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  1. Harsov the Harsh (Chapter Twenty One)

  2. RT - The Stars Don't Shine As Bright Anymore.

  3. Phoenix Envy: Seasons

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The Stone Throwers:
A Man-Hunt For Vietnam War Draft Evaders

Harsov the Harsh (Chapter Twenty)

Brambleheart chortled to herself. Soon now, soon. The corpse of Ironwood was fully prepared, all it needed to animate was a spark. How delicious an irony. Her greatest foe, he who first imprisoned and then slew her, imprisoned himself inside an undead body SHE controlled. Through him she would manipulate the Guardians. With them to supplement her blood magic, she would slowly begin expanding her territory.

It would not take too much prodding to start a war against the humans. A few raids here and there, an abomination or two loosed to prey upon their farms. Before long the elven/human war would resume, and this time she would make sure no tree hugging elves remained alive anywhere! They would pay dearly for imprisoning her...oh, how they would pay!

Bladesong allowed himself a slight smile. He had decided to reintroduce the newly returned Guardians to those who had survived the ice demon battle. It had proven to be an excellent move. Morale of both parties had been at a low ebb. By uniting the forces, both sides were encouraged.

Starseeker strolled over, an odd look on his face. "So many new faces, familiar surroundings, and yet... different. Such a shame Ironwood is no longer among the living. He was a good man, known and respected by all."

Bladesong nodded slowly. "Where as I am an unknown to your fellows. Perhaps they question my ability, wonder why one of your number should not take charge?"

Starseeker glanced away in embarrassment. "It shames me to admit such speech has reached my ears. I am glad to know you are aware of it."

Bladesong nodded. "It is to be expected. I was a mere youth during the Great War, not even blooded until the final battle. How could they be expected to trust my leadership? Yet being honest, our ranks are badly depleted after our recent battle against the Ice Demons. We could desperately use an influx of seasoned, battle hardened veterans."

"And we could desperately use familiar surroundings and the bond of brotherhood to aid us in adjusting," replied Starseeker. "I am sure between us we can smooth over any differences that might arise."

"Words of wisdom," Bladesong said. "We have been long separated, yet despite the gulf of years between us, we are one people. One brotherhood, always stronger united. Perhaps between the two of us we can smooth over what minor differences may arise."

Starseeker nodded as he listened, studying this man. He moved with an economy of motion. Each step was brisk, yet unhurried. Each gesture fluid, yet without excess. This would be a dangerous man to fight.

Bladesong paused, before turning to face Starseeker. "As it so happens, we currently have openings in our leadership ranks. There is no second in command, at present. Brokenbranch and I had discussed the possibility of promoting his grandson, young Harsov to squadron commander. With his exile, that rank is open as well. Perhaps you would consider stepping in as my second, and suggesting one of your rank as a squadron commander? It would be most appreciated, and I think the two of us would compliment each other well."

Starseeker studied this young, serious looking warrior a moment, before chuckling. "And such a move would go far to quell any dissent in the ranks, eh? Very well, sir, I accept. I suggest we begin training together as a unit soon. Integrating the two bands together should not prove difficult. Your men appear to be both skilled and well trained. Yet even the finest of weapons can become dull and rusty if not honed and polished."

The two men shared a true smile before strolling away together, busily discussing tactics and formations. Adriana shook her head in bemusement as she watched them depart. How did she get here? The last she recalled, she had fed little Heartsthorne, and stepped outside to look at the evening sky. The moon had been full, casting ghostly shadows among the trees. Now it was early morn, and she was standing in the Guardians' camp, with no memory of walking here.

A troubled mind can wander, leading one's body down memory's path; that much she well knew. Certainly, she had many worries to concern her. Yet she had not done such a thing as this, even during the War. She must return to Whisperwillow at once, make sure she and the baby were all right. Time enough to worry about wandering minds later.

