Purification episode 65: Needed Respite

Axra carried Twila the rest of the way up the steps. By the time they’d reached the top, she was feeling really worn down, her arms aching. Lilly had offered to carry Twila for a while at one point, but Axra had turned her down. She was determined to finish the job she’d started. Especially since Twila had it even worse.

Axra hadn’t noticed how much of an effort spell casting took before. But after maintaining the energy bridge long enough for everyone to cross Twila would be sweating and she’d quickly go limp. She even fell asleep for nearly an hour at one point.

They’d finally reached the top and Twila was using her phasing spells on small groups. Sending them through one by one.

“Do you need to rest for a bit?” Axra asked.

“I’m fine,” Twila said. “I’ll rest after we get through.”

“You sure?”

Twila nodded. “It’s too dangerous to linger here right now. The reapers may return or the psyrens could try to stop us from getting more through.”

Twila continued her work. Lilly and Lysara kept guard around the entrance, watching for any signs whatsoever of danger. Bonnie, Velvet and Reginald watched the rear, slowly but surely approaching the others. Fang flew around above.

Eventually, the eight of them were all that remained. They’d gotten the dark elves through.

“Do we have to rest up here?” Lysara asked.

“It’ll be for the best,” Bonnie answered. “I don’t think either Twila or Axra is in any shape to climb back down today.”

“I know, but it’s so… creepy up here,” Lysara said. “It feels like there could be a rock-slide and we’d all just fall.”

“Would’ve happened already if it was going to,” Bonnie assured her. “You have nothing to fear.”

“Will you catch me if I look like I’m going to fall?” Lysara asked.

“Well, yes,” Bonnie said.

“Because you love me,” Lysara stated.

“Well, no,” Bonnie said. “I’d do the same for any comrade.”

“Terribly sorry to interrupt,” Twila said. “But we have to go through too. I need to drop the books the elder gave me off with my aunt. We can rest on the other side and come back through after we’ve rested.”

“In short, gather round because she’s only using the spell once more today,” Axra said.

With difficulty, Twila managed to get them phased. They hurried through the rocks. Axra quickly found moving forward difficult. It hadn’t been that bad before, but she had been well rested and not carrying all that much. She trudged on, making it out right before the spell wore off.

Derry and Elaine were watching as they emerged. The rest of Derry’s group were preparing for the final leg of their journey. A couple soldiers were standing a respectful distance from Elaine, while watching everything near her.

“Thank you all so much,” Derry said. “On behalf of all of us. You can visit us as honoured guests at anytime.”

“Our sisters are going to be living down one of the more rural tunnels,” Elaine explained. “It’s relatively free of the main city, but close enough to be offered our protection. They’ll get a few seats on the council to be decided by their own methods. It will certainly take some adjustment for all of us.”

Derry nodded. “At least we’re free to explore this strange but magnificent surface world of yours.”

“I’m happy for you,” Twila said.

“Do you want to come back to the city with us or are you going to camp here and leave as soon as you can?” Elaine inquired.

“We’ll camp,” Twila answered. “Our business with the old city really is pressing.”

“Figured you’d say that,” Elaine said. “Good fortune to you all. Since you aren’t coming along I’ll grab those books before we head out.”

“They’re in my bag,” Twila said. With an effort, she unlatched it and handed it to her aunt.

“I’ll return it shortly,” Elaine promised. She looked back at Axra. “Do you intend to hold my niece all night or are you going to let her down to sleep?”

Axra put Twila gently down.

*****

“Excuse me, Mister.”

Velvet yawned and looked over. “Yeah, Kid?”

The young girl moved right up to his face. “You know, you saved me and mommy in there.”

Velvet studied her briefly. “Was that you? Well, you’re welcome.”

“And, you know something else,” she continued. “Someday, I’m gonna work really hard and be super strong like you!”

“That’ll be a sight to see,” Velvet muttered. He lazily reached up and ruffled her hair. “You do that.”

“Blome, don’t bother the nice gentleman.” The girl’s mother approached. “Sorry about that. We are truly grateful for your heroism though.”

“well, you’re welcome,” Velvet said. “But I really didn’t do anything except what I had to.”

“Yes you did,” she insisted. “And we won’t forget it.”

*****

“Will you look at that,” Reginald said. “She’s practically fawning over him.”

“He did save her life,” Bonnie said.

“Even so,” Reginald said. “You’d think the rest of us hadn’t done anything.”

Bonnie shrugged. “We all did our parts. He’s just getting extra recognition from her because he’s the one who personally carried her to safety. It’s not a big deal.”

*****

Elaine grabbed the books from Twila’s bag, returned it to her, hugged Twila goodbye and marched out with Derry and her group following behind.

Bonnie and Reginald got their tents up while Lilly did the cooking. Twila and Axra were resting side by side and Velvet had fallen asleep on the ground.

“Bon!” Lysara called in a sing-song voice. She skipped over and grabbed Bonnie’s hand. “Come over here, just for a bit, okay?”

“Well, since we are safe for the moment I guess I can,” Bonnie said. She let Lysara lead her away.

Lysara led her down an empty tunnel away from the others. “You know,” she began. “I had a talk with Twila while her aunt was getting the books.”

“I see,” Bonnie said, looking nervously back the way they’d come.

“I told her I was giving up on her,” Lysara said. “I hope I didn’t hurt her, but I have to be true to myself, you know?”

“Really?” Bonnie was shocked to hear that. Her head swiveled around. Lysara was standing really close to her. Bonnie felt her cheeks flush.

Lysara nodded. “I thought about it a lot and I realised something.” She was circling around Bonnie as she spoke. “I was grateful to Twila and I thought she was cute, but all it was was a crush. What I feel for you…” Lysara stopped and gazed directly into Bonnie’s eyes. “It’s so much more.”

Bonnie couldn’t bring herself to respond. Her heart was beating far too fast. Was this really happening?

“Bon… Bon,” Lysara said. “Would… would it be okay if…”

“I’m sorry?” Bonnie asked. “I didn’t catch all of that.”

Lysara took a deep breath and spoke louder and more clearly. “Would it be okay if I kiss you right now?”

