The Emerald Blade

The Emerald Blade

The man stood for a long time on the top of the bare hill, his dark gaze following the last dying light of the day. The first star soon appeared on the purple horizon.

A light breeze brought the smell of burned wood from the nearby village. This scent always reminded him of his birthplace. The Wide River Valley. It was 200 years ago when the flaming rain came down from heavens. Some said it was the Gods fury that unleashed this tragedy. Yet no one expected this horrible damnation. There was no water. It hadn’t rained for ages, and the once thick forests that covered the land from side to side, had turned into dust. Starvation and poverty spread throughout the land of Russak. Many families had left their homes in search for more fertile lands. Hunger and despair turned them into thieves and beggars. Still the people of the Valley were living in their everyday blissfulness as if nothing could destroy their golden serenity. And then it came…the fire from the sky…

He turned his face towards the village. There among the huts made out of stone and mud stood his own humble abode. His wife would be searching for food right now. Maybe one of his children would be assisting her. His eyes were full of sorrow. Food was scarce in these places. If they ‘re lucky they’ d find some bush roots, or maybe a bird’s nest. Maybe some little creature had been captured in one of his traps. Maybe…maybe his children won’t be forced to go to bed hungry this very night…A distant cry caught his attention. There upon a rock not far from the place where he was standing, stood a female white hawk. Its lean figure, offered the man’s sight a rare glimpse of beauty. He held out his arm as if he was calling the bird to leave its standing place. The white beast came and landed on his shoulder. Its beak approached his left ear and a soft smile lightened his troubled face.

“They are here then. Come Reykna let’s not keep our visitor waiting”, he said and followed the dusty path that led back into the village. Two horses were tied just outside his doorstep and he heard the old mare that they kept behind the hat neighing, as she didn’t approve the new comers. Their golden manes and tales was braded and they wore no saddle. They were the last of their breed. Elven stallions born in the deep cedar forests of Alsyria before the Great Drought .As he entered the house the hawk flew softly and took its place on a low shelf right next to the door. In the fire place, a faint flame was struggling to survive as his wife Bettwin blew over the remaining coals, her face looking golden red in the shadows. Beside her sat a man wearing a long, thick, blue cloak.

He stood up and made an elegant bow. Then he pushed back his hood unraveling red, shiny hair that reached down to his ankle. “May the blessings of the Crystal Caves follow your every move Florethon”, added the elf gallantly. “Welcome my brother ”, said the man and embraced him tightly. “Come have some tea”, said the woman pouring hot water in cups made of clay. The man watched her hands moving swiftly. They were covered with scars. He remembered the first time he met her on the battlefield three centuries ago. Her silver armor was shining like a dying sun against the lights of the sky, matching her fearsome eyes. The three of them sat quietly round the small table. The elven man, Lihtnor, looked thoughtfully at the two small figures that were fast asleep in one corner of the tiny house, covered up with worn blankets. The twins Lizbel and Ludwolv. Right next to them their elder sister Yusefelin was stretching her arms trying to get comfortable. His face darkened. “Ill news travel fast to our secret chambers. We ‘ve heard about Palether”, he said bitterly. Bettwin spoke harshly as she was struggling to hold her tears: “We lost her as we were crossing the Ruch Tourmel, a canyon at the Western Lands. We were walking for days, she was exhausted and couldn’t keep up with the rest of us. Some men came along and offered to help us. They told us they were merchants from Elhiria. It is so easy to be fooled under the burning western sun, with your feet full of blisters and your throat acing for some water. One of them grabbed her before we could see the blades of their daggers coming out of their white clothes”. Suddenly she stood up and ran out of the hut with haste.

“She punishes herself everyday for this.” ,the man said sadly. “We tried to resist but we were unarmed and hadn’t ate for days except for some dried roots”. He merged his face into his palms. “I’ ve looked everywhere since then. I travelled all alone, crossed the hills of Roklat and made it to the Redsun Sea. I asked every person I came across with. She was nowhere to be found.” The elf reached for his shoulder. “She was born under the sign of the Bone wasn’t she?” he asked. The man looked up and stared at the wall before he answered:

“Yes, she was destined to become a Clawer. It was in her blood after all. My wife’s mother Atherel was a Clawer and a great shamhness. She could reach to the very soul of Being, she could share the breath of the Distant Ones, the spirits of the Cosmic Flows. She disappeared some centuries ago. Palether would ‘ve become her greatest successor. We sensed it before even she could walk. She had the heart of a healer. She could spent hours just taking care of starving desert rabbits or wounded birds. I still remember the night when she survived the Great Thirst. We were so very proud that she could claim her Last Form”, he said staring at the hawk that was cleaning its feathers with swift, elegant moves.

“I know about the Initiation. The Great Cave Mages used to speak about the powers of the Asathiss, when I was just a little sprout, said Lihtnor. I know that during the sacred rites oneself may pass through the Eternal Light and come back blessed by the Distant Ones”. The man replied with just a nod. “I’ m sorry my friend, forgive my hasty tongue for bringing to the present unbearable memories”, said the elf. But the man stood up and continued as if he was talking to himself: “Our ancestors used to call them Clawers, shape shifters. Half men half beasts. They said that if a Clawer didn’t get the chance to learn how to control the process of transformation, the animal spirit within him would take control of his human nature. Palether was taken just one week before her training begins. But she’ s a strong child, I know that she would never allow this to happen to her”. He looked through the window, his wife Bettwin was trying to chop some roots for dinner. “What about your other children? Have they yet given signs of their powers?” asked Lihtnor. Florethon looked towards the other side of the little house where he could see the twins breathing softly guided by the sleep of innocence and Yusefelin, beautiful Yusefelin peaceful but harsh like a wildflower. “Not yet though it won’t take long for them to burst like an untamed flame”. He turned his fervent gaze to the elf and said: “We must find her Lihtnor! We must find her quickly!” Lihtnor, smiled faintly and replied: “That is why I have came to see you my old friend. The Cave Mages asked me to come and find you. Their foresight spoke of something, an ancient relic that may have the power to restore what this world had lost. The relic shall be found and brought to Light again by a child that was born under the sign of the Bone. So it is said, they may know where you daughter is kept dear friend”. “That is wonderful news for a desperate man! I will follow you back to the Crystal Caves elf! We will leave as soon as I’m ready”, exclaimed Florethon and started packing but he soon stopped, when he heard the elf saying: “You must all come Florethon. You, Bettwin and your offsprings. These are my orders”. “This cannot be! You cannot ask me to endanger once more the life of my wife and children!” replied the man angrily. “You should only worry about your children”, a stern voice was heard and Bettwin stepped into the house. She had heard the entire conversation. “I am pretty capable of defending myself husband. Or have you already forgotten that scar I gave you a long time ago?” , she asked, her eyes full of determination. Before Florethon could utter a single word she started gathering dried roots and meat, blankets and clothing. The next morning, after the sleepy twins had been persuaded to ride Bettwin’s old mare with the rest of them riding the robust elven stallions they set out to find the way to the Crystal Caves. The white hawk once again landed on Florethon’s shoulder as he was staring back at the place he used to call home…

They travelled for several days and one evening they arrived at a small village. The hats there were made of straw and muck. In fact it seemed to them that muck was covering every inch of that place. Smoke rose from the top of the hats and many small, skinny animals like hens and geese walked clumsily on the unsteady ground. Florethon dismantled but raised up his hand in a warning when Bettwin tried to do the same. There was something really strange about that place. A dove landed in front of Lizbel and she stretched her little hand to grab its feathered tale. “Noooo wait little girl!” someone screamed and when they all turned to face the speaker they saw an old man dressed in rags hopping hastily towards them. As soon as he managed to catch his breath the man looked at them and said: “I’ m sorry I didn’t mean to frighten you little one. You shouldn’t be hear strangers. You must leave at once!”, he said and his gaze stopped on each face like it was a message of long lost hope. Lihtnor stepped forward and asked: “Why are you trying to frighten us good man, what is it in this place that may harm me or my companions?”

