“Looks like they’re waiting for us!” Simon shouted over the roar of the rain. “I’m setting us down outside the city!”
Paulin could only nod numbly as the angels dropped from the sky and landed on the road leading into Torsitour. The storm was reaching a fever pitch, coming down in sheets so thick that Paulin could only see a few hundred feet in front of him. Simon and Mal took a moment to untwine his stiff fingers from their arms, while Isnita started forging forward.
Rainwater gushed from the city gates, turning the road into a river. The smell of mud and dung filled the air as it tore up topsoil and gushed through livestock pens. Straw and grain bobbed along on top of the torrent, spelling out some poor farmer’s doom.
Together, the quartet forged their way forward. Idly, Paulin hoped that the mages had taken their advice and left for a nearby inn. He suspected that they had, but it was hard to know. Every step felt like an achievement, as his legs had lost almost all feeling in the freezing waters. His court robes had been ruined, bleached and torn. At least one of his shoes had fallen off in the flight, and he wasn’t entirely sure if all his body parts were still attached or not.
Waterlogged and frozen, they marched through the gates of Torsitour, where a small contingent of guards stood in their armor plating. A floating island moved overhead for a brief moment, giving them a second free from the torrential downpour. Slowly, a man in golden armor, the Ambassador of Defense, stepped forward, the clank of his boots audible over even the pounding rain.
“King Regent Paulin.” His voice was sharp. “You’ve returned.”
“Ambassador.” Paulin inclined his head. “I didn’t think I would be so sorely missed.”
“And we didn’t think you would go destroy the most sacred grove in Elsinor.” The Ambassador sneered. “If you weren’t the king’s son, I’d kill all of you on the spot.”
“First off, three of us would get back up.” Simon held up a finger. “Secondly, according to ‘Framework,’ the sacred text of the Persphonar, the Grove of Thediric is the most sacred grove in Elsinor, which is located about a hundred miles west of us. Third-”
The Ambassador stepped forward and slammed his sword into Simon’s chest. The angel collapsed with a dull splat, and the Ambassador stepped back.
“If anyone mortal had talked to me that way, I would have backhanded them. He understands.”
On the ground, Simon groaned and started reanimating. Paulin squared his shoulders and planted his feet, trying to stay sturdy in the mud.
“I don’t know what your game is.” Paulin growled. “Frankly, I don’t care. I do suspect that you’re out here on orders from my father. You are to take me to him, and you are to do it now. Am I clear?”
“Crystal.” The Ambassador snarled. “Elsinor will burn, I hope you know that.”
“I’m aware.” Paulin took a deep breath as he fought to keep from shivering in front of the commanders. “And I’m aware that it’ll burn ever higher the more you keep bucking my father’s orders.”
The Ambassador sneered. “Is that a threat?”
“Not at all.” Paulin shook his head and closed his eyes, trying to keep images of doom out of his mind. “It’s a promise.
Hesione closed her eyes and tried to drown out the roar of the rain. She drew her cloak around her a bit tighter, doing her best to stay warm. Even though she was in an enchanted tent, protected from the rain and the weather, there wasn’t much she could really do about the air that had become quite cold from the freezing liquid. Out of curiosity, she expelled a soft breath, unsurprised when it was quite visible.
The tent that she was in was fairly plain. Three cots, a few chairs, a table, and several blankets. Garn was curled up on the shorter cot, trying to stay warm, while Ondernifam paced back and forth restlessly.
“What do you think they’re doing?” Hesione finally managed. “Anything interesting?”
“Can’t be too interesting.” Garn muttered. “They don’t want us there for it.”
“I just want to fight.” Ondernifam snorted. “Why are we even here?”
Hesione sighed and closed her eyes. Why, indeed? When she had formed the group, everything had been so clear. They had been investigating the Wondrisil books, a fact that she suspected had been influenced by the spell that the king had placed on her, and that had been that. After Malah had been brought back, with nothing else to do and promises of gold, they had chased after Paulin. And now… Now, Paulin, the king, and the angels were handling everything. Sapphire hadn’t spoken to any of them since they had arrived in Torsitour, she spent all her time in the wizard towers. More and more, Hesione was beginning to suspect that the group was down to the original three… And that there really wasn’t any solid reason for them to remain near the elven royalty.
“I don’t know.” She finally managed. “I guess we’re here to help Mal and the angels.”
“Not if we do nothing!” Ondernifam roared. “They should point me at their problems! I will destroy them!”
Hesione just flashed a small smile and glanced at Garn. The dwarf simply stared up at the tent above him, only blinking every few moments. Hesione sighed and nodded in his direction.
“Did you get to talk to the king?”
“Yeah.” Garn muttered. “Didn’t learn anything, but I talked to him.”
Hesione frowned. “How did the conversation go, then?”
“I’d rather not talk about it.” Garn snapped. After a moment, he sighed and shrugged. “Sorry, I’ve been… I’ve been trying to process it all.” He rolled over, facing Hesione. “I started talking with him about the Fond’sar. I showed him the communicator, and he mentioned how he thinks he may have been interrogated. He showed me a map. And then…” Garn gestured vaguely. “He clammed up and asked me why I’d come in. I had the conversation three times before I just gave up. His mind wipes itself whenever he starts talking about the Fond’sar. At least that’s all I can figure.”
