“And there we are.” Paulin breathed as the city walls began to rise from the trees in front of them. The area was only lightly wooded, the fresh pine scent filling the air. The pointed trees cast long shadows across the ground as the slowly setting sun sent its orange rays dancing across the countryside. “Almost to a city.”
“What’s it matter?” Kisidera muttered. “You’re just going to have to lock me up and keep me out of sight.”
“No, we won’t.” Paulin protested. “I promise, you’ll be able to live a normal life.”
“Yeah. Sure.” Kisidera sighed, looking up at him from where she sat in the rear of the wagon. “Please, Paulin? Just let me die. I don’t want this existence.”
Paulin gritted his teeth and held the reigns of the horses a bit tighter. Beside him, Garnisic shifted awkwardly. He supposed he couldn’t really blame the dwarf for being a bit uncomfortable given the circumstances. Paulin continued to ride for several seconds before glancing back at his fiancé once more.
She just seemed to be miserable, curled up under her poncho. Sapphire had her arm wrapped around her, but he could see that the sorceress was more than a bit uncomfortable at the ordeal. Once more, he really couldn’t blame his friend for not being particularly comfortable with having a vampire in their midst.
It just made his heart ache. Yes, she had annoyed him. Yes, she had very nearly driven him insane. He hated how much she just wanted pleasure, how quick she had been to ditch his own plans for her own. And yet, despite all of that, he desperately wished that he could give her everything she wanted. He wanted to shower her with all the gifts he could give, set her up in a penthouse palace with a thousand servants at her beck and call. Anything for her, just so long as she was okay.
“I’m going to be hungry soon.” Kisidera’s voice was flat and almost lifeless. “Better pass me that fruit unless you want me to go crazy once we’re inside city walls.”
Sapphire obliged, handing her the red-skinned fruits that contained juices with all the essential nutrients of blood. Paulin felt a tear spring to his eye as he watched his beloved Kisidera lying there, slowly biting into the fruit without any conviction in the slightest. Oh, how he so desperately wished that he could help her!
As they rumbled ever closer to the city, the walls came into full view. It wasn’t a large city by any means, a tiny fraction of the size of Donenrot. The walls were made from wood, the farms just built amongst the trees instead of out in sprawling, cleared areas. And yet, Paulin was rather looking forward to that fact. He just wanted a place to lie low, stay out of the public eye, and do whatever he could to help Kisidera.
Oh, well. They were going to arrive in the city, and he was going to do whatever he could do to find a solution. They would leave the next morning, but that still gave him plenty of time. He could hit up a few bars, strike out on the off chance that one of the locals happened to know anything. Maybe there was a witch in the area who had developed a cure. Maybe there was a secret dwarven ruin that was held to hold a potion that could help.
Sure, it was a long shot. That said, he had done the exact same thing when he had been trying to track down Hesione. Eventually, he had stumbled across a bar in Glidinrotdi who had seen a woman fitting Hesione’s description passing through. Sure, did he stand much of a chance? No.
But that wasn’t going to stop him. Not then, not ever.
Garnisic swung his feet back and forth as they rumbled through the open gates of the city. As the sole individual who wasn’t Ondernifam who hadn’t felt particularly awkward about sitting next to Paulin, he had been given the assignment of keeping the elf company on the long ride. And so, he had.
He had sat next to Paulin, who refused to let anyone else drive, while the elf sobbed, anguished, and processed through a thousand other emotions following the vampirification of Kisidera. It wasn’t that he was upset with the elf. If any of his close friends had been turned into vampires, Garnisic knew that he would be suffering a great deal as well. That said… Well… Kisidera was a vampire now.
She was undead. By the very definition of the word, she was no longer alive. If she continued to act in the same manner as she had while she was still living, that was just because the spirit now possessing her body had access to all her thoughts and emotions. Maybe the spirit was trying to deceive them by putting on a show. Maybe it truly was feeling as depressed Kisidera seemed. Garnisic didn’t know for sure, but he was quite positive that she was still a monster. She was a threat who could kill any one of them. It was the same as if someone got reanimated as a zombie. You didn’t keep them around and wait for them to eat you. You killed them properly and then buried them with the respect that they deserved. Doing anything less was not only dangerous but disrespectful to the person’s corpse.
He let out a long sigh as they began to rumble past the homes and storefronts of the much smaller city. Oh, well. He knew what he would do, but Kisidera was Paulin’s fiancé/girlfriend/whatever label they had decided upon for that day. It wasn’t up to him. At least, not until Kisidera started trying to suck out his blood. If that happened, things were going to turn around very quickly.