The moon priestess withdrew her gaze, frowning. So, Lorash had not returned to Elmwood. Nor had that treacherous boy, Harsov. If not for his interference, her love would still be here by her side. She needed to find, MUST find him. Yet with that damnable heartwood ring on his hand, a simple locate spell would not work.

She had thought this Adriana person would be the perfect tool. Easy enough to direct her thoughts to returning home. Simplicity itself to lead her to the Guardians' camp. Humans were so....malleable. Yet neither her love nor the annoying little moron who lured him away were there. So...if she could not track or locate Lorash, (the mere thought of him sent tingles of pleasure up and down her spine), then perhaps she could track the idiot human who stole him away from her.

Yet she had nothing of his to serve as a focus for her magic. Briskly she stalked back and forth, considering. She saw no other alternative. She must leave her enchanted woods and pursue her lover through physical means. He was her perfect mate, and she would not be separated from him.

Lorash stared at the wolf loping along beside him. It was a puzzle, an enigma, and he did not care for such things. His world was neat, orderly, and organized. Everything had a place, purpose, and reason.
There must be a reason this wolf was able to shapeshift. No natural animal could do so, or at least he had never heard of such a thing. Yet he had found the cub himself, in a dire wolf den. It had seemed perfectly normal in every way, until yesterday.

Could the environment somehow have transformed it? Yet he had sensed no magical emanations. And the wolf had shapeshifted multiple times, in multiple locations. Therefore, either the ability was innate, or if the cause was environmental, whatever caused it must have been present in each circumstance. Yet there was nothing out of the ordinary...suddenly a thought occurred to Lorash, causing his eyes to widen.

Ravensfeast! It was the one thing different, the one thing which had changed. Certainly it was magical...yet the perverted child Adam had left with it in his possession. Could the artifact somehow be leaking magical energy? Enough so that the wolf had absorbed it and been transformed? Yet if that WAS the case, what might it be doing to the rest of them? It must be brought under control, with all due haste. That meant he must begin teaching Adam how to attune it, immediately.

Lorash spared a sour glance for Adam. Damn the perverted fop! As if he didn't have enough problems. Mentally he began ticking them off.
Finding his father, at his mother's request, who doubtless would not be happy to see him. Fending off whatever pursuers might be after Ravensfeast, which might well be the single most valuable item in existence. Watching young Harsov, who he felt somewhat responsible for, given the circumstances. Worrying about his sister Elorna, and what might have possessed her. Now he had the added concern of attuning an ancient artifact to an annoying, totally untrained idiot, before its magical emanations warped and twisted them all. To top it all off, Harsov's wolf friend was a shapechanger, and apparently only he was aware of it.

At least he was no longer trapped in the enchanted woods with that lunatic witch. Mending the time stop enchantment, if it could be mended, while fending off a group of confused elves and demons should occupy her for some time.

Silvershadow brushed up against Elfwolf, and whined softly. He was ready for more fun! Maybe Elfwolf would change to a bird again, and he could chase him some more! Spreading his front legs out, he lowered his head and yipped softly in the traditional "Come, let's play" signal.

Harsov raised his eyebrows in surprise. Silvershadow had always been aloof from Lorash. What had changed between them? In elven he said, "Hey Lorash, what is THAT all about? I thought Silver shadow didn't much care for you."

Lorash scowled blackly. "Stupid wolf, go away," he rumbled. "Your brainless wolf was with me when we first encountered that monstrosity. Apparently he enjoys the thrill of deadly peril."

Harsov chuckled as he replied, "Oh, that does not surprise me in the least. His wanting to play with YOU does. I guess he figures you're part of his pack now."

Lorash snorted ruefully. "Part of "his pack" indeed. Yet what you say does make a certain amount of sense. Wolves are pack animals, not solitary hunters. A wolf separated from his pack would naturally seek to form a similar association with other like minded creatures. In this case, us. Just beware if this one decides HE is the alpha." Lorash grinned as a thoughtful look came over Harsov.

