“Where’d she go?” exclaimed Thia, lowering her bow. Lucretia had simply vanished right before her eyes, despite the arcane enhancement Gwyn had placed upon her sight to render void any magical invisibility.
“Some kind of teleportation,” called Gwyn from the doorway they had entered through. “I felt her magic, but it was so fast I had no time to respond - she’s good. I have no sense of where she went, but I don’t think it can have been far.”
“We need to find her, and qui-” began Ntombi, but she was suddenly cut off as the nearby door to her right exploded open in a hail of splinters. Behind her, a huge ogre loomed through the doorway and roared, before swiping sideways with an enormous crude hook, aiming to impale Ntombi. The oracle shifted quickly, avoiding the hook’s point, but was still sent crashing to the floor. With a pained expression she managed to rise to one knee, and began to weave her magic, rewinding time around her wounds to close them.
Thia spun towards the noise, raising her bow again and snapping off quick shots in the direction of the new threat. Several hit home, and the brute glared at Thia and roared in rage, moving toward her and raising the hook again. Before Thia could react, Nyx moved to intervene between her and the ogre. The wolf snapped angrily at the lumbering creature threatening Thia. The ogre paused momentarily, evaluating this new foe, before promptly slamming the hook downwards, striking Nyx with an unbelievably savage blow before the wolf had a chance to move.
For a moment, Thia’s world stopped completely, and then she howled in anguish. Furious and distraught, she pulled more arrows from her quiver, sending several more shots rattling into the ogre. The beast stumbled backwards, and then the spotted form of Rui’s leopard companion leapt claws-first at the ogre, swiping in retaliation and bringing it crashing down, lifeless.
Thia dropped her bow and dashed forward, quickly covering the short distance between her and Nyx, but she already knew there was no chance that the wolf could have survived that cruel blow. She fell to her knees and lifted the wolf’s head into her lap, cradling her and running her fingers through the dark fur, but Nyx was gone.
“Thia, I...,” began Shalelu, the first to break the silence, but her words failed her as the extent of Thia’s anguish grew clear. She stepped forward, kneeling beside Thia and embracing her. “Your loss is mine, and I grieve with you,” she whispered softly, but Thia didn’t even seem to hear.
“This is beyond my ability to undo,” spoke Ntombi quietly as she rose to her feet, sadness in her voice. “But I can slow time for her, preserve...” She trailed off, not wanting to finish that sentence. She began to gesture again, chanting Osiriani words of magic, weaving a spell around Nyx to keep the ravages of time at bay.
“Rui, can you...?” queried Gwyn, unsure of the druid’s abilities.
“No,” answered Rui sadly. “Cannot bring back life, but maybe... maybe bring back soul”.
Gwyn wasn’t sure he fully understood that answer, but before he could question the druid further, Thia stiffened with resolve.
“Help me move her,” Thia asked, determined. “I’ll come back for her when we’re done, but I can’t just leave her here on the floor until then. Help me carry her downstairs, we’ll leave her in one of those cells until we can come back for her. She should... she should be safe there.”
“Thia, we don’t have to do this,” protested Shalelu. “We can leave now, take her away from here - you shouldn’t have to-”
“No,” said Thia, cutting her off. “We came here to retake this fort, and this is our one shot at doing so. If we leave now, we’ll not get a better chance than this - next time, Lucretia and the ogres will know we’re coming, and they’ll be more prepared.”
“We’re taking back this fort,” repeated Thia with determination. “Now please, help me move her.”
“Here. Good spot,” said Rui, as they emerged into a small clearing within the forest. The group had by now travelled a couple of miles from Fort Rannick, seeking a suitable location where Rui felt able to perform her ritual. It had been slow going at times, the trees occasionally dense enough to cause the group difficulty in carrying their charge between them.
