4 – Portals

Only the chanting made Ariel let go of Abalone’s hand. Both women, the clerk and more or less everybody else turned their attention to the big arches on the plaza. Both at once Ariel felt dread and awe. However, the presence of the hero beside her calmed her.

She had seen it a lot of times in television but never live. The chanting was performed by a school of mages and amplified by the loudspeakers more to the benefit of the public than because it made a difference. The chanting was a focus the power in the mages.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” the cleric asked to no one in particular. Tears were beginning to form in his eyes.

Slowly the air around the arches shimmered. Ariel felt it even before she could see it. The currents jolted through her body and she knew her eyes had to shift like crazy. Everybody was affected differently. She glanced at the hero…who was not affected at all. Some people were just born lucky.

“Are you ready?” Abalone asked excited. “It is our time to shine now”.

“It will be some time before the portals are stabilised. You will have time to acquaint yourself with the rest of the party”, the clerk said. “If you will excuse me. Good luck”.

Who cared about the rest of the party? Ariel was mesmerised by the scene in front of her. Gradually the arches morphed into portals. Great shimmering translucent portals. One overlapping the other in a intricate pattern. As the mages chanting shifted the clerics took up defensive positions around the mages. The outer layer behind her, the military checked their weapons both projectile and melee. Television usually only showed the portal opening and the hero exiting or entering. Ariel had had no idea until now how big it was. Of course these were the biggest portals she had ever seen.

Ariel hefted her bag and finally followed the hero. She drew closer to the others taking good care of not going too close to the shadow priest. Even though her ingredients were packed in magic protected containers she was not about to take any chances.

“Once the portals are stabilised you shouldn’t feel the effects anymore”.

The man that had spoken was dressed practically in outdoor gear with a vest that sported more pockets than Ariel could count. He had soft eyes that did not quite match the scars around his mouth.

“I’m Kaluna. Are you ever mistaken for a demon?”

“One of the mages. No, I’m human”. Ariel sighed inwardly. “Short story, opened a rift and had a run in with some elementals”.

“Witch then”.

“Weather witch. Ariel of Sanara”.

“Pleasure Ariel. I see we have much to discuss. I have never met anyone who actually opened a rift and lived to tell about it. Fascinating. Kessler! Come here and meet Ariel. Kessler is my apprentice. We are from the school of Rosing”.

A youth with long hair and baggy trousers skated over to them. His eyes lighted up when he saw Ariel. Before she could do anything he hugged her.

“Wow you smell good”, he said smiling before letting go of her. “Mother Nature is a bitch”.

“Manners, Kessler. Remember what we have talked about regarding personal space. Pardon my apprentice. He – ehm – likes to touch people in order to get a reading of them”.

Ignoring his master, Kessler pointed to the bag.

“I can put more protection on your stuff. Will only take me a moment”.

Ariel opened her mouth. Then closed it.

Kessler snapped the bag from her hand and put it on his skateboard. Ariel stepped back from the heat emanating from him as he drew on his powers. He did not chant but his fingers moved rapidly over the skateboard and on her bag. Then the air grew cold around him.

“Done. Now your bag is protected. I’m not sure I got alle the ingredients separately but if you keep them in the bag they should be sound and safe – “ he gave her an conspiratorial wink and lowered his voice “- from the powers beyond”. He pointed knowingly to the shadow priest and his minion.

“Thank you?” Ariel said unsure.

“You are welcome. Oh we are almost ready to depart! I have never been on the Other Side. And have you seen we have a hero with us?!! She autographed my focus!” He flipped the skateboard so Ariel could see the doodle she herself had coveted for so many years. She felt a pang of jealousy. Why hadn’t she thought of that!

Kaluna shrugged his shoulders apologetically as Kessler ran off to the clerics and priests. “Bear with him. He is one of the most talented mages I have ever worked with, but his social skills are at best – ehm – eratic”.

“Did he really hug the shadow priest and his minion?”

The mage chuckled. “Yes he did. And proclaimed in a very loud dramatic voice ‘may the Powers be with us! The undead dead walk among us!’ The shadow priest had to restrain his companion from drawing his sword”.

“That is not funny!” exclaimed Ariel, blanching at the thought.

“No, I guess you’re right. You should have had to have been there”, Kaluna conceded. “Come. Is this all you have brought?”

“You are the last ones”. Tane Arquinen gestured for them to enter. He did not smile. “Glad you could come miss Sanara. Kaluna”.

The portals loomed above and in front of her. Ariel could still feel the power but now it was more a humming. She gulped.

