“You… You killed the foreman?” Paulin muttered and rubbed his head as the group stumbled back down the road towards Nettingo. “Really?”
“He was injured too badly to survive.” Hesione breathed. “Please, don’t make me think about it again.”
Paulin groaned and continued to rub his head. The sun was just rising on the land, ready to cast its blazing heat down onto the countryside. In the early morning, the cool mists of the forests were still in the air, making for a much more pleasant experience. It was going to be far less pleasant once the sun got a bit higher.
He didn’t remember much of the night before. He had started drinking, the dark angels had shown up, and… That had really been about it. According to Hesione, he had wound up passing out at the bar after drinking half a keg of ale once the bartender ran screaming. Though he couldn’t remember it, he hoped that the experience had been worth the pain he was experiencing now.
Next to Hesione, Donifer walked next to his girlfr… His sister. He shook his head, regretting the decision almost immediately as fireballs erupted inside his skull. Hesione was his sister! He had kissed his sister! He…
“Cheer up.” Garn walked up next to him and slapped him on the back. “She didn’t want me, either.”
Paulin frowned down at the dwarf. “You’re not even the same species.”
“Still, I’m a fine dwarven specimen.” Garn shrugged. “I would have turned her down, of course, but-”
“You’re not fine.” Ondernifam rumbled, next to Garn. “You’re a dwarf!”
Malah, perched on Ondernifam’s shoulders, giggled and flapped her wings. Paulin puffed out his cheeks and glanced around at the group.
They were a motley crowd, that was for sure. One high elf, one dark elf, one mixture, a dwarf, an orc, two angels, and a human. Wonderful.
“So…” Paulin finally spoke up. “Why again are we heading back to the city?” He nodded at Hesione. “I thought you were against it.”
“I can’t say as I’m thrilled with the possibility.” Hesione’s voice was tight. “You’d understand if you hadn’t been passed out for the entire conversation.”
“Right.” Paulin rubbed his forehead again. “Care to convince me now? Because I’m really not sure I’m ready to face Nettingo again.” He puffed out his cheeks. “Not after everything that’s happened.”
“You don’t have a choice.” Isnita stepped in front of him and glared at him, walking backwards down the road. “The brothers want to get their hands on Malah for some unknown reason. I’d rather not let that happen until we know exactly why. So, for the time being, we’re withdrawing to a more fortified position. Since you happen to be a pretty solid link to the king, we need you to convince him to help erect defenses against the brothers.”
“Right.” Paulin muttered. “Because he’ll listen to me.”
“He’ll listen to us.” Hesione shot back. “We just have to get there first.”
Paulin nodded slowly. “How much longer?”
“Not more than an hour.” Isnita shrugged. “Once we get there, we meet with the king, and then we go from there. Garn says that he has an enchantment that may help with the defense.”
“Best thing you’ve ever seen.” Garn puffed out his chest. “I can’t tell you what it is, of course, but…”
“As long as it helps.” Paulin sighed. “Great. That all sounds good to me.” He closed his eyes. “It just hinges on me actually having to see my father again.”
“I’ve been dealing with the guy for the last six months.” Hesione snapped. “It’s about time you had to do the same.”
“Right.” Paulin took a deep breath. “In that case…” He shook his head, grimacing as explosions once again went off through his skull. “Let’s get this over with.”
Garnisic smiled as the group tromped through the gates into the palace. As much as he would have rather walked into a dwarven fortress, it was quite nice to be able to simply walk past the guards while all the commoners watched.
They hadn’t gone far when the king appeared, rushing out of the palace, robes trailing behind him in the wind. He drew up short before them, eyes wide.
“So it’s true.” He breathed. “I assume this is Malah?”
“That one is Malah.” Sapphire pointed to Malah, who giggled from her high perch. “This is Isnita, leader of the female angels.”
“That implies that there are male angels.” The king took a short breath. “Whatever you have to say, I assume it isn’t good.”
“Not particularly.” Paulin groaned. “You’re going to want to-”
His speech was cut off as the king stepped forward and threw his arms around the elf. Garnisic chuckled as Paulin groaned. Man, he was hungover. Dwarves had a much higher constitution than the paltry elves. A moment later, the king drew back and crossed his arms.
“Paulin.” The king breathed. “Is this… Is this actually you, or a different version of you?”
“To my knowledge, I’m the most aged version of Paulin that there is.” Paulin nodded slowly. “It’s possible that I travel back in time again sometime in the future, but…”
“You’re here, and that’s what counts.” The king smiled as several tears trickled down his face. “I’ve missed you.”
“You’re about to miss a lot more than that.” Sapphire raised an eyebrow. “Is there a safe place we can talk?”
The king turned and looked at the group, then nodded tightly. “Come with me.”
He turned and swept through the palace, robes billowing in his wake. The rest of the group swept after him. Garnisic found himself having to jog in order to keep up. For a brief moment, he cursed his tiny legs. While he enjoyed being short, there were benefits to being taller. Mainly in the area of being able to keep up with everyone else.
The king swept up the stairs to his throne room a moment later. Garnisic whistled softly as they walked through the enormous double doors. Though they had spent a great deal of time in the palace over the previous six months, he was quite certain that they had never actually been inside the throne room. Enormous marble pillars rose on all sides, holding a thick limestone roof well over one hundred feet above their heads. It lacked any walls, allowing them to see out over the rest of the palace and the city itself. A handful of guards stood between the pillars, their golden armor gleaming in the sunlight.