Hesione puffed out her cheeks. “So… What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know.” Garn muttered. “What makes you think I’m going to do anything?”
“Because, for all intents and purposes, the king sold Elsinor to help fight the Fond’sar.” Hesione shrugged. “That seems important.”
“Uh, huh.” Garn nodded and rolled onto his back again. “Answer me something. Right now, are you asking me because you care about the Fond’sar? Or are you asking because you’re bored and want something to do?”
Hesione bit her lip and glanced at the ground. “Can I pass on that question?”
Garn snorted softly in response. “That’s what I thought.”
They stayed in silence for a few moments longer. Finally, Hesione spoke up again. “Why aren’t you in the enchanting forge? Surely they have one here.”
“They do.” Garn nodded. “A pretty nice one, in fact. The only problem is that it’s run by a master enchanter from Taninor. Kisinistor, I think. He won’t let anyone use the forge without first going through his class that he runs here. And I don’t have three years of my life to waste being told how to do what I already know how to do.”
Hesione sighed. “You could have the king order it.”
“If I needed to make something for the king, I’m sure he’d do it.” Garnisic agreed. “The only problem is that he’s not exactly in the mood to just give me a free pass to a highly restricted area, and he can’t keep his memory long enough to realize that he really does need me.”
Ondernifam roared as the tent flap sprang open. Water almost immediately poured in across the dry ground, allowing a waterlogged messenger boy to stumble inside. He was a high elf, barely in his teens. Far too young to be running errands. Hesione and Garn stood up as he took a few moments to compose himself.
“The k-k-k-king needs you. All three of you.” The boy stammered. “Come q-q-q-quickly!”
With that, he turned around and bolted out into the pouring rain. Hesione sighed and forced herself forward, stumbling after the boy. Ondernifam roared and leapt through the tent flap, spreading his arms wide and thundering up at the sky. Hesione paused just inside the tent flap, grimacing at the downpour. Garn walked up behind her, sighed, and thumped her on the back.
She screeched and stumbled forward into the rain, soaked through her robes in an instant. Garn just chuckled and walked past her, though she could already hear his teeth chittering. Together, the trio followed the young lad through the city of tents to the much larger command tent. As they approached, Hesione could see that it seemed like a fire had been built inside, as smoke curled through a small flap near the peak and shadows danced across the tent walls.
The boy pulled the flap aside, allowing the trio to stumble in. The boy followed, though he immediately went to the side, where he was handed a small flap of paper and ran back out into the torrent. Hesione felt a stab of pity for him, then turned and glanced around the room.
It seemed that everyone even somewhat important had turned up. A bonfire raged in the middle, casting warming rays of light and heat across the tent. The king stood on the far side, with a waterlogged Paulin standing next to him. Kisidera stood next to Paulin, staring at him with what looked like a mixture of love and hate. Hesione closed her eyes and looked away, feeling a sharp sting.
Next to Kisidera were Isnita, Mal, and Simon. All three had quite serious looks on their faces, including Simon, which was concerning. Next to them were various ambassadors, the Ambassador of Defense, a few mages, and a Persphonar. It made for a quite crowded tent, one which Hesione suspected was about to see quite a great deal of conflict. The only one missing was Sapphire, a fact that didn’t seem lost on the king as he glanced back and forth, as if waiting.
Finally, after several minutes of standing around awkwardly, the king sighed and clapped his hands. “Well, it appears that all who are going to attend this meeting are here, so we may as well begin.”
“It’s about time.” The Persphonar stepped forward, fists curled into tight balls. His green skin was flushed, his eyes wild. “There’s a lot of explaining to do, here.”
“And I’m sure we’ll get answers.” The king held up a hand, then turned to Paulin. “Before accusations start being thrown around, would you care to tell us what happened?”
“Yeah.” Paulin’s voice was tight. He slowly stepped forward, raising his voice to be heard over the bonfire. “Simon and I went back into Nettingo, and-”
“You went back to Nettingo and survived?” One of the mages frowned. “How?”
“Your own people.” Paulin nodded. “They developed a spell that would protect us. We journeyed inside, and we found…” He paused, and Hesione winced, quite certain what the next words were going to be. “We went to the Grove of Isengrod.”
The uproar was instantaneous. Mages shouted for clarification, the Persphonar glared at Paulin and the angels with unbridled fury, and the Ambassador of Defense roared over the crowd. Beside her, Ondernifam snorted and roared several times as well, though for him it was simply for the sake of doing it. When it finally all calmed down, Paulin held up his hands.
“Yes, the Grove is real.” He nodded. “And yes, it allows for time travel.” A minor uproar tool place, but the king held up his hand, stopping it. Paulin then continued. “The Grove was connected to a point exactly five years in its past. With the blessing of the Persphonar, an individual could travel backwards five years, no more, no less, where they would be able to join that timestream. Contrary to popular belief, it was not possible to change time through this, you would simply be taking part in and influencing events that already happened.”
“Why are you telling us this now?” The Ambassador sneered. “Do you know how many lives we could have saved with this information?”
