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Return to a tainted wood

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Vaedryan
3:25:06 pm GMT 02/27/10
Vaedryan Registered Member #345 Joined: 2:28:49 am GMT 11/25/04
Posts: 1920
//

This thread continues the story begun here.


As this story develops, please feel free to add to the posts here.
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Vaedryan
3:26:11 pm GMT 02/27/10
Vaedryan Registered Member #345 Joined: 2:28:49 am GMT 11/25/04
Posts: 1920
As Harybba picked her way through the wood, Gaelwyn was reminded of her years.

Is she the eldest of us? Gaelwyn wondered as he brushed aside a spruce limb, feeling its soft pine against his forearm, like feathers on the skin. He let Harybba lead, as was his custom when taking such walks with her. Though they were well within the Rangers’ patrols, Harybba was of an age where dangers could take many forms – a rabid wolf, a slick rock – and Gaelwyn felt responsible for her care. He scanned the shadows created by the dense foliage out of habit, such vigilance ingrained now after years of service.

The wood opened into a small clearing, and Harybba spread her arms wide, breathing deeply, her eyes shut. They had arrived, Gaelwyn realized. Though Hayrbba seldom informed him of their destination before they set out, her uncensored expression always proclaimed their arrival clearly enough. Gaelwyn removed his pack and took out the carefully wrapped basket of breads, muffins and sweet pastries prepared by Orleanna, a baker who had grown a reputation as the finest within the Greenwood.

He offered the bundle to Harybba. After a longing glance at the sweet pastries, she shook her head declining, a hand extended as if to keep evil spirits away. Gaelwyn smiled to himself as he sat, folding his legs under him. Harybba always made a pretense at austerity in her diet, but in the end she would eagerly choose a few of Orleanna’s treats.

Harybba wandered slowly about the clearing. In places, the tall grass rose to the interwoven vine that served as her belt, making her appear even more diminutive than her stature. Gaelwyn had set the baked goods aside, and was pulling some mild cheese from his pack when Harybba broke the silence of the place.

“You seem more rested,” she said, looking into the wood rather than at the ranger, “and carry the peace of one who has committed to a course.”

Gaelwyn shook his head slightly, surprised by how clearly Harybba could read him. “Yes,” he said. “I have.”

“This has to do with your visions,” she asked. “Those we discussed last moon?”

“It does,” he admitted. “I have returned from speaking with the Tel’Varataurie – the protectors of the northern wood – but there are others still that I must look in on.”

“Ahhh…,” Harybba nodded, falling silent for a time as she inspected the leaf of a maple she had paused by. She ran a fingertip over the leaf’s veins, tracing them upon its surface. She continued, leaf still in hand. “You speak of those who did not follow. Those who stayed behind during the Parting.”

Harybba released the leaf, allowing the limb that bore it to rise once more to be among its brothers. “Most of them chose to remain, as you know."

Gaelwyn nodded, having had this conversation with several others already. “Yes,” he said. “But the moment was chaotic. And as the Queen led us to safety from that chaos we each faced great threat, her especially. Had Kintaro acted swiftly enough, we all would have perished.”

The ranger watched Harybba, who had now turned to face him, diverting her attention from the wood. “Some, perhaps many,” he continued, “remained behind out of fear – either fear for themselves, or fear for what may befall their families.”

“Fear may not be an honorable quality,” Gaelwyn said, “ but it is one that we have all felt. And it does not seem as though inaction in the face of such fear should condemn one to suffer eternally under the taint of the wood we left behind.”

“I do not delude myself into thinking that all of the tainted wood are redeemable,” he continued. “Many deserve no fate other than a swift death at the point of sword or shaft. But some,” he said as he turned his eyes, glancing back down the trail the had taken here before looking back to Harybba. “Some may only need a second opportunity; a chance to undo their inaction of the past."

Gaelwyn spoke earnestly. “It is they who are in need of aid," he said. "They who are still the children of Elisara. The others of that wood… they have forsaken her.”

Harybba watched Gaelwyn, allowing silence to descend upon the clearing.

After a time, she spoke. “What is it you would do?” she asked.

The ranger shook his head, frustration creasing his brow as he conceded, “I do not know.”

“I can only travel there, and see what may be learned from the shadows,” Gaelwyn shook his head again, uncertain. “Perhaps there is some sign, some indication, that will lead me to those who might be saved still.”

