By Tom Foster
They were children, though by the standards of their race they were grown adults. Three of them were just barely out of their adolescent years, while one of them was getting on well towards middle age. Yet they were hers, the ones she had deigned to come to with the gifts that were hers to give. Those who had received them in the past had called the gifts a curse, a cruel chain by which they were attached to her will. She’d weathered the vile and disgusting names she’d been called, she had even managed to forgive the first among her Chosen that had leveled such accusations from her, but not the second.
That time she had left her Chosen broken, bleeding and without hope of survival, the price paid for defying her. They had of course already served their purpose, regaining for her the precious balance of this realm, thus they had no longer been needed. Aliyana knew that she had not been so callous in the many millennia that had come before, but this was a new age, a new time, and her patience was not without limit. Those who defied her were soon to learn that she was what legends had made her to be, the dreaded White Lady, the Vengeful Spirit and many other monikers she did not desire.
For her they were all the same, titles that meant nothing. The syllables and breath wasted upon them were so much wind expelled uselessly from the lips of those who spoke them. Thankfully those she had selected to serve her purposes this time did not question needlessly, though they obviously did not trust her fully. This was to be expected, she had found that humans did not trust the very nose upon their faces if it did not convey what they desired. They doubted their own senses, their own perceptions and even worse, they had good reason. Sivis had escaped again, and the world was once again in peril. Aliyana knew that her former lover would be recaptured once more, but the act of calling forth the Chosen yet again to deal with him would only the precursor to this.
She was stronger now, wiser and much older than she had been. Outwardly Aliyana still looked the same, her youthful appearance serving to rattle and even unsettle her Chosen as they had marveled at being in such awe of a girl who barely looked old enough to marry or bear children. This was the curse, or blessing, of her kind. Time did not bear down as heavily upon her people, or hadn’t she thought. Her kind were all but extinct within the world now, there were only a few that she knew of that had gone into hiding, preferring to live within the world rather than be its tenders any longer.
Aliyana could only imagine the chaos that would result from their absence, but thus far the humans had done fairly well. They did not ask before taking however, often raping the land so as to gain what they desired. Their kind knew little of balance, at least in the majority, and those that did were still barbarous, savages that still took without regard under the auspices that they were more in tune with the land than others. It was a poor joke to her eyes, her ears and her heart, one that she wished to remedy with the terrifying wrath that she was so capable of, but she had thus far stayed her hand.
Those she had selected were the purest of heart she could find among the race, which was not saying much, though it would have to do. They had been selected from all corners of the world, but they had come to her call, to this place, where she knew her former love would strike next. They had come to the call of the Lady in the Mists, a name she had not shied from in the past, and would no doubt favor above all. She knew each of them more than they realized, but she had revealed nothing of this to them, saying only that they must come, that they must heed her words and make all haste to the place they felt pulled.
The urging she had placed within each of them would not abate until they reached the dry, arid climate she now stood upon, its few bodies of water lapping gently against their sandy banks. It was a desolate place, with only a few lush areas of forest to break apart the monotony of the surrounding mountains and rolling plains. There were few animals here, mostly scaled, large-eyed reptiles that lay in the sun most of the day and then went foraging for their sustenance in their more active moments. Aliyana had remained here for nearly twenty cycles of the sun and moon thus far, and she could easily say that this place was not among her favored spots.
She missed the rolling tides, the smell of brine and the open ocean, but it was not yet time to go home. For many years now she had traveled far from the shores of her domain, the Sacred Glen where her heart and the memories of her childhood lay, waiting for her to return. If she closed her eyes Aliyana could still hear the cries of seabirds and the gentle rolling of the mighty waves as they dwindled down to the thinnest ripples of water that darkened the gray sands. There was a longing for home within her heart that would not abate until she once more stood upon the soft ground of the coast, but before that could happen, she would see her lover imprisoned once more.
Sivis had escaped not long ago, wisping his way from the red pearl she still wore around her neck once again to wreak his havoc upon the world. So long she had labored to make his prison more secure, more inescapable, but always he seemed to find a way out, a way to hammer through her defenses. It had taken her and many elders to construct the prison, but he had still found a way out. In their haste they had been unable to fully inure the unseen walls of his cage so that he would be rendered completely helpless. In hindsight Aliyana had already figured it might have been better just to kill Sivis, but the decrees of the elders had been firm. The dark lord was to suffer as much as possible, death would be far too quick. For the elders, death for Sivis would have been a release, and he had been meant to suffer.
