“Send search parties to the northern forests!” Lord Apician thundered from her throne. “Keep a constant guard on the lake. He won’t have gone far without his friends. I want him back under water now!”
Guards and soldiers ran from the room, metal boots clomping on the stone floors. Next to the throne, Paulin sighed and lowered his head, trying to figure out what in the world had just happened. Torches blazed outside the windows, lighting up the night as everyone tried to figure out where Ferguson might have gone.
“Thank you for remaining by my side in this.” Lord Apician turned her head ever so slightly, the tone of her voice making it clear that she had no thanks whatsoever for him. “Would you care to come with me to the dungeons? I would like to question this dwarf that you insist on remaining friends with.”
“I’m sure there’s an explanation.” Paulin kept his voice even. “Perhaps he jumped in the lake to try and prevent the escape.”
“That doesn’t explain the blood on the shore.” Lord Apician climbed to her feet and started walking down the stairs to the main throne room. Paulin fell in step just a few feet behind her. “Come. Now.”
Paulin simply dipped his head and followed as Lord Apician swept from the throne room and into the castle hallways. Meanwhile, as he walked, he tried desperately to piece together what might have happened. He had been finishing up a nice, quiet walk with Kisidera when soldiers had appeared and hauled him away, demanding his presence before Lord Apician. Something about Garn letting Ferguson loose. Now, it was late at night, he was exhausted, and had no real idea what in Calsin was happening.
It didn’t take long to arrive at the dungeon. As he walked up, he couldn’t help but notice that one cell held Garn, while a second cell held Ondernifam. That was news. Lord Apician walked up to the cell that held Garn and crossed her arms.
“I’ll not be spoken to that way.” Garn stood up and crossed his arms, matching her pose. “I helped protect the realm from the brothers and the Fond’sar, and I’ll not be spoken to like a common criminal.”
“You let our most valuable prisoner go.” Lord Apician sneered. “Why?”
“I already told you. I saw him escaping, so I tried to stop him.” Garn growled back. “What more do you want?”
Lord Apician turned slightly and nodded at Ondernifam. “Is this what happened?”
Ondernifam nodded and roared. “He burst free from the water like a dragon! Garn dove in to stop him, a brave move for a brave dwarf.”
Paulin groaned inwardly as Lord Apician’s face became something of amusement. “Oh, really? He’s a brave dwarf?”
In his cell, Garn facepalmed as Ondernifam bellowed onward. “Oh, yes! The bravest! He single-handedly fought Ferguson in the water! It was a battle to behold! The waves crested hundreds of feet high as the turmoil of their conflict reached a peak! It was only through deception and trickery that Ferguson managed to gain the upper hand on this respectable warrior!”
“Then, if you don’t mind, would you care to explain why, only yesterday, you were telling my guards that the pathetic gopher living in our garbage heap was the weakest coward you had ever laid eyes upon?” A small smile rose on Lord Apician’s face.
“You said that about me?” Garn bellowed.
“I was mistaken!” Ondernifam placed his hands over his eyes. “I did not know the true might that lay within the dwarf’s body. If only I had seen him fight like this in our past!” Ondernifam paused, snickering softly. “He never fought in the past. Only got caught!”
“You do realize that just because you can’t see us doesn’t mean we can’t see you?” Paulin raised an eyebrow.
Ondernifam’s hands dropped, and he growled softly. “I will fight you to the death if you dare harm one hair on this pathetic badger’s head.”
“That’s the first thing to come out of your mouth that I’ve actually believed.” Lord Apician turned back to Garn. “Now, please explain why you allowed the prisoner to go free? Only a few months ago, you hated him with all your guts.”
“I know.” Garn sighed. “It’s complicated. I…”
He was cut off by the sound of a distant horn. Lord Apician raised an eyebrow, then turned slightly. “They’ve caught a glimpse of the angel. I believe I shall go watch him thrown back into the prison. Perhaps, after he’s been sunk, we could throw you in as well.”
“We could watch a dwarf sink!” Ondernifam snickered.
“That would kill me.” Garn sighed.
“Then I will stop them!” Ondernifam slammed his hands into the bars of the cell.
Lord Apician turned and swept away. She beckoned after Paulin, imploring him to follow her. He held up a hand, declining the offer.
“Forgive me, but I would like to complete my own investigation.”
Lord Apician’s face darkened, but she nodded shortly and swept away. Paulin took a short breath. He was King Regent, but… In reality, that didn’t mean nearly as much as it should have around the Apician Family. As Lord Apician’s footsteps faded, he turned and nodded at Garn.
“So what actually happened?”
Garn sighed. “I was trying to figure out what had happened at the attack. I’ve been having these dreams, almost, about something else at the ship. Something that we all forgot.”
Paulin nodded slowly. “And?”
“And I was right.” Garn balled his fists. “There was a group of dwarves there. The Fond’sar. That was why we needed the Apician army, we were fighting two wars at once.”
“And you believe Ferguson on this?” Paulin raised an eyebrow. “The Fond’sar are a myth.”
“But what if they’re not?” Garn walked up to the bars, grabbing hold of the metal obstructions. “What if they’re real? What if they can use some sort of mind-wipe enchantment to prevent anyone from truly discovering their existence. The possibilities could be almost endless.”