Bonnie nearly jumped backwards. She studied Lysara’s face for any signs that she was joking. Lysara looked back at her, with a face filled with longing.

“I’ve never with anyone before,” Bonnie whispered. “But… but if it’s you, I’ll allow it.”

Lysara smiled widely and stepped forward. She leaned her head towards Bonnie’s. Without thinking, Bonnie leaned towards her as well and it was in that moment that their lips met.

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Purification episode 64: Twila Wakens

Axra patrolled the front line. Lysara and Lilly were waiting with Twila in between them, but she wasn’t all that confident with their abilities to respond if more flying skeleton monsters, whatever they were called, showed up.

She was brought to attention by a faint murmur.

“Wh… what happened? Why can’t I see?”

“Just stay still, okay,” Lilly said. “You collapsed. You’ve been out for a little while.”

“We were so worried,” Lysara added.

“I hate to ask, but are you okay to cast more spells?” Axra inquired. “If you aren’t we can wait around for a bit more, but…”

“I know,” Twila said. “We should get moving. I’ll be okay. I’m sorry, I worried you all. Really, I’m all right. We’re more than halfway there, so I should be able to make it. I just need to start with the darkvision spell. Lilly, Lysara, stay close to me. I’ll get all three of us at once.”

She hurriedly cast the spell. Lysara and Lilly squinted for a moment.

“It’s weird being able to see after experiencing just how dark it is down here,” Lysara noted. “Isn’t it?”

“I… I suppose it is, a little,” Lilly agreed.

“Now then,” Twila said, shakily getting back to her feet. “I’d better get Bonnie and Reginald taken care of too.”

“Hold up,” Axra said.

“What is it?” Twila asked.

“I don’t really know much about magic,” Axra began, scratching her head, “but the toll it takes is pretty physical, right? You know, a strain on the body?”

“Well, yeah,” Twila answered.

“So, would it help ease the strain a bit if you could relax your body?” Axra asked. “Like how Velvet travels by getting pulled around by his dogs most of the time?”

“It would probably help somewhat,” Twila said. “But I don’t have trained dogs. So…”

“Then, let me ease your burden,” Axra interrupted. She lifted Twila in her arms, cradling her. “I’ll carry you.”

“This isn’t…” Twila began. She looked up into Axra’s eyes. “Okay, just until we get them through the rock wall.”

Axra nodded. “Okay, I’ll take you to Bonnie. You two, watch the front while we’re gone.”

“Y… you can count on us,” Lilly said. She and Lysara watched the two fade into the crowd.

“What is with that girl and carrying others around?” Lysara asked. “First it was carrying you over the gaps. Now it’s Twila. Shouldn’t a princess be more, I dunno, used to being pampered?”

“W… well, Axra’s dads never spoi… They… they always encouraged her to exercise,” Lilly explained. “She used to spar with them and everything. So… she isn’t really used to being spoiled… in that way.”

“Is that so?” Lysara asked.

*****

Axra carried Twila through the crowd as quickly as she could. “Hey,” Axra said. “I know that you’re strong and you don’t like to burden others, but don’t try to carry it all on you own. I care about you and I’ll do whatever I can to help you out. Lysara and Lilly too. So, don’t try to do it on your own. If you’re tired or need help, you can tell us and we’ll do everything we can.”

“Because we’re friends?” Twila asked.

“Oh, yeah. That’s exactly it,” Axra said.

“I guess I’m not used to having friends like that,” Twila said. “When I was younger… well, I spent so much time studying that I didn’t really make any friends. The only ones I could count on were my family and teachers. But, I’ll try to remember that. For next time.”

The two found Bonnie with a blindfold covering her face. Reginald was taking a nap.

“Hey,” Velvet said.

“I keep telling you to look sharp,” Bonnie said. “You’re the only one who can see.”

“Yeah, but the princess is here,” Velvet stated. “And she brought Twila.”

“Princess!” Bonnie stood and saluted, surprisingly in the right direction. “I’m sorry that you had to see me in this state.”

“Cut the formalities,” Axra said. “What’s with the blindfold anyway?”

“I put it on to stop my lack of sight from being too distracting,” Bonnie said.

“Well, take it off,” Axra said. “Twila’s going to recast darkvision on you and Reginald. Then we’ll get back to the front and get moving to the top.”

“I understand,” Bonnie said.

Twila cast the spell on Bonnie first and then Reginald.

“That should do it,” Twila said. “Now we’ll be prepared in case something attacks us. Incidentally, was there anything like that while I was out?”

Axra’s gaze met hers and she noticed, for the first time, that she was holding Twila close enough that their lips could meet with a slight tilt and craning of the neck.

“Well, there were some flying skeleton things,” Axra answered, shaking her head slightly to dismiss the thought. “It was weird too. A couple of them broke off and made directly for you. Almost like they were targeting you. Thankfully, Lilly was able to handle them, even though she was blinded at the time.”

“Flying skeletons?” Twila asked. “Bat-like wings?”

Axra nodded. “Yeah. I’ve never heard of anything like them.”

“I have,” Twila said. “In some ancient texts. They were called Reapers. Supposedly they were artificially created magic creatures used to hunt mages. They prolong their lives by feeding off of mages. Draining their lives and magic.”

“So, someone sent those things after us?” Bonnie asked.

“Probably,” Twila answered. “It doesn’t seem likely that they survived down here all this time naturally. The question is who and why.” She looked up at Axra. “Keep your guard up.”

“No worries,” Axra said. “If more show up I’ll crush them in not time at all.”

“Whoever sent them is targeting Twila,” Bonnie said. “Fight defensively to keep them away from her and you should be fine.”

Axra nodded. “Got it.”

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Purification episode 63: Battle in the Dark

Axra held onto her blade and waited. Waited for the flying monsters to come into her range. Lysara had her chakram out and waited by her side. The creatures lined up in the air, forming a circle.

“Looks like they’re trying to surround us,” Axra noted. “We’ll have to really go back to back.” She and Lysara pushed their backs together.

“Never thought I’d be entrusting my back to you,” Axra said. “I’m counting on you, Lysara.”

“Don’t worry,” Lysara stated “I won’t let you down. We both have a precious person to protect, after all.”

