Boar roared as a magical field sprang up around him. He drew upon his blood magic, casting a spell of reveal. With it, he could just see a soft red glow in the air around him, holding him inside. Similar fields had sprang up around Ondernifam and Malah, holding them tight. Above them, a metal sphere glowed with the energy of a thousand suns.
Before he had a chance to analyze anything else, the metal doors of the room slid aside, and one of the dark angels walked inside. Boar growled in his throat, wishing upon all the gods that he could kill the monsters. The angels of light couldn’t be harmed. The angels of darkness could be harmed over and over and over and over again, never dying.
“I see you found the engine room.” The impish boy glanced up at the sphere. “The engineers who built this thing claimed that it had the power of a white dwarf. I always felt that those claims were a bit grandiose, but it certainly has a lot of energy. It’s what allows us to jump from realm to realm.”
Years of practice allowed Boar to maintain a straight face. The boy was talking, spouting all his information. He didn’t think the trio was going to survive. He had said that the sphere allowed the prison to jump from realm to realm. Could it be similar to the spell that the realm mages had cast upon Boar? He allowed himself a satisfactory growl. That was information. Information was good. Of course, if the boy was being so free with knowledge, it only meant that he wanted more knowledge in return.
“What answers are you wanting?” Malah finally spat out. “What do you want to know?”
“That’s actually fairly simple.” The boy walked up to Boar, a smug look on his face. “How did you get on board my ship?”
Boar just stared down at the boy, trying to appear impressive. If he didn’t say a word, there was a good chance that the boy would keep talking.
“We were a thousand miles outside the atmosphere when we entered this dimension. We’re a bit closer now, on the outer edges of breathable air, but even that doesn’t make sense. No beasts can fly this high, no society, magical or otherwise, has ever been able to reach such heights without technology. And yet, here you are! Straight out of a knight’s castle.” Amil shrugged. “I’m at a bit of a loss, and I’d like to know who sent you.”
Boar remained silent for a moment longer. Very little of what the boy said made any sense. It was as if he was speaking a different language. Oh, well. Boar would do the same. “The realm mages.” Boar rumbled. “They’re the most terrifying beings in Calsin.”
“The realm mages.” The boy frowned in confusion. “Interesting. Could you tell me what the realm mages do exactly?”
“They have power over the realms.” Boar smiled, causing his tusks to slide up so high they scraped the edges of his eyes. No one in Calsin feared the realm mages, but the angels didn’t need to know that. “They are nearly gods, with the ability to move from one plane of existence to another at will. They can bend reality to itself, even reshape time itself.”
The boy crossed his arms. “We did get some odd temporal readings. Could you explain this more, please?”
“No.” Boar rumbled. It was becoming clear that the boy wasn’t going to say anything that made any sense. He slammed a fist into the force field and growled softly. “Ondernifam!”
“Yes?” Boar’s former commander turned and roared softly. “What?”
“As you are my commander, I offer my advice.” Boar crossed his arms. Whatever had happened to Ondernifam, it was a terrible waste. “Remember me. Remember the orcs! Remember who you truly are. You are the greatest warrior that the orcish nations have ever seen. Do not let that go to waste.”
Ondernifam balled his fists. “I will lay waste to Calsin in the name of the orcish empires!”
“Good!” Boar roared. Would it happen? Probably not, but if Ondernifam could remember the speech… “Make me proud! I expect to look down from the Endless Battle and see you, standing there.”
The angel glanced back and forth between the two orcs, a smile on his face. As Boar took a deep breath, the boy shrugged.
“You sound like you’re about to die. As of right now, I see no need to kill you.”
Boar rumbled, deep in his chest. It was time to leave. “I would never allow such a pathetic individual as yourself the honor of killing me.”
“Alright, then.” The boy leaned forward and raised an eyebrow. “So what are you going to do?”
Boar smiled and spread his arms wide. For the last several minutes, he had been drawing upon his blood magic, enhancing his strength and power. In that moment, he called fully upon his magic, causing his skin to turn back. When his spoke, his voice had dropped to a low rumble, perfect for intimidating anyone he came across.
“Make sure your threat to this realm ends right here.”
With that, he turned and leapt up at the large sphere. The softly glowing field shattered into a thousand pieces as his magic tore straight through it. His claws bit straight through the glowing metal like cheese, allowing pure light to pour out. Boar roared and gored the sphere with his tusks, tearing his way inside. He had survived the experiment that the Realm Mages had performed. Maybe, just maybe, there was a chance that he could survive the process once more.
Light poured over him like water, tearing him away from the sphere. The room faded, taken away by all the energy. It felt like he was being torn apart and stitched back together a thousand times every second, it felt like time itself had ceased to have any meaning.