Taking care of their footing on the uneven ground of the forest floor, the three rangers - Thia, Shalelu, and Jakardros - slowly maneuvered the bier carrying the fallen form of Nyx, lowering it down onto a relatively flat patch of ground. The wolf had given her life the previous day, fearlessly interposing herself between Thia and the enormous ogre bearing down on her. Thia had been devastated by the loss, but the druid Rui had soon offered up an incredible possibility - that the soul of Nyx could yet be returned, brought back in the form of a new body. Thia was still unsure how this could possibly take place; but she had faith in Rui, and was willing to try anything for the wolf that had given everything.
With the bier safely placed upon the forest floor, Thia stood. Shalelu moved to take up a spot by Thia’s side, reaching out to take her hand. Jakardros moved wordlessly away to join Ntombi and Gwyn, stood at a respectful distance at the edge of the clearing.
Rui took a couple of steps towards the body of Nyx, and turned, taking in the full sight of the forest around them. She knelt, placing one hand on the ground. Her fingertips pressed slightly into the earth, almost as if taking its pulse. She looked up towards Thia, and nodded approvingly.
“Good spot,” she repeated, shortly followed by “Give space. Need time.”
Thia nodded at Rui’s request, and she and Shalelu moved away, stopping four or five yards away before turning back to face Nyx and Rui. Thia was apprehensive, eyes lowered and on the verge of tears, this mysterious situation almost overwhelming her. Shalelu lifted one hand to touch softly upon Thia’s face, whispering a handful of words, too softly for anyone else to overhear. Thia lifted her eyes to meet Shalelu’s, and straightened, managing a half-smile in response before turning back to look upon Nyx.
Rui had moved closer to Nyx now, and was kneeling by the wolf’s head. She had cleared away some stray leaves and twigs, and placed a few assorted flasks of oils and unguents to hand. Selecting one, she dipped her fingers into the oil and began meticulously anointing Nyx’s face. The fragrant aroma of the oil reached Thia, and she squeezed Shalelu’s hand in her own, grateful for the elf’s presence at this difficult moment.
Rui continued to carry out her ritual, sometimes chanting phrases in a language that Thia could not even recognise, let alone understand. At times, she would stop, and would quietly pray, or sometimes seem to be doing nothing at all except perhaps listen to the winds, before again selecting one of her flasks and placing careful, precise dabs of oil upon the wolf’s body with her fingertips.
It felt to Thia like almost an hour had passed before Rui finally lifted her head and turned towards Thia. “Is done,” she stated, before standing.
Nyx remained still, and nothing stirred except for the whisper of the same wind among the branches of the same trees. Thia was confused. “But... I don’t understand,” she began, looking at Nyx and then back at Rui. “She’s still...” she started to continue, but stopped, that sentence still too painful to finish.
“Not here,” explained Rui, shaking her head. “Nyx back, but not here. Close though. Come,” before beckoning Thia to follow. After a second or two, Thia began moving towards Rui. Shalelu moved to follow her, but Rui gestured again.
“No. Just Thia,” she began, clearly apologetic. “Sorry. Nyx back, but confused,” explained the druid. “Was in fort, now in forest. Alone, maybe scared.” Rui paused, then repeated her initial instruction. “Just Thia.”
Thia stopped and turned back to Shalelu again, reluctant to leave her behind but trusting Rui’s warning.
Shalelu squeezed Thia’s hand again. “It’s okay,” she said, reassuringly. “I won’t be far, I’m not going anywhere until you’re back.”
Thia still had doubts, daunted by what may lay ahead of her, but before she could say anything Shalelu pulled her close into an embrace, one hand sliding behind Thia’s neck as the elf moved to kiss her. Thia was momentarily stunned, before settling into the kiss. She’d only recently begun to accept that her own feelings for Shalelu went further than mere friendship, but until this moment she had not dared to believe that Shalelu may hold similar feelings for her.
Shalelu broke off the kiss, and for a moment Thia just stood there in mute shock, eyes locked to Shalelu’s as she tried to process what had just happened.