The monsters hovered above them and swooped. Axra brought up her blade to block their weapons, keeping her thrusts and swings controlled. She managed to bring one down with a counter-swing and pull her blade back in time to block a spear thrust.

Lysara swung her chakram around wildly at everything that came near her. Miraculously managing to deflect all of their attacks.

“Keep calm!” Axra declared. “Don’t waste so much energy on unnecessary movements. Look at where they’re coming from and guard those spots. Look for a chance to counter-attack while doing it.”

“Okay,” Lysara said. “I’ll… I’ll try.”

Axra took a quick stock of the creatures encircling them. Eleven. “Dammit!” Axra exclaimed. “Two of them are missing.” She glanced quickly above them. Nothing.

“Over there,” Lysara said. “They’re heading for Lilly.”

“No choice,” Axra said. “We have to break through and get to her. On three. One, two, break.”

The two hurriedly moved away from each other and swung into the oncoming creatures.

Lysara jumped to evade a mace swing and her chakram sliced open one of the creature’s skulls. She hurriedly moved backwards to avoid two more of the creatures. Their blade and spear hitting the ground where she was heading.

Unfortunately, she couldn’t control her landing and had to hurriedly get back up, while the creatures were making their move.

She was saved only by Fang’s arrival into the fray. The tiny dragon hurled fire at the two beasts heading for her, slowing them enough for Lysara to regain her feet. She ran at the alight creatures, chakram flashing on both sides. Two skulls separated from their bodies.

Axra strode carefully, but quickly through the mass of enemies. He initial swing had brought down one while injuring another. Five more moved to block her way.

Was this a distraction? Were these ones sacrifices to let the others reach Twila? It did make sense, strategically. After all, without Twila’s magic they were trapped down here. But… were these creatures really that smart?

She cut down another creature, but had to pull back. The other four had built a pretty solid defense. If she only had time…

That’s when she heard a scream. “My eyes! I can’t see!”

She glanced over at Lysara. The other woman was flailing around at nothing. Two of the creatures had landed behind her and were creeping up behind her.

“Behind you!” Axra yelled. “One to your left, the other dead centre!”

Lysara turned and swung at the areas that Axra had indicated, but the creatures had already flown back.

“Hold on!” Axra shouted. “I’m coming to get you.”

“You can’t!” Lysara protested. “You have to save Twila and Lilly. Just… just leave me. I’ll manage somehow.”

Axra swung one final time at the four creatures in front of her before breaking away and running towards Lysara. The four pursued, but Fang breathed a wall of fire between Axra and her pursuers. She cut down the two monsters who were menacing Lysara and grabbed the smaller woman.

“Quick, get on my back and hold on. We’re making a dash for it.”

“But… Twila and,” Lysara began.

“They’ll be fine,” Axra said. “I know that Lilly will manage. But you, you’re kind of helpless and I won’t leave one of my friends behind when she’s helpless.”

*****

Lilly had her bow prepped and was tracking the two winged creatures when everything became pitch black. She could hear their leathery wings softly flap overhead. Getting closer, closer.

Blindly, she fired an arrow at the sound. The sound moved farther back for a moment, before returning. This time quickly and chaotically.

Lilly covered Twila’s body with her own, bracing herself as the sound got nearer. She just had to save Twila. Then Twila and Axra could live happily. It wasn’t so bad, she mused, to die for the women she loved.

Just when she was certain that the creature’s blade was going to pierce her, she heard a crackle of energy and a shriek of terror.

After that, he sound of the wings was gone. “Tw… Twila?” Lilly whispered. “Di… did you do that?” The other woman didn’t respond. Lilly kept holding her, just in case.

“Lilly!” she heard Axra cry.

“Y… yes, Pr… Axra?” Lilly asked.

“You can stop holding her so tightly,” Axra said. “Those things are done for. What’d you hit them with anyway?”

“M… me?” Lilly asked. “I… I didn’t… I mean…”

“Well, whatever it is you did great,” Axra said, patting Lilly’s shoulder. “I’ll keep watch. You and Lysara should stay back until Twila wakes up and can redo the darkvision spell. I don’t want Lysara almost going over the edge again.”

“I guess Axra was right,” Lysara said. “You did manage on your own.”

“I… I suppose,” Lilly said. “I… I just wish I knew how.”

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Purification episode 62: Further Complications

“Strange,” Bonnie muttered. “Didn’t we agree to go non-stop?”

“We did,” Reginald confirmed. “Of course, they may have decided it was too strenuous. You know how those types are.” He gestured towards Velvet who had fallen into a light sleep propped up against the cavern wall.

“I really should check it out,” Bonnie said. “Will you two be okay while I’m gone?”

“I believe that I can hold this position adequately,” Reginald said. “I make no guarantees for him.”

“Well, he is stupidly strong,” Bonnie said. “He could really burn through the ranks if not for his chronic laziness.”

“Don’t need to go through the ranks,” Velvet muttered. “I’m gonna get rich off of my looks and do nothing for the rest of my life.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Bonnie said. “I’ll be back as quickly as I can.”

She headed into the crowd, making her way toward the front.

*****

“Here,” Lilly said. “Let me hold her for a moment.”

Axra moved over to let Lilly take over. “So, those herbs of yours are ready?”

“Oh, yes,” Lilly said. “I… I hope these will bring her fever down. I… I mean, they should… but it can be hard to tell if, you know, an ailment is brought on by over-using magic.”

“I just hope she comes out okay,” Lysara said, she was gently strumming her lyre.

“Hey, what’s going on?” Bonnie called. Lysara hurriedly moved to block her view of the others.

“Oh, Bon!” she exclaimed. “Did you come to find me? That’s so lovely of you!”

“I actually came to find out why we’ve stopped,” Bonnie said. “It has nothing to do with you.”

“Oh Bon, you’re so transparent,” Lysara stated. “I understand. You want to gaze deeply into my eyes and whisper sweet, sweet poetry in my ears. Oh, it would be a grand romantic moment.” She put a finger up to Bonnie’s lips. “But alas, such things must wait. We are, after all, surrounded on all sides by onlookers and such a romantic display should be in a more… intimate setting. So, I entreat you, wait, Sweet Bon, until this task is done and we can be alone.”

