A Scythe in Time: Part 8
Bravery is not a lack of fear. It's proceeding in spite of it.
Newton glanced up nervously as the sound of boots pounding across polished stone echoed overhead. We'll never find the key in this light, he muttered. Lumous!
A bright mage-light burst into existence above them, bathing the corridor in a brilliant white glow. A glint of dingy metal shined amidst the straw not far from Squeaks, and the mouse lost no time in snatching it up.
Hurry! Ferdia urged, watching the stairs nervously.
The lock on the cellar was old, and rusted from lack of use by the trusting abbey monks. The soldiers had slathered it with a glob of grease in an attempt to loosen its gears some, to little avail. Bits of now-spoiled pig fat were now wedged between the lock's tumblers, gumming the works even further. It took quite a bit of strain just to thread the dull-toothed iron key into the lock at all, and no amount of rattling it about in the mechanism could make the tumblers move.
It's stuck! Squeaks grunted, bracing a shoulder against the doorjamb in an attempt to get enough leverage to force the lock.
Can you pick it? Ferdia queried, struggling to keep hold of the thrashing swallow.
The key's not the problem! he shot back, The mechanism's jammed!
Ferdia shoved the boy toward Newton, dashing to join her partner in the tug-of-war with the lock. This isn't working, she growled as the recalcitrant metal cut into her hand, You think we can we break it down?
Squeaks paused, wrenching the key from the lock and peering inside, one ear pressed to the worn wood as he rapped on the door experimentally. He shook his head. It's thick. It might not go down without a battering ram of some sort.
Shouts echoed overhead as the sound of feet pounding urgently across the abbey's stone floor reached their ears. We don't have time for a battering ram, Ferdia observed.
The mouse sighed. All right. Together then. He backed up a half-step, moving aside just enough to give Ferdia enough room to kick at the door in step with him.
The soldiers' shouts were louder now, their shadows flickering along the wall across from the stairs as the cops lashed out at the door, the sound of their kicks only spurring the guards further. Newton hurriedly cast the illusion spell again, and the opening at the top of the stairs vanished behind a façade of stone seconds before thundering feet ran by. Shouts of surprise and confusion echoed down the stairwell as the men gawked at an unbroken wall of stone, wondering what had become of the cellar stairs.
But the glamour's purpose was not lost on their young captive, and the swallow bit down on the hand muzzling him and kicked away from the wizard. Newton took off after him as the sparrow bolted for the stairs to sound the alarm.
The spell came unbidden to the wizard's frantic mind as he rushed after the boy, his hand flying out of its own accord to release the magic before he'd half registered what he was doing. Silencio!
The shock of the spell knocked Newton off balance, and he tripped forward with all the grace of long-eared puppy. The sparrow felt a shove just as he drew breath to shout, stumbling to his knees for an instant before pressing forward again, glaring back over his shoulder at the fallen wizard with contempt. He hit the foot of the stairs, bounding up them two at a time as he opened his beak and screamed for his fellows.
Or tried to.
Blinking in confusion, the boy tried again, taking a deep breath and bellowing at the stop of his lungs. And again, he produced no sound. Again and again he tried, and again and again his shouts went unheard. He stomped his feet and beat the walls, even rattled a metal railing as the wizard got to his feet, all to no avail. The spell muted everything he did. Flicking a rather rude gesture at the grinning wizard, he resumed his flight up the stairs.
I wouldn't go up there, were I you, Newton cautioned. Walking through walls without a sound any men that see you will think you a ghost or a demon! What will you do if they try to shoot you to prove you're not?
The swallow paused at the top of the stairs, gazing at the illusory wall before him as he contemplated his fate. After a moment he backed down a step or two, taking a seat on the stone steps and glaring balefully down at the wizard.
Their staring contest was interrupted by the crashing sound of the wine cellar door finally splintering under the cops' barrage of kicks. The ruined wood swung open into the gloom of the cellar. Something sobbed quietly in the black depths of the cellar.
Are you all right in there? the wizard called. There was a rustle amongst the lines of wine barrels hidden inside the darkness, and the crying stopped. Feeling bold, Newton took a few steps towards the doorway, peering in alongside the cops. But the fading mage-light didn't penetrate very far into the darkened room, and he was hesitant to cast another, having cast quite a few spells already and beginning to tire. Another spell might very well drain him, and they still needed to get out of the abbey and back to the safety of the woods. Worse yet, if he overexerted himself now, the glamour across the stairs would fail, bringing guards down around their ears in seconds.
He was brought out of his reverie by Ferdia, who unclipped the Mag-Lite from her belt and switched it on, holding it at eye level and shining the focused beam of light into the gloom. Squeaks' light joined hers a moment later, sweeping across the dusty casks and faded bottles in search of the reputed captive. Neither moved to venture inside.
Maybe the monk was lying, Ferdia mused. Just a ruse to get us here.
Squeaks shook his head. They had plenty of opportunities to go after us before we got down here. There'd be no point in letting us come this far. And besides, I hear someone.
Newton inched hesitantly into the room, glancing about the gloom as he made his way past the piled casks of wine, pausing each time the pair's remarkable beams of light swung away from him. Daring as she was, the Princess oughtn't risk her life poking about a darkened dungeon, he reasoned. And her knightly guardian would best be by her side, should the glamour fail and guards come running. It fell to the wizard to investigate the mysterious muffled cries echoing around the cellar. He'd ask about the enchanted torches later.
There was a rustle behind him as he rounded another pile of casks, and a sharp intake of breath as the lights swept about looking for the source of the noise. Newton turned just in time to see something lunge at him, honed bandit-dodging reflexes barely catching hold of the bottle crashing towards his head as he tumbled backwards with a cry of surprise.
Hey! Ferdia caught sight of the form as it lunged at Newton, dashing into the storeroom dodging barrels and casks as she fished her gun from its holster. Squeaks followed a step behind, gun drawn and ready, lighting his partner's way as best he could while trying to keep an eye on the young swallow sitting forlornly on the steps in case the boy moved to trap them.
Fiends! a familiar voice yelled as the cellar's captive struggled with the wizard, intent on driving off their attacker, How dare you lock me down here in the dark with the rats like some criminal! I demand you le-
Ferdia holstered her weapon, snatching the bottle from the prisoner's hand and tossing it aside as she hauled the bird off Newton by the back of her spoiled silk dress. Can it, sister. We're here to help you, in case you hadn't noticed.
I demand you unhand me at once, villain! the bird exclaimed, swatting at Ferdia as the cop maneuvered her toward the open door.
Squeaks quirked an eyebrow at the two as they passed, shaking his head bemusedly as he retrieved Newton. Are you all right? he asked the dazed wizard as he helped him to his feet.
Yes, yes, fine, Newton assured the mouse, But, Sir Knight, do you really think it wise to leave the Princess alone with that girl? She attacked me with-
Squeaks shook his head, weaving out of the darkened wine cellar and back into the corridor, where the young swallow now stood gawking at the two birds. I'd say they're more than evenly matched, the mouse commented.
Newton glanced up ahead of them and stumbled, staggering against the mouse for support as his mind boggled at the mirrored image before him.
Heathen! the harried bluebird in a tattered pink silk gown cried, swatting her double's hand away and attempting to dust the accumulated dirt from her beaded lace skirts, Do you know who I am? she railed, I'm the daughter of the King! And when he finds out how you've treated me-
Bit slow on the uptake, aren't you? Ferdia deadpanned. We're not the ones that jailed you. We're here to help, you twit.
M-Milady? Newton queried.
Hey, Newton! Ferdia grinned, waving jovially, You okay? The wizard nodded dumbly. Great. I'd like you to meet Princess Ferdianna Bodecia Lobelia da Birdie.
But- but that's impossible! Newton stammered, staring back and forth between the two bluebirds.
No, it's not, and we've already told you why, Ferdia sighed, But I'll be glad to explain it again. Later. Right now, we've got an escape to pull off. Got any spells left in you?
The wizard blinked, trying to focus through the haze of his shattered sanity. Hm?
Spells, Newton, Ferdia sighed, snapping her fingers in front of his face to bring the wizard out of his daze, Come on, don't wig out on us now, eh? There's plenty of time for nervous breakdowns after we get back to safety.
But- he glanced at the scowling Ferdianna, who was watching Squeaks with a look of distrust similar to that a rabbit gives a snake that hasn't spotted it yet.
Ferdia blocked his view. Forget about her, okay? Listen to me. We came here to rescue a prisoner, and now we have to get out again. I need your help, okay? I need you focused. Can you do that?
Newton nodded. Yes, he could do that. There was a perfectly logical explanation for the prisoner's strange resemblance to his beloved Princess, and he was certain he'd have more than ample time to figure said explanation out later. Right now, the Princess needed the help of the wizard she had come to rely on nearly as much as she did her knight. If he failed her now, her life all their lives was in jeopardy.
Yes, he nodded, bowing, Yes, Milady. I can do that.
The abbey's thick wooden doors exploded into the nave with such force the soldiers rushing for the basement steps were certain a demon had come to call, or perhaps the dragon they'd heard tell of late. The thick wood had splintered to kindling, with the few surviving sizeable pieces scorched and smoldering, though there was no fire to be seen.
Gren gawked at the nightmarish figure that tore through the ruined doorway with a bloodied sword and evil wand for a full two seconds before diving for safety amongst the candles of the nearest shrine, his mind taking a sharp turn towards madness as the mounted fiend began felling the startled soldiers as they scrambled to get past their brethren to the relative safety of the inner corridors. A warlock in the basement, a demon in the entryway, and where was he? In a church, of all places!
If this wasn't the Apocalypse, then it was a damned good test run.
The change in the commotion above them was unmistakable. Soldiers that had been shouting threats and pounding on walls in search of the cellar's stairway now fled in disarray with yells of terror amid piercing screams.