“Where do we go now?” Paulin gestured vaguely at the surrounding stores. “Anything look good?”
“That depends. How much money do we have?” Garnisic crossed his arms. “I’d guess not much.”
“We’ve still got some in my bank account.” Sapphire leaned forward. “We’ll never be able to touch it again after we leave Sintison, so we might as well use some of it up.”
“Oh, right.” Paulin nodded slowly. “I forgot you set that up. So weird.”
Garnisic just shrugged and kicked his feet out again. He didn’t particularly want to say anything, but… The dwarves had developed a proper banking system many, many years earlier. Of course, the heretical plains dwarves had abandoned the system, but it was still alive and well in all the major dwarven fortresses.
“So what looks good?” Paulin asked once more as the wagon continued to bounce down the street. “I need something.”
“There.” Garnisic shrugged and gestured at a nearby inn. It was definitely a dive, far lower quality than their ordinary haunts as of late, but it would be sufficient. “I’ll go with Sapphire to get payment. You go ahead and take the wagon around to the stables.”
Paulin nodded and slowed the cart to a crawl. Sapphire levitated over the side of the wagon while Garnisic roughly climbed down the wheel. He grabbed his hammer as he did so, though he rather hoped that he wouldn’t need it just to check into an inn. Together, the two of them marched up the stairs and through the front doors, where they quickly found themselves in something that could only be considered a truly low-level establishment.
A grimy bar sat to one side of the room, where a rather overweight human bartender was talking to several individuals who were more than likely bandits of some sort. There was no desk or attendant, making it seem as though they needed to purchase the room through the bar.
Sapphire twisted her hips side to side as they approached the bar, which Garnisic thought was just a bit of an excess. Nevertheless, it succeeded in causing the men to part and let her walk up to lean against the dirty wooden surface.
“And just what’s a girl like you doin’ here?” The bartender slurred. “No one’s allowed to make a profit overnight without a permit. Giv’n by me.”
“I’m not trying to make a profit.” Sapphire slowly held up her hand, where she allowed several lightning bolts to leap from fingertip to fingertip. “I am, however, traveling with some rather deadly individuals who’d rather not spend the night in a place where the authorities might come looking.”
“You wanna place like that, it’ll cost extra.” The bartender frowned. “How much money you got?”
“More than enough.” Sapphire let several small lightning bolts pool in her finger, then touched it to the bar. A soft zap echoed through the room as the lightning erupted across the bar, causing the bandits to jump away with a small yelp. “I have a bank account in Donenrot.”
“Oh do ya?” The bartender raised a bushy eyebrow. “So do half ta’ crooks here. Show me your card.”
Sapphire shrugged and pulled out a small piece of enchanted metal. She passed it to the bartender, who placed it on the counter. Something below the counter emitted a loud ding, and nodded.
“Looks like your good fir it. What do ya need?”
“Two rooms, as far back as you have them.” Sapphire shrugged. “A stable for our horse and wagon. Oh, and no mentioning to the law that we’re here.”
“Done.” The bartender reached below the counter, where another loud ding echoed through the room. He passed the card back to Sapphire, who nodded softly. “Rooms seven and eight. ‘Joy your stay!”
“Oh, I don’t really think I will.” Sapphire sighed and walked for the small hallway. “Also, for what it’s worth, that accent really isn’t that attractive. Plus you keep changing it. Stick to one and you’ll go a lot farther.”
The bartender scowled, and Garnisic chuckled. As the bandit glanced down at him, he activated the fire enchantment on his hammer, causing the head to momentarily burst into flame. The bandits momentarily drew back, and he turned to follow Sapphire.
As they reached rooms seven and eight, Garnisic glanced back at the main door. Paulin strode in just a moment later, followed by the crew. Garnisic gave him a small wave before ducking into room seven. Sapphire vanished into eight, and the door slowly fell shut.
Paulin appeared in the doorway just an instant later, concern written on his face. Garnisic just shrugged and plopped down on the only bed available in the small room.
“You weren’t making a decision, so we did.”
“Fair enough.” Paulin strode in, followed by Ondernifam. In the hallway outside, Hesione led Kisidera into the opposing room. Paulin watched her go, and Garnisic sighed.
“Afraid to sleep in the same room as her?”
“She made it abundantly clear that we would be in separate rooms.” Paulin sighed and ran his fingers through his hair, not looking away from the door. “I just wish I could help her.”
