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

Harsov the Harsh (Chapter 21)

Brambleheart snarled in frustration. Even dead, Ironwood was no easy adversary. Any other man when slain, and confronted with the hopelessness of his task would falter. Any other man who had searched for his missing wife for a century, only to find her when he could no longer touch her, would have given in to despair. Any other man who had slain his most tenacious foe, only to be confronted by her once more, would have lost control. Yet Ironwood was NOT any other man.

He was in fact, the only man she had ever met who inspired respect, and admittedly fear, in her shriveled heart. The one man who she might have considered as a mate, to be honest. Yet he had made it crystal clear from the beginning that his only interest was in his wife, the wretched hag of a human! He, a hero of the greenfolk, of noble birth, who could easily have risen to power among them, desired only to share the pitifully brief love of a human! Such an affront could not go unanswered, of course.

Yet even now, after a century of hatred and loneliness, she knew if he turned to her, and spoke gentle words of love, her withered heart would blossom. He would not, of course. The fool, the wretched, blind fool! What she could have offered him....together, they could have ruled all the Greenfolk, wiped the wretched humans from the land!

But no, he was too honorable, too proud, too rigid, to see what was right in front of his face! He had to loose his spirit, and go wandering the shifting planes of the Netherworld, seeking what he would never find. The idiot! Did he think she had remained "trapped" all those years because she was too weak or foolish to escape?

No, she had been the foolish one. To imagine that if she remained, he might in time come to her. That if she refrained from attacking his people and wreaking havoc, he might give her a chance, an opening to his heart. Instead, he had taken the one action she could not condone. He had ignored her. Even his hatred and vengeance would have been better. THAT at least would have shown emotion! So now she must content herself with taking the only part of him she could ever have.

Abruptly she felt herself weakening, even as Ironwood pressed his attack.

Elorna's mouth opened, and her voice strained as she screamed, "Get out of me, you foul hag! GET OUT!"

Brokenbranch nearly shouted in exultation. Until this very moment, he had been unsure if anything of Elorna yet lived, or if her spirit had been totally expunged. Now he knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, she yet resided within her body. Now there was true hope. With renewed vigor he fought on. Perhaps between the two of them, Brambleheart could be evicted at the least.

Burning Ash glowered at the flickering flame of his fireplace. Normally, the dancing flames brought him comfort and a sense of security. At the moment, they only served to remind him how he had failed in the simple task of bringing his "son" here.

It was intolerable. The mere thought that a fledgling wizard and two children had dared thwart his design was beyond irritating. A grim smile played at the corners of his lips. He had to admit the lad had pluck, as well as ability. He was reminded of his own youthful self. He had been such a rash, arrogant fool then. Apparently his "son" had inherited those qualities as well.

So, it was time for a bit of subtlety. Obviously the boy had been dabbling with time/distance distortion magic. It was the only way he could have moved across the map so rapidly, and taken the other youths with him. An adept could have transported an entire party for leagues in one jump. Obviously the lad was not in that class. So...likely he would not immediately notice if his transport spell was...enhanced. A slow smile of satisfaction spread across the mage's lips.

If his son would not accept his invitation, and insisted on traveling overland, it was time to accelerate that travel. Patience had never been a virtue he bothered to cultivate. Carefully he arranged the tools of his trade. While the lad was not overly skilled, he had shown both intelligence and a healthy dose of paranoia. Useful traits for any mage. It would not do to reveal his "aid" too quickly. It must be done subtly and skillfully. Fortunately, it was childs play for an adept such as himself.

As they traveled, Lorash turned to Harsov. "So, explain to me how you were able to sever the flaming hand manifestation my "father" summoned. A magical construct such as that should not have been affected by a simple blade. And why did you shout the lava lord's name as you struck?"

Harsov shrugged. "Well, first of all it is not just a "simple blade". Grandfather had it specially crafted for me by a dwarven smith, remember? I've used it quite a bit since then, and never needed to sharpen it. Matter of fact, I'm not sure I COULD sharpen it. The metal is much harder than anything I've seen before."

Lorash nodded impatiently, "Yes, yes, I'm sure it's a well crafted blade. If Ironwood commisioned it's crafting, he would have made certain of that. But no normal blade, no matter how well crafted, could have done what yours did. It should have sliced right through the apparition without damaging it. Instead when it sliced through, it disrupted the spell! There must be some type of magic imbued in the blade. Powerful magic, for it to disrupt an adept level spell."

