“I can make the situation a bit less awkward.” Garn held up a hand. “Are you going anywhere anytime soon?”
Hesione took a deep breath. “Somehow, I doubt it.”
“Good.” Garn stumbled past her. “I’m taking your room.” He waved at the innkeeper. “She’s paying.”
With that, he vanished down the hallway and slammed a door. She honestly wasn’t sure which door he slammed. For all she knew, he had just walked into someone else’s room, but there wasn’t much she could do about it. The innkeeper raised an eyebrow, and she tossed him a small gold coin.
“Are you with him now?” Paulin staggered forward and collapsed at one of the tables. “Are… Really?”
Hesione glanced at Donifer, who sighed.
“I’ll put everything back in storage.” He shrugged. “Back in a minute.”
He trundled off, and Hesione slowly walked over and sat down at Paulin’s table. He groaned as the chair squeaked softly.
“Do I even want to ask what’s going on?” A tear slipped out of his eye. “You are with him. You were leaving with him.”
“To be fair, you lied to me.” Hesione held up a finger, then shook her head. “Not the point right now, I suppose.”
“You left me for dead.” Paulin shook his head. “That debt is repaid.”
“I suppose so.” Hesione sighed. “I… What happened to you?”
Paulin shrugged. “Well, you left me for dead. A passing dwarf helped us back to town, and I’ve been here since. Doing odd jobs, drinking. What else is there without you? You’re my world.”
Hesione sighed and leaned forward. “I can’t be your world. Not anymore.”
“Why in Persphone is that?” Paulin shook his head. “I lied, but…”
“You lied.” Hesione nodded slowly. “But… Your father lied just a bit more.”
Paulin’s bleary eyes struggled to focus. “What?”
Hesione shrugged. “We’re siblings.”
Pauline held her gaze, unblinking. After several long seconds, he shook his head.
“I don’t believe you.”
Hesione held up her hands in frustration. “Well, it’s true!”
“All you’ve ever done is try to get me to stop chasing you.” Paulin groaned. “You’re just doing it again. I don’t believe you.”
“Believe me.” Hesione leaned forward. “What do I need to do to convince you?”
“I don’t know!” Pauline roared, then winced in pain. “Just let me see you for a moment. I’ve been waiting for months to see you again. Don’t ruin it. I just want to hold you, want to…”
He leaned forward, reaching for her. She slapped away his hands, eliciting a sharp yelp of pain. He took a deep breath and did his best to focus on her, though his bleary eyes didn’t seem up to the task.
“You’re really serious, aren’t you?” He finally whispered. “This isn’t like the other times.”
“No.” Hesione whispered. “No, it’s not.”
“Of course we’re siblings.” He finally spoke. “I spent twenty-five years of my life running after my sister."
"Well..." Hesione shrugged. “I am quite a catch.”
“Not that good of one.” Paulin groaned and slowly shook his head. “So… What does that even mean?” He shook his head. “Knowing that we’re brother and sister doesn’t change the fact that I have feelings for you. I mean, I know it will, but… I’ve spent the last six months just dreaming about seeing your face again. And now this…” He shuddered. “Ale!”
The bartender seemed less than convinced. “I already told you…”
“I don’t care.” Paulin turned around and glared fire at the bartender. “She’ll keep me in line. She has an orc if I get rowdy. Just get me something to take the edge off this.”
Slowly, he turned back to Hesione. She puffed out her cheeks and raised an eyebrow. “Actually… Ondernifam isn’t with us anymore.”
Paulin sighed. “The druids?”
“Along with Malah.” Hesione nodded. “Sapphire has been trying to bring them back, but without much luck. She thought they were dead for quite awhile, but more recently, she’s started trying to follow them across other realms.”
“That sounds like her.” Paulin flashed a pained smile as the bartender sat a mug of ale on the table. He picked it up and took a long draught. “Oh, that feels good.” He took several more gulps before focusing his bleary eyes on Hesione once more. “So what about you? You learned that we were siblings, and decided to just leave me?”
“The king wouldn’t even let me leave the palace.” Hesione shrugged. “Highsand Barn finally snuck me out. I… I didn’t know what to do.”
“So you teamed up with him.” Paulin gestured vaguely at the door.
“Pretty much.” Hesione shrugged. “Is… Is that an issue?”
“I don’t know.” Paulin groaned and slammed his head against the table quite forcefully. The pained whimper that came from his lips was all Hesione needed to hear. “I just don’t know right now.”
A moment later, Donifer walked back in. He slowly made his way across the room and sat down. After several seconds, he started shifting awkwardly.
“So.” He folded his hands. “What have you been up to?”
“Getting drunk and thinking of Hesione.” Paulin didn’t move. “Mossenrod was here for awhile, too. You didn’t know him. Hesione did. He wound up going back to the Persphonar after his psychotic episodes calmed down. Nice guy. Hope he goes far.”
“Right.” Donifer nodded slowly. “Is there any chance you won’t put a knife through my back the moment that I turn away?”
“If I keep hearing your voice, no.” Paulin groaned and pushed himself upright. “Hes… What does that even mean for us?”
Hesione shrugged. “I… I don’t know.”
“Are we supposed to just be friends now?” Paulin shrugged. “How… How do we do that? How do I look at him kissing you, knowing that I used to do the same thing?” Donifer shuddered, and Paulin held up his hands. “I’m serious. Picture me with… Oh, her.” He pointed at the bartender. “Could you do it?”
Even as he mentioned it, something in Hesione’s heart gave a sharp twang. “I don’t think so.”
