“And so, Hera the Great was slain, betrayed by the orc she had once befriended.” Sapphire frowned down at the page as the story ended. “Well, that’s depressing.”
“Anything I can help you with?” A female Windmaster walked past, a concerned look on her face.
“No, I don’t think so.” Sapphire looked up from her desk, which sat on a small balcony overlooking the massive entry hall and ornate dome of the Windmaster archive. “Just browsing your selection of sorcerers.”
The Windmaster glanced down at Sapphire, then frowned. “You’re a sorceress yourself. Sapphire?”
Sapphire flashed a small smile. “Am I that famous?”
“Not compared to most sorcerers.” The Windmaster sat down at the table with Sapphire and folded her hands. Her brilliant blue robes seemed to mock Sapphire, and the fact that her own blue clothes were locked away. “Nevertheless, word does travel for those interested, and we seek to have knowledge of all current sorcerers, warlocks, and demigods in Calsin at any given time.” She gestured at the books, then pulled her long, brunette hair back behind her head. “Is there something I can help you with? It wasn’t my particular area of expertise, but I’ve studied the sorcerous texts in the past.”
Sapphire shrugged and glanced down at her ring. After a few seconds of tapping her fingers against the table, she nodded. It couldn’t hurt to talk to the woman. If there was any chance of understanding the power that lay literally at her fingertips, she needed to take it.
“I just can’t figure out what to do here.” She sighed and fingered the ring, twisting it back and forth on her finger. “I was rejected by the Pendant awhile back and granted the Ring a bit later. It has just as much magic as the Pendant, but I can’t actually access any of it.” She sighed and gestured at the pile of books. “From what I can tell, no one else has been able to truly use the Ring, either. They all just go insane trying to utilize its power.”
The Windmaster nodded slowly, then nodded at the stack of books. “Have you read the story of Borium the Meek yet?”
Sapphire scratched her head and thought back through all the various books that she had perused over the previous several weeks. “It doesn’t sound familiar.”
“You’ll need to find it.” The woman frowned. “It’s pretty small, easy to overlook if you’re not trying to find it specifically. He was one of the single most successful Ring sorcerers, even if his life itself wasn’t that particularly long or glamorous.”
“Really?” Sapphire crossed her arms. “How did he do it?”
“Simply put, he gave up the Ring.” The woman bit her lip. “I think he was subsequently selected by the Cape, if I remember correctly. I do know that he ultimately came to the conclusion that the Ring was never meant to be used as a sorcerous artifact at all, but was some sort of transitional form created by the other artifacts. You’d have to read his story for certain, it’s an interesting one.”
“I’ll go look for it.” Sapphire flashed a smile and climbed to her feet. “Thank you.”
“Not a problem.” The woman inclined her head. “Would you like me to clean up these books for you?”
“Yes, please.” Sapphire glanced across the dome at the sunlight slowly crawling up the wall. She didn’t have a job to get to anymore, but she still needed to reunite with the group at some point in the near future. “I’ll be back tomorrow.”
“Do not make such rash promises.” The woman’s words were hard, but she had a smile on her face. “You don’t know when you may be called to the underworld.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Sapphire sighed and turned away. “If I don’t show up tomorrow, look for my life in next year’s batch of stories.”
The Windmaster chuckled, and Sapphire walked back into the rows of books. The sorcerous books were nearby, she would have plenty of time to peruse the shelves for a few minutes before heading back to the inn where they were all staying. As she arrived, she once more bemoaned the fact that she was almost all the way through the collection. If there had been more books, she could have easily stayed and done nothing but read the collection of lives. It truly was an incredible experience.
With that thought, she began wandering up and down the length of the shelf, looking for Borium the Meek. The titles were carved into the spines, making it easy to find them, which made it all the more puzzling when she reached the end and found nothing. Two more trips up and down the length of the shelf revealed much of the same, as none of the titles even remotely matched the life she was looking for.
The Windmaster appeared several moments later, carrying the books that Sapphire had left on the table. As the woman began to slot the books back onto the shelves, she glanced at Sapphire in curiosity.
“Find what you were looking for?”
“No.” Sapphire shook her head. “I can’t find him anywhere.”
“Really?” The woman finished putting away the books and walked to a point midway down the shelf. Her finger traced across the titles before pausing between two particularly large volumes. After a few seconds, she frowned and tapped the spine of the books. “It should be right here.”
Sapphire sighed. “I guess it got lost, then.”
“Windmaster books do not just get lost.” The woman crossed her arms. After a few seconds, she turned to Sapphire. “Will you be back tomorrow?”
“I thought you were the one who just told me not to speak about the future like that.” Sapphire flashed a grin, then nodded. “It’s my plan, yes.”
“Be here upon the morning’s first light, I will find you and have news for you then.” The Windmaster nodded firmly. “If you cannot make it, I will leave word with the front attendant.”
“Once again, thank you.” Sapphire inclined her head. “Talk to you tomorrow!”
Sapphire cast one more longing look at the books, then turned and wandered away, back through the rows upon rows of shelves. She reached the inner chamber without issue, then slowly began to descend down towards the polished floor. It was strange, to think that there might actually be a book with the knowledge that she sought! She would be able to move on from the Ring, regain her power in some meaningful fashion.
She was so lost in thought that she didn’t see the man in the long, dark coat that rushed up the stairs, slamming into her quite roughly as he passed her. She was shoved to the side, where she very nearly fell over the edge of the railing. She turned and glared as the man swept upward, then frowned. As focused as she had been, the man looked oddly familiar.
She glanced down at the stairs leading down, back up at the man’s receding back, and turned to follow him as he pounded up the stairs. Familiar faces weren’t often seen in a city as large as Donenrot, whose residents were fond of proclaiming that they had a larger population than the entirety of Donisil, Notirot, or Sournous.
