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â€œYou are a strange group, but effective.â€ Blue Stalking Bear grinned an almost sinister-looking smile, looking around at Kieranâ€™s companions. The elementals had been defeated, and fled, and the party was now taking stock of their situation â€“ the Wind Master had transformed himself into a gusty almost-human, with only his fangs and eyes to remind them of his ursine nature, and the wind rippling around him. â€œAnd I owe you a great deal â€“ no, the entire North owes you a great deal for what you have done here today. I must depart soon, to begin repairing the damage that those fools wrought when they imprisoned me, but if there is anything that I can do before that, simply name it.â€
â€œI have a question of you, mighty wind god.â€ Cathak Lodaris grimaced before speaking, looking over at Kieran and Sirrim. He had been very quiet since the end of the battle, simply watching the others, and Kieran had been growing increasingly nervous at his dour expression. Now, it seemed, his thoughts had agreed on a course of action.
Stalking Bear looked down at Lodaris, and sighed. â€œYou may wish to be careful with your questions. Knowledge can be dangerous for oneâ€™s peace of mind.â€
Lodaris chuckled harshly. â€œIt is too late for that.â€ He paused again, and then spoke, each word pulled almost unwillingly from his lips. â€œIs the Immaculate Philosophy a lie?â€
There was a pause, as all eyes turned towards the great god. He mulled his words carefully before speaking. â€œThat is a difficult question, and it depends greatly on whichâ€¦ part of it you refer to. Is there a proper order to the universe? Yes. Does it work more smoothly if the mortals obey the Exalted, and the Exalted protect and guide the mortals? As a rule, yes. Do worthy souls reicarnate into the bloodlines of Dragons? I do not know; the workings of fate are not my providence. But are the Terrestrials the most enlightened beings in the world?â€ He sighed. â€œNo, master monk. The Celestial Exalted were always supposed to rule above you.â€
â€œThen why?â€ Lodaris waved a hand. â€œWhy the Great Uprising? Why all of this? Why have I spent my life training to kill beingsâ€¦â€ He stopped, and took a deep breath. â€œPeople. People who should have been giving me the orders.â€
â€œBecause people fall. Look to the Realm, Lodaris, and see its faults, the faults of those who have come to expect their power rather than earning it, and imagine those expectations and powers magnified a hundredfold. And perhaps you will understand that not all the tales of the Anathema were invented.â€ He turned his attention towards Kieran. â€œI do not know what you remember of the First Age, but it is true. I hope that, in this incarnation, you will learn better.â€
â€œI intend to.â€ Kieranâ€™s voice was soft. â€œThereâ€™s a lot of work ahead of us, though.â€
Lodaris turned suddenly, walking towards the waterfall. â€œAnd I wish you luck with it. I will depart, and tell the Hunt that you died in here, with the rogue gods.â€ He paused, looking back. â€œI see honour in you, boy. Donâ€™t give me cause to regret my decision.â€
â€œI wonâ€™t.â€ Kieran sighed, and bowed. â€œGood luck to you, Cathak Lodaris, and best wishes. You are a good man.â€
â€œHm.â€ Lodaris began to climb, without looking back. Finally, as he stood on the overlook, he spoke once more. â€œYou are a good man, as well, but you spread change in your wake. I wonder if we can survive hundreds more like you.â€ He shook his head. â€œIt is not my concern any longer. Farewell, Master Kieran. I do not think that we will meet again.â€
Slowly, he walked down the tunnel, and the others watched him go. After a moment, Khory spoke. â€œPoor man. He deserved better from the world than this.â€
â€œCould be worse. Maybe he can change things.â€ Elenaâ€™s words were soft, and she shrugged.
â€œPerhaps.â€ The Wind Master sounded doubtful, and he turned his attention back to the others. â€œAnd you all. Is there anything that you require?â€
â€œThe West.â€ Kieran smiled, now, looking towards Nia, who blinked for a moment before suddenly grinning in understanding. â€œWe need to get to an island in the Far West. As a Wind Master, I imagine you can get us there quickly.â€
â€œThat I can.â€ The Wind Master chuckled, sending ripples of air around the room. â€œLet us wait for the Hunt to depart, and then I will send for a craft to take you to wherever you wish to go, with my blessings.â€
The cavern fell silent, as the gathered people began tending to their wounds, and marvelling at their luck in surviving that battle. Elena fell into quiet conversation with the Wind Master, and Kieran smiled. A moment later, he saw Nia sitting by herself, and walked over to her. â€œNervous?â€
â€œA little.â€ She laughed a bit shrilly. â€œI donâ€™t know what my Master will think of me, as I have become.â€
â€œYouâ€™ve grown. Heâ€™ll respect that.â€ Kieranâ€™s voice held conviction, and he smiled.
â€œI hope so.â€ Nia sounded much more dubious. â€œBut he â€“â€
â€œRIGHT!â€ The words came from the overlook, and everyone looked up in surprise. There was a small patrol standing above them, staring woodenly down. At their back, a woman veiled was standing at the ready, dark Essence coiled around her hands.
Twice-Forged Steel stepped out of the mix of zombies, raising a sai towards Nia. â€œAlright, look! We have chased you across half the North. I have had to deal with bar ruffians, snow tigers, shadow creatures, and bandits. We have had to avoid Immaculate patrols twice, Iâ€™ve had to camp outside in the wet and rain, I hate the outdoors, and I am amazingly upset right now. I just want to make that clear.â€ His gaze swept the cavern, and his words were biting. â€œWe are here for that girl. You will give her to us, and we will leave. No one gets hurt. Or, you can try to fight us, and we will murder every last one of you. Clear? Good.â€
Niaâ€™s eyes had widened with fright, and the others were staring in surprise. Except for Blue Stalking Bear, who growled deep in his throat, and began to grow. Wind formed a tornado around him as he towered over the Abyssals, and he let out a monstrous roar, strong enough that one of the zombies â€“ less composed than the others â€“ broke in half at the waist from the sheer force.
Twice-Forged Steel considered that. â€œYou know what, if youâ€™re busy, we can come back later.â€