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The Flames of Deception - A Horizon of Storms: Book 1

A Horizon of Storms: Book I

The Flames of Deception

By A.J. Martin

 

Text copyright © 2014 Alex Martin

All Rights Reserved

 

To Laura, for everything

 

www.AHorizonofStorms.com

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[]The Triskan Continent

The Chase

70th Day of the Cycle, 495 N.E. (New Era)

 

The sound of thundering hooves on cracked cobblestones could be heard on the air for miles as a masked rider tore through the streaming rain. Clad in a black leather jerkin, cotton britches and shrouded by a brown cloak, the figure pushed onward atop his jet – black horse, riding through the fallen wreckage of a city centuries – dead, desperate to shake his pursuer who closed the gap between them with every second that passed. His sodden cloak ruffled and flapped in the ferocious gale that whistled around the clustered, mutilated colonnades of the ancient, decaying city. He passed crippled houses and the scattered remains of weathered marble statues, their figures severed at the arms and waists. The eroded and chipped, emotionless faces watched him as he tore up the dirt around their pale, cracked feet.

By the side of a well – worn, brown leather sword scabbard, fastened to his belt was a small, rain – soaked, red velvet pouch, tied by a thick knot of twine to the beltstrap. He clung to it tightly with his right hand as if untrusting of the looped cord that secured it to his person and with the other hand on the reins he drove his horse onward, skirting another crumbling building beset with ivy. With one powerful push of the horse’s hind legs he cleared a ditch that might once have been a flowing river full of life, but now held nothing but thirsty brambles and jagged, brittle thorns. The rider fell forward in his saddle as the horse landed heavily on the other side and he squeezed his legs tightly to her flanks to stop from toppling over completely.

The weather worsened as he continued to ride and the horse’s pace flagged. Pulling off the saturated hood about his head he shook his long, dark hair free of amassed droplets of rain. Trickles of water flooded down his face and over his thick eyebrows, clouding his vision as he lowered his head to his horse’s ear.

“Come my girl, you must pick up the pace!” he called to her through the whistling wind. The horse snorted as if in acknowledgement and sped up. The rider took a second to look behind him. A moment later, he wished he hadn’t.

The creature that chased the rider sat atop its own horse: a ghostly, grey nightmare of a creature, pale and naked save for a coarse, torn strip of fabric across its waist. The rain poured over its slimy, mottled skin, stretched tightly over its lean flesh and thin bones. Its bulbous head was covered with thick black veins, jutting out under the stretched skin like suckling leeches. They snaked across a ferocious, protruding brow, intensifying the picture of malice already emblazoned on its mutated face. Its eyes smouldered with a pure, liquid hatred: the deep black portals the size of oranges set into its skull sucked the courage out of any that dared look into them. As the rider gazed into those eyes, which were in turn fixed solely on him, he could feel the anger that poured out of them: a primal thirst for his blood. The demon snarled at him as he continued to stare, its razor teeth glinting in the cloudy moonlight. The rider knew all too well that those thin, steel – like pins could tear flesh from bone. He had seen it happen to his travelling companion, the barbs slicing the meat from his body and churning it up with ease, as if it were nothing but gelatine. At that moment with the rain lashing his back, they were all he could focus on. He had fought all manner of creatures: men of all different races and species, but never had any of them instilled in him the terror that he felt at that moment. The creature was old and feral, darker and more dangerous than anything he had come across before. It wanted the stone and it would do anything to get it. He gripped the velvet pouch tighter.

The mare reached the top of another mound of earth and rubble and began to descend again, sliding down the steep hill to the boundaries of the abandoned city, the loose mud scattering under her hooves as they headed further into the path of the wind. The tempest tore at the man’s clothes and the raindrops stung his crimson cheeks as a crackle of thunder signalled overhead and a flash of lightning illuminated the ghostly city. The creature behind him became visible again very briefly in the sparking light and his heart caught in his throat as he glanced back. However many times he saw that figure he couldn’t still the fear that gripped him when he looked upon its monstrous guise.

Hyah!” he cried to his horse, slapping the reins to encourage her. “There are many more lives at stake than just yours and mine tonight girl! Hyah!” They sped on through a final slalom of broken – down pillars and archways, clearing the boundaries of the city, bursting on to a field of long, wet grass. The rider risked another look behind him and his breath caught as he realised how close the demon had grown.

Faster and faster it pursued him and closer it drew- so near that the beast could almost lay its hands on his horse’s tail. The rider veered to the left, winding through the grasslands. The creature followed, still gaining ground and in seconds the two were riding in parallel. The beast swiped at him with its claws and snarled as the rider slipped away again to the left. In moments though, it would catch up again. It was relentless.

The rider swallowed and his lips trembled. Shaking his head, he fumbled at his side, untying the pouch from his waist, careful not to let the bag drop from his grip. He held it tightly in his fingers and brought it up in front of his face. The object inside glistened through the small opening in the tightened fabric and he became transfixed for a moment by the violet light that spilled out. Whispers of voices emerged from the bag for a moment and an image of the young girl filled his mind. Other thoughts and pictures tried to enter his thoughts, but he shook his head and they dispersed. Then he nodded to himself and fastened the bag carefully to the reins. He patted the mare and whispered in her ear.

“Bring yourself home safely to Mahalia, my girl. They must know what awaits them.”

Pulling his sword from its sheath, he sprang from his saddle as the creature drew by his side again and grabbed it by the arm, dragging it with him to the ground. They rolled through the grass together, until the creature kicked out with its powerful legs and knocked the rider aside. The man came to a stop face down in a puddle. Raising his muddied head he looked around maniacally for the creature. It was still rolling around on the floor several feet away, scrambling about like a cat on an icy pond, trying to set itself upright again. Good. Mud dripped from the man’s fringe as he forced himself up, his hands disappearing in the saturated muck beneath him. His legs shook from exhaustion, but he persuaded his limbs to let him stand and threw off his heavy cloak, taking his sword in both hands as the creature began lumbering towards him. It snarled and smiled its malevolent grin at him. The beast had no forged weapon to speak of: its arms were all the weapon it needed. They were enormous, out of proportion with the rest of its starved, stretched body, and on the end of their muscular trunks were twisted, spiked hands, twice the size of a humans, with three long, claw-like pincers. It gestured with them and then with a roar jumped at the rider, flailing wildly. He darted out of its wake but before he could recover his stance the creature flung its weight at him again, catching him on the cheek with a claw and splitting the skin. Blood smattered the ground from the gash, and as it oozed from the fleshy cut, it mixed with the rain and slid down his neck beneath his shirt. He embraced the pain, put it aside as he had been taught to, and raised his sword again. This time he lunged forward, parried with his foe, slashing at the monster’s shin and its midriff. He nicked its torso and a thin line of blackened, turgid crimson blood blotted the pale skin as it dribbled out from its veins like curdled milk; thick clots splattering the floor. The creature stepped back and examined its wound, but before the man could take advantage of its disillusion it rallied and cast a clawed hand at him again, knocking him to the ground. He wheezed as the wind fell out of him and spun with his back to the dirt as another arm came lunging down at him. It was all he could do to stop those claws from clasping his neck, blocking the attack with his blade and forcing the creature back. He kicked out with all his remaining strength and gathered the room he needed to force himself up. He staggered backwards, muscles aching, and readied himself again. As the creature lolloped wildly back at him, he darted aside, ducked his head beneath another swiping arm, stepped behind the beast and, raising his weapon atop his head, brought it humming down on to the beast’s elbow joint with a triumphant yell, ripping off an arm. The creature screamed and wailed in pain, dashing away from him, cradling its leaking stump with the other hand. Mashed flesh and spiky bone stuck out from the creature’s wound. It simpered like a dog a moment, snorting and whining. Steam rose from its nostrils into the cold, wet air. The man watched several paces away, his chest heaving, waiting for the creature’s next move.

The beast’s eyes narrowed and the man shivered. It felt like it was looking straight into his soul. Then it shrieked like a rabid monkey and pounded towards him. The rider’s eyes grew wide. He raised his sword, but the creature sprung up like a frog and drop- kicked him in the face before he could swing. The rider’s jaw dislodged and several of his teeth sailed through the air. He could taste the blood from his cut gums. His vision blurred heavily, as if the haze from the rain wasn’t enough. He threw his sword in front of him as he saw a fuzzy limb come at him, but the creature knocked it from his hand and hit him clean in the chest. Winded and cut across his torso the man fell, hunched over in agony. Warmth spread across his body and for a moment he seemed so very, very far away. It was over, he knew, and as he closed his eyes he pictured his wife, his child, and the house in which they lived, bathed in the amber glow of an autumnal light. He smiled at their faces.

The haggard creature seized the moment to defeat its prey. It threw its razor-sharp claws down into the rider’s back, thrusting hard and breaking his spine before bursting out through his chest. There was no time for the man to scream- he was dead before he could utter a noise. The creature freed its hand from the gaping hole in the man’s body and inspected the fleshy ligaments that sat tangled between its claws, sniffing them curiously. The rider’s corpse slumped to the ground, lifeless.

A hideous, wicked smile emerged on the creature’s face as it inspected the kill closer. It bent down and smelt the iron in the man’s blood with its forked tongue as it poured from his body and soaked into the mud. Then it threw its head into the air and howled with delight, dancing in the torrent of rain in triumph. A moment later, with its celebrations over and acting with purpose once more, it began rifling with its one arm through the man’s clothes, searching his pockets and tearing the shirt from his body to find what it was looking for. It grew ever more desperate as it continued, tugged the body this way and that, patted and slapped at the sodden fabrics of the trousers. But it was gone. The rider no longer had what it was looking for.

The creature’s screams carried on the wind for miles.

The rider-less mare fled from the sound with all the speed she could muster, her hooves pounding the sodden land for traction. Fields of grass blurred into one another. The rain finally died down and in the distance, the shadowy image of a large city came into view against a mountainous backdrop. She flew for the silhouetted land. Never in her life had she moved as fast as she was at that moment. Howls from close behind spurred her on until the colossal pyramid- shaped structure of archways and pillars resolved itself further out of the darkness from the light of thousands of torches within. She approached the grass plains at its base.

Behind, the demon gained ground once again. It had to have what it had come for! Failure was not an option for it! The enemy could never have the gemstone! As it slapped the reins of its horse harder, it closed in on the mare. The creature smiled: it would reach her before she could make it into the city. Closer. Closer. Close enough! A twisted arm reached out to the exhausted animal. Then the beast’s deep, dark eyes caught sight of a flash in the black skies above and a bolt of lightning seethed downwards, straight towards it, striking it in the chest and sending it flying from its horse, rolling through the soaking grass. When it stopped the creature looked down at its steaming chest. A black mark stretched across its ribcage.

Through the rain a new rider hurtled towards the creature, a tall iron staff in hand. Their eyes glowed like bright sapphires in the darkness and their curly brown hair whipped in the gale. The monster snarled, rose to its feet and then ran towards them as they pointed the staff towards the demon. Fire poured from the end of the rod, engulfing the creature. It wailed and threw its flaming body around, trying to shake off the maelstrom, but it was useless. As the skies rumbled, the beast fell, burnt to the core.

The new rider stopped for a moment in front of the body, poking at it with the staff and then nodded. He looked around, but the creature’s horse had already fled into the night. He turned away from the corpse and reared his own horse, galloping back towards the city, the lone mare now safely in its grounds and with her, the velvet bag and its contents that her rider had died for.

Above, the storm raged on.

 

“The storm front approaches upon the horizon and all that seems to stand between it and the sacking of the world are the band of four, who haunt my dreams every night this past year. They appear destined to blow away the sickly winds and cast out the darkness that seems so insurmountable. I am almost certain now that they are the only saviours from that horizon of storms, even if those around me think me mad and dismiss my warnings. But there is more I see. One amongst them holds the bloodline of the Akari!

From the notes of Isser Interlock, the Poet Laureate of the Kingdom of Aralia, written 451 N.E. (New Era).

 

An Eye at the Door

112th Day of the Cycle, 495 N.E. (New Era)

The sun had only just begun to creep above the horizon of early morning as a knocking on the east gate of the City of Rina, Capital of the Kingdom of Aralia, broke the peace. Mist hung heavily in the crisp air, and dew coated the grassy plains that spread out from the white, stone – walled city in all directions for miles. Aside from the dusty, gravel path that wound its way around the countryside, the city was an isolated, whitewashed beacon within the lush, overgrown fields, filled with early summer blooms.

The door to the little – used entrance rattled on its old, iron hinges as the knocking continued. Its cause was a lone, young man, who rapped again and again with the end of a tired, wooden staff. He stopped a moment to let the dust settle from the surrounding stones, swept the long, straight, brown hair of his fringe out of his eyes and across his mildly tanned brow, and then exhaled impatiently, puffing out a tune through his lips. He was tall and slender, with a posture that exuded confidence. Then, clicking his tongue, he rapped again, louder still than before. With his free hand he played with the pendant around his neck, twisting it impatiently between his fingers. The silver arrowhead caught the emerging daylight, and a round cut ruby encrusted in its centre glinted. To most people on the continent of Triska, the meaning of the emblem was palpable: only a wizard of Mahalia wore such jewellery, and men had learned to tread carefully when the arrowhead made itself known.

Come on,” the man sighed, and then lowered his voice to a whisper. “I haven’t got all day, you know. If I did I would be somewhere warm and cosy.” He knocked his staff against the door again, and again, and then againrata-tat, rata-tat. At last a person opened the peephole in the door, and a beady, bloodshot eye poked out. It took in the young man standing just beneath the hatch, studied his delicate features, and then, with a guttural voice, addressed him.

“Who’s there?” the eye said. “For the gods’ sakes, I was ‘aving a bloody nap! Do you know what time it is?”

“Time you answered the door,” the man said beneath his breath, but then smiled broadly. He struck his staff into the soft earth and brushed off his expensive red coat, its shoulders bristling with golden – embroidered overlay twisted into delicate, floral patterns, and its gregariously flared sleeves glittering with sequins. Lace spilled out the ends from a silken white shirt beneath as he raised his hand in salutation, and with his other hand he loosened a dark blue cravat, tied messily around his neck, as he spoke. His grey eyes sparkled, and for the smallest of moments they seemed to flash a bright blue.

“My name is Matthias,” he announced, nodding to the peephole. “Who are you?”

“That’s none of yer business! Bloody foreigner!” the eye grumbled. “Right pains in the backside!

Matthias raised a brow in surprise. “Do you speak to all your guests so politely?” he asked.

Yer ain’t no guest ‘ere,” the eye continued. “Not whilst you is on that side of my gate! Now what is it you want?”

“Isn’t it obvious? Why do most people knock on one side of a door? I would like to come in,” the man known as Matthias continued.

The eye squinted. “If I’m to let you in Mister, I’ll need to know more than just yer blooming name! What’s yer business ‘ere[_?_]”

Matthias sighed. “I’ve come from Mahalia. I have business in your city on behalf of the Council of Wizards.”

The eye in the door sniggered at him. “The Council of Wizards yer say? A young lad like you? You is barely what – twenty years old?”

Matthias leaned forward. “Let us just say, my friend, that I look good for my age.” He smiled knowingly.

The eye snorted. After a pause, the voice continued, the man’s rough tones muffled by the wood. “So you ‘ave come on important business?”

“I believe those were my words,” Matthias continued.

“And you come knocking on an old side door? Sneaking round the back of Rina like some peddler?”

“Sneaking would imply that I have something to hide,” Matthias said. “Do you accuse me of lying?” he asked back.

The eye appeared unnerved a moment. But then its owner regained their confidence. “You ‘ave papers?”

Matthias shook his head. “No papers, my friend.”

“What, you ain’t got nothin’?” the eye asked.

“Identities can be forged with the possession of nothing more than a quill and some ink. What point would my showing you a piece of parchment do?” Matthias queried.

“So … you ‘ave no identity. No escort. No proof of who you say yer are? You is ‘aving a bloody laugh, you are. Tell me, what is it you is really doing ‘ere? C’mon, out with it! I can spot a phony when I sees one.” The beady eye squinted at him through the peephole.

Matthias rolled his eyes. This would be harder than he thought. “I’m telling you the truth,” he replied curtly, outstretching his arms in protest. Then, clicking his fingers, he clutched to the pendant around his neck between finger and thumb, and waggled it at the hole. “Look. Surely you recognize the meaning of this symbol?”

The eye continued to stare, blinking quickly, moving up and down, and studying him.

Matthias frowned at the man’s apparent inactivity, and he let go of the pendant with a flourish of his hand. He picked up his staff from where he had stuck it in the ground, and leaned forward towards the peephole, allowing the brace to bear his weight.

Well?” he probed. “Do you recognise it?”

“I know what it is! I ain’t stupid! You could’ve nicked that!”

Matthias smiled confidently. “Not possible.”

The eye narrowed again and continued to stare, as if waiting for further proof.

Matthias raised his brow as he continued to stare down the eye. “I could force the door open, you know, with a flick of my wrist.”

The eye sniffed. “Then why don’t you?”

“That would be… How do you say? Overkill? And hardly polite when on business.”

“Well, it’s the only way yer getting’ in ‘ere,” the eye said. “Cos’ I ain’t letting a scoundrel like you in any other way!” The eye scoffed, and narrowed.

Matthias sighed. “You enjoy your job, don’t you?”

“It has its moments.” The man seemed pleased.

Matthias shook his head. “You know my friend, I always thought Rina welcomed travellers with open arms. But from the treatment I have received here today, it seems I was wrong.” He clapped his hands together, and spun his staff around in the air dramatically. “Very well. I suppose I will have to make my way to one of the other gates then.” He sighed. “It is a shame though. That is, it’s a shame for you.” He turned to go, picking up and slinging his tattered bag across his shoulder.

The eye squinted. “Why’s that then?” the man asked with more than just a hint of curiosity in his disembodied voice.

Matthias turned his head to look back at the peephole. “I would have richly rewarded you if you had let me in. I’m here on very important business, and I’ve been given a great wealth from my people to make sure I am tended to properly. Ah, it’s no matter,” he said, and waved the eye away with a hand. “I’m sure someone at one of the other gates will be able to help me.” Matthias shifted his coat and began walking away from the door.

The eye seemed to contemplate this for a moment. “Richly rewarded?” it said. It seemed to move closer toward the peephole, as if the person behind the door were leaning heavily in to the door. It practically bulged out of the wood.

Matthias nodded, and was met with yet more silence. The eye took in the cut of Matthias’ clothing, seemed to notice the fine gold embroidery on his coat for the first time, the fine linen of his shirt and then, at last, made its decision.

“Alright. Hold on, it’ll take a minute!” The eye disappeared and the peephole slid shut.

Sounds of various bolts and latches being undone came from behind the heavy wooden door. Matthias’ lips twitched into a smile as he waited – he could hear the man fumbling with the door, breathing heavily.

“Isn’t money a wonderful thing?” he whispered to himself. He inspected his fingernails as he waited, and then finally after a moment more, the door began to creak open. The eye, or rather, the person the eye belonged to became visible as a hand beckoned for Matthias to come inside. He was a man of many years, dressed in a tattered brown coat – or, more accurately, what was left of a brown coat, with its ripped sleeves and stretched button holes. It was a sharp contrast to the soldiers at the main gate that Matthias had spied, their breastplates gleaming in the sun, with the emblem of Aralia—a golden Phoenix—shining proudly in golden leaf adhered to the steel. But then he didn’t want to speak with them. He could handle someone like this.

“Right. Come on in then,” the man said awkwardly, jerking a thumb behind him.

Matthias passed through the gateway, his staff tapping on the floor as he moved through. He emerged into a small cobblestone-floored yard, with stacks of broken crates piled up in the corners. An old cart lay rusting to one side, propped against a wall, covered in moss and crawling with snails. The air smelled of old, rotting vegetables. Matthias congratulated himself silently, whilst trying to block out the stench. He had guessed right – this was a little used gateway, and just what he had needed. Somewhere quiet to gain entrance.

Welcome to Rina!” the man said with mock enthusiasm, and rubbed the back of his grey-haired head nervously.

Matthias nodded his head. “Thank you,” he said with equal sarcasm. He reached into his coat and pulled out a leather purse. The man’s face lit up, as Matthias took out two gold coins – Mahalian Marks – and placed them in the man’s waiting palm. His stubby fingers snapped around them as soon as the metal touched his greasy skin. “Your assistance is appreciated,” Matthias said. “It wasn’t that hard, was it?”

The man shook his head as he shoved the coins into his pocket. “You’d best not be ‘ere in Rina to make trouble. I knows that a man of yer standin’ who is so desperate to come through this way is up to some sort of mischief.” He leaned forward. “Whatever it is you is up to, it ‘ad better not be anything that’ll hurt this city.”

“Or get you into trouble?” Matthias suggested

“That too.”

Matthias smiled and nodded in acknowledgement. “I hear you loud and clear, my friend. Don’t worry yourself. I’m a wizard.”

“That’s what I’m worried about,” the man said.

“My point is if I wanted to cause trouble, I could burn this city to the ground single-handedly. From the outside.” Matthias knelt down so he was level with the man’s face. “I’m not your enemy. Believe me.”

“There ain’t many people round ‘ere who would believe the words of a wizard,” the man retorted.

“Are you one of them?” Matthias asked.

“Ain’t ever ‘ad any reason to dislike your kind,” the man said.

Matthias nodded. “Well then, that’s good.”

“Ain’t ‘ad any reason to like ‘em either,” the man added quickly.

Matthias smiled. ”I give you my word. I am here to help.”

The gatekeeper looked him in the eyes, and nodded. “Well… that’s alright then. Glad to hears it.” He shook his head. “Confident young lad ain’t yer?” he added.

“What’s your name?” Matthias asked, ignoring the comment.

“Jadin. Jadin Spickett,” he said uncertainly.

“Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you Jadin,” Matthias said. “You know, there is one other thing you could do for me,” he added, lifting a finger and looking around. “Is it possible you could show me how I get to the main courtyard from here? I haven’t got a clue!”

The gatekeeper shook his head, again rubbing the back of his neck. “I ‘ave to stay here and look over the gate. It ain’t worth my life to abandon this post! You never know what kind of person will try to get in or out when I’m not looking. ‘Ave to keep constant vigi… er…”- he faltered, and scratched at his head.

“Vigilance?” Matthias proffered.

Exactly! So I’m sorry, but I can take you no further! As I said, it ain’t worth my life.”

Matthias slowly reached into his pocket again. “Perhaps it would be worth another Mahalian Mark? In Aralian currency I think that’s enough for…” he paused, squinting his eyes in thought. “Fifty – three pints of your ale? If I’m not mistaken?”

The keeper’s hand shot out at an impressive speed and snatched the money from Matthias’ own. “More like sixty,” the man said uncertainly. He nodded in front of them. “Follow me then. I’ll take you to the bloody courtyard.”

Springing into a brisk walk the man beckoned for Matthias to follow, his small legs moving ten to the dozen. Matthias chuckled, shaking his head as they headed off into the city together. “Such a helpful man,” he whispered to himself.

They walked through a series of dark, narrow streets. Torn rags were suspended above from precariously hanging ropes. Wooden buckets of varying shapes and sizes sat outside lines of slapdash houses, filled with… well, Matthias could hazard a pretty good guess at what they held. The air was thick with the smell of urine and the cobbles were cracked and littered with weeds.

“Where are we?” Matthias asked his guide as he stared sombrely around him.

“We call this ‘the skids’” Jadin replied. “I don’t think I need to tell you why.”

They passed a woman in threadbare clothes who gave Matthias a deathly stare as they passed. He was hardly dressed appropriately for walking through the slums.

“Every big city has a place where people slip between the cracks,” Matthias mused. “People clutching to life by a thread. How many people live in this area?” he asked.

“Hard to say. Maybe a few hundred,” the man replied. “I live on the outskirts. It’s a small house, but it’s better than some around ‘ere ‘ave got. I expect you live in a mansion or something similar?” he asked bitterly.

“Not quite Jadin,” he replied, but didn’t elaborate further.

They emerged out into a merchant area, with market stalls lining one side of a long, narrow street. Chickens stacked atop each other in small, wooden boxes clucked at him as he passed them, their beady eyes flicking hastily around themselves, and tied up by their legs, several dead rabbits hung from the wood frame of the stall, their ears flapping in the breeze.

Matthias browsed over some of the goods being sold as they made their way through the area. One stall that caught his eye was filled with pendants and medallions. Matthias paused a moment to look them over.

“See anything you like, My Lord?” the owner asked, leaning forward expectantly. He smiled with yellowing teeth through his thick, spiky black beard. “Here, how about this?” His chunky hand dove into a tangled collection of pendants in a wicker basket and pulled out a crude looking pewter knot with a piece of coloured glass in the middle. He showed it to Matthias. “This here, see, is made of urunahenium, the rarest metal in the world! It acts as a barrier against black magic.”

Matthias eyed the trinket cautiously and tried to keep a straight face. “Black magic, you say?” he repeated. “Like the sort a wizard would perform?”

Meslip-” Jadin began, shaking his head at the owner, but the man cut him off.

“Oh yes!” the man continued, as Jadin tugged at Matthias’ arm. “It would ward off any spells from those creatures,” he said, grinning.

Really?” Matthias exclaimed. “Perhaps I had better take a closer look at that…” He leaned forward, and the Mahalian pendant around his own neck dangled into full view. The owner caught sight of it and his eyes boggled.

“You know, I think… yes, I seem to remember, I had sold this already, to another lord! He is coming by later to collect it! I am sorry!” He started to sweat quite profusely, and dabbed at his brow with a handkerchief.

Matthias put on a face of mock disappointment, and clutched to his chest. “Alas, I will have to do without it.” He bowed his head to the owner with a wry smile and left with Jadin, who tried to pull him away as quickly as he could.

“Are all Aralians as crafty Jadin?” Matthias asked with a smile as they walked on.

“Forgive Meslip,” he said anxiously. “He has been hard done by of late. His wife ran off with the local Blacksmith. Took all his possessions of any value, what little money he had. Yer… won’t do anything to him, will you?” he asked anxiously.

Matthias stopped. “Why would I?” he asked.

“It’s just there are stories of wizards who take revenge on their enemies.” Jadin shrugged. “Meslip was lying and saying things about yer people,” he said awkwardly.

Matthias shook his head. “I would never do that Jadin.” Then he smiled. “I was just playing with him. There was no harm done! I say good luck to him. There must be hundreds of nobles in this city gullible enough to fall for such a trick, and if they do, then they deserve to be tricked. It’s amazing he isn’t rolling in coin!” He glared up at the sky. The sun was growing higher, rising above the wall of the city and peeking around the scaffolds as it made its slow ascent. “Are we much further from the courtyard? I’m afraid time is against me, and I can’t afford to waste any more of it.”

“Not much further,” Jadin replied, his tone lighter. “Come. It’s this way.”

“Your people are wary of wizards, aren’t they?” Matthias asked.

“We’ve heard stories of what wizards can do. You ain’t too popular amongst most people in these parts.”

“We try to keep the peace,” Matthias said. “For the most part, we have succeeded.”

Jadin nodded as they walked. “So yer say. But from what I’ve heard it’s sometimes peace created with fear, and that ain’t no peace at all, not in my book.”

Matthias paused a moment and stared at the man. “You are very perceptive.”

“Not what you was expectin’?”

He nodded thoughtfully. “I suppose I should know better than to judge someone by first impressions,” he said distantly.

“I’m not sure how to take that,” Jadin said.

They carried on through a narrow alleyway, and then under a bridge from which scaffolding poles stuck out at odd angles.

“Do you have a large family Jadin?” Matthias asked as they continued.

“I ‘ave a wife and three children,” he said. “Two boys and a girl. Why?” he asked.

“It’s rude not to get to know your hosts, I always think,” Matthias replied with a smile. “How long do you sit at that gate for?”

“Ten hours a day,” Jadin replied. “Ten hours I sit on my old crate and keep an eye out for trouble!”

“I can’t imagine many people come round your way very often?” Matthias asked.

“I get the odd merchant. But it’s more locals coming in and out of the city. Never ‘ad a lord before!”

Matthias smiled. “I’m not a lord, Jadin.”

“You sure look like a lord!” the man called back as they turned another street corner.

“Looks can be deceiving,” Matthias replied. “As we have already discussed.”

“So you ain’t going to tell me why yer really did come through my gate then?” Jadin continued.

“It wouldn’t be my first choice,” Matthias replied. “It’s… complicated.”

“We can’t have just anyone coming on in you know!” he replied. “I could gets a bad reputation if I did! Especially letting a wizard in.”

“Then why did you let me in?” Matthias asked.

Jadin turned. “Because that kind of money puts food on our plates,” he said. “And I would be a fool not to take up an offer when it comes my way, wizard or not.” Matthias nodded again thoughtfully. Jadin looked sombre. “I ain’t a sell – out, if that’s what yer think,” he said. “I loves this kingdom.”

Matthias placed a hand on his shoulder. “I understand,” Matthias said. “And I told you, I am here to try and help.”

Jadin nodded. “Alright. Maybe… maybe I do believes yer.” Then he turned and plodded on. Finally, after a few more minutes’ walk, they came to a stop by a tall archway, leading to a path built under a wooden building on stilts.

“Just through this path ‘ere and you come straight out into the main courtyard. Can’t miss it.”

Matthias nodded. “Well I suppose this is where we part ways.” He bowed his head to the gatekeeper and looked upon the short man softly. “Thank you. You’re a good man, Jadin Spickett, and I am pleased to have met you.”

Jadin shook his head. “I’ve been called many things, but never that,” he laughed. “Ah, it was no bother, really.” He held out his hand to Matthias, and his eyes narrowed. “You know, despite what I first thought back there, yer seem a decent kind as well. For a wizard.”

“What made you change your mind?” Matthias asked.

Jadin shook his head. “I’ve seen yer people come ‘ere before. They come barging into Rina as if they owns the place! All these guards and escorts. They’re stuck up, self-satisfied snobs.”

“My people have been known for their arrogance, I’ll admit,” Matthias said. “It’s a reputation well earned.”

Jadin nodded. “But yer don’t seems that way. You wear those posh clothes, but yer don’t sit well in ‘em’”

“Well I will have to tell my tailor,” Matthias joked.

Jadin shook his head. “You knows what I mean. Yer seem different.” He sighed. “Whatever it is you is doing ‘ere, take care of yerself.”

Matthias nodded. “Thank you,” he smiled.

“If you is needing any more guiding around town…” Jadin proffered.

“Then I know exactly who to call!”

The squat man nodded and turned, walking back the way he had come. Matthias watched him disappear around the corner, and then, ducking his head down, made his way through the makeshift pathway beneath the house on stilts, feeling around the damp, wooden, moss – encrusted struts in the shadows and avoiding the drips that fell from the rusting drain – pipes, until he emerged back into the sunlight.

 

Into the City

112th Day of the Cycle, 495 N.E. (New Era)

 

Matthias’s eyes constricted as he stepped out into the morning sunshine that shone on the Everlyne Courtyard. He shielded himself from the light and peered at the way before him. He had emerged into a part of Rina that seemed to be bursting at the seams with commotion. Despite the early hour, the expansive plaza heaved with scurrying people going about their business, the floor tiled with the emblem of Aralia almost entirely masked by the bustling footfall and plenitude of wooden market stalls. He was right at the city’s heart: a beating throng of people milling about the streets and alleyways.

The wizard turned a full circle to survey his surroundings. All around the edges of the courtyard a multitude of buildings large and small vied for space in the prominent yet cramped perimeter, jutting out haphazardly like teeth in an overcrowded mouth. The Obsidian Hall was an easy building to identify: an extravagant two-storey structure of shiny black stone and golden leaf highlights, well known as the trading centre for many of Rina’s unique wares that had earned it an impressive reputation amongst merchants. By its side there was the imposing King Metherill Municipal Courthouse, where public trials were watched over by a public greedy for tales of debauchery to brighten their own routine lives. As he continued his survey, a large, curved building caught his eye. It was visibly decaying, surprising for a building in its prominent position. The plaster was crumbling from its walls in great chunks. He squinted at the chiselled golden lettering above its doors, worn and flaking: ‘The Oval Playhouse,’ it read. Its doors were sealed shut by a thick, diagonal wooden plank, which had clearly been in place a number of years by the wear it showed. Scrawled on it in big, red handwriting was the word ‘unclean’. There must have been a reason for the beautiful and elegant building to have fallen into such disrepair. Matthias made a mental note to try and find out why, when time allowed him to pursue such curiosities again. He had read much about Rina on his journey, but some things still eluded him. You couldn’t absorb seven hundred years of history in a few weeks.

Sitting behind the large buildings, dotted about in all directions, mounds of unusually different looking smaller buildings stretched skyward, slumped over one another in a hotchpotch manner. Rina ascended up on itself, hundreds of years of construction defying gravity instead of more traditionally, and perhaps sensibly, expanding outwards. The logic was that it ensured its people were better protected this way, enclosed within the confines of Rina’s famously thick and impenetrable stone wall. The downside to the plan was that the city had literally piled buildings on top of itself, one another, layer upon layer, seemingly with no plan or design, until all around the skyline scaffolds of houses rose from the ground in staggered tiers, stretching higher and higher until they seemed to reach the clouds. And yet, somehow the chaos of its ad-hoc structure produced a city that was a wonder to behold, with no two houses alike, no roads the same and a world of discovery waiting around every corner.

The more impressive looking establishments of the nobility of Rina had found a way around the inherently eccentric nature of its upward construction by building their own little pathways, crafted from wooden beams that sat atop scaffold supports, where they peered down on the world below then, held together with an array of ropes, chains and cables. Who maintained the scaffolds was anyone’s guess, but it all seemed to work, including the precariously crafted plumbing and drainage system that spiralled down to earth and filtered itself, rather unceremoniously, into large, sulphurous ditches at points around the edge of the city, where the pile-up was then gathered up onto carts weekly and used as both a manure for fields and as an unhealthy swill for pigs and the less picky of livestock.

Matthias had what he felt was a misfortune to have arrived on one of the three weekly trading bazaars, and the sheer number of people who crowded the area made it difficult to move. He picked his way clumsily around a crowd of people who had gathered to see one of Rina’s resident jesters flailing around on a hastily erected plinth.

Do these people never sleep? Matthias thought, as he glanced up at sky, which was really only just beginning to colour with daylight. It can’t have been later than seven, and yet it seemed the entire population of Rina had spilled out on to the streets. As he stared upward, his eye was drawn to the shape of a blackened body, dangling from a bloodied beam outside a pub a few paces away. The skin was a mix of dark hues, and a gaping hole sat where their features should be. It had clearly been there a while.

“Excuse me,” Matthias said, stopping a middle-aged woman in her tracks as she passed him. “Do you know what they were hung for?”

She smirked, and the dimples in her considerable cheeks stood out like great potholes in her face. “You mean James Maston?” she answered, indicating to the body. Matthias nodded. “He stole a loaf of bread,” she said.

“Was that all?” Matthias exclaimed.

“That’s someone’s livelihood!” She frowned, shaking her head. “That could feed a man for a week if he managed it right!” She looked him up and down. “You aren’t from around here, are you?”

Matthias smiled and shook his head. “It is that obvious?”

“You have the tan of a foreigner alright,” she said, as she looked back up at the hanging body. “Well, if I were you, I’d stop asking questions like that. That boy warrants no pity. If you ask me, he deserved every second of his strangling!” She nodded to him, and then moved on her way.

“A loaf of bread,” Matthias repeated. “And they call us barbaric,” he whispered, shaking his head, before he set off again through the crowds.

He emerged into a gap in the throng, completely flustered, as the warm sun beat through his thick coat upon his back. His eye caught the glint of light on water from a large fountain bubbling away happily ahead of him, and he made for it, dipping his hands in the cool water that fell into the pool from marble amphora above, and splashed his face gratefully. He stopped a moment to gather his thoughts, and then as people began clambering atop the fountain’s rim for a better look at the jester, who was pulling more and more people towards his display, he moved again, weaving his way again until, eventually, he made his way out from the courtyard through a vast archway carved with ceramic flowers and vines, dotted with real wildflowers planted in pottery baskets. A plaque carved out of stone read: ‘The Northern Habitual Quarter.’

He walked up a cobbled street filled with shops and a lone inn, the ‘Rusty Bucket’, avoiding a cardsharp outside its doors who tried to grab his arm and entice him into a game of Shove Penny, and trotted down a thin line of steps into another street.

As the sun disappeared beneath the canopy of a scaffold structure above him, Matthias reached a dead-end, save for a wooden ladder that reached up to the higher level. He looked up at the underside of the wooden structure, where trailing ivy and plant life hung limply. A thin mist of water sailed down on a breeze from between the boards. With a shrug he grasped the ladder and hoisted himself up. As he reached the top, the city opened out in front of him yet again. Atop the platform sat elegant, half –timber decorated houses, with chunky chimneys and stucco walls and beautiful gardens. It was a floating island of tranquillity above the chaos of the courtyard below. The people rose in prosperity like the city itself; level upon level, with the Palace at the very top. Climbing the social ladder in Rina could often be more than just a saying. He stopped a man mid-stride in the street, and asked him for directions to the city’s guardhouse. To his relief, he was only a few minutes away.

Finally, a short while later, after climbing another ladder to yet another level of the city, Matthias arrived at his destination: a tall, three-storey building made of sandstone. He made his way up its large wooden steps, to a set of solid, arched doors. Two fine cloth tapestries hung to either side with the King’s coat of arms emblazoned on each: a griffin and a phoenix, intertwined around a pea-green shield decorated with horizontally-placed depictions of swords. Above, chiselled into the large keystone at the crown of the doorway, a motto was engraved in an ancient script:

Evican Verdani Litani Militia.” Matthias racked his brain for a translation. It was an old Aralian dialect: ‘Into the military, our lives we trust,’ if he wasn’t mistaken. Which he might have been? It was hard enough learning the current languages, let alone the ancient ones of civilisations long since passed. There was only so much room in his head.

He stood and stared at the building a moment longer, and in his heart he felt a great weight of uncertainty fall upon him. He had kept such feelings at bay so far on his journey, but now he had finally arrived, the reality of his situation hit him. There should have been another way, a way that didn’t involve so much subterfuge. Perhaps Jadin had been right about his people. But equally, perhaps the man was wrong about him. Was he a good man? The term had been diluted to a point he couldn’t even tell himself any longer. He shook his head. The only other way didn’t bear thinking about. If he didn’t do this, then the girl’s life would be over, one way or another.

He took a deep breath and grasped the golden door handles. “Right then, now comes the hard part!” He pushed the handles down; the latch opened slipping from its housing, and shifting his weight, he thrust the heavy doors inward and made his way inside.

 

The Guardhouse

112th Day of the Cycle, 495 N.E. (New Era)

 

The room was dark to Matthias’s eyes after being in the bright sunlight, and it took a while for his vision to adjust to the shadowy recesses of the room. When the green spots had finished dancing in front of his eyes, he focussed on a chipped, splintered table that stood in front of him, a layer of varnish peeling off from its topside. A man clad in military uniform sat at one of the five chairs set at regular intervals around the oblong surface. He was well built and stocky, with broad shoulders and a square chiselled jaw, a prominent nose and dark, slightly curly hair that covered his ears. Compared to the man, Matthias was a stick insect. He looked up from a worn, leather-bound book to look at him.

“Good afternoon,” the man said, standing. “My Lord?” he ventured the title, looking at Matthias’ rich clothing. “Do you require some assistance? Are you lost?” His pale blue eyes studied Matthias intently through heavy lids and black – ringed eyes.

Matthias bowed his head and smiled. “Good afternoon. I do need your help. That is, if it’s not too much trouble?” Politeness, he had found, often got you everywhere. Well, perhaps not always, but it was the best place to start.

“Please,” the man said, and beckoned to one of the empty seats. Matthias took it gratefully, and could not stop a sigh from leaving his lips at the relief of being off his feet for the first time in almost two days. The man took the seat opposite, pulling his trousers up to waistline level as he eased himself back into the chair. He clasped his hands in front of himself and smiled. “Well then, My Lord, how can I be of help?”

Matthias took a breath. “Please, I am not a noble. You don’t need to refer to me as such.”

The guard nodded. “Of course. How should I address you?”

“My name will be enough. It’s Matthias Greenwald.”

“Very well then, Matthias Greenwald, I repeat my question: how can I be of help to you?” he smiled.

Matthias took a breath. “I am here to speak with King Arwell. I would like to meet with him. As soon as is possible. Please,” he added for good measure.

The guard’s brow furrowed. “The king?” he repeated.

“That’s right,” Matthias nodded.

“His Majesty, King Arwell?” the guard clarified.

“Yes, that’s the one. Unless you know of another?”

The man looked away a moment, stared inwardly, and then addressed Matthias again. “Why?” he asked.

“I have some important information to bring to him,” Matthias told the man. He knew what would come next.

“What sort of information?”

There it was: the question he had dreaded being asked because he knew he could give no answer. “Extremely private information,” he tried, enunciating the word ‘private’ heavily.

The guard scratched his rocky chin awkwardly. “You are foreign?” he asked. Matthias nodded. “From where?” Matthias opened the top of his coat and pulled his pendant from his shirt, and indicated with it to the guard. “You are a wizard?” the guard asked with a mix of surprise and trepidation.

“I am,” Matthias nodded. “But please, don’t roll out the red carpet.”

The guard looked at him with astonishment. “You… I…” he shook his head. “Are you an ambassador?”

“I suppose you could call me that, yes,” Matthias smiled. “It’s as good a word as any.”

The guard nodded as if trying to arrange the information in his mind. “Ambassador, I must say that with all respect,” he began, tapping the sides of his hands on the table awkwardly, “You cannot just… pop in and request an audience with the king like this!”

“I know it isn’t exactly proper,” Matthias nodded. “But I felt the need to arrive unannounced.”

“For what reason?”

“Because the information I bring is sensitive, and I didn’t want it to be known by other countries or people that I am here.”

The guard stared him in the eye, and stroked his stubbly chiselled chin again. His look of absolute puzzlement would have been comical in different circumstances. There was a moment of awkward silence as Matthias and he sat whilst the man engaged in silent analysis. Matthias sat patiently, his expression as fixed as a statue, and awaited a response. The guard opened his mouth, but no words came out, and so he shut it again, rethought what he was going to say, and then, taking a breath again, continued.

“You must understand that I can’t just simply take you to the king. Your identity has to be confirmed for a start. Moreover, the king has to accept your request to see him. He is, after all, a busy man.”

“Understandable,” Matthias nodded. “Ask what you need of me.”

“Very well. Let us get the basics out of the way. Do you have your proof of identity? Your papers of entrance?”

“Papers? No, I have none,’ Matthias answered calmly.

“You have no papers?” The man exclaimed. “Then how in the names of the three gods did you get into the city in the first place? No – one gets into Rina without being issued with papers!”

“Let’s just say I found a way in. As I said, I am trying to remain hidden. I could not risk being compromised.”

“By our own guards? The men trusted with the safety of this kingdom?”

“These are treacherous times,” Matthias replied with a raised brow. “You might trust them, but I am afraid I don’t.” Matthias thought for a moment as the guard’s face became ever more concerned. The man was shaking his head, clearly vexed by it all. An idea came to Matthias and he placed his hands behind his neck, undid the latch holding the chain and locket and gave the pendant to the guard. The man studied what he had been given blankly and then looked up at Matthias.

“My identity,” Matthias said with a smile, folding his arms.

“You expect this jewellery to confirm your identity?” the man exclaimed, holding it up by the chain. There was more than a hint of disbelief in his voice as he stared at the grubby, battered pendant swinging within his grip.

“That is a wizard’s pendant.”

“I know what it is, sir,” the guard replied. “But how does it help me prove who you are?”

“They are only given to a wizard who has been admitted to the Order. It should at least prove to you I am from where I say I am.”

“For all I know this could have been stolen from a wizard and you could be an imposter!” the man declared loudly.

Matthias smiled and shook his head. This infuriated the man even further. His eyes were sharp and analysing. “Believe me, if anyone tried to steal a pendant from a wizard, they wouldn’t try again. To us, these pendants are like an arm or a leg. Wizards have died rather than lose them. Men have died stealing them – or at least, trying to. Never in our entire existence has a pendant found its way into another’s hands. I would destroy that pendant or destroy myself before giving it up to a thief. To give that to you as I do now feels as if I am ripping out my heart and placing it in your hand.”

The guard probed Matthias’s eyes as if he were peering into the inner recesses of his soul, looking for any hint of deceit in those deep, hazel eyes. He fumbled absently with the jewellery in his palm, stroking the rough arrowhead with his thumb. Then he sighed again and put the pendant carefully in his pocket. Matthias watched it intently as a mother watched her child when being held by another.

“I will take it to the king and I will tell him what you have told me. You are free to wait here, though I cannot say how long I will be.”
“Thank you. What’s your name, by the way?” Matthias asked.

“My name is Thadius. I’m an officer to the Knights of Aralia. And on occasion I also sit here and tend to this place, on a quiet day like this,” he added. “I will return as soon as I can.” He snorted as he stood up from his chair. “I’ll say this for you; you’ve certainly made my day a lot more interesting.” He moved quickly to the back of the room and opened a door, and spoke in hushed tones. A moment later, another guardsman appeared. “This is Lauric. He will be here to assist with anything you require whilst I’m gone.” The man nodded to Matthias and he in turn bowed his head. With that, Thadius turned and marched through the main doors.

Matthias watched him go and drummed his fingers on the table. Lauric stood in front of him and for a moment there was an awkward silence.

“Can I get you anything sir?” he asked.

Matthias shook his head. “All that I need is to see the king as soon as possible, and with any luck your friend will be able to help me with that request.”

The man nodded. “As you say, sir,” he said. “Well, if it pleases you I will get back to my duties?”

Matthias nodded back. “Don’t let me keep you from what you were doing.”

“If you should need anything, please call me. I will only be through here.” He indicated through the door.

Matthias thanked Lauric and he swiftly retreated to the back rooms. The wizard breathed a sigh of relief at being left alone at last and sat back in the chair. His neck felt bare without the familiar feel of the steel-threaded thong and the pendant’s weight on the top of his chest. It felt alien to him. Being without it took him back a fair time into his past, before he had become a wizard. Simpler times, he mused. Times when my head didn’t swim with information and ideas. Before plans and deceptions.

After a time his relief at being left alone dissolved and the lack of any presence grew disconcerting as he continued to pine for his beloved jewellery. For a moment he considered going to find Lauric, if only to distract himself from the silence in the room and the thoughts in his head, but then he thought better of it. After all, what would he even speak to the man about anyway? Instead he rose from the table and took a tour of the room. Though the cubical office was flanked by three tall, wide windows, they failed to pull the room from the darkening influence of its mahogany wood panelling. He considered lighting the candles suspended from the wrought iron chandelier above his head, but thought better of it, so instead he looked at the paintings that covered the walls through the penumbra.

There were portraits of various generals and commanders of the King’s Guard through the many ages of Aralia’s past, spaced across the walls in date order. The depictions grew cruder and simplistic the older they were and Matthias had to stifle a laugh as he reached the last picture. Dated some five hundred years ago, the subject had his eyes crossed and a nose sticking out where an ear should have been. It was either that the artist had a very poor grasp of perspective, or the subject was the ugliest man Matthias had ever seen. Each portrait he moved to revealed a different style of clothing and a different set of hairstyles unique to the era they were from. They all shared one thing in common though: they all looked as pompous as sin. And they all had big chins. He felt his own unconsciously.

After a half hour or so of studying the pictures and letting his mind wander as he stared closely at the cracking oils on the canvasses, Matthias sat down at the table again. He settled himself into a comfortable position and picked at a chip in his staff absent – mindedly, before running a finger down the dead root that twirled around the staff’s lower segment, from another plant that had eaten into the branch. He contented himself to this preoccupation and his daydreams for another half – hour until his thoughts were interrupted by the re-entry of Thadius into the room. Matthias stood on his arrival, his face alert with anticipation. The man coughed awkwardly as he approached Matthias.

“I have spoken with King Arwell. He has asked me to personally escort you to his chambers. It appears the pendant you wear bears significant sway with His Majesty.”

“Lucky for me.” Matthias smiled and nodded his head. “Thank you. You’ve done me a great service, Thadius. Come, we have to go see him, right now!”

“Impatient, aren’t you?” Thadius sniffed.

“Oh yes,” Matthias replied with a grin. Impatient to get this over with, more like, he thought to himself. If convincing Thadius to arrange a meeting was not hard enough, convincing the king of what was about to come next would be near impossible. He did not relish what was to come, but he had a job to do, and if that job meant getting his head lopped off, then so be it.

“Well, seeing as you are so eager, we’d best not keep the king waiting, had we?”

 

Into the Maze

112th Day of the Cycle, 495 N.E. (New Era)

 

Thadius gestured with a hand to the door of the guardhouse and Matthias stepped back out onto the stone steps and into the street beyond. The man raised his hand to shield his eyes from the sunlight that peeked around a building in front of them on high stilts.

“This way would probably be best,” Thadius motioned after a pause.

“Is it very far to the palace?” Matthias asked, adjusting his baggage slung across his back.

“About an hour’s brisk walk from here.”

“You hadn’t been gone that long,” Matthias commented. “Had you?” he questioned himself.

Thadius smiled. “No. It’s much quicker to take shortcuts through the scaffolds. But with those bags you’d find it a struggle.”

“I can make it,” Matthias replied. “Please, the quickest way would be preferable to me.”

“Well it’s hardly the most picturesque journey, but then I’d warrant you’re not that concerned about that?”

Matthias grinned. “You should see the way I came in to the city. I’m really not fussed.”

Thadius analysed him a moment. “Alright then. This way,” he said.

They doubled back and headed down an uneven pathway. Houses leaned on each other like drunks at a tavern all along its length. “While we’re on the subject, how exactly did you make it into the city?” Thadius asked as he turned to walk through a winding, paved alley.

“I wouldn’t like to get my accomplice in trouble,” Matthias replied.

“It was Jadin, wasn’t it? He’s the only one I know of with the gall. Mind the gap!” Thadius added suddenly as he side – stepped a hole in the floor. Matthias peered down it. The paving stones they walked on were affixed to a thick wooden frame, which had partially rotted away. There was nothing below for at least fifty feet apart from a criss-cross of splintering wood and a tangle of rusty piping.

“Thank you. I couldn’t possibly tell you as they never gave me their name,” Matthias replied.

Thadius snorted. “How much did you give him?”

Matthias sighed. “If you must know, I created a gateway through the city walls,” he lied again. “No-one helped me.”

“You can do that?” Thadius asked, staring aghast at him as they stood at the foot of a ladder.

“Oh yes. It’s child’s play!” In actuality, no – one had managed anything of the sort for over a hundred years. Even then the wizard that had managed it got stuck halfway through the wall and had to be chiselled out.

“I will have to tell the guards to review their security measures,” Thadius asserted. “Will you be alright on here?” he asked, patting the ladder made of bamboo and twine, knotted together tightly.

Matthias grinned. “I used to climb trees when I was younger. I’ll be fine even with all this on my back,” he indicated to his full satchel.

Thadius nodded, and heaved his frame on to the rickety ladder. The struts creaked as he set his leather boots on each step, but they held well enough. “You look as if you have brought a tree with you,” Thadius commented.

“Excuse me?” Matthias queried.

“Your staff. Pardon me for saying this but it looks a little fragile.”

“It’s really not,” Matthias chuckled. “I found the branch this came from when I was just six, playing in the woods outside my home. It had an interesting pattern, with the root bound around its length, so I took it home. I fashioned it to use as a rambling stick. After I became a wizard it served me just as well as a conducting staff to channel the earth power. I shortened its length slightly and sealed it with sandarac resin for preservation. This staff has accompanied me on many a journey. In many ways it’s as much a part of me as the pendant you hold in your pocket.” Matthias paused a moment. “You do still have it, don’t you?”

Thadius smiled as he climbed. “Unless someone has picked my pocket.” Matthias stopped a moment beneath him, his eyes wider as he considered the prospect. Then he shook his head and carried on climbing. “I find you a curious man ambassador,” Thadius said as he hefted his bulk upwards.

“How so?” Matthias asked, chuckling. “And please, call me Matthias.”

“Very well. I find you… puzzling,” Thadius replied.

“That’s hardly an answer,” Matthias replied.

Thadius exhaled out of his nose. “You appear to have none of the airs and graces your kind traditionally carry, and you insist on informality when it comes to showing deference, yet you wear a noble’s clothes and carry yourself with grace. One moment you appear to speak honestly, then another quite cryptically. Your mannerisms sway between a man of the gentry and that of a common man.”

“Anything else?” Matthias asked whimsically.

Thadius pondered a moment and then added: “With every word that comes from your mouth I get the sense that there is a great more depth to their meaning than you will let on.”

“All that from only knowing me an hour or so?” Matthias chuckled. He waggled his shoulder as the strap of his bag dug into his shoulder.

“I have always prided myself as a good judge of character,” Thadius advised. “At first glance you appear to be an honest man.”

“I only appear to be?”

“I can’t ignore the method of your arrival into the city. Aside from being a Mahalian, which in these parts provides little reassurance, you come into the city by sneaking around the backstreets and alleyways. How can I trust your intentions are good? I’m taking you to see the king. For all I know, your intent could be to plant a dagger in his back!”

“I am here to help! Why won’t anyone believe me?” Matthias asked. Because you can hardly believe it yourself, he thought to himself.

“Trust has to be earned,” Thadius advised, helping him off the ladder, as they stood astride another level of the city. “A bond of trust is the most important of thing.”

“And what if there’s no time for that?” Matthias asked. “What if all you have time for is blind faith?”

Thadius looked at him and considered. Then, without an answer, he turned on his heel and marched onward.

Matthias sighed. “Why must everything be so complicated?” he whispered quietly to himself.

They clambered across more platforms and struts, shimmied up ropes and ramps, until they began to reach what could be considered by Rinian standards solid ground. The cobbled floor seemed firmer and the buildings were much grander than below.

“We’re entering the noble levels,” Thadius said, as if picking up on Matthias’s silent admiration. “You will find the views much more impressive from this level.”

“Just how many levels are there?” Matthias asked as he peered up at the delicately balanced structures climbing still higher. They were starting to disappear into mist above.

“There are fifteen levels divided between merchant areas and living space. We are on the eleventh. Most of the people here are well-to-do lords and some merchants who have done exceptionally well for themselves, as you can tell by the buildings.”

Matthias nodded. The buildings were indeed impressive, sturdy looking structures, with tiled roofs and brick walls. Some had gardens, metal gates and even statues. “I take it the Palace is at the very top?” he asked, with a smile.

“Naturally,” Thadius replied.

“What exactly is your place in the King’s armies, Thadius?” Matthias asked as he marched to keep up with the pace of his burly escort as they stormed across the widening roads. A horse and cart passed in front of them, its wheels clattering on the cobbles.

“I’m a guardsman. A soldier,” he replied.

“Yes, but of what rank?” Matthias continued to ask.

“Of none in particular,” Thadius replied stoically.

“Then you aren’t decorated?” Thadius nodded. “And yet you have a direct line of communication with the king?”

“Do you always ask a man his private business so soon after you have met him?” Thadius rebuffed.

“Well I was expecting to speak with a half-dozen guards and soldiers before I met one who would be able to bring me to the king. I thought I might need to see your own ambassador.”

“He is away in Ordovier, as I understand it. Anyway if you must know, my father, Lord Wilhem and King Arwell are good friends,” Thadius answered.

“I see,” Matthias nodded. “So… your father is a lord and yet you are not a knight?” Matthias probed with curiosity.

“Do you always ask so many questions?” Thadius retorted.

“Does it bother you?” Matthias responded, to which Thadius’ face creased. Then he rolled his eyes and answered.

“This is not the same kingdom as it was in previous times. A man must first earn his titles, ambassador, through hard graft. I have earned the ear of the king off my own back, despite my father’s friendship to His Grace. And it is my choice so far not to be knighted.”

Why?” Matthias asked abruptly.

“I do not feel I have earned it myself yet. A knight is an honoured position, given to those with great burdens of protecting this realm. I have not yet faced any such challenge that I feel would qualify me as being worthy of a knighthood.”

Matthias nodded, weighing the answer as they continued their journey. “I didn’t mean to question your integrity. I apologise.”

“So you should,” Thadius said, suppressing a smile. “Men have been killed for less. I would remember that, if you are to survive in these parts.”

Matthias smiled. “Duly noted,” he said. “You might not have any title, but I would imagine it is safe to say you have encountered many battles in your time as a soldier?”

Thadius grunted as he clambered upward. “I have seen my fair share. But of late all the troubles the kingdom has are small skirmishes within the Tikritian Pennines. There are some small pockets of eastern Aralia who feel they no longer wish to support the king in his endeavours and would rather pledge their allegiance to Adalric and his Empire. They were not trained fighters and we put them down easily. Aside from that we have been at peace with our neighbours for a long time now, and are all the better for it if you ask me. The time of endless scuffles amongst nations has long since passed.”

Matthias nodded. “All the same, your king’s men are ready to fight should they ever be called upon to do so?”

Thadius turned his head abruptly. “Is there a reason for this new line of questioning?” he said tersely. “Because if my king or my country is in any sort of danger, I need to know about it!”

Matthias was a good foot shorter than the man, but nevertheless he kept his cool and didn’t succumb to intimidation. “I was just interested,” he replied, smiling.

Thadius looked at Matthias a moment with a look of confusion on his face, and then shook his head. “Come on,” he sighed.

They walked a few more minutes, slipping around the edge of a crumbling building’s gardens and up another ladder, before Thadius spoke again. “We talked earlier about faith,” he said.

“What of it?” Matthias asked, as he peered down behind him. All that stood between him and a fall back down three levels was a rope bound around some fragile looking wooden poles. He shouldn’t worry, he told himself, given that he could easily cushion his own fall, but there was some inbuilt sense of human self – preservation that made his heart pound, and he took a deep breath as he continued shuffling across.

“I’d like to speak honestly,” Thadius said. “I think our journey here has afforded us both a kind of rapport to do so, despite its brevity?”

Matthias nodded.

“Trust and faith amongst nations must be shared both ways for it to be successful. Your people don’t trust us, Matthias, and so, in turn, we don’t trust them. If you want me to trust you – if my king is to trust you- for whatever reason, you have to trust us as well. You have to speak the truth. Whatever it is you have to tell the king, if you want him to consider your words with any kind of credence, you have to be honest with the facts.”

“What makes you think I wouldn’t be truthful?” Matthias asked.

“Your people have a knack for keeping information to yourselves. You twist the fate of the world to your own ends and dispose of those who stand in your way. Despite your relaxed manner, your claims of being here to help, you are still a Mahalian, working for Mahalian interests.”

“My people do what they do for the good of the world,” Matthias responded.

Thadius sniffed. “Is that not the clarion call of all oppressors? To justify their continued existence?”

Matthias smiled. “You are very forthright, considering who I am and what you have just said about my people.”

Thadius stopped for a moment and hung from the rung of a long ladder that seemed to climb for miles. “Perhaps I am speaking out of turn,” he said. “But I sense you aren’t the sort of man who is deceived by empty platitudes.”

“True enough,” Matthias nodded. “Anything else you have noted about me?”

“Just one thing,” Thadius said. “You’re a little young to be an ambassador,” he replied.

Matthias smiled. “Thank you,” he said.

“That wasn’t a compliment,” Thadius advised. “It was more of a question, I suppose.”

“I told you to call me Matthias.”

“Not really an answer is it?” Thadius said.

“No, it isn’t,” Matthias smiled.

“I think you’re intentionally trying to annoy me,” Thadius said, shaking his head. Then he turned and continued to climb. Matthias followed.

The wood creaked as the two men hoisted themselves upwards. Matthias stopped a moment to catch his breath, and turned his head to look how high they were. Layer upon layer of wooden boardwalks stretched out beneath them, and the wall of the city wound its way around them. The trees in the fields looked tiny.

“I thought you were in a hurry Matthias?” Thadius called down to him with a smile.

Ignoring the comment, Matthias reached up and continued to climb.

They advanced for another few minutes in silence, until finally Thadius reached a hand down to Matthias and he emerged through an opened grate onto a cobbled street.

“Well, here we are,” Thadius said.

Matthias tapped the cobbles beneath his feet warily. “How do you keep this city from falling apart?” he asked.

“You’re not the only ones who can work a little magic. But our wonders come from hard graft. As you can see.” Thadius nodded behind the wizard, and Matthias turned and looked up. An impressive sight had sprung up in front of him. The building that lay before him was highly theatrical, with ornamental turrets, triforia – shaped windows and decorative cornices running around its exterior. The Palace was the icing on the multi-tiered cake that was Rina, surrounded by greenery and smaller gatehouses attached by stone arches and walkways to its main bulk. Its limestone walls reflected the sunlight of the mid-morning sun. A crow – stepped gable completed the front of the symmetric building, with half a dozen gargoyles sitting atop their steps and two large windows beneath their protection glinted in the sunlight.

“Impressive,” Matthias said, shielding his eyes to take in the architecture.

Thadius chuckled. “Ah, you haven’t seen inside yet.”

 

An Audience with the King

112th Day of the Cycle, 495 N.E. (New Era)

 

As they approached the palace, Thadius greeted two guards who were standing outside the towering main doors that gaped open before them. He walked into the vast entrance hall of the building and beckoned Matthias to follow. Matthias passed through and looked around at the grand hall. The floor was one giant, coloured mosaic. He cocked his head as he analysed the scene it depicted.

“It’s the End of Days,” Thadius advised, noticing him looking at the floor.

“It’s a little strange to show an image of the last battle in the world’s greatest war in your entrance hall,” Matthias commented. “It’s hardly a welcoming scene.”

Thadius looked perturbed. “It was commissioned during the first few years into the rebuilding of Rina after the old city was destroyed,” he explained. “King Ostavar ordered the construction of a high scaffold to serve as the foundations for the new palace. This palace. He chose this scene,” he indicated to the floor “-because it was the moment when his father and Aralia’s allies overcame the Dreadlord Tanzanal. It’s the greatest moment in our history. I can’t think of any greater image to welcome visitors.”

Matthias raised his hands defensively. “Point taken.” He gazed around. The walls were wood-panelled and gold-lined, the ceiling painted a navy blue with oval with gemstones inset into the plaster for stars. Sited in the curved corners of the ceiling were four angelic creatures garbed in white robes, their blue faces staring down at the tiled floor. Matthias lingered on them a moment, eyes wide.

“They’re the Akari,” Thadius advised.

Matthias nodded. “I know who they are.”

Thadius followed his gaze to one of the four figures. “Sometimes I spend time staring up at them like you are now, admiring the workmanship. They’re brilliantly carved, fascinating to look at. Of all the mythical creatures I have read about, they are the most interesting to me.”

Matthias looked at him in confusion. “Exactly what books have you been reading?”

Thadius shrugged. “I’m not sure. My father gave a book to me on ancient myths and legends when I was younger. I don’t remember the author. Why?”

Matthias shook his head. “No reason. Please, can we go to the king now?”

Thadius nodded. “If you have finished critiquing our architecture?” he said acerbically.

Thadius led Matthias into an adjoining corridor, where enclosed lanterns hung at regular intervals in the ceiling. The floor was carpeted with a deep red rug that stretched its entire length and at its end was a flight of stairs, which Matthias was led up to another corridor, this time bare of carpet and tangibly cold by comparison. They ascended again up a tight spiral staircase into another equally drab walkway.

“This isn’t the way I’d normally take guests,” Thadius advised. “It’s not exactly the most glamorous way around the palace, but it is the quickest.”

“Quick suits me very well,” Matthias replied. “As you may have noticed.”

Thadius nodded. “It’s probably just as well. You may have cast your artistic eye over more of our workmanship.”

Matthias smiled. “I had no bad thing to say about the quality of the floor. I was merely curious about the subject matter. I fear I may have insulted you again Thadius.”

The soldier turned to look at him. “I’ve got thicker skin than you might believe, Matthias Greenwald.”

They walked along on silence for a time, until they reached a large, closed set of doors. Two guards flanked them either side, each man holding a partisan decorated with tassels of gold fabric beneath the spearheads. On seeing Thadius one of the men reached around and opened one of the doors, allowing them through. Thadius nodded thanks to them as they entered the next room.

Red marble pillars flanked them to either side of the long chamber, holding atop their delicately carved tops a series of golden arches, etched with blue, mottled patterns stretching from one end of the room to the other. The floor depicted another tiled scene.

“This one may be more to your liking,” Thadius quipped.

“I don’t recognise the setting,” Matthias commented. By the looks of it, the scene seemed to tell the tale of a gathering: a large marquis dotted with fluttering flags along its top sat in the middle of the depiction, surrounded around its perimeter and the field beyond by soldiers and nobles in their best livery. “It’s beautifully complex,” Matthias complimented and knelt down to feel the tiles with a hand. “The intricacy is stunning.” As he knelt, Matthias followed his eye line to the far side of the room. At its end a throne stood centrally atop a dark varnished, wooden dais. The intricate oak chair contained detailed carvings of ivy leaves and stems flowing around the legs and climbing the back like a real plant would have. The ivy leaves themselves were covered with gold leaf, and the backrest of the throne was a deep – red, silken material. Beside it to the right, a wood carved griffin reared up on its hind legs and on the other side a phoenix sat proudly with its wings curled around its body, inspecting the two newcomers from its jet – black, beaded eyes. In each far corner, two gilded stand – lamps stood unlit. There wasn’t any need for them that early in the day, especially as the ceiling above them was made entirely of glass encased in thick lead frames, covered in more gold leaf, revealing the bright azure – coloured sky, dotted with white clouds.

“A beautiful room, isn’t it?” a voice said from the doorway behind, and Matthias rose and turned to the owner. “You can even make out the looks on the faces of the people portrayed on the floor. It almost seems a shame to walk over them with heavy, muddied boots sometimes.”

“Your Grace,” Thadius addressed him, kneeling.

The king strode into the room confidently, a black and silver, fur lined overcoat wrapped around his neck and shoulders. He passed them both and walked up on to the dais, where he circled the throne and stood behind it a moment, stroking one of the Ivy stems. Thadius looked up at Matthias.

Are you forgetting something?” he whispered.

Matthias caught his eye and gave him a puzzled look. Then he realised what the soldier was talking about. “Oh yes, of course!” he exclaimed with a start and lowered himself to one knee. From his crouched position, head lowered slightly in deference, he looked at the king properly. The man was tall, well above the height of an average man, and his dark brown hair, that hung to neck length, was mottled with strands of grey, giving away his not insignificant years. He had pock – marked cheeks and a square – cut beard, which masked his pale, white skin. Despite his ageing appearance, he still cut a confident and regal figure as he looked down at the pair of them, wrapped within his bulky, intimidating overcoat.

“This is the Throne of Althern. It was made for my ancestor King Thesius some three hundred years ago. It has had to be reupholstered a few times, but otherwise, it is all the original wood and in magnificent condition. Ahem, that is, until I carved my own name into its back when I was five years old.” He stared down to the back of the throne and smiled as his eyes picked out the unseen carving. “But I was only young and knew no better.” He looked up again and as if properly noticing his guests for the first time, strode forwards to the edge of the dais and looked down on them. “Gentlemen,” he addressed them.

“Your Grace,” Thadius coughed, clearing his throat. “May I present, for want of a better word, Ambassador Matthias Greenwald from the Realm of Mahalia. Matthias Greenwald, this is His Highness King Arwell, Holy Lord and Protector of the Light of Aralia.”

“Your Grace,” Matthias replied politely.

“Please rise mister Greenwald,” the king commanded, gesturing upwards with a hand. Matthias smiled, uttered his thanks and rose to his feet. He was a few inches shorter that the king anyway, but he felt like a dwarf looking up at the man as he stood atop the dais

“I am grateful for your time, Your Grace.”

The king smiled thinly. “Something tells me that I had no choice in the matter of giving a wizard my time, hmm?” He waved the comment away with a hand. “It is no matter anyway. You are fortunate enough to have caught me on a slow day. I am told you come hear bearing important news for my ears alone?”

Matthias nodded. “The news I bring is private, Your Grace.” Then he paused and looked from the king to Thadius. “However I now believe it would be of benefit for Thadius to hear what I have to tell you as well.”

“Oh you do, do you?” the king snorted.

“Your Grace, please accept my apologies for this young man!” Thadius spluttered. “That is of course your decision to make!”

“It is alright Thadius,” the king replied. “If that is the case ambassador, then why would you not tell Thadius of your reasons for visiting me before?”

“Because I had no reason to trust him before, in the guardhouse,” Matthias replied.

The king paced the dais slowly. “And your swift journey up to the palace has convinced you otherwise?” he asked.

Matthias nodded. “Our climb together has shown me his honourable nature. I feel able to speak openly in your presence with him by your side.”

“Ambassador, I have known people under my reign for decades and still have yet to judge whether they are honourable or not. You cannot know someone’s true nature in less than a morning,” the king advised.

“You’re right,” Matthias responded. “But my gut hasn’t proven me wrong before. I see no reason to question it now.”

The king studied Matthias a moment, and then smiled, exhaling out of his nose and chuckling under his breath. He nodded. “Very well then. But might I suggest we relocate to a more suitable place to speak. This room may be beautiful, but it grows so cold in the morning. Are you hungry?” he asked.

“Actually, now you mention it, I am a little, Your Grace,” Matthias said, smiling. As if suddenly awakened by the thought of food, his stomach rumbled. When had he last eaten? It must have been a day or two, aside from an apple he had munched on this morning.

The king nodded. “Good. Then we will adjourn to the parlour where we can continue our conversation. Thadius will join us. You could do with some more meat on your bones soldier,” he chuckled.

“Thank you, Your Grace. Though I think there is more than enough fat on this figure already!” Thadius smiled and patted his stomach.

The king led them through the palace, issuing orders to servants as they passed to ready breakfast. They scattered before him to work.

“You are quite lucky ambassador,” the king said, “I have usually eaten by now, despite the time, and would be off for a morning hunt. However today I was taken to sleeping in a little longer than usual.”

“Fortunate for my stomach, Your Grace,” Matthias quipped.

“You are also fortunate that I know so much about the legends surrounding that pendant of yours and that it proves validity of your identity. Had it been down to Thadius alone you would have never made it this far.”

“I knew you would be aware of its meaning,” Matthias said, “Having held relations with my people for so long.”

“Relations,” the king mused. “Is that what you would call it?” There was an edge to his tone. Then he continued regardless of the lack of an answer. “I know that the pendant binds to a wizard like a part of the body and to remove it from its owner for a length of time is akin to losing a heart.”

Matthias nodded, and seeing the curious look on Thadius’s face, elaborated. “We receive our pendant when we graduate to become a full wizard. It’s irreplaceable.”

Thadius shook his head. “It doesn’t look irreplaceable,” he commented. “It is a lovely looking piece, but it’s just metal and a jewel suspended on a chain.”

“It’s not just a ruby. Inside the gemstone, deep within its core is a captured moment,” Matthias advised.

“What’s that?” Thadius asked.

“It’s a memory of the moment when we ascend to become a wizard. It’s not only precious, but irreplaceable, and no wizard would ever let it come to harm.”

“How do you capture a moment?” Thadius asked.

“With great difficulty,” Matthias smiled back.

They walked around the maze of corridors, up sets of stairs and crossing through extravagantly decorated chambers, until they emerged into a room with a semi-circular bay window overlooking the plains of Rina. The expansive grasslands and fields of flowers stretched out beneath them, waving in a breeze, and sunlight shone through the window onto the dining table just behind it.

“My quarters are above this room. I consider it to be the finest view anywhere in the world. The beautiful fields of green and the mountains, far in the distance…” He waved his hand across to emphasise his point.

Matthias stared at it longingly. “It’s very beautiful, Your Grace,” he said.

A trio of liveried servants entered the room and brought in three bowls of steaming soup, placing them on the table before leaving the room again. Thadius and Matthias sat opposite each other, and the king sat at the head of the table. The servants returned again and brought in a carafe of red wine. They filled three glasses. Matthias stared at his a moment.

“Is there a problem?” Thadius asked him.

Matthias shook his head. “No, not at all. I’m just not accustomed to drinking wine at breakfast.”

Thadius nodded. “It is a luxury to have wine instead of ale at the dinner table.”

Matthias smiled, and then shook his head again. “Actually, that’s not what I meant. I tend to drink tea,” he advised.

Thadius’ face screwed up. “Tea? That’s that drink the Tekritians import from the Far World, isn’t it?”

Matthias nodded. “Not so far for me. It comes from my homeland.”

“I have sampled tea several times,” the king said, interjecting. “Interesting flavour, and a curiosity to have a drink boiled, but I am afraid it’s not my bag. Too spicy for my tastes,” he sniffed, and raised his glass. “To good health,” he toasted, and supped at the red liquid. Matthias and Thadius joined him and then as they tucked into their soup, they carried on with their conversation.

“All the way from the realm of wizards,” the king said as he supped his soup. “It’s been a fair time since your people have felt the need to grace me with their presence. It used to be that your people would check in every six months, remain for a few weeks, and then return to Mahalia. But the last time I had a visit would be nearly five years ago. I thought we had been let off for good behaviour,” he scoffed.

Matthias nodded. “I believe that there hasn’t been any need to visit you for quite a while.”

“And now?” The king questioned.

“Now I’m here,” Matthias replied.

Arwell studied Matthias a while over his full soup – spoon, hovering over his bowl, then took another slurp. “I usually see another wizard. Lord Fenzar is his name. He has been coming here for decades. He’s much older than you are, with bushy eyebrows and a face like a dried up old fig. There’s more lines on that man’s face than on an old oak tree!”

Matthias grinned, picturing the man in his head. “I’ve always thought he more resembled a walnut. Though I’m sure you know better Your Grace.”

“Where is he now? He’s not dead is he? Are you his replacement? I really have known oak trees less old and gnarled than Fenzar is. It must be well past time he was put out to pasture.” The king chuckled.

“No, he’s not dead,” Matthias said. “I suspect he’ll outlive us all.”

Thadius joined in the conversation. “He normally comes through the gates with an attachment of dignitaries, heads straight through the main street to the palace making one hell of a din. He loves a procession.”

Matthias nodded. “He is an… interesting man, to say the least. In any case, I’m not his replacement. But he is indisposed.”

The king nodded. “I see. Well you may be new and lacking experience with my kingdom, but I wonder if you might explain to me the reason you snuck into the city alone through some unknown entrance, like a viper in a bird’s nest?”

“I’ve never been one for making a fuss, Your Majesty,” Matthias rebuffed.

Mmmm.” The king mumbled, raising an eyebrow. He opened his mouth as if to say something further, but before he could, there was a knock at the door. A liveried man strode into the room and, head raised high, spoke loudly and formally.

“Your Majesty. The Princess of Aralia wishes to enter, with your permission?”

The king stood abruptly, and looked to Matthias. His brow furrowed and Matthias resisted the urge to shrink back at the burning gaze he gave him.

“Tell her that I am busy entertaining,” the king said tersely.

“I did, Your Grace, but she is most insistent. She wishes to meet your guest.”

The king took a deep breath and nodded. “Very well,” he said and turned to Matthias. “Ambassador, it seems you will be meeting my only daughter!”

Matthias’s breath caught, but he managed to speak. “It will be an honour, Your Majesty,” he nodded. He took a sip of wine.

The servant disappeared a moment, re-entered and then, after a pause for breath, and straightening himself so much that his back looked as if it were made of a plank of wood, announced: “Her Royal Highness the Princess of Aralia, Josephine Arwell.”

Thadius rose and beckoned to Matthias who, after taking the hint, wiped his lips free of soup and wine and stood, turning to face the door.

Despite trying to compose himself for her arrival, he was completely unprepared for the sight that greeted him. He had seen paintings and heard tales of the woman known as the ‘Jewel of the West,’ but the intense beauty of the young woman who walked into the room was enough to take the breath from anyone’s lungs. Her golden hair hung in ringlets, spiralling down below her shoulders, which were left bare by her delicate blue dress. A line of pearls ran the length of the neckline, framing squarely across her breasts. A delicate silver locket hung from her neck, the clear jewel encrusted in its centre winking as it caught the light. Other jewels were sewn into the front of her kirtle and her hemline sparkled as the sun shone in through the window. As she curtsied to her father and regarded Matthias, her bright, sapphire eyes caught Matthias’s own. They dazzled, framed by her delicate, porcelain skin. Her lips were thin and she had subtle dimples in her cheeks.

The wizard suddenly became aware that his mouth was open, so he shut it quickly, hopefully before anyone noticed. His cheeks flushed crimson despite himself. So much for all those years of training he had performed to suppress his emotions in such situations. He had never been very good at that.

“My daughter!” the king said warmly, embracing her. “I had not expected to see you today. Especially here, in the company of my guest.” He motioned with a hand to Matthias.

“My apologies, Your Grace. I heard you had a visitor from Mahalia and I was compelled to introduce myself.” She nodded to Thadius. “My good man,” she said warmly, baring her teeth in a warm smile. “How are you?”

Thadius nodded. “Very well, thank you princess.”

“This is Matthias Greenwald,” the king advised. His confident demeanour seemed to have become unsteadied now the princess was in the room.

The princess’s gaze turned to Matthias, and her smile dimmed. “Ambassador Greenwald,” she addressed him, nodding her head. “I trust you are well?”

Matthias nodded back. “I am all the better for seeing you, Your Royal Highness,” he replied. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“You are a man of charm, ambassador. But you should work on your tone if you wish to convey yourself with sincerity.” She smiled.

Matthias’s cheeks grew crimson again. “I assure you princess that my words were sincere.”

The princess squinted at him. “Fascinating,” she whispered, peering closely at Matthias’s face.

Matthias coughed. “’Fascinating’, Your Highness?”

“Your eyes. They do not glow with magic as I would have expected of one of your kind.”

Matthias smiled at her. “That’s a common misconception. Our eyes retain their natural colour unless the earth power is wielded. But when it is seized, they turn blue. A little like yours shine now,” he added.

The princess gave a start, and her breathing caught a moment, but she regained her composure almost instantly. “They are a gift from my mother’s side,” she advised. “Her family have been known for their beauty for centuries.”

“You have never met one of my kind before?” Matthias asked. “Not even Lord Fenzar?

“I try to keep my daughter out of my discussions with Mahalia,” the king interrupted.

“Would you show me what they look like?” the princess asked.

“I’m sorry?” Matthias queried. “Show you what what looks like?

“Your eyes. I should like to see what they look like when you use your magic.”

“Josephine, perhaps another time would be better to satisfy your curiosity,” the king interrupted. “We are in the middle of our breakfast and the ambassador and I have a lot to discuss.”

“It’s alright, Your Grace,” Matthias replied. “I don’t mind.”

He stepped back a pace and held out a palm upwards in front of Josephine. His irises cracked from hazel to sapphire, and from thin air a ball of water no larger than an apple whirled into existence, spun and swirled three inches above his palm. He let it hang there a moment before his fingers twitched and the ball began freezing. In a second he had formed a sphere of ice, which dropped into his waiting hand. Matthias clasped it tightly. The princess watched with amazement.

Incredible,” Thadius whispered.

Matthias smiled, and from between his fingertips water began to leak. The ice melted, evaporated almost instantly, leaving only behind a small pool of cold water on the wizard’s reopened palm and droplets on the floor. “It’s just parlour trick, Your Highness,” Matthias said, wiggling his hand until the remainder of the water disappeared. “But I hope you approve?” His eyes flashed back to their natural hazel.

The princess took a breath. “Most impressive ambassador,” she said. “An effective demonstration.”

“If you would like I can show you more of my abilities? The earth power allows me to tap in to all the elements of the world. I can light a flame as bright as the sun from nothing and then extinguish it with water as cold as ice.”

“That will be quite alright,” The king said sharply. “I think your spectacle is more than enough for one morning.” He turned to look at his daughter sternly. “My dear, I have business to discuss with the ambassador now.”

Josephine withdrew into herself at his gaze and nodded. “Of course father. Please forgive me Your Grace.” She nodded to Matthias. “Ambassador, it has been a brief but interesting pleasure.”

Matthias bowed to her. “The pleasure has been mine,” he replied.