Harybba approached Gaelwyn, shaking her head with concern. “Ahhh… my noble ranger,” she said, her eyes filled with compassion. “The path you set for yourself is rife with dangers, and may be for naught.”

“Yes,” he said. “It may be for naught, but I must go. If there are those who can be redeemed, then we have left them there too long to suffer. Someone must see. We must know.”

“I feel it is my duty,” Gaelwyn spoke this last as he searched Harybba for reaction, hoping for an understanding. He received it in a slow, knowing nod and a kind smile. He continued, “And I believe the Queen wishes this as well.”

“The Queen?” Harybba sounded surprised. “She has told you this herself?”

“No,” he said. “Not directly. She could not.” He shook his head. “She would not. It would place too great a risk upon Greenvale if such a request was made by her directly.” And she would fear she asked too much of one who served her, Gaelwyn thought to himself.

“Then how do you know she wishes this?”

“Moons ago,” he began, his voice distant, lost in the memory. “I prayed beside the tomb of Kynnonnen. After rising, I noticed the Queen… she had left the tower and come for some of the night’s cool. She spoke to me there, upon the ramparts of Elisara’s Hill, as we looked northeast toward the canopy of the wood from which she led us. She spoke of those who continue to suffer undeservedly from its taint – those who have not given over to its evils, but who have lacked the courage or opportunity to flee. She said it pained her to think on them, and that no matter the progress in repairing the city’s stone walls and structures, we would remain fractured until they were unbound from their fear and the mind-numbing poisons.”

After listening to the ranger recount the conversation, Harybba spoke. “Aya…. Gaelwyn,” she said. “You carry too great a burden. They will not welcome you in those wood as a brother, no matter the blood that binds us.”

Gaelwyn mustered what he hoped was a reassuring smile. “Ease your worry, Haybba. I will seek to remain in the shadows,” he said in his calm tone. “And I know that wood as if it were once my home.”

Harybba nodded, perceiving the conviction in the ranger’s tone and the strength of his purpose, the irony of his last comment not lost on her.

“Come. Come,” she said, changing the subject as she approached the ranger and beckoned for the basket of bread, muffins and treats. “Do not keep Orleanna’s sweets from me,” she continued in good nature, lifting the mood that had descended on the clearing. “I’m old enough now that I care little what others may think of my waistline.”

Gaelwyn passed the basket to the druidess. Harybba inspected each in turn while making her decision on which to eat first. As she continued, apparently torn between the rose-honey dipped canelé and the mint-jasmin macaron, Gaelwyn savored this quiet time, never certain how long such moments might last.

~{@}~


After returning Harybba to her home, Gaelwyn packed his leathers, bow and cloak – that which could easily identify him by person or as an agent of the Greenwood – storing them in a strongbox set aside at the Rangers’ headquarters. After donning mundane replacements, he made his way through the Greenwood, toward the poisoned forest that he once knew as home.


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Vaedryan
6:11:35 pm GMT 02/27/10
Vaedryan Registered Member #345 Joined: 2:28:49 am GMT 11/25/04
Posts: 1920
Gaelwyn tread carefully through the forest, keeping to the shadows and doubling back time and again so that it would be difficult for others to discern where he had traveled from should they find his trail. As he made his way slowly toward the northwest, the stout oaks and proud elms dwindled in size, their barks increasingly gnarled and pitted; a result of Syann’s poison, no doubt.

The birdcalls and occasional breezy hum of the foxfires diminished in frequency as well. The buzzing of a thousand mosquitos filled the void, though, seen now and again in great plumes as though attracted to some particularly sweet eddy in the air, or contained by some unseen barrier.

No matter what wood you traveled in, it was seldom silent.

And then… voices… Quiet. Distant. The words inaudible, but the intonation and rhythm distinctly elven. Gaelwyn reached a hand behind his back steadying the bow slung over his shoulder to silence it as he moved. He took short strides with knees high to avoid cracking twigs, stumbling over vines, or creating any sound that might draw attention.

He approached the voices, but only so far before taking cover behind a large maple, burrowing his shoulder and back within a hollow, as though the tree had reached out to embrace him. The owners of the voices, now an easy arrow’s flight distant, passed into view - scouts of the tainted wood by their accoutrements.

Gaelwyn squinted as he studied their features. He then breathed a bit more easily. He recognized neither. That was a small mercy.

The ranger from Greenvale waited several minutes, giving the scouts time to clear as they continued on their patrol. He then continued, progressing slowly. He was close now. The air carried the acrid smell he recalled from the tattered memories of his youth.

