“Wake up wake up wake up!” Garnisic’s voice pounded through Paulin’s head. “Now! Quick!”
“They will not respond to words.” Ondernifam’s paw latched down around Paulin’s leg and slung him roughly out of bed. Warm blankets were replaced by spinning walls, until he smashed into the floor flat on his back. He groaned and slowly sat up, rubbing his head where it had smacked against the hard wooden floor.
“Now I know how Sapphire always feels.” Paulin sighed and looked at the two intruders. Or maybe just one intruder, as Garnisic had seemingly vanished. “What’s going on?”
“There are warriors to fight!” Ondernifam roared. “You are needed for the great battle!”
“Prince Korvac is here and ready to kill all of us.” Garnisic poked his head back around the doorframe. “I’m waking up Hesione and Kisidera.”
“Kisidera is already awake.” Kisidera shuffled into the hall, her eyes hollow. “Vampires don’t sleep, remember?”
“We really don’t have time for your self-pity right now.” Garnisic held up a finger and vanished once more. “He’s already got Sapphire. No one saw who grabbed her, but they said it was some sort of a shadow warrior.”
“Probably one of King Korvac’s bodyguards.” Paulin sighed and climbed to his feet. “There have been rumors that he contracted with the cult of Gethsemia for protection. If that’s true, he’ll be packing some serious muscle.”
“I will slay them!”
“No, you really won’t.” Paulin closed his eyes for a brief moment as he stumbled out into the hallway. “Everyone accepted as a worshipper of Gethsemia becomes a full warlock. They’re nasty. One of the most threatening cults if you happen to be royalty. Anyhow, what all’s happening? How’d he find us so fast? The prince himself is here? Can someone please explain things in non-orcish terms?”
“What is wrong with my terms?”
Paulin ignored the orc and tried to clear the cobwebs from his mind. Kisidera stared at him, and he slipped an arm around her shoulders. She remained stiff, but he held on anyway. She was his girlfriend, and she would remain that way no matter what she was going through. In the reverse situation, he knew that he would want people sticking with him.
“Okay. Here’s what I know.” Garnisic stumbled back out into the hallway, dragging a bleary-eyed Hesione behind him. “The city is crawling with soldiers. They have the gates blockaded, soldiers are patrolling the streets, and Prince Korvac himself has Sapphire. Ondernifam and I only managed to get here because he was able to dig under the wall.”
Paulin turned and frowned at the orc, who simply growled at him. Most walls had spells to prevent people from doing exactly that. Oh, well. He shrugged it off and turned back to Garnisic, pulling Kisidera close.
“Do we know where Sapphire is being held?”
“The people we talked to said that Korvac carried her out into the wilderness.” Garnisic shrugged. “Trying to kill her remotely?”
“Possibly.” Paulin mused, then shook his head. “If he wanted to kill her, he’d do it in front of everyone to make a spectacle and encourage people to give us up.” He stroked his chin for a few seconds, then nodded. “We need to go get her. He probably has something else planned for her. A deal, torture, something along those lines. Come on!”
He turned and started walking towards the rear of the inn, where a small door led to the stables. Kisidera, while not fighting against his pull, didn’t exactly move with him either. She just sighed and rolled her eyes, appearing frustrated that they were moving and not simply killing her. Oh, well. She would thank him someday.
They burst through the rear door to find three soldiers standing guard over the horses and wagons. Garnisic leapt forward, smashing his hammer into the nearest soldier, an aqahartis who was blown backwards and out into the street by the force of the strike. Ondernifam smashed his fist into the second, dropping him in an instant. That only left the third, a startled human male who looked like he hadn’t seen a day of combat his entire life.
Paulin just smirked as both Garnisic and Ondernifam stood up, glaring down their noses at the man. He turned and ran, screaming as he fled into the streets. Paulin ran for the group’s wagon as the screams faded.
“Not much longer until we have company!” He grabbed two of the nearest horses and hauled them over to the yoke, where he hurriedly began to attach them to the wagon. “Hold them off while I get this ready!”
Only seconds passed before Ondernifam roared loudly. The noise was followed by the crashing of metal on stone and the telltale scream of wounded soldiers. Hesione appeared next to Paulin, and the two of them worked quickly to finish attaching the horses to the cart. As they finished, Kisidera climbed up into the back and drew a blanket over herself. Paulin and Hesione climbed up into the driver’s seat, Paulin’s snapped the reins, and they lurched out into the street.
There, half a dozen guards faced off against Garnisic and Ondernifam in a loose semicircle around their location. Paulin had to admit that the dwarf truly was impressive with his new hammer. Or maybe his old hammer? Garnisic had mentioned something about losing it and getting it back, but Paulin hadn’t heard the entire story. Whatever the case, it was almost mesmerizing to see the tiny man jumping back and forth, smashing soldiers like toys.
