“All subjects have been cleared.” The voice echoed through the small metal disk that sat firmly in Franclin’s hand. “They believed that our agents were little more than scavengers. The realmship will be in Fond’sar possession within days.”
“Good.”A deep, gravely voice echoed back. “Do not fail me. Do you have any further suggestions, Sefferon?”
“Establish guards around the king. We can assume from this interaction that he is no longer loyal to our cause.”
“It is already done. I only wish we knew where Barn was.” The commander’s voice continued to rumble. “I’m certain the Highsand will rear his head at some point, I just wish I knew where. If you happen to see him, detain him at once.”
“Of course.” The dwarf in the field, presumably Sefferon, responded back. “Why do you think he isn’t dead? We know he was at Nettingo, which is little more than rubble.”
“He had the protection of the Elementals.” The commander sighed. “He survived, of that I have no doubt. Ahh, well. We’ll find him. You’ve done well, Sefferon. I did not think the situation in Elsinor could be salvaged. And yet, you’ve done it.”
“I simply seek to serve the greater good.”Sefferon sounded pleased. “Until next time.”
The voices went silent, and Franclin sighed. Slowly, he lowered the device and set it on the ground, far enough away that he could speak without his words being transmitted. Having the strange mechanism was a glorious advantage, but it came with its share of dangers as well. If the Fond’sar caught wind of what Franclin and Barn were doing, he suspected that there was nowhere in Calsin they would be able to hide.
“Well.” Barn, on the other side of the campfire, crossed his arms. “That certainly isn’t good.”
“Not really.” Franclin climbed to his feet and tapped an armored finger against his chestplate. Glowing enchantments lit up for a brief moment before dimming again. In the growing twilight, his blue armor appeared nearly black. Barn’s robes, on the other hand, stood out like a sore thumb, as the Highsand had donned the white travel garments of a wandering cleric. “What do we know exactly?”
“The Fond’sar wiped the memories of everyone involved with the dark angel realmship.” Barn mused. “That couldn’t have been an easy task, and they did it after suffering a major defeat.”
“Or at least something that they portrayed as a major defeat.” Franclin mused. “It’s possible that their plan all along was to pretend to be defeated before emerging as the victor in the background.”
“With the Fond’sar, it’s impossible to know.” Barn put his head in his hands. “I’ve spent every moment since my induction into their ranks trying to find ways to defeat them. And, so far, I’ve come up with nothing. They have contingency plans on top of contingency plans.”
Franclin nodded slowly. Among Dragon Hunters, the Fond’sar were legendary. It was the dream of nearly every Hunter in existence that they were real. After all, they represented the perfect enemy. Now that Franclin had discovered that they actually did exist, he was regretting having ever wished that they were more than a casual legend.
“What is their end goal?” Franclin crossed his arms. “We know that they gather relics and weapons, but… What are they trying to accomplish?”
“Believe me when I say that I’ve poured thousands of hours into that very question.” Barn shrugged. “Some days, I think they want to rule the world, that they’re building towards a great armada that will lay waste to Calsin. Other days, it seems like they are content to rule from the shadows, and never plan on emerging. Still other days, I’m convinced that they intend on killing any and all life, leaving nothing but a barren wasteland.”
“Good to know that we understand our enemy so well.” Franclin closed his eyes. “And now we’re walking straight into a dwarven country.”
“The Fond’sar have a fairly small presence in Taninor, actually.” Barn corrected Franclin. “I’m not saying that they’re not there, but Dirnor and Tornor are far more pressing hotspots.”
“That still doesn’t fill me with confidence.” Franclin sighed and forced his eyes open. Slowly, he tilted his head back to stare up at the night sky. Stars twinkled down at him. Stars that apparently held other realms. Or something like that. The implications of the dark angel realmship made his head spin, but he didn’t have time to process all those feelings. Not with their mission at hand.
“So what do we do?” Barn crossed his arms. “The Fond’sar are getting their hands on weapons… Technology… Far more advanced than anything in Calsin. If they can put it to use, they’ll be able to do almost anything they want.”
“I know.” Franclin groaned, then shrugged. “Alright, let’s break this down. Problem: The Fond’sar are stealing the realmship. Problem: The group has been mind-wiped. Problem: We still have a bunch of communication disks to deliver.”
“If the Fond’sar manage to get their hands on the realmship, none of the rest of this may matter.” Barn leaned forward.
“On the other side, if they were able to perform a mind-wipe on so many people, it means that the king and everyone else is being watched.” Franclin held up a finger. “If we’re captured and mind-wiped before we deliver the disks, we lose any chance of being able to fight back. The Fond’sar still get the ship, and the disks are stolen back.”
“True.” Barn frowned. “So we push forward?”
“We complete our part of the mission.” Franclin nodded and held up a finger. “One problem at a time. Once multiple people are listening in on the Fond’sar dealings, we’ll have more resources to use to strike back. Besides,” He shrugged. “It’ll take the Fond’sar awhile to figure out how to repair the ship. If it was damaged as badly as the reports made it sound, it’s nothing that they’ll be able to use for quite some time.”
“I suppose.” Barn huffed. “It still makes me nervous.”
“You and me, both.” Franclin closed his eyes. Ever since they had left Isogodriir, Barn had plied him with information about the Fond’sar, in case one of them was injured and couldn’t make the trip. Franclin was becoming more than a bit overwhelmed, especially at the prospect that the Fond’sar had plants within the Dragon Hunters. It wasn’t a fact that Barn could prove, but he suspected as much, and that was more than enough to make Franclin terrified.
