“Almost there…” Garnisic whispered under his breath as he held the ruby in his tongs, just above the small enchanting candle. “Come on… Come on…”
With a lurch, the wagon struck a rut, tilting the vehicle to the side. Garnisic fell into Hesione, who groaned under his weight. He scrambled off of her and frantically tried to push the ruby back into the flame, only for the wagon to immediately strike another bump.
With that, he tumbled to the opposite side of the wagon, where Ondernifam was sitting cross-legged, watching him. As he struck the orc’s lap, Ondernifam roared, grabbed Garnisic’s arm, and tossed him over the side of the wagon and into the snow-covered woods. He landed in a snowbank an instant later, the tongs and ruby falling from his hands quite roughly.
“Oh, come on.” Garnisic climbed to his feet and dusted the snow off his clothes while Kisidera let the wagon slow to a stop. “Was that necessary?”
“I’m not getting involved in this fight of yours.” Garnisic sighed, scooped up his tongs and now-cool ruby, and trudged through the sludge back to the wagon. Hesione held out a hand, helping him back up. As Kisidera sent the wagon rumbling off down the trail once more, Garnisic sighed and began packing up his enchanting gear.
They had left Goistour four days earlier, and since then had just been idly making their way north along various unmarked trails. It was slow going, as the roads weren’t paved and often felt more dangerous than being captured by the Sintison army. Eventually, Garnisic had gotten bored and decided to try some enchanting work while they traveled, but their driver didn’t seem inclined to avoid all the holes and ruts in the road.
“I’m sorry.” Sapphire sighed and nodded at his bag. “Once we stop running, I’ll help you turn that thing into a proper forge.”
“I didn’t know your sorcery could transform objects into other objects.” Garnisic muttered.
“I’m just trying to help.” Sapphire shrugged. “I don’t have to.”
Garnisic puffed out his cheeks and nodded slowly. “Sorry.” He rubbed his jaw. “That would be nice. Thanks.”
Sapphire flashed him a small grin before grimacing as the wagon lurched through another rut. Garnisic took a deep breath and slid up to the side of the wagon bed, leaning against the side next to Hesione. Across from him, Ondernifam snarled, then balled his fists and mimed punching the air. Sapphire zapped him with a small spark, causing him to jump and snort, and Garnisic chuckled.
“How much further?” Hesione called forward. “Are we there yet?”
“If we were, you’d be surrounded by buildings, not trees.” Kisidera called back. “I’m moving as fast as you people will let me drive.”
Paulin, next to her, glanced back and shrugged. “We should be arriving sometime today, that’s all I know. According to the village we stayed with last night, it’s a five-hour ride by horse. We’re moving a bit slower than that, so… Another hour or two, maybe?”
Hesione sighed and pulled her blanket a bit tighter around herself. Garnisic glanced at the covering, growing a good bit colder now that he wasn’t working near the enchanting flame. He edged a bit closer to Hesione, quite thankful when she sighed and tossed the blanket over him as well. He scooted a bit closer to her, quite enjoying the warmth that she was giving off.
From that point, they rode more or less in silence for the next several hours. They only saw a single other soul, an elf walking the opposite direction with a small sack on his back. He didn’t offer any explanation, and so they continued moving on, simply trotting towards their goal.
The sun was just starting to set, allowing freezing winds to blow across the wintery land, when Paulin turned and called back.
“I can see lights ahead!”
Garnisic felt his heart lift for that moment as the cart continued to lurch forward. Were they really almost back to civilization? Would they finally be reunited with things like roaring fires, potentially even more inns that Kisidera could get them into?
“Yep, it’s the city.” Paulin lowered his voice and spun around while Kisidera continued to push forward. “Alright, here’s the plan. We head in, we set up in an inn near the city gates, and we lay low. In the morning, as soon as the sun is up, we get back on the road. If you need any supplies, let Kisidera know. She’ll be heading out to restock once everyone else gets settled in the room.”
Garnisic frowned. “And why does she get to go out?”
“Because she’s the only one of us that hasn’t had substantial contact with the royalty of Elsinor over the last few months.” Paulin shrugged. “If anyone is trying to follow us, they’ll likely be heading south. We need to get as far north as possible as fast as possible. No risks. Understand?”
“I understand.” Ondernifam crossed his arms. “We are running like cowards.”
“If that’s how you rationalize it.” Paulin shrugged and turned back around. Ondernifam balled his fists, and Garnisic sighed.
“Look, we’re going to be heading to the ocean. If you want, you can fight it once we get there.”
“That sounds good!” Ondernifam grinned, pricking his cheeks. “I will lay waste to the waves!”
“Sometimes, I wonder why orcs are still around.” Garnisic sighed and leaned up against Hesione. “You’d think that they would have gone extinct long before now.”
“We fought extinction and slayed it!”
“Uh, huh.” Garnisic just chuckled. “When we start heading south again, I vote that we head way south. Like Notirot or Sournous. Somewhere that doesn’t have perpetual levels of snow. Or any snow for that matter. Or temperatures that even begin to approach freezing.”
“After what we’ve been through, that doesn’t sound at all like a bad thing.” Hesione puffed out her cheeks and leaned against Garnisic. “For the moment, I just want a warm bed that doesn’t have an orc in it.”
Ondernifam muttered something from across the wagon, and Garnisic just closed his eyes. The wagon continued to rumble forward as the sun finally set, bringing darkness over the land. When the lights from torches finally blazed down around them, the stars were beginning to twinkle overhead, through the light blue glow hadn’t yet dissipated from the sky.
“State your intention for entering the city.” The voices of guards drifted forward. Sounded like a dwarf and a human, from what Garnisic could tell. He just pulled the blanket a bit tighter around himself, ready to be indoors.
“Just passing through.” Paulin spoke softly. “We’ve been on the road for a long time now. We’ll just be staying the night before leaving tomorrow morning.”