“I’m telling you, that’s not it!” Bonnie cried, her cheeks flushing. “What are they doing over there, anyway?”

“Oh, Twila is taking a nap,” Lysara answered. “And you know how Axra and Lilly are. They just have to keep watch to make sure nothing dangerous is coming.”

Bonnie looked around to make sure there was no one too close. “Twila collapsed, didn’t she?”

Lysara nodded very slightly. “Keep it a secret, okay?” she winked at Bonnie.

“Agreed,” Bonnie said. “Wouldn’t do to cause a panic. I’ll go back to my post.”

*****

“Her fever’s going down,” Axra observed. “Looks like your herbs are working.”

“Thank the Gods,” Lilly whispered.

“So, how soon can we move?” Lysara asked. “It’s getting to the point where they’re starting to ask a lot of questions and I don’t know how much longer I can deflect them.”

“Well, you’ll have to keep it up,” Axra said. “At least for a while longer.”

“Th… that isn’t the only problem,” Lilly said. “Th… the darkvision spell is going to wear off soon. If… if it doesn’t get renewed you and Velvet will be the only ones who can see.”

The three of them were interrupted by the sound of Fang screeching overhead.

“And there’s another problem,” Axra said. “Lilly, guard Twila. Lysara and I will deal with them.”

“What are they?” Lysara asked.

It was a good question. One that Axra couldn’t answer. They looked skeletal with some throbbing veins stretched along them and bat-like wings keeping them aloft. In their visible sockets flashed eerie green lights. They carried an assortment of spears, tridents, maces and blades.

“Too many,” Lysara muttered. “There are definitely too many.”

“Fourteen to two,” Axra stated. “We’ll just have to do it.” She gave Todberührung a practice swing. “I definitely won’t let you bastards touch Twila or Lilly!”

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Purification episode 61: Unexpected Break

“I knew I was in trouble,” Axra said. “But I stood firm. I ran at one of the golems and my sword  grazed its flesh, turning it to dust. Right, Lilly?”

“Oh… yes. Th… that is what happened… basically,” Lilly agreed.

“I didn’t know your sword could turn enemies into dust,” Twila stated. “How do you activate it?”

Axra shrugged. “Beats me. I’ve only managed to do it during that fight and when I fought those three dragons. Turned one to dust before you got there.”

“Huh..” Twila muttered.

“Is… is something wrong?” Lilly asked.

“Possibly,” Twila answered. “Tell me, did you feel exhausted after the fight? I mean, more than you would normally.”

“Not really,” Axra said.

“Huh…” Twila muttered.

“Just what are you mumbling about?” Axra asked.

“It’s strange,” Twila said. “All magic has a price. There’s only so much that I or another mage can do before we exhaust ourselves. It’s very much a physical toll. Clerical magic works by the practitioner dedicating time and worship to the Gods to curry favour with them. Hence being gifted with part of their power. Enchanted weapons are odd. They’re either charged with magic by their makers or they take power from their wielder. The greater the weapon’s power, the more exhausting it is to use. And a power that can disintegrate ones enemies…”

“So, that means it has a charge,” Axra said.

“G… Gail did say that Axra’s sword was the work of Hephaestus,” Lilly added.

“That’s the problem,” Twila said. “Charged weapons have powers that are used by a specific trigger from their wielder, but it sounds like you’ve used yours on accident. So…” She shook her head. “Never mind. I’ll figure it out when I see its power in action.”

They continued their march, slowly and steadily making their way up the steps. Lysara grabbed Lilly’s arm and pulled her back a little.

“Oh… I… Did you… need something?” Lilly asked.

“I don’t know what to do,” Lysara whispered, urgently. “I mean, Bon’s beautiful and kind and anything a girl could want. But I don’t know what to do about Twila. I can’t just leave her. I mean, I do love her dearly too. So… you’ve got to help me.”

“M… me?” Lilly asked.

Lysara nodded. “Yes, you. I don’t know what to do. You’re Bon’s closest friend from what I can tell and your feelings for Twila are pretty obvious. So, I know you’ll give me the best advice for both their sakes.”

“M… my… fee… for Twila?” Lilly asked. “I… I’m not sure exactly what you mean… but… but I do know that… well, when it comes to these things… you have to, you know, follow your heart.”

“What kind of vague rubbish is that?” Lysara demanded. “Whatever, I’ll figure it out on my own.”

“Oh… I’m sorry,” Lilly muttered. But Lysara was already walking away from her.

“Why can’t I just have them both?” She cried. Both Twila and Axra turned.

“Is something wrong?” Twila asked.

“Oh… Lysara was just… thinking about what to have…. for dinner,” Lilly answered. “S… ure. I can make a stew and… and just grill some meat with vegetables. It… it’s okay if you have a bit of both.”

“All that fuss over how to cook?” Axra said. “Either way it’s the same basic thing. Who even cares?”

“Well, it does taste different,” Twila said. “Although it’s really nothing to get that upset over.”

The group continued their march. Twila cast her spell over gap after gap. Sometimes having to do two at once when they were close enough together.

Axra watched as her footing grew more and more laboured. “Are you gonna be okay? You don’t look so good,” she observed.

“I…” Twila took a deep breath. “I’m fine. I just…” she tripped and fell forward. Axra caught her before she could hit the ground.

“Twila? Twila?”

“Is… is she okay?” Lilly asked.

Axra knelt down and touched her forehead to Twila’s. “She’s burning up,” Axra answered. “I don’t think she’s going to wake up anytime soon.”

“I… I have some herbs,” Lilly said. “They might help… if I, you know… mix them up properly.”

“Do it,” Axra ordered.

“Excuse me,” Derry said, pushing her way up from the crowd of dark elves. “Is everything all right?”

“Oh… just a minor… thing…” Lilly said.

“No problem at all,” Lysara interrupted. “But you’ve all been marching so hard we decided to take a short break. Rest those weary legs muscles.” She put a hand on Derry’s shoulder. “So you go tell your friends to have a seat and kick back for a little while. Maybe have something quick to eat and we’ll be on our way shortly. Kay?”

