Sapphire’s eyes slowly flicked open. The world swirled around her, hazy streaks of color that blurred together, solidified, and blurred again. She could see strange shapes moving around her, but it was impossible to tell what they were.
“Sapphire?” A deep voice echoed in her ears, but it was so distant, as if someone was shouting to her from miles away. “Are you awake?”
The voice hurt her head, and she closed her eyes. When she opened them again, the streams of color had grown dark, forming banners of brown and black that twirled around her unceasingly. More noise could be heard now, shouts and screams, though once again it sounded as if the noises were coming from an impossible distance.
“What is this?” She muttered. “Am I dead?”
Nothing answered her, and she cast a mild healing spell centered on herself. Magic flooded her veins, and she fell into darkness once more.
The third time she opened her eyes, it felt like she was swimming through a river of tree sap. Her eyelids slid open only with tremendous effort, her limbs felt as though they were tied down. She As light flooded in, though, she found that she could see. A small miracle, perhaps, but an important one nonetheless.
She was lying on her back on a wooden table, that much was immediately obvious. Above her was only stone, with a bit of flickering torchlight on the ceiling to indicate that she wasn’t simply held in a cave. She groaned and tried to sit up, but found her muscles unequal to the task.
“Sapphire!” Thomas’s voice echoed through the room, and the wizened man quickly swept up next to her. “You’re awake.”
“Of course I am.” Sapphire snapped. “What have you done to me?”
“I’ve healed you.” Thomas sighed and turned slightly, gesturing with his head. A long, blue robe fluttered through the corner of Sapphire’s vision as someone else bustled away. “Or, at the least, I convinced the healing mages to keep you alive. It was a difficult argument, believe me.”
Sapphire spat. “And why is that?”
“There were a lot of people who were wounded by the poison rain.” Thomas shrugged. “The soldiers, and those who went out after them. You were the only person to simply run out and stand there until you dropped.”
“I was trying to save them.” Sapphire swore.
“No.” Thomas held up a finger. “You were trying to increase your own power. You were trying to make yourself worthy again.”
“Isn’t that what I’m supposed to do?” Sapphire screamed and drew upon the magical field. Tremors of energy flowed into her body, moving her limbs for her. She sat up and swung her legs off the side of the table, letting her see that she was in Thomas’s study. “Put myself in impossible situations?”
“Yes.” Thomas bowed his head. “I feel I should point out, though, that you were not doing anything of the kind.”
Sapphire sneered at him. “What do you mean? Stop the rain?”
“A trick that an elementary weather mage could accomplish.” Thomas snapped. “It is only difficult for you, as you are weak.”
“Then what do you expect me to do?” Sapphire jumped from the table. Fury swirled in her blood, causing streamers of magic to waft around her. Thomas’s face grew nervous as he backed up against a bookshelf. “What am I to do? Leap from the highest tower and pray that an artifact comes to save me? Enter a fight against a Dragon Hunter? Find a volcano and throw myself in?”
Thomas sighed and shook his head. “Oh, Sapphire.”
“Don’t you dare say that to me.” Sapphire’s voice shook. “I came to you for help.”
“You did not know why you came to me. When you first stepped through my doors, you knew not why you were here.” Thomas crossed his arms. “You have only accepted my help when you believe it to be beneficial to yourself.”
“Aren’t most of the artifacts centered around that sort of thing anyway?” Sapphire let a ball of fire form in her palm. “Power? Destruction? Leadership?”
“Yes.” Thomas glanced down at the fireball. “Please understand that, among the sorcerers I have served, you are hardly unique.” He took a deep breath and slowly took a step forward. “Every sorcerer I have pledged my life to has rejected me. And every last one of them has died. I don’t want you to end up the same.”
“Then tell me what to do.” Sapphire spat. “In plain words, tell me what I need to do.”
“Find yourself.” Thomas sighed. “Find your true desires. Find-”
Sapphire muttered a few curse words and swept past him, out into the hall. Magic continued to trail off her body, singeing the walls as she passed. She sneered at a passing mage and ran downward, towards the ground. She just wanted to get away from it all.
Maybe, once she was on her own, she would be able to find some true answers.
Paulin’s eyes slowly flicked open, and he swore softly as light poured down over him like a waterfall. Hands clasped his arms, slowly pulling him upright as the world swirled around him. He swung his legs over the side of whatever he was lying on as healing magic was trickled into his body.
“Prince Paulin.” A human mage, an elderly woman, knelt before him. “You are awake.”
“I am now.” Paulin frowned and glanced around. Dozens of other elves filled a large tent that seemed to blaze with light. And it wasn’t a magical light, it was… It was the sun, shining through the translucent fabric of the structure. “How long have I been out?”
“Three days.” The mage nodded, and two elven assistants behind Paulin turned away to other patients. “It stopped raining yesterday, this is the first time the sun has shown itself. Your brethren have been able to draw power from its light, which has aided in the healing process.”
“Of course.” Paulin sighed and rubbed his head, which pounded with a roundly horrific headache. “How many were killed?”
“That is not mine to say.” The mage sighed. “Your armor is under the table, if you’d like to suit up again.”
Paulin shook his head. “Do you have my official robes?”
“Of course.” The mage snapped his fingers, and the regal clothes leapt up into the air and sailed across the tent, landing firmly in the mage’s hands. She passed them to Paulin, who sighed and began to strip off the loose medical garment that he had been clothed in.
“I have to stop getting knocked out during battles.” Paulin sighed and slipped on his robes, grimacing at the mud stains that stood out quite prominently on parts of them. “Does horrible things to my image.”
