“It’s about time we got through.” Garn muttered as they took another step forward. “I’m starving.”
Sapphire held up her hands. “I told you I could conjure up some food, but you’re the one that keeps saying you don’t want it.”
“I don’t want you accidentally summoning a monster in the middle of Isogodriir.” Garn scoffed. “I’ll put up with the hunger.”
Malah chuckled, involuntarily flapping her wings slightly. Her eyes shot open, and she glanced back and forth. No one pulled swords on her, and she sighed.
They were in the exact center of the massive border city, just between Dirnor and Elsinor. A large processing department sat at the center, where citizens could pay their taxes to cross from one country to the other. From what Malah could tell, it was a fairly efficient system, there were just so many people passing through that the lines took forever. The group had been in line ever since sunrise, and now it was long past noon and they had finally reached the large arches that they needed to pass through.
“How are you doing?” Sapphire turned around and gazed down at Malah. “You holding up okay?”
Malah nodded and sighed. Her wings were starting to itch from being kept folded for so long, but she couldn’t do much about it. They were surrounded by people, showing off her wings would result in someone slaying her, she was certain of it. Or at least they would try to slay her. She wasn’t sure exactly how that would work, and she wasn’t in any particular hurry to find out.
All around them, whitewashed stone walls rose high into the sky. Malah tipped her head back, watching as sparrows and gulls flashed back and forth, making their nests high above the city. Her heart ached, and she sighed. She just wanted to be flying. She wanted to be up there! With them!
“Hey!” Malah jumped as several elves ran past, having just passed through the archways. In her contemplation, she hadn’t realized that the group had moved forward a good bit. “Wait up!”
She shook her head and slid up to Hesione. Her shawl, as much as she hated it, was the only thing keeping her safe. Her wings twitched, and she winced. The two elves right behind them in line glanced her way, and she slid around Hesione putting herself just behind Garn.
“Hey, beautiful.” A dark elf just behind Hesione reached out and tapped her shoulder. “You heading home?”
Malah winced as Hesione slowly turned around to face the man. “As a matter of fact, I am.”
“You mind showing me around once we get through?” The man’s voice was sly, and Malah rather doubted that he actually wanted shown around. “I’d love to see the sights like a high elf sees them.”
“Sorry, I’m booked.” Hesione flashed him a fake smile. “Already have enough friends.”
“Oh, come on.” The elf pointed up at the arches, which were so close now. “I’ve been working up the courage this whole time.”
Sapphire stepped back and crossed her arms.
“If that was how you work, I’d hate to be your boss.”
The elf sputtered while Sapphire slid back forward, and he growled.
“Look, I’m serious. Wouldn’t you like some company?”
“It looks more like you’re the one who needs company.” Hesione crossed her arms. “Any reason why you’re so desperate?”
“We’re supposed to be traveling in groups!” The man fiddled slightly. “Haven’t you heard the news?”
“News?” Hesione frowned. “What news?”
“The angels.” The elf shook his head. “They’re everywhere. A whole bunch of them attacked an army just last night. They were bringing back a dragon, and about fifty of them got wiped out.” He stammered. “Elsinor, though, it’s supposed to be a hive. Angels everywhere you look. I don’t want to get killed by one!”
“Then I suggest you hire a bodyguard.” Hesione shook her head. “Look, I’d love to help, but…”
“Please.” The man fell to his knees. “I’ve been trying to find help, but no one wants to help a dark elf through Elsinor. I need help, I have to make it home safely!”
Hesione scratched her head and turned to Sapphire. “Is he telling the truth?”
Sapphire stepped back and placed her hand on the dark elf’s forehead. Malah grinned, knowing that there was a very solid chance that the elf would turn into an orc. Or a bird. He could be a bird!
“I don’t know.” Sapphire shook her head after a few moments. “I can’t tell.”
The man looked up, eyes wide. “Look, just help me get one town over. Nettingo, the capital. That’s where you’re headed anyway, right?”
Hesione frowned. Malah turned away, grimacing. If they brought the man along, she was going to have to hide her wings even longer. She didn’t want to do that! Besides, she wasn’t sure what Hesione was planning as far as their trip. Something about Paulin, her old boyfriend. They were trying to find him, right? Were they really trying to get to the capital of the elven territory?
“Actually, I was planning on avoiding Nettingo.” Hesione looked down and ran her fingers through her hair. “You have family there?”
“That’s why I’m making the trip.” The elf nodded. “I just need to get into the city limits. Angels don’t attack cities directly.”
“Yet.” Hesione muttered, then shrugged. “Sure, why not. It’s not like we have that much of a plan, anyway.”
Malah frowned. So they didn’t have a plan. Why again did Hesione get to decide where they went?
“Thank you!” The man leapt to his feet. “Thank you so much!”
Hesione shook her head and turned around. “Just don’t annoy the orc.”
The dark elf’s face suddenly became substantially whiter, and Malah laughed. “He’s with you?”
Ondernifam turned around and growled. He didn’t even have to say a word, and the elf fell in line.
They stood in line for close to another hour before they finally made it through the archways. As they passed into the elven side, Malah couldn’t help but marvel. The stone was even purer than on the dwarven side, and nearly seemed grown, not built. Statues of great elves throughout history stood on top of the walls, gazing down on the travelers. Some had their arms extended, some pointed drawn weapons. All of them looked like they could have faced the most intense magical storm in history and never budged.
They soon passed out of the transition district and into the bustling, hectic trader’s area. Hesione went off to find food while the rest of them moved through the hundreds of rainbow-colored booths to the city gates. Sapphire purchased a map of the country, and Malah used a piece of gold that Hesione had given her to buy a sweet roll. She savored the buttery flavor as Hesione came back with a small basket of more nutritious rolls, and the group began to move out of the city.
“Thank you again for taking me.” The man held out his hand as Ondernifam bit into a bloodroll. “My name’s Donifer.”