“Believe me when I say that that’s not new information.” Garnisic flashed him a small smile. After a few seconds, he bit his lip and leaned forward. “In all seriousness, Paulin-”
“Please don’t try to tell me something I already know.” Paulin snapped. “Yes, I know she’s dangerous. Yes, I know these situations don’t usually work out well. I really don’t care.” He held up a finger. “If there is even a remote chance that I can find a solution, then you should rest assured that I will not stop until I can find that solution.”
“Yeah. Got you there.” Garnisic sighed and flopped back on the bed. Meanwhile, Ondernifam lay down on the floor. “Why don’t you get some rest? I don’t think you’ve slept in days.”
“I have, I have.” Paulin muttered in an unconvincing voice. “I just… I’ll be back. I need to go check something out.”
He climbed to his feet and strode out the door. Garnisic watched him go, torn between following him and just letting the elf proceed to whatever end he needed to discover.
After several moments of indecision, he sighed and shrugged. Whatever Paulin was doing, it wasn’t Garnisic’s job to interfere. If he had been on some grand quest, it would grow infuriating to have people always telling him to do things differently. The door fell shut upon Paulin’s exit, and Garnisic let his head flop back onto the pillow.
As he lay there, staring up at the ceiling, he slowly reached into one of his many pockets and withdrew the small token given to him by the dwarf in the prison camp. The mysterious symbol stared at him, enigmatic and confusing, as it had done for countless days since that moment. A hammer above a ram’s horn. Or maybe an upside-down ram’s horn above a hammer?
His eyebrows knit together in confusion. What did it mean? He had spent days in Donenrot at a public archive building, trying to find that very answer. The problem as that, as it was clearly a Fond’sar token, he really didn’t want to just share it with people until someone shot him. On the other hand, he didn’t have the research skills necessary to learn anything.
On their final day in Donenrot, he had located a book on iconology. Or something like that. There, he had learned that hammers usually symbolized the working class when used on flags and banners. The ram’s horn, on the other hand, typically symbolized royalty. So… The hammer was above the horn, so common people should be above royalty? Or was the hammer trying to signify crushing the horn?
He didn’t know, and, quite unfortunately, Kisidera had gone and turned herself into a vampire before he had had enough time to figure it out. So, naturally, he had been drug along on yet another mission.
For a brief moment, his hands formed fists. Why was he even still with the group anyway? Sapphire had been given time to go off and study things by herself, why couldn’t he just go do the same? What was the group doing for him? He had been thrown into one battle after another, ignored when he wasn’t needed, and roundly just treated like an accessory.
As the moment faded, he allowed himself to relax. He was with the group because they were his friends. He could have easily stayed with the dwarven settlement, and he had chosen not to. He was with his family.
He only wished that he could protect a particularly obnoxious member of that family from his own bleeding heart.
“Rise and shine.” The lifeless words fell on Sapphire’s ears, jarring her out of a dream involving a rather dashing young knight and more than a few dragons. She scowled briefly. She had just been about to save the poor guy! And then they were going to get married and have kids and…
“Hey, Kisidera.” Sapphire yawned and shook her head. She cast a spell centered on herself, driving the sleep from her eyes. As she woke up fully, she glanced at the vampiric elf, who sat in a chair facing the window with a hollow expression. “How’s it going?”
“Oh, you know. I stayed up all night. Was bored out of my skull. Nothing major.” Kisidera pulled her arms around herself. “The sun’s going to rise in a few minutes. Maybe it’ll just kill me here.”
“That window is facing north.” Sapphire sighed and reached out, putting a hand on Kisidera’s shoulder. “We’ll get through this. Together. I promise we will.”
“I don’t want to.”
Sapphire puffed out her cheeks as she tried to come up with a reply. “Paulin loves you. You know that, right?”
“Yeah.” Kisidera didn’t even bother to nod. “I wish he didn’t.”
Sapphire grimaced. “Love like that is hard to find.”
Kisidera continued to stare at the window. After a few seconds, she spoke again, refusing to acknowledge the comment.
“I’ll get more of the fruit.” Sapphire climbed to her feet, carefully stepping over the still-slumbering Hesione.
“I don’t want the fruit.” Kisidera’s voice was still quite lifeless. “I need something stronger than that.”
Sapphire closed her eyes and tried not to scream. “Maybe I can try to find a convicted murderer for you to eat?”
“I don’t want to kill anyone.”
The scream in Sapphire’s throat edged a bit closer to her mouth. She forced herself to simply nod instead. “I’ll try to figure something out.”
