“You think this is it?” Kisidera took a deep breath as the two horses clopped over the mountain ridge.
“Your guess is as good as mine.” Paulin shrugged and clicked his tongue, pushing his horse forward. The beast neighed softly and clopped down the mountain trail. “He said he remembered putting it near the base of a tree. Something about a small cave… And he marked it with a flower.”
Kisidera sighed and moved her horse to the side of the trail. Slowly, she swung her legs off the animal, dropping to the ground with a mild splat. Mud, not yet dried, sluffed off her legs, splattering across the ground. Paulin chuckled, then eased his own horse off to the side and dismounted as well. His own legs were caked with mud, a side effect of swimming through a mostly dried-up sewer in an attempt to escape without the guards noticing. They had then swiped a handful of horses from a secret stable outside of the Estate itself, and made their escape into the mountains.
“A flower will long have dried up by now.” Kisidera puffed out her cheeks. “Which means-”
“Which means we’re just looking for a tree with a small cave.” Kisidera nodded. “Right.”
Paulin rubbed his eyes and glanced up at the sky. High above, the stars continued to turn, though the soft red glow on the horizon made him suspect that they would soon be outshone by the sun. “Come on, then. I guess.”
Idly, he reached into his pocket and brushed the fool’s gold, confirming that there was no one else around. This time, he decided to check it a bit more often to make sure that it stayed that way. Together, the two elves simply began walking down the mountain trail. It wasn’t a trail that Paulin had any knowledge of, but Garn’s instructions had led them straight to it. Which made him at least a bit more hopeful that they would actually find… Whatever it was that Garn was sending them to find. They both positioned themselves on the side of the trail closest to the mountain itself, and… Just started walking.
“So.” Kisidera finally spoke up as they wandered down the trail. “When all this is over, what do you think you’re going to do?”
Paulin glanced back. “Hmm?”
“What do you think you’re going to do?” Kisidera shrugged. “I mean, I’ve heard your stories. You ran after Hesione, then you ran after the angels, and since then you’ve been helping your father with the situation in Elsinor. Ever since you found Hesione, you’ve been traveling with that group, but… What happens when the angels are finally wrapped up?”
Paulin smirked and went back to facing forward. “Afraid that you’ve committed treason for someone who isn’t going to actually help you into the court life you want?”
Kisidera chuckled. “Not at all.” She walked a bit faster, stepping up close to him. “Can I be honest with you?”
“I’d hope so.” Paulin nodded. “Speak your mind.”
“I was hired to spy on you.”
Paulin drew up short, then slowly turned to face the woman. She stood there, a sheepish smile on her face. “Afraid that I might stab you in the back?”
“Not particularly.” Paulin puffed out his cheeks, then turned around and started wandering down the mountainside again. “When?”
“When you arrived.” Kisidera’s voice was surprisingly matter-of-fact. “Just before the battle at the realmship, actually. I’m the daughter of a maid, more than likely with a visiting diplomat from one of the other families, not her husband. No one knows for sure, and no one was willing to risk embarrassment by finding out. So I got shuffled to the bottom. When I was offered a chance for full inclusion into the family, I took it.”
Paulin smiled. “And you decided that you liked what you saw? Fell in love with your target?”
“More like I saw something far better than what I've been dealing with.” Kisidera laughed. “Oh, I love being free of all that court language. I can actually say what I want to say!”
Paulin snorted. “And what do you want to say?”
“That Lord Apician is a stuck-up, sniveling, inbred catgirl.” Kisidera tilted her head back and screamed it up at the mountains. The words echoed through the hills, and she snickered. “Oh, that felt good.”
“Don’t hold back.” Paulin shook his head. “Please, I don’t want you to refrain from your true feelings.”
“Oh, I don’t know.” Kisidera sighed and walked up next to him. She reached out and took his hand. After a moment, Paulin gave it a soft squeeze. “I just… I thought you should know. Now that we’re free of spy enchantments and magical conduits, I can tell you everything.”
Paulin raised an eyebrow. “Everything?” he turned to face her. “Is there more that I don’t know?”
“Quite a lot.” Kisidera nodded slowly, her face deadly serious. “I haven’t told you what my favorite food is. Or what my favorite color is. Or anything that we’re allowed to talk about inside the walls.”
Paulin couldn’t help a laugh from bubbling up and escaping his lips. As his chest stopped heaving, he turned and nodded at her. “Alright, then. What’s your favorite food?”
“Lemon-seasoned mutrake crab.”
“I don’t like flowers. Ivy displays, though…”
“Clothes to wear?”
“Anything but official court robes.”
Kisidera paused. “Are you going to be offended if I don’t list your name?”
Paulin chuckled. “You have only known me for a few months, and only in an official capacity.”
“True enough.” Kisidera sighed. “I told you that my father was probably a visiting diplomat. Well… I have to say that the man who raised me, Jesivic Apician, would be my favorite person ever.”
Paulin flashed a smile in memory of his own father. “Good guy?”
“The best.” Kisidera nodded. “When my mother… After I was born, she turned and ran. They think that she was just too ashamed to face my father when she saw me.”
Paulin frowned. “Why is that?”
Kisidera pointed at her ears, which were just as pointed as any high elf’s. “The angle of the point isn’t consistent with Apician breeding.”
“Uh, huh.” Paulin frowned. He had been in the court for a long, albeit nonconsecutive, time, and he had never heard of that before. One of the minor nuances that the High Families kept completely to themselves? “What happened then?”