Silvershadow glanced back and forth between Elfwolf and brother Harsov. Of course they were part of the pack. And brother Harsov would have first right to challenge for alpha, once Elfwolf showed weakness. As for the "stupid wolf" comment...he would deal with that in the fullness of time. Two things he had learned from his old pack; wolves were patient, and Elf wolf was a deadly enemy when angered.

As they traveled, Lorash called Adam up beside him. "It is time to begin your instructions on attuning Ravensfeast," he said. Adam glanced at him with a puzzled scowl. "Not sure what you're saying, but I caught the name Ravensfeast," he replied. "What about it?"

Lorash frowned as he stared at Adam. "The language barrier is going to be a problem, I see," he began. "There are some concepts, and basic ideas on the attunement process, which are uniquely elven. To properly explain them, you need to be conversant in your native tongue." He muttered a few liquid syllables, making gestures with his left hand. Abruptly he shot out his right hand, open palm making contact with Adam's forehead.

Adam staggered back, cursing fluidly. "Damn you, you arrogant backwoods charlatan! What did you do to me???" he concluded. Lorash grinned smugly in return. Harsov joined them chuckling, "His first words of elven are curses! Somehow I am NOT surprised."

Adam glared at Harsov, "Since when did you learn to speak common fluently? Regardless, "cousin", you touch me again and you'll be drawing back a stump! No one lays a hand on Adam Belladonna without consequence!"

"Lorash's grin widened, becoming a nasty smirk. "You can now both speak and understand Greentongue fluently. Trying to teach you attunement in common would have been painstakingly slow, if not impossible. You've been saying you wanted to learn the language, right? You're welcome."

"Learn the language yes," Adam snarled. "Not have it force-fed to me! Just because you have some minor abilities doesn't give you the right to force them on others!"

Lorash continued his smug smile, as he replied "Oh, you mean like thieves and other scalawags who use THEIR abilities to prey on those weaker than them? What I did was for your own benefit, as well as my own. Don't expect any apology from me, it will not be coming."

Adam forced himself to consider the "god learner's" words. He had loved operating outside the law. Knowing he could come and go as he pleased, have practically anything he desired. The thrill of danger, the excitement of the chase, outwitting the stupid had all been a game. He had never truly considered how his actions might be viewed by those outside the guild. No, that wasn't quite true. He had never CARED how his actions might be viewed. Now it was different. He found that he actually cared what Harsov thought of him.

He had always thought good, honorable people were stupid, and made the easiest marks. Yet his friend was not stupid, though more than a little naive. For the first time, he saw himself as others might see him. A predator, preying on the weak and defenseless. The idea sickened him. He hated bullies with a passion. Perhaps he should reevaluate his actions and future life choices, when he had a moment of free time.

Glaring at Lorash, Adam said, "You have made a salient point, "cousin". Perhaps my actions in the past have been more than a little cavalier. Yet mark my words, and mark them well. If you EVER cast another spell on me against my will, there will be repercussions."

Seeing Lorash's mocking smirk, Adam continued. "Harsov has told, me somewhat of your mystic abilities, and I have seen a bit myself first hand. You are not the charlatan I first took you to be. Yet know that any man, even the most vigilant, cannot always be on guard. Know further that I have been trained to seek out weaknesses in others. And Lorash...I know many, many ways to maim, poison, or kill a man. Do not think for a moment I can not harm you."

Harsov chose this moment to speak up. "Adam, Lorash like yourself is a proud man, and for many years he assumed the protection of Elmwood almost single handed. Being the most intelligent, and most powerful person in most gatherings led him to become both arrogant and impatient. Yet he has a good heart, and truly wishes the best for all Greenfolk, including you."

Lorash sputtered indignantly at these words, but Harsov was not finished. "Lorash, I know Adam and I are young and do foolish things from time to time, things which older or wiser men would never consider. I ask you to try and have patience with us, and perhaps recall your own youth. We are all in great danger, and whether Adam is the heir that grandfather proclaims him to be or no, he does hold Ravensfeast, and deserves respect for that reason alone. Yet he does not have the benefit of a century of Greenfolk training, such as you have had. He may appear brash and reckless, for that seems to be how most humans are, and they provided his training. He will need your guidance and knowledge. And if he IS the heir grandfather proclaimed him to be, such service is your duty as well."