“Right.” Paulin nodded and finished off the ale. “So how do you expect me to handle… This? Seeing you two together? Or even someone else in the future. I get that we’re just siblings, we can’t be together.” He shrugged. “How do you move past this? I spent almost thirty years of my life just chasing after you! I’ve ignored the affections of a hundred other women, I’ve defied my father, I’ve probably doomed Elsinor to not have a successor once I die.”
“Your father already had another son.” Hesione shook her head. “Real prick if you ask me.”
“Of course he did.” Paulin looked straight at her, though she could see his eyes moving as he struggled to focus. “You’re the one with the brain. What do we do?”
Hesione shrugged and shook her head. “Obviously, a lot more time travel.”
“Right. The older version of me.” Paulin held up a finger. “Do you have any concept of how frustrating it is to know that at some point in the future, you will do something, except that you don’t have a clue how to get to that point? Should I try? Will it just be obvious? How much thought do I need to put into this?”
“You were at least ten or fifteen years older, so you’ve got some time.” Hesione sighed. “In some ways…” She shrugged. “At least you know you get to that point. I don’t even know what I’m supposed to do now.”
“You were running away to Delsinar.” Paulin raised an eyebrow. “Forgive me for saying so, but that’s an even worse way of coping than drinking.”
Hesione crossed her arms. “Why would you think that?”
“Because at least I’m in one place where people can find me.” Paulin held up his hands. “Did you not see Garn? He walked all night just to find you. You have friends, Hesione.” He shrugged. “I obviously don’t.”
Donifer held up his hand. “I’ll be your friend.”
“Don’t want it.” Paulin sighed. “Look, Hes… I still love you. Forgive me, but it’s going to take awhile for that to translate into sibling love.”
“I know.” Hesione puffed out her cheeks. “Oh, I know.”
“Well.” Paulin slapped the table quite suddenly. “Will you stay here? Please?”
“You mean here?” Hesione gestured at the inn vaguely. “In this place?”
“Just for today.” Paulin sighed. “I need to get to work, and I still want to talk through this tonight.”
Hesione held up her hands. “I can grab Garn, and we can go back to Nettingo. We can talk through everything there. You don’t have to keep working a job.”
“First off, my father would lock us both up in an instant if it would keep us from leaving again.” Paulin sighed. “Second… I signed a contract. Bound it with my own blood.”
Hesione glanced at the table. Workforces in Calsin had the regular problem of workers saving up enough money to leave, and then… Just leaving. Or even just stealing a sword and running off. As such, someone somewhere had come up with the idea of contracts. Using dwarven enchantments, they were magical documents that bonded a person’s soul to their supervisor. Until they were formally released from the contract, the supervisor could kill them in an instant if he so chose.
“Why?” Hesione shook her head. “Why do that?”
“Because there was nothing else to do.” Paulin shrugged. “You left me for dead. You didn’t want me, and I frankly can’t blame you. I told you to leave Malah to die. I mean, it sounds like she did, but I shouldn’t have told you that.”
He climbed to his feet. “I’ve stored up enough money to buy my way out of my contract after work tonight. We can leave then.” He shrugged. “And, if you decide you don’t want me, just leave. The contract is good for the rest of my life, and the ale here isn’t bad.”
With that, he stumbled out of the room, yelping slightly as he made his way into the light. Hesione groaned and turned to Donifer.
“We can’t leave now.” Donifer shrugged. “Even if the guy does hate my guts, work crews are awful. We get him out, drag him to a nearby town, get him washed up, and then we can ditch him if he’s still too much trouble.”
“Deal.” Hesione smiled, then glanced back at the hallway. “I just…” She sighed. “What do we do about Garn? He won’t want to come with us to Delsinar, and I can’t just leave him.”
“We’ll figure it out.” Donifer took her hands. “Obviously, neither of us can go back to Nettingo. Maybe it’s time everyone moved on. You all could come with me. My house isn’t huge, but once Sapphire’s blown out a few walls, it could be comfortable.”
Hesione chuckled, in spite of everything happening. “That sounds like a plan to me.”
“Good.” Donifer leaned back in his chair. “Well, what say we step outside for a bit? We can take a walk around the area, find a nice place to relax…”
The door swung open, and yet another familiar face stepped into the room.
“Or we can find another one of your friends.” Donifer sighed as a weary Sapphire stepped into the room, followed by a girl that could only have been an angel. “Is this your new clubhouse or something?”
Sapphire sighed and walked up to the table. She sat down, while the angel sat down next to her. Hesione frowned at the newcomer. The girl frowned back, her perfectly-shaped blue eyes boring into Hesione’s own.
“I assume this is Isnita?” Hesione inclined her head.
“That would be me.” Isnita spoke in a cold voice. “Now, if you don’t mind-”
“Have you seen Garn?” Sapphire cut in. “We’ve been trying to track him all night.”
“He’s in a room.” Hesione gestured over her shoulder. “Couldn’t tell you which one.”
“At least he found you, then.” Sapphire puffed out her cheeks, then pulled a few coins out of her pocket. “Can you go buy me something with nirtroot? I’m too tired to think.” She shook her head. “And somehow, I think we’re going to need full attention on this.”
“We’re getting close!” Malah screamed as she dropped from the sky. Below her, Ondernifam pounded through the forest, never slowing. She flew down next to him, dipping through the trees, bobbing back and forth to avoid the trunks. “I can feel Mommy.”
“Good.” Ondernifam gasped. “I… I’m tired.”
Malah winced. If Ondernifam was willing to admit that he was tired, it meant that he was probably ready to die at any moment. Orcs never showed weakness. Though… Ondernifam was a bit of an unusual orc.
The last thing she remembered was falling from the sky. The next thing she knew, Ondernifam was carrying her through the woods, running from the brothers. She still wasn’t sure how she felt about that… But he had proven himself, right?
