“This really is the life, isn’t it?” Paulin inhaled deeply as he walked up the small dirt path, winding between two large fields of wheat. “Couldn’t you just live here forever?”
“You ask me that every day.” Kisidera chuckled dryly. “My answer is still the same as it’s been: No. No, I couldn’t.”
Paulin forced a thin smile as the two of them kept walking upwards. No, of course not. It was, indeed, the same conversation that they had been having for nearly two months at that point. Winter was nearing its end, and the warmer winds of spring were on the rise. Soon, the flowers would begin to bloom on the meadows. Soon, the animals of the field would be jaunting playfully through the grasses, tumbling and fighting as nature declared. Soon, Sapphire would return, and the group would be together once more. Which meant that, soon, they would be forced to leave.
Paulin’s heart ached at the idea of leaving. He wanted nothing more than to sit on the shores, listen to the roar of the waves, ride out upon the water to haul in a great catch of fish, and sit and listen to the windcasters.
As they reached the top of the cliff, Kisidera gave his hand a soft squeeze and let go. Quietly, she walked up to the edge of the stone and sat down, draping her legs off the sheer, fifty-foot drop. Paulin sat down next to her, as she took a deep breath.
“Paulin, I really like you. I sincerely hope you know that.” Kisidera shrugged. “And I love that you love this. Seeing you come home every night with such a massive smile on your face warms my heart in a way I don’t think you could understand, but…” She gestured vaguely at the waves. “I can’t stay here. Maybe someday we can come back to the ocean, build a house on the cliffs, but you promised me that we would go after my parents. I’m still expecting that from you. I haven’t seen them in years, I have to find them again. At the least, I need to know whether they’re alive or dead. Is that so much to ask?”
“No, not at all.” Paulin shook his head. “I promised you we would go. I stand by that promise. I’m just enjoying the view while we travel.” He shrugged and gestured out at the raging ocean, so alive with power and potential. “Is this really so bad?”
“Not at all.” Kisidera leaned against him softly. “I just… I want you to know that I need to find my parents. I need to find them. And I’m afraid that the longer you stay here, the harder it’s going to be for you to leave.”
“I…” Paulin glanced out at the ocean. In a way, he couldn’t blame her for having concerns. He didn’t want to leave. He didn’t want to go anywhere else, not if it meant leaving the paradise that he had discovered. “I made you a promise. I will stand by that promise. I used to be a prince, my word means something.”
“I know.” Kisidera nodded. “I’m just worried. What happens when I get tired of waiting? Will you follow me if I decide to leave?”
“Absolutely.” Paulin nodded. “It’s not going to come to that, though. Sapphire will get back, we’ll wait for things to calm down a bit, and we’ll leave. With or without the group.” He flashed a sad smile. “I mean, we can’t get to them if we’re killed by Sintison’s army.”
“I guess not.” Kisidera shrugged. “I guess I just don’t understand why we stopped to begin with.”
“To stay safe.” Paulin closed his eyes for a brief moment. “After we fled Dindriir, they probably sent out scouts. The more we move, the more likely we are to run into those scouts. And the war isn’t getting any better.”
Kisidera nodded slowly, and Paulin sighed. While Wind Ceremonies only took place once a week, the windcasters were up on their pillar every night, gathering stories of the dead and the fallen. From what Paulin understood, every single person on Calsin who died released their stories to the wind, where they could be gathered. Once a story was told, it could never be told again, as it had become text instead of thought. Or something to that tune.
At that moment, well over half the stories that they brought down with them were casualties from the raging war between Elsinor and Sintison. Every single Wind Ceremony that Paulin had attended since the first ceremony the group was present for had told the story of someone lost in the war effort. Soldiers, civilians, generals, shopkeepers, they were all included. Together, they spun the story of a war that had drawn its lines somewhere midway through Elsinor. The armies of Sintison had pitched their tents, the armies of Elsinor were doing everything in their power to keep from being overrun completely. And, of course, something was happening with Taninor, though the two dwarven stories that had been collected seemed to tell opposing narratives about what Taninor’s intentions truly were. Maybe they were preparing on invading Elsinor after Sintison took control. Maybe they were planning on invading Donisil. It was hard to know for sure, only that dwarven troops were being readied for war.
“Paulin, we don’t know what the war is doing.” Kisidera shrugged. “The people who are dying don’t know. We can only put together the pieces, and that’s if these windcasters are even telling the truth. Not to mention that they’re not exactly trying to discern current events, they’re just trying to collect people’s life stories or something. It’s honestly kinda morbid if you think about it.”
“I try not to.” Paulin shook his head. “Come on, Kisidera. I made a promise to you. You yourself stated that you’re a young elf. You have more life ahead of you than six humans, assuming you die of old age. So do your parents. We’ll get down there.”
“Paulin?” Kisidera sighed and climbed to her feet. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but… You use words to fight. You always have, as long as I’ve known you, and you’re good at it.” She sighed. “You’re the best I’ve ever known, actually. And that’s all I’m hearing right now. Words. Until I see some actions, I’m probably going to continue to feel this way.”
With that, Kisidera turned and started wandering back down to the village. Paulin watched her go, sighing softly as she vanished. That really wasn’t how he had wanted the conversation to go. Of course, he hadn’t really had any particular plans for the conversation, he had just wanted to spend some time with his girlfriend, but that was a bit much to ask, apparently.