The king reached his throne a moment later. He dropped onto the stone chair and ran a finger across the arm. Instantly, the pillars split open, allowing massive iron plates to slide out and fill the gaps. A moment passed, and the room was completely sealed off from the outer world. Enchantments glimmered on the surface of the metal, giving no illusion about how protected they now were.
“We can speak now.” The king nodded as the iron doors slammed shut. “Perhaps you could begin telling me what exactly is happening? I presume that it involves national security.”
“It does.” Sapphire bowed her head. “You see-”
“The dark angels are about to attack Nettingo.” Isnita spoke up. “They’re powerful, and you’ll need our help if you’re going to succeed in taking them down.”
The king raised an eyebrow. “Explain.”
It took them several minutes to recap everything that had happened over the previous several days. By the time they finished, the king was leaning back in his chair, stroking his chin.
“Interesting, indeed.” The king nodded slowly. “So, let me get this straight. Isnita, you’re the leader of the angels that have been slaughtering our people. And now, despite the fact that we’ve seen no indication of peace from you before, you want to defend our city. I presume this means allowing your angels access to our defenses.”
“It does.” Isnita nodded. She paused, then crossed her arms. “May I be frank about something?”
“I would appreciate it.” The king nodded. “Speak.”
Isnita simply held up her hand. A pulse of light leapt from her palm, and one of the mindless angels appeared next to her. The guards around the perimeter of the throne room all drew their swords, and Isnita dipped her head.
“Please believe me when I say that I mean no offense.” Isnita shrugged. “I simply want you to understand that I can defend this city even without your help. It will simply be easier and more effective if we work together. If I wanted you dead, I could level this entire settlement in a matter of minutes.”
The king sighed. “The dark angels can too, then.” He closed his eyes and groaned for several seconds before nodding and climbing to his feet. “Hesione, Paulin, take Isnita and whoever else will be involved in defending the city. Go to the commander of my watch, work with him to lay out the defense.” He paused. “You do think that there will be a battle?”
“I’m certain of it.” Isnita nodded. “The brothers seek to destroy this realm. I’d like to know what this realm has to offer before I start sacking it.”
“I do appreciate the courtesy.” The king nodded at Garnisic. “Master dwarf, if you would come with me, I do believe that we have important issues to discuss.”
As the king walked past him and the metal barriers retreated back into the pillars, Garnisic hurried to catch up with the elf. As they walked, he heard Hesione calling out.
“You just want him?”
The king sighed and turned slightly. “Do forgive me, but I have other, equally pressing issues at hand. If you don’t wish to be involved in the defense planning, you may go to the garden. We can come back together as soon as possible.”
With that, the king turned and kept moving. Garnisic hurried to catch up as they swept out onto the palace walkways.
“What’s going on?” Garnisic frowned up at the king. “Problems with my enchantments?”
“No, actually.” The king flashed a smile down at him. “They’ve been working wonders. And, as luck would have it, that’s exactly why I need to talk to you.”
It didn’t take them long to reach the enchanting forge. The king swung the statue open, muttering a few choice words about forced entry, and the two made their way down into the depths.
“You’ve returned!” A dwarven voice boomed from the darkness. “I’m not entirely certain if this is working. Now…” There was a pause as Garnisic walked out onto the floor. “You have a visitor!”
Garnisic frowned at the sight of the plains dwarf cleric standing next to the enchanting forge. He was instantly recognizable as the owner of the room, Highsand Barn.
“Barn.” Garnisic inclined his head. “I didn’t know you were back in town.”
“I was able to break free of my prior engagements, and after a somewhat lengthy and well-deserved vacation, I found my way back here.” Barn turned and picked up one of Garnisic’s communication disks off a nearby table. “I must say, this is marvelous work.”
“Of course it is.” Garnisic crossed his arms and nodded at the table, where several more of the disks sat. “I spent…” His voice trailed off as he counted the objects. There were at least ten sitting there, all the same in design. “What is this?”
“This…” The king sighed and put his hands behind his back. “This is a bit of a problem. Garnisic, can you keep a secret?”
“I would never entrust myself with the secret of a plains dwarf.” Garnisic stalked over to the table and picked up several of the disks. Each one was identical, each one shimmered with the careful enchantments that he had spent so long creating. Slowly, he held one to his mouth and muttered a curse. The noise boomed out of all ten, loud and clear. “How did you make these? I just left last night!”
“Yes.” The king inclined his head. “That would be the part you were fixated on. Highsand?”
“Of course.” Highsand Barn turned to Garnisic, paused, and reached into the folds of his cloak. He withdrew a small, blue crystal a moment later. The tiny gemstone shimmered with an inner light, an enchantment that Garnisic wasn’t familiar with. “Do you know what this is?”
Garnisic shook his head and walked forward. “May I see it?”
Barn nodded and placed the crystal in Garnisic’s hand. He held it up to his eye, marveling at the way the energy twisted and glowed.
“If I had to guess, you’ve never seen anything like it.” Barn sighed after a few seconds. “That there is called a diplictar crystal.”
Garnisic frowned. “The name sounds familiar.”