Slowly, Malah rose back up out of the trees. The village was close, she could feel it. Ondernifam was incredible, there was no denying it now. She had woken up shortly after the sun had risen, while the mountains were still visible. Even then, Ondernifam had been moving faster than many humans could sprint. Now, as the sun was closing on the horizon, he was still going strong. To her knowledge, he hadn’t stopped to eat or drink the entire day. Even her wings hurt from flying so far, and she could glide in order to rest.
Thankfully, they had seen no signs of being followed. She knew that it could easily be coming, for all she knew, they had a simple half-hour lead on the brothers. Oh, well. She wasn’t going to complain. She was alive, she was free.
The sun was dipping below the trees when they finally burst through the trees into a small village. At least… It was a wide spot in the road. A small inn advertised a safe place to stay, while several small barracks provided a place to stay for the local workforce. Nearby, a large section of trees had been cleared out, while logs were being loaded up on carts to be pulled back into Nettingo.
Malah dropped down and landed in the trees, just out of sight. Ondernifam stumbled to a halt, leaning against a nearby pine. His chest heaved, fire ran up and down his body as his blood magic tried to sustain him. Malah landed and folded her wings behind her back before realizing that she didn’t have any way to cover herself.
“What do I do?” She walked up to Ondernifam. “Can you cover me?”
“Be who you are.” Ondernifam rumbled. “If anyone challenges you, I will slay them.”
Malah shrugged. She was exhausted, so it worked well enough for her. Together, the two of them staggered out of the trees. Thankfully, there weren’t many people around, as the workers appeared to be off to one side arguing with their supervisor and there didn’t seem to be any travelers.
Ondernifam walked ahead of Malah and pushed the door to the inn open. Malah followed him inside, smiling as she stepped into a room lit by torches and a fireplace, rather than the harsh magical lights of the brothers.
A collective gasp sounded from across the room. She turned to see Hesione, Garn, Sapphire, and Isnita all sitting around a large table. Their eyes went wide, even as several dozen other individuals in the room stood up and drew their swords.
“That’s not an angel, she has black wings!”
Sapphire stood up and transformed into her sorceress self. The crystal on the staff glowed brilliantly as she seemed to point it at everyone in the room.
“If anyone so much as points a sword in their direction, I’ll turn you into flies.” Sapphire snarled. “Leave them be.”
Ondernifam staggered to the table. Hesione quickly climbed to her feet as he collapsed in the chair, laid his head down on the wooden surface, and fell asleep. Sapphire ignored him and ran to Malah, throwing her arms around her.
Malah felt pure joy bubble up inside her heart. She wrapped her wings around Sapphire, pulling her as close as she possibly could. For several seconds, they just held each other. It was the first time in months that Malah had felt… Warm. And yet, when they finally pulled apart, the warmth didn’t leave. She was with her mother.
She was home.
“Malah.” Sapphire smiled through the tears that streamed down her face. “It’s been so long. I… I tried to find you.”
“I know.” Malah nodded. She took a deep breath. “You found Isnita.”
“I had to. To find you.” Sapphire turned and pulled Malah back to the table. The other patrons of the bar seemed more than a bit leery of the newcomers. They became even more frightened when Isnita stood up and pulled off her own shawl, revealing her pristine, white wings.
“It’s good to see you again, Malah.” Isnita beamed. She glanced around the table and took a deep breath. “I think we all need to have a talk.”
“And then we escaped.” Malah shrugged. “Ondernifam ran all the way back here, and I flew.”
Hesione closed her eyes and shook her head. The story was insane, improbable… But then again, the entire concept of the angels in the first place was pretty out-there.
“I see.” Isnita crossed her arms. “And… Your black wings?”
Hesione nodded slowly as Malah shrugged. She had been wondering the same thing, herself. She had seen Malah’s wings turn black, she knew it came from the pixie… But why hadn’t they reverted? What was happening? And why had it changed Malah’s clothes as well? The black lace did look quite elegant, but… Why?
“I absorbed a pixie.” Malah shrugged. “It changed, and that’s been that. I looked just like them.” She shuddered. “Well, they’re boys and I’m a girl, but still.”
“Right.” Isnita frowned and glanced down. “And this angel, Simon? He helped you escape?”
Ondernifam shook his head. He had woken back up halfway through Malah’s speech, having apparently been brought back to life by a simple, fifteen-minute nap. “We tore our way out all by ourselves!”
“That’s not what you said ten minutes ago.” Garn held up a hand. “And Simon did say that he would help you.”
“This is all very… Confusing.” Isnita shook her head. “Nothing makes any sense.”
“The brothers seem to think that we’re their enemies.” Malah crossed her arms. “Could they be the reason that we invaded? To try and find them?”
“The dark ones mentioned fighting two wars.” Ondernifam rumbled. “They want to kill you and something else.”
Isnita just shook her head, slowly and surely. “So… After killing you, the brothers decimated our realm and left. We forgot about the brothers, but stayed focused on some other major task. Meanwhile, the brothers continued to stalk something, but also kept us in mind.” She shook her head. “None of this makes any sense.”
“I don’t think any of it will.” Malah sighed. “Not for awhile, at least. With their metal ship destroyed, I don’t think they still have access to any of their records. They only know what they can remember.”
“And we all know how reliable our memories are.” Isnita groaned. “Do you think you were followed here?”
“Not that I saw.” Malah shook her head. “It’s possible they could track us. I mean, Garn was able to do it.”
“And that Simon guy swore up and down he knew how to do it again.” Garn grumbled. “He can’t understand dwarven magic. No one can understand dwarven magic. That’s why it’s magic.”