The old man looked terrified and gasped. His eyes widened as if he was seeing a ghost as he was staring at Bettwin. “Come with me strangers. Quickly now!” he beckoned them and one after the other they followed him into a little grey hat. The inside was clean but smelled like a coop. Ysefelin sneezed noisily and the eyes of the strange old man became even wider. “Please” he said “be quiet, we wouldn’ t want anyone to find you. Especially you children!”,he said softly. He offered them some water and then when he made sure everyone was comfortable he started talking: “A long time ago we the people of Grassaly were living a rich and happy life. Our lands were fertile and sickness was nothing but a bad dream in our thoughts. Among us leaved many wise men and women, teachers and preachers of the Distant Ones’ will. But there was one woman who was never satisfied. Her name was Graga and may it be forever cursed! Conflicts and intense disagreements seemed to occur whenever she was present. One night a young boy disappeared. A small group of men and women set out looking for him. He was nowhere to be seen. But then my wife noticed a strange light coming out of a cave not far from where we were standing. We run towards there and once we got into we witnessed a terrifying sight, the boy was laid on a flat stone. His skin was as dry as a leaf under the hot sun. The witch was standing above him with her hands upon his chest. Her whole figure was glowing with an unholy light. Once she saw us she put her fingers between her lips and whistled. Through the cave came a loud roar and then a strange creature half bird-half woman came out of nowhere and took the witch upon its back. Before she left, she casted a terrible spell upon us so that our children and our children’s children may find no peace. That very night, some of our children abandoned their homes. The next morning we searched everywhere for them but it was as if they had disappeared. We couldn’t find them anywhere”, said the man and tears trailed the lines of his face. “But how do you know, she is responsible for this?”, asked Bettwin. The man looked into her eyes and whispered: “She told us lady, some days after the disappearance of those children she came here. Her form was like a black cloud pestilence. Your children are under my power now, the witch said, I have called only the gifted ones among them to join me and their magical powers will help me maintain mine”. The old man started crying and Bettwin got closer and tried to calm him. Finally he managed to catch his breath and continue: “We ‘ve heard rumours coming from throughout the land that many children have been taken against their will but as for where they might be kept that is a dark mystery none of us had been able to solve”. Hearing this Bettwin and Florethon looked at each other. “Some say, she was the one who brought the Great Drought by keeping engaged all that magic”.

“Maybe we can help you my lord”, said Bettwin. “You see, our eldest daughter was kidnapped too, many days ago. We ‘re going to visit the elven lands because there we might find the key to this mystery. Let us rest here until dawn and then we shall leave”. The eyes of the old man were suddenly enlightened with joy as his hopes were refreshed by the news. “Of course my lady, you can spend your night here! Let me bring you some more blankets for the little ones”. He returned quickly bringing some woolen blankets and a large bowl of soup for the children. “I ‘m sorry that is all there is for dinner in these places”, he apologized and left shutting the door behind him. After taking a zip from the soup everyone was fast asleep under the soft woolen blankets. It was almost midnight and Yusefelin was troubled by a rather disturbing dream. She saw a pair of white hands made out of smoke reaching to grab Lizbel and Ludwolv. They were almost touching the twins’ heads when she woke up all sweaty to see that her younger siblings were nowhere to be found! She started yelling at her parents trying to wake them up. Florethon woke up, and when he realized what was going on got out of the house, following the flight of his white hawk that seemed to have sensed their presence. Bettwin and Lihtnor followed them swiftly. Fortunately the twins hadn’t gone too far. Bettwin realized that their eyes were blank as if they had been hypnotized and shaked them harshly to wake them up. When they did wake up, Florethon asked Lizbel if she remembered what happened. The girl shook her head and then starred at her mother ’s eyes like she was trying to understand what was going on. At last she said faintly: “She told us to be quiet. That we would go to a place fool of toys and candy and that there we would play all day long and eat whatever we wanted”. “She? Who is She darling?” asked Bettwin. “The lady with the nice voice. She was singing to us. Like you do mammy”, answered Lizbel and she saw that everyone was waiting to hear her answer she started crying. Ludwolv was still in a bad condition.

Before the first rays of the sun appeared on the horizon they thanked the old man for his hospitality and left the village. Florethon was carrying Ludwolv with him trying to make him feel better. When he was able to talk, he told them that the voice talking in his head was so sweet that for many hours the only thing he could hear was that. That voice. They soon found once again the rocky, old path that led to the elven lands…

Days turned into weeks and finally, after having faced all dangers and challenges of the long road to the elven realm, Lihtnor spread out his arm and showed them the mystical, dark shapes of the wide openings of the Crystal Caves. Florethon was relieved knowing that his family would get the chance to rest in a place like this. The elves were masters in the practicing of magical arts and they used their skills in order to defend and secure their territory. And quite successfully one must admit, murmured Bettwin as she barely could notice the fine lines of flowing energy marking the boundaries of a nearby cave. Suddenly they heard the faint noise of a bird touching the ground and there, just before their eyes, was the most magnificent of birds! It was rather large. Its feathers had iridescent blue and green colours and his eyes were golden-yellow like the midday sun. It kept looking at them for several minutes before spreading its wings and heading to the enormous entrance of a cave that was gaping right in front of them. Soon its colorful figure was swallowed by darkness. One by one they got off their horses and started walking into the great mouth of stone. Until darkness engulfed them too…

At first they couldn’ t see anything. Then they heard Lihtnor singing gently and the walls of the great cave were suddenly enlightened. Then Yusefelin noticed that they were covered with transparent crystals that were glowing softly filling the air with a soft bee-like humming. They walked along the luminous path for some time under the thick blanket of quartz they thought they could see figures carved on the side of the walls. Ysefelin starred with wonder. “What are these figures Lihtnor?”She asked the elf. He looked at the walls with a troubled sight and said: “These are our kith and kin. The ones who decided to sacrifice their own happiness and well being so that our lands may retain their vitality after the Great Drought. This is not painful to them though. In return of their gift the mountain grants them immortality and visions of the ever living kingdom of the Distant Ones.” Yusefelin looked terrified. It was Ludwolv’s voice that broke the silence once again. “What was that bird we saw entering the cave? How do you call it?” “That was his highness prince Etheroh of the Amethyst Chambers, you saw. He is the only son of our High King Ethrol, and the last Clawer of our kind” ,answered the elf. “So he can change his shape like Palether used to do!”, exclaimed Ludwolv but he stopped talking as soon as he saw the strict look his mother gave to him.

The hours passed with no sight of any living thing except for the weird shapes on the walls. They had lost their sense of time and place. But suddenly they saw that the tunnel stopped. They were trapped behind a solid luminous wall. Lihtnor stepped forward, put gently his fingertips on its surface and whispered some words that sounded like a brief song. After that he stepped back and everybody waited. Upon the surface of the wall two figures stirred violently. They opened their eyes and stretched their arms out of it. Their whole bodies were dragged out of the wall and they managed to stand on their feet in front of the bedazzled humans. They said nothing but stood in front of the wall as if they were standing in front of a huge gate and finally opened it. An enchanting melody filled the air and the walls around them filled with shades of purple. They all entered the Amethyst Chambers and there was nothing nor will be anyhting in the world of men that could match the wonders of the Elven King’s court. It was like they had stranded to a far off place where everything was possible and tangible. There was no sound yet their souls were caressed by the oldest paeans and the brightest lullabies. Things only dream walkers and ever after travelers could hear during their wandering. An imposing figure sat gracefully on a throne made out of a gigantic piece of lace amethyst. The elven king, Ethrol held out his hands towards them and said: “Welcome noble guests. It’s been years since anyone had stepped into these chambers. I will be pleased to ensure that you will feel absolutely comfortable during your staying in my dwellings”. “Oh yes please we are really hungry!” said Ludwolv at once and his mother gave him another severe look. King Ethrol laughed wholeheartedly and clapped his hands. At once a great stone table emerged itself from the ground. Plates and glasses made of a strange material were displayed on it capturing the sweet light that came out of the stalactites. “But how can this be? How did you do that with no servants to help you?” asked Yusefelin and the elven king laughed once again and said: “You will find no servants in our lands young lady. Ours is a free folk. Come lets feast and then I will show you to your rooms”. They all gladly sat down and enjoyed the weird looking but tasteful offering of their host. Some of the food was glowing like a firefly’ s back and some made a funny sound when they tried to take a bite out of it. There was also some kind of a sweet drink made out of distilled stalactite water and fungus. Soon they all felt like their stomachs were ready to burst. Lizbel had already fallen asleep. King Ethrol picked her up in his arms and walked on to lead the others to their rooms. Before wishing them a peaceful and restful night he told them that the next morning he would be waiting for them in the grand hall for unfortunately there was no more time to waste on resting. That night Bettwin dreamt of a strange creature trapped inside a sea of golden waves…