Adam's eyes widened. He had been listening to the conversation with some interest. He too was wondering about that sword. "Adept level? You mean to tell me your father is THAT mage? Burning Ash???"

Lorash grimaced in pain. "Adam, let's keep on the subject, shall we? I am trying to ascertain how a seemingly normal blade could disrupt an adept level spell. Not go off on an irrelevant tangent about who my alleged sire might or might not be."

"Irrelevant tangent," ejaculated Adam. "Burning Ash is perhaps the most powerful, and least friendly elemental adept who ever lived! Only a suicidal lunatic would go looking for him uninvited!"

Lorash nodded. "Yes," he drawled. "That explains YOUR presence nicely. Now if you are quite finished wasting time, I believe young Harsov here was about to explain more about that rather remarkable blade he is carrying?"

Harsov did his best to stifle a laugh, as he replied. "Well, Lorash, the only other thing different about it is whatever Adramalach did to it after the battle. You remember? He said he was blessing it, and told me to call his name whenever I needed help? Well, it seemed like we could use some help then. I don't know much about magic, but it didn't seem like your father had your best interest at heart."

Adam's eyes widened. "You spoke with Adramalach the Lava Lord? In person? He blessed your sword? What can you do with it? How often can you use it? Wha..."

Lorash interrupted with a slicing motion of his hand. "ENOUGH! The sword is our immediate concern here, and I will not tolerate these continued distractions! Now, Harsov, is this the first time you used the weapon in this way, or have there been others? We saw the flame you summoned with it, can you wield it in other ways?"

"Hey, that's the same thing I was asking," Adam said in an outraged tone. Lorash smiled sardonically as he replied. "Yes, among half a dozen other questions. Give a clumsy oaf a quiver of arrows, and he might hit the target eventually."

Harsov sighed as he said, "Can we just keep going and talk about this later? Maybe when we camp tonight? Say Lorash, you might want to slow things down a bit, I'm getting dizzy trying to focus on the area, it's flying by so fast."

Lorash raised his eyebrows in surprise. "Oh really? I'm not currently influencing our travel speed. Care to make a guess who is?"

Bladesong took some time calming down Whisperwillow. "Your father said he was going to confront Elorna. He sensed evil from her, which is basically impossible for a dryad. That means she is possessed, either by some evil spirit, or perhaps an artifact of some sort. I'm sure he will return shortly, he is a powerful shaman."

Whisperwillow nodded uncertainly. "They say father is a powerful spirit walker. Yet how strong can he be now that he is just a ghost?"

Smiling reassuringly, Bladesong replied, "Your father is one of the strongest men I have ever met, and the most stubborn as well. If it is possible for mortal man to succeed, he will do so."

Whisperwillow laughed, half choking back a sob. "What you say reminds me of Harsov. From the moment he was able to walk, he was so headstrong and stubborn! I hope he is well..."

Bladesong turned away in shame. "I should have known by his actions and determination that he was molded in his grandsire's image. Alas, I was too blinded by my dislike and distrust of all humans until it was far too late. Oh, I did my duty, taught him how to use a blade, but I should have done more. Much more."

Whisperwillow placed a tentative hand on his shoulder. "Do not punish yourself so. Even his own father could not easily communicate with him. Harsov was always...different."

Bladesong sighed heavily. "Aye, all the more reason I should have done more. Young men grow up proud and willful. We all need guidance, that our roots might sink deep; that we branch out properly. Your father was there for me when I needed that guidance. I should have passed on that knowledge to Harsov. I will never make that mistake again. Never."

Rage coursed through Brambleheart, contorting the features of her host body. How dared this snippet of a child defy her! To pick this moment, the instant of her greatest triumph over HIM to defy her! It was intolerable...and it was working! Either foe alone was no match for her power, but fighting both an inner and outer battle at the same time distracted and weakened her. There was no alternative. HE was the greater foe, HE was the one who must be defeated here this day. SHE was a mere child, who could be swept away like chaff in the wind. Grinding her teeth in rage, Brambleheart reached out, thrusting a claw like hand deep inside the chest of Brokenbranch. With a snarl of triumph, she tore loose a sizable portion of the spirit essence, inserting it into the carefully prepared corpse at her feet.