“The Grove was not to be used for military purposes.” The Persphonar cut in. “We didn’t like it being used for personal purposes either, but, at Isengrod’s own orders millennia ago, the Grove is available for the use of any royal family members.”
“And…” Paulin shrugged. “We’re telling you now because it’s been destroyed.”
The Ambassador frowned. “In the explosion?”
“No.” Paulin shook his head. “By… By Ferguson and Amil. The leaders of the dark angels.”
Once more, the room exploded into uproar. Hesione felt sick to her stomach at the words. Paulin and Simon had been off fighting angels, sneaking into Nettingo, and she had been left on the sidelines. Like always.
“And how was it destroyed?” The Persphonar pressed, even as the shouting continued. “Did they simply burn it with fire? Did they tear up its roots?”
“No.” Paulin ground his teeth together. “They condensed it.” He paused. “They condensed it into a small sphere. Simon and I suspect that it may be an artifact capable of manipulating time itself. Neither of us know exactly its capabilities, but it exists. And they used it to escape.”
This time, the tent became deathly silent. The Persphonar stepped forward, up in front of Paulin.
“And how did this happen? How were they able to do such a thing?”
“They stole something from me.” Simon glanced at the ground. “I thought it was one thing. Guess it was something different altogether.”
“And how did they-”
“I don’t know!” Simon roared at the Persphonar. “I was trying to help! I was taking action, I was trying to stop Ferguson, and now I find out that I might have just given him all the power he needs to wreak havoc on the entire continent. I’ve thought about it ever since it happened, and I have no idea how he did what he did.”
“And what were you trying to do?” The Persphonar spun, zeroing in on Simon. “What exactly were you trying to accomplish? Were you trying to simply destroy Calsin, instead of torturing us? Were you planning on going back in time and ensuring that the angels succeeded instead of failing? Were you-”
“I was trying to make us mortal again!”
Even though Hesione had known that was their goal, she still felt a bit shocked. Everyone else in the tent seemed to feel the same way, and all conversation stopped. Simon took a deep breath and nodded.
“You heard me. The angels have caused too much destruction and death across all of Calsin. Across all of so many other realms. If I could have succeeded, you’d be able to kill us. We would lose our power.”
The Persphonar paused, licking his lips for a moment. “You were willing to die along with them?”
“Yes.” Isnita stepped forward. “We all were. And instead, Ferguson beat us to the punch. We need your help in stopping him. If we succeed, you have my word that we will break the curse. And, if we can at all do so, we’ll replant the grove.”
“It is destroyed.” The Persphonar turned away. “It will never be reborn, not as the same. Your penance, though, is acceptable.”
“Well, good for that.” Isnita muttered.
“Alright, then.” The king clapped his hands, bringing all attention back to himself. “We don’t know what Ferguson and Amil are up to. We don’t know if they’ve traveled into the past or into the future. It’s possible that they simply stayed in our own time. We need to discern-”
“Are we late?” The tent flap burst open behind Hesione, and she slid to the side as two more individuals stomped inside. One of them was immediately recognizable as Franclin, the Dragon Hunter that seemed to keep cropping up in their travels. This time, though, he wore a shining set of gold and silver armor that seemed more suited for display than actual combat. The other was a woman, nearly a full head taller than Franclin, who wore a set of spiked armor that seemed aqahartis in design. Franclin threw a burlap sack onto the ground next to the bonfire then stepped back. “I think you’ll want to check the contents of that.”
Paulin frowned. The two newcomers were Dragon Hunters, that much was obvious. He recognized Franclin, though something seemed off about the individual. The armor that he was wearing was honorific, given out by the king to aristocrats and land barons who did great works of service for the kingdom. Nothing that a Hunter would wear.
“What is this?” The king thundered, and Kisidera gripped his slowly-drying arm in fear. “How dare you disturb a meeting of the king?”
“How? It’s actually fairly easy.” Franclin shrugged and nodded at the sack. “Now, anyone here going to check that out?”
The king sighed and nodded at the Ambassador of Defense. The man glared at Paulin for a moment before stomping over to the sack and pulling it open. With a flourish, he dumped a pile of bones out onto the ground. Paulin frowned as the charred remains clattered down onto the grass. They had been burned quite severely, he didn’t see an ounce of flesh on them. And yet, the bones were well preserved, not missing much material at all. It had to have been a magical fire of some sort.
“I think that, if you examine that pile, you’ll find that they’re the bones of an angel.” Franclin crossed his arms. “Quite an interesting concept, considering they’re unkillable.”
The Persphonar narrowed his eyes and stepped forward, slowly raising an accusing finger towards Franclin. “There is something not right about you.”
“There’s something not right about a lot of us.” Franclin shrugged. “Now, does anyone feel like doing anything with this? I’m honestly curious. It was quite a detour to bring this here. And I didn’t want to, but Gills over here told me it was the right thing to do or something.”
The female Hunter elbowed Franclin in the side, and the Persphonar sneered.
“You are a Wraithguard.”
Paulin, along with everyone in the room who knew what such things were, drew back in horror. Paulin had heard stories of the Wraithguards, though he had never actually seen one. They were incredibly flexible when it came to strong moral stances, rarely did things with any sort of a purpose, and only answered to a mysterious god that they rarely revealed the identity of.