Florethon thought he felt a light breeze touching his face. He slowly opened one sleepy eye and saw the smiling face of his youngest daughter. Her hand pushed gently against his arm and she said: “Come on daddy, they‘re all waiting for you!” The man stretched his arm to the other side of the bed to wake up Bettwin . “Mommy is already at the council hall! Come on, get up already!”,said the girl while pulling eagerly his hand. Florethon got up and put his shirt on. He couldn’t tell whether it was morning or night. From the very day they set foot in the Caves he had lost his sense of time and being. He crossed the large corridor in front of his room, while Lizbel almost ran in front of him, as she was ordered to show him the way. He wondered where the white hawk might be, for it had left their company many days before they reached the Crystal Caves.

When he entered the Hall, he faced six sitting figures around a vast table, bathed in a pale green light. The Council Chamber or Malachite Chamber was the one of the oldest in the elven realm. King Ethrol nodded in courtesy and told him to approach the table. He barely could see the faces of his family but when his eyes got used to the dim light, he saw that they were all standing round the table completely still. Lihtnor, stood behind king Ethrol’ s seat. One by one the members of the council bowed their heads elegantly. All except for one…a young man who sat next to Ethrol. He gave Florethon a disparaging look with his bright yellow eyes and instantly turned his gaze elsewhere. Iridescent shades of green and blue shone on the length of his curly hair. They reminded Florethon of the strange bird they had encountered at the first day they arrived. “This must be Ethrol’ s only son, Etheroh”, he thought and stood still. No one spoke for a while and Bettwin said, disturbing the silence: “Please my lords we made the long trip to your lands in hope that you could share with us your wisdom. Please let us know where our daughter may be kept!” She felt on her knees and cried out: “Please we have no other options, I ‘ve been living in the darkness of desperation for a long time now! At last I want to know where my child is!” tears marked her pale face. Even prince Etheroh, seemed to be moved by her request. Then a she elf who was wearing a small silver bound piece of moonstone on her forehead said tenderly: “Unfortunately my child, what you ask of us lies beyond our powers. Within the past few years they have diminished leaving nothing but some memories of what we used to be or could do. Though the evil presence that has been spreading its poisonous deeds around the entire land of Russak, is not unknown to us and there is no doubt that the powers of the abducted children have been used all this time to feed its malignant cause. We cannot offer you what you seek, but there is someone who can. Someone who was there when silver visited the heart of stars. An Elder One.”

Bettwin stood up hastily and added : “ Then take us to this being!”. Florethon touched her shoulder and whispered her to calm down. King Ethrol’ s piercing gaze met her eyes and he said: “ I would gladly take you to see the Elder, for I know in my heart that this would eventually put an end to your suffering. But this task is not appointed to you lady Bettwin nor to your husband. A long time ago it was decided that it is your offsprings who must endure this test.” The king looked at the other side of the table, where the twins and Yusefelin were standing perfectly still and totally terrified. Their eyes became wider and wider as the king approached them and said gently: “You must be brave now children.” But prince Etheroh argued hastily, “is that really necessary father? I sincerely don’t think it would be wise to live these human children in the presence of the Elder. They probably won’t even have the courage or the perseverance to face the Master of the Cave Mages.” “Enough!” exclaimed king Ethrol “I‘ve had enough of your ill manners and your vanity! Be gone!” Etheroh stood up and gave his father a surprised look before quickly stepping out of the Chamber. “Now let us escort the three of you to the dwelling of the Elder”, said the king looking at the children. Bettwin was shaking and Florethon took her in his arms, “It‘ll be alright my love” he said trying to make his voice sound full of certainty though he neither wasn’t sure at all about what was going to happen.

They were led in the deepest tunnels of the Crystal Caves. The king and the council members, who were actually the Cave Mages themselves, were marching silently murmuring some incantations. The walls there were made out of solid grey rock and everybody felt cold and sleepy. Suddenly Ethrol stopped before a small opening. He turned to the children and told them to stay right behind him as they entered the dark tunnel. The three young ones hugged their parents tightly and then followed the king. Once they entered they began to hear voices. Not like human ones but other kinds of voices. Like the voice that the wind would have if it could speak and like the voice the clouds could have when they join each other up on the sky.

At last they reached the other end. There were no shiny stones, so the king had to light a torch he kept under his robes the whole time. And the torch was lit and they saw spreading in front of them a marvelous sight. It was something like a wide, deep lake though there wasn’t even a drop of water in it. Ludwolv reached out to its golden surface. “Amber!” exclaimed Yusefelin, “father showed me once when I was little a piece of amber that the people of his family kept as an amulet for generations”. Indeed before them laid the vast surface of a gigantic piece of amber which was trapping the light of the king’s torch. Ethrol stepped on the surface and the children followed carefully his example. They walked until they reached the middle of the lake and then the elven king said tenderly: “Now my little ones look. Can you see it?” he pointed his finger towards the depths of the lake and held the torch higher. They all looked down. First they saw a long, dark figure in a cylindrical shape. It seemed tall and ancient in its stillness. On top of it there were thin and long endings like human arms and fingers. “It’s a…” said Yusefelin trying to decide if this was just a dream. “Yes my dear one”, said the elven king. “It is a Tree. In fact it is the last of its kind. To us, it’s the last keeper of the Distant Ones’ secrets.”

“Mother used to say to us stories about Trees, when she was trying to put us to sleep. It was the only thing we found fascinating Palether and I”, said Yusefelin. She couldn’ t take her eyes off of the marvelous figure trapped in the sea of amber. “Your mother is one of the last knights of the Birch. She knew all about Trees and that thousands of years ago they were the ones who ruled the entire land of Russak. Now it ‘s your turn to find out that bedtime stories do come alive”, said king Ethrol. He then gave the torch to Yusefelin and opened his arms towards the ceiling. Beneath their feet the surface of the amber became softer and softer and before they could realize it one by one, they sank into its golden, silent embrace.

