“Okay, okay.” Simon held up his hands and leaned back against the wall of the cell. “I’ll admit that wasn’t quite what I had intended. Just look at the positives!”
“What positives?” Isnita muttered from a nearby cell, where she lay flat on her back, white wings spread across the dusty ground. “We’re all together again? Because they caught all of us?”
“Exactly!” Simon grinned. “Come on! Just summon a bunch of your angels and break us out!”
“I can’t.” Isnita snapped back. “Someone went and messed up our communications device! I can talk to Fortrina just fine, but our angels are vanishing every time they jump. Gosh, I wonder who could have done that.”
Simon’s voice got quiet. Garnisic took a deep breath and did his best to ignore the banter. He was in a cell with Paulin, at the far end of the jail. In the cell next to him was Ondernifam, while Simon and Mal were in the cell beyond that. The girls were all being held on the opposite side of the hallway, with Isnita on her own across from Garnisic, Sapphire in a cell reinforced with dozens of enchantments just across from Ondernifam, and Hesione and Kisidera sharing a cell across from Simon.
Sapphire was next to join the fray, offering her advice on what should have been done. Ondernifam joined her, agreeing with every word she said until Mal came in with a slightly different opinion. Garnisic just sighed and held the dwarven communication device up to his ear, listening for any scrap of knowledge he could glean. Thankfully, the guards had shoved everyone inside their cells so quickly that they hadn’t searched Paulin for any items.
“Sefferon, report.” A deep, gravely voice boomed from the device, just like it had been doing for the last two days of their imprisonment. “Your status?”
“Approaching the fortress.” A much crisper voice came back. “Do you have any updates or not? My status hasn’t changed since I left Distisil. I’ll arrive tonight.”
“Do not talk back to your commander.”
“You wouldn’t have made me a Rail if I hadn’t talked back to you.” Sefferon snapped back. “Now do you want me to do this job right, or not? We need the support of the Hunter Council, you know we do.”
“Yeah, I know.” The deeper voice sighed. “Do your job.”
“I would have done it even without these stupid disks.” Sefferon groaned. “You’ll know as soon as I know something.”
With that, a muffled burst of static echoed through the disk, and Garnisic set it down next to him. Paulin glanced over and frowned.
“Interesting? Yes.” Garnisic stroked his beard for a moment before shrugging. “Useful? No. The Fond’sar have some sort of an arrangement with the Dragon Hunters, but the relationship is struggling after the death of a Hunter agent performing some sort of Fond’sar duty.”
Paulin sighed. “Nothing about what happened here?”
Garnisic shook his head. “They haven’t mentioned the realmship once. Something about a controller was discussed at one point, but that’s the only thing other than the situation with the Hunters that they’ve mentioned.”
Paulin puffed out his cheeks. “At least we know something happened. You were spot-on about that communicator.”
“And if I had just gone and checked it out myself, none of this would have happened.” Garnisic muttered.
“Maybe.” Paulin shrugged. “Simon still would have triggered the Wondrisil regardless, so…” He shook his head. “We can’t change the past, no matter how hard we might try. That’s a lesson you might as well learn now.”
“Instead of after I’ve ran through a time portal six or seven times?”
Paulin chuckled softly. “Yeah. Yeah, that sounds about right.”
Garnisic just sighed and gestured at the device. “I just feel like this is all my fault.”
“It’s not.” Paulin shook his head. “Look… Blame can be placed on a lot of people here. There’s so much going on. Angels, Wondrisil, Fond’sar, and who knows what else? You made a mistake, and you’ve owned up to it. All we can do is move forward from there, you know?”
Garnisic nodded and sighed. “Yeah. Yeah, I guess.”
After a few moments, he forced himself to his feet and walked up to the bars, facing Simon’s cage. “So, did you actually learn anything after you leveled the castle?”
Simon glanced in his direction, apparently annoyed about being drawn away from a conversation involving multiple females. “Huh?”
“Did you learn anything?” Garnisic shrugged. “About the Wondrisil? Anything that could help us escape? Or know what to do next?”
“There’s nothing to do next.” Sapphire muttered from her cell. “We messed up. And now we’re doomed.”
“Not true.” Simon held up a finger. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way!”
“I’d rather not write my will just yet.” Garnisic puffed out his chest, then rubbed his hands together. “Alright, people! What are we doing here?”
Ondernifam roared loudly. “Preparing for our conquest!”
“No!” Garnisic shouted back at Ondernifam, prompting a surprised look from the orc. “Well, that’s what we should be doing, but are we?” He turned and crossed his arms. “No! You’re all just sitting around, waiting for someone to come save you. Well, guess what? Everyone who could save you is right in here with you.”
“What’s your problem?” Hesione slowly sat up, scowling at the dwarf.
