I looked down at the rope I was using to set up my shelter for the evening and frowned.
Frayed… Looks like I’ll have to start over.
I sighed, sat down, and got to work re-tying all the knots. As I worked the ropes through my hand by memory I let my eyes drift over to our camp. Traversing the middle of a warzone we had been running cold camps since entering Aartanian territory. Several of the scouts I had trained over the winter exchanged stories with Gillams new guardsmen. Nearby, Gillam and Kushlu were sitting next to each other eating their dinner, Gillam looked uncomfortable yet still there was happiness in his eyes. Gillam shuffled in his seat he made an awkward joke that, from an average person, would likely have drawn groans; something he seemed to realize this as soon as he had said it, but Kushlu smiled and let out a laugh. I too couldn’t help but smile. My gaze drifted towards the back of the camp where Mahala sat up high in a tree watching Phaedra and Wendika sparring. Despite sustaining injuries earlier in the day Phaedra always seemed insistent on her practice with Wendika, it helped her focus. Something I could understand. Looking out at the camp I felt oddly content despite our precarious surroundings. Though I had enjoyed the solitude of wintering alone, I was glad to be back on the road with these now familiar faces. Years as a guide had taught me the strength one can draw from living a life of relative isolation and what I could learn of the world when meeting it on my own terms. However, I now knew why my father always had his wistful smile when he would tell me stories of his tribe. I now understood the value of companionship, and I was glad that I too had found a group that I could call my comrades, my friends. There were many things uncertain in our future and I knew there was a great danger beyond any of our understanding approaching, but I knew we would face it together.
As I finished retying the rope I made my bed hoping for a good night’s rest before our expected approach on Aarta the following day. I had barely closed my eyes when I heard familiar heavy boot steps approaching. I opened my eyes and looked up to see a somewhat nervous Gillam, fiddling with his ring.
“Evening, Gillam. What can I do for you?”
“There’s something strange with my ring.” He said and he held out his hand. That his ring was magical, that I already knew and witnessed. I asked him what exactly he meant, and he explained that is felt warm, and had changed colors. Intrigued I focused on the ring, watching the arcane energy flow around his hand. It seemed to emanate energy in waves. Gillam mentioned that as he wore it, he felt stronger than before, though that could have just been due to his new training regimen with his subordinates. I looked closer and assured him that there was indeed something special about the ring. I asked him if I could see it and he handed it over, somewhat hesitantly. The moment the ring left Gillam’s hand it went cold and the emanation ceased.
“Curious…,” I said, “Though I am unsure exactly how your ring works it appears as though you have somehow formed a bond with the ring as it stops responding when it leaves your person. I wish I had a more complete answer than that but it’s all I can tell you friend. We’ll have to keep an eye on it to see if it changes.”
He looked somewhat disappointed in the answer I gave but he understood, thanked me for my time, and headed back to his bedroll. As I watched him go my mind began to race with possibilities over the cause of such energy. I lay awake thinking of potential explanations for at least another hour, though I eventually drifted off.
As I slept I suddenly felt a stabbing pain as an immense wave of arcane energy washed over me. I sat up with a start, wincing and in a cold sweat. I looked out over our camp, desperately trying to find the source of the energy. The camp was quiet, and everyone was sleeping. Then I saw it. Phaedra, was standing slightly outside of the camp looking with wonder at…something. I could feel the energy flowing from around what looked like ripped cloth, but there was no cloth, just the air. Arcane energy was spilling from around the tear but at the tear itself I could feel nothing, in fact it appeared to be consuming the energy around it. I saw Phaedra raise her hand as though she was going to touch the tear, I screamed out at her,
“STOP! DON’T TOUCH IT!” I bolted out of my bed roll and made a mad dash for Phaedra, in my haste I tripped over the dammed frayed rope. As stood up I felt momentary relief as Phaedra had opted to test her short sword on the tear instead of her hand. I got up and made my way over.
“What do you think you’re doing!?” I asked, unable to mask the fear and slight anger from my voice. Phaedra just looked at me with excitement and wonderment.
“Erol! Look how awesome this is,” as she said this she thrust the short sword at me, the top half of the blade was gone and the tear had closed. “Isn’t it incredible.”
“Terrifying is more the word I would use.”
“Don’t be such a stick in the mud! I can cut to other places!”
As she said this she blindly swung the dagger in the air. There was another flash of light and I winced as the wave of energy burst out again. As my vision cleared from the blinding flash I saw Phaedra and the smile had faded from her face. There was another “tear” where she had sliced, and from it I could see the inside of a stately manor. Phaedra nearly collapsed into the “tear” as she barely mouthed the words “_home_”
I tried to grab her as she fell, but she proved to be as slippery as ever. I could see tears welling in her eyes as she slowly tried to crawl through the rip in reality. I looked to the sides and saw the infinite black “fabric” begin to fold in on itself, and Phaedra. Instinctively I grabbed her by the collar and yanked her back out just as the “tear” closed. As it closed Phaedra let out a scream that shook me to my very core. It was a scream of anguish, loss, and regret. I knelt down and held my hand out to her and said,
“Our path will certainly lead us back to your home, but that is not the way.”
