Simon felt his heart racing as the horses raced across the open plain of the land surrounding the Scorched Lands. All around, he could see nothing but gravel, sharp stones, and the small traces of grass that could somehow withstand the increasingly deadly air.
It burned to inhale. The Hunters said that it was a latent effect of the lands, magic cast by the firengar to keep others out. They also swore that it was only actually deadly once you got farther into the Scorched Lands, but Simon wasn’t in a particular hurry to test that idea out. He just wanted to get in, clear out the slav lair, and get out.
In the distance, far off to his right, something massive slithered across the plains. Plumes of smoke rose high from beyond the enormous stones that marked the barrier of the Scorched Lands, distant screams and howls drifted to him on the increasingly painful winds. And both Hunters were loving it.
“When we’re done, I say we ride into Firgor and find ourselves a proper tavern!” Mav called out. “I bet you half a pig that I can drink you under the table.”
“I bet you your horse’s weight in gold for the same thing!” Thadragor snarled. “You’re going down, Mav! You’ve been losing to me ever since our graduation, and you’ll lose to me again!”
“I did not and will do no such thing.” Mav countered. “In fact, let’s up the wager. A full pig if I can slay more slavs than you!”
While the two Hunters continued to argue, Simon glanced to his left at Fortrina. There she sat, stationed squarely on her horse, just as powerful as ever.
If Simon hadn’t been so terrified, if he had been at a different point in life, he likely would have found her incredibly attractive. Her hair blew behind her like a cloak, her head was held high, her sword hung firmly at her side. Two black wings fluttered behind her, held high in confidence. She was a true warrior, a woman who would never find anyone attractive, but would never be forgotten by those lovers she took for brief stints. Simon simply gulped and looked down at his own hands, which seemed to pale in comparison.
What was he? There was a time when he would have run into battle fearlessly. There was a time when he had died over and over and over again for causes he believed in. There had even been times when he had died over and over again for brief pleasures that he had long since forgotten. And now he was afraid to ride into battle protected by three people far stronger than himself?
“You look like you’re about to wet yourself.” Fortrina called over to him. “Shall I go get a diaper for you? Should I try to rock you to sleep before we head in?”
“Stop it!” Simon snapped back. He took a deep breath and looked over at the woman once more. “I’m sorry.”
Fortrina just flashed him a quick grin, then spurred her horse onward. As the massive creature to the south began to grow larger in his vision, he spurred his own horse a bit faster, not wanting to be left behind.
Together, the four of them quickly approached the edge of the Scorched Lands. Unlike some natural boundaries, there was no gradient. Massive stones, looking like enormous spears or broken arrows, jutted up out of the ground at sharp angles. Smoke puffed out of cracks in the stone, despite no obvious flames. A loud shriek echoed through the air as a reptilian creature, balanced on two legs, leaped from the tops of one stone to the next, bouncing down the boundary without ever touching the proper ground.
Thadragor took the lead as they drew up closer to the stones, which all stood well over a hundred feet high. He angled towards a small gap in the stones, a narrow valley only a few feet wide between two enormous stones that rose at opposing angels. Simon felt his heart stop as they slowly trotted across the boundary line and into the Scorched Lands proper.
Almost instantly, the heat rose by several dozen degrees, causing sweat to break out across his entire body. The shrieks only grew louder, sounding for the world like anguished souls trapped for an eternity of torment.
“Don’t worry, those screams are just the sound of steam escaping from underground.” Mav called backwards, as if reading Simon’s mind. “Now the roars? Those you have to watch for.”
Simon gulped as they pressed onward. The narrow valley soon came to an end as they passed the two stones, bringing them into the main body of the Scorched Lands. Unfortunately… Well, it wasn’t that much different.
Everywhere, as far as Simon could see, it was the same reddish-black stone. The ground itself seemed to rise and fall erratically, while thousands more enormous rocks poked up at sharp angels. This meant that the path that they followed was a highly dangerous one, twisting and turning around the enormous stones while also dropping off into sharp chasms and rising in steep cliffs. That their horses were able to handle the gradient at all was somewhat of a miracle. The fact that they were able to handle it while also functioning in the extreme heat was perhaps the even more astounding factor.