Paulin closed his eyes and shook his head for a moment. “How positive about this are you?”
“I would stake my family name on it.”
“Then I believe you.” Paulin opened his eyes again and crossed his arms. “What can I do to help?”
“Not a good time right now, Simon.” Isnita hissed into thin air as Sapphire and the angel jogged across the darkened Apician Estate. Torches tore through the trees and buildings all around them as everyone looked for the missing angel. Sapphire closed her eyes, drawing on Calsin’s magical field in an attempt to locate the missing prisoner.
“Yes, I get that you found something important, but it has to wait.” Isnita hissed again. “We almost have Ferguson caught again. No, I’m not going to die before we get to talk again. Why is this so important again?” There was a slight pause. “We did what? EEW!!! Look, contact me after this is all over, okay?”
Sapphire opened her eyes again as Isnita spun back to face her. “What was that all about?”
“Simon being Simon, mostly.” Isnita sighed. “He’s on a world of females, and he only cares about me, apparently. Anyway, he and Mal found something. I don’t exactly know what, since we’re a little busy at the moment.”
“Well, I’d like to know once we get this done.” Sapphire smirked and closed her eyes again, satisfied that the world wasn’t about to face the possibility of total destruction. She sent a pulse out into the field, listening for any sort of a ping back. “Do you think he could have actually found the key to your species? The key that he keeps talking about?”
“He keeps saying that Mal is a key, not that he’s looking for a key.” Isnita sighed. “I don’t know, and at this point, I’m not sure I care. He single-handedly managed to infuriate my second-in-command. I had to order her not to launch missiles at Simon’s current location. She’s claiming that if I ever do return, she’s going to formally attempt to take leadership from me.”
“Well, with luck, if Simon and Mal can actually sort things out, maybe you all can just come here.” Sapphire shrugged as a faint ping finally registered in the field. “It might take a little bit for people to accept you, but it’s not like you have measurable lifespans to begin with.”
“True enough.” Isnita ruffled her feathers. “I don’t know, I’m just… I’m a little nervous. You know?”
Sapphire didn’t answer for a moment as she tried to focus on the source of the ping. It was nearby, but faint. As if Ferguson was hiding or shielding himself somehow. “I mean, it’s possible that Simon just uncovered something about your species. Who knows what it is? Who knows what the implications will be?”
“Exactly.” Isnita sighed again. “What if we find out that we’re actually monsters? Or that-”
“Hang on.” Sapphire held up a finger as the pulse started to grow a bit stronger. “I think I found Ferguson.”
“Really?” Isnita’s voice became a bit more hopeful. “Where?”
“Nearby.” Sapphire bit her lip and tried to focus. If she still had access to the nearly unlimited amount of power awarded a sorceress, she could have found him instantly. Aa shape began to form in her mind, a hazy image that could have been a shack. “I think he’s inside something.”
“We found him!” Voices echoed in the night air, and torches began to move away, deeper into the forest.
Isnita smiled and turned. “Come on!”
“Wait.” Sapphire held up a hand and desperately tried to focus. Magic began to burn in her palms as she called the image into focus. “It looks like a maintenance shed. Maybe something out by the gardens?”
“Could it be a shack in the woods?” Isnita held up her hands.
“No.” Sapphire shook her head and opened her eyes again, allowing the magic to dissipate. “I’m sure of it. Follow me!”
With that, she turned and bolted across the ground, running across the Estate as fast as they could move. Isnita jumped up into the air, sailing up and looking around before dropping back down to Sapphire’s side. The angel kept up with Sapphire’s pace, even though Sapphire could sense her uneasiness.
“Are you sure about this?”
“Yes!” Sapphire muttered a curse under her breath, killing some of the grass nearby. “Just…”
“Sapphire?” An elven voice rang out over the estate. “Running from a battle?”
Sapphire spun to see Fifiala jogging across the Estate as well, clad in full battle armor. “He’s this way!”
Fifiala’s eyes narrowed. “Are you certain?”
A loud explosion shook the air, and fire belched upwards from the trees. Sapphire nodded and started running again. “Fairly certain, yeah.”
“You aren’t in armor.” Fifiala tore after Sapphire, jogging up next to her as wounded soldiers screamed in the woods. “Do you even have your sword?”
“I have this.” Sapphire drew a large dagger from her belt.
“Allow me to take the lead, then.” Fifiala charged forward, stretching out in front of both Sapphire and Isnita. Together, the trio raced over the top of a hill… And into full view of the shack that Sapphire had seen earlier.
Sure enough, it sat just on the edge of one of the various Apician fields. The door hung wide open, allowing them to see Ferguson peering out, snickering at the flames. His grin grew even wider as the trio rushed down to meet him.
“Oh, isn’t this a sight to see?” He stepped out and balled his hands into fists. Curiously, he didn’t seem to be holding a sword. “And just what do you three think you’re going to do?”
“Give it up.” Isnita called out. “Your ship is gone! You can’t win!” She paused. “And… Simon found something.”
“I don’t care what Simon found.” Ferguson held his ground as the trio reached him. Fifiala stepped up in front of him, holding her sword up to his neck. Isnita held her own sword at the ready on Ferguson’s right, while Sapphire stood on his left. She knew she was likely the weakest link, and began to draw on the magical field in preparation. “That sniveling rat betrayed us! Whatever he found, it’s wrong. He’ll betray you, too.”