“Like I said, my mother ran.” Kisidera shrugged. “She just… Vanished. Her husband, a gardener, was left to raise me by himself. And… He did.” She forced a sad smile. “He would take me to work in a sling. I’ve heard stories of how he got good enough to hold me on his waist with one arm and tear out even the most invasive of weeds with his other. There’s even one story where he managed to carry two wooden buckets full of water with me clinging to his back.”
Paulin smiled. “Sounds like quite the guy.”
“Oh, he was.” Kisidera nodded. “When I was twenty-six, old enough to stay on my own for a weekend, he started taking his free days to head into the nearby towns. Bit by bit, he managed to piece together the story of an Apician maid who fled the Estate and made her way into the rest of the country. He wasn’t able to leave the Estate himself because he wanted to provide for me, and knew that he wouldn’t be able to on the road, but…” Kisidera’s voice choked for a moment. “He spent the next ten years of his life sending letters back and forth across the entirety of Calsin. He talked to Dragon Hunters, priests, even royal ambassadors when they would listen to him. No one was able to just take his case, but everyone promised to send him word if they found something. And, eventually, someone did.”
Paulin felt his heart beginning to constrict. “And?”
“It was a dwarven priest, a Highsand, I think.” Kisidera nodded. “He was down in Notirot, and came across an elven woman living out of a cave near a monastery. She grew fungus in the cave with her elven magic, then traded it to the monks for money and food. He apparently felt led by the wind or something, and started asking questions.” A tear rolled down Kisidera’s face. “It was her. The priest didn’t say anything at the time, but he sent word back to my father. I still remember the day that he read the letter. I’d never seen him cry so hard.
“After that, it was only a matter of time before he left. I was old enough to get a job, and started saving money on the side, in secret. My father desperately longed to go to her, I think he wrote the priest a new letter every week for three years straight. They became closer friends than anyone on the Estate. Eventually, I was able to give him the stash of gold that I’d saved up. And… That was the second-hardest that I’d ever seen him cry.”
Paulin felt a tear trickling down his own face. Idly, he realized that he’d completely stopped walking forward. “What happened then?”
Kisidera shrugged. “In short, I fought with him for about six months before he finally agreed to go meet her. He packed up his belongings, wished me the best, and left. I’d hoped that they would be able to come back to the Estate after he found her, but… I don’t know.” She shrugged. “All I know is that he never came back. Maybe he found my mother and is living with her down in the caves. Maybe he brought her back to Elsinor, just not to the Estate. I’ll probably never know.”
Paulin suddenly found that his voice wasn’t working quite properly. He worked his jaw a few times before answering. “Did you ever write to the priest?”
Kisidera nodded. “A week after my father left, I wrote to him to ask him to let me know when my father arrived. I got a letter from a Highrock several months later stating that the Highsand in question had left the monastery shortly after hearing that my father was on his way. Apparently the priest had only stayed in that location to ensure that my father and mother reunited. I wrote a few more times, trying to learn anything, but I never got a reply.”
Paulin puffed out his cheeks and nodded. “How…” He forced a small smile. “You’d like to go find them, wouldn’t you?”
“I’m sixty-eight years old.” Kisidera nodded, smiling as Paulin leaned back in surprise. “I know, I know. I’m on the young side, I just look older. But… Yeah. It’s been so many years, so many years since then. I’ve never had the money to leave, and…” She shrugged. “It’s just me, and you know what happens when young women look for work on the road.”
“All too well.” Paulin grimaced, then nodded. “Then why don’t we go look for them?”
Kisidera’s face lit up. “You’d do that?”
“In a heartbeat.” Paulin nodded. “Help me find this weird thing of Garn’s. We’ll give the team a new goal to shoot for, return to my father, restore order to Elsinor, and then take the finest men Elsinor can spare.” He felt a lump rising in his chest. “We’ll scour all of Calsin if we have to. We’ll find them.”
“Deal.” Kisidera held out her hand. Paulin raised an eyebrow, and she blushed. “I guess we can seal the deal with something a bit more personal than a handshake, huh?”
Paulin just smiled. “Only if it’s okay for the King Regent to kiss a low court official.”
“You know what?” Kisidera smiled up at him and stepped forward. “I think it would be rude for him not to.”
By the time Paulin opened his eyes again, the sun was just cresting the horizon. He took a small step back from Kisidera, smiling down at her.
“Well, now.” He took a deep breath. “I’d say that sealed the deal.”
“And I’d say that you’re really bad at coming up with ways to just enjoy the moment.” Kisidera sighed and nodded down at the mountainside. “Well, if any of this is going to work, we have to find the weird dwarven thingy so Garn can save the world.”
“That we do.” Paulin nodded and started down the mountainside again. Kisidera followed closely, as Paulin reached into his pocket and grabbed a small diamond, enhancing his vision. “I don’t suppose you’ve seen anything that might be what we’re looking for?”
“Not yet.” Kisidera shook her head as they walked. “Just rocks. And you. Mostly you.”
Paulin smirked. He opened his mouth to reply, then thought better of it. Together, the two elves made their way down the mountainside, scanning anything and everything. Every time a tree popped up, Paulin’s hopes rose, until he arrived and found nothing. All the while, he alternated between scanning with the diamond and checking the fool’s gold for signs of life. Thankfully, extra sentient life stayed well enough away. Unfortunately, the hidden stash failed to reveal itself.