Nevertheless, even while functional, the horses were soon heaving for breath after only ten short minutes. Thankfully, Thadragor raised his hand to call a halt just as Simon was beginning to fear that his mount would drop. The massive orc dismounted and led his horse into the shadow of a rock slab that leaned against a far larger stone, forming a small, triangular-mouthed cave. Simon slowly dismounted as well, finding several small stone rings carved from the stone wall with which to attach his horse to.
“It’s just a short walk from here.” Thadragor snarled. “This way.”
Simon could only nod timidly as Thadragor stomped out of the cave. Mav quickly followed, with Simon cowering in his footsteps. Fortrina took up step behind him, her sword drawn and ready.
As it turned out, “a short walk” turned out to be nearly half a mile, making just as harsh a journey on foot as they had been making on horseback. The path twisted and turned, rose and fell sharply. Finally, they came to the top of a cliff that overlooked an enormous river of fire. Simon felt his breath catch in his throat as he stepped up next to the orc, and spread his wings to better assist in case of a fall.
The river ran through an enormous gorge, hundreds of feet across and seemingly just as deep. Sharp walls displayed overlapping layers of red and black stone, all of which were covered in cracks from which smoke poured profusely. The river itself looked more or less like lava, but seemed endowed with a magical energy that prevented it from cooling. As Simon watched, a serpentine form rose from the flames, slithering through the magma like a water snake would swim through a more ordinary river.
“It’s just below us.” Thadragor motioned over the edge of the cliff. “Just drop off the edge, you’ll land on a ledge. Be ready to go in swinging.”
By this point, Simon couldn’t help but ask a particularly pressing question rising in his mind. “What exactly is the point of this?” Both Hunters turned to look at him, and he shrugged. “We’re so far into the Scorched Lands that no one is going to just stumble across this place.”
“Right.” Mav nodded. “But what if they move?”
“They’ve been here for over a year.” Simon held up his hands. “They haven’t threatened anyone in that time.”
“But they might.” Thadragor stepped up to the edge and drew his sword. “You picked a mighty dense one, Mav.”
With that, Thadragor jumped over the edge. Even knowing that it was coming, Simon’s heart still leapt within his chest. He peered over the cliff to see Thadragor land firmly, as he had stated, on a narrow ledge. Mav gave Simon a quick wink before doing the same. As Fortrina folded her wings against her back and jumped as well, Simon took a deep breath.
He didn’t want to do this. He didn’t want to do this. Oh, how he didn’t…
Mustering every ounce of courage in his body, Simon threw himself off the edge of the cliff. His wings snapped open reflexively, causing him to immediately get caught in the searing updraft pouring off the river of lava. Instead of falling downward, he was tossed high into the sky, quickly shooting past the tops of the rock spires before he was able to regain control of his flight.
From that height, for those few brief moments, he could see out across the Scorched Lands. And, in those moments, his heart turned to ice. It didn’t get any better the farther in he looked. Rock spires continued to tower into the sky. The rivers of fire only grew more intense, while pillars of smoke poured up from what looked like vents into the abyss.
Frantically, desperate to avoid being seen by any dragons or other nasty beasts, Simon folded his wings and dove. It took him several painful minutes before he was able to land on the ledge into the slav nest, and breathed a great sigh of relief as his feet touched the ground once more.
Inside the nest, the two Hunters had already begun their slaughter. Three dead slavs lay at the perfectly circular entrance, looking for the world like massive ants with vaguely humanoid features. Screams of dying monsters as well as clangs of metal echoed from within, and Simon slowly stepped inside.
As he entered, he saw the Hunters fighting only a few dozen feet from him, standing their ground in the middle of a tunnel that turned sharply off to the right. Over a dozen dead slavs lay at their feet, a blackish slime oozing from their cracked and broken joints. Fortrina stood just behind them, bouncing on her heels as her sword twitched excitedly.