“Ferguson.” Sapphire tried to hold her voice level. “The sisters have forgiven us. Whatever you were facing, it isn’t worth it. Just give it up.”
“Give it up for what?” Ferguson raised an eyebrow. “Give up so you can toss me back into that lake? So I can live the rest of my life in a semi-conscious state until the lake dries up in a few thousand years?”
“Maybe we can work something out.” Fifiala’s sword didn’t move. “But you did kill our men, you tried to kill all of us, and there has to be punishment for that.”
“No.” Ferguson shook his head. “I really don’t think there does.”
“Then explain to me how you’re going to get away from here without any weapons.” Fifiala raised an eyebrow. “All I have to do is shout, and everyone comes running.”
“See, that’s the thing.” Ferguson shrugged, then held out his hand, as if to shake hands with Fifiala. Fifiala hesitated, and a small object popped out of his sleeve. A brilliant blue beam of light erupted from the device, burning through Fifiala’s chest like she, and her armor, were made from paper. “I’m not unarmed.”
Sapphire and Isnita both froze as Fifiala toppled to the ground. Ferguson spun and fired the object through Isnita’s chest, dropping her to the ground as well. As he spun towards Sapphire, the magic in her body fluctuated in self-defense, bringing a small ward spell around her. The blue beam refracted through the barrier, missing her chest and burning past her shoulder. Ferguson snickered once before launching himself up into the air and flying away.
Sapphire gasped and fell to her knees, next to Fifiala. She turned the elf over, feeling her heart ache as the lifeless eyes simply stared up into the sky. She hadn’t known her for long, but Fifiala had been her mentor. She had helped her survive. She… She had been the only one able to help Sapphire cope with the loss of her sorcerous abilities.
Sapphire swore under her breath again, then grabbed Fifiala’s sword from the ground, turned, and raced across the ground. Behind her, Isnita started to stir, but she didn’t stop to wait. Ferguson was going after the other brothers, there was no doubt about that.
“I need help!” She screamed into the night air. “He’s over here!”
Only the distant screams and yells of soldiers answered her. No one came to her rescue. No one came running. Sapphire ground her teeth together and desperately raced for the pond, knowing that’s where he would be next.
She raced over the hilltop, coming into full view of the lake. High in the sky, she saw stars winking out before reappearing again, Ferguson’s dark silhouette that dove towards the water. Sapphire drew magic into herself, then paused.
What would Fifiala have told her? Don’t use magic as a way of fighting. Use it to help enhance your fighting.
Sapphire screamed and ran for the water’s edge, casting a freezing spell at the lake. A sheet of ice appeared at the water’s edge and erupted across the lake, freezing waves mid-crest. An instant later, Ferguson slammed into the ice with a dull splat, shattering the protective shell with a crunch but not going through.
Sapphire nodded and leapt out onto the pond, casting the freezing spell one more time and holding her sword at the ready. As the ice froze to a depth of several feet thick and Ferguson began to climb back to his feet, she held her sword at the ready.
“Oh, come on.” Ferguson groaned as his arm snapped back into its socket. “Are you really going to stand there and just challenge me?”
“You killed my friend.” Sapphire’s voice shook. “Just like that.”
“She would have done the same to me if it had been possible.” Ferguson sneered. “You’re not a warrior. Look at you, standing there. I can’t be killed. You could have run up to me, stabbed me, and not had to worry about any of your moral qualms about hurting a downed man. Instead, you stand there and wait for me to attack.”
“You would have killed me.” Sapphire kept her voice tight. “You have that device set to explode. If I get close, you blow it. I die, you get thrown up into the air and still probably heal before any of the guards get here. I can sense your thoughts.”
“Oh, can you?” Ferguson raised an eyebrow. As it happened, Sapphire had gotten the flash of insight, but it had simply been a fluke accident, probably due to the amount of magic flowing through her body. “Do you know what I’m going to do now?”
As it happened, Sapphire didn’t have a clue. Ferguson simply launched himself forward without hesitation, flying low over her head. His arm came down, and Sapphire cast the same ward spell around herself. The brilliant blue beam of energy lanced down, turning a small portion of ice into steam but doing little harm to her. Ferguson just laughed and flew up into the sky, hovering above her.
“The great sorceress!” Ferguson laughed and fired another bolt of energy down at her. Her ward spell deflected it, but only barely. “Can’t even fight back!”
Fire flickered in her palm, but she took a deep breath and let it dissolve. Ferguson was trying to goad her. She needed to wait until the time was right, then strike. He fired three more of the energy bolts down at her, all of which she deflected. As steam hissed up around her, she sneered at the angel.
“I won’t play your games, Ferguson.”
“Oh, really?” Ferguson sneered back. “Seems to me like you already are.”
With that, Ferguson folded his wings and dropped like a rock. Sapphire, off, guard, didn’t lower her ward spell in time, allowing Ferguson to slam full-force into the protective spell. His feet landed solidly, sending ripples through the air. At the same time, Sapphire was driven to her knees… Right in the same place that Ferguson had just drilled a large number of holes through the ice.