“So?” The Wraithguard, a specter inhabiting Franclin’s body, shrugged. “I’m here. When a soul as ancient as this guy’s decides to leave for the underworld, it turns a few heads. Thana managed to put two and two together, I double-checked with a few of my sources in Vorthis, and we came here. My good deed for the day.”
“Get out!” The Persphonar shrieked.
“Wait.” The king held up a hand, then sighed. “Do you know which angel this is?”
The Wraithguard shook its head. “Not a clue. We found it just south of Nettingo.”
The king nodded, then turned to Simon. “Is there any way you could confirm an identity based off bones?”
“Maybe.” Simon frowned and walked forward, kneeling down by the pile. He picked up the skull, running his fingers across the charred bone. After a few seconds, he shrugged and tossed it back to the ground. “If you want my professional opinion, this is Amil.”
The king frowned and nodded slowly. “Why do you think that?”
“He had a weird dent in his head. I used to give him crap for it. Some sort of birthmark.” Simon shrugged. “That skull has a dimple in the exact same spot. Not to mention the fact that we really don’t know what kind of power the new artifact possesses. There’s a solid chance that so much time energy can’t be contained in a single person.”
“You think that Ferguson used the sphere, and it killed Amil?” The king frowned. “Would it not have killed him, too? Why would it do this?”
“I don’t know.” Simon shrugged. “For all I know, I’m completely off-base. I’m just throwing out suggestions here. If anyone else feels like doing any work, I’m open.”
“When were these found?” Paulin spoke up.
A series of heads turned to face him. “What?” The Wraithguard frowned. “Does that matter?”
“Possibly.” Paulin shrugged. “So, when was it? When did this immense soul depart for the underworld?”
“Two weeks ago.” The Wraithguard frowned. “Why?”
As if in response, an enormous clap of thunder shook the tent. Only moments later, Sapphire burst in, soaked through and through. Paulin couldn’t help but notice that she was wearing mage robes, as if she was in training with them.
“Any more interruptions?” The king muttered. “You seem to have something urgent to say. Speak!”
Sapphire, flustered by the cold and apparently thrown off by his words, took a moment to gather herself. When she did, she took a deep breath and nodded at the king.
“The weather mages who have been monitoring the storm just picked up something odd. It looks like someone cast a spell that changed the wind direction. They’re working on combating it, but it appears to be a fairly powerful spell.”
The king seemed ready to burst. “And why is this of importance? We’re already drowning, does it matter which direction it comes from?”
Sapphire shrugged. “It’s blowing the storm back across the crater.” She paused while everyone’s eyes seemed to grow wider and wider. “We have about six hours before the first poisoned drops start to fall.”
The room exploded into chaos. Several of the aides simple dashed from the tent, racing off into the darkness. The king tried futilely to regain order, waving his hands and calling out instructions. Simon just closed his eyes and took a step back, letting his wings brush up against the wall of the tent.
He didn’t know what to do. That was the long answer and the short answer. It was the only thing he knew to say. He had messed up. He had built the strange device in his home realm, trusting the word of a specter-like supercomputer. And that device had led to Ferguson acquiring it, converting the Grove of Isengrod into an artifact, and stealing the artifact. Was it really a coincidence that Ferguson had been able to operate the device instantly? With the prospect of time travel in play, Simon had no doubt that Ferguson had received information from the past (or the future) and was using it to his advantage. Given the immense tactical advantage that time travel could provide, Simon knew that anyone fighting against Ferguson was sitting at an incalculable disadvantage.
Simon was also willing to place a great deal of money on the notion that Ferguson was behind the rain change. It was a brilliant move. Enemy troops would become panicked at the exact moment they started looking for him. It gave Ferguson a few extra hours, maybe even extra days, to complete whatever his plan was. If, indeed, he even had a plan. It was possible that Ferguson simply intended to bring about as much havoc and destruction as possible.
As people began to burst out of the tent, Simon sighed and stumbled after them. As he burst out into the pouring rain, the freezing liquid came down on him in a torrent of pain and ice. Everyone else simply lowered their heads and jogged towards their destinations. Simon ignored them and walked to the side, wandering between the rows of tents. When he had moved far enough away, he tilted his head back, letting the blisteringly cold rain hit him directly in the face.
“No!” He screamed into the sky, letting his lungs empty. Several soldiers jogged in his direction, only to catch a glimpse of him and turn away. Simon felt his energy leave him, and slowly fell to his knees, splashing into the mud. His wings dipped into the running water, his black leather grew soggy in the moisture.
“Simon?” A soft hand came down on his shoulder. He slowly looked up to see Isnita standing there, a small smile on her face. “What’s wrong?”
“Do I really need to provide a recap of everything that just happened?” Simon sighed and shook his head. “I’m a failure. That’s what I am.”
“No.” Isnita knelt down in the mud in front of him. “You went in to save the grove. You couldn’t have known that Amil and Ferguson would be there.”
“I did know that Ferguson was in there. That’s why I was in such a hurry.” Simon shrugged. “I never should have trusted that thing.”