Tired as he was, Newton redoubled his efforts, strengthening the mage-shield he'd cast behind the glamour lest the soldiers or whatever force currently routed said soldiers blundered across their hiding space. Ferdia and Squeaks had taken up protective positions beside the wizard, guns drawn and muscles tensed. Ferdianna cowered in terror behind her rescuers, doubt and distrust fleeing at the onset of mortal danger at speeds that would have made Ferdie proud. Even the swallow, who had at first renewed his attacks on the wizard, cringed in silence behind the assembled adults, nervously watching the stairs for even the slightest hint of what menaced his fellows.
The fury raged above for ten long, agonizing minutes, fading as the battle flowed away from the stairs and back to the entryway, inexorably advancing on the endless flow of archers and officers rushing down from the towers. Amidst the shouts and violent clashing, the heavy sounds of a hallway collapse met their ears. The floor above fell silent.
Is that it? Ferdianna whispered hopefully, her breath coming in short, nervous gasps, Is it over?
If nothing else, it's moved far enough away to check, Ferdia opined, as Squeaks slowly crept up the stairs, flicking his ears this way and that in search of the slightest hint that something might still be lurking outside.
The mouse shook his head. I don't hear any fighting. Either the cave in killed them, or it sealed them off.
Are you certain, Sir Knight? Newton queried. Squeaks nodded.
Great, Ferdia cheered, sprinting up the steps, Let's have a look, then. Drop the shield.
How else are we gonna know they're gone? she shrugged. Besides, you look like you're about to pass out. Drop the spells already!
Don't you dare! Ferdianna shrieked as the wizard moved to comply.
Come on, Newton, Ferdia cajoled, Just a few seconds, and if it's not safe we'll duck back in, okay?
The wizard looked nervously at first one bird, then the other, and finally turned to Squeaks with the bewildered expression of someone at a loss for what to do. The mouse shrugged. It does seem the easiest way to see if it's safe, he stated.
Newton relented. They had a point, after all, and he'd not gone wrong following their advice yet. With a sigh, he released the shield spell, lowering his arms with relief as the magic ceased draining his energy. The glamour snapped out of place as well, dissolving like mist as the tired wizard lost his concentration. I hadn't meant to cancel both spells, he frowned, glancing at his palms, But I suppose it won't matter.
The cops peered cautiously around the arched doorway, scanning the corridor for signs of enemy soldiers lying in wait. When nothing moved, they ventured from the stairs into the hall. Bodies littered the floor, blood pooling beneath them, and with the exception of one lone, wounded guard peeking furtively down the hall from a shrine near the nave, there seemed to be no survivors.
Come on up, Ferdia called back down to the others as Squeaks ventured toward the entryway and the mound of stone and mortar clogging the corridor beyond.
It took a bit of coaxing, but Newton managed to persuade a trembling Ferdianna into climbing the stairs. The swallow, still grumbling mutely from the effects of the wizard's silencing spell, remained huddled quietly on the straw-covered dirt floor. He didn't need to venture upstairs to know his side had lost this fight, and he had no desire to share their fate should the victors still be prowling about.
Back in the corridor, the party stared in shocked silence at the change in the abbey. Light poured into the blood-spattered nave, illuminating the bits of shattered door and the dust motes floating about in the still-settling air. The collapse had done more than simply block the stairs to the upper floors, they noted as they picked their way down the corridor towards the entryway; it had toppled much of the far wall, and most of the roof above the atrium as well. Here, through the gaps the damage had created, the sounds of battle filtered in from outside.
Arcadia! a voice greeted them warmly from the entrance as they reached the nave. D'Gal trotted up to them on a foam-flecked Fiend, horse and rider both breathless, splattered with blood, and looking all the livelier for it. The sole surviving guard, a cringing chipmunk crouched inside the remnants of a ruined shrine, shrank back further into his corner, shivering and muttering to himself as the duck approached.
Newton took an involuntary step back at the sight of the black rider. He'd heard the white duck's grievances against D'Gal, and had figured the Vycerian for a mercenary, but he hadn't quite been prepared for carnage of this magnitude. The naval commander was right; the name Fiend truly did fit the ebony pair.
D'Gal came to a halt not far from the assembled group, plucking a fallen pennant from the cracked tile floor with a sword and using the torn cloth to clean the blood-soaked weapon. Ferdia cocked an eyebrow at the duck's antics. Having fun? she asked wryly.
D'Gal grinned. Glad to see you're alive and well, he nodded at them, I was beginning to wonder.
Before or after you blasted the wall? Squeaks commented.
The ebony duck shrugged, inspecting a chip in his sword's blade. Didn't figure on it being quite that fragile, he remarked, But, no harm done.
No harm?!? Ferdianna screeched, taking the others by surprise, You've destroyed this holy place! And as if that were not enough, you defile it with the spilling of innocent blood!
There was nothing innocent about their blood.
It is forbidden to fight on sacred ground!
D'Gal raised an eyebrow. This ceased to be sacred ground the instant those soldiers made it theirs.
Sacrilege! Ferdianna fumed.
Perhaps. But that's the way wars are.
It had taken Drake quite a bit longer to reach the abbey than it had D'Gal, as soldiers and sheep kept charging into his path, and the lamb still clinging to Gallant's leg only served to slow the tired pony further. He'd only just reached the steps when a huge section of the abbey came down; hoping the collapse had done in his nemesis arguably the source of the cave-in but unwilling to investigate on the grounds that the rest of the structure was doubtlessly waiting for him to venture inside before crumbling completely to the ground, he ventured no closer to the abbey until the sound of familiar voices brought him running. He cleared the doorway just in time to catch an earful.
Vile, savage brute! Ferdianna railed at an unrepentant D'Gal, Was desecrating my abbey with that foul creature's presence not enough? she demanded, leveling an accusing finger at the villain's hulking, red-eyed horse, You had to ruin the rest of this holy site as well?
It's not completely ruined, the Vycerian smirked, Some of it's still standing.
You are a soulless, evil fiend! the princess shrieked.
D'Gal looked highly amused at the progressively more red-faced bird's hysteria. While I do appreciate the flattery, he grinned, It's hardly necessary.
Ferdia smirked at the comment as her double flushed so hot with rage she whipped out a delicate but battered bone-and-lace fan to calm herself and slow her rapid breathing.
It was Squeaks who first caught sight of the duck lurking in the entryway. Drake! he called, How goes the battle?
As if he would know, D'Gal muttered, rolling his eyes at the duck's indignant glare.
It goes just fine, Drake intoned, glaring at his smirking nemesis, Though the Flier has started dropping people.
Most of the soldiers ran off when the abbey started coming down, Iiwi piped up from her perch atop a section of the outer wall that had lost its roof but kept most of its height, And I was getting tired of dropping rocks and sheep and stuff. Besides, it's not like I'm dropping them very far. A couple feet is all, just enough to encourage their retreat a bit.
Ferdianna stared up at the smiling bird with a mixture of shock and horror. Who were these people? At least Kronos' men had pretended to be civilized!
Anyway, Iiwi continued, Ferdie and the others are keeping an eye out for stragglers, and the sign holder brought your horses out to them. He and Lita are busily looting the bodies now, while Ivan pretends not to notice.
Your companions certainly are an odd bunch, milady, Newton shook his head, chuckling.
Yeah, well, we manage, Ferdia shrugged, taking hold of Ferdianna's wrist, Come on, let's get goin', she called to the others.
Just a minute! the princess protested, jerking her arm back, I'm not going anywhere with you people!
Fine, Ferdia shrugged. Castle's
that way, I think, she said, pointing back in the general direction they'd come, Newton can probably give you better directions, I'm sure. Have fun.
Ferdianna watched as the assembled group began filtering out of the ruined church and across the flattened green of the battlefield to greet their fellows beneath the shade trees at the edge of the clearing. With the exception of the mage and the white duck, no one turned to look back at her, even after reaching the trampled grass.
The abbey suddenly seemed quite empty, and lonely, devoid of life save herself and the remaining guard. Wait! she called. No one seemed to hear her.
Wait!! Again, no response, save the gibbering of the guard and the quiet scuttle of the young swallow hiding on the cellar stairs. They really were going to leave her, she realized. All alone out here with no food or escort or means of getting back home. Her practiced air of dignity started to crumble, and she took off running after them, desperation now tingeing her voice. Waaaaaaait!!
The white duck heard her this time, turning to watch her flight down the stairs in pursuit of her rescuers. He called back to the others, who continued onwards towards the assembled group of horses, bandits, and riders further on down the field, despite the lady's insistent cries.
Take it easy, he called to Ferdianna as she stumbled in her flight, winded from the exertion of running in such heavy skirts, They're not about to leave you behind, regardless of what they say.
Ferdianna eyed him suspiciously. What makes you so sure of that?
Instinct, I guess, he shrugged, Most of them are rather decent, if primitive, people and Ace, at least, is trained to know better. If nothing else, he won't let them leave without me, and I in turn won't allow them to abandon you. It's terribly bad manners, rescuing someone only to leave them alone to fend for themselves with all these murderous sheep roaming about. Hardly proper.
Ferdianna fell into step with the first sympathetic and courteous ear she'd met in days. Do you know who I am, then? she asked.
The duck nodded, guiding a tired white pony alongside them despite the animal's attempts to stop and eat the field's surviving flowers. You're the princess Newton thinks Ferdia is, he stated.
The bluebird that spoke with you before.
That girl? Your mage thinks she's *me*?!?
You have to admit there's a certain resemblance, he ventured, And your voices are close, too, apart from accents and general tone.
Nonsense! Ferdianna huffed. We look nothing at all alike! I'm far more composed and refined than that boyish, caustic-
She's not that bad, the duck frowned. For a primitive, she's actually quite civil.
A primitive? Is that anything like a barbarian?
That depends. What's a barbarian?
Ferdianna wrinkled her nares in distaste. A frightful lot of thoroughly uncivilized louts, she declared, They roam the northern regions of the country and refuse to obey the rules of the King, or those of anyone else, for that matter.
Drake considered this. Yes, I'd say that's a close enough description, he nodded. In all fairness, though, she is an excellent fighter - very loyal, and quite brave.