“Fair enough.” The guards spoke once more. “Enjoy your stay.”
The wagon lurched forwards again, slowly pulling them into the dark, former border city. Garnisic finally opened his eyes and sat up as a strange red glow forced its way through his eyelids.
“Uhh, Paulin?” Garnisic slowly leaned forward. “Is… Is this supposed to look like this?”
It took several moments for Paulin’s voice to drift back to the rear of the wagon. “No. No it is not.”
Garnisic could only take long, slow breaths to calm himself as he glanced back and forth. Hovering over the city were massive spheres of light, burning with a brilliant red glow that shone down across the area. It made the stone walls appear to be on fire, made the wooden rooftops seem as though they were already burning. Garnisic could see several dozen of the strange spheres within the immediate area, each around fifty feet across and several hundred feet up in the sky.
The clanking of armored feet shook the air, and he glanced to his right as a regiment of soldiers walked past, herding a family of aqahartis between them. The windows of the houses and buildings were all drawn shut, many even seemed to be boarded over. Hawks swooped back and forth between the homes, blood hawks if Garnisic had ever seen one. Two of them landed on the wagon, three-foot long birds with red feathers and a keen intellect. They regarded the group with an odd eye, before rising into the air and flying away once more.
“And why did you bring us to this crazy death city?” Sapphire leaned forward, hissing under her breath.
“This wasn’t visible from outside!” Paulin hissed back. “Must be some sort of spell they have in place.”
“We need to get out of here.” Hesione leaned forward as well. “Now!”
“If we do that, we’ll be marked as targets.” Paulin shook his head. “We need to keep moving forward, find a place, and get out of here in the morning.”
“There’s an inn.” Kisidera guided the wagon to the side of the street, where a large sign announced rooms for rent. “Come on.”
She slowed the wagon to a stop, and Garnisic quickly hopped out, followed by the rest of the group. The strange red lights seemed like an enormous eyes, gazing down at their every move. The blood hawks nearby seemed much the same, watching and waiting for an excuse to pounce. As the group slowly walked into the inn, Garnisic couldn’t help but feel like they were making a terrible mistake.
Inside, they found a dimly-lit welcoming room with a single torch above the front counter. A dark elf stared out at them, wide eyed. She wordlessly pulled a key from the wall behind her and placed it on the wooden surface, then held out her hand. Paulin dropped in a few coins, and they walked up a short flight of stairs to the single room.
No one said a word as they piled onto the two beds. Garnisic, Ondernifam, and Hesione all flopped onto one bed while Paulin, Kisidera, and Sapphire filled out the second bed. The strange red light shone through the slats of the window shutters, an ever-present reminder of the mysterious situation they had found themselves in. Sapphire snapped her fingers, sealing off the window, and the room plunged into darkness.
Even with the pitch-black surroundings, Garnisic found himself unable to sleep. All he wanted to do was work on his enchantments. Was that such a bad thing? What did the light mean? What was the army of Sintison trying to pull?
And, most importantly… Would they all be able to survive it?
“Get up!” An armored fist came crashing into Hesione’s side, knocking her from the bed. She landed on the floor with a thud, groaning as something snapped quite painfully. She slowly climbed to her feet as soldiers shoved everyone else in the room onto the floor as well, eliciting enraged roars and startled shouts.
“You will not take me!” Ondernifam shouted and leapt forward. He made it only a few feet before a bolt of magic struck him in the chest, causing him to sprawl headlong across the bed. Hesione watched him fall, then slowly took a deep breath and tried to take stock of the situation.
Ten soldiers had piled into the room, swords drawn and pointed at the sleep-fogged individuals. With Ondernifam snoring softly on the bed, that left a handful of unarmed and rather stunned individuals without any way of fighting back. Unless, of course, Sapphire managed to get a proper handle on her newfound sorcerous artifact.
“What is this?” Paulin gasped. He shook his head for several seconds, as if trying to clear it. “Sintison Charter of Laws Section 24 states that-”
“No one cares, elf.” One of the soldiers, a human, ground out the statement with a deep voice. “Until further notice, Dindriir has been placed on formal lockdown. All parties arriving in the city from either side will be subjected to confinement and interrogation.”
“What?” Sapphire shook her head. “Why is that?”
“We’ll be asking the questions.” The soldier sneered. “Now out! March!”
Sapphire held up her hands and closed her eyes. The ring on her finger gave a brief flicker of light before going dark again. Sapphire groaned outwardly, while Hesione groaned inwardly. Why couldn’t her powers just… Work? It would have saved them so much time.
Together, the group was led from the room, with Ondernifam being carried by two soldiers in the rear. They were quickly escorted through the inn, past the timid-looking dark elf attendant, and onto the street.
If they had been able to sleep, it hadn’t been for long, as the strange red lights still burned down from the night sky. A prison wagon sat on the street, while the wagon that the group had brought was nowhere to be seen. A captain of the Sintison army stood just next to the wagon, recognizable by his red shoulder patch and a blood hawk resting on his arm. He was completely covered in armor, making it impossible to tell what species he belonged to.
The captain didn’t say a word as the group climbed up into the prison wagon. The moment they were inside, he slammed the door shut and waved his hand. A field sprang into existence across the bars, preventing escape and likely negating many forms of magic. Sapphire muttered a curse as the captain climbed up onto the wagon, and they lurched off into the distance without another thought.
As they rode, Hesione took the opportunity to look out across the city. Everywhere, it was the same. Blood hawks circling back and forth, soldiers marching around under the deadly red suns. Families huddled in alleyways, trying to avoid the prying eyes of the soldiers. Animals scampered back and forth, taking advantage of large piles of waste built up in unused streets.
“What’s going on?” Hesione leaned over and whispered in Paulin’s ear. “This isn’t like Sintison. This isn’t what you do when you invade a country. If you start suppressing your own civilians, it isn’t going to go well for you.”