“Here!” Paulin called out. “We need to go!”
Garnisic nodded, turned, and jumped upward. His hammer glowed with an odd energy as he sailed over the edge of the cart and landed with a thump in the rear of the wagon. Ondernifam, on the other hand, grabbed one of the soldiers and subsequently used him as a makeshift club to knock down several of the other guards. As the last one collapsed, Ondernifam charged forward towards the gates of the city.
Paulin snapped the reigns, setting off after the orc. More soldiers rushed out of shops or tried to block their way with horses. Ondernifam loosed a roar that shook the air itself, causing a number of the horses to skirt out of the way. The rest of them simply fell before his wrath. Paulin’s eyes began to open wider as he realized that he had never truly seen Ondernifam quite so deadly before.
Fire blazed from the orc’s fists, melting armor and blasting horses to the sides of the street. All resistance fell as they rushed for the exit. Ahead, the doors slowly began to swing shut as two soldiers desperately tried to close the group in before it was too late. Ondernifam jumped forward as the group drew near, sailing nearly twenty feet to smash a fist into the nearest soldier. The man simply vanished in the explosion, and the gate sailed wide open once more. Paulin sailed through the gap as Ondernifam swung back up into the wagon, and… They were free!
As they tore down the road, sounds of pursuit rang through the air. Paulin took a deep breath and glanced back at Garnisic.
“Any idea where Sapphire might be?”
Garnisic shook his head. “The storekeeper I talked to said that he thought they had gone south, but-”
“Wait!” Hesione pointed up into the air. “Elven light code!”
Paulin glanced to the left, where a series of red, blue, and green lights pulsed up into the sky. It took only seconds to process the information, at which point he simply snapped the reigns and pushed the horses ever harder.
“What is it?” Garnisic leaned forward. “Something bad?”
“It’s from Sapphire. It has to be.” Paulin nodded and glanced back. “She says that there’s danger and we need to run.”
“Like that’s not obvious.” Garnisic muttered.
“It means that she’s likely been compromised in some fashion.” Paulin grimaced. “Probably the same shadow people who took her.”
“So what does that mean?” Garnisic frowned. “We can’t just leave her!”
“Oh, we’re not.” Paulin shook his head. “Trust me when I say that I’m not leaving anyone behind. Not anymore.” He took a deep breath. “That said, if we’re going to help her, we’re going to need to retreat.”
“Where to?” Hesione gestured at the trees surrounding them. “We don’t exactly have that many options right now!”
“I can think of one!” Paulin grimaced as he began to plan out his admittedly rash plan of action. There was something that the locals had mentioned during his time at the bar the night before, a place that the soldiers from Donenrot probably wouldn’t be familiar with. “It may not be a great one, but…” He shrugged. “It might be the only chance that Sapphire has.”
“I don’t care what you offer me.” Sapphire sat up, her head ringing with the force of the blow that had struck her. “I’m not turning on my friends.”
“You say that now. Perhaps your mind will change after a few rounds with Nalia.” Prince Korvac slowly took a step back as the shadow woman took form just over Sapphire. “I will give you one final chance to recant.”
Sapphire ground her teeth together and reached out to the magical field. Power flowed down into her limbs. Fire formed in her fist. She smirked and thrust her hands upward, loosing a blast of flame into Nalia.
As the flames struck home, Nalia dematerialized, transforming into what almost looked like a cloud of gnats, a dark smear hanging in the air. Sapphire let the flames die, and Prince Korvac climbed up onto a horse and started to ride away.
“Bring her to me once you’ve finished with her.”
Nalia rematerialized and glared down at Sapphire. She appeared, at a glance, to simply be clothed in robes made from shadows themselves. The only features of her body that Sapphire could actually see were her eyes, which stared out from the darkness as though stars lost amid a jet-black night.
“I am a sorceress of the Ring.” Sapphire climbed back to her feet, meeting Nalia’s gaze. “I will not fall to you.”
Nalia didn’t answer, just continued to stare into Sapphire’s soul. With a flicker, she vanished into thin air, only to reappear as a dark blur behind Sapphire’s back. A foot slammed into Sapphire’s head, driving her forward. Nalia materialized again just in front of her, striking out with a flat palm. This blow caught Sapphire in the forehead, snapping her head back. She vanished once more, reappearing near the ground to sweep Sapphire’s legs out from underneath of her.
As Sapphire struck the ground, something within the Ring flared, causing a force field to appear and cushion her fall. She snarled and drew on the magical field once more, casting an area of effect spell that caused a blast of lightning to erupt in a sphere around her.