The sun was nearly at its peak when he caught a glimpse of something in the distance. It looked like a pile of black feathers on the ground. Paulin’s breath froze, and he slowly reached into his pocket. His fingers hadn’t yet touched the fool’s gold when a flutter sounded through the air behind him.
“Looking for something?” Ferguson’s voice echoed in the air. Paulin slowly turned to find the angel with a glowing disk in one hand and a dagger in the other. A second angel stood just behind Kisidera, a sword resting on her shoulder. Her eyes were wide in terror, a bead of sweat slowly dripped down her forehead.
Paulin wasn’t surprised as a steel blade came to rest on his own throat as an angel seemed to materialize out of thin air. “As a matter of fact, yes.” Paulin dipped his head. “Now that you’ve found it, why don’t I give you a reward and we’ll be on our way? I can offer gold, weapons… Elsinor has gotten into the habit of handing out cities. You want a city?”
Kisidera let out a nervous laugh, and Ferguson’s face darkened. “You mock me?”
“You’re just going to lose again.” Paulin shrugged. “What are you even trying to accomplish now? What’s your goal?”
“My goal?” Ferguson laughed, then sneered. “Kill you and anyone else I come across. We’ve been reduced to savages. I have no intention of allowing that to go unpunished.”
Paulin took a small breath. “So… What are you going to do with us?”
“Oh, I’m going to kill you.” Ferguson took a slow step forward. “I’m going to kill you, then I’m going to drop your bodies into the front yards of that pretentious elf you’re staying with, and then I’m going to figure out why this was so important to that dwarf. Then, assuming that all has gone according to plan, I’m going to kill as many people in this realm as I can before I get stabbed and thrown into the ocean. Then, when I’m dredged up years later, I’ll do it again. And again, and again, and again, until this world goes cold or until I can steal a starship and escape this godforsaken planet.”
Paulin nodded slowly. “And the rest of your buddies?”
“Some of them will go with me.” Ferguson snickered. “Some have left. That’s their loss. The ones you see here?” Ferguson gestured with the knife. “They’re with me to the bitter end. And, for you… That’s right about now.”
“And here we go.” Simon snapped his fingers as the configuration machine finished snapping together the final pieces. Oh, it was nice to have a synthesizer with a complete molecular condenser again. Simon had warned Amil that tossing it out the airlock just because it had been used to build an anatomically correct servant droid had been a bad idea, but Amil hadn’t listened. Without the advanced device, Simon was quite certain that they never would have been able to build the small, palm-sized object that now sat in front of him. Of course, without the device, the computer system would likely have simply provided him with the correct parts, but-
“Simon?” Mal’s voice cut into Simon’s concentration. “You okay?”
“Yep.” Simon nodded. “Just peachy.”
Simon sighed. “It’s an expression from worlds that actually have… Peaches. It’s a type of citrus fruit. One of the most invasive interdimensional plants that exist.” He glanced to the side at the young boy. “You know what I’m going to miss about heading back to Calsin?”
Mal frowned. “What?”
“Everyone telling me to shut up every time I open my mouth.” Simon reached over and pressed a small button on the side of the configuration machine. A glass panel whirred aside with a small buzz, and Simon reached inside and took the object. It was shaped like a small disk, though as he allowed it to rest in his palm, spidery legs snapped out and wrapped around his fingers, locking it into place.
“And I’ll appreciate that.” Simon held out his hand, palm-up. A holographic display appeared in the air above the device. “Do you have any idea what we have here?”
Mal shook his head. “Nope.”
“This is the Swiss army knife of interdimensional technology.” Simon grinned and flicked one of his fingers, causing an interdimensional triangulation configuration to appear above his palm, almost identical to the one that Fortrina held in the crater. “Behold.”
He began twisting the alignment, mirroring the images that he had seen in the crater. As it settled into place, he nodded and pressed the connect button. The display vanished, only to be replaced with Isnita’s head a moment later.
“Who’s this?” Isnita blinked several times. “Simon? Is that you?”
“In the flesh.” Simon grinned, then paused. “Well, in your head. I guess I’m not actually physically there, but-”
Simon turned and nodded at Mal. “See? Already starting.”
“Did you find a way back over here or not?” Isnita snapped. “We’re in a bit of trouble if you’d be willing to come back.”
“Yeah, I did.” Simon took a deep breath and stared down at the object in his palm. If he was right, it was the single most valuable object in the multiverse. Save, perhaps, the hydrogen diamond of Tessarus Seven. “And I think… I think you’ll like what I found.”
“You can tell me later.” Isnita cut off anything else Simon had to say. “We’ve got issues. Can you just appear anywhere you want to appear?”
Simon shrugged. He had only been able to locate Isnita because he had the pattern memorized, he didn’t know how to track anyone else. “More or less. Why?”
“I need you to find Paulin.” Isnita came back before Simon had even finished talking. “Lord Apician is trying to round up all of us, probably to execute us. I can’t die, but the others don’t have that constraint. Garn and Ondi are already captured and slated for execution.”
“Uh, huh.” Simon’s mind spun as he tried to figure out exactly how he would accomplish that feat. “I don’t suppose you know his location in terms of interdimensional triangulation coordinates?”
“I’ll take that as a no.” Simon puffed out his cheeks. “Alright, then. Why do you need him if you’re all being rounded up? Paulin’s not exactly a juggernaut in a fight.”