She followed the man as he continued up the stairs, passing by all the levels until he reached the uppermost point. Here, Sapphire paused as he set out among the books. If she wasn’t mistaken, these books were fairly restricted in their use. She glanced down the stairs once more, ensuring that none of the Windmasters were following her, and ducked after the strange man.
Only a few shelves deep into the upper section, a large fence rose from the ground, blocking and further progress into the archives. A single gate allowed for passage, which happened to be guarded by a rather massive and intimidating lock. Of course, the mysterious man was hunched over the lock, eyebrows furrowed as strands of magic began to leap from his fingers.
“Hello?” Sapphire spoke up, hoping not to startle him. “Are you okay?”
The man jumped quite powerfully, spinning to face her and bringing his hands up into an attack position. His facial features, seemingly that of someone in his mid-twenties, were twisted into a confused configuration.
“Do I know you?” He finally lowered his hands after a few moments. “You seem familiar.”
“You do too.” Sapphire gestured at the lock. “You working on something?”
“I need to figure out who I am.” He sighed and pointed at the door. “I think the answers lie in there, but the Windmasters haven’t been letting me in. I’ve been here for months, and they still won’t-”
“Wait.” Sapphire held up a hand. A face was rising in her memory, a face that she hadn’t seen for quite a long time. “You were in Donisil. You were hitting on me in a bar!”
The man’s face went blank, only to twist into a frown a moment later. “You did some sort of magic on me!”
“You were old and creepy!”
The man sighed and gestured vaguely at his head. “You think you could remove it? Whatever you did erased all my memory prior to meeting you. Not to mention the fact that it keeps co-opting my body anytime it senses a threat. Nasty bit of work, you did.”
Horror settled into Sapphire’s veins, and she put a hand over her mouth. “I’m so sorry.”
After a few seconds, the man shrugged. “No harm done, ultimately. I’d just like to get my life back.” He pointed at the gate. “I was carrying instructions from some people I was traveling with. I think they’re dead now, so… I was trying to learn about my earlier life. Since all the names I could come up with are locked behind that gate, I assume it’s something particularly epic.”
Sapphire flashed a small smile and held up her hands. “Let’s see what I can do.”
Magic began to blossom on her fingers as she drew on Calsin’s magical field. She sent out several probes into the man’s head, trying to pin down exactly what she had done. At first, nothing seemed amiss. There simply weren’t that many memories in his head. There was no residue of magic, nothing to indicate that she might have inadvertently ruined his life. Of course, at the time, she had still been a sorceress.
As she probed his brain, she frowned and decided to get a bit more information. “Have you tried getting a doctor or medicine man to work on you?”
The man shook his head. “Every time I’ve tried, the magic has led me away. It seems to trust you, though. Probably since you cast the spell in the first place.”
“Right.” Sapphire bit her lip. She still wasn’t finding any examples of her magic anywhere in his body. So where had it gone? Carefully, she sent out a pulse of magic across his entire body, looking for her unique signature.
An abnormality revealed itself almost instantly, a brilliant red glow in her vision. There was something on the back of his head, not actually part of his body, that seemed to be interfering with his mind. Sapphire bit her lip, then nodded.
“Okay.” The man spun, facing away from her. She walked up to him and began looking through his hair, trying to find the mysterious object. It wasn’t difficult to locate, as it looked rather like a smooth black coin that had fused with his skull. She frowned, sending out several pulses of magic. From what she could tell, the object was emitting some sort of interference that was scrambling his mind.
“Well, now.” She sent several streamers of magic around the coin, taking a firm hold on it. “Here we go.”
With that, she snapped her fingers, pulling the object from his head. As it clattered to the ground, several streams of blood flowed down from the wound while he yelped powerfully. He spun to face her, eyes wide and wild, before slowly calming down and taking several slow, deep breaths.
“Are you okay now?” She bent down and picked up the coin. “What’s…”
“I’ll take that.” The man reached out and scooped up the object, dropping it into his pocket and folding his hands. He blushed slightly and took a step back. “Sorry, I don’t mean to be rude, but… I recognize that now.”
“You have your memory back?” Sapphire pressed. What a strange conversation.
“Yes. Yeah, I think I do.” He held out his hand. “Berathin, at your service.”
“Sapphire.” Sapphire shook the hand and flashed a smile. “You know, if you’re not busy, we could-”
Berathin’s eyes suddenly opened wide and his jaw dropped. He took a step back, breathing shallowly. “How far is it from here to Donisil? Specifically Gorktindin?”
“Probably close to a thousand miles by the road.” Sapphire shrugged. “Maybe a little less? You’d probably have to go south through Tifingor and rent a boat across the Inland Ocean, or just go around the southern side. Avoid Taninor and Elsinor right now, that’s for sure.” She realized that she was rambling, and shrugged. “Probably a two months’ journey any way you look at it.”
“Then I need to go now.” Berathin spun and raced away. “Thank you, Sapphire!”
Sapphire was left standing there, in the middle of the books, as he raced away. She shrugged and started after him, more than a bit confused. “You’re welcome, I guess.” She muttered as she walked out onto the stairs and started down. By that time, he had already nearly reached the main floor. Upon landing there he rushed out through the doors, coattails trailing behind him in the wind.
She chuckled as he vanished, shaking her head slightly. She didn’t know what he was up to or why he had reacted so strongly. She did feel a little guilty about the incident, but Berathin himself didn’t seem too shaken up by it, so… She didn’t particularly know how to feel.
Oh, well. They were in Donenrot, in Sintison. They were in hiding while she studied, after which point they would head south. At the least, things wouldn’t be getting crazy for the group for some time longer. And that, as far as she was concerned, was something to celebrate.
“So many dwarves.” Ondernifam rumbled as he stomped down the street. “We’re on a mountain. And I can’t roll any of them.”