Then, with a resounding crash, the light faded. He slammed into the rocky ground, feeling grass and insects burning under his skin. He opened his eyes, uncertain of what he would see. Slowly, he sat up… Only to be blown back into the ground again as a dragon slammed a claw down on his chest.
The dragon’s talons wrapped around his body, immobilizing him. It was a fire dragon, one of the three variants seen around Calsin. Its chest hovered just above and to the side of him, he was caught in its front-left paw. From what he could see, it was a larger beast, probably over one hundred feet long.
The creature’s snakelike neck twisted around, bringing its head over to his body. It could have eaten him in a single bite. Boar roared up at the monster, demanding a response.
“What have you done to me?”
The dragon spread its wings wide, allowing bursts of light to trickle through an intricate series of lines across its wings. From his experiments slicing them open, Boar knew the lines to be blood vessels, powered by magic that flowed through the dragon’s blood. Instantly, a shadowy figure appeared in the air next to Boar’s body, a more temporal manifestation of the dragon.
“I have captured you.” The image sneered while the dragon hissed. “Do you have any last words, orc?”
“If you allow me to live, I will not kill you.” Boar rumbled. “Answer me this: Where on Calsin am I?”
The dragon growled, sending a plume of smoke across Boar’s face. “You dare ask me questions even while I threaten your life? The impudence of an orc.”
Boar roared up at the beast. “You dare mock the power of an orc? The arrogance of a dragon!”
After a moment, the dragon snorted. “Your bravery will earn you one answer, though I have no doubt that you surely know this. You stand in the Northern Free Province, the land once known as Dirnor. Here, the last free states stand against your tyranny!”
The dragon lowered its head, so that its teeth just scraped against Boar’s skin. “Now answer me this, orc, and I may spare your life for a few short moments. Why are you here? What does the Empire plan on doing next?”
“We will burn you!” Boar roared. He didn’t understand what the dragon was talking about, but that was normal for the day. “We will roast your flesh on our fires!”
Before the dragon could react, Boar allowed his dark magic to flow through his body. Fire flowed up and out of his mouth, a pillar of flame into the dragon’s own unprotected maw. The creature screeched and flinched, drawing its head back and jerking its paw away.
At the same time, Boar flexed his arms, enhancing his strength with dark power. The dragon’s talons gave way as he burst free, causing him to sail free of the beast. For a few moments, he hung suspended over the grass, before falling back to the ground.
He landed on his feet, allowing his blood magic to dissipate. The dragon roared in fury, and Boar glanced across the battlefield. They were in a large meadow, perhaps half a mile across, which was surrounded by trees on all sides. The dragon had told him they were in a land that had once been Dirnor. Dirnor was heavily forested and quite hilly, not allowing for the flat ground that he saw here.
Problems to figure out at a later time. Right then, the dragon had its wings folded down onto its back, preparing to charge. It was around one hundred and fifty feet long, and was badly scarred, as if it had seen a thousand wars. Its eyes, yellow and slanted, were zero-focused on Boar. That wasn’t good.
Boar let out a roar and charged across the meadow, ready to meet his fate. His armor, battered and dented, shone in the midday sun. He drew upon his body, enhancing the strength of every organ he had. As he did so, he directed extra energy into his feet and legs, making himself run far faster than normal.
The dragon loped up to meet him, fire brewing in its mouth. The creature let out a powerful roar, launching flames across the meadow and turning grass and flowers into nothing but ash. Boar held up his arms, casting a simple protection spell. The flames engulfed him, and yet he ran onward. The spell did little more than prevent major damage from the flames, lesser species would still have been felled by the sheer pain alone.
When the dragon ceased releasing its flames to take a breath, Boar was nearly upon it. He leapt upward, his magic carrying him over the dragon’s head and onto its back. He roared and made a fist, punching down at the base of the dragon’s neck. It was a weak point that all dragon hunters knew. Blood energy exploded from his palm in a concussion guaranteed to slay the beast for good.
With a loud clang, the energy struck a metal plate that sat squarely on the dragon’s back, colored almost identically to its scales. The magic rebounded and struck him in the chest, breaking his concentration and tossing him off to the side. He struck the ground hard, sending up a small shower of dirt and ash. The dragon turned to face him with a powerful roar.
Great. The dragon had obviously dealt with other hunters before. Boar rolled to his feet as white-hot flames scorched the area he had just been laying. His blood magic began to pull at his body, demanding that the price be paid. He had been going for too long, he needed to rest before the magic consumed him.
Boar took a deep breath and let the magic flow from his body. It swirled back into his blood, taking his life from him. It was the price that all blood magic demanded, it was the price that must be paid. His strength left him, and he dropped to his knees as a wave of flame washed over his head. He was weak, but he was far from dead.