The ice cracked under her legs, allowing water to pour upwards. Sapphire was sucked down almost immediately, falling beneath the surface of the liquid. She inhaled almost immediately, sucking in what felt like gallons of the mossy, muddy water. She flailed desperately in an attempt to get back to the surface, kicking towards the air above. Her hand came in contact with solid ice, her body pressed up against the barrier. She had doomed herself.
Her mouth opened wide in a silent scream, and she called on the magical field with everything she had. Fire exploded from her palms, causing resounding explosions to echo through the water. She was thrown to the side, tossed away by the force of her own explosion… But, miraculously, she felt a single hand break through the surface of the lake.
She clawed her way above the water in an instant, finding herself near the middle of the pond. She coughed violently, hacking up the liquid that she had inhaled. With a mighty heave, her stomach revolted, and she vomited up her last meal into the water, choking and coughing in the process. As bits and pieces of food, mud, and moss swirled in the water around her, she forced her hands into motion, pulling herself through the lake towards the edge.
With a blast, Ferguson erupted from the lake, trailing water behind him. He held a limp brother in his arms, which he threw at the bank. The boy landed with a dull splat, and Ferguson dove back towards the lake.
Sapphire closed her eyes, feeling tears leak out. She stretched out her hand, casting magical strings through the air. The invisible forces wrapped around Ferguson’s body, snapping his wings closed… At least for a matter of seconds, before Ferguson simply flexed his muscles, broke the bonds, and dove back underwater again.
“No!” Sapphire sighed as the brother on the shore began to twitch. “No!”
She forced her body into motion, crawling through the lake towards the second boy. As she reached the edge, soldiers began racing over the top of the hill, drawn by the commotion. The second brother slowly climbed to his feet as Ferguson exploded from the water a second time, dropping a third boy on the far side.
“And so the plan falls apart.” The brother glanced sideways at her and sneered. “What are you going to do?”
Sapphire thrust out her hands, calling on the magical field. Magic burned through her body… Only to fizzle out as it reached her fingertips. She glanced at her palms, finding runes seared into her flesh. She had used too much magic far too fast. She would have to heal before her body could take the strain of connecting to the field yet again.
The boy just laughed, then leapt into the air, did a fancy backflip, and dove under the water. Sapphire was helpless to do anything but watch as Ferguson appeared a third time. The elven soldiers rushed around the pond, presumably to try and stab the brothers that were healing, but Sapphire just turned away. She was useless here.
Slowly, she started walking back up the hill towards Isnita and Fifiala. She had failed. She had failed, and now they were all going to die.
“Mal, I only wish I could truly convey upon you the grandeur of what we just found.” Simon jumped up into the air, giving his wings a single flap that allowed him to sail across the room and land on the far side. His fingers blurred as he began typing commands into the devices over there, causing dozens of the strange, unintelligible lights to appear in the air. “This is a gold mine. No, better than a gold mine. I don’t think there’s a single substance in the entire known multiverse as valuable as what we just stumbled upon. I wouldn’t even trade this place for a warehouse of solid-state helium. And trust me, that’s saying something, because I don’t even know if there is enough solid-state helium in the multiverse to fill a warehouse.”
Mal puffed out his cheeks and sighed, letting his wings droop. Simon had visited nearly every device in the room, watched the recordings of the ghosts dozens of times over, contacted Isnita, contacted Fortrina (which hadn’t gone well), and tried to contact basically anyone and everyone else that he could.
“So what are you finding?” Mal raised an eyebrow. “Something more than what the ghosts told us?”
“Technically, those were quantum holographic projections.” Simon leapt back up into the air, gliding across the room again and landing just next to Mal. “Here’s the deal. When those recordings took place, when you saw the ghosts of us all talking, I didn’t have a clue what any of this technology truly was. I had theories, and I could obviously work it well enough, but I didn’t truly know.”
Mal nodded slowly. “And you understand it now?”
“Well enough.” Simon grinned. “I’ve only seen technology similar to this in a handful of societies. Most cultures just skip the step necessary to create anything like this.”
Mal frowned. “What do you mean?”
Simon puffed out his cheeks. “Cultures go through phases of development, kinda like people when they grow up. Calsin, right now, is in the medieval stage. Every culture across every world is going to look more or less identical until you hit the industrial revolution, at which point options begin to emerge. If a culture decides to pursue a steam-powered industrial revolution instead of a coal-powered industrial revolution, there’s a small chance that the concept of quantum entanglement will be theorized around the same time as the initial development of the computer instead of long afterwards. If those two events coincide, there’s a much higher likelihood that they’ll produce something like this. If not, they’ll usually use wormholes or something else for their instantaneous communication devices.”
Mal closed his eyes. “Forget I asked.” He took a deep breath. “Is it important? That you know more about these devices?”
“Yes.” Simon nodded and spun to the nearest display. His fingers spun through the air, touching a strange sphere suspended in the air over the device. It changed colors at his touch, spinning back and forth as he aligned it for some unknown reason. “When we left all those years ago, according to the logs that I left behind, I was under the impression that these devices were from an extraordinarily advanced culture that happened to discover the code. They probably jumped dimensional lines, hid the technology in this church, and were killed when the code killed everyone else on the planet. Everything that I found, everything that I managed to dredge up over thousands of years, it was all just coincidental. A happy accident that happened to be our salvation.”
Mal nodded slowly. “And it’s not?”