The princess nodded to Thadius and then turned to her father. “Your Grace,” she addressed him again and bowed before turning and swiftly leaving the room. Matthias stared after her, lingering on the door as it closed behind her.

“I must apologise for my daughter,” the king said. “She does not get to meet many people outside of the usual nobles. It is not often that we have guests that prove to be more interesting.” He beckoned for them to sit again.

Matthias shook his head. “It was an honour to entertain your daughter, however brief it may have been,” he said.

“Well, now what is left of our soup is likely cold and the pleasantries are over with, perhaps we should discuss your reason for your being here?” the king suggested.

Matthias nodded. “Yes, of course.” He placed his hands together and rested them on the table. “Your Grace, the truth is that I am here on matter of great importance to you. I have to tell you about a great danger to Aralia.”

“I knew it,” Thadius exclaimed. “All your talk earlier of our armies being prepared for battle.”

Matthias nodded. “My queries were thinly veiled at best,” he responded.

“You were as transparent as glass,” Thadius quipped.

The king shook his head. “What kind of danger are you referring to?” he asked.

“It’s Sikaris, the creature known as the Great Dragon. He’s breaking free.” He shifted his gaze from the king to Thadius, observing their reactions.

King Arwell looked at him perplexed. “The Great Dragon?” he repeated. Matthias nodded. “The Great Dragon?”

“Yes, Your Grace,” Matthias said. “There is no other.”

The king shifted in his chair. “But that’s impossible!

“I wish that were true,” Matthias replied.

“But the creature has been imprisoned for over four hundred years!” the king exclaimed. “Your kind turned him to stone!”

“Yes, Your Grace,” Matthias replied. “But a stone prison made of the earth power like any prison made of iron and steel has its own weaknesses, and someone, somewhere has finally found them.”

The king rose from his chair and towered over him. “How has this happened?”

Matthias took a breath. “It’s… complicated. The Council of Wizards has good reason to believe that a group of people with the ability to wield one of the five streams of power are working on releasing him.”

“To what end?” Thadius interjected, as the king paced to the window.

Matthias shook his head. “We’re not sure.”

“Well, who are the people doing this?” Thadius continued.

“We’re… not sure of that either.”

“Is there anything you are sure of?” he snorted. “Where has your ‘information’, such as it is, come from?”

“That’s also complicated.” Matthias turned to the window, where King Arwell was staring intently out towards the horizon. “Your Grace, have you heard of an object called a seeing stone?” he asked.

Arwell turned and nodded. “I have heard of them. They are rare gems, said to contain messages from the gods,” he answered. “But I thought they were mythical?”

“Your description is right. Except seeing stones aren’t imaginary. Inside they hold prophecies: images and words, voices and noises, all held deep within.”

“Like the jewel in your pendant?” Thadius asked. “This ‘moment’ they hold inside?”

Matthias tilted his head. “A little. Except that they aren’t man – made. As far as is known they are created by the three gods and sent down to Erithia to be read. If you know how to, you can decipher their messages. They are so rarely found though that they’ve become legendary. There have only been a half dozen found in the last two thousand years.” He leaned forward in his chair as the king returned to his own and sat down. “The images that have been deciphered have always come true. They are always accurate.”

“So you are saying they are sent down from the gods to warn us of danger?” Thadius asked.

Matthias nodded.

“And you have found one that has warned you about the dragon?” the king asked.

Matthias nodded. “We have. It showed Sikaris breaking free from his prison and devastating the world. There were also images of people using one of the powers to release him. These events are coming. Soon.”

“But… if these stones show you images of the future, how do you know when the events depicted are due to occur? Could they not be decades away? Centuries?” the king shook his head in confusion.

“There were indicators in the prophecies that narrowed down the time of the events.”

“Like what?” Thadius asked.

“People, places, things along those lines,” Matthias advised. “My people have experience in researching the prophecies in the past.”

“But you can’t tell who the people are who are supposed to be breaking the dragon free?” Thadius asked. “There are no recognisable faces?”

“No,” Matthias said with distaste. “Unhelpfully.”

“I can’t believe that anyone anywhere would want to free the dragon!” the king exclaimed. “How can you really be sure of these prophecies?”

Matthias smiled. “Your Grace is free to believe what you want of course. But I have come here to tell you that the Council of Mahalia recommends that you prepare for this threat.”

“And what if we ignore your warnings?” Thadius asked.

“They are not my warnings, or Mahalia’s. They are from the gods.”

“According to you,” the king rebuffed.

Matthias shrugged. “Regardless who the prophecy is from, if you don’t prepare then you risk the event that this country will burn.”

“A threat?” the guardsman asked.

“A truth,” Matthias responded.

Thadius’s face grew dour. He turned back to the king. “Your Grace? What do you think of this news?”

King Arwell exhaled deeply. “If this is the truth…” he trailed off, shaking his head. “I believe in many things. The first is to never underestimate a Mahalian wizard.” He looked to Matthias gravely. “If he says it is true then gods help us, it most likely is.”

“But Your Grace would be the first to admit that Mahalia is known for deception. Wizards weave trickery in every word they speak!” Thadius exclaimed. He turned to Matthias. “You seem no different in that.”

“Your every sentence does invoke a deep sense of confusion in me ‘ambassador’,” the king said to Matthias. “There’s an old saying: ‘Better to bed in with a den of vipers than to take a wizard at face value.’” Matthias raised a brow. Then the king sighed. “But then again, there is also another saying: ‘Foolish is the man who distances himself from the advice of those who wield fire and water.’”

“Might I ask which of those you are inclined towards?” Matthias asked.

King Arwell sniffed. “I have been king for nearly thirty years, mister Greenwald. In that time I have been lied to many times by your kind. But even so, I have always been inclined – some would say pushed- to swing to the latter and heed your people’s warnings. Sometimes your Council has led us on a true course, and other times I have been burned by them. As have my forebears. It is a delicate balance to navigate your ‘recommendations’.”

“Your Grace, you will certainly get burned should the dragon be freed,” Matthias advised. Then he sighed. “I know that you have no reason to believe me. But if I were trying to deceive you, then why would I ask you to arm your men to the teeth?

King Arwell looked at Matthias thoughtfully. “Your people were the ones who sealed Sikaris into that prison. Can’t you simply, I don’t know, reinforce the cell?”

Matthias took a sip of his wine and smiled. “Your Grace knows that this is no normal prison. I’m afraid it’s not as simple as that. The cage was formed by petrification, an old trick of the earth power that turns skin and bone to stone. It’s not something a wizard has been able to perform for quite a long time.”

“You have forgotten how?” Thadius asked. “I thought your people were meant to be clever?

“It’s not so much a case that we have forgotten how. It is more that no – one has the strength to weave the necessary threads of power anymore.”

“You mean your people have grown weaker?” the king asked quickly.

“In short, yes,” Matthias replied just as abruptly. “We are less powerful that we used to be, less adept at using the earth power of the world.”

The king’s lip twitched into a thin smile. “It’s unlike a wizard to admit to weakness,” he said.

“My people aren’t infallible,” Matthias shrugged. “Why pretend it is otherwise?”

“I have never known any wizard to reveal a chink in their armour,” the king said, belying his surprise.

“Perhaps I’m no ordinary wizard?” Matthias suggested, and gestured with his wine glass to him.

That much is certain,” the king responded. “The question is whether that is for better or worse.”

Matthias smiled knowingly. “I can see that I have a good deal further to go before I earn your trust, Your Grace. The reality is that we do not have much more time for me to do so.”

The king took a breath and looked away from him. He fidgeted where he sat as he pondered. “I am no stranger to the stories of the dragon’s ability to destroy,” he said. “The creature’s past and my kingdom’s own fate have been intertwined since Sikaris reduced the city on which this new Rina is built to ashes. Four hundred years may have passed since that time, but the memory of those events has been embedded deeply within my forebears and thus, myself.”

Matthias nodded, recalling the tiled depiction of the End of Days in the palace’s entrance hall: the battle from which the dragon began his reign of terror. “Too many people from many civilisations died in those battles,” he said grimly. “But there was one positive amongst all that death. People from all across the Triskan continent worked together in a common goal, to stop the Dreadlord Tanzanal from expanding his reach.”

The king sniffed. “And we got the dragon in return for that, didn’t we? The dreadlord couldn’t bear to die un- avenged, seeing all his old enemies working together to defeat him. So he used his last breaths to seize the dragon, our ally, and twisted its nature until the creature was rabid with hate.” He drummed his fingers atop the table. “I cannot ignore the possibility that Sikaris could return to wreak more destruction on my people.” Matthias nodded in response. “How much warning do you think this foretelling has given us?”

“Not long at all,” Matthias advised. “Perhaps a month or two.”

“Barely any time at all to recall my forces from across Aralia,” the king murmured. “And even then, if the creature does come here, then what would my men do against such a beast? It would sear the flesh from their bones in a heartbeat!”

“The first thing you should do is to prepare for the worst,” Matthias advised. “Shore up any strongholds you have in Aralia. Gather food and drink there. Prepare for a siege. You should start to make plans to move your people to safer ground. But I would suggest not making the information public just yet. People can be dangerous when panicked,” Matthias instructed.

“And that’s it?” the king asked. “We simply lie low and wait for something else to happen? For the dragon to leave? To grow old and die? Or until your people find some way of stopping him again?”

“There must be something else we can do to help?” Thadius asked.

Matthias took a breath. “Perhaps there is.”

“What?” the king asked. “What is it?”

Matthias looked at him lingeringly, and then with a start, shook his head. “You… you misunderstand me, Your Grace. Perhaps there is more you can do, but I am afraid we just don’t know what that is yet. I’m sorry for the confusion.” He smiled once again. “I haven’t spoken Aralian for many years. My grasp of the nuances of your language is… mixed.”

“Then the proposal is to prepare to shelter our people and be on the lookout for the dragon?” Thadius shook his head. “That doesn’t sound like much of a plan to me.”

“You’re free to make you own plans of course,” Matthias responded. “I was only sent here to warn you, after all.”

“Ambassador, if the dragon is as close to freedom as you say he is, then it is Olindia that your people should be warning first,” the king said. “After all, the dragon sits atop a pillar in their capital city of Crystal Ember, like a hideous great gargoyle! They will be the first place to be struck if he breaks free.”

Matthias shook his head. “Olindia won’t listen to The Council anymore. We haven’t been welcome for a good few years.”

“Ah yes, the other wizard. I had forgotten about that,” the king responded, nodding knowingly. Matthias showed little response. The monarch tapped his lip. “Then you really did come here for the sole purpose of warning me of this danger?” He asked. “There is no catch? No subterfuge? Your people want nothing in return?”

Matthias looked the king straight in the eye. He looked dejected a moment, and he took a breath. “All I would ask is you keep an open mind when it comes to my people, Your Grace. We are not all as alike as you might think. My reason for being here is to help, however it might come across.”

After a pause, King Arwell nodded. He moved around the table and placed a hand on Matthias’s shoulder. “Then… you have my thanks,” he said. “Perhaps it is time for a change in relations between us. I would welcome any suggestions you might have to fortify our city against this threat.”

Matthias nodded. “Well I’m not a soldier, but I will help where I can, Your Grace. Perhaps…” he paused a moment, and then continued. “Perhaps we could talk further later?”

The king nodded. “You will stay in the palace whilst you remain here. I will have some rooms prepared.”

Matthias spent the rest of the day assisting the king with preparations to make the city safe. Given how Rina was built (designed would be too good a word for the hotchpotch of layers that stacked on top of each other), defending such a structure from a creature like the dragon would be no easy task, even with the thick wall that surrounded its innards. Most of the king’s higher ranking men were away from the city, undertaking campaigns which the monarch was not likely to reveal to him, and so Matthias worked mostly with Thadius and the king to avoid spreading the word of the threat facing them too far for the moment.

It turned out that Rina had a maze of catacombs carved out beneath its foundations, which the king had kept secret from most people aside from his most trusted men. There was space in their confines for most of the inhabitants of the city, if not all, and if they were cleared then there would be room for another hundred or so. The first task they decided upon was to empty them to make that room. That did mean removing the bodies of the ancient nobles that were deposited down there, but the king advised that since the tunnels had not been used for burials for well over a century, the likelihood of anyone missing the corpses was slim, and when it came to a decision between storing the bodies of the dead and saving the living, there was no contest. It would be difficult to remove the bodies without causing panic, and so it was decided that they should be taken via a secluded tunnel during the night, by the most trusted members of the King’s Army, and moved by wagon to a remote location for reburial.

“It seems I may owe you an apology,” Thadius said to Matthias that evening after they had feasted on roast pheasant and the king left them to take care of other matters.

“I don’t see why?” Matthias asked him.

“I didn’t trust your intentions,” he said. “And I have been quite rude to you. But I can see from your efforts with us that you really are here for a good cause.”

Matthias regarded him a moment. “It’s as you said: trust has to be earned. You had no reason to take a stranger at his word, not least from one of my people.”

“You speak as if you do not like the way your country is run?” Thadius suggested.

Matthias smiled. “There are aspects of my country’s nature which I don’t agree with, that much is certain. But isn’t that so of any land?”

Thadius snorted. “You expect me to answer that as we sit in the dining room of the king?”

Matthias chuckled back. “Perhaps not. But your country has had its share of rebellions. People don’t always see eye to eye with each other.”

“I’m not sure I see your point?” Thadius responded, squinting at him.

Matthias shook his head. “No point,” he sighed. “In any case, I had best be off to bed. I am sure there is more I need to speak to King Arwell about tomorrow.” He stood and bowed his head. “Thanks for your company,” he said, before he left the room.

Thadius stared after him. “Stranger than a barrel full of earwigs, that one,” he muttered, before lighting his pipe and kicking back in his chair.

“Are you mad girl?” King Arwell barked as he paced the floor of his daughter’s chambers. “You must be,” he spluttered with a manic laugh. “Why else would you venture into his company like that?”

“I wanted to see what he was like father,” Princess Josephine replied. “You have kept me at arms length of Mahalia for so long, that I have never had the chance to meet a real wizard before.”

“There is a very good reason for that!” he exclaimed

“He did not have the look of one that would do harm to me. He was unlike those other men you have told me about.”

“He is… different, I will grant you that. And he has been helpful today. But he is still a wizard of Mahalia! Do you have any idea what their Council could do to you if they found out about you?”

“You have told me more times than I can count!” she retorted. “But I have grown tired of hiding in the shadows! It has been over two years since I have felt as much as a flicker of the energy. It is no longer a problem, thanks to the wise woman.”

“There are still signs they can pick up on. They are clever people. At one point I thought he knew already, when he spoke about your eyes.” He looked at her sadly. “I could not bear to lose you, Josephine. After everything we have been through, that would be too much to bear, even for a toughened old ox like me!”

“I know,” she said. “I am sorry if I worried you. Perhaps I was too forward in entering without your permission.”

The king smiled. “If I had done that to my father, he would have had me strung up by my ankles for a week!”

“Then I am fortunate that you are not your father,” Josephine smiled back.

“I cannot be angry with you for long,” he said, shaking his head. He felt his temples. “It has been a very long day.”

“You should rest father,” Josephine advised. Then she smiled wryly. “You will need your wits about you if you intend to take more advice from Mahalia.”

The king shook his head and chuckled. “We have been just another pawn in their plans for a long time. But I must admit, there seems more to this wizard than meets the eye. He might just be a wizard I can do business with.”

A Change of Plan

113th Day of the Cycle, 495 N.E. (New Era)

 

Matthias stared out of the chamber window, the moonlight casting a pale aura on his tanned face. The moon was nearly full and the stars surrounding it were dulled by its vibrant light. The expression on his face was a troubled one. He had been gazing up at the sky for over an hour.

There was a chime from inside his bag, like a finger being run over the edge of a wine glass. He jumped, caught off guard, and turned to rummage around inside the worn fabric sack. He brought out a smooth, glass orb, no bigger than the palm of his hand. It winked at him as if a star were trapped inside, and he held it at arms length warily a moment as if it might attack him somehow. Then he adjusted his grip and the light inside it winked out. The ball grew cloudy and purple.

“Master Pym,” Matthias spoke into it and waited for a response.

“What is your progress?” An echoing voice answered him. The mist inside the orb pulsed with every syllable. “You have arrived in Rina?”

“Yesterday morning. I am inside the palace,” he said quietly. “I met with the king a few hours after I arrived.”

“You told him of the dragon?” the voice questioned.

“I did. They are preparing themselves. I’m helping them to plan their defences.”

“That’s good. They deserve to know what awaits them.” The voice hesitated a moment. Then with a hint of concern, the voice said: “You didn’t mention our faction, did you?”

“Of course not, Master,” he whispered. “That’s none of their concern.”

“What about the rest of it?” The voice asked. When Matthias did not reply, the voice continued to press him. “You did speak to them about the princess, didn’t you?”

Matthias swallowed. “I couldn’t,” he whispered. “Not yet.”

“Why not?” the voice replied tersely.

“It is not exactly an easy topic to bring up!” Matthias exclaimed. “It was to get them to believe me about the dragon!” He sighed. “These are not people predisposed to trust our kind, as you know.”

“Then we have a problem,” the voice said, after a pause.

Another one?” Matthias sniffed. “What is it now?”

“The Council has obtained new information. There could be demons heading towards Rina as we speak. And I do not mean days away. We are talking hours, if the reports are correct. The Council has already sped up their plans in the wake of the news.”

Matthias swallowed. “How could creatures get here so soon? I arrived here so quickly!”

“We are working against what seems to be a very powerful enemy, Matthias,” the voice said. “The stone is still revealing new prophecies. There has never been such a concentration of them in one crystal before.” The orb fell quiet.

“Master Pym? Are you still there?” Matthias asked after a lengthy pause.

“I’m here, Matthias,” the voice replied.

“What is it?” Matthias asked back. “You are holding something back from me, I can feel it.”

“That is because I know you will not like what I am about to suggest.”

“Which is?” Matthias breathed.

“You may have to take matters into your own hands if we are to keep her safe.”

“What do you mean?” Matthias continued.

“How long do you think it will take you to convince the king and the girl of her destiny, if you have not begun to do so already? Do you think King Arwell will just allow his daughter to come with you?”

“That is why I have to take my time with this!” Matthias hissed back. “I have to handle this delicately!”

“If there are demons approaching Rina, then we need to get her out of there. We don’t have time to be delicate anymore!”

“You want me to kidnap her?” Matthias exclaimed, and sat heavily on to the bedside.

“It is for her own good Matthias.”

“I doubt she would see it that way. And then what would I do? I can’t drag her all the way to Olindia!”

The orb fell silent again. “I don’t know, Matthias. None of this is ideal. Had we the Consensus we would have more to work with, but we don’t.”

Matthias swallowed. “What about Fenzar?” he asked.

“We still have the advantage there,” the voice advised. “He left on a ship four days ago. He will not reach Rina for at least a week. You have the lead on him.”

“That’s some good news at least.” Matthias shook his head. “But… kidnapping the princess will undo everything we sought to change by coming here! They already hate our people as it is!”

“Hate is a small price to pay for her safety,” the voice said. “She’s too important Matthias.”

“Now you sound like the Consensus,” Matthias said darkly.

The orb sat quiet for a moment at the comment. Then the voice spoke again. “I have told you what you must do. Will you do it? Tonight? Dawn is only hours away Matthias and the demons could be close. You can’t afford to wait another night.”

Matthias looked hesitantly to the window and the dazzling moon. Finally he nodded. “I will retrieve the princess tonight,” he said sombrely.

“Good. You have done well so far, Matthias. I am proud of you. Contact me again when you have her and you have escaped.” The voice disappeared as the orb made a sound like a water droplet landing in a pool, and the misty glow faded until Matthias was again holding a simple ball of glass. He dropped it back into his bag, sighed, and rose from the bed. “May the Gods forgive me for the actions I have to undertake tonight,” he whispered to the sky. “If you still watch over me, that is, in spite of everything I’ve done, and am about to do.”

Treachery in the Moonlight

113th Day of the Cycle, 495 N.E. (New Era)

After several minutes of introspection in which Matthias paced his room in thought, he finally grabbed his staff from where he had cast it aside on the bed and made his way to the door. He took a breath and looked at the wooden prop clasped in his hand. “Am I really going to do this?” he asked himself. Then after a pause, he nodded. “I have done much worse for much less of a reason, that much is certain.”

He opened the door latch silently and peered out. No one was around. The corridor was quiet save for the flutter of a flaming torch stuck into an iron ring in the opposite wall. Quickly and silently he slipped out the door and checked around again, before he made his way along the corridor. He had an idea of where he had to go based on his journey up to his guest chamber, even though the palace was a maze of similar-looking corridors.

An old muscle relaxant interlace of the power could do the trick, he thought as he went. Although then she will be as limp and heavy as a catfish caught from the river! Perhaps if I can render her unconscious, I could levitate her back to my chambers and then make my way out the city the way I came. He shook his head. This is ludicrous.

The sound of footsteps ahead made him backtrack behind a stone pillar. He waited whilst a liveried guard walked on by, and then quietly slipped on ahead. Eventually after what felt like an age of stumbling around in the darkness and the torchlight he reached a stairwell where a tall, muscled guard stood as straight as a die to the left of a wooden banister, the pommel of his sword sticking out from beneath a thick woollen cloak. Matthias hid behind a pillar and looked down to his fingers. He thought a moment about using the power, but then shaking his head and with a flash of inspiration stuck his hand into an inside pocket and pulled out a small, glass phial. It was almost empty but for a small amount of liquid at the very bottom of the bottle.

I’d almost forgotten I had these, he thought and rifled around in his other pocket, pulling out a handkerchief and pouring the last, small amount of the fluid into its centre. Maryn’s mandrake and deathshade knockout drops could fell an ox. Which is good, because that guard looks about the size of one. He hid the handkerchief behind him and stepped out into the corridor.

“Excuse me, my good man,” he said in a flourishing tone, waving his free arm. “It appears I’m rather lost!”

The guard flinched in surprise at his sudden appearance, but then recovered his composure and addressed him.

“Who are you?” he asked in a gruff tone.

“My name is Matthias. I am a guest of your king. I’m staying in chambers in the palace.”

“What are you doing out so late?” the man continued to question. “It’s a long time still until morning!”

“I couldn’t sleep, and I fancied a walk around the palace to try and tire myself out a bit.”

“Bit of a strange time to be pacing these halls,” the man said. “You could be mistaken for being up to no good.”

Matthias chuckled. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

“How did you get all the way here anyway?” the man asked. “There should be men patrolling the corridors. This area is out of bounds for guests.”

“Oh! I see,” Matthias said innocently. “I’m sorry about that.” He drew by the man’s side. “Perhaps you could direct me back to my chambers then?”

The man looked at him suspiciously for a moment but then nodded and pointed to the hallway ahead. “When you reach the end of this passage you need to take a lef-”

Matthias drew the handkerchief to the man’s nose and with effort held it a moment as the man struggled. Luckily for him the drops were potent, and in another second the man collapsed to the floor unconscious. Matthias looked at him sadly. “I’m really very sorry,” he said to him, and pulled him into a more dignified position before continuing up the stairs. They stretched up a fair way and curled around a thick stone trunk, but after a minute he emerged into a mahogany panelled walkway that led up to the chambers of the princess. He gingerly peered around the corner. Another guard stood in watch in front of the door to her room. He paused and thought for a moment, and drew out the handkerchief from his pocket again. The cloth was slowly drying. Besides, he needed to be quieter than he was downstairs. There were doubtless people inside the princess’s chambers and he couldn’t afford to alert them to his presence.

Matthias replaced the handkerchief into his pocket and slowly felt with his hand around the wall, and then, eyes illuminating in the gloom and with a flick of his fingers, sent a tiny bolt of energy towards the guard. It struck him silently and with a muffled grunt, the man collapsed on to the floor.

Sorry,” he whispered as he walked towards him, and pushed his body out of the way of the door. “You’ll be fine in a few hours.” Then he stared at the door. The round, black handle stared back. A half – dozen maids inside, perhaps, he thought to himself. I’ll bind them with a simple pattern and then silence the room. He nodded, staring at the door. A minute passed as he raised his hand above the handle and left it suspended there whilst he gathered his nerve. “Come on you stupid old-”

A whooshing noise made him spin around. A looming face enveloped his vision and he felt his body being slammed against the wall to the side of the door. The air within his lungs was pushed out with the force and as he tried to take a breath he felt the cold, sharp steel of a sword blade press against his Adam’s apple. When his eyes focussed again, Thadius’s furious face stared back at him.

“Thadius!” Matthias gasped. “I-”

“The king thought you might be up to no good!” He growled. “He tried to ignore his suspicions, to give you the benefit of the doubt, but there was just a nagging doubt in his mind that made him wake and ask me to keep an eye on you. It looks like he was right to do so!” The man’s chest heaved in anger. “I actually thought that you were here to help! I apologised to you, and you sat there and let me think you were a man of honour! Give me one good reason why I should not slit your throat right this instant?

Matthias’ nostrils flared, and he sucked in air through gritted teeth. “You don’t know the half of what I am doing here tonight, Thadius,” he spluttered.

“Nor do I want to!” The man hissed. “All I know is you are outside the Princess’s chambers. What were you planning? Was the dragon all a ploy to put us off guard, to make us believe you were helping us?”

“The threat of the dragon is real!” Matthias wheezed through Thadius’ clenched fist. “I’m not here to hurt anyone!”

Pah!” Thadius growled, his face growing redder by the second. “More Mahalian lies! I should slit your throat!” He pressed harder on the wizard’s neck with his sword.

“I would rather you didn’t,” Matthias panted. “Blood is… difficult to get out of stone.”

“How dare you joke with me!” Thadius looked ready to explode.

“I apologise,” Matthias coughed. “But… I need you to calm down… and let me go!

“Let you go?” Thadius laughed. “Are you insane?

“I don’t want… to hurt you. You are a good man, but I am… rather struggling… to breathe now!”

“You can suffocate for all I care! I am not going to let you go!”

“I could get out of this in a heartbeat… if I wanted to,” Matthias retorted.

“Really?” Thadius snorted. “You know, I don’t believe a word that comes out of your mouth!”

Matthias moved a hand from clutching the sword at his neck to Thadius’s chest. “This will sting.” There was a flash of green light and Thadius flew through the air and crashed against the opposite wall. He slid to the floor, sword spinning away noisily. He looked up at Matthias in fear. The wizard clutched at his throat and gulped down air. “Are you alright?” he asked Thadius.

“What… what do you care?” he growled.

“I could run right now, right out of this palace and this city, knock out all your guards and flee. I also could have killed you a moment ago and taken the princess. I still could.”

“Then why don’t you?” Thadius panted angrily, clutching to his chest where a wisp of smoke puffed from his singed jacket.

Matthias looked to the far reaches of the corridor, then back at Thadius, and shook his head. “Because you need to know the truth. I’m not doing it this way! This isn’t why I have come here! I wanted to earn your trust, not destroy it!” He reached down and offered a hand to Thadius. The soldier looked up at him hesitantly, but after a moment, he took it and was hoisted to his feet. He stared at Matthias with confusion. The door to the princess’s chamber opened and Josephine appeared in a night – dress, surrounded by maids. Seeing the two men before her, she clutched the garment tightly around her, folding her arms across her chest.

“What is going on?” She exclaimed.

A Gift from the Gods

113th Day of the Cycle, 495 N.E. (New Era)

The doors to the king’s personal chambers burst open and through them came Thadius and Josephine, followed by Matthias, who was flanked by two guards. The wizard had agreed to be bound, so that his hands were held tightly behind his back by shackles and chains, and the soldiers pushed him down heavily on to the floor, where he landed with a thud. He lay at the king’s feet, and the man stared down at him with a thunderous expression. He had been roused from his sleep and apprised of the situation a short while ago.

“I welcome you into my home, wizard, give you food and shelter and you do this?” He raged. “Explain yourself!”

Matthias looked up at him, and then back at the others. He sighed. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “For all of this.”

“I don’t care if you’re sorry or not!” King Arwell growled. “I want to know why you did this? Why did you try to hurt my daughter?”

“I didn’t try to hurt her!” Matthias snapped back. He looked back at the girl, her doe eyes regarding him with anger and curiosity, and sighed again. “I was asked to take her away from here.”

Kidnapping?” Thadius growled.

Matthias opened his mouth to retort, but then he realised there was no point in denying the charge. He had been asked to kidnap her. “Yes,” he confirmed sadly, and looked to the floor. “But not for any reason you might think,” he added.

“Is any reason expected to make what you have tried to do seem any better?” Princess Josephine asked, glaring at him.

Matthias looked to her sadly and took a breath. “We know about your abilities, princess,” he sighed, and she took a step backward.

“I don’t have the slightest idea what you are talking about,” she replied.

“With respect, Your Highness, you are a bad liar. I can see it in your eyes. Most wizards could. I know what to look for, and it’s there: a crackling of power deep within you.”

Thadius looked confusedly from Matthias, knelt on the ground, to the princess and then to the king. “What abilities are you speaking of?” he asked.

Matthias looked up at Thadius. “The princess wields a great power,” he said. “Like a wizard.”

Thadius laughed, and then, seeing no one else was, stopped. “But… there has to be some mistake?”

“It is no mistake my good soldier,” Josephine sighed. “It is the truth.”

“Josephine!” the king hissed, but she held up a hand.

“It is pointless to deny it now, father,” she sighed, rubbing anxiously at her arms.

“How long have you known?” Matthias asked her.

“Since my sixteenth year. Four years ago.”

Matthias exhaled sharply. “Four years!”

“How did your people find out?” King Arwell asked, his face was a mixture of anger and fear.

“The seeing stone showed us,” Matthias said.

“The stone? But… but why?” the King asked again. “What has that got to do with anything you told me?”

Matthias looked painfully between King Arwell and Josephine.

Answer him,” Thadius growled, and kicked a boot at Matthias’s back. The wizard stumbled across the floor.

“Thadius, please!” Josephine exclaimed. “That is not necessary!”

“You both deserve to know what is going on here!” Thadius growled.

“Yes, they do,” Matthias interrupted. “Which is why I agreed to be brought up here. But I did not agree to being kicked or beaten.” Matthias looked up to King Arwell, who was studying him.

The king took a breath, licked his lips and said: “Pick him up. Take off those chains.”

“But Your Majesty!” Thadius began, but the king held up a hand.

“He could break free of those chains easier than you or I could snap a twig! There is no point. If he were going to hurt us, he would have done so by now. Am I right?” He asked Matthias, who nodded.

The guard behind Thadius picked Matthias up off the floor and began to unlock the chains from his hands and feet. When he was done he backed away to join the other guard, and the king dismissed them. Matthias stroked his wrists.

“Thank you,” he said.

“You can thank me by telling me what the hell is going on here!” the king barked. “I want the truth! You are capable of telling it, aren’t you?”

Matthias nodded. “I’ll start from the beginning. Or at least the beginning as I know it.” He leaned against a chair. “The seeing stone I have spoken of was discovered several months ago, purely by accident in a dried up riverbed in northern Mahalia. It was passed through several hands and delivered with great pains to the Great City and our scholars began to decipher its messages. The first prophecy that was uncovered was that the dragon was breaking free. Everything I have told you about the dragon is true. But what I didn’t tell you… what I couldn’t bring myself to tell you earlier, is that there was another message encoded into the stone. It was a message that frightened my people even more than the prophecy about the dragon.” He faced the princess. “It was about you, Your Highness.”

“Me?” she whispered.

Matthias nodded. “The clerics deciphered the stone further and were presented with premonitions of you using your power. It was a future echo: an image of what might be. A little like the captured moment I spoke of earlier, but one drawn from what could be, not what has happened.”

The Princess gasped. “But there must be a mistake! I would not even know how to use this power!”

“Your Highness, how much do you know about your power?” he asked.

Josephine glared at him, “I have never used them,” she growled.

“The circumstances surrounding my daughter’s condition are complicated,” King Arwell added. “We have fought to suppress the power and hide it from view.”

Matthias nodded. “To keep my people from finding out?”

The King smiled. “I take it you do not have children, ambassador?” He asked. Matthias shook his head. “Then you would not then know the lengths that a parent will go to protect them. I know all too well how Mahalia deals with women who can channel magic. You subjugate them, take them and lock them away. When the power first manifested itself, when Josephine began to break things when she entered a room, when windows would smash at random, the queen and I considered asking for your people’s help. I had even penned a letter to your Council requesting their assistance! But then there came news of the ‘Southern Persecutions.’ I read intelligence that your people had rounded up women who could use your earth power who had tried to rise up to throw off your oppression against them and murdered them in their hundreds. I realised that your kind could never find out what Josephine possessed. It would be too dangerous to risk bringing your people in. Not to mention that there have been public hangings here as well, you know, against possessed women who can use your magics. The masses enjoy a good witch hunt.” The king’s brow began to bead with sweat as he continued and he rubbed his hands together nervously whilst Matthias, Josephine and Thadius listened. “My daughter kept the power to herself as long as she could, repressed it as she would have done a bad memory. But the build-up…” he stopped, sighed and rubbed at his forehead, where a thick vein snaked its way across his tight skin. The hand he cast across it visibly shook. Beside him, Josephine had hung her head and a tear was rolling down her cheek.

“I killed one of my maids first,” she said, taking up the story. “I lost control and ripped the skin from her bones!” Her lips trembled. “I have never seen such horror. A mangled carcass was all that remained when the guards came to see the cause of her cries! There was blood everywhere, and she looked up at me, flayed and helpless, before she finally died.”

“And that was only the first,” King Arwell said morosely.

“I should have fought harder,” Josephine shook her head.

“But it was an accident!” Matthias said softly. “You couldn’t have helped it.”

“It didn’t look like an accident,” the king responded. “Princess or not, the woman was dead at her feet with no explanation, no indiscretion or crime to account for it. The guards who witnessed the scene were shocked. But I couldn’t let them spread the word, so I locked them away, in the Traitors Tower. They’re still there, save for one, who died of the cold two years back.”

Thadius shifted. “Erical, Esteban and Julius, Your Grace?” he asked.

“Three of the finest men I have had serve me,” the king said grimly. “But I had to protect my daughter.”

Thadius nodded. “It never seemed quite right, some of our finest men turning traitor.”

King Arwell nodded. “It was what I had to do to keep my daughter safe. It was not a noble thing to do by any means. But I felt it was necessary.” Thadius said nothing.

“You said the maid was the first,” Matthias said grimly. “There were more?”

“There were two more,” Josephine said. “A hound I bent down to pet one morning grew so docile at my touch that he began to fall asleep in my arms. It was almost a half – hour before I realised it was dead. I had stopped its heart.” She took a breath to steady herself, and the king placed a hand on her arm. He continued for her.

“After the maid died I sought for another way to help my daughter other than contacting Mahalia. I looked for someone – anyone – who could help Josephine, but who was able to hold their tongue. I sent out men I trusted to scour the land for someone who could cure her. All the while my girl was becoming more and more dangerous to those around her.”

“Did you find someone who could help?” Matthias asked.

The king nodded. “Eventually. But it was too late.” He swallowed. “One afternoon I found my daughter sitting in her chambers. At her feet, her mother…” He shook his head.

Thadius gasped. “My gods!” he exclaimed under his breath.

Matthias took a step towards the princess. “I’m so sorry,” he whispered.

“I do not need your pity, wizard,” she muttered through a shaking voice.

“I’m not offering any,” he replied softly. “I’m only offering sympathy.”

“My mother only wanted to hold my hand to comfort me. It was a simple gesture. Do you have any idea the torment that has placed upon me? I killed my own mother!

Matthias shook his head sadly. He looked to the king at his side. He had seemed such an almighty man just a minute ago, but now he looked pale and fragile. The princess herself looked like a delicate porcelain china figurine, ready to shatter into pieces if she were so much as touched. Matthias had stumbled into a deep family torment.

“I can’t imagine what you both must have gone through,” he said. “What a terrible thing to have happened to you. But you said you no longer feel the power now?”

The princess nodded. “As my father said, he found someone who was able to help me. A wise young witch who had experience in helping women with their powers. She wanted me to learn how to use my power at first, but with some persuasion by my father, she taught me how to suppress it. That was over two years ago. I thought it was finally all behind me.” She shook her head. “But now here you are.” She looked at him with steely eyes. “I take it you meant to take me back to your realm to suppress me?” she asked. “That was your reason for sneaking up to my chambers?”

Matthias shook his head. “It is not as simple as that, Your Highness. You’re forgetting about the prophecy. It showed you using your power. That’s how we knew about you.”

“Why would the gods show you a prophecy of me, of all people?” the princess asked incredulously. “What do I have to do with the release of the dragon?”

Matthias looked awkward. “We believe…” he stopped. “I believe that you are destined to stop the dragon from being released.”

Josephine’s eyes widened. “Me?” she whispered, stunned. “You think I could stop the dragon?” she exclaimed.

Matthias nodded. “I do.”

“You cannot be serious?” The king scoffed. “What deception is this now?”

“It’s no trick Your Grace!” Matthias rebuffed. “Everything I told you about the dragon’s release is true. But I couldn’t bring myself to tell you everything last night. It was too much to ask of you to believe me about the dragon and your daughter’s role. You do not trust my kind.”

“So you decided to kidnap me?” the princess hissed. “So you could use me as some sort of… shield against that great lump of rock in Olindia?” Her voice was scathing.

“It wasn’t the original plan,” Matthias said, shaking his head. “I was going to raise the subject over the coming days, when I had earned your trust. But I was ordered to retrieve you immediately as my people believe you are in danger. It was a mistake to do it the way I tried, but it was borne out of concern for your life.”

“Rubbish!” The king growled. “Concern is not a trait I associate with your kind. Treachery, however, suits you down to the ground.” He scoffed. “You expect me to believe that your people, who despise women who can use the world’s powers, would allow my daughter to use her abilities to stop the dragon? Why would you make such an exception to centuries of repression and subjugation? You have killed empresses and queens: great women throughout history, because they dared to wield any kind of power.”

“She has been selected by the gods,” Matthias reiterated. “Not only that…” he paused, the look on his face pained.

Out with it!” the king barked. “I have no further patience left for your procrastinations, ambassador. You will tell me everything! Give me the answers I want to know.”

Matthias nodded. “You deserve to know. But will you allow me to ask a question, if it will help me to present you the full picture?”

The king nodded begrudgingly. “If it is necessary to obtain the truth,” he sighed.

“How much do you all know about the different powers of this world, and the Creation?” Matthias asked them all.

“A little,” the princess replied. “I began to read into them when my power first surfaced.”

“What did you learn?” Matthias asked.

She gestured blankly with her hands. “I read that there are five powers that run through the world, each of them different in some way, and they can be used by people and creatures of the world. That is all I know. I do not know which one is mine. I did not try to find out any more about how to use it, only how to get rid of it before it hurt anyone else. As for the Creation,” she began, “I have no idea what you are talking about.”

“I recall a little, but not much about that from my reading when I was younger,” Thadius advised. “It marked the beginning of the world.”

Matthias nodded. “It was time of great confusion and terrible conflicts which continued for many, many centuries.” He turned to the princess. “You are correct princess, there are five powers. Only, there used to be only four. Back when the world was created, the gods wove four energies in an unending stream across Erithia. The power passed through every rock, every blade of grass, and every creature like a complex tapestry, weaving around everything and stretching on forever. From what we know they were never meant to be used how they are now. When the world was new the creatures that grew were simplistic. But then some of the emerging animals found ways to tap into the powers and drink the energy into their bodies. Some, like the first humans who became wizards, were advanced enough to wield them, whilst others, who became demons, were driven mad by the force of the energy flowing into them. They were angry, confused and they broke the world.”

“Your point?” The king growled. “I did not ask for a history lesson!”

“This is all relevant, I assure you, Your Grace. But it is complicated.” He took a breath. “The gods themselves couldn’t stop the emerging demons.”

“Why not? They’re gods, aren’t they?” Thadius asked. “They can control everything.”

“Not everything.” Matthias grimaced. “I don’t want to go off track, but from what we know, from ancient texts, the gods cannot control true evil. Even on their own creation, once the madness took hold of the creatures which had tapped into the powers, and they grew angry and hateful, they couldn’t control them.” Matthias shook his head. “The gods are still a mystery. No one understands them fully. Anyone who claims to is a liar. The history we have written down in the archives is that the gods weren’t prepared for what had happened. Their idea was to create a utopia. Erithia was meant to be beautiful. But they did not factor in the possibility of evil. They had never seen anything like it. And when evil was given an opportunity to grow, it spread like the plague. The entire world was being torn apart. Humans were born into the madness and though many fought back, just as many joined the cause of the demons, inflicted by the very same madness as the other creatures. And that is when the gods stepped in to try and fight back.”

“They made the Akari,” King Arwell nodded.

“You do know about the Akari then?” Matthias nodded.

“Of course!” the king scoffed. “You may have suppressed most of my people’s learning, but a few lucky ones like myself are still taught of the Akari and the Great Peace.”

“I have never learnt about them,” Josephine sniffed with a hint of disdain.

That is because you never did like learning about history,” he smiled. “You were always more interested in learning about the here and now than about the past.”

Thadius coughed and interrupted them. “Excuse me, Your Grace, but I have to clarify something. You don’t mean to say you believe the Akari were real?

The king nodded. “Of course they were.”

Matthias nodded. “They were as real as you are, Thadius,” he answered. “The gods created them in the hope of stopping the madness that was spreading across the world. They were made to be strong, but physical strength and determination on the Akari’s part wouldn’t be enough, and so with them the gods wove a new power into the world; the fifth power, or the pure power as it’s called by those who study them. The gods made it so that the Akari alone could use the new power and they made it an energy stronger than any of the others and capable of overwhelming the other four combined.”

“And with it they brokered a peace that lasted over two thousand years,” the king added, nodding.

“Until seven hundred years ago, when they all vanished,” Matthias added.

Thadius shook his head. “I can’t believe the Akari were real! I mean, I know I’m not a scholar, but I have read many books! At least six of them! You would think I would know the truth!” He exhaled. “Where did they go?” he asked.

“No one knows for sure,” Matthias replied. “In the space of a single day, they all disappeared as if they had never existed. People at the time assumed that the gods took them back, that they weren’t needed anymore.”

“But then came the Great War,” the King said. “And the Akari never came back to help.” He scoffed. “Humans have been left alone to fend for ourselves for centuries. We had to fight that war alone. We have been fighting against oppression ever since. In one form or another,” he added, casting a steely gaze over Matthias.

“I was a little surprised you didn’t know they were real Thadius. When you mentioned they were mythical yesterday, when we were studying the carvings of them in the entrance hall, I was taken aback a moment. But then I remembered that perhaps I am in an enviable position when it comes to knowledge.”

The soldier frowned. “I’ll try not to take that as an insult.”

“Time has covered over their legacy to most people here,” the king said. “But that’s mostly down to your kind again,” he said bitterly to Matthias. The wizard looked abashed. “They have become figures of myth and legend like many other creatures have over the years, since your kind denied my people the will to learn as they once did.”

Matthias took a breath. “I think, perhaps, we might be moving off topic.”

The king sniffed scornfully at the diversion. Then he nodded. “Are you going to tell us what this has to do with the prophecy then?”

Matthias nodded. “I needed to know how much you knew of the Akari and their power. You see, they haven’t left us completely, Your Grace.”

Arwell looked puzzled “You mean they’re coming back?

Matthias shook his head. “Not quite.” He raised his hands to accentuate his next point. “This is what I had left to tell you yesterday. The part of the prophecy that I could not find the will in myself to speak of yesterday because it is almost too unbelievable to say.” He swallowed and looked to Josephine. “Princess, you don’t just have any power. You have the pure power. You possess the power of the Akari.”

“That is ridiculous!” She spluttered.

“The seeing stone has shown that you are the sole known heir to their fifth power. You are the only one alive this day with the ability to stop the dragon.”

“That’s insane!” The king barked. “Utter madness!” He seized Matthias by the collar.

“Your Grace!” Thadius exclaimed as the king shook the wizard.

“There is no way that any of this is true!” The man spat.

“The seeing stone told us,” Matthias said as calmly as he could. “They have never been wrong. Ever.”

“This is a trick,” the king hissed. “A Mahalian plot!” He let go of Matthias, who stepped back, feeling his neck. The king paced across the floor. He struck out a hand, pointing at Matthias. “Where is your proof?” he asked.

Matthias looked from the maddened king to the princess, who was watching him, glassy-eyed. “The proof sits within you Josephine. Don’t you feel it?” he asked.

The king spun his head to look at his daughter, who took a breath. Her hands were shaking.

“But I… I’m human!” she struggled.

“Your Highness, I am not even going to pretend for a second that you are actually an Akari creature. But you’ve somehow been given access to their abilities. There is only one way in my mind that you can have been given that gift. The gods must have chosen you somehow to undertake this task!”

Guards!” the king bellowed, and on his command the soldiers returned, bursting through the door and running straight for Matthias. They grabbed his arms tightly. “I have listened to enough of these farfetched stories, given you far too much time to weave your lies into my daughter’s mind! I don’t know what the real reason is that your people have sent you here, but I am not going to let you brainwash me or my daughter into believing them! Take him away!” He barked, and Matthias was dragged to the door.

“You know what I’m saying is the truth!” Matthias yelled to them. “You’ve been chosen princess! You have to listen to me! Please!” The door slammed shut behind him. The king walked unsteadily to his chair and fell into it, his head in his hands.

“Your Grace,” Thadius whispered, kneeling by his side. “How can I help?”

The king shook his head. “Just go. Leave us Thadius.”

The soldier nodded and turned to go. Then as he was opening the door, he turned. “Whatever you need of me, Your Grace and Your Highness, I will do my utmost to help you.” Then he turned and left the room as the king hunched over and the princess watched the door with shock in her eyes.

Considerations

114th Day of the Cycle, 495 N.E. (New Era)

 

Matthias sat on the rotting, damp, moss – covered wooden cot of the cell he had been thrown into. He was still in the palace, but somewhere under the structure, and a small, barred slit in the brick wall beheld daylight beyond and showed him a small view of the palace’s exterior wall from below ground level. He had been dragged and thrown in the room by the guards and left for the better part of a day now. It might even have been longer.

He looked up at the sound of footsteps from the corridor beyond and the wooden door was unlocked and pushed inwardly. Thadius appeared in the doorway. He stepped into the confines of the cell and the door closed shut again behind him. For a moment he stood and watched Matthias silently.

“Afternoon,” Matthias said.

“Did you sleep well?” Thadius said and indicated to the cot.

“Like a damp old log,” Matthias replied acerbically.

“Why didn’t you stop my men from dragging you down here?” Thadius asked him.

“Was that what you were expecting?” Matthias smiled and shrugged, then shook his head. “I said I would tell you the truth about why I was here, and I have. I told the king and the princess everything they needed to know. If I were to break free from here, what would that accomplish? They need time for what I have told them to sink in. Besides,” he said, looking around the room. “It’s quite cosy in here, once you look past the dirt.”

Thadius chuckled. “I’ve heard it called many things, but never ‘cosy’.”

“Why have you come to see me?” Matthias asked. “Or are you here to kill me?”

Thadius paced forward a step, placing his hands in his pockets. “Was that what you were expecting?” He smiled. “Your people are idiots,” he said, and began to pace the room. “Asking you to kidnap the princess? How could that possibly have gone well?”

Matthias leant back against the cold, stone wall. “I must admit, it was not one of their saner requests,” he said. Then he shrugged. “I think they panicked. They believe there is danger nearby, and they wanted me to keep the princess safe.”

Thadius shook his head. “Don’t you think it would have been better if you had asked?”

Matthias chuckled. “You’re probably right, it would have been. That was the original plan. But there we go. These things happen.”

“Not often. Or ever, now I think on it,” Thadius smirked.

Matthias shifted in his seat. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry I betrayed your trust.”

Thadius snorted. “You assumed that a true trust existed between us.”

“And I assumed wrongly?” Matthias asked. “Because it didn’t seem that way when we were working on the plans to clear the catacombs.”

He shook his head. “I couldn’t trust you fully, even after you had impressed the king with your revelations. A young wizard sneaks into Rina with important news?” He shrugged. “I’m a sceptical man at the best of times. Something in my suspicious head told me not to let my guard down around you completely.”

Matthias smiled at him. “That is probably a sensible thing,” he said.

Thadius walked back to the door, and knocked three times to a guard on the other side. It opened at his instruction. “But… you’ve proven one thing to me,” he added.

Matthias brushed the floppy hair from his eyes. “What’s that?”

“You haven’t run away. Even when you had the opportunity to do so, when you could have killed me or taken the princess by force, which I believe you were very capable of doing, you stayed to face the consequences of your actions. So perhaps there is something that can be trusted in you. What that something is, remains to be seen.”

Matthias nodded seriously to him as he left the room and the door slammed shut again, and the sound of locks being barred filled Matthias’s ears. He sighed and looked out the window. “If you find out what it is, please tell me,” he whispered at the closed door.

Princess Josephine slumped heavily down onto her four-poster bed, before letting her body fall back onto the comfort of the silken sheets with a sigh. She had endured a long conversation- well, it was more an argument- with her father once the guards had taken Matthias away, and time seemed to blur together as the hours passed and she walked the palace corridors flanked by the ever – present guards her father had insisted be thrust upon her whilst Matthias was close by. Now she had retired to her room to think on the events.

Her father had been enraged by Matthias’s revelations to a point that no – one could reason with him. He could not bring himself to accept the story he had told them about the Akari creatures. The problem was she knew somehow that Matthias was telling the truth. Within her there seemed to be an instinctual confirmation that the power Mathias spoke of was that which she possessed. But the question remained how that could be so? And why would she , amongst all others in the world- all those more capable people- be selected by the gods?

When she had told her father she believed Matthias, he had exploded even more than when he called for Matthias’s removal from the room. They had fought for hours afterwards, going over every word of the story, re – living the years of terror within their minds. Now she knew what the energy was that dwelt inside her, she felt an inkling of gratitude in amongst her anger and distrust of the wizard, that he had given her some answers at long last. But there was much more that needed to be discussed with him, now the dust had settled and she had taken the time to gather her thoughts. But the king had demanded that she not go and visit the ambassador in his cell and going to speak with him would be tantamount to treason against a direct order of the king, whether he was her father or not.

She lay on the bed for a long time thinking, until she noticed that the sky had grown red-orange as the sun began another retreat beneath the horizon, and so she got up and made her way to her door. As she opened it two maids curtsied to her.

“Go and fetch Thadius, Lynna,” she instructed to the maid on the left. “Bring him here immediately.” Lynna curtsied and ran off. Josephine shut her door again, sat down in a chair by the window and waited, watching the sky turn to the deep – blue of evening.

Some time later there was a knock at the door and Thadius bowed his way into the room.

“Your Highness, you had asked to see me?”

The princess stood. “My good man, I am pleased that you have come. Thank you for seeing me.”

“Anything for you princess. You know that,” he smiled at her.

“How is your father?” she asked him awkwardly, rubbing her arm.

“Well, Your Highness. He is out of town at the moment, visiting relatives in Chine.” She nodded, and then they stood in awkward silence for a moment, before Thadius said: “Your Highness, forgive me, but I gather that you did not ask me here to ‘catch up’?”

“No. No I did not.” She exhaled. “I…” She paused a moment. “I need to see the wizard, Thadius.”

Thadius sighed. “Your Highness, the king has expressly forbidden you to go and see him. I can’t disobey those orders.”

“And so you should not,” she replied. “So I need you to bring him up here, to my chambers.”

Thadius looked puzzled. “But Your Highness just said-”

“I am not allowed to go and see him. But my father said nothing about the ambassador coming to see me.”

Thadius thought a moment, a look of complete disbelief on his face. But then he sighed, and for a brief moment, a smile appeared on his face “As you wish, Your Highness.” He bowed again and left the room.

Another half-hour later, Thadius reappeared, and with him was Matthias, unbound and standing side-by-side with the soldier.

“Thank you for seeing me again princess,” Matthias said. “I was beginning to get cold in that dungeon, and there are only so many bricks to count to while away the time.”

“I need to know something,” the princess said without acknowledging what Matthias had said. “What will happen if I do not help you to stop the dragon?”

Matthias shrugged. “We will try and find another way I suppose.”

Is there another way?”

Matthias smiled thinly. “I don’t believe so, Your Highness. Not unless my people can find the people who are breaking the dragon free. But time is running out for that hope.

Josephine sniffed. “I have a problem, ambassador,” she said, and began to pace the room.

“Please, call me Matthias,” he said. “What is it?””

The princess nodded. “I might not have been exposed to your people in their previous visitations to Rina, but I know full well what your kind do to women who use a power. Do you expect me to believe that your people, who abhor women who can wield energy, will simply let me continue to live as a princess without any intervention, when my part in this little quest is completed?”

Matthias paused as he thought. Then he continued. “There are far greater issues at hand,” he said.

Josephine’s eyes narrowed. “That is not an answer.” She shook her head and snorted derisively. “My father is right, you have a gift when it comes to speaking ambiguously.”

Matthias continued. “We must continue to try and find the people responsible and throw our efforts into that,” he said.

“And if you cannot find them in time? As you freely admitted, the sand is very much at the bottom of the hourglass in relation to this matter,” she said.

“Then the dragon will escape,” he said.

“For what reason?” she asked. “Are you telling me this prophecy did not tell you why these shadowy people would work to release a creature capable of wreaking utter devastation on this continent?”

“I can only imagine that answer will become clearer in time,” Matthias replied.

Josephine raised a hand to her forehead. “So if I do nothing, if I ignore your warnings and sit tight here in Rina, a lot of people will suffer.” She sighed. “How do you even expect me to stop the dragon escaping, if I haven’t got a clue what I am supposed to do? I have never been able to control my power! I was only able to suppress it with the wise woman’s help!”

“There are some similarities between the different powers. If the gods have given you this gift, they must be confident that you will be able to use it. You wouldn’t give a hammer and an anvil to a blacksmith without them knowing what to do with them, so why would they give you something you couldn’t use?” He smiled. “Somewhere within you is the knowledge to wield your power. It just might need nurturing, which is where we can help. Where I can help.”

The princess nodded hesitantly and then moved to the window. The sky was dark now.

Matthias watched her. “Your Highness, you hold the pure power. It is the strongest energy ever created. It is simply too almighty a power to be suppressed forever. You act like a conduit for the power: it funnels itself through you like an aqueduct. I doubt that what this wise woman taught you, whoever or whatever she was, will last for any considerable length of time. She will have only put a cork in the pipe, shored up the defences inside of you with a few loose logs against a torrent of energy. However much it may seem to be stable within you now, I believe it will unleash itself again eventually, regardless of the lengths you have gone to stop it. It is the will of the gods. You can dam up the river, but eventually the wood will rot and water will flow again. It’s only a matter of time. My people can help.”

“Mister Greenwald, forgive me if I am blunt, but I would sooner trust the dreadlord himself than your people right now,” said the princess.

Matthias nodded. “I understand,” he said. Then he took a breath and started forward towards her. “Then trust me,” he said.

“Trust my erstwhile kidnapper?” she mused.

“Your Highness,” Thadius interrupted, looking awkward, “Forgive me if this is not my place, but I feel obliged to speak on this subject.” The princess looked at him, surprised a moment, but then nodded for him to continue. “I do not wholly trust Matthias. Since he came here he has given me – has given you – very little reason to, and his actions have been dishonest, to say the least, in what he attempted to do. But in remaining he has shown a glimmer of loyalty. And I do believe that what he has told us about the dragon and about you, is true.”

“Are you saying you think I should help?” she asked.

“Princess, we have known each other for a long time. I have served your family for my entire life. Your safety is my first priority. But I also believe in you, Your Highness, in everything that you do, and if this is your calling, then I know you can do it.”

Josephine smiled. “That was laced with positivity, Thadius!”

“I know,” he said chuckling. “I think I might be coming down with something.”

“I have never known you to be so… progressive.”

Thadius smiled back. “I imagine it won’t last for long, Your Highness, should you decide to do this. But if you do, then I know you can do it.”

Josephine turned back to Matthias. “There is a problem, however, in that I do not trust you, Matthias, in spite of your protestations. My father says you are unlike any wizard he has ever met, but that does not necessarily mean you are more trustworthy than those that have come before you.” Matthias opened his mouth to speak, but she held her hand up. “Ah-ah! I have not finished. If the stakes are as high as you say, if the dragon is so close to being freed, then perhaps I have no more time for such matters. What I do need, however, is honesty. If this is required of me, then I need my questions to be answered with absolute candour. There are to be no more lies or falsehoods.”

Matthias nodded. “I will speak the truth on those matters that concern you, princess. You have my word on that.”

She nodded thoughtfully. “Should I agree to assist- and I am not saying I will- then what would happen then? Are there other wizards that are to accompany me on this journey?”

“Before I tried to kidnap you the plan as it was originally intended was that I would have helped you to realise your abilities, if they were not already apparent, with the help of my Master, a great and powerful wizard.”

“Is he nearby?” the princess asked.

Matthias shook his head. “No, he’s in Mahalia. But I have a way to communicate with him instantly from here. Together, he and I would work to make sure you could control your power as we travelled to Olindia, where we would then try to stop the dragon’s release. Meanwhile, in Mahalia my people will try to find and cut off the people who are intending to free Sikaris.

“In case I were to fail?” the princess asked.

Matthias shrugged. “To put it bluntly, yes.”

The princess paced the floor of her room. “How many people live within the dragon’s reach?” she asked. “Hundreds of thousands?”

“A lot more than that,” Matthias replied.

The princess nodded. “How many of them will die if Sikaris is released and I selfishly remain here?” She shook her head. “I hate this power. You call it a gift from the gods, but all it has brought me this far is pain and suffering.”

“I understand that,” Matthias responded. “What I’m offering you is a way to stop events like those in your past from happening again.”

Josephine sighed. “How could I avoid using this power under such circumstances? How could I refuse and live with myself as people are killed in their masses? I have no choice in this matter if I want to look myself in the eye ever again.”

“Then you will help?” Matthias asked tentatively.

After a pause she nodded. “I will come on your little sojourn, but under several conditions, all of which are not optional.”

Matthias smiled and nodded. “Which are?”

“The first is that I will be accompanied by a full, armed guard. I do not intend to trudge my way to wherever it is we are to go.”

Matthias licked his teeth with his tongue awkwardly. “That may be a problem. Such a large guard is slow and conspicuous. I…” Josephine lowered her head so that she was looking at him over her brow. “Ahem. I’m sure that will be fine.”

She nodded. “Secondly, which seems to be a given anyway, is that you will teach me about my energy personally. Now we are acquainted I do not wish to meet any others of your kind if I can help it.”

“Consider it done, Your Highness,” Matthias replied.

“Thirdly, you will give me your word that if I stop this dragon-”

“You will,” Matthias nodded. “I have every confidence in you.”

“How inspiring of you,” Josephine said acerbically. “Very well. When I stop this dragon, you your people will allow me to return home to Rina. I will not be made into a trophy for your people to wheel out whenever there is call for it, or reprimanded for my use of this energy. I am not going to become your puppet.”

Matthias took a breath. Then after a pause, he nodded. “You have my word.”

“Very well then,” the princess said, and gathered her skirts. “Now that is agreed, we had best tell my father.”

Discussions

114th Day of the Cycle, 495 N.E. (New Era)

 

“Never!” The king barked, his face purple as beetroot as he spat at the trio in front of him. “I will never allow it! And as for you, Thadius! You have betrayed the orders of your king? I should have your head for such a matter, friend or not!”

“Thadius did not betray your orders!” The princess countered. “The wizard came to visit me, not the other way around. Your orders did not prohibit such an occurrence.”

The king opened his mouth to bark a fierce reprisal, but then considered the words she had uttered, before he scoffed. “A technicality is no justification when you know it still goes against my wishes!

“He was following my instruction,” Josephine advised. “If you are to be angry with someone, then direct it towards me.”

The king shrugged. “I would if I thought it would make any difference to your behaviour!” He threw his hands up. “Why do the gods test me so? Is running a kingdom not enough in this day and age without a daughter who would sooner get herself tied up in the schemes of a wizard than to listen to her king and master?”

“Father, my respect for you runs deeper than you can imagine. But this concerns my future. I had to speak further with the ambassador.”

“The consequence of which conversation is that you intend to follow a near stranger and a wizard to boot, into our neighbour’s land? To battle the Great Dragon himself?” The king laughed. “What sorcery did you place upon her mind wizard?”

“I told her only the truth, Your Grace,” Matthias replied calmly.

“Father, I am going with the ambassador. Believe me, it is not my preferred choice, and it may even be the worst decision I will ever make. But I must help defend our people- all people- against this threat.” She swallowed. “I feel deep within me that it is the right thing to do.”

“And if I do not allow it to be so?” The king rumbled.

“Whether you permit it or not I will be going. Your alternative, Your Grace, would be to imprison me,” the princess said bluntly.

King Arwell looked aghast and turned to Matthias. “You have poisoned my own daughter against me,” he growled. “You have done what I never thought would have been possible.”

“Your Grace, I only want to help,” Matthias replied. “I made a mistake with my recent actions, but it was a mistake borne out of good intentions. I have pledged to teach your daughter how to control her abilities and she has my word that once this situation is over I will return her to you.” Matthias shook his head. “I know there is nothing more I can do to convince you of my good intentions.”

The king raised a hand to his brow and placed the other on his hip. “Even if your intentions are just, this is my only daughter. Would you let your own child go on such a dangerous journey?”

Matthias shook his head. “I can’t answer that Your Grace, not having been a father. How could I measure your fear without that first-hand experience? There is nothing comparable to the love of a parent to their child, or so I understand.”

Father,” Josephine whispered softly. “One day you will not be here to protect me and I will have to stand on my own. What kind of a future queen will I make if I ignore the greatest threat to our people for centuries and hide away in a corner under your arm? I could never call myself the defender of the phoenix throne should my lack of action now result in the deaths of millions.”

The anger in the king’s eyes began to fade, replaced with a sorrowful expression. He exhaled heavily. “Your mother was always stubborn, you know,” he said. “But I swear you are a hundred times worse!”

Josephine smiled. “So you will let me go?” she asked.

The king nodded. “I suppose I will,” he said reservedly. “But only with a pledge from you Thadius, that you will look after her yourself!”

Thadius bowed his head. “I would want nothing more than to protect the princess, Your Grace. However, surely there is someone better suited to carry out such a task? One of your generals perhaps?”

“Thadius, there is no one I would trust more than you with my daughter’s safety,” King Arwell replied. Then he scoffed. “Perhaps I would have sent the king’s hand, had I not just sentenced him to death for betrayal!”

Thadius flinched. “Oh yes, of course. I’d forgotten about that Your Grace.”

The king nodded. “You are the most trustworthy of all my men. You always have been. It is about time you rose to the position you have denied yourself for so long, Sir Thadius Wilhem.”

Thadius swallowed and his eyes bulged. “Your Grace I… I don’t feel ready for such an honour.”

“You have earned a knighthood a hundred times over! No more will I accept your refusal! You might not feel you have earned it, and I have tolerated your refusals before because I think a great deal of you. But this time I command it. You are charged with my daughter’s wellbeing on this journey.”

Thadius swallowed and knelt down. “I will serve you well, my king.”

“You’re damned right, you will!” the king smiled and then, his expression growing icy again, he looked to Matthias. “And if this wizard betrays us one more time, I want you to personally take his head off.” Matthias held firm his stoic expression, not even swallowing at the prospect.

Thadius nodded again. “It would be my pleasure, Your Majesty,” he chuckled.

The king stroked his beard. “This morning I awoke with the greatest thing on my mind being what I was to eat for breakfast. Now I have a daughter with the fate of the world resting on her shoulders.” He turned and strode to a set of double windows, laying his arm against the alcove. “It is a dangerous world out there and you have never been in it, my daughter. You cannot possibly know how many dangers await you.”

The princess swallowed. “I will be well protected, Your Grace,” she said.

“You are a brave girl, Josephine. You always have been. But I know you do this out of a duty to the people.” He turned to face her again. “There is still time to walk away from this.”

“If I can learn to control these powers, then it will be all the better for me as well as your people.”

The king took a deep breath and nodded again. Then he looked to Matthias. “When must you go wizard?”

“As soon as possible, Your Grace,” Matthias replied.

“I thought you might say that,” the man said gruffly. “Thadius, prepare an escort to accompany you to Olindia.” He looked pensive. “Perhaps I should come with you as well.”

“Your Grace, it is bad enough to risk the princess going on this journey, but for you to come as well…” Thadius said.

“King Arwell, it is going to be difficult enough to hide the presence of the princess when she is surrounded by a cortège of guards. With the king joining us as well, word will spread. We don’t know who is breaking the dragon from his prison. We don’t know how much they already know about your daughter. The less of a fuss that is made, then the better our chances will be. I would not advise you to come,” Matthias said. The king looked sternly at him.

“You must stay father,” the princess said sadly. “I would have you come with me, but if I do not succeed, then your kingdom will need its king to be here to prepare for the dragon’s arrival.”

The king looked pained, but eventually, after a moment, he nodded. “Very well,” he said gruffly, and added: “The women always claim to know best, do they not?”

“The world has known no other truth for hundreds of years,” Matthias replied.

A Trust is Earned

114th Day of the Cycle, 495 N.E. (New Era)

 

Matthias returned to his room a little later, guarded from the outside now, of course, where he was left to his own devices. Beforehand the king had allowed him, begrudgingly, to venture into the city, escorted by two soldiers, where he had proceeded to lay invisible lines of energy across some of the more common routes up to the palace. If a demon were to trip them, he would know about it.

When he arrived back at his room, his staff stood propped up against a chair, collected from where he had left it in the corridor earlier. He was glad of its return, having had it for so long. He used it, like many wizards, as a conduit to channel the earth power, which all wizards of Mahalia wielded. He could channel the power without it of course, but with its help he was able to better focus his strength and use the energy to greater effect. Other wizards used a staff as well for the same reason, whilst some others preferred wands or even, in some rare cases, swords or lances. But he found the staff to be adequate and given its sentimental value, he would not be parted with it for any other prop. That walk in the forested countryside, where he had found the branch seemed such a long time ago now and yet, in the great scheme of the world’s life, he was but a tiny step forward.

He sat in one the chair beside it and grasped its gnarled, bulbous top, patting it thoughtfully. He had disobeyed his master’s order to kidnap the princess. Pym would not be happy at that. But then again, it would not be the first time he had shirked his elders. He was confident that this way was better, with the cooperation of the princess rather than resorting to coercion, as was so often the case with his people.

He fumbled in his bag and pulled out the communication orb, placing it on the table in front of him. He would speak with Pym later that day and let him know what was happening. First he needed some time to rest. He hadn’t slept in the cell and he couldn’t remember the last time he had actually drifted into unconsciousness. He eased himself out of the chair and moved to the bed, crawling on top of the goose – feather duvet and arranging himself into a cross – legged position, his staff resting horizontally over his knees.

“Time to meditate,” he whispered to himself. “Then perhaps I can clear my mind enough to find sleep again.” He closed his eyes and steadied his breathing, drawing in the air through his nostrils and exhaling it back out through his mouth. He tried to block out the cawing of crows somewhere outside the window. After uncountable minutes had passed, Matthias felt his head start to grow heavier and images began to dance in front of his mind, as he entered a deep, dream – like state.

He was standing in the centre of a street, the cobbles beneath his feet shattered and scorched. His clothes appeared unchanged and he had his staff in his hand. Where was he? He looked around. The sky was a ruddy orange, dense with clouds. His ears pricked at the sound of crackling wood and a multitude of voices. No, they weren’t voices. They were screams and wails. Around him, buildings sprung up from the ground and instantly burst into flames and then, swooping across his vision, the silhouette of the Great Dragon Sikaris soared through the sky. He stepped back in shock a moment until his mind caught up with his instincts. He knew he was meditating and so in no danger but still, it all seemed very real. These were the events of the past. Or at least, it was his mind’s representation of them. He was in Crystal Ember, the capital city of Olindia, and this was the last day of the greatest war ever fought. This was the day the dragon was captured.

He started forward, following the direction of the dragon’s flight. The creature swept down towards the buildings below and flame burst from his lungs. The buildings turned to smoke and the scene altered, and Matthias was standing elsewhere in the city. There was an almighty explosion and then the sky erupted above him. Around the dragon energy struck him in many forms: lightning bolts and piercingly sharp icicles rained down onto his back from the clouds. Flashes of power lit up the darkness and forced the creature down to the ground. He could not make out the beast’s features from where he stood: he was a dark shadow in his mind’s eye. Against his black form a hundred lassoes of power wrapped around the beast, looping his neck, grasping his arms and legs and tightening around his tail. Sikaris strained against them, ripped several from his body, the energy shattering as they broke pulled him to the ground. All around the dragon wizards conjured up more of the vibrant energy ropes and pinned him down. The beast roared and tugged the restraints as the men approached him and began to place their hands all across his body. From their palms, sandy-light rippled outwards with a crunching noise until they covered the entire beast’s form. The energy glowed and the wizards stepped back. Sikaris broke free from the restraints and flapped his wings. He bent down to survey the people beneath him and roared, and then, with a whoosh the light around his body faded and the creature turned to stone, petrified.

A knock at the door pulled Matthias out of his meditation suddenly. He beckoned entrance and a maid came into his room carrying a tray of fruits and a porcelain teapot, steaming from its spout.

“Compliments of the king,” the maid advised, before bowing her way out of the room.

Matthias smiled at the teapot. “He must have had some squirrelled away,” he pondered to himself. “Though why would you show such generosity to me now after all the events of the day? Unless it’s poisoned, of course!” He shook his head and smiled, raising the cup to his lips. But before he took a sip he paused and lowered it again and then, rifling in his bag again, pulled out a small wooden strip and dipped it in the liquid before removing it again and shaking it several times. He held it up to the light. The wood turned pink and he breathed a sigh of relief. No poison. At least none he was able to detect. He shook his head again. He was being foolish. He cast the wooden tester aside and took a sip of the tea. The beverage had a mild taste, though with a spicy tang of cinnamon which struck the back of the throat as he swallowed, and he let its aroma soothe him as he sat back into a chair, cup clasped in hand on his stomach, and, finally satisfied that he was not about to die, admired his surroundings. He had been too distracted before to fully appreciate the room. It was compact full of elegant touches. The bed – posts were painted golden, the rug on the floor made of a fine fur: wolf, he thought, by its feel. The chair he sat in and its companion opposite were magnificently upholstered. As he continued his survey an object caught his eye resting on the top of a cabinet. It was a small, golden, carved looking glass. He reached a hand out and flicked a finger, his eyes momentarily shimmering blue. The looking glass lifted off the top of the cabinet and hovered through the air into his waiting palm. He admired its craftsmanship and then turned it over to the reflective glass front, looking at himself in the mirror. Gingerly he felt up at his cheek and he smiled with a half-hearted chuckle at the image before him.

“What would you have all thought eh? Your son in a quest to save the world, time and an age from when we all were together?” He looked at his eyes with great deliberation through the slightly wavy surface of the mirror and his smile faded. He lowered the glass. “Foolish old Matthias,” he whispered and set it aside. “Talking to the dead again.” He looked at the backs of his hands. “So much still to learn, it would seem.”

He yawned suddenly and rubbed at his eyes. He knew he was tired, but his head suddenly seemed as if it might fall off and roll away from the floor, it felt so heavy. He placed his hands to either side of the chair to push himself up. Time for sleep, he said to himself. But he couldn’t muster the strength to rise again from the chair. He fell back into the comfortable hold of the chair. Oh well, perhaps I will just rest here then…

He didn’t remember falling asleep, but the next he knew he was being awoken by someone kicking his right foot. His eyelids opened under duress. It was night! How long had he been asleep? Shadows flitted about in the gloom, cast by the light of a dozen candles sitting in a candelabrum on the table to the far side of the room. As his eyes focussed, the shadowy figure of Thadius emerged in his vision, sitting in the chair opposite him. He sat up in surprise.

“Did I wake you?” Thadius asked.

Yes!” Matthias exclaimed, trying to wake up quicker than his body would let him. “But don’t let it bother you!” he said with distaste.

“Oh, I wasn’t bothered,” Thadius replied.

“What… what are you doing in here?” the wizard asked.

Thadius leaned forward, “Tea?” he beckoned to Matthias, picking up the pot. Then, feeling the lack of warmth on his hand, added: “Cold tea?”

“No, thank y-,” Matthias began and then stopped just as abruptly. Realisation dawned. “Oh. So it was poisoned?”

“Not poison,” Thadius said. “Just something to help you sleep.”

“But I tested it for contamination!” Matthias retorted, running his hands through his hair.

“Well perhaps we have some of our own tricks up our sleeves,” Thadius smirked.

“Why?” Matthias asked angrily.

“Because the king wanted me to check you didn’t have anything else on you that could be used against us. He was hoping there might even be something on your person that would cast your stories into doubt.”

Matthias gritted his teeth. “I don’t have anything to hide here! I’ve told you everything you need to know!”

“Oh I know, I searched your bag while you slept,” Thadius advised. “I suspected that we wouldn’t find anything else of note there.”

“You think I have hidden something then?” he asked irritably.

Thadius shook his head. “No, I don’t. Believe it or not, I think you really have told us everything. But the king wanted to be sure. He is worried about sending his daughter off with you wizard. Very worried. And I did as I was ordered. I put you to sleep and checked your belongings. If it puts the king’s mind at ease then more the better.”

“He should be more concerned with the people who are out there trying to bring the dragon down on us!” Matthias exclaimed, grabbing the teapot from the table and pulling off the lid. He sniffed the liquid tentatively. “Oh. You used turtleweed! Of course.”

“Impervious to your testing methods. Or so the king told me.”

“It’s also incredibly rare in these parts.”

“The king knows some well-travelled people,” Thadius shrugged.

Matthias shook his head. “You are quite the devious ones yourselves,” he said and stuck his finger in the drink. His eyes flared blue and a sliver of energy wound down the wizard’s outstretched digit.

“What are you doing?” Thadius asked.

“Neutralising the plant so I can drink this tea! I’m thirsty!” he huffed. “Luckily enough a friend showed me how.”

Thadius shook his head and chuckled. “Look Matthias, I went out on a limb for you earlier, when I backed you up in front of the princess. The gods knows why I did that. I believe your stories, even if the king does still have doubts. I must be mad, but I believe your tales.”

“I’m grateful you stepped in for me with the princess.” He poured a cup of the tea and then set the pot down carefully. He picked up the cup and began circling a finger around the rim slowly, watched diligently until steam began to rise from the reheated liquid before sipping it. He sighed. “Better.” Matthias set the cup on his lap. “You could have searched my things and departed and I would have never known what you had done. I was so tired I would have never suspected you’d send me to sleep.”

“So what am I still doing here?” the soldier asked. Matthias nodded. “I have stayed because of that which we spoke of earlier. Trust. I believe in your stories but that doesn’t mean I believe in you. Not fully.”

“How can I prove myself to you further?” Matthias asked. “All the proof of my intentions I have is words.”

“The only thing I can think of… is that.” He pointed to Matthias’s pendant.

The wizard looked down, and then felt to the medallion dangling from his neck. “Oh no,” Matthias said. “I can’t.”

Thadius shrugged. “I know how much it means to you, now I know what it contains. To keep something of such personal worth to you… now that, I think, would convince me further.”

Matthias swallowed, clutching tightly to the metal beneath his palm. He wore a pained expression on his face as he looked at Thadius. But then, hesitantly, he took his hand away, and slowly reached around the back of his neck and undid the chain’s latch. The pendant swung free as he drew it away from his body and gingerly held it out.

“If you lose it…” Matthias said.

Thadius reached out an open palm and Matthias dropped it into his hand. His neck felt naked without it. Lighter. He felt half a man!

“Now you have something precious of mine to look after, and I something of yours,” Thadius said. His fingers curled around the pendant, and he drew it to him, before attaching it around his own neck.

“There. How does it look?” He asked Matthias, who had gone slightly pale.

“It looks… strange, on someone who is not a wizard,” he said.

“The only way someone will get this from me is if they cut my head off,” Thadius advised him.

“Then I have to protect you as well, it would seem,” Matthias said with a half – smile.

Thadius chuckled and then rose from the chair. “Thank you,” he said. “I think now we finally might understand one another. Now we both have something of the other’s in our care that we never want to lose.” He moved to the door. “I have a dozen men preparing for our coming journey.” He pointed to Matthias as he opened the door. “You should get some rest. You look tired,” he chuckled, and closed the door.

 

The Dark of Night

115th Day of the Cycle, 495 N.E. (New Era)

Matthias sat in his room for several hours that night, pondering matters silently. He became aware after a while that he had been instinctively running his hand along the bare spot on his chest where his pendant usually lay against his skin. He lowered his hand to the chair’s arms and pushed himself up.

At least I can manage that this time, he thought wistfully to himself. Turtleweed. He shook his head and chuckled at the ingenuity. There’s none of those wild plants growing anywhere near Rina for the king to have harvested such a sedative. How did he even know it couldn’t be detected by our testing sticks? It’s almost scentless too, unless you know that it’s there and even then, it’s only the slightest whiff that gives away its presence. He pulled off his shirt and placed it carefully over the back of the chair. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the looking glass again, lying face-up on the table. He picked it up again and angled it to look at his bare neck. The skin had a slight sheen where the chain had sat for so long and was less tanned than the rest of his body. He grimaced in the flickering candlelight and cast the mirror on to the chair cushion, making his way to the bed and slipping beneath the covers. He waved a hand and the candles all went out, and darkness shrouded the room. He closed his eyes, and fell asleep almost instantly.

A chiming sound stirred him from his slumber and he opened his eyes to a pulsing light. He sat up with a sharp intake of breath. The communication orb.

“Can’t I get some sleep without being poisoned or interrupted[?_]” he grumbled. He rose out of the bed again and flailed towards the orb that sat on the table. It was still dark outside, so it was fortunately nowhere near morning yet – although that _also meant that he had probably only been in bed for an hour or so at most. He grasped the sphere and clutched it tightly in his hand, before falling backwards on to the duvet and closing his eyes. Purple light swirled around his arm as the Orb made contact.

“What is happening?” the voice asked anxiously. “I have not heard from you in ages!”

“I’m sorry Master Pym,” Matthias replied. “The kidnapping didn’t go as expected. I was caught.”

Caught!” The voice snapped. “How?

“That doesn’t matter now,” Matthias said, inside his head. “All you need to know is I have told the king and the princess about her abilities and the full reason for my being here. They have agreed to help of their own free will, as we had originally intended to be the case.”

The voice was silent a moment and then it continued. “That is good news. Something I have had little of lately. Well done.”

“Thank you. I apologise I didn’t contact you sooner. It has been an… eventful day.”

“No doubt. In any case, I have also contacted you for another reason. There has been a change.”

Matthias’s heart jumped. “Another one?”

“The Council has reviewed their conclusions of the seeing stone’s premonitions and have found that the dragon’s prison is much closer to destruction than we had anticipated.”

“How much closer?” Matthias asked and held his breath.

“We believe it is now in the very final stages of being unlocked. There are but a few weeks of work to dissolve the petrification.”

Matthias exhaled heavily. “But that isn’t enough time!”

“Then you will proceed quickly to Olindia. You must teach the princess how to use her power in the time you have left.” Matthias was silent. The voice continued. “You are an able wizard, Matthias,” the voice said, with a hint of warmth in its disembodied tone. “Perhaps a little too headstrong, even after all I have done to rein you in! But I am confident that you will find a way to train her. I will be at hand to talk to for advice if you need me. Then we will see where fate leads us all.”

Matthias nodded, forgetting that Pym could not survey his movements. When he spoke again it was with hesitation. “I promised that the princess would be free from restraint when she is done with her task,”

“Let’s hope that is a possibility.”

“I gave her my word,” Matthias said. “I will keep it.”

“I must go,” the voice said suddenly. “There is a great deal to do here as well. Get the princess to Crystal Ember and help her to reinforce the dragon’s prison. Maybe then the Council will see reason. We will speak again soon, Matthias.” The voice disappeared again with a plop. (Perhaps a different word to plop as makes me think of poo…. can’t think of alternative but perhaps pop?)

