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Chapter 21: Unfinished Business

The afternoon sun shown muted through the overcast sky of the Mournland, casting a dreary light on the remnants of the battle. The corpses of Emerald Claw soldiers and the rakshasa’s barbarians lay strewn about the ruins of the Karrn camp, though there were fewer of the latter than there ought to have been – Irinali’s ranks of the undead must have added several new members from the bodies of the fallen. Of the necromancer herself there was no sign, and her apprentices, ir’Sarrin’s warhorse, and the warlord were also missing – no doubt they had fled when the battle had turned against them. The surviving Karrn troops must have also retreated after seeing their leaders quit the field.

The mercenaries had gathered near the base of one of the rock formations as Yhani cast healing prayers over the wounds they had received; Pitar stood in front of the open doors, regarding them with a curious expression. Thyra and Valyria had walked a short distance from the others; the inquisitor still had her arm wrapped around her sister’s shoulders, as if she never intended to let go.

“Thyra,” Val said finally, “I just wanted to apologize to you again for chasing you all across the Five Nations. I’d become so convinced that you were possessed and as good as dead that the best thing I could do to honor your memory would be to kill the thing desecrating your body before it did worse evil. I got so wrapped up in avenging you that I wouldn’t even let myself consider that you might be alive, and all it ended up mattering was that if things had gone even a little different I would have been the one to kill you.” She closed her eyes and sighed heavily. “I never wanted to make you afraid, little sister.”

Thyra took both of Val’s hands in her own and met her eyes. “There’s nothing to forgive,” she said. “We both got used – me as well as you. Nalin – that thing pretending to be Nalin – had me so scared of myself and determined to find a cure that I did things I’m not proud of either. I stole, lied, manipulated, all trying to get my hands on something that turned out to not even exist. And we both ended up playing right into the rakshasa’s hands. I don’t think we’re either in a position to judge, big sister.” And she wrapped Val in a tight hug.

After several long moments, the inquisitor pushed Thyra away, and she was smiling now. “By the Flame,” she said, “can you imagine when I tell Mother and Father about this? It’ll be like bringing you back from the dead! Mother’s been sobbing whenever she thinks no one’s looking, and Father will sometimes just stare at his books and mutter that he had no idea how this could have happened. When they see you’re safe and learn what really happened, they’ll probably throw the biggest party in Flamekeep for you!”

“It’s been too long since I’ve seen either of them,” Thyra whispered, sadness threatening to wash over her again – both for the prospect of her estrangement being healed, but also because there was something more she still had to tell Val, and wasn’t sure how.

She was spared from having to figure out at that instant by Pitar, who approached the sisters with a smile on his face. “Thyra!” he said. “I saw what happened at the battle. Val’s probably already apologized for us hunting you, but I feel like I’d better do it again for myself. I always did think there was something that smelled bad about the whole business.” He reached out a hand and tousled Thyra’s hair, something he’d done when she was a small child and he’d visited their home with Val. “I’m glad we were wrong and you’re safe, kid.”

“Thank you, Pitar,” Thyra said, giving him a quick hug as well. He’d always been more Val’s friend that hers, but still, she’d missed him too.

“I hate to interrupt everyone’s happy reunion,” Len said as she came walking over, Yhani and Ghazaan close behind, “but I do feel compelled to remind everyone that we’re in the middle of the gods-forsaken Mournland. Now that the rakshasa’s gone, I recommend we leave as soon as possible, before some local nasty decides to try its hand at us.”

Yhani knelt and picked up the sword – the Key – from where it lay on the ground. “And this is not something, I think, that should just be left lying about,” she said. “I do not know if it is possible to seal the vault again; if not, somewhere else safe should be found for it. Perhaps your Taras Zanthan will be able to offer some advice.”

Thyra turned towards the mercenaries, and then she rushed towards Len and wrapped her arms around the captain in a tight embrace. “You came back for me,” she whispered. “I never expected… thank you.”

Len looked surprised and faintly embarrassed, and extracted herself from Thyra’s hug. “I don’t go back on a contract,” she said. “Not for you, or for anyone. Besides, it looked like you handled yourself pretty well out there too. You were holding off on what you could actually do, kid.”

“Well,” Thyra said, shifting nervously, “I mostly just wanted my magic gone. But when I realized that nothing in the vault to change that, and I saw that rakshasa who claimed to have been manipulating me my whole life – I knew I had to do something. I couldn’t let him hurt anyone else – especially not Val.”