Isnita frowned. “What thing?”
“Ask Mal later.” Simon shrugged. “I failed, and that’s that. I gave Ferguson the tools he needs to destroy… Everything.”
“Simon!” Isnita glared at him. “Snap out of this!”
“Why?” Simon slammed a fist into the mud. “What purpose would it serve?”
“We need your help.” Isnita sighed, then slowly held her wings over Simon’s head, lessening the torrential downpour. “We need you.”
“That’s what everyone always says.” Simon snorted. “Actually, no. People tell me to go away and shut up. They want nothing to do with me. And then we get in trouble, and people come up with motivational pep talks to get me to do the things that they can’t or won’t do, and then things like this happen.”
“Simon!” A third voice entered the conversation. Simon turned to see the female Dragon Hunter standing just a few feet away, her spiked armor looking quite intimidating in the rain. She whistled sharply, and the rain above her simply stopped falling, forming a ring about ten feet across. She crossed her arms and nodded at the clear space.
Simon slowly climbed to his feet, and he and Isnita stepped into the protected ring. Once out of the rain, it became clear just how cold the air had become, and he started shivering. Isnita did the same, and the Hunter sighed.
“And here I thought you were some great warrior. Wraithy keeps talking you up as one of the great slayers that sends him souls.”
Isnita snorted. “Wraithy?”
“It’s easier to say than Wraithguard.” The woman sighed and held out an armored hand. “Thana. Dragon Hunter.”
“Simon.” Simon held out a hand. “But you knew that, somehow.”
“I listen to people. She said your name when talking to you, so I simply assumed.” Thana shrugged. “Now, are you truly the warrior that the Wraithguard believes you to be?”
Simon shrugged. “I really haven’t killed that many people since coming here to Calsin.”
“I never said that you were the one who personally killed them.” Thana raised an eyebrow. “Look, I may know something that could help you. Do you want it or not?”
“Will I just screw it up again?” Simon snorted.
Isnita cut in. “Yes. Yes, he’d like it.”
“I thought so.” Thana smirked. “If nothing else, maybe you’d like to take a shot at this whole leadership thing.”
“Just talk.” Simon snapped. “We may not have much time. Pun intended.”
Thana shrugged. “Fine, then. The angels that escaped from the lake with Ferguson are camped about five miles south of here. Shortly after their escape, Ferguson left them and hasn’t been back to them since. They may be able to prove allies against Ferguson.”
Isnita’s eyes narrowed. “How would you know that?”
“Wraithy has magic that I neither understand nor care to understand.” Thana crossed her arms. “I just know what he tells me.”
Simon nodded slowly. “Then where is he now?”
“I think he’s investigating one of the physician mages.” Thana shrugged. “Something about unauthorized healing magic stolen from Vorthis. I honestly don’t know.”
“Good to know.” Simon sighed. Wheels were beginning to turn in his head once more. If Ferguson had truly been kicked out by the other angels, it gave him a possible, if unlikely, opportunity. “Five miles south?”
“That’s what I said.” Thana nodded. “Fly safe.”
“If I don’t, I’ll heal.” Simon smirked. After a moment, he sighed and nodded. “Safe travels to you as well, Hunter.”
Thana just smiled and whistled softly. In response, the rivers of water running across the ground exploded upward, forming small whitecaps that raced around the tents. Several surprised yelps erupted from the nearby area, and Thana sighed. She whistled again, causing the waves to die down, then whistled a third time. The small circle of protection vanished, allowing the rain to come pouring back down. Simon’s knees buckled at the sudden impact, and Thana turned and stalked away, her armor slicing through the rivers of liquid as if it wasn’t there. A moment later, a helmet unfolded and snapped around her head, sealing her off entirely.
“And Amil never believed me that dwarven enchanting was basically just a natural form of quantum engineering.” Simon sighed, then glanced at Isnita. She smiled back at him, a warm grin that almost seemed to lessen the chill of the air. “Want to go check out a dark angel camp with me?”
“Lead the way.” Isnita held up a hand.
Simon grinned, then flexed his wings and launched himself into the air. Isnita followed, and they blasted into the freezing sky. Rain buffeted their wings, trying to drive them back to the ground. Lighting cracked, thunder roared, the entire world seemed against them. Simon still didn’t have a clue how he was going to succeed, or if the brothers would have any interest in turning against their former master. But he knew he had to try.
Paulin took a deep breath as the room began to filter out. All the important aides vanished as their masters gave them notes and simply left. Simon charged from the tent, horror written across his face, while Isnita chased after him.
“We need to find Ferguson.” Paulin turned to the king, who appeared rather confused by the turn of events. “And we need to do it now.”
“Did you not hear Sapphire?” The king snapped. “We have six hours until the rain turns deadly. Anyone caught outside will be killed. I’ve already read reports of others who have been caught in its effects elsewhere.”
“I did.” Paulin spoke quickly. “Ferguson has an artifact that can alter time. If Amil died two weeks ago, it means that Ferguson can’t have gone far. He’s probably still in this area. He knew ahead of time that this is when he would be discovered, and manipulated the weather at the perfect time. He’s planning something, and we need to know what.”