The princess gave him a pitying look. Maybe so, good sir, but the same can be said of a well-trained dog. People like that are simply not like us.
Not like who? a voice chimed from behind them. Finished with their plundering the warlord's soldiers had been quite poor, and carrying very little of value Lita and the sign holder were making their way back to the group again, dragging a heavy, rattling sack behind them. The rabbit paused in her teasing to inspect something alongside them, jogging ahead a few paces to reach down and pluck the tenacious lamb from Gallant's hock.
Talk about ankle-biters, she smirked, holding the angrily bleating creature by the scruff of its neck. She cut a sidelong glance at the duck. Maybe I'll keep it as a pet.
Drake glared at the teen. Don't you dare.
Lita and the sign holder shared a look. We've got room in the bag, the young kiwi ventured.
Safely off the battlefield now, Ferdie watched the group of stragglers closely, fighting back a laugh as Lita and the sign holder taunted Drake with a fluffy, kitten-sized version of the packs of woolly terror still busily de-boning the dead out on the field. He hoped the dust bunny had the sense to put the thing down before they got much closer the angry lamb's snarls were amusing now because they were far away and directed at Drake, but he worried its cries would eventually bring other sheep to them. Still, the antics of Ivan's wards wasn't what he was supposed to be paying attention to.
She doesn't look like you at all, Sis, he assured Ferdia, watching as the Princess delicately sidestepped a patch of blood-soaked mud.
Good, Ferdia smiled, catching her brother in a headlock, Now say it like you mean it.
Okay, so there's an obvious physical resemblance, he admitted, choking a bit as he struggled to loosen her hold around his neck, It's not like we haven't been to worlds with doubles before. Look at the Hooties.
Bro, I never met the Hooties. And even if I had, they're mini-Bob and Beak, not a life-size carbon copy of myself with the brains of Bobetta!
Are you talkin' about my fiancée'? Bob demanded, pausing in his examination of an unusually nifty sword one of the soldiers he'd booted had dropped.
No, the siblings chorused.
She's gotta have more brains than that, Ferdie whispered as he again tried to loosen the headlock into a slightly less uncomfortable hold, I mean, look at all that dirt on her dress! Bobetta would've had a coronary by now! And she's not wearing nearly enough jewelry!
Ferdia quirked an eyebrow. You worry me at times, bro.
What? Bobetta visits the agency a lot, and generally spends most of said visits complaining about grass stains and fellow socialites' fashion faux pas. I can't help but pick up on some of it.
Why not try picking up on something useful instead, like her investment strategies?
Ferdie snorted. Bobetta's investment strategies begin and end with 'Take a lot of money'
Are you sure you're not talking about my fiancée? Bob interrupted.
Absolutely, Bob, they assured him.
But anyway, Ferdie continued, What's got you so upset about this, Sis? It's not like we didn't know we had doubles, or that they had seriously different personalities.
She's waking around dressed like some reject from a fairy tale, Ferdia pouted, And she's broken my wizard!
Ferdie looked over to where Newton sat listlessly on a rock, muttering to himself as he frowned confusedly and stared off into space. So go fix him.
The arm hooked around his neck tightened considerably. You've got a lot of nerve for someone in your position, bro, Ferdia intoned.
Ferdie choked, gasping for breath until his sister's grip loosened just enough to allow air into his lungs again, Go find out what's bugging him, that's all.
We already know what's bugging him.
Really? 'Cause I'm confused. Is it the fact that you're not the princess, or that she *is*?
Ferdia frowned. Same diff.
Not really, Ferdie insisted. At least, not as he sees it. Trust me on this one. It was a month-long rant on the Reincarnation forum a few weeks ago.
Ferdia shot him a look.
What? It was. All these people arguing back and forth as to whether your reincarnated soul mate would look the same or just act the same, and what to do if you found a version of each.
You seriously need a new hobby.
So, Ivan ventured, as the last of the group wandered in, That's the princess, then?
It certainly seems that way, yes, Squeaks nodded. Put the sheep down, he instructed Lita.
I can have a vicious killer as a pet if I want to, the dust bunny retorted, Can't I, boss?
It's far easier to pay them by the hour, Farlane.
I was talking about the sheep, not your lawyers.
Fine, the gray kiwi sighed, As long as you keep it on a leash. But the first time it breaks something or mauls someone of value, it's dinner.
Yay! the teen cheered, hugging the lamb close as it tried to gnaw her arm. I'm going to teach him to kill on command. And do you know what that command's gonna be? she grinned, wagging a finger in front of the fuzzball's nose as it snapped at the digit.
'Is he friendly?' the sign holder guessed.
Close! We can teach him that one, too. But I'm gonna start with 'Aw, he's so cute!'
Glory be, Ferdianna blinked as the pair danced around with the lamb, Such heathenry!
They are under the care of a vicious criminal, Drake reminded her. Well, not so vicious as the girl's old tutor, he glared at D'Gal, But definitely criminal.
Ivan suddenly found himself wishing he'd been able to recover even one decent throwing knife. Moving right along, he growled, more to himself than anyone else, Anyone have any idea what became of the monk that brought us here?
No, Iiwi shook her head, There's no sign of him anywhere. Wherever he went after showing us the abbey, he didn't leave a trail.
Either that, or he retraced his old one, D'Gal supplied, But our illustrious Flier hasn't seen any trace of him there, either.
You're the vicious criminal tracker, Iiwi retorted, You find him.
Ferdianna frowned. Monk? What monk?
Big guy, Bob supplied, European robin, slight paunch, old enough to have started losing most of his orange to gray.
We encountered him fleeing down the mountain, Beak added, He seemed quite surprised and very grateful to find Prince Ferdinand so quickly.
The Prince? Ferdianna asked, eyes lighting up, My brother is here? Where?
He'd be the one who's sister's got him in a headlock back there, Ivan commented dryly, thumbing over his shoulder at the siblings still involved in their discussion.
He's not your brother, really, said Beak, trying to be helpful as the princess' face fell, He's Miss Ferdia's brother. We don't know where your brother is. But it's kind of the same thing.
Ferdianna frowned. So you're saying you
you impersonated my brother and followed a monk back to the abbey to save me?
More or less, Squeaks shrugged.
You do of course realize posing as a royal personage is punishable by death?
Not if the person doing the impersonating actually is that person.
She blinked. I'm afraid I'm not following you.
Don't worry, Beak reassured her, It's all very confusing. It has something to do with being from another word.
I'm afraid I still don't understand.
Squeaks sighed. Look, it doesn't really matter how you think of us, but those two, he motioned to Ferdia and Ferdie, and you and your brother are different versions of the same people.
It's like you're twins, separated at birth, Bob volunteered, You have the same parents, the same general appearance, and the same voice, but completely different personalities.
But I don't have a twin, Ferdianna protested.
Now you do, Bob grinned.
Getting back to the monk, Squeaks interrupted, in the interest of heading off further argument, Do you recognize his description?
No, she shook her head, Why would I?
The group blinked in confusion. But
you were staying at the abbey, weren't you? Drake frowned.
Oh, yes. But the Longden Abbey was run by nuns, not monks.
You don't think a respectable lady like myself would go unescorted into hiding with a colony of men, do you? Even if they were monks. She glanced pointedly at Iiwi and Lita, though was unable to catch Ferdia's attention as the bluebird wandered away from her brother, It's just not done.
Whoever you spoke with, he was not affiliated with our abbey.
Bob frowned. But he knew you were being held hostage by that warlord. If he was working for them, why would he bring us right to them?
I'd say the plan was to lure the prince into an ambush, Squeaks ventured, Our monk was rather surprised to find us so quickly. Had we been a proper army, he may have led us around the forest a day or two to give the soldiers time to prepare; my guess is he felt we were too small a group to pose any real threat to the warlord's forces.
I'll buy that, Ivan agreed, We don't look like much, at least until you realize the sheer destructive force inherent in a group whose members wouldn't know overkill if it fell on them.
If what fell on who? Ferdie asked, rejoining the group as his sister headed off to talk to Newton, Are we talking about Drake again?
They think this whole thing was meant to be a trap for the prince, Bob filled him in, We're trying to decide what to do about it.
Why do anything? I mean, we don't even know where this guy is. He might not be anywhere near danger.
Lita arched an eyebrow. He's commanding the King's forces. That means wherever he is, he's probably right near the front lines.
But not necessarily near this warlord, Ferdie retorted, So unless there's evidence this Kronos was working with someone else, he should be fine. He's got a whole army to take on whatever parts of this guy's army reach him if any reach him. I say we stick to our original plan, and hide out in that abandoned village Newton was headed for.
you wish to hide? Ferdianna queried.
Ferdie shrugged. We were going to try and find a way to defeat the dragon, seeing as how we let it loose an' all. But getting involved in a war?
Where've you been the past few days? Iiwi asked irritably, We're already involved!
Running away from soldiers and angry townspeople is not 'getting involved'. Attacking the abbey, that was getting involved, and I'd rather not do things like that the rest of our stay here. What about you? Do you want to do stuff like that from now 'til whenever?
Well, no, the Flier admitted, But I don't want to sit around and do nothing, either.
What about the princess? Beak queried, She can't come back with us. What are we going to do with her?
You're going to bring me back to my father's castle, that's what you're going to do, Ferdianna snapped tartly.
Actually, most of that burned down when the dragon attacked the city, Iiwi informed her. Even if we'd be welcome there, there's no saying your father hasn't relocated already, or that the place is at all able to offer protection in its current state.
So what do we do with her? Bob wondered.
I vote we drop her off at the nearest town, Ferdie volunteered.
Ferdianna was less than thrilled with this suggestion. You mean to abandon me in a town of peasants, without even conscripts to guard me? I am a royal! If nothing else, I deserve to be placed into the care of affluent nobles or a contingent of knights!
Neither of which we've seen in our travels thus far, Squeaks commented. Most of the estates we've passed have been abandoned or destroyed, and the only knights we've encountered were part of an army detachment in the mountains.