Len regarded her thoughtfully for a long moment. “Kid,” she finally said, “being a changeling means I’ve given a lot of thought about what makes a person who they are. And what I’ve come to believe is that there are some things about yourself you can’t change, but when it comes down to it, we become who we choose to be. For a while there you didn’t know what you were going to choose, and you did some things I didn’t particularly care for. But now? I think you’ve chosen, and I kind of like the Thyra Entarro I’m seeing.” Beside her, Yhani gave a quiet smile and an approving nod.

“Thank you, Capt… Len,” Thyra said. “Coming from you, I appreciate it, really.”

Valyria gave a quiet cough. “I think the captain was right about what she mentioned earlier,” she said. “The Mournland isn’t a very safe place. We ought to get going.” She smiled at her sister. “And I think we’re going to have a homecoming in Flamekeep that no one expected. You’ve been gone for too long.”

“That’s the thing,” Thyra said softly. “I can’t go back to Flamekeep. Not yet.”

Val raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean?” she asked, clearly confused.

Thyra looked back towards the open vault. “This business isn’t over,” she said. “I think there’s something else left for me to do.”

///

Lord Kharvin ir’Sarrin sat slumped in his chair in Sarrin’s main hall, a goblet of wine on the table in front of him. Haund had healed his injuries once they were clear of the Mournland, but the warlord still looked rather bedraggled, his face weary and his eyes hollow. He stared into his goblet like a man without hope, and he didn’t drink.

“Kharvin,” Irinali said from across the table. “It’s been a week. Yes, we gambled, and we lost. But you’re still a Karrnathi lord, and still a member of the Order. Your people need a leader, and you can’t let one defeat get to you this badly. Pull yourself together – do you really want me to have to keep running things for you?”

With ir’Sarrin indisposed, Irinali had found herself taking charge of running the day-to-day operations of Sarrin, and she already wanted to run screaming. This was why she preferred the undead to the living. Skeletons and zombies always did what they were told and never talked back.

“It doesn’t matter,” Ir’Sarrin said wearily. “None of it does, don’t you see? I can’t hide that I travelled to the Mournland with a significant company, most of whom didn’t return – Kaius will hear of it soon, if he hasn’t already, and he’ll want to know why. If the King pursues the matter far enough, he’ll learn of my connection to the Order, and I’ll be finished. Worse, I have not one but two monarchs to fear. The Queen will not be pleased when she learns I lost so many of her warriors and have nothing to show for it. Her punishment will doubtless make Kaius’s look pleasant.” He finally took a long drink of his wine. “Whichever happens, I don’t expect to survive the month.”

“Nothing to show for it,” Irinali murmured, something tickling at the edge of her memory. Suddenly an idea flashed into her mind so brightly that for a moment she could only sit in wonderment, and then she began to dig through the pouches at her side in a frenzied haste.

“What are you doing?” ir’Sarrin asked in confusion as Irinali pulled out a hand mirror. “Is now really the time to be checking your appearance?”

“No, but it is the time to check something else,” Irinali replied, laying the mirror flat on the table before her and murmuring an incantation over it. If she was fortunate, this would work... yes. The mirror blurred and darkened, and then its image resolved into the interior of the Mournland vault where one of her skeleton warriors lay prone, its limbs damaged beyond use – but it was still animate, and she could track it with her scrying.

More to the point, she could see what was around it. Adjusting the mirror carefully, she shifted the image upward, to the statue of the rakshasa and the map it held. “Bring me paper and a pen, quickly!” she called to a servant, who hastened to obey.

“Irinali,” ir’Sarrin demanded, “will you please tell me what is going on?”

“We lost the artifact from the vault,” she said, excitement tinging her words, “but remember the inscription on the altar? It was only part of the Key – not the whole thing. And I think I know where to find more of it. That ought to buy us some time to appease the Queen.”

She looked up at Kharvin and smiled. “So, my lord, how would you fancy a trip to Sarlona?”