Brushing these thoughts away Aliyana focused instead upon the names of those she had called, and just where they would be coming from. She knew that each one of them would hail from lands far from this one, continents, as she’d heard them called, that had broken apart from the whole many millennia ago. She had felt the bedrock of the world shift during this time, though she had understood far better what had caused it. Sivis had been loose during this time, and once more the Dark had been allowed into the world, though so depleted had his power been that the dark lord had not been able to throw the gates into the shadowed realms as wide as he’d like.
Instead of a deluge of evil the bastard had loosed only a handful of the most powerful of daemons into this world, thereby insuring that the Dark would not leave this realm with ease. There had been no rallying cry to war this time, though Aliyana had recaptured Sivis swiftly after he’d spent his energies releasing the daemons, with the help of the last band of Chosen of course. Unfortunately they had not been able to enjoy the fruits of their labors, breathing their last upon their final resting place shortly after the battle. No one challenged her, not even her Chosen.
* * *
Moriggan had commandeered a single-person vessel and made her way onward, braving the dangers of the open ocean with little more than a week’s worth of supplies and a few weapons that she felt she might need if she survived her trip across the waters. She’d known more than one person who’d made such an arduous journey, though few from the many that had gone had ever returned. Those who had had spoken of a new world, a place where the troubles and feuds of the land they’d been raised upon did not exist. There were dangers to be sure, new and more terrifying trials to endure, but life overall was so much better, so much more, free.
She hadn’t wanted to go, Moriggan had been set to be wed to a fine man only a few days before, but this call could not be denied. Somewhere in the back of her mind she knew it should have been, that she should have railed against the mysterious woman that had come to her, but she could not. There was a purpose behind what she was doing, even if she didn’t truly know what it was. That she would set sail on little more than a whim and a word from a woman she didn’t know was bad enough, but to think that she had accepted whatever strange gift the woman had given her without a peep of protest was even worse. The father within her small village would no doubt condemn her for accepting the touch of the pale white woman; perhaps even insist that Moriggan be cleansed of her sins by being burned at the stake. It had happened more than once in her peaceful little village.
Moriggan knew how her people thought, even if it wasn’t the same way she thought. They were God-fearing folk that had left the old gods behind, even the trickster Maab, whose name was still uttered when ill luck befell one of them. The one God was swiftly erasing the old legends, taking the place of superstitions that lain in place for so very long. Some among her country fought such change, clinging stubbornly to the old ways and teachings, while many more came to the new and risen Christ gladly, as though needing a savior.
She had paid mere lip service to the one God, making others believe that she was indeed a woman of the one and only God. In truth though her heart was not convinced. Moriggan didn’t cling to the old ways like some other silly fools, she believed in Maab and world of fairies only enough to acknowledge that at one point and time perhaps such things had existed, but no farther. This was not the same world that the elders and their elders had once known; it had changed a great deal and would continue to change so long as new ideas and new ways of living were invented.
Her wants were simple. She had wanted to marry into the clan Mcullough, changing her name from McGregor, have children, perhaps four or five, and live out her life in peace. The man she was to wed was a good man, a peaceful and loving soul, someone she could grow old with as she desired. But of course, here she was, and that meant that such a life had not been meant to be.
Leaning her head back Moriggan allowed the brisk sea air to blow through the mass of braids she’d woven into her hair, closing her eyes against the possibilities that lay before her. She didn’t know exactly where she was going, nor did she particularly care. All that mattered was that eventually she would desire her freedom from the Lady’s will, and when that time came, she meant to have it. The journey ahead would be long enough, but a life without prospects of peace and freedom, that was far longer than she cared to think of.
* * *
Power had been granted to each of her Chosen along with a purpose that Aliyana had made sure overrode every other desire they possessed. They would retain the knowledge of their lives before the compulsion to leave such worlds behind drove them forward, but they would come without question. She knew that once they reached this place they would have a great many questions, though she also knew that such a time would have to wait. Sivis was nearly here, she could feel his dark presence many miles away from this site, this place of power where she had staved him away many times before. The last two times she had defended Echoes Pass had been harrowing battles from which she had almost not walked away, but Sivis had lost this font of power regardless.