With a cry of mortal agony, Brokenbranch's spirit tumbled backwards, vanishing from sight. Simultaneously, Elorna screamed in mingled rage and triumph, expelling the spirit which had controlled her for so long.

Battered and weakened, Brambleheart withdrew, leaving behind a hideous cackle. "You think to have won this battle, little sister, but it is I who will triumph in the end!"

At her feet there was a stir, and slowly the rune painted body of Brokenbranch sat up. In a voice devoid of all emotion, it said, "What has happened? How did I come to be here?"

Elorna turned with a joyous cry, "Grandfather, you are alive! Was Brambleheart holding you captive as well?"

Slowly, woodenly, the figure of Brokenbranch rose to its feet. "I do not remember, but that would explain some things which puzzle me. I remember the bonding ceremony. I sensed danger from one of the gifts, and then...blackness. Nothing more."

Elorna nodded sympathetically. "I know little more. Harsov and Lorax
went charging off, and shortly after that the ice demons attacked. Many died that day, including my mother. She was slain by their leader. But Lorash and my love returned, riding an air elemental!"

The figure of Brokenbranch took all this information in slowly. In a sepulcher voice he intoned, "And where does Brambleheart fit into this? Was the forest destroyed? How were you taken prisoner?"

Elorna shrugged. "I think she was behind it all. The ice demon prince was her father. When the Lava Lord and he clashed, there was a burst of power, flattening the nearby trees and hurling us all backward. That was when Brambleheart attacked me. In the general confusion, it went unnoticed. She wanted to slay Harsov and Lorash, but I guess I fought back hard enough, she decided to banish them instead."

Brokenbranch's eyes widened in surprise. "Lava Lord? Where did he come from? And if she possessed you, why was she so eager to be rid of Harsov and Lorash? I can see how it might have been difficult to deceive the boy, particularly on your bonding day. But Lorash is a powerful mage, if a bit untrained. Banishing him after a battle he participated in was risky indeed. Why take the chance?"

Elorna sighed, "I am not sure grandfather, but even buried within my body, I could sense her anger. Such pure rage! It was almost..."

"Demonic?" he interjected. "Given her parentage, that is not surprising. What a warped and twisted individual she is. Your mother and I should have slain her long ago, rather than sparing her. She has been so quiet and reserved for so long, I had nearly forgotten the threat she posed. One last question for you. How long have I lain senseless here? My limbs feel stiff and unused. A day? Perhaps two?"

Elorna shook her head in sad negation. "Nay grandfather, far longer than that. And you were not merely rendered unconscious, you were slain! Why, just a moment ago your spirit form was battling Brambleheart from without, even as I struggled against her from within. I suppose we must have triumphed at the same instant, for even as I expelled her foulness, you sat up in your body. What sort of foul plans do you think she had, to preserve it the way she did, painting those strange runes upon it?"

The figure of Brokenbranch slowly examined himself, noting for the first time the woad painted runes which adorned his chest. A frown creased his features as he did. "This is...troubling," he finally stated. "I do not recall a spirit battle with that crone. And you say a considerable amount of time has passed since my last memory. Why would she preserve my body, if indeed I was slain, as you say. Brambleheart was a master of necromancy, if she has not lost her old skill. I do not trust any of this. You say you expelled her spirit, yet how do I know that is true? You say I was slain, and much time has passed. Yet I have no proof of that either."

Elorna's eyes widened and she took a faltering step back. "Grandfather please, you must believe me! I have no reason to twist the truth! You were here, in spirit, just a moment ago! Then Brambleheart was driven out of my body, and you sat up!"

The elder elf stared at her dispassionately a moment, before replying. "Perhaps what you say is true. Indeed, if you are Elorna, you have no known reason to speak falsehood. Yet I have only your word as proof of any of this. I must leave, consider this situation, and all the possible permutations which might come from it."

Elorna nodded briefly. "I too must retire, I have been too long absent from my tree. Till we meet again, grandfather."

Brokenbranch's spirit tumbled helplessly through the void of the spirit plane, shredded and torn. The crone's attack had been sudden and unexpected. How she had learned to rip portions of spirits loose he did not know, nor did he care at the moment. All he could focus on was the ceaseless, unending agony.

Yet he had borne agony before. In life, swords and axes had left their trail crisscrossing his chest. In the Great War, a well hurled javelin had transfixed his leg. He had snapped it off and fought on. Cruelest of all, he had lost the love of his life even as the battle ended. He had not surrendered then. He would not surrender now.