///

Taras Zanthan held the Key in his hands with a reverent air, running his fingers along it and turning it over to examine it closely on both sides. “Incredible,” he finally said, looking up at Thyra and the mercenaries where the stood on the other side of his desk. “It will take further study for me to determine exactly what properties this sword has, and whether it was made by fiends, dragons, or some third part, but still. This is Age of Demons craftsmanship, there can be no mistake. And it is obviously a very fine, very powerful piece. I’m in your debt, all of you.” Taras shook his head. “But I’m very sorry that it wasn’t what you were looking for, Thyra. I feel guilty for sending you into that mess without at least accompanying you. But maybe we can find something that could help you if we keep searching.”

“Thank you, Taras,” Thyra said. “I appreciate it, truly. But after the encounter with my sister and the rakshasa, I’ve been thinking, and I’m not sure getting rid of my magic is the right path anymore. The rakshasa said he’d been using me my whole life – I can’t imagine this is the only plan the Lords of Dust have, or that I’m the only person they’ve hurt. No matter what else has happened, I still follow the Silver Flame, and I can’t let evil continue when I could do something about it. I want to fight them, Taras, and I think I’m going to need all the help I can get.”

Taras regarded her for a long moment over the rims of his spectacles, and he smiled. “That’s a very courageous thing to vow, Thyra,” he said, “and I don’t think you fully understand it. By the gods, I don’t fully understand it, and I’ve studied these things for decades! But I think you’re right; the Lords of Dust have many plans, and you barely scratched the surface of them.” He looked down at the papers spread across his desk, sketches Thyra had made – with some help from Havaktri – of the inside of the vault. “I’m especially intrigued by the words you’ve copied here – the Draconic from the altar. I believe ir’Sarrin’s necromancer was correct in her translation – this sword is only part of a more powerful artifact. And the pieces remain scattered across the world. I’d heard rumors of such a thing.”

He pointed his finger at the sketch of the map. “Here, I think, is the location of the next piece – I think there are five in total, though I could be reading the number wrong. I would bet each tomb includes instructions to find the next piece of the Key.” He rested his finger on the dot in northern Sarlona. “This must mark the next location – just north of Riedra.”

“The Tashana Tundra,” Havaktri said quietly. Everyone looked at her in surprise, and the kalashtar shrugged. “My people come from Sarlona, and we remember it. This region isn’t part of Riedra, but I don’t think getting there will be an easy task. Outside of Adar, I know that Sarlona is a very dangerous place to be kalashtar in these times, at least.”

“I don’t see any reason to ‘get there’ in the first place,” said Rinnean. “The last vault was sealed for millennia until we came along and were foolish enough to open it. I say let the second piece of the Key stay in this tundra until the moons fall from the sky, while we stay here in Sharn and go out drinking. Much more sensible.”

“If Thyra is serious about wanting to oppose the Lords of Dust,” Taras said, “the complete Key might be a great help. The inscription says it has the power to bind fiends. Perhaps, when the pieces are brought together, it can bind the Lords of Dust themselves, sending them to join their ancient Rajahs in eternal imprisonment.” He paused for a moment to let the weight of that sink in.

“The Lords of Dust are among the great evils of this world,” Yhani said. “A chance to be rid of their machinations forever… can we truly pass this up?” None of the others had anything to add to this out loud, though Harsk and Havaktri both looked thoughtful, and Rinnean incredulous. Len’s expression was unreadable.

“If Thyra is committed to this course,” Taras said, “I will help her however I can. In my youth I made some discoveries that made me a wealthy man. I can’t abandon my position at the University entirely, but assuming I was given the chance to study any artifacts retrieved in the process, I would be willing to fund a journey for Thyra to find the missing pieces of the Key, wherever they may be.”

“Thank you, Taras,” Thyra said, feeling tears forming at the corners of her eyes and not even bothering to blink them away. “I knew I could count on you.”

“Of course, Thyra can’t go alone,” Taras continued. “You’ve told me her sister and the paladin have returned to Thrane to see that her name is cleared of the charges against her, but even a sorceress can’t set out to cross Sarlona alone.” He looked at each of the mercenaries in turn. “If you’re willing, I’d like to hire you all to accompany her. What do you say?”

“My people have been fighting darkness for a thousand years,” Havaktri said. “And Thyra is my friend. What would it say about me if I turned my back on this now? I’ll go with her, even if no one else does.”

Rinnean rolled his eyes. “I think this is a Six-damned waste of time,” he said, “but if the pay is good… well, I can certainly think of worse places to go. Wouldn’t want my life to get boring, after all.”

“I’ll do it,” Harsk said. “Been looking for something worthwhile ever since I left the Eldeen. Maybe this’ll be it. Maybe it’ll help me find it.”