The mage forced a smile. “Your image is impeccable, Prince Paulin.”
“Tell that to anyone who doesn’t want me here.” Paulin sighed. “Do you know where my father is?”
“The command tent, I believe.” The mage gestured vaguely to Paulin’s right. “Rumors state that he hasn’t shown himself since the night of the attack.”
“I’m not surprised.” Paulin took a deep breath. “Alright, then. Time to get to work.”
He turned and slowly walked through the tent, a bit unsteady on his legs. As he pushed through the flap out into the sunlight, he was nearly blinded by the intensity. At a glance, it was nearly high noon, though it was hard to know for certain. As his eyes adjusted, though, the smell hit him in full.
It was the smell of decay, the smell of a battlefield two days after a war. As his eyes adjusted, he glanced back and forth only to find desolation.
The grass was dead. The trees were dead. Piles of dead animals were heaped up between tents, while fire raged in the distance, sending up puffs of smoke. A handful of people glanced his way, but most roundly ignored him and simply plodded back and forth aimlessly.
Almost numbly, Paulin turned to his right and started walking through the tents. The ground was still soft, not yet hardened by the sun. As he reached a crossroads that allowed him to see out, through the gates, he could see a dead and decaying forest stretching as far as he could see. Elsewhere, a funeral horn blared, its mournful wails announcing the official passing of who-knew-how-many.
The voice was high and sharp, and he spun to see Kisidera rushing up to his side. She threw her arms around him, nearly knocking him to the ground. He stumbled backwards, gasping softly. She pulled away after a moment, and he shook his head.
“I fall asleep and the whole world falls apart, huh?”
“Oh, I’m so glad you’re safe.” Kisidera took a deep breath. “The mages haven’t let us see you since you were brought in. About half of the people in that tent walk out on their own feet, the others are all carried out.” She took a deep breath. “Thank you for walking.”
“Of course.” Paulin flashed a small smile, getting the distinct feeling that he was missing out on a great deal of details. “What can I do?”
“Come with me.” Kisidera began to pull on his sleeve. “Your father needs to speak with you, but…” She took a deep breath. “We need to talk to you first.”
“It still doesn’t work.” Ondernifam grumbled. “Your hammer is pathetic!”
“Yeah?” Garnisic tossed the hammer in his palm, then threw it across the room. It clattered to the ground, and he held up his palm. “Watch this.”
The hammer shuddered, then sprouted several crystalline legs and skittered back across the ground to Garnisic’s hand. They were absorbed as he picked it up, and he grinned. “How’s that?”
“Useless in battle!” Ondernifam roared. “Pathetic!”
“Can you please keep it down?” Hesione sighed from her chair. “My head hurts.”
Garnisic frowned and glared at the elf. Her head wouldn’t hurt so much if she hadn’t drank so much the night before. He opened his mouth to say so, then sighed.
They had been cooped up ever since the night of the attack. Paulin’s orders had only carried until he was knocked out of commission, and then it had been right back to not trusting the three companions. Garnisic had been able to sneak back into the enchanting forge a few times, but not with any amount of regularity. Now, the three of them were hiding in an old barn on the outskirts of the city. It wasn’t glorious, but it kept them out of the eyes of the soldiers who didn’t appreciate their presence. The barn had been abandoned a long time earlier, meaning no animals to contend with or people snooping around, and it was still airtight enough that the rain hadn’t been able to leak through.
“Hey guys!” Mal swung open the massive barn door and slid inside, slamming it shut the moment he was in. “Paulin’s up!”
Hesione sat up faster than Garnisic had seen her move in a long while, though it was accompanied by a soft groan. “Is he okay?”
“He was kissing Kisidera!” Mal grinned, then sighed. “So probably?”
“I see.” Hesione sighed and glanced back down at the ground. “Is she bringing him here?”
“Yep.” Mal nodded. “I told Simon, but he’s busy with the mages. So I guess it’ll just be us!”
“Great.” Hesione sighed and leaned back in her chair again. “Hopefully they get here soon.”
Garnisic sighed and tossed his hammer across the barn once again. It fell to the floor at Mal’s feet, who looked over and frowned at him. Garnisic shrugged and raised his hand, calling the weapon back. Mal’s face broke into a grin as the hammer sprouted legs and skittered back across the floor.
“No, it is not!” Ondernifam roared. “I am much cooler!”
“Really.” Garnisic dropped the hammer back onto his belt. “And where’s your weapon?”
“I need no weapon!”
“Yeah, I’m not so sure about that.” Garnisic sighed and nodded at Mal. “Thanks for letting us know.”
A moment later, the door swung open again, allowing Kisidera and Paulin to slip inside. Kisidera pulled the door shut, and Paulin blinked forcefully.
“Everything’s dead, and my friends are hiding in a barn.” He shook his head. “I should have just stayed asleep.”
“Well, we’re thankful you’re up and about.” Garnisic hopped to his feet and walked over to the elf. “We could really use your help.”
Paulin frowned. “That’s what Kisidera said, too. What’s going on?”
“Nothing good.” Hesione sighed as she stood up as well. “Are you going to be able to listen, or are you too busy making out with her to pay attention to what we have to say?”
Paulin frowned. “What?”
Mal snickered, and Kisidera’s hand tightened on Paulin’s arm. “What we do-”
“Please.” Paulin shook his head. “Another time? Just tell me what’s going on.”
“We don’t know.” Garnisic crossed his arms. “And that’s the problem.”