Matthias sighed. He was sweating. He sank back into the bed, letting the glass ball fall away from his palm onto the quilt. He lay there for a while staring up at the carved wooden canopy of the bed. Suddenly his head was bombarded with a blinding flash and an image of the city outside filled his vision. He sat bolt upright and hissed. Another flash and a creature shot briefly across his gaze, meandering across a cobbled yard in the thin moonlight.

“Oh gods no, not now!” he whispered. Something had just tripped two of the markers he had laid earlier.

He flew up out of bed, the sheets cascading to the floor as he grasped his shirt from the back of a chair and pulled it on hurriedly, before shoving his belongings into his bag, grabbing the orb from the bed and shoving it into his pocket. He jumped into his boots, threw on his coat and opened the door.

Two guards in purple livery turned to face him, lances sliding across to bar his way.

“Where do you think you’re going?” the first, on the right said in a common, Aralian accent.

“I have to get to see Thadius. The Princess is in danger,” he panted.

“Danger?” the second one said. “The only danger she is in is from you from the way we hear it. Now go back inside until morning. We’ve got orders not to let you roam the halls at night.”

“You don’t understand!” Matthias cried. “I have seen creatures in my mind! They are on their way to the palace!”

The men looked to one another, and then back to Matthias. “Of course they are. Now go back inside and we will give the king your message.”

Matthias looked to them both, jaw clenched tightly. Then he took a breath. “I’m ever so sorry. I really am.”

“Wh-” the first guard said, but before he could finish Matthias threw out both his hands and plunged his fists into both guards’ stomachs. Sparks shot from Matthias’s knuckles and the men shuddered, their bodies contorting, before falling to the floor like limp fish, their weapons jangling onto the floor. Matthias stepped over them, rearranging his bag and staff where they rested on his back and shoulder. “I really am sorry,” he said again to the two men who were both unconscious, slumped in a heap on the floor.

Matthias ran down the corridor, throwing his head to look behind himself at regular intervals as he went. The corridors were mostly dark the way he went, though now and again there were stand – lamps burning with their oil – soaked wicks. He saw no – one along the way, save for two serving women who he heard coming along one corridor, gossiping as they walked. He flew into them and sent the trays they carried flying. They screamed as their contents crashed to the floor.

“Sorry!” he cried back, but he didn’t stop. He eyed every shadow warily as if it might leap at him and tear his head off, and he embraced the earth power once as he ran, ready to strike at what turned out to be no more than a rat scurrying across the corridor.

As he made his way along another passageway he stopped and clutched to his head as another snapshot of the city flashed into his head like a bolt of lightning, sparking his brain. Another creature had triggered yet another trap he had laid. It was closer, nearer the palace.

How many creatures are there? He thought nervously. The trap had been triggered not five minutes away. As he reached the princess’s chambers another guard stood outside the doorway. Seeing Matthias he threw down his pike, its sharp, pointed end aiming directly at Matthias. The wizard threw out a hand and a bolt of lightning struck the pike, sailed up its wooden haft and surged into the guard, who contorted and collapsed to the floor like the others. Matthias hopped over him and burst into the princess’s chambers, smashing the door inwards with his arm and blundering into an antechamber that was filled with maids and servants. They began screaming as he thundered towards them and one tried to halt his path: a bulky great woman with hips the size of tree – trunks. He skidded to a halt in front of her, her burly arms outstretched to catch him.

“Get away you ruffian! Selphie, raise the alarm, quickly!” She growled to one of the maids, a tiny little thing with a face like a mouse, and she ran off at speed to get help. The woman advanced forward, no fear in her blazing eyes. “I’ve looked after this babe since she was sipping at her mother’s teat! There’s no way you’re getting past me!”

Matthias took a step back. “I’m sorry. I’m really sorry!” he said, a remorseful look on his face, as he outstretched an arm. The space in front of his hand shimmered like heat waves, and a green blob of energy spluttered out of his open palm, wrapping around the woman’s arms and waist and legs, and pinning her like a skittle. She toppled over onto her side with a grunt, and strained against her bonds. “It’ll dissolve in an hour,” Matthias said. The woman growled absurdities back at him as he passed through the other maids, who parted in fear. One fainted clear to the floor. He reached another door and threw it open. The princess was in bed as he skidded towards her.

“Mister Greenwald! What the-” Josephine started from within pulling her bedcovers up to her neck. “Get out!” she commanded.

“I’m sorry princess, but you’re in danger. We have to leave the palace right now!”

“What kind of danger?” she asked, pushing herself as far away from the wizard as she could, until she was pressing heavily against the headboard.

“Demons are inside the city. They’re on their way here. They’re after you. They know what you are! We-”

A heavy hand grabbed his shoulder and spun him around. Thadius punched him in the face. Dazed, Matthias stepped back, but the burly man came at him again. ”You bloody-” the knight began, but Matthias interjected.

“There are demons in the city!” Matthias cried to him, and he stopped as he drew his fist back again.

What?” Thadius growled.

“I laid traps, invisible markers that could only be triggered by these creatures. They started being sprung a few minutes ago. They are after the princess!”

Thadius stared in surprise. “I- I-”

“We don’t have the time!” Matthias exclaimed. “They could be inside the palace right now! We have to go!”

Thadius paused a moment, but then he lowered his fist and nodded his head. “Alright. I will get the men together who are coming with us.”

“There isn’t time for that!” Matthias hissed. He spun around to face the princess. “Get dressed, Your Highness. Quickly. And find something to cover your face up with.” She nodded and darted to behind a wooden divider, where she hastened to change.

Matthias turned back to Thadius. “Is there a secret way out of this palace?” he asked. “Some way that no one else would use or suspect?”

Thadius nodded. “There’s a hidden exit. It isn’t far from here. It was designed to get the king and princess out in an emergency.”

“Good. Then there’s no better time to use it!”

“I… apologise for hitting you. I thought…”

Matthias shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. How are you getting along princess?” Matthias called to the girl as clothes flew across the top of the divider.

“I am almost ready!” she exclaimed, panting as she hurriedly pulled on her clothes.

“What have you done to Lady Pombar?” Thadius asked, looking through the open door to the lump on the floor outside.

“Oh Gods! I forgot,” Matthias said. “She got in my way. I didn’t think.” He darted out of the door. The woman was in the next room, being propped up by the other maids.

He approached her with Thadius in tow. “I apologise,” Matthias said. “There was no time to explain.”

“Who is this man, Thadius?” The lady asked, her plump face red as a tomato and her eyes burning with rage.

“He is a friend, my lady Pombar,” Thadius said, placing hand on her shoulder. “Of sorts.”

“Some bleeding friend!” she winced. “Look what he has done to me!”

“You did well to try and stop him just the same.” Thadius turned to Matthias. “Can you release her?”

Matthias looked sheepish. “The bonds can’t be released until they dissolve. It will take a good hour at least.”

The princess emerged from the previous room, a black hooded overcoat worn atop a purple dress that appeared beneath. “I am ready, she said. “I had several bags in here for the journey that my maidens had begun to pack, though I doubt we can carry them all now.”

Thadius moved to where the bags were piled in the corner of the antechamber, and grabbed two, thrusting them around his shoulders.

“But what about your own bags?” the princess asked.

“I need only the clothes on my back and the sword at my side,” he replied. “I can carry these two.”

“We need to leave,” Matthias said.

The Princess nodded. “Thadius, would you lead the way, please, my good knight?”

The burly man nodded, and turned to go. He paused at lady Pombar and the maids that were piled around her. “Tend to her well,” he instructed them, and he nodded to her. She snorted. “Tell no one anything of this,” he said “-save the King. He must be alerted when we are safely away.” He left the room, followed by Josephine. Lady Pombar stared daggers at Matthias who took up the rear.

“I am so sorry again,” he said, and quickly moved out the room.

“Is my father not being told we are leaving?” Josephine whispered as they made their way down a dark corridor. Thadius snatched a flame from the wall.

“We will send word to your father once we have cleared the city and reached a safe harbour,” Thadius replied. “From the sounds of things, we will be lucky to escape here alive tonight.” The torchlight flickered on his square face. His eyes watched the corridors carefully. “This way,” he said, beckoning to a dark corridor. “There will be no people down here, and it is the quickest route to the hidden exit.”

“Oh gods,” Josephine breathed. “It is real, this threat that you spoke of. They want to kill me.”

“You still assumed I was over – exaggerating?” Matthias asked.

“No. I mean, I had hoped.” She shook her head. “Perhaps a little.”

They moved through the darkness and turned a juncture in the corridor, heading down another otherwise dark, thin passageway, at the end of which stood a thin, spiral staircase. Thadius led them down, the torch flickering and purring in the silence, and they emerged in an abandoned wing of the palace, making their way through one of the many kitchens, this one not used for several years if the cobwebs were anything to go by. Quickly and quietly they wove through the ancient maze.

“This used to be the old queen’s wing. It was used by your great grandmother, princess. When she died suddenly and painfully in the night, your great grandfather, King Athelbert declared this part of the castle cursed, and banned anyone from living or working in it. It’s been abandoned ever since.”

“And now we are making our way though it? But what if it is cursed?” she hissed.

“There’s no such thing as curses,” Matthias said as they made their way through more cold, abandoned corridors.

“How do you know?” Thadius sniffed.

“You don’t think being a wizard makes me qualified?”

“Then how do you explain strange deaths with no explanation? Ghosts that roam hallways, moaning and groaning.” The princess asked.

“The world is complex and filled with wonders and patterns that aren’t always easily seen by us. Sometimes strange things just happen, but there’s always a rational explanation at its root.”

Josephine sniffed. “That’s just a long winded way of saying ‘I do not know.’”

Matthias smiled. “Very well. I don’t know. What I do know is that a curse of the kind you speak of is borne out of fear and fantasy blurring together. You could lay traps with one of the powers, but that’s the extent of it.”

They carried onward. Everything was deadly silent apart for their footsteps. Quite suddenly, Thadius stopped at a doorway, and Josephine bumped into his back, snapping to with a start.

“Ouch!” she grumbled.

“My apologies your Highness,” Thadius said.

“Will you be quiet, the pair of you!” Matthias hissed.

“I beg your pardon?” Josephine growled, baring her teeth. She turned to Thadius, who eyed Matthias severely.

“You forget yourself, Matthias,” Thadius advised stonily. “You are escorting royalty here.”

He took a calming breath. “I apologise Your Highness. I am just a little on edge.”

“You’re not the only one,” Thadius added, peering into the gloom from which they had ventured. “But let’s keep our heads cool, alright wizard?”

Matthias nodded and bowed his head to Josephine apologetically. She acknowledged his apology with a nod of her own.

“Why have we stopped?” Josephine asked, changing the subject.

“The stairs beyond this door should take us down and out of the palace.”

“Once we are outside, we will need to move quickly to reach the exit to the city,” Matthias added.

“Right then,” Thadius said taking a breath. “Let’s go-“

As he spoke the torchlight began to flicker, and Josephine yelped.

“It’s the oil. It’s going out,” Thadius grumbled. As if hearing the words, the flame whimpered and snuffed out.

“It’s alright,” Matthias said, and outstretched a palm.

There was a fizzle like a wet firework, and then a popping sound, and a small ball of light hovered excitedly in front of Matthias. It shimmered in the shadows; a pure white light leaving a trail of sparks spiralling slowly down from its body to the flagstone floor, where they died out instantly.

“Perhaps I should go first,” Matthias said, his sapphire – tinged eyes burning through the darkness almost as brightly as the ball of light in front of them. Thadius nodded and took up the rear.

Matthias walked forward into the dark stairwell, and the ball moved with him, hovering around like a tamed firefly following its master. Taking a deep breath, the princess followed after him. Thadius took one last scan of the area behind them and then followed, dropping the used torch and closing the door behind. The stone steps below lit up with the new light from Matthias’s hand. They were extremely narrow – barely wide enough for the heels of their feet to rest comfortably on the tiny stones – and in the dark, navigating down them was awkward.

Josephine ran her hand along the outer wall for support, as did Thadius behind, the multitude of bags thrust about his back slowing his progress. Matthias, in spite of the light, used his staff to check for the next stair in front of him before he stepped down. It seemed time slowed to a crawl as they made their way down the never – ending stairs.

“How high up were we?” Josephine asked. “This is ridiculous!” she said in a haughty tone.

“Have patience, Your Highness,” Thadius replied. “It can’t be far now.”

Finally, as if prompted by the words, the outline of moonlight on a doorframe came into view beneath the final stone step as they rounded the corner, and Josephine breathed a sigh of relief.

“Thank the gods for that,” she breathed. “My feet are killing me.”

“It’s not over yet, princess,” Matthias replied, peering over his shoulder. He caught her eye a moment. They were like deep pools in the gloom, and for a moment he held her gaze, before smiling encouragingly. “You’re doing well,” he added, as her brow creased and she swallowed.

“This door needs a key,” Thadius muttered. “I didn’t think about that.”

“I don’t need a key,” Matthias replied confidently, waving his palm over the lock. The door clicked and creaked open.

“Mahalian tricks,” Thadius whispered with a grumble. “What’s the point in having a lock if people can just open it like that?” Matthias grinned and pushed it open a notch. Moonlight shone through the opening. The ball of light that had guided them fizzled into nothing, and the shadows that had danced around them from its aura subsided.

They emerged from the building slowly, looking around hesitantly. They were in a garden area, overgrown and filled with brambles and weeds.

“We should be at the southernmost part of the palace grounds. This is a small garden, a space in a corner of the grounds hidden by bushes. Ah! There,” Thadius said, pointing to a tall hedge. “We need to go through there and we should be able to make our way around and down. There’s a walkway about quarter of a mile from here that leads to a ladder into the habitual quarter.”

“You expect me to climb over that?” The princess asked with a scoff, nodding to the hedge.

“Oh come on, I’ll give you a leg over,” Matthias said with a grin. She rolled her eyes and turned to Thadius, who obliged instead.

“Have it your way,” Matthias said with a shrug, as he grappled with the hedge and hoisted himself over its branches, landing on the other side gracefully. The princess was having more problems. Her dress was catching on twigs, and as she swung her legs over to the other side to drop down there was a tear, and her black cloak ripped. She began to fall to the ground, but Matthias caught her before she hit the floor.

“Got you! Safe and sound!” Matthias said.

The princess was surprised and for a moment she sat in Matthias arms, before her dignity got the better of her and she flapped at him until he let her to the ground. “Get off! Get off!” she spluttered.

“You’re welcome,” Matthias said as she brushed herself off and inspected the tear in the side of the cloak.

The princess opened her mouth to retort, but then there was a large thud from behind them, and Thadius landed awkwardly on the ground. He looked up at them sheepishly.

“It’s been a long time since I climbed any trees,” he muttered, getting to his feet.

“Come on,” Matthias said as he laughed silently, and beckoned for Thadius to once again lead the way.

They crept through the moonlight, ducking into shadows made by the buildings surrounding the Palace.

“Have any more of the creatures set off your traps?” Thadius asked Matthias quietly.

“No,” Matthias replied from behind, his eyes scanning every which way. “There were only a couple more, and they could have dodged them. If they are in the palace they might take a while to realize we’re gone.”

“Let us hope that my father’s men have caught them all!” The princess added. “Perhaps then we can start this journey the way it was meant to have been undertaken! I was meant to be accompanied by a full guard!”

“One thing at a time,” Matthias whispered.

“Do not act as if you are not pleased,” the princess whispered back. “You never wanted to bring soldiers along on this journey, did you?”

“Thadius is here and he’s a soldier,” Matthias rebuffed.

“You know what I mean,” Josephine sniffed.

Rina was even more of a maze at night than it was in the day and the ladders and stairwells that stretched all across the city were even more perilous for it as they made their way down. Trying to get Princess Josephine down ladders with her dress was particularly interesting, and her slipper – like shoes kept sliding off the stairs leading to more than one close call. Eventually though, as they descended the city, they dropped down into Market Road, where Matthias had encountered the stalls the day before. It was empty now, and lamplight glowed through some of the windows of the houses lining the street. They were halfway down the empty road when Matthias paused and held up a hand. He craned his head.

“What’s that noise?” he asked. The others strained to hear.

“What noise?” asked Thadius, his eyes darting back and forth.

Josephine leaned her head to one side. “I don’t hear anyth-” she was stopped short as a rotting wooden gate a pace behind them burst open, and a creature lurched out of the debris towards them. Its head was rotten and its body disintegrating. It was a corpse of a creature, and it stunk like one. Its eyes were wide, twisting limply in their bony sockets towards Josephine. It snarled at the princess.

“Thadius!” Matthias yelled from where he had been knocked to one side, struggling to get to his feet. The creature lunged towards Josephine.

Thadius had his sword in hand already, and struck at the creature with his blade. Its head fell to the stones, black blood smattering the cobbles, and a second later its body followed, dribbling more fluids from its open neck. “You don’t need to tell me wizard,” he huffed. The creature’s mouth worked silently for a moment before its eyes closed and it fell still.

They looked up to the sound of scuttling along a wall, and another creature dropped down a pace behind them; a large, furry insect – like with segmented eyes like a fly, analysing them with interest. It flexed its six – fingered, suckered hands and then sped towards them. It opened a toothy mouth, saliva dribbling across the path as it attacked. Matthias held out a hand but Thadius got to it first again, his sword ready. He threw the blade behind his shoulder as he ran and swung hard. The creature barged into him, narrowly missing the blade, and sent Thadius sprawling to the floor, his weapon clattering uselessly away. The creature clicked through its mandibles with triumph and carried on towards the princess.

Matthias stepped in front of her and cast his hand in the direction of an empty barrel propped up against a wall. It shook slightly at his attention, and then, with a throwing motion towards the oncoming creature, Matthias sent the barrel careening into it. The wood split against its bulk and the monstrous figure fell in a tangled mess.

“Let’s go!” Matthias yelled. “Thadius?” he called to the man who was struggling to his feet.

“I’m right behind you. Just go!” he yelled, snatching his sword up. Matthias grabbed the Princess’s hand and darted off down the street, Thadius in tow.

They made it through another few streets and alleyways before another creature caught up with them. Grey and hairy with the bulky stature of a gorilla, only twice as large, it rolled its wild, red, poisoned eyes madly about when it spotted them.

Matthias skidded to a halt and released Josephine’s hand. “Go on ahead you two!” he barked as Thadius caught up. “Move! I’ll catch you!”

Thadius nodded, and they ran off, whilst Matthias stood to face the beast. It had a ring in its wrinkled, leathery nose, and chains attached to it trailed off on the ground, probably used to hold the creature back before it had been let loose.

“If you’re a pet then I do not want to meet your owner,” Matthias whispered, as he slipped his staff from beneath a strap on his back and held it tightly. The beast roared, and beat its chest. “Have it your way then,” Matthias said. With cat – like agility he pounced towards it, spun and sailed above its head and landed facing the beast’s behind. He darted for one of the chains trailing along the ground as the creature spun to face him again, grabbing a rusted link tentatively between his fingers. Matthias pulled hard, digging his heels into the gaps between the cobbles, and the beast reared back on itself, its sausage like paws grappling with the wet, cobbled floor. It tugged back, pounding with its muscular back legs for leverage, and Matthias went flying about on the ground, still clutching to the chain. The other swung untamed in the air, and Matthias made for it as the beast paused in the tug of war to turn again for a better position to fight. His palm clamped around the leash and he quickly, methodically wrapped them both around his fists tightly and pulled. The beast slid across the alleyway, landing on its rump with a thud. Seconds later it was pulling at him again and Matthias tottered about the alley like a drunk, thudding into a wall with a force. The links pinched his skin but he held on tight, grunting with the effort of holding the reins, ducking a swipe of a paw and then, as he ducked and weaved another melee attack, a thought struck him. He grinned wickedly as his hands sparked to life and hundreds of volts of electricity coursed through the chains into the creature. It convulsed with the raw power conducted through the metal.

Matthias let go, and it fell, collapsing onto the floor, smoke rising from its silvery skin. He wiped his brow, and then, without remorse, turned and ran, grabbing his staff as he did.

Thadius dragged the princess along the streets so hard that she flopped along behind him like a ragdoll, her shoes flapping from her feet, skirts awhirl. They stumbled through streets and alleyways, faster and faster.

“Are you… sure this is the… right way?” Josephine wheezed as they descended a line of steps.

“I’ve lived in this city… all my life Your Highness! I know where to go!” Thadius puffed, sweat caking his shirt.

They both looked around as they heard a pounding behind them, and Matthias approached them from behind, catching fast. He missed the steps and hurtled through the air, legs whipping along as he landed without stopping and caught up to them.

“Not much further!” he panted, retaking the lead. “Faster! They’re still coming! There’s at least two more!”

Jadin the gatekeeper was standing on guard again as Matthias skidded around the corner. Instinctively, Matthias’s hand dived into his pocket and pulled out a handful of coins from inside his cloak. Jadin spotted him, began to smile and then, seeing the look on Matthias’ face, scowled, confused.

“If it isn’t my good friend again, leaving so soon after he’s arrived!” he said suspiciously. “And in a hurry too!”

Matthias smiled as best he could at him as he bundled the selection of gold and silver into the man’s hand. “I am afraid so. I have urgent business elsewhere,” he panted. “Now if you would kindly open the gate-”

“I’m afraid I can’t open this gate for you,” Jadin said. “The only exit to be used at this time of night is the main gateway.” He shook his head. “Besides, no offence, but you look up to no good.” He sighed. “Maybe I was nai… er… oh what’s the word?”

“Naive?” Matthias ventured, in an attempt to hurry things along. He doubled over as his lungs tried to suck in air, and rested his hands on his knees.

“Yer, that’s the one, naive – in thinking you was a good lad earlier, if you is running about like a thief. Who’s chasing you?”

As if on cue, Josephine and Thadius rounded the corner. They slid to a halt inches from crashing into Matthias. Josephine slumped against the wall, her chest heaving. Thadius coughed heavily. His lungs burned like they were on fire.

Jadin spotted Thadius instantly. “Here, Thadius! Look here – I-I stopped him! He’s the one you want!” He nodded to Matthias, who rolled his eyes. “Tried to bribe me as well, he did!” Jadin held out the handful of coin.” His eyes then fell on Josephine.

“What?” Jadin gasped. “Is that-?” Jadin stuttered, pointing to the princess. “Is it?”

“No, it’s not,” Matthias replied, still wheezing. “And they’re not chasing after me! Thadius?”

Thadius stepped up to Jadin. “You are ordered to open this gate, sir,” he commanded forcefully. “On the command of the King’s Guard.”

“Oh, no can do sir, I’m afraid. Rules is rules I’m afraid, no matter who you a-uuungh!

Thadius had him pinned against the wall with one hand. “Open the door, Jadin!” he barked. “Or when I return I will tell your wife exactly what you did in that tavern the other week! Or should that be who?” The coin in Jadin’s hand scattered to the floor and rolled about the alleyway.

“Alright! Okay, okay!” Jadin spluttered. Thadius released his grip, and the gatekeeper scrambled with his keys, unfastening bolts and latches and locks and threw the door open. “There. It’s open. You can go!”

“That’s the spirit Jadin,” Matthias quipped, winking at the guard as Thadius and Josephine darted through the opening and out into the night beyond. “He’s harmless really.” He patted Jadin on the back and stepped briskly through the gate. “You can keep the change,” he added, nodding to the scattered coin on the floor. “Oh and one more thing.” He dove into his pocket one final time, and threw another gold coin towards the gatekeeper, who caught it clumsily. “Don’t let anyone else through.” He jerked a thumb towards the shadowy outline of Thadius. “He wouldn’t be happy if you did.” He disappeared a moment and then reappeared again one last time. “And keep yourself safe!” With a nod and a final grin at the bemused man, Matthias disappeared with the others into the darkness of the night. The sounds of whispering among the three people dispersed into the distance as Jadin watched them go.

The gatekeeper scratched his head and then, dismissing his musings about the trio with a shake, turned his attentions to the more important matter of the coin at his feet.

“Well, I’ll say one thing for that boy. He is certainly one generous young man.” There was more here than he could earn in a month! Six months perhaps! He closed the gate, re-bolted the many, many locks and sat back down again on his old barrel to keep watch, clinking the money between his hands.

The alley grew silent again and Jadin enjoyed a little snooze on his rickety perch. He pulled his coat tighter around him. There was a chill in the air tonight.

There was a clatter from the shadows, and with a start Jadin lurched up. The hairs on the back of his neck prickled, and his eyes strained as he peered into the shadows. Watching the darkness in front of him, he fumbled behind his back until he found the handle of the small, brass oil lamp propped on the crate and gingerly held the light up.

“Hello? Who goes there?” Silence. Jadin took a step forward, and the faint sound of stifled breathing carried across the air. “Come on! Out with you! I’ve had more than enough crap for one night! Jacob, if that’s you mucking around-”

A figure emerged from within the shadows, and it was not Jacob, nor was it anyone the man recognised. Jadin’s breath caught at the sight that lay before him, and his eyes widened in fear. His lip quivered. “Now, now! I don’t want no more trouble. I-”

The figure moved fast. The knife whipped about quickly, expertly, and Jadin’s body fell to the ground. Blood spilled from the wound in Jadin’s throat, and the figure stepped over him and picked up the keys.

“The first blood…” the figure voice whispered. “Just as it was foretold.”

Riddles in the Dark

115th Day of the Cycle, 495 N.E. (New Era)

 

“Do you intend for us to walk the entire journey to Olindia on foot with those creatures in pursuit?” Thadius whispered as they continued to wade quickly through the long, damp grass beyond the gate. The outline of Rina stood tall behind them in the moonlight, in spite of how quickly they moved. They had been out of the city for nearly a half – hour and nothing else had appeared to follow them the way they had come.

“Horses would have attracted too much attention, don’t you think?” Matthias replied. “Besides, there was hardly enough time to breathe let alone get to the stables. I wasn’t going to mess about with saddles and stirrups with a twenty-ton demon breathing down my neck!”

“Well I am just glad that we made it out of there,” Josephine said. “Those creatures were terrible. I have never seen the like.”

“Some call them demons, others call them helspawn,” Matthias advised.

“I know what a helspawn is, ambassasor,” Josephine whispered tersely. “There are very few in Aralia who do not know of them. We share a border, after all, with the wastelands of Helriven. What I was speaking of was their strength and size. The beasts I have seen brought back to Rina on occasion from the abandoned wastelands are emaciated, skeletal creatures. These were very different.”

“They come in all shapes and sizes,” Matthias replied. “Those creatures your people encounter in Helriven are weak from their struggle to survive on scraps of food. These ones are different. They’ve been bred for a purpose, like a pack of hunting dogs.”

“Four hundred years of us slaughtering their kin should have taught them their place,” Thadius growled. “They must be either desperate to be killed or just plain mad.”

“Or afraid of something far more than your king’s armies?” Matthias ventured.

“Who are these people who want me dead, that they could command demons?” Josephine asked.

“Your guess is as good as mine, princess,” Matthias said. “But my people intend to find out. Whatever could cause the gods to be afraid enough to send a seeing stone down to Erithia surely cannot remain hidden in the shadows for long.”

“I wish I hadn’t asked,” Josephine shivered.

They carried on walking in the darkness, stumbling across the grassland. Rina grew smaller as they made their way down the sloping grassland, until the tops of the city disappeared into the dark.

“What exactly did Jadin do in that tavern Thadius?” Matthias asked to make conversation as they continued.

“I don’t feel it would be quite appropriate to tell you with the princess present,” he replied, coughing awkwardly

“I see,” Matthias said, smiling to himself in the darkness.

“My feet are hurting already,” Josephine said, changing the subject. “I am unused to walking in such terrain. How far are we to the nearest-” Josephine was cut off by a surge of flame and a mound of earth exploding from behind. Her legs flew from under her, and she stumbled to her knees.

“Stay down!” Matthias yelled back, and Josephine covered her head with her hands and screamed as flame burst inches from her face and smattered her cheeks with mud. Thadius threw their bags to the ground and took his sword in hand. The blade gleamed in the moonlight. Matthias whirled around as another surge of flame ruptured the ground nearby. Dirt exploded into the sky and covered them.

A figure darted through the grass towards them, bolts of light shooting from his hands. They struck the earth all about them and ruptured the ground, the mud surging into the sky with the force of the impact. Matthias threw an arm forward, palm outstretched, and a fireball began to form, growing larger until it encompassed his entire hand. His arm reeled as he let it fly, hurtling towards the dark figure, who dodged the flame, forward – rolling through the grass, before springing up nimbly and launching towards Matthias.

As he drew close, the attacker’s features were revealed. He was a human man, with knotted, greasy black and grey hair curling down to his shoulders. He wore all – black clothing; muslin breeches were tied up with string and a loose – hanging cotton shirt, open at the collar, clung to his sweaty, skeletal form. He was an almost invisible silhouette in the deep darkness of the night, except for a silvery blade he clutched in his left hand, which he now whirled at Matthias. The wizard deflected it, pulling his staff from his back with seconds to spare and thrusting it into the sword’s path. The moonlight shone off the polished weapon and the man’s face was briefly illuminated off the blade’s reflection: his hawked nose jutted out from a thin, emaciated face and a narrow, grinding jaw flanked with high cheekbones. His rotten, yellowed teeth, encrusted with muck, were bared in fury as he swiped savagely at Matthias again and again.

Thadius swung at him but the man managed to spin away from the longsword almost inconceivably given his decidedly delicate frame, and let a bolt of energy burst from his palm, striking the soldier in the chest. He went down like a wounded bear. The man turned and flailed at Matthias again but the wizard ducked down, narrowly avoiding a deadly slash at his neck, before bringing his staff back around at the attacker, striking him heavily on the temple. The man fell but before Matthias could pin him he kicked out and caught the wizard on his left shin. Matthias lost his footing, and stumbled to the ground. Throbbing pain seared up his leg. He cursed and grimaced at the man before him, who nodded triumphantly, muttering to himself and fumbling through the grass with his blade towards Matthias again.

Matthias rolled as the blade sliced into the wet soil where his head had been and stuck in the mulch. He outstretched his hand and used the earth power to push the man to the ground, the air groaning with the effort of being manipulated. As the assassin landed on his back with a thud, Matthias sprung himself up using his legs as a counterbalance, and quickly pressed the end of his staff against the man’s neck. There was a sucking noise, and the man’s body seemed to grow rigid. It was over.

“Who are you? Why did you attack us?” Matthias demanded. Thadius came up beside him; a smoky tear burnt into his shirt and stuck his blade next to Matthias’s staff at the man’s neck.

“Answer him, or I’ll cut your throat!” he growled. “Did you send those monsters?”

The man spluttered and coughed, but Matthias didn’t release the pressure of his staff on the man’s neck. The man began to laugh manically. “Cut my throat!” he bubbled. “It will make no difference. You are all dead! We’re all dead!”

Matthias looked down at the man with dazzlingly blue eyes, shimmering like sapphires held against a candle, his face intent. As he did the man’s brow contorted. A thin vein snaked from his hairline to his nose, and it pulsed menacingly.

“I can do far worse than cut your throat, if you force me to. I can make your blood boil beneath your skin.”

Thadius turned his head to Matthias. “You can do that?” he asked, astonished. Matthias ignored him and continued.

“Right now your skin feels as if it is just a little sunburnt and you feel a little sweaty. That’s your blood just slightly raised in temperature. Now, feel the fire coursing through your veins.” The man began convulsing. “I could cook you from the inside out!”

“What are you doing wizard?” Thadius asked.

“I know what I’m doing,” Matthias said angrily. “Now I ask you again, friend,” he said, as the man’s body shuddered and blood dribbled from his nostrils. “Who the hell are you?”

The man looked at him wildly. “Alright! Stop!” He growled through the pressure on his neck, as his face began to smoke in the cold night air. Matthias released the staff from his neck and his eyes dulled back to hazel. Thadius kept his sword pressed to the man’s neck.

Speak then,” Matthias commanded.

“My name…” he wheezed “…is Taico Grimm.”

Taico Grimm,” Matthias repeated, weighing the name out on his tongue.

“An appropriate name for such an unappealing man as yourself!” Josephine sniffed as she approached, brushing grass from her skirt and her hair. “I am fine, by the way,” she snorted at Matthias and Thadius.

Grimm’s face grew soft as he saw her. “You are so… different in the flesh,” he whispered, and his eyes flickered between anger and what appeared sorrow. “You are so beautiful without the blood drenching your hands!”

The princess looked to her palms. “Whatever do you mean?” She asked. “What blood?”

“The blood of thousands of men and women.” He smiled. “The wizard will come and the cycle will start, his intervention will tear the world apart,” Grimm breathed, nodding.

“Answer her properly,” Thadius barked and pressed his sword harder into the man’s throat.

“Burly man with arms of steel: curiosity and heroism will be his heel!” Grimm chimed, his eyes working madly as he stared from one of them to the other. He began to laugh. “Oh you cannot know what terrors await this world now!”

Thadius looked to Matthias. “What is wrong with him?”

Matthias didn’t take his eyes from where Grimm lay. He shook his head. “I don’t know,” he whispered.

Thadius growled, and anchored his sword further on the man’s neck. “Speak sense!” he growled. “Tell us, Taico Grimm, why did you try and kill us? If you do not I will slice your throat this instant! I swear it!”

Grimm swallowed, his constricting neck muscles pressing harder against the blade before he continued. “I was meant to stop you…” he paused as he coughed up some phlegm, which dribbled down his neck. Josephine wrinkled her nose in disgust as she wiped mud from her cheeks. “I was to stop you from leaving Rina. I have to stop you! Please,” he whispered. “You have to stop!”

“Are you a wizard?” Matthias questioned. The man shook his head.

“No.” He chuckled. “Oh no!”

“But you wield energy?” Matthias continued.

“I only wield that which was given to me to do my job! I was imbued with power so that I might stop you.”

“That’s not true,” Matthias exclaimed. “You’re lying.”

“What’s wrong?” Thadius asked, confused.

“Borrowed energy is a myth. There was a suggestion made centuries ago that it may be possible to give someone who should not be able to wield the ability to do so. But that has never been proven to be possible even after thousands of attempts by my people. Those who can use the world’s four energies do so because they are born with the ability.”

“I was not born with this ability,” Josephine commented.

“With respect Your Highness we don’t know much about your abilities yet. Besides, you seem to be a unique case.” Matthias shook his head. “Depending on what or who creatures and people are descended from, many can wield one of the other four powers. They channel them through their bodies like a conductor. The idea that someone, somewhere could grant another access to one of those powers and pass them like a sword to be wielded…” Matthias shook his head. “It’s impossible.”

“It’s true!” Taico exclaimed. “Oh wizard, you are but a minnow in this world! You think you know so much! But you are clueless.” He shook his head and began scolding himself. “Stop talking!” he winced. “Stupid man! After all this time you still cannot help yourself!”

Matthias stepped over Grimm again. “Who gave you the ability? If it is true, you will tell me their name!”

Grimm stared up at Matthias. “No!” He barked. “So young. There is so much more…” he closed his eyes, and a tear slid from between his lashes. “You cannot stop it.” He began to wail uncontrollably. “How I wished you could stop what is yet to come, Matthias of Mahalia! How many times you disappointed me!”

Matthias knelt down. “You know me somehow?” he asked calmly.

“Know you? Oh, how I know you all! You have been a part of me for so long. Your names have become like a poison to me, eating away at my very soul!” He began sobbing again.

“Grimm, tell me,” Matthias whispered. “I can help you, if you will tell me what I need to know.”

Suddenly Grimm’s eyes shot open and he shook his head manically. “No you fool!! It cannot be! You are a liar! Empty promises of a thousand nightmares! This is a trick!”

“He’s mad, wizard!” Thadius whispered. “A lunatic.”

Matthias nodded. “I think you might be right. But the question is, what truths lie behind that madness?”

“I am afraid,” Josephine whispered.

“We should cut his throat and be done with it. Put him out of his misery,” Thadius said. “He is making little sense as it is.”

“He will be no use to us at all if he’s dead,” Matthias said. “Take your sword from his neck.”

“What?” Thadius exclaimed.

“Remove the sword! Matthias barked. “Or must I remove it myself?”

Thadius looked at Matthias with fire in his eyes. But then he removed the steel from Grimm’s throat. The man calmed, and after a moment, he sat up, gingerly, feeling his neck.

“Taico Grimm is not your name,” Matthias said. “It is ancient Sumerian, the oldest language known to exist. It stands for ‘Fated Warrior.’ It is not a name.”

“I am Taico Grimm,” he whispered. “The Four anointed me in the name of the Master as the one who would bring about the return.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” Josephine asked.

Matthias’ eyes narrowed. “The Four?” Matthias asked. “The Four what?”

“No! I will not tell you!” he hissed, shaking his head back and forth. “How can this be happening? So clear… everything was so clear, and then now… I should not be talking to you! And yet… I always longed for this moment that could never come!”

Matthias sighed. “I want to help you. It is clear you are not well. But I can’t help you unless you tell me who sent you and for what purpose? You must tell me!”

Grimm smiled. “You have fire enough in you! But it will not be enough!” He thrust out a hand quicker than could be seen, and gripped Matthias’ neck tightly, catching him off guard. Grimm sneered. “Oh very nearly wizard did you force me to divulge my gift!” He threw the wizard back before Matthias could wield the power enough to repel him, and spun to his feet. “But the second chance they gave me has provided me with the clarity to see what must be done!” He outstretched a hand and a swirling green light erupted from his palm, straight towards the princess. Matthias threw his arm up towards Josephine and before the energy could strike, a bubble of white enveloped her. It sparked as the energy surged into the barrier Matthias erected. “The girl must be extinguished! There is no other option!”

Thadius swung his sword hard and fast and the blade met the back of Grimm’s neck. It took a split second for it to part the man’s head from his body and with the severance, the energy stopped, the body falling to its knees, and then collapsing sideways into the wet grass. Grimm’s head rolled a few paces, and then came to rest by Josephine’s feet, his features pressed into the dirt. Matthias let his hand drop, and the bubble around Josephine vanished.

“Your Highness,” Thadius cried, and rushed to her side, grasping her by the shoulders and kicking the head away. “You are safe now.”

Matthias stood up, staring at the body that lay in the ground in front of him. He exhaled, and covered his mouth with a hand pensively.

“This is your fault,” Thadius barked. “You should never have let him loose from my sword!”

“I needed information,” Matthias said, as he looked at the body, which still twitched, before he turned back to them. “I thought he could give it to us. I was wrong.”

“Your error very nearly cost Josephine her life! Why would you trust a madman and his lies anyway? He never had any intention of helping us! He was trying to kill us!”

“I had a feeling,” Matthias replied. “I can’t explain it. There was more to him than just a madman.” He shook his head. “His eyes were old. Knowing.”

“And what would you know of such things?” Thadius retorted. “You are barely older than the princess you escort!”

Matthias looked at Thadius a moment, as if to respond, but then he relaxed, and simply nodded. “Perhaps you are right.”

“We should go back,” Thadius said. “Back to Rina.”

“If we go back the princess will be in more danger,” Matthias said calmly.

“She is in more than enough danger with you making fool decisions!” Thadius growled.

“What did he mean, ‘she must be extinguished?’ Who was he? Why does someone I have never met want to kill me so much?” she asked.

Matthias knelt by her side. “Because they are afraid of you, Your Highness. You are strong, and whoever these people are who are trying to release the dragon, you can stop them.” He sighed. “You may be the only one these people are afraid of.” He sighed. “I am sorry. I should not have allowed that to happen. Thadius is right about that. Whatever this madman could have told us about the people who are after you, it was not worth your life. And you should not have had to see that.” He glanced back at the severed head, its features buried in the grass.

Josephine nodded. “You are forgiven,” she whispered, after a pause. “After all, you did save me from him. Twice.” She took a breath, “And a beheading, though unpleasant, is not uncommon for me to see, ambassador. My father used to take me to Traitor’s Gate to watch the punishment of criminals.” She stood and stared down at the body. “Mister Grimm got what he deserved for trying to kill me, whatever his motives were. Thadius, we cannot return. As much as I wish to, this must be done. If I can stop people like him, then we will press on. Gods know we have lingered here for long enough.”

Grudgingly Thadius nodded his agreement. “What should we do with the body?” he asked. “We can’t leave it here for anyone to find it. We could burn it?”

“And light a beacon for anyone nearby to see?” Matthias shook his head. “We will have to leave him. We don’t have the time to dig him a grave.”

Thadius frowned at him and nodded. “Boiling his blood, wizard? One moment you were ready to turn him to steamed pork and the next you wanted to help him. You are far more dangerous and unpredictable than I could have believed.”

“Says the man who cut his head off with one blow,” Matthias retorted.

“Perhaps when you have quite finished squabbling, we could carry on?” Josephine interrupted. “I have had more than enough fighting for one night without you starting another!”

Matthias smiled and nodded. “As you wish, Your Highness,” he said. “Come on, let’s go.”

They carried on through the night, leaving the body of Taico Grimm to bleed into the soil.

Feelings of Helplessness

115th Day of the Cycle, 495 N.E. (New Era)

 

King Arwell sat in his chair by the fire, a delicate glass of whisky in his hand. The vessel had been a gift from the Tekritian ambassador, made of fine crystal of the like not seen anywhere else in the world. It was one of a set he had now acquired over the years from the man and he cherished them. Despite the achievements of his own kingdom, nothing of the like had ever been produced in Aralia. Such delicate frosted leaves winding around the glass. Some nights he would simply sit and stare at the beauty of it. Tonight though, he cared not for the glass, but for the alcohol within, which he had drained and replenished several times over in the last hour.

He had been roused from his sleep with news that the princess had up and left in the middle of the night accompanied by Thadius and the wizard. Several of his men had been hurt in the fracas and Lady Pombar, one of his most trusted of servants, had been incapacitated with some incantation that had frozen her to the spot. He had ordered an immediate search of the city for his daughter and now, in the early hours of the morning, the streets were alive with soldiers. The people of Rina watched apprehensively as the men hammered on doors and checked down alleyways, unsure of the reason for the unrest.

Waiting as patiently as he could, the king sat and stared into space, thoughts of all manner of horrors filling his mind. The sky outside was still dark, though it would not be long until sunrise now. He swigged from the glass again and the strong liquid caught in his throat before a burning warmth spread down to his stomach. As he stood to refill the glass again, the door to his chambers burst open and a young soldier strode in.

“Your Grace!” he saluted.

“What news have you?” Arwell asked.

The soldier shook his head. “I regret there is nothing good to report, Your Grace. A gatekeeper has been found severely injured on the east side of the city. He’s had his throat slit and is unconscious, though he does appear, by some miracle, to still be alive, even if it is just barely. The gate he guarded leading onto the plains was wide open.” The soldier looked apprehensive.

“What else?” Arwell beckoned. “By the look on your face I know there is more. Out with it man!”

“We’ve also found the remains of several creatures nearby. They appear to be helspawn of some kind. Captain Tiberius says they are of a breed he has never seen before. They are larger and look much more ferocious.”

More ferocious?” the king spat. “We’re talking of helspawn here man! They already look ferocious!”

The guard shook his head. “Yes Your Grace. As I say, I am relaying only what Captain Tiberius has told me.

“Where is Tiberius now?” the king asked.

“He is surveying the rest of the city as we speak, but it appears that your daughter may no longer be in Rina.”

The king exhaled heavily. “Gods damn you wizard!” he growled. “This is not what was planned!”

“Your Grace, with your permission I will prepare a search party immediately to scour the lands around the city. We will find her.”

“At once!” the king snapped. The man bowed and turned to go. “Wait!” Arwell ordered suddenly. “No. No, you must not prepare a search party. You must do nothing of the like.”

The soldier looked puzzled. “No, Your Majesty?”

Arwell nodded and closed his eyes a moment. “We must not look for her.”

“Your Grace, do I understand you correctly? You wish for us to stop our search?”

Boy, there is nothing more I would like than to rouse every damned soldier in this city – every man with eyes and order them to look over every blade of grass to find my daughter. I would leave this very instant myself and come with you if I went with my heart. But I cannot allow my fear and selfish instinct to overcome what I know is to be the course of action that must be taken. If we start looking for her, we might lead more of those creatures straight to her.” He took another gulp of his drink.

“Your Grace, I think I am missing something here. I do not understand your reason? The princess is gone! Kidnapped, perhaps!”

“My daughter must not be found. Not by us, or anyone else. And she is not kidnapped. She is with Thadius and the wizard, the man who was here these past days. They will take care of her.”

“Your Grace, as I understood it, the ambassador from Mahalia was dragged before you in chains not two days ago! How can you trust this man?”

“I trust Thadius and he assured me he trusts the wizard, even if I don’t.”

“But… where are they going?” the soldier continued to ask.

“Somewhere I cannot disclose.” He nodded. “She will come home when all this is done. In the meantime, we must defend the city.”

“When all is done? Your Grace, what are we to defend Rina against?” He scratched his head. “My pardon, but I am deeply confused.”

“Things more deadly than your young mind can imagine,” the king said bluntly.

“But Your Grace-”

“Do you intend to make it a habit of questioning the words of your king?” Arwell barked.

The soldier stepped back. “No. Of course not, Your Grace. My apologies.”

The king waved him away. “Tell Tiberius to come back and speak with me. We must fortify Rina.”

The man took one last look at his king in stunned silence, before bowing again.

“Of course, Your Grace. By your leave.”

King Arwell watched the man go and then, with a cry of despair, he threw the glass to the floor. It shattered to pieces and with a thud he sank back into his chair and stared at the floor.

“Be safe my daughter,” he whispered. “And when your work is done, come back to me.”

Emalin Noire

115th Day of the Cycle, 495 N.E. (New Era)

 

It took the rest of the night walking for the three travellers to reach the nearest village to Rina. Emalin Noire was a small town with a small population. The sheep in the outlying fields outnumbered the people inside the village by three to one, and the small number of quaint houses the people lived in, built of grey stone with thatched roofs and window boxes full of flowers, were spaced out around a cobbled square, through which a steadily flowing stream ran its length: an offshoot from the river Iden that flowed onwards to the fields, spilling off into irrigation ditches dug along its length. Colourful, painted wooden shutters were closed to ward off the night breeze, the windows having not glass but a diamond latticework of bound canes which did little to stop the cold.

Matthias, Josephine and Thadius moved through the quiet town square. It was still early, dawn having just broken the darkness, and a grey haze still hung across the town. No – one was around and Josephine cupped her hands into the cold, clear water and drank gratefully. Her throat was as dry and scratchy as a briar patch. She could have plunged her head into the stream.

“Thirsty?” Matthias asked, standing over her, a rakish grin on his face.

Josephine stopped a moment, nodded silently, and then drank some more. The water kept spilling between her fingers before she could drink a good handful. Matthias chuckled.

“I probably wouldn’t drink too much of that water, if I were you,” he continued.

“Why?” The princess spluttered, dipping her hands in to the water again.

“We’re downstream from Rina and this water comes from the river on the outskirts of your city.”

“And why is that a problem?” she asked tersely, between sips.

“Where do you think your sewage is dumped?”

Josephine stopped mid – gulp and her face paled over.

“It’s fine princess,” Thadius interrupted. “The water is filtered further upstream. Continue drinking if you wish.” Josephine gave Matthias a scolding stare, and continued.

“In that case, I think we could do with filling these.” the wizard knelt by Josephine’s side, and began dipping two canisters in the water. “I didn’t have any time to prepare them before we left Rina.” When they were full, he strapped them around his waist. “How exactly do you filter the water?” Matthias asked.

“After all that has happened to us overnight, you are interested in our plumbing and drainage solutions?” Thadius retorted.

Matthias shrugged. “Perhaps another time. Are you alright?” Matthias asked, watching the knight as he scanned the village.

“Just looking for trouble,” Thadius said sombrely.

“You’ve been here before?” Matthias asked.

“I have,” Thadius replied. “Many years ago I served on guard duty here. I haven’t returned since. There is not much to write home about. Any newcomers to the village and the news will be spread around in minutes.”

“Then perhaps we should keep moving,” Matthias replied.

“I will be dead from exhaustion first!” Josephine exclaimed. “I need to rest!”

“There’s an inn, the Grey Fox, just down there,” Thadius pointed. “We should be able to get some food and a drink. I for one could do with something.”

Matthias nodded hesitantly. “Alright. But we won’t stay for long. And before we go in, we might have to do something about your appearance.”

“What do you mean?” Josephine asked.

“You’re the heir to the throne of Aralia. I’m sure that your father’s loyal subjects would know the face of his daughter if she were to arrive in their presence, especially this close to Rina and in such a small village. And as for the way you speak. It is very…”

“Yes?” She growled, her eyes narrowing.

“Very… majestic. It might help our efforts if you were to speak more like your countrymen.”

“And how exactly is that?” she scoffed.

“Well… you know. A bit more… common.”

Common?” The princess hissed.

“Yes,” Matthias continued. “A bit like Thadius!” he jerked a thumb at the soldier.

“Watch yourself, wizard,” Thadius warned, and waved his pipe at Matthias. “I would show a little more respect to my charge. And to me as well, if you value your legs. I have little patience for you after last night.”

“You know what I mean,” he said. “It’s important you heed my advice in this matter. Don’t enunciate in quite the same way. Just try to blend in!”

As Matthias stared into Josephine’s enraged eyes, there was a flickering moment in their recesses of hurt. He sighed, as he felt a pang of guilt lower his heart. “Princess, I know this is difficult for you, and this isn’t what you are used to. But I need you to understand I’m not asking you to do this for my own benefit, or putting you through any of this for some kind of personal pleasure. I’m trying to protect you. You do know that, don’t you?”

“You claim honourable principles,” she said, her lips trembling. “But I cannot help but believe you enjoy this. I do not know anything about you! You are a stranger from a foreign land who has dragged me away from my home, and since we have left you have failed to address me in the manner to which I am entitled. I am still the princess. Whether I am in the city or not and you are under my father’s orders to care for and respect me! I am heir to the throne of Aralia!”

“Yes you are,” Matthias said. “Your face is well known for being one of the most dazzlingly beautiful in all of the western nations. You are the ‘Jewel of the West’, a woman any prospective lord would be lucky to wed. Look at you,” he continued, gesturing to Josephine. “Beneath that cloak you still wear the clothes of royalty, and above it your hair shines golden and your eyes dazzle with the beauty of a future queen. It is a beauty that will get you killed if you are recognized. Beyond the safety of the palace walls, not all people look up to royalty. And those that do would bow to your feet as soon as they laid eyes on you.”

Josephine swallowed. “What would you have me do?” she asked. ‘Am I supposed to shed my skin like a snake until I fit a guise that will satisfy your tastes? I cannot change who I am, Matthias Greenwald!”

Matthias smiled gently. “With time, anyone can change. All I would ask is that you heed my advice and disguise your beauty, at least a little, until we are safe again.”

Josephine looked to Thadius. “You agree with him?” she asked. Reluctantly, Thadius nodded.

“He speaks sense, Your Highness. As much as I wish he did not, I think you should disguise yourself in some manner if it will keep you safe, which I believe it will. Emalin Noire has enough gossiping housewives to spread the news of your presence far and wide.”

Josephine licked her lips and finally, after a moments pause, reluctantly nodded. “Very well. But what of you wizard? You wear a coat with delicate golden embroidery, leather boots, fine breeches and you carry yourself around as if you were a prince! Such a presence will likely cause a stir as well.”

Matthias nodded. “You may be right. But these clothes also mark me out as a man of Mahalia. People think twice before approaching a man they suspect may be a wizard. We are feared by many, as you say. Their fear may also act as our protection.”

Josephine sighed. “You have an answer for every question, don’t you?”

Matthias smiled. “I find it helps when you wish to win an argument. But perhaps you are right, in this instance,” Matthias said. He put his bag down and untied the thick knot that held it closed, pulling out a thin, black – green cloak made of a glossy material. He threw it around his shoulders. “It protects against the water. At least a little,” Matthias said. “What do you think?”

“Better than before, at least,” Thadius replied. “If still a little unusual. I have never seen the like.” He shook his head. “Wizards.”

Matthias smiled. “Good. Now, as for yourself, princess?”

“Very well then. How am I to make myself appear less regal? Walk with a hunch? Hop on one leg?

Matthias chuckled. He bent down and ran his hand across the moist mud, which ran along the bank of the stream, and plied it between his fingers of both hands.

“May I?” he gestured.

Josephine sighed. “If you must.” He ran his hands across her hair, spreading the mud through her golden locks, and then across her brow and cheeks. By the time he was finished, her once porcelain complexion was tarnished with the dirt, and her glossy, blonde hair was flat and dulled.

“Better,” Matthias said, smiling. “What do you think, Thadius? Seeing as you are so quick to comment on my fashion techniques?”

The knight frowned. “She looks like she has been mucking out the pigs!”

“Exactly. We will have to find you some less respectable clothes as well, at some point. But until then, just keep wearing your cloak.” He rubbed a little of the mud onto his own cheeks and smoothed it in. “There. We look like a pair of farmhands!”

“Farmhands with leather boots and pearls?” Thadius added, nodding to the wizard’s shoes that stuck out from below the shiny cloak and Josephine’s necklace that still peeked from the top of her shawl.

Matthias sighed. “It’s the best we can do for now. You may want to change your own clothes as well at some point. You still wear the garb of a Rinian soldier, and a sword larger than most men!”

Thadius smiled. “Maybe they will think twice before they come near us then?” he said.

Matthias shook his head. “Alright. Shall we get on?”

The inn appeared quiet from outside, which was hardly surprising given the time of morning, but the door was open so they made their way in. A woman was mopping the floor. She was tall and slender with her curly red hair tied by a ribbon into a ponytail. The chairs all around the bar were turned upside down, resting on the tables, bar one, where an elderly man sat, a hat over his face, snoring. The woman stopped and pulled herself upright as they entered.

“Morning,” she said with an air of confidence. “Up with the cock, aren’t you?” She smiled. “I’m up to get away from mine,” she gestured to the ceiling with her eyes. “The lazy oaf.”

Matthias smiled. “I hope we aren’t disturbing you?” he ventured. The woman shook her head.

“Not at all. Nothing to disturb at this hour, save for old Weasel over there.” The snoring man didn’t stir at the remark. “We used to try to get him out every night, but after a time, you just think ‘what’s the point?’ So we let the old thing be. He’s never any trouble. Anyway, how can I help you? You look as if you’ve been through the ringer. Especially you, little lady,” the woman nodded to Josephine.

“It’s been a long night of travelling,” Matthias continued. “The two of us come from Tekri,” Matthias indicated to himself and Josephine, “And this man is our guide, a soldier from your country who we met on our travels. He is taking us to Rina. We’ve been travelling overnight, so we can reach the city today for the market.”

“It’s dangerous to walk the roads at any time, let alone in the dark, even with an escort as burly as your man here. It’s a wonder you were not mugged, or worse. Take my advice. It’s not worth it. I’ve seen too many people hurt on the roads to the city.”

“I would like to see anyone try their luck, my good lady,” Thadius replied, with a smile.

The woman walked to the bar and propped the broom up. “Can I get you three a drink? You could surely use something to eat as well? I have some pottage left from yesterday. Turnips and peas?”

“Sounds delightful,” Josephine said, her stomach rumbling gratefully.

The woman nodded. “Have yourselves a seat. I’ll be back in a minute.” She left the bar through a short door, and sounds of clunking came from what must have been a kitchen area.

Josephine turned to Thadius. “What is pottage?” she asked.

“Oats and vegetables in a stew,” he replied. “It may be a bit basic by the standards you are used to, princess,” he said.

Shh!” Matthias hissed. “Don’t call her that here!”

Thadius rolled his eyes. “There’s no – one here!

“There’s old whatever – his – name – is over there. He could be a spy for all we know.”

Thadius looked at the old man. “Doubtful.”

“I would eat anything after all that walking!” Josephine replied.

A moment later, as the three of them turned some chairs over at the table closest to the bar, the woman returned, with a tray of three bowls of steaming food and thick spoons, and three chunks of bread, which she placed in front of them. The pottage was thick and grey. Josephine looked at it curiously.

“I’ll just get you a drink as well,” the woman continued and went to the bar.

“Well at least it smells enticing,” Josephine whispered under her breath.

“It will keep you alive and give you enough energy for the day,” Matthias whispered back.

“So what business have you in the Rinian market?” the innkeeper continued, returning with two tankards and a goblet. “Wine for the lady,” she smiled, and set the metal cup in front of her.

“Thank you,” Josephine said. “We are merchants,” she added.

“Merchants?” The woman said. “Merchants without any wares?”

“We have coin to buy new produce,” Matthias chimed in, giving Josephine a brief look of disgruntlement. “We wish to take back some of the local wares to Tekri. And we have been told of the market’s incredible stalls.”

The woman smiled. “If you are going to lie, you had better tell your woman to get some more practice.” She waved her hands as Josephine blushed. “I don’t want to know what you are up to, with a soldier of the realm by your side. All I ask is that you don’t muddy up my floor, you pay your bill, and if there is any trouble, you will be out on your hides. Soldier or no!” She nodded to Thadius.

“We mean you no trouble,” Matthias said. “I apologise for the deception. We only want some food before we continue our journey.”

The woman chuckled. “You wouldn’t be the first people to come in here with a tale to spin. I’ve heard them all! Well, that is, I thought I had until last night.”

“What happened last night?” Josephine asked.

The woman pulled up a chair and sat by them. “I thought I had seen it all. I’ve seen Aslemerian priests, dark-skinned men, women dressed as men – men dressed as women, for that matter – but a creature arrived here yesterday the likes of which I have never seen before in my life! And he could spin a tale with the best of them.”

“What kind of creature?” Thadius asked, looking concerned.

“See for yourself,” the woman said and jerked her head to the far side of the tavern. They turned to see what she was looking at. A figure had emerged from upstairs: a tall man, dressed in a dark green, velvet waistcoat, brown hemp breeches and a white sleeveless shirt, which he wore confidently; the top buttons undone to his chest. His light – brown hair was worked together tightly, tied and knotted into locks that curled up and around his head. Separating his freckled brow and hairline was a white bandana of coarse yarn. His skin was tanned. With his hair tied up the way it was, two long, pointed, curving ears protruded outwards around the sides of his face, with small semi – circular notches taken out at regular intervals until they curved backwards, their ends splitting into two points as they wound their way up past his hairline

“I don’t believe it,” Matthias whispered, staring at the man.

“What?” Thadius asked.

“I know him.” The figure spotted them at the only occupied table and his eyes widened like saucers.

“Matthias? Matthias, is that really you?” the man asked as he strode towards them.

“Luccius!” he exclaimed and nearly kicked his chair out as he rushed over to greet the man, embracing him warmly. “My gods but it’s good to see you!”

“How can you be here?” the man named Luccius asked.

“I could ask you the same question!” Matthias replied.

“I’ve come a long way since we last saw each other Matthias!” Luccius replied, a large grin on his masculine face. His accent was rhotic and the twang foreign compared to the Aralian dialects. “I told you I would travel far across the world! Now look at me! I have been to the fabled city of Rina, the furthest from home I have ever been! Probably the furthest my people have been for hundreds of years.” He laughed loudly and patted Matthias on the shoulders. The wizard laughed with him.

“This is incredible! It’s been what, five years at least?” the wizard asked.

“More like ten!” Luccius replied.

“No, it can’t be that long!” Matthias waved him away.

Ahem,” Thadius coughed loudly.

“Oh yes!” Matthias said awkwardly, caught off guard. “Let me introduce you to my travelling companions. This is…” He suddenly eyed the barwoman, and then turned back to Luccius. “You know, where are my manners? May we have a drink for my friend?” He asked the woman. She smiled.

“Of course. Though if you wanted me out of earshot, you only had to ask.” She turned on her heel and made her way to the bar. Matthias shook his head, smiling.

“As I was saying,” he continued. “This is Josephine.” Luccius bowed gracefully to her, taking her hand and kissing it delicately. She blushed.

“Such a fair lady! Matthias, what have you done to deserve to travel with such beauty?”

“This is her… well, this is Thadius.” The knight stood to shake Luccius’s hand.

“An impressive sword!” Luccius commented, indicating to the decorative hilt of Thadius’s weapon. “Suitable for the knights of Aralia themselves, I’ll wager?”

Thadius coughed. “Yes. Yes, I’d imagine it would be, if I were one.”

“I’m not bad with a sword myself. Perhaps we could spar together later, if you have time?” Luccius continued.

Perhaps,” Thadius retorted.

“When did you learn to use a sword?” Matthias asked.

“I have learnt a lot in ten years,” Luccius smiled. “I’m a little more worldly than before. So, where are you three going?” Luccius asked. “Is Matthias taking you on one of his famous trips?” He grinned at the wizard.

“You could say that,” Thadius replied stoically. Then he shook himself. “Famous trips?”

Matthias shook his head feverishly. “Not now, please Thadius,” he implored. The man looked at him suspiciously. “It’s a long story Luccius,” Matthias replied. He shook his head. “I cannot get over you being here!”

“Ahem. Excuse me for asking, but what… what exactly are you?” asked Josephine, her eyes drawn to the man’s long, curving ears. Luccius smiled at her and ran a hand across them.

“I’m an ansuwan, Lady Josephine,” he grinned. “My people don’t travel far from home, if at all. I’m not surprised you haven’t heard of my kind before. We haven’t ventured this way for a long time.”

“Ansuwan?” Thadius weighed the word up. “That means ‘elf’, in the old Aralian tongue, if I’m not mistaken?”

Luccius shook his head. “A term my people have endured for many years, especially this far west it seems. It’s a misconception that I must admit has started to grate lately. Wherever I go people point at my ears and yell ‘Look, there’s an elf!’”

“My apologies,” Thadius nodded. “If not an elf, then what is an ansuwan?”

“Ansuwan used to live all across Triska,” Matthias interrupted. “Until the kings of the different nations took a dislike to their unique affinity with the world and their long lives, which they saw as dangerous to their sovereignty. So they made up stories of mischievous creatures that stole children from their beds and drove them away. The myth of elves is all that remains of those lies.”

Josephine shook her head. “I am astounded I have never heard of your people before today!”

“It’s a big wide world out there,” Matthias added.

“We have an affinity with the world around us that humans don’t,” Luccius continued. “My people remain solitary creatures. It keeps them safe from the wars of the world. Most of the time.” The innkeeper returned with another tankard. “Thank you Renna. This woman is a marvel! Have you tried your pottage yet? Best pottage I have ever tasted!”

The woman smiled and shook her head. “This one has all my serving girls brushing their hair all day and whitening their faces with whatever they can get their hands on! Such a charmer. My husband hated him from the moment he laid eyes on him! Which reminds me,” she added, and held up a finger. “As much as I don’t want to, I had better rouse the man from bed, otherwise he is likely to stay there all day! I won’t be long.” She nodded and disappeared through the doorway again. The creak of wood indicated her movement upstairs.

“Where do you come from?” Josephine continued to ask.

“We live far to the east in small communities we call S’aals. I come from Tovem S’aal. As I said, my people don’t like to get out much. Except, that is, for me! So I will let you off for calling me an elf Thadius. Not many people know we ansuwan exist. Save for wizards, who know where to look for us.”

“And how exactly did you two meet?” Thadius asked.

Luccius opened his mouth but Matthias cut him off. “Perhaps that is a story for another time,” he said. “The pottage is getting cold.”

“Well, it is a sincere pleasure to meet one of your kind!” Josephine smiled.

Luccius grinned, and nodded. “The pleasure is all mine.” Josephine flushed.

“I can see you haven’t changed that much in these last few years,” Matthias retorted, shaking his head.

Luccius shrugged his shoulders. “I’m just being polite to a very pretty young lady!” he said.

“Well just as well remember you’re almost seventy! It wouldn’t work Luccius!”

“He’s seventy?” Thadius exclaimed. “He doesn’t look any older than you do!”

“And how old am I?” Matthias asked, smiling.

“Well you’re … you’re… I don’t know!” Thadius shrugged.

Matthias smiled, and raised his brows. “Exactly.”

“Ansuwan age differently to humans,” Luccius answered. Then he looked at Matthias. “Most humans.”

Thadius shook his head. “My grandfather died when he was forty! That seemed long – lived!”

“I’m curious,” Matthias interrupted. “Where are you travelling to now, my old friend?”

“I haven’t decided yet,” Luccius replied. “I’ve been here for three days.” He shook his head. “I was going to leave yesterday, but then something told me I should stay for one more night. I’m glad I did now!”

Matthias smiled and nodded. “Undoubtedly.”

“You never answered my question Matthias,” Luccius pressed. “Where are you three off to?”

Thadius stopped with a spoonful of pottage halfway to this mouth and stared at Matthias, mouth open.

Matthias took a deep intake of air as he leaned back in his chair. “We’re travelling to Olindia.”

The smile on Luccius’ face faded. “Olindia,” he chewed over the word. “Things I have picked up on my journey suggest that Olindia may not be the safest of places to go sightseeing right now.”

Matthias leaned forward, in spite of the emptiness of the inn, save for the one known as Weasel. “What do you know?” he asked.

“I know a great many things,” Luccius replied. “I know how to win at dice nearly every time and come out of a bar fight with barely a bruise.”

“Don’t play games with me Luccius. I haven’t the time.”

The Ansuwan nodded. “It isn’t anything specific. You know I can sense when people use energy. Whenever you used the earth power in the past, I might not have been able to see it, but I could feel it. I have felt the same thing here, but much, much larger. There’s… something, the further north – west you go. A pulsing.” Luccius sighed. “I’ve tried to ignore it if I’m honest. What could I do, after all? But you’re involved in it, aren’t you?

Matthias nodded. “Aren’t I always?” He looked to the sleeping man Weasel, with his hat propped over his head. “I think maybe we should go somewhere a little more private to talk, don’t you? He may be as drunk as a skunk, but I’d rather not take any more chances.”

“We can talk in my room,” Luccius nodded. “Follow me,” The Ansuwan said and made his way around the back.

An Old Friend

115th Day of the Cycle, 495 N.E. (New Era)

The four of them crowded into the small room of the tavern, Josephine perched on the side of the small and creaky bed, and Thadius propped up on its frame. Matthias closed the door, making sure there was no one in the hallway as he did so, and leaned his palms against its course wood. His eyes flickered, and there was a faint breeze for a moment, accompanied by a sucking sound. Then he lifted his hands.

“The room’s sealed. No one outside can hear us, even if they wanted to.”

“First thing’s first,” Thadius said, squaring up to Luccius. “How do I know what you say can be trusted? Why should we trust you with our secrets?”

“Luccius is a very old friend of mine Thadius,” Matthias interjected.

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” the knight grimaced.

“I see that these people’s distrust of your kind runs deeper than most,” Luccius said, brow raised.

“With good reason!” Thadius exclaimed.

“There is no one I trust more than Luccius, Thadius. Which is precisely why he is here.”

Luccius looked surprised. “You knew I would be here?” he asked.

“No,” Matthias replied, as if it was answer enough on its own. “I’ll explain later.”

Luccius nodded. “To continue our discussion from downstairs, I’ve kept away from Olindia myself. I was going to visit, but as I say, something doesn’t feel right that far north – west.”

Matthias nodded. “Your instincts are spot on as always. I’ve been sent to Olindia. It’s the dragon, Sikaris. He’s being freed.”

Luccius’s eyes widened. “You are sure?” Matthias nodded and the ansuwan rubbed the back of his neck. “Well that would about do it,” he nodded. “These pulses were strong enough to keep me awake at night sometimes. But how could anyone break the dragon free?”

“I’m not sure how, or why, for that matter. All we know is we have to stop it from happening. The gods themselves have warned Mahalia of this.”

Luccius looked at Josephine and Thadius for a moment. “But on your own? No other wizards? I don’t understand. With such a threat, why are you travelling to Olindia with only a woman and a knight by your side?” He bowed to Josephine. “No offence meant.”

Matthias shook his head. “The situation is complicated. Not even the combined power of all of Mahalia’s best wizards would stand any hope of blocking the forces that weaken Sikaris’s prison. We would barely scratch the surface of what they are trying. It’s a force beyond the knowledge of Mahalia: an old, unknown mix of energy and weavings.”

“Then… what difference can you three alone make?” Luccius continued to question. “Who are these people? Do you intend to fight the dragon alone? You’ve been known to leap before you look Matthias, but this is danger on a completely different scale!”

“I’m not the one who is going to try and stop the Dragon. This time, I’m just an escort.”

Luccius looked confused, but then, after a pause, he followed Matthias’ gaze to Josephine. He started forward, his tall frame overpowering Josephine’s own, and stared intensely into her eyes for a moment.

“May I?” he asked, as he moved to hold her hand, and gripped it gently as she nodded. He lifted it and placed it on his chest, his own hand covering hers, and closed his eyes.

“What’s he doing?” Thadius asked warily.

Matthias shrugged. “You’re asking me? The ways of the ansuwan are still a mystery to me, even after knowing Luccius for so long.”

Suddenly Luccius gasped, and let the hand drop. Josephine jumped on the spot.

“You are a sorceress?” he asked, uncertain. “No,” he corrected himself. “There is a purity in your gift. I…” he turned to Matthias. “What is it? I have never felt any power like it. I could not even sense it around her it is so foreign to me. Had you not pointed it out…” He paused, and turned back to Josephine again, grabbed her face in his hands, and analysed her as if he were looking for some hidden markings. Finally, after a moment, he gasped again.

“You’re an Akari! Or, at least, your energy, it… tastes heavenly. Angelic.” He grew more excited as he spoke. “You are an angel!”

Josephine nodded. “Thank you, I think. And you are correct. I appear to possess their power. Though do not ask me where in the world I have inherited it from! According to your wizard friend here, I have been ‘chosen.’ Whatever that means.” She sighed.

Luccius sat, or more accurately, he fell back onto the bed. “That’s impossible! How can you exist?” He turned to Matthias? “She is not possible!”

She is still standing here,” Josephine added, and raised a brow. Luccius blushed slightly at the remark.

“And yet,” Matthias replied, and indicated to the princess. “I know it doesn’t make sense, Luccius, but it’s true. That’s why I’m here. I’m helping to realise her abilities. I’m taking her, together with Thadius, to Crystal Ember. She has the power to seal the dragon’s prison, once and for all. The gods have chosen her to do this. It has been written, in a seeing stone, that she can stop them.”

Luccius seemed surprised at the comment. “A stone? But if the gods have seen fit to send a message then…” he looked awkward, and stopped mid-sentence.

“Then we are all in very grave danger,” Josephine finished, for him. “You needn’t mind your words around me. I am growing aware of the implications. Which is precisely why we are on our way to stop this from happening. Believe me, I wouldn’t be going for anything less!”

Luccius shook his head. “Forgive me Lady Josephine. It is just you are so young. It is difficult to perceive you wielding such power. And you of all people Matthias, to get swept up in all of this.” Then he stopped, and chuckled. “Actually, now I come to think on it, it makes perfect sense that you are in on all of this.” Thadius’s face creased with worry at the remark. Matthias shook his head again and shrugged.

“You know me, Luccius. I wish there was time for you to get your head around this, but we’re in a lot of danger,” Matthias said. “Events have been set in motion. There are creatures following us. Demons sent by the people weakening the dragon’s prison, whoever they are. They know what is happening.”

“They seem intent on killing me and anyone that stands in their way,” Josephine said. “We were attacked last night.”

“We need to get to Olindia as quickly as possible,” Matthias added.

Luccius nodded. “Would another companion help you to reach Olindia faster?” he interrupted, before Matthias could even ask.

“You’re sure?”

“I wouldn’t have bothered offering if I wasn’t sincere!” Luccius said, a smile returning to his face.

“You want to come with us?” Thadius exclaimed. “Why in the gods would you volunteer for this?”

“I’ve never been one to walk away from an adventure. Have I Matthias?”

“No, you haven’t at that,” Matthias shrugged. “But this is different from anything we’ve ever encountered before Luccius. It’s causing the world itself to bend and the gods to call upon every piece they need to fight their cause. And if you think I’m being overdramatic, then ask yourself why you and I are standing here now face to face after so long? I believe you have been nudged here by the gods Luccius, whether you know it or not. They may be physically weak but they have other means of touching the world. Small things can build up.”

Luccius nodded. “There has been something in the air around me for a while now, a feeling of… unfinished business. I had thought it was to do with travelling or… well, other matters. But it seems it may have been someone trying to get me here.” He nodded. “You can count me in on your journey.” He stood up. “Besides, I was getting a little bored travelling on my own all the time.”

Josephine smiled. “I will feel a lot better with you by my side as well, Mister Luccius. You have certainly brightened up the room! I would be grateful for your company on this trip.”

The ansuwan bowed his head. “It would be my pleasure to escort you to Olindia. But one thing. Please don’t call me Mister. It’s just Luccius.”

She thought about it, and nodded with a smile. “Very well, but I will extend the same courtesy to you. Please, just call me Josephine.”

“Alright Josephine. You have yourself a deal!”

The princess laughed. Then she turned to Matthias. “Not you though, ambassador. You can call me by my full title.” She looked pleased with herself.

“You two got off on the wrong foot, did you?” Luccius asked.

“You could say that,” added Thadius, kicking off from the bed frame and unfolding his arms. “Matthias tried to kidnap Josephine a few days ago.”

Luccius looked to Matthias. “Kidnap?” he asked in disbelief. “You have been a great many things Matthias, but a thief and abductor is not one of them.”

“I had my orders, Luccius. Orders I regret trying to follow,” he added. “But enough of debating the past,” he said dismissively. “If you are coming Luccius, we have to leave now. It’s a long way still to Olindia, and time is not our friend.” He made for the door. “I think it’s high time we found some horses, don’t you? Thadius, do you know where we can find any?”

Thadius nodded. “Elmthorn Mews is a few minutes walk away. They should be able to provide us with some.”

Matthias nodded. “Well then, shall we get this journey started properly?”

Their group left the inn shortly after, paying for their meals and leaving Renna to tend to her bar and her husband. When they arrived at the stable, Luccius knew the woman who tended to the horses and managed to charm her into providing four well-bred horses at a reasonable price.

“I won’t ask how you became so familiar with that woman that she would offer us four palfreys at such low cost,” Matthias said as they ambled along on the top of their horses.

“It’s best not to perhaps, when we are in the company of a lady,” Luccius smiled.

They left Emalin Noire along a wide, well-trodden dusty pathway. Matthias took the lead, whilst Thadius fell behind to guard their rear. Josephine and Luccius engaged in conversation.

“I have always wanted to visit the Sea Port of Tekri,” the princess mused.

“There is nowhere I have ever been that quite compares,” Luccius said. “They have buildings that soar up to the clouds, built of metals that shimmer in the sunlight! Ships line the docks for miles and miles along the shoreline.”

The princess shook her head in wonderment. “My father has always feared and admired the Letan Empire in an almost equal measure.”

“It sounds as if he has an important role in Rina?” Luccius commented.

Josephine blinked in surprise. “My goodness!” She held a hand up to her mouth. “In all our conversations my position was never brought up, was it?” Luccius looked confused. “I am Princess Josephine Arwell. My father is King Joseph Arwell of Aralia.”

“You’re the heir to the throne of Aralia?” he exclaimed.

Josephine nodded. “I did not realise that we hadn’t told you that until now!” she grinned.

Princess Josephine,” Luccius whispered the title.

“I told you to just call me Josephine!” she advised.

“That was before I knew you were royalty! It seems there is still quite a bit you have to fill me in on, Matthias!” he called in front.

“All in good time my friend. All in good time,” Matthias called back. He was enjoying riding further ahead, the feel of the wind blowing through his hair. Explanations could wait until later. There was a long way to go.

“Oh my Gods, I flirted with the Princess of Aralia!” Luccius said, smacking his forehead with a hand.

Josephine laughed and leant forward to him. “Well I shall let you in on a secret: the princess quite enjoyed it!” Luccius went bright red and his ears twitched. “Anyway, I feel I have embarrassed you quite enough for one day. Let us discuss other matters. Perhaps about your home. Are you homesick, being so far away?”

Luccius shrugged. “I suppose, in a way. I miss the place. But not the people.”

“Why not the people?” she asked.

“Ansuwan are… different from humans in many ways. They do not place the same value on exploration and invention. It is a world away from the one your kind has built. I have always felt more at home in the company of man.”

Josephine nodded. “I see. But your home itself, it is a pleasant land?” she asked.

Luccius smiled and his deep hazel eyes gleamed. “Oh yes. Streams of pure, dazzlingly clear water run past houses made of the finest, most magnificent materials you will ever see. Platinum, diamonds, minerals of all sorts are plentiful in Tovem S’aal. When the sun shines down through the crystalline trees, it lights up the lands with a sparkling glow. It’s a little piece of paradise, unaffected by the rules of the rest of the world. Time works differently there. A day in your land can be a week in Tovem S’aal, and a week can be a month. It’s all because of an energy fountain.”

“A what?” Josephine asked, entranced.

“Our people built our community around it. They’re breakages in the ground, where energy pours out from the centre of the world. It changes the landscape around it. There are only three in all of the Triskan Continent, and all of them have been colonized by the ansuwan. I think it’s why we have such an affinity for sensing the powers. We are raised around them in such concentrations, it’s in our blood.”

“But you cannot use them?”

Luccius shook his head. “No. We’ve never been able to. It’s probably a good thing. But it does extend our lives quite considerably as the powers often do with others who wield them.”

“I would very much like to visit your world some day,” Josephine said. “If I escape from this,” she said, and her voice became sad.

“You’ll be just fine, princess,” Luccius said. “Matthias won’t let anything happen to you,” he whispered.

Josephine snorted. “I’m not so sure about that,” she sighed.

“Matthias is a good man,” Luccius said. “I’ve known him for a long time. He might seem a little rude sometimes, but that’s because of his people. He doesn’t agree with them a lot of the time, but he loves his country. He’s torn between his own morality and the will of his people, and more often than not it gets him into trouble. But I know he’ll get you back from all of this. Because he cares about what happens to you.”

“Cares about my power, you mean,” she replied. “I am simply a tool to wield.”

Luccius shook his head. “I mean he cares about the person you are. Trust me, he will not let anything hurt you.”

Josephine looked at Luccius and then to Matthias, who was riding some way ahead.

“He is a curious man,” she said. “So guarded and suspicious. He is everything a wizard of Mahalia is rumoured to be. And yet… at times he seems almost human.” She shook her head. “I cannot work him out.”

Luccius smiled. “He’s a wizard. You’re not supposed to be able to. They like it that way.”

She smiled. “How did you both meet?” Josephine asked.

Luccius snorted. “Now it seems that may be a story he does not want me to tell you yet, and therefore the one story I’ll have to decline in telling.”

Josephine looked at Luccius curiously, but then nodded. “Very well. I suppose you have your loyalties.” She turned back to face the front. Matthias turned in his saddle up ahead and caught her eye.

“Are you alright?” he called back to her.

She nodded. “I am fine. Thank you.” He nodded back, and smiled.

“You’re doing well, your highness,” he said, before he turned back to survey the direction they were travelling.

She shook her head again as she stared at the back if his head. “Very curious,” she whispered.

The body of the innkeeper’s husband lay sprawled on the floor of the bar, his throat cut. Several paces away, the man known as Weasel lay bleeding in a corner from his stomach, propped up against the far wall, unconscious. His innards were splayed out across the floor in front of him, cut to pieces, his intestine a shrivelled, pink sausage snaking across the sullied floorboards. Two other men lay on the floor, bloodied and unconscious.

Pinned against the wall by a thick, menacing arrow, Renna dangled helplessly, her face pale and eyes wide with terror as she watched the man in front of her sniff the air like a bloodhound. Taico Grimm stepped over the men’s bodies and pressed his fingers against the wood of the table closest the bar. “They have only been gone a few hours,” he whispered distractedly. His hands were stained red, a bloodied knife still gripped in one hand and a crossbow slung on his back. He ran his fingers across the wood, and then stopped, with a sharp intake of breath, and began feeling the wood with intent. “There was another here, with them!” He took a deep snort, and then he began to laugh. “It’s him! Oh I had almost forgotten about that creature! How could I have forgotten? The mind is such a fragile thing,” he said, pressing two fingers against his head repeatedly and staring up at the woman. He started forward. “What did they speak about?” he asked her.

She looked at him with fire in her eyes. “How much… they… enjoyed… the pottage!” she spat.

Grimm sneered. “Witty. Do you think that will save you? Only I can save you.”