“Well, we should get some sleep.” Franclin reached over and picked up the disk. After a few moments of contemplation, he slipped it into a small pocket in his armor. Noise-canceling enchantments designed by Barn at a small village allowed him to carry the device with far more care than would be possible otherwise. A few lights flickered through the air as the enchantment sealed, and he forced a smile. “We can make it into Taninor tomorrow if we push hard enough.”
“I’m in no hurry to pass through those gates.” Barn sighed and flopped down onto the ground next to the fire. Franclin lay down opposite of him, while the dwarf stroked his beard. “Garnisic was difficult enough to deal with. And now I’ll be facing an entire country that believes me to be a heretic.”
Franclin felt a small smile flicker across his face. The religious debates of Calsin always amused him. “Despite the fact that the existence of the Elementals has been verified for thousands of years?”
“Despite that fact, yes.” Barn huffed. “I know you are not a godly man, but-”
“I just think it’s silly.” Franclin shrugged. “There are thousands of gods in Calsin, so many that not even the Divine Council can keep them all straight. Add in the legions believed to live in Astheris or Vorthis, and there could easily be more gods than mortals.”
Barn snorted. “You believe in the cities of the gods?”
Franclin smiled and closed his eyes. According to legend, Astheris and Vorthis were cities that existed in the space between realms. Astheris housed gods and demigods, allowing entry to anyone more than half-deity. Vorthis was much the same, but only gave entry to those individuals bent on destruction. While most believed it to be a legend, Franclin knew that the Wizarding Academy held gates to both cities. He suspected that Horigor regularly traveled to the godly lands, though he had never been able to prove it.
“I don’t like to discredit anything until I’ve seen evidence otherwise.” Franclin finally shrugged. “Several weeks ago, I would have thought that the Fond’sar were nothing but myth.”
“Fair point.” Barn sighed. “May your dreams be pleasant, Dragon Hunter.”
Franclin smiled. “May the Consuming Wave send blessings your way.”
Barn soon began to snore, but Franclin just lay there, eyes open. Barn was concerned, but overall, seemed unphased by everything happening with the Fond’sar. Franclin, on the other hand, was beginning to panic. He had been told by the Hunter Council to investigate the angels, and now he was doing the exact opposite. Worse yet, word would soon spread that the Apician Family had achieved a great victory over the angels. If there were members of the Fond’sar within the Hunter Council, he was doomed.
“One problem at a time.” Franclin forced the words through his lips. They had to get the disks to their contact. And then…
And then, he would probably be dead. If he wasn’t dead by morning, that was. He closed his eyes, desperately calling out for sleep. It had been days since he had gotten proper rest. It had been weeks since he had taken his armor off for more than a quick rinse in passing creeks.
In desperation, he called upon the magical field of Calsin and cast a sleeping spell on himself. As he swirled away, he praying to whatever god was listening that he would awake to see the morning.
“Welcome to Rotgor!” A high elven maiden twirled in front of the open gates of the city, pulling a long cloth through the wind. It was mesmerizing to watch, and Franclin found his pace slowing. “Enjoy the sights of the dwarves and the elves!”
Nearby, two mountain dwarves sat on small chairs, blasting a strange melody through a series of trumpet-like instruments. The elven girl spun to the beat, happily chanting along to the music. When she caught Franclin watching, she spun up to him, spinning the trailing cloth around his body several times before dancing off.
“Come.” Barn bustled forward, avoiding eye contact with the mountain dwarves. “We mustn’t be caught unawares.”
“Admit it, you’re just nervous because you’re finally in a country that you aren’t ordinarily welcome in.” Franclin snorted and walked past the girl, jogging for a moment to catch up with Barn.
“No, I’m nervous because I don’t know how to proceed.” Barn sighed and glanced up at Franclin. “We have to get across the border, but I don’t think we’re going to be able to do that without being seen by you-know-who.”
Franclin raised an eyebrow, especially when Barn ducked to the side as several mountain dwarf children came running past. “And you didn’t bother to mention this earlier?”
“As you like to say, one problem at a time.” Barn turned and frowned up at Franclin. “I think it best we split up.”
Franclin was even more taken aback than before. “You what?”
“I think we should split up.” Barn nodded firmly. “There are homes for clerics in most cities. Let me stay there, and you can find an inn somewhere. We’ll be less conspicuous that way.”
Franclin crossed his arms. Barn… Wasn’t acting like Barn normally acted. “Are you sure? It’s not that I disagree, I just want to make sure we’re doing the right thing.”
Barn’s eyes twinkled for a brief moment. It was a code that they had decided upon before ever leaving Isogodriir. If they ever ran into trouble and needed the other to follow orders explicitly, the other could check them using that phrase. The response could indicate a number of things, leaving Franclin holding his breath.
“I’m sure. Sure as the sun rises in the east.”
Franclin felt his blood run cold. It was the code for I noticed something, stay alert and trust me.
“Fair enough.” Franclin nodded. It was late in the afternoon, nearing the time that travelers would begin to seek inns. “I’ll meet you tomorrow morning, by the statue in the Square.”
Barn nodded tightly and turned away, vanishing into the crowd. Franclin slowly turned and began walking in the opposite direction, feeling as if he was being watched with every footfall.