“I go with the Captain,” Ghazaan said. “Boss – it’s your call.”

Len was silent for a long moment, then she stood. “Give me some time to think it over,” she said.

Taras nodded. “As long as you need,” he said. Len returned the nod, and swept from the office.

///

Len sat on a bench outside the building at Morgrave University that housed Taras’s office, watching students walk by under the evening sky. She lowered her gaze to her hands and sat there in thought for a long while, until someone sat beside her in a rustle of cloth.

“Still troubled, Len?” Yhani asked, resting one of her slender hands on top of the captain’s. “The others are waiting for your decision. Rinnean swore particularly loudly and said you were taking too long; the professors who had offices by Taras’s complained.” She smiled slightly; Len thought she never looked more beautiful than when she wore that expression.

“Oh, ‘Hani,” she said. “Who am I, really? I can swing a sword, throw a fireball, but what I’m I? Just a soldier whose country didn’t want her anymore, so she sells her sword for money. This thing we’ve stumbled onto… it’s too big for me. For any of us, ‘cept maybe you. I can barely even wrap my mind around it. How am I supposed to make any kind of decision?”

Yhani squeezed Len’s hand and leaned in close. “How do any of us choose anything?” she asked. “The world is far vaster than any of us – vaster even than the Undying Court, or the greatest dragon or rakshasa, or even your Sovereign Host – but it is smaller pieces, and those are made of smaller pieces still, until we at last come down to something we can understand. Think of these pieces – of our team, of Thyra. Does this not help?”

“I guess so,” Len said. “We could always use the money, and it looks like Thyra’s determined to go through with this whether we’re with her or not – and maybe Havaktri too, if she meant what she said in there. I don’t feel like letting that kid run off halfway around the world to get killed after we went through the Mournland to snatch her back from ir’Sarrin sits that well with me, but… it’s all just so much to take in.”

“My love,” Yhani said quietly, “you never talk about where you came from before we met, but I know that it was nothing you were proud of, and that you wanted to put it behind you. You joined the army hoping to find a cause that meant something. In the end, Breland was not that cause, and even if it was, the War ended with no real winner. Since then, you work for whoever is willing to hire us, but I know you well enough to know that you have been secretly hoping still to find that cause that matters. You think this may be it, but you are afraid it will fail you the way the Last War did. But I know you well enough to know that, in the end, you will take that chance, because that is who you are. It is who you have chosen to become.”

Len sighed. “Dammit, ‘Hani,” she said. “You’re right, as usual. I’ve been trying to put off the decision, but I can’t say no; if Rinnean wants to keep his job, he’ll just have to deal with it.” She leaned in and gave Yhani a light kiss. “Now, come on. Let’s go tell the others.”

The captain stood, and she and Yhani began to make their way back towards Taras’s office, still hand in hand, and a faint, knowing, but also affectionate and pleased smile playing across the elf’s lips.

///

Taras Zanthan stood at his office window, holding his pipe in one hand – a human habit, but one he’d taken to long ago and come to enjoy in spite of himself. He watched the captain and her Aereni priestess down below, and he knew that she’d come to her decision exactly as he’d anticipated. The professor of mythology set the pipe stem to his lips and took a deep draw, and smiled.

Taras knew better than any just how long the road ahead would be, but for now, all was in motion exactly as he had foreseen.

///

With last chapter being the climax, this one was mostly denouement- wrapping up the remaining threads of Game of the Ancients Part I and setting up where the story is going in the projected further volumes of this series (the next fic, as is probably easy enough to guess, will be Game of the Ancients: Sarlona). There’s a fair bit of important character moments here, including Thyra’s reunion with Valyria and some more hints regarding Len’s past (her backstory will be explored in further detail down the line – just as this fic was mostly Thyra’s story, so a later one – probably the third – will be Len’s). And ir’Sarrin and Irinali are getting ready to go after the same prize – I’d initially planned to kill them in this fic, but the idea of a series-spanning, mortal-scale set of rivals for our heroes to contrast the more remote, shadowy evil of the Lords of Dust won me over and they got a reprieve.

And Taras knows a lot more than he lets on, of course. I wonder what his story is…

In any case, this is the last full chapter of the fic. Next update will be the epilogue, which will bring Game of the Ancients: Khorvaire to a close!

-MasterGhandalf


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