“The sorcerous artifacts are items that, as you know, came from Hinchipol’s body after his death.” Thomas wheezed as he lumbered through the office to the bookshelves. His withered hands slowly reached out and grabbed a large volume, pulling it from the wooden surface. Sapphire wasn’t sure whether or not to offer her help as he lumbered back to the desk and dropped it into the light from the window. With a flick of his hand, the book opened and began flipping through pages, reminding Sapphire far too much of the Wondrisil. “Gods are always so dramatic when they die. Thankfully, Hinchipol still desired to help us, even after we killed him.”
Sapphire nodded as the book fell open to a chart that she had seen many times during her various studies, but never paid much attention to. A skull sat on a pedestal in the middle, while seven lines radiated off to the sides of the page. Each line ended in an object, the seven sorcerous artifacts.
“You were gifted with the Pendant.” Thomas pointed at the object closest to the bottom of the page. “You learned this already from Persphone, but I will nonetheless reiterate for this lesson. The Pendant, the part of Hinchipol’s personality dedicated to service, only chose those that it believed would be a good follower. An individual filled with fire for helping others, someone content with sitting back and letting others succeed.”
Sapphire bit her lip and glanced at the ground. “That doesn’t sound like me.”
“Not does it sound like most humans.” Thomas chuckled. “The Pendant chooses fewer sorcerers than any of the other artifacts, and it winds up rejecting three out of every four people it chooses. It is far too easy for a sorcerer to grow drunk on his or her own power. Something that you, I believe, came to realize.”
Sapphire puffed out her cheeks. “Why did it choose me if I couldn’t do it?”
“It likely thought that you could.” Thomas shrugged. “Or that you could be molded to fit its purposes. Young sorcerers are often impulsive and buck the orders of whatever item they are given. If I had been able to meet you in Distisil, I could have told this to you, and perhaps avoided this entire calamity. Nonetheless, as I said, this is not uncommon.”
Sapphire nodded slowly. “Will I be chosen again?”
“That depends very likely on yourself.” Thomas shrugged. “As you have no doubt been told, the artifacts will choose someone who embodies what they stand for. While they prefer this to simply be an innate desire, when older sorcerers have been rejected by one artifact, they have been willing to work with sorcerers who force themselves to follow certain molds.”
Sapphire nodded slowly. “So… If I know what one of the other artifacts likes, I can start doing those things, and it might choose me.”
Thomas nodded. “Of course, you would need to continue doing those things even after it chose you. In many circumstances, the sorcerers grow so committed to following that particular life, in an effort to please the artifact, that they eventually wind up changing their entire personality and becoming different people altogether in the pursuit of this goal.” Thomas’s eyes narrowed. “If you wish to walk that path, you must be content if this is to happen to you. If you attempt to curry favor with an artifact, only to later decide that you must walk a different path, it may not go well for you.”
Sapphire nodded slowly. On one hand, that thought was terrifying. On the other hand… What did she even have to offer as she stood there? She was powerless, untrained in even basic human magic or martial arts. Fifiala had tried to help her, only to fail miserably.
“What do the others embody?”
Thomas flashed a small smile. “I’d hoped you’d ask that.” He pointed at the object just to the right of the Pendant. “This is the Crown. It takes on sorcerers most suited for leadership. By the textbook, it accepts those willing to put their own lives on the line, sacrificing everything they have, to direct a nation in the ways most suited for its survival.”
Sapphire grimaced. “I… I’m not a leader.”
“The crown is the second-most rare item to obtain. Many desire its power, but true leadership is a rare quality.” Thomas smiled, then moved on to the next-closest item, towards the top of the page. “This is the Cape. It presents itself to those who desire life above all else. Those willing to preserve life, both the elderly and the young, human and non-human, murderer and innocent, sentient and creature, without weighing which may be more valuable.” His finger skipped upward again. “The Goblet, given to sorcerers whose kindness and charity outshines all else. Those who will never turn away a hungry mouth, even if it means that they only sustain themselves on the magic offered by the artifact itself.”
“Next, the Lantern. Shining with a brilliant light, the Lantern gives itself to those who desire nothing less than to seek out knowledge in all its forms. Those who will journey to the depths of the underworld just to discover why a stone is green instead of red, those who will not rest until every unsolved murder has been set right.” Thomas’s withered finger slid across the top of the page, moving down the left side. “The Eye, given to those bent on destruction. This will reveal itself only to those who care only about the larger picture, those willing to sacrifice entire nations in order to save others.” Sapphire shivered at the image of the burning eye, which seemed to stare out of the page and into her soul.
“And, finally…” Thomas moved his finger to the last image. “The Ring. This artifact will rarely choose anyone initially, and often serves as the rebound artifact for many a scorned sorcerer.” Thomas took a deep breath. “The Ring gives itself to those who love power. Perhaps they just want to be more powerful than a rival. Perhaps they miss their lost glory. Perhaps they want to rise to the top of a government, but lack the leadership to do it.”
Sapphire nodded slowly. Even on the page, the Ring seemed to glow, rising from the page. She reached out and ran her fingers across the image, somehow unsurprised when it began to glow softly. The idea that it simply gave itself to those who wanted power left an odd feeling in the pit of her stomach. It was certainly what she wanted, there was no denying that, but… Was she really that shallow?
“If you desire the company of the ring, as many have before you, know that it will not be an easy task.” Thomas warned her. “It is not enough to simply desire that power. You must long for it. You must place yourself in situations where you could not possibly win, struggling to succeed even if you know there is no chance of success.”
Sapphire frowned. “Won’t… Won’t that make me even more powerless?”
“The Ring does not want itself to be used wantonly.” Thomas shrugged. “Such individuals, power-hungry as they are, are often not to be trusted.” He raised an eyebrow. “That is, after all, the best understanding of your current position, yes? I have seen it myself. You long for your lost abilities. You wish to be able to conjure storms and tear down castles in the blink of an eye.”
Sapphire took a step back as the room seemed to darken. “Are you… Are you mad at me?”