“I don’t think so, no. At least not in the same way as I thought.” Simon pointed down at the device itself, down at the knobs, buttons, and lights that made no sense at all to Mal. “Do you see that little symbol down near the corner?”
Mal squinted down at the device. Near the bottom of all the markings and buttons, there was a small engraving in the metal, a swirled mark that looked more or less like a pinwheel. “Yeah?”
“That’s a brand.” Simon crossed his arms. “It’s… Uhh… The mark of a company so you know that a product belongs to them. Calsin doesn’t have much of that right now, maybe a handful of products coming out of the dwarven nations. They get more popular after the invention of the printing press.”
“Right.” Simon shrugged. “That mark is the brand of the Lunatech Conglomerate, a megacorporation that took over a system that we passed through around fifteen hundred years ago. Nice people, really. Very cyberpunk. Anyway, as I said, these objects, by all appearances, came from that universe.”
Mal nodded slowly. “And?”
“And, if they actually are, it means that they have a back door.” Simon turned and started adjusting the floating display. “I managed to seduce the master computer that oversaw the Lunatech, and discovered a port into their more hidden systems. If I can access that, I think I can pull a lot more information out of this thing.”
Mal crossed his arms. “In the recordings, you said that you’d already gotten all the information out.”
“I thought I had.” Simon bit his lip, then turned back. “Can I share a wild theory with you?”
Mal shrugged. “Why not?”
“I can think of several reasons why you wouldn’t want me to.” Simon flashed a grin, then shrugged. “More and more, I firmly believe that these devices weren’t brought to this world as a coincidence. They were in the right place at the right time, and they held all the information we needed to rebuild our society. Even more so, they unlocked at just the right speed. If I had discovered the information about the realmship on the first day of the apocalypse, I probably would have dismissed it and forgotten about it. However, the challenge of breaking into the computer kept me going, and by the time I found it, we were ready to start making an attempt at actually breaking free.”
Simon paused for a moment. “If these devices were placed here for a purpose, it stands to reason that they would hold one final key. One final piece of information that I would never have been able to discover until now. If I’m right, it’s behind that hidden access port. It might not explain everything, but it might just be enough to get back to Calsin and undo our curse.”
Mal frowned. “Undo our curse?” He looked down at his hands. “You mean… We could die?”
“Yes.” Simon walked back over and sat down in front of Mal. “We would have mortal life spans again. We would be able to shapeshift again.” He turned and nodded at the far wall, where he had projected a frozen image of the group standing around. “We might even be able to get back everyone who vanished. These recordings keep talking about people who didn’t die or freeze, who just… Disappeared. What if we could bring them back? They would never even know that anything weird happened. Just an odd blip, and then a new world.”
Mal took a deep breath. Vague memories of the underworld swirled in his mind. “I don’t want to die.”
“None of us do.” Simon held up his hands and sighed. “But… Mal, we’ve all died a thousand times over by now. We’ve lived for nearly two hundred thousand years. In Calsin, even the most long-lived species can barely last for a thousand years. We’ve lived for so many lifetimes, and we can’t remember any of them. If that isn’t the definition of death, I don’t know what is.” He paused for a moment longer. “Not to mention all the death and destruction that we’ve brought on others. When the brothers left, we had a goal. The same goal as the sisters. In five thousand short years, both groups completely forgot what we were doing. We both killed thousands of people across Calsin. What’s to say that we haven’t done that in the past? What’s to say that we didn’t discover other worlds, destroyed them, and just forgot? We don’t even know what kind of monsters we truly are.”
Mal nodded slowly. “We have to become mortal again.”
“Yes.” Simon nodded. “It’s the only way.” He paused one more time. “There’s a reason that, in Calsin, the goddess of life guards the underworld. People aren’t meant to live forever. I think we’re living examples of why that is.”
Mal closed his eyes, then nodded firmly. “Then let’s do it.”
“Good!” Simon grinned and stood back up. He flapped his wings, rising into the air. “Then just let me figure out this code, we can break into the back door of this thing…” He winked at Mal. “And maybe, just maybe, we can come out of this on top.”
“I don’t care!” Lord Apician’s voice echoed down the hallway, audible even though Paulin was rooms away from her. “Lock down the border! Nothing gets in, nothing gets out! Those things are going to be attacking everything they see. I want my people protected. No one else dies for their mistakes.” There was a short pause. “Lock up the entire group. We already have the dwarf and the orc. I want the sorceress and Lady Hesione behind bars at once. Spear the angel through the chest and throw her into the horclops den. Leave the King Regent free, but bring him to me.”
Paulin winced and took another sip of his ale. He was in a small refreshment lounge, not altogether too far from the throne room. Armored feet sounded in the hallway, and Paulin glanced in their direction as several soldiers stepped into the open doorway.
“Have you seen the King Regent?” One of the soldiers snapped at him, voice muffled by the full helmet that he wore.
“I haven’t.” Paulin shook his head and leaned back in the chair, the gardener’s robes that he now wore brushing against the wood. “I don’t think he would want to talk to the likes of me.”
The soldier swore and turned away. The second soldier held his gaze for an instant longer before turning away as well. Their footsteps faded, and Paulin sighed. He was sitting at a small table, doing his best to fit in with the handful of other court officials sitting there. The bartender at the tiny bar on the far wall raised an eyebrow, but said nothing.