The distinct problem was that it was very possible. The crowd was thick, as dozens of dwarves and elves ran back and forth, taking care of their business. It was almost painful to watch, as the short dwarves that came up to Franclin’s waist mingled with the creatures that towered several feet above Franclin’s head.
Franclin slowly walked through the crowd, wishing that he had his helmet on. Latent enchantments could search for threats, alert him to anyone who had been staring in his direction for too long. Something clacked against his leg, and he jumped. A handful of dwarven children, barely coming up to his knees, ran past, laughing and giggling. Franclin took a deep breath and forced himself onward.
The city, Rotgor, was high in the mountain range that separated Elsinor from Taninor. All the buildings seemed to reflect this, as they rose proudly from the mountainside, built from blocks of granite and mortar. Nearly every building seemed to reflect the duality of elves living with dwarves, as large doors led to the above-ground portions while stairwells led down into the stone. It was a strange design that Franclin wasn’t familiar with. He had only ever seen such things once before, when training at the dwarven academy many years earlier.
As he walked, he began to grow more and more conscious of his armor clacking against the cobblestone street. What if it was drawing attention? What if he was being watched? Barn had seen something. They were both dead. They were both as good as gone.
His mind was so eaten up by fear that he nearly walked straight past the Glorious Bugle, an inn that looked far more reputable than many he had seen in his travels. In Calsin, better lodging meant better security. He felt a flash of relief as he finally stepped through the door and allowed the wooden edifice to bang shut behind him. Slowly, he took a deep breath and glanced around the room.
Unlike most of the dungy inns that he frequented, this inn was actually quite nice. Wooden tables and chairs filled much of the area, with smooth-sanded surfaces that spoke to true craftsmanship. A massive fire roared in the fireplace, complete with a roasting hog that sent a glorious odor floating through the room.
“Sir?” The dark elf behind the counter waved at him. She was young, the equivalent of perhaps a twenty-year old human. As Franclin walked over, she cast a smile at him. “And how are you doing today?”
“Well enough.” Franclin reached into a pocket and pulled out several gold coins. “I’d like a room for the night.”
“You’ll have it.” The girl took the coins, then reached under the counter and pulled up a small key. Franclin raised an eyebrow in surprise. It had been a long time since he had stayed at a place that bothered with things like locked doors. “Would you like any amenities while you’re here?” She sniffed the air. “A bath, perhaps? You seem to have come along way.”
Franclin nodded and grimaced. “Isogodriir. We got out right before it was destroyed.”
“Oh, no.” The girl put her hand over her mouth. “I’ve heard the stories. Was it as bad as they say?”
“I’ve never seen anything like it.” Franclin closed his eyes, trying not to think about the enormous mushroom-shaped cloud that rose over the city. “And I hope I never do again.”
“I hope none of us do.” The girl smiled and pressed the key into his hand. “Now, that bath? We also offer in-house entertainment. Men who’ve been on the road as long as you have been are often itching to get that armor off.”
“No entertainment.” Franclin shook his head. The offer was appealing, but he didn’t need more people knowing he was there. “Just the bath.”
“I’ll send someone up to draw the water once we get it warm.” The dark elf smiled. “Just let me know if you change your mind on anything. We also have food and drink down here, and there’s a tavern below ground.”
“Thank you.” Franclin inclined his head. “I’ll see what I can do.”
He turned and walked towards the stairwell, glancing at the numbers on the key. If he wasn’t mistaken, he had a room on the third floor, near the rear. Good enough, he supposed. It didn’t take him long to get there, and soon, he was happily pulling the door shut behind him. Once more, it was like a second feeling of relief. He was safe. If anyone was going to kill him, they would have to come through the door or the lone window. The only other feature in the room besides the bed was a large tub used for bathing and a smaller bucket used for… Other activites.
Franclin sat down on the bed and began slowly taking his armor off. First his gauntlets, then his chest plate. Before long, as his leg pieces fell to the ground, he smiled as he walked around without the protection for the first time in… Ages. His entire body felt lighter, he felt as though he could jump and touch the moon. Of course, he could jump significantly lower without the enhancements built into his armor, but… Minor details.
He took a few moments to enjoy the freedom, then went to work. Hidden in his robes, under his armor, he had a number of protective totems that had come with the suit. He quickly strode to the window, which was little more than a hole in the wall with a large piece of wood that could be slid across. He dropped the shutters, sealing himself inside, and then propped the strange piece of stone up between two of the slits of wood. Instantly, a magical field sprang into existence, sealing him inside. And, most importantly, sealing everyone else outside.
That task done, he found the totem that would be used to seal the door, then tucked it under his pillow. If bathwater was being brought up, he didn’t want to seal them out. His aching body could use the rest, and frankly, it would be nice to just get things off his mind.
It wasn’t long at all before a knock sounded on the door. Before he could open it, the door swung inward, allowing an elderly maid to walk into the room. She was stopped over, but recognizable as a human. Her ancient muscles rippled as she pulled a large tub of water into the room.
“Welcome to the Glorious Bugle.” She wheezed. “I hope you enjoy your stay.”
Franclin nodded and forced a smile. “Thanks. I…”
The woman picked up the tub of water, then turned and whirled, sending the contents of the bucket crashing across him. It was blazing hot, causing his muscles to tense up while he screamed in pain. Before he could move, the woman cast aside her shawl and dissolved the illusion making her appear far older than she was. She snapped her fingers, causing a small burst of red energy to leap from her palm and strike Franclin in the chest, paralyzing him from the neck down. He collapsed on the bed, and she slowly walked over to him.