So take me to them, Ferdianna stated.
Are you out of your mind?!? Ferdie squawked, I'm not going back there; it's dangerous!
Ferdianna huffed. You lily-livered coward! Father would be ashamed of you!
I'm a professional coward, Ferdie corrected her, Not some white-belted newbie. And Ma worries about our safety enough as it is, without me rushing headlong into danger!
Children, please, Ivan sighed, Act your age. My sign holder is behaving better than you are.
He's teaching a sheep how to savage a stick! Ferdie exclaimed.
No, that's what Farlane's up to. The kid's just coating the sticks with white feathers.
Ferdie wasn't sure how to reply to that.
At any rate, Ivan continued, We'll have to go back to the mountains eventually, seeing as how the wizard insists we deal with the dragon, and it seems to be keeping near that area.
It's not 'keeping to' anyplace! We've seen it all over the place these past few days!
It's looking for others, Iiwi volunteered, It was sealed in that temple by itself a long time; it's probably lonely.
What is this dragon you speak of? Ferdianna frowned, Such creatures have been extinct for years; the last died when I was but a small child.
Yes, well, no one's bothered telling this one that, Iiwi shrugged. Anyways, like Ivan said, it's flying back to the mountains every few days or so. It's either found a hoard, or that's where it's finding the most meals.
Either way, it means we'll eventually head back that way, Ivan stated. Might as well bring her along, at least until we find a better option.
Someone of sufficient noble lineage to take her off our hands, the kiwi replied. There's already too many people in this group in need of babysitters; best we foist her off on some unsuspecting band of heroes as soon as possible.
As the others argued over just exactly what to do with the prim and proper Ferdianna, Ferdia wandered over to where an unmoving Newton sitting slouched on a rock staring off into space.
Hey, she greeted the wizard, taking a seat next to him on the slanting rock, How're you doing?
Hmm? he blinked, coming out of his daze with a start. He hadn't heard her approach.
I said, how are you doing?
Oh, he nodded, sighing and staring off at the trampled grass, Fine, I suppose. Just tired.
From all the spells?
He shook his head. No. Well, yes, but- he frowned, searching for the right words.
Ferdia misread the uncomfortable silence. This mess out here's not bothering you too much, is it? she asked, indicating the battlefield with its bodies, vultures, and scavenging sheep. Sorry about that. We're seldom working with D'Gal, and he's been so relatively civil I forgot-
Newton favored her with a sad smile. You shouldn't-
-apologize, she chorused, smiling, Yes, I know, it's 'beneath my station', right? The lizard nodded. And that's what's bothering you, isn't it? Me and her? she nodded over at Ferdianna, ignoring the cry of mortal anguish her inner grammarian uttered at that statement.
Very perceptive, milady.
Ferdia frowned. Look, we told you from the start-
Yes, milady, Newton nodded, I remember. But I never really believed you I thought it all part of some strange enchantment.
Does it make all that much of a difference to know we're not?
It's difficult to fathom. Are you really from another world?
Yep, she nodded, But it's
busier than this one. There's a lot more cities and machines, and most people don't believe in magic.
Newton frowned. How can a world not believe in magic?
Ferdia shrugged. Science won out over magic centuries ago. But Ferdie's always been a fan of the supernatural, and keeps us informed of what he finds in his studies.
So your brother is a scholar, Newton nodded. I'd wondered about that. He doesn't seem the warrior type.
Oh, he can fight. I know; I taught him. He'd just rather not have to.
Are there no wars, then?
Ferdia frowned. No, there are.
And the people don't object to a prince who won't fight for his own country?
Newton, I keep telling you, we're not royalty. Not even nobility.
The wizard frowned. Then what are you, milady?
I'm a cop, like my father. Policework, like this world's Watch.
He blinked at her. You work?
Everybody works, she shrugged. Well, everybody but the very young, the very old, and the very rich. Ferdie does research and detective work for Bob; Beak works at a diner and helps a scientist; Ivan runs a criminal syndicate and a handful of honest businesses; and Squeaks and I are cops. The only person I know that lives like you do is Iiwi, always on the go for this or that, and even she spends a good deal of time helping Bob solve cases.
Newton frowned. His experience with the Watch was generally limited to being run out of town with them at his heels. Still, he had glimpsed them on patrol and in pursuit of actual criminals on occasion. But, milady, working for the Watch is that not dangerous?
You bet! she laughed, I've lost track of how many times I've been shot at, blown up, mown down, ambushed, thrown from a moving vehicle, tossed off a ledge, you name it! Squeaks, too, and I burned through at least half a dozen partners before him. Hardly a day goes by that we don't put our lives in jeopardy, but we keep our city safe. Besides, she shrugged, It's a rush. Nothing like a near-death experience to make you feel alive!
Newton stared at the grinning bluebird in silence for a moment. Across from them, Ferdianna gingerly sat down on a log, grudgingly accepting some cracked nuts from Lita. Seconds later, she was wailing about a chipped nail. He sighed wearily.
Depressing, isn't it? Ferdia mused, glancing over at Ferdianna, I think of her as a bright, shining example of just how badly I could've turned out. She won't talk to half of them, and looks positively offended when anyone other than Drake tries to interact with her.
It's an assumption of class, Newton explained, Half of the party are rogues; many of the remainder are peasants. Your knight and the duck are the only two that have approached her with even the slightest decorum, and she may very well share the King's avian bias.
Ferdia frowned. Bias?
The Queen was killed by mammalian insurgents, milady. The King has had little use for anyone but birds since then. Newton sighed, looking away from Ferdia and the group lounging beyond them. You and your brother treat everyone in your group even the rogues as equals. That gave me great hope, for the King's stance has angered his allies most of whom are mammals themselves and without their assistance, this war is only likely to continue. But seeing the Princess's reaction to your companions, I feel my hopes were displaced.
Ferdia wasn't quite sure what to say to that. Silence stretched across a long moment.
I'm sorry to disappoint, she ventured.
If passing as the royals would help, we're more than willing to keep doing so
Newton paused, blinking. No, milady, he sighed, forcing a smile onto his face in hopes of brightening the feeling of gloom that seemed to lurk around them now, That won't be necessary. I can't say what I'd hoped the two of you would do to end the war, anyway.
Ferdia smirked. We could take down a few more warlords, I suppose. This last one wasn't so hard, and we knocked the army in the mountains out pretty good.
Kronos didn't expect us, and the mountains were a stroke of luck, Newton commented.
She grinned. Yeah, well
so much for playing hero. That just leaves us the dragon to take care of.
There's no 'just' to that, milady.
You don't suppose there's a spell to make it go after the warlords' armies, do you? she asked wryly. I'm just kidding, she laughed at his shocked expression, Really, I am. Come on, let's get back to the others and head over to that village of yours. But no more sulking, you hear?
Yes, milady, Newton grinned, following her back to the still-arguing group lounging beneath the trees. They greeted him as they always did, with the exception of Ferdianna, who huffed. Other than the royal, nothing about the group had changed. They looked the same, talked the same, acted the same even, in the ducks' case, fought amongst themselves the same as they had when he'd believed them bespelled. In a very real sense, that made things easier for the wizard. He'd always seen himself as a loyal servant of the Crown; that hadn't changed. After all, they'd just defeated a warlord, rescued the Princess, and were now off to return her to her kin and put a stop to a marauding dragon. But now he was part of something more. The party no longer represented the Crown; they were simply his friends, and as such commanded as much if not more of the loyalty and trust he gave the Crown they were, after all, far closer and more familiar to him.
Say, Newton, Ferdia roused him from his reverie as the group bustled about, preparing the horses and squabbling over who rode and where, Now that you know I'm not the princess, you think you could drop the 'milady'?
No, milady, the lizard grinned, swinging up into his saddle as Lita again pried her sheep from Drake's pony's haunches, That'd be a bridge too far. You're still the one I serve, royal or no.
The journey to the monks' ruins was a long one, more because of Ferdianna's complaints than anything else. The princess did not approve of the group's decision to head there instead of a nearby town, refused to walk, and insisted on riding side-saddle, which slowed Gallant (graciously offered as a mount by Drake, who had been the only one willing to give up his horse the only one to pass Ferdianna's 'standards' to her) considerably. This, in turn, only served to make her complain more, condemning the group to an endless tirade against them, the war, and the world in general.
-absolutely famished, Ferdianna was saying, Those brutes at the abbey didn't feed me at all, just locked me up in that dreadful cellar and left me there. I haven't eaten in days, and even then it was naught but the meager food the nuns prepared. Dried vegetables, stale bread, and bland one would think it a sin to use spices!
If the abbey was like most nunneries, spices would be considered an unnecessary extravagance, Newton volunteered, Not to mention prohibitively expensive.
Ferdianna ignored the wizard, deftly changing topics before anyone else could support his claims. And as if starving wasn't enough, those fiends locked me away in that filthy cellar without even so much as a candle to ward off the vile creatures lurking therein! It gave me such a fright, fumbling about in the darkness through all those cobwebs! Glory be, but there were spiders and rats and Lord knows what else skittering around down there! I nearly died of fright! And the filth! Just look at my gorgeous dress! It's ruined!
Thankfully, Lita muttered, carrying the sign holder atop her shoulders as the kiwi restrained their struggling sheep.
Ferdia seriously considered asking Newton to cast a quick Silence spell on her double as Ferdianna rambled on about villains and heathens and damnation, but opted against it. The wizard looked far too tired for spells, slouching in his saddle and struggling to stay awake long enough to lead them to the monks' village. Just as he looked as if he'd finally lost the battle with sleep, the group emerged from a copse of towering pines to find a small, tumbledown collection of stone buildings and weather-worn tombstones.
-sewn on by hand, so of course in order to clean it, each pearl must- Ferdianna paused, glancing about at both her surroundings and her traveling companions, none of whom appeared to be paying attention to her at the moment. Where are we?