Paulin just closed his eyes and tried to make it all go away. Ferguson was gone. He had watched it from a distance, unable to help as the angels all broke free from the pond. To his knowledge, only one angel had been retained, shot down by an archer’s arrow. So many more, though, had escaped. And so many more guards were dead. Over two dozen had been killed by some sort of explosion that Ferguson had caused in the woods. More had been killed at the lake. Sapphire had ran from the battle. He didn’t know where Isnita or Hesione were, but it sounded like they were in hiding. Much like him.
The decision to hide had been simple. In the wake of such a major disaster, Lord Apician was going to be hot-tempered and ready to slash someone’s head off. Paulin rather didn’t want that to be him. He would give her a few hours, and then he would approach her and help figure out a solution to the issue. Even as the thought swirled through his mind, he groaned and pressed his fingers against his temple. Oh, how he wished his father was here. But no, the king had to be off doing things like trying to rebuild Elsinor. How rude.
“Hey.” A hand came to rest on Paulin’s arm. He looked up to find Kisidera standing there, a soft smile on her face. “You okay?”
“Do I look like I’m okay?” Paulin snorted. “If I do, please let me know, because I’d certainly like to feel that way.”
Kisidera sighed and sat down on the far side of the table, leaning forward. “How bad is it?”
Paulin sighed and leaned forward as well. He almost didn’t say a single word, as even the slightest misplaced sentence would result in his being recognized by the other officials in the room.
“Not good.” He puffed out his cheeks. “Almost everyone escaped, and there’s likely a rescue attempt coming for the one who didn’t. They’re searching for all of us, I’m the only one that they don’t want thrown in jail or the fighting pits.”
Kisidera winced. “That’s not… Not good. What happened?”
Paulin sighed and shrugged. “To be honest, I’m not completely sure. Garn accidentally let Ferguson loose, and Ferguson got everyone else out.”
Kisidera winced again. “Why? Why do that?”
Paulin closed his eyes. After meeting with Garn in the cell, the dwarf had given him several instructions. Instructions that Paulin really wasn’t sure if he would be able to follow, especially now that he was being hunted.
“Long story.” Paulin finally managed.
“We have the time.” Kisidera shrugged, then nodded at the door. “Unless you really plan on waltzing into the throne room looking like a Therigan reject that we took pity on.”
Paulin snorted loudly, drawing the attention of several other individuals around the room. Kisidera laughed, and he sighed, letting the tension flow out of his shoulders. Slowly, he lowered his head, then nodded.
“We need somewhere more private to talk, I think.”
Kisidera nodded, then took his hand. Together, the two of them stood up, turned, and made their way out of the castle. As they stepped out of the small side entrance and into the night air, Paulin took a deep breath. Based on the positions of the stars, it was well after midnight, long into what would likely be an even longer night. As the two of them started wandering away from the castle and towards the Tranquil Forest, a tamed grove of trees designed for diplomatic meetings and lovers’ walks, Paulin reached into his pocket and drew upon a small nugget of fool’s gold that he had lifted from Garn’s forge. Instantly, the world lit up around him, showing him everything nearby that was alive. It only took him a few moments to confirm that the closest individuals were the guards patrolling near the castle wall, though he could hear search parties in the distance. Satisfied, he took his hand away from the enchantment, allowing the world to return to normal.
“Alright?” Kisidera finally held up her hands. “Are you ready to tell the story?”
“Not in its entirety.” Paulin sighed and shook his head. He glanced at the ground, then up at the night sky above, where the stars twinkled in all their glory. “Have you ever heard of the Fond’sar?”
Kisidera laughed. “Only in bedtime horror stories. Why?” She frowned. “They’re dwarves, right? Does Garn believe in them?”
“You could say that.” Paulin rubbed his chin. “If Garn is to be believed, he thinks that the Fond’sar were present at the battle for the realmship, and that they wiped everyone’s memories and then stole the ship.”
Kisidera frowned and took his hand. “Do you believe him?”
“I don’t know.” Paulin groaned and shrugged. “I just don’t know.” He ran his hands through his hair, then sighed and let his head fall to Kisidera’s shoulder. “According to Garn, he pulled Ferguson up out of the lake to see if Ferguson knew anything about the Fond’sar being there. After interrogating him, Ferguson said that there were a bunch of dwarves in the trees. Garn was so thrown off about being right that Ferguson was able to escape.”
“Right.” Kisidera reached up and began stroking his hair. “Does he have any proof?”
“He told me two things I could do to prove him right.” Paulin sighed and stood back upright again. “First, he wants me to send word to the king. Apparently the king is a co-conspirator or something against the Fond’sar. If I can find the king, I can get my proof.”
Kisidera sighed. “And the king is rebuilding Elsinor.”
“Exactly.” Paulin nodded. “I don’t even know for certain where he is. He could be in any one of half a dozen cities rallying support. The second thing…” he paused. “The second thing involves something that Garn thinks we stole from the Fond’sar. He doesn’t know what it is, but he thinks we hid it in a cave in the mountains near the battle. If I can find it, I’ll be convinced of the Fond’sar threat.”
Kisidera held up her hands as torches made their way across a distant hill. “And the current threat of the angels?”