“Hold on.” Hesione finally spoke up. “Let’s take this thing one problem at a time. Right now, there’s too much going on. We need to just… Figure out what’s happening. Then we can go from there.”
“Right.” Sapphire nodded and held up a finger. “So, what’s the most pressing issue?”
There was a pause while they all glanced at each other.
“The brothers.” Malah finally nodded. “They want to destroy this world. That’s the most critical issue.”
“Right.” Hesione nodded. “We focus on defending ourselves against the brothers. Maybe we can get Amil to sit down, and we can talk about things. Chances are good that we have a common enemy.”
“It sounds like he already knows that.” Garn huffed. “He’s probably going to try to kill us all anyway.”
“Maybe.” Hesione shrugged. “It still might be worth asking about.”
On the other side of the room, the door creaked open, allowing Paulin and Donifer to walk in. Their eyes opened slightly at the assortment around the table, and Hesione sighed. She waved at them, and they slowly made their way over.
“You know, it’s getting a bit crowded here.” Isnita climbed to her feet. “If you don’t mind, I’ll just take Malah for a moment. Sapphire, you can come too. I just… I think we need some time to get caught up on some things.”
Sapphire and Malah climbed to their feet as well, and the three women walked down the hallway, vanishing from sight. As they made their exit, Garn coughed loudly and elbowed Ondernifam in the side. After several repeated attempts at subtlety, Garn grabbed Ondernifam and pulled him out and into the night. Paulin and Donifer slowly walked over to the table, taking their seats.
“Did I miss something else?” Paulin muttered. “Seems like every time I turn around today there’s another surprise to be had.”
“That’s one way of putting it.” Hesione sighed. “But… Yes. Malah and Ondernifam just got back. It’s a long story, I can fill you in later.”
“Of course.” Paulin sighed and held up his hand. “Moon ale!”
Hesione frowned. “Is it really necessary to keep drinking?”
“Oh, yes.” Paulin nodded as the bartender brought over a large mug of ale. “Let’s see here. My girlfriend is my sister. Check. On a normal day, that would be occasion to start drinking. Ondernifam and Malah came back from the dead something like twelve hours after I found out they were dead, there’s another angel in here, and I could really go on for quite some time about everything else. I’m having a drink or two.”
Hesione sighed as the bartender brought the ale over. “At least you bought out your contract. We can go free now.”
Donifer sighed and crossed his arms. “Yeah… About that.”
Hesione groaned and glanced down at the table. “What now?”
“As it turns out, Paulin has a clause in his contract that he has to serve for at least a year before he can buy the contract out.” Donifer raised an eyebrow. “He also spent all his money on ale, which means that even if that clause wasn’t in there, he’d still be stuck.”
“Great.” Hesione sighed. “Any chance the foreman will just forgive you?”
“Not a chance.” Paulin shook his head as the bartender sat the ale down at the table. “He’s refusing, says I’m one of his better workers. The only way to break a contract is to kill the person who holds the contract, so I’d say we’re out of luck.”
Hesione shrugged. “Unless…”
“We’re not killing anyone.” Paulin groaned into his ale. “I’m depressed. I’m not a maniac.”
“Fair enough.” Hesione sighed. “For the record, I wasn’t going to suggest actually killing him.”
“Then what were you going to suggest?” Paulin raised an eyebrow. “You know a way to break a contract?”
“Donifer has a berifite chip in his sack.” Hesione shrugged. “We could use that to try and simulate death.”
“First off, that’s a horrible idea.” Paulin held up a finger and turned to Donifer. “Second… What are you, royalty? Berifite is one of the rarest substances from the Dark Realm.”
“Being royalty wouldn’t exactly make me an outlier in this crowd.” Donifer smiled softly, then shrugged. “But no, I contain no royal blood. As it happens, Hesione smuggled it out of the king’s palace some time ago. I was helping her hone her darker abilities, and in my haste to leave town, forgot to return it.”
“Of course.” Paulin groaned and took another dredge of the ale. “Still a bad idea.”
Hesione grimaced. Berifite, like many of the substances that dark elves could draw power from, was extraordinarily powerful and quite dangerous. When drawn upon, it could make a nearby target become temporarily undead. It was particularly useful for simulating death over short periods of time, allowing the target to go without breathing for the duration of the spell. Of course, you had to be quite careful when casting the spell, as its effects could easily become permanent. As such, its use was highly restricted.
“Then what do we do?” Hesione raised an eyebrow. “Just leave you here to work the rest of your life away?”
“I don’t know.” Paulin finished the mug and slammed it down onto the table. “Have you ever had your whole world pulled out from under you?”
Hesione puffed out her cheeks. “Yeah. Yeah, I have.”
“And how did you deal with that?”
Hesione just sighed and shook her head. “The first time it happened, I ran. The second time, I basically pushed everyone away for about six months.”
“Exactly.” Paulin signaled for another ale. “You get to do something drastic, I get to do something drastic.”
“And what exactly are you planning?” Hesione leaned forward.
“I don’t know!” Paulin held up his hands. “You don’t plan drastic things! They just happen. Obviously, I break free of this contract so I can go back and meet you guys back in Donisil. I’ll just figure out how to do that as I go along. I’ve still got four and a half years before I have to enter the Grove of Isengrod again in order to make it there on time.” He groaned and shook his head. “Oh… Once I go back, I have to live through all the angel stuff again. Six times wasn’t enough? I hate those things.”
Hesione almost interjected that he wouldn’t actually have to do that at all. Of course… That would involve telling him that he was going to die. And that was sure to cheer him up.
“Look, I just… I don’t know.” Paulin finally shrugged as he started in on his second moon ale. “I don’t know what I’m going to do, I don’t know what I even want right now. Just do me a favor, okay?” He sighed. “Don’t go running off again. I think I would probably just leave and let the foreman end the contract.”