Though buried deep beneath the ground the wellspring of energies that flowed for miles in either direction called to her, filling Aliyana with the power that was so very tempting, beckoning to her in a way that felt both right and wrong at the same time. Power was not its own right, as she had been taught so long ago, but it was always there, always ready to be used. Such a thing was hard to ignore, and even harder to use judiciously, but she had managed. Sivis had laughed at her before, calling her a hypocrite, a weakling and many other, far more colorful names that she had not wished to hear. He did not realize the importance of the balance of this realm, or if he did, the dark bastard did not care. Aliyana had often hoped that it was the former, but could only surmise that it was the latter.
A shiver of power ran through her limbs as she stiffened, enjoying the pleasant sensation for the moment. She knew what Echoes Pass was, though the extent of its true power had never really been given to any among her kind. It was a safeguard, just as so many other relics and sites created by her people remained. When triggered, by a means that only she and Sivis still knew, it would activate other safeguards the world over, insuring that neither of the primal forces, either Light or Dark, would be able to claim complete and total dominance over this realm. Earth would remain independent of the primal realms, its own world in its own right. She knew very well that the forces of Light and Dark had attempted to subvert this rule many times, creating new worlds and even planes of existence in the process, but never had she allowed them to enter this one unless she so wished it.
They could influence, they could whisper and cajole the humans, but never could they fully enter the realm itself. Whether it had been a rule implemented by the Creator or by her kind was unknown, but it was one that could not be broken save for one way, by invitation. Sivis had used this method more than once, though each time had weakened him, and in such a state he could not control even the least among the demonic hordes that had threatened to spill forth into this realm. He would no doubt be somewhat lessened by the time he arrived, but he would still be powerful enough to put up a good fight.
She had learned that each time he escaped, Sivis was weakened to such a degree that even opening a rift for the creatures of the Dark took a monumental effort. This time he had done no such thing, she would have felt the parting of the veils that separated the realms. Instead he was conserving his strength, no doubt to confront her with as much power as he possibly could. The result would still be the same, he would be imprisoned again, this time as with last time with the aid of the Chosen she had gathered. Aliyana could feel each one of them drawing closer, their heartbeats pulsing madly as they sought the arid plains she now stood upon.
None of them knew everything about why they were coming, though each one of them knew that the need was dire. They knew that what she had summoned them for was vastly important, enough so that dropping their lives on a moment’s notice had been necessary. Humans were quite easy to manipulate she’d found, though the slight pangs of guilt she’d felt each time had torn at her enough to trouble the Shaper. She had a conscience, though in the face of worldwide annihilation, war and the unending strife that Sivis would bring if left unchecked, her conscience was of no concern.
* * *
It took each one of them nearly a month to reach the area where Aliyana had summoned her Chosen, though every last one of them managed to make the arduous trip. From the highlands of Scotland came their leader, the dark-haired woman known as Moriggan McGregor, the Champion and therefore strongest of the Chosen. Hers had been perhaps the most stern countenance, she had been torn from the arms of her lover and soon to be husband on a whim, and thus her life had been stolen from her in a way. Aliyana did not care, this woman was the solid leader that was needed, the power behind and in front of the group of Chosen that was needed.
Hela, the diminutive woman from the far eastern land of Mongolia, was short of stature but carried an aura of command about her that could not be denied. As Herald of the Chosen she saw everything, her reddish eyes taking the measure of each warrior that she had learned upon her trip would be her newest companions. She was a stern woman, her closely bound black hair always pulled back into a severe bun and her dazzling golden robes always kept neat, but she also possessed a heart far more warm than her cold stare would admit to. Of them all, the Herald was perhaps the only one that Aliyana did not fully understand, or trust.
From the frozen north came the blond giant known as Erobos, a carefree and good-natured soul as well a deadly and formidable warrior. Looking into his heart Aliyana had seen the warrior’s desire for peace, though she had also seen a sense of honor that had enabled her to make the correct decision upon which title to bestow him. As the Balance of the Chosen he would not be allowed to fight, though neither would he be allowed to remain aloof from what was to come. It was a decided insult to his proud heritage, but like the others, Erobos had selected to follow her path of his own free will. To cage so fierce a warrior seemed like a crime against the very nature she strove to protect, but such was the sacrifice that had needed to be made.