The ruins of a monastic village, Newton yawned, stretching a bit and urging his horse forward onto the crumbling cobbles of the ancient village square, I'm afraid I don't know its name. Some of the markers here go back as far as the twelfth century, though, and there are older ones whose carved script is far too worn and eroded to read.
Hidden in a forest clearing between two close-lying mountains, D'Gal remarked, Clever. The tower's barely visible from the peaks, and disappears completely once you descend into the valley. How did such a well-hidden sanctuary come to be abandoned?
Newton shrugged. Plague, I think. A little over a century ago. One of the monks kept a journal, and it states that they began to sicken and die not long after taking in a stranger. There weren't many of them in the order at the time, and they were too isolated to summon help. One by one, the sickness took them, until the last monk dragged himself from his sickbed to a grave he'd dug alongside his fellows back when he'd still had strength.
You're morbid, you know that? Ferdie commented.
It's all in his journal, the wizard stated, I can show you if you'd like. It seems the order wasn't missed, or perhaps the Church saw no point in keeping such a remote outpost, for it sat undisturbed for years afterwards. The last monk's bones were still lying exposed in an open grave when I first stumbled across the village. He shrugged. I come here every now and again when I get tired of wandering, but I never stay that long. There's an eerie loneliness to this place, and a constant feeling of being watched.
Again with the morbidity, Ferdie shivered. It's probably just from being all along in an ancient village.
I don't know, Beak frowned, I feel-
I don't want to know what you feel, Ferdie interrupted, We're gonna have to sleep here, and that's not gonna happen if you go around telling people the place is haunted.
But Friend Ferdie-
I don't wanna hear it.
Not listening! Ferdie sang, covering his ears, I'm not listening! La la la!
Quite the image of maturity, this lot, D'Gal snorted, scanning the village and its surroundings, I assume we need food?
Unless we're having lamb, Ivan remarked, earning a glare from Lita.
Newton shook his head. I don't keep food stocked here. I never know how long it'll be between visits, or even if I'll be back at all.
Alright, then, D'Gal grunted, spurring Fiend to the forest beyond the stream at the far end of the village, There's deer wandering these woods; I'll bring one back.
You'd better! Drake yelled after him. It had only just occurred to the Platyrian that with the princess using his pony, he'd no longer be able to keep tabs on D'Gal when the villain rushed off on his own. He began to wonder if the fiend would use this chance to ambush them or bring some other form of doom down around their ears.
The rest of the group shared none of his concerns, venturing into the village in search of a place to stable their horses and spend the night. Iiwi fluttered off to get a better feel for the territory, returning some time later with reports of a secluded pool, cleverly heated with faded mirrors, and as one the ladies of the group set off in search of a warm bath, leaving the rest of the party to wander about the crumbling village. Ferdie took out a notepad and the remnants of a pencil, striking out toward the graveyard intent on getting a rubbing of the oldest tombstone; Beak followed, flanking this way and that worriedly, but keeping whatever it was that was bothering him to himself. Bob resumed his search for coffee, and Ivan tried unsuccessfully to persuade the sign holder against keeping their sheep penned in the Church with the horses while Drake climbed the tower in hopes of spotting D'Gal's ambush before the fiend returned. Squeaks helped Newton unpack the wizard's voluminous collection of spellbooks, settling down to read the monk's journal as Newton began paging through his grimoires in search of a way to stop a dragon.
No one noticed the shadow lurking by the trees at the edge of the village.
Glory be, Ferdianna smiled, clasping her hands in adoration and sniffing delicately at the scent of roast venison wafting up the path to the village, Something smells delicious!
Can't argue with you there, Lita agreed, But who back at the camp can cook?
Squeaks, Ferdia stated, just as Iiwi voiced Ivan.
The two glanced at each other.
No kidding! the Flier exclaimed, Your mouse can cook?
Yeah, Ferdia nodded, completely missing the Flier's choice of pronoun, Surprisingly well, actually. She paused. And I have a completely legitimate reason for knowi-
-He better at breakfast or din- yeep! Iiwi screeched, leaping into the air as Ferdia lunged at her. Hey! Chill, detective, I was just pullin' your chain!
You'd better be planning on sleeping atop that tower tonight, or so help me-
Don't you want to know about Ivan?
Ferdia paused mid-rant. Actually, yeah.
Aw, I can answer that one, Lita snorted. The boss has a high turnover rate for chefs, so whenever he gets one that makes something he really likes, he has them teach him the recipe. Redbird's over for dinner so oft- ow! she yelped as Iiwi slammed into her shoulder.
Sorry about that, the Flier chirped unrepentantly, Wind current conked out just as I started to land.
A likely story, Lita rolled her eyes. You know, either of you could've just said 'Beak,' seeing as how he works in a diner and all
Cop and bounty hunter shared a look.
The girl knows too much, Iiwi proclaimed.
Agreed, Ferdia deadpanned, Let's dump her-
-Right back in the river! they chorused, charging the startled rabbit, who had just enough time to yelp before instinct kicked in and she took off running.
You'll never catch me, coppers! she yelled playfully back at the pair, You're too slow!
Don't bet on it! Ferdia yelled as Iiwi leapt back into the air, diving after the teen.
Ferdianna watched in shocked silence as the trio tore down the path, looking thoroughly scandalized as the birds and rabbit raced to the village and plowed straight into Drake, bowling him over as the race turned into a wrestling match and Iiwi dove into the fray. Their shrieks of laughter brought the rest of the group over, their antics only ending only when the sign holder lost his grip on the lamb as it leapt bleating into the fray and Lita cried for truce, prying the toothless woolly fiend from her ear as it tugged with all its might.
Glory be, the princess sighed, shaking her head, Not a civilized one among them aside from that poor duck. How will I survive?
I'm not going to ask this again, boy, the general growled, hefting the diminutive swallow up by the bird's ragged tunic, Where is the Princess?
The struggling swallow kicked and squirmed, trying to get free, his beak opening and closing but never making a sound. Growing frustrated, the general slammed his captive against the stone wall of the cellar, both to still the boy's struggles and impart on him the severity of his situation. The impact made the boy gasp, yet still he refused to talk.
Like most nighthawks, General Winfield was by nature a patient man; and his years on the field had taught him a grudging respect for any soldier with the willpower to hold their tongue during enemy questioning. To see such will in one so young was astounding, and any other day he might have been tempted to leave the boy be and question others. But the only other survivor here was the chipmunk gibbering madly in the nave, and Winfield refused to stake his life for failure to retrieve the princess unharmed might very well mean his life on the ravings of a madman.
Look, boy, he growled, I know she was here when Kronos sacked this place four days ago, and I know he kept her down here. I've had spies and defectors telling me so straight through this morning. What I want to know now is, who attacked Kronos' men today, and where did they take the princess? I suggest you tell me now, he pressed the boy against the rough stone wall, While I'm still asking nicely.
The swallow looked at him in wide-eyed terror, chest heaving as he bowed his head, mouth agape in a silent scream. One of the general's captains, a scruffy young cardinal, noticed the boy's feet flailing silently against the wall, and approached the pair. The chipmunk upstairs was raving about warlocks and demons, true, but there might just be some truth to those ravings after all.
Sir, he bowed, waiting to be acknowledged, If I may be so bold-
He's not a deaf-mute, the general growled, You can tell with those by threatening them. They only get scared if they can hear you. And if they can hear you, they can speak to you a sound, any sound, just to let you know they can't form words. This one hears me fine, but won't so much as whimper in his defense. He knows something, and thinks I'm gonna let him die without telling me what it is he knows.
Yes, sir, but if I may? The madman upstairs is raving about devils and black magic. We know there's a dragon loose and roving these mountains; we've seen it, and heard reports from the castle that a rogue mage summoned it. And now we have a boy who can't make a sound.
Won't make a sound, Leelat.
The cardinal frowned. General Winfield was an excellent commander, but he'd never so much as seen a live mage. Leelat had served alongside several, and seen the broad range of havoc their spells could wreak. He wasn't about to let a boy his own brother's age suffer because of it. He reached over and placed his fingertips across the boy's throat.
Yell, boy, he instructed the swallow, Make as much noise as you can.
The bird nodded, sucking in a lungful of air and screaming his silent scream, eyes screwed shut and fists balled at his sides. But the vibrations of his larynx in his throat were all the evidence the captain needed.
A silencing spell, the cardinal hissed, He’s been cursed. He turned back to the swallow. There was a mage here, wasn't there?
The boy nodded frantically.
General Winfield frowned. Mages were bad news, as far as he was concerned. And a mage that commanded a dragon was even worse. This mage, he asked, Was he accompanied by soldiers? The boy nodded, holding up three shaking fingers. Three? What colors did they wear? Red? Green? Blue? Here the boy stopped shaking his head, and nodded again.
Blue? Leelat frowned, But I thought only Morgath's forces wore blue?
That's correct, Winfield stated.
But his forces were defeated nearly a week ago in the eastern mountains! The prince himself ran the last of them to ground!
Roaches scatter fast when the lamp is lit. Even his Highness may have missed such a small group of fighters.
But what would they be doing so far west? Morgath hailed from the south; surely they would have retreated there?
Winfield considered this. The soldiers' move made no sense; with their leader dead, his forces captured or killed, there was nothing left holding them to this hostile, war-torn land. Unless The Pale Knight! he exclaimed. It was the only explanation that made sense. Morgath was rumored to have joined ranks with him, but Kronos had always rebuffed the Knight's offer. These soldiers brought news of Morgath's capture and the failure of the eastern campaign, and it's said the Pale Knight takes bad news quite poorly; perhaps they sought to lessen the blow by presenting him with the princess!
The swallow frowned at this. He'd heard the sounds of battle outside the abbey, not the roars of a dragon and the princess had left, however grudgingly, of her own accord. But the boy had no way of communicating this to the King's soldiers, and in truth was presently more concerned with his own fate than any of theirs.