The king drew himself up as the handful of remaining individuals, consisting of Mal, Kisidera, Hesione, Garnisic, Ondernifam, and the Ambassador of Defense, slowly gathered around him. “Would you truly send our people to die?”
“Yes.” Paulin nodded. “Ferguson represents a greater threat than even than angels. And look what we did to stop them.”
“We sold the kingdom.” The Ambassador snapped. “We-”
“We don’t have time for petty squabbling.” Paulin snapped back, then glanced around the tent. “Where did Sapphire go?”
A quick survey revealed that no one knew. Paulin sighed and ran his hands through his hair. The king raised an eyebrow, and Paulin nodded.
“With your excellency’s permission, I would suggest a course of action.”
“Speak.” The king nodded.
“We need more information on the rain, and we need more information on Ferguson.” Paulin nodded. “Hesione, Ondernifam, go find Sapphire. Speak with the mages here to find some sort of protection that our soldiers can wear. Even if it simply diverts the rain from striking them, it will be better than nothing. Have the healing mages prepare for an influx of wounded individuals, equip as many soldiers as possible, and prepared to have them disembark at a moment’s notice. Meanwhile, send out scouts. Send them in all direction, with the instructions to travel for three hours and then turn around. Equip all of them with the material to send light flares the moment that they discover anything.”
“And how will we see the flares in this rain?” The Ambassador snarled.
“Cognitive mages.” Paulin shrugged. “If this is going to work, we need to move now.”
The king glanced at the Ambassador. “Your thoughts?”
The Ambassador sighed and crossed his arms tightly. “I fear that my advice at this point may not be welcome. If you had listened to me in the past, we would not be in this situation.”
The king nodded shortly. “Speak. This is an order.”
The Ambassador sneered, then nodded. “We need to execute a retreat. Get out of here as fast as we can. The poison rain will slaughter us all, leaving no one to fight against Ferguson. Once the threat has dissipated, we can fix the issue.”
“And if he enacts any deadly plan in the meantime?” Paulin shot back.
“Given that he is dealing with time manipulation, he likely could have already killed us by going back in time and murdering us as children.” The Ambassador shook his head. “The fact that he has not done so means that there are limitations on whatever artifact he possesses. We should not destroy the last vestiges of our kingdom for the sake of haste.” He paused for a moment. “Elsinor stands on the brink of a great chasm. Move the wrong way, my king, and I suspect that we will suffer a complete and total collapse.”
“I fear you are right.” The king nodded slowly. He stroked his chin, then nodded. “Unfortunately, doing nothing is just as bad as making the wrong decision. Hesione, Ondernifam, you heard Paulin. Go. Ambassador, send out scouts now. We need to solve this issue as soon as possible.”
The Ambassador gave a simple, short nod and stomped out of the tent. Hesione and Ondernifam vanished as well, while the rest of them frowned and turned to him.
“What will the rest of us be doing?” Garnisic muttered.
“I think Garnisic needs to be in an enchanting forge.” Paulin nodded at the king. “His talents would be wasted anywhere else. Have myself and Mal prepped for battle. And… I think that’ll be everyone.”
The king frowned. “You would ride into battle when you will almost certainly not come back before the poison rain hits?”
“If we condemn our troops to death, I will be there to ride along with them.” Paulin shrugged. “And, with luck, the mages will come up with something to help us survive.”
“Wishful thinking.” The king sighed, but nodded. “Go. Be ready.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small scroll. “I already wrote this declaration giving you the use of the forge here. I… I can’t remember why, but it’s yours.”
“Thank you.” Garnisic took the scroll, nodded at Paulin, and ran back out into the rain. Mal started walking toward the tent flap, then paused.
“Go ahead.” Paulin nodded. “I’d like to speak to my father.”
Mal gave a short nod and stepped outside. The king turned back to Paulin, then took several steps closer to the roaring bonfire in the center of the tent.
“If we’re going to speak, I’m going to do so at a distance from the fire that actually keeps me warm.” The king chuckled, then sighed as Paulin stepped up next to him. “You really are good at these things, you know.”
“I had a great example.” Paulin flashed a small smile.
“No, you had a terrible example.” The king shook his head. “You had a king who grew complacent. We went a thousand years without war. A thousand years without change. I thought there was no way that could change in my reign. I was involved in affairs, allowed the High Families far too much lenience, and failed to handle the angel crisis with anything resembling a strong hand.”
Paulin raised an eyebrow. “Affairs? Plural?”
“Please, don’t make me think about it.” The king sighed. “When this is over, I shall be stepping down. It doesn’t matter how you examine the situation, I have failed time and time again. When the history books are written, I shall go down as the king who watched as thousands of his citizens were slaughtered, did nothing, and then entered into an alliance with the very people who were attacking us. It doesn’t matter how much of what I did was right or wrong, all that matters is the results.”
Paulin placed a hand on his father’s shoulder. “It’s not that bad. We still need strong leadership.”
“And we shall have it.” The king turned and looked into Paulin’s eyes. “Please, my son. If you refuse the throne, whatever is left of Elsinor will fall to pieces as other claims are put forth. I have no more legitimate children, but I suspect I may indeed have other heirs. If Hesione is discovered, she will likely be lynched in order to prevent a half-breed from taking the throne. If others are discovered… I shudder to think of the consequences.”