Hesione sipped on a tube of nectar and shrugged. Malah mostly ignored her as they walked out across a short bridge leading away from the city, and ran to the side to look down. Below, an obviously magical stream burbled and lapped across washed stones, with misty fish darting back and forth under the waters. Even the freezing blast of winter seemed not to phase it. A thick forest, denser than anything that Dirnor had to offer, grew up next to the stream and stretched out across the country as far as Malah could see.
As Malah gazed into the crystal depths of the water, a woman nearby laughed. Malah spun to see an ancient elven woman gazing at her, eyes full of mist. Malah waved at her, and the woman waved back. After a moment, Malah turned and ran after the group, which was already on the road into the forest.
“Wow.” Garn breathed as they walked. “I knew Elsinor was different, but this…”
Hesione laughed. “Oh, I’ve missed this!”
Malah smiled as they walked. Overhead, the trees blossomed with icy flowers, crystals of frozen water that seemed to flourish in the cold winter wind. Donifer seemed entranced by them, and when he spoke, his voice was soft.
“What are they?” He lifted a finger to point at the images.
“It’s the result of a protective spell around the city.” Hesione smiled. “They’ll fade about a mile out. Helps prevent damage from attacks, that sort of thing.”
“I see.” Donifer shook his head, sending his short crop of black hair ruffling in the wind. “Just… Wow.”
Malah smiled as well. She wanted so badly to be up, above the trees. Even if she had wanted to, though, she knew it would have been impossible. Dozens of other elves walked along the path, moving from city to city. Ahead, in the trees, she glimpsed what appeared to be a large fork in the road. A number of smaller buildings seemed to have been built up around it, a smaller community outside the larger city.
“I love Elsinor.” Hesione spun as she walked. “It’s so…”
“We get it.” Donifer muttered. “You don’t have to keep beating us over the head with it.”
Hesione turned and glared at him before continuing. Malah chuckled and spun as well, feeling the air puff up under her shawl. It gave her wings at least a bit of air, which was nice. Slowly, she cracked a smile and moved forward, wondering what else the magical land had to offer.
They were still a substantial distance from the fork in the road when something passed through Malah. It felt like a chill, a wind that could blow through clothing and skin. She stopped and squatted down, bunching herself into a huddle as the mysterious force continued to blow. It was a sensation that she found almost familiar. Images rose in her mind, images of a similar call received so long ago.
“Malah?” Sapphire ran to her side a moment later, drawing her into an embrace. Malah pushed herself into her mother’s arms, trying to cloak herself in the warmth. Nothing seemed to help, and she shuddered.
“What’s wrong?” Hesione’s voice was wary, and the elf slowly walked over to them. Ondernifam took his battleaxe off his back, and Garn pulled out his hammer. Donifer, on the other hand, simply seemed terrified.
“I don’t know.” The chill faded, though the memories remained. They began to grow stronger, the memories of another life, another way. Memories of a person, someone she hadn’t seen since a time she couldn’t remember. “I think… I think I’m being called somewhere.”
“Called?” Sapphire’s voice was nervous. “Called where, exactly?”
Malah frowned and pointed in the direction the invisible wind had been blowing. She was certain of it, more and more. It had been a call. And the person…
“We need to go that way.” Malah bit her lip. “I think… I think it’s my sister.”
“Your sister?” Hesione frowned down at the angel. “What do you mean?”
Malah frowned back. The answer had just popped into her head, she wasn’t even sure exactly what it meant. “I… I just know. It’s her.”
Sapphire crossed her arms slowly. “I’m not adopting a second one of you guys.”
Donifer held up a hand. “Can I know what’s going on?”
“No.” Every single member of the team gave the dark elf a single glance before turning back to Malah. Hesione bit her lip and shifted back and forth a few times before nodding.
“Do you think she’s harmful?”
Malah frowned. There was a very good chance that any other angels they encountered would be incredibly hostile. On the other hand, there was an equal chance that another angel might be just like her, lost and seeking to understand what was happening.
“I don’t know.”
Hesione sighed and climbed back to her feet. “If there’s a chance we could learn more, we have to take it.” She looked down at Malah. “Do you want to go?”
Of that, there was no doubt in Malah’s mind. If it meant that she could meet someone else from her race, figure out why they were all attacking everyone, she would have braved a thousand dangers. “Yes. Yeah, I do.”
“Good.” Hesione nodded and bit her lip. “Do you know how far away she is?”
Malah shook her head. “It could be a long ways.”
“That’s what I was afraid of.” Hesione turned to Sapphire. “You can track her, right?”
Sapphire nodded. “We have a system set up, yeah.”
“Then it’s settled.” Hesione clapped her hands. “We need to get off the path. Malah, you go find your sister, and we’ll follow you. Sound good?”
Malah grinned. They were letting her fly! “That sounds perfect!”
Hesione turned back to face the path. “Come on, then.”
The group moved significantly faster as they began to jog towards the fork in the road. The shopkeepers around them called after them, announcing their wares, but Malah paid them no mind. She needed to get to her sister!
When they reached the fork itself, Malah pointed to the right. It was in the opposite direction of the capital, and Malah hoped that Hesione would be okay with the deviation. As they exited the small cluster of shops, Malah broke into a run, with the rest of them keeping pace. This time, they saw far fewer people around as they made their way into the snowy forest.
They had been running for about ten minutes when Hesione nodded and slowed down.
“Alright, I think we’re far enough away from everyone!”
Malah grinned and threw off her shawl. Her wings erupted out, stretching for the first time that day. She flapped as hard as she could, launching herself up and into the treetops. With a rush, she was gone.
Her wings carried her high above the treetops, high above the snow. She could see several travelers in the distance scrambling for their weapons as they saw her, and she grinned. Before they had a chance to fire any arrows, she banked and flew away, angling deeper over the forest.