The lightning bolts flickered from tree to tree, blowing apart tree trunks with ear splitting blasts and striking at the retreating soldiers. Nalia once more simply became immaterial, solidifying as the blast passed. Sapphire had only a moment to recover before the dark women kicked her in the side, knocking her into the stream.
Sapphire inhaled reflexively as water that felt like liquid ice surrounded her. She slammed into the bottom of the stream, only a few feet below the surface, and cast a quick spell to determine her surroundings.
A mental image appeared in her head. She was at the bottom of the river, Nalia stood just on the edge… No, Nalia stood on the opposite edge… No, Nalia was now hovering over the river.
Sapphire scowled as she tried to catch her bearings. Nalia could teleport at will and had obviously been trained in combat quite well. She could become immaterial, which meant…
Well, what did it mean? It meant that Sapphire had to catch the woman when she wasn’t suspecting an attack. Sapphire held her breath, trying to remain still as she watched Nalia bounce back and forth. There was a pattern forming, Sapphire just had to hit it.
She drew on the magical field and exploded upward from the water, trailing liquid from her limbs in what she rather hoped looked like wings. Or at least something that looked cool. She fired a bolt of magic from her palms, an icy blast that she targeted at what she thought would be the next-most-likely place for Nalia to be. As the ice stretched across the stream, sure enough, a dark shape took form in the air.
Quite unfortunately, despite the ice traveling at speeds far too fast for the eye to follow, Nalia simply didn’t materialize that the spell shot through her body and slammed into the ground. Before Sapphire could react to the revelation, Nalia reappeared in front of Sapphire’s body and kicked her in the torso. Magic cracked through the air as Sapphire was blown across the stream and into the trunk of a tree.
She groaned as bark cut into her skin. She slid back down to the ground, gasping for air. Nalia appeared in front of her once more, a dark blade forming in her hand. Sapphire had only a moment to blink before the knife was thrust at her throat, slashing at her jugular.
Once more, the Ring gave a soft flare, igniting a magical field around her body. The knife struck the glowing barrier, causing a burst of light that left spots dancing before Sapphire’s eyes. Nalia was blown backwards by a lightning bolt that poured forth from the Ring, driving her back across the river and deep into the trees.
“Alright, then.” Sapphire forced herself back to her feet and reached within herself, calling upon the power of the Ring. A staff formed in her hand, her blue dress came cascading down from her shoulders, and she pointed the glowing crystal in Nalia’s direction.
A foot once again struck her from the right side, knocking her off balance. She swung the staff in that direction and cast a simple fire spell, trying to at least make it so that Nalia couldn’t rematerialize again. Nevertheless, the moment she set the spell in her mind, the staff collapsed back into a simple Ring and her clothes went back to her normal garb.
Nalia dropped out of the sky above her and smashed into her shoulders, driving her to her knees. Living shadows wrapped around her limbs, pulling her arms behind her back, then doing the same to her feet. She fell on her side, almost completely immobile as Nalia stood over her, breathing heavily.
“Quite a fight, sorceress.” Nalia breathed. “You deserve credit for that.”
Nalia held up her hand, where shadowy tentacles leapt from her fingertips and dove into the nearby river. The tendrils drew a large rock up from the depths of the water, sharp and pointed like a massive spearhead.
“You know, you really don’t have to kill me.” Sapphire spat. “Korvac still wants me alive.”
Nalia’s eyes hardened, though she said nothing. As the stone was lifted up over Sapphire’s head, Sapphire felt an odd feeling flow through her body.
She was about to die. The fear that Malah had faced so many times during her time in Calsin before realizing she was immortal was about to come to pass for her mother. This was where things ended. Maybe the Ring would save her once more, as it had done when Nalia had tried to stab her, but maybe it wouldn’t. There didn’t seem to be any real logic to its patterns, no true clue about why it acted when it did. One way or another Nalia would continue to beat her, over and over, until the dark woman found a way to defeat the Ring’s power.
And then, once Sapphire was gone, her friends would follow. Paulin. Hesione. Garnisic. Ondernifam. Kisidera. Sure, the prince had said that he wouldn’t kill them, but was his word truly to be believed? He could slaughter them all, in that moment, and no one would ever know. The threat to Sintison’s empire would be extinguished. That would be that.
A single thought sprang into Sapphire’s mind. She was all but dead anyway, so… What was the risk? It had worked for Versor, at least in theory, so…
She took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and slipped the Ring off her finger. Where others had tried to remove it and been unable, for her, it simply fell from her hand and onto the ground with a clink. In that instant, Sapphire felt the wellspring of power within her vanish. She was simply lying on the ground, exposed, as Nalia prepared to crush her into a pulp. A brief noise reached her ears, the sound of a distant object plummeting through the air.