Even in his fear, Simon had to admit that the two Hunters were truly marvels of combat. Thadragor was slow, but mighty. His massive sword could smash straight through the thick layer of chitin that covered the slavs, marking a kill every single time he swung the weapon. Mav, on the other hand, was quick and nimble. His sword flashed like a pinwheel, striking at the insects’ joints and other weak points. Every time it struck, depending on which gemstone on his sword was active, something would happen. Sometimes, bursts of fire would blast limbs and heads from the creatures. Other times, blasts of ice would immobilize a limb and allow him to strike at another, more vulnerable body part. Still other times, bursts of electricity would flicker from his sword, momentarily paralyzing the entire creature.
Slav after slav quickly fell at their hands, giving Simon the impression that he might actually be safe. As the wave of insects attacking them dried up and the last one fell to the ground, Mav took a step back and inhaled deeply.
“There we go! Whew, what a fight!”
“You’re getting slow.” Thadragor growled.
“And you’re getting weak.” Mav shot back. “I’m at fifteen.”
“You are not!” Mav cried out. “No cheating!”
“I would never cheat such a valuable friend. Only stomp him into the ground.” Thadragor growled low in his throat, then turned to the two angels. “The slavs are preparing an ambush. They will not attack until we venture deeper into their compound. I suggest that you stay close and remain vigilant.”
Simon frowned. “Preparing an ambush? Aren’t they monsters?”
“Kind of.” Mav wagged his hand back and forth. “Slavs have a hive mind that can resemble a rudimentary intelligence in large numbers. Stay close and you should be fine.” He nodded down the tunnel. “We’ll be better off if we split up. Try to separate their forces. I’ll take the left path, you take the right. Meet at the queen’s chamber.”
“Deal.” Thadragor snarled. “Fortrina, come with me. I do not think that I can keep the boy alive.”
“I’ll take good care of him.” Mav flashed a small smile, then turned to Simon. “Come on.”
Simon nodded and slid up close to the Hunter. While Fortrina and the orc stomped off down the tunnel, past the corpses and into a large tunnel that opened up to the right, Mav quickly skirted to the left and into a small opening in the stone that Simon might have missed if not for the Hunter.
Together, they slid through the narrow gap, which failed to open back up into a proper tunnel as they continued to push forward. In fact, it soon began to twist downward into the ground, corkscrewing tightly while simultaneously narrowing to the point that Simon had to turn sideways just to keep moving.
“This is the life.” Mav breathed softly. “It’s been so long since I’ve been this deep.”
“Didn’t you literally just slay a sewer beast or something?” Simon frowned.
“Oh, that was nothing.” Mav waved his hand. “Just a small dragonspawn, no more than twenty feet long or so. Beats me why the townsfolk loved it so much, the thing lived almost exclusively on people. Granted, mostly beggars and other folks that more cultured individuals don’t like to see in public, but people nonetheless.”
“Uh, huh.” Simon puffed out his cheeks. “And a small dragonspawn for you is just a walk in the park?”
“If by ‘walk in the park’ you mean a leisurely activity, then I suppose it could be called such.” Mav shrugged, his armor plates clanking against the stone walls of their tunnel. “Forgive me, I know you find me strange, but I find great joy in such things. You have to, if you’re going to be a Hunter.”
“Right.” Simon grunted as he squeezed through a particularly narrow point. “Do you mind if I ask a question?”
“What’s the hardest battle you’ve ever fought?” Simon tried to imagine what would actually prove difficult for the Hunter. “The biggest monster, the one where you didn’t know if you could win?”
“Oh, I’ve never faced down a creature I didn’t think I could beat.” Mav chuckled. “However, the hardest battle I must have fought would be a theocar that I fought during my time at the elven academy. It was the first of the five schools that I attended, so I wasn’t as fluent in combat as I eventually grew to become.”
“And since then nothing’s been difficult for you?” Simon frowned. “You’ve never felt like you were going to die?”
“I go into every fight assuming I might die.” Mav’s answer was far from the response that Simon was hoping for. “If you don’t expect to survive, you fight with the intention to deal damage, not to protect your own life. Then, when you survive, you’re living on borrowed time. It clears away the trivial aspects of life.”