Pain can be borne. Pain can be endured. Forcing his spirit eyes to open, Brokenbranch looked around him. He was lost and adrift in the spirit realm. He no longer had the spiritual essence to manifest himself on the physical plane. Before he even considered that, he must first heal himself, and somehow armor himself against the crone's attacks. He knew of only one person who could aid him in that regard.

Steeling himself against the pain, Brokenbranch pictured his destination in his mind. Travel in the spirit plane was significantly different from the physical plane. Direction and distance were meaningless here. There were no markers, no signposts here. All that truly mattered was holding the destination firmly in mind, and having the willpower not to be distracted by what one encountered. His destination was crystal clear, and his willpower was second to none.

Long ages ago, when the world was young, harmony and cooperation had existed among the Elder Races. Troll, Elf, Dwarf, Gnome...even Human had existed side by side. In that time of legend, a powerful shaman had lived. He had not only been a spiritwalker, but a master of the arts Necromantic as well. If any knew superior methods of spirit combat, it would be he. He had lived for ages, longer by far than any other elf. Yet he had not survived the Great War. Brokenbranch gave a mental sigh. Likely he would not be in a generous or...forgiving mood.

Brambleheart snarled in frustration. Her plan had been successful, albeit only in part. The body of Brokenbranch had been reanimated, though not under her control. Nor was his spirit imprisoned within, merely a portion of it. To top it all off, the slip of a dryad had managed to free herself during the battle. She had proven far more resilient than expected. Still, perhaps this twist might be turned to her advantage. For now, she must retreat, recoup her strength. If the last century had taught her anything, it was the value of patience.

The ground beneath them became increasingly parched and drought cracked. Vegetation was sparse to nonexistent. In the distance, a gleaming tower became visible, seeming to shimmer in and out of sight through a haze of heat.

Lorash paused, turning to Harsov and Adam. "It seems we have arrived. I can sense the presence of powerful magic in the air...layer upon layer of it. I would suggest neither of you attempt magics of your own, until we have a better grasp of the situation."

Adam nodded enthusiastically. "I'll say! The air fairly reeks of arcane energy, no telling what sort of nasty traps your dear old daddy might have placed. Burning Ash is hardly renowned as the jovial welcoming sort!"

A grim smile cracked Lorash's stern visage. "Exactly. My sire seems to have had the foresight to position his dwelling upon a ley line. Caution is well advised, if even half the rumors I have heard are factual."

Harsov shrugged. Magic was far beyond his understanding. "So what now?" he asked. "Do we walk up and knock on the tower door, assuming it has one? Or just shout "Hello, anyone home?". If your guess is right, he increased our speed of travel, so it seems he is as eager to meet you as you are to meet him."

Lorash cocked one eyebrow as a grim smile quirked his lips. "I am far from "eager" to meet my sire. I AM eager to discharge this duty to my mother, and return to Elmwood, both to see how Elorna fares, and to deliver Ravensfeast to our people. If this "guttersnipe" (here he waved vaguely in Adam's direction) by some freakish chance IS the heir, so much the better. Yet for a great many reasons, the two of you should not approach the tower any closer. As a matter of fact, it might well prove judicious for you to travel back towards Elmwood. I can easily meet up with you afterwards. (If I survive, he silently added).

Lorash was interrupted by a voice. "Nonsense, "son". I am quite eager to meet your playmates, each more interesting than the prior. A shapechanging, half grown dire wolf. A human dressed in bedraggled elven garb, and bearing a mystical sword of some type. An unknown elven rogue of noble birth, arraigned in mismatched human finery and bearing Ravensfeast. Not to mention you, a child I knew nothing about, holding a staff I never thought to see again. Quite the interesting collection of vagabonds, aren't you? You may approach my tower, I await our meeting...eagerly."

Adam swallowed hard, shooting a quick glance at Lorash. He in turn raised one eyebrow, then said, "Well the man HAS invited us. It would be discourteous to keep him waiting, would it not?"

The figure of Brokenbranch paused, considering. Much of what Elorna had said sounded plausible, but he must be certain. If that much time had passed, why could he not remember it? Death alone would not account for it, that should have simply freed his spirit form from this body. Certainly nothing he had not experienced countless times before. Elorna, if that had indeed been her, said his spirit form had been in combat with Brambleheart shortly before he awakened. If so, that memory should have been his.