“You’re getting slow, Franclin.” The all-too familiar face smirked down at his immobile form. “That was easy. Of course, all the girls who know you say you’re easy, don’t they?”
Franclin took a deep breath, trying to force his body to function despite the paralysis magic. “Good to see you too, Thana.” He forced a smile. “Care to tell me what this is all about?”
“Oh, I think you know.” Thana leaned forward, her voice darkening. “You’re a disgrace to Dragon Hunters everywhere. And, now that you’ve got a Black Mark, you’re going to pay.”
Barn glanced back and forth as they walked up to the elven-dwarven border city. All day, Franclin had been cracking jokes about Barn not enjoying being in a city populated by mountain dwarves. Barn had taken it for the most part, not because he agreed, but because he was growing more and more concerned that the two of them were being watched. While yes, Garnisic’s reactions had been enough to prove to him that most mountain dwarves would never react positively to a plains dwarf Highsand… Upon waking up, he had been faced with several puffs of wind that didn’t seem to come from natural directions. Each breath had been cold, signs from the Overwhelming Wind that trouble was on the horizon.
The elven girl swirling around Franclin, though, had sealed his concern. When she spun the ribbon around him, bringing forth all manners of smiles from the boy, he hadn’t felt a single wisp of wind from her. The entire act had just been an illusion. She wasn’t real. Or, at least, part of her wasn’t real.
“Come.” Barn moved forward, trying to look straight ahead. If he looked at the girl, she might realize that he knew something was up.
“Admit it, you’re just nervous because you’re finally in a country that you aren’t ordinarily welcome in.” Franclin snorted and walked past the girl, jogging for a moment to catch up with Barn.
“No, I’m nervous because I don’t know how to proceed.” Barn sighed and glanced up at Franclin. Why was he so oblivious? The skilled Dragon Hunter, able to take on entire squads of Fond’sar in Isogodriir, seemed to have vanished. The signs were in front of him, and he was ignoring them all. “We have to get across the border, but I don’t think we’re going to be able to do that without being seen by you-know-who.”
Franclin raised an eyebrow, obviously not buying the idea that Barn’s nervousness came from the Fond’sar. Several children ran towards him, eyes on a bird flying overhead, and Barn stepped out of the way. “And you didn’t bother to mention this earlier?”
“As you like to say, one problem at a time.” Barn turned and frowned up at Franclin. In his peripheral vision, he tried to glance back at the elven girl. She was still there, but her dance seemed off. Another puff of freezing cold air hit him from her direction, sending shivers down his spine. “I think it best we split up.”
Franclin seemed even more taken aback than before. Once again, Barn just had to wonder what had happened to the boy. “You what?”
“I think we should split up.” Barn nodded firmly. If they were going to survive, they had to be less predictable. “There are homes for clerics in most cities. Let me stay there, and you can find an inn somewhere. We’ll be less conspicuous that way.”
Franclin crossed his arms, as if trying to evaluate the situation. Barn desperately prayed that Franclin would come to realization that something was wrong. Finally, the Dragon Hunter opened his mouth again. “Are you sure? It’s not that I disagree, I just want to make sure we’re doing the right thing.”
Barn almost danced for joy. Something had clicked in his mind! “I’m sure. Sure as the sun rises in the east.”
Franclin’s face became a mask of fear. “Fair enough.” Franclin nodded. “I’ll meet you tomorrow morning, by the statue in the Square.”
Barn nodded tightly and turned away. Franclin’s footsteps faded into the crowd as Barn began pushing his way down the street. He continued to glance back, watching Franclin fade into the crowd. When he vanished, Barn turned and ducked into a narrow alleyway. The crowd continued to blur by the entrance, neither noticing or caring what he had just done. The only other inhabitant of the alley was a high elf, passed out on the ground in a puddle of vomit, and Barn grimaced.
Quickly, he stripped off his cleric robes and reached into his pack, pulling out the robes of a commoner. It took him seconds to change, and he rushed back out onto the street, tucking his white robes back into the case.
Already, the elven dancer was gone. Barn swore, then closed his eyes.
“Brilliant Light, guide my path.” He whispered. “Show me the way.”
When he opened his eyes, nothing had changed, and yet, he knew where to go. One foot went in front of the other, and he scurried off down the street. Dwarves and elves alike glanced down at his haste, but he paid them no mind. If the girl was a member of the Fond’sar, a prospect that grew ever more likely, it meant that the two of them had likely failed on their mission and would soon be dead. If the girl was something else, then they had a chance of survival. In any case, one thing that was growing abundantly clear was that Franclin was off his game.
Regardless of what they did, Franclin had to get back to normal… Or the entire world would suffer for it.
“Black Mark?” Franclin sputtered. With all the issues of the Fond’sar going around, Franclin had never stopped to consider that that might come back and bite him. “I thought all the resurrections got pardoned!”
“They did.” Thana’s face remained a mask of anger. “Coming back from the dead is one thing. Murdering innocent civilians is another thing entirely.”
Franclin frowned. “What?”
“Donisil.” Thana pressed. “You slaughtered a caravan of travelers fleeing from the angels. You then attacked a fishing boat, chased down an aqahartis, and-”
“Please believe me when I say that I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Franclin held up his hands. “I’m just hunting angels!”
Thana held his gaze for a moment, then sighed and snapped her fingers again. The red paralysis magic rose from Franclin’s body, dissipating in the air. Franclin groaned and rolled over, climbing back to his feet.