Hesione closed her eyes. Stay with Paulin or he would kill himself. Not too many options, were there?
“Is there any clause in your contract that would let you buy out early?” Hesione finally sighed and looked up. “Some exorbitant amount of money?”
Paulin sighed and nodded. “I need one thousand gold pieces to buy out the contract after a year is up. Prior to that, I’d need fifty thousand. That’s enough to buy a mansion in Nettingo.”
Hesione nodded slowly, then took a deep breath. “Maybe…”
She paused, and Paulin raised his head. “What?”
“Maybe I could go back to Nettingo.” Hesione held up her hands. “I could ask the king. He would buy out your contract. You’re his son.” She chuckled. “I mean, he’s the king. He could just order the contract fulfilled.”
“Not a chance.” Paulin shook his head. “That actually happened… Oh, a thousand years ago or so. The king at the time had a son who did pretty much exactly what I did.” He sighed. “It was so much of an embarrassment to the throne that he had the son thrown in prison.”
“Oh.” Hesione sighed and looked down. “So you’re just going to work here for a year?”
“At least.” Paulin nodded and finished off his second ale. “Unless you can figure out a way to break into the royal treasury. It’s not the most well-guarded place in Elsinor, but it’s near the top of the list.”
Hesione frowned. Garn could come up with some enchantments, Sapphire could…
“Don’t even think about it.” Paulin shrugged. “Besides, we’re elves, remember? Even for a human, a year isn’t long. I’m in the prime of my life, at least two hundred years ahead of me even if I die young. I’d say we’re well enough set.”
“I guess.” Hesione closed her eyes and shook her head. “I don’t like it.”
“Well, get used to it.” Paulin shrugged and stood up. He swayed back and forth for a moment, nearly toppling to the ground. “One more for the road?”
“You’re not going anywhere.” Hesione sighed.
“Right.” Paulin turned and staggered toward the bar. “Then maybe I’ll have two.”
Hesione closed her eyes as he wandered away. Donifer reached over and took her hand, giving it a soft squeeze.
“We’ll stay here.” Donifer shrugged. “I won’t make you choose.”
“What?” Hesione opened her eyes again. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, right now, you’re thinking a lot of things.” Donifer sighed. “You want to stay with me, at least I hope you do, but you’re concerned about Paulin. I can’t say as I blame you, there’s… It’s a situation that’s going to take some getting used to. If you’re willing, there’s a cabin down the road that we can rent for the year. I’ll get a job in the area, there are options that don’t involve selling your soul. We can save up to help Paulin pay off his debt, and we’ll move on from there.”
Hesione smiled even as she felt tears leaking from her eyes. “You’d do that for me?”
Donifer shrugged. “Like Paulin said, we have more of our life left than most humans have to begin with.” He chuckled and leaned back in his chair. “We’re outside of the city, so your dad won’t bother us. It’s not a major area, so no major invasions should hit us. All in all, I’d say we’re in a pretty safe location.”
The words hadn’t yet left his mouth when the roof was blown inward. A male angel came crashing to the wooden floor, landing on his knees and one hand, with his other hand clenched in a fist of victory. As bits and pieces of the ceiling clattered around the room, he slowly climbed back to his feet, a grin on his face.
“Still looks ridiculous.” Another male angel, wings as black as night, came walking through the door. “These people are already afraid of us. A simple entry would have been sufficient.”
“While I won’t argue that it would have been sufficient, making an unexpected entry without invoking an action hero pose is simply unacceptable for any self-respecting individual.” The first angel crossed his arms. “Besides, these backwater ruffians don’t know how cliché it looks. Just… Go with it.”
“Right.” The second angel slowly pulled out a sword and nodded at the table. “Well, on the off-chance that you didn’t already figure it out, we’re the angels.” His gaze darkened. “And I think you know where someone is that we’re looking for.”
“Malah.” Isnita burst into tears the moment that the three of them were out of sight of the main group. “I… I never thought I’d see you again.”
Malah sighed and nodded. “I know. I… I wasn’t sure I’d see you again, either. Everything’s been so crazy.”
“Yeah.” Isnita puffed out her cheeks and glanced at Sapphire. “That’s a bit of an understatement.”
“Hey.” Sapphire pointed at Malah. “I obviously brought you two back together again, didn’t I?”
“That you did.” Isnita inclined her head. “For that, I’m quite grateful. I just…” She shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t understand anything that’s happening here.”
“Then let’s not think about that.” Malah shrugged and stepped forward. “We’re together again. For the first time in what, five thousand years?” She chuckled. “This is great!”
“Great. Yes.” Isnita crossed her arms and sat down on the bed. “Malah… You do realize that we’re still at war, right?”
“I know.” Malah nodded. What was her sister driving at? “With the Brothers. And probably whatever they’re trying to destroy.”
“The brothers are trying to wipe out this entire realm.” Isnita shrugged and glanced up at Sapphire. “I know this isn’t what you want to hear, but we did come to this realm for a reason. It’s likely that we share a common enemy with the Brothers. And if they’re convinced that we need to destroy the realm…” She shrugged. “I can’t escape the feeling that there’s more going on.”
“Hey.” Sapphire pointed a finger at Isnita. “I brought you into this world, I can send you out of it.”
“And I can come right back.” Isnita raised an eyebrow. “Doesn’t really matter how you do it, either.”
“I know.” Sapphire groaned and leaned against a wall. “You angels are weird.”