“May you find the Truth inside the Calling ”, were the last words of Ethrol as he stood there watching them moving slowly towards the bottom. At first there was nothing to see or to hear but then they heard it loud and terrifying like an earthquake but still soft and tender like the sun in spring and they saw the Tree and its voice called them by their names and filled their hearts. “Come children of the Water, I am Breath and I am Blood. I am Erkuna. Come, sit comfortably on my roots and let me tell you a story. A story about you and me. A story about the World.” The three of them swam in the honey-like liquid, sat on the vast roots and waited until the Tree started to remember the story of the World…

Erkuna’ s story:

Once there was only the Great Void and through it emerged the Black Dragon of Chaos and on its back sat the Wanderer who whispered in the Dragon’ s ears the image of Hope. With every biting of the Dragon’s black wings galaxies were born and enlightened the Great Void. Then the Wanderer took them in his arms and he knitted out of them the Distant Ones and the silver eyes you can see beyond the Sky at night, watching over Russak. The Stars. He then took some of the Dragon’s blood, a lock of His hair and a handful of stars and from it He made The Land and out of the Land sprang its softer self the Water. The Wanderer fell tired and He and the Dragon fell asleep on the Land that was now surrounded by Water. They slept and dreamt for a long time and through the material of their dreams and night mares We the Trees came to life. Once awakened the Wandered asked of Us to enfold in our leaves Wisdom, Magic and Love for they are made out of dreams and nightmares as well. From this day on We tried to keep our promise to the Wanderer. Others came after we were given life. First came the Elves, the children that were born, when the Air that blew through our branches managed to capture some part of the Gifts we kept on them. That is why they, the Elves are considered the wisest among the races of Russak. Then came the Humans, the children of the Water. And because Water gave us the power to live and prosper for many years, in exchange We gave Its children the gift of Magic in hope that through it they could also find the other two precious gifts: Love and Wisdom. They did find them, at least for some time and all beings seemed to prosper under the eternal blessing. But there came a time when Magic started to get some independence from its users and was easy for it to decide whether someone deserved to use it or not. It soon became really unstable and We had no choice but to try to maintain the balance in which Russak was firstly entrusted to us. It wasn’t easy at all to control the excess energy that had filled our world. Once We managed to gather it safely We decided that it must be kept somewhere in secret. In an object protected by magic in order to save magic. So We created the Blade. It was made out of wood and leaf and chanting. Its color enclosed the very soul of Trees and its colour was of the brightest green. A weapon that was born of Hope and the deepest thoughts of Creation itself and could be used in times of need. For hundreds of years its existence remained unknown and we hoped that it would continue like this till the end of our days. But Magic had its own plans. It was foolish to think that We could control its nature that easy. It was foolish to consider humans wise enough to respect the gift we entrusted them. Then the Great Drought came and rain scarcely visited the earth. Water was submitted to the will of Its children the human kind who learned to control it utterly for their own profit. One by one we fell… The once fruitful and plentiful land of Russak became dry and barren…The Blade talks to me now and then because it is a part of me as I and all the Trees were a part of it. It speaks of terror and evil magic, of a woman whose powers are bound to fire and rock. She is the one who drew the Blade out of its secret place in the Deep Grove, where it dwelled for centuries. She now uses the Blade to communicate with the Distant Ones and has a devastating thirst for power. In her fortress of rock and fire she has gathered all the gifted human descendants and plans to join her powers with theirs in order to awake once more the Dragon of Chaos. I know what you came here for. It is the fate of your sister that you seek. She is well but weak and the witch deprives her of her powers every evening because she is afraid of her and plans to kill her. She knows about the prophecy. She knows about the child that would bring an end to this malice. The child born under the sign of the Bone and is destined by the Distant Ones to control the Blade. You must find her quickly, there is no time to lose. Tell the others that your sister is kept in the black chambers of Kvazir the Fire Mount beyond the river Verist. But be careful for her spies can be disguised as your brothers and sisters. Go now young humans. I will give you my blessing to face the grave danger fate has brought on your path. May you be courageous and patient children of the Water and may the presence of the Wanderer guide your way…

They slept for many hours and their dreams were of ancient whispers and quiet branches. King Ethrol himself opened his royal chamber and placed them on his bed. Bettwin stayed outside the door all the time. When they woke up Ludwolv said that he was really hungry so they brought them food and some of the awkward elven drink. After that they all started to narrate what the Tree had told them. If one of them couldn’t remember clearly what had happened the other two would suddenly interrupt to add something or most of the time to confuse the listeners even more. In the end when there was nothing more to tell, everyone turned to look at the king. Ethrol himself stood silent, his eyes closed. He then turned to Lihtnor and asked him to go and find where his son was because he too should hear what he had to say. After a few minutes prince Etheroh entered the room and stood in a corner away from the others. He had a cold look on his face. “Now that we know where your daughter is, we must act quickly. Saving her may be our only chance to ensure the comeback of prosperity and harmony in our lands. But the Fire Mount is a really dangerous place, forsaken by all good. It is a very dangerous road the one that leads to it too. It would be impossible for you to overcome the obstacles it holds. That is why I will send my greatest and bravest warrior to join your quest.” Prince Etheroh snored and said, “but there is no braver and more skilled warrior than me in the Crystal Caves.” The king smiled and said “For that is why it is you I shall send with them my son, the greatest warrior of our kind.” The prince looked shocked, “but father…” he whispered. “It is done!”, yelled at him Ethrol “you will leave tomorrow morning and head for the Nest Hills. There you shall meet with an old friend of mine.” Florethon said in surprise: “My king the Nest Hills were considered to be dangerous territories even before the Great Drought. It is said they were the hiding place of dragons and their kin” and Ethrol replied “and a dragon you shall meet lord Florethon. Nest Hills are the dwelling place of my friend Argonz, the eldest among fire drakes. We fought many times side by side during the past centuries and talked about the day when the Blade would come to light. He is the only one who knows all the secret entrances to Kvazir. But he won’t come easily to a decision. His body is tired of battles. I shall give to you my seal, in that way he can be sure that you went on my behalf. Here take my ring.” He pulled his ring out off his finger and handed it to Florethon. It was a polished, fine circle of quartz. On top of it was engraved Ethrol’s family emblem: a star encircled by branches, “though he may want also something else in return in order to be persuaded. A large smile was formed on his face and he gave a short look at his son. “In all his long life there was only one thing he longed for and treasured and that is…collecting feathers” The prince’s eyes widened and his face grew pale. “I shall tell the scribes to give you maps of the area. Now you must all get some rest for your journey is set to be long and dangerous.” Ethrol walked out of the room followed by his son who was trying to persuade him of how unsuitable he was for this mission. “I have never seen dragons before” said Bettwin once she and Florethon laid down on their bed. “I once saw a great golden one” said Florethon “he was like a great crown of fire. Like the one that burns inside the heart of my lovely wife”, he kissed Bettwin passionately while darkness secretly embraced their love.

The next day they were all gathered once more in the Malachite Chamber were king Ethrol gave to each of them a special weapon. To Lizbel, Ludwolv and Yusefelin were given three small lances with blades made of malachite. When Ethrol placed them in their arms he told them that they were three of the lances that elves used to give to their own children when they started to become more curious about the world outside the Caves and left their homes. He gave Bettwin a short sword that belonged to his mother’s mother. It’s handle was round and fitted perfectly in her hand. The Song, said the king. To Florethon he handed another sword, that was longer and thinner. The blade of that one was colorful like it was mirroring a pale rainbow. Ethrol said this sword was never given a name. “Its energy can never be tamed by a chosen name. It is said that it will reveal its true name to the one who will hear its story”. “Be careful for the witch’s allies are trained in the ways of deception and evil.” He then turned to Lihtnor, “Guide them wisely through the tunnels. The way to the Nest Hills is close to the territory of gnomes. Make sure your passing won’t disturb them. I’ m sure you ‘re not too young to recall what happened the last time that an elf was misled into their mouldy caves”. “Yes of course my lord, I do recall”, said Lihtnor smiling. “We wouldn’t want history to repeat its self.” The king bowed his head in greeting, and they all understood that it was time to leave. They thanked Ethrol for his kindness and followed Lihtnor into a dark tunnel and into their dangerous quest.