“That’s what I thought.” Thana crossed her arms. “Nevertheless, someone is going around impersonating you and killing a lot of people.”
“Why would they know it was me?” Franclin felt his voice rise in defense of himself. “Someone just threw my name around?”
“Actually, yes.” Thana sighed and sat down on the end of the bed. She still wore the clothing of a maid, but Franclin could see a light reinforced armor underneath her clothes. “The person doing the killings went by the name Franclin. His description fit yours, and…” Thana paused for a moment. “He was wearing your armor.”
Franclin frowned and pointed at the floor, where his various pieces of armor lay on the ground. “My armor is right there!”
“Not that armor.” Thana shook her head. “Your old armor. The set that got destroyed by the dragon.”
“Technically, it was the lava that did it.” Franclin crossed his arms, puzzled. “If it was destroyed, though…”
“Witnesses have said that the armor was orange with severe fire damage. Looked like someone had salvaged an old suit of armor from a wreckage somewhere.” Thana shrugged. “When the report went out, a lot of us decided that it was bogus, and told the Hunter Council as much. Now, the Council didn’t care much what we thought, and they kept the Mark on you. Moreover, a bunch of the other Hunters are now on your trail as well.”
“Then why don’t they try to kill this other me?” Franclin held up his hands.
“They have been.” Thana smirked. “This other version of you has been able to kill three of them. Norisgor, Jorisil, and Pantisor.”
Franclin ran the names through his head. “None of those three were very experienced.”
“They were among the lower-tier Hunters. And even still, a Hunter should be able to prevail over any imposter.” Thana climbed to her feet. “I’m just glad I found you before anyone else did. You’re a sorry sight.”
“Sorry.” Franclin slowly climbed out of the bed. “It’s been a long few weeks.”
“That’s no excuse, and you know it.” Thana sighed and nodded at the armor. “Suit up. Don’t ever take it off. I found you faster than the others, but not by much. You’re going to have half a dozen Hunters falling on you before much longer if you don’t stay alert.”
“Good to know.” Franclin murmured and slid his feet into his boots, slowly latching them back around his body. Oh, he didn’t want to do that yet. “And how did you find me so fast?”
“I put a tracer spell on you the last time we met.” Thana shrugged. “When you stormed off with critical information about how to defeat the angels, I figured that knowing where you went might wind up being helpful.” She smirked. “Looks like I was right.”
Franclin groaned. Tracing spells were quite advanced to cast, but painfully easy to dispel. If a Hunter thought that he was being traced, a simple cleansing spell would usually do the trick. In fact, it was suggested that Hunters perform a cleansing spell every morning. The fact that Thana was still tracking him after several months only served to show how far he had fallen.
“Great.” He finished attaching his boots and started clamping on his leg guards. “And what else have I been doing wrong? Next, you’ll tell me that I started wearing a sign that says kill me.”
“You’re not far off.” Thana smirked. She turned away and frowned. “Catch you later, Franclin. I’m heading up into Elsinor to see what I can do about the captured dark angels. You should come, too.”
Franclin raised an eyebrow. “So I have you for protection?”
“No.” Thana shook her head. “Because you were the only Hunter dedicated enough to actually pursue the angel problem. And now…” She shrugged. “You’re running off to Taninor to keep hunting the angels? That doesn’t make sense. You’ve changed, and it’s going to get you killed.”
“Stop!” Barn burst into the room, brown robes fluttering in his breeze. He appeared quite winded, but that was common enough. What was curious was how he had found Franclin’s room. Unless the dwarf had been trailing him? Was Franclin really that out of shape that he couldn’t even spot someone trailing him? “I won’t let you kill us.”
“Relax.” Franclin held up a hand, then finished clamping on his leg guards. “She’s a friend. She came to warn us, not hurt us.”
“The two often go hand in hand.” Barn sighed, then walked up to Thana. “I have to admit, your disguise was impressive.”
Thana waved her hand dismissively. “It was nothing.”
“You managed to convince me you were an entirely different species.” Barn shrugged. “Not many practitioners can do that. And your dancing really was quite lovely.”
Thana froze. After a moment, she reached to her belt and pulled out a sword that had been concealed in the folds of her dress.
“I don’t know who you saw, but it wasn’t me.”
The words had barely left her mouth before the room filled with fire. Franclin held up his hands, casting a basic ward spell. For an instant, the flames raged harmlessly against his protection… And then they tore through, knocking him backwards and blasting him through the wall.
The rear of the inn overlooked a small trader’s market that appeared to cater to the locals, rather than the tourists or travelers passing through the city. At least, that was the impression Franclin received as he was thrown across the expanse and slammed into the far wall. Without a break, he fell down the granite edifice, landing squarely on top of a cart of fruit. Melons burst and oranges exploded, showering him in fruit juice.
He climbed to his feet as civilians scattered and tore up and down the street in various direction. Rubble continued to clatter to the ground as the rumble from the explosion continued to echo through the city. Thana landed next to him, already on her feet. With one smooth motion, she ripped away the remainder of the maid’s outfit, leaving her simple coat of armor. Franclin felt incredibly exposed and positively ridiculous as he stood there in little more than a pair of boots and robes.
“I knew there was trouble.” Barn strode up to them, not even a singe on his garment. “Do you think that was a latent spell, or something that someone cast?”
“I don’t know.” Thana snarled. “I do know that they’re going to pay.”