A thought struck Malah like a brick. “Wait!” She turned to Isnita. “Now that you’re here, do the angels on the other side think that…”
“That I’m in trouble?” Isnita shrugged. “Probably.” She reached up and tapped her head. “I’m in communication with them, at least enough. I don’t have the inter-realm relays that they have on our side, so it’s a fuzzier connection, but I’m letting them know that I’m okay. I’m also in connection with the drones, I can summon them if need be.”
“Good.” Malah nodded, then paused. “Can… Can you teach me to do that?”
“You should already possess the ability.” Isnita shrugged. “Well… I guess you’ve probably forgotten how, I suppose. All angels that retain their intelligence have the ability to peer across the borders between realms. We can physically see into the closest realms, while a bit of magic will allow us to see into realms more distant. With how far apart our two realms are, I can only hear distant whispers.”
Isnita frowned after a moment. “You should have already done this even on accident. Have you seen anything strange or unusual? They would probably appear as ghosts, even entire cities or landforms that shouldn’t be there. Different stars in the sky, moments where you appear to be somewhere else.”
Malah frowned. Ghosts… Calsin was so full of ghosts, she had seen more than one on the group’s various dungeon crawls. That said…
“Yeah.” Malah nodded. “There have been a couple times when I’ve seen things.” She shrugged. “I saw Franclin kill us all. Then I told him to stop, and he did.”
Isnita blinked several times, then turned to Sapphire. “What?”
Sapphire nodded. “Franclin is a Dragon Hunter that’s been… Frustrating.” She sighed. “He was interrogating Malah, and all of a sudden, she looks up at him and tells him not to do it, not to kill her. He responded by asking if she could read his mind.”
Sapphire frowned after a moment. “Come to think of it, that wasn’t the first time. She was able to figure out the combination for a lock in a dwarven ruin by looking into the past.”
“That… That shouldn’t happen.” Isnita frowned and narrowed her eyes. “Can you do it at will?”
Malah shook her head. “It’s always just happened.”
“Uh, huh.” Isnita scratched her head. “Most angels will develop side effects to the magic we use, but it’s usually something like vomiting or not sleeping well.” She shook her head. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Sorry?” Malah held up her hands. “I said it’s not anything I can control.”
“I know.” Isnita nodded. “Well, I’m sure we’ll figure it out. When you come back with me, I’ll have our finest instructors re-teach you.”
Sapphire’s face went from mildly amused to stony. “You’re taking her back?”
“I’m taking you, too.” Isnita crossed her arms. “You may not accept me as a daughter yet, but you’re Malah’s mother, and I’m her sister.”
“Right.” Sapphire relaxed a bit. “And I’ll be able to survive in this realm of yours?”
“We have animals and stuff.” Isnita shrugged. “Everything looks alive to me.”
“Not filling me full of confidence.” Sapphire sighed, but nodded. “Thank you.”
“And, from there, you can have a seat on the ruling council of angels.” Isnita smiled. “You can help us figure out whether or not we do need to destroy this world.” She sighed. “Unfortunately, that’s not a decision I’m going to be able to make here and now.”
“Well, I sincerely hope that the best decision can be made.” Sapphire glanced at the door. “There are a lot of good people in this realm. I’d hate to destroy them all just because-”
An enormous crash shook the building, and Malah spun to face the door. A moment later, Simon and Amil’s voice came drifting through the air.
“They found us.” Malah whispered. “We’re doomed.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Hesione climbed to her feet and shook her head. “You’re… You can actually talk!”
“Yeah, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t just play dumb with me.” The second angel, probably the leader, stepped forward. “Name’s Amil. That’s Simon. We’re looking for an angel and an orc, they probably came through an hour or so ago. Any chance you’ve seen them?”
Hesione slowly shook her head. “I sure haven’t. Why don’t-”
“Therre in da rooom. All tree of them.” Paulin slurred from the bar. “Probly’ doing girl stuff.”
“Girl stuff?” Simon raised his eyebrows. “Sounds like something I’d like to get in on. You said there were three?”
Amil took a step forward, only to slam into an angel that materialized out of thin air. This was one of the drones, the glazed eyes and powerful beauty all but confirmed it. The girl smashed her fist into Amil’s chest, throwing him across the room. He spread his wings wide, but was unable to avoid slamming full-force into the wall.
“Now that’s a drone.” Simon dusted off his clothes. “What’s your name?”
“Come with me.” The voice was hauntingly beautiful as the girl held out her hand. “Come with me.”
“Don’t mind if I do.” Simon stepped forward and took the girl’s hand. She vanished in a burst of light, leaving Simon standing there blinking spots out of his eyes.
“Wow.” He shook his head. “If only we hadn’t taken our realm stabilizer pills like good little angels.” Hesione frowned at him, and he shrugged. “For eight to ten hours, we’re stuck in this realm, like it or not.”
“I’m leaning towards the not.” Amil stalked forward. “Would you just-”
He was cut off again as another angel materialized and knocked him to the ground. As he landed, the girl knelt down next to him and put her hand on his neck, holding him down. He slapped at the arm, to no avail.
“Not so high mighty right now, huh?” Isnita walked into the room, wings spread wide. “I think you’ll find them quite impervious to physical damage.”
“Thankfully, deadly verbal insults are a specialty of mine.” Simon pulled out a chair and sat down. “Now, how about we leave my boss on the floor struggling, and we sit down and have a civilized conversation?”
Amil pulled a knife off his belt and began hacking at the angel holding him down. “I’ll kill you for this!”
“First off, not the first time you’ve made that threat.” Simon pointed a finger down at him. “Second, we did come here to talk to them before we started threatening to level the place and kill everyone inside. You’re not doing such a great job of that part, so I’m taking over negotiations.”
Hesione frowned. “You admit that you’re going to level the place if we don’t agree to your demands?”