“Our father hasn’t been seen since the poisoned rain started.” Hesione took a deep breath and crossed her arms tightly. “The rumors are that he hasn’t left the command tent, but no one knows for sure. He could be dead for all we know.”
“Uh, huh.” Paulin nodded slowly. “And you’re hiding in a barn because…”
“The soldiers are kicking out anyone who isn’t necessary.” Hesione shrugged. “Us, mages, civilians. They’re either getting sent to other cities or just thrown out into the woods. We’ve been trying to stay hidden so we can keep an eye on things.”
Paulin nodded slowly. “And Sapphire?”
“No one has seen her, either.” Garnisic shook his head. “Not since the poison. I’ve checked all the towers I can get into, but no one knows anything.”
“Great.” Paulin closed his eyes for a brief moment. “What about the Ambassador of Defense? Is it too much to assume that he’s dead?”
“He’s alive.” Hesione nodded. “I’ve caught a glimpse or two of him, but he’s got so many guards around him it’s hard to tell what he’s up to.”
“Good to know.” Paulin closed his eyes. “So let me see if I’ve got this straight. Following the attack, my father hid himself away, and the elven army took a much more aggressive stance?”
“Pretty much.” Kisidera nodded. “We think-”
“The Ambassador has control over the kingdom now.” Paulin breathed. “Oh, that’s not good.”
Garnisic stroked his beard. That was an interesting revelation. “We all just thought that your father was snapping from all the stress and wanted to let you know before you went in.”
“Oh, I think it’s worse than that.” Paulin took a deep breath and closed his eyes. A moment later, he opened them. “If that’s true, things are going to fall apart very quickly. Where are the angels? Simon and Isnita?”
"Simon is with the resident realm mages.” Garnisic shrugged. “He’s trying to figure out what may have happened with Ferguson. Isnita and the other brothers are out searching. She’s summoned a handful of her drones across to help search, too, but we’re trying to be careful with those.”
“For obvious reasons.” Paulin nodded and took a deep breath. “Alright, then.” He flashed a small smile. “Time to meet the king.”
“And what should we do?” Kisidera grabbed his arm as he turned to leave. “We’re hiding in a barn. Come on, isn’t there something we can do to help?”
Paulin frowned and scratched his head for a moment. “Be ready to move. I need more information before I can format a proper battle plan.”
“Of course.” Kisidera nodded. “Good luck.”
Paulin nodded tightly, turned, and walked out of the barn. Garnisic sighed and walked back to his chair, plopping down on the wooden structure that could likely have collapsed under him at any time. “Told you.”
Kisidera pulled the door shut behind Paulin and sighed. “He’s under a lot of stress.”
“We all are.” Garnisic grabbed his hammer off his belt and threw it across the room in frustration. “I want to do something! I don’t want to just sit around waiting! If I wanted to do that I could go back to pub-hopping across the continent.”
“Then let’s do something.” Hesione climbed to her feet. “I’m sick of waiting on him, too.”
“You want to kiss your brother!” Ondernifam howled.
“Not the time.” Kisidera glared at him, then turned to Hesione. “You can’t be serious.”
“Oh, I am.” Hesione nodded forcefully. “Come on. We don’t need Paulin’s permission to take action.”
“Yes, we do.” Kisidera crossed her arms. She glanced back and forth at the group, and Hesione sighed and sat back down. “There’s nothing we can do. We just have to wait, hope, and pray that Paulin and the angels can sort this mess out.”
Paulin took a deep breath as he strode through the rows of tents. He regretted the decision almost immediately, as a wave of rotting stench flooded his nostrils, nearly causing him to vomit. After he had regained his composure, he made his way swiftly to the command tent, doing his best to breathe in short gasps.
As he approached the massive, banner-laden tent, two guards stepped forward, placing their hands on their swords. Paulin frowned at the sight. There were four soldiers stationed at the entrance, two on either side of the entrance flap. All of them met his gaze with hard stares, none of them so much as blinked.
“By the order of your prince, step aside.” Paulin bit out. “What kind of a game do you think this is?”
The soldiers didn’t move, didn’t make so much as a peep. A moment passed, and the tent flap burst open behind them, allowing the Ambassador to step through.
Paulin’s eyes narrowed at the sight of the man. He was no less imposing than before, though he now walked with a slight limp on his left side. In addition, several long streaks of pure white hair stood out among his golden locks. He stood tall, glaring down at Paulin.
“Let me in.” Paulin balled his fists. “I want to see my father.”
“By the order of the King of Elsinor, no one is authorized to enter this tent without my expressed permission.” The Ambassador sneered. “You’re lucky I didn’t kill you in the tent of healing.”
“And you’re lucky that I don’t charge you with treason just for saying things like that.” Paulin held the Ambassador’s gaze. “Do you have an edict from the King declaring your newfound power?”
The Ambassador’s face gave a slight twitch. In that twitch, Paulin noticed several streaks of age, a handful of wrinkles, crossing the man’s skin. Whatever Ferguson had hit the man with, it had done a strange type of damage.
“This is a low-priority dictation.” The Ambassador spat out after several moments. “I need no written edict.”
“Given that I outrank you, you do.” Paulin nodded. “Now, unless you’d like to formally violate Elsinor’s chain of command and execute me on the spot, I suggest that you step aside.”
The two guards turned their heads slightly, and Paulin walked forward. No one tried to stop him as he pushed through the tent flap and walked into the command center.
The bonfire that had once raged within the tent was now gone, replaced by a large command table. Several chairs had been set up around it, though only one seemed of any concern. The King, quite unsurprisingly, was tied to the far chair, gagged and restrained.