Several dwarves nearby glanced up at him, concern written on their faces. He liked that. Ondernifam bared his teeth, grinning as they scampered away.
“Don’t do that.” Hesione admonished him. “You’ll get us arrested.”
“I will break us out!” Ondernifam snarled. “I have done so before.”
Once more, several people around them glanced at him. Good. He was feared. He was mighty!
“Ondernifam?” Hesione soothed him. “Now isn’t really the time. If we get arrested, they will kill us. This isn’t something you would be able to fight or defeat. Am I clear?”
“No.” Ondernifam turned and glared down at her. “Giant slime blobs are clear. I cannot see through you.”
“Am I making sense?” Hesione spoke slowly. “Do you understand what I am saying?”
Ondernifam frowned. What had she been saying? “You are saying I am weak!”
“No. Wait.” Hesione paused. “Yes. Yes I am. I would love for you to prove me wrong, but only once we leave the city.”
“Then, once we are free, I shall slaughter a thousand prisons for you!” Ondernifam proudly declared, then glanced down at his chest. Sapphire had forced him to wear clothing, like lesser mortals. “And then I will burn this cloth on an alter to Nubierd.”
Hesione opened and closed her mouth several times. Like a fish! And then she spoke once more. “You know what? Okay. Go for it.”
“Good.” Ondernifam nodded. “Of course, the only alter to Nubierd is deep within orcish country. We will have to go there.”
“Then that’s what we’ll do.” Hesione sighed and put her head in her hands. Ondernifam glanced back and forth, analyzing the situation for threats. Closing your eyes like that was an easy way to be ambushed. Thankfully, she looked up before anyone tried to attack her.
“Where are we going?” Ondernifam finally asked. Hesione had pulled him from the room early that morning, when they had proceeded to simply wander around the city. He knew there had to be a reason, because they had made it clear how dangerous just walking around was. “Is there somewhere we’re heading?”
“No.” Hesione shook her head. “I just wanted to go for a walk. And take you with me.”
“As protection!” Ondernifam grinned. “That was wise!”
A street vendor nearby laughed and called out. “You drew the short stick? Taking the orc for a walk is always the worst.”
Ondernifam turned and glared at the vendor. He was a human, one of the easiest creatures to kill. “Walking with an orc is a true honor, reserved for friends and employers.”
“Oh, really?” The man’s voice was high-pitched. Too high-pitched. Ondernifam considered eating him. “And which is she?”
Ondernifam glanced at Hesione, who was turning a bit red as a crowd began to gather. “Both.”
“Lady, I pity you. I really do.” The man snorted. “Go register him with the Domestic Orc Guild. They sell tranquilizers, have walking and exercise services, and…”
“I will not be registered like a dog!” Ondernifam snarled and flexed his claws. After a moment, he frowned. “Like a wolf, maybe. Or a hellhound. Hellhounds are good in combat!”
“Come on.” Hesione grabbed Onderifam’s paw and pulled him forward. “We need to keep moving.”
As they walked away, Ondernifam turned and snorted back at the man. “Pathetic human. He would not know a real warrior if it split him in two.” For clarification, he nodded down at Hesione. “That’s because he would be dead. He might have known that warrior before the warrior killed him, though. Maybe they were once friends and started fighting over a card game.”
Hesione let out an exasperated noise. “Ondi?”
“I’m not a good enough friend to call you Ondi yet?”
Ondernifam frowned. Shortening names was a massive offense against an orc. There were no exceptions. In fact, friends usually added extra letters to the end. So why was Hesione always wanting to shorten it? Was…
A thought struck him like a thrown cow. What if Hesione wasn’t his actual friend? The man they had just met had called Ondernifam a dog. Hesione had not corrected him. Was that because Hesione thought of him as a dog?
“A good friend would not call me Ondi.” Ondernifam snarled. “A good friend would tell everyone that I am an orc!”
Hesione paused. “You’re saying… What exactly?”
Ahead, a green back appeared amongst the sea of other people. Another orc! Here, in Sintison! Ondernifam growled and glanced down at her. “Maybe I will just talk to someone who understands me!”
With that, he leapt forward, tore off all his clothes except his loincloth, and ran for the slowly receding orc. He shoved past a dozen other people, bowling them aside like puppies. As he reached the new orc, he puffed up his chest and walked up next to the man.
“How goes it, fellow warrior?” Ondernifam roared.
The orc spun to face him, stopping short. Ondernifam frowned and stopped as well. The man was familiar, though Ondernifam couldn’t quite place it. He was absolutely massive, standing ten feet tall, and sported two sawed-off tusks. After a moment, the man’s eyes opened wide.
“The one and only!” Ondernifam thundered, then paused. “And you are?”
“Trinkin. We’ve met before.” The orc glanced back and forth. “Where are your clothes?”
“I could not wait to sacrifice them, so I tore them off.” Ondernifam scowled at Trinkin, who, while not wearing any sort of shirt, wore a pair of blue and red pants. “I am still covering everything as described by the Orcish Charter of Decency!”
“Please believe me when I say that the Orcish Charter of Decency doesn’t cover legal standards in Donenrot.” Trinkin sighed and put his hand on Ondernifam’s shoulder. “This will sting.”
Light flashed across Ondernifam’s vision, filling his world with light. It all faded a moment later, revealing that he was actually standing in a back alley! Trinkin stood in front of him, and dropped a small object into his pants pocket.
“How do you feel?”
“As if I could slay the world!” Ondernifam roared.
Trinkin clapped a hand over Ondernifam’s mouth, silencing him. After a few seconds, Trinkin sighed. “Do you remember my last meeting with you?”
“We ate a deer!” Ondernifam snarled. “And it was good!”
“It was a cow, but yes.” Trinkin acknowledged. “Do you remember what I told you, then?”