Desperate, Boar threw himself underneath the dragon. It put him within reach of the massive claws, but he had his armor to protect from such threats. If the flame hit him again, he was dead. He skittered past the enormous paws, landing firmly underneath the beast. Above him, the soft underbelly of the monster shimmered, so close, so vulnerable.
The dragon flapped its wings, blasting into the sky, aware of the weakness. Boar roared as it flew up and began to circle. If it tried to charge him…
Mere instants passed before the dragon dropped from the sky, dive-bombing him. Its wings flashed open around twenty feet off the ground, holding it just high enough that Boar couldn’t touch him. Flames poured down from the beast in a great gout of energy, consuming all the touched.
Boar took a deep breath as the flames flowed in his direction. Just as they reached him, he drew on his body one last time. Magic filled his legs, allowing him one more jump. The dragon had a single instant to appear terrified as Boar struck it between the eyes. Before it could react, Boar extended his claws and slashed through its eyes. He was thrown from his perch and back to the scorched ground, but the damage had been done.
Blinded, the dragon fell from the sky and slammed into the trees at the edge of the meadow, releasing torrents of fire into the forest. Boar fell to the ground as his blood magic once more flowed out of his body, weakening himself even more. In that moment, he couldn’t have beaten a five-year-old human in a fight with wooden swords. His armor felt heavy, his entire body seemed inflated and cumbersome.
Slowly, he pulled himself to his feet. The dragon thrashed back and forth, decimating enormous portions of the woods. At that point, Boar knew he had several options. The first option involved trying to finish killing the dragon. It was the smart move by many accounts, as it would remove the potential threat from the land. On the other hand, he was fairly certain that it was going to be even harder to approach such a terrified beast unharmed, as it would behave far less predictably than normal. In addition, if there were other dragons in the area, they would be alerted by the smoke.
Instead, Boar turned and began to stumble away. The dragon had mentioned the “former” state of Dirnor. If Dirnor had, indeed, fallen in the time that he had been gone, it meant that the angels were likely back in full force. If that was true, that would explain how the dragon had gotten so far north. He needed to get to shelter, and he needed to get there quickly.
His strength began to grow as he stumbled off into the woods. He was a Dragon Hunter. Whatever had happened, he would find the truth. And then he would destroy it.
Boar balled his hands into fists as he walked down the cracked and twisted road. Roads in Calsin could vary immensely, as some nations had the resources to keep them paved, while others didn’t. The road that he was on looked like it had once been well-maintained, but had since fallen into disrepair.
The battle with the dragon had occurred only days earlier. Since then, he had meandered through the trees looking for any sign of civilization, only discovering the road a matter of hours earlier. It was strange, that was an understatement. By day, he hadn’t seen any pillars of smoke, heard any horses, or came across anything that might have signified that civilization still existed. By night, even climbing up into the treetops hadn’t yielded the sight of distant flames. If Dirnor had fallen, it had truly been abandoned.
It was all quite unsettling, made even more unusual by the fact that it didn’t appear to be Dirnor at all. The trees were built for the cold. Pines, spruces, even fir trees and northern oaks. If the dragon hadn’t said anything, Boar would have sworn he was in Elsinor, or even the eastern parts of Sintison. Not… Dirnor.
In the distance, Boar caught a glimpse of something through the trees. Stones, hewn stones, rising above the level of the trees. He began to walk a bit faster. He was almost to a city? Good, maybe he could finally get some answers.
As he approached the city, once again, it became clear that something wasn’t quite right. There was no smoke rising from the walls, no traders wandering in and out of the gates. In fact, it didn’t even look like there were gates, the small opening in the city simply appeared open and empty.
As he drew into sight of the city, it became obvious that it had been abandoned for quite some time. The gates lay on the ground, shattered into a thousand pieces by a siege machine of old. Boar wandered through the gap and into the city, noticing the grass and trees that had grown up to fill much of the old space. Buildings lay cracked and broken. Whatever civilization had once existed, it was long gone.
That left the pressing question of: What city was it? Boar glanced at the walls, noting their construction seemed to be limestone. Which only confirmed his suspicion of being in Elsinor, as the dwarves rarely built anything with the fragile substance. The elves, on the other hand, loved their whitewashed buildings and towers.
Walking through the city wasn’t difficult, simply time consuming as he wound his way through the ancient desolation. It had obviously been quite some time since the city had seen any action. Fifty years at bare minimum? But what city in Calsin had been left alone that long? It wasn’t a large continent, invading nations usually built their new cities using the infrastructure of the older ruins.
It wasn’t until Boar came into view of the palace that it all sank in. Glorious marble columns lay tipped on their sides like sticks, enormous ceilings lay shattered on the ground. There was no mistaking it now, this was Isogodriir, the capitol city of Elsinor. But… What was it doing here? Isogodriir had been built on a mesa in the middle of a crater, not in the middle of the woods? And why hadn’t anyone rebuilt it? If it had been sacked, it would have needed rebuilt almost immediately! Right?
