Chapter Thirty-Two- Climax

Silence hung in the air as Gracious' verbal fury now lingered in an irate glare. Her mother's cold eyes glittered menacingly as she faced Lord True. "How is it that she has been granted access to the scrolls?"

"Why should she be denied access to them?" Lord True countered. "They are there to be read, and learned from." He leaned closer to his daughter, who was still waiting, anger heavy in her eyes, to be acknowledged. "And I had hoped that you would learn an important lesson from this story of our ancestors, Gracious."

"What? That my parents are hypocrites? That we refuse to give aid to those who are more than our kinsmen, but also our blood? That all I have been told about elves never wandering beyond their own borders are lies? Are there any other lessons I should take from this piece of our history, Father?"

She spat the last word out with contempt, but Lord True's face did not change; he remained impassive and calm as he spoke again. "I see you have not read beyond the story of the Azure Pool and ignored the line, 'The race of the elves diminished.' Let me tell you what happened.

"Strong the Half-Elven allowed elves and humans to marry; elves, intoxicated by this new freedom, went out into the world, and were deceived and taken advantage of by humans. The ones who did not end up far away from their homes without means of going back married humans. Rarely did they bring their spouses to their homes; nay, the elves lived with the humans, until their children grew and married humans. This continued until the blood of the elves in these lines were greatly diminished, until the ancestors of these elves forgot their roots. You heard the humans; they did not know we existed, and it is more than likely that some of them have elven blood.

"As some elves were intermarrying far from home, others at home were coming under attack from other humans. But their numbers were not enough to withstand the humans, and they were forced to hide in secluded havens, such as this one, Serenity Vale." Lord True looked his daughter in the eye. "Do you understand what happened? Do you understand that our relations with humans made our numbers dwindle, our powers decrease? We are less because of the mistake we made with them many years ago, and we cannot allow such a thing to happen to us again."

"That's not fair!" Gracious argued, her last hope for a future with Tanton slipping away from her. "That's not fair," she repeated softly, trying to deny what she knew was true: Tanton was unreachable to her, unattainable.

"Daughter, should I allow your desired union with the human, where is he? He was left; his destiny has taken him far from here on a quest that is not our concern," Lord True reminded her gently. "There are no guarantees he will ever return here."

Gracious met her father's sympathetic gaze. "Alas, your words are true," she whispered, the words like bitter ash in her mouth.

"And what of Captain Gallant?" her mother interjected. "Have you awakened to your senses enough to wed him?"

It was interesting how although Gracious had freed herself from her imprisonment with hopeless dreams of Tanton, she had never felt more chained down and trapped. "Yes, Mother. I will wed him."

**

There were clouds in the East as they rode, a chilling premonition in Sydon's mind. He didn't like the feel of the morning; the very air around him was taut and Shira's mood wasn't helping anything either. She rode as though it was for her life.

Or for someone else's.

Her sudden insistence that they must get to the Oln Estate unnerved Sydon, and Tanton seemed puzzled by it also. Sydon noticed that the other man was acting strangely; he was lethargic, quieter even than normal, and didn't even relax around Shira. Sydon might have questioned him on it had he himself not been concerned with his own matters.

"Shira!" he called after her. She slowed her horse's pace and he came up beside her on his stallion. The elves had been kind enough to give them one horse so that each member of the trio had their own now. "Let's stop for a brief break now. The horses are tiring, and-"

She cut him off sharply. "Do you not see it?"

"See what? I beg your pardon?"

Her eyes hard, she waved a hand to the west. "On the horizon, smoke rises, and it is coloured with death and destruction."

Sydon searched the horizon and saw it, dark smoke, billowing high into the sky. His mouth grew dry. "It couldn't be- it can't-"

Tanton trotted up to them, his mouth set in a grim line. "There is nothing to burn for miles. It is all flatland." Until the Oln Estate. He didn't say it, and he didn't need to.

Ista. Uncle Gerit. Were they all right? Were they safe?

Were they alive?

"We have to keep going," Shira stated, spurring her horse forward.

Hewtis had come. Chares had come. Everything the West had dreaded for so long had arrived.

The shock of this discovery sent Sydon into emotional turmoil and then into denial. *Maybe it's something else. An accident, somehow something caught on fire. Or it's not Uncle Gerit's estate, it's something else.*

But as they drew nearer to the estate, all doubt was erased from Sydon's mind.

**

They rode in after determining that none of Hewtis' army was left. The walls surrounding the estate were charred and the only trees that still stood were blackened reminders of the life that had once existed. Now it was all destroyed.

Bodies lay in the yard, their wounds still seeping blood, its sickly scent rising in the warm air and making Shira gag. Birds fed on the pale flesh.

Some bodies had been burned, their armour and weapons taken first, of course. Shira didn't want to look, but some morbid fascination held her gaze captive. This was why Chares had to be stopped. This was what he wanted to do to everyone that stood up underneath his tyrannical reign.

Gasping and crying out with grief, Shira dismounted her horse and knelt at one of the bodies. It was Tanen, blood pouring from a wound in his side, his eyes still open, and his expression one of pain and shock. *Oh Tanen,* Shira thought silently, her shoulders shaking. *I guess we didn't practice your swordsmanship skills enough, did we? But I'm sure you put up an admirable fight.*

Tanton appeared beside her. "You knew him?"

She nodded, tears running down her cheeks. "He lived with passion, life and vitality. It's not right to see him like this." Her voice caught, and she turned to sob on Tanton's shoulder.

When they rose, Sydon was long gone, probably having entered the manor, searching for his relatives. It was with a heavy and deadened heart that Shira walked the last few steps to the manor. "Sydon?"

Tanton searched downstairs; Shira went upstairs, looking through rooms and stepping over broken fragments of ornaments and furniture. There was no sign of either Sydon or Ista, and Shira began to dread what she might find.

Eventually Shira found her, in a corner of her den, trembling underneath a table, her hand clutching something glowing. "Ista?"

The other woman rose from her hiding place slowly. "Shira, I, I killed him."

Ten feet from where Ista had been sitting, Paeoti lay on the floor, his face pale and his chest unmoving. He was dead.

Weary of yet more death, Shira said nothing.

"It was this, this necklace," Ista held out the piece of jewellery, a gorgeous yet simple pendant hanging on a simple chain, as though it was liable to kill her now too. "It's from the Azure Pool. It killed him. It's yours."

"I know." Shira took the necklace, slipped it around her neck, and studied the pendant. She knew that by keeping the pendant around her neck, she was accepting its responsibilities and whatever duty Lady Aria had for her. The idea didn't scare her as much as it had; today Shira had seen the death Chares brought with him, and she was willing to do whatever she could to combat it.

Even if that meant she must go alone, without Sydon, to some unforeseeable fate without anything but a small pendant.

"Come, milady," Shira wrapped an arm around Ista's shaking shoulders. "Let's leave this place."

**
Miles away, Lady Aria closed her eyes and felt all that had happened. "So, the Azure Pendant finds its home." Her eyes opened to narrow slits. "Just in time for battle with Chares."

Time would tell if there would be victory.

**
Please review.

This concludes The Azure Pool. Part Two in the Clouds of War, tentatively titled The Azure Pendant, will be posted starting probably in late June 2004. Please send me feedback on this first instalment; tell me things you liked, things you didn't, what I can improve on so that the continuation will be even better! As always, I love reviews.

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