“I agree.” Paulin stroked his chin. “I’m not sure, really. There’s something more happening here, but I can’t quite place it.”
“Well, work harder on figuring it out.” Hesione breathed. “I don’t like this. Not one bit.”
Paulin didn’t answer her, and she was left to figure it out for herself as the wagon rumbled onward. They continued to trot forward for nearly half an hour before finally crossing over the smashed border wall onto the elven side. Here, it was even worse. Homes and businesses had been burned to the ground, smoke drifted up from snow-covered ash. Bodies lay scattered through the sewers and streets, the smell of decay caused Hesione to choke.
Sapphire started crying softly before screaming in rage at the driver, who paid her no mind. They just continued moving, until they finally reached the far side of the city. There, as they rode out through the city gates, they found themselves in what appeared to be a large pen. Hastily-erected fences stood tall around them, while milling guards drew their swords and stomped over to the wagon. The six members were pulled quite roughly from the cage, Hesione herself was drawn out via invisible magic strings that ripped her from the bars and threw her onto the ground. Paulin helped her back to her feet while the soldiers around her laughed and jeered.
“Welcome to Dindriir.” The captain climbed down from the front of the wagon, his deep voice echoing across the area and quieting the soldiers. “I do hope your stay here has been pleasant thus far.”
The soldiers laughed once more, and Hesione drew herself upright. She took a shaky step towards the man, who simply watched her through the visor of his helmet.
“I demand an answer for this.” Hesione tried to make her voice forceful. “I will not be treated in such a manner as this. I wish to speak to the commanding officer.”
“He will not be disturbed at this hour.” The captain’s voice didn’t flinch. “Now, if you’ll be so kind as not to resist, you’ll be escorted to your rooms. I do hope that you don’t mind being separated.”
Two guards came up behind Hesione, grabbed her arms, and pulled her arms behind her back. With that, she was drug away. Paulin and Kisidera were drug away only moments later as well, though she couldn’t see what happened to Garnisic, Ondernifam, or Sapphire. And, with that, red suns still shining down above her, she was taken through a door in the fence, past massive pens and cages that stretched through the trees, and thrown into a small cage that seemed fit for a single occupant. There were no features in the five-foot tall structure, no bed or blanket, only iron bars and a door that was slammed shut so quickly that her hand nearly got caught. Paulin was thrown in a cage just next to her, with Kisidera landing in a cage just beyond that.
And, with that, the guards stomped off. The city walls could be seen through the trees, not more than a hundred feet away. Dozens more cages filled that distance, most of which seemed already to hold many, many individuals. On the opposite side, stretching away into the forest, seemed to be far more massive enclosures for holding large groups.
All through the air, screams and cries for help resounded through the forest. A cold wind blew, biting straight through Hesione’s robes and chilling her to the bone. She pulled her cloak a bit tighter around herself, desperately wishing that they had just passed the city by. What was happening? Was the world really falling apart so quickly as war broke out? If this was what men reverted to so quickly after a revolution, was there really any hope for them at all?
Sapphire swore loudly as the guards hauled her away. She kicked against their iron-plated legs, screamed at their impassive helmets. Nothing seemed to make a difference, and she was soon pulled to the top of what appeared to be a quite deep pit. Without a word, the guards tossed her over the side, subjecting her to several moments of a terrifying descent.
In desperation, she called on Calsin’s magical field, but it remained separated from her just as it had been ever since she had been thrown in the cage. As she struck the soft dirt at the bottom of the pit, she looked back up and growled at the vanishing guards.
“You sound like you have been spending time around orcs.” The voice echoed through the hole from just next to her. She turned and frowned, noticing a mage leaning against the wall. She was old, her leathery skin barely visible in the low lighting. “Odd company for a human to be keeping.”
“And this is an odd place for me to get thrown.” Sapphire tried desperately to reach out to the magical field, but to no avail. It simply wasn’t there. “What’s this for?”
“It’s a holding cell for human mages of uncertain power.” The mage shrugged. “I’m old, so they fear that I am powerful. They do not know that I did not become a mage until I was sixty years old, and that most of my studies have been under the realm mages!” She chuckled. “I am no more a threat to them than an ant.”
“I’m sure you’re better than that.” Sapphire balled her fists and reached deep within herself. As always, she could sense the swirling magic there, just out of reach. As it was the internal magic of the ring, it was unaffected by negation fields. At least, in theory.
“And I am curious why they have thrown in a young girl.” The mage shrugged. “Most of the young women are taken for the pleasure of the soldiers. You? I bet the commander himself would swoon over your beauty if he only took a look.” Her eyes narrowed. “So why would they throw you here?”
“I don’t know.” Sapphire muttered. “Trust me, I haven’t had time to do anything to them.”
“Blood hawks can sense much.” The woman took a step closer. “One of them saw something within you.”
“Well, it’s still within me, isn’t it?” Sapphire muttered. “You don’t see any flames shooting out of my fingers, do you?”
“Indeed not.” The woman raised an eyebrow. “Would you mind a bit of an anecdote? I find that so many young people today simply lust for the glory of age. They wish to have all the wisdom, the riches, and the reach that should be given only to the elderly. I fought such urges while I was young, and while I was ridiculed by many, I find that my life has proven so much more fruitful now that I’ve spent my time in waiting. I was able to have a family, something likely not possible had I entered the wizarding academy at a young age. Now that I am old, I am able to focus my magic on the realms, on knowledge and wisdom, rather than on battle and combat. Do you see what I’m saying?”
“Yes.” Sapphire walked across the pit and sat down, crossing her legs and closing her eyes. “If I don’t pursue my magic now, I’ll regret it when I’m old.”
“No, no!” The woman protested. “I have loved my life! I was trying to say that some things are much better than power.”
