoming an adult, with precious little interaction with him. Marrying, giving birth...his grandson becoming an adult, mocked and scorned by those around him, while still he, Ironbark, the great warrior and hero, wasted his time searching for his lost love.

Now, beyond all reason, he had found her. Though he knew not the how and why, he could not doubt his senses, nor the evidence of his heart. It soared and leapt within him, joyously shouting, "She lives! Adriana lives!"

With a shock, Brokenbranch came to a harsh realization. Yes, somehow, miraculously, Adriana lived. He, however, did NOT. He could sense her spirit, glowing brightly. She would not be able to see his.

His physical body had died, from the trap Brambleheart had set. He could not reanimate it, at best it would be no better than a zombie. His love had little mystic aptitude, she would never be able to see or communicate with him in his astral form.

Lorash! He could see and communicate, serve as an interpreter of sorts...questing, he could sense his spirit. Yet it was far away, beyond the Elven Forest! Perhaps through the medallion he had given young Harsov...but no, that had been shattered during the summoning.

There MUST be some way, to come this close yet be unable to touch or even speak to her was torturous. Llewelyn, the dryad queen, she had mystic ability and power to spare! She would easily be able shock, Brokenbranch realized her spirit no longer resided in the realm of flesh.

This was a nightmare! What had transpired in the short time he was gone? It had been a short time, surely? An hour, perhaps two at most? A sinking feeling of dread crept over him. Time in the spirit realm often differed greatly from time in the realm of flesh. An hour on the spirit realm could be days or weeks here...or no time at all. There was no predicting the correlation between them. Just how long had he been gone?

Adriana glanced askance at the elves in her party. This was definitely the Elven Forest, yet even the trees seemed...different. Was it just due to their long absence? How long had they been gone? There were marks of fire on some trees, so it could not have been so very long since the Great Betrayal.

"Starseeker, my friend, do you sense something...different about the forest? I see marks of fire yet, so we could not have been gone so very long after all, correct?"

The elf so addressed gave her a haunted look. "The fire was recent, yes, but it was not from the battle we know of. I cannot say for certain how long we have been gone, but it has been years, dear lady. Many years."

"If that is so, would not the trees have healed by now, new ones grown to replace those damaged? And where are the dryads? The Guardians? By now, we should have encountered both!"

Starseeker nodded slowly, glancing around. "True lady, we should have. Yet we do not even know if our people still reside here! Perhaps the humans and their allies were victorious, and the Greenfolk no longer call this forest home."

Adriana glanced nervously around. "That would explain the creepy feeling I'm getting. I feel the presence of unseen eyes, and the thrill of impending if we were approaching an ambush."

It was dusk, and Starseeker glanced around at the darkening woods. "I know what you mean, little flower, this is the first time I have ever felt unwelcome within this forest. Still, let us proceed on. We are nearing the center, if the greenfolk still dwell here, we should encounter them soon."

Even as the words were uttered, a new voice rang out. "Halt where you are, and be recognized!" The voice belonged to an elf garbed in well fitting ironwood armor, two longswords crisscrossed on his back. "Who are you to approach thus unannounced?"

Starseeker stepped forward, holding up one empty hand in a gesture of peace. "We did not know we needed to announce ourselves, as this is our home." Slowly he glanced around. "At least, it WAS our home."

"Your home? I have lived here all my life, and I do not recall seeing any of you. Why then do you call this your home? If you are a demon, you will need a better story than that to fool the Guardians!"

Starseeker took a step back, then gave a joyful cry. "A fellow Guardian! Brothers, sisters, we are home!"

In a blurring motion, Bladesong drew both swords. "Lower your arms now, all of you. If you truly are elves, and not demons, you would be most welcome here. If you prove otherwise, I swear you will wish you had joined your frozen master in his banishment!"

Tension rose as Elf glared at Elf, both sides unwilling to yield. Adriana chose this moment to speak. "Look, I do not recognize you, nor do you seem to recognize us. Perhaps you have newly joined the Guardians? Regardless, surely you know my husband, Ironwood. If you will just summon him, I am sure he will vouch for us."

Bladesong's eyes fairly glowed with suppressed anger. "Ironwood?!?! Aye, I know the name well. He was my mentor, and my best friend. The loss of his wife in the Great War shattered him! He took the name Brokenbranch, and became a great shaman! Now you show up here, after his death, claiming to be his wife!?!?! You sully his name and insult his memory demon! Flee while still you may! When the dryad queen hears of your desecration, there will be no place in the forest you can hide!"

Adriana stood stunned. Dropping her weapons, she stumbled forward, tears streaming down her face. "Gods, no! Tell me it isn't true!" Raising her voice, she wailed in misery. "Ironwood! It is me, Adriana! My love, where are you?!?!"

There was movement behind Bladesong, then a female form stepped hesitantly forward, nursing a newborn child. She opened and closed her mouth twice, before words came out. Even then, she could find voice for but a single word, yet it spoke volumes. "Mother?"

Above this tableau floated another presence, invisible to normal sight. Gathered below him, Brokenbranch saw his best friend, his wife, his daughter, and his newborn grandson. If a spirit could weep, this one would.

Brambleheart rose from her crouch, and began pacing. This form was becoming more and more untenable. It possessed much inherent power, but there were restrictions. All dryads must remain near "their" tree, or slowly wither away. Periodically, they must merge with their tree to renew themselves. This she could not allow, for her possession of Elorna required her to remain in this body. Merging with her tree would require dissolving this body, and with it Brambleheart's hold on her.

The child had much power. Had it not been for the unique set of circumstances existing at the time, it was questionable if possession would have been possible. Yet the gamut of emotions Elorna had experienced, first the joy of her bonding, then losing her mother and several of her sisters had deeply impacted her spirit. Trying to strengthen and renew the forest against the ice demon's attack had further depleted her reserves.

Even so she had lashed out furiously when the banishment edict against Harsov and Lorash had been issued. It had been all Brambleheart could do to retain possession. Yet those two, above all others, had to go. They would have been the first to notice the...changes. Even so, she had not been able to order their death, as she would have preferred. The lass had savagely resisted that. time enough later, when her position was more secure. Those two were marked for death, even as they had slain her.

For them, there would be no second chance, no return to least, not as they had known it. She did have plans in mind. Plans in which they figured prominently. During her enforced captivity, she had practiced and refined her skills. They would make fine undead minions, after a few alterations, of course.

The lovely lips of Elorna opened, and a hideous cackle of gloating laughter pealed forth. Oh she had plans. Such fine, lovely plans!
Brambleheart glanced down at the carefully preserved body of Ironwood. Oh yes, fine plans indeed!

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