“Angry? No.” Thomas shook his head. He snapped his fingers, causing the book to slam shut. “It is my job to help sorcerers, and that is what I will do. I simply worry for you.” He sighed. “Many in your position have found themselves consumed by anger and loss after their experience. I urge you not to fall into that trap. You remind me of many cautionary tales, men and women who were granted the ring through their rage, but never found comfort even in the torrents of power that they then wielded.”
Sapphire nodded slowly and closed her eyes. The seven artifacts floated in front of her, tantalizing her. After a few seconds, she let out a long breath and opened them again.
“What would you have me do?”
Thomas’s face softened again. “Meditate on it. Do not do anything rash, I beg of you. I wished to have this conversation with you to help determine where you were at.”
Sapphire nodded slowly. “Do you think I have a chance?”
“You were deemed worthy. Of course you have a chance.” Thomas nodded. “What you do with that chance… That much is up to you.”
Sapphire nodded slowly. With that, the door swung open, and Sapphire slowly made her way out into the hallway. The door swung shut, sealing itself with a dull thump, and Sapphire took a long, deep breath.
If she was going to get another sorcerous artifact, she had a lot of work and a lot of planning to do. It sounded like getting the Ring was her most likely bet, but… Even the process for earning its trust didn’t make a great deal of sense.
After a few moments, she shrugged and started wandering up the stairwell once again. She still needed to talk with the mages performing the experiments. Once that was done, she would head down into camp to meditate, and then maybe… Maybe she would be able to regain her lost power.
“Garnisic, I’m very busy right now.” The king glanced down at the dwarf, annoying him a good bit. “Can you possibly come back later?”
“No!” Garnisic crossed his arms. “This is… This is important.”
“More important than the entire kingdom of Elsinor falling into flames?” The king snapped, then sighed. “I’m sorry, I truly am.” The elf closed his eyes and held up a hand. “What can I do for you?”
Garnisic glanced back and forth. He was in the map room, where he had come to confront the king about the Fond’sar and the strange communication device. Of course… They were in a tent, with a cold wind blowing outside, making it entirely too easy for anyone to eavesdrop.
“Is there someplace a bit more protected we can go?” Garnisic raised an eyebrow. “It’s about what you had me build for you back in Nettingo.”
“Oh, I don’t want to think about Nettingo.” The king groaned, then paused. “What? I didn’t have you build anything.”
“You did.” Garnisic nodded. “I locked myself away in the enchanting forge for months. Building something for you.”
After he had taken the disk back from Paulin, the pieces had began to click together in his head, telling a story of the Fond’sar that went back much farther than the actual battle itself.
“You spent the entire time building a hammer that doesn’t even work.” The king shook his head.
“Technically, it works just fine.” Garnisic frowned and patted his belt, where the enchanted weapon hung against his leg. “Just not the way I intended.”
“Would you have let anyone use your forge without some sort of payment in return?” Garnisic finally bit out. “Think about it. That forge was top-secret, most elven civilians would go into a frenzy at the notion that the elven palace had a dwarven forge. Why would you let a random traveler who also happened to know a deadly state secret about an illegitimate child access to a top-secret forge without payment?”
The king scratched his head for a moment. “Look, I have a lot of things I’m dealing with right now, and-”
“The Fond’sar are real.” Garnisic walked around the table and grabbed the king’s hand, trying to keep his voice low. “You and Highsand Barn were the ones who taught me about them, showed me how I’d been used by them. They were the reason that we used the Apician troops to attack the realmship, because the Fond’sar were trying to steal it. And then we all had our minds wiped and they still took it anyway!”
The king paused for a moment. His eyes narrowed, and he snapped his fingers. Magical fields rose around the tent walls, sealing them off. The king smirked and walked over to the map, running his hands across the top. Magical ink flowed from the page, changing the map entirely. It became a map of Calsin, though it didn’t seem to have the standard lines marking the location of the countries. Instead, it contained a number of marks that seemed to indicate the location of people.
“These are the last known locations of everyone in the fight with me against the Fond’sar.” The king gestured vaguely at a large dot that Garnisic assumed was Torsitour. “The dwarf working with the mages and Simon is a collaborator. He helped me put this together.”
Garnisic nodded slowly. “And why are you telling me this?”
“Because I’ve learned that when that name starts getting thrown around, the person saying it is either going to try and kill me in just a few seconds, or is a fellow soldier.” The king shook his head. “Oh, I didn’t want to have to deal with this too, on top of all the other nightmares going on.”
Garnisic frowned. “I can come back.”
“No, now’s as good a time as ever.” The king sighed and shook his head. “What did I have you make?” Garnisic shrugged, but was cut off. “No, don’t tell me.”
Garnisic frowned. “Why not?”
“Because your memory is obviously coming back.” The king shook his head. “Paulin mentioned that Ferguson escaping had something to do with your memory, but he didn’t mention what. I assumed it was private. Now I know.” He shrugged. “You had some sort of latent memory that was still able to activate. I don’t have that, which makes me suspect that my memory underwent a far stronger wipe than yours did.”
Garnisic nodded slowly. “And?”
“And, if that’s true, there’s no telling what I might have told them.” The king rubbed his arms and pulled up his sleeves, revealing several long scars on his otherwise pristine skin. “I’d been wondering where I got these. I need you to help me figure out who I might have compromised. And, if what memory I do have suffices,” The king raised an eyebrow, “we need to do it fast.”
“Oh, wow, that hurts!” Simon’s body slowly began to wake back up, sending streamers of pain rippling through every nerve in his system. While he mostly enjoyed his special ability to stay conscious even if his body was dead, it made the whole reanimation aspect more than a bit more painful. His eyes flicked open to find Isnita standing over him, a concerned look on her face. “Hey, beautiful.”
“Call me that again and I’ll chop off something you’ll miss.”
“It’ll grow back.” Simon sighed and sat up as Isnita took a few steps back. They were in the recovery tent, sheltered momentarily from the storm. “When did you wake up?”
“About an hour ago.” Isnita shrugged. “You can recover well, I’ll give you that.”
Simon smirked as a number of related thoughts swirled through his mind. After a few moments, he groaned and forced himself to his feet.