Barn frowned. “If this is who I think it is, we might not want to-”
Thana snarled and spun, striking the air with her foot. A loud crack echoed through the buildings, and an aqahartis appeared out of nowhere, slamming into a nearby stall hard enough to shatter it and send dozens of precious gemstones clattering to the ground.
“So you’re the one who tried to kill us.” Thana leapt forward. She placed the tip of her sword on the man’s throat. “If you explain yourself well, I might let you live.”
The aqahartis smirked, then opened his mouth and screeched. Thana was thrown backwards by the force of the yell, stumbling and falling flat onto her back. Franclin pulled out his dagger and threw it at the assassin, but the aqahartis just whistled, causing the weapon to veer off-course and clatter to the side.
“If you turn and run, I might let you survive.” The aqahartis sneered. “Or… Maybe I won’t.”
He opened his mouth and vanished in a silent song, and Franclin swore. He hated fighting aqahartis. Oh, he hated fighting aqahartis.
“Franclin!” Barn yelled at him. “Don your armor!”
Franclin sighed and glanced at the surrounding rubble. A flash of blue caught his eye, but it was too far away. A small scuffle flickered just next to him. The aqahartis was here, ready to attack.
Without any other real course of action, Franclin drew on the enchantments in his boots, jumping up into the air. Steel flecked off his boots as he rose upward, and he flashed a quick grin. One blow avoided.
As he came back down, he activated the ice enchantments, causing a surge of ice to erupt outward from the point of impact. He landed only feet from where he had been, and watched as the crystals tore across the ground, freezing gravel and rubble in place.
Only feet from where Thana stood, the ice suddenly wrapped around two invisible feet, forming icy boots that held the aqahartis in place, if just for a moment. Thana reacted instantly, smashing an armored fist into the air. The aqahartis was thrown backwards, shattering the ice around his feet and once more rendering him visible.
Franclin brought up his hands and called on Calsin’s magical field. Fire formed in his palms, and he loosed two torrents of flame in the creature’s direction. Just before it hit the ground, the aqahartis screamed out another spell, causing the flames to divert and wrap around him in a deadly cocoon.
“Hit him!” Franclin screamed. “Now!”
Thana lunged forward, sword in hand. She was nearly there when Franclin felt his stomach grow nauseous. It was like a frog had been plunged into his body and was fighting to escape. Both he and Thana vomited at the same time, unable to control their bodily urges. To Thana’s credit, she continue to lunge forward, allowing the vomit to splatter against the front of her armor. Franclin… Wasn’t so lucky.
His stomach muscles clenched, pulling him over double. The foul liquid splashed on his hands, covering his palms and causing the spell to backfire, scorching his palms. He grimaced and fell back as the aqahartis ducked out of the way and vanished once more.
“No!” Thana screamed and lunged. She threw her sword through the air, using magic to keep it aloft. The deadly blade zinged back and forth across the narrow street, apparently missing the aqahartis on all accounts.
Franclin cast a healing spell, causing the flesh to grow back across his palms. He then held out his hand, using his magic to call the piece of armor to himself. His left gauntlet flashed through the air, landing smack in his palm. He shoved his hand inside as fast as he could move, then began glancing around for other bits and pieces of armor.
Something clicked in the back of his mind, and he dove forward, nearly flying straight into Thana’s sword. She yelped and called the sword back to herself as an arrow swished through the air where Franclin had just been standing. He came up out of his roll and thrust out his left hand.
A sword materialized out of the air and slammed into his palm, stinging his hand. He wrapped his fingers around the blade, trying to hold it tight even as the aqahartis struggled to remove it. Thana didn’t hesitate, and flung a series of fireballs through the space where the aqahartis should have been.
Unfortunately, the fire simply passed through the air unimpeded, and caught several other nearby stalls on fire. Franclin swore and launched a fireball out of his left gauntlet, melting through the sword. Or, that’s what should have happened. Instead, the illusion simply shattered into bits and piece of light, leaving them standing on the empty street, gasping for breath.
Several moments passed with nothing happening. Franclin slowly turned to face the surrounding area, looking for any sign that the aqahartis was still there. Nothing. No gravel moving, no distortions in the wind. Just the sound of the wind and falling gravel.
“What now?” Franclin hardly dared to breath. “Where is he?”
“I don’t know.” Thana slowly turned and held up her hands. With a pop, Franclin’s armor leapt up off the ground, flashed through the air, and began to latch onto his body. He felt more than a bit embarrassed, but it was incredibly relieving to have it back on himself. His chest plate, his arms, everything. The moment it was all on, he reached up and tapped the xenophile crystal, causing his helmet to expand and snap around his head.
Before anyone else had a chance to say anything, Franclin activated a scanning enchantment built into the suit. Instantly, Thana and Barn lit up, displayed even though Barn wasn’t in his direct line of sight. In theory, the suit could see through most illusions. He glanced back and forth, looking for the assassin, but… Nothing. It was like he was gone.
“He’s heading to Taninor!” Barn almost screamed the words. “Go! Now!”
Thana blew past Franclin without a second glance, heading straight towards the border. Franclin turned and followed, drawing on the stamina enchantments imbedded deep within his armor. In mere seconds, he was able to draw up to her, grimacing as they tore through the city.
“Go high.” Thana gasped. “I’ll take the street. Make sure he doesn’t get away.”
