Each hour the blizzard raged on, it covered with a blanket of fresh snow the signs of a scuffle that had, an hour before, stood in clearly-delineated grooves against the now-vanished layer of last night's snow. Overhead, a leafless tree creaked its heavy branches in the wind and meanly threatened to drop one, which should have caused general trauma and panic among the insects of the loam around the tree's roots, had they been remotely aware of what was taking place far above their placid existence. Wisps of smoke, white against the sullen sky, drifted lazily from the chimney of the nearby cottage, which had been occupied until very recently; now, the door swung gently back and forth on its hinges, its quiet thuds muffled by the wind's roar, and the light from the dying fire flickered weakly in the frosty windows. Although the tempestuous winds of the blizzard made even the near distance of the landscape impossible to penetrate, the area echoed with emptiness. The inhabitants of the cottage, the combatants in the struggle that had taken place, seemed to have vanished without a trace. Arcita
Gemtorin sighed, and tried hard to focus on the teachings of the Master. Perhaps a truer Apprentice would have felt less regret at the prospect of struggling on through the blizzard, with no respite by the too-obviously recent fire. Gemtorin shook himself, and turned his attention to ... Ewerb getting home. Tobias was clearly no longer here, the warning having come too late. Gemtorin's master would be upset, although Gemtorin himself was surprised Tobias had survived as a double agent for so much of this holy war. Gemtorin focused his thoughts, attempting to imitate the flows of power his master used for trans portation and strained for several minutes. Sighing, Gemtorin gave up and, wiggling his toes in his sodden boots, began the march back to civilisation. Fastjack
After having travelled east for five hours, with the sun sinking low above the horizon, Gemtorin realised that he would be unable to travel in the dark across such cruel terrain, and therefore he should rest for the night in the nearest cave, out of the wind and snow. Realising that he was quite likely to catch pneumonia unless he managed to light a fire, he found some wood, and tried to summon the necessary power to cause it to burn, but realised he had no access to any of the currents of power! Conjuring fire using his own life force (a bad idea but better than freezing to death), he pondered the possible reasons for being unable to draw on the flows of power. Identifying three possibilities, he discarded the theories that the magic was either exhausted or that someone would have blocked all the power on such a remote mountain, he realised that someone must be holding a ward against him, and that his life was in danger. Thinking fast, he hurried to the top of the mountain to see what was looking for him, and what he did see made his blood run cold, for in the distance was Tobias riding along side the most dangerous hunter in the world: the man known only as Azrael! Catharsis
Azrael felt tired, more tired than he could ever remember being; this man Tobias was a strong one, with a mind harder to control than most, and he had ridden hard to reach the cottage where the spy had been living. Still, the knowledge of the difficult and dangerous task ahead of him kept him going - that, and the adrenaline which came from a fight like the one he had just won. The Kiyamvir would be impressed with his work; perhaps he would even admit Azrael into his councils now, as he had promised. Azrael's eyes burnt cold and blue in his black face as he thought of the revenge he would inflict, and how sweet it would be to make them suffer as he had suffered. His mind wandered a little, and he was caught entirely by surprise when ... Wychwood his morphic powers suddenly diminished. Glancing back at Tobias, Azrael quickly scanned the surroundings for danger; he could alter Tobias's memory if need be, but in his state he could not afford to let his natural form be seen, not knowing what peril would be unleashed if it was. Staring at his wrists, he could see that her skin was slowly changing to pale glistening white, and her hardened hands were softening in texture. Desperate times would take desperate measures and with a swift movement of her arm she withdrew a golden phial tied round her neck and took a deep drink. She arched her body as her angelic wings stiffened and her skin returned its deep hues, whilst her small, pale horns glowed and slowly melted into her forehead, away from sight. At least for now, she would have enough psychic chi to maintain her shapeshift, but now that her health was restored she could sense that there was another presence nearby - an evil presence, and it was weaving an immense spell of unwinding so great that even the mighty Azrael was shaken when he remembered the value of the mighty treasure that lay under the guard of ancient spells ... in the dwarven ruins beneath the mountains, abandonned long ago. Nog
