Chapter XXV

A stained Memory"

First stars showed themselves in the sky. In the camp, the druids were already piling up wood for a bonfire. Sadly, some of the branches were parts of their homes... Asuna tended to her wounds in the meantime, allowing one of her kin to help, and took care of the girl who got battered by Sharish as well.

Deep darkness enveloped the forest already, when all preparations were done. The warm night smelled of resin, with only a delicate cool coming from the stream, that hid within the soft shadows. Everyone assembled at the fire for the evening meal, but it wasn't a cheerful gathering. Asuna sat on the grass opposite from me and Eugeo, a basket of fruit lying between us. The younger girl stayed close by her side, a little behind.

First, Asuna took a wooden jug with a handle shaped like a snake with the head of a dragon, and poured some water into four cups, as if wanting to gain some time to gather her thoughts and find the proper words to start the conversation. She sighed almost inaudibly, but in such a forlorn manner, that I decided to help a little.

"Could you maybe... introduce us?" I asked, looking at the fascinating creature sitting at her right.

Asuna smiled sadly. "This is Ronye," she moved back a tiny bit to be on the same level as the younger girl and gently put a hand on her head. The dark cat ears twitched slightly. "You already know about hybrids and that some of them live in this forest... Ronye is one of them. She's a sykerien, a mix of human and a black-ridged lynx. They usually live in quite big groups, but Ronye lost her mother very early and she got rejected by the rest of the tribe for some reason. I found her when she was still very little and raised her."

Ronye leaned closer to rest her head on Asuna's shoulder, and the older girl started to stroke one of the fluffy ears delicately. I suddenly had to fight the urge to ask if I could do the same.

"So..." it was Eugeo who spoke up this time, "tell us, where did you have a brush with Sharish before? Does it have something to do with this strange amulet?"

"Yes... say... do you know the legends about me, that cruise around Earlindon?"

"Yes but... I thought they are just silly legends."

Asuna smiled delicately, looking into the fire. There were warm sparks reflecting in her eyes that didn't match the sadness, that surfaced from their depths. "Not entirely... in this case truth and legend went their own paths along the years... and so many versions of this story emerged, that even I get confused sometimes..." she took a deep breath. "Unfortunately, the very core of all of them is more or less true."

"Wait... so you're..." I stammered.

"I was... as some say, 'The Empress of Life on Earth'..."

There was a sudden hush in the camp. Some of the druids sitting on the other side of the bonfire hung their heads, some of them murmured something between themselves, as if they were hearing about this for the first time.

"So that amulet, that Sharish took with him..."

"Oh, so you heard about Ilmer's Amulet as well?"

"Hang on," I interrupted. "If that legend is true, then why didn't my sirath react when Eugeo told me, that it isn't?"

Asuna looked me in the eyes curiously and seemed to need to give it a brief thought herself. "I suppose it was because Eugeo had no idea, that he was lying. He was convinced, that he is telling the truth. But a lie doesn't turn into truth just because a lot of people believe in it..."

"I see..."

Asuna sighed once more. "Well... there are some events that should not be summoned from the darkness of the past, but I owe you the rectification of all these legends...

It started roughly eighteen years ago. Not far away from here, in the Serelath Valley, stood the very first city of Earlindon, and the biggest one in the country at the time - Ilmer. It was the time when elves were almost gone already, and druids were still dispersed across the whole land. It was an enormous city, said to be the most beautiful any traveler has ever laid eyes upon. But a few difficult years came... the summers were becoming cruel to the land... There was hardly any water, nothing to keep the crops alive. The city started to fade away... It was then that the humans came up with this crazy idea.

They wanted to tame the forces of Nature, bend them to their will to save the city. They asked the druids for help. The druids however, holding on to common sense, imposed a condition: those powers would have to be passed to one person only, someone whom everyone would trust. That one condition forced the ugliest side of humans to surface - greed and longing for power. Of course, there were some who didn't mind agreeing to anything for the sake of common good, but they were shouted down by those, who hoped to get those powers for themselves. The druids managed to solve this problem as well though. They decided to transfer this power to the most trustworthy and innocent being they knew - a child.

My mother was one of the last elves living in the open, and my father was a druid, who left the forest and lived with her in Ilmer. It seemed perfect... because who could tame such magic better than the child of an elf and a druid, even if it was just two years old? My parents didn't even want to hear about it at first, but the future of the whole city and of a few surrounding villages were at stake... and the druids wanted to help teaching me what I needed to know to not be endangered by these powers and to not ever be tempted to use them in the wrong way. And so, my parents gave in and the cursed ritual was prepared... but they all didn't consider one thing.