“My problem is that we’re not doing anything!” Garnisic scowled back at Hesione. “Look at us! We’ve taken some knocks before, but we’ve always bounced back!” He shook his head. “Right now, there are at least three major issues all staring down at us. Ferguson has gone insane and isn’t going to stop until he’s killed us all. We might actually be able to stop him if we figure out this whole Wondrisil-angel thing, but since the throne room exploded, you all seem to think that’s a bad idea.”
“For what it’s worth, I don’t.” Simon held up a hand, where the blackened object still sat in his palm. “I’m still working on fixing this thing. Once I figure out how to patch it back together, I think we can really do some damage.”
Garnisic huffed. “And you can fix that from within a jail cell?”
“Not well.” Simon scowled. “I’m planning an escape.”
“You’re the only one.” Garnisic sighed. No one else said anything, and he shrugged. “If we get out of here, can you fix it?”
“If you give me some help at an enchanting forge, I think I can hotwire a few things.” Simon nodded. “Then we’re back in business.”
“Alright.” Garnisic nodded. “So, once you get that fixed, what then? Do we just go find another Wondrisil sanctuary and blow it up?”
“Not exactly.” Simon frowned. “I think I just need to scan that book. Properly, this time.”
Paulin rubbed his eyes. “So… What exactly will doing that accomplish? You’ll be able to shapeshift again?”
Isnita sat up straight. “We’ll be able to what?”
Simon frowned. “I told you all about it! We can break the curse, go back to just being normal angels.”
“No, all you told me about was… Never mind.” Isnita puffed out her cheeks. “We’d be mortal again.”
“Yeah.” Simon nodded. “And given that Ferguson is currently terrorizing all of Calsin, I really don’t think that’s a horrible thing.”
“True.” Isnita sighed and rubbed her eyes. “And you can do that just by scanning the book?”
“Not exactly.” Simon shrugged. “I think…” He bit his lip. “The Wondrisil code is like any other type of computer code. It keeps a history, no matter how hard you try to erase it. If I can access that code, I think I can find that history. With luck, I can manipulate it to cause the curse to break. Without luck… No idea.”
Paulin frowned and stroked his chin. Garnisic turned in that direction, suddenly a bit concerned about where the conversation was likely heading. All he had wanted to do was get them to break him out of jail so he could go back to enchanting things.
“Do you think if you had access to a time nexus, you might be able to do better?”
“You mean like a portal?” Simon frowned, then glanced down at the object in his palm. He pressed a handful of buttons, causing shimmering lights to burst into existence. They flickered sporadically for a few moments, causing Simon to yelp in pain, before he turned it off again. “This thing has the ability to scan and analyze almost anything it can see. If you had a temporal disturbance, a portal through time, it might just be able to use those energies to help with it all.”
“In that case, I think I might know just the thing.” Paulin nodded. “Have you heard us talking about the Grove of Isengrod?”
Simon shrugged. “You’ve talked about it, the guards gave talked about it, a few of the girls I was with after getting sucked over here talked about it a few times. It’s supposed to be in Nettingo somewhere? Seems to be a fairly common topic of conversation for a top-secret time portal.”
“One of the worst-kept secrets in Elsinor.” Paulin chuckled. “You should see how deadly the really well-kept ones are.”
“I’ll pass.” Simon shrugged, then nodded. “So, it’s settled then. We break out of here, escape the Apician Estate, and make our way across a politically fractured landscape to a nuke zone with high enough radiation levels to kill a cockroach.”
“I understood about half of what you said, and I think I’m glad I didn’t understand the second half.” Paulin shrugged and climbed to his feet. “So, any brilliant ideas on how we get out? These bars are pretty solid, and Sapphire’s magic probably won’t work well behind those enchantments.”
Garnisic shrugged and took a deep breath. “I have a thought on that.” He nodded at Ondernifam. “Hey! Ondi!”
“My name is Ondernifam.” The orc rose up to his full height. “You will speak my name properly, dwarf!”
“Nah, I don’t think I will.” Garnisic shrugged. “You don’t seem that mighty to me. In fact…” He turned away slightly to hide his growing smile. “I bet if you fought a mountain, you’d roll down the side just like a dwarf.”
“Alright, then.” Sapphire puffed out her cheeks as the wagon bumped along the road. “We’re close, now?”
“Quite so.” The driver, a mottled elf with far more dark elf blood than high glanced back. “Just over this next hill.”
“Good.” Sapphire puffed out her cheeks and drew her shawl around herself a bit tighter. Next to her, Hesione did much the same as a chilling burst of wind roared down through the trees.
In Elsinor, fall was much wilder than in Donisil. On days when the wind blew from the south, warm breezes from the Inland Ocean and the nations of the plains dwarves would drift up, leading to days that were bright, sunny, and more than hot enough to cause uncomfortable sweating. On other days, though, the wind blew from the north, bringing chilling blasts of air and cold, overcast skies from the tundra. That day was one of the cold days.