Before the elf could say anything else, she turned and walked out of the room, closing the door softly behind her. It was easy enough to make her way to the main room of the bar, where the bartender from the previous night was still standing there, fixing up what looked like some sort of raw egg juice for several patrons.
Paulin, meanwhile, was passed out on the far end of the bar. He snored softly as Sapphire walked up to him, a bit of drool dripping down from the corner of his mouth.
“Is he drunk?” Sapphire glanced at the bartender.
“Nah. Just passed out.” The bartender shrugged. “Kept asking about vampires. Real strange if you ask me.”
“I’m not. Unless of course he actually found something.”
The bartender snorted. “He got an earful about an old cave not too far from here. All the locals claim it has a magic spring or something inside. The scouts I’ve sent just say it’s haunted. I think he might actually be crazy enough to head out there.”
Sapphire sighed, breathed a silent prayer that Paulin wouldn’t actually try anything like that, and walked up to the slumber elf. She wrapped her arm around him, slowly pulling him away from the grimy bar. His eyes flickered open, just enough for him to see, and she led him back down the hallway. When she opened the boy’s room, she found Garnisic and Ondernifam both missing. Oh, well. It made it far easier to lead Paulin over to the bed, where she dropped him onto the soft mattress. He was snoring again within seconds, and she sighed and walked back to the front of the inn.
“There we go.” Sapphire dropped down into Paulin’s seat, drawing looks from several of the other patrons of the bar. They all, like the previous night, looked as though they could be bandits. Or at least outlaws of one fashion or another. “Friends, you know?”
The bartender just raised an eyebrow and went back to preparing the liquid meals. “You going to buy anything with your money or not?”
Sapphire sighed and shrugged. “Got anything that’s not going to cause me to vomit a few hours from now?”
“You want quality, you go somewhere that talks to the law.” The bartender shrugged. “Either buy something or quit taking up my space.”
Sapphire shrugged and stood up. Her stomach rumbled, and she slowly walked out the front door of the inn. There, as the early morning light just began to crack over the horizon, she yawned and started glancing back and forth. Where had Garnisic and Ondernifam gone? Chances were good that they had woken up and gone in search of something to eat.
She started meandering down the street, not with any particular direction, just wandering. It was kind of nice, really. She had gotten used to her privacy during her few weeks on her own, so getting back into the swing of sharing a room was a bit of an adjustment. At least, into the swing of sharing a room with a vampire.
Ahead, the early morning sun glinted off a flash of steel in the city gates. Sapphire’s eyes narrowed as more flickers began to cross her vision. The images quickly resolved into a large row of soldiers, heavily armored and seemingly ready for an attack.
All around, civilians poured to the sides of the road. As that particular city didn’t really have sidewalks, they were forced to just press themselves up against the walls as best they could. Sapphire did the same, trying to hide her face while at the same time not looking like she was hiding her face. Of course, there was no particularly good way of doing this, as every single other person on the street seemed fixed upon the armored warriors marching into town.
Sapphire stayed put as rows upon rows of soldiers began to march past. Curiously, every fifth row bore a large flag with Sintison’s national emblem: A sun rising over a castle. What did that mean? More than likely, they were troops chasing after Paulin, but…
Her jaw dropped as the seventh row of flags slowly came into view. The poles extending upward from the horses contained not one, but two flags. Flying above the banner of Sintison was a second flag bearing the image of a crown and a ring. She had only seen the symbol a handful of times during her stay in Donenrot. If she wasn’t mistaken, it was the symbol of royalty. And that wasn’t good.
Sure enough, the next horse after that was a proper warhorse, rising a head higher than any of the other mounts. Seated upon its back was a man in golden and silver armor that glistened in the sun. His shield clearly bore the symbol of royalty while a plume of feathers rose from the crest of his helmet.
Slowly, the procession drew to a halt with the member of royalty far too close to Sapphire for comfort. The man reached up and slowly unclipped his helmet, plucking it off his head and tucking under his right arm. Blonde hair cascaded down his back, a wavy and twisted mess that somehow still looked well-groomed. Sapphire felt a momentary flash of envy. She could never get her hair to flow that well!
“Announcing: Prince Korvac of Sintison!” Two soldiers nearby shouted up into the air.
“Greetings, citizens of Inglidelir!” Prince Korvac raised his voice, the noise projected through the city by some sort of magic. “It is due to dark times that I come before you today. I was on my way to the front lines, to assist in defending your beautiful country against the horrors of Elsinor, when I received word that the Prince of Elsinor had been seen within our borders. He seems to be trying to amass a terrorist army to strike back against our kingdom and bring an end to the way of life that we all know. At present, he is believed to be traveling with a dwarf, an orc, a human girl, and two high elf females. If you have any information on them, your assistance will be greatly rewarded.”