“Oh, I see,” Derry said. “I guess the trek has been pretty tough. Okay, I’ll go spread the word.” She moved back into the crowd, the closest dark elves were already sitting down, carefully to avoid the edge.

Lysara breathed a sigh of relief.

“Good thinking,” Axra commended her. “We don’t need a panic right now.”

“Just leave it to me to keep up morale,” Lysara declared. She knelt down to take a better look at Twila. “Will she be okay?”

“After some rest,” Axra said. “I know she’ll be just fine after some rest.”

“Bu… but we can’t wait too long,” Lilly observed. “Th… they’ll notice and then… then they’ll be upset.”

“Can’t be helped,” Axra said. “We’re pretty close to another gap. We certainly can’t get them over it without Twila. Until she’s had some rest.. We’re stuck.”

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Purification episode 60: Challenge of the Steps

Twila gathered the group together while the dark elves were occupied with preparing for the day’s journey.

“We have to decide how to do this,” she stated.

“I thought we just had to guard from the front and rear,” Lysara said. “You did say that, right?”

“Positioning ourselves isn’t the problem,” Twila said. “It’s getting over the crevices. We can manage, but getting them over may prove difficult.”

“We’ll have to put the children and those in poor physical condition to the very front and very back,” Axra said. “Where it’ll be easier to help them.”

“I… I don’t think that’s the problem,” Lilly said. “I… I mean… most of us are, you know, soldiers or adventurers. A… and Axra has trained with her dads since… well since she was little. Th… they don’t have that advantage.”

Twila nodded in agreement. “And the seven of us can’t hoist the entire population over every broken part of the stairs.”

Fang let out a soft roar.

“Sorry, but you can’t lift them so I wasn’t counting you.”

Fang let out a low grunt.

“I am not belittling you. But you are just a little dragon, after all.”

“Fixing the steps would take time and gathering materials,” Bonnie muttered.

“Time we don’t have,” Axra said. “The longer we wait the more likely we are to be attacked by psyrens.”

“So, what are we going to do?” Lysara asked.

“We could always magic our way over,” Reginald suggested. He turned to Twila. “You can bridge the gap temporarily, can you not?”

“Maybe,” Twila answered. “But it’s not a spell I’m super familiar with. I don’t know if I could maintain it long enough to get everyone over or how stable it would be. Even if I could manage it, it would take enough power that I’d be useless if we were attacked.”

“We may have to chance it,” Axra said. “If we do get attacked the rest of us can pick up the slack.”

“Don’t worry,” Lilly said. “I know you can do it. I mean, you’re smart and bea… strong.”

“I know you can do it!” Lysara exclaimed.

“All right,” Twila said. “I’ll go with the front group and use magic to provide a temporary bridge over the gaps.”

“I’ll go with you,” Axra said. “If you need support, I’m your girl!”

“I’m going too!” Lysara declared.

“I… I’ll go in the front too,” Lilly said. “I… I mean… if there aren’t too many people already.”

“We’ll need more people up front than in back right now,” Bonnie stated. “We don’t want Twila fighting and it’ll be easier if we have to fight with the high ground than with the low ground. So, Velvet, Reginald and I will take the back.”

Fang let out a series of grunts.

“You can fly above us and watch for signs of trouble,” Twila said. “It’ll be a dangerous position, but you’re the only one we can trust with it.”

Fang gave a satisfied grunt.

“Is that dragon smirking?” Axra asked.

“Oh… I’m sure the little guy wouldn’t do that,” Lilly said, stroking Fang’s head. “Well… maybe a little.”

“Let’s take our positions,” Bonnie said. “We won’t have anywhere to make camp so we don’t want it to take too long.”

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Purification episode 59: Bonnie’s Secret Comes Out

Bonnie ran past the golem, slashing at its legs with her blade. Trying to force its attention away from Lysara.

The golem pivoted and swung at her. She ducked beneath the blow and rolled beneath it, jabbing into its stomach. The monster responded by bringing two of its legs inward, trying to grab her between them. She kicked, propelling herself out from underneath it, coming up at its back. She swiftly moved up, getting onto the golem’s back, behind the torso-like growth that ended in its humanoid head. She hacked and slashed at it, hoping that the head would be its weak point, but its armour remained intact.

The creature turned its head all the way around to stare at her. Then it flailed, trying to dislodge her, but she held on tightly, watching its legs in case it brought one up to swing at her. It didn’t look like they had that kind of movement, but she’d never seen a golem like this before and wasn’t sure.

*****

Axra was in trouble, trapped between two of them. Sure, one of them was missing a leg, but it had seven more. Lilly tried drawing their attention with several arrows, but they ignored her. They circled closer and closer to Axra.

She turned to the damaged one and tried sliding beneath it. It saw her coming and moved into position to crush her with two of its legs.

“Dammit!” Axra cried, bringing up her sword in an attempt to deflect the blow, knowing that a normal blade couldn’t possibly manage it.

The golem’s legs scraped against Todberührung’s edge and continued on their way. Axra braced herself for the blow, but it didn’t come. The golem’s legs crumbled into dust and the rot spread upwards along its body. It moved away, trying to pierce its own body to tear off the affected area, but it was too late. Within seconds it was over. Just like the dragon she had killed before she had met Twila, it was gone.

The second golem moved backwards, apparently trying to get out of her range. Lilly fired several more arrows at it and hurried over to Axra.

“I… I thought it had you. I…” she wiped her sleeve over her eyes. “S… sorry. I… I was scared that you…”

“Don’t worry, Lilly,” Axra said. “I’m okay.” She put her free hand on Lilly’s shoulder. “Come on. Let’s help Bonnie and Lysara.”

“But… that…” Lilly gestured towards the second golem.

“Don’t worry,” Axra laughed. “I bet it’s too scared of me to come close enough to let me touch it. But keep an eye on it. If it moves after us, let me know.”

*****

Bonnie’s arms were getting tired. The golem was relentless, never stopping, never slowing. She looked towards Lysara. The other woman was slowly rising to her feet. If she could just hold on long enough…

“Please, Athena,” she whispered. “Please let her get out of here. I don’t care what happens to me. Just let her be safe.”