“Yeah, that’s not really what I wanted to hear.” Simon sighed. “What about-”
“Shh.” Mav held a finger up to his lips. “We’re getting to the end here. When I step out, stay here. Yell if you need me.”
Simon could only nod, even though Mav’s head was turned away. A few moments later, Mav stepped out of the narrow tunnel, vanishing into a far larger cavern. Simon quickly followed, slipping up to the end, where he peered out at one of the most unusual sights he had ever seen.
They were in a perfectly circular room, complete with a polished and leveled floor and domed ceiling. The walls were covered in alcoves, all of which were around two feet across, each filled with a white egg. Mav stood in the exact center of the room, while several dozen slavs stood on their hind legs in a semicircle around him. Hundreds of smaller slavs scuttled around the outer edges of the room, ranging from between a foot in length to nearly full-grown.
It was a nursery room. Somehow, Simon suspected that that fact didn’t mean that the slavs were going to just let the group waltz in and slay everyone inside. In fact, as Mav gave his sword a small twirl, Simon could see more slavs moving in large, dark openings that seemed to lead elsewhere in the nest.
“Alright, slav.” Mav took his stance. “Are you going to give up, or are you going to give me an actual challenge?”
In response, the slavs all dove forward at the same time. There was no waiting, no sending in one creature at a time, it was a simple mad dash to attack. As they struck home, a gemstone lit up on Mav’s gauntlet, and he vanished from sight. The slavs all collided with one another, piling up into a heap of insectile legs and pincers.
With a mighty blast, the pile of slavs exploded, sending body parts and black goop flashing through the air. Mav rematerialized in the center of the now-decimated pile once again, a smirk etched across his ancient and wise face. With a twirl, he set to work slaying the remainder of the slavs. By the time he finished, the handful of surviving insects were scurrying out of the room and into the tunnels. Simon slowly stepped out into the carnage as Mav rushed forward.
“Onward! We don’t want to give them any time to prepare!”
Simon nodded and raced after the Hunter as he pounded down yet another hallway. This one was much larger, and was empty save a handful of the slavs desperately trying to get away. Mav’s sword twirled expertly, cutting them down as they fled. Soon, as the hallway continued to wind deeper into the ground, they came into view of what had to be the queen’s chambers.
Here, the tunnel straightened out and widened, growing to over a dozen feet across before opening fully into a room that appeared positively massive. Mav, of course, rushed through without any hesitation, though Simon pulled back as he approached the entrance.
Through the gap, the room simply appeared massive. When he reached the opening proper, he was able to confirm that yes, it was massive. From where they stood, the ceiling rose well over a hundred feet into the air above their heads. Like the nursery, it was covered in alcoves, though thesealcoves were simply filled with slavs. Hundreds of thousands of slavs. Mav now stood near the center, slowly turning as he took in the sight.
“Uhh, Mav?” Simon called out. “I thought you said that this was the queen’s chambers. I don’t see a queen.”
“Slavs don’t actually have a traditional queen.” Mav’s voice was so quiet that Simon could barely hear it, due in part to the distance between them. It also, however, seemed to be due to Mav being taken rather off-guard. “They just have a room where all their thinkers sit around. We call it a queen room to make things simpler.”
“Right.” Simon nodded slowly. “Is this not what you were expecting?”
“Not exactly.” Mav took a deep breath and raised his voice. “Can you understand me?”
A booming voice echoed through Simon’s mind an instant later. It was powerfully loud, and yet not audible at all. “Yes.”
In the center of the room, Mav fell to his knees. “I’m so so sorry. How badly have I hurt you?”
There was a short pause before an answer came back. “You have only destroyed our drones. We have experienced a slight loss in computing power, but nothing detrimental. The equivalent of a concussion, in your own terms.”
Simon held up a hand. “Any explanation for the confused angel over here?”
Mav stammered. “Slavs are an interesting race. See-”
“We grow more and more intelligent the more members of our species link together.” The voice of the collective answered him. “In low numbers, anywhere between one hundred and five thousand units, we have the same intelligence as a beast. Raging, slaughtering, pillaging, whatever our senses demand. The collective you speak to contains one million, two hundred fifty-seven thousand, nine hundred eleven units. We could split in two and still be able to comprehend matters beyond the capability of your most intelligent scholars.”