“I said we’re going to threaten to level the place.” Simon shrugged and put his feet up on the table. “You have no idea what our capabilities are. We might be bluffing.”
“You’re just making this awkward.” Simon turned and glared at Amil. “You look like a fish, flopping around like that. Just… Stop.”
“What are your demands?” Isnita slowly walked over and sat down at Hesione’s table, keeping an eye on both Amil and Simon. “Start talking.”
“Actually, that’s fairly simple.” Simon shrugged. “Amil here just wants Malah returned to our custody. We weren’t finished examining her. Since she’s a bit of an anomaly, we just want to give her a closer look.”
Isnita raised an eyebrow. “Haven’t you already had a close enough look?”
“No!” Simon crossed his arms tightly. “I was gone for most of the time she was captured, and by the time I got back, someone had smashed all my priceless toys into a thousand pieces. It’s going to take me a century even to repair the jump drive, let alone the technology needed to scan Malah and figure out why in the world she acts the way she does.” He winced. “They also want to figure out how to kill you. You’re sort of our sworn enemies.”
“Right.” Isnita nodded slowly. “And if we refuse?”
“Then we level this place.” Simon shrugged. “I thought I already made that pretty clear.”
Isnita sighed. “And in return for Malah?”
On the floor, Amil made a choking noise. Simon turned and glared at him again before turning back to Isnita.
“It’s quite obvious that, in the absence of the brothers, your people have regressed backwards into a medieval and rather feudal state of being.” Simon shrugged, flapping his wings slightly. “You give us Malah for a short time, say a year, and in return, we’ll provide you with a state-of-the-art Oasis device.”
Isnita raised an eyebrow. “An oasis device?”
Simon nodded. “It’s a piece of technology that can create new and more powerful technologies from raw materials. If you can think it, you can make it. As an added bonus, it’ll actually explain the science behind it, so as long as you have dedicated students to its arts, you can be a technological marvel in no time.”
Isnita frowned. “I didn’t understand much of that, but…”
“We stole a really cool object from another realm and want to give it to you.” Simon crossed his arms, fluttering his feathers. “It’s… How do I put this? A technological artifact that will create a positron field that extends across dimensional lines, serving as a beacon that can later be traced and used for advanced military operations.”
Isnita closed her eyes and fluttered her own wings. “And that’s the short version?”
“More or less.” Simon climbed to his feet. “So, what’s it going to be? Hand over Malah, or watch as your realm burns around you?”
“I’ll take my chances with the burning.” Isnita climbed to her feet and crossed her arms. “Get out.”
“With pleasure.” Simon turned to Amil and held out his hand. “Come with me.”
Amil snorted. “I’d rather die.”
“Depending on how our imminent raid pans out, that may indeed be on the menu.” Simon snickered and helped Amil to his feet as the drone let go of him. “Shall we be off?”
They both flexed their wings and flashed through the hole in the ceiling. Isnita let out a long breath as Malah slowly walked out into the room, her black wings trailing across the floor.
“You were going to give me up?”
“Never.” Isnita puffed out her cheeks. “And I’m not letting anyone else die, either.”
Hesione crossed her arms. She would have done the exact same thing, she never would have surrendered any of the team to anyone, but… Did Isnita actually have a plan? “So… What’s the plan?”
Isnita slowly raised her hands. Beams of light shot through the hole in the ceiling, rising into the night sky. Instantly, dozens of the mindless angels began to appear in the room. They launched themselves up through the hole as well, and began slowly circling around the inn in a slow rotation.
“We’re going to fight.” Isnita turned and grinned. “And we’re going to win.”
Malah slowly stepped through the front door of the inn, following Isnita. Over fifty angels were now flying around the perimeter of the area, glowing brilliantly and lighting up the surrounding forest. The handful of civilians screamed and ran back and forth, trying to decide if it was better to risk running past the angels into the woods, or staying put.
“Everyone into the inn!” Hesione raised her voice. “Now!”
Dozens of high elves scrambled past them, piling through the door in a fashion that would have been comical in most other circumstances. Garn and Ondernifam came walking up, confused looks on their faces.
“We are not fighting the angels.” Ondernifam snarled. “We won?”
“Oh, you’re a long way from winning.” Isnita sighed. “The brothers are about to attack.”
“Yes!” Ondernifam roared. “I will flay them on my claws!”
“They’ll just get back up again.” Malah sighed and turned to Isnita. “I…”
“I don’t have time to talk right now.” Isnita turned and sighed down at Malah. “I’m sorry, but… I need you to trust me right now.”
Malah frowned. “What do you mean?”
Isnita took a deep breath. “I mean, Simon knows something. Something he really doesn’t want Amil to know.”
Malah frowned. “And what’s that?”
“If I knew, I would be using something a bit more solid than something.” Isnita sighed. “You saw all that fluttering he was doing with his wings?”
Malah nodded slowly. “It looked like he had an itch.”
“It’s an ancient form of sign language.” Isnita frowned. “Not many of the angels have kept it up, but a few of the high-ups still maintain it as a way to communicate dire information without the risk of someone overhearing us.” She shrugged. “He was using it. It was a little different than what I’m used to, but it was pretty clear that he thinks you’re a key of some sort.”
Malah frowned. “Amil used that word, too. Something about how I was the key to the sisters.”
“No.” Isnita shook her head. “Amil used you as a key to find this realm, so he could draw us out and kill us. Simon…” She shrugged. “He seemed to think that your black wings are a bit more than just an accident. Again, he wasn’t able to say more than that.”
Malah frowned. “Interesting.” She shuddered. “So… It wasn’t an accident? That a pixie showed up and killed all those people?”