Boar frowned in curiosity and stalked up into the palace, winding between the twisted and cracked structures. It didn’t take long before he reached the former throne room itself, now just half a chair in the middle of rubble. Boar paused as he reached the location, breathing heavily. This made no sense.
“Orc!” A cry rose in the air. “It’s an orc!”
Boar spun as a number of soldiers seemed to materialize from thin air. It was a motley collection of dwarves, aqahartis, and humans, about twenty strong. All of them had spears and swords shakily pointed in Boar’s direction.
“Of course I’m an orc!” Boar roared. “Now answer my questions!”
The soldiers gave him no time to ask his questions as they charged forward. Boar sighed and called upon his blood magic, releasing a great gout of flame that ate through the attackers in mere seconds. The last one collapsed in a heap of ash, and Boar sighed. He should have kept one of them alive for questioning.
As he tried to decide what to do next, light burst across the desolate throne room. A swirling sphere of red energy took shape nearby, only to fade away to reveal an unusual party.
A sorceress stood at the head of the formation, blood-red robes standing out amidst the ashes. She held a wooden staff tipped with a crystal that seemed made from solid fire, though her most brilliant feature was her right eye, which itself seemed made from flame. Behind her, a man in a long, black cloak held a shortsword, while next to him…
Next to him was a man that Boar knew altogether too well. His orange armor, dirty-blonde hair, and smug confidence was all that Boar needed to see.
“Franclin!” Boar held up a hand and drew himself upright. No need to appear weak in front of a fellow Hunter. “I have slain a mighty-”
The sorceress turned in his direction, her eye sharp and piercing. Pure fire exploded from the tip of her staff, slamming into Boar and taking him away.
When Boar awoke, he found himself sitting in one of the most peculiar cells he had ever seen. The walls were made of stone, as if he was in a cave. Strangely enough, though, a number of glowing crystals grew from the floor, where they emitted a soft energy that surrounded Boar’s body with a soft glow. As Boar tried to move, he found himself completely immobilized, not from chains or confinement, but simply by a lack of strength. In front of him, thick bars covered the entrance to the cell, partially blocking his view of what appeared to be a hallway of some sort. Unfortunately, there was no corresponding cell on the far side, nor was there any indication where he may have been.
As he did his best to take in the scene, a crystal in front of him began to glow with a red energy. Not even a moment passed before the red sorceress appeared in front of him, as if stepping through thin air. Now, as he had a chance to see her better, the sight of her nearly took his breath away.
She was young, no more than seventeen, and wore blood-red combat robes that covered nearly her entire body. She wasn’t holding the staff, but her right eye still blazed with fire. It barely even looked like an eye at all, it appeared more like a burning crystal that had been shoved into her head. If he was right, he was looking at the Eye, a sorcerous artifact dedicated to destruction and waste. Sorcerers wielding the Eye were said to be some of the deadliest warriors in Calsin’s history.
“Alright, orc, it’s time to start talking.” The sorceress sneered. “You made it nearly one hundred miles past our defenses without being caught, and then you managed to blind one of the best dragons we have. You’re no footsoldier, that’s easy enough to see.” She bent down, putting herself eye-level with Boar. “I want to know what your mission is. Are you trying to kill the king? Are you paving the way for a larger invasion? Speak, orc!”
“My name is Boar.” Boar rumbled. Even talking was difficult, as if he had a hundred extra pounds strapped to his jaw. “I’m a Dragon Hunter, I make it my job to slay the beasts.”
The sorceress snorted. “There haven’t been Dragon Hunters in Calsin in a hundred years. Whatever you’ve done to make yourself believe you’re a Hunter, you’ll never be as good as those heroes of old.”
“What are you talking about?” Boar snapped his jaw. “You’re working with one of the Hunters!”
The girl raised a fiery eyebrow. “Oh, I am? Would you care to let me in on that secret?”
“Franclin.” Boar growled. “I never liked him, but he’s strong. He’s a Hunter, as much as anyone else to wear the badge.”
The sorceress paused. “I don’t… I don’t sense any falsehood from you.”
“Of course not!” Boar roared. “I would never lie! Lies are the tools of the weak, those not strong enough to pave their way with blood.”
The sorceress slowly climbed to her feet and held out her hand. The staff appeared in a flurry of light, and she slowly pointed it at him.
“I’m going to scan you. If you resist, it will destroy you.”
Boar didn’t even have a chance to protest as pure light poured into his mind. The sorceress filled his vision, twisted through every aspect of his being. She walked through his childhood, watched him as he stood beside his great commander, Ondernifam. She became confused as Ondernifam vanished, even more so as Boar left the orcish world and took his trials as a Hunter. By the time she viewed the events of the angels, she appeared even more befuddled than he was. Finally, she reached the present, and withdrew from his mind.