“Please forgive me.” Mav sheathed his sword.
“You are forgiven. I have seen the actions of my brethren. Many of these units have been absorbed from smaller collectives. I understand the damage that such units can cause, and understand why you would want so fervently to destroy us. There is no ill will.”
“Then we’ll leave.” Mav climbed to his feet. “I swear it.”
“Will your orcish brother be so agreeable?” The collective mused. “I am willing to provide great gifts in exchange for being left alone.”
“I hope so.” Mav breathed. “Where is he?”
“I will transport him to this location.” A portal flickered open next to Mav, and Thadragor and Fortrina were dropped into the room without further preamble. Thadragor roared up at the collective as the portal closed, while Fortrina simply glanced back and forth in fear.
“What is the meaning of this?” Thadragor roared. “Why am I here?”
“We need to talk.” Mav gestured at the surrounding room. “This collective is larger than we thought. It’s fully sentient.”
“So?” Thadragor roared. Fire blazed in his mouth. “We came to slay the slavs! I will destroy this nest if it’s the last thing I do!”
Simon felt a pit forming in the center of his stomach as Mav planted his feet.
“Thadragor, I can’t let you do that.”
Thadragor took his own stance, drawing his sword and pointing it at Mav. “We’re sworn to kill monsters.”
“We’re sworn to protect sentient life.” Mav held up his hands. “When we set up this mission, I specifically asked how large the hive was. You told me that it was only a few thousand. This isn’t on me.”
Thadragor snarled softly, and the pit in Simon’s stomach continued to grow larger.
“Then I guess I’ll have to take the blame off you. I do this entirely of my own volition.”
Moving far faster than the orc had previously displayed in the invasion, Thadragor lunged forward. The sword crashed through Mav’s chest, only for the Hunter to flicker and vanish much like he had done previously. He appeared just to the side, fully intact, with his sword pointed but still held at his side.
“Please, Thadragor. This nest poses us no harm.”
“All monsters pose harm!” Thadragor leapt across the distance between the two of them, fire igniting up and down the length of his blade. Mav dove to the side, letting the sword slice a long cut into the stone floor. Before Thadragor could recover, Mav kicked him in the head, causing a blast of purple magic to ripple out of his iron boots. Thadragor was tossed roughly across the room, where he landed next to Fortrina.
“You won’t win this fight.” Mav sheathed his sword and began tapping the gemstones on his left gauntlet. “Please trust me on that.”
Thadragor slowly climbed to his feet. “Maybe I can’t win.” The orc took a deep breath, and Simon once more felt his blood turn to ice. “I can make sure you lose, though.”
Mav’s eyes went wide, and he flickered and vanished. He reappeared next to Fortrina, grabbed hold of her arm, and vanished in a blur of energy. Simon was left staring at the orc as fire blazed under the man’s skin.
Before he could move, Mav reappeared next to him and grabbed onto his arm as well. In that moment, Simon found himself sucked through a transportation portal quite similar to those conjured by Sapphire. As he came crashing down to the scorched stone next to his horses, Mal had already vanished again. He slowly climbed back to his feet, glancing at a stunned Fortrina, as the ground began to shake.
Earthquakes were something that Simon had been fortunate enough to only ever experience a handful of times before. This was certainly the worst, as the ground buckled and twisted, tossing him roughly into the stone wall next to the horses. His right wing crumpled under the impact, while Fortrina let out a scream somewhere in the distance.
As the rumblings died down, Simon climbed back to his feet and scrambled from the small cave. Fortrina lay nearby, having seemingly been struck by a rock roughly the size of her head that now lay at her feet. She was quite unconscious, a fact that made Simon ever more nervous about their chances of escaping alive.