After breaking free of the Apician Estate, the group had more or less parted ways. Simon, Mal, and Isnita had flown north, carrying Paulin, to meet the king in Torsitour. The plan was that, once they were there, they could begin organizing an expedition into the ruins of Nettingo to reach the Grove of Isengrod. Meanwhile, Garnisic, Ondernifam, Sapphire, Hesione, and Kisidera paid a wagon driver to haul them up to the distant city. It had taken them weeks to travel the distance, despite Ondernifam’s continued bragging that he could run there in a single day.
Sapphire was just ready to get out of the cold. The days had been fairly warm prior to their departure, but had rapidly chilled. The driver claimed to be a novice weather mage, and had made frequent predictions about what the weather would or wouldn’t do, but he hadn’t been correct as of that moment. The rest of the party seemed just as frigid as Sapphire. Garnisic and Ondernifam huddled together at the rear of the wagon, under a buffalo hide that they had stolen from a group of traveling gypsies. Kisidera, meanwhile, just seemed to be trying to stay as far away from Hesione as was possible.
“So. Any ideas how things are going to go once we get there?” Sapphire glanced at Kisidera.
“Nope.” Kisidera muttered through blue lips. Her robes were thin, far thinner than she should have been wearing, but she had regularly refused to cover herself up. “I just want to see Paulin.”
Hesione coughed, and Sapphire sighed. Great. They were going to fight again.
Thankfully, the feared battle failed to come, and the wagon was soon able to top the massive hill that it had been lumbering up for some time now. At the top, the trees fell away somewhat, exposing them to the full blast of the wintery air. Sapphire huddled down a bit farther, as a slight sprinkle started to drip from the clouds, rendering her meager cover damp and even less helpful.
“Oh wow.” Kisidera breathed from just next to her. “I’ve heard descriptions, but… Wow.”
Sapphire frowned and straightened up, glancing down the road. The terrain fell away into a shallow, but wide, valley. In the center, perhaps three miles away, was the city of Torsitour. At least, that’s what it had to be. Massive spires, ancient limestone creations visible at even such a long distance, curled high above the surrounding forest. Buildings floated in the air around them, orbiting their parent structures hundreds of feet above the ground. Lightning crackled from one of the towers, striking at the clouds themselves.
“Oh.” Sapphire breathed. “What is this place?”
“Torsitour.” Kisidera glanced at Sapphire. “You’re the wizard, right?”
“Sorceress. Former.” Sapphire admitted. “But… This is in elven country. But that looks like human magic.”
“That’s because it is.” Kisidera nodded. “It’s considered the greatest wizarding institution outside of Distisil. You’ve never heard of it?”
“Maybe once or twice in passing.” Sapphire leaned forward, letting the chilling air blow through her. “I’d never really heard about it, though.”
“A pity.” Kisidera shrugged. “I’ve heard that sorcerers are actually better suited for study here than at the Academy. Of course, the Academy is always trying to shut this place down, but… You know how all that goes.”
Sapphire felt excitement bubbling up in her chest, perhaps the first twinge of excitement that she had felt in months. “Driver? Go faster.”
She wasn’t sure if the driver actually heeded her orders or not, but the rest of the drive certainly seemed to crawl. The city grew, then vanished from sight as the trail reached the bottom of the valley and the trees obscured the buildings. Sapphire reluctantly sat back down and pulled the shawl tight around her once more, reminded again of the bitter cold.
When the finally reached the city walls, it was a burst of warmth to the soul. Sapphire felt a grin splitting her face as two elven guards ushered them through the open gate, allowing the wagon to proceed through the low wall. Sapphire frowned as they entered a small agricultural area, filled with small huts, animals, and smoky campfires. The driver clucked his tongue, slowing the carriage to a halt.
“And you’ve arrived.” The driver turned slightly. “Enjoy your time.”
“Oh, we will.” Sapphire climbed to her feet, the smoke from a nearby fire momentarily searing her lungs. “Thank you.”
“Think nothing of it.” The driver waved his hand. “You paid.”
Sapphire grinned, then glanced at the rear of the wagon. Garnisic and Ondernifam had already climbed down, with Ondernifam retaining the hide blanket. Hesione was in the process of climbing down, while Kisidera seemed to be waiting for Sapphire.
Sapphire dipped her head, then climbed down as well. Kisidera followed, and the driver snapped the reigns, sending the wagon lurching away. Slowly, Sapphire took a deep breath. Overhead, a loud whale-like noise echoed through the air as a floating island spun through the grey sky.
“Well, now.” Hesione’s teeth chattered softly. “Anyone else want to lead the way?”
“Do we even know where we’re going?” Sapphire nodded at the spires. “Are they set up there?”
“Oh hey!” Mal dropped out of the sky, landing in the middle of the group. He had a smile plastered over his face, though he wore a thick robe over top of his leather clothes. “You’re here!”
“Watching for us?” Garnisic muttered and shivered.
“Yep! Simon told me to.” Mal waved his hand and turned to walk away. “Come on! They’re waiting for you.”