“You’re killing me!” she barked. Grimm laughed.

“I’m not talking about that! I am the only one who can stop the oncoming storm. I am the groyne that will break the waves as they pound this land!”

Renna swallowed hard as she struggled to breathe. “Why are you doing this?” she panted.

“Because it must be done. Because I have seen the true strength of both the light and the dark and in the end, the darkness is stronger and will prevail. And so it must come to pass, one way or the other, that the world will be reborn.” He shook his head. “No-one can know the burden I carry. No-one!”

She shook her head. “You’re a madman! You… will burn for this!”

Grimm smiled. “When all this is over, we will all burn.” He turned and walked to the door. “I am sorry it had to end this way for you. Trust me though; it is preferable to what is to come. And it is only just beginning.” He nodded and stepped out into the daylight.

 

An Old Discussion

79th Day of the Cycle, 495 N.E. (New Era)

 

“Alone?” Matthias exclaimed, brushing his lengthy hair from his eye line and behind his ear. “You want me to do this single – handedly?”

Augustus Pym, his former mentor and a member of the Council of Wizards, strode the room slowly, hands tucked into his robes. He was a tall man, with an aquiline nose and a high forehead, slightly wrinkled even though he was still in his middling years. He was starting to grey in places in the crown of his short, brown hair but compared to the others in the Council he was practically youthful. Still, whatever his age, he was a wise man. He hadn’t become a member of the ruling Council of Mahalia without the brains to back it up.

“You heard me right,” Augustus said calmly, eyeing Matthias carefully.

“But… why?” Matthias said breathily.

“There is always a need for an explanation with you, isn’t there my young friend? Is it not enough that your old mentor wishes it to be so?”

Matthias looked down, chastened, but then, defiantly, raised his head again. “I am not as young as you continue to perceive me to be, Master Pym. And in this case, I believe I need to know what is happening!” He stepped forward, and the man flicked a wrist at him.

“Ah! Ah! No moving from the spot unless instructed! You know the protocols!”

“Oh to hell with the rules, Master Pym! You’ve never been a great one for them before!” He stepped forward and drew close to the older wizard. “That’s the reason I admire you so much!”

Pym smiled. “I can see you ignore me and flout the rules of our people as you always have done in such matters.” He sighed, but then smiled. “It is perhaps the reason I have asked you to do this. Because I know you will ignore some of the rules that hold us back and threaten to destroy us. You will do what needs to be done. Not what the Protocols dictate.”

“But surely this is too important to be left to me alone?” Matthias asked.

“You doubt your own abilities?” Pym asked.

“With this? You bet I do!” he said.

“Then you sell yourself short, Matthias. You are a promising wizard. Intelligent, powerful, and above all, resourceful. You are the perfect candidate for this. You successfully retrieved the Ark last year. The Council were very impressed by that.”

“But it’s not the council who are asking me to do this, is it?” he said. Matthias swallowed. “Is there no way to convince them to change their mind?”

Pym smiled again, and shook his head. “Once the Consensus has been made, it is easier to move the continent than to change the direction our people will take. And in this case, they are quire clear what must be done with Princess Josephine.” He pulled himself up tall. “So it is up to you and I, and a select few others, to see to it that things proceed in the manner they need to. For the good of Triska and the entire world of Erithia. Besides, you needn’t be worried. From your point of view, you are taking orders from the Council. A small part of it, at least.”

Matthias shook his head. “Have the Council any idea yet who is doing this? For what reason anyone would want to free the dragon?”

“Matthias, you ask too many questions.” Pym smiled. “You know the old saying, curiosity killed the cat?”

“At least cats have nine lives! I only have one, and I would be happy to keep it! And I’d rather have all the facts and risk death knowingly, than stumble blindly into something of which I only know half of the story!”

Pym laughed out loud. “Too true. But in this case, I have told you all I can. In the meantime, your job is to see that Princess Josephine takes the course she needs to. Once she has, there will be no turning back. And we will have succeeded. Josephine is an asset, not a threat. The Council must see that, but sometimes they have to be forced to acknowledge it. You must leave tonight. Use whatever means you can to get to Rina as quickly as possible. You must arrive before Fenzar at all costs.”

Matthias nodded. “I will do what I can, Master Pym.”

Augustus sighed, and moved to the window. “I know you will, my old apprentice.”

Matthias opened the latch. “Let’s hope the Council will be persuaded by our actions and choose the better path.” He slipped out the door.

Pym sighed. “So do I, Master Greenwald. So do I.”

Onwards

116th Day of the Cycle, 495 N.E. (New Era)

After much travelling and with the sun calling time for another day and setting on the horizon, Matthias decided, with much cajoling from the others in their party, that they had better stop to rest for the night. With no town nearby, they decided to set up camp in the countryside. Their horses were tied to a nearby tree and twigs and other bits of kindling were gathered by Luccius and Thadius from a nearby copse and arranged in a small heap.

“Is anyone here any good at lighting a fire?” asked Thadius as he placed a few more branches into the stack and piled dried grass on top. He grasped a stick of wood as thick as his thumb, and started to twist it between his palms furiously.

“You’re doing it wrong,” Matthias said. Thadius eyed him grumpily.

“Oh really?” he retorted. “I’d like to see you do better!”

Matthias raised his hand. There was a crackle, a wisp of smoke and then flame burst from the wood stack. Thadius fell backwards, stick still in hand, wide eyed.

“Another use for having a wizard around!” exclaimed Luccius, chuckling.

“I’ll never get used to your tricks, wizard,” Thadius grumbled, and threw the stick into the flame. Matthias laughed.

They all sat together in the warmth for a while, Matthias with his eyes closed in meditation, Luccius playing cards with himself using a pack he produced from his waistcoat and Thadius eyeing the darkness beyond the fire’s wake warily, sword resting on his lap. Josephine fiddled with the grass absently. Her eyes were heavy, her face pale, and her shoulders hunched over.

“You should get some rest, princess,” instructed Matthias, opening his eyes. “It has been a long day for you. There will be many more like it.”

She managed a weak, tired smile. “Are you going to force me to sleep, ambassador?” she asked.

He shook his head. “No.”

“Then I would prefer to remain awake.”

He nodded. “I understand.”

“No, I very much doubt that you do.”

He smiled. “I know that you are far away from home, that you have been taken from the comfort of your life and that beyond anything else, all you wish is to go home again. But you can’t, because deep within you is a sense that what you are doing is the right thing to do. And that’s what’s keeping you here.”

Josephine stared at him in silence a moment. Then she said: “You do realise that it is incredibly annoying when you manage to do that.”

“Do what?”

“Manage to read my thoughts and get them so completely and utterly right. How do you do that?”

Matthias smiled. “Maybe you and I aren’t so different after all?” he ventured.

She smiled thinly. “Perhaps.” Then she sighed, ripping a daisy from the ground and twiddling it between her fingers.

“What’s the furthest you’ve been from home princess?” Luccius asked.

“Not far,” she replied. “I am told I visited Olindia when I was younger, with my father. But I can’t remember that far back. I have lived a very… sheltered life.”

The ansuwan smiled. “Well, what better company could you have for your first long trip away? You certainly couldn’t be safer. If you think lighting fires is all Matthias can do, you haven’t seen anything yet! As for myself,” Luccius continued, “I’m a dab hand with a spear or a quarterstaff and I’m none too bad with a sword either now! And I’m guessing Thadius here uses his own sword for more than cutting up his food or flossing his teeth. How’s about a little practice between us, Thadius?” he asked.

Thadius rubbed his face with a hand. “I am tired,” he said. “Another time.”

“Are you all right?” Luccius asked him.

“It is nothing,” he answered. “It is late and it has been a long day,” he muttered.

“You should get some sleep as well Thadius,” Matthias said. “It’ll be another long day tomorrow. Perhaps longer. I can keep a watch.”

Thadius snorted. “I would sooner slit my own throat than rely on you to keep watch, after all the excitement of the last few nights,” he said.

Matthias shook his head. “Suit yourself. But if you have come this far with me then you must trust my judgement at least a little now. You can’t stay awake forever.”

“I believe your intentions are honourable. It is the method you choose to employ them that scares me still. So until you prove you are capable of leading us to safety, I will remain awake.”

Matthias nodded and smiled. “There may be hope for you yet, Thadius.”

“If you have finished with your daily trading of barbs, I have a few more questions to ask you Matthias,” Josephine added, interrupting the banter with a frown.

Matthias propped himself into a more comfortable position on the floor and gestured with a hand. “Go ahead and ask them. I’ll try and answer you. If I can.”

“Very well,” she said and took a breath. “Firstly I want to know if you have any idea who is trying to break the dragon’s prison. I know you have said you do not, but you must be able to make a guess of whom it may be? You must have some inkling.”

Matthias licked his lips. “I never lied to your father princess when I told him I had no idea who had done this. I really did not know any more than I told you back in Rina. But I have been thinking after our encounter with Taico Grimm. I have never met anyone who claimed to be using a borrowed power before.”

“How is that significant?” Josephine asked.

“That kind of talent is the stuff of legend. If it is true, and I’m not certain by any stretch of the word that it is, then it means whoever is after you possesses skills unlike any that have been seen for a long time. Unfortunately, Grimm gave precious little away, aside from a name: The Four. It didn’t mean anything to me. At least not at first. But then I remembered something I learned a long time ago. Have you ever heard of ‘Arash Malhat’?” he asked.

“Who is he?” Josephine asked. Matthias shook his head.

“It is a place. Or it was a place, a very long time ago, situated near where the Seaport City of Tekri rests now. It was a land built before Aralia even existed. I think around two thousand years ago, if my memory serves me. It was a land governed by sorcerers: the equivalent to the Council of Mahalia, but for their own kind.”

“How is a sorcerer different from a wizard?” Thadius asked. “I don’t see the distinction.”

“From an outside perspective, it would seem very little,” Matthias continued. “But a sorcerer uses a completely different thread of energy than a wizard. It is a more raw, visceral power, and much more dangerous.”

“And this Arash Malhat was a land filled with sorcerers?” Josephine asked.

Matthias nodded. “It was a land of sorcerers, governed by four Arch-Sorcerers. Aside from that, I must confess I know precious little about the land itself aside from a few stories passed down from generation to generation. In particular, there is one I recall more than any other. The tale of the fall of Arash Malhat tells of the final governors of that realm and the final days of their land. They were greedy, selfish men, all of them, and more often than not Mahalia was drawn into conflict with Arash Malhat, against their blind ambitions. It was a time of immense wars between wielders. But this was when the Akari still lived, and such a thirst for power by the sorcerers was not tolerated. To stop them, the Akari razed Arash Malhat to the ground and extinguished all the sorcerers within its walls.”

“They killed them all? How many?” Josephine asked, her eyes widening.

Matthias shrugged, “I’m not sure. Hundreds? Definitely. Thousands? Perhaps. Either way, they did what was necessary to preserve the status quo. And as a final punishment, they made an example of the four Arch-sorcerers and sent them into exile.” Matthias took a breath. “They disappeared from history as far as I know. I believe that was around six hundred years ago.”

Thadius laughed. “I may be mistaken, but you can’t possibly think that the ‘four’ that Grimm was talking about are the same men?”

Matthias shrugged, “It is, as I said, only a theory. But it would fit the facts as they stand.”

“But how could they live for so long? Six hundred years?”

“When you use the powers of the world, they can do things to your body. The deteriorating effects of time can be slowed.” He cocked his head. “It is unlikely that such people could remain alive for so long, but not impossible. They may have found a way.”

“Your Council, ambassador. Did they not see anything of these perpetrators through the seeing stone? Did it tell them nothing of those who would release the dragon?”

“The stones are not able to be read like a book, princess. It isn’t always easy to decipher their entire meaning. But I think that they were investigating the possibilities as I left.”

“What do you mean, ‘you think?’” Thadius grumbled.

“The Council have not been entirely clear with me about the details of their investigation,” he said reservedly.

“That’s encouraging,” Thadius retorted. “Why not?”

“It’s a long story Thadius.”

“We have a lot of time it would seem,” the knight proffered.

“Perhaps but I am not willing to tell it,” Matthias said more sternly.

“I did say no more secrets, ambassador,” the princess said. “It sounds very much like you are hiding something from me again.

“A discussion around my people’s politics would bore you princess. We haven’t enough water for such a dry story.” He took a breath. “Speaking of my people, I had better talk with my contact in the Council and let them know what has happened to us so far. Grimm’s ramblings might help them and ultimately us, if they can find these people and stop them before they are successful in breaking the dragon free.”

Matthias shuffled in his spot and leant to where his bag was lying on the grass. He fumbled inside it and pulled out the small communication orb. “I use this to speak with my people,” he said, at the looks from the others.

“I saw that in your room the other night when I was… making sure you were comfortable,” Thadius finished abruptly. Matthias smirked.

“Think of it like, well…” he struggled for an analogy.

“A carrier pigeon?” Thadius tried.

Matthias looked at him. “A carrier pigeon, in a glass ball, flying messages back and forth between Mahalia and here instantaneously.” The others looked at him blankly, and he shook his head. “Perhaps not, Thadius.” He shrugged. “In any case, it will let me speak with Mahalia straight away without having to wait days or weeks for a response. It’ll only take a minute.” He clutched the ball tightly in his palm and closed his eyes. Purple light began to swirl around the sphere and his hand.

“Amazing,” Thadius exclaimed. “I could do with one of those. Imagine being able to speak with your father as we sit here. Or give orders to soldiers on the battlefield.”

Josephine nodded. “The tools of wizards are impressive, I will begrudgingly admit.”

There was a sudden, ferocious buzzing from the sphere. Matthias looked down.

“What is it?” Thadius asked.

“I don’t know. But something is-” In a second, the orb exploded in Matthias’s hand, shattering into fragments. They dove away as glass bit through the air, and Matthias closed his eyes with a cry and held out his palm. Blood covered his hand where glass has embedded itself into his skin. He was shaking.

“Oh my Gods!” Josephine shrieked, and grasped at his arm. “It is alright! Stay calm! Thadius?”

The knight slid besides Matthias. “We need to get the glass out,” he said, and delicately placed his finger and thumb across the largest piece. “I’m going to pull it out, alright?” he said. Matthias nodded, grunting. In a swift movement, Thadius jerked the glass out and Matthias cried in agony. “One piece out, five to go.” He moved to the next, and prised it out delicately. Blood dripped from the open wound.

Josephine scrabbled in her bags and pulled out a handkerchief. She waited for what seemed like minutes as Thadius removed the last of the glass and Matthias grunted in agony, and then placed the balled up handkerchief into his palm and closed his fingers shut.

“Grip tightly Matthias,” she instructed. “We must stem the blood flow. Do as I say!” she ordered, as his grip loosened, and she closed it again, keeping her hands tightly over his bloodied fist.

“Are you alright Matthias?” Asked Luccius, kneeling in front of him, wide-eyed.

Matthias nodded. “I’m… fine,” he breathed. “It was just a shock. Thank you,” he said, nodding to Thadius and then to Josephine, who took her hands away slowly. He hissed at the pain and then sat back, propping himself up against his bag.

“What happened?” asked Luccius.

Matthias shook his head. “I don’t know. I was starting a connection and then it just… exploded!”

“Can’t you heal yourself Matthias?” Luccius asked. “You’ve done it before.”

Matthias nodded. “The pain caught me off guard. I can’t wield enough of the earth power just yet. I should be able to soon, when I can focus.”

“You can mend your wounds with energy?” Thadius asked.

“Minor wounds,” Matthias breathed. “But it takes a lot of effort. It is easier sometimes to just let it heal naturally, for all the effort it takes.” He shook his head and cursed. “They’re behind this,” he growled. “The sorcerers! I know they are!”

“You have no proof of that,” Luccius said. “It could be any number of people surely?”

Matthias shook his head. “No. Why else would Taico Grimm refer to ‘the four?’ What other fours are there?”

“The four elements?” Thadius suggested.

“Four suits in a deck of cards!” Luccius continued.

“Four wheels on a carriage,” Josephine added.

“Alright. I see your point. But they’re the only ones who could be interfering with the communications stones! I don’t know of anyone else who could manage such a thing.”

“It’s quite a large reach to suggest that the only possible perpetrators could be six hundred year old men,” the princess advised.

He shook his head. “Maybe. I know Master Pym would be able to help us find out though. And now I can’t contact him!” He sighed. “I really am all alone in this now.”

“We are all in this together,” Josephine said. “Is that not what you have told me so far? I am the one who has to ward off this dragon, not you! Perhaps you can appreciate some of the loneliness I feel, to be away from my people, now you are cut off as well.”

Matthias looked up, and after a pause, nodded silently.

“Well this has been yet another exciting day,” Thadius said, standing up and placing his hands on his hips. “It would seem that danger gravitates around you wizard, like a fly around dung.”

Matthias,” Luccius said gravely, his eyes narrowing. “Something is happening.”

Matthias leaned forward. “What do you mean?” He asked as Luccius picked up a fragment of the orb.

“I can sense something…” his ears twitched. “An energy.”

“Is it coming from the remains of the orb?” the princess asked.

“No. It’s all around us, but I think it has touched the orb somehow.” He stroked the piece of glass with a finger. It feels wrong. Dangerous.” He swallowed. “I think you may have just showed them where to find us.” His ears twitched again.

“If they know where we are then surely we should-” the princess stopped mid-sentence and exhaled heavily, clutching her stomach.

“Princess, what is it?” Thadius asked, kneeling by her side.

“I-I don’t knowungh!” She hissed and doubled over in pain. The sky rumbled menacingly above them.

Luccius gasped. “Matthias! It’s surrounding Josephine!”

The princess groaned, her mouth dropping wide open. Her hands shook and above them, sheet lightning crackled, illuminating the skies.

“Matthias,” she breathed. “I think it is my power! It feels like it did before.”

Matthias leapt up and gripped her shoulders, the bloodied handkerchief still clasped between his fingers. He closed his eyes and his brow furrowed.

“They are suppressing your control somehow,” he said. “Princess, I don’t know how they are doing this, but only you can stop the flow of energy from overcoming you. You have to concentrate!” Josephine shook heavily, her whole body convulsing. Her eyes met Matthias’s and tears rolled down her cheeks.

“I’m scared!” she cried.

“I know. It’s alright princess.” Matthias cradled her face in his hands. “Look at me! You can stop this!”

As Josephine stared at him, a tingling spread through her body and her chest heaved. There was a flash of white light from her collarbone and Matthias was thrown backwards, striking the ground hard and tearing up the grass as he slid away with the force. Wind whipped around Josephine, a cyclone billowing faster and faster. Leaves and grass and flowers swirling around in the whirlwind. Luccius and Thadius watched powerlessly, forced back by the gale.

Matthias gasped as he pulled himself up. The wind was growing stronger by the second. He pushed his way forward, but his legs fell from under him and he tumbled face down into the mud.

Princess!” Matthias called, but the wind was too loud for her to hear. He forced himself up again and concentrated. His eyes glowed and around his body a field of light radiated outward, a bubble shielding him from the wind. He marched on towards the princess, right at the storm’s centre, the bubble flickering as the winds battered the shell. The twister had reached the clouds and grew wider with every second. Luccius stabbed his spear deep into the ground, forcing the metallic blade into the soul with a boot where the blunt edge met the wooden haft. He clutched to the pole tightly.

Thadius! Hold on!” he yelled. The knight grasped towards the spear with both hands, but then his feet slipped on the grass and he found himself being dragged backwards towards the swirling tunnel of wind. He slid past the tree where the horses were tied and whinnying madly, their hooves struggling for traction against the sucking power of the cyclone whirling around the princess. Thadius’s back struck a hard root sticking out of the earth and as he skidded further he thrust out with a hand and gripped at it.

Josephine held her head in her hands, curled into a ball at the epicentre of the whirling tornado as Matthias approached, his eyes streaming as the wind seeped through the bubble he had created. Blood still dripped from his hand and his body was exhausted as he struggled to barely hold the shield in place, but he drove onwards. The bubble flickered again and then collapsed, as he grew weaker. His coat rippled and threatened to pull him back like a sail catching the wind, but he fought against it and fell to the princess’s side. He threw his arms around her.

“It’s alright!” he wailed in her ear against the din. “I’m here princess! You’re fuelling it with your emotions! Try to calm down!” Josephine stared up at him intensely, her cheeks sodden with tears. Her hair billowed around her face in a dervish. Her panicked eyes sparkled, as he had never seen them before. They were silvery orbs, devoid of pupils, like liquid mercury. “Trust me princess,” he said, and smiled in spite of the fear he felt at his core. “You are stronger than them! You can regain control! You are the princess of Aralia!”

Josephine gazed up into his defiant eyes and as she recognised his lack of fear she began to regain a control in herself. The winds died down, slowly at first, but then all of a sudden, as if they never existed, they were gone. The horses tugged at their tethers, eyes wild, and nostrils flaring. Luccius’s feet touched the ground again and he slipped to his knees, exhausted, still clutching tightly to his spear. Thadius let go of the root and lay on his front a moment, gathering his strength before he staggered to his feet and ran towards Josephine.

“Princess! Are you alright?” he said, falling to his knees by her side. Matthias held her tightly in his arms.

“I couldn’t stop it! I’m sorry!” she sobbed. Matthias could feel her heart thumping hard against his chest. He stroked her head with his undamaged hand.

“It’s over now princess!” Thadius whispered. “You’re alright!”

Watching from afar, Luccius went to the horses and tried to calm them down. As he stroked their manes and patted their necks, he looked up as a slight rumble of thunder shuddered overhead. Then he looked back to the princess and called to her.

“It’s gone now Josephine. The energy that I felt around you has left.”

“There, you see? They’ve given up. You won,” Matthias whispered.

“For now, perhaps,” she sobbed. “For now.”

A Thawing of Relations

116th Day of the Cycle, 495 N.E. (New Era)

Josephine sat huddled with her knees tucked up to her chin by the remade fire, watching the smouldering embers through tired eyes, red-veined and glassy with unshed tears. Her hands still shook and she nibbled restlessly on her bottom lip. Thadius sat by her side, a hand resting on her back comfortingly. Luccius stood propped against the tree, still stroking one of the horse’s manes. Matthias stood by his side and studied Josephine from afar, his hand caked in dried blood but otherwise repaired.

“Look at her,” Matthias whispered sadly. “She’s broken.”

“I have never sensed that kind of power before in my life,” Luccius replied. “If you hadn’t got to her when you did…” Above them the rumbles of thunder caused by Josephine still threatened menacingly. “You saved her from herself.”

“For now,” Matthias said sadly. “But that trick won’t work forever. If the barriers she has put up in her body are so weak that people can open them from afar, then she will struggle to keep them under control for much longer, especially now they have been reawakened. I have to help her control them Luccius, but I’m afraid I don’t know how.” He shook his head. “I thought I could use my training as a template for her own. But I don’t think that’s possible. Her power is too different.”

“She’s no wizard, Matthias,” Luccius replied. “There is no precedent for this. You have control over the power you wield. You spent years of your life learning how to conduct it. Josephine’s powers have not seen the light of day for age upon age. There is no living being who can tell her how it works.”

Matthias looked from him over to where the young woman sat, shivering in spite of the heat of the fire, her fragile figure bent over into a ball.

“No,” he exclaimed defiantly. “I told Josephine and her father I would help her to control her powers. I made a promise. I won’t just leave her to tackle this on her own. There has to be some way.” He ran a hand through his thick hair. “I have to do what I can Luccius.”

The ansuwan looked at him suspiciously. “Why have your people really sent you to do this Matthias?” Luccius asked suddenly. “And don’t tell me it is because you are the best man for this job, because as talented as you are, my old friend, there are wizards with decades more experience and knowledge than you have. Would they entrust you alone with something so important? And a woman who can wield, to boot?” He shook his head. “No, I don’t think so. That doesn’t sound like the Mahalia I know.”

Matthias stared at Luccius a moment, and then shook his head. “It’s complicated.”

“How?” Luccius asked.

Matthias shook his head. “The Council is not what it once was. Fear is a powerful catalyst for action. Whether that action is measured and appropriate is another matter.”

“What action?” Luccius asked. “What are you hiding? This is me, Matthias!”

Matthias shook his head. “You know I can’t say.”

“You don’t trust me?” The ansuwan asked, his ears drooping slightly.

“I don’t trust myself,” Matthias said. “I don’t want to drag you into this more than I need to. Because of that I must keep my own counsel.”

Luccius frowned. “I don’t like being in the dark,” he said glumly. “And I would imagine neither would Thadius or Josephine.”

“Trust me, ignorance is better sometimes,” Matthias said. “Now let that be an end to it. Please.”

Luccius took a breath and nodded. “Very well. For now.” He folded his arms.

Matthias turned back to look at the princess. “I will help you,” he whispered. He heard Luccius snigger and looked at him. “What?”

“I can see something in your eyes Matthias, when you look at her.”

“I don’t know what you are talking about,” Matthias exclaimed. This only made Luccius’s grin widen even further. He raised his eyebrows and gave Matthias a telling look.

“She is beautiful, Matthias. A little fiery, but then you do love a good argument!”

Matthias shook his head disapprovingly. “Don’t be so wool – headed.” He looked back over towards the fire. “I only want to help her. That’s all. You‘re reading too much into things. Just because you’ll jump on any woman who will have you doesn’t mean everyone else does.”

Luccius snorted. “Thank you very much!” he shook his head. “I’ll have you know I’m a lot more mature than that now. And I stand by my assertions. You like her. Remember, I have a sense for these things.”

“Just because your people sense changes in the wind and the powers does not mean you can read minds or emotions!” Matthias retorted. “It’s all in your head,” he said sternly.

“Of course it is,” Luccius rebuffed, crossing his arms.

“Oh shut up Luccius and stop being such an idiot!”

Luccius shook his head. “Wizard, you can pretend all you like, but you are just as much a slave to your emotions as the rest of us.”

Matthias looked at him a moment, and then he sighed. “Oh what point is there in feigning ignorance to you,” he smiled. “You know me too well ansuwan.”

Luccius smiled. “I could say the same to you of me.” He unfolded his arms. “The question is, what are you going to do about your feelings?”

Matthias shook his head. “There is nothing I can or will do,” he said sternly.

“Why?” Luccius said. “Because she is a princess?”

Matthias shook his head. “It’s not just that,” he sighed. “When I look into her eyes I see how young she is. With a soul full of optimism and promise.” He swallowed. “It’s… beautiful. And here I am, taking her on a path that will dampen that spirit. I have seen too much of the true nature of this world that I can no longer look upon it with the same youthful, innocent eyes that Josephine still does.” Matthias smiled thinly. “Sometimes, however much you might want to pursue something, or someone, it just isn’t meant to be. Your lives are too different. And you have to accept that.”

Luccius nodded. “I understand. But sometimes is it not worth the risk, because of how dangerous the world can be?”

“Not when the fate of the world already hangs in the balance.”

The sun began to rise over the horizon, a beautiful, blazing crescent of warmth radiating across the plains, signalling a brand new day. It spread across the princess’s face and Josephine opened her eyes delicately. She was not aware that she had even fallen asleep, but after the previous day’s events she had felt as if her entire body had been leeched of its life. She sat up slowly and rubbed her blackened eyes. Luccius slept opposite and to her side, Thadius nodded his head in slumber, resting on the knuckles of his hands as he gripped the pommel of his sword.

“He fell asleep about an hour ago,” said a voice behind her. She turned to see the silhouette of Matthias against the dawn. He turned and made his way to her left, where he proceeded to sit, crossing his legs. “He kept watch over you all night, even when I told him I would do so myself. He is a stubborn mule.” He smiled. “It almost seems a shame to wake him, but we should be going soon, if you are feeling up to it?”

Josephine nodded her head sleepily. “I am well enough, thank you. My arms and legs ache, but aside from that, I am surprised how well I do feel.”

Matthias nodded. “Your body has rested. Wielding energy can be exhausting, but from my own experience, after a good sleep, I usually feel right as rain. I’m glad you’re feeling better.”

Josephine rubbed her eyes. “How is your hand?” She asked.

“Oh, good as new!” Matthias grinned, and flexed his fingers, showing her his repaired palm. “Just needed to repair the skin.”

Josephine smiled. “Mahalian tricks. Is there anything you cannot do?”

He thought a moment. “I’ve never been very good at cooking,” Matthias ventured.

Josephine smiled. “Then you are in good company. I have never cooked a meal in my life.” She shook her head. “That was… quite a night.”

Matthias nodded. “I’ve had better,” he said. “But then again, I’ve also had worse.”

“Matthias,” Josephine started again, and then stopped, awkwardly. “I-”

“There’s no need to say anything Josephine,” Matthias intervened. “You weren’t responsible. If anything, it was my fault. I shouldn’t have tried to communicate with my people.”

Josephine shrugged. “Nevertheless I should have been able to block whatever was trying to control me.”

Matthias shifted his position and moved closer. “Well at least we know one thing now. Your strength in the pure power reacts to your mood. When you calmed yourself down, the storm died off.”

“I could feel the barriers slipping away. There was nothing I could do. I was petrified. And I think you are right. I think my fear did fuel the energy further.” She brushed the hair from where it blew across her face, and tucked it behind one ear.

“It’s alright to be scared with that much power running through you.”

Josephine shook her head. “I wasn’t afraid for myself. I mean, all the pain that was passing through my body was terrifying, but my life didn’t seem to matter. I did not care what happened to me. All I could think about was that I was going to die and I had failed everyone. Rina was going to go up in flames because I could not control myself, and I could do nothing to stop it.” She wiped her eyes. “Through it all I saw my mother again, as she was the day she died: Lying there at my feet, as clear as it had been the night it happened. The same face has haunted me every day since she died, but never has it seemed so strong an image as it did yesterday. The shock that was ingrained on her face… and yet, she was gone also. She went from being my mother to being a shell in less than a second. Her eyes were so vacant…” Josephine swallowed back tears as she choked on them. “I killed her, and if I fail in this I have as good as killed my people as well.”

Matthias looked down at Josephine’s sodden face. “My mother died when I was young,” he said suddenly and licked his lips. “It was my fault.”

Josephine stared up at him. “How?”

“She was able to wield the earth power. She had been able to since I was born. No – one knew, save my father and our family, until, one morning, when we had gone to market, to peddle our wares, I was attacked by a thief. He drew a blade on me and held it to my throat, and said he would kill me unless my mother and father handed everything they had over to him and his friends. If we did that, we would surely starve, but they did so nonetheless.” He snorted. “But then the thief wouldn’t let go. He held on to me, pulling my hair, pressing the blade into my throat. He said he would release me when he reached safety. And then… my mother snapped. She ripped the knife from the man’s grasp with threads of energy, picked him up into the air, and threw him across the path to save me. She did this in broad daylight, in a Mahalian town.”

“Why do your people hate women who can use the powers so much?” Josephine asked.

Matthias shook his head. “It’s a foolish, ancient belief that if a woman can wield the power she wields it for the side of the evils of the world. It has something to do with ancient folklore surrounding the earliest days of life. A woman was said to have been the first human to surrender to the urges of the dark, and with her allure, she persuaded men to join her.”

“I am surprised your people would place such stock in a story.”

Matthias smiled. “Some tales grow more powerful as they age until the very fact they are so old and have survived so long means there must be a truth in them somewhere.” He shook his head. “In any case, the city was soon made aware of my mother’s actions. A few days later my mother was taken away. I learned soon after that she had been killed trying to escape. She was screaming my name as she died.”

“That’s awful,” Josephine whispered. “I am sorry, ambassador.” Her brow furrowed. “Yet you became a wizard?

Matthias smiled. “That is another story, and one which I might tell you another day. The world is but a series of contradictions, if nothing else.” He shifted, and grasped her hand. “In any case, the reason I am telling you this is to show you that you are not alone in your pain. We all have experienced tragedy in this world in some way or another. And we all- or at least, most of us- find ways to cope; be that seeking comfort in others, the gods, or in other ways.”

“I might find that comforting were I not directly responsible for her death,” Josephine sniffed. “It was my hands that struck my mother. And unlike your own mother, mine was not saving me from harm. There was no apparent danger. She was just talking with me and then in the blink of an eye, her life was taken from her. It was a pointless death.”

“You are not responsible for circumstances out of your control Josephine. Just like today.”

Josephine took a breath and wiped away her tears. “If only I could believe that,” she said. “You know wizard… I have always believed that I would live a short life.” She shook her head. “No, it is more than belief. It is an instinct, one whose presence I have always felt. When the power emerged I felt a form of vindication for that instinct. In the years since I have felt my mortality more acutely than I can explain. That is partly why I agreed to go with you. If it is true, if I am to die young, then my final moments will be in aid of helping people. My death will not be pointless. And so, in turn, neither was that of my mother.”

Matthias nodded. “I cannot say what lies in store for you Josephine. I will try my utmost to protect you, to train you, but the gods alone know where we will tread.”

Josephine sniffed. “The gods who gave me this power and then left me to deal with the circumstances alone? Do you really believe they have any grasp of this ball which they have started rolling?”

Matthias shrugged. “I try to have faith that the gods will prevail. They have lived millennia in watch over us. They have seen more wonders and more dangers than any other creatures on this world. They may not be able to touch the world directly any longer, but I have to believe they know what they are doing in entrusting you this responsibility, in sending down the seeing Stones to guide us.”

She shook her head. “Perhaps. I am not sure what faith I place in the gods. It has always been a point of contention between my father and I. Anyway,” she said, taking a breath, “it is no use talking over such matters now. It will make no difference. Gods or not, what matters now is my kingdom and how to save the world from more torment.”

Matthias nodded and turned to scan the horizon. “If we make it to Crystal Ember in time, then Aralia will be safe.” He smiled. “You will find a way to stop the dragon.”

“Your faith in me is both encouraging and unnerving,” she said and smiled.

“You are not alone in this. I won’t let anything happen to Rina or to you. Not if I can help it. You can trust me princess.”

Josephine nodded after a pause. “I do trust you.” She sniffed. “Though I will confess, I still did not completely until last night.” She looked up at him. “But without you I would have ripped myself apart. I owe you my life.”

Matthias shrugged. “I didn’t do anything particularly. It was all you. You regained control.”

“But it was your being there that calmed me down so that I could do so. For that I am in your debt.”

Matthias shrugged. “Think nothing of it princess.”

She shook her head, and gave him a warm smile. “Oh for goodness sake, call me Josephine.”

The Web Grows

120th Day of the Cycle, 495 N.E. (New Era)

King Arwell had awoken early every day for the last week. That was of course when he could get to sleep in the first place. Since Josephine had left, he had slept very little

There had been no more sightings of demons since the night of her disappearance and no more news of his daughter since that night. Whilst he supposed that was a good thing in that it meant his daughter was lying low and hopefully, therefore, on her way to Olindia, he would have given anything to know exactly where she was and what she was doing. He had contented himself to hunting on the Plains of Rina and the Eastwood nearby, but even though it provided a reasonable distraction, his thoughts always returned to Josephine. The only cure, it seemed, was to drink as much as he could and look forward to a few hours of unconsciousness in the evenings before his nightmares woke him once more.

As he ate his morning meal he read through papers presented to him by his advisors: dry documents about the continued bad harvests to the south of Aralia. It was hardly surprising news given how close to the borders of the ruined lands of Helriven those fields affected were. It was lucky that anything grew around there given the scar that the Blasted Lands had cast across Triska’s southern reaches for the last four hundred years. Still, it seemed that the pestilence was spreading further north than it had done for many years. The only option it seemed would be to try to approach Tekri and purchase some of their grain. It was hardly ideal, especially considering the self – worth that the emperor of their realm already felt towards his land.

As he finished the last mouthful of meat, Darien, one of his youngest aides, knocked on the door and entered, bowing deeply to him.

“Your Grace, beg my pardon interrupting your breakfast, but there is a man who urgently wishes to meet with you.”

“This early?” He looked out the window. The sunrise must have only been an hour ago at most. “Who is it?”

“It is a wizard, Your Grace. His name is Lord Fenzar?”

Arwell’s stomach lurched. “Fenzar? Are you sure?”

“Quite sure, Your Grace. He left me little room for error.”

The king nodded. “That does sound like Fenzar. Send him in at once,” he advised and rose from the table. What could this be about?

A few moments later an elderly man cloaked in a purple and green coat as thick as the pelts of at least a half dozen animals walked into the room. His face really was as gnarled as Arwell remembered and his hair had grown even wispier than the last time he had seen him.

“Your Grace,” the man said airily as he bowed, clutching with wrinkled fingers tightly to his tall, golden staff, stopping him from falling on to his face. “I am grateful you have agreed to meet with me at such an early hour!”

“You hardly left me with much of a choice, ambassador,” King Arwell sniffed. “It has been a long time.”

“Indeed it has Your Grace. I have been incredibly busy of late and your good kingdom has suffered a lack of my attention.”

“And yet it has survived,” the king smiled haughtily. “No escort today?”

“Alas, I did not have the time to bring with me the same luxuries as on a normal visit. I have only brought two other men with me this time. They are dining at your pleasure as we speak.”

“Well how very generous of me.” The king offered a seat to the man before taking his own.

“Your Grace, forgive me if I am wrong, but you seem a little highly strung.”

The king looked at him in mock surprise. “Highly strung you say? Well, I wonder why that would be?” He snorted. “What do you want, Fenzar? I have had more than enough unexpected visits from Mahalia of late and I am in no mood for any more games.”

The old man’s face screwed up and the wrinkles along his cheeks deepened. “Visits, Your Grace? What visits would those be?”

‘Why, ambassador Greenwald, of course!” the king exclaimed.

“Greenwald? Matthias Greenwald?” Fenzar asked. The king nodded and the man raised a hand to his lip. “I see.”

The king leaned forward. “What’s wrong? You did know about his visit?”

Fenzar shook his head, “I am afraid we did not, Your Grace. He was not sent by the Council.”

Arwell’s head spun. “What do you mean?”

“Matthias Greenwald is a junior wizard, by most definitions. To my knowledge he was on assignment in Tekri on a trade mission. We would never have sent such a man to meet with you, Your Grace. Especially about the matter which I have come to speak with you about today. Is he still here? I should speak with him.”

“No. He left some time ago.” Arwell swallowed. “And he took my daughter with him.”

Fenzar rose from his chair. “Matthias Greenwald took your daughter? Where?” he asked, his tone growing anxious.

“To Olindia. He told me that the dragon was breaking free and that only my daughter could stop it. Oh my gods, what have I done? It was all lies, wasn’t it?”

“Lies?” Fenzar shook his head. “No, in that regard he was telling the truth. The dragon is breaking free.”

The king stood again. “Then I do not understand what is happening here!” he barked.

“Your Grace knows of your daughter’s abilities?” Fenzar asked.

Arwell looked at him through blazing eyes and nodded. “I have known for some time,” he said defiantly.

“I see. Yet you did not tell us about it?” Fenzar probed. “You did not trust us?”

The king snorted. “You know what our relationship with Mahalia is like.”

Fenzar nodded. “I will admit that our dealings with you have been fragile, at times. But I am dismayed to learn quite how little you put your faith in us.” Fenzar pointed a finger at the king. “You truly think that your daughter could stop the dragon’s release?”

“Matthias told me the truth about what power my daughter holds inside of her. She is strong.”

Fenzar shook his head. “Oh my, my, my, I am afraid that is where you are wrong. Young Matthias Greenwald has been spinning you grand tales I am afraid. His assumptions are quite incorrect. He is both young and naïve if he has been filling your head with such nonsense!” The ambassador began to pace the room. “The Council is working on stopping the dragon ourselves. We believe we now know who is responsible and we are pursuing them. When we find and stop them we will in turn stop the dragon’s release.”

“Then your people never had any intention of using my daughter?” the king asked in surprise.

“Oh goodness no! Your daughter should have no part in this. No woman should be involved in such a task. To do so invites destruction on us all.”

Arwell struggled to breathe. “Then you are telling me that Matthias has taken my daughter against your knowledge? What is he? Some kind of a… rogue?

Fenzar nodded gravely. “It would seem so.”

“Darien!” Arwell cried and the man came bursting into the room. “Fetch Tiberius. Get him here now!” The man bowed and left the room hurriedly. “I must find my daughter,” Arwell continued, shaking. “I will kill that wizard! Why would he be doing this?”

“I may have an idea who is behind this,” Fenzar nodded. “There are some in our Council who do not always see eye to eye with the Consensus. It may be that Matthias is working under instructions from them.” He folded his hands into his coat. “That is a separate matter entirely, however, and one we will deal with internally. The most important thing now is that we find your daughter, Your Grace.”

“For once it would seem we are in complete agreement ambassador.” The king’s face suddenly grew dark. “But… if Josephine was not meant to stop the dragon, then why are you here?”

“My reason for coming was to help your daughter. Her sickness must be cured.”

Sickness?” Arwell repeated. “What do you mean by that?”

“Why, the abilities she wields. They are a poison! They must be drained from her.”

“Drained? How?” The king’s stomach grew icy. He had heard such words before from Mahalia.

“We would bring her back to Mahalia where she would be cleansed of the abilities. As all women are with such a curse.”

“Cleanse my daughter?” Arwell growled. “How do you cleanse such power when you have no knowledge of it?”

“We would of course find a way. We are highly skilled in such matters.”

“And if you could not?” Arwell growled. “What then?”

“It is best not to think of such things, Your Grace.” Fenzar smiled. “We are here for the good of your people. To help you and your daughter. As we always have been.”

No!” the king yelled angrily. “No, what you have always done is twist events into a manner that suits your realm.” He pointed angrily at the man. “You will not touch my daughter! You will go nowhere near her!”

Fenzar glowered at him. “Your Grace, this is not simply some young woman who has tapped into minor powers. This is much more than that. The gods have sent us a warning about your daughter. The seeing stone we found has given us the opportunity to stop the dragon and your daughter, before it is too late.”

“You speak as if she is a threat to the world!” Arwell barked.

“She is, your grace. You do not want to hear it because she is your blood. But she could destroy this world. We must stop her before it comes to that.”

King Arwell ran forward and grasped the man’s collar, forcing him against the cold, stone wall. “I will kill you, you old goat, if you even think about pursuing her!”

Fenzar smiled. “Your Grace, please remove your hands, or I will have no choice but to remove them by force.” Arwell puffed and panted as he gripped the man’s clothes. But finally he loosened his grip and let the man go. “Thank you, Your Grace.” He smiled. “It pains me to put it this way, Your Grace, but my coming here was but a courtesy to you. We were not seeking your permission to do anything. We are wizards after all, Your Grace. We have guided Triska in the absence of the Akari for four hundred years.”

“You have guided us because you are greedy, selfish people!”

“If we were so selfish, why would we let you continue to rule? You are a good man. We are forced to make hard decisions to protect the peace. Your daughter is a threat to that peace and she must be stopped, one way or another.” The ambassador looked pityingly at the king. “I know this pains you Your Grace. But if you stand in our way, I assure you, you will regret it.”

There was a knock at the door. Captain Tiberius entered. “Your Grace. I came as quickly as I could.” He bowed, and eyed the ambassador warily.

“Well, I believe I have taken up enough of your time, Your Grace,” Fenzar said. “I see that my presence here is not required. We will find Josephine for you. Is that clear, Your Grace?” Arwell swallowed. But finally, he nodded silently. “Very good. I will of course send word to you when we find your daughter. And we will.” He smiled. “I will take my leave of you. It was most pleasant seeing you again after so long.” The ambassador turned and made his way out of the door.

“Is everything alright?” Tiberius asked the king. “What the hell is that piece of work doing here?”

The king shook his head. “My friend, I need you to find my daughter. Before it is too late.”

A Faction Uncovered

121st Day of the Cycle, 495 N.E. (New Era)

 

Augustus Pym walked through the corridors of the ninth level of Mahalia with intent. His heart was pounding despite his attempts to calm down and he looked behind himself on several occasions to ensure he was not being pursued. When he made it to his chambers he breathed a sigh of relief. Hurriedly he brushed his door with a hand and the locking mechanism unbolted at his touch and moved inside the dark room quickly, closing the door behind him. As soon as the latch clicked shut again, he knew he was not alone.

“You must have been waiting here quite a while, Chancellor Arion,” he commented calmly. The room illuminated as candles all around the chamber ignited.

The chancellor of Mahalia sat with his hands folded in his lap. He was an elderly man, by every stretch of the word, with thin, white hair and a stooped, hunched back. His bulbous nose stuck out from his pocked face like it was swollen. He wore the robes of state for his position: a deep, purple velvet gown dotted with sewn-in jewels and adorned with an ermine fur lining. He held on to a tall, elaborate metal staff made of the impenetrable Urunahenium, passed down between chancellors for centuries.

“I was enjoying the peace and quiet of your surroundings. Especially after the events that I have been met with this morning,” he said, his lined face regarding Pym sullenly.

“Events?” Augustus asked, feigning ignorance as best he could. It was not enough.

The chancellor smiled and shook his head. It was a cheerless expression. “You know what events I speak of.” He lowered his brow and stared at the younger wizard a moment, readjusting his grip on the staff in front of him. “Lord Fenzar has just arrived in Rina. It appears that Matthias Greenwald has already spirited Princess Josephine away across the continent and quite out of our reach.”

“Matthias Greenwald?” Pym said with surprise. “But I thought he was discussing the trading embargo in Tekri with-”

“Do not take me for a fool!” The old man barked, his eyes blazing. “I know you had a hand in this! You were his mentor, after all! And you spoke out against our decision to curb the princess’s power.” He sneered. “You speak out against our decisions more and more it seems as time moves on.”

Pym remained stone-face a moment longer, but then, realising lying was pointless, he sighed and shook his head. “Very well. You are correct, chancellor. I sent Matthias to Rina to take the princess.”

The chancellor’s posture altered and grew more relaxed around his shoulders as his suspicions were vindicated. “For what purpose did you do this?” he asked.

“The purpose the gods had intended, chancellor,” he said defensively. “To stop the dragon.”

The chancellor stared at him a moment. “I see. And why, then, did you not undertake such a task yourself, if you felt with such conviction that you were following the will of the gods?”

“I had originally planned to rendezvous with Matthias, if time allowed. But my responsibilities here have become too great lately.”

“You had a responsibility to the Consensus to carry out our wishes!” The chancellor growled. “Yet that loyalty does not seem to weigh upon your thoughts.”

“My thoughts have been heavy with thoughts of nothing else,” Pym said passionately. “But my belief in the gods goes beyond my loyalty to you.”

The old man regarded Pym for a moment. “I find it hard to believe you did all this alone behind the Council’s back?” he asked.

“It wasn’t that difficult, chancellor,” Pym said. “Not once I had convinced Matthias of the importance of helping me. I was hoping that once you saw what Princess Josephine was capable of, then you would change your mind about the decision to strip her of her abilities. Perhaps you would see how much of an asset she could be.”

“You fool!” the chancellor hissed and stood up quicker than would have seemed possible for a man his age. “You have let a witch loose on this world!”

“Then she is a witch the gods have entrusted the fate of the world to,” Augustus said defiantly, raising his voice.

“You don’t know that!” the chancellor hissed.

“I know that the path we are taking will be the death of us all, if we continue to walk down it. The alternative seemed better than the promise of death that awaits us under the Consensus.”

The chancellor stood up and loomed over Pym. “The Consensus has kept this world safe for centuries,” he said, leaning on his staff. “And overseeing this realm I have ensured decades of peace by enforcing the will of that Consensus! Who are you to question the wisdom of hundreds of wizards that has steered Triska from devastation since the last great war? And sending the girl with Matthias? He is too young to deal with such complex matters!”

“He is more than capable! I would not have sent him had I not believed in him. And as you continue to inform me, I stand by my beliefs. The girl can be an asset. We should not ignore all that she can become. We don’t know why she has been given this ability by the gods. We should not presume that she is a threat simply because she is a woman.”

“Women are unstable!” the chancellor exclaimed. “All women who have ever used the power have betrayed themselves! They are weak – willed and the pawns of darkness. And this girl alone is capable of exerting immeasurable power!”

“Which is why she must be harnessed, not destroyed!”

“What if we cannot control what she becomes? Given what we now know about the prophecy, if Josephine Arwell does turn to the darkness, as all women who wield are drawn to do by their very nature, then we will have lost all hope of shaping the events of the future!”

“We lose hope by burying our heads in the sand and ignoring the fact that we must change our perceptions!” Pym walked to the cloistered windows of his chamber and stared out at the expansive view of snow- capped mountains, the fields far below stretching to the horizon. “We need her to save this world from the danger that is returning. It was dangerous enough when we believed it was just the dragon. But if we fail to stop these men accomplishing their endgame as we now know it to be, then Josephine Arwell may very well be all that stands between us and destruction.”

“We will not fail!” The chancellor growled. “Not in this matter. We are the protectors of peace! We alone have been wise enough to see beyond petty quarrels and preserve the known world from its own turmoil.”

Pym took a breath and stood his ground. “If the stone is accurate, then Josephine Arwell will contribute more to peace than we could ever hope to achieve in a thousand lifetimes. She has the gift that can unify us all. We have guarded this world these many centuries, but we have only ever been caretakers, standing in for the true peacekeepers.” Pym sighed. “I fear that we may have forgotten that and grown too comfortable in our position of power to relinquish it when the time comes.”

The chancellor sneered. “And you think that time is now?”

“With all my heart I do chancellor. I wouldn’t have taken such drastic action for anything else.”

The chancellor’s face grew grave. “You have questioned the abilities of the Council and committed treason against its decisions. Have you any idea how much you have damaged your standing? You may have just handed this world to the dark with your actions!”

“We can only fight such a darkness with a strong enough light that will penetrate its depths and cast away the shadow. And we are but a candle to its malevolent recesses when compared to the light of the Akari.” Pym shrugged. “As for my reputation, it has never been something that has bothered me. Not least when the fate of the world stands in the balance.”

The elder man shook his head. “Many years ago I saw a promise in you, Augustus. You were so devoted to our cause. What has happened to you to betray us so profoundly?”

“The only betrayal I would have made by following your orders would be to my own conscience and to the gods themselves. This had to be done.”

The elderly man towered over Pym. “You will recall Matthias immediately and have him return the girl to Lord Fenzar in Rina. He will then bring Princess Josephine back to Mahalia. We will deal with the prophecies without her ‘help’.”

Pym looked down a moment. “I have lost contact with Matthias. I am unsure why.” He shook his head. “Chancellor, I appeal to you one more time to reconsider. Let Matthias continue on this front so we can focus our efforts where they need to be! Then when the princess is strong enough, she can fight with us!”

“If you believe I would overturn the decision of the Consensus, then you are as foolhardy as the young wizard you have sent out on this mission. After all these years, all your time on the Council, you still fail to see the bigger picture.”

“That picture is one painted through the eyes of prejudice,” Pym said sourly.

The chancellor slammed his staff into the ground angrily. “Enough! I have heard enough from you. I am calling an emergency meeting of the Council. Your actions must be discussed further. Or have you forgotten that is the way things are done here?” He opened the door with a flick of his wrist and it slammed into the brick wall behind. “Damn you, Augustus. I could forgive your insolence, perhaps your remarks, but this blatant betrayal? Let us hope you have not thrown us all to the wolves.”

Mile by Mile

122nd Day of the Cycle, 495 N.E. (New Era)

Several days had passed since Josephine and her escort had seen a town. They had kept up a brisk pace through a bright and colourful countryside. Trees all around their route seemed to glow in the misty morning sunshine. Dew glistened off their leaves and branches and beads of water flicked up off the grass as their horses trod on through uncut fields.

Every now and then they passed within sight of a building of one kind or another: a small farmhouse beckoned invitingly to them in the distance, its chimneys smoking happily and further on a barn sat conspicuously alone in the expansive countryside. It was tempting to ride closer to civilisation as they travelled across hills and valleys, bypassing well- trodden pathways, but then Matthias reminded them that would defeat the point of their going unnoticed.

It was an unusually warm day for the region and the sun beat down hard on them as they carried on riding. Luccius’s ears flapped back and forth in the heat, flicking like those of the horse he rode on. Matthias took off his coat and slung it atop the pommel of his saddle.

“This is unbearable heat,” Thadius muttered and flapped the neckline of his shirt to aerate his body. “I’ve not known it to be so hot at this time of year before!” He looked up at the sun and squinted. “I don’t suppose you can cool the sun down?” he asked Matthias.

The wizard laughed. “The sun is a little beyond my reach Thadius,” he replied. “And even if it weren’t, there is only so much we wizards can do with our powers. You’ll ask me to take you to the moon next!”

“Well you would think given that we are doing the gods a favour they could see to it to make our journey a little more comfortable!” the knight grumbled.

“It’s probably to do with the atmospheric changes caused by your power Josephine. The clouds have completely dissipated for miles.”

“You mean to say I caused this weather?” Josephine gasped.

Matthias nodded. “It should return to normal soon.”

Josephine raised her brow. “Had I known I could have created such gloriously sunny weather I would have used my powers a long time ago!”

After several more hours of riding through open land, the landscape ahead of them began to grow dense with trees and they passed into a small wood, where its canopy of oak tree leaves shrouded them from the baking midday sun. The air was cooler in the shade and a mist hung lazily between the branches.

Thadius breathed a sigh of relief. “I have never been quite so happy to get out of the sun! Where are we anyway?” he asked, surveying the woodland.

“I think this is Bletnhelm Wood,” Matthias said, pulling out his map. He nodded to confirm. “We’ve made good progress.” He put the parchment away again and exhaled heavily, drumming his fingers on his saddle. “I don’t know about the rest of you, but I could do with a break.” He placed a hand to his lower back. “This saddle is starting to ache!”

“It’s a good place to stop,” Luccius nodded. “The horses would like a rest.”

“You speak as if you can talk with them,” Thadius chuckled.

“No, not really,” Luccius replied. “I just listen to their nickering.”

“You mean you understand them?” Thadius asked.

“In a way.” He pointed to his ears and ran a finger down the inside curve. “Ansuwan are able to sense things that humans have no perception of. Animals voices, the whistling winds, even plants give off moods and sensations.”

Plants?” Thadius repeated incredulously. “You’re joking with me!”

“I’m not!” Luccius defended.

Thadius shook his head. “I had no idea,” he said. “What’s my horse feeling?” he asked.

“That you could stand to lose a few pounds,” Luccius chuckled.

Thadius’s eyes narrowed. “Very funny,” the knight grumbled.

“I must admit, I would like to rest awhile,” Josephine said. “The horses may have been carrying the burden of our weight, but I am starting to feel quite uncomfortable riding.” She wiggled in her seat, as if to accentuate her point. “It would be quite nice to close my eyes for a while.”

Matthias shook his head. “Not yet princess. You will have to sleep later.”

She sighed and looked at him with a wearied expression. “Would you care to tell me why?”

Matthias smiled. “We need to begin your lessons!”

A short while after they had set up camp in the woodland, Josephine sat cross – legged on the dusty ground, with Matthias sitting behind her, his knees propped underneath him, his hands over her eyes. Thadius and Luccius sat a way back, talking amongst themselves about the wonders of listening to horses and daffodils, Thadius smoking his pipe with one eye on the princess as he puffed away.

“Now do you see anything?” Matthias asked.

“Of course I do not see anything! You have your hands over my eyes!”

Matthias rolled his eyes. “That isn’t what I meant. You’re doing what we talked about? Focussing on a fixed point in the middle of the darkness?”

“Yes! I am focussing and I do not see anything! This is not working Matthias!”

“Patience,” he said. “You need to relax more.”

“It would help if I knew what exactly it was I am supposed to be seeing!” she huffed.

“You’ll know it when you see it. Now relax! We’ll sit here all afternoon if we have to!”

“We bloody won’t,” she grumbled. Huffing, Josephine readjusted her legs more comfortably and then, sighing, fell silent. Her breathing deepened, and again she focussed on a point in the blackness of her closed eyelids. She sat this way for a minute, her breathing rhythmically growing longer and deeper. Gently, Matthias began to massage her temples with his thumbs, his hands still over her eyes.

“What are you doing?” She whispered to him through her contentedness.

“It helps to relax your mind.”

“How many women have you said that to before?”

“Just concentrate,” he said, his cheeks flushing. “When I was learning, a friend did this for me. It helped me, so I hope it might do the same for you.”

As Matthias continued to massage her forehead, Josephine’s shoulders fell and Matthias could feel her back slumping against his chest, the warmth of her body pulsing through the thin fabric of his shirt. His own heart began pounding faster and he found himself fixated by her flowing hair as he carried on massaging her head, which began to tilt to one side. After a while Matthias thought he should check to see whether she was still awake, but thought better of it and instead carefully withdrew his hands from her temples and continued to wait patiently. As her head lolled further forward and to the left, her hair fell clumsily about her face. Gingerly, he reached out and tucked a length of her blonde locks behind her ear. Suddenly she sat bolt upright, drawing breath sharply, eyes snapping wide open. She pushed herself to her feet.

“I didn’t do anything!” Matthias blurted before he could stop himself. “I mean… what is it?”

“There was something…” she said, tucking more of her hair behind her ears nervously. Matthias noticed and his cheeks blushed. “It was a… a flickering, swirling pattern, and only for a moment, but it was most definitely something!” She grabbed Matthias’s hands and pulled him up. “What was it?” she asked. “I’ve never seen that before!”

Matthias smiled. “Well I can’t say for certain, but it sounds like you were becoming attuned to the power.”

“Attuned? What does that mean?”

“It’s complex princess. I’m not sure I can describe it. At least, not very well.”

Please try!” Josephine pressed him.

“Well alright.” He paused a moment and scratched at his head, thinking. “Erm…”

“Matthias Greenwald!” she prodded, when he didn’t say anything more.

“I’m thinking how best to explain,” he responded. “Alright, here goes. When wizards first begin training we don’t conjure up a flame from nowhere by waving a hand about or, as is a popular misconception, by reciting magical chants. What we do is learn to tune ourselves into the threads of the earth power running through the fabric of the world, and then focus them into a desired outcome. If you twist them in different ways, combine them and weave them properly, they can be moulded to create fire, ice…”

“The ball of light you produced when we were in Rina?”

“Exactly. I focussed the earth power and manipulated it through my body like a conductor. Out of that came the ball of light. I was trained to shift my perception of the world so the threads can be visibly seen in the mind. We do that firstly by relaxing and focussing on one singular point just like I’m teaching you, and then our natural affinity towards the earth power shifts our gaze towards seeing the threads.” Matthias paused. “Did anything I just say make any sense to you? It’s not easy to explain and it is many years since I have had to try to.”

Josephine nodded. “I believe so. You think I became accustomed to the energies for a moment? I could quite literally see the fifth power?”

“I think so.” Matthias smiled. “So you do understand. Well done!” He leaned forward. “What did it look like? The earth power looks sort of like… tendrils of light. Different colours and thicknesses of string coalescing around you. Was it like that?”

“It was… different. A little like staring at the sun for too long. There were patterns dancing across my vision. It almost…” She stopped and squinted

“Almost what?” Matthias prompted her.

“It almost felt like… like fire. A raging fire.”

Matthias thought for a moment, nodding. “I see.”

“Is that bad?” she asked.

“Bad? No. No I don’t think so. Just different. But then I would expect nothing less from the fifth power.” He smiled at her. “Well done Josephine. You’ve done well for your first proper lesson!”

Josephine nodded. “Thank you. I do not feel any different. I expected to feel something new.”

“Such as?”

“I am not sure exactly. Something momentous. Trumpets going off or the like.”

“Well, trumpets or not, you’re one step closer to fulfilling your destiny.”

The princess scoffed. “I never wanted a destiny.”

“We don’t always have the freedom of choosing our own path princess.”

She shook her head. “That is easy for you to say! You became a wizard of your own choosing!”

“That’s not exactly true,” Matthias said, and Josephine looked taken aback.

“You didn’t?” she asked. Matthias shook his head. Then Josephine nodded. “Your mother… of course. I am sorry Matthias, I had forgotten.”

He shrugged. “It’s alright.”

“What did you want to be, if not a wizard?” Josephine asked.

Matthias smiled. “I was going to become a farmer like my father. My family rented land from the local nobleman in the southlands of Mahalia.” Josephine grinned. “What?” Matthias asked.

“I apologise, but I just cannot picture you as a farmer. Covered head to toe in mud and pulling up cabbages! You seem far too proper!”

“This from a princess? You’re still speaking like you have a silver spoon in your mouth you know.”

“There is no one here!” she rebuffed.

Matthias shrugged. “A fair point I suppose. In any case, I’ll have you know I grew up learning the ways of a farmhand. I could milk a cow at the age of five!”

“I am sure that must have been very rewarding for you,” Josephine retorted with a wry smile. “So what changed for you? Especially after…well…”

Matthias smiled. “It’s alright, you can say it. After my mother was killed by wizards.” Josephine nodded. “Men and boys who are found to have the ability to wield the earth power aren’t given much in the way of a luxury of choice. I discovered I was able to wield shortly after my mother was taken away. I was… quite upset about the matter.”

“Understandably!” Josephine exclaimed.

Matthias smiled. “It would seem my mother passed on her talents to me. I found, much like you, that when I let myself get emotional, the ability would leak out. But unlike you, I seemed able to control some things with the power from the start. I could pick objects up, throw them around. For a young man, angry at the loss of his mother, such abilities were a gift.”

“What did you do?” Josephine asked.

“I was foolish enough to think that I could fight all of Mahalia alone. I was wrong. Obviously. I picked a fight with a wizard the first chance I got. The very first one I challenged I got slapped down like a misbehaving pup. From that day on, everything changed for me. I was not allowed to remain a loose cannon, using the power to pick fights or disturb the peace. I was made to leave behind my old life, my family – what remained – my father, brothers and my uncle, and was taken to the capital, where I was trained to become a wizard. That was a long time ago now,” he said distantly.

“Did you ever see your family again?” Josephine asked.

Matthias shook his head. “It wasn’t permitted. Past associations can be dangerous, especially where family is concerned.”

“That sounds horrible,” Josephine said. “Like kidnap!” She caught Matthias’s eye.

“Well that was a subtle dig in the ribs,” he smiled.

“Subtle wasn’t my intention,” she smiled back.

Mathias sighed. “You’re right, in a way. It’s complicated. Mahalian culture is confusing to explain. I didn’t like it, not at first, and I fought them with every fibre of my being. But after a time I began to see the benefits of a life as wizard.”

“But your mother!” Josephine said. “How could you look them in the eye every day and respect the very people who had killed her for no good reason?”

Matthias smiled. “When your great, great grandfather had your great, great grandmother put to death for treason, did his son and daughter, your ancestors, not find a way to speak with their father, even when he had killed their own mother? Nothing is ever as black and white as it would seem, Josephine. It’s never easy, of course, but as a wizard I have the opportunity to influence this world more than I ever would have as a farmer, and hopefully make it a better place, so that things like what happened to my mother won’t happen again.”

Josephine nodded after a moment’s pause. “I suppose I can understand. Do you miss them?” she pressed. “The rest of your family?”

Matthias nodded. “All the time. Anyone who says otherwise is a liar. But I comfort myself in the knowledge that what I am doing is for the good of all people, my family included.” He laughed under his breath. “But back to the point of this conversation. If anyone had told me beforehand that this would be my life-” he gestured with his hands to their surroundings, “I’d have laughed in their face. A farmhand from the lowlands, a peasant by most definitions, charged with looking after a princess whose actions could decide the fate of the world?” He shook his head. “Whatever you think your life will be, it usually never works out quite the way you intend. The gods deal you a different hand than you expect. They like to be unpredictable.”

Josephine shook her head. “What do you do if you don’t want to play their hand? The gods have no right to be playing a game of chance with people’s lives. I am not a pawn to be used! No one should be.”

“Well, you can resist them and turn down the hand they have dealt you, and wait to see what the next deal holds. But the gods see more than we do and they have been playing this game for a very, very long time. Aeons pass and they wait until the time is right to strike a blow against the evils that they fight against. Life is all one big game to them, and our lives are their instruments whether we like it or not. We are all pieces being moved around on their board.”

“What do you think I should do?” she asked.

“I think you should play them at their own game,” he smiled.

“And hope for the best?”

“It’s all you can do.”

“My mother hoped for the best. She was a devout believer in the gods. Look what happened to her.”

“Sometimes people just get dealt a bad hand.”

Josephine smiled. “You certainly have a way with words Matthias. You would make a good speech writer.” She sighed. “Since my birth I’ve been brought up in the knowledge that I would one day take my father’s place on the throne. I’ve been trained in the ways of court life, of the nuances of the Privy Council and politics. I’ve mastered etiquette and diplomacy. Mostly. But I don’t know how to fight! I haven’t a clue how to do any of this!” She shook her head. “If the gods wish me to fulfil this destiny then they could have prepared me better! I do not like the uncertainty.”

Matthias shrugged. “Uncertainty can be quite exciting.”

Josephine’s lips curved into a resistant smile. “Then you are a more adventurous person than I am, Matthias Greenwald.” She shook her head. “Oh, let’s just get on with it then! All this moping and mulling over things is getting me nowhere.” She tucked her skirt about her and sat back down, placing her hands in her lap. “So what do I do now?”

“Now,” Matthias began, as he sat himself back down on the ground and crossed his legs, “we are going to try that again. Only this time, when you do see those patterns in the darkness, don’t flinch away from them or open your eyes. I want you to embrace them. Reach out to them.”

“And how will I know if I am doing that?” Josephine asked.

“If I’m right, you’ll know,” he nodded. Just remember: don’t be afraid and shy away. You’ll get there.”

Josephine took a deep breath. “Very well. Here goes. Wish me luck!”

Matthias shook his head. “You don’t need luck, princess.”

She resisted a smile and closed her eyes. The scent of damp moss and dirt and woodland filled her nose as she let her mind release itself. She was aware of her fingers twitching, however much she tried to ignore them, and she could sense the presence of Matthias sitting in front of her, his eyes watching her. She pushed the thought away. She had to clear her mind. For what felt like hours, she let her consciousness float away into the darkness of her mind. Then, as if out of nowhere, it appeared- a swirl of light. She gasped. Her hands were tingling.

Matthias watched the princess carefully, analysing her expression. After a while he leant forward in anticipation as her face creased.

“Josephine?” he whispered. “What is it?”

She sharply drew an intake of breath and swallowed. “I can see it again,” she whispered back dozily.

“Describe it to me,” Matthias asked.

Her eyes darted back and forth rapidly beneath her eyelids. “It’s beautiful. A trail of lights, like… like fireflies. They’re swaying back and forth. They’re changing colour, swirling around. It’s like stardust!”

“Stardust?” Matthias asked.

“An old tale from Aralia. My people call the streaks that sometimes appear briefly across the night sky ‘fairies’. When they glide through the air on a clear night they would sometimes leave stardust in their path. It looks just like that.”

“I see,” Matthias nodded. “You mean falling stars,” he advised. “They’re rocks from the heavens, burning as they enter our realm.”

“Well that is certainly a lot more boring than them being fairies,” the princess commented. “But the stardust would still work in that context, I suppose.”

“Can you get closer to the patterns you see?” Matthias asked. “Or can you pull them towards your mind?” He cradled his chin in his long fingers and patiently watched.

The princess went silent for a while, but her breathing continued to be quick. Then after several more minutes, she smiled. “They are getting closer. I think I am drawing them to me, but I…I don’t know how.”

“That doesn’t matter right now. It’s an unconscious reflex. Now can you-”

“No! They’re not just lights,” Josephine interrupted with a gasp. “They’re structures. I can see now they are drawing closer.”

“What do you mean, ‘structures?’” Matthias’ frowned and licked his own lips nervously.

“I can’t quite explain. They’re spheres, but with… webs of what looks like string joining them. They’re so intricate, so beautiful! There are more now. They’re everywhere! It’s a fiery, dazzling pattern!”

Matthias thought for a moment. Then, resolving an internal dialogue, he nodded his head.

“Josephine. Open your eyes.”

“Open my eyes? But you told me not to. I don’t want to lose them Matthias. They’re so incredible! I have never seen anything like it!“

“No, neither have I,” Matthias said, with a hint of trepidation in his voice. “But I don’t think you will lose them. Josephine, open your eyes,” Matthias commanded. “Do it. Now.”

Her eyelids began to flicker, the whites of her eyes showed, and then she opened them fully.

She smiled. “They are still here!” She waved her hand at them dreamily. The structures moved around her fingers, swirled around her palm like water. “I can’t feel them on my skin, but they are there and reacting to my motions!” She smiled and looked to Matthias, whose brow was furrowed. “What is wrong?”

“Can’t you see?” he asked, and nodded to her hand. She followed his eye line, and though her vision was covered with the tiny structures, she noticed that the air was rippling where she was waving.

“Perhaps we should stop for now,” Matthias said cautiously. He looked worried. Josephine nodded and lowered her hand. It took an effort to release her grasp on them, but she did, relaxed her concentration, and one by one the little lights winked out of her focus. She slumped back, and exhaled heavily.

“Well”, Matthias began, taking a deep breath “I’d say that lesson went very well. Very informative.”

The smile on Josephine’s face could have melted ice. “I was in control! For the first time, I felt that I knew what I was doing!”

“Except that you didn’t. This was a good start Josephine, but we don’t know what it was you were doing to the air.”

Josephine sighed and folded her arms. “You are determined to devastate my good mood, aren’t you Matthias Greenwald?”

“I just think we need to be careful,” he said. “We don’t know how your power works yet Josephine.” Then he smiled. “However, I’m pleased for you as well. You did very well!”

“Thank you, Matthias!” She nodded back formally and then laughed.

“It’s only the beginning,” he added. “Remember that!”

“Oh, but what a beginning!” Josephine exclaimed, clapping her hands.

“That looked… interesting,” said Thadius, approaching with Luccius in tow. “I take it you’ve made some progress?”

Matthias uncrossed his legs and took to his feet. “Oh yes, we certainly have.”

Luccius smiled and clapped Matthias on the shoulder. “I knew you’d be able to teach her! Well done Josephine!” he said, nodding to the princess.

“Why thank you, Mister ansuwan!” She chuckled. “You are most kind!”

“We didn’t mean to interrupt, but it’s getting late. You’ve been alone here for almost two hours,” said Luccius.

“What?” Matthias exclaimed. “Has it been that long?”

“We had better be moving off,” Thadius added, and Matthias nodded.

They spent the rest of the remaining daylight riding on, but as the sun set and with no village in sight in which to rest, they set up another camp in the middle of a field. There was a building just in sight off the next hill, but with any luck the owner wouldn’t notice them, even with Matthias starting another fire to ward off the chill of the approaching night.

While Josephine slept heavily beside Luccius, who was leisurely blowing on the set of pan pipes he kept tucked in his pocket, Thadius sat on watch, puffing on his pipe, while Matthias hunched over next to him, studying his tattered map again.

“Know where we are?” asked Thadius, blowing a smoke ring into the cool night air.

“Vaguely,” said Matthias. “I think we passed this stream a few hours back.” He pointed to a small winding blue line snaking up the map. “Which would put us around about… here.” He poked a finger at the tattered parchment. Thadius craned his neck to see.

“That seems about right. I have never travelled this way before, but by my guess that puts us at another good three weeks to Olindia,” he said glumly. And we don’t have that long I wager, judging by the look on your face?”

Matthias shook his head. “I’m not sure.”

“By horse it would take three weeks. But there might be a quicker way,” Thadius advised. “Look, that stream is an offshoot of the river Bralene. If we could re-join it and follow its path we will arrive at this small village here.” He pointed again to a dot on the map. “I think we can catch a riverboat from there, straight up to the border.”

“What kind of boat?” Matthias asked curiously.

“Longboats. They’re relatively new and are renowned for their speed, though I have never been fortunate enough to see them myself. They use steam from burning wood to propel them. Clever stuff.”

Matthias inspected the map and nodded. “We’d still have to cross through the mountain pass afterwards on foot, but it could save us a good week, if not more. If these boats travel as quickly as you say and through the night as well, when we would usually have to rest up, we might be in luck.”

Thadius nodded as he studied the map by the flickering light of the fire. It crackled happily on its diet of twigs. “It’s a good idea, if I say so myself. But do you think you can teach the princess everything there is to know in only two weeks?” He spoke in hushed tones to avoid waking her. “I’d have thought three weeks whilst travelling was hard enough.” His pipe top glowed red as he sucked at it.

“We have made progress.”

“That wasn’t my question. You shouldn’t rush her wizard. Maybe that extra time travelling by horse would be better if it gives her more time to get to grips with what you are attempting with her. I would be willing to forgo a boat ride if it means helping the princess.”

Matthias shook his head forcefully. “No. We need to get to Crystal Ember as soon as possible. At least if we get there with time to spare we can practice a little more there.”

Thadius shook his head and tipped his pipe into the fire. Some of the burning tobacco caught on the breeze and scattered across the grass, the glowing embers winking out in the dew. “This mission is madness. There’s so much uncertainty! You act like you know what you’re doing, but you barely have a clue more than I do about how to stop Sikaris!” He shook his head and ran a hand through his course hair. “What have I let the princess get dragged into?”

“She means a lot to you, doesn’t she?” Matthias asked.

“She’s my princess,” Thadius advised.

“I know that. But it’s more than just hierarchy that makes you so loyal.”

“The princess is like family to me,” Thadius said. “I have grown up looking after her. My father and the king are close friends. This might be your idea of fun Matthias, but believe me, it’s not mine. If anything happens to the princess I will never forgive myself.”

Matthias leaned forward and his eyes regarded Thadius with a steely gaze. “I won’t let anyone hurt her Thadius,” he said.

“You just want your pendant back,” the knight scoffed after a pause.

Matthias smiled. “Perhaps a little. Why don’t you get some sleep? I’ll keep watch.”

“I’d rather-”

“You can’t stay awake for our entire journey Thadius.”

The knight looked at him with a pained expression and then begrudgingly nodded. “Alright. Just you keep your eyes peeled!”

Matthias saluted. The knight shifted wearily and arranged his pack into a pillow, pulling his coat over himself. In moments he was snoring. Matthias laughed under his breath and then turned back to his map. He traced the river with a finger.

“Onwards and upwards,” he sighed.

 

Reprisals

125th Day of the Cycle, 495 N.E. (New Era)

 

“You failed us Grimm,” grumbled the malevolent voice of the old man who stood shrouded in darkness. His anger was withering and the figure of Taico Grimm cowered back at his rage. His hair had grown thinner and his already sunken eyes had settled even further into his skull. The room he stood in the centre of had no windows to speak of, but the candles flickered all around him and cast their warped light on his emaciated body and a thin, pink scar stretching all around his neck.

The figure that towered over him was cloaked in a thick, black shawl. Only his eyes flickered a deep purple in the light. “We gave you a taste of our power. We even sent out demons and the names of people who would help you enter Aralia unseen. Not to mention the building sketches and maps! You had all the hidden passageways and routes through the city to get you into the palace. All that coupled with your unique insight should have been more than enough. Yet you let yourself be decapitated!

Grimm felt his neck warily, his eyes darting back and forth. “The events were new,” he swallowed. “I am not used to that which I have not seen before.”

“Nevertheless she is only a girl, her powers not yet realised! Destroying her should have been as easy as crushing an egg. Especially how well you should know her.” The figure shook his head. “We trusted you, Grimm, with the most important of tasks.”

“I’m sorry!” Taico sobbed, and a tear trickled over his yellowing skin. “I tried my best, but the wizard overpowered me!” He shook his head. “I was unprepared for how strong he really is. The powers you gave to me were not enough!” He raised a shaking hand to his brow. “I was not meant to be part of this, and yet, here I am. You have changed things.”

“You became a part of this when you stumbled across our plans,” the voice said coldly. “You agreed you would help us to change what you know. You agreed it was for the best, remember?”

Grimm nodded. “I know I did,” he swallowed. “It is for the best.” His face contorted. “It is for the best?”

“It was not easy for me to knit your body back together again,” the figure continued. “I’m not getting any younger, you know! It was just fortunate that the wizard did not burn your body, or else we would not be able to get you back. You’re not important enough for that effort.”

Grimm shook his head sadly. “I should be dead! Twice over now! Flesh and bone clinging to life,” his eyes narrowed. “Such a long time ago it was since I felt human!” His head twitched. “Flame and ash. Flame and ash!” He looked up. “You ripped me from my grave!” He fell to his knees. “My head… my thoughts… so confused! I don’t know what to do anymore!”

The cloaked figure stood, and walked to Grimm, where he towered over his brittle figure. “Are you doubting your loyalty to us again?” he asked.

Grimm shook his head. “No. No, I know what must be done! But it is difficult.” He swallowed heavily. “My son…” he cried. “I miss my son!” The tears fell from his chin to the floor and pooled on the stones at his feet.

“He’s dead,” the figure said bluntly. “Everyone you knew and cared for is dead. After all you have seen, you still cling to your petty relationships. If we are to succeed you must rid yourself of your old life completely. Nothing else matters but what you have been asked to do!”

Grimm nodded, wiping his nose with a sleeve. “I am Taico Grimm. I am. I know I am.”

The man sat down again. “Yes you are. You have no son. You have no life except to complete your mission.”

Grimm nodded. “Then I will be at peace?” he asked.

“If you succeed.” The figure readjusted his cloak and cowl. “You will go to the third of our party in the mountain village of Gormal. There he will instruct you as to your next task and what new opportunities await you to deal with this threat.”

“I will do as you command my lord,” Taico snivelled. He looked up at the figure and then bowed his head. “I am sorry I doubted you.”

“You are still young, Grimm, in many ways,” the man said. “You will learn perhaps, in the time that remains for you.”

“Young,” Grimm mouthed and looked at his hands. They were pallid and snaking veins pulsed against his thin, dirty skin. “By your count perhaps.” He shook his head and turned to leave the room.

“Grimm?” the figure barked at him as he opened the door and the cold of night spilled into the room. “Do not get yourself killed a third time. We are only so generous, even in spite of your unique foresight. Think of that torment before you do something stupid. You will never be at peace then.”

Grimm nodded. “Yes master. It is as you command.” Grimm sighed. A single tear slid down across his face again. “I will do what must be done.”

Tykal

127th Day of the Cycle, 495 N.E. (New Era)

 

“Oh thank the gods,” Josephine exclaimed as she plonked herself down into a wooden chair by the lit hearth in the inn’s common room. “I have never been so happy to see a chair in all my life!” She closed her eyes and leaned her head back.

Despite Matthias’s misgivings, the others had agreed to rest at the nearby inn when they arrived in the village of Tykal. Luccius strode immediately to the bar and ordered drinks for them, knocking his back before the others had even taken a sip of their own. He returned to get another.

“I can’t believe we made it to Tykal so fast,” Thadius said as he placed his pitcher down and took out his pipe.

“The poor horses,” Josephine groaned from her chair.

“My poor backside!” Thadius interjected. “Sorry princess,” he said.

Josephine waved him away. “You are not alone in that respect,” she said, shuffling in her seat and wrinkling her nose. “I shan’t be able to sit right for days!”

Luccius returned to the table, a pewter pitcher in hand, froth spilling over its edges. He collapsed into a spare chair and sipped at his drink.

“You know, a few days ago I was travelling across Triska, making my way from tavern to tavern and sampling the different ales. Why I agreed to come with you I can’t think. I must be mad! I should have learned from the last time we went on a trip together Matthias.”

“What happened last time?” Josephine asked.

“You don’t want to know,” Luccius said. “Suffice to say I came out of it with a broken jaw. That’s saying nothing about poor old Vala!”

“Vala?” asked Thadius. “Who is he?”

“A friend,” said Matthias, taking a sip of his ale and smacking his lips as he analysed the taste.

He went hobbling back to Mahalia with some of the harshest words for you I have ever heard!” Luccius burst out laughing and slapped his thigh.

“Perhaps not a friend any more,” Matthias muttered into his pitcher.

“Well, I do not intend to come out of this journey with a broken anything!” said Josephine haughtily.

“If we have finished telling stories,” Matthias said and gave Luccius a scolding look, “we really should carry on with your training princess.”

“Oh no,” Josephine exclaimed. “We are not doing anything of the sort. We are going to sit. Right here, by the fire, having pleasant conversation. After which I am going to sleep on the boat until we reach wherever it is we are going to next.” Matthias opened his mouth to interject, but the princess raised a hand. “Uh-uh! Shush you! No protesting. I have my mind made up!” Matthias shut his mouth, folded his arms, and sighed.