There was a feeling of restlessness in the camp, though no one could quite figure out why. The venison had been healthy and well-cooked, and plentiful enough for everyone to walk away from the meal with full bellies. There had been several more treks to the sun-warmed bathing pool for those that felt they needed it, and quite a few leisurely hikes along the paths around the village and surrounding forest by those that wished to wander or spend some time off by themselves.
Lita and the sign holder were off in one corner of the long-abandoned vegetable garden, attempting to teach their captive sheep to fetch or at least savage on command a feathered lure. Keeping a lazy watch over them was Ivan, seated at an ancient stone table picking through his wards' treasure haul and estimating the value of each pilfered piece. Ferdie sat by the fire they'd built in the village square, using its flickering light to help illuminate his gravestone rubbings as the skies began their nightly dance through the hues of sunset. Not far from the bluebird sat Newton, surrounded by stacked tomes and open grimoires, a mage-light hovering at his shoulder. Further off, D'Gal sprawled along the half-crumbled stone wall of the house nearest the Church-come-stable, idly paging through the monk's journal without regard for the failing light. He alone seemed untouched by the feelings of unease hounding the rest of the group and causing them to pause in their tasks every few moments, cautiously glancing about with eyes flicking in the direction of ever rustling leaf or browsing forest creature.
Iiwi perched high atop the bell tower, the wind ruffling her feathers as it whipped around the stone monolith. The breeze seemed less beckoning in the fading light than it had at midday; a feeling of cold foreboding now riding along the currents. The Flier was torn between an instinct to hide amongst the branches of the towering pines nearby and the feeling she was safer here atop the tower than down amongst the forest. She scanned the terrain, anxiously searching for any sign of the cops, or even Drake. The duck had gone to the pool to wash his uniform some time ago, after Ferdia and Squeaks had struck out along the forest paths to look for berry bushes and get a feel for the terrain, and the nervous Flier worried now that the watched feeling she felt pressing in on her had more to do with enemy spies than ancient spirits.
Beak felt something too; enough to unnerve the generally calm Magi to the point of pacing back and forth and over-tending the fire. He'd given up on trying to tell Ferdie of his concerns hours ago, when it became obvious from the coward's skittish behavior that he, too, felt a vaguely malevolent mood hanging over their camp, but was willing to chalk it up as the monks' restless ghosts so long as the horses kept their calm.
Only Bob, tired from the battle and deprived of coffee, had stretched out and gone to sleep, sprawled across the cobbles in a position his back would doubtlessly make him regret later. Ferdianna had tried to find a comfortable seat amongst the cobblestones, attributed the feeling of creeping malevolence to D'Gal or one of the group's other shady characters (the bird keening quietly atop the tower came to mind), and retreated to the most intact of the village houses she could find, dragging the party's entire collection of bedrolls along after her.
The eyes that watched the group were not pleased. This lot weren't acting the way they were supposed to at all, the shadow frowned. Perhaps somewhat more extreme measures were in order
Night fell fast upon the camp, and despite their uneasiness, as time crept on more and more of the party turned in, huddled close to the fire and those who were still awake. Even the captured sheep had relented, curling up in a sleeping Lita's arms with a minimal amount of time spent gnawing at her elbow or the beak of the sign holder sleeping close by. Ivan dozed fitfully against a rock not far from his wards, ever the subtle protector, rousing every now and then to glance about the campsite.
Beak had spent the better part of twilight putting together a stack of firewood so massive they could've kept a bonfire burning all night and well into the next day, finally falling asleep beside the pile, lulled by the flames. Bob had yet to move from his spot on the cobbles, slumbering so deeply he hadn't so much as flinched each time the firewood-laden Beak had tripped over him in hours past.
Iiwi remained atop the tower, perching now not on the slate-shingled roof, but in the worn stone frame of the sizeable lookout window below, her beak tucked beneath one wing. Hidden from her fellows by the total blackness of the night, their only clue to her continued existence was the occasional soft coo drifting down from above.
Ferdie had given up on his cemetery rubbings several hours ago, when his notepad nearly caught fire from being held too near the flames. He now kept watch over the fire, studying the trees beyond through its flickering glow, quite worried now at his sister's continued absence.
Do you think they're all right? he asked those still awake for the untold time.
Arcadia can take care of himself, D'Gal grunted from his perch along the crumbling wall, And I don't doubt your sister can as well.
What about Drake?
The Vycerian shrugged, the gesture barely visible in the firelight. Don't give a whit about him. With any luck, he's tripped in the dark and broken his neck.
Ferdie scowled. That is so reassuring.
His tone earned him a cold glare from the black-feathered duck. Look, D'Gal intoned as the bluebird shrank beneath his gaze, In all likelihood, they lost track of the time and couldn't get back before nightfall.
That's as far as I intend to speculate.
Ferdie flanked over at Newton, debating whether or not to bring him in on the conversation. But the wizard was completely engrossed in his study of a thick, leather-bound tome, oblivious to the world around him. Even the bright, bobbing mage-light at his shoulder seemed unaware of anything but the manuscript it currently illuminated. Ferdie turned his attention back to the duck sitting beyond the flickering glow of the campfire, wondering if there was any point in trying to argue further. D'Gal paid him no heed, idly turning the worn pages of the old monk's journal to the next entry.
Ferdie couldn't help himself. How can you read in that light?
The Vycerian kept his eyes on the passage, not bothering to so much as glance the bluebird's way. I was raised nocturnal. My night vision is excellent.
So, could you maybe-
Ferdie frowned, glancing at the darkness beyond the fire. His sister was out there somewhere, and despite his convictions (and D'Gal's rather apathetic assurances) of her ability to look after herself, he couldn't help but worry. Both Ferdia and Squeaks had their Mag-lites with them, and yet Ferdie saw no hint of the focused beams of incandescent light among the trees. And the eerie feeling from earlier that evening seemed to grow more pronounced and malevolent with each passing moment.
Say, Newt, he ventured, trying to get the lizard's attention. When this failed to get a reaction, he leaned forward, waving a hand before the wizard. Hello? You still with us?
Not right now, the lizard waved him away distractedly, I think I've found something.
Ferdie frowned as the wizard marked a page in his book, flipping back a few sections to glance at another page before reaching for another tome lying open by his side. A sharp wind cut through the camp as Newton stared intently between the two passages, rifling the yellowed pages as it tugged some of the loosely-bound sheafs towards the flames.
Ferdie snatched at the errant sheets, catching sight of something fleeting at the edge of his peripheral vision as he did so. His immediate reaction was to jerk back, spinning to face the apparition; but whatever he thought he'd seen was gone, and the move had off-balanced him. His attempts at restoring his balance only tripped him up further, sending him tumbling back over the crackling fire. Up in an instant and swatting out the flames creeping up his tail feathers, he peered accusingly into the gloom.
Newton? he asked, trying his best to smooth the crumpled and somewhat singed spells, Say, Newt?
Why do you insist on calling me that?!? the wizard snapped, Do I *look* like a salamander to you?
.Is that a trick question?
I'm a lizard, good sir. A lizard, Newton stressed, Newts are salamanders simple, tiny creatures of muck and pond scum.
Okay, okay, Ferdie backpedaled, Sorry. Sheesh.
The wizard waited expectantly. What? the bluebird asked.
You were trying to get my attention, Newton stated wearily, rubbing his temples, Now that you've got it, you might as well say your piece.
Oh. Well. Ah
Ferdie paused. It's just that, y'know
this whole place just feels kinda mean. Like we're intruding, and it wants us out. And it's gotten worse since the suns went down. Don't you find it odd a monks' village or any holy place would be haunted by something like that? I mean, even if the place is abandoned, it's still sacred ground. Spooks with a grudge shouldn't be able to come near here.
Newton considered this, pausing to do a quick visual sweep of the surrounding area. He frowned. That is odd. This isn't the usual mood of the place at all. The village is generally more melancholy than anything else; this is far too unfriendly.
Maybe we're overwhelming the ghosts? Ferdie ventured, Too many new faces for a small group of disembodied hermits?
Not to help, D'Gal volunteered, But we are being watched, and by something far more corporeal than a phantom.
And you were planning on telling us when? Ferdie demanded.
I've mentioned it now, the duck shrugged, What else matters?
Newton was busily paging through one of his many spellbooks. It's easy enough to find out the nature of this spying, he said. There's a spell
he paused, mentally sounding through the incantation.
Where's the person watching us? Ferdie queried.
D'Gal quirked an eyebrow. Don't know. It keeps flitting about along the edge of the clearing. I wouldn't place any bets on it being a person.
Oblivious to their discussion, Newton muttered a spell, ignoring Ferdie's start of surprise as the air before them turned murky as London fog.
What'd you do? the bluebird demanded, This stuff's like pea soup! How're we supposed to spot whoever's watching us now?
It's a Resolver spell, the wizard explained, It should reveal any magic lingering in the area. This fog is one such example of such hidden spells.
Great. Now whatever's out there can come right on over and kill us without any worries about being seen.
Newton ignored the bluebird's sarcasm, squinting appraisingly at the hazy fog. I've heard of this spell. It's called a Gray Mist a mood spell, meant to dampen the spirits of those caught in it.
Dampen our spirits? As in, get us all depressed? But it hasn't really done more than get on our nerves and spook us!
Yes, well, you're an odd lot, D'Gal commented.
Can you get rid of it? Ferdie asked.
I think so, Newton frowned thoughtfully, digging amongst his piled spellbooks. The sound of fumbling came amidst rifling pages as the wizard sought a half-remembered passage deep within their depths. There was a Dispel charm somewhere in these tomes that should work, but it negates all magic in the area.
Have you cast any other spells recently, wizard? D'Gal asked boredly.
Not recently, no.
Then the only magic around isn't yours. Why worry over canceling it?
What about any lingering protection spells the monks might have had in place? Ferdie countered.
Newton frowned, calling another mage-light to better see the incantation for the charm. Monks don't use magic, he said distractedly.