Trinkin sighed once more. “Sometimes, it’s worth trying to fit into the world of the humans. They may not accept you, but it will keep you from being jailed or killed. Does that make any sense?”
“No.” Ondernifam shook his head. “They will do what they do. I will do what I do!”
Trinkin closed his eyes for several seconds. “Are you here with anyone?”
“Yes.” Ondernifam nodded. “Hesione was right behind me when you flashed me here.”
“Oh, please tell me that she wasn’t.” Trinkin groaned. “Alright, then. Head back to her. Or do you need me to find her?”
“That would be nice!” Ondernifam roared.
“Alright.” Trinkin took a deep breath. “Do you know where you guys were staying?”
“No.” Ondernifam scratched his head. “The Battered Mare! Or maybe the Dead Horse.” He sighed. “The sign is big and blue!”
“That could describe almost every inn in Donenrot.” Trinkin groaned. He puffed out his cheeks and let out a blast of hot air, then shrugged. “I guess you’ll just have to come with me, then.”
Ondernifam smiled. “And do what?”
“I’m on a mission. And, quite ironically given the circumstances, I don’t have much time to get things done.” Trinkin gestured vaguely at their surroundings. “I’m trying to find an elf who isn’t supposed to be here.”
“I can help you find him!” Ondernifam smiled, ignoring the pain from his tusks. “It would be my honor! I’m good at tracking things!”
“I have no doubt that you are.” Trinkin glanced back and forth several times before nodding. “Alright, then. Fine.” After a few seconds, he held up a finger. “Under one condition.”
“You have to get some clothes to wear.” Trinkin gestured at Ondernifam’s body. “At least a set of pants. Okay? You do that, I let you come track someone down with me.”
Trinkin nodded shortly, then turned away and started stomping down the alley. “After me.”
Ondernifam nodded and jogged after the more powerful orc. They were going to go hunting! He hadn’t been hunting in such a long time. Not since before they had arrived in Donenrot. That had been almost a week!
Maybe, if things went well, he would even be able to stay with Trinkin. Maybe Trinkin would even lengthen his name for him! It was sad to think that he would see Sapphire or ever get to roll Garn down a hill, but sometimes sacrifices had to be made.
And, if he was lucky, one of those sacrifices would be his clothes on a great altar of Nubierd!
Sapphire yawned as she walked up the stars to the Resurrected Corpse, a rather upscale establishment that Kisidera had secured them a room within. She didn’t understand exactly how the deal had gone, as it hadn’t actually had anything to do with Kisidera’s Family connections. Something about having so much money in the bank meant that they could stay for free as long as they spent so much money per day with the local vendors. It was an odd arrangement, but one that Sapphire didn’t particularly mind.
As she walked in the front door, the smell of the evening meal wafted through her lungs, calling her forward. It smelled like some sort of bird, seasoned with the finest spices that Donenrot had to offer. Paulin and Kisidera were already seated at a table in the large entry/dining room that served to try and entice new guests. At the far end of the room, the kitchen was separated from the main area by a simple, low counter, allowing them to see the dozens of chefs bustling back and forth in front of a massive open furnace.
“Hey, guys.” Sapphire flashed a smile and sat down next to Paulin, glancing around the room. Several dozen other denizens of the inn were making their way into the room as well, preparing for the early rush of food that would undoubtably come soon. Magical flames began to dance across the ceiling, lighting flames and torches as the sun began to set in the west. “What’s going on?”
“I believe the evening meal is roast duck, seasoned with pepper and thyme.” Kisidera shrugged. “Which sounds lovely to me!”
“I admit, I’m looking forward to trying it.” Paulin stroked his chin. “I’m curious, though. Just how much food does Donenrot consume per day? So much of it is so fresh. How does it maintain that, especially now, in the late winter?”
Kisidera raised an eyebrow. “You mean you never studied that? You, the big shot ‘Prince of Elsinor?’”
“And I thought you were a gardener without any real claim to Family heritage. You sure know an awful lot about high-class living.” Paulin countered.
“You don’t even know the half of it.” Kisidera leaned towards Paulin. “There’s a lot you don’t know about me.”
Sapphire coughed. “Get a room!”
“We have one.” Paulin held up a finger. “We’re just not in it.”
Kisidera and Paulin both started laughing, leaning against each other as they snorted and chuckled. Sapphire sighed and crossed her arms, leaning back. They were such a strange couple, there was no way around that. Paulin certainly seemed at ease around Kisidera, though there really wasn’t any good reason for him to be. She had spied on him for the Family and openly admitted that she was using him to find her parents. Paulin, on the other hand, was always grumbling about how she had thrown down some ultimatum in the fishing village that he hadn’t agreed with. And yet, around each other, they were like a fresh, new couple without a care in the world.
“So where is everyone else?” Sapphire finally cut into the laughter. “Do I need to be concerned?”
“I don’t think so.” Paulin sighed deeply and turned back to her. “Garnisic heard about a dwarven guild in the city that he went to check out. Something about you not doing your job.”
Belatedly, Sapphire realized that she had completely forgotten to look up the strange symbol that Garnisic had drawn for her. As she put a hand over her face, Paulin chuckled and continued.
“Meanwhile, Hesione is out taking Ondernifam for a walk.”
Sapphire snorted. “What is he, a dog?”
“You’d sure think so, the way he was acting.” Paulin sighed. “He almost got us thrown out when he started insulting the jewelry vendor down the street. We needed to let him blow off some steam.”
“Why not just let him buy into a fight?” Sapphire shrugged. “I heard about plenty of non-lethal fights in the area while I was still working at the tavern.”
“The key word there is non-lethal.” Kisidera sighed. “All the legal ones have so many regulations that Ondernifam would never even be able to remember them all, let alone abide by them. There are a handful of black-market fighting pits, of course, but we’d get kicked out of here in a heartbeat if anyone ever saw us there. Not to mention the fact that we don’t actually want to see him die.”