With a roar, the ground off to his right began to collapse. One of the enormous stone spires simply slid into the ground with a roar, sending plumes of smoke and dust belching up into the sky. There was only one explanation that Simon could think of: The slav nest had collapsed. Something that the orc had done had damaged the structure, and now… Now, it was gone. Not that Simon had any particular emotional connection to the slavs, but… Mav, on the other hand…
When Mav failed to reappear, and a loud roar shook the air, Simon hobbled over to Fortrina’s body. He bent down and picked her up in his arms, shifting his arms and legs to contain a bit more muscle than he had previously sported. A quick glance at the horses revealed that none of them were still standing, which gave him quite a bit more pause. He was going to have to walk out of here? Without anyone to protect him?
As if to fuel his fears even more, a massive blast of air nearly knocked him from his feet as a dragon swooped overhead. It appeared and vanished in the same instant, not giving him a proper look, but that was certainly what it had been. He needed to get out of there, and he needed to do it right then.
With that, a single thought rolled through his mind. Fortrina was unconscious. He didn’t need her. She had only grown more and more frustrated with his choices, more and more annoyed with the path that he chose to walk. If he left her there, she would get what she deserved and fulfil her wish. She would be protecting him, and wasn’t that what she was always saying that she wanted to do anyway?
Another roar shook the air, followed by still more. Dragons, coming to see what all the fuss was about. If he stuck around, he was going to be lunch. Moving quickly, he lifted Fortrina from his shoulders and dropped her back onto the ground.
He knew what he needed to do. He only hoped that he could do it fast enough to stay alive.
“So you’re telling me that, with a broken wing, you managed to shift into a horse and carry me out of there?” Fortrina raised an eyebrow from across the table at the pub.
“You may thank me however you wish.” Simon bowed grandly. “I accept money, food, or-”
Fortrina raised a finger. “If you even think about suggesting that we go out on a date, I’m going to remove your head from the rest of your body.”
“I wasn’t going to call it a date, per se.” Simon sighed and leaned back in the chair. His back flared up in pain, reminding him that his wing was still injured despite not actually being fully formed at that moment. After a moment, he flashed a small smile. “I’m just glad we’re both alive.”
“Yeah.” Fortrina puffed out her cheeks, then shrugged. “And you didn’t see anything of either Hunter?”
Simon shook his head. “That whole place collapsed. The orc is gone, I’m sure of it. Maybe Mav survived, but I wouldn’t count on it.”
“Too bad. They were good people.” Fortrina sighed. She drummed her fingers on the table, completely ignoring the ale and mutton roast that Simon had purchased for them. After a few seconds, she looked up to meet his eyes. “Do you think they would have still done what they did if they had known they were going to die?”
Simon puffed out his cheeks. “Thadragor? No idea. Mav?” Simon shrugged before nodding. “Yeah. Yeah, I think he would have.”
“That’s what I thought, too.” Fortrina continued to stare off into space for several long moments before nodding firmly. “Why did you do what you did? Why haul me out of there?”
Simon shrugged. It was a question that he had asked himself a dozen times over, mostly while he had bees escaping with his friend. “I honestly don’t know. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s because Mav inspired me, but…” He shrugged once more. “I don’t know. Just seemed like right thing to do. Mav was willing to turn and protect someone he had considered an enemy. Not only that, he went out doing what he loved. He wasn’t cowering, he was protecting people, and he was enjoying it.”
Fortrina flashed a small smile, slowly reaching out to pick up her ale. “And what exactly are you going to do with that information?”
Simon shrugged. That was yet another question that he hadn’t quite figured out. “I don’t know. I honestly don’t, but… I do know I want it to be something I love. Maybe with someone I love.” He gestured at the surrounding tavern, which was filled with soldiers and wandering adventurers. “We’re on the frontier of Calsin. The one place where civilization hasn’t completely taken over yet. Seems like a plenty good enough place to start looking.”
“Then I wish you the best of luck.” Fortrina dipped her head. After a few seconds, she made a pained face. “Are you going to be okay if I don’t come with you?”
Simon snorted. “We both know that you’re headed to join the Dragon Hunters. Don’t insult me and pretend that you’re doing anything else.”
Fortrina flashed a smile at him. “As long as we’re in agreement.”