Lorash raised one eyebrow as he regarded Harsov. The youth actually had a brain, and seemed capable of using it. Who would have guessed? He took a deep breath, and exhaled it. "I will TRY to curb my impatience. As you say it is difficult sometimes, when I clearly see the answer to a problem, and all around me seem bereft of wits. Perhaps some of my frustration with the boy is seeing his potential, and how he squanders it. Part of his human "training", I suppose. I will even ignore his thinly veiled threat, though had any other man spoken so to me, he would be dead now. Or wished he was."

Adam glanced over at his friend, forcing himself to cool down. He had known early on that Harsov's speech was not indicative of his intelligence. In fact, he had said just that to Mama Karns. Yet it was a bit disconcerting to have him lecture the "godlearner" and himself as if they were naughty schoolchildren. This would take some getting used to. Swallowing his pride, he turned to Lorash. "Perhaps I was a bit hasty in my reaction. Slaying you for giving me this "gift" of language would be a trifle extreme, I suppose. Like yourself, I am used to being the most intelligent person in a group, and it has made me a bit impatient as well."

The two men exchanged frigid, icy smiles. The matter was far from over, but both understood this was not the best of times or circumstances to pursue it further.

Brokenbranch paused as he approached Elorna's residence. Something very strange was happening. He had the oddest sensation, as if he were both corporeal, and noncorporeal, at the same time. It was disorienting, to say the least. Powerful magic was in effect nearby, and this was but one minor side effect of it; of that much he was certain. What the magic might be, its effect and focus...that he could not determine. Yet the magic itself had an unpleasant, familiar feel.

With a sinking feeling, he placed it. Blood magic! He had encountered it when battling Brambleheart. What a relief it had been to rid the world of her! After her demise he had hoped never to deal with blood magic again. Something about it made him feel degraded...dirty. Taking the very essence of life, twisting and perverting it for some dark was diametrically opposed to everything he stood for.

If he had needed any other confirmation, this supplied it. The magic he sensed was powerful. Even had Elorna turned to such blasphemy, it would have been recent, she could not possibly have grown so skilled in its usage in such a short time. Could Lorash have been correct? Could the demon lord have taken shelter within the dryad's form, possessing her at a moment of weakness? Certainly he possessed the necessary power to account for what he was sensing.

Another matter troubled him as well. He knew now it had not been his wife he encountered and rescued on the spirit plane, for she was still alive and corporeal. Who then had impersonated her? And why? That she had truly been a prisoner, and greatly weakened, he did not doubt. And he knew that Brambleheart had fashioned the soul gem which imprisoned them both. So who, or what, had the witch placed within the gem first...and why? Perhaps more importantly, what had been released along with himself, when Lorash shattered the gem?

Cautiously he eased forward, every sense alert. The sensation of dread and evil were almost palpable. Abruptly he heard a voice. "Come forward, be not so shy pretty man. So brave, so fearless even in death, great hero. Oh how I longed for this day, as I pined away the years, imprisoned in my little hovel. Yet now I rule all the Greenfolk within Elmwood, and get to wear this pretty, pretty shell. Can you guess who I be, precious enemy?"

Feeling a prickling of fear, Brokenbranch whispered, "Brambleheart? It cannot be! But you are dead...your spirit was torn to shreds!"

Brambleheart cackled in glee, "Oh indeed I was, my old enemy, indeed I was! Fortunate for me I had prepared for just such an eventuality, working powerful magic on my sire's forces. Each ice demon which died, each elf they slew, a portion of that life energy was channeled into me! It was enough to restore me to life, despite the most thorough effort of yourself and Lorash!"