Before Sapphire had a chance to move, a steel blade materialized against her throat. A dark-clothed arm wrapped around her upper chest, pinning her arms securely and preventing her from simply running away.
“I think you and the Prince here need to have a talk.” A deep female voice breathed softly in her ear. “Try to make your conversation with him a bit more interesting than my job to locate you.”
“You know what I mean?” Garnisic sighed as he bit into the fried roll that they had acquired from a shopkeeper on the edge of town. “Like… If we just kill Kisidera outright, Paulin will hate us. But if we don’t kill her, she might kill us. There’s just no good way out of it.”
“I agree.” Ondernifam rumbled as they stalked around the walls of the city. “There is no good answer. We should just kill her.”
Garnisic frowned. “Did you not hear me complaining about how there isn’t a good solution?”
“Yes. But blood is always better than nothing.” Ondernifam scowled. “The battle would be great indeed!”
“Uh, huh.” Garnisic sighed and stroked his beard. He wasn’t sure why he even bothered to talk to the orc. It was like talking to a wall that occasionally talked back. “Hypothetically, if you were turned into a vampire, what would you want us to do?”
“Fight me!” Ondernifam roared. “I would slay you all!”
“I really don’t think you’re understanding the concept here.” Garnisic sighed and closed his eyes. After a few seconds, he shrugged and opened his mouth once more. “Do you mind if I ask you a question?”
“Of course not.” Ondernifam rumbled. “I can tell you how to kill any of your enemies.”
“Not the right kind of question.” Garnisic crossed his arms. “Suppose there was something that was really, really confusing you. What would you do to figure out the answer?”
“I would cross the oceans!” Ondernifam declared proudly, then shrugged. “But there is not much that I am confused about.”
Garnisic snorted. Now the orc was listening to him. “You get confused about everything.”
“I know who I will protect and who I will slay.” Ondernifam crossed his arms. “What more is there to know than that?”
Garnisic opened his mouth with a snarky reply, then paused. In more ways than one, Ondernifam was right on the money. He shrugged after a few seconds. He desperately wanted to know the origin of the strange symbol, wanted to know how it tied into the mystery of the Fond’sar and what it meant for his life. That said… How much did it really matter? He was with his friends. If history was any indication, the Fond’sar would continue to crop up here and there. He would face the issue as it came, and just live life until then. Of course… Taking such an attitude might lead him to miss something important resulting in the death of the entire team.
“Oh, shut up.” He muttered at his brain. “This is too complicated.”
“What is?” Ondernifam rumbled down at him. “You are thinking again.”
“Most of us find that particular skill useful for survival.” Garnisic snapped up at Ondernifam, then shrugged. “Sorry. The situation with Kisidera just has me considering what I should be doing about lots of other things in my life. I’m just all confused. Vampires, Fond’sar, Sintison invading Elsinor, and who-knows-what-else?”
Ondernifam nodded firmly. “Things are very strange. Vampires dropping notes should not be happening.”
Garnisic’s head snapped around to face the orc. He frowned up at Ondernifam for several seconds before stroking his beard and shaking his head.
“What?” Garnisic crossed his arms. “What vampire dropped a note?”
“The one I killed in Donenrot.” Ondernifam shrugged and pulled a small slip of paper out of a pocket on his pants that he had thankfully agreed to wear. “I told you all about it.”
“No. No, you did not.” Garnisic plucked the note from Ondernifam’s claws and frowned down at the small note. “Let’s see here. As a registered vampiric agent in the civilized world, Lilith of the Desert formally extends an invitation to join her New Legion. Please send a return letter with a list of your accomplishments as an undead lord and await further instructions.”
“That’s not true at all.” Garnisic frowned as he read over the note a second time. “So that’s what the guy was talking about. He received a letter from a vampire lord or something and then started trying to recruit more vampires in an attempt to impress her.”
“He failed!” Ondernifam roared. “I speared him through the heart, tore his limbs from his body and scattered his dust to the ends of the world!”
“You ripped off his head. Literally nothing you haven’t done to dozens of other enemies.” Garnisic frowned. The fact that the vampire was working for someone else was… Interesting. Not to mention concerning. They had just finished averting the angel conquest of the world, he wasn’t particularly keen on fighting off a wave of vampires trying to do the same thing. Or the Fond’sar. Or really anyone else. Why did people always have to try and take over things? Why couldn’t everyone just be content to live in peace?