“What doesn’t make sense?” Boar snarled. “You’ve seen my life!”
“I’ve seen a life that shouldn’t be possible.” The sorceress turned away as the staff vanished. “You will stay here. You will be fed, and you will answer any questions that I have. If I am pleased with your answers, I may consider answering your own. Do we have a deal?”
“I am in no place to bargain.” Boar did his best to placate her. She was his captor, and if he had his way, she would perish. The dark angels were preparing an assault against Calsin, they had to be stopped! But, if his current conditions were any indication, he wasn’t going to be getting out anytime soon. “Do what you wish.”
The sorceress nodded and vanished once more in a burst of energy. Boar did his best to get comfortable on the floor. Carefully, he tried to raise his right arm. His breath began to come in short gasps as he was able to heft it upward a matter of centimeters. It fell back to the stone as his strength gave out, and he closed his eyes.
If he was going to escape… It was going to take a lot of work.
“You served Ondernifam through your younger years.” The sorceress had the staff pointed at Boar’s head. “When was that? Exactly?”
“I entered his service when I was twenty years old. That was one hundred and fifty years ago.” Boar rumbled. “He then vanished when I was eighty, after sixty years of service.”
“About ninety years ago.” The sorceress nodded. “Do you know what happened to him?”
“I’ve told you this a thousand times.” Boar roared. He had been trapped in the prison for months now, perhaps even years. He was getting quite sick of places that didn’t allow him to keep a proper record of time. “He just vanished one night! No one knows what happened or why.”
The sorceress sighed and lowered her staff. “See? It’s the same every day.”
Boar sneered. “You have someone else listening in?”
“Most days, I’ve had people listening in.” Sapphire took a step back. “Any ideas?”
A new individual stepped forward, into view. He was tall, a head higher than Sapphire, somewhere in his mid-twenties. He was the third individual that had met Boar on the battlefield, there was no doubt about it. He wore a long, black coat that fell nearly to the floor, and had eyes that pierced like a hawk.
“Only the ones that I’ve already given to you.” The man crossed his arms. “Boar, as I’m sure you’ve figured out, we’re having a bit of a problem believing your story.”
“I’ve noticed.” Boar ground out. “Who are you? Why am I being kept here?”
“My name is Berathin.” The man gestured at his chest, then jerked a thumb at the sorceress. “This is Sapphire. You seem to already know our friend, Franclin, though he’s not here right now.”
Sapphire turned to Berathin, her eye lighting up with an inner flame. “You can’t just tell him that!”
“Why not?” Berathin shrugged. “The Empire knows our names anyway, it’s not like he’d be learning anything.” He held Sapphire’s gaze for several more moments before turning back to Boar. “As I was saying, we’re having a hard time believing your story. Do you have any idea why that might be?”
Boar shook his head. Or, rather, he did his best to shake his head. “No.”
“Then I’ll do my best to explain.” Berathin crossed his arms. “Simply put, according to the story you tell, you were under the great warlord Ondernifam for a number of years as he sought to conquer the orcish nations. Then, he vanished without a trace until you found a weakened version of him just before we found you. Correct?”
Boar nodded. “That’s what I’ve said.”
“Right.” Berathin frowned. “See, the thing is, that’s not at all how our own history goes.”
Boar growled. “What do you mean?”
“Simple, really.” Berathin shrugged. “In our version of history, all the nations of Calsin were living together in harmony. There was only one orcish nation, Ondrinor, and it was led by an orc also named Ondernifam. Under our Ondernifam, the orcs mingled through the world, as common as any other species. Until one day, around ninety years ago, when he changed. He became far more violent, and called upon orcs throughout the world to initiate a purge of other, lesser species. And we’ve been at war ever since.”
Boar frowned in confusion. “What are you saying?”
“What I’m saying is simple.” Berathin shrugged. “Option number one, the most sensible, is that your memory was altered so that your understanding of history is different than what it really is. Maybe as a way to make you appear as a curiosity, to get close to us. The only problem is that Sapphire here can’t find any evidence of tampering.”
“I’ll find it.” Sapphire bit out. “Nubierd likes making warlocks. There’s probably just a really powerful warlock that did this.”
“Or, as I keep pointing out, what if, somehow, you’re from an alternate reality?” Berathin held up his hands. “Is it possible that your exposure to all the energy between realms allowed you to jump from one reality to another?”
“All the known realms are logged with the wizarding academy.” Sapphire snapped. “There are no alternate timelines.”
“Maybe not.” Berathin shrugged. “If it was true, it would make my life make a lot more sense.”