Brokenbranch was shocked and sickened to realize their suspicions were confirmed. Elorna had indeed been possessed, and by one of the most ruthless, power hungry creatures he had ever encountered. This was bad, even worse than he had feared. Still the sensation he had noticed earlier disturbed him, as if he was present in both spirit and body. Brushing it off, he said, "I am surprised Gorgorab allowed such magic, he never struck me as being overly solicitous of your health."

Brambleheart cackled in delight. It was hideous to hear her crone's laugh coming from the beautiful form of Elorna. "Ah, quite correct Ironwood. I told my sire it was a minor enchantment to fortify and strengthen his forces. Had my dear father suspected my true intent, he would likely have slain me and saved you the trouble!"

"You are most forthcoming with your answers, evil one," Brokenbranch said. "I take it you are not worried your sire will discover your treachery?"

Brambleheart gave a short bark of laughter. "Ha! My sire is dead or badly injured, and no threat to me. Besides, who would tell him? You alone are aware of what I have done, and you will not be leaving this place. It was only with the aid of others you overcame me before. First with the dryad, cursed be her name, and then with her wretched son Lorash. Today you are alone, and this time I will triumph."

Brokenbranch scowled, feeling his warrior's spirit rise to the challenge. "Even if I fall in battle, you will not long relish your victory, evil one. Lorash knows of your deceit, and when his father realizes what you have done, there will be no place for you to hide."

Brambleheart raised Elorna's eyebrows in surprise. "His father? The pup's father is inconsequential. Probably dead by now. Even if he lives, what matter some wandering mage to one such as I?"

Brokenbranch chuckled, "Oh, he is no wandering mage now, wretched crone, but an archmage. And when he realizes you are responsible for the death of the only woman he ever loved, you will wish you had stayed in your little hovel."

Brambleheart snarled, "Even an archmage can die, as can shamans, you lovelorn old coot! Regardless of what happens in the future, you will not be around to see it...or at least, your spirit will not!" Stepping aside, Brambleheart revealed the anointed, rune painted body of Brokenbranch behind her.

Brokenbranch reeled in shock. Now he knew why he had felt so disoriented, as if present in both body and spirit! Brambleheart had preserved his body, through some foul magic of her own. Dark foreboding coursed through him. The crone was insane, beyond doubt, but no less powerful for it. Whatever she intended, she must have been planning for some time. And he had blundered right into her trap.

A shimmering spirit sword appeared in each hand as Brokenbranch launched his assault. The time for talk was over. Win or lose, he must weaken her, give Elorna a chance to fight back against this creature possessing her. She was not only the rightful Dryad queen, but also his grandson's betrothed. For too long he had allowed the mundane world to spin on, ignoring his duties and obligations. This day he, MUST redeem himself.

Lorash glanced at Adam surreptitiously. The boy WAS intelligent, thank the stars for that! His elven heritage, most likely. And Harsov was correct as well, he had to admit. He himself had been rash and boisterous when he was younger. MUCH younger. A wry smile crossed his lips as he recalled a few incidents from his misguided youth. Yet this was not the time or place for youthful pranks. So long as they had Ravensfeast in their possession, they were all three in deadly peril.

He had almost given up hope of the Greenfolk recovering the precious artifact, at least in his lifetime. It seemed to have simply disappeared, none knew where. Now it had returned to them, and in the hands of one who might....MIGHT be the heir. The odds against such a thing were astronomical.

Sighing, Lorash turned to Adam. "Alright, we begin. First, you must clear your mind. Block out your surroundings, sight noise, everything. Begin at the limit of your sight and hearing, then slowly work backwards to your body. This will require a serene setting, of course. Impossible to do while traveling. You can attempt it this evening, when we halt."

Adam scowled, "What good will that do? I already know about astral projection, releasing your spirit form. Kid's stuff. How does that help me attune the weapon?"