“How are we going to book passage on the boat?” Thadius asked, changing tack.

“ Well it’s quite complex really,” advised Luccius. He beckoned with a hand and Thadius leaned in closer. “You see, we go to the dockyard,” he began, and Thadius nodded. “- and we ask one of the captains ‘can we book passage on your boat please?’”

Thadius leaned back and frowned, before tapping tobacco into his pipe. Josephine giggled.

“There’s no need for that,” the knight grumbled, sticking the pipe stem into his mouth and waggling it around huffily between his teeth. “Cocky elf,” he muttered.

“I will go in a moment and arrange it,” Matthias announced wearily.

“Are you alright Matthias?” asked Luccius. “You don’t seem yourself.”

Matthias nodded. “Fine my friend. Just tired I suppose.”

“Is that a weakness I hear uttering from your lips?” Thadius jibed.

“Even wizards get tired, you know,” Matthias rebutted.

“Well I am not surprised,” Josephine chimed in. “We have been riding so hard and I have not seen you sleep since we left Rina!” She shook her head. “When we get aboard a boat you really should get some rest. My training can wait a while. We have been doing well, have we not?”

“We have, but we also have a long way to go. And I will rest. But right now, I need to book us passage on a boat.” He stood wearily and made his way out of the door, swaying as he went. Josephine shook her head.

“I don’t know. You’d think he was the one who has to shore up the dragon’s prison,” she said rubbing her eyes. They were bloodshot. “Oh what I wouldn’t give for a bath and a hot meal!”

“I’m sure that could be arranged,” Luccius replied. “We have more than enough coin left to pay for it between us I’ll wager?”

Thadius nodded. “The king provided me with ample coin for our journey and I have some myself besides.”

Luccius nodded. “This is a good tavern. Many of the better Aralian inns I have been to have bathing tubs. The last place I went before we met had the biggest copper tub you have ever seen!” He leant to Thadius and whispered in his ear. “It even had enough room to fit two people in,” he said and elbowed the knight in the ribs. The man looked at him and shook his head.

“Are all your people so lascivious?” he asked.

Luccius grinned but did not answer the question. “Matthias will be awhile arranging passage anyway. I’ll go and see about getting us some food. Whilst I’m there I will enquire about the bath!”

The tavern owner bobbed her head as she set the roasting meals down in front of the three of them a short while later and announced that a bath was being drawn for the lady as she spoke. Josephine nodded gratefully as she picked the chicken up delicately in her hands and gnawed at the meat and ravenously gulped the food down.

“Hungry?” came a voice from her side and she turned mid chew to see Matthias returning to their table. She stopped chewing and swallowed the chunk in her mouth, licking her lips and wiping her mouth.

“Hungry for a proper meal. Not the stale bread and water that I have endured for almost a week,” she advised him.

He chuckled. “I’ve booked us passage on a boat leaving in two hours. We were lucky – apparently it’s a quiet day for passengers. We will have to leave the horses though.”

“That’s a shame. They are of good stock,” Thadius noted, eating his own meal. “But it can’t be helped I suppose.”

“A few days of sitting in more comfortable surroundings will do us some good,” the princess commented.

“We will have to practise for some of the journey princess,” Matthias advised. Her face fell.

“You will not leave me alone for a moment, will you?” she grumbled.

“This is not a pleasure ride, Josephine,” Matthias barked back. “You have to meet me in the middle somewhere!”

“Meet you in the middle?” she growled. “I believe I have been quite accommodating to your people’s requests thus far! I have been dragged out of my life and imposed upon to march along with you on this nightmare mission!”

“You don’t know how lucky you are!” Matthias said back.

Lucky?” she hissed. “In what respect am I lucky to be the one forced to accomplish this task?”

Matthias opened his mouth but then stopped and shook his head. “Forget it. I should have thought before I spoke.”

“A rule you forget at least three times daily!” Josephine chastised him. She stood up from her seat.

“Where are you going?” Matthias asked.

“To have my bath!” she snapped and turned on her heel. “Would you like to follow me and continue this argument, or am I allowed to have some time to myself?”

Matthias waved her away. “We’ll continue this discussion and your studies on the boat,” he said more forcefully. She harrumphed and stomped off.

“Well that went very well,” Thadius grumbled. “I should smack you in the mouth for speaking to the princess in that way.”

“Then why don’t you?” Matthias snapped at him. Then he sighed. “I’m sorry Thadius.” He stood up.

“Where are you off to now?” Luccius asked him.

Matthias shook his head. “I’m going to get another drink. For some reason ale has become much more appealing to me in the last week.”

The deep water that lapped around Josephine’s body steamed as she lay in the copper tub, inhaling the vapours that rose from the water. Her head was reclined and she wiggled her toes around happily, listening to the slosh that they made. Living in close company with men for a week had practically driven her mad! To be surrounded by them all day and night was intolerable! Thadius for all his decency and respect for her refused to let her walk further than a few paces away from him at all times for her own safety. Matthias jumped on her every time she sat down to rest, eager to get her to start playing around with her power. Luccius was the only one who had not upset her yet, but even his cheerfulness was starting to grate in the absence of any space. She closed her eyes and slipped further into the tub.

Taking a bar of soap from a small pewter dish on a stool beside her she began to scrub the dirt and mud from her body. The soap smelt less than nice. The inn was probably unable to afford the fragranced, perfumed goods she was used to, she supposed. Not that she bathed very often, but it was nice to relax in private surroundings and given the state she was in from trawling across Aralia, she felt grateful to get some of the mud off her skin. She ran the small oblong across her arms and down across her stomach, letting it cleanse her aching muscles. Suddenly, something out of the corner of her eye made her glance at her feet. A wisp of red liquid was swirling around with the water. It took her a moment to realise it was blood, coming from her left foot. Shocked, she bent to inspect it for cuts, but before she could bend all the way over, the water all around her began to grow cloudy and thick with the red liquid. Her breathing grew quick, her heart thumping in her chest.

“Hello?” she called outside, hoping a serving girl would hear. “Is anyone there? Hello?” she cried again more desperately, as the water all around her turned a deep red. It began to bubble. “Help!” she screamed. “Thadius! Matthias! Help me! ” Her legs hung limply as if they could no longer be moved by her willpower and she twisted her stomach and tried to force herself out of the water. Suddenly the bottom of the bath fell away and the bloody water around her turned to deep, ruddy clouds. “What is going on?” she wailed as she hovered in the dark, crimson- tinged sky. She looked up and jumped. A large, spherical rock hung just as she did in the air. It was enormous, like the moon only much larger and its surface was shrouded in murky cloud. Out of nowhere the sun burst from behind it and she winced as her eyes constricted. The brightness took over her entire vision and then she heard a voice in the distance calling her name. It started to grow louder until it filled her ears and she placed her hands to them to try and drown it out.

Suddenly she sat up in the bath with a sharp intake of breath. Water droplets fell from her hair. She threw her head down. The water lay still and perfectly clear, save for the distilling murkiness of the soap mixing in the water. She had fallen asleep. It was only a nightmare! Her heart still pounded in her chest, her breathing short and quick. Both relief and terror gripped her and she took a moment to gather her senses before she scrambled out the bath. She wanted to be out of that room as quickly as she could- she almost forgot that she needed to dress first. Fast as she could, she dried herself off with a linen cloth hanging by her side on a wooden prop and threw on her clothes before she dashed out and down the stairs and into the common room. Her face was a picture of terror.

“Princess, what’s happened?” Thadius started, rising.

“We have to go,” she said. “We must leave now!” Her breath still caught in her throat, and she had to swallow to keep from gasping.

“Why? What’s happened?” Matthias asked.

“I… that is…” Josephine began, but stopped. “I had a bad dream.”

Matthias looked at her askance. “A dream?”

“I take it that it wasn’t a good one?” Luccius asked.

“It was not,” Josephine replied. “There was blood. Lots of it and it was my own.”

“Oh.” Matthias raised his eyebrows. “Luccius can you get the Princess a glass of spring wine? It will steady her nerves.”

“My nerves will be steady-” she snapped, before leaning forward and lowering her voice to a whisper again. “I will be fine once we leave here!” she finished.

“Well you don’t have too long to wait now. We should be leaving for the boat in a half-hour,” Matthias said. He indicated to the spare chair. “Sit down and gather yourself.” She nodded and plonked herself down in the chair. “I’m sorry about our argument,” he said to her. “You are right. Apologising is becoming a bit of a habit for me. It is one I am not accustomed to.”

Josephine shook her head. “Apology accepted,” she said, still slightly breathless. Luccius returned and gave her the wine and she took it gratefully and sipped at the sweet drink. “I think all our nerves are a little frayed. You must understand that I am not accustomed to being ordered about either by anyone other than my father.”

Matthias nodded. “I’ll try to be a little more patient. I’m just worried, given how little time we seem to have, that you won’t be ready when we arrive at Crystal Ember.”

The princess nodded. “Very well then, I will practice more on the boat. I suppose it will be a good opportunity to learn further.”

“The captain agreed to take us as far as the river flows until it runs through the mountains at Gormal. There the way is too narrow to safely pass through. There is a small village, though the captain says we are probably best not staying there too long. It’s not known for welcoming outsiders apparently. I had to agree to pay him an extra mark to get him to travel that far upriver.”

“Some of the villages that way are suffering from crop shortages,” Thadius advised. “The people aren’t happy about it.”

“We’ll have to tread carefully then,” Matthias acknowledged.

“Oh!” Josephine exclaimed suddenly, and looked down at her feet. “Thadius, would you be so kind as to go and retrieve my shoes from beside the bath?”

The longboat Providence lived up to its name for being a long boat. It spanned half the village harbour and its lengthy carriage suggested that in a previous life it had been a cargo barge. But where once its bowels had housed goods there were now quarters for people’s passage. It was a lavishly decorated vessel; its underside painted a deep green, and the rest of its bulk a deep red. Josephine inspected the bizarre boat as they approached.

“It looks a little… cramped,” she said, her nose wrinkled in distaste.

“You’d rather ride by horse?” Matthias retorted.

“No!” Thadius quickly interjected. “Please, Gods no, my behind can’t take anymore saddle sores.”

Matthias grinned. “I’ve reserved three of the uppermost compartments. Space enough for all of us. ”

“I suppose a boat is a boat,” she sighed. “And I have not had the pleasure of trying this new contraption before.”

“A few years ago these boats had to be towed by rope on either side of the river by horse,” Thadius informed them. “It wasn’t a very fast way of travelling.”

“How does it work now then?” the princess asked Thadius.

“It is quite clever, Your Highness. The steam is made by burning logs and materials, and it drives some kind of mechanism that moves the thing.”

“How clever,” she said. “Moves it how?”

“Now that I don’t know,” Thadius said.

“You would have thought they could have made it a little bigger,” the princess remarked.

Matthias shook his head. “If they made it much bigger it wouldn’t fit in the river.”

Taico Grimm watched the group board the Providence from the depths of his alleyway hidey-hole. So, they were travelling by boat, were they? He had been stalking them a good few miles, but in his weakened state he hadn’t dared to make any move against them. He waited until they had all stepped below deck and then deftly hot-footed his way on to the ship, ready to dart behind the nearest cargo barrel should they come out again. When he reached Gormal, and received his orders, then maybe he could finish this once and for all and find the peace that had eluded him so long. The storm would be breaking soon.

A Dark Sect Meets

127th Day of the Cycle, 495 N.E. (New Era)

 

Four men sat opposite each other at even intervals around a large, round oak table in the centre of the dank, poorly lit, cramped room of the unremarkable townhouse. The walls were bumpy and uneven; their plaster yellow and musty from the smoke of years of pipes being puffed in the unventilated house. A half – melted candle sat in the centre of the thick table – top, its shape heavily disfigured by the pulsing flame. Beads of wax spilled out over the brass housing and onto the wood. The light it gave the room was minimal, but accompanied by several wall – mounted candles stuck unevenly into candelabras behind the men, it provided enough light for their meeting.

The eerie shadows of the four men danced about the room. They could not have been more different in appearance from each other. The first was in his middling years, his coarse, auburn hair pulled back tight and fastened with a silky black ribbon. A pony – tail spilled out over his back. In the right light he could even have been classed as handsome, but in the spectral, flickering candlelight his beauty was distorted and disfigured and a scar that ran along his cheek signalled that he was anything but tame. He wore a high collared coat of navy blue and gold, with delicate lace that spilled out from a white shirt underneath. He clasped his hands together and scrutinised the others through his deep, grey eyes.

The second man opposite was old and bony. Glazed, inset blue eyes weighed his counterparts through their misty, milky film. His thin beard and wispy grey hair gave him an eccentric appearance, but the look on his face was more murderous than mad. Around his neck he wore a thick gold chain and a chunky pendant in the shape of a raven hung from its length, its wings stretched out in flight. Two emeralds for eyes caught the candlelight and winked menacingly. He clutched at a thick black fur cloak around him, buttoned at the neck with a thick, gaudy brooch of a gothic design.

The third man, to the right of the second, was young in comparison, but still older than the first. Thin, greased moustaches hung down from his upper lip and dangled freely below his chin, from which a small, trimmed beard spiked outwards. His clothes were markedly different to the others. He wore bright colours: a deep blue robe tied a yellow sash that cut across his skinny midriff. His straight, slicked back hair, greying at his temples, was tucked behind his ears, and he raised a thin, plucked eyebrow at the others as they argued with each other. He was slim, with long fingers and a tall neck, and he sat regally in his rickety chair, observing the show in front of him.

Across from him sat the final man: a tall figure, towering above even the third, who himself was decidedly tall even sitting down. What marked the fourth man apart were his eyes. They were brown – red and his irises were thin slits, shaped like those of a snake. He too had a pony – tail like the first, though shorter and more stylized than that of the other man. The clothes he wore were like those of a western merchant: a brown and green waistcoat worn atop a plain cotton shirt, criss-crossed with a lace tie at its top. His face was jagged as if he had been clumsily carved from a piece of coarse stone and like the other, he wore scars across his face: one along his cheek, another across his nose, stretching up to his brow. It was he who hammered his huge fists against the table, ceasing the argument that was continuing on between them.

Enough!” he demanded in a deep, booming voice. “We are achieving nothing sitting here arguing again!”

“ Perhaps you should have issued such an ultimatum earlier,” the first, and youngest contested dryly. “It would have saved us much of the evening. I could be sitting back in a comfy chair, drinking brandy in the company of good women right now, if you made these two shut up sooner!” He examined his fingernails as he slumped in the chair, a thick- soled boot resting on the edge of the table as he pushed himself backward so the chair pivoted on two legs. “I had two young beauties waiting for me tonight: a young livery maid with slender, tanned calves, brilliant bosom, a loose tongue and even looser morals and a prostitute with the dirtiest laugh you’ve ever heard. Instead, here I am sitting here listening to the same old bickering! Hundreds of bloody years of bloody bickering!”

The red – eyed man pushed back his own chair and stood, leaning forward across the table. His overbearing posture brought a disgruntled look from the oldest man and an uncomfortable shifting of position from the one with the long moustaches.

“I don’t care what evening entertainment you had planned for yourself Kala. Sometimes I think you forget exactly what it is you are still doing here! You’ve grown too comfortable in your hedonistic lifestyle.”

“I had to fill the years doing something Rajinal,” the man named Kala scoffed. “Unlike you I chose to enjoy my isolation from society.”

“Well now is the time to remember that your duty is to our master, not some whore who wishes to bleed you dry of every penny you have left in your possession! As for you two,” he began, staring at the others angrily. “The matter of sovereignty over the lands of Triska isn’t something we will have any decision on. We have become side – tracked by your selfish greed at a crucial point. We need to rethink our immediate plans in the light of this new turn of events.”

Our plans?” The oldest sneered, his voice crackling. “As I recall these plans are not ours to claim. We could never be so visionary as to imagine such possibilities! Not even in our youth did we even comprehend such an idea!”

“Oh let him be old man,” the youngest directed. “It was a term of phrase. A slip of the tongue. Besides, when have you ever been so humble? Rotten old fig,” he whispered, and then smiled at the withered man, who clicked his tongue at him.

“A ‘slip of the tongue’-” the old man accentuated, “-could mean the difference between victory and defeat! That is the delicacy of the events we have now set in motion. We are on a precipice! So long we have laid low and waited and now, at the eleventh hour the gods seek to take back control of this game!”

“Could we please get back to the point,” the third grumbled. “I am sick of metaphors and endless prattle from this one! I managed to slip away this evening, my first opportunity for over a week. Yet here we are wasting it with petty banter. I was only voicing my concerns about what happens after we succeed.”

If we succeed,” the oldest grumbled again.

“Maevik, one more word like that from you and I will rip out that voice box from your brittle old throat and feed it back to you!” the burly man barked. The old man fell silent, his mouth twisted in distaste. “Now, are we all ready to get on?” The rest muttered agreement. He folded his thick, hairy arms and shifted restlessly on his chair, tapping his big, booted foot on the floor. He was a giant of a man.

“Where had we gotten to?” the youngest asked. The fourth took the floor again.

“We were discussing Taico Grimm. You were telling us of his progress, Maevik? Or rather his lack of it. You had just informed us that his assassination attempt on the princess had failed.”

“Yes. The wizard has reached her. Just as it was foreseen, I hasten to add. He overpowered Grimm, despite the power I had imbued in him. In the struggle that ensued, Grimm got his head cut off.”

Kala scoffed. “Our investment in him is truly paying off! What a waste of time that was. We should have let him rot.”

“Grimm may still prove useful,” the burly man retorted, holding up a hand. “Please Maevik, continue.”

“The other two men depicted by him are also with the princess.”

“The knight from Rina and the ansuwan?” Kala asked. Maevik nodded.

“Of all the possibilities Grimm described, they were always amongst the four who overcame our plans. Their presence is a result of the gods’ interference and a threat to us,” Maevik said.

“This is bad news,” the third said. “I feel it in my bones.”

“Nonsense Silar. Everything is still going to plan!” said Rajinal. “They haven’t achieved anything yet.”

“I don’t recall any of these recent events in any of our planning!” Silar spat. “A single seeing stone has sent our plans spiralling out of control! Now the girl is on her way to Crystal Ember to stop the dragon from being released. A girl who should not even be possible!

“Her presence is why we still need Grimm,” Maevik advised. “His knowledge is still useful to us while she is alive.”

“But Grimm’s very presence has altered those events he has foreseen. How can we be sure of anything?” Silar asked.

“We can’t,” said the burly man named Rajinal. “But he knows her. And his presence here may be the one thing the gods didn’t predict. We’ve taken their tool and moulded him into our own.”

“Perhaps. But Grimm is not as important as the dragon. The return hinges on Sikaris being released. If there is no distraction, no threat to draw the eyes of Triska-”

“The dragon will be freed!” Maevik snapped. “I have sent more spawn after the girl.”

“I feel so much better,” Kala mocked. “The Helspawn and Grimm you sent to take care of it before have worked so well so far! Bravo!” He clapped his hands slowly, derisively.

“As I recall,” Maevik growled, his half dead eyes regarding the younger man icily, “Using Taico Grimm was your idea in the first place?”

“We all agreed we needed him!” Kala muttered back at him.

The room grew darker suddenly as the candle in front of them snuffed out. Rajinal rose and picked up the holder from a pool of spilt wax, speaking to the others as he went to change the candle.

“Is there any indication that the full extent of our plans have been uncovered by anyone else?” he asked.

“No,” Maevik growled. “There are no signs of any other movement towards the south. It seems the seeing stone have not compromised our efforts completely. Fortunately Mahalia is not astute enough to have drawn the right conclusions from the premonitions they intercepted.”

“They have been astute enough to make an attempt on my life!” Kala exclaimed. “Two weeks ago one of their kind found me, amongst all the people in all the places in Triska! You underestimate them too much Maevik. They known about us, at least, which is only one step away from their learning the full truth. Their net is closing in on us.”

“Wizards are tricky creatures. We all know how much they’ve scuppered more than one of our plans to bring dysfunction to Triska over the last few centuries,” Rajinal added. “But we have always remained one step ahead of them.”

“We must remain in hiding as much as we can until the time is right,” Maevik advised. “We can use Taico Grimm to scupper their plans. Remember that Grimm is not just useful to us for his foresight. We need a vessel for the return. We have sought after one for so long, and none has been as ripe a candidate as him.”

“He is practically an empty shell,” Rajinal nodded. “One we have been able to have considerable influence over.”

“You’re welcome,” Silar said, steepling his fingers.

Maevik turned to Kala. “Grimm is going to come to you. I thought it best as my ability to provide more borrowed power is clearly not enough. I suggest you make his abilities more permanent. Give him enough firepower to stop the wizard and kill the princess. That will tip the scales in our favour. Then we can deal with Mahalia separately. As long as we remain hidden they cannot stop us.”

“Are you sure giving Grimm permanent abilities is a good idea? Especially those that Kala can provide?” Silar asked.

Maevik sighed. “You doubt him too much Silar! Grimm is a loyal subject now. He will obey all of our orders to the death.”

“Again,” Kala chuckled.

Exactly,” Maevik snorted. “Or do you doubt your own abilities?”

Silar sighed. “Such ‘convincing’ is unpredictable, especially with a man in his condition. He is insane. He was insane before we even laid our hands on him, let alone now we have taken the last shreds of his decaying mind and bent them to our will!”

“It will hold,” Maevik said. “We have only months now until the time comes.”

“I could do a much better job of stopping them myself,” Kala retorted. “I doubt the girl has attained the ability yet to do anything of any real damage. I could kill the wizard and this guard, isolate the girl… hmm, yes, that pretty little thing, I’d like to have her all alone. I am sure I could teach her a trick or two. She isn’t married yet, is she?” He looked to the others, who watched him impassively. “No, she’s not. Then she’s not been properly broken in.” A sickening smile broadened his face.

“You will do no such thing,” Rajinal commanded, as he forced a new candle into the holder and scraped away the solidifying waxy residue. “We need to remain hidden as Maevik says. If anything should go wrong and one of them escaped or worse, if you were killed…” He shook his head. “We cannot expose ourselves to unnecessary risks! If even one of us dies then we cannot proceed with the return. Use Grimm, Kala, as we have discussed. Give him whatever you think necessary to stop their band of travellers in their tracks once and for all.” He set the candle back in place, lit it by touching a finger to the wick, and their murderous faces lit up again.

“I must go,” Silar announced suddenly, elegantly rising from the table. “I need to be seen in the palace in a few minutes. It will arouse suspicion otherwise.” The others nodded their acceptance.

“Before you go, Silar, you have not said much lately on how things are progressing in Aslemer?” Rajinal queried. Silar gave a thin smile, elevating one of his thin moustaches.

“Quite nicely. I have secured my position with Emperor Chalize even further over the last few weeks. The assault on the Ishlamarian territory was enough to win a great deal of his trust, and since then I have helped him to expand his reach further north as well. My ‘alliance’ with him is cemented. He listens to me.”

“He still does not suspect your cover story at all?” Maevik wheezed. When Silar shook his head, the old man harrumphed. “I am surprised, I must say. A runaway wizard? I thought you would have been seen through months ago! Especially with that other wizard in Olindia. How many of their kind would Mahalia really allow to flee their ranks?”

“Well what can I say, Maevik? It’s not just the story, it’s the way you tell it and the way you play the part.”

“Well done my friend,” Rajinal nodded. “Your hard work there has paid off well. Even when the dragon is released, we will need to drive more distrust between as many countries as we can and sow the seeds of chaos to blind the people to their ultimate fate. We will be vulnerable until we can guarantee the return.”

“Just you three concentrate on releasing the dragon and stopping that girl,” Silar said waspishly, pointing a long, thin finger at them each in turn. “I will deal with the rest. The dragon’s prison is more tangled and knotty than Maevik’s beard. To unpick it undetected will take time, but we can’t slack. It is still a massive task, even for us, in spite of how long we have had to prepare.” He bid a final nod to them all and then glided out of the door elegantly, his flowing dress robes sliding across the ground behind him.

“I must be off soon too,” Maevik grumbled. “There are many threads to stitch up now this wizard has interfered.” He shook his head. “We should have been more prepared for this, especially after what Grimm managed to recall.”

“The wizard and this merry band is of no consequence,” Kala said confidently, waving the man away with a hand. “I will make sure the princess does not get further then Gormal. I have a few new ideas for Grimm already.”

“Good,” Rajinal said. “I am progressing well with gathering the armies.”

“If you can call that rabble an army any longer,” Kala retorted. “They have been without authority for far too long!”

“Tend to your own matters Kala. They are my problem. And remember, we are due to begin the next phase in weakening the dragon’s prison tomorrow as well.”

The Bralene River

127th Day of the Cycle, 495 N.E. (New Era)

 

“Well this is actually rather nice, even if the room is a little small!” Josephine laughed as she bounced up and down on her bed moments after being shown to her cabin. Everything was in miniature, scaled down to fit the proportions of the boat. The bed was just large enough to curl up on and even then it was a squeeze to avoid her feet dangling off the bottom as she stretched out and extended her arms as far as they would go to her sides. A small candleholder complete with a candle sat on a compact bedside table by the boxy bed and that was all that there was.

“If it can be called a room,” Thadius muttered as they crowded into the room. “I’ve seen stables with more conveniences.”

Matthias shook his head. “What did you expect?” he asked. “You’re a soldier anyway. Have you grown too comfortable in Rina and forgotten what it’s like to travel?”

Thadius opened his mouth to retort, but was interrupted by Josephine, who said: “It is certainly better than sitting on grass and rock in the cold of night!” She patted the sheet. “This will do nicely.” She lay her head down on the pillow and stared up at the low, wooden ceiling.

“Please, don’t get up!” Matthias said acerbically to her, as he set the princess’s bag on the floor. “Let us do all the lifting.”

“Well you all seem determined to do everything for me anyway, so why should I fight it?” Josephine replied, a wry grin on her face.

Thadius is determined to do everything for you, not me!” Matthias responded. “I’m not a pack horse!”

“Are you all going to be arguing like this all the way to Crystal Ember?” Luccius asked, squeezing past Matthias and sitting next to Josephine on the bed. “Because if you are then I really need to get a flask of whisky to accompany me the rest of the way.” He shook his head. “I hate arguments and you all are extremely good at starting them.”

“I believe arguing is almost sport in Mahalia, is it not?” Josephine smirked at Matthias.

Matthias opened his mouth to retort cuttingly, but then closed it and smiled broadly. “Not at all, princess. We simply debate matters strongly.”

Ah,” she said with an equally loaded grin. “Then you, Matthias Greenwald, are an expert at such debating.”

“When I choose to make a point, I do so with clarity and precision,” the wizard replied.

Luccius shook his head. “It’s like speaking to a stone,” he muttered.

“I still wish we didn’t have to leave the horses behind,” Thadius murmured. “They were good horses.”

“This was the only boat leaving here that could accommodate us for a week,” Matthias replied. “We might as well have ridden to the mountains if we waited for one that could accommodate the horses as well. Besides, Madam Landar at the inn promised she would take good care of them for us.”

“More likely she will sell them on the first chance she gets,” Thadius grumbled again. “Or eat them!”

“Eat them?” Luccius exclaimed.

“She was Olindian. I could tell by her accent. You know they’ll eat anything that moves. I once saw one eat a cricket! What meat is there on a cricket? What is the point?

“Oh calm yourself, Thadius,” Josephine interjected. “I like this boat. It is cosy. The horses will be fine. When we return to Rina I will have them sent for, if that will make you feel any better? And if she has eaten them I’ll send her to the stocks.”

They got underway shortly after they boarded, the boat making quick progress as it funnelled its way steadily down the river, its unique mechanisms whirring away inside the hull to propel two wheels at its rear that pushed the water behind itself with force. Josephine sat in her little room, quite pleased at getting more privacy from the others and watched from her porthole window as the harbour quickly disappeared behind her and the scenery changed to dense woodland. The sound of birds chirping in the surrounding trees and the churning, flowing water lulled her into a doze. She slumped upright by the window for what must have been at least an hour before she awoke again. She stretched her arms and got up off the bed, smoothed off her skirt and made her way up through the narrow walkway between the compartments and outside to the side of the boat, where she peered over the copper rail and watched the water slide peacefully by.

“Enjoying yourself?” Luccius beamed, landing beside her without warning. She jumped.

Oh! Luccius, you startled me! Yes, it is quite lovely,” she replied, closing her eyes as a light breeze blew her hair back and cooled her face.

“Quite picturesque,” he said, tapping his hands on the rail. A pewter ring on his left finger made a chime as he drummed a tune on it. “Quite different from being on a seaborne ship.”

“You have been to sea then I take it?” Josephine asked.

He nodded. “It was from the Tekri Seaport. I travelled with a Tekritian Merchant Company vessel. It was pretty grand. It had the most enormous sails you ever would see! And when it moved it forced its way through the water, like it was master of the ocean and the waves should have broken before its bow at its command.”

Josephine sighed. “A most wonderful life you have had Mister Luccius,” she replied. “To be free as a bird without a care in the world.”

“It has its moments,” he replied. “Though I’d be lying if my life was as free as you may believe it to be.”

“How so?” Josephine asked.

He shook his head and waved her away. “Oh, it’s nothing. Forget I mentioned it. Don’t you enjoy your life back in Rina?” he asked, changing the subject.

“It is a nice life,” Josephine sighed. “I want for nothing, for which I am grateful. But as I said to you before, it doesn’t afford you much time to get out and see the world. Most of my time I have spent learning how to rule Aralia when I succeed my father, or dancing at court.”

“You’re a good dancer?” Luccius asked.

Josephine’s mouth quirked into a smile. “Well, I practice my footwork every chance I get.”

Luccius threw out his hands. “Dance with me then,” he said.

Josephine shook her head. “Oh no, no really I couldn’t.”

“Why not?” the ansuwan asked.

“It is embarrassing! There is no music, for one thing!”

Luccius gave up, and lowered his hands. “Well, alright. But you owe me a dance, Josephine!”

She smiled. “Very well. But then you owe me an explanation of your previous comment.” Luccius’s ears twitched. “You cannot simply pique my curiosity with a titbit about your life and then brush it aside.” The ansuwan face fell and he looked away. Josephine watched him a moment and then turned her attention to the water again. “I must come back here to travel in this manner again, when I am done with this journey,” Josephine said.

“I’m on the run,” Luccius said suddenly.

Josephine looked surprised. “You are a criminal?” she asked.

“Would it change your opinion of me if I were?” Luccius countered.

Josephine shrugged. “I suppose it depends on the manner of your crime.”

Luccius laughed and shook his head. “Don’t worry. I’m not a murderer or a thief, or anything like that. I’m just… not where I should be.”

“That does not sound like much of a crime to me,” Josephine exclaimed.

“Perhaps not where you come from,” Luccius responded sombrely.

“Where should you be then?” the princess asked.

“I told you my people do not get out much. Well, the reason is that it is against our laws to leave our Communities without a purpose that is deemed necessary by the Whole.”

“The Whole?” Josephine queried.

“The decision of my people as a unit. We all have a say in matters.”

Josephine nodded. “I see. I take it you left then without the permission of the Whole?”

Luccius smiled. “There is so much to see of this world! Why would anyone stay in one place? I packed up my bags and left one day and didn’t look back.”

“Are your people searching for you?” Josephine asked.

“I doubt it. In their eyes I have turned my back on them. They would not risk their lives for such a person.”

Josephine placed a hand on Luccius’s arm. “It is their loss,” she smiled. “How long have you been away?”

Luccius shrugged. “If I’m honest, I have lost count of the years now. I make my way around Triska, working here and there and earning some coin. Gambling’s always good for a few marks – especially dice! I seem to have luck when it comes to dice. People accuse me of cheating: that somehow my ears enable me to see predict the roll. I’ve had a few bar fights in my time because of that. Not that I enjoy them.”

“What did you do before? In your… Community?” asked Josephine.

“Nothing exciting,” he said quickly.

Josephine eyed him doubtfully. “You know I have been brought up in a Court life, Luccius. Nowhere are there more liars, schemers and deceivers gathered together in one place. And I know when someone not telling the full truth when I see one. You do not make a good liar, ansuwan -man.”

Luccius smiled. “It would bore you.”

“It’s important to me if it means I find out a little more about you and who you are. You are my escort, after all. Does Matthias know what else you are hiding?” She asked. He looked sheepish. “I’ll take that as a yes. Then why will you not trust me? Have we not become close on our journey so far? Are we not friends?”

“We are friends!” Luccius smiled. “It’s not personal Josephine. But there are some things I’d rather not tell anyone. Matthias knows my secrets because he has known me most of my life. And he understands why I hide them. Some demons should remain locked away.” He sniffed. “Just like Sikaris.”

Josephine sighed and wrung her hands. “Well, if that is you final word, I will not press you on it further. I suppose we all have secrets we would rather no one knew. Mine was this power. Mind you, look how that has turned out!”

“How are you feeling after your strange dream anyway?” Luccius asked as he watched a ripple in the water – a fish most probably.

“I am alright, thank you. It just… well, it unnerved me.”

“Well that’s understandable,” Luccius said.

“It has been making me think,” she continued. “This may be such a dangerous journey. The others and yourself can only protect me so far. If it comes to it, I may have to defend myself. I have to be prepared to shed a little blood to do it. Even if it is my own.”

“I suppose,” Luccius said breathily. “It was only a dream though. Remember that. We’re all here to defend you. You’re not alone. And Matthias will help you control your power. You can use that to defend yourself.”

She snorted. “As much as it suits his needs perhaps. You really think after I have sealed up the dragon’s prison he will stay around and help me?”

“I thought you and he had built up some trust?” Luccius asker her, surprised.

“We have. But it has still only been a few days that we have known one another.”

“Matthias is a good man. Complicated, perhaps, but I count him as my most trusted friend. He will help you.”

“I don’t know if he even really likes me! You said it yourself, we argue more than we agree on matters. Sometimes we joke now, but perhaps that is all an act? Maybe he really is just using me?”

Luccius laughed. “That’s just his way. He doesn’t hate you, Josephine, if that’s what you think. You saw how he helped you when you lost control, when Thadius and I couldn’t get to you to help. He cares about you. He’s just… well, he doesn’t express it in quite the same way as most of your kind.”

“If in ‘quite the same way’ you mean he expresses himself as an ass, then yes, you are quite right!” Josephine snorted. Then she sighed and brushed the comment away with the flick of a hand. “I am only joking. I suppose I know he cares in some way. Oh, ignore me, I am being foolish!

“How do you feel towards him?” Luccius asked.

“What do you mean?” Josephine stuttered.

“Do you like him?” he asked. “As a friend, I mean. I did not mean to imply otherwise.”

The princess nodded. “It’s hard to develop familial feelings for a man who tried to kidnap me,” she said.

“You seem to have confidence in him though,” Luccius commented. “You trust his guidance?”

She nodded. “But I am not used to someone who speaks to me as if I were not a princess. There have been very few people in my life who have done so.”

“I would have thought that would be a good thing? Anyone can bow down to you and fawn to your every need. Anyone can agree with your every word. But what good is that?”

She nodded. “I suppose it is refreshing. Most of the time.” She watched the water a moment and then sighed. “I think I will go back to my chamber now,” she said abruptly. She placed a hand on his arm. “Thank you for confiding in me as much as you have,” she said.

“And you,” Luccius bowed his head. She turned and walked off to the underside of the boat.

“What a pair,” Luccius sniffed, his ears twitching with amusement. “Humans.”

Providence

127th Day of the Cycle, 495 N.E. (New Era)

 

Providence ploughed on through the water, the sun setting on her first day of travel. Her captain, Pren Rilam, was a stout fellow, dressed in country - style Aralian clothes: a brown waistcoat atop a loosely woven fabric shirt and baggy grey trousers tucked into tough, black leather boots. He was a pleasant enough man, which was more than could be said of the captain of the ship Matthias had caught on his way to Rina. Several times at sea he had wished he could have dunked that man in the water. But Pren seemed to be a decent man and even had a small bowl of food sent down for the traveller’s at supper for no additional cost to them. Matthias poked at the pottage with his wooden spoon as he sat cross - legged on his small bed, hunched over to stop himself from bumping his head on the low ceiling. The darkness of night clothed the countryside around the boat at the late hour and he lit the candle provided, plus one more he had stashed in his bag, to illuminate the book he now read. He was having trouble concentrating though. There was something tugging at him - a feeling of deep foreboding, a sense that something very bad was about to happen- or perhaps was happening right now. He had checked in with the others though, and they were all fine. Josephine was locked in for the night, a measure Thadius had insisted on. The knight did not want to take any risks. Still, something was stopping Matthias from relaxing. Maybe the last few days had got to him more than he would allow himself to admit.

They had two more days of travel until they were to reach their port of call: a small harbour town with little more there than the dock itself of interest. It was: “A town that even the fleas had deserted,” captain Rilam had told him, when he had originally asked to sail that far upstream. “Not many call that town as home any more, save those that have no other choice. Tanavern is known by those places around as the ‘Stew of the North’. And I don’t mean ‘stew’ as in the food. There are different kinds of appetites that are sated in Tanavern.”

Nevertheless, being the furthest port north that it was possible to reach, Matthias had insisted on their passage and the captain had agreed, for a price. From there the village of Gormal in the mountains of the same name was close. It was a village steeped in the mountains: the furthest settlement in Aralia. Once through those mountains they would be in Olindian Territory and one step closer to Crystal Ember. If Matthias read his tattered map properly, there were two ways around the mountains. They would have to determine which would be better for them. Time was slipping through the hourglass far too quickly. He would ask Thadius in the morning.

More pressingly on his mind was the fact that the princess’s time to learn about her abilities was running out. Their journey on Providence may be their only real chance to make considerable progress. Earlier in the day he had sat with her, but she had been unable to recreate her feat of the previous week until late into the afternoon, and even then she had only held the strange structures in her view for a few seconds before they vanished. She had barked at him to leave afterwards, frustrated and tired. But things were going too slowly and he impressed upon her they couldn’t leave it until the morning to try again. She had thrown her pillow at him and pushed him out of the door. Little good it would do if they made it to Crystal Ember in time and she couldn’t do anything! Not to mention the other dangers that could await her. That made his stomach turn almost as much as the dragon. He thought earlier that evening about telling her the whole truth: that the information alone might spur her on. But she was under enough pressure as it was without him adding to her worries. No, perhaps that information could wait a bit longer. He had to do something to motivate her though, and if fear wasn’t the answer then that something had to be hope. Tomorrow he would try and help her to restore some confidence.

Irritably he cast the book aside and lay down upon his bed with his hands behind his head. There was something else troubling him though at the back of his mind, beyond the current issues with the princess that plagued his senses. What was it? He closed his eyes and inhaled slowly for several minutes, calming his mind. So many thoughts and feelings spun in his head that it was growing harder and harder to keep them all together. Ah yes, that was it. It was something that had been bothering him for a while now since his last conversation with Master Pym. His mind’s eye cast itself back to the discussion.

“We stare into a Horizon of Storms, Matthias. Remember that. We must navigate them carefully or else all is lost.”

What did that mean? He knew when to read between the lines, and Master Pym never said anything to him like that without a reason. There must be some use for the phrase. He had not heard it before, not could he recall anything from his studies that shed light on the matter. Perhaps he was over- reacting to a throwaway line? Except, nothing Pym said to him had ever been throwaway. It felt as if he was trying to tell Matthias something else without actually having to tell it. Given all Pym had disclosed to him at that point he was surprised the man did not just come out and tell him. But he must have had his reasons. Wizards always had their reasons. That was the problem.

“I wish I could speak to you, Master Pym,” he whispered. “I could do with some advice right now.”

The candle on the bedside cabinet grew dim and snuffed out with a fizzle. Matthias stared at the wisps of grey smoke twirling in the air. He still had one more candle in his bag, but he left it. The darkness was quite comforting. Sleep came at last.

Before she blew out the tiny candle, which was by this late hour on its last legs, Josephine checked the lock on her compartment door. Sealed shut. Good. Thadius had insisted that she not sleep alone, but she had insisted harder that she would, and with that he had left her alone but not before he had secured her assurance that she would lock the door and not let anyone else in unless she was certain who it was. The knight was as bad as her father, if not worse.

She had been ready to go to bed a few hours ago, yet she could not quite bring herself to snuff out the candle. It had just been a stupid dream, she told herself, and nothing more! But somehow that did not help. Slowly, carefully, she slid back into the sheets and blew out the flame. The compartment fell into darkness, save for a slither of moonlight through the circular window, whose reflection off the water sent rippling shapes dancing about the ceiling. Warily, she closed her eyes. Sleep took her quickly.

When Josephine opened her eyes again she was flying in a sea of stars. She was in her nightgown and all around her was the night sky: pinpricks of starlight winking at her from where she hovered. She tried to move and whilst she could flex all her limbs, she couldn’t seem to move forward or back. She looked down and gasped. A great sphere sat just in front and beneath her, shrouded in darkness all around it. A glowing aura of blue shone along its rim.

“What is this?” she whispered, staring at the orb. She could make out shapes amongst the blue: green and brown formations mottled with speckles of white above them. Her eyes focussed on one of them, directly in front of her and she gasped. It was in the shape of Triska. She was familiar with the tooth- like shape of the continent from maps she had seen of the known world, even if those drawings and sketches were slightly skewed in places in comparison to what she was looking at now. “I’m above Erithia,” she breathed. “Above the world!” She looked around her again. “I’m in the heavens themselves!” She breathed quickly as she spun her head back and forth at her surroundings. “What am I doing here?” she breathed. “Is it the gods? Are you here?” she asked.

There was a flare from the periphery of the world below and the sun spilled into her vision. She shielded her eyes from the glare – it was impossibly bright! She squinted and watched as a line of dazzling sunshine shimmered off the sea and covered the land below. A movement from the corner of her eye made her look to her right. She gasped again. A figure was watching her, garbed in white. Their skin was a light blue and they had mercury coloured eyes. It was an Akari.

“What-” Josephine opened her mouth to ask a question, but then the world around her flickered and she was spinning, faster and faster, the stars now lines of light swirling all around her body. She opened her mouth to scream as she fell, as she was drawn away from the world, from the figure. As her vision began blurred she could make out amongst those spinning stars more worlds amongst her own, all swirling around the sun. A whispering voice filled her ears, repeating the same word over and over again: a word so foreign to her ears in its pronunciation she had to strain to make it out: Asternabai.

Her body jolted in the bed, bouncing up off the mattress, as if she had just been struck by lightning. She sat up, gasping heavily. “Bad dreams!” She panted. “They’re just bad dreams!” Her hands were shaking and her body was covered in sweat. Just as she began to calm herself, there was a thud just above her cabin and she jumped again with a shriek. There were screams. Hastily she jumped up, drew the latch on her door, and threw open her door. She ran up the stairs to the deck and then skidded to a halt, clasping a hand to her mouth at what she saw.

A creature flew down towards the boat, its bat – like, leathery, oily wings fluttering in the wind and shimmering in the moonlight. Its beak was crooked and bronzed and its eyes beady and searching. Matthias was on deck, his staff in his hand. But he wasn’t throwing fireballs at the creature as he had done before with the other creatures. Instead he gripped his staff in both hands, as if ready to strike the creature with it. Luccius also ran about the decking, gripping his spear menacingly. In the darkness she almost missed Thadius who lay on the floor, clutching to his leg.

Thadius!” she exclaimed and ran to him. He struggled to his feet.

“Princess! What are you doing up here! It’s not safe!” he panted.

“What is going on?” she asked and helped him stand. Her feet felt moist and she noticed that the decking where Thadius had sat was slick with blood. “You’re hurt badly!” she swallowed.

“I’ve had worse princess,” he said, hefting his sword. “Now you need to get back inside. Duck!

The creature swooped at them and Thadius drew Josephine beneath him. It landed on the soldier’s back and its beak tore into his shirt and pierced his skin along his shoulder blade. Blood burst from the wound as the creature flapped atop him, its claws scratching his back. He pushed the princess aside and swung at the animal with his sword, but the creature flew out of range and then proceeded to torment another passenger: Lady Eliza from Olindia, who was also staying on the boat. The woman screamed and fainted, collapsing to the floor, and as the creature stretched out to claw her helpless figure, Captain Rilam jumped in front of her and waved a dagger at the creature threateningly. The beast caught him on his side before he could hurt it and then he slipped on the deck and fell down too.

“Damn!” yelled Luccius as he ran towards it, thrusting with his spear. “It’s too fast for me!” It bore down on him and he managed to slice at its wing before he was knocked in the stomach by the creature’s ferocious beak. He fell backwards over the railings and plunged into the river.

“Don’t you think now would be a good time to use your ‘secret weapon’?” Thadius bellowed at Matthias suggestively. “Josephine is in danger!”

The wizard looked at the knight and then glanced at the captain, where he lay staring at the creature in the sky. “Not if I can help it!” Matthias called back. “We still have the advantage!”

“That’s easy for you to say when you’ve not had a chunk of flesh taken from your back and leg by the beast!” the knight barked. “People are hurt! Luccius is overboard! You must end this!”

“Just keep fighting!” the wizard snapped.

The creature jumped high again, its wing cut, black liquid dribbling from the wound and spattering the deck. It turned in the air and swooped down again, its wings tucked in and fell like a javelin towards Matthias. The wizard moved backwards and then, with a sleight of foot, outmanoeuvred it, throwing his staff around and striking it hard in the face.

“Haha! Got you!” he smiled victoriously. The creature didn’t seem to like that. It turned almost on the spot and flapped at him wildly, knocking the staff from his hand and scratching at his face. Matthias spun round and then his foot slipped on the congealed blood that still splattered the deck from the creature’s wing. He cracked his head on the floor and the world blacked out.

Thadius turned to the princess again. “Josephine, get down below now!” he ordered. She looked taken aback a moment, but then nodded and began to move towards the door to the cabins. As she did so the creature screamed and sailed towards her. Thadius ran after it. “Run Josephine!”

The princess made it to the steps as a whistling sound in the air made her turn round. The creature rocketed at her head. There was no time to think. She closed her eyes, shielded her face with her hands, and then a split second later heard a loud thump. She jumped with a yelp. Delicately, after a moment of silence, she opened one eye, then another, and peered around. The creature was lying limp in front of her, a tangled mess of wings and talons. She poked at it with a foot. It didn’t move.

“What… what happened?” she asked Thadius, who skidded by her side. He looked at her confounded.

“It was as if it hit a wall in mid air in front of you!” he exclaimed, his face pale. “It was so close to you. There was nothing I could do! It was so fast! And then… it just slid off thin air and landed at your feet! ”

There came a groan from a way behind them and Matthias was pushing himself to his feet. He snapped to quickly and saw the creature lying in a lump. He jogged towards them. “Are you hurt?” he asked Josephine.

“She very nearly was!” Thadius growled. He grabbed Matthias’s arm and pulled him closer, lowering his voice. “Maintaining our cover is not nearly as important as the princess’s life! You should have used your powers!”

The wizard pulled his arm free and raised a hand to his head, wincing at the pain. “We’ll talk about it later, when we are alone,” he whispered. The knight’s eyes narrowed and his jaw clenched.

“I… I don’t know what happened,” the princess said dreamily. Thadius said it hit something in the air.” She looked at the creature again. “Did I…. did I do that?”

Help!” a voice suddenly cried from the darkness.

“Luccius!” Josephine gasped, suddenly remembering. “He’s in the water!” She ran to the edge of the boat, poking her head under the rails. Luccius was in the water a little way behind, gripping to a rope at the stern and spluttering.

“Is it over?” he asked.

“Yes!” Josephine replied. “We are fine Luccius. It’s dead!”

“Good. Then could someone get me out of here?” he chattered. “It’s freezing!

To The Mountains

127th Day of the Cycle, 495 N.E. (New Era)

 

Josephine sat on the side of her bed in her compartment below deck and studied her hands idly, lost in thought. There was a knock at the door and then Matthias said: “Josephine, can I come in?” She stood up and undid the latch and beckoned entrance. The door opened and Matthias slipped in between the tight gap, closing the door behind him.

“How is everyone?” the princess asked, slumping back on the bed.

Matthias nodded. “They’re all fine. I healed Thadius’s wounds, though he resisted for a while and didn’t speak to me throughout. Luccius is warming up. Captain Rilam gave him some brandy, so he is in his element. Lady Eliza and he are alright.”

“And your head?” she asked.

“It only hurts when I move. Or think. Or breathe.”

“Can you not heal it?” she asked.

“In a while. I tired myself out healing Thadius first.”

“I am sorry,” Josephine ventured.

“Why?” Matthias asked.

“It was after me!” she exclaimed.

“You stopped the demon!” Matthias responded.

“By accident!” she rebuffed.

“We knew there’d be more attacks. I should have been more ready myself. I was down in my room when I should have been keeping watch.”

“You are exhausted as well! I haven’t seen you sleep once since we left Rina! You can’t be there every waking second of the day. None of you can.”

“I gave your father my word I wouldn’t let any harm come to you,” Matthias responded. He shook his head. “I’m not doing a particularly good job so far. Thadius isn’t happy with me for not using my power. I can’t say I blame him.”

“You didn’t use your power because you didn’t want the captain to know you are a wizard?” she asked.

“We’re supposed to be keeping a low profile,” Matthias said. “I don’t want talk of there being a wizard around causing more problems.”

“These creatures are after me, not you. I know I made you disguise yourself further when you made me do the same, but in the circumstances, would it have hurt if the captain knew you are a wizard? It would have saved another fight. A wizard in Aralia is not unheard of, after all.”

“Perhaps not,” Matthias mused. Then he shook his head and placed a hand to his temple. “It would certainly have saved a lot of pain if I had! Perhaps it was not one of my better plans.”

“I could have done something more,” the princess said quietly. “I just stood there watching you all fight the thing! And then I ran away. It was only blind luck that I instinctively used my power.”

“Is that why you seem so sombre?” Matthias asked.

“I cannot keep relying on you all alone to defend me!” She swallowed. “I froze when I saw the creature. I didn’t know what to do. I am nothing but a lucky coward.”

“Now that’s not true,” Matthias said reassuringly. “I think you are one of the bravest people I have ever known.”

She sniffed. “You are either lying or concussed.”

“I’m not lying. Though I may be concussed,” he smiled. “It takes courage to do what you’re doing princess. You should not be so hard on yourself for struggling to adapt to new circumstances. It takes time.”

“I thought you said the one thing we don’t have is time?” the princess rebuffed. She sighed. “I would like to continue with my lessons when your head is feeling better.”

“Of course,” Matthias replied.

“I want to be prepared when we reach Crystal Ember. I think I have resisted your lessons because I have been reluctant to accept my situation. But the next time something like that thing attacks me I want to be able to throw something of my own making right back at it!”

Matthias placed a hand on her arm. “We will see what we can do, eh?” he said. Then he stood up. “I’ll let you sleep,” he advised.

“There was one other thing,” the princess advised. Matthias nodded for her to continue. “Just before I awoke to the chaos on deck I had a dream.”

“Another nightmare?” Matthias asked.

Josephine shook her head. “It wasn’t a nightmare per se. I was floating in the sky, above Erithia. It was beautiful, like nothing I’ve ever seen. The stars were all around me, glittering in the dark. And then there was a figure standing in mid- air with me. I think it was an Akari.”

Matthias sat down again next to her. “Go on,” he prompted.

“They just stared at me. But then as I went to speak to them I was pulled away. I began falling and the stars span around me. And then I heard a word. It was repeated a half dozen times before I awoke in a fluster.”

“What was the word?” Matthias asked with interest.

Josephine thought a moment. “Asternabai.”

“Asternabai?” Matthias repeated, screwing his nose up.

“Yes, that is it. Over and over again.”

“You are sure it was Asternabai you heard?” Matthias asked.

Josephine nodded. “I am certain. Why, what does it mean?”

Matthias shook his head. “There is a ‘celestial event’ known as the Asternabai.”

“Celestial event? What is that?” the princess asked.

“The stars above us are more than just fixed points of light in the darkness. They move around the sky in many ways. A ‘celestial event’ is when the stars change their positions to a way that has some consequence or impact on our world. My people have spent centuries trying to decipher them. They’ve named some of the known movements according to their effects. The patterns tend to repeat over time. Asternabai is the name of one of them. I remember it from my studies.”

“What did it mean?”

“I don’t know. It was a long time ago that I learned their names and even then there were two thousand known patterns. The problem is that my people still haven’t figured out what many of the patterns do, if anything. The problem is trying to sort out cause and effect.” The princess looked blankly at him. “Have I lost you?”

“About a minute or two ago,” she smiled. “But that is alright. What I would like to know is why I was being told about one of them.”

“Oh what I wouldn’t give to be in the Mahalian archives right about now! Thousands of books and parchments and repositories of information at my fingertips.”

“I thought wizards were supposed to be wise and all – knowing?” Josephine grinned.

He tapped his head. “There’s only so much information I can fit in here,” he rebuffed. “I’m not a walking library!”

“You disappoint me. The more time I spend with you Matthias, the less superior you seem.”

Matthias smirked back. “I never claimed to be superior.” He shook his head. “You’re certain it was an Akari you saw in your dream?”

“As sure as I can be!” Josephine replied. “How many blue skinned creatures can there be? Surely it can’t be a coincidence.”

“It could have just been a dream, I suppose,” Matthias said doubtfully, and his eyes narrowed.

“How could I have known the name ‘Asternabai’ if it were just a dream of my own making? What I saw of the world wasn’t like the drawings of the land you see in maps either. I really was looking down on Erithia.”

Matthias nodded. “No, I suppose you are right. People have been known to have visions like that before. Especially people who have looked into seeing stones. They say that for one unprepared to look into the stone, into the eyes of their gods, the images can turn them mad. The effect of looking into it stays with them for the rest of their lives. But then, you’ve never looked into a seeing stone.” He shrugged and took a deep breath. “It could mean that the gods are trying to talk to you directly somehow. It’s never been written about before, but then there is a first time for everything.”

“But if there was an Akari in my dream then maybe it was them trying to talk to me.”

“The Akari are all dead,” Matthias replied.

“I thought you said they all vanished?” the princess asked.

“That’s right,” Matthias nodded.

“Well in my vocabulary vanished is very different to being dead, is it not?”

Matthias nodded slowly. “I suppose. No – one was ever known to have found their bodies. From all I have read it’s like they’ve were… torn out of the world.”

“Then if the Akari are still alive, then they might be able to talk to me.”

Matthias shook his head. “You can’t be sure of any of that.”

“Then we need to find a way to be sure!” the princess said excitedly. “Although… why would they start to speak with me now? After all the time I spent struggling with the powers, why would they choose now to speak with me?”

Matthias shrugged. “Perhaps we have awakened something within you. In training you we might have opened a door in your mind that you have kept firmly closed. Maybe if we keep training we might be able to find out more.”

“Then we had best work quickly,” said Josephine. “Because I do not want to keep having bad dreams!”

Desperation

129th Day of the Cycle, 495 N.E. (New Era)

Josephine and Matthias spent the next two days in constant tuition, locked away in Josephine’s compartment. The first day they managed to advance to a point where Josephine could control the strange, sphere – like structures she had seen again. She seemed to see more of them this time and pointed out that they sat on everything and everyone as if they were made up of them. Using instinct she reached out along a line of them and managed to pick up the candle from her bedside table and suspend it in mid – air. It fell to the floor a moment later and Matthias had to snuff it out with his boot, but it had been enough of an advance to boost her confidence. The next day she grasped her power much more quickly. She was able to switch between seeing the structures and seeing the world that lay beyond them, as if she were focussing back and forth on them like distant objects. Holding on to the sight of them for longer made it possible for her to begin exploring what she could do with them. She and Matthias practiced together, the wizard telling her how he saw his own power and how he used it in different ways. For a time Josephine tried to recreate the invisible wall that she had subconsciously made to repel the flying demon before. It didn’t work and instead she sent the door bursting off its hinges.

By the time Providence made the final leg of its journey she had managed to discover another ability. Focussing on the lantern that hung on a hook by her bed, she lit it using the power and then carried it across the room, placing it onto the table beside herself.

“See? I knew I could do it this time!” she smiled and folded her arms proudly.

Matthias nodded. “You were right. I’m impressed. But can you extinguish the flame?” he grinned.

Josephine smiled. “Easy,” she said, and turned to the lamp. She squinted at the wick, let her mind focus and then stopped. “Alright, I haven’t a clue.”

Matthias laughed. “With your power, your guess is as good as mine. But if I were going to try and extinguish the wick, I would be able to pull threads of the earth power together until they formed bonds that can create water.”

“But how do you know what threads to put together?” Josephine asked.

Matthias thought about it a moment. “You know what, I don’t know. I just sort of… know. It was quite a while ago I learned all this, and most of what I do is instinct now.”

“Well, you’re a fat lot of good as a teacher!” Josephine retorted. “I’ll find out myself, shall I?” She shook her head and focused at the wick again. “I wonder?” She concentrated again and the lamp and the air around it began to buzz with tiny, swirling balls. As she thought of what she wanted to do, the air shimmered, and the balls began to grow green and then a vibrant turquoise. She outstretched a hand, to help her concentrate, and pointed at the glowing orbs, took them with her mind and moved them on to the wick. There was a splutter, and then the flame snuffed out, and a few droplets of water splashed onto the table.

Josephine smiled. “I did it!” she exclaimed.

Matthias nodded happily. “That was great,” he said, and nodded his head to the lamp. The flame reappeared with a puff. “But don’t get too confident.”

Josephine slumped back on the bed, folded her arms, and grumbled at him.

Providence docked at the final harbour soon after Josephine and Matthias had finished their training for the day. They bid goodbye to the captain, alone now and ready to make his return trip.

“I half wonder if he knows who I really am,” Josephine said. “He was bowing to me and preening away back there.”

“I am just surprised Lady Eliza did not remain on board with him, with all the doe-eyes she had been showing him,” Thadius chuckled.

“How much did you pay him for that door you broke anyway?” Luccius asked.

“I gave him three marks,” Matthias answered.

Three?” Thadius exclaimed. “That’s enough for him to buy a new boat!” He turned round, and the captain was still waving them goodbye. “I’m not surprised how happy he is now!”

“It was the least I could do for all the chaos he’d been put through since we boarded. He was nearly killed after all.”

“He was scratched!” Thadius scoffed. “ My back got ripped open by that creature and I haven’t seen so much as a groat from your coffers! How much money do you have in those bags of yours exactly?”

“Anyway, here we are!” said Matthias, ignoring him, and threw his arms open theatrically to distract them. The others looked to the scene in front of them with less enthusiasm. Cracked yellow bricks paved the ground haphazardly in the small gap that constituted the dock, sandwiched between two crumbling houses.

“And just where are we again?” asked Luccius.

“Tanavern,” said Thadius. “Not the most pleasant of places to arrive in, unfortunately.”

“It’s a little run down,” replied Luccius, looking around the way in front with saddened eyes.

“Shh!” hissed Josephine. “The people will hear you!” she said, as several of the townsfolk continued to stare at them as they walked on. “May I suggest we make our way through town instead of standing here in judgement of it?”

They walked through the cramped little village, if it could even be called a village, warily. The houses were in disrepair: the roof tiles of many houses were cracked and missing in places, parts of the stone – bricked walls crumbled into piles around their foundations and doors were splintered and warped.

“What happened to this place?” asked Josephine sadly as she looked around, carefully sidestepping the cracks in the broken cobbled pathway, where weeds popped up in clusters. “I cannot believe that this is part of Aralia!”

“This is a poor village, princess,” Thadius replied quietly.

“How so?” she whispered, as they continued.

Thadius continued awkwardly. “Farmers and peasants have suffered here of late with the enclosure laws that have been put in place. The nobles in the countryside nearby do well out of the land worked by these people, but the people who till the land struggle to make ends meet out of what is left. Many people have left this region in the last few years I believe.”

“That is awful!” Josephine exclaimed. “Who put in place those new laws?” she asked.

“Ah, it was your father, princess,” Thadius said awkwardly.

Josephine stopped a moment and looked up to Thadius. Her eyes were saddened. “Of course,” she said after a pause and her jaw tightened. “How silly of me.” She shook her head. “Well, I think I shall have to look into this more upon my return. What was it you were saying about life being a series of conflicting morals, Matthias? How can this be fair when I live in such luxury?”

Matthias nodded. “This would be an example, Josephine, yes,” he said flatly. “I’m sorry you had to learn it this way.”

She shook her head. “Perhaps this is the only way to truly learn humility, to experience its cause first – hand.”

“There’s an inn up there,” Luccius pointed to a crumbling building, which was subsiding into the ground.

“It might be best if we skip that inn,” Matthias said, listening intently as they approached. He looked to one of the upstairs windows, where the curtains were drawn. “I think the goings on in there would likely scar Princess Josephine for life.”

Luccius’s ears twitched as he listened too, and then, eyes wide, his cheeks blushed. “You may be right,” he whispered.

Josephine looked at them both. “What do you-”

Come along princess,” Thadius said hurriedly and placed an arm around her waist, directing her on swiftly.

“Are you sure we don’t have time for a visit?” Luccius smiled as they followed.

“We already have our hands full with you for a companion. I’d rather not take syphilis along for the ride as well,” Matthias said sarcastically. “Now come on.”

They passed the building and continued to walk through the town. The locals that gathered outside the inn didn’t look particularly friendly, especially to the group of well – dressed newcomers who they eyed as they passed by.

“I must admit I had thought Captain Rilam was at least exaggerating a little when he spoke about this place,” Matthias said under his breath.

“There’s little chance of acquiring horses here, I would wager,” Luccius added. “Most of the villagers probably can’t even afford one, and where they can they certainly aren’t about to go selling them out to us.”

Matthias nodded. “We’ll have to continue to Gormal by foot then, I’m afraid,” he said. “I-” They were stopped in their tracks as four men appeared in front of them, gliding in from an alley to their right. They were the same men who had been gathered around the inn behind them moments before. Thadius stopped dead and instantly slipped in front of Josephine and unsheathed his sword. Matthias looked behind them. Two more men stood behind, blocking their escape.

“Nice sword,” one of the men said to Thadius: a large man, a head taller than the knight and with beady eyes and a beard that left his upper lip bare. His hair was ruffled and his blue waistcoat torn and unravelling.

“Yes it is,” Thadius said, his jaw clenched. “It would be a shame if I would have to use it.”

A smaller man, wiry but with noticeably large biceps beneath his cotton shirt, leaned forward. “I’d like to use my own sword on your woman,” he smiled. “How’s about you let us have a fiddle with her?”

Thadius started forward, his face burning with rage. “How dare you talk about my charge that way! If you don’t shut your mouth I’ll chop your ‘sword’ into tiny pieces!

“We want no trouble,” Matthias said, stepping forward and holding up a hand. “Why don’t you all step aside gentlemen and we will forget this?”

“Why should we?” One of the men behind them sneered, his face red with spots. “You come into our town dressed in your fine clothes, strutting around the place! And you expect to pay no toll?”

“There is no toll in this town!” Thadius barked. “I am a soldier of Aralia and I will have you all hung for theft if you deny us passage and try to extort money from us!”

“A soldier of Aralia?” the burly man repeated. “How’s about that boys? A soldier has come to pay us a visit from the king!” They all began to laugh. “Looks like you’ve left your battalion behind, soldier! A bad idea, coming to Tanavern on behalf of the bastard of a king right now with no backup.”

“His highness is none too popular around these parts,” another man in front, with thin, grey hair brushed to one side and a scar on his lip, added. “His laws have torn families apart here.”

“Matthias,” Luccius whispered. “Perhaps you should do something.”

“Not yet. I want to try to avoid a scene,” he whispered back.

“Whilst I respect that, the last time you tried to avoid a scene I ended up soaking wet in a river!” Luccius retorted.

“If you’re here on behalf of the king,” the burly man rumbled, “then you can pay us what is owed by him to us.”

Josephine stepped around Thadius. The knight grabbed her and tried to pull her back, but she shrugged him off and held up a hand to stop his advance. Then she turned back to the men and drew herself up high. “You are correct, you are owed a great deal,” she said loudly and clearly. “You have been dealt a great disservice here, and I will see that things change for you all. You have my word.”

“And who are you? The king’s whore?” The wiry man snorted.

“Josephine-” Matthias said, but it was too late. Her face had fallen and she scowled at the man.

“I am Princess Josephine Arwell, the heir to the Phoenix Throne! And whatever your situation, your language is not acceptable!”

“You’re the princess?” the burly man said, staring the girl up and down. He chuckled. “Pull the other one. The princess would never set foot here!”

“Wait!” the grey-haired man said, and his eyes narrowed. “I recognise her! I was in Rina several years ago when the princess was visiting the sick. She’s a bit older, but it’s the same face! I know it!”

Alright,” Matthias said, shaking his head. “This has gone on long enough. We don’t want trouble, but if you don’t move right now then you will be in a great deal of it.”

“The pretty boy’s angry!” the wiry man sniffed. “What you going to do to me, pretty boy?”

Matthias sighed. “You asked.” He raised a hand and the man shot backwards, landing in the mud and sliding until he hit the wall of a house some way away. The others followed his path, and then turned back to the group in front of them.

“What did you just do?” the burly man started.

“I don’t want to have to hurt anyone else,” Matthias said.

“He’s a wizard!” the grey haired man hissed.

“We hate your kind even more than the king!” said the large man, his beady eyes narrowing and his jaw clenched. “Freaks, the lot of you! You think you can take us all on then, wizard?” he retorted.

“I’d die trying,” Matthias responded with a smile.

As they continued to banter with the men, Josephine concentrated and tried to find her power. Perhaps she could help Matthias in some way. She was nervous, and her heart was pounding, but she managed to find the energy and pulled it into focus. As she did, she felt compelled, as if by some instinct, to approach the large – set man who blocked their way. She started forward to him and placed a hand on his arm before the others could stop her. Thadius froze mid – step, paralysed in shock at what she was doing.

“This isn’t necessary,” she said to the man, and she felt the power slide down her arm and caress the man’s skin. She wasn’t sure what she was doing, but it felt… right somehow. “Please, tell your friends to leave us be. I will see that you are compensated. But I cannot do that if you start killing these men,” she indicated to her party.

The man’s expression changed as she spoke to him. The frown softened and his eyes seemed to grow less hateful. He swallowed. “I… I…” he fumbled, as he looked at her with a mixture of confusion and intent. Then he nodded. He turned his head. “Lads, let them pass.”

What?” The wiry man hissed, standing up and dusting himself down.

“You heard me!” his friend barked. “Her word is good!”

“Like hell I will!” The man ran, blade in hand, towards Matthias. The wizard raised his staff and then threw it down again as if about to strike a hammer on an anvil. The man’s chest crunched, and he fell, clutching himself and wailing. “My ribs! They’re broke! Demon!

The other men looked to each other as if unsure what to do now. Josephine addressed the burly man again. “Please, will you stop them?” she asked him. He nodded and turned to the group of men.

“Lads, if any of you decides to hurt this woman or her friends again, I’ll break their necks myself. Got that? Now let them go.” One by one, they nodded and stepped aside.

Josephine nodded, somewhat surprised herself. “Thank you. Matthias, please take whatever coin you have to hand and leave it on the ground for these people.” Matthias nodded, befuddled, and rifled in his pocket. He pulled out a handful of gold and silver coins and threw them behind them. The men’s’ faces went from terror to lust in an instant and they slipped around them and began scrabbling at the coins, pushing each other out of the way. “Shall we go?” she asked. Matthias nodded.

“I would suggest we leave quickly.” They started away from the gang, at a brisk walk at first, but then they ran, as the men continued to jostle for the precious coin, the wiry man sobbed in pain and the burly man stared at the scene in front of him, disorientated and bemused.

A Shortcut

129th Day of the Cycle, 495 N.E. (New Era)

They ran for what felt like miles, up a dusty road out of the town and carried on along its length until Tanavern was just a blot on the green landscape. Up ahead, the Gormal Mountains towered above them. In the light they looked purple and strangely welcoming.

“Stop!” I can’t go any further!” Josephine wheezed and collapsed to her knees. They all fell in around her.

“They aren’t following,” Thadius panted. “Just as well for them, or I would have killed them all.”

“They were desperate people,” Josephine retorted. “Misguided and desperate. But they are still my people.”

“Why did you tell them your name?” Matthias cried. “Now rumour will spread like wildfire! ‘The Princess of Aralia was in Tanavern!’”

“I had to do something!” she panted. “I could not just stand there whilst the situation deteriorated! I knew what I was doing.”

Did you?” Matthias asked. “Because I didn’t. What you did to that man was unlike anything I have ever seen. One minute you can barely snuff out a candle and the next you’re influencing people’s decisions.”

“You’re saying that the princess persuaded that man with her power?” Thadius asked, his mouth gaping open.

“It’s been written as happening before,” Matthias said. “But not for centuries.”

“It just felt… natural,” the princess said. “In that moment I knew exactly what I had to do. I cannot explain it more than that.”

Matthias nodded. “Sometimes I have done things with the earth power that I was never taught. Nothing quite like that, mind you. It was a very risky thing to do.”

“I am sick of feeling helpless, Matthias,” she responded. “You men all bear arms and I stand there like a lemon!”

“I know you are fed up of feeling like that. But taking unnecessary risks is not the way to go about alleviating that! They could have hurt you. You are far too precious to me to allow anything like that happen.”

“To precious to you?” Josephine asked.

“To us,” Matthias corrected and tried to stem the redness flushing his cheeks. The princess looked away from him, her own cheeks blushing.

“What do we do now?” Luccius asked, sensing the embarrassment.

Thadius shrugged. “There’s nothing we can do to stop them gossiping that the princess was in their town. We will just have to carry on and hope that the news doesn’t travel too far, too quickly.” He looked up at the Mountain ahead. “Gormal. It has been a long time since I’ve been there.”

“Is it safe?” Matthias asked him.

“As safe as anywhere else right now!” he shrugged. “Wherever we go, danger seems to follow us. I feel like we’re dragging death along behind us on a leash!”

Matthias nodded. “A fair point.” He stared off into the direction of the mountains. “It’s still a long way.”

“A good day’s walk, I would say,” Thadius nodded. “And we are a good few hours into this one already.”

“We could get there quicker if we cut out that winding road,” Matthias said. “Could we make our way through that field of barley ahead?”

“That would be trespassing,” Thadius retorted.

“You’re the king’s right – hand knight now! How can it be trespassing if this is his land?” Matthias rebuffed.

Thadius thought for a moment, and then nodded. “I suppose you have a point.”

“It might be safer too, in case those men do come after us,” Luccius added.

Matthias nodded. “Come on then. Before the princess of Aralia has any more urges to divulge her identity to the locals.” Josephine shook her head and pursed her lips, her hands on her hips.

They began making their way across the half-grown field of barley, watching their step wherever they could. The crop was thick and it was surprisingly painful when they trod on a broken stem.

“Damn!” Thadius growled as he snapped one stalk. “This is going to make those villagers poorer than they already are!” he winced as he blundered forward.

“Like you said, it’s the nobles who get all the money,” Matthias called behind him as he wove around the plants. “But you could be a bit more careful! You’re blundering about like a blindfolded bear!”

“Don’t push me wizard!” Thadius growled. “I am not in the mood today!”

That makes a change,” Luccius whispered under his breath with a grin.

“I am sorry, Matthias,” Josephine said. “I didn’t mean to ruin everything we have done so far.”

“You haven’t, Josephine,” Matthias replied, as he slipped between the crops. “I was just frustrated. I didn’t mean to upset you. We’ll just have to watch out for people who might recognise you. Perhaps we can find some dye in Gormal for your hair,” he mused.

“Dye my hair?” she exclaimed.

“A good auburn would change your appearance instantly,” Matthias added.

“There are worse ideas,” Luccius said from behind her.

“I would preferred to have kept the mud on my face!” she said.

Matthias laughed. “That could be arranged,” he retorted.

“So I am forgiven for my error in judgement back there?” she asked.

Matthias stopped and turned to her and grabbed her hands. “You don’t need to apologise princess. You are a kind and generous person. What you said back there wasn’t the best thing you could have done, but…” He paused, and then nodded. “But it was perhaps the right thing to do, if perhaps at the wrong time.” He smiled. “I do not think you realise quite how beautiful a woman you are. Desperate men do not care a jot about honour or decency, whether they are your subjects or not.” His stare lingered on her a moment, and then he shook his head. “There is nothing to forgive, and let us draw a line under it.” Then he let go of her hands, and turned back to weaving through the crops.

Josephine sighed, staring after him a moment, before she followed.

The field stretched on for miles in all directions. After a while, they stopped and rested together in an opening within the crops.

“Are we lost?” Thadius asked. “I can’t even see the bloody mountains now!”

“They’re in that direction,” Matthias indicated to his left. “I don’t think there is far to go.”

“You are quite adept at this weaving around these crops Matthias,” Josephine commented, as she caught her breath. “I keep tripping up over my own feet!”

“I have had practice,” he laughed. “I took what you could say was a direct route across the region on my way to Rina to see you. There was no use wasting time on roads when the world’ could be at stake.”

“That must have been quite a journey in itself,” she commented.

“You could say that. A great deal of my life of late has involved crawling through fields.”

“You must tell us that story sometime!” she said.

“I would say another half a mile, perhaps less, and we will be out,” suggested Luccius.

“Ah, well, in that case,” Josephine grinned. “The last one to the other side buys the drinks at the next inn!” She darted forward.

Luccius smiled and leapt after her. “I’m game!”

“What have you done to her?” Thadius said to Matthias. “She will be singing bar songs and gambling before long!”

“I only wanted her to blend in,” Matthias said back. “Blame Luccius!” Then he turned and ran through the barley. Thadius shook his head, before he too darted into the undergrowth.

After another half- hour they emerged from the crops near the base of the mountain. Josephine emerged first and raised her hands in triumph.

“I won!” she exclaimed as Matthias, then Luccius, emerged, followed by Thadius.

“There,” Matthias dusted himself off. “We must have saved ourselves time, rather than snaking around that road!”

“It wasn’t worth it,” Thadius replied, blundering out of the field, his chest heaving. “I have done far too much running for one day!”

“Oh I don’t know, I think it was rather fun!” Josephine added, as she brushed her skirts and loosened the debris that stuck to the material.

The wizard bowed his head. “I am glad your highness and I have seen eye to eye in this instance.” He grinned.

“Do not get used to it,” she retorted, with a smile. “I am sure there is plenty left for us to disagree on. Come, there is no use standing around here, or we will have wasted our advantage. Besides, Thadius owes us all a drink!”

The Third

129th Day of the Cycle, 495 N.E. (New Era)

 

Gormal was quite busy despite its relatively small size. Known unofficially as the Third City of Aralia, it verged on its border, clinging to the edge of the Gormal Mountains that separated the realm from Olindia. Rising smoke curled its way upward from the many chimneys that dotted the tall buildings: the temperature was cool so high up.

Taico Grimm paced the streets, watching his breath mist in front of him. He readjusted a tattered sack on his back and trudged about looking for the meeting spot where he was supposed to rendezvous with the third sorcerer. There it was: a statue of a woman holding a reef of flowers. His host was propped up against it: a tall man, unmistakable alone by the confidence he emitted. It had been quite a time since he had seen that face. Grimm flashed back momentarily, to the darkness and the terror he had first felt when he opened his eyes from that lengthy unconsciousness: the strangeness of it all as he looked around at the four faces staring down at him. He had been at peace before: a peace that had eluded him for years. Then they had converted him and suddenly he knew what had to be done and why he was back. It was as if they had flicked a switch in his mind, opening him to the reality of his situation. That day he had become Taico Grimm.

Grimm walked up to the tall man and lowered himself to one knee. “My Lord Kala, I have arrived.”

The man chewed at a piece of straw clenched between his teeth and gave him a cold stare. “Yes, I can see that Grimm. It has been a while. You look even more haggard than before and that is saying something, given the state you were in then!”

Grimm nodded. “I am weak. Time is catching up to me.” He swallowed.

Kala nodded. “So it would seem. But there is a lot more for you to do for us Taico.”

“Time catches up to us all,” Grimm continued, ignoring him. “Death will come for you too, eventually. I have seen him. He brings the silence.”

Kala smiled. “Death wouldn’t dare pick a fight with me.” He plucked the straw in his mouth and held it between his fingers. “I hear from Maevik that you failed to stop the princess from leaving Rina?”

“There were complications. But that is not an excuse. Do with me as you wish.”

Kala smiled. “We already do!” he scoffed. “Never forget that you are here simply because we wish it to be so.”

“I understand,” Grimm swallowed. “Though sometimes, the darkness of before seems so welcoming to me. It was so peaceful.”

“You will never be at peace again unless you do what must be done!” Kala rebutted. “You will wander in eternal purgatory unless we can lay to rest those demons that have haunted you. The gods that betrayed you and gave your life away so readily.” Kala smiled. “We are helping you to find your lasting peace, Taico.”

Grimm nodded. “I know in my mind what has to be done, My Lord. That is why I am here. I wish to break the cycle once and for all!” He stared into space a moment. “But… the burning stench of flesh hangs in my nostrils like a plague. It never goes away!” He looked up at Kala, his face confused. “If the dragon is freed, that stench will become a reality. How can that be right? How can I escape it when it will cover the world?”

Kala bowed his head, so he was face to face with Grimm. “Do you doubt us, Taico?” he asked. “Sometimes pain has to be endured in order for peace to be enjoyed later. Well, when we are done and our enemies have been eliminated, a peace will come. And then, so will your own. Do you understand?”

“Yes. Yes, I do,” Grimm replied. “I am sorry, My Lord. There is so much confusion in my mind.”

“And that is why you have been sent to me, Grimm. I can provide you with more clarity. I can give you more strength to complete your task. Remember, there is more for you to do than just kill the princess. If you are successful, then your final journey will await you. The path to peace.”

Grimm stirred with happiness. “As you command, my Lord.”

He indicated up a path with an outstretched arm. “Come, we will go back to mine to talk of what I have planned for you.”

They made their way across the streets of the expansive town to a remote part of Gormal.

“They will pass through here soon, My Lord,” Grimm advised as they walked.

Kala nodded. “I know. It is tempting for me to intervene. But there is too much at stake for me to reveal myself. That is partly why you are so important to us, Taico. One of your tasks is to intervene where we cannot. You have seen what can be.” As they walked, they passed two young women who instantly caught Kala’s eye. When they were out of earshot, Kala asked Grimm: “How long has it been since you were with a woman?”

Grimm squinted. “I… can’t even remember,” he answered. “There has been no room in my head for such things for decades.”

“Your soul truly is ragged, Grimm!” he said. “When a man stops lusting for the simplest of pleasures in life…” he looked back at the women, who continued to talk. “Before we get down to business, perhaps we should have some fun! Coercion is such a useful trick to impress upon a person’s mind. Especially minds as weak as these fickle, little people.”

Kala stopped and his eyes crackled a deep purple. He stared intently at the women until they froze a moment, as if in shock, and then, delicately, they turned around, looked at him, and smiled seductively.

“You see Taico, how easy it is to influence the minds of others?” he turned back to the man, but he was lost in thought. “Oh very well,” Kala sighed, and released his hold on the women. They seemed confused momentarily, but then, as if nothing had happened, went back to their conversation. “You really are no fun at all!” He put his arm around the skeletal man. “Come on then, let’s get down to business!”

The Tangled Web

129th Day of the Cycle, 495 N.E. (New Era)

 

The trek up the mountain was the last leg of a long day that had drained the spirits of the four travellers by its end. With more to teach Josephine than could be imparted whilst travelling, and with no energy to continue onward through the mountains yet, they decided they would pay for a room at an inn and rest for a night before attempting to travel through the mountain pass and into Olindia.

“Know anywhere in particular where we could stay, Thadius?” Matthias asked as they walked the cobbled streets.

“There used to be a pub called the ‘Aslemerian’s Head’,” he suggested.

Charming,” Josephine sniffed.

“If I remember rightly it is just off the central square. I last came here about fifteen years ago,” Thadius smiled. “The place has changed a lot since then. There are so many more shops and people. It’s become much more civilised.” He suddenly stopped them in their tracks and gasped.

“What is it?” Josephine asked, glanced around. “Those men haven’t come back have they?”