“Well, whatever we can do well, we’re failing.” Simon sighed and pushed past Isnita, out the tent flap. The various mages looked up from the campfire, where most of them were casting small bolts of magic between themselves. Simon clapped his hands and whistled, drawing most of the other individuals from their respective tents. The rain had intensified since his last death, making the campfire hiss with steam and causing the ground to become quite muddy. “Gather round, all!”
“What’s this about?” Isnita followed him out into the rain. Simon glanced back at her, momentarily disappointed that her white silk dress seemed to shed water rather than absorbing it. “Did you see something?”
Simon nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, I saw something.” The mages finished gathering, and Simon took a deep breath. “Ferguson is there.”
All around the campfire, the mages took a step back. The dwarf seemed the least affected, though he certainly shuffled his feet as he tried to stay under a protective, if somewhat primitive, hide umbrella.
“You mean the angel that’s been a problem?” One of the mages frowned. “The one you’re trying to beat?”
“The one who’s going to destroy this entire realm if he gets a chance?” Simon raised an eyebrow. “Yeah. That Ferguson. I don’t know how he got there, but he did.” Simon took a deep breath. “He was just flying back and forth over the city. Didn’t seem to be in a hurry, didn’t seem to be rushed. He was just there. He knows how to survive in that mess, and we don’t.”
The mages blinked several times. Finally, one of them stepped forward. “I’m sorry, but-”
“This isn’t something to be sorry about!” Simon roared. “This is something to fix!” The woman took a step back, and Simon ground his teeth together. His feet slipped in the growing mud, and he spread his wings to help balance himself. It had the added benefit of making the mages flinch back in surprise, which he supposed was a bonus. “Ferguson is dead-set on killing everything here. Whatever he’s doing in there isn’t good. Maybe he’s after the Grove of Isengrod. Maybe he’s after something else mysterious and magical that may or may not actually exist.” Simon shrugged. “Maybe he’s just looking for his favorite pen that he dropped in the fight. I don’t know. What I do know is that whatever he’s up to, it isn’t good. We need to get in there, and we need to get in there now.”
The mages scuffed their feet. After a few awkward seconds, an older mage looked up, water dripping off his beard. “I’m sorry, but… We’re out of ideas. We can keep refining the spell if you’d like, but you’re not going to get much more use out of it. We don’t know any way to stop this radiation. There might be a better spell, but discovering new spells entirely can take decades or centuries.”
Simon closed his eyes and shrugged. “Alright, then.” He opened his eyes again and nodded. “Explain to me what the spell does. How does it work?”
One of the younger mages frowned. “It’s magic.”
“Obviously there’s more to it than that!” Simon almost screamed. “If it was ‘just magic,’ you wouldn’t spend years studying it. You wouldn’t be struggling to come up with a proper spell and the proper incantations, you would just will it into existence. So, tell me, how does it work?”
The older mage sighed and took a step forward. “The spell that we’ve attempted is a latent effect. The magic sinks into your body and stays there, providing protection until it’s used up.”
“Alright, there’s something.” Simon nodded. “Once it’s in my body, what does it do?”
“It’s a modification of a sunblocker spell.” The old man wheezed. “It’s… How should I describe it? The magic rises to the top of the skin and prevents light from hitting it. A tiny portion of the magic is consumed, along with the sunbeam. It’s quite a popular spell for people heading to the beaches of Sournous.”
“See, that’s the information I need.” Simon nodded. “Alright, then.” He closed his eyes. He had first suggested the sunblocker spell, as, based on his limited knowledge of such things, he assumed that it would block ultraviolet radiation. Which happened to be quite similar to the way that radiation blockers functioned in more advanced societies. “So the problem we’re facing is that you can’t store enough magic in my body to make it all the way in? It just all gets used up?”
“There’s a limit on how much magic may be infused into an individual’s body.” The old man shook his head. “We are reaching that limit every time with you. We are simply trying to make it more efficient. Or attempting to preserve your body in its stead.”
“Alright, then.” Simon nodded slowly. “So how do we make it more efficient?” A thought struck his mind. “Is the spell still blocking ordinary rays of sun?”
The mages frowned collectively. They then all looked at the older man, who nodded slowly. “Very likely.”
“So how do we make it not do that?” Simon held up his hands. “We need to cut down on what it’s blocking, so that…” He frowned and turned to the side, where the lone dwarf was starting to back up. “Going somewhere?”
The dwarf paused, looking up at Simon from under the umbrella. “I was going to do my part. I am of no use to you here, but perhaps I can make my own enchantments more powerful.”
In that moment, a single piece snapped into place in Simon’s mind. “Your enchantments glow.”
The dwarf took another step back. “I don’t know what you’re saying.”
“Seize him.” Simon nodded in the dwarf’s direction.
Five mages simultaneously raised their hands. Spectral ropes erupted from the muddy ground, wrapping around the dwarf’s arms and legs. In an instant, he was completely immobilized. Simon slowly walked up to the creature, kneeling down in front of it. A small river of water dripped past his knees, but he didn’t rightly care.
“Who are you and why have you been sabotaging this operation?” Simon ground out. “Speak!”
The dwarf only smiled. “The void awaits me.”
With that, the dwarf bit down on something in his mouth. Foam bubbled up from his lips, and he went slack, though the ropes held him in place for a few moments longer. Simon stood up, disgust pouring through his body.
“He’s dead.” Simon spat. “Cyanide.”
One of the mages frowned. “What?”
“Long story.” Simon turned back to the campfire, rain pouring down his body. His leather pants gave a soft squeak, and he briefly bemoaned that he couldn’t simply transform into a less restrictive form. Oh, well. That would come soon enough. “What’s the most disrespectful thing you can do to a dead dwarf?”
There was a long hesitation. “I can think of a lot of things.” A young man finally answered.
“Good. Go do as many of them as you can think of.” Simon sighed and shook his head. “Wait. Bring me the body.”
Spectral hands appeared, lifting the dwarf without any of the mages having to lay a finger on him. The body floated up to Simon’s chest, and he quickly rifled through the pockets, looking for anything useful. It took him mere moments to find a small letter in an inner pocket, theoretically sealed from discovery.
“Good. Now do it.” Simon waved his hand as the body was tossed to the side to land in the mud. He brought up his wings, shielding the paper, and tore the envelope open.