Lorash raised one eyebrow in surprise. Interesting, the lad seemed to have picked up a hodgepodge of unusual skills. In response, he said, "That is your first misconception. Ravensfeast is not JUST a weapon, powerful though that be. It is the only surviving branch of the Mother Tree, which gave birth to all dryads, elves, and forest beings. It is rumored to have the spirit of the great dryad bound within. Only by contacting her will you be able to attune the "weapon"."

Adam glanced down at Ravensfeast, still in the last form he had requested, a boar spear. He had been using it as a walking stick. "So, you are telling me there's the spirit of a dryad inside this thing? And you want me to contact to it? What do I say? What if she doesn't like me?"

Lorash let slip an evil grin. "Then she will destroy your spirit, and there will be one less impediment to my returning her to the Greenfolk."

"But that is very unlikely, right Lorash? If this ancient dryad truly wanted Adam dead, she could have slain him a long time ago, or just refused to allow him to handle her, as she did you." Lorash scowled, over at Harsov. "You pick the absolute worst moments to speak up," he replied. "But unfortunately, your reasoning is sound. For whatever reason, Ravensfeast actually seems to prefer this untutored dandy to bond with. Perhaps his many shortcomings serve to amuse her. I see precious little else to explain it."

"Or maybe she just recognizes quality when she sees it," Adam replied. "What some backwoods hermit like yourself sees as "foppish" or "dandyish" she sees as elegance and class. What you dismiss as "foolish" or "reckless", she recognizes as heroic and daring. You know, I might just enjoy this attunement process after all. Meeting a woman of quality, who appreciates me for who I am. This could be the beginning of a beautiful relationship."

Lorash snorted in disgust as he turned away. "Idiot boy," he muttered, just loud enough for Adam to hear. Raising his voice, he said, "We must keep moving. Still some time till dark, and we need to lay as much ground between us and that town as we can."

Adam puffed out his chest a bit, and replied, "Why bother? We killed that big mole thing with no sweat. And if Ravensfeast is as powerful as you seem to think, once I attune it, nothing less than a small army could threaten us. Why not just relax, find some comfortable place nearby, and get this attunement thing taken care of? Then we can enjoy a leisurely stroll on to see your dad. Maybe stop off at a few towns along the further Harsov's education, of course."

Lorash glared at Adam. "You are even more of an idiot than I realized, as difficult to imagine as that may be. Have you not listened to a single thing I've said? Ravensfeast is incredibly valuable, not just for it's abilities, but also as a rallying symbol. It is the mark of kings. Whoever holds it can unite the scattered Greenfolk under his banner! You think the humans are unaware of that? You think that creature we slew was tracking us by chance? Someone sent it after us. All our slaying it did was alert him that he had found what he sought. Our best hope is to keep moving, stay mobile and therefor unpredictable."

Harsov nodded in agreement. "Makes sense to me. Perhaps Lorash's sire can help us. Offer advice, if nothing else. He is a powerful mage too, right Lorash?"

The priest of Sylvanus's scowl grew even deeper. "So they say. Powerful and unscrupulous as well. I do not know if he is even aware of my existence, or of Elorna. How he will react I neither know nor care. Mother requested I do this, and so I shall."

Adam opened his mouth for a witty comment, but paused at Harsov's look. "Don't," the youth said. "His mother was slain in the battle I told you of. This was her last request."

For once, Adam listened. "I am truly sorry, Lorash. I did not know," he said. Lorash began walking rapidly. "There's a LOT of things you do not know," he spit out.

Starseeker turned to Bladesong. "So, tell me the lay of the land. Who rules the Greenfolk in Elmswood now? Does Heartseeker yet rule, or perhaps his infant son has already replaced him, eh? By now he must be of age, no doubt he fought in this battle against ice demons you spoke of. Were his deeds valiant? Is he a mighty man of valor like his sire?"

Bladesong halted, jerking as if stabbed from behind. Slowly he turned, "I see there is a great deal you are unaware of. I had not realized what this must be like for you. Very well, there is much I must share with you."

