Sapphire slowly looked up from where she lay on the floor of the cave. Above, she could see the hole leading up to the surface, with the moon shining down peacefully. Of course, just next to the moon was a pair of wings, spread out, blocking out the stars. Sapphire took a deep breath as the shadow descended slowly, flapping down through the improperly-dug well.
As the angel dropped through the ceiling of the cave, Sapphire felt her chest constrict. It was Mal! Though… Not the Mal she remembered. Scars covered his body, streaks of age intertwined with his dark hair. As he landed, Sapphire couldn’t help but think that he looked much like Ferguson, though less gross. Was that just what using the time sphere did to people?
“Mal!” Simon flung himself at the younger angel, wrapping his arms around him. “You’re alive!”
“That’s what people keep telling me.” Mal hugged Simon back, then slowly stepped away. He raised his hand and fired a burst of healing energy into Sapphire’s leg, setting the bone and allowing her to climb to her feet again.
As Sapphire stood up, she couldn’t help but notice that Mal wasn’t looking at her the same way that he used to. It was a look with an odd sense of curiosity, one that she couldn’t quite place.
“Mal?” She spoke up. “Is everything okay? What happened?”
“I…” When Mal spoke, his voice was deeper, as if scarred. “I’m so sorry.”
“Did Ferguson get the time sphere?” Simon spoke quickly. “Are we just living in a dream state because he collapsed reality into-”
“Simon.” Mal took a deep breath. He just sounded exhausted. “No. Ferguson is dead. I have the time sphere right here. Along with the technology we need to undo the curse.” He patted a small pouch hanging on his side. “But…” He bit his lip. “It’s been so long. I don’t…” He took a deep breath. “I don’t remember you. Any of you.”
“Then how did you know my name?” Simon frowned.
“Hesione and Paulin updated me.” Mal took a deep breath. “I’m sorry. I just… This is confusing. I’ve been looking forward to this day for ten thousand years, and… And now I don’t know what to do.”
Sapphire felt her heart snap in two. Her Mal, her precious Mal, didn’t remember who she was. Slowly, she took a deep breath and gestured upward.
“There’s a pub on the far side of town.” She forced a smile. “How about we have a drink? And you can get to know us again.”
A brief smile flickered across Mal’s face. For the first time in a long time, Sapphire felt a true warmth in her heart.
“Yeah. Yeah, I’d like that a lot.”
“So he just crumbled to dust?” Simon raised an eyebrow. “Just like that?”
“Just like that.” Mal nodded. “It just seemed like the right thing to do, and it looks like it worked!”
“Good.” Simon nodded forcefully. “It’s about time that guy got what he deserved.”
Mal snickered while Sapphire and Isnita rolled their eyes, and Simon sighed. He leaned back as Isnita and Sapphire began to recap everything that had happened. Meanwhile, Simon just closed his eyes.
It was over. Somehow, he had imagined that it never would be. They had the time sphere, they had the Wondrisil scanning device. They could end it. They could return to a mortal life.
“Hey!” The door to the bar burst open, allowing Paulin, Hesione, and Kisidera to rush in. Garnisic and Ondernifam were right behind, eliciting several yelps of protest from the bartender. Frankly, Simon couldn’t blame him. It was well after midnight, and with Paulin being the prince, there wasn’t a lot he could do to kick them out.
“I’ll order more drinks.” Simon nodded to the group, who more or less ignored him, and climbed to his feet. As everyone piled into and around the booth, he walked up to the bartender, a high elven man, and leaned against the counter.
“What’ll it be?” The bartender sighed. “I suppose with the prince here you’ll be wanting a discount?”
“Food is short these days.” Simon puffed out his cheeks and reached into his pocket. He withdrew a large handful of gold and tossed it onto the counter. “You’ll need it more than I will, I suspect.”
The bartender’s eyes opened wide. “You’d give me all of that?”
“You’ll need it to pay off the drunks once your malt supply runs out.” Simon rapped his knucles against the counter uneasily. “And… I don’t know. I’m not sure I’ll be able to use it for much longer.”
The bartender frowned. “I thought you angel types were immortal?”
“With luck, not for much longer.” Simon shrugged. After a moment, he started running his finger across the surface of the wood. “Have you ever needed to do something, you know that it’s the right thing to do, but you’re afraid that if you do it you’ll regret the consequences?”
“Such as making your entire race mortal again?” The bartender raised an eyebrow. “Is that what I’m hearing you say?”