“You know… You could have just unfolded it.” Isnita frowned and walked up next to him.
“Not nearly as fun.” Simon shrugged and flipped open the letter. It took mere moments to read, as there wasn’t much content. It only contained a few short sentences, just enough to confirm a suspicion. With the other mages watching, Simon tossed the letter into the campfire, destroying any and all evidence that the dwarf had been involved with the Fond’sar. And that the Fond’sar very much wanted Ferguson to do them a favor after he had accomplished his own goals.
“So… What now?” One of the mages finally asked.
Simon puffed out his cheeks. “Isnita? Fly back to town, grab the reader. I think I have it patched up enough to be useful. Garn’s enhancements would have been nice, but it’ll have to do. I’m going to have these guys zap me, go for a quick test flight through the yellow zone, and if I survive, rest for a few minutes until you get back.”
Isnita bit her lip. “If you die, you won’t be able to teleport back.”
“If I don’t do this, we all might die.” Simon took a deep breath. “Oh, and bring Paulin. I’ll need his instructions on how to get to the Grove once I reach the palace.”
One of the mages held up a hand. “You’re actually going to the Grove?”
Simon spun, sputtering in the rain. “What in Firengot did you think we were heading in there for?”
The mage seemed just as flustered. “I…”
Simon turned back to Isnita. “Go. Now. We need to get in there, and we need to do it now.”
Isnita nodded and took a deep breath. “Is there anything I can do for you?”
Simon shrugged. “If you’re not going to wear something more water-absorbent, maybe convince Sapphire to come out here in something white?”
Isnita just snorted, flexed her wings, and shot up into the sky. Simon watched her go, then sighed and turned back to the mages.
“Well? You heard the plan.” He clapped his hands once, trying to inspire a confidence in the mages. The Fond’sar were back, they were in league with Ferguson, and they were apparently at least a few steps ahead of everyone Simon knew. Fantastic. The last time he had gotten mixed up in a weird death cult on a primitive planet, he had wound up leading it. And it had involved far less clothing. “Let’s get to it!”
“The letters have been sent?” Paulin followed the Ambassador of Defense as the older elven warrior stomped through the growing pools of mud. As evening began to set, the air was growing ever colder, a less-than-perfect combination in the rain. “You told my father you would have them on his desk by morning, not sent within a few hours of the conversation!”
“And your father isn’t going to know the difference.” The Ambassador spun, raising a dripping eyebrow. The rain traced tiny rivers down his golden-plated armor, and the elf took a step closer to Paulin. “If you haven’t noticed, he’s a bit stressed recently.”
Paulin snorted. “And you aren’t?”
“My mental state does not have any bearing on the job that I have been given to do.” The Ambassador sneered. “Nor should your father’s have any bearing on his. He is king. If he is stressed, he should drink some nirtroot and get over it.”
Paulin balled his hands into fists. “What did those letters say?”
For a moment, the Ambassador simply stared down at Paulin. Paulin did his best to stand his ground, though… It wasn’t particularly easy. Earlier that very day, the king had ordered the Ambassador to write letters to the various Families encouraging them in their succession. Instead of obeying and presenting them for the king’s approval, Paulin had learned from an aide that the Ambassador had simply sent out a number of pre-written letters instead.
“The same thing that they’ve said for three weeks now. Which is when I wrote them, knowing this day would come.” The Ambassador took another step forward. “I’m three steps ahead of the king, you can rest assured of that. That little messenger boy you wanted to give a nice, hot meal to? He’s back on the road. Probably halfway to Drigornt by now. Which is where we should have set up our government. Not here. Not in the middle of wizard central. Not in a place with walls that a child could cross! And do you know what we shouldn’t have done?”
The Ambassador raised an armored hand and pressed the fingertip into Paulin’s soaking chest. “We shouldn’t be giving those High Families an inch of freedom. We should have rallied our armies the moment the Apicians declared their independence, came down, and crushed them. Left the other Families to be, as long as they stayed in their place. We had enough to do with Nettingo destroyed, we didn’t need this!”
Paulin took a deep breath. “The king requested Apician help in defeating the dark angels. The Apicians requested their own territory. It was an agreement binding by law.”
“It was an agreement that no one but the king, you, and that Apician catgirl knew about.” The Ambassador’s nostrils flared. “We could have denied it. The Families would always have said differently, but they do that all the time anyway. This whole crisis could have been averted, but no, your father goes and mucks it all up. Now we’re facing a civil war and invasion from Sintison. What’s next? Another attempt at dwarven expansion? Will Taninor try to take our soil from underneath of us? Maybe he’ll make a deal with the frostingar and let them freeze the place so they can come down and take more of our lands. Or maybe he’ll invite the giants for a tea party.”
Paulin forced himself to stay calm. “You’re stepping out of line.”
“And you’re not doing your job.” The Ambassador’s eyes narrowed. “When I took my vows to become the Ambassador of Defense, it was with full knowledge that I might have to do so even in spite of my king. Others have done it in the past, and if our culture survives this mess, others will do it in the future.” He turned to stomp away. “And if it survives, it’ll be because of me, not because of your spineless father.”
With that, he stomped away, leaving a trail of thick footprints in the mud. Paulin watched him go, debating on his next move. He could go tell his father, but… Even as he thought it, he knew it was a bad idea. The king would go into a rage, probably have the Ambassador executed, and not be able to do a thing about the content of the letters. It would go far better for the king to simply deal with the consequences of whatever the Ambassador had sent out.
At least, that was Paulin’s hope.
He was still debating the thought when Isnita dropped down out of the sky, landing in front of him with a dull splat. Paulin frowned, noticing the small device in her hand that Simon had been working on quite feverishly when he wasn’t busy flying into the death zone around Nettingo.
Isnita nodded as Mal landed in the mud just beside her. “Simon thinks he solved the problem. He’s making another attempt at the city. If he’s right, he can make it in, and he needs you to describe how to get to the Grove.”
Paulin nodded slowly. That had been the plan for quite some time now, not to reveal the location of the Grove until absolutely necessary. If Simon was asking for it, it meant he truly thought he could succeed.