"First," he began, "Heartseeker died in the final battle, and was buried with full honors, as is our custom. His bonded was slain as well, and her babe vanished. Likely the humans took the babe to use as leverage against us, should another battle ever occur."

Now it was Starseeker's turn to be shocked. "But the king... Heartseeker, and the queen...both dead!?!? And the heir...vanished? What of Ravensfeast? Surely it would have chosen another...perhaps Ironwood, he is of the blood of kings! Or even that young rascal Lorash, he has spunk and a right devilish imagination! Who rules now?"

Bladesong sighed deeply. "Ravensfeast is gone from us as well, likely taken as spoils when the king fell. The humans betrayed us, leading the king and his forces into an ambush. They had joined forces with the demons in some sort of unholy alliance."

Starseeker shook his head in dismay. "The king, the queen, the heir, AND Ravensfeast, all gone? How did you manage to drive the humans away then?"

"That was the strangest part," Bladesong replied. "After Heartseeker and his elite forces were slain, the humans and demons turned on each other. The humans fell back to their towns and cities, fortifying them and taking defensive positions. The demons.." he shrugged. "We have no idea where they went, or what they are doing. Perhaps THEY have Ravensfeast, or the child, or both. Our forces were decimated, our people in shock and mourning. Ironwood regrouped the surviving Guardians and stationed us to protect the sacred grove. We simply did not have the forces remaining to launch a punitive raid."

Starseeker paced back and forth as he listened. "And now? Have the humans contacted us, sought to extort ransom for the babe or Ravensfeast?"

Bladesong shook his head in negation. "Nothing. No contact of any sort. Oh, one more issue you should be aware of. Ironwood now calls himself Brokenbranch, during the time you have been asleep, he became a great shaman. He died recently, at his grandson's bonding ceremony. A magical trap, which he discovered at the last moment. Saved the life of Harsov and his dryad betrothed, by sacrificing his own."

Starseeker nodded sadly. "Aye, I have heard some little of this. And we met young Harsov right after we escaped the bewitched woods. It is my thought he had something to do with freeing us. I fear we reacted poorly. Had we known then he was the grandson of Ironwood..."

Bladesong sighed heavily, "And that is yet another tale of sorrow I should tell you, though it has no immediate bearing on matters here. Let us make that another day, though. I've dredged up enough sorrow to last a lifetime...even for one of the Greenfolk."

Clapping Starseeker on the shoulder, Bladesong walked away. Time to check in on Whisperwillow, and her infant son, the one she named Heartsthorne. He would make sure this babe was afforded the respect and love Harsov had been denied. He owed the family that much.

Burning Ash steepled his fingers as he considered the fire in his sanctum. A simple spell allowed him to view the human his "son" traveled with, and an added auditory one allowed him to overhear sounds in his vicinity....such as conversation. The news he had received in this manner had been both disconcerting and intriguing. His "son" apparently was actually coming to meet him, although not of his own devising, but at the wish of his mother. Her last wish, apparently her dying one.

He no longer loved her, if indeed he had ever truly felt that emotion. Many long, weary years had passed since she had expelled him from her bower. Even so, at the thought of her dying, apparently in combat, something turned over inside of him. Now to hear that her last thought had been of him... Surging to his feet, he began pacing the floor. Why send their son to him now, after all this time? Had he misread her intent on that dark and stormy night, when she had awoken with a scream, and thrust him out of her bower? When she had extracted his promise to leave and never return to her?

He must know more. How had she died, and at whose hands? He could feel the old, red rage begin to course through his blood. Who had dared attack the only woman he had ever cared for? Why send their son to him, now? Out of regret? In warning? And what part did Ravensfeast and their son's two companions play in all this? Surely there was a connection.

With a barely restrained growl, Burning Ash decided he must cancel his plans...or at least delay them. He could not risk slaying their son until he had spoken with him, unraveled this tangled skein of events. Perhaps it was time he became personally involved. Very well...