The broad-shouldered and extremely lanky Aulick ir Vassen was a native of the barbaric land known as Germania, a conquered place that had felt the touch of war more than a few times in its long, bloody history. The man had no doubt grown tired of the wars in his long and storied career of violence, but he had been ready and possessed the heart for dozens more. At nearly forty winters of age he was among the eldest of her Chosen, but by no means the weakest. A shaman of sorts among his tribe, Aulick had been the perfect choice to grant the mantle of the Elemental, though he had already abused the power given to him more than once for his own self-preservation, an act that Aliyana should have reprimanded him for, but had not. She had not thought it prudent considering the outcome of the battle that was to occur within the vicinity of Echoes Pass. The Lady of the Mists knew what was to come, though she would not dare to share this with her Chosen. Like all things, this too must come to pass.
One of the most feared of the Chosen, the Reaper, came in the form of the dark-skinned male known as Cheraa, a native of the dark continent of Africa and a hunter of some renown. Within his tribe Cheraa had been revered as the deadliest among them and at times been called the “master of death” for his brutal and often effective methods of slaying both prey and enemies from rival tribes. Among his people Cherra knew more ways to kill a fellow human than most, and despite the darkness this brought to his heart Aliyana had selected him, bringing him to her side with only a hint of unease as he had answered the call readily, thinking that the gods had finally recognized him as their equal. The man was a bit vain, but then so were most humans who excelled above their fellows.
Another dark-skinned human would serve as the enforcer, though unlike Cherra he was much larger and more severe-looking, as though his features and body had been chiseled from solid slabs of stone. The large, brutish man known as Bala lived among the wild and lush jungles of the southern continent that lay just south of the land mass that Aliyana had summoned her Chosen to. Fierce in both demeanor and heart, Bala would serve perfectly as the Enforcer, the one among the Chosen who was strictly about power and the application of force, be it passive or aggressive. Among them all he was the most simplistic, the strongest and the most durable. But he was also one of the most volatile, a trait she would have to watch before the battle to come.
The next two, opposites even though the power that had been granted to them was similar, were the Tempest and the Winddancer, masters of the unnatural speed that existed as an anomaly born of both time and matter. It was a unique quality that each human harbored, the ability to accelerate their movements to such a degree that the normal vision of any among their kind would perceive only a blur. Aella, the dusky-skinned, dark-haired woman from the Greek islands, was perhaps the most impetuous of the two, doubtful where her counterpart, the woman Kerberos, was accepting. The almond-eyed woman from the isles of Japan did not question what she saw as fate, or ka in her own words.
The Tempest, Kerberos, was far more ferocious than the Aella, the Winddancer. Aliyana knew the difference in their temperaments was due now to more than just their original mindsets, the powers that had been granted to them having much to do with how each woman comported herself now. Arrogance tainted Kerberos’s attitude far more than it did Aella’s, who responded to the summons with more caution and far more doubt. Kerberos had accepted Aliyana’s word without reluctance or hesitation, making her way from her peaceful village, a place she had detested, towards the far off continent where her destiny awaited.
Aella had decided to come after only a day of hesitancy, leaving behind her gleaming cityscape and the husband and children she supported. Within the empire that seemed poised to crumble at any moment, it was a matter of pride that her husband, an ailing senator, did not appear weak, thus Aella had for so long supported him, making sure that he did not show such frailty to those who mattered. Her children had scorned her both for bowing to their father in such a manner as well as taking up the practice of what was considered a man’s job, that of a soldier.
For many years Aella had considered herself something of a stranger to her own family, as though she had married, given birth and raised her children as someone else. Who she was within was far different than the meek façade she showed to the world. Within her heart she was a warrior, a being who did not back down, did not show pity and did not allow those around her to play upon her sensibilities such as her husband and children had. Aliyana reflected that it had not taken much to get Aella to leave her old life behind, though she had not told the woman that this would be the case.
The last of the Chosen to be called was one of the most powerful and in fact one of those who was most directly tied to Echoes Pass. Anya, daughter of Bromin, had answered the call to become a Chosen almost immediately, though with a piety that had somehow touched Aliyana in a way she had not expected.
Born a baker’s daughter, Anya was a golden-haired beauty, lithe and agile and quite strong from helping her family with the daily chores day in and day out. Her hand had been promised in marriage to a fine young man, but deep within her heart Aliyana had found that Anya yearned for something more, a life that did not include her family, nor the bakery, nor anything that had to do with the world she knew. Anya had wanted what she had never had, a life away from home. Though it had pained her to admit this to the Lady of the Mists, the blonde beauty had done so, tears rolling down her cheeks as all thoughts of her sisters, brothers and parents had flown away on wings of only the barest regret.