Paulin bit his lip. Ever since he had learned of Hesione, the question of other affairs and other children had indeed been high on his mind, but he hadn’t wanted to ask his father outright. Now he had the answer. And it was more than a bit terrifying.
“Let’s get through this current situation.” Paulin puffed out his cheeks. “I give me word that I will not refuse the call outright. If I need to take on the throne, I will do it with pride and honor.”
“That is all I ask.” The king flashed a small smile. “Now go out there and bring back whatever remains of the Grove of Isengrod. I expect you to be alive.”
“Of course, father.” Paulin turned and walked towards the exit. The air chilled considerably, turning deathly cold as he stepped through the flap into the rain. In a moment, his clothes were soaked all the way through, chilling him to the bone.
“There!” Mal walked through the water, leading a young armorer. “Suit him up!”
The young elven boy, with mottled black and golden skin, held the upper half of the suit of armor while Mal held the lower plates and the helmet. Paulin took the armor from the boy and began sliding it on, not at all enjoying the way his robes clung to his skin. Several painful minutes later, he was fully suited up, and the boy made a hasty retreat into a nearby tent.
With that, Paulin stomped through the mud, splashing the thick, sticky material up onto his glistening metal plates. Mal followed closely, a firm look on his face. As they reached the gate of the city, Paulin found dozens of soldiers already mounted and ready. The horses had been equipped with heavy armor, lances and maces glimmered in the rain. At their lead, the Ambassador sat on a large horse, towering well above them all. A stableboy ran through the rivers of liquid, leading a dappled mare that had been outfitted with a light leather armor. Paulin raised an eyebrow as the boy handed Paulin the reins before turning and running away again.
“I assume this was your doing?” Paulin led the horse next to the Ambassador’s horse and slowly mounted the beast. Paulin’s head barely came up to the Ambassador’s chest.
“I simply allotted resources in the manner I thought best.” The Ambassador sneered through the rain. “And now, we wait.”
Paulin glanced back at the fifty or so soldiers that sat in formation. “This is all we’re taking?”
“I’ve ordered everyone else to stay safe and out of the rain.” The Ambassador’s face was firm. “If people are going to die on this mission, I’d rather not sacrifice our whole army for the sake of one enemy.”
Paulin sighed and shook his head. “Where is the cognitive mage?”
“Right there.” The Ambassador nodded down at the gate. Paulin glanced to the side, where small shivering individual huddled under a small awning. “He will tell us if and when anyone is located.”
“Good.” Paulin smirked. “I look forward to-”
“I see them!” The mage’s hand snapped up. “Lights! Green-Yellow-Red!”
“Danger.” The Ambassador’s face changed. “Where?”
“That way!” The mage screamed. “Maybe half a mile out?”
“Then let’s go!” The Ambassador kicked at his horse. “Haw!”
Paulin urged his own horse onward, and together, the fifty riders exploded from the city gate. Almost immediately, several horses near the rear slipped as they ran down a virtual river that flowed from the city, sending both horse and rider tumbling. Paulin winced, but pushed forward, leaning over his mount as he raced into the distance.
It wasn’t long before they began to see the flashes of light in the night sky as well. The mage had been right, they were close. They seemed incredibly close to the main road that led out into the countryside, which was odd. But then, much about the situation seemed odd. Paulin drew his sword as they thundered down the road, tearing across the cobblestones in what he hoped was a quite impressive charge.
As they drew closer to the flashes of light, Paulin veered off the road, tearing into the trees. The soldiers followed, though several more wiped out as the horses slipped in the mud. Paulin swore as tree branches whipped across his vision, smacking against his helmet.
With one final crash, he suddenly and quite unexpectedly broke through into a large clearing. At the center, fifty feet away, stood Ferguson. At least, that’s who it had to be. He very nearly looked like a zombie, with loose flesh hanging from his limbs and bones showing through in several locations. His face was the worst, as one entire eye was missing, leaving a simple patch of bone.
The monstrosity held one of the elven scouts in his clutches, a knife held to his throat. As the soldiers thundered into view, he slit the elf’s throat, let the man drop to the ground, and slowly held up his hands. A greenish-blue lightning began to flicker off his fingertips, and Paulin pushed forward. He drew his sword and prepared to hack off the angel’s head. If they could force him to heal, they could lock him up and imprison him once again.
Paulin’s horse was only feet from Ferguson when pure green light washed outward from the angel’s hands. Paulin simply froze in place as the light poured over him, unable to move. The horse was in mid-leap, his sword was poised to strike. And yet, there he was, frozen. Though he couldn’t see them, he rather suspected that the same fate had befallen everyone else.
“Ahh, good of you to finally show up.” Ferguson flashed a half-grin. His voice was cracked and almost inaudible, likely from the fact that his neck hung in loose folds that seemed quite gangrenous. “To what do I owe this honor?”
After a few seconds, he laughed. “Oh, that’s right! You can’t talk. Oh, well.” He stalked forward. “My first kills. How exciting.”