“Grab Lysara! I’ll get Bonnie.”

That voice… Bonnie turned her head. Axra was running towards the golem. She had survived? Had Lilly… Had Lilly managed to save her?

Lilly moved to Lysara’s side, helping her stand. Axra swung her blade at the golem’s torso. It stopped flailing about and tried knocking her away.

Bonnie took the chance. She clenched her blade and jabbed downwards with all her strength. She felt the golem’s armour give a little. She studied the spot. It was small, but there was a crack there. She jabbed at the spot again and again. The golem ignored Axra and shook, knocking Bonnie off.

Axra ran over to catch her, barely managing to keep her feet when Bonnie’s weight hit her. She ran as fast as she could while carrying the other woman.

“Careful!” Lilly cried. “The other one’s coming after you too!”

“The golem,” Bonnie muttered. “Its back… I cracked it.”

“Lilly!” Axra called. “Bonnie cracked its back armour, see if you can hit it!”

Lilly studied the golem’s back for a moment. The crack had broken open under the force of the other blows, revealing the creature’s core. One more shot and she would have hit it.

Lilly notched her bow and hurriedly lined up her shot. The arrow went right into the core, smashing it open. The golem slumped to the ground like a marionette that had just had its strings cut and went still.

“Awesome!” Axra declared. She turned to the last golem, holding her sword out. The creature hurriedly backed away.

“Still scared?” Axra taunted. “You should be.” She took a few confident steps forward. The golem turned and ran, back the way it and its comrades had come.

“That’s done it,” Axra stated. “Let’s get back to the others.”

*****

Initially, they had a slow pace. Both Bonnie and Lysara being exhausted and needing help. Particularly Lysara, who had hurt her leg. Then Bonnie was able to walk on her own. She and Lilly took turns carrying Lysara and they were able to speed up. Thanks to Twila’s speed spell they were able to catch up to the others before long. A dark elf healer fixed Lysara’s leg so that she could move back into position.

The rest of the march from the ruins went peacefully and they made camp near the great steps.

Bonnie got some dark elf volunteers and organised a night-watch that would cover the perimetre.

She and Lilly took over on the east halfway through the night, allowing Twila and Axra to rest.

“Is something wrong?” Lilly asked. “Not to pry… I mean… you don’t have to tell me… it’s just… you’ve been acting weird since we got away from the golems.”

Bonnie looked off into the distance. “It’s because I failed,” she said, after a while.

“What do you mean?” Lilly asked.

“When it came time to choose between my duty to the Princess or my feelings for Lysara… I went to save Lysara. I… I thought that the Princess was a goner but I still…”

“B… but everything turned out okay,” Lilly stated. “If… if you had gone after Axra… then Lysara would have died. But… because you did what you did… everybody lived.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Bonnie said. “I had no way of knowing she was going to be okay. I should have gone to her. But I just couldn’t abandon Lysara.”

“It… it can’t be helped,” Lilly said. “I… I mean… I would do anything for Axra. If… if she was in danger… I’d die to save her. Not because I’m a soldier of Nervius… but because I love her.” She put a reassuring hand on Bonnie’s shoulder. “Just like you love Lysara.”

Bonnie knocked Lilly’s hand away. “That’s the problem! I can’t help but love Lysara and it’s getting in the way of my duty. I… I tried to ignore her, close my heart to her… but it didn’t work. I don’t know how to stop loving her.”

The two both turned at the sound of a gasp. Lysara was standing behind them. Bonnie felt her cheeks flush.

“Sorry,” Lysara said. “I… I woke up and I wanted to thank you two for saving me. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop.”

“How much did you hear?” Bonnie whispered. She looked away from the bard.

“I got here at about the time you said ‘I can’t help but love Lysara’,” Lysara answered. “Oh, Bon, I had no idea you felt that way. Why, it’s wonderful!” Lysara ran up and hugged Bonnie, tightly.

“Will you just go back to your tent?” Bonnie asked.

“Okay,” Lysara said. “I know I’ll have pleasant dreams now.” She winked at Bonnie. “Good night, Bon!” She kissed her fingers and made a grand gesture of throwing it towards Bonnie.

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Purification episode 58: Adversity Underground

The group kept a steady marching pace. Moving carefully through the ruins.

“Can’t we go faster?” Axra asked.

“Not with all these people,” Bonnie answered. “Too unwieldy. Are you feeling impatient?”

“I hate going slow is all,” Axra stated. She looked around, carefully scanning their surroundings. No sign of golems, psyrens or anything else dangerous. At least not yet. Axra kept her imagination in check, reminding herself that there wasn’t something sinister behind every column.

It wasn’t until past noon that they had their first sign of trouble. Twila noticed several indents in the ground. “Probably golem footprints,” she relayed. “Although very strange ones. And the tracks indicate a lot of them. Keep an eye out.”

They kept on their way, eating on the go. Not daring to stop for a break, at least not until they were clear of the ruins. Not even Velvet complained about the continuous march.

It was nearly an hour later when Velvet spotted some very strange, statuesque shapes. There were three in all, not quite humanoid, having arachnid-like legs. Velvet studied them, looking for signs of movement. That was when he saw them bolt towards them.

“Golems!” he yelled.

The dark elves they were escorting ran forward, scrambling to get away from the golems’ path. A small child tripped. Her mother, moving to try to shield her. The first golem reached them, bringing down its jagged claw. Velvet intercepted it, grasping it between his hands. He pulled downwards, ramming its claw safely into the ground. He proceeded to jump into the air, kicking down at the golem. Its stuck arm remained in the ground while the rest of its body went flying backwards.

He lifted the woman and her daughter and ran back towards the group. Reginald, Lilly, Bonnie, Axra and Lysara were blocking the other two golems from the main group.

“I have to run back and drop these two off,” Velvet explained. “Be back shortly.”

“No,” Axra said. “Stay with the main group. Reginald, you go too. If there’s something else dangerous up there Twila’ll need you. The four of us will stay back and join you as soon as we can.”

“Kay,” Velvet muttered.

“Very well,” Reginald agreed. “I shall protect our charges with my life if need be.”

