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'Does the moon look bigger to you tonight?'

The Book of Ataniel

Coming Home
A Tale of Destruction, Redemption and Penguins

by Jeff Hersh (Shilree)

Chapter 2: Farewells and Invitations

Where farewells are said to a
friend, a gift is received, and an
unexpected invitation is given.

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The trip from Dalencia had been relatively boring. Shilree wished she could have found Magnate before she left, but the immortal merchant was nowhere to be found. Shilree knew that if he wanted to find her, Magnate would do so. One day she expected that she would walk into a store somewhere and there would be Magnate, chain-smoking away as if nothing had happened. At that time, there would be a reckoning between the two of them. Shilree felt there was still much they had to talk about.

As she traveled over the land towards Nylevia, the world rushed by Shilree in a blur, the Staff of the Walker constantly emitting a low hum. Sometime soon, Shilree expected the artifact to disappear, only to found when another great threat faced Ataniel. In the meantime, the staff was hers and Shilree fully intended to get the most out of it.

It was about sunset when Shilree reached the mountain range that separated the countries of the northern lands from those that bordered the Deep Sea Ocean. With the staff she could cross the mountain range to the south and enter the Northlands in just under a day. However, crossing the mountains at night would be a foolish thing to do. Shilree, not wanting to take such a risk, settled down a few miles north of the foothills to make camp.

It didnt take her long to trap a small rabbit for dinner. The construction of snares and traps was one skill she didnt let fall into disuse over the years. After setting a small campfire, cooking and then eating her supper, Shilree took a long blanket out of her pouch and settled into sleep. A sleep in which she refused to let any dreams come.

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Shilree awoke just after dawn to the wispy sounds of music in the air.

That is strange, she thought sleepily, Who would be playing a Diari tune up here?

Quickly the fuzziness of sleep left her, and her senses sharpened. Someone was watching her from across the camp site. Still laying under her covers, Shilree slipped her favorite dagger out from her boot and jumped up to defend herself.

Shilree! Stop!

She stopped herself, just as she was going to throw the dagger at the compact Scandinavian man sitting on the ground at the other side of her camp. He was holding a handmade wooden flute in his right hand. Shilree recognized him immediately.

Flicker, Shilree said, exasperated, what the hell were you thinking? I could have killed you!

Flicker was the fourth incarnation the Sunfighter, one of the five true immortals on Ataniel. He was also Shilrees closest non-Diari friend.

Flicker smiled. Not before I would have disarmed you. You are getting sloppy, Shil. I would have expected at least some wards around your campsite. I have been sitting here since before dawn. Did you know you talk in your sleep?

Shilree muttered an obscure Diari curse under her breath. Flicker was right. Normally she was much more cautious than this.

I have had a lot on my mind, Shilree said unconvincingly, as she looked at the flute the Viking held. I still would like to know how you manage to play Diari tunes with only five fingers.

Flicker grinned. There are some advantages to have lived four lifetimes. Sunny was very fond of Diari traditional tunes. She always found it interesting that such an up-tight people could have such passionate music.

Ignoring Flickers good natured baiting, Shilree got up from under her blanket and gave out a small yawn as she stretched. Why are you here, Flicker? I thought you were going to back to Riklandir.

I was and I am. You left in a hurry. It has only been a few days since, well, it happened. I can tell when something is bothering you, so I thought you would want to talk when nobody else was around.

Shilree said nothing, and just looked into Flickers reflective eyes. All that she could see in them was the distorted image of herself.

If I had wanted to talk, Shilree said, matter-of-factly, I would have.

Flicker smiled. Of course you would have.

Shilree harumphed as she poured some water on the last few ashes of last nights fire.

So, that is why you tracked me down? To act as my Viking confessor? If that is the case, you have wasted your time. There is nothing to talk about. At least nothing I want to talk about. I just want to continue on my way.

Flicker quietly gauged Shilree through his mirrored eyes.

No, I suppose there isnt, he said, as he got up. Well then, I wish you a good journey. If you are ever in Riklandir, look me up. Maybe I could teach you to ski.

Shilrees stomach did flips at the thought.

Maybe you could, she said, to be polite. Now, if you would excuse me, Flicker, the trip across the mountains is a long one.

Flicker nodded as Shilree turned to finish packing up her camp. When she turned around again, Flicker was nowhere to be seen.

I wish he would teach me that trick one of these days, she thought to herself, as she put the last bits of the campsite away in her pouch.

She was giving the site a final once over, when she saw the flute lying where Flicker had been sitting.

Now who is getting sloppy? Shilree thought as she picked up the instrument. It was actually a nice piece of work. Shilree remembered when Sunny, Flickers first incarnation, used that flute to get her to relax in that bar in Lianth, many years ago. Looking the flute over, she could see a fresh carving of Nordic runes along the hilt of the flute.

Shilree squinted as she translated the script.