It took several attempts and one unpleasantly-close lightning strike before the wizard got the hang of the spell, squinting at century-old ink nigh-illegible in the magicked fog. Finally the murk lifted, torn and displaced by the spell as if a great fan had been placed by the campfire and blown the smoky mist away. The pervasive darkness creeping along the valley faded with the magicked cloud cover as well, and soon the cool glow of the moon and stars shone down on them.
Almost immediately, Iiwi leapt from her perch in the tower, fluttering down to her companions below. What's going on? she queried, It's like all of a sudden someone wiped all the clouds from the sky.
Several rather nasty spells, I'm afraid, Newton frowned. More than I expected, actually. Mood spells, Spook wards, even a bit of weather-witching
Is that what the lightning was? Ferdie asked.
Er, no. The bewitching was tied to the chill wind and thick clouds blotting out the sky. The lightning was something else entirely; or perhaps a weather spell mixing poorly with the Dispel charm.
Should we maybe go investigate? Ferdie persisted, Make sure the others are okay?
Iiwi shook her head. I'm not flying in this light. It's enough to see by, but if someone's been out there rigging spells like those
I'd be asking for trouble.
Newton agreed. While I share your concerns for your sister's safety, I must agree with the Phoenix. I don't sense another mage anywhere nearby, but then I didn’t before, either. There's no saying someone hasn't suspended spells about the forest, or is using an enchanted object to call some of these wards. And I confess, I'm tired enough I may just be missing a cloaked mage lurking about.
A- Ferdie frowned, perplexed.
A masking spell, something to hide their magic, Newton explained. Complicated things. I wouldn't want to run into a mage capable of that sort of thing on a good day, and I've cast far too many spells this afternoon to be of much use against any sort of mage or cursed trinket right now. The Dispel charm proved how weak my magic is right now; I doubt I could conjure so much as another mage-light without an extraordinary amount of effort. I need a good night's rest to regain my strength.
It's settled, then, Iiwi nodded, ignoring Ferdie's protests, We'll go look for them tomorrow.
But- Ferdie persisted.
But, nothing, the Flier cut in, All teasing aside, those two don't go down lightly. We'd've heard gunfire if they were in trouble. Stop worrying and get to sleep, she advised, launching into the moonlit darkness to circle back up to her tower perch.
Ferdie glanced over at Newton, the wizard already bedding down amongst his books, then at D'Gal, still reading in the pale light. How am I supposed to sleep, knowing something out there's after us?
The Vycerian's gaze flicked over to him, a tolerant patience lurking in his otherwise bored eyes. The horses are quiet now; they were skittish before. As long as you keep one ear open for their snorts of alarm, you risk no danger.
I was kind of hoping you'd volunteer to keep watch.
I am keeping watch. On the horses.
Do you really wish to entrust me with your lives? D'Gal queried.
Not really, no, Ferdie admitted. I, er, I'll just keep watch over everyone else, then. Lucky for me, I'm not tired
I am so tired, Ferdie whimpered, curling into a ball and trying to squeeze in a few winks now that the early birds of the group Iiwi, Beak, and Ivan were up and roaming about.
You could've just slept in the tower, Iiwi scolded him, Now how're you gonna find your sister, Mr. I-Can't-Keep-My-Eyes-Open?
His grumbled reply was garbled and quite rude, but was essentially of the opinion that others could start looking before him, now that they were awake, or that the search could simply wait a few hours more, in case Ferdia and Squeaks simply turned up of their own accord. (Not surprisingly, no one seemed all that interested in forming a search party to locate Drake.)
Several hours later, as the group minus Ferdianna, who was still sound asleep sat around the campsite cooking the eggs Iiwi had raided from some unprotected nests she'd found on morning patrol, the missing officers wandered into view at the edge of the village, following the same forest path they'd left on the night before.
Ah, the prodigal cops return, Ivan greeted them, Enjoy your night out?
Right up until we realized we were walking in circles, Ferdia shrugged, making a beeline for the sizzling eggs.
Ah, Ivan chuckled, Got lost, did we?
No, she stated, snagging a bit of scrambled egg on the tip of a recently-acquired knife, We did not get lost. We hit a point along the trail that must've coincided with another freak magnetic field, because no matter what heading we followed on our compass, we always wound up back at that same spot.
Another spell? Ferdie wondered, sipping some wild coffee pilfered from a distracted Bob while glancing at Newton.
The wizard shrugged. Could be. I have heard of Disorientation spells, and Holding spells that bind their victims to a set path. But you would've been free of any spell's clutches after we cast the magic-canceling Dispel last night.
When was that? Ferdia queried.
Pretty late, her brother admitted, It'd been dark for a while. But the spell got rid of most of the clouds, which brought the moon and stars out.
Ferdia frowned, thinking. I don't remember seeing the moon. Do you? she asked Squeaks.
No, the mouse said around a mouthful of eggs, shaking his head. But we didn't hike very long after night fell. No point in running down the Mag-lites' batteries or risking a fall in the darkness.
I'm sure you found other ways of passing the time, D'Gal remarked.
What was that? Ferdia snapped.
Nothing I care to repeat with the two of you armed and in firing range, the ebony duck smirked.
We were tired!
I'll bet you were.
Where's Drake? Squeaks queried, deftly switching topics before a flushed Ferdia launched into a bit of therapeutic violence.
Ferdie shrugged. We haven't seen him since he left for the bathing pool yesterday. Didn't you pass him on your way back?
The mouse shook his head. We were on a forest trail; the pool was on open hills. We never more than heard the stream.
There was something burning in the fields, Ferdia supplied, ceasing her glaring contest with D'Gal.
Oh, pleasant, Ferdie gagged. Still, what're the odds that bolt of lightning last night hit him?
Considering this is Drake we're talking about? Iiwi observed, I'd be surprised if it didn't hit him!
If what didn't hit whom? a voice coughed from the narrow bridge by the village.
Drake! the group chorused.
You don't have to act so surprised to see me, the duck remarked, looking hurt. Or so upset, he added, glaring at D'Gal as the villain snapped his fingers and scowled in a classic 'Curses, foiled again!' take.
Okay, Lita said, raising a hand, Question. If he's here, what's roasting out on the field?
Well, since you asked, Drake interrupted the glances and muttered speculations directed towards the mirrored bathing pool, I was headed back from the pool when I was set upon by a pack of those vile sheep, he glared at the lamb in Lita's arms nonchalantly gnawing a rib bone, Fortunately, fate intervened, striking them with lightning as they lunged, killing the murderous fiends while simply knocking me unconscious. He brushed some dirt and charred ashes from his uniform.
That doesn't make any sense, Iiwi remarked. Why would Fate, of all people, intervene on your behalf?
Drake paused. Blind luck, then?
Fine, whatever, the Flier shrugged. I suppose even divine aim is off sometimes. Still doesn't explain what the sheep or any of last night's spells were doing here anyway. This place is supposed to be abandoned!
Indeed, Newton nodded. Much as I had wished to stay for a while and search my books for ways of defeating the dragon, it seems our presence here is unwanted. I advise we leave before nightfall, lest we invite an even more unpleasant stay than the evening just past.
Yeah, Ferdie agreed, That was far too creepy.
Iiwi rolled her eyes. I guess I'll go scope out the terrain outside the valley, then, she sighed, Get an idea of where we can stay tonight an' all
We're moving again? Bob blinked, approaching the group stirring another mug of wild coffee. I'm really getting tired of this nomadic way of life, he huffed. Too much walking. So help me, when we get back home, I'm not walking anywhere for a week! No sir, forget exercise! I'm going cabs and chauffeurs and escalators all the way! Maybe I can even get an elevator installed in the office-
The building couldn't take it, Ferdie interrupted, You'd have to gut it completely, reinforce the support pillars with steel and concrete, and sink a couple million into it to bring the whole thing up to code.
Looked into this, have you? Ivan commented.
Every time another piece of my ceiling caves in, the bluebird replied.
Bob looked thoughtful. Maybe I can talk Bobetta into making it an early Christmas present, he mused.
Newton blinked at this exchange. Don't mind them, Ferdia grinned, waving at the birds as she and Squeaks wandered over to the garden's stone table to scavenge what was left of the rest of the party's breakfast, having exhausted the eggs. What about the dragon? Have you found a spell to take care of it?
Not exactly, milady, the wizard shook his head, There is no single spell that will bind a dragon or if there is, it has become lost. But I have found several promising spells that may do the trick if combined together. He spread a variety of tomes and rolled parchment before them, opening the books to marked passages. This is a Silencing spell, much like the one I used on that young guard at the abbey. However, these notes in the margin outline how to combine it with a variation of a Sealing spell. If they are correct, I should be able to use the resulting spell to bind the dragon's magical abilities.
What good will that do? Ferdia asked.
Newton paused, sensing the question behind her question. Dragons don't use magic the same way we do, milady. They can't speak, making it impossible to cast proper spells.
But you said they're the most powerful magic-using creatures around, she frowned.
They are, milady, he nodded, Make no mistake of that. But rather than call upon and mold magic into spells, they sort of...hm...absorb and project it as desired. Hollow bones or no, adult dragons are heavy creatures, using magic to help buoy their flight and make them more agile in the air. Their flames are magically enhanced as well, magnified to many times their original strength and intensity, and there are rumors magic strengthens their scales and speeds their healing abilities as well. In theory, the spell outlined here would bind those abilities, locking away their magic for a time.
How long a time? Ferdia asked.
That, it doesn't say. I suspect it all depends on the strength and skill of the dragon, Newton speculated.
But while it was in effect, we'd be dealing with a slower, clumsier dragon, noted Squeaks.
Only in the air, Sir Knight. A dragon's speed on the ground has nothing to do with magic and let me assure you, they are fast.
The mouse frowned. So we hobble it in the air and muzzle its fire, which presumably leaves us with a furious creature the size of a tavern intent on killing us. How do you suggest we proceed from there? Capture it, kill it, or seal it as it was before?
To capture a dragon is a nigh impossible thing, Newton sighed, as is sealing one. But-, he shook his head resolutely, I cannot bring myself to kill such a creature. It is only doing what comes naturally to its kind.