“You know, I really don’t know what any of this has to do with our current situation.” Sapphire ground her teeth together and reached down within her soul. There was the magic, so tantalizing. She plunged into it, wrapped it around herself, and pulled it back up. Her eyes snapped open to find her entire body glowing as she began to levitate off the ground. Magic flowed around and through her, a torrent of power. She smiled and poured the magic down into her feet, preparing a spell that would launch her from the pit.
With the same snap as before, the magic flowed back down into her reservoir. She fell from the air, landing on the ground with a plop. As the magic faded, the mage took a step back, pressing herself against the far wall.
“Who are you? What are you?”
“My name is Sapphire, and I am the sorceress of the Ring.” Sapphire took a deep breath and sat down once more. No matter how hard it was, she would continue to sit there. She would use her time until she bent the Ring to her will. “And I will have the power that I desire.”
“I’ll sic my orc on you.” Garnisic growled as the soldiers drug him away. “He’ll lay waste to this entire camp!”
“Not if we keep him unconscious until he’s killed or we turn him loose.” The soldiers shrugged. “Now stop dragging your feet.”
“I’m not!” Garnisic protested. “You just have tall rocks here!”
As if in response, the soldiers kicked the back of his knees, causing him to fall to the ground with a dull thud. He groaned as they grabbed his arms once again and began to drag him across the rocky ground, through the trees. He completely lost track of direction, until he was hefted into the air and thrown through a metal gateway. Doors slammed shut behind him, and he sighed, slowly sitting up and glancing back and forth.
He sat in a large pen, lit by one of the red suns. Twenty-foot tall walls surrounded the area, complete with several guards patrolling along the top. Tents had been pitched among the trees, all of which seemed filled with sleeping dwarves. A few dwarves even slept under the open stars, though a few seemed to have dug shallow trenches to sleep in. Only one or two were still awake, and wandered back and forth aimlessly between their slumbering brethren.
Garnisic crossed his arms tightly, beginning to shiver in the cold air. As much as sleeping in the same bed as Ondernifam hadn’t been particularly high on his to-do list, the mighty green-skinned creature had given off a great deal of heat, which had been rather nice after the freezing day that he had endured.
Without much else to do, he scuffed his feet and began to wander across the camp, looking for anything that might indicate what he was supposed to be doing there. There were no fires, no sources of heat other than large clumps of dwarves sleeping together under canvas blankets. None of them looked available for a lone dwarf to join, leaving Garnisic simply to wander.
He soon found that the pen was actually quite large, with the walls stretching nearly a thousand feet into the trees. Countless dwarves could be seen, making Garnisic wonder just how many dwarves had lived in the city. After so much time wandering through the relatively dwarf-less Elsinor and then only encountering the small community at Goistour, it was strange to see so many of his brethren together.
“Psst!” A female voice startled him, and he spun to his right, where a dwarven woman peered from a small tent. “Come inside! You look cold!”
Garnisic nodded in thanks and quickly ran through the flap of the tent, smiling as the canvas tarp fell shut. Inside, it wasn’t a great deal warmer, but it was something. Red light filtered through the covering, giving a soft red glow to everything. After a few seconds, the woman reached into her robes and pulled out a small, circular piece of metal. She set it on the ground, where it began to emit a warm breeze. The tent began to warm almost instantly, and Garnisic felt a smile flicker across his face.
“Thank you.” He breathed and nodded down at the device. “Breath of the Flame?”
The woman smiled and nodded, sitting down next to it. Garnisic joined her, just on the opposite side of the object. “It was a gift, many years ago. It’s proven more than a bit valuable while traveling the northern lands of Calsin.”
“I imagine.” Garnisic sighed. “I would give a fortune for something like that.”
“My father did.” The woman held out her hand. “Jilisic.”
Garnisic’s eyes shot up. “You’re an Isic?”
“Yes.” Jilisic’s eyes narrowed. “You are too?”
“Garnisic.” Garnisic shook her hand rapidly. “It’s been years since I’ve met anyone from my own clan.”
“Same.” The woman shuddered. “I left the fortress many years ago. Almost half a century, now that I think about it.”
Garnisic bit his lip. After a few seconds, he nodded slowly. “I myself left three decades ago. It’s not an easy life on the road.”
“No, it is not.” Jilisic held up her hands. “But the Breath of the Flame makes it a bit more bearable. It reminds me of my home beneath the mountains.”
“Indeed.” Garnisic smiled and raised his own hands, enjoying the heat radiating from the enchanted disk. After a few moments, he sighed and crossed his arms. “So why did you call me in here? Why not the other dwarves walking around out there?”
Jilisic shrugged. “Maybe the Internal Flame brought us together.”
Garnisic’s eyes narrowed. “No, that doesn’t seem right.”
Jilisic held his gaze, and then sighed and shook her head. “No, it doesn’t, does it?”
“What’s going on here?” Garnisic’s voice deepened, and he climbed to his feet. “You’re not making any sense. I demand that you tell me what’s happening.”
“Keep your voice down.” Jilisic hissed. After a few seconds, she sighed. “I detected your sign. Alright, there. Happy now? I don’t know what your mission here is, but I’ve got my own. I figured that we should help each other out, given the situation.”
Garnisic stroked his beard slowly. That hadn’t been the response he had been expecting. Slowly, he sat back down, trying to figure out how to handle the situation. Should he play along? Should he ask for clarification? What was she talking about? What sign did he bear? And what did she mean by missions? Who or what would send her on a mission that Garnisic might be involved with?
The thought struck him an instant later. “You’re with the Fond’sar.”
The words had barely escaped his mouth before he thought better of them. Acting surprised likely wouldn’t be the best way of staying alive in the presence of a Fond’sar agent.
“Come on, don’t act surprised.” Jilisic waved her hand. “Sit back down. No one is watching us, all our supervisors are a hundred miles from here. As I said, we may as well help each other out. I imagine that this wasn’t in your mission briefing, which means that you’re probably just as lost as I am.”