Idly, he began to tap his fingers on his legs. He couldn’t blame her for getting restless, he supposed. They had been there for months now, just watching and waiting for Sapphire to return, waiting for news that the war had calmed down. So far, none of that had happened. They had no real idea if Sintison’s army had ousted the Ambassador from power. They had no real idea who was winning in the fight, no real understanding of what the larger implications of the war would be. And, frankly, Paulin was loving it.
For the first time in his life, he was truly free from responsibility. When he had left the palace to chase after Hesione, he had still had the fears of ruling looming over him, ready for whenever he brought her back. Upon his return, he had been thrust into the battle between the angels, where his specific set of skills had been required to help them stay alive. Now, exiled from Elsinor, he could finally just live out his life without having to worry about the next battle, the next time someone would try to kill them. Of course, there was a heaping pile of evidence showing that he still had a great deal of time-traveling in both his future and his past, but as far as he was concerned, that evidence could go take a swim. If it happened, it would happen. He had no particular desire to speed up that process any more than necessary.
Even as he sat there, a scream echoed from far below him, resounding up the hills to his position. He sighed and climbed up from the cliff face, turning and jogging back down the path. What was it now? Could they seriously not catch a break longer than a few months?
As he ran through the fields and into the village, he caught a glimpse of several armored horses standing by themselves near the town lodge. His blood ran cold, and he slowed to a halt. The army was here. Had they tracked the group to the secluded village? Was this just a standard visit asking for donations to the war effort? What was their purpose here?
“Paulin.” Kisidera poked her head out of a nearby home and waved at him. “Come! Quickly!”
Paulin nodded and ducked into the home, where a human woman stood next to the doorway, a wand in her hand. She nodded at the rear of the home, where Kisidera stood next to a bed. Paulin walked over next to her, and the woman raised the wand and cast a spell across them, creating the illusion of a cabinet around their bodies. She then put a finger to her lips and tucked the wand away in her robes.
Paulin glanced at Kisidera and frowned. “What’s wrong?”
“I don’t know.” Kisidera shrugged and crossed her arms nervously. “I saw the soldiers, and Kindra told me to hide in here. I think it has something to do with their books, but I don’t know for sure.”
Paulin felt an instant flash of curiosity. He tapped his foot softly, then stepped forward, breaking the illusion. The woman turned and glared back at him, but he held a finger to his lips and slid forward, positioning himself next to the doorway. From there, he could just see through the cloth to the lodge entrance. Several minutes passed in waiting before two fully armored soldiers came stomping out, followed by elder Mackara, a mottled elf likely nearing a millennium in age.
“If I’ve told you people once, I’ve told you a thousand times. You can’t edit the tomes of the dead. Now leave before anything happens that someone regrets.”
“The only one with regrets will be you, old man.” The soldiers slung themselves up onto their horses. “The treaty between the King and the Windcasters states that no classified information will be released to the public.”
“And this treaty will be upheld.” Mackara nodded forcefully. “All books containing classified information will be placed in the secluded archives of the Windmasters. Nothing will be given to Sintison’s enemies.”
“This cannot be assured.” The soldiers drew their swords, grabbed their shields from their horses, and began banging them together loudly. A small crowd began to gather, and the soldiers took an official stance. “By word of King Korvac of Sintison, all books of the dead involving soldiers of Sintison or Elsinor must be turned over upon our next visit. Failure will result in harsh penalties. I hope we have made ourselves clear.”
With that, the soldiers turned and thundered away, vanishing down the trails. Paulin slowly stood up, breathing softly. The woman sighed and glared at him, but replaced her wand in her robes and stepped outside. Paulin followed, with Kisidera not far behind him. More people began to gather as Kindra and Nurthial walked out of the lodge and took their positions next to Mackara. The three of them glanced at each other for several seconds before Mackara finally raised his hands and clapped. The sound was projected across the area as the crowd continued to grow.
“Many of you just heard what happened. For those who didn’t, it is nothing that has not happened before. Once again, the government of Sintison has descended on us, demanding that the books of the dead be turned over for editing and destruction.”
A series of boos echoed across the crowd, and Kindra held up her hands as well. “As Mackara has said, this is nothing that has not happened before, though doing so in a time of war is a bit new for myself.” She smirked. “Perhaps not for the truly elderly, I suppose. Nevertheless, while not unheard-of, it does require a bit of preparation on our part.”
“Why not just take the books to Donenrot?” An older fisherman stood up. “Just get them to the authorities?”
“There will be blockades set up to intercept all the villages that try to do just that.” Kindra sighed. “Our best bet is to hide them. We have many small caves with hidden cavities. We will hide the books, then return them to Donenrot as planned upon the eve of the Summer Solstice.”
“Wait a minute.” Paulin held up a hand, drawing nearly every eye in attendance. Off to his right, he could see Hesione standing there, arms crossed, an odd look on her face. “Where would these blockades be set up?”
“In years past, they will place them on the roads leading directly into Donenrot itself.” Mackara gestured vaguely to the south. “There are too many villages to effectively curb the tide of hazardous material otherwise. I was on a mission trying to sneak the books past them, once. They were checking all the wagons that weren’t upper-class vehicles, and since we can’t afford such a fare, we were prime targets. Many volumes were confiscated that day, though we were later able to retrieve them. It is too much of a risk.”