The guilt she had felt over this had been only partially soothed by the promise of something far more satisfying that Aliyana had spoken to her. It was not a lie, not from what she saw lingering within Anya’s heart. She could offer the young woman what she desired, if only to make the girl realize that it would end almost as soon as it began.
They were coming, her Chosen were making their way to where she was, and they would arrive only shortly before Sivis, who had been forced to abandon the dark pathways of the Shadow Road. In his state he was powerful enough to stave away the creatures that now roamed the realm of earth, but along the Shadow Road, the predators that would seek his flesh would number far too many and far too powerful for him to contest in his weakened state. Thus he had been forced to travel overland, much as a human would. The irony of this was not lost upon Aliyana, and even made her smile.
* * *
Though none of the Chosen knew this, it was the power of Echoes Pass that called to them more than Aliyana at this point. As soon as each one of them touched upon the unknown soil of the northern continent they could feel the tug all that much more, focusing their gazes in the direction that seemed implanted within their minds. Anya, who had made her way from her native country both secretly and with as much haste as possible, could feel the tug more acutely than any, in fact it was all she could think of any longer.
She had come across the waters as a passenger, paying for her fare with the few remaining coins she’d possessed. The baker’s daughter had felt guilty for such deception against her family, but this had to be done. Nothing else mattered at the moment, only reaching the source of the power that was calling to her so insistently mattered. For many days now Anya had dreamt of the place she was to reach, the woman she was meant to meet finally in person. Aside from the stout rod she carried in one hand and the severely depleted pack slung over one shoulder Anya had only the clothes she wore and the heavily worn sandals on her feet.
She’d done so much walking as of late that her feet had blistered over and over again, though she had managed to keep the damage from spreading by dint of the power that came when she used her voice. Anya had learned much of her new talents upon the voyage across the vast, rolling waves that separated one land from another, learning to control the power as she’d come along, using it to mend her wounds, to ease her spirit and at times to gladden her heart when her darkest dreams threatened to pull her down into their chill embrace. As she had found her voice could lift hearts, cause the worst of nightmares and even bludgeon others as though she had swung a mallet into their bodies.
Fear had been a natural effect of such power to begin with, especially when she had first used it against her rather annoying older sister. The damage done to the woman had been minor, but the split lip and torn garments had been more embarrassing than harmful. No one had denied that Anya was capable of bruising her older sibling, but the manner in which she had done so had never left her mind, or her sister’s.
* * *
Aliyana could feel when the Chosen united, smiling as they came together finally. There would be difficulties among them, that was to be expected, but this had happened with the first two groups of Chosen as well. Humans had so many issues with one another it was amazing that the species had survived so long. From the color of their skin to the tenets of their religion to even the way they spoke, the race of mankind was constantly at odds with itself. She knew that Shapers had been little better, but at least they had come to a peaceful resolution more often than not since each among them had known that a true fight among Shapers could divide land masses and cause entire regions to become nearly uninhabitable should the fight grow out of control. Humans at least were bound by their limitations to affect only themselves and small areas around them.
* * *
What Aliyana didn’t know was that the Chosen nearly managed to kill one another as the skies lit with thunder and fiery bolts of lightning as the group met. Cheraa, never a stable individual in his past, had instigated the fight almost immediately as he’d seen the pale skins that had seemed to wait for him upon a low rise within the deep valley he’d seen as the best way around mountains that seemed to stab at the sky with their needle-like points. The fierce warrior had not shied away from the coming fight that was already playing in his mind, but neither had he come at the male and female directly either. He’d known better, he was a hunter after all. One did not approach their prey with arms waving and mouth wide open to announce their presence.
The two in question, Anya and Aulik, had taken to each other readily enough, though Anya had kept her distance from the man just the same. Each of them had come to the rise as though it were some pre-destined spot and were determined to wait, the feeling that others were to come somehow burning deep within their minds. This was an odd sensation, but neither of them saw fit to deny it as they’d began to talk, their differing accents not seeming to matter as they could somehow understand one another perfectly. The two of them might not even have gotten a warning that Cheraa was about to attack unless Moriggan had not appeared within the hunter’s path suddenly and quite unexpectedly. Unbeknownst to any there the Scottish woman had arrived before even the first of them, which had been Anya. She had watched the blonde woman carefully, not willing to say hello until the feeling that others were to come had passed.
