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The Funeral
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Epic × 2!
Death
The shrill sounds of battle, the smell of burning skin, adrenaline, these all seem like things I’ve felt before until suddenly everything goes quiet, like the moment before an explosion… and then, the explosion, I feel it from inside, my chest bursts open, expelling my soul and the world shatters as though I was in a room of mirrors and everyone around me was always just a shadowed reflection, suddenly broken, immediately I become visible and the shards of broken glass melt into invisibility.

Then a light, I shield my face with my hand and close my eyes but wait, I don’t have eyes anymore and it’s all around. It’s bright, the brightest, hottest, whitest light that ever existed. I walk towards it, streaks of rainbow like oil slick flash past as though I’m travelling faster than a horse could carry me but I can’t be walking, where are my legs! I hear voices, they don’t speak language, but they speak of light and life, shadow and death, eternity and the universe. They can see me, I’m naked and they call to me, I reach out with arms though I can’t feel if I have arms anymore. I can’t tough them, the edge of the universe is just out of reach. I stretch and strain but my fingers curl backwards and suddenly I’m slipping! The road to the door was really a cliff, I must have flown but I realize I don’t have any wings, I desperately wrap my tentacles around the edge of the rock and I’m slipping, I flail wildly grabbing at anything I can reach, I’ve never wanted anything more in my life than to reach that door but the cliff becomes smooth and I can’t hold on.

Darkness grabs my like a giant hand curling its fingers around my body, like a sea of tar it sucks me down under the waves, smothering me, crushing my bones. I writhe around uncontrollably willing my head to catch one last glimpse of the light, maybe I could cry out to the voices to save me but I have no mouth and the light fades slowly as the blackness gets heavier until finally the light goes out and I’m in darkness, complete darkness, the sort that eats regular darkness, it’s sticky and heavy and there’s no way out. I’m being consumed, turned into space dust. I breathe one last deep breath when suddenly like a bubble being popped I fall out and hit something… grass?
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Where to now?
By the time the travelers made it back to their horses, the full moon was high overhead, dropping silver ribbons through the gaps in the black trees. Camp made, animals picketed, and rations prepared, they settled around the campfire to process the earlier battle, each in their way. The firelight lent a shadowy orange glow to the six figures, as it had to yesterday’s seven.

For a long while, the only sounds heard were the nickering of the horses, the crackle of the fire, and the clink of equipment. Darius was cleaning and examining the daggers he had collected from the battlefield before stowing them somewhere in the folds of his cloak. Null sat farther back, at the edge of the firelight’s reach, flipping through the grimoire she had taken from Galael’s library and picking at her meager portions of food.

Opposite her in the rough circle, Aeris was uncharacteristically quiet; she sat leaning back against a rock, knees pulled up, twisting Seline’s ring on her finger and staring blankly into the dark spaces between the trees. Dove wondered what she had experienced earlier, when she had been… well, dead. When the others had pushed for an explanation upon her miraculous revival, Aeris had said simply, “the spirits of the forest brought me back.” Since then she had seemed dejected and preoccupied, but offered no more answers.

Lindow too looked lost in thought, absently polishing the black metal of his rifle with its canvas bindings. He occasionally scowled and muttered to himself, expressions flickering across his face as if he were engaged in an internal conversation… which, Dove thought uneasily, he may well have been.

A few feet away, the young mage stared into the fire with a feeling of deep ambivalence. She had always loved the subtlety of firelight, the shifting shades of gold and red accented with licks of blue, the way it made shadows leap and shiver. Yet in the past four days… Ivan and Yuri, the two Crows, the forest guardian, Aeris, the burning camp… Dove ran her fingers through her shortened hair as the memory of that searing light sent a shiver down her spine. She glanced down at the drawing she had been making in her book—a sketch of the Chaville coastline, the Clock Tower soaring in the background. A faint shimmer distorted the image, as if the scene fell behind a curtain of heat…

With a clatter, Bael deposited his armor and axe into the cart, gave Bill the donkey a comradely pat, and settled on an unoccupied log with a loud huff. As he dug in to his food, he broke the silence: “So Dove, what’s the deal with these mountains?”

Dove looked up in surprise, shaken from her rumination. “Ah, yes…” She leafed through the pages of her sketchbook until she found the map she had copied from the Borges’ library, turning it so everyone could see. “I’m sure you’ve all heard of the Tol Jaegren range. It occupies much of eastern Abel, running close to the border with Ilmora and Helenia. The northern mountains are about a week’s journey due east from here.” She gestured in the direction—were they not still surrounded by forest, the moonlit peaks would likely be visible on the horizon.

“The Tol Jaegren range is most famous for two things: the prevalence of gems”—Aeris lifted her head, suddenly interested—“and the difficulty of the passage. Due to the latter, they’ve not been well explored. Not recently, at least. In my research in Archangel, I came across mention of various ruins and artifacts supposedly scattered throughout the range”—Lindow raised an eyebrow, and even Null paused in her reading and turned her attention to Dove’s drawing—“as well as of an incident during the War of God in which a regiment of the First Emperor’s armies fought fervently to protect a certain pass… although I could find no mention as to why. There are rumors of disappearances, which many attribute to bandits”—at that, Bael leaned forward, stroking his beard; his thoughts had clearly turned to the kind of bounties that might exist on these highwaymen—“although others whisper that they might have more… sinister sources. It’s all very mysterious. That being said, I think that, one way or another, we’re bound to find something to make it worth our while. Unless anyone has any more urgent matters to attend to…?”