The trees below sparkled with ice, up until the edge of the mystical field being cast around the city. From the air, the change was stark and instant, a line across the trees as the icy flowers vanished. She smiled as the more natural trees took over, and after a few moments of contemplation, she dove.
The air rushed past her, whipping her hair back and forth. She spread her wings at the last second, carrying herself out over the treetops. Snowy branches grasped at her, and she laughed. Slowly, she flew lower and lower, allowing her bare feet to brush against the snow. It tickled, and she laughed.
Without warning, the cold, invisible wind erupted against her yet again. She shivered, but this time, allowed herself to be carried on it. Her wings filled with air, and in an instant, the magical force swept her along. She moved far faster than she could have otherwise, and shrieked with delight.
It didn’t take long to reach her destination. By her estimate, she covered perhaps twenty miles in the short time she was in flight. It was much farther than her friends would be able to travel in a day, and she risked a glance back at the fading horizon. She rather hoped that they wouldn’t hate her if she couldn’t make it back on time.
As she came to a small hollow in the ground, though, her fears vanished. Sparking, set inside what looked like an old sinkhole, was what could only be an elven sacred grove. Trees still covered in green leaves stretched high, their trunks rising close to thirty feet above the ground, just peeking out above the top of the pit. Lights danced within, though she couldn’t see exactly what was causing them. The wind stopped blowing, and she angled towards a small path nearby.
As she landed on the packed dirt just above the rim of the sinkhole, several creatures emerged from the grove, stepping through a doorway grown from the trees themselves. They appeared to be high elves, though they sported leafy clothes and green skin. One of them held out his hand, smiling softly.
“You must be Malah.”
Malah started down the path, descending into the sinkhole. “How do you know my name?”
“She’s been waiting for you.” Both men stepped to the sides and gestured at the doorway. “Please, step inside.”
Malah took a deep breath and swept forward. She folded her wings, frowning as she reached the edge of the grove. The tree trunks, dozens of them, grew so close together that they formed a natural wall. She bowed her head in respect and stepped through, under the leafy canopy.
It was like stepping into another season. The air was warm, far more so than the air outside. Grass grew on the ground, and insects leaped from flower to flower. A pond sparkled in the middle of the grove, dancing with fireflies. Malah frowned as she walked closer. No, they weren’t fireflies. They were fairies! Tiny people, glowing with light, dancing back and forth over the water. One of them blew her a kiss as it flew by, and she flashed a smile.
“Malah.” The voice spoke of power, and Malah spun as a shadow emerged from the trees at the other end of the grove. Malah smiled and walked forward as another angel stepped out into the light, a smile on her face. She was older, appearing around eighteen, and sported the same flowing white dress as the others. Her hair hung behind her head in a waterfall of golden color, her crystal-blue eyes pierced through Malah like a spear. “I’m glad we can finally meet again.”
Malah stepped forward and held out her hands. The other angel swept forward, spreading both her arms and her wings. She wrapped Malah in an enormous hug, pulling her tight. Malah sighed under the embrace, until they both pulled apart. For a few long moments, Malah just stood there, wondering.
The face… It was certainly familiar, Malah knew that she had once known it well. And yet, she couldn’t place it. She couldn’t put a name to it, she couldn’t figure out how she knew the girl in front of her.
“You don’t remember me, do you?” The other angel frowned. “You don’t know me.”
Malah sighed and shook her head. “No. No, I’m afraid not.”
“I can’t say as I blame you.” The other angel sighed and sat down. “Please, have a seat. I’ve… I’ve been waiting a long time for this.”
Malah sat down next to her sister and frowned. “I don’t even know your name.”
“You will as soon as you hear it.” The angel grinned. “Isnita.”
“Isnita.” Malah frowned. “Isnita.”
The name rang in her mind, filling her brain with memories, none of which made any sense. “What’s happened? How do we know each other?” She shook her head. “And why is everyone trying to kill everyone else?”
Isnita smiled and lay back on the ground. “So many questions. You always were like that, weren’t you?”
Malah shook her head. “Please? Just… Tell me.”
Isnita groaned and smacked Malah on the back of the head. “Come on. Where’s your sense of mystery? Isn’t it better to…”
“No!” Malah leapt to her feet and stomped her foot. “Tell me what’s happening!”
Isnita smiled sadly and sat up. “Of course. I apologize.” She climbed to her feet as well and held up her hands. “To be honest, I don’t know all the answers myself. Whatever happened in the past, my memories…” She shook her head. “They’re not solid. I’m sure I know more than you, but not much.”
Isnita took a deep breath and pointed upwards. “As I’m sure you’ve figured out, we come from another realm. Another realm that apparently shares an afterlife with this realm. When you were killed, you fought your way back. You came out into this world. For those of us still alive, it provided an opportunity. We sent troops across as soon as we detected your breach.”
Malah shook her head. “I’d been dead for so long. And you’re still alive?”
“Strange, isn’t it?” Isnita just shook her head. “As of right now, I’ve been alive for one hundred thirty-seven thousand, eight hundred eighty-seven years.” She cocked her head to the side slightly. “Granted, I can only remember the last, oh, three thousand or so. Everything beyond that’s just a blur.”
Malah frowned. “Then how do you know how old you are?”
“A calendar.” Isnita grinned. “I update it every year. It’s the only thing that lets me keep track of time.”
“Right.” Malah shook her head. “So… Why are we invading? You said I gave you the opportunity, but why are we doing it? Why kill?”
“Because we’re at war.” Isnita did a small dance. “We have to kill or be killed.”
Malah held up her hands. “Who are we at war with?”
Isnita’s face twitched, and she let out a long breath. “Do you want the truth?”
Malah nodded forcibly. “Yes.”
Isnita took another breath and crossed her arms. “I have no idea whatsoever.”
“You don’t know?” Malah frowned. “Then why go to war?”