Seeing as how that hadn’t happened soon enough Moriggan had been about to walk forward when Cheraa had come upon her, his dark skin helping him to blend in with the shadows of the woods around them. The hunter had shouted a quick war cry before he’d attacked, his long, deadly bladed spear stabbing hard for her heart. Moriggan had reacted instinctively, drawing deeply upon the destructive power within her veins as she felt the energy of the surrounding world fill her, threatening to burst her heart from her chest just before she had released it. Cheraa had gone flying backward with a startled shout as Moriggan had gone to her knees, the exertion taking its toll as she gasped for breath.
Aulik had then glared at Anya, crying out “Deceiving witch!” before reaching for the heavy club that was attached to his waist by a leather thong. The man had tried to strike her, but Anya had been quicker, her fear lending speed to both her voice and the reaction that came unbidden as a result of her terror. She was no fighter despite the rod she carried, nor was she as enamored of combat as the others. Anya had always been a baker’s daughter, peaceful and reserved save for when she scrapped with her siblings. In those times she was still gentle unless her older sister had pushed her too far, but she was never as crazed as the man who had attempted to strike her was at that moment.
Without regard or even knowledge of what would happen Anya shouted “NO!” at the man as loud as she could, her voice amplified in that moment as Aulik went tumbling away, his club flying from his open hand as he landed hard several feet down slope from her. Anya had stared, marveling at how such a thing could be, when four more characters had suddenly sprang from the surrounding woods, each of them wielding a weapon that looked much more substantial than her own.
Confusion had gripped each of them at first as they had wondered what to think of each other, but as Aulik had risen with a defiant roar of anger the skies had seemed erupt, thunder and lightning tearing at the fabric of the heavens as though Armageddon was upon them. Anya had winced as a single bolt of lightning had pierced the ground not far away, striking the ground with a force that she knew instinctively would be her end if it connected. Aulik had charged then, his club regained and the madness in his eyes, which were a clear and frightening silver at this point, promising an end that Anya knew would not be pleasant.
Before he could reach her however Aulik was stopped by a mountain of a man, the dark skin of the stranger seeming to stand out against the colorful surroundings as he confronted the enraged warrior. The heavy stone club that the dark-skinned man held in his massive hands seemed far too large for any human to handle, but as Anya had watched he had fended Aulik away easily, using the stone club easily as the fierce warrior had been forced to keep his distance.
Lightning had still scored the sky as the others had come forward, though they had not seen fit to attack, especially not after the words of one of the women, a dark-haired and very stern-looking female, had spoken. Anya had been frightened to death, thinking that among them all she was the weakest, most ill-prepared for this moment. Yet as the woman had spoken she and the others had suddenly come to attention, listening intently, as though the words were of the greatest import.
“Chosen, halt!” the woman had shouted, resting her hands upon the hilt of a curved weapon that was sheathed at her left hip. Her imperious manner had captured each one of them save for a dark-haired woman that had come walking slowly out of the brush, glaring back at the form of another dark-skinned man that had followed her out of the brush, looking just as angered as she was. Anya had wondered what had transpired between the two, though that had ceased to matter as the woman had gone to stand with the first female, towering over her by at least a head as the first speaker had nodded in acceptance, as though she knew the woman.
“I’d imagine ye’re all here fer the same reason what I am. So say it then if it be so.” Her voice had carried only slightly less command than the first woman, but Anya had detected a great deal more force in the woman’s words, as though she were, above all of them, the one to be paid attention to. That she and the others could understand the woman was strange enough, but to think that they knew one another in some way was odder still. Yet something about the dark-haired woman, no matter that she was a stranger, struck Anya as familiar, though she didn’t know how.
“I am Bala.” the mountain of a man said, his voice deep and serious. “I come to the Lady’s call as you have.”
The snort they all heard came from the man that had followed the dark-haired woman from the surrounding trees, “I too have come by request from this Lady. I am Cheraa, master of death as I am called.” There was arrogance in the man’s tone as well as his stance as he planted the butt of his spear into the ground, his eyes roaming around the loosely assembled group as though daring anyone to speak against him.
“My name is Aulik.” the man who’d been about to attack her said. His eyes had not left Anya, though from the abatement of the storm, she could only imagine that he had calmed somewhat. How she knew it had been him that had caused such a thing was a revelation that didn’t seem to matter at the moment.