They ignored the old elven scriptures, and even those of human mages, which told about a few failed attempts to gain such power. No one has ever survived this kind of experiment. They thought that if they would try to bestow this magic upon someone else, not themselves, then everything would be fine. That was the last mistake they made in their lives... Instead of joy, the ritual brought complete destruction. None survived but me and one single druid..."

Asuna made a pause in this shocking story to sigh once again. "I know I should probably cry now but... to be honest, I find it hard to do so, as inhumane as it may sound... I don't remember any of those people, I don't even remember the faces of my own parents. They were just tragic victims of one of the thousands of mankind's mistakes..."

I didn't know what I could say. I glanced at Eugeo. The shadows cast by the fire sharpened his profile, he seemed just as speechless as me, but somewhere deep inside his eyes was a shadow of compassion and a fainter one, of silent understanding.

Asuna picked up a little twig lying next to her in the grass and moved the embers at the edge of the bonfire a little. Golden sparks arose from the flames and flew up towards the constellation of the Dawn's Corsair, which hung right above the camp now. It seemed like its brightest star - Cerdes, was pulling the ship made of silver dots behind it, hurrying to brighten the night over other parts of Earlindon as well.

"Besides," Asuna brought me back to the moment again, "I'm grateful that fate spared me and I gained a new, wonderful life. The druid who survived back then was none other than master Arakiel. He didn't waste time to muse, took me with him and came here. There were only five druids living in the camp at that time, separated from all others, and I was raised among them, like a normal girl. But after some time it turned out, that despite such a tragedy having occurred in Ilmer... the ritual was a success. At first my childish moods influenced the weather, later I started to play with the elements at will, I even resurrected small animals that I was finding in the forest... I heard later that I didn't seem to be really aware of the significance of my actions during the first few months. It seemed totally natural to me. Thanks to the teachings I received though, I gained respect for these powers and with time used them strictly within the boundaries of common sense and only if it was necessary. Then, almost three years ago my wings suddenly appeared... I'm still not sure why it happened this much earlier than the awakening of you two. Maybe one magic stimulated another... Still, our life here was peaceful, no one knew about my abilities and no one disturbed us... until suddenly various inhabitants of Earlindon started to appear in the Silivren Forest.

They came from all directions possible to ask for my help. We assumed they heard about me from a druid, who left our camp a few years ago. They asked for many things, greater crops, changing the weather at sea, better catches... I couldn't just turn the people down after they've come such a long way, but I still didn't satisfy every wish, even if it was in my power to do so. I tried to teach them that some of the things in nature have to keep their natural flow to remain in balance... Even so, the rumors about me soon spread across the whole kingdom and gave rise to all those legends, the true ones and the ones which human imagination helped with. And this must have been what caught Sharish's interest.

He came here one day like every other 'pilgrim' and asked for something, as for that time, unusual. He claimed that an epidemic broke out in his hometown and no one was able to stop it. I didn't know him and he gave me a false name, so I didn't have a reason not to trust him and refuse to help. I agreed to accompany him to Shinestone, a city beyond the mountains in the west, to examine the disease and help the people. He seemed utterly innocent during the few days of our journey to the Ethir Mountains... it was only at its end, that I learned his conscience was clear because it was unused...

He offered me a stay in Shinestone Keep, a castle situated among the peaks of the range. It was named after the city because it's the only place on ground level the keep can be seen from. He gave me a cozy room to spend the night in... which turned out to be coated by at least a dozen of spells. Only then he showed the courtesy to reveal who he really was and what he really wanted from me. The only magic I was able to use in that chamber was that, which he himself allowed me... and he wanted me to use only one single spell. He demanded the transfer of my powers to him... he demanded from me to perform the very same ritual that destroyed my birthplace so long ago...

At first I thought it would be better to just starve myself there. But after some time another thought came to life... If I was almost certain to die anyway, by Sharish's hand or because of the ritual, why not take him with me? I would spare other people so much pain and trouble, especially the other two Disciples... and Sharish didn't seem aware of the danger he was exposing himself to... Which was why I started the preparations for the ritual regardless. I purposefully dragged it out to try to find a way of escaping death at the end of it. I didn't succeed, but instead found a way of modifying the spell so that it would be just as destructive, but wouldn't transfer my powers to anyone, should someone actually survive the ritual.

Another curious thing about my cozy prison was... that I could hear what was happening in some of the other parts of the keep sometimes. I heard how Sharish commanded Chrysheight to correct his mistake, assassinate the king and bring you to the fortress," Asuna looked me in the eyes. "Yes, I knew Chrysheight in a sense, even though we never actually saw each other before his appearance at the Apries Lake. After that, when Chrysheight reported that you escaped from the castle somehow, I heard Sharish's conversation with another man. He sounded rather young, and from the way Sharish addressed him, he must have been his brother. Sharish sent him on a search for Eugeo..."

I felt my friend twitch nervously next to me.