Another hour passed before the forest opened into a clearing where the earth fell away into a chasm. And there, just across the gorge… the wood he once knew as home.

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Vaedryan
8:12:38 pm GMT 02/27/10
Vaedryan Registered Member #345 Joined: 2:28:49 am GMT 11/25/04
Posts: 1920
Home…

Or what was left of it. Ruins now.

Gaelwyn paced slowly around the crumbled remains of the home he had known as a youth. It seemed fitting, somehow, that it lay toppled and scattered. It better fit his memories, a patchwork, if they could be called even that. It was as though he had been born fully grown and then imprinted with a handful of images stolen from another’s life, and those blurred and fleeting. That was the price of being raised under Syann’s poison, a mind-numbing toxin fed by Uultak’s unholy magics.

No. That was one price. There were others.

Gealwyn squatted down and grabbed a handful of earth, not recalling its texture from the time he had lived there. He let the dirt sift through his fingers; clumped, moist. It would make fertile land for herbs, if those remaining would ever decide to use it for such.

Returning to this place took Gaelwyn back to the days of his first whole memories, the days when he and many others were reborn: the Awakening, Kynnonnen’s brief return and Syann’s fall. The veil had lifted then. It had felt as if one had entered the light after a long time spent in darkness… disoriented and blinded, unconditioned to but welcoming the brilliance.

Confusion had reigned shortly after, war from within, no one certain who could be trusted and who would lead them to betrayal and death. Then news came. Yu’syu, not yet Queen, had led warriors and druids in defending a section of the wood. She offered those who could reach her hope of a new life… a new life in the First Queen’s city, the City of Elisara.

Gaelwyn had answered that call, abiding a conscience that had until that point been muzzled within the poisoned fogs of Syann’s rule. But, in order to reach her, he had had to slay Tyr’ellian, once a friend, and others who had sided with Kintaro.

Gaelwyn unclasped his loose fist, letting the rest of the earth fall from it. He dusted his hands as he rose from his squat to stand once more in the shadowy ruins.

How many more would have come to the Queen’s banner, had there been time? Or had they the courage, or the skill? How many had they left behind at the Parting?

Gaelwyn shook his head. There was no way to know. But there must be some… and, if they lived yet, he meant to find them.

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Vaedryan
9:03:13 pm GMT 02/27/10
Vaedryan Registered Member #345 Joined: 2:28:49 am GMT 11/25/04
Posts: 1920
Gaelwyn crept on, pausing from time to time to loosen one strap or cinch another tighter. He was not accustomed to the fit of this armor, and the absence of Amana-tel’s magics interwoven with the leather left him, at times, feeling wholly naked. But leaving the leather that marked his station as an officer among the Rangers was not an option. It was a necessity. He could not afford to have been seen in it within this wood, or, should the worst have come to pass, to have it fall into the hands of some of the diabolical minds that resided here.

Armor set, Gaelwyn scanned again for movement, eyes squinted to peer into the distance. The fogs that simmered from the earth here, though thankfully no longer imbued with the magics that they once were, still occluded his vision. Even so, the forest remained still.

Apparently alone, he continued on…

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Vaedryan
10:26:12 pm GMT 02/27/10
Vaedryan Registered Member #345 Joined: 2:28:49 am GMT 11/25/04
Posts: 1920
As is often the case with mistakes, Gaelwyn realized his after fate’s fickle bones had been rolled. It happened so quickly. Had he been in a position to, he would have admired the stealth and precision. But as the victim of the ambush, he was not inclined to.

He heard the mumbling first, as the druidess who had been stalking behind him dropped the magics that had focused the energies of this twisted wood to veil her from him. At that first sound, Gaelwyn’s hand snapped over his shoulder to his quiver in a lightning and fluid motion, a movement honed by years of battle-tested practice.

But although speed kills, it does not do so always. Sometimes deviousness wins the day.

As Gaelwyn drew the first of his arrows back to full tension, he noticed the druidess had also unveiled two assassins, now to his left, when she had sprung her trap. His own arrow flew astray as the assassins’ shafts buried themselves into his chest to the fletching.

Stunned by the suddenness of it all, the world seemed to stand still. Then Gaelwyn felt the sting of more arrows biting deep, and the forest floor rose up to meet him.

Gaelwyn tried to stand again, to fight on, but his legs worked on their own, kicking weakly. He struggled for breath, but his lungs were ribbons within his chest. He could not make them work properly. The world above began to spin and close in around its edges. Darkness encroached.