Paulin shrugged. The words felt hollow, even as he said them, but he knew they were true. “The brothers are a threat, to be certain, but there are only a handful of them. Their fancy weapons are gone, which reduces them to our level. The only thing they have going for them is that they can’t be killed. A few hundred people might die, but they’ll be caught, locked up, and the threat will vanish. The Fond’sar? Now there’s a threat, if they’re actually real.”
Kisidera smirked. “You’re acting like an actual politician. Lord Apician might be rubbing off on you.”
“Don’t you dare compare me to her again.” Paulin smirked back, not meaning the harsh words. After a moment, he shrugged. “I don’t know where it leaves us, though. In order to prove his story, I would have to go to the battle site. To do that, I would have to actually leave this property, which, if you haven’t noticed, is under lockdown.”
“Lockdown is only effective if the people inside aren’t willing to innovate.” Kisidera smiled and stepped in front of him. “If you’re willing to get a little dirty, I might know a way past the guards and out into the wilderness. I might even be able to wrangle a few horses to help us out. You interested?”
Paulin raised an eyebrow. “If we get caught, you could get disavowed.”
Kisidera shrugged. “We’re collapsing anyway. Besides, the king regent? To be king whenever his father bites the dust? Sounds like a perfect person to be involved with.”
Paulin felt his heart skip a beat. “It really does sound like a tactful move at that.” He glanced around. “So, with this being a purely tactful decision, is there any price you’re going to make me pay?”
Kisidera’s smile nearly split her face. “Well, if you’re willing to pay, I think I might just demand a kiss. You know, to make sure that you’re being honest.”
“Well, then.” Paulin wrapped his arms around the woman and pulled her close. “I think that can be arranged.”
Though he never left the small grove, Paulin was certain that if he had opened his eyes during that kiss, he would have been able to say hello to Dararma. When they finally pulled apart, he could only smile, impossibly grateful to have the woman in his arms.
“You’re beautiful.” He finally managed.
The words had barely left his lips before he heard a muffled gasp from behind him. He spun to find Hesione standing there, a look of shock on her face. Kisidera’s eyes narrowed, and Paulin groaned.
“Hes.” He held up his hand. “What are you doing out here?”
“I thought I was doing the same thing as you.” Hesione’s face began turning stormy. “Hiding from the guards. I didn’t think you’d be-”
“I’d be what?” Paulin held up his hands. “Moving on?”
“If that’s what you want to call it.” Hesione turned away stiffly.
Paulin groaned and turned back to Kisidera. Kisidera raised an eyebrow and nodded forcefully at Hesione. Reluctantly, Paulin let go of Kisidera and turned to Hesione, a feeling of dread in his stomach.
“What did you think we were going to do?” Paulin crossed his arms and walked up to her. “We’re siblings. You know that, right?”
“Yes.” Hesione snapped, then sighed and lowered her head. “I do. I do.”
“Do you?” Paulin put a hand on her shoulder, which she pulled away. “You let Donifer go back to Delsinar. You didn’t fight, you didn’t protest, you just let him walk. He was a good man. A better one than I’ll ever be.”
“What’s your point?” Hesione spun and snarled at him. “That I’m just a horrible person?”
“No.” Paulin ran his hands through his hair, groaning. “I just… You have so many opportunities. You’re a beautiful high elven girl of the Elsinor Court. You could have anyone you want.”
“And when they find out about me?” Hesione gestured at the robes that still covered her head tightly. “What then?”
“Make sure you find someone who would be willing to accept that.” Paulin shook his head. “Look… I’m sorry.” He took a deep breath. “You were the one who ran from me for all those years. You were the one who told me that we had to move on. Well, I’m doing it. You should, too.”
He turned away, only to have Hesione’s voice call after him. “And what do you think I should do? Just go to Delsinar after Donifer?”
Paulin smirked. Donifer had confided in Paulin that he was actually a priest in the order of Fifthala, a rather dark order of dark elves known primarily for the number of people who died in their sanctuaries. After giving up on Hesione, he had returned to Delsinar to rejoin the order. “No.” He shook his head. “No, I don’t think I would do that if I were you.”
“Then what should I do?” Hesione walked up to his side as he reached Kisidera.
Paulin rubbed his jaw, then slowly turned to face her. “I don’t know.” He shrugged. “You’re an independent woman. Stay here in the Apician Estate with Garn and Ondi and Sapphire until this whole angel thing finally resolves itself and they move on. Leave here, never look back, and go find a life somewhere else. No one will chase you this time. Come with me to the Elsinor Court and stay in the government. It’s really entirely up to you.”
With that, Paulin took Kisidera’s hand. The two of them started to walk away, only to have Hesione call after him one final time.
“And where are you going?”
Paulin smirked and turned back, gesturing grandly with his free arm. “Saving the world. Again.”
“Are you done yet?” Mal crossed his arms as Simon leapt back and forth across the room. “I’m bored.”
“You’re always bored.” Simon ignored him and began twisting around several glowing cones floating through the air. Why couldn’t the brat just let him work? “And I’m getting close. It’s not just a simple formula that you type into a computer. It’s a geometric pattern that you have to match up perfectly based on the number of linked units, the position of certain stars in the sky, and-”
“Sorry I asked.” Mal sighed. “If you’re wrong, we’re just wasting time.”
“And if I’m right, we could be saving a lot of time.” Simon flashed a grin as he darted to the side and began positioning several cylinders next to each other. “And… We should be good!”