“As it should.” Barn nodded. “Most dwarven children have memorized the name. A diplictar is one of the many crystal types that could be harvested from a crysilin.”
Garnisic slowly handed the small crystal back to Barn. “The crysilin have been dead for millennia. We hunted them to extinction.”
“That much, at least, is true.” Barn nodded. “However, the stories then go on to say that the enchantments drawn from the crysilin were all used up. All crystals harvested, all gemstones depleted. However, this isn’t quite the case.” Barn sighed. “Some were saved, in the event that they were needed.”
Garnisic chuckled. “If that were true, if any of the crysilin gemstones survived, the Fond’sar would have them all under lock and key.” Barn and the king glanced at each other, and Garnisic felt his stomach drop. “Please tell me you didn’t steal these from a Fond’sar safe.”
“Technically, it was a Fond’sar warehouse.” Barn shrugged. “And very technically, I was given them.”
“You can’t just steal things from the Fond’sar!” Garnisic waved his hands. “They’ll kill you!”
“And how, pray tell, do you know that?” Barn crossed his arms. “Have you ever had any experiences with them?”
Garnisic opened his mouth to reply, then sighed. “Once. That’s why I’m on the road.”
“Then how would you know so much about them?” Barn raised an eyebrow. “As far as you know, you were thrown out for putting too many enchantments on a weapon. How does that lead to your knowledge of how they tolerate theft?”
Garnisic paused. But… Something had been stolen from the Fond’sar? Right? Hadn’t… Hadn’t that happened?
“I don’t know.” Garnisic finally bit out. “I don’t know, I just do.”
“Please.” The king held up a hand. “If you don’t mind, Barn, we are running a bit low on time. Perhaps rehashing everything we know about our friend here isn’t the best idea at this moment.”
“What?” Garnisic crossed his arms. “What do you know about me?”
Barn shrugged. “You’re a subject of interest inside the ranks of the Fond’sar. After you were thrown out, you have to imagine that they kept tabs on you. You have, indeed, ran into them several times throughout your travels. Your memory has been erased on each occasion, your path returned to normal.”
Garnisic shook his head. He didn’t want to hear any of this! “What does this have to do with whatever is happening right now?”
“Two things.” The king stepped in. “Highsand Barn and I are both unwilling participants in the schemes that the Fond’sar delight in. I was instructed by the Fond’sar command to force you into creating a communication device that would work over extraordinarily long ranges. You were able to do just that.”
“You used me for the Fond’sar?” Garnisic felt the world grow red. “How dare you?”
“I wasn’t finished.” The king held up a hand. “However, that brings us to part two of this whole scheme.” He sighed. “The Fond’sar have their hands in nearly every aspect of life across Calsin. When the ship that carried the dark angels crashed on our mountains, realm mages everywhere were able to detect the burst of energy. Since receiving the news, I’ve been more or less waiting to find out exactly what it all meant.” He shrugged. “Earlier today, I received the news that I was to prepare for an influx of Fond’sar agents in Nettingo.”
Garnisic frowned. “The Fond’sar are planning on attacking the angels?”
“Hardly.” Barn shook his head. “The Fond’sar care as little for combat as they do peace.” He took a deep breath. “Their agents are preparing to march on the ship, not to attack or to destroy it… But to try and steal it.”
“I don’t understand.” Hesione crossed her arms as the group walked out of the throne room and began walking across the palace. “Are you really so concerned about our continent?”
“No.” Isnita shook her head. “Forgive me for being so blunt, but my primary concern is to my people.” She glanced at Malah. “There’s… A bit more to this story.”
Malah bowed her head. She had been trying to make sense of everything ever since Isnita had talked to her out in the woods. Nothing had yet began to make sense, which left her… Well, quite confused.
“I’m bored.” Ondernifam rumbled. “No one to fight.”
“Come with me.” Donifer spoke up. “There’s a wonderful sparring ring a bit deeper in the city.” He glanced back and forth at the group. “In fact, why don’t we all head that way? Everyone who isn’t needed.”
Paulin tapped Hesione on the shoulder and turned to follow the orc and the dwarf. Donifer frowned after a moment and tapped Sapphire on the shoulder.
“You too, ma’am.” He shrugged. “Seems to me like the angels will need to do most of the work.”
“I’m her mother.” Sapphire shook her head. “I go where she goes.”
“It’s okay.” Malah took Sapphire’s hand and nodded. “We’ll be safe without you.”
“I’m not leaving you again.” Sapphire shook her head. “You were gone for six months, I just found you yesterday.”
“You found Ondi yesterday, too.” Malah nodded at the orc. “He’s been wanting a real fight.”
Sapphire glanced over her shoulder. Ondernifam balled his fists and growled at her, and she forced a smile. Slowly, the sorceress gave Malah’s hand a soft squeeze. “Tell me everything.”
As Malah pulled away, Sapphire kept ahold of her for quite some time longer than she probably needed to. Malah was finally forced to simply yank her hand out of Sapphire’s and walk away.
“She’s really fallen into this whole motherhood thing quite well.” Hesione remarked as they walked away. “There was a time when she would barely look at you.”
“I know.” Malah frowned. “It was rude.”
As they walked, Hesione spoke up once more.
“Isnita? You said that there was more to the story?”