“You’ll grab any explanation you can to try and make your life make sense.” Sapphire sighed. “Boar. What are your thoughts?”
Boar closed his eyes. An alternate reality? A timeline that wasn’t another realm, but was still… Different?
“It’s possible.” Boar finally nodded. “The realm mages could be called many things. No one would call them reliable. I will not rule out the prospect until I see evidence otherwise.” He thought for a moment. “Right now, I personally have seen little to suggest anything has changed. All I have noticed is a city I presume to be Isogodriir, destroyed and desolate, despite the fact that I know it as a powerful city.”
Sapphire’s eye burned brightly. “Tell me, Boar. If everything you believe is true, and you are from another reality, what would you do if you were freed? Would you fight with your orcish brethren, or support the free nations who do battle against them?”
That much, at least, was a simple answer. “Neither.”
Berathin crossed his arms and raised an eyebrow. “Do tell?”
“I am a Dragon Hunter.” Boar took a deep breath, trying to sound intimidating and powerful. “I swore an oath to guard my realm. If this is true, I am no longer in my realm. I must return.”
“And that’s the answer I was hoping to get.” Berathin waved his hand. The crystals around Boar all went dark, allowing the strength-sapping field to vanish. In a moment, all his strength came pouring back into his body. Slowly, Boar stood up to his full height, towering well over the two humans.
“Berathin!” Sapphire’s eye lit up, and her staff appeared in her hand. Boar crossed his arms, a non-threatening gesture. “You’re letting him free?”
“I’m trying to wager our options.” Berathin shrugged. “Assume, for a moment, that he’s from a separate reality. Assume, for a moment, that he can return to that reality. A reality where peace reigns, a reality where the Empire isn’t busy tearing down our last remaining strongholds.”
Sapphire began to nod slowly. “I see where you’re going.”
Boar had a distinct idea that he knew where the two humans were going with the idea as well. It was a crazy idea in the first place, but if it was right, he had to act. “No.”
Sapphire turned to him. When she spoke, her voice was deathly quiet. “No?”
“No, you can’t follow me.” Boar shook his head. “I need to be in my realm. You need to be in your realm. We can’t just cross over.”
“Why not?” Sapphire raised an eyebrow. “We could save so many lives.”
“We could ruin so many more.” Boar shook his head, then sighed. He did need them to get home, but he could not lie. “Help me find a way to get home, and I will help you in your battle against the Empire. I will protect strongholds by your side. Once I get to my reality, I will confer with the Hunter Council. If they give the go-ahead, I will assist in evacuating this reality into my own.”
“Deal.” Berathin held out a hand. Boar slowly unfolded his arms and took the hand, his enormous paw dwarfing the human’s tiny limb. “Sapphire? Shall we take our guest to meet with our… Other guests?”
Sapphire shook her head. “I don’t like this.”
“You don’t have to like it.” Berathin shrugged. “It’s our best hope at survival. It’s the only hope we’ve had for survival in decades. You can’t just throw that away.”
“I suppose.” Sapphire sighed and nodded. “Fine, then. Lead on.” She turned and glared at Boar, her glowing eye slicing into his soul. “Make one single move against us, and I will kill you.”
Less deadly warriors or pompous leaders would try to make the death sound terrible. They would describe how much pain the prisoner would be in, they would make sure that their prey understood just how long it would take. Sapphire did none of that. And that, more than anything else, made Boar certain that she would act upon it.
Berathin led the way as Boar stomped out of his cell. He had to slouch as they walked through the narrow pathway, hewn out of solid rock. As they walked, they passed dozens of other cells, all holding prisoners using the same strength-sapping technique. Boar noticed orcs, aqahartis, dragon eggs, even minotaurs and some dark elves.
The tunnel eventually terminated in a stairwell that led upwards. Here, Boar was able to straighten up, and it wasn’t long before they were passing much brighter and more welcoming doorways. Boar glanced in all of them that they passed, catching glimpses of long hallways, training rooms, and courtyards.
Finally, they arrived at the top of the stairwell, which opened out into the top of a tower. Boar took a surprised breath as he took in the desolate landscape.
The tower stood in the exact center of a mighty fortress, a stone construction that looked able to stand against anything the world could throw at it. Banners depicting a decapitated orc flew proudly, though if what the two individuals were saying was true, Ondernifam couldn’t exactly fault them for that.
Around the fortress, though, was where things got truly interesting. The ground was scorched, black dirt and stone that extended as far as Boar could see. On the horizon, volcanoes rose high in the sky, belching fire and smoke into the air. The sky was a sickly yellow, tinted by all the sulfur. Two fire dragons and an ice dragon paced around the walls of the fortress, keeping guard, while more of the winged lizards could be seen flying through the sky in the distance. Short bursts of flame dotted the landscape, fires that sprang into existence for several seconds before returning to nothingness.