“He’s King Regent.” Isnita scowled. “He can use all his diplomat stuff to stop her.”
“Right.” Simon nodded. “You know, science can come up with viable explanations for how most magic throughout the universe works. Diplomacy, though? That’s a form of magic that’ll-”
“Simon! We don’t have long before people start dying.”
“I’ll take care of it.”
Simon nodded and pressed a button, closing the connection. With that, he brought up the triangulation display again and started twirling the strange symbols, trying to decipher their meaning.
“You can find Paulin?” Mal stepped closer, his voice hopeful.
“That’s the plan.” Simon nodded and frowned. The lines obviously connected to people, not specific locations. “I just have to figure out how.”
Mal’s jaw dropped. “You don’t know what to do?”
“Not exactly.” Simon frowned down at the lines. It was a series of dots set up in five concentric spheres, with lines connecting the dots to their closest neighbors. Since the dots were irregular, it could form a series of interconnected geometric shapes and forms. “I have an idea, though.”
“You told Isnita you could do it!”
“I say a lot of things.” Simon bit his lip and scowled at the lines. Carefully, he reached inside and twisted the inner sphere, sending the dots flying. “As a rule of thumb, if I seem confident in something, there’s a solid chance that, in fact, I’m completely clueless.”
Mal frowned. “Are you just lying to make me feel better?”
“Yes.” Simon nodded and pulled his hand back out. Out of curiosity, he pressed the connect button. The display vanished, only to be replaced by the image of a cyborg of some sort. He frowned down at the image, curious. If he wasn’t mistaken, it was a clockwork drone, though it could also have been a lunatech scout. The image wasn’t super clear. He couldn’t even see what gender it was.
With a flourish, he let the image collapse and brought the display back up. Carefully, he reached inside and set the inner sphere back to where it had been, then began adjusting the second sphere. As he activated the link, Mal frowned again.
“If you don’t know what you’re doing, how did you fix the display when you met Fortrina.”
“You would be amazed how many of my skills improve when attractive women are watching me.” Simon flashed a grin as another image appeared. This one was an orc, charging into battle. At least he was in the right universe now. “No, I’ve seen a similar display before. Not enough to really know how it worked, but enough to know that the basic image quality is controlled by the outer sphere. I just gave it a few whirls, and it happened to get better.”
Mal frowned. “You touched the inner rings, too.”
“And if you had been watching carefully, you would have seen that I put them back exactly as they were.” Simon chuckled and brought back up the configuration. “It’s all in the presentation. If you look like you know what you’re doing, people generally assume that you do. And, on a planet of women, that’s not usually a bad thing.”
Mal raised an eyebrow. “You’ve been on a planet of women before?”
“Sort of.” Simon shrugged and began adjusting the third ring. “There was a planet where like ninety percent of children born were male. To compensate, if a male decided to… Kiss a female, the female would kill him. You see it in animals all the time, though it’s a bit rarer among sentient beings.”
Mal frowned. “Why does she kill him?”
Simon shrugged. “Just an instinct.”
“And she can’t stop it?”
“In that moment, it’s hard to…” Simon glanced down at Mal again. “Ask me again once this curse is broken and you’re a little older.” He shrugged and continued twisting the sphere, giving it a few extra spins just for kicks. “Point is, if you suddenly have a male that can’t die, all the girls who refrained from mating because they felt guilty for killing people suddenly had the perfect individual. I almost stayed.”
With that, he activated the device again. This time, a woman appeared above his palm, a dark elf dancer. She spun back and forth across his palm, her dress lifting delightfully above her knees. Simon grinned down at the image, then scowled and deactivated it before Mal could see anything.
“Then why didn’t you?”
Simon sighed. “Amil shot me with a harpoon gun that he stole from a deep-space whaling vessel. And then taped me to the hull and drug me across three systems at sublight speeds until I agreed not to steal a shuttle and go back. Apparently they thought they needed an engineer more than I needed women.”
Mal frowned. “Would you go back? If you had the choice?”
“A chance to spend my entire life doing nothing but…” Simon let his voice trail off, then shrugged. No use corrupting the kid early. “I don’t know. It would have been nice for a century or two, but it would have gotten old after awhile, you know?”
“No.” Mal shook his head.
“Probably good you think that.” Simon sighed and twisted the spheres a few more times. “Let’s try… This.”
Mal frowned. “Isn’t that the same configuration that you had for Isnita?”
Simon scowled down at the object. Sure enough, it was. Annoyed, he flicked one of the dots, sending them flying, and activated the device. The lights collapsed, and an angel appeared. An angel with dark wings. That appeared to be holding a knife to someone’s throat.
“Well, well, well.” Simon grinned and leaned forward. “Boo!”
The angel jerked slightly, then spun, glancing back and forth. “Who’s there?”
“Oh, you know me!” Simon grinned, then turned and winked at Mal. “I’m your worst nightmare. I’m what you fear at night. I’m what you fear will come looking for you.”
The angel’s voice trembled. “Simon?”
Simon felt a flash of annoyance. “Am I actually your worst nightmare?”
“You’re in my head!” The angel screamed. “How could you not be? What is this?” He spun around, facing someone or something not in the image. “I don’t know! Simon’s in my head! I can hear him!” A few seconds passed, and the angel glanced upwards, terrified. “Say something only you would say.”
Simon glanced at Mal again. “Ready?”