Paulin ran to his father’s side and began fumbling with the knots. The King’s eyes went wide, and he began to shake his head, but Paulin roundly ignored him. Armored boots echoed behind Paulin’s back, along with the distinct sound of a sword being pulled from its scabbard.
“Kill me if you must.” Paulin spat. “Strike me down, do whatever you like. You’ve committed treason, so you might as well make it worse.”
“You have no idea what-”
“Oh, I think I know exactly what happened here.” Paulin finished untying one of the king’s hands, then climbed to his feet and spun to face the Ambassador. The man glared down at him, but Paulin held his gaze. “The King issued a command that you didn’t like, so you took charge for yourself. We have a term for that, you know.”
“The King was going to ruin us all!” The Ambassador roared. “If you let him go free, you are spelling Elsinor’s doom.”
“Do tell.” Paulin didn’t flinch as the King slowly and shakily climbed to his feet. “Father? What do you have to say about this?” There was a slight pause, and Paulin turned. “Father?”
“If it were up to me, I would have this man executed on the spot.” The King wheezed. “I do not suspect, however, that he would allow me such a courtesy.”
“I would refuse to fall on my sword if it were so ordered, if that is what you mean.” The Ambassador dipped his head. “You are still wise in some manners, I suppose.”
“Would someone care to explain to me what led up to this?” Paulin glanced back and forth between the two of them. “Please? I’m really not enjoying trying to catch up on all of this.”
“I would gladly explain.” The Ambassador took a deep breath. “I simply ask one favor.”
Paulin put his hands behind his back. As far as he was concerned, the Ambassador was in no shape to offer favors. “And what would that be?”
“If you hear my words and judge my reason to be true, convince your father to follow my commands.” The Ambassador took a deep breath. “It is my job to protect Elsinor, even from the King. I believe Elsinor is in danger. And I think that the King will only drag us further down.”
“I don’t care how many realms he may or may not have had access to.” Simon ground his teeth together. “He had the time sphere. He vanished. Given past experiences, I think it’s a safe bet to reason that he traveled somewhere else in time.”
“Then perhaps you should be working with the historians.” The woman on the other side of the table looked down at Simon, peering over her moon-shaped facial tattoos that did not do her cheeks any favors. She was as large as she was tall, and with the brilliant red robes that she wore, she looked positively ridiculous. “And not wasting the precious time of the realm mages.”
“I’m aware that we need a historian.” Simon pointed down the table to the ancient and rather stunned wizard who still seemed in shock that his help was required. “But you two keep talking over him, which makes it hard to think!”
The woman took a step back, snorting softly. Her partner, a man who was equally fat and pompous, snorted even louder.
“We’ve been in this room for a day, people.” Simon turned and flapped his wings. “Can we please get something accomplished?”
“You are right, we have been here for a day.” The woman spoke up again. “And we have accomplished nothing. Perhaps this speaks to the pointlessness of the subject matter.”
At the far end of the room, an archmage reached for a small panel of enchantments, but Simon raised a finger to point at him. “Oh no, you don’t. Connect this to the main tower again and I will haunt you for eternity.”
The man took a step back, and Simon sighed. The moment that the rain had stopped, he had gathered together a team of experts to try and figure out what had happened to Ferguson. To make sure they would work together, he had lured them into one of the many flying buildings around the city and then made sure it wouldn’t land until they had figured something out.
“We don’t even know the properties of the artifact he was carrying.” The master dwarven enchanter leaned forward. He, at least, seemed intrigued by the possibilities of the magical object. “Do you think you would be able to speak more to its capabilities?”
Simon shrugged. “No idea. As far as we know, the time sphere is only capable of traveling through time, not altering it, but-”
“This ‘time sphere’ that you speak so callously of is known as the Grove of Isengrod.” A Persphonar stepped forward, long robes flowing from her shoulders. “It may be reduced to a seed, but it is still the Grove.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Simon waved his hand. “It’s now a tiny sphere that can travel through time, and ‘time sphere’ is easier to say than Grove of Isengrod.”
“You disrespect the most sacred Grove in-”
“Second-most sacred.” Simon sighed and slammed his fist into the table, then turned to the historian. “Forget about what the sphere can or can’t do. Are there any ancient sorcerers, warlords, or monsters that might fit Ferguson’s description? If so, what did he do and what happened to him?”
The wizard shrugged and gestured at a small pile of books in front of him. The volumes sprang open and skittered across the table, landing in front of Simon. “Here are the four possibilities that I’ve come up with. Valthisic, a sorcerer who wielded the Ring. He was an escaped slave who fought for human freedom in the Elven Empire back before the split. He would sometimes conjure wings for himself to become more terrifying to those he was fighting.”
“Pass.” Simon shook his head. “Ferguson wouldn’t have helped anyone. He would have tried to kill as many people as possible.”
“Lilith of the Desert.” The wizard nodded as the second book slid in front of Simon. “A woman from Notirot around the time of the vampiric wars. She was said to have wings and was reportedly unkillable. She led vampire legions into battle against the elven forces before being killed in an unknown manner towards the end of the war.”
Simon shook his head. “Ferguson is a male.”
“Malah has already proven that your species can change gender under the proper circumstances, correct?”
Simon sighed. “Just move on. Ferguson isn’t going to care about hiding his identity. Not if he’s long in the past.”
“Alright, then.” The book flopped out of the way as the third moved in. “Tesseroc. He was a dragon from the Scorched Lands who led a massive campaign against Istinis around the time of the Dwarven Civil War. Notably, he was small, no larger than an ordinary human, though wizened in years. Perhaps Ferguson became even more disfigured by the temporal leap and took on the guise of a dragon?”