With shock setting in, Gaelwyn could not help but grin at the irony. Many hoped to find death near their birthplace, to close the circle in full…

…But not him…

…not in this place.

The druidess moved to stand over him, staring down at her prize, grinning maliciously. Looking up, hardly able to make out her form through the haze that had become his vision, Gaelwyn struggled to speak one last phrase. Though his lips moved, no breath remained to form the words.

Instead, as consciousness waned, he poured all that remained of himself into one last wish…

"May the earth take me," he silently prayed, fearing what future might await him otherwise.

But it would seem that some prayers were not meant to be answered.

Darkness entombed Gaelwyn as he felt his ambushers lift his body from the forest floor.

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~{@}~

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~{@}~

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// A big "thank you" to Payne for helping me get the screenshots of Gaelwyn in the Poisonwood.
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Vaedryan
2:11:58 pm GMT 02/28/10
Vaedryan Registered Member #345 Joined: 2:28:49 am GMT 11/25/04
Posts: 1920
Gaelwyn’s awareness returned in stages. For a time, the world consisted only of pain, sharp and stabbing on the side of his chest where the arrows had penetrated to do their damage. Accompanying this, a raw burning with every breath, as though someone had swabbed his insides with acid.

After some time – it had felt like hours, but could have as easily been a scant few minutes – Gaelwyn sensed the stone under him; limestone, rough and cold. It seemed little effort had been made to smooth its jagged shape after it had been chiseled from the earth.

Then smell… the acrid odor of the Poisonwood, confirming Gaelwyn’s fears. But there was more – the pungent scent of unwashed sweat, some of it his own, and the rot of neglected death. In all, a nauseating cocktail of odors that at times left Gaelwyn gagging, which only made the searing in his lungs that much worse.

Soon his vision began to return. First, blurred to such an extent that the world appeared as a vagary of nimbuses varying only in their size and illumination. The world had become a mad watercolor, grays, blacks and greens all run together.

As his sight began to clear, however, the source of the putrid decay became evident. The cell’s former occupant lay sprawled in his own congealed blood. The last of it must have run from him days ago. Though the corpse lay before a guillotine, it seemed to Gaelwyn that the device had not been utilized as it was designed. The man’s head remained atop his shoulders, but his left arm had been severed by the weighty blade and he had been left to die as his life flowed from the wound.

A longer death, more suffering – it may have proven an insight to some, but Gaelwyn expected nothing else from his hosts. Many here revel in the misery of others. It masks their own.

Gaelwyn forced himself upright, sitting with his back to the stone. He lacked the strength to stand yet, but that would come. He felt certain that he would stay awhile.

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Vaedryan
3:55:55 pm GMT 03/05/10
Vaedryan Registered Member #345 Joined: 2:28:49 am GMT 11/25/04
Posts: 1920
Meals consisted of a thin wafer and a small bowl of water, half of which spilled to the stone as it was shoved through the cell door twice a day.

Gaelwyn assumed it was twice a day. It was difficult to tell in his subterranean home, but it was long enough between “meals” for the guards’ shift to change, he noticed as the faces of his captors became more familiar to him. Gaelwyn reflected on that… there was a lot of time for reflection… and decided that, in the end, it did not matter. Meals were how he counted his days. How those days aligned with the rest of the world was irrelevant, given his lack of access to anything but the four-by-four meter space defined by the stone walls around him.

By his count, it had been eighteen meal-days. He studied what remained of his latest wafer, the thirty-fifth, after taking a small bite. His meals, if they could truly be called that, likely served him better as his makeshift timepiece than they did with their nourishment – enough to sustain life, but little else.

Perhaps it was better to allow himself to starve, Gaelwyn thought as he stood after finishing his meal. He walked toward the cell door, supporting himself with one hand against the stone wall, not certain how much strength his legs could muster. His neighbor, whoever it was that had been kept in the adjacent cell, had fallen silent days ago.

“May those of Avandor welcome him,” Gaelwyn whispered.

Avandor… a destination that awaited them all. Perhaps it would be wiser to expedite that journey before his hosts decided to pay him visit; for they would, eventually.

But no.

Though Elisara, from whatever plane she now resided on, had spoken many words to he and others who had the fortune of finding her, she had only given them all one. And that one word prevented him from pushing the wafers away as they were served him. That one word prevented him from allowing his body to waste away so that he might flee from whatever difficulties and pain his hosts might choose to inflict upon him. That was the power of one, simple word: Hope.