The angel in Simon’s palm took a step back, and Simon leaned forward. “Ferguson had an entire cargo bay full of preserved animals that he took from everywhere we went!”
The angel blurted out the sentence, then relaxed. Mal frowned at Simon as he began pressing several more buttons on the device.
“Why say that?”
“First, it’s true.” Simon shrugged. “You think my tastes in women are putrid? Spend an afternoon shadowing that guy. Not pretty. Second, these links break if the person in question loses consciousness. And, if I don’t miss my guess, Ferguson was about to lob off his head as punishment for ruining whatever interrogation session they were planning.”
“We’re jumping?” Mal crossed his arms. “I thought we were looking for Paulin.”
“If we can take down Ferguson, we can solve the problem ourselves!” Simon flashed a grin. “I might even be hailed as a hero to the elves. Land, cities...” Simon pressed a button, causing the display to collapse. The device began to glow, and he held out his hand. “Take my hand. Now!”
Mal nodded and grabbed Simon’s hand just as the device activated. Simon and Mal were, quite roughly, sucked through an interdimensional portal. Simon’s stomach twisted as blinding light blazed down around them. He squeezed his eyes shut, but to no avail. Oh, right. That was why the female angels had wiped their minds before attempting unprotected interdimensional travel.
With a blast, they emerged from the other side, flashing out with a good amount of force, far more than Simon had hoped for. He spread his wings, trying to look incredible. Or at least hit something.
As it happened, he struck something quite hard. The pointy end of a sword that was far too long. The blade tore through his stomach and out his back, leaving him blinking spots from his eyes while struggling with inner organ failure.
“Oh, not yet.” He muttered and poured healing energy into his stomach region. Skin latched back together, the internal bleeding stopped, and he poured energy into his eyes. His vision healed, revealing a rather stunned-looking Ferguson standing with his sword shoved into Simon’s stomach.
Simon shrugged and kicked Ferguson between the legs, then kneed him in the face as he doubled over. The angel fell backwards, and Simon spun back to face… Whatever was behind him. Two brothers stood behind Paulin and a quite attractive female elf, knives held to their throats. Meanwhile, Mal was unconscious on top of the angel that Simon had been talking to. The last remnants of the portal hovered in the air, sparks fading as the interdimensional energy wore off.
“Well, now.” Simon clapped his hands before placing them on his hips. “This can go one of two ways. You let those two elves walk, and I spare you. Or you can join me, stab Ferguson through the heart, and end this madness.”
The brothers glanced at each other. Behind him, Simon heard Ferguson starting to climb back to his feet. Not looking forward to the pain, Simon reached down, pulled the sword from his stomach, turned, and chopped downward with the weapon. Pain flared through his entire body… But he was able to strike with enough force to chop off one of Ferguson’s wings. Lopsided, Ferguson fell to the side, landing in a heap of feathers. Simon stabbed him through the back, pinning one of his arms to his chest, and poured more healing energy into his stomach.
“Well?” Simon gestured vaguely with his left hand, and activated the triangulation display. “I can give this thing a few shots if you’d like. Might be nice to have the one with high-level technology instead of being the one with swords. It’s really up to you.” The two angels just stared at him, then snapped out their wings, knocking both Paulin and the new woman to the ground. With that, they shot past Simon, grabbed Ferguson off the ground, and flew off into the air.
As they made their escape, Paulin climbed back to his feet. “Quick! Shoot them!”
Simon frowned at the elf. “With what?”
“That thing!” Paulin pointed at Simon’s palm. “Do… Whatever you were going to do!”
“Oh, this?” Simon laughed and pointed his palm at a nearby mountain peak. “This thing doesn’t actually function as a weapon. At least I don’t know how it would.” He frowned. Actually, pure interdimensional energy could function as quite a powerful weapon. “Well…”
“We can figure it out later.” The woman climbed to her feet and held out her hand. “Kisidera.”
“Simon.” Simon fell to his knees and took her hand. The pure golden skin… He looked up, taking in her pristine face and pointed ears. Oh, she was gorgeous. The definition of beauty. Minus the wings, of course. “Would you care to come on a date with me? I can show you Elsinor like you’ve never seen it before.”
“I’m afraid I’m taken.” The woman glanced at Paulin. “Sorry.”
Simon shrugged. “I’m willing to work with multiple partners if you are.”
“Just a thought.” Simon sighed, climbed to his feet, and clapped his hands. “Well, now. Seems we managed to kill two birds with one stone, there.” At Paulin’s confused look, he shrugged. “Isnita contacted me. Said something about how you needed to be taken back to the palace so you could untangle some mess and prevent Garn and Ondi from being executed.”
“They’re slated for execution?” Paulin’s jaw dropped, then he sighed. “I guess it makes sense.” He sighed and walked over to Simon, then walked past him and bent down to the ground. “At least you made Ferguson drop this thing.”
Simon spun, frowning down at the dwarven communicator that Paulin now held in his hand. “You’re just now getting that thing back? Seems a bit valuable to leave lying around.”
Paulin stepped back down to Kisidera while Mal began to stir on the ground. “You know what it is?”
“Of course I do.” Simon nodded. “That’s…” A thought struck his mind. “Your memories all got wiped, didn’t they?”
Paulin nodded. “That’s why Garn accidentally let Ferguson go. He was trying to get answers about what did or didn’t happen at the battle.”
“And no one thought to ask me or Mal?” Simon held up his hands. “We were there, and we’re a but less deceptive than Ferguson.”