Ferguson raised the knife in a skeletal hand and walked up to Paulin. He slowly reached up, placing the blade in one of the slits in the helmet. The knife was inches from Paulin’s eye, and he couldn’t do a thing about it.
With a dull splat, Mal flashed down out of the air, landing on Ferguson and driving him to the ground. The knife fell away, and Paulin felt himself reanimate. His horse lurched forward with the same momentum as before, ripping through the space that Ferguson had once occupied. The horses behind him did the same, as it took several movements to break the motion off.
Paulin quickly spun his horse in a circle and turned back to the center of the clearing. Mal and Ferguson were on the ground, punching each other in a brawl in the thick, sticky mud. Before Paulin could do much, more angels began to fall from the sky. Brothers, all of them, they landed in a circle around Ferguson, shaking the ground as they did so. Simon and Isnita came last, descending through the rain slowly and purposefully.
Paulin felt a grin split his face, and urged his horse onward. Slowly, the remaining elven soldiers rode forward and surrounded Ferguson. Swords, maces, and all other forms of weapons slowly leveled themselves at the decaying angel. Finally, Ferguson punched Mal to the side and slowly climbed to his feet.
The angel was a disgusting sight to look at. Mud had been packed into his rotting wounds, the rain seemed to be trying to strip away his very flesh. And yet, he stood there, tall and proud.
“You forget that I can see the future.” Ferguson slowly reached into his rotting robes and pulled out a small, glowing object. It was the Grove, or at least the condensed version. Only a few inches across, so beautiful and perfect. “And you fell right into my trap.”
With that, he vanished in a burst of light. Green spikes of energy erupted from his body, slashing out and through the crowd. They struck several of the elven soldiers and horses, spearing them and throwing them backwards. The Ambassador was among those struck, Paulin watched as the man simply flew from his horse. As the soldiers hit the ground, sending up sprays of mud, the entire day seemed to darken. Paulin frowned, then grimaced as an itch began to develop around his eyes. He sighed and flipped his visor open, allowing the rain to pour in. Which is when his entire face started to burn.
“Ahh!” One of the angels screamed and fell to his knees. Soon, the elven soldiers were screaming as well, while the horses bucked their riders off and went running off into the woods.
“Get back now!” Simon ran up to Paulin’s side, even as burns began to cover the angel’s face. “Go!”
“I can’t leave my men.” Paulin gasped even as his lips began to swell. “Please-”
“Go!” Simon slapped the rear of the horse that Paulin sat on. With a lurch, the beast tore off, charging back for the city.
Paulin’s mind screamed at him even as he fled the scene of the battle?
What had just happened? And how had Ferguson been able to win so easily?
Sapphire paced back and forth in Thomas’s office. The wizened old man frowned at her.
“What are you doing?”
“Trying to figure out how to help!” Sapphire almost screamed. “A year ago, I could have just stopped it from raining. Now I’m just useless except as a messenger.”
“You forget that you can regain the use of your powers.” Thomas crossed his arms. “Have you decided to forgo the pursuit of the Ring? I hate to say it, but that’s the exact opposite thing that the ring would want.”
“I know!” Sapphire took a deep breath. “So what do I have to do to earn it?”
“As I’ve already stated, you must place yourself in situations where you could not possibly expect to succeed.” Thomas sighed. “I know that’s easier said than done, but-”
“So I should just run outside and try to stop it?” Sapphire held up her hands. “Is that what I should do?”
“You’re anxious about your friends, and I understand that, but-”
“The weather mages are saying that the poison rain will be here within minutes.” Sapphire tapped her foot and glanced at the window. “If it’s not here now.”
A shout echoed up from the stairwell, and Sapphire spun to face the door. Thomas sighed, but Sapphire ignored him and raced out. Mages pounded down the stairs, muttering words about the poisoned rain and riders incoming. Sapphire felt her blood run cold. They were coming back, and they weren’t going to make it.
Without hesitating, she raced after the mages. Dozens of them pounded down the stairwell, though they all stopped as they drew up to the open door at the bottom. Sapphire pushed past them to the edge of the rain, where she could see out across the tent-filled city. She could just see the gate in the distance, though it was nearly invisible with the intensity of the rain.
She could also see the dozens of dead birds that lay scattered across the ground. Even as she watched, a falcon fell from the sky, landing with a splat in the mud. It twitched several times as it tried to rise before it simply died altogether.
“This has to stop.” Sapphire took a deep breath and drew on the magical field of Calsin. Several horses swept through the gates, staggering as they went, and she charged out into the rain.
Her skin began to burn as the first raindrop struck her. A moment later, her entire body was enflamed as the deadly rain poured down. Desperate, she called upon the magical field and thrust her hands up to the sky.
“Stop this!” She screamed. “Stop this rain!” Magic flickered from her fingertips, caused a few lightning bolts to leap through the air, but did little else. She swore under her breath.
“Come on, Hinchipol!” She muttered. “It’s now or never.”
As more riders swept in to the city and began dismounting and leaping through open tent flaps, Sapphire felt her legs give out underneath her. Her entire body felt like it was on fire, even her inner organs burned with pain. Darkness covered her vision, and even as she cried to the mysterious god for help, she felt herself carried away.
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