“Fair enough.” Sapphire sighed and drummed her fingers against the table. “It’s just so weird now. We’re not actually fighting anything. I can’t remember anything like this since right after I rescued Malah.”
The thought of the young angel brought a smile to her face. Of course, that was immediately followed by a flood of images culminating in the aging, injured Mal standing before her without a clue who she was. She swore and closed her eyes, entering a mental trance to put the memory blocks back up in her mind. Forgetting Mal had been the only way she had been able to survive the previous several months.
“I wonder how they’re doing, anyway?” Kisidera mused. “Do you think they’re still doing alright?”
“They’ve got Simon as one of their principal leaders. They’re probably neck-deep in trouble.” Paulin chuckled, then shrugged. “No, I saw the message that the king sent with them. The commander that he sent them to is a good man. They’ll be well taken care of until they can get their feet under them.”
“I hope so.” Sapphire choked as she imagined Mal, mortal, lost in the world. After a few seconds, she drew a shaking breath and forcefully replaced the block in her mind. “Sorry about that.”
“It’s okay.” Paulin placed a hand on her arm before pulling it away upon Kisidera’s disapproving glance. “We’ve all been through a lot.” After a few seconds, he bit his lip and shook his head. “I think most of us are just trying to forget about everything we’ve faced.”
Sapphire sighed. It couldn’t be easy for Paulin, knowing that his father was public enemy number one of Sintison’s enormously powerful army. The trio sat there in silence, trying to forget, as the plates of food were brought out of the kitchen. Three plates were placed on the table in front of them just as Hesione burst into the room, a wild look on her face. She jogged over to the table and fell into the chair, drawing several stares from other patrons.
“Hesione.” Kisidera hissed. “You’re going to get us kicked out!”
“Ondernifam is gone.” Hesione breathed. “He found another orc, and then they vanished.”
“Slow down.” Paulin leaned forward, a curious look on his face. “What happened?”
Hesione took a deep breath. “I was out walking with Ondernifam, like I was supposed to be doing. He saw another orc and ran up to him. I ran after him, and then… They vanished.” She shrugged. “I think they may have used blood magic to momentarily stun everyone around them while they ran off, but I really don’t know for sure.” She sighed. “I tried to track him down, but no one else had seen anything and people don’t exactly leave footprints when the streets are solid rock.”
“I’ll go find him.” Sapphire tore off a piece of the duck on her plate and took a large bite. Juices ran down her chin, and she sighed. “Save some of this for me, okay?”
Hesione slid over into her chair as she stood up and jogged out of the room. The sun was just now setting, causing the shopkeepers to light the lanterns in front of their buildings while individual travelers brought out their own personal lanterns. Sapphire sighed and closed her eyes, falling into a brief meditative state.
As the world around her faded, she cast out strands of magic, setting a picture of Ondernifam squarely in mer mind. Hazy images appeared in front of her, though they weren’t anything solid enough to work off of. She sighed and tried to focus a bit harder, to no avail. After a few moments, she sighed and opened her eyes, glancing down at the Ring.
“My friend is in trouble. Care to help out for once?”
Without any warning, the Ring lit up, replacing her brown dress with her swirling sorceress robes. Her eyes snapped open wide as the staff appeared in her right hand, causing several nearby passersby to leap in fright. She frowned, but decided not to worry too much about why it was acting the way it was.
With that, she cast out her threads of magic once more, placing an image of Ondernifam squarely in her mind. Instantly, she could see him. He was walking with a much larger orc, making his way through what appeared to be one of the many underground tunnels. But… Which one?
“Where are you at?” Sapphire whispered. “Ondernifam? Can you hear me?”
“Of course I can hear you.” Ondernifam growled. “I am with Trinkin.”
The other orc spun. “Who are you talking to?”
“Where are you?” Sapphire bit out. “What tunnel exactly?”
Ondernifam tilted his head back to stare at the ceiling. “Rosewall and Thadison Lane.”
Trinkin clapped a hand over Ondernifam’s mouth, and the images vanished. Along with it, Sapphire’s blue dress swirled away, letting her brown dress replace it. Her staff vanished with a pop, leaving her once more with the simple, enigmatic Ring. She sighed, then shrugged. She had a location. Now she just needed to get there.
Her feet barely touched the ground as she raced down the streets, looking for an access point into the lower levels of the city. In the higher-class districts, there were far fewer public entrances, forcing her to run down the mountainside, leaping down the stairs several steps at a time.
Soon enough, she came to a tavern that looked promising. She bolted through the front door, pushing past the high elves already in line, and jogged up to the bar. The bartender, a rather overweight aqahartis, turned and frowned.
“You have to wait in-”
“Do you have access to the underground?” Sapphire gasped.
The aqahartis shrugged and nodded. “Down the stairs, but-”
“Thanks. Here’s a tip.” Sapphire fished a gold piece out of her pocket and tossed it to him as she charged down the stairs to her left and pounded through a small dining room that had far fewer gambling options than she would have expected. An open gate stood nearby, complete with two guards in shining bronze armor that looked largely ceremonial. She rushed past them, through the short access tunnel, and into the main thoroughfare.
Having been built for giants, the tunnels were nothing to shake a stick at. The ceiling rose to a height of well over fifty feet above her head and was lit by enormous chandeliers made from what looked like ancient giant bones. Hundreds of people ambled through the enormous passageway, while others simply lounged against the walls, resting.
“Does anyone know how to get to Rosewall and Thadison Lane?” Sapphire gasped, running back and forth across the passageway. “Anyone?”
Most people either ignored her or shot her annoyed looks. A few brandished weapons in her direction, a fact that she didn’t particularly like. After a short time, though, a gentleman in a large top hat caught her arm and pointed at a stairwell to her left.