“Hinchipol?” Sapphire breathed softly. “If you’re there, now’s the time. Save me. Save my friends.”
An explosion shook the air, sending out a light so bright that Sapphire found herself able to see even through her closed eyelids. The dark bonds holding her vanished, allowing her to roll out of the way just as something came down with a thunk right next to her. She opened her eyes to find the rock imbedded in the ground, protruding several feet into the soft soil. Nalia lay on the ground just next to it, rubbing her head and climbing back to her feet.
Before Sapphire could move, streamers of light began to wrap around her body in a glorious spectacle of light. Brilliant blue robes dropped down from her shoulders, a flowing cloak that wrapped around her with a mysterious flair. A staff took its shape in her hand, not the wooden staff that she was used to, but a bronze staff that displayed engravings of leaves and flowers. A blue crystal topped it off, set within bronze fittings that held it tight.
Nalia scowled and dematerialized once more. Sapphire felt a wellspring of magic bubble up within her, and she cast a spell that slowed the world around her. The wind drew to a whisper, the river ceased to bubble, the smoke from the burned tree trunks became stone.
A dark shape began to slowly take form just to Sapphire’s left. Sapphire smiled and stepped to the side, where she pointed the staff at Nalia’s slowly forming shape. Magic burst from the staff, responding to Sapphire’s thoughts, and formed a bubble around Nalia’s form. Sapphire then allowed the world to speed back up, causing Nalia to materialize in the center of her magical prison.
Nalia’s eyes opened wide as her extended fist slammed not into Sapphire, but into the softly-glowing bubble. She fell to the bottom of the prison and vanished, only to reappear in almost exactly the same place. She vanished and reappeared several more times, growing increasingly frustrated.
“You don’t even understand the power you possess!” Nalia finally screamed. “You’re a child given gifts not fit for emperors!”
“Maybe so.” Sapphire smirked. “Still means I can defeat you.”
She spun her staff around her body, drawing in a magical torrent of energy, and loosed it in Nalia’s direction. A cascade of lightning poured from the crystal, blasting through the prison and striking Nalia in the chest. The assassin was blown through the trunk of a nearby tree, shattering the wood and scattering seared splinters across the area.
As the blast died down, Sapphire pointed the staff at the ground and drew a quick circle around her feet. “Take me to my friends.” She breathed softly.
Magic flared around her, picking her up from the world and carrying her away. She felt a smile break her face as the teleportation worked perfectly.
She was back. And now, there was nothing that could stand in her way.
“This way!” Paulin called out, clicking the reigns ever harder as the horses shot through the forest. Behind him, he could hear the shouts of soldiers, the thunder of pursuing hooves. Traveling on single horses without wagons to pull, the men chasing them were moving far faster than the fleeing team. The small lead that they had was going to run out soon enough, which meant that unless Ondernifam and Garnisic had enough fight to take on an entire army, things were going to turn south very quickly.
Ahead, through the trees, a small hill came into view. Paulin felt a smile break his face as the wagon lurched ever onward. The locals had spun dozens of tales about a cave set in that particular hill. Rumors of a magical spring that could cure a myriad of diseases. Tales of a portal into an ancient dwarven mine. Stories of ghosts and other magical creatures.
Paulin frankly didn’t know what to expect from the cave, but he did rather hope that whatever was inside would allow them to survive for long enough to go back and help Sapphire. Quite unfortunately, the soldiers behind them were starting to come into view, which wasn’t going to be particularly helpful for successfully hiding.
The attempt began to seem even more futile as the wagon struck a large rock that Paulin had been too slow to avoid. A loud crack echoed through the air, and the right rear wheel fell from the wagon. The vehicle tilted sharply, causing the horses to rear and snort loudly. Something else broke, and Paulin had a brief moment to blink before the wagon fell to the side.
He was thrown from the moving vehicle, tossed onto the rough dirt of the forest. He tumbled end over end, eventually coming to a stop on the cold ground.
Behind him, Kisidera let out a massive shriek, and his blood turned to ice. He leapt to his feet and turned around, racing back towards the scattered and fallen comrades. The others were slowly struggling to their feet… But not Kisidera.
Instead, having had the blanket thrown off of her during the fall, she lay exposed in a patch of sunlight. Steam hissed upwards from her skin as she was burned by the oppression of the sun. Her hair turned white even as Paulin watched, her screams echoed from the trees.
Paulin desperately grabbed at the blanket and threw it over her, shielding her from the deadly rays. She gasped powerfully as the sunlight faded, though tears still streamed down from her eyes.
“It hurts.” She whimpered. “Please. Please just end this. I can’t go on like this.”