“That is the shop of Istaban Malazar!” crooned Thadius, and pointed to a building ahead of them, its window filled with swords, quarterstaffs and blades of all varieties that glinted in the sunshine. His pupils had grown so wide that his eyes looked like shiny black onyxes.

“My gods Thadius, you had me worried there for a second!” Luccius said. “Why are you so excited about a weapons shop?”

“He is the finest armourer in the country! I had forgotten he had established himself here. We have to go in!” he pleaded like a child.

“What is it with men and their weapons?” Josephine asked. She turned to Matthias, who was gazing at the shop himself. “Not you as well?” she exclaimed.

Matthias shrugged. “I have learned to appreciate fine craftsmanship,” he said. “When I was young I used to help the blacksmith in our town. I was his striker for a while. He was an able man, but none of the swords he ever made were like these.” He turned to Josephine, “Five minutes wouldn’t hurt,” he said.

“Oh very well then!” She exclaimed, and exhaled, throwing her arms up. “Men! You are all like little boys!”

The shop was crowded with weaponry along all sides of its cramped confines. Pikes and spears lined one wall, strapped in place by leather buckles to prevent them falling, and on the opposite wall hung swords of all shapes and sizes from wooden brackets. Thadius looked at them in wonderment.

“Hello gentlemen,” a man said from the far side of the room. He was a burly fellow, with arms bulging from a sleeveless, blue tunic. He had a bristled face and slicked-back hair, and his eyes regarded them kindly. “Can I help?”

“Are you Istaban Malazar?” Thadius asked keenly.

“The very same!” the man replied, wiping his brow with a cloth and leaning on a wooden work – surface with his fists.

“Mister Malazar,” Thadius said breathily, “I have heard praise of your wonderful weapons for years! It is such an honour to finally see your work!”

“Well it is always nice to meet an admirer,” the man said in a northern Aralian accent. “I would hazard a guess that you are a knight?”

“My name is Thadius and I am part of the king’s guard of Rina,” he explained.

“So much for keeping a low profile,” Luccius whispered to Matthias. “We aren’t very good at this are we?”

Matthias shook his head. “I think I might give up and just hang a banner above our heads.”

“I have made weapons for the army before,” the man said. “Are you in the market for a new blade?” Thadius and Malazar continued to talk, so the others left them to it.

“I wonder if I could get a new spear?” Luccius posited.

“I think they’re horrible,” Josephine said to them as she poked at the hilt of one of the swords. “Whoever would want to buy such things?”

“One day you’ll be queen, your highness, and then you will be in charge of all the men who wield these horrid things,” Matthias said. “You’ll rely on them to save your kingdom. And if it wasn’t for one of these horrid things Taico Grimm might have killed you.”

“Don’t remind me of that repulsive man!” Josephine sniffed. “I had just started to forget the whole incident. And just because I may command men who use weapons does not mean I have to like them. War,” she tutted. “If women alone ruled the world there would be no such thing.”

“An interesting thought,” Luccius nodded. “I’ve never been involved in a war really. Nothing larger than a tavern brawl by most definitions.”

Josephine smiled “And you are all the better for it,” she said wistfully.

“Oh my!” Matthias said suddenly, as his eyes fell on a sword in front of him. Its hilt was shagreen and burgundy cotton – wrapped and its scabbard a deep red. A cord of gold hung from it. He reached up and lifted it from its stand, turning it over in his hands.

“Ah, I see you have found the salakha,” said Istaban as he walked over with Thadius.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” beamed Matthias. He drew the sword slightly out of the scabbard. The blade shone in the afternoon light. Engraved into its length were several symbols.

“That doesn’t surprise me. I would like to take credit for its creation, but this particular sword came from hands more skilled than my own, as much as I am loathed to admit such a thing. It came from Lantai, a land beyond the North Sea. The writing is from their language. It is a dedication to the gods. Here,” Istaban proffered and took the sword from Matthias. He drew it completely from the sheath, and it hummed. “Look here.” He indicated to the other side of the sword. “The creator engraved a dragon into its surface as well. The dragon was of deep spiritual importance to Lantai. So I am told, anyway.”

Matthias caught Josephine’s eye a moment, before turning back to the sword. The blacksmith passed it to Matthias to hold.

“It’s so light,” Matthias added, as he gazed, mesmerized at the blade. Carefully, he took the scabbard from the owner and replaced the blade. “How much is it?” he asked.

Malazar smiled. “Ah. Well this is the point in this conversation where most prospective buyers have balked, and the reason it is still here. I can’t let it go for less than three hundred soldars.”

Luccius whistled and Thadius’s eyes bulged.

“My house is worth only sixty soldars!” the knight exclaimed.

Matthias looked to Malazar, and then back to the sword.

“Time to put it down Matthias,” Luccius smiled.

Matthias raised his brow and smiled. “I will give you ten Mahalian auldins. That’s worth as much as two hundred and fifty soldars.”

“What’s an auldin?” Josephine asked Luccius quietly.

“It’s a block of gold with the stamp of Mahalia embedded on top. They are about the length of your thumb. You could buy a lot with even one of them,” the ansuwan advised her.

The smith eyed Matthias warily. “You have the dress of a nobleman, my friend, but where would someone so young have got such wealth from, to spend it on one piece?”

“That is my business,” Matthias replied with a smile. “Will you accept my offer?”

“I will see your gold first,” Malazar said hesitantly and gestured for the sword.

Matthias nodded and passed it back to him. He shrugged the bag off his back and placed it on the floor, and rifled deep within until his fingers found what they were looking for. He drew out a dark, wooden, latched box and placed it on the floor. He slid out the front panel, and then pressed on two small buttons hidden beneath it. It clicked, and he opened the lid. Inside were two sets of gold blocks: five piled one on top of the other in each. Matthias lifted the box up and passed it to Malazar, who set the sword aside and took the receptacle, the surprise evident on his face. Gingerly he drew one of the square blocks out and inspected it carefully, turning it over and over and holding it to the light. The metal glinted yellow on his face and his eyes sparkled. Finally, he nodded his head.

“Well, I’ll give it you my young friend, I didn’t really expect you to have the money!” He took a deep breath, and then nodded. “Alright. Ten auldins it is then.”

Matthias nodded and smiled. “It is a pleasure to do business with you Mister Malazar. Oh, you can keep the box,” he gestured, as the man passed him the sword.

“You mean to say you’ve been lugging that box of gold around all this time?” Luccius asked, agog, as they left the shop. “Those men in Tanavern would have had a field day! Where did you get that kind of money?”

“I saved it,” Matthias replied.

“How? By selling your soul?

Matthias shook his head. “We should be getting to the inn,” he said, and began walking on.

“I can’t believe you just bought that sword for that much money!” Thadius exclaimed. “You’ve just given Malazar enough of a fortune to build a castle!

“What could you possibly need with a sword anyway?” Josephine asked as they carried on walking. “You’re a wizard!

“It never hurts to have a back – up plan,” Matthias replied.

“That’s an expensive back up plan,” Luccius commented.

Josephine pulled them to a stop again. “Matthias, it’s to do with that dragon carved onto its blade, isn’t it?” Josephine asked. “I saw you look at me in the shop when he mentioned it.”

“It’s not Sikaris, if that’s what you think,” Matthias replied. Then he nodded. “But you’re right, I did buy it because of that. It’s also the reason I paid so much. And believe it or not, this sword is a bargain for the price.” They looked at him askance. “This blade isn’t made of any steel or common metal. It’s made of urunahenium.”

“That whole blade is made of the rarest metal in the world?” Luccius asked. “Then that must be worth…”

“At least fifty times what I bought it for. And it also means that it is damned near indestructible. The only thing known to be able to tear through forged urunahenium is… anyone care to hazard a guess?” he asked.

“Wizards?” Thadius ventured, shrugging.

Matthias shook his head. “No! Dragons. Their teeth are one of the only things known to be able to break this metal. The engraving of the dragon is a symbol that this is urunahenium. It’s like a hallmark. Istaban must have mistaken it for a simple decoration.”

“So with a blade like that…” Josephine paused. “Could you fight a dragon with it?”

Matthias shrugged. “Perhaps. I don’t know. A normal dragon maybe, but I’m not sure about Sikaris. He has been enchanted with a power remember? He’s like a hundred dragons, all rolled into one. But it can’t hurt to have it, just in case.”

He tucked it into his belt, where it fit quite nicely as he tied the cord to the leather strap.

“What do you think?” he asked, modelling the weapon, its hilt poking out from his coat.

Very nice. Now can we please find somewhere where we can eat something?” Thadius muttered.

“You’re just jealous because you didn’t buy anything,” Matthias jested.

“I couldn’t afford to! Not with the money I make.” He grumbled as they made their way through town.

“When we return to Rina, Thadius, I will have that man make you whatever sword you would like,” Josephine smiled. “You have more than earned it.”

The knight blushed. “Princess, that isn’t necessary. Being here to protect you is payment enough.”

“Perhaps. But I will buy you one anyway as a token of my thanks,” she said. “Ah, there’s the inn!” She pointed, to a large, three-storey building as they emerged from the cobbled street into the square. “Oh my!” The princess raised a hand to her mouth in surprise. “When you said it was called the ‘Aslemerian’s head’, I did not understand why until now!” She looked up at a rotting head that hung from a pole fixed to the side of the inn. It swung slightly in the light breeze, bone protruding from the sagging, green-grey flesh, empty, bony eye sockets peering into nothing.

“I believe he was slain in a great battle many, many years ago,” Thadius explained as they approached. “One of many conflicts the Olindians had with Aslemer.”

“And we inherited it?” The princess asked. She grimaced. “It still has skin!” she commented and shook her head. “I think I may be sick. The smell…” she pulled out a handkerchief from her sleeve and raised it to her nose.

“I thought you went to beheadings in Rina?” Matthias asked.

“Yes, but that’s different! I never… I mean, I never saw…”

“You never stayed around to see the consequences of those beheadings?” Matthias finished bluntly. “Your culture takes pleasure in displaying the trophies of war and justice. When I arrived in Rina there was a young man hanging from one of your scaffolds. He had stolen a loaf of bread. What honour is there in displaying his corpse for all to see for such a minor crime?”

The princess looked at him with a mixture of guilt and nausea, her face downcast. “Please can we go in?” she asked wanly. “I believe I have experienced enough insights into my people for one day.”

They took up a private room within the inn to rest. It was a modest size, with three beds and a chair with a desk. After they had stored their baggage they rested for an hour or so in the comfort of their surroundings until the sun went down and the smell of cooked meat from the kitchen below proved too much to resist. They made their way down to the common area and purchased four hearty meals: salted pork with boiled potatoes and cabbage. They all collapsed back in the room after they had finished.

“That was worth every penny!” Thadius said, smiling. “I have not eaten such good meat in a long time!”

“It was a nice change of pace, I’ll grant you,” Matthias replied, nodding. He turned to Josephine. “Princess, did you enjoy it? You seemed quiet downstairs.”

Josephine looked up at him absently. “The meal was very pleasant,” she said quietly.

Matthias stood up. “I have offended you again, haven’t I, with my comments earlier?” he asked, walking over to her.

Josephine shook her head. “No, your comments were quite valid, Matthias,” she replied. “I was just not prepared for them, or the reality they depicted of my people.”

“Princess, the Aslemerian fought in battle,” Thadius added. “His death would have been honourable.”

“But what of his afterlife? Hanging outside for all to see? What honour is there in that? What honour is there in hanging a young boy with mouths to feed?” She shook her head. “These are my father’s laws. These are laws I will be expected to uphold one day!”

“They are laws that have protected our people for many years,” Thadius advised.

Matthias placed a hand on the princess’s shoulder. “I shouldn’t have been so blunt. You have enough to deal with, without me giving you a morality lesson into the bargain.”

There was a knock at the door that made them all jump and take notice. Thadius reached for his sword that he had cast aside onto the desk earlier.

“What now?” the knight whispered.

“Who is it?” Matthias called out.

“Your pardon, but I need to speak with Thadius,” a voice called back through the thin wood.

They all stared at the knight, who shook his head and shrugged. He made his way cautiously to the door and loosened the latch opening it slowly. A middle- aged man stared back at him, clothed in the garb of the watch. He was a dumpy man, a head shorter than Thadius and he stared up at him through a face riddled with pock - marks and scars, his black beard mottled with grey.

“Begging your pardon,” the man said. “I do not mean to disturb.”

“Who are you friend?” Thadius asked. “And how do you know me?”

The man smiled familiarly. “My name is Yarin. I’m not surprised that you do not recognise me,” he replied and pointed to his face. “This face was much more youthful and handsome than it has become in these last fifteen years. We were posted here together here. Do you remember the ‘knight of the five maidens?’” he asked cryptically. Thadius was visibly taken aback. He coughed and blushed, looking back at the others, who stared intently. Gingerly, he nodded. “We drank a toast to our victories in this very inn that night.”

Thadius stepped back from the door and gestured for his entry to the room. “I remember you,” he said quietly. “My gods, but you have changed!”

“As I said, I have not aged very well, my friend,” he replied, patting Thadius on the arm as he stepped inside. “But you I recognised almost straight away down in the inn. You are a little taller, perhaps a little more leathery, but still the same face nonetheless.” He bowed to the others and lingered on Josephine a moment. “I must admit to being taken aback at seeing you though, even in spite of recent news. I thought it best not to approach you in public, so I waited until you had retired up here.”

“News?” Thadius asked. “What news is it you speak of?”

Yarin licked his lips. “I work for the watch. Two days ago we received one of the king’s carrier pigeons. It was one of many sent out, it would seem, to many of the towns in Aralia.” The others leaned forward as he spoke. “The note informed us to keep a look out for you by name, and that you would be travelling with two others: a young girl and a man.”

“Has something happened in Rina?” Josephine interrupted.

Yarin shook his head. “The note did not go into great detail. But it said that if you were seen we were to report it back for attention of Captain Tiberius in Rina that we had found you. We were also asked to warn you Thadius, if possible, that you and the princess are in great danger.”

Thadius nodded. “We are aware of the dangers that we face.”

Yarin shook his head. “I do not think you are,” he advised. He took a breath. “The note said that you are being pursued by Mahalian wizards and that your lives are also in danger from the man who currently escorts you to your final destination.”

Thadius’s spun his head to look at Matthias. “From this man?” he asked.

Yarin nodded. “That was what the note said, if this is your escort.”

“Matthias what is this about?” Josephine asked, rising from her seat, her face puzzled.

“Come away from him princess,” Thadius advised her and started forward, gripping her arm.

Matthias stepped towards him. “Thadius,” he began, raising his hands and trying to keep calm. “I think we should all discuss this in private.”

Why? So you can bind us up like suckling pigs?” the knight growled. He turned to Yarin. “We will be along shortly to speak further. I will meet you at the watch house.”

“Will you be alright?” Yarin asked, eyeing Matthias warily.

“I can handle this one,” Thadius said angrily. The watchman nodded and stepped quickly out of the room.

What is going on Matthias?” Luccius asked, his face panicked and his ears twitching nervously. “Why are there wizards coming after us?

Josephine stepped back a pace, not taking her eyes from him. “They are coming for me. Aren’t they?” she asked. Matthias nodded. “Why?

Matthias swallowed. “I…” he began. His hands shook. “I haven’t been fully honest with you all,” he said.

Thadius laughed angrily. “What a surprise that is!”

“But I promise I am not here to hurt you!” he added quickly. “Gods, I would never hurt you!”

Josephine’s eyes were glassy with tears. “Why? Why would you lie to me?” she asked. “Again?

“Out with the truth!” Thadius barked. “The whole truth this time! If you are even capable of such a thing!”

Matthias nodded. “Alright. The truth is that I was not sent here by the Council. At least, not by the Consensus.”

“Consensus?” Thadius asked impatiently. “What the hell’s that?

“The Council makes decisions by majority vote. The Consensus,” Matthias explained. “I was sent to seek Josephine by a small minority. They are a faction who disagree with the Consensus and their decision regarding what to do with you, when they uncovered the seeing stone.”

She took a breath. “And what decision would that be?” she asked bitterly.

Matthias swallowed, his voice shaking. “To neutralise you.”

“Neutralise?” Luccius exclaimed. “They wanted to strip Josephine of her abilities?” Matthias nodded again. “But why? What about the dragon? What of her power?”

Matthias shook his head. “It didn’t matter. You know how my people feel about women who can use the energies. They saw you had this ability through the prophecy and they grew scared. All they could see was the danger you represented. A danger just as concerning, if not more so, that the dragon being released. So they resolved to send a group of wizards to collect you from Rina and bring you back against your will to Mahalia, where you would be cleansed of the abilities.” Matthias took a breath. “But Master Pym who I told you of and a few others wouldn’t let that happen! How could we be so short sighted to not see what a gift you are to the world? So they sent me to take you away from Rina and to stop the dragon. Pym thought once the Council saw how much of an asset you could be to the world, that they would let you be. Or otherwise, you would be too strong for them to stop you, if they still thought otherwise.” Josephine sat down on the chair, her jaw clenched tightly. A tear slid down from her cheek. “Josephine, you must believe me, I would never-”

“Do not call me Josephine!” she spat. “You do not deserve that right!”

Matthias lowered his head. “We were trying to protect you,” he whispered.

“You lied to me,” she said sadly. “I started to trust you and you lied to me again. It does not matter what your intentions were!”

“So these people following us now,” Thadius said more calmly. “They are trying to stop you?” He asked. “They are coming to hurt the princess?”

Matthias nodded. “They must have arrived in Rina shortly after we left and found you gone. Which is obviously why the king has sent word to look for you. He must be worried. He has no way of knowing what I am doing or how far we have come.”

Thadius stepped forward until he was nose to nose with Matthias. “You are more foolish than I ever would have thought possible,” he whispered to him. “But… you are a fool who may have saved the princess through your actions, nonetheless.” Matthias blinked in surprise.

Josephine looked up. “Thadius? He has betrayed us!”

“Your highness, if he had not come, then these wizards would have arrived in Rina and taken you away. There is no way we could have stopped them from doing that.” He kneeled by her side. “I do not pretend that his lies do not hurt even me,” he said to her. “I had almost begun to like him. But what’s done is done. Now we know the truth, we must look at this with cool heads if we can and decide what to do now.”

She blinked back more tears and swallowed, before nodding. “What would you suggest?”

He sighed. “We have two options the way I see it. We can try and return to Rina, and avoid these men for as long as we can. Perhaps they will give up, or the threat of the dragon will keep them occupied long enough that we can find another way out of this. Perhaps your father can defend you from Mahalia. Or we could carry on and let this wizard try to teach you all he can, so that if they do catch up to us, you will be able to defend yourself.”

She nodded. “I know which I would prefer at this point,” she said. “I want to see my father more than anything right now. But,” she said with a pause, as she rubbed her eyes with a handkerchief. “To return home would be to abandon innocent people to the dragon and put my own selfish needs first.” She looked up at Matthias defiantly. “They will not give up finding me, will they?” she asked.

Matthias shook his head sadly. “No. Not unless the Council changes its mind.”

She nodded again. “Then I have no choice but to continue, do I?”

Thadius stood “We should speak to Yarin and have him send word to your father that you are alright. We must explain to him what is happening. Come with me princess. We will go to the watch house and write a message.” She shook and he put an arm around her as they walked to the door. She stopped a moment and turned to Matthias.

“You criticise my people’s actions and my culture so openly, when in fact your own is just as jaded and hypocritical beneath a veil of calm and wisdom.” She shook her head. “My faith in you is broken, wizard,” she shuddered, her lip trembling. “Do not expect to get it back.” She turned and left the room and Thadius closed the door behind them.

Matthias fell on to the bed and put his head in his hands.

“You could have told me, Matthias,” Luccius said angrily. “How long have we known one another?”

“It was my burden to bear,” Matthias said.

“You know what your problem is, Matthias?” Luccius said and started for the door himself. “You try to bear everything on your own shoulders. You ask people to trust you? Well, sometimes, you have to trust other people too.” He stepped out the door, leaving Matthias alone.

The Aruun Pass

129th Day of the Cycle, 495 N.E. (New Era)

Josephine finished writing on the scroll of paper and set the quill back in its inkwell. It was now late into the night. Thadius picked up the note and read it in the candlelight, nodding.

“This should put your father at some ease, at least,” he nodded, and rolled it up.

“Apart from the fact those wizards are still out there somewhere, hunting me down,” she said. “Is it not bad enough that I am being pursued by demons and madmen?”

“It would have taken a pigeon two days or so, perhaps, to get here from Rina. If we assume that your father sent word as soon as he was able to upon learning of Mahalia’s plans, then that means the wizards only left at around the same time. It has taken us a while to get this far. It will take them just as long, wizards or not. I would say we have a week or so advantage over them. And they have to find you as well. They don’t know how far we have come, or by what path.”

“I suppose,” Josephine sighed. “Oh Thadius, what am I to do? How can I possibly look Matthias in the eye after what he has done? I am so angry!

Thadius patted the scroll in his hand. “The only consolation in this entire farce is that he saved your life,” he said. “I don’t condone what he has done, your highness…”

“But?” she ventured.

“But perhaps a lie told for the right reasons…”

“Is still a lie,” Josephine finished. “My gods, I thought you would see my point of view more than anyone!” She stood from the desk.

“I do, your highness! But the wizard has a way of growing on you,” he said. “In a strange way, I was starting to like him.” He shook his head. “That he saved your life in this convoluted way still proves he has some shred of decency.” He sighed. “And I think he cares for you more than he would like to admit.”

Josephine clasped her hands together and paced the room. “How confusing this world is Thadius, the more one ventures into it.” She shook her head. “I thought it was complex before I left Rina, but now…” She sighed. “I suppose I need to see beyond such lies sometimes for the greater good. But it is overcoming the hurt that it makes me feel that is the most difficult.”

Thadius nodded. “In his head, I think he felt he was protecting you from the truth.”

Josephine nodded. “Then he is a fool if he thinks I need any more protecting from such matters! And he is only too keen to point out the flaws in my world! My father will strangle him when he gets the chance.”

“Princess, he will have to fight me for the honour of doing so first,” Thadius smiled. He indicated to the scroll. “Shall we get your note to Yarin?”

Josephine nodded. “Do you think we could remain here tonight though? I do not think I can face speaking with Matthias yet.”

The knight nodded. “I’m sure there is somewhere you can sleep.”

“Thank you. Then perhaps tomorrow we will continue with this journey. The sooner I can finish this, the better.”

Matthias had lain awake all night, alone in the room, thinking on what had happened that evening. Just after sunrise the latch on the door at the inn clicked from the outside and Matthias stood abruptly. Luccius walked in. The wizard’s shoulders sagged.

“You seem disappointed to see me?” Luccius suggested.

“I thought you were Josephine,” Matthias replied.

Luccius nodded. “I’d wager she doesn’t want to be around you right now.”

“I think that’s a bet you would win hands down.” Matthias paced to the window. “Where have you been?”

“Oh, you know me Matthias. I’ll sleep anywhere. I felt like I needed some space to think myself.”

Matthias nodded. “Do you forgive me, old friend?” he asked.

“It’s not me you should be asking that question to,” Luccius responded.

“I owe you all an apology,” Matthias replied. “You are right in what you said Luccius. I do need to trust people more.”

That much is true,” came a woman’s voice from the open doorway. Matthias turned. It was Josephine.

“Princess!” he breathed. “I-”

Josephine held up a hand. “Matthias, be silent!” she commanded. The wizard looked chastened and shut his mouth. “You lied to me throughout this journey about such an important matter. That is something I cannot forgive you easily for.”

Matthias nodded. “I understand. I never wanted to hurt you princess.”

Josephine acknowledged his words with a nod and her face looked pained. “I am afraid you have,” she said sullenly. “I thought we were finally achieving a mutual respect for one another.”

“We were,” Matthias said.

“And yet you did not respect me enough to furnish me with the full truth of the situation I find myself in?” She sighed.

“When we first started out on this journey I didn’t know you,” Matthias advised. “I was told to keep you safe and that is what I felt my silence on the matter was doing. But then I grew to understand and respect you. Both of you,” he indicated to Thadius as well. “I should have told you then.” He fumbled with his staff awkwardly.

“Yes you should have.” The princess walked slowly around the room. “Thadius in an uncharacteristic degree of positivity has continued to defend your actions,” she continued, a slight smile forming on her lips at Matthias’s surprised face.

“Don’t think I approve of your lies though wizard,” Thadius added.

“It is perhaps only through his good graces that he has convinced me that even through I cannot forgive you as of yet, you were acting in my best interests. Perhaps in time I will understand your actions. Perhaps I only reacted the way I did because of the bond I feel had begun to grow amongst us.” Matthias nodded and remained silent. “If we are to continue this journey together, we can have no more secrets between us. Between any of us!” she said, looking to the others. “Agreed?”

They each nodded in turn. Finally, Matthias nodded. “Agreed, princess.”

She sighed. “You can still call me Josephine,” she proffered.

Matthias nodded. “Thank you. I promise I will not let my people do anything that would hurt you, Josephine,” Matthias pledged. “If they catch up to us-”

“We won’t let that happen,” Luccius added, smiling. “Not until Josephine can face them on her own terms at least.”

“Can we get going?” Josephine asked. “I would sooner forget this place ever existed.”

Matthias looked out the window. “It will take us a long time to traverse the Aruun mountain pass,” he said. “It’s a long way and it might be dark again before we reach its end, even if we leave this early.”

“There is a better way around,” Thadius replied. “We would be forced along the mountain edge, but it is the safer route. The Aruun pass is shorter but it has not been maintained well. No merchants or horses could make it through there now.”

“How long would it take to go round that way?” Josephine asked him.

“I would guess three days,” Thadius advised. “It is a much longer way. The path stretches almost to the coastline. There are a couple of inns, around half and three quarters of the way along the road and a small watch house, if I remember.”

Josephine shook her head. “Then that is too far out of our way,” she advised. “We must go through the mountain.

“The pass really is not a nice place to roam, princess,” Thadius said. “We post guards at our end of the border, but once you are in, you are effectively on your own. There are paths, if you can call them such, that stretch further into the mountains as well. They used to lead to small colonies of people who enjoyed the heights of the higher peaks. But any civilised people have long since abandoned them. Neither Aralia nor Olindia lay claim to the pass themselves and there have been known to be bandits operating within their confines.”

Josephine shook her head. “I have not come this far to be afraid of some corridor!” she said. “We have faced demons and assassins and desperate men all wanting to hurt us. A few bandits should be no problem for a wizard and a knight. We will leave today and we will be in Olindia before the night is out.”

“She has a point,” Luccius said. “What bandits would pick a fight with a wizard?”

Matthias looked to Thadius and then back to Josephine. “I’ve already endangered your life several times in the name of haste. Perhaps the longer path would be better.”

“Do not start to get sheepish now that you have been chastened by me wizard!” Josephine commented. “Your honesty and bluntness might be grating sometimes, but I welcome it more than if you would wrap me in blankets and treat me as if I were a fragile figurine. We can do this, Matthias,” she said.

Matthias looked at her a moment and then nodded. “Alright,” he agreed. “We travel the Aruun pass.”

The mountain pass gouged itself deep into the mountain range. It was a series of cavernous hollows and narrow pathways which snaked through the mountains. Josephine and her party set off briskly from Gormal, climbing the rocky pathway of shoddily – carved steps up to the opening in the mountainside. The pass went by another name to the locals: shadow’s gap. The sunlight barely touched the interior, but peeked its way though cracks and crevices where it could. It was a perfect place to be ambushed by anyone looking for trouble.

Matthias grimaced at the path ahead. The weathered, sharp rocks of the entrance resembled teeth in a rocky mouth, swallowing them whole as they passed into the sun – starved interior of the great, grisly maw.

“We have to be alert in there,” Matthias said warily.

“I’m always alert wizard,” Thadius stated back.

“Then be even more alert,” Matthias retorted. The knight grunted.

“Perhaps I should have taken up Yarin’s offer of a couple of watchmen to accompany us,” the knight mused. “He was more than willing.”

“It would have taken too much time to explain everything,” Josephine replied. “Unless you wanted to run through with them the reason we are here? Because I did not. We needn’t drag anyone else along on this journey. It hardly seems necessary. What could two more men do that Matthias could not do with his wizardly powers?”

“Obey my orders?” Thadius proffered.

“I hate mountains,” Luccius muttered, changing the subject as they entered the pass. “Have you ever heard of the Beneglet Mountains, Josephine?” he asked.

“Vaguely,” she replied. “Only by name.”

“They’re in the very north – west of Triska. Miles and miles of ice-capped peaks, three times the height of these mountains. Once I had to go to an ansuwan retreat hidden deep within them. Of all the places to construct a Community…” he scoffed, shaking his head.

“Your people would burrow to the centre of the world to escape outsiders,” Matthias said. “And Beneglet is a religious sanctuary, remember? The ansuwan monks probably like it that way. It gives them more time to reflect with even less people bothering them. Of course, that never stopped you from paying them a visit.”

“Well anyway,” Luccius continued, ignoring Matthias. “They are covered from top to bottom in snow. After even a half – day of climbing and trekking, I could barely feel my feet! And I was garbed in seal pelts and furs from head to toe! By the fifth day of climbing I’d reached a passage through the mountains not unlike this one. And what should emerge from out of the snow, than a wolf pack. They had totally surrounded me, most likely stalking me for hours and I hadn’t even noticed.”

“How did you escape?” Josephine asked.

“Well, wolves might be mighty clever hunters, but they’re no match for a group of ansuwan! A team had been sent out to look for me when I didn’t arrive on time, and they sent the wolves packing.”

“The luck of Luccius strikes again,” Matthias smirked. “You are the most blessed man I’ve ever met! You wear luck around you like a shawl.”

“Let us hope that luck is with us now,” Thadius muttered.

“After that moment I swore I would never go anywhere near a mountain again!” Luccius continued.

“Yet here you are,” Matthias mused.

“I did come this way into Olindia before when I was stationed here briefly. I am pleased to say I never had any problem,” Thadius said.

“You and how many hundred other heavily armed soldiers?” Matthias joked.

Thadius paused. “Two hundred,” he mumbled under his breath.

Matthias smiled. “Well that must have been quite a sight! That many men scrabbling around the rocks like ants. What were you up to that meant you took this way round into Olindia?” he asked.

“Perhaps they were hunting the ‘four maidens’?” Luccius grinned, referencing Yarin. Josephine stifled a laugh as Thadius blushed.

“It is not as bad as it sounds,” he responded.

“Then tell us, good knight,” Josephine said.

“Ahem. Perhaps it is still a little delicate for your ears, your highness,” he muttered. “I was young.”

The jagged shadows around them lengthened as they continued further into the mountains. The gap narrowed and they were forced to climb around a series of ragged stones.

“Look! People have carved things into the mountainside,” Luccius said, pointing to a series of crude scratched sketches along the side of the rocks. Then he threw his hand over one and turned to Josephine. “Princess, best not to look perhaps,” he blushed.

Josephine shook her head. “You all assume that I am completely naive to the intricacies of life,” she commented. “I do know what goes on within the confines of a marital chamber.” She pulled his hand away and looked at the sketch. “On the other hand…” she whispered, and turned away abruptly, blushing.

As they continued through the pass the sun began to lower to the horizon. Already only a slither of its light peeked from above. Another few hours of walking and the dark had encompassed the path entirely. A blue-grey gloom shrouded them.

“How much farther do you think it is to the other side?” Josephine asked.

“At least another couple of hours I would think,” Matthias said. “Perhaps more. I’ve lost track of how long we have even been in here.” A ball of light burst forth in mid – air, and Josephine jumped.

“Sorry,” said Matthias. “I thought we could do with some light.”

“Why is no-one else coming this way?” Josephine asked, breaking the eerie silence that had sprung up between them. “You would think even one other person would brave the journey through here to save time.”

“It might be the most direct way, but I know I’d just as sooner go another few days around the mountains than go through them in the dark,” Thadius responded.

“So you are saying I am mad for allowing us to go through here?” Josephine asked as she clambered over some rocks that sloped up a few paces, and then found her footing on the cracked pathway again.

Thadius was silent a moment. “Mad may be too strong a word, your highness.”

From above the four of them looked like ants, winding around the narrow pathway in the immense form of the mountains, the small ball of light the only illumination in an otherwise dead-black land. A thin, bitter wind blew through the pass, creating a hollow whistling as it passed through the wretched rocks and scattered pebbles across the dry pathway. Shivers passed up Matthias’s spine, though he was not cold. He stared up nervously, watching every crack, every crevice as they passed them. Something didn’t feel right. The ominous feeling that had plagued him on Providence was getting worse. He took a breath and then four more balls of light fizzed into existence. They looked like a cluster of fireflies whirling about them.

“I don’t like the dark,” he said in explanation.

Josephine clutched to a shawl she produced from her bag, and Matthias fastened up his coat to his neck, its golden buttons glinting off the artificial light. Luccius threw his own green cloak about him, and pulled its hood up around his head. Thadius donned his own thick, woollen cloak, a silver emblem of Aralia pinning it together at his neck.

“I have decided I hate mountains too,” Josephine muttered and wrinkled her nose, sniffing and ruffling around in her pockets for a handkerchief. Her face was pale and her cheeks were as rosy as her crimson nose. “And I hate the cold, too!” she added. “It is making my nose run.”

“It has grown much colder in the last hour,” Luccius commented. “It’s that damned wind that keeps whistling around the rocks.”

“I don’t suppose you can make some kind of heat for us wizard?” Thadius asked.

“I can’t maintain these lights and warm you all up at the same time! Which would you prefer, light of warmth?” Matthias snapped.

“At this point I’d settle for a candle for all the warmth it would give to me!” Josephine retorted. Then she stared forward, past the range of the lights, into the darkness. “Perhaps not,” she whispered, and shivered.

“A fire would give us both heat and light,” Thadius retorted. “You’ve conjured up balls of flame before Matthias. Can’t you do that now?”

“Flame takes a lot more energy to produce than a few balls of light,” Matthias replied. “I would be exhausted in a short time.”

“Some all powerful wizard you are,” Thadius scoffed.

“I would like to see you do better, soldier,” Matthias rebutted.

“Just try and forget where we are,” Luccius said, rubbing his hands together. “It’s all mind over matter, you know. Close your eyes and imagine you’re in the warmest bath you have ever had, or sitting underneath the broiling sun.”

“You’re suggesting we think up heat?” Thadius asked sardonically.

“What I’m suggesting is that your mind will forget about the cold if you just give it the right encouragement. When I was in the Beneglet Mountains-”

“Will you shut up about the Beneglet Mountains!” Thadius barked.

Luccius’s mouth snapped shut, and he looked down sheepishly. “I was just saying,” he whispered.

There was a pause before Josephine said, “I’d still settle for a candle!”

“Alright.” Thadius stopped and closed his eyes with a smirk on his face. “Sunshine. A great, big, orange – yellow sun…”

“Is it working?” Luccius asked, his ears twitching.

Thadius opened his eyes. “No. I’m still freezing! What a stupid idea Luccius!”

Quiet, all of you!” Matthias hissed suddenly. His brow furrowed, and his eyes were sharp, glowing bright blue.

“What is it Matthias?” asked Luccius.

“We’re not alone in here,” he whispered back. As soon as he said it, a ghostly whispering arose from the shadows, thousands of voices merging to become one. It was terrifying in the dark.

“You’re right there, wizard!” The voice echoed off the cliff face, exploding around them. Thadius drew his sword in a second and Josephine threw her head back and forth, surveying the rocks.

“Whose there?” Josephine asked. Matthias spun back and forward, his boots crackling on the loose stones beneath. He stepped around the others in a circle, peering into the darkness as they waited for a reply.

“You don’t recognise my voice?” came the reply.

No.” Matthias whispered. “It can’t be.” With a flick of his wrist he sent the balls of light scattering about the mountain walls. Shadows frolicked around them, the light warping and ricocheting off the rock at a dizzying pace. One of them struck the concealed figure and instantly the other lights whirled to join their counterpart, illuminating the figure of Taico Grimm. His eyes glowed a deep, malicious green from within a hooded cowl.

“Oh my gods,” Josephine breathed and stepped backwards in shock. “He’s alive!

How can that be possible?” Thadius breathed, hefting his sword. “Princess, stay close to me!” he commanded.

“I thought I would come and pay you a little visit, my good knight! To say no hard feelings for cutting me head off!” His voice echoed, metallically, a deep, unnatural rhythm from within his throat. Black veins snaked around Grimm’s forehead. His cheeks were tattooed with symbols; curling shapes like a foreign language snaking along his pallid skin.

Matthias stared up at him, stone-faced. “They brought you back, didn’t they? The sorcerers of Arash Malhat?”

Grimm shook his head. “Your terms are out of date wizard. That name hasn’t been used by them for a long time. But you’re right, the sorcerers are the ones who brought me back again.” He looked inwardly a moment. “They cannot let me go.”

“What have they done to you?” Matthias asked with what sounded like an almost genuine concern. He indicated on his own face to where the symbols were on Grimm’s. “Those symbols…”

Grimm’s face contorted in distaste. “Done to me? You speak like this-” he flourished at his face with a gauntleted hand “-is a bad thing! I can assure you, this is a definite improvement to how I felt before!” He stepped off the ledge and sailed downwards on the air, to touch the ground in front of the group with barely a twitch of his body. “I was growing more confused than I ever had been before! So many thoughts and feelings dogged my mind. It had almost got to a point where I considered helping you again! Can you imagine?” he laughed. “It has been a long time since such a thought occurred to me. But then one of the sorcerers helped me. They provided more clarity to my thoughts and more strength to my withering body.” He shook his head. “I feel more alive than I have in many months. Many years, some would say.” He started laughing to himself. “Time weathers even the mightiest stone.”

“Who are you?” Matthias asked. “What are you to them that they would spend so much time helping you? You’re just an assassin! They are ten a penny in this world!”

Grimm shook his head. “Naive and small, and destined for a fall! I am the chosen one, Matthias,” Grimm whispered. “The one who will bring this cycle to an end and leave the path free for the final victory!”

What cycle?” Matthias asked. “Do you mean the year? What victory is it you speak of?”

Grimm smiled. “The cycle the gods began!” He exclaimed. “The endless, repeating path that they sent me down in the hope I would be their puppet. Just as you are to them now. We are all their puppets, born into this world to do their bidding. But no more! I was cut free from their strings! The sorcerers have shown me that there is another way.”

“If you are anyone’s puppet, it’s the people who you are working for now,” Matthias said. “Whatever they have convinced you of, it’s lies.”

“The only lies are those of hope, peddled by the gods and those who worship them!”

“The gods created this world Grimm. They deserve faith. They want to help us to return this world to peace!”

Lies!” Grimm spat. “I have seen the future and it will never be the utopian world that their dogma portrays!”

Matthias shook his head a moment. “Taico, I think I understand how you feel,” he said.

“You have no idea!” the man spat back.

“I see the imperfect world you see!” Matthias fought back. “Some people live each day in ignorance, never looking beyond tomorrow or the next week. They consume themselves in drink and work and lust, and then they die. But others see life as it truly is: how hypocritical and unpredictable it is and how the same mistakes are made again and again.” He took a step forward. “But the world is this way because we allowed ourselves to let it get this bad! To let fear and hate drive a wedge between us and let people like the sorcerers take advantage of our fears. If you work against the gods, Grimm, you turn your back on all hope that the world can be a better place.” He shook his head. “I might be wrong, but I think you want that more than anything.” Matthias squinted his eyes. “Something in your life has driven you to this path out of desperation.” Grimm looked at him more passively, as if the rage had left him momentarily. His eyes grew softer and he swallowed. “You said you thought about helping us. Well, there’s still time!” Matthias said passionately. “You can make a difference!”

Grimm’s eyes worked back and forth, and then he stumbled backwards, and his face creased as he closed his eyes and ran his hands through his hair. He began talking to himself, whispering. “Time. Around and around we go, and where the dice fall, nobody can know. Except me.”

“Matthias, there is something in this man. It is unlike anything I have ever felt,” Luccius said from behind. His ears flickered quickly as if he were feeling the air. “It’s like he is trapped in some way.”

“Trapped?” Josephine asked. “How?”

“I can’t explain it,” Luccius shook his head. “It’s like something has a hold of him and won’t let go. I can feel his emotions. They’re fighting each other. I have never felt it from humans before.”

Matthias nodded and turned back to Taico Grimm where he was backed against the rocks. “Grimm. Tell me who you are. I can help you, if you will let me.”

“You still don’t see wizard!” he said in agony. “You are no more enlightened than the others!” He tapped his temples. “The future is here! In my mind! And it can’t be changed for the better however hard you try! I tried and I lost everything!” He looked up, his eyes enraged again. They sparked green. “How small you are. I was once like you. Hopeful.” He smiled. “But now I am so much more! They have given me the power to become the Vessel of deliverance! All I need to do is stop you, and the way is clear once again! History will unfold and there will be peace in me at last. My mind will be overcome and dissolve before a higher power and the world will unfold without me.”

Matthias swallowed. “Grimm, do you know what these men have turned you into? Those symbols on your cheeks are poison to anyone who wears them. You’re tainted, and they’ll suck your soul dry!”

“You speak as if you care!” Grimm said. “But the truth is, there is little soul left.” His face contorted. “The gods took that from me, all those years ago!” His head twitched. “They took everything from me. All that time watching, listening, seeing!” He spat on the ground. “The gods began my downfall. I am soulless, no matter what happens.” He stood up straight. “So I will do what must be done. The girl must die.”

“I still don’t understand how you can be alive,” Thadius said. “But if you don’t let us pass I will cut your head off again, and this time I will make sure it cannot be reattached!”

Grimm laughed. “Soldier, had things been different I would have liked to have called you friend.” He shook his head. “But your time has always been marked. Here or there, it makes no difference.”

“Why do the sorcerers want to release the dragon?” Matthias continued. “Why would they want that thing to return to this world? It makes no sense, Grimm! If it’s power they’re after, there’ll be none of it when that creature is freed! It will destroy everything! They can’t hope to control it! You must see that their plan is mad!” Matthias squinted. “There is reason within you somewhere. Deep within your riddled mind, there is a sanity screaming to get out! Don’t let them control you.”

“I knew what had to be done long before they arrived!” Grimm exclaimed. “They just gave me the ability to take action myself! This world needs to be reborn! The flame is just the beginning. It will mark the start of things to come. And it cannot be stopped.”

I’ll stop it!” Josephine growled. She started forward, but Thadius gripped her arm and pulled her back.

Grimm shook his head. “You have to die princess! Only then will this endless song cease!”

“What did I ever do to you that you loathe me so much?” Josephine asked.

“I do not loathe you, Princess,” Grimm replied. “For a time I loved you above all others. But I see you for what you really are now.”

“And what exactly is that?” She said defiantly.

Death.” The word sent shivers up her spine. “You must be stopped.”

“You’ll have to go through us first!” Luccius growled at him, hefting his spear.

“If I have to, ansuwan!” he growled, and threw out a bony hand. Waves of green and black energy surrounded Luccius. He wailed and dropped to his knees, the spear falling from his hands and rattling to the floor as the energy spun around him. His skin blackened and legions sprouting from his skin. Boils ruptured all over his hands and cheeks and his skin burned and flaked off around his forehead. Matthias stepped in front of him, and the energy sparked off a field of white around him. Grimm lowered his hand and the energy stopped.

“Stop this!” Matthias exclaimed. “You’re being controlled by them somehow! They are filling your head with trickery and mad ideas! You must listen to us!”

No! No more talking! No more of your false words!” Grimm spat back. “This must happen!” He vaulted forward at Matthias, who threw out his left hand. Taico sailed backwards on a beam of light that speared its way into his stomach and collapsed against the wall of the pass.

“Get Josephine out of here!” Matthias cried behind him to Thadius.

“You won’t escape!” Grimm hissed, and threw a fist into the stone behind him. The rock shattered, and began to fall forward. Thadius threw himself around Josephine as debris shot through the air and bounced off his back. Dust enveloped them as the path ahead was blocked by falling boulders.

“You bastard!” Thadius growled, and ran forward, raising his sword. He whirled the blade at Grimm, but his body twisted and weaved, avoiding the advance. His bones cracked and doubled back on themselves, and he slipped past Thadius like a snake, grabbing him by the leg and with strength unnatural to someone so skeletal, pulled him over. He landed with a thud onto his back. As the man turned, Matthias was there, his own sword slicing through the air with a hum at his face. Grimm threw his hands together and stopped the blade before it could touch him, and twisted it out of the wizard’s hand. It clattered to the floor and Matthias hit out at him with his staff. Grimm blocked him with his upper – arm, and punched out at Matthias‘s stomach. The air rippled and the wizard flew back, his boots cutting into the ground as he fought the energy Grimm directed at him and slowed to a halt, maintaining his balance.

“Well it seems that we are more of an equal match for one another now wizard, are we not?” Grimm smiled.

“They have given you more borrowed power,” Matthias replied. “But these abilities are not yours to own. You will use them clumsily, like a butcher would wield a sword. They will fail you.” Matthias shook his head. “If you face me, you will die. Again.”

“You would have me give up now and let you leave?” Grimm shook his head. “My old friend, you don’t know me very well, do you?”

The blade of Thadius’s sword burst through Grimm’s chest, its end sticking out an arms’ length, covered in black, sticky blood. Grimm gasped and stared at the end a moment, and then the knight pulled it back out again with a swift tug, and stepped back. Grimm remained standing. He looked at the wound in his chest, and then turned to the knight.

“That hurt,” he said, before his free hand shot out and pulses of energy that wriggled from his hand like hundreds of snakes burrowed into the knight’s body. Thadius dropped limply to the floor, his muscles turned to jelly, and his sword fell to the dirt. “I am afraid that I have grown quite a bit more resilient since we last met,” he said, staring down at the man. “I have felt the maggots and the rot of decay. Now it cannot touch me as it once did.”

Stop it!” Josephine cried from where she had moved to comfort Luccius. She tried to use her power, but she couldn’t. Fear paralysed her ability. Grimm turned to her, but Matthias stepped in front of her, a hand raised defensively.

“Stay away from her Grimm,” Matthias commanded. “She has done nothing to you.”

“She has done everything to me!” Grimm exclaimed, and shook his head frantically. “Her and the false gods! I wouldn’t expect you to understand. You are just as much a victim of your faith as I once was!” His nostrils flared. “Step out of my way wizard and let me end this!”

“If you think I am going to let you hurt her, whatever your confused reasoning might tell you she has done, then you are sadly mistaken. I gave you a chance to live.”

Grimm shook his head. “Then prepare yourself wizard! Because I will not lose her again!”

Matthias and Grimm faced each other, swirls of energy counteracting the other, sparking off the rocks. The wizard leaped and bounded across the path, dodging bolts of light that surged from Grimm’s palms. He threw a line of fire at the man that engulfed his withered body, but it barely touched him.

“Will we dance with each other like this all day?” Grimm asked, as the circled one another.

“I have barely started,” Matthias said. “You’re on the losing side, Grimm.”

The man snarled and his eyes flared. He began running at Matthias unnaturally fast, his fists flying as he pummelled him, striking with an upper – cut to the chin that sent the wizard to the ground. The lights that had swirled around them dimmed, as Matthias lost consciousness. Darkness enveloped the pass a moment, before a dim light emerged in front of her. Grimm had turned to Josephine, his body surrounded by a murky green aura. His serpent-like glare met her doe – eyes. She rose slowly, her legs shaking, but she forced herself to keep calm as he approached and took a deep breath.

“I suppose you are planning to kill me now, are you?” she asked. “Well you can just think again! I am not some helpless damsel who will just lie down and let you cut me up into pieces while I wait for a knight in shining armour to arrive! I am powerful!” Her heart pounded in her chest, and in truth, she felt like her legs could give way at any moment.

Grimm smiled and his yellow teeth seemed to glint in spite of the lack of light. He was more than ugly, he was wretched: the body and face of a haggard, walking corpse. “So why have you not slain me with your gods – given powers?” he asked. She swallowed, unable to reply. “I know how powerful your gift could be, princess,” Grimm said. “I have seen what you are capable of. But it is a potential that you could never hope to fulfil. A longbow has the power to kill a man, but only if the one who wields it has the strength to pull back the string.” He stepped forward, and his foot caught on something. Matthias’s staff sat at his feet. He bent down to pick it up and Josephine pounced. She jumped on him, clawing his face with her nails. She fought to find the power, but it wouldn’t come! He grabbed her arm and tore her off his back, throwing her to the ground.

“Why do you resist? With a flick of a wrist, this could all be over for you! You would not need to worry about the world you leave behind. You would be at peace!”

“People are relying on me,” she said, as she felt the wetness of blood on her tongue from her cut bottom lip. “I can’t let them down!”

“You can’t stop the inevitable princess,” he said calmly, and held up the staff in his hand. “You are fighting against the tide. Not even your friends can help you.”

“I believe that is mine?” said a voice from behind him. Matthias was on his feet again. He nodded to the staff, still in Grimm’s hand, as the man spun to look at him. Grimm shook his head.

“None of you know when to let fate take its course and die, do you?” he said.

“We’re not the only ones,” Matthias rebuffed. “Why do you persist?”

Grimm snarled and flailed wildly with his arms. A cluster of green bolts crackled towards Matthias, and the wizard raised both his hands. The energy evaporated before it could touch him. Grimm shook his head.

“I am foolish to have underestimated you,” he said. “That much is true.”

“So perhaps you have also underestimated our chances to save Triska?” Matthias said.

Grimm laughed. “Your wordplay will not convince me wizard,” he said. “You are persuasive. I will admit last time you set seeds of doubt in my mind, but now but I know I must continue!”

“You believe you must continue because that is what they have made you think,” he said calmly. “Who are you to them Grimm? Why have they chosen you to do this?”

Enough!” Grimm wailed, and leapt and span across the walls of the pass, jumping back and forth, shooting energy from his palms. It exploded into the ground, leaving sizzling craters where Matthias has stood. Matthias picked up his sword where it lay in his path and leapt into the air, whirling at Grimm. Blood spattered the ground as the blade sliced from his left cheek, across his nose and up to his brow, disfiguring the man’s already tarnished face. As his feet found ground again, Matthias turned and with a roar, he threw out his hand. Lightning burst from his palm, surrounding Grimm where he landed. The energy crackled around him, and Grimm wailed. His skin popped, burst and charred as the bolt assaulted his body. Matthias’s face greyed and veins snaked across his forehead as he continued the attack. The walls sparkled with the flashes of light, until, exhausted, Matthias let the bolt go and dropped to his knees.

Grimm was a blackened mess, his skin burnt like coal, but he remained standing. His bloodshot eyes regarded Matthias, silently, and he smiled. Then he opened his mouth and took a deep breath. As he did so, his skin healed. His body shook with the effort, but in moments, he was healed, aside from thick veins that mottled his face like Matthias. His face had grown even more sallow and the skin over his cheeks looked wafer-thin, as if his cheek – bones would burst through at any moment, but he was no longer charred and smoking.

“They protect me because I can help them bring their plans to fruition,” he said through deep breaths. “I will be the Vessel. Together we will bring about the cleansing of the world and it will be reborn.” He looked at his hands, which were grey and skeletal, and the back to Matthias, who stood gingerly, exhausted with the effort. “You have this fight wizard. But it doesn’t change anything.”

With lightning fast speed he swung towards Josephine. She yelped as he came at her, and again tried to focus her power to repel him, but failed. He grabbed her fiercely, twisting her arm around her back and stood behind her, his free hand on her neck. Matthias rose and started forward.

“I will destroy you,” Matthias growled, and raised a hand. “Don’t hurt her!”

“The tides of chaos will blind everyone,” he said breathily, as his grip tightened on the princess. His nails broke her skin and blood poured from the wounds. “The alliance will bring forth the Return.” He pushed Josephine toward Matthias. She fell to the floor, and Matthias ran to her side. Grimm looked down at them, his eyes cold. “The cycle will be broken.” His body burst into purple-black light, beams radiating out from his torso. Then he was gone in a flicker of purple lighting, and the darkness returned. Matthias relit a ball of light with effort. He had drained himself. He stared for a moment where the man had vanished, stunned. Then he drew his attention to Josephine.

“Matthias!” She gulped awkwardly. Her skin was paling as he watched. “I… I don’t feel well. I’m…” She passed out, her eyes rolling up into their sockets.

“Princess!” Matthias patted her on the cheek. “Josephine, wake up! Oh gods, no!”

“What’s happened? Matthias, tell me!” called a voice. Thadius stared at them from where he lay, limp and floppy, like a gutted fish.

“ Josephine’s fallen unconscious! I don’t know why. Grimm pierced her neck with his nails, and-” He stopped as he tilted her head to look at the half moon shapes on her side. The blood that sat in the wounds was thick, tarry, dark red- black, and tinged with green. When he touched near the wounds, the pressure made more blood ooze out like curdled milk. “Thadius, I think Grimm has poisoned her with something!” he called back.

“Can you help her?” he asked.

Matthias pressed his hand to her forehead and shut his eyes a moment, taking a deep breath. His brow creased, and his eyes worked beneath the closed lids. “I can’t even tell what it is. I can’t do anything!”

“Then you have to get her to someone who can!” Thadius called gruffly. “Leave us and go!”

Matthias balanced Josephine in his arms and stood up. “I’m not leaving you behind!” He walked over to them and laid Josephine back on the ground, and went over to Thadius first.

“I implore you, please, take the princess out of here! Get her to a village! A doctor might be able to help her!”

“A doctor won’t be able to help her Thadius!” he exclaimed, as he sat beside him.

“You have to try! You-”

“Just shut up, you great boulder,” Matthias grunted. He felt at Thadius’s arm then moved his hands to his chest. His eyes flared. “I think I can heal you,” he said. “I’m going to channel energy into your body Thadius, to reanimate your bones and muscles. It may hurt a little. “

“Just do it!” Thadius ordered. “Quickly!”

Matthias closed his eyes, concentrating, and then Thadius gasped, cried out, and his chest jumped off the ground in spasm. His body shook for a few moments, face contorted in pain, and then it was all over. Matthias sat back.

“That hurt a lot!” Thadius grunted.

“Can you move?” Matthias asked.

Thadius moved his head, then flexed his fingers, before he pulled himself upright with a groan. “Apparently so,” he said. “Now see to Luccius!” He leant over Josephine and stared helplessly at her, stroking her hair back.

“I should have protected you,” he whispered. “I’m sorry princess!”

Matthias inspected Luccius, who stared up at him.

“You look terrible,” the ansuwan whispered hoarsely.

“You don’t look so good yourself, old friend,” he said back, and pressed a palm to Luccius’s forehead for a moment. Matthias’s lips thinned, and then he exhaled, frustrated, shaking his head.

“I can’t heal this Luccius,” he said. “I’m so sorry. I’ve tried to blunt the pain a little. Is it any better?”

“Remember… when we tangled with that glashtyn demon?” the ansuwan asked, as Matthias helped him sit up.

“The horse – demon?” Matthias muttered in recollection. “I remember you were kicked in the groin so hard you couldn’t walk for a week.”

He smiled, and nodded. “This is worse,” he said, as he grasped Matthias’s arm and hoisted himself up onto his feet, where he swayed.

Thadius stood, holding Josephine in his arms. Her head hung limply to one side. “Should we return to Gormal?” the knight asked.

Matthias shook his head. “There’s nothing there that will help her,” he said, and turned to the rocks that blocked their path ahead. “If we can get to Olindia I think she might stand a chance.” He ran forward, and pressed the rocks. They didn’t budge. He took a deep breath, and embraced the earth power fully once more. His head pounded with the effort, and he could feel his body ready to give way at any moment. It was as if he had run a marathon; he was weak, hot, sweaty, and his lungs burnt as if they could not get enough air, only it was his body that craved rest from wielding rather than running. The rocks began to crunch, and with a groan they burst into pieces, until all that remained of the blockade were a few misshapen stones and a mass of pebbles. He let go of the power as soon as they yielded, save for a trickle to maintain the light, which at that moment seemed too much to cope with, and turned to the others. “Can you carry her for long?” he asked Thadius. His head was spinning.

“As long as it takes,” Thadius said.

Matthias nodded. “Then let’s go,” he said sadly.

They set off down the path, slowly and surely, picking their way around the stony ground. The cold and the dark seemed the least of their troubles now.

Dowsing

130th Day of the Cycle, 495 N.E. (New Era)

 

In the barren, malnourished Olindian territory directly beneath the shadow of the Gormal Mountains, where it grew too cold to cultivate crops, there were no towns, villages or farmhouses to speak of. Save for one or two watch towers manned at sporadic intervals, depending when the guardsmen could be bothered to get up from their beds, barely any signs of civilisation marked the area at all. There had been no real bad blood between Aralia and Olindia for almost forty years so the need for larger armies guarding the area was minimal. Given the unimportance of the mountain region, Olindia seemed content to let it lie abandoned and focus on the arable land where the climate grew warmer.

A sombre band of travellers strode through this land now. Josephine’s flagging body lay cradled in Thadius’s quaking arms, her head lulling back and forth as she fell against his chest. Hours had passed since she had been infected. They had walked through the night and now dawn began to peek across the horizon. Her skin was cracked, so dry that it flaked off at every opportunity and a pallid grey had now begun to form around her eyes and lips.

“It’s a form of petrification,” Matthias had said, when he noticed the new effect of the poison on her. “I’m certain of it. It is as if she is being remade in stone. Every last drop of water is being sucked from her body.”

“Is there nothing we can do to stop the effect?” Thadius asked, staring down at the girl in his tired arms.

“There are so many ways to petrify someone. With weaves of energy, like the dragon, you can suspend someone in a stone shell indefinitely. But poison, like this seems to be, will completely turn the victim to stone forever. And each type has a specific antidote or way of releasing the hold on the target.” He shook his head. “We should keep her hydrated as much as we can. Pour water over her if we have to. It might slow things down. Use the canisters we have left.”

“Can’t you create water with the power?” Thadius asked. “You created a ball of water and turned it to ice in Rina.”

“I pulled water from the air in the palace because it was thick with moisture,” Matthias said and indicated to the landscape around them. “But water is the hardest element to divine from the air. It’s the key to life and it keeps itself guarded well. I can only manage to retrieve small amounts here. I could pull some water from around us, but not much. Not enough to make a difference.”

“Well we had better find a stream soon then. Otherwise we’ll soon run out, and she is already as dry as the Renegath Desert.” Thadius replied dolefully.

Matthias stopped. “At the rate she is deteriorating, it won’t make any difference how much water we give her if we can’t cure her,” he said. “Giving her water won’t stop the deterioration, only slow it down and sooner or later the poison will win.”

“Then what do we do?” Thadius asked helplessly. “I won’t just let her die!”

“Neither will I!” Matthias exclaimed. There was silence for a moment and then Matthias continued. “There is an option I’ve considered. But it’s a long shot,” he added.

“I’d say a long shot is better than nothing right about now,” Luccius added. “What is it?” he asked.

“Do you remember Maryn?” Matthias asked the ansuwan. Luccius raised his eyebrows and whistled.

“Now that’s a name I haven’t heard in a while,” Luccius nodded. “She would be difficult to forget,” he replied.

Matthias nodded. “True enough.”

“Who is this woman? You think she can help Josephine?” asked Thadius impatiently.

“She is an old acquaintance,” Matthias said. “And yes, I do. One thing is clear: this is an enchanted poison. I thought about finding a doctor, but this is beyond any apothecary. Maryn knows a lot about potions. She might be able to concoct something that can help.”

“And you think she’s nearby?” Thadius asked

“I keep track of her movements,” Matthias said. “Or at least, I used to.”

“That is… disturbing,” Thadius commented, shaking his head.

“Are you saying she’s in Olindia?” Luccius asked.

“It’s been a while since I have been able to locate her,” Matthias said. “But she was in Olindia when I last checked.”

“Do you track all your acquaintances?” Thadius asked.

“Only the pretty ones,” Luccius whispered.

“I was looking out for her,” he replied to Thadius. “It is a long story. She could be long gone by now. But if she is still around…”

“How exactly can you find her?” Thadius asked.

“There’s an old method used by wizards to find people. As I said, I have used it before. But I have only ever found it useful to find people in a short range.”

“How short is ‘short?’” Luccius asked.

“It depends on the wizard,” Matthias said. “And the last few times I have tried, I met with limited success.”

Luccius nodded. “Well it is worth a try, don’t you think Thadius?”

The knight looked uncomfortable between the two men. Finally, he nodded. “What do you need?” he asked.

“Simply something personal of Maryn’s. The more personal, the better.”

“Well, we’re buggered then, aren’t we?” Thadius exclaimed, as Matthias began to rustle in his bag. “Unless you have someth-” He stopped mid sentence as Matthias pulled out a lock of brown hair. Thadius raised his brow. “How-”

Don’t ask,” Matthias cut him off. “Suffice to say, this should be what I need.” He looked to the horizon. “It’s getting late again and we’ve barely covered any distance from the mountains. Perhaps we should stop here and attempt this. The sooner I try the better.”

Thadius nodded. He eased Josephine out of his arms, laying her gently onto the ground and exhaled as the weight was lifted from his body. Luccius pulled a blanket from his bag and placed it beneath her head. She sighed as if she felt the cotton against her skin, and he sat by her side and stroked her forehead.

“It feels like I’m petting a flagstone,” Luccius said sadly.

Matthias unfurled his map and placed it on the road in front of him. “I need some stones to weigh it down, so it doesn’t blow away,” he instructed. “I’ve had this map longer than I’ve been a wizard and I’m not about to let it get away from me now.”

“That explains why it’s been scribbled on so much and why the parchment smells like a dead goat,” Thadius replied, picking up clumps of rock around them big enough to weigh the parchment down and setting them along the edges of the stained map. He paused a moment and squinted at the diagram. “I didn’t get a proper look at this map before. That place there in northern Aralia: Vershallah? That hasn’t been called that in years!” He shook his head. “Decades even!” he exclaimed. “Just how long have you been a wizard?”

“Long enough. Thank you,” Matthias replied, as he shifted the stones a little, and lowered himself onto his knees and sat cross – legged on the road, the map laid in front of him. He placed the lock of hair, still in his hand, on top of the map.

“How does this even work?” Thadius asked. “It’s a piece of parchment and a lock of hair, for goodness sake!”

“Everything is connected in this world Thadius. Believe it or not, we all share a common link, even you and me.”

“I am glad,” Thadius said acerbically. “But that doesn’t explain how this all works.”

“What should happen,” Matthias continued, “is that when I focus energies into the lock of hair, which I have placed roughly where we are on the map, I will seek out a match using those threads of power. They will stretch through the roots of the world and return to us any echo of Maryn that they find. I should then be able to decipher where Maryn is. Thereabouts.”

Thadius sighed. “But… but it’s a piece of hair! How does it even know what to do?”

Matthias smiled. “It’s complicated. The hair doesn’t know anything. It’s not alive Thadius. But it provides a link between Maryn and I, wherever she is. My mind translates that through the earth. I can then realise the location on the map. Is that any clearer?”

“As mud,” Thadius exhaled. “Give me a compass any day.”

“A compass wouldn’t help us find Maryn,” Matthias replied. “This might.”

“Well get on with it then,” Thadius blustered.

“Why will it only tell us if Maryn is in the nearby region?” Luccius asked. “If everything is connected as you say, then surely we can find her anywhere?”

Matthias sighed. “Because I’m not strong enough to extend its range. A powerful enough wizard could drill through the entire world’s roots searching for a person. A strong enough wizard could do this with the power of the mind alone: use a memory of a person to home in on them. But I’m not that strong. No one is. Not anymore. Time was a wizard could track down a person with a thought and drop out of the sky on them like a spirit, use the roots in the ground as a system of travel. But that age is long gone. If I’m lucky, I can search for Maryn for a few miles. If not, I might only be able to search the valley.”

“And you are sure it is worth trying to find this Maryn?” Thadius asked. “I’d rather not go on a wild goose chase for nothing with the princess like this.” He turned to look at Josephine.

“I think it’s her best chance, Thadius. Better than any doctor or apothecary. Contrary to popular opinion, bleeding is not a good way to relieve the fever. All they’d do is cut her open and stick leeches on her skin. Maryn knows much more than that.”

“Who is this woman to you that you have such faith in her abilities?” Thadius asked.

“A good friend,” Matthias said with piercing eyes. “Or at least, she was a good friend.” Matthias looked saddened. “We didn’t part in the best of company.”

“Did you try to kidnap her too?” Thadius acerbically.

Matthias smiled mockingly. “Not quite. It’s a long story. One we don’t have time for.”

“But you still think she will help you?” Thadius continued.

“She’s a good woman. Whatever quarrel is still between us, she will help the princess. That much I am sure of.”

Thadius broke off his stare and sighed. “Alright. Let’s get this bloody started then,” he groaned wearily.

Matthias nodded. “Wish me luck. You might want to step back a bit. I’m not sure how this will go.” They took a few paces backward, and when they were at a safe distance, he opened his body to the world and channelled the earth power through it. If Thadius and Luccius could have physically seen the Power Matthias now drew, they would have seen tendrils creeping from the ground like fast growing plants, sliding up through Matthias’ body and into his head, snaking through the air to place themselves on the lock of hair. The hair shone in Matthias’ eyes, as thin wisps of energy that looked like shoots burst from individual strands of the auburn hair and arced back into the ground. He channelled the energy carefully, delicately; connected links where they needed to go. To Luccius and Thadius, he was just crouching on the ground with a look of concentration on his face. They sat and waited patiently.

The multi – coloured rainbow of strands sunk into the soil, spread across the land like tendrils. Minutes passed, and Matthias began to draw a sweat on his forehead. His shoulders ached and he shook slightly as he kept the flows constant. Across his cheek a thin black vein began to form.

“What’s happening?” Thadius asked, sitting forward.

“It’s alright,” Luccius said, placing a hand on his chest and stopping him. “It’s a sign of exhaustion. Did you not see it on him the Mountain pass?”

Thadius shook his head. “It was dark. And I was somewhat indisposed, if you remember? But I recall now come to think of it… yes. He had the veins on his face then as well.”

Luccius nodded. “It’s a side effect of focusing the earth power for too long, or too much. The longer he goes on using the power, the more of those veins will emerge. Eventually his body will get to a point where he will either have to yield the energy or he will pass out. There’s only so much you can pull through you I’m told. In my mind, I see it as a little bit like having lightning surging through your body. Soon or later, you will burn up. Of course I have no idea really.”

“But you can feel the energy?” Thadius asked. “You have some kind of senses that can pick up on what he is doing?”

“It’s like the sensation before a storm. The hairs on the back of the neck stand up when someone channels energy.”

“What do you feel now?” the knight asked.

“That Matthias is channelling a lot of power,” he replied.

Thadius stared as another vein began to rupture from Matthias’ skin across his brow. “The veins all vanish when he stops using it?”

“After a while. Though Matthias once told me that if a wizard tries to draw too much power at one time, it could burn them out completely. The veins become scars and they damage their ability to wield the power forever. Like sticking a piece of wood in a flame for too long. Eventually it will turn to ash.”

Behind them Josephine whimpered, and her eyes flickered. She looked in pain. Thadius turned and placed a hand on her cheek. “It’s alright princess,” he whispered, and delicately poured more water into her mouth. “We’re nearly out of water,” he said. “There’s barely half a canister left.”

“We have to find a town sooner or later,” Luccius replied.

“By which time we will all be as parched as this dust!” he ran his fingers through the earth. Luccius reached into his bag and pulled out a small, silver phial about the size of a thumb. “What is that?” Thadius asked.

“We call it ‘Beria’ in ansuwan,” he said, and undid the cork wedged deep in the object. “I have saved it for an emergency. I would say this is emergency enough.” He took a sip and passed it to Thadius. “You won’t need much.”

The man took the phial and sniffed at its contents. “It smells disgusting!” he exclaimed. “What’s in it?”

“Wormwood flowers, fennel, aniseed, and a fruit from the S’aal called chisbeth.” He smiled. “Best pick me up I’ve ever had.”

Thadius stared at it a moment, and then, shrugging, took a sip. “It feels like my tongue has been set on fire!” he exclaimed, handing it back.

“Give it five minutes and you’ll feel as if you could run for miles,” Luccius replied with a smile.

“Perhaps we should give it to Josephine,” Thadius said.

“If only it were that simple,” Luccius replied. He looked back at Matthias. “If it was he wouldn’t be trying so hard.”

“You’ve known Matthias a long time, haven’t you?” Thadius asked the ansuwan.

“Longer than any other man, save my own kin,” Luccius replied. “Why do you ask?”

Thadius shook his head. “A man who tries to kidnap one of the family you have pledged to protect is not a man one should trust,” Thadius said soberly. “He has lied several times about his motives and his actions. But… he has convinced me somehow that we are doing the right thing. And he gave me this,” he said, and pulled down his shirt a little so the emblem of Mahalia became visible across his chest.

Luccius nodded. “That’s worth a lot to a wizard. To most it means more than family.”

Thadius covered the medallion up again. “You are a man who I see is honest and true. So tell me, Luccius, is he truly a good man?”

Luccius smiled. “My good knight, he is the best of men you could hope for as an ally in this dark and dangerous world. None of us can claim to be truly pure of blood.” He shifted his position. “He was trying to do what was right, Thadius. Kidnapping her wasn’t the best way to earn anyone’s trust, and neither was lying about what he was doing, but whatever the methods he has employed, he saved the princess, that much is certain.” Thadius nodded.

Matthias stared at the lock of hair with determination. Or it could have been desperation. Right now, he wasn’t quite sure. It had been a long time since he was taught this, and he had only practiced, in his training, to find a pigeon hidden a floor up from his classroom. Maryn’s image flickered in front of his vision: her glossy, long auburn hair and those dazzling blue eyes of hers. His nose seemed alive with her scent, her perfume, and his heart – beat with the image of her face: her porcelain skin, her pale lips. His stomach fluttered despite his best attempts to stop himself. It had been a long time since he had allowed himself to think about her in such detail. Usually such thoughts ended with a numbing in his chest: a sucking, vacuous black hole in the pit of his stomach. Maryn considered him a traitor to her and she vowed to kill him if she ever even set eyes on him again. He hoped that was said in the heat of the moment.

He forced more of the power through himself, funnelled it down through the lock and map until he was grunting with the strain of it all. Smoke began to rise from it, and the smell of burnt hair filled the air.

“Come on,” he growled. “I know you’re here somewhere!”

“Matthias, be careful,” Luccius called to him. “Don’t hurt yourself.”

“I need to find her!” Matthias panted. “Josephine is depending on me!”

He pushed more power through the earth as his face began to pale and more veins snaked across his face. He closed his eyes and pulled everything he could through him, until he felt like the world was spinning away from him and his body would burst into pieces. Maryn’s voice echoed in his mind. Was it just a memory? Or was he hearing her through the world? She was talking about… fennel – weed and… milk of the poppy? He couldn’t recall ever talking to her about either of those. The image of a house flickered and then melted away, only to be replaced by Maryn’s face again, as clear as if she were stranding in front of him.

He opened his eyes as he heard a gasp from Thadius, and stared down at the map. The lock of hair was on fire. Above it, a glowing star-like object shimmered. It remained where it was for a moment, and then it was moving, back and forth to all areas of the map, spinning around as if possessed, its white light sparking and pulsing until it rested above the map, towards the centre of Olindian territory, and stopped. “There we go!” Luccius breathed. “You did it Matthias! That must be where she is!”

Matthias exhaled heavily, and fell back. He let the power go, and Luccius reached forward and threw his coat over the burning hair, putting out the flame.

“I could hear her,” Matthias whispered. “It wasn’t just a memory.”

Thadius pulled Luccius’s coat from the map. “You burnt your keepsake,” he said, picking up what remained of the lock of hair and passed it back to Matthias. He took it and reviewed the damage. Thadius squinted as he studied the map. “Where exactly did the light shine above?” he asked.

“By the looks of it, it was not too far from here,” Luccius replied. “I think it was above this area,” he indicated.

Thadius tutted. “There must be at least a dozen towns in that area! How do we know which one she’s in?”

Matthias grimaced. “I should have waited, seen if I could have narrowed it down.”

“It’s a clump of hair and a ball of light!” Thadius exclaimed. “How specific could it get? I’m amazed anything happened at all!”

Matthias smiled. “That almost sounded like some kind of admiration.”

The knight stifled a grin, but his eyes gave away his mood. “I would not go that far,” he said.

“You couldn’t have carried on for much longer anyway, by the looks of you,” Luccius added.

Matthias leaned over the map. He studied the place names, squinting. Finally, he pointed to a town.

“Kardak Tavna,” he whispered.

“Sounds familiar?” Luccius asked.

Matthias nodded. “Perhaps.” He shook his head. “I’m not certain, but it… feels right.”

“It has to be worth a try,” Luccius said. “Doesn’t it?”

“It’s all we have to go on,” Matthias said. “All the chance Josephine has. If Maryn isn’t there, we don’t any more time to find her.” Matthias swallowed.

Thadius rose to his feet. “Come on then,” he said. “Let’s get going. I’d say it’s a good days or two’s walk from here to that village. Not to mention we are all exhausted.”

Matthias packed up his map and Thadius took Josephine in his arms again. The wizard watched her sadly as she flopped to rest on his arm again. Her hair, once glistening and golden, had turned a silvery-grey.

“Hold on Josephine,” he whispered. “Please. Hold on for me.”

Playing for Time

130th Day of the Cycle, 495 N.E. (New Era)

 

King Arwell re – read the scroll that he held tightly between his hands for the fifth time. Captain Tiberius read over his shoulder.

“You are sure it is from her?” he asked.

“It’s definitely her writing and I recognise the tone of my daughter’s voice even in ink. It is her. I’m certain.”

“There is the possibility she wrote this under duress,” the captain suggested.

The king smiled and laughed under his breath. “You have never gotten to know my daughter very well, have you captain?” he said. “You have more chance of dressing a pig in a jester’s robes than making her do anything she wouldn’t want to do. She would rather die.” He cast the note aside. “No, this is from her and that means she is alive and well.”

“Then this is good news,” Tiberius remarked.

“But she is still being followed,” Arwell added. “By Fenzar and the gods’ know who else!”

“I received word today on Lord Fenzar and his progress through our land. Lord Robert informed me he and his other wizard companions requested the use of his household for the night. That would put them a week away from Gormal if he leaves tomorrow.”

“Lord Fenzar doesn’t know the meaning of haste, especially when he has a glass of brandy in his hand,” Arwell sniffed. “Dragon or not, he is an arrogant, selfish man. Perhaps Lord Robert’s home comforts will delay him yet further.”

“If, as you said, your grace, the Mahalian Council believes they can stop the people behind the dragon’s release, then he may not be worried about the dragon, but more about your daughter. This respite might mean he doesn’t see her as a threat? Perhaps he is confident she can be brought to heel easily.”

“I have given up on understanding the motives of wizards,” Arwell sighed. “One moment Fenzar tells me my daughter is the greatest of dangers to this world, and the next he takes up residence with one of my nobles for a sojourn!” He shook his head. “Did Lord Robert say anything else in his message?”

“Nothing of import. However, in my return message, which I sent this morning, I also informed him that we believed your daughter was heading for West Riding. Knowing the man as I do, I would imagine this information will find itself easily into the hands of Fenzar.”

“That man has a mouth as big as an estuary,” Arwell scoffed. “Robert has most likely already spilt the beans. He is a self – satisfying, ambitious man.”

Tiberius smiled. “I’m hoping that my misinformation will draw Lord Fenzar down the wrong road for at least another few days.”

“Why I let Robert remain in such a position… I must be growing soft in my old age.”

“He was of help in securing the North from rebellion all those years ago. But after these events are over, it may be that Lord Robert will outlive his usefulness?”

Arwell smiled. “Perhaps, my old friend. We shall see where the wind blows.” He shook his head. “But we can’t assume Fenzar will fall for your ploy. As pompous as he is, he isn’t stupid.”

“Assuming this Matthias Greenwald keeps up the pace he appears to have so far, then Princess Josephine should keep ahead of them in spite of my redirections and reach Crystal Ember before they can be caught. The question is, what happens when Fenzar makes it there as well?”

Arwell nodded thoughtfully. “Regent Caldur has no love of Mahalia. And he has one thing we do not: leverage against them. He would see Josephine is safe and returned to us, or else he will harbour her in the city until an agreement can be reached with the wizards. That much I am certain of.”

Tiberius nodded. “Then perhaps then the Regent can buy us time.” He paced the room, tucking his thumbs into his belt. “I will gather some of my men and arrange for them to leave with me at first light tomorrow for Olindia. Dragon or not, you will need me there to defend your daughter and negotiate her release from Mahalia’s grip.”

Arwell placed a thumb and forefinger to the bridge of his nose. “My head swims with the twists and turns of it all. How I long for days when an enemy would simply lob a few boulders at you. All this scheming! Mahalian wizards against their own, some seemingly intending to help me, and the others seeking to tighten their grip on my kingdom.” He shook his head. “There has to be a way to convince Mahalia as a whole as to Josephine’s innocence. She could never be a threat to them. Not my Josephine!”

“Mahalia will only be cowed by a strong hand. They have grown too powerful. Perhaps the time has come, your grace, that we show them our resolve on the matter? That we will not be bullied by them!”

Arwell spluttered with laughter. “You suggest I wage a war against the wizards? Believe me, Rylin, it would give me no greater pleasure at this moment. But to do so would be certain death! Do you know what happened to the last King of Rina to question Mahalia in such a way? Before my ancestors succeeded to the throne?” When Tiberius shook his head, Arwell continued. “Let’s just say that Mahalia made sure that he would never be able to produce an heir with the twisted assets he left him! Then they installed my great, great, great grandfather on the throne, because they knew he would cooperate with them. And so they have left Aralia alone since, as long as we continue to comply.” The king paced to the window, and looked out upon the fields below. “We have had a leash tied around our necks for centuries, and it has only grown tighter.” He shook his head. “It is a collar I have tried subtly to break free of for decades, without success.” He sighed. “But I know one thing for certain. War is not the way of freeing ourselves from its bonds. No, if we are going to find a way out of this, it must be by using diplomacy.”

Tiberius walked up to him and chuckled. “I remember a king that fought off the advances of the Aslemerian Empire with a steely resolve. That brought thousands of the foreign dogs to their knees!”

Arwell snorted. “Many years ago now, when I was a foolish young man,” he retorted. “Before I knew the consequences of taking risks with peoples’ lives. I welcome your advice, my old friend, but were you to know the burden that sits upon my shoulders you would not so readily call for war.” He patted the man on the shoulder. “There must be a way to preserve the peace and save my daughter. Every man has a price and the wizards are no exception.”

Tiberius nodded. “If you say so, Your Grace. I will support you in any direction you will take.”

Arwell smiled. “My most trusted friend. Where would I be without your help?”

“With your head on a spike, if your enemies would have their way!” the man chuckled.

Arwell nodded. “Thankfully, we live in more stable times. Domestically, at least. Now, you must prepare to travel to Olindia. Take… Samuel Clover with you,” he instructed. “He is a skilled negotiator. If anyone can broker a truce with Mahalia, it will be him.” He clenched his hands. “Perhaps I should come with you,” he mused.

“Joseph, you said yourself even your daughter advised against leaving Rina. The truth is we do not know if Josephine will succeed in bringing this dragon to heel. If all this madness is true, then your place is here, defending your realm. Let me deal with Fenzar.” He smiled. “Who knows, if this young wizard has taught Josephine enough, then she may very well be able to deal with him herself.”

Arwell smiled. “That would be a sight I would like to see. And then perhaps we can free ourselves from Mahalian interference, once and for all.”

Maryn

132nd Day of the Cycle, 495 N.E. (New Era)

 

The light of a dozen or so candles bounced about the walls of the whitewashed little house in which Maryn lived and cast out the dark and dankness of the dreary day outside. Rain beat the windows with a regular tapping, falling in waves upon the red tiled roof. The sky outside was pale and grey, but light enough to provide some natural illumination.

