“Then why do you refuse to help me?” Hal asked, taking a step toward Ashera.
She backed away instinctively, uncertainty clear in her pale green eyes. “I will only slow you down. I have nothing to offer you!”
“That is my distinction to make, not yours, Ashera!” Hal jabbed a finger against Ashera’s jacket right below her collarbone. The nearness of the Manastorm was playing havoc with his emotions, his anger slipped and he struggled to maintain his grip on it. “I always knew you were many things, Ashera. Many things that you would prefer hidden but among them, I never thought you were a coward.”
For the second time that night, she acted as if Hal slapped her.
Her mouth worked but no sound came out. Throughout it all, Hal let his dark gaze bore into Ashera’s sea glass green eyes.
I need you to understand, Hal mentally urged her. I know you. I’ve seen your soul laid bare. I cannot take you to where you need to go, you have to get there yourself, Ashera.
Bit by bit, the shock and horror began to fade. Replaced by a simmering fire behind her eyes.
Come on, Hal thought. You’re almost there. Get mad, Ashera. Realize you’ve got something to prove after all!
Just as it seemed she would snap at him, Ashera broke the connection and looked away. Once again taking on the perfect image of the demure and obedient maid. The caretaker who would never even raise her voice.
“I am a coward,” she said so softly that Hal barely heard her. “All my life I have gained my strength from those who have given it to me. I am not strong enough to take it. I am sorry, Hal. I am not what you need. I will only be a burden. And I will not willingly put you in harm’s way.”
For a fraction of a second, Hal began to lift his arm. Fury coursed through his blood like an inferno and he nearly slapped Ashera for falling back into that pit of despair.
Worse, she saw the motion for what it was and rather than fear him or back away, there was only acceptance in her eyes. As if she thought she deserved to be hit.
It broke Hal’s heart.
Instead, he grabbed her, wrapping his arms around her in a tight embrace. She held out for a moment against him, stiff as a board. A moment later, she relaxed and laid her head softly against his shoulder.
“I am so sorry for whoever hurt you so much that they made you feel this way. That you are without value purely because you lack magic,” Hal whispered intently into her ear, mindful of being poked in the eye by her large horns.
“They were – are - wrong. I do not value you because you have some ability, some skill, or esoteric knowledge. I value you, because you have a strong noble heart. No matter what darkness you steep it in, the light breaks out. I have seen it time and time again.
“You are valuable to me because you are my friend. Perhaps the closest friend I have ever known. You would never judge me as you judge yourself. When I had nothing, did you not encourage me to keep trying, to find my own way? Why should you be any different?”
Hal pulled back from the hug and hitched up the sleeve on his left arm, motioning to the fierce golden glow of the founder’s mark and its accompanying moonlight Manatree symbol on his forearm.
“Am I only different because of this mark, then?” he asked. “Is that all the value I have to you? Would you abandon me if this mark went dark tomorrow?”
Ashera’s eyes overflowed with tears. “I would never…. How could you say-”
“Because that is what you assume I will do, is it not? That if you do not immediately prove your worth to me in some tangible way that I will cast you by the wayside like so much refuse?”
Hal shook his head sadly. “You are so wrapped up in your own loss of self-worth that you can’t even see I would never do that. Just as you would not leave me simply because I have lost this mark. What you can’t see, is that there is no one, no one Ashera, that I would rather have watching my back than you.
“You, more than anybody else understand me. You have protected me when I was weak, not with your healing magic, but by standing beside me. I don’t care if you can heal. I don’t care what magic you wield. You can still lift a weapon, can’t you? Then I want you by my side when I go into battle.”
Ashera began to say something more, but Hal put a hand on her shoulder to stop her. “I know it’s hard,” he said. “I never said it would be easy. I need you Ashera, but I will not force you. This is a choice that has to come from within yourself. But I swear to you, if you want my help in finding a solution to your problem, I will do everything in my power to see you made whole.”
Offer Oath of Compassion to Ashera?
Oath of Compassion
You have sworn to aid in rescuing Ashera from the darkness she found herself within, at whatever personal cost.