"Didn't you ever meet anyone who would try to gain you over?" Asuna asked him.

Eugeo seemed to hesitate. "No... I thought the only henchman of Sharish who crossed my path was Chrysheight..."

"Thank goodness... although I could swear I've heard that second man's voice somewhere else too, just like Chrysheight's... I could be wrong though and it could mean, that this encounter still lies before us."

"It might..."

"Moving forward though... when I wasn't able to stall any further and the day of performing the ritual finally came, I was honestly praying for the occurrence from eighteen years ago to repeat itself. I wanted them to vanish and wanted to survive myself in order to meet the ones who escaped Sharish's claws as well - my two companions, and tell them they don't have to worry about him anymore... I succeeded only partially. Through some miracle I managed to escape death a second time, but so did Sharish. I think Chrysheight and the other man weren't even in the keep at that time... The whole stronghold turned to a ruin, burying the few guards and servants beneath it. I didn't think much about it. I left Sharish, half-alive, among the chaos and fled, even though the ritual broke one or two of my bones... I flew back to Silivren Forest... Here master Arakiel decided to pass my sirath to me, which he was keeping safe for all those years, waiting for the time when I would need it. It turned out to have a quite useful power - it sped up the healing process of my wounds. I was always kind of amazed by how both of you held the reins of your curiosity about the noise accompanying my movement all this time, even though both of you surely noticed," she shot me an amused look. "Especially you seemed to be itching to find out."

While I was busy blushing, Asuna undid the first button of her shirt and took out the sirath, hanging on a leather band just like mine an Eugeo's. It wasn't different in shape, it was just a little smaller, but it wasn't anything close to a ruby like I expected. It was a beautiful amber, split in two pieces, which emitted a sound reminding me more of metal than stone, when they met each other...

"Master Arakiel told me that it was damaged during the first ritual in Ilmer, but thankfully it didn't lose its powers because of that. Nor did it lose any of its charm," she added half-jokingly.

I had to agree with her. The two fragments reminded me of the lucent resin of Silivren Forest's trees, like two droplets of sunlight crystallized in Asuna's hand, harmonizing beautifully with her hair and eyes. When she was putting the stones back beneath her neckline, my eyes involuntarily slipped down where they shouldn't have... but before I could give myself a mental slap for that, I noticed a scar just below her collarbone, disappearing somewhere further, in the shadow of the fabric... I started to wonder what this ritual actually looked like and how people died from it. When my imagination started creating bloody shambles resembling battlefields however, I quickly gave up. Instead, I focused on Asuna's words again.

"After all these events I finally realized, that the power I possessed was way too dangerous to be wielded by anyone, even a druid and Disciple. I had no idea how to dispel the magic, so I created that amulet - Ilmer's Amulet, named after the place where this magic first crystallized in mortal hands, and sealed my power in it. I hid it in a crack of the Well of Spirits' inner wall, right below the water's surface. The occasionally rising water hid it even better sometimes... It might have also been a subconscious, pathetic attempt to damage it in the hope it would someday just shatter to pieces in there..." Asuna smiled bitterly. "Anyway, as soon as I got rid of it, I used my ability to fly to visit the biggest cities in Earlindon to twist all those legends about me even more, hidden beneath a wanderer's cloak, trying to make people lose interest in coming to the forest ever again. A few months later Eugeo appeared here for the first time, and shortly after you both came once more... the rest of the story is not a mystery to you."

An uncomfortable silence fell underneath the sparkling Corsair. A few long moments passed, before Eugeo broke it. "So Sharish holds the power over life on earth in his hands now?" he asked hesitantly. "And there isn't much we can do?"

Asuna looked him in the eyes and smiled slightly. "Do you really think I lack creativity that much? It's not easy to obtain the powers hidden within the amulet. In order to break the seal... I need to lose my life first."

I shuddered involuntarily. "Hang on..." I tried to drive the chill away with my voice. "So you sealed it in a way that won't allow you to access these powers ever again?"

"Theoretically, yes... but even if Sharish would have found out how to remove the seal, first he would have to steal the amulet from me."

I made a bit of a wry face. She seemed to be a little delirious already from all the tiredness and emotions coming up. "Asuna..." I tried my best not to offend her in any way, "but he just stole it..."

To the utter bewilderment of everyone gathered, she gave me an amused look. "Oh you really do underestimate me..." completely calmly, she reached under her shirt again and pulled out... the Ilmer's Amulet. The very same one Sharish just took with him.

A few surprised gasps came from the group of druids, and my mouth just fell open. Eugeo must have looked equally stupid, because Asuna wasn't able to keep it in anymore. Despite the gravity of the situation and the whole atmosphere of the evening, she just burst out laughing. She even had tears in the corners of her eyes when the pain in her side finally forced her to stop giggling.