She cast her eyes around the circle, looking to her companions one by one for a response. Darius gave an indifferent shrug of consent. From Null, a long pause, then a single nod before returning to her reading. Aeris gave her ring another sullen twist, though her mood seemed somewhat improved by the prospect of treasure; “Yeah, fine, let’s go.”

Dove glanced at Lindow, who returned the look with a smile. [Glad to help. I owe you that much by now, right?] “Hey, a week of nice, quiet traveling suits me just fine. And sure, there’s bound to be something good up there. Ruins, huh…”

Bael too nodded. “Hmph. Reasons enough for me. If there are any’a those sniveling vultures on the roads, they’ll learn quick: when you mess with The Bull, you get the horns,” he said with a toothy grin. Behind the jovial banter, though, his tone was duller than usual, his eyes shadowed by more than just the night. Near his left shoulder, Ivan’s brooch reflected the firelight with a somber gleam.

Dove nodded and let out a small sigh—relieved for the support of the others, but also apprehensive. What were they heading towards? She looked down again at her drawing, tracing the jagged outline with her fingertips.

Those fleeting shadows on the page… Just her imagination? A trick of the light? Or…
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Epic × 2!
Isolated, but not alone.
Darkness floods in, swirling across my vision. My ears ring, the world goes quiet once again. "It's him, isn't it".

Silence.

"Hey! I know you can hear me..." "SHUT UP! I'm trying to find him, quit your aimless rambling..." it exclaims.

"Hey! I'm blind to the world, with a giant axe wielding fire monster in front of me, and that evil psychic son of a..."

"Do you want to die you utter moron? SHUT UP!"

Again silence. Darkness. That bastard crow has me in his claws once more... god damn voice... I am going to die like this...

I try to focus, searching for an escape from this blackness. The feel of the gun, heavy in my hands, cold, heightens to a sharp tingling and overwhelms as my only, isolated sensation.

"Left, about 30 degrees, just above head height, 75 feet. NOW!"

I snap to my left, and fire without hesitation...

What was that? Why am I so compelled by this unknown voice... what if that was at Dove? or the others?... and after all that it has said.

"The crow's over there! did I get him?!" I yell deafly at the top of my voice, hoping it reaches the others. I stand, locked in position still aimed down my rifle. waiting.

After what feels like an eternity of pleading with both my eyes and for the help of my companions, a blinding whiteness burns my eyes as the darkness wisps away.

I'm back in the world, and yes. We got him.
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Smoke and Mirrors
The scene was surreal in its familiarity, a warped mirror-image which now placed Dove in the observer’s role.

The blackened form of Ivan—no; this time, Yuri—smoked and crackled. Bael reeled from the fiery blast, but remained standing. And beside them, unseen, Aeris crumpled to the ground, her armor smoldering…

Near Dove’s place across the camp, Darius paused, his gaze first following Lindow’s wild shouts towards the edge of the forest, then taking in the grim turn of the tide at the frontline; he returned to his search for projectiles amid the Black Clan’s fallen soldiers with renewed intensity. Meanwhile, Lindow was turned away from the fight, his rifle pointed towards what had been a cluster of birch trees—now just more ashes. “THE CROW’S OVER THERE,” he again yelled haltingly, unable to hear his own voice. [What’s happening? Did I get him?]

[I, um… I don’t know. But Yuri and Aeris] Dove sketched, her gaze locked on the fighters, and relief mingled with dread as Aeris slowly dragged herself to her feet… but from Yuri, the only movement was a flutter of cinders caught by a quiet breeze. [I think Yuri… is gone. But at least Aeris seems to… Oh no.]

Too fast. As the archer struggled, dazed and wounded, the giant’s axe fell again… And so did she. There was a heaviness to her collapse, a finality, that made Dove’s chest tighten and her pencil fall still.

The next instant, the Black Clan leader was assaulted by a flurry of arrows which sped past Dove with impossible accuracy, and Bael lunged forwards and swung his own axe with a roar. The giant joined the others on the ground.

Lindow shook his head as his senses began to return. “The Crow! He might still be alive.” He made his way quickly towards the burnt trees.

Darius followed. “Dibs on his head.”

While Bael kneeled beside the remains of Yuri, Dove slowly approached Aeris. One touch, and her suspicion was confirmed. [Aeris is dead.] At that, Lindow looked up from the body of the Crow and hurried to Dove’s side, with Darius trailing behind. The psychic seemed miffed; the dead assassin’s state of decapitation had deprived him of a new crystal. As they neared, the invisibility spell on Aeris expired, and Bael too clambered to his feet as he caught sight of her mangled body. Ivan’s twice-burnt brooch was clutched in his left hand. “Dove, can you…?”

The young mage shook her head, trembling slightly as she stared at the husk that used to be Aeris. Not one week earlier, their positions had been reversed, and Aeris had brought Dove back from the brink. Yet now, for all her magic, Dove found herself powerless.

The others stood over them somberly, until Bael turned with a growl and swung his axe at the body of the Black Clan leader, cursing and hacking at the lifeless giant in a futile rage. Dove lifted her listless gaze to follow his movement; her eyes drifted over to where Yuri, too, lay in ashes, then past him, finally settling on the forest guardian.

The guardian. It was starting to stir. Essence…

Something that was not quite hope—more like determination?—started to percolate in Dove’s mind. She focused her gaze on the guardian as she stood, opened her sketchbook, and stepped over Aeris’ body to slowly walk towards the great sylvan wolf.

After all, there were other powers here.
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Epic × 3!
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Ga•a (1st)
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