Paulin set his jaw as the thunder of hooves continued to rise in the distance. “I’m not giving up on you. Not now, not ever.”
“But why?” Kisidera screamed. “Look at me!”
He took a deep breath and looked down at his beloved fiancé. Her skin was wrinkled and scarred from the intense heat. Her ears had been burnt down to stubs, her hair was matted and charred. And yet, it was her. She was everything he wanted. She was so beautiful, even in her pain.
“I am looking at you.” He breathed. “Come with me. Please. We’ll get out of this. I promise you, I will never give up on you.”
Several more tears trickled from her eyes as she nodded and slowly sat up. Making sure to keep the blanket wrapped around her, Paulin rolled out from underneath the covering and helped her climb to her feet. Nearby, Hesione was already upright, along with Garnisic and Ondernifam. The latter two were ready to fight, stances set. Of course, there were several dozen soldiers roaring through the woods around them at that point, so Paulin wasn’t quite sure what that was going to do.
“Surrender!” A powerful voice called through the woods. Paulin glanced past the circling riders to see a new figure appearing. From the armor, he had no doubt that this was Prince Korvac, arrived to extract his vengeance on the supposed rebel. “Throw down your weapons and you won’t be killed.”
“I’ll believe it when I see it.” Garnisic called out. “Go-”
Garnisic’s voice was cut off as a lightning bolt cracked down from the sky, striking the ruins of the wagon. The remains were blown into splinters, revealing a drastically changed Sapphire. She once again carried the staff of a proper sorceress, though her blue dress had been replaced by a cloak and robes that nearly looked clerical in their design. Her staff, now made from metal, loosed a blast of magic that caused the horses to turn and flee en masse.
“Come on!” Sapphire spun, fire in her eyes. “There’s a cave nearby! We need to get to safety!”
Hesione, Garnisic, and Ondernifam all nodded and raced in the direction that Sapphire pointed with her staff. A blast of magic later, and a softly glowing trail traced its way through the woods, providing an easy path to follow. Paulin muttered under his breath as he began to help Kisidera towards their safety.
“Oh, sure. They’ll listen to her when she tries to tell them about a safe place to stay.”
Kisidera just whimpered softly, and Paulin began to pull her along just a bit faster. Behind, he could hear the sizzle of what sounded like fire, the crack of lightning, the hiss of water and ice.
The path led them across the short distance to the hill, where the cave’s small entrance loomed from within the soil. The rest of the group was already inside, Paulin breathed a sigh of relief as he and Kisidera set foot inside the stone cavern. The moment they had crossed the threshold, Sapphire appeared in another blur of light and thrust out her staff at the entrance of the cave. Magical energy drew up dirt and stone across the opening, sealing them inside. A few orbs of light were subsequently cast from Sapphire’s staff, illuminating the cavern.
Paulin took a quick glance around as the room was slowly lit up. It wasn’t large, only just high enough that he didn’t need to duck, and curled out of sight as it twisted into the distance. Kisidera continued to cry as the rest of the group began to glance curiously at Sapphire.
“Long story. Sort of.” Sapphire nodded at the former entrance from underneath her hood. “There are a bunch of shadow warriors coming our way. There was just one, but I think she called in reinforcements. They’ll be able to get in here as soon as they figure out where we are. Head deeper into the cave, I’ll hold them off as long as possible. If I have enough time to prepare, I should be able to open a portal and get us all out, but it’ll take some time to get it ready.”
“Just make sure it’s nowhere sunny.” Kisidera wrapped the blanket up idly in her hands, staring blankly at a wall.
Paulin sighed and wrapped his arms around her. “It’s going to be okay. We’re going to survive.”
“Come on.” Hesione waved at them. “We need to go. Now.”
Paulin flashed a smile as he tugged on Kisidera’s arm and began to lead her deeper into the cave. Hesione cast several lights herself, illuminating the cavern as they made their way deeper.
It wasn’t a particularly mind-blowing cave, but it was still something special. He was there with Kisidera. It broke his heart that Kisidera was in so much pain, both physical and mental, but… She was still there. That was more than he could say for a lot of people in his life. It was more and more unlikely that he would ever see his father again. His mother was already confirmed as deceased. His former fiancé had turned out to be his sister. He still had Kisidera, and she still had him.
Behind them, cracks of magic began to shake the cave walls. Dull booms quaked the floor, bolts of lightning leapt from the sharpened pillars of stone that dotted the floor and ceiling of the cave. They rushed past it all. Sapphire would get them out. She had to!