She burst out crying. I tried to console her but fumbled with my words as I always do, so I decided it was better to just be quiet and sat up with my friend and let her cry it out. Gillam, who had by now awoken looked on quizzically. I told him it would be fine and that he should get some rest. He nodded knowingly and headed back to camp. After a while Phaedra stood up in silence, didn’t say a word, what was there to say really, and returned to camp. I did the same, rubbing my eyes knowing dawn was fast approaching.
I awoke what seemed like moments later as the sun rose over the hills of Aarta. Today we would reach the capital if we maintained our current speed. Kushlu and Phaedra had managed to mostly translate the orders we had taken off of the ambush of Dalyirian soldiers. It appeared as though they were to move their troops in hopes of locating the Aartanian military from Karpatia which had gone missing. I suspected the Karpatian forces had headed for the coastal road since we saw the tracks headed that way slightly outside the city. However we could worry more about the movements of armies when we reached the capital and found out exactly what was going on. As we broke camp I could see Phaedra was still troubled by the events of the previous night. To see a vision of home, I am certain that I too would be troubled with my own regrets. Though I was more worried about the immense power that dagger contained, it was a dangerous tool and we would do well to use it with caution.
About an hour after breaking camp we reached a small valley with a road crossing through it. As we drew near I saw a horseman, flying Dalyrian colors approaching, headed toward the sea in a hurry. We opted for caution and let the man pass, rather than get entangled in more trouble. After he passed we crossed through the valley. Upon reaching the valley floor I noticed a large number of booted tracks heading in the same direction as the horseman, seemed a military force heading that direction, likely Dalyrian. Seeing this we knew time was short and pressed onward toward Aarta.
As we approached the city, it became clear the open fields outside the walls had become a no man’s land. It would be dangerous crossing. However before we could even decide how to approach that territory we spotted several Dalyrian archers keeping watch towards to city. We had no desire to engage them directly, hoping to avoid bloodshed, and Phaedra was decidedly against killing her countrymen. So we cooked up a plan where Phaedra would disguise herself as a high ranking military official and try to lure the men off. She agreed to the plan and set up her disguise.
She approached the group and immediately began barking orders at them in Marian. Whatever she said seemed to work as the men ran off in the direction of the sea, and away from us. Despite her troubled heart Phaedra was still a professional, always working wonders. We were truly lucky to have her in our party.
The archers dispatched, we next needed to decide how to approach no man’s land, whether to fly colors, and if colors for which nation. Eventually we decided to fly white, hoping to avoid confrontation. This seemed to work though as we approached the wall we noticed a very well-armed “welcoming party” waiting for us. Gillam took point here speaking directly to the sergeant who stepped out to greet us. He flashed his seal of office as a Scion of House Sandemar, and eventually we were able to convince them to let us into the city to meet with the general of the Aartanian military.
The city seemed completely different from when I had last visited, barely a month prior. The streets were quiet and there was uneasiness in the air. As we were brought into the barracks the atmosphere remained grim, yet determined. We were swiftly brought into a command room and introduced to the general. Gillam and I explained where we had come from and why and also told him about our suspicions of the military movements. Upon seeing the Dalyarian orders we had acquired the entire room quickly jumped into action and we found ourselves pushed to the side, and told to wait.
As we sat waiting, Phaedra’s mood seemed to turn darker and darker; she eventually burst out in frustration,
“This is so stupid! Why are we helping these Aartanian bastards? My family could be in danger.”
I tried to explain to her the danger of what she had seen and that we would find a way to her home, together. But I stumbled over my words and just made her more upset. Gillam tried to appeal to her sense of honor and duty to Dhonyl. But she was clearly upset and charged out of the room in a huff. I wanted to go after her but felt it might be best for her to have a moment to refocus on the situation at hand. So Gillam and I sat there as the Aartanians moved around us. Suddenly I felt a familiar sensation wash over me and sat up with a start, my heart dropped. Phaedra is using the dagger.
I got up with a start and ran to the source of the magic. Gillam called after me asking what in the bloody hell I was doing. I didn’t respond and began to run, my heart racing, I didn’t have much time before the portal would close. I looked down several alleyways and saw nothing. I followed the source but then it was gone. My heart sank; I turned the corner and looked upon where I felt the source of energy. But there was nothing but a pile of cut ropes. I picked up the frayed end and clenched it in my fist. Just as I did so Gillam rounded the corner.
“Where do you think you’re running off to?” He asked me in a worried tone.
“It’s Phaedra, Gil.” I said in defeat, “She’s gone.”