“Does it need to be right this second?” Paulin gestured up at the clouds, which continued to pour rain incessantly. “We have some fairly serious situations to tackle, and-”
“Ferguson is in Nettingo.” Isnita looked Paulin dead in the eye. “And he’s working with the dwarves.”
Paulin’s eyes opened wide on their own accord. Ferguson in league with the Fond’sar. That… Wasn’t ideal.
“Take me there.” Paulin held up his hands. “Let’s go!”
Mal and Isnita both took one of his hands, a process that took several seconds with how wet they all were, and then blasted up into the sky. Paulin felt his stomach fall away, both because of the flight, and because he realized as he left the ground that he hadn’t told Kisidera what he was doing.
He wasn’t given any time to second-guess himself, as the two angels tore through the sky. The air grew even colder around him as darkness fell over the land. Rain whipped in his face, numbing every single part of his body. He soon couldn’t feel his hands, he couldn’t even tell if he was hanging on. He could only hope that the two angels were hanging on to him.
When they finally landed next to the smoky, soggy fire, they had to spend several minutes peeling his fingers away from the arms of the two angels. Paulin gasped in pain and sloshed through a growing stream to the fireside, which was being kept alive by a single elderly mage. The rest of the mages seemed to be hiding in their tents, a fact that he really couldn’t blame them for.
“Has he come back yet?” Isnita addressed the mage, holding out a wing over his head.
“Not yet.” The man sighed thankfully up at her. “Should be back anytime, though.”
Paulin nodded and just huddled closer to the fire. Isnita spread a wing out over top of him as well, which he was more than a bit thankful for.
“You’re here!” Simon dropped out of the sky and landed in the mud with a splash, launching a splattering of mud across Paulin’s robes. “I didn’t see you come in.”
Paulin frowned. “C-c-can you see anything in t-t-t-this weather?”
Simon frowned. “Are you cold?”
“Are you not?” Paulin shook his head, sending droplets of water cascading down from his long hair. “It’s freezing out here!”
“That’s a matter of perspective.” Simon shrugged and gave his wings a flap. “Alright. Get the mages out here and juice me up, and I’ll be good to go.”
The fire mage nodded and snapped his fingers, causing tent flaps to open up, allowing weary wizards to make their way out into the downpour. Young and old, they seemed worn by the weather, and Paulin couldn’t blame them.
“You’re sure you tested this enough?” The mage held up his hands. “You went in far enough to confirm?”
“I sat on the edge of the rim itself.” Simon nodded. “I couldn’t even tell anything was wrong. Earlier today, that would have killed me in seconds.”
The mages nodded and began chanting, casting magic into the angel’s body. He began emitting a soft glow, at least until they lowered their hands, ending the spell. Simon took a deep breath and nodded.
“Should be good to go, then.” Simon nodded and turned to Isnita. “The device?” Isnita passed him the strange object, which he slapped into his palm. It adhered itself to his fingers, and he spun to Paulin. “How do I get there?”
Simon puffed out his cheeks. A thought had been swirling in his head, a possibly dangerous thought, but one that he rather wanted to pursue.
“Take me in there with you.”
The mages groaned, presumably at the thought of casting the spell again, and Simon frowned.
“You want to go in?” He pointed in the direction that Paulin assumed was the crater. “If I die, I just come back. If you die… You die. That’s that.”
“I know.” Paulin nodded and sighed. “You said that this poison won’t wear off for a long time. Right?”
Simon nodded. “It should stop contaminating storms within a year or so, but Nettingo itself isn’t going to be habitable for another thousand years, at least.”
“Then this is probably my last chance at ever seeing my home.” Paulin crossed his arms. “The place where I was born and raised. I have a chance to walk those hallways again. Besides,” he added, “there’s no way I can properly describe how to get there. It’s not exactly just sitting out in the open.”
Simon looked Paulin in the eyes, then nodded. “I understand.” He glanced over at the mages and gestured at Paulin. “One more, please!”
The mages quickly gathered around Paulin and held out their hands. The strange, magical language poured out of their mouths just as magic itself poured out of their palms. It was a strange feeling, similar to the sense of falling, as the energy infused itself into his body. He held up his palm as it took effect, grinning at the prospect of seeing his bones through his skin.
When the mages finally lowered their hands again, they wasted no time in scampering back to their tents. The flaps fell shut, and Simon took a deep breath.
Paulin nodded. “Ready as I’ll ever be.”
“Then hang on.” Simon grabbed his arms and flexed his wings. “This is going to be a ride.”
Once again, Paulin had a brief instant to glance at Mal and Isnita before he was launched into the air. Once again, he was pulled up to the clouds, where he was faced with the full brunt force of the storm. Rain pelted into his face, forcing him to keep closing his eyes.
Thankfully, it wasn’t a long flight, only a minute or two, before Simon sailed back down to the ground. Paulin glanced down, and, finding that he couldn’t see the ground at all, decided to close his eyes. They struck solid rock only moments later, and Paulin slowly opened his eyes once more.
It was almost completely pitch-black, though a lightning flash revealed that they were standing on the road leading into Nettingo. The trees surrounding the road were dead, decaying carcasses of their former glory. A few leaves blew across the ground, but that was it.
“We’re walking from here.” Simon stepped up next to Paulin. “I don’t know where Ferguson is, or if he’s even still in the city, but I don’t want him seeing us.”
Paulin frowned. “How would he? I can’t even see my own hands.”
“Really?” Simon sighed. “Look at them.”
Paulin frowned and held up his hands in front of his face. Which was when he noticed that he was glowing. It wasn’t an incredible glow, it was similar to the soft, almost nonexistent glow of certain toxic fungi, but it was there.
“That’s how we know the spell is working.” Simon took a breath and started walking forward. Now that his eyes were adjusting to the low lighting, Paulin could see that the angel’s body was glowing as well. “If you go dark, you die.”
“Then let’s hope that doesn’t happen.” Paulin took a breath and started walking after the angel. “After you.”
“At least until we get to the palace.” Simon sighed. “Let’s move.”
With that, they set off. Almost instantly, they walked off the edge of the rim and onto the enormous bridge that crossed the crater’s divide. Simon could obviously see enough, as he led them straight. As it was, Paulin could only see anything when lightning cracked through the sky. And, quite unfortunately, that was enough for him.