Ahead, they rounded one final corner to enter a small, underground grotto. There was a small pool of stagnant water, certainly no fountain or other mystical element. There was no exit. Hesione, Garnisic, and Ondernifam all stood on the far side of the pool, glancing back and forth for any sort of exit. Paulin felt an odd, hollow sense settle in his chest. This was it. They were trapped, well and truly. Of course, he had known that they would come to an end as soon as they started running, but he had hoped that it would be a deeper cave to give Sapphire plenty of time to hold off the assassins trying to kill them.
“Good.” Kisidera’s voice was hollow. “We’re about to die. Finally.”
“No.” Paulin turned and looked her in the eye. “We’ve fought our way through dozens of situations like this. We’re going to…”
He let his voice trail off as an odd noise began to echo through the room. It sounded like the distant roll of thunder, but slightly more metallic. As if to back this up, lightning began to crackle through a nearby corner of the room, causing Paulin to pull Hesione back sharply.
With one final snap, the lightning took on a solid form, then faded, revealing a device roughly the size of a large wagon. At a glance, it was dwarven, bronze metal pounded into the shape of an egg that sat upright on four supports. Several glowing runs danced on the outside of the object, their magic both tantalizing and terrifying.
“Garnisic?” Paulin glanced to the side, where the dwarf appeared just as dumbfounded as Paulin himself. “Any input?”
With a small crack, part of the egg split off, peeling away to form a set of stairs that led from the new opening down to the ground. Lights flashed from inside, and two figures quickly stepped out. Paulin’s eyes narrowed as he took in… Himself. And Hesione. Both seemed identical, even wearing the same robes that Paulin and Hesione were currently wearing.
“What is this?” Paulin breathed. “Who are you? Simon? You’d better not be pulling some sort of trick.”
“Look, there’s not really time to explain this, but I’m actually you.” New-Paulin scratched his head. “To be honest, I don’t really have any answers, but… We’re you guys from about four hours in the future, and we need you to come with us.”
Paulin frowned at his doppelganger, who, after a bit more examination, appeared absolutely exhausted. His robes were torn in several places, and it looked like he was sporting several bruises across his exposed skin. Of course, if he truly was looking at himself from only a few hours in the future, some of that damage might have been caused by the wagon collapsing.
“You two need to come with us. Now.” New-Hesione stepped forward. “Prince Korvac is about to break into this cave. When he does, he’ll kill the two of us in cold blood. If we’re not here, he’ll let the rest of you go. This is the only way we survive.”
“And how do we know you’re not just a trick sent from Korvac?” Paulin snapped.
“Your favorite place when you were growing up was that old rosebush you could crawl inside and no one could find you.” New-Paulin sighed. “Seriously. No time. Now come on.”
With that, New-Hesione and New-Paulin turned and walked back inside the strange machine. Paulin bit his lip as Hesione ran to the stairs. He took a single step towards the device before being stopped by a small tug on his sleeve.
“You’re just going to leave me?” Kisidera’s voice trembled. “Just like that?”
He turned to see Kisidera shaking like a leaf. Her hands were held up in front of her chest, quivering as though she was freezing and trying to stay warm. He reached out and pulled her close, trying to process the barrage of information in his mind.
“I’m never going to leave you.” Paulin breathed softly. “I’m making sure you survive.”
“If you leave, I’m going to die.” Kisidera’s voice was soft. “I will.”
“No, you won’t.” Paulin shook his head. He took her hands, her twisted and scarred hands, and gave her a soft kiss on the forehead. “I don’t know what’s going on right now, but if I stay, we all die. If I go, you’ll keep living. And hey.” He nodded backwards at the strange machine. “If that’s me from the future, then that means that you’re looking at something that can travel through time.”
Even as he spoke the words, his chest gave a dull thump. He had been curious, ever since being told of himself dying on the shores of the Inland Ocean, how he would wind up traveling through time once again. Now… Now, it seemed as though he knew that particular answer.
“So?” Kisidera spat. “I can’t be with you if you leave me.”
“I’ll go find the cure for vampirism.” Paulin flashed a smile. “It can travel through time, remember? I can spend a century searching for the cure, and when I get it, I’ll be able to come right back to you and give it to you. Just like that. We’ll be together, and you’ll be rid of this curse.”
Kisidera slowly looked up at him. Water filled her undead eyes, and she nodded slowly. “Promise?”
“I promise.” Paulin breathed. “Trust me. Just ask Hesione. I don’t give up when it comes to love.”
“I guess I’ve heard a bit on that.” Kisidera slowly took a step back. She kept her hands folded up near her chest, her eyes sad. “Come back. I won’t survive without you. I mean that.”
“I swear.” Paulin kept his eyes locked on her as he slowly walked back up and into the strange dwarven pod. The steps gave soft clangs under his feet, and he soon stood inside the device. Dozens of runes, levers, buttons, and displays covered the interior of the machine. He continued to stare at her as the stairs swung up and closed the device tightly, sealing them off from the outside world.