“Three levels down, you’ll reach Rosewall. Head to your left when you get out of the stairwell, you’ll reach Thadison Lane in no time.”
“Thank you.” Sapphire flashed him a smile and rushed for the exit. She tore down the stairs three at a time, leaping past dozens of other travelers. Once again, most people treated her rather poorly, either glaring at her or pulling swords. She supposed she couldn’t blame them, but it was still a bit concerning nonetheless.
As she came out into the tunnel, she glanced up at the ceiling. The structure looked more or less like the tunnel above, with the primary difference being the amount of paint that had been splattered across the walls into strange and grotesque images. On the ceiling, etched in large blocky letters, the words “Thadison Lane” had been spelled out for all who bothered to look. She smiled, turned to her left, and bolted.
In the upper tunnels, guards stood at entrances to tunnels that led to the various establishments that people could visit. Down this far, everyone simply wore a weapon prominently, with no guards to speak of. Shops were carved into the walls, large alcoves for business and pleasure. Sapphire sighed and closed her eyes, realizing that the two orcs could easily have been walking in either direction from the corner of Thadison Lane and Rosewall, and they could have easily entered any of the shops. Which meant she needed to find them again.
“Any chance you’d be willing to help out again?” Sapphire glanced down at the Ring. As it remained inert, she sighed and cast out magic drawn from Calsin’s field. After a few seconds, images began to flash across her vision. They were still fuzzy, hard to distinguish, but they were a bit clearer. It allowed her to see the two orcs sitting down in what appeared to be a restaurant of some sort. Not a tavern, it was too clean. And… A bright orange sign nearby!
Sapphire felt a grin break across her face, and she turned and charged through the tunnel once more, glancing back and forth looking for an orange sign over a restaurant. Surprisingly, she had traveled only a few short steps before catching sight of exactly that: A banner advertising “The Proper Thief.” She slowed, trying to manage her breathing, as she pushed through the crowd. As she arrived near the open entrance, she stepped to the side and cast a small spell that drew the shadows around herself. It wasn’t a perfect spell, and it would likely make her appear quite suspicious to anyone who happened to glance her way, but it would make her less visible.
Finding the orcs took only a few moments. They were sitting at a table near the rear, along with a high elf who appeared more than a bit terrified. The larger orc’s eyes were drawn down into a scowl, while Ondernifam seemed more interested in the food being carried back and forth around the room.
Curious, Sapphire closed her eyes and cast a perception spell. All images surrounding the booth faded away, letting her see nothing but that single booth. Sounds faded as well, dimming into a dull background, allowing her a perfect image of the strange meeting. As the voices spoke, her blood ran cold.
“…need to know why you’re here.” Trinkin growled. “You went rogue. You know what happens to agents who do that.”
“Yes, but…” The elf stammered. “Please, you have to understand.”
“I’m trying to understand.” Trinkin crossed his massive arms. “That’s why I didn’t just order an assassination against you. You’re supposed to be in the fifth era studying a possible incursion by Calsin Beta, not here.”
“Come on.” The elf continued to protest. “It’s my first mission. I’ve been desperate to see this event.”
“As have most other agents born after the fourth era.” Trinkin snarled. “That doesn’t mean you get to just come here.”
“I’m one elf in the largest city in the world!” The elf continued to protest. “No one will notice me.”
“They will if that mask you’re using to disguise yourself falls off.” Trinkin balled his fists. “You know the rules. You go when and where you are assigned. If you deviate from your orders, the consequences could be untold. You could cause thousands of years of history to unravel.”
“No more buts.” Trinkin grabbed the elf’s arm. “You’re coming with me. Ondernifam?”
Ondernifam’s head snapped around to face the much larger orc. “Yes?”
“Hold this man. Do not let him go.” Trinkin rose from his seat. “You have exactly one hour to lead me to the pod you stole. Is that clear?”
The elf sighed and nodded slowly. Even as he climbed to his feet, a voice began to echo in Sapphire’s head.
“Hey! You’re a sorceress, right? Sapphire?”
Sapphire frowned. “Does everyone know who I am?” She whispered back.
“Everyone from where I’m from, yes.” The elf’s voice solidified, though he never took his eyes off Trinkin. “Listen to me and listen to me well. I know something. Something is about to happen that will permanently alter the state of this world.”
“Oh, really?” Sapphire raised an eyebrow. “And what’s that? Why do you care?”
“I care because… That’s a long story.” The elf sighed, yelping slightly as Ondernifam grabbed him. “Look, it’s big and I want to see it. There’s an elf who works for the king’s guard. Assassins from Elsinor are trying to take down the king of Sintison. They’re going to fail, and instead, they’re going to kill this particular elf. He’ll become a martyr for Sintison’s cause, turning the tide of war against Elsinor.”
“Uh, huh.” Sapphire crossed her arms. “And why again do you care?”
“I care because… Look, I can’t tell you that!”
Sapphire shrugged. “Then I’m afraid I can’t help you.”
The elf broke the connection a moment later, and Sapphire sighed. She really didn’t understand what had just happened, but she assumed that she would hear about it soon enough. As Trinkin and Ondernifam stomped from the bar, she continued to draw the shadows around herself, and slid along the wall to follow them. They moved out of the restaurant and down the tunnel as the high elf drug his feet in frustration. Sapphire sighed as they began to vanish into the crowd.
She didn’t know what the group was up to, she only cared that Ondernifam come out of it safely. With that, she slid forward, darting through the crowd after her quarry. If she could just keep him safe one more night, she could get her last book and they could be on the road again within a day.
And then… Then, maybe things could finally get back to normal.
Ondernifam snarled as they hauled the strange elf through the tunnels. The man didn’t smell quite right. High elves had a particular smell, and this man… Didn’t smell like one. He also didn’t smell like a dark elf, either. Or a human. He growled down at the individual, hoping that his presence would terrify him into revealing his identity.