Simon shrugged. “More or less, yeah.” He took a deep breath. “I’ve never had to worry about death before. At least not in working memory. I’ve never had…” He turned and gestured vaguely at the table where everyone sat laughing and talking. “I’ve never had this before. Everyone I was around was immortal, too. Now I’ll have to risk dying, and everyone around me will be risking death. Funerals will become a thing I have to go to, I-”
“Let me stop you right there.” The bartender frowned. “Do you mind if I tell you a story?”
“Go for it.” Simon sighed. “But unless you’ve ever been immortal before, I’m not sure how you’ll help.”
“I’ve never been immortal, true.” The bartender shrugged. “But I was single, once. I was a fresh bachelor, straight out of the academy, with my whole future ahead of me. As many women as I wanted, humans love it when elves show them even the barest amounts of attention. And then I met this cute dark elf girl. We hit it off, and before long, I found myself falling for her.”
Simon winced. “Sounds awful.”
“At the time, I thought it was.” The bartender shrugged. “I was terrified of being tied down. I was terrified that my family wouldn’t like the idea of me marrying a dark elf. I was terrified of having to work full-time to support children.”
Simon flashed a small smile. “Let me guess. It turned out amazing?”
“More than you could ever imagine.” The bartender smiled. “Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t easy. My parents hated her, and despised our children. They cut me off from my inheritance, as did her own parents. Twenty years and four kids later, she wound up dying in a small Blight breakout in the area.” The bartender leaned forward, a small tear beading in his eye. “And you know what? I wouldn’t change a single day of it. Yes, life is full of loss, but it’s also full of hope. And unless you expose yourself to that loss, you’ll never experience anything resembling that hope.”
Simon took a deep breath and nodded slowly. “Thanks.”
“Anything.” The bartender scooped the pile of gold off the counter. “I’ll have the drinks over in just a moment.”
Simon flashed a smile in return, then turned and walked back to the table. Kisidera slid to the side while Simon settled in between as Mal finished telling the whole story yet again. As he finished and the bartender showed up with a tray of ale, Paulin took a deep breath.
“So… What now?” He leaned forward. “You guys get to break your curse?”
Isnita glanced at Simon, a nervous look on her face. Even Mal seemed a bit nervous at the mention. Slowly, Simon took a deep breath and nodded firmly.
“Yes.” He squared his shoulders and glanced at the bartender, who nodded softly. “Yeah, we do.”
“Bring forth the sphere!”
Sapphire took a deep breath as Simon called out instructions. All around her, angels shifted nervously as Mal slowly walked down the pathway, sphere held in his left hand. Slowly, he marched into the center of the massive circle, placing the sphere on a tree stump in the exact center of the clearing.
All around them, dead tree limbs rustled as a hollow, crisp wing blew through the area. They were just outside of the city, in a large clearing seemingly used by the wizards for various rituals. Every single angel that they knew of was there, standing around the outer edges, next to the trees. Fortrina, the commander from their home realm, along with all her sentient followers. All the brothers, minus Ferguson and Amil. Overhead floated dozens of the drones, every last one that they could summon. Intermixed with the angels were the rest of the group, including a bored-looking Ondernifam and nervous-looking Garnisic. In the exact center stood Simon, and now Mal, solemn-faced.
“Bring forth the scanner.” Simon called out. In response, Isnita stepped forward, holding the odd device in her palm. She swept across the forest floor with grace, slowly placing it on the stump next to the time sphere.
“Bring forth the book.”
A persphonar, one of the few non-angels in attendance, slowly walked forward with a massive tome. It was a Wondrisil text, one of the few in existence at the wizarding location. Its pages bounced powerfully but were held shut by the Persphonar’s experienced hands. As the Persphonar arrived at the stump, he simply held it, not confident enough to set it down.
“We stand here, today, a changed people.” Simon took a deep breath. “Nearly two hundred thousand years ago, our world was cursed. Since that time, we have committed atrocities that I can only imagine. Most people in this world hate every aspect of our existence. I can only imagine that most people in other worlds feel the same way. There is no possible way we can atone for those deaths, all the destruction that has come at our hands.” Simon paused for a brief moment. “But we can choose to start anew. We can choose to set aside this pitiful scrap of existence that we live right now, and we can choose to become something that actually helps society. We can make the angels into another pillar of Calsin, another species that lives among their people in harmony. It won’t be easy, but I think it’s worth it.”
When he finished speaking, there was only silence. Simon turned slowly, meeting the eyes of everyone in the area. Sapphire held her breath, afraid of what might come next.