“I am Erobos,” came a voice from off in the trees, followed by a handsome and very large man, almost as large as Bala, as he emerged from cover. Anya had seen the man’s type before, though the coming of such violent folk often denoted trouble. Erobos was a Viking, one of those who pillaged and overran small communities when they could not forage for themselves. Instantly she knew that she did not like this man.
“My name is Aella,” said one of the women, her weapons shifting slightly as she moved her body just a bit, no doubt thinking to remain alert just in case anything untoward happened. Anya couldn’t blame her, this entire mess seemed to be getting more tense by the moment. At least however she would know the names of her fellow Chosen before they tore one another apart, if it came to that.
“I am Kerberos,” said another of the smaller women, holding onto a pole whose top featured a curved and very sharp-looking blade. She too seemed rather stern, though in her almond-shaped eyes Anya could detect just a hint of something other than concern or even caution, something akin to respect.
“I am Hela,” the woman next to the dark-haired, white-skinned female said, bowing her head as the dark-haired woman did the same.
“Well, I’d guess that leaves jus’ the two of us then.” the woman said as she looked to Anya, whose eyes were wide with both wonder and fear. The grin the woman gave her as she spoke was somehow both terrifying and reassuring all at once, though Anya could not reply for several moments.
“I, I,” she began, licking her lips nervously as she looked around. All eyes were on her, some of them even seeming a bit hostile, as she stammered. Anya had never been at a loss for words like this, nor had she ever been in a situation like this one. It was like being a rodent in a field with several very hungry and curious hawks watching her, waiting to see who would be the first to pounce.
“Out with it girl, lest we simply call ye “lass”.” the woman quipped. That decided Anya then and there, especially when she noticed Aulik grinning. She would not be patronized, nor would she be spoken down to as though she were child. With a firm roll of her shoulders she fixed her gaze upon the dark-haired woman, not twitching so much as an eyelash as she spoke.
“I am Anya, daughter of Bromin and I too have heeded the Lady’s call.” The iron in her voice felt as though it would crack and fail at any moment, but for that heartbeat at least Anya felt good, she felt the power that the Lady had bestowed upon her. And she felt as though she were just as strong as anyone there.
The woman smiled in response. “Well enough, I am Moriggan McGregor and according to the Lady, it appears as though I am to lead ye to where she’s called us to be.” There were a few murmurs to this, though none dared dispute it. Anya had figured that Aulik or perhaps Erobos would do so, she knew the pride of the Vikings very well, but no one did. Instead each warrior turned their full attention to Moriggan, nodding their heads in respect as they did. Anya did the same, though for some reason she could not help but think that the woman had not yet earned even this slight fealty. She hadn’t earned it at all.
* * *
Many days later the Chosen met with the Lady for final and perhaps most important time. Aliyana had not left the arid land where she had waited for them, utilizing the vast power at her disposal to keep herself comfortable, fed and entertained while she had awaited those she had gathered to her side. Sivis was still several days away at best, only a few at the very worst, and she had much to teach her Chosen before the time came for them to fight.
Resistance to her ways was expected and without surprise the Chosen offered her more questions and far more difficulties once they arrived. These were dealt with in short order as the Lady was forced to dominate her Chosen once more, insuring that they would do as directed once the dark lord arrived. There was no time for dickering, no time for argument and none at all for defiance. She would have their loyalty or they would perish far quicker than she had hoped.
That they would perish was not in question, though she did not tell them this. In the several days before Sivis arrived Aliyana managed to convey the importance of Echoes Pass, just why it could not be subverted, and what it would mean if such a thing were to happen. There were still more questions, mostly from the Songbird and Herald, but none that could not be answered with a dodge or in full truth. Aliyana did not outwardly lie to her Chosen, but she did not tell them everything. That would have been too much, even for them.
As the days passed she feared for her Chosen even as she realized that they would soon perish, however nobly. It was wrong to throw away life, she knew this with absolute certainty, but it was equally as wrong to allow the realm to fall for the sake of only a few. She could not accept such a loss and would not. Her Chosen would fall as warriors, rather than as prey to the dark things that would be unleashed if Sivis were to have his way. The days passed, and she waited, and she feared.