“We’re in the Scorched Lands.” Boar breathed. “The air alone should kill us.”
“The castle has been blessed by the dragons.” Berathin shrugged. “Powerful beasts, those are. Able to simply wish that lesser beings could survive in their lands, and making it possible.”
“Why are we here?” Boar turned to glare down at Sapphire. “How will this help?”
“We’re here because the Scorched Lands are one of the few places in Calsin that the orcs haven’t taken.” She snapped her fingers in irritation. Fires erupted from her eye, forming an image in the air. It solidified into a map of Calsin, just as Boar knew it, though without any of the political lines. “Here is the current Empire. You tell me where the safest place is.”
Blue flames began to crawl across the image. The three orcish nations. Tifingor. Sintison. All the countries around the Inland Ocean. Glintor and Gintor. Sournous. Notirot. Delsinar. Only a few places remained untouched. A small blob consisting of the northern half of Elsinor. Donitor, the land of vampires and werewolves. The Scorched Lands.
“I…” Boar stammered. His heart swelled with pride in the orcish nation even as his heart fell. If there was going to be a chance of getting back to his home, it lay in Distisil, at the wizarding college. Which was well behind orcish lines. “I had no idea.”
“We haven’t really given you time to see it.” Berathin sighed. “The war has been raging for almost a century now. We had them pinned down for quite awhile, but they’ve been gaining ground in the last several decades. By our estimates, the Empire will have taken everything but the Scorched Lands in less than ten more years.”
“I swore to you that I would help.” Boar turned and snarled down at them. “What now?”
“As we said, you’re meeting with several other guests.” Berathin leaned back against the small railing that ran around the edge of the tower roof. “Should be here any minute, actually.”
Boar nodded and continued to gaze across the land. The Scorched Lands. And he was inside them. He had only ever ventured to the outskirts of the deadly ground, on training missions to slay young, brazen dragons that wanted to push the law of the land. Even then, he had found it difficult to breathe the cursed air. The dragons knew how to keep people out, that was for certain.
In the distance, a mournful roar arose on the wind. Boar turned to see a fiery pillar stomping across the ground, a fire giant made from living lava. Nearly one hundred feet tall, it ignored the fortress as it stomped by.
“A firingar.” Berathin nodded in its direction. “Most of us had never seen one before coming here. They like humanity about as much as humanity likes mosquitos. You ever see one before?”
Boar shook his head, more than a bit in awe of the monster. “Only the dragon priests are said to have spoken to them. And since the Hunters and the dragon priests don’t get along-”
“I see.” Berathin sighed. “When we do get out of here, I’ll certainly miss them. Oh, the secrets that they could hold.”
“Who’s holding a secret?” Armor clacked on the stairs as Franclin walked up onto the rooftop. “I feel like we shouldn’t discuss secrets around the orc.”
“The orc thinks we should throw you from the top of the tower.” Boar rumbled. When everyone in attendance spun to look at him, he sighed. “Sorry. I know this one in my reality.”
“Right. Realities. Bleh.” Franclin crossed his arms and leaned against the railing next to Berathin. “Gentlemen, may I present to you, Master Burtain, head of the Wizarding Academy.”
Boar dipped his head as a blue-robed man swept up onto the tower rooftop. He barely came up to Boar’s waist, though his clean-shaven face was a welcome change from Boar’s version.
“Burtain.” Boar rumbled as the tiny man jumped slightly. “I know this one from my reality, too.”
“Oh!” Burtain stammered. “Well, I certainly hope that my counterpart is worthy to wear my robes!”
“We’ve considered throwing him from a tower, too.” Boar snorted, then sighed. “What is he doing here?”
Franclin crossed his arms. “When everyone started throwing around the possibility of you being from another reality or something, I figured we’d bring this guy in. He knows more about realms and their study than anyone else does. Probably more than any of the realm mages, too.”
Boar growled. “You have knowledge of this?”
Burtain shrugged and backed away from Boar, retreating next to Franclin. “Ever since the Empire began seeking land in earnest, the Realm Mages have spent much time attempting to organize an evacuation of our realm. We’ve attempted to access the Dark Realm, as well as many others, but none have proven survivable. Your predicament presents a third option, one we’d like to study.” He paused and reached into his pocket, pulling out a small charm that looked more or less like a bag of grasses and herbs. “W-w-would you mind allowing me to scan you?”
Boar sighed. Anything that Burtain did wasn’t likely to be lethal. “Yes.”
Burtain waved the charm in front of Boar several quick times. A few paltry waves of magic washed out, but nothing nearly as powerful as Sapphire. When he finished, he nodded rapidly.
“There’s certainly something d-d-different about him. I don’t know what, but he’s not like us.”