Paulin glanced at Kisidera, who nodded slightly. After a few moments, he turned back to the elder. “Perhaps we can help.”
Nurthial raised a weary eyebrow. “How so?”
“We have… Methods of procuring much more valuable equipment than is befitting of our status.” Paulin shrugged. “As long as we haven’t been discovered yet, I think we can get your books into Donenrot without any issues.”
“And you would do this for us?” Mackara crossed his arms. “Why? And how can we know that we can trust you?”
“Send one of your people with us to keep an eye on us.” Paulin shrugged, then glanced down at Kisidera. “And, as far as why we would do it… I think it’s about time we were moving on anyway. With the war as intense as it is, now seems like a perfect time to try to head south and get out of Sintison entirely.”
The elders turned and began to talk amongst themselves. Kisidera reached up and began to squeeze Paulin’s hand in excitement. After a few moments, the elders turned around and nodded slowly.
“It is agreed. You will only take the books that the soldiers will be interested in. You will follow the strict rules and regulations regarding their use. You will deliver them to the primary Windmaster archive in Donenrot, taking no detours and ensuring their prompt delivery.” Mackara took a step forward. “We have no way of enforcing a threat, just know how sacred these items are that we are entrusting to you. Take care of them, whatever you do. Please.”
“I swear, it will be done.” Paulin flashed a small smile. “Just tell us what we need to do.”
As he stepped forward, the other villagers began to disperse. Garnisic, Hesione, and Ondernifam began to wander over to him, curiosity written all over their faces. Slowly, preparing to defend himself, Paulin took a deep breath.
“We get to head out again?” Garnisic flashed a smile. “Let’s get these books loaded up.”
“I will flay the soldiers who stand in our way!” Ondernifam roared.
Paulin glanced at Hesione, who shrugged. “I certainly see no reason we can’t head out. I’ve enjoyed this, but I wouldn’t mind seeing a bit more of the country. As long as we’re being safe.”
Paulin nodded slowly. If they headed out, they would be leaving the sea, the greatest home he could ever have imagined. They would be heading into the depths of the city that was so desperately trying to kill them. And yet, they would be moving in the right direction for Kisidera. They would be searching out her family. Maybe someday he would even be able to have a family with her. The thought brought a smile to his face, and he slowly took a breath. Maybe things wouldn’t be so bad after all.
“Then it’s settled.” He nodded. “We’ll head to Donenrot, meet up with Sapphire.” He slowly took a deep breath. “And then try to get out of Sintison before anyone notices that we’re there.”
“The life and death of Harold the Wise, sorcerer of the Goblet.” Sapphire sighed and flipped open the volume and began to skim the pages. She had only a few brief hours before she was required to report to work, and wanted to make the most of it. Carefully, she drew on the magical field in an effort to speed up her reading.
Her eyes skimmed across the handwritten pages, soaking up the story of a man born in Donitor, the land of vampires and werewolves, who was hidden by a family of nighthawks who sought to keep him safe from harm. Upon his tenth birthday, he was granted the goblet, which he used to give great gifts to those who only sought to cause him harm. Eventually, he made it across the mountains and into Notirot, where he became a trusted advisor to the ruling Elite and helped avoid several vampiric wars that threatened to spring up at the time. Eventually, he died after contracting the Blight trying to save a family threatened by the deadly disease.
As she read the last page, Sapphire lowered the book back to the table and broke herself from the speed-reading trance that she had fallen into. The information stayed in her head, retained even after devouring the book in far less time than was optimal. As her trance flowed away, she turned and glanced at the wall of the archive, where sunlight slipped in through a slit in the enormous dome. The light was hovering just next to the third mark on the wall, indicating that she still had around two hours before she needed to be back at the pub.
She took a deep breath, slid the book to the side, and grabbed the next book on her pile. “The wonderous tale of Elizabeth the Brave.” She fell into the same trance, flipping through pages every few seconds.
By the time she finished, the sunlight on the wall rested firmly between the fourth and fifth mark. She swore softly under her breath: She had become quite engrossed in the story and had lost track of time. Elizabeth had been a sorceress of the cape, which provided a single point of fascination for Sapphire. They were almost universally treated as next-to-insane for their insistence on protecting life, and yet they were some of the kindest and most loving people on the continent.
Sapphire closed her eyes as the story filtered through her mind, then stood up and shook off the remaining vestiges of the trance. That done, she scooped up the short stack of books that she had been working with that day and scurried back through the impossibly massive Windmaster Archive.
To call it a masterpiece would be a striking understatement. The building itself was rectangular, stretching out for nearly a quarter mile in length across the lower quarters of Donenrot. Every two-three hundred feet, a dome would rise from the ceiling, allowing light to flow in through massive slots. Intricate patterns and images were engraved on the domes, while a dozen-tiered chandelier hung from the ceilings inside the structures for light at night or during weather that required the ceiling to be closed.
Stretching out underneath the domes, filling the expanse of the archive, were hundreds of thousands of shelves. Sapphire had been told upon arrival that the structure contained over five hundred million lives, though she was fairly certain that such a number was far too low. Floor upon floor was stacked on top of one another, though there were numerous breaks in the floor to allow for access. Most notably, all space underneath the domes was open, all the way down to the main floor. Thousands of staircases traced their way up and down through the stacks, in some place plunging deep beneath the ground in tight spirals that looked as though someone had taken a core sample from the archive. There were thousands of small alcoves for studying, filled with quill pens for transcribing the details onto other sheets of paper as well as various focusing devices used for better concentration.