Right. So she was oblivious. Time to play along, he supposed. Slowly, he sat back down and nodded. “It does pose a small problem. I’m out of invisibility totems, which makes it hard to sneak past all these guards.”
“I’ve got a few left, but they don’t do any good.” Jilisic shook her head. “There are anti-enchantment fields on all the doors and at various intersections. I managed to slip through the main gate of this pen, but they caught me about a hundred feet further.” She spat onto the ground. “May Sintison be thrice accursed. Elsinor, you can sneak around as long as you have defenses against elven magic. Donisil, you just have to defend against human magic. Here, they have contingencies for everything.”
“It does make things more difficult.” Garnisic mused. “Can you tell me what’s going on here? How long have you been here?”
“I’ve been here almost a month.” Jilisic shrugged. At Garnisic’s horrified look, she smirked. “You get used to it. I was in Dindriir when the Sintison armies first came sweeping through. At first, everything was fine. There was a bit of unrest, but that’s fairly common. The soldiers were accepting elves into the new half of the city and vice versa. People were getting along, the city was honestly doing even better than it had been doing when it was split. And then the army just started cracking down. Everyone in the city was arrested at one point or another for suspected treason against Sintison. Most people get released back into the city after a week or so, but not all.” She frowned. “It’s just so strange. The elves were ready and willing to accept Sintison as their new ruler. I don’t know that they would have taken Elsinor back even if they had been given the choice, and now even the former residents of Sintison are ready to fight back.”
“Interesting.” Garnisic crossed his arms. “Can you tell me what your mission is, specifically?”
“It’s actually pretty simple. More of a fetch quest, really.” Jilisic sighed. “There’s a package that another agent buried beneath the governor’s palace. I just had to walk in, pick it up, and head back. Nothing more.”
Garnisic’s mind quickly sprang into motion. If he could reach that package, whatever it was, before the Fond’sar, he could potentially gain even more intel on what they were doing. With luck, he could even figure out what they had done to himself and the king.
“Do you know what the package was?”
“I think it’s one of the weapons that the dark angels used.” Jilisic shrugged. “But I don’t really know for sure, no.” After a few seconds, she shrugged. “What’s your mission?”
“Assassinate one of the low-level diplomats that lived here.” Garnisic shrugged. “Of course, that may have already been done by now, but…”
“Really?” Jilisic’s eyebrows crawled up her forehead. “They gave you an assassination? I thought only Rails and their direct underlings were given those tasks. Unless…” Her breathing slowed. “Do you work for a Rail?”
“No.” Garnisic scoffed and tried to think quickly. Oops. So maybe that hadn’t been a good idea to play along. “Guess they just trust me.”
“Strange.” Jilisic frowned, then shrugged. “Then again, we have strange masters. That’s why we’re still working for them rather than tucking tail and running, am I right?”
“Couldn’t have said it better myself.” Garnisic puffed out his cheeks. “So what happens now? Do you have any ideas how to get out of here?”
“Nothing good.” Jilisic shook her head and scowled. “I’m supposed to do my mission covertly if possible, though I’m allowed to make a mess if the situation demands it. They gave me a weapon to help me out, but it’s one of those top-tier things that you need to be a master enchanter to use.”
“And the guards didn’t take it from you?” Garnisic leaned forward.
“How would they?” Jilisic reached into her robes and pulled out a small item that looked like little more than a button. “Xenophile enchantments. Just a second, let me see here…” She ran her fingers across the metal surface of the object. “It’s a little tricky. I can never get these things to activate properly.”
“Let me see it.” Garnisic took the button from her, holding it in his palm. He could feel the enchantments swirling within, powerful magic that he hadn’t felt in a long time. It almost felt familiar, in a strange sort of way. Carefully, he ran his thumb across the surface and activated the enchantment, hoping that it wouldn’t somehow give away their position to the guards.
With a flash, the button transformed, growing into a massive warhammer. Four feet long, with an anvil-shaped head that glistened and glowed with inner enchantments. Slowly, Garnisic ran his hand along the shaft of the weapon, watching the magic flare up under his hand. His breath seemed to come in short gasps as he took in the majestic hammer.
“You seem to know your way around that thing.” Jilisic raised an eyebrow. “Have you seen similar weapons?”
“Sort of.” Garnisic puffed out his cheeks and gave the weapon a small toss. Just as light as he remembered. “This is my old hammer.”
“Up! The Commander wants to see you!” Guards stomped up to Hesione’s cage and pulled the door open with a loud screech. She slowly rose from the sleep-deprived fog that she lay in, clambering from the cage as quickly as she could.
As she stood up in the crisp morning air, her entire body ached in pain. She had been unable to truly sleep, as the cold winter winds had blown through the camp with unceasing fervor for the entire night. And the ground had been hard. And she hadn’t been able to stretch out at all.
Nevertheless, she was given no chance to recover as the guards immediately hauled her away, dragging her across the frozen ground towards an unknown destination. Behind her, Paulin and Kisidera were pulled from their cages as well and taken alongside her. With luck, they would be released, where they could start planning to break out their friends. With less luck, there was a solid possibility that they would just be killed.
Unfortunately, they were given no explanation, and were soon drug to the outer edges of the city walls. There, a hole had been knocked in the stone edifice and a doorway hastily erected. The guards shoved them through, pulling an iron door shut behind them. At that point, Hesione found herself standing in what appeared to have been a rather lavish mansion. Iron chandeliers hung from the ceilings, paintings hung from the walls, several elven statues stood at key focal points through the home. The only downside were the slaves chained to brackets that had been planted in the limestone. And, of course, the guards watching said slaves.
With that, the guards drug the trio past the prisoners, up a sweeping flight of stairs, and to a large set of oak doors framed with a velvet curtain. One of the soldiers reached up and knocked smartly on the wood, causing it to swing inward magically.