“You should go as well, Princess,” Bonnie suggested. “Lysara too. There’s no need for all of us to stay behind.”

“No one’s staying behind,” Axra said. “At least not for long. We just have to damage them enough that they can’t pursue us. Aim for the legs.”

The four faced the golems. Lilly fired several arrows, trying to pierce some weak point in their spindly legs. All three ignored her completely, possibly because her arrows were bouncing off of them.

Axra and Bonnie moved together, slashing the nearest one . Axra hit its front left leg, Bonnie its front right. The construct staggered, but didn’t fall. “Dammit!” Axra cried. “How did Velvet manage to knock one of their legs off?”

“Bon, look out!” Lysara cried. She pushed Bonnie out of the way of a swiping leg, only to get hit herself and be sent rolling into the frail remnants of an old wall. The golem scanned Bonnie for a moment before moving towards Lysara’s battered form.

Simultaneously, the remaining two golems were coming at Axra from both sides, poised to crush her between them.

Bonnie took in the situation in one horrible instant. She quickly made her decision, grabbed her sword and charged.

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Purification episode 57: Pilgrimage’s Start

“So, what do we do until morning?” Lysara asked.

“We prepare,” Twila said. “I’ve already plotted the route that will take us to the steps the fastest. We just need to worry about how to position ourselves to give them the best possible protection.”

“Is this really necessary?” Bonnie asked. “Don’t you have a spell that could get the information we need from the old lady’s mind?”

“Mind reading spells are taboo,” Twila stated. “And I’m not like my aunt. I can’t just read minds naturally.”

“It’s not like any of us is going to say anything,” Bonnie said. “You do know one, right?”

“That isn’t my only objection to the idea,” Twila explained. “The ethical implications of probing someone’s mind without permission are astronomical. Even if I did manage to learn a spell like that I couldn’t justify using it when we’re being offered another option to get the information we need.”

“That aside,” Axra interjected before Bonnie could say anything further. “How do we set up to defend that many people?”

“It is quite daunting,” Reginald observed. “Even for one of my talents.”

“I think we can do it,” Twila said. “We’ll position ourselves on all sides of them. Fang and I will take the front. Bonnie and Axra can take the left. Lysara and Lilly can take the right. Velvet and Reginald can bring up the rear. If the elders succeed in keeping the psyrens busy, we won’t have a problem. Just in case they don’t, I’ll cast a speed spell on the eight of us. When we reach the steps it’ll be less of a problem. We’ll just have to guard the front and rear.”

“And if one of those monsters descends towards the centre?” Bonnie asked.

“We’ll have to risk it,” Twila said. “The elder says they won’t bother a large group. Hopefully, she’s right. In which case we only have to worry about guarding the ends.”

“I don’t like it,” Reginald said. “Too many unknowns.” He shrugged. “But they do need our help. So I guess there’s no choice.”

Lilly walked behind Twila and tapped her back. “S… sorry to bother you, Twila,” she muttered. “But can we, you know, talk for a moment.”

“Sure,” Twila answered. Axra watched as the two walked away, wondering if she had to start being worried about Lilly the same way she was worried about Lysara.

*****

“What do you need?” Twila asked.

“I… that is to say… the teams you’ve chosen, are they really a good idea?”

“I understand your concern,” Twila said. “After all, Bonnie and Axra just got done trying to kill each other. So did Velvet and Reginald. But they weren’t exactly in control when they did it. So I’m hoping that working closely together will help mend any damaged feelings. After all, we’re going to all need to be able to work together if we want to beat Eritos.”

“So that’s it,” Lilly muttered. She studied Twila for a moment. When she spoke again her voice was so low it was virtually inaudible. “I can see why she likes you.”

“Sorry, I didn’t quite catch that,” Twila said. “You were saying?”

“Oh… it’s not a big deal,” Lilly said. “I was just thinking that you’re really clever…that’s all.”

“Thank you.” Twila said. “But I’m really nothing special. Come on, let’s go work out the strategy with everyone.”

*****

The next morning a large group of older dark elves assembled around the elder’s house, ready to go into the ruins. The elder called Twila over and whispered something to her before walking away.

Axra and her companions went to the city centre to find Derry and all of the other dark elves they were taking with them. They all had small bags, some were carrying small children.

Derry waved at them. “We’re ready to go,” she said.

“Good,” Twila said. “We leave in ten minutes. The elders should be in position by then.”

“Oh… right I almost forgot,” Derry said. “I’m never going to see Grandma again, am I?” She started crying again when a golden-eyed dark elf walked up and hugged her. Whispering to her in a hushed, but soothing tone. Her long fingers brushing the tears from Derry’s eyes.

“Sorry,” Derry muttered, composing herself. “Before I forget, my grandma told me to give these to you.” She gestured to several large bags that were stuffed. “I don’t know how we’re going to carry them all, though.”

“Leave that to me,” Twila said. She began methodically emptying the books into her bag of holding. Much to Derry’s surprise.

“How does it do that?” she asked.

“Well, magic is employed to create a pocket dimension which…” Twila began.

“We don’t have time for this,” Derry’s friend interrupted. “You can learn about this stuff after we’re safely in the surface world. For now, you need to be more mindful of your position. Everyone’s looking to you for guidance. If you act confused about everything it’ll make them anxious.”

“Sorry, Goldie,” Derry said.

“We should all take positions,” Bonnie suggested. “We don’t want to extend the wait.”

“Of course,” Twila agreed. “Just let me cast the spell. Gather together.” She hurriedly cast the speed spell. Axra instantly felt lighter. She and Bonnie moved to their position within seconds.

“Princess,” Bonnie said. “Once we get back to the surface, I’ll return to Nervius.”

“Return, why?” Axra asked. “I thought you insisted on coming on this quest.”

“I wanted to,” Bonnie said. “But I could have killed you. I let myself go out of control. So I’ll return and report myself for disciplinary action.”

“Oh no you won’t,” Axra insisted. “My dads will kill you. They won’t care about the circumstances. I’m ordering you as the princess of Nervius to never mention what happened to anyone.”

“But I….” Bonnie protested.