Sapphire took the books from her alcove and tore through the archive, racing for the front desk. Since she was stationed on a floor that overlooked one of the great open entryways beneath a dome, this was a fairly easy task, as stairs wound down around the inside of the cavity to the floor. As she arrived at the base, breathless, she was met by a wizened Windmaster wearing robes reminiscent of the realm mages in Distisil.
He held out his hands, and she gladly placed the volumes in his arms. As she turned away, a tree-like golem stomped over to assist him in returning the books to their proper place. With that, Sapphire bolted, racing through the entryway, past the carved statues and ornate artwork.
As she tore through the massive wooden doors, she found herself on a brightly-lit street preparing itself for the evening. Foot traffic was starting to increase as jobs let out, while pub owners began to send out their criers announcing their sales, meals, and available rooms. Sapphire ignored it all, instead simply turning to the right and running down the street, ducking past gentlemen in chaperons and beggars in bare rags.
As she ran, she cast a single glance up the side of the mountain at the place of Sintison. Donenrot, many years earlier, had been built on an artificial mountain that in turn had been built by the giants. Now, nearly a thousand feet above them, the rulers of Sintison called their orders for war in a land that they could go their entire lives without setting foot on. She spat at the palace, then continued to run.
She arrived at a small wooden pub just as the sun sank below the artificial horizon. It was tucked between two other shops, a tailor and a meatpacker, both of which had closed for the day. The young aqahartis on the steps flashed a smile at her as she ran past him, and she risked a single wave in his direction before crashing through the doors in what probably amounted to quite a ruckus.
“You’re here.” The woman behind the counter barked at her. “About time.”
“I’m not late yet.” Sapphire walked through the mostly empty room and stepped behind the bar, where she scooped up her work robes, along with a sword and shield emblazoned with the bar’s logo. A moment later, a loud gong echoed though the air, and she held up a finger. “Now I’m late. Or would be.”
“You keep cutting it this close, one of these days you’ll wind up getting kicked out.” The woman shook her head. “If that happens… Well, you’re a girl on the streets of Donenrot. You’re lucky you got this job to begin with.”
“Oh, I don’t think luck had much to do with it.” Sapphire stepped around the bar and ducked into a back room. “See you after the rush!”
The woman snorted something unintelligible, and Sapphire just shook her head. She ducked into the small changing room, stripped off her studious robes that she was required to wear in the Windmaster archives, and changed into the approved combat robes. With that, she stepped back out, placed her personal belongings in a locker, sealed it with a quick spell, and jogged down the stairs to the lower barroom.
The lower room, as with many buildings in Donenrot, was a bit of an interesting beast. The walls were ancient stone, the structure that the giants themselves had built up countless millennia ago. Torches blazed around the walls as flame danced magically around the room, illuminating various gambling tables that likely weren’t fully legal. At the rear of the room, though, was the gate.
As Donenrot was built over what amounted to an ancient palace, there were, naturally, thousands upon thousands of ancient passageways that cut through the mountain to form a labyrinth of corridors, caverns, and so much more. Over the years, these passages had been cleared out and used for all manners of black market activities. These passages now connected to nearly every shop in the lower quarters of the city, to allow for less reputable clientele to move between shops without being seen by the law.
The only problem with this was the fact that the tunnels descended far below the ground, far deeper than sentient species could safely venture without fear. Which, naturally, had caused a whole manner of necromancers, crazed mages, and dwarven enchanters to use the place as a haven. This, of course, only caused even more monsters to appear as their creators died, which meant that good guards standing up to protect the establishments were in high demand.
As Sapphire arrived at the gate, she found the day guard, a man named Lacerin, leaning against the open bars with a glazed expression on his face. Sapphire tapped him on the shoulder, causing him to jerk suddenly and spin to the side before gasping with relief.
“Sapphire! I thought you were the boss.”
“Nope.” Sapphire shook her head, then lowered her voice. “She’s cranky today. Tread lightly.”
“She’s cranky every day.” Lacerin sighed and turned to the side. “Haven’t seen a thing all day. There haven’t even been any good rumors of monsters within the depths. You should have an eventless night.”
“Sometimes, I like the crazy nights best.” Sapphire sighed and took her position. “Get some rest. You look like you need it.”
“I always need rest.” Lacerin turned and stumbled away. “Best of luck!”
Sapphire gave him a short wave, then settled in for the night. Through the open gate, a carved tunnel ran a short fifty feet to the intersection of a much larger tunnel, through which could be seen blazing lights and a handful of passers-by. A couple glanced at the entrance to the bar, though none entered. Not just yet, at least. The crowd typically started entering around an hour after Sapphire’s shift started, though there were certainly exceptions.
That day was nothing extraordinary, as people began filing in just as the smells of baked meat pies began to waft down out of the kitchen and into the corridor. First came a few well-dressed gentlemen, then a handful of street rats with little more than rags covering their bodies, and then the floodgates opened. People of all shapes, sizes, and species began to walk into the establishment, ready for an evening of food and excitement.