“Yes.” Isnita nodded. “I told Malah as much yesterday. Simply put, the male angel Simon seems to think that…” She shrugged. “He seemed to think that there was something important about Malah. Something that the rest of us aren’t seeing.”
“Because of her black wings.” Hesione frowned. “What do you think it is?”
“Beats me.” Isnita shrugged. “I think it has him confused, too. He sounded fairly urgent that we get to a safer location. The other angels are going to attack, probably to steal Malah back.”
“Interesting.” Hesione mused. “What would be the purpose? Would it provide them with a way to kill you?”
“I don’t know.” Isnita shrugged as they walked onto a narrow pathway that led towards the far side of the palace. “I simply don’t.”
They continued to walk in silence for the rest of the journey. Malah didn’t quite understand it. Her wings were black. So what? It was a little weird, but nothing else had happened since then. Why was it an issue now?
They finally reached the watch commander’s office. It was basically a small throne room in and of itself, with massive pillars holding a twenty-foot high ceiling aloft. The doors hung open, revealing dozens of desks covered in papers and drawings. A high elf stood with his back to the open door, bent over a large desk, scribbling frantically on a piece of paper.
“Watch Commander.” Hesione dipped her head as they walked into the room. “It’s an honor to meet you.”
“The honor is mine.” The voice came from their right, and Malah spun to see another high elf sitting behind a much more elaborate desk. “Please, enter.”
Malah slowly walked into the room. It was fifty feet on a side, more than enough space to hold the mass of paperwork. The Watch Commander slowly stood up and sighed. “Therigon, you may leave.”
The first elf turned, bowed his head, and walked from the room. As he left, the doors swung shut, sealing them inside. The only light came from hundreds of flickering torches spaced out around the room and hanging from the ceiling. The Watch Commander, dressed in elaborate military armor, stepped around the desk and held out his hand.
“Let’s see. You must be Hesione, Isnita, and Malah.”
Isnita frowned and slowly raised her hand. “How do you know our names? Did the king send word ahead?”
“Sadly, no.” The Watch Commander sighed and leaned against his desk. “I realize that this isn’t answering your question directly, but do know where we are?”
Malah frowned. “The Watch Commander’s office?”
“Yes.” The Commander nodded. “This is where we make all the major plans pertaining to the defense of the city. It’s where we mark our secret passageways, make notes of guard rotations, prepared offensive strategies, and so much more.” He tapped his desk. “With so much information, we’re located at the rear of the palace, protected on one side by a thousand loyal soldiers, and on the other side by some of the deadliest enchantments that you’ll find in Elsinor. Strictly speaking, this place is more protected than the throne room itself.”
Before any of the group could speak, the Commander continued, pointing at a distant corner of the room. “As such, you can imagine my surprise when he managed to make it past all those defenses and drew facial hair on all the depictions of wanted criminals that our spies keep watch for.”
Malah turned and stared at the corner. As she watched, one of the shadows stepped out and into the light. Black wings parted, revealing a rather snarky face that she was getting a bit tired of seeing.
“Oh, come on. I made your investigation easier.” Simon strode forward. “All those criminals have been on the loose for years, not because they left town, but because they probably put on disguises. I simply provided you with images of what those disguises might look like.”
The Commander crossed his arms. “Elves don’t grow facial hair.”
“Right.” Simon shrugged. “They’re probably using face paint to pretend to be really tall humans. Check it out, trust me.” After a few seconds, he grinned and spun to face the women. “In any event, now that you’re here…” He shrugged. “Maybe we can actually sit down and get something accomplished.”
“I don’t get it.” Sapphire crossed her arms. “I haven’t seen her for six months, and she’s just okay with leaving again?”
“She wanted us to fight!” Ondernifam roared. “She was nice!”
Paulin winced at the roar. His headache was going away, but it was far from simply vanishing. Ahead, Donifer wound his way through the streets of Nettingo, towards… A sparring ring? If they hadn’t entered the city at all, they could have just sparred in the trees.
He wasn’t sure why he had decided to come with Donifer, he just… He had been more than ready to get out of the palace. His father had hugged him once, and then promptly left. That had been the entire extent of their interactions? Really? No I love you, no good to see you. A quick hug, and that had been that. Typical.
It was the reason Paulin had never desired the throne all that much. He had heard stories of his father before becoming king. Tales of a man so wild and adventurous that nothing could tame him. And then… Royalty presented itself, and he turned into the man that now ruled Elsinor. Maybe that had been why Paulin had ran after Hesione. Maybe he had just been so desperate for any reason not to sit on the throne, not go through some sort of twisted arranged marriage. He didn’t even know for sure who his mother was. He was certain that Hesione would never meet her mother. What about his new brother? Was he from the same lineage?
It was impossible to know, and he frankly didn’t want to know. He just wanted another ale. He hadn’t had his morning drink yet, and it was showing. Slowly, he balled his hands into fists and tried to ignore the dull drumming noise that thudded through his brain.
“And we’re here!” Donifer announced. “I quite enjoyed working out here. You two might give it a try.”
Paulin forced his eyes open to take in the scene. They were in a part of Nettingo that he had never been to before, that much was obvious. It was the dark quarter of the city, the area designated for dark elves and non-elven species. A large courtyard seemed to have been requisitioned for use as a sparring arena, with a fifty-foot wide pit that had been dug down several feet in order to allow for more well-defined boundaries. On the far side, a small dark elven temple had been erected from what appeared to be leftover construction materials. A handful of dark elven children played in the arena, sparring with large sticks.