Their journey through the darkness of the elven realm seemed endless. There were times when they longed for the touch of the air or the warm rays of the sun. The children were unnaturally quiet and thoughtful. Bettwin was concerned because this would be proved a really dangerous mission for them despite of their courage and will. Furthermore there was no sign yet of the awakening of their powers although Yusefelin used to speak from time to time about some disturbing dreams she had the last couple of days. Worst of all, they had to deal with the constant complaining of young prince Etheroh who would always say that he never agreed to this. They eventually reached the borders of the domain of the gnomes but as Lihtnor said they were lucky for the gnomes were celebrating the Deep Sleep during that time of the year, so they wouldn’t leave their caves for at least some weeks. The path led them even deeper and one day they saw the great rivers of fire that came through the heart of Earth Itself. It was really hot and they barely could breath but fortunately the way started to ascend and finally they reached the surface. Once they gazed at the sun their eyes filled with tears and they couldn’ t hold them open for a while until they got used to the light and after many days of wandering they saw the bare tops of the Nest Hills. “Let’s hurry, we must get to the dragon’s cave before the sunset”, said Florethon watching the orange disk of the sun diving slowly in the west. The rocky road to the cave’s entrance was steep and twisting but before the last light was hidden behind the mountains they faced the entrance of the dragon’ s lair. Suddenly they heard a soft cry and Florethon saw the fine figure of a white hawk piercing the grey mists. “Reykna!”,he exclaimed happily, while the lovely bird landed on his shoulder. He looked at his wife and saw her smiling warmly and then said “Let’s move on!”. As the dragon was nowhere to be seen they stepped carefully inside the cave and there they came across a marvelous sight. King Ethrol was right beyond any doubt because every inch of the inside of the cave was covered with…feathers. Feathers of all shapes and sizes, of all colors and textures were hanging on the walls or from the ceiling moving in the slightest breath of air. “Look at this” said Yusefelin picking up a pink feather that was twice the size of her arm. “Wow”, said the twins trying to grab a small feather that was hanging above their heads. It was red like fire. “Please do not touch these”, pleaded Lihtnor. None listened to him and they continued to play with their findings until something really terrifying happened. The ground started to shake and suddenly the entrance was blocked by the vast, black figure of a dragon. The beast smelled the air and waved its heavy tail with frustration. He could sense that something was wrong. He entered the cave just when the twins managed to touch the red feather. The dragon saw them and roared in anger. “How did you get here you little thieves?” he groaned. “I will teach you to respect someone else’s property!” he said and opened his jaws ready to snatch little Lizbel. “My lord Argonz please wait, they mean you no harm!” Lihtnor’ s voice made the dragon stop. Nobody moved. The dragon turned to face the elf and Lihtnor continued, “we are here on behalf of king Ethrol your ancient ally, here is a proof of my words”. In his palm shone the royal ring. The dragon took the ring on his claw and when he saw the seal turned to the elf and made a noble though a bit clumsy bow “and what is the purpose of your visit?” he said and gave a suspicious look at the twins. “We came here to sick for your help and guidance. Our high king requests your presence in our noble but dangerous quest”. “And what is the purpose of this quest?” asked the great beast while sitting on its bottom. “Let me tell you your lordship”, said Bettwin and moved slowly towards the dragon’s fearsome eyes. She told him everything about Palether and the witch’s plans. “I beg of you, please would you be so kind to help us?” asked Florethon looking deep into the dragon’s eyes. The beast was moved by their sorrow. The dragon turned his gaze from one face to another and then stopped when he saw prince Etheroh while he was trying to squeeze himself in a narrow space behind a vast rock. “Please come out of there my prince. My cave is surely not as comfortable as your chambers but I’ m sure that you’ll find a better place to rest your royal ankles than this hole for bats” said the dragon and everyone laughed. Even Lihtnor tried to hide a soft smile. “I’ m really old for this kind of missions. My wings are useless and my stomach is bigger than my cave’s entrance nowadays. I feel sorry about your loss but my fighting days are over. I think that I would be more of a burden than of assistance to your quest. But if you little trolls try to get in your hands one of my precious feathers once more, I assure you that even the Wanderer himself won’ t be able to save you from my claws!” The twins hid quickly behind Florethon. But their father stepped forward and said: “Great Dragon, by the power and life that were given to me by the Distant Ones, I swear to you that if you help us in our quest I shall pledge my life to your service. If there is any nobleness left in your ancient heart you will accept my offer. I know that this will be a dreadful and hazardous journey but if you come with us I’ m sure that our burden will be lessened. There is also something else”, added Florethon and reached for prince Ethrol who tried to escape from his grasp. “We already know that your highness is fond of feathers and we can assure you that once you agree to join us you can add one more precious feather to your collection. Prince Etheroh will be providing it” he said looking at the prince who was shaking as if he had turned into a huge feather himself. But after a while he stood still, raised his eyebrows and replied: “It was my father’s decision to come with you humans and not mine. I will not submit to your humble needs. Now let me leave from this horrible dragon’s lair!” Bettwin ran forward and grabbed the prince’s neck tightly. She pressed his back against the wall and stuck the blade of her sword against his neck. “Good thing that my wife hates violence my prince because if that was not the case your body would be hanging upside down, like one of these feathers by now”, said Florethon laughing and looking at his wife’ s angry face. “Now if your royal highness would be so kind to give to us one of his feathers…”. The prince’ s face turned red and his eyes were full of hate when Bettwin stepped back. The blade of her sword had left a wide red mark on his soft neck. It took him a few minutes to change his form and when he saw that there was a small opening before him he spread his wings and tried to escape. But the dragon trapped him between his long, shinny claws. His eyes shone with desire as he was marveling the lovely, iridescent feathers. “Well that is a prize worth having”, he said and plugged out one of the bird- prince’s feathers right out of his tale. The prince squawked in pain and the dragon let him loose. When he took his original form his face was even redder than before as he was rubbing the part of his body from where the feather had been so violently extracted. “Well now we’ re even. You can keep your services human”, said the dragon looking at Florethon. The night was chilly and Florethon with Lihtnor went out to find something to make a fire. Bettwin and the children opened their sacks and brought out a little food. After a while they all sat round a warm roaring fire that Argonz liked to keep strong by casting small blue flames out of his nostrils, something that made Ludwolv and Lizbel laugh until their eyes were filled with tears. Florethon using a stalactite pick draw something before them. It was a little map that depicted Russak. He then took some colorful stones and placed them on where Kvazir was supposed to be in his drawings. “The Mount of Fire has many entrances, some of them are always hidden from the sunlight. But it is a place full of dangerous passages and tunnels. There is a way though to find out which ones are guarded”, said Argonz. “Come with me”, he said and everybody followed him inside a wide opening. On the entrance they saw a small lake that reflected their shadowy figures as they moved further into the dim light of the cave trying not to fall or slip or even worse step on the dragon’s tail. At last they stopped and Argonz’s nostrils were lit by a small flame. Through the shadows they made out a really bizarre kind of object. It was made of, what at first they thought was wood, old and dusty and a bit faded but as they moved closer they realized that this was no wood at all! It was a gigantic wing, or more like the remains of a gigantic wing. The remaining bones were the size of a tower and they all stood and marveled at their wondrous size. They looked like gateposts and the gaps between them were so big that they could all fit inside them, standing in line one next to the other. “Wow”, exclaimed Lizbel and ran towards one end of the wing. “Stooooooop!”, cried the dragon and his voice made the inside of the cave tremble. “Don’t you dare to get closer little troll!”,he added anxiously. He reached out and grabbed Lizbel in his palm. Then he placed her between her parents while the little girl was shaking form tip to toe. “There is no short cut to the Mount of Fire except from what we are about to use. This was my great grandmother’s wing. Her name was Grauza and she was a great shamhess of our kind. Even her wings were magical and when she died she told my father that her last wish was that this wing would be kept as a relic. It was some days later, my father discovered that she had put a spell on it and that the wing could be used as a portal. We will now use it to get to the Fire Mountain. It is supposed to be connected with one of its secret entrances. I hope that the witch hasn’t discovered that yet!”, he said and stepped back while the others were watching his every move. The dragon opened his wings and started to whisper or to shout, because in his case whispering was not an easy business at all. “Crat gronz thouga zech!” Nothing happened. “Crat gronz thouga zech!” replied the dragon even louder but nothing happened again. “Well great granny was a bit deaf after all”, he added and then replied the words for a third time. Then a light shone between the gaps of the bones. At first it was so bright they couldn’t keep their eyes open but afterwards it became paler and glowed like a faint, blue fire. “Huray!”, exclaimed Ludwolv and Lizbel who were already running towards the strange fire. “Wait!” cried out Bettwin, and pulled Florethon’s arm as she was trying to get to them. Florethon smiled wildly and followed her, then it was Lihtnor’ s turn to pass through the blue flames. They all vanished inside their gentle warmth. Yusefelin was ready to run towards them when she met prince Etheroh’s puzzled gaze. The young man stood still so that nobody could notice he was shaking, but it was pretty obvious. Yusefelin took his hand and the startled eyes of the prince turned to face hers. Even in his kingdom nobody dared to be so bold as if to touch him without asking permission. But the girl’s hand felt warm and steady in his palm and his gaze became softer. He didn’t have the time to think about it though because Yusefelin quickly dragged him behind the others. When they were all gone Argonz himself, moved slowly through the sacred flames giving thanks to his ancestors.