Even in the lower districts of Donenrot, Sapphire did have to admit that even the average homeless beggar was better off than the average individual in lesser cities. After only a short time after opening, the homeless beggars began to file back out, finishing off the last bits of their ale and pies. They couldn’t stick around for the gambling, of course, but they had full bellies and a warm, interior place to sleep. Was it perfect? No, but it was better than many other places Sapphire had seen.
As the evening continued to pass, shouts of revelry began to echo through the tavern behind her. Gambling games began to swing into action, harps and lutes began to strum out chords of music for the people to enjoy. Sapphire’s stomach began to grumble, and she set her jaw. She didn’t have much longer until she got off work, she just needed to hold out until then.
Before long, a surprised shout echoed from the larger corridor. Several people walked past the entrance of the bar a bit faster than normal, and Sapphire readied her swords. Probably a small monster of some sort. Idly, she began muttering under her breath.
“Please don’t come in here. Please don’t come in here.”
Failing to heed her pleas, a small blob of something that looked like seaweed shuffled around the corner of the tunnel. It stood on several spindly legs, rising to a height of about two feet. Without pausing, it scuffled forward, angling for the entrance of the bar.
Sapphire sighed and sheathed her sword. With a flick of her wrist, she formed a fireball in her right palm. The words of her boss then rose in her mind, and she sighed deeply. Right. She needed to make it look like a good fight for the customers. Or at least do something exciting.
For several seconds, she pondered the possibility of letting it attack her and knock her down. She decided to ignore that option, though, for fear that it might have some sort of hidden venom gland. Not wanting to waste any more time than necessary, she drew on the magical field, increasing the size of the fireball substantially. Now far larger than it would need to be to vanquish the small blob of slime, she threw the raging inferno at the creature, smiling as she caught a glimpse of a number of the patrons of the bar turning to look at her. With luck, the display of power would be more than enough to ensure her continued employment.
With a loud splurch, the blob of seaweed absorbed the entire magical blast, not even leaving a trace of smoke. Sapphire’s eyes widened, and she raised her shield as fire blossomed inside the strange creature.
An instant later, a stream of fire exploded from the small monster. Sapphire cast a quick ward spell across the shield, causing an enormous blast of fire to roll around her and fill the gate with flame. That ought to look good. As the fire faded, she lowered the shield to find the creature far closer. Which was a bit discomforting considering how easily it had survived her last blast.
Curious, she drew her sword and stabbed down into the back of the blob. It collapsed almost instantly, withering into mere dust. Sapphire grimaced as a collective groan echoed through the room. She flicked her hand, using magic to sweep the dust out of the way, then took up her stance again. The creature had almost killed her, and she had received a groan because it had been a bit anticlimactic? Tough crowd.
Several more hours passed in this way before Nurisan, an aqahartis girl, came down to relieve her. Sapphire thanked her, updated her on the events of the night, then slowly walked up the stairs to the kitchen. There, the chef rapidly rolled out dough, folded scraps of meat into the proper shapes, and tossed the pies into the oven. A rather overweight mottled elf named Thadrir, he looked up as Sapphire entered, laughing heartily at her expense.
“Sounds like you had quite the stinker down there, eh?”
Sapphire rolled her eyes and sat down on a stool in the middle of the kitchen. The room was rectangular, with everything spread out so that Thadrir could easily move from one cooking station to the next. He bustled past Sapphire in a rush, tossing dough with one hand while grabbing a knife with his other.
“The thing spat my fireball back at me.” Sapphire crossed her arms. “It looked awesome. I assumed that it was immune to magic, stabbed it, and killed the thing instantly.”
“Rookie mistake.” Thadrir snorted. “Help yourself to the pies, by the way. If you’re looking for your pay, the boss just dropped it off in your box.”
Sapphire flashed a small smile, stood up, and walked over to the section of the kitchen used for employee management. She found the small box marked with her name and popped it open, frowning at the small sack contained within. As she pulled the strings open, she found only a few small coins, slightly less than her previous day’s wages. Likely a subtle hint to make things more exciting the next time. She sighed, pocketed the money, and walked back over to the cooling rack where she grabbed two of the small pies. She devoured the first one in two bites, doing her best to swallow the meal before her boss could notice, and then walked back out into the main portion of the tavern holding the second pie. Making sure that she was within view of the patrons of the bar, she ate the pie slowly, making soft noises to indicate her pleasure at the meal. When that painful task was finally complete, she turned and jogged into the rear of the tavern and changed back into her ordinary clothes.
At that point, she puffed out her cheeks and glanced down at the sack of coins. After a few moments of deliberation, she stalked down the stairs to the gambling room. Nurisan glanced back at her and made a small face, and Sapphire just grinned. With that, she walked over to a table with a number of well-dressed gentlemen: One high elf, one dark elf, and two humans. All held small hands of cards, while a small deck of cards sat at the exact center of the table.
“Got room for another?” Sapphire raised an eyebrow as she sauntered up.
The two elves turned and looked down their noses at her, but the two humans just laughed. The older human, a man she had seen a number of times before but had yet to learn the name of, snorted rather loudly.
“Do we have room? No, of course not! I’d rather keep hold of all my money this evening, if you don’t mind.”
“You would associate with the likes of a simple servant girl?” The high elf sighed. “Such low standards in this city these days.”
Sapphire just shrugged and sat down. “You’re always welcome to visit classier establishments. I can only assume that the fact you’re down here means that you’ve recently lost a lot of money in some wager, and you’re trying to find easy marks with which to build it back up?”