“Of course we will!” Ondernifam jumped into the pit, nearly knocking over a young boy. “Hurry!”
Sapphire sighed and hopped down into the pit as well. She transformed into her sorceress self, but even Paulin could see the apathy on her face. She wanted to be there about as badly as he did. Slowly, Paulin walked over to a small bench and sat down, squinting against the rising sun. Nearby, Donifer shielded his eyes from the sun, then turned and walked to a different bench.
“Don’t want to sit by me?” Paulin called across the distance as Donifer sat down. “Am I that bad?”
“You do appear to hate me.” Donifer shrugged. “I thought this would be best.”
Paulin groaned and patted the bench next to him. “Come on. Let’s talk.”
Donifer shrugged and climbed to his feet. He walked back over and sat down next to Paulin, a confused look on her face. “What do you want to talk about?”
“Hesione.” Paulin sighed and lowered his face into his hands. “How…” He took a deep breath. Images danced in front of his eyes, holding her, pulling her close. “How is she?”
“I think she’s been better.” Donifer sighed and ran his hand through his hair. “I really am sorry, I…”
“Don’t be.” Paulin puffed out his cheeks. “You never met me, you didn’t know who I was. All you knew was that she had a lover that turned out to be a brother. More or less?”
Donifer sighed and nodded. “Pretty much sums it up. I traveled with the group earlier, so when she showed up…” He shrugged. “She needed someone to talk to, and I was that person. Honestly, I never meant for it to go this far.”
Paulin’s head spun so fast that the entire world tilted. “And how far have things gone?”
“Come on.” Donifer shook his head. “We’re friends. We’re not even officially dating yet, and the way things are going, I don’t think we will.”
Paulin frowned. “What do you mean?”
Donifer sighed and shrugged. “Don’t get me wrong, I really like Hesione. I just get the feeling that the feelings aren’t quite reciprocated.”
Paulin frowned. “She looks at you the same way she used to look at me.”
“Exactly.” Donifer held up a finger. “She had a relationship, a deep and meaningful relationship that she’s more or less been in her whole life. That got taken away, leaving her with a giant hole.” Donifer shrugged. “Men look for the physical things in a relationship. How the woman looks, what she does. When she leaves, we fill that gap with physical things. More women, booze, a job.” He sighed. “Women look for the emotional things. What a man says, how he feels about her. When a man leaves, she tries to fill it with more emotion.” He pointed a thumb at himself. “You’re not going to be able to drink away your problems forever. And I don’t think she’ll be able to keep me around forever, either.”
Paulin blinked his eyes several times. “You really think that?”
“I have… Multiple sisters.” Donifer sighed. “And, let’s be real. I’m not ugly, but I’m not exactly attractive either. I’ve seen that exact same look on more than one woman before, and it usually sticks around for a few months until she winds up finding true love again.”
Paulin frowned. “Then why go with it?”
“I tried to leave.” Donifer held up his hands. “Quite hard, actually, and she followed.” He crossed his arms. “Now, which sounds better to you? To be the guy who spurns the princess, or to be the guy that gets spurned by the princess? One of those options ends with my head still attached to my body, the other doesn’t.”
Paulin closed his eyes. “You don’t love her?”
He wasn’t sure what answer he wanted to hear come from the elf’s mouth. If he answered no, it would be simple. He could throw Donifer out, and though Paulin and Hesione wouldn’t truly be together again… There wouldn’t be any more distractions. On the other hand…
“I do love her.” Donifer raised an eyebrow. “I believe I already made that clear. I just…” He sighed. “I truly don’t believe she loves me back. And I don’t believe that she ever will. I think that this whole situation with the angels is about to explode in our faces, and I think I’m going to get left on the sidelines.” He chuckled. “I mean, look at you guys. Two members of royalty, a dwarf that can enchant things that shouldn’t be enchanted, a peaceful-ish orc, a sorcerer, angels…” He shrugged. “I’m nothing compared to you guys.”
Paulin puffed out his cheeks and sighed. “You’re not nothing.”
“Yeah, I pretty much am.” Donifer shrugged. “And that’s not a bad thing, trust me. I have no desire to wind up on the front lines of really… Anything. Can you see me in combat?”
Paulin frowned. “I thought you said you got a lot of use out of this place?”
Donifer shrugged. “That may have been a ruse to get those two to fight. Ondernifam has been itching for it, and Sapphire needs to blow off some steam doing something that doesn’t involve bringing people back from the dead.”
Paulin’s eyes opened slightly. “She’s been doing that?”
“I can’t say that I’m surprised she left it out of her debriefing.” Donifer muttered. “The Persphonar threatened to perform a ritual to summon her before Persphone herself.”
Paulin whistled, regretting the decision almost immediately. “I didn’t realize things were so bad.”
“Trust me when I say that your drinking problem is nothing compared to what some of them did to cope.” Donifer chuckled. “It was a wild six months.”