“You don’t understand, you’ve forgotten it all.” Isnita began to pace, then chuckled. “So have I, I guess. Our calendars mark a day, about fifty thousand years ago, when we went to war. No one knows why anymore. Since then, there hasn’t been any updates on the conflict. There’s no ending date, no marks of victory, so I can’t even tell you if we won or not. Maybe we were defeated, and we’ve just been living like kings under a magical subjugation. Maybe we won and just didn’t mark it down. I don’t know.” She pressed her hands against her temples. “I don’t know!”
Malah put a hand on her sister’s shoulder. “It’s okay.”
“No!” Isnita backed up and screamed. “It’s not okay!” She shook her head. “You came for answers, and I can’t give them to you!”
Malah bit her lip. “Am… Am I as old as you are?”
Isnita sighed and took several deep breaths, calming herself. “Your birthday is seven years behind mine.”
“Seven years.” Malah frowned. “We’re a hundred and fifty thousand years old, and we’re that close in age?”
“Actual sisters.” Isnita grinned. “It’s rare, from what I know. Most of the others don’t have anyone left. At least they don’t know anyone left.”
Malah sighed. “I think that’s good, then.”
“Me too.” Isnita reached out and took Malah’s hands. For the first time, Malah noticed that Isnita seemed to be shimmering, as if she wasn’t all there.
“What’s happening?” Malah jumped back. “Are…”
Isnita bit her lip. “I’m afraid… Things are complicated.” Malah crossed her arms and raised an eyebrow, and Isnita forged onward. “The gap can be breached between our two realms. That much is easy, barely a fingersnap for us. The process of moving back and forth, though…” Isnita shrugged. “It wipes your mind. Most of the angels on your side only say one or two things because that’s all they know. Their minds are blank slates. I’d be willing to bet that most of them don’t even realize they’re alive.”
Malah’s jaw dropped. “What?”
Isnita bit her lip. “From what my calendar says, most of them started allowing their minds to be wiped tens of thousands of years ago. The only reason we didn’t submit to the wipe was because of each other.” She flashed a soft smile. “It’s why we became the commanders of the army. We’re some of the only ones that still possess any sort of natural intelligence.”
Malah felt her heart snap. That… That meant… None of the angels she was seeing, none of the attackers, even knew why they were doing it? Even their commander didn’t know why she was doing it? What kind of a life was that? What… What was happening?
“As I said, we’re at war.” Isnita shook her head. “That much is obvious. The deserted cities, the ruined infrastructure. You should see it, it’s horrifying. Since none of us have any memories of even a single battle, it’s easy to conclude that the last attack happened at least five thousand years ago, but…” She shook her head. “There’s a signed directive. A declaration, I suppose. It’s a document, signed by over a thousand angels, declaring that we will go to war with any realm we uncover until it is destroyed. Your own name is on there, right next to mine.”
Malah shook her head. “We can’t go to war with this realm! It’s…” She sighed and looked down. “It’s nice.”
“It might seem nice from where you’re standing.” Isnita held up her hands. “For all you know, you chose that plane of existence to attack because you somehow knew that it was the one attacking us. Maybe you sensed it somehow, in the underworld, and paved the way. You’ve likely forgotten why you did it, but you pushed through after all that time!” She smiled. “Even when memories fade, intent carries through. It’s one of the fundamental truths of life.”
Malah crossed her arms. “Then call off the attack.”
Isnita frowned. “Why?”
“Let me explore this world!” Malah held up her hands. “We aren’t going to die soon, right? Well, no one over here can jump from one realm to another. At least not that I’ve seen.” She bit her lip. “Let me spend some time searching. Even if it takes me a hundred years, I can prove whether or not there’s a danger here.”
Isnita let her wings droop. “You know I can’t do that.”
Malah fell to her knees. If Isnita was right, the angels were going to keep attacking, never stopping. Her friends would wind up dead, her newfound family slaughtered in a war that they didn’t even know why they were fighting. She looked up at Isnita, pleading.
“Please.” She spoke softly. “I have friends here. I have a family.”
“They’re not your real family.” Isnita sighed and out a hand on Malah’s shoulder. “And your friends… It doesn’t matter if they live or die right now. Their life spans are shorter than yours, and you’ll only forget about them.” She flashed a small smile. “I have a list. We both do. A list of people we’ve known, things we’ve done with them. I don’t have any memory of them. It’s like they never existed, except in name.”
Malah bit her lip, knowing how her next statement would sound. “I have a mother here.”
Isnita’s eyes widened. She fell to her knees as well, and a tear slipped down the side of her face.
“You have a mother?” Isnita took a deep breath. “Truly?”
Malah nodded. “I know she’s not my real mother, but she’s accepted me. She protects me, she…”
Isnita ran her hand through her hair and tilted her head back. An anguished wail echoed up out of her mouth, a sound of pain. The two elves stuck their heads into the grove, then turned away again.
Finally, after a long moment, Isnita took a shuddering breath and looked back at Malah. “If you have a mother…” She shook her head. “You would do anything to protect her?”
Malah nodded. “We’ve already fought the angels on several occasions.”
Isnita nodded and held up her hands. A tiny image of Sapphire appeared in her palm, posing with her staff. For a few moments, it just hung there, then, slowly, Isnita lowered her palm.
“I will stop the attack.” Isnita flapped her wings softly. “For now. Prove to me that this world has nothing to hide. Prove to me that there is no hidden danger in your realm. If you can make me believe it…” She shrugged. “Maybe we can live at peace.”
Malah grinned. “You can come over here!” She bit her lip. “It might not be where we come from, but…”
“I could meet your mother.” Isnita nodded and wiped a tear from her eyes. “Please, I… I would like that.”
Malah climbed back to her feet. “I have your word that there will be no more attacks?”
Isnita closed her eyes, then opened them again. “You have my word.” Her voice broke. “I want to believe you, please believe me when I say that. Just…”
“You’re a commander.” Malah sighed in understanding. “You have a duty to your people.”