The elderly human slapped the table and pointed at the elf. “She’s got you there!”
The high elf ground his teeth together loudly before sighing and placing his cards facedown on the table. “Perhaps we should finish our current round before we make any rash decisions.”
“Works for me.” The younger human, likely the older human’s son, flipped his cards over. “I’ve got three slaves and a master. That’s a workforce, so unless you’ve got something to beat me with, I think I’ve got this pot.”
The dark elf and the elderly human both threw their cards down in disgust. The high elf simply stared at the younger human before slowly flipping his cards over. They revealed three kings, an oligarchy if Sapphire remembered the card titles correctly. The younger human winced before shrugging.
“Alright, then. Gods’ wager?”
“Gods’ wager.” The high elf simply inclined his head. Slowly, the younger human reached out and flipped over the top card of the deck, revealing a single slave card.
With a hoot, the younger human reached out and scooped up the small pile of money in the center of the table. The high elf sighed and began collecting the cards, folding them into the center pile. With that, he began to shuffle, his golden fingers flicking rapidly across the card faces.
“Well, now.” He glanced at his fellow gamblers. “Shall we continue with standard play, or should we do something more fitting for five people? The Seafarer’s Folly, perhaps?”
“I’m partial to Orcish Bloodlust, personally.” The younger human raised a hand. “Anyone else?”
Sapphire flashed a smile. “That one’s my favorite.”
“Mine too.” The elderly human smiled at her for a moment. “Then it’s settled. Orcish Bloodlust. I believe the pot starts at two pieces, correct?”
Sapphire opened her small bag and started glancing through the currency that she had been provided. After a few seconds, she reached in and fished out two gold pieces, tossing them to the center of the table. Everyone else did the same, though the high elf had to finish shuffling the deck before he could add his own gold to the mix. Sapphire’s mouth began to water at the gold down in front of the high elf. Several piles of gold pieces, but also larger gold coins were present. And that was just what he had visible. It was possible that he had more in reserve, seeking to keep his true strength hidden.
“Orcish Bloodlust it is.” The high elf picked up the deck once more. “Would the young girl care to activate the anti-magic field?”
Sapphire’s eyebrows lowered. Before she had arrived, they had been playing without the anti-cheat device. Oh, well. She didn’t need magic to beat them. It was a great help, but not necessary, she supposed. She reached out and pressed a small rune on the table, activating a field that would negate most known forms of magic.
With that, the high elf dealt two cards to each individual before placing the deck back in the center. Sapphire slowly picked up her cards, curious at what she might have received. She did her best not to let her face show at a slave card and a peasant card. Not a great hand, though not terrible in the Orcish Bloodlust variation of the game.
“Since I dealt, I believe that our fine young friend gets to go first.” The high elf’s voice was really beginning to annoy Sapphire. “Would you care to take your turn?”
“Gladly.” Sapphire inclined her head, trying to keep her sarcastic comments. “I sacrifice one card, raise the pot by two pieces.”
With that, she placed her peasant card down on the table, face-down, and tossed two gold pieces into the center. Next was the elderly human, who matched her raise and placed both of his cards down on the table. The young human matched the raise, but played no cards. The dark elf did the same, leading it back to the high elf. Sapphire held her breath as he prepared for his own turn.
In the Orcish Bloodlust version of the game, it was possible for the dealer to instigate a “Bloodlust phase” on his turn, where all cards being held would be discarded and new cards drawn. The high elf stared at her for a brief moment before shaking his head slightly, placing a single card down on the table, and matching Sapphire’s raise. With that done, he dealt out two more cards to each player.
Sapphire looked at her new hand, once more trying to process things without giving away too much. Her new cards were a shipmate and a dragon, giving her three mostly unrelated cards in her hand with a peasant down on the table. What to do, what to do…
Her eyes narrowed as a thought struck her. The dragon, combined with the peasant, was a perfect setup for a Village Assault, a mid-high-level hand. She would need a few other cards, but it was possible. The only problem was that the high elf was watching her very seriously. If she played the dragon face-down, it would let him know that she had something worthwhile. On the flip side, if she kept the cards in her hand, he might assume that she had a particularly valuable card down on the table and was trying to get something good to go with it.
“I hold.” Sapphire finally nodded and lowered her cards, preventing the others from seeing what she had concealed. The elderly human frowned, then placed a third card on the table next to his existing sacrificed cards. The young human, with four cards in hand, scowled and placed a single card on the table before nodding to the dark elf.
The dark elf placed three cards down on the table and nodded softly. “I raise by two pieces.”
Play then passed to the high elf. The man turned and frowned at Sapphire, an odd look on his face. As far as Sapphire was concerned, he needed to be a great deal more worried about the dark elf, though she supposed that the two of them may have had some sort of an agreement.
“I match your raise.” The man dropped two gold pieces into the center, then placed two more cards down next to his original. “And I, in turn, raise by four pieces. No substitutions.”
Sapphire bit her lip and glanced down into her bag. She only had five pieces left, and with nine pieces equaling one coin and a no substitutions rule, it meant that in order to keep in the game she would have to sacrifice an entire coin.
“Oh, come on.” The elderly human shook his head. “That’s no fair. Allow substitutions!”