Gathering the necessary herbs, he began the ritual preparations. Under normal circumstances, he needed no physical aid to free his spirit form from his physical body. Indeed, he had been absent so often, sometimes he felt strangely confined when housed within physical form. Yet now he seemed so drained. Emotions were tepid to non existent. No matter, the herbs would provide the necessary impetus to free his spirit form. He would get to the bottom of this matter. Time enough later to contact Harsov and Lorash to get their side of this story. At the moment, it was more vital to discover what had happened to himself.

Normally, he would brew the herbs to achieve full potency. These were NOT normal times. Even in raw form, the herbs should be sufficient for his purposes today. Ingesting them, he chewed methodically, feeling the languor spread through his limbs. Seating himself comfortably, he relaxed his mind. Separation should be imminent...yet it was not. Somehow, someway his ability to free his astral form had been blocked.

Faint annoyance crept into his mind. How had this been done? Perhaps the runes painted upon his chest? Brambleheart had learned some new tricks. Not a great surprise, given the amount of time and hatred the lunatic witch had at her disposal. His initial assessment had been correct, a century ago. He should not have listened to the dryad; nothing good ever came from showing mercy to a demon. Yet the blood and betrayal of the war, the loss of his good friend the king, and above all the urgency he had felt to locate his missing wife had all conspired to override his common sense. Emotions and sentiments...foolish mortal affectations he seemed to have left behind. In truth, he felt curiously devoid of emotion now, drained by whatever foul magic Brambleheart had worked on him, apparently. One more crime to lay at the hag's feet. She would pay dearly for what had been done to him. But for now he must rest, research, recover his strength.

Odd, for he did not feel tired. Or hungry, despite the time Elorna had said he lay motionless. Only thirsty. Very, very thirsty.

As they approached the tower, Harsov turned to Lorash. "One thing puzzles me," he began. "Your father mentioned a "shapechanging wolf". Is there something I should know about?"

Lorash cocked one eyebrow cynically. "Off hand, I can think of a great MANY things you should know, but this is neither the time nor place to teach you. However, he was accurate enough in his assessment. Your wolf can indeed change form. I take it you were unaware of this? It has not done so in the past?"

Harsov shook his head in negation, turning to stare at the half grown canine. "Not around me! That's something I would notice, I think. How did you know? Are you certain?"

Lorash nodded. "Quite. I witnessed multiple transformations, but felt no magical emanations. Apparently, it is a natural born shapechanger. Rare, but not unheard of among human or elvenkind. Unique among animals, so far as I am aware."

Adam spoke up now, having been listening with interest. "So, what if it's natural form is NOT a wolf? How certain are you it is not a transformed human or even elf?"

Shock swept across Lorash's face, quickly masked. "Preposterous. We found it as a cub in a dire wolf den. Of course it is a wolf. Most likely it has been affected by the raw magic leaking from your unattuned relic."

Harsov's eyes widened. "Leaking? Can it do that? Lorash, if that is true, could it not have adverse affects on all of us as well? Would it not have affected Adam first, since he is the closest to it?"

Lorash smiled tightly. "Whatever else the lad might be, he is obviously an elf. As such, he would have a certain amount of innate magical resistance. His haphazard casting of spells might even have increased this. Yet for the safety of us all, attunement of Ravensfeast should be his first priority."

"Important safety tip!" shouted Adam. "Don't you think you should have told me that from the beginning? Or were you just hoping I would kill myself experimenting?"

Harsov turned to confront his friend. "Adam! That is unfair! Granted you and Lorash have had your issues, but he would not knowingly have endangered any of us!" In turning to confront Adam, Harsov had turned his back on Lorash, who shrugged noncommitally.

A dry rasping chuckle interrupted them. "Welcome to my humble abode. You may enter freely." The massive tower door they were approaching swung lightly open, as if on well oiled hinges.

Adam whispered, "Notice he said we could ENTER freely? I heard nothing about departing." Harsov nodded worriedly. He had also noted that.

Lorash mentally reviewed spells of protection, particularly fire wards. Odds were, they would be next to useless, given he was facing an adept within his base of power. Even so, he might be able to buy time for the other two to escape. Regardless of all else, Ravensfeast must not be captured, which meant Adam must survive, as much as it galled him to place the safety of that foppish pervert above his own.