He was being flung into a mystery, one that would ultimately end with his death. Even as he stared into that void, he set his jaw and crossed his arms. Whatever else happened, wherever and whenever he was about to be taken, he was going to save Kisidera. Or he was going to die trying.
Nalia swore as Sapphire unleashed another burst of wild magic. Her body dematerialized as the attack sailed through her, protection provided by her dark patron himself. She fixed her eyes on a point just behind Sapphire’s head and blinked once, signaling her point of attack.
She was transported across the space instantly, and struck out against the sorceress. Sapphire had already moved, though, gone in the literal blink of an eye. Her fist sailed through empty space, and a bolt of magic struck her side.
She was thrown into a wall, where she dematerialized again and reappeared several feet away. Her dark sisters raced past, all instigating their own attacks against their sole obstacle. Nalia crouched and prepared to launch into battle once more, but was stopped as a voice echoed through her mind.
Nalia nodded and froze, watching carefully as three of her fellow warriors threw themselves at Sapphire. Dark energy blinked all around the sorceress, and yet there was always magic to counter it. She moved faster even than Nalia’s enhanced eyes could follow, never allowing any of the assassins a breath of rest nor showing any particular weaknesses. It was beyond frustrating. Her fighting style was awful, she obviously had no training whatsoever in the sorcerous arts, and yet she was winning.
“Sorcerers are under the dominion of Hinchipol.” The dark voice returned. “In Astheris, Hinchipol is far higher than I am. I and my servants are not allowed to harm his chosen members. You may continue to fight, but you cannot prevail under any of my own power.”
“We’ve killed sorcerers before.” Nalia spat. “I’ve read the books.”
“Indeed.” Gethsemia agreed. “This I will not argue, though I must state that these were always times of great upheaval in Astheris. Times when Hinchipol’s position grew weak, and my dominion was allowed to stretch over his own. This is a battle you cannot win, my child.”
“We took an oath.” Nalia shook her head. “We must obey the wishes of our lord.”
“I am your lord, above all others.” Gethsemia sneered. “When you take an oath, you take it through me. If I say you will break a contract, then you must break that contract. Am I clear? I had hoped that Sapphire’s position as a bearer of the Ring would grant her into my hands, but it appears that she had been accepted fully once more. You will withdraw from this battle.”
Nalia ground her teeth, then nodded. When she spoke again, it was in the language of the gods, projecting into her sister’s ears.
“Break off. We’re being ordered away.”
They vanished in an instant, transporting back to the surface of the world to await further orders. Nalia watched as Sapphire did a small victory dance before proceeding further down into the cave.
Power suddenly balled in Nalia’s fists, pure and powerful dark energy. She turned and pointed a single finger at the former entrance of the cave, somehow unsurprised when a dark lightning bolt blasted from her palm and shattered the stone that had been drawn up to block the way. Stone shattered into tiny splinters, and Nalia felt herself dematerialize once more to avoid the deadly projectiles. With that, a plan formed in her mind, given by Gethsemia himself.
Outside, hooves pounded and shouts thundered as soldiers rushed for the entrance to the cave. Nalia closed her eyes and allowed Gethsemia to transport her downward, into the depths of the darkness. When she opened her eyes, she stood next to a pool of stagnant water in a small but open cavern. A quick glance into the waters revealed a strange, magical disturbance deep within the pool, but it wasn’t the time to investigate such abnormalities.
Instead, she simply stood there, examining the situation. Sapphire stood in the middle of the room, twirling her staff over her head. The vampire, the orc, and the dwarf stood nearby, ready to jump through whatever portal the sorceress was about to open. And the two elves…
The two elves were missing. A small disturbance flickered through the air not far away, in the corner of the room. Unnoticed by the others, Nalia walked over to the source, where she held up her hand to allow the mysterious energies to flicker between her fingers.
“Do you recognize this?” Gethsemia spoke. “I do.”
“The Grove of Isengrod.” Nalia breathed softly as the quartet transported themselves away. “What are its energies doing here? I worked for Elsinor for some time. The Persphonar guard it more closely than any other secret they possess.”
“I am ashamed to say that I do not know. Word of the Grove’s power spreading has not reached Astheris.” Gethsemia sounded confused. “Such a fact, however it is implemented, could prove devastating to the community of gods. When Persphone created the Grove, she was given very specific permissions. I do believe that several of those permissions have just been violated.”
Nalia bowed her head. “What should I do, master?”
“Meet with the prince. Finish your mission. After this, return to Donenrot. I will find reason for you to investigate the Grove. Trust me, my child. We will have our answers.”