“No, it’s okay.” Sapphire withdrew one of her three pieces from her bag and tossed it into the table. “Six more pieces to you, I believe.”
Both humans and the dark elf matched the pot, and Sapphire bit her lip. The high elf then held up his single card and flashed a small smile. “I declare a Bloodlust phase.”
No. No, this couldn’t be! Sapphire felt her hopes dwindling as the other players tossed the cards in their hand into the discard pile. The high elf raised an eyebrow and nodded at her.
“That would be three cards to you, I believe?”
Sapphire nodded numbly. She didn’t even look at her cards as the high elf went around and dealt out the other cards. He then dealt a single final card to everyone for the final round and nodded at Sapphire.
“Your turn, I believe?”
Sapphire sighed and picked up her hand. As she took in the sight, she nearly cried with joy. Oh, how she loved fate sometimes.
“I raise by three pieces.” She laid all her cards down on the table. “I sacrifice all, and I pass the turn.”
The elderly human chuckled, compared his two cards in hand with the cards on the table, and lowered his hands into his lap. “I’m out.”
The younger human’s face twitched for a few short moments before he too lowered his hands. Not saying a word, he simply nodded at the dark elf. The man turned and frowned at Sapphire, then nodded and tossed in three gold pieces and placed a fourth card on the table.
The high elf let out an exasperated snort and turned to glare at Sapphire. “Just what are you trying to pull?”
“I’m simply playing the game.” Sapphire pointed at the small rune on the table, which blinked with a red light. “The anti-magic field is in place. Nothing I’ve done is illegal. Make your move.”
The high elf continued to stare at her, then placed a fourth card into his own sacrifice pile and dropped three pieces into the pot. Then, staring her in the eyes, he lifted a single gold coin off his stack and dropped it into the pot. “I raise you by one coin.”
Next to him, his partner let out a small yelp. Sapphire just smirked, reached into her bag, and withdrew one single gold coin that she dropped into the center of the table. Oh, she hoped that he didn’t have one of the few four-card combinations that could beat the cards she had. The dark elf glanced back and forth between the two of them, likely knowing that his gold coin would be going to one of the two of them, and finally sighed and dropped in his own piece of the pot. The two humans leaned back, chuckling softly.
“Alright, then.” The high elf flipped over his own cards. Revealed were a king, a queen, and two soldiers. A Royal Guard. “Anyone else?”
The dark elf sighed and revealed his own four cards. Two monsters, two slaves. Sapphire believed that the grouping of cards was called a Necessary Sacrifice. It was a decent hand, but as monsters and slaves were the two most common card types in the deck, it wasn’t anything particularly wonderful. The high elf then nodded at Sapphire, a curious gleam in his eyes.
“Alright, girl. Let’s see what you’ve got.”
Sapphire shrugged and began flipping over her cards one at a time. A peasant. A slave. A shipmate. A soldier. A beggar. The two humans began to laugh as the high elf’s face fell.
“I do believe that the hand is called ‘The Lower Rebellion.’” Sapphire smirked. “I do thank you very much for your donation. Your timing on the Bloodlust was impeccable.”
With that, she began scooping up the money, dropping it into her purse. By the time she finished, the sack bulged so much that she could barely get it closed. The high elf was left to sputter as the dark elf picked up the deck to begin to shuffle. As the next hand was prepared, Sapphire waved at one of the waitresses, who bounded over with a flourish. Sapphire tossed her a gold piece and flashed a smile.
“Two meat pies and a bottle of butter ale. I’d like to enjoy my winnings.”
The waitress smiled and vanished, coming back down a few minutes later with the requested food. By that time, Sapphire was well into the midst of a much worse hand, which she ultimately had to fold on.
Nevertheless, she didn’t particularly mind as the night wore on. She backed out early of several hands in a row, losing only a few gold pieces, before winning several more rather massive pots. The high elf became increasingly hostile, allowing her a great deal of control over the game. If she began to bid, he did the same, reacting to her movement rather than his hands. After only a few short hours, she had filled her pockets with gold while he was left to pull out his last few purses to keep playing.
Finally, Sapphire climbed from her chair, feeling a bit woozy but quite good, all things considered. With a flourish, she waved at the high elf and turned away. “Anytime you’d like to come back, I’d love to have you.”
The elf spat several nasty-sounding words at her, which she mostly ignored as she stumbled up the stairs, past the kitchen, and into her room. As she closed the door, she used both a physical and magical lock to ensure that no one would be following her in, then smiled and walked to her bed. With a snap of her fingers, the mattress rose into the air, revealing a small chest. It sprang open with another snap of her fingers, which she poured all her money into. The task took quite a long time, which made her rather pleased.
As soon as that was done, she set the mattress back in place, crawled beneath the blankets, and cast herself out to the magical field. She would meditate for a few hours, possibly as long as five, and then head out as soon as she was done. Back to the archives for a few short hours until she had to work again.
A small smile crossed her face as she sat there. It wasn’t a glamorous life by any stretch of the imagination, but it was something. She was able to study, and after just a few more weeks working at the tavern, she would have enough gold to afford to rent an inn near the Windmaster archive for the remainder of her time in Donenrot. And then, she would be able to spend three full months doing nothing but studying. Focusing.
Yes, indeed. As she fell into her meditation, her mind whirled with the possibilities. No, it wouldn’t be long before she was able to regain her full power. At least, that was her desperate hope.