Paulin puffed out his cheeks as he stared down at the map of Elsinor. Or, more correctly, the map of the territory once known as Elsinor. His father, along with the Ambassador of Defense, stood next to him as the messenger read the new declaration from the tent flap.
“The Therigan Family would like to announce our official succession from Elsinor.” The young elven boy shivered softly. “We have claimed Kelininsin and the territory immediately surrounding, from the Western Ocean to the Tree of Stone, and from the Northern Ocean to the Longcaster Valley.”
Paulin slowly took a red paintbrush and made the marks on the map. They slightly overlapped with the land declared by the Filisan Family, but he supposed that that would be for them to work out.
The king sighed and nodded at the messenger. “I’ll prepare a formal response. Tell them that their contributions to Elsinor will be missed, that we regret their decision, and that there will be no bad blood against them provided that they treat non-Therigan elves within their realm as proper citizens.”
The messenger bowed his head and turned away. “I’ll be in the stable.”
Paulin bit his lip as the boy started to step back out into the bitter weather. “No, you won’t.” The messenger paused, and Paulin snapped his fingers, signaling for a court aid to step into the tent next to the young boy. Her hair was tied up in a knot, fitting for an attendant, she couldn’t have been much older than the boy himself. Neither one was yet past puberty, neither should have been outside in such a trying environment. “Take this upstanding member of the Therigan Family to the mess tent. He is to be given a proper meal and served fine wine. You may treat yourself to the same meal. Understood?”
The girl simply nodded and held out her arm. The Therigan boy tentatively took it, and she led him away. As the tent flap fell shut, the Ambassador of Defense slammed a hand down on the table that held the map.
“That’s the fourth Family to leave us.”
“At this point, I think it’s safe to assume that the Apicians will follow suit as well, if they can ever decide what territory they’re going to claim.” The king sighed and leaned over the map. “Is there an attendant here?”
Paulin shook his head. “The girl I just sent out was the last one. The rest have taken shelter.”
“We’re elves. We live in a land of snow.” The king grumbled. “This is just a light drizzle. What’s everyone afraid of?”
“Please, father.” Paulin held up a hand. “We have to keep spirits high. If people are cold and wet when they hear that another Family has left, we could face riots.”
“Don’t remind me.” The king groaned and shook his head, then turned to the Ambassador of Defense. “Well? You got here just before him. Any good news?”
“I’m afraid not.” The Ambassador shook his head. “We just received word of staged troops on the border of Sintison. War camps set up within striking distance of Dindriir, and two more… Here.” He pointed at a position between the two major cities on the border of Sintison. “We think they’ll try to break the border enchantments at Dindriir, then advance forward. Once they’re inside our borders, if they split into small groups, they could vanish for months at a time before striking.”
“Or they could just march here and demand the throne.” The king snorted. “Torsitour isn’t the most defensible location in Elsinor.”
The Ambassador nodded. “So what should we do?”
The king rubbed his jaw. “We can’t fight a two front war.” He glanced at Paulin. “Your advice?”
Paulin shrugged and rubbed his own jaw, thinking through the possibilities. “Send letters to all the Families, even the Apicians, wishing them the best of luck as they establish their new governments. Send a letter to Sintison stating the new order of things. You might include Taninor and Dirnor in that list, too. Make it clear that, even though Elsinor is fracturing, we’re not imploding.”
“There will be no civil war.” The king nodded. “Agreed. And then?”
Paulin shrugged. “Deploy troops, if we have any. Take advantage of the hidden terrain.” He pointed at the space between cities, on the Elsinor side of the border. “Set up small camps, make sure that we’re invisible so that if they do strike, but ready to strike back.”
The king glanced at the Ambassador. “Your thoughts?”
“More or less the same.” The Ambassador nodded. “If you’d allow, I’d also like to contact Taninor. They’ve been stout allies in the past, and were instrumental in designing the enchantments that protect our border. Perhaps they could lend a hand.”
“You have my permission.” The king nodded. He took a deep breath as a loud noise echoed down from one of the wizarding towers high above them. Paulin winced slightly at the noise, which sounded entirely too much like mating whales. “I realize this is a bit underneath your status, but I need you or your attendant to draft those letters. I find myself a bit faint of the mind, and need to do some thinking before I’m fit to craft a diplomatic letter.”
“I’ll have them on your desk by morning for your approval.” The Ambassador turned and walked out of the tent.
As the flap fell closed again, the king groaned and let his head drop. Lightning crackled above, and the ruler gripped the edge of the table so hard that his knuckles began to turn white.
“What have I done?” The king’s voice was soft. “What did I do to deserve this?”
Paulin shrugged. “You weren’t the one who summoned the angels here.”
“No, but I’m the king who will go down in history for selling the kingdom to fight the angels.” The king sighed. “I don’t even remember why I did that.”
“On the bright side, you give up your name when you become king, so no one will actually know.” Paulin held up his hands and grinned.