As he continued to walk, he tucked the note into his own pocket and made a mental note to talk to Hesione, Paulin, and Sapphire about it. At least for the time being, he didn’t particularly want Kisidera to know the motives behind the person who had ostensibly ruined her life. He was also fairly certain that if Ondernifam actually understood the gravity of the situation, he would go tell basically everyone that they came across.
As they came back into view of the main gates, Garnisic caught a glimpse of a massive cavalry force marching into the city. If that wasn’t bad enough in and of itself, they were flying the banners of royalty.
“Quick. Hide.” Garnisic spun on his heel and started walking away from the army as quickly as he could, hiding behind the barrier of the wall.
Ondernifam, naturally, crossed his arms and planted his feet. “I do not hide!”
Garnisic groaned and closed his eyes. They didn’t have time for games. If royalty was here, it meant that they were fairly confident that they could capture Paulin and Hesione. They had to warn the elves, they needed to escape yet again, and they needed to do it all before the king or queen or whoever had shown up managed to find them. And Ondernifam was going to charge the entire army if he didn’t…
“Hey.” Garnisic pointed down at the ground. “I need you to defeat this wall. Dig a tunnel under it.”
“The wall will never know what defeated it!” Ondernifam ran to Garnisic’s side and began to dig, his claws ripping into the rich soil with a fervor that Garnisic rather envied. If orcs ever decided to take up tunnel building, the dwarves were going to be out of business.
As the orc continued to dig, Garnisic took a deep breath and crept up to the corner yet again. He poked his head around the edge of the wall, watching the rows upon rows of soldiers stomping into the small settlement. They had technically been in worse scrapes before… But he didn’t particularly favor their chances at that moment. With luck, they would be saved by some sort of miracle yet again.
“Ahh, and who might you be?” Prince Korvak dipped his head as the figure shoved Sapphire up next to the horse. “You’d be the sorceress, then?”
“She bears the Ring.” The deep voice spat in Sapphire’s ear. “She is of no greater threat to you than a horse fly.”
“Hey.” Sapphire thrashed against the grasp. “I’d like to think I’m a bit of a threat.”
“If that lets you sleep at night.” The arms around Sapphire vanished as several more soldiers dismounted and walked up to Sapphire, swords drawn. As the woman spoke again, the words seemed to simply float in the air for several moments before vanishing. “If you’d truly like to test my skills, all you have to do is ask.”
Sapphire turned to glare at her assailant, only to find that there was no one there. She sighed and turned to stare up at Prince Korvac, who now surveyed her with a strange interest.
“What?” She crossed her arms. “You’re just going to take her word for it?”
“Why yes, actually.” The prince held out his hand. “Would you care to join me for a ride?”
“If there were a few less swords pointed my way, that offer would seem far more appealing.” Sapphire raised an eyebrow.
“Let me put it this way.” Prince Korvac paused for the briefest moments. “There are far more painful ways of conducting interrogations. I thought that you might appreciate a bit of scenery and a change of company.”
Sapphire sighed, glanced at the swords once more, and grabbed hold of the prince’s hand. He pulled her up onto the horse, his grip surprisingly strong. As she settled into place behind him, he turned and gestured down at the spot where Sapphire had been standing. As she looked down, a dark form materialized, a woman cloaked in dark cloth and seemingly composed from shadows themselves. The only part of her that seemed truly solid were her eyes, which gleamed from within her dark hood.
“See what you can discover about the rest of her companions. Make no move until you hear my word.” Prince Korvac dismissed the woman with another gesture. She faded from existence as quickly as she had appeared, and Prince Korvac turned his horse around. They began to trot through the city, slowly making their way past the rows upon rows of soldiers.
As they reached the city gate, Prince Korvac gestured at several of the nearby calvary, and six more soldiers split off to join him as they began to trot down towards the south. Sapphire frowned as the prince neither spoke nor truly acknowledged her presence as they rode down along the city walls before breaking away and simply traveling through the pine forest. Eventually, they came to a small stream that rippled and burbled below the pine trees.
“This seems like an appropriate place.” Prince Korvac swung off his horse, then raised his hand. Sapphire took the offering, allowing him to help him down to the ground. The soldiers formed a close ring around them as he sat down on a rock that jutted out slightly into the burbling water. Sapphire, still uncertain about the whole scenario, sat down next to him.
“So… What is this?” Sapphire finally risked breaking the silence. “You’re interrogating me?”