Keeping his face expressionless and his voice carefully neutral, Lorash spoke up. "Greetings, father."

Burning Ash leaned forward in his ruby studded chair. Tapestries of red and gold covered the walls, and murals of fantastical battles were tastefully arranged. He was adorned in a crimson robe with gold trim, his long auburn locks held back by a simple golden circlet.

He smiled slowly, taking in the defiant stance of Lorash, and the quick, nervous glances Adam darted around the room. Yet when his eyes met those of the human, he paused. No defiance there, no false bravado, and certainly no fear. Just a calm acceptance of what was, and what would be. He would need to keep an eye on this one.

Standing up, he casually strolled closer. "Well, the three of you," here he paused to glance at the softly growling dire wolf, "or should I say four of you? Have had a long and no doubt eventful journey here. Few indeed are brave enough to approach my tower uninvited. Fewer yet survive to enter. Yet as I said, you are welcome here. No doubt you would like to take time to refresh yourself, and cleanse the dust of travel from your garments." He raised one hand to summon servants, but paused when Lorash stepped forward.

"We won't be here long enough for that, "father", he stated. "I promised mother I would make this journey to meet you. I have done so, and will now depart."

Burning Ash chuckled dryly. "Just like that, eh? A long and dangerous journey, fraught with adventure and perils, just to say hello and travel back?"

Lorash smiled frostily. "JUST like that. Let us not mince words between us. It has been over a century since you abandoned us. Not once have you bothered to see if we lived or died. Were it not for the promise I made, you would never have known of my existence."

Burning Ash felt his temper rise, as his eyes began to glow. "I had no knowledge of your existence! Do you honestly think I would have abandoned a child of mine? I did not want to leave at all! I LOVED your mother! Leaving her was the hardest thing I have ever done! Speaking of that, how is she? Why send you to me now, after all this time?"

Lorash snarled in reply. "How is she? She's DEAD, you insensitive bastard! It was her dying wish I see you, gods know why!"

Burning Ash staggered back, and his face drained of color. "Dead? How? She was young, vibrant, full of life..." A flame of madness danced in his eyes as he stalked closer. "Tell me how she died, boy, and leave nothing out. Do you hear me? TELL ME!!!"

Adam backed away, eyeing the available exits. Harsov stood his ground, but crouched to lay one hand on the dire wolf at his side. Silvershadow's low growl changed to a soft whine as he hunkered down behind his two legged brother.

Lorash eyed his father dispassionately. "So, you were not behind her death, as I had half suspected. Perhaps you even cared for her, in your own sick, twisted way. But I owe you nothing...less than nothing. I owe you pain, and loathing, and years of shame and degradation. And if the news of her passing has brought you even a tiny shred of the agony we felt growing up, knowing our father cared naught whether we lived or died, then I rejoice in that!"

Flames wreathed the figure of Burning Ash and a harsh cry of rage burst from his lips. "YOU DARE??!?" he thundered. "I will wring the answers from your charred, lifeless corpse if I have to!"

"Lorash!" Harsov shouted. "Think! Is this what your mother would have wanted? You have come here to honor her memory! Is this how she would have wished you to honor her?"

Lorash's head snapped around to glare at Harsov. "You know nothing of my mother! She was the most beautiful, most precious woman who ever lived! And this beast dishonored her, crushed her soul, and then abandoned her! He deserves NOTHING but loathing and contempt!"

Slowly Harsov stood, smiling compassionately. "I did not know your mother well, but I do know loneliness and the pain of losing one you love, Lorash. And even though this man may deserve exactly what you say, I ask you this what your mother would have wished? If so, I will stand by your side even if he lives up to his name and reduces us to ash."

Pausing, he looked Lorash calmly in the eye. "You are right, I never really knew your mother, I cannot answer the question I posed you. But you CAN. Is THIS what she would have wanted?"

Lorash ground his teeth in the intensity of the emotions which coursed through him. Snarling, he replied, "No, damn your soul to the lowest netherhell, it is not." Glancing up at the still seething figure of Burning Ash, he sighed heavily. "Very well, father. I will answer your questions. Ask what you will, but NEVER threaten me again."

With an effort, Burning Ash forced himself to relax. His rage smouldered, banked for the moment, but hardly extinguished. "Very well. You say your mother is dead. How did it happen? I need to know."