“I didn’t have a son just to make fun of me.” The king snorted, then shook his head and straightened back up. “You’re really quite good for this job. A worthy successor if Elsinor happens to survive a possible civil war and invasion.”
Paulin raised an eyebrow. “What about your other son?”
The king lowered his head again and shook his head. “He didn’t make it out of Nettingo. Neither did your mother.”
Paulin sighed and nodded. “I didn’t know.”
“I’ve been fighting it.” The king shook his head. “I didn’t want to admit it, but I don’t really see any other possibility. They haven’t been seen since then, and with the reports coming from the crater… Even if they survived the initial blast, they would be dead by now.”
“Yeah.” Paulin took a deep breath. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
“Persphone is wise.” The king straightened up. “Persphone is wise, and the brothers are evil. That’s all I can cling to now.”
“Well said.” Paulin nodded at the tent flap. “Well, on the bright side, the mages should be making a breakthrough any time now.”
The king just snorted. “Whose idea was it to set up command here? Bloody wizards won’t give me an ounce of rest.”
Paulin frowned and held up a finger. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but I really think that was you. Something about the natural and magical beauty of the city serving well as a temporary hub until Nettingo could be rebuilt.”
“No one told me the place had been poisoned.” The king muttered, then shrugged. “Oh, well. All we can do is-”
The tent flap flopped open, allowing Mal to come rushing inside. He was followed by a large, motley crew of individuals that Paulin knew well. Kisidera threw herself into Paulin’s arms, while Sapphire snapped her fingers and created a small, floating fire that Garn, Ondernifam, and Hesione immediately huddled around.
“They’re cold.” Mal offered an explanation for their behavior.
“I got that.” Paulin took a deep breath, relishing Kisidera in his arms once more. They pulled apart after a moment, and Paulin turned to the king. “Dad? I’d like you to meet Kisidera Apician.”
“Kisidera.” The king held out a hand, which Kisidera gladly shook. “It’s good meeting you, though your last name makes me a bit nervous given recent events.”
“I assure you, I desire neither the throne nor money.” Kisidera bowed her head. “I have only one request, which I believe Paulin will help me with regardless of royal status.”
The king’s eyebrows shot up, and Paulin shrugged. “I’m a sucker for a pretty face.”
“This time, I promise not to interfere.” The king smirked, then sighed. “Well, what news do you all bring?”
“News?” Sapphire raised an eyebrow. “We’re the ones who want news from you!”
Paulin puffed out his cheeks and nodded. Slowly, he walked forward to the map of Elsinor, which was covered in far too many red marks. By the time he finished explaining the political situation, Sapphire’s fire had warmed the entire tent, giving Garn and Ondernifam new life. The group spread out around the map, concerned looks on their faces.
“So what will you be doing about all that?” Hesione finally glanced up at the king.
“Forgive me, but as the border situation doesn’t directly pertain to your current quest, I think we should stay focused.” The king glanced at Paulin, not-so-subtly reminding him that his friends weren’t really part of the Elsinor government. In the slightest. “So, you need to get to the Grove of Isengrod. Correct?”
Sapphire nodded. “I thought that’s what you guys were here discussing?”
The king nodded, then turned to Mal. “Would you be willing to go fetch Simon?” Mal nodded, flexed his wings, and shot from the tent. As the flaps fell shut, the king sighed. “Paulin? Could you fill them in?”
Paulin nodded, then pointed down at the map. The single feature that he hadn’t explained earlier was a large, red circle that had been drawn around the area that once held Nettingo.
“The short version of the story is that the area has been poisoned. If you cross this line, you start getting sick. The farther in you go, the faster you die. The scouts that have decided to risk it haven’t even been able to reach the city itself before they die.” He took a short breath. “And it gets even worse. When storms blow over it, regardless of direction, the rain on the other side becomes poisoned. It’s not quite as deadly, but we’ve had reports of rain burning people’s skin all the way up in the tundra.”
“It’s called radiation.” Simon strode through the tent flaps, Mal trailing behind him. “Sorry, I had the mages set up a spell to alert me whenever you guys showed up.”
“Then why was I watching?” Mal scowled.
“In case I was busy and couldn’t get away. As happened just now.” Simon sighed and walked up to the map. “The weapon that exploded used a substance known as permium for fuel. The stuff emits a substance known as radiation. Tiny particles that can blast through you at the speed of light and kill you from the inside.” Simon shrugged. “It’s not good. Now, if we had been lucky, most of the permium would have been consumed by the blast, so that the radiation we’re seeing would just be residual from the primary explosion.”
Sapphire frowned, stroking her chin. “And it’s not?”
“Umm…” Simon closed his eyes and taped his forehead rapidly. “Think of it as poison. Say you have a rock that can produce poison. You throw it into a fire, and a bunch of the rock gets burnt up. The poison that it already produced would get caught in the smoke, creating a poison fog that would be really bad, but still dissipate. Whatever survived the fire would continue to produce the poison, saturating the ground and killing everything a bit more permanently.”