“And so, the great sorceress fell into despair at her loss, and cast herself over the edge of the volcano.”
Sapphire frowned as she shut the book. That had been a far darker ending than she had been expecting. She sighed and pushed the book away, glancing at the light on the wall. The markers were in a slightly different spot, as they were every day, constantly adjusted by the Windmasters to accommodate for the changing position of the sun throughout the year. According to the light, she had around an hour before she needed to return to work. She glanced at her to-read pile, then shook her head and climbed to her feet. The four volumes she had made it through that day had been rather hefty, giving her quite a lot to think about.
Slowly, she climbed to her feet, took the volumes, and started wandering down the stairs to the main lobby. A Windmaster in training, denoted by his deep purple robes, met her halfway up and took the books from her. She thanked him, then continued down, musing over what she had learned.
It was the first day that she had actually read anything of the Ring after spending nearly a month going chronologically through all the stories that had been collected. It seemed that the Ring’s very first appearance had been shortly before the Dwarven Civil War, well over a thousand years after sorcerers began appearing. The first recorded recipient had been a man named Daniel, who had been rejected by the cloak after killing a thief in anger. Desperate for repentance, he had tried to use the Ring to prevent executions and stop natural disasters from killing people. Much like Sapphire, the Ring had withheld its power from him, until he grew so despondent at the loss of life and the loss of his former power that he fell on his sword.
The second example was only a few short years later, when a Sorceress of the Eye had been rejected after sparing the life of a dragon in the Scorched Lands. Once more, she had tried to use the Ring’s power for harnessed destruction, and when it denied her such abilities, she stayed in a meditative state until she was cut into pieces by the runes on her skin. Then, of course, there was the final example of the day, where an elven sorceress, granted the Ring to begin with in what was seen as a gesture from Persphone, wound up casting herself into a volcano after it continually denied her its power.
Sapphire just didn’t understand. Was the Ring’s sole purpose to drive people mad? That’s all it seemed to do. She glanced down at the strange artifact, which simply sat there on her finger, unmoving. She couldn’t take it off. She couldn’t use it with any sort of consistency. Was she doomed to the same fate? Would she ultimately be unable to control its power until she allowed herself to die in some horrible, self-inflicted manner?
She was so consumed in thought that she was almost run over by several Windmasters carrying large boxes through the entryway, filled with books for the archives. She dove out of the way at the last moment, frowning as the boxes were hefted onto the shoulders of several Windmasters and carried ceremoniously through the archives. It was an impromptu ceremony to be sure, but that’s certainly what it was. But… Why? As far as she knew, the new batches of books weren’t due for several more months yet.
“Sapphire?” Paulin’s voice echoed through the air. “Is that you?”
Sapphire spun to see the elf standing in the open doorway, a smile on his face. Sapphire’s jaw dropped, then nodded and raced towards him. As she reached the entryway, she found the rest of the team standing on the steps in a manner of disguises. Hesione was wearing a sleeveless dress, revealing for the world her mottled skin and black hair, while Paulin seemed to have several spots of makeup on his face to give him the appearance of being mottled as well. Garnisic and Ondernifam were both more or less themselves, though Ondernifam had been fitted with a suit that seemed absolutely unbecoming on the orc. Kisidera was sitting atop a large, ornate wagon that seemed far too nice to be owned by the ragtag group.
“Wow.” She breathed. “You guys are here!”
“Of course we are.” Paulin smiled, then frowned. “Admittedly, it wasn’t exactly our plan to show up, but we made it.”
“Well, I’m glad to have you.” Sapphire took a deep breath, then smiled. “Do you guys have a plan, now? You’ll need a place to stay, and I assume Kisidera’s Family connections aren’t going to work here long-term.”
Paulin shrugged. “Our plan is to sell the wagon first and foremost. Kisidera thinks she can get a couple thousand coins for it, and then we’ll try to find a place to stay for the time being. Our goal was to find you first, though, since you’d probably have a better lay of the land than us.”
“Well, once you get that sold, I set up an account at the Central Bank of Sintison that you can put your money in.” Sapphire nodded up the mountain. “I just put a bunch of gold in it this morning, I have about a thousand coins stored up there. It’s way safer than carrying around all that money, trust me.”
“I’ll take your word for it.” Paulin raised an eyebrow. “So weird. You can have money without having money.”
“You can say that again.” Sapphire frowned. “With that much gold, we should be able to find a room, at least for a short time.”
Paulin nodded at the archive. “How much more time do you need here?”
Sapphire puffed out her cheeks. She was nearly halfway through the sorcerous section of the archive. If she could do nothing but study, she could be finished in another week. More time than that would be preferred, of course, but the safety of the team had to come first.
“Not much.” She shook her head. “A week, maybe? And then we can get out of here.”
“Works for me.” Paulin inclined his head. “In that case, hop on. We’ll go find us a place.”
“Sounds incredible!” Sapphire smiled and walked over to the wagon, swinging up and over the side into the back. Her boss would likely be upset when Sapphire didn’t show up for work that night, but the plucky elf would find a way to deal with the issue. There was nothing in Sapphire’s room that needed taken, no personal items or money that needed retrieved. She was free to study, to focus, and to do it in what was undoubtedly the greatest city in existence.
As far as she was concerned, things couldn’t get much better than that.
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