“Indeed I am.” Prince Korvac nodded. “I was curious how you would handle this specific situation. Would you wait for me to begin the conversation? Would you begin asking your own questions? Would you try to use your feminine wiles to seduce me? I am a human male after all. It would seem certain that I would be easily swayed by a willing woman.”
Sapphire shrugged. “I guess I’m just not that sort of girl.”
“Which sort? The sort to ask questions first, or the sort to try and seduce an accuser?” Prince Korvac raised an eyebrow, then shrugged. “I am certain that this is uncomfortable for you. Perhaps we should begin. How much of a following do Prince Paulin and Regent Hesione have behind them?”
Sapphire shook her head. “They’re not trying to mass a following. Paulin was exiled and Hesione has no claim to the throne. They just want to get on with their life.”
Prince Korvac crossed his arms. “You must understand how hard it is for me to believe that. Exiled or not, the bond between a son and his father is a strong one. Paulin must be in near-constant agony that the King of Elsinor daily has squads from Sintison sent to kill him. Certainly, that would upset you in the reverse situation.”
Sapphire just looked him dead in the eye. “I never knew my true parents. They were killed by witches.”
“Ahh. I’m truly sorry to hear that.” Prince Korvac glanced down at the ground, then shrugged. “Nevertheless, my previous statement still stands. Does Paulin not worry about his father?”
Sapphire bit her lip. “I think that he does, but…” She shrugged. “He’s always been a romantic. From the stories I’ve heard, he’s spent years of his life chasing after his various loves. I think his father is always going to be second to whoever he’s pursuing at the time.”
“Then I can only conclude that he may be considering a more permanent relationship with Kisidera.” Prince Korvac stroked his chin. “That is her name, correct? She’s from the Apician Family? Still more troubling. The High Families are considered the greatest roadblock to Sintison’s conquest of Elsinor.”
“You know, you’re the one who started all of this!” Sapphire pointed at Prince Korvac. “You’re the one playing the victim, but you’re the one who invaded Elsinor in the first place.”
“Indeed we were.” Prince Korvac inclined his head. “Have you ever stopped to consider that such an invasion may not have been unprompted? Perhaps the elven King, knowing that Elsinor had been permanently destabilized by the angels and unrest with the High Families, decided to ensure that a stronger form of government would be in place to protect his civilians from a coming danger.”
Sapphire’s eyes opened wide, then narrowed. The prince was just trying to get in her head.
“If you’re going to lie, at least make it sound reasonable.”
Prince Korvac shrugged, then turned and stared out across the river. As it lapped and burbled, he picked up a smooth stone and flicked his gauntlet-covered hand. It skipped across the water, landing with a thud on the far side.
“Sometimes, Sapphire, good people are thrown into conflict with each other through no fault of their own.” He sighed. “I’m sure Paulin is a good soul, but he has been seen in Sintison. We’ve received word that he appeared during the disaster at Dindriir. Further reports place him living among fishing villages, residing in Donenrot, and leading resistance groups in Gliig. I’m sure some of these reports are false, but it’s obvious that some are true. Whether or not he wants to live a peaceful life, he’s been turned into an icon for the resistance to our rule. A lot of people will die if this resistance blossoms.”
Sapphire slammed her fist into her palm. “He just wants to live in peace!”
“Some men aren’t given that option.” Prince Korvac turned and stared at her. “Where do you see yourself in your dreams? Tell me, Sapphire, where do you desire to be? More than anything else, where do you want to be?”
Sapphire closed her eyes. Images danced before her, taunting her. Once more, the magical block in her mind broke, sending a flood of images pouring through her soul. Mal, torn and battered by thousands upon thousand of years, slowly flapping off into the distance. Oh, how she wanted to hold him. How she wanted to cradle his head in her lap, play games with him just as she had once done.
“It’s not important.” Sapphire hastily erected the blocks once more and set her jaw. “Please don’t make me think about it.”
“I won’t, I won’t.” Prince Korvac held up his hands. “I just wanted to point out that you don’t have what you want. That very fact is likely not due to your own choices. Sometimes, we have to do what is best for the greater good of the world, not our own personal good. And, sometimes, we’re given that choice.”
It took several moments for Sapphire to realize what he was saying. “You’re offering me a bribe? I give up my friends and you give me something I want?”
“We’re going to catch your friends. I’m offering you a chance to make sure that it happens as painlessly as possible and give you a bit of help for your troubles.” Prince Korvac raised his hand. A moment later, a brilliant red stone floated through the air and came to rest in his armored palm. He held out the stone for Sapphire to see. “This is a legally binding Oathstone. I will speak my end of the bargain. If you agree, you seal it with your life essence. If I fail to live up to my end, you can enact proper justice in the courts of Donenrot before the King himself.”