"It was the ice demon," Lorash began. He shut his eyes as the memory surfaced, as fresh and painful as the moment it happened. "The attack came immediately after Harsov and Elorna's bonding ceremony. One of their gifts was magically trapped. Brokenbranch sensed it somehow, gave his life to save hers..."

Burning Ash interrupted impatiently. "I asked about your mother boy, I am not interested in the local gossip!"

Lorash's lip curled in scorn. "Of course. Why would you be concerned with the bonding of your daughter? After all, you never bothered to even meet her."

Burning Ash swallowed hard. "Daughter? I have...a daughter?"

Lorash shook his head in negation. "No, not really. You were our sire, but hardly our father. She is your offspring, but clearly NOT your daughter."

Abruptly the youth's impassioned words came back to him...."the agony WE felt growing up, knowing OUR father cared naught whether WE lived or died..." A sick feeling swept through him, as he imagined what life might have been like for them. "I know this will probably fall on deaf ears boy, but I did not know either of you existed. I am truly sorry. Had I but known..."

"You never CARED to know," Lorash replied. "Dryads are masters of earth magic, fertility spells are second nature to them. Had you given even a moment of consideration, you would have KNOWN there would be offspring. Yet all YOU cared about was your quest for "knowledge" and personal power. Phah! Let us finish this, so I can be on my way. My sister desperately needs my aid, while I stand here entertaining YOU."

Adam whistled softly, then cleared his throat. "Ahem. Ah, Harsov my friend, perhaps we should step back outside for a few moments, while these two finish their conversation?"

Harsov nodded. Patting Lorash on the back he said, "We'll be right outside if you need us." Lorash nodded once, making a dismissive gesture.

Once outside, Adam turned to Harsov. "Well, that was interesting. I certainly can see the family resemblance! And I don't just mean in physical features! Are all elves such pompous asses?"

Harsov smiled briefly. "Well, I don't think that applies to you. Seriously though, many tend to be. Perhaps their longer lifespan leads them to feel superior. Lorash just takes it to another level."

Adam shook his head ruefully. "Hard to think of myself as an elf, I've lived my whole life among humans, I suppose I just naturally thought of myself as one of them. More clever, nimble, and handsome than most, of course, but still human."

Harsov smiled faintly. "Whereas I lived my life among the greenfolk, and constantly struggled to measure up to them. Be on your guard, by the way. Welcome here or not, I do not trust Lorash's sire, or the looks he was giving us. Like he was measuring us for graves."

Adam grinned in return. "I'm always on guard, that's why I'm still alive. When you are a member of "The Purloined Purse", pursuit and danger are always just around the corner. That's what makes life so much fun!"

Harsov raised one eyebrow. "You have a most peculiar idea of fun, my friend. I foresee many interesting days ahead in your company."

Adam's grin widened. "Haven't you heard? Danger is the spice of life! Who wants to live a dull and boring life? Huh! Not me!"

"So," Burning Ash began. "Let me see if I understand this so far. Your sister, Elorna, is bonded to that human with the mystic sword? I had thought human and elven relationships would have been more strained after the War."

A faint smile played across Lorash's lips. "Indeed, that is generally the case. But there is much about this case which is different. First, my sister is dryad, not elf. Secondly, Harsov is not exactly a typical human. Both of his parents are half elven, and he was born into the tribe. Thirdly, his grandsire is Brokenbranch, a great hero of the Greenfolk. Lastly, and perhaps most important, my sister has always been a most willful child. She truly loves that big galoot, and no power on or below the earth would be allowed to stand in her way. Trust me, I tried."

The archmage nodded. "I see. She allows emotion to overrule her reason. Common enough among females. Yet if this human lad I met is bonded to her, and she is in some sort of danger, as you intimated, why is he here? Is his place not at her side?"

Lorash paused before replying. "Normally, yes. But these are not normal times. Elorna...insisted that he leave. And now that she is the new Dryad Queen, he was...compelled to honor her wishes."

Burning Ash returned to his ruby studded chair, where he sat down heavily. "My daughter is the Dryad Queen of Elmwood?" Shaking his head, he said, "Sorry for interrupting, you were talking about Lewelyn. Please continue."

"Alright," replied Lorash. "Well, we soon discovered Brambleheart was behind the cursed bonding gift triggered by Brokenbranch. Between Harsov, myself, and the shaman's spirit, we slew her." The archmage's eyebrows shot up at this, but he motioned Lorash to continue.