Sapphire nodded, catching on far faster than Paulin had done the first time that Simon had explained the concept. “So some of the fuel for this weapon survived and is poisoning the area.”
“Exactly.” Simon nodded. “Except that since it’s just a bunch of invisible particles, anti-poison spells won’t do the job. I’ve been helping the mages experiment with modifying anti-sun spells, but none of them have been able to protect me long-term.”
Kisidera frowned. “Protect you?”
Simon nodded. “Mal, Isnita, and I have been the guinea pigs. Uh… Lab rats. Rabbits. Whatever innocent creatures you use in this world for experimenting on.” He sighed. “We attach objects with summoning enchantments to us, then try to fly as deep into the blast zone as we can go. We’ve been getting farther and father, but we still haven’t been able to reach the center, where the Grove is. We drop when we drop, they summon us back, and we start the process all over again.”
Sapphire frowned. “How have you been casting the spells? Wouldn’t it be more effective if a human actually went in, casting the spell as they went?”
“Probably.” Simon nodded. “But I’m not willing to risk any more lives. Besides, I have to be able to survive the trip in, anyway. If we get to the point that I can do it, we’ll know that the humans can.”
“Fair enough.” Sapphire nodded. “Any way that I can help?”
“The mages are in the tower marked with the crescent moon.” Simon nodded at the tent flap. “They’ll welcome any assistance you could give them.”
Sapphire nodded curtly, then turned away. She took a few steps, then paused. “What about the brothers?”
“No word.” Paulin shrugged. “We’ve sent messengers everywhere. Well, everywhere we still have claims over. No word. No angel sightings, no murders, no mysterious vanishings. Whatever Ferguson is doing, he’s staying low.”
“That makes me more nervous than if he would just come out.” Sapphire shuddered.
“You and me both.” Simon puffed out his cheeks, then nodded curtly. “Well, if you’ll excuse me, I have another distance attempt. I hit the edge of the crater last time before I passed out. Isnita claims she actually made it over the rim. Time to win.”
With that, he and Sapphire both walked out of the tent. As it fell shut, the king sighed and shrugged.
“I’m afraid I really don’t have much for the rest of you to do. We’re… We’re in a waiting stage, really.”
Paulin laughed joylessly. “Probably the best possible description of our current position.” After a few seconds, he shrugged and put an arm around Kisidera. “Well, if you’ll all follow me, we prepared tents for your arrival. You’re welcome to use any of the facilities here for really anything you want. Just be prepared to move as soon as we figure something out.”
As they slowly pushed aside the tent flap, letting the cold drizzle inside, Hesione turned to him. “And what exactly are we waiting for?”
He knew that she was fishing for information. Information about the state of Elsinor, information about the angels, anything he wasn’t telling her. And, unfortunately, there just wasn’t anything he could say to her. She wasn’t a part of the court anymore, and she had made it fairly clear that she wasn’t interested in joining yet again. Slowly, he took a deep breath and gave her the only answer he could.
Sapphire winced as they walked out into the cold. She almost cast a ward spell to protect against the rain, but fought the impulse. Simon flexed his wings, and Sapphire held up a hand.
Simon paused, glancing to the side at her. “Hmm?”
Sapphire shrugged and puffed out her cheeks. “You’re really focused on this, aren’t you?”
Simon flashed a small smile. “What makes you think that?”
“You made it an entire conversation without getting off-track, you explained everything in a way we could understand, and you didn’t make any comments about how low-cut my dress is.” Sapphire raised an eyebrow. “Something’s up.”
“Sorry.” Simon took a deep breath, then slowly stretched out his left wing over Sapphire’s head. “I just… I don’t know.” He shrugged. “For the first time in waking memory, I feel like I’m actually fighting for something good.” He pointed down at his palm, which noticeably didn’t contain the odd device anymore. “I’m continuing the work that I started countless thousands of years ago. There’s a chance…” His voice broke. “There’s a chance we could get back something that we lost. Purpose. We’ve done different things here and there to try and regain that purpose, but without a mortal lifespan, there’s not much use for it.”
Sapphire flashed a small smile. “Well, keep it up.”
“Oh, I plan to.” Simon nodded and took a deep breath. “Well, it’s off to die again. Hopefully we can get it in the next few tries.”
With that, he launched himself up into the grey sky, did a fancy flip through the air, and shot off into the distance. Sapphire watched him go, feeling a ray of warmth in her heart. If even Simon was committed to the cause, maybe there was good in the world after all.
Of course, if Simon was committed to the cause, maybe things were far worse than she could ever have imagined.
Sapphire shrugged and turned towards the towers. It took several minutes to find the tower that Simon had mentioned, as small huts and laboratories had been built up around the bases, making it hard to just walk from one to the other. Eventually, after locating a tower with a rising sun symbol and a blue horse, she managed to find the crescent moon.