“Wasn’ t this supposed to be the Mount of Fire?”, grumbled prince Etheroh while rubbing his hands along his arms to keep them warm. Inside the passage way they had taken the cold was even harder. But nobody seemed to notice him as they were all pretty busy trying to find a safe place to rest for the night. Finally the dragon pointed to a small cavern which seemed quite dry and safe. They were all so tired that didn’t even felt hungry and just fell fast asleep. All, except Argonz. The black dragon was trying to emerge into his memories and find out which of them would help him and his companions to discover the secret chambers where the witch kept the children. He noticed that the white hawk was also awake. It flew gently and stood right next to him and then started cleaning up its feathers. It stopped and looked deeply into the dragon’s eyes and Argonz suddenly exclaimed: “That’s it! Thank you my friend! Now I know which way we must take! Wake up you lazy beings!” Bettwin was the first to stand up quickly and approach him. “What is it”, she asked. Florethon also came closer and looked curiously at the dragon. Using one of his claws, Argonz drew some lines on a flat rock beside him. “There!” he said “that’s where she keeps the children”, added while his sharp claw pointed at a round hall in the centre of the makeshift map.”We used to call this place, Kanahta, the garden of rocks”. “I remember reading about the garden of rocks, when I was still a pupil of the great master Setherah. It is said to be a place of great power and beauty”, said Lihtnor who had approached them silently. “Yes of great beauty…a deadly one”, added Argonz and tried to avoid Bettwin and Florethon ‘s gaze. “We mustn’ t worry though”, said and coughed softly. They all discussed about what was the best way to get there without being noticed. The place was full of the witch’s guards, men and women dressed in white with long, black tresses that they used like whiplashes in case of need. Most of the time they kept their hair inside a round scarf on top of their head. Each one of them carried almost a dozen of small, deadly knives. There were also some shadowy, evil spirits who were always watching over the passage ways near their hiding place. They had to be really careful especially with them. They walked silently, holding their breath in every turn of the rocky corridor. “Be careful! Hide!” cried out Florethon when he saw the pale figure of a spirit floating toward them. “Come here Lizbel”, whispered Bettwin and hugged her daughter tightly, “were is your brother?” she asked furiously and took a look around. When the disgusting being moved away, everyone searched for Ludwolv. Florethon walked carefully along the path, until… “ouch!” he heard the little boy say although he couldn’t see him anywhere. “Where are you Ludwolv?”, he whispered. “I’ m here”, said Ludwolv and suddenly reappeared. His father looked amazed and Bettwin ran towards them. “Now we know what your gift is all about”, she said and kissed Ludwolv’ s chick. “Ughhh mom, stop we ‘re on a quest!”,replied the boy and everyone laughed. “Look! We are here. That is the entrance of the garden of rocks”, noticed Argonz. Not far from where they were standing they saw a large opening between two pieces of the blackest rock they had ever seen. The piercing cry of Reykna, the hawk broke through the silence. A strange light glowed round the entrance of the cave. “That’ weird, no guards”, said Florethon. Lihtnor pulled out his sword and so did Bettwin. Nobody noticed that the twins stood dangerously close to the mouth of the cave. “Noooo come back children”, cried Bettwin but it was already late. Ludwolv and Lizbel went through the mysterious light and once they got in, the black portal turned into solid rock. “Come back!”, repeated Bettwin and tried to scratch the rock with her nails until they bled. Florethon hugged her tightly and tried to comfort her. “Don’ t worry there must be another way in, we ‘ll find it soon enough my love!”, he whispered softly. “Maybe my knowledge of spells would be able to assist you”, they heard Lihtnor say. “No you cannot help them now lord Lihtnor”, said Argonz. The great dragon seemed almost desperate. “Only they can find their way out. There is no magic that can bit Graga ‘s skills. You must put your trust on their cleverness my lady. They ‘ll make it, I ‘m sure of it”. A faint smile revealed the dragon ‘s sharp teeth.

“Let’s go over there”, said Lizbel and pulled violently Ludwolv ‘s hand. “It‘s your fault we lost the others now you will do as I say! Come on!” Ludwolv followed her unwillingly but the truth was he was starting to feel pretty scarred after a while. “Where are we going?” he mattered. “We are just following the light”, replied his sister. “There! You see?”, she pointed to a tall piece of rock that looked like a giant waterfall. Behind the waterfall they saw a vast chamber, filled with carved rocks that looked like statues of plants and animals. “Argonz was right it really looks like a garden!”, noticed Ludwolv looking at small rock with the shape of a large flower. “It sounds like it too, listen”, exclaimed Lizbel. Indeed they could here birds chirping and leaves moving as a slight breeze blew throughout the cave. “Amazing!”, they both cried. The garden seemed enormous and everywhere they looked they saw trees and plants of all shapes and sizes carved into stone. “Wait, what’ s this?”, asked Ludwolv. They both looked up and in the fait light they saw a long series of cells that were also carved in stone. Inside the cells they could see children. But they were not like the children they used to play with at the village. Their eyes were blank and their skin had become wrinkled and dry like the desert ‘s soil. “What happened to them?” asked Lizbel. “Palether!”, she heard her brother scream. Their sister was among the captured children and she also looked all dried out and tired, but once she heard her name Palether turned her face towards them. “She can’t see us”, said Ludwolv . “Oh no!”, Lizbel burst into tears and reached through the narrow openings of the cell to touch her sister ‘s fingers. “I will take it back Palether”, the little girl said. “Sinath, moch risen bo”, she whispered and suddenly Palether ‘s eyes became bright once more and she looked at her siblings all confused. “How did you do that”, asked Ludwolv and Lizbel replied, “I don’t know. I just heard this voice inside my head saying, you can take back the spell!”. “You can inverse spells”, they heard Palether say. “Maybe I can”, whatever this is supposed to mean”, replied Lizbel. Palether smiled and touch the crystal bars of her cell. “Nikna”, the bars started to melt. She kissed her brother and sister and asked them where were the others. “We ‘ve lost them. The entrance closed and we were trapped in here”, answered Ludwolv. “We must find them the soonest possible”, said Palether end started to set free the other children while Lizbel and Ludvolv tried to help her. After a while all of the children were free and well although some of them felt a little bit dizzy. They gathered round Palether like a little army and waited to hear about her thoughts. She took a dip breath and said, “we must all try to find a way to get to the witch ‘S chambers. My family will need our help. I know that you are longing to see your own families and return to your warm houses and beds. But I ‘m asking you this, please help us because by helping us you ‘re helping your fathers and mothers, your sisters and brothers. You ‘re helping Russak and what ‘s left of our hope and memory”. Some minutes passed and no one spoke. Then one by one the gifted children touched Palether ‘s shoulder to show her they were ready to face any challenge. “Great let’s move on!” she said and felt her eyes moistened by tears.