Of everyone I have met, I shall remember you always. Good luck, my friend. The journey you face is a hard one. -- the Sunfighter

Shilree rolled the flute in her hands as her thoughts drifted back eight years. At that time she was traveling with a party of adventurers who called themselves the Significants. They all got involved with a series of events that was now known as the Demon War. It was also during this time that Shilree met and became friends with the Sunfighter. The Sunfighter, not even aware of her true nature at that time, was in her first incarnation, the bard Sunny. Sunny always struck Shilree as an enigmatic personality. She seemed to have a gift of knowing exactly what to say when it was needed, and always said it with a smile on her face.

During a rare lull in the Demon War, the Significants decided to spend the evening in a small tavern. All of them had been sleeping outside for weeks, and a soft bed and some hospitality was a rare treat. That evening Sunny tried to teach Max and Signet to dance. Shilree remembered it not going very well, but it could have been her unusually sullen mood. Her companions didnt know, but that night was the anniversary of her banishment and she was feeling particularly homesick.

Sunny must have sensed something was wrong, for she started piping out Cylindaes Lament, a traditional Diari folk tune about the love goddess paradoxical nature. Shilree was surprised-- Sunny actually played the melody very well for someone with only five fingers. She soon lost herself in the music and let her guard down for a moment. In that brief instant, lost in music and dance, Shilree felt as if she were home again. She never thanked Sunny for that. Then again, somehow she knew she didnt need to.

Shilrees mind drifted back to reality when a mountain hawk let out a piercing territorial cry. She had a lot of territory to cover today, and the sooner she left, the sooner she would get across the mountains.

Shilree dropped the flute into her possible bag and invoked the power of the staff. The world melted into a blur of speed around her.

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The wind whipped around Shilree as she wound her way through the mountain pass. Hours ago, the path had become much too windy for safe use of the Staff of the Walker. As long as the winds kept up, Shilree was reduced to traveling under her own leg power. She considered invoking some of the staffs more potent spells of transport, but decided against it. The artifacts more potent abilities had a long recharge time. There had been many a time in the past when she had wished for the staffs teleportation ability in a fix. Shilree didnt want to waste the staffs powers for the sake of her comfort. Besides, she had traveled this path through the mountains many times before. One more trip, she reasoned, wouldnt kill her. This the trip, however, was turning out to be more hazardous than what she had experienced before. Shilree wondered if the near invasion of Shadow had somehow changed the peaks. They did seem sharper, and a bit more foreboding, than she remembered.

Maybe it wouldnt be such a bad idea to teleport, Shilree decided as she braced herself against the wind.

Scanning the sky to get her bearings for the invocation of a teleport, she could see that it was late afternoon. Cursing under her breath, Shilree knew she was not going to make it out of the mountains by nightfall, even with using the Staff of the Walkers teleport abilities. Invoking a very elaborate curse in the High Diari dialect, she set about looking for some sort of shelter in which to make camp.

Dusk had fallen before she found a large enough opening in the mountainside that could serve as a campsite.

Well, it looks like this is home for tonight. Not that I have much choice, Shilree said, opening up her backpack and removing her camping supplies.

Book Divider

Darkness had covered the mountains by the time Shilree finished making camp. Now that the sun was under the horizon, the wind was howling even more fiercely. Her few attempts at making a fire proved useless. As soon as she managed to get a spark lit, the wind would blow it out.

I will never, NEVER travel these mountains again, Shilree swore to herself as she shivered under the blanket. Even wearing the winter furs she bought during the Shadow campaigns, she was cold. It felt as if the wind was ripping right through her clothes and slowly flaying her alive.

Looks like you will not be getting any sleep tonight, she said to nobody in particular.

No, I think you wont, a quiet voice from the shadows ahead of her answered.

Shilree jumped up. In the same motion she threw off the blanket, drew her pistol and backed up against the cold granite of the mountain. Her eyes scanned the darkness for the voices source.

Whos there! she demanded as she looked around.

A small light, about the brightness of an ember from a fire, appeared at least thirty feet in front of her. It was slowly drifting closer to her and was actually moving against the wind.

Shilree, her eyes squinting with suspicion, took careful aim at the light with her pistol. Okay, very cute. I am not amused.

The speck of light, growing larger as it moved, continued to approach.

I am warning you, I am armed and a powerful sorcerer. If you want to live, you had better show yourself.

The light, now the size of a large melon, continued forward and quickened its pace, coming straight towards her.

Fine, have it your way, Shilree said, pulling the trigger on her pistol. Flame and smoke billowed from the barrel as the bullet raced out of the pistol towards its target. The shot was perfect. The bullet, however, violently reared off at an impossible angle well before it ever reached the ball of light.

Shava keksat! she cursed.

The light, now bright as a full moon, was just out of her reach. It had stopped moving and hovered as if it was studying her. It was too late to cast a spell at it and Shilree wasnt sure if her blade would do any good against this enemy. Holding her breath, she prepared herself for the worst.