“He wouldn’t be able to survive in the Scorched Lands without human magic.” Simon shook his head. “What’s the last option?”
“The longest stretch of all.” The final book leapt into place. “Hersigor, a merfolk warlord from about five hundred years ago. He was able to command magic far beyond what normal merfolk could do, and reportedly had great manta-like wings that let him swim through the water with great strokes.”
“Ferguson isn’t a merfolk.” Simon slammed his hand against the table a second time. “This is useless.”
“What if he went forward in time?” The Persphonar took a step forward. “A thousand years, or more? To a time when no one would remember him, and he could wreak havoc unhindered.”
Simon closed his eyes. It was, indeed, a possibility. By far the best possible outcome, as far as he was concerned, though one of the least likely.
Wings fluttered in the doorway, allowing Isnita to land in the entryway. Simon nodded at the group and took a deep breath. “When I get back, I expect a tangible theory that we can put to the test. I don’t care if it’s wacky, I want something.”
Isnita nodded shortly as he reached the doorway, and the two of them walked out onto the small balcony. There, Simon sighed and leaned against the railing, looking out across the city. They were floating over the southern border, orbiting the central tower at a height that would have been difficult to survive. Below, tents dotted the landscape like ants, with soldiers so tiny they were almost invisible. From this high, the dead forest stretched out for miles upon miles. Only a single sliver was green, far to the south, barely visible on the horizon.
“What’s new?” Simon took a deep breath. “Do I even want to ask?”
“Probably not.” Isnita shook her head and gave her wings a soft flap. She lowered her head, positioning her wings so that the mage in the doorway couldn’t see her face. When she spoke again, her voice was far softer. “Simon, we’ve got nothing. If he transported himself into the past, even only a year or two, he didn’t leave a single trace. We’ve been scanning people’s minds to see if they have any memory, we’ve been-”
“You can do that?” Simon raised an eyebrow.
“Of course.” Isnita frowned. “We can manipulate people, so we can read them at least a little bit.”
“I guess that makes sense.” Simon sighed. “I’m getting the same thing. If he went a long time back in history, he didn’t try to do anything major. He doesn’t show up anywhere in the books. He never tried to alter the timeline. I don’t get it.”
“Me, either.” Isnita puffed out her cheeks. “Simon?”
“Yeah?” Simon stared out at the horizon, trying to estimate how much life had been snuffed from existence. “What?”
“Come with me.” Isnita held out her hand. “And I don’t mean that in the deadly sense. Come with me.”
Simon turned and frowned. “What are you saying?”
“I’m saying that there’s no reason for us to stay here.” Isnita sighed. “We don’t know where Ferguson went, but it’s a guarantee that he’s going to keep trying to destroy this entire realm until he manages to succeed. Why don’t we just leave this place behind?”
“Because these Wondrisil, whatever they are, are the reason we’re like this.” Simon gestured at himself. “This realm holds the key to our own existence.”
“And without the Wondrisil, we would have died a long time ago.” Isnita countered. “But we’re alive. Hundreds of thousands of years later, we’re still alive. That has to count for something.”
“Billions of deaths.” Simon spat. “We’ve killed, we’ve pillaged, we’ve-”
“We don’t know what we did or didn’t do.” Isnita puffed out her cheeks. “All we have are ghosts. Ghosts of the past, ghosts that we once used to be. Whether or not we die today or in another million years won’t change that fact.”
“Maybe not.” Simon took a deep breath. “Then what about the people of this realm?”
“What about them?” Isnita shrugged. “You said it yourself. We trample over the people in our path. That’s who we are. We get out of here, and Ferguson is trapped. We never see him again.”
“And billions more people die.” Simon snapped. “The cycle ends here, Isnita. It has to.”
“So we sacrifice ourselves so other people can live?”
“Yes!” Simon thundered. Isnita took a step back and blinked several times, and Simon sighed. “That’s exactly what we have to. Not to regain our lost glory, whatever that may be, but to save lives. To save the lives of the people that we would otherwise murder, the people that we would simply ignore as they perished. The lives that haven’t even been born yet. Think of how many other angels might be brought into this world if we became fertile again.” Simon ran his hand through his hair. “Please.”
Isnita just shook her head. “You’re actually serious about this.”
“As we’re so fond of stating, we’re nearly two hundred thousand years old.” Simon took a step forward, driving her back a step. “I can remember the last five thousand years. I’ve seen the records for the last ten thousand. I’ve watched snapshots of the hundred and fifty thousand prior to that. Even though I can’t remember it all, I can tell you, with certainty, that no realm, no planet, no woman or man has ever made me feel the same way that this realm has.” Simon took a deep breath. “And believe me, I’ve been with a lot of women. Including you. And if you weren’t enough to-”
Isnita slapped him in the face, sending him staggering backwards a step. As his bones snapped back into place, she took a deep breath.
“I’m done with you, Simon.” She shook her head. “I’m going back to my home realm.”
“Tell Fortrina I said hello.” Simon gave a small wave. “I’ll just figure this out without you.”
He turned away, stalking back towards the group. As he stepped through the door, a diamond-hard hand flashed out, striking him in the chest and tossing him backwards. More arms wrapped around his arms, holding him tight. One of the drones stepped fully out onto the porch, an impassive look on her face.
“Oh, you’re not leaving me.” Isnita’s voice was soft. “I’m not stupid. If you break the curse here, you’ll break it everywhere. And I don’t want to die by accident just because you’re being an idiot.”