“Hey.” The elf glanced up at Trinkin. “Does this guy have to come along? He’s nothing more than a savage.”
“You will not insult my race that way.” Trinkin growled down at the elf.
“Oh, come on.” The elf waved his hand. “He’s a pre-Infusion orc. You’re an orc with a brain. It’s different.”
“Not the way I see it.” Trinkin shoved the elf in the back. “Move faster.”
“Why?” The elf glanced back at Trinkin. “You’re just going to have me executed once I get back to headquarters.”
“No. I’m going to have you locked up and evaluated.” Trinkin’s voice was deep. “Now hurry up!”
“Why? You have somewhere else you need to be?” The elf smirked. “Come on. Having enough time to get things done is kinda our thing.”
“Move!” Trinkin bellowed.
Ondernifam nodded firmly, pushing the elf forward as well. The man was obviously insane. He kept saying things that made no sense. Of course, most people made no sense when they were talking, but this man made even less sense.
“Hold it right there!” Shadows rose from the ground, solidifying into dark figures wrapped in black cloth. They all seemed human, though they could have also been short elves. All held large, curved swords that seemed to be pointing at the trio. Ondernifam counted half a dozen, though there could have been more.
“What have you done now?” Trinkin growled.
“I have done nothing!” Ondernifam protested.
“Not you. Him.” Trinkin elbowed the elf in the side. “What. Did. You. Do?”
“I called for help.” The elf crossed his arms. “I came here for a reason.”
“No. No, no, no.” Trinkin rubbed his head, then sighed and crossed his arms. “You’ll be the death of me yet.”
“Wait.” One of the strange shadow warriors stepped forward. The voice was female, but it was impossible to truly tell beneath the dark folds of cloth. “You’re Trinkin. You’re not scheduled to be here.”
“No.” Trinkin rumbled. “No, I am not. You can thank this agent for that. Forgive us, we’ll be on our way.”
“I said to wait.” The voice was harsh. “Our soothsayers detected a magically transported message about King Korvac. We need to ensure his safety.”
Trinkin groaned. “Are you serious?”
“Quite so.” The warrior nodded. “Now please, come with us.”
Trinkin reached for his pockets, but collapsed in a heap one of the shadow warriors launched a bolt of magic at him. The mighty orc fell with a crash, and Ondernifam leapt forward.
The same warrior simply did the same to him. His limbs went rigid, refusing to move so much as an inch. He tried to roar, but found himself unable to speak as he fell to the ground. From where he lay, he could see the elf collapsing as well, followed by Sapphire.
Wait. Sapphire was here? Ondernifam tried to leap for joy, only to realize that he still couldn’t move. Before he could try to find a way out of his confinement, shadows rose up around them, and they were taken away.
Sapphire swore as she fell into darkness. At least she tried to, as her lips were quite unable to move of their own accord. She called on the magical field, bidding that it loose her from whatever binding spell had her in its clutches. Her wish was granted, at least somewhat, as she regained a sluggish control over her limbs. Of course, this did little to help her, as she was currently falling through what seemed like an endless void.
The world of light returned with a flash as the shadows drew away, revealing what could only be considered a palace. She still lay on the ground, and endeavored not to move so as not to give away the fact that she was at least somewhat still a threat. All around her, great marble pillars rose to support a roof high above her. Massive walls surrounded the pillars, speckled with stained glass, statues, and ornate tapestries. She did her best to hold her breath as the shadow warriors swept past her, kneeling down in the corner of her vision.
“Your excellency.” It was the same voice that had spoken before. “We have apprehended the perpetrators of this crime.”
“Good.” The voice was ancient, a weatherly, feeble tone. “My soothsayers, you have done well. Now, if you could only find that pesky Prince Paulin, perhaps my reign would not be so complex right now.”
“You know we’re trying!” High-pitched voices echoed through the room. “We can only scan small areas at once! The team is searching the northern fishing villages now, if he’s there, we’ll find him.”
“That’s what you already said about… Oh, I suppose it doesn’t matter.” The voice sighed. “Alright, Nalia. What’s the situation here?”
“Truth be told, I don’t know.” The voice of the shadow warrior was back. In the distance, footsteps gradually receded as someone ran away. “We tracked down this group. The larger orc is Trinkin, your majesty.”
“Trinkin?” The voice sounded confused. “His presence never heralds anything but chaos!”
“I would not disagree.” The female sounded amused. “So, Trinkin. Care to tell us what’s the matter, here?”
“No, I would not.” Trinkin’s voice echoed back, filling Sapphire with concern. Trinkin wasn’t affected by the blast? So Ondernifam really was in trouble! They had both been captured by agents of the king! Or… Something like that. “This is a matter of a rogue agent. I seriously am sorry to have taken your time, but we need to be leaving.” There was a short pause, followed by an annoyed roar.
“I’m afraid you’ll find that we’ve recovered all your memory-erasing equipment.” The female’s voice was growing quite annoying. “Now, start talking. You’ve seen the birth and death of this universe, by all accounts. While the life of King Korvac may be below your pay grade, it’s not below mine. If that agent knows something, it means that we need to be prepared.”
Sapphire’s mind spun trying to comprehend anything that was happening. Trinkin had seen both the birth and the death of the universe? Was he some sort of god, then?
“If you are prepared, it could alter the events of time itself.” Trinkin protested. “Please, let me go before anything else happens!”
Sapphire’s mind whirled. She had quite obviously come into a conversation between people with a past that she neither knew nor understood. That said, dealing with kings and gods rarely went well. She had to get Ondernifam out of there, or they were both probably going to killed. Or mind-wiped. Or… Something bad.