“Sounds fair enough.” Sapphire breathed softly. She wanted to reject him outright, but… There were a lot of soldiers. And the women who had captured her seemed to exist on an entirely new level of power and terror. “What’s the deal?”
“The orc and the dwarf.” Prince Korvac nodded backwards. “You go free with them. We provide you with transportation anywhere in Calsin, even if it’s behind enemy lines. A thousand gold coins. You three get to start a new life. Meanwhile, Paulin and the two elves will be taken back and placed in prison until they are no longer a threat. No executions, no ransoms. We simply get them out of the way and make it public enough that no one tries to rally in their name.”
Sapphire bit her lip. It was an extremely tempting offer. It would let three of them, the three who had never quite fit in anyway, start a new life. And it would ensure the safety of the elves. There was no true way to ensure their lives if they simply ran from the army until they were caught.
“No.” Sapphire looked Prince Korvac in the eyes. “I’m not selling out my friends. How could the three of us live our lives knowing that half of our group was rotting behind bars? We’d just sneak back into your country and break them out.”
“I thought you would say as much.” Prince Korvac nodded slowly. “As such, I brought you something else.”
He snapped his fingers, and another object slowly floated over to their group. Sapphire’s eyes narrowed as a book landed squarely on the stones in between the two individuals. A protective field shimmered over the pages, preventing her from opening it, though she could still see the title easily enough.
“An Explorer’s Guide to Fairn.” She frowned at the words, which were so faded that they were barely legible. The script itself was ancient, a form of handwriting that she hadn’t seen outside of academies. “What is this?”
“This is a book housed in the Royal Archive of Sintison.” Prince Korvac placed his hand on the tome. “When Versor, the great sorcerer of the Lantern, received permission to enter these forbidden archives, this was the book that he withdrew. After nearly a year of studying its pages, he left our palace never to return.”
Sapphire’s eyes widened. “What are you saying?”
“I’m saying that the only sorcerer other than yourself to have walked Calsin in living memory looked at this book before vanishing.” Prince Korvac shrugged. “Given your recent quest in the Windmaster archives, it would seem that this would be of particular interest to you.”
Sapphire’s eyes slowly narrowed. “How do I know this isn’t a fake?”
Prince Korvac waved his hand over the title, causing the protective shield to flicker and vanish. “You have ten seconds before it seals again.”
Sapphire snatched up the volume and flipped open the cover. The first page showed a map, though not a map of any land that she recognized. It was long and stretched out, with a coastline covered in beep bays and gulfs. A single mountain range traced its way across the continent, while dozens of annotations covered the map denoting specific locations and cities.
She had barely taken in the map at all before it slammed shut again, sealing tightly. Her mouth watered as she looked up at Prince Korvac.
“This is a guide to another continent.”
“Just like Calsin.” Prince Korvac nodded. “Ostensibly, the author was an aqahartis who managed to sneak past the western merfolk shortly after the Dwarven Civil War. He spent the better part of fifty years cataloging the land before returning. The books gives hints for evading the merfolk patrols as well as what to expect once landing on the shores. I can tell you what specific locations Versor was particularly interested in.”
Sapphire closed her eyes. It was, indeed, everything she wanted. It was everything she had been trying to find within the Windmaster archives. It was everything she needed to pursue her destiny, everything she needed to rid herself of the Ring and take up the mantle of another sorcerous artifact. And who was she kidding, anyway? She had long since ceased to be part of the family. They had let her go off on her own for months, just expecting her to return later. Not to mention the fact that if Versor was indeed on another continent, none of them were going to be willing to go with her. If she was going to pursue her dreams, she was going to have to do it on her own.
Slowly, she took a deep breath, trying to draw in her energy. As she let it out, she raised her hands to the sky and loosed a series of brilliantly-colored orbs. The bursts of light rose above the treetops, streaming towards the clouds above. As the lights continued to pulse from her palms, a dark shadow struck the side of her head, knocking her flat on the rock. The world spun around her, making her only dimly aware of her surroundings.
“Sire.” It was the dark woman again. “That was elven light code. She’s trying to contact her friends.”
“Indeed?” Prince Korvac sounded almost amused as Sapphire tried desperately to force her limbs into motion. “And what did she say?”
When the woman spoke again, her sheer frustration was more than enough to bring a smile to Sapphire’s face.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical means, without prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, write to the publisher, addressed “Attention: Permissions Coordinator,” at the address below.