“We’re commanders.” Isnita smiled. “The others were happy to hear of your survival, by the way. You’re considered a champion of our people.” Her smile turned sad again. “But yes. I will hold off the attack as long as possible, but if there are indications of travel between realms, if there’s any indication that the people of this place might be able to harm us, I’ll have to commence the attack again.”
Malah nodded. “I understand.”
“Good.” Isnita smiled and held out her arms. “It was good to see you again, sister.”
Malah moved to embrace the angel, and they hugged tightly. For several long moments, they just stood there, holding each other. Malah knew that she was only holding an illusion, a projection across countless realms, and yet… She didn’t care. She had a sister. She had a sister!
“It was good to see you, too.” Malah took a deep breath. “I hope I can see you again, in the flesh.”
“I hope that as well.” Isnita’s form began to shimmer. “Good bye, Malah. Until we meet again.”
With that, her form vanished, leaving Malah holding nothing but air. Malah took a deep breath and stretched her wings as the two elves walked back into the grove.
“Your conversation was pleasant?” One of the elves dipped his head.
Malah nodded slowly. “Yes. Yes, it was.” She smiled. “Thank you for letting us use it.”
“We are the gatekeepers.” The elves bowed. “We simply seek to serve all life, regardless of species or intent.”
Malah smiled as she walked up to them. “Is there any way I could repay you?”
“We do not require payment.” The elves dipped their heads yet again. “Go on your way. You have caused no harm to the grove, so no penance is required.”
Malah bowed her head in return, then walked out into the snow. The air dipped back down to a chilly breeze, and she shuddered. Slowly, she flexed her wings and launched herself back up into the sky, flashing across the frozen trees.
The cold wind whipped past her, even colder now that the sun was setting on the horizon. And yet… She didn’t care one bit. The attacks had stopped, and she had some answers. Maybe… Maybe now, she could actually be normal!
The trip back took far longer than before. She reached out, connecting to Sapphire, but simply knowing where her mother was didn’t help her nearly as much as a magical wind that actually pulled her there.
By the time she arrived at the camp that her friends had sent up in the frozen woods, the night had long since fallen. The stars slowly rotated overhead, casting their pale glow down onto the snowy ground.
Her eyes opened wide as she drew up to the campsite. A fire blazed in the center of a small group of tents, fire rising into the sky. The group sat around the fire, staring out into the trees. Well, specifically at the small group of angels in the trees that was surrounding the camp.
Malah swooped down next to the fire and landed next to Sapphire. She glanced over at Malah, flashing a smile of relief.
“I don’t suppose you know anything about this?” Hesione glanced in her direction from across the fire. “They’re just… Standing there.”
Malah took a deep breath and nodded slowly. From where she stood, she could certainly understand why her friends appeared so terrified. There were ten angels, all with wings spread. Their arms hung by their sides, and their faces were blank. They just watched, their minds unable to comprehend what was happening in front of them.
“She stopped the attacks.” Malah smiled. “We’re safe now.” She put a hand on Sapphire’s arm. “We’re safe.”
Sapphire smiled and lowered her staff, while Ondernfam dropped into the snow next to the fire, pouting. Hesione and Garn, though, kept their weapons pointed at the angels.
“Well, I’m certainly happy to hear that.” Donifer crossed his blue-black arms and snorted. “I was beginning to regret the decision to come with you people.”
“You’ll regret it a lot more now that I can stop focusing on these things.” Garn turned and pointed his hammer at the dark elf, though his eyes never left the potential attackers. “You called me short!”
Ondernifam stood up and snarled softly. “You are short.”
Garn ignored the orc and tossed the hammer lightly in his palm. “You’re just a freeloading coward who…”
Ondernifam frowned and started agreeing with Garn. Donifer shot back a response that Malah didn’t pay much attention to, and Hesione reached out and took her arm. Malah frowned and turned, noticing the odd look on the high elf’s face.
“You convinced her to stop the attacks?” Hesione’s eyes flitted to the angels, then back again. “How?”
Malah bit her lip. It had been the bit about Sapphire, she was certain about it. The only question was… Why? Why had that resonated with Isnita so much?
“I don’t know.” Malah finally managed. “Not much of it made much sense.”
Sapphire put her arm around Malah and pulled her close. “Well… Why don’t you tell me about it? Just do your best, and we’ll ask questions at the end.”
Malah nodded slowly. By the time she finished talking, both Sapphire and Hesione pelted her with more questions than even she had come up with. She sighed and looked down at the snow, watching the starlight glint off the tiny crystals. They had questions, and she didn’t have any of the answers. She was as confused and lost as everyone else was, and yet…
And yet, she was the angel. She was the one with the common heritage. The one that had apparently crossed the space between realms, punched her way through the underworld itself, just to find this plane. But… Why? What did the world hold? What was so important that her people would be forced to attack relentlessly, unending, until all life in the realm was destroyed? If not even the angels themselves knew, how was she supposed to convince Isnita that the realm didn’t hold any danger?
She did her best to answer their questions, though she was certain that the process only frustrated them even more. As the night wore on and the angels failed to move, they slowly migrated back to their tents. Malah and Sapphire slid under one of the tarps, and Malah wrapped her wings tightly around her.
Above, the stars continued to spin, mimicking Malah’s emotions. She had a sister! And yet… She didn’t have a clue what that meant. It took her hours before her troubled mind finally sank into slumber, carrying her away into haunted dreams and twisted nightmares.
Every time she woke up, she wished desperately for the morning. With luck, the sun’s light would provide clarity. Clarity that Malah desperately wished for, desperately hoped for… And was ever more uncertain that she would ever find.
“Good morning.” Hesione stuck her head through the slit in the tent. “We need to get moving.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Sapphire grabbed her staff and pointed it up at the top of the tent. Blue light erupted from the crystal, and the tent folded itself up into a neat square, exposing them to the frigid air above.