Maryn poured a bubbling concoction from the steaming pewter carafe into a tall, china mug. The scent of peppermint and other mixed herbs filled the room. Delicately she set aside the jug, took the cup in both hands and sipped gratefully at its contents, drawing in the mint aroma with a sigh- refreshing. Idly she moved to the kitchen window and watched the raindrops slide in randomized movements down the distorted glass. She actually quite liked days like this, being inside the house in the warm, with the candles glowing, safe from the torrent outside. The heavens hadn’t let loose on the world this much in many weeks. In a place as cold and wet as Olindia could be, at least this far in land, it was no mean feat they had made it this long without a downpour. It was good for the herbs, she told herself, and contented herself to tending the little shop. There wasn’t really much else to do on a day like this. No one had been in to her shop all day, which was no surprise, really. She wouldn’t set a toe outside in this, let alone a foot!

Her reflection caught in the window and she studied herself momentarily. It had been a while since she had contemplated something as simple as her own face: a mirror was a luxury she had abandoned a long time ago as well as the vanity that required such things. In spite of that, she found herself staring at the ghostly figure in front of her.

“You are growing old,” she whispered to herself dryly, and pawed at her cheek with a hand. Her eyes were drawn from lack of sleep. She had been plagued by bad dreams and it showed. In truth, she looked for all intents and purposes to be no older than a woman in perhaps her thirtieth year. But she could see through that thin veneer to the person beyond. With using the earth power came the added benefit of delayed ageing. She had looked young for many more years than she deserved to, by human standards at least. But now, as with all who wielded such power, time was catching up with her. The more her body grew used to the energy as the years went by, the more her body began to age again. Still, eighty was not a bad age by any means for this all to happen, she supposed. She was lucky to have survived at all given everything she had lived through.

She drew herself out of her daydreams as there was at a knock at the door. With a tut, remembering she had fastened the shop’s door shut against the relentless wind, she set down the drink and wandered through, out of the kitchen and into the hallway. The knock came again as she pushed a red curtain aside and made her way through to the shop front.

“Just a minute!” she called. The knock came again. “I said-” she unfastened the lock and threw open the door. Her heart jumped into her throat as she stared at the man beyond the doorway.

“Matthias!” She exclaimed and took a step back. Her eyes flared bright blue as she stared at the sopping wet wizard, his hair pasted to his forehead, raindrops sidling down his face. She looked quickly, panicked, to the people behind him. “Luccius?” she acknowledged. The ansuwan nodded to her.

“ Can I- that is to say, can we- come in?” Matthias asked. “We need your help.” He shook his head. “I swear I’m not here to hurt you Maryn.”

Stunned and still in shock, she nodded. “O… of course,” she said, and her eyes faded back to their natural colour. She stepped aside to let them through, tidying her hair and brushing her skirt. When they were all inside and dripping on her clean wooden floor, she closed the door.

“Matthias what are you doing here? What…” She stopped, her gaze drawn to the girl in the soldier’s arms. Her eyes opened like saucers. “Oh my gods. It’s Princess Josephine!” She swallowed and raised a hand to her mouth.

Matthias looked to Maryn with confusion “How do you kn-” then, realization dawned on him. “It was you! You were the wise woman who helped her contain her power!” He wiped the water from his nose. “I should have known!”

Maryn shook her head. “What’s happened to her? How did you find me?” She asked. “What are you even doing with her?”

“Please, Maryn, I will tell you everything later. I promise! I will explain, but first, please,” he begged, “you have to help her.”

She swallowed, and nodded. “Of course.” She reached out and felt Josephine’s forehead, and then drew her hand back with a hiss.

“What is it?” Thadius barked. Maryn’s eyes were wide, her brow creased.

“What kind of power did this?” she asked, turning to Matthias.

“She was infected by a necromancer,” Matthias answered.

“That isn’t possible! There aren’t any necromancers! Not any more!”

“I assure you Maryn, there is at least one. I’ll tell you how and why when I can. But all of it can wait.”

“Can you help her?” Thadius asked imploringly.

Maryn shook her head and tapped her lip with a finger. “There’s the problem of filtering out whatever is causing-”

Answer him!” Can you help?” Matthias repeated fiercely in desperation. She caught his eye for a moment, and her brow creased. She looked from him to the girl. “Yes. Possibly. Probably. But it will not be easy. I’ve never seen this level of petrifaction.” She took a breath and steadied herself. “You,” she looked at Thadius. “Bring the princess in here. Follow me. Quickly!” She beckoned them into the kitchen, where she grasped the mug and the rest of the clutter on the table and gathered them to one side. “Place her here. How long has she been like this?” she asked as she raced back into the shop.

“About four days now, nearly five,” said Luccius.

“That long? It is a wonder she isn’t dead already!” Maryn bellowed through the hallway. She shuffled back in with a cluster of jars and square pots cradled in her arms, and dumped them all by Josephine’s side. “This is a very nasty strain. Very nasty,” she muttered as she dashed about the kitchen. “I’ve seen things like it before, but never as vicious as this. I can feel the dark energy infused in the poison, even by touch. Pestle and mortar, third cupboard to the right,” she instructed, pointing. Luccius dove into action and began rummaging around the cupboards. “It’s an insidious infection,” she said as Luccius handed her the bowl. “It won’t just be attacking her body, but her mind as well.”

“Her mind?” Thadius repeated. “How can it do that?”

“A part of the infector is left behind. It infests the mind like a parasite and feeds off her soul. For her to have survived so long shows just how strong this girl is. And I should know, because I taught her how to be!”

“How can you fight something that attacks your soul?” Luccius asked.

“The mind is the key to its potency. It takes over your thoughts and dreams and then shuts down the body piece by piece when it has completed its work.” She looked up. “A Necromancer, Matthias?”

“That’s right,” he whispered.

“I don’t suppose you’re going to tell me just how a Necromancer has come to walk this world again?”

“Not right now, Maryn, if it’s all the same to you.”

“No, I thought not. Well, however they have, the energy they have used is twisted and nasty. This might not take. Not very easily anyway, but it will give her a fighting chance at the very least. Grind up this.” She handed a chunk of something to Luccius, who held the pestle and mortar clasped in his hands. “Nice to see you again, by the way, Luccius,” she acknowledged as she poured a thick red fluid into a glass, and her brow creased up. “What exactly has happened to your face?”

“I’d rather not talk about it,” he muttered.

“I see. Well I will see what I can do about that once we are finished here. Give it some more oomph man, you’re not going to even dent it the way you’re going!” She brushed a wisp of hair from her face. “It is lucky you brought her to me. I doubt very much anyone else would be able to help her with this.”

“Most other people who practice medicine don’t have the knowledge you do.” Matthias replied.

She held up a finger. “You’re not going to worm your way into my good books by flattery wizard.” She shook her head. “Do you think I can just forget everything?”

“I rather hoped you had,” Matthias said sombrely. “It has been a long time.”

She frowned. “They say time heals old wounds, but this one between us Matthias has become infected and gangrenous. If I could have forgotten what happened I would have, but it is rather engrained on my memory!”

Matthias nodded. “I know. I understand that. I’ve tried to keep an eye on you all these years, find out where you’ve been.”

Maryn shook her head. “I knew it was you. All those wards I put up to stop the Council from finding me again and still someone found a way through them. It had to be you!”

“You found a way to block me recently though,” he commented.

“A new kind of ward I had never thought of trying before,” she advised.

“That explains why I lost track of you,” he replied.

“Yes, and it should have stayed that way! How did you track me down this time?”

“The ‘Ricat Demora’,” Matthias advised. “The lock of hair you gave me…”

“You still carry that around with you?” she asked, surprised.

“You never know when these things may come in useful,” Matthias replied. “I used so much of the power trying the incantation, I almost burnt myself out.”

“Well, lucky for Princess Josephine you did not. Ah!” she exclaimed. “That would also explain the bad dreams I have been having! You’ve caused me sleepless nights! An effect of the echo you pulled from me!” She shook her head. “Luccius have you finished grinding that filium ore?”

“I think so. Is it meant to be…” he paused.

“Meant to be what?” Maryn snapped back.

“Yellow inside?”

“Oh hell!” she cursed. Picking up the pestle, she showered its contents across the floor, and rooted through the contents of a cupboard behind her before she produced another lump of the ore. “Try this one. It should be white inside. The person I bought these off swore to me they were a pure strain! I’ll hang him by his ankles! This is the last time he cons me out of my money!”

Luccius ground up the new lump quickly. “Is this alright?”

“Oh yes, that’s normal. Much better. Pass it here,” she panted, sweating with the rush. He handed over the powder, and she scooped it out and added it to the fluid in the glass. To that she dropped various other herbs and what looked like metal filings, and then placed the glass onto a small stand. “Flame please, Matthias,” she instructed. “You can make yourself useful as well!”

“What? Oh, right.” A small flame materialised, hovering under the stand.

“I want an explanation Matthias! Barging into my shop, my home as wet as a fish. After such a long time and everything that’s happened! And with Josephine, of all people!”

“You’ll get one! I promised, didn’t I?” he snapped.

“Bloody quests,” Maryn grunted, throwing leaves and herbs about the place. “It always starts with a quest! Before you know it, you’re in over your head. Bloody Mahalia and their bloody endless quests!”

“Quests? What quests?” asked Thadius among the barrage of conversations unfolding in front of him.

“You’re a fine one to be talking about quests, Maryn!” Matthias retorted.

“And what’s that supposed to mean?” She answered back, inspecting a green-looking gemstone, before plopping it into the mixture.

“You know exactly what I mean!” He continued. “You dragged me into trouble!”

“You didn’t have to follow me!” she rebuffed. She added some more powder and dusted her hands off. “We’ll let that heat for five minutes and then we will see what good it does.” She pressed a hand to Josephine’s cheek. “Poor girl. You didn’t deserve to get caught up in any more trouble.”

“What quests?” Thadius growled, face reddening again.

“I see you are another unsuspecting victim of Mahalia’s plots and schemes? I’m sorry I don’t know your name?” Maryn asked.

“Thadius,” the knight replied. She nodded.

“The quests I speak of Thadius are the ones Mahalia sends its people on that so often involve death and turmoil to all involved!”

Thadius nodded. “Yes, we have seen first hand how Mahalia operates,” he said.

Matthias shook his head. “Not everyone in Mahalia is like that,” he said. “There are movements now that have started up to help women.”

“Small rumblings from a group of people with less backbone than a snake! Heaven forbid a woman could be seen as just as capable as a man in such matters!” she sniffed.

“For the love of the gods you two!” Luccius intervened. “I don’t think now is the time for another argument! Josephine needs our full attention!” He shook his head and his ears waggled anxiously. “Maryn, what Mahalia did to you happened long ago. You know Matthias never agreed with what they did. Why else would he have-”

Luccius!” Matthias hissed.

He swallowed. “Sorry. But can we all just set aside the past for a moment and concentrate on Josephine’s future?”

Maryn gaped, her porcelain white skin flushing crimson in her cheeks. “Yes. You’re quite right Luccius,” She ran her hands through her hair, and shifted it into some semblance of order again. She took a breath. “I just… I never expected to see you again,” she said. “And here you are…”

Matthias smiled thinly. “I know. I’m sorry. But Josephine needed you. I had to find you. And I knew you could help.”

She nodded. “It’s alright. Now, let’s see how this is doing.” She went over to the beaker, picked up a spoon, and prodded the mixture. The liquid had grown as thick as tar, and smelt even less pleasant. It bubbled away with a gloop as she picked the beaker up using a towel, and poured it into a china bowl. “Very good,” she said, before she picked up another handful of crystals from a wicker box. “Stand back. Unless you want singed eyebrows?” She dropped them into the mix and withdrew her hand quickly, as a flame burst from the bowl with a poof. It continued to burn, a mixture of orange-blue flames, until after a minute had passed all that was left in the bowl was a grey, powdery substance. “It is done,” she said, waving away the smoke that curled up to the ceiling.

“What… is it?” Thadius asked, leaning forward to look into the bowl.

“It’s a combination of filium ore, emerald stone and a few other liquids and herbs put in for good measure. An old antidote with a twist of my own devising. Normally I would have had her swallow the mixture, as its potency would be much greater. But since she is in no state to drink the potion I have turned it into a dissolvable powder. We can place it on and under her tongue and it will absorb into the body.

“We gave her water,” Thadius said. “She seemed to swallow that down OK.”

“Then you are lucky she didn’t choke,” she scolded. “Men! Do you not ever think?

Thadius grumbled and shook his head. “This all sounds like witchcraft! ‘Emerald dust?’” he repeated. Matthias visibly winced at the comment and Maryn’s eyes flared.

“I will let the comment pass, soldier, since I know you are not aware of how much of an insult I take that term to be!” She drew herself up high; her eyes were only just level with Thadius’s chin, but her very presence seemed to shrink the knight’s stature. “My reputation as a healer was what convinced King Arwell to contact me for help in the first place all those years ago now. So, I would think my expertise would be proven, hmm? So unless you have any other ideas of how we can help this young girl, I suggest you keep your narrow – minded attitude to yourself!” She placed her hands on her hips and glared. Thadius swallowed and then, awkwardly, he nodded his head.

“Very well. Do what you need to,” he said.

Maryn nodded. “I have done all I need to do,” she said and indicated to the powder “Now we just need to administer it. So who will do the honours?”

Matthias stepped forward “I’ll do it. It should be me.” Maryn turned and thrust the bowl into his hands.

“It smells worse than poison,” Thadius whispered to him, trying to remain out of earshot.

“I don’t think the princess is worried so much about the smell,” Matthias replied. Maryn stared at them both with fiery eyes. She had clearly heard.

“She’s a formidable woman,” Thadius said even quieter still.

“Tell me about it,” the wizard smiled. “What do I do?” he asked, raising his voice so Maryn could hear.

“Take some of the mixture and simply place it on her tongue. And let nature do the rest.”

Matthias nodded. He reached into the bowl and with two fingers, scooped some of the mixture onto his hand. Then he stepped around the others, so he was at Josephine’s side, and bent over her.

“You’d best wake up soon Josephine so you can chastise me for doing this,” he breathed quietly to her, as he lifted her head forward and gently grazed her lips, depositing the powder on to her tongue. He repeated the process until Maryn intervened.

“That should be enough,” she said, and slipped in front of Matthias, inspecting Josephine.

“Checking my handiwork?” Matthias asked.

“You men can be awfully clumsy at times,” she retorted, as she watched the powder fizz in Josephine’s mouth and slowly dissolve, disappearing. “But in this case you’ve done well,” she said approvingly. “It’s with the gods now, I’m afraid, and Josephine to fight this off with the help we have given her.”

“What do we do now?” Thadius asked.

“We wait. If I have done my job correctly, then the potion will loosen the hold the petrification has taken on her. But with an incantation made with the tainted energy…” she shook her head. “Have no illusion that this will be a happy ending. The odds are against her. Poor girl,” she said, and touched her forehead. “After everything you’ve been through…”

“Thank you,” said Matthias sadly, staring at the princess.

“Oh come on,” she said, shaking her head. “We will accomplish nothing standing over her like this. I think you and I need to exorcise some demons, don’t you?” She said to Matthias. He nodded. “Thadius, make yourself useful and take Josephine upstairs and lay her on my bed. Luccius, can you boil some water? There’s tea in a jar by the windowsill,” she instructed. He nodded. “You’ll also find a salve made of jimson weed and priory thorn in the cupboard to your left. It should reduce the boils on your face and…” she looked down “-wherever else they have appeared. Reapply it every hour until I say otherwise.”

Luccius smiled. “It’s good to see you again Maryn.”

She smiled. “As much as I hate to admit it… it’s good to see you again as well.” She looked from the ansuwan to Matthias. “Come along, let’s sit down.”

Maryn took Matthias into her small living room just off from the kitchen. Two wicker chairs sat by a window with a side table positioned by them. A hearth lay dormant to their side. Not much else decorated the room, save for several clusters of wildflowers in vases. They sat down and Maryn pulled her chair closer so that she could talk to him properly.

“You have a nice life here, it seems,” Matthias complimented. She smiled.

“It’s only small, but its home. More of a home that I have had in quite a long time. So,” she said, patting the arms of her chair. “Are you going to actually tell me what’s going on, or do I have to squeeze it out of you? I can, you know.”

Matthias smiled weakly. “I know you can.” He took a deep breath. “From the beginning?”

Maryn nodded. “The beginning. I know what Josephine is, obviously. But what I really want to know is, what all of this has to do with you?

So Matthias told her, from the Council’s decision to retrieve Josephine, to Master Pym ordering him on his own mission, to his arrival in Rina, trying to kidnap the princess and all the events of their journey right up to the present. Several hours passed before the story was finished.

“I don’t know how you always manage to get yourself into these messes Matthias,” Maryn sighed.

“These things just have a habit of happening to me,” he replied.

“So you have allied yourself with men willing to defy the Consensus of the Council?” She shook her head. “I would be pleased, if I thought they could do anything to turn the tide in Mahalia. But this will bring you nothing but trouble, Matthias.”

“I’ve been in trouble before. It’s Josephine I am sorry for. One way or another her life will never be the same again. And I’m responsible.”

“She would be trussed up like a turkey and on her way back to Mahalia without you!” Maryn exclaimed.

“And instead she’s lying upstairs, poisoned,” he rebuffed.

“Self pity doesn’t suit you Matthias,” she said, and leaned forward to finish her drink. “I see you took all of five minutes undoing all my hard work with the princess,” she commented. “The wards we worked on have completely evaporated.”

“They were only a temporary fix,” Matthias said. “They were ripped apart by the sorcerers as soon as they knew about her. She has to learn how to use them, not run away from them.”

“Are you saying that’s what I did?” she snapped. Matthias said nothing, simply looked to the ground. She sighed. “We have certainly started again from where we left off, haven’t we?”

“It seems that way. And I really don’t have the energy for an argument.” Matthias replied.

“I know you weren’t responsible for what happened. And I know what you did saved my life,” Maryn sighed. “But you led them right to me. That was something that broke my heart!”

Matthias nodded glumly. “That’s a decision I regret every day. Perhaps I could have refused, found some way of defying the Council’s orders. But at the time I couldn’t see any way out of it. And then afterwards… sometimes I wish I had forced you to take me with you. There have been times since I have wondered if that was the biggest mistake I have ever made.”

They were silent a moment, but then Maryn continued. “It wasn’t written. The gods took you down a different path and here you are now, making a difference to someone’s life and doing some good.” She offered a hand. “Perhaps we never will see completely eye to eye on the past. But given the circumstances, perhaps we can broker a truce?”

Matthias took her hand and shook it without hesitation. “Agreed,” he said. Then, after a pause, he let go, and sank back, rocking in his chair, watching Maryn silently.

“What is it?” she asked him.

“You still look exactly the same as you always did.”

She chortled. “Now I know you’re lying!” she sipped at her delicate china cup. “Just before you arrived I thought to myself how the power is losing its grip on my skin. I’m starting to feel time beginning to catch up with me.” She nodded. “As it should be. One cannot live forever, after all.”

“Speak for yourself,” Matthias chuckled and finished his tea, placing the cup back on to the small table between them.

“You look well enough, despite coming in here soaked to the skin,” Maryn said. Then she peered a little closer. “But it’s happening to you as well. Your eyes are older.”

“And wiser?” he ventured.

That remains to be seen,” she shot back.

Matthias’s smile fell a little. “I have felt a watchful eye over my shoulder all the more these past few years,” he said. “Time loads a lot onto our shoulders as the ages pass. Even more since I have been travelling with the princess, I have felt time stalking me. She is so young and I am so old in comparison.”

“You give yourself little credit as always,” she said softly. “That you have grown older is no bad thing. How else can one gain experience? You want to change the world and lead Mahalia into the future with these other wizards? Then you need the wisdom that comes with age to do so.” Her face grew sad. “The outcome of all you have told me could change the world. Thousands of people will live or die depending on the decisions made in the coming weeks. Depending on what you do.”

Matthias nodded. “I know.” He shook his head, and stared out the window. The rain had abated a little and sunlight was peeking its way through the thick cloud.

“Do you love her?” Maryn asked suddenly.

He looked up at her, wide eyed, shocked by the suddenness of the question. “You have always been abrupt, Maryn, but that is another level entirely.”

She smiled. “You do then,” she nodded.

After a moments pause, he answered. “I care about her a lot,” he began. “She is unlike any person I have ever met before.” Then he started to laugh. “I know what you’re thinking. Stupid old fool, falling in love with a human.”

“You’re not so old as to never fall in love again,” Maryn replied softly. “And who can dictate who we will fall for?”

“I’ve seen too much,” he said sharply.

“What does that have to do with anything?” she asked.

“It has everything to do with it. Josephine is young, innocent and uncoloured by the madness of this world.” Matthias sighed. “I have hurt people, Maryn. You know what I’ve done. Destroyed the lives of people who never deserved such a fate. On top of all that, I have helped to bring about revolutions and topple rulers as part of Mahalia.” He shook his head. “I would bring her nothing but pain. Just as I did to you.”

“Pain may wait for that girl whether you are the one to cause it or not,” she replied. “Is it not better to face it with someone who knows the truth of the world?”

Matthias looked at her a moment, then shook his head. “I feel uncomfortable talking about such things with you,” he said.

“You think it improper to speak of such things with one who knows you so well? Who else can you talk to like this? Not even Luccius knows you as I do,” she replied.

“I don’t want to hurt you,” Matthias said.

Maryn smiled. “You assume that I have been alone all this time?” she asked, and he looked up at the wry grin on her face. She shook her head. “There was a time when I cried over such things as the lost love of youth. But trust me when I say, Matthias, you will not hurt me in discussing this aspect of your life.”

Matthias nodded. “Then I have run out of excuses not to talk about it, it seems.”

Maryn shook her head. “Well, if you truly do not want to discuss it, I will not press you on it further.” She leaned forward, “But one piece of advice I will give you. Do not let fear hold you back, or else you will regret it the rest of your life. And if you plan on living forever, that could be a long time.” She smiled.

He nodded to her and smiled back. “I’ve missed talking to you. You always were good at helping me see clearly. I’m not nearly as good at it as I like to think.” Maryn bowed her head in acknowledgement. “If she doesn’t recover, I’ll never forgive myself,” Matthias added.

“She is strong – willed,” Maryn commented. “When I helped her to suppress her power, she fought against it with a strength like no one I have ever seen. I have never met someone so determined. And infected with poison that strong, she should have been dead within a day at most.” She shifted in her seat. “If she really has been picked by the gods, they might be on her side, helping to keep her here.”

Matthias shook his head. “Well they’re not helping enough,” he said bitterly. “It’s not enough.”

Luccius appeared in the doorway. They both looked up at him earnestly.

“Still no change,” he said sadly.

Maryn rose and patted Matthias on the shoulder. “Why don’t you get some sleep?” she suggested. “There is plenty of room for you all. I will watch the princess for a while.”

Matthias shook his head. “No. I’ll relieve Thadius.”

“You need rest, old man,” Maryn said sternly but with a smile.

“I won’t sleep. Not with Josephine still like this,” he replied. “I couldn’t.”

She smiled. “Stubborn mule as always,” she muttered. “Well then, I’ll make another tea. Gods know we haven’t had enough already.” She left the room.

Luccius sat in her vacant seat. “This ointment is helping a treat,” he said, indicating to his bare arms. “She’s a clever woman, Maryn.”

Matthias nodded. “She is at that.”

“I’m certain the potion will help Josephine. We just have to be patient.”

Matthias smiled. “I’ve never been very good at that,” he quipped.

Luccius nodded. “Did you talk about things?” he asked, taking off his bandana and running a hand across his twisted locks of hair.

“We did,” Matthias replied.

“And?”

“We have called a truce.” He smiled.

Luccius nodded. “Well that is good. If experience tells me anything, it’s that if anyone can hold a grudge for that long, it’s a woman. Better to calm the waters. Make peace.”

Matthias nodded thoughtfully and his sharp eyes studied Luccius. “Wise words, but are they ones you’ll ever follow? Will you ever go back and make peace with your people?”

Luccius’s face grew pensive. “Perhaps. When the time is right. But not now. As much as I miss that place, I can’t go back yet. There’s too much to do.”

“You can’t run forever,” Matthias said bluntly, rising from the chair. “From anything.”

“I can try!” Luccius grinned. “I’ve made it this far, haven’t I?”

“The world seems to have a funny way of ensuring that our past catches up with us again,” Matthias suggested and indicated to his surroundings. “What better proof do you need than my standing here, in a place I never thought I would be, with a person I never thought I’d see again?”

“If the world wants me to go back before I am ready it will have to take me on a leash,” the ansuwan said mockingly.

Matthias smiled thinly and nodded. “I’d best go relieve Thadius,” he said, turning to the door. “If I can prise him away.”

“Matthias,” Luccius said, stopping the wizard in his tracks in the doorway. The wizard turned around to face him again. “What…” He paused. “What do we do if the princess doesn’t wake up?”

“I thought you said you were sure that she would?” Matthias asked.

The ansuwan swallowed. “I am. Sort of.”

Matthias looked at him and nodded. “If she doesn’t, then I’ll take care of it.”

Luccius looked confused, but before he could question any more, Matthias turned and left the room.

A World of Dreams

Day of the Cycle Unknown, 495 N.E. (New Era)

Josephine opened her eyes to the glow of a full, yellow moon set in a jet – black, night sky. She was lying on her back and for a moment it felt like she was paralyzed and unable to move. Her fingers felt gingerly beneath her and found the familiar touch of grass. She grew puzzled.

Where am I? Where are the others? She thought hesitantly.

“Hello?” she called out, but no – one replied. “Matthias? Thadius? Luccius?” There was no answer and so she sat up with effort, her head groggy and heavy and looked around tentatively. She was definitely not in the mountain pass anymore. She looked down at the grass she had felt beneath her. It was a disturbingly dark green, almost black, as if it were infected by something. It stretched out to the horizon; a sickly field of dying plant life that surrounded her in all directions for miles.

Where in the gods am I? Josephine thought. Her memory jogged suddenly. Taico Grimm. She threw a hand to her neck, feeling for where he had dug his nails into her skin. There was no pain and from what she could feel, no cuts. Am I dreaming?

Her ears picked up a whispering voice, vague and distant.

“Is there anyone there?” she called out. Her voice echoed around her, but no one replied. The air tasted strange as well: metallic like iron. Like blood. She shivered, even though she wasn’t cold. There was no heat or chill that she could feel at all – no sense of temperature. It was as if her skin had been dulled.

Everything here seems wrong! Delicately Josephine rose to her feet. Turning this way and that she tried to decide on a direction, straining to hear the voice again. It was gone. Each way she looked nothing differed, and so she picked a path and started walking.

What felt like hours passed; hours of walking across the eternal grassland with no end in sight. Walking began to feel somewhat pointless. Yet there seemed nothing else to do and as she continued she started to feel a pull on her, as if she were being drawn forward by an invisible thread. So she carried on. It was another half – hour at least of walking, when she suddenly felt the wind in her hair. It came from nowhere, but the further forward she walked the stronger it became. It was glorious, a feeling of reality bursting through the endless, lifeless landscape. As she continued on, fighting against the wind, her ears pricked up. There was a new sound in the distance.

What is it? Could it be water?

The wind seemed to grow stronger still, trying to push her backwards and she almost felt as if she could feel hands made of air, grasping at her, forcing her back. But the invisible thread kept her on course, tugging at her, and she stretched out her arms and flailed madly to keep going. She could feel no energy flowing through her, no ability to even grasp the power-however weak she may still be in its use- to help her push through. A bloodcurdling laugh echoed around her in the wind, and her neck grew tight, as if the wind were trying to suffocate her. She panicked and grasped at her throat against the invisible forces. With the blackness of unconsciousness starting to mask her vision, she forced her legs on and managed to take another step. As she did so, the wind seemed to lose its grip. Another step forward and she could breathe properly again. She ran forward as the wind died down, through the grass as fast as she could, and then, as quickly as she had started running, she skidded to a halt and yelped. The land in front of her had disappeared, replaced with thin air. She was standing on the edge of a cliff! The sea swirled below her. She looked behind, expecting to see the expanse of green field where she had come from. There was nothing. The land had disappeared. She looked down at her feet and saw that the grass had been replaced by flagstones, surrounding her in a small circle. What was going on?

The sea thundered against the cliff – face, crashing into jagged rocks beneath her. She didn’t recognise the area, but it made her feel uneasy, as if she wanted to turn and run and not look back. The sea seemed formed, for a moment, into a malevolent face. It howled up at her, a whirlpool of a mouth shrieking its hatred for her presence. She closed her eyes as the face erupted towards her, stretching up the cliff. It was going to swallow her!

There was a sucking sound and then the sounds of the torrent disappeared. She opened her eyes, and was presented with a grand hallway. Enormous pillars of red marble flanked her left and right, stretching outwards toward an archway. The ceiling was immensely high, taller than any building she had ever set foot in. Gold plastered its heady domes on which ornately painted blue beings were wrapped in marble - etched togas, surrounded by silvery clouds. They were unmistakably Akari. She couldn’t help but stare in wonderment. Until recently she had thought them nothing but a myth- an ancient story of people who may have lived well before her time. But now, looking up at those ethereal beings, she almost felt a kinship to them. In a way she was connected to them through the power she held inside her. She may not be an Akari, but someone had chosen to give her their power and so some part of her was like them. They looked divine, gazing down at her from their seat in the heavens, the ones sent by the gods to bring peace to the world. Well, the power certainly hadn’t brought peace to her world. All it had brought her so far was death and sorrow.

She started forward across the room, her gaze still fixed on the fresco, but stopped again as she heard whispers. She ducked behind one of the pillars and tried to listen to where the voices were coming from. They were faint, and they seemed to have no point of origin. It was almost as if… as if they were coming from inside her mind. Which was silly, she reasoned, since she had decided that she was already inside her mind as it was, in some kind a dream. But then, this whole situation was silly. Why could she not wake up? What was happening out there in the waking world? How long had she been dreaming like this?

The voices were pulling her towards the archway in the far wall. She took a step away from the column she had hidden behind, and the whispers babbled in her head, louder this time, overlapping voices. Or was it one voice? Another few steps and the whispers became clearer. Someone was repeating her name, over and over again. They were beckoning her to come to them. How did she know that? She could not explain it. But she knew they wanted her to continue.

“Who is there?” she called out, pausing again. The whispers stopped. The only answer she got was her own voice ricocheting through the room. Warily, she glided towards the archway in front of her, and passed into its dark confines. She emerged into a new hallway, divided into two shadowy routes. Which way should she go? Left or right? Each looked identical. The whispering came again, if it could still be called that. It had grown louder and nearly drowned out her thoughts with its intensity. She thought it was coming from the left. Tentatively she padded down the corridor and turned the corner. A doorway welcomed her, with black wooden panels, but there was no bolt, no lock. She pressed on it, expecting it to be stuck fast, but it evaporated at her touch into smoke. A dark spiral staircase wound down to the left. She tutted. More walking! The voice that filled her mind was coming, somehow, from its depths:

“Josephine. Josephine. Josephine. Josephine.” It was never ending.

“Be quiet!” She called down the stairwell. “You are giving me a headache!” The voice continued. She shook her head and descended the stairs.

“I am coming as fast as I can!” she called as the voice continued to chant her name.

Her spine tingled as she continued downwards. Hundreds of steps! How tall this building must be to accommodate such depths!

She stopped as she heard another voice, one that was happily familiar. It was Thadius! But she couldn’t make out what he said. It was muffled: distant. She thought she heard another voice asking with him, but whoever it was, she couldn’t tell.

Thadius!” she cried out. “I’m here! Where are you?” But he didn’t reply. Only the repetition of her name carried on, bouncing around her head incessantly.

She reached the bottom of the stairs. Another door stood between her and the next room. This one instilled fear within her; dried blood smeared the ancient wood, drawing patterns she did not recognise. Gingerly she reached out and touched the door again, pressing it with her fingertips. From where she tapped, smoke began to rise. The wood blackened, and flame sparked into life, eating at the material until the entire door was ablaze. And then it stopped, as the wood turned to ash and collapsed into a smoking pile on the floor beneath her. She stepped beyond the doorway.

The room she emerged into was unlike anything she had ever seen before. A maze of mirrors surrounded her, as tall as the ceiling, reflecting light from unseen sources. Her reflection stared back at her. The voices in her head seemed to bounce of the mirrors in the same way as her own image, and she could hear that they were coming from within the maze.

“Oh well,” she sighed, “here goes.” She walked forward, her own face staring back at her through hundreds of reflective panels, and met with her first fork in the road. She chose the left way, as the voice seemed to her to be stronger that way, and carried on until the path split into three. Whichever way she turned, her own face looked back at her, and the light shone in her eyes.

“Oh Matthias I really wish you were here right now,” she whispered, and then smiled. “Instead of me.” She pressed on. “You would likely have some Mahalian trick to navigate this maze. Whereas I have only my eyes and my ears to guide me. Neither of which is much help right now.”

She stopped as the hairs on the back of her neck prickled and turned swiftly, convinced someone was behind her. The mirrors glared back at her. Swallowing, she continued, picking up the pace around the maze. Something caught her vision in the mirrors: a small, black shape rushing past, and she turned again. Nothing.

“Pull yourself together Josephine!” she whispered. She moved deeper and deeper within the maze. As she stepped forward, another voice permeated the first. She couldn’t hear what it whispered, but something deep within her told her that it came from someone or something evil. Such black and white descriptions were hardly ever appropriate. The world was such a mixture of shades of grey. But in her core, she knew without any doubt that the voice belonged to the darkest soul she had ever encountered. It would kill her if she let it. An instinct told her to run. She began to grow panicked and disorientated. The room spun, faster and faster, and she threw her hands to her ears as the voices continued to cry out her name and the cackling, tormenting voice bombarded her.

Stop it! Stop it please!” she cried, as everything blurred around her. She screamed, and the mirrored glass around her shattered into a million pieces. Instantly she was falling, faster and faster, through darkness that seemed to have no end. She shut her eyes as she waited for the ground to find her and crush her bones. She knew it was a dream, but somehow, she felt that if she were to die here, she would never wake up.

She hit water with massive force and sank, deeper and deeper, bubbles escaping from her mouth. She fought hard to open her eyes against the murky blue – green water that surrounded her and flailed around desperately. Her eye caught an object below her in the depths: light glinting off a large, golden ring embedded into a stone plinth. No, it wasn’t just one golden ring. There were three rings, implanted into the surrounding stone, with symbols engraved all around their circumference. Gasping for air, lungs heaving and her heart pumping, she scrambled towards the surface. Her head broke the water and she drew air into her lungs with a great gasp. Her vision danced with multi-coloured spots. Viciously she hit out with her legs to keep herself afloat and wiped at her eyes with a hand to clear them of water.

“Welcome child”, said a voice behind her.

She spun round towards the owner. Light shone from the figure that stared at her; a beautiful, intoxicating figure, dressed in robed of pure white. She was dazzling. She was an Akari.

 

Visionary

Day of the Cycle Unknown, 495 N.E. (New Era)

 

“You… you’re an Akari!” Josephine exclaimed, staring at the ethereal figure standing above. The creature had pastel blue skin, unblemished, smooth like porcelain. Veins of dark blue ran across her cheeks and speckled her forehead. Her eyes shone like mercury. Behind her back she seemed to have wings, although they flickered in and out of Josephine’s vision and she couldn’t be sure they truly existed or if she were painting them out of her imagination. The Akari wore a white peplos, its cut running diagonally across her neck and chest, leaving her right shoulder bare. An ornamental clasp at her left shoulder held the garment in place, and the tubular cloth hung down to her ankles. A pattern of meandering gold lines in a repeating square pattern ran around her midriff. The creature surveyed her with its unearthly stare. Josephine was in awe at its unusual beauty, but tried to speak. “You have summoned me?” she asked.

The woman shook head from where she stood on the plinth above her. “I did not do this”, she replied and her body flickered. “Though we did try and speak with you before, many times.”

“Then am I… am I dead? Is that what I am doing here? Are you to guide me to the temple of the passing?”

The Akari smiled and tilted her head. Her velvet words fell into Josephine’s head and caressed her mind. “You misunderstand your circumstances child. Though in a way, you are almost correct. But I am not here to take you to the next world.”

“Then… then why am I here?” Josephine asked.

“You are dying”, the Akari said.

“I thought you just said-”

“There is a great difference between dying and being dead, child.” She smiled. “I do not expect you to understand.”

Josephine’s face grew angry. “You patronise me,” she said angrily.

“I speak only truth,” the creature said, apparently ignorant of Josephine’s anger. “How can one so young understand the complexities of life, death and all of creation?” The Akari shook her head. “But this is irrelevant. As I said, you are dying. It has altered your state of being. In doing so, it has allowed us to speak with you at long last.” Her form flickered again and a momentary annoyance registered on her pale face. “Though our link is unstable. I do not know how long we have.”

“How are you speaking to me from beyond the grave?” Josephine asked.

“I am as alive as you, and perhaps a little more”, the Akari said.

Josephine blinked back her surprise. “You are alive? Then where are you? Why did you leave? People barely remember you even existed!”

“We are trapped,” came the response.

“Where?” Josephine asked.

“In a reality beyond your comprehension. But such questions of how and why are not as important as that which must be done.”

“They are important to me! I have so many questions!”

“Then they will have to remain unanswered. For now at least. I have no more time to give you child. I am sorry.”

No!” Josephine cried. “You will talk to me! Tell me why you gave me this power? Of all people, why me? You made me kill my mother!

“We gave you nothing”, the Akari said. “It was always within you.” She smiled. “You are a part of us.” The room rumbled as if an earthquake shook the ground and the Akari looked about herself, concern on her face. “We grow weak, speaking to you in this way. You must stop wasting time! Now, you must listen, for there is much for you to do.”

Josephine shook her head in desperation. “Are you talking about the dragon? You want me to stop it from being released?” she asked. “I am trying! But people keep getting in my way!”

“The beast is irrelevant,” the Akari said.

“How can it be irrelevant? The prophecy… the gods told the wizards that the dragon must be stopped! By me!”

“The beast is one part of a much larger puzzle, child. It is insignificant in light of that which is to come.” She flickered again, her form destabilising dramatically and she looked around pensively. “Something else is here. It is working against us. Against you.”

“Something else? I don’t understand! I-”

“You have to free us!” the Akari said with haste. “Find the gateway to our prison and open the rift! It is the only way that your world can be truly saved. We are the only creatures that can bring peace.”

Josephine swallowed. “How do I do that? Where is this prison?”

“The gateway was hidden and buried. The tainted beings-“ The Akari closed her pale eyelids as another quake shook the room. Rocks from the ceiling above plopped into the water.

“Are you alright?” Josephine asked.

“I am afraid our time is at an end,” she said hurriedly. “You must survive and do what must be done. We must stop Soral!

The Akari gasped as a blade end emerged through her chest. She looked down, surveying the wound, before regarding Josephine with pained eyes. “The four tainted ones will bring forth the Alignment!” she cried. Then she dissolved, shattering into pieces, revealing the rest of the blade behind her figure and Taico Grimm, holding its hilt.

The Council Meets

135th Day of the Cycle, 495 N.E. (New Era)

The circular amphitheatre that housed the Council Chamber of Mahalia stretched on for what to the untrained eye seemed miles. A trick of the earth power made the walls semi – transparent, so that the room was alive with the real view on the outside of the room, which sat at the top of the pyramid – shaped structure of the city. Clouds moved overhead, overlain across the ancient, ornamental architecture of the ceiling that seemed almost pointless given how little it was seen beyond the sky. Under normal circumstances the room would perhaps be half full at most, with many wizards abstaining their right to sit and discuss matters both trivial and mundane. Today, however, the room was packed. Today was the day that Augustus Pym would be hauled over the coals for all to see.

Pym sat in what in his situation could only be referred to as the ‘dock’. He was under no illusion: he was on trial whether it was named so or not. No – one went against the consensus. Not for many years at least, and never in relation to something so important. The chancellor stood on the central, circular dais, resting his weight on the old, wooden plinth that had been restored countless times throughout the centuries and was covered with gold leaf and amber jewels.

“My fellow council members,” he bellowed, his voice projected by a subtle twisting of the air with the earth power so that it filled the entirety of the room. “I have called this meeting to address an issue of great importance concerning the actions of a member of this council, Augustus Pym, which go against the Consensus of this chamber on the matter of Princess Josephine Arwell.” The room murmured with delight. It was not often that such a topic was discussed openly amongst the chamber. “As you will recall, the decision of this council regarding the fate of the girl was that, in light of the revelations we have uncovered in the twelfth seeing stone, Josephine Arwell was to be retrieved from Aralia, her nature purged and thereafter contained until the current crisis we face has been resolved.” He turned to Augustus. “Councillor Pym, however, has seen fit to take matters into his own hands. He has sent Matthias Greenwald, whom many of you will be aware is only a recent graduate of this realm, to train Princess Josephine.” The murmurs became louder and more excited with each passing sentence. “Without consulting the council, this plot to undermine the unity of this house has placed us in even greater danger than we were already in. As we speak the princess is on her way to the city of Crystal Ember. She believes she can stop the dragon from being released!” The chancellor paused until the commotion ebbed and he could continue. “Lord Fenzar has engaged in a pursuit of Matthias, however as of yet he has not been able to locate him or the girl.” He took a breath. “To say that I am disappointed in the actions of Councillor Pym would be a grave understatement.” He turned to Augustus, who watched him placidly from his box. “This council must then decide on the actions to be taken to restore this situation to our control and furthermore, decide the fate of Councillor Pym. I therefore open the floor for your discussion.” The man stepped back as hundreds of men rose from their seats and began waving their arms in the air to gain attention. Inspecting the crowd, the chancellor pointed to a man in the front row. “Auric, please speak,” he nodded.

The tall, stick – thin man, with mottled, wafer-thin skin, rose surprisingly deftly from his seat given his obvious age and raised a bony hand. “Counsellor Pym,” he began, “What have you to say of these actions brought against you? Surely you are aware of the delicacy of our predicament? Why would you go against the Consensus in this matter?” 

Augustus rose from his seat, slowly and carefully, and adjusted his robes. His face was unyielding as he spoke. “It will perhaps come as little surprise to many of you that I originally opposed the will of the Consensus to capture the princess. My expression of distaste for the decision was made quite clear in the deliberations we have had these last few months. In my judgement the seeing stone made it quite clear the gods’ intentions for Princess Josephine: she is the one and only chance of stopping the Return.”

That is a matter of opinion,” Auric replied, but then motioned to Pym to continue.

“Perhaps you are right. Perhaps it is just my opinion. The stones can be interpreted in many ways. But I remain definitively forward – thinking in my approach to matters of this world as they stand. And I believe Mahalia must face the future with an open mind if it is to remain standing as tall as it does in the politics of this continent.” He took a pause. “Faced with the strength of my convictions to revelations of the seeing stone, I took action to correct what I see as a fatal error in judgement by this realm.” The hubbub of the room grew louder again as he continued. “The world stands on a knife edge! We have not faced such a challenge in hundreds of years! The stone has shown us the solution to our problems: a young girl endowed with the power of the Akari. Should we let our bias of women using the power blind us to all that she could do for peace in this world?”

“With respect, Augustus,” another voice boomed out, from a man who rose from his seat several rows back. “That was not your decision to make. All possibilities were discussed and the majority voted to contain the girl and fight the upcoming storm ourselves. The girl is too dangerous to be let loose!” 

“Our strength alone will not be enough.” Pym replied bluntly.

“You doubt our abilities?” The man continued.

“Malik, we may yield the earth power and we may have survived this long as a great country as a result of our relationship to it. But to think we are superior to anyone else, that our realm will last forever simply because we believe it will is to set ourselves up for a mighty fall. We must adapt and challenge our preconceptions if we are to continue. We are not powerful enough to stop this alone. I believe that with my whole being. And if we do continue down this path, Mahalia will fall.”

“Treasonous talk!” Another man called out angrily, hammering his fists on the wooden pew in front of him.

“You question my loyalty to this realm Fessalin, simply because I have the courage to speak out against conservative elements? I work to protect this council and the people of Mahalia in all things! Even from itself!” The room continued to echo with the arguments of the men, until the chancellor stood again on the podium and raised his hands.

“My friends, I know you will agree that Councillor Pym has given a lot to this council over the years. I am convinced his actions are meant to be for the good of this realm.” He turned to Pym. “But you are naive if you think the girl can be trusted. She is a woman who can wield! How many women have we had to suppress over the years because of their behaviour with the powers?”

Too many,” Pym said through gritted teeth, and then raised his voice again. “And too many have been dealt with harshly simply because of their gender and our fear!” The room exploded again with voices. Another man raised his hand. He was a young looking wizard, with an upturned nose and a rounded face. The chancellor beckoned him to speak.

“Tell me Augustus, have you disclosed the full extent of the prophecy to your apprentice? Is he aware of everything that is to come?”

“I have told Matthias only what he needs to know. He is not aware of the Return, only of the dragon. I had hoped that with the princess brought to me and partly trained in her abilities, we could reach a new Consensus and that this subterfuge could be ended for the greater good. He didn’t need to know the rest.”

“Then your actions are not all foolish, it would appear,” the man finished and sat back down, his harsh gaze boring into Augustus’s face.

The room grew quiet for the first time, and the chancellor pulled from under the plinth a clear glass ornament the size of his fist, with spikes sticking out at all angles.

“I think the time has come. You will cast your votes into the star of judgement and let us drawn an end to this. Do we continue with the current Consensus? Or do we follow Councillor Pym’s suggestion to aide the girl?” He let go of the object, which hovered above his head. All around him, wizards raised their hands. The star began to glow, shifting its colour from purple to blue. Finally, it settled on a blue hue, pulsing with a subtle hum, and the chancellor nodded. “It is settled. We continue along our current course and we will simultaneously work to retrieve the girl from Matthias.” Pym sat heavily back in his seat and lowered his head.

The chancellor turned to him. “Councillor Pym, you have gone against the will of this council in open defiance of our laws and practices. You have seen the Consensus on this matter not once, but twice. Do you now accept the will of this council?”

Pym looked up defiantly. He knew what he should say, to save his skin, but his mouth would not form those words. “No,” he said bluntly.

The chancellor nodded. “Then as chancellor I have no alternative but to imprison you for your actions. You have committed treason against your government.” He shook his head. “Do you have anything further to say to this council?”

Pym stood again. He raised his head and broadened his shoulders. “There seems little mote that I can say and nothing it appears that would change the mind of this ageing and bigoted chamber. All I will say is that I fear you have gone against the will of the gods. They have chosen this world’s saviour and you have chosen to go against her.” His jaw set hard as he looked over the room. “You have signalled the downfall of Mahalia in your intransigence. When this city crumbles I hope you will remember my words and look back at this day with regret. I know I will.”

Decisions

135th Day of the Cycle, 495 N.E. (New Era)

Josephine lay in Maryn’s bed, her face pale and her body thin. Thadius sat on a stool by her bedside, a weary head in his hands, his sword cast aside, and Matthias shifted his position against the far wall, where he studied his shoes. Luccius sat opposite Thadius, cured of the boils by Maryn’s lotion. His ears pricked as he heard the sound of birds and he looked up to the window where the sky was a black – grey blend, tinged by the pink light of a new day.

“I barely noticed the night pass,” he said dreamily. “How long have I been sitting here?”

“About five hours since the last time you asked,” Thadius answered glumly.

The ansuwan shook his head and rose from his seat. “What are you thinking about?” he asked Matthias.

“I’m trying to decide what to do,” he said, running his thumbnail across his bottom lip.

“About what?”

“Whether I should continue on to Crystal Ember.”

“You can’t be serious?” Thadius exclaimed. “What do you possibly think you could do there on your own?”

Matthias shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“Without Josephine it’d be certain death facing Sikaris!” the knight added.

“Maybe. Nevertheless someone has to try, don’t they? The prison could break any day now. Standing around here is not accomplishing anything and if Josephine… if she doesn’t…” He shook his head. “Someone has to try.”

Maryn entered the room, wearing a woollen night – gown and carrying a tray with three steaming porcelain cups of tea.

“I thought you could do with something to wake you all up,” she said. “My own blend of spiced tea. How is she?”

“There doesn’t seem to be any change,” Thadius said wearily.

“Maryn, can you please try and knock some sense into Matthias?” Luccius asked. “He’s talking about going on his own to stop the dragon!”

Maryn set the tray to one side. “You have a plan?” she asked him.

“No,” said Matthias.

“Ah. You have lost your mind then?” Maryn asked.

“Possibly,” Matthias sniffed with a thin smile. “It should have worked by now, shouldn’t it?” he asked her. “I can tell by that look on your face that the answer is ‘yes’.”

“It doesn’t look good,” Maryn replied. “However, she is still alive and that much is a miracle in itself. Perhaps in a few more days we will know for sure.”

“It has been three days already. There is too much at stake to wait any longer,” he said. “I can’t stay here when the dragon could be freed at any moment.” He looked at Josephine. “As much as I want to.”

“Fine. Go then!” Thadius said angrily. “We don’t need you. This mission is over.” He stepped forward, his black-ringed eyes glaring at Matthias. “If the princess wakes after you have gone I’m taking her back to Rina. I will fight off wizards or demons or whoever else decides they would like to try and hurt her.”

“If she does wake up you have to follow me and get her to Olindia,” Matthias advised.

“To do what? Get killed? Without any more training, what will she be able to do?” He stood. “This is all your fault! You and your scheming people! Why couldn’t you just leave her alone?

“You know what my people would have done if they had got to her first! Or worse, if those creatures had reached her first, she would be dead!” exclaimed Matthias.

“Well, you’ve certainly done a great job of avoiding that out here, haven’t you? She’s coming back with me, to her father. The dragon be damned!”

“You’re a coward!” Matthias spat. “Josephine would stay and fight! If she were awake she’d carry on if it meant she could save lives!”

“Oh, I dare you to call me a coward again wizard!” Thadius bared his fists. “If you cared an inch about the princess you wouldn’t ask me to take her further into danger!”

“I care about her more than I can say!” Matthias growled.

“You barely know her!” Thadius barked.

Men,” Maryn muttered. “This house wasn’t built for such rigorous cockfights.”

“Both of you just stop it! For the gods’ sakes! You aren’t helping anything!” Luccius yelled. He took a deep breath and ran his hands anxiously through his locks. “Matthias, if you need to go, then you should go.” He took a breath. I will stay here. If Josephine awakes… when she awakes, I will tell her where you’ve gone. Then it will be her decision as to what she does and where she goes!” He eyed Thadius with a piercing stare. “Whatever she decides, I will come and find you when I can. I’m not going to leave you on your own.”

Matthias stepped back and nodded. “Alright,” he said after a pause. He brushed past the knight who stood defiantly rigid, nostrils flaring. He could have been made from wood his back was so straight. Matthias knelt by Josephine’s side, and his face grew soft. Fumbling by her side, he picked up her hand and stroked it softly with his thumb.

“I’m sorry I didn’t keep you safe,” he whispered. “I’m sorry I lied to you. Both times. I should have told you the full truth from the start. I was trying to protect you. I hope whatever else you think of me, that you will believe that.” He took a breath. “I may not have known you very long,” he continued, “but I am all the better for being in your company.” His words caught in his throat and he had to steady himself. Then he laughed under his breath. “All these years and then you come along.” He shook his head. “Why now, so late on, must I have found you?” He stopped and turned to look at Maryn. She smiled at him. Matthias turned back and then, leaning forward, kissed the princess on the forehead. “Goodbye Josephine.” He placed her hand down by her side, stood, and turned away, making his way to the door. At its entrance he paused, a hand on the frame and then after a beat turned to the others. “I was never very good at leaving in the middle of an argument. You aren’t a coward Thadius. We couldn’t have made it this far without you.”

The knight nodded begrudgingly. “That is big of you to admit,” he said gruffly.

“The truth is, I care about you all. You have joined me on this journey to protect the princess and I…” he stopped. “Never mind. You should all just get as far from here as you can, in case the worst happens.” Then turned again and disappeared downstairs. Maryn followed him down to the shop floor. As he grabbed his bag and threw on his coat, she stood in the doorway, watching him.

“What?” he asked her.

“Why does it have to be you? This is the council’s doing! They are the ones who can’t decide which side of the fence they should be on! It’s not you who should be going to face the dragon but them! They should have sent as many wizards as they could to escort Josephine, not argue about whether or not she should be imprisoned! And now you have to pick up the pieces! Why would you still blindly follow them after all their mistakes?”

“Maryn, I love you dearly, but you never did understand,” Matthias said.

She shook her head. “No, and I never will.” She folded her arms. “You’re an idiot,” she said.

Matthias smiled. “I’ll miss you too.” He buttoned his coat. “Thank you for trying to help,” he said, taking his sword from where he had propped them behind the counter. “Perhaps this will come in handy after all.” He tied it back to his belt, stuck his staff around the straps on his back, and hefted his bag, opening the door. “I’ll be alright, you know. You wish you could get rid of me so easily.” He turned and walked down the path, and didn’t look back. Maryn watched him disappear around the corner, and then made her way back upstairs.

“He’s gone,” she said to the others. Luccius let the back of his head bang against the wall, and his ears drooped.

“Our journey together is over then,” he whispered.

“I still have his pendant,” Thadius said suddenly, feeling around his neck at the metal arrowhead. “I’m surprised he didn’t ask for it back.”

“Oh no,” Luccius grimaced.

“What’s wrong?” the knight asked.

“The only time a wizard would ever relinquish the pendant is when they are going to die,” Maryn advised.

Thadius shook his head. “He gave it to me ages ago.”

“That’s different to leaving without it,” she said.

“And that makes you think he is going to die?” Thadius questioned.

“When a wizard dies, their bond is broken with the pendant. The crystal at its heart is linked to the wizard who bonds with it. The metal around it dissolves to prevent it being stolen and used against Mahalia.” She shook her head sadly. “He left it with you here because he has no further use for it where he is going. He knows he’s not coming back.”

Repellent

Day of the Cycle Unknown, 495 N.E. (New Era)

Josephine’s eyes widened as Taico Grimm towered over her.

“You! Get away from me!” She kicked back in the water, and gasped. “I do not know how you are here but-”

“I poisoned you princess,” he said. “A concoction not used in many centuries, apparently. You were supposed to be dead by now. But you always were stronger than you looked. Your mind seems to be fighting me.”

“Who are you?” she asked. “Why do you speak like you know me so well?”

“I do know you princess,” he replied. “I know how much of a disappointment you are! But I am here to straighten things out, once and for all.” A crossbow materialised in his free hand where the sword had been. “Think of me as a manifestation of the poison that fills your veins. A part of the man you have known that remains to finish the deed.” He aimed the crossbow. “Sweet dreams, princess.” He pulled the trigger.

Josephine dived, the arrow sailing above her head, funnelling into the water. Desperately she pulled herself downwards, deeper. If this was her mind, however altered, however changed, then surely she could get away from here? A popping sound of bubbles made her spin around. A crossbow bolt pierced her right shoulder and she cried out, air escaping from her open mouth. Blood poured from the wound and blotted the ocean.

I need to get out of here! I need to leave. Now!

As if she had commanded it, she disappeared from the room and collapsed onto a stone floor, water splattering the ground. She was soaking. How had she done that? The bolt still stung her side, and she pulled back the tear in her clothing, inspecting the wound. The bolt was stuck fast, and black veins were spreading out from it covering her shoulder.

This is my mind dying, she thought. My body is crippled, and this is my last chance. My only chance! Gingerly, she pushed herself to her feet.

“That was a clever little manoeuvre!” Grimm’s voice cried out. He stood to her back now, crossbow still in hand.

“Why do you want to kill me so badly? What have I done to you that is so completely terrible, that you wish to see me dead? Please, tell me! I would like to know before I die who exactly you are to me!”

“You are the embodiment of all my disappointments,” he said, looking at her through his sallow eyes. “The future that could have been.” He laughed. “They tried to convince me you could help! They made me their puppet in the hopes I could guide your hand! But it was all lies!”

“Who? Who used you?” Josephine asked.

“Who do you think? Those false gods!”

“I don’t understand?” Josephine replied.

“And you never will,” Grimm said. He hefted the crossbow.

“You are not real,” she stated bluntly. “You can’t hurt me!”

“Oh I assure you I am, and I can! I will kill you and then this will all be over! We will both be at peace!”

Josephine took a breath. She held out her arms. “Very well then,” she said shakily. “Pull that trigger.”

Grimm’s face grew puzzled. “No fight? No struggle? You will just stand there and let me point and shoot?”

Josephine took a breath. “Yes,” she whispered.

He nodded. “Then you have come to your senses.” He took a satisfied breath. “Goodbye,” he whispered, and pulled the trigger. The bolt shot from its mechanism. Its wooden shaft shattered inches in front of Josephine. She exhaled in relief. Grimm gaped. “How did you do that?”

“I think I am starting to understand this place, at least a little,” she said. “This is my body and you are just an intruder. Your poison gave you a chance to invade my mind, but in the end it is my mind. As long as I can defend it, and as long as I remain strong, I don’t think you can kill me!”

“If you could see what you must look like in the real world, you might not be so sure,” Grimm responded.

“Oh yes, I am sure the poison is withering my body away,” she said coolly. “But in my mind, where it really counts, where I am guessing the magical part of the poison takes effect, now that is failing miserably, is it not?” She took a breath. “It wasn’t enough that you could destroy my body. You can’t just kill me with hemlock or any regular potion, because my power protects me!”

Taico sneered. “So you figured it out! It doesn’t matter! I am not going anywhere! I’ll wear your mind down just as the gods did to me! No – one can survive continued torture! Not even you! I will keep pursuing you until you can’t take it anymore! You are a small, scared little girl Josephine.”

The room shifted and instantly she knew where she was: her chambers, on a day had been burned on to her mind. She turned and saw herself and her mother regarding her.

Stop it!” Josephine hissed angrily at Grimm.

“What’s wrong Josephine?” Grimm asked from her side. “Can you not face your own past?”

She watched as the lightning coursed through her mother’s body, surging from Josephine’s own hands. Her mother contorted, her eyes wide. Then she fell to the floor.

“No!” Josephine screamed as she watched her mother hit the ground, striking her head on the cold stone floor, her eyes gazing up at her with fear and pain before the life disappeared from them. She watched herself fall beside her mother, tears streaming from her eyes as she cradled her lifeless body in her arms.

“This is the darkness you bring to the world!” Grimm said. “The darkness you will continue to bring. You can’t change who you are! You are an angel of death.” Grimm shook his head. “I have seen you kill so many people Josephine, again and again. You will hurt so many more people before you are finished. Unless we end this now.”

“Why do you torture me? I am trying to stop any more people dying! Why would killing me help?”

Grimm stared at her. “There was a time I thought like you do. A time I thought that you could help. But all that has changed now. I realised that it is all a lie. There can never be peace! Not true peace! They showed me that. The only way is to burn the land and start again!”

“You don’t know what you are saying!” Josephine whispered. “You contradict yourself with your own words! You are truly mad!”

“If I am, then it is because of you,” he sneered.

Josephine turned to him and her eyes burned with rage. “I will not let you confuse me,” she said. “Someone out there has awoken me, opened my mind to let me fight you.” The scene shifted into smoke and she was standing above the heavens again. The stars shone brightly. “This is my mind. I am in control!” She turned to Grimm, who hovered with her.

“I-” Grimm stopped. His cheeks bulged, and he made a choking sound as he raised his hands to his neck.

You are the poison, and I have to drain you from the wound!”

His face reddened. “You… must… die!” he spluttered.

“Not today. Not because of you! I am stronger than you think!”

“This… is not… the end…”

Goodbye, Mister Grimm,” she whispered, as he began to dissolve, and scattered into the stars.

She stared around her. The image of the world began to fade and her head suddenly felt lighter. She began to hear voices again. Thadius and Luccius were talking. She smiled.

Here I come Matthias. Watch me fly.

Revival

137th Day of the Cycle, 495 N.E. (New Era)

 

“Do you not drink anything but endless tea?” Thadius asked as Maryn set another tray on to a small stool and began handing out the delicate cups to Luccius and himself, before taking her own.

“I find it calming,” she said as she breathed in the aroma.

“I would kill for a tankard of ale,” Thadius muttered.

“Then you can clear off to the Fat Hen,” Maryn sniffed. “They will indulge you I am sure. But in here, it’s tea or nothing. Bloody westerners and their poisonous drinks!” she muttered.

Thadius looked at the spiced mixture swirling in the cup. “The Fat Hen. If I wasn’t so worried about leaving Josephine’s side…” he commented, but then raised the cup to his lips nonetheless. He spat it out after taking a sip. “That is disgusting! What’s in this?”

“Fennel, vanilla, root – weed and moss,” Maryn said.

“It tastes like pond water!” he spluttered.

“I’ll dunk you in the nearest damned pond if you don’t shut up!” Luccius added, shaking his head.

“What’s got your hair in a twist?” Thadius retorted.

“Where would you like me to start?” Luccius exclaimed. “Perhaps that we have been here for nearly six days now and Josephine still hasn’t woken up! Perhaps it’s the thought that Sikaris is even closer to being freed. Perhaps I’m also worried that the men behind it all are apparently ancient sorcerers. And maybe, just maybe, it’s that my oldest and dearest friend is three days closer to Crystal Ember and is marching to his death?”

“I’m not quite that close,” a voice said from the bedroom doorway and they turned to see Matthias standing in front of them. He dropped his bag on the floor.

“Matthias!” Luccius exclaimed. “What are you doing here? It’s been days! Why have you come back?”

“I got out of town before the sun went down on me and spent the next day traipsing across fields in the rain,” he said as he leant against the wall and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Then I was camping out by the river last night, watching the swirling patterns as the current pushed downstream. And then I realised how futile what I was attempting to do really was. I was a droplet of water fighting against the current, against events I could never hope to overcome alone.” He took a breath. “And the more I thought about Josephine lying here, the more I realised I couldn’t leave her. Not when she is like this.” He walked over to the bed. “So I turned around and came back.”

“But what about the dragon?” Thadius asked.

Matthias shook his head. “If Josephine doesn’t wake up, then what good will I be able to do against him? Josephine is more important. And we have all come this far together. How could I leave her at the time when she needs me the most? How could I leave you both?”

“Well I am glad you finally came to your senses on that matter,” Maryn sniffed. “You may be powerful Matthias, but you’re not that strong.” She walked up to him and embraced him in a hug.

“I thought I had to try,” he shrugged. “But my people are working to stop those behind all this. That much I am certain of. Without Josephine, that is perhaps the only chance we really have, and I am not the one to accomplish that task.”

“Perhaps you want this back then?” Thadius said, and Matthias turned to him. The knight had his pendant dangling in his grip. “Now it won’t be dissolving in my hands?”

Matthias smiled at the pendant. “She told you?” he asked.

“The moment you were out of the door.” Thadius snorted. “You were going to your death, travelling there alone. What a stupid idea that was!” He held out the pendant to Matthias

Matthias shook his head. “I gave it to you for safekeeping until Josephine is safe and home again. That hasn’t changed.”

“I know,” Thadius said, letting the pendant dangle.

“I think after the lies I have told you so far, I still need to prove my good intentions to you.”

Thadius looked from the metal object and then back to Matthias. “I no longer need this to convince me of those.” He held it out to the wizard again meaningfully, who took it with a nod of the head. “For what it’s worth Matthias, I am glad you are back.”

Matthias smiled. “I knew you couldn’t live a day without me, Thadius,” he joked.

The man shook his head and snorted again. “Let’s not get carried away.”

Matthias fastened the pendant back around his neck. “That feels better. I felt like I was missing an arm. How is she?” he asked, staring at Josephine.

“I honestly don’t know,” Maryn replied, standing to one side. “She seemed to look better for a while and her temperature has subsided, but she hasn’t awoken, or moved as much as a toe.”

“Is there nothing else you can do?” Matthias asked.

“If there was, I would have done it by now,” Maryn replied. Matthias sat on the bed and watched Josephine as she slept. “I’m sorry Matthias. I really am.”

He smiled sullenly at Maryn. “You did everything you could do Maryn and I am grateful.” He turned to look at Josephine again. “She looks so peaceful.”

They sat for a while in silence. Rain began to patter on the windowpane and the room grew dull as the sun fell behind grey cloud. Thadius shifted in his chair and chuckled suddenly. The others looked over to him.

“The first time I met the princess she was a baby,” the knight smiled, hunched over in his chair, hands placed together. “I was about eight or nine and my father brought me to see her. She was a wrinkly little thing, no larger than my forearm. The king placed her in my arms and I held her for a while.” He swallowed. “In that moment I felt such a responsibility to her. I was only a child myself, but somehow I felt deep within me that my goal in life was to look after her at all costs- to keep her safe. And then she vomited all over my tunic.” The others laughed quietly. “I’ve always been there for her, watching over her. I might not be royalty, but she is family to me.”

“She cares for you too, a great deal,” Luccius replied.

Matthias sighed and shifted on the bed.

“What’s happening in there Josephine?” he asked and reached out with his hand. He moved her hair back gingerly with his fingers and stroked her forehead. As he did the princess inhaled deeply and her eyelids flickered. Matthias withdrew his hand in surprise and his eyes boggled.

“What did you do?” Thadius asked excitedly, springing to his feet.

Matthias shook his head. “Nothing!” he exclaimed. “I only touched her!”

“Well do it again!” Luccius exclaimed.

“Matthias,” Josephine murmured softly.

“I’m here!” Matthias replied.

Gingerly, Josephine opened her eyes and stared up at the ceiling.

“I made it,” she whispered and smiled.

Matthias laughed ecstatically. “You’re alive! Oh gods thank you!” He lifted her from the bed and embraced her in a hug.

“Don’t suffocate her then!” Maryn retorted, and he loosened his grip.

“Where…” she began. “What is this place?” she croaked.

“We’re with a friend,” Matthias answered. “You’re safe.”

She nodded dreamily and looked around. “Thadius,” she smiled. “You are here. I could hear you in my dreams.”

Thadius smiled. “Where else could I be but by your side, your highness?”

She took a deep breath as she started to come to. “Is it too late?” she whispered. “How long have I been asleep?”

“About six or seven days, I think,” Thadius said. “I’ve lost track. A very worrying few days.”

“So long!” She swallowed. “I’m thirsty.”

“Here,” Maryn said, appearing again by her bedside with a glass filled with a green liquid as if on cue. “Sit up if you can and drink this.” Josephine shifted in the bed and pushed herself up against the headboard.

“That’s not more of that pond water tea is it?” Thadius asked. “We’ve only just got her back without you poisoning her again.”

“That sword of yours, soldier, is awfully long,” Maryn commented.

“What about it?” Thadius asked.

“I was just wondering if I stuck it up your backside if the tip would appear out of your mouth. Maybe then it would cut off that flapping tongue of yours!” The knight blushed and turned away from her piercing stare. Maryn handed Josephine the glass, who stared dreamily at its contents before taking a sip. “Thank you. This is nice,” she said. “I’m sorry, I don’t think we’ve…” Then she squinted as her sleep – riddled eyes focussed on the woman. “It’s you! You’re… Esther?

“We meet again, princess. And my real name is Maryn,” she smiled. “I never did give you it all that time ago.”

“But, why am I here? With you?

“Maryn is a friend of mine,” Matthias answered again, and smiled. “It seems our lives are more entwined than we knew.”

Josephine shook her head. “I don’t even know what to say!” she exhaled. “I am confused.”

“Maryn brewed a potion to cure you. We weren’t sure it would work,” Luccius added.

“So you gave me the strength to defeat Grimm?” she asked.

“Grimm?” Thadius repeated.

“He was inside my head,” Josephine continued. “He appeared in my thoughts and tried to kill me from the inside out. But… I stopped him. With your help it seems.” She swallowed more of the drink and then nodded. “Thank you, Maryn. I think… I would be dead now if it weren’t for you.”

“You’re welcome. A nasty incantation if ever there was one. I could hardly let you die after all that hard work we did together! ” Maryn smiled. “But enough talk. You are still dozy, after all. You must be hungry?”

Josephine nodded. “I believe I am, as it happens,” she said, realising just how empty her stomach felt.

Maryn nodded. “Then I will see what I can conjure up!” She walked to the doorway and then turned. “Not literally, you understand,” she added, before heading downstairs.

Josephine set the glass on to the table by her side and eased her head back on the pillow. “I have so much to tell you,” she said.

“It can wait until later,” Matthias said. “You need to rest.”

“It’s alright,” she whispered. “I would rather talk to you. It may take me some time though. I am not exactly in top form.”

Josephine told them of her dreams slowly as she began to wake further, of meeting the Akari and fighting Taico Grimm.

“What is this ‘rift’ the Akari spoke of? Their prison?” Luccius asked, puzzled, when she had finished.

Josephine shrugged. “They didn’t manage to tell me very much else before Grimm … before he… whatever he did to her!”

“Sounds as if they want you to open their prison,” Luccius pondered. “But how can you do that if you don’t know what or where it is! It would have been helpful if they gave you more of an idea where you needed to go.”

“From the way she spoke, I do not think the Akari knew herself,” Josephine said. “It was all very hurried. She didn’t seem to be able to communicate with me easily.”

“Unsurprising, if they are trapped,” Luccius continued. “But still, you would have thought they could have at least given you a clue!”

“So… if I understand correctly, the Akari are still alive in this other… world? Trapped somewhere so mysterious and hidden that they may as well be dead. Then they come to you in your dreams and give you a new quest to undertake, when we haven’t even completed the last one?” He shook his head. “This just gets better.”

“Well I see you are as cheerful as ever, my good knight,” Josephine laughed. “I have missed you, Thadius.” She turned to Matthias. “You’ve been very quiet.”

“Have I?” Matthias asked.

“Yes. It is most unusual for you. It gives me pause.”

He gave her a warm smile. “I am just thinking,” he replied.

“About anything in particular?” Luccius added.

“There is simply a lot to take in,” he replied.

“Surely you must have some idea about all of this business,” Thadius asked. “You’re a wizard, after all! This sort of thing must all be second nature to you – talk of ‘rifts’ and ‘gateways’?”

Matthias shrugged. “I’ve never heard of anything of the sort before.”

“Well something’s worrying you,” Josephine commented. “I can see it on your face.” She leaned forward in the bed. “What is it? Tell me. Please, Matthias? We agreed no more secrets.”

He took a breath. “The Akari say that you are destined for something else. Something besides stopping the dragon. Whatever that something is, it must be something to do with the people who are trying to release it and their reasons for doing so.”

“The Akari woman did mention four people who must be stopped. It could be the sorcerers?”

Matthias nodded. “Perhaps.”

Josephine squinted as she thought. “She named two other things before she vanished as well. They did not make any sense to me. One was about stopping something called ‘Soral’ and the other thing they mentioned was about an ‘alignment’.”

“Alignment of what?” Luccius asked.

“I have no idea,” Josephine said. “That was the last thing she said before she was killed. Or whatever happened.”

“I have never heard of anything called ‘Soral’ before.” Matthias shook his head. “But Taico Grimm told us that their plans were bigger than we could imagine.”

“If you choose to believe that madman!” Thadius sniffed.

“I do,” Matthias rebuffed. “He may be a madman, but he has told us a lot so far. I don’t think he is capable of lying.” He stood up and paced the room. “When I spoke to Master Pym last, in spite of everything he told me about this mission, he didn’t seem quite willing to tell me all he knew.”

Thadius looked at him wryly. “Now you know how the rest of the world feels about Mahalians,” he sniffed.

Matthias smiled thinly at the comment. “How can we possibly defend against something we have no idea about? As much as I hate to admit it Thadius, you may be right. I do not like being in the dark about things. I wonder if the council already knows about the sorcerers and about this ‘Soral’.” He exhaled. “What could they have been keeping from me?”

“If that is so, then it is a good thing, surely?” Luccius said. “It means they might be way ahead of us in stopping them.”

Matthias nodded. “I suppose you are right. But I just feel like we’re fighting the wrong war here now,” he said sternly. “Something bigger is happening and we don’t know what it is. And I wish that Pym had trusted me enough to tell me. Perhaps if he did we wouldn’t be in this situation now.” He shook his head. “All the puzzle pieces don’t quite fit together yet.” He ran his fingers through his hair. “We’re missing massive chunks. Agh! I need a bigger head.”

Your head is big enough as it is,” Maryn said, carrying a tray with a bowl of soup and some bread on a plate. Chunks of carrot and potato sat in the broth. “Here you go.”

“Thank you Maryn,” Josephine said and ripped a chunk off the bread and dipped it in the steaming soup. “Well if it is all the same to you Matthias, I would rather forget the rest for now and focus on one thing at a time. The only thing we know definitely is that we must stop this dragon. The Akari might believe Sikaris is unimportant compared to their freedom, but quite frankly they can wait. I started this journey and I intend to finish it. And I do not trust your people to get this job done.”

“You still want to go after Sikaris?” Thadius asked. “Even after all of this?”

Josephine nodded. “The world is depending on me Thadius. Think of all those people living in Olindia now, quite unaware that their world may soon come falling down about their heads. They need my help.”

Thadius nodded begrudgingly. “As you wish my lady,” he said, and bowed his head. “I will stand with you always.”

Josephine smiled at him. “And where would I be without you? Matthias, how far are we from Crystal Ember?”

“Three days. Perhaps four. We aren’t far away now.”

She nodded. “Very well. That means you and I haven’t much more time to try and find a way that I can patch up the cracks in the dragon’s prison.”

“Right… yes,” Matthias scratched his head awkwardly. “I had forgotten about teaching you.”

“Do you think we can still make it in time to stop his release?” Thadius asked. “Since we left Rina you’ve been drumming into us how little time we have and we’ve been here for days.”

“We’re not finished yet,” Luccius interrupted. “There’s still time.”

“How do you know?” Thadius asked.

“Something in the air…” he shook his head. “I just know that we’re not too late.”

“Is this another one of your mysterious abilities?” the knight scoffed.

“Well, it just so happens I agree with you Luccius,” Josephine nodded. “I can stop this. And as we have no idea if your people are aware of the sorcerers or not Matthias, I intend to do my bit.”

“You intend to learn to stop the dragon in less than a week?” asked Thadius.

“You forget how brilliant a teacher I am,” Matthias added, grinning at him.

“Don’t lose hope Thadius,” Josephine said, and reached for his hand. “I know you are cautious and I value your opinion. But you must have faith in me.”

Thadius took a breath. “I always have, your highness.”

“Well even if you have all decided to continue on your adventure, you at least need a few hours’ rest,” Maryn interjected. “There’s no use our bringing you back from the brink princess only for you to collapse within a stone’s throw of Crystal Ember.” When Josephine opened her mouth to challenge her, Maryn raised a finger. “You know my resolve is absolute, Princess! Royalty or not, I will strap you to this bed if I need to in order for you to get some rest.”

Josephine nodded. “I have not forgotten your method of teaching from when we first met,” she smiled wryly. “I don’t think I had been smacked since I was a little girl, until you came along.”

“I practice tough love in my teachings,” Maryn smiled. “But it is necessary, nonetheless. And I was very proud of you when we had finished our work.”

“I was grateful to you, as well,” Josephine replied. “But I did not know then what I do now. As much as I hated having these powers, now I know I must learn to use them.” She shifted the tray from her lap and nodded. “Very well, wise woman! I will rest awhile longer.”

“We can leave in the morning,” Matthias said. I will try and purchase some more horses from the inn.”

“I’ll come with you!” Thadius said hastily and then leaned in towards Matthias to mutter in his ear. “I can’t manage any more of this tea!

The night passed by quickly. As Josephine slept, and Thadius spent some much-needed time at the Fat Hen, Matthias studied his map intently, whilst Luccius packed his bag. The ansuwan started to laugh.

“Something funny?” Matthias asked, smiling back.

“Oh it’s nothing. It’s just when we started this journey I think the princess would have rather chopped her arm off than come with you. And now here she is, eager as anything to get going. It’s strange how things change.”

“She is keen to get underway,” Matthias replied. “I suppose that’s a good thing.”

“You suppose?” Luccius replied. “I thought you would have been pleased?”

Matthias shook his head. “I just don’t want her to come to any more harm. This talk of freeing the Akari… it means even when she stops the dragon’s release, there is more work for her to do. More dangers. I had hoped that after we had been to Crystal Ember Josephine could return home.”

“It seems that the gods have a different plan in mind for her,” Luccius nodded.

“Well perhaps they should do a little more of their own dirty work,” Matthias grunted.

“You know it doesn’t work that way,” Luccius replied.

Maryn appeared in the doorway, her face troubled. “There is a problem,” she said, without waiting for them to ask.

“Another one?” Luccius said. “Can we not wait a little while to recover from the last?”

“What is it?” asked Matthias with concern.

“When I left Mahalia I was conscious of being caught by the council,” she advised. “As time went on and I settled here, I began to form arrangements with the people I helped. They became my eyes and ears against them. I asked them to bring me word if ever they spotted anyone or anything that might indicate their presence in Olindia.”

“Fenzar,” Matthias said gravely. “He’s nearby.”

Maryn nodded. “A friend says a group of wizards have booked rooms at the tavern in Korina. That’s the next village.”

“How far away is that?” Matthias asked, sitting up intently.

“About a half – day’s walk south – west of here.” Maryn shifted uneasily. “People talk, Matthias. If Lord Fenzar asks people in the village if they have heard of a woman who can wield the power, they could point them here to me. If that happens, you can’t be anywhere near here.”

“How long ago did they arrive in the village?” Matthias asked.

“According to my friend, not until late in the afternoon. A few hours ago at most.”

“But it still would have given them the opportunity to question people in the village,” Matthias nodded. “And even if not, they’re still too close for comfort. Even with you, me and Josephine wielding our powers, if she could even manage to right now, we would not be enough to overpower Fenzar in our current state. He is strong, in spite of his age.”

“Should I fetch Thadius?” Luccius asked.

Matthias nodded. “We’ll leave before dawn breaks. Maryn, you should come with us.”

Maryn shook her head. “I’m not going anywhere,” she said.

“But if they do come here-”

“Then they will find a wise woman who deals with medicines, and I will cover myself the best I can.”

“And if they realise you can use the earth power?”

“Then I will fight them all to the last breath. This is my home now and I will not be forced from it. I have run enough.”

“And you call me stubborn?” Matthias retorted.

“Where do you think I learned the skill from?” she chuckled.

Luccius retrieved Thadius from the inn as Matthias awoke Josephine and prepared to leave. As the first slithers of light began to creep on the horizon, they gathered themselves in the shop front.

“The ostler has saddled the horses,” Thadius said, entering the shop.

“Did you see anyone else out there?” Matthias asked.

“It is deathly quiet out there,” he said. “I had to rouse the boy from his bed to get the horses from the stables!”

Matthias nodded. “Good. That’s good. We might just have some luck left then.”

“I packed you some tea,” Maryn advised them. “Thadius, I put a particularly good smoked variety in your bag.”

“Oh good,” Thadius joked with a smile, and then bowed to her. “Your hospitality is appreciated,” he said. “As is all you have done to help the princess.”

Matthias lowered a hand to take hers. “Yes, thank you, Maryn for all you’ve done.”

She pulled her shift about her tightly. “I’m just glad I could help. And… it was good to see you again, Matthias.” She smiled. The wizard nodded back.

“I can’t help but feel guilty that I’ve dragged you into all of this and put your life at risk again.” Matthias shook his head. “Please be careful. If Fenzar does come here-”

“Just let me worry about that old goat! You focus your worry on stopping Sikaris.” She turned to Josephine. “My dear girl,” she said, placing a hand on her cheek. “You have the weight of the world on your shoulders. But you also have a great gift in the friends that you travel with. Let them carry some of the burden for you.”

Josephine smiled. “I will try. My thanks go to you again, Maryn. You have saved me twice now, in different ways, and I will not forget it. I will find some way to repay you.”

“Bring yourself home safely and consider the debt paid,” Maryn smiled.

Matthias opened the door. “Well then,” he said, taking a deep breath. “Onward we go to Crystal Ember!”

“And onward to victory!” Luccius added.

“And victory,” Matthias repeated, with more confidence than he felt. Nevertheless, his heart fluttered with hope once more. As long as Josephine was alive, there was always hope.