“I recognize that I may not be speaking for everyone here. This is a massive decision that will affect everyone in our species. If there are any who are not here today, their curse will be broken along with our own. Thus, I ask of you. All of you. Is there any who would speak out against this action? Are there any here who would seek to cling to immortality and the countless deaths that it gives, or will you be willing to step back into the mortal realm with me?”
All around, the angels just scuffed their feet. Sapphire couldn’t blame their hesitation, really. It was a massive step, one that would radically alter their lives. Slowly, as no one stepped forward, Simon nodded.
“Then it’s settled.” He reached down and picked up the Wondrisil device. “When our world perished, it did so at the hands of the Wondrisil. Now, we can use the Grove of Isengrod combined with a Wondrisil book to undo that curse.” The device snapped into his palm, and Simon took a deep breath. “Here goes nothing.”
Slowly, Simon raised the device up to the Wondrisil book. Strange lights began to pulse from his palm over the book, causing the pages to emit a strange howl. Simon grimaced, but plowed forward. Sapphire held her breath as the lights continued to strobe and pulse, doing whatever strange work they did.
With a click, the device died. Simon frowned and shook his hand before placing his palm back over top of the Wondrisil book. Once more, the lights began to flash and pulse, only to have the device turn off with a click. Simon frowned, then turned to Mal and Isnita. Together, the three of them began speaking in hushed tones, though Sapphire wasn’t sure what they were saying.
Without warning, a strange sense came over Sapphire. She took a deep breath as magic filled her limbs and a voice began to echo in her head.
“You can do it.”
“Stop it.” Sapphire closed her eyes. “I’m not falling for your tricks again!”
This was bad. Ferguson was alive, he was manipulating her again, and-
“Sapphire.” The voice echoed, more firm. “You can do it. Take your stand, or never stand again. The choice is yours.”
With that, Sapphire’s eyes snapped back open again. She felt like she was floating on air as she slowly took a step out into the middle of the circle. She took a second step, then a third. Magic continued to swirl around her body as she slowly approached the center stump. Simon turned and frowned at her as she approached.
“Sapphire? This is angel business, so…”
Instructions formed in Sapphire’s mind. She raised her hand, calling the sphere to her palm. It leapt off the stump, smacking against her skin. Simon’s eyes went wide, and he spoke quickly.
“Sapphire? Listen to me. This isn’t you. Ferguson is still alive somehow, he’s using you, and-”
“No.” Sapphire shook her head, a bit surprised at the fact that her voice echoed quite nicely around the clearing. “This isn’t Ferguson. And I’m not going to be used like that.” Her eyes narrowed. “Never again. And neither will you.”
With one final burst, her body seemed to transform into a conduit for magic. Her robes transformed into a stunning blue dress, a staff topped with a glowing blue crystal appeared in her free hand. The sphere rose up in front of her, and she pointed the staff directly at the Wondrisil book. The Persphonar’s eyes went wide, but he said nothing.
Sapphire didn’t even have to say a word. Magic erupted from the tip of the staff, pulsing into the book. The streams of energy then arced backward into the staff and back into her body. More magic pulsed from her free hand, streaming out of her fingertips and into the strange crystal ball. Something began to swirl beneath the surface, and Sapphire smiled.
“Be free of your curse.”
With a snap, the sphere dropped as the magic left her body. The staff vanished in a pop, transforming into a simple ring with a blue gemstone upon her right hand. The Wondrisil book, conversely, burst into flames and vanished in a puff of smoke. Slowly, the clearing settled, and Sapphire took a deep breath.
“What did you do?” Simon spoke slowly. “Did… Are we…”
A trill of laughter trickled down from above. One by one, the drones swooped down and landed in the forest clearing. Their faces were no longer blank, instead, they were mixed between confusion and joy. Several of them began to dance joyfully, while Sapphire simply looked on in wonder. The angels from the sides all began to glance down at their bodies, a bit uncertain of what to do next.
“Hey!” Simon held up his hands, which began to cycle through a rainbow of colors faster than Sapphire’s eyes could track. “It worked!”
With a flash, his wings turned white, then back. His whole body suddenly collapsed in on itself, transforming into a small bird that bounced up onto the stump and gave a loud chirp. With a pop, he transformed back into his ordinary body, then glanced sideways at Isnita, who seemed in awe.
“And… For the finale…” Simon snapped his fingers and transformed into a spitting image of Isnita. His black leather was replaced by white silk, his hair fell down his back in spiraling locks, his eyes were as blue as the sky. He began patting himself down, a strange grin rising on his face. Isnita turned to glance at him, only to frown in disapproval as he began to laugh.
“You had better give me my body back right this instant.”
Simon transformed back into his male self, then flapped his wings and shot up into the air. Isnita screamed after him.