* * *
And then the day came. She could feel Sivis’s roiling cloud of darkness, could sense his vile presence, but he did not appear. Instead the sands rose, the exiles who were trapped within the dwindling power of this place standing to defend Echoes Pass as they had been charged. If it had been Sivis who had come forth not even the fallen angels would have stood a chance, but Sivis did not show himself. Instead he sent his foot soldiers, creatures born of darkness and fostered into life by the dark lord himself. He sent the legions of humans that he had corrupted, the hellish feline creatures known as hellcats, the duskwalkers, the wagging jaws and the worst of the bunch, the Darklings.
And they were not enough.
The Chosen and the exiles plowed through them easily, reducing the fearsome horde to little more than straggling and wounded curs that howled as they retreated. Aliyana did not fully understand until the day after the initial battle what had happened. Sivis had somehow faked his presence within the desert, alerting her to the danger yet not the fact that he was nowhere near where she was.
The Chosen were of course not pleased, but upon her word they had gone forth into the world, seeking out her former lover and his minions a bit at a time, not stopping until finally, finally, Sivis had made his move towards Echoes Pass. Many years had passed, decades in fact that had tried the patience and the loyalty of the Chosen again and again, cementing bonds between a few of them and creating at least a mutual respect among others. Each one of them had been tested, tried and thrust into the fires of the continuing war that Aliyana had not expected. Even the weakest among them had become strong, forging their bodies in the blaze of combat time and again until not even Anya, the most innocent of their number, had been able to remember just how weak she had once been, how fragile, how docile. Each one of them had killed, taking life when it was deemed necessary and restoring balance to more than one area after another as they had made their trek across the face of the realm, not stopping until one day Aliyana had called them back, summoning them once more to the desert where she had expected them to make their final stand. Sivis would strike soon she had said.
The day of this happening had been unknown, but Aliyana had still managed to trick him into believing the way was clear to take the wellspring of power. By this time the Chosen had grown so far in power that not even Anya could be taken for granted any longer, her mastery of the Song that she had discovered within the very folds of Echoes Pass imbuing her with even more power, more energy than even Aliyana had expected. She could only hope that the power that each of the Chosen had found would be enough, though after so many years left out of captivity, Sivis had undoubtedly grown far too powerful to be taken captive by the Chosen’s combined power, let alone one on one. It was the diversion she would need however, not the actual victory, but as always Aliyana had left this minor detail out of her words to the Chosen. They had no need to know that they were her sacrificial lambs.
The Chosen’s return to the desert lands heralded the thrumming of power that resounded from Echoes Pass as Sivis had attacked, bringing forth yet another legion of dark creatures that had sought to overcome the exiles that guarded this place as well as the assembled Chosen. Aliyana had known the true reason the dark lord had not deigned to fight this battle alone, but she had not divulged this to her warriors, seeking to remain unseen and unheard until it was time to strike. And strike she had.
* * *
Devil’s Playground-The Present
Moriggan remembered a little too well how her will and those of her fellow Chosen had been bound to both Sivis and the wellspring that was Echoes Pass. The unreal level of pain that had been visited upon each of them had broken each of the Chosen one by one, until only she had remained. And then she’d seen the truth.
As she sat upon the wooden rocker that she’d found inside Moriggan looked to the horizon, seeing nothing but sand and dry scrub where there had once been still lakes and lush forest, sparse as it had been. This land had changed a great deal in the time since she and the other Chosen had been secretly kept away. She could only wonder how much of it might be Aliyana’s fault.
The White Witch, as she had taken to calling her, had led them all to a certain doom just by acting like a godsdamned innocent of all things. Had they seen past the illusions they might well have sided with Sivis there and then, thereby stopping the woman’s rampage across the face of this world. Moriggan didn’t think this made her or the others fools, but she couldn’t help but feel responsible for the loss of order that Sivis had told them about. The world had fallen into chaos he said, and for all Moriggan knew the dark lord had no reason to lie. Dark he might be, but honesty was often the most hurtful of all weapons.
Aliyana had lied to them, telling each one of her precious Chosen, precious!, that their actions upon this battlefield would never be forgotten. Dirty Maab if that hadn’t been just a bald-faced lie! The world had indeed forgotten about them, as Sivis had shown! None of what they’d done was remembered by anyone, not even their descendants, of which they’d all learned they had at least a few of their bloodline. Moriggan had been curious to know just what had become of her kin, but Sivis had convinced her that such things were better not to know. She hadn’t even questioned him after this, not once. If Sivis had said it didn’t matter, it must be true. After all, truth was the hardest thing to accept, and right now the truth was the last thing she desired. All she wanted was to go home.
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