Paulin shrugged. “You’d have to ask Garn, not me.” After a moment, he shrugged and nodded at the device. “So what is it?”
Mal climbed to his feet, slowly and groggily. “What’s what?”
“Something that we don’t want to get too close to our mouths.” Simon shrugged and nodded at Paulin’s pockets. “Put that thing away. If you happen to have any rope, you should probably tie up this guy.” He pointed down at the angel that Mal had been sprawled across, who was just starting to stir. “And then, we should probably get back to the palace. Something makes me think that the situation probably isn’t getting any better in our absence.”
Hesione pulled against the guards, thrashing under their harsh grasp. The guards didn’t seem phased by her resistance in the slightest, and she ground her teeth together.
“I am a member of the royal court. Harm me and the king himself will come down on you.”
“Oh, I don’t think so.” One of the guards chuckled. “Now shut up. We’re almost there.”
Hesione continued to fight, even as the guards pulled her through the front doors of the castle and towards the throne room. After meeting Paulin and his new girlfriend, she had hidden in a small gardener’s shack, which had lasted quite a bit longer than she had been afraid it might. Unfortunately, she had dozed off, allowing a foot to fall out of cover, resulting in her capture.
Two more guards, at the door to the throne room itself, pushed the door open, allowing Hesione to be drug inside. Lord Apician sat high on her throne, staring down at the room with a sneer of disdain. The guards tossed Hesione down at the base of the throne, then stepped back and drew their swords, preventing her from running.
“Well, now.” Lord Apician leaned forward. “This is a pleasant turn of events, I must say.”
Hesione snorted. “You consider capturing members of the high court ‘pleasant?’ You’ll have different words to say about it when the king comes down on you.”
“I will?” Lord Apician slowly climbed to her feet and began walking down the steps to the throne, one at a time, slowly and deliberately. “You’re right, I probably will. I’ll be forced to tell the king about the fact that his trusted allies allowed a known criminal to run free. I’ll have to tell him how his regents here ran and hid like criminals, rather than facing their actions like the heroes they claim to be. I’ll be forced to explain to him why we had to kill you all rather than simply holding you prisoner. It won’t be a pleasant conversation, but…” Lord Apician shrugged. “With all of you gone, who will he have to defend himself?”
“You’re making a move against the throne?” Hesione’s jaw dropped. “Everything else is happening, and you’re making a move against the throne?”
“The current throne obviously can’t be trusted with power.” Lord Apician spread her arms. “Just take a look at what you’ve managed to accomplish.” Hesione bowed her head, and Lord Apician sighed. “Of course, that isn’t why I had you brought here.”
Hesione frowned and looked back up. “It’s not?”
“No.” Lord Apician was now down in front of Hesione, standing several inches taller than herself. The Lord’s eyes pierced into Hesione’s, making her glance away. “As much as I would love to simply chop off your head and be done with it, as you’re fond of saying, you are a member of the High Court. You’ve lived in the palace your entire life, and though you aren’t exactly well-versed on the finer points of court order, you have a special place in the king’s heart.” Lord Apician reached up and placed her hand on the side of Hesione’s face. It took every ounce of Hesione’s concentration not to pull away. “Which makes a particular discovery of mine all the more interesting.”
With a flick of her hand, Lord Apician grabbed Hesione’s shawl and ripped it from her head. In an instant, Hesione’s deep black hair fell down her back, exposed to the court. Several muffled gasps shook the room, and even Lord Apician’s eyes opened in shock.
Hesione crossed her arms. “And what did you think you were going to find?” With a huff, she unwound her outer robe, allowing the clothes to fall to the ground, leaving her clothed in her much plainer robes that only covered her torso and legs. The patchy skin on her arms and neck were visible for all to see. “Happy now?”
Lord Apician took a step back, apparently appalled that she had dared to touch such an individual. “I…”
“You probably thought I had a hair disease or something, am I right?” Hesione crossed her arms. “Maybe a birth defect?”
“I was told that your skin was disfigured from a difficult birth.” Lord Apician took several steps back, climbing up to her throne. “A birth that Persphone did not want to take place. Now… Now, I see that you’re nothing more than a calico, even lower than a child that the gods rejected.”
“Don’t try to turn this around.” Hesione raised a finger. “You messed up. That comes with consequences.”
“Does it?” Lord Apician sat down and leaned forward. “And what, pray tell, are those consequences?”
“You disrobed a member of the High Court to reveal a cursed birth.” Hesione did her best to think through all the lessons that Paulin had given her. “You did not find what you were looking for, and thus, are subject to…”
She bit her lip, and Lord Apician smirked. “You don’t even know the law. You can talk however you want, you can prance back and forth like a creature of beauty, but you’re no more than the product of an affair in the palace. That’s why the king kept you around!” Lord Apician smirked. “You were his child. You were his child! You’re the daughter of the king! If anyone else had had a daughter with a dark, he would have left them to care for it, even at the expense of their court position, but he couldn’t have it leak that he had a child outside of his wedlock.”
“Lord Apician!” Paulin’s voice boomed through the room. Hesione spun to see the King Regent, dressed in fine court robes, marching into the room. Following him were Simon, Mal, and the woman that he had been with. “I must contend your remarks.”
Lord Apician raised a finger. “Seize him!”
“Oh, I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” Simon held up his hand, which was emitting a large number of sparks from an odd device nestled in his palm. “This’ll hurt you a lot more than it’ll hurt me. I think. Let’s not try it out, okay?”