Gaelwyn weakly gripped the steel bars that formed his cell door. Despite his circumstance, a small smile touched his lips.

Hope.

He could still feel it within him, and he knew now, that once it had taken root so many years ago, he would never be without it again. It was, in Gaelwyn’s estimation, among greatest gifts he or any other could be given. And he still yearned to pass that hope on to others here within the wood where he was raised.

Whether and how that might be managed, however, was a complicated and uncertain matter.
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Vaedryan
9:32:38 am GMT 03/09/10
Vaedryan Registered Member #345 Joined: 2:28:49 am GMT 11/25/04
Posts: 1920
Meal-day twenty-nine.

The expected guests had finally arrived, not that Gaelwyn had any choice in whether to accept them; unwelcome guests, yes, but they held the key.

Gaelwyn forced himself to sit up straighter, but relied on the rough stone wall to help support his weight. His strength, due to malnutrition, had atrophied to where his weight had become more than he could bear for an extended period without assistance. He tried to hide that weakness to the extent possible.

A group had gathered outside his cell. Two elves and one taller and more broadly built, a human or half-elf, stood behind the guard as he turned the key in the lock. The lock’s mechanism, evidently rusted from age and disuse, protested with a grinding screech. But it, at last, relented.

The guard swung the cell door open and the three entered, while the guard remained posted outside. The large one, a half-elf Gaelwyn had decided, wore dark leathers with an assortment of small knives sheathed at what seemed random placement across the armor’s surface. The second to enter, an elf distantly familiar to Gaelwyn from his days as a youth here, wore lavish, loose-fitting robes and bore a staff with a sickly green aura emanating from its twisted grains – an arcanist, it appeared. The third winked to the guard and looked around the cell with a jovial expression that seemed out of place, as though he had come to assess some newly inherited property of value. He was a lithe-looking elf in a tunic that seemed to absorb the light wherever he walked. He wore a shortsword on each hip, both swaying slightly as he went to the far corner where the half-elf had taken station. He clapped the leather-clad man on the shoulder and whispered something inaudible to him. He winked and then turned back to whisper again, this time to the arcanist. The arcanist nodded silently. The man with the shortswords then looked back to the guard.

“You can leave us now,” he said, his cheery expression never fading. “I am sure my friends and I are safe enough here.”

The guard began to shut the cell door, and the man shook his head, making a shooing motion with one hand. “There is no need, our guest is not going anywhere. Just some privacy, if you would.”

The guard gave a stiff nod, and the man watched until the guard had disappeared around the far corner of the corridor. He then turned to face Gaelwyn. He remained silent, studying the ranger, while he slipped a leather glove from each hand. He bunched the leather gloves in his right hand, and slapped the limp, empty fingers against his left.

“Ahhh,” he said, breaking the silence at last. “A homecoming... it warms the heart.”

The man hid malice beneath his false cheer, Gaelwyn detected, watching him carefully.

“They tell me you have been eating,” the man continued. “That surprised me, honestly. I had half expected that you would try something as pathetic as refusing our generous cuisine. Though, it appears too good to turn away.”

He bent, scooping up a fleck of wafer from the stone floor and gave it a sniff. He shrugged before discarding it again. He then returned his attention Gaelwyn.

“That is good,” he said. “I do hope that you have been enjoying your stay.” With a flick of his gloves, he pointed to the decaying corpse near the guillotine. “And the company.”

He took a few steps forward to get a better look at the month-dead body. “Well,” he said, “We will perhaps keep you more whole.”

He paced back toward his companions who had not moved, both watching Gaelwyn from their positions in the corner and near the cell door. He then turned again to the ranger. “But I forget my manners. This is Jaedin,” he said, slapping his glove against the arcanists shoulder. “But you may already know that. He tells me that you two once knew each other.”

The man watched Gaelwyn for some reaction. “See,” he continued. “Jaedin had trained alongside you for entry into the scouts. Fortunate enough for us that he failed in that. Far handier with his current talents, I think.”

The man then swung the limp gloves around to swat the half-elf on the chest. “And this is Moqul. But most of us just call him Rip.” The man leaned toward Gaelwyn and lowered his tone as if to confide some secret. “Because that’s what he’s good at.”