“Mal isn’t going to go along with this.” Simon took a deep breath. “And you know it.”
“Then I won’t tell him.” Isnita purred. “Now. Come with me.”
With that, she flapped her wings, launching up into the sky. The drones snapped Simon’s wings and tossed him from the platform, letting him plummet to the ground. As he fell, they dove after him, trailing light from their wings. He swore, only to slam into the wall an instant later. His body folded around the stone structure, bone snapping and body parts tearing. The world went dark, and he sighed mentally.
This was going to make life far more difficult. Not impossible, but difficult. He only hoped that he could find a way to escape before Ferguson found a way to destroy everything.
“So you think my father is the cause of Elsinor’s troubles?” Paulin raised an eyebrow. “You don’t blame the dark angels for turning Nettingo into a heap of slag? You don’t blame Isnita’s angels for killing so many millions of people? You don’t blame-”
“Blame is a finicky thing.” The Ambassador sighed. “And, as such, it is my responsibility to discern blame. If I attack the wrong person, I could start a war instead of ending it. And that is what I am trying to do.”
“Do tell.” The King wheezed. “Start from the beginning.”
“I would, but that’s tricky, as it involves time travel.” The Ambassador growled. “Your use of the Grove of Isengrod was unprofessional and foolhardy!”
“Perhaps so.” Paulin dipped his head. “I hardly see how that was my father’s fault.”
“Oh, you don’t?” The Ambassador sneered. “You don’t see how it might have been his fault that you fell in love with your half-sister?”
The temperature in the room seemed to cool by an extraordinary amount. Paulin took a deep breath. “There’s nothing to substantiate that claim.”
“All I would have to do is strip off her robes to reveal that she’s a calico.” The Ambassador hissed. “You should tell her to be more careful when she’s drinking. Or just in a military camp in general.”
“Fine.” The king held up his hands. “I didn’t handle the situation well. What does that prove?”
“It was the first of your foolhardy mistakes.” The Ambassador sneered. “Did it lead to the dark angels? I honestly don’t know. Maybe, maybe not. But I do know that selling the throne of Elsinor to the Apician Family was a bad idea. Subsequently allowing the ruling to stand and allowing the Families to all gather their own piece was a worse idea. Only my intervention saved us from a larger war.”
“Would you care to explain what that intervention was?” The King snapped. “I ordered letters to be sent to the Families declaring that we recognized their independence. There should not have been any harm come from that.”
Paulin sighed. “He didn’t send those letters.”
The king’s head snapped around. “What? You knew about this?”
“I only learned about it after he had already sent a second batch of letters.” Paulin crossed his arms. “And I’ll admit, I’m a bit curious about them, too.”
The Ambassador sneered. “I sent them all notices that they were being recognized, and told them what plots of land we had allotted for them, rather than allowing them to choose their own. However, I ensured that the plots were overlapping. They will spend years fighting amongst each other before we have to deal with them. By that time, they will be hated by the general populace and will fall back in line when the time comes.” The Ambassador leaned back. “And, though only days have passed, I’ve received word that conflicts are already springing up. I would count that as progress, wouldn’t you?”
“I would count that as treason.” The king sneered. “You job is to defend the throne, not betray it! There could have been peace! No bloodshed! I thought that would be a welcome change after the war we had just fought!”
“You are weak.” The Ambassador slammed a fist onto the table, then glanced at Paulin. “With an army from Sintison preparing for invasion, our civilians would have fled back to the Families for protection. Elsinor as we know it would have ceased to exist. Now, at least, we have a chance of focusing on this war and salvaging the country.” After a moment, he took a deep breath, as though preparing for the killing blow. “Of course, this would have all happened without the king’s knowledge. He would have simply led the country, unaware of who was responsible for his success. That is, until he decided to not only wipe us from the map, but drag our names through the mud for all eternity.”
“We need food.” The king leaned forward. “The poison rain killed all the crops, all the animals, all the trees, fruit, wild creatures, everything that wasn’t protected. The food stores are already being depleted. We need resources or this city will starve to death.”
“And there are plenty of elven cities from which you could have requested aid.” The Ambassador took a deep breath. “What you should not have done was requested food from the Therigan Family!”
“They have warehouses in this area.” The king kept his voice steady, although only just. “Food from other cities may not arrive in time.”
“That is a price we must pay.” The Ambassador’s armored gloves grated across the surface of the table. “If we give into the Families yet again, they will be able to overrun Elsinor once and for all.”
“At least people will survive!”
“Wait.” Paulin held up a finger. Both the king and the Ambassador turned to him, and he closed his eyes for a brief moment. “Let me see if I have this straight. The king asked for food from the Therigan Family, and you tied him up?”
“It could not be allowed.” The Ambassador shook his head. “My duty is to Elsinor. This would have destroyed everything I stand for.”
“If you overthrow the king, then everything you stand for will have already been burnt to the ground.” Paulin drew himself up, then sighed. “May I speak?”
“Yes.” Both the Ambassador and the king spoke, eliciting glares from both of them.
“First, I need to talk to you, Father.” Paulin turned to the king. “That… Was not smart. In this case, I have to agree with the Ambassador. If we become indebted to the Families yet again, they will rule Elsinor for certain. We should have sent word to other nearby cities, maybe Deldinglison. In the meantime, we accidentally reveal the location of the Therigan warehouses. If those who are starving pillage Therigan goods, we can hardly be held responsible.”
The king nodded slowly, and even the Ambassador perked up at the added idea. Before he could say a word, Paulin continued.