As she pushed open the wooden door at the base and stepped inside… It almost felt like a homecoming of sorts. The smell of ancient text filled the air, the smell of candles, the smell of spiders and dirt. A short hallway led to the center of the tower, where a single stairwell wound both upwards and downwards. Flickering torches cast their orange light, giving life to the air. Carefully, Sapphire started walking up, hoping to find someone who would know what was happening.
As she walked, she passed doorways every few feet. It seemed that the tower held plenty of rooms, more than enough for any type of experiment imaginable. Most of the doors were sealed tight, either protected by magical charms or marked by signs warning against unexpected entry. Sapphire just smiled and walked higher, up and into the tower.
She had passed well over a dozen doorways before she finally found one that hung open. Tentatively, she walked up to the doorway and glanced inside. The room wasn’t enormous, a roughly triangular slice in the shape one would expect from a tower. A single window at the far end provided natural light, while several torches hung on the walls, casting their own light over several shelves of books.
Just under the window, sitting at a massive desk, was an ancient wizard. He was the perfect image of every wizard painting Sapphire had ever seen. A long, grey beard hung down past his desk, while long, flowing robes hung from thin limbs. He gestured at her as she glanced into the room, snapping his fingers.
The voice was magically amplified, and Sapphire felt a small spark inside of herself. She nodded and stepped into the room, though her excitement turned to fear as the door slammed shut behind her.
“I said come! Do not make me say it again.”
Sapphire nodded and ran forward, moving up to his desk. As she walked, she glanced to the side at the bookshelves. The volumes there were ancient, many of them had spines that were no longer legible. As she reached the desk, the wizard smiled.
“Have a seat.”
Sapphire frowned. “There isn’t another-”
A chair simply appeared out of midair, conjured by whatever magic the wizard had access to. He flashed a toothless smile, and Sapphire nodded and sat down. She let out a slow breath, then folded her hands.
“You wanted to see me?”
“I’ve been waiting on you for quite some time.” The man leaned forward, his pale eyes peering at her. Magic sparked within them, likely enhancing his eyesight. “Many, many years, in fact.”
Sapphire frowned. “I think you might be thinking of someone else.”
“No, I am not.” The wizard shook his head. “My name is Thomas. A bit of an unassuming name for a wizard of my stature, but a fitting one, I believe. While the wizards in Torsitour don’t have the strictest ranks, we do still have propriety. And, as I have done since my twenties, I serve as the foremost expert in Calsin on sorcery and the sorcerous artifacts.”
Sapphire felt her heart grow cold. “Then I’m not the one you’re looking for.”
She started to stand up, only to have spectral ropes appear and bind her to the chair. She fought them for a few moments, but it was quite obvious that she wouldn’t be able to break free.
“Oh, I think you are.” Thomas wheezed. “You are Sapphire. Born to witches in Distisil, your parents were murdered in a raid only days after your birth. You were found clutching a small pendant, a leaf on a chain. Your captors, being witches, knew nothing of its power. They took you and raised you, and it wasn’t until adolescence that you realized its true power.”
Sapphire nodded slowly. “How did you know?”
“I watch all those born with sorcerous powers. Those of my position have done so for a thousand years, and will continue to do so for thousands more.” Thomas smiled thinly. “I watched the previous sorcerer, who wielded the Lantern, grow from an infant until his departure. I watched twin sorcerers, a boy and a girl, wield their own powers side by side for many, many years. And I’ve watched you grow from an infant into the young woman you are now.”
Sapphire frowned. “And how old are you?”
“I am old, and we will leave it at that.” Thomas snickered, then sighed. “I will admit, you are the first sorcerer I have seen who has been rejected by an artifact. It has happened in history past, so I can pull information from the pool of knowledge of my predecessors, but I will admit that I do not have personal experience with such things.”
Sapphire shook her head. “What do you want from me?”
“I want nothing from you.” Thomas shook his head. “I only want to help you.” He reached out, holding up his hands. Sapphire refused to take them, and he sighed. “It is my job to educate and train sorcerers. While you are now lacking a sorcerous artifact, it makes you no less of a sorceress. And, perhaps…” A twinkle shone in his eyes. “Perhaps I can help you regain your lost power.”
For a moment, Sapphire couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “You… You can help me get another artifact?”
“Possibly.” Thomas crossed his arms and shrugged. “I can’t make any promises, of course, but it’s my job to help sorcerers when they fall upon troubled times. My records show many of my rank helping other sorcerers find new artifacts. Some succeeded. Some failed. All I can tell you is that I will try.” He puffed out his cheeks. “I only wish that I could have met you earlier. Headmaster Burtain refused to point you in my direction during your time at the Academy, and my attempts to travel south were met with battlemages who wished to keep me out. Thankfully, our paths have still crossed. Be it coincidence or a magical word whispered in the ear of the king… You are here. And that, I believe, is more important than anything else happening in the realm.”