"I'm sorry..." she coughed up finally, wiping her eyes and trying to breathe. "Maybe it wasn't the best idea to strike you with it out of the blue like that..."

"But... but how..." that was all that Eugeo managed to get out.

"Well, it's the forest where a leaf can be hidden the easiest, isn't it? And if there is no forest, you have to grow one. The seal and the concealment in the Well of Spirits weren't enough for me as a protection for something that powerful. Which is why, after some time, I took it out and made a copy, identical in appearance, but completely useless, just with a little trace of magic that would fool someone unknowing. I hid the fake within the well, and Ronye carried the real one with her at all times. That's why I got so scared when Sharish revealed that he captured her, I thought he saw through this trick... But it turned out Ronye just coincidentally run into his hands by the waterfall, when she was trying to do something about the Guardian."

"But... wasn't it a bit reckless to entrust something like that to a little girl and let her run around the whole forest with it?"

That question earned me an annoyed twitch of two cat ears, accompanied by two puffed out cheeks, clearly telling me: 'I'm not a little irresponsible child!' Still, I felt more like poking them rather than feel threatened.

"As you can see, it was not," Asuna ended the silent quarrel, turning the amulet between her fingers. "Sometimes the best way to hide something is to not hide it at all. People are so used to conjuring up the most complicated methods, that they don't even consider the most simple ones anymore. You just need to follow their train of thought sometimes."

"Right..." I couldn't help but smile a little.

"Coming back to Sharish though... I wonder what he actually came up with now. He made progress towards bringing dragons back to life? Just how?"

"Maybe he actually did find some way. Magic is unpredictable, from what we just heard from you... Despite everything, he seemed to be someone rather rational."

"Yeah, it's just that he was talking stupid... Believe me Kirito, maybe I was able to resurrect a mouse or a rabbit in the past, when not too much time has passed since their death, but powerful magic beings extinct for decades are a different matter. But Sharish probably won't back away and will make it into the stupidity of the century somehow..."

For some reason I wasn't really in the mood to laugh at that. And Eugeo deemed this moment right to end the tiring day. "I think we will have time to ponder over all of this later. You should finally rest, you need it..."

The forest rustled gently above our heads, as if backing him up. "We all should," Asuna agreed. "But I wanted to apologize for not telling you about all of this earlier first. It's so crazy I was afraid you wouldn't believe... besides, I don't think it would have changed or prevented anything from happening..."

"Asuna please," I interrupted her with a smile. "Don't justify yourself. Friends don't need it, and enemies won't believe you anyway."

I was rewarded with a short, grateful laugh. "Thank you," Asuna carefully stood up and brushed off the needles from her trousers. "You should rest too. Goodnight." With that she gave Ronye a gentle kiss on the forehead and made her way to her little hovel, one of the few that survived the day.

The younger girl looked after her until she disappeared in it, as if hesitating about something, but then rose from the grass as well, gave us a shy smile and left towards the trees at the opposite side of the clearing. When the waving, fluffy tail melted with the shadows of the trees, the remaining druids offered me and Eugeo to sleep in one of the sparse remaining hovels, but we refused. We chose a refreshing night in the open, among the soft grass under the low branches of one of the hornbeams. The murmur of the brook that reached the spot seemed slightly agitated, as if the water felt uneasy from all the rocks and trunks of trees that fell into it that day.

I sprawled on the velvety blades of grass and looked up at the little patch of sky visible between the twigs. The stars multiplied and shone more brightly now... the moon was crescent and seeped a delicate, greenish gleam into the forest. That sight somehow made me realize how exhausted I was. I think we set up some kind of record in the flight from the mansion to the camp today, and an attempted suicide and everything that came after it wasn't exactly something that relaxed the mind. I turned to lie on my side and covered myself a bit with one of my wings. I thought I heard Eugeo whisper a worn out 'goodnight', but I didn't manage to answer anymore...

We share Adventures that become the Tales of Tomorrow.

But even tomorrows Stories may have begun long ago..."

Every time I do an explanation chapter, my mind just starts screaming: "PLOTHOLES!" XD If there is something that really bothers anyone, just tell me, I will try to work on it.

Thank you for the reviev on chapter 14 and again, I'm really happy I was able to give you a bit of inspiration scrambled :) I have to admit I'm a little proud of how Eugeo turned out in this story. Every other character is not much different from the ones in the original story but with Eugeo... so many things are different. I'm kind of excited myself to see how he will do further on and at the end XD I'll be trying to put more of those little fun things in there as well and hope you will enjoy it further on :)

A little announcement... I will be doing a series of Sword Art Online ~ Tales of a Dragonpath Bloopers XD If something funny pops into your minds while reading, let me know, we might conjure up something fun together!

Thanks to everyone who read, favorited and followed, see you in a week :)