“And where do you think you’re going?”
“Somewhere private!” Simon yelled back. “A stable! An inn! Really doesn’t matter as far as I’m concerned!”
With that, he did a flip and vanished over the treetops. Isnita stretched out her wings as if to follow him, then sighed and stopped. Sapphire chucked as she began to practice transformations as well, making her wings grow longer and shorter and turning her whole body into wood.
Sapphire took a deep breath as the angels continued to celebrate. Suddenly, she noticed that one particular angel was standing very still. On the other side of the stump, Mal was just standing there, an odd look on his face. Sapphire slowly pushed through the crowd, up to his side.
“Hey.” She put a hand on his arm. “It’s okay. It’s all over now.”
Mal turned to her and forced a smile. “Yeah. Yeah, I know.”
“So what’s wrong?” Sapphire puffed out her cheeks. “What’s the matter?”
“I don’t know.” Mal crossed his arms. Once again, Sapphire couldn’t help but notice the strange scars that seemed to cover his body. “Everyone seems to be treating this like it’s the end of some great big quest we’ve been on. And I guess it is, to a point. But it’s an end, it’s a new beginning. Whatever.” Mal took a deep breath. “My memory is so scrambled that I don’t even know what I used to be. I don’t know what I want to be. I don’t remember you, I don’t remember Hesione or Paulin or Ondi or Garn.” He shrugged. “I don’t remember anyone. I know you want me to come with you, but I don’t know if I want to. But I also don’t want to say that to you, because I don’t want to hurt you or anything. Does that make sense?”
Sapphire forced a smile. “Yeah. Yeah, it does.” She held out her arms. “Is it acceptable for a mother to hug her son, even if they’re not actually related and the son doesn’t remember her?”
Mal grinned. “Yeah, I think so.”
Sapphire stepped forward and drew Mal into an embrace. She pulled away, she nodded firmly.
“You need to be whoever you need to be. Whoever you are.” She shrugged. “Maybe that means you don’t stay with me. Maybe that means you go off with Simon or Isnita or the other angels. Who knows?” She shrugged. “That’s up to you. It really, truly is. Just know that no matter where you go or what you do, you’ll always have a home wherever I am.”
Mal sighed. “Thanks, mom.”
“I love you, Mal.” Sapphire felt a tear rising in her eyes. “I love you so much.”
Mal smiled, a boyish grin standing out on his face. “I love you, too.”
“We’re going to miss you.” Paulin held out his hand. “We really will.”
“The feeling is mutual, believe me.” Simon met the elf’s gaze, an odd sense of leadership in the boy’s eyes. “Someday, when the angels have a proper nation, I’ll make sure that we count Elsinor as our allies.”
“There may not be an Elsinor left by the time that happens.” The king sighed nearby. “But the sentiment is appreciated.”
Paulin nodded and swallowed a strange lump in his throat. The group stood in the command tent. Everyone was there, Hesione, Kisidera, the king, Garnisic, Ondernifam, Hesione, Sapphire, Mal, Simon, Isnita, and Fortrina. Mal and Sapphire stood close to each other, tears in their eyes. Everyone else simply seemed reserved and sad, though with faint trails of happiness spread across their faces as well.
“Where are you headed?” Paulin spoke up after a few moments of silence. “Do you have any major plans?”
Simon nodded. “We’re all going to stick together, at least for now.” He shrugged. “We’re still getting the hang of our new powers, and I think it’ll be good to stay in one location at least for a few years. After that… Who knows?”
“Indeed.” Isnita smiled. “We were thinking about checking out Sournous. It doesn’t have much development, we could build a fortress in the jungle away from people.”
The king frowned. “Don’t forget, you’re mortal now. There’s a good reason that Sournous hasn’t been developed the way that other countries have been.”
“Then do you have another suggestion?” Isnita raised her eyebrows.
“I do.” The king reached into his pocket and pulled out a small envelope, stamped with a wax seal. “Take this to the Lord Commander of Istinis. We have good diplomatic relations with them. They have a handful of fortresses that they keep on hand for refugees like yourself. That should allow you some time to train, reach out to other surrounding monarchs, and try to find your place in the world.”
“Thank you.” Isnita accepted the letter and tucked it into a pocket of her dress. “I can’t tell you how much we appreciate it.”
“Of course.” The king flashed a smile. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll leave you to say your goodbyes.”
With that, the king turned and walked from the tent. Paulin took a deep breath and stepped forward.
“Goodbye, Simon, Isnita.” Paulin nodded at the two angels, then turned to Mal. “And goodbye, Mal. It’s not going to be the same without you.”