Malah closed her eyes tight. She had been awake for some time at that point, struggling to fall asleep again. As the rest of them began stomping back and forth, putting together food for breakfast, Malah slowly sat up and shook her head.
The angels had left at some point during the night, not even leaving footprints in the snow. Malah sighed and climbed to her feet as Ondernifam dropped a large pile of meat onto a tarp that Hesione had prepared. He ate several for himself while Garn started cooking the rest of the meat over the fire.
“You okay?” Sapphire put a hand on Malah’s shoulder. “You look…”
“I’m fine.” Malah crossed her arms and stretched her wings. “I’m fine.”
Sapphire raised an eyebrow, but started busying herself cleaning up the campsite. Malah sighed and walked up to the fire, sitting down on a small stump. Donifer sat down next to her a few moments later, and odd frown on his face.
“So. You can fly.”
Malah turned and frowned at him. “These wings aren’t for decoration.”
Donifer smirked. “You sound exactly like your mother.”
A pang shot through Malah’s heart. Isnita…
“Sorry.” Malah shook her head. “I don’t mean to.”
Donifer snorted. “Believe me, it’s not a bad thing.” He sighed. “Sometimes, I wish people could be more like your group.”
Malah crossed her arms. “What do you mean?”
Donifer held up his hand to catch a piece of roasted meat as Garn began passing them out. “I’m a dark elf in a high elf country. Believe me when I say it doesn’t always go well for me.”
Malah raised her eyebrows, then sighed. “Do you know much about danger?”
Donifer frowned. “Danger?”
Malah shrugged. “The angels are invading because they think it’s dangerous. Do you have any idea why it would be dangerous?”
Donifer chuckled. “Oh, you’ve never been to Delsinar, have you?”
Malah shrugged. “I’ve only been in this world for a few months.”
“Right.” Donifer took a bite of his breakfast while he ran his hand through his hair. “Let me put it this way. Dark elves don’t come by that name because of the color of our skin.”
Malah frowned. “Then why?”
He shrugged. “Dark elves are the only sentient species with the capabilities of opening up the Dark Realm. Sure, it’s not easy, but we can do it. All our magic is drawn from that plane.” He shuddered slightly. “And it’s not a pretty plane, let me tell you.”
Malah bit her lip for a moment. Garn passed her a strip of meat, and she began to chew on it idly. “There’s lot of scary things in the Dark Realm?”
“The Dark Realm gives me nightmares, and I’m over two hundred years old.” Donifer shook his head. “Trolls, for one. Big, ugly creatures that like to destroy everything. Then, you’ve got imps, hobgoblins, and a whole host of…”
Hesione coughed as she walked by, and Donifer shrugged. “Lots of scary things.”
Malah nodded slowly. “Do you think that’s what drew me here? Where the danger might be?”
Donifer held up his hands. “Seems to me that they’d just invade the Dark Realm if that was the case.” Malah frowned, and he put a hand on her shoulder. “Hey. Seems to me that there’s a simple explanation for all of this.”
Malah bit her lip. “What’s that?”
“When you were trapped in the underworld…” Donifer winced slightly when he said it. Malah personally thought that he was doing a wonderful job of rolling with the flurry of punches coming his way. “You started fighting back to the surface, probably because you sensed some sort of evil. Over time, you’ve forgotten that event because it’s been so long, but you forged onward because your intent was strong. That about right?”
Malah nodded slowly. “Pretty much, yeah.”
“Then it makes perfect sense why you wound up here.” Donifer shrugged. “Calsin is a land where ancient sorcerers come back to life every other week. Orcs break free every decade or so, and there’s always at least three or four people trying to lay waste to it all.” He held up his hands. “If you’re looking for a place of danger, you’re smack in the middle of it.”
Malah opened her mouth to respond. That wasn’t helpful! He was only confirming what her sister had told her, that there was danger and the whole place needed wiped out. However, before she could speak, he held up a finger.
“But, then again, that’s the beauty of Calsin.” He shrugged. “There are people to fight for good instead of evil. Dark forces have to battle each other before they can come for the rest. In the thousands of years this continent has been around, how many times has it ended?”
Malah frowned. “None, I guess.”
“Exactly.” Donifer climbed back to his feet. “History can’t tell the number of times that we’ve almost collapsed into the Internal Flame or been blown into the far reaches of the stars themselves. It also can’t tell the number of times that the world has actually ended, because it never has. Bring that back to your sister.” He shrugged. “I bet she takes a bit to see it, but it might be a good start.”
Malah nodded slowly. “I… Thanks.”
“Hey, anything.” Donifer chuckled and turned around. “Besides, it’s not just for your sake. I, for one, don’t want to wind up as angel bait.”
Sapphire chuckled as she walked past, and Malah frowned. Did no one care about her? They just wanted to be safe! Not that she necessarily blamed them, but… Still.
It didn’t take long to get the camp packed up. Once everything had been wrapped up, they made their way back towards the intersection outside Isogodriir. Now that they were heading in the right direction again, hopefully they would be able to figure some things out.
It took them around an hour to reach the small suburb outside the massive, walled city. As they crested the hill, overlooking the collection of buildings, Malah’s jaw dropped.
Business in the district had ground to a halt. The streets were filled with people, more than had been there the first time they came through. Standing in the middle of the crowd were dozens of angels. All of them appeared to just be standing there, watching. None of them reacted to anything, none of them made any effort to communicate.
The group broke into a run as they drew closer, and Malah pulled her shawl down tighter over her wings. She really didn’t want to wind up being seen, not if the angels were doing something. But… Isnita had given her word! Was that worth nothing?
As they reached the crowd, one of the angels turned. The dozens of elves surrounding it drew back, scrambling away. The creature swiveled until it could see Malah, and a soft smile rose on its face. The expression lasted a mere instant, and then it was back to normal.