“Go,” said Shalelu, smiling softly, but her eyes still holding concern for Thia. “Find Nyx. I’ll be right here.”
Thia was still at a loss for words, so she simply turned towards Rui, and began following as the druid moved off deeper into the forest. She didn’t dare so much as glance in the direction of the rest of the group, particularly Shalelu’s rediscovered stepfather, Jakardros. The needle of Thia’s compass had been sent into a spin, but at least she no longer felt daunted or intimidated about what was to come.
They had been walking for about ten minutes now, Thia estimated, trudging deeper into the rain-drenched forest. Despite her own tracking skills, Thia had no idea how Rui was determining which direction they needed to take - they weren’t following any tracks or trail, or at least none that Thia could see. Rui just seemed to innately know where they were headed, or at least Thia hoped that was the case - the alternative would be that Nyx had not been brought back at all, and Thia was unwilling to face that possibility.
Rui paused, and took a step to one side. Ahead of them, the trees thinned slightly and then opened up into another small clearing. In the midst of that clearing stood a large bear with grey fur, and at first Thia assumed Rui was considering their options for skirting around the bear without alarming it into attacking them.
Instead, Rui turned back to face Thia and gave her a brief nod.
“Nyx,” stated Rui simply.
Thia looked at Rui for a moment, struggling for comprehension, and then looked back at the bear. It dawned on her that the bear’s dark grey fur was the exact same shade as Nyx’s fur. After a moment, the bear seemed to become aware of their presence, and turned to face them with a low growl of agitation - which promptly broke off as soon as the bear laid eyes on Thia.
Thia took a few cautious steps forward, careful not to startle the bear. Drawing closer, she reached out slowly with one arm, offering up the palm of her hand. The bear exhaled sharply and rose up, moving equally cautiously towards Thia, sniffing suspiciously at her hand.
“It’s really you,” breathed Thia in wonder. Nyx nuzzled at her hand in response, snorting and snuffling with short excited breaths. Thia sunk to her knees and wrapped her arms around the bear, burying her face into the dark fur - even the bear’s scent was recognizably Nyx. When Rui had made her offer, Thia had understood on an intellectual level what was being said, and she trusted her friend, but the actual reality now in front of her was overwhelming. Nyx was back.
Thia unburied her face and looked back at Rui.
“Thank you,” she said, unable to keep her voice even. “I can’t tell you how much.”
“Welcome,” said Rui with a slight smile.
Thia gave Nyx a scritch behind one ear, then looked back at the half-orc again.
“Rui,” said Thia, slowly. “Could I ask one for one more thing?” She paused again, reluctant. Rui had already done more than Thia would have dreamed possible, and Thia disliked asking for even more beyond that, but this was necessary. “I need to talk to her, tell her how sorry I am for what happened.”
Rui nodded and moved closer, kneeling next to Thia and Nyx. She gestured in the air, and spoke a few words that Thia did not understand. Next thing she knew, Rui was talking to Nyx in a low, rumbling moan, and Nyx was grumbling back.
“No apology,” said Rui. “Nyx would do again. Saved her from goblins.”
“I’m not sure that was a balanced deal,” said Thia. “We rescued her, sure, but I just put her into danger again without even thinking of the potential consequences. She died because of me.”
Rui rumbled again, passing this on to Nyx, who huffed a few times in apparent disagreement. Rui turned back to Thia to translate.
“Died to protect you, her choice. Then you repaid, brought her back. Doesn’t understand how, but fair deal.”
Thia shook her head at this. “I didn’t bring her back at all, that was all you.”
Rui waved a dismissive hand, the corners of her mouth turning up in a slight smile. “Detail,” she said simply.
Thia embraced Nyx again, holding her tight and feeling the fur between her fingers.
“Thank you,” she said again, looking Rui straight in the eyes. “It’s not enough, but thank you.”