“And I,” he said as he twisted the gloves as though wringing a wet cloth. “Well, my name is unimportant, but I will be leading this merry band on our quest for information. I invite you to join us, would you like that?”

Gaelwyn stared silently at the speaker, then glanced briefly to the half-elf, and then to Jaedin. Yes. He recognized the arcanist now; considerably more puffed up with pride than he had been… and likely considerably more powerful, judging by the ominous magics that seemed to radiate from that staff.

The man let out an extended sigh, shook his head, and paced back to the cell door. “I can see that you are not interested in my generous invitation.”

“Nevermind,” he said, turning his focus back to the ranger, his look much harder now, the false cheer vanished. “Let’s dispense with the manners. It is unnecessarily deceptive, don’t you think? I do not want to pretend at civility.”

He locked his hands behind his back, the empty gloves dangling. He began to pace, looking at the stone floor as he spoke. “For, my friend, you will not be handled civilly. No, I believe that Jaedin and Rip will make the coming days quite…” He looked up, his lips contorting as though assessing a fine wine while he searched for the right word.

He turned to face Gaelwyn, dropping into a squat so he could look directly into the ranger’s eyes. When he spoke again, it was hardly more than a whisper. “Uncomfortable.”

He stood again, nodding to himself. “Yes. Uncomfortable. I could not hope to say more without doing a disservice to the talents these men possess, for the pain that they can inflict may take any form: sharp, dull, lasting, brief, physical, emotional… I am certain you will experience a range of sensation that you did not realize was even possible, and may have preferred to leave unexplored."

He remained silent for several moments before continuing. “But I suppose you are aware of that, aren’t you?”

He again watched Gaelwyn for some reaction before continuing. “Ah yes, aware,” he said, walking over to a manacle dangling from the ceiling by a linked chain. “But are you prepared for it?”

He flecked some dark substance from the rusted metal of the manacle; dried blood? Flesh cured from age?

“There is a difference, you see?” The man sniffed the substance he had scraped free, looked at it curiously, then dusted it from his thumb nail. He then continued, “A difference between being aware of something, and being prepared for it. And I can assure you, not many would be prepared for the days that lay in your future.”

He batted the manacle with the loose gloves, sending it swinging pendulum-like.

“Some would tell you that you can make this so much easier on yourself and I if you would just agree to speak to us honestly,” he said, pacing back toward his companions. “And that, by doing so, you would deprive my friends here of their enjoyment. An added boon for you, I am sure.”

He turned again to face Gaelwyn, “But not I.”

“How could I be sure that you were being honest with us?” he said as he shugged. “You see… that is my predicament. So even though, we might be able to manage this differently, I think it best to allow Jaedin and Rip to have their fun.”

“I am sure you would agree if you were in my shoes.”

“It is rather unfortunate, though. These men, they do things I would wish only on my gravest enemies,” he said before smiling, sharing his malice openly for the first time through his grin. “But then, I suppose it is my good fortune that would include you, wouldn’t it now… Ranger of Greenvale?”

He nodded, his grin remaining undiminished. “Yes,” he said. “Yes it would.”

“So I will not waste any more of your precious time. You should cherish these moments. Who can say how long they will last?”

He clapped the gloves into an open hand a few times as he watched Gaelwyn. He seemed to come to some decision, and he then turned. “Rip, come.”

He slapped the arcanist on the shoulder. “Jaedin, make sure that he survives.”

With that, he and the half elf left, locking the cell door behind them. Gaelwyn watched them go, certain that he had not meant the last as any kind of mercy.

Alone with Gaelwyn now, Jaedin’s eyes flashed.
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Vaedryan
3:52:53 pm GMT 03/16/10
Vaedryan Registered Member #345 Joined: 2:28:49 am GMT 11/25/04
Posts: 1920
Over days that had blurred from one to the next, Jaedin and Rip subjected Gaelwyn to their mind-bending sorcery and nerve-biting blades. They pushed him so often beyond mortal capacities for pain and magic that reality and the dreams and visions that came during moments of unconsciousness intertwined. It was in that ethereal uncertainty, that blending of realities, where Gaelwyn found salvation.

The faces of the fallen, those who had served the Wood before and alongside him, at the cost of their lives, had hovered within that haze. Their silent stares implored Gaelwyn to find the strength to resist the questioning. Their sacrifices demanded it.

With these visages his guardians, though his screams had echoed off the prison’s stone walls, in the end, the ranger’s oaths remained unbroken.

His body, however, weathered the treatment with less success.

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