“Shush!” Axra ordered. “Listen for a sec. You were under a spell’s influence. So was I. It wasn’t something that was your fault or that could have been helped. You’ve still been the best damn bodyguard I could have hoped for and I would consider it a real tragedy to lose you. I won’t force you to keep going with us, but I will ask you. Bonnie Calendula, will you remain at my side and support me through this ordeal as a true knight?”

“I…” Bonnie looked away. “If you would still have me as a protector, then I shall.”

“Awesome,” Axra declared. “Then it’s settled.”

They heard Twila’s voice ring out. “All right, Everyone, we’re marching.”

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Purification episode 56: The Elder’s Speech

Twila found a quiet spot within the town and sat down to cast her spell. The ground in front of her shimmered and rippled like ocean waves before settling into an image of Elaine.

“Twila?” she asked. “Is this terribly important or can I contact you later?”

“I’m afraid it is important,” Twila answered. She explained the journey she’d gone through and told her aunt about the small colony of dark elves she’d encountered.

“Interesting,” Elaine stated. “I never would have imagined you’d find the old city or that dark elves still lived there. So… they want to move up here, correct?”

Twila nodded.

“It shouldn’t be too much of a problem,” Elaine said. “Worst case scenario, we can give them some land near the main city t start their own little village.”

“You’re really agreeing just like that?” Twila asked.

“Of course!” Elaine declared. “Even if we have been separated for a long time they are our sisters. Besides, I’m very curious to hear about what life was like down there and to see just how different they are. Oh, and see if the elder has any books that you can bring. Tell her our compliance needs a little cultural exchange if you must.”

“I understand,” Twila said. “But, Auntie, it could be a trick of some kind.”

“If these dark elves do have some ill intentions we can handle it,” Elaine said. “Don’t you worry.”

*****

Reginald stirred and slowly opened his eyes.

“Hey,” Velvet said. “Sorry about, you know, beating you up.”

“It was a lucky hit,” Reginald muttered. He looked around. “Where are we?”

“My village,” Derry answered.

Reginald glanced over her, confusion spreading over his face. “What… who?”

“She’s Derry,” Lysara said. “A dark elf.”

They heard a knock on the door and Twila walked back in.

“Elder,” she said. “My aunt is willing to find a place for your youngsters. However, she requests any books you have be brought along.”

“I had planned on sending them,” the elder stated. “They may get repetitive and most will find them dull, but they contain our history down here.” The old woman rose, leaning on her stick. “There were definitely sad and painful times, but we conquered all of them and I want those who grow up freely in the upper world to know that they came from a strong people.”

“Can you really call yourselves strong when you guys have hid in this tiny area away from threats?” Axra asked.

“Hey!” Derry cried. “We….” Her grandmother held her staff up to Derry’s face.

“Quiet,” she said. She turned to Axra. “You may be right. We weren’t strong enough to defeat the obstacles. But we adapted and managed to survive. Can you really say that isn’t strength in and of itself?”

Axra shrugged.

The old woman turned to Twila. “You will get most of them up there, right? Past the psyrens?”

“I’ve actually been thinking,” Twila said. “There might be a way you and the other elders can help. It will be risky, though.”

“Oh,” she said. “Tell me.”

“The psyrens feed off of your released emotions, right?” Twila inquired. “So if you were to all go and let them out at once…”

“They’d come to feast,” the old woman finished. She burst into laughter. “That’s good. That’s a good plan. We’ll do it.”

“But, Grandma,” Derry protested. “There won’t be anyone to protect you all. If a scorpitoid or golem comes…”

“Derry,” she interrupted. “That’s enough. With all you youngsters leaving, do you think we’d last long?” The old woman shook her head. “You all carry our legacy. Our hopes. I know that there isn’t a single one of us who wouldn’t gladly give up our lives to preserve all of you. Her plan, it’s a good one, and a way for us to give all of you a final gift.”

“Grandma…” Derry whispered, tears were streaming from her large yellow eyes.

“I love you, Child,” the elder said, her voice softening considerably. “Go. Make your future with Goldie and the others. But never forget where you came from.”

“I won’t!” Derry promised, crying openly. “I’ll never forget.”

“That’s my girl,” the elder said. “But I am going to need one more thing from you.”

“A town meeting?” Derry asked.

The elder nodded. Derry reluctantly grabbed a bell from a stone chest by the door and left the house. The group heard it ringing.

“Now then,” the elder said. “It’s time for me to speak with everyone. Come along outside with me. You should all see this too.”

*****

While waiting, Lysara and Twila explained what was going on to Reginald.

“I can’t say I really get all of it,” he said. “But they need our help to get to the rest of the dark elves, correct?”

“In a nutshell, yes,” Twila answered.

“Then there’s no need to hesitate,” Reginald said. “Tis a noble purpose.”

The area in front of the elder’s house was soon crowded with gray-skinned dark elves. Axra noted that the younger ones all had highly luminescent skin like Derry’s whereas the elders all had more muted tones. So, it was an age thing.

The elder stepped forward to address them. “It’s come,” she said, simply. “The time we’ve always dreamed of. The time our stories have always promised is here.” She nodded back to Axra and her group. “Travelers from the surface have come and they have agreed to take us with them to our cousins.” She marched over to Axra. “This girl is one of our cousins. An entire city of them lives underground, but far above here. Away from golems, psyrens and scorpitoids. A city, where travel to other lands, parley with other cultures, isn’t a distant dream. Where we needn’t hide in a small patch of land.” Her closed eyes looked out to the crowd, most of whom stared in stunned silence.

“I have spoken with these travelers,” she continued. “I have told them of our plight and they have agreed to help all of you youngsters reach this great city.” There was a murmur of applause throughout the crowd. “In exchange, the other elders and I will remain and distract the psyrens from your mission.” She held up her hand against the cries of dissent. “Now, now. It’s for the best. We couldn’t make it up the great stairs anyway, even with help. We’d be too great a burden. Still, I won’t selfishly inflict my will on others. Any elders who wish, may remain behind in the village in safety. As for me, I will go. Youngsters, pack up and be ready to go. Elders, decide for youselves whether you’ll come with me or not. That is all.”

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