The bridge itself, at least where they stood, seemed more or less unaffected. It was blackened by the blast, for certain, but that was it. Unfortunately… The city in the distance seemed less alright. Broken and twisted buildings could be seen rising from the burned ruins of the city. The closer they got, the more prominent they became. It took them nearly twenty minutes to walk across the bridge, and all the while, Paulin’s horror slowly grew.
As they reached the edge of the city, Paulin could hardly believe his eyes. Here, the bridge itself seemed to have been softened. Stone was melted, though hardened, fusing all the cobblestones into one solid sheet of material. The gates to the city, rarely shut, hung like melted candle wax from the city walls. As they stepped through the gates, it felt like stepping into a city of the dead.
“Come on.” Simon urged him onward. “The palace is this way.”
Simon began wandering down a street, convinced in the direction he was leading the duo. Paulin was more than happy to follow; though he had been in the city since childhood and knew it like the back of his hand, he realized that he just didn’t recognize a thing. Wooden doors had been burned away. Stone had been melted. Some buildings had just been cracked, with walls and roofs blown away.
The buildings, though… Those weren’t the worst parts. No, the worst parts were the shadows. Everywhere he looked were shadows. Shadows of people. Some looked like they were running. Some looked like they were sitting. Some were holding children. Others were helping the elderly. A few had drawn swords. One or two had wings.
“What happened to them?” Paulin pointed at the shadows. “Is this… Are they…”
“It’s a side effect of nuclear explosions.” Simon paused and glanced back, his voice somber. “There are some… There are some truly disturbing scenes that can be painted with nuclear fire. None of them are ever good.”
Paulin bit his lip. “There were children here. I understand attacking a populace, killing all the soldiers and maybe even the men. But women and children?”
Simon turned and walked back to Paulin, putting his hands on Paulin’s shoulders. “Nearly every society on every world that I’ve visited has developed nuclear weapons at some point in time. They aren’t the most destructive weapons, but they’re… They’re the easiest weapons of mass destruction to get your hands on. Inevitably, the period of time immediately following that discovery will be the single darkest moment in that society’s development. Some societies move past it. Some societies just throw nukes at each other until there’s nothing left. A few might stay locked in constant battle over them for centuries.” Simon took a deep breath, wings shaking. “Anyone willing to use these weapons only cares about fear. They only care about power. There are always better solutions. Always.”
Simon shoved Simon away as he spun to take it all in. “You said you were the one who built the weapon!”
“I built a gun.” Simon snapped. “I built a precision weapon that could shoot a single soldier from orbit without harming a hostage in his arms. I never meant for this to happen.”
“Well it did!” Paulin screamed.
Simon sighed and crossed his arms. “Paulin?”
Paulin bit his lip and took a deep breath. “What?”
“I know how hard this is for you.” Simon took a step closer. “I know what it’s like to revisit a desolated home. There aren’t words. It’s also so different, and yet, still the same. You feel like something’s been torn out of you.”
Paulin nodded numbly. “I-”
“I promise you, if we make it through this, I’ll bring you back here again.” Simon put a hand on Paulin’s shoulder again. “But right now, the magic keeping us alive isn’t going to last forever. Not to mention the fact that Ferguson is in the city. Help me get through this, please.”
Paulin closed his eyes. His mind swirled with all the death and destruction. All he wanted to do was scream. All he wanted to do was pound in the faces of whoever ordered the stroke to begin with.
“Alright.” He opened his eyes and nodded. “Let’s go.”
Simon nodded back, then they turned and started wandering through the cracked and broken city yet again. As they finally drew up to the palace itself, seated at the highest point of the city, Paulin couldn’t help letting a gasp of pain escape his throat.
It was just like everything else. The ceilings were spread across the ground, cracked and broken. The pillars that once held them up had been melted like candles. Trees were dead and blackened, at least those that were still standing. They walked through the melted gates and up through the ruins, seeing it all by the light of the strobing lightning above.
As the climbed the stairs, moving higher and higher, Paulin began to grow aware of something… Odd. A strange, reddish light shining off the clouds. It was similar to that of a city on a cloudy night, where the bonfires and torches would be visible even from a distance.
“What…” Paulin stammered. “What’s that?”
Simon sighed and just walked forward, stepping over broken columns and melted statues. “You’ll see soon enough.”
They continued to press onward, slowly climbing up the steps of the palace. It wasn’t the direction they would eventually need to go, but Paulin took the lead, moving towards the throne room. He just… He had to see it. Simon said nothing as he wandered through the desolate area, past the shadows, past the destruction.
When he finally stepped into the throne room, the highest place in Nettingo, it was like stepping into the very gates of the underworld. The great columns still stood, though they were blackened and twisted. Bits and pieces of reinforced and enchanted metal protruded from the stone, sparking with malfunctioning magic. The throne was gone, invisible under a pile of rubble. Slowly, Paulin turned and stared out across the city, visible in the cracks of lightning amidst the pounding rain. He wiped the liquid from his eyes, uncertain what was from the sky and what were simply tears.
As he stared across the landscape, his eyes were pulled to the side, to the portion of the crater where the weapon had exploded. Spread across the floor of the crater was what appeared to be a river of fire. A glowing yellow liquid that simply sat there, twisted like a snake, shining a reddish light up into the clouds. Paulin felt his face warming up just looking at it, and slowly took a step back.
“We need to get underground.” Simon put a hand on his arm, which was now glowing a good bit brighter. “If you can see it, you’re being exposed to more radiation per second than you’ve experienced the rest of the way in.”
Paulin nodded and allowed Simon to pull him away from the view. As they walked back down the hill, Paulin took a deep breath.
“What was that?”
“The permium.” Simon shuddered. “The fuel for the weapon. That’s what’s causing all the residual radiation.”
Paulin nodded slowly. “Was that… Was that a lot?”
Simon just flapped his wings softly. “That’s going to take a long time to decompose.”
Paulin felt his hopes sink even lower. He glanced down at the ground, only for Simon to put a hand on his arm.