Franclin nodded and jumped upward, towards the nearby walls. As he got close, ice exploded from his feet, forming steps. It was a simple trick, but oh, was it nice. Running on the steps that he was conjuring, it took mere seconds to reach the rooftop levels. Once there, he drew on his stamina enchantments once more, blasting across the rooftops as fast as he could run.
Below, Thana wound her way through the crowd. Above, Franclin leapt from rooftop to rooftop, thankful that the roofs were all flat, at least in that part of the city. He kept his scanning enchantment on, looking for anything out of the ordinary. Anything… Unusual.
He spotted the abnormality only moments later. A glowing figure, racing along the main street of the town. Franclin angled in that direction, jumping from rooftop to rooftop until he was running along the edge of the roofs directly above the most prominent street through the middle of Rotgor. Below, dwarves and elves tried to go about their business, though many eyes turned to the two Dragon Hunters.
Ahead, the fleeing figure bowled down the sidewalk, desperately trying to stay ahead. Franclin allowed the scan to drop for a moment. In that instant, the figure vanished, confirming that it was, indeed, the aqahartis using invisibility spells. He reactivated the scan and ran ever faster, doing everything in his power to catch up with the creature.
Down below, Thana finally caught back up to him, having fallen behind after being forced to zig down several streets. He pointed ahead, trying to indicate where the aqahartis was. Thana glanced up, gave a single nod, and flicked her wrist.
Franclin couldn’t see exactly what she had thrown, but it did the trick. Unaware that people were following him, the aqahartis fell to the ground screaming. Franclin leapt off the roof, sailing through the air and crashing to the ground just next to the hapless baker that seemed quite surprised to find an aqahartis suddenly appearing in front of his store.
The aqahartis looked up as Franclin landed. The man’s eyes narrowed, and his opened his mouth. Before he could say a word, Franclin thrust out his hand, calling on the magical field. A burst of magic shot out and filled his mouth, tying his tongue down and preventing him from saying a word. He glared up at Franclin, then kicked to the side and tried to climb back to his feet.
Hands already extended, Franclin drew on his ice enchantments, blasting the man with a blizzard of the conjured substance. It washed over the assassin like a snowstorm, and when Franclin finally let up, everything below the man’s neck was sealed solid. He was frozen in an enormous lump of ice, one that wouldn’t melt for some time in the cool mountain air. The man opened his mouth several times, likely to cast a spell that would shatter the ice, only to find that the tongue-tying spell was still in place.
“Well, now.” Thana gasped as she reached them. “Looks like you’re not as out of it as I thought.”
Franclin took a deep breath and shrugged. “I’m pretty well out of it. But…”
“Stop right there!” Several city guards, a mixture of dwarves and elves, trotted out of a nearby alley and drew their swords. Civilians scattered as the guards formed a ring around the odd trio.
“Dragon Hunter business.” Thana held up her hand and cast a spell. It was a complex spell, though it was easy enough once you had been taught it, that would identify your status as a Dragon Hunter. Green lights pulsed from her palm, forming an intricate series of triangles and squares that slowly rotated past each other. In the center was the letter T, stylized with dragon scales and flames.
The guards turned to Franclin. “And you?”
Franclin held up his own hand and cast the spell. Lights pulsed from his armored palm, forming a series of circles and ovals. Unlike Thana, though, they were pitch black, and his stylized letter was blotted out by a large black cloud. Right. The Black Mark.
“Let’s not look too closely at mine.” Franclin let his sign dissolve. “The point it-”
“A Black Mark traveling with an ordinary Hunter does not often happen.” One of the guards, an elf that sported a small flair of red on his shoulder, stepped forward. “This is serious business?”
“Life or death.” Thana nodded. “Let us interrogate him. Here. If we try to move him, he could escape.”
“Guards! Fortify the area!”
In response, the guards spun on their heels, turning away from the two Dragon Hunters. They barred their shield and readied their swords, preventing anyone from getting inside. Franclin raised his eyebrows as they walked up to the aqahartis.
“Impressive.” He grinned. “Sometimes, I forget that being a Hunter has its perks.”
“Sometimes, you forget what being a Hunter truly means.” Thana snapped. She stepped up in front of the aqahartis, who was appearing more and more nervous. “You owe me an explanation and a drink after this.”
“You’re on.” Franclin held up his hand. “You still remember how to interrogate an aqahartis?”
“I’m the one who should be asking you those questions.” Thana reached into her pocket and withdrew several small fishhooks. The aqahartis began to sweat as she slowly inserted them into his protogills, threading them through the sensitive flesh that grew there. His neck muscles twisted back and forth uncontrollably as she then threaded the hooks with line and wrapped the strings around her hand.
“You know the drill, I assume.” She nodded at the man. “He releases the spell. You talk. Try to break free, I pull the string. Try to run, the string just gets pulled. I assume you know what can happen if that… Well, happens.”
The man nodded rapidly, wincing as that caused the hooks to twitch. Protogills were so sensitive in aqahartis that if they were torn, it could cause the individual to black out from the pain. It made for a quite useful tool in interrogations, which was nice, given that aqahartis could cast spells just by talking.
Franclin raised his hand and snapped his fingers, releasing the spell. The aqahartis shook his head and glanced back and forth, fear in his eyes. After a moment, Franclin cast a second spell that created a sound barrier around them. The guards wouldn’t be able to hear a word that they said.
“If you want to live, kill all these guards, kill me, and run.”
Thana raised an eyebrow. “Most people don’t volunteer to die.”
“You’re Dragon Hunters.” The man’s neck continued to tremble. “You’ll make it quick.”