“There is nothing to be afraid of, Ariel. I’m here. Just follow my lead”.

She stepped into the glow of power.

3 – The Party

The bag was much heavier than Ariel had expected. It had taken her a long time to pack it. She must have repacked it at least three times. Spare clothes had been easy enough but she had had to go to the coven in order to replace her ingredients . 

Which had resulted in a much too heavy bag. She shifted the strap to the  other side of her shoulder and wished once again she could carry a trolly like a normal person. She really hoped she did not have to carry it around herself.

The plaza was full of people. Not at all a clandestine operation as Ariel half had expected. There were soldiers, priests and civilians like herself.

A clerk noticed her and waved her over. He was young but had an air of authority around him. He smiled professionally.

“Papers miss?”

Ariel handed him her ID and the decree. He studied them for a moment. Looked more closely at her and raised an eyebrow. He did not say anything though.

“This way miss Sanara” he said, only the extra glance betrayed his unease. “Most of the others have arrived”.

“How many are we”, Ariel asked curiously glancing around. There were so many people, but she doubted they were all going.

“Party of eleven”, the clerk said, “Sister Freya is the leader. Brother Belle and Sengey are our clerics. They are supplemented by Stone and Alegra, kindly on loan from KEA. You are the only witch in the party, but Kaluna and his apprentice Kessler are also civilians though mages. Arquinen and sir Roane are – ehm – specialists from within the Church”.

“I know them. No need to sugar coat them. I know he is a shadow priest and that his companion is a minion”, Ariel said. She was still mad at them for ruining her inventory. They didn’t wear their suits but long black robes with hoods that could have been taken out of a horror movie if not for the military trousers and boots she could see underneath the slits. Sir Roane was of course still wearing sunglasses and carrying his sword. “No sorcerers?”

The clerk laughed. It mirrored how Ariel felt about her shop. Bitter. “Have you ever tried to draft a sorcerer? They would rather start a holy war, if we could even find them to begin with. Sneaky bastards”.

Ariel smiled inwardly. There was some small satisfaction of knowing that even the Church respected somebody. There was an informal stalemate between the Church and the Conclaves. They did not exactly hate each other but they definitely did not like each other, something about an ideological disagreement of the use of souls. Oddly enough they cooperated willingly with the Ministry and everybody else. Just not the Church.

Her eye caught something glimmering. By the Divine! Was that -? “Is that who I think it is?” Ariel stopped and stared.

“Last but not least”. Now the clerk was laughing, but it was a light and amused one. Apparently she had not been the first one to give him that reaction today. “Lets get this over with, shall we? Come with me”.

Without touching her, he guided her over to the armoured figure. Her helmet was off, but Ariel would have recognised the heraldry on the shield and chest any day. The proud winged white horse.

“Abalone, may I present miss Ariel Sanara to you? Ariel is our nature witch”.

Sparkling blue eyes that could rival Ariels on a stormy day. Her smile was warm as she removed her glove and shook Ariel’s hand.

“A pleasure, miss Sanara. I’m -”

“A real hero!” Ariel interrupted. “Wow, I can’t believe it’s you! I have been a fan since I was a kid. You are fantastic! You look even younger in real life than you do in the shows. And more pretty. How do you fit your hair under the helmet? It’s like its glowing! Isn’t it difficult to always wear armour? It looks so hot, I mean you look hot – like hot inside. By the Divine – I’m rambling aren’t I?”

2 – Knights

“How many times do I have to tell you guys again? I can’t predict the weather!”

Ariel sighed a bit louder than she had to but it had no effect on the men – or rather agents. She really wished she had asked to scrutinise their badges. A bit too late to worry about if they were legit. Besides they did not seem like the types that took well to being questioned by the likes of her. KEA- Knights of Eternal Affairs. She had never heard about them and they sure looked more like federal agents than knights. Of course that would explain the sword.

“Our sources says you can predict the weather to a tee”, the man with the sunglasses said. Sir Roane was his name. No last name and insisted on the Sir. She doubted she could dislike him even more.

“Well, your sources can’t be very accurate, now can they? They didn’t happen to mention that I don’t predict the weather, the weather affects me, but I guess if you count a five second warning as prediction, I guess you have found your witch. They didn’t even think to mention my appearance. Amateurs. Are you sure you are not from the Agency of Paranormal Investigations? At least they admit when they know nothing”. She could not keep a sneer out of her voice.

“A five second warning is better than nothing I guess”, the other man said. His name was ordinary. A tad too ordinary for Ariel’s taste. Tane Arquinen. No Sir in front or in the end. Tane looked at his companion who shrugged.