Newton, there was nothing 'natural' about that thing's attack on the city, Ferdia scowled, It had plenty of horses and deer and sheep and whatever else to eat outside the walls, and it wasn't eating the townspeople it was killing them. Burning them and their houses with a level of hatred and bloodlust generally unseen outside of civilized society. Are you telling us that comes naturally to these things?
The wizard sighed. Milady, that dragon was sealed quite some time ago, and has no concept of the years that have passed since then. Its hatred of people and cities is actually quite understandable, given its likely experiences with both in the past. But, then, I forget, you are but visitors to this land. Would you like to know the reason it reacts to men so?
Ferdia hesitated at the weary tone in his voice. Squeaks didn't. The reasons behind one's actions are every bit as important as the actions themselves, he stated, the phrase burned into his memory by the Arellian officers and academies of his youth. Tell us all there is to know.
Very well, Newton nodded. As you've seen, dragons are sizeable creatures, and require a great amount of sustenance to survive. According to our historians, this wasn't much of a problem until men became quite proficient in farming and building; but cities force herds to move, and large farms not only alter the amount and location of wild game, but put great populations of livestock in their place quite the tempting target for young, inexperienced, or simply lazy dragons looking for a meal. Thus there are countless stories of dragons preying upon farms and herds, many of which culminate in shepherds, farmers, and townspeople pursuing the dragon. A great many villages met their deaths this way, as dragons, like any predator, are quite dangerous when cornered but unlike simple predators, dragons are also quite intelligent, and when wounded or seeking vengeance for their young, they seldom hesitated to lay waste to their persecutors' homes and villages. Eventually, just as there are hunters of wolves and gryphons, there rose a class of dragon-slayers, hunters who were called upon when a dragon began attacking settlements out of anything but revenge. These hunters would often observe and follow their prey for days, and soon noticed the beasts' affinity for baubles.
Treasure, milady. Dragon dens were reputed to be laden with it, and stories abounded of entrepreneurs discovering piles of gold and rich deposits of precious and semi-precious stones winding through the mountain dens. The fact that they were true didn't help any, and soon even the friendliest and most remote of dragons were hunted for their 'hordes'. What no one realized until the entire lot of them had banded together and started burning away settlements was that the hordes weren't meant to be treasure troves; they were nothing more than the dragon equivalent of the picked and scattered bones of gryphon aeries. Whereas breeding gryphons need the nutrition the bones and marrow provide, nesting dragons need the crystal and concentrated minerals in gemstones to lay viable eggs.
So they were either killed for gold they didn't want, or mines they desperately needed, Ferdia observed. No wonder they turned on people.
Aye, Newton nodded. And at that point, there was no calming them. Villagers and townspeople couldn't retreat far enough for their liking, and nobles and landowners couldn't stand the thought of losing that much territory, especially while it still contained the beasts' treasure. Dragons were set upon by armies and slaughtered in droves; all but a few had met their demise by the start of the war, when opportunistic warlords seized upon the King's distraction and invaded from every possible side. Mages were called to seal the remaining dragons in order to free the King's forces for the invaders, but by then the countryside was overrun with warring factions, and our decimated armies too small and battle-weary to push them back before they became firmly entrenched. The wizard shook his head. In a very real sense, we were our own undoing.
The dragon your brother freed has no knowledge of the duration of his internment, he said after a pause, He is likely concerned only with finding others like himself, and destroying those that murdered his kind. What I seek now is a way of calming his rage, that he might continue his search in relative peace before he earns a pack of heroes vying for his hide. Failing that, I need to come up with a Sealing spell strong enough to contain a force of his magnitude.
So he can be someone else's problem further on down the line? Ferdia scowled.
The lizard looked hurt. I am not a Master mage, milady, or even an Adept. There are limits to what I can do.
Just stopping the dragon seems like more than enough, Squeaks nodded, Seeing as how it was us who freed it.
Oh, fine, Ferdia relented, Whatever gets it off its killing spree is fine with me. You want any help looking for those spells?
Newton shook his head, smiling wanly. Not just yet, milady, though I will have a list of ingredients for a potion or two by the time I'm done. Right now, I just need more time.
We'll leave you to work, then, she nodded, pushing away from the table.
It was with the utmost reluctance that the hunched figure in monks' robes approached the camp. He had not wanted to return at all, for the news he brought to his master was far from good but it would be better to deliver those tidings he had than risk a fate much worse should his absence be noticed and his confessions of failure compelled upon his capture.
Soldiers moved aside, making way for him as the graying robin strode disheartedly across fields strewn with napping warriors, cook fires, and the occasional blood-stained tent of a medic. Wounded were everywhere, tending their gashes and broken bones as best they could as others quietly bled to death, the comrades that had pulled them from the raging battlefront hovering helplessly by their side.
Such a waste, he muttered, as the limp form of a youth in tattered mage-robes was unceremoniously dumped in a pile of similarly unfortunate souls by a pair of weary medics. Alarming how close his own fate had been to theirs, he mused. But unlike the novices and half-trained journeymen mages of this camp, Greer was not destined for the battlefield.
In his youth, he'd been quite a skillful warlock, weaving spells found in no books, but rather by instinctively sensing where and how the magic should flow to achieve whatever effect he desired. His name had struck terror in the hearts of all who heard it, and there wasn't an army in existence that hadn't coveted the thought of bringing him 'round as one of their own. Indeed, it was thought that he could outclass any magic-user he happened upon, for he used it as no other did.
But this belief was a false one, for there were others who used magic as he did, and though their numbers dwindled, the sheer power of the dragons' magic never faltered. Secure in his own abilities, Greer had sought to control one of these great creatures, setting upon it as it lay Sealed in an old temple and soon discovering he'd badly misjudged his power over theirs. The fight left the dragon dead, and his own magic dealt a mortal blow, forever drained from his being and sealed against his hands. Thus the fearsome warlock and master magician found himself no more able to conjure a mage-light by far the simplest of spells than a six-year-old street urchin with but the slightest hint of magical ability.
Thinking himself of no further use to the war and by far an easy target for revenge Greer retreated to a long-forgotten sanctuary in the woods, only to find his hermitage continually disturbed by soldiers with no eyes for peace. But most warlords had no use for a mage unable to weave magic, and all but one had left him to his solitude.
Greer scowled at the armored tent in the center of the rocky camp. To have been brought beneath the heel of one such as this! He'd lost count of the fledgling potentials he'd been made to school in the arts of magic, their numbers never ebbing despite losing his able pupils in droves with each to the forward lines. But then, there were far worse things than serving his new master such as what tended to happen to those that didn't serve said master. He gave the guards at the tent a curt nod, barely grunting a greeting as he ducked inside.
He immediately regretted the move. Beggin' you pardon, m'lord, he murmured, gingerly sidling away from the sword-tip at his throat, Am I interrupting?
Twice before have I told you, mage, the figure at the other end of the sword growled, turning his attention back to the maps before him, You are not to enter without first being announced and invited. It's bad manners.
I'm but a humble hermit, m'lord, Greer scraped, biting back commentary on the absurdity of a warlord as relentlessly vicious as the man before him clinging to as civil a thing as etiquette as he creaked into a bow, We are not known for good breeding. Forgive me.
I suppose I could see fit to do that, his master replied, hefting the blade back and smugly inspecting its polished sheen, Provided you've brought me good news.
Cold blue eyes pinned Greer in a steely glare, a predatory glint of malice gleaming from their depths. Tell me, the Pale Knight grinned, What's the word from Kronos in the abbey? Has the prince risen to our bait?
Greer winced, and the mood within the tent abruptly lost its amused tint. Speak, mage, the Knight boomed.
Begging your lordship's pardon, Greer cringed, We encountered the prince far sooner than expected, traveling in secret with a party of heroes rather than a lumbering regiment. We were not ready for-
You expect me to believe a warlord as capable as Kronos could not hold a battle against a handful of mercenaries? the Knight demanded, grabbing the mage by the collar of his robe, temper building, Especially when he held the bird's sister's life as a bargaining chip?
But, sir! the robin scrambled for a suitable excuse or at the very least, one that might spare him his master's wrath These fighters were the stuff of legends! Weapons such as I've never seen, fighting styles unknown outside the orient, and and even a mage and firebird protecting their line! They took Kronos' men by surprise and overwhelmed then in minutes with viciousness and guile!
So Kronos is defeated, then. The Pale Knight's eyes narrowed into slits. What of the abbey?
In ruins, sir, and what was left of his forces scattered.
Does the prince know of our role in this scheme, or did you not even stay to learn that, mage?
My lord, they brought the entire abbey, save the cellar that held the princess, down around warlord Kronos' ears. He did not live long enough to tell them anything.
His master considered this, feathers settling a bit as he frowned in thought. Impressive, he murmured, half to himself. I would not have thought Ferdinand willing to sacrifice his precious sister's favorite order. Small wonder Kronos fell, if the boy has become that determined. Where are they now?
Their mage has led them to the ruins I once called home, passing through the wards and enchanted traps as if t'were nothing there at all. Even the haunting spells triggered at nightfall failed to scare them off.
The tall knight yawned, shoving the monk away. He strode a few paces back to gaze at his maps, idly fingering the tip of his blade. I have seen your spells, mage. They would hardly frighten a toddling girl-child, let alone a contingent of battle-hardened heroes.
Greer muttered something unintelligible.
What was that, mage? There was an edge of danger tingeing the boredom in that question.
I said, they were discussing dragons, sir, the robin said hurriedly. And I have heard rumors of a dragon loose among the hills.
Aye, and a grand creature it is, the Pale Knight grinned wolfishly, But that is a concern for my sorcerers, not your impotent spells.
What of the prince, sir? Greer queried, trying not to let his anger show, lest it get him tortured.
The Knight snorted, laughing derisively. Oh, I wouldn't worry about him. We know where he is, where his army is, and now where he is headed, if his band of heroes are truly considering snaring the dragon. He's mine for the taking the moment I so desire.
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