“Seems like just yesterday that he was torn from the underworld!” Ondernifam roared.
“I rose from the underworld, I just needed some help.” Mal held up a finger.
“You don’t even remember that.” Sapphire scoffed.
“No, but it sounds like something I would do.” Mal shot back, then grinned.
Mal and Sapphire hugged, then Mal slowly went around and hugged every other member of the group, even Kisidera. Which in a way made sense, since Mal had no idea who was and wasn’t part of things anymore. With that, he stepped back to join the other angels.
Slowly, the four of them turned and walked back out of the tent. The flap fell shut, and a powerful, roaring wind shook the tent as several hundred angels all took flight. As the sounds of their flapping fell quiet in the distance, Hesione sighed.
“Well, then.” She wiped her eyes. “What now, exactly?”
Every eye in the room slowly turned to look at Paulin. He shrugged and crossed his arms. “What are you all looking at me for?” He frowned. “I’m not your leader.”
“Maybe not.” Hesione took a deep breath. “But… You’re good at it.”
Paulin closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them again, he shrugged. “Now that all that’s over, what do you want to do?”
Sapphire glanced down at her ring, then shrugged. “I need more training. Better training. I’d like to stay here, with Thomas, if that’s okay.”
Paulin frowned slightly. Thomas… That was the aging realm mage, right? The one that everyone thought was insane?
“He’s dead, Sapphire.” Paulin bowed his head. “He died last night. Everyone was talking about it this morning, but… I guess you didn’t hear.”
“Oh.” Sapphire bit her lip, then shrugged. “Then I guess I can go anywhere, as long as there’s danger to fight.”
“I would like to go where there is danger also!” Ondernifam roared.
Garnisic scuffed his feet, then sighed. “The Fond’sar want to kill me. I’m better off staying with you people than anywhere else.”
“I honestly don’t know what I want to do.” Hesione shrugged after a few more moments. “I spent so much time running from you and then chasing after you that… I don’t know what to do, now.”
Kisidera leaned against Paulin’s side. “I just want to be with you, wherever you are.”
Paulin nodded softly. “Well… For the moment, at least, I’m stuck here. The angels might have everything solved, but the kingdom is falling apart.” He sighed and lowered his voice. “And I’m not convinced that my father is the best suited for his position. If Elsinor collapses, thousands more people could die in the ensuing wars. I have to stay and help prevent that.”
“My son!” The king burst back into the tent, fear in his eyes. “You must leave! Now!”
Paulin frowned and crossed his arms. “And why is that?”
“We just received a message from the Ambassador of Defense.” The king shakily pulled a letter from his robes. “Sintison troops have crossed into Elsinor. The Ambassador is trying to hold them back, but he doesn’t think that his lines will hold for long. Much of the damage had already been done before he could arrive.”
Paulin closed his eyes. “How many soldiers are stationed here?”
“Not enough.” The king walked up to Paulin and pulled the signet ring from his finger. “And those that are here are hungry and ready to mutiny at a single word. You must go.”
“I can’t leave Elsinor at her time of need.” Paulin took a deep breath and forced himself upright. “I have to stay. I can help.”
“As the king of Elsinor, I formally depose you.” The king pointed his ring at Paulin. Lights pulsed from under the small gemstone, and Paulin groaned. “I relinquish your status as prince. I cast you out into the wilderness, doomed to wander for all eternity.” The light finished flickering, and the king nodded. “There. You’ve been exiled. No officials of Elsinor will take any orders from you. Now go!”
Paulin shook his head. “You can’t just-”
“Paulin.” Hesione put a hand on Paulin’s arm. “You heard what Mal told us. You are not destined to become king. You have another path.” She forced a smile. “Maybe this is how you get there.”
Paulin took a deep breath and glanced around the group. He didn’t want to leave Elsinor, and yet, he did. Relinquished from his duty… What choice did he have but to flee? An exiled elf in an elven city could rightfully be locked up for any offense, no matter how minor.
Slowly, he nodded. And, with that, the second group charged from the tent as well.
Winter winds blew through the trees as the six of them rode from Torsitour. Three elves, a human, an orc, and a dwarf. They didn’t know where they were going. They didn’t know how to get there. They didn’t know how their friends were doing, or what they would be facing next.
They had traveled from Donisil to Elsinor, from an oceanfront town to great palaces to high wizarding towers. They had been transformed from people trying desperately to escape their destiny into people who could only face their future together. As storm clouds brewed on the horizon, promising a blizzard and the start of true winter, somehow, they all knew that their quest was far from over.
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