Time seemed to run slow. Slowly at first, the light changed its shape into a humanoid form. Seeing who the form was, Shilree immediately prostrated herself on the ground, her face buried in the dirt.

My Lord Emperor, I humbly apologize, Shilree said in her best formal High Diarian. I mistook you for a hostile entity. I did not expect your visit in this most unclean of all lands.

The Emperor was a tall Diarian, well over six and a half feet. Like all Diari, his hair was metallic colored, and the Emperors tint was the rarest of all the colors, gold. His slender face and build one could almost call elven, if it wasnt for his olivish complexion. His eyes were an enigma. They were a ever changing blend of silver, violet, green and copper. All the colors in his eyes seemed to vie with each other for control of his irises. The Emperors entire body shimmered with a pale bluish-white glow that, instead of radiating heat, radiated the absence thereof.

After a long moment of silence, Shilree cautiously looked up. The Emperor was staring right at her. He raised his hands signaling for her to stand up. She did so.

A collection of sounds manifested in her mind. She could barely make them out.

-... a lot ... home ... listen,- was all she could make out.

Shilree realized that the Emperor was trying to communicate telepathically with her but was having trouble getting into her mind. The Emperor, looking concerned for a moment, looked Shilree over. He then pointed at her forehead. Shilree was now puzzled. Why couldnt the Emperor communicate with her? After all, he was the most powerful psionic in all of Ataniel. Even though she didnt possess the gift of psionics, she should still be able to telepathically communicate with the Emperor. She then understood the reason. The headband she wore was a Diari protective device that prevented her from being possessed by hostile spirits, as well as being contacted telepathically. Quickly she removed the dusty red cloth from her forehead. As she did, the Emperors voice flooded into her brain.

-Much better. Now we can speak without the chance of being overheard.-

It was said that the Emperor sounded slightly different to each person who heard him. To Shilree he sounded exactly like her father.

-My Emperor, I do so apologize...-

-Yes, yes. Lets drop the formalities, Shilree Vestrin. This is far from the palace in Ekyarn, and I have some important information for you.-

Shilree was puzzled; this was not like the Emperor she heard about. Just before the founding of Trade there had been a high level meeting that all the heads of state in Ataniel, including the Emperor, attended. The Emperor was aloof to the extreme at the meeting. However, given that at the time there were no other Diari present and she, being in disguise as the priestess Astilla, looked like any other kiljhac, his aloofness could be expected. Still, even while growing up in Tesin, she had heard stories about the Emperor. Informality was not something one associated with him.

-I can see you are confused about my bluntness. Dont worry, I have not scanned you. Your face gives it away. The Shattering has, well, let me say for now it has changed things greatly back in Diaria.-

The Shattering?

The Emperors face was grimly serious as he spoke.

The Shattering is what our people have come to call the events of six days ago. No doubt your kiljhac associates came up with some boring but accurate name like The Bane War, or The Second Shadow War, or something equally bland sounding.

Actually, not many people talk about what happened. After a pause Shilree whispered, I dont like talking about what happened, myself.

-That, Shilree Vestrin, is part of the problem. We will get to that later. I want to talk about why I have sought you out.-

Shilree nodded and the Emperor continued.

-You, Shilree Vestrin, are unique of all modern Diarians. You are the only one of our people to have actually lived among the foreign peoples for an extended period of time. Not since Aestari has a Diari spent so much time away from the homeland. You understand these people, a gift that no other Diari possesses. Furthermore, for some reason you were unaffected by The Shattering. For both of these reasons, I am going to offer you a deal.-

Shilrees Tradeswoman instincts kicked in when the Emperor mentioned a deal. She was just about to start haggling when she remembered who she was talking to. Haggling was something one did not do with the Emperor of Diaria.

-I need you to come back to the palace in Ekyarn with me. I need something done very quickly, and you are the only one who can get in done in the allotted time.-

My Emperor, you only have to command, and...

-Shhh! Dont interrupt. I am not commanding you, Shilree Vestrin, I am asking you. This is an unique situation. If you accept, and if you succeed, your status as a Diari citizen will be reestablished. You can finally come home to your people, a healed Diari.-

Shilree couldnt believe her ears. For close to a decade she had been an outcast. Now, the Emperor himself was going to grant her a reprieve.

I do not know how to thank you, Lord Emperor.

-Do not thank me. You have not heard what you need to do, or why you need to do it,- the Emperor said, darkly. -However, this is not the place to talk of such things.-

In the blink of a thought, a dull portal opened up next to the Emperor. Shilree looked through the gateway. The lights of the Diari capitol city, Ekyarn, shone on the other side of the portal.

-Shall we go?- the Emperor asked.

Without a word, Shilree stepped through the gate.


On to Chapter 3

'Does the moon look bigger to you tonight?'

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