Hesione’s eyes narrowed as she took in the sight. A large desk sat in the middle of the room, framed by statues of elven warriors and covered with large stacks of papers and pens. Several attendants stood just next to the desk, while a thin human man wearing a red, pointed hat sat just behind the desk. He looked up and motioned at the three elves to enter, and the guards shoved them forward.
Hesione tripped on the thick red carpet that covered the ground there, falling flat on her face. As she climbed back to her feet, Paulin sneered while Kisidera simply glanced back and forth around the room. The guards took up positions on either side of the trio, and the doors slammed shut.
“Welcome to Dindriir.” The commander climbed to his feet. “My name is General Flachard, and I command the forces of Sintison here in this province. I’m sure you have many questions. I, unfortunately, have far more. Could you please state your names for the record?”
“Kisidera Filisan.” Kisidera spat out. “Not that it’s any business of yours.”
“Filisan?” Flachard raised his eyebrows. “How nice to have a Family Member here. Perhaps you will serve as ransom when our armies clash against that of your lord. And you, good sir? You must be a wealthy man to enjoy the company of not one, but two women.”
“Some might consider me as such. Of course, I now possess far less wealth given that my wares have all been taken away.” Paulin dipped his head. “My name is Gradulil. I am but a humble peasant, elevated to a higher position by my bride-to-be’s father. Next to me is my stepsister, Herithia.”
“I can introduce myself.” Hesione snapped at him, regretting the outburst as soon as the words left her mouth. What had Paulin just named her? “But yes, my name… Is Herithia. And I stand before you today as…”
Her voice trailed off momentarily. There was something about the way the general was standing there, something off. It was a small detail, one that she had learned during her time in court training. Oh, what was it? And why hadn’t Paulin picked up on it?
“Your hat!” She exclaimed. “You’re being coerced!”
Once more, she regretted the words as soon as the came from her mouth. The lesson was right there, in front of her. In Sintison, it was a little-known fact that the pointed hats of command could be worn several different ways. If the point tilted to the rear, it meant that the leader in question did not hold themselves responsible for their actions and instead were being subjected to some sort of higher authority.
“Why yes. Yes I am.” Flachard muttered dryly and leaned back in his seat. “A fact which your more discerning friend was using elven body language to acknowledge. For what it’s worth, I hold you responsible for what’s about to happen.”
Before anyone could speak another word, all the guards in the room drew their swords as a small door just behind Flachard swung open. A massive elf stomped through, golden armor gleaming even through a layer of tarnish and dozens of dents. He seemed to walk with a limp, while several streaks of grey laced through otherwise golden hair. The man sneered at the group, hand on his sword.
“And so we meet again.” The former Ambassador of Defense of Elsinor stomped up to the table and slammed a mighty fist down onto the wood. “It seems that my prayers have been answered. Thank Persphone for that small victory.”
Hesione hissed. “What are you doing here?”
“He took me captive, he’s trying to ruin Sintison’s reputation, blah, blah, blah.” Flachard waved his hands idly in the air. “You still haven’t put it together yet? He’s insane. He’s slaughtering his own people in an attempt to make my own people look bad.”
“These people would die anyway.” The Ambassador ground out. “If we rose up against Sintison directly, you would level the city trying to crush us, and you would make it look like you were doing us a favor. I reject that. I may be leveling my own city, but I am ensuring that their blood becomes that of martyrs, not that of cowards.”
Silence reigned in the room for several moments. Finally, Paulin nodded and spoke up.
“I think he’s right. You’re insane.”
“No. I am brilliant!” The Ambassador’s mighty fist clenched down on the table, scraping the wood. “Elsinor will thank me. We will still emerge from this as the victor.”
“We haven’t lost anything yet.” Paulin held up his hands. “Please. Whatever you’re doing, stop.”
“I think you know by now that I cannot do that.” The Ambassador sighed. “As I said, I’d been hoping you would stop by. I’ve had every elf in the city brought to me for inspection. Now, I have you.” He smiled. “I think I shall enjoy that.”
“What exactly does that mean?” Hesione glanced back and forth. “Paulin?”
“He’s probably going to torture us.” Paulin puffed out his cheeks. “Am I right?”
“I see no reason not to.” The Ambassador smiled. “No one knows you are here. You will die at my hand, unseen by the world. And then, once I have your corpse, I will hang it from the town square. Word will spread of the brutality in which Elsinor’s former masters were killed. And then…” He smiled. “The entirety of Calsin will turn against Sintison’s brutality. There will be no place where these armies can hide!”
“You will bend to my will.” Sapphire breathed softly. “You will bend to my will.”
Deep within her, the magical field churned and boiled. She plunged deep within the magic, feeling it pulse through her body. It burned as it poured across her skin, tried to consume her inner organs, but still she pressed. Sweat dripped down onto the ground, splashing as she desperately called in the Ring for something. Anything.
She slowly opened her eyes, swearing and spitting. She thrust out her right hand, ordering her power to manifest itself. With a flash, the staff appeared in her hand, her clothes were transformed into the blue dress that she knew and loved. The ancient woman on the other side of the pit pressed herself up against the dirt, terrified at what Sapphire was becoming.
“Are… Are you sure you’re okay?” Her trembling voice drifted across the pit. “I have some healing herbs if you’d like.”
“Not necessary.” Sapphire took a deep breath as her magic swirled through her. Slowly, she flipped the staff over to point down at the ground and drew a circle in the dirt around herself. That done, she pointed the staff back up into the sky and smiled. “Take me out of here.”
Light pulsed around her body, flinging her up and out of the pit in a split second. She rematerialized on the ground just above the edge of the pit, taking a deep breath as magic swirled under her skin. A nearby guard spun to look at her, and she pointed the staff in his direction. A burst of wild magic erupted off the staff, swirling through the air in a twisted blast. The guard had a moment to look surprised before he was blown backwards, smashing into a wooden wall with an enormous crack. As he slumped to the ground, Sapphire smiled and charged forward. All she could see were high, wooden fences that formed narrow pathways for guards to wander through. As she charged to her right, several guards noticed her mad flight and blocked the way, drawing their swords and planting themselves across the path, preventing her from simply running past them.
