The Survivor Who Returned With News

Wariner pursed his lips as his eyes looked skyward toward the Crystal castle that sprawled above him.

He blinked. There it was, soaring into the sky - a scene he’d travelled so far and for so long to reach. For months, it had been a vague, dim destination in his mind’s eye. And now that he stood facing it - well, it almost seemed as though he were in a dream.

But it *wasn’t* a dream. Not a good one, anyway. A nightmare, maybe...

He heard a distant flourish of trumpets and sighed. *Better get on with it…*

He began the steep climb up the sloping walkway towards the grand castle’s entrance - his final act of endurance. His thigh muscles screamed at him to stop where he was - to collapse and to never move again. But move he must. Move, *he must*.

He screwed his eyes up as he tried to focus on a little round figure in a brown robe that was hurrying down the slope towards him.

“Wariner?” squeaked a little bald monk, waddling towards him with gusto. “Wariner is that you?”

“Well met, Branok,” Wariner said, his smile not quite reaching his eyes. “It’s been so long.”

“Oh indeed, my dear boy!” said the little monk, beaming from ear to ear. “Why you’ve grown into a man! I cannot believe how long it’s-”

The little monk’s words trailed off as he saw Wariner’s expression. “Oh,” he said quietly. “You come with... news?”

Wariner nodded and continued trudging up the slope without breaking his step. “I’m afraid so, Branok. Not of the good kind, either.”

The little monk scurried beside him, his little feet rushing to keep pace. “Dare I ask?” he said, in a voice so quiet it was almost a whisper.

“They’re dead,” Wariner said, unable to meet the little monk’s eyes. Instead, the wizard-warrior focused on his journey upwards - left, right, left. Steeper and steeper was the climb, and heavier and heavier felt his heart.

Branok’s eyes fell to the ground as he tried to keep pace with the already slowing Wariner.

“Who?” Branok asked, his eyes wide and glassy and a trace of sorrow lacing his usually bright and jovial voice. “Which of them died?”

Wariner closed his eyes momentarily and stopped. He gave Branok a sideways glance before looking away into the ravine below them. “All of them.”

It was as though his words rang through the ravine, as they echoed against its hard rock faces. All of them, *dead*.

*All of them*.

“All?” Branok said, his voice feint.

Wariner began his ascent again, trudging one foot after another.

“But how can it be?” Branok called after him as his hurried footsteps drew closer again. “They were outnumbered. It was a-“

“It was as good as a suicide mission, Branok!” Wariner said as he whirled around to face his old-time friend. “We were sent to our deaths! We didn’t stand a chance. It’s a miracle that I’m even here at all.”

Silence rang in their ears.

“The Masters will know what to do,” Branok said after a few moments.

Wariner chuckled bitterly. “Just like they did when they sent us all on this ‘quest’ of theirs? Yes, I’m sure they will.”

The sarcasm that laced Wariner’s tone wasn’t lost on Branok. But he knew all too well that his little friend would be loyal to the end. How could anyone question the Masters, after all?

“They’ll likely round up some more troops and send the poor souls out to their death too,” Wariner muttered. “But I tell you, Branock, they cannot be turned. And we cannot defeat them. They are - they seem to be -“

Branok watched his friend intently as his words trailed off. “Be what?”

“*Immortal*,” Wariner said with a sigh as they turned the final corner. “They seem to be immortal.”

Branok’s jaw dropped, his eyes wide and his steps slowing to a halt as Wariner continued his last few steps. He would finish this quest, even if it were only to declare his dead compatriots.

A rather stately looking old man stepped forward from a huge archway that formed the entryway of the castle. “Well met, Wariner Pendarves!” he said serenely, hands clasped and head bowing slightly. “You come with news?”

Wariner nodded solemnly. “Yes,” he said, the last two years suddenly coming over him in an onslaught of weariness. “Yes. I come with news.”

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