Thana’s eyes narrowed. “You’re not a dragon hunter?”
Franclin felt his gut sinking. Thana had assumed that the aqahartis was simply a Hunter, on Franclin’s trail for the Black Mark. Instead, it looked like the Fond’sar were on to them.
“Why are we being targeted?” Franclin stepped forward, lowering his voice. “What do they know?”
“Nothing!” The aqahartis winced backwards. “They think you’re both dead, and everyone involved thinks that’s a good thing. When I saw you alive, I decided to take initiative.”
“Uh, huh.” Franclin nodded. “How many other agents in the city?”
“Three.” The aqahartis grimaced. “I know one of them is a city guard. I don’t know who the other is. Please,” His voice became a whine. “Kill me. This was a failure on all levels. If I’m summoned for a report, they’ll hang me over an acid bath and slowly lower me in over the course of a week, and…”
The aqahartis nodded and glanced at Thana, who seemed more than a bit confused about the whole situation. In all reality, Franclin really couldn’t blame her.
“What do you want to do?” Thana crossed her arms. “We kill him, then start looking for these other three people?”
“No.” Franclin shook his head. He felt his body begin to sweat as he glanced out at the guards. A crowd was beginning to gather. Dozens of civilians, any one of which could have been an agent of the Fond’sar. There was simply no way of knowing, no way of guessing which ones were innocent and which ones were deadly. “We run.”
Thana snorted. “That’s the type of person you are now? Someone who just gives up and runs away at the slightest-”
“Thana?” Franclin took a deep breath. “Trust me. Is your armor in town?”
Thana nodded. “Yeah. Why?”
“Get it.” Franclin balled his fists and lowered his voice. “We kill him, and we run. Use invisibility spells, just do it. Cross the border without being seen. If I remember the maps right, there should be a tavern just south of the city. Meet Barn and I there.”
Thana inhaled slowly. “Franclin? Is-”
“Trust me.” Franclin held up his hands. “Please.”
Thana met his eyes, then nodded. “Okay.”
Franclin turned and brought up his gauntlet. The aqahartis had a moment to appear thankful before Franclin fired a burst of flame, incinerating the man’s head. With that, both he and Thana leapt up into the air, over the row of guards. Franclin cast an invisibility spell on himself and just… Ran.
The Fond’sar knew they were alive. There was no other way about it. The interrogation scene had been seen by too many people. No, there were now two agents who knew of their existence, and the only way to prevent them from reporting in would be to slaughter an entire city. Which was out of the question.
No, the situation didn’t look good. And somehow, Franclin suspected that it was only going to get worse.
Thana took a deep breath, whistled softly, and took a long draught of her ale. The trio was seated in the rear of an underground tavern, around a mile south of Rotgor. A handful of dwarves bustled through the place, but as it was fairly late at night, not many were still up and about. Only a few flickering torches lit the location, giving them, hopefully, just enough cover to hide.
“You’re telling me that the Fond’sar are real?” Thana finally spoke. “And that we were interrogating one of their henchmen? That’s ridiculous.”
Barn huffed and stroked his beard. “If you were in charge of a secret organization, what would you do? Attempt to hide its existence entirely, counting on the fact that word of your group would never leak out? Or would it be wiser to turn the idea of your group into a fairy-tale? A story intended to make young children behave, so that when word of your existence arises, no one believes you?”
“I guess.” Thana grimaced and tapped a green-armored finger on the table. “It just doesn’t make any sense.”
“It makes even less sense if you’ve been with them for any length of time.” Barn snorted and took another bite out of the lump of cheese that he had purchased. “The Fond’sar are deadly, and they will stop at nothing to achieve their ends.”
Franclin tensed up as a robed dwarf walked into the bar. The man simply walked up to the bartender and began ordering a drink, and Franclin forced himself to relax. Not everyone was a member of the Fond’sar.
“And that’s why you’re so bad right now.” Thana turned to Franclin. “You’ve been living where you have to jump at every shadow. You’re worried sick.”
“Something like that.” Franclin muttered. “Can’t say that it’s been pleasant.”
“No.” Thana shook her head. “I imagine not.”
For a few moments, they just sat there. Finally, Thana shrugged and leaned forward.
“So what do we do now? How do we beat these guys?”
“For the moment, by delivering our package.” Barn nodded at Franclin. “We’re heading for a dwarven fortress just south of here. The Ific fortress, I believe. We have a contact there who can help us. Once we’re done there, it’s off to Tifingor.”
“I see.” Thana nodded. “And on top of that, there’s someone with Dragon Hunter-level proficiency who’s impersonating Franclin.” She crossed her arms in finality. “You’ll need someone to help protect you.”
Franclin shook his head. He liked Thana well enough, but he really didn’t want to get her involved. If she was seen helping a Black Mark, she could wind up with the same designation, which would be enough to bring every Hunter in Calsin down on top of them. “I think we’ve got this.”
With a twang, the dwarf at the bar turned and pulled a small crossbow out of his pocket. He fired the weapon at Franclin’s head, launching the deadly projectile through the air. Thana’s enchantments flashed across her armor, and a spike of rock flashed from her gauntlets, intercepting the crossbow bolt. As both projectiles clattered to the floor, she turned and flicked her wrist. A stalactite erupted from the floor, driving up through the dwarf like a spike.
“Is that so?” Thana raised an eyebrow. “Because to me, it looks like you could use all the help you can get.”
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