“You’ve made an alliance with the enemy?” Lord Apician crossed her arms. “How fitting.”
“I realize that you’re flustered, so I’ll allow the misidentification of our two strongest allies to slide.” Paulin dipped his head. “Now, if I’m not mistaken, Hesione was referring to the Boralis Charter, which declares that if an ambassador, king, or other court official uncovers evidence of a cursed birth, he or she must consult with a court physician to perform a detailed analysis of the affected individual before such accusations are brought before the court. If the accuser performs a forced reveal, and uncovers evidence not of a cursed birth, but another malady entirely, this reveal must be considered as false and inconsequential, and will be stricken from the minds of all who were witness to the reveal.”
Lord Apician’s face twisted slightly. “And when, in all of Elsinor’s history, has the Boralis Charter been enforced? I am Lord Apician. I can have her dressed again, and I can swear by Persphone that I will not consider what I saw, and simply have her executed for any number of other reasons. Do I make myself clear?”
“Perfectly.” Paulin nodded. “So clear, in fact, I think it would be a true shame if everyone else listening didn’t have a chance to come forward. Don’t you think?”
Hesione felt a small burst of joy rising in her heart as several other individuals began filing into the room. She didn’t recognize any of them, but their robes and hairstyles made it obvious enough. These were ambassadors, of varying ranks, from the other High Families. Lord Apician’s face turned white, and Hesione bent down to pick up her robes, slowly dressing herself again.
“You insult our ways!” A woman in a bright red robe pointed a finger at Lord Apician. “You blasphemy against Persphone. You are not fit to be lord.”
An ancient elven man nodded forcefully. “When I send word home, you can rest assured that Therigan troops will be here within a fortnight.”
“And that’s how you do it.” Paulin walked up next to Hesione and lowered his voice. “Sorry it took so long. We had a few complications.”
Hesione nodded slowly. “Everything okay?”
“Nope.” Paulin chuckled and shook his head, then glanced back at Simon and Mal. “Do you still have that Wondrisil book from Donisil? Did it make it out of Nettingo?”
Hesione nodded slowly. She had almost forgotten about the strange volume, the living world within a book that they had stolen from a dark elven merchant nearly a year earlier. “Yeah, I had it on me at the time. Why?”
“I need you to go get it.” Paulin hissed softly. “Simon has a device that can… Do something to the Wondrisil. He thinks we need to wait, but-”
“If it involves the Wondrisil, we need to get it now.” Hesione nodded. “I’ll be right back.”
With that, she rushed from the throne room, more than a bit happy to leave the diplomats behind, anyway.
As she ran, though, fear filled her mind. The Wondrisil? What did they have to do with anything? Memories of her previous encounter with the species rose in her mind, images of being trapped in a dark world and hunted by vicious angels.
Even as the thought swirled through her head, several pieces of the puzzle began to click together. The Wondrisil had hated the angels. They had tried to convince the group to fight them, and they had dissolved the druidic prison, allowing the twisted creatures to enact their assault against the angels. Maybe… Maybe there more to the story. Maybe, just maybe… Simon could bring the encounter to a close.
“So… What does that thing do?” Paulin frowned at the device in Simon’s palm. Simon just flashed a smile at him and took a deep breath. Time to look confident.
“It’s a device capable of extrapolating data from latent-”
“He doesn’t know.” Mal cut in. “He’s just trying to look confident so he can be with girls.”
Simon turned and frowned down at Mal. Simon and Kisidera snickered, and several of the arguing High Family dignitaries glanced sideways at them. “You don’t give away another bro’s secrets!”
Mal scrunched up his face. “Bro?”
“Nevermind.” Simon sighed and turned back to Paulin. “Yeah, I don’t know.” He took a deep breath. “What I know is that, according to the logs, my people are like this because of the… What did you call them? Wondrisil?”
Paulin nodded. “They’re a plague on our society. I’ve seen them in the Elsinor palace, and we were trapped in a Wondrisil world once. Wasn’t pretty.” He shrugged. “According to legend, the Wondrisil are in constant watch over all of Calsin. If you can affect them, we need to do it now, before they catch on.”
Simon raised an eyebrow. “They’re that powerful?”
“You spent the entire flight here talking about how your people used to be able to shapeshift.” Paulin shrugged. “Yeah, I’d say they’re that powerful.”
“Great.” Simon puffed out his cheeks. An all-powerful computer code that could transition between digital data and written words wasn’t what he had been expecting to find. Maybe like an enchanted well that you had to throw a sacrifice into or something. Not something that was actually a threat.
It only took moments for Hesione to come jogging back into the room. She had a small book clutched under her arm, which she held out. Simon frowned and took the volume from her as she appeared. He set it down on the ground and slowly opened the page, allowing the twisting, writhing pages to be seen in all their glory. His eyes opened wide at the sight of text just crawling back and forth across the paper like ants.
“This is alive?” He worked his jaw several times.
“Sort of.” Hesione wagged her hand back and forth. “There aren’t actually any living Wondrisil inside, it’s just a dead world. Well, there’s a fairy that sort of got put in there, but-”
“Right.” Simon puffed out his cheeks. “Well, let’s see what this thing can do.”
He held out the device over the book and carefully pressed a button in the exact center. Several blue lines lanced down from his palm, scanning the book. In response, the pages began to flap wildly, as if they were trying to escape from the book itself. The device made a series of noises that were usually reserved for exploding engines, and Simon winced.