“However, the manner in which you behaved was irresponsible and unforgivable. Understandable, perhaps, but not in line with proper court behavior. Your sentence will be lessened given the gravity of the situation and the work you’ve done, but punishment must be dealt.”
The Ambassador crossed his arms. “What would you have me do?”
“Oversee the defense of Elsinor.” Paulin shrugged. “You say that armies from Sintison are massing, preparing to invade. Prevent that from happening. Go to the front lines and fight for the good of Elsinor. I will remain here to advise the king.”
The Ambassador turned to the king. “I will not go softly, if you choose to accept this path.”
“I think you will.” The king reached out and put a hand on Paulin’s shoulder. “This boy is better at this job than either of us. I hope you can see that. If you choose to resist, you may succeed for a time, but it will soon come to light what you’ve done. I suspect that when that happens, you will be lynched regardless of the virtue of your actions. Defend Elsinor from Sintison, and I will ensure that you are not forgotten.”
The Ambassador sighed and glanced down at the table. Paulin held his breath. The king was right, there was no possible way that the Ambassador would be able to get away completely free. Some aspect of his treachery would catch up with him.
Finally, after entirely too long, the Ambassador gave a short nod. “It will be as you have said.”
With that, he turned and marched from the tent, not bothering to await any more orders. The king breathed a sigh of relief and sank back into the chair, then glanced up at Paulin.
“Still think I’m not going to be the ruin of this kingdom?”
Paulin puffed out his cheeks. He didn’t know what to say. He had only woken up a few minutes earlier! It was all so confusing.
“What should I do now?” The king finally crossed his arms. “The Ambassador is on his way, the Families are fighting amongst each other, and we have food to feed the people. Or at least we will. What steps should we take next?”
“We need to find Ferguson.” Paulin answered quickly. The king frowned, and Paulin shrugged. “Once again, if we can’t stop him, it won’t really matter if Sintison invades us or not. We need to be cooperating with the angels and the search parties.”
“Another fact that the Ambassador wasn’t keen on.” The king sighed, then nodded. “You have my word. Take as many men as you need, assign them as you will. Stop him, whatever you do.”
“Of course.” Paulin turned to walk away, but was stopped by the king’s voice.
Paulin turned back, confused. “Yes?”
“You’ll need this.” The king slowly stood up and took off his crown. Grown from limestone in the shape of a flowering vine, it was a glorious piece of work. “Come, Paulin.”
Paulin shook his head. “I can’t be king.”
“Why not? You’re doing the job of one.” The king sighed. “Please. The Ambassador was right about a good many things. This is for the good of Elsinor.”
“No, it’s not.” Paulin crossed his arms. He took a deep breath as he pondered his life up until that moment. “I’m good with politics, and I know that much, but I’m not a politician. I enjoy running through the wilds, fighting monsters and venturing into the heart of a deadly city.” Paulin shrugged. “I would make a terrible king.”
The king forced a smile, then slowly placed the crown back on his own head. “Perhaps one day, that wanderlust will make you a truly great king.” After a few moments, he shrugged and slowly removed his signet ring. “At least take this. You will speak with authority. No one will dare question you.”
“That much, I can accept.” Paulin flashed a grin as he took the ring from his father. “I’ll take care of this.”
“I’m certain you will.” The king nodded. “Fight well, my son.”
Paulin bowed in answer, then turned and marched from the tent. He needed to find Simon and Isnita, he needed to regroup with the team, and he needed to end Ferguson’s threat quickly. And then, maybe if he was still alive, he would consider his father’s proposition.
“Oh, that hurts.” Simon groaned as his wing snapped back into its socket. He gave it a soft flap, then groaned again as his second wing popped back into place.
“I thought you were one of the best at this.” Isnita crossed her arms from outside the jail cell.
“I’m good at healing. Still hurts.” Simon glanced down pointedly at his stomach, which had a rather large spear thrust through hit. “Speaking of which, is there any chance you could pull this thing out?”
“And let you heal so you can just explode your way out of here? Not a chance.” Isnita shook her head. “Fortrina is opening a portal. We’ll be gone in a few minutes.”
Simon sighed and closed his eyes. They were in a dungeon deep beneath one of the towers. Isnita had used her mind magic on a guard, and that had been that. Two drones stood just next to Isnita, watching Simon with an intensity that he usually liked when it came from girls. “Fortrina? This all came from her, didn’t it?” Isnita but her lip, and Simon sighed. “Come on, Isnita. You’re better than that. She’s not, but you are.”
“I’m doing what I think is best.” Isnita sighed. “I thought I could get Malah back. That’s obviously not happening, which means that all of this was for nothing.”
“No, it’s not.” Simon shook his head. “You know that. Please tell me you know that.”
Isnita didn’t answer, and Simon sighed, closing his eyes once more. He had to get out. Sure, they had no idea where Ferguson was or if he was even still alive, but they had to keep trying. If they didn’t, the cycle would repeat. Again and again and again. And he would be none the wiser because he would just keep forgetting. A dull whir began to echo through the dungeon, and he opened his eyes to find a small point of light hovering just next to Isnita. She smiled and leaned forward.
“Hold on.” Simon took a deep breath. A single thought sprang into mind. A desperate one, perhaps, but one that had an ever-so-slight chance of working. “When was the last time someone kissed you?”
Isnita rolled her eyes. “Please tell me you’re not trying to make out with me. Get me hooked on your love or something?”