“Stay with Malah.” Hesione tapped Sapphire on the shoulder. “I’ll be right back.”
The elf slipped away into the crowd, and Sapphire took a tight grip on Malah’s shoulder. Ondernifam stalked up to an angel and began to wave his hand back and forth in front of its face, while Garn began walking circles around one of the nearest creatures.
Malah walked up to the angel and stared into its eyes. Up close… It was so beautiful, so pristine. Maybe fifteen years old, at least that’s how she appeared. Her eyes were so innocent, a perfect sea green. She stared back into Malah, though the gaze was empty. Malah’s heart nearly snapped. The girl… She had no memories, no cognitive function at all! She was likely being controlled by some magic, somewhere across the realms. She couldn’t see the trees around her, couldn’t appreciate the wonderful, magical colors around her. The people, their shapes, their sounds. None of it!
Malah turned away and ran to the next closest angel. This one was a bit older, but not by much. Seventeen, maybe? Her skin was darker, her eyes brown. Like the others, her hair hung down her back, sweeping and beautiful beyond words. And yet, as always, her eyes were empty as well. She turned as well to stare at Malah, and Malah felt her bones begin to melt.
Why? A tear sprang to her eye, and she took a deep breath trying to keep it in. Why had they done that to themselves? They had all voluntarily submitted to a mind wipe? What had been the purpose? Why would anyone submit to simply being a tool for the rest of their lives?
And why had Malah and Isnita decided against it when an entire species had chosen that path?
“Alright, people!” A voice echoed from the direction of Isogodriir. “Everybody, move!”
Malah frowned, and Sapphire grabbed her wrist. Together, they stepped back as a large contingent of soldiers from the city marched forward, stomping into the small suburb. All around, citizens lined the walks, forming an empty street. The angels all slowly turned to face the army. A familiar face stepped out to the front, wielding a large sword.
“As I’m sure you’ve heard by now, it’s like this everywhere!” Franclin, the dragon hunter, began to walk around the angels, his brilliant orange armor glinting in the sun. “We sent a raven to the capital late last night, when the angels began to misbehave. About an hour ago, we got a reply back. All cities across Elsinor that have reported in have said the same thing. Angels have taken to the streets, but do not seem to be doing any harm.”
A collective gasp shook the crowd, and Malah bit her lip. She didn’t know if that was good or bad, but… It was something.
“Additionally, as far as we can tell, the creatures have pulled out of all other countries.” Franclin continued as he walked past the angels, twirling his sword. Malah frowned as she noticed that the creatures were tracking the weapon with their eyes. If they weren’t attacking, they were still observant to an attack. “We’ve made contact with one city in Tornor, and they don’t report any angel activity at all. In addition, we’ve made contact with a single city in Taninor. Once again, nothing. Word from more distant lands will likely be a few days coming, but…” He shrugged. “Right now, it’s safe to assume that Elsinor is a primary target for these creatures.”
“What about Delsinar?” A woman from the crowd called out. “Are the Darks experiencing the same thing?”
Franclin paused. “First off, while I’m well aware that I’m human and not an elf, I don’t think that it’s proper to refer to your blue cousins as Darks.” He shrugged. “They’re dark elves, and deserve to be addressed as such.” The handful of dark elves in the crowd gave a cheer, and he continued without missing a beat. “Regardless, we have been unable to establish contact. We have dispatched ravens, but no response has been received as of yet.”
“They probably sent this attack!” The same woman yelled. “The Darks are attacking Elsinor! They probably summoned them from the Dark Realm!”
The crowd began to cheer, and Franclin thrust his sword upward. A blast of fire leapt from the blade, and the crowd quieted again. For a few moments, he just stood there, breathing heavily. Finally, he spoke again.
“One problem at a time. Delsinar isn’t your enemy in this fight. The angels are certainly from another realm, but as of this point, there has been no confirmation of which known realm they come from, if, indeed, they come from a known realm.” Franclin flashed a confident smile. “We’re working with the Realm Mages from the Wizarding Academy in Distisil. We’re going to beat this threat, one way or another.”
Beside Malah, Sapphire snorted. “The realm mages are the most pathetic mages at that place.”
Malah chuckled, though her eyes never left the hunter. He was going to pull something, of that she had no doubt.
Franclin continued to pace back and forth, watching both the angels and the crowd. Malah frowned curiously. It seemed like he was searching for something. Waiting for a cue to do something. She was beginning to grow bored when he suddenly turned and pointed straight at her.
“Malah, I think it is.” He flashed a quick smile at her. “Do you think you would be willing to come out here?”
Malah felt her blood run cold. Sapphire’s hand latched down onto her shoulder, and she drew back into the crowd. In front of them, Franclin laughed.
“Oh, come out, please!” He spread his arms and addressed the crowd. “I had the pleasure of meeting a most interesting young woman just two nights ago. I think that she would love to talk to you. At the very least, I’d love to see her do it.”
Sapphire bent down and look straight into Malah’s eyes. “You don’t have to do this.”
Malah bit her lip. She knew that Franclin was likely to do something terrible. He was a dragon hunter, and he wasn’t going to be this bold if he didn’t have a plan. And yet…
And yet, these were her people out there! Her sisters, her species. They had submitted to a terrible fate, a mindless existence, and she had no idea why. She had to do something. She had to prove to the people watching on the other side, the controllers of whatever magic was manipulating the angels, that this realm was safe.
“I have to.” Malah squared her shoulders and pulled away from Sapphire’s grasp. Slowly, carefully, she stepped out into the square. The crowd slowly parted to let her out into the open center. Silence descended over the entire group while Franclin just chuckled.
“Well?” Malah finally held up her hands. “What do you want with me?”
“Such spark!” Franclin grinned. “Doesn’t she?”
“Hey!” The woman from earlier crossed her arms and stepped out into the square as well. “Stop picking on little girls! She’s terrified!”