“Then it’s decided.” Berathin crossed his arms. “Boar, you’ll go with Master Burtain back to the Wizarding Academy. Once there, do everything in your power to figure out how to return. I can only assume that it will take some time, so you’ll be on call to be transported to various battlefields to help defend us. Deal?”
Franclin smirked. “And who keeps him in line once he’s there?”
“You will.” Berathin shrugged. “You’ll keep him company and serve as his personal watchdog.”
Franclin turned and glared at Berathin. “Why me?”
“Because with you gone, I have less competition for Sapphire’s affections.” Berathin slid next to the sorceress and put an arm around her shoulders. “Simple.”
Franclin glared at Berathin. “You can’t just-”
“Franclin, it does make more sense for you to go.” Sapphire pushed Berathin away from her. “I’ll make sure to come visit, okay?”
Boar could hear the sarcasm in her voice. Franclin heard it as well, and turned to stalk down the stairs. Burtain kept his eyes locked on Boar, not moving.
“And where did the Academy get moved to?” Boar rumbled. “I thought the orcs took that territory.”
“They did.” Berathin grimaced. “It’s exactly where it used to be, just hidden behind spells and magic. The orcs couldn’t find it if they fell into its moat. Which they have, several times.”
“I see.” Boar frowned. “Then we should be off. Spells can always be broken. I’d rather get home before the orcs manage to find anything.”
“Indeed.” Sapphire nodded. “Berathin? Take Boar and Burtain down to the transportation pad.”
Berathin nodded. “Too many names with the same letter, you know that?”
“Then change yours when you get back.” Sapphire sounded annoyed. “I’ll be in my room. Come find me once they’re off, I have some battle plans to discuss with you.”
She vanished in a burst of light, and Berathin nodded. “Follow me, please.”
Berathin led Boar and Master Burtain back through the maze of corridors, eventually reaching the ground floor of the castle. There, they walked out to the center of the courtyard, where a small, raised platform stood above the stones. As they walked up to it, a young dragon flew over the walls and landed next to the platform.
“This is how we get around.” Berathin gestured at the dragon. “Dragon-magic. Combined with their sacred stones, they can breathe us to different parts of the world.”
The dragon, a blue-scaled sky dragon, said nothing as Boar and Burtain climbed up onto the platform. Franclin stalked out of a nearby doorway as well, an annoyed look on his face. Berathin flashed some sort of gesture at him that was probably obscene, and Franclin joined the orc on the platform. Boar took a deep breath as he stood there, tall and proud.
All around him, soldiers and mages began to gather. Armored soldiers of Istinis, battle mages from the wizarding world. All of them were there to fight his kind. All of them had likely heard the rumors, that he came from a reality where they weren’t at war. And, quite suddenly, Boar began to feel far less safe than he usually felt.
Before he could process it all, the dragon opened its mouth and roared, releasing a powerful white light. The ground seemed to dissolve under Boar’s feet, launching him through a white void yet again.
This time, the world around him solidified quite fantastically. His feet slammed into solid rock, he kept his balance quite well.
Of course, as the world solidified around him, he quickly realized that he wasn’t in the wizarding academy. Instead, he was standing in a throne room. An orcish throne room. The walls were made from obsidian, stone mined from the heart of a volcano. Banners made from the skins of victims and painted with their blood hung from the walls, skulls had been fastened to the stone with enormous spikes. And, of course, they were surrounded by a dozen orcs.
Before any of them could move, one of the orcs lashed out with a bone club, smashing Burtain’s head into his body. The mage crumpled in a heap without even enough time to scream. Boar straightened up as Franclin gave a small wave with his hand.
“Told you I’d deliver!”
The orcs parted as a new orc stalked into the midst. He stood tall, shoulders broad, an unmistakable fire in his eyes. It was Ondernifam. Not the watered-down version that Boar had only just met, but the powerful, mighty version that he had once known.
“You did indeed.” Ondernifam spoke softly. “I didn’t believe it when I heard the rumors. Boar. You’ve returned!”
Boar fell to his knees as Ondernifam walked up to him. It was his commander! The one that would conquer the orcish empires, the one that would conquer the world!
“My master.” Boar roared. “I am sorry I took so long.”
“Your laziness is forgiven! Rise, my general!”
Boar climbed to his feet as Ondernifam gazed down upon him. The orc had only grown more powerful since Boar last saw him. It was inspiring! It was magical.
“You. Human.” Ondernifam turned to face Franclin. “You have demonstrated great might and valor by betraying your kind. Proceed from this throne room. You will become a general in my infidel forces.”
“Of course, my master.” Franclin dipped his head, turned, and scurried away.
Ondernifam clapped Boar on the shoulder, letting out a powerful roar. “My son, you have come home.” He turned to face the throne, roaring as the orcs around him parted. “And now, let us conquer the world!”
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