Farther away, in the mountains of a remote island, a dark force was being awakened from a deep slumber. The earth creaked and groaned, the wind became warmer, a sudden bright amber light shown forth as a sudden earthquake errupted. A low moan arose from the parted crust "I shall take my revenge upon those who have left me while in my weak state, they have ran and hid, abandoning my teachings and I. I have been trapped under these pools of blood for centuries, yet one stands beside me, restoring me to health." From a deep creavice formed from the earthquake, appeared... Landa
The book snapped shut as the echo of beating hooves reached Gemtorin's elven-shaped ears. Gemtorin cursed, pocketed his book and kicked a small, unoffending stone into the fire: causing it to erupt in a shower of sparks. Gemtorin swore out loud as he thought how easy it must be for the approaching menace to find him as he threw beacon upon beacon into the moonlit sky. Struggling to his feet, he doused the fire with handfuls of sooty dirt and fled across through the marshland, hoping that not even Azrael would be able to follow him through that treacherous land. Even as he fled, Gemtorin wished that Azrael could have happened upon him at some later date, as he had so wanted to finish reading his favourite novel - the appropriately titled 'Demonic Torments' written by the well-known author Landa. Flik
Gemtorin's master, so far unaware of his apprentice's immediate danger, splayed his gnarled fingers over the scrying glass and sighed, focusing his thoughts on the youth. But as the surface of the glass lost its silvery sheen and flickered into life, the old man stiffened and drew on yet more power through which he could channel truesight. Sudden shock, relief mingled with uncertainty, flashed through his mind, for although he initially thought he had seen his apprentice pursued by the dread Kiyamvir's chief hunter, instead he found himself watching, through his truesight, a winged angel. Or perhaps, he shuddered to think, this was in fact a winged demoness. Whichever she was, though, he could see flows of power emanating from this female creature, some wrapped around her own body, others encircling the spy Tobias' neck like a collar. Arcita He did not dare to attempt communication with the unfortunate Tobias, fearing that once inside the mind of the captive he himself would become vulnerable to the power of a being so fearful that it preferred to appear as the dread Azrael (and had the power to maintain this illusion). Allowing himself just enough of an edge of fear to hone his magical abilities, he refocused the scrying glass on Gemtorin as he struggled through the marsh.
The Master was well aware that aiding an Apprentice on his Journey ran counter to the most fundamental of the Teachings, yet despite his iron self-discipline, he was wise enough to recognise a situation so extreme that adherence to the normal rules could bring only disaster. As he guided the currents of his power into a Thread that would link him with Gemtorin, he was more alert and wary of danger than any untrained human could imagine, yet even he was taken by surprise when the nascent Thread became snarled in what he recognised, in his last instants of consciousness, as an unwinding spell. In a flash, he knew the primal power that was being channelled through his agent Tobias, knew what it was that could shake even the one who had assumed Azrael's form ... and the knowledge was too much for a human soul, and then there was only pain. Ewerb
Tobias flipped the final card from the Tarot deck to reveal Death reversed. Unnatural death. He stood up and paced around the small room in which he waited, stretching and cracking his back. Five times he had used the Tarot tonight, and five times he had analysed each casting, giving each of his personalities a chance with the cards, and each again a chance to cast its own bias on the reading. Each time had ended with unnatural Death. One thing was clear, he thought as a bright light flashed behind him, forcing a different personality to the fore in preparation for the meeting. "Tsk tsk, not a very good tie she has on you, is it?" asked the Elder. "Must be a young one - so many transcendentally illuminated beings out there recently it's hard to keep track. Who is she?"
Tobias pursed his lips and consulted his five fact and fiction sheets for a minute before answering, "Mine, unless you ask the Kiyamvir, who think she is a conjured servant of Gruad. Gemtorin's master probably thinks she serves their God, he always was too fond of his own skill - Gemtorin thinks she's Azrael."
In that small room the Elder smiled and said, "No two pieces interlock, but all five pieces do interlock." On the nearby marshland Gemtorin clutched his burning chest and panted with exhaustion in the mud as Azrael smiled down at him. Fastjack
Entering the mind of her new captive, "Azrael" smiled unaware that behind her Tobias was also smiling, and mentally showing Gemtorin how to free his magic from the blocks that Azrael was placing on it. Wondering what had posessed him to read a work of fiction while he knew Azrael was after him, and realising Tobias was feeding him useful information, he concentrated on the best mental block he knew to stop Azrael reading his mind.
"Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting, Some of those kids were fast as lightning..." with a shudder Azrael drew his mind out of Gemtorin's, and kicked him hard for inflicting him with that - it would be a long time before he even attempted to read Gemtorin's mind again. Realising the brilliance of Gemtorin's unorthodox block, Elder Brisarius sent a congratulatory thought to Gemtorin and his master- he would now have more than one source of information amongst those who would be overlooked. Brisarius was feeling very happy with how things were going as "Azrael" would be unlikely to admit that he was unable to break into Gemtorin's mind, and so both Gemtorin and Tobias would be thought harmless, and hence in an ideal position to either spy or assassinate as necessary. Catharsis
The Kiyamvir looked around his court; it would not be long now before Azrael brought him back his captives. Not that he believed that Tobias or Gemtorin would be truly captive; they themselves were not of such great power, but their masters were the true leaders of the rebellion. He felt sure that the masters would be aiding their pupils, however strict the rules were - and once he had the two before him, he knew he could subdue their minds, and thus destroy their masters. With such power, no one could stop him; he would break the hold that Azrael's brood had on him, and end this war for once and for all. It was a shame that all four of them would have to die in the process, but peace was the most important thing, surely? Wychwood
The horses neighed suddenly as the beast inside the mountain woke, exploding the mountainside and severing the mental link Azrael had on Tobias. Immediately, Tobias was on top of her, pinning her down, knife drawn and held in the assasin's grip. However he suddenly relaxed his hold on her with a series of muscle spasms and wept instead of slaying her. Baffled, she looked at him, confused by his actions - she had mastery in combat and magic over all she had met, but he had not killed her when he had his only chance.
Though Tobias was wordless, Azrael began to understand that Tobias had recognised her true identity; Munchkin, the young girl he had promised to marry, who was kidnapped the night they became engaged by the Hunter Clan, to be trained to be the next great warrior, and thus fulfil the prophecy of good. Nog
What Tobias could not know, however, Azrael realized as she and the spy locked eyes for what seemed an eternity of confused revelations, was that the prophecy's origins had been false, her abduction a mere sham; and now her old identity was gone, erased by efforts on her own part and that of others. She served the Kiyamvir now, as his usually willing tool, given to him in altered form by Gruad (for less than altruistic reasons, she was sure); and she had seen enough of both men to know that the Kiyamvir's intentions of "peace" were really little more than manifestations of his own unconfessed desire for absolute control, while Gruad was eager enough to aid anyone he thought might give him an advantage. Not that Azrael cared, in the slightest; to her, good and evil were merely abstract concepts developed by those interested in validating their own actions. What worried her now, though, was the ease with which her hold on Tobias had been broken, and she was not entirely sure that it was the consequence of any mistake she had made; it seemed equally improbable that it was Tobias' own doing or the fault of that brat who had blocked her attempts to probe his mind. But soon, as Azrael thought to look away from Tobias, she found that she could not, and in his eyes she saw a stark change, saw the surfacing presence of another intelligence, an unknown quantity; and as she looked deeper, compelled by her very inability to wrench away her gaze, she saw five men in one, only one the man she had ever so briefly known, and suddenly many things were far, far clearer than she had ever wished them to be. Arcita
Azrael found it almost ironic that she, of all creatures, should find herself at this crisis of the final battle between good and evil, she who had long ago passed beyond this petty contest. She called to mind every detail of the true prophecy, pieced together from the secret meanings hidden within the popular fantasy novel, Demonic Torments, and which she now saw approaching its fulfilment in the five-fold personality of Tobias. After those countless aeons of scheming, keeping the thread of her identity intact through so many personae, each more powerful than the last, she had no intention of becoming an incidental casualty of the apocalypse, but Azrael knew that she had very little time to act.
Almost every branch led to her destruction, so she seized the only course which seemed to give her a faint chance of the victory she craved: she would attempt to shift the balance of the final contest in favour of mere humanity, represented in Tobias by the apprentice who had once loved a girl he believed would fulfil the false prophecy as the chief warrior of the Hunter Clan. If any of Tobias' other four aspects triumphed, the world would become the place of absolutes, either wholly good or wholly evil, and then there would be no place one such as Azrael... she almost laughed at the thought of lending her immense power to the weakest of the combatants, yet her only hope lay in that very weakness. Ewerb