“That, in and of itself, may have been an accident.” Isnita shrugged. “Just… Look at us. There isn’t a female angel with black wings or clothes, and there isn’t a dark angel that isn’t male. You’re an outlier. Something that neither side has seen in recorded history.”
Malah raised an eyebrow. “It’s not like we really have much to go off of.”
Isnita smirked slightly. “Very true.” She slowly turned to look up at the sky. “He did say that the threat was real enough. We just-”
Overhead, the moon flickered dark for a split second. A whistle split the air, and a brother slammed into the ground only feet away. He wasn’t anyone that Malah recognized, he must have worked in a different part of the prison. He stood up and raised a large wand, shaped vaguely like the letter L. Before he could move, Isnita brought up her palm and fired a burst of light into his head. He spun and began firing bursts of flame up into the sky, eliciting several cries of pain from hidden angels.
Malah flexed her wings as the female drones began to wing through the sky, faster and faster. Explosions shook the night, and she grimaced.
The battle was on.
Hesione ducked back as the male angel continued to fire spells into the sky. After a moment, he stopped, and Isnita slammed a sword through his chest. Sapphire ran out, in full sorceress garb. Another male angel ducked past the line of female angels and dove for the group. Sapphire fired a burst of light into his chest, transforming him into a frog that struck the ground with a rather loud splat. The creature healed and hopped off into the night, but it was harmless enough, now.
The female angels began to fall back, eventually landing around the inn. Hesione felt helpless as the male angels charged forward, now with swords instead of wands. In the glow of the female angels, she could see them as dark blurs, charging towards the line, dealing a few blows, and retreating. None were able to break through, none were able to find purchase.
Hesione sighed and crossed her arms. She couldn’t even see the battle, let alone fight in it. Slowly, she turned and walked back into the inn, where dozens of civilians huddled. She glanced around the room, noting dozens of loggers, travelers, and a man that could only be the foreman. He stood a head taller than the rest and had tattoos across his exposed arms. To top it off, several dozen charms were hanging from a necklace. Charms used to seal the contracts signed by the dozens of workers under his command. And, unfortunately, he was standing directly by the door, next to her.
“Move over.” He muttered as she squeezed into the room. “We’re all important, here.”
Hesione frowned. “I never said anyone wasn’t.”
“Well, you weren’t giving me the proper respect.” The man muttered. “Catgirl.”
Hesione frowned. It was a derogatory term for elven females that was thankfully growing outdated. She hadn’t had anyone call her that in years, and it had been rather nice.
“Excuse me.” Hesione crossed her arms. “I’m a woman of repute.”
“Yeah?” The foreman drawled. “You got a boyfriend?”
Across the room, she could see Donifer sitting at the bar, next to Paulin. He had his hand on Paulin’s shoulder, as if trying to console him. “Yeah, I do.”
“Yeah?” The foreman raised an eyebrow. “He here?”
Hesione nodded at the bar. “The dark elf.”
“You’re dating a dark?” The foreman snorted. “No standards. You’re going to have a calico. You would do that to a child?”
Behind them, something exploded quite violently. A sword erupted through the wall, sinking into the foreman’s back. He screamed and fell to the floor, knocking over one of the workers. Everyone scrambled back as the sword vanished, and nearly everyone else stepped away from the walls.
“Help me!” The foreman screamed. “I’m dying!”
“You put a clause in our contracts.” One of the workers hesitated. “If we touch you, we die. That’s magic, you can’t fix it now. Besides, if you die…”
“Catgirl!” The foreman glanced up at Hesione. “You’re not under contract! Save me!” He turned and glared at the worker. “When I survive, I’m terminating your contract for that.”
Hesione sighed and knelt down next to the foreman. The wound wasn’t particularly deep, it looked like it might have broken a rib, maybe punctured a single lung. Nothing particularly pleasant, but also nothing that he wouldn’t live through.
“Ooh, that’s a bad one.” Hesione breathed as she slowly reached behind her back. She needed to help him. That was what she had been trained to do, right? She couldn’t just kill him, Paulin had talked to her about that. Her fingers found purchase on the handle of a dagger, and she took a deep breath. “I need to get this wound cleaned up.” Her arms felt heavy as she pulled the weapon out in front of her. “This may hurt a bit.”
The scream echoed through the air as Malah threw the male angel away from the inn. He laughed and twirled the sword, a grin on his face.
“There’s blood.” He laughed. “Looks like I…”
A spear slammed through his chest, emerging from a newfound hole in his body. He gave a soft gurgle and collapsed, revealing Isnita. She pulled the weapon out, gave it a quick twirl, and threw it up into the air. It spiked through another male angel flying overhead, causing him to fall to the ground several feet away.
“Alright.” Isnita took a deep breath. “We need to start playing offensively. Attack!”
With a rush, a dozen more angels appeared around the inn. While the originals stayed to guard the place, the newcomers erupted into the air, equipped with swords that trailed flames through the skies. Six of them linked up together, forming a glowing star in the sky. Fire blazed between them, casting light across the entire area. All six of them held out their swords, sending brilliant, purifying beams of energy into the forest. Trees burst into flame, rocks melted into lava. The female angels flashed through the trees, chasing after the now-fleeing brothers.
Distant explosions shook the ground, and Isnita slowly turned to Malah.
“What now?” Malah frowned. “Do we chase them back to their ship?”
“No.” Isnita took a deep breath and closed her eyes. “Malah? Do you trust me?”
Malah nodded as Sapphire stepped up to her side. “Of course.”
Isnita slowly turned to Sapphire. “Do you trust me? Do the others?”
Sapphire puffed out her cheeks. “Honestly… I don’t know. I can convince them.” She frowned. “Why?”
Isnita shrugged. “I have a plan.” She took a deep breath. “But I don’t think you’re going to like it.”
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