She pointed the staff in their direction, calling upon the power of the staff. Unfortunately, the magic within her chose that very moment to vanish, retreating back inside her body in a split second. The staff vanished, her clothes returned to normal, and all strength left her arms and legs. She fell head over heels, landing in a heap at the feet of the guards. Half a dozen swords came to rest on her prone body, and she grimaced.
“No.” She shook her head and dove deep within herself once more. “Not today!”
She grabbed as much of the magic as she could handle and pulled it back to the surface, gnashing her teeth as the staff appeared in her hand once more. The soldiers collectively jabbed down at her body, only to find their swords passing through her like air. She stood up and snapped her fingers, causing a rippling magical blast that flattened the soldiers where they stood.
With that final act, her magic left her once more, leaving her so weak she could barely stand. A cold winter wind blew down the corridor, nearly knocking her over, and she gasped and stumbled away down the pathway. She needed to find cover, and she needed it quickly.
And then, she would get everyone else out. She would be powerful again.
She would reclaim her position as a true sorceress.
“You’re sure this will work?” Jilisic rubbed her hands together as the two dwarves marched towards the walls of the enclosure. “You know how to work this hammer?”
“Oh, do I.” Garnisic nodded and took a deep breath, slowly running his hand up and down the handle of the weapon. The sun was just rising in the early morning, the perfect time for a breakout. Sure, there was more light, but the fresh morning guards would still be warming up while the night guards would be exhausted and ready to be home and out of the cold. “Just watch and learn.”
As he approached the outer wall, he smiled and swung the hammer at the wall with all his might. As it struck, he activated his fire enchantments, delivering a resounding blast that shattered the wood. Tree trunks were blown apart, in a single instant, the wall for nearly ten feet in every direction crumbled.
As the wood fell with a crash, every dwarven head in the area spun to face them. No encouragement was needed as the dwarves flooded forward, rushing for the opening. Garnisic smiled, then turned and charged through the gap in the gate as fast as he could move.
Armor clattered loudly in the distance amidst startled shouts. A single guard appeared ahead of them, charging forward with drawn sword. Garnisic put on an extra burst of speed, running to meet him and swinging his hammer. The first wave of dwarves came rushing out of the enclosure as his mighty hammer picked the guard off his feet and smashed him into a nearby wall, splintering both the wood and the man’s armor.
Almost immediately, dwarves rushed over and began stripping the soldier of weapons. Garnisic just smiled and continued to rush forward, hands on his newfound prize. Three more soldiers approached, raising their shields and planting their feet as Garnisic charged to meet them. He could see their swords at the ready just behind the shields, ready to strike as soon as he was within striking distance.
Without hesitating, he activated his gravity-negating enchantments and jumped up into the air. It wasn’t enough to let him fly, but the extra boost more than allowed him to sail over the heads of the soldiers in a single bound. He let the enchantment deactivate as he passed over the middle soldier, allowing him to land firmly behind their lines and bring the hammer smashing down onto the man’s head. He then swung the hammer into the side of the next soldier, knocking him sideways. The third soldier was quickly overwhelmed as freshly-armed dwarves swarmed him, cutting him to ribbons.
“Wow.” Jilisic breathed as she jogged up next to him. “You really do know how to use it.”
“I told you, it’s my old hammer.” Garnisic breathed. “You just didn’t believe me.”
“Not until now.” Jilisic shook her head as they continued to run down the path. “But then… I know this weapon was pulled from the inland ocean. Something about a merfolk lockup. You wouldn’t know anything about that?”
“All too well.” Garnisic snarled. “That’s how I lost it. I thought it was gone for good.”
“Apparently not.” Jilisic shrugged. “Odd to think that the Fond’sar may have merfolk agents, given their history with the merfolk.”
“Or just anyone descended from the elves.” Garnisic chuckled. “I… Hey!” He frowned as they passed a large pit in the ground, complete with a magical field flickering over the top, likely a suppression field of some sort. Nearby, a soldier lay on the ground, quite dead, though his armor seemed to have melted and turned into cheese. “Sapphire escaped.”
“Who is she?”
“Another long story.” Garnisic frowned as they raced past a group of five more dead soldiers who were all sprouting roots from their fingers and toes. “She should be here… Somewhere…”
“I will slay you!” Ondernifam’s voice bellowed through the air. A soldier was suddenly blown up through the ground, creating a roughly human-sized hole in the dirt. Garnisic frowned and glanced down into the depths, noticing a dungeon-like structure that seemed to extend under the strange camp. Ondernifam stood there, snarling up at Garnisic. “And now you have taken the form of my friend! I will eat you!”
The orc sprang from the hole in a single bound, claws bared. Garnisic yelped and jumped back, holding the hammer out in front of him.
“Hey! It’s really me!” Garnisic pointed at the soldier’s body nearby. “You got your guy.”
Ondernifam glanced at the dead soldier, then frowned. “The real Garnisic is not nearly as fierce as you are. I shall eat you!”
“Ondi!” Sapphire’s voice came from a bit farther down the path. “It’s really him!”
Sapphire staggered into view, her gait uncertain. She nearly fell several times, and Ondernifam quickly jumped to her side to scoop her up in his arms. Garnisic puffed out his cheeks and walked over to her as the dwarven escapees rushed past, eager to continue the fight. Only Jilisic remained by his side, a rather confused look on her face.
“I’ll explain later.” Garnisic glanced at her, then nodded at Sapphire. “Where are the others?”
Sapphire’s eyes rolled back in her head, and she groaned. A few moments later, she nodded and refocused. “In the city. They’re being kept together, looks like in a proper city jail.”