Lorash raised an arm, to signal a halt. He could sense powerful magic nearby...abruptly the air before him burst into flames. Flames which appeared to have no source and exuded no heat. He raised one eyebrow speculatively. This was interesting.

Adam leaped back with a curse, readying Ravensfeast. A rakish smile curled his lip, as any sort of danger was exciting to him. Harsov laid a hand on the hilt of his heirloom sword, prepared to draw it, but looking to Lorash for guidance. Magic was HIS area of expertise,
and the less Harsov was involved with it, the better he liked it.

Burning Ash concentrated, evoking the auditory components of this spell. "My son. I know you are looking for me. We have much to speak of. Step through this portal, so we may converse face to face."

A mocking smile curled Lorash's lips as he replied. "So, just like that, eh? You expect me to trust in your good intentions and just step blindly into your burning, magical portal? Trust must be earned, father, and you have done NOTHING to warrant that. However, if YOU wish to step through said portal, and enjoy OUR hospitality, you are welcome to do so."

Burning Ash's anger flared. He was unused to defiance, and cared little for it. "You misunderstand," he spit out. "That was NOT a request." A minor alteration of the spell, and a flaming hand reached through the portal, enveloping Lorash.

Watching keenly, Harsov reacted instantly. He might not know magic, but he recognized a hostile act when he saw it. Gods knew he had experienced enough of them! Drawing his sword, he leaped forward with a shout. "ADRAMALACH!" The flamberge burst into flames, slicing through the fiery hand at the wrist. As fire wreathed blade met fiery hand, there was an explosion of magic, hurling Harsov and Lorash in opposite directions. The hand and portal winked out, while the land and vegetation was scorched in a wide arc around them.

Adam was the first to recover, rushing over to Harsov. "Damn, what the heck was THAT," he spit out. "Are you alright? What was that strange word you shouted when you attacked? Some elven battlecry?"

With Adam's help, Harsov staggered to his feet. "Ouch," he mumbled. "Remind me not to do that again anytime soon." Looking down at his sword, he frowned to see the hilt was scorched. "Not sure what that was all about, but if I were Lorash, I wouldn't want to be grabbed by a flaming hand and yanked through a portal." Turning to the priest of Sylvannus, Harsov said, "Sorry if I overreacted, Lorash. Are you ok?"

Lorash groaned as he regained his feet. Magical feedback was never pleasant. A slight smile crossed his lips. Likely it had been worse for the originator of the spell. "I am fine, and you were quite correct in your assumption." he replied. "My guess is that was my father, attempting to be "nice". Our next encounter with him will likely not be so pleasant or so brief."

Burning Ash massaged his wrist repeatedly, trying to ease the blinding pain. When the human lad had leaped forward, slicing through the magical projection, it had felt as if his own hand had been lopped off. And how had he managed to cast flameblade on that archaic monster of a sword? Few humans had even a trace of mage ability, and he would have sworn this youth had none. Lastly, why had he shouted the Lava Lord's name as a battlecry?

Apparently his son had chosen the youth as companion for more than just his muscles. It had been a serious oversight on his part not to investigate the companions more thoroughly before acting. It was NOT a mistake he would repeat. Grudgingly he nodded. His "son" was more like him than he had anticipated. Magically gifted, his actions not dictated by the frailer emotions like friendship, honor, Perhaps, just perhaps, his "son" was someone he could understand, even make use of. Time would tell.

Elorna felt a weakening of the forces which bound her. Like a swimmer deep below the surface, she swam desperately upward. This was her moment, one that might well never come again. Her chance to break free from this hideous foulness which threatened to drown her. But she had been separated from her tree for so long! She was weaker than she had ever been. Was it too little, too late?

Thus ends chapter 20 of Harsov the Harsh. Stay tuned for Chapter 21, which will conclude the battle between Brambleheart and Brokenbranch, unveil Brambleheart's plan for Brokenbranch's body, cover Burning Ash and Lorash's meeting, and Adam's attunement of Ravensfeast.

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