"During the battle, she revealed she had summoned her sire, Ghorgorab, and his ice demons. While we fought her, they were rampaging through the forest. As almost all of the tribe were at the bonding ceremony, they were unarmed, and unprepared for the onslaught. I had summoned a sylph during the battle with Brambleheart, and still retained control. Harsov and I rode it back. Once there, I unleashed the sylph upon the ice demon horde, while I confronted Ghorgorab personally."

Lorash began to pace restlessly. "He was powerful, even more than Brambleheart, but I had to keep his attention focused on me. Even with the sylph's aid, the ice demons were still slaughtering dozens. Harsov gathered what Guardians were there and charged them, but he was greatly outnumbered. If Ghorgorab joined in, took charge of the battle, it would be a slaughter. I needed to keep him focused on ME. There was a momentary lull in the battle, and he turned on mother. Shot a hail of ice daggers at her. She died in my arms, but her last words were about YOU, telling me to find you."

Burning Ash winced in pain. "Believe me or not boy, I loved your mother. I would never have left her, had she not commanded it. Ghorgorab shall pay dearly for this."

Lorash shrugged. "He already has. I summoned Adramaloch the lava lord, and when the two of them met, there was a magical backlash. Ghorgorab was obliterated, or banished...along with all his troops. But that did not return mother to life, of course. Or repair all the damage to the forest. I...failed. I thought myself so powerful, yet I could not protect the forest, my people...or even my own mother."

Burning Ash easily read the anguish in the youth's voice. Picturing the battle in his mind, he swallowed hard. Brambleheart had unleashed a horrible, devastating force upon the inhabitants of Elmwood, at a time when they were most vulnerable. It should have been a massacre. If not for the heroic actions of his son, it would have been.

Rising slowly, the archmage approached his son. Laying one hand on his shoulder, he said, "Hold your head up boy. You did everything any one man could do, and more. Not one mage in a thousand could have faced the odds you did, and survived. And pitting Adramaloch against Ghorgorab...sheer genius. Those two have hated each other for eons."

Lorash sighed. "To be honest, it was not entirely my idea. I knew it would take everything I had to put the invasion down. I sought to summon powerful aid from the plane of elemental fire. But an elemental lord? Not even I have that much hubris!"

Burning Ash nodded, as his face took on a hooded aspect, eyes lowered to shield his thoughts. "I see. You spoke of a mystical battle with Brambleheart, and even earlier, a magical trap which slew this Brokenbranch person. You further mentioned you had summoned a sylph earlier. Was it by chance larger than you anticipated?"

Lorash nodded slowly, "Yes, it was gargantuan. I thought it odd at the time, but in the chaos of the moment, I had no time to pursue the thought. Since then, with Elorna taking over as Dryad Queen, following mother's last request and traveling to see you, discovering Ravensfeast, along with a few other odd encounters along the way, I simply have not had time."

Burning Ash smiled slightly. "Yes, I understand. Well boy, let me give you a little instruction on the Arts Arcane. A simple rule, but one which has resulted in untold havoc throughout the years. The more mystic energy one summons and expends, the wider the channel becomes, and the easier the flow becomes. That is why Mage Wars are forbidden. That is why there are strict rules and formula for practitioners of the Arts Arcane. That is why I spent so many years traveling, studying, learning, rather than simply experimenting on my own. Above all else, a mage requires discipline."

Taking a deep breath he continued, "And that is why "Wild Mages", such as yourself, are strictly prohibited. I have no knowledge of your upbringing boy, but my guess is you have had little to no formal training. You are an unknown, untrained, yet greatly talented, mage. As a fully trained, acredited archmage, my duty is to eliminate any "Wild Mages" I encounter, regardless of all other consideraions."

Lorash snarled as he raised his staff to a guard position. "So, your true colors come out, "father". I suppose you only delayed attacking me until you had the information you wanted, now you will eliminate any loose ends, eh? But you will not find me quite so easy to dispose of as you might have thought!"

A grim smile flirted with Burning Ash's lips before vanishing. Casually he began strolling towards the tower's staircase. "Come along boy. As I told you, as an archmage, it is my duty to eliminate any wild mages I happen to encounter. How I choose to discharge that duty is my choice to make. In this particular case, I choose to do so by first ascertaining your abilities, then properly training you in their use. An arduous road lies before you boy, but one richly rewarding."


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