Nalia felt a smile break over her face as Gethsemia’s voice vanished. She turned and walked up to the entrance of the cavern, whistling softly for her sisters to join her. As they teleported into the room, she knelt down. Predictably, Prince Korvac was the first to walk into the small cavern, his shimmering armor clashing spectacularly with the worn walls of the cave.
“Well? Where are my prisoners?”
“They were never your prisoners to begin with. That title implies you had captured them.” Nalia climbed to her feet and stared into Prince Korvac’s eyes. “The royalty is out of the way. You will not be seeing them anytime soon, I suspect. The rest have gone. You may pursue them, if you wish, but my master will not follow them anymore. I strongly suspect that they will simply pass through your territory and be on their way if left unimpeded.”
Korvac’s eyes turned stormy. “I didn’t hire you to fail me!”
“Maybe not.” Nalia took a step closer to Korvac, causing the nearby soldiers to draw their weapons. “You also, strictly speaking, didn’t hire us. You made a sacrifice to Gethsemia, and he agreed to help you. You’ve been helped. The situation is what you demanded. I would not try to press your luck.”
Prince Korvac held her gaze for several seconds, far longer than most mortals would dare stare at her. Finally, he relented. “Agreed. Thank you for your service. Return to Donenrot and await further orders.”
“I will indeed return to Donenrot, but it will be on my master’s orders, not yours.” Nalia took a step back as dark power began to flare around her. “Safe travels, my lord. See you when you get back home.”
Sapphire took a deep breath as she slowly walked up to the cave entrance. It was the third day that they had been in hiding, the third day since they had so narrowly escaped Prince Korvac’s forces. Since then, they had seen no signs of pursuit, which was nice. Of course, given that not even they knew where they were, seeing anyone continuing to chase them would have been rather concerning.
“How much longer do we stay here?” Garnisic walked up next to her, stroking his beard. “Do you think they’ll be back?”
Sapphire took a deep breath and gazed down the mountainside. The slopes simply fell away, covered in majestic pine trees that scraped the top of the low-hanging clouds. Just across a narrow valley, another mountainside rose from the ground and into the sky, vanishing beneath the moist layer of fog.
“I don’t know.” She finally managed. “I really don’t.”
“So what do we do if they don’t show up?” Garnisic turned and nodded back into the cave. “Kisidera isn’t… Yeah.”
Sapphire nodded softly. Kisidera hadn’t stopped sobbing since they left the first cave. She just lay on her back, begging Paulin to return. So far, he had yet to make good on that particular promise. It just made Sapphire incredibly curious. If New-Paulin hadn’t been able to convince Paulin to hop inside the device with information about his childhood, she would have sworn that it had been an elaborate trick to capture the two elves. She still wasn’t convinced that they hadn’t been kidnapped, but there was very little way to prove that fact one way or another.
“We stay here for four more days. Make it a week in total.” Sapphire finally shrugged. “If we haven’t heard anything from them by that point, we leave. In the meantime, I’ll start meditating to figure out where we’re at.” She smirked. “With luck, we’ll actually be close enough to a city that I can get some sort of bearing on our location.”
“I hear you there.” Garnisic snorted. “You’d just better make sure to figure things out carefully. Every single mountain range in Calsin is on the border of something, and I’d rather not wind up walking straight into Gintor. Or Glinor. Or really any of the countries that border the sea.”
“I’ll do my best.” Sapphire sighed and reached down to her belt, where a bronze goblet hung from her waist. She unclipped it and held it up to the sky, where several inset gemstones sparkled in the overcast sky. “At least I’ve got this, now. Still have to figure out what exactly to do with it, but it should be helpful.”
Garnisic patted her on the arm before turning and walking back into the cave. Sapphire took a deep breath and stroked the Goblet, allowing it to transform into the now-bronze staff that marked her as a true sorceress.
For a few seconds, she just stood there. A cool, wet wind blew through her cloak, causing it to blow out behind her. She was a sorceress, true and proper. At least for the moment, it seemed as though she was the de facto leader of their small team. Her heart leapt as she pictured leading the group into battle, though it tremored as she realized that now she was going to be fielding all the complaints about where they were and why they needed to be in certain places.
“Oh Paulin. Where are you?” She cast the thought to the wind, letting it echo across the mountains and up into the sky. Kisidera was a wreck, Ondernifam was going to take more wrangling than ever, and Garnisic… Well, she honestly didn’t know what Garnisic was doing. Or what she needed to be doing either, for that matter.
All they could do was move forward. Press ever harder, ever deeper into the mysteries that they found themselves entangled in. Issue one: Find their location. Issue two: Locate Paulin and Hesione. Issue three:…
Figure out what in Calsin "issue three" even was.
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