From an inner pocket Tane took out a document. It looked way too official.

“It’s a court order”, Tane said not smiling. “You have been served to help our order”.

Ariel snatched the document out of his hands. And felt all the blood drain from her face. This was not “just” a court order. This was a decree from the Church. Issued to the Order of Eternal Knights and sealed by his Holiness himself. There was no mistake of the winged eagle perching on a branch, that always reminded Ariel of a carrion bird.

Yeah – she had never heard of the Knights of Eternal Affairs, but she sure had heard of the Eternal Knights. Or Eternal Night as they were known to be called in the stories.

“You gotta be kidding me!” Her voice was a pitch too high.

Her name Ariel of Sanara was printed on the document in unmistakably bold letters. Even if her index finger automatically tried to smudge it out. It had to be a mistake.

She looked up af Tane Arquinen and Sir Roane.

“I’m sorry, but we are not”.

“You- you are a priest! You are a fucking shadow priest! And you – Sir Roane with your mighty sword – are you his fucking minion!? Are you even alive?”

It hurt slamming her hands down on the counter top, but Ariel did not care. How dared they come into her shop. The cleansing alone would probably take her days even if nothing of her stock could be salvaged.

“Do you need ice for that?” Sir Roane asked unperturbed and pointed at her hands.

“Crap. Damn!”

She jumped back and waved her hands frantically. Damn. Smoke drifted up to her nose and the several small fires would have spread atop her counter top if not Tane Arquinen had waved a hand over it. He said a couple of words Ariel did not understand and the fire was extinguished before it could spread.

“She could be useful as well”, said Sir Roane walking casually behind her counter to her sink to get her a wet cloth.

“Perhaps”. Tane still did not smile. “Lets hope it does not come to that. I’m afraid you don’t really have a choice unless you want to dispute his Holiness? Do you?”

Wrapping her hands in the wet cloth Ariel was taking her time. Her eyes going crazy trying to keeping an eye on the two men and the document that was untouched by the fire.

“No. I don’t want to dispute it. I’m not out to start a holy war”.

Tane Arquinen smiled. A nice smile. A nice smile that he should not have.

“I’m glad to hear that Ariel of Sanara. And to answer your questions. Yes, I’m a priest. And no, Sir Roane is not my minion. He has a free will even though he has been dead for a while”.

“The technical term, Tane, is that I never was alive”.

“I really need a drink. Do you guys drink?”

1 – A Meeting

Ariel did not hate her name but rather disliked it. A lot.

It was not so much the name itself but rather all the associations people had when they heard her name. She still believed her parents had been high when they had chosen her name. After a Disney movie! The cute little mermaid. The innocent mermaid.

And the men before her were no different. They looked at her like she had fallen down from another plane.

“You’re Ariel? Ariel of Sanara?”

“Yes”, she grumbled. “What can I do for you? If you are finished staring at me”.

“I’m sorry, you are just not what I – we expected”.

“And what did you expect?” She raised her eyebrow in a challenge. She had gotten quite good at that by now.

“Somebody more nature witchy-like?” the other man chimed in. He wore dark sunglasses which annoyed the hell out of her. They were indoor, not to mention impolite.

“Who said I was a nature witch?”

“That is what the Sanara Coven is known for, right? Weather witches, elemental witches. All that stuff. ‘Fuck with nature and we fuck you right back’-witches..?”

“We are a coven of witches not a school of mages or conclave of sorcerers. Hence the coven in our name. We don’t try to control nature. We work with and for nature”. As if. Sometimes she really thought Nature was out to get her.

“You certainly could have fooled me”. The man with the sunglasses said. Damn, he was annoying.

Ariel leaned over the counter. The two men didn’t flinch but the man with the sunglasses did put his hand on the sword by his side. Interesting detail, considering she did not see any amor on either of them. The other man without sunglasses did not wear a visible weapon.

“So I did go through a rebellious phase in my youth. Who doesn’t? Opened up a rift and had a little run in with an elemental”. Or two. Or four to be precise. But who was counting? And why did they always come in pairs? “I survived but not before th – the elemental gave me a small gift. It’s not my freaking fault my eyes are glowing and make me look like a demon!”

Customers looked their way when her voice was raised, but since she was still smiling and they were regulars, they did not pay much attention. The two men were clearly flustered.

“It could be worse. At least they are only red when its raining and foggy. Like today. If you had come in a stormy day they would have been blue. So gentlemen. Now that we have gotten my appearance out of the way I can assure you that I am a nature witch, albeit what kind is up for discussion. Are you here to shop or are there other things I may help you with?”