Even as she formed the thoughts, power blossomed within her soul. Her clothes changed, and the staff appeared in her right hand. She smiled, drawn up into the air in a burst of power. As she levitated up towards the ceiling, every eye in the room spun to face her. Well, every eye except for Ondernifam’s and the strange elf’s.
“Rise!” She screamed down at her friend. A bolt of blue magic leapt from the tip of her staff, striking down through the air. Quite unfortunately, the blast missed, and instead struck the elf instead. The strange man jumped to his feet in an instant, concern written all over his face.
Something sharp jabbed into her elbow quite suddenly. Her magic blasted it from her body in an instant, and she smiled. At least until her vision began to blur. She was falling. They had poisoned her!
She desperately called on her inner magic as she dropped back to the ground. A blast of magic erupted from her palms as she struck, flinging energy through the room. With that, she fell once more into the darkness, vanishing from the conscious world.
Nalia raised an eyebrow as the sorceress fell from the sky. Trinkin had an almost amused look on his face, which was rarely good. Given Trinkin’s godlike knowledge of history, both past and present, it was always a bad thing when he appeared surprised.
As the sorceress landed, she loosed a blast of magic that exploded through the room. Gethsemia, Nalia’s dark master, responded instantly. All the Shadow Warriors dematerialized as the magic took form, creating projectiles out of shards of glass, knives, anything laying across the room. Several of the shards flashed through Nalia’s now-hazy body, doing no harm. Several more skipped off Trinkin’s skin, deflected by the portable force-field that he likely had imbedded inside his body somewhere. Further protective enchantments rose around the king, deflecting dozens of the deadly weapons.
The elf wasn’t so lucky, and in a matter of moments had been cut to ribbons by the deadly force. The magical storm abated a few moments later, leaving a dead body among the simply unconscious bodies and a smirking Trinkin who, as always, looked like he had roundly won the battle.
“What is this?” Nalia hissed as her body reformed. “You… You knew this would happen!”
“I knew that something much like this would happen.” Trinkin sighed and gestured at the man’s remains. “Take his body. Tell the world that he was one of your guards, the finest of your men, who died protecting King Korvac from assassins. Make sure to emphasize the fact that he’s a high elf. I think you’ll find it to your benefit.”
Nalia crossed her arms, beginning to realize why the orc had been so amused. “Let me see if I have this right.” She thought back to the message that the soothsayers had relayed to the assassins. Something about wanting to see something… “One of your agents wanted to see this event happen. You let him come back, knowing all the while that he would ultimately be the one to die.”
“I had hoped that the fates would intervene. I rather liked him as a student.” Trinkin sighed. “But… Yes. When an elf entered my classroom bearing one of the most infamous faces in history, I knew that he would ultimately die in this way.”
“Sometime, you must explain to me what you actually do.” King Korvak wheezed. “I find myself much confused.”
“Suffice it to say that I’m from both the future and the past.” Trinkin flashed a smile. “I know things. Now, if you’ll bother to return my memory alteration devices to me, I’ll get these two unlucky bystanders back home.”
Nalia sighed and nodded at her assistant, who turned to retrieve the strange devices that Trinkin swore weren’t actually magic. While she waited, she crossed her arms and tried to size up the strange beast of a man.
“What will you do next, then?” Nalia raised an eyebrow. “Just go popping off into time?”
“Well, first, I need to return a book I borrowed.” Trinkin shrugged and winked, though Nalia wasn’t sure what that wink might have referred to. “And then… Oh, I don’t know. I guess you’ll just have to wait and find out.”
Ondernifam snarled as the shadows sank away from his vision. He roared loudly, scaring the rest of the shadows into fleeing. With that, he jumped back to his feet and balled his fists. After a few seconds, he glanced down to find Sapphire laying on the ground in the narrow alley, next to where he had been lying only moments earlier.
His eyes went wide, and he crouched down next to her. She seemed unconscious, though not from any visible injury. She must have been poisoned! Or struck by magic! He snarled. When she woke back up, he would…
“Oh. Hey.” Sapphire’s eyes snapped open, and she yawned and sat up. “You okay?”
“Of course I am okay!” Ondernifam snarled. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Because we were… Huh.” Sapphire frowned. “I don’t know why we wouldn’t be okay.”
“Exactly.” Ondernifam nodded. “I was here to protect you!”
“Sure you were.” Sapphire grinned and climbed to her feet. She stretched, then glanced up at the sky. “What time is it?”
“I do not know.” Ondernifam squinted at the light blue covering. “Early morning.”
“At least we haven’t been robbed.” Sapphire glanced back and forth. “Falling asleep in an alley isn’t exactly the safest thing we could have been doing last night.”
Ondernifam rubbed his jaw. “It was with me.”
Sapphire flashed a smile up at him, then held out her hand. He took it, and she sighed. “Well, since it’s morning, want to come with me on an errand? I have a book that I need to read.”
Ondernifam scowled. He did not want to read books! He only wanted to slay monsters!
“Oh, come on. You can protect me from book spirits!” Sapphire flashed him a grin and tugged at his arms. “Please? Ondernifamtheri?”
Ondernifam’s eyes snapped open wide, and he stared down at Sapphire. “What did you call me?”
“Ondernifamtheri.” Sapphire shrugged. “That’s how you say it, right? It’s an orcish term for friend?”
Something warm trickled down Ondernifam’s cheek. Blood? He reached up to check if he was injured but failed to locate any wounds. The liquid dripped into his mouth a moment later, giving a salty taste.
A strange feeling welled up in his chest, and he leapt forward, throwing his arms around Sapphire. She yelped quite loudly, and he let her go. She stumbled backwards, taking several deep breaths, and he flashed a smile.
“That’s how you do it, right? It always seems like friends do that to each other.”
Sapphire’s smile nearly split her face. Once more, she held out her hand, grabbing Ondernifam’s paw and pulling him down the alley.
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