“I promised you that I would get you back here.” Simon’s voice was strong. “I’m not backing down on that promise. Radiation scrubbers aren’t easy to come by, but they’re not impossible either. I’ll make Nettingo habitable again.”
Paulin nodded slowly. He didn’t know if he believed Simon or not, but he knew that the dark angel was probably the only hope he would ever have. Slowly, he took a deep breath and nodded.
“Alright, then.” He sighed. “Let’s go.”
Carefully, he led the way through the palace, becoming lost several times as the old passages and corridors simply didn’t exist anymore. He finally found his way to the royal living quarters, down the side of the hill. The building seemed to have been protected somewhat from the blast, and looked more like the structure had simply been softened, not completely melted or blown away.
Paulin slowly stepped up to the doorway. Two melted suits of armor leaned up against the walls, one on either side. He took a moment to bow his head and pay his respects. The guards hadn’t left their posts, even as the world collapsed around them. He reached out and pushed the door open, slowly shoving aside the charred and ruined door. The doorknob broke off as he finished opening it, and he sighed.
The door opened into the common area, an open room once filled with plants, small cages for captured birds and rodents, and a magical fountain in the middle. The fountain was still running, with the enchantments pulling blackened water up through twisted pipes where it gurgled out a melted lion’s head. It was dwarven-made, and had reportedly cost a small fortune when it had been commissioned thousands of years earlier.
Slowly, Paulin stepped through a doorway into the royal baths. Not for truly bathing, it was another common area with a large pool for swimming or relaxing in. Charred plant remains floated in the water, not allowing for any hope that something might have survived. Even as Paulin stood there, though, something swirled within the dark waters of the pool.
“Alright, just keep moving.” Simon pointed past the waters. “One minor side effect of radiation is a thing called mutations. You can get some really nasty stuff.”
Paulin just paused. “You mean… There’s something still alive in there?”
In response, a tentacle exploded from the water and slapped down onto the stone next to Paulin. It was covered in blisters and open sores, and slowly drew back into the depths of the pool. Paulin took a few steps back and gulped slowly.
“Like I said, keep moving.”
Paulin nodded and walked past the pool, through one final doorway. Into… Into the library. He nearly wept when he saw the destruction. So many books, volumes upon volumes of ancient literature… Gone. Burnt pages lay scattered across the ground, piles of ashes rested upon warped shelves. With the destruction, it wasn’t hard to see the once-hidden doorway set squarely behind one of the bookshelves. Simon helped him pull the doorway open, not saying a single word.
The door opened into a staircase that vanished downward. Like everything else, the steps were twisted and warped, though not nearly as much as everything else. Paulin took a deep breath and started downward, making his way into the depths of Nettingo.
From experience, he knew that the stairs went down nearly a quarter of a mile, far below the floor of the crater itself. The deeper he got, the more solid the stairs became, until it was impossible to tell that anything had happened at all. Before long, he even started coming across magical torches that were still blazing, lighting the path. At the bottom, he… He found a wooden door not burned, or charred. A single tear of joy sprang to his eye, and he took a deep breath.
“It’s still here.” He ran his fingers across the wood. “Something survived.”
“I’m afraid of what else might have survived as well.” Simon reached past him and pushed the door open. “What next?”
Paulin forced the tears to stay in his eyes and slowly stepped through. A dark tunnel stretched out in front of him, almost immediately splitting into two. He nodded and started forward, as torches blazed to light in front of him.
“Now, you just have to know where to go.” His voice trembled, and he took a deep breath. “It’s designed to make you hopelessly lost if you don’t know what you’re doing. Come… Come on.”
Paulin started forward, taking the right branch. From there, it was just a matter of memory. A left turn here, a right turn there, taking the secret passageway hidden behind a boulder, finding the next secret passageway behind a series of vines. Vines that were still alive and growing, if somewhat more sickly-looking than before.
Well over an hour passed before he finally came to the final obstacle. A gate, golden and protected by more enchantments than anything else in the entire kingdom. A single keyhole sat in the middle, protecting the Grove from anyone who might be heading in… And protecting the kingdom from anyone who might be coming out. Paulin slowly reached into his waterlogged clothes and pulled out a single golden key, which he inserted into the lock.
He didn’t even have to turn it as enchantments scanned both it and him. Loud clangs echoed through the walls, and the gates slowly unlatched and swung open. Paulin held his breath as they slid aside, revealing… The Grove.
It looked like it hadn’t been touched, like the desolation above was just a distant memory. Beyond the gates, the cave opened up into a small cavern, maybe fifty feet on every side and equally as high. And, growing in the middle of the stone, were elven trees. Tall and proud, growing together so closely that it was impossible to enter anywhere but through the arched doorway, the Grove of Isengrod was something truly incredible to behold.
“And here we are.” Paulin nodded. “After you.”
Simon swept forward, slowly stepping through the doorway and into the grove. Paulin followed, finding himself in the paradise that he had seen so many times. Above the tree branches, near the top of the cave, a magical fire sparkled and roared, casting down beams of golden light onto the grove. A small pool of water sat in the exact center, complete with lily pads and dancing fireflies. Curiously, there were no fairies. The Persphonar guardian was missing as well. Both were concerning, but hardly inconceivable given the desolation above.
“By the gods.” Simon breathed, slowly holding up his palm. Lights sparkled above the strange device, providing information that Paulin couldn’t hope to understand. “This is a temporal vortex. I’ve only seen one before. This is… This is incredible.”
“It was planted by the High Persphonar Isengrod, back when the Elven Empire had just formed.” Paulin sighed. “After it was planted, Persphone poured out her spirit onto it, providing its abilities. It allowed Isengrod to travel back in time and prevent an assassination attempt on the king, saving the land from an invasion.”
“Interesting.” Simon frowned. “I have more questions, but… I don’t think that now is the time.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out the Wondrisil book, setting it down on the ground. “With luck, looking at this book through the lens of the temporal portal will let me reconstruct the circumstances of our curse.”
Paulin nodded slowly. “Just do what you need to do. I’m not going to understand it no matter how much you try and tell me.” He paused. “And don’t harm the Grove. Whatever you do-”
“I’m looking through it, I’m not harming it.” Simon shook his head. “Don’t worry.”