“Then we’ll go there.” Garnisic charged forward. “Ondernifam? Ready to lay some waste?”
“I will kill everyone who stands in my way!” Ondernifam leapt into action, quickly outpacing the dwarves. Garnisic glanced at Jilisic, who just shrugged.
With that, they tore through the camp, ready to make their grand escape. Armed with his old hammer, even with half their team injured or still captured… He was certain that they would be unable to lose.
“So what’s the plan?” Hesione spoke up, interrupting Paulin’s thoughts.
“I don’t know yet.” He sighed and let his head fall against the bars of the cell they were in. The anti-magic and anti-escape fields zapped his forehead lightly, and he sighed and stepped back. “I’m trying to think. The Ambassador effectively has the entire city under his control. He can’t maintain that control, which I’m certain he knows. He needs martyrs for his cause, so he’s trying to get them. The problem is that an exiled prince, a Family member, and a dappled illegitimate princess aren’t exactly the best people for your cause.”
“He might be ready to sacrifice himself.” Kisidera shrugged.
“No, I don’t think so.” Paulin shook his head. “He thinks that he’s the greatest good Elsinor has right now. He won’t let himself die unless he thinks that there’s someone worthy of handling his position.”
“Then what do we do?” Hesione shrugged. “If he has control of the Sintison army, he-”
“Wait.” Paulin felt the barest bones of an idea forming in his mind. “That’s it!”
“What’s it?” Kisidera stepped up next to him, placing a hand on his arm.
“The Ambassador doesn’t have control over the entire army.” Paulin began to snap his fingers. “He has control over the General, and a handful of troops to keep the general in line. That’s it!” He spun. “All we have to do is expose ourselves to the general Sintison army. If word gets around that the Prince of Elsinor is here, thousands of troops will march on this city and expose the Ambassador for what he is.”
Hesione bit her lip and slowly held up a finger. Paulin frowned and nodded.
“Two things. First, that kind of helps Sintison, not Elsinor. Secondly, that exposes us, which we’ve been going to great lengths to avoid doing.”
“I know.” Paulin sighed and ran his hand through his hair. “I know, and I know, but…” He shrugged. “You’ve seen what’s happening here. He’s slaughtering people, and he’ll kill thousands more to achieve his goal. If that’s not worth exposing ourselves for, I don’t know what it.”
“One slight problem with that.” Kisidera gestured at the walls. “We’re still trapped. We’d kinda have to escape in order to make that actually work out.”
With a mighty crash, the wall of their cell exploded, showering them with dirt and debris. As the dust settled, Paulin’s eyes adjusted to see Garnisic standing in the gap, a massive warhammer slung over his shoulder. Ondernifam stood just behind him, a limp Sapphire in his arms. A female dwarf stood nearby as well, watching the proceedings with a confused look on her face. Behind them was simply open street, complete with a number of dead soldiers and curious onlookers peering out of windows.
“Well?” Garnisic finally held up his hands. “You ready to go or what?”
“On it.” Hesione and Kisidera swept out of the cell and tore down the street. When Paulin paused, Kisidera glanced back at him.
“Go find horses!” He called out. “I’ll follow in a moment!”
She nodded and turned away, dashing off into the distance. Ondernifam followed, though Garnisic stayed behind. Slowly, as armored footsteps sounded in the distance, Paulin stepped out of the cell and raised his voice, shouting at the boarded windows.
“You may not know me, but I stand before you today as the Prince of Elsinor!” Paulin thrust his hand into the sky. “Elsinor has not fallen, not yet, and I swear to you that we will free you of this evil that has come to grip your city!”
With that, as soldiers dashed into view around the corner, Paulin turned and charged off into the distance, following his sister and his girlfriend. Once more, they were on the run. It seemed such a way of life now, and yet, it was almost getting to be sort of fun. They were still influencing the war, still controlling the fate of nations, even as they simply tried to escape it all.
And that was just fine as far as he was concerned.
“Quick.” Jilisic grabbed Garnisic’s hand and pulled him back inside the cell. She pulled a small totem out of her pocket and held it up as soldiers began to charge past, running after the elusive and increasingly obnoxious elf. Did Paulin really have to end every adventure with running off into the wilderness? They could have snuck around town and found their wagon, possibly recovered more supplies, but no.
A few soldiers glanced into the jail, but kept running forward, likely as a result of whatever field Jilisic was projecting. After a few moments, they all vanished from sight, and she deactivated the totem. Slowly, she turned to Garnisic and flashed a small smile.
“You’re not a Fond’sar agent, are you?”
“Not in the traditional sense.” Garnisic sighed. “Though I’m told that I’ve been quite a help in the past. Still trying to figure out exactly what that means.” After a few seconds, he shrugged. “I assume you’re going to kill me or wipe my mind now?”
“Not exactly.” Jilisic shrugged with a small smirk. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a small coin, which she passed to Garnisic. “Keep this close. It doesn’t look like much, but I assure you, it may well prove to save your life someday.”
Garnisic glanced down at the coin. It was copper, displaying a hammer above what appeared to be a ram’s horn. He frowned, then nodded and tucked it into his robe. “What does it mean?”
“That much, I cannot say.” Jilisic shrugged. “I can only do what my mission permits me to do. In this case, give you the hammer, give you the coin, and subtly let it slip that my mission had something to do with you and not some mysterious package.”
Garnisic nodded and stroked his beard. “You’re failing on the subtlety, but I’m really not going to complain. Anything else I can get out of you?”
“Good luck, Garnisic.” Jilisic folded her arms and vanished from sight. “I desperately hope we will meet again.”
Garnisic stared at the spot she had been standing in for a few moments longer before sighing and turning away. As he stepped out through the broken hole in the wall, a single word echoed through the air. He wasn’t sure if it had been whispered to him, carried along on magical winds, or simply conjured up from his imagination. Nevertheless, it had been there, and it roundly chilled him to the bone.
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