Crystal Ember

142nd Day of the Cycle, 495 N.E. (New Era)

 

Josephine worked hard to improve her understanding of her power over the remaining days it took to reach Crystal Ember. Given she was only at the start of her journey wielding such complicated energy, Matthias remarked she had become surprisingly adept at handling the threads of power that controlled the air. Within hours of discovering new strands she had managed to find ways to manipulate them as a means of defence to push others away. Her second accomplishment however remained very much a work in progress. Matthias had tried to guide her through possible ways of creating a barrier around the dragon, drawing upon his own knowledge of the earth power. But when it came to moulding the two energies it was like night and day. The cocoon Josephine did manage collapsed after a few minutes.

Now they were within a stone’s throw of their destination, nearly at the point when they would have to erect a shield around the dragon that would have to last indefinitely and block the efforts of the most powerful sorcerers the world had known for centuries. After hours more trying, of focussing what little Josephine knew of her energies into a pattern she thought by instinct could create a barrier, the princess was forced to give up, exhausted and jaded by the lack of progress. It was only as they began to approach the valley in which Crystal Ember resided that Josephine managed to create a spherical shield that seemed to hold itself in place. She extended it around Thadius who rode along on his horse, unaware of the invisible forces that she wove around him. Matthias tried to force his own energy toward the knight, and at first the barrier appeared to work. It blocked his first attempts, but after a few more attacks the wall collapsed and Matthias broke through, sending Thadius hurtling from his horse as he did so. Numerous apologies later, there was not enough time to attempt it again, as the ancient city of Crystal Ember appeared into their view, standing proudly in the midday sunlight. Cradled inside its enormous, circular, fortified wooden walls, thousands of houses dotted the cramped, cobbled streets below them.

For nine – hundred years the capital of what was now known as Olindia had occupied the same valley. What had started as a cluster of straw huts grew into one of the most impenetrable, prosperous cities in all of Triska. Looking down from the apex of the valley, Crystal Ember was an impressive sight amidst the greenery that marked the region. Its wooden walls stretched high around the city, the massive pomery constructed from the hardy, Olindian redwoods that grew in the northern forests and were known for being the tallest and strongest trees ever known. Historical annals wrote how the wall took almost fifty years to construct, as the old king sought to entrench himself in what were then the disputed midlands of Western Triska. When complete it was impossible for his Aralian and Aslemerian neighbours to oust him from the land, even through siege, and from the initial strength of those walls the beating heart of a new nation grew exponentially.

Built years after the founding of the city, its renowned fortress sat at the most northerly point within the stocky walls, standing like a stone monolith, constructed of gigantic chunks of stone. Four stocky, stone bastions stood at each corner of the curtain wall and multiple spires raised up high into the sky from its battlements. Centuries later the fortress remained almost completely unchanged from its original plans, save for one element: at its back a stone spire rose higher than all the others, an obelisk of smooth, plain basalt chiselled to a point, reaching up to the clouds. In centuries past the location on which the spire rested on had once housed a dazzling crystal: a collection of diamonds mined in the quarries of the realm, fused together with the earth power and mounted on the fortress as a symbol of its innovation. Those times were long gone and the crystal destroyed in the last great war.

There was only one monument in Crystal Ember that rivalled the fortresses for its height, standing almost as tall as the spire in the central square of the city. On top of an enormous marble pillar, thicker than the biggest of tree trunks, the body of the Great Dragon Sikaris sat overlooking the people below, his figure petrified in stone, frozen in a pose of mid- attack. His jaws lay open as if in the middle of a roar and thick, carnivorous teeth jutted out at all angles from the gaping maw. His tongue was poised in its centre, curling into a point and protruding out of the mouth like a sinuous snake, tasting the air. Thick collar bones and horns of ivory protruded outwards from a scaly frill and two almighty wings stood half outstretched, their tips curling inward on themselves. The beast’s tail wound around the stone pillar, curling down half its length, and long, ivory claws glinted in the sunlight. Black eyes like obsidian observed the people below with an emotionless stare, their life frozen and dulled by the spell that had held the creature in place for four centuries.

Josephine and her company approached the outer walls of Crystal Ember on horseback, following the dirt road towards the main gates where a half – dozen soldiers stood watching their arrival.

“You had best approach first,” Matthias whispered to Josephine.

“Me? Why?” she hissed under her breath.

“They’ll listen to you!” Matthias advised.

“Would they not simply let us in anyway?

“They probably will in time, but trust me, my way will be quicker.”

Josephine nodded reluctantly and urged her horse in front of the others.

One of the guards, a youthful looking man with a bushy beard that looked out of place on one so young, approached her and signalled for her to halt with an outstretched hand.

“Good morning,” the man said with the hoarse, rough voice of a southern Olindian.

The princess nodded. “Good day to you sir,” she replied in turn.

“Welcome to Crystal Ember. May I have your papers?” he asked.

“Papers?” Josephine replied.

“Any foreigners who now wish to enter this city require papers signed from the consulate in the town of Gavna. Have you no papers?” he asked.

She shook her head. “I was not aware we needed any papers,” she said with a tinge of annoyance and turned to eye Matthias icily. The wizard smiled awkwardly.

“I am afraid so,” the soldier advised. “There have been several robberies in the city lately by foreigners who wish to bring harm to our people. Mostly Aslemerian, of course, but you understand I can’t make an exception, not even for one so beautiful.”

Josephine smiled and raised herself up tall in her saddle. “I see there to be little need for pieces of parchment in this case, good sir. You see, I am the princess of Aralia,” she announced in her most regal voice.

The soldier eyed her and her entourage silently a moment.

“You are Princess Arwell?” he asked hesitantly.

“Don’t be a fool, boy!” Thadius intervened, before Josephine could reply again. “Let us in if you want to retain your standing! We are here on important business!”

“May I ask what kind of business?” the man asked, standing his ground, though he was visibly nervous now.

“We have a meeting with the regent,” Matthias instructed, riding up next to Josephine.

“What sort of meeting?” the soldier asked.

“A very important one,” Matthias continued.

The man’s eyes narrowed at Matthias. “You are a wizard?” he asked sourly.

“What of it?” Matthias replied curtly.

“We do not take kindly to your people here,” he said. “We haven’t welcomed a wizard in these walls for many years.”

“My good man, as fascinating as this lesson is, the company I keep is no concern of yours. What is of importance is that you allow us to enter this city so that I may go about my business!” the princess commanded curtly.

The man swallowed and turned around, seeking backup from the other soldiers. One of them shrugged at him, which was as much help as he seemed likely to get. He turned back round and nodded. “I will speak with the regent’s aides. You will need to wait here though,” he instructed.

“Very well. It seems I have little choice,” the princess sighed. The man turned on his heel and slipped into the city through a smaller gate carved out of the much larger main gates. The soldier who had shrugged approached them. He nodded.

“He’ll only be a moment your highness. Regulations, you understand.” He smiled, and shrugged again. “Trouble is we get too many bleedin’ Aslemerians trying to come in these days. We have to be cautious for our own safety.”

The princess stared at him icily. “Do I look like an Aslemerian?” she asked. “Do I have the tan of a man who spends his life in the heat of that parched land? Perhaps it is the lack of a beard or the accent that confused you? No?” The man’s smile fell.

“No. No, I can see you aren’t one of them,” he tailed off. “But… rules is rules for all. Even royalty.” He turned around and slipped back amongst the others.

“I don’t think I’ll try and bribe them to gain entrance,” Matthias whispered.

“That may not be the best of ideas,” Josephine replied, maintaining her stance. “And thank you very much for not telling me about our requiring papers!”

“I forgot. It’s been a busy week, after all,” he said sheepishly. “I thought our biggest obstacle would be them recognising me as being a wizard.”

She shook her head. “And what if they will not let us in?” she asked him.

Matthias smiled. “Trust me, that won’t happen. Who has ever heard of royalty being turned away?”

“I’ve never heard of royalty being made to wait at a gate before either,” she said. “But it seems times are changing!”

As they waited, Matthias stared up at the massive wooden wall. He couldn’t even see its top from where they were standing.

“Impressive, isn’t it?” Luccius commented behind him.

Matthias nodded. “It is. But do you know what I’m thinking?” He turned around to look at Luccius, who shrugged. “Our ancestors made a big mistake putting a fire breathing dragon in a city constructed almost entirely of wood.”

After almost a half – hour of waiting, the soldier reappeared, followed by an old man and two other soldiers dressed in liveried tabards. They approached their group hastily.

“This is Ambassador Elstace,” the soldier said, indicating to the old man. “He will be accompanying you to the fortress, your highness.”

The ambassador was almost entirely bald, but sported a trimmed grey beard and spectacles. His purple robe was emblazoned with the emblem of Olindia: a sceptre topped with the ‘Falsted Crown’: a golden, tri – point coronet. The country hadn’t had a king in years now, but the crown remained as a symbol of their land. The man bowed deeply until it seemed his head would hit the earth.

“My lady, welcome to Crystal Ember,” Ambassador Elstace said. “This is a most unexpected pleasure! We had no idea you were visiting our city. Or, indeed, our country!”

“An unannounced trip ambassador,” she replied. “I wanted no fuss to be made.”

The man nodded. “Of course. I am certain the regent will be pleased to see you after so many years. Please,” he indicated with a hand. “Follow me. I shall take you straight to the palace.” He clapped his hands theatrically and the guards opened the larger gates for them to ride through. Elstace beckoned for them to enter and they cantered into the city on horseback, accompanied by an escort on foot.

“It has been many years since we have had the pleasure of any royal visit on our soil,” Ambassador Elstace commented as he walked by the side of the princess.

“One of the few disadvantages of our lasting peace, ambassador, is that we keep ourselves so often to ourselves nowadays,” Josephine replied.

The Ambassador nodded. “Indeed. I last visited Rina nearly two years ago. Since then, only written correspondence has been possible with your court. These have been busy times for Olindia.”

“I trust that all is well in your realm?” Josephine asked.

“Oh yes, quite well. In fact, we are on the edge of a new golden age, I am pleased to say, now that we have opened up new trade links with Ordovier. The mysterious wares of the northern lands are starting to trickle through to us. But alas, it has meant that I have not been able to spend as much time in the company of your people as I would like.”

“All the more reason for my visit then,” Josephine smiled.

“I am curious as to why you have come so far with so few escorts?” The ambassador asked. “I can most certainly understand your wish to visit without ceremony, but to bring an entourage of only three is most unusual. Where are your maids? The soldiers to protect you?”

Josephine smiled. “Do I have need of soldiers to defend me in Olindia?” she asked.

Elstace shook his head. “Of course not. At least not from any of our civilised people. But there are some rogues who would threaten you along the less travelled of roads between our nations.”

“Well, I have arrived safely, without need of any other men. As for the maids, I have found that I am perfectly capable of doing without them for a while.” She smiled. “It is an adventure, in fact, to travel in this way.”

“But why should you need to travel so light?”

“Ambassador, I feel as if I am being interrogated,” Josephine retorted. “So many questions!”

“Of course. I apologise for prying, but this is such an unusual circumstance. It is not often we have no knowledge of comings and goings within our borders. Why, for you to have even arrived in Olindian territory without our knowledge is a feat in itself.”

“Perhaps your spy network needs to be reviewed?” sniffed Thadius.

The ambassador regarded him with a taut expression. “I fear you mistake my curiosity for something more underhand,” he said to Thadius. “I can assure you that is not the case.”

They rode through the central plaza, where the marble pillar holding Sikaris stood in the centre of rings of red and blue stone mosaic. Josephine craned her neck to look up at the dragon. She could not see much of him from where she was, only the two curling wings and a little of the open jaw. Her spine tingled. Right now there were unseen forces working on that very spot, eroding the stone prison. For all she knew it could break at any moment. She exhaled heavily.

“Are you alright?” Matthias asked her quietly as Elstace continued on ahead.

“That thing is enormous! How am I supposed to create a barrier around that? I could barely form one around Thadius!”

Matthias looked up at the creature. His eyes were squinted as if he were trying to spot something. He fiddled with his staff in his hands absent-mindedly.

“We’ll find a way,” he said.

“That is all very well you saying, but how?” she hissed.

Luccius approached him from the other side before he could answer her. His ears were twitching.

“I can feel something,” he said under his breath. “I’m not sure what, but it’s making my heart beat like mad and my ears tingle like I’ve been rolling around in itching powder!”

Matthias nodded. “I feel something too. It feels like…” he began, and then stopped abruptly.

What?” Luccius motioned to him to continue.

“The calm before a storm,” he finished, glowering at the pillar.

The portcullis of the barbican was already raised as they crossed the drawbridge over the moat. They dismounted from their horses and left them at one of the stable yards, where they would be tended to by a young boy named Jyrri, who stood transfixed by Luccius’s ears while they handed them over to him. They walked through grand double doors of the interior fortress and into the heart of Crystal Ember’s fortifications. The steel heels of the soldiers’ heavy boots clicked on the wide, white and black – flecked marble floor of the entrance room. They approached another man: a short, almost comical looking man, dressed to the neck in red and purple velvet, his sleeves and his breeches puffed up and crimson tights stretched over his spindly legs.

“This is Nicholas. He will be taking you to see Protector Balzan,” Ambassador Elstace instructed.

“Balzan?” Matthias exclaimed. “I thought we were going directly to the regent?”

The ambassador shrugged his broad shoulders. “I was asked to bring you to the protector first of all. He is very interested to meet with you, princess.”

“Is it the princess he is interested in, or me?” Matthias asked.

Elstace smiled. “I believe he would like to speak with you all prior to your meeting with the regent. It is a common practice, especially during these busy times. I hope you understand princess?”

Josephine’s lips thinned. “If it is necessary, then we shall meet with the protector,” she said with disdain.

The ambassador bowed. “Very good your highness. If you will excuse me, I left an important meeting to escort you this far, and I am afraid I must return to it. Nicholas will accompany you to the protector. Good day to you.” The ambassador bowed himself away and the two soldiers moved away with him.

“I don’t like this,” Luccius whispered, as the man called Nicholas jerked into motion in front of them, his nose struck in the air, feathered hat bobbing about precariously as if it might fall off at any minute. It was far too large for the man, but he seemed too proud of his regalia to notice. He strutted several paces in front of them at speed, as if oblivious to their very existence.

Matthias shook his head. “It’s not good. At all,” he whispered back to them. “There’s only one reason we are going to see him, and that is because I’m here.”

“Why would the man care so much about you?” Thadius asked. “I know they don’t exactly like wizards in Olindia, but it seems a little egotistical to think you’re that important to them Matthias.”

“The protector isn’t just the second in command of Olindia. He’s an exiled wizard,” he hissed as quietly as he could.

Josephine nodded. “Of course!” she exclaimed. “It didn’t even enter my mind on our journey here about that. He has been in Olindia for decades. Much longer than I’ve been alive.” She squinted. “I think I remember him though, when I visited here a long time ago. I was about seven years of age. He was very tall as I recall.”

“Isn’t everyone when you are that young?” Luccius commented as they continued following their guide.

Josephine smiled back at him and then she shook her head. “I can’t recall what he was like as a person. I do not think I spent much time in his company.”

“I had hoped we wouldn’t this time either,” Matthias whispered. “It was my plan for us to meet directly with the regent before he even knew I was here. Then we could have explained things to him without interference.”

“You said he was exiled,” Thadius continued. “For what?”

“It’s a long story,” Matthias replied. “But I doubt he’ll be happy to see me.”

“Surely you of all of your kind have more in common with a man exiled for disobeying his people’s wishes?” The knight continued to question.

“This isn’t someone who simply disagrees with the way Mahalia operates,” Matthias said, trying hard to keep quiet despite the obvious emotion in his voice. “This is someone who hurt people in an effort to advance his own ambitions. All the stories I’ve heard of him…” he shook his head. “He isn’t a nice person. He is an enemy of Mahalia”

“I like him already,” Thadius retorted.

“This isn’t a laughing matter, Thadius. He doesn’t care who you are: if you are a princess or a stable boy. He only cares if you’re of use to him. If he finds out what Josephine is, he will abuse her power. I am certain of it.”

Thadius sighed. “Brilliant. Yet another plan of yours falls apart at the seams. Tell me, who put you in charge again?”

Matthias stared at the knight distastefully. “I think I preferred you when I first met you back in Rina. You’ve grown increasingly dour, Thadius.”

“It must be the company I’m keeping,” he said, then gave a start. “That is not a reflection on you princess,” he added quickly.

“I do wish you would both stop bickering for just one day! Matthias is correct about you, Thadius. I have never known you so dejected. Please try to stay positive. After all, it isn’t you who needs to stop the dragon!”

Thadius blushed. “I’m sorry, your highness,” he stuttered and fell silent.

After a few more minutes of walking, Nicholas stopped outside a large, wooden door.

“You will wait here,” he instructed Josephine tersely and then stepped inside the room.

Who does he think he’s talking to?” Thadius growled. “He should address you properly princess.”

“I can’t say I care much for him,” Josephine responded.

“Listen,” Matthias said hurriedly. “Before you speak of anything to the protector, think about what information you are giving over to him. From what I have heard, he will bend anything to suit his own needs. We can’t trust him.”

Josephine sighed. “Matthias, it is fair to say that over the last few weeks, knowing who to trust and who not to has grown increasingly more difficult. Never before in my life have the lines between good and bad been so blurred. So I will rely on my instinct, because it is all I have left to point my moral compass in the right direction.”

Matthias nodded. “As you wish. But just… be careful.”

The door opened and Nicholas reappeared.

“Protector Balzan will see you now,” he preened.

“You are most kind,” Josephine smiled, and slipped into the room.

“Cocky little penguin,” Thadius mumbled under his breath as he followed.

Balzan was bent over his desk, his grey sleeves spilling over its expansive top. He was scribbling feverishly with a quill as they approached, seemingly ignorant of their arrival in the room. He was an aged man, with mottled skin and a hooked nose. Bags of skin fell from his eyes giving his face a drawn expression. He wore a coarse, grey cloak that covered him from head to foot and around his neck he wore a pendant like Matthias’s. It looked much older though, as worn and battered as the man himself.

Ahem!” Josephine coughed after a pause, and planted her hands in front of her.

The protector finally looked up and studied them all. He set the pen aside in its inkwell and clasped his hands together in front of him, surveying them all for a moment, his eyes resting on Matthias a second longer than the others, before he opened his mouth to speak.

“A most unexpected encounter,” he said in a florid tone. His accent was a mixture of Mahalian and Olindian. “The princess of Aralia appearing on our soil, as if from nowhere. Most unexpected indeed.”

“Protector,” Josephine acknowledged and nodded her head. “I am grateful to you for meeting with me.”

“Talk of Princess Josephine of Aralia requesting a meeting demands acceptance,” he said, with a smile that somehow never went further than his lips. He stood, leaving the confines of his desk and walked around to greet them. He sank to the floor to kiss Josephine’s hand and then rose again. He took in her appearance and his face creased. She was still pale and gaunt from the effects of the poison and her dress was dirty and muddied.

“Are you quite well?” he asked. “You seem a little worse for wear.”

Josephine nodded. “I assure you I am alright. It has simply been a long journey.”

He nodded slowly. “I see.” He turned his attention to Matthias.

“My, my, they do train them young nowadays,” he smiled. “Tell me, what is your name?”

“Matthias Greenwald, protector,” Matthias said assertively. “And young may be stretching things a little.”

“Well, when you have lived as long as I have, seen so many generations of people come and pass, age becomes a bit of a blur,” he replied staunchly. He turned away from Matthias and back to the princess. “As surprised I was to hear of your appearance in our city, your highness, I was dumfounded when I heard of the entourage with which you have surrounded yourself,” he said.

“How so?” Josephine asked as Balzan indicated a seat for her to sit in. She did so, keeping her back straight and delicately set her hands on her lap as the man returned to his own chair.

“The last I knew your people had about as much love of wizards as they do for the helspawn demons that plague your borders. I wasn’t aware that wizards now formed a part of your court. Nor to the point, that your people knew any ansuwan, who are so rare in these parts to be considered fiction by most.”

“I believe the company I choose is my own business, protector,” Josephine responded curtly. The man smiled thinly and nodded.

Indeed.” He folded his arms. “Well, as I see this line of questioning is unwelcome and unproductive, let us move on. Princess, we are of course honoured by your presence.”

“Curious, for I have yet to see any of the Olindian hospitality which I fondly recall from my last visit,” she said bluntly.

Balzan paused a moment, staring at her as if analysing her every facet. “To see the world through the eyes of a child,” he mused. “Things were so much simpler in those old days.” Then a smile broadened across his face. “How curious it is that one looks back upon a time with such fondness, when in actuality, things were just as complicated then as they are today.” He shook his head. “I am sorry you do not feel we have welcomed you in the manner you are accustomed. Perhaps we can correct that error from this point on, hmm?”

“I should like that, protector,” she nodded.

The man bowed his head and moved slowly to the far wall, where he passed his mottled hand over the large, grey, stone brick level with his chest. The brick split into a dozen smaller bricks and then folded outwards as if crawling of their own volition out of the wall, revealing a hollow in which several glass bottles sat on a purple velvet cloth. He selected one that was more than half depleted and clasping a small glass from the alcove, placed it on his desk and pulled the stopper from the bottle.

“I never keep the good stuff anywhere obvious,” he said as he poured a small amount of the blue liquid into the glass and handed it to Josephine.

“What is it?” she asked, staring warily at the contents.

“A beverage from across the North Sea. The peel of the laraha fruit, dyed with the blue of the butterfly pea. I’ve had it for years – so many in fact, that I can’t even recall how it came to be in my possession. But it is quite nice in small quantities and has a unique taste.” He filled his own small glass and raised it. “To your good health.”

Josephine raised her own glass and lifted it to her lips, sipping at the drink. “It tastes a little like oranges,” she said, nodding and supping a little more. “A little bitter for my tastes though.” She replaced the glass on the protector’s desk. “Thank you all the same.”

The old man nodded. “I hope you will not take it as a further affront to your privacy if I ask what exactly it is that brings you all the way here? And in such an unusual manner.”

“I believe that is one question I am willing to answer, at least in part. I have urgent matters I need to discuss with Regent Caldur that concern my realm and Olindia equally.”

Balzan’s sharp eyes regarded her carefully. “What matters could you have to discuss with the regent that would so heavily involve the realm of the east?” he asked slowly, glaring at Matthias.

“I believe that is our business to discuss with the Regent,” Matthias interjected.

Balzan lingered on him a moment, his gaze implacable, but then, with an abrupt nod, he conceded. “Very well young wizard, you have made your point. Matthias Greenwald?” He mulled over the words. “Yes, I remember hearing your name, many years ago. Back then you were just an apprentice of course. It seems you have come far.”

“As some people rise others fall,” Matthias responded. “Is that not the way of the world we live in?”

Balzan smiled thinly. “Perhaps. Though I would never pity those who fall from grace, Matthias. They are the ones who keep their ears closer to the ground and see the world from a whole new perspective.” He stood abruptly and took a breath. “I will speak with the regent your highness. But he is a very busy man. I cannot say how long it will be until he can see you.”

“Surely he can make time for the princess?” Thadius poised.

“Possibly. In the meantime I will arrange for you to convene somewhere more comfortable than these cold chambers.”

“As you wish protector,” Josephine acquiesced, maintaining her composure as Balzan indicated for her to stand. “But I must speak with the regent as soon as possible. Please, I would implore you to impress upon him the urgency of my request.”

Balzan nodded thoughtfully. “With the greatest respect your highness, it is surprising how one reassesses what is urgent the older they get, when one is forced to carry heavier burdens,” he posited. “What may be of dire importance to you is not necessarily so to the regent, especially in these times. Whilst I will not again attempt to impart from you the specifics of your being here, for fear of setting off the apprehensions of your wizardly companion again, might I at least enquire as to the prevailing subject of that which you wish to discuss with him?”

Josephine turned to Matthias behind her, hoping for some kind reassurance or advice to be passed silently in their gaze. From the intensity of his stare, she sensed that dropping the name of the dragon into the conversation at this point was not a move he would suggest.

“I will only say that I need to speak with him without delay. To linger would invite great danger to Olindia.”

Balzan stared at her, weighing her words. “Were one to take those words literally, one could infer in them a threat, your highness.”

“The only threat is time, protector. I suggest we do not waste any more of it here.”

He took a breath and nodded. “Very well.” He pulled the door open and clicked his fingers. Nicholas popped his head through the gap, and Balzan gave instructions to him. “I will visit the regent now. If you will follow Nicholas he will take you to the guest chambers. I will return shortly.”

“Thank you protector,” Josephine said. Then with a sweep of his long cloak, Balzan vanished down the corridor.

When he had gone, they followed Nicholas down the corridor in silence, ascending up a wooden staircase and turning into another, before the man skittered to a halt and opened up a large, mahogany door.

“These are your chambers,” he said without emotion. “I will have food and drink brought to you shortly.”

“Thank you,” Josephine replied, as he motioned them into the room.

“Please do not leave this room,” he instructed, and with a bow of his head, shut the door behind himself.

“I really don’t like that man,” Thadius muttered.

Luccius chuckled. “If it is any comfort, I don’t think he likes you either.”

“Or any of us,” Matthias added.

Josephine sat down on one of the chairs in the room and sighed. “Well that encounter was not quite as awful as I had expected it to be,” she said. “From what you told us of the protector I half expected him to pin me to the wall with the earth power and wring my neck!

“Well, I don’t like him either,” Thadius sniffed. “He had very little respect for you, your highness.”

She smiled. “I am used to speaking with people like him Thadius. He would not be the first man who talked down to me like I am a child. Aside from a little pomposity and some natural curiosity, he did not seem that unaccommodating.”

Matthias shook his head. “No, perhaps not. But there are some very good actors in this world, princess, and I fear he may be one skilled at manipulating anyone who crosses his path.” He smiled. “But you did brilliantly.”

She nodded. “Now we have a little more time, perhaps you could enlighten us to what he is supposed to have done?

Matthias took a breath. “Everything I have heard comes from my people and half of it does not bear repeating.”

“And the other half?” Luccius interjected. Matthias gave him a wary look.

“Well there is one thing that is abundantly clear. He is uncomfortable with your position by my side,” Josephine commented.

“I could feel his distrust towards you, Matthias,” Luccius added.

“I did not realise you could read minds as well as talk to trees and horses!” Thadius jibed.

“You don’t need to be a mind reader to see what’s as plain as the nose on your face,” Luccius rebutted.

“You did not exactly help the situation,” the princess said to Matthias.

“What did I do?” Matthias asked, surprised.

“You were somewhat blunt.”

Matthias shook his head. “Perhaps I was a little cold towards him. But I felt the need to cast a strong figure in his presence.”

“Well you certainly showed that you don’t approve of him,” she said.

“He would be wary of anything to do with Mahalia, whatever attitude I projected to him. Given the nature of his relationship with my people I would expect nothing else. Unfortunately, that distrust has extended itself on to Olindia. They didn’t like wizards even before Balzan decided to seek refuge with them. Now with his influence they would welcome the plague with more warmth. There hasn’t been a Mahalian ambassador here for years.” He sighed. “I just hope the regent is a little more open minded.”

Josephine nodded. “I am hopeful he will be. I have met him before, though as I said I was but a child at the time. He always struck me as kindly and I believe my father has maintained a rapport with the man these past years. Which is no small feat given how the country revolted and killed their own king, before they set up their so-called republic.” She smiled at Matthias. “So if he will not listen to you, Matthias, then I am sure he will listen to me.”

“Let us hope you are right,” Matthias replied. “Or we will have come a long way for nothing.”

Distrust

142nd Day of the Cycle, 495 N.E. (New Era)

 

The mid-morning skies grew cloudy as they waited for Balzan to return. After a half – hour, a lamplighter- a young man dressed in a plain linen shirt and baggy trousers- entered the room and lit the ensconced oil lanterns built into the walls, casting out the gloom that had crept its way into the chambers as they continued to wait. Shortly afterwards a maid brought in a tray filled with a variety of drinks for them and placed it on the table in the middle of the ring of purple - cushioned chairs they sat in. Josephine sipped at a delicate rose wine and Luccius filled his carafe with a sweeter white vintage. Thadius gulped back a red wine and then proceeded to cough and splutter as he swallowed, muttering about there being too many spices for his taste.

“Do you think he is doing this on purpose?” Luccius asked, fidgeting in his chair as another half – hour passed.

“Anything’s possible,” Matthias replied from the opposite chair, tapping his fingers on the top of his staff. “But if he is, then he is making us very comfortable whilst he does so.” He stood up and moved to the window. “It looks like it may rain,” he commented. “That will not help matters.”

“I don’t even see why we have to be here any longer!” Thadius exclaimed. “We came to stop the dragon, not chat with the regent. The beast is out there waiting for us!”

“I wish it was that easy Thadius,” Matthias replied. “But if Josephine were to try and repair the shield from the city, it would be from a position where she couldn’t even see the dragon. If we can gain access to the battlements we will be in a much better position. As much as I would like to, we can’t just barge on to the crenulations. Balzan would throw us off the edge! Besides, we couldn’t even get into the city without an armed guard escorting us every step of the way. How would you propose we sneak out of the fortress?” He pointed to the door. “I would place good money on there being a guard outside this room as we wait.”

Thadius sighed and nodded. “I see your point. I just dislike waiting! After all the hardships we have undertaken to get here! We are trying to save these ungrateful people!”

“In fairness, they don’t even realise there is anything to be saved from,” Josephine commented. “But nevertheless, it does seem that I may not have been convincing enough in stressing to Balzan how time was of the essence.” She shook her head glumly.

At that point, as if on cue, the door to the chamber creaked open again and Balzan walked into the room. He bowed his head.

“Princess, I must apologise for the delay. The regent is indisposed at present.”

“Did you tell him how important it is I speak with him?” Josephine asked angrily.

“I did. He has advised me that he will send for you as soon as he possibly can. In the meantime, he has asked me to sit with you and make you feel welcome.” He sat down and began pouring himself some of the wine. “I must admit princess, that I am somewhat concerned at your hesitation to speak with me. Is it that you feel I would be incapable of relaying your news to the regent? Or is it that you do not trust me?” His eyes flicked to Matthias as he sipped his drink.

Josephine smiled. “Protector, it is not a matter of trust. It is a matter of principle. I have travelled a very long way to discuss matters with the sovereign power of this country. With the greatest of respect, you are not that person.”

Balzan nodded. “I am the second in command of this realm. When the regent is busy, as he very often is, I act as his mouthpiece in all matters,” the man replied.

Josephine looked amusedly at the man. “That may be so, but I need his eyes and ears.”

Balzan sat back and considered her words a moment, failing to suppress a smile as he finished the wine in his glass.

“You play the game well, your highness. Your eloquence, it seems, matches your famous beauty.”

She smiled. “It has always been a disappointment to me that people felt more compelled to spread word of the colour of my eyes and the style of my hair more than the strength of my convictions.”

Balzan nodded. “A mark of the world we live in, my dear, where men so often wield power. A woman is much better to be seen than heard, so they say.”

“Speaking of such matters,” Matthias interjected, “whilst we are waiting, I am interested to know how exactly you came to find yourself in a position of such power?”

Balzan laughed to himself. “I’d have thought the council would have made you aware of their thoughts relating to my departure already, if they sent you here to meet with me,” he said. Then, when Matthias did not answer, his eyes narrowed. “What level are you?” he asked, the curiosity plain in his voice.

“I am a member of the eighth tier,” Matthias said after a pause, with as little emotion as he could manage.

Balzan’s eyes flickered with surprise. “And you have been assigned to escort royalty?” he asked.

“My assignments are none of your concern, Protector,” Matthias said.

The man looked at Matthias for a moment longer, then stood and moved to the table, where he refilled his glass with some of the spiced wine. “Perhaps not. It depends on your point of view, I suppose. To answer your question, Matthias Greenwald, it is simply a matter of good fortune that upon my exile from Mahalia I found many friends in Olindia willing to trust my judgement.” He eased his aged frame back into his seat.

“And why would a country like Olindia, who hates wizards as much as they profess to, trust the judgement of a traitor found to be selling secrets?” Matthias pressed, his voice animated.

Matthias,” Josephine interrupted, “That is not an appropriate manner to address the protector,” she scolded. “And not the time to discuss such things!”

Balzan raised a hand. “Your highness, please,” he said. “It is alright. I expected a level of acerbity during this meeting, when I learned of a wizard’s presence. You are aware that Mahalia has never had a good relationship with Olindia. They have made many enemies in this world. It is only their grasp of the earth power that keeps them at the centre of events. I offered to help Olindia resist Mahalian interference in exchange for a place to call home. It has been a relationship that has served us both well.”

Josephine nodded. “My father has spoken on more than one occasion about his jealousy as to the freedom your land enjoys from Mahalian interference.”

“And yet, here a wizards sits, by your side, counselling you?”

Josephine smiled. “A long story, which is for the regent’s ears alone, I am afraid.”

Balzan sat back and tapped his fingers on the chair. “I see there is to be no budging you on that point. No doubt that is a result of Matthias’s advice not to tell me things for fear I will use them to my own advantage?” Josephine remained calm and said nothing. The man sighed. “That you would trust the advice of Mahalia over the relationship forged between your father and the regent is deeply saddening to me,” he said. “Would the regent really have a man in his employ who is capable of such deception or mistrust?”

“If it suits his needs,” Matthias interjected aggressively.

“You speak as if you come from a position of moral superiority, Matthias,” the protector said distastefully. “When I know for certain many of your masters are as corrupt as those creatures that live to the south of Aralia’s borders.”

Matthias sat forward in his chair. “I will concede that our people aren’t perfect, protector,” Matthias began.

“They aren’t my people anymore,” Balzan cut in sharply.

Matthias nodded. “Very well. My people,” Matthias corrected. “We have not always made the best decisions. That is one fact to which I will unashamedly admit. But from what I know, because of your actions, hundreds of people were killed. Innocent people.” He shook his head. “How can you claim the moral high ground here? How do you sleep at night knowing what you did?”

“That is enough!” Josephine snapped and glared at Matthias. “We are not here for this!” Matthias blushed at her fiery look and after a moment nodded. Josephine turned back to Balzan. “I must apologise for my escort,” she said calmly. “It is not my intention to ambush you within your own home.”

Balzan sat back and nodded. He took a breath. “I think, perhaps, we have become side -tracked. In any case, I applaud you princess for your conduct.” He sighed. “I feel I need to be candid about my actions relating to your request. May I?”

“I would prefer it,” Josephine said.

He nodded. “I am deeply concerned about your request of a meeting with the regent. You hint at an unspecified danger, but you will not tell me what that danger is. You have emerged in our realm without warning – a princess bringing such news? Why not an ambassador? Why such a small party? None of this makes sense to me. Neither does the fact that you will not tell me. If the danger is as imminent as it sounds, why not tell me what it is?” He stood. “But, above all else, I am very concerned about the company you keep.” He moved to stand over Matthias. “I do not trust Mahalians. Even lower ranked ones.” Matthias’s nose wrinkled. “That you are here as an advisor to Aralia troubles me, Matthias Greenwald. I am forced to wonder how much influence my former countrymen now have with your king. Aralia has always had difficulties freeing itself from the leash of the council.” He turned back to Josephine. “It is that reason that has given me great pause. To allow access to the regent under these circumstances may present not only a danger to him, but to these people I now protect.”

“You haven’t told him the regent we’re here, have you?” Luccius asked suddenly, joining in the discussion.

Balzan looked at him soberly. He shook his head. “No ansuwan man. No I have not. I am sorry to have deceived you.”

Josephine sat forward. “You have not informed Regent Caldur I am even here? Then what have we been waiting for?”

“I was looking for some proof from our information gatherers that would convince me you are here for the greater good,” he said. “Or some part of me that could justify setting up the meeting you requested. I could find none that could warrant the risk.”

“You have not told the regent because you fear for his safety?” Josephine asked, the frustration evident in her voice. “Is that the reason you deny me this right?”

“I have not informed him because to allow a wizard and those potentially under his influence to have access to the most powerful man in this country. I need to know of what it is you want to speak with him about!” he said, gesturing heatedly with his arms. “Royalty or not, your highness, that is the crux of the matter.”

Josephine stood from her chair. She was a head shorter than the protector, but she looked up at him with no less authority for it. “Do you care for the people of this realm?” she asked him.

Unquestionably,” he responded.

Josephine stared at the man. “I believe you,” she said, and then, after a moment, she nodded. “You are correct. You do have a right to know what is happening here.”

Princess,” Matthias said warily. Josephine turned to Matthias, who was looking at her anxiously.

“What is more important here Matthias?” she asked him. “Keeping secrets or stopping this threat?”

Matthias looked from the protector to the princess, his eyes analysing them intently. “He is not to be trusted!” he exclaimed.

“I don’t believe that,” she rebuffed. Matthias looked hurt. His cheeks flushed. Josephine noticed and her face grew softer. “Matthias, you have looked after us along this journey and I have trusted your judgement this far. But I have to listen to my instincts first.” She turned back to the protector. “I have been told you are a cruel and devious man. I may be able to believe the latter, as I have never met a wizard who is not so. Even this one,” she nodded to Matthias. “But cruel?” She stared into his eyes. “I do not see it.”

Balzan smiled. “Then you see a greater truth than your companion, my dear,” he said warmly.

Josephine turned her head to Matthias. “You may not trust the protector Matthias, but do you trust me?”

Matthias stood and looked at Balzan. His eyes drowned in confusion. Then he looked to Josephine and meeting her gaze again, he took a breath. “Implicitly.”

“Then let me do this,” she asked.

Matthias smiled at her and then, slowly, he nodded. “Tell him.”

An Explanation

142nd Day of the Cycle, 495 N.E. (New Era)

Protector Balzan poured himself another glass of wine – his third in the space of the hour Josephine had taken to tell him about her journey. Now she was finished, they sat and watched as he sniffed at the glass.

“I do enjoy a spiced wine. It reminds me so often of the drinks of Mahalia. Do you not agree Matthias?”

“I would rather hear of your thoughts regarding the information Princess Josephine has just given you than your musings about the comforts of home,” Matthias replied acidly.

Balzan sipped at the wine. “It is a very good vintage.” he said and set the glass on the table, regarding Josephine. “That you can wield one of the powers is one thing, your highness. But… that you are an Akari?” He recited, shaking his head. “It is hard to comprehend.”

Josephine smiled. “I said that you would not believe me, did I not?”

“Did I say I didn’t believe you?” Balzan responded. “It is just hard to do so, when one takes all the current truths of the world into consideration.”

Josephine nodded. “Well that is who I am, whatever your opinion is on the matter. Or at least, I am the heir to their power, if I am not a part of their race. If I have to demonstrate the powers I wield, I will do so. Though you may want to remove anything of value from the room. I am… still learning.”

Balzan smiled. “I do not think that will be necessary,” he said. “Your convictions speak louder than any demonstration can.”

“You do not think this is some kind of Mahalian plot?” Matthias asked with surprise.

Balzan chuckled. “As deceptive as Mahalia can be, it is beyond even their means to weave such a farfetched tale.” He proceeded to pace the room. “Your involvement in this Matthias is almost as surprising as the other aspects of this tale. It seems much has changed in the council if members of its ranks would so openly defy the Consensus.”

“This is not a betrayal,” he said pointedly. “Before you try to find similarities between our two situations, protector. I am acting in the best interests of my people, even if they do not consider it to be so.”

The old man smiled. “You still have much to learn,” he commented and moved to the window, where he stared out at the city. The pillar holding the dragon stretched into the air, and from the perspective of the window only the tail and wings were readily visible. “I believe you,” he said.

“You do?” the princess said with surprise.

He nodded. “I believe that you are what you say you are, or at the very least, that you are a women who can wield one of the powers. I am an expert judge of character, even if I say so myself.” He let out a snort of laughter. “And having practiced the art of deception for so long as a part of Mahalia’s council, I have learned to spot an untruth as soon as it leaves someone’s lips.” He turned to Josephine. “You are no liar, princess. Of that much I am certain. And your companion is not practised enough in the art to pull the wool over my eyes.” Matthias gritted his teeth as Balzan looked back out the window. “That being said, I cannot see how anyone could be working to release the dragon. I test the wards around him regularly. I have never found any weakness.”

“These sorcerers are clever,” Matthias interceded. “They have hidden for centuries without being found. Age has undoubtedly brought them wisdom.”

Balzan sniffed. “I have found that age mostly serves to highlight how little we still truly know of the world. For most people, age simply brings wrinkles. Myself unfortunately included.”

“If it were only the gift of youth these men were after, I would not be so concerned,” Matthias retorted. “But they seem to have other plans afoot.”

Balzan sighed. “I cannot see what releasing the dragon would accomplish, even if these men are the sorcerers you believe them to be.” He squinted at the pillar.

“Protector, I have told you what you wanted to know,” sighed Josephine. “It is all we know. Regardless, I hope you realise now that we are here in your best interests and that we have not come to hatch some plot to undermine you?”

Balzan left the window and returned to where they were gathered behind him. He nodded. “I will accede as much.”

Josephine bowed her head in response. “Then I will repeat my original request. Will you grant me a meeting with the regent?” she asked. “I understand you have a great many things to make sense of. But you may puzzle over the intricacies of our situation whilst I convene with him. We do not have any more time for deliberation.”

Balzan’s jaw worked as he thought. After what seemed an eternity, he finally dipped his head. “I will visit him now and tell him all you have told me. I cannot say how long I will be, but I will send for you as soon as I can.”

Josephine smiled. “You have my thanks, Protector Balzan. You have made the right choice.”

Balzan smiled. “That remains to be seen.” The man swept across the room and opened the heavy door. He turned to regard them once again. “To think, I was having rather an uneventful day…” He smiled and shut the door behind himself.

Luccius let out a deep breath. “Well, I am glad that is over!” he exclaimed. “I have never felt so awkward! I’m only sorry I had nothing to add. I felt like a mute!”

“I think Matthias interceded more than enough for all of you,” she said tersely. “I do not know what you are thinking of, acting so rudely! How are we to earn the trust of the man if you manage to anger him at every opportunity?” She raised her hands to the air. “And I thought you were the one who was supposed to be heading up this quest!”

“I cannot pretend to like the man Josephine. You might believe he is a good man. I can’t.” Matthias shook his head.

“Not that I am always a good judge of character, but he didn’t seem to be a dishonourable man,” Thadius added. “In fact, aside from his bluntness of earlier, he was rather accommodating when you explained everything to him.”

“I agree,” Josephine said. “With that in mind, I would ask that you restrain yourself the next time. You may be a master of your magics Matthias, but this is court life – politics – and I have lived in such a world since birth. I know how to talk to these people.”

Matthias opened his mouth to rebuff her comments, but then, he stopped himself. “You… you are right. I’ve let my personal feelings for the man take over my common sense. You have done exceptionally here, Josephine, whereas I have done the complete opposite.” He sniffed. “But I still can’t bring myself to trust him.”

“I am not asking you to trust him,” Josephine said. “I just need you to remain calm in his presence until this is over. I need your support, now more than ever.”

Matthias nodded. “You have it.”

Josephine moved to the window and stared at the dragon’s wings, hovering above them. She took a breath. “How am I going to do this?” she asked.

“With my help,” Matthias replied. “We will find a way.”

“It looks so lifeless. How could anything live for so long, trapped in such a way? Could we… could we not simply smash him to pieces? Push him off the pillar?”

“Now that is a good question,” Thadius added. “If he is made of stone, why not grind and crumble him to dust?”

“I wish we could, but it isn’t that simple,” Matthias advised.

“Why am I not surprised?” Thadius sniffed.

“Many have tried to smash or destroy a petrified person, but once they have been turned a creature’s body becomes as impenetrable as urunahenium. They are not technically turned to stone, despite the use of the word. It is more a kind of diamond. It’s virtually impossible to destroy. The best solution people have managed is to drown victims of petrification in the deepest of seas or else, bury them.”

“Then why did they not do that with Sikaris?” Luccius asked.

“Because he is a symbol of the greatest victory man has ever accomplished. And people are too full of pride in their past accomplishments to ever consider doing what might be sensible.”

After more than an hour had passed, the door opened and Protector Balzan reappeared. They regarded him eagerly. He smiled.

“You have your meeting, princess.”

Regent Caldur

142nd Day of the Cycle, 495 N.E. (New Era)

The Regent sat in a big, purple, cushioned chair, his big, round glasses balanced loosely upon the bridge of his pointed nose, which twitched as his bristly great moustache tickled his upper lip. He rifled through the stack of documents that were piling up on and around his desk. Being regent had become a mammoth task lately. Years had passed since his appointment and ensuring all the wheels of government were kept well greased in the transition was not easy. He swore that this was what had turned him grey, rather than the fact that he was approaching sixty. Had he known what he was getting into all those years ago, when he, together with an army of revolutionaries, stormed the fortress and toppled the despotic king, he might have taken a different path. The years in – between his bloody youth and the present had brought him a wisdom he had never anticipated, and he was grateful, but he never imagined there would be quite as much paperwork involved in ruling a country!

Sighing, he signed off another form with the thick, swan feather quill and replaced the nib in the inkwell and tapped the pile of papers in front of him, placing it neatly to his right as the dark mahogany door of his chamber rattled in its frame. Yawning, he beckoned entrance. Balzan bowed his way into the chamber.

“Regent, may I present Princess Josephine of Aralia and her… entourage.”

“Thank you Balzan,” he smiled and wrinkled crows feet stretched across his face as he did so. “That will be all for now. Please could you wait outside?”

The protector bowed his head and shut the door to join the purple-cloaked officials who stood outside.

“Princess Josephine,” The regent said warmly. “It has been far too long!”

“Indeed it has, Regent Caldur,” Josephine replied, smiling back. “I was but a child when we last spoke.”

“And what a woman you have become. Look at you!” He shook his head. “How is your father?” he asked.

“He is well. A little greyer perhaps than when last you both met.”

The regent smiled. “Well if it is a consolation to him, he is not the only one! Please, take a seat,” he added and motioned to the empty chair in front of him. There was only one on the other side of the desk, so the others stood behind Josephine as the regent pulled it out for her to sit in.

Matthias studied the man from where he stood behind Josephine. He was short, almost dwarf – sized. It seemed ironic that a man of such small stature oversaw the entire Olindian Realm with such ferocity. The Regent was known for his hard bargaining, and for a past that seemed a stark contrast to the genial and mild-mannered figure before him. He and Balzan made a formidable team.

“You are still as gentlemanly as ever,” Josephine said.

The regent smiled. “Gentleman.” He twisted the word between his teeth. “I have been called many a thing my dear princess, but never a gentleman. Are you sure you do not confuse me with someone else?”

She smiled. “You have forged a lasting bond between our two lands. It is a peace hard fought.”

Caldur nodded distantly. “The peace brought between our nations is perhaps my greatest achievement in these troubled times. For your father, a king, to speak with me as an equal, after the murder of his distant relative…” he shook his head. “It took a lot of hard work, on both sides. I am grateful to your father for having the foresight to recognise our legitimacy.”

Josephine smiled. “We have lost our taste for war,” she said. “It brings no good to my people.”

Caldur smiled. “If only all rulers were as enlightened. Perhaps you could talk with Emperor Chalize of Aslemer?”

“I fear that anything we say to him may fall on deaf ears,” Josephine grinned.

“Alas, I digress,” Caldur shrugged. The small man took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes then, replacing them carefully upon his nose. “Balzan has told me your story. It seems that you have made quite an impression on him, which, believe me, is no easy feat. He believes you.”

“The protector is a clever man,” Josephine continued. “I am glad he has had the wisdom to see the truth.”

“The question you wish to ask next, I believe, is ‘do I?’” The man smiled again. “It is a question I must admit, that I am struggling to find an answer to.”

“The correct answer is ‘yes’,” Josephine replied, smiling

“Forgive me, princess, but I cannot come to such an answer. Not yet.”

“You still do not believe us in spite of Balzan’s acceptance of the facts?” Matthias asked, interjecting.

“Wizard, I have lived a long time. Not as long as Balzan, that much is certain, but long enough to have gained an instinct that guides my decisions in many things. It has served me well. Balzan’s opinion does add credence to your statements, but I must rely on my own judgement at the end of the day.”

Matthias sighed. “Regent, I may look young, but I have experienced much. One thing I have found, especially recently, is that sometimes you have to acknowledge that you are not always right. You have to trust another’s judgement over your own.”

“Trust is something I have found little use for with your people,” Caldur replied sourly. “Tell me princess, why do you travel with this man so freely? Does it not grate upon your soul to be dealing with a wizard?”

Matthias let his head fall dejectedly. Josephine looked to him and then addressed the regent again. “Many probably asked of you that very same question when the protector sought sanctuary in your lands. Matthias Greenwald is a honourable man. In spite of everything that your people and mine think of Mahalia, this wizard is one I trust with my life, and the lives of my people. I know it is difficult to ask you to do the same, but I would implore you to try.” Matthias looked to her and a smile bloomed on his lips.

Caldur turned from Josephine to Matthias. “Strong words from a woman whose family I have great respect for. Is there anything you can do to reinforce those words?” he asked Matthias.

“Regent, may I be candid?” Matthias asked.

“Please do,” the man nodded, and then he chuckled. “A candid wizard? This should be interesting.”

“I have journeyed a long way in an effort to preserve peace and save as many lives as possible. Along this trip I have met with many people of power, and have had to convince them time and again that what I speak is the truth. It has been like herding cats. My methods up until now have been unorthodox, illegal, and even on occasion, perhaps dishonourable. But in the end, all I want is to help save this world from danger. I know you don’t hold any belief in Mahalia’s council. That is fine. As Balzan might have told you, I have similar reservations for some in its ranks. But believe me, as an individual, as a man who has risked his life on this journey, when I say we have precious little time left for doubts. The dragon could break free at any moment. The men who work on releasing him are relying on our mutual distrust to further their cause. The dragon doesn’t care about who trusts who or which country doesn’t like which. It will kill indiscriminately, because that is what it has been programmed to do by forces older that any of us and more sinister than we can comprehend.”

Regent Caldur sat in silence for a minute, his narrowed eyes studying Matthias carefully, steepled fingers bending back and fourth.

“A fine speech, young man. If, indeed, you are as young as you look. It is, perhaps, the finest speech I have heard come from the lips of one of your people in all my years. And do you know why?” Matthias shook his head. “Because it came from the heart, which is something your kind seem to forget even exists.” He looked back to the princess. “I can see why you place such faith in this man.”

“Please regent,” Josephine pleaded. “Help us.”

Caldur tapped on his desk and sucked his bottom lip as they looked on. Then after a moment of agonising hesitation, he spoke again.

“Alright, princess, I hate to see you looking so troubled. It will not do at all. Suppose you are correct. How are you going to stop the dragon breaking free?” he asked, open – handed. “I understand that you are believed to wield some kind of power?” He sniffed. “I find that hard to believe of you.”

“It is true,” the princess responded.

“You do not find her abhorrent?” Caldur asked Matthias. “A woman using the powers of this world?”

Matthias smiled. “Quite the opposite.”

“Perhaps I should be concerned myself,” the regent said. “But I have always thought that if a woman using the power makes Mahalia so nervous, then it can only be a good thing.” He smiled. “But you are so young, my dear girl, and so fragile!

“I thought the same of myself once. But I am not as delicate as I look. I have survived a great many things, regent, and I can do this,” Josephine said defiantly.

Caldur was silent for a moment more whilst they all looked on at him. Then he clicked his tongue and drummed on the green leather table surface again.

“Only a fool would dismiss such a warning completely out of hand when it is given, I suppose. Especially when it is reinforced by the legitimacy of Protector Balzan.” He turned to Josephine. “I can see that you too have taken great pains to reach me, my dear lady, to warn us of this threat. So how can we help you?”

“With your permission, I will need to make use of your fortress,” Josephine asked. She looked to Matthias again for guidance.

“We need to use the battlements,” Matthias added. “It will assist the princess in resealing the prison.”

Caldur nodded. “I will permit you access to the fortifications. You will understand that you will be required to be accompanied, however. Protector Balzan will do. Ask him for whatever else you might need to assist you.”

“That is a most kind offer, regent. You have my thanks.”

Caldur nodded. “It’s the least I can do, I suppose, now you have come all this way. That, and I also insist that we dine together tonight, when you have finished… whatever it is you need to do.”

“I have eaten very little recently,” Josephine smiled. “A feast would be a welcome offer!”

Caldur smiled and stood up, bowing to Josephine, as she stood up in turn and curtsied. “I remember when you were so very young. How time passes without our realising.”

Josephine laughed. “I remember coming here very well,” she replied, with a girlish smile. “You gave me sweets. I don’t suppose you have any?” she asked. “They were lovely.”

“I am afraid I do not have any brought up to me anymore.” He gnashed his jaws. “Rots the teeth. But I am sure I could rustle some up for you though. I will have them sent to your chambers,” he chuckled. “However, if you don’t mind princess-” he gestured to the various stacks of parchment about his desk. Unfortunately this horrendous paperwork does not sign itself.”

“Of course,” Josephine nodded. “Thank you again. We will bid you good day.” Caldur went to reach for the door and opened it for her.

“I certainly hope that your beliefs are wrong,” he said quietly to himself as he closed it behind them.

Up the Tower

142nd Day of the Cycle, 495 N.E. (New Era)

Protector Balzan shuffled along the corridor, followed by Matthias, Thadius and Josephine. Luccius had left them at the regent’s office moments earlier.

“I won’t be needed for this,” he suggested, as the protector motioned for them to join him. “I’d imagine you will all be busy for quite a while. If you three don’t mind, I would like to go back down into the city for a while. See the sights. It is, after all, why I travel.”

“And I suppose that tavern you spied on the way in has nothing to do with it?” Matthias joked.

“I’ll have you know that sightseeing is a great passion of mine.”

“As is the brewing of ale, as I recall!” Matthias grinned.

“No so much brewing it as drinking it,” Luccius replied, shrugging.

“That’s fine,” Matthias replied. “If we need you, we’ll send word.”

“Nicholas, please escort our guest back out to the square,” Balzan commanded.

The pompous little man bobbed and then turning on his heel, led Luccius away, who waved to them all as he left with a grin.

Matthias shook his head. “That’s him lost for the evening.”

“Ahem,” Balzan coughed. “Shall we proceed?”

“Please,” Josephine replied. “I should like to get this over with.”

“In a few hours, all this will be over,” Thadius replied as the three of them followed Balzan a few paces behind, down darkened corridors towards the battlements. “We can return to Rina and forget that any of this ever happened.”

“I think it is beyond me to forget all that we have been through Thadius. Nor do I think it would be wise to do so,” Josephine replied. “Besides, the Akari chose me for some greater purpose. The dragon is not the end of this.”

Thadius sighed. “I do not like this one bit. After all we have faced so far, what more could be on the horizon?”

“A horizon of storms,” Josephine smiled under her breath as they walked along.

Matthias looked at her. “What was that?” he asked. “That was very… poetic.”

She shook her head. “Oh, nothing. An old poem I once read I believe. Well, one I began to read. The phrase just popped into my head. It seems quite appropriate now, don’t you think?”

“A poem?” Matthias repeated. “Written by whom?”

“I don’t recall. It was in a box of documents I stumbled upon once.” She shot a blushing glance at Thadius who seemed oblivious as he glanced out of a passing window and inspected his surroundings. Josephine leaned in to whisper to Matthias. “It was in the archives of the palace.”

Matthias nodded. “And you aren’t meant to have gone down there,” he confirmed. “The agreement your people had about that with Mahalia…”

“I snuck down there sometimes when I was younger. There is so much history in those books.”

“I thought you didn’t enjoy reading about such things?” Matthias asked.

“Only when I was forced to do so by my tutors! Besides, I think the fact that the archives were restricted made the books down there all the more interesting.” She sniffed. “Your people restricting our own historical works. It’s ridiculous! Why shouldn’t I have read those books? I could learn a great deal of interesting facts.”

“I think that was the reason my people made that agreement with your ancestor.”

“Your people do not want to be popular, do they?” Josephine asked. “’Don’t do this, don’t touch that’,” she mocked him.

Matthias shook his head. “I don’t think popularity is their motive princess,” he chuckled. “A horizon of storms,” he repeated as they walked.

“Ah! I know who wrote it now!” Josephine exclaimed. “It was Isser Interlok.” She nodded. “Yes, definitely.”

“The mad bard?” Thadius added, listening in after all. “You really were in a place you shouldn’t have been princess! His work is said to have been cursed!”

Matthias looked at Thadius with humour. “There’s no such thing as a cursed poem,” he sniffed. “Isn’t he the one they built the playhouse for in Rina’s courtyard?” Matthias asked.

Josephine nodded. “It has lain unused since long before I was born,” she said. “About fifty years ago, give or take.”

“Why don’t they knock it down then?” Matthias asked.

“Because there is a belief that the building holds the same curse as that which inflicts the man’s poems,” Thadius advised. “To knock it down would be to release them from its stones.”

“Your people have some strange superstitions,” Matthias replied.

“We are several floors down from the battlements,” Balzan called back to them, walking a few paces in front of them. “It will take a few minutes more to get there.”

“Very good, protector!” Josephine called back to him. Then she leaned back in to Matthias. “Why do you appear so worried again?” she asked, noticing Matthias’s furrowed brow.

“I’m not worried,” Matthias replied.

Josephine looked at him askance. “The look on your face says it all,” she said. “It’s your ‘something’s wrong but I do not want to tell you,’ face. You’re getting worse at hiding your thoughts wizard. Come on, out with it.

Matthias shook his head. “Someone has spoken that phrase to me before. It was something Pym said to me, what feels like a long time ago now. He used that exact wording. I remembered wondering about it then. It was such a strange thing to say. I didn’t know it was related to your mad poet.”

“Perhaps it’s a coincidence?” Josephine suggested.

“Maybe. But I don’t tend to believe in coincidences.” Matthias’s eyes narrowed. “Do you remember how the rest of the poem goes?”

Josephine shook her head. “I only read a few lines. It was all very sombre and if I recall, one of the archivists came along and I had to run and hide. I was only eight or nine at the time.”

“Strange then that the line stuck in your mind for so long,” Matthias whispered.

“Does everything have to have a deeper meaning to you?” Thadius hissed. “Why does anyone remember anything?”

They turned a corner and reached a hefty wooden door set into a circular stone wall, where they caught up with Balzan. The protector opened the door, tugging it from its housing. “The spiral steps beyond here stretch up quite a way,” he said. “I hope you have the energy.”

“If you do protector, I do,” Josephine smiled, as he ushered them through. Matthias was the last to go through, followed by Balzan.

“What were you whispering about back there?” Balzan asked. “One could be suspicious of mutterings in such a time of apparent crisis.”

“Nothing important,” Matthias dismissed. “We were talking about poetry, if you must know.”

“What prose could have been so secretive that you needed to whisper about it behind my back?” the man continued.

“For a man with so many secrets of your own you seem determined to listen in on everyone else’s!” Matthias snapped.

“Matthias, it is alright,” Josephine called behind her. “The protector was simply curious. I am sure he does not mean any harm. Is that not so, protector?” Josephine asked with an edge of command about her tone.

“It is as you say princess,” Balzan replied cordially. “Merely the curiosity of an old man.”

“Whilst we are on the subject of curiosities, I myself am curious of something,” Matthias said tersely.

“And what would that be, young wizard?” Balzan asked as they continued to ascend.

“I asked you earlier how you lived with yourself for doing what you did to our people. For selling secrets, causing so much death. You never answered me properly.”

“Matthias, is this really the time?” Thadius asked. “We were just starting to all get along. Why upturn the apple cart?”

“This might be my only other chance to ask,” Matthias replied. “And as everyone else seems to trust this man so blindly, I want to know.”

Balzan puffed as he hoisted himself upwards. “What is done is done boy,” he wheezed. “What bearing would my feelings have on your opinion of me? You have obviously made up your mind already.”

“I am no boy,” Matthias barked back. “So stop being so condescending towards me, and answer the question!”

The princess shook her head. “I might as well not ask anything of you wizard, if you are going to ignore my requests,” she said to Matthias. “I told you to drop it!”

Balzan stopped and the others above stopped with him. “It’s alright princess. I live with myself because there is no other option. I know what I did was right.”

“How can you justify betraying your own people like that?”

Balzan sniffed. “Many would say you have betrayed your people as well by coming here against the Consensus. I wonder what people will say about you in forty years? Perhaps before you judge me you should ask why I was giving away secrets.”

“What do you mean?” asked Matthias.

Balzan sniffed. “You are a smart wizard, Matthias, but you seem to struggle between who you were before you were a wizard and who you are now. You jump from the logic of a scholar to the anger of a youth in rebellion against a people whom you don’t feel you conform to. Nonetheless, it surprises me how someone who clearly seems to have the ability to see the black, the white and most importantly the grey of our people’s actions, can not ask himself what the other side of the rumours and stories Mahalia spun out about my actions could be.”

“You… are telling me the stories are untrue?” Matthias asked warily.

“A man does not reach my position in the council and just throw it away, you know! One hundred and twenty one years I worked my way up that ladder. But when I reached the top, when I became a fully-fledged member of the council I found nothing but corruption.” He spat the word. “There is one thing that rules the council above all else: fear. Fear of losing all that they have become. Fear of anything destabilising the order of things. You know this! If you have come this far against the consensus as you have, you know how much they value their place in the world, how it blinds them to all opposition.” He placed a hand on Matthias’s shoulder. “As I said, ask yourself what stories the council might tell of you and your actions, to justify their own.”

Matthias shook his head anxiously as he absorbed the information. “What…” he began. “What did they do to you? Why did you leave?”

Balzan indicated above him. “I suggest we keep moving as we talk,” he said, and so Josephine and Thadius began to ascend again. Matthias began walking again, glancing back down at Balzan as he did. “The truth of those days is that the council were planning an attack. A terrifying, unprovoked attack on Olindia. They saw what was happening here, with the revolution, and they feared what other rebellions it would bring. So they planned to help restore the monarchy that performed all their bidding. The old king might have hated Mahalia, but he didn’t have the spine to stand up to them. Moreover, they were prepared to shed a lot of innocent blood to do it.” He shook his head. “I couldn’t let them. So I passed on information to Caldur and his allies. They fortified their borders, strengthened their rag – tag insurrection. By the time Mahalia was ready to perform their surprise attack, it was too late. They couldn’t go into Olindia without inciting full scale war in open view of all of Triska.” He sniffed. “Mahalia was not stupid enough to damage their image as peacekeepers so much in outright warfare – not least a war that could go horribly wrong. So they shelved their plans and had to put up with the change of government.”

“And then they found out it was you that was passing information on,” Matthias nodded, realisation dawning.

Balzan nodded. “Of course. So they exiled me. It was a dark affair. They tortured people to get the information they needed to do so. People died through those deeds. Then they spread rumour that I was responsible, that I had killed hundreds to keep my subterfuge unknown, that I was planning to betray Mahalia to increase my own standing, and enact a similar rebellion as had happened in Olindia.” He shook his head and chuckled. “I see those lies have worked very well.” They emerged at the top of the stairs, where a thick wooden door stood closed. Thadius and Josephine stood on the step as the two wizards reached them. “So there you have it, Matthias. You pushed for the truth and I gave it to you. Do you see now why I am so bitter towards your- our – people? It is because they broke my heart,” he whispered. “All those years, believing we were so much better than anyone else! But in the end we were worse.”

Matthias rested against the wall. He nodded.

Josephine placed a hand on his shoulder. “Matthias, are you alright?” she asked gently.

“I am fine Josephine,” he said quietly.

Balzan looked sombre at him. “I am sorry if that was not what you wanted to hear,” he said.

“No,” Matthias said with a great weight to his words. “But it was what I needed to hear. I…” he shook his head. “I apologise, protector. After everything I know about the council, I still brought their bigotry towards you with me.” He shook his head. “I should have known… what a fool I am!”

Balzan shook his head. “You are no fool. Passionate, yes. Passionate in believing in a better world.” The elderly wizard smiled. “You are the first wizard I have told the truth to in so many years. At first I attempted to make others see what was happening. But no – one would listen. So I stopped trying after a while. But after everything I have heard today, you are the closest I have found to someone who can see events for what they really are.” He smiled. “It is good to know there are some wizards remaining who are willing to take such risks for what is right.” He turned to the princess as Matthias absorbed the words. “I think, perhaps, we have done enough wallowing in the past for one day. Perhaps we had best try to work to save the future, hmm?”

Josephine nodded, still squeezing Matthias on the shoulder. “Lead on please, protector,” she replied.

“I’m sorry Josephine,” Matthias whispered. “I should have listened to you. Your instincts were much better than mine.”

“Your apologising to me is becoming rather a habit,” she said. “Come on,” she said to Matthias with a warm smile. “We have a dragon to tame.”

Layer Upon Layer

142nd Day of the Cycle, 495 N.E. (New Era)

A black stone shimmered in the middle of a small, round table as Ambassador Elstace paced around its circumference anxiously, rubbing his hands.

“Come on. Come on!” he hissed. The gem was carved into an irregular shape, not dissimilar to a peanut, if an oversized one as large as his head, standing in a bronze – banded stand, its edges shining purple as they caught the afternoon light outside.

Gingerly Elstace reached out and stroked the largest edge of the gem with a finger. It luminesced as he touched it, pulsing purple, and as he took his hand away it dimmed again.

“I know you are out there! There is precious little time!”

After another few minutes of waiting, the gem began to shift in shape, growing more fat and angular, emitting a noise like two stones being rubbed together, until it formed a crude face. Glowing gemstone eyes regarded him.

“Lord Rajinal,” Elstace breathed with relief.

“What do you want?” the face said, through his gemstone mouth. “I am busy.”

“My apologies,” Elstace said, rubbing his bald head nervously. “But I have terrible news to bring you! The princess of Aralia is here, in Crystal Ember!”

The gem contorted where the brow should have been. “You are certain?” Rajinal asked.

Elstace nodded. “I met her personally. She was travelling with three others- three men, just as you said! I thought it important to let you know, as you requested, as soon as they arrived!”

The face of Rajinal sighed and his eyes dimmed.

“What should I do?” Elstace asked. “Should I try and get to her? She is in the fortress now, with the regent. It may be difficult now for me to get her alone.”

“No, Elstace. You have done all we have asked of you. There will be no need to do anything further today.” The head shifted. “You should leave Crystal Ember now, if you want to live to see the day of the Asternabai. It will not be safe to be anywhere near the city shortly.”

Elstace nodded. “As you command, my lord! And… thank you!” he cried, as the stone began to hiss and smoke. It broke apart and dissolved, leaving a pile of ash on the top of the table.

Quickly, the ambassador packed up his things and left.

“Grimm failed us! Again!” Rajinal roared. The room they stood in was enormous, open-spaced with large, white marble columns at regular intervals. Silar sat on a large, comfortable-looking divan and the other two stood, watching the fuming bear of a man in front of them. “I thought you had given him the abilities he needed to end this threat?”

“I made him a necromancer. He told me himself that he poisoned her, using the curse of assan! What more could I do?

“If the curse was used, how can the princess still be alive?” Maevik grumbled. “The antidote is so complex as to be almost impossible to achieve without the proper ingredients and knowledge. The wizard might be clever, but he doesn’t know that much of potions, I am certain!”

“It doesn’t matter how it is possible,” Silar intervened. “The fact is she is alive and well, and the one place we do not want her to be, save one other. The important thing is to figure out how to ensure she does not derail the next step.” He leaned over to a bejewelled object sitting on a table next to his chair and tapped one of seven shiny, marble – like orbs that were suspended from thin, golden rods, attached to a mahogany base. Affixed to the centre of the base stood a round ball of yellow-tinted glass, in which a candle burned, its light illuminating the receptacle. A ticking noise came from within.

“We have run out of time to plan!” Maevik exclaimed. “The princess is in Crystal Ember. She will find a way to stop us from freeing Sikaris and a massive part of our plan will be compromised!”

“I have not waited four hundred years for nothing!” Kala spat back.

“Calm down all of you,” Silar preened. “There is still time. How many more of the seals are there on the dragon?” he asked them.

“Two,” Maevik advised. “They are the most complex of them all. The threads are tightly woven.”

Silar nodded. “We have taken our time so far because we had the luxury. The seals may be complex, but we know how they can be broken. If we all work together, today, we can recover from this setback. If we push ourselves as we never have before, we can free Sikaris within hours!”

Rajinal stopped pacing, his chest heaving. “It would mean coming out into the open, risking ourselves. We can’t do this remotely as we have done so far, not if we are work so quickly. Each of us should take a different thread. There can be no more doing this quietly. No more masking what we do. We will have to be messy about it and our work will be detectable. It is a risk, granted, but now, I fear we need to take it. Agreed?”

Maevik nodded, followed in short order by Kala. Silar stood and bowed his head.

“Well said, Rajinal. Agreed. Now as time is short, shall we get started now?

“I see no other option, if we want to stay ahead of the princess,” Maevik said. He sighed. “I hate travelling in this way. It always leaves me feeling sick to my stomach.” His body began to glow green, before it dissolved into a thousand pieces and dispersed into the ground beneath them.

“For once I agree with the old miser,” Kala smiled, crossing his arms before he too dissolved in a sickly aura.

“Thank you Silar,” Rajinal said, patting the sinewy man on the back. “You always bring calm to the proceedings.”

“It is what I do best, isn’t it?” the man smiled. Rajinal nodded. Then, closing his eyes, the gigantic man dissolved beneath Silar’s feet. “Sometimes I feel like a parent trying to calm a bunch of unruly children,” Silar sighed. Then he took a breath as energy funnelled through his body, and tumbled through the earth and across the land, through roots, streams, cracks and dirt, up and up the column and into the dragon’s prison, where he could feel the presence of the others in the energy field. The crumbling work of four hundred year – old wizards stood before them and their weapon: weaves of energy that covered the creature’s body like a million threads of cotton, tied into loops, knotted, fused together so that the dragon remained trapped in his prison. Together they wove themselves around the threads, breaking the last two layers that held the threads in place. Before this they had masked their work, unravelled the web carefully, as if picking out a loose thread from a pair of fine breeches, but now there was no time for caution. They tore at the shield, ripped at it, and slowly but surely, the tangled ball of knotted power began to sag even further.

A Shield of Air

142nd Day of the Cycle, 495 N.E. (New Era)

 

Josephine stood atop the fortifications of the fortress, the wind blowing her hair about erratically. Matthias stood with her. They had been there a half hour now.

“Do you have the power yet?” Matthias asked.

Josephine grimaced. “It’s more difficult holding on to it. I think it’s because I am nervous. I can’t tune into it properly. Every time I reach out and touch the prison, I lose my link to the energy.” She shook her head, and closed her eyes. “Come on,” she whispered. “You can do this!”

Matthias placed a hand on her arm. “You’re doing fine. Relax. Don’t panic. The dragon’s still standing there like the horrid great paperweight he is.”

Josephine smiled. “Don’t make me laugh. It’ll only take me longer.”

“Sorry” Matthias apologised. Then he smiled. “You do realise just how relaxed your language is becoming?” Matthias asked her.

“I do not know what you mean,” the princess retorted, enunciating heavily.

“You seem to slip between your king’s Aralian and a more common tongue.”

“You did want me to blend in,” she commented. “Though perhaps I have blended too far,” she added. “You are clearly a bad influence.”

The wind whistled around the stone crenulations. Matthias looked behind them. Two guards stood by the doors, standing to attention and by them, Balzan stood watching, his arms folded. He caught Matthias’s eye a moment and nodded.

“How is it going?” he called over? “I cannot sense any change.”

“Oh, just fine. The princess is doing well.”

Liar,” Josephine whispered. “I feel like I’m trying to bob for apples with my mouth sewn shut!”

Thadius stood by their side, arms folded, smoking his pipe as he looked down at the scene below.

“All those people,” he mused through his gritted teeth.

“You aren’t helping!” Josephine hissed at him.

“Sorry princess,” Thadius blushed, chastened. “I will give you some room.” He moved away to stand at the other side of the battlements.

“I think I have it again,” Josephine said and opened her eyes. She nodded. “Yes. There it is.”

“Good,” Matthias replied. “You know what you need to do now?”

“I am going to try and recreate the shell I placed around Thadius like we practiced,” she replied. “Actually, I’ve been thinking up ways to strengthen it based on our other lessons. But I wasn’t sure if I should deviate from what we discussed?”

“If you feel like your instincts are pointing you in the right direction then I would trust them. They certainly helped persuade that man back in Tanavern,” Matthias replied. He stroked the coarse brick of the crenulations idly with his fingers.

She nodded. “Sikaris looks much bigger from up here.” Her eyes narrowed. Swirling spheres and ripples of her energy were everywhere, holding everything together. She could see in a way what she had to do, like an architect with the plan of a building in his mind’s eye before he started to sketch. Focussing, she grasped hold of the energy and extended it outwards, further than she had ever attempted before. They swirled and tried to resist her, but in the end they bowed to her. She moulded them, warped them into an egg – shaped barrier around the petrified form of Sikaris. The shell flickered in front of her.

“You’ve made a shell?” he asked Josephine.

“You can see it?” she asked. “I didn’t think you could see my energy?”

“There are reflections in the air, that’s all. How strong is it?”

“Weaker than the one I placed around Thadius at the moment. I think it is because I am stretching the energy so far. It’s only holding together because my mind is concentrating on it so hard. If I let go of the energy I think the shield will fall away again. It’s like I’m holding on to a load of ropes and I’m the only thing keeping them from slacking and the knots from untying again.”

“Keep focussed,” Matthias urged her. “Your power is great enough that you could extend a barrier around this whole city if we had longer to train! Try and tie the threads together and wrap more layers around the shell, making them tighter and tighter if you can.”

“I am trying!” she muttered impatiently. “It’s difficult!“

Matthias nodded. “I know.” He settled himself down and waited patiently whilst Josephine continued.

Another half – hour passed. They spoke little as Josephine continued to weave her energy. Balzan approached them from where he had stood behind them.

“It has been quite a while,” he suggested.

Sweat beaded on Josephine’s forehead. “This is like trying to tie a knot in a blade of grass with a pair of gloves on my hands! I can’t do it with you pressuring me!”

“My apologies,” Balzan sniffed. He turned to Matthias. “Oh what the council would think of this situation right now,” he chuckled.

Matthias snorted. “Right now I couldn’t care two hoots what my people think on anything.”

“I am sorry for your pain,” Balzan said.

Matthias shook his head. “Someone has to know that you aren’t the traitor that everyone makes you out to be.”

“It wasn’t all of them, if it helps,” Balzan said. “There are some good people in the council, like your Augustus Pym. I remember him. A confident man, not afraid to voice his opinions. He had just been elevated to the council when I was forced to leave. It’s my hope that people like him will guide the rudder of Mahalia into a better direction.”

“It is growing stronger,” Josephine advised them. She looked down a moment. Glittering lights had begun to pop into existence, as the afternoon descended into early evening and candles and touches were lit in the city below. “Have we really been up here that long?”

Matthias nodded. “Time flies, to quote the old adage,” he chuckled to himself.

“Oh do be quiet,” she replied, her brow furrowed. “You’re not amusing.”

They stood in silence for several minutes until Matthias turned back to Balzan.

“You look deep in thought,” he commented.

The man shook his head. “I was just pondering,” the man said weightily.

“Well you don’t need to ponder alone. I’m practically at a loose end, after all.”

“You are rubbing it in!” the princess huffed.

Balzan nodded, ignoring the princess’s comment. “What worries me are these other plans that the council might be pursuing. If the dragon is not important enough for them to send anyone here, if these sorcerers are alive and Mahalia are chasing them, then what is the real reason for their attempts to free the beast?” He shook his head. “I know the council. Something bigger is happening. Even if they were pursuing the perpetrators of this, they would have sent some wizards here to keep an eye on the dragon as a precaution. They are not that lax unless they have a reason to be. If they aren’t here it means they aren’t as much worried about the dragon as they are of something infinitely more concerning.”

“They know how much Olindia dislikes them. Perhaps they were afraid to send anyone?” Josephine suggested.

“Perhaps. But they have sent ambassadors here before for far less!” He folded his arms. “No, I don’t like it one bit.”

Aaagh!” Josephine hissed suddenly and tripped backwards. Matthias caught her before she hit the ground.

“What happened?” Matthias asked as Thadius came running over.

“The shield collapsed!” Josephine panted. “All that work!

Matthias’s head fell. “Do you know why?” he asked her.

Josephine shook her head. “No. It was going so well and then it just… popped!

“Are you hurt?” Thadius asked her.

“No. I am quite well Thadius. I’m just frustrated!” She shook her head.

“Oh my,” Balzan exclaimed and leant over the battlements, his eyes narrowing.

“Protector? What’s wrong?” asked Matthias, as he and Thadius helped Josephine to her feet. She leant on the wizard as they joined Balzan, who was staring straight ahead with an open mouth.

“I just saw…” He stopped and raised a hand to his mouth. “I felt something. Something’s wrong with the prison.” His eyes flared blue and he reached out with his power. “But that’s impossible!” he gasped and stepped back, his eyes boggling. “It’s almost gone!

Hanging by a Thread

142nd Day of the Cycle, 495 N.E. (New Era)

Balzan swallowed as he looked on at the dragon.

“But it was all there! Even a minute ago, I could feel the wards were still in place, strong as the day they were created!”

“Someone has been tricking you,” Matthias said. “Making you see what you wanted to see. Now do you understand what we are up against?” he asked.

Balzan nodded, nonplussed. He couldn’t keep his eyes off the dragon. “I think I am beginning to see very well.” He shivered. “There’s something working on it right now. It’s deteriorating as we stand here!”

Matthias swallowed. “How much is left?” he asked.

Balzan shook his head “I’m not sure. Something is still masking the entirety of the work. Oh, they are clever,” he hissed. “There are very old tricks at work! Weaves of deception, the kind I would never have thought to see here! He held out a hand and grasped Matthias’s own. “Here. See what I see.” Matthias closed his eyes as a silent, invisible link passed between the two men.

Matthias gasped. “I can see…” He opened his eyes and Balzan let go as Matthias took a step back. Then he turned to Josephine. “Princess, they are picking it apart right now!”

Josephine’s eyes were wide with terror. “What… what shall I do?”

Matthias shook his head. “Try again. You’re the only thing left between the dragon’s freedom and that prison. You have to try and cut them off somehow. Make the shell again.”

“They’re so strong,” Josephine breathed.

But you are stronger, Josephine. You can fight them!”

The princess turned back to the dragon, drew as much power as she could into her and channelled, as she never had before.

The four sorcerers streamed through the air, invisible to all save those with the ability to touch the fabrics of the world. As they soared around the dragon they could feel the energy being used in opposition to them, pushing them steadily away from the core of the prison that held Sikaris in place. Minutes passed that, in their disembodied state, felt like days. They grasped at every remaining thread of the energies bound around the dragon that they could and unravelled their carefully woven structures.

Another barrier emerged from out of the soup of energies, striking the form that in its solid state was Maevik, and the old man swore in spite of the fact that, without a mouth, the words fell about him as an empty echo of indecipherable waves. He wove around it as it expanded, avoiding being trapped within its shell, and joined the others as they fell back again. Fewer and fewer threads remained, but those that held in place grew increasingly out of reach as the princess built layer upon layer of barriers around the dragon.

“The girl’s shields are strong!” Kala’s voice echoed within the stream of energy. “I can’t fight against them any longer! The energy is too much!”

“We can’t hope to break the barriers once they are fully erected!” came the voice of Silar. “We must try and force ourselves between the incomplete ones, delay her and rip as much of the prison as we can before the shells are sealed!”

Josephine gritted her teeth as she channelled more energy than she ever had before and moulded it like clay with invisible hands. Around her, Matthias, Balzan and Thadius craned over her like vultures. “I could do with some space, please!” she barked, her eyes burning with determination.

“Of course,” Balzan whispered distantly, his eyes fixed on the dragon, and moved away. “Good luck my dear,” he said and patted her on the shoulder and moved clumsily to the doorway, where he slumped against the wall, a hand to his mouth, staring at the beast.

“You as well Thadius,” she commanded. “I can feel your eyes on my back!”

“But my lady-”

Josephine turned her head to him. “It is alright, my good knight. Please, leave Matthias and I again.”

Thadius nodded hesitantly. “If you insist. But I will be by the door with Balzan should you need me.” She nodded. “I have faith in you,” he smiled and with a bow of his head, moved off hesitantly.

Josephine took a deep breath and placed her palms on the stone crenulations. “They are fighting me so hard,” she whispered. “Matthia