Oath of Compassion Condition
No matter the cost, you must find a way to reconnect Ashera’s magic or otherwise give her new magic in place of what she lost without incurring an Experience Penalty from acquiring a 4th Class.
While he didn’t mean it quite so literally, the Oath would at least show Ashera how serious he was. That’s an interesting way of making a magically binding promise, Hal thought.
He didn’t see what purpose it had beyond illustrating his sincerity. Not that that would be any reason to deny it. With a thought, he agreed. A grin spread across his face as Ashera received the notification.
For a brief moment, he wondered if she would deny it.
Ashera chewed on her trembling bottom lip and nodded, more to the prompt he knew than to himself.
Oath of Compassion accepted.
Once this Oath’s Conditions have been met it will transform into a Completed Oath. Completed Oaths increase your Honor, which may be utilized to increase other Oaths in strength and provide greater buffs. Certain Oaths will require a prerequisite amount of Honor to enact. The more Honor you possess the more likely other parties will consider your offered Oaths, and the stronger those Oaths will be.
Hal pulled Ashera into one last tight hug. “I only want you to be the best version of yourself, Ashera. The person I know you to be in my heart.”
The sound of battle echoed through the dark and cramped confines between the wagons. Hal had to go. Releasing her, he gave Ashera one last smile. In it was no attempt to manipulate her or to push her to realize something he hoped she would in time.
His time had run out and he failed. With a mental command, he sent another invite to Ashera. Her eyes widened. Before she could say anything – or worse, decline it – Hal raised a hand to forestall her. “Think about what I said. Party invites don’t expire, so think of it as an open invitation. I will always keep a spot for you. However long it takes.”
At least I didn’t push her away, he thought with a frown. Without another look back, Hal weaved through the tall man-sized wagon wheels and nearly stumbled over a patrolling Lurklox.
The koblin girl scrambled out of Hal’s way, throwing up a quick salute that he mimicked on instinct. Hal reached the edge of the fighting just as he exited from between the last two wagons.
“Took you long enough,” Mira said at his shoulder in an instant. “Couldn’t convince her to join us?”
Hal’s answering look was all the Dragoon needed. Her jovial expression faltered. She clapped a metal gauntleted hand on Hal’s shoulder and nodded gravely. “You did all you could, dude. You can’t help everybody you meet.”
I still should have been able to help her. Hal grit his teeth and clenched his jaw to keep the words – and self-beratement – to himself. He gave Mira a nod and fell into spellcasting.
A swirl of shimmering ethereal feathers flooded around him, and Hal focused his mind on each of his Party members. Only Mira stood beside him, Elora and Noth were up ahead. He could feel them through the chaos of the battle being waged at the edge of the Manashield.
Hal reached out to each of them. With Sympathy and Assimilation combined, he extended his Feather Barrier to them as well.
You cast Feather Barrier.
You gain the effect of Evasion Up (+15%).
You use Assimilation.
Elora gains the effect of Evasion Up (+15%).
Mira gains the effect of Evasion Up (+15%).
Noth gains the effect of Evasion Up (+15%).
Pulling out [Brilliance], Hal hurried forward as he wrapped the [Chain of Binding] around his left forearm and let the rest of its length dangle.
The sky outside of the Manashield was a bloody bruised affair of roiling clouds. Ruby red lightning jabbed at the moonlight shield all about them but barely disturbed the protective magic that enveloped them all.
Outside of the barrier was another matter entirely. Each forked stab of lightning blasted the ground and left a searing afterimage upon the eyes of every onlooker.
Once Hal’s vision was restored, he had to blink a few times to make sure he wasn’t hallucinating. From that lightning strike spawned several twisted crystalline creatures. The land itself was changed from each strike, some areas formed large crystalline outcroppings that violently erupted from the hardened ground while other strikes turned whatever it hit into crystal.
It wasn’t hard to understand how the Mirrorlands came to look as alien and strange as they did. It was the Manastorm’s doing. It was changing the land, not as a force of destruction and as he had been led to believe. But one of terrifying creation.
As awed as he was by the Manastorm, somewhere deep in the back of his mind he tucked that all-important realization away. It was significant. How significant, he didn’t yet know. But he would. It felt like he stumbled upon the keystone of the Manastorm mystery.