“I can’ t see anything yet”, said Florethon. “There is no sign of entrance from up here”. He was riding Argonz while the black dragon flapped his gigantic wings up and down creating small currents of air. “That’s because maybe there is nothing to be seen, and that century old hawk of yours certainly can’t make a difference”, noticed prince Etheroh and exchanged glances with Yusefelin who was scanning with curious eyes the other side of the great mountain. “Think humans, it can’t be that easy to find a secret entrance as long as its purpose is to be a secret one”, added Etheroh. “He‘s right after all”, said Yusefelin looking at her father. “Of course he is right”, admitted Florethon “but what else can we do? Would you be so kind as to share with us some other ideas my prince?” he asked and his voice was filled with dead irony. “There is nothing more powerful than elven magic. It would be easy as game to me to find and destroy the protecting spells around this place. I could help you under one condition”, said Etheroh with his eyes fixed on the back side of the dragon’s head. “You must apologize for keeping one of my precious feathers master dragon!”. Argonz sniffed and murmured while all felt their bodies vibrating at the sound of his deep voice, “very well then, I ‘sorry about that”. “I can’t hear you my lord”, said Etheroh who was obviously enjoying the whole process. “I said I ‘m deeply sorry your highness”, muttered the dragon. “That was better, now to find the secret entrance”, added the prince and joined the palms of his hands while murmuring some sort of spell. In a moment his body started to change and finally he was transformed into the gorgeous bird that met them some time ago before the elven caves. The bird flew round the mountain several times before returning to its previous place. They waited anxiously for the prince to take his original form and when he did, he told them that the entrance was hidden between some granite boulders at the volcano’s base. “There you see that formation which looks like an old man crouching? That is the entrance. I also saw your daughter human, the one that was imprisoned. She is well and has joined your other two children and as we speak they have freed the rest of the captive children and are heading towards the witch’s head quarters. “Well done my little ones”, exclaimed Florethon. “We must join them as well, but first let’s find Bettwin and Lihtnor.

“Thank the gods!”, exclaimed Bettwin when she heard that all of her children were safe. “Now what shall we do? How can we get close to the witch ‘s chambers without being noticed by the guards?”, she added. “That would be easy. Take my hand mother, please”, said Yusefelin”. When her mother gave the hand, she grabbed it and within an instant they were both gone leaving the others startled with wonder. When they eventually returned after a few seconds, Bettwin was as pale as the first snow. She muttered: “She took me to our house and back again”. While her father, the elven prince, Lihtnor and the great dragon looked at her persistently, Yusefelin moved forward and explained to them that right after they left the elven caves she discovered that she could transfer herself to distant places in no time, but she was worried that it was only something she dreamt about that’s why she never told them about it. “What are we waiting for then?!”, asked Florethon smiling at his daughter. “Let’s all hold hands, oh and claws master Argonz”, he added gaily seeing the dragon ‘s grumpy eyes. “Yes, let’s do that!”, said prince Etheroh and took gently Yusefelin ‘s hand into his. The girl blushed. Bettwin took her other hand and gave her daughter a conspiratory look. Yusefelin smiled gently and as one by one the members of the company gave their hands to one another she closed her eyes and tried to concentrate. They all disappeared within a glimpse. Well not all of them to be honest. An old white hawk spread its wings and flew above the rocky boulders of the Fire Mount, its shrieking cry piercing the ominous silence.

“Welcome prisoners to my humble chambers. As the prophecy foretold you are here to bring me to my doom. Me and whatever I have created. Let’s see then…can you really cope with my expectations or did I kept you for nothing all this time? Are you really some of the Gifted Ones?”. The figure covered in crimson red stood completely still as it stared at the gifted children who dared to invade so mindlessly in the throne room. “What will it be then? Will you all together turn your insignificant powers against me?”, asked the witch and dropped her cloak. Her silver grey hair covered her whole naked body, flowing like endless waves on the floor all around her. They seemed like a wondrous gown. Her face was like an old oak‘s trunk and her eyes sparkled fiercely. When she raised her hands the children stepped back a little and prepared themselves for battle, staying as close to each other as they could. “There we go then”, she laughed. “But now, now my dears did you think that I‘d ever harm you?! Oh no, my little ones. Come closer, look what I ‘ve got for you…”. She picked up her cloak and searched in its pockets. “There, have some candy. Have some cake with maple syrup…I know you must be starving dearies”, said the old woman holding out her hands that were filled with all kinds of delightful treats. “Don‘t listen to her!”, screamed Palether and two of the children who had left their places tempted by the sweet manners of the witch, turned back quickly. “Oh listen to your captain!”, exclaimed the old crow. “She is destined to become the greatest witch of her time. And you know Palether, I don’t have a successor and I was seriously thinking of training you as the one. Think about it…I can teach you things, only the Distant Ones may ever know and understand. You will be the greatest shamnhess this world and other worlds will ever know. Come child, come and sit on my throne and see what it is to be a true leader!”, she hissed. “She already knows how to be brave enough to face you and your loathsome lies witch!”, cried out Florethon. Bettwin and Lihtnor followed him holding firmly their weapons. “There comes mummy and daddy, how sweet!”, said Graga laughing out loud and clapping her hands with enthusiasm. “Now that we are here we should have some fun!”. “But wait”, she noted “where is the old dragon, the insolent elven prince and your other daughter? Oooh you are about to set me a trap, aren’t you? That is so delightful! Come on then, do your best!”, she said. “Gather round children”, said Bettwin. She faced her daughter and burst into tears. Palether, embraced her tightly while the Graga’s eyes watched carefully every single move they made. Strangely this time her features softened as she noticed the strong affection between the mother and the daughter, but it was only for a brief second and nobody noticed it. In the next moment, Florethon ran into the room, holding tightly one of the witch‘s soldiers. “Most of them are already disarmed thanks to the elven weapons. They seem to fight on their own! Others left, Argonz, Yusefelin and Etheroh are chasing them away”, he said happily and seeing the witch he turned his face and gazed upon her proudly. “Victory is all yours then humans”, she said and laughed at them once more. “Let’s see now will you be able to confront my powers and live happily ever after?”, she shrieked and then turned her hands upwards and whispered some words. They saw a strange substance like purple mud pouring out of her palms. Palether recognized the spell and tried to disable it but the ancient powers were too strong for her to manage. Within a few minutes everything and everyone in the room, except the witch were covered with that sticky, disgusting stuff. Bettwin tried to move and set her arm free but it was impossible. “Surrender daughter of Atherel! Oh how sweet the day that revenge will destroy my enemy‘s only child and at last it came!”, shouted the old woman and Bettwin stared back at her shocked. “What…what do you mean?”, asked Florethon who was also straggling to free himself. Graga turned away from them and started talking, “Many years, no centuries ago when I was still an apprentice of the Asathiss I met a girl who was destined to become a Clawer, a really powerful one. At first we couldn’t get used to one another and our teachers forced us to spend every single day together. By the time we reached adolescence we were inseparable. Magic was our mother and we were sisters in Magic. But then it came, the day of the Initiation. We had to face several challenges and risk our own lives in order to be judged as suitable for the higher ranks. Many of our comrades didn’t make it until the end. They lost their lives in the tunnels of Riak Nukur, were the tests were taking place. Me and her managed to pass all the challenges in just one night and as the dawn was painting the sky and we were reaching for the end of it, something happened. There was one last challenge for which nobody had warned us. We weren’ t allowed t eat or drink anything until we reached the exit. I was so thirsty, that all I could think bout was that. At last we saw exit shining right in front of us, as the first light of day filled the air. We ran towards it, and then we stopped. A few feet before the opening, there was a tiny little pool of water. It was clear and cold and had a deep blue color. My thirst came over me, and I fell on my knees, so did my friend. But after a second she stood up terrified and told me not to get close to the water. I didn’ t listen to her and bent over to drink. I saw my face reflecting in the water by I didn’t recognize it, so foul and disgusting it was. After some time I discovered that, that little pool was the Mirror of Envy and that I failed in my last test to become a shamhess because no one non pure hearted could share the secrets of the Distant Ones. And I proved to have an envious heart, that’ s why my face as reflected on the water’s surface was so tainted. When I got out of the cave, I saw my once best friend surrounded by the Asathiss. She wore a crown made of leaves and forest berries on her head. But when everybody saw me they seized talking. One of the Masters pointed his figure towards me and I knew that, that was their way to show I was no longer welcomed there. So I left and decided to find other ways to practice and improve my magical skills. One day I read the ancient scriptures about the blessed Blade, the Emerald Blade and set forward for a journey to find it. After many days of tormenting hunger and pain I found it”, she exclaimed in triumph. “For two centuries now it lays under my power”, added the witch and touched an amulet she wore round her neck. It was like a miniature of a greenish sword. “What have you done to it? It was supposed to be impossible for a man to lift the Blade!”, shouted Florethon. “Well my dear I am an old woman and I can do whatever I want with it! I couldn’t keep it safe otherwise!”, the witch laughed at him. “You owe your powers to it Graga! Without it you are nothing!” said an unknown voice. Graga’s eyes turned up and looked suspiciously at a lean, white figure that sat in a cove of the wall right above her. It was the figure of a hawk. “Reykna!”, exclaimed Florethon in amazement. “At last you are here my dearest friend, now you can sit comfortably and watch me destroying everything and everyone you ever loved!”, screamed the witch. A purple cage appeared out of nowhere and captured the bird that vainly tried to escape from it. “What is wrong Atherel? You don’t even have the power to avoid a tiny little spell?! So much for the great samhess now!”, said Graga. “Mother!”, screamed Bettwin and her eyes were filled with terror as she looked intensly towards the hawk. Graga laughed loudly and turned to the white hawk saying, “such a precious moment, isn’t it? Atherel, you may talk to your daughter before I silence you both for good” she added and sat on her throne. “I won’t harm you Graga but I won’t let you to harm my family or these children either. Please let them go, they have nothing to do with our affairs. Set them free and I shall fight you…to the death”. “So be it then, although I would enjoy their torment immensely! They won’t get far after all, it won’t take long to kill you!”, shrieked the witch. “Please no! Mother!”, shouted Bettwin. The purple maze which kept her and everyone else still started to melt away. “Hush child”, said Graga “I must talk to your mother!”. “No! I want let you harm her! Fight me!”, screamed Florethon. “You sure have a really annoying family Atherel! Now I will send them somewhere further so that we can talk in private! Be gone!”, she clapped her hands and suddenly everyone disappeared. “Where did you send them?”, asked Atherel. “Oh don’t worry they will be safe…for now. Remember you promised to fight me. Let’s see then!”