“Would you care to do that elsewhere?” Lord Apician called from her throne.
“No, I frankly wouldn’t.” Simon called back. “You stay out of my business and I’ll stay out of yours.”
Paulin groaned softly, and Simon grinned. He let the device whir for a few moments longer, then stood up. The lines continued to strobe from his palm for a few moments longer, before launching a small ball of light up into the air. The light exploded quite brilliantly, dazzling Simon’s eyes. As he blinked away the spots… The room had changed noticeably.
Living text seemed to cover nearly every surface. It was fainter than the book, likely only revealed by the light, but very much there. Simon felt his skin crawl as he noticed the odd text crawling across his body, swarming like insects.
“That’s not good.” Simon whistled, causing red lights to strobe upward from the device. “Let’s see what this thing can do.”
In response, the text began to cycle faster and faster, blurring into solid lines. The dignitaries screamed and turned to run, and Simon pressed a glowing symbol in the air that looked more or less like a shield. In response, a blue sphere formed around Simon, encompassing himself, Mal, Paulin, Hesione, and Kisidera. The text on the ground and on their skin was blown backwards, out of the sphere of protection. Rapidly, the text began swirling around the barrier, as if trying to break through.
“Hold!” Lord Apician screamed at the fleeing diplomats. “You will not run from this! It is a mere trick!”
“No, my lady!” The old man stopped and held up his hands. “These are the-”
In response, the text swirled around him, causing him to dissolve in a burst of light. He screamed as he vanished, a haunting cry. The other diplomats began to run for the sphere of protection, and Simon winced. They vanished mere moments later, though Lord Apician seemed unaffected. At least for that moment.
“What, pray tell, is happening?” Lord Apician’s voice was cool. “What kind of magic is this?”
Simon ignored her and started flipping through several menus on the device, trying to figure out exactly what it did. He shifted his palm slightly, causing the bubble to shift. The edge of the barrier slipped incredibly close to Kisidera, and she screamed.
“This isn’t magic.” Paulin dipped his head. “What you see is a species known as-”
“I know what the Wondrisil are!” Lord Apician’s voice was shrill. “What is he doing that he can manipulate them? No one can control the Wondrisil.”
“Not exactly true, but…” Simon shrugged and finally brought up what he hoped was a control panel. It contained a number of options, ranging from crossed swords to a computer screen to what appeared to be a hurricane. “Uh… Come on. This thing is this advanced and it doesn’t have some form of an artificial intelligence or neural link?”
“Neural link activated.” The device chirped, causing several small teeth to snap out the back side of the device and burrow into Simon’s skin. He winced as they linked up with his neural pathways, and then… And then, the world seemed to open up.
In that instant, he could see… Well, he couldn’t actually see that much more, but he sure knew everything going through the device. He knew that the Wondrisil swarm that he was seeing consisted of twenty thousand individual Wondrisil, operating under a single leader. He knew that the swarm didn’t even take up the entire castle, and that it wasn’t in direct communication with any other Wondrisil swarms. He also knew that its resonance frequency was eighteen point zero zero seven six two, whatever that meant.
He also knew that the strength of the barrier was at less than fifty percent and falling.
“Okay.” Simon took a deep breath. He had only used neural links a handful of times in his long lifespan. While they weren’t difficult, they could often be tricky to get the hang of. And, at that moment, he didn’t have much time to get acclimated. “Trigger resonance frequency eighteen point zero zero seven six two.”
Light pulsed from the device striking the Wondrisil swarm. Streamers burst across the text, leaping like a million bolts of lightning across the room. Lord Apician closed her eyes as the energy burst across her skin, though it did no damage.
“Alright, then.” Simon took a deep breath. “Increase frequency by point zero zero zero zero one.”
With a blast of light, pure energy erupted through the room. When the light faded, the Wondrisil were gone. As was most of the castle. In fact, the only walls still standing were the façade that held the front doors, which now looked oddly like a set piece for a stageplay.
There was no rubble, it just appeared to have vanished. A handful of people outside the barrier, Lord Apician included, stood on the now-bare dirt, befuddled looks on their faces. Slowly, as Lord Apician began walking over towards them, Simon held up the device.
That it was broken was obvious. Sparks spurted from a dozen cracks in the casting, while the neural connectors flailed back and forth inside his palm, tearing both skin and muscle. Idly, Simon sent healing energy in its direction, then sighed. Carefully, he started pressing buttons, getting a few static-y holographic images to appear, but nothing else.
“What in Firengot did you do?” Lord Apician’s voice was deadly quiet.
“Killed them all.” Simon bowed before the wannabe queen. “You can thank me whenever you please.”
“You destroyed my castle!”
“I saved you from the Wondrisil.” Simon shrugged. “I even made sure to spare your sorry hide so the Apician Family doesn’t have to spend time electing a successor.”
Lord Apician ground her teeth together so violently that they could be heard from a dozen feet away. Simon glanced to the side as guards began appearing on the horizon, jogging in the direction of the castle to investigate. Simon suddenly got the distinct impression that things had just gotten far worse than before.
“You’re all placed under arrest.” Lord Apician’s voice shook. “And then, you’ll be executed. Every last one of you. Those who can’t die, we’ll figure something out.” She turned away as the guards came closer, drawing their swords. “May Persphone have pity on your soul.”
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