“We are.” Simon picked up his own mug of ale and hefted it. “Cheers to following our paths. May you be granted prosperity and honor.”
“And enjoyment.” Fortrina hefted her own mug as well.
Simon shook his head in mock annoyance. “That’s not part of the blessing.”
“Well, I don’t know what religion you stole it from, but I don’t think anyone’s going to come beating down my door to fix it.” Fortrina flashed a smile. “Take care, Simon.”
“You too.” Simon puffed out his cheeks. “Maybe you’re not so bad after all.”
Fortrina didn’t respond, but simply flashed a coy smile. Several hours subsequently passed as they changed to more mundane subjects. Simon related stories from his time aboard the realmship, Fortrina told him about funny things that Isnita would do as pranks back on their homeworld.
By the time they finished eating the meal, the sun had long since set. Despite Simon having booked a room above the tavern, Fortrina decided to simply strike out and make her way to the Hunter Council. As she walked out the door, waving goodbye, Simon felt an odd pang in his heart. He really, truly, didn’t want to see her leave. She was annoying, she was overbearing… But she had helped him escape, and that was truly something magical.
After waiting around for another hour, he finally accepted that she wasn’t coming back. More than a little unsteady, he stumbled up the stairs to the residential portion of the tavern. He could feel his wings sliding back out of his skin, and made his way to his room as quickly as his drunken feet would take him. The moment he had crashed through the door and shut himself off from the outer world, he allowed himself to relax. His wings exploded from his shoulder blades with a flourish, slamming into the walls on either side.
A mixture of both pain and relief washed over his body, and he sighed. At least until he noticed that he wasn’t actually in the right room. Instead of his one-man bedroom, he was in a room that held no fewer than half a dozen beds, all of which were occupied by dwarves. Dwarves that were now grabbing weapons off bedstands and pointing swords and crossbows in his direction.
“Wait!” He held up his hands, swaying on his feet once more. His voice emerged slurred, though not so much to be indistinguishable. At least he hoped that was the case. “Don’t shoot. These things are just props. I’m an actor.”
The dwarves hesitated, quite thankfully not filling his body full of mortal wounds. He swayed for a few more seconds, trying to contemplate how he would sell the ruse if he were to turn around. His wings were quite obviously biological, even a cursory inspection would reveal that much.
As he stood there, not wanting to make the first move, a soft thunk echoed through the room. A glowing green sphere appeared out of thin air at the far end of the room, fell to the floor, and began slowly rolling across the ground towards Simon. The dwarves all turned to look at it, eyes wide in horror. After a moment, a sheepish-looking dwarf materialized in the same space where the sphere had appeared.
“Hold on.” Simon spent several painful moments folding his right hand into a fist, then pointed at the sphere with his main finger. His mind still spun as fast as it always did, his body just couldn’t keep up with it. “That’s the time sphere dohicky. The thing that got formed out of the Grove of Isengrod.”
The dwarves once more went back to pointing their weapons aggressively at Simon, and he had to yell at them once more to just wait! As the shouting calmed down, Simon took a deep breath.
“I recognize it because I was the one who stole it. Or who would have stolen it if it hadn’t been stolen first. Point is, I know a thing or two about how to use it.”
“What are you saying?” One of the dwarves spat. “If you know of our plans, that just makes you a liability.”
“No, a dead angelic body in a tavern inn is a liability.” Simon took a deep breath, then forced his inebriated body to shift form into that of a dwarf. His wings remained, albeit a bit shrunken to match the size of his new body, but the effect was the same. “An angelic shapeshifter who knows how to use one of the deadliest objects on this planet is a massive asset.”
“So what are you proposing?”
Simon felt a smile break across his face as he shifted back into his primary form. It wasn’t what he had planned. He didn’t know who the dwarves were, what they were planning, or how they had stolen the time sphere. That said, time travel was certainly something that intrigued him, sounded like a great deal of fun, and certainly seemed far safer than wandering across the country trying to find something he loved.
“Take me with you.” Simon’s grin split his entire face. “I don’t think you’ll regret it if you do.
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