Graga ‘s shape changed into the one of a great wolf. The white hawk flew speedily towards her, its talons extended and its sharp beak glimmered in the moving shadows. The wolf managed to avoid its attack and tried to capture it between its jaws, but the bird was quicker. They fought for many hours and although they both seemed exhausted nobody wanted to retreat. The hawk attacked once more but this time the she-wolf was prepared. With just one hit of her large paw she managed to send the bird to tumble down and smashed one of its wings upon a rock. Atherel laid still and her broken wing was covered in blood. Graga approached her slowly and stood above her. “Now I shall enjoy this with all my heart. Tell me, do you have any last wish before I send you to confront the Distant Ones?” she asked and before Atherel could answer, she opened her terrifying jaws and tried to bite her. “Only to tell you that I denied the place I was given by the Asathiss”, said Atherel calmly and closed her eyes. But the final hit never came. When the hawk opened its eyes she saw Graga, who had taken once more her human form, looking at her suspiciously. “What do you mean… I saw you standing with the others. I saw you wearing the crown of leaves and berries”. “That is true, I was crowned as the chosen one and begun my training. But after a few days I told my master that I didn’ t want to continue my service as a higher apprentice and I left the caves.” The witch stood amazed. “But why? You had the chance to become one of the most powerful witches of all time. Why did you abandoned your destiny?”, she asked angrily. “Because my destiny was revealed to me through another road. Many roads in fact, because I decided to travel round Russak and find out how could I really help my people. It was not enough for me to stay with the masters and give some occasional advice. There was also something else…”, said Atherel with a faint voice. “And what was that?”, asked Graga.

“One night, a long time ago, under the constellation of the Bone I made an oath, side to side with a sister in Magic, not to let her down and to always watch out for her. But does she remember this?”, added Atherel and her eyes closed. She felt really weak, almost at the brink of death.

Graga stood silent with her head lowered. A tear felt on the cold, solid floor under her feet. But warm tears poured on her face. She quickly approached her old friend, who had also taken her human form now and said, “that was the price for my hatred. To lose the one person who cared for me. Don’t worry sister, I won’t let the Distant Ones take you away from me again.” She put both her hands on Atherel forehead and whispered the prayer to the Wanderer.

“I must go, I can’t stand here doing nothing, while that evil creature is tearing my mother apart!”, shouted Bettwin. The witch had sent them to the highest pick of the Fire Mount. There they found Argonz, Etheroh and Yusefelin, all exhausted and almost desperate. The dragon left after a while in order to carry the smallest of the children someplace safe. “I can’t let you do this! We can’t let you do this! That is insane.”, said Forethon calmly. “We better prepare ourselves for the fight that comes ahead. If the witch wins the fight we won’t stand a chance”, noted prince Etheroh and Bettwin gave him a look full of hate. “He is right mother”, said Yusefelin and hugged her mother tightly. “There is no disrespect in fighting for our lives, I’m sure she would expect the same from us”, replied Palether. Florethon kissed his wife gently on the cheek and said, “our children are wise my love. We must be prepared, we must defend what is left of ourselves and theirs”. “Alright then”, Bettwin wiped her tears away and pulled out her weapon, “I will be the next to face her after my mother”.

“That won’t be necessary”, said Graga whose figure appeared amidst the fog of the mountain top. She was carrying something wrapped in white cloth. Everyone drew their weapons and Florethon gathered Ludwolv and Lizbel behind him. Palether stood right next to her mother along with Etheroh and Yusefelin. Right on time they saw Argonz’s enormous shape flying right above them. “You must fight us all, but first you will have to pass through me first witch!”, screamed Bettwin. Graga said nothing, she just placed the thing she was carrying on the ground in front of them and when she did a faint sigh escaped from it. Florethon saw the pale face under the white cloth. “Bettwin it’s your mother!” he said and stepped quickly towards the flat figure holding his sword firmly. “Is that another trick?” asked Bettwin suspiciously. “No child, this is no trick. Enough with tricks”, replied Graga. They all approached Atherel carefully. Florethon noticed that the witch was staring at them and seemed, could it be, somehow regretful. “What happened, what are you up to old hag? Tell me!”, he demanded.

“I will tell you my son. I will explain everything to you all”, said Atherel and Florethon fixed his eyes on her. Sο she told them when and where she had met Graga and what happened after their testing at Riak Nukur. Nobody talked. Graga got closer and handed something over to Lizbel. “Here little girl, take this I don’t want it anymore it belongs to all of you. I don’t deserve its blessing anyway”. Lizbel opened her hand and saw the tiny sword that the witch wore round her neck. “Put it down now child”, she said and the little girl followed her order. “Atherel, my sister will you help me to restore what was not mine to destroy?” asked Graga and Atherel replied “Of course”. They raised their hands and whispered some ancient words and it was like the World was answering their call. The tiny greenish blade started to grow and its fiery emerald light covered everything. Meanwhile heavy rain clouds gathered above the mountains and the valleys, upon the rivers and the distant sea. Raindrops fell and filled the atmosphere with their magical song. Everybody hugged each other and danced under the rain. Then Atherel stood up and hugged her old friend. After that she took her daughter’s hands and kissed them. “My daughter and my sister. From this day on we are all a family. Graga has promised to make amends for all the bad things she has done to every person in Russak and I promised to help her…keep her promise. Isn’t it right my dear friend?” she asked warmly. “Of course! But first I must pay a visit to another old friend of mine, Harkunaa. I must return something to her and I ‘m sure she won’t be glad to see me.”

“Oh she will Graga, I’ m sure she will”, said Florethon and picked the Emerald Blade from the muddy ground.


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