“I can tell.” Paulin groaned and shook his head. In the ring, Ondernifam and Sapphire danced back and forth. Ondernifam managed to land a hit on Sapphire’s shoulder, causing her to respond by leaping into the air and scissor-kicking him in the face. The orc roared with delight and batted Sapphire from the air. As she came back up, Paulin could see only determination on her face. “Do you mind if I say something?”
“Only if it’s a spell that kills me on the spot.” Donifer shrugged.
“You really are good for this group.” Paulin nodded after several more seconds. “You have both of them back to normal.”
“I try.” Donifer shrugged. “Figured it might be good to let them blow off some steam.”
“Well done.” Paulin glanced up at Donifer. “You still have to get me feeling better, too.”
“Oh, I think I’ve succeeded.” Donifer shrugged. “We were in the shade when you sat down. We’re not anymore, and you haven’t complained about a headache once.”
Paulin glanced up, belatedly noticing that yes, the sun was at full height, beating down on him. The shadow hadn’t shifted much, only a few degrees, but it had been enough. And it had been so gradual that he hadn’t even noticed.
“Well, while you soak in that revelation, I’ll be back.” Donifer climbed to his feet. “There’s an herb garden down the street. I can mix a few things together and make a tonic that should clear the rest of the headache up.”
As he walked down the street, out of view, Paulin took a deep breath.
Donifer was good for the group, regardless of how good he was or wasn’t at combat. And, if he was admitting it, he was good for Hesione, too. Nevertheless… The thought of her with him…
He shook the thought away. Donifer had been doing his best to get Paulin out of that mindset. He was a spectator, watching an orc battle against a human. Sapphire’s leaps and twirls were something to see, Ondernifam’s quick moves and combination attacks were quite impressive. He was there, he was happy.
Anything else would just have to wait.
“Simon.” Isnita’s voice was cold. “You broke in here?”
“Technically, I walked in.” Simon shrugged and walked over to the Watch Commander’s desk. He sat down on the edge, draping his wings across the impeccably detailed charts. “It’s really not hard. Just look like you’re supposed to be there, and no one will notice.” He frowned. “Admittedly, it helps if you steal a plus-sized suit of armor and cover your wings with a cloak, but it still worked. I got you, didn’t I?”
“You did.” The Watch Commander ground out. “Get to the point.”
Simon frowned and pointed at the elf. “Does he have to be here? Three women, one ravishly handsome man, you can’t tell me that doesn’t sound like a good time.”
“Actually, I can.” Isnita raised an eyebrow.
Simon scowled at her. “Right. You’re the commander…” He turned to Hesione. “You have a boyfriend…” His gaze finally settled on Malah. “Want to go on a date? Just the two of us? There’s a fantastic inn out in the countryside that serves excellent nectar rolls.”
Malah felt her heart give a small flutter even as Isnita cut back in. A date? What did that even mean? Nectar rolls were nice, though!
“Simon.” Isnita ground her teeth together. “The message you sent me last night. You used the ancient sign language.”
“I did at that.” Simon grinned. “I’ve been hounding Amil that he needs to learn it. Century after century, I tell him. What if we get caught? What if our mouths get sewn shut? But no, he’s always been too lazy. As far as I know, I’m the only male angel with a working knowledge of it.”
“How did you know it?” Isnita crossed her arms. “It’s a language that we created in order co communicate in a way that our enemy couldn’t understand. According to Malah, that was you.”
“Right.” Simon nodded. “And… Yeah.” He paused. “That’s where I’ve been getting stuck, too. You’ve heard about the fact that the sisters are mortal enemies of the brothers, but that there’s probably something else in this realm that we’re supposed to go to war with, too? That’s all made it to you?”
Isnita nodded. “You want to level the entire realm.”
“That was the order in our system.” Simon crossed his arms. “Now, here’s the interesting thing. I’ve long been studying the sign language, so I know a bit of its history. And, according to my notes from thousands of year ago…” He paused and held out his hands. Malah scowled at him, and he scowled back. “What? No one’s going to finish it for me?”
“You created it in order to hide brother communications from the sisters.” Isnita finally broke the silence. “Am I right?”
“Bingo!” Simon pointed at Isnita. “Or whatever it is you say here when you nail something on the head. Now, according to both of us, we developed the sign language as a way to hide from our sworn enemy. So, and this is a little out-there…” He paused once more. “What if the brothers and the sisters aren’t mortal enemies at all?”
Isnita frowned. “The sign language last night was a test.”
“Yes.” Simon nodded. “At least the beginning of one. I signed you the word for hello, and waited to see if I’d get a response. Turns out, I did.”
“Why do it in the first place?” Hesione shrugged. “If, by all accounts, you created it to hide from the sisters, why would you even think it was a possibility?”
“Because something has never quite sat right with me about the whole sister thing.” Simon shrugged. “It’s been in our database as long as I can remember, sure, but…” He shrugged. “My memory has always been a bit better than the memory of everyone else.”
Malah crossed her arms. “Really?”
“Really.” Simon beamed down at her for a moment. “But, yes. Don’t get me wrong, the extent of my memory is around five thousand years, just like anyone else. The difference is that I have…” Simon shrugged. “I don’t know, feelings, from before.”
Malah frowned. “What do you mean?”