Sapphire frowned. “Important?”
“Sorcerers are vessels for what remains of the great god Hinchipol.” Thomas smiled. “Of course you are important.”
Sapphire was momentarily disappointed that he didn’t have any epic quests in mind, but pushed it aside. “So… What can you tell me?”
“Come with me.” Thomas climbed to his feet, dissolving the bonds holding Sapphire’s wrists. As she stood up, the chair itself vanished once more. “I have much to show you.”
Simon took a deep breath as he landed next to the small mage’s outpost, about ten miles away from the edge of the crater surrounding Nettingo. A handful of human mages huddled around a small fire that crackled and blazed high with flame. Two of them appeared to be sustaining it with some sort of magic, while a third did her best to dry out more logs to throw on the fire. A handful of tents stood around the edge of the camp, likely holding the individuals who were more inclined to stay dry instead of warm. As Simon landed next to the fire, the tent flaps opened, allowing the rest of the mages to file out. There were about twenty of them in all, along with one dwarf who helped with the summoning enchantments. Isnita was missing, likely in her tent recovering from the last run earlier that day. “How’s Isnita?” Simon glanced at the tent that all the angels had been using for recovery. “She okay?” “She got some pretty bad burns that last time.” One of the mages dipped his head. “We attempted to modify the spell. Instead of simply blocking all the radiation, we attempted to just nullify its effects. We won’t know how far she made it until she wakes up, but she was gone almost two minutes longer than your last record.” Simon nodded, puffing out his cheeks. “You tried to nullify the damage, so she was fine longer, but when she did get hit, she got hit harder?” “Seems that way.” The mage nodded and glanced at the tent with a worried expression. “I hope she’s okay.” “Anyone else would be dead. That’s why we volunteered for the project.” Simon sighed and shrugged. “Ready to give it another whirl?” “If you are.” The mage nodded and gestured at the other wizards. They gathered around Simon and slowly held up their hands. Magic pulsed from their palms as they uttered a series of incantations. Simon’s body began to glow as the magic swirled into his skin, pulsing through his flesh. His bones began to shine, becoming visible even through his muscles, and he frowned. “Is it supposed to do that?” The mages didn’t answer until they had finished casting the spell. At the completion, one of them shrugged. “It didn’t do it last time.” “Good to know.” Simon sighed and turned to the lone dwarf, who stood off to the side with an ankle clamp. “Lock me up.” The dwarf wordlessly walked forward and clamped the glowing piece of metal to Simon’s leg. He flexed his wings a few times, then nodded. “Pull me out when I go down.” He took a deep breath. “Time to reach the center.” With that, he flapped his wings, driving him up and into the air. With a flourish, he shot up to the height of the clouds, soaring just underneath the layers of mist. Air whipped past him on all sides, chilling him to the bone. Far below, the forests of Elsinor stretched out… Well, about five miles farther. In the distance, though it was harder to see with all the cloud cover, were the ruins of Nettingo. Smoke still curled up from the rubble, even so many months after the explosion. Flickering lights began to pop across Simon’s skin, indicating rising levels of radiation. He grimaced, not looking forward to the pain to come. The closer he got, the more prominent the sparks became. He had to admit, it was holding up better than in previous iterations. As he passed the one-mile mark, the sparks were growing to a fever pitch. He glanced down at the ground, heart sinking at the sight of so many dead trees and animals, corpses that couldn’t even rot because there was nothing left to decompose them. Even the clouds seemed to take on a yellowish, dead tint, though that may have just been the sparks. Before long, he was within sight of the edge of the crater. A pure ring of fire blazed around his protective shell, and he took a deep breath. He was so close to breaking a record. Would it get him all the way in to the city? Probably not, but… They were getting better! With a dull pop, the shield failed, leaving him simply floating in the sky. For a brief moment, he had a free view of the city. He was just over the rim, maybe a few hundred feet out. For a brief moment, he could see everything so clearly. The smoking city, still over a mile away, filled with melted buildings. The soft glow from the radiation, the death-like birds floating over the city like vultures. Simon’s eyes snapped open wide as his skin began to burn. Birds? There couldn’t be birds there. Nothing could survive such high levels of radiation! Desperately, he poured healing energy through his body and flapped his wings harder, trying to get a better glimpse. The healing energy worked for a moment, allowing him to get a few flaps closer. And then… His body just gave out. Every organ simply shut down. His muscles began to spasm uncontrollably, and his skin began to peel off his muscles. He fell from the sky, angling towards the ground below. All the while, still conscious, even as his body failed. As he plummeted towards the rocky ground, thoughts swirled through his mind. The birds of death… It was the only thing he could truly think to call them… Had looked exactly like angels. The dark wings, black feathers, what else could they be? Somehow, Ferguson had managed to find a way to survive all the way into the city. Whatever the dark angel’s plans were… Simon knew it couldn’t be anything good.
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