Franclin puffed out his cheeks and spread his arms wide. “I’m afraid… I’m afraid I have a confession to make.” He bowed his head, as if submitting to judgement. “I met someone only day ago, this girl. I didn’t report it at the time, because I was attempting to withhold punishment until a crime had been committed.” He turned to Malah. “Would you care to explain why I would be saying this?”
Malah took a long, deep breath. If she fought Franclin now, she would appear guilty. If she ran, she would appear guilty. If she revealed herself...
Slowly, painfully, she reached up and pulled off her shawl. A surprised gasp echoed through the crowd, and each and every one of them drew back. The woman that had been defending her only moments before shrieked and ran back into the cover of others.
“And now you see.” Franclin crossed his arms. “The only angel in existence, as far as we can tell, that shows any signs of intelligence.” He took a step forward. “Perhaps you’d like to explain just what’s going on.”
“She doesn’t know anything!” Hesione stepped out of the crowd and held up her hand. Malah got the distinct impression that she had some sort of offensive spell prepared. “Stay back.”
Franclin just chuckled. In slow motion, the entire square dissolved into ghosts. Everyone became shadows of themselves, moving through a dimension of darkness. Sapphire lunged forward, calling on a darker magic than Malah had ever seen before. Hesione’s hands raged with fire, Ondernifam charged forward with his battleaxe. Even Garn was joining in the fight, attacking with his magic hammer.
Malah frowned as the ghostly Franclin lunged forward. He cut down Hesione in a single sweep, then followed up by slicing down Ondernifam a moment later. Garn followed after a mere instant, and he soon began to do battle with Sapphire.
Malah gasped and took a step back. As she did, her foot caught on something. She glanced down to see her own body, lying on the cobblestone. A sword stuck out of her chest, Franclin’s sword. He had killed her? What…
With a rush, the shadows faded, and she snapped back to the square. Franclin and Sapphire were arguing with each other, arguing back and forth. Malah bit her lip and closed her eyes. Bad things were about to happen, she was certain of it. Slowly, she took a deep breath.
“Stop it.” She opened her eyes and stared at Franclin. “That’s a bad idea.”
Franclin frowned and turned away from Sapphire. “What is?”
“You were about ready to attack me.” Malah took a deep breath. “You were going to kill me.”
The crowd gasped, and Franclin raised an eyebrow.
“You can see into my mind?”
“I don’t know what I see.” Malah gnashed her teeth together. “But I know you were going to kill me. And that wouldn’t have ended well for you.”
Franclin crossed his arms. “Do tell.”
“I’m not like these creatures.” Malah walked up to the nearest angel and pointed up at it. “They’re different. They’re warriors, built for attack.” Slowly, she flapped her wings, rising up above the square. With luck, it would be intimidating. “You want to know what’s happening. You want to know why they’re here?”
Emotions exploded inside Malah, and she opened her mouth wide. An anguished scream roared up from her chest, and she clenched her fists tightly.
“They’re here because they want to destroy your realm.” She hovered in place, carefully flapping her wings and spinning slowly. “They want to destroy everything! I came ahead of their forces to scope things out.” She bit her lip. “I led them here.”
Franclin pointed his sword at her. “Then you want to destroy this realm as well!”
“No!” She roared down at him. Curiously, her hands began to glow, casting bolts of light across the square. “I’m here to save it!” She pointed at the angels. “I’m the reason they’ve stopped! I convinced the commander that this world needs to be looked at differently! And now, they’ve stopped. I doubt they’ve stopped for long, which means that you have a choice.”
She slowly began to float back to the ground, landing only feet from Franclin. “What happens over the next week or so will decide what they do. It will decide your fate. Show the angels that we care, that we don’t intend them harm. Maybe they’ll realize that you’re not dangerous, and they’ll leave you alone.”
Franclin raised an eyebrow. “And if we attack them now?” He pointed at the angels. “If we use the opportunity to try and find weaknesses about them? If we find ways of killing them?”
Malah shook her head. “They’ll kill you. They’ll kill each and every person on this entire world.”
Franclin crossed his arms, putting his sword ever so close to her chest. “You realize that this is asking a lot of trust from us?”
Malah shrugged. “You’re dead anyway. You’ll be no less dead if you at least try to show mercy.”
Franclin frowned and nodded slowly. “Maybe you’re right.” He took a step back and sheathed his sword. “You heard her, people! Show the angels mercy! Do not attempt to attack them.”
As the crowd began to slowly disperse, he lowered his voice, and Malah got the distinct impression that even if someone had been standing right next to them, they couldn’t have heard his words.
“I don’t know what you’re trying to pull, and I don’t know why your people are here.” He snarled. “Just know that it’s my duty to protect the world from all threats. Even if your angel friends weren’t openly hostile, I’d be working on ways to kill them.” He snorted and turned away. “I suggest you not forget that fact.”
With that, he swept back towards the city. Malah sighed and lowered her head. With luck…
She turned to face Sapphire, only to feel something slam into the side of her head. It stuck to her cheek, and she slowly reached a hand up to feel a rotten orange seemingly glued to her skin. It emitted an odd squelching noise as she pulled it away, and the smell hit her like a warhammer. The rotten fruit hadn’t hit the ground before more of it began to fly her way. Dozens of elves, dark and high, all began grabbing the nearest non-lethal items to throw at her.
Sapphire stepped in front of her and held up her hands. A ward spell formed a shield, protecting them from the fruit, and Ondernifam scooped her up in his arms. With that, the group fled the square. Malah folded her wings behind her back tightly, trying to block out the screams, the war cries.
There were no words as they began to move through the country, towards the capital city of Nettingo. In that moment, she didn’t know what she wanted. She wanted to be with her sister, she wanted to be held by her mother. She wanted to be with her people, she wanted to spare the realm that she now called home.
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