Simon shrugged. “Take your death for example. I know for a fact that no one, including myself, remembers it. It was a long time ago, by any standard that you measure it.” He flapped his wings slightly. “That said, I can tell you with equal certainty that when you died, it felt like I had been stabbed with the same trident that took you down. I can tell you that when we left your world, it felt like I was leaving a part of myself behind. And I can tell you that the first time I saw you listed as our enemies, I felt like my entire world had turned to ash just like yours.”
Malah frowned. If that was true, then…
“That’s very moving.” Isnita raised an eyebrow. “I’m not convinced.”
“As I didn’t think you would be.” Simon shrugged. “I have one more thing. Somehow…” He glanced at Malah’s wings. “When I saw those black wings on Malah, I felt hope. It was like a wall of despair being lifted, a joy that I didn’t know existed.” He leaned forward. “I can’t put the feeling into proper words, but you’re more than just a key to this dimension. Somehow, you changed your wing colors from white to black. That’s something that we haven’t done in two hundred thousand years.”
Isnita frowned. “Are you saying that’s something we used to do?”
Simon frowned and looked downward, as if trying to see his lips. “To tell you the truth, I have no idea. It just… Came out.” He shrugged. “Amil and Ferguson seemed to know it, too. The cell that they locked you up inside was equipped with sensors designed to record your every move. Every brain impulse, every neurological and biological function that you ever underwent.”
Malah frowned. “What do you mean?”
“It means it knew everything you did and thought while you were in the cell.” Simon shrugged. “Quite unfortunately, as I wasn’t around to interpret the data while you were in the cell, no one knew what to do with any of it. By the time I got there, it had all been destroyed, which means that I know as little as I did before. I made the distinct mistake of mentioning what I thought of your colors to Amil, which led to this…” Simon waved his hand. “Debacle. Now, he’s placed Ferguson on duty repairing all of my equipment, while he tries to get Malah back. They let a prize slip through their fingers, and they want you returned home so that I can get to work studying you.”
Isnita stepped forward. “Is that why you brought us here? To try and analyze her?”
“Have you been listening to a word I said?” Simon shrugged. “Your memory is supposed to last for five thousand years, not five thousand milliseconds. Yes, I would love to analyze her, and I think that doing so is probably vital to the survival of our species. However, Amil isn’t one for listening to arguments. He’s going to try and wipe you out, and will probably use any information I collect to do it more effectively.”
“So what do you want?”
Simon sighed. “I want a truce. At least until we can figure this all out, I just want a truce. Try to fortify against Amil’s attacks, he’s not particularly creative when it comes to battle tactics, which means you should be able to fend him off easily enough. Don’t attack us directly, and I’ll do my best to get my laboratory set up and misdirect Amil enough to make it easier for you. Once I’m done with that, we sneak Malah in, I run a few tests, and we try to get to the bottom of all this. With luck, we save both the brothers and the sisters, and with a bit more luck, we’ll do it before this realm gets blown up.”
Isnita sighed. “And if I refuse?”
Simon shrugged. “Then I join Amil in trying to kidnap and experiment on her. I truly believe that she’s the key to something greater, something in our past that we’ve all long since forgotten.”
Isnita looked at the ground for a few seconds. After a moment, she looked up and glanced at Malah and Hesione. “Any input?”
Hesione sighed. “I don’t trust him, but… What other options do we have?”
Isnita turned fully to Malah. “You’re the key in all this. What are your thoughts?”
Malah squeezed her eyes shut. Why did she have to give her opinion? What was her opinion anyway? Simon seemed nice, but Sapphire was always warning her about men that talked nicely. Was this one of them? She wanted to run, she wanted to hide…
As she opened her eyes, she found that the room had been plunged into darkness. The torches still flickered on the walls, but they barely produced any light. The doors hung open, revealing a burning landscape.
Malah slowly stepped forward, out into the day. A dark red sun burned overhead, casting its dim rays down onto the ground. Brothers flashed back and forth overhead, raining fire down onto the city. Pillars cracked under the heat, buildings fell into rivers of lava.
“This way!” A shadowy Isnita ran past, pulling an equally shadowy Malah behind her. “We have to…”
With a crash, Amil dropped down from the sky, landing in front of them. He drew his sword and advanced, slowly and terribly.
“Come with me.” His voice was deep and awful. “Come with…”
Simon materialized out of the shadows nearby, leaping into the way of the blade. The sword sank into his chest, and he kicked Amil in the head.
“Run!” He screamed. “Just-”
The world swirled around her, like it was being sucked into a whirlpool. With a snap, she re-appeared in the Watch Commander’s room. Every eye in the room was fixated on her, every jaw was slack.
“Malah?” Isnita spoke softly. “What did you just see?”
“The palace was being attacked.” Malah nodded slowly. “He protected us.” She nodded at Simon. “He’s good.”
“Well, I’m glad I passed your glowing eye test.” Simon hopped down from the desk. After a moment, he took Isnita’s hand and drew it up to his mouth, giving it a small kiss. “I do hope you’ll reconsider my offer for a date.”
“You asked Malah.”
Simon shrugged. “She’s too young for me. Besides, what guy wants to date a girl who knows exactly when he’s going to screw up?” He dipped his head and flexed his wings. “Isnita, would you go with me to dinner?”
“Not on your life.”