No sooner had the words left his mouth than a blur of black erupted through grove’s entrance. Ferguson slammed into Simon, tossing him into the waters of the pool. As Simon climbed back to his feet, Ferguson sneered. Paulin grabbed for his pockets, trying to reach his combat magic, but was stopped as another set of arms grabbed his wrists and pulled them behind his back.
Simon glanced back and forth, horror slowly registering on his face. “You brought Amil back.”
“Yes, he did.” A deep and quite annoyed voice spoke slowly from behind Paulin. “You left me to die. He saved me. And, if what he’s telling me is true, you’ve done quite a lot to mess things up since then.”
“And now, you’re going to hand me that sequencer you have on your hand.” Ferguson slowly stepped forward. “Your time is up. It’s time to face the consequences of your actions.”
Simon thought quickly. If Ferguson wanted the device in his palm, it wasn’t for anything good. “What do you need it for? It’s pretty complicated, maybe I can help.”
“You are no longer privileged to our plans.” Amil hissed from behind Simon. “You’ve doomed our entire race.”
“No!” Simon took a deep breath. “I think I can save it.”
Ferguson paused. “Do we need saving? We’re the most powerful beings in the multiverse!”
“I found our home.” Simon spoke quickly. “I know how to undo our curse!”
“The curse that allows us to live forever?” Ferguson laughed. “Tell me how that’s a curse!”
Simon spun to Amil. “We were good friends. You were the leader of our entire species, male and female. We set out on this journey, we built the realmships, for this single goal!” Simon pointed down at the book. “We are standing at the end of a journey we started almost two hundred thousand years ago! We can end it! Here and now!”
“Or I can live another two hundred thousand years.” Amil sneered. “I never liked you, Simon. And now I know why.”
Simon took a deep breath. “You’re never getting this device.”
“Oh…” Ferguson shrugged. “I really think I am.”
With that, Amil threw Paulin to the side and lunged forward. Ferguson threw himself at Simon as well. Simon flapped his wings and flew upward, trying to escape. Almost immediately, the flames from the magical fire lanced downward, burning at his feathers. He yelped and flew to the side, only to slam into a wall.
“You were never good at this.” Amil slammed into him, grabbed his left wing, and snapped it violently. “You’re good at fixing things, not breaking them.”
Ferguson slammed into him as well, snapping his other wing. They both let go, letting him collapse to the ground below. He slammed into the stone just outside of the grove itself. Off-balance, his elbow buckled, snapping quite painfully. He groaned and rolled onto his back as his two attackers landed next to him.
“I’ll take that.” Ferguson leaned down and grabbed the device in his palm. Simon screamed as he simply ripped it away, tearing off skin and muscle. The disk emitted a series of squeals and squeaks, and Ferguson slapped it into his own palm. “Ahh, there we go.”
Simon groaned and slowly sat up as the two dark angels turned away from him. His elbow healed with a sickening snap, and he grimaced.
“What are you going to do?” He took a deep breath. “You don’t even know how it works.”
“No.” Ferguson slowly shook his head. “You’re the one who doesn’t understand what this thing is. You know a few of its functions, but you don’t have the barest inkling of its power.”
Simon smirked. “And you’re telling me that a half-baked navigations officer knows more about it than the chief engineer?”
Ferguson flashed a grin. “That’s the most sensible thing I’ve heard you say in a long time.”
With that, he turned and held his palm out, facing the Grove of Isengrod. Light pulsed from the strange object, scanning the trees. Simon forced himself back to his feet and threw himself at Ferguson. Ferguson didn’t even blink, he simply sent a pulse of light burning out of the device and through Simon’s chest. He collapsed to the ground, desperately trying to heal himself, as Ferguson worked.
“We’re going to change everything.” Amil slowly knelt down over top of Simon. “You tried to doom our species. We’re going to save it.”
Simon sent healing energy to his vocal cords, solidifying his lungs and throat. As soon as they healed, he screamed as loud as he could.
He didn’t know if the elf heard him or not. Amil smashed a foot into Simon’s face, breaking bone and cartilage. Simon groaned and rolled away, trying to heal himself enough to strike back. As he pulled himself back to his feet… Ferguson sent streamers of red light pulsing out of the object. They struck the Grove over and over, driving through the wood and infusing the trees with a burning energy. Then, with a flick of his hand… The Grove collapsed.
For a moment, it was like looking into a warp vortex. The entire structure folded inward, as if being sucked into a black hole. Light burst from within, and the Grove was entirely pulled inside, leaving the three angels sitting in an empty cavern. Well… An almost empty cavern.
The trees were completely gone, along with the grass, flowers, water, and dirt. In its place was a simple expanse of stone, complete with large holes in the rock where the tree roots must have been. Paulin was nowhere to be seen, Simon desperately hoped that he had run. And, floating in the exact center of what had once been the Grove… Was a small orb.
The orb was only a few inches across, the size of a large marble. It even looked like glass, though it shone with an odd inner light that seemed to change colors every time Simon blinked. He threw himself at the orb, only to have his wings sliced off by a laser that Ferguson shot from the device. He fell to the ground, smashing into one of the holes that once held tree roots, groaning loudly.
“You never know when to stop.” Ferguson and Amil stepped past him, walking up to the orb. Ferguson slowly reached up and plucked it from the air, then held out his hand. Amil gladly held the angels hand, appearing as one of the oddest couples Simon had ever seen. “And now, you’ll burn.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Simon climbed back to his feet. “What did you do?”
“I think you’ll find out soon enough.” Ferguson glanced at Amil. “Until then…”
With that, the two angels vanished in a burst of light that left streamers across Simon’s eyes. He fell backwards, stunned and more than a bit uncertain what had just happened.
“Simon?” Paulin slowly stepped through the gate. “You… You okay?”
“For now.” Simon slowly climbed to his feet, grimacing as healing energies reformed his wings. “I…”
“What did they do?” Paulin stepped into the room, shaking his head. “Simon? What did they do?”
Simon took a deep breath. “I… I don’t know.” He felt his limbs shaking as his mind whirred with possibilities. “But I really, really don’t think it’s anything good.”
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