Ellien is captured by the Withered Aegis and meets someone long thought lost since the Battle of Tazoon. Hear the tale told in her own voice, as she composes a letter to the Master Confectioner at Tazoon Academy:
To hear the remainder of her story, and the lasting effect that it has on Gifted across Istaria, read her complete story as recorded by a Historian in Tazoon.
In a dimly lit corner of the tavern sat a figure so small, so grey, that she might as well have been a shadow fading into the background. Whether she'd been there for hours or days no one really knew, just as none knew her story. And, truth to tell, none of the other tavern patrons really cared. She'd chosen this tavern specifically because people came there in order to forget, to blend in and disappear. But the needs of the many outweigh the needs of one, and deep in her mourning heart she knew this. So it was with a heavy sigh that she lifted herself from the stool, placed the last of her coin on the table, and left the anonymity of the tavern to head for Tazoon.
She pulled the hood of her grey cloak tighter around her, both to block out the harsh bright sun and to hide from passers by as she made her way to the Academy. The young whelp at the front desk tried to brush her off when she said she needed to see Master Confectioner Khemplo. With another heavy sigh, she pushed back her hood, revealing herself for the first time in weeks.
“I am Ellien. I will see Master Khemplo, and I will see him now.” Though the whelp had obviously been sleeping in history class and didn't recognize her name, one passing through the hall did, and gasped when he looked at her. Had her heart not been so weary with loss, she would have chuckled to watch him stammer, trying to decide his next course of action. As it was, he took off at a run down the hallway, and she could only hope it was toward Master Khemplo's office that he went. Moments later, the aged master confectioner stepped in to the room.
“Istara be praised, Ellien it is you! When Myj said you had returned, I nearly threw him from my office for having tried such a poor prank. And you, Rhanna,” he cuffed the young desk clerk upside the head. “You need to pay attention in history better. I'll see you in my office after you are done work to discuss the proper punishment for your inexcusable ignorance.”
Master Khemplo offered his arm to Ellien in welcome. His warm manner hadn't changed a bit in the many year's Ellien had been gone. Taking his arm, she found herself only mildly surprised that as she walked beside him, the months of torture and more recent torment seemed to melt away. Walking the halls back to his office brought comfort to her soul, as though she was still a young child studying to become a confectioner once again, not an adult who had been a teacher at the Academy for years. When the office door closed behind them, Khemplo gestured toward a chair by the fire as he settled in to his own well worn seat.
"It has been weeks since your letter arrived, Ellien. A letter, I might add, which explained little and left me with many questions. Why did you not come to me sooner, child? Why the secrecy and hiding? The moment I read your letter, I sent an armed escort to Nature's Tower to fetch you. They returned with only a message from the druids there that you had disappeared. Where have you been, child?”
In a dry cracked voice she began her tale.
“Master, I am sorry. Sorry that I have been selfish and thoughtless of others. Sorry that I did not come to you right away. But most of all, sorry for the great loss to Istarian's everywhere that I feel is so much my own fault. I know that you and the others here at the school thought I'd been killed be the Aegis in my travels around Istaria, but I was not.
I was captured. Captured and tortured for months. Night after night for more moons than I can remember, they would come to me always wanting to know one thing. He would ask over and over again as his minions beat me, whipped me, used their magic on me, and worse. Always the same question, 'Why do the Gifted not die? Why can we not steal their souls and join them to our glorious army?' But I didn't know. Any answer I gave was never enough. Eventually he stopped coming, and it was only one of his lieutenants that came to torture and question. Then, one day, even he no longer came. I awoke to find myself in a small green grove at the bottom of a deep canyon, surrounded by the blight, encircled by guards. And I was not alone.
It was her, Master Khemplo. There, beside me, waiting for me to awaken was Alea herself. So small, she was, but I knew her on sight from the stories you used to tell. No other dryad had her wing pattern, you used to tell us. None had ever controlled the forces of Nature and had such a strong connection to the Prime as she. But she'd grown so weak, Master. The glow you'd spoke of her having had faded to almost nothing.
When I was strong enough, she told me her story. She too had been captured by the Aegis soon after the Battle of Tazoon. She was there, Master. She fought along side so many others we thought long dead during the battle. But she was forced to run from the great power of the Aegis, though she couldn't run far enough. What no one knew was that she was one of the Great Scholars who participated in the Ritual of Everlasting Life. She was one of the eight who had linked their very life energy to the Ritual. Though none of the eight had complete knowledge of how The Ritual worked, Alea knew that her own life energy was linked to that of all the Gifted during The Ritual. She knew, too, that there were others like her. Other's who's role was to absorb a bit of the death magic that is released when one of the Gifted dies. Did you know that the gifted do truly die, Master? That death is as real for them as it is for those who are not Gifted. The difference is that for those chosen, for those who are Gifted, the Ritual allows them to return to life. But that is why when a Gifted returns, they are weakened for a time. They need time to recover their full life force, and that life force comes from the magic of the Ritual.