“Of course not. But…” Simon struggled against the spear in his stomach for a brief moment. “Come on. Fortrina isn’t going to let me kiss anyone once I get over there. She’s going to throw me in that lake for an eternity. We used to be a couple!” Simon frowned. “Please? The recordings show that I was with you for a long time. We were dating, possibly even married. Don’t you want to know why?”
A moment of hesitation flickered across Isnita’s face. “Relationships aren’t something we do over on the other side.”
“And that, believe me, is a great travesty.” Simon sighed. “Please? Just one kiss. Something to remember me by.”
“Hey!” Mal’s voice echoed through the dungeon, and Simon turned his head to see him stalking into the room. “What is this?”
“I’m trying to seduce Isnita!” Simon frowned. “It was working, too.”
“No it wasn’t.” Isnita’s voice was quick. She sighed and turned to Mal. “What is it?”
“I’m asking that question.” Mal balled his fists. “What are you doing here? What…” His eyes opened wide. “You’re leaving.”
“I’m taking you with me.” Isnita took a step forward. “It’s for you own good.”
Simon felt a smile flicker across his face. “Oh, you shouldn’t have said that.”
Mal crossed his arms and dropped to the ground closing his eyes and pouting. “You don’t get to tell me what my own good is!”
“Yes, I do!” Isnita snarled and walked forward. “I’m your older sister! We’re leaving this realm and we’re making sure no one else can ever harm us again!”
She grabbed Mal’s hair and turned, dragging him across the cobblestone. Mal screamed, but kept his eyes closed. Simon sighed and shook his head. Isnita had gone off the rails. Fortrina must have used some sort of mind magic on her, that was the only-”
With a rush, Mal opened his eyes, revealing brilliantly glowing pupils. Simon had a brief moment to yelp with glee before Mal simply exploded, sending brilliant and scalding light across the room. Bars melted into molten iron, Isnita and the two drones were flung backwards, and Simon was slammed roughly into the wall. His hands popped free of their restraints, and he yanked the spear from his body.
“Come on!” Mal yelled. “This way!”
Simon took a deep breath and flapped after him as Mal ran from the dungeon. Light pulsed behind him, but he didn’t look back.
He had a mission to complete. And he was going to do it no matter who stood in his way.
Fire. Death. War. Peace. Life. Flowers. Lava.
Sapphire’s eyes snapped open, only to find the ceiling of the secluded meditation chamber only inches from her face. Latent magic rushed away from her, and she fell back to the ground, gasping for breath.
Slowly, she took a deep breath and climbed back to her feet. After leaving Thomas, she had hidden herself away to meditate in one of the central towers. That was good, right? Except that she had subsequently fallen back asleep to be tormented by dreams of Nettingo falling into the flames, of people surviving within the flames even as their bodies were eaten away.
She shook her head. What had that meant? Had it been a simple dream? Or had it been something more?
“Sapphire!” The voice boomed through her mind, powerful and thunderous. She recognized it instantly, though it made her question if she was still dreaming.
“Sapphire!” The voice roared once more. “Get up and walk!”
Sapphire nodded and climbed to her feet, unlocked the door, and stepped out into the hallway. Without bothering to think about it, she began to walk down the circular hallway.
“Where should I go?”
The voice did not answer her. After a moment of thought, she closed her eyes and just… Walked.
After a moment, her arm rose of its own accord, pushing aside a door. Her feet took her down a set of stairs, out into the open. She kept her eyes closed, not trusting anything her eyes might show her.
The voice in her head shouted the words just as powerfully as her own voice belted it out. Her eyes snapped open to see magic pouring from her palms, into the ground. She was in a small courtyard, free from any command tents. Much more than that, she couldn’t tell, as magic began to rip open a hole in the ground.
“Stop!” A mage rushed from a nearby tower. “You’ll disturb them!”
A bolt of magical lightning leapt from Sapphire’s shoulder, striking the mage in the chest. He was thrown backwards into a mud puddle, where he climbed back to his feet and ran away.
The hole continued to grow, forming a well-like structure. As the magic finished whatever it was doing, Sapphire felt herself lifted into the air by the mysterious power. She hovered over the opening, then plummeted down.
Air swirled around her mage clothing as she raced for the bottom. With a rush, she fell through the top of a massive cave, landing in the exact center of an enormous, flat expanse. There, she took a deep breath as magic continued to swirl around her.
Behind her, though she couldn’t see it, she knew that she would find a staircase leading upwards, likely to one of the various mage towers. In front of her, a massive altar rose between two enormous gates that sat secured in the cave walls. The altar itself was ancient, decorated with crystal bones and skulls fashioned from hundreds of gemstones. As she stood there, though, magic lanced out from her body, striking against the stone again and again. With a crack, it split open powerfully, allowing life to pour forth.
“Oh, you’re so gullible.” The voice began to sneer, transforming from the deep voice into something much sharper and harsher. A skeletal hand reached out of the gap in the alter, allowing a horrendously twisted form to fall out and into the open. Ferguson slowly climbed to his feet and stretched out his wings, smiling powerfully.
The angel was almost unrecognizable. His flesh clung tightly to his bones, he appeared to simply be an animate skeleton. His wings held no more feathers, they were simply claw-like appendages hanging from his back.
“I’ll kill you.” Sapphire sneered.
“Oh, no.” Ferguson held up a hand, causing blue streamers of magic to leap from her skin and stretch across the gap between them. “I’m going to rise back to power. I’m going to drain this world of all life. And then I’m going to erase its entire history.” He held up his second hand, causing a greenish sphere only inches across to rise from the alter as well. It hovered just above his palm, and Sapphire felt fear pour through her body. The Grove. Or what was left of it. “And I’m starting with you.”
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