With a flash, every single display went completely dark. The floating images vanished, everything just shut down. Mal smirked even as Simon felt a crushing weight fall down onto his soul.
“You broke it.” Mal raised an eyebrow. “You went and broke the most powerful object in the… What did you call it? Multiverse?”
“Technically, the most powerful object in the multiverse would probably be the severed head of Nerithor.” Simon shrugged, forcing a smile to his face even as he felt pure and utter panic flood his body. He had broken it? No. No! “He was an elder god or something on a world we visited who had been killed by-”
“Simon!” A deep, genderless voice boomed through the room. “Mal! Rise!”
Simon felt his blood freeze. The voice… It was mechanical, it was static, and it was so familiar. Slowly, an image formed in the air, stretching from the floor to the ceiling. It was an angel, though it wore a long, dark robe with a hood that concealed its face. Two wings, one dark and one white, hung from its shoulders. The specter stared down at them, invisible eyes piercing through Simon’s soul.
“Who are you?” Simon breathed.
“I am the soul of this system.” The image boomed down at them. “I am as old as the both of you. I have watched as you lost your powers, forced your way through the broken world, and managed to rebuild it from the ashes. As you suspected, Simon, I released information to you when you needed it. Not before, not after. I watched over you. And now…” The image bent down. “Now, I say goodbye.”
Simon paused, then glanced at Mal. Mal looked terrified. “I think this is a recording.”
“I am no recording.” The image shook its head, negating several theories in Simon’s head involving time travel. “I am no god, I am no spirit, save, perhaps, the lost and broken spirit of your people. Behold.” The image held up its hand. “The last of my knowledge. Everything I know of the Wondrisil, everything I know of travel between the realms.” Light sparked from the image’s palm, forming complex images and diagrams in the air. “Use this as you please. Destroy the Wondrisil. Enslave them. Leave them to be. It is of no consequence to me.”
Simon glanced over the data, watching it spin in front of him. So much knowledge. So much information that he had sought for so many thousands of years. And yet, the most pressing question couldn’t be removed from his mind. “Do I know you?”
“As I said, I have watched over you for many years.” The spirit sighed. “Allow me to leave you with one final word of advice. And then, I, as you soon will, will allow myself to die.” The image knelt down, taking Simon in its hand. As it happened, Simon caught a glimpse of a reflection in one of the computer screens, of a slightly different image where the hologram stood tall. It was taking multiple forms, speaking differently to both Mal and Simon. “You are different from the other angels. You always have been.”
Simon forced a smile. “And what exactly are you telling Mal right now? I bet it’s pretty much the same thing.”
The image just chuckled. “As I said, Simon. You aren’t like the others.” It sighed. “Please do not mistake me for a prophet, for someone who has seen the future. But… I see much darkness in you. I cannot change your path. All I can tell you to do is keep your eyes on the light. If you fail to do so…” The image shrugged. “All those around you may be consumed by your darkness.”
Simon took a deep breath. “Can I ask one question?”
The image nodded. “Speak.”
“What happened to the ones who vanished?” Simon held up his hands. “Will I ever see them again? I don’t even remember them, and yet… I feel like there’s a fire burning inside me. I want them back.”
The image merely smirked. “All will be revealed in time, dear Simon. You may rest assured of that, even if nothing else helps to calm you.”
With that, the image climbed back to its feet. “Farewell, my friends. Say goodbye to Isnita for me. I will miss her greatly. I will miss all of you… Greatly.”
With that, the image vanished in a blur of sparks. Simon took a step back as the light faded, leaving only the information about the Wondrisil and realm travel floating in the air. As he stepped forward to examine it, he heard Mal’s voice coming from behind him.
“What did that guy say to you?” Mal paused. “I think he talked to both of us separately.”
“He did.” Simon nodded and closed his eyes. The entire encounter was bizarre, unlike anything he had ever experienced before. It didn’t make an ounce of sense. The computer had been watching over them? What? That was a steaming heap of dung if he had ever heard it. And the thing thought he was full of darkness? Simon snorted. There wasn’t any darkness inside him, he was sure of it. “He told me I was special. And that he would miss me.”
Mal stepped up behind him. “He said the same to me. And…” Mal shrugged. “Something about going home. That I had always been looking for a home, and that I would only find it when I decided that I was content where I was.”
Simon flashed a small smile. “He probably got programmed by a philosopher somewhere.”
“And who are those?”
Simon opened his mouth, preparing for a long rant about the various schools of usually-conflicting philosophy that he had discovered across the multiverse. Even as he did it, though, he hesitated.
Mal wasn’t going to care, and it would likely confuse the child even more than he already was. For that matter, Simon was fairly confused as well. They needed to get back to Calsin, and they needed to figure out how the Wondrisil related to their curse.
“Doesn’t matter.” Simon turned and grinned at Mal before pointing at two floating orbs of light. “Do you know what those are?”
Mal shook his head. “No, I don’t.”
“That right there is a data repository. It contains entire libraries worth of information. And…” Simon reached out and touched it, causing it to expand and form images of parts, circuit boards, and other objects necessary for building a portal generator. “And I think we can use it to get back to Calsin.”
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical means, without prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, write to the publisher, addressed “Attention: Permissions Coordinator,” at the address below.