“Please know that the offer will always remain open. And, if you’re ever interested, we could always just skip dinner altogether.” Simon stood back up and nodded at the Watch Commander. “I already briefed him on Amil’s tactics. If you don’t mind, I’ll make my exit now. More than likely, he’ll attack within the next few days. I suggest you be ready.”
With that, Simon walked to the doors, slid them open, and walked out into the brilliant day. Without anything covering his wings. The Watch Commander sighed as he left and slowly turned to the table.
“I can only assume that you approve of him.” The man sounded disappointed. “I was hoping you’d come in here and throw him out.”
Hesione snorted and walked up to the desk next to him. “Because he’s so annoying?”
“No.” The Commander sighed. “Because he provided me with excellent information.” He slowly turned to face the women. “And if he’s right, we have a lot of work to do.”
“The Fond’sar are trying to steal the ship?” Garnisic closed his eyes for a moment. “What does that even mean?”
“It means that their plans could be advanced by many thousands of years.” The king sighed. “We don’t know what the Fond’sar endgame is, but we know that it’s certain to be deadly. If they can get their hands on a ship that can travel between realms, the implications could be devastating. Combined with other magical objects that they’ve managed to gather throughout their history…” He shrugged. “Things don’t look good for us.”
“Great.” Garnisic shook his head. “So… Where does all this fit in?”
“The diplictar crystal contains a very particular enchantment.” Barn crossed his arms. “When applied to an object, even an object containing any number of other enchantments, the object will be duplicated. You were able to create three of the communication devices. We sent two of them out into the world, while I’ve been producing more.”
Garnisic nodded slowly. “So… What does that do? Are you going to keep them hidden from the Fond’sar?” He pointed at the devices. “If the Fond’sar get ahold of even one of them, they’ll be able to hear anything you say through it.”
Barn raised an eyebrow, and understanding began to dawn in Garnisic’s mind.
“You’re sending some of them to the Fond’sar, and you’re keeping others so you can listen in.”
“Exactly.” The king nodded. “They know of the three original devices that you made. To their knowledge, I have one of them, while the second is being shipped to the strike force and the third is being sent to Fond’sar command.”
Garnisic frowned. “But… If you already have one, won’t they already be suspicious of using it?”
The king glanced at the ground. “I have… I’ve proved my loyalty to them. They trust me, completely. Barn is a known conspirator against their wishes, but they don’t believe him capable of mounting such a powerful offense against their schemes.”
Garnisic tried to process it all. “What are your plans now? What do you want me to do?”
“Our plans are a bit…” Barn shook his head. “Better not to tell you. If you were to be captured by them again, the less you know, the less they can hurt you.”
“Of course.” Garnisic sighed. “Then what do you want me to do?”
“I can only assume that your team will be heading back to the ship before much longer.” The king shrugged. “Take one of these devices. Find a way to stop the Fond’sar. The angels might be threatening to destroy the realm, but that’s hardly an uncommon threat here in Calsin.” He sighed and nodded at the forge, gazing into its flames. “The Fond’sar can do far more than simply destroy it, I fear. They already possess the power of the gods at their fingertips.” He turned to look at Garnisic, his gaze haunting. “What more could they want?”
Garnisic nodded, reached up, and took one of the disks. “I’ll do my best.”
“If you don’t succeed, it will be the realm that suffers.” The king sighed. A moment later, a knock sounded through the air, and he lifted his head again. “Ahh, of course. Our final visitor.”
Barn crossed his arms. “How many people are you inviting?”
“Enough to get the task done.” The king walked up to the stairs. “We need help. When my spies reported that he was in the area, I thought that the opportunity couldn’t be missed.”
The statue slid aside as the king placed his hand on a small rune. Armored footsteps sounded on the stone, and a man in shining blue armor stalked down into the forge. Garnisic’s eyes narrowed. He looked familiar, he just couldn’t quite…
“Franclin!” Garnisic bellowed. “What’s he doing here?”
Franclin reached the bottom of the steps and frowned down at Garnisic. He looked almost exactly the same as he had the last time Garnisic had laid eyes on him. The armor was the only change, now a deep blue instead of a brilliant orange. Hundreds of gemstones had been fused into the metal, enchantments for the man to use in combat against… Well, whatever he decided he didn’t like.
“Garn, I think it was.” Franclin inclined his head. “It’s been some time, I do believe.”
“Not long enough.” Garnisic muttered. “So. What’s he doing here?”
“I was unaware that the two of you had a past.” The king dipped his head. “I do apologize if there are any ill feelings between the two of you. However…” He turned to Franclin. “As it happens, we have need of a man with your particular skill set.”
“You want me to do some sort of menial task.” Franclin muttered. “I know it.”
“Not menial.” The king shrugged. “Now, while I do fully understand your devotion to the Hunter Council, and I understand that your mission here is to take care of the angel problem, I do believe that we have that under control.”
“The angel problem will never be under control until they’re all dead.” Franclin crossed his arms. “According to word on the street, you’re harboring them in the palace. I demand to see them.”
“You will demand nothing.” The king turned and snapped at Franclin. “Our goals are temporarily aligned with the angels. Now…” He took a deep breath. “If you’re willing, I had a different task for you. One that’s far more challenging than simply fighting the angels.”
Garnisic couldn’t believe his eyes as the corner of Franclin’s mouth twitched upward into a grin.
“Well, then.” Franclin crossed his arms. “Tell me more.”
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