Alea taught me that is not the only way to restore the Gifted, though. We can use foods, properly prepared, properly eaten foods, to restore life energy faster. She taught me how to prepare meals, how to balance those meals for the best benefit of each individual race. Ambrosia is just one relatively weak food compared to those things she taught me to make. And she sent me to teach others how to make these same foods. How to help restore the Gifted to full health after The Ritual restores them to life.
She taught me so much. The Aegis held her captive, yes, but over the years they'd begun to leave her alone. They would not set her free, of course, but they could not kill her either, for they hoped someday to find out her secrets, she said. And so they'd allowed her to cleanse a small part of the land. She thought they hoped to learn how druids could cleanse the land and from that knowledge learn better how to defeat the Gifted. But Alea was much more clever than they, and worked her magic so slowly and subtly that the Aegis learned nothing from her. And so it was over time that she could use her magic to coax food from the ground, could summon seeds and young plants to her to make a garden.
I have been with her these past months. At her side learning to use the energy of foods to restore and rejuvenate those who are weak and ill. Master, it is because of Alea that the Gifted would return to life after coming so near to death. It is Alea that restored them to health with so little ill effects. She absorbed their death energy. Over and over again, each time one of the Gifted neared death, she would give a bit of her own life energy to them, and take their death energy into herself. It was through her foods that she would slowly renew herself. Yet each death weakened her, just as each death weakens the Gifted if they do not take time to fully recover.
She knew her life energy was waning. She knew that her part of the Ritual would soon be at an end. I have to believe that, Master. For why else would she help me to escape from the Aegis, sacrificing herself to allow me to go free? It is only because of her that I am sitting with you right now. She wanted me to be free so I could return to the Academy, so I could teach confectioners to make new foods, foods that will restore the Gifted better than the ambrosia which we've learned to make in the past. Ancient recipes, Master, lost long ago in history, imbued with the magic of life. That is what she taught me. And that is what I now must teach to you, and to all the confectioner trainers of the realm so they can teach others.”
The aged confectioner looked at his former student with sadness in his eyes. He'd listened as she told him of her capture, held her trembling hand as she spoke of the horrors she had endured at the hands of the Withered Aegis. But he needed to know more of what she'd been taught, needed to understand why she was so certain that the lives of the Gifted were forever changed with the death of Alea.
“You've suffered much, Ellien, I can tell. And I wish I could let you rest, but I must understand. Why is Alea herself not here? What happened to her?"
Ellien turned away for a moment, hoping to hide the depth of sadness in her eyes.
“Alea perished in our attempted escaped. You must understand, though, that the plan was hers from the start. And I will never forget her courage and wisdom.”
“It had been many weeks since any of the Aegis had come to either of us directly. We could still see them walking around the rim of the crater which they'd kept us in, especially at night. Beyond, we could see the glow and frequent flashes of the Blight Maelstrom. Because I had learned to tend her garden and prepare foods for her, she was able to rest more. It seemed that when the stress of the Aegis coming to question and harass her daily, Alea was able to recover her strength and together we formulated a plan of escape.
We spent weeks in the shadows along the edge of the crater, slowly chipping away at the stone. Istara herself must have blessed our efforts because it remained unseen by our captors, even as we carved a path out of the sheer rock face that imprisoned us.
Alea had many magical enhancements that she could cast upon us to make us stronger. My own magic was limited to that of foodstuffs, and I'd only had the most basic of weapons training while here at the Academy. I warned Alea that I would be of little help in the fight. She used her magic to increase my strength, health, and build an armored shield around me, and then cast the same upon herself. How the Aegis did not see the mystical powers gathering around us, I still do not know. But see us they did not.
My heart beat loudly in my breast as we climbed the cavern wall. I was sure that we'd be spotted before we reached the top, but somehow we climbed our of our prison without raising the alarm. I knew immediately where we were. Somehow we'd been held deep inside the Western Deadlands. I'd only heard stories of the horrific abominations that the Aegis used to protect the area they controlled, but there was no denying that the monster wandering away from us was one of the Kwellen. His leathery wings crackled from the fire energy that surrounded him as he walked. I gasped at the sight of him, just loud enough to draw his attention.
His fanged head turned toward us, and the grin that spread across his face was more terrifying than the giant cudgel he held in his hand. A loud guttural roar filled the air, drawing the attention of other nearby minions. Skeletal archers, dwarven ghosts, and a mummified dryad all turned at the sound of his roar and quickly began closing in on us.
Alea recovered from the surprise faster than I and without hesitation cast a patch of brambles in their path to slow them from closing in on us.
“Run north” Alea cried, and my feet obeyed faster than my mind could recover.
I used every bit of speed her magic provided, coupled with my own strong legs, and sprinted over the jagged rocks - away from the horrors behind me. I managed to climb to the top of a steep cliff where I stumbled to a halt and glanced back to ask Alea which way to turn, but she was not behind me.
Looking back down the way we'd come, I could just make our her form through the haze of smoke and dust. Periodically flashes of light, red and yellow and green, could be seen as spells flew. I turned to climb back down the cliff to help her, but her voice echoed in my head and stopped me.
“You must escape, Ellien.” she'd told me many times in the days leading to our escape. “No matter what happens to me, you must escape. When I tell you to run, you must run.”
I wanted to run. Every fiber of my being screamed "Run!" But my feet would not obey. My eyes were glued to the fierce battle below me. I watched as Alea called down massive bolts of lightening. A huge dark cyclone centered on the Kwellen, causing him to collapse on the ground at Alea's feet. A huge fist of magic crushed many of the skeletons that surrounded Alea. And for a moment, I had hope that she too would survive. I saw her look around for me, surrounded by fallen Aegis, and for a moment our eyes met.
But the reprieve was only momentary. Before I could call to her, before I could extend a hand toward her, my eyes caught sight of a massive group of Kwellen, Fire Blights, Lava Blights, and necroflies that crested the slope directly behind her. She saw it in my eyes and knew. Alea nodded her head toward me, pointing toward the north, and turned with renewed resolved to face her foes head on. In that moment, whatever had held my feet captive was released. I could not let Alea's be sacrifice in vain. She had made her choice, and I had to honor it. And so, as the sounds of battle rang through the blighted air around me, I ran. I could hear the sounds of ice crystals shattering as Alea used ice to counter the fire of the blighted creatures. I felt the ground tremble and groan beneath me. Powerful winds pressed at my back as the awesome forces of nature were unleashed by Alea's calling. Lightening and thunder filled the air, from both the blighted creatures and Alea. And still I ran.
My legs began to burn, every part of my body screaming for rest, yet I ran. I felt as though if I paused for even a moment, they would be on me and Alea's sacrifice would be for nothing. I stumbled over a sharp rock, cutting my foot and slamming my head onto the unforgiving ground. My only choice as I lay sprawled on the ground was to roll and look back the way I'd come. I could see skeletons and ghosts far behind me, but still close enough that if I did not get up and move faster, they would catch up to me. Another Kwellen's thunderous roar rolled along the hills, bringing attention of other Aegis to my plight. I pulled the tiny stone vial that Alea had carved for me from the waistband of my belt and removed the wooden stopper. She'd warned me that the potion would taste bad, but nothing she'd said prepared me for the feeling that spread through me as the liquid filled my mouth. White hot liquid covered my tongue, filling my mouth with a salty, sweet taste as the magic poured down my throat and into my body. For a moment, my skin glowed with a yellow-green light, and I shuddered as the effect of so much power coursing through my body warmed me to my core.
The primal scream of one of the Aegis brought me back to harsh reality, and I rose, restored, and began to run again. My renewed strength would be enough, though it felt like it was barely adequate to reach the shore still off in the distance. As I ran and ran, the the black, blighted land eventually turned to pale brown sand, and I heard the water crashing against the cliffs. I cried out my own thanks to the goddess, but I knew that I wasn't free yet, that I would still need to make my way around the edge of the Deadlands because their magic kept me trapped from being able to recall back to my homeland. If I could only reach the sand, make it to the water, the Aegis wouldn't be able to follow me any longer.
And then, it was as if Istara had heard my cry of thanks and blessed me once more. As I reached the crest of the mountain, I saw in the distance the rainbow that arched from The Tower of Nature across to a tiny island. Alea couldn't have known how close to home the Aegis had kept her for so many years. The only comfort to the heartbreak I felt was the thought that because she was so close to the Nature's Tower, maybe she had been able to call upon the magic from there after all, and had survived when I thought she was lost.
I made my way to the shore, walking carefully through the deep water until it was safe to climb onto the island. I fell exhausted onto the shore, grateful to be safe at last. I was about to stand and make my way to the rainbow that led over to Nature's Tower when I heard Alea's voice in my mind once again.
“You have done well, my child. You are safe. Take what I have taught you and return to the living. Teach the Gifted to use foods as I have taught you. My body is broken and my life fades, Ellien. I fear that with my passing, the Gifted will find that death has a stronger pull on them than ever before. The Gifted must know that they truly do die when defeated in battle. They must know that it is only the Ritual that allows them to return to life to fight again. I fear with my passing that their weakened state will be worse and last much longer. Teach them to use the magic of food to restore them. Be safe, Ellien, for you hold the future of Istaria in your hands.”
"I felt her die, Master. Truly and forever die.”
Her story told, Ellien collapsed in tears. Master Khemplo could only offer a bit of dry cloth to wipe them and a shoulder , for Alea was right. Ellien had used up her time to mourn, for soon she would have to return to teaching if the Gifted had any hope of defeating the Withered Aegis once and for all. Khemplo knew better than any what it meant for one of the wielders of magic